and less pleasant places – 6.2

Previous Chapter

Praem brought me round by slapping me in the face.

Consciousness returned, sharp and cold. I gasped, and Praem stopped. It was neither the most painful nor the most panicked awakening I’d experienced, but it was far from pleasant. At least it beat waking up in a puddle of my own sick.

Spluttering for breath through the taste of bile, I peeled my bloodied face off the floorboards and flailed as I tried to sit up, confused, unsure where I was, lost behind blurred vision and eyelids sticky with blood. Halfway to a sitting position a gasp of pain seized my raw throat; my diaphragm ached like my insides had been flayed and my head pounded so hard each throb made me want to vomit again. I curled up around my stomach, wheezing, struggling to look up at Praem and wipe the blood-stuck hair out of my face.

She’d rolled me into the recovery position and covered me with my coat. Good demon, yes, thank you Praem.

The doll-demon straighted up and quickly looked away, her attention elsewhere. Her right hand was smeared with crimson where she’d been slapping my cheek. I reached out, numb and woozy. Had to get to my feet. Had to get up. To find- to find what?

Where were we? My mind whirled, fuzzy and slow. Outside, yes, the test, the plan to bring back a book, the library of Carcosa, then-

Lozzie.

Memory slammed back into place and I pushed my feet underneath me, forced shaking legs to take my weight. I could barely stand, and blundered into Praem. She was fast enough to give me her arm for support, a handhold to cling to, but my head still swam with throbbing pain, vision edged with black. I hung on to Praem for what seemed an eternity, head down, fighting the pain. She picked up my coat again and draped it over my shoulders.

“Leave,” Praem intoned, loud and clear. I winced through clenched teeth.

Leave, now? Absolutely not.

Lozzie was here, just beyond the shadows and my own blurred vision. She’d turned and walked away, up into the winding maze of the library staircases, but I’d seen her, I’d seen-

I’d seen a face twisted into alien emotion. Barely her.

Lozzie’s facial muscles had all pulled in the wrong directions, tensed and relaxed in the wrong order, at the wrong angles, like an inhuman hand puppeting her from beneath the skin.

No no no, Lozzie, no! If I hadn’t been wracked with brainmath-fumble aftershocks and a headache fit to kill a bear, I believe I would have wept.

How could this happen to her? She’d insisted she was meant to be out here, to be Outside. She was supposed to be safe, from her uncle, from the cult, at home in the inhuman wilderness – and what had happened to her? Even worse, too unthinkable, had she invited this change?

I couldn’t bear it, couldn’t bear what it implied, for both of us.

I had to find her.

If I’d had a clear mind, I would’ve posed myself a much more pertinent question: how had I seen all that detail at half a mile distant? Impossible. A side-effect of the throes of brain-math? If so, that was new.

Should have been paying attention.

Frantic, still not certain what I’d seen before passing out, I heaved myself round, desperate to find any scrap of Lozzie, and managed to almost fall over again. Praem caught me under the shoulders to stop me landing on my face, and hauled me as upright as I could stand.

“Need to leave,” she said, voice clear as a silver bell.

We had company.

Several inhabitants of the library of Carcosa had descended into the bookcase-canyon, to see what all the fuss was about.

Four figures, maybe a hundred meters away. Tall, perhaps six or seven feet, lean and humanoid beneath long ragged robes – but lumpy and rippling, as if they possessed unspeakable concealed appendages in addition to their grayish hands and forearms. Great masses of ropey grey tentacles hung and twitched in place of faces, set between long spines like those of a sea urchin, no eyes or mouths or noses, though their faces pointed at Praem and I as if watching through human eyes.

The boldest of the librarians, creeping forward at the head of their group, carried a large book tucked into its armpit – and a barbed metal cattle-crook in the other hand.

The others didn’t look as confident as they approached. They were empty-handed except for one carrying a pair of books, as if the tentacle-face had been busy sorting volumes, its work interrupted by a human girl noisily passing out on the floor. The rearmost figure seemed wary, craning to look over his companions’ shoulders. Another knot of the creatures was descending a staircase at the edge of the canyon, a couple of them pointing toward us.

“How did they-” I croaked, forced myself to swallow. “How long was I unconscious?”

“Thirty seven minutes, twelve seconds,” Praem said.

“Half an hour? Oh, oh God, I … ” My stomach turned over.

“Leave,” Praem intoned.

“But- but Lozzie, she- she was right there- I have to-”

I lurched out of Praem’s grip, toward the stairs where I’d seen Lozzie. Half a mile distant, through some of the most bizarre creatures I’d ever encountered, on legs that could barely carry me half a meter, while bleeding from my eye sockets. The plan lay in tatters.

None of that mattered. It wasn’t courage, or stupidity, but a kind of desperate selfish panic; I had to find Lozzie, I needed to know what had happened to her.

I made it two paces before Praem threw her arms around my waist.

She held on tight, hugged my back. I squirmed to pull free, but in my current state I couldn’t have escaped a wet paper bag, let alone Praem. Raine was strong, much stronger than me, all well-trained toned muscle; she could hold me down without breaking a sweat, pick me up without much effort, and swing a bat hard enough to break bones. Praem’s strength was so far beyond Raine, they weren’t even comparable. She had bad leverage and a poor angle, but she gripped me like a granite statue.

“Praem, I- she was-” I heaved with nausea for a moment, on the verge of emptying my guts a second time. She understood, let me bend forward. “Lozzie, it was Lozzie! Didn’t you see? I have to- I have to!”

“We must leave.”

“But didn’t you see? Damn you-” I pulled at her arms again, on the verge of hysteria. “That was her, wasn’t it!?”

Praem stared past me, impassive, up at the spot Lozzie had so briefly occupied, then at the approaching tentacle-faced people.

“I saw,” she said.

“Then let me- Let’s go after her! Please, Praem, please! You can fight these monsters, can’t you? I know you can. I have to get her- I have to- I have to know-”

“Promised,” Praem intoned. “Best look after her.”

That dumped a bucket of cold water on my mounting hysteria: Raine’s words to Praem, back in Sharrowford.

The doll-demon had promised to look after me. Raine and Evelyn were waiting, with no idea why I was overdue. Raine would be worried sick. She’d never show it, never let on in the moment, and as soon as I got back she’d be all practical care and tender smiling encouragement. She loved me, and perhaps the way I felt about Lozzie right now was a shade of how she worried for me.

“You can’t- you can’t make me,” I muttered. Voice weak, my heart wasn’t really in the words.

I did hold the real power here, I determined our return. I’d dropped the notepaper with the equation, now lost amid the mess of discarded books on the floor, but I could perform it all from memory, at the speed of thought, at the cost of a little more agony.

Praem said nothing, arms tight around my waist, taking my sagging weight on her front. Together we stared at the approaching tentacle-faces, the librarians. They’d reach us in a minute or two, and even though they looked uncertain and wary I would rather they keep their distance.

A crazed part of me wanted to refuse, make the doll-demon choose between fighting the tentacle-faces or picking me up and running, give her no option but to help me find Lozzie.

I couldn’t. Didn’t have the heart, couldn’t stop thinking about Raine. Left my sister behind for ten years, and now Lozzie’s lost herself Outside and I can’t even go after her.

I choked back a sob.

“Leave,” Praem repeated.

“Okay. Okay, yes, yes. You- you have the book, don’t you? I’m not doing this again.”

Praem waggled one of her hands to show me, the book still firmly in her grip.

“Hang- hang on tight, okay?”

“Snug,” she said.

I closed my eyes, shut out the library of Carcosa, the tentacle-faces, the spot I’d seen Lozzie, my own wordless horror, and began once more the set of mind-searing, neuron-shattering equations to take us home.

==

“It wasn’t her,” Evelyn said.

Slowly, eyelids still heavy as lead, I blinked up at Evelyn from where I sat on the floor, propped against foot of the sofa in the ex-drawing room. Raine looked up too, another piece of dark chocolate in her hand, paused halfway to my mouth.

“Mm?” I tried to grunt, managed only a slightly louder puff of breath. Felt like I was dead.

“It wasn’t your Lozzie.”

I blinked again. My eyes ached, my head throbbed with every beat of my heart, and my chest felt like a gaping hole where my lungs should be.

Upon returning from Outside – slumping against Praem and spitting blood as reality crashed back – I’d spent the last shreds of my energy trying to explain what I’d seen. I’d blurted out sentence fragments, spluttering and coughing, even as Raine had jumped out of her chair to take me from Praem’s arms.

“You’re late!” Evelyn had snapped, sitting bolt upright, face a mask of thunder.

I’d managed to say Lozzie’s name, summoned enough numb-lipped incoherency to mutter about ‘something in her skin’, and ‘have to find her, all wrong’, before I’d all but collapsed onto the floor, with Raine’s hands cradling my head.

Praem had come to my rescue. As Raine had propped me against the sofa and checked my airways were clear, Praem had turned to Evelyn and begun to explain in her clipped, clear tones.

“We saw Lozzie,” she’d said. “Awaiting us. She was all wrong.”

“Wrong?” Evelyn had snapped, glancing between the doll-demon and my vacant expression, Raine already tending to my face with a warm towel and a tub of water. She clicked her fingers at Praem. “Explain. And hand me that book, that’s it? That’s what you picked up?”

I’d drifted. Not the pleasant oblivion of long-awaited sleep, but identical to the first time I’d returned from an intentional slip: numb, distant, my body a shell I inhabited at whim, a whim I was on the verge of forgetting. All my panic about Lozzie turned to mist in the wind. I felt Raine’s hands on my face and forehead, wiping the blood and the bile from my lips, telling me I was home, I was safe, and it was all okay – but I wasn’t really there. She tended to a thin veneer over a void. The void was me, I was it, and it was all.

She lifted strong lukewarm coffee to my lips and forced me to sip, fed me tiny nibbles of dark chocolate. The taste – and perhaps the caffeine and serotonin – began to drag me back up into my own body, into my senses. I took a deep breath and coughed once.

“Hey, hey there Heather,” she murmured, stroking my hair. “You did good, you did real good. I’m really proud of you. You’re not hurt anywhere, are you? Heather?”

“Everywhere,” I croaked. Raine smiled and sighed with relief. She recognised a joke when she heard it.

Evelyn entered my field of vision, frowning down at me with rare naked concern. She tapped Raine with her walking stick. “Don’t stop feeding her, you negligent reprobate. Give her the whole bar if you have to, there’s plenty more in the kitchen.”

“Yes ma’am, don’t have to tell me twice.” Raine lifted the square of chocolate to my mouth again.

“Feed myself,” I muttered. I tried to take it from her, but raising my arm all that way was too difficult. I let my limp hands fall into my lap, let Raine feed me, concentrated on the taste and the orchestra of aches and pains reminding me I was alive.

Evelyn had resumed her chair, and that’s when she decided I hadn’t seen Lozzie.

“It wasn’t Lozzie,” she repeated, frowning, tight and thoughtful, as if watching my reactions very closely.

Raine nodded at Praem. “She sounded pretty conclusive to me.”

Evelyn shook her head. “Am I the only one here with two brain cells left to rub together?”

“Unfair,” I croaked.

“You saw what looked like Lozzie, yes, that much I accept, of course I do,” Evelyn said. “Forgive me for pointing out the obvious, but the chances of her and you running across each other Outside are infinitesimally small.” She paused and spread her hands. “Am I talking to myself here?”

The horror of seeing Lozzie in that state came creeping back, a cold hand up my spine, digging fingernails of ice into my flesh. I shook, breathing harder. “But she- what- what-”

Raine placed a hand on my forehead, cool and soft. “Shhh, shhhh, Heather, we can figure all this out, I promise. Evee, this can wait.”

“No, it can’t,” I spluttered. “What do you mean?”

“I mean it wasn’t her.” Evelyn frowned at me like I’d turned into an idiot. Perhaps I had. “Think it through, for five seconds. You saw her at that exact spot, a place you chose from dozens of possible locations you’d visited with her. And she was waiting for you? At the exact minute you chose to go Outside? And she doesn’t call out for help or run to you, she walks off, into the unknown? And you really believe that was her?” She glanced up at Praem. “What about you, you believe this nonsense?”

Praem offered no opinion.

“She was there-” I had to pause for breath. “Because it was somewhere we went-” Pant, pain. “Together. She was … waiting to … ask for help.”

“It was an anglerfish. It was bait.” Evelyn spat the word.

“Evee, hey now, come on.” Raine raised both hands. “Heather, you need a hot bath thirty seconds ago. I know how much Lozzie means to you, and I promise we-”

“It was her!” I yelled at Evelyn, but managed only a wheeze and an awful, body-racking coughing fit. I curled up around my aching chest and whined through my teeth.

Evelyn didn’t deserve my anger. I was lashing out in fear and frustration. She was merely the closest target. She looked taken aback, blinking at me and averting her eyes. She opened her mouth but I waved one weak hand at her, trying to apologise.

Lozzie’s fate mattered to me on so many different levels I could barely unravel them while lying awake in bed, let alone in pain and infinite numbness, eyelids still sticky with blood, trying to sort through what I’d seen.

Lozzie and I had shared so much, experiences I couldn’t share with anybody else, even Raine. She’d shown me Outside through eyes unclouded by horror, filled with wonder and otherworldly beauty, a vision I still couldn’t reach on my own. And I cared about her, deeply, on a level I didn’t fully get. She was like a little sister or a cousin I needed to take care of. She’d been abused and used and hurt and I wanted her to be safe, she had to be safe, I needed to make her safe.

Because she was like me. And if she could lose herself Outside, what did that mean?

“Heather, hey, hey, it’s okay, just try to breathe, focus on your breathing.” Raine helped me sit up again, stroked my hair uncaring of the blood, gentle fingers rubbing the back of my neck. “Just focus on breathing.”

“Am I going to end up like that?” I wheezed. “Is-”

I couldn’t voice the rest, the real question.

Raine and Evelyn shared a glance.

“There’s no reason to think like that,” Evelyn said quickly. “Of course not.”

“You’re right here with us,” Raine added, voice that soft purr just for me. “You’re completely safe, Heather. The only reason you’re ever going Outside is to get your sister back, right?” She grinned, all brimming confidence. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. And I’m sure Lozzie’s fine.”

“What you saw was not Lozzie,” Evelyn repeated. I squinted at her.

“Not her,” Praem echoed.

“See?” Evelyn thumbed at Praem. “It was something native to the library, most likely. It plucked a relevant fear, a relevant desire from your mind. An anglerfish’s bait, a light to lure the unwary. Why do you think it was Lozzie, hm?”

“Anglerfish,” Praem echoed.

I shrugged, drained, utterly exhausted.

“Because if it had been Raine, or myself, you would have known instantly it wasn’t real,” Evelyn said, as if explaining a principle to a very slow child. She sighed heavily. “You’re obviously worn out. You panicked. Any of us would, of course. Whatever it was, it chose Lozzie to lead you on. It wasn’t her, not the real one.”

“She’s probably on some tropical beach with her feet up. Or playing with spirits,” Raine said, and cracked another grin as she glanced up, at the house, at the Sharrowford cold and the Sharrowford rain beyond the walls. “If I could go anywhere, it’d be the south of France for both us, not this.”

“Somewhere hot,” I croaked, nodding.

Their argument made sense. Praem agreed too. Bait, a thought plucked from my mind.

Perfect sense.

My eyes burned, hot and wet, vision blurring again. I sniffed hard, and felt tears run down my cheeks. I choked back a sob, crying because I missed Lozzie, and didn’t know where she was, if she was safe, or dead. Or worse.

==

By the following weekend – and two days after my twentieth birthday – I’d not forgotten about Lozzie one bit, but I had managed to convince myself that Evelyn was correct.

I couldn’t sleep right. Not the bone-shattering exhaustion of the terminal weeks before I’d first met Raine, no nightmares or terrors, not reluctant to face what lurked on the other side of unconsciousness. Instead I found myself restless and awake in Raine’s arms, an unquiet mind in the night, or getting up to wander the house and sit in the still darkness, reading in Evelyn’s little private library, or watching Tenny out in the garden before the cold drove me back under the covers.

Lozzie alone wasn’t enough to keep me up at night.

I was terribly worried about her, yes, of course I was, even if that thing I’d seen Outside wasn’t her.

When she’d left, after we’d freed her from her brother, I’d tried my best to accept her decision, but now I’d been Outside again, lost to my friends for half an hour, Raine and Evelyn left behind to wonder what had happened to me. That sharpened the hurt all over again. I missed her.

That vision in Carcosa, Lozzie puppeted by an alien presence inside her skin – even if it wasn’t real, please don’t let it be real, God, please – I couldn’t get it out of my head. Couldn’t stop thinking about what it implied.

Months ago, when we’d first sketched our plan to save my sister, Evelyn had cautioned against hope. The memory of her words kept me up at night.

Nothing human can survive out there for long, she’d said.

How much of Maisie was left to save?

Despite the supernatural underworld we inhabited, in the end I was still a university student, with few responsibilities except lectures and essays. Lucky me. I caught up by sleeping in late, or napped at Raine’s insistent encouragement.

I was worrying her, especially on the two occasions she woke and came looking for me at night, uncertain where I’d gone, uncertain – perhaps – if I was still present in reality at all. The second time that happened she made extra sure to remind me that I was very much accounted for in the physical. I got even less sleep that particular night, but I didn’t mind.

And so, that’s why I was curled up in bed at eleven in the morning on a Sunday, two days after my birthday, dozing and fretting, surrounded by Raine’s lingering scent, when I managed to embarrass myself.

“Heather!” Raine called up the stairs. There was a laugh in her voice, floating through the open bedroom door. “Wakey wakey, sleeping beauty. Somebody down here’s got a present for you.”

I rolled over, certain that the ‘present’ was Raine’s metaphor for bacon and eggs, or at the long odds that Tenny had brought a dead mouse to the back door, or Praem had sewn me a maid uniform. It couldn’t be that Evelyn had made any progress with the doorway-portal; that would hardly warrant a laugh.

“Heather? You awake up there?” Raine called again.

“Awake,” I echoed back. “I’ll be down … in a minute.”

Still, I was most unwilling to exile myself from the warm bed. Eventually I sat up, rubbed at my face, and grumbled most ungratefully about how breakfast in bed would be easier. I didn’t really mean it though. I wasn’t that spoiled.

At least now I had a new and wonderfully comfortable method to keep the cold at bay. No need to pull on thick socks, or wrap myself up in a hoodie. I took my heat with me, carefully guarded. I even popped the hood up and set the ears standing, playful for Raine’s benefit, as I padded quietly down the stairs, across the front room and into the kitchen, following the scent of fresh coffee.

“Here she is, queen of the hour,” Raine said, from over by the kettle. One coffee for me, and tea for her – and one mug for our guest.

“Hey Heath- … er-”

Twil did a double-take at me.

At my luxurious, brand-new, calico-pattern cat onesie.

“Oh.” I yanked the hood down, blushing terribly, trying to smile. “T-Twil. Good morning, yes, hello. Hello.”

Twil looked me up and down, mouth open, then back to where Praem stood in her maid uniform by the door to Evelyn’s magical workshop. “ … Oh … ‘kay. One I can deal with. Two, I ain’t so sure.”

“It was a present!” I blurted out, blushing red as a tomato, trying to sort out my terribly messy hair all bunched down the back of the onesie. “A birthday present. And it’s warm! And- and really comfy. Really.”

“A present, right.” Twil glanced at Raine, looking very uncertain, ready to bolt. “From you? … is this some weird furry shit? And why is the demon dressed like a porn star again? No uh, no judgement, though. You do you, all’a you.”

Raine burst out laughing, shaking her head and almost dropping the teabag she was extracting from a mug.

“From Evee,” I corrected her with a huff. “It’s absolutely not a sex thing. It was because of a bet, but it’s actually really comfortable. It’s … ” I shook my head and sighed. “Raine, why didn’t you tell me we had company? I would have gotten dressed properly.”

“I did tell you,” Raine said with a smirk, placing the mugs on the table. I sighed and reached for my coffee. “And hey, Twil doesn’t count as company-”

“Oi!” Twil barked.

“- she’s one of us,” Raine finished, with a raised eyebrow at Twil.

“That’s- yeah, right, that’s better.” Twil cleared her throat.

“And Praem,” I said with a gesture toward the doll-demon. “Is dressed in the clothing she prefers. She discovered that herself, while we were visiting Evelyn’s house. Doesn’t she look good? It suits her.”

“Uh … uh, yeah.”

“Much preferred,” Praem added, staring straight ahead.

“That’s the only reason. We’re not doing anything funny,” I said. Twil held her breath for a long sceptical moment. I sighed and put one hand on my hips, trying to disregard how silly I must look dressed as a giant cat. “Twil, this is me we’re talking about. You know me by now. Would I willingly dress up as a cat for … weird sex, and then let you see me?”

Twil frowned, then seemed to let go of the breath. “No, no you wouldn’t. Right you are, totally not your style. Cool onesie, actually. It’s kinda cute.”

She lit up with a big, unguarded smile at last, and my goodness, I had forgotten how beautiful Twil could be.

I wasn’t attracted to the werewolf on a personal level, but I hadn’t seen her in several weeks. Absence can have quite the effect with a girl as good-looking as Twil. Her dark curls fell over the collar of her clashing blue and lime green coat, and she’d picked up a new hoodie somewhere, a deep cream colour that went well with her angelic features and sharp amber eyes.

Twil’s unintentional illusion of delicate femininity had been shattered long ago for me – or perhaps accentuated, in some obscure way – by seeing her turn into a whirling ball of tooth and claw, break most of her own bones, and pull zombies apart.

I was always quite relieved the werewolf was on our side.

“Cute as hell, isn’t it?” Raine added with a smirk. “I like the little ears on the hood.” She snuck past my guard to flip the hood back up, messing my hair, before darting away beyond range of my swatting hands.

“Raine!” I flustered and yanked the hood off my head. “Stop it!”

She shot me a wink, sat down, and gestured for Twil to make herself at home. Twil pulled out a chair, then remembered something and dug around inside her coat. She presented me with a garish little glittery gift-bag, only slightly squashed.

“’Cos it’s your birthday,” she said. “Or, it was. Yesterday, right?”

“Friday,” Raine corrected her gently.

“Oh, oh you shouldn’t have, Twil.” I accepted the bag with a gentle frown. “I really mean that, you shouldn’t have. There’s little I want for.”

She shrugged. “We’re mates, aren’t we? Happy late birthday.”

“We are friends, yes.” I beamed at her. “Thank you, Twil. You’re sweet.”

I swear I saw her blush as she sat down.

Twil had bought me a bright pink and white scarf, the nice thick ribbed kind of scarf good for securing over one’s mouth and nose on the coldest days of midwinter. A little flashy, too much colour for the Heather of six months ago, but I had much more courage in self-expression than any past version of myself.

“I shall wear it to campus, tomorrow,” I said.

Raine had pulled out all the stops on my birthday, two days ago. She’d made me breakfast in bed and baked me a cake when we’d gotten back from lectures, a thick slab of chocolate and cream that tasted of bliss and clogged arteries, introduced with a rousing – if mortifying – round of ‘happy birthday to you’, which even Evelyn had joined in with, though quietly, and all washed down with full-fat milk.

When Evelyn had given me the cat onesie, I’d blushed like a beetroot. I’d completely forgotten about the bet we’d made in the heat of the moment, on that afternoon when Twil’s mother had turned up at the house. Events since then had rather overtaken my attention, but Evelyn hadn’t forgotten, and the loser’s punishment was still very much on the cards.

I loved it regardless. She knew I was having trouble with my body heat, always feeling the cold, and we set the cat onesie to work right away, after a bit of token resistance and awkward embarrassment. It was so very warm.

Raine bought me two thick jumpers, a pair of fancy reusable gel hand warmers, a box of chocolates, a video game – one I’d apparently like, but had never heard of before, the cover an illustration of an attractive witch leering over her bubbling cauldron – and an item of clothing that I will absolutely not relate to anyone else, ever, as long as I live.

I’d return those kindnesses when the time came, because it mattered. Evelyn’s birthday wasn’t until spring, and Raine was a summer child. I hadn’t had a birthday so nice since I was little, but not because of the pampering and the presents, not even because of being surrounded by my friends.

For the first time in ten years, it wasn’t my birthday alone.

Outside, somewhere, Maisie was turning twenty as well.

“Where’s Saye at, then?” Twil asked, blowing on her mug of tea. I was playing around with the scarf, trying it out underneath the fluffy collar of the onesie, but my attention perked up at her question. Twil nodded at Praem. “She’s never too far away, right?”

“I think she’s in her workshop at the moment, but she could do with some light exercise. You should go say hi, Twil,” I said, trying to sound as innocent as I could.

Twil eyed the door to the ex-drawing room, exactly like a wary hound. “What, in there, with the giant invisible creepy-crawlies and the portal to the fog-dimension?”

“That’s been closed for weeks. Go say hi!” I said. Twil frowned at me like I was bonkers. “She’ll … appreciate the polite gesture. You are in her house, after all.”

Good save, yes. Go on, Twil, I willed, she wants to see you.

“Heather?” Raine said my name, a curious quirk to her eyebrows. I made eyes at her when Twil glanced at the door again. Don’t spoil my match-making attempts!

“She must be able to hear us out here,” Twil said, “she just doesn’t wanna say hi. It’s cool, I don’t wanna rile her up or anything.”

“You won’t. Twil, go and knock on the door. Really.” I nodded and smiled. Nod and smile.

Twil narrowed her eyes at me. Oh damn, she smelled a rat. Did werewolves possess a heightened sense for danger? If so, hers was misfiring. I smiled wider.

“You’ve set up some kind of prank, haven’t you?” Twil asked slowly. She turned to Raine to check her expression. “I’m gonna knock on that door and a ruddy great praying mantis is gonna fall on my head.”

Raine laughed and raised her hands. “I’m none the wiser here. I dunno what Heather’s playing at.”

“I’m not playing at anything. I’m just saying it doesn’t hurt to be polite and say hello. I’m sure Evee would love to see you.”

The door to the workshop cracked open. Out peered a very unimpressed Evelyn.

“The only prank here is your … ” she snapped, but her sharp tongue trailed off, staring at Twil. She swallowed.

“My face?” Twil completed the insult, rolling her eyes. “Yeah, hey to you too, Evelyn. Told you she could hear us out here.”

“Good morning, Evee.” I beamed at her. “Look who’s turned up. It’s Twil.” I felt like leaping up out of my seat and clapping my hands together, but I restrained myself. Raine raised her mug in greeting.

“I do have eyes, yes.” Evelyn shot me a withering look, stomped into the kitchen, and glanced around the mugs on the table.

“You want a cuppa?” Raine asked. “Didn’t want to interrupt you. Kettle’s still warm.”

“Mm,” Evelyn grunted, and stared at Twil again.

The werewolf shrugged. “What?”

“It’s nothing,” Evelyn hissed, and turned away, as if trying to remember what she’d stepped in here to do. I tried to catch her eye.

What?” Twil repeated, frowning, bristling at the unexplained scrutiny. “Fuck’s sake, Saye, I thought we were cool, you sent a merry Christmas text and everything.”

“Yes, yes,” Evelyn snapped. “We’re ‘cool’, we’re fine, nothing is wrong.”

Twil spread her hands and looked at me for help. “What did I do now?”

“You can call her ‘Evee’, you know,” I said, forcing myself to pretend I was none the wiser. “Friends can use pet names for each other. Surnames are a little too formal, a little too distant, don’t you think?”

“Idiot mongrel,” Evelyn muttered.

“Hey! Come on, Evelyn- Evee?” Twil attempted, looking at me out of the corner of her eye for approval. I gave her a covert thumbs up. “You like me really, we’re friends now, aren’t we? We were getting on great. That was you sending me messages from your phone last night, right? You’re not like … ”

“Just drink your bloody tea,” Evelyn said, and thumped over to the fridge. She opened it and rummaged around, loudly.

I felt like squealing. Messages? What was going on? Oh, Evelyn, well done!

“Drink your tea,” Praem echoed.

Raine blinked theatrically several times. “I can’t believe I’m witnessing this. Heather, quick, pinch my arm, I think I’m dreaming.”

“Witnessing what? Did you all go off your rockers down in Sussex?” Twil looked so lost, I felt sorry for her, but they had to do this on their own.

I bit my lips together and silently swore I’d only step if a a genuine misunderstanding unfolded, or one of them was at risk of getting hurt. Of course, that didn’t mean I couldn’t talk to Twil in private later, plant an idea or two in her head, perhaps. I caught Raine’s eye and somehow managed to communicate my intention, because she clacked her mug down, cracked her knuckles, and leaned forward to change the subject.

“You turned up right on time, by the way,” she said to Twil. “I was about to give you a ring, ask a favour.”

Twil tore her eyes off Evelyn’s back, still frowning and confused. She blinked at Raine for a second, putting her thoughts back in order. “Yeah? What’s up?”

“How’d you fancy a spot of B&E?”

“B and E?” I echoed softly. Raine pulled a half-smile, half-wince.

“Breaking and entering, right?” Twil supplied before Raine could answer, and started to grin. “What’s going down, we gotta smash some place up? What have you lot got into this time?”

“Yes, Raine, what’s going on?” I said, my voice somewhat sharper than I’d intended.

Raine raised both hands in stalling surrender. “Nothing. Yet. Probably.”

“Yet?” I gave her a bit of a look. Undoubtedly weak, dressed as I was in a fluffy cat onesie.

Raine tilted her head to me. “I haven’t been keeping anything back from you, cross my heart and hope to die. S’only this morning I got wind of this.”

Twil leaned back slightly in her chair, as if she sensed invisible tension in the space between me and Raine. Evelyn peered at us as she shut the fridge. I cleared my throat and blushed slightly. “I didn’t mean to imply … I mean that you were … ”

“It’s okay, Heather, I know,” Raine said softly, then took a deep breath. “Long story short, do you remember our wayward friend, little Miss Poundland necromancer?”

“Oh, her, yeah,” Twil said. “The one you put the wind up, right?”

That got my attention. I recalled her all too well, the prisoner we’d dragged out of the Sharrowford Cult’s pocket dimension, a mousy, scrawny young woman who I’d been determined to let live. I remembered her face, terrified of us, and the way she’d looked at me with fear and awe.

“Her name’s Kimberly,” I said. “If I recall correctly. Why?”

“Kimberly Kemp,” Raine said. “Got her full name out of her, and a bunch more stuff besides.”

“Cute name,” Twil added. Evelyn snorted in derision.

“Anyway,” Raine continued. “I’ve been checking up on her, a couple of times. Once before we left over Christmas, then once the day after we got back to town.”

“You mean you’ve been intimidating the poor woman,” I said. “Raine, she was terrified of you the most. That’s so cruel.”

“Bloody right, damn,” Twil said. “Psycho.”

“Had to be done,” Evelyn grunted. “What’s the bitch done now?”

Raine laughed it off, and I almost bristled at her. She pulled a what-could-I-do type of shrug. “Nothing, nothing. I think. Hey, I made it clear as day I wasn’t going to hurt her. Like Evee said, it had to be done, we had to be sure she wasn’t gonna get picked up by the cult again.”

“Oh … oh, I suppose so, yes, from that angle.” I dialled down. Fair enough.

“Helps that you got to play Knight Errant, I’ll bet,” Evelyn muttered.

“Duty of care and all that,” Raine admitted with a tilt of her chin. “Anyway, so, I called her, went round her little flat – over on Whingate and Headly, she’s in one of the towers – and I didn’t threaten her, I swear. I was there five minutes, no more. Asked her how she was, if any of her old comrades had been in contact, told her to come to us if she had any problems like that.”

“Huh,” Evelyn grunted. “I’ll bet you did.”

Evelyn,” I almost snapped at her. Raine was a lot of things, but unfaithful she was not. Evelyn grimaced a silent apology and waved Raine on.

“Second time, I drop by uninvited the day after we got back from down south. All was well. She was a bit surprised, and yeah, okay, probably shit scared of me, but it had to be done. Then I tried a third time, last Friday. And I couldn’t.”

Raine paused, let that hang.

“What happened to her?” I said.

“She wasn’t there, was she?” Evelyn asked, a dark turn in her voice. “Fuck.”

“Fuck is right,” Raine said. “Didn’t think anything of it at the time, she’s a busy girl, got things to do, life to live. So I called her, left a message to call me back, but got nothing. I called her again on Wednesday. Still nothing by the weekend, so I go round there yesterday, knock on the door, thinking maybe she’s sick of us now, moved on. No harm, no foul. No answer.”

“She could be doing anything,” Evelyn hissed.

“What if she just left?” I asked, but my voice felt weak. A sinking feeling dragged at the pit of my stomach.

Raine raised two fingers. “Hold up, this isn’t the end of it. This morning, while Heather was having a lie in, I got the bright idea to go round her workplace, the Poundland on Castle Street. They open early on a Sunday, for some dumb reason. I pretended to be her friend, turned the charm on max for the girl behind the till. Turns out Kimberly called in sick last Friday, and then not a peep. Nobody’s heard from her since.”

Last Friday – a week and two days ago. The same day I’d been busy slipping Outside. The sinking feeling settled as a ball of lead in my gut. A coincidence? It was on Raine and Evelyn’s faces, but nobody voiced it. How could that be a coincidence? What were the odds?

“Oh,” I bit my lip. “That’s bad, isn’t it?”

Raine nodded. “Could be. Could be she just did a runner, shacked up with a guy somewhere, or she’s dead in a ditch. But that flat’s still occupied, I’ve checked. Curtains drawn, front door locked. Don’t know who’s in there, if anybody, but they’re not answering the door.”

“It’s our fault. It must be. It’s the cult again. Or perhaps she’s just terrified of us.” I shook my head, groping for any reason, anything that wasn’t connected to me.

“Shiiiiit,” Twil said. “Could be, could be anything though.”

Raine nodded. “Either way, our Poundland necromancer’s gone missing. You and I, Twil, we’re gonna break into her flat.”

Previous Chapter

and less pleasant places – 6.1

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

I’ve been told, repeatedly, that I must possess a rather high tolerance for pain.

This is not true.

“I really do think Praem is too big for this,” I said, then shot a guilty look at the doll-demon. “Sorry, I didn’t mean any offence by that.”

Praem turned her head to stare at me, but if she was capable of interpreting my words as a comment on her plush physique, she didn’t say anything. What did an immaterial creature from Outside care about body weight? I assumed pain also meant nothing to her.

No, the approaching pain was going to be all mine.

A lump in my throat, a tremor in my chest, a churning in my gut – my body knew what to expect. I twisted my hands together inside the warm gloves borrowed from Evelyn, watching the soft white leather bunch and crease. Strange, how the mind can magnify attention on such tiny details, when one is trapped in on the precipice of panicked anticipation.

“She’s no larger than me,” Evelyn said with a shrug.

“’Cept up front,” Raine muttered.

She smirked, but even Raine couldn’t quite conceal the worry behind her expression. I saw it plain in the tightness around her eyes, the way she jiggled one knee up and down, her tight grip on the edge of the table. If I shied away now, Raine would support me all the way, she’d let me put this off for another day, three days, a week, a month.

She’d let me, but that wasn’t what I needed.

I did love her for trying, but even lewd comments about Praem’s chest couldn’t take the edge off my nerves right now.

“Yes, Evee, but bringing you and I back from Outside took quite a … ” I forced myself to swallow. “Quite a toll on me, if you remember? What if I can’t- on the other side, what if I can’t-”

“That’s why you’re going to take Praem,” Evelyn said, calm but blunt. “I remember what it felt like, yes, like being run over by a bus. Praem won’t feel that. If you’re incapacitated, we don’t want you to be alone.”

She shared a glance with Raine, who nodded and pulled a reassuring smile for me.

“Couldn’t have put it better myself,” Raine said, then added, to Praem, “You best look after her if she needs to sit down and get her breath, right?”

“Promise,” Praem intoned.

Get my breath? Oh for the- I- oh, dammit all to hell.” I huffed and stripped the gloves off, shoved them in my coat pocket, and unzipped the coat down the front, desperate for fresh air as I unwound the scarf from around my neck. I felt trussed up like a small child about to venture outdoors to play in the snow. “I’m burning up in all these layers, this isn’t necessary.”

Not entirely true. Nerves and stress raised the heat under my collar, not ambient temperature. We had the ancient iron radiators cranked up to full, but Evelyn still wore a big heavy jumper and nursed a steaming mug of tea at her fingertips. Even Raine wore two tshirts, one long-sleeved, to banish the dense January cold gripping Sharrowford.

Freezing wind, scudding clouds, barely a scrap of sun all week. I wasn’t used to this, soft southern girl.

Sometimes it really is grim up north.

We – myself, Evelyn, and Raine – were gathered in the ex-drawing room, Evelyn’s magical workshop. Not exactly the warmest place in the house with it’s broken radiator and clutter and half-working lights. We all itched to get back upstairs or at least into the kitchen, but if everything went to plan none of us would have to sit here for long.

Yes, the plan. I wished I’d never committed to it.

I longed instead to resume the anime marathon Evelyn and I had finally begun two days ago, ensconced in front of the television, watching her bootleg dvds of Symphogear – all brightly coloured transformation sequences and plucky teenage girls punching monsters. Most uplifting. Or perhaps I could get back to working through the new term’s reading material, Frankenstein’s Monster and Wuthering Heights, prepping for next week’s lectures.

Who was I kidding? Right now I’d settle for curling up in bed with Raine, shutting out the world for skinship and affection.

Instead I stood in the middle of a mage’s atelier, with a sheet of painstakingly transcribed hyperdimensional mathematics to hand, shaking in my cheap trainers.

Praem didn’t care about the cold. She did what she was ordered to do, and right now she’d been ordered to accompany me Outside.

“Heather, hey.” Raine left her spot by the table and gently took my frantic hands in hers. “You said it was cold there, right?”

“What I said was ‘I thought it might be chilly’. I also went there in a dream, does that mean I should wear pajamas?” I bundled the coat down my shoulders. Raine relented and helped me. “I’m only going to be there for a couple of minutes. I don’t need this.”

“All the same, just in case, yeah?” Raine smiled that maddening smile, the one she kept in reserve purely to make me feel better. She handed my coat off to Praem, and the doll-demon folded it over her own arm without question.

“I can do this alone,” I said in a quiet voice. “It’ll be easier that way. The less I have to teleport, the less strain on my mind. We know that by now, you know I’m afraid of … of passing out.” Of choking on my own vomit, I meant.

Raine smiled again, indulgent but unyielding. She shook her head. “You gotta take Praem with you. Simple choice, it’s her or me.”

“It’s not as if you could stop me,” I snapped, and instantly regretted my words.

“Oh, sure, you’re right about that,” Raine purred. A dangerously playful tease reared up in her tone. I quivered at that sound – that certainly took my mind off the coming ordeal.

“R-Raine, now isn’t … Raine.”

Raine leaned in close and put a hand against the wall, boxing me in from above. Sometimes I forgot how tall she was compared to me. “I might not be able to stop you, sure, but when you get back, I’ll have a punishment waiting for you, for being a little brat and putting yourself in danger.”

My breath stuck in my throat. If this had been any other moment, if Evelyn had not been sitting ten feet away rolling her eyes out of their sockets, I probably would have replied with a squeak and said something deeply embarrassing. Yes please, Raine, please punish me for being bad.

Under the current circumstances I stared right back into Raine’s eyes, transfixed like a mouse in front of a snake, and managed to swallow. “Raine, I am in c-charge here.”

She let me go, backed up with a smirk and both hands raised. “Right you are, boss. In charge it is.”

“Good. Good.” I had to take a deep breath.

