by this art you may contemplate – 10.7

Previous Chapter

“Sarika.”

Evelyn read the name out loud, blocky black letters on the tiny LCD screen. She pulled a face like she’d swallowed a lemon.

“Oh.” For a moment I couldn’t process the information. Sarika, really? “But … wait, that doesn’t make sense.”

“Yeah, no kidding,” said Raine. She flipped the phone back around and resumed thumbing down through the incriminating call log. “Question is, why’d he use-”

“That woman,” Evelyn hissed through clenched teeth, “was to never lift a finger in magic again. She is meant to be incapable. That’s what you both told me. A cripple, useless, can’t even wipe her own arse, nothing bloody well left of her.”

“There isn’t. Wasn’t.” A confused shudder passed through me as I recalled the human wreckage curled up on a hospital bed. “She wouldn’t. Couldn’t. There’s no way. No way.”

“Care to test that hypothesis?” Evelyn jabbed a finger at the mobile phone in Raine’s hand. She didn’t wait for an answer, but turned away in a mounting rage, gesturing with the head of her walking stick. “The only reason that woman is still breathing is because I was assured she wasn’t a threat. That she was done, not a mage, not even a human being anymore, that I didn’t have to worry about yet another goddamn amateur dabbler loose in Sharrowford, but oh no, no, I let myself get convinced, didn’t I?”

“Hey, hey, Evee, slow down,” Raine laughed.

“Should never have let her live. Burned that house down and locked her in cupboard,” Evelyn spat. “Stupid, stupid decision. Always so weak, so-”

Evelyn,” I snapped.

She flinched.

“The only reason Sarika is still alive is because I brought her back,” I continued. “I did that. I decided to do that. You don’t decide if she dies.”

I bristled, bizarrely protective. Sarika was a horrible person who had done indefensible things, but while she did not deserve what happened to her, that wasn’t why I cared. I’d torn a broken thing from the Eye’s clutches, and I had to believe that the effort had been worthwhile. That the technique was replicable. It was important to me that she lived.

“That isn’t-” Evelyn stammered. “I’m not blaming you- Heather, I-”

“And also, we’re not executioners.”

I sounded more confident than I felt, a lump in my throat, hunched and wretched and not entirely certain I was correct. Maybe we were executioners. Raine certainly would be, if I asked her to. I looked down at my feet and hugged myself tighter through my hoodie. My phantom limbs tried to help, but succeeded only in sending echoes of muscle pain up the bruises in my flanks.

“Fair enough,” Evelyn said. Bitter. She didn’t get it.

“Deciding the fate of other people is a horrible thing to have to do,” I said to the threadbare, scratchy carpet. “You’re not weak for not wanting to, Evee. That’s not weakness. It’s not. Sarika’s on me.”

Raine’s free hand found my back. When I looked up again, Evelyn’s eyes found mine and she didn’t say a word, just swallowed and nodded once, then had to look away as well. She let out a big sigh and cleared her throat.

“Done with your long-jump practice, Evee?” Raine asked.

Evelyn squinted at her. “What?”

“’Cos, you know, really leaping to those conclusions. Olympic standards. Could jump for England.”

Evelyn gave Raine a capital-L Look. Raine just laughed. I couldn’t resist a small smile.

“We don’t know what Mister Joking was calling Sarika about,” Raine said, waggling the phone back and forth, showing us the little screen again. “Look at the timings on the calls, the two the night before. One minute thirty-two seconds, then sixteen seconds. And those are the first times he’s ever called her number, according to the log.”

“So?” Evelyn snapped.

“Doesn’t sound like time enough to plan much, does it?” Raine thumbed the antiquated buttons on the mobile phone again, the clicking sounds close and alien in the tight confines of the dirty bedsit room. “Then he calls her again on the same morning he bought his train ticket to Sharrowford. Six minutes, still not much.”

“Yes, because as we know, all murderous magical plots are put together over the phone,” Evelyn deadpanned at her. “I thought you were meant to be good at this, Raine. What if he had a different number, or other associates communicating with her? We are out. Of. The. Loop.”

Raine grinned as if she’d drawn a trump card. “You think Bikeman and January are real names?”

“Of course not!” Evelyn snapped. “What are you getting at?”

“Yes, I was thinking that too,” I said, a hitch in my throat. “It’s so obvious.”

“So why use pseudonyms for those two – but not for Sarika?” Raine asked. “Don’t you smell a rat, Evee?”

Evelyn frowned hard.

“I mean- I mean-” I struggled to put two and two together, not quite adding up to four. “That would suggest this is a red herring. Bait. He left Sarika’s name on there on purpose, but that would mean he intended for us to steal his phone, and that’s just … that’s crazy. Raine, no.”

She shrugged. “Wouldn’t put it past him.”

“Don’t be absurd,” Evelyn said, but she sounded less and less sure as she went on. “He couldn’t have known he’d be dead, or that we’d be the ones to show up and find his body … or that we … know Sarika … ”

Raine waited for her to trail off, then tilted her head with an indulgent smile. “You wanna know what I think, Evee?”

“Not particularly,” Evelyn tutted. “But I don’t expect I have a choice.”

“Evee,” I admonished as gently as I could. She was even more prickly and irritable than usual. Carefully as I could, I disentangled my arms from my security-blanket self-hug, and reached out to place my hand atop hers, on the handle of her walking stick. She sighed, but didn’t shrug me off.

“I think we’re dealing with a master manipulator,” Raine said. “Saturday night, yeah, we caught him a little off guard. Maybe he didn’t expect Zheng, or didn’t think we’d be crazy enough to stick a gateway right into the house. So he improvised, had to bust out some of his real moves, but I’d bet we didn’t see the bottom of the barrel, not by a long shot.” She tapped Sarika’s name on the phone’s screen. “And I think we’re still in it.”

My skin crawled.

I glanced around the dimly lit bedsit flat again, at the dirty food wrappers and rumpled sheets, at the thin, anaemic light slanting in under the blinds, at the complete lack of any evidence. At the fake. Unconsciously, I took a step closer to Raine, shivering a little inside my hoodie, a creeping between my shoulder blades. Perhaps we hadn’t tracked down a safe-house after all. Perhaps we were in the jaws.

“Safe,” Praem intoned.

I jumped, then huffed and rolled my eyes at myself, fists clenched against my sides. I’d almost forgotten she was standing there.

“Yes, quite,” Evelyn said. “There’s no traps in here, magical or otherwise. Unless he’s laced the room with anthrax spores, and that’s a little beyond us. Calm down, Heather. There’s no traps here.”

Raine waggled the phone again. “You sure about that?”

“Raine, Raine please stop,” I said, my throat closing up. “We should leave. We should leave. If this- this- if you’re right-”

“Hey, hey, Heather, I’m sorry.” Raine squeezed my shoulder. “I didn’t mean it that way. If I thought we were in danger, I’d be carrying you out myself.”

“Stop spooking your girlfriend, you colossal idiot,” Evelyn drawled. “It’s not as if you need to get in her underwear any easier.”

“Evee!” I blushed. Raine laughed.

“It’s perfectly safe in here,” Evelyn went on. “But I would like to go home anyway. Get back to the point, Raine.”

Raine cleared her throat. “Right, well. Point is, keys and phone are what anyone would take off a body, right? They’ve obvious. But hey, remember the cocaine? I bet that was a red herring too. Big deal, finding that on a corpse, yeah? Drug dealer, maybe he had a habit, maybe you could sell it.”

“Who gives a damn?” Evelyn said. “He can snort bath salts and drink piss for all I care, he’s a bloody mage, that’s what matters.”

“Yes, Raine, you’ve lost me here,” I admitted. “I don’t follow.”

“You’re not meant to. I’m not meant to. The coke wasn’t for us,” she said with a twinkle in her eye. “I think this is all contingencies, various different distractions in case somebody found his body before he came back to life, covering every different angle, everyone who might have found him. The keys led us here, the phone leads us to Sarika. Maybe these other people he called that morning mean something too, whoever January and Bikeman are. For us, it’s mostly Sarika. But you know what? I’m betting Sarika isn’t even for us.”

“The Cult,” I said, finally catching up.

“What?” Evelyn frowned, still lagging behind.

“Say a survivor from the Sharrowford Cult found him first,” Raine explained. “They check his phone and who do they see? Sarika, the only known survivor of the house fire. Good lead, right? Gonna throw them off Mister Joking’s scent. She’s a red herring, but maybe not ours alone.”

“That makes more sense. I think.” I sighed the words, nodding, an odd relief at the way Raine had put this all together.

Evelyn stared at Raine for a moment longer, then at me, examining us as if we’d both just claimed to be from Mars. “You are both idiots and this is all conjecture.”

“You got a better one?” Raine asked. “Theory for us, Evee?”

“Yes. The only way to be sure is to prise it out of Sarika herself. Goddamn it all,” Evelyn spat, looking away at the peeling paint on the wall, then at Praem, standing ramrod straight with her hands folded before her. “This is a nightmare. We’re going to have to go her house, her family home, and make her talk. Fuck.”

“Evee,” I said. “I really don’t think she’s capable of anything. You were being kind of nasty earlier, but yes, it’s not an exaggeration to say she probably can’t perform basic bodily functions without help.” I cleared my throat at that. “Let alone take part in a magical plot aimed at us. Or anybody.”

Raine slid Mister Joking’s phone back into her leather jacket, and pulled out her own mobile, thumbing open her contacts list.

Evelyn turned on her with a snarl. “And don’t you bloody call her, you fool! She may have been compromised by that mage, there could be anything waiting for us.”

Raine shot Evelyn a wink. She held the phone to her ear, titling her chin up and adopting a shrewd little smile. “One step ahead o’ you, Evee.”

“Kill the call before it connects, you-”

“I’m not calling Sarika. Got a better plan than that.”

Evelyn huffed and put a hand on her hips. “Drop the Sherlock act. It doesn’t suit you.”

“I think it does … ” I said. It was rather nice, seeing Raine be clever.

“Thinking like a manipulator is difficult and unpleasant,” Raine said. Her little smile betrayed the truth behind her words, a cloaked edge I almost missed. I filed that away for later – was she talking about herself, or somebody else? “Let me deal with it this time, yeah?”

The phone rang three times before the call connected with a soft click. Raine had the handset tilted ever so slightly so Evelyn and I could hear the voice on the other end, tinny and distant.

“Hello, Raine,” detective Nicole Webb answered with a sigh.

Sharp. All-business. Not unfriendly, but not impressed.

“Good morning, officer,” Raine said, a great big grin in her voice. “I’d like to report a break-in in progress.”

“ … why do I know you’re the one doing the breaking in?”

“Four suspects, all incredibly beautiful young women, armed and dangerous. You should send your most athletic and suggestible female constables to the scene immediately. As many as you can spare. Apprehension may require a struggle.”

Nicole sighed down the phone. “Very well, Miss Haynes, I suggest you call nine-nine-nine, request police, and describe the emergency to them.”

“But you’re a hero, detective. Can’t you help?”

“Ha fucking ha. Did you call to distract me from work with bad jokes, or did you actually need something?”

“Aww, can’t I call just to say hi?”

“You could, but you aren’t,” Nicole said. “You want something, and you’re trying to disarm me with humour first. Good try.”

Raine laughed, tone relaxing down by a couple of notches. “Can’t get anything past you, can I? You at work right now?”

“At the station.”

“Still a police officer, eh? Thought you were quitting.”

“Still. For now.” Cagey. Closed off. Very unhappy.

“Hi, Nicky,” I said, loud enough to carry through the microphone. Evelyn frowned at me and Raine raised an eyebrow, tilting the phone out a little more to catch my voice. “I-I hope you’re well!”

“Is that Heather?” the tinny reply came, much happier. “I’d much rather talk to Heather than you, Haynes. Put her on instead, go on.”

“You gotta get through me first, copper,” Raine said.

“A bridge troll, blocking the way, huh?” Nicole shot back. “Fits you.”

I rolled my eyes, but I was smiling. Even Evelyn had a half smile tugging at her face. Raine’s attempts at starting smooth did not go well with detective Webb. She was much too experienced, much too used to the back-and-forth of verbal jousting and covert manoeuvring.

“Alright, alright,” Raine said, admitting defeat with the tone of her voice. “Seriously, Nicole, are you still keeping an eye on Sarika?”

A silent pause echoed from the other end of the phone, broken by a few snatched words away from the speaker and the sound of a door clicking shut. When Nicole spoke again, her voice had a loftier quality. She’d stepped outdoors.

“Officially or unofficially?” she asked.

“Either,” Raine said. “Both.”

Soft crunching noises made their way down the phone line – gravel beneath comfortable shoes. “Officially, no. I’m not on the Barrend road case team, and it’s practically a dead case anyway. My part in that is packed up and done.”

“Unofficially?”

A big sigh. I pictured Nicole, a smallish, very neat woman in her suit and long coat, hair pinned up tight, pictured her letting go of the strict authority for just a moment. It was that kind of sigh.

“Her family are good people,” she said eventually. “As far as they’re concerned I saved her bloody life, so, yeah, I’ve been round there a few times. It’s not as if she can talk to any of them about what actually happened.” Another sigh, less comfortable. “Not that I want to hear it from her either, really.”

“She been out much?” Raine asked. “Any strange visitors?”

“You joking?”

“Never.” Raine grinned. “You know me.”

“She doesn’t do much of anything. You saw her, Raine. Or hell, ask Heather. Sarika’s broken, inside and out. Barely leaves the house. Spends some time with her family, her bothers are round quite a bit, but that’s it. She spends most of her time on the internet or playing Minecraft for hours, far as I can tell.”

Evelyn scoffed. I shot her a disapproving look and she had the good grace to at least look away.

“Walks a bit now,” Nicole was carrying on. “On crutches, but never very far. Raine, what is this about?”

“Gotta confirm our ex-mage is staying firmly ex.”

“Oh yeah? I don’t believe you,” Nicole said without the slightest hesitation. “There’s more to this, isn’t there?”

“There is, Nicky,” I said, feeling awful. “I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.”

Raine laughed, easy and obvious. “Look, as you’re still a copper, I was wondering if you could do us a favour. Can you look for a man for me?”

“A man?” Nicole asked. “You changing teams, Raine?”

“Never.”

“Nicole!” I scolded at the phone. She made an embarrassed throat clearing sound.

“Well, ahem, um. Depends, who? Who am I looking for, and why? Is this more heebie-jeebie shit?”

“Sorta,” said Raine. “Maybe. Does the name ‘Joshua King’ ring any bells?”

A pause. A long pause. The gravel-crunching footsteps stopped. A distant gust of wind caressed the phone line, produced a faint crackle. A chill went down my spine. Evelyn and I shared a glance. She was grinding her teeth.

“You treating me like a mushroom?” Nicole asked eventually. She did not sound happy.

“Keeping you in the dark and feeding you shit?” Raine laughed. “Yeah. A little. But you’re doing the same to us. Right?”

“No, actually. I’ve been entirely forthright with you, Raine,” Nicole went on, all the good banter and humour gone from her voice. “I’m not joking, put Heather on, I wanna talk to her instead. You and Sarika are both playing me from different angles, and I’m not having it. You tell me what’s going on.”

“Nicky, I’m sorry,” I said out loud. “We didn’t mean to-”

“Shhh,” Evelyn hissed, squeezing my arm.

“Maybe you don’t wanna get involved again, Webb,” Raine said softly. “You could just tell us what the name Joshua King means to you, and we’ll go see Sarika and deal with this ourselves, and you forget all about it.”

“I’m already involved. My nightmares are testament to that. Tell me what’s going on.”

“You first. That name rang a bell, right?”

A pause. A sucking of teeth. Nicole thought about it for a long moment. “You owe me, Raine. You or Sarika or somebody here owes me an explanation, because I don’t like playing piggy in the middle.”

“Please,” I said at the phone in Raine’s hand. “Please, Nicky. Something … something happened, something hard to explain. We had an- an incident. We need to find this man because he might be dangerous. He’s a mage. Or maybe we can decide we don’t need to find him at all. Sarika might be connected.”

“Alright, alright Heather, okay. I recognise that name because last week, Sarika asked me exactly the same question.”

Raine raised her eyebrows at Evelyn and I. Evelyn scowled up a storm.

“Detective,” Evelyn said, raising her voice. “Explain that statement, please.”

“Is that miss Saye? Hello to you too. Long story short, Sarika wanted me to find this guy, if I could turn up anything on him. Him and two others – a mister Billington Cook, which I doubt is a real name, and a miss Sandy Harrison. But as far as I can tell, Joshua King and his two mates have fallen off the face of the earth. That or they’re all dead in a ditch somewhere.”

“Not in a ditch,” said Raine.

“ … oh fuck, oh no,” Nicole sighed. In in my mind’s eye I saw her pinching the bridge of her nose. “You are not confessing to a murder over a police officer’s phone. You’re not. You didn’t just say that.”

Raine laughed out loud. I rolled my eyes. Evelyn huffed.

“I wish I was,” Raine said. “Does it count as murder if he gets up again afterward?”

Nicole paused for a long, long moment. “That wasn’t a joke, was it?”

“Nope.”

“I really hate this supernatural bullshit,” she sighed. “I truly do.”

“I do as well,” I murmured.

==

Nicole handled transportation. We provided the venue, the security, the tea and biscuits.

If meeting with Edward Lilburne had felt like peace talks between rival mafia families, then setting up for questioning Sarika Masalkar was akin to dragging an international criminal out of a cell at the Hague.

Every turn of every plan hampered us with unexpected and byzantine requirements; we couldn’t do this over the phone, because Sarika might be compromised already, or she might lie to protect her associates. Evelyn insisted we needed to physically see Sarika, to inspect her in ways that Nicole was not capable of, to make sure that Mister Joking the mage hadn’t done anything to her – with or without her consent. We couldn’t pop round her family home and have a five minute chat on the doorstep, because her family would ask questions about these strange young women who came to interrogate her, and because the police would be very interested to hear about us.

But most of all, because that might be a trap.

We couldn’t have a friendly sit down in a pub, because after our brush with the revenant, Evelyn insisted on maximum security. We couldn’t use Nicole’s home, because we couldn’t guarantee she was clean either, not if Sarika had been compromised.

Organising the meet took the rest of that afternoon and all evening. Evelyn drove it, did all the talking, because this was about mages now.

Every piece of back-and-forth had to be routed through Nicole, because Evelyn refused to call Sarika directly. Even if she wouldn’t admit so out loud, she’d taken Raine’s warning to heart; if we’d already been hoodwinked, anything could a trap.

 It wasn’t until the following day that we were sure it was going ahead. The pace of normal life – eating dinner, forcing myself to read another long section of Heart of Darkness, going to classes in the morning for a lecture on To The Lighthouse – seemed so at odds with the urgency of the supernatural truth. But we all have to eat, as Raine said. She even had a shift that evening at her student union bar job. Life went on, or pretended to, as the secret world lurked at our backs.

In the end, Sarika herself suggested she come to the house, to number 12 Barnslow drive, right into the mouth of the beast.

“She’s mad then,” Evelyn had grumbled down the phone at five minutes to midnight, hunched over the kitchen table, eyes red with exhaustion. I’d caught her napping there, upright in a kitchen chair, arms crossed over her chest while Praem wedged a pillow behind her head. Couldn’t have been any good for her spine. “Mad to come here. Mad to trust me. I don’t trust it.”

“She’s trying to make a gesture of goodwill,” came Nicole’s voice from the phone on the table, exasperated.

“She’s trying to trick us. I just know it.”

“Look, I don’t hear that when I speak to her, and I’m willing to bet I’m a better judge of intention than you are. No offence,” Nicole’s voice floated up from the phone. “She wants to make it clear she wasn’t involved in whatever happened. Saye, Evelyn, we are out of options. Either I bring her to your house, or we give up on this. I’m going to bed in five minutes, so make a decision and then we’re done. That’s it. Done. Dusted. Finito. Kaput.”

==

Nicole’s old BMW pulled to a stop outside the house at almost exactly 5.45pm the following day.

“Right on time,” Raine announced from the front room, then called through to me. “Heather?”

Dark windows, dark metal, engine rumbling like a steamship anchored offshore from some primeval jungle. I peered at it through a crack in the curtains in the dusty, disused sitting room, with the lights off.

On the edge of my hearing, muffled through the walls of the house – and God alone knew what magical wards woven into the brick and plaster – I heard the engine sputter out into silence. I imagined the slow cooling of the car’s bonnet, the creak and crack of contracting metal. I knew next to nothing about cars, but even I could tell Nicole probably spent more on keeping that old machine running than she would need to pay for a new one.

The car sat. No doors opened. Nobody stepped out.

“Heather?” Raine called again. I blinked hard and rubbed my aching, bruised sides, tried to dispel the feeling of hiding under a rock, fought the instinct to stay silent and still and let the predators pass by.

“Nothing,” I replied. I let the curtain fall back into place, and plodded into the front room and the light and the open space that made my phantom limbs want to pull me back into the comfortable dark. Raine met me with raised eyebrows. I shook my head. “All the spirit life was acting normal. They made way for the car, but that was all. Whatever’s in there didn’t spook them.”

“Hey, that’s a good sign, yeah.” Raine shot me a grin, then winked at Praem next to her.

The doll-demon stood at attention, facing the front door at minimum safe distance, dressed in her full maid uniform getup. Anyone stepping through the front door would see her first, and I had to admit the sight of Praem greeting me upon returning home wasn’t an unpleasant one, especially when she stood so straight-backed, all that blonde hair and ice-blue eyes and great masses of soft huggable flesh. Not that I would. Unless she asked.

The spider-servitor hung above the front door, completing the trap. Carrot and stick. Except that Praem was perfectly capable of acting the stick too.

She ignored Raine.

“It means nothing,” Evelyn said, standing far back in the kitchen doorway. She had her hair pinned up loose behind her head, and was wearing the best clothes she owned, a cream jumper and long dark skirt, no hand-mended seams or ragged sleeves. “Stick to the plan. Step two.”

“Step two it is, yes ma’am, lickety split.” Raine mock-saluted, then winked at me. “You don’t have to stick around out here for this, Heather. Not if you don’t wanna. Go keep Lozzie and Tenny company upstairs?”

I gave her a look. “Don’t be silly.”

“At least go join Evee?”

“I’m fine here. This is going to be fine.”

Step two was an awkward dance of pre-planned phone calls and cautious approaches. Nicole called Raine’s phone from the car. Raine called her back and confirmed the number. Nicole got out of the car, shut and locked the door behind her, and walked down the garden path while still on the call. She sighed at the seeming absurdity of the instructions, but played along, knocking three times on the door, waiting a moment, then trying the handle and finding it unlocked.

The front door swung open to reveal Nicole looking a bit perplexed.

She’d come straight from work without changing, in a dark trouser suit and a long black woollen coat, short and tight and trim, her blonde hair pulled back into a helmet-like bun. Curious but irritated eyes met us from a sharply intelligent face. Neat, serious, quietly athletic under her clothes.

“Aaaaand now I’m looking at you,” she said, her voice doubled from Raine’s phone with a micro-second delay. “I’m looking at you, Raine, and you’re looking back at me, and this is all very silly.”

“Bear with it, yeah?” Raine smirked, and killed the phone call.

Nicole let out a big sigh, nodded, then nodded to me as well. “Hey Heather, nice to see you.” I gave her a nervous smile in return. “And Evelyn, back there, hi. And uh, Praem, right?”

“Good afternoon, detective Webb,” Praem sing-songed.

“ … and a good afternoon to you too!” Nicole lit up with a surprised smile. “Thought you didn’t talk much?”

Praem declined to answer further. I glanced at her. “I think we’re all a little on edge,” I said. “Even Praem. Sorry.”

“It’s fine, it’s fine, take it easy. So am I coming in, or will I burst into flame if I don’t turn around three times and throw a pinch of salt over my shoulder?”

“Yeah, you first,” Raine said. “Then you go back and fetch Sarika.”

“I may as well get her now.” Nicole thumbed over her shoulder, at the car. “I searched her, and her crutches, and she’s not carrying anything, I can attest to that. Unless we’re-”

“You first,” Evelyn said, voice tight. She did well to conceal the tremor, but I heard it all the same.

“Please step forward onto the welcome mat,” Praem intoned, with a cadence like an airport announcement made of wind chimes and icicles. “Do not step beyond the welcome mat. Keep your hands and feet inside the boundaries of the welcome mat.”

Nicole stared at her. “Uh … ”

“Do as she says,” Evelyn snapped.

Nicole glanced to me for help. “Am I gonna get like a pat down, or … ?”

“Sort of!” Raine answered for me. I resisted the urge to look up. Nicole wouldn’t see anything there, of course, but I didn’t want to spook the poor woman. “You won’t even see or feel anything, promise,” Raine went on. “We’re gonna do the same to Sarika. S’just insurance.”

Nicole held up a finger to Raine, not even bothering to look at her. “Heather? I trust you, right? You know that?”

“It’s safe,” I said with a lump in my throat. “If you’re not … a trap. You’re not. I don’t believe you are. It’s safe.”

“Do it or we call this off,” Evelyn added.

Slowly, carefully, Nicole stepped over the threshold of number 12 Barnslow drive and onto the scratchy welcome mat. She waited with raised eyebrows, as if for a flash of light or the whir of an x-ray machine. “Now what?”

“Stay still,” Praem intoned.

“Evee?” Raine asked over her shoulder. I looked back too, and recognised the moment of hesitation in Evelyn’s eyes.

“If it goes wrong, I’ll stop it,” I said, quietly.

“If what goes wrong?” Nicole said, eyes wide. “Woah, guys, hey, what?”

Evelyn wet her lips and spoke. “Adspicio.”

Like a nightmare parody of a mechanical arm, the spider-servitor responded to Evelyn’s input code. It ratcheted itself down from the ambush perch above the front doorway, hanging on with half its legs while the other half descended to encircle Nicole. Hand-thick stingers whipped into place, aimed at Nicole’s skull and throat and heart and belly. The spider’s bank of crystalline eyes lowered level with her face, staring into her.

The way it moved made my skin crawl, all rapid motion between split-seconds of statue stillness. My phantom limbs scrambled into a reactive defense for a second, making me wince as my bruised flanks twitched and ached, before my body accepted it wasn’t coming for me. I had to consciously remind myself that this thing was on our side. Evelyn claimed they didn’t really possess the capacity for independent thought, that they were just tools. I didn’t believe that last part.

“Something meant to be happening?” Nicole asked. She couldn’t see it. Lucky.

“Stay still,” Praem repeated.

“Yes, please, Nicky, please stay still,” I said, a lump in my throat.

“Oh great, there’s some invisible shit right in front of me, isn’t there?”

“Heather, is it working?” Evelyn asked. “Did it move?”

“Yes. It’s … it’s doing something.”

Nicole tried to give me an unimpressed look, but my view of her was blocked by the mass of black pitted chitin and the row of heat-exchanger pipes on the spider’s back.

“If I twitch a finger am I gonna lose it?” Nicole asked.

“Please hold,” Praem intoned.

The spider-servitor took a teeth-grinding, buttock-clenching thirty long seconds to inspect the contents of Nicole’s head, or the colour of her soul, or the flavour of her aura. Truth was, we had no idea what it was really searching. Evelyn had little comprehension of how her home’s ancestral, inherited guard dogs actually worked. What she had was her mother’s notes, a few control words, and absolute unshakable faith in her grandmother’s original handiwork.

When the spider moved again, it did so without warning. It withdrew from Nicole in a burst of scuttling limbs and snaking stingers, so sudden that I flinched, phantom limbs lashing in panic, forcing me to swallow a hiss of pain. The spider settled back onto its legs in the perch above the door, as if it had never moved in the first place.

“Oh,” I breathed a sigh of relief, hand to my racing heart. Raine took my shoulders in both hands, rubbed the sides of my arms, the back of my neck.

“I take it I’ve been approved?” Nicole asked.

“How can you tell?” I asked, dripping with sarcasm.

“It’s done?” Evelyn asked. “Heather, it’s done?” She held up a hand. “Detective, do not move until we say so. Heather?”

I nodded.

“And it’s back in position?”

“Itsy bitsy spider climbed up the waterspout,” Praem sang.

“ … Heather, you have to stop giving her children’s books.” Evelyn huffed, rubbed the bridge of her nose, then nodded and swallowed. “Okay, detective, okay. Bring her in.”

“You lot are worse than security at Heathrow,” Nicole laughed, shaking her head. “What happens if Sarika’s not clean? Does an invisible gorilla pull her head off? I’m not letting a wounded, crippled young woman walk into danger.” Nicole raised a hand to forestall any complaint, raising her voice a fraction too. “No matter who she is or what she did in the past. Yeah? Is this setup you’ve got here safe?”

Evelyn looked away. Raine pulled an awkward grin. Praem said nothing.

“It’s safe for you, and it’s safe for her,” I said, surprising myself, drawing myself up. “Because if Joshua King did anything to her, I will undo it, because … because she’s my responsibility.”

Nicole nodded, understood how serious I was. “Okay. Alright. I’ll go get her now.”

Detective Webb stepped back out and left the door open. Evelyn grunted and retreated into the kitchen. Raine rubbed my back and squeezed one of my shoulders. I tried not to think about the gun in the front of her jacket, and just how badly the next few minutes might go.

From the safety of the front room, we watched Nicole help Sarika out of the car. Not an easy process. She couldn’t stand unaided, and even once Nicole got the crutches in both of Sarika’s hands, her legs refused to work right. The muscles twitched and shivered in random erratic spasms. She had to stop three times on the way up the garden path, her breathing jerky and obviously painful. On the third and final pause, she rejected Nicole’s help with a sharp elbow, an angry hiss through gritted teeth, face shaking, eyes glued to her rebellious feet. The detective hovered nearby, but Sarika made the final few paces to the front door by herself.

She stopped at the threshold, adjusted her weight on the crutches, and looked up at last. I did her the courtesy of meeting her gaze.

Determination – and deep, bone-crushing exhaustion. The first time I’d met Sarika she looked as if she hadn’t slept in a long time. Now she looked as if she never slept at all, fuelled by spite alone. She did look healthier than she had in the hospital, but that was a low bar to clear.

She was all there behind her own bloodshot, dark-ringed eyes, facial muscles still slack but not empty, and she looked physically clean at least, though her coffee-brown skin was just as pale and waxen as before. She twitched constantly, wracked by a dozen different tics and spasms, misfiring nerve signals that my emergency hyperdimensional mathematics had not quite saved from the ravages of the Eye. She was dressed in a comfortable, loose dark jumper and a pair of pajama bottoms beneath a long brown coat. The visible flesh of her hands was covered in tiny scratches and scabs where she’d obviously been biting and chewing her own fingers and nails. Her breath came in jerky, short bursts, stuck in her throat.

Only a few streaks of black pigmentation remained in her hair. The rest had turned white.

She stared at me and I couldn’t think of anything to say. Neither could she, because a change passed across her face, as if she lost track of her spite for a moment, and had to pick up the pieces to re-balance them in her mind. She seemed smaller for a few seconds, then looked away from me, at Raine, then at Praem.

“Good afternoon, miss Masalkar,” Praem intoned.

Sarika grunted. A croaky, broken noise.

“Yeah, hey, welcome,” Raine said, pulling out her confident beaming smile for Sarika. “Don’t feel awkward, yeah? We’re all here to have a chat, nothing more, and you’ve got Nicole at your back to ensure that.”

“Hello, Sarika,” I managed at last. “It’s … I’m … you’re looking better.”

“No I’m f-f-fucking not,” she stammered around a thick tongue. Her voice was like a drainpipe filled with gravel.

“Please step forward onto the welcome mat,” Praem sing-songed. “Do not step beyond the welcome mat. Keep your hands and feet inside the boundaries of the welcome mat.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Sarika croaked, then frightened everyone as her throat made an alarming single-choke noise, but apparently she was used to it. She swallowed and closed her eyes, knuckles turning white around the handles of her crutches as she clenched down on a shaking spell. She began to list to one side, but Nicole caught her before she fell.

“Sarika?” Nicole said. “I told you, we should have brought the wheelchair.”

“Shut up. Fuck the wheelchair.” Sarika slurred, jaw hanging, breathing through both mouth and nose at the same time. The spell passed and she had to make an obvious effort not to sag against her crutches, weakly shouldering away Nicole’s help.

“Please step forward onto the welcome mat,” Praem repeated.

“Alright, y-y-y-es. Get it-” Sarika cut off into another little choking sound, “-over with.”

“They uh,” Nicole ventured, “told me to stand very still when I did it, maybe-”

“The less I know- know … knooow-” Sarika blinked hard, grimaced as she brought her speech centre back under control. “The better. I can imagine what it is. Shut up.”

She had to look down at her feet again to manoeuvre herself over the barely quarter-inch of steel and rubber seal on the inside of the door frame, lifting each crutch with great difficulty. She swayed in place on the mat for a second as Nicole stood by to catch her.

“Please stand back, detective Webb,” Praem intoned.

“Sarika, hey,” Raine said, pitching her voice for a smile, serious but calm. She could have soothed a raging bull with that voice. “You ready? Shouldn’t feel a thing.”

“Get on with it.”

Raine looked over her shoulder and called out. “Ready!”

Adspicio,” Evelyn said softly from the kitchen.

The spider-servitor did its thing again, dropping down around Sarika, a cage of black chitin and quivering stingers. She couldn’t see it any more than Nicole could, didn’t bother to look up, just stared at a spot on the floorboards. After a few seconds she closed her eyes, swaying gently, and my heart skipped a beat at the thought of her about to pass out, about to crash head-first into the nightmare spider inches from her face. She started to drool.

“Sarika,” I hissed. “Don’t fall asleep.”

“Fa- fat- fat chance,” she spat.

Twenty long seconds passed. Thirty. Forty, and I started to worry. The spider hung unmoving, right in front of Sarika’s gaunt face. My phantom limbs responded to my increasing heart rate and the tension in my gut, preparing for a fight, for a explosion of violence. Cold air seeped in through the open door, chilling my nose and the front of my pink hoodie.

“This … this isn’t right,” I squeezed out.

“Still going?” Raine asked.

“Itsy bitsy spider,” Praem sung. Did she think it was cute?

“Yes,” I breathed, a lump in my throat. “It’s just … maybe it’s because she came back wrong. Maybe she doesn’t … seem like a human anymore, or-”

And in the middle of my sentence, fast enough to make me jump and stifle a yelp, the spider-servitor finally approved. It withdrew in a blur of whirring limbs, leaving Sarika standing there alone on the mat.

The sudden surprise made my phantom limbs whirl in panic, sending shock waves of pain up through my sides. I clutched myself and grimaced, curled up, Raine’s arm linked through mine for support.

“What?” Nicole looked at me, wide-eyed. “What happened?”

“Itsy bitsy spider climbed up,” Praem intoned.

“It’s done. It’s done. She’s clean,” I said, swallowing my pain through deep breaths. “She’s clean.”

Sarika grunted and struggled a couple of paces off the mat. She met my eyes, stared at me. “Y-yeah. Feel it t-too.”

“Feel … ?”

Pain. She meant pain. The physical price of leaving humanity behind. The barest hint of a cruel smile touched the corners of her lips. She liked that I felt it too.

Praem executed a perfect ninety-degree turn on one heel and stepped back precisely one pace, then unfolded a hand and gestured to the kitchen doorway.

“Uh, yeah!” Raine said. “Into the kitchen, please. Let’s all go sit down and talk.”

Waiting for a person who can only hobble along on crutches is both awkward and painful, with bodily sympathy and second-hand embarrassment. As we watched Sarika struggle to cross the front room, Nicole ready to catch her if she fell, I wondered if I should look away to spare her what scraps of dignity she still had left. Breath jerking, head twitching, muttering low, she dragged herself into the kitchen. We followed. Praem shut the front door, then brought up the rear.

We’d cleaned the kitchen for the sake of this meeting, cleared away the plates and mugs, wiped the table, had the kettle ready to boil. Raine had opened a packet of biscuits and put them on a plate. Civilised. That’s what we were going to be, I told myself. We were asking a very, very sick woman some simple questions. Civilised, sensible people who are capable of having a discussion that involved neither threats nor intimidation.

When we stepped into the kitchen, I saw Evelyn, and rolled my eyes.

“Queen on- on her throne?” Sarika asked.

Evelyn had set herself up on the far side of the table, so she faced the door as Sarika had walked in, walking stick in one hand, point placed against the floor. The scrimshawed magical thighbone lay on the kitchen table before her, displayed end-to-end like a polished, loaded shotgun. Evelyn’s other hand rested casually on the middle of the magical weapon. A small stack of leather-bound books sat next to the bone, and I suddenly recognised them as the magical tomes we’d saved from the middle of the Sharrowford Cult’s final ritual. As she sat there, Praem rounded the table to stand beside and just behind her.

Trophies and threats.

A queen? No. More like a shaman. Physically crippled but magically strong, ensconced here in her smoky tent, surrounded by esoteric tools and fetishes, bones and skulls and the hides of her enemies.

“Not quite,” Evelyn replied to Sarika.

“Was this really necessary?” I sighed. “Evee, really. Really.”

“Heather, don’t. Not now.”

“Don’t what?” I almost snapped at her, controlling myself at the last second. “There was no need for this. Evelyn, you do not need to establish dominance over a woman who can’t stand without crutches.”

Evelyn attempted to continue the staring contest with Sarika, then failed all at once, glaring at me and huffing. “She’s been working with another bloody mage, Heather. I think a little intimidation is in order.”

“We don’t know that yet,” Raine said gently.

“Mage?” Sarika slurred. She frowned about at us. “No mage. Fucking- f-f-fuuu,” she couldn’t get the word out. “Idiots. Not mages. Not.”

We all shared a glance. Only Nicole didn’t understand the full implications of that statement, lie or otherwise.

“Look, hey, she can’t stand up for long,” Nicole said. “She’s not gonna say this, but she will collapse eventually. Hey?”

Sarika stared at a point on the floor, jaw slack, eyes full of spite.

“Yes, yes,” Evelyn grumbled. “Get her sat down. Sit down.”

Nicole helped Sarika into a chair. Once sitting, Sarika seemed to curl up on herself, head hanging forward, breathing hard, recovering her strength. Nicole tried to take the crutches from her, but Sarika made an angry grunt and held onto them.

“Is she even … lucid?” Evelyn grimaced. “I mean … is this …”

“Yes,” Sarika herself croaked. “Yes. M’here. Here.”

Evelyn sighed. She shared a glance with me, and I saw a hint of guilt in her eyes, but there was nothing else to do about it now, we were already here. I got myself sat down too, far enough from Sarika that I didn’t feel totally uncomfortable. Raine asked if anybody wanted tea, and the only taker was Nicole. We sat in awkward silence as the kettle boiled, and eventually Sarika found the strength to raise her head and look around.

“More of you,” she croaked.

“Pardon?” Evelyn replied.

“There were … were … more of you. The … wolf?” She struggled for breath for a second. “I remember wolf. And Zheng.”

“She means we’re not all here,” Raine said with a good helping of fake cheer as she placed Nicole’s tea in front of her on the table. “And you’re right, Sarika. Twil’s not around, and Zheng’s out hunting.”

The absences went a step further than that. Lozzie and Tenny had very strict instructions to remain upstairs, away from this, for their own safety, although I wouldn’t be averse to Nicole meeting Tenny once this was all over. Kimberly was safely at work, warned in advance. She’d missed the festivities on Saturday the same way, and seemed glad for it.

If Zheng turned up, we were all in trouble. She’d want to pull Sarika’s tongue out.

“Kill you all,” Sarika slurred. “She will. Demon.”

“She won’t,” I said, compelled. “She won’t.”

Sarika shrugged, not even bothering to look at me, as if she didn’t much care.

“Right then. First things first,” Evelyn announced, raising her chin and tapping the scrimshawed thighbone with one nail. “Sarika Masalkar, do you know what this is?”

Sarika looked up and stared at Evelyn for a long, sulky moment, then looked at the bone. “Guess. Can.”

“Good. I can compel you to tell me anything I want to know, with this. It is the result of a lot of work, mine and my mother’s. But I will not use it on a … sick woman.”

“Our Evee’s being merciful,” Raine added with a wink. Evelyn gritted her teeth. My stomach clenched up. Threats, more threats. Was this really who we were?

“Who knows you’re here?” Evelyn asked.

“Me,” Nicole answered for her. “That’s all. Her family think we’ve gone out for coffee. They were really happy about that, actually. Trusted me implicitly.” Nicole sighed and cleared her throat and sipped her tea. I had to apologise to her later. I really did.

Sarika stared at Evelyn, impossible to read – except for the spite.

“Do you understand what this is about?” Evelyn asked. “Nicole related the basics, but I need you to under-”

Sarika’s eyes flashed deep down, a spike of anger rising through her, hitching her breathing. “M’still fucking human. F-f-f-fuck you. Yes, I under- understand. Can hear. Can think. Yes, I get it. You caught King, and Bill, and Sandy,” she spat the names with great difficulty, slapping her own mouth in an effort to wipe away drool. “Probably k-killed them too, and now you’re drumming up a kangaroo court for me, convince yourself you can kill me too. Fuck you. Should have let me die.”

We all shared a glance. Even Raine was shocked. Evelyn frowned at Sarika, not sure what to make of that. Nicole let out a concerned ‘uh?’ noise.

“That’s not what’s happening here,” Evelyn said, sighing.

“Don’t- don’t believe you.”

“I’m not going to let anybody kill you,” I spoke up, surprised myself. “Not because I want to protect you, or have any pity for you, but because more murder is wrong. You’re helpless, you’re … you’ve had punishment enough.”

“We did not catch your friends,” Evelyn said.

“Not friends,” Sarika croaked.

“She’s in the dark,” Raine said. “Sure as sure. C’mon, Evee, this is not act. She’s in the dark. She didn’t know what he really is either.”

“Shh!” Evelyn hissed.

“Heh.” Sarika’s lips twitched toward a cold smile. “They pull- p-pull one over on you?”

“Sarika, you are going to tell us everything you know about Joshua King,” Evelyn said, grim and serious. “If you lie, I will use what methods I have. Why did he call you? What was it about? What about the other two? What were they up to, and what was your involvement?”

Sarika’s smile twitched wider. “You get Stack too? H-hope she’s d-dead. Bitch.”

Raine stiffened, a near-invisible change but one I knew all too well, a tensing of muscles all the way up her body. It sent a thrill through my guts too.

“Amy Stack?” Raine asked.

“He c-called me. They all did. Had a plan,” Sarika went on, halting, wheezing for breath. “Escape the- the- the-”

She squeezed her eyes shut and made a choking sound. Face twitching, body shaking, rejecting the thought. She couldn’t get past the concept.

“The Eye,” I said for her.

It took her almost two full minutes to come back. She drooled down her own chin and struggled to wipe it on her sleeve, couldn’t re-focus her eyes without difficulty, seemed like she might vomit if pushed much further. Evelyn looked on the verge of screaming in frustration, but even she was mollified by the obvious physical torture the poor woman was going through for the sake of a single word. Raine was watching the back window. I felt a horrible churning in my stomach, because I knew what it was like, at least a little. Eventually, Nicole helped Sarika sit up straight again.

“Explain,” Evelyn grunted.

“Escape plan. Called me. Came to the house. Three of them, Stack too,” Sarika slurred and shrugged. “Working for them. Maybe. Escape plan from … it. Gave them … doorway, gate, basics. They thought I had- had more. Get into the … Alex’s castle. Don’t know where. Didn’t want to know where.”

“ … you didn’t tell me about this,” Nicole said, then turned to us. “She didn’t tell me a word of this. I swear.”

“Y-you would have told them,” Sarika jerked her chin at Evelyn. “They’d have killed them.”

“You could have told me,” I said. “I could have helped them. If they were trying to … to escape it. Sarika, damn you, I would have helped. We wouldn’t have killed them. We wouldn’t.”

Slowly, she turned her eyes to look at me. She hated me. Really, deeply hated me.

“Would’ve been a threat to you, girl. Think they- they’d be able to resist? Resist trying to send you to- to- t-t-t- … it? Give you to it? Then you would have killed them. Tell me I’m wrong. G-go on. T-tell me I’m wrong.”

The denial stuck in my throat.

“S’what I t-thought,” she slurred – and started to cry, huge wet tears in her hateful eyes. “More dead friends. More dead friends.”

Previous Chapter

by this art you may contemplate – 10.6

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Zheng went for the mage.

She uncoiled so fast my eyes couldn’t track her. My optic nerve refused to process the blur. Muscle flowed as quicksilver, lightning in her fists.

Difficult as it may be to overlook Zheng’s inhuman nature, harder still is to remember just how superhuman she can be, even minutes after we’d seen her set her own broken jawbone with nary a wince of pain. All too easy for the subconscious to consider her still bound by physical limits and mortal constraints, no matter how monstrous her tastes or how titanic her strength or how agile her acrobatics. It is more comfortable to think of Zheng as simply very big and very strong and possessing flesh that heals very quickly, a very foreign mind inside a body that is still basically human.

I’d forgotten how fast she could move.

Down in the fog at the foot of the castle, she hadn’t been serious. She’d felt teased and frustrated by prey that wouldn’t sit still, indeed. But the dead man, the revenant, he had been a diversion, a mysterious clown. Important to catch, perhaps, but not hated. For Zheng, on some level, running off into the fog after clever prey was fun and games. She was more like a cat than I’d ever tell her to her face.

But now we knew he was a mage. And killing mages was serious business.

A hurricane of razors crossed the ex-drawing room in a single heartbeat.

Zheng was about to rip out the Welsh Mage’s tongue, break all his fingers, and most likely eat his heart, bloody and raw. As promised. Nothing and nobody – with the possible exception of hyperdimensional mathematics – could move fast enough to stop her.

Thank you.

Thank you, I had just enough time to think. Thank God, and Maisie, and anything else that cared to listen. I’d barely had time to process the taunt the Welsh Mage had flung at Zheng, but the implications of her sheer hatred were obvious. The abyssal part of me adored her, the human part was still grappling with a love that I couldn’t speak; both agreed, kill him. No mercy for slavers.

In the split-second before Zheng slammed into him, the Welsh Mage twisted his fingers – a last twitch of muscle, trying to cast his spell.

Hands locked together in representation of an esoteric symbol, he pushed the curious interlocked shape beyond the angles possible in our reality, forced himself over the boundary of magic. For a horrible moment, the shape of his fingers became an alien thing, and made me feel sick.

Futile, I thought. He’d already checkmated himself.

Even if his spell turned Zheng to lead before she struck, two heaving masses of pneuma-somatic killing machine still hung on the wall behind him. Evelyn’s spider-servitors waited to explode into motion and run him through with foot-long stingers. We’d already seen that it took him a moment of disorientation to switch back to the Drunkard personality, and that would be one second too long. He faced too many vectors of attack. One would get through. Probably Zheng.

With a twist and a yank he snapped his own left little finger, a sound like dry wood.

And pointed his hands at me.

Chaos is rarely encoded properly in memory – except in the abyss, where bodies do not rely on such slow, clumsy mechanisms as electrochemical signals and wet meat. Even in the moment, I had almost no idea what was happening until it was all over. Raine and I pieced it together later, encouraged by Evelyn’s burning need to comprehend the limits of a unknown mage loose in Sharrowford, after I’d recovered from the physical side-effects of my instinctive reaction.

Five seconds. That’s all it took.

One.

Zheng threw herself between the Mage and I, and took the spell full in the face.

