any mortal thing – 14.3

Previous Chapter

“Evee, do I seem different?”

Evelyn furrowed her brow into one of those exasperated frowns she always adopted before delivering some witheringly sarcastic answer to a very stupid question. She even got as far as wetting her lips and opening her mouth, but then she must have seen past the surface of my words, or perhaps she recognised the earnest need in my eyes. She relaxed her weight onto her walking stick and considered me carefully for several silent moments.

“It’s a serious question,” I explained. “I’m not being silly, or rhetorical, or messing you around. Or trying to illustrate some obscure point. To you, do I seem different?”

Evelyn sighed. “Be precise. Different compared to when?”

I shrugged. “Compared to before Monday, I suppose. Or earlier. Or earlier this week.”

Evelyn turned her head to consider me from a different angle, half-closing one eye in a squint, studying my expression. She wasn’t an idiot, she must have known what I was really asking; so she was weighing up one of two things — either how different I had become, or how much to tell me, how much to soften the blow, how much I could take.

In the months since I’d become friends with Evelyn, I’d also become intimately familiar with her scrutiny, all the different ways she looked at and examined and judged people, even those closest to her. If her mind was already chewing over a problem, especially a strategic one, then she would frown straight through the person in question while really thinking about their potential, their position as a game piece, or how they fit in with what she wanted to do next. Or how to remove them from the equation entirely. On occasion she adopted that amoral hunger which I suspect she had learnt from her mother, though I would never say that out loud. But she could be tender as well, at least in private, though that implied no less frowning intensity from her big blue eyes, so deceptively soft and welcoming when at rest, so harsh when thinking. More recently I’d noticed a new form of examination in her looks — at Praem, almost gentle, certainly appreciative, often vulnerable.

But this was new. Evelyn’s gaze hovered halfway between analytic and gentle. That made me nervous.

“Or … or since I met you?” I added, heart rate climbing, palms going clammy. “Or since … Evee, I know this isn’t an easy balance for you. Just give it to me straight. That’s why I’m not asking Raine, she never gives anything to me straight.” I managed a weak laugh at my own stupid joke.

“Heather.”

“If you know what I mean, but—”

“Heather, shut up.”

I shut up. Evelyn frowned gently at me again, then frowned out of the back window, then frowned at her walking stick, then frowned over her shoulder at the half-open door back to the kitchen. Frowned at everything, in fact, a big three-sixty bubble of frowning, that’s our Evelyn. An elemental frown in human form.

“No man ever steps in the same river twice,” she said slowly. “For it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

“ … good thing we’re not men, then.” I squeezed out a terrible fake laugh, barely more than a tremor on the final word. Evelyn gave me a look. “Sorry,” I added.

“You know what I mean. You’re not the only one who can quote literature at people. Of course you seem different, Heather. You’re more confident. Especially compared to when I first met you.”

“But I’m still me?”

Evelyn’s full-on frown roared back, blasting me like a thunderclap. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she snapped. “Of course you’re still you.”

That was more like it. Most of my anxiety melted away. I let out a breath I hadn’t known I’d been holding, and lit up with an involuntary smile. I almost leaned forward to give Evelyn a hug without asking permission, but caught myself at the last moment, eyes searching hers for acknowledgement and recognition. She was utterly perplexed, but huffed and nodded, opening one arm to accept the hug. I kept it soft, hands away from Evelyn’s kinked spine, but I did bury my face in her shoulder for a moment, in the blanket she was using as a shawl.

When we separated, she was frowning at me in a whole new way — utterly baffled. “That was all you needed?” she asked. “For me to shout at you a bit? That’s why you asked me back here? Don’t tell me you’re developing a masochistic streak.”

“You treating me the same is all the proof I need,” I said. “I hadn’t realised that. You’re very consistent, Evee.”

“Mmmm. Not sure how I feel about that.”

“You’re a rock, Evelyn. You really are.”

“Pfffft, I’d hate to have to rely on me as a rock. You should find a better one.”