“Won’t be when you get back through.”

I tried to play that off by rolling my eyes, but I felt more than a little flushed in the face.

How much of that ultra-aggressive flirting was solely to take my mind off all this? I didn’t care. It helped, a lot. I thanked Raine silently, but I’d thank her properly later. When I got back.

“If you two have quite finished your mating ritual,” Evelyn drawled, “are we doing this today or not?”

“Just … just let me think for a moment. All right?”

Squeezing my eyes shut and focusing inward wouldn’t help at all. I had no more thinking to do, only procrastinating, so instead I paced.

Over to the heavily curtained window, with my arms folded across my chest, where I could peek out into the damp Sunday morning in the street beyond. A few distant spirits roved across the Sharrowford rooftops, going about their ineffable business. Onward, to the end of the room, to the wreckage of the cult’s doorway-portal-mandala, and then back to the table, where my neatly printed sheet of deadly notepaper lay safely contained beneath a heavy book.

“Putting it off isn’t going to make it any easier,” Evelyn grumbled.

“Let her think,” Raine said.

“Evelyn’s right,” I whispered, and moved the book aside. The sheet of notepaper lay face-down, another thin barrier between me and the clarity I’d spent three days inscribing in cheap biro. “Putting this off is pointless. I know that. I’m just … ”

Terrified.

One could be forgiven for thinking hyperdimensional mathematics had become routine for me, that it didn’t – shouldn’t – scare me anymore. Hadn’t I mastered it? Used my ill-gotten powers to defend myself, to resolve crises, to kill an evil wizard? I could threaten spirits and monsters from Outside, I could deflect a bullet, I could commit murder. This power was mine now.

What nonsense.

The scraps I could wield without frying my own brain were the deceptive shallows of a black sea of infinity. Evelyn’s cosmic map had reminded me how small I was.

My fingertips brushed the notepaper; warm to the touch, like fevered flesh.

This equation – or set of equations, a conch shell of hell-math, re-contextualised by the map’s insight – teetered on the edge of the abyssal currents. Merely writing it down had taken hours. I could only form one or two figures at a time, as the full impact always threatened to overwhelm what little mental control I could muster.

I’d had to cover my previous work with a book to stop me seeing the whole. Raine had to keep dragging me into the kitchen, forcefully distracting me, feeding me hot chocolate, mop up the leaking nosebleed. At one point she’d taken me to bed and kept me there for three hours, and that was the only thing that really helped, kept it all at bay.

I’d used this equation once before, yes, but that had been in a dire situation, driven on and protected by the heat of the moment.

Now I had to perform cold. I was desperate for any excuse to put it off; do it tomorrow, do it next week, wait until February. My birthday was soon, on the 17th. Why not wait until I turned twenty, finally out of my teens? Surely I’d feel different, this wouldn’t be so daunting, a real adult wouldn’t feel so scared?

I didn’t really believe any of that, but I still entertained the thought, if only for a moment or two.

The 17th was Maisie’s birthday as well.

I forced myself to pick up the sheet of paper – and turn to the bucket next to it.

“I’ll take Praem,” I said, to nobody in particular. “It’s just a test. Just like sitting an exam. I’m good at exams.”

“You can do it,” Raine said, suddenly loud and clear in the close quiet of the ex-drawing room. “This is nothing, Heather, this is a flick of the wrist for you. You’ll be right back, and then we’ll go take a bath. Together, yeah?”

“Don’t forget to bring something back,” Evelyn said. “Or you’ll have to do it all over again. A book off the floor will be fine. Half a book.”

I nodded; didn’t need telling that again, she’d repeated it enough times over the last week.

“Praem, come here please,” I said, hand outstretched, not trusting my legs to carry me to her. Praem joined me, heels clicking, my coat still over her arm, her skirt swishing around her ankles. I’d pinned her long blonde hair up in a braided bun for her earlier than morning. I think she liked it. She stared at my proffered hand for a moment. “You have to take my hand, or this doesn’t work. And hold on.”

She unfolded her hands and slipped her warm little palm into mine. All too human.

“Don’t you get any funny ideas now,” Raine warned her, still trying to crack jokes.

“Okay, I’m ready, um … ”

“You want a countdown?” Raine asked.

Evelyn rolled her eyes. “Oh for all the-”

“Yes,” I blurted out. “Yes, yes I would. Please, Raine, go ahead. Do that. Count me down.”

“On zero? Cool. Here we go then. I’ll see you in a minute or two, Heather.” She held up three fingers. “Three. Two.”

I counted with her, chest tight, palms sweating, animal terror crawling in the back of my head.

“One,” we said together. Evelyn joined in too, and even Praem spoke the word.

My mouth was so dry. Raine closed her hand, made a fist.

“Zero.”

My courage held. I flipped the piece of notepaper over. I read the equation.

My mind plunged into boiling tar. I grit my teeth, ignored the nosebleed that streamed down my face, and forced myself to concentrate on each piece of molten truth as I slotted it into place. Shaking hard, wincing, throat raw. Preparation and experience helped – but only to a point.

I hunched forward around my clenched stomach, holding on hard and trying not to vomit. I wasn’t going to use that bucket. I was not. I was better than this, I was stronger, I was-

The equation burned, rose to a shining crescendo of pain, an expanding iron vice instead in my head.

I had to use the bucket.

Praem held me up, an arm under my shoulders, as I shook all over; but I made it, I got there in the end.

Last piece. Exactly the same feeling as the first time, the same violation of natural law, the same slipping black levers under my hands. A snapshot of insane kaleidoscope before I slammed my eyes shut.

Reality crumpled under its own weight, and went out.

The difference?

This time I knew where I was going.

==

When we’d arrived back in Sharrowford at the end of the previous week, we discovered that number 12 Barnslow Drive had not been raided, vandalised, marked, egged, or otherwise violated by the Sharrowford Cult.

Evelyn was correct, they hadn’t come anywhere near the house. We couldn’t find hide nor hair of them.

That hadn’t stopped Raine from making us wait in the car. I’d felt increasingly ridiculous as Raine crept up the garden path and unlocked the door, slipping her handgun from inside her leather jacket once she was over over the threshold, but I suppose it was necessary. She’d checked over the house, the back garden, and even up the street. Nothing.

Once inside, the familiar scents – exposed floorboards, old iron radiators, tiles in the kitchen – had coaxed a bizarre feeling from me, an emotion out in the no-man’s land between nostalgia and heartache. Two weeks away from the house had lent it a touch of the welcome uncanny.

Raine had bustled about and Evelyn set to making tea, but I’d crept around from room to room, waved hello to the spider-servitor in the ex-drawing room, and even opened the door onto the back garden to check on Tenny. She wiggled her tentacles at me, but wouldn’t come inside.

The Sharrowford house smelled like home.

How very strange, after spending time at my parents’ house, my childhood home in Reading. That was supposed to be home, wasn’t it?

A few days with my parents had felt exhausting.

They’d been effusive with their protestations that my friends were very welcome, but I’d picked up on their caution, their one-step-remove, their exaggerated politeness. Or was that me, projecting my own feelings? I hadn’t had time to consider that, let alone think about the abstract concept of ‘home’, between worrying about every little thing Raine did, fielding my mother’s endless questions, and dealing with the uncanny sensation of my new friends in my old house.

That was the most exhausting part – not fretting over drama, or being amazed when Evelyn got to discussing actual medieval philosophy with my father. I had to deal with all the memories of my sister rushing back again, with Raine and Evelyn aware and my parents oblivious.

Raine got it, or at least pretended she did. We talked it over, alone in the old back garden, recounting all the little things I remembered about my twin.

Evelyn did a magical test in my old bedroom, of course. The bedroom where Maisie and I had wiggled down the rabbit hole to Wonderland a decade ago, where every trace of her had been erased. Whatever had happened to us had left no echo, no clue.

Recovering from the map, at least that was easy.

In the end, Evelyn had let the fox go, with much grumbling.

I’d been weak and disoriented that afternoon, sat on the patio as she’d freed the animal on the back lawns of the Saye mansion, sipping from my hot chocolate and trying not to think about the structure of reality. The fox had scarpered off right quick, as Raine put it, and left Praem holding the empty cage as it bounded toward the lake and the trees. It hadn’t looked back.

We spotted it twice more before we left the following morning for my parents’, a russet snout watching us from the bushes, a tail whipping back into the gates of the estate as we’d pulled away down the cramped country lane.

I wished it well, if it was indeed what Evelyn thought it was.

==

Two days back in Sharrowford, with the new university term about to start, we’d had a meeting.

None of us had ‘called a meeting’, nothing so formal. We’d drifted toward it naturally, after a day of recovery from too much socialising with my parents.

“I could get some paint, cover the whole thing up,” Raine’s voice drifted into the kitchen. I bit into a pop tart and followed the sound as she spoke. “Wouldn’t take five minutes. Might need a second coat though, some of this looks pretty thick. Is this bit carved into the plaster? That needs some polyfiller.”

I poked my head around the open doorway to Evelyn’s magical workshop, and saw Raine standing with her hands on her hips as she surveyed the wreckage of the cult’s doorway-portal-thing. The huge mandala, complete with Lozzie’s modifications, still dominated the entire wall.

“Absolutely not,” Evelyn grunted from a chair by the cluttered table. “I’m keeping it.”

“You aren’t worried they’ll like, bust on through one night?” Raine turned and saw me peeking, two freshly toasted chocolate pop tarts on a plate in my hands, half of one already in my mouth. “Hey you, did you get bored? Come and join us, we’re talking shop.”

“Mmm-mm,” I grunted, then swallowed, with some difficulty. “I was waiting, I thought you were coming back upstairs.”

Raine pulled this big theatrical wince. She’d taken to doing that sometimes that in lieu of saying sorry, and it worked quite handily on me, because it was incredibly attractive. “I got totally sidetracked when I saw Evelyn talking to herself in here. My bad.”

“Talking to yourself is entirely healthy, thank you very much,” Evelyn said. “You know what isn’t healthy? Leaving your girlfriend alone in bed in the middle of … whatever it is you two do behind closed doors. Go on, shoo, the pair of you.”

“We were playing a video game, that’s all.” I felt myself blush, but only a tiny bit, and shook my head as Raine laughed.

“Yes, and I ran a marathon yesterday,” Evelyn muttered. “And no, Raine, I’m not worried about the cult using this again. The network it connected to is collapsed, there’s nothing left. I’ve got Praem out on Bowder’s street now, poking her nose into the last of their pocket spaces. They’re done. But this, I can re-purpose this, I’m certain, if I can figure out the last few bits of Akkadian.”

I crossed the threshold into the ex-drawing room, feeling curious and attentive, though I’d much rather return to watching Raine seduce video game girls who were also dragons. I glanced up at the spider-servitor, upside down in its corner, watching the room with that head of crystalline eyes.

The sight of it still unsettled me on a visceral level – the black carapace, the heat-exchangers, the poised stingers – but then again so did Tenny, and I felt a measure of odd affection for the spider. It had, after all, crouched on guard over my unconscious body after Zheng had tried to kidnap me, and I had no illusions about who would have won if she’d decided to come back and fight it.

I gave it a little wave of greeting, but got nothing in return.

“Heather?”

“Mm?” I blinked around at my friends, and then flushed when I remembered they couldn’t see what I was waving at. “T-the spider, I was just … saying hi.”

“Oh yeah, big leggy up there,” Raine said. “How’s he hanging?”

“Fine. Healthy. I mean, as far as servitors experience health?”

Evelyn shrugged. “Good question.”

“Y-you said Praem’s gone out?” I hurried to change the subject. Even now, after all these months, the old instinctive habit still held a lot of ground inside my head – don’t let on that you see things other people don’t. “Is she still wearing her- oh. That would be a no, then.”

Evelyn answered by pointing to the back of a nearby chair. Praem’s beloved maid uniform was neatly folded over the back. “Certainly not. I’m not sure psychological self-correction can account for a maid wandering around Sharrowford. I ordered her into jeans and a coat.” She caught the look on my face and sighed. “She’s free to wear whatever she likes when she gets back.”

“That’s okay, I-I wasn’t being-”

“It’s fine,” Evelyn grunted.

It obviously wasn’t fine. Still sore about her demon’s sartorial tastes. I busied myself chewing on another mouthful of pop tart.

“If I saw her walking around in that getup, I’d hit on her,” Raine said.

“So would I,” I said softly, and Raine spluttered with laughter. I blushed and shrugged and took another bite. Of course I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t have the courage, but I’d like to. I swallowed and spoke into the silence that followed, asked the question that had been lurking in the back of my head, the real reason I’d stepped into the room. “So, what do we do next?”

Raine raised her eyebrows at me. “You wanna head out for some lunch before it rains again? That Indian deli place is open again.”

“Don’t be so bloody obtuse,” Evelyn snapped at her. Raine had the good sense to look mock-sheepish. She’d known exactly what I really meant. Evelyn turned in her chair to regard me. “I thought the answer to that was obvious – you need to test what you can do.”

I stepped up to the table and put my plate down, stomach turning, sugary breakfast treat sitting like lead. That was what I’d been afraid of – the fear itself. “I know that part. I mean … how ready are we?”

“For Maisie?” Raine asked.

“For Wonderland,” Evelyn corrected her. “Not in the slightest.”

“Yes, yes, I know, I know. I’m asking … ” I sighed and shrugged. “I don’t know what I’m asking.”

Evelyn held up a hand, four fingers, and lowered them one by one as she made her points.

“One, you can get there, in theory.”

“In theory,” I agreed.

“Alone, spewing your guts out, and bleeding from your eye sockets. Hardly ideal. And you haven’t tested it yet. Two, some of the circles and methods I used to allow Raine and I to perceive Tenny might function to conceal us from the Eye’s awareness. For how long, how effectively, that’s anybody’s guess, fuck knows,” she shrugged. “Three, we still have no way to locate your sister, on an entire Outside plane of reality. I don’t know about you, but I don’t fancy a hike over that terrain we saw.”

“True ‘nuff,” Raine added softly.

“Four, if the Eye resists our interference, itself or with its minions, we don’t have much to fight back with. You absolutely aren’t ready to go toe-to-toe – or mind-to-mind, as it were – with the Eye, are you?”

“Right,” I nodded, deflating inside. “Definitely not.”

“So, I would say we’re not bloody well ready at all.”

When she put it like that, I struggled to see light at the end of the tunnel. We had, what, eight or nine months? How on earth could we achieve all that in eight or nine months?

I’d proposed to fight an alien God for my sister’s life. I’d found it’s address in a cosmic phone book. Now what?

“What if we ding-dong-dash it?” Raine asked.

“What?” Evelyn squinted at her.

“You know. Ding-dong-dash. Knock and nash,” Raine said. “Knock on its front door and run away? Good way to see how it reacts to us rocking up to mess with it, yeah?”

Evelyn gave her such a look. Raine shrugged, don’t-blame-me style. I was barely paying attention, lost in my own thoughts.

I should have been listening. Raine’s idea was golden, but none of us would work that out for weeks yet.

The map had gifted me with insight, but not an insight I cared to examine in too much detail.

The afternoon after I’d exposed my mind to the map, we’d tried a couple of small experiments. Raine had fetched a couple of small stones from down by the lake on the Saye estate. She’d wanted me to wait, to recover until I didn’t feel sick and shaky, but I’d insisted. I had to try it then, see if it worked, see if I could put this knowledge to use. Grasp a rock and send it Outside – send it somewhere specific.

The first rock I sent to the grand winter-bound castle which Lozzie had taken me to in the dream.

It hurt like hell.

Dialling in a specific location – plane, level, dimension, whatever flimsy inadequate human word we use for Outside – took a toll on my concentration. I’d dredged up the geographic principles from the map and wedded them to the Eye’s impossible physics. The rock had vanished from my hand, and I’d curled up around my aching stomach and lungs for an entire hour, nursing my pounding head and bleeding nose.

The rock had gone exactly where I’d intended.

How did I know that?

It was like throwing an object down a long, lightless corridor, through a doorway I knew stood at the end, deep in darkness.

The second rock, I sent to Wonderland.

A risk, certainly. Would the Eye notice? How all-encompassing was its awareness? Could it somehow trace an inanimate object back to me? Let it try. I was protected, by the Fractal on my arm and my friends and Evee’s magic and my own growing mastery.

Right?

None of that sheltered me from the thought of that rock. Lying awake in bed snuggled between Raine’s arms, still cold inside despite her borrowed body heat, it haunted me. A pebble from a lakeside in rural England, lost beneath that rotten sky, amid the broken walls and otherworldly monsters of Wonderland. And it would never, ever come back. Who could find a tiny, pointless pebble, amid all that madness, beneath the gaze of the Eye?

I will award no prizes for unravelling the subconscious metaphor.

“If Raine is quite finished with her helpful suggestions,” Evelyn said, the sound of her voice bringing me back to the ex-drawing room. “I may have a solution to that first problem.”

“Which one, sorry?” I asked with a sniff. Raine crossed the room and pulled a chair out for me, encouraged me into it and started rubbing my shoulders. She’d probably seen the look on my face, figured out I needed physical contact.

“Getting to Wonderland and back,” said Evelyn, and gestured at the doorway mural. “The door. If you bring an object back from Outside, anything at all, I believe I may be able, in theory, to re-purpose the doorway to connect to that particular point.”

I blinked at her. “Um … ”

“Window on ye olde Eye didn’t go so well last time,” Raine said before I could.

“Yes, absolutely. It was a disaster,” I agreed, frowning with concern. “I thought that was the entire purpose of showing me the map. So I could … get us there.”

“Alone and passing out, as I said,” Evelyn repeated. “Look, I’m certainly not suggesting you … what do you call it, Slip? Don’t Slip to Wonderland, that’s stupid and you’ll probably die, or worse. No, we need to test this first, in as controlled conditions as we can get. Where can you go? We need somewhere safe.”

“Safe, Outside?” I sighed. “Mm.”

“Relatively.”

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “There’s places Lozzie and I went in the dreams which weren’t that bad, or at least quiet, but I always got the feeling that Outside was less dangerous when accessed via dreams. I don’t know.”

“You’ll have to ask your Lozzie about that one, I have no idea,” Evelyn said.

“I suppose … ”

But I couldn’t ask Lozzie, could I? She’d been gone for weeks. I’d hoped, in my own childish way, that she might return for Christmas, come back all smiles and giggling. I didn’t even dream about her anymore. The thought of her Outside formed a lump in my throat.

Raine squeezed my shoulder. “She’ll be back, Heather, I’m sure she will.”

I nodded, chewing on my lip. Raine couldn’t possibly be sure, but I let her convince me for now. My mind finally alighted on the sort of place I associated with safety and quiet, security and pleasure.

“There was the library,” I said.

“Library?” Evelyn’s eyebrows pinched together, sudden sharp interest.

“She took you to a library?” Raine asked, and mock-tutted. “Trying to get one up on me. I’ll have to have a word with Lozzie about that, muscling in on me.”

“One of the places Lozzie took me in the dreams, yes. She called it the library of Carcosa, I think. It didn’t seem too … ah, Evee?”

Evelyn squinted at me in fascination. I hadn’t seen that look on her face since she’d marvelled over my self-implementing hyperdimensional mathematics.

“Carcosa?” Evelyn breathed. “Carcosa. You’re certain she used that name?”

“I think that’s how it was pronounced, yes. I take it that’s important?”

“Potentially,” Evelyn said, with great care. Her eyes bored into me. “I wish you’d told me before. Can you get back there?”

I shrugged. “In theory, I can go anywhere. Why’s this important, Evee?”

Evelyn took a deep breath and banished the worst of her fascinated look with an obvious effort of will, bringing herself back down to the level of us mere mortals. “Carcosa is a city, of a sort, mentioned by name in more than a few of the grimoires I have access to. There’s a whole five page passage in Unbekannte Orte.” She wet her lips, and I swear I saw her tremble slightly. “The library. There may be … relevant books. Ones lost here, lost to reality.”

“You want to visit a library, Outside?” I tried to laugh, but the look in Evelyn’s eyes told me she was dead serious. She opened her mouth, but snapped it shut again, clamping down on something inside herself. “Evee?”

“I can’t.” She took a deep breath and forced a humourless laugh. “You need to understand, Heather, this presents me with a dangerous temptation. A selfish part of me, perhaps the part I inherited from my mother-”

“Evee, no.”

“- very much wants to visit that library and pilfer as many books as I can,” she carried right on, raising a hand. “If I was being … mercenary, I would tell you there might be books there we can use, things that might help us locate your sister, even more so if you’re not going to be able to pit your mind against the Eye. And that wouldn’t be a lie.”

“Oh.” That pang of guilt.

“Evee, come off it, that is being mercenary,” Raine said. “But hey, if it might help?”

“Perhaps,” Evelyn admitted. “But you do need to test the map, and I need to test the door. The library, well … ” Evelyn shrugged.

“What Evee’s saying,” Raine added, still rubbing my shoulders. “Is that it’s your choice, this is your circus, Heather.”

I took a deep breath and tried to sit up straight, tried to feel big. I did not.

“I am large and in charge,” I said, closed my eyes and nodded. “I’ll do it. A trip to the library.”

==

Head throbbing like an open wound, diaphragm aching, guts throwing a terminal-stage riot. Praem caught my weight as I sagged forward.

My feet skittered for purchase against the polished wooden floor, kicking at stray books and loose pages, the sound echoing into the vast space overhead. A sticky, gummy feeling seeped around my closed eyelids as I hacked for breath and heaved again. Praem quickly pressed a plastic bag into my hands and I voided my stomach once more, wiped my lips and dropped the bag, and failed to stand up as my knees gave out. Praem had to catch me again. She held me up with effortless ease.

“We are here,” she intoned, voice echoing off into nothingness.

I didn’t need her to tell me that.

I was Outside, under my own power. My second ever intentional Slip. Went off without a hitch – except for all the pain and the vomiting and the bleeding.

“Book,” I croaked. “Need a book. Back- back out.”

That was right, back out, back to reality, back to Raine and that bath together.

“Book,” Praem acknowledged, but then I realised she couldn’t bend down without letting me tumble to my knees.

With stinging effort, I eased my eyelids open, rubbed at the blood around my eye sockets, and squinted so I could see.

Mercy of mercies, I had at least brought us to the right place.

The library of Carcosa looked exactly as I remembered it from the dream Lozzie and I had shared. We stood at the bottom of a wide canyon of bookcases at least a mile across, the floor covered with thousands of discarded texts. The bookcases vanished into the dark, far far above, crossed and looped by hundreds of wooden walkways and balconies. Billions of books. Beyond counting.

Without the cushion of the dream, I did not like it one bit.

All was shrouded in soft, unnatural light and deep amorphous shadows. I concentrated the floor, at the discarded books – not at the tiny robed figures shuffling along the walkways above, their faces made of tentacles and spines, or at the hanging cages that contained inhuman skeletons, and certainly not at the giant chains and the nightmare shape they held suspended in the far middle of the canyon.

“Book, book, any book,” I croaked, and bent forward, scooping up the first volume that came to hand. Praem helped me straighten again, and I stared at her for a second. “None the worse for- for wear at all, are you?”

“None the worse,” she echoed, milk white eyes steadfast, uniform utterly unruffled.

“Shhh, shh, don’t want to … ” I gestured vaguely, but nothing out there seemed to respond to the echoing sound of Praem’s voice.

My stomach turned again, knees wobbling as I struggled to stay standing. Quickly, I let the book flop open in one hand – no language I recognised, but it was indeed a book, black marks on white pages, rather than something else disguised as a book. I handed it to Praem and lifted the piece of notepaper again, now crumpled and squeezed, stained with nosebleed and a few flecks of vomit.

Strictly speaking I didn’t need the equation on paper to get back. I could run through the whole thing from memory, from instinct, from a decade of the Eye’s lessons. But the notation would help, make it gentler on my mind.

I needed so badly to sit down.

A little more pain, and it would be over, I told myself; back to Sharrowford, home, and my friends.

I turned the paper over and my eyes flickered down the equation, the first red-hot iron pokers slamming into my skull.

That’s when I spotted her.

Maybe half a mile away. How did I see her so clearly across the floor of that library-canyon? Half hidden behind a banister at the edge of a staircase up into the stacks? Staring at me. Maybe it was the long blonde hair, messy and unkempt, or the way she folded the ends of her sleeves over her hands, or simply the outline of her skinny form against the shadows.

Lozzie.

My eyes jerked up from the paper, halfway through the equation; her name on my lips, certain she hadn’t been there a second ago.

Her face half a mile distant, but inches away; every feature in the right place, but nothing like itself.

Something wearing her skin.

I lost my train of thought.

Hyperdimensional mathematics fell apart inside my head, a nuclear meltdown which made me clench every muscle in my body, vision throbbing black around the edges. I cried out, pain and blood in my mouth, eyes stinging like acid. My head felt it exploded.

Praem caught me as I passed out. The last thing I saw was Lozzie. She turned, and walked away.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

no nook of english ground – 5.8

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Contrary to Evelyn’s dire warning, confronting the map was only the second most terrifying challenge I had to face that following day.

“Before you hit call, let’s hash out a plan, yeah?” said Raine from next to me on the bed. She even raised a hand to stall me, as if I’d located my courage somewhere between my quivering pile of nerves and my inability to grip the mobile phone straight.

“A plan,” I managed. My mouth felt so very dry.

“Yeah. You’re not just gonna shout ‘hey mum, I’m super gay’ down the phone, right?” Raine couldn’t keep the amusement off her face. I failed to see the humour in the situation. “You know me, I tend to leap before I look, but I figure you’d be more comfortable with a bit of a script.”

I gave her the best glare I could muster. Weak and shaky, under the circumstances. “Oh yes, good idea. Great idea. And here I thought I’d just say whatever, muddle through. You know me,” I echoed her.

Raine snorted with poorly concealed laughter. I attempted to glare a hole in her head.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I don’t mean to laugh, it’s just so cute.” She reached out and squeezed my shoulder. “Heather, it’s gonna be fine.”

“What if it isn’t?”

“Then I’m right here. Always.” To her credit, Raine killed the smirk at last.

I forced out a shaky breath and gestured limply with the phone.

“It’s alright for you,” I said. “You don’t have to make the call. I hate making normal phone calls, let alone dramatic ones.”

“I totally can, if you want.” Raine held out a hand for the phone, and I knew this was no rhetorical gesture. She’d do it if I asked. “Hell, it was my idea. I’ll rip the plaster off, you can do the aftercare. We’ll one-two punch ‘em. We can show off how we make a great team, as well.”

“Raine, I don’t want my parents’ first impression of you to be a voice on the phone asking ‘Guess who’s banging your daughter’.”

Raine lost her composure and started laughing again. “I won’t say that! I won’t. Cross my heart and hope to die. Best behaviour.”

“Your face tells me otherwise.”

Her offer was extraordinarily tempting. I really didn’t want to do this, however much sense it made. My guts churned and my chest felt like a vice, my heart fluttering in my ribcage like a dove trying to escape. If I delayed much longer, I was going to get light-headed.

Let Raine shield me from reality, from unpleasant tasks, from life itself? No, she was here to help but I had to do this myself, I couldn’t avoid it forever.

I still wasn’t all recovered from last night, a little wobbly and unsteady, drained inside, even after several hours wrapped up warm in bed with Raine as a hot water bottle. She’d helped change the dressings on my feet this morning, but they still ached from all the little cuts and scratches. I’d eaten too much breakfast – great big slabs of toast and jam and a helping of scrambled eggs – but now the food sat like lead in my stomach.

I stared at my phone’s contact list, trying to decide between my parents’ land-line number or my mother’s mobile. Slim choice.

According to our original rough itinerary, my parents were expecting us at their leafy suburban house in Reading tomorrow morning. They expected myself and two friends, for a little stay in the few days leading up to Christmas.

I doubted they were prepared for their only daughter to stage full-blown closet evacuation.

Nor could anybody prepare for Raine.

I could just about picture myself stammering out to my mother that I was a lesbian, and yes it’s not a phase, and fielding the inevitable invasive questions and idiotic assumptions, but deep down inside I was terrified of what they’d think of Raine.

Even if she passed muster as a ‘normal’ person – rather than a dangerous sociopath entangled with an occult underworld – I was afraid they’d see the leather jacket, the short hair, the cocky smile and rippling athleticism, and see a predator who’d poached their vulnerable, mentally ill daughter. The same assumption I’d first made, the assumption I’d liked and gone along with.

If either of them said anything like that to Raine’s face, I don’t know what I’d do. I hated confrontation. I might be able to kill an evil wizard with my mind, but a shouting match with my parents? Absolutely not.

I think Raine figured that out before I did. That’s why she suggested the phone call.

After breakfast that morning, Evelyn had said she wanted to wanted try a further magical experiment on the caged fox. A boring experiment, to hear her tell, which would involve a lot of reciting Latin at the poor animal, and drawing several more magic circles, in an effort to tease out whatever supernatural shard had embedded itself in the fox’s brain. I’d been all ready to go with her, as a peanut gallery or to sit quietly, but Raine had declared quite firmly that she and I had a matter to attend to.

“Ah yes, I see, starved for each other’s attention,” Evelyn had drawled. “Don’t let me get in the way of a good shag.”

“Evee!”

Raine had burst out laughing. “I wish, but no dice. We gotta call Heather’s mum.”

The bottom had dropped out of my stomach. “We- we have? We?”

“I think we better. Give her a bit of advance warning. Only fair.”

“Ah. Good luck. Shout if you need … help, I suppose.” Evelyn shrugged.

She took Praem with her instead, all prim and proper in her new uniform, after assuring Lewis we’d all still be here when he and his lady friend returned from London that evening.

So that’s how I ended up cross-legged on the bed, cradled by residual warmth, rubbing my feet through thick socks to ease away the little pains. Raine had sat me down, rubbed my back as she explained her rationale: it would be easier on them and me if I told my parents now, give them a day to process – or let us read the signs that we shouldn’t turn up at all.

Better to avoid the cliched soap opera moments. Parcel things out in bite sized chunks. Fair warning.

None of that helped the crippling anxiety.

“Then you gotta have a plan,” Raine was saying. She leaned against the bed’s headboard, one foot rubbing my shin. “Do you wanna hit them with the big shock first, a rapid attack, and then flank them up with some softer stuff so they can’t over-focus? Or go in nice and slow, lead them on with a couple of gentler strikes before you drop the hammer?”

I squinted at her. “Raine, this isn’t a battle. What on earth are you trying to say?”

“What’s going to shock them more, that you’re gay and have a girlfriend, or that you’ve moved out of your old bedsit?”

“I … I don’t know. I don’t even know where to begin.”

“What’s the worse case scenario?”

“Raine, please don’t. I don’t need that on my mind.”

“You absolutely do, so we can defeat it,” she said. She wasn’t joking. She’d finally wiped away even the shadow of an amused smirk, replaced by sober concentration. She met my eyes and I couldn’t look away from that all-knowing certainty, that confidence burning like a bonfire. “What’s the worse case scenario? Try to put it into words. As clumsy as you like.”

“They … they could shout at me. Tell me not to go visit them. They wouldn’t though. N-no, wait … the worst thing would be if they treat it like it’s not real, not legitimate, something you’ve pressured me into, a thing girls do at university, something like that.”

“Gay ‘till graduation. Right.” I could hear the eye-roll in Raine’s tone.

“Exactly. That would hurt.”

Normally Raine would take a cue like that to pull me into a hug, tell me it’s all going to be okay, play the bold angel on my shoulder. Instead she fell silent, looked up at the ceiling, nodding slowly.

“Raine?”

“That would be the worst, yeah. Thinking about whether I should tell you a little story or not. Last thing I wanna do is put the wind up you, but … ” She shrugged with lazy theatricality.

I sighed at her. “You could not be more obvious with your bait if you tried. Go ahead, say what you have to say.”

“Who says I’m not trying?” Raine shot me a slow, knowing smile, but then she pressed her lips together and brought it under control. Her tongue lingered at the corner of her lips. “I never had to come out to my parents. I was way too obvious.”

I blinked at her in surprise – Raine never talked about her family. She waited a beat, watching me, and I thought she wasn’t going to continue.

“You’re rather obvious these days, as well,” I said, hoping it would prompt her.

She nodded and laughed softly. “Yeah, just the way you like it, huh?”

“I won’t deny that part.”

Raine looked up at the ceiling again. “I think my mum and dad liked to pretend I’d grow out of it, but I can’t be sure. Never mentioned it, never bought it up. Never got the bird and the bees speech either, any of that.”

“Tch,” I tutted. “That’s so irresponsible.”

“Par for the course round where I grew up. By the time I ran away from home, maybe a third of the girls in my school class had gotten themselves knocked up. Like thirteen, fourteen years old. Place was a shit hole. Probably still is.” She shrugged. “Anyway, I’m drifting. Point is, my parents didn’t know even half of what I was up to. What they did notice, they pretended not to.”

“Things you were … up to?” My imagination raced, filled in the details of Raine as a young teenager. She saw the look on my face and laughed, reached over and goosed my knee.

“Yeah, you best believe I was a walking scandal,” she said with a grin. “The tween dyke terror of Beetham Comprehensive. Watch out, Raine’ll get you alone in the changing rooms and pop your cherry. Don’t call her a lesbo or she’ll deck you. Don’t you know she fought a dog once? Scary bitch, that girl.”

“Are you … you’re serious?”

She shrugged and half-shook her head. “All teenage crap, but it feels different at that age, you know? Though I did fight a dog when I was twelve, that really happened. Long story. I did make out with girls at school a few times, and I got in a scrape – twice – over other girls. I had this whole love-hate thing going on with one of the preppy crowd. She was trying to hide it from her friends. Super repressed, I was trying to help, you know, my Robin Hood act? Doing it even back then.”

“Raine.” I wasn’t sure if I should be impressed or not. “Goodness, I’m glad I didn’t know you. I would have found you terrifying.”

She laughed again, almost self-conscious. “Stupid drama, you know? Nothing serious, nothing permanent. Until my parents caught me necking with a girl, and everything blew up. In my own bedroom, mind, not in public. She was half-naked, I was, you know. Not the sort of thing they could pretend not to see. That was about a week before I ran away from home.”

“That was why you left?”

She nodded. “My dad said some things nobody should ever say to their own kid.”

“Oh, Raine.” For once it was my turn to lurch into a clumsy, reassuring hug.

“Ahh, it’s fine, I’m fine.” She laughed and rubbed my back. “I broke his nose for it.”

I pulled back, staring at her. “You what?”

“I broke his nose. Er, not exactly my proudest fight. Had to use a chair.”

“You broke your own father’s nose? With a chair? At fourteen years old?”

“Yeah.” She cracked a grin. “Hey, I gotta have some talent in life other than making you happy.”

I sat back and nodded, still processing these scraps of my lover’s history. “You deserve so much better than that.”

“Got it now, haven’t I?” She winked at me.

I sighed and felt myself deflate a little again. “Flattery will get you everywhere. How much of that story was told in aid of taking my mind off calling my parents?”

“Some,” she admitted. “Point being, there’s no way your parents are gonna react worse than mine did. If your mum gets ugly, you can put the phone down. Just put it down. Block her for a couple of days, give them time to think it over. You’re not a teenage girl trapped in her bedroom with her dad about to hit her. You’ve got us, and you’re free.”

I sniffed back the edge of a threatening tear or two. “Okay. Thank you, Raine. I’ll … ” I waved the phone vaguely, trying to control the tremor in my hand. “Stay here, okay? Please don’t wander off while I do this.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it.”

“Here I uh … here I go then.”

I selected my mother’s mobile phone number, took a deep breath in a vain effort to control my racing heart, and pressed the call button.

She picked up on the fourth ring.

“Heather dear, is that you?” My mother’s voice, higher-pitched than my own, a little pinched with age and stress, practised and smooth from almost two decades of a customer-facing job.

“Yes, of course, um, hi mum.”

I glanced sideways at Raine, received two thumbs up and a big grin of encouragement. My pulse throbbed in my throat, so hard I was certain my mother would be able to hear it down the phone line.

“And how are you, little miss gallivanting around the countryside?” my mother asked. “Are you having a nice time with these friends you still haven’t told us about?”

Truth be told, my mother and I didn’t look that much alike. Samantha Morell was bigger boned and a little heavyset, especially around the waist, where her twin daughters were slight and petite. My and Maisie’s phenotype had apparently jumped a generation from my grandmother. I could picture her perfectly from her voice, the practical and serious expression on her face, the slight frown of curious attention, the hint of ironic disapproval behind her words.

“Yes, uh, y-yes, we’ve been having a really nice time. My friend, um, she’s got this really big house in the countryside. It’s nice here.”

On top of the messy lie, my words sounded lame and limp. I felt myself shrivelling already.

“Well, you should send your father and I some pictures, shouldn’t you? You do have a camera on that phone, and you almost never use the thing. Sometimes it’s as if you’re on the moon, dear, rather than at university.”

I let out a little sigh, trying to rally. “Yes. Sorry, mum. L-look, I have something I need to tell you about. It’s important.”

A moment of silence, then: “Yes?”

One word, and I set off shaking again.

My mother’s tone was all too familiar, the same detached waiting she’d always used when I was struggling to deal with a particularly gruesome hallucination, when I was on the verge of expressing the horror out loud, whenever my mental illness threatened to issue forth into the real world.

Raine was right, I should have planned. I needed a script, a set of correct pronouncements.

“Mum, I-” I swallowed.

I almost pulled the phone away from my ear and handed to it Raine. Almost. My arm twitched. Dammit, Heather, you’ve faced otherworldly monsters and alien gods. You’ve saved friends from hell dimensions and out-thought evil wizards. You’re friends with magicians and werewolves and your lover is a murderer. Dammit.

“Mum, I’m- I’m gay. As in, a lesbian. I thought you should know.”

Halting and hesitant, but once it was said I felt such a weight lift inside me, head throbbing with adrenaline, light with release. I let out a slow, shuddering breath.

For a long moment my mother didn’t say anything. I began to tense up again, braced for the worst.

“Don’t be stupid, Heather, of course I know you’re a homosexual.”

I blinked, at nothing, then over at Raine. She was close enough to hear my mother’s voice from the phone – grinning like a maniac, she mouthed ‘homosexual?’ in real or feigned outrage, I couldn’t tell which. I shook my head, struggling to concentrate on what I’d heard.

“B-but, mum, y-you-”

“Parents know things about their children, dear.” My mother actually tutted. “Of course we know. The signs aren’t exactly subtle, if one is merely a little attentive.”

“What- I- signs? I-I showed signs?”

“Of course you did. All sorts of things down the years. Don’t you remember that one trip to the hospital, when you were, oh, about twelve, I think, and you really liked that one nurse? You kept saying you hoped she would come back, you wanted-”

“Mum!” I flushed beet-red. “Oh my God, that’s so embarrassing, stop.”

Raine was laughing so hard she had to roll her face into the pillow to contain the noise. She kicked her legs against the bed.

“Or the sorts of posters you used to put on your bedroom walls,” my mother went on. “Never boy bands or strapping young men, absolutely not, no boy-crazy years for you. Really, you think your own mother wouldn’t notice these things? I deserve a little more of your faith, I think. You must get this from you father, he’s likely to be a little confused by all this too, but read my lips, it’s obvious.”

“O-okay, um, g-give me a moment. I didn’t expect … ” I took a deep breath, and a vindictive part of me reared up inside. “Mum, also, I’ve moved out of the flat you and dad picked at the start of term. I’ve moved in with a friend, and my g-girlfriend.”

This time I felt my mother’s frown before she spoke, a hundred miles away. “Heather!” she snapped, and I flinched. “You … I can’t believe you, you moved out without telling us? What were you thinking? Who are these people you’re living with, the same friends you’re with now?”