Air temperature plummeted by ten, maybe twenty degrees. Flash-freeze sucked heat from my lungs, like Evelyn’s magic but dirtier, rougher, torturing the surface of reality. A haze of orange-red burst around Zheng like nuclear sunrise seen from behind a mountain, heralded by a sound that was not a sound, past the edge of hearing, like a great cloud of wasps. Zheng shuddered like a struck oak.

I believe I shouted her name. Can’t remember. Raine says I did. Evelyn says I didn’t.

Then Zheng swiped a hand through the air in front of her, a blur clearing cobwebs, a machete through jungle vines; the wasp noise cut out with the most awful screeching strangle, as if a billion tiny insect throats had all been crushed at once.

Two.

Evelyn’s spider-servitors took the opening. Chitinous legs ratcheted to pounce, stingers whirled back to strike.

But now, Zheng was in an unexpected and unpredicted position.

One of the spider-servitors failed to correct, and crashed into her from the side, toppling her over in a tangle of whirring spider legs and whipping limbs, Zheng roaring in frustration, a pair of monsters locked in a mis-aimed moment of friendly fire.

The second spider took a split-second to re-orient, re-aim, re-plan – and this was all the Welsh Mage needed. He sagged, head lolling and rolling, and stumbled with precognitive drunkenness out of the path of the incoming stingers, a clutch of spears passing harmlessly through empty space less than hand’s breadth from his side. He wobbled and jerked and brought his head back up.

And he was somebody else. A third somebody.

Three.

The dead man’s face lit up.

Wide-eyed, hyper-focused, with a manic smirk of dangerous amusement. Alien to both of his previous personalities. He locked eyes with me for a tenth of a second – then locked onto the notebook in my hands. His notebook, full of Welsh poetry.

The rest of us were paralysed by confusion. Twil – all wolf now, a growl in her muzzle and claws flexing – looked for an angle to leap at the Mage, but Zheng and the spider blocked her path for a crucial half-second. Raine tried to aim her handgun, but Zheng surged back up, kicking the spider off herself with a roar, tearing an errant pneuma-somatic stinger from the flesh of her arm. The poor spider bounced off the wall, legs scrabbling, dazed and confused as it tried to right itself. Praem was too busy yanking Evelyn off her feet and out of the way.

Zheng was turning toward the dead man, recovering from the spider’s blunder, one hand arcing out to rip his tongue from his mouth; but he stepped around her.

He flowed like water over rock.

Amid all that confusion, I remember that one detail as clear as a heart attack. The way he moved, the way his third mask used his body, the actual Drunken Master.

The Lad he’d been down in the fog and at the gateway was not the real thing. He’d probably borrowed his dodging skills from this third personality, as Evelyn surmised later, and turned them into a comedy act, lulled us into a false sense of security, fooled even Zheng into thinking she could take him, if she really tried.

He was a snake of molten metal driven by the wind. He flowed past and around and under Zheng, wove to her side and landed a punch on her gut – for show, ordinary human strength not enough to make her blink – and then kept going, through her guard and out the other side and straight toward me.

Four.

For one second I was alone with a mage.

Surrounded by my friends, in the heart of the house, with Lozzie still clinging to my left arm. Utterly alone.

He wasn’t faster than Zheng, or even Twil, or the bullets in Raine’s handgun, but the manner and direction of his movement was so impossible, so expert, that it bought him a second of free action while everyone’s brains raced to catch up. One cannot react to what one could not even imagine a moment earlier, even at the speed of thought. Even with brainmath, abyssal Heather and ape Heather are still running at the speed of the grey meat in my skill.

The Drunken Master took a step toward me and plucked his spiral-notebook out of my hands.

I could have touched him, I cursed myself later. I could have reached out and touched him and sent him Outside, or gripped the notebook harder, or even just taken a single step back. Anything, any reaction at all, would have foiled him. I blamed myself. Too slow, Heather. Too stupid. Too long out of the abyss.

He reached his other hand for my face or my throat, perhaps to take me hostage or prove the point that we couldn’t stop him. Damn me and my stupidity, I could have let him touch me and then sent him Outside.

Adrenaline can turn a clever ape into an idiot – and abyssal creatures think faster even than lizard-brain impulses.

No, in that tenth of a second, I panicked. The abyssal thing I’d been panicked.

Fast threat creature touch bad no stop.

And without thinking, without planning, relying only on weeks of practice and knowledge osmosis to stop myself from ripping my own insides to mince, I flipped that single piece of hyperdimensional mathematics from a zero to a one.

Phantom limbs blossomed into glorious reality. Six tentacles, three from each flank between my ribcage and hips, pneuma-somatic flesh passing right through the fabric of my clothes. They were beautiful, pale and soft and infinitely dexterous, strobing with rainbow bio-luminescence, whirling and lashing. Lozzie squealed in surprise and stumbled clear, almost went sprawling onto the floor. She was one of the few who could see them.

I gasped with bliss and physical invasion both at once, pneuma-somatic anchors growing into place deep inside my torso, twinning with my real flesh, making me the merest shadow of what my soul said my body should be.

Euphoria.

What did this tiny, clumsy ape think he was doing? I was a shark, a squid, a marine thing from the black abyssal depths. I was strong and I was fast and he was threatening my pack, my mate, mine, mine, and I was going to beat him to death and leave his corpse for the bottom-feeders and the slime.

All six tentacles struck together.

Five.

He couldn’t actually see the tentacles, but somehow he could sense they were present, sense he was in danger.

The Drunken Master lost his smirk and closed his eyes.

He abandoned the attempt to grab me, rocked back on one heel and slid the other foot out as he twisted low at the waist, ducking under three tentacles. He flipped back up and hopped away from me on tiptoes, head going left and right like a boxer dodging hammer-blows. My brain did not possess the processing power to actually guide my tentacles, and I am never going to be a martial artist anyway – but I could flail, I could lash, I could panic.

And I still couldn’t hit him. Even with six extra limbs to work with, all I could do was keep him off me.

I think I screamed at him. Or hissed. Or some combination of the two.

Zheng caught up as well, turning toward him, ready to pin him between us, but he seemed to simply duck and dive through her guard again, head bobbing and twisting, rotating at his ankles in way that surely should have snapped his bones. He stepped directly between two of my tentacles and with a instinctive scream inside my head I realised he was learning.

Of course, there was one person in the room who didn’t have years of preconditioned expectations, who did not think at the speed of a human being, who did not need to rely on neural connections.

I think Praem panicked.

In three prim steps, she walked straight up behind the Drunken Master and grabbed a fistful of his curly black hair. As if all his weaving, dodging tricks didn’t even register for her.

“Cease,” she intoned, bell-clear voice cutting through the confusion.

The split-second of arrested motion was enough. I finally hit him in the side of the chest with one lashing tentacle, a blow like a sack of wet concrete slamming into his bones. I felt his ribs crack.

He stumbled, let out a deep pained ‘oof’, and ripped his head clear of Praem’s grip.

“Wizard!” Zheng roared. “Mine!”

In the split-second before Zheng could pin him, he sprinted straight for the kitchen doorway.

Memory resumes at this point in a confused jumble, everybody shouting at once, strange tuggings in my chest and belly, Twil and Zheng almost slamming into each other as they tried to fly through the kitchen door after the mage, my sheer clear-minded joy turning to sudden deep lances of pain in my flanks and chest, Evelyn spitting curses, Raine rushing to my side as my knees give out, and finally my beautiful tentacles turning to ash in the air.

“Stop him!” Evelyn was screaming.

Raine dumped her makeshift riot shield on the floor with a clang that could have woken the dead, and caught me before I hit the ground. Tears of pain and abyssal dysphoria blurred my vision. Reduced back down to this stinking, rotting meat again, just as the adrenaline finally hit me, shaking all over, my sides burning as if I’d been branded.

“Ah-ah- ow! Ow!”

“Heather, woah woah, slow down, slow down, hey,” Raine murmured, cradling me as I flailed, as I tried to catch the falling ash of my tentacles before the pneuma-somatic flesh blew away to nothingness. A second pair of hands caught mine, little hands, as Lozzie joined Raine in holding me up.

I didn’t even care that the dead man was getting away.

“Evee, she’s done it again. She did the tentacle thing again,” Raine said. “Heather, look at me. Heather.”

“Then pick her up!” Evelyn snapped. “And bring her with-”

She cut off at the sound of the front door slamming open. Sprinting feet echoed down the garden path. Then Twil’s shout floated back to us – a confused ‘what the hell?’

“No, no no no,” I sobbed. “I can’t- can’t be back- no- should have grabbed- grabbed him by the throat, s-sorry, sorry, I shouldn’t be here- no-”

“Hey, hey, Heather, shhhh, shhhh,” Raine murmured, trying to stroke my suddenly cold-sweat soaked hair. “Look at me, Heather, please. Please concentrate. Where does it hurt? Heather.”

“Inside,” I whined – but I didn’t mean it in the way Raine did.

“She’s safe inside,” Lozzie said, a serious expression on her elfin little face, blinking big eyes and trying to push masses of floaty blonde hair behind her ears. “Safe inside. Nothing’s broken.”

“You’re sure?” Raine asked her. “You’re absolutely certain?”

“Feels broken,” I sobbed, clutching at myself.

Twil skidded back into the kitchen, knocked a chair over with a clatter, and caught herself on the workshop door frame.

“He vanished!” she said, wide-eyed with disbelief. “Jumped over the garden wall and poof! Gone! What the shit?”

Raine and Evelyn shared a glance. “That’s the boundary of the wards,” Raine said. “Guess he needed out before he could pull a proper vanishing act.”

“Fuck!” Evelyn spat.

“Anybody else get tagged?” Raine checked. “We all okay? What about Zheng?”

“She took off down the street,” Twil said. “Fuck knows why, she couldn’t see him either. What the hell was all that? That was some bullshit. … uh, Heather alright?”

“She will be,” Raine said.

Raine picked me up and carried me into the kitchen, a secure, safe princess carry which I wish I’d been coherent enough to enjoy. I clung to her, desperate for the skinship, for the relief from this dragging, sinking feeling of being trapped inside my own flesh.

She set me down in a chair and fetched water, wiped my tears and the bleeding nose I hadn’t even noticed. Lozzie hovered over her shoulder, bobbing from foot to foot, saying nonsense things to me. Evelyn was shouting, red in the face with fury, as Twil tried to calm her down and Praem glided through the kitchen and out into the front room. The disorder and noise washed over me and through me and meant nothing. Nothing mattered.

Raine helped me sip some water, then held up three fingers.

“Heather, look at me, please. How many fingers? … Heather? You in there?”

“She is!” Lozzie chirped. “Heather!”

“Not really.” I sniffed hard, couldn’t stop crying slow tears. “Three fingers.”

My flanks throbbed at the tentacle anchor points, oblique muscles already stiffening with massive circular bruises. Dozens of barbed-wire spikes dragged across the inside of my torso, through my lungs and my guts, where I’d secured the extra limbs inside myself with tendons and cartilage and supplementary muscles of pneuma-somatic flesh. Studying anatomy and biology these last few weeks had paid off – I had avoided ripping my insides apart this time – but the result still left much to be desired, especially when executed in panic and fear.

But the pain wasn’t making me cry. The loss – again – was too much. Cut too deep.

My body felt alien, a sack of writhing bacteria and hot meat. Every blink threatened to render Raine and Lozzie’s faces into a jumble of meaningless noise, flat planes and meat-spaces underneath the glow of the kitchen lights. Outdoors, night had fallen, visible through the kitchen window, and some insane part of me wanted to run out there into the welcoming chill dark and huddle down in a shadowy corner where I wouldn’t be found.

“You feel any weakness?” Raine asked, trying to sound light and easy, and failing at it. “Numb at all? Tingling in your fingers or toes? Heather? Concentrate on my voice, okay.”

“I- can’t- I-” I choked out.

Concentrate,” Raine said, and the whip-crack of her voice forced me to focus. I shook my head.

“No … no, Raine, I’m not bleeding inside. I’m bruised. That’s all. Bruises.”

Raine stared into my eyes for a moment as I blinked past the tears.

“I’m sorry,” I blurted out. “It was instinct. I just- he was going to- I said I wouldn’t, but- I just did it- I’m sorry, I’m-”

“Shhhhh, it’s not your fault. You’re forgiven, okay?” Raine wiped away my tears again, then glanced back at Lozzie. She said something, Lozzie replied, but I was too busy worming one hand down inside my hoodie’s sleeve. I got one whole arm tucked up inside the cocoon of my own clothing, then felt downward, under my tshirt, across my own belly and over to the tender flesh on my flank, hot and inflamed. I grit my teeth and jabbed with a fingernail.

I thought I did quite well to conceal the spike of pain, despite the hiss through my teeth, but I couldn’t hide anything from Raine.

“Heather?! Heather, what was that? Where did it hurt? Heather?”

“I-” I sniffed back tears, poked myself again, clenched my teeth so hard they creaked. “N-nothing, I-”

Raine realised what I was doing and grabbed my hand through my hoodie. I myself barely understood why I was doing it. She met my eyes and I looked down in horrified embarrassment.

“No, no, Heather, no,” Raine murmured, her other hand stroking my hair. “You don’t have to do that to yourself.”

“It- it distracts from the … the … ” I let out another hard sob, trapped in this awful parody of the impossible thing I was supposed to be. Physical pain distracted from the emotional pain, from the alienation, the dysphoria.

 Why was it so much worse this time? Because I’d worked so hard, and I still couldn’t sustain even a fraction of what I’d been in the abyss. Each taste of mutable glory was torture when it was gone.

Raine held my hand to stop me hurting myself, and hugged me close.

“You must be able to bloody well smell him! Go track his scent! He can’t have turned to fucking mist!” Evelyn was shouting at a flinching, cringing Twil, then whirled on Praem as she walked back in. “And what the hell were you doing?! You could have strangled him, broken his bones, fucking clawed his eyes out, but you grab his hair? What was that!?” She threw her arms out in a shrug and her walking stick caught a mug by the kitchen sink, knocked an avalanche of dirty plates into the metal basin with an ear-splitting clatter. Evelyn flinched and screwed her eyes shut. Twil caught a bright orange Halloween-themed mug before it bounced right off the countertop. Lozzie clamped her hands over her ears.

“I am sorry,” Praem intoned into the silence that followed.

Evelyn stared at her like she couldn’t believe such impertinence. “Sorry? Sorry? What were you doing, you-”

“Evee, fuckin’ ‘ell,” Twil said. “She panicked, yeah? Calm down.”

Evelyn whirled on her, frantic with anger that barely concealed her fear, and shouted in Twil’s face. “Do you-”

Twil flinched again, hard, and Evelyn stopped dead. She closed her eyes for a second and took a long, deep breath. Twil glanced at Raine and I for help. Lozzie had all but retreated behind me. Raine shrugged and mouthed ‘good luck’.

“I mean … ” Twil tried. “He got away, yeah, but nobody got hurt. That’s what matters, right?”

“Do you understand what that man was?” Evelyn asked, voice cold and tightly controlled. Her face twitched, one eye and the corner of her mouth. “Do you have even the slightest conception of what we just let escape?”

Twil sighed and rolled her eyes. “Duh. My family worships an Outsider, remember?”

Evelyn blinked, opening her mouth and closing it again.

“Evee,” I croaked. She turned her eyes on me, wide and wild. “Stop. Please.”

“ … I thought you would understand, Heather. Of all people, I thought-”

“Yes,” I said, tears finally drying up with irritation. “A mage.”

Evelyn nodded, once, twice, then over and over. “Yes. Yes, thank you. You and I are the only two people in here who have ever had to put one down. Oh, sod all of this.” Evelyn seemed to collapse inside, sagging on the support of her walking stick. “This evening has turned into a rinse of what little dignity I manage to retain, hasn’t it? Let’s get all of Evelyn’s Saye’s fears on display, dig up every last morsel.”

“Is that what the fuckboy there was taunting you about?” Twil asked. “Your, like, mum, or something?”

“That is none of your business,” Evelyn said, but she could barely keep her voice steady.

Twil tilted her head at Evelyn, then stepped forward and ambushed her with a hug.

“You- I-” Evelyn spluttered. “I didn’t ask for-”

“Shut up and take it for once.” Twil squeezed her harder, arms around Evelyn’s hunched shoulders and bent spine. “Look like you need it. Just got out of a bad fight, yeah?”

Evelyn blushed a brighter red than her anger. Lips pressed tight together, blinking rapidly, she didn’t seem to know what to do with her hands. She looked like she wanted to crawl out of her own skin. A countdown started in the back of my head; Evelyn made it almost seven seconds.

“I do not- this is physically uncomfortable,” she managed. “Please let go.”

“Yeah, yeah, sorry,” Twil said. She let go and stepped back, and shot a split-second guilty look at me.

“And now is not … not the time,” Evelyn said. “That mage got away with his notebook as well. God alone knows what was really in there.”

“I mean, you looked like you needed it,” Twill pressed on. “Like you were about to cry or something, and you know, you’re my- … friend-”

“Thank you, yes,” Evelyn blurted out. “Yes, yes, thank you. Fine. Alright. Now is not the time. And I was not going to cry.”

Twil raised her eyebrows. One could practically hear the dot-dot-dot of unspoken scepticism, but she kept that to herself. Learning how to deal with our Evee? I hoped so. Evelyn met her gaze, and for a second she looked on the verge of breaking down again. She opened her mouth, closed it, opened it again, and I could see the thought forming, the request which would have been impossible as little as a month ago, unthinkable half a year past. Her free hand twitched toward Twil. Maybe this wasn’t the right moment, and we had much bigger and scarier magicians to think about, but I was absolutely certain that Evelyn was about to ask Twil for another hug.

And then Zheng slammed the front door and stalked back into the kitchen.

A vision from hell paused in the doorway, still naked from the waist up, hair matted with the dry, crusted remains of the mucus from down in the fog dimension. She was so angry her expression had tripped over into granite-hard cold focus. She vibrated with frustration, her breathing rough, her skin steaming faintly with a sheen of sudden sweat. Her eyes flicked past us, dark with fury, but didn’t seem to actually see until she settled on me.

“Zheng,” I croaked, a smile in my voice.

Her mere proximity was enough to soothe the worst of the abyssal dysphoria. The creature I’d once been saw kinship in her, retracted its spines and deflated its toxin sacs, relaxed. I felt a touch less alien.

She blinked once, and stomped toward the workshop doorway.

“Yo, you get anything?” Twil asked as Zheng passed. “What were you even following? Hey, hey, Zheng, where you going?”

“You were running ‘round out there with your tits out?” Raine asked, a smile in her voice too. A real one, despite the situation.

“Zhengy … ” Lozzie bit her lip.

“Yes, all good questions,” Evelyn grumbled.

Zheng ignored us and slipped into the workshop.

She returned a second later, tearing open the black bin liner that contained her soiled jumper. Thankfully for the state of our kitchen floor, the mucus had quick-dried there too. She scraped the worst of the green crust off and yanked the jumper down over her head.

“Washing machine,” Praem said.

“I do not care, little one,” Zheng rumbled, then, “Yoshou. Watch the shaman. Keep her safe.”

“Always,” Raine said, without the smile. “Where you off to?”

“Zheng?” I croaked, a horrible squirming in my belly as realisation dawned. I tried to stand up and managed only a lurch out of the chair, legs wobbly and sides screaming with abused muscle. Raine caught my stumble. I fought her weakly for a second, thinking she was going to deposit me back in the chair, sit me down and shut me up, and the abyssal instinct in my heart couldn’t take that right now – but to my surprise, Raine just supported me, helped me stand, as I blinked and panted at Zheng.

“Where are you going?” I asked, a lump in my throat. My voice shook. My chest constricted. “Zheng?”

“Hunting.”

She wouldn’t look at me.

“ … but … no, no not now. Not now. Zheng, I need you.”

“Zhengy, nooooo,” Lozzie murmured, and made a sad little face.

“Zheng yes,” Evelyn interrupted with a snap, eyes blazing as she nodded at the giant demon-host. “Yes. Yes, you understand it perfectly, don’t you? This mage has to die. How will you do it? How do you plan to track him? Do you-”

“Shut up, wizard.” Zheng was already striding past Evelyn, making for the front door.

“Do you need any help?” Evelyn finished.

Zheng paused and looked down at her, darkly unimpressed. “Help, wizard?”

“Help, yes. I’m serious. I’m right here, you absolute fool,” Evelyn snapped at her. “I’m skilled. I can do things you can’t. I’ve killed another mage before, and if I’ve learnt anything recently it’s that none of us are alone in this. I’m a mage, and I’m on your side, especially if it involves getting rid of vermin infesting my goddamn city and-”

Zheng leaned down and over, right in Evelyn’s face. The same move she’d used on me when I’d first freed her, the same predatory focus and intent, the same animal intimidation grasping at one’s guts with clawed hands. Evelyn flinched and shrank back.

“This is not for your territorial pissings, little thing,” Zheng rumbled through her teeth.

Twil let out a warning growl at Zheng’s back, long and low, and I think there were words in there too, mangled by the sudden formation of a wolf snout. Evelyn turned waxy and pale, cold sweat broke out on her forehead. She took an involuntary step back from Zheng, shaking, almost unable to grip her walking stick properly.

“Zheng no,” Lozzie repeated. “You don’t have to. You can let it go. Let it go.”

Zheng stepped back and left Evelyn alone. Twil – wolf form dissipating to nothing again, mist in the air – went to Evelyn’s side in an instant, grabbing her free hand and scowling at Zheng. The giant zombie turned away, ignored the pair of them, ignored me, ignored everything and everyone and strode toward the door. I reached out to her, bile in my throat, pain pulling inside my chest. Phantom limbs reached out toward her and muscles in my flanks and torso tried to support them, twitching and pulling against already bruised flesh. I winced through my teeth and sat back down in the chair with a thump, clutching at my sides.

“My-” Evelyn pulled herself up and raised her chin, though pale and shaking. “My offer of help still stands. I mean it.”

Zheng rolled one shoulder, the merest nothing of a shrug as she left.

“Hold up,” said Raine.

Perhaps it was the natural authority in her voice, or perhaps Zheng respected Raine’s input more than she did the rest of us, but whatever the reason, Zheng paused, turned to look, and gave Raine the benefit of a second to explain herself.

Raine raised a finger. “I think we may have been tricked. Perhaps hoodwinked. And quite possibly, bamboozled.”

Zheng frowned. The first chink in her armour of anger.

“Think about it for a sec,” Raine carried on, addressing all of us with a sweep of a hand. “Mister ‘Joe King’ just now, he knew things about us that he shouldn’t – couldn’t, have possibly known. Right? Anybody else catch that part? Just me?”

“He’s a mage,” Evelyn drawled. “Don’t be dense.”

“Exactly. Dead man walking is a mage.”

“What are you getting at?” Evelyn said. “Get on with it. Now is not the time for-”

Zheng made an impatient rumbling noise in her chest.

“Oh,” Twil lit up.

“Yeah. Lassie gets it.” Raine nodded slowly.

“Oi!” Twil snapped.

“Love you too, werewolf.”

“The point, yoshou,” Zheng growled.

“Point is, this dude knew about Evelyn’s leg and her family history, and then also about you, Zheng. Something from your past, I’m guessing. Made you think he’s somebody you used to know, right? Now, I’m not gonna ask exactly who you think he is, but I need you to answer this – was he somebody specific? Can you put a name to him?”

Zheng stared. I couldn’t tell if she was thinking, or blanking the question. Then she finally shook her head.

“Right?” Raine went on. “So now you think he’s somebody who used to know you, somebody you want dead, and hey, that’s cool, that’s your business. But back there, in our little standoff, it made you tilt, didn’t it? Broke the stalemate. Dude used your anger to spring a surprise on us. Talking shit at Evee almost made her break it first, but it wasn’t enough, so he switched to you.”

“Yeah, like, he was making it up?” Twil asked.

“Why not?” Raine shrugged. “What’s more likely, that this guy’s a mage from both Zheng’s past and Evelyn’s, that he somehow knew I was the one who lifted the cocaine off his corpse, and exactly how many bullets I had left, which was weird as hell by the way – or that he was playing a con?”

“How would he know any of that otherwise?” Evelyn asked.

“You’re the magician, Evee,” Raine said. “You tell us.”

A stillness came over the kitchen for a long moment as we all digested Raine’s theory. Even sunk deep in pain physical and spiritual, her idea made sense to me. What were the chances of a mage being related to the pasts of both Zheng and Evelyn? Depends how small the supernatural world is, I thought to myself, and that was an impossible question to answer.

Zheng’s tall frame cast shadows over the kitchen table as she shifted her weight and raised her head. She rumbled like a lit furnace.

“It does not matter, yoshou. I hunt.”

“Yeah, that’s cool, go hunt. Good luck, let us know if you eat tasty bits of him or whatever.” Raine pointed a finger gun at her. “But when you find him, just keep that in mind. He might be more con man than mage.”

“Meat is meat.”

“He got you way tilted, big girl. If I’m right, he’ll try it again. That’s all. Stay sharp.”

Zheng stared for a moment, then grunted, neither acknowledgement nor dismissal. She turned on her heel to leave.

“Zheng, please,” I croaked, and stumbled to my feet again. My phantom limbs reached for her as she left, begging her to stay here with me, stay by me. I hunched up tight, pain all down both sides. “I need you … here, with me?”

“I know, shaman,” she threw over her shoulder. Angry. “I’ll bring you his scalp.”

She stomped away through the front room, making less and less noise as she went, as if adopting a cat-like silent slink. Nothing so big should move with such stealth. By the time she opened the front door she was barely a ghost of motion, a whisper on the air into the darkness and streetlight glow outdoors. She closed the door behind her, without a click.

==

Two days later, on Monday afternoon, Raine followed the address on the revenant’s keys.

Evelyn went with her, to disarm any magical booby-traps the mage may have left for inquisitive noses. Praem accompanied them too, for extra body-guard duties, dressed in a green ribbed sweater and a long skirt so as not to draw attention to her maid uniform in public.

And of course I went along as well, because at the end of all things, no matter how twitchy and animalistic I felt, no matter how much I wanted to climb into a dark corner and hibernate, no matter how much my soul said I should have spines and flippers and sharp fangs and should dart off in search of Zheng, in the end, hyperdimensional mathematics was always our trump card.

I’d spent all of Sunday resting, because Raine had made it abundantly clear that I did not have a choice in the matter. No chasing enigmatic mages, no traipsing around the city looking for Zheng, no ripping the secrets of reality from animated clay vessels, and absolutely no visualising the tentacles I desired so much.

Watching marine life videos on the internet was allowed though.

She was right, I needed it.

My flanks were a mass of overlapping purple bruises again. Nowhere near as bad as the first time, but enough that a long soak in a very hot bath did little to soothe the pain. By Sunday morning I was stiff and sore and slow-moving, and ravenously hungry.

Across Sunday I’d inhaled three packets of chocolate chip cookies, half a block of cheese, breakfast, lunch, and a homemade chicken casserole for dinner with big soft chunky vegetables and roast potatoes, and I still couldn’t feel full. By ten at night, Raine had sent Praem out into the city with specific directions to a fast-food place called ‘Azarabab’s Pizza.’ Azarabab is not a real name, as far as I could tell, and his establishment did not serve pizza. I had never eaten a kebab before, and will likely never do so again.

I’d spent the whole day, and most of Monday morning, clinging to Raine. Even if she hadn’t wanted me to come along, for my safety, she had no choice.

The address on the keys – 82 Barkslouf Way – turned out not to be in Manchester as suggested by the mysterious train ticket, but right there in Sharrowford. Nestled deep in the south side of the city, among brick-and-slate low rises from the 1980s. A sterile slab of commuter belt welded to Sharrowford’s underbelly, ablative economic armour for the train station. Scraggly grass greens between blocks of low flats, pubs with pretentious names like ‘the Sharrowford Barn’ or ‘the Rest Stop’, crowds of pigeons on every rooftop and power line.

I wanted to slink into a back alley like an urban fox. Hide among the rubbish bins. That’s what I was now – a rubbish monster. Couldn’t even walk around the city without my gut telling me the open spaces and the light were wrong.

I wished it would rain, hard. I would soak in it and pretend I was underwater.

“What’s the worst we could find, hey?” Raine asked, as we staked the place out.

Well, if one can call loitering by a park bench for five minutes a ‘stakeout’.

“ … another corpse?” I tried eventually.

Evelyn grunted. “A bomb.”

“Him,” Praem intoned.

Twil had school that afternoon, and opted not to accompany us, but only after she and Evelyn had a blazing row over the phone. I caught part of it filtered through the ceiling from Evelyn’s bedroom, but the jist was not difficult to follow. Twil was to be a good girl and attend class and not jeopardise her future by skipping school to spend it with Evelyn, and yes, thank you, whipped Evelyn’s silver tongue, Praem was more than capable of making sure Evelyn didn’t stick her fingers in any plug sockets or run with scissors or eat glue. Slam. Done.

The revenant’s flat was on the top floor of a three-story building with a single, empty, echoing stairwell. Stairwells were not good for me. I had to consciously resist an absurd and impossible urge to pull myself directly upward, like an octopus ascending a tube, with limbs I didn’t have in a liquid medium that was not air.

We passed an old lady making her way down. She smiled at all of us, and Raine smiled back, though the poor old dear’s eyes slid right off Praem as if the doll-demon wasn’t there.

Getting in was easy enough. Raine had the key, the courage to knock, and a gun in her jacket.

We’d come armed, as much as possible while walking around in public. What would my mother say? For that matter, what would the me of six months ago say? Probably scream and run.

Raine had her gun, and that wicked black combat knife hidden away somewhere. My pockets contained an old present from Raine – a very illegal can of pepper spray, and a little personal attack alarm which I doubted would be any use here. Praem had herself. Evelyn had Praem, and I suppose in extreme need she could always hit stuff with her walking stick.

We needn’t have bothered; 82 Barkslouf Way was as sterile as its surroundings.

The single room flat contained the detritus of a life lived at speed, with little to weigh it down or hold it in place. An old steel bed frame in one corner with a bare mattress and dirty sheets, rumpled from a final sleep. A tiny kitchenette overflowing with fast food wrappers and microwave cartons and not one piece of permanent cutlery. Not a single toenail clipping or stray hair lurked in the tiny, suspiciously clean bathroom. Evelyn double-checked that. “Magic. To track him,” she explained the interest.

Two weeks of dust lay on every cold surface. The heating was off, the single window shaded by a blind. Old paint showed chips and peeled patches on the walls. Scuff stains surrounded the doorway, no mat for shoes. No shoes either.

Raine spent only five minutes edging around the place, looking for tripwires or odd symbols, but there was nothing.

No magic circles, no hidden books, no loose floorboards with secret stashes. Not even a television. The only objects of interest were a couple of cardboard moving boxes from Homebase, stuffed with assorted junk. Work boots. A torch. A few hastily bundled clothes. An old analog radio.

“Wonder if this was just a crash pad for him,” Raine suggested, as she squatted down to dig through the contents of the boxes, pulling out a packet of unopened crayons. She sniffed them and shrugged. “Look magical to you?”

“Don’t be absurd,” Evelyn grunted.

She stood by the single dirty window, staring out between the slats of the blinds. We kept the lights off, so as not to attract more attention than we already had. Praem watched the door, though there was little need in a room so small.

“This was a front,” I supplied, standing as close to Raine as I could without crowding her, hugging myself through my hoodie. “Somewhere he could pretend to live, for his … um … for the people he was fooling, in the Sharrowford Cult. Maybe. I don’t know.”

“No, no, it’s good guess, I think,” Raine said, and flashed a smile up at me.

I nudged her side with my knee, very gently. Just a touch. Needed the contact.

Zheng hadn’t returned home, not since Saturday night. Without her I felt like a frantic animal caught in a cage-trap, alone. Raine helped, but I’d become so needy. For the last two days I’d been glued to her side, seeking constant touch, constant reminder that I was here, in this body, that it was okay to be me.

We couldn’t go to Carcosa like this. I had to pull myself together. I felt so wretched.

“Now the cult’s gone and his safe house here’s been rumbled,” Raine said, working an ancient bomber jacket free from inside one of the boxes. Rotten orange, old train tickets in the pockets. “Maybe we really won’t see any more of him.”

“We will,” Evelyn drawled, a hollow space behind her voice, still staring out of the window. “He’s still out there.”

“So sure?” Raine asked.

“Him or others like him. Edward Lilburne was right. Sharrowford is going to fill up with rats and vultures, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

“Pest control,” Praem sing-songed. Evelyn laughed and shook her head.

“Thank you, Praem. I needed that.”

“Always.”

Evelyn raised an eyebrow at her.

“B-I-N-G-O,” Raine spelled out loud, standing up with a bundle of black wire clutched in one hand, grinning from ear to ear. “And bingo was his name-o.”

“Ahh?” I blinked at her.

“Yes Raine, well done, you’ve found a phone charger … oh.” Evelyn sighed in defeat as Raine extracted Mister Joking’s ancient mobile phone from her pocket, matched the charger to the port on the bottom, and plugged the other end into the nearest wall socket. “Yes, wonderful, that discovery saved us thirty quid on ebay. It’s hardly a notepad titled ‘my crimes and current location’.”

“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” Raine said. “You never know what you’ll find in there.”

“That’s not what the saying means,” I tutted.

Raine shot me a grin and a wink. “Let’s just wait for this old steam engine to get itself going, and we’ll see what we can see.”

The battered old plastic mobile took more than five minutes of charging to respond to the on switch. Raine rifled through the boxes some more, but found nothing interesting except for a small commemorative coin, some kind of historical reproduction currency stamped with the head of Oliver Cromwell, kept in a small velvet pouch. Evelyn shuffled around the room, poking things with her walking stick. I got a sinking feeling in my stomach, as if what we’d find on that phone would bring no good.

Raine held the phone and watched the ancient little LCD screen light up with animated black squares. It was too small for Evelyn and I to peer over her shoulder, so we waited as she thumbed through the menus with the clicking buttons.

“No password, no security,” Raine murmured to herself, eyes glued to the screen. “Very stupid, very stupid. Ah, here we … ahaha, oh bugger me. Okay.”

“What? What?” Evelyn demanded.

“This phone is registered to one ‘Joshua King’. At least our boy was consistent about his choice of surnames. Let’s see who he’s been calling. Worst comes to the worst we could just call these and see what happens.”

“Is that safe?” I asked.

“Indeed,” Evelyn drawled. “I wouldn’t recommend it.”

“We can take precautions,” Raine said, scrolling down a list. “Don’t recognise any of the names on this contact list. Nothing for the days he was lying there dead, not since the date on the train ticket … ah.” A slow, wry amusement came over Raine’s face. A fatalistic sigh escaped her lips. “Ahhh. You silly thing, should have told us. Well. There we have it. That’s a lead. Can’t leave that one alone.”

“Have what?” Evelyn demanded. “Told us what, Raine?”

Raine pointed the phone’s tiny screen at us. Picked out in blocky black letters were three calls, all made on the same date as the train ticket, the day the Welsh Mage, the revenant, the triple-man in one body, whatever he was, had come to Sharrowford at the behest of Edward Lilburne.

Two of the names meant nothing to us – ‘January’ and ‘Bikeman.’

The third name was not a pseudonym. He’d also called it twice the night before.

‘Sarika.’

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by this art you may contemplate – 10.5

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There exists a specific facial expression, rarely encountered in the isolated wilds of university libraries and the lonely teenage years of scrawny young women on anti-psychotics – a smiling mouth with cringing eyes, spiced by a knowing twinkle, on the verge of a defensive laugh. An expression which says ‘I know I am doing something I should not, but I am going to do it anyway, in full view of those who disapprove, because I do not have any other choice, and I shall embrace being a cheeky little so-and-so.’

The heavyset dead man, the risen corpse from the fog, the revenant on the far side of the castle gateway, smiled at us like a small boy about to escape punishment on a minor technicality.

“Just mosey on through, yeah?” he said, pointing vaguely through the gateway, toward the door to the kitchen. “Be outta ya’ hair in five shakes of a dog’s tail. Cat’s tail? How does that go again?” He frowned at empty space for a second, at nobody and nothing. “Lamb’s tail? Bro, what? Yeah, whatever.”

“Oh great,” Twil hissed. “You didn’t mention he was a wackjob.”

“Thought that part was obvious,” Raine said.

“He steps through that gate, he’ll die a second time,” Evelyn muttered.

Zheng watched him with the deceptively detached interest of a waiting tiger.

His flippancy did not help the aggression and adrenaline surging through my veins. My phantom limbs lashed and whirled, impossible to control the abyssal desire to pull his head clean from his body. I was furious, and I didn’t understand why. In retrospect, the source was obvious; this entire diversion was distracting us from the Carcosa experiment tomorrow, from another step in the plan to rescue my sister.

Evelyn’s spider-servitors framed the gateway, hanging above and beside. One step over and he was finished. I swallowed my anger. Let the spiders do their job.

Eyes blinking out of sync with each other, the dead man took in my glare and the barrel of Raine’s gun, and settled on Zheng. He raised his fists in a clumsy boxing stance. “Wanna throw down again, big lass? Or we done? Yeah?”

Zheng blinked once, slowly. A lizard on a hot rock.

It was such a minor detail, one that slid right past my conscious mind, but it should have alerted me that all was not as it seemed; Zheng had stripped off her mucus-soaked top a minute earlier, hair still matted with disgusting drying goo, and stood there bared for all to see, tattoos and abdomen and heavy breasts – but the dead man, despite his laddish speech and jovial act, didn’t sneak so much as a split-second glance at her body.

“Nah? Nah? We cool then,” the man continued. “Yeah, we cool, dudettes? No probs, no probs, I’ll just let myself out, you know?” He opened his fists into a mock-surrender pose, and stepped over the gate’s threshold on exaggerated tiptoes.

“It’s your funeral,” Evelyn drawled.

Then she frowned, when nothing happened.

“What-” I blurted out, confused. Lozzie grabbed one of my arms, held on tight. She must have recognised my bubbling, uncharacteristic aggression. Somehow, her proximity helped drain the worst of it, stopped me from doing something unwise. “What-”

“Heather?” Evelyn hissed. “What are they playing at?”

The spider-servitors hadn’t reacted to the undead man at all. As if he simply wasn’t there. Stingers waving, crystalline eyes fixed on the gateway, they ignored him.

“ … they don’t appear to care,” I said.

The dead man smiled and wiggled his fingers.

Up close, without the softening veil of otherworldly fog and lacking the distraction of a sea of bizarre alien life scuttling about behind him, he looked obviously like a man on the verge of death. Or was he a dead man on the verge of life?

His skin was pale in the manner of an olive complexion that hadn’t seen sun in twenty years, a few blue veins visible through the papery surface. He looked half mummified, flesh stretched tight over the bones of his face with the drying effect of the fog dimension, but his joints moved without creaking or cracking, no splitting skin or flaking tissues. His big raincoat looked new, extra-extra large to accommodate wide shoulders and a thick waist. His eyeballs were shrivelled like half-dried prunes, and he kept scrunching up the muscles in his face, as if he was in mild pain. Part of me wondered if he would suddenly plump out if dunked in a bath, like one of those just-add-water children’s toys.

“Fat lot of use,” Evelyn hissed. “I’ll do it myself. You think you can just walk out of here?” She took a half step out from behind Praem, her scrimshawed thighbone held carefully in both hands, walking stick tucked into the crook of her arm. Without being asked, Praem extended one hand and held Evelyn’s elbow to steady her balance.

“Uhhhhhhhh, walk out? Sure? Yeah.” The man turned up his cheeky smile. “Puttin’ one foot forward, then the other. Walking, you know? Oops, but you can’t do that. Missing a foot, aren’t you? But me, I’m walking here. Right on out, whoooo, yeah.”

He made a sideways upward swooshing motion with one hand, mirrored the gesture with the other, and tucked his face into his bent elbow.

Raine snorted.

“Don’t you dab on us,” said Twil. “You fuckin’ weirdo!”

“How do you know about my leg?” Evelyn asked, voice suddenly cold. “Who the hell are you?”

He dropped the gesture and took another exaggerated slow-motion step, like a cartoon character creeping across creaky floorboards. He even did a little side-to-side glance, as if none of us were here and he was watching for observers. It was so absurd I had to shake my head with disbelief.

“Oi, mate, best stop there if I were you,” Raine said from behind her homemade riot shield. A sympathetic shiver went down my spine. She spoke as if talking about where to sit in a pub, pitched her voice so casually, yet filled it with such menace. “I’ve got a gun pointed at you, and I’m a pretty good shot, if I say so myself.”

“Yeah, yeah yeah, soz, soz, no beef, yeah?” The dead man waggled his raised hands.

“You are not going anywhere,” Evelyn said, quiet and cold. “I want to know who are you and exactly what you were doing in there. Nobody comes back from the dead without … without crossing certain boundaries, and you are either an idiot or pretending to be one. So, which is it?”

“Yeah, dumb-arse,” Twil added, but looking faintly confused.

“And don’t assume your acrobatic nonsense will work with me,” Evelyn continued. “There are more ways than physical of enforcing my will.”

“Yes,” I whispered, abyssal instinct in total agreement. Burn him out, Evelyn, it hissed. Burn him up. I swallowed down my aggression, hands shaking as I clung to Lozzie.

The dead man pulled a mock-scared face, a big toothy cringe, and lowered one of his surrender-posed hands to point at Evelyn’s scrimshawed thighbone, looking left and right as if playing to an invisible peanut gallery and a laugh track. He slid one foot sideways, a half-step closer to the kitchen doorway, but nobody backed up to make room for him. The non-threatening act was as complete as it was deliberate.

“Reckon you can dodge all of us at once?” Raine asked, light and easy.

“Probs,” he slurred, closing one eye in struggling concentration. Was that an act too? He was certainly more steady on his feet than he’d been down in the fog. “Prob’ly, yeah. I thinks.”

“Real drunken master, eh?” said Raine. “You somebody important, famous, somebody we should know?”

“Nobody, really!” He laughed a big deep chuckle.

“You drew the Eye,” I blurted out. At my side, Lozzie murmured a little ‘Heather, noooo,’ but it was too late.

The dead man’s gaze met mine, and for a split-second he was somebody else. Mannerism melted away like ice under a blowtorch. A pained flinch flickered across his face, a single frame of mistake, before his features quickly rearranged back into that infuriating schoolboy smile. He boggled at me with the look of a puzzled idiot.

I went cold inside.

“What was that?” I hissed.

“Wa’ was wa’?” he slurred.

“ … the … the … the Eye!” I groped for a handhold, my brain slipping off that bizarre moment of transformation he’d shown. “You know what I’m talking about, this-” I fumbled for a moment, waving an empty hand as I realised I’d tried to use one of my non-existent tentacles to pick up his notebook from the table, where Raine had left it, next to the bag of cocaine and her helmet. I corrected, used my actual, physical hand, like a sensible human being, and held up the incriminating evidence. “You drew it in here. Didn’t you? I know it, you know who I am as well, you said so. It’s in your head, isn’t it?”

“Yeeeeeeah, little lady, I know you ‘cos you’re the freaky one.”

“Freaky?” I frowned, a decade of habit running up against the reality that I was, indeed, kind of freaky these days. “Excuse me. And that’s not what I was asking.”

“Nah like, you know, yeah? Not tangling up with you, nah.”

“What’s your name?” Raine asked.

“Oh for pity’s sake, Raine,” Evelyn hissed. “Who gives a damn?”

His cheeky schoolboy smile intensified, curling up at the corners. “Joe. Uh, surname’s King.”

Evelyn death-glared at him. Twil frowned for a second, then rolled her eyes. Lozzie giggled. Took me a moment to get it.

Raine let out a theatrical sigh, tutted, and shook her head. “Wrong answer, mate. You’re going the right way for a shattered kneecap, you know that?”

Mister ‘Joking’ smiled wider. “You’ll miss, miss shooter. You know it, n’ so do I. Already missed me once, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, that was neat trick,” Raine said. “Fancy sharing it?”

“Naaaaah.”

“I dump the whole magazine into you, maybe I learn by watching.”

“Ahhhh, but you’ve only got five bullets left!” he laughed.

Raine stared at him for a heartbeat, and I realised with stomach-clenching shock that he’d wrong-footed her. He’d wrong-footed Raine.

“Lucky guess,” she said.

The dead man did this huge comedy wink and nose-tap – and took another slow step toward the kitchen door. Twil, right in his path, bristled and growled and bared her teeth. Her hands were already swirling into wolf-paws, claws flexing.

“Bullshit!” Twil spat. “You can’t dodge bullets.”

“He can, laangren,” Zheng purred.

“Yeeeah, big lass is right,” he said. “Come on, girlies, I ain’t got no beef at all, not with you lot. I’ll just be on me way, and we can forget all about ever knowing each other any which way-”

“Sod it,” Evelyn snapped. “If you won’t talk sense, I’ll bloody well make you. Dodge this.”

Her fingers shifted across the pattern on her scrimshawed thighbone, and completed the infernal circuit within.

I’d only seen her do this once before, months ago, and I was not prepared for the effect. Neither was anybody else.

The ambient temperature in the workshop plummeted in a single breath, flash-freezing tiny ice crystals onto the edge of the table and across the metal front of Raine’s riot shield. A wave of cold air sucked a gasp from my lungs, slipped chill fingers down my collar, and made poor Lozzie shiver inside her poncho. Static electricity danced across everyone’s clothes.

And a strange sick fear twisted inside my chest, a pressure like somebody standing on my ribcage; the backwash from Evelyn’s spell.

Lozzie let out a little ‘oop!’ of surprise. Twil stumbled back, shaking her head like a hound tormented by wasps. Raine, right in the path of the effect, sagged forward and then took several very deliberate paces backward, trying and failing to conceal a wince. I let out a hiss, an instinctive reaction to that crushing feeling. Only Praem was unaffected.

“Wizard,” Zheng rumbled, granite-on-granite voice like an angry mountain.

“It’s not aimed at you, stop being a baby,” Evelyn snapped over her shoulder.

The dead man had gone still and quiet, his eyes unfocused, frozen in that hands-up gesture of surrender. The first time Evelyn had used this particular technique, the cultist she’d interrogated had been unable to retain control of his bodily functions, with predictable results, but Mister Joking appeared to have merely gone slack inside. Like he was suddenly empty. Nobody home.

“Is he … like … switched off?” Twil hissed.

“Shhhh,” went Evelyn, frowning at the dead man. She clicked her fingers at him. “You. Walking corpse. What’s your real name? Who the hell are you?”

He blinked once, as if coming back around – and his face shifted.

Nothing about his physical form actually changed, but I had the sudden distinct impression of a much older man. He adopted a mildly irritated frown, totally alien to the laddish comedy grin from before. He adjusted the set of his shoulders, the distribution of weight across his hips, the angle of his chin. He stood up straight, not wavering with drunken energy, eyes open and calm. A totally different person looked back at us, and was not impressed.

Behind him, the spider-servitors finally reacted, as if he’d only just stepped into the room – but then they stopped, poised on the brink of attack. They sensed his intent before he acted.

He extended both hands and twisted his fingers together in a complex pattern.

“Woah, woah, woah!” Raine shouted. Zheng growled, deep and low enough to hurt one’s bowels. Evelyn blinked and took a step back.

I’d never seen it before, but with everything I’d experienced over the last few months, one did not need to be a magician to recognise magic.

“Stop,” I said, quietly. “Stop.”

His eyes flicked to me. He stopped. I swallowed, forced myself to speak.