But Evelyn didn’t really mean that. She turned to look out into the garden with a self-conscious huff, terminating the line of conversation before I could embarrass her further. Beyond the windows, the early afternoon sunlight danced across the tree leaves, drawing tiny insects out to clamber along the overgrown grass and verdant weeds and thistle-heads and mossy patches. The bright day seemed so at odds with what we were preparing to do.

Evelyn and I were alone in the utility room behind the kitchen, as the others bustled about in the rest of the house, getting ready for what I was increasingly thinking of as ‘the operation’, though I would not be scrubbing up, and it would not be performed in a sterile environment.

Badger had eaten what might be his last meal — bangers and mash with Bisto gravy — and Sarika was half-asleep on the sofa in the workshop. Zheng had been staying out of the way at my request, so as not to complicate matters with Badger and Sarika, due to her justified hatred of mages, but now she was standing guard in the workshop, though had totally refused to exchange even a single word with Sarika. Raine and Praem were gathering together the last few odds and ends we would need. Lozzie was off being Lozzie somewhere upstairs, but she was to be involved as well, that was the plan. Evelyn had finished her own preparations days ago, the set-up was ready to be used. But I’d stepped away from the hustle and bustle, and asked her to join me back here for a few moments.

I followed Evelyn’s gaze out into the garden. British springtime was in full flow for once, even here up North, drawing perennials out of their hidden winter bulbs. A yellow riot of wild daffodils had erupted along what had once been orderly flowerbeds, and joined by a surprising miniature cluster of bluebells beneath the shade of the tall right hand fence, punctuated by thistles and random wildflowers and rambling weeds. I spotted a trio of butterflies beneath the tree branches, though I squinted when I realised one of them was a very distinct shade of yellow.

“This is because Sarika said you seem different, isn’t it?” Evelyn asked.

“Hm? Oh, well, I suppose so.” When I looked back at the butterflies, there were only two. The yellow one had vanished into the sunlight. “Hmmm.”

“You shouldn’t listen to the opinion of somebody who hates you. She may have said it just to get under your skin. Or to knock Badger’s admiration of you down a peg, which is frankly creepy in the first place. That man is raring to start a new cult, around you. Careful with that. If he lives.”

“She had a point though,” I said, slipping back into my anxieties. “My life has changed so much, so fast, over the last … how long has it been? Eight months?”

“Give or take.”

“Eight months. Maybe seven. It’s been a whirlwind, Evee. I can’t believe how much I’ve changed, and now I have all these extra body parts, even if they’re tucked away most of the time, and I feel like I’m beginning to fray. Emotionally, I mean. It would be so good to just stop for a month, even a couple of weeks, to take stock, to slow down, to adjust. But I can’t. Maisie has a deadline. Four, five months at most.”

“Why are you thinking about this now?” Evelyn asked. “Trying to justify what we’re about to do?”

“No, I’ve already found my justification.” I sighed. “I need to understand the Eye, as much as possible. No. If I’m going to do hyperdimensional surgery, I need to be completely comfortable with what I’m becoming. I don’t need any of this on my mind.”

“Heather, you are not a different person because you’ve got some extra limbs. In fact, you’re more you than ever. You know how I can tell? Because you’re doing this.” She gestured at the utility room and the pair of us. “This is what you do. It’s extremely you.”

“I suppose. That’s not it, I—”

“Are you afraid of losing yourself? Jumping into the abyss again?”

I shook my head. “Not anymore. I’m anchored now. I found my anchor. Anchors, I should say. I won’t sink down there by accident, I think I may even be able to sip from it. Metaphorically speaking. Oh, I’m sorry, Evee, this is all metaphors.”

“You afraid of change?” Evelyn asked. “I’m afraid of change, I’m fucking terrified of change.” I blinked at her in surprise. She shrugged, adjusting herself around her walking stick. “It’s true, believe it or not. Raine’s right about me in that respect, at least. I know I’m weird like that. I like the same things to happen, I like routine, and I don’t like it when people disrupt my routines and screw up my plans. I don’t like my life changing, because for most of it, change was extremely bad. That’s why I get so damned grumpy. Fear of change is normal, Heather. I resisted it for long enough, but I thought you were leaping headfirst into it. Turns out I was wrong. Sometimes I forget we’re quite similar.”