“Yes. Yes, mum it’s fine, it-”

“You know how you get, you know you can’t let peer pressure dictate your behaviour.”

“Mum, I-”

“Of all the irresponsible things. Heather, I thought we had a handle on this.” She huffed, tight and exasperated. “Between your medication and the-”

“I’m not taking my medication any more,” I blurted out, before I had time to think.

“ … Heather?”

Oh dear. I sat there on the bed, head pounding, at a sudden loss. I almost flinched again when Raine took my shoulder. She nodded once, gently. I swallowed and opened my mouth, and let the words flow.

“I know you don’t like it when I talk about being mentally ill, but … mum, listen, I don’t see things anymore. At all. Not a single hallucination, for months now. No more lost time. No more nightmares.” Technically every word of that was true. I’d never hallucinated in the first place. There was no need to tell her the truth of what I saw every day, or that a magical symbol inked on my forearm held the nightmares at bay. “I’m healthier than I’ve been since-” Since before I lost Maisie, before the Eye. “Since I was little. I’m well, for the first time ever, and I owe part of that to … to taking steps for myself.”

“ … well, well, that is … good news, certainly.” My mother slipped into silence for a long moment, then sighed down the phone. “Perhaps it’s something hormonal, perhaps the end of puberty. Changes to your brain chemicals. Well, I’m very glad you’re having fewer problems, but I really want you to go back to doctor Merile before you flush all your pills down the toilet.”

“I know, I know, but-” I felt a little steel enter my voice. “Mum, I’m never going back to the hospital. Not Cygnet. I don’t need to, and I won’t.””

“Mm, we’ll see about that.” From my mother, that was as good as surrender. “So, don’t keep me waiting, what’s her name?”

“Her … ” I blinked. “Um, I’m sorry, whose name?”

In the corner of my eye I saw Raine light up with a cheeky, knowing grin. She kept far better track of this conversation than I could.

“You used the word ‘girlfriend’, very distinctly, and I’m not going to pretend I didn’t notice, and you’re not one to make up things to brag about. So. This girlfriend of yours,” my mother said. “What’s her name? How long have you been going out? How did you meet? Is it serious?”

“Very, very serious. Uh.”

Raine radiated smugness. She cracked a cheesy open-mouthed smile and pointed both index fingers at herself. I went to swat at her but she wriggled clear and hopped off the bed.

“And what’s her name?”

“Her name’s Raine. Raine Haynes.”

Raine struck a pose, hands on hips, chin inclined.

“Well, your father and I are going to have to meet her, aren’t we? Don’t you have any pictures of her? You can keep us informed about things like this, you know, you don’t have to hide them. We get very nervous when you hide things, you know that.”

“Uh, I-I don’t have any. She’s right here though, I can-”

“Oh? Put her on the phone then, I want to talk to her.”

My throat closed up and I thought my eyes were going to pop out of my head. I covered the mouthpiece and stared at Raine with mounting panic. “She wants to speak with you! What do we do?”

Raine stuck her hand out. “Wow her with my sheer charisma.”

“Raine! Don’t you dare use any innuendo. Please.”

Raine feigned with her right hand, then swiped the phone from me with her left, dancing back beyond my reach.

“Raine!” I hissed, but she gave me a capital-L look, which under any other circumstances would have me melting at her feet. Instead I shut my mouth and clamped my hands in my lap, about ready to vibrate out of my skin.

Raine drew her spine up straight, composed her expression, and put the phone to her ear.

“Mrs Morell? Good morning. I’m Raine, and first I must apologise for any unintentional eavesdropping on my part. Oh, no no, that’s quite alright. Let me say though, even if we’re not face to face, it’s a delight to meet you.”

For one mind-bending moment I thought Raine had been replaced with a doppleganger, so artificial was her good-girl voice, then I heard the tinny sound of my mother asking a question and Raine flashed a huge grin at me, wiggling her eyebrows.

“Yes,” Raine replied, voice still imitating a bright-faced innocent maiden. “Yes, more than anything. I am taking very, very good care of her, I promise.””

Burning with embarrassment, I buried my face in the bed and crammed the sheets over my ears.

Raine was talking to my mother! Ninety percent of what Raine and I did together was absolutely not for parental consumption. Even the non adults-only stuff. I’d rarely felt so awkward, desperate to drown out the one-sided conversation. After a minute or two of agony, Raine gently tapped me on the shoulder and waggled the phone at me.

“I’m to leave the room,” Raine said with a controlled smile. “Your mother wants to talk to you alone.”

I accepted the phone and Raine went to the door, then turned back and mouthed ‘I think she likes me’. I waved her away, still flushed in the face.

“Mum?”

“A sweet young lady, very well spoken. We will still have to meet her, Heather, I’m not entirely comfortable with you doing this sort of thing on your own.”

“Mother, I’m an adult,” I hissed, surprised at myself. I’d never spoken to my parents like that in the past. “I can make friends and l-lovers by myself, thank you.”

“Mm. Has she left the room?”

I glanced up. Raine waved at me from just beyond the doorway.

“Yes.”

“She knows your … ” My mother lowered her voice, as if the neighbours might overhear. “About your issues, yes?”

“Yes, she knows all about my history of mental illness. She doesn’t care about that. She’s helped.”

Raine beamed at me.

“Mm. Well. You and her are dropping by tomorrow morning, yes?”

“And my other friend too. She’s called Evelyn, we’re very close.”

“Oh yes. Making friends.” My mother sighed. “Heather, I know I’m an old worrywart, but I do like that you’ve spread your wings a little. You’ve grown. You never used to play well with others as a child, you were always on your own. You seemed so happy, until … well, until all the unpleasantness.”

I wilted inside, lost for words in the moment. This minor victory, this understanding from my mother, passed beneath the shadow of a far greater dislocation; I’d never been alone as a child. Me and Maisie, always, always together. I bit my tongue.

It didn’t matter how accepting my parents were. They remembered the wrong history.

==

“I have a theory,” Evelyn said.

“Oh?”

“It’s your theory really.”

“I’m sorry, a theory about what?”

“About fantastic mister fox, what else?”

Evelyn looked resigned, that same slow acceptance she sometimes displayed when her guard was down. She adjusted her feet and her weight on her walking stick, and returned to peering down the cellar stairs.

We stood side by side in the dusty sitting room at the far end of the mothballed east wing, the concealed cellar door wide open before us, weak illumination creeping up the wooden stairs from below. Raine had insisted we remain up here while she checked on the doors we’d have to pass on our way to the map, and Evelyn had sent Praem along with her. The work of a few minutes, apparently, so Evelyn and I waited, kicking our heels and feeling surplus to requirements.

“My theory?” I said, terribly awkward at bringing this up again. “My theory was that it was your mother.”

“Contamination, pollutant build up, all that stuff.” Evelyn waved a hand. “I still can’t tell what that fox is, only what it isn’t, and that got me thinking. With the tools I have I can find pneuma-somatic life, demon possession, translocated minds, stray Outsiders, all the stupid brute stuff of magecraft. Whatever’s in the fox is too subtle, below my notice, not in the old books. Not worth the time and attention of a power-hungry magician to study and record, because it’s not useful.” She shot me a glance and cleared her throat. “My mother isn’t the only Saye family mage buried in that graveyard.”

“You mean it might be somebody else?”

“A piece of some ancestor, or perhaps all of them, accreted over time. My mother, she … the things I found in her notes, about failsafes against death, those were intentional. She wanted to be immortal, she wanted to come back. The fox, it’s hardly brimming with power. And I’d like to think not all my ancestors were monsters. Perhaps the spirits around here think so too. Whatever’s in the fox probably doesn’t even know it was human once. Like a gut parasite.”

“A disgusting metaphor,” I said with a bit of a forced laugh. “I’m quite sure they weren’t all monsters. They produced you, after all.”

Evelyn smiled ruefully. She shrugged.

“Have you set it free yet?” I asked.

“The fox? No.” Evelyn frowned, hesitated. “I’m trying to decide on killing it or not.”

“Oh, that’s … that’s your call, I suppose.”

“I’d rather not. Can’t be certain.”

“Maybe it’s best not to anger the ghosts of your ancestors?” I suggested, half-serious.

“No such thing as ghosts,” Evelyn grumbled. I relented. I could barely imagine the difficulty of the decision, but I wanted to be here if she needed a sounding board.

“Praem did seem quite intent on killing the fox last night,” I said. Evelyn regarded me with a pinched frown, and a sudden sinking feeling tugged at the base of my stomach. “Oh. Oh you don’t think she knows more than she’s letting-””

“Absolutely not,” Evelyn snapped. “I can compel truth out of her, understand? She doesn’t know what it is either. She said she wanted to kill it? God dammit, the last thing I want is a trigger happy demon. Where’s she picking this up from?”

“From-” I swallowed. “From you?”

Evelyn huffed and waved me off. “Maybe.”

“Evee, I- what if-” I took a deep breath and tried to put all the pieces together in my mind. I had them all to hand, but expressing this in the face of Evelyn’s ire was not easy. “I think Praem’s just being protective, of you.”

Evelyn’s expression fell into unimpressed gloom. “Heather, how many times do I have to repeat it? She can’t care. What possible motivation would she have?”

“She did hear everything you told me, Evee.”

Evelyn squint-frowned at me.

“When you told me all about your mother, at the graveside yesterday,” I said. “Praem was standing there behind us the whole time. She can overhear conversations, yes? And then down there,” I nodded at the open cellar door. “She heard every word from you. Everything you told me. Is it so implausible she might have felt the same way I did? Jumped to the same worried conclusions about the fox?”

Evelyn frowned tighter as I spoke. “She can’t feel, Heather. They don’t think like that.”

“A-and,” I tried my best to forge on through Evelyn’s scorn. “She has us for role models.”

What? Role models?”

“Whatever monsters your mother made, they only had her as an example. The … demon, the one she put in you, the impression it had of human beings was entrapment, hate, torture. I’m no expert – that’s your area – but Praem’s had us. You, me, Raine. She met Twil, she helped us save Lozzie. We’re not so bad.”

Evelyn stared at me for a long moment, frowning hard. I assumed I’d lost her again, though I believed every word I’d said. Eventually she grumbled low in her throat and shrugged.

“Maybe.”

“I’m not surprised she might want to protect you. You brought her here. To her, maybe you’re … sort of … a … surrogate-” Evelyn frowned like thunder and I cut off the final word of my sentence, put my hands up in surrender. “Sorry, that’s a little distasteful, yes.”

“Bloody right it is.” She tutted.

“Hullo!” Raine called from below, voice echoing up the cellar stairs. “You two still up there?”

“We are!” I called back in relief.

“Dead zombie storage is clear and locked,” she called. “Come on down.”

“Dead zombie storage.” I raised an eyebrow at Evelyn.

“Semi-literal,” she grunted.

==

The cellar vaults extended much further beneath the Saye mansion than was entirely sensible.

Praem took a vanguard position and Raine held my hand, a heavy-duty lantern torch in her other. We quickly left the main cellar room behind, with the stacks of metal kegs and pretension toward modern concrete. Raine had to duck as we passed underneath the open stonework archway at the back of the room. Our cluster of footfalls echoed off the centuries of stone, vanishing into the subterranean darkness of the T-shaped hallway beyond.

Dank air seeped into my clothes, but this time I was prepared for the journey – three tshirts, two of which were Raine’s, my pink hoodie, and a pair of very comfortable gloves Evelyn had lent me. I’d tucked my hair down the back of my hoodie too. Every little helped.

I still shivered, but not because of the cold.

We clattered down the short stone corridor. Half a dozen heavy wooden doors led off on either side, all shut tight, then we crossed what seemed like a much older storeroom – filled with the rotten stubs of ancient barrels and some shattered pieces of furniture.

The only modern object was a huge cork pin-board mounted on a stand, covered with the corners and scraps of once extensive notes and anatomical diagrams. Bulbs struggled along the ceiling on metal brackets hammered into gaps in the stonework, half of them dead and the other half too weak to matter.

“This certainly is appropriately creepy. I’ll give it that much,” I muttered.

“It’s fine,” Evelyn said, at full volume, the depths returning her voice as a dozen twisted echoes. “Everything down here is dead or deactivated. We’re almost there. Praem,” she called a few paces ahead. “Don’t touch anything.”

“No touching,” the doll-demon confirmed.

The door loomed up out of the shadows. The Door, capital D.

“Oh, you have to be kidding me.” I let out a long-suffering sigh. “That is absurd.”

“It does look kinda overkill,” Raine admitted.

The door which barred our way to the map was straight out of a dungeons and dragons adventure, or one of those role-playing video games Raine is so fond of.

Hewn from a slab of oak, banded with black iron, sealed with a trio of huge stainless steel padlocks, it looked ready to withstand a battering ram. A magic circle ringed the door frame, spilling onto the stone floor, cut directly into the surface with a chisel or acid. Whatever was in there was not getting out, and nobody unwelcome was getting in.

“I hate magic,” I muttered under my breath.

“So do I,” Evelyn grunted, and set to work.

Unlocking the door was quite a performance – thirty seconds to remove the padlocks, the clunk of their mechanisms echoing in the stone confines, followed by a long drawn-out two minutes as Evelyn traced her fingers over precise points of the magic circle, muttering Latin and worse beneath her breath. Some of the words hurt my ears, made me wince. I felt my heart in my throat, and took a steady, calming breath.

Eventually Evelyn stepped back and spat a gob of bloody saliva into the corner.

“Evee?” Raine asked. “You okay?”

“It’s nothing,” she grunted. “It’s unlocked now. You first,” she nodded at Praem.

The doll-demon grasped the door’s iron handle and shoved it open. Raine raised the lantern, squeezed my hand, and we shuffled inside.

I’d expected an actual map, perhaps something pinned up on the wall. Or a huge scrawled mural, a magical design so complex and so insane it would make me quiver inside with disgust and recognition in equal parts.

Instead, the underground chamber contained a kind of secret study. A small, neat desk sat against the back wall, a pair of thick modern notebooks stacked before an uncomfortable chair. Evelyn flicked at a light switch and a few sad little bulbs guttered on above us, chasing the shadows into the cracks between the stones. One low table contained some magical detritus, a half-finished circle on some canvas, stubs of chalk, a sheaf of notes.

A second low table played host to a box. A tall, rather intricate box, standing on its end.

Dark lacquered wood, decorated with floral gold leaf. Tiny brass hinges crowned the top and split the design at regular intervals down the length. A puzzle box, closed and locked.

“Right, the trick is not to look at it in your peripheral vision,” Evelyn said as she crossed toward the box. “Either keep it in full view, head on, or don’t look at it at all. If you have to look away, it’s easier to close your eyes first.”

“Is that it?” I glanced from her to the puzzle box.

“This? No, this is some old Chinese tourist trap nonsense my grandmother picked up in Shanghai. Simple good fortune it’s about the right size to hide the map from an accidental glance.” She tapped the black wood with the head of her walking stick, then met my eyes. “I’ll open it up whenever you’re ready.”

“Wait, wait, I need to- that’s- We’re just going to- I’m just going to go ahead and look at it?” I swallowed, throat dry, and glanced between Evelyn and Raine for help. Praem stood prim and proper by the doorway, no help at all. “W-what should I expect? I’m feeling a little intimidated here.”

“S’a sculpture, basically”, Raine supplied. She let go of my hand and unfolded a pair of extra-large plastic food bags from her back pocket.

I stared at the bags. I didn’t even have to ask the question. “Right. Sick bags. Great.”

“Just in case.” Raine made a pained smile. She slipped her arm around my waist, for support.

“This is the fruit and purpose of my mother’s demon summoning,” Evelyn said quietly. “This, in this box, this is the great secret she traded my health for, the truth she wrung from an unwilling demon, over the course of years. It’s … ” Evelyn glanced away and took a sharp breath. I caught an odd, almost wet look in her eyes. Gone when she tilted her face back into the light. “I’d never considered before that it might actually be worth something. Something real. If this works, if you can locate Wonderland, if we can save your sister … well, it’s the only good that’s ever come from that dead bitch.” She cleared her throat. “Anyway, the faster we do this, the faster we get out of this hole. It’s freezing down here.”

“O-okay.” I tried to take another deep breath, but my lungs quivered.

“Heather,” Raine said my name softly. “I’ve seen it before. It’s tough, it might mess with your head, but I wouldn’t let you do this if I thought it was genuinely dangerous.”

“But if you two have seen it already,” I said, struggling to resist the urge to back out, to panic. “What am I meant to-”

“I don’t know exactly what effect it will have on you, I admit,” Evelyn said. “But from what I know about how the map works, and your self-implementing hyperdimensional mathematics, I think you’re going to understand this in a way I never could. In a way my mother never could. An Outsider made this thing, with my hands, but with Outside logic. You have those principles living in your head. Read the map, Heather. See if you can.”

This time I managed to suck down that deep breath, nodding slowly. I leaned back into Raine’s arm. I reminded myself why I was doing this, the reason I was even here: Maisie.

“Go ahead, open the box.”

Evelyn nodded, and grasped one of the hidden seams on the puzzle box. “I’ve stared at this thing enough in the past. I’m going to look away, alright?”

“I’m going to stare into the sun right along with Heather,” Raine announced. “Nothing to it.”

“Do it,” I said. “Before I lose my nerve again.”

Evelyn opened the box. Folded down the dark wood. Let it splay itself like a flower.

Inside was the most intricate and most delicate sculpture in all the world.

Metal, perhaps stainless steel, shining and bright – but could any steel be wrought as thin as spider silk? Three feet tall, a foot and a half wide, it contained a hundred million feet of space, folded and folded and folded again.

Spars and bridges of metal connected tiny perfect spheres, razor-edged cubes, fluted columns, in such fragile miniature, all embedded in a base of more metal flowing outward like a slug’s foot. My eyes roved across the structure almost as if I couldn’t control my hunger for more detail. Thousands of those little spheres and cubes, a hundred thousand spider-webs linking them. Rough metal joints, scratches, pieces bent out of shape – none of it could mar the perfection of the whole.

For five or six seconds, I merely stared, amazed at the detail and beauty of the object – then I began to feel queasy.

Beautiful, yes, but deeply unnatural. Angles of metal vanished in on themselves. Spans of silk-delicate steel threaded behinds spheres and cubes, seemingly connected to nothing. Spirals of spheres and cubes ascended or descend, yet formed perfect loops. A million optical illusions all at once.

I felt Raine tense up next to me with the same gut-sick reaction. To run one’s eyes across the shining bridges of metal, to consider the sheer number of little spheres, try to count them or to trace a route from one spot to the next was to invite a head-spinning nausea. Cold sweat broke out on my face.

“I don’t-” I said, as I tilted my head to look from a different angle.

And I saw what I was really looking at.

How could one possibly describe the majesty of a sunset to a person who’s never seen the sky?

This sculpture, made by a tortured captive demon, held a layer of meaning that only I – and perhaps Lozzie, and somewhere out there my twin sister – had the contextual framework to comprehend.

Oh, it was beautiful. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.

My eyes ran faster along the metal, tracing routes with increasing speed, tripping and skipping ahead as my mind completed the leaps before the structure expressed them. There was the Fractal, a part of the map, and wasn’t that funny? A piece of the structure of reality was inked on my arm, keeping the Eye at bay. And there was Wonderland, represented by one of those little spheres. How small, how unimportant, compared to the whole.

Raine tried to hold me back as I leaned forward, stumbled toward this shining truth, but I barely felt her grip. I saw the ways between the spheres, and it was so obvious. How had I not realised this before? How had I not figured out the maths by myself? All reality lay here, at the tip of my brain, for the taking. All I had to do was reach out.

I slipped along, faster and faster. I was panting, cold sweat soaking my clothes, hands shaking uncontrollably – and I didn’t care.

I could find Lozzie with this. I could go anywhere. If I could just memorise every single link, run my eyes down every single filament of wire, the mathematical perfection would complete me, in some fashion I’d never known I was lacking. Who needed friends, or help? Who needed to live, or be human? With this in my brain, I wouldn’t even need my twin back, I’d be-

It wasn’t Raine’s hands or Evelyn’s panicked voice which ripped me back. It was that thought – I wouldn’t need Maisie?

That was stupid. I wasn’t a person without Maisie. I was half a person.

I reeled away from the map, spluttering and gagging, and for a fraction of a second I saw the sculpture in my peripheral vision.

The shining metal expanded, building more of itself in the blink of an eye, unfolding to fill all space, all time, until it crowded around the edge of my vision and filled all the world with a cacophony of endless complexity, except for a tiny tunnel left to my fragile human perception. Black and dripping on the utmost rim of reality, the insight a red-hot bolt of pure pain in the centre of my head.

That was the real map – of Outside.

I ripped my eyes away from it.

Raine caught me, held me up as I scrabbled for one of the plastic food bags in her hands. I got it in front of my mouth and doubled up and squeezed every muscle tight and screwed my eyes shut. I think I made a keening noise through my teeth. I’m not sure, and I certainly don’t recall what Raine and Evelyn were saying, because for once, for the first time ever, I held on.

I shook and my stomach muscles clenched up but I held on.

I didn’t vomit.

I refused to let that feeling master me – that illusion of true comprehension I’d felt, the seductive temptation of understanding it all, of mapping Outside. Such arrogance. To try was to burn out my senses. I’d grasped enough.

“Heather? Heather? Hey, come on, deep breaths, try to stand up straight. You’re okay, you’re completely okay.”

“I got- I got it- I did,” I gasped, eyes closed as I made absolutely sure I was not facing that infernal sculpture. “I saw it. I can- I saw it.”

“Saw what? What did you see?” Evelyn snapped.

“Let’s get out of here first, yeah?” Raine said. I felt her hands, strong and firm, on my back and around my waist.

“It worked?” Evelyn snapped. “Raine, wait. It worked?”

“Sight. Gave me sight,” I muttered, nodding.

“Sight? To where? Of what?”

“Evee, come on, let her-”

“Outside. To anywhere,” I panted, and knew with sickening certainty I held that map in my brain now. The byways and secret passages of the castle we all lived in. “To Wonderland.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

no nook of english ground – 5.7

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Keeping up with Praem, let alone catching a live fox, was far beyond my pathetic physical limits. I don’t know why I even bothered stepping off the patio.

Well rested, wearing comfortable running shoes, beneath warm sunlight, with some form of Raine-based reward at the finish line – then perhaps I could have finished a distant third in this foot race, albeit with much huffing and puffing and stopping to rest. Woken in the middle of the night, barefoot on freezing wet grass, surrounded by moonlit darkness and whipping cold, alone except for a demon rapidly out-pacing me? I stood a snowball’s chance in hell.

I staggered to a halt a quarter of the way across the lawns, bent double with my hands on my knees. The sudden exertion had wrenched something loose inside my chest. Delicate muscles long-bruised by brainmath flared up into a terrible ache.

I wheezed for breath, shaking all over, teeth chattering.

Praem plunged ahead, sprinting after the scurrying fox. Legs pumping, long black skirt fluttering behind, loose hair caught by the wind. She was like a machine, each stride exactly the same as the last. No lungs to heave, no muscles to tire. How could any animal move faster?

The fox slid across the ground, a blur in the moonlight.

The chase headed for the lake at the rear of the estate, toward the dark halo of trees which surrounded the silver water.

I clutched myself, shivering so hard I thought I might have a seizure. The chill had wormed its way inside me, soaked into my bones, turned my feet into blocks of ice. With a petite frame and low muscle mass I’d always been susceptible to the cold; ever since the strain of killing Alexander I’d struggled even more to stay warm. Brainmath had somehow leeched a fraction of a degree from my body’s core temperature.

I straightened up – a considerable effort – and accepted I was not going to catch them. This was in Praem’s hands now.

I had to wake my friends, I had to get Raine out here, Evee had to figure out what was going on.

That plan expired when I turned back to the house.

Dark reptilian shapes and twitching insect shadows were detaching themselves from the Saye mansion, descending from the exterior walls or unfurling gossamer wings as they hurled themselves from the roof. Moonlit pneuma-somatic life – spirits or servitors, I couldn’t tell the difference – skittered and galloped across the lawns in a bedraggled wave of half-formed nightmares. I gaped at them and flinched as several passed me by. They raced after Praem and the fox.

“What are you-” I stammered into the cold darkness. “Where are you all going!?”

A mantis-limbed monster brushed past me, low to the ground, so close I felt feelers trail across the back of my calves. I shuddered, gasped down a mouthful of lung-searing cold air.

I doubted the Saye family servitors were hurrying to assist us.

“You!” I raised my voice, jabbing a finger toward the nearest spirit – a mass of rubbery grey tentacles attached to the back of a lean hyena-like quadruped. “Stop running! Stay!”

To my immense gratification the spirit stumbled over its own legs in haste to obey – or perhaps mere surprise. It tumbled over in a tangle of limbs and tentacles, sliding to a halt at my feet, before staggering up and backing away. A cluster of goat-like eyeballs on a stalk whirled between me and the chase. Trying to decide who to obey?

Against the biting cold, I pulled myself up to my full height – not much – and fixed the spirit with the best glare I could muster, imitating Evelyn.

“I said stay, and I mean it,” I snapped out as best I could, between chattering teeth and panting for breath. I turned on another passing spirit, at the tail end of the wave. “You! St-”

A distant yip from the fleeing fox cut through the air, and confirmed my worst suspicions.

The first spirit I’d halted relocated its courage and shot past me.

“Hey! I said … ” I huffed. “I said stay. Oh dammit.”

Praem had run the fox right to the tree line before the lake. They vanished into the woods. I caught one last moonlit glimpse of Praem vaulting a bush, and then darkness. The wave of spirit life bundled in after them.

Panic in my throat, I half-turned back to the house; in the time I’d waste stumbling indoors and raising the alarm, the spirits would reach Praem.

Would they try to hurt her? Would they even be able to touch her? Could she fight back?

I could – I could threaten them.

“Raaaine!” I cupped my hands around my mouth and screeched at the top of my lungs, hoping my voice would penetrate both the thick walls of the mansion and Raine’s sleepy head.

Then I turned and ran after the doll-demon.

Struggling my way across the damp lawns, puffing and wheezing, plunging into the heavier shadows beneath the trees, I was keenly aware how insane this was. A few months ago, back at the start of the university term, a situation like this would have left me paralysed. I’d have curled up in a ball, retreated beneath my bedsheets, praying for the monsters to go away.

That Heather still lived in the back of my mind. She was screaming bloody murder, telling me to turn back so bigger, stronger, braver people could take over.

I wasn’t that person anymore, not really; I had things to protect besides my own fragility.

I could, however, have made a better show of my resolve than blundering into the woods in the middle of the night. Visibility plummeted to almost nothing, moonlight dimmed by the tangled winter canopy. In seconds my feet were filthy, slick with mud, grazed by twigs and bits of stone. I skinned one elbow on a tree and scratched my forehead along a hanging branch, then skidded and almost toppled onto my backside.

A pair of spirits whispered through the undergrowth and I stumbled after them, pajamas snagged on branches, ferns clutching at my ankles, cobwebs in my face and hair.

An instinctive terror as old as biology gripped my heart, no magical explanation necessary. My brain stem shouted in the language of cortisol and adrenaline that I was a vulnerable little ape and the woods at night were not safe.

“This is a tiny copse of trees in rural England,” I hissed to myself, the sound of my own voice staving off animalistic panic. “You’ve visited infinitely worse places, Heather, you are probably one of the most dangerous people within a hundred miles. You are fine.”

My words failed to convince my own evolutionary history. My hands shook and I broke out in cold sweat. My legs almost refused to move.

I gasped with shaking relief when I finally burst through onto the far side of the trees. The ground sloped down toward the shining expanse of the lake, a stone’s throw away.

Relief crashed out and I scrambled to a stop. This time I did slip over, thumping my backside onto the wet grass.

Servitors and spirits thronged the clearing. Dozens of them.

Though so eager to answer the fox’s cry, the spirit life was apparently too scared to rush the doll-demon. They hung back in a rough circle, jerking forward in ones and twos before veering away again, scythe-arms and sucker-tentacles menacing but never connecting.

The fox must have tried to hide in the undergrowth on the edge of the trees, giving Praem the opening to catch up. The animal – or not-animal – had failed to account for Praem’s inhumanly accurate senses. Through the crowd of pneuma-somatic life I caught the aftermath of her second or third unsuccessful lunge toward the fox. She dived and rolled, once-immaculate uniform smeared with dirt.

The fox slipped away inches from her fingertips. Yellow eyes flashing in the moonlight, it bounded away toward the lake.

In that moment, I finally processed the meaning of what I’d seen the do fox earlier. When Praem had it pinned, it had simply vanished from her arms and reappeared again at a distance – but I didn’t believe it went Outside. The trick had been instant, a click of the fingers. Foxes don’t do math.

Perhaps that gave me an angle to exploit.

“Praem!” I yelled from bursting lungs as I picked myself off the ground. “Th- behind- there’s servitors everywhere!”

Praem paid neither them nor I the slightest scrap of attention. She jackknifed to her feet in one fluid motion and sprinted after the fox. Could she even see the spirits?

They crammed after her in a shoving scrum, a wall of ectoplasmic flesh.

One servitor shouldered through the mob and hurtled toward Praem on four galloping legs, a bizarre fusion of horse and lizard topped by a human-esque head without any eyes. It reared up behind her, to a full eight towering feet.

Perhaps I’d learnt the signs from so much time spent with Raine, the foreplay of real violence etched so indelibly on my sexuality. Or maybe year after year of exposure to spirits had taught my subconscious to read them better than I suspected.

This one wasn’t bluffing.

The horse-lizard servitor lashed out with a clawed hoof.

I yanked my left sleeve back, exposed the clean black lines of the Fractal on my forearm, and threw my arm into the air.

“Part!” I yelled, shocking even myself.

Eight in ten of the spirits threw themselves aside, parted at my command. The rest were swept away by the others, knocked down or sent flying.

I harbour no illusions of real authority. I’m neither big nor scary enough for that. I hadn’t expected the command to work, but fear compacted my voice into a hard-edged shout. The magic of the Fractal undoubtedly did most of the work.

Blinking dumbly at my own success, shaking with cold and adrenaline, I barely took the opening before the spirits began staggering back to their feet.

“You! Stop!” I shouted, still too far from Praem to make any difference. Success had robbed my voice of the unstudied steel, and this time nothing listened to me. “Praem, behind-”

My warning came too late; Praem wasn’t listening, anyway.

The spirit slammed into her from behind – rather than passing through as it would a human being. The weight of pneuma-somatic flesh bore her down in a tangle of limbs. They rolled, horse legs and maid uniform and slicks of muddy lake bank and all. I scrambled to catch up. I think I was shouting something inane, ‘get off her’, ‘leave her alone’, probably a threat to send it Outside.

Silly me. None of that mattered.

When they rolled to a stop, Praem was on top. Completely unshaken, except for her hair now in terrible disarray.

She jerked a fist back with machine-piston speed, and slammed it into the spirit’s face.

It made the most terrible sound. Half screech, half pulverised jelly under a pneumatic press. My eyes went wide, bile clutched at my throat, and I had to turn away as Praem wound up a second punch. Hoofs flailed at her head, buffeting her side to side, but she didn’t even blink. I didn’t stay to watch.

The other servitors lost their nerve also, scattering before the doll-demon’s sudden violence.

I stumbled after the fox.

Amid the confusion, the animal had reached the water’s edge and turned to stare, decided I was less of a threat than Praem. No need to run from out-of-breath Heather, confused and slow, a mere human being lost in the dark.

“Stop running,” I panted. “Stop running, I have to … I have to … either we catch you here, or we’ll have to get rid of you. Just- stop.”

The fox began to slink away. Despite the impossibility, I lunged for it.

A worse than useless gesture. All I managed to achieve was to lose my footing.

I slid and slipped, feet going out from under me, bumped both my backside and head on the thankfully sodden ground, and squealed as I slid bum-first into the icy cold lake.

Luckily the edge of the water was less than a foot deep. I splashed down, gasping in the cold, pajamas soaked and muddy, freezing my unmentionables off. I think I swore, rather loudly too. Second time falling over in one night, chasing a magical fox. Some holiday.

The fox stopped less than four feet away and turned to stare down at me. Most animals cannot laugh, but I swear it looked amused. Was I really so little of a threat? A slapstick joke?

Slowly, deliberately, never looking away from those yellow eyes, I placed one hand against the slick earth of the lake’s edge.

“Got you,” I said through chattering teeth. “Got you now.”

The fox tilted its head.

Only seconds to pull off this trick – the fox would flee as soon as Praem stood up again. She was still busy beating the spirit to death, the sound of pounding jelly reverberating through the air.

“I can think faster than you can run.” I hoped against hope it understood English. “And I can teleport everything within twelve feet Outside. You, me, the mud, the water. Outside. Outside, you understand what that means?”

It did. Oh, that fox understood me loud and clear. I saw comprehension in the blink of its eyes, in the single raised paw, the sudden tensing of muscles.

“T-then I can teleport myself back,” I hurried, shaking all over in the freezing water as I climbed to my knees, hand still pressed to the muddy bank. “And I’ll  leave you there. I will, I will do it, to protect my friend. If you’re what I think you are. I will.”

I was bluffing, but the not-fox didn’t know that. Myself I could certainly zap Outside. The fox, yes, if I could touch it. But a sphere twelve feet across, ground and all? I’d give myself a brain aneurysm.

The fox suddenly craned its neck to where Praem still straddled the beaten spirit.

“Excuse me, I’m talking to you,” I said. The fox jerked back to me, ears swivelling. “You don’t believe me? All right, I’ll demonstrate.”

I’d executed more complex hyperdimensional mathematics under far more stress, and paradoxically the lack of preparation cushioned my mind again the white-hot searing pain – a little. I slipped the equations into place, winced so hard my vision blurred, and shoved the levers of reality just enough before my nose began to bleed.

Beneath my hand, a football-sized chunk of mud and grass vanished Outside. Water slopped into the sudden gap on the bank. The fox stared, eyes wide and alert. I bent forward to empty my stomach into the lake.

Praem slammed into the animal with a diving tackle while I was busy being sick.

The gambit had worked, given the fox just enough pause for Praem to creep closer. She landed in the water with a huge splash and came up with the fox pinned length-ways, both of them dripping with greenish lake mud and soaked through to the bone. The fox tried to snap at her wrists but she pulled it taught from forepaws to back legs, drawing a horrible pained yelp from the animal’s snout.

It went very still.

“No! No escaping, no,” I spluttered as I pulled myself upright and thrust a hand toward the animal. My head pounded, I couldn’t feel my fingers or toes, but I had to make this credible or it would just teleport out of Praem’s grip again. “I’ll do it, I swear, I will.”

The fox moved again. It whined and writhed, foaming at the mouth. Yellow eyes rolled to fixate on my hovering hand.

It twisted to bite. I flinched, and yellow teeth snapped shut on empty air. Praem shook it.

“Stop, stop, Praem stop!” I said. “Just stop. Oh, God.”

The doll-demon looked up from the fox. I could barely make out her expression in the moonlight, but her milk-white eyes were clear enough.

“Victory,” she intoned, voice carrying across the dying ripples on the lake.

“Yes.” I heaved a huge breath, teeth still chattering, and wiped my mouth on the back of my arm. Even the vomit was cold. “Victory. Right. What do we do now?”

Praem looked down at the fox, then back at me, then down at the fox again.

“Removal.”

“No! No, Praem, we don’t know what it is, not really, we don’t. We have to-” I went to push my hair out of my face, but managed only to smear more cold mud on myself. “Ugh, tch. We need to get back to the house. You don’t even feel the cold, do you?”

I glanced past the trees, to the looming bulk of the mansion in the middle distance. The spirits had mostly fled, but a few lingered to watch from a safe distance.

“Why did you all try to help it?” I yelled at them, but no answers were forthcoming. “Why?”

“Removal,” Praem repeated in her clear bell-like voice.

I shook my head, rapidly going numb, and sniffed back a slow nosebleed.

“Removal.”

“No!” I whirled back to Praem, my toes sinking into the disgusting mud. Praem’s maid uniform was ruined, skirt bedraggled, the frilly crosspieces limp, top twisted sideways, smeared with mud and lake silt. “It- it- … it helped us, back in the house, remember? The fox led Raine and I to where Evelyn was brooding on her own. We don’t know what it is. We have to … to take it back … oh, damn.” I focused on the fox, caught in a decision I didn’t want to make. The animal was panting hard, twitching and flexing to search for the tiniest bit of slack in Praem’s grip. “There’s no way to tell. No way to tell.”

“Removal.”

“We can’t just make the decision on our own.” I squeezed my eyes shut, shivering all over. My head was killing me and I felt like being sick again. “We have to show it to Evee.”

Praem didn’t answer. Only the fox’s panting and the slow slap of water broke the silence of the night.

“She was so happy,” I hissed. “Evee was so happy. I can’t- I can’t bring this to her.”

“I can.”

I bit my bottom lip and nodded. “We both will. I can’t kill that fox and pretend this didn’t happen. I can’t lie to spare her feelings. Or I’d be the biggest hypocrite in the world.”

==

“It’s not my mother.”

I tore my eyes from the caged fox. My teeth started chattering again. “You’re certain? How can you be certain?”

Evelyn sighed and shook her head. Puffy-eyed from sleep, she hunched in the spindly old chair like a hibernating toad, blanket draped over her shoulders. “A single animal brain is too small, not complex enough to contain the human soul, mind, whatever you want to call it. It would just … ” She opened her fist and made a dismissive squelching sound with her mouth.

“But you said- by her grave- you said- about worms? Didn’t you?”

“Heather,” Raine purred, encouraging my drooping hand back toward my mouth. “More drinking.”

I nodded, took Raine’s advice, and took another sip from the third steaming mug of hot chocolate she’d pressed into my hands.

My fingers burned with that unique sensation, skin warmed too quickly after exposure to the cold – as did my nose, toes, cheeks, and the back of my neck, all reddened and chapped. My skin stung all over, buffeted by the warm air pouring from a portable space-heater. Where Raine had found that I had no idea, but she’d wheeled it into the echoing magical project room and parked me firmly before it, brooking no complaints.

The fox – or not-fox – watched us from inside a makeshift cage, constructed in a hurry from parts of an old chicken coop subjected to the tender mercies of Raine’s quick thinking, lashed together with duct tape and garden twine. The prison sat atop one of the tables, swept clear of assorted junk.

An equally hasty magic circle surrounded the table, drawn onto the floorboards with marker pen and crayon.

After Praem and I had blundered back into the house, raising the alarm, I’d barely been able to stammer out an explanation. Between the shivering and the adrenaline, the vice of cold gripping my body, and my muddy dripping clothes, stringing together any words at all was challenge enough. Faced with Raine’s confusion and worry, I found it nearly impossible to express the truth of my suspicions.

My absence had woken Raine before my shouting. My tone had prompted her to grab the handgun from her bag. My state – covered in mud, frozen to the bone, out of breath, next to Praem clutching a semi-catatonic fox – had left her momentarily speechless.

Such a rarity. Not one I relished.

I’d nodded and shuddered with relief when Raine had grinned, called me a ‘brilliant mad bastard’, and leapt straight into practical problem solving mode.

Vindication quickly turned to guilt.

Stupid Heather, what did I expect? How would I react, had the roles been reversed? Raine had one priority above all others, but she controlled herself and took charge, as Evee stomped down the stairs to glare and frown, as I repeated my threat to the fox and impressed on my friends that we couldn’t dry off or warm up until we had it contained.