“You know who I am, which – I hope – also means you know what I can do,” I managed to squeeze out. “And I am barely holding myself back from doing violence to you. Magic takes time. What I can do is instant, and happens at the speed of thought. No magic. Not in here.”

He slid his eyes from me. His fingers remained locked in place, looking as if they’d break if pushed any further. A Mexican stand-off.

I was only partly bluffing. Moving one’s fingers in a complex pattern? That hardly invoked the instinctive, animal danger of violence that would summon brainmath, push me past the threshold of my own pain. I could stop him, but it would take a second or two. Magic could look so mundane sometimes. So boring.

“What … what the-” Evelyn was hissing. “You- how-”

Ni fydd eich dominiad yn gweithio arnaf,” he said.

“What,” went Twil.

“Ummmm,” I said, frowning as I struggled to make sense of the sounds, let alone the words. Whatever he’d said, it had a lilting, musical quality, almost a sing-song way of speaking.

“What?” Evelyn snapped at him.

“‘Your domination won’t work on me’,” Zheng translated. “Welsh again.”

Ie.” He nodded.

“Answer in English,” Evelyn spat. “Name!”

Y tu hwnt i’ch deall,” he said.

“‘Beyond your comprehension’,” Zheng supplied. “Wizard,” she rumbled – and I knew she was talking to him, not Evelyn. “Wizard, I will learn your tricks, and then I will eat your heart.”

The dead man glanced at Zheng, unconcerned, then back at Evelyn.

“You are out of your depth,” he said to Evelyn – in the richest Welsh accent I’d ever heard. “I have no quarrel with you, Saye, or with the demon. Let me leave, and you will never see me again.”

His accent threw everyone off. Barely comprehensible in English, all elongated vowel sounds and dropped ‘y’s, an accent suited only for talking about the weather, small woodland animals, and the state of one’s flower garden. Utterly different to the man he’d been mere moments ago. To hear a Welsh accent spoken with such seriousness, about magic and demons, was so jarring that I almost laughed in hysterical confusion. He should have been on a BBC regional interest show, talking about bumblebees or mountain climbing. I sensed for the first time the contours of an unexamined prejudice I never knew I held.

Evelyn was visibly struggling to hold onto the spell now. Her breath shook, beads of sweat ran down her forehead, and without her walking stick in one hand she was leaning heavily on Praem.

“Evee, drop it,” Raine said. “S’not working.”

“Yeah, yeah come on Evee,” Twil said. “This is fucking you up.”

“God damn you all,” Evelyn spat. “No, he-”

“Let go,” Praem intoned.

Evelyn huffed, and relinquished her grip.

The spell fell apart with a crackle of static and a rise in temperature. I sucked in a great lungful of air, as if I hadn’t taken a full breath in minutes. Evelyn almost fell over too, but Praem caught her, steadying her mistress back to her feet as Evelyn struggled to get her walking stick in place.

The dead man’s disapproving frown endured for a second longer, then he seemed to dismiss us with a shake of his head; like a puppet with the strings passed to another hand, he staggered sideways and waved his arms for balance, the cheeky schoolboy grin back on his face. The spider-servitors returned to ignoring him, as if he’d vanished.

“Awww come on bro that stank shit burned, you could’a taken some!” he said, his voice returned to the laddish nonsense from before. No trace remained of the sing-song Welsh accent.

He regained his balance with some difficulty, almost blundering back through the gateway. He dusted himself off, winked one eye shut with drunken pressure, and took an unsteady but deliberate step toward the kitchen doorway.

“Who the hell are you?!” Evelyn spat at him.

“I told you, nobody really,” he chuckled.

“How many of you in there?” Raine asked.

He shrugged the shrug of a man who did not expect us to believe his ignorance.

“Multiple personalities?” Twil asked. “What the shit is this guy?”

“I doubt it,” I snapped, angry as I stared at the strange dead man. “Real dissociative identity disorder isn’t like in films and television. That was an act, wasn’t it? An offensive one.”

He winked at me, and made a sort of clicking noise with the corner of his mouth. I felt myself bristle. We were being played for fools.

“We’re talking to a surface-level caricature,” Evelyn said. “The other one was real. A mage. This is just a disguise. And he knows me. Who are you, dammit?”

“Is the Eye in there too?” I asked.

That pained flinch returned, and now I recognised it. The Drunkard did not respond to the name of the Eye, but the Welsh Speaker did. The expression passed again, the disguise resumed.

“What? In here?” he tapped his head. “You’re the crackers one, little lady. Would I be up and walking around if the big looker was in my skull?”

I frowned, confused. “So you … you weren’t with the cult? You weren’t part of what happened?”

“Weeeeell.” He pulled a face. “I was, but I wasn’t.”

“He was no wizard,” Zheng rumbled. She watched him like a hawk, his every tiny motion. “I would remember.”

He winked and tapped his nose again. “Worked them, didn’t I? Remember you though, big lass.”

“He infiltrated them, infiltrated the Sharrowford Cult,” Evelyn said, cold but oddly impressed. “Pretended to be a simpleton. He’s a mage, from somewhere else. You will explain who you are, or I will find a way to make you. You think that was my only trick?”

He pulled that cheeky, drunken, I-decline-to-answer face.

“You mean you didn’t end up enthralled to the Eye, like the others?” I asked. “Why draw it, then?”

“Shhhhh, shhhh-shhhh.” He put a finger to his lips – and took another step toward the doorway. “Why you gotta keep saying that name? Speak of the devil and all that. If you even know the bugger, you’re under the gaze. Real rattlebones voodoo, right? Let’s not get his attention. Softly softly, catchy monkey.”

“If you know anything about the Eye, you have to tell me,” I said. “We’re not leaving this standoff until you do.”

“Naah, I can go whenever I like.” He gestured at the kitchen door again. “Gonna be on out. But-” he glanced to the side, talking to his real self again. “I really need my coke back, yo. I do, bro, please! Yeah.” Then he looked at Raine directly, then over her shoulder to the bag of white powder on the table. “Can I get my stash? Sneak in a pouch for your boy, yeah? Mercy?”

“If you’re so bloody unstoppable,” Evelyn said, “why don’t you just take your stuff and walk out of here? You’re bluffing. You’re a mage, in a vulnerable position in another magician’s home, and you know what that means. Why even keep up the disguise, hmmm? Why bother?”

“Method acting, babyyyyyyyyy.” He pointed a pair of inaccurate finger guns at Evelyn, face spreading into a goofy grin. “Can’t switch off a whole brain partition, can I?”

“Partition,” Praem echoed.

“Yes, quite,” Evelyn said, darkly smug. “That’s a big word for you. Your personas are breaking down, leaking into each other.”

“Plus, walking out of here, thas’ tha’ plan! Thas’ the plaaaaan. I’m not the man with the plan, I’m the man on the plan.”

The Drunkard took another sliding, comedic step toward the kitchen doorway. He was almost within arm’s reach of Twil now, and winked at her.

“Alright lass. Wanna shift or have I gotta squeeze on through?” He put his hands together in a diving motion, aimed past Twil’s shoulder. “Just, just get past, yeah? Just wanna get out, out of doors. Out of your hair, like.”

An invisible ripple of potential passed through the room.

Group violence proceeds by inevitable, instinctive logic. We’re built for it, I’m sad to say, human beings and human-adjacent beings and beings that have learnt too much from humans. I’ve never had the dubious luck to be at the epicentre of a riot or an angry mob or the viciousness of a real street fight, but it doesn’t take experience for one’s hind-brain to resonate when one’s in-group is about to commit shattering violence. It pulls you along like a strong current, so much easier to swim with it than fight back, and I am not a strong person.

We were all feeding off each other’s fear, paranoia, and protective desires. Raine wanted to put him down, for me. Evelyn was incensed by the intrusion on her territory, and now her home, by the threat of another mage. Praem, well, Praem would do anything to protect Evelyn. Twil responded with aggression because the rest of us did.

No single physical signal heralded the frenzy. Small adjustments, of posture and intent. Raine twitched her aim. Twil lowered her head, rapidly transitioning into a snout full of too many teeth. Praem let go of Evelyn and turned to the dead man, hands clasped in front of her, chin high.

And I? My abyssal instincts wanted him dead, out of the way, not a threat; sensible, polite, savanna ape Heather screamed that we needed to question him, but she was overruled. In the back of my mind, I prepared a single digit of brainmath, a single switch from a zero to a one, to make my phantom limbs a pneuma-somatic reality.

He sensed it too. A drunken footstep transitioned into a wobble, a loose-boned waver. He was going to call our bluff, the drunken master would dodge everything we threw at him.

“Stop, monkeys,” Zheng rumbled.

And I did.

In retrospect, Zheng was the only person present even remotely capable of calling this off. The abyssal side of me listened to her, in a way it wouldn’t with anybody else. Lozzie was hanging off my arm, making this tiny warbling sound in her throat, trying to hold me back, but she wasn’t enough. Zheng’s growl cut across my thoughts, short-circuited the cold survivalist logic. I took the controls once more.

“Stop, yes, stop!” I added my own voice.

Twil frowned at Zheng, then at me. Evelyn hissed with frustration. Raine – stock-still with her finger on the trigger of her firearm – asked out loud “You want us to take it outdoors?” The amusement in her voice went a long way to still my racing heart. “Roll up our sleeves, get all Marquis of Queensbury on him?”

“No, yoshou,” Zheng purred. “You cannot catch this prey. None of you.” I glanced up at her too, expecting a lighthearted jibe at us silly, slow monkeys – but she was staring at the dead man too.

A shiver passed down my spine and through my bowels. If Zheng had looked at me like that, I would have curled up in a sobbing ball on the floor.

She wanted him dead, not in the panicked, group-instinct way we had just done. Her threat to eat his heart had not been exaggeration.

“Thas’ what I said!” the Drunkard protested. “I’m just gonna mosey on out, out of your hair, out of life, off to the skies, yeah.”

“I will catch you and eat you, wizard,” Zheng purred, a tiger’s chest vibrating in the jungle darkness. “I will hunt you and watch you and learn how you work, and I will eat you. Bone and marrow. I have devoured cleverer magicians than you.”

“Fuckin’ ‘ell,” Twil whispered.

The Drunkard pulled a mock-scared face again.

“This is absurd!” Evelyn spat. “He can’t avoid us all, he-”

“You saw what he did earlier,” I said. “Zheng is right. We’ll lose a physical contest, and he’ll leave, he’ll escape, which means we might never find out what was going on down there at the foot of the castle.”

“Come on, this is bullshit,” Twil said.

“You didn’t see him, laangren,” Zheng purred.

“I’ll just be off then!” The dead man threw us a rough salute.

“No,” I said. “No, you won’t.”

He turned to look at me, and I saw the other man floating behind his eyes, the Welsh Speaker. The real him. The boss.

“You’re not leaving without answering my questions first,” I said – or rather, heard myself say.

My pulse pounded in my throat and inside my own skull. I felt so small, so ineffective here, in this unexpected contest of wits with a mage. With Alexander, in the minutes before I’d killed him, I’d been right down at the bottom. Now I was home and safe, with a nice haircut and my friends arrayed around me, but I needed to intimidate this man – this resurrected magician – and I am not good at doing so, not good at bluffing, but I was equally certain that nobody else could.

Zheng’s restraint spooked me the most. By not rushing him, not killing this hated example of her most hated type, she’d accepted that right then, she couldn’t. And that was terrifying.

Lozzie went to step back from me but I wormed my hand down and found hers, held on tight.

The dead man pulled that irritating smile wider and did a terminally uncoordinated shrug with both hands.

“You might be able to avoid all of us, yes,” I said. “And maybe you’re such a powerful mage that you can stop anything Evelyn might to do you. But you can’t stop me.”

“Reeeeeeally?” He squinted at me, absurdly over-acting the role. “Really, lass?”

“You can’t stop self-implementing hyperdimensional mathematics. Not at the speed of thought. It’s not physical, not something you can avoid by stepping six inches to the left. And you know that, because you know about the Eye and what happened to the Sharrowford Cult. You must have picked up a few details about me. I’m Heather Morell, by the way, but you already know that, I suspect.”

“Aye, lass. I do. Ahhh, re-really really don’t wanna deal with the- with the- spooky, spooky little midgets, nahh, can’t deal with the-”

“Excuse me?” I said, suddenly bristling. “I’m not that short.”

“Yeah, wouldn’t piss her off with that right now,” Raine said with a click of her tongue. “She’s getting ready to turn you into a red smear on the floor, like she did your old boss.”

I suppressed a wince at that one, at my history of murder. but I had to make him believe, had to make myself believe.

“Yeah yeah yeah, s’cool, s’cool.” He did this big wince and thumbed at me while looking off to one side, mugging for his internal audience again. Or showing off? I couldn’t figure out how much was real and how much was acting.

“I don’t know if you can read intentions or read the future,” I said. “But whichever it is, read this, read what I’m doing now, and decide if you can dodge.”

With a clench of my teeth and stomach muscles, I dipped a hand into the oily sump at the base of my soul, and began to weave an equation. The first few pieces of molten-hot mathematics slammed through my mind and drew a wince from my throat. Define this man in front of me, define the space around him, something he can’t dodge through. That would hurt me, really hurt, but in my mind I gestured toward it, toward the mathematics to define a three-dimensional space he couldn’t leave.

He raised his hands, eyes wide. “Yo yo yo, I just do what the boss tells me, he makes the decisions.”

“Then-” I winced through a spike of headache. “Excuse me, but may I speak to him?”

The Drunkard pulled a showy cringe. “Ahhh, he doesn’t- you know- he just does the work!”

I slid the next few figures of the equation into place. Lozzie hugged me tight as I shook. A single bead of blood rolled out of my nose and stained my lips.

Playing chicken. Brainmath might actually work, but it was also too risky, in a room full of my friends, with a dangerous magician as my opponent. What if he was fast enough to counter me? What if Evelyn got hurt, or Raine? Or Lozzie? Was it worth the risk?

Deep down, I was willing to let him go, because we had bigger things to deal with. In that, the abyssal creature and the savanna ape were in agreement. Do not waste time on this man, do not let him hurt your friends. Get rid of him, and focus your energies on your sister. If that meant letting him go, the abyssal side of me was willing to accept the compromise.

If he talked.

“Very well,” he said – in a heavy Welsh accent, as he straightened up. As he stilled. As the real man resurfaced.

The transformation from the Drunkard to the Welsh Speaker was unnatural, confusing to the senses, to the basic program of social recognition built into the human animal. Either the dead man was the greatest actor of our age, or whatever he’d done to his mind went beyond mere self-suggestion.

The spider-servitors twitched again, stingers rising. The Welsh Mage locked his fingers together in a complex symbol, on the verge of some esoteric magic, and they paused.

I let the equation go and almost fell over. Lozzie held on tight as I staggered. I got my feet steady, an arm around Lozzie’s shoulders, wiped my nose with the back of my hand and swallowed a mouthful of bile.

Raine pointed her handgun calmly at the Welsh Mage’s head. Twil stood, all wolf, ready to pounce.

“Mutually assured destruction it is then,” said the Welsh Mage.

I nodded. “I’m glad you understand.”

“You twitch wrong I put a bullet in your head,” Raine said.

“You can try,” he replied.

“Enough,” I huffed. “Answer my questions, and then … then I’ll let you leave.”

“Heather!” Evelyn hissed.

“It’s the only option, Evee,” I said. “I don’t think we can stop him without risk to ourselves. And despite what he says, he can’t just walk out. He needs to bluff, and that’s failed, so now we talk.”

“How do I know I can trust you to let me leave?” he asked, voice lilting like music.

I shifted myself in Lozzie’s support, standing up straighter. Had to concentrate for a moment to get past the thick accent, so I took the opportunity to study the man’s eyes, shrunken as prunes. His faint frown spoke of superiority and disapproval, but also disinterest. He did want to leave, and was not invested in us. Not the arrogance of Alexander Lilburne, used to being obeyed and bullying to get his own way. He watched me as something to be avoided or overcome, not as a silly little girl to be browbeaten.

“Because she’s Heather,” Lozzie said, with a little pout.

“Because I care deeply about my friends,” I said. “Which is everyone in this room except you, and you’ve convinced me of your potential to hurt them. If you convince me you’re not a threat after then, then it’s not worth the risk to get rid of you.”

And, I left unsaid, you haven’t actually done anything to us, and I don’t know if I can murder you in cold blood.

Yes you can, whispered abyssal instinct, and I knew it was true.

“It is always worth killing wizards, shaman,” Zheng purred.

“We got a deal?” Raine asked for me.

The man stumbled again, the Drunkard flowing back into his mannerisms. The accent fled – but the fingers locked on the verge of a magical spell stayed in place. “Ahhhhhhh yeah yeah yeah yeah. We gotta do a deal. Deals man, that’s me, that’s me all over! You gotta be smooth, be a little greased, get along, or you know, you get crazy bitches pointing guns at you.” He did a wink and a nod at Raine. “You a crazy bitch?”

“Oh yeah,” Raine said. “The craziest.”

“Good, cool. Crazy bitches are cool. Look, like, look.” He closed his eyes as he spoke. “I’m not superman, yeah? Not invincible. We gotta deal, gotta walk out the door without nobody getting domed. Yeah?”

I frowned at him. The Drunkard sagged and sighed – and straightened back up as the Welsh Mage once more.

“Why do you keep doing that?” I asked. “Why bother with the disguise?”

Atblygol,” he grunted.

“‘Reflex’,” Zheng translated, then continued. “Wizard, your deal is with the shaman, for safe passage. Once out, you’re mine.”

“You cannot find me, demon,” he said. “As soon as I leave your sight, I will be somebody else, and you will not see me.”

Zheng growled. I flinched. Twil jerked around at the noise, agitated.

“Stop sparring,” I raised my voice as best I could. “Tell me why you drew the eye.”

He shrugged, guarded. “An object of study is an object of study. One illustrates fish or birds, why not Gods?”

“It’s not a God,” I snapped. He raised his eyebrows. “It’s not!”

He looked off to the side with a tiny sigh and muttered a string of exasperated Welsh under his breath. Evelyn went stiff and for a moment I thought the man was casting a spell, until Zheng translated his words.

“‘Is this really the time for metaphysical philosophy?’” she purred.

“You believe it’s a God? Why? Why use that word?” I asked, couldn’t let this drop. “Do you worship it?”

He tossed his head. “If you petition something in the way one must an Outsider, is it not a God?” His eyes slid to the notebook in my hands. “I wish that returned. The poems have personal, sentimental value.”

“No,” Evelyn deadpanned. “You did magic in Welsh, we’d be fools to give that back to you. Do you think I’m that much of an idiot? Now, who are you?”

“The truth would make no sense to you.”

Evelyn ground her teeth. “What were you doing down there in the fog? Where’s the gateway, how did you get in?”

“Doing?” He let the word hang. “The same thing as you, Saye. And yes, I know who you are. I know what you seek. Our kind are all the same, are we not?”

“No,” Praem intoned. Evelyn hesitated, wrong-footed by her doll-demon’s devoted defense.

“The same as your mother, too,” the Welsh Mage continued. “She had much the same knack for creating loyal servants. You even speak as she did. The same silver, the same bite. You are almost like Loretta Saye reborn.”

Evelyn turned pale, eyes going wide, all her aggressive bluster blown out like a candle flame in a storm. Praem stepped in front of her, back ramrod straight, meeting the Mage’s gaze with her blank white eyes and prim expression.

“Be quiet,” she sing-songed at him.

“Ah, maybe you are Loretta after all,” he said.

“Who?” Twil was frowning, confused. Oh dear, a small part of my mind filed that away for later – there would be a later, I told myself. Everything was going to be okay.

“She’s not,” Raine said, not amused. “Don’t go there.”

“Who … who … ” Evelyn murmured. “You’re not old enough to have known her, not as … you’re barely older than me. You would have been a child!”

“Even I am a mask,” he said.

“Hey, hey,” Raine said. “Over here, ratlicker. How’d you dodge Zheng earlier? Feel like sharing?”

“Trade secret.”

“You-” Evelyn grit her teeth. This was spiralling out of control. He was playing us.

“What happened down in the fog?” I blurted out. “Who was the other person? The corpse.”

He shrugged. “A double-double cross.”

“You lost through,” Evelyn hissed, blazing with cold anger.

“One must always be prepared for the minor setbacks of death,” he said – and out came the Drunkard again, rolling his eyes and smiling. “One last job for Eddy Lils’, you know? Guess I got fucked! Gonna go fuck ‘em back, cos you know, I’m dangerous, me.”

“You were working with Lilburne?” I asked. “Who was the other corpse?”

“I dunno. Some cow,” the Drunkard continued, hands and fingers still locked in his magical symbol, holding us at bay with the implied threat. “Meant to help me do the thing with the big lads out there but looks like it didn’t work, yeah? Dunno what Eddy wanted, but I got what I needed.”

“We cannot let this man leave,” Evelyn said, glancing back at me. “Heather, no. No, not now. This is no dabbler caught between larger fish, this … I don’t know! This is a real mage, I am not letting him go! Raine, shoot him!”

“Dunno if that’s gonna work, Evee,” Raine said, no trace of humour in her voice. She understood too.

“Ahhh,” he sighed, as he straightened up and the Welsh Mage flowed back into his muscles and mannerisms. “It seems I must break the stalemate.”

“You call our bluff, we’ll call yours,” I warned, putting as much confidence as I could into my voice – but felt none. This magician scared Evee, put Zheng on the back foot, seemed to ward off the spider-servitors. This had gone from nothing to real, too fast to track.

The Welsh Mage ignored us, and looked up at Zheng. Slowly, purposefully, he trailed his eyes down the length of her exposed torso, down her tattoos and the red-chocolate skin beneath, across the gaps left by my breaking of her chains.

“I see you have been ruined, senex amica,” he said. His disapproving frown turned to a subtle smile. “Some of my handiwork is spoiled, and that of my predecessors.”

Perhaps it was the motion of muscles unseen beneath Zheng’s skin that warned me. Or perhaps an imperceptible change in her face. Or perhaps, at sufficiently high levels, one can actually sense the desire to kill, to rend limb from limb. Perhaps when steeped long enough, hate and revenge can become a palpable miasma.

“I shall have you again someday, demon,” said the Welsh Mage.

Zheng rippled, the beginning of a quicksilver motion, a forward surge to tear this mage’s tongue out; she bared her teeth, a razor sharp shark’s maw.

His words had changed her mind. She wanted him dead, and not after a long hunt. No matter the spell ready to go off.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

by this art you may contemplate – 10.4

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Two hours later, Zheng had still not returned.

“Not planning any sleep tonight?” Raine asked, a knowing smile in her voice, as I shuffled back into the magical workshop.

“ … um.” I blinked and squinted, trying to figure out what she meant – and trying to see her.

I knew Raine was right there, my lover and ally and closest friend, but for a torturous moment my brain couldn’t digest the sense data from my eyeballs. My mind was running all the wrong routines, too focused on phantom limbs, on abyssal instinct, expecting a world of cold currents and predatory jaws. All I saw was a jumble of ape parts wrapped in hard angles of metal and plastic.

“Heather?”

I squeezed my eyes shut. Squeezed them hard, took a deep breath, pictured Raine in my mind’s eye.

When I looked again, I saw her, and breathed a sigh of relief.

Raine stood before the open gateway, on this side, safely in reality. She was wearing an old second-hand motorcycle jacket which she’d picked up earlier this week, padded and armoured inside, all red and black leather. She held her pistol deceptively loose in one hand, pointed at the floor. Her other hand rested atop a home-made riot shield.

She’d spent the last week constructing the thing, scavenging parts from the junkyard. A sheet of metal over a backing board of thick, stiff rubber, with plastic handles screwed into the back, all held together by liberal amounts of duck tape. I think the metal had begun life as a piece of tractor door, now spray-painted black.  It looked like flimsy scrap to me, but Raine had tested it, with a knife, a broken bottle, a bat, and Praem’s fist. She had judged it both sturdy and flexible enough for the job.

She also hadn’t meant to break it out until tomorrow, until the trip to Carcosa, and then it was only supposed to be insurance.

At least she hadn’t put the motorcycle helmet on as well. Without her face, I might have floundered for far longer. It sat on the table nearby, a shiny red-and-white half-dome beetle, next to a pair of goggles, and the packet of cocaine she’d taken off the ‘corpse’.

Evelyn’s spider-servitors crowded the gateway too. One hung from the ceiling above, the other clung to the wall. Both of them were locked onto the gateway with their banks of crystalline eyes, stingers quivering, faint heat haze rising from the smokestack structures on their backs. Evelyn had tried to order them through, but they wouldn’t go no matter what Latin orders she spat, so now they guarded her retreat along with Raine. Hopefully no retreat would be needed, what with Praem and Twil out there with her, on the other side.

Beyond Raine and the spiders, tendrils of fog moved like skeletal fingers in the castle hallway.

“Heather? You there?”

“ … sorry, I’m fine. It’s just, you look like you’re ready for a street fight.”

“And you’re getting ready to command it.” Raine smirked and nodded at my hands.

“Oh.” I gestured helplessly with an entire pot of coffee in one fist, an empty mug in the other, then sighed and poured my fourth round of emergency caffeine. “Yes, well, no sleep for the wicked.”

“Hey, Heather, if anybody’s big and scary enough to look after themselves out there, Zheng is.”

“I know that,” I almost snapped, tried to dial down. Breathe. Stop shaking. “It’s not- she’s-”

“She broke out from inside a concrete wall before, right? Don’t tell her I said this, but I wouldn’t rate the chances of anything in that freak-show out there.”

“Raine, that’s not … not what I’m … ”

I shook my head and sipped my coffee. Burning hot. Barely tasted it.

Couldn’t concentrate on the right words. Raine would never understand anyway. I struggled to reel in my phantom limbs. Even if I couldn’t see them, I could still feel them. Trying to protect me from hypothetical attack, anticipating my next footstep with additional support, groping at a chair for me to sit down in; they used up so much mental bandwidth, and they couldn’t even touch anything.

Raine cracked another smile, just for me, the kind she usually showed me in private. We weren’t in private right now, but she couldn’t see the spider-servitors, and Mister Squiddy slopping around his bucket of wet clay didn’t count.

“I’m not gonna lie and say Zheng knows what she’s doing,” Raine said. “She doesn’t, she’s like me. Goes with her gut. Improvises. And that’s how she’ll get back.”

I stared down into my coffee, into the dark brown swirl. At the corner of my awareness, one of my phantom tentacles started to imitate the motion, twirling around and around. I focused on that.

“She’s like a big ol’ house-cat that’s slipped out the door to chase a rabbit,” Raine was saying. “She’ll find her way back when she gets hungry. Hey, maybe we should hang some haunches of lamb from the windows to entice her back up here, yeah? … Heather?”

“Sorry,” I muttered. “I’m trying to calm down.”

“Caffeine’s given you the jitters?”

“It’s not the caffeine.” I sipped more coffee. Too strong. Walked over to the table and set the coffee pot down, my mug next to it, then I picked the mug up again, set it down again. Moved to pick it up, stopped halfway. Felt like I wanted to hurl it at the wall.

“How’s Tenny holding up?” Raine asked.

“Oh, fine now. She’s fine. Still upstairs with Lozzie.”

Being kept firmly out of the way, in case she decided to make another dive for the castle windows. Evelyn’s new wards might not work on her, we weren’t certain, and nobody was in a hurry to find out.

When we’d returned, all in a hurry and feeling like the hounds of hell might be on our tail, Lozzie had thrown herself at Tenny before we’d even stumbled back through the gateway. She’d squeezed Tenny hard enough to make her bleat, kissed her face and head and cried a little while trying to tell her off for flying away like that.

“No going without an adult!” she’d scolded between the tears of relief. “No-no Tenny, no flying without an adult, okay? You have to promise me now, promise me!”

Lozzie’s emotional release had gotten to Tenny, crossed the species barrier. Tenny couldn’t cry. No tears ducts, Evelyn thinks. But she could shake and whimper in imitation of Lozzie’s tears, wrap tentacles around her, and refuse to let go.

“Lozzie’ll be clinging to her for a week after this,” Raine said. “We gotta find a safe way for her to stretch her wings. She really wanted to go for that, didn’t she?” Raine clicked her tongue.

“Yes, well. Tenny’s her baby.”

Raine laughed. I couldn’t tell if she agreed, or if she thought I was joking, or if she simply liked my phrasing. I wanted to ask for clarification, but that part of my mind drowned under a torrent of gnawing animal fear, a desire to retreat and hide, instincts for a place that was not here. I was holding the coffee mug again, trying to concentrate on drinking more. Locked in place. Staring at nothing.

“Heather? Heather?” Raine called my name softly. “Ground control to space cadet, come in Heather, this is mission control speaking.”

“I’m … I’m okay,” I lied, and finally gathered myself enough to sit down in a chair. I set my coffee down too. Stood back up. Sat down. Rubbed my thighs and pinched my knees. Needed to run, or climb into a corner. I longed to be underwater right now, curled up in a cave. Or upstairs, with the curtains closed and the lights out. In the dark.

With Raine right here, dressed for war, I still felt isolated and frantic.

I had done, every second since Zheng had left.

“You don’t have to pretend for me, you know?” Raine said. “You can be not okay, even if it’s over another girl.”

==

We’d waited down by the foot of the castle for only about twenty minutes after Zheng had vanished into the copied Sharrowford streets. I’d been shouting myself hoarse into the roiling tidal pool of fog and chitin, calling Zheng’s name to no avail, not understanding why I was so panicked, why cold sweat had broken out down my back, why I felt like I needed to grow spines and toxins and hiss at my friends.

The only sign of Zheng and the strange resurrected man was a sort of ripple outward through the motions of the wildlife, a scattering of the shoal before a predator, but our vantage point was too low to follow it for long. The verdant deep swallowed them up.

Zheng had acted as a cork in a bottle, for scrambling emotions I hadn’t examined in three weeks.

With her around, the abyssal side of me felt safe. The squirming mutable dark creature I’d been in the abyss felt sheltered in the power of a larger pack member. Zheng was from there. She’d been born out there. She was like me.

When she walked off into that fog, I regressed within seconds.

My throat felt like an alien thing, but it was the only tool I had to call her name, so I kept shouting and shouting until I made Tenny panic too.

She’d begun by trilling wordless noises into the fog as well, louder and louder over half a minute, her chest puffing up. Ropes of muscle rearranged themselves inside her body, permitting her lungs – or whatever she used for lungs – more room to expand. No ribs to get in the way. Pressed against my side in a supporting hug, she felt like an inflating balloon of leathery flesh, and sounded like a moth crossed with a frog.

Her final call was so loud it cut through the fog and echoed off the exterior castle walls. Evelyn winced and shushed her. I blinked, shocked out of my instinctive fear for a second.

“Shhh, shhhh, Tenny, it’s okay, shhhh, no no, I was just … I’m okay, shhhhh,” I hushed her. Maybe Tenny’s inhuman form helped; here was something a little like me, at least.

Raine decided it was time to leave.

“We can’t stay out here forever,” she’d said. “Worst case scenario, our coke-head friend circles around Zheng and comes back with some nasty mates. Best case, we all get really cold and really tired and Lozzie wonders where the hell we’ve gotten to.”

“Back inside the castle and we seal the whole bloody place up,” Evelyn said, already backing away a couple of paces.

I shook my head, numb and confused. “No … ”

Evelyn stared at me with a scold in her eyes. I had to look away, back to the fog and the awful churn of bizarre life within. “Heather? Heather, you are not thinking of following that huge idiot. You are not.”

“Yeah, we’re not following her,” Raine said. “Not into that.”

She backed away too, away from the street, the magic circle, the shattered second corpse – and her body language herded me backward. Tenny understood as well, uprooting my stubborn feet as I tried to dig my heels in. It was like fighting a giant fist.

“We can’t!” I snapped, a weird strangled noise in my throat. I felt like hissing at Tenny. “We can’t close up the castle with Zheng still out there. She- I need-”

“It’s alright, Heather,” Raine said. “She’ll make her own way back, I’m certain.”

“I doubt any of my wards would stop her anyway,” Evelyn said. “Stop dawdling, come on.”

Evelyn led the way with her walking stick. Raine brought up the rear, gun out. Tenny dragged me. Back up the hill, into the shadow of the castle, then we slipped in through the gap in the huge metal doors, back into the killing ground from months ago. Shelter brought a tangible, physical relief so strong I almost sobbed. Out there in the fog, beneath the vast bulk of the squid-moon-children and the skywhales and giant jellyfish, dwarfed by the chaos of chitin and claw and pale flesh out in the streets, the abyssal creature in me had felt like a terrified scurrying thing clinging to the ground for the illusion of safety.

I wanted to squeeze myself into the deeper parts of the castle as soon as possible, make myself small, and hide. The sensation was overwhelming.

Evelyn clearly felt a human shadow of the same sensation. She let out a huge sigh and eyed the metal doors. “We need to shut these. Raine?”

“I’m flattered you think I’m that ripped,” Raine said, testing the door with one hand. It didn’t even flex. “Nah, last time I had Twil’s muscle to help. I can’t shift these.”

Evelyn tutted. “Why is idiot brute strength never here when it’s needed? What about Tenny, she … ”

Tenny was blinking her huge black eyes at the field of zombie corpses. Three of her tentacles hovered over the nearest body, as if sniffing for the scent of decay. Fascinated. Blank-faced. Learning about death.

I pulled together what was left of myself. “Tenny, Tenny no,” I murmured, trying to squeeze one of her hands. “It’s okay, don’t touch them, don’t look at them. They’re all gone. Um, dead. A long time ago. No need to stare. Tenny? Tenny?”

“Mwaaah?” she bleated.

“Heather,” Evelyn hissed. “Tell her to close the doors.”

“Doors?” Tenny fluttered. “Front door. Keep closed.”

“Y-yes, yes Tenny, good girl. That’s right,” I said. Lozzie had been trying to drum that into her – keep the front door closed, no going outdoors alone. “Look, Evee, what about-” I hiccuped, squeezed my eyes shut, swallowed hard. “What about Zheng? We can’t just lock her out there. I-I know this sounds silly, but couldn’t we leave a note on the door? One of your post-it notes? ‘Please close the door behind you’?”

“A note?” Evelyn deadpanned at me.

“Please,” I hissed through my teeth. Evelyn frowned at me, saw I wasn’t acting normal, even for this situation. “It would be the normal thing to do. Polite thing. If we weren’t in a castle made of bone, yes.”

“Don’t see why not,” Raine said. “If it gets us back upstairs and out of here quicker. Evee?”

“Oh sod it, yes, we’ll leave a polite note on the giant metal door into the supernatural castle in another dimension, fine. She better well close it. I’ll have her hide if anything follows her back home.”

Evelyn scribbled out a note and slapped it on the door, where Zheng couldn’t miss it.

Our journey back up through the castle took a fraction of the time we’d spent getting down; we followed Evelyn’s trail of post-it notes and the rough map she’d drawn, worming our way through the passages like maggots in a corpse. But for me, those minutes descended into a hallucinatory nightmare.

My phantom limbs wanted to pull me along the inside of the corridors, like an octopus in a tube. My body was a constricting shell, the wrong shape for this environment. Instinct screamed at me to grow spines, to sprout claws, to back up into the darkest possible corner. I hadn’t been this bad since the days right after my return from the abyss. I thought I’d gotten better, but really I’d just been compensating. Zheng had been a crutch.

I tried to focus on Tenny. She’d developed a unique way of holding hands – she wrapped one tentacle all the way up my forearm to my elbow, the satin-smooth surface of her skin shifting slightly with every step. Wings folded, head ducked, walking very close to my side. She hated these confines as much as I did, though for different reasons.

When we reached the top corridor, Lozzie burst out out of the gateway, frantic for Tenny. Evelyn bustled back into the workshop, calling for Praem, for her mobile phone, for a bucket of paint and wellington boots and a box of nails and a good sturdy hammer.

The light and normality of the workshop, of Sharrowford, of home, brought me little relief.

I ached to plunge back into the fog, to grow wings and fleshy sails and trailing feelers, to search for Zheng.

==

“Even if it’s over another girl?” I echoed.

“Yeah.” Raine nodded.

I sighed and closed my eyes. “Raine, I’m not worried about Zheng.”

“Really?” Raine waited, but I only swallowed, couldn’t summon the right words, so she carried on. “Could’a fooled me. You’ve got the jitters real bad. Am I mis-reading this here? Is this about the notebook, the picture of the Eye? Heather, anything comes for you, I swear to God I’ll-”

“It’s not that,” I hissed in a strangled whisper. “I- yes, Raine I really like Zheng. But this isn’t about that.”

“Then what it is?”

“I don’t … I can’t expect you to understand, because what I’m feeling right now is not a human emotion.”

“Try me.”

From anybody else I would not have trusted those words, but I opened my eyes and looked up at Raine and knew she meant that for real. She’d been on the verge of cracking a joke, some sexual innuendo about Zheng and me, but she carefully tucked it away and made room for me to speak. Guilt tugged at my heart. Why didn’t Raine’s presence soothe my abyssal instincts? Burning inside with shame I couldn’t place, I gestured at her with my mug of coffee.

“You look really good in all that,” I said. Not what I’d intended. I blushed and sighed, annoyed at myself.

Raine broke into a grin and shifted the motorcycle jacket with her shoulders. She’d left it unzipped down the front, and I wondered what it would feel like to slip a hand inside that armoured cocoon. “You like the riot girl look? S’cool, huh? Not quite shining armour, but it gets the job done. Bit sweaty though.”

“ … really?”

Raine raised an eyebrow.

“Um, not that I- not that-” I huffed and cleared my throat. “I’m sorry. I changed the subject. I shouldn’t avoid this.”

“I noticed.” She laughed. “It’s okay, sometimes you gotta use anything you can to distract yourself.”

“I need clarity, not distraction.” I put my face in one hand. “Of course I’m not worried about Zheng. She’s superhuman. I’m not worried about her, I’m … pining. But it’s not romantic. It’s animal. Abyssal.”

“Yeah?”

I tapped my chest with my fingertips. “The me I brought back. The me out there. It … I really, really like having her around. Nearby. All the fears, all the weird little disjointed perceptions, the bodily … wrongness, it all got bottled up with her around. Kept under control. The abyss isn’t a place for alliance or friendship or kindness, it’s all predation, all the time, it’s darkness and a constant war of evolutionary edge. But, with Zheng, I feel safe again, because she’s from there. Survivalist logic, I suppose. She’s big and mean, and on my side, so all that can relax.”

As the word spilled out of me, I felt my phantom limbs slow in their frantic wanderings. Talking about it helped, made room for the ape to take back the controls. Room for me to get angry.

“And now she’s thrown herself into danger,” I hissed. “For what?”

Raine just waited, as I gathered myself and let out a big sigh.

“Oh dear,” I said, hanging my head. “Oh dear, okay, that wasn’t um, wasn’t what I expecting to say. Oh dear.”

“So in the end, you are worried about her, as well?”

“I suppose so.” I shook my head and leaned back in the chair. “She’s constantly looking for a fight, just for the sake of fighting.”

Raine allowed herself a smile. “I do that a lot too.”

“You put yourself in danger for me, that’s different. And then you get out of danger and take me with you. Zheng wants to fight, to kill stuff. She couldn’t resist following that man, not after he dodged everything she threw at him. How do you sustain a caring friendship with somebody who’s determined to destroy herself?”

Raine raised her eyebrows. “You think that’s what she’s doing?”

“Maybe. I don’t know. That’s a human worry. The abyssal creature in me, it just wants the pack member back.”

Sagging with unexpected release after speaking the words aloud, I stood up from the chair and went over to the gateway, stretching up onto my tiptoes to see through the windows opposite, the windows which looked out on the fog beyond, the copied Sharrowford streets far below. Of course, I couldn’t see anything from this angle, let alone any disturbances in the wildlife which might tell us where Zheng was.

“Heather?” Raine put her free hand on my arm.

“It’s like we’ve got the world’s largest, spookiest cellar.” I shook my head. “Connecting this house to another dimension was maybe not the safest idea.”

Praem and Evelyn and Twil were in there right now, off down the corridor somewhere with two buckets of paint and a clutch of brushes. Evelyn was determined to seal the whole place off hallway by hallway, window by window, making extensive use of the same symbol as on my left forearm.

They’d already been all the way down to the left, to the old throne room and a corridor beyond, painting wards around every doorway like separate bulkheads in an ocean liner. The throne room itself had been left as no-man’s land, the high windows too tall to reach without climbing gear or scaffolding or hours worth of Twil digging her claws into the walls.

The bank of windows opposite the gateway were each encased by rough magic circles now, simple white designs. The Fractal stared back at me, painted dozens of times all over the inside walls. The paint was still drying. Evelyn and Praem and Twil were somewhere off to the right now, with an agreement to check in every twenty minutes.

Twil had only been here about half an hour, but she’d come running as soon as called, in the middle of the night without complaint – because Evelyn herself had done the calling.

I sighed heavily. “I guess Carcosa is off. For tomorrow, at least.”

Raine pulled a sympathetic grimace and rubbed my shoulder. “I can tell Evee’s gonna be up all night at this.”

“We can’t wait. Maisie can’t wait.”

“Maybe Monday? We want Evee with all her wits about her, not sleep deprived.”

“You don’t think that man we found is the herald of something worse? Raine, he had a drawing of the Eye. I can’t let him- I want- I don’t want these people interrupting our plans. It’s the Eye, trying to interfere. That dead man – dead, tch – is going to cause a problem.”

Raine shrugged, with shoulders, eyes, and eyebrows, an oddly innocent gesture for her. “Maybe he does. Or maybe I shoot him in the head when Zheng brings him back, so we can focus on what matters.”

With a horrified shiver, I realised Raine wasn’t joking. She would actually do that.

Abyssal instinct flooded me with blind, survivalist relief, drowned out my gut rejection of cold blooded murder. Raine understood. She knew that Maisie came before everything else. The abyssal version of Heather wanted to curl up against Raine and purr. Remove the threat, it whispered.

Out loud, I said, “I hope that won’t be necessary.”

“Oh, I mean, hey, yeah, me too,” Raine laughed herself into a grin. “Look, if he doesn’t come back, if he vanishes down there, or gets eaten or whatever, maybe I can go check out the address on his keys. Maybe tomorrow, if we’re not crashing a party in Carcosa. You don’t have to come, I’ll deal with it. In the past, ehhh,” Raine pulled a sheepish look, “I might have done that without telling you. Now? Well, I’ve learnt my lesson.”

“The last time we checked out somewhere like that, Twil got stabbed in the hand, and we precipitated a chain of events that almost killed all of us.”

“This time we keep some distance, then. I find Kimberly mark two, I promise to ignore her.”

I gave Raine a look. “Raine, you’re incapable of not helping a woman in need. I have noticed.”

She laughed. “Fair enough. Maybe we let this guy go then, let sleeping dogs lie, if he’s not a threat?”

“An Eye Cultist? I … I don’t know, I … ”

Kill him, instinct whispered. A knot twisted in my stomach.

“Then I’ll deal with it,” Raine said.

That’s when Lozzie made us both jump.

“Hi-hiiiii,” a little voice whispered from the doorway. I flinched like a rabbit. To Raine’s great credit she managed to avoid pointing her gun anywhere dangerous, then laughed at herself.

“Lozzie!” I breathed again after what felt like an entire minute. “You snuck up on us.”

“Whoopsie-sorry.” Lozzie giggled and flounced into the workshop, pastel poncho wrapped tight around herself with both arms. Her hair was in even worse disarray than usual, tangled up behind her, and despite the flickery smile on her face, I could see the emotional burnout around her eyes.

“Lozzie? Lozzie, come let me look at your hair,” I said, stepping over and raising my arms to her. “You’re all tangled up.”

Lozzie plodded over without complaint and turned around to face away from me. I tutted and combed at her wispy blonde hair with my fingers.

“Where’s Tenny?” Raine asked.

“Went to sleep,” Lozzie explained. “Too-too much excitement for little Ten-Tens. Tucked her into bed where she needs to stay for now.” Lozzie sniffed.

“We’ll find a safe spot where she can learn to fly properly,” Raine said. “Promise.”

“Outside would be best.” Lozzie giggled again, a nervous hitch in her throat. She turned her head left and right, as if searching for something she couldn’t find. “If I could take her somewhere with no people – no people! No people and no beings and no fuss and no mess.”

“Lozzie, Lozzie, please hold still,” I murmured.

“I miss Outside,” she said, very softly, oh so sad. My heart tried to pull in two.

“Loz, hey, got a question for you,” Raine said. Light and easy, her tone cut through the moment. Gave Lozzie something to focus on. It’s not often that Raine makes me fall in love with her all over again.

“Yes?”

“You got any idea what that guy might have been doing out there?”

“Hmm-mmm?” Lozzie blinked big eyes at Raine, half-twitching her head before catching herself. “Gotta stay still, still for Heather,” she giggled. “Doing?”

“With your big friends out in the fog.” Raine thumbed at the open gateway. “Do you think he was trying to talk to them?”

Lozzie made a squinty thinking face. “Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm no.”

Raine and I shared a glance. “Lozzie?”

“The kiddies – squiddies? – they don’t really do words, words are too slow for their brains, which are like, super dense balls and everything’s moving a lot faster than words and it’s really hot in there, right? So you can’t do words, but you can sing, which is fun! But it’s just like playing with your hair or something, it’s not communication. If you wanna have a proper talk you gotta go downstairs to the star.”

“The … thing under the castle?” I asked.

“Mmhmm!” Lozzie nodded, smiling, happy with me as if I finally understood a point she’d been trying to explain for hours. “But, mmmmm, bodies are better than words.”

A chill went down my spine. “Bodies?”

“Yah! Like you can talk with words or you can talk with your body, you know?”

“Oh,” I sighed with relief. “That’s what you meant, okay.”

“Talk with your body?” Raine struggled not to smirk. I opened my mouth to shush her, but Lozzie surprised me by getting there first.

“Dirty Raine,” she sing-songed. “Sex isn’t what I mean. I mean talking with needs, through your body.”

“So, body language?” Raine asked. “Human body language?”

“Nooooo. No no no no.” Lozzie shook her head and scrunched up her face. “Like you talk and you say you have needs, right? But that doesn’t make sense, so you try to talk with the natural needs of your body and it down there, it listens a lot better! It gets bodies, not minds, at least not well. That’s why it could grow a big shell. Bodies are so much cooler when you can just grow when you really need. That’s what happened to me! Of course it can’t do that anymore because it’s not there, it left with me, but the first time I went to it, it knew exactly what I needed without words, and it fixed me!”

“Fixed you?” I asked, staring at her.

“Yeah! When I was little, everything was … wrong.”

“You were ill as a child?” I frowned. I don’t think this was something she told me in the dreams. I groped for memory, but there was nothing.

“Mmm kinda.” Lozzie shut one eye and smirked at me, an impish little toothy smile. “My body suuuucked. Now it’s great!”

Lozzie hopped away from me and lifted the hem of her poncho, bouncing from side to side. Her nervous tension had ebbed away. Talking about this was apparently good for her. She danced from one foot to the other, then skipped over to the gateway and reached up to pet the rough, scarred hide of one of Evelyn’s spider-servitors. For a second I worried it might lash out at her, but it didn’t react at all.

“Good boy, good boy,” she chirped.

“Spiders?” Raine asked me, watching Lozzie with fascination. She couldn’t see them, of course.