“What were you resisting?”

Evelyn frowned at me in mild disbelief. “Something that was already changing and which I couldn’t stop. Do keep up, Heather.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t … ”

Praem chose that exact moment to knock on the half-open door of the utility room. She pushed it wide enough to step over the threshold, the skirt of her maid uniform rustling against the door frame, milk-white eyes locating us with a flick. Her hands returned to clasp together in front of her. Perhaps she’d been listening.

“Speak of the devil, and she shall appear,” Evelyn said with a wry little smile, then cleared her throat and added more seriously, to Praem, “No offence, you are not a devil. Turn of phrase only, understand?”

Praem unclasped her hands, stuck out her index fingers, and held them either side of her forehead. Like horns. “Devil,” she intoned.

Evelyn sighed. I put a hand over my mouth.

“I … I see, yes,” I said with a smile behind my hand. “Change that you were resisting. Hi, Praem.”

“Good change,” Evelyn said, adjusting her weight on her walking stick and rubbing her hip. “Change that has made my life immeasurably better, in ways I never could have imagined.” She cleared her throat and looked away. “Don’t have time for getting emotional right now. We all need clear heads for this. Is that why you’re here?” she asked Praem.

“All is ready,” Praem said, in the sing-song of snowflakes and ice winds.

“Then go wait with the others. We’ll be right there. I need to finish talking with Heather.”

Praem bustled back out without complaint, and pulled the door almost closed behind her. Evelyn turned back to me, but I was already babbling out my thoughts.

“I don’t know what change I’m afraid of,” I lied, trying to avoid it even though I was the one who’d wanted to get it off my chest. “I want this, this body, this pneuma-somatic truth, everything I’ve become, but … but … maybe I’ll change too far,” another lie. “Maybe … ”

Evelyn sighed. “You’re not afraid of that.”

“I’m not.”

“You’re afraid of how far your twin might have changed.”

I blinked away the beginning of thin tears, wiped my eyes on my sleeve, and nodded. “You know me too well, Evee.”

“It’s hardly rocket science,” she grumbled. “You’re thinking about Badger, about what you have to do, and this is all practice for Maisie, in the end. Isn’t it?” I nodded, but Evelyn kept talking. “And you’re thinking about the state Sarika was in when we found her, beyond humanity, beyond mortality, barely a person anymore, just a … memory, smeared across the surface of reality like roadkill.”

“Evee,” I said, throat thick. “I-I … please don’t—”

“And you’re wondering what Maisie will be like. How much will be left of her. What will be left to save.” Evelyn spoke without looking at me, staring out into the sunlight of a warm day that felt a million miles away. Her eyes did not see what she looked at. “Because this has taken too long, and she has been in the Eye’s grip for ten years already, far more closely than either of those idiot cultists waiting in my workshop. And none of us can even imagine what that has done to your twin. And more than being afraid we’re going to be too late, or that we’re going to fail, you simply do not know what you are going to discover, when we find her.”

Tears rolled down my cheeks now, barely held back by my scrunched eyes and my sniffing. “E-Evee—”

“Maisie is very likely not a human being anymore,” she said, plain and straightforward. “Perhaps not even a person.”

“Evee … ”

Evelyn turned to me, eyes hungry and intense, with a power I’d not often seen her wield. She reached out with her free hand, her maimed hand, and grabbed one of mine, awkward and clumsy and clammy too, and held on hard.

“But she is still your sister. She reached out to you, Heather. You still have her message on the child’s t-shirt, I know you look at it every day, don’t you?”

I nodded, blinking as my tears fell.

“The fact you are afraid of what we might find,” she said, “rather than the possibility we might fail … ?” Evelyn shook her head, but a smile crept onto her face. “You are completely insane, Heather Morell, and not in the way that you once thought. And I adore you for it. We are going to do this thing, this insane, dangerous thing, this thing that no mage in history would have considered doing, and I will resurrect my mother just to laugh in her face and tell her it’s possible. Understand? Whatever is left of your sister, we will bring back here. Fuck knows how we’re going to do it, but you have made me believe it is worth doing. That it can be done. If you cannot have faith in yourself, then have faith in that.”