Praem and I had stood side-by-side in the cathedral-like space of the project room, surrounded by the half-cleared magical detritus of Evelyn’s mother’s long-ago halted work. I was filthy and shaking, despite the towel Raine had wrapped around my quivering frame. We held the fox – physically and metaphysically – as Raine and Evelyn built cages of matter and magic.

As soon as the animal was properly incarcerated, Raine’s attention had turned to me.

Not a word of admonishment passed her lips. Not a frown, not a single tut. That wasn’t her way.

She did all but manhandle me to a bathroom, despite my protests that we needed to stay and see what happened, that Evee needed our help, we couldn’t leave her alone with that thing.

Raine had laughed, more amazed than amused, shaking her head. I hadn’t understood, shivering and frowning. She gently shushed me and I was too cold to resist. She stripped off my sopping wet clothes and got to dunking me in a lukewarm bath as quickly as possible. My skin began to tingle and my toes started to ache, and only then did I realise how terribly worried she must be.

“Warm water, not hot. Warming you up too fast is a mite dangerous,” she’d said. “Don’t you dare touch that tap, Heather. You sit, right there, and I’ll be back in a jiffy. Stay right there. Wave some soap around if you like, but no rush.”

“Raine, I’m sorry, I-”

“Woah, hey.” Raine raised her hands and half-shook her head. “No apologies in order, not that I know of. Should there be?”

“I’ve made you worry. I’m- I’m sorry, I-”

That made her laugh again. I boggled at her, confused, wracked by guilt and wilting in the overlarge bathtub, my head still pounding from brainmath. Muddy runoff had stained the water brown.

“Heather. Heather, words don’t do it justice. You don’t even realise how brave you are. I’m proud.” She shrugged. “Hell, what am I gonna do, tell you off? I’d have done the same. Probably swam after the thing on my own and nutted it one in the skull. Let’s get you warmed up, hey?”

She’d been grinning, but she’d also run upstairs and back in quite a hurry. She returned with flesh clothes – hers, a size too big but none more comforting in all the world – and a large fluffy blanket liberated from some forgotten bedroom. It smelled of dust, but at least it was clean.

“We really do need to go help Evee,” I’d complained.

“Mmhmm, we will, sure. Hundred percent. Lower your head, love, close your eyes.”

She’d showered the mud off me, hand in my hair, then rinsed the nosebleed from my face, cleaned the cuts on my forehead and elbow and feet, drained the bath and filled it all over again, until the water finally ran clear.

“Raine, if the fox is … we can’t leave her to deal with it alone.” I’d tried to stand up and blunder out of the room, half-dressed and woozy. Raine had smiled and sat me down on the floor, hands on my shoulders.

“Evee’s got Praem. Praem’s a lucky girl, she doesn’t get frostbite. Sit for a moment, yeah?”

“Frostbite?” I squinted at her.

“Please, Heather? For me?”

She personally inspected my feet before slipping socks over them, pinching my toes to test for sensation and wrapping my cuts in antiseptic gauze. I sighed it off at the time, impatient and worried, but later on I realised I’d run a very real risk of bacterial infection. That lake was filthy, and I’d been wading around with open wounds.

Praem had fared both better and worse than I.

Her skin was, after all, a type of illusion, tactile pneuma-somatic flesh wrapped around a wooden core. Immune to frostbite, untouched by the cold, easily repaired with wood glue. She didn’t even have goosebumps.

The mud and water was a different story. She stood off to one side of the echoing project room in a bedraggled mess, wrapped in a mantle of old towels – entirely for our modesty, not hers. I don’t think she cared about being naked. Her blonde hair hung in dirty rat-tails, splashes of mud on her face and hands.

Her wonderfully bizarre maid uniform was ruined, dumped in a corner.

“Evee. Evee, Praem’s still filthy,” I’d blurted out when Raine had led me back into the room. “Aren’t you going to-”

“Later,” Evelyn grunted. She was scrawling in a notepad, staring back at the fox. It sat on its haunches, watching. “She can wait.”

I watched Praem, trying to catch her eye. She stared straight ahead, expressionless, hands folded as if nothing had happened.

“Praem?” I tried. “What about your- what about your maid uniform? We can clean it.”

Praem turned her head to stare at the sad pile of clothes.

“Praem?”

“Necessary sacrifice,” she intoned.

Raine was trying to get me sat down in a chair, but second-hand outrage brewed strong and wild in my chest. I wasn’t going to let Praem linger filthy and cold when we’d just had each other’s backs out there in the confused midnight melee. The only thing she’d ever shown personal interest in had been ruined, she’d thrown it away to protect her mistress, to protect Evelyn, and now it sat in a sad sodden heap.

“Can’t you go wash yourself? Evee, can’t she at least wash herself?” I’d asked. Praem swivelled her head to stare at me. “Order her to? Evee.”

“What? What are you on about?” Evelyn’s head jerked up from her work.

“Wash myself,” Praem echoed.

Evelyn waved Praem away with a huff. “Yes, yes, off with you, whatever you want.”

Praem traipsed out, towels and all. I finally allowed Raine to manoeuvre me into a chair and tuck the fluffy blanket around my shoulders.

“Is it safe now?” I’d mumbled. Evelyn grunted, waved me quiet.

I drifted, nodding with exhaustion, adrenaline finally wearing off. Evelyn added twisting symbols to the exterior of the magic circle. Raine returned again to rouse me with hot chocolate and heat.

Brainmath aftereffects and mild hypothermia fed on each other. My head was killing me, a tight ache as a counterpoint to the dull throbbing around my diaphragm. I sipped hot chocolate when told, drowsed heavy and slow, though I woke a little when Evelyn’s father blundered around outside the room. Evelyn stomped out there, stern-voiced, told him nothing was happening, go back to bed.

Perhaps he was used to that kind of treatment. Ignore your wife and daughter doing strange things at odd hours, if you wish to retain your sanity.

I made a fuzzy mental note to apologise to him personally in the morning. We needed to clean up all the mud we’d tracked in; somehow I got fixated on that, drifting on the edge of sleep.

Ah, but Raine was two steps ahead of me, ushering Evelyn back into the project room and apologising to Lewis. No need to worry about this mess, all our fault, we’ll clean it up first thing in the morning. Promise. Don’t want to make more work for your house keeper, after all, do we? Always so smooth, my Raine, always with the right thing to say.

A third mug of hot chocolate, fuzzy blanket tighter around my shoulders. Raine stroked my hair, rubbed the back of my neck. I roused myself from the edge of sleep as Evelyn slumped into a chair nearby and slapped her notebook down on the floor.

That she’d announced her verdict.

I finished that sip of hot chocolate and repeated myself.

“Evee, you said about how worms could … i-in dead flesh, a-and-”

“We’d know if the worms had gotten to my mother,” she snapped. “Because they’d be walking.”

I looked down and focused on another sip of hot chocolate. Evelyn sighed and made a wide gesture with both hands, trying to indulge me but lost for words. I could only imagine her turmoil right now.

“Also because we’d all be dead, right?” Raine added with a grin.

“Right,” Evelyn grumbled. She nodded toward the fox. It stared back at us, very unlike a caged animal. Unblinking, still except the occasional twitch of an ear. “If that was her you’d be dead. Or worse. I don’t know. It’s not her.”

“Then what it is?” I asked gently. Evelyn shrugged. I shook my head, confused. “You mean you can’t find out?”

“Short of vivisecting it, no.”

“Bottom line for me: it is dangerous?” Raine asked. She stroked my hair one last time and took several steps toward the caged fox. The animal regarded her with quick yellow eyes. She leaned forward and bared her teeth at it in a mock-growl.

“Oh yes, absolutely lethal, a deadly mortal foe,” Evelyn said. “If you’re a rabbit.”

I blinked at her. Raine snorted and shook her head, then made a rapid tongue clicking noise at the fox. That made it react more like a fox, tilting its head and swivelling those big ears.

“You … um, Evee,” I struggled. “Er, what?”

“It’s a fox.”

“It teleported. It understood your name. I’m pretty certain it understood English too. Half the spirit life in Sussex ran to defend it. How can it be just a fox?”

“Yeah, look at it now, hey?” Raine added. She moved to watch stoic animal from different angles, and the fox tracked her as she circled the cage. “I’m not exactly Ray Mears but I’m gonna bet this isn’t normal fox behaviour right here. Shouldn’t it be having a bit of a panic?”

Evelyn sighed and spread her hands. “It’s not a fragment of my mother, and it’s not anything else. The very first thing I did was have Praem see if it’s one of her kind, a simple demon riding an animal body, a spy, a … I don’t know. But it’s not that either. It’s not an illusion, it’s not an Outsider, it’s just a fox.”

“But y-your m-”

“Heather, we are not the centre of the world. Not everything we encounter is about us.”

“Teleporting magic fox, then,” Raine said.

“Sure, great. Why not?” Evelyn glowered at everything and nothing.

“Could … could Lozzie have sent it?” I asked, mouth dry, headache making me wince.

Evelyn shot me a withering look, and despite myself I shrank down before her glare, wishing I could vanish inside my blanket. Suddenly I felt small and stupid. Perhaps I’d caused all this ruckus for nothing, gotten wrapped up in a fantasy of protecting my friend, dug up her past and pulled Praem along with me. Heather Morell, a bad influence on impressionable young minds. Who’d have ever thought?

Raine gave up inspecting the fox, with a final mock-growl at the caged animal. Perhaps she’d noticed the emotions I tried so hard to keep from my face, because she crossed back to behind my chair and reached down, firm hands slowly rubbing my shoulders. Feeling awkward, I almost tried to move away.

“I don’t think it’s from Lozzie, no,” Evelyn said, her voice more gentle than I’d expected. “Look, this place is much older than my mother. There are things underground that probably even she didn’t understand, from my grandmother’s time, or earlier. Who knows. This fox, this … whatever the bleeding fuck it is, it could be anything. Perhaps it’s always been here, and I never noticed. Or maybe it’s just a fluke. Too much exposure to my family. Your guess is as good as mine.”

“It did help us,” I added in a hesitant voice. “That first night here. It led us to you.”

Evelyn nodded and pulled a resigned smile. “I don’t think it’s any threat. It can’t even escape that circle, and that’s not exactly my best work. If it wanted to hurt me, or take over my brain, it would done so when I was … ” She cleared her throat. “Feeling worse.”

“Good. Poor little bugger.” Raine cracked a grin. “You must have given it the fright of its life. Heather, master of the hunt.”

I sighed. “Oh, don’t call me that, I … I know. I … ”

Evelyn glanced at me sidelong. “You over reacted.”

A terrible little wretched voice whispered in my chest. I’d made trouble for my friends, caused a huge mess, assumed everything was about us. Jumping at shadows. I couldn’t concentrate past the headache and the pain, the echoes of cold in my bones, the sense I’d gotten this wrong, but I tried to pull myself up and look Evelyn in the eye. “What was I supposed to think? I can’t tell what’s dangerous and what isn’t anymore. Frankly, since I met you two, erring on the side of caution appears to be a requirement for merely staying alive. I … ” I lost my train. Hadn’t realised how strongly I felt that.

Evelyn started laughing.

Slowly at first, a suppressed chuckle, then a full-body laugh which made her put one hand over her eyes, that usually so-sour mouth curling into a real smile. She laughed quietly in her chair, panted for a breath, leaning forward in a vain effort to control herself.

“E-Evee?” I stared at her.

“Woah,” Raine whispered.

“Oh, do shut up,” Evelyn barked over her own mirth. She forced down a deep breath and shook her head, carefully controlling her smile until it faded to an amused echo. “I am capable of seeing the humour in all this, you know. I’m not made of stone.”

“She’s never had a proper laughing fit,” Raine said to me. “S’a first.”

“It is most certainly not a first. You don’t see everything I do in private, Raine.”

Raine shrugged in theatrical defeat. Evelyn cleared her throat.

“A requirement for staying alive”, she echoed me. “Quite right, Heather. ‘You over reacted’ was not critique. You’re learning, at last. It’s my fault too, I filled your head with horrors, and you acted on them, because … because you have a good heart.” She cleared her throat again, and I think I even detected a tiny blush in her cheeks. She shrugged.

“Damn straight,” Raine added.

“Praem did all the hard work,” I said, shrinking inside my blanket again, but for the opposite reason from before. “She actually caught the fox, I just threatened it.”

“She has no independent initiative,” Evelyn said. “She wouldn’t have gone running off into the night without you putting the idea in her head. She doesn’t have ideas in her head.”

“I don’t know about that … ” I distracted myself with a long sip of hot chocolate. Now was probably not the time for this conversation.

“I do,” Evelyn grunted.

I glanced over to the ruined maid uniform, a sad sodden pile in the corner, and chewed on my bottom lip.

“She did rock that look,” Raine said, following my gaze. “‘Specially the tits.”

“Raine.” I rolled my eyes. “She- yes, she did, but I was thinking more about how much she enjoyed it.”

“Yeah. Pity, I was gonna get you to try it on as well.”

Me?” I squinted up at Raine, almost choking on a mouthful of hot chocolate. What on earth was she thinking? I could never pull off that look. For a start I was far too scrawny, not to mention inelegant; not only would I barely fill out the uniform, I’d be mortified. I blushed and stammered. “R-Raine, d-don’t be absurd.”

“You’d be dangerously cute.” She shot me a wink. Despite the cold, I squirmed inside, and not in a bad way.

Evelyn rolled her eyes let out a big sigh. “Don’t make me get the garden hose. And for the record, Praem cannot enjoy anything.”

“I-I- Evee.” I rounded on Evelyn, half at Praem’s defence, half to avoid my own squirming embarrassment. “Is it possible you could be wrong? I still believe she was making this her identity. She liked it. It’s the only thing she’s shown any organic interest in.”

Evelyn huffed, exasperated but still trying to indulge me. “She can’t have interests.”

“She went after the fox because I thought it was threat – to you,” I said quietly, but my words stopped Evelyn cold. “She did it for you. The least we could do is clean the uniform for her. Or get her a new one, somehow? Please, Evee?”

“She is good eye candy,” Raine muttered.

Evelyn grumbled low in her throat. “That lake is filthy. It’s been stagnant for years, probably more rat piss than water. God alone knows what bacteria are breeding in there.” She looked at the pile of crumpled clothes. “Those are a bio hazard. We should burn them.”

I folded my hands around my empty mug and waited. Evelyn frowned into her lap, then risked a glance at me. She averted her eyes and shrugged heavily.

“I suppose my father could … ” she muttered quietly. “He knows some proper tailors, in London. I could … you know.”

“Evee,” I murmured. “Thank you. I’m sure Praem will thank you as well.”

“She bloody well better not,” Evelyn snapped.

The little side-door into the project room opened, admitting the whisper of soft feet against the waxed floorboards. Raine craned around to look first.

“Speak of the devil.” She lit up in a crooked grin. “Here she – heeeeey, what. What?”

Raine burst out laughing. Evelyn stared, open-mouthed with disbelief. I smiled in delighted surprise.

Praem rejoined us. Freshly showered, I assumed, as her skin shone and her blonde hair hung clean but badly in need of brushing. She strode back into the room with precise but oddly gentle footsteps, deftly avoiding every hint of the muddy footprints from earlier. Not surprising. She had good reason to take care.

She’d found another maid uniform.

It wasn’t identical to the first outfit. The skirt was an inch or two longer, with a hem of folded lace and a high waist showing off the flare of her hips, while the sleeves ended in tight cuffs around her forearms. No shoes to go with this one, unfortunately, but she had located some very high denier-count black tights to warm her feet and legs. I rarely wore tights, but in that moment I felt the ghost of envy – they looked rather comfortable.

“What. What. How-” Evelyn spluttered. Raine couldn’t stop laughing. I lit up inside and out.

“Oh Praem, oh, oh that’s wonderful. Good on you.” I clapped my hands together, excited despite myself.

Praem marched over to her customary spot, diagonally behind Evelyn. She resumed her usual pose, hands folded before her, staring straight ahead. I put a hand to my mouth, almost giggling.

“Where the hell are you finding these?” Evelyn demanded, outraged.

“Maybe she’s making them!” Raine supplied.

“Answer.” Evelyn clicked her fingers. Praem turned her head to stare at her mistress, blank white eyes betraying no emotion.

“Around,” she intoned.

Evelyn huffed and shook her head. “Sod the tailor then.”

“Evee, please, try to be happy for her,” I said. “She likes it! She’s trying to be human, I’m pretty certain of that.”

“Succeeding,” Praem intoned. “At being fabulous.”

We all stared at her, I with a giggle on my lips, Raine and Evelyn both amazed.

“Well, sometimes you can’t solve every mystery,” Raine said eventually. “Where does Praem get her fetish gear? Is this animal actually just a fox? As long as nobody’s attacking either of you, I’m good. I’m great. Two thumbs way up.”

“You would be,” Evelyn grumbled, glaring at Praem. She turned back to me. “We’ll release the fox in the garden tomorrow, if it hasn’t teleported itself away before then. You need to get some sleep, Heather. You’ve got an ordeal ahead of you tomorrow, unless we want to spend all week in this house.”

“Ahhh, right you are,” Raine said, and squeezed my shoulders again.

“What?” I blinked. “I have?”

Evelyn’s eyes inched downward, toward the floor, and what lay beneath. “We’ve got to go back down into the cellar, deeper this time, and I’d like to get it done before any of us lose our nerve.”

“Hey,” Raine said, mock-offended.

“Yes, yes, we all know you’d crawl across broken glass for a pretty face,” Evelyn said, and cut Raine’s joking retort off with a raised finger. “The map, Heather. That’s where my mother kept it. Her life’s work.”

“Oh. Oh, yes. That is why we came.” I swallowed.

“Comprehending the map is not a … gentle experience,” Evelyn said. “And I have no idea what it’ll do to you in particular, but if we want to stand any hope at all against your ‘Eye’, you need a way to navigate the Outside, rather than random teleporting.”

“It’ll be fine,” Raine murmured, one hand soft against my forehead. “I’ll make it fine.”

I nodded, a sober chill running down my spine. “Yes, yes of course. To … get to Wonderland.”

Evelyn shrugged. “Time we all got some more sleep, if you two can keep your hands off each other for five minutes.”

“Hands off,” Praem intoned.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

no nook of english ground – 5.6

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

The claustrophobic echoes of Evelyn’s voice ebbed away as she concluded her tortured confession, reflected off the dirty tiles in the horrible little cellar room. I hiccuped out loud. Disgust clutched at my guts, and I shook my head at the child-sized dentist’s chair.

“Evee.” My voice cracked.

“Mmhmm. I know,” she grunted.

Dank subterranean cold leeched residual heat from the safe embrace of my hoodie, and wormed icy fingers up the back of my neck. I wrapped my arms around myself, felt awfully sick. The crushing press of the broken magic circle above and around us seemed to hang poised like open jaws. We stood in the maw of a dead beast.

Suddenly I very much needed to be out in the sunlight, but I wouldn’t flee and leave Evelyn down here alone with her memories, not even for a half a minute. She looked rooted to the spot, set and solid, sheltering inside that over sized grey jumper and leaning on her walking stick next to Praem’s impassive form.

“ … I, Evee … that’s horrible, I-”

“Tell me something I don’t know,” she grumbled.

I shrugged, quite lost for words.

“Scared of me yet?” she asked, an oddly sarcastic quirk to her lips. I blinked in confusion.

“Um, should I be?”

Evelyn sighed and sketched an uncomfortable half-shrug. She deflated, shoulders slumping, and I sensed she’d run out of carefully rehearsed words. She’d confessed, but now she needed to actually talk. “No. It was a bad joke, a bit of gallows humour – implying the demon is still in my head. Get it? Trying not to get too grim, that’s all.”

Evee, don’t joke about that. I’d never think that about you. Why would I be scared of you? You’re sweet, and lovely, no matter what you think of yourself.”

“Yes, well.” Evelyn cleared her throat and averted her eyes. I didn’t care how embarrassed she felt when praised – it embarrassed me too, but it was true. No wonder she felt barely human half the time. “I got rid of it five years ago. Sort of what precipitated killing my mother. Trust me, the demon wouldn’t want to return even if it could.”

“Good. Good.” Unfamiliar vehemence entered my voice. “God, fu- … fuck your mother.”

“Fuck,” Praem echoed.

Evelyn raised an eyebrow, ignoring Praem. “That’s rare enough, from you.”

“I think your mother deserves a bit of foul language.” I huffed and shook my head. “Why did she even do it? Her own daughter.”

“So the Outsider she summoned could talk and think from the get go, trapped in a bound vessel. So she could force it to share it’s knowledge. It got a functioning human brain and a human consciousness to pattern itself on. The process went very fast, though I wasn’t exactly … coherent enough to observe,” she spoke with such bitter scorn lurking in her voice. “It had full sentience in a handful of hours, then found itself strapped to that damned chair, in the body of a nine year old girl, at the tender mercy of my mother.”

I wet my lips and took a deep breath, struggling to master the high-pitched ringing in my head; it wasn’t magic at work, just disgust and the anger of empathy for my friend. “That’s not the why, not exactly. Why do it at all? What did she hope to gain?”

“Real knowledge, from Outside.”

I spoke a question with my eyebrows, still stewing in second-hand outrage. Evelyn continued her explanation.

“Magic is unreliable, extrapolated from scraps in old books, written by insane monks and murderous desert cannibals, a thousand years ago. Trial and error can be lethal, you and I both know that from experience.”

“Too true, yes.” I sighed.

“I managed to teleport myself Outside, completely helpless when I got there. Remember?”

“Evee, of course I remember.”

“Mm, Well. So, my mother figured that maybe there was some kernel of truth, to the old stereotype of medieval wizards summoning demons, binding them with God’s language, forcing them to divulge their secrets – all that dark ages nonsense. Turned out she was right. Imagine an Outsider, something almost like your Eye, trapped in a weak body. Imagine it. If you had the stomach for the act, imagine what clarity you might extract from it, what magic it could teach.” She shrugged. “I think she tried other methods before deciding to use her own flesh and blood, but she didn’t hesitate when the time came.”

Evelyn seemed to run dry at last. Her breath shuddered on the final word and her eyes slipped toward the chair, like water sucked down a drain. Before I could stop her or summon the courage to pull her into a hug, her maimed hand reached out and touched the wipe-clean plastic headrest. Her fingers shook ever so slightly.

“Evee, you shouldn’t-”

Praem grabbed Evelyn’s wrist.

I froze. Evelyn shot the doll-demon a razor-sharp frown. Praem didn’t pay the slightest bit of attention to our surprise and disapproval, staring right back at Evelyn. Gently but firmly, she removed her mistress’s hand from the chair.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Evelyn hissed.

Praem released Evelyn’s wrist, folded her offending hands neatly in front of her, and returned to staring straight ahead.

“She’s trying to help,” I blurted out before Evelyn could explode. She whirled on me instead. “I don’t think you should be touching it either, I really don’t. Except maybe to pull it to pieces. Isn’t that right, Praem?”

“Nonsense,” Evelyn spat. “What does she care? She – it isn’t even capable of understanding.” Evelyn rubbed at her wrist.

Praem declined to answer. I sighed at her.

“You need to learn when to help your own case,” I said. “Please?”

“No touching,” she finally intoned.

Evelyn whacked the chair’s base with her walking stick. “It’s completely inert. This whole set up is inert. It’s harmless now.”

“Not emotionally,” I said quietly. “Not to you.”

“Yes,” Praem added.

Evelyn glared daggers at the doll-demon, shot a stormy look at me, then huffed and rolled her eyes. “I suppose you’re right.”

“It’s a hateful thing. Even if I didn’t know what it was used for.”

Evelyn withdrew from the chair by half a step, shaking her head. “She never kept me in it for long. A few days at a time, four at most, then maybe a week to recover between sessions. Longer than that with a demon at the controls and the physical changes would have been too much, it would have taken over and broke free, or I would have expired.”

“You mean, died?”

“Yes. And then she’d have to procure another child.”

I reached down and squeezed Evelyn’s maimed hand. She didn’t squeeze back, but she didn’t let go either. She shot me a look of resigned understanding, then glanced down at our interlocked fingers.

“Possession,” she muttered. “Possession by a vast outer intelligence takes a heavy toll on the human body. Makes changes as it settles in, adapts the shell to suit the inhabitant, but it never got to finish any DIY on me – my mother was ripping it back out every few days. It’s nothing like – what’s that film, The Exorcist? Nothing like that, more like what we saw with Zheng. Perhaps it tries to do impossible things with human muscles, pushes them too far, breaks bones and fixes them wrong, or forgets to pump blood and lymph to an extremity.” She tapped her prosthetic leg with her walking stick, a dull clunking sound in the little tiled room. “Hardly matters with a corpse.”

“You’re not a corpse, and you won’t end up as one,” I said with all the certainty I had. Evelyn cocked an eyebrow at me and half-smiled.

“What, ever?”

“When you’re a hundred and two. Not a day earlier.”

She snorted, then frowned at me. “Have I told you I have a detached retina? I can’t recall. Here, the left eye.” She opened her eyes wide. “Another legacy of my unwelcome cranial passenger.”

I shook my head. “I don’t think I can see any difference between your eyes.”

“Mm.” She turned away and resumed staring at the chair, the instrument of her past.

“We should go back upstairs, Evee. Thank you, for sharing with me, but I don’t think it’s good for you to linger down here. It creeps me out rather badly as well.”

“I haven’t reached the point yet,” she grunted.

“Ah?”

“Twil.”

“Um … ”

“Twil. What you asked me. My … ” She grumbled low in her throat. “I’m getting there.”

I looked at her sidelong, then reluctantly let my eyes slide over to Praem.

Ah. Finally this was all falling into place, or so I thought. Demons in her head at the start of puberty – was Evelyn about to confess that’s what she found attractive? Had I finally, after weeks of speculation, uncovered the real reason she’d wrought her doll-demon in the image of a cuddly voluptuous motherly type? I swallowed, and held my tongue.

“It had a name.”

“ … it?” I blinked, catching up.

“The demon – the Outsider my mother housed in my body. I can pronounce it, in theory, but it’d make my throat bleed and my tongue ache for a week. Probably make you chuck your guts up. Not because you, Heather, sorry,” she added quickly. “The sound of its name would make anybody ill. Do you understand what that means?”

I shook my head, feeling three steps behind.

“Because it told me its true name. It hated my mother almost as much as I did. It didn’t want to be here, not like her,” Evelyn nodded toward Praem. “She’s game for a few strawberries, and apparently dressing up like a fetish object. She’s barely more complex than we are.”

Praem turned her head to stare at Evelyn.

“She doesn’t mean anything rude by that,” I said.

“Rude,” Praem echoed.

Evelyn ignored the banter. “It was like a king, or an emperor – a crap metaphor, but the closest I can get. It resented the sheer indignity of being summoned, of my mother’s demands, of being forced to speak, but most of all it resented this.” She tapped her chest. “Imagine yourself trapped in the body of an insect. It felt such revulsion.” Evelyn all but spat the word. “We came to an understanding, it and I, over the span of, oh, three, four years, in what passed for the privacy of my own head, despite … despite … ” Evelyn swallowed, hard, and screwed her eyes up for a second.

I squeezed her hand. “It’s alright. You’re not there anymore.”

“You want to know why I call Praem an it, Heather? Because I’ve had one of these things in my head. Because it is alien. It taught me things it withheld from my mother, made sure the secret knowledge it did share with her was subtly flawed. It showed me how cast it out and keep it out, and how to kill her. When it finally left, in the space it had occupied, stuff was missing.”

“Stuff?”

Evelyn shrugged. “Bits of memory. Some bodily functions it had taken over – I was incontinent for a week after. Disgusting, mm?”

“Not- not at all. That’s hardly your fault.”

“It was disgusting. Anyway,” she sighed and waved a hand down at herself, at her abdomen. “I’ll let you in on a secret. I’ve only had two periods in my entire life, when I was twelve. If anything still works down there, I don’t know. I … ” She frowned, cleared her throat. “As far as I’m aware, I’m incapable of orgasm. I don’t know who or what I’m attracted to, and I don’t know if that’s just me, or if my capacity to feel such things was ripped out, overwritten.” She turned to look at me, shrugged with her eyebrows, very matter of fact. “There’s your answer.”

I took a very deep breath, glanced around the horrible little tiled cell, and then locked eyes with Evelyn. “I think it’s high time we got out of here. I’m going to take you upstairs and give you a very big hug now.”

Evelyn started to shake her head. “Heather, I’m-”

“No ifs or buts. Up. Up!”

I held fast to her hand. Luckily she didn’t offer much resistance as I dragged her from the room and back into the main cellar, then up the stairs, clonking on the hollow wood. Praem followed smartly behind, and to my immense relief she shut the steel door. She clomped up the wooden stairs as I pulled Evelyn back into the sitting room, with the huge fireplace and the low ceiling. Already I began to shrug off the cold, the dank smell of the cellar replaced with dust and winter sunlight.

“Shut that door, Praem, if you please,” I said, and she obeyed, closing the door to the cellar.

Evelyn wormed her hand out of mine and clacked her walking stick against the floorboards.

“I’m not looking for sympathy,” she said. “I didn’t tell you all that to-”

“Evee. Shut up.”

I gave her the very big hug I’d threatened to. She made a half-hearted attempt to pull away, but I wrapped my arms around her knobbly shoulders and held on tight, refused to let go.

I’d never had a friend like Evelyn before; I’d never really had any friends before, except a few fleeting teenage moments during my least bad times. I’d never felt this way about a friend before either – shared her pain, outraged at her mistreatment, aching to help.

I wanted, in my weak, circuitous fashion, to protect Evelyn.

How silly was that? She was a mage, she was far more in control of her powers than I, she had a supernatural bodyguard and Raine and the weight of family history behind her, not to mention money. It was not in the least bit romantic or erotic – despite how soft and fluffy Evelyn could be when one got past her thorns – but I did love her.

Evelyn grumbled and I felt her blushing, but after a moment she returned the embrace, awkward and hesitant.

The handle of her walking stick pressed against my back.She let me take her weight, for once.

“I’m fine,” she muttered. “This is all old stuff, history. I’m fine.”

“You are,” I murmured.

Eventually she cleared her throat and set her walking stick against the floor, and I let her go. She turned away, sniffing and rubbing a thumb under her eyes. I spared us any further embarrassment with a bit of quick thinking.

“Praem,” I said, lifting the corner of one of the dust covers on the nearest of the two leather sofas. “Help me get one of these off, will you please?”

“Heather?” Evelyn frowned as Praem crossed to help me.

“I’d rather not sit in the dust, and I assume you wouldn’t either?”

Praem ‘helped’ by whisking the entire dust cover off with one sudden jerk of her arms, the sheet billowing out with a crack of displaced air.

I flinched; hadn’t seen her move that fast since the chaotic fight in the cult’s castle. With a wince I braced for the heavy plastic sheet to slam against the wall and slide to the floor – but, at the precise moment of maximum extension, Praem flicked her wrists to fold the cover in half in the air, her maid uniform’s skirt twirling as she turned and pinched the edges together and folded it again with a whipping motion. She caught the neatly stacked bundle one one outstretched hand, paused for a single heartbeat, and then placed it on the coffee table.

She resumed staring straight ahead. Several long strands of hair had escaped her loose bun.

“Um, thank you?” I managed.

“Bloody showoff,” Evelyn grunted, then covered her mouth as she coughed in the cloud of settling dust.

“Yes, very impressive. Though a gentler touch would perhaps have produced less of a mess?”

Praem tilted her head upward. The milky white of her eyes juddered back and forth rapidly. Was she counting the dust particles?

“Suppose I don’t have a choice now.” Evelyn coughed again, then batted at Praem’s ankles with her walking sick. “Shift yourself.” The doll-demon did as she was told. Evelyn settled uncomfortably onto the sofa, rubbing at the place her thigh joined her prosthetic. “Am I the only one sitting down or what?”

I shook my head. Praem took the question as an order, and perched on the opposite sofa, right on the dust sheet. We both watched her for a second, but she seemed content to stare into space.

“Actually, I’d like to do a thought experiment first,” I said.

“Thought experiment,” Evelyn echoed. “Why does that phrase make it sound like a profoundly bad idea?”

“It’s nothing embarrassing. Or it shouldn’t be, at least.”

Her eyebrows climbed her forehead. “I never said anything about embarrassing.”

“Just close your eyes. Please, Evee? I want to try to … get you to imagine something.”

“If you creep up and shout boo in my ear I will thump you, Heather, friend for life or not.”

I huffed and put my hands on hips. “Would I do that? I’m not Raine.”

Evelyn relented with a sceptical frown, and closed her eyes.

“Okay, now just relax, try to … try to release as much tension as you can. Breathe deeply.” I had zero idea how to accomplish this, too far out of my wheelhouse. I didn’t even have Raine’s examples to go on, but we had to start somewhere.

“Breathing deeply,” Evelyn grumbled, unimpressed.

“I want you to picture Twil.”

“Oh bloody hell, you’re serious.”

“Play along, please? Ignore the sexual aspect, all of that. Let’s pretend for a moment that none of the magical stuff exists, either, forget that she’s a werewolf, all of it.”

“Easier said than done.”

“Please try. Please.” I paused, to let her think. “How does thinking about Twil make you feel?”

Silence.

“Imagine her … ” I gulped, a little embarrassed. “Imagine her hugging you.”

Evelyn cracked one eye and frowned at me. “That’s all you’ve got? Bit tame, isn’t it?”

“Just do it!” I flustered. “Close your eyes. Imagine her putting her arms around you.”

Evelyn grumbled but closed her eyes again, fingers playing with the handle of her walking stick. I bit my tongue, in case she was taking this seriously. I didn’t want to disrupt any rose-coloured imagination with the jarring of my awful scratchy voice.

Eventually Evelyn sighed a big sigh. She opened her eyes again and stared at me like I was a quack doctor.

“Well?” I prompted. “Anything?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know. Twil … she … she’s irritating. And stupid.”

“Oh Evee, she’s not stupid. That’s hardly fair. She’s impulsive, and passionate, and straightforward.”

“She’s dumb as a brick.”

“She’s going to university to do bio-medical science next year. That’s not stupid,” I said. Evelyn grumbled under her breath and looked away, but I pressed on. “And even if she was stupid, it’s beside the point. Do you want to hug her for real?”

“How am I supposed to know the answer to that?” Evelyn growled. I sensed I was losing her.

“Okay, how about … how about this? Imagine that you can hug her, for real – but!” I held up a finger as Evelyn scowled at me. “But afterward she won’t remember it, and nobody else would know you did it.”

I let the suggestion – rather underhanded and creepy, I admit – hang in the air for moment, and hoped I hadn’t given Evelyn the mage any nasty ideas. She opened her mouth to reply, then stopped and frowned, then blinked twice and looked down at her lap.

“Ah.” I lit up. “Did that-”

“Don’t you breathe a word of this to Raine. Not a word,” she snapped, then frowned left and right before rubbing her eyes, an expression of mild panic crossing her features. She began to blush, and covered her mouth. “Fuck.”

“Evee, it’s okay, it’s okay.” I struggled not to giggle, to respect the moment.

“Goddammit, what am I supposed to do now?” She demanded. “What does that even mean?”

I slid onto the sofa. “Whatever you decide it means. You don’t have to act on it if you don’t want to. It’s just … something to think about. Something nice?”

She sighed, glared at me. “You and Raine make it all look so easy.”

“Oh, Evee, no, it isn’t. It absolutely isn’t. Even between us it’s pretty complex, most of the time.”

Evelyn leaned back into the old cracked leather of the sofa, trying to find some physical comfort to ward off this fresh confusion. I did feel a little guilty; the last thing she needed was more dilemmas in life, but at least this one contained potential pleasure for her, and took her mind off the cellar beneath our feet.

“Does she scare you?” Evelyn said.

“I’m sorry?”

“Raine. Does she scare you?”

“Oh.” I blinked. “No, not at all. Though, ah, I am aware that sometimes perhaps I should find her a little scary. That’s something I’ve been discovering about myself. I don’t like violence but … when she does it, it’s different. It’s part of what I like about her. That’s terrible of me, I know.”

“She scared the shit out of me when we first met,” Evelyn admitted.

“I’d heard.”

“Mm.”

“You’re deflecting again, by the way, Evee.”

“Mm,” she grunted. “What else am I meant to do? I’ll … think about Twil, alright? I’ll give it some thought. Maybe I can … can … ” She waved a hand vaguely. “Maybe next time I talk to her, I can … see.”

“Whatever you decide, I can always help.”

Evelyn gave me a sceptical frown. “You’re not exactly a lesbian Casanova.”

I shrugged. “It’s me or Raine, and while she is lovely I don’t think she’s a reliable source of romantic advice.”

Evelyn snorted, and we fell into comfortable silence. Her gaze drifted down, until she was staring right at the floorboards. My mind wandered backward through the last half hour, through other ways I might help, might protect.

“Why is the chair still down there?” I asked, softly, loathe to ruin the moment but sharply aware we might never get another opportunity.

Evelyn shrugged. “Bolted to the floor.”

“Then smash it apart.”

She glanced sidelong at me, then did a double take when she saw I was serious. “I … how? It weighs a ton. We’d need industrial machinery to get the bolts out. It’s not as if anybody’s been down there in years. Let the damned thing rot.”

“With … I don’t know.” I cast around. “Is there a sledgehammer anywhere on the estate?”

Evelyn looked at me like I’d suggested we go skinny dipping. “A sledgehammer.”

“I don’t know, for building fences? At least one of those outbuildings is full of garden tools, isn’t it?”

“Heather, I am relatively certain neither you nor I can lift a bloody sledgehammer. We’re both noodle-arms. I’d ruin my back.”

“I can try. For that, I’d try. Praem certainly could.”

Evelyn paused mid-word, then frowned thoughtfully, an unfamiliar aspect lighting up inside her. Her eyes slid over to look at Praem.  “ … I suppose she could. She could.”

The doll-demon seemed to catch wind of what we were brewing. She stared back at Evelyn, then at me, then stood up and brushed her skirt neatly over her backside.

“Sledgehammer,” she intoned in her bell-like voice.

Evelyn and I shared a meaningful glance.

==

“Raaaine! Over here!”

“We’re in the kitchen.”

“We’re in the kitchen, Raine!”

“We’re eating cake without you.”

“Evee! No, shhh, shhh.”

By the time Raine followed our voices, picked her way down the mansion’s spinal corridor, and rounded the kitchen door, Evelyn and I had descended into a fit of giggles – well, I had. Evelyn retained touch more self-control than I possessed, but even she started laughing at Raine’s bewildered grin.

Raine pointed finger-guns at us and leaned against the door frame. “I see that I’m missing cake, but I hear that I’ve missed a hot-boxing session. What’s got you two so giggly?”

I shrugged, trying to control my laughter. “Just feeling nice.”

“It is a good day,” Evelyn announced, and jabbed her little fork back into the chocolate sponge cake her father had dug out of the fridge about twenty minutes ago, when Evelyn and I had bumbled into the kitchen, badly in need of celebratory food. “It is a good day to be alive, and it is a good day to eat cake. Rest’s in the fridge if you want some. And grab the strawberries too,” she added, waving vaguely at Praem behind her.

Raine, however, wasn’t listening – cake and laughter could only distract her for so long from the sledgehammer in the middle of the kitchen floor, balanced upside down so perfectly on its own steel head.

“Hello, this wasn’t here an hour ago. Think I would have remembered that. We having an emergency?”

“Only a dire lack of whipped cream to go with the cake,” Evelyn said, and flourished her fork. I spluttered with laughter again, despite the fact it wasn’t even funny – I felt wonderful. Released.