“Good boys. They’ve got your back!” Lozzie did a thumbs up for Raine.

“Hope they do better than last time,” Raine said. Lozzie did a fussy pout and turned her nose up, and petted the spider again.

“Well,” Raine said. “Maybe our boy out there was barking up the wrong tree then, if your friends aren’t good conversationalists.”

“Probably! Dumbos always trying to boss around or get bossed around.” Lozzie stuck her tongue out. “Bleh.”

Muffled echoes suddenly broke out from the far side of the gateway, warped and distorted by the bone-like grey material of the corridor. A jumble of footsteps and raised voices. The fog swirled, pushed down the hallway by the sudden motion of disturbed air.

Raine went from zero to sixty in the blink of an eye. She readied the makeshift shield. Lozzie hopped and skipped away from the gate. I was caught between them, paralysed for an awful moment as abyssal instinct tugged both ways at once, phantom limbs scrambling to protect me.

“Heather,” Raine threw over her shoulder. A warning. Get back. No room for argument.

“What if it’s- Zheng!”

With a stomp and a scowl – and a massive lacerated bruise across her face – Zheng appeared around the corner and strode through the gateway. She was drenched from head to toe in what looked like the product of a giant sneeze. Clear mucus was matted in her hair, stuck to her clothes, all over her hands where she’d tried to wipe her  face clean. Her boots stuck to the floor with every step, making sticky peeling noises as she lifted her feet. A thin, acrid smell filled the air. Zheng looked most unhappy.

Raine let out a low whistle. “You lose a 90s game-show or something?”

Abyssal Heather didn’t care what Zheng looked like or what she was covered with; inside, I soared, felt like a puppy reunited with the pack. “Zheng. Goodness. Okay.”

“Shaman,” she slurred. Her jaw was misaligned, as if broken at one corner.

The others piled through after her. Evelyn was scowling far worse than Zheng, holding Praem’s arm for support. Twil hopped over the splashes of goo Zheng had left all over the floor, grimacing through her teeth. She looked like she’d much rather be in bed right now.

“Stay still, don’t you dare move!” Evelyn snapped. “I told you to stay on the other side, for God’s sake! Praem, Praem, get- get- oh, I don’t know, a bucket of bleach! Boiling water. A flamethrower.”

Praem was already marching into the kitchen.

“I am not cleaning this up,” Twil said, shaking her head and backing for the door to the kitchen as well. “Nope. No way. Not in it for this. Not it.”

“Zheng can do it herself,” Evelyn was grumbling, as a cold realisation came over me. “Running off like that was her idea. What did you expect would happen, you-”

“Where’s the corpse?” I asked. Looked at Zheng’s empty hands. “Zheng? You … killed him, right? You got him.”

Zheng stared at me, dark and sullen.

“You didn’t get him,” I said. “You didn’t get him!”

“Heather?” Raine said.

“I failed, shaman,” Zheng rumbled.

“He got away?!”

My words emerged as a screech of disbelief and disappointment. Abyssal instinct welled up inside my chest, but guilt crashed back down even before I finished the sentence. Guilt for snapping at Zheng, for caring more about her prey than her bruise and broken jaw. Guilt for the way she looked at me. A kicked hound.

Guilt at my own rabid aggression.

Everyone was staring at me.

“I … sorry … I … ” I blushed, mortified. “What happened? To your face, I mean. Did he do that?”

“Mmmmmm,” Zheng grumbled, and to my relief she pulled a broken grin. “No, shaman.”

“It’s like squid ink, or skunk smell, right?” Raine asked with an open grin. “You ran into the wrong creature out there, freaked it out, and got sprayed, didn’t you?”

Zheng turned her grin on Raine. “I still won. You want to try it too, yoshou?”

“No, no thank you.” Raine put one hand up. “I’m sure you’ve done enough zoological fieldwork for all of us.”

“You look like a turtle, hiding in that shell.”

“What, this?” Raine hefted her rubber-and-metal shield. “If it works, it works. Don’t knock it ‘till you try it.”

Zheng grunted an acknowledgement. She eyed me with odd caution, and I felt like living rubbish. Praem returned with towels for Zheng and a bin liner for her clothes.

“Make sure you rinse those off outdoors before loading the washing machine,” Evelyn told Praem. “For all we know that crap will dry like super-glue.”

“So go on then, what happened to our boy?” Raine asked.

Zheng shrugged and grunted, and began struggling out of her ribbed sweater. I prepared myself for another uninterrupted view of her nude upper half, but even that couldn’t distract me right now. Abyssal demands were being made deep in my soul.

“If he got away there must have been a gateway,” Evelyn snapped. “This is important. We could still reach it, still find it. What happened?”

Zheng pulled her sweater off over her head and used it to wipe more slime off her face and out of her hair, then dumped it into the bin big.

“Nothing happened, wizard. I made a mistake.” She gestured at her bruised face.

“And he didn’t?” I asked. “He knew the … wildlife?”

Zheng blinked as she thought about that one. She rolled her shoulders and raised both hands to grab her own face and jaw, then yanked her skull and her jawbone sideways at the same time. A crunch filled the air, and Zheng work her jaw up and down normally again.

“No,” she decided. “He moves like dust on the wind. Invisible currents under his feet. Prey that can see a handful of seconds into the future is no prey at all.”

“Is that what he was doing?” Raine asked.

Zheng nodded. “Either he sees the future, or reads intention. Or both.”

“Explains how he dodged the bullet,” Raine said. “Hmm.”

“But where did he go?” Evelyn demanded. She clicked her fingers, then huffed and muttered an apology with a wave of her hand. “This is essential. Did you see the gateway? Any sign of it? Anything at all?”

Zheng shrugged. “He slipped into the mists. I lost his scent. Vanished.”

“Through a gateway then!” Evelyn raged. “Shit. Shit, shit, shit.”

“Dude could still be out there,” Twil offered, quite unsure. “I guess, like, in theory?”

“The way he moved, he could be,” I murmured.

“Did you at least close the front door of the castle?” Evelyn asked. “There could be a mystery dead man out there in the fog, there’s nowhere else for him to go except through a gateway, or back up here.”

“Yes, wizard,” Zheng rumbled, fixing Evelyn with a steely look. “The door is shut. Satisfied?”

“Yes. Yes, thank you.” Evelyn managed to make ‘thank you’ sound like an insult, but Zheng grunted an acceptance all the same.

“You idiot, Zheng.”

It took a moment for me to realise those words had come from my mouth.

“Shaman?”

“There’s things bigger than you out there. Look at you, your face is … you’re hurt.”

She shrugged. “Nothing can beat me, shaman.”

“What if you’d gotten stuck? We wouldn’t have been able to get you back out.”

“Your foe is my foe, shaman. The revenant had to be put down. Yes, I failed. Don’t insult me further.”

“I’m not insulting you!” I snapped at her, abyssal fear turning to anger. “I need you with me, you idiot! It hurts when you’re not- when I’m- damn you, Zheng. Don’t leave. Don’t leave me alone.”

The room fell into an uncomfortable silence. I sniffed back unexpected tears and scrubbed at my eyes. Lozzie crossed to me with delicate tiptoes and rubbed my back. Zheng eventually grunted a non-committal noise.

That was one of the most unhealthy things I’d ever said.

Eventually, Evelyn cleared her throat and set her walking stick at an angle. “We need to find that gateway. Or!” She held up a hand to forestall the inevitable objection. “We need to confirm a body. Or that he’s still out there. Yes? Yes.”

“Before or after we finish the paint job on an entire castle?” Twil asked, nodding at the gateway, hands in her pockets, looking tired. “Look, Evee, that’s a huge task in there. And I don’t think any of us fancy tangling with the creepy crawlies out there if they can do that to Zheng’s face. I don’t fancy that, yeah?”

“The rest of it can wait,” Evelyn said. “We need to find this man, or confirm he’s gone. Somehow.”

“Alright, girlies,” he said.

We all turned – Twil with her claws out, Raine raising the pistol, Zheng dark and brooding, Praem stepping in front of Evelyn – and there he was. Standing right on the other side of the gateway to the castle, in his raincoat and his pinched, dead skin. He pulled a goofy sort of smile.

A rush of pure aggression passed through me. My throat closed up. Phantom limbs braced, wanted to twist his head clean off. I bit my tongue hard enough to draw blood.

“Alright yourself,” Raine answered, low and dangerous. She pointed her handgun at him. “What’s up?”

“Uhh, well … ” He looked off to the side, as if listening to somebody else. “Yeah, yeah, right.” Then he turned back to us, grinning and wincing like somebody who knew they were being a bit of a bother. “Mind if I use your front door? S’uh, no other way out. Yeah? Cool, we’re cool, yeah? Yeeeeeah.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

by this art you may contemplate – 10.3

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

“Evelyn, would you please- p-please put that thing away?” I screwed my eyes shut. Shivering. Felt sick. “I can’t- I can’t- can’t-”

Trauma is a paradoxical chimera.

Not a single day passed in which I didn’t think about the Eye, at least a little. Maisie, once locked away in the most private chambers of my heart for ten years, now roamed at will through my mind, no longer a mere ghost of longing for a missing part of myself, but now the painful promise of reunion. To think about Maisie was to chew for hours on fresh fears of being too late. Of losing her a second time, her soul wasting away to nothing out there in the darkness, in her prison cell, physical or otherwise. Every day I thought about how to rescue her, all our half-made plans planting seeds of anxiety in my chest, and it always came back to hyperdimensional mathematics. Which implied, at the end of all thought, the Eye.

It had tortured my nightmares for so long, taught and tormented me in equal value, filled my sleep with confused memories of Wonderland. Kept the pain fresh, the wounds open. The sight of it filling an alien sky had defined the secret underside of my life for so long. Summoning a mental image of the hateful thing was easy enough; a great darkness fills the sky from horizon to horizon, blotting out the stars, the the lid cracking open and peeling back like an ocean parting, mountain ranges of creased flesh revealing the void inside, the void that eats thought, that sees through you, through stone and metal and cloth and flesh and cells and picks apart your neurons and atoms and flays you to nothing.

But memory can never truly record that violation, that rummaging inside one’s brain, the utter atomic nakedness before that solar flare of attention. In memories and plans, it’s just a huge eyeball in the sky. I can think about it, without wanting to curl up in the tightest space I can find and scream my lungs out.

In ballpoint pen scribble on a page of cheap notepad paper, this cursed artist, whoever he had been in life, had captured the faintest splinter of that sensation.

He’d seen the Eye. He knew it.

Cold sweat broke out down my back, under my arms, on my face. My clammy hands grasped Tenny, clutching her fur as if I was about to fall off the ground and into the sky. Heart thumping, pulse in my throat, head pounding. Sick, sick, sick; wanted to vomit. Years of conditioning told my body I needed to purge this threat, throw it all back up. The abyssal thing I’d once been agreed wholeheartedly, wanted to make me small, fast, slip away, into a crack in the ground. Flee and hide and be very, very quiet.

“Heath! Heath!” Tenny let out little trilling sounds. I felt additional tentacles wrap themselves around my body, hug me tight, looping behind my arms and cradling my back.

“Heather?” Raine was saying my name too, but I could only shake my head. “Heather, it’s away. It’s gone. It’s okay, it’s just a drawing, it’s just a picture. Heather-”

Hissss!” went Tenny, right next to my head, low and throaty and alarmed. Feet tripped back, not mine.

“Woah, woah, woah, okay there,” Raine said. “Okay Tenny, it’s fine, we’re cool, it’s cool. Cool, okay?”

“Put it away, put it away, please, please-” a voice hissed, and I realised it was mine.

“It’s gone!” Evelyn said. “Heather, call her off! We don’t have time for this.”

I blinked my eyes open, confused and shaking and sweating, to find that Tenny had built a fortress around me.

We’d already been caught together in a half-disengaged hug when Evelyn had held up the drawing of the Eye, but Tenny had pulled me in tighter, wrapped tentacles around my middle and waist, and thrown one of her wings over my shoulders like a heavy, furred cloak that reached down to my ankles, warm and fuzzy and enclosing. My fear and her confusion had triggered her instinctive camouflage, and for a moment my head swam with vertigo at the sight of my own body obscured and hazy, replaced with an image of the grey ground and wispy fog behind us.

The other half of Tenny’s tentacles formed a spear-wall again, directed mostly at the notepad and Evelyn, but partly at Raine too.

Evelyn had stepped back, clutching the notebook, frowning with disapproval. Raine looked vaguely amused, but also distracted. She kept one eye – and her gun – on the dubious corpse in the magic circle.

“I-I’m sorry, I- it just- Tenny, it’s okay, it’s okay, n-no need for that,” I managed, putting a hand on one of Tenny’s extra limbs and gently easing it downward. She opened her mouth and trilled at me, confused. “I’m fine, Tenny. Evelyn and Raine are always friends, always safe, I’m not- it’s the picture in the … it’s fine.”

“Maaah?” Tenny vocalised, but she seemed to get the gist of it. Her tentacles drifted lower as she stood down.

“Good puppy,” Zheng purred. “You know how to protect your master.”

Tenny did a sort of misaligned blink at Zheng, almost sullen, and bleated, “baaaaah.”

Tenny’s protective embrace was a bizarre feeling. She wasn’t obviously built like Zheng or toned and tight like Raine, but thick ropes of muscle moved beneath the skin of her tentacles and torso, smooth and wriggly against me, cushioned by patches of thick, soft fur. The comfort of her wing over my shoulder was very much welcome right now, and for the first time in my life I got a sense of what it might be like to own a very large, affectionate dog. I focused on that feeling as hard as I could, tried not to think about the Eye.

My own phantom limbs helped, trying to reciprocate Tenny’s hug. A pity neither of us could feel that.

“Heather, how you holding up?” Raine risked a quick sidelong glance back at me. “We can turn around right now if you want.”

“What?” Evelyn snapped. “No, Raine, we absolutely cannot ‘turn around.’”

“That- that image was too real.” I swallowed, clinging harder to Tenny to have something to feel, something real under my hands. “I’m … I can deal with this,” I said, and wasn’t sure if it was a lie or not.

“Raine, you keep that thing covered,” Evelyn said, nodding at the intact corpse in the circle. She tucked the notebook with its terrible secret into her coat pocket, and pulled the scrimshawed thighbone out from under her arm, settling her fingers into the correct positions amid the designs. “If it so much as twitches a little finger, shoot it.”

“Don’t have to tell me that,” Raine murmured.

“Absolute fool,” Evelyn hissed. I was about to tut at her, but when she carried on I realised she was talking about herself. “Can’t even look at notes without risking my brains getting scooped out through my eyeballs. Some fucking mage I am. Should have burned it on sight.”

She was frowning at the corpse and the magic circle, hard and stony. Tenny’s panic had taken the edge off her fury, turned it cold and slow and practical. A blessing in disguise.

“Do you think this is a trap?” I asked, my voice dropping to an involuntary whisper. “Like with Alexander?”

Evelyn grumbled and shrugged. “I don’t know. That picture was just art, not magic, it wasn’t doing anything. But this? This stinks.” She tilted her head sideways at the magic circle. It was by far the most simple circle I’d seen so far, in the last half-year of occult experiences – despite the rusty red colour and the flaking of dried blood, it was just a single enclosing line, and a thin band of text in what looked like Arabic. Evelyn tutted. “Dammit, that’s not even Arabic around the circle either, I can’t make out a single word. If it’s Farsi I can struggle through with a dictionary, maybe, but anything more obscure we’re up shit creek with no paddle. This needs to be dismantled, piece by-”

“O’ great and mighty serpent,” Zheng rumbled, eyes tracing the words. “Accept this unworthy offering, this morsel of immortality, this paltry sign of our weakness and pitiful contrition. Deliver us from evil that we may take unto ourselves the knowledge cast without care from your hide, and find sustenance in the dust of your scales.” She snorted and curled her lips in disgust. “Monkey pleading.”

“What language is it?” Evelyn asked.

“Welsh.”

What?” Evelyn boggled at her. I blinked too. “Welsh? There’s no magical works in Welsh.”

Zheng gestured at the circle.

“Okay, yes,” Evelyn huffed. “Obviously there’s at least one. Why the hell is it written in Arabic script? What the hell is the point in that?”

“Camouflage?” I tried.

Raine cleared her throat and nodded upward, at the squid-moon tentacles disturbing the sea of fog above our heads. “Maybe that’s what they speak.”

“I didn’t even know it was possible to write Welsh with Arabic, it must look awful,” Evelyn tutted. “No wonder I can’t bloody well read it, that’s absurd. I … I don’t know what what we’re looking at here. I admit it, fine, I’m lost. This is like walking into the back garden and finding a dead penguin.”

“Back up the hill, to the door,” Raine said, with the kind of softness in her voice that brooked no argument. “Then I’ll double-tap this guy and we’ll see what happens.”

“Oh yes, wonderful plan,” Evelyn said. “You’d be a real bomb squad expert, Raine. Let’s just shoot the detonator and ‘see what happens.’ Suicidal idiot.”

For once, Raine didn’t have a comeback. She cracked a silent grimace of a smile.

“Wait, wait, Evee,” I said, struggling to marshal my thoughts, struggling to resist the urge to hide myself completely beneath Tenny’s wing. “Tenny already handled the corpse. She looked in his eyes, rolled him over, disturbed the circle too. Wouldn’t that have triggered a trap?”

“Yes,” Tenny fluttered.

“And she’s fine. You’re fine, aren’t you, Tenny?”

“Weh,” she said. “Yes.”

“Maybe it triggers off human neuroarchitecture,” Evelyn said. “Don’t touch it again. Don’t touch anything. We need … ” She swallowed, spat the word. “Petrol. A lot of it. Praem can go fetch some and we’ll burn both these bodies without-”

Zheng strode past us and stepped right over the lip of the circle.

“What did I just say?!” Evelyn all but shrieked. Tenny bleated a warning, all a-flutter, trying to drag me backward. Raine stayed stock still, aim unwavering, pistol pointed at the corpse.

“I would smell one like me, wizard,” Zheng purred. “This is an empty shell.” She scuffed at the magic circle as she passed, and the toe of her boot scored a line through the flaky red substance, breaking the pattern.

“You don’t know that! You-”

“As if any newborn could overcome the inside of my skull, Laoyeh’s or not. Let it try.”

Zheng squatted down next to the corpse, grabbed it by the hair and hauled it up into a sitting position. The man’s arms hung loose, hands trailing on the ground. His face was so peaceful, almost smiling. Zheng peeled one of his eyes open and stared at the dull glassy orb within.

She went very still. A bank of fog drifted in, muting the colours and hazing the edges of my vision.

Zheng wasn’t moving.

“Zheng?” My heart climbed into my throat. “Zheng?!”

“Oh shit. Shit,” Evelyn hissed, backing up several paces. She tripped over her own feet or her walking stick, and would have gone sprawling – but Tenny shot out one tentacle and caught her around the shoulders, another tentacle grabbing the stick and pushing it firmly into her hand.

Raine adjusted her aim to Zheng’s head.

“Zheng? Zheng?” I tried again.

“Speak to us, big girl,” Raine murmured. “Stop playing, yeah, stop playing, ‘cos this ain’t funny.”

Zheng’s head turned with aching robotic slowness, like a puppet grinding along rusty wires, until she regarded us through a mask of flesh, blank of expression, eyes dead and empty.

Raine took a step back. Tenny hissed like a snake. Evelyn blurted out a snatch of Latin.

“Boo,” said Zheng – and burst into a roar of a laughter. She threw her head back and laughed so hard she cried a few stray tears, shaking the poor corpse back and forth by its hair. “You monkeys! You fall for the most base of tricks! Never gets old!”

“Zheng,” I scolded, letting out a huge breath. “I can’t believe you. You’re such a child sometimes.”

Raine lowered the pistol and let out a sigh too, a twist of a smile on her lips.

Evelyn went red in the face, mouth opening and closing. “You- you absolute- I can’t- you utter cow.”

“Scared, wizard?” Zheng rumbled, still chuckling.

“How could I not be?!” Evelyn raged at her, voice carrying out into the fog, absorbed and returned as ghostly echoes. That brought her anger up short, eyes flickering out at the monstrous shapes in the streets beyond. Evelyn clutched her walking stick and shut her mouth.

“Good,” Zheng purred. “Remember that, wizard. If not for the shaman, I would have already twisted your head off and eaten your heart.”

Evelyn boggled at her, lost for words, mouth hanging open.

“Oh, I don’t believe this,” I said, exasperated. “Now, really? Evee, you offended her when you called her a barbarian and tried to order her around earlier. Zheng, Evelyn does that sort of thing with everybody, it’s nothing to do with you.”

Zheng grunted, rolled a shrug, and dropped the corpse at last. The skull hit the ground with a dull crack.

Evelyn just stared. “We don’t … don’t have time for this petty … this.” She took a slow breath, shaking her head, trying to pull herself back together. “If- if there’s nothing in that corpse, why is he-”

“Poison,” Zheng purred. “His flesh reeks of hemlock.”

“Hemlock?” Raine said. “Real old school, huh.”

Hemlock? Our mystery corpse was no Socrates, that was for certain, but the idea sent a terrible shudder down my back. I didn’t want to consider the details too closely, but the modern world probably offered far more accessible forms of poisonous death than hemlock.

“A … ritual sacrifice?” I murmured to myself.

A ritual sacrifice with a drawing of the Eye in his pocket. My mind jumped to the obvious conclusion, that this man might be a survivor of the Sharrowford Cult, one who hadn’t stayed for their final act of defiance against the Eye, one who had decided to serve instead of resist.

“Zheng, do you recognise this man? From the cult?”

“No,” she grunted. “But I never bothered to remember most of their faces. Only the wizards. This is no wizard.”

“Yeeeeeah,” Raine said with a sigh. “I’m thinking the same thing, right. How else would he have that notebook? Eye cultist, which means he would have been after you, Heather.”

“Yes,” I whispered. Tenny’s grip tightened on my torso.

“And then how the hell did he end up here?” Evelyn snapped. “Doing … this? This circle isn’t even real magic. Tenny broke it, Zheng disturbed it, it’s in bloody Welsh. The circle itself isn’t even embellished, it’s just a basic enclosure, it doesn’t do anything. This whole thing is nonsense. Maybe it was a trap, a more traditional one, meant for us days ago, but they set it up and then got bored. And this poor idiot is just bait.”

Zheng reached out and ran a fingertip along the edge of the circle. “No, wizard.”

“ … no?”

“This magic is more real than yours. Raw.” She raised her eyes to Evelyn, then up into the fog, to the nearest squid-moon, giant tentacles drifting through the air far above our heads. “A plea to a God. What could be more real?”

“Pleading for help,” I murmured, and a lump grew in my throat. “The words around the circle, pleading for help. Maybe he decided he wanted out, and … ” I trailed off.

“The one on the left,” Raine said softly.

“I’m sorry?”

Raine pointed upward with one hand, gun still held low in the other. “The leftmost tentacle from here. Look near the tip.”

I squinted up into the mist, trying to make out what Raine had seen. Detail was almost impossible at this distance, and we’d left the binoculars up in the castle with Lozzie, just in case. Evelyn squinted too. Zheng straightened up, stepped back out of the circle, and saw it first. She snorted with derisive laughter.

“Plea answered,” she purred.

I made it out a moment later. A dark red patch near the tip of one of the nearest squid-moon’s tentacles. A smear, gone dry and rusty.

“Offering.” Raine pointed at the man in the circle. “Petitioner.” She gestured to the ugly mound of mashed meat we’d been trying not to look at. “Rejection.” She nodded up at the distant tentacle again, then grinned over at Evelyn. “How’s that for a theory?”

“I don’t … I don’t know,” Evelyn muttered. She looked from the tentacle overhead to the dry red smear of the pulverised corpse nearby, but instantly looked away again, hand to her mouth. “Perhaps Lozzie can speak with her giant friend up there,” she said, dripping sarcasm. “Maybe it knows what happened.”

“Maybe she can,” I said, taking her seriously.

“Dammit, they must have come from somewhere!” Evelyn hissed, her temper fraying once more. “There must be doorway, the remains of a gate, but … ” She glanced left and right along the walls of the copied buildings, the roil of monsters beyond in the streets. I followed her gaze and found one of them looking back at us, a sort of soft-shelled crustacean clinging to the side of a nearby dead-jade house. Four eyes on stalks watched us. I made eye contact and it scuttled away, back down an alleyway, stepping on the shells of a clutch of barnacle-like protrusions.

“Does it need to be on a solid surface?” Raine asked.

“Yes. And it’ll leave marks. Obvious ones. A doorway shape burned into the stone, first few molecules of matter scraped off, that sort of thing. Our gateway would have stripped the paint from the wall back home if I hadn’t done it myself first. But we can’t go out there. How on earth could they have come from there? This is hopeless, we shouldn’t be down here, we shouldn’t. Never again. We close that castle up from the inside, ward every window and door and never come out here again.”

“Agreed. Five more minutes and we move,” Raine said, stepping forward. “But first, let’s see if we can dig up any dirt on our boy here.”

“What?” I blinked at Raine. “How are you going to … oh.”

She tucked her pistol away and crouched down by the items Tenny had extracted from the dead man’s pockets – a half-used packet of large-size tissues, a battered black leather wallet, a heavy set of a keys, and a mobile phone which looked older than me. Raine inspected the phone first, the tiny LCD screen and the blue plastic case.

“Antique technology enthusiast, or drug dealer? Take your pick.” She held the power button down, but nothing happened.

“I’m sorry, what?” I asked.

“Yes, Raine, what are you on about?” Evelyn asked.

“Drug dealer phone.” Raine waggled it at us. “Harder to track one of these, doesn’t use modern apps or anything. Dead as he is, though. Battery must be ancient, probably ran down sitting out here. Might be able to find a charger, see his contact list, but that’s a stretch. Gives me a thought though.”

She reached for the packet of tissues.

From inside a few tissues worth of camouflage, Raine extracted a plastic zip-lock bag of white powder. She opened a corner, sniffed carefully, and let out a low whistle. “We’re lucky Tenny didn’t eat this, she’d be bouncing off the walls.”

“Bwaaaah,” went Tenny, almost as if she resented the implication.

“I don’t follow?” I said. “Is that caster sugar?”

Raine laughed and gave me a look of such affection that it seemed out of place here, amid the fog and monsters and corpses. “It’s blow, Heather. Coke. Cocaine.”

“O-oh.”

“Not enough to be selling though. Probably just his personal stash. Funny thing to bring along to a ritual suicide, maybe he needed a hit before the end.” She slipped the phone and the drugs into her own jacket and reached for the keys.

“You’re keeping that crap?” Evelyn snapped.

“No, I’m going to flush it down the toilet,” Raine said with an indulgent smile. “What, did you think I was gonna to sell it on the street? You wound me, Evee.”

“Wouldn’t put it past you,” Evelyn grumbled.

Raine reached down to pick up the wallet and keys, jangling the latter. “Car keys, door keys, some kind of electronic access fob thing, maybe for a work-site. Oooh, got an address tag here.” She turned her head sideways. “82 Barkslouf Way. Maybe where he lived, there’s a lead. Now for the main event, let’s find out who you are, hey?”

She flipped the wallet open and stopped dead, and let out a theatrical sigh and tut of disappointment. Empty.

“Bugger,” Evelyn said.

“Forty quid in notes, some coins … ah!” Raine lit up and extracted a little orange card from deep inside the wallet. “Train ticket, from ‘Stalybridge’ station – that’s Manchester, I think – to Sharrowford central, five days ago. No return, one way.” Raine slipped the rest of her finds into her jacket and stared at the dead man. “Looks like chunky here did not expect to be going home.”

“Then it was suicide. A sacrifice.” Evelyn grit her teeth and looked upward again, at the tentacles far above our heads.

“At least we have an address,” I said. “That’s a clue, isn’t it?”

“We’re not living in a detective novel,” Evelyn grumbled, eyes glued to the motion of the nearest giant tentacle overhead, like watching the weather. “You aren’t Miss bloody Marple. This doesn’t help us find out how they got in here, or stop them from doing it again.”

“I think you’d make a great lady detective, Evelyn. On television,” I said. She frowned at me. I cleared my throat, feeling awkward and out of place, trying anything to keep my mind on the moment and away from the Eye. “What I meant is, if we can find this man’s flat or house, perhaps that’s somewhere to start?”

“Evelyn Saye, consulting detective.” Raine cracked a grin, standing up and dusting off her hands. “We can work on a pilot script later though, let’s have a look at contestant number two.”

‘Contestant number two.’ I almost told her off for that one, but I could barely look without feeling sick.

The second corpse wasn’t far off, but we’d all been ignoring it, pretending it didn’t exist, trying not to look at it. Except Zheng, who I’m certain wasn’t bothered at all. A smear of pulped meat and shattered bone. The one mercy was the lack of smell; the fog and the strange air of this place had dried out the gruesome mass, like smoked meat.

Raine looked at it now without a care. Tenny let out a bleat of protest, perhaps feeling my revulsion.

“Hmmm, on second thoughts, I might need rubber gloves for that,” Raine said.

“There might be … uh.” Evelyn closed her eyes and put her hand to her mouth again. Even thinking about it made her look ill. “Might be a wallet or a … card, something, in a pocket?”

“Yeah. Yeah, maybe.” Raine walked over to it, but still didn’t touch the wreckage of flesh and dried blood.

“Squeamish, yoshou?” Zheng chuckled.

“Ehhh,” Raine let out the verbal equivalent of a shrug. “A little yeah, not gonna lie. S’pretty grisly. Don’t wanna get this on my cuffs.”

Zheng held no such hygienic scruples. She grunted and strode over to the smeared crimson mess, and set straight to her bloody work.

Raine stood at Zheng’s back, to watch, peer, point, and make suggestions. Evelyn backed up a few paces and I followed, dragging Tenny after me, shielding my vision with one hand. I winced through the waves of disgust at the sounds of peeling dried meat, Zheng scraping bits of human being off the ground. Evelyn actually turned away, hand to her mouth.

“We’ll get back upstairs and you can set about your plan of securing the castle, yes, Evee?” I stammered, saying anything, nothing, just to talk, to drown out the disgusting noises from behind us, to avoid thinking about my lover over there watching without the slightest hesitation. “Evelyn, how does that sound? I think you could do it all tonight, if you’re willing to disturb your sleeping pattern with coffee. I think, um.”

Evelyn just grunted and nodded.

“Yaaaaah,” Tenny trilled agreement. “Coffffff.”

“No coffee for you, I think, I doubt you need it. Do you, Tenny? No, you have lots of energy and, um … um … yes, and-”

 I caught a snatch of Raine’s voice from behind us. “Is that a piece of pelvis? Look under there, might find a back pocket.”

 “And you could even call Twil,” I carried on, louder. “Her family might know something about this, this um, yes. But really it would just be an excuse to have her over for the night. Maybe if she bodyguards you a bit you can work on the courage to ask her to hold your hand or … mm. Yes, right. Good plan, good plan, Heather.”

Evelyn waved me off.

“Evee, may I … may I see the notebook, please?”

She shot me a confused frown. “You’re sure?” I nodded. “This isn’t some weird masochistic thing, is it?”

“Not at all. Just … trying to occupy my thoughts.”

Half a lie. I’d come down from the shaking fear earlier, left a sticky layer of cold sweat on my skin, but the very fact I’d been so afraid in the first place was festering in my guts. With nothing else to think about, my mind turned back to our purpose, to the Eye, to Maisie.

Evelyn frowned harder, but she dug the notebook back out of her coat pocket and thrust it at me. She watched me take it gingerly, watched me flip the cover up. I knew I was quivering slightly, a lump in my throat, and I made no effort to hide my reaction.

“This is a masochism thing,” she said. “Isn’t it?”

“No. No, quite the opposite. I need to face it again. If I can’t even look at a drawing of it, what use am I going to be?”

I flicked through the dead man’s notebook. Evelyn had been right, it was all poetry, lots of lines crossed out and rewritten with slightly different wording, meter and rhythm apparent, though in a language I couldn’t read. I did, however, recognise it right away.

“Evee, this is all in Welsh too. Not with Arabic script though.” I said. “You didn’t recognise this earlier?”

“Why should I recognise Welsh?”

“Weeell,” Tenny trilled, and made it sound like ‘whale’.

I flipped the final page before the drawing, and revealed the depiction of the Eye once more. A catch in my throat, a quivering in my belly, a hitch in my heartbeat. I stared at it, into the void under the lid, making a conscious effort to control my breathing. Forced a swallow down my throat. Evelyn said something, but I wasn’t listening. Tenny purred, or at least made an approximation of a purr, and tried to hug me tighter.

After several long seconds I began to see past the nightmare image, picked out each individual pen stroke, each twist of the nib, imagined the hand going back and forth to shade in the darkness. I dismantled the image in my mind.

It was, in the end, just a drawing. The whole was greater than the sum of the parts, but the parts were meaningless.

Could I do the same to the Eye itself? Break it down into bite sized chunks?

“Aversion therapy?” Evelyn asked softly.

“Of a kind.” I sighed, looked up at her, managed a small smile.

From behind us came a swishing of material, like a coat pulled tight over a pair of shoulders, and I assumed Raine had turned around and adjusted her jacket – but the sound that followed drew nails of ice down my spine.

A wheeze, a hiss, like cracked bellows before a dying fire, struggling to fill themselves.

It was so bizarre I glanced back before I could stop myself. Raine and Zheng had their backs to us, and Zheng was wrist-deep in gore, lifting up some unrecognisable shredded chunk of human anatomy. Between them and us lay the magic circle and the corpse within.

Not lying down anymore. The corpse of the heavyset man was sitting upright. Eyes open. Arms limp.

Breathing. He took a second breath, filling dry lungs with an awful grating sound.

“Uh … uh … R-Raine?” I stammered.

All hell broke loose; Raine span at the sound of fear in my voice, drawing her gun. She saw the man and didn’t even blink, aimed at him with unwavering precision. Zheng whirled too, a nightmare vision with bloody hands, hunched and ready for violence. Evelyn choked on a scream, raising her wand of carved thighbone, fingers fumbling over the right place to grasp. Tenny let out a hiss like a king cobra.

But the eye of the storm didn’t move.

The corpse in the circle – most certainly not a corpse anymore, if he had ever truly been dead in the first place – didn’t react to us. He blinked, slowly and painfully, a dry click over dessicated eyeballs. He twitched his right hand up to his face, as if suffering some kind of palsy, and slapped his own cheek.

“You said it was dead!” said Evelyn.

“It was,” Zheng growled. She took three stalking steps, circling the heavyset man at a wary distance, like a tiger confronted by an unknown competitor. “It still is.”

“What?”

“This is a dead thing still.”

The man swayed at the waist, like he was merely sleepy instead of rising from the dead. He pulled one leg back, trying to get it underneath him.

Zheng was right. It had been months since I’d seen a zombie – apart from herself and Praem, both exceptions that proved the rule – but I would never forget the way they’d moved. The broken shuffling, the misfiring synapses, the jerky muscles; demons in stolen flesh. This living corpse in front of us was clumsy and slow, yes, but like a man who’d awoken from a deep dream, not hijacked by a creature that didn’t understand how to pilot the human form.

“Hey there, buddy,” Raine said to him, loud and clear, circling the other way from Zheng. “Hey. Hey, can you hear me? Got a gun pointed at you, friend, because I don’t know what the hell you are. Blink, wave a hand, give us a sign there’s someone home, yeah? Anything? Anything at all?”

The dead man raised his head of curly dark hair and finally seemed to see us. A drowsy, heavy-lidded look slid from face to face. His eyeballs were all wrong, dried out. His throat bobbed with a horrible rasping effort to swallow, then his mouth opened and a sandpaper croak spilled forth.

“Oh lads, oh we are in big trouble here lads,” he slurred.

I didn’t know if I should laugh or scream, he was so out of place.

His was not the voice of some hard-bitten cultist performing secret rituals in a hidden pocket dimension, or the whispering death-voice of a lich back from the grave. He spoke like a football fan after a hardcore pub crawl, waking from a hangover in a student dorm.

“Hey, hey.” Raine clicked her fingers to get his attention, pistol still aimed at him. “You talking to yourself there mate?”

“Alright, alright,” he huffed, grimacing, but didn’t look at Raine. “Yeah, pipe down, I get it, gotta scarper, gotta move, move move move.”

“Scarper?” Raine said out loud, and pulled a big showy wince. “Don’t think so.”

“I can take his head off,” Zheng purred. “Better now than later.”

“No!” Evelyn snapped. “We need to interrogate him, not get rid of him, I want to know how he got here, he-”

Evelyn yelped in surprise. The heavyset man had been pushing to get his feet underneath him, head nodding as if drunk, and he finally succeeded with a lurch and a stumble, right toward Evelyn and Tenny and I. Tenny hissed, Evelyn almost fell on her arse, but I couldn’t help but feel completely unthreatened. This man was a wreck. Even I could have probably have pushed him over.

But Zheng thought otherwise. She lunged for him, arms wide, a rugby tackle from hell. No human being could have avoided that, seven feet of toned muscle and quicksilver reflexes charging you down. An Olympic sprinter couldn’t have escaped.

But the dead man lurched drunkenly to the side, and Zheng went sprawling past him.

Raine actually burst out laughing. “Keep up, big girl!” Tenny let out a warble of amusement too, and I almost allowed myself a single, humourless laugh.

Zheng growled, span, and lunged again. On the second successful stumbling dodge, nobody was laughing anymore.

The man stumbled and wobbled like he was in the terminal stages of an alcoholic binge, barely keeping his balance, head wavering, blinking slow, eyes unfocused and half-open at best. But Zheng couldn’t catch him – because he wasn’t reacting to her. Every dodge and stumble he made seemed like random chance, too chaotic to control or predict. Zheng skidded past him no less than four times, and on the fourth he let out a confused laugh.

“Zheng, this isn’t working,” I said.

“Oi oi, lass,” the dead man said, looking at Raine. “You’ve got my coke. They say you’ve got my coke, yeah?”

“How do you know that?”

“Um,” the man said, and dodged out of the way again as Zheng tried a fifth time. He bobbed back and almost fell over. Zheng switched tactics, feigned one way to drive him the other, but that time he didn’t bother moving, just stood there blinking as she sailed through the spot he should have moved to.

“Stand still!” Zheng roared in frustration.

“I am,” he slurred.

She tried again, and he stumbled out of the way.

“Sorry, sorry,” he held up both hands and almost fell over again as he stumbled backward.

“Either this guy’s a bona-fide drunken master,” Raine said. “Or something weird is going down.”

The man stopped again, frowning – at me. Tenny hissed at him, but he ignored her. I met his gaze and his face lit up like a light bulb going on inside his skull. “Oh shit, shit, you’re her. The witch. Witchy shit, yeah.”

“Who are you?” I asked. “You- you know about the Eye, don’t you?”

“Nobody, right. Not important. Nah beef, girl, nah beef.”

“Yeah, that’s right,” Raine said. “You’ve got no beef with Heather, so we’re cool. Still gotta tell us who you are though.”

“This isn’t funny,” Evelyn hissed. “This is somebody messing with us. This is a trap, or a trick, or something we’re not seeing. Back away from him, don’t get near him. Raine,” she snapped. “Bring him down.”

“Me?”

“Yes, you.”

Raine looked at the heavyset dead man as he dodged out of Zheng’s bull-charge again, then down at the gun in her hand, then at Evelyn. “With this?”

“Of course with that! What else would I be talking about?”

“Ehhh, Evee, I’m not really down with shooting a guy who isn’t doing anything to us. Hey, mate!” Raine called. “You gonna like, try to kill us or whatever?”

“Oh man,” the walking corpse slurred again, one eye closed. “S’nice to hang but we gotta get going. Still here, why am I still here? Yeah, I know, alright? Alright, alright, that’s a plan. Cunning plan, like a fox. Smart like a fox, yeah!”

The man wobbled back several steps and hit himself in the head with one hand. I believe he was trying to salute us.

“Later, girlies!” he slurred, and took off running toward the copied Sharrowford streets.

Well ‘running’, for a given value of running. He stumbled and overbalanced and barely stopped himself from flying face-first into the ground. Zheng pursued like a bullet, but the chase instantly dissolved into a farce. Every time she leapt for him he fell over, weaved out of the way, landed on his own arse, or just stopped while she sailed past.

As he went he seemed to regain coordination and balance, picked up speed, and got his feet moving. His dodges became less slapstick pratfall and more actual drunken martial art.

“I don’t believe this,” Evelyn hissed. “He’s getting away. Will you shoot him now?”

“Evee,” I tutted.

“In the back?” Raine grimaced. “He won’t make it five minutes in all that.” She nodded at the monsters roiling and snapping and slurping out in the streets. “Besides, somehow I get the sense he’d step out of the way.”

“You’d let him go too, Heather?” Evelyn turned on me. “A stay cultist, one who might be after you. Tell Raine! Tell her to shoot him, for God’s sake!”

“I don’t … Evee, he’s running from us … I … ”

Evelyn had a point. I disliked it, but she was right. The absolute last thing we wanted was a servant of the Eye free in Sharrowford, let alone one who Zheng couldn’t even touch. The abyssal ruthlessness nestled in the heart of my soul screamed kill this man.

“Heather,” Evelyn hissed.

“Raine, can you-” I swallowed, one half of me fighting the other. “Please shoot him. In the leg, maybe, if you can. Please.”

Thankfully for my nerves, Raine didn’t second-guess the request. She raised the pistol in both hands and steadied her aim, breathed out slowly, and waited for Zheng to make another failed charge before she pulled the trigger. I wanted to close my eyes, but I fought the urge. I asked for this; don’t look away. This is your decision.

In the split-second before Raine pulled the trigger, the heavyset man fell over on his arse. The crack of gunfire split the air, made me jump, and the bullet passed harmlessly over the man’s head.

Raine actually laughed at the absurdity of it. “Told you so.”

“Try again!” Evelyn snapped.

“Evee, this guy is beyond us. I’m just wasting bullets.”

“Zheng! Zheng, come back!” I yelled, but she was ignoring us now. The dead man was up and running again, and executed a perfect weave-duck motion from the waist as Zheng missed him again.

He finally reached the streets, vaulted over a barnacle-creature of dull grey metal, slipped beneath the roving limbs of some scuttling crustacean, and slipped down a side-street. Zheng plunged after him, ripping through hanging sheets of living mollusk flesh, batting aside a clutch of anemone-like feelers.

“Zheng! Stop!” I called out.

Her blood was up, the puzzle of this prey too much for her. She vanished into the chaos beyond the fog.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

by this art you may contemplate – 10.2

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

“We were last here, what? Wednesday night? Three days ago.” Raine nodded out the bank of empty windows, at the corpses far below the castle. “Those poor buggers weren’t down there three days ago. I would’ve noticed.”

“Yes, quite.” Evelyn stepped away from the window, breath shaking as she struggled to compose herself. “You’re not the only one who can recognise blood and guts, Raine. The rest of us do have eyes, anybody would have noticed that, that- that mess, that-”

“Mystery,” Praem intoned in her clear, bell-like voice. Evelyn shut her mouth.

She wasn’t exaggerating. The view through the binoculars made for a gruesome sight. A crimson mess was smeared at the base of what I thought of as Castle Hill, in the perhaps twenty or thirty meters of clear ground before the jumble of the copied Sharrowford streets full of writhing alien life. The carnage was visible enough with the naked eye, even through the sluggish veils of fog; against the omnipresent grey of the dead-jade landscape, red stood out like an open wound.

But the first corpse was intact, and not so easy to pick out.

I had to brace my elbows against my chest to steady the shaking, wavering view through the binoculars, the metal cold in my hands, tendrils of fog obscuring the details. The corpse was flat on its back, legs straight, boot-toes pointing upward, hands folded across the chest like an Egyptian mummy. Short dark hair, heavily muscled build, probably a man. Like he’d just lain down out there and gone to sleep – in the middle of a magic circle.

The circle was clear as day, even through the fog. The rusty red colour left no mystery as to the medium with which it had been painted.

The second corpse was pulped meat. Gender, age, build, clothing, all pulverised. Spars of snapped bone, organs burst like overripe fruit, a skid mark of crimson and brown and bile on the ground. A dozen meters from the first corpse, almost as if unrelated. The splattered mess seemed unreal through the binocular lenses, but I couldn’t stop staring. Perhaps if I looked for long enough, the horrible sight would reveal itself as an imitation in play-doh and paint.

Distant whale-song washed through my mind, the constant refrain of the monolithic squid-moon-children out there in the mist, their train-sized tentacles still dancing in the upper air, uncaring of the human corpses far below. The other local fauna carried on as normal down in the copied streets, a thousand chittering, skittering, hooting sounds muffled by the fog.

We’d learnt that the strange wildlife avoided Castle Hill. We’d never spotted anything risking the climb. But now they avoided the corpses too, as if the dead bodies had created an invisible barrier. Bacteria in a petri dish forced back by a drop of penicillin.

“Heather? Hey, Heather?” Raine touched my shoulder and I jumped, a gasp escaping my throat as I jerked the binoculars down. “Hey, hey, it’s a grisly sight, no need to stare. You saw?”

I swallowed hard. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t seen corpses before, but this seemed almost unreal. “ … yes, yes I see. I saw, I mean. Where on earth did they come from?”

“Vermin,” Evelyn hissed through her teeth.

“I’m sorry?” I blinked at her, still numb.

“It’s Lilburne,” she snapped. “It’s Lilburne, Edward or zombie Alexander, I won’t try to guess which, trying to muscle back in. That,” she jabbed the head of her walking stick at the bank of empty windows. “That out there is a failed ritual. Or God forbid, one that worked. Vermin. Bastards.” She fumed, working herself up. “Fool to think they’d ever give us an answer. ‘Negotiations’ my arse, may as well talk terms with a scorpion.”

Behind her, on the far side of the gateway and safely back in Sharrowford, in the light and warmth of the workshop, Tenny flinched. Her antennae twitched rapidly, big black eyes gone wide, tentacles darting about. Lozzie tried to hush her, draw her attention with little private whispers, but she was staring at Evelyn now, fascinated or alarmed, I couldn’t tell which.

“Evee, Evee, s-slow down-” I said.

“Evee’s right,” Raine said, low and serious. She put a hand on my back and gently but firmly steered me away from the window, back toward the gateway. With her other hand, she drew her pistol from inside her jacket. “Which means we’re all leaving, right now.”

“Raine, we can’t just leave those bodies down there,” I protested, my heels skidding across the floor.

“I am not bloody well retreating,” Evelyn spat.

Tenny flinched again, tentacles whirling like a surprised octopus.

Evelyn planted her feet wide, walking stick wider, held at an angle as she tilted her chin up. She stood like a defiant general on some ancient battlefield. This small woman with her bent spine and twisted leg and prosthetic limb was ready to command an army.

What she had, however, was us.

“Evee-” Raine started, a warning in her voice.

Evelyn clicked her fingers. “Praem, fetch my wand. Please,” she added, catching herself. “And call Zheng.” She turned and shouted over her shoulder, through the gateway, past Tenny and Lozzie. “Zheng! I have need of you, barbarian! Get in here and make yourself useful!”

I closed my eyes and sighed. That was not going to earn Zheng’s approval.

“Evelyn Saye, you get back through that magical door,” Raine said. “Or I will pick you up and carry you, and you didn’t like it much last time I had to do that.”

Evelyn’s eyes blazed at Raine. “I am not letting them have this. No. Not this time.”