I nodded, my tears of a very different flavor now. I took long, slow, steady breaths, and to my incredible surprise, Evelyn reached up and helped brush my hair out of my face. She wasn’t very good at it, fingers clumsy, not used to touching other people, and quickly returned to her habitual position of leaning heavily on her walking stick, but I held onto her hand, until she cleared her throat.

“Here,” she said, digging a handkerchief out of a pocket. “Dry your eyes.” I accepted the handkerchief and did as she suggested, already feeling much relieved. “Better?”

“Much. Thank you, Evee.”

“Sorry,” she said. “Had to … push you.”

I laughed awkwardly. “Was all that just to make me cry, to get it out of my system?”

“Partly.” Evelyn frowned. “But not a word of it was a lie, understand?” I nodded. “You feel better now, catharsis, yes? No longer all bottled up? Good. We both need clear heads for this.”

“We do,” I admitted, glancing at the door behind Evelyn, to the kitchen.

“Ready to cut a man’s head open?” she asked.

I nodded and took a deep breath as I folded the handkerchief back up. “Metaphorically. Ready as I’ll ever be.”

==

“Will I feel anything?” Badger asked. “When you begin?”

He was trying to conceal the shudder in his voice — bravado in front of Sarika, or resolve in front of me, or perhaps a forced acceptance that he deserved his fate — but he wasn’t doing a very good job of that. His voice shook, despite his best efforts to steady his breathing. Raine had just removed Whistle from his lap, at Evelyn’s instruction of “no dogs allowed in the circles”, and Badger had nothing else to do with his quivering hands. He’d hugged the Corgi one last time, handed him off to Raine, and Whistle now sat placid but alert in Sarika’s lap instead, on the sofa, another member of the audience for our operating theatre.

But Badger showed far more courage than he had a week ago. He didn’t try to back out at the last moment. He didn’t plead. Didn’t run. Perhaps paradoxically, that made this all harder for me. If he’d screamed and begged and had to be dragged back into the circle, then at least he would have been the same coward and idiot he’d been last week, a cheap monster who’d tried to kidnap Lozzie, unwilling to repent or pay for his sins.

It seemed unfair that he’d finally developed a moral compass and located his spine, when I was about to do something that might end his life.

“You may feel a small prick,” Raine answered for me, with a huge, shit-eating grin. She flourished the latex gloves on her hands, snapping one rubbery wrist cuff like a parody of a mad scientist.

Evelyn didn’t even roll her eyes; Raine had made four different variations on that joke in the last twenty minutes, complete with the same glove-snapping gesture and cheesy grin. I knew she was trying to take the edge off, but it wasn’t helping, even if it did make Lozzie giggle.

“You may feel the same, soon,” Praem intoned at her. Raine put her hands up and shut her mouth, suppressing a smirk.

Badger ignored both of them. He waited for me.

“I don’t know,” I said, my mouth gone dry. “It’ll probably be over too quickly for you to feel anything. One way or the other.”

He nodded. From behind, I saw his throat bob as he opened his mouth, but he had nothing left to say.

At least I didn’t have to see his face.

We were gathered in the cave-like darkness of the ex-drawing room, the magical workshop, with the bright sunlight shut out behind thick curtains. Almost all of us were present, except for Tenny, who was upstairs, because nobody felt like making a literal child potentially watch a man die. Zheng was stalking up and down the rest of the house, in case Ooran Juh took offence to my meddling with Badger’s contract and decided to risk assaulting the house after all. Kimberly had not joined us. In fact, she had requested to be far, far away while we did this, and was currently visiting one of her friends from the Wiccan coven.

Badger and I were sat inside a pair of magic circles, though his was considerably more complex, with inward-facing collections of Latin and Sanskrit text surrounding esoteric symbols, pointed like spikes in the throat of a deep sea fish, to stop food escaping back up a slippery gullet. My circle at least didn’t make my eyes water, but it was a triple-layered affair, a multiple buffer of protection and warning and bastion.

He sat facing away from me. A small mercy. His circle was large enough for him to collapse onto his back without breaking the boundary.