“I’ve missed some serious fun, haven’t I?” Raine ran a hand through her damp hair, grinning. She was still pink and slightly raw from her shower, wearing pajama bottoms and a baggy black tshirt with a cartoon kangaroo on the front, feet bare. I wanted nothing more in that moment than to hug her and touch her all over, but there was Evelyn and cake and explanations to linger over first, and we did have more important things to do than make out.

“Fun,” Praem echoed.

“So what’s the sledgehammer for?” Raine asked.

“For hammering!” I broke into giggles again, but spluttered to a stop when Praem’s voice echoed a half-second behind, “For hammering.”

“I smashed up the chair,” Evelyn said. She sat up straighter and raised her chin.

“The what?” Raine’s eyebrows shot up. “Oh, bugger me sideways, it’s still there? The-”

“The chair. The demon engine. It’s gone, in a hundred pieces. Heather helped.”

“Praem did most of the hard work,” I admitted. Evelyn grunted, but even that didn’t seem to dent her good humour.

Evelyn and I had landed one symbolic hit each. She’d required the extra support of my arms around her waist and Praem holding the hammer head up in the air for her. I’d barely been able to lift the hammer where we’d found it in the garden tool shed, let alone swing the damned thing, but I’d put my whole body into the motion and managed to half-drop half-flail the heavy steel head into the chair’s right arm.

I’d squealed, Praem had to catch the hammer, it was all very awkward and embarrassing, and I’d feel the muscle strain tomorrow morning, but it had all been worth the effort. The doll-demon had done all the heavy lifting, no matter how glowing and sweaty Evelyn and I felt, after kicking pieces of the chair across the floor of that horrible little chamber.

“Blow me down with a feather,” Raine said, shaking her head at us. “I didn’t even know it was still there. You should’a told me to get rid of it years ago.”

“It’s fine. It was a bonding experience.”

“It was,” I agreed.

“Cool stuff. Anything else need hammering before we scoot?” Raine strode forward and lifted the sledgehammer with one hand, caught the haft in the other and hefted the weight, grinning to herself. I sighed inside at the way her muscles flowed and tightened, the easy strength on display. Praem had lifted the hammer just as easily, but it wasn’t the same. She was cheating. Raine’s muscles were real.

“We can be off whenever you like, by the way,” Raine said. “Shown her the map yet? Probably best to get away before dark, unless you both want to sleep in the car.”

“We can stay as long as we need.” Evelyn’s voice was suddenly sober.

“ … we can?” Raine blinked. “We can. What?”

“This is news to me as well,” I said slowly. “Evee?”

“We’re staying another night. Perhaps two,” she declared, then cleared her throat and smiled a grim sort of smile. “Got to show Heather the map, sure, but I’m also going to clear out the whole bloody lot. Everything of mother’s in the east wing. The project room, the dungeon rooms we left, the clockwork man, all of it. Destroy anything I can’t appropriate. Put some flowers on my grandmother’s grave. Have dinner with my father’s squeeze, whatever.”

“Evee. Right on,” Raine said with a surprised grin. Evelyn waved her off.

“This house will be mine eventually,” she said, and gestured up and around with her eyes. “These servitors, they’re older than my mother, they’re family property and she’s not family, not anymore. This is mine. It doesn’t belong to her bloody ghost.”

==

When I was a little girl I’d never been afraid of creeping to the toilet at night, because I never had to do so alone. I never did anything alone.

The constant presence of a twin blinds one to certain aspects of life. One is never alone, not really, though in retrospect I believe Maisie and I were even closer than twins usually should be. If one of us woke and needed to pee, the other would often wake without prompting. A familiar hand to hold makes a big difference to a small child groping her way down a dark corridor. We knew, in that strange shared childhood heart, that no shadow creatures or bogeymen could touch us when we were together.

That all ended after the Eye took her. Teenage Heather hated leaving the dubious safety of her bed covers at night, let alone braving the nightmare-haunted hallways of the family home. I developed a borderline complex about getting up alone in the night, and still felt a touch of the old discomfort even in the heavily-warded Sharrowford house, with its creaky floorboards and strange old corners.

So it was that I found myself shivering in the frigid air, gum-eyed and drowsy, bladder very full, as I dug myself out of a blanket nest on the armchair.

This was not going to be an easy journey, in this spooky echoing mansion drenched with century-old darkness; I couldn’t even recall exactly where the nearest bathroom was.

Evelyn was curled up right on the edge of the double bed, wrapped in a cocoon of sheets. Moonlight crept silver around the curtain, picked out the jut of her hip. I’d taken the armchair tonight, and not brooked any argument from either of them. Raine slumbered on, snoring softly, spread out on her front. I suppressed a sleep-addled urge to grab one of her ankles. Bad Heather.

I would not demean myself by waking Raine to request an escort. I was a big girl and I could go to the toilet by myself.

The hallway was almost pitch black. Moonlight struggled to reach down here with those clean silver fingers. A tired old servitor – some kind of articulated mantis-creature – shifted in the deep shadows, and I forced myself not to flinch. Suddenly I felt considerably more awake.

“It’s fine, it’s fine. It’s the ultimate safe place, Heather,” I whispered to myself, fingertips of my left hand brushing the wall as I traced my way down the corridor. “Fortress and refuge. Castles are spooky too, aren’t they? You love castles.”

I groped for the bathroom, stepped inside and clicked the light on, blinking sore eyes against the sudden light on tarnished chrome and old porcelain – and realised what I’d missed.

Praem hadn’t been standing guard by the bedroom door.

I frowned in thought as I sat on the toilet, eyes closed, half asleep. Perhaps Evelyn had set the doll-demon to a specific overnight task. Evee had been a whirlwind of activity since our impromptu ritual exorcism of her mother’s memory.

She’d stomped all over the house, pointing at things with her walking stick, rifling through the big project room we’d found her brooding in the night before, Praem carrying bin liners and a plastic tote behind her. Lots of staring at alien objects and nodding, muttering to herself, making a list in a little notebook she’d commandeered from her father. Eventually Raine and I had let her get on with it, made ourselves scarce but available.

Evelyn even put in a proper showing when her father’s lady friend had pulled up to the house that evening. ‘Angeline’ turned out to be exactly what I’d expected – a high-flying city lawyer in her late 40s, exceptionally well-groomed, talkative and slim, all easy laughter and more glasses of wine, eager to regale us provincial college girls with tales about growing up poor and black in north London. Lewis had laughed and boomed and shared a couple of utterly ineffable legal world anecdotes of his own.

I’d even accepted a glass of red wine myself, after some coaxing by Raine. Hadn’t liked it much, but it did make me relax.

An hour of two of pretending we were all normal.

Except, of course, for how Angeline’s gaze had slid right off Praem, even though she’d stood behind Evelyn the whole time.

I finished up, flushed the toilet, and suffered the indignity of ruined night vision when I turned off the light and stepped out into the corridor. Squinting at the silvery spill of moonlight helped a little, though the window at the end of the corridor was obscured by a shifting curtain.

A curtain that turned to look at me, two milky white orbs floating in the darkness.

I almost jumped out of my skin, a half-hiccup half-squeak caught in my throat. My body screamed with a pulse of adrenaline and only the absurd maid uniform stopped me from either running or screaming for Raine.

“Praem!” I hissed, a hand to my chest. “Don’t … stand there in silence! Oh my God, you frightened the life out of me.”

Praem turned away, resumed her vigil at the window.

“Praem?” I whispered again, and crept forward, to peer over her shoulder.

Rural night and a clear sky. A beautiful sight. The thin lawns had transformed into a shadowy dream realm of half-glimpsed shapes under the bulk of the house, the trees a darker bulwark before the mirror-like silver expanse of the lake. The moonlight dusted Praem’s face with a ghostly sheen, but she betrayed no hint of wistful longing or quiet contemplation. She stared. Hard-edged and intent. Down.

Another fox. Almost invisible in the moonlight, russet fur a dark blotch against the grass.

It sat on its haunches barely ten feet from the rear of the house, and stared up at Praem.

I sighed and resisted a desire to roll my eyes. “Once, twice, maybe three times, I could have accepted as coincidence, but this is getting silly,” I muttered. “That’s not a fox, is it?”

“Fox,” Praem echoed, at full volume. I winced.

“Praem,” I said her name very carefully. “If it’s not just a fox, I think Evelyn or I or Raine should know about it. What is it?”

Praem turned her head to me, then back to the fox, then took a sudden step back from the window and marched off down the corridor, long maid’s skirt swishing around her ankles.

“Praem? Praem, wait!” I hissed, and scurried to catch up.

She made the stairs, and managed to click her heels the entire way down without thumping her feet. I felt clumsy and awkward, groping through the darkness behind her. By the time I stumbled onto the ground floor, she’d turned away around a corner. I really didn’t want to be alone in the maze of corridors, menaced by the shadows in the kinking corners, at real threat of getting lost. I hissed her name again and hurried after her.

I found Praem at the back door onto the patio, the very same one I’d led her through that morning.

She was pulling the door’s bolt and turning the key, her hands moving with exquisitely inhuman slowness of intention. Her eyes were locked on the moonlit lawns beyond the door’s inset glass, at the fox staring back at us, a silver ghost.

“Praem, what are you doing?” I hissed, hugging myself, curling cold toes against the carpet. Should have put my socks on before I left the room.

Praem straightened up, the door now unlocked, and slowly wrapped one hand around the door handle.

I saw the fox sit up, fur bristling, eyes alert and intelligent. The canine snout inched backward.

Praem eased the door handle down.

“Praem, not- … not … ” Not alone? What was she going to do, catch the fox with her bare hands? I didn’t have time to think, my head still too heavy from sleep, my guts tight with sudden anticipation.

“Not?” she asked. Her hand paused.

“What are we doing, Praem?”

“Opportunity,” she intoned.

“For what? What?”

“Hunting,” she intoned. “Opportunity.”

She was waiting for approval. The fox backed away, paws slinking across the field of moonlit grass – and slowly, so slowly, a horrible, unspeakable notion entered my mind.

Earthworms and the things which ate them. My mouth went dry, my heart fluttered in my chest; maybe we’d never get another chance.

“Okay, do it,” I hissed.

The fox bolted, a shadow in the dark.

Praem reacted so fast I flinched hard enough to almost trip over my own feet. She slammed the door handle down and shot out into the night, a dead sprint from a standing start, beyond what any human could achieve, certainly not in a full-body maid uniform. I flew to the door, staring after her. Cold night air sucked the breath from my lungs, slammed the heat right out of my thin pajamas.

The doll-demon sprinted across the grass, like a machine, going full pelt. A dark blur bounded ahead of her.

I stumbled out onto the patio, freezing my toes off, teeth chattering. The cutting cold whipped around the sides of the house, trees swaying in the distance. I was fully aware I should be yelling for Raine or Evee, or locking the door and staying inside, but it all happened too fast. The possible implication of that fox made my head spin, clutched my guts with a deep sickness.

In the back of my mind I repeated a manta: this was a safe place. Safe place. Nothing to fear here. Just don’t touch anything suspicious.

Praem tackled the fox halfway across the lawns in a tumble of splayed skirts. A strangled animal screech split the night. She rolled twice, lay very still for a moment, then stood up and walked back toward the house.

As she mounted the stairs to the patio I put a hand to my mouth.

She’d pinned the fox with an expert’s grip, an iron hard vice, as she clutched it to her chest, back legs and head both immobilised.

The poor animal’s front legs twisted and lashed, desperate to scratch, the torso bucking and heaving, fighting exactly like the cornered fox it was, but the doll-demon’s strength came from a place other than mere muscle. The fox couldn’t move. Praem’s wonderfully pressed maid uniform was scuffed with grass fragments and a smear of dirt, and her loose bun of hair had finally given up, loops of blonde hanging down in disarray.

“Fox,” she intoned, staring at me.

I gulped and tried to think, tried to focus on the animal she’d caught. It whined, letting out these awful, pitiful yelping noises, and I think it had urinated down her.

I thought back to what Evelyn had said in front of her mother’s grave, about worms and the flesh of dead mages, about lead coffins. I thought about apex predators and mercury and DDT, about food web contamination, and imperfect hazard containment.

The fox foamed at the mouth, yellow eyes wide and rolling.

“Is it just a fox?” My heart was still pounding. “How do we tell?”

Praem stared down a the animal in her grip. “Kill it,” she intoned.

“No, no,” I held up a sudden hand. “It’s just a fox, don’t. It doesn’t deserve this. We need to … ” I swallowed, blew out a deep breath, and gathered my thoughts. This was crazy. “You stay right there, Praem. If you … hurt an innocent animal, I won’t forgive you, okay? Okay?”

Praem stared at me again.

“Just don’t hurt it.” I repeated. “I need to go wake Evee, she needs to see this and make a decision. Yes, Evelyn’ll be able to … work it … out.”

Every hair stood up on the back of my neck. My skin crawled.

At the sound of Evelyn’s name, the fox had gone still.

Not limp. Not an animal giving up to conserve strength.

Still. Watchful.

“Oh,” I breathed. “Oh, it-”

With a sound like a clicking tongue, the fox was suddenly no longer in Praem’s grip. It reappeared twenty feet away, hit the lawn running, and raced off under the moonlight.

“Oh no. Oh no no no,” I blurted out.

Praem didn’t miss a beat. She whirled on the spot and sprinted after the animal. I picked up my feet and stumbled after her.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

no nook of english ground – 5.5

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Life continues to confront me with difficult questions, over and over. Did I ever really have a twin sister? Do I have the courage and strength to rescue her? Am I willing to love a sociopath? Is magic real, or am I just insane?

Sitting on a cold stone bench before a wizard’s grave, sheltered by the skeletal winter trees, Evelyn needed answers to a question I couldn’t even begin to unpack.

Why did she still feel guilty for killing her own mother?

Doubtless she didn’t expect a real answer from me, but the weariness on her face wrenched at my heart. She was groping for a handhold, from the bottom of a very deep pit. She’d been doing so for years. I struggled to summon the right words; it wasn’t your fault, you had no choice, she forced your hand. She crippled you, she was going to kill you. She was evil.

Evelyn didn’t need to hear any of that. Raine had probably said those exact words to her a hundred times before.

I hesitated, my lips half-forming the first word of a dozen different sentences. I’d tried to play therapist and waded far out of my depth. Great job, Heather. Some friend I am.

Evelyn turned away with a little shake of her head. “Never mind,” she murmured. “You don’t need this.”

“But you do, Evee. It’s always okay to ask for help.”

“Doesn’t make much difference.” She shrugged. “Not a day goes by I don’t think about this, at least a bit. If I can’t figure myself out, how could you? It’s unfair of me to ask.”

I felt her slipping away, slipping back into performative grumpiness and the comfort of her barbed tongue. Any moment she’d change the subject, wave a hand at her mother’s grave with a bitter comment, smother the pain under sullen aggression. I had to buy time.

Luckily, my hand was still on her back; so I did the first thing that came to mind.

“Regardless,” she huffed. “At least the old bitch-”

“W-wait, Evee, don’t- don’t say anything.” I held up a finger. “Just- just stay perfectly still, don’t move, stay right there.”

“Heather?” She frowned hard, looked me up and down briefly. “What are you going on about?”

“Just, just stay. Stay sitting.” I hopped to my feet and stepped behind the bench, behind Evelyn, shivering a little in the corona of cold air. She peered at me like I’d gone mad. “Please, you can face forward, how you were. It’s okay, I’m not going to do anything weird.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I … I’m going to touch your shoulders. Please Evee, you trust me, don’t you?”

“ … that I do.” She didn’t sound very certain, but she did face forward once more. Perhaps I’d piqued her curiosity.

The next step required no small amount of courage. Evelyn was not a touchy-feely sort of person. Hugs did not come easily to her, and her body was a litany of aches and pains, old injuries, bone problems and joint issues, before one even considered her prosthetic right leg or the missing fingers on her mangled left hand. But I was committed now, I had to see this through.

Gentle but firm, so she knew what I was doing, no surprises – I wrapped my fingers around Evelyn’s shoulders. Beneath the thick grey jumper I could feel her muscles tight with permanent tension. I tried to recall the basics of Raine’s technique. I had to get this at least partially correct or it would be pointless, and I didn’t possess anything near Raine’s grip strength.

“And?” Evelyn asked. “Is that it? What happens n-”

I pressed down hard with both thumbs and squeezed with my fingers.

“Ahh!” Evelyn winced open-mouthed.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” My hands flew to my mouth, mortified. Idiot. I hiccuped. “Evee, I’m so sorry, I wanted to-”

“Don’t stop now,” she snapped. “Get on with it.”

“Oh … um, okay. Right.” Hiccup. “Right then. I’ll just start with … okay.”

My hands fluttered as I hesitated, as I touched my fingers back to the thin muscles in Evelyn’s shoulders. I pressed down hard, put my back into it. She grunted. This time I didn’t stop.

We took several minutes to find a comfortable rhythm. Evelyn growled and hissed, grumbling under her breath as I dug in with my thumbs, telling me “left a bit”, “down, no, further down”, or “press harder” when my grip slackened. Her shoulders were terribly knotted with old strain, bunched and uncomfortable. Her habitual slouch probably didn’t help.

Eventually she stopped wincing and grunting, and I felt the stress drain from her body inch by slow inch. She sighed deeply, sagged on the bench, and moved her walking stick off her lap to support her weight. Working my hands and arms chased away the worst of the chill air, or perhaps it was just proximity to Evelyn. Skinship does wonders for homoeostasis.

I’d bought time, now I needed to wheel the big guns into position. I wet my lips, weighed my options, and did the only thing I was certain of: I talked about myself.

“It’s not on the same scale,” I began quietly. “But I didn’t feel any special relief or sense of justice after I killed Alexander.”

Evelyn was silent, so I carried on.

“In the moment I won, I was satisfied, yes, I think so, in brute sort of a way. But afterward? I still suffer all the same anxieties, still feel the same way about myself. He was a monster, he kept people in cages and fed their minds to his Outsider. The world is a better place with him gone, certainly, and I did what I did to protect myself and my friends, all of you. We defeated an evil wizard in his magical castle, put his monstrous minions to fight, and freed his captive. Aren’t I supposed to feel victorious? What did I prove, in the end?”

As I spoke, a weight lifted inside my chest. I hadn’t realised it was there. I’d bottled this up for weeks, barely expressed a word of it to Raine, couldn’t make sense of it to myself. It didn’t hurt, not like Evelyn did, but I did struggle to keep a catch out of my voice. This wasn’t for me, this was for her.

“Proved him wrong,” Evelyn murmured.

“Exactly. So why do I feel this way?” I asked. “I don’t feel big or strong, I certainly don’t feel like a hero. All I did was commit murder. A necessary murder, perhaps, but I still made the decision to kill a person, clear headed, not in the heat of the moment. And I don’t feel any different. I’m still me. That was me, all along.” I had to take a deep breath. “I’m still terrified of ending up … other, different, that the brainmath will make me inhuman. All I proved in the end is that I had the strength to kill him, that’s all. It’s self-referential.”

Evelyn nodded slowly. “I know. I know exactly what you mean.”

I let out a controlled sigh and resumed rubbing Evelyn’s shoulders, simply to occupy my hands.

“It was important,” Evelyn muttered after a moment. “To me. That you were there. In that castle. You, Raine. Fuck it, even Twil, I guess. Even that thing,” she gestured at Praem with a sideways nod. “I didn’t have to do it alone. Thank you, for that.”

“That’s what friends are for.” I tried to sound bright. “Or so I’m told.”

“I’m … ” Evelyn cleared her throat. “I’m learning that too, yes.”

“I very much doubt I would have been friends with your mother, Evee. Goodness, it’s no wonder you worry about ending up like her, she tried to take over your mind. You’re not her. You’ll never be like her.”

“Mm.”

We were deep in the core of it now, the most dangerous part, and I had to push on. “Killing one’s own mother, even in self-defence, is going to mess anyone up. Let’s forget for a moment that we’re all neck-deep in supernatural doodads, that she was a monster, a magician, all of that. Boil it down to the fundamentals: you had to kill your own mum. You had to. Even without everything else, without the magic, without all the other stuff she did to you, that’s a choice she inflicted on you. Of course you’re going to be wounded by that. Anybody would be.”

Evelyn frowned. “I suppose so.”

We slipped into silence. I focused on rubbing her back, kneading out the deeper knots.

“Serves you right,” she mumbled.

“Evee?”

“Mm, pardon.” She cleared her throat and straightened up, nodding at her mother’s grave. “That was directed at her. She’s sludge in a box, and I’m getting a shoulder rub.”

“You’re very welcome. I think you rather needed it.”

Evelyn sighed. “Never used to like it from Raine. She gave up trying years ago.”

“You do tend to get the claws out for her.”

“She deserves it.”

“So, you’re saying I give better back rubs than her?”

“I’m saying I’m … oh I don’t know. More comfortable with you, I guess.”

“Should I take that as a compliment? I think I shall.”

Evelyn grunted, still staring at the grave. She hesitated over a word, opening her mouth before thinking better of it and lapsing back into silence. I squeezed her shoulders harder, enough to draw a wince from her gritted teeth.

“Uunh.”

“I-I’m sorry.” I blushed. “I don’t know why I did that, I’m getting carried away.”

“Then you should get carried away more often.” Evelyn twisted her back to one side, producing a trio of pops from her spine. She let out a throaty grumble. “I want to tell you how it happened.”

“How … how what happened?” I hedged my bets, though I could guess.

“Don’t be obtuse, Heather, it doesn’t suit you. How I killed my mother, what else?” She spoke in a very matter-of-fact way, like we were discussing the weather. “I’ve never told anybody. No point telling Raine, she was right there when it happened, all the way through the whole bloody business.”

“Okay then.” I swallowed, steeled myself. “I’ll try not to be squeamish.”

“Not much to be squeamish about. I stopped her heart.” Evelyn made a squeezing gesture with her left hand – her maimed hand, the one with the missing fingers. “That was the end of it, the final move, checkmate. We’d be out here all day if I told you the entire story, but that was the end. It’s not easy, forcing cardiac arrest, not something I could pull off these days, not against another mage. I was … different, then. I had help, of a kind.”

What on earth does one say to that? “Wow,” I breathed, then flustered and hurried to correct myself. “I-I mean-”

“Wow is right. It’s okay, Heather.”

I swallowed. “Okay. You had … help?”

Evelyn shrugged. She was absently tapping her artificial leg, right where the stump ended and prosthetic began. “It’s complicated. Raine, in part. It was messy, you have to understand that, not a clean dramatic confrontation. It wasn’t like I declared my intention and challenged her to a duel. We were planning to kill her, but we didn’t chose the moment, or the day. It just happened. Raine’s always insisted we bear joint culpability. Nonsense.” Evelyn sighed and shook her head. “She was too busy keeping the zombies off me. The real ones. She never put a scratch on my mother, not in a way that mattered, though I do distinctly recall Raine attempting to brain her with a log at one point, but that can’t be right, there was no fireplace in that room.”

“Sounds like Raine to me,” I added, feeling far too flippant for this subject.

“Yes, quite.” Evelyn sucked on her teeth. “Always the enthusiast for a bit of fisticuffs.”

“Are magicians always so hard to kill?” I asked. “Alexander didn’t seem bothered by a bullet, but … and I mean this in a very good way, Evee, but you don’t seem as robust as that.”

“Good,” she grunted. “What’s the first thing a ruthless person does with power? Hm? Protect themselves, that’s what, but if you want to be invulnerable, you have to make sacrifices. Leave certain things behind.” She let out a sudden, sharp sigh. “Ahh, Heather, I can’t say I haven’t been tempted, sometimes. If it wasn’t for Raine, or … for you, maybe I would have given up on being human, just to feel a little safer.”

I squeezed her shoulders. “I for one am glad you didn’t.”

She nodded, sniffed. “My mother wasn’t like Alexander, not exactly, but she did have ways of defending herself. She couldn’t have survived a bullet through the chest though. God, that would have been so much easier. So, yes. I stopped my mother’s heart, and I had a hundred good reasons to do it. I was right, and I saved myself. But I still feel guilty.”

“It’s okay to feel that way. And to talk about it.”

Evelyn grunted. This wasn’t something one simply ‘got over’, I couldn’t ‘solve’ it for her, to presume so would be awful. She’d carry this for ever, but at least I could be here for her. At least she knew I understood.

As we’d spoken, I’d spotted furtive movement on the far side of the graveyard, in the undergrowth between the trees. Slowly, as I’d been concentrating on Evelyn, a black nose and sleek russet snout eased out from beneath the ferns. A cautious, skittish fox emerged into the cold sunlight, raising his head and looking about.

“Evee, do you see that fox over there?”

“Yes, yes, I see it too. It’s just a fox, not whatever you saw last night.”

I glanced over my shoulder, to where Praem still stood at attention with her hands clasped. “Praem? Do you see it too?”

“Fox,” she intoned.

The fox caught wind of us, or perhaps Praem’s voice carried a little too well between the gravestones. His head jerked in our direction, yellow eyes flashing in the sunlight, and then he scurried away, hindquarters vanishing into the undergrowth with a swish of his tail.

“The wall’s always been full of holes and gaps,” Evelyn said. “All sorts of things get in and out.” She rolled her shoulders with a grimace. “Thank you, Heather. You can stop now. I feel … ” She waved a hand. “Buttery.”

“Buttery?”

“Soft. Oh, I don’t know. I’m no good at this. Sit down, will you?”

I almost giggled as I slipped back onto the bench next to her, despite or perhaps because of the weight of our conversation, the release of tension in my gut. Evelyn blinked at the grave one last time, then finally lifted her eyes to the sky. I felt closer to her now than I ever had.

Close enough to ask the question that had lingered on my mind, during the unquiet night of tossing and turning.

“Evee, yesterday, in the car, you said something that got me thinking.”

“Hm?”

“You said you weren’t very happy with Raine or I – which makes perfect sense, considering where we’ve dragged you.”

“We’ve been over this. You didn’t drag me.”

“Be that as it may,” I tried to stay on topic. Despite the strange bonding session we’d just shared, I felt I was verging on unsafe ground, but I had to clear the air. “I’ve been really selfish the last couple of weeks, completely wrapped up in myself. When I thought about it, about why you might be angry at me, I realised you’ve barely been talking to me lately, and some of the things you’ve said-”

Evelyn cleared her throat and turned her face away from me. “Heather, it’s not your fault, it’s nothing you’ve done.”

“Are you sure about that?”

“Yes! Yes.”

“Evee, you’re the last person to pull your punches, but I still get the impression I’ve angered you in some way.” I made an effort to keep my voice steady, to hold onto my courage. “You can tell me. I promise.”

Evelyn directed a tight frown at me, her lips pressed together. I did my best not to falter.

“I’m serious,” I said.

“Surely you’ve figured out by now I’m an extremely difficult person? You really want to open this can of worms?”

“Of course I know that.” I couldn’t help but smile a little. “And I’m still serious.”

Evelyn let out a long sigh. She looked off at the lake in the distance, and spoke haltingly, as if selecting each word with great care. “You’re the first real friend I’ve ever made.”

“Raine doesn’t count?”

“I don’t know.” Evelyn shrugged. “You tell me, does she?”

“I like to think so.”

“We met under rather different circumstances, and she’s always been … Raine.” Evelyn gave me a sidelong look.

“Yes. She is. Very.”

“You’re my first real friend. I think. And then your mysterious bloody dream pixie comes along and … ”

Evelyn threw up both hands and huffed in frustration. I blinked at her, and incredibly enough she began to blush, shooting me a mortified sidelong glance before averting her face, hiding her eyes behind her hand.

“Evee … you’re saying … you’re jealous? Of Lozzie?”

Evelyn shrugged, still hiding. “I don’t bloody well know. All right? I rather took your words to heart, all that stuff you said weeks back about not keeping things from you. Well. Here it is. I’m impossible, I know. It’s unhealthy, but I can’t help it.” I was about to reply, to tell her it was okay, when suddenly she emerged from behind her hand and launched off again, flushed in the face and embarrassed to her core but still strong-voiced. “Why did she get to waltz into your life, monopolise your time? Raine, I understand; you sleep with her and I want no part of that, but unless I’ve utterly misread you I’m pretty certain you weren’t going wrist-deep in your Lozzie.”

“Um, wow.” I felt a blush creeping up my cheeks too. “You’re right, no, I didn’t do, um, that.”

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad we rescued her. She looked like a wreck. Perfect case for Raine. But … ” Evelyn sighed sharply and threw up her hands again.

“Evee.”

“I know, I’m a bitter, twisted weirdo. Evelyn Saye, turbo-bitch. Of course you can have other friends. I have no idea why I feel this way.”

“Evee, don’t talk about yourself like that.” A smile tugged at the corners of my lips. Evelyn looked away again, so I got to my feet and stood up in front of her, tucking my hands into my hoodie to keep the cold at bay. “I don’t exactly have a lot of experience at this friend stuff either.”

“More than I do,” she grunted. I saw she was about to retreat behind her hand again.

“Why don’t we watch some of your anime magical girl shows together?” I asked.

That earned me her attention, an incredulous frown; gave me guts, for once.

“’I’ll punish you in the name of the moon.’” I said. “All that stuff?”

Evelyn squinted at me like I’d gone completely off my rocker. Perhaps I had. “That’s from Sailor Moon. I don’t even like that show. And you don’t even watch anime. What does this have to do with anything?”

“Then introduce me to it. We can do regular, normal friend things together, Evee. I’d enjoy that, I really would. Not everything has to be life-or-death magical shenanigans all the time.”

“I-” Evelyn came up short, frowning to herself. “I guess I can think of a few you might like. Something with lesbian romance in it. I suppose.”

“Good. I’ll look forward to it.”

Evelyn shook her head, still mired in disbelief.

“While we’re on embarrassing personal subjects, I’m going to take a huge risk,” I said, plunging ahead before I had time to stop and rethink. If I planned this out I’d never ask. My heart thudded against my chest and my mouth went dry. This was absolutely going to get me shouted at, but I doubted I’d get another good opportunity, perhaps ever. “This question might make you angry, Evee, but considering what you’ve said, I think I need to ask it, because you deserve some good things in life.”

“ … I’m not going to like where this is going, am I?”

“Are you attracted to Twil?”

She blinked. “What? No.”

“Because, the way you act around her-”

“No. Nullum. Twil? Have you lost your senses?”

I faltered, babbling to explain myself as my cheeks flushed. Oh dammit, I’d gotten this wrong. “M-maybe I’ve been misreading the situation, but it’s in the way you treat her. I admit, I’m … incredibly gay, so maybe I’m reading a meaning into your actions which isn’t there, maybe you like men and that’s fine and maybe we need to get you a boyfriend instead, but I can’t help-”

“Do you really call Raine ‘mommy’?”

“No! Oh God, that joke in the car. No. No … once.” I blushed beet-red. Felt like steam was coming out of my ears. “It was really weird and I doubt I’d ever do it again. Not my thing.”

Evelyn merely raised an eyebrow.

“Mommy,” Praem intoned.

“Don’t you start on that too,” I said to her. “You’ve hardly got room to talk, you’re wearing a maid uniform.”

Perhaps it was my flustered imagination, but I swore I saw a hint of amusement on the doll-demon’s face.

“Fascinating,” Evelyn muttered.

“S-stop deflecting, Evelyn. I know what you’re doing. Is that really your answer? I’m wrong, you don’t like Twil in that way, at all? Look, I-I’m sorry for asking, but I had to know.”

I saw the barbed joke gather on her tongue – but at the last second Evelyn stopped stopped, the ghost of a frown creasing her forehead. “Twil hasn’t been playing silly buggers with you, has she? Made a stupid joke along these lines? Is that what brought this on?”

I shook my head. “No. Nothing.”

Evelyn watched my face intently. “You’re sure?”

“Quite certain.” I declined to share my impressions of Twil’s private feelings. “Would it make any difference if she did like you?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know any of this. Will you take that for an answer?”

“You mean, you don’t know if you’re attracted to Twil, or you don’t know what you’re attracted to in general?”

“It’s not a topic I spend a lot of time thinking about.” She sounded deeply unimpressed.

I was about to apologise, withdraw the subject, allow Evelyn her privacy – we were close friends, but maybe this was difficult for her. Not everybody felt such clarity about their sexuality as I did. Perhaps she was asexual, and perhaps that was none of my business.

Before I could say anything, Evelyn suddenly let out a huge sigh. She attempted to rally her forces once more, but then gave up and spread one hand in the ultimate lazy shrug. “I don’t know, Heather. I don’t know if I’m … ” She grumbled in her throat, covering awkward embarrassment. “If I’m into girls, like you are. It’s not as if I think about cunts all the time. But I have looked at those,” she made a wide gesture at Praem, and I assumed she was talking about the demon’s impressive chest. “Men … I don’t know. I don’t even know if I have a functioning sexuality. At all. Half my body doesn’t work, my brain’s a mess. My mother broke more than even I understand. Fuck it, do you seriously want to hear all this?”

“If you want to share, absolutely. We’re best friends, Evee. If we can’t talk about this then who can we talk about it with? If we can discuss murder and dead mages then I’m pretty sure I’m comfortable talking about what gets you off. Or, what doesn’t. I’m not going to judge you.”

“Of course you won’t, don’t be stupid, I’m not worried about that.” She huffed, then put her weight on her walking stick and held out a hand. “Help me up, my false leg’s gone numb.”

I gave her my hand. In the corner of my eye I saw Praem twitch, as if she wanted to help instead. Evelyn levered herself off the cold stone bench and brushed off the backside of her long skirt. “Was that meant to be a joke?” I asked.

“Sort of.” She shared a grim smile. “I think it’s time I showed you something.”

I stared at her. “Not a … not a porn collection?”

What?”

“I-it’s what we were talking about! I assumed … ahhh.”

Evelyn snorted with laughter. “No. But keep that lightness of spirit, Heather. It makes you wonder-… ” She cleared her throat. “It’s good. We’ll need that where we’re going.”

I asked a silent question with my eyebrows. Evelyn nodded through the sheltering trees, toward the bulk of the mansion towering over the landscape, the roof still visible even from this woodland grotto. “Raine already knows all this, she was here. She’s seen it all. You’re weren’t, you don’t understand. But you’re right, you’re my best friend, and I want you to … ” She shrugged. “Whatever. It’s time I showed you what my mother used me for.”

There was no good answer to that except to follow her.

As we left the graveyard behind, Evelyn did not glance back at her mother’s grave, but I looked over my shoulder to check Praem was following.

She was not. She was locked in a staring contest with a little russet snout that poked from the undergrowth on the far side of the graveyard. Yellow eyes glowed back at her. How bold. I suppose it had little to fear from people, out here.

“Praem.” Evelyn clicked her fingers. “Stop dawdling.”

The doll-demon turned away, shoes clicking to catch up. The fox slipped back into the wild.

I put the animal from my mind; just a fox.

==

Back inside, shrouded once more in the oppressive shadows of the mansion’s heavy beams and solid brick, Evelyn led the way down the kinking spinal corridor. The heavy carpet soaked up the sound of our footsteps and muffled Praem’s escorting tread. Somewhere off in the depths of the house I could the pipes gurgling, a boiler running; perhaps Raine was taking a shower after her exercise. We passed by the kitchen, Lewis happily clanging pans around inside, humming to himself as he worked on tonight’s dinner.

The locked door to the mothballed east wing didn’t look particularly special, no different to any other door in the house. Solid, stout, dark wood. A little dust had gathered on the handle.

Evelyn produced the key she’d browbeaten out of her father, and fitted it into the lock. My throat and my guts both tightened.

I forced myself to take a deep breath. Evelyn wanted to show me her past, she needed me to understand. I had to focus past my natural anxiety. There was nothing to be afraid of here, this place was dead and done. Besides, we had Praem with us. Only Raine made a more effective bodyguard.

Evelyn frowned sideways at me. “We’re not even down there yet.”

“I’m okay. I’m fine.” I smiled, a little embarrassed. “Please do lead on, Evee.”

She did. She pushed the door wide, left it open and unlocked as we ventured beyond. For some reason that reassured me.

The mothballed wing was saturated in darkness, far denser than the rest of the house. All the curtains in the corridor were shut tight, some of them double-layered, all covered in dust. What sort of prying eyes did they hope to keep at bay, out here in the back of beyond, in the woods? Evelyn found a light switch, apparently from memory. Nothing happened when she clicked it up and down.

“Tch. He’s removed the bloody light bulbs,” she grunted. “Idiot.”

“Is it safe to open a curtain?”

“Eh? Why wouldn’t it be?” Evelyn used the tip of her walking stick to sweep one of the heavy curtains aside. Dust billowed into the air. Weak winter sunlight crept over us and filtered down the long barren corridor, catching the edges of wooden door frames and metal handles. The light didn’t reach far, soaked up by the darkness.

“I thought perhaps there was a reason they’re closed? It’s hardly an unreasonable assumption in here.”

“The reason is wilful ignorance,” Evelyn muttered as she squinted along the corridor. “This’ll have to do. You,” she clicked her fingers at Praem. “Open them as we go.”

Praem stepped ahead of us to obey. She grabbed the next set of curtains and drew them wide. Sunlight touched her face, highlighted those milk-white eyes.

“Light,” Praem intoned.

“Yes, light,” Evelyn grumbled.

Most of the mothballed wing was closed up, doors shut, a couple of rugs rolled against the corridor wall. We passed a few open doors, the rooms inside stacked with furniture beneath ghostly transparent dust-covers. A stale smell hung in the air, with undercurrents of harsh cleaning chemicals and aged wood. Evelyn strode with a purpose, walking stick swinging, shoulders hunched, knowing exactly where she was going. I followed a step behind. The shadows retreated before us.

Eventually the corridor ran out, terminated by a stout oak door. This door looked older, shorter, the frame a little crooked. Evelyn clacked the handle down. “Mind your head.”

The room inside would have been beautiful under any other circumstances, a long sitting room with a very low ceiling and a wooden floor, covered in thick rugs. A pair of cracked leather sofas faced each other over a slab of glass and metal trying to pass itself off as a coffee table, all draped with dust sheets. A huge soot-blackened fireplace dominated the entirety of one wall, crowned with a marble mantelpiece, bare except for a skin of dust.

Evelyn ignored all of it, and my curious look. She stalked across the room to a door which hadn’t been apparent until she pushed it open, hidden as it was behind a column of load-bearing wall. Darkness yawned beyond.

I peered over her shoulder. Wooden steps descended between whitewashed concrete walls.

“A hidden door to a secret cellar,” I sighed. “What’s next, eyes in the back of portraits? When does Scooby Doo turn up to solve the mystery?”

Evelyn wasn’t laughing. She shot me a sidelong look. I didn’t blame her, the joke was a weak attempt to push back my own trepidation. I mumbled an apology.

“Don’t be sorry,” she said. “Place is fucking ridiculous, I know.”

“It really is.”

Evelyn slapped a switch and a light guttered on far below.

“Too gutless to go down there and remove the bulbs, I see,” she grunted.

“Evee.” My voice caught, and I had to swallow. “I don’t mean to sound worried, but I’m getting deja vu doing this.”

“Hmm? For what?”

“You led me to a semi-secret underground magical treasure trove once before. You may recall I had a very uncomfortable face-off with a giant spider? Is there anything down there I need to know about, preferably before it surprises me with a giant stinger?”

Evelyn grunted, taking me seriously. “Nothing pneuma-somatic. My mother would never have things she couldn’t see so close to her most important work. The whole place is warded. Best not touch anything though. Raine and I cleaned up everything … ” she waved a hand, searching for the words. “Everything independently mobile, but there’s plenty of sights you won’t want to see, remnants of her constructs. Just follow me.”