Back in the workshop, Zheng appeared around the kitchen doorway, both curious and unimpressed. I caught her eye and pulled a contrite face, a surrogate apology.

“Shaman?” she rumbled.

“Bodies,” I said, then turned to Raine, stumbling over both my words and feet as she all but manhandled me toward the gate. “Raine, we should at least check. That … the … the other one, in the circle, he looked like he was sleeping. Maybe he’s not … you know. Dead.”

“And maybe it’s a trap. Heather, we can totally leave them here.”

“Oh yes, why not?” Evelyn said, voice full of scorn. “We’ve left plenty of other corpses rotting in this castle. We should drag them all back up here and give them a proper burial, fill the back garden with murder evidence waiting to be found.”

“E-Evee, that’s not what I meant, I-”

“This little beachhead was a mistake,” she spat. “I should have set about securing this place weeks ago. Had Praem go over every nook and cranny and put wards on every door and window. Well, no more mistakes!”

Raine sighed and made a gesture like she wanted to put her face in her hand. Praem hadn’t moved a muscle to obey her mistress. Zheng eyed Tenny, who was staring back at her like a cornered cat, tentacles drifting wide to present a united front. Lozzie cooed and stroked her and tried to lead her off to one side, out of Zheng’s path, but Tenny kept glancing back at us, rooted to the spot, caught between Zheng and an argument.

“Lozzie,” I hissed. “Get Tenny out of the workshop, please, this is upsetting her.”

“I’m trying! Try-try. Tenny-tens come come, come on, baaaaack, back we goooo,” Lozzie sing-songed at her, tugging on one arm and one tentacle. But Tenny was on high alert now, flesh-cloak twitching and shuddering, void-black eyes blinking back and forth at every cross word.

“Evee, hey, come on,” Raine said. “I’ve spelled it out already. Those dead dudes weren’t down there three days ago, which means somebody’s been here.”

“Yes! Exactly!” Evelyn spat.

“And they might still be here.”

Raine let her eyes say the rest. She looked pointedly down the castle corridor, in the direction of the throne room, which we hadn’t visited a second time since our run-in with Lozzie’s giant, be-tentacled friend. Then she looked the other way, in the direction we’d never explored. The corridor kinked off into unknown depths lit only by the omnipresent foggy light from outdoors. Then she looked at Evelyn again.

“Oh,” I said, a cold chill creeping up my spine.

Evelyn opened her mouth and hesitated, as if reluctant to give ground. She swallowed and finally followed Raine’s glance down the corridor, stared for a moment, then swore under her breath.

Zheng strode across the workshop. She passed Tenny without a glance, ignored her rising hiss, and asked me a silent question with her eyes.

“We found corpses.” I indicated the window.

Zheng stepped through the gate. Wisps of cloying fog swirled around her legs as she disturbed the soupy air. She shot a dead-eyed, murderous look down at Evelyn as she passed, but Evelyn wasn’t paying attention, grinding her teeth and trying to think. Zheng walked to the window and gripped the edge, showing no disgust at the unnatural, dead-thing touch of the bone-like grey jade. She peered down and grunted, waved away my offer of binoculars.

“If this was a trap,” Evelyn was saying, slowly and carefully, chewing each word. “They would have made their move already. They’d be up here with a gun, or have planted an IED for us, or … something. Anything. Praem, what are you waiting for? Fetch my wand. Please?” She managed to make ‘please’ sound like an order, and this time Praem finally relented. She marched past her mistress and back into the workshop. “I am not leaving these idiot amateurs to despoil and colonise this place a second time. We need to find the gate they came in through and shit on it from a very great height.”

“There’s too many factors here,” Raine said, shaking her head. “What if that guy down there isn’t dead? Maybe it’s a zombie playing possum. Maybe it’s a trap to draw us away from the gate up here. We don’t know. Here, Heather,” she pushed me toward the gateway. “Back through, please? For me?”

“Dead,” Zheng purred from by the window. She closed her eyes and took a slow, deep breath through her nose. “Rotten meat. Old blood.”

“Which means they’ve been there a while?” I asked. “Raine stop- stop! Raine! We have to come here, for Lozzie if nothing else. I don’t want this place to be unsafe for us, I-” My heart almost leapt out of my mouth. “Zheng! Zheng, stop!”

My giant demon-host had one foot up on the lip of the window, hands braced, about to jump. She stopped at my shout, turned and raised an eyebrow.

Back in the workshop, Tenny reacted too, like a startled puppy blinking and shaking at raised voices. She kept trying to look at all of us in turn, tentacles waving back and forth, unsure where to go, who to attend to. Lozzie hugged her forcefully, whispering something to her, trying to pull her back.

“Shaman?” Zheng asked.

“Don’t you dare!” I said. “That drop is hundreds of feet!”

“Join me, shaman?” She broke into a dark, toothy grin. “You enjoyed the last time we flew.”

“We fell! To escape being eaten by a building. And that happened in Sharrowford, which is not full of giant monsters and alien fauna, not physical ones. Those creatures out there could react to in any which way at all. Yes, maybe you can repair broken knees in twenty minutes, but what if one of those things out there takes a disliking to you?” I sighed. “Don’t, please.”

“The tengerood?” Zheng shrugged. “A good fight.”

I sighed, squeezed my eyes shut, and pinched the bridge of my nose.

“I’m going, shaman. Try to keep up, Wizard,” she growled at Evelyn.

“I- no, Zheng, I- don’t. Don’t. If you jump, I’m going to worry about you. If I worry about you, I’m going to make us all rush down through the castle looking for the front door. If there’s anybody in here, or there is a trap set for us, we could blunder into it.”

Zheng stared at me for a moment, dark and unreadable, then sighed a huge, growling sigh and took a step back from the edge. She rolled a shrug. “Monkeys.”

“You know this castle, don’t you?” Evelyn said to her. “You can guide us down there.”

Zheng looked at her like something she’d found smeared on the underside of her boot. Evelyn didn’t seem to notice – but Tenny did. She hissed, a rapid fluttery sound like a very irate giant moth.

Praem returned at that exact moment, stepping through the gateway with Evelyn’s scrimshawed thighbone-baton. She handed it over and Evelyn tucked it under her armpit, hand cradling the other end, like a cavalry commander with a riding whip.

“I am not letting those vermin have this place,” Evelyn said. “We go down there, we find what they were up to, we find their entry point and destroy it.”

Raine opened her mouth, but Evelyn carried on over her.

“And no, for your information, I am not suggesting we go blundering down there like a bull in a china shop, kicking bodies that could well be bloody traps, I’m not you, Raine. I’m going to go over this castle with a fine-tooth comb, I’m going to put wards on every window, every fucking crack in the walls, and I’m going to get that front door closed. If you won’t help, I’ll call Twil, we’ll get this done properly. This is an all-night operation, and it can. Not. Wait.” Evelyn went on, almost shouting, punctuating her words by banging her walking stick against the floor. “I might not be able to stop these vermin from infesting the edges of Sharrowford, but I am not letting them back in here! Not at my fucking front door!”

“Evee-”

“And yes,” Evelyn spat. “I realise I am being a bitch. I am taking my anger out on you. On all of you, on my friends, on … ” She swallowed hard, let out a huge breath, rapidly losing steam. “Because I can’t believe I’ve made a mistake like this again. Because I’m a useless cripple, and lazy, and I should have seen this coming.”

Evelyn stopped. Silence settled. She couldn’t meet anybody’s eyes.

“Evee, you’re not useless,” I said.

“I’m sorry,” she barked.

Tenny broke.

Like a faithful hound confused and goaded by the agitation of her human pack, Tenny decided it was time to help.

She broke free from Lozzie’s grip with a boneless wriggle of too much muscle under silken skin, burst through the gateway with a hop and a skip and an excited fluttery hiss. Her tentacles shot out like an octopus pulling itself into a crevasse, a dozen black ropes gripping the edges of the window. Evelyn went wide eyed and stumbled back, losing her balance before Praem caught her. I reached out, a cry on my lips as I realised what Tenny was doing. Zheng rocked back on her heels, dodging out of the way, a grin ripping across her face.

Raine leapt, tried to tackle Tenny to the ground. Too late.

The tentacles acted like the rubber band of a slingshot, Tenny’s body the stone to be launched.

With an explosion of muscular force, she shot off the ground and straight through the window, tentacles whipping out behind her.

Raine skidded to a halt and almost crashed into the wall. I stood dumbfounded, until Lozzie raced past me. Zheng was laughing, Lozzie was shouting, and I was still processing what I’d just seen, even as we crowded shoulder-to-shoulder at the window.

Out in the open air, Tenny cut through the veils of fog like a bullet, the mist parting and swirling as she passed. Her tentacles withdrew suddenly, vanishing under her still-folded wings like a cluster of worms retreating into the ground.

“Ahhhh!” Lozzie had both fists clenched, genuine panic written all over her face. “Flap!” she screamed at the top of her lungs. “You have to flap your wings! Tenny!”

The fog swallowed her voice, a tiny sound against the extra-dimensional immensity.

A tiny black form now, Tenny reached the peak of her arc and began to fall. For one heart-stopping moment I thought she might not know what to do. Lozzie put her hands to her mouth, white as a sheet.

A thunderous leathery whip-crack proved me wrong; Tenny stretched her wings to their full span, twenty-four feet from tip to tip, and caught the air.

Fog swirled in the sudden down-draft, and her descent slowed.

The softly furred underside ruffled as she flapped once, twice, three times, adjusting the angle, getting it just right. The smaller pair of rear wings acted like rudders, guiding her descent as she turned a fall into a glide. The nearest of the local otherworldly fauna – a cluster of crab-like creatures sunning themselves on a nearby grey-jade imitation roof – began to move away, shuffling down the sides of the building, like prey animals scuttling for cover in the shadow of a hawk.

Tenny went down in a narrow spiral, a daring manoeuvre, kicking her feet out as she neared the ground, the no-man’s-land surrounding Castle Hill. She toed terra firma with little hopping steps to slow her momentum, finally bouncing to a halt and ruffling her wings, shaking them all over, stretching and flexing the unfamiliar muscles. She folded them back up, back into a cloak, and turned to look at the bodies.

The whole process had taken less than a minute. I was speechless, and only realised I’d been holding my breath when I finally let it go. My head was pounding.

Raine let out a low whistle. “Now that’s a shakedown flight for the record books.”

“Clever puppy,” Zheng purred.

“Tenny!” Lozzie leaned right out of the window. Sympathetic vertigo wriggled up my legs, but Zheng reached out and grabbed a fistful of Lozzie’s poncho, her other hand looped around Lozzie’s waistband.

“Clever indeed,” I said, swallowing on a dry mouth. “She understood exactly what we were arguing about. I think. She’s um, solving the problem.”

“Well, if there is anybody still here, we’ve definitely alerted them now,” Evelyn grumbled.

“Tenny! No!” Lozzie scolded, her voice swallowed by the fog as she waved both arms out of the window. “No! Come back up here! Bad girl!”

Tenny turned to the sound of Lozzie’s voice for a second, her face so tiny from all the way up here in the apex of the castle. Fog banks drifted between us, rendered her hazy and indistinct. Either she couldn’t hear Lozzie or pretended not to. Tentacles snaked out from beneath her wings and one of them waved at us, but the others turned to examine the dead bodies on the grey-jade ground.

“If that’s a real circle, she’s about to breach it,” Evelyn hissed.

“Tenny!” Lozzie shouted again. “Don’t touch! No touch! No!” She terminated her panicked plea with a sound like a steam kettle.

But nothing happened. No explosion, no flash of light, no discharge of magical power, no plummeting temperature as Tenny’s innocent curiosity triggered some obvious trap. Her tentacles crossed the edge of that crimson magic circle and set about investigating the corpse within.

She poked at his face and got no reaction, peeled his eyelids back and leaned over to look the eyeballs. Her tentacles felt around his throat and neck, perhaps for a pulse, and rummaged in his pockets and the inside of his lightweight raincoat. They extracted a few small items and dropped them on the ground. One tentacle looped back to her own face, holding up something small and white.

“Spiral-bound notebook,” Raine said, binoculars pressed to her eye sockets. “She dropped a wallet, keys, phone, some tissues I think. Hard to tell.”

Tenny stared at the notebook, antennae flickering, while her tentacles lifted the dead man’s wrists and let them flop back to the ground.

“Can she read?” Evelyn wondered out loud.

“Not yet,” Lozzie said, voice shaking. “I-I’m trying to teach her letters, she’s doing really really well, she’s so clever. So clever. Tenny! Tenny, leave it alone! Tenny!

After a moment the tentacle held the notebook up and waved it, as if showing us, then tucked back close to Tenny’s body and held onto it tight. The rest of her tentacles rolled the dead man onto his side, flopping him about before gravity returned him to his back, his arms sprawling and loose.

“No rigor mortis,” Raine said. “Means he’s either been dead only a couple of hours, or more than two days. My money’s on the latter.”

“I said, yoshou, rotten meat,” Zheng purred.

“No missing flesh either. The bodies haven’t been touched,” Raine murmured. “No carrion eaters out there, I guess. Maybe our proteins aren’t compatible.”

Tenny lost interest in the intact corpse. Her tentacles drifted away, toward the shattered one.

“Tenny, no!” Lozzie called. “No! No touching that! It’s dirty!”

Tenny looked up again. Tentacles shivered and bobbed. Her human mouth moved and she waved her arms about, flesh-cloak twitching. A distant trilling, fluttering noise floated through the foggy air. Whatever she was trying to say was impossible to make out at this distance, but she sounded both confident and happy. A puppy, trying to help.

“It’s dirty!” Lozzie yelled. “No touching!”

But she needn’t have bothered. Tenny’s physical transformation had apparently imbued her with a basic sense of disgust, but she’d simply never encountered it before. Her tentacles hovered over the shattered bones and pulped meat of the second corpse, but refused to touch the blood and guts. She took a step back as if confused and the tentacles withdrew too. I couldn’t see her expression at this distance, but her body language was unmistakable: confusion, repulsion, sickness. She stared at the bloody corpse, then hopped and skipped a few paces back up the hill.

“Come back up here, Tenny!” Lozzie shouted. She waved her arms, flapping. “Come back up! Flap flap! Fly back!”

“Tenny!” I added my voice. “Fly back here!”

“Yes, keep shouting, I’m sure that’s doing wonders for our element of surprise,” Evelyn drawled. I turned and shot her a sharp frown, and she cleared her throat with a guilty look. “If she knows how to fly, I’m certain she knows to come back now.”

Tenny looked up and down the castle, then out into the city and the cacophony of weird monsters, then down at her own feet, as if only just realising the reality of her physical position. I sighed in relief when she spread her wings again, stretching her flesh-cloak out into a rippling leathery mass and cupping the air. She did a little hopping run, beating the air with her wings, using the incline of Castle Hill to build momentum. She got her feet off the ground for one wing-beat, skidded on a heel like a plane bouncing on a runway – and then stumbled to a stop.

“Oh shit,” Evelyn hissed.

“Wait, wait,” Raine warned, one hand up.

“Try again! Tenny, try again!” Lozzie called, shrill with wild panic.

Tenny tried again. She ran with her head down, slender legs pumping, wings heaving at the air, but it was like watching an ostrich try to take flight. She stumbled and fell and rolled in a ball, protected by her wings wrapping around herself. She got up again and ran back down the hill, hopping and skipping and unable to generate enough lift. She hissed and whirred and trilled, her frustration carrying through the fog between us.

“Too heavy,” Praem intoned.

“Yes, she’s too heavy for unassisted flight,” Evelyn said, frowning down at the scurrying black figure below us. “Not without a helping hand from gravity.”

“Let her try again,” Raine said. “She’s a baby bird, come on, she can do it.”

“Catapult!” Lozzie called, spreading her hands in rough imitation of Tenny’s explosive launch earlier. “Tenny, catapult, up!”

But Tenny didn’t seem to understand.

“That behaviour may have been pure instinct,” Evelyn said. “She won’t do it again without an obvious method nearby.”

Tenny stopped trying after attempt number five. Winded, bruised, confused. Stuck. She stood next to the corpses and kept looking up at us, making loud open-mouthed trilling sounds, then glancing up the length of Castle Hill towards the where the front door must be, hidden from our position by the bulk of the structure. She hugged herself with both arms beneath her flesh cloak. Her tentacles had drawn in close and tight, formed a spear-wall around her body. She took a few shuffling, halting steps up the hill, probably making for the door.

“Yeah, okay,” Raine said, low and serious. She lowered the binoculars. “She ain’t flying back.”

“Stay there! Tenny, stay where you are!” Lozzie called, waving her arms through the window. She turned to us, eyes wide, gone pale. “We have to go down and get her, we have to go fetch her!” She turned back to the window, then hopped away, trying to be in two places at once, halted by Zheng’s grip on her poncho and jeans. She scrambled for a moment like a hound on a choke-chain.

“Slow down, mooncalf,” Zheng purred.

“It’s my fault, I brought her here,” Lozzie almost wailed, crying now, starting to cry. “I’m so dumb, I’m so dumb, I’m so dumb!” She whirled back to the window, leaning all the way out again. “Tenny, don’t move! Stay there!”

A soft trilling sound drifted up from far below.

“No, it’s my fault,” Evelyn said, hard and clipped. “I lost my temper. I shouted.” She huffed at herself and shook her head, face in one hand.

“Please, we we need to go down there and get her!” Lozzie said, crying openly now. “She’ll get lost on the way back or … mmmmm … ” Lozzie’s lips shook, unwilling to voice her fears.

“The puppy will be fine,” Zheng purred. “She is almost as strong as me.”

“Why didn’t you stop her?!” Lozzie turned on Zheng, all tiny blazing frown. “You could have caught her!”

“Little ones have to learn, mooncalf.”

I’d never seen Lozzie like this before. Even when we’d come to rescue her from this very castle, when she’d been running around down there in the cavernous depths below, barefoot, abused, with blood in her teeth, she’d still retained her bouncy humour, as inappropriate as it had seemed at the time. But now all her coping mechanisms had fallen away. She’d been reduced to lashing out in panic.

Because, in a way, Tenny was her baby.

“Zheng could go fetch her,” Raine was saying. “She’d be fastest.”

“Don’t be an idiot,” Evelyn snapped. “Zheng terrifies her, she’ll run off.”

“The puppy can make her own way back,” Zheng purred.

“No!” Lozzie yelled. “I’ll go, I’ll go, it’s my fault, it’s all my-”

“It’s not, stop saying that,” Evelyn snapped at her. Lozzie recoiled.

“Lozzie,” I said, and the soft certainty in my voice stilled her panic. She stared at me with red-rimmed eyes. “You need to stay up here.”

“But, Heather-”

“You need to stay here and stay at that window so Tenny knows we’re coming down to fetch her,” I continued, feeling myself pulling together inside, like bootlaces tightening around my mind. “You stay here, keep calling to her, keep her from panicking. Praem, you’re going to stay with Lozzie.”

“Why her?” Evelyn snapped. “I’m not sitting this out, I need to look at those-”

“Stop,” I said, calm and soft. “Evelyn, Raine, Zheng, and me, we go find the front door and bring Tenny back up here.”

“Heather, hey,” Raine started to say. “I don’t want you in harm’s way-”

“Somebody needs to hug Tenny,” I said, sighed, and resisted the urge to squeeze the bridge of my nose. “And hyperdimensional mathematics is always our trump card. Isn’t it?”

 Raine opened her mouth, then closed it and pulled a rueful smile.

 “Good,” I carried on. “You wouldn’t let me go down there without you, so you’re coming. Zheng is our best bet at fighting off anything or anyone inside the castle, and Evelyn knows how to deal with any magical traps. Don’t question me please, we need to do this quickly, and there’s no time to call Twil right now.”

“Right you are, boss,” Raine said. From anybody else, in any other tone of voice, it would have been mockery. Raine meant it.

“Praem, please would you fetch the torch from the kitchen, the big one?” I asked. “Give it to Lozzie so she can shine it through the fog.”

Raine cleared her throat. “Tactical question. What if this is a trap to draw us away from the gateway?”

“We use the same plan as for Carcosa,” Evelyn jumped in. “My spider-servitors hold the gateway from the other side. Praem can manhandle Lozzie back through if anything comes this way.”

“I’ll brain them!” Lozzie declared, genuinely angry at this prospect. “With the torch!”

“A disappointing errand, shaman,” Zheng rumbled. “The puppy can find her own way back up.”

I shot a frown up at Zheng’s disinterest. “Nobody gets left behind. That includes you too.” I didn’t need to raise my voice. “I thought you would have learnt that by now.”

Zheng stared at me, then shrugged herself into an easy grin, showing all her sharp teeth. “Then we hunt, shaman. In this rat warren? Nothing stands a chance. Boring.”

==

Zheng went first – ‘taking point’ as Raine called it – striding ten paces ahead of us through the twisting, jinking, rotten-jade corridors of the fog-castle, looking for trouble.

Every few minutes she stopped and cocked her head to listen for sounds beyond the range of human hearing. Deep within the castle, the thick walls of pseudo-bone muffled the cacophony of hoots and grunts and animal calls from the streets outdoors, rendered them down into a ghostly background tease on the edge of one’s ears. Even the cosmic whale-song was deadened to an ethereal hint at the back of the mind.

Occasionally we passed near the outer walls and the mercy of open windows, once emerging onto a short stretch of exposed battlement, wreathed in a bank of fog so thick we couldn’t see the far end, let alone down to the ground below, but most of our hurried journey plunged through darkness. The cult’s source of local electricity – probably some kind of portable petrol generator – was long dead, and their strings of light bulbs did not necessarily follow a logical path down to the front door, but instead spread out through the inner passages of the castle like a sinus infection, rambling off in dead ends and trailing to nothing on unpromising spurs. Zheng’s back rolled and flexed in the light from Raine’s handheld torch, as Evelyn and I stuck close behind.

Unfortunately, Evelyn’s assumption was incorrect. Zheng did not recall the inner layout of the castle.

“Memory as a slave is no simple thing, wizard,” she explained. “Emotional details remain strong. Others, not so much.”

We could have taken the route Lozzie and I had used to reach the throne room, descended through the shaft cut into the bowels of the castle, down to the vast cavernous darkness and the single distant star in the void below, crossed the metal walkways over the remains of the Outsider which had created this sub-dimensional space. In theory it wouldn’t be too hard, and we could ascend back to near the entrance hall. But Lozzie and I both vetoed the idea. Without Lozzie with us, passing over that thing was too risky for an unprotected human mind.

Evelyn drew a map as we went, scribbling at a pad balanced on one forearm. She slapped blank post-it notes on the walls at every junction, a classic paper trail. I didn’t envy her the task, and more than once I caught her shuddering in disgust as her fingers grazed the dead grey-jade substance, undeniably organic despite appearances.

“If there was anybody here in force, we’d know,” Raine whispered into the dark. “This place echoes like a bitch. But that doesn’t rule out one or two people, stealthy and careful.”

“Or a zombie or two that survived,” Evelyn muttered under her breath.

“Then let us find them,” Zheng said, loud and uncaring, her voice echoing down the twisty little passages. “Come out, little things! Come oooouuuut!”

Evelyn winced. Raine pulled a pained grin.

Zheng’s cry trailed off, bouncing down into the depths. She turned and grinned at us over her shoulder, shrugging. “See? Nothing.”

“Good,” I said. “Now keep moving.”

For me this journey was both the retreading and exorcism of a nightmare. When I’d first squirmed and stumbled and fled through these passages and dark empty rooms, I’d been alone, cut off from my friends, pursued by monsters, and that misadventure had culminated in the horror that lay below the castle, the corpses of mutated children, capture, and murder. Now I strode the opposite way, accompanied by power.

We passed a couple of older corpses. A zombie who’d died in the fighting, head pulled off by Twil, and the body of a middle-aged man slumped against a wall. Both were all skin and bone, the unnatural foggy air of this alien dimension having mummified them inside their own leathery skin. The man’s hands had been reduced to claws, still wrapped tight around the handle of a heavy cattle-prod.

“At least I don’t need to shoot anybody this time,” Raine whispered. She had her gun out as we crept through the darkness, pointed carefully at the ground, safety on.

“Don’t jinx us,” Evelyn said.

“Yes, let’s not count our chickens,” I whispered back.

When we finally reached the wide open space of the entrance hall, the relief came as a palpable, physical sensation, a loosening of back muscles, a weakness in my knees. Raine actually sighed, then laughed and shook her head at herself. Foggy light streamed in through the massive open metal doors at the front, still wedged at the same angle we’d left them when we’d forced our way in, months ago. We emerged on the overlooking balcony, right in front of the sweeping staircase.

The floor below was littered with the corpses of defeated zombies, beheaded, torn in two, bullet wounds through the skulls. All of them were dessicated and dry, skin sunken around the bones, most of their eyes open and shrivelled in death. They hadn’t rotted properly, no smell of spoilt meat in the air. I stared, confused for a moment, before I realised this was the aftermath of our fight.

“Well, I remember this place,” Raine said, then squeezed my shoulder. “Heather?”

“I uh … ” I swallowed. “Haven’t actually seen this before.”

I’d been unconscious when we’d passed through here on our way out, carried on Raine’s back.

“The laangren did all this?” Zheng asked, an appreciative smile on her face. She laughed low in her throat. “I have underestimated her.”

“Not all of it,” Evelyn snapped. “Hurry up, she’ll be just beyond the doors.”

“Try not to look down, Heather,” Raine murmured for my ears alone. She tucked the torch away and took my hand. “Just one foot in front of the other. Here, I’ll lead.”

“Yes, yes, of course,” I managed, taking a deep breath. “We need to get to Tenny, we’re almost there.”

We hurried down the steps and across the killing field. I tried not to think about it, but I failed – all of these zombies had been homeless people, kidnapped by the Sharrowford Cult, minds hollowed out and replaced with demons.

“They should be buried,” I whispered, a lump in my throat. “We should … we should do something. A- marker … or let their families … or … ”

“Maybe we can,” Raine whispered, and squeezed my hand.

Zheng strode on without a care. Evelyn put a hand over her mouth and tried to conceal her shaking, and I decided to pretend I hadn’t noticed, leave her with some dignity intact. We reached the huge metal front door and Zheng slipped out first, followed by the rest of us, out into the clinging chill fog.

To my incredible relief, Tenny was right where we’d left her, a little black and white figure huddled near the base of the hill, obscured by the drifting fog, arms wrapped around herself, tentacles bristling like spines.

Unfortunately, everything else was right where we’d left it too.

It was like standing on the precipice of a gigantic tidal pool.

Beyond the protection of the castle walls, exposed to the writhing life in the copied streets and the mountains of the squid-moons overhead, we mere humans faltered in our tracks. Evelyn and Raine both stopped, Raine’s hand anchoring me even as I tried to pull forward. Evelyn subconsciously stepped closer to Raine, staring out at the indistinct shapes in the foggy deep.

I was more used to this, after ten years of Outside dreams, ten years of Slipping, but even I felt a drop in the pit of my stomach at the prospect of walking down that hill.

Thirty or so meters from the base of Castle Hill rose the copied streets of a fake Sharrowford, cast in dead grey jade. The buildings themselves were bad enough, familiar shapes made uncanny, but the last time we’d been down here they had not been infested. Among the streets and behind the houses and on the roofs writhed and slithered and hopped and jerked such a multitude of strange life, like sea creatures squeezed into the cracks in the ocean floor. Multi-jointed chitinous arms rose above the rooftops, terminating in crab-claws and tendril feelers and tiny lamprey-eel mouths. Huge barnacle-things made of metal slid slowly through the streets in herds, leaving trails of thick slime behind. Stilt-legged walkers strode in the middle distance, picking their way carefully over the houses. Jellyfish tendrils dangled downward to catch unwary prey. Shelled amalgamations scuttled in the shadows, snapping at each other with their claws. Soft, squishy, white-fleshed mollusk things flitted behind the buildings as if slipping through water.

And above it all, the gargantuan tentacles of the squid-moons drifted back and forth in an endless dance.

Zheng strode on a few steps, then stopped and turned when she realised we weren’t following. “Shaman?”

Down the hill, Tenny looked up. She must have seen us. A fluttery trilling noise added itself to the cacophony of sound from the streets. Her tentacles waved, and she hopped up the hill toward us.

“Tenny! Stay!” Lozzie’s voice called from somewhere very high up, rendered ghostly in the fog.

“Carcosa will be worse,” I said.

“W-what?” Evelyn muttered, blinking at me.

“Carcosa will be worse,” I repeated, then swallowed.

“You’re not … unsettled?” she asked.

Raine took a long, deep breath, and nodded once. “Real pea souper out here, hey?” She pulled a jaunty grin. “Just gotta wade into it.”

Evelyn looked at her like she was mad. She was, sort of.

“Of course I’m unsettled, I have no idea how Raine does it,” I said to Evelyn, and managed a small, jittery smile. “But you just have to focus on what you’re here to do, try to ignore all the … things, things bigger than you. Things you can’t take in. Keep them at the edge of your mind. It’s what I always tried to do.”

Evelyn swallowed again, then nodded as well. She tilted her chin up and set her shoulders. “I do need to look at those bodies. Waste to come all this way otherwise.”

“Monkeys,” Zheng muttered, shaking her head.

“You’re telling me you’d jump into that?” Evelyn hissed at her, gesturing at the roil of alien life out in the streets. “I don’t believe you. Not even you, you bloody great oaf.”

Zheng barked a single laugh. “They would flee before I could get started.”

“Tenny!” I called out as we finally hurried ahead.

She came trotting out of the fog to meet us halfway, tentacles all a-whirl. She barrelled into me and almost knocked me off my feet, but I held on and hugged her around the shoulders.

“Heath- Heath— Heath!”

“Yes, yes, it’s okay, it’s okay. It’s okay Tenny, we’re all here.” I held on tight. Hugging Tenny was a uniquely disquieting experience, because part of my mind told me I was holding a sack of writhing serpents, all muscle trying to clamp itself around me, no bones beneath her skin. Her tentacles joined in too, wrapping around to squeeze me tight. I let out a little ‘oof’ of air squeezed out of my lungs, my face squished against her fur. “Not so hard Tenny, ease down, please.”

“Heather!” she trilled.

Ahead of us, Raine held up her torch to the fog. She clicked it on and off three times, in the rough direction of the apex of the castle. Our pre-arranged signal for Lozzie. We all watched as an answering point of light in the high fog flickered on and off. Raine nodded and put the torch away. “Right, that’ll be them heading back inside.”

“Inside?” Tenny buzzed, blinking big black eyes at Raine. “Back inside? Inside?”

“Not yet,” Evelyn said.

She glanced further down the hill, at the corpses and the magic circle. They lay only a dozen meters or so away now. The circle was a single enclosure, wrapped in words that looked like Arabic. A couple of knives and a plastic food tray full of dried blood sat on the floor next to it, along with some crimson-stained paintbrushes and the objects Tenny had pulled from the dead man’s pockets.

The corpse in the circle was indeed a man, perhaps in his mid twenties. Tall, with wide shoulders and a barrel chest, muscled but not like a bodybuilder. He wore thick jeans and a raincoat, a fisherman’s jumper on underneath that. Curly dark hair formed a corona about his head, and like every other corpse in this place, he’d not rotted properly. He looked a little dry and pinched, but that was all.

His face seemed intensely peaceful in death, as if he’d died in a moment of utter conviction.

It made my skin crawl.

“Inside?” Tenny repeated.

“Not just yet, Tenny,” I said. “We need to look at the dead people.”

“Dead,” she said.

“Old blood,” Zheng grunted, and nodded beyond the dead man, at the bloody, pulped mess of the second corpse. I could only sneak a glance before feeling sick. Mashed meat, pounded into the ground, the jade grey cracked with incredible force beneath the spars of bone and scraps of clothing, as if the unlucky victim had been hit with a wrecking ball.

None of us said it out loud, but we all glanced up, at the drifting tentacles of the nearest squid moon.

“You think … ?” Evelyn let it trail off.

“No, wizard,” Zheng purred. “It doesn’t care. Only for the mooncalf.”

“You know that for a fact?” Evelyn asked. Zheng shrugged.

“Maybe,” Raine said, trying to sound light, and failing for once. “Maybe not. Ten minutes, max, then we get back inside.”

“Agreed,” Evelyn answered, then looked at Tenny. “Does she have the notebook still? Give it here.”

“Tenny? Do you have the notebook?” I asked, still half-wrapped in a hug by her tentacles and one arm. “Please, give it to auntie Evee.”

“Auntie Evee,” Tenny trilled. A tentacle ventured out from behind her body, still clutching the spiral-bound notepad. Evelyn took it gingerly, as if accepting a treat from the mouth of a dog. The tentacle had left tiny needle-point teeth marks in the cover.

“What’s in it?” Raine asked, her eyes doing a circuit of the fog around us, her handgun still out, pointed low.

Evelyn flipped through the pages, scanning them quickly. She shook her head. “I don’t know. Not in English. Poetry, I think, lots of lines crossed out. A poet’s private composition book, this isn’t important, let’s get a look at the bod-” she flipped another page and stopped dead. The colour drained from her face.

“Evee?” I said, a spike of panic in my chest. “Evelyn?”

“What?” Raine glanced round at the tone in my voice.

Evelyn slammed the notebook shut, eyes wide, shaking – and shot a look of cold fury at the corpse lying in the circle.

“Evee? Evee, what is it?” I let go of Tenny with one hand and reached out. Evelyn growled her frustration and flipped the notebook open again, holding it up for all to see.

I choked down a scream.

It was too real. I took several seconds to realise it was drawn in ballpoint pen.

The work of a master, real enough to make my heartbeat race and my guts clench up. Cold sweat broke out on my back, and Tenny must have sensed my fear because she squeezed me tighter, letting out little throaty trilling sounds of sympathetic alarm.

The artist had used nothing but black ink, yet had somehow managed to vary the shading and pressure by such precise degrees as to produce reality, right there on the page. He – assuming it had belonged to the dead man on the ground – had even incorporated the ruled notebook lines into the picture, creating an illusion of space and depth so believable that one’s mind was tricked for a few heart-stopping seconds.

Shadowed depths of a static grey sky, the great lid peeled all the way back, the void inside.

It was the Eye.

“Oh God.”

“Heather, hey,” Raine took my shoulder. “It’s a drawing, okay? It’s a picture, it’s … fucking weird-ass shit, Goddamn,” Raine swore, then forced a grin. “It’s a drawing, that’s all.”

I shook my head, numb. Zheng rumbled, unimpressed. Tenny actually squeaked.

Evelyn brandished the notepad, blazing with fury, and swept an arm wide at the corpse and the circle. “I am not falling for this bullshit a second time!”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

by this art you may contemplate – 10.1

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Knowledge takes two paths.

The first is the eureka moment, the leap of discovery, the flash of a magic-eye picture resolving into a leaping dolphin. Archimedes in his bathtub, Newton under the apple tree, the elegant terror of the splitting atom. Oft romanticised but rarely experienced, the domain of ‘great man’ theory and a history of thought with time for only the brightest of shining landmarks.

The second kind is boring and slow, but we owe it so much more. Methodical categorisation. Repeated experiments. Close reading. Stubborn, bull-headed, constant investigation that grinds along week after week, month after month, year on year, down the centuries from the first pre-human ape bashing a rock to make a sharp edge. The unsung army of semi-literate chroniclers preserving Pythagoras and Aristotle from bookworm and mildew; postgraduate students uncredited by the papers their grunt-work makes possible; drug trial volunteers paid a few hundred pounds to run the biochemical gauntlet.

Or me, giving myself nosebleeds and headaches and vomiting in a bucket, and still getting nowhere.

We didn’t have years; Maisie didn’t have years. She had a few months.

“Again,” I croaked.

Evelyn reached for the television’s on button, but Raine stopped her with a gesture.

“I said, again.”

“Heather?” Raine leaned down and around in an effort to catch my gaze, one hand on my shoulder. I refused to look. If I met her eyes I’d lose my nerve. “Heather, you’ve done enough for one day, you’re shaking. Come on, time for a break.”

“Again, switch it back on. Evee, switch it back on.”

Evelyn hesitated, looked to Raine instead of me.

“I’m fine,” I hissed. “I’m in control. I haven’t been sick in over a week.” I gestured with irritation at the empty sick bucket next to my chair, the one Raine still insisted on for every session. “I can do this, I’m doing fine, I want to do another shape. I can do it. I can.”

“And I believe you,” Raine said. “But you’re also thirty minutes past the time you promised to stop, and when you stand up you’re gonna fall over, vomit or no vomit. You’re spent, Heather. Time to stop.”

I grit my teeth, gripped the pencil so tight it creaked in my hand, arm shaking with effort. Raine was right. I wasn’t angry with her, I was frustrated by my own weakness, my inability to go faster, to make greater sense of any of this. Progress, every day, yes, but toward what end? What use was any of this? I had to trust gut instinct and hope, and that was thin gruel.

“Another- another line, another few-” I jabbed at the notebook on the table in front of me. “Just let me-”

“You’re also about to bleed on your notes,” Raine said.

“What?” I scrubbed at my nose, tutted as my hand came away bloody – and glanced down. A mistake.

The notebook page I’d been working on for the last two hours was three-quarters full of tiny numbers and letters, one long equation that slid in behind my optic nerve and jabbed spears of pain right through to the back of my skull. Had to squeeze my eyes shut, head spinning, stomach threatening rebellion. Hissed through my teeth.

Raine knew the drill. She rubbed the back of my neck and head, raked her fingers through my hair, kept me here in the physical, grounded me.

I pictured her boobs, because boobs beats hyperdimensional mathematics. Another thing I’d learnt, more useful than anything in the notes. Boobs are invincible. Slow, deep breaths. Don’t vomit. Think about boobs. Not sitting here in this chair, not in Evelyn’s workshop, not pulling the secrets of creation from a monster in a plastic washing up tub. Not here. Not here. Boobs. Boobs.

“Alright, I’m with Raine,” Evelyn grumbled, sliding her chair back. “That’s the second time this session, we’re done for the day.”

“I can do more,” I mumbled.

“You’re literally dripping with sweat,” Raine said, not unkindly.

“Fine!” I snapped, pulled myself out of her hands, and grabbed the exercise bottle on the table. I yanked up the no-spill tab with my teeth and sucked down a mouthful of lukewarm cherry-flavoured energy drink. Keep my electrolytes up. Raine’s idea. I thumped the bottle back down. “Is that enough?”

“Not even close, boss, no can do. Negotiations start from a bath and a meal first.”

“Mister Squiddy will be in further residence tomorrow,” another voice added itself to the chorus of sensible suggestions, Praem chiming in from the back of the workshop.

“Yeah,” Raine said. “Not like he’s going anywhere.”

‘Mister Squiddy’ – as Praem had taken to calling our uninvited guest, much to Evelyn’s silent disapproval – was indeed not about to run off anywhere, not with the level of luxury he now enjoyed.

As soon as my little project had blossomed, we’d relocated him from the floor into a extra-large plastic bowl Raine had picked up from Homebase. I believe it was intended for mixing paint. That operation had taken hours, a masterclass in avoiding supernatural contamination or exposure, and had necessitated the drawing of several different magic circles to safely move the crumbling clay squid-thing.

He – and I did think of it as a he, because Praem kept calling it Mister – now wallowed in a half-inch of water and a slippery mess of brown smeared up the sides of the tub. Occasionally a tentacle would slop over to the bucket of fresh wet clay next to it, dipping in and scooping more matter to smear over his lashing, writhing form.

The amount of clay was carefully measured. We didn’t want him actually growing any larger.

Mister Squiddy still looked like a rotting sheet draped over a bunch of squid, but no longer crumbling and dying. Our attentions had ensured it would live, for whatever definition of life that thing possessed, and also ensured that the workshop was filled with the faint sounds of slippery wet clay in constant motion.

“That’s not the point,” I mumbled to myself.

“I know,” Raine leaned in and whispered. “But you’re spent for now. You gotta rest, Heather.”

I sniffed hard, kept the tears of frustration inside.

“I hate that we’re keeping this thing alive,” Evelyn said with a huff, staring at the rotting squid mass. “Have I mentioned that? I believe I’ve mentioned that. I have right of revenge on this thing, surely. Have I mentioned that?”

“Once or twice,” Raine said with a smirk, straightening up, hands on my shoulders. “Can’t rightly recall.”

I didn’t see the humour, not right now. I was disgusted at myself, at my weakness. Every minute I sat here in a comfortable room with my lover and my friends safe at my side was another minute Maisie faded away to nothing in Wonderland. Even if I couldn’t see the bigger picture, couldn’t see how to apply anything I was learning, I had to keep going. Surely I’d find some application. If it shaved years off my life, so be it.

A stubborn, silly, sly part of me uncoiled an appendage that didn’t really exist, not yet, not as flesh or pneuma-somatic matter, only illusion and mental reinforcement and a trick of the senses.

One single tentacle selected from my phantom limbs, the highest on the left side of my hips. I ran through the mental exercises quickly, used to them now, pictured the pale smooth white flesh, the rainbow bioluminesence strobing beneath the surface. I imagined the veins and capillaries and nerve endings, the fat and the delicate tissues, built the limb up from first principles.

Real muscles bunched and contracted inside my torso, tendons prepared to take illusory weight. My bruises were a faint discolouration now, but an echo of the pain remained.

My tentacle reached for the television’s on button.

“Hey, Heather, not now,” Raine said.

I flinched and looked up at her, blinking in confusion, my mental construct falling apart and back into mere phantom-limb sensation. “How did you- you- Raine, what- how could you tell? I wasn’t- I-”

“S’cute when you concentrate so hard.”

I blushed terribly, embarrassed at being caught, mortified at the absurdity; the imaginary tentacle couldn’t even touch anything.

“What?” Evelyn frowned. “She was doing the visualisation thing again? Heather? You can’t even touch anything with that, you-”

“I know!” I blurted out, hiding behind my own hand, face burning. My forehead was sticky with sweat. “I know, I just … it just came naturally.”

Evelyn and Raine looked at each other. I put my face on the table and covered my head with my arms.

“Hey, hey, Heather,” Raine said with a laugh in her voice. She took me by the shoulders, rubbing hard. “That’s great, that’s a good sign. Means you’re getting used to it. Isn’t that the whole point? Your self-suggestion jazz is working.”

“Doesn’t make it any less embarrassing,” I muttered into the table.

“It’s not embarrassing. It’s cool. You’re cool.”

I struggled up off the table and stared at the dead, blank television screen again. I sighed and cast a final shot. “Five more minutes. Then I’ll stop.”

“Lozzie needs her dose of medicinal weirdness tonight, if we’re gonna pull the big day off tomorrow, doesn’t she?” Raine asked. “You keep this up, you’re gonna be too tired to go with her. Don’t want her to go through without you, right?”

“It’s not a ‘big day’,” Evelyn huffed. “Stop calling it that. It’s an experiment, that’s all.”

Raine raised her fingers from my shoulders in a gesture of easy surrender. “Lozzie’s still gotta go for some castle-time though. She wants to take Tenny along this time, too.”

“She what?” I tried to turn in the chair. “Oh no. No no no. I’m vetoing that. Where is she? I need to talk to her.”

“I thought you wanted five more minutes?” Evelyn asked.

“I … I don’t- … um.”

“Well, you’re not getting it. You’ve had too much.” Evelyn stood up, massaging her hip, wincing softly as her walking stick took her weight. “I’m cutting you off.”

“Last call, chucking out time,” Raine announced.

Evelyn did not laugh. She fixed me with a stare that I couldn’t ignore. “Don’t let this become an addiction.”

“It’s not. It’s not as if I’ll keep doing this once these are complete.” I picked up the pad of hyperdimensional mathematics and waved it vaguely in the air. “I don’t enjoy this, Evee.”

“Can they ever be complete? At what point will you have enough?”

“When I can out-think the Eye.”

She didn’t have anything to say to that. Neither did Raine, focused on rubbing my shoulders and smoothing my sweat-soaked hair out of my face. Evelyn held my gaze for a few moments, then sighed and looked away.

“Either I warn you off because I’m your friend, or I egg you on because this presents an unmatched opportunity.” She tapped the head of her walking stick with her fingernails, then shrugged. “You still need to rest, regardless of what motivation you want me to apply to you.” She held out a hand for the notes. “Let me look through those again, see how much I need to transcribe.”

“Good luck.” I passed her the notes, but when she took the heavy black notebook I held on a moment too long. Evelyn raised an eyebrow at me before I finally let go, surprised at myself, drawing my hand back and rubbing at my wrist. “Sorry,” I muttered. “It’s silly, you and your family have looked after much older books, for much longer. Of course it’s safe with you.”

“Mmm.” Evelyn stared at me with a curious frown, then flipped the notebook open and leafed through.

I was almost jealous of the way she could so easily look over those figures, my looping scrawl, often degenerating into chicken-scratch and spiderweb in the most difficult moments, page after page after page of it. We had two more notebooks upstairs, filled from cover to cover, tucked away in a safe in the study, plus Evelyn’s carefully transcribed versions of my more illegible parts. I’d filled half of this most recent notebook in only the last four days. Evelyn scanned my work unassaulted by icepick headaches or the creeping clutch of nausea.

“In the wrong hands, this would be just as dangerous as Inprencibilis Vermis,” she said. “As anything in my collection.”

“You mean you’re starting to understand it?”

Evelyn glanced up at me and laughed once, a harsh bark. “Not head nor tail, but that doesn’t mean others wouldn’t. We already know you’re not the only person in the world who understands hyperdimensional mathematics.”

“Lozzie’s not quite the same though.”

“She’s just bad at maths,” Evelyn said, snapping the book shut with one hand. “This goes in the box until next time.”

I nodded, sagging inside. This was all so slow, and I had no guarantee that any of it would work. Not for the first time, I asked myself why I was doing this.

Because I had no other leads.

I’d followed Maisie’s advice and gathered my friends, but now what? Even with this breakthrough, with all this technique I was gathering, how could I possibly fight the Eye? I could barely even think about what I was putting down on paper without being sick, it didn’t matter how much of it I could learn unless I could forge it into something useful, something greater, something less fragile than little old me, physical or abyssal.

No idea where to start. Just had to have faith.

Raine must have felt the lurking despair running beneath my skin, because suddenly she squeezed a little too hard, enough to draw an unexpected grunt from me. “Ahhh, Raine.”

“Too hard?”

“No … no, do that again. Left shoulder, please.”

“You’re pushing yourself too hard,” she murmured. “What would Zheng say?”

“She’d probably probably tell me to keep going, then carry me to bed when I pass out.”

“You want me to carry you to bed?” Raine asked. Evelyn sighed and rolled her eyes and stepped out with the notebook tucked under one arm. She clacked through the kitchen, out into the front room, and creaked up the stairs.

I didn’t answer, too focused on the mental exercise of rebuilding my tentacle. These weeks of practice had made it habit now, the slow process of picturing muscle and tendon, skin and fat, mentally counting the imaginary anchors inside my own body, preparing their creation in hyperdimensional mathematics – but not executing, not yet, by pain of most dread promises to my friends. I saw it in my mind’s eye by force of self-suggestion, a solid pale white appendage that uncoiled from my flank and stretched out into the air.

“Doing it again, huh?” Raine asked softly.

“Mmhmm. It’s getting easier every time.”

“Wanna slap me in the face with it?”

I turned in my seat and stared at her, unsure if I’d heard correctly. Raine concealed her amusement well. She fought the smile for several long seconds, and then lost the battle all at once. I sighed.