The two circles sat inside a larger circle, a full five layers of interlocking rings painted on a massive piece of white canvas, which now dominated the workshop floor. Evelyn had purchased it specifically for this working. She’d had Praem push back the table and clear up the other debris — even shunting our long-forgotten clay-squid friend into a corner under a tarpaulin, to roll and slop to itself in peace. She’d spent most of the week constructing these circles, element by painstaking element, in charcoal and bull’s blood and crushed seashell.

It was, according to Evelyn, the most secure creation she’d ever made. A veritable star-fortress of magic circles. But it all faced inward.

“Blunt and brutal,” she’d said to me earlier. “Absolutely nothing subtle about it. Ugly as hell, too, but it’ll get the job done.”

“The job?” I’d asked.

“Protecting us. Protecting you, if something goes wrong.”

Because of course, this was nothing like fixing Sarika. Badger was still in the grip, no matter how remote, no matter if it was across the membrane between here and Outside, no matter that I’d be interfacing with him via hyperdimensional mathematics.

We had learnt, from our first brush with the Eye, that no contact was safe.

Evelyn herself was on standby, perched in a chair, ready with yet another magic circle, along with her scrimshawed thighbone and three large glass bottles full of rather grisly pieces of bull anatomy, ready for the ‘big guns’ in case Ooran Juh got shirty with us. Praem waited by her shoulder, ready for any task that might be tackled in a maid dress.

Raine was there too, of course she wouldn’t leave me alone for this, though for once her speciality probably wasn’t required. Instead of a knife or a gun, she’d carried in our first-aid kit. She’d said, “In case Badger bangs his head”, and then like a magician producing an entire tractor from beneath a top hat, she’d dug out a large yellow clamshell box from the mess on the sofa, and added it to our supplies of painkillers and emergency bandages.

“Raine,” Evelyn had said slowly, “since when do we have a portable defibrillator?”

“A defibrillator?” My voice had risen about two octaves.

Badger gulped.

Raine shrugged. “Since we’re gonna do something that might stop some poor bugger’s heart?”

“It might do more than stop his heart,” I murmured, wringing my hands. “We don’t have the equipment for this. Raine, the best thing you can keep to hand is your phone, to call an ambulance.”

Raine waggled her mobile phone at me. “Way ahead of you.”

“No,” Evelyn sighed. “I mean where did you get it?”

“Stole it from a train station. Wall-mounted, aren’t they? You can just pick them up and go. Don’t worry, I did it without being caught on camera, and I was even a very, very good Robin Hood and called them afterward to let them know some downright anti-social scoundrel had stolen their portable defib.”

“Good idea,” I’d said, before Evelyn could argue.

Sarika had watched us with heavy-lidded, exhausted eyes, ringed with dark bags, saying nothing since she’d expended almost all her energy by arguing with Badger in the kitchen earlier. She was on the sofa, and she seemed like an old woman, weak and collapsed into herself. But when Whistle was deposited on her lap, she looped deceptively strong fingers through his dog collar.

“Good boy,” she’d murmured, stroking him with a finger.

Lozzie was here too, in the circle with me, her arms wrapped around my middle from behind, her head resting on my upper back. She was here as an emergency ripcord, to pull me out if something went wrong, to lend her powers to mine. She didn’t have the ability to go rooting around editing people’s mathematical definition, and she couldn’t rebuild pneuma-somatic flesh in anybody except me, but she’d insisted on joining all the same.

“Just in case,” she’d whispered into my ear. “I can pull you out, the other other way.”

I linked my fingers with hers, against my own front. Our breathing synced up. Her weight felt invisible.

There was no more reason for delay.

“What I mean is,” I said out loud, “this might take only a split-second. Hyperdimensional mathematics usually happens at the speed of thought. Though this is complex, it might take … I don’t know. A second or two.”

“Because there are multiple things to do,” Evelyn said, soft but firm.

I nodded, trying to focus on the plan, but trying to not yet allow my eyes to wander down to the notebook of hyperdimensional mathematics that lay in my lap. “Yes. First, I’m going to rip up the Big Man’s contract. Flex my legs, as it were. If that hurts too much, then I might come back for a moment, to catch my breath. But if I don’t need to, if I’m in full flow—” What a joke, full flow? With brain-math? Full flow of pain, more like. “—then I’ll move straight on to … finding the Eye’s grip, and examining how it … yes.”