I nodded. “Okay. I trust you, Evee.”

“Mm.”

She led the way down the stairs, walking stick clacking. We were spared the cliche of ominous creaking wood – instead the stairs echoed, a hollow space beneath them. The echoes multiplied as we descended to the cellar floor.

Surprisingly spacious, the cellar was filled mostly with empty wine racks, containing only a few moldering old bottles, half-blocking several doors. A sort of butcher’s counter stood in the middle of the space, stacked with old metal kegs, casting a long shadow as the single bare light bulb struggled to illuminate the rear of the space. Modern concrete gave way to mortared stonework, open archways leading off into deeper darkness.

Dank cold air crept down the collar of my hoodie, dark and somehow unclean. I shivered and wrapped my arms around myself.

“How old is all this?” I murmured. The whitewashed concrete surroundings multiplied even the beating of my heart, let alone Praem’s precise tread as she brought up the rear.

Evelyn cocked an eyebrow. “Old enough. Don’t fret, we’re not going back there.” She gestured for Praem. “Open that.”

I felt a modicum of relief as Praem headed for the nearest door, modern and clean, but stared and felt a shiver again when I realised it was hewn from a solid block of stainless steel, with several arm-thick bolts on this side. The doll-demon opened it without effort, on perfectly balanced, silent hinges, then reached inside and clicked a concealed light switch. Harsh bright florescent illumination flooded out, the bulb buzzing in the echoing cellar. Evelyn let out a shuddering breath. I realised her knuckles were white on the handle of her walking stick, her jaw clenched hard.

“Evee?” I reached for her hand, very gently. “Evee it’s okay. I’m right here, okay? We can- why don’t we got back upstairs, wait for Raine too?”

She swallowed hard and shot me a frowning look. “It’s just a Pavlovian response. There’s nothing here anymore. Not really.”

“If you’re certain. Whatever you need.”

“I’m bloody well here already, aren’t I?” she spat. “Fuck it, let’s go.”

Evelyn led me inside, through the steel door. Praem swung to follow us without instruction.

I wasn’t even remotely prepared.

It looked a little bit like one of the less savoury rooms at Cygnet hospital, and a little bit like a torture chamber. A real one. Not a medieval parody; no iron maiden, no rack, no table of rusty implements. That would have been easier, cartoonish.

No, it was a sordid little place. A sour taste filled my mouth as I took in the implications.

The floor and walls were tiled, white, sloped slightly toward a drain in the corner. Easy to hose down. A tap jutted from one wall. An interior wall of thick steel bars split the room a few feet in – a cell, allowing an observer to watch in safety. The cell door stood open, the bars buckled and bent.

Inside that tiled cell, every single inch of wall and floor was covered with a vast, intricate magic circle, in deep midnight black strokes, like dried tar instead of paint. Four layers of magic circle. Between each, entire passages had been written in a script I’d never seen before, ugly and angular.

My head swam at the sheer complexity – but it didn’t hurt my eyes or make me feel sick. The design had been ruined, disarmed. Several sections had been wiped away, smudged, a few tiles shattered.

In the centre of the circles stood a chair.

A little like a dentist’s chair. Reclined. Bolted to the floor. Plastic, wipe-clean. Leather restraints for the forehead, ankles, wrists. Somebody had torn at the armrests, ripped out bits of stuffing.

The chair was child-sized. I swallowed a hiccup.

Evelyn took three steps into the cell, staring at the chair, then turned her head to watch me, watch my reaction. Her breathing was steady, controlled, expression dark but not distressed. She seemed to have mastered her memories. I followed on numb feet. Praem stepped forward to stand a few feet from Evelyn, prim and straight-backed. Only later did I realise she’d positioned herself between Evelyn and the chair. Perhaps she felt protective.

I didn’t even have to ask the question.

“It doesn’t work anymore,” Evelyn said, matter-of-fact. “It’s defanged, no power source, and I ruined the circle.”

I shook my head, glancing around again, then back at her. “But … Evee, what is this? Was this … you were down here?”

Evelyn wet her lips with a flicker of her tongue, and I realised she’d rehearsed this moment. How many times had she relived whatever had happened in this horrible little room? How long had she waited to unburden herself? Raine knew it all, what could Evelyn tell her that she didn’t already know? I steeled myself as best I could. She needed somebody to listen.

To my surprise, she nodded toward Praem. “So, she’s started talking.”

“ … yes?” I felt a catch in my chest. “She has.”

“Why do you think it’s taken her so long?” Evelyn reached up with her free hand and tapped the side of Praem’s head with a knuckle. Praem turned to look at her. A glare? Evelyn ignored her, kept speaking. “Wood. Praem had nothing to work with. Summoning an incorporeal Outsider into a vessel is relatively easy, but Praem didn’t start with a human brain to run on. She had to bootstrap herself, mimic, learn how to think in our reality. Adaptation is slow. The visitor takes time to remember itself, even with a simple thing like Praem here. You following this so far?”

Her voice echoed off the tiles. I nodded, and in my heart I began to see where this might be going. “I think so. Okay.”

“Remember the zombies in the Sharrowford Cult’s castle? Actual corpses. Barely functional, maybe a week or two old, easy to beat and not very clever, certainly not sentient, let alone lucid. Their potential was greater in the long run, yes, dangerously so. A brain, nervous system, sinews, it all gives the demon something to work with, a framework to base itself on, though the shock is greater. With time, every single one of those zombie would have been lethal.”

“Like Zheng?”

Evelyn shrugged. “Perhaps. I don’t know how she was made, or how old she is. A demon that strong would need a very short leash. She might just be stupid, intentionally crippled.”

I nodded. “I’m sorry for interrupting, go on.”

“Even with a real corpse, there’s no electrical activity in the brain, nothing to hijack, nothing to communicate with, to teach it how the mouth works or what words mean, to give it context for what it’s being asked.” Her voice lowered, quiet, almost to a growl. She hunched her shoulders, leaning heavily on her walking stick. The dirty little tiled cell seemed to press in on us.

“I think I see where this is going,” I murmured. My head felt tight, almost feverish. A high-pitched whine threatened at the edge of my hearing.

Evelyn eyed me. “Do you?”

“I’m sorry.” I hiccuped, the horror of this almost too much. “I … this is … please. Tell me. I’m listening. I promise.”

Evelyn nodded. “A real Outsider, a hundred times more complex than Praem, something not far off your Eye – summon it into a corpse, it won’t be able to speak properly for weeks, maybe even months. By that time it’ll have burnt out whatever vessel you’ve crammed it into. Certainly it won’t be able to share secrets from Outside with a ruthless bitch of a mage, no matter what deals she tries to strike with it. No. You want to make deals with a real Outsider, an alien god, you need it sentient from the word go. This,” she glanced at the chair, then stared at me. “This device was made to invite possession of a living human host.”

“Evee. Oh, Evee.”

Evelyn put her maimed hand to her chest. “No prizes for guessing who.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

no nook of english ground – 5.4

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

The old mansion didn’t look any more welcoming by the light of day. Different, but no better.

Fortified in my jeans and pink hoodie once more, I wandered in the general direction of the stairs, surprised by the depth of lingering shadows in the kinked and twisted hallways.

Small windows and heavy beams conspired to limit the stark winter sunlight to a few slim handholds, leaving most of the corridors and larger rooms as a haven of shades. The house clung to a fermenting darkness, and I felt the most intensely domestic urge to start dusting, pulling curtains, opening windows. Family circumstances aside, growing up here would be morose for any child. When we got back home to Sharrowford, I swore I would help Evelyn banish any remnant of melancholy from her bedroom. We’d put up posters, go shopping for plush animals, paint the walls if we had to.

Praem followed me.

I’d discovered – not much to my surprise anymore – that she’d waited for me in the corridor, standing with her hands clasped before her in that absurd maid outfit.

Where had she even found it? Was this how Evelyn’s mother had dressed her own terrifying zombies, back in the day? I pictured a dozen creatures like Zheng, stalking this shadowy maze while dressed like domestic servants.

Okay, yes, that would act as a pretty effective deterrent. I knew Raine could be brave to the point of stupidity, but I still marvelled that she’d once snuck into this house, as a teenage runaway. The place hadn’t been empty back then.

Nobody was in the kitchen, but for the first time since we’d arrived it contained real signs of life. Dirty cereal bowls in the chrome sink, a few crumbs by the toaster, and this month’s issue of Anime UK magazine on the table; Evelyn’s area of interest, though that didn’t seem like the sort of magazine she’d read, due to – or despite? I wasn’t sure – the candy-haired cartoon girl on the cover. Neither did the shiny magazine look like it had spent a car journey crammed into a backpack.

Praem was staring at the dirty bowls in the sink.

“Do you want to wash them up?” I asked after a moment. “Are you trying to be a real maid, or is this just an aesthetic experiment?”

Praem turned her head to look at me, then back at the sink, then back at me, then the sink again. I stifled a laugh.

“Praem, why aren’t you with Evelyn right now?”

“She has sent me away,” Praem intoned, her voice clear and almost musical.

“Sent you away?” I echoed. “From where? What does that mean?”

Praem turned to stare at me again, this time in silence. I studied those milk-white eyes, but her expression betrayed nothing.

“You don’t feel like answering that one?” I mused out loud. “Or maybe some questions are too complex for you? You can’t parse the context, or the web of meaning required to … ”

Praem tilted her chin downward, as if to fix me with an unimpressed glare over a pair of imaginary glasses. Her expression didn’t change, but the intent was crystal clear, and I hurried to correct myself.

“Oh, okay. I’m sorry, yes, you’re more intelligent than that, aren’t you? Perhaps you … don’t like to answer certain kinds of stupid question?”

Praem straightened up, back to normal. I sighed and set about making myself some toast to quieten my rumbling stomach – normally I’d feel terribly intrusive making myself at home in somebody else’s house, but the Saye mansion didn’t feel like a real home. Praem returned to staring at the dirty dishes in the sink, so I formulated a fresh question between mouthfuls of toast and jam.

“Praem, where is Evelyn?” I adjusted my phrasing as the demon-doll turned to me. “Or, where did you last see her?”

“In the garden,” Praem said.

I glanced at the small window inset in the top of the kitchen’s back door, at the sliver of visible lawn and the dark trees beyond. The grounds had looked quite extensive when we’d pulled up in the car last night, there was no way I could spot Evelyn or Raine from in here.

“And why did she send you away?”

That earned me another silent stare.

“Okay, um, what did she tell you, exactly?” I tried. “What were her words?”

“Why don’t you fuck off and make yourself useful? Go see if Heather is awake or something. Go on, shoo,” Praem quoted, empty of emotion or emphasis.

“Oh. Indeed. That does sound like Evee.”

I frowned in thought as I chewed my toast, looking up and down Praem’s immaculate maid uniform again. Assuming she hadn’t lied to me – which seemed unlikely – she’d just demolished my top theory for why she was dressed in that ostentatious outfit. I’d suspected, deep down in a dirty unspoken part of my mind, that Evelyn had squeezed her into the uniform; this must be part of what she got up to behind closed doors with her cuddly obedient demon-host, and Praem had wandered off before Evelyn could stop her.

But that couldn’t be right. Evelyn would never send Praem off to ‘make herself useful’ while the demon still looked like an extra from a raunchy B-movie.

In the cold light through the kitchen windows I had to admit that servility didn’t see like Evelyn’s thing.

“Did you dress yourself in that uniform?”

She didn’t answer that one either.

If Praem was a human being I could have guessed a dozen possible motivations for that outfit – a sex thing, a bit of silly fun, a joke, an experiment with personal identity, a penalty for losing a bet. If Raine had turned up dressed like that I’d have understood her intentions precisely. If Lozzie had appeared to me dressed head to toe as a maid, I would know for a fact she was just messing about.

Praem was not human, and wondering about the maid outfit made it easier to keep that in mind. Her increasingly bizarre behaviour didn’t worry me exactly, though I was vaguely aware that perhaps it should.

At least she didn’t have two bodies anymore. I doubted I’d be able to deal with identical twin maids. Far too high-level for my twitchy, starved sexuality.

“Yes?” Praem intoned after a few moments of my half-amused scrutiny.

“I’m sorry for staring. I was thinking about you, that’s all.” An impulse took me; with Praem so much more talkative, perhaps I could begin to understand how she thought. “Praem, do you know what you are?”

“Do you know what you are?”

I blinked at her. The emphasis was unmistakable. I sketched a shrug, wrong footed. “A human being. Homo sapiens. Female. Nineteen years old, almost twenty.”

“That is the most essential classification from which to understand and interpret your actions. You do the things you do and think the thoughts you think because you are a human being. Indistinguishable from all other human beings.”

My mouth opened and closed in shock. I tried to process what she’d actually said, rather than the fact she’d used big words. She really was more intelligent than she let on.

“Are you … are you being sarcastic?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Point taken. I suppose it would be terribly rude if somebody asked me what I am. I’m sorry if I offended you.”

Praem dipped her head very slightly. Apology accepted.

“So, who are you, then?” I asked gently, though I doubted she cared about tone of voice.

Another silent stare for another stupid question. I flustered and tried to rephrase – when she finally answered.

“You should know that,” Praem intoned. “You named me. I am Praem.”

Now it was my turn to sigh and look unimpressed. “That doesn’t really answer who you are. ‘Praem’ is just a designation. I’m Heather, but that doesn’t tell you anything about me, does it? Did you have a name before ‘Praem’? You had a … an existence, before Evelyn summoned you, didn’t you?”

“Do stars have names, before humans give them such?”

Praem smiled.

It was no better than the first time she’d smiled, when I’d made the mistake of feeding her a strawberry many weeks ago. She could contract and relax the correct muscles – or the tactile illusion of muscles wrapped around a core of inanimate life-sized doll – but that was all, mere mechanical motion. Nothing behind the eyes.

She was trying her best. I forced myself to smile back.

“You don’t have to pull a face,” I said. “Cool and composed suits you better.”

She switched the smile off as quickly as it had appeared.

Her words had reminded me rather uncomfortably of how classical demons were supposed to work, the power of true names. Had I somehow redefined Praem’s nature by naming her?

I sighed at myself. Judeo-Christian demonology was unlikely to apply here – ‘demon’ was just a word we used for an Outsider. Praem was neither fallen angel nor one of Satan’s lieutenants, she was something from outside our own reality, crammed into a physical shell and offered simple rewards. Old literary myth was not a reliable instruction manual for real magic. I needed to ask Evee. I should probably tell her how much Praem was talking, if that wasn’t why she’d shooed the doll-demon away this morning in the first place.

“Feed me a strawberry,” Praem intoned.

I resisted the urge to shrug, feeling a little overwhelmed. “Doesn’t Evee have them?”

Praem glided over to the fridge, her neat black shoes clicking against the kitchen’s slate floor. She opened the door and looked pointedly at me. I’d missed the transparent plastic tub of strawberries when I’d rummaged around for jam earlier.

“Oh.” I took the box from the fridge and opened the lid before the obvious struck me. I squinted at Praem. “Can’t you take one for yourself?”

“Feed me a strawberry.”

“Yes, yes, okay. I suppose there wouldn’t be any point to your deal with Evee if you can just scarf them all down whenever you like.” I selected a nice fat juicy strawberry for her, and held it up, the scarlet fruit cool against my fingertips. “Don’t make this weird now, not like last time.”

Praem’s lips parted with a soft click, and I pushed the strawberry into her mouth, careful not to touch my flesh to hers. Not because I believed it would have some nefarious magical effect, but simply because it embarrassed me. It had last time. Whatever Praem was inside, her exterior was a very voluptuous young woman, and my basic instincts still responded to that.

“Or maybe it’s the act of being fed that matters?” I mused as she chewed. “Somehow, I suspect you’re unlikely to answer that one.”

Praem swallowed. “The fridge air is escaping. It is cold.”

“It is, yes.” I started to close the tub of strawberries when an idea struck me. I watched Praem’s face carefully. “If I give you another strawberry, will you tell me why you’re dressed in that uniform?”

“Yes. Feed me a strawberry.”

“Oooh, not immune to bribery, are you? It’s a deal, okay?” I almost giggled as I picked out a second helping for her, feeling very mischievous indeed. “We’re making a deal, one more strawberry, then you explain, best as you can, okay?”

“Feed me a strawberry.”

I popped the second strawberry into her mouth, then watched her chew as I put the box back in the fridge. She let the door swing shut. Praem swallowed, staring at me. Perhaps I imagined the faintest ghost of amusement passing beneath her features.

“Well? Why are you dressed like a maid?”

Silence.

“Praem?”

“I lied.”

“You … ” I tutted and sighed. “Praem. You lied to get another strawberry? You’re worse than a cat. I think we need to go see Evee.”

==

Out in the grounds of the Saye estate the winter sunlight felt harsh and crisp in the cold air. I was very glad for my hoodie, and the larger tshirt I’d borrowed from Raine’s bag.

Rather than slipping out the kitchen’s back door, I’d retraced my steps to a place we found during last night’s search for Evelyn, a set of wide French doors more glass than frame, which looked across the lawns behind the mansion. I’d stepped out onto a long low patio of grey slabs, neat brick stairs leading down to the lawns. A pathway snaked off between islands of droopy flowers and patches of thin grass, sloping toward the placid surface of the dark lake at the back of the estate. Trees crowded the far bank.

All the brickwork badly needed pressure washing, at least to dislodge the moss and lichen growing in the cracks, though I rather liked the effect. An old-fashioned charcoal barbecue stood off on one side of the patio, next to some rain-warped wooden garden furniture.

I made my way gingerly down the steps, but Praem lingered by the doors. The old brickwork path forked off in two different directions, one vanishing into the trees far to my right.

“You won’t be disobeying Evelyn by showing me where she is,” I said.

Praem stared at me, unmoving. I let out a little sigh.

Above her, the towering exterior of the mansion still crawled with spirit life. The local fauna looked far less ominous in the daylight, hardly the coal-black leering gargoyles my mind had supplied under the cover of darkness. Most of the creatures clinging to the roof tiles and chimneys were small and twisted, scaly green, blinking large slow eyes at the weak sun like lizards in torpor.

They mirrored the house itself, uncomfortable and confused to discover itself still standing to witness yet another dawn. Last night the place had seemed to radiate such grim grandeur. By day it looked huddled and wounded, an aged behemoth with a wasting disease.

I cast around the grounds again, trying to figure out where Evelyn might be, and spotted Raine instead.

She’d just emerged around a copse of trees far off to the left, jogging alongside a visible stretch of the estate’s perimeter wall. Of course, I couldn’t actually make out her features at that distance, but I’d never mistake her fluid athletic gait for anybody else. I raised a hand over my head and waved.

The tiny figure in the distance raised a fist in reply, and Raine changed direction, jogging across the thin lawns toward me.

Even in the nipping chill, with my hands tucked into my armpits, I felt a deep warm flush accompany the smile on my face, as Raine jogged up and pulled to a stop.

“Morning, you,” she said between deep breaths, rolling her shoulders and flexing her neck. “I’d give you a hug, but I’m pretty ripe. Get my message?”

“Yes, thank you. And it is a very good morning, indeed.”

Raine was dressed – or perhaps ‘stripped down’ – in a tight white athletic top and a pair of shorts, absolutely drenched in sweat and panting hard, a big grin plastered across her face. She’d dragged her hair into short ponytail to keep the sweat from her eyes. How did she bear the cold like that? I had no idea, but I was very appreciative of the sight, and the way she stretched her arms over her head when she caught me staring.

“Like what you see, miss Morell?” she asked, a cheeky glint in her eyes. “I do breakfast delivery, you know? Does it still count as your breakfast if I eat you?”

I rolled my eyes but couldn’t keep a smirk off my face. “You brought exercise clothes with you? Really?”

“Hey, it’s a great place to run.” Raine didn’t stop moving. As she spoke she began to bounce from side to side on the balls of her feet, shadow boxing with the air. “Better than a treadmill, no cars, ground’s nice and springy, don’t have to worry about pedestrians. May as well get some exercise. Plus, you know, clearing my head.” She shot me a wink.

“Are you going to be alright to drive again later today?”

Raine stopped bobbing about and straightened up. “Absolutely. Hundred percent. We can be out here soon as we’re ready. Shower, lunch, Evee shows you the map, we’re gone.”

I nodded absently. We had serious matters to think about, but I couldn’t keep my eyes off the way Raine’s sweat-soaked top clung to her abdomen and sports bra. Perhaps it was mere imagination, but for a moment I could smell her over the countryside scents of earth and leaf mulch and damp brick, that spicy hot feminine sweat.

“Heather? You feeling cold?” Raine grinned and thumbed over her shoulder. “Wanna join me for a lap around the lake? It’ll warm you up. I’ve got some spare joggers upstairs, you don’t have to ruin your jeans.”

“Are you serious? Raine, there’s no way I could keep up with you. Don’t be silly.”

She shrugged. “We’ll go at your pace.”

Weeks ago, Raine had coaxed me into accompanying her on one of her trips to the university gym. Once. I’d lasted less than ten minutes on a standing bike before my stamina had given out, sweating and heaving and red in the face. A complete disaster. I’d expected at least a little teasing, but Raine treated me as if I’d subjected myself to the same hour-long punishing treadmill routine as her, not to mention the weights she’d lifted first. At least I got to watch her working out, and she made it very worth my while when we got home and got in the shower.

I hesitated, genuinely considering her offer. Raine pulled a wide windmill stretch with both arms.

“You work up a sweat, I’ll scrub it off you.” She grinned.

I let out a shaking sigh and closed my eyes for a second, to avoid the temptation of her body. I knew I was blushing rather badly. “That would be lovely, but I really need to talk to Evee. I don’t think we should be getting all worked up with each other right now. But thank you. You … you look great, Raine.”

“You know I do.” She winked at me again. “Evee’s over by … the … ” Her eyes drifted up and past my shoulder.

Praem clicked neatly down the steps from the patio to stand next to me.

“Good morning,” she intoned.

Raine stared at the flawless maid uniform, running her eyes up and down Praem, mouth open in disbelief. She glanced at me and I pulled a yes-I-know-I-see-it-too face.

“Good morning,” Praem repeated.

“And a good morning to you too.” Raine burst out laughing. “Bloody hell. You got something you need to tell me, Heather?”

“It wasn’t me, I didn’t dress her like this. It’s not really my sort of thing.”

“She looks like an escapee from a fetish porno. No offence, I mean, you look great, yeah,” Raine added as Praem did that unimpressed head-tilt in her direction.

“I take it you’re not responsible either, then? She won’t tell me.”

“If I’d done that I’d be parading her around.” Raine let out a low whistle. “Wouldn’t say no though. Hypothetically. If she was human I’d say she needs a reduction to save her back muscles.”

“I know. It’s- they’re- yes. A-anyway, I assumed Evee had dressed her, but the more Praem said the less likely I find that explanation.”

“Said?” Raine raised an eyebrow at me.

I shrugged, unsure how to explain, and eyed Praem sidelong. “We had an actual conversation, much more extensive than the good morning she gave you. She’s talking. Not quite like a person, but almost there. I think it’s this place, perhaps it’s waking her up.”

Raine frowned and a sudden shift flowed through her body language, one I knew very well by now. She peered closer at the demon-doll. Praem stared back, perfectly level, expression empty.

“You’re alright, aren’t you?” Raine murmured. “You’re on our side. Or you better be.”

“Yes,” Praem answered.

Raine straightened up and shrugged, relaxed and loose again.

“She’s what I need to talk with Evee about,” I said. “Among other things, I suppose. You’ve seen her?”

“Yeah. Spat fire at me though, so, you know, duck and cover. Might not be quite as bad with you.” Raine looked off to the far side of the estate’s grounds, along the brick pathway which vanished in the trees. “Actually, I dunno if either of us should talk to her right now.”

“Raine, we can’t leave her alone while we’re here. It’s not fair on her.”

“It’s cool, she’s not alone. Her dad’s with her. He took the day off work, spend some time with his daughter, you know. Lucky he can do that. She was … thinking. It’s sort of the spot for that.”

I peered down the pathway too. Beyond the trees, if I squinted, I could just make out a jumbled grey shadow, like fallen masonry.

“That’s where she is?” I asked. “What’s over there?”

“Trees mostly. Leaves. Dirt. Probably a bird or two.”

Raine. What’s over there?”

Raine gave me a pained smile “Evee’s mum.”

==

Despite the dilapidated neglect, I rather warmed to the grounds of the Saye estate. I’d never spent time in the countryside before, not the real countryside, as far as you could get from a proper town anywhere in England. I was a city girl at heart, by habit and history, even if the cities were small and provincial.

Few cars passed on the distant main road, and I had to listen closely to hear them. Birdsong was intermittent but everywhere, and as I made my way through the little wood, the occasional pigeon lurched into the air from the trees above.

Roots had undermined the brickwork pathway, cracked and buckled it from below. The wooden edging had long since rotted away to stubs, overgrown with moss and long grass. These trees had probably once been well-tended, now choked with lichen and creepers, the rich earth between them colonised by a thicket of ferns.

I liked that, for a strange double reason; nature reclaiming imposed order looked good, but more importantly this had all been left to fall into disuse because Evelyn’s mother was dead.

Perhaps she’d enjoyed this garden, perhaps she’d want it to endure. It would not.

The trees parted and fell back. The path continued on, into the Saye family’s private graveyard.

When Raine had told me what lay beyond the trees I hadn’t believed my ears. She’d had to repeat herself, and eventually I’d rolled my eyes and imagined a scene from a gothic horror novel. Exactly what this disaster of a trip needed, the cherry on the cake of stupid spooky house – a private family graveyard full of dead wizards. I’d pictured marble mausoleums, gnarled trees, maybe one of those awful suffering statures with frozen stone tears running down its cheeks, let alone whatever pneuma-somatic guardians the Saye family had left behind. What denomination was a family of hereditary mages likely to follow? Somehow I doubted they were domesticated Church of England types.

The graveyard surprised me. A low masonry wall enclosed less than a dozen headstones, along with empty space for perhaps two dozen more, all the stonework clean and much of it relatively new.

Only two graves at the rear looked truly old, slabs of plain granite, but the inscriptions were still legible. The grass was trimmed and neat. Trees formed a sheltering enclosure on three sides, even without their leaves. The fourth side opened out, the land dropping away in a slow hill with a view of the dark waters of the lake.

There was a mausoleum, but it was tasteful, small, in cream stone with a plain cross on the permanently sealed doors.

Not creepy at all. A peaceful place, very well chosen.

Evelyn was sitting on a stone bench halfway down the graveyard, her walking stick resting across her legs, her back to me. Lewis Saye stood nearby, in the middle of saying something to his daughter. I hesitated at the entrance, suddenly feeling like an intruder on a intimate moment.

Lewis spotted me in the corner of his eye, broke into a big smile and waved one huge hand. “Hullo there! Do come over, don’t be shy.”

Evelyn looked at me over her shoulder. She grunted a good morning as I approached.

“Good morning, Evee, Mister Saye.”

“And a good morning to you too!” Lewis boomed at me, shattering the peace of the graveyard. “I do hope you slept well? The place does tend to creak like a leaky old ship at night, I do know.”

“Tolerably well, thank you.” I forced a smile. Poor man deserved to feel like a good host.

“And you helped yourself to some breakfast, I trust? Can’t have growing girls going without a good breakfast. If you’re still hungry – either of you – I’ve got some bacon in the fridge, I could do omelets for lunch, there’s … there’s … ”

I saw, on both their faces, the exact moment Praem emerged from the trees in my wake.

Lewis Saye did a pretty job of hiding his reaction after the first second of confused shock, and from that moment onward he didn’t even look at the doll-demon again. I realised too late what the sight of her might be doing to him, if Evelyn’s mother had indeed dressed her zombies up as a mockery of domestic help.

Evelyn pulled such a frown. A frown like, well, like Praem had just turned up in a maid outfit.

“She’s following me. I’m sorry,” I muttered, and didn’t know where to look. “I should have made her stay indoors. Sorry.”

Lewis Saye clapped his huge hands together before anybody could reply. “Well, I should really get started on marinading the chicken for dinner, especially if Angeline manages to get away from work early. She’s going to try to make it down to see you again, Evelyn, and I’m sure she’ll be delighted to meet all your friends too. Evelyn was just telling me about you in fact, Heather. All good things though, I assure you, haha!”

The laugh ever so slightly too loud, the grin ever so slightly too forced.

“I’m glad to hear that,” I said, to have something to say.

“Don’t let her stay out here too long, will you?” he asked me with a theatrically serious frown. I caught Evelyn rolling her eyes. “She does tend to mope, my girl. You two come back indoors and I’ll have something hot from the oven quicker than you can get your boots off.” He clapped a hand – gently – to Evelyn’s shoulder, then let go and strode down the pathway back toward the house.

“Dad,” Evelyn snapped.

“Yes? Yes dear?”

She raised a hand. “Keys.”

Lewis hesitated and swallowed. He glanced at me. “Is it really … really necessary?”

Evelyn huffed. “How am I supposed to show Heather the-”

“Yes, yes, I suppose you’re right, you’re completely right.” He blustered over Evelyn’s specifics with a smile. “You’re out-thinking me already. I’m getting old, I swear, you’ll be running rings around me in no time, just li- yes, yes. Quite.” He cleared his throat and extracted a keyring from his pocket, fumbled around to unhook a barely-used spare, before striding back and handing it to Evelyn. He closed her fingers around the key before she could withdraw.

“Now- I- I mean-” he struggled, voice low. I felt like I should turn away, close my ears. “Now Evelyn, you know you mustn’t- mustn’t-”

“Mustn’t what?” Evelyn snapped. “I’m not going to turn into her by spending twenty minutes in her dungeon.”

Lewis Saye straightened up and nodded, big smile strained with effort. He smiled my way as well, nodded again, and then walked off, pointedly stepping around where Praem now stood stock-still behind us.

Evelyn watched him go. I’d rarely felt more awkward in my entire life. Neither of us spoke until he’d disappeared into the trees.

“I’m really sorry I interrupted that, Evee.”

“It’s not as if anything important ever comes out of his mouth.” She caught the poorly disguised shock on my face and sighed sharply, waving me off. “I know, I know I’m harsh with him. It’s hard not to be. He was never there.”

Evelyn looked a little brighter and healthier than she had yesterday, as if the countryside air was doing her good, her face a little less wan, her back slightly straighter. Freshly showered, a clean change of clothes, and I could see she’d even waved a brush in the general direction of her hair. She wore a thick grey fisherman’s jumper, far too large for her, so enclosing and heavy it could have kept out a bullet, let alone the cold. Her hands were half-lost inside the sleeves.

There was a bitter defiance in her face and the way she held herself, moreso than usual.

I suppose I would have felt the same, sat where she was.

“Is this Raine’s sick idea of a joke?” She eyed Praem’s maid uniform up and down.

“No, it wasn’t her, or me either. I assumed you’d put her in it, but then I realised that was quite unlikely, to say the least.”

“It’s grotesque.”

“I think it suits her. I mean- it-” I swallowed, withering under the force of Evelyn’s unimpressed frown. “It makes her boobs look amazing. She seems to have a good sense for that.”

Evelyn huffed and shook her head. “Where did you find that, hm?”

Praem turned to stare at her, but declined to reply.

“She wouldn’t tell me either,” I said.

Evelyn clicked her fingers. “Answer.”

“In a cupboard,” Praem intoned. Evelyn fixed her with a steely look, but then sighed and gave up with a shrug of her hands.

“Maybe,” I ventured, softly. “Maybe she’s acting more like a person, because we’ve been treating her a little bit like a person?”

“That’s not a good thing. She’s going completely off the rails.”

“Make myself useful,” Praem intoned.

“See?” I said before Evelyn could snap again. “I think she was only following your orders, the best way she could. She came to say good morning to me, too.”

Evelyn frowned at me. “Wait, how do you know what I told her to do?”

“She’s been talking. Almost like a real person. We had an – almost normal – conversation. I thought I should tell you. I asked if she knew who she is, and she replied by saying I should know that, because I named her; she’s Praem. I think she’s made that her identity, Evee. I think she’s trying to be a person.”

Evelyn looked between Praem and I, then squeezed her eyes shut and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Great. Wonderful.” She opened them again and shot Praem a look fit to fell an elephant. “I should have you destroyed and sent back where you came from.”

“Evee!”

“You won’t,” Praem intoned.

I blinked at the doll-demon in surprise, but Evelyn seemed to expect that reply. She knuckled at her eyes. “Yes, thank you for telling me, Heather, but I can’t do a damn thing about her now. I’ve lost control, called up what I cannot put down. Be thankful I used a mannequin to make her, otherwise we’d have yet another cluster-fuck bearing down on us.”

“Evee, I really do think she’s on our side.”

“She’s not on any side. She,” Evelyn spat sarcasm. “It. It doesn’t have sides.”

I wet my lips and decided to let this one drop for now. Here, in front of her mother’s grave, was perhaps not the best place to convince Evelyn of anything. Maybe I could find some way to help Praem prove herself, but not right now.

“She,” Praem said.

Evelyn frowned at her, then sighed and glanced back to me. “What did you want, anyway?”

“To see you?”

“Can’t imagine why,” Evelyn grumbled.

“Evee, you’re my best friend, and you’re having a rough time – and yes, I know that’s a strong contender for understatement of the decade. Of course I want to see you, I want to help you. I want to get you back to Sharrowford as soon as possible.”

Evelyn looked away, glowering at nothing, but she did nod ever so slightly.

“You’re my … my friend too,” she muttered. “Yes, that’s right.”

“May I join you?” I asked. She nodded and sniffed, so I sat down on the stone bench next to her. It was exquisitely uncomfortable. “Isn’t your bum cold sitting on this?”

“’Course it is. Easier than standing though. I wanted … needed to be down here, to … ” She waved a dismissive hand at the gravestones in front of her, at one in particular. A slab of black marble, scrupulously clean, the inscription picked out in gold leaf.

I had no doubt who was buried beneath.

‘Loretta Julianna Saye’, the inscription read. ‘1965-2014’

‘God Grant She Stay Dead.’

“Goodness me,” I struggled. “Those are quite the words to put on a headstone.”

“I chose that,” said Evelyn.

I sighed, more at the world in general than this specific moment of absurdity. “Anywhere else I’d assume it was just bad taste, but I’m going to guess in this case it might be literal?”

Evelyn looked at me sidelong to see if I was serious. “She’s in a sealed lead coffin. The burial was a compromise, I wanted the body burned.”

“You mean cremated?”

Evelyn shrugged. “My father insisted she have a proper burial. At the time, I was in no state to stop him, and he could easily have had Raine arrested if he’d wanted. I wouldn’t have survived without her, but he didn’t understand a fraction of what was going on. He never fucking did. Put it out of his mind. Pretended we were normal, even when he was surrounded by all her constructs. The first couple of days after her death, she did attempt to migrate.”

“ … migrate. Okay.”

“Mind transfer. Best with a pre-prepared vessel or a close blood relative, before the magician slips away entirely. So she would inherit my body, crippled as I was, but young and alive, while I would be trapped in her corpse.” Evelyn stared at the grave as she spoke, her eyes boring holes in the packed earth. “She failed, because she hadn’t expected to die, so she’d spent years exposing me to exactly the kind of thing which taught me how to resist. And that’s why she’s the one rotting in the fucking ground,” she shouted the last two words at the grave. I flinched, and Evelyn slipped back into silent smoldering hate.

Very, very carefully, I put one hand on Evelyn’s back, as gentle a pressure as I could. A calculated risk, even if only to let her know I was here, within touching distance. She was not in the ground. She was here.

“That’s one of the most monstrous things I’ve ever heard,” I murmured.

She didn’t shrug me off. A minor miracle. Instead she let out a long sigh, and I knew she was trying to let go. The anger drained out of her muscles, the tide receding to reveal a cold bleakness in her voice.

“Mm. So yes, to answer your question, the inscription is literal. The lead coffin isn’t for her benefit. I found things in her notes, in some of the books, about how the flesh of a mage might imbue certain qualities on the very grave worms themselves. A back up plan, another way out. But she’s never coming back. I got her. I won.”

We skated very thin emotional ice here, and I could see two possible paths. On one path I rubbed Evelyn’s back, I spoke soothing pleasantries, I did everything that one was supposed to do with a friend in intractable emotional pain.

On the other path, I went digging.

All I had to do was speak a few words, prompt her in the right direction. She’d do the rest, if she needed it. How much had Evelyn ever spoken about this? It wasn’t as if she could visit a therapist, what on earth would she say?

Would digging make me too much like Raine? Manipulative, underhanded, trying to manoeuvre a friend into emotional vulnerability, even if it was to help her? Even if my intentions were pure?

Despite no idea what I was doing, I’d spent weeks dragging Evelyn into a real friendship, by following my gut; I had no reason to change tactics now.

“You don’t sound too happy about that,” I said.

Evelyn eyed me oddly, almost hesitant. I could feel the tension bunch up in her shoulders. “I’m not sure you’d understand. I’m sorry, I know you … you mean well … I-”

“I’m not stupid, Evee.” I plunged into the risk, my heart rate spiking. “I can put two and two together, from the things you’ve said, from the way Raine spoke about it. You killed your mother, didn’t you?”

Evelyn let out a huge sigh and nodded slowly, staring at the grave. “She was a monster. A real one.”

“She was. From everything I’ve heard, she was.”

“It was self-defence. It was, Heather, it really was. She took my leg. She ruined my spine. She would have used me up and moved onto another, maybe had another child or adopted one. She was a monster, and I put her down.”

Evelyn turned to look at me, biting her bottom lip – I don’t think she was aware of that, I’d never seen that look on her face before. Her eyes were so bleak.

“So why do I still feel guilty?” she murmured.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

no nook of english ground – 5.3

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

The first and most obvious place to check for Evelyn was in her old bedroom.

Praem trailed behind as we made our way down the twisty, cramped hallway, and I found myself hoping that she’d merely gotten confused. Perhaps the house had befuddled her inhuman senses in some obscure fashion. Perhaps we’d find Evelyn sitting right in plain view, death-glaring at us and ready for a nasty argument. Raine would apologise to her, and that was going to be messy, we had some serious issues to work through, but she would be right there. She had not gone missing. The alternative did not bear thinking about.

“Evee? S’just us,” Raine called, knocking before she opened the door, a slab of polished wood with creaky hinges. “Evee? No Evee. Under the bed? No? Worth a shot.”

I followed her in, and put an involuntary hand up to my mouth.

“Her bag’s still here,” Raine was saying. “And, yup, here’s her phone, so I guess we won’t be calling her. Hey, hey, Heather.” Raine must have caught the look on my face. “There’s nothing to worry about. She’s probably gone back to the kitchen, scarfing down comfort food, or stepped out to clear her head. We’ll find her in minutes, okay? Come on.” She offered me her hand.

“Raine, look at this room.”

“Ahh?”

“This isn’t a childhood home for her. Not even one full of terrible memories. This is an open wound.”

Evelyn’s bedroom – her childhood bedroom – was like a little girl’s princess fantasy. A regular sized sitting room could fit in here quite comfortably. Heavy curtains veiled a pair of deep windows, three spindly chairs ringed a little oaken table, and a huge vanity mirror and double bed dominated the far wall.

The room had been gutted.

I’d seen the effect on a much lesser scale, in my own bedroom at home on the last day before I’d left for university. Treasured possessions missing from their customary places, practical necessities removed, empty gaps instead of living memory.