“What?” she asked, grinning like a loon. “Thought I’d developed a fascinating and dangerous new fetish?”

“I hope not.”

“Come on, practice! It’s not like you can actually hit me with it. Just try it out.”

“I’d … I don’t know … not right now.” I looked down and let my concentration wander, forgot the tentacle again. “But thank you.”

“Hey, you can try out your tentacles on me any which way.”

This time she didn’t even bother to hide the joke. I rolled my eyes as Raine laughed, but inside I flushed with slow-burning relief, the kind she’d been pampering me with. The dirty jokes that lifted my defeatism, the pats on the bottom and the sudden unexpected hands up my tshirt that dragged me back into my body, the kisses that reminded me what mattered, they all helped more than I could express, and Raine had been very liberal with her attention these last three weeks.

Between hyperdimensional mathematics and building myself an extra limb via self-hypnosis, it was a minor miracle I wasn’t losing my mind yet. Raine kept me sane.

“Let’s get you in the shower, yeah?” she said, helping me out of the chair. My legs wobbled and I held her hand for support. She slipped her other arm around my waist and held on tight as I leaned into her. “I think you’ve earned some special attention.”

“Special attention,” Praem echoed.

Raine laughed. “You keep your ears to yourself.”

My mind made several leaps of free association. Perhaps it was the mental exhaustion, or perhaps I was just getting bold – or lazy.

“Where is Zheng, anyway?” I asked. “Wasn’t she here this morning? I thought she was watching.”

“Went hunting,” Raine answered. “Said she’d be back this evening, in time for Lozzie’s little outing. Wanna cook her catch again?”

I wrinkled my nose. “Only if it’s pheasant or rabbit. No squirrels. And absolutely no badger. In fact, I need to tell her to stop killing badger at all, it’s upsetting.”

“Hey, squirrels cooked properly are perfectly safe.”

“They’re also disgusting.”

“At least she’s helping with the food budget.”

Zheng had spent the last three weeks living like a huge semi-domesticated cat, sleeping all over the house in different spots every night, spending every second day out in the woods, hunting game or eating wildlife. I never knew if she was going to be around, but Raine seemed to. Either they were coordinating behind my back, or Raine was watching her every move like a hawk. I didn’t know which possibility was worse.

Raine walked me out of the workshop and into the kitchen. My eyes settled on the chessboard on the kitchen table, the pieces frozen mid-game.

“Gonna make a move?” Raine asked.

“Mmmm … maybe later.”

“She’s close to figuring this one out, you know. She might beat you this time.”

“Perhaps I should let her.” I sighed. “No, she’d know that right away, wouldn’t she?”

Zheng had yet to take a single game off me, and I wasn’t exactly a very good chess player. Strategy was not her strong point, though she occasionally made bold plays that required serious thought. The game had been Evelyn’s idea, to everyone’s surprise. I suspected she was trying to domesticate the giant zombie. Zheng either didn’t care or hadn’t caught on, and took me up on the challenge. She was a good loser, sporting, amused – against me, at least.

Praem moved to follow us out of the workshop. At the threshold she turned on her heel with a little click and performed what was becoming her usual routine, one that Evelyn had told her to stop doing.

“Stay,” she said out loud, to the blob of clay rolling and slurping in a plastic tub.

I glanced back, over the shoulder of Praem’s maid uniform, past the hateful squirming mass of imitation squid, beyond the table with the old CRT television.

Past all of it, on the back wall, the gateway mandala waited for Evelyn’s final touches.

The massive fan-shaped design surrounded the blank doorway shape in the middle. For a moment it seemed to stare back at me like an empty eyeball. It was almost ready, all the other additions laid out on temporary paper, held in place with masking tape so we could switch them back and forth. In a few hours we’d strip them off and replace them with the necessary marks to take us back to the cult’s castle again, but then tomorrow loomed.

Tomorrow, we were going to perform an experiment. And for that, we were going back to the library of Carcosa.

==

Three weeks had passed since our woodland outing and Tenny’s messy, physical rebirth. Three weeks since my midnight notion had borne fruit.

The thing from the Sharrowford Cult’s trap in Glasswick tower, the shard of Outsider thought which had been lodged in Alexander’s corpse like a jungle booby-trap, the Eye’s minion sent to cripple us – whatever it really was, it contained a treasure trove of secrets.

“As long as it’s not Pandora’s box,” Evelyn had said, that night.

The shapes it was displaying on the television screen were a form of mathematical notation, principles crystallised in the relations between a thousand surfaces and angles. A language of maths dreamed up by an alien with a hundred eyes and a thousand fists. Nobody but I could see that, of course, because nobody had the actual math with which to read them.

It hurt, of course. I figured it out, ripped a principle from one of the abstract shapes, transcribed it onto a sheet of paper with shaking hands as my eyes burned and my nose leaked blood. An eighth of a single puzzle piece in a billion-piece pattern.

But I recognised it. Hyperdimensional mathematics.

“You understand what this means?” I brandished the piece of paper at Evelyn, shaking with cold sweat. In retrospect I must have looked like I’d lost my mind. “Evee, it thinks in hyperdimensional math, that’s what it’s showing us. I-I know this stuff, I look at it and I know it already!”

“Heather, I understand your interest, I really do,” Evelyn told me. “But stop. Think.”

“Ahh?”

“It’s an obvious trap. Think. Put that- put that pencil down, you’re going to put your own eye out. Look, it can’t escape that body, can’t cross the air-gap, can’t use the television to do anything except communicate, and it’s chosen to communicate hyperdimensional math right into your brain, you-”

“It isn’t- guh.”

I choked a little, had to swallow and wet my lips. Praem brought me a glass of water, and Zheng had opened her eyes again, watching us from the kitchen with the interested silence of a big cat observing curious prey.

Evelyn waited for me to recover. I wiped my mouth on the back of my hand, scrubbed at my nosebleed, and gestured at the piece of paper again, at the mass of figures I’d scrawled.

“It isn’t anything new,” I explained, but had to avert my eyes before the thoughts made me nauseous again. “These are principles and equations I already know, I think. Things I’ve already been … taught. But it’s easier this way. Like when you already know something but somebody else explains it better than you can. It’s so much clearer. Evee, it makes sense to me already, but it’s … easier.”

I stared at the television screen again, at the multicoloured abstract shapes moving within, and it seemed as if I gazed not upon a curved surface of glass, or a three-dimensional representation within, but into an actual space that existed inside the television, a window into some other universe in which all our physical laws were represented in some alien language of space and angle and colour.

The shifting shapes looked like something a computer might generate, part of a model of a hurricane or a tidal wave or an explosion, but moving at a hundredth of the speed, each piece rotating with aching slowness. Each separate shape had dozens upon dozens of sides and angles, and each angle and side corresponded to every other side and angle to reveal a molten-hot piece of hyperdimensional mathematics. If I concentrated – and held onto the contents of my stomach – I could write it down.

Much easier than dredging my soul directly for the same information.

Examining my own mind was a nightmare, the things that lurked at the bottom of my subconscious always caught me with barbed hooks of pain, the lessons from the Eye like boiling tar in my brain. But this? This I could drag from another’s thoughts, and render down on paper.

“Heather. Heather!”

“Shaman.”

“Heather.”

It took all three voices – Evelyn, Zheng, and Praem – to snap me back  to myself. I scrubbed at my face, realised my nosebleed had restarted, my head pounding, my limbs shaking, a sickness growing in my belly.

“That doesn’t mean it couldn’t still be a trap,” Evelyn said. “A crude one, improvised, yes, but a trap all the same … Heather? Are you alright?”

“No.”

I almost fell out of the chair that first time. Zheng was fastest on her feet, into the workshop and catching me before my head hit the ground, strong arms around my back and belly as she hoisted me back into the chair.

Just exhaustion, excitement, and the natural drain of hyperdimensional mathematics, even if I was only interpreting rather than executing. A glass of water and a good sit and five minutes later I felt ready to try again.

“I’ve been wracking my brain for months about how to do this,” I said, looking between a frowning Evelyn and a towering Zheng. “How on earth I’m supposed to fight the Eye, wrestle Maisie from it when even the simplest thing makes me bleed and pass out. This is the first lead I’ve had, the first … source! I have to try, I have to know what’s in there.”

“The wizard may be right, shaman,” Zheng had rumbled, one surprisingly gentle hand resting atop my head like I was a small child. “It may be a trap. Do not ignore uncomfortable potentials.”

“I don’t care if it’s a trap!” I snapped at her. “If it is, that only means I have to beat it. There’s no other choice.”

Zheng stared, then broke into a dark smile. “Shaman.”

“And I … ” I swallowed, couldn’t say why yet, a mad notion surfacing in my mind. “I don’t think it’s a trap.”

Evelyn slid an old notebook across the table, toward me. Her hand lingered on it, and a strange look lingered in her eyes as she watched me – I recognised it instantly, but this time I welcomed it, because it meant she was going to back me up.

She looked at me with hunger.

“Try again then,” she said. “Let’s verify this works.”

“Then bed,” Praem had intoned.

“Yes,” I sighed, not quite insane with hope just yet. “Once more, then I promise I’ll go to bed. I promise”

==

‘Once more’ had turned into a marathon session the following day, the first of many, during which I’d sat at the table and pulled secrets from the mind of a thing that very may well have been trying to corrupt me.

But it didn’t, and my suspicions grew.

Raine insisted I never do this alone. We almost had argument and I blamed myself for that, my hatred of my own weakness turning barbs outward on her. She settled it the end.

“Who’s going to save your sister if this thing cooks your brain?”

“I- Raine, that’s not- I-”

“No. I want to be there every time you dive into what it’s showing you, so I can pull you out by the scruff of your neck if I have to. And if you don’t like that, I can talk to Zheng and get her to enforce the rule instead.”

“She encouraged me, she-”

“We’re both supposed to be looking after you. And hey, apparently she’s bigger and scarier than me. Either I watch, or Zheng pulls you out of the chair.”

My acquiescence was more for the sake of keeping that conflict frozen, not any acknowledgement that what was I was doing might be dangerous.

We still couldn’t figure out what the other part of Mister Squiddy’s show meant – the writing on the wall of black bricks. It wasn’t any human language, at least not one that had survived the sands of time. But as three weeks passed, he showed it less and less, and focused more on the hyper-complex shapes. As if responding to me.

The more of the shapes I interpreted, the more pages I filled with obscure notation, the more I began to realise that I didn’t know all of this. At first each fragment of equation had seemed familiar, in the manner a scent might tease out a half-forgotten memory. But as I dug deeper I found these equations were not only filling in gaps, drawing connections I was unaware of, but were exercising the parts of my mind left bruised and bloody by the trip to the abyss. Hyperdimensional mathematics became less like tonguing the socket of a shattered tooth.

“Perhaps it was sent for me, not Evee.”

“The Eye gave you homework?” Raine laughed.

“Don’t joke about that,” Evelyn had grumbled. “Something this size could never contain the totality of the Eye’s thoughts. It’s a carrier with leftover instructions. Heather, that’s what you’re re-purposing. That’s all.”

“Yes, right, of course.” I’d swallowed, nodded, tried to believe. The Eye had made a second mistake, that was all. This wasn’t a miracle. It wasn’t intentional.

At least, I never let the opposite thought reach my lips. This creature had been deployed against us as weapon, lodged inside Alexander’s corpse, summoned by the Sharrowford Cult in their worship of the Eye. It had almost killed Evelyn.

But a little voice whispered to me.

This wouldn’t be the first time my twin sister had co-opted one of the Eye’s vectors, would it?

Her first message had been just as inscrutable, just as terrifying. The Messenger had been an alien thing. And this one hadn’t been noticed by anybody except us.

But this trap had sprung before I’d dived into the abyss. Surely Maisie would have told me if this was her doing, wouldn’t she? Then again, she’d had so little energy left to communicate, she may not have been able to. She’d expended everything she had to convince me to return to my body. Maybe she’d slipped this in, piggybacking information via the eye’s minion.

The possibility at me up inside. Deny as I might, in my secret heart I treated it as a gift, from Maisie.

==

With the kind of clarity that comes from deep and careful consideration of an astoundingly stupid plan, we’d decided not to commit terrorism for the purpose of demolishing Glasswick tower.

We’d spent an awkward evening trying to come up with a safe way to confirm what Amy Stack had claimed – that Alexander’s corpse had been removed – but we kept running into the issue of more traps, or the building waking up and eating one of us as it had swallowed Zheng during our escape. None of us wanted to set foot inside, despite Raine’s laughing bravado.

“Praem is not going again, I won’t send her. Under no conditions,” Evelyn had said. “I won’t have her risked.”

“You’re going soft on her, Evee,” Raine teased.

“Yes, I am,” Evelyn deadpanned back.

Praem had said nothing to that.

Zheng solved the problem for us, overnight, on her own, without telling anybody first. I’d spent a very confused hour before bed wondering where my mobile phone had gone. She’d returned in the small hours of the morning, waiting triumphantly in the kitchen in her new trench-coat and boots, baggy ribbed sweater and long jeans. We’d bought her two changes of new clothes, and she insisted on this shapeless, baggy outfit as much as possible. I didn’t blame her. It made for a comfortable hug.

“Zheng?” I’d caught the smug look on her face, even through the groggy layers of sleep packed in my head like cotton wool. She stood there almost steaming from the cold outdoors.

“Shaman!” she bellowed a laugh and tossed me my phone.

Of course I fumbled the catch, dropped it on the kitchen floor where it slid into the wall. Thank heaven for phone cases and screen protectors. I sighed and trudged over and picked it up, then turned a confused look on Zheng. “What were you doing with my phone? I was looking for it all last night.”

“Taking pictures.”

I boggled at her and opened the phone’s photo album. “Why didn’t you ask? You can … you … ” I thumbed through picture after picture, trailing off. She’d taken hundreds.

She shrugged. “Forgiveness is easier than permission.”

“What … what is all this?”

Crumbled pieces of wall, masses of shredded concrete, broken spars of rebar, all of it caught in camera-flash that revealed true darkness in the background like the depths of a cave. A half-demolished interior, fallen to ruin and rubble.

“The tower, shaman,” she purred. “It’s a shell. The wizard’s corpse is gone.”

I stared again at the pictures scrolling past on the phone’s tiny back-lit screen, quite unreal in the morning spring chill with the comfortable, familiar kitchen all around. Raine shuffled in behind me and peered over my shoulder.

“This is where Alexander was? The hollowed out floors?” I asked. Zheng grunted an affirmative. “But this was all … twisted. Biological.”

“And now it’s dead. They removed the heart. He’s gone.”

I nodded, still numb.

“You sound disappointed,” Raine said. “S’good news though. What are you sore about?”

“Mm,” Zheng grunted. “No fight in it.”

“No fight in it?” I gaped at her, then tutted and rolled my eyes. “You wanted to fight a building again, of course.”

“This time I would win, shaman.”

We spent breakfast looking over those pictures, even called Twil round so she could tell her family the news, but there really was nothing to see. If a surveyor or homeless person or urban explorer climbed Glasswick tower, they’d come away with an unsolvable mystery of internal vandalism. Evelyn peppered Zheng with questions. Was there any sign of magical workings left? Any bodies? Could she tell how recently anyone else had been there? Was she seen on the way, or back here? What was she thinking, stalking around Sharrowford, even with her change of new clothes and clean hair?

Zheng got bored, answered in monosyllabic grunts.

In the end we settled on a plan to upload some of the pictures to a major urban explorer website. Raine carefully scrubbed them of traceable information, a process that was utterly beyond me, and then posed as an anonymous concerned citizen. She worried about load-bearing walls and building collapses, asked how this could have gotten so bad, and what was the city going to do about it?

The aftermath of that made the local news. One of the photos even cropped up in a Sharrowford newspaper, put through a grainy filter for some unfathomable reason. They tried to blame homeless squatters, but cooler heads pointed out that level of demolition would require weeks of sledgehammering and powered cutting tools, and no nearby residents had reported any noise. The level of decay and crumbled concrete looked months old. Had the construction been botched, had water got in, was the concrete bad when it was laid?

Glasswick tower came down six months later, properly demolished, no need for illegal explosives or shady calls to the police. Gleaston tower got a once-over by building inspectors, and was pronounced healthy with little fanfare.

The mundane world moved on.

But I didn’t, not quite, always half-expecting the rotten, headless corpse of Alexander Lilburne to show up at the window in the dead of night. At least Lozzie didn’t seem bothered, and her continued good cheer helped me, helped us all, I suspect. She never mentioned her brother, wasn’t interested in the fate of Glasswick tower, spent most of her time doting on Tenny, teaching her to speak, playing with her in the old disused sitting room, reading books to her.

My time split three ways, across those three weeks. One third went toward university. Amid all of this I still had classes and essays, had to ‘pull my finger out’ as Raine so delicately put it, and scrounge up a few thousand words on Kafka. I played the good student during the day, attended lectures, tried to take notes. I’d never clung to the hope of a normal future before, so pretending now was not easy. Only a love of books kept me going.

 The second third went to Maisie, to dragging the secrets of hyperdimensional mathematics from the squid-thing in the workshop, trying to build some kind of blueprint to combat the Eye, with no notion of how to start.

The final third went into my tentacle.

Tentacle, singular, for now. Once I had one down, the others would be easier, or at least that’s how the theory went. In my free time I devoured biology textbooks, pinned human anatomy diagrams to the wall behind my laptop, read about the basics of biochemistry and what muscles were made of. I watched videos of squid and octopus on the ocean floor, pined for the abyss, tried to recall the feeling of a mutable, changeable body.

I understood almost none of it; science was not my favourite subject. My best hope was that my subconscious would retain the details, use it as fodder, fill the gaps in my creative work.

My sketches and diagrams were of equally poor quality. I’ll never be an illustrator, but the point was to give my imagination concrete images to work with. I drew the muscles inside my torso, an approximation of my own ribcage, sketched out where the tentacle should attach inside, the ligaments holding it in place, the cartilage anchoring it safely to a dozen internal points of flesh and bone. One night, Raine even suggested we draw on my body itself, and I was going to take her up on that soon.

Kimberly, of all people, surprised me. She taught me how to visualise.

“Most people use it for spells,” she’d said, alone in the little room she’d made her own, sat cross-legged on lilac bed covers taken from her flat in Gleaston tower. She hadn’t moved back out yet, and Evelyn hadn’t asked her to. “Wiccan spells, I mean. I know you don’t believe that stuff, but you don’t have to. I-I’m not going to ask you to.”

“Anything that might help is welcome. I mean it, Kim. Please, go on.”

Kimberly had glanced over at the open door, uncomfortable at the idea others might be listening in. She’d found a new job at last, and spent as much time out of the house as possible, away from Zheng.

“If anybody bothers you,” I told her. “You can come to me. Zheng intimidates you, I’ll slap her. And she has to stand there and take it.”

She glanced up at me and twitched this nervous little smile, tucked a lock of stay auburn hair behind one ear. “Okay. Okay. Please don’t slap her though.”

“I won’t, that was exaggeration.”

“Well, okay, um … there’s this other way of using visualisation too. Do you know what a tulpa is?”

I shook my head.

“It’s a Buddhist thing,” she said. “But I’ve seen people on the internet use it to make, um … ” She swallowed, blushed a little. “Imaginary friends.”

“ … imaginary friends?”

“Don’t laugh, please, it really does work. A-and it’s not a magical thing, just a mind-trick thing. You do visualisation over and over again, talk to a person who isn’t really there, and if you do it right and reinforce it again and again you sort of … convince your brain it’s real. I thought maybe it would work in a similar way for … well, your, um, problem.”

“Yes, yes I can see how that might be useful.” I gestured without thinking, at the phantom-limbs that lurked on the edge of my mind.

“You can’t … you don’t like, see them already, do you?”

I shook my head. “They’re exactly like mundane phantom limbs. I can feel where they should be, not see them. That’s all.”

Kimberly nodded. “Um, then, close your eyes? S-sit down first, I mean. Sit down and … close your eyes, and we’ll talk through, um, what they look like. What you want them to look like. I think. I’ve done this before with girls from the coven, for spells. Apparently I’m not bad at leading this sort of thing, so, I hope … I hope I’m good enough.”

“You are, Kim. You are. It’s okay, show me how it’s done.”

==

“No flying, no flappy, no floop!” Lozzie said, bobbing her head from side to side with each word. “Repeat after me, no flying.”

“No flying,” Tenny repeated.

She blinked huge black eyes at Lozzie, then looked up and away, out one of the empty castle windows, into the sunless sky and the thick fog beyond. Her flesh-cloak twitched and rippled, threatening to unfold into wings.

“No, no!” Lozzie put her hands on Tenny’s shoulders, tamping down the cloak-flutter. “No flying. No going through the sky, not here, no no.”

Tenny looked at her again. Her antennae twitched back and forth, and touched each other. We’d learned that meant she was thinking very hard indeed. “No,” she echoed.

“No? … is that a refusal?” I spoke up. “Or an echo? Tenny?”

She looked at me instead, antennae wiggling.

“No,” she fluttered.

“You have to stay on the ground,” Lozzie said. “It’s dangerous out there, okay? The big ones are friends.” Lozzie pointed at the squid-moons, two of them visible, sitting on the ground out in the copied mile of Sharrowford, like mountains blotting out the horizon. “But all the small stuff, mmmm, maybe might not know you. So you have to stay, stay here, stay by me and auntie Heather and auntie Raine, okay?”

“Heather!” Tenny repeated.

My name had rapidly become Tenny’s favourite word. We’d figured out she wasn’t capable of the full range of human facial expressions, but when she looked over at me again I could see the happiness in her eyes all the same, shining through that slick-wet darkness.

“Yes, Tenny,” I managed through the tiredness hanging heavy on my bones. “Lozzie’s right. No flying. Stay here, okay?”

Tenny turned her head and gazed out of the window once more, almost wistfully.

“You know, it wouldn’t be a bad place to experiment,” Raine said. “At least here nobody’s gonna spot her.”

“Don’t,” Evelyn hissed – from another dimension, back in Sharrowford, standing about three feet back on the far side of the gateway. “Don’t tempt her and don’t tempt fate. That’s the least you can do. Let’s get this outing over with.”

Tenny rustled her wings one more time, then turned away and puffed up her cheeks. “No flying,” she fluttered.

Her voice had matured over the last three weeks. Perhaps she’d cleared the remnants of amniotic fluid from whatever she used in place of vocal chords, perhaps her lungs had grown stronger, or perhaps it was merely confidence, but the fluttery paper sound of her voice had mellowed into a soft dry buzz not unlike a cicada with the volume turned down. She looked at me, looked at Raine standing outside the circle, then left Lozzie and paced around the perimeter of our little safe zone.

Her tentacles extended from beneath her wings as she paced, reaching out to probe the osseous bone-like walls of the cult’s castle, but even Tenny disliked the touch of this dead husk-place. Her tentacles touched, recoiled, hovered, and went in search of more interesting objects – the hem of Praem’s skirt, the second unoccupied camp chair next to the one I was sitting in, and my hand.

She slipped her tentacle into my hand. I gave it a squeeze.

“No flying,” she repeated, then made this little huffing breathy noise. Frustration? “No flying, no flying.”

We all shared a glance. Raine was ready to tackle her at the first sign she was going to launch herself at a window.

“She’s not going to,” I said softly, and indicated the hand-holding. “See?”

We were gathered in the lofty upper reaches of what had once been the Sharrowford Cult’s castle, but was rapidly becoming our patio in another dimension, overlooking a verdant jungle of unceasing alien life. Surrounded by the stomach-turning bone-like surfaces of the walls and floor, tendrils of fog creeping in through the bank of windows, with the gateway back to Sharrowford open behind us, we made the best of it. Raine and I, Lozzie with Tenny, Praem standing on silent watch, Evelyn on the far side of the gateway just in case something went wrong.

The purpose of this outing, like the two before it, was to stave off Lozzie’s supernatural narcolepsy.

She still couldn’t go Outside. She and I were still cut off.

Her limit was about a week, before she started nodding and drowsing, falling asleep standing up, blinking bleary eyes at all hours of the day and night alike. This was our plan for regular treatment. Every five or six days Evelyn replaced the necessary parts of the gateway mandala and re-opened the door into the castle.

The first time we did this we’d all stood around looking tense. I’d struggled to keep a lid on my own sense of the absurd. Raine had openly carried her gun. Evelyn had directed Praem in painting a huge magic circle which encompassed the gateway itself, the wall it emerged from, and a massive section of the hallway. Protection against the unknown.

Technically it shouldn’t be scary anymore. We knew the moon-sized monsters beyond were on Lozzie’s side, or at least not hostile, but we had no idea if any of the life in the copied streets had made its way inside the castle, or what leftovers lurked in the deeper hallways.

The second time we brought folding chairs, a stool, binoculars for looking out of the window and down at the chaotic churn of bizarre life below. We made it into a whole activity, not something to be feared, despite, well, the fog and the cold and the alien cacophony.

The third time, we brought snacks.

This time we were ahead of schedule. Lozzie was still going strong, but we wanted to eliminate all wild card variables for tomorrow. Lozzie was a crucial part of tomorrow’s experiment in Carcosa, if only because she could perform it with a flick of her wrist rather than my minutes of agony of blood and vomit. All would go so much quicker if she could simply confirm our hypothesis with a thought.

Tenny padded around the edges of the magic circle, stopped before Praem, and made little buzzing sounds at her. Lozzie caught up and hugged her from behind, around the middle, giggling, her pastel poncho twirling as she skipped along.

Poor Tenny had been cooped up for weeks.

She hadn’t seem bored, exactly, listening to Lozzie reading books out loud, following me around and watching all the things I did, stalking Zheng through the house like a territorial puppy. Despite her blunt expressions and basic curiosity, she’d taken a great interest in the chess game, almost eaten several of the pieces, seemed not to be listening as I explained the rules – and then beaten me a dozen times without even looking at the board. Then beaten Evelyn. Then Praem, who nobody else had bested yet. Her tentacles had played all the moves. My little savant.

Raine was right, Tenny did need to stretch her wings, eventually. We hadn’t let her fly yet, we had no idea how to make it safe for her. Perhaps this place really would be a better option than letting her into the skies over Sharrowford? I glanced out of the windows as well, huge and empty, at the giant squid-moons and the hint of life churning away in the fog below.

Tenny was shivering slightly in the cold fog. Her flesh-cloak pressed tighter, wrapping her deeper in the interior fur. I hugged myself too. Maybe it was warmer down in the streets.

“Heather?” Raine called my name softly.

“I’m fine, just thinking.”

“You sure? Wanna go back and warm up? Not getting cold down there?”

“A little, but I’m fine. Thank you.”

By ‘down there’, Raine meant the canvas camping chair. I was wrapped up in my hoodie and coat. The fog trailed tendrils of pale mist up my trouser cuffs and down my collar, but the thought of those bodies further out there in the rest of the castle made me shudder inside no matter how well I warmed up. I felt like we were playing at normality here, in our little semi-circle of peace and light. Clearing the castle out, getting downstairs and shutting the front door, may well have been completely beyond our resources.

 I was still worn out from this morning, from dredging for hyperdimensional mathematics, and I wasn’t looking forward to tomorrow, a churning nervousness in my guts at the idea of voluntarily stepping Outside again after so many weeks.

But at least we’d have an answer. At least we’d know.

Praem and Tenny were speaking with their eyes, a silent conversation of taciturn creatures. Raine and I shared a glance over that, then she shrugged for me and looked out of the glassless window, down into the copied streets of the false mile of Sharrowford far below.

I saw the stiffness in her shoulders in the moment before she spoke.

“Lozzie,” Raine said softly. “Would you please take Tenny back into the workshop?”

“Ahhh? Mmm?” Lozzie looked up. Praem did the same.

“Back? Back in- inside,” Tenny fluttered and frilled, tilting her head one way then the other. She felt the tension as clear as I did. “Are we … going? Going? Going?”

I got out of the chair, arms crossed against the cold. “Raine, what is it?”

“Lozzie?” Raine turned, grabbing the binoculars off the other chair. “Now, please, back inside.”

Lozzie tugged on Tenny’s arm, guided her back through to our reality. They peered at us from the workshop, and Evelyn frowned, looking like she was going to shoo them away, then sighed and stepped through to the castle. “What is it now?” she snapped. “We can’t afford distractions tonight, Raine, not-”

“Looks like somebody’s been here besides us,” Raine said. Praem stepped up next to her, peering out of the window too.

“You watch the edge of the circle!” Evelyn hissed at her, walking stick clicking across the dessicated bone floor.

“What do you mean?” I asked, heart in my throat. “Raine, is somebody out there?”

Raine put the binoculars to her eyes, stared for a moment. She offered them to me and Evelyn, then hesitated and grimaced. “Actually, maybe best not look.”

“Give me those,” Evelyn hissed, and pulled the binoculars from Raine’s grip. She huffed and bustled up to the lip of the window, jamming the binoculars against her face.

“Corpse,” Praem intoned, voice carrying like a cracked bell in the fog. Evelyn turned slightly green, lowered the binoculars with a shaking hand, and couldn’t breathe for a second or two.

“Corpse?” I echoed in a whisper.

“Two corpses, actually,” Raine said with a grim sort of smile. “There’s a pair of dead bodies down in the street, and they ain’t no natives.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

nostalgia for infinity – 9.13

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

“Didn’t even think about the socioeconomic angle between those two,” Raine said. “Some PPE student I am, hey? They’re gonna have to talk that out themselves. You think they’re up to it?”

She may as well have been speaking Ancient Greek for all the sense I made of that.

Raine was sat cross-legged on the foot of our bed. She was wearing a pair of shorts which showed off her legs, and the kind of tshirt she only ever wore to sleep – vomit yellow with a faded logo on the front for a band called ‘three arm sally’, frayed a little at the collar, probably stolen from a live music show during her teenage homeless period. Television glow lit her face in profile; she’d booted up the playstation while waiting for me to finish in the shower.

Sound down low, controller loose in her hands, she piloted an unnaturally energetic cartoon girl across some picturesque fantasy woodland, picking up mushrooms and herbs, occasionally pausing to hit a slime monster in a fight. Her fingers worked on automatic, still pressing buttons as she glanced over at me.

Her hair was all chestnut brown disarray, still a little damp from the shower. She looked flushed. I wanted nothing more than to lie down on the bed and put my head in her lap.

Perhaps unwisely, I resisted. I put my bath-towel over my head and hid in the darkness.

“Heather?”

“I understand each of those words in isolation,” I said, muffled under my towel. “But not in that order and not at the moment.” I frowned with sheer mental exhaustion and lifted the towel to peer at her again. No, she was still there, toned thighs and damp hair and all. “What did that mean?”

“Evee and Twil,” she said, and paused the game. “Heather, are you alright?”

“Exhausted, inside and out, up and down. What about Evee and Twil? Could you explain, please, so I can confirm I’m not having a stroke or something?”

We’d finally finished returning some semblance of peace and quiet back to the house about half an hour ago, and capped the process off with a much-needed pair of overlapping showers, though I’d been far too tired to do anything fun. Just stood quietly under the stream of hot water as Raine had washed my hair.

Finding clothes to fit Zheng had proved easier than we’d thought, though Raine was correct in her assumption that a shopping trip was in order, and soon. An old jumper with a hole in one armpit and a pair of pajama bottoms with a very generous elasticated waistband, they would tide my giant friend over for the night, but I doubt she’d want to be wearing them for long. As an added side-effect, the lack of proper clothes would hopefully keep her from wandering off or returning to the woods, at least until I could snatch enough rest to get my head around her.

Evelyn had suggested we clear out one of the upstairs rooms for her, but by that time we were all spent. Zheng had shrugged and grunted and propped her feet up on the kitchen table.

Lozzie had succumbed to her creeping sleepiness again, at least for now, and Tenny was wrapped up in bed with her. None of us had the slightest clue how much sleep Tenny would require, but she’d seemed entirely happy to curl up against Lozzie’s side, her tentacles wandering around the spare room to latch onto the door frame, the windowsill, Lozzie’s arm, like a spider suspending itself from a web.

“She’ll sleep ‘till she’s done,” Lozzie had murmured when I’d asked, one of her eyes fluttering shut, the other squinting. She had her arms around Tenny, and they looked so comfortable I was almost tempted to join them. “Done-done. She knows not to wake everyone up. Isn’t that right, Tenny?”

“Uuuup,” Tenny had fluttered. “Up. Up”

“Say goodnight to Heather now. Auntie Heather!”

“Guuuuaaah, Heather,” Tenny had managed. If I’d been more awake I think I would have died.

Nobody had seen Kimberly since she’d retreated from the chaos, but Raine took the plunge and checked on her. I’d tagged along. We’d found her sitting knees-to-chest in the chair in Evelyn’s study, eyes red-rimmed with THC, reading a battered, dog-earned copy of The Mists of Avalon. We’d left her to it.

The last we’d seen of Twil was from the far side of a massive ham sandwich she’d been constructing in the kitchen, casting suspicious glances at Zheng’s closed eyes and regular breathing.

“She’s faking it,” Twil had hissed. “Probably doesn’t even need sleep.”

Evelyn was downstairs too, in her workshop. Or maybe she’d gone to bed already. I’d lost track.

“I mean there’s a class gap between Evee and Twil, right?” Raine said as I finished drying my hair. “Twil’s family isn’t dirt poor, but they’re not well off. I guess a small-time cult without active recruiting doesn’t exactly rake in clandestine funds. Her dad used to be in the army, but that was years ago, and her mum’s a schoolteacher at the primary in Brinkwood. And our Evee, well. Technically her dad’s not petty bourge, but,” Raine shrugged and pulled an ironic smile. “She is loaded. Twil’s right about that.”

“Okay, and?”

“And they probably need to talk that out, if they’re ever gonna, you know.” Raine spread the first and middle fingers of her right hand, and stuck her tongue between them.

I gave her an unimpressed look. She laughed.

I walked over to the bed and flopped down. I’d intended to sit, but my body didn’t obey, unfolding across the sheets as I closed my eyes. “No,” I said. “No I don’t think they could talk about money. They can’t even talk about their own feelings.”

“Maybe if we lock them in a room together and put up a sign that reads like ‘This door will only open if you snog for five minutes.’”

Raine’s fingers found my hair. She combed it back, away from my face, then scratched my scalp, hard enough to force a little groan from my throat. Firm and confident, her hand travelled down the back of my neck, and squeezed in the exact way to make me purr.

“No,” I said.

“No?”

“No, as in, we’re not going to leave it up to chance. We’re going to cut this Gordian Knot for them.” I cracked open my eyes found myself staring at Raine’s bare thigh, the video game paused on the television screen beyond. “On second thought, I’m going to cut the knot. You should stay out of it.”

“What, you think I’m a bad matchmaker?”

I looked up at Raine, her face upside down from my perspective. “You can never resist teasing Evee.”

“Got me dead to rights there, yeah.”

“Plus it’s less like matchmaker, more like peace negotiator. There’s so much tension between those two, they’ll explode sooner or later if it’s not resolved.” I closed my eyes again. Everything felt so heavy.

“You sure you’re alright, Heather?”

I shrugged. “Over-tired. Jealous. Busy day. Sides hurt.”

“Jealous?” Raine asked.

“Mmmm.”

Raine’s hand slipped beneath the collar of my pajama top and found my shoulder, and I knew what would happen next. She would set the playstation controller aside and switch the television off, and turn all her attention to me. Maybe we’d have sex, but more likely she’d just rub my shoulders, my back, my belly, until I fell asleep, and then she’d help roll me into bed, semi-conscious Heather clinging to her like a sleepy Koala bear. We’d snuggle up under the sheets and I’d feel safe and protected and normal and for a few hours of shared drowsing I’d be able to forget everything. I’d wake in the morning, and having put it off for one night I’d put it off for another, and another, and it would fester and grow until a rotten abscess ate at my heart.

But I was so tired. I wanted Raine, and sleep, and not to think.

Luckily for me – and for the health of my relationship – my phantom limbs didn’t give a hoot about how tired I felt.

As I lay there on the verge of giving in, they were trying to push me up into a sitting position. A dull, quivering ache ran along my flanks, a faint muscle spasm below the surface. Five of the six tentacles, ghosts of potential from my memories of the abyss, uncoiled and pushed at the bed, braced themselves to take my weight. One tried to wrap around my upper body, to pull me up. They couldn’t touch anything, but the pain in my sides spiked and prickled all the same. I hissed through my teeth.

“Alright, alright,” I grumbled.

The tentacles were right. Ape comfort wanted Raine, but rational thought – cold abyssal survival logic – knew that I had to talk to Raine now, or I never would. I drew willpower from that writhing core of inhuman drive in the core of my soul, sighed, and stole myself for the task.

“Heather?”

“S’nothing,” I lied, then reached up, found Raine’s wrist, and halted her hand.

“Hey, Heather, you’re exhausted, yeah? Let me pamper you, come on, you need to wind down.” Raine pulled her wrist free, but I was already struggling back into a sitting position.

Struggling more than I expected.

Couldn’t sit up.

One hand slipped and I fell back to the bed, confused with a second of dull panic, muscles not working right. My phantom limbs flailed, sent another shiver of shock up my sides, and I realised what the problem was. They weren’t helping.

The tentacles didn’t exist, not unless I built them from scratch with hyperdimensional mathematics. They weren’t there. They couldn’t take any weight, not really – but my brain insisted they should be able to.

“Heather? Heather?”

Raine was saying my name, but I barely heard her; for several long moments I had to concentrate with total focus on the act of sitting up, on the simple motions of my hands and the tired muscles in my back and sides. Eyes squinted, teeth clenched, moving with the mechanical precision of a robot, I pulled myself into a sitting position, trying to suppress phantom pain from limbs that I didn’t really have, trying to remember how to pilot this golem of water and protein.

Something alien and invasive and floppy and soft brushed against my face.

Hissssss!

And then perception snapped back, vision resolved into Raine’s face. She had both her hands raised in gesture of ‘I’m-not-touching-you’ caution. I felt my cheeks flush bright red.

“I-I- R-Raine I’m so sorry, I-I just … I … I don’t know what … I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to … oh God, did I hiss at you?”

Raine kept her hands up where I could see them, and looked at me with open curiosity, as if waiting to see if I’d do that again. Then she broke into a smile.

“You do that loud enough,” she said, “Evee’s gonna think we’re up to some real kinky shit in here.”

“Raine,” I sighed, felt myself deflate, my horror punctured by her irreverent joke. I put my face in my hand and my other hand against my racing heart. “I can’t believe I hissed at you. I-I didn’t mean anything by it, I was just confused because I was … I was trying to sit up, but … I … I couldn’t remember how, like my body was alien for a moment, I-”

“Shhhhhhh,” Raine hushed me gently. She touched a finger to my lips, and this time I didn’t hiss at her. “I get it. I understand. It’s just you, being you, and hey, I think that’s pretty cool.” She trailed her finger downward and cupped my chin. “Gotta come at you from below, not surprise you from above, huh?”

I rolled my eyes and blushed for a slightly different reason, still mortified at myself.

“Here, one sec,” Raine said.

She put down the playstation controller at last and stretched across me to reach her bedside table. I wasn’t sure if it was intentional, but the sight of the back of her bare legs hugged by the cuffs of her bedtime shorts went rather a long way to soothing my discomfort. She rummaged for a moment amid the detritus of books and lip balm and keys and a handheld torch and her knife, then sat back again holding a very familiar black body-art pen.

Bless her, Raine always knows the right thing to do. We didn’t even need to exchange any words, we slipped into the ritual with the comfort of long repeated habit. I scooted against the wall at the head of the bed, a pillow propped in the small of my back, and Raine settled in at my side. I hooked my legs over hers and pulled my left sleeve all the way up before offering her my exposed forearm.

She took it gently, laid it across her lap, and examined the Fractal written on my flesh.

Raine traced the lines on my forearm with the tip of the pen, and I concentrated on not feeling ticklish. The patter of rain on the window drowned out our own breathing, drowned out my thoughts. Eventually I felt enough like myself again, settled back in my body in this shared intimacy, that I gathered what was left of my courage.

“Raine, we still need to talk. About what I said earlier today.”

She glanced at me, then back at the Fractal, tracing over a line again. “Yeah, I’ve been thinking about it too.”

My stomach gave a lurch. “You … you have?”

Raine took her sweet time over another branch of the reality-hacking symbol on my arm, and I couldn’t stand the wait. She finished up, capped the marker pen, then caught my wrist as I went to pull my arm back. She raised my hand to her lips and kissed my palm, watching my eyes.

“Our problem,” she said. “Is that I want what you want. But you don’t know what you want.”

I huffed a huge sigh, disappointed. “Don’t give me that nonsense.”

“Nonsense?” She smirked. “Never.”

“You practically marked your territory in front of Zheng today. That was pretty clearly something you wanted, your feelings, your … jealousy! That wasn’t you channelling my wants, that was you.”

“Is that what you wanna be?” she asked. From anybody else this question would be a barbed goad; Raine actually meant it. “You wanna be my territory?”

I stared at her in disbelief for a second, then huffed again and pulled my hand from her grip to rub at my eyes. “Aren’t I already? Raine, you obviously weren’t comfortable about me talking to Zheng by myself, not without making it abundantly clear that I’m yours. So why keep joking about threesomes, why push me toward her like you did? I don’t understand this. A relationship goes both ways, you just wanting what I want isn’t enough. And I don’t believe it anyway.”

Raine nodded slowly, as if taking all this in, then asked, “Do you want to have sex with Zheng?”

If I’d rolled my eyes any harder, my retinas would have detached. I could have screamed at her. “That has nothing to do with what I’m trying to say.”

“S’got everything to do with it,” Raine said, soft and calm, a subtle smile on her lips. Was she enjoying my frustration? “Serious question. I won’t be hurt if you do want to, it’s obvious she fires you up. Nothing wrong with honest attraction.”

I shrugged with my hands, beyond exasperated, almost lost for words.

“Seriously,” Raine continued, and flashed one of those grins at me, burning with inner confidence. She looked so easy and relaxed, so unbothered by all this. “I’m not gonna be hurt, not gonna be offended. I know I’m still the best, in or out of bed. Doesn’t matter where else you go, I’m always with you. I could beat Zheng in a fight too, I know that now, I’ve got her number, I’ve got a read on her, right down to the margins. I don’t feel threatened by her, or jealous or anything like that. She’s not gonna take you away from me or anything, that’s just silly.”

“ … Raine? Um, okay.” Slow and soft the revelation broke inside me. “Oh my God.”

“Heather?”

“You are jealous. Raine, you are jealous, deeply. You’re just … expressing it in a very … you kind of way. Oh, wow, okay.”

Raine cocked her head at me, curious.

I wet my lips and weighed the pros and cons of putting it into words. Cold sweat broke out on my back, balanced by a dangerous fire deep down in my belly. I had stepped, pace by pace, into a minefield, the limits of which I did not comprehend. When had Raine changed her mind? I raced back through the events of a very busy day, and settled on the moment she’d scored a hit on Zheng’s arm with her knife, when they’d almost fought in the woods. She’d drawn blood, had seemed ready to fight to the death – and then given up that fight, totally and completely.

Raine had resolved her jealous feelings by verifying she could brutally murder the object of my sexual distraction.

She hadn’t actually done so. Just proved, to herself, that she could.

“You are jealous. Maybe you don’t see what I see here,” I said slowly. “Or maybe you’re lying to yourself, I don’t know, but it’s kind of obvious to me. Why else did you mark your territory? Why kiss me like that in front of Zheng?”

“Because I … ” Raine paused, hesitated, so unlike her. “Because I wanted to.”

“That’s a start. And why did you want to?”

“I want what you want, Heather,” she said, and I almost groaned and gave up. “I don’t know how else to phrase that. Seeing you happy, or fulfilled, helping you get there, being there with you, that’s what I want.”

“What if I said I want you to be jealous?” I threw out a curve-ball, a shot in the dark.

An intense, predatory glint slid into Raine’s eyes, up from some deep place in her soul, accompanied by a subtle twist to her smile as she watched me. “Go on.”

“I … Raine?”

“Go on,” she repeated, and a tremor sank through my belly, heading down.

“I … I … ” I swallowed, pulled myself together, and it all came out in a rush. “I want you to be jealous because I don’t want some platonic ideal of you, I want you. Mess and confusion and all. And if that means you’re jealous of the way Zheng unintentionally turns me on, then so be it. You don’t have to pretend to be perfect. Being okay with me sleeping with Zheng is not perfect, it’s … I don’t know, but it’s obviously causing you … something! Something I can’t figure out. If you’re jealous, then express it. Let’s do something about that.”

“Do what?”

“I don’t know! That’s up to you.”

Raine watched me for another second, slow and knowing. My stomach turned over, full of butterflies. I swallowed, hard, and wasn’t entirely sure why.

“ … Raine?”

Raine disentangled herself from me, got up from the bed, and went over to the door. She opened it and stuck her head out into the corridor – dark now, the night rain pattering on the windows, gentle light from our bedroom creeping out into the gloom. She looked left and right, closed the door again, and turned to me with her back against the wood.

“Do you need to be punished?” she asked.

My eyes went wide and my mouth went dry. My heart rate spiked.

“ … I’m sorry, what?”

“You heard me, Heather.” Raine smiled, slow and subtle.

“Um … Raine? What does that mean? I don’t understand.”

Raine pushed away from the door, stalking toward the bed, slow and certain. “You wanna know if I’m jealous or not?”

“Raine-” I almost scooted away from her. She stopped, held up both hands.

“You could walk out of this room right now and climb all over Zheng and order her to eat you out, and I’d never harbour the faintest anger against you. But yeah.” Raine grinned wide. “I might fight her. And I’d win. And you’d need to be punished afterward, for being a little brat.”

“Raine, this isn’t what I meant.” I could barely squeeze the words out. My heart was going a hundred miles an hour. Raine hadn’t even touched me and she had me flushed in the face, something about the way she moved, the way she looked at me, that clear fluidity of muscle. She was already a guilty dream at the best of times with her ruffled hair and rakish smile and athletic frame, but now she advanced on me with all the predatory intent that made my head spin. “I meant- don’t put on act, you don’t have to- I-”

“It’s no act. You want me to be clear? This is me being clear.”

She climbed up onto the mattress, on all fours. I backed away to make room for her – but then Raine caught me in her gaze like a mouse before a snake, froze me to the spot. She straddled me, knees either side of my hips, a hand pinning one of my wrists to the bed.

“Oh,” I managed. “Okay.”

“I want you to be happy, Heather,” she said, close and soft, right above me. “If that means you get a bunch of girls together in a harem, so be it, whatever. I’ll be a little jealous, sure, but it won’t hurt me. I’ll always be number one.”

I nodded, pretty much all I could think of doing.

“But, Zheng, well,” she said. “S’different. Not sure why.”

“Would this-” I squeaked, swallowed, and tried again. “Would this be any different if it wasn’t Zheng? If it was somebody like, I don’t know, Kimberly? Somebody less … well, less similar to you? Less of a rival.”

“Less of a monster, you mean?”

“You’re not- not a monster.”

“I know what I am, Heather.” She leaned down even closer, inches from my face. “And you fuckin’ love it.”

I could smell her breath, toothpaste fresh from an hour ago. Her eyes pinned me to the bed as securely as her strength. My phantom limbs were paralysed too, trapped between a desire to wrap around her and a confused animal feedback, a cocktail of fear and arousal. My breath came in little gasps.

“ … you didn’t answer the question?” I managed.