Everyone had fallen silent. In the corner of my eye, I saw Zheng had appeared in the workshop doorway, to watch or protect or just to be near me. Even Raine wasn’t trying to grin any more, but she shot me a confident nod when I met her eyes.

“I’m ready,” Badger said.

“Any last words?” Raine asked him.

“ … thank you,” he said, but didn’t seem to know why he’d said it.

“Get on with it,” Sarika wheezed. “Before he says something he’ll regret when he wakes up.”

I got on with it.

With a sensation like relaxing a muscle that I’d held tense for too long, like uncurling a fist, or finally stretching out a bent knee, I eased one of the biochemical control rods out of its channel inside my trilobe reactor organ. A shudder of slow pleasure and sharp pain rolled through my core — the latter quick and gone again, the former lingering as heat in my belly, turning my muscles to butter, easing the remnants of my bruises. A shuddering gasp escaped my throat, and Lozzie hugged me tighter. I slid the control rod out far enough to power one tentacle, then summoned that limb into brilliant, rainbow-strobing life with a flicker of hyperdimensional mathematics, arcing out from my left flank in a smooth, pale tube of flexible muscle. No teeth or hooks or toxins. Not yet.

It felt wonderful. Even though I’d proven myself clumsy and inexpert, the sheer physical euphoria of my extra limb would have made me purr, if I was summoning it for any other purpose but this.

“Oooooh,” Lozzie murmured, eyes wide over my shoulder. Zheng rumbled approval.

I slid the control rod out further, enough to run two or three tentacles, but I didn’t summon any more, though it took an effort of will to hold myself back. The extra power was another safety buffer.

My chest felt tight, mouth dry, hands clammy as Lozzie held onto them. I swallowed and nodded, mostly to myself, as I lowered my single tentacle toward the back of Badger’s head, toward his curly brown hair and the scalp and skull beneath. A large enough target, and I did not fumble.

He froze and stiffened as I wrapped the tentacle around his skull. His breath stopped in his throat. I didn’t squeeze or grip very hard, the point was merely to make the connection. I’d done this thrice before — defined a human being via hyperdimensional mathematics — once with Raine, and twice with Sarika. Raine had been miles away and the effort had almost sent me tumbling out of my body and into the abyss. On the time she wasn’t trapped in the Eye’s grip, Sarika had been sitting across the kitchen table, and I’d damn well near passed out and bled from my eyes. Physical contact was going to make this easier.

For a given definition of easier; this time, the Eye was right there.

Physical contact also provided rapid access to the inside of Badger’s skull, in case everything went terribly wrong. I prepared a sheathed, razor-sharp band of bone, just beneath the surface of my tentacle, ready to flick out and slice through scalp at the speed of thought.

“Ready?” I whispered.

For a moment, Badger just panted in fear. Then he whispered too, “Do it.”

I looked down the notebook full of hyperdimensional mathematics, and plunged headfirst into the black sump at the bottom of my soul.

==

Ripping up Ooran Juh’s contract on Badger was surprisingly straightforward.

Badger — Nathan Sterling Hobbes, as I knew instantly, as I knew everything else about him, from the split second I carried out the trick of perception of defining him via hyperdimensional mathematics at close range — was no less complex than Sarika had been, no less complex than any human being. An equation like the nuclear furnace of a star’s core, dense with roiling layers of overlapping meaning, jagged fractal possibilities, memories and events and physical structure like sedimentary layers, all penetrating and entering and co-mingling with each other, in a matrix of creation beyond any mortal mind.

I saw the old scar on his leg where he’d fallen off a bike at age nine and walked home alone to call an ambulance because his parents were out; I saw him in Sharrowford University Library as a student, pouring over mathematics textbooks, hair short and clothes neat, clean of drugs for once, his eyes drawn inexorably to the very non-library book the stranger had left for him; I saw Alexander Lilburne, debating philosophy as Badger failed to counter his points, dragged deeper and deeper into negating his own beliefs; I saw Badger’s girlfriend, the one the cult hadn’t known about, the one Sarika still didn’t know about, dying of a heroin overdose in a Manchester bedsit.