The bed lacked sheets, a chest of drawers stood open and empty of clothes – except a lonely pair of mismatched socks – and the walls showed dark rectangles where posters had once occluded the light. A low bookcase held only a dictionary and a copy of The Lord of the Rings, rumpled as if tossed down in disgust. I could picture the spots where Evelyn would have stacked soft toys, the way she would have piled the bed with quits and pillows, the enclosing comfort so evident in her room back in the Sharrowford house. This place felt anonymous, nothing of her in here.

Raine gave me a pained smiled. “Yeah, yeah I know. I helped her strip the place out. Never thought we’d have to come back.”

“It’s horrible. Raine, she can’t stay in here.”

Raine nodded and puffed out a slow sigh. “Maybe she went to get some bedsheets?”

I gave her a capital-L look.

“Yeah.” Raine cleared her throat. “Probs’ not.”

==

Over the next half hour I came to know the Saye family mansion, as one might know an intricate and broken torture device, designed by a sadistic genius.

A simple inventory of the house might look perfectly sane on paper – x number of bedrooms, y number of bathrooms, one grand dining room and so on – but could never do justice to the way the snaking corridors kinked in on themselves as if built around the rooms.

Old darkness had saturated the beams and corners down the centuries, lurking in the back of brick fireplaces and underneath heavy wooden furniture, never fully retreating each time Raine slapped about for a light switch on the walls. Blind corners and shadowy recesses were always sneaking up on the unwary explorer – that would be me.

Many rooms joined to others via side doors and little cubby closets. Other than an obvious effort to fight back the dust, most of them looked as if they’d been left untidy for years. Cushions discarded haphazardly, furniture pushed back in strange configurations, beds hastily stripped with the sheets still in piles on the floor. One room struck me as particularly ominous; a side-door had been barricaded with a pair of upturned chairs, long ago left to gather dust.

We peered into empty sitting rooms with cracked leather sofas, and wandered the circumference of a great dining table in a hall with tall windows and tarnished silverware on the sideboards. We wormed our way back to the kitchen and peeked out into a re-purposed utility room, with a little walled-off outdoor courtyard for the bins. We found a locked study where Raine peered through the keyhole. We heard Lewis singing in the bath, and assumed Evelyn was not in there listening to her father butchering Bohemian Rhapsody.

We also passed several tired, listless servitors, hibernating things wound down and curled up, their orders long forgotten.

I’d thought I loved old buildings, such venerable beauty from a different age. This mansion was the exception which proved the rule, cold and vast, too much akin to an impersonal concrete box on a larger scale. The house told me that my tiny flickering life could never fill this void.

I couldn’t think of this as Evelyn’s home. That honour belonged to the house in Sharrowford.

“What if we don’t find her?” I asked as we retraced our steps along the ground floor’s main spinal corridor, my voice an unbidden whisper. “The last time Evelyn went missing, she got lost in another dimension.”

Raine shook her head and shot me one of her easy confident smiles. “She’ll be around here somewhere, might be hiding from us though. This old hulk sure is a good place to play hide and seek, full of nooks and crannies. We might be at this for a while yet. You holding up okay, wanna go sit down?”

“What if she’s hurt herself?”

“On purpose? She’d never do that, not our Evee.”

“Raine, she self-harms constantly. It might not be razor blade marks on her wrists, but the way she punishes herself is just as real.”

Raine paused with an oddly thoughtful frown, then nodded. “Yeah, yeah there’s places she could go here that would mess with her head. We should check out the mothballed wing, that’s where her mother used to keep all the hocus pocus, but I asked Lewis and told me it was all locked up. Here, back this way.”

Creeping around dark corridors together had smothered my earlier arousal, given me time to watch Raine and think uncomfortable thoughts.

Raine had lied to me.

She’d lied to Evelyn and I, manipulated us – yes, ostensibly for our own safety, in her self-appointed role as bodyguard, and I did believe that justification. Or at least I believed that she believed.

I couldn’t help how that had turned me on, made me feel safe, made me feel right. Even thinking about it now I felt a little shiver of attraction. Raine’s elemental nature pressed all my sexual buttons, buried my anger and frustration under a tidal wave of arousal. She hadn’t even meant to do it.

From the first day I’d met her, I’d let Raine get away with so much, because she was hot and she liked me and her unhealthy behaviour made me feel good.

Sooner or later I was going to have to deal with the realities of being desperately head-over-heels in love with a sociopath.

Praem wasn’t reassuring company right now either. She’d lapsed back into her habitual silence, lurking a dozen paces behind Raine and I. Several times she’d made me jump when I’d turned around and she’d been standing there in the shadows, staring at nothing. At least she was easy on the eyes. I could ogle her chest through her jumper all day long and at least she wouldn’t try to manipulate me.

“Heather?” Raine called.

“Mm?”

I turned away from the voluptuous doll-demon. I’d gotten distracted, as Raine had pulled ahead a few paces.

“She say something?” Raine asked.

“No, sorry. I was just admiring the view. So to speak.”

Raine quirked an eyebrow in surprise, and I felt a sudden blush colour my cheeks. Oh dear, I had actually said that out loud, hadn’t I?

“W-what?” I tried to meet Raine’s amazement with smoldering indignation – and the feeling came far too easily. “I can’t look at her? I’m sure you must do, on occasion.”

Oh no, oh Heather, what are you doing?

Baiting your girlfriend into an argument, because you’re angry and can’t express yourself properly, because an argument with Raine is a hundred times easier than dealing with how Evelyn has vanished into her ancient crumbling ancestral home full of exhausted spirit life and the wreckage of her family.

Let’s have it out, Raine, right here in the middle of this absurd old house with my best friend missing and a demon watching us. Let’s have a blazing row about sexual attraction and basic respect and I’ll break down at you for lying to me and you’ll try to win me back by screwing my tiny stupid brains out but I’ll shout at you before you get the chance and-

Raine laughed.

“Course you can look at her. She doesn’t give a damn, and her jugs are out of this world.” Raine grinned, cheeky and confident and a little dirty. The sort of grin that made me melt. It faded when I failed to laugh at her joke. “It’s just, you know, you never say stuff like that. You’re horned up real bad, aren’t you?”

“That’s one way of putting it.”

“Ah.” Raine swallowed and dipped her head. “Right, yeah, you’ve got every right to be mad at me.”

“I’m-” Not mad? I looked down at my feet and crossed my arms, so I could tell the truth. “I am mad. And aroused, and pent up. And worried and hurt. I want you to not lie to me ever again.”

Raine took a step closer, in my peripheral vision. “I can’t make that promise. You know I’d only lie to you to get you out of harm’s way.”

“And I hate that I’m okay with that,” I hissed.

“Do you hate me?”

Not a shred of accusation in her voice. No bitterness, no uncertain tremor. We’d shared each other for months now and she was utterly unafraid of rejection. How did she do it? She took another step closer.

“Don’t be stupid,” I said to her feet. “I’m in love with you. I just wish … ”

“Wish what?” Raine murmured, and touched her fingertips to my folded arms.

I pulled away.

“Don’t. You’ll turn me on again and I’ll forget what I’m trying to say. You want to be my protector? Well then. Oh dammit,” I snapped, as much at myself as at Raine. “Are we really having this talk right now, with Evee missing, in a dark corridor in the spookiest house ever? Raine, if you want to be my protector, then you may need to protect me from aspects of yourself. You need to never lie to me again.”

I forced myself to look up and meet Raine’s eyes – a mistake. Deep, rich brown, always so expressive and intelligent, and right now creased with such confused conflict.

She almost shattered my hastily constructed defences with a mere shake of her head.

“Heather, I never meant-”

“And don’t say it was to keep me safe, because I like it when you say that, it makes me feel good, and I don’t want to feel good about you lying to me. You can’t do that to me, Raine.”

Raine drew herself up with a deep sigh and closed her eyes, as if cleansing herself, and suddenly I was the one wracked by fear of rejection.

Was this what Evelyn had warned me about, so many weeks ago?

My mind raced a hundred miles an hour. Of course Raine was going to lose interest sooner or later. Look at me, small and scrawny and weird, compared to this amazonian beauty, the simplest of my emotions tied up in knots in front of her blazing clarity of purpose. If I wouldn’t serve those purposes, she’d move on, as soon as all my complaints could no longer be drowned out with sex.

I did my best to harden my heart.

I did not do a very good job.

“You’re right,” Raine said, eyes still closed. “You are completely right, Heather. Yeah, I know I’m not very good at seeing these things. Promises don’t mean much if they’re easy to keep, so-” She opened her eyes and juddered to a halt at the sight of me. “Heather? Woah, woah, Heather, it’s okay, you-”

“Finish what you were saying,” I managed to squeak.

“Are you-”

“Finish!”

“Sure thing, boss,” she almost laughed, amusement covering her concern. God, I loved the way she could laugh anything off, even when it infuriated me. “It’s a difficult promise, but a promise I have to try – I’ll never lie to you again. Even to protect you. Might have to make some forced tactical errors, but you’re right, you’re more important than that. I’m kind of a fucking idiot that you had to explain that to me. Some philosopher I am.”

I nodded. Had to look away from her.

“Heather? You really look like you need a hug right now. Can I?”

“You may,” I whispered.

Raine wrapped her arms around me and I buried my face in her shoulder. Oh, that was better. That was much better. Silly, paranoid Heather; Raine was an impossible sociopath, but sometimes it was easy to forget she had chosen me, even if I didn’t understand her reasons. She rubbed my back in muscle-melting circles. Neither of us spoke for a long moment. I listened to her heartbeat.

“Thought you were about to break up with me,” I eventually croaked.

What? No fucking way. Oh Heather, I’m still kinda a mystery to you, aren’t I?”

“I suppose you are.” I managed a little shrug.

We let go of each other after another moment of shared comfort, but Raine made a point of holding my hand and ruffling my hair. I sniffed and nodded at her smile, and then she raised her eyes past me.

“Hey Praem,” Raine said. “Sorry for all the drama.”

How embarrassing, to have an audience for such a personal moment. At least Praem wasn’t capable of caring. I glanced over my shoulder at the doll-demon – and found, to my incredible surprise, that Praem’s milky white eyes were creased by a subtle tightness. She stared for a heartbeat, then spoke.

“Find. Evelyn.”

“ … is she pissed off with us?” Raine asked.

“I think she is. I’m sorry, Praem. And also she’s right, we do need to find Evelyn. I can’t believe we stopped to have a miniature relationship crisis in the middle of all this.” I rolled my eyes to gesture at the absurdity of the house all around us.

“Right you are then.” Raine rolled her shoulders. Always a good sign.

“You have a fresh idea?”

“Smart money says she’s either gone out to the car, in protest, or she’s hiding, maybe pressured her dad into unlocking the east wing. We’ll check out the front first, then go find Lewis. He’s probably done with his bath now. We’ll just have to hope we don’t get an eyeful of naked old man.”

“Ew.”

“Come on.” Raine grinned at me and turned to set off.

I glanced back at Praem one more time. “Do you have suggestions … for … ”

Praem did not have any suggestions, but perhaps she would have if I’d been able to finish the question.

A fox was sitting behind her.

Right in the middle of the corridor, those cute little black-furred paws pressed neatly into the carpet, golden eyes glinting in the gloom. We made eye contact; I froze in shock.

A tug on my hand, Raine attempting to lead me onward. Suddenly the fox stood up, twitched its ears, and raced away down the corridor on silent paws. It slipped around a corner, a flash of russet in the dark.

“Heather? You getting one more dose of Praem’s rack?”

“No! No, Raine, didn’t you see that?”

Raine shook her head, eyes flicking down the corridor on instant high alert. “A spirit?”

“No. It was a fox, it was normal. It just … Raine, where does that hallway lead, around that corner?”

“That way? Couple of connecting rooms between the two wings. All the stuff on the far side’ll be locked though, Evee wouldn’t- oh.”

“Oh? Oh? Don’t ‘oh’ at me and stop.”

Raine shot me a pained smile. “Oh as in ‘oh shit’. I know exactly where Evee is. Come on.”

I struggled to keep up, even hand in hand. Raine’s stride threatened to break into a run, though we walked less than fifty feet. Hurrying down the side corridor where the fox had vanished, thinner and more claustrophobic than the main spine, we climbed a small set of stairs. Raine paused with a sharp frown at a trio of doors. I gulped down air to get my breath back.

“Where is she? Raine, where are we going?”

“This uh, reading room thing. Place. I should have known, but she hasn’t been back there, ever.” Raine remembered the correct door, grabbed the handle, and led me through.

A short stub of corridor, with only one door at the far end. Raine let go of my hand and raced ahead. She burst through the door all in a rush, raising her voice. “Evee? Evee, it’s us. Evelyn?”

I crept in behind her, my heart in my throat.

Reading room, right; Raine did display an occasional talent for understatement.

We’d emerged through a side-door into a space more akin to a library hall or great viewing chamber, or the study of a master inventor from the age of discovery. The vast room occupied both floors of this part of the mansion. The upper floor formed a wide walkway around three walls, ringed with meticulously organised bookcases, reached by a staircase at one end. The echoing space was poorly lit by wall sconces, half the bulbs burnt out or missing. A pair of free-standing lamps put up a valiant defence against the oppressive gloom. The towering curtains were caked in old dust.

All dark heavy polished wood, several tables and desks stood at different points around the room’s bare floorboards as if for separate projects, stacked with all manner of bric-a-brac in a state of terrible disarray: disassembled electronics, a half finished oil-paint canvas of a landscape scene, an entire deer skeleton laid out bone by bone, a series of anatomical specimen jars filled with cloudy liquid, a set of grotesque clay statues of worms with wings and teeth, and a half-dozen other mysteries too complex to take in at a glance.

One table was on its side, contents strewn across the floor. It had been that way for a long time. Dust covered every surface, including the floor, except for a single pair of dragging footprints and the trail of a walking stick.

A part of one wall was cracked and cratered, the plaster scorched black around the edges, the damage blurred by time and dust.

Evelyn was sitting in a chair, hunched over with her chin in her hands.

She’d been staring at the old scorch mark, but she looked up as Raine and I blundered into the room. Even before she opened her mouth, even with that thunderous frown on her face, relief flooded my chest.

“Evee!” I said.

“Stop shouting, the pair of you,” she snapped. “My ears work perfectly well.”

Raine sighed through a smile, relief plain as she shook her head.

“What?” Evelyn demanded.

“Evee, are you okay?” Raine asked.

Evelyn pulled a face as if Raine had suggested she take up molesting animals. She glanced at me. “What have you been doing to her now? Are you both high on mushrooms? What an utterly idiotic question. Do I seem alright? You tell me.”

“Of course you don’t seem alright,” I said before Raine could put her foot in her mouth. “Praem couldn’t find you, we were so worried. I-I thought maybe you’d- I don’t know. I was worried about you, Evee.”

Evelyn snorted and looked away.

“Wow. Well. This sure is the last place I’d think of to look for you,” Raine said, as she crossed to the nearest of the heavy old desks and cast an odd look around the room, at the scorched crater Evelyn had been sitting and staring at. I realised there was a huge stain on the floorboards nearby, a years old splatter that had stripped the polish and warped the wood. Two more scorch marks, like meteor trails, had chewed into the floor not far away. “What on earth are you doing in here, Evee?”

“Sitting down,” Evelyn drawled. “To enjoy my holiday.”

Raine dipped her head in silent apology. Evelyn frowned at her like she’d gone mad.

“Is this where it happened?” I asked softly. They both looked at me, Raine with a frozen wince and Evelyn with deep shadows in her eyes. “I apologise for asking, but under the circumstances I think it’s better to have it in the open. This is where your mother died, isn’t it?”

Evelyn nodded and made a grumbly throat-clearing noise. She followed my awed glance at the cratered wall. “Not there. That was where she tried to stop me.”

What on earth could one say to that? ‘I see’, or ‘I’m sorry’, or some other useless platitude? None of that would help Evelyn.

“Why hasn’t any of this been cleaned up?” I asked instead.

“Nobody’s set foot in here since.”

“Then maybe you shouldn’t be sitting alone in the room where your abusive mother died. If you want to sit here, I’ll pull up a chair too.”

Evelyn looked like she wanted to slap me for that one. I didn’t blame her, and I’d take it too. Some wounds never close.

Praem chose that moment to join us, crossing the room to stand next to Evelyn’s chair, prim and proper and very straight-backed indeed. Evelyn eyed her with open suspicion, until Praem turned her head to meet her mistress’ gaze.

“You required help,” Praem intoned.

“Shut up. Not another word. God dammit, I specifically told you not to … ” Evelyn trailed off in barely contained frustration, with a telltale guilty glance at Raine and I.

“Wait a moment,” I said. “Did she lie to us? Praem, did you know where Evelyn was this whole time?”

Raine raised her eyebrows and let out a low whistle. “Clever girl. Very impressive. She found a way around your orders, Evee.”

“She’s getting worse,” Evelyn hissed. “Should never have made her.”

“Evelyn,” I said. “She saw you were in pain and went for help. That’s not evil voodoo zombie territory, not at all. Thank you, Praem. Was that you, with the fox back there?”

Praem turned to stare at me, in silence.

“What fox?” Evelyn asked. “What’s she done now?”

“Back in the corridor?” Raine asked. “Heather saw something, I thought it was a spirit, and then I worked out you’d come here.”

“I-” I struggled to phrase the words. It hadn’t looked anything like a spirit. “Sort of, I don’t know. Praem?”

Evelyn slapped Praem in the leg with her walking stick. “Answer.”

“Not I,” Praem said, icicle cold.

Evelyn shrugged with shoulders and eyebrows, more than a little unimpressed.

“Did you see a fox come through here?” I asked her.

“A fox.”

“I’m serious. Evee, don’t look at me like that, stupid things happen to us all the time. Woodland creatures walking through walls is relatively minor compared to half the things I’ve seen since I met you two. Yes, I turned around to ask Praem if she had any ideas about where you might be, and I saw a fox in the corridor. It went around a corner, and technically it led us to you. Is there any reason there would be a magical fox in here?”

Evelyn rolled her eyes and spread her hands. She couldn’t have looked more exasperated if I’d enquired as to whether bears defecated in the woods. “This place is lousy with magical echoes and leftovers. It could have been anything. A pneuma-somatic fart.”

“Okay, good. Thank you. I’m sorry for snapping.” I swallowed and felt a little sheepish.

“Could Praem be telling another porky?” Raine asked.

“Truth,” Evelyn snapped her fingers.

“Not I,” the demon-doll repeated.

“It was probably just a spirit.” I was trying to convince myself as much as my friends. “I’m not used to them looking like real animals. That’s never happened before.”

“Hey, maybe Lozzie sent it,” Raine suggested. I demurred with a silent frown; I’d love that, but it seemed unlikely.

“Yes, that would be all we need, wouldn’t it?” Evelyn grumbled, venom in her voice. “More unexplained visitations from your mysterious friend. Let’s complicate matters as much as possible, shall we? Raine can seduce my father’s latest romantic prospect, and I’ll go play with my mother’s unfinished work.”

I let it wash over me. Evelyn was in a kind of pain neither of us could share, and we needed to make this right.

“Evee,” I said with a meaningful glance at my girlfriend. “Raine has something she needs to tell you.”

Raine cleared her throat and straightened up. Evelyn’s frown thundered back onto her face.

“Oh no, don’t tell me you two have decided to get fucking married?”

“What? N-no. Evee, no, it’s nothing to do-” I halted, blushing. “Raine, stop grinning, you’re meant to be apologising to her.”

“Yes, yes, ahem. Evee, Evelyn, I’ve lied to you about something. To you and Heather. She figured it out, and made me realise I owe you an apology, because I’m a shit and I’ve hurt you. I … I think the Sharrowford Cult was about to hit the house, so I lied to get you and Heather out of the city for a week. I’m sorry. It’s my fault you’re here, dealing with this.” She gestured at the echoing hall all around us. “We’ll leave tomorrow, we’ll get out. I’ve been a dickhead.”

Evelyn listened with a raised eyebrow until Raine was done. “Repeat that last part.”

“I’ve been a dickhead?”

“Again.”

“I’m a huge dickhead.”

“Mm, you are.” Evelyn allowed herself a thin smile. “But you’re also not half as clever as you think. It’s not a very good lie if I see through it before you finish telling it.”

“You knew?” I asked, gaping at her.

“Of course I bloody well knew.” Evelyn shot me an incredulous look. “You didn’t? Raine’s awful at lying. One of the few things that makes her tolerable.”

“Ow,” said Raine.

“I thought she bullied you into coming.”

Evelyn scoffed. “Not likely.”

“So I’m the only one who didn’t know. Lovely.”

“I assumed we were all in on it,” Evelyn grumbled, then shot Raine a look. “You must be armpit deep in the doghouse.”

“Evee,” Raine tried to stay on course. “You’re my best friend, and Heather made me realise that maybe I’m jeopardising that, regardless of our history.”

Evelyn gave her a long, silent look. “You get points for fessing up. Barely.” She sighed as if letting go of something, and pinched the bridge of her nose. “You know, Heather, she never would have apologised in the past. She’d just have lied and moved on. And no, I don’t want to fucking be here, but you didn’t bully me into it. The filth in Sharrowford are broken, I accept that, they won’t touch my territory again. I came because I owe Heather a proper look at the map.” She cracked her eyes open and shot a bitter, sidelong glance at me as she spoke. “What the hell are we doing back here, Raine? I waited years to get out of this Godforsaken hole.”

“Like I said, we can leave tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow’s too far away,” I said, and made a snap decision. “Evee, you’re sleeping in the same room as us tonight. Not in your old bedroom. I saw it, and just, no. I won’t let you. I’ll sleep in an armchair, you and Raine can have separate sheets on the bed.”

“Don’t be-”

“Evelyn Saye, you are not spending this night alone.”

Evee blinked at the force in my words. She turned away and nodded. “Fine.”

“I’ll take the chair,” Raine offered. “Come on Heather, you need the bed.”

“And you drove all the way here. You take the bed.”

“I can sleep in the Goddamn chair,” Evelyn grumbled. “But if you two start humping I’ll have Praem turn the garden hose on you.”

==

Winter sunlight woke me, and I woke alone.

Evelyn’s absence I’d fully expected. A night in an armchair is uncomfortable for anybody, let alone with Evelyn’s catalogue of aliments, but I hadn’t wanted to spark an argument by insisting she take my spot in the bed. I’d had just as much trouble sleeping in the unfamiliar surroundings, with all the creaking sounds of the house’s ancient frame settling in the cold weather, so I’d had plenty of chances to see Evelyn curled up in the chair as I’d tossed and turned in bed.

Doubtless she was up and about, dealing with her aches and pains. Her bag was still by the chair, along with a spare skirt and thin jumper draped over the arm.

“Raine?” I called into the silence, sitting up and drawing my legs to my chest under the unfamiliar covers. Then I tutted at myself. This was a safe place, I didn’t need her for every little thing. I disentangled myself from the sheets and climbed out of bed, winced in the cold and the lance of harsh light through the room’s one small window.

My mobile phone had one new message – from Raine.

It was a picture of me asleep in bed, sent about an hour ago, with a pink heart shape drawn in the corner. I’d rolled over to hug the pillow in lieu of Raine herself. She’d attached a message.

‘Looked like you needed the extra sleep! Gone for a run around the grounds, need to work out the kinks. As I type this, Evee’s downstairs eating breakfast with her dad, big score!!!’

I smiled at the picture and blushed, enjoying the feeling. I looked terrible, drooling on the pillow. This was better, this was how we were supposed to be.

When I turned around to find my clothes I almost jumped out of my skin.

“Don’t sneak up on people like that! Oh my God.” I put a hand to my chest. “ … what on earth are you wearing? No, that’s perverse, this must be joke. Praem?”

Praem stared back at me from just inside the now open door. She must have opened it and stepped inside in perfect silence as I was reading Raine’s message.

Praem was dressed in an utterly immaculate, perfectly pressed, rigorously starched maid uniform. Not some faux-saucy fetish outfit, but a full-length black skirt and those stupid ruffly shoulder straps which crossed over the middle of her back. She even had a pair of shiny black shoes on her feet, though her long blonde hair was still in the same messy bun from yesterday, exactly like she was a teenage girl in low-effort cosplay. The whole ensemble served to emphasise her already sizable chest, and I did find myself staring for a moment, before I shook my head. I suddenly felt a little exposed, in rumpled sleep-smelling tshirt and pajama bottoms.

“You should not be wearing that,” I said. “It might suit you, but signalled servility is no virtue. Who dressed you?”

“I am not servile,” she intoned, in that ice-cold knife-sharp enunciation of every word. “I am saying good morning.”

I boggled at her. Was that the longest, most complete sentence she’d ever spoken?

“Good morning,” Praem repeated.

“Good- good morning, Praem.” I swallowed. “I do need to get dressed now, so if you could … ”

Without another word, the doll-demon turned on her heel and marched back out. Her head briefly reappeared around the door frame. She stared at me, and closed the door after herself.

“We really do need to get out of this place,” I muttered to myself.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

no nook of english ground – 5.2

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Evelyn’s father was indeed at home.

He was a huge bear of a man. Despite the initial shock at three hundred pounds of six-foot-five blonde bearded viking bounding down the estate’s front steps, I warmed to him instantly.

“Evelyn!” He boomed, arms wide, ruddy face lighting up in a huge smile beneath a squashed boxer’s nose. “You should have called! I had no idea.”

“Yes, well.” Evelyn gave him a very level look. “Here I am.”

He laughed, a jolly, rolling sound. “Here, give your old man a hug!”

He strode up to us and lifted Evelyn right off her feet. I had to suppress a flinch. That would have been terribly rude of me – this man was no monster, just uncommonly large, in every direction. I contented myself with a small step backward, though I needn’t have bothered; he was completely absorbed in embracing his daughter.

“Don’t pick me up, you oaf!” Evelyn spat. “Put me down!”

He weathered his daughter’s outrage with more jolly laughter, and set her down very gently.

I couldn’t help but notice he held onto Evelyn for a moment longer than necessary, to help her find her unsteady feet and brace her walking stick firmly against the ground. He’d swept her into that hug many, many times before. I wondered if he’d dropped her once, how often she’d stumbled and fallen over as a child, unused to her prosthetic leg and the chronic pain.

“Here, let me get a good look at you, I haven’t seen your face for months,” he said, hands on her shoulders. He pulled a theatrical expression of careful scrutiny, bunching up his bushy eyebrows. “Mmm, yes, I suspected so.”

“Suspected what?” Evelyn snapped.

“That you are as fantastic as the last time I saw you, my dear.”

“You’ve been drinking.”

“Two glasses of wine with dinner, that’s all. No harm in a little lubrication now and then.” He chuckled through Evelyn’s very unimpressed look.

“A little,” she growled.

“Oh, Evelyn, Evelyn, you really should have called ahead, I would have put something in the oven for you and your friends. You’re lucky I was even here, I spent yesterday night in the city. We just won a big case, and I went out drinking with the judge afterwards – all a bit hush hush on that though.” He winked broadly and put a stubby finger to his lips for a moment. “So, tell me, how long are you and your friends planning on staying? The university term is just ending, isn’t it?” He cast a cursory glance over myself, Raine, and Praem, didn’t seem to take us in before he looked back to his daughter. “All the way ‘till Christmas? I was supposed to be taking Christmas dinner with Angeline, but I can change plans, we could have your aunt and uncle over. It’ll be wonderful, the house will be full up for once!”

When Evelyn had opened up about her past, she’d called her father a ‘weak fool’. No description seemed less apt for this animated giant of a man, the wide sweeping gestures of his ham hock hands, the weight of muscle beneath his gut. He should be striding across some ancient battlefield in a Norse Saga, hefting a war axe – not squeezed into suit trousers and a neat shirt with the sleeves rolled up, in 21st century rural England.

Father and daughter shared little resemblance – except for the glorious golden blonde hair. Evelyn had inherited that from him, just as wild and thick, though her father was going grey from the temples upward.

Everything else must have come from her mother.

“I’m not staying long,” Evelyn grunted.

Her father did a poor job of concealing his puppy-like disappointment, though he did try, and I believe in that moment I came to completely understand the man.

“Well! Well, however long you’re planning to stay, first off you should probably all come inside and get out of this dammed cold!” He laughed at his own simple wit, playing the gregarious host, making big gestures with his hands as he looked around at the friends who had brought his daughter home.

“Bloody right,” Evelyn muttered, but she made no move toward the front door.

He wasn’t exaggerating. A biting cold was creeping up on us. Even sheltered by the bulwark of the house and the density of the trees, the December night’s chill cut through my pink hoodie and sapped my strength, leeching away the lingering heat from the car ride. I seemed to feel the cold more acutely these days, as if the repeated use of hyperdimensional mathematics had turned me partially cold-blooded. I did rather desperately want to get indoors.

One of my greatest flaws, I was too polite to make a move before our host did. I scrunched up the ends of my sleeves around my hands. At least my teeth weren’t chattering, yet.

 “Have you eaten on the road?” Evelyn’s father was asking, as he gestured at the house. “I’ve got leftovers, all sorts. Some cold lasagna in the fridge, probably some part-baked garlic bread to spare too. I’ve got some, um … ” He nodded recognition to Raine, who smiled back at him. “Raine, yes, uh, glad to see you’re well.”

“Always doing great, thank you.” She hefted our bags in one hand and closed the car’s boot. “And how have you been?”

“Oh, fine, fine, yes, quite.” He swallowed, purging himself of a nasty taste. he turned his smile on Praem and I. “And who are you two young ladies? You must introduce us, Evelyn.”

“This is Heather,” said Evelyn. “She’s my … friend.”

“A friend? An actual friend? Well, blow me down with a feather.” His eyebrows climbed like a pair of fat caterpillars and he grinned with genuine delight as stuck out a hand toward me. “Very pleased to meet you then, Heather. You have no idea how much of a relief it is that she’s finally making some friends at university.”

He presented a strange sight, this giant of a man framed by the bulk of the spider-servitor behind him, that he couldn’t see. What was it like, living in this house, in the unseen wreckage of his dead wife’s work? Two minutes earlier I would have found him intimidating, but now I felt sorry for him. I gave him my best smile and shook his hand.

“Heather Morell,” I said. “That’s me, I mean. Mister Saye?”

“Do call me Lewis, please.”

“She’s one of us,” Evelyn added.

“Ah.” Lewis Saye’s smile froze for a fraction of a second; another fumbled attempt to suppress his gut emotional reaction, and this time it made me feel awful. For an eye blink, so short I would have missed it if I hadn’t been shaking his hand, this viking throwback was wary of me.

Then the moment passed, and he was all welcoming and big smiles again.

“Ah, well.” He shrugged, then burst into a good natured belly chuckle. “I shan’t hold it against you.”

I was gripped by the most bizarre urge to apologise. Instead, for once in my life, I managed to say the right thing. “Evelyn’s a great friend to me. She really is.”

“Ahhh, I expect no less of my girl.” He beamed at me, though in my peripheral vision I saw Evelyn roll her eyes. “That’s wonderful, wonderful. And who might this be?” Before anyone could stop him, Lewis Saye turned to Praem and stuck out his hand. “Delighted to meet you as well, I’m sure … I … oh.”

Praem stared back.

That little ‘oh’ was so small and defeated. His bluff and bluster fell at the hurdle of Praem’s eyes. Lewis Saye’s smile died, leaving only numb shock. He retracted his proffered hand and took an uncertain half step back from the doll-demon. Praem just stared, a few strands of her long blonde hair loose in the wind.

Lewis looked to his daughter for help, tried to form a question, managed only to swallow.

“Oh for God’s sake, yes.” Evelyn scowled. “It’s exactly what you think it is. Deal with it.”

“She,” I corrected softly. Evelyn let out a huff.

Lewis was absolutely lost. He blinked at Praem with a shadow of the expression I had imagined for my mother’s face when I presented her with Raine, but tainted with equal parts fear and surrender. The look of a man who knows he is powerless to avoid certain horror.

“She’s made of wood,” Raine said quickly, stepping up to fill the gap with her effortless confidence – and literally, stepping forward and handing Praem one of the bags, looping the strap over the demon’s shoulder. Praem adjusted to the weight, tilting slightly. “A life size doll, you know, like a shop mannequin. We’ve had her for weeks, she’s perfectly safe. Not that bright, either.”

“Her name is Praem,” I added.

Lewis blinked at me. “Na- name?”

“Y-yes. Yes,” I said, and felt especially lame.

He turned back to Evelyn. “In- in the house? You want it … to come in?”

In the tremor of his voice I heard an echo of how he must have been with her mother; this was what Evelyn had called weak. My heart went out to them both.

“No, I thought we’d station her out here to stand around and scare off the birds,” Evelyn said. “Of course in the house, what’s the point of having her otherwise? You lived most of your life with far worse under your feet.” She shouldered past her father’s wavering hand and trudged up toward the house’s front door, leaning heavily on her walking stick.

“Have things-” he turned to Raine, a distraught frown on his face. “Have things gotten that bad in Sharrowford?”

Raine smiled that endless confidence and shrugged her shoulders. “Nothing major. We had to deal with a couple of problems, that’s all. Praem’s just insurance.”

Nothing major?” I couldn’t stop myself. Raine had the good grace to look a little sheepish as she shot me an apologetic smile.

“I-I thought … ” Evelyn’s father shook his head, casting his eyes across the semi-circle of tarmac and the thin grass beyond as if searching for help. “I- I should- she can come to me about anything. She- … ”

“About our kind of stuff?” Raine asked.

Lewis Saye stared at her blankly. Then he swallowed and turned away, to follow his daughter up the steps to the front door, underneath the overhanging bulk of a giant pneuma-somatic spider he couldn’t even see.

When he was beyond earshot, I let out a huge sigh. “That went less than well.”

“Give him about twenty minutes, he’ll be right back to normal,” Raine murmured. “Hey, he’s a hell of a bloke, he spent twenty years dealing with her mum. You don’t marry a mage for two decades without a pretty thick skin.”

“Raine, that is a deeply traumatised man,” I muttered under my breath. “How much does he even know?”

“Oh, he’s totally clued in. Sort of.” She shrugged. “He doesn’t like it. Seriously, twenty minutes, he’ll be cracking bad jokes again. Even if Evee starts an argument with him. Hell, especially if she starts an argument with him, that’ll perk him right up.”

I shook my head, watching as Evelyn stepped inside the house with her father at her heels. The last dregs of sunlight drained from the sky, orange sunset snagged on the very tips of the distant trees. Darkness closed in in tight behind us – rural darkness, no streetlights or urban light pollution out here. The windows of the great house cast the only illumination. Darker shapes scuttled and scurried in the deepening night beyond. When I looked up, I could see so many more stars than I usually would.

“Feed me a strawberry,” Praem intoned.

“Someone’s hungry,” Raine said. “Where’s Evee keeping the zombie food?”

“In her bag, I think. Later,” I added, glancing at Praem’s impassive face.

Raine gently touched the back of her hand to my cheek. Her fingers were so warm. “Hey, Heather, you’re freezing. Let’s get you inside, yeah? You know, the house has a couple of actual fireplaces, we could get some wood, light one of them up. I bet you’d love that.” She smiled and took my hand in hers, moved to lead me up the steps.

“As long as there’s no madwoman in the attic.” I let out a little sigh. “I suppose I don’t have a choice now, do I?”

Raine cocked an eyebrow at me. “You always have a choice, Heather. Always. You could tell me – right now, right here – to get back in the car, get Evee in with you, and drive out of here. And I’d do it, through the night. I would. If you feel unsafe, you feel wrong here, I’d do it. I swear.”

“Raine, don’t be ridiculous.”

“You think I’m exaggerating?” she asked, dead serious, and stopped two steps higher than me.

The addition to her already considerable height advantage intimidated me in an obscurely pleasurable way – I ached to tell her her so, and stumbled over a response.

“Of course you’re not exaggerating, but it’s still ridiculous. Why don’t you tell me what to do for a change?”

I hoped the darkness would hide the blush in my cheeks. I hadn’t meant to say that, and I didn’t entirely know what I meant by it.

On the steps of Evelyn’s house, beneath a giant pneuma-somatic spider, was not the place to have this particular conversation. I eyed the giant servitor hanging above us, attached to the side of the house. The size of the thing sent a little animal tremor through my chest, but somehow I couldn’t summon any deeper fear of the battered, ancient creature.

This place was done, a long time ago.

“Heather?” A curious grin broke across Raine’s face. “Should I be-”

“Besides,” I spoke a little too fast, a touch too loud. “This place isn’t scary. Not really. Like you said, it’s got beautiful architecture.”

“Mmmhmm, mmhmm, sure,” Raine nodded and eyed me with a quirk to her lips. “Come on, we should get inside. You need to eat something before you conk out, at least.”

I nodded, but turned to look behind me one last time, still hand-in-hand with Raine.

Praem had remained unresponsive amid all this drama, staring out into the darkening garden. At first I thought she was locked in silent communion with the night, and I was going to call for her to follow us, but then I realised something was staring back at her.

That fox again, barely twenty feet away.

It caught wind of my attention, huge vulpine ears swivelling to listen to all the little sounds of the night. It was beautiful, far more beautiful than the house; that sleek pointed face and deep russet fur, the way it locked eyes with me for a skittish heartbeat.

Then it bounded away. Praem turned her head to look at me.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” I said, talking about the fox.

“Beautiful,” she echoed, her icicle voice lingering on the air.

==

We didn’t last two hours until Evelyn went missing.

Raine was correct, Lewis Saye did perk up in record time. His transformation back to gregarious mirth was so fast and so complete that I would have suspected him of sneaking off to pop some pills, but he was around us the whole time for that first hour, not so much as five minutes in the toilet to fortify himself. Evelyn had forged ahead alone, but her father bustled back to the entryway all small talk and big laughter once more, to usher us deeper into his grand echoing shell of a home.

In the short walk from the front door to the main kitchen, the house revealed precious little of itself; from the white plaster and old tile of the entryway nook, we crossed the house’s main corridor, a kinked spine with a partial skeleton of exposed dark beams. Shadows lingered in the unlit depths to our left and right. Thick carpets soaked up the sound of our footsteps.

Lewis Saye was true to his word, he had a wealth of leftovers in his well-stocked fridge. He plied us with pasta reheated in an expensive microwave, fresh crusty bread and newly opened packets of fancy chocolate biscuits.

There was something wrong with that kitchen. Something out of place.

My mind chewed on the problem, as Evelyn brewed in sullen silence at the far end of the wooden table, as Raine dumped our bags on the floor and set about assisting Lewis with the food, much to his obvious discomfort.

“Please, please, do sit down, it won’t be a moment, won’t be a moment. Neither of you are allergic to anything, are you?” He boomed about, clattering plates and cutlery to fill the silences. “Never can tell these days. No? Healthy young women all of you, then. Double helpings!”

“I’ll drink to that,” said Raine.

The kitchen didn’t feel real – none of this did.

All faux-rustic brick and shiny chrome fittings, thick slab shelves and tan slate flooring. None of it could disguise the tilted set of the walls, the cramped ceiling, the tiny windows. A modern skin over a reality far older and far less grand. Nothing in here looked really used, like the kitchen in a holiday house.. Even the food in the fridge was too neatly wrapped in cling film, no half empty packets of sandwich meat or forgotten bags of cheese.

I sat down at the table, distracted, and Evelyn met my confused look with a dark frown.

“Why do you look so gormless?” she muttered.

“I … don’t feel like we’re really here.” I shrugged.

“Lucky you.”

Her tone could have etched steel.

A few minutes later Lewis was in full swing again, once he’d sat down at the table and I’d worked out the best way to politely phrase my real question, between mouthfuls of lasagna sauce.