Raine ran a hand through her hair. She pretended to consider for a moment, never once breaking eye contact. “I don’t want you to have sex with Zheng. You can cuddle up with her, you can hug her, you can ride on her shoulders for all I care. But I don’t want you to screw her. Can’t stop you, won’t stop you, but yeah, you’re right, I don’t want you to. Well done, Heather. You cracked my code.”

“That doesn’t- Raine- I- well, thank you for being clear, I-”

“Just remember,” Raine purred as she leaned in close, slipped her head past mine and whispered in my ear, so close I could feel her breath. Her free hand found my thigh, squeezed roughly, made me jerk and squeak in surprise. “I’m a much bigger monster than she is.”

I gasped as her hand moved higher.

“R-Raine, why-”

“You want me to mark my territory? Want me to show you how I feel? Bite the pillow.”

==

Two hours later I stepped out of the bathroom on very shaky legs, and straight into a split-second of pure dissociation.

The warm, womb-like darkness of the upstairs corridor. My own body, still flushed and hot and sore, a lingering ache between my legs. Raine’s taste in my mouth and my own sweat-drenched animal smell in my nostrils. The faint spill of artificial, television-blue light from our open bedroom door, Raine back on the playstation while I’d gone to the bathroom. All around me the house was washed with the static of raindrops on windows and roof, filled with sleeping minds around dark corners, quiet minds in the night, lurking as if under rocks or inside little caves. For an illusory moment I felt as if I could sense all the people in the house, slumbering on the edge of my consciousness.

For a moment, a fleeting post-coital illusion, I felt like I was back in the abyss.

Then it passed, and I was just plain Heather again, standing in the corridor as my phantom limbs groped about for handholds in the dark. I closed my eyes and tried to recapture the moment, that peace and familiarity, like I’d been to the bottom of the ocean.

Maybe I didn’t need to go swimming at all; maybe I just needed Raine to screw me so hard I dissociated.

“Heather?” Raine’s nighttime stage-whisper came from our open door. “You alright?”

“Yes,” I whispered back. “Sorry. Was thinking.”

I padded down the dark corridor, following the television’s glow. Raine was right where I’d left her, lying on her front in a tangle of sheets, arms sticking out with the playstation controller in her hands. She blinked a bleary smile over at me, caught in the television backwash like undersea luminescence. I think I’d done as much of a number on her as she’d done on me.

“Wanna sleep now?” she whispered.

I glanced down the hallway to the head of the stairs. The faintest light glowed up from below, not the kitchen, but deeper than that. I let out a little sigh.

“I think Evee’s still awake,” I said. “In her workshop. I’d like to check on her, make sure she’s okay.” A tiny pinprick of liar’s guilt opened a nick in my heart. “Do you want to come with me?”

“You want me to?” Raine blinked slowly at me again. I’d well and truly exhausted her.

“It’s okay. I need some water too.” I stepped into our room and over to the chair by the desk, pulled out a jumper at random, and found one of Raine’s older hoodies in my hands, black and frayed and very large on me. I wiggled it on over my head. The sleeves were too long and it smelled of her and I loved it. I wrapped it close, pressed the ends of the sleeves to my face.

On the television screen, the energetic cartoon girl was jumping up and down over and over. Raine caught my look and laughed at herself, waggled the controller and pressed the jump button again.

“Her boobs bounce when you make her jump,” she explained.

“Good for her. Don’t wait up for me, I promise I’ll join you after I’ve spoken to Evee, if she’s awake. If not, well, I’ll ask Praem to carry her to bed.”

“What if she’s with Twil?”

“ … I hadn’t thought of that. I suppose I’ll leave them to it.”

“You’re a good friend, Heather,” Raine said, paused her game, and rolled over in bed. She closed her eyes, crawled under the sheets. “A good friend and a better partner than you credit yourself with.”

“Be back in a bit,” I whispered, and set off into the depths of the house.

As soon as I got halfway down the stairs and out of earshot, I sighed to myself.

On one hand, I felt such relief. Raine had finally put her foot down. She’d made clear where she stood, and what she wanted from me. Our relationship now had a boundary, even if it might not apply to other situations: don’t have sex with Zheng.

On the other hand, had she done all that only because I’d said I wanted her to be jealous?

I didn’t think so, but I couldn’t be certain. Raine didn’t fake emotions, she didn’t pull them from some long-practised library of ‘how to pretend not to be a cold-hearted serial killer’. She felt, for real. She was just different. And devoted, to an extent and in a way which I did not understand. I couldn’t entirely shake the feeling that her possessive display had been just that – a display.

At least she gave me an easy stipulation to follow. Don’t have sexual relations with the violent cannibal demon lady you’ve just adopted into the household. Easy!

I crept down the creaking stairs and across the darkness of the front room, listening for voices. If I heard Twil and Evelyn speaking, I’d turn around and go back. Though perhaps not before a few seconds of accidentally-on-purpose eavesdropping.

A faint electrical hum lurked on the edge of my hearing, like an old CRT television. I heard the sound of a page turning, and a heavy sigh.

I followed the twilight and the sigh into the gloomy kitchen, and confirmed my suspicions. Evelyn’s workshop door was open, a light on within.

Zheng was still in the kitchen, sitting in one of the chairs like a frozen statue, feet up on the table, arms crossed, eyes closed. The huge ancient yellow jumper and green pajama bottoms looked totally out of place on her, like dressing a Greek Goddess in a cheap tracksuit. She should be wearing medieval armour, I suddenly thought.

She hadn’t moved in hours. Or at least, looked like she hadn’t.

“Zheng?” I whispered, and got no response.

An inquisitive grumble emerged from the open workshop door. A chair scooted back, papers shuffled, and a walking stick clacked against the floorboards. Evelyn appeared in the doorway a moment later, in cream jumper and long skirt. She raised an eyebrow at me.

“Evee,” I whispered. “You’re up really late.”

“So are you,” she said, not in a whisper. “You’ve had a long day. You should be asleep.”

“So should you,” I tutted.

She nodded at Zheng. “She’s pretending, by the way. We were speaking not five minutes ago.”

Without opening her eyes, Zheng cracked a smile, lips peeling back to reveal her mouth full of sharp teeth. “I was asleep, wizard. You woke me.”

“Really?” Evelyn drawled.

“Zheng, you know you’re welcome to sleep somewhere more comfortable,” I said. “You don’t have to sleep in a chair. I know we’re short on properly cleared out rooms, but there’s always a sofa. I promise we’ll at least sort out a mattress for you tomorrow.”

“I sleep better like this,” Zheng purred.

I shared a glance with Evelyn. She shrugged with her eyes. “Well,” I said. “Have it your way then.”

Zheng grunted. She sniffed the air, then cracked open an eye and looked at me. “You reek of sex, shaman.”

A blush exploded onto my cheeks. I let out a little huff and averted my eyes and didn’t know what to say.

“Oh,” Evelyn deadpanned. “Thought I heard some thumping.”

Zheng chuckled, closed her eye again, and seemed to settle back into an instant sleep. I stood there like a fool for a moment, blushing terribly, wishing I could fold myself up inside Raine’s hoodie and slink back upstairs. Evelyn shuffled back into the ex-drawing room, and for want of anything else to say, I followed her. She settled herself back down onto a chair at the old dining table as I stepped inside, and questioned me with a raised eyebrow.

“I wanted to check on you,” I said. “You’re up super late. I think it’s past midnight, um … ” I let my eyes rove over the additions to the workshop, and felt my blood go cold. “Did … did you do this all today?”

“Mmhmm, while you lot were out gallivanting around the woods.”

“Is it safe?”

A bulky old CRT television stood at one end of the table, half of its mechanical innards hanging out of the back, loose circuit boards and frayed wiring exposed like a gutted animal. It was contained inside a very fresh-looking but very simple magic circle, a single line with some Arabic text around the circumference, painted on a piece of plain canvas laid out underneath the television. A thick red cable like a car jumper lead emerged from the back of the modified television, crossing the room and snaking across the floor.

The other end of the cable terminated in a massive copper crocodile clip, embedded deep in the clay flesh of the squid-vessel thing which contained the Eye’s minion.

It looked as if it had been weakly pulling at the clip for hours without end, two of its dried, flaky tentacles worn down to crumbled stubs, still waggling ineffectually at the cable. The whole thing had moved several inches back, as if trying to cram itself into the corner of the magical circle it was contained within. As I stared, it twitched and flexed another rotten, crumbling tentacle, gesturing at nothing.

“Quite safe,” Evelyn said. “I had Praem do the handling. And this is warded.” She reached out and tapped the magic circle which entrapped the television set. “It can’t jump the air-gap and possess me again, if that’s what you’re worried about. Also I think it might be dying.”

The television was on. I could see the plug, sitting there on the table, most definitely not supplying electricity, yet the television screen flickered with abstract, overlapping, multi-coloured shapes, most of them with dozens upon dozens of sides like some kind of mathematical constructs. They were seen if as through layers of shadows moving across water, some kind of interference with the television’s display. The screen flickered and the picture dissolved into a view of a blank wall made of black bricks, then flickered again and the wall was covered with tiny red writing, then flickered back to the abstract shapes again.

“What … what am I looking at? Evee?”

Evelyn shrugged and let out a sigh. “The inside of it’s mind, I think. Or it’s trying to communicate. I don’t know. Sometimes it shows writing, like then, but the language is nothing from our world. This is what I spent all day on, trying to interrogate it.” She flicked at the pile of notes she’d taken. “For all the good it’s produced.”

“That’s … well … that’s an ingenious idea, certainly. Are you absolutely sure this is safe?”

“Mostly.” She shrugged at me with her eyes, and gestured at the squid of rotting clay. “Our uninvited guest here is far less complex than, say, Praem, but I think it exists in the same way as her, started out like her, perhaps. Summoned from … well, elsewhere, but it didn’t learn how to think from humans.” She glanced at me. “Maybe from your Eye, perhaps. I don’t think it can plan, or make independent decisions. If it could it would be trying to break containment now, it’s got access to an information vector right here in this telly. But it’s not even trying. It’s just … showing me its thoughts.”

“You should really sleep, Evee. It’s really late. Thinking about this all day can’t be good for you.”

“Sleep,” Praem intoned, and I almost jumped out of my skin. I hadn’t seen her standing there, just off to the right. I stared at her for a moment. She stared back. “Sleep,” she repeated.

Evelyn sighed, and turned the television off.

“Perhaps,” she said. “Don’t feel like it though.”

“Me neither,” I admitted, and pulled up a chair, sitting down to soothe my still shaky legs. For some odd reason, I didn’t want to go back upstairs. Evelyn frowned at me.

“Heather? Are you alright?”

I shrugged. “Sometimes I forget that Raine is a sociopath.”

“That’s not … entirely accurate. Did she do something to you?”

“Um … ”

Evelyn sighed and rolled her eyes. “Okay, yes, stupid question. You fucked, we know.” She glanced at the door, then at Praem, and without any vocal communication passing between them, Praem stepped over and pushed the workshop door shut with a soft click. Evelyn turned back to me. “Heather, did Raine do something bad to you?”

“What? No, no, not at all. It’s complicated. Relationship stuff, I guess. Oh, Evee, I don’t know what I’m doing. Can I talk to you about this?”

Evelyn leaned back in her chair and snorted a humourless laugh. “You want to come to me for relationship advice? Little miss I-just-spent-two-hours-having-sex, and you want to talk to me?”

My turn to roll my eyes. “Evelyn, you are my best friend. And you understand Raine better than I do, I think. You’ve known her for longer.”

“I knew it, she has done something, hasn’t she?”

“No,” I tutted. “I just … I don’t know how to handle this situation. Where I think she might be taking this.” I glanced at the door again and lowered my voice. “I think she’s jealous of Zheng, but in a way I didn’t expect.”

I outlined what had happened, not just upstairs between Raine and I, but earlier in the day too, the confrontation in the woods, the pact they’d made over me. I repeated Raine’s words about how she could beat Zheng anytime, if she so chose to. Evelyn listened politely, frowning harder and harder as I finished.

“You want to have sexual relations with that barbarian in the kitchen?” was the first thing she asked.

“No! Not … well, a little bit, but no, not really, I don’t think so. It’s not as if I’m incapable of self control. Look, Evee, that’s not the point, it’s Raine that-”

“Yes, yes,” Evelyn waved me down, then sighed. “Of course she’s jealous, anybody would be.”

“Yes, but only Raine deals with jealousy by deciding she can beat a demon in a knife fight. I hope this won’t go any further, but I’m not sure. I’m worried she’ll … I don’t know, exactly. Like I said, sometimes I forget Raine can be … frightening, I suppose. I really don’t want her to get hurt, Evee. Emotionally or otherwise.”

Evelyn stared at me for a moment, sucking on her teeth. “You’re looking at this wrong.”

“I … I am?”

“Heather, I told you before, months ago, that Raine wants to be your knight errant. That’s the role she’s dreamed up for herself in life, it’s how she fits together, and she needs a damsel to play opposite her or she goes looking for other causes. I used to be that to her, and I sometimes I suspect if I’d not been a sexual cripple, if I’d showed the slightest interest, she might have made a move on me.”

“Seriously? You’re not-”

“Not her type, yes, exactly.” Evelyn shrugged. “I suspect, that’s all. But then she found you, and you’re perfect for her. Don’t make me spout a bunch of soppy nonsense, but it’s true. You and her fit together surprisingly well. Even now you’ve, well, gained some confidence, she’s still all over you.” Evelyn pointed at the closed door to the kitchen, but really she was indicating what lay beyond, sitting there with her feet up on the table. “But now you have another protector.”

“Yes, but I’m not going to sleep with Zheng. I’ve told her that now, and I won’t break that promise.”

“You’re missing the point,” Evelyn almost snapped. “The romance, the sex, it’s secondary. I think you’re right. If you decided to go kiss Kimberly – or me, or I don’t know, Lozzie – I don’t think Raine would care much. Raine, first and foremost, wants to be your primary protector. That’s the pillar of her psyche. That’s the rivalry which matters to her. Perhaps unconsciously so.”

I sighed and nodded, sagged in the chair and rubbed my face; Evee was just telling me what I already knew, but hadn’t wanted to accept.

“I don’t know how to handle that,” I said.

“Me neither.” Evelyn glanced at the door again. “Stroke of genius by that demon, making her swear a pact in front of you. Otherwise they’d be at each other’s throats.”

“I suppose there’s that to be thankful for.”

“Mm.” Evelyn watched me for a moment. I hugged Raine’s hoodie tight around myself, staring at the floor. “Just talk to her, Heather, I’m sure she’ll understand. She adores you. She’d do anything for you.”

“I know,” I said, then glanced around the room, trying to distract myself. “Speaking of talking, where’s Twil?”

“She went home.”

“In … ” I glanced at the windows, hidden behind thick curtains, but the patter of rain against the glass penetrated the whole house. “In this? At this time of night?”

“She’s hardly a wilting violet,” Evelyn said, turning to her notes. “She’ll be fine.”

“Evee. Evee, you let her go?”

“She’s an adult, she can make her own decisions. Besides, this house is reaching carrying capacity.”

“She could have slept on the sofa or something.” I sighed. “She could have slept in your bed. With you. Hint hint.”

Evelyn’s stare could have sandblasted rock.

“You didn’t make her leave, did you?” I asked.

“No … yes. Maybe.” Evelyn straightened up and huffed. “We had a very awkward conversation, alright? Things got … weird.”

I had to resist a very specific urge to put both hands to my mouth. “Did you … did you tell her what you-”

“Discussed Tenny,” Praem supplied in a sing-song voice. “Bake-off. Sleeping arrangements.”

“Yes, and that was all, thank you very much, Praem.” Evelyn shot the doll-demon a nasty look.

I sighed. “Evee, I don’t know why you and her don’t just talk to each other. You … oh wow.” I shook my head, feeling my heart catch in my chest, a lightness in my head. Was I really about to do this? Did I have the right? I’d been so sure while talking to Raine earlier, but now I had to force the words out. “I’m really not sure I should tell you this, but … Twil, well, I’m pretty sure she kind of likes you. In that sort of way. I think if you talked to her about it, she’d say the same things to you.”

Evelyn stared at me, deadpan and blank.

“Um … Evee?”

“I’m not a complete idiot,” Evelyn said. “And despite her appearances, neither is Twil. I think after your little display earlier, it was blindingly apparent to everyone present. Even Tenny, and she’d just been born.”

“You mean you-”

“Twil knows. Alright?” Evelyn snapped. “She knows that I know, and I know she knows that I know. We both know.”

“Did … did you talk to her about it?”

Evelyn looked away, uncomfortable. “What do you think?”

“You didn’t. You didn’t?”

“Yes, I’m a coward. You know that already.”

“No, you’re not. Evee, you’re not a coward. Don’t treat yourself like that.”

Evelyn threw up her hands in irritation and turned back to the notes and papers and sketches on the table, sorting through them angrily, shoving them into a pile. “Fetch me some chocolate,” she barked at Praem. “Sod it, I may as well.”

Praem obeyed, opening the door and marching out into the kitchen. Evelyn and I were greeted by the sight of Zheng, eyes open and awake, a subtle grin on her lips.

“Wizard,” she rumbled. “The shaman was right, you do like the smell of wet dog, right up in your cu-”

If looks could kill, Evelyn’s scowl would have reduced Zheng to atomic dust. “You mock this, demon, and I’ll send you back where you came from.”

Zheng shrugged and closed her eyes again. “Don’t tempt me.”

Evelyn stared at her for a moment longer, looking like she was about to lurch out of her seat and have a go at Zheng with the business end of her walking stick, but Praem strode back into the room and offered Evelyn a Yorkie bar fetched from the cupboard. Evelyn tore it out of her hand, ripped the wrapper open, and shoved a segment of chocolate into her mouth, chewing with determination. She swallowed, thought for a moment, and offered the bar to me.

“No thanks, not right now, too late at night,” I said.

“What if I only like her because she’s available?” Evelyn asked the table, then me. “Because she’s what’s here? She deserves better than me and I’m only attracted to her because she happens to be nearby.” She bit into another piece of chocolate, drowning her sorrows in cheap dietary serotonin.

“Raine and I are no different,” I said. Evelyn frowned at me as she chewed, so I carried on. “If I hadn’t settled on university in Sharrowford, if I hadn’t gone to that exact cafe in the student quarter on that exact morning, if I hadn’t been sick, if she hadn’t decided to come after me, we’d have never met. It’s all chance. You have to take what opportunities life gives you, I think. There’s precious little happiness in the world, don’t snub it when it could be yours.”

Evelyn stopped chewing. She met my eyes for a long moment, then looked away, down at the tabletop. For a second I thought she was going to cry.

“Great,” she grumbled. “Just what this house needs. More dykes.”

“Evee, don’t use that word.”

“What? Dyke? It’s what I must be, right? Why can’t I say that?”

“Because you’re using it as a roundabout way to insult yourself.”

Evelyn shook her head, grumbling under her breath.

“That’s not really what’s bothering you though,” I said, and it wasn’t a question.

Evelyn looked at me sidelong, then sighed and shrugged. “She deserves better than me, and I’ll fuck up her whole life. I’m not a whole person. I’m a shell. Most of me was scooped out and never replaced. Just grew … this,” she gestured at herself, “in its place. Twil doesn’t know what she’s getting into. It’ll hurt her, it’ll hurt me, it’ll fuck both of us up and we’ll come away wounded and bleeding. You think getting into it is the hard part, but it’s not. That would be easy. The hard part is everything else. Especially when you’re Evelyn Saye, grade-A fucking bitch mess.”

I let her finish, and when I was sure she was done, I reached out and squeezed her hand. “Evee, you’re worthy of love too. I think you should maybe say those words – those exact words you said just now – to Twil. She’ll understand. See how she feels.”

Evelyn grumbled, shrugged, and finished her chocolate bar.

“Is that why you’ve been distracting yourself with this?” I sat back and glanced at the television and the squid-thing in the corner with the jumper cable attached to it.

“It’s something to do. Figuring out the emissary of a alien God is less frightening than … ” she sighed heavily, “romance.”

“You and me both.”

“You don’t feel like going back upstairs?” she asked, straightening up in her chair, then glanced at Praem and nodded to the door. The doll-demon closed it again, shutting us in the magical workshop together.

“Not just yet,” I admitted, then frowned to myself and glanced over at the clay-squid thing again, at its faint and feeble efforts to free itself.

“Don’t you want to check on Lozzie? Make sure she’s not getting her hair eaten by our, er … pet?”

“Tenny’s not a pet,” I muttered, half-distracted. “She’ll be fine. Evee, turn that television back on, would you? If it’s safe, that is.” I turned to her, and felt something I hadn’t felt in weeks.

“Heather?”

“Let’s put our heads together. I’ve got an idea.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

nostalgia for infinity – 9.12

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Getting Tenny clean took the better part of an hour, but convincing Zheng to get in the bath took years off my life.

Tenny was smeared head-to-toe with her own sticky black amniotic fluid, like a science-fiction alien, and the rainwater had done little to wash the worst of it from beneath her wings or out of her fur, but by the time we all tramped back indoors, damp and cold and dripping, we weren’t much better off. Raine, Lozzie, Twil, and I were all dirty and caked with dried sweat from our day in the woods. Praem’s maid uniform was soaked through after her trip up the tree. Lozzie and I had both hugged Tenny, gotten her black goo all over our clothes, and Lozzie had been kneeling in the grass, stained the knees of her jeans with mud.

Only Evelyn and Kimberly had avoided both dirt and rain. Kimberly was busy scurrying back and forth with towels, trying to limit the collateral damage of even more mess as we got ourselves inside.

Zheng was just plain filthy.

By the time we got the back door shut, sealing us in the warm cocoon of number 12 Barnslow Drive, I was sagging with exhaustion. All was confusion, too many things happening at once.

Lozzie and Raine focused on leading Tenny through the house, trying to coax her upstairs and into the bathtub before she smeared every interesting object with black goo on the way there. She dripped diluted black rainwater all over the floorboards. Kimberly hurried ahead trying to put towels down, Lozzie attempted to dry her feet, and Raine held another towel under her wings to catch the worst of the run-off.

Twil got into a brief, pointless argument with Evelyn, something I had trouble following as I stood there in the utility room, my legs weak, my stomach still tender, a headache in the back of my skull. I rubbed my sore eyes with the back of my hand, and managed to get more of Tenny’s black goo on my forehead.

“Then go home!” Evelyn snapped at her.

“No, I mean, like, I’m fine with borrowing,” said Twil. “I just don’t- it’s your like- I’m not comfortable with like, your-”

“Shit or get off the pot.”

Evelyn turned away from her, and that was that. Twil rolled her eyes and stomped off into the house after the others, still tracking mud from her wellington boots.

“Evee,” I tried, but she was already off again, at Zheng.

“Not one step further. Don’t you dare.” Evelyn waved the head of her walking stick at the hulking demon-host. Zheng had been last in, standing just inside the back door now, dripping water from her sodden clothes all over the doormat, a small puddle forming around her feet. “You smell like a pigsty and you’re covered in blood. Is that even your own? It’ll be a minor miracle if you’re not crawling with lice.”

“Wizard?” Zheng rumbled, low and dangerous.

“Evee-” I hissed.

“Heather, you’re exhausted. Shut up for once and let somebody else handle things,” Evelyn said, without missing a beat. If I’d been more energetic I would have laughed. She glared up at Zheng. “You are not walking through this house like that. You strip off right here and you dump those clothes.” Evelyn gestured at the washing machine, already stuffed with Lozzie’s black-smeared poncho, soon to be joined by my hoodie and jeans. Praem stood next to it, hands clasped before her, soaked maid uniform hanging off her ample frame, clinging to her curves. “You too,” Evelyn said to her. “I have no idea if you can catch cold, but don’t risk it. Get all that off, now.”

Praem obeyed without a word. She set to unlacing the back of her uniform, dropping her tights, and stepping out of her long skirt. I stared for a moment and felt my cheeks burning, then turned my head to give her some privacy.

“I go where I desire, wizard,” Zheng rumbled.

“Not in my house you don’t,” Evelyn said. “Heather insists you’re a thinking, feeling being. Well then, I’m treating you like one. Animals track dirt, guests and family take their shoes off at the door.” Evelyn glanced her up and down. “On second thought, those clothes are not remotely salvageable. We’ll burn them.”

Zheng let out a low rumble.

“Zheng, please,” I said, shielding my libido from Praem’s rapid disrobing with a hand next to my eyes. “You stole those clothes anyway, it’s not as if they have any sentimental value.”

A squeal of alarm echoed from the front room, accompanied by panicked voices, Raine going ‘woah, woah, woah’ like she was trying to soothe a horse. The squeal trailed off into a long, loud, ‘pppppfffffttttt’, suspiciously similar to a child sticking their tongue out and blowing a raspberry.

Evelyn whirled on the sound. “What was that?” she yelled.

“Tenny met your spiders!” Lozzie called back. “She’s fine!”

“Ha!” Zheng barked. “Fresh from the womb and the puppy already knows how to taunt. Good.”

“Yes, surely an important life skill,” Evelyn said. She waved a dismissive hand at Zheng without bothering to look at her again, already marching out of the utility room. “I don’t have time for you, get on with it. Who tracked all this mud in here? Are these Twil’s bootprints? Twil!”

Evelyn left, shouting. Zheng stared at her back.

“Praem, um,” I cleared my throat. “Maybe you should find some spare clothes?”

“Clothes,” Praem intoned, and followed Evelyn, deftly avoiding the muddy patches with her bare feet.

“Shaman,” Zheng said. I glanced up at her, at her filthy, matted hair, at the stains of blood and grease and woodland mud all over her jumper and coat, at her fingernails, far too long, dirt packed beneath them. Up close and indoors I could smell her, like a wild animal, heavy with bodily odour and soil and old meat.

“When’s the last time you brushed your teeth?” I asked.

She just raised an eyebrow.

“Oh no. Zheng. No. You have to have a bath, at least.”

“Is that your command, shaman?”

“No, it’s a heartfelt suggestion, because I’d like to be able to give you a hug without worrying about stains. And I know what you’re going to say, something about how you don’t suffer tooth decay or gum disease because the bacteria can’t beat you in a fistfight, but the rest of us can still smell that. You’re a walking disease risk right now, and neither Lozzie or I are immune to infections. Please.”

Zheng grinned, a flash of razor-sharp teeth. “Join me in the bath, shaman?”

I froze. Couldn’t get a word out.

“A joke,” she rumbled, then shrugged off her coat and started to pull her soaking jumper off over her head. It got stuck on her shoulders, at which she gave up and just started ripping the jumper open down the middle.

I stared and swallowed and scurried out before I was left alone in a small room with a massive libidinal hazard.

==

The next couple of hours dissolved into a blur, my mind and memory dragged down by a cocktail of physical and emotional exhaustion. The bathroom was all noise and chaos, as my friends attempted to bathe a semi-cooperative giant moth woman like a dog which had rolled in dung. The upstairs hallway was no retreat, occupied by Zheng sitting against the wall with her eyes closed and arms crossed, firmly asked to wait outside because her mere presence made Tenny puff up and hiss. Thankfully for my sanity, Praem had supplied her with a huge towel, and set it over her like she was covering a particularly ugly piece of furniture.

Twil stomped about, spooked by Tenny, goaded by an occasional comment from Zheng, fuming silently at Evelyn. Lozzie shed dirty clothes with no care for where they fell, and at one point she sat down in the hallway next to Zheng and fell asleep for five minutes, impossible to wake until she shot up again like a freshly-wound clock. Poor Kimberly scurried about underfoot, trying to avoid Zheng’s attention, looking lost and trapped.

In the end, getting Tenny into the bath wasn’t too difficult. She took to the water with obvious pleasure and curiosity, making little fluttering, purring noises in her chest as Lozzie had soaped up her fur, squinting her eyes shut and shaking herself as Raine had rinsed her off with the shower head. Lozzie petted her and talked nonsense to keep her calm, but it was probably unnecessary.

We quickly discovered more quirks of her unique biology. Her wings – thick and leathery to the touch – separated into four distinct pieces, two wider ones which covered her sides and front when at rest, and two slimmer ones which hung down her back. The tentacles exited the cloak through either the gaps between the wings just below her shoulders, or by running all the way down to her feet, or out the front. In the bath, with her wings flopped over the sides of the tub, we could see her back, but her shoulders were almost impossible to reach, too far under the wings to see without getting behind and beneath her, blocked by the mass of tentacles which extended between the gaps between the wing segments.

Her tentacles kept roaming the bathroom, knocking over shampoo bottles, inspecting the light fixtures, gripping the bar of soap too hard so it shot across the floor. One of them tried to drink the bathwater and spat it back out. Another chewed softly on Lozzie’s shoulder. A third kept fiddling with the taps.

She shivered and made little irrirated fluttery sounds when anybody touched the antennae on her head, so we quickly decided not to do that.

At one point everybody except Tenny and Lozzie came tumbling out of the bathroom. Praem was last out, and closed the door behind them.

“Potty training,” Raine explained with a laugh.

“She knew exactly what she was doing,” Evelyn said. “That was not training.”

“Could’a warned us,” said Twil.

“At least we’ve established that she excretes,” Evelyn sighed. “And that she’s not carrying a clutch of pre-fertilised eggs, or something equally disastrous.”

Outdoors, the sun went down behind the rainclouds, true dusk swallowed by the storm into a haze of fading light.

Eventually I found myself alone in the upstairs hallway. Zheng had stomped off, probably to eat everything in the fridge. The others were still washing Tenny, soft voices murmuring in the bathroom. I shivered inside my tshirt, bruises throbbing in my sides, my damp hoodie in my hands, socks missing. Couldn’t recall removing them. I wanted nothing more than to strip off the rest of my clothes, ignore the dried sweat on my skin, and curl up in bed. Evelyn was right, I’d done more than enough leading for one day. Others could deal with the rest.

Heeeaath.”

Tenny’s voice echoed from the bathroom, fluttery and frilled, my name as if spoken by a throat made of fanned paper.

“Heather?”

I looked up. Raine’s head had appeared around the bathroom doorway. Splashing noises came from behind her, followed by a weird warbling complaint.

“Was that Tenny?” I asked.

“Yeah. She’s alright, just being fussy.” Raine stepped out and over to me. Gently, she took the hoodie from my hands and peered into my eyes. “How you holding up?”

I shrugged. “Kind of numb.”

“Uh huh, not surprised.” Raine brushed my hair back over my ear and cupped the side of my neck. She kissed my forehead. “S’been a long day. You can totally go lie down if you want, you know? Say hi to Tenny, tell her you’re going to rest, I think she’ll understand.”

I stared back into Raine’s eyes, needs surfacing through the numbness. I wanted to hug her, but I held back, a knot of unresolved tension twisting deep in my chest. If I’d been less exhausted, I would have let it go, been more logical, put this moment off until tomorrow or the day after, but by then Raine would have me back in bed and feeling normal again, and perhaps she’d pretend that certain things today never happened.

“You’ve been floating around back and forth, I have noticed,” she was saying. “There is such a thing as pushing yourself too far, especially after … ” She trailed off, reading the look in my eyes. “Heather?”

“Raine, we need to talk.”

Raine froze.

I was treated to a look I’d never seen from her before, a moment of genuine suppressed panic beneath all her confidence, too powerful to suppress with a grin, too sudden to hide with a glib joke, too real to bush away with her fingers in my hair. Guilt clutched at my heart.

“No, no, not like that. About Zheng, I mean,” I said, and it all came out in a rush. I dropped my voice. “But yes, yes also about you and I, about … I don’t understand your behaviour earlier today.” I squeezed my eyes shut. “God, why am I asking you this now?”

“’Cos you’re dying for that threesome,” Raine said with a laugh, and there it was, the glib joke rushing back.

I glared at her. Capital G. Raine pulled a theatrical wince.

“One minute you’re pushing me at her and you don’t seem to care, the next you’re marking your territory right in front of her, laying claim to me, and then you’re making threesome jokes!” I hissed, fuming. “Raine, I don’t know what exactly I want, but I don’t know what you want either because you’re confusing me, and that’s worse.”

The theatrical wince held for a moment longer, and then Raine’s expression crumbled into genuine contrition. She let out a big sigh and ran a hand through her hair. “Ahhhhhhh. I’ve done screwed up, haven’t I?”

“Maybe? I don’t know. How am I supposed to know if you won’t tell me?”

“No, no, I’ve screwed up,” Raine said. “Because I’ve made you feel insecure. Which means I’ve made a stupid mistake.” She glanced behind her, at the open bathroom door and the increasingly loud warbling, fluttering sounds. Twil was saying something, drowned out by the noise, and I heard Lozzie too. “You wanna talk right now?” Raine said. “We can leave the others for a bit, go-”

“Raine, do you love me?”

“Yes,” she said, no hesitation.

“Then everything else can wait, I’m too tired. I love you too.” I fell against her with a hug. Behind us, the warbled complaint finally rose into an angry hiss. A long one.

Twil’s voice floated out of the bathroom. “Okay, okay, shit, shit, she doesn’t like it, fine.”

“I told you!” Lozzie’s voice joined in.

“Hey, I’m just following orders,” said Twil.

“Plus I think we’re needed in there,” I murmured into Raine’s shoulder.

“Yeah.”

“Try again,” Evelyn’s voice joined too, dry and disinterested.

We rejoined the others to quite a scene. Twil had her sleeves rolled up past her elbows, dirty water splashed down her front, and a scowl on her face. Evelyn looked like she was trying to hide behind Praem without seeming to hide behind Praem. Kimberly had one hand on her mouth, like she wanted to be sick. Lozzie was half in the bathtub with Tenny, giving her a hug, getting herself covered in black-tinted water and soap suds, her braid half undone and hair everywhere.

Tenny was still hissing, her feathery antennae twitching back and forth.

“No,” I said with a sigh. “Don’t try again, whatever that was.”

“She didn’t like it!” Lozzie repeated.

“Like what?” I asked. “What are you all doing to her?”

Evelyn shut her mouth and shook her head, rolling her eyes. Twil glanced to her for help or permission, then shrugged.

“I was trying to get my hand up to her shoulders,” Twil said. “Under the wings like, to see where the tentacles come from, count ‘em, you know. I think she’s got them coiled up in like, retractable holes.”

“Maybe don’t physically harass the literal new born sapient creature?” I said, staring at Twil and Evelyn. “I don’t believe you two.”

“Heeattthh,” Tenny fluttered at me. I went to the bathtub and patted her awkwardly on the head. She reciprocated, wrapping a spare tentacle around my wrist.

“It’s medically necessary if we’re to understand her,” Evelyn said. “We can hardly drag her in front of an x-ray machine or get her an MRI, can we?”

I gave her a look, too worn out for argument.

“But fine, yes.” Evelyn held up a hand. “She doesn’t like it, my mistake. Fine, okay.”

“She’s so weird,” Twil said. “I could like, feel the tentacles going in and out. She’s got no bones, like all of her is just more tentacles inside.”

“Yes, I noticed that too,” I said. “All muscle, aren’t you?”

“Buuuur,” went Tenny.

“She’s strong and cool,” Lozzie said.

I stayed for the rest of the bath, though most of the real work was over. Lozzie got Tenny to her feet and Raine rinsed her off one final time with the shower head, sluicing away any remnants of the sticky black amniotic fluid. As she stepped out of the bath, dripping wet, her tentacles reaching over to groom the fur on the underside of her wings, she left behind a soup of black-tinted water, soap scum, and mud.

Evelyn sighed and said aside to Kimberly and I, “What do you think, skim that stuff off? God alone knows what that crap’ll do to the drainpipes if we pull the plug.”

“I’ll get a bucket,” Kimberly said.

==

Five microwaved chicken nuggets; an apple, neatly peeled and sliced; a generous slice of chocolate cake.

We lined up three plates on the kitchen table and stepped back. Well, Raine and Twil stepped back. I was too tired and comfy in my pajamas and Evelyn too stubborn to pull ourselves from our respective chairs, Lozzie was all over Tenny anyway, still drying bits of her with a huge fluffy bath towel, and Praem was already at the back of the room, waiting quietly in one of Evelyn’s jumpers and a long skirt. Kimberly had excused herself, and I didn’t begrudge her the sneaky smoke break.

Twil stared wistfully at the nuggets and let out a little sigh.

“Wait your turn,” Evelyn said to her, watching Tenny carefully. We were all watching Tenny.

Tenny stared at the plates, bare toe-less tar-black feet padding across the kitchen tiles as Lozzie coaxed her into the room. She studied our faces and looked out of the kitchen window for a bit, at the rain lashing down into the garden in the evening darkness. Her gaze wandered back to the plates, tentacles drifting up from beneath the shoulders of her flesh-cloak, waving in the air like a mantle of snakes.

“I’m already missing Bake-off,” Twil tutted. “You could at least feed me.”

“You’re saying you have less control than a new born … whatever she is.” Evelyn gestured at Tenny.

“Moth,” Praem intoned.

“Moth girl,” Raine said with a smirk.

“We are not calling her ‘moth girl’,” said Evelyn. “She isn’t a superhero.”

“She might be, you never know,” Raine said.

Tenny looked up, blinking huge void-dark eyes at us again.

“Moth?” she asked, in that voice of dry paper and ruffled feathers. “Moth. Moth.” She looked at me for guidance or approval, blinked twice, then sneezed loudly as Lozzie dried some stray water off her face with the towel.

“Shhhh,” I hushed everyone. “You’re distracting her. Tenny, it’s okay. Please, have something to eat.” I gestured at the plates. “Go ahead, it’s for you.”

“Baaaaa?” went Tenny, and crept forward another pace.

She knew we were watching her, waiting for something, but couldn’t possibly understand what. The attention spooked her, perhaps confused her, and I wondered how fast she could learn social cues like this. She’d been able to speak as a spirit, directly into my mind, in a jumble of word-concepts; now she was picking up real words, spoken ones, with surprising rapidity for somebody literally born this afternoon.

Cute perhaps, but not human. We had no idea what we were actually looking at here.

What did she use for blood? What was her natural sleep cycle? Was she a non-breeding isolate or would she lay eggs in a dark corner? Did she see like us, or in infra-red or some other spectrum? Could she fly, were the wings for show? What did she breathe? What were we to her – friends, pack-members, wise adults, blind idiots? Would she grow further?

Did she know what she was?

Experiments like these were necessary, Evelyn was right. To a point.

“Don’t be scared,” I said to her. “We’re all friends here.”

“Fuuuummm,” went Tenny.

“S’alright for you, sitting here at home,” Twil hissed to Evelyn, but at least she was quieter now. “We were running ‘round the woods all day.”

“You don’t have to be here, you know,” Evelyn muttered. “You could have gone home hours ago. Go have a family meal, home cooking, all that bollocks.”

“Maybe she wants your home cooking, Evee,” I sighed.

“Heath-” Evelyn spat half my name, then cut herself off when Tenny looked at her again. Twil just grimaced and hid behind one hand.

At least it shut them up for five seconds.

Tenny kept squirming, distracted by Lozzie’s attentions. Lozzie caught a stray tentacle in gentle hand and dabbed water from the surface, then took the opportunity to sneak a twist of towel in under one of Tenny’s wings, trying to dry the complex area at the top of her shoulders. Tenny made a face like a cat getting scritches, quivering softly. Lozzie hummed at her, said ‘good girl’, and half-sung the words to some childhood bathtime song which I had the creeping feeling she’d grown up with.

“Lozzie,” I said. “Let her focus for a moment, please. Tenny?”

“Heath,” Tenny said, my name, truncated. Lozzie relented, hopped back a half step and rubbed at sleepy eyes.

“It’s for you, Tenny.” I pointed at the food again. “Take whichever you want.”

“My money’s still on the meat,” Evelyn whispered.

“She’s a bug,” Twil hissed back. “She’ll eat fruit, right? Sugars and that.”

“Five pounds says you’re wrong.”

Twil simmered in silence for a moment, then growled, “You’re on.”

“She’s looking at them!” Lozzie stage-whispered.

“Mmmaauum,” said Tenny. Her tentacles reached forward along the tabletop, reminding me of the way a small animal might sniff at unfamiliar food.

Our experiment taught us very little – and won nobody any bets – because Tenny decided she wanted all of it.

Three of her tentacles split at the ends to reveal those perfectly sealed mouths full of tiny black needle teeth, and descended on all three plates at the same time. She crunched through the pieces of apple, hoovered up the nuggets, and bit the slice of cake clean in half. Crumbs scattered across the table as one tentacle-tip chased bits of chocolate sponge around the edge of the plate.

An extra tentacle crossed the table and dunked itself into a glass of water, then bulged like a snake swallowing eggs as it drank.

“I don’t know what I was expecting,” Evelyn sighed.

“At least we know she’s not pure carnivore,” Raine said. “That’s lucky.”

“Give it five minutes, see if she vomits it all back up.”

Twil frowned. “Do you think she’d vomit from her mouth? Like, her regular mouth?”

“Can we not talk about vomit, please?” I said.

As her tentacles fed, Tenny seemed to lose interest in the food, as if her tentacles and her main body could focus with ease on completely different matters. She pawed at the towel in Lozzie’s hands, trying to help dry herself. Her human hands lacked the precision and grace of her tentacles, and she fumbled about, making Lozzie giggle as she flexed her wings out slightly and bumped one against the kitchen wall.

Raine must have noticed my exhaustion more than I showed, because a moment later she was behind my chair, rubbing my shoulders with both hands, kneading out the tension and the knots and pressing the balls of her thumbs into the base of my neck. I let out a little grumble.

“I think that’s one conclusion we can be confident about,” Evelyn said, flat and dry. “Tenny’s respiratory and digestive systems are externally isolated. Elegant solution.”

“It’s clever!” Lozzie smiled like a proud parent. “I told you she was smart. Aren’t you smart, Tenny?”

“Yeeeaaa?” Tenny said.

“You mean like, she can’t ever choke on a piece of food?” Twil asked.

“Exactly,” Evelyn murmured, frowning softly, one hand toying with her empty mug on the table. She shot a sharp glance at Lozzie. “You expect me to believe you didn’t design that? Because that’s a design element. A safety feature. I like it.”

“Guess it is kinda stupid to have the breathing tube and the eating tube in the same place,” Twil said, sticking her own tongue out as she looked down at her mouth. She grimaced, uncomfortable with the thought. “Human body’s weird.”

“Yes,” I murmured. “Don’t remind me.”

“I didn’t do any of it!” Lozzie said. “It’s all Tenny. She’s smart.”

“Mm,” Evelyn grunted. “Well, whatever she’s using for a brain, it certainly must be quite developed. Attention splitting like this. Even humans have trouble doing two separate tasks with different hands.”

As Tenny rubbed her fluffy head with a corner of the towel, her tentacles were still busy at work. One of them extended a tiny featureless black tongue to lick the grease from the chicken nugget plate, while another lifted the other plates to see if we humans had hidden more tasty treats underneath. A third tentacle seemed to be following an interesting scent, across the table and past one of the chairs, winding towards Twil. Yet another tentacle had picked up the now empty glass of water, waving it around near the sink and trying to figure out how to make the shiny metal spout produce more liquid. Lozzie hopped over and showed Tenny how to turn the tap, and yet another tentacle dipped around her to mimic the demonstration.

I sighed inside, faintly jealous. My mind had seized up at controlling six extra limbs. Tenny didn’t even have to concentrate.

“Can’t do different things with each hand?” Raine asked, a smirk in her voice. “Speak for yourself. Heather can attest to my mad skills.”

A moment of silence passed over the kitchen, broken only by the rain against the windows, the muffled thumping of the dryer in the utility room, and the floorboard-creaking sounds of Zheng adjusting her weight in the bathtub upstairs.

“Don’t, Raine,” I said. “I don’t have the energy to blush right now.”

“If that zombie falls through the floor,” Evelyn muttered, eyes on the ceiling, “I’ll bloody well murder her.”

“She’s not that heavy,” I said. “And she really needed to get clean.”

“Should have hosed her off in the garden.”

“Maybe if we like, put a couple ‘o dozen plates out,” Twil said, “we could find out how many tentacles she’s really got. Counting didn’t work, so why not stretch her skills?”

“I’m not made of money,” Evelyn said, still watching the ceiling, listening for Zheng again.

“You may as well be,” Twil said.

Evelyn gave her a darkly unimpressed look. Twil shrugged and opened her mouth to say something unkind. I could see it coming, the dismissive comment, the prickly challenge, the bizarre unspoken and perhaps unconscious desire to ruin what little rapport they had by constantly reducing each other to hostile caricatures. I sighed and prepared to scold her, tell her to play nice, maybe even just solve the whole dammed thing for them and force them to talk properly for once.

Raine squeezed my left shoulder a fraction of an inch too hard, turned my rebuke into a little gasp.

“Evee’s upper middle class rich, not stupid money rich,” Raine said before I could gather myself.

“Raine,” Evelyn hissed.

Twil frowned. “That’s still-”

“Her dad does still have to work, and that old family estate’s pretty crumbling. Between maintaining this house, and covering some of the fallout of what we get up to, I can totally understand not wanting to drop a hundred quid on chicken nuggets, to run a test for something that doesn’t actually matter in the end. Isn’t that right, Tenny? Does it matter how many you’ve got back there?”

“Baaaah,” Tenny said to Raine.

“See? She agrees.”

Twil opened her mouth to reply, glanced down at Evelyn and found her looking away, sullen and cold. “Yeah, but like … ”

“But like what?” Evelyn shot back.

Twil looked away too, awkwardly crossing her arms over her chest. “Never mind.”

“Play nice, you two,” I finally said, and felt terribly lame. Evelyn gave me a bit of a look. Twil shrugged.

Lozzie was biting her lower lip, eyes wide as they bounced back and forth between Evelyn and Twil, hands clasped beneath her chin, having finally relinquished the towel completely to Tenny. She looked like she was watching a soap opera.

“Noooo,” she said softly as silence fell. “Don’t stop there.”

“What?” Evelyn squinted at her.

A thump from upstairs interrupted us, followed by an audible slosh and a sound like a short-lived miniature waterfall. Evelyn frowned at the ceiling like it was about to come down on our heads, but Number 12 Barnslow Drive was built to far better quality than some modern mockery of particle board and cheap pre-fab. The floorboards creaked as Zheng climbed out of the bath.

“I still need to find her some replacement clothes,” I said to nobody in particular.

“Hey, uh, what do I do here?” Twil said suddenly, backing up toward the wall. “Guys, uh, um, this isn’t- uh-”

She was staring at the tentacle which had been slowly approaching her for the last few minutes. Tenny wasn’t even paying attention to it, but the tentacle-tip was very much paying attention to Twil; it zeroed in on her like a curious kitten, darting one way then the other, as if trying to sniff her out. Twil cringed to the side, then batted ineffectually at the tentacle with one hand. It dodged around her swat, came up inside her reach, and darted for her face.

Twil jumped out of her skin, leapt back in a tumble of limbs as she blundered into the wall, and suddenly the tentacle was facing a maw full of canine teeth. Tenny turned in surprise, big black eyes blinking at Twil.

“No no!” Tenny said. We all stared at her.

“Call her off! Fuck!” Twil growled.

“She’s only playing,” said Lozzie.

“Yes,” Evelyn sighed. “Stop over-reacting.”

“She’s fucking going for me!” Twil spat. “Like she did with Zheng! Even I’ll die if I get my bloody head pulled off!”

“If she was doing that, she’d be considerably faster,” I said. “Tenny? Tenny, what do you mean, no?”