Too much information. Like before. If this hadn’t all happened in the instant of frozen time afforded to me by the brain-math, I would have collapsed from the strain.

Ooran Juh’s contract was wrapped around Badger like a greasy layer of filth, a thin membrane sac of cloying, infectious claim on everything inside. Like a reverse womb.

I ripped it apart, slicing through the tissue with barely a flicker of mathematics, a claw-touch, and out came the equation that was Badger, flopping and heaving and wet with foul fluids. I let him flounder by himself, weak and mewling, as I picked up the contract and ate it, shredded it with razor teeth, melted it with acid, broke it down with specialised enzymes, rendered it into proteins, and destroyed any trace of what Ooran Juh used for DNA or ink or a signature in blood.

Then I regurgitated it onto the ground, as bile and acid and nothing else. That had been the easy one.

One down, one to go.

==

I slammed back to reality in a tidal wave of pain. Head flaring with bursts of supernovae explosion, face smeared wet with blood streaming from my nose, gut roiling and clenching in an effort to hold back a torrent of vomit. I keened through my teeth, gasping and kicking. Lozzie held on tight.

The bioreactor had helped. I was still conscious and had more than enough energy to keep going. But defining a human being was still almost beyond my pain threshold. I’d had to surface before I could dive deeper again.

And I surfaced to screaming chaos.

Everyone was shouting. Zheng and Raine were nowhere to be seen, but I could hear Zheng growling from the kitchen or the front room — how was that possible? I’d taken a second, two seconds at most. Praem had Evelyn by the shoulders, to stop her from rising, and Evelyn had gone white in the face. Sarika was wide-eyed with terror, clutching her crutches. Whistle was up on his paws, barking.

Badger was curled up in a ball, on his side, but still inside his magic circle. I’d tightened my tentacle’s grip on his skull. He was mewling softly.

Lozzie’s arms tightened around my middle. “Heathy, Heathy it’s okay! It’s okay, we can keep going, it’s okay!”

“It is very much not fucking okay!” Evelyn shouted. “Raine, get that bastard out of—”

Zheng made a sound like an angry tiger, and I think the crash which followed was the front door getting knocked off its hinges.

“Don’t stop now,” Lozzie whispered. “We have to finish!”

Lozzie was right. The others would keep me safe, whatever we’d triggered. I blinked the blood out of my eyes as best I could, slammed the pieces of the equation back into place, and gripped the slick, black, dripping levers of reality once more. I spun hyperdimensional mathematics into a glove made of scalpels, reached into the equation that was Badger, and began to peel him apart, to find the Eye’s hidden tendrils embedded in his soul.

==

Imagine you have crept into a torture chamber.

You are there to rescue a prisoner, an abused wreck kept in a dark corner, weeping softly to himself. But upon raising your shaded lantern you discover the problem, you discover why he has not been able to free himself, despite the strength of his cries for help, and the current absence of the torturer. The torture machines are so complex that they demand hours of study just to comprehend their controls, and they have so pierced and invaded and ruined his body that he cannot be extracted from them without dying, not unless the rescue is performed with incredible care.

To draw back the black iron would be to let forth torrents of his blood, to unscrew the bolts and rivets and turn the little nozzles would break his bones all over again, to lessen the pressure of the vice would crack his skull.

You’re here to understand those machines. And as a by-product of understanding, through knowledge, you can get him out, with the minimum of damage.

Except the machines don’t make any sense. They rake his flesh from angles they could not possibly have reached, they have left him with wounds that should have killed him ten times over, they dose him with drugs that should have rendered him unconscious, but every time you make an adjustment, he has to swallow a scream.

And the torturer is returning.

Down the steps at the front of the dungeon, from the opposite route you took, a great darkness heralds the one thing that might reveal how the machines work — the attention of the one of whom they are a part.

But then the torturer will know you are here too.

==

Imagine a dolphin caught in a net.