“Oh no, I don’t do the cleaning myself,” he boomed with a grin. “You’re quite right, it’s far too much house for that. Even if I wasn’t such an old brute! Ha! Yes, I have a cleaner in twice a week. Though, of course, there’s places she can’t go. Of course, you all understand all that. Of course.” He waved a hand and smiled with boyish guilt. “The whole east wing is mothballed, in fact, pipes drained, furniture covered. Must keep the property price up, you know? Can’t be having it go to seed.”

Evelyn snorted at that, picking at her food.

Her father glanced at her fondly and allowed himself an indulgent chuckle. Perhaps complete tolerance was the only coping mechanism he knew. Had he learnt that from dealing with her mother?

The man did love to talk. I discovered he barely lived here, gathered he was a lawyer by profession, spent more time in London than out here in the ancestral pile – though he’d been the one to marry into it rather than the other way around. He punted easy question after easy question at his daughter. How was university going? How was the Sharrowford house faring? Was she getting any exercise? Did her leg need a replacement yet? All surface level. He didn’t even ask how she’d met me.

Evelyn fielded the conversation with monosyllabic disinterest, so Lewis made the effort to include Raine and I, asked what I was studying, where I was from, what my parents did.

What did any of those things matter?

“It’s a pity Angeline wasn’t down here with me this weekend,” he said. “I’m sure she would have loved to see you again, Evelyn. I know, I know, it’s a little strange for you, and she can never … um … well, you know. Family and all that.”

“Dad.”

He blinked. I froze up. It was the first time she’d used that word.

“Yes?”

“I don’t even remember who she is,” Evelyn growled.

“Oh, oh no, that can’t be right. You met her, when I came up to Sharrowford last year.” He grinned awkwardly and turned to Raine and I. “My lady friend. She was from another city firm. Rather a bit of drama about all that. A long story.”

“I remember her face,” Raine said. “Twenty years younger than you, right?”

“No, no! Certainly not!” Lewis blustered and harrumphed, then burst out laughing. “Ten years. I know, I know, I’m a lucky man.”

“You old dog,” said Raine.

I kept hoping he would launch into questions about goings on in Sharrowford, ask why we were towing a demon around, question how exactly I was ‘one of us’ – but he didn’t. He never asked a single real thing. He dealt with Praem by completely ignoring her.

Pretending we were all normal people.

Your daughter and I spent a night in a pocket dimension full of soul-eating monsters, where we killed an evil wizard. Why is this not important to you?

The sense of unreality grew worse, and I realised it had been lurking there in the back of my head for two weeks. This inane conversation over a bizarre meal was a mere catalyst. Why did I feel like I wasn’t really there, in that too-clean kitchen, surrounded by hollow talk?

I should have paid attention to Evelyn, small and shrunken in her seat, staring at nothing. She was hurting. But I didn’t belong here.

I belonged Outside, didn’t I? With Lozzie.

==

“We shouldn’t be here,” I said.

After the meal, Lewis had bustled about finding us a spare room suitably near Evelyn’s old bedroom. Not that the house lacked for spare rooms. By that point I was flagging hard, dragged down by a belly full of food and a need to curl up and shut the world out. Perhaps if I slept then this feeling would go away.

Up a staircase with two small inset landings, through more corridor of bone-white plaster and dark brown beams. I glimpsed a servitor or two lurking down the hallways of the great house – a spider the same size as the ones back in Sharrowford, and some kind of monitor lizard in a cold fireplace, but they paid me no attention beyond a passing look.

Once Raine and I were alone – Lewis having bustled off somewhere down the corridor – I’d sat, then flopped backward onto a clean white bedspread. We had a double bed in a high-ceilinged room, panelled in dark wood, dim wall lights sculpted as fake candles. Like a room from an early twentieth century detective novel.

Raine had rummaged in our bags for a toothbrush and a change of pajamas, said something inane about how I must be sleepy.

I’d pulled myself back into a sitting position, hunched inside my hoodie with my arms folded, and spoken.

“We shouldn’t be here.”

Raine raised an eyebrow. There was something dark and smoky about her in the low light, in this antique room. “I meant what I said earlier. The moment you feel unsafe, we can be out of here.”

“No, no,” I shook my head and squeezed my eyes shut, partly to clear my mind and summon what scraps of focus I could. “It’s not that. Where’s Evee gone?”

“Ahh? Her old bedroom, I think. It’s just down the end of the corridor.” Raine gestured over her shoulder at the half open door, then pulled a sheepish, toothy grin. “Didn’t you notice? I tried to go with her, but … ” she shrugged.

I gave her the best hard look I could manage.

“Heather?”

I sighed, then set about struggling out of my hoodie. Suddenly it felt constricting. I got it halfway off my head before I felt Raine’s hands on my arms, helping me take it off. I shook myself out and smoothed my hair down.

“I know, Evee’s having a rough time of it,” Raine was saying. “Give her five minutes alone and we should go on a charm offensive, cheer her up a bit, get-”

“A ‘rough time of it’?” I echoed – exactly as sharply as I’d intended, puffed up with indignation as I hunched on the bed. “She hates this place. It’s hurting her. I can’t believe you bullied her into coming here.”

Raine laughed it off, my pink hoodie limp in her hands. “Bully Evee? I don’t think either of us could bully her into anything.”

“You did, Raine. How can’t you see it? It’s like forcing me to go back to Cygnet hospital for a scenic weekend.”

“She … ” Raine glanced away from me, her smile flickering. “She needs to face it. It’s therapeutic.”

“Raine! That’s not your decision to make!”

“Ahh … I mean … yeah. I … ”

It hit me the split-second before Raine crumpled, before she let out a huge sigh and slid down with her back against the wall until she was sitting on the floor, face in her hands – I’d never seen her so conflicted, never seen her struggle like this. I could barely believe the impact of my own words.

“R-Raine?”

“Ahhhhh shit. I’ve been a right fucking dick, haven’t I? I’ve really fucking messed up this time.”

“Raine? It’s okay, it’s not the end of the world, we can- A-are you okay?”

She looked up with a sad smile, defeated but not broken, and raised both hands in surrender. “I’m fine, I’m fine. You’re completely right. It wasn’t my decision to make, and I’ve … really hurt Evee this time. And now you think I’m a nasty bitch too,” she gestured at me and puffed out a mirthless laugh. “Bang up job, Raine old girl. Well fucking done. Can’t even pull off protecting you two without screwing up.”

She sighed and ran a hand through her hair, that rich chestnut hair, a few errant locks standing up in bold loops.

I’d never seen Raine vulnerable before, not really; with the strange alchemy that lay in the junction between emotional distress and sexual attraction, I suddenly wanted to get up and go over to her.

She wasn’t doing it intentionally. I don’t believe she was aware of the effect.

I shook my head, trying to concentrate. “Raine, I don’t follow. Protecting … ?”

Raine gestured vaguely, at the house around us. “An old magical fortress. One of the safest places in the whole country.”

“Not for Evee, it isn’t. Raine, you … you … ” Realisation dawned with a sudden click. “Wait, is that why we’re here?”

Raine dipped her head, an instinctive bob of pleading for forgiveness.

“That’s why we’re here,” I said. “Oh my God. Raine.”

“I may have been economical with the truth,” she said.

“You thought the Sharrowford Cult was going to attack the house!”

“Maybe.”

I stared at her in disbelief.

“If I’m right,” she continued, “then the house gets hit, the spiders deal with it, and none of us get hurt – not you, not Evee. Maybe she has to spend a few hundred pounds on a new front door, but that would be the worst of it. If I’m wrong, then hey, we needed to do this trip sooner or later anyway. You have to see that map if we’re ever going to rescue your sister. We can leave tomorrow, I promise.”

“Why … ” I swallowed, my throat dry, but Raine already knew the question. Why lie?

“I never would have gotten Evee out of Sharrowford. If I’d said I thought the cult might come for the house, she’d have boarded the windows and barricaded the door. You know how she is. Hell, I get the feeling you know her better than I do, these days. We both love her for it, don’t get me wrong, but she’s stubborn as a ox.”

“You- you didn’t have to-”

“I’m sorry,” she said, and I saw a tightness around her eyes. “I know, I’m a shit, but I have to keep you safe. Both of you. And I’m not doing a very good job of it lately.”

“What? Of course you are. Raine, I’m angry because you lied, not because I think you make a poor protector. For pity’s sake, I watched you shoot in a man in the head for us.”

“That doesn’t count for much.”

“Of course it does, don’t be absurd,” I hissed.

“After that woman in the library … all I could think about is how I wasn’t there. She could have done anything to you, and I wasn’t there. Blind luck that she wanted to talk. I wasn’t there, Heather, I wasn’t at your side. I wasn’t there for you in that castle. We got separated, and you were alone. I wasn’t there for you when that bitch of a zombie tried to snatch you again. I wasn’t there. I had to lie to get you two out of the house, out of Sharrowford, just for a few days. And I would do it again. I’m sorry. This is me.” She shrugged.

The intensity in her words, the passion, the iron-hot conviction; I felt myself shiver, and not in a bad way.

My lover had lied by omission. I should have felt hurt, betrayed, insecure – instead I was turned on by her justifications. This was vastly unhealthy, and I couldn’t make myself care, because I wanted to feel turned on.

Vastly unhealthy. Story of my life.

“You … ” I stumbled over a response. My words felt limp. “You could have told me the real reason, at least.”

Raine shook her head gently. “I would have been asking you to lie to Evee, and I can’t make you do that. This fuck up is my responsibility.”

“No, it’s not,” I hissed. “Killing for me – fine. Lying for me? No, never.”

Raine blinked in surprise, as if she hadn’t expected that. Truth be told, neither had I, and I was too caught between irritation and arousal to consider the implications of my words. Raine nodded, puffed out a humourless laugh and smiled at me.

“I’m sorry, Heather. You’ve been so stressed, ever since we came back from that weird castle place. Like you’ve been ill, or at one remove from everything. I didn’t want to stress you out any more than you already-”

“Is this why you haven’t been screwing me?”

Raine slammed to a halt.

The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them. We had more important things to think about – not least, whatever pit Evelyn was stewing in, all alone – but I couldn’t help myself. A hot blush rose in my cheeks. I forced myself to stare at Raine.

“I- Heather?” Her distress lifted just a fraction, a grin edging back onto her lips.

“Oh God, it felt good to say that. That’s the most real thing I’ve said in days.” Suddenly I hiccuped. “So? “You’ve been handling me like I’m a dying swan.” Another hiccup.

“We’ve … I mean … we have-” Now she couldn’t keep the grin off her face.

“Not in the good way.” Hiccup.

“The ‘good way’?”

I rolled my eyes. “You know exactly what I mean. Don’t pretend otherwise.”

She spread her hands in a shrug. “You want me to pin you to that bed and hold you there for an hour?”

Oh, damn her, that grin made my stomach flutter – that was more like it, that’s what I’d needed for weeks. This was real. With every second that passed, the bubble of unreality deflated further, and I felt more human again, less cold-blooded.

I gave her a bit of a look – more to cover up the pressure of my volcanic arousal than to tell her off for flirting.

“Come on, Heather. Yes or no?”

Yes, obviously yes. You know that.” I shook my head in a vain effort to clear the pink mist, and hiccuped again. “Raine, I haven’t … haven’t felt completely human since whatever I did to kill Alexander. Since Lozzie left. Like I’m still there in that castle, in that moment I killed him. It’s always there. And I’m always cold.”

Raine wiped the teasing sexual mirth off her face instantly. She got up from the floor and crossed to the bed, sitting next to me without a trace of her former distress. She reached out, a silent question in her eyes. I answered with a little nod, and she stroked my head.

“You’re right here, Heather. You feel that way because it was a traumatic night, and you made a difficult decision. You’re right here. I promise.”

“Then why haven’t you been … ” I averted my eyes, blushing again. Courage had fled me.

Raine smiled. “I got it wrong. I misjudged all your signals. I thought you were feeling fragile, needed a gentle touch. You need the opposite?”

I nodded, deeply embarrassed, biting my lower lip.

“It’ll make me feel more human,” I said in a tiny voice.

“Sure thing,” Raine purred.

“Not right now though,” I managed, then swallowed. “We need to talk to Evee, tell her the truth.”

“That’s gonna sting.” Raine winced and sat back. “No less than I deserve, I suppose. It’ll have to be a proper apology. I’ll have to fetch my genuflection mat, flatten my forehead a bit.”

“We could have left her in Sharrowford with Twil for three days. That might have been therapeutic for her.”

Raine smirked – back to normal. “What, getting her laid?”

“O-obviously.”

“I still think you’re off the mark there. Twil’s not into her.”

I held out a hand for my hoodie. “Here, give me that back, please. I feel cold without it.”

Raine did one better than that, she helped me wriggle back into the fuzzy enclosing warmth of the hoodie, pulling it down over my body and sneaking her hands up inside. I squeaked and squirmed and felt myself flush. The little physical rituals of disarmament after a brush with conflict escalated too quickly. Raine got one knee between my thighs and suddenly I was on my back on the bed and-

Praem chose that exact moment to push the door open and step into the room.

Raine and I sat up and parted, brushing hair back into place, like guilty teenagers caught necking. As if Praem cared. I hadn’t realised how close we’d gotten, how flushed my face was, how we’d been inches away from grabbing at each other.

“Hey there, doll-face, what’s up?” Raine asked, including me in a curious look. I shrugged.

Praem stopped two steps into the room, facing us. To my surprise she actually made eye contact – or what passed for eye contact when one didn’t posses pupils.

“I have lost Evelyn,” she announced, voice like a tone struck from a wall of ice.

“What? What does that mean?” I blurted out.

“It just means Evee’s wandered off,” Raine said, frowning at the demon as she stood up. “I’ll go find her.”

“We’ll both go find her. I could do with a little walk.”

“Walked for fifteen minutes,” Praem interrupted. Her head adjusted to regard me. “I have lost Evelyn.”

Raine and I shared another look.

“Praem just doesn’t know the house, that’s all,” Raine said slowly. Her frown gave the lie to her words. “She’s like a dog in a building that used to have lots of bigger dogs living in it, so many strange lingering smells everywhere that scream ‘threat’ – but no actual threats.”

“Implying I am afraid,” Praem intoned.

She did not sound impressed.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

no nook of english ground – 5.1

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

We’d been southbound on the M1 for about an hour when I nodded off in the back of Raine’s car.

She let me sleep until we stopped at a service station on the outskirts of Leicester. Evelyn got out to stretch her muscles in the early December cold and glare at the world; climbing in and out of the car wasn’t the easiest thing for her. We all bought terrible petrol station sandwiches and a huge bag of cheese and onion crisps to share. Praem stayed in her seat with her hands folded in her lap, though when we squeezed back into Raine’s beaten up old car and pulled back onto the road, the doll-demon turned her head to stare at the passing farmland and skeletal winter trees.

There wasn’t much else to see on the motorway, the endless asphalt ribbon carrying us out of the North. I wondered if Praem saw what I did, the pneuma-somatic spirit life infesting every nook and cranny, tentacled masses of flesh dragging themselves along underneath the concrete overpasses, leering wolf-things loping down the hard shoulder, towering giants cresting the horizon between the towns and villages. At one point a moth as big as a bear alighted on the roof of the car in front of us. It watched the sky for a second, antenna twitching, then took off again in a blur of wings.

“Look at that lad, that is a hell of a car. Wonder how much all those mods cost him. Absolute beast. Hey, there’s a slogan etched on the back window, what does that say? Heather, you’ve got the best eyes here, can you read that from back there?”

“ … ‘The Piewagon’, it says.”

Raine burst out laughing. She slapped the steering wheel.

She’d kept up a heroic one-woman effort at conversation while she drove, and I did my best to help, but Evelyn brooded in dark silence. She’d spoken less than a dozen words all day.

At first it had all seemed an adventure, as we’d taken the winding route out of Sharrowford’s warren of streets that morning, and the grey rotting city had receded in the rear view mirror when we hit the motorway. This was the kind of adventure that university students were meant to have, a road trip in a rickety but reliable old car, a few changes of clothes in the boot, and the company of real friends. Stiff legs from sitting too long, cold hands tucked up into my sleeves, on a journey together that was neither dangerous nor suicidal. Normal. Explicable. Safe.

I didn’t understand the first thing about cars, but even I could tell that 270,000 miles on the clock was rather high, even for what Raine had affectionately called an ‘old banger’. But her driving made me feel perfectly safe. She was defensive, deliberate, decisive. If Raine said it was safe, it was safe.

Safe, yes. Raine was making me feel a lot of that, this last week.

And not much else.

I tried not to think about what that might mean.

Long car journeys were all bad childhood memories for me. Trips to or from the mental hospital, rocking and crying to myself at the things I’d seen following the car. Between hallucinations and blackouts my parents had quite understandably vetoed me learning to drive. My father had driven me up to Sharrowford at the beginning of fresher’s week in August, the start of term, and spent a whole day checking out the university with me, making sure I was settled in, that I wasn’t on the verge of a relapse. Cars were just another extension of the medicalisation of my life.

Except this trip. This was a road trip with my smoking hot girlfriend, our rich best friend with a family home in the country, and a demon possessing a dubious internet-bought sex doll.

At least, that’s what I reminded myself, while the car filled with the tension of Evelyn’s black mood and my inexpressible sexual frustration.

==

Evelyn had stewed in her foul temper for days, ever since Raine and I had returned from the unexpected confrontation with Amy Stack.

“You did say you’d think about it,” Raine had said to her, lounging in a chair by the kitchen table. “And we both know you need some real down time, as much as Heather does. You’ve been running yourself ragged for weeks now, and yeah, guilty as charged, I’m sort of responsible for letting you do that. Heather won’t let me live it down if I don’t stage an intervention sooner or later.” She glanced over at me with a grin. “Right? I promise, one hundred percent I won’t hold it against you if you disagree. Don’t you think we all need five minutes out? We should get out of the city, just for a few days.”

“I … ” I was lingering by the doorway, caught between the desire to support my girlfriend and an urge to flee the threatening storm clouds on Evelyn’s face. I was still frazzled after the ambush in the library, my mind still on Stack and Alexander, on giant zombies and my missing friend, my Lozzie.

Hadn’t quite adjusted yet to the implications of visiting Evelyn’s family home down in Sussex.

Evelyn glared from behind a thin barricade of dirty mugs. I believe she was dreaming up ways to murder Raine. Hunched down in her seat, glowering silently, she reminded me of a crocodile lurking beneath the water.

“I’m not so sure,” I said eventually, tried to put some steel into my voice. “What if Lozzie tries to contact me, or comes to visit? She won’t know where I am.”

Raine paused and nodded. She took me seriously, but Evelyn rolled her eyes in a moment of incredulity, one that would needle me for days before I admitted it.

“She can find you in dreams, can’t she?” Raine asked.

“I guess she can … ”

She hadn’t so far. Not so much as a peep.

“We could leave a letter for her as well, right here,” Raine patted the tabletop, then caught Evelyn’s glare again. “Loosen your grip for five minutes, Evee, I’m serious. Come on, we won.”

“We had won,” Evelyn corrected with a snap. “Until you two were accosted by an assassin in the bloody library.”

“Hey, she’s only an assassin when she’s doing the assassinating. Today she was a messenger. A crap one at that.”

“From another mage, in my city.”

“Apparently not in the city, like I said,” Raine spread her hands and smiled. “That’s good news, right?”

“You never cease to amaze me. Your stupidity is matched only by your credulousness.”

Raine shook her head and laughed without humour.

I risked Evelyn’s ire by clearing my throat, forced myself to speak when she turned that glare my way. She seemed equally as irritated, no special softening for me. “I think I agree with what Raine said earlier.”

“My condolences to your brain cells,” she grunted.

Evelyn.” I put some gentle scold into my voice

She looked down at her lap with a long suffering sigh. “My leg hurts,” she muttered, scooted her chair back, pulled up her skirt to the middle of her thigh, and set about removing her prosthetic leg in full view. I blinked, taken aback for a moment, unsure if this was a passive aggressive gesture or if she really was in pain.

“Evee, hey,” Raine said, leaning forward, apparently unperturbed by the sight of Evelyn rolling the rubber socket down her thigh, and wiggling her stump out of the black prosthetic knee. “I know why you don’t want to go visit home, and-”

“Do you?” Evelyn snapped without looking up. “Do you really?”

“You two need to stop. Both of you,” I said. “Maybe we can all take a step back and … ” But Raine raised a finger toward me and I trailed off.

She stared at Evelyn. I shut my mouth, frowning and fuming in silent protest – what was Raine pushing for here? The silence stretched out as Evelyn massaged the muscles in her truncated thigh. I thought of a dozen excuses to leave the room. An explosion was brewing.

Eventually, Evelyn glanced sidelong at Raine.

“Yeah, I think I do know why,” Raine said very softly.

“Oh yes,” Evelyn snapped back. “Because my father is just going to love seeing you at the house, isn’t he?”

“S’not about me,” Raine said, just as softly. How she kept her cool in front of that razor tongue, I don’t know.

Evelyn glared for a moment longer, then she finally broke, a hard swallow making her throat bob.

“Hey, it’ll be fine, I promise,” Raine said, that beaming smile slowly breaking across her face. It didn’t seem to work on Evelyn. “We scoured that house from top to bottom, you know it’s probably the safest place in the whole country-”

“Safety there is not the issue,” Evelyn growled.

“And Heather and I are gonna be with you the entire time,” Raine continued. “It’s not like you’ll be by yourself, I’d never make you do that, I’d never even suggest it. I wouldn’t let you even if you wanted to. All three of us, together. Take Praem too, for insurance, or if you need a bed-warmer. It’ll be fun, and we don’t have to linger there for long. We can swing by Heather’s parents’ afterward – hey,” she turned to me with a big smile. “I gotta meet your mum and dad sooner or later, haven’t I?”

“Oh.” The bottom dropped out of my stomach. That was far worse than Evelyn’s glare. “Um, I suppose you should. You should.”

“The answer is still no,” Evelyn said.

“And we need to show Heather the map,” Raine said, as if it was an afterthought.

“Ah. The – the map,” I echoed. “I’d forgotten.”

“Evee’s map of the universe. Gonna have to do it eventually, so we may as well kill two birds with one stone. We can peep the map and then chill out, do whatever we want. We don’t even have to stay there more than one night. I promise.”

Evelyn let out a heavy sigh, mood sinking rapidly. “Is that what this is really about? The map? You two go if you must. I’ll call ahead and tell my father you’re coming, he can show you the blasted thing himself.” She shot a dark look at me. “You’ll come running straight back to Sharrowford, trust me. Won’t even make it through the front door.”

Raine laughed. “Evee, Evelyn, I love you, and there’s no way in hell I’m leaving you here alone.”

“Then I’ll invite Twil to stay for a week. How’s that, hmm? Does that satisfy you?” Evelyn snapped. “Will you allow me to drop out of your absurd trip then?”

“Twil’s got school, Evee.”

Evelyn waved a dismissive hand. “I am not leaving Sharrowford when there’s still these vermin infesting my city.”

“We’ll only be gone a few days,” Raine said. “Your spiders have got this house on lockdown, nobody’s getting in here uninvited short of a driving a tank through the front door. You know that, come on Evee. Stop deflecting.”

“Alright!” Evelyn exploded in Raine’s face. I flinched and could have sworn I jumped six inches back. “I do. Not. Want. To. Go. Alright?” She punctuated each word with a jab of her fingertip against the tabletop. “Is that what you wanted to hear? I don’t want to. God. You got me out of there, why make me go back again? I don’t want to think about it anymore.”

Raine adopted an expression I remembered all too well, one I associated with the most emotionally comforting moments of my short life, that unconditional compassion and penetrating understanding, the look she’d used with me in that dirty Sharrowford cafe on a cold and lonely morning. The look that had won me.

If I’d known what she was about to say to Evelyn, I would have hidden behind the door.

“Maybe visiting the grave will help,” she said.

Evelyn’s glare sunk into frozen darkness. For a moment I thought she was about to hurl her prosthetic leg at Raine. I opened my mouth and did my best to save them both, the only way I knew how.

“Evee,” I said her name as confidently as I could. “Don’t listen to Raine, she’s bullying you and I don’t understand why. You don’t have to come. Twil can keep you company.”

“Heather, I’m not bullying her,” Raine laughed it off. “She-”

Raine,” I scolded.

Evelyn turned that abyssal glare on me. Oh dear, I thought, that was not what she needed to hear. I’ve completely misread her and I’m a terrible friend. Her mouth snapped open to bite my head off and I stiffened, ready to take the abuse, let her shout at me – but she stalled at the last moment, trailed off, left it all unsaid.

She seemed to shrink, retreat down inside herself. She covered the stump of her leg with her skirt and stared at the cold mugs on the kitchen table.

“Of course I have to bloody well come. You’ll fry your brain without me,” she muttered.

==

The vibration of my mobile phone woke me up again, just as we were turning off the M25 to take the long dual carriageway down into Sussex, as the London greenbelt sped past under the fitful clouds of the afternoon sky.

I blinked at my phone screen and rubbed my eyes, then started as a follow-up message made it buzz in my hand. I clicked the phone onto silent with an embarrassed glance at my friends in the front seats.

“Why not give her a call right now?” Raine asked, without taking her eyes off the road. “You could pass the phone forward, I’ll say hi.”

“Absolutely not,” I said. She didn’t even need to ask who it was from. “You’d say a lot more than just ‘hi’. I’d die of embarrassment.”

“No way, I’ll be on my best behaviour! I could introduce myself, we’ll get all the awkward stuff out of the way on the phone. By the time I actually meet your parents they’ll be totally adjusted to the idea. I’m serious, call them back.”

“I see that grin. I know what that means.”

Raine took one hand off the steering wheel and mimed speaking into a phone. I rolled my eyes as she put on her best good-girl voice.

“Good afternoon Mrs Morell, it’s lovely to meet you. I’m Raine, yes. Your daughter calls me mommy too.”

Raine!”

I blushed terribly and wanted to thump the back of her seat. Raine laughed out loud, but the mirth didn’t last, drained away by the tension in the car. Evelyn didn’t tell us to knock it off, she didn’t even snort with derision or tut under her breath. She just ignored us, staring at the road.

Deep down I knew Raine was trying to help. My stomach churned again when I reread the text messages from my mother.

‘Let me know when you get there, dear, and send me the address,’ the first message said. The second continued: ‘I do wish you’d have told me about these friends earlier. You know how you can get.’

I closed my eyes and resisted the urge to rub the bridge of my nose. Thinking about Raine meeting my parents felt almost as bad as hyperdimensional mathematics.

Two and a half weeks ago I killed an invincible wizard with the power of my mind, and now I was scared of telling my parents I was gay.

“Who cares what your mother thinks?” Evelyn grumbled from the front passenger seat. “She can like it or she can keep it to herself. If your parents won’t accept their own daughter they can … ” She trailed off and muttered something under her breath. I think it was ‘go fuck themselves’.

That was the most Evelyn had spoken all day. Raine glanced over in obvious surprise. “Hear hear,” she added.

I braced for a follow up, but Evelyn folded her arms and slipped back into silence.

“I don’t think they’ll have a problem,” I muttered. “It’s just … ”

All very well in principle, but what exactly was I supposed to say to my parents? That I was a lesbian? Okay. That I’d known I like girls since I was eleven years old? So far so good, sure. But that confession was far less daunting than presenting them with Raine. Here’s my girlfriend, and yes, you may indeed notice she’s obviously and vastly out of my league, and I still don’t comprehend what she sees in me, except that having a person to protect appears to press all her buttons. Why yes, I’m regularly overwhelmed like I’m standing next to a raging inferno of pure sexuality.

Oh, that gleam in her eye? Please ignore that she’s probably a psychopath, and occasionally kills people for me. Why yes, I have watched her shoot a man in the head, how did you guess? In fact, in my most private moments I get turned on by the memory of how she moved when she’s beating monsters to death. But we haven’t had sex in nearly two weeks because suddenly she’s handling me like I’m made of spun glass and won’t-

My own thoughts juddered to a halt. I took a deep breath and tried to focus on the trees and fields passing by outside the car.

Won’t what? What did I want from Raine?

Did I want her to be Lozzie?

No, no it wasn’t that. I didn’t want Lozzie. I wanted Raine, oh yes, I knew that much, that was easy. Raine was treating me exactly like a responsible person should treat a trauma victim, so why did I feel this way? I couldn’t put it into words.

I thought I felt Raine’s eyes on me – my guilty conscience – but when I glanced up at the rear-view mirror she was concentrating on the road, still being a sensible driver, doing what we all needed. I sighed inside. I didn’t deserve her.

Then I flinched.

Praem was the one I’d felt staring.

The demon-doll was staring down at my phone, reading the message from my mother. Could Praem read? I’d never thought to ask. The phone screen chose that moment to fade to black. Praem tilted her gaze to meet my eyes, wordless and without expression, then turned her head away to watch the landscape roll past.

I didn’t find Praem creepy or off-putting, not in the slightest, though I knew I should have. I’d volunteered to sit in the back with her, to give Evelyn more legroom up front. I hardly needed the extra space, I was scrawny enough. I still felt a deep gratitude toward the taciturn demon, for when she’d turned up in time to thwart the cult’s attempted kidnapping.

Her inexplicable changes had made it progressively more difficult to keep in mind that she was not a human being.

Ever since we returned from the Sharrowford Cult’s pocket dimension, Praem had been changing colour, like a ripening fruit. Evelyn had repaired her wounds with epoxy and wood filler, and Praem’s exterior tactile glamour had fully reasserted itself – but her skin had continued to shift toward fresh healthy pink, her otherworldly blue now a mere underlying pallor. The icebound shade of her hair had lightened into a cold blonde.

Evelyn had spent an evening or two locked away in the ex-drawing room with Praem, trying to bring her to heel or bind her with stronger magic, but it obviously hadn’t worked, and Evelyn wasn’t talking about it now. The little human-like tics and gestures had only increased in frequency.

Was Praem modelling herself on Evelyn? Aesthetic osmosis?

I chewed on the idea for a while, glad for the distraction, and wondered if Praem was capable of selecting her own clothes. She was dressed for the trip in a turtleneck jumper – which left little to the imagination, she was too busty for it and I did sneak a guilty glance – one of Evelyn’s skirts, and some big boots. Her hair was pinned up in a loose bun to keep it out of the way, Evelyn’s only concession to humanising her.

Praem must have sensed me staring, because she turned to look at me again with those blank milk-white eyes. Even without pupil or iris I could somehow tell she was looking right at me.

I smiled at her.

“Yes?” she intoned, voice like the resonance of a gently struck icicle.

“What was that?” Evelyn snapped, twisting in her seat to frown at the demon.

“She speaks!” Raine laughed. “How you doing back there, Praem?”

“Doing,” Praem echoed.

“Sorry,” I said. “It was nothing. I only smiled at her.”

“Then don’t,” Evelyn tutted. “And you keep your mouth shut,” she added to Praem.

==

“Almost there, aren’t we? I don’t remember this junction.” Raine squinted through the car’s windscreen, at the lichen covered road sign by the village crossroads. “Left at the green, then we take the road out toward Little Ropley? S’that right, Evee?”

“Mm.”

“Hear that, Heather?” Raine said over her shoulder. “We’re almost there. You awake?”

“Quite awake, yes.”

No more sleeping for me, I was all napped out. Besides, after we left the main roads the landscape had become too enthralling to miss.

We’d wound through tiny little villages and clusters of houses clinging to the base of the downs, the ridge of hills which dominated the skyline, and then plunged into the deeply wooded parts of the county.

On a map the woods didn’t seem like much, not a real forest. They broke and crested, thinned out and reformed around towns and villages, or opened out entirely into the fields between, strung along ridge tops or huddled in dark copses. One was never really that far away from civilisation anywhere in England, especially in the South, but as tall trees crowded the road they penned the sky into a ribbon of dying light overhead; I could entertain the illusion of being deep in some mythical uberwald full of werewolves and fairies.

Of course, I knew the real werewolves shopped for video games in Sharrowford town centre.

Perhaps Raine had been correct, this was exactly the sort of decompression time I needed, to take my mind off Lozzie, off killing Alexander, off everything. But I felt guilty for enjoying the woods, the soft blanket of lowering dusk between the trees, the strange hidden places one might find in the undergrowth.

Evelyn was so obviously dreading our arrival. I could hear the tight hitch in her breathing, feel the discomfort radiating from the seat in front of me as she brooded. We turned off down a country lane between high banks of packed earth, and I leaned forward.

“Evee,” I said, softly. “We’re both here for you. You’re not alone, okay?”

A moment of silence. She shifted in her seat.

“You are not in my good graces right now,” she hissed.

“ … me?” I began to say.

Then the trees broke like a wave. The Saye estate loomed out of the gathering gloom, and took away all my words.

Weeks ago, Raine had described it as a ‘great big old farmhouse’, and I’d taken that description to heart. My subconscious had summoned images of thatched roofs and twee little windows, smoke rising from a chimney, set amid neat fields and picturesque hedgerows. Somehow I hadn’t internalised the darker implications – that as a teenager Raine had climbed a wall to get inside, that Evelyn had spent years imprisoned here, that this had been a fortress and magical atelier for more than one generation of her family, that it had once brimmed with monsters, and worse.

It was part mansion, part restored farmhouse, part rich man’s folly in the cleared woodland; vast expanses of discoloured pale brick between black oak beams the width of whole trees, topped with water-stained slate roofing. Two sprawling stories, plus cramped attic space, of double-winged structure like a hunched toad, pockmarked with tiny staring windows, much of the glass set in ornamental metal latticework.

“You are joking,” I murmured.

“Wheey, told you it was impressive,” Raine said, as she turned the car onto the sweeping driveway of poured tarmac.

The house itself was set far back from the road, and the driveway crept through an opening in a wall of irregular bare stone, probably once meant to look fashionable, now crowded by creeping weeds and draped with overhanging trees from the encroaching woods, the mortar crumbling away in wide patches. Black iron hinges stood bare, the gate itself long since removed.

Outbuildings crept into view as we approached, a squat garage with three automatic doors, a couple of tucked away sheds in once-tasteful stained wood, probably filled with groundsman’s tools and gardening equipment, and a dilapidated structure off to one side which had once been a stable, now abandoned to the elements.

A beefy silver four by four was parked by the house, the only other vehicle present.

Wide lawns and a sketched attempt at a garden stretched off behind the house, falling toward a dark expanse of still water barely visible in the failing light, and a dense tree line at the edge of the property.

Even in the falling dusk it was obvious the gardens weren’t really maintained anymore. Somebody had made a paltry attempt at fighting back the overgrowth, but roused little beauty from the threadbare lawns and thick moss.

Old stones, old money, old secrets. On an intellectual level I’d always known that Evelyn came from wealth. She lived in a family-owned house while she attended university – but she lived like the rest of us. She loved her much repaired comfortable clothes, watched Japanese cartoons on her beaten up old laptop, never turned her nose up or acted too good for anything. The most expensive thing she owned was her own leg.

Raine pulled the car to a stop in the semi-circle of tarmac in front of the house. She killed the engine and turned to grin at me.

“Amazing, isn’t it? No wonder I wanted to burglarise the place.”

I stared up at the looming bulk of the house, only the very top of the roof still lit by the setting sun.

“Heather? Told you you’d love it, didn’t I?”

I nodded, a little numb. “It is … impressive. Sort of beautiful. The architecture, I mean.”

Of course, they couldn’t see what I saw.

The place was crawling with spirits – or Servitors, left behind by Evelyn’s mother and grandmother.

Dark hunched things with spindly grasping claws and shuddering leathery wings dotted the roof and walls of the estate, sunning themselves in the dying light or retreating into the shadows like sleepy lizards. Scuttering shapes darted and cavorted beyond the tree line, imitations of woodland animals, half-glimpsed hide and bristly hair peeking out of the darkness and then hiding again as I peered back. Something like a squid made of bark and stone sprawled inside the ruined stable building, blinking six huge eyes with incredible slowness, drifting tentacles through the air as if becoming more plant than animal.

Raine popped her door and climbed out, stretched her arms, rolled her shoulders, and took a deep breath. The chill air crept into the car, but that wasn’t why I shivered.

“Let’s get in then. That your dad’s car, right?” she asked Evelyn, thumbing toward the big silver four by four.

“I assume,” Evelyn grunted.

Getting myself out of the car wasn’t as difficult as it might have sounded; at least none of this pneuma-somatic life was paying me any attention. And I wanted a better look at the monstrosity crouched over the house’s main entranceway, guarding the steps up to the front door.

It was a spider-servitor, kin to the one outside Evelyn secret occult collection in Sharrowford University library. That one had been bad enough, big as a horse, an encounter I would never forget.

This spider was the size of a fire engine.

It was also visibly much older. The armoured black body was mottled and greyed in places, flaking and ridged like the rusting hull of a great ship. Two of its legs – thick as trees – ended in ragged stumps, and the servitor’s carapace was covered in pits and gouges, old battle scars. The bio-mechanical vent stacks on its back lay cold, emitting no whisper of heat, and the giant stingers were wrapped around itself in the way a tried, aged cat might tuck its body into the crook of its tail.

Many of the spider-servitor’s crystalline eyes were dark and extinguished, but I felt a vast cold attention, felt the servitor stare back at me as I looked.

The passing scrutiny of an old hound. Though it was completely, perfectly still, I somehow felt it lose interest in us and settle back into its borderline coma.

This old creature, to borrow a phrase from Raine, had no more fucks to give.

“Didn’t you call ahead?” Raine was saying. “Your dad is home, right? We’re not blundering into the place when only his weekly cleaning lady is here or something, right?”

Evelyn straightened up as she clambered out of the car, steadying herself on her walking stick and massaging her leg with one hand. She shot Raine a silent glare.

“Hey, I’m serious,” said Raine. “We don’t wanna freak out some poor maid.”

“I haven’t been back here in almost two years,” Evelyn snapped. “How would I know? If he has a maid he’s probably screwing her.” She frowned at Praem through the car window. “Get out.”

At least the house was lit – well, some of it. A handful of the windows in the middle portion and the right wing glowed with soft light from behind closed curtains, and a porch light glowed above the main entrance, only a little obscured behind the bulk of the giant spider-servitor clinging to the front of the house. The old tarmac beneath my feet was crumbling and cracked, but in other places it had been patched recently.

Something sleek and small slipped around the edge of the house, then stopped and stared at us. For a moment I thought it was another spirit, but then I recognised that wonderfully curious vulpine face. It was a fox – a countryside fox, well fed on woodland prey, bold as it stared me down. I smiled to see the thing, then felt my smile die as the fox bounded away, replaced by one of the hunched servitor things as it crawled down the side of the house.

I shivered in the cold air and slipped my hands deeper into my sleeves.

As Praem got out of the car and Raine busied herself hauling our few bags out of the boot, Evelyn eyed me with a sidelong look. She didn’t need to say a word, she knew what I must be seeing.

“Maybe … maybe it’ll look better in the daylight,” I said.

Evelyn snorted.

“What? What’s wrong?” Raine asked, peering around the open car boot.

I shook my head. “It’s no worse than Sharrowford. At least everything here seems … quiet.”

“Hey, anything gives you trouble, I’ll swing for ‘em.” Raine said, then turned with a grin and talked to the empty air, to the spirit life beyond. “Hear me, fuckers? Don’t mess with my girl.”

I managed a token laugh and a little roll of my eyes, but Evelyn didn’t see the humour. She was staring at the house, and I’d never seen her look so small and hunched, so grim-faced, so unapproachable.

I started to realise what we might be doing to Evelyn by dragging her here.

“Evee, I’m- I’m sorry.”

“For what?” she grunted.

Then the front door opened, spilling light across the steps, and a giant strode out to greet us.

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