“No,” Tenny repeated, a weird fluttering noise beneath a flute of air, like a parrot with the lungs of a spider. “No, touch?”

“She just wants to pet you,” Evelyn said with a nasty smirk and a shake of her head. “Maybe she likes the smell of wet dog.”

“Don’t pretend you’re any different,” I said. Evelyn went red in the face and let out a splutter, but unfortunately Twil was too focused on the tentacle.

“Look, I’m cool with her and all,” Twil said. “But I don’t wanna get-”

Without warning, the tentacle shot forward, right for Twil’s face. Twil yelped, Lozzie gasped, I flinched in my seat through I was halfway across the room.

Praem’s hand shot out and grabbed it mid-flight.

Tenny let out a noise like a squirrel hit by a flying rock. The tentacle in Praem’s hand turned to face her, but Praem stared at Tenny’s eyes, expressionless and impassive, milk-white eyes meeting void-dark as Tenny looked back, huffing and hissing, a very unhappy puppy.

“Concentrate,” Praem intoned.

She let go. Tenny pulled the trapped appendage free, paused, and looked at Twil again. She tilted her head to the side – almost all the way to the side, revealing just how far one could contort their body when not limited by silly things like ‘having a spine’.

“Ahhh come on, don’t do that Exorcist shit at me!” Twil said.

“Calm down, she’s thinking,” I said. “Concentrating.”

“Please,” Tenny managed. The word was half-mangled. She couldn’t quite get the ‘l’ sound right, rolled it at the top of her mouth, elongated the ‘s’ too much and repeated the word twice, refining her own speech. “Please? Please?”

The tentacle waved at Twil’s face.

Twil grimaced, looked to the rest of us for rescue.

“She won’t hurt you, and she’s asking nice,” said Lozzie. “Promise-promise, yes Tenny?”

“Probably just wants to pat your head or something,” Raine said.

Evelyn looked on, unamused. I wondered if she was jealous.

In the corner of my eye I noticed another tentacle, one we’d all missed, creeping across the table and sneaking into the half-finished mug of coffee I’d been drinking from. It dipped inside and sucked up the dregs. A further tentacle slid past and right up to me. I offered it my hand, and it slipped in, wrapped around my fingers and palm and up my forearm. Warm, smooth, soft, but tough; human skin blended with silk and rubber.

“See?” I held up the hand-holding. “A little unorthodox, but she’s not trying to eat my hand or anything.”

“She bites me, I’m gonna bite her back,” Twil hissed through her teeth. “Just like, don’t stick it up my nose or anything, yeah? Then we’re cool. Be cool, okay? Be cool.”

Tenny’s exploratory tentacle edged forward. Twil grit her teeth, wincing in slow motion as it drew near her face.

The tentacle brushed against Twil’s hair, then twirled several locks of it around the tip, flicking it up and down. After twenty seconds of this, it became apparent to everyone watching that Tenny just wanted to play with Twil’s hair.

“Why me?” Twil asked, in the strangled voice one might use while being investigated by an elephant’s trunk.

“You’re the only one of us with curls,” Raine said.

“’urls,” went Tenny.

“She likes you. Deal with it,” Evelyn said, a hint of strange bitterness in her voice, too many layers deep for Twil to notice right now.

“At least she’s clean now,” I said. “You won’t have to wash your hair.”

“Clean,” Tenny managed, though it sounded closer to ‘cream’. Lozzie praised her with much excited patting and negotiated the damp towel back out of her hands after a bit of gentle tugging.

“Okay, uh, right, well.” Twil still cringed away from the curious tentacle, but she also reached up and touched it, gently removing it from her hair as she stared at Tenny with a smile of forced politeness. Tenny tilted her head sideways again. “Now that’s over, can we like, eat something? I’m starving here.”

“I don’t like this uninhibited curiosity,” Evelyn said.

I blinked at her. “Evee?”

“This,” Evelyn pointed at Tenny’s smooth dark tentacles, eight of them all over the kitchen by now. One was even worming its way into the utility room in the back, perhaps to investigate the muffled thump-thump-thump of the dryer hard at work. “Tenny? Tenny.”

Evelyn clicked her fingers. Tenny looked around and stared at her.

“Evee, don’t snap at her,” I said.

“Are you intelligent enough to understand you can’t do this in public, that you have to hide? Can you use those wings for that, are you even aware of that?” Evelyn asked her, then sighed and shook her head when she got no reply but a blank stare. “If she doesn’t understand, then we’re going to have to keep her confined, in the house. Indefinitely.”

“Awww!” Lozzie said with a long face. “But she needs to learn how to use her wings!”

Evelyn turned cold eyes on Lozzie. “And what if she flies over a farm, hm? Spooks some red-faced idiot with a flat cap and shotgun and takes a full load of buckshot in the chest? Or if she gets a taste for live meat again and snatches a child off the streets in Sharrowford? Or hell, if she’s even seen, we’ll have every UFO nutter and conspiracy crank in England descending on the city within days.”

Lozzie pouted, sad but not defiant. One hand lingered on Tenny’s neck, fluffing her fur.

“Gaaah?” went Tenny.

I sighed, heavily. This conversation was inevitable, sooner or later, but I’d hoped Evelyn would put it to one side for at least the first night of Tenny’s physical life. I rubbed the bridge of my nose, my eyes aching with tiredness. Part of me wanted to stand up and walk out and just let everyone else figure this out without me.

“What’d somebody … uh … ‘normal’,” Twil made air-quotes with one hand, “even remember if they spotted her? Like, what would they actually see?”

“That is the question, isn’t it?” I said.

“Cuteness!” Lozzie declared.

Now she was warm and dry and no longer dripping with her own amniotic fluids, Tenny looked even less human than when she’d slopped out of her cocoon. Dove-white, velvet-soft, varying in length from peach-fuzz to inch-thick carpet around her belly and hips, her fur had fluffed up after a good clean and the five or six minutes Lozzie had managed to make her sit still while subjected to a hairdryer. The fur on the inside of her wings was particularly dense, perhaps as insulation against the cold, and the wings themselves moved as she did, making little adjustments as they hung down around her body like a living cloak.

She hadn’t extended her wings to their full span again since the first stretch outdoors in the garden, which was lucky because she’d probably knock half the furniture over if she tried. The front room could perhaps accommodate a good stretch, but only if she stood sideways.

As she moved, her wings seemed to briefly take on the colouration or outline of the kitchen cabinets and open doorway behind her, but the effect was always blurred, half-hearted, incomplete, an autonomic bodily function rather than conscious action.

Her antennae twitched constantly, also on automatic. My private theory was that those functioned as hearing. No ears on the sides of her head.

Perhaps she could hide, if one saw her at night, with her wings pulled tight like a real cloak, concealing the swirls and curves of fur on her midnight skin. And if she wasn’t looking at you with those giant black eyes.

Perhaps then, one could mistake her for a human being, however briefly.

“The Sharrowford mothman, most likely,” Evelyn said. “Or a bag of carpet cuttings glued to an ambulatory eight-ball. Or they’d remember nothing except a screaming fit, a trick of the eyes, a ghost.”

“How far does that kind of mental editing go?” I asked. “Could anybody actually see her for what she is?”

Evelyn shrugged and sighed. “Search me, Heather, I don’t bloody well know. Most zombies, demons, whatever, they break down long before they reach this level of … irregularity.” She gestured at Tenny, and Tenny watched her hand in motion, then moved a tentacle closer to Evelyn’s chair. Evelyn watched it approach, unperturbed. Above our heads, the upstairs floorboards creaked softly as something massive stalked across them.

“Some may see the evidence of their eyes at first,” Evelyn continued, “then later deny what they saw. Others might panic, or remember nothing, not even see her. One or two might see but not react at all, and that would be very dangerous. I suppose we could invite your detective friend over and ask her what she sees.”

“I think I broke in miss Webb quite badly already,” I said. “We all did.”

“What about that super-long tentacle she had?” Twil asked. “She might sneak it out while we’re not watching, right?”

“I suspect that was only the pupa stage,” I said. “Still pneuma-somatic. It did go dead in my hand before she woke up inside the cocoon.”

“Yes,” Evelyn tutted. Tenny’s exploratory tentacle finished its approach, and Evelyn put one hand confidently on top of it, pinning it gently but firmly to the tabletop. Tenny let out a noise of complaint, and Evelyn fixed her with a look as she spoke. “A twenty-mile long tentacle would require a much larger physical body, huge support structure, probably a different respiratory system as well, not to mention massive calorific intake. We’re not Outside, our reality can’t support such things, not in the physical. She’s made herself physical and human-sized, and that imposes certain limits. Doesn’t it, Tenny? You might not know this, but the process of your metamorphosis certainly did.”

Tenny puffed her cheeks out – a mannerism I realised she’d picked up from Lozzie – and wriggled her tentacle out from Evelyn’s trap.

“Naaah!” she fluttered.

“As long as we understand each other,” Evelyn said.

“Be nice,” Lozzie said, suddenly small and worried. “Please?”

“I-” Evelyn almost snapped, but Lozzie’s puppy-dog-eyes stopped her cold. She huffed and hesitated and opened her mouth to try again, then sighed and ran a hand over her face, looking away with embarrassment. Tenny’s tentacle darted back, tapped her on the top of the head, and darted away again as she flinched and frowned at it.

Tenny let out a rapid panting, throaty and jerky, like air forced through a paper flute. We all stared, and she trailed off, confused at our confusion.

“Was that a giggle?” I asked.

Startled by the strange, alien vocalisation, we’d all missed the subtle tread of bare footsteps making their way down the stairs. Except Raine. She noticed, and when I looked back on the moment I realised she tightened her grip on my shoulders ever so slightly. She just thought it would be funnier this way.

Evelyn sighed again. “Look, Lozzie, I am trying to be nice. This is me, being nice. I am attempting to figure out how to dissuade Tenny from endangering herself.”

“She can learn,” Lozzie said.

“Can she learn fast enough?” Evelyn gestured at Tenny, then tapped on the tabletop with a fingernail. “Sharrowford is not-” tap “the safest-” tap “place-” tap.

We never figured out if it was the tapping or the challenge. Evelyn swears the former was the cause. Lozzie thinks it was the latter, that Tenny had taken offence.

Personally I think it had more to do with Zheng appearing in the kitchen doorway like a huge, naked ghost.

On the third tap, Tenny’s wings exploded into a blur. One moment she was turning toward Zheng, all her tentacles whipping back to her shoulders, wings wrapping around herself like a cloak in a storm. The next moment she was gone.

“Ooooh!” Lozzie clapped her hands. “Bravo!”

“ … woah,” Twil said.

“About time,” Evelyn drawled.

Tenny had created an optical illusion. The space where she stood was now occupied by the shapes and shadows behind her, as if interpreted by an artist mainlining psychoactive drugs and seen through a chunk of glass or crystal. The exterior of her wings – part of which she’d somehow lifted over her head, a hood perhaps? – matched the line of the kitchen doorway, the colour of the cupboards, the fall of the shadows. I found myself blinking, struggling to focus on her. The visual effect made my eyes water, unless I stopped trying and just accepted she wasn’t there.

“Shaman,” Zheng purred, stepping into the kitchen, naked except for a single small towel hanging over her shoulder. A grin split her face. She knew exactly what she was doing. “I need clothes.”

The imitative jumble where Tenny stood backed up a step and let out a muffled hiss.

I tried not to stare at Zheng, and I failed. I’d never seen her clean before. Red-chocolate skin steamed softly, her hair stuck up in all directions, the remains of her tattoos flexed across her abdomen and thighs and chest, marked with huge missing patches where I’d removed their power. A thick dark thatch of hair between her legs made my eyes pop out of my skull, before I mercifully managed to lower my head, hands up as if to protect myself, red in the face.

“Uh, um, um, yes, clothes, good, yes,” I stammered.

“Bloody hell,” Twil said, and I heard the laugh in her voice. “You’re fucking massive.”

“Yes, very mature, indeed,” Evelyn sighed.

“Discretion, better part of valour,” Praem sing-songed. I wasn’t sure if that was directed at Zheng’s nudity or Twil’s admiration.

Raine was laughing.

“No, don’t scare her!” Lozzie said, not batting an eyelid at this sudden confrontational nudity. Her hands found Tenny’s hood, or whatever it was, and tugged it down. Suddenly Tenny’s white-furred head reappeared in mid-air, blinking those massive black eyes.

“Puppy,” Zheng greeted her.

Tenny hissed at her again, very loud, mouth wide open.

“Shaman, clothes,” Zheng purred, ignoring Tenny and stepping closer. Lozzie managed to get her arms inside Tenny’s wings somehow, holding her back, though several tentacles snaked overhead. “Unless you prefer me naked?”

“I-I don’t- I- maybe we should- uh-”

“Lemme take you upstairs, see if there’s anything in my old wardrobe,” Raine said, stepping back from my chair and imposing herself between Tenny and Zheng, looking the demon-host up and down with a quick nod. “Yeah, I think I’ve got some over-sized stuff that’ll last you the night, but we need to pick up something more your size, right? You can hardly come out shopping with us, but we can do that for you. Me and Heather, at least.”

Zheng gave her an amused look and a flash of teeth. “Yoshou?”

“Can somebody get this naked woman out of the kitchen, please?” Evelyn asked.

I stood up too, face burning, mortified and aroused and embarrassed and feeling like the inside of my head was spinning out of control. “Yes, of course, I-”

“Hey, Heather,” Raine said, and her tone was so easy, too easy, layered over an unquestionable command that could have told me to do anything in that moment. She caught my eyes, flint in her own. “Relax, you’ve been going all day. Let me deal with this.”

Let me deal with clothing the giant zombie to whom you are terminally attracted, Heather. You’re not going to be alone with her, not now, Raine’s body language said. Sit down.

I nodded. Averted my eyes. “’kay. Okay.”

We really needed to have that talk.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

nostalgia for infinity – 9.11

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

“Raine, that’s not possible.”

At least that’s what I meant to say. What I actually said sounded more like ‘buh?’

Lashed high in the gnarled old tree in the back garden, washed by cold rain in the early spring air, framed by the roiling storm clouds in the sky above, Tenny’s cocoon thumped and shuddered a third time. Branches creaked under pressure, a faint tremor vibrated through the ground, and a scratching, flaking, cracking sound followed, like claws raking across loose rock.

A pair of feelers flickered forth again, through the hair-line fracture in the top of the cocoon, white and feathery, tentative and nervous as they tasted the air and drank the rain.

“There,” Raine hissed. “Heather, right there, I can see those.”

“Ooooooh. Again!” Lozzie called to the cocoon. “Again! You can do it!”

“I don’t- that’s not- you can’t-” I stammered. “Oh no.”

The feelers withdrew. A pause, then the chrysalis shuddered again, rocking against the tree branches, slammed from within by incredible strength.

Raine stepped in front of Lozzie and I, still sheltering us beneath the umbrella, rain dripping from the brim. She held her knife low but obvious in the other hand. I was still too shocked and confused to complain, to tell her to put that thing away. Up in the tree, Tenny – or whatever she was now – had began to rock the cocoon back and forth, as if she was trying to roll it like a hamster ball. The age and stoutness of the tree-branches held it firm.

“Everyone else saw that too, yeah?” Raine asked over her shoulder without taking her eyes from the tree. “I haven’t just picked up Heather’s talent by sexual osmosis, right?”

“Yeah! Yeah, shit, oh shit,” Twil spat back, claws already out, nose wrinkled in disgust.

“Quite, yes,” Evelyn hissed.

From back by the house, Kimberly made a squeak that probably meant yes, and also probably meant ‘please allow me to leave before I wet myself’.

“Can bloody well smell it too,” Twil said.

Raine sniffed, and so did I. Twil was right. An unfamiliar organic scent had added itself to the storm-tossed cocktail of wet grass and slick mud; an iron-and-mucus smell, a sweat-and-blood smell. Not unpleasant exactly, not rot or disease, but rich and tangy like blood-laced spice in the back of one’s throat.

“Spirits do not smell of anything,” Evelyn said, strangled and urgent, shaking her head. “It’s a- Tenny … she’s bootstrapped herself a physical body.”

“Is that bad?” Twil asked.

“How am I supposed to know?” Evelyn snapped at her. “Let’s … withdraw, yes. Maybe indoors. We don’t know what’s going to come out of there.”

“It’s only Tenny!” Lozzie said, turning to everyone else with a little pouty frown.

“Only,” Praem echoed.

Despite the inflectionless bell-tone of her voice, Praem made her scepticism obvious. She took a half-step to the side, still holding the umbrella aloft over Evelyn, and made an ‘after-you’ gesture with one neatly gloved hand.

“Sure it’s Tenny,” Raine said. “But what’s Tenny now?”

The cocoon had stopped rocking, but the scratching sound had resumed, a desperate scritch-scritch-scape-scape, punctuated by weird wet slapping as if from inside a drum. An occasional fluttery fanning teased the edge of my hearing.

“She cannot break it,” Zheng purred.

I glanced up at Zheng’s contemplative look, trying to marshal my thoughts. I was going cold inside, shivering despite my hoodie, and wrapped my arms around myself more for comfort than warmth. “What?”

“No egg tooth.”

“ … you mean she can’t get out on her own?”

Zheng shrugged. “We could wait and see, shaman. Maybe the shell will fill with rainwater first.”

That sharpened my mind.

Unfortunately, my phantom limbs responded before I did. Tentacles that existed only in my imagination tried to reach up to Tenny’s cocoon with a half-formed mental image of prying her out before she drowned. I gasped as twin lances of pain stabbed into both my flanks. Bruised flesh and torn muscle twitched and quivered as my body tried to guide limbs I didn’t have. I screwed my eyes up tight and squeezed my sides with my hands, trying to quell the attack, trying not to think about Tenny panicking inside her chrysalis, trapped and alone.

“Heather?” Raine called. “Woah, Heather, Heather?”

“Shaman?”

“I’m fine,” I croaked, then sighed. “Damn it all.”

“Yes, quite,” Evelyn snapped. “Don’t you dare, Heather. That’s all we’d need right now.”

“She can’t get out,” I croaked. “She-”

“Good! We should not be able to see that, none of us. This- this- this should not exist, not here, this is dangerous and-”

“You are dangerous, wizard,” Zheng purred. “I am dangerous. Every monkey and monster in this garden is dangerous.”

“Yes,” I agreed, gathering my wits, straightening up, wincing as my sore muscles complained at even the smallest motion. “Everyone calm down, please. Raine, would you please put that knife away?”

“Not a hundred percent on that just yet,” said Raine.

“Heather, that is a spirit in there,” Evelyn said. “And we can all see it and I don’t know what that means.”

“Then we’re going to be the first to find out, aren’t we?” I said with a sigh.

“We are,” Praem echoed. She stared right at me.

“Praem?”

The doll-demon declined to expand.

Evelyn huffed. “Heather-”

“Evee, need I remind you that you borderline tortured Tenny at one point?” I shot her a look – my best impression of her own expression – and felt like a bad friend for bringing that up, but this wasn’t time for careful debate. “I’m sure whatever she looks like now, she- I don’t care what she-” I pinched the bridge of my nose and screwed my eyes up. “ … why can you all see her? This doesn’t make any sense.”

“Tch!” Lozzie tutted and sighed, arms sagging, eyes rolling, the very picture of a grumpy teenager. “Because she’s gotten really clever, duh! I keep telling you but you’re not listening!”

“Great, yes,” Evelyn spat. “A hyper-intelligent spirit, after spending God alone knows how long eating live meat, is just about to hatch into an actual physical body.”

“Yes,” I said. “That’s um … a little unprecedented, I know.”

Evelyn snorted. “And I’m sure we’d all love to meet it in a completely uncontrolled manner five seconds after it’s born. Great plan. Bravo.”

“My thoughts exactly,” said Raine.

Evelyn grabbed Praem’s umbrella with one hand and used it like a lead, directing the doll-demon to accompany her on a retreat back up the garden and toward the house. “Don’t come crying to me when you get bitten!”

Twil grimaced, briefly left behind. Rainwater drummed off her hood. “She’s got a point, come on.”

“Tenny recognised me,” I said. “I’m sure … I’m certain whatever comes out of that … it’ll … ” I glanced up at the cocoon again as the scratching noises intensified. I was lying, to both myself and everyone else. The feeding tentacle, the dead sheep, the incredible strength with which Tenny had fought Zheng. None of these were exactly promising signs.

Behind us, the back door banged open. Evelyn stomped past Kimberly and into the house, stamping rainwater off her shoes. Praem waited.

“She did listen to me,” I said. “Tenny listened to me when I told her to stop fighting Zheng. She remembers me, it’s Tenny in there.”

“Yeah yeah, I believe you, right,” said Twil. “But like, lets not risk getting between a dog and it’s food or something?”

“Ha!” Zheng barked. “You monkeys. Flee if you wish.”

“Not everyone wants to fight everything all the time, alright?” Twil rolled her eyes, then slunk over to Praem and took shelter beneath the umbrella.

“Heather-” Raine started.

“Raine, don’t.”

“Compromise?” Raine said softly, finally looking away from the tree to meet my eyes at her side. “Back up a bit, give her room to breathe. She recognises you, then it’s fine, sure, but let’s give her room to get her bearings.”

“She’s stuck in the cocoon, Raine! She can’t get out, I have to help, I-”

“Listen to your right hand, shaman,” Zheng purred. “She keeps you safe.”

“Make up your mind,” I snapped at her. “You tell us off for being afraid and then-”

“The laangren could stay. You are more fragile.”

“Zheng! It-” A light bulb came on in my brain. “Oh, you could-”

“Mm,” Zheng grunted. “Would be a pity, to leave such strength to rot in its shell.”

She knew what I was going to ask. She’d probably thought of it before I did. Without a another word, Zheng strode forward and climbed the tree again in three quick bounds. She did wobble slightly at the top, taking an extra moment than expected to find her footing, either because of her sodden, unwieldy clothes or due to the injures she’d sustained during the fight.

“Compromise then, please?” Raine asked. “Zheng’s on it, we can back up a bit. And for the record, I believe you that it’s Tenny in there.” She allowed herself an indulgent smile, and I was torn inside between a heart-flutter and irritation. “But humour me, please Heather?”

Zheng was already bending down and planting her hands either side of the hairline crack in the frozen-tar surface of the cocoon. Lozzie clapped her hands above her head, swinging her arms up and down like she was following a calisthenics video, chanting ‘Come. Out. Come. Out!’ over and over.

“I’m not leaving Lozzie here,” I murmured. “And I don’t think either of us can convince her to back away.”

“Oh ye of little faith.” Raine smirked, then called out. “Hey, Lozz?”

“Mm?” Lozzie craned back, caught mid-clap.

“Let’s give Tenny some room to come out proper, yeah? If she’s really that big, we better give her some space to, you know, unfold.” Raine gestured with the umbrella. “Come huddle up with us.”

“Yes, please,” I sighed, my concerns all piling up in one big mess. “Please don’t get too wet and cold again, Lozzie.”

“Okay!” Lozzie chirped, to my incredible surprise. She hopped back toward us and ducked under the umbrella, and instantly linked arms with me, holding on tight.

Up in the tree, Zheng bore down and pushed, trying to simply force the two halves of the split cocoon further apart. Her lips pulled back in a grimace of exertion, but the shell proved too strong even for her. She wound back one fist and slammed the crack with all her strength, pulled back bloody knuckles and punched it again, and again.

As Raine hurried to lead us back toward the house, Lozzie giggled under her breath and smiled an oddly knowing little smile, just for me. She bit her lip and rolled her eyes and in that moment I realised she knew exactly what Raine had just pulled.

“Lozzie-” I hissed.

“Shhh,” she put a finger to her lips and whispered. “Raine-y brainy worry-wart.”

“ … I hope you’re right,” I hissed back.

We withdrew, but not as far as Twil and Praem had retreated. Kimberly stood inside the threshold of the back door now, ready to bolt. Evelyn had returned, scowling. In one hand she carried the carved thigh-bone, the closest thing she possessed to a magical weapon.

“Oh this is a fine display,” Evelyn was grumbling, grinding her teeth as she spoke. “In the middle of the day, in broad daylight-”

“Hardly broad, hey?” Twil pointed at the stormy sky.

“You know what I mean, don’t be dense. Oh, what do you care, running around in the woods covered in fur? I bet you’ve shocked more than a few hikers and you don’t care, they just make up urban legends. You don’t understand the first-”

“Kiss and make up already, you two,” I sighed, too exhausted to care.

“I- Heather- excuse me?!” Evelyn glared.

Twil just dipped her head, cleared her throat, and gestured up at the tree. “Weirdest uh, weirdest mime show ever, right? Heh.”

Zheng had breached the shell at last, forced a tiny gap wide enough to jam her fingertips into, and was busy ripping chunks of cocoon free and tossing them to the grass. The cocoon came away in Zheng’s fists as only part-solid, masses of layered fibres packed with a viscous black goo that stuck fast in great sticky strips, like a cross between a wood-pulp-and-saliva wasp nest and fibreglass soaked in molten toffee. Each chunk steamed softly in the rain, slowly melting to nothingness in the grass.

The smell intensified, wet and rich and biological. But the cocoon was so dense, Zheng’s digging barely seemed to make a dent.

“What is this stuff?” I murmured.

“Metamorphosis,” Praem intoned.

“Yes, but-” I looked at her and halted. Despite the lack of pupils in her milk-white eyes, I felt her attention directly on me. “Praem?”

Up in the tree, Zheng was chanting under her breath, a rolling rhythm in a language I did not recognise, a work-song. She jammed both hands into the hole she’d made, one on either side, and braced her shoulders, a living crowbar.

“True metamorphosis requires pain,” Praem sing-songed.

We all shared a glance. Evelyn frowned at her. “And what do you know about pa-”

Shrrrrrr-sloop.

With a sound like a cartoon snake popping from a garden hose, a thick black tentacle suddenly shot up through the hole in the cocoon, right into Zheng’s face. But Zheng had learnt; she dodged back with a casual flick of her head. The tentacle went sailing past.

It possessed none of the clarity of the giant feeding tentacle we’d encountered in the woods. After missing Zheng, it flopped to one side and slapped about blindly on the exterior of the cocoon, like a person fumbling for a light switch in the dark. Whatever senses Tenny’s pupa-stage had boasted, they’d withdrawn, concentrated, transferred to the thing trying desperately to claw itself free.

Zheng caught the appendage in mid-air, in one fist.

“Stay down, golog.”

She let the tentacle go. It instantly whipped back into the cocoon with a loud pop.

“Well,” Raine said with grim sort of grin. “Saw that one too.”

“Ugh,” went Twil. “That was like a giant slug. You’ve touched that, Heather?”

“I still don’t understand,” I admitted. “She’s … she’s turned herself from a spirit into … real life?”

“She’s a real girl now,” Lozzie giggled.

“Bootstrapping itself from one order of life to the other,” Evelyn muttered under her breath, as we all watched Zheng once again brace her hands either side of the hole she’d made. She put her back into it, bending forward and straining with all her strength, trying to rip the shell open. She bared her teeth, started to go red in the face. The cocoon wouldn’t budge, the crack still not enough to split the two halves. “This is an absolute nightmare, Heather. This is a level-ten fuck up.”

“But … but it’s Tenny.”

“I don’t know what we’re even looking at here,” Evelyn hissed, turning to me, eyes blazing. “This is completely beyond my knowledge, this isn’t supposed to happen, I’ve never seen it described, hinted at, anything. Even if what comes out of that cocoon is exactly as friendly as what went in, we can see it. Things like Zheng, or Praem, or hell, Twil here, at least they look passably human, but-”

“Aw thanks, yeah,” Twil muttered.

“But this?” She gestured with the tip of her walking stick, up at the tree. “Huge headache, at the very least. It’s one thing for some passer-by on the street to write Praem off as a weirdo in cosplay-”

Praem turned her head to stare at her mistress, but Evelyn ranted on.

“It’s entirely another to explain away a faceless tentacle monster with skin made of tar – or whatever the fuck is going to fall out of that egg!” She blew out a long breath and glared at me, coming down from her little rant. “Why do you keep doing this to me, Heather?”

“I’m … Evee, I’m sorry, I-”

“That part was a joke.” She huffed and looked away. “It’s hardly your fault.” She nodded at Lozzie. “More hers.”

“Nyeeeeh.” Lozzie stuck her tongue out at Evelyn, which earned her a pinched frown.

“We- we could get her indoors as quickly as possible,” I said. “That is, if she’s … if it’s safe. I mean, I don’t want to … I can’t just-” I understood what Evelyn was saying, or thought I did. For all that we were a bunch of monsters and magicians, we all looked human. Even Zheng, even if she looked like she’d stepped down from mount Olympus. “I can’t just … make her go away.”

“Yes, yes,” Evelyn sighed. “You’ve made your point well enough before, Heather. You were right then, and you’re right now, as much as it pains me to admit.”

“You, admitting you’re wrong?” Twil elbowed Evelyn in the side, grinning. “Yeah right.”

Evelyn glared at her until Twil pulled a grimace and looked away, then Evelyn turned back to me. “My point is, I get it, alright? Non-human fr-” she slammed to a halt and glanced at Praem.

“Friends?” I supplied the word. “Non-human friends are friends too?”

Evelyn sighed like we were all pets that had just messed all over the floor. “Why do you always sound so convincing when you spout lines like that? Yes, exactly. Friends, allies, whatever. It’s a responsibility, even. So no, I’m not suggesting we drive Tenny off, assuming she doesn’t emerge as a giant moth and immediately dust all of Sharrowford with poisonous spores.”

“Evee?” Raine asked. “You joking?”

Evelyn shrugged, raised her chin, and readied one hand on the carved thighbone. “We are playing with fire. We’ve been doing it for months. Let’s find out.”

Raine glanced at the back door, then at me.

“Oh no,” I said. “I’m not leaving now.”

“Worst case, we end up with a giant moth corpse to dispose of,” Evelyn grumbled. “Perhaps we could lure it into a fire.”

Up in the tree, Zheng strained harder, using her feet as leverage too now, braced against the branches like some kind of superhuman car jack. Beneath her wet clothes, her muscles rippled like steel cables. Veins stood out on her forehead as she heaved, and the hairline crack in the cocoon appeared to flex wider, but the material itself held strong. Zheng reached her limit and I heard a distinct pop-crack of a breaking bone as her left arm buckled. She stood up and sighed heavily, chest heaving up and down as she sucked in great lung-fulls of cold air. With her good hand she reached over and cracked her elbow back into place.

“No luck?” Raine called.

Zheng shrugged.

“Hold, please,” Praem suddenly intoned. She was offering the umbrella handle to Twil.

“Wha-”

“Hold, please.”

“I-”

“Praem?” Evelyn said. “What are you up to?”

“Evelyn will get wet. Hold please.”

“Uh, alright.” Twil took the umbrella, holding it over herself and Evelyn. “But-”

Praem turned neatly on one heel, and marched off toward the tree.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Evelyn snapped. “You- Praem! Get back here! Praem!”

Praem ignored her mistress. Hands clasped before her, she glided across the garden with neat, measured strides, her shoes dusted with rainwater, her hair getting damp, shoulders of her uniform dotted with raindrops, quickly turning soggy in the slow deluge. Zheng watched as Praem approached the tree.

“Demon,” she rumbled. “What do you propose?”

Praem didn’t bother to answer, look up, or even stop, but simply hiked her skirt up and started climbing the tree. She lacked Zheng’s explosive muscular force, but more than made up for that with grip strength, balance, and a comfortable pair of shoes. With careful, confident motions, she scaled the tree-trunk and pulled herself up next to Zheng, a good two feet shorter than the giant zombie.

“Oh yes, you climb the tree as well,” Evelyn huffed. “That’ll go down fantastically if we’re seen.”

“Is she stronger than Zheng?” Twil asked, frowning. “Or they gonna work together?”

“I don’t care what they do,” I said. “As long as they get Tenny out.”

Zheng, one eyebrow raised in amused curiosity, gestured to the cocoon, as if to say ‘fine, your turn’. Praem ignored her and bent forward over the frozen tarry-black egg, head twitching one way, then the other, examining the surface. The cocoon rocked and shuddered as Tenny resumed her panic, or instinctive hatching behaviour, or whatever it was. Praem reached forward and tapped the cocoon with one knuckle, as if on a door. The rocking stopped. She put her ear to the cocoon and tapped again, and again, and again, mechanically testing every few inches.

One minute stretched into three. Three drew out into five. Evelyn ground her teeth. I started shivering, the enforced wait gnawing at my belly. Up in the tree, Praem was quickly soaked through to her wooden bones, but she kept going.

Zheng watched dispassionately, then eventually glanced at us mere humans huddled down in the garden.

“Wizard,” she called. “We need another method. Your method.”

Evelyn screwed her eyes shut and pinched the bridge of her nose.

“Evee, I know,” I said, feeling her pain. “It’s been a long day, but please, I’m not going to leave Tenny to drown or suffocate in there, please, I-”

“Alright!” Evelyn hissed. “Yes, fine. God alone knows what I’m going to do, I don’t even know where to start.”

Praem stood up.

“Here.”

She touched the tip of one finger against the surface of Tenny’s cocoon, at a point on the side, quite far from the long hairline fracture.

“Mmm?” Zheng rumbled.

“Punch here.”

“Punch? Why can’t you do that, little thing? Feeling weak?”

Praem clasped her hands demurely in front of herself, and resumed her habitual pose of perfect poise – no easy feat when standing on a tree branch, drenched from head to toe. Her hair was dripping wet now, blonde slicked together into long rat-tails stuck to the back of her dress. She stared at Zheng for a moment, then turned on her heel and promptly fell out of the tree.

Again, she lacked Zheng’s muscular power or impact, but possessed a preternatural grace. She landed at the base of the tree with a little squelch on the wet grass, marched away a few paces, turned, and looked up at Zheng.

“Get on with it,” she sing-songed. “Gorilla.”

For a split-second I thought Zheng was going to jump down out of the tree and fist-fight Praem on the spot. Evelyn would have a fit. But then Zheng broke into a grin, barked one ‘ha!’ of laughter, and wound up a fist. She rocked back and slammed a punch into the spot Praem had indicated, put all her strength into one strike.

The cocoon split like a cracked walnut.

The shell exploded into fragments, some falling out of the tree and crashing to the earth, others stuck between the branches, fragments pinging off and bouncing through the leaves. Zheng actually blinked in surprise. A wave of thick black fluid slopped free as the cocoon burst, splashing to the ground, diluted with rainwater but still reeking of that iron-and-mucus smell.

Flesh fell with fluid, a bundle of black meat and white fur, flopping limbs and limp pseudopods, a confusion of fluttering, twitching body parts that slithered to the ground in the middle of the exploded cocoon.

“Yaaay!” Lozzie cheered.

“Lozzie, Lozzie hold on,” I said quickly, holding fast to her arm looped through my own. “Let her … let her … ”

Tenny, whatever she was now, lay still in a heap on the grass.

Raine, Evelyn, Twil, Kimberly, none of them could see the cracked cocoon – but they absolutely saw the contents. To them, a bizarre creature had just fell into reality out of thin air, surrounded by her own reeking afterbirth.

“Ugh,” went Twil.

“Well, ‘least she’s out,” said Raine.

“Oh Goddess,” Kimberly squeaked from the back door.

Evelyn stared, wide-eyed, green around the gills again as Praem stepped forward, over a chunk of melting cocoon. “Don’t- Praem! Don’t touch it!”

The bundle of tar-black limbs and quivering feelers twitched and writhed on the ground – and something drew a first breath. A fluttering, flickering, feathery sound.

A strange silence came over us all. I recognised the tension in Raine’s limbs, ready to spring at one wrong move. Evelyn swallowed hard and fingered her carved thigh bone, hand slipping into position. Twil grit her teeth, barely holding back a growl. My stomach clenched hard.

“ … Tenny?” I called softly.

Soaked in her own viscous afterbirth, twitching and fluttering body parts that had never until this moment felt sunlight or rain, clumsy and confused but very much alive, ‘Tenny’ sat up.

Beautiful. The moment, I mean, not necessarily Tenny. Not a clean sort of beautiful, not the mathematical perfection of a cathedral or the elegance of a perfectly balanced poem, but a raw, instinctive sort of beauty. If you’ve ever watched an animal being born, or a moth pulling itself from its chrysalis and stretching its wings for the first time, that is the beauty I think we all saw in that moment, as this weird collection of alien flesh and quivering membranes sat up and blinked huge black-on-black pelagic eyes at the world.

I recognised those eyes, golfball-sized inky pools of limpid darkness, full of intense, innocent curiosity. But now those eyes blinked with triple lids, a quick flicker of three wet membranes over rolling orbs.

I let out a sigh of relief.

“Is it her?” Twil hissed.

“Yes,” I whispered, swallowed, repeated myself louder and clearer. “That’s Tenny, yes. She’s- she’s got the same eyes. Tenny? Tenny?”

Tenny was too numb and too new to respond, head waving slowly from one side to another as she unfolded unfamiliar parts; she had been through quite the metamorphosis.

At least she still had tentacles.

She also retained a head, two arms, and two legs, which was quite a relief. I’d half expected some segmented, chitinous, scuttling beast to emerge from that pupa, with Tenny’s eyes set above some monstrous slavering maw. I had a feeling we’d gotten exceptionally lucky.

Her skin was still the same pitch-black, but no longer bubbled and roiled like the surface of boiling tar. It had set, satin-smooth and slick wet with amniotic fluid, slowly washed by the falling rain, undeniably biological.

Lozzie squealed like an old steam kettle, both hands to her own mouth. “She’s so fluffyyyy!”

Tenny was, indeed, very fluffy. Sort of plump, too.

She’d grown thick tufts of feathery white fur across her thighs, hips, up her back and belly, over her head, up her throat, across her forearms. The fur formed streaks and swirls, a pattern that seemed to follow some kind of curved geometric logic. As she brought her arms up and stuck a finger – long and delicate but without fingernails or knuckles – into her own mouth, I saw actual muscle fibres bunch and relax beneath her skin. Tendons flexed, skin stretched, individual white hairs separated. A quartet of insect antennae twitched from atop her head, two-foot-long feathery white feelers tasting the rain. She’d turned pneuma-somatic flesh into physical cells.

How many meals of raw mutton had that taken, I wondered.

She’d grown a mouth too, and a nose. In her face, rather than relying solely on the one in her chest, which still lingered as a puckered line across her breast. Tenny looked up as Praem stopped a few paces away, pulled the exploratory finger out of her own mouth, and opened her pitch-black lips.

“Nnnn … nnnuuuhhh,” went Tenny, with the mouth in her face.

A fluttering voice, like dry hands rifling through a stack of papers, warm air drawn over frilled lungs. Tenny closed her mouth, made a child-like popping sound with her lips, and decided now was a good time to attempt the feat of standing up.

She wasn’t very good at it. Wobbly and clumsy, no balance, couldn’t work her ankles, spent a lot of time staring at them and rotating them before she made them support her weight. Lozzie made another muffled squeal, as if we were all watching a stumbling puppy rather than some nightmare moth-creature dredged up from the other side of reality.

“She wearing something?” Twil hissed.

“No, that’s attached to her,” I said. “Look.”

As Tenny stood, the rest of her unfolded. A sort of cloak structure covered her shoulders, attached at her neck, made of pitch-black flesh and falling about her in a protective layer of pseudo-clothing, all the way to her bare, stubby, toe-less feet.

The exterior surface of the cloak shifted like oil on water, a dizzying, disorienting effect, and for a moment Tenny’s outline looked only half there, the cloak almost managing to imitate the tree and the grass behind her – but then she overbalanced on her unsteady new legs, let out a ‘brrrrfff!’ and the effect rippled away. A clutch of very familiar tentacles shot out from beneath the shoulders of the flesh-cloak, to steady her against the ground and break her fall. She let out a petulant, fluttering ‘naaaah’.

 The inside of the cloak was lined with more fluffy white fur, dripping with the womb-fluid from Tenny’s cocoon. As she finally gained her feet, I realised she’d lost maybe a foot of height, a little shorter than Lozzie and I now, but she’d made up for it with mass.

She had hips – imitating us, with secondary sexual characteristics? – and the rest of her looked somehow softer and rounder, but not in the exact way or places a human being would. She’d filled out, but to the tune of her own biology, not in pure imitation of ours.

The flesh-cloak twitched, flickered, seemed almost to vibrate.

“Wings,” Raine said softly. “Them’s wings. Look at thaaaat.”

As if on cue, Tenny flexed and stretched her new wings, the cloak opening out and splitting into four parts, great leathery structures that looked completely incapable of actual flight. They unfurled and unfurled and kept going, each one about twelve feet long when stretched to maximum span.

Evelyn made a choking sound, a word caught in her throat.

Tenny stared at her own wings, looked at her own hands, looked at the sky, Praem, us. Her tentacles reached over and started to groom one of the wings, trying to clean the sticky black amniotic fluid off, like a bird preening itself.

Then she sagged with effort, the wings flopped back down into a cloak, and Tenny sat down in a heap.

“Buuuuullllffff,” she fluttered, a very grumpy child woken from a comfortable nap.

“That,” Twil said, bristling like a dog confronted by a lobster. “Is the weirdest fuckin’ thing I have ever seen.”

“Don’t exaggerate,” Evelyn grumbled.

“What do you mean, don’t exaggerate? Look at it!”

“What, you scared of a little bug?” Raine asked with a smirk, and slipped her knife away. “She’s exhausted, just been born, can’t even stand up.”

“She’s so cuuuute!” Lozzie squealed again, and wriggled out of my grip. I doubt anything could have stopped her, certainly not my weak “maybe wait” as she skipped across half the garden in two seconds and fell upon Tenny with a hug.

Luckily, Tenny seemed to recognise her, because she sat looking very confused for a moment before returning the hug with awkward, jerky motions, smearing black goo all over Lozzie’s clothes.

“Can’t argue with that,” Raine said.

“Cute?!” Twil boggled at everything and everyone.

“In the eye of the beholder, I suppose,” I muttered, but my own reaction went deeper, in a way I couldn’t voice. I swallowed, and settled on saying, “she is, kind of.”

“Yes, I’m sure this is all very charming, but this is still very much a worse-case scenario,” Evelyn snapped.

“Noooo! She’s amazing!” Lozzie turned back to us for a second before looking at Tenny again. “Aren’t you amazing? You’re amazing, look at you! You’re so big, you did so well, well done, I love you!”

She was touching Tenny all over, hands in her fur and linking with her fingers, patting her shoulders and ruffling what passed for hair, slipping beneath Tenny’s wings to hug her tighter. Tenny blinked like a cat getting petted and let out another wordless ‘naaaah’ sound.

Tenny’s tentacles searched further than her hands, poking and prodding at the pieces of shattered shell, ignoring them and moving on to the weeds amid the grass. Some of them still showed the wounds from her battle months ago, with Amy Stack’s scribble-monster, severed and burnt, but the rest seemed longer than before. A few split their ends into hungry maws as they explored the garden, full of tiny needle-teeth, biting into stray twigs and trying to eat a flower before spitting out the petals.

I choked up. Not because of some abstract beauty of the miracle of life, but with jealousy.

Tenny had changed. She’d grown. She’d entered a cocoon and emerged with a body closer to that she was always meant to have. Clumsy and weird and obviously exhausted by the metamorphosis, drenched in her own amniotic fluid, yes, but she looked right. Perhaps I was desperately trying to retroactively justify my gut emotional response, but Tenny had always looked weird, half-finished, sweet and protective yes, but stuck together from spare parts. Now she’d matured. She was beautiful.

And here I was, stuck in my scrawny, slow, ape body.

Jealousy and delight mixed into an awful cocktail. The feeling reminded me of my early teenage years, how I used to feel about other, prettier girls, when I was young and didn’t understand my own sexuality, stuck between admiration and desire, jealous need and self-identification. My abyssal memories recognised myself in Tenny.

Phantom pain twinged in my sides with sympathetic need. She had tentacles. I didn’t.

Zheng dropped out of the tree again and landed in the grass, amid the broken shards of cocoon right behind Tenny. Our little pet moth-person flinched and jumped, then looked up and around as Zheng loomed over her, meeting a grin full of sharp teeth.

“Puppy,” Zheng purred. “Well done.”

Tenny reacted like a cat before a snake. She flared and puffed herself up, opened her mouth in a loud hisssss of fluttery vocal chords. All her tentacles whipped back to spread out and make her look bigger. If she hadn’t been on the floor with Lozzie, I suspect she would have arched her back and lashed out.

“Bad Zheng!” Lozzie yelled. “No! No scaring her! Bad!”

“Mooncalf-”

“No!”

“The pup-”

“No!”

Zheng grumbled. She grudgingly backed up a few paces, and Tenny’s panic relaxed, tentacles lowering, though she still eyed Zheng with suspicion.

“Yeah, you tell her, Lozz,” Raine laughed.

Twil started laughing too, but a nervous, panicky sort of laugh, like she was trying to convince herself this was all normal. “Right, right … yeah.”

“It’s a huge fluffy moth person, what’s not to laugh at?” I said with a sigh of exhaustion. Everything ached, my hair and scalp were cold with rain, and I could tell we had hours of work still before us. “At least we’re not doing something absurdly dangerous, for once.”

“Heeeeeaaaaa,” went Tenny, a whining flutter – at me. Either she’d only just noticed or recognised me, or only just worked up the energy to demand attention. She held her arms out to me around Lozzie.

“I think she wants a hug,” Raine said.

“Oh, for pity’s sake,” Evelyn hissed.

I walked over without hesitation. Raine followed me with the umbrella.

Tenny did look weird and I’m not going to pretend otherwise. She wasn’t an image of human femininity overlaid with a touch of alien exoticism, she was actually slightly unsettling, inspiring the same gut reaction one might have to an unknown insect; was she safe to touch, or venomous, would she bite, would she leave unknown bacteria on one’s skin? She was inhumanly proportioned, her face like some kind of bug-eyed cave creature, her eyes twin pools of void, and now she was fuzzy too, weird insect fur all over her body, an odd smell in the air around her like powder and mucus mixed together, still covered in her own amniotic fluid.

But I’d known weirder, in the abyss. I’d been weirder.

Our little Tenny needed to know we recognised her too.

Lozzie shifted to the side slightly, gave me enough room to reach down and hug Tenny around the shoulders.

It was like hugging a canvas bag filled with pythons, no matter how smooth and soft and fluffy. The musculature under her skin was not remotely human. Did she even have bones in there?

“Alright, this is going far enough. We are moments away from disaster,” Evelyn announced, raising her voice and gesturing at Tenny, Lozzie, and I. “Praem, get them up, now.” She pointed the thigh-bone at Zheng. “You, get the hell indoors.” Then she whirled on Kimberly, still cowering in the back doorway. “You, get- hell, I don’t know, towels. Run a bath. Quick!”

Kimberly scurried off at double-speed.

“Evee?” I blinked at her in surprise. “What-”

“This is a worst-case scenario and I’d like to avoid it getting worse, Heather. Get Tenny up, now. Or Zheng can pick her up, I don’t care which.”

“It’s … Evee, it’s fine. She’s safe, I’m pretty sure. I think she’s kind of cute, even, I-”

“Yes, yes, sure, whatever,” Evelyn snapped. “She’s also visible and here and completely alien.” She waved her walking stick at the garden fence, at the not-so distant neighbouring houses. At Sharrowford. “You want to end up on the goddamn evening news? No? Then get her inside. All of you. Now!”

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