The net is steel cable, it cannot be cut with the few hand-tools you have. The dolphin is desperate, thrashing in the water, straining against the lines of the net, but the more the creature thrashes, the deeper the lines cut. They have cut so deep now, sawed through skin and flesh and into the organs, leeching bright red blood into the seawater.

And you’re down there in your flimsy, vulnerable diving gear. No sturdy shark cage to hide inside. Dead fish clog the water, blood clouds you vision.

You keep rolling the dolphin over, but the net seems to have no end, no tears, no breaks, no weak spots or frayed cables, nothing to give you a way to begin freeing the dolphin. To get it out, you’ll have to start digging into the poor creature’s flesh. There is no other way. The netting is beyond your comprehension.

But down in the water far below you and the dolphin, something is rising. Something that is watching the dolphin struggle. Something that cast the net in the first place, from an organ you cannot even imagine.

If you wait for it to arrive, maybe you’ll understand how the net works. You’ll see the first principles behind the construction. You will understand.

But then you will be in the leviathan’s maw too.

==

Imagine you are hanging in space in the upper atmosphere of a gas giant, and the planet itself has somehow snared your fellow cosmonaut in tendrils of cloud and gravity, and is dragging him down into the crushing pressure.

And you can do nothing, because the gasses have invaded his suit and the gravity has broken his limbs. He is wrapped with invisible force and yet somehow not dead, cradled in the outer grip of something so utterly inimical to human life, which your senses cannot even process.

You reach out to touch him, to anchor him, but you cannot understand how he is being pulled down.

But the planet itself is turning below you, faster than any celestial body should rotate. A giant, two dozen times the size of Earth, banded in ochre and red-orange and a million shades of crimson, against a backdrop of cold interstellar space. It is turning toward you and your companion, attention shifting on a scale your mind cannot endure.

If you let it turn, it will see you. Both of you. But then you’ll know.

==

The relationship between Badger and the Eye wasn’t like any of those things, of course. It was like all of them at once, and a million other tortured metaphors, the only way my fragile brain could process the information. And it was still a brain, no matter how abyssal I’d become. I was still so very small compared to the Eye, compared to even one tendril, one lash, one cell.

This was nothing like freeing Sarika. She’d been disembodied by then, turned into pure information, and I’d been trying to ignore the Eye as much as possible, only comprehend as much as I needed to rip her from its grip.

Badger still had flesh. Ripping him out would kill him.

Every part of the equation that was Nathan was wrapped in counter-equations, poised negations, additions and addendums and expansions, like tentacles that had penetrated him through every pore. A violation more complete than any rape, any invasive surgery, any infection. The Eye owned everything that defined him, was wrapped tight around every part of him. And those were only the outermost of the outermost layers of the Eye’s attention, the bits that were possible to understand because they were interfacing with the equation that described a human being.

Lucky for me, that wasn’t the point. I was here to understand.

But comprehension was nearly impossible.

I dared not look too closely at the Eye’s tendrils themselves. Each one was infinitely more complex than a person, an ever-shifting riot of impossibly complicated fractal equation that I kept firmly at the limit of my awareness, even as I tried to work on them, to understand how they operated, how they had invaded Badger so totally. With a sinking feeling I came to realise that the only reason I was safe was because they were so remote from the Eye’s real core, away across the membrane between here and Outside. Badger had been invaded by the equivalent of the Eye’s subconscious attention.

And I was burning up just trying to look back.

Even the slightest movement of hyperdimensional mathematics was leaving Badger shredded and raw, pulling bits of him off, leaving them snagged in the Eye’s trillion fractal hooks or spinning off into necrosis and death. I would have had more luck trying to unwind a physical parasite from the wrinkles of his actual brain. Never mind comprehending this; even trying to reveal the junction between Eye and human would kill Badger by the time I was done.

And as I tried, so clumsy and bloody, to pare away the human from the Outsider, I felt the Eye become aware of me, in the way one becomes aware of furtive fumbling in a distant room.

Panic, blind panic, the animalistic panic of knowing the predator is coming. If I lingered too long, I would be seen.

But I sensed, on some level, that if the Eye turned its attention fully on Badger, the connections would finally make sense. Or at least, a kind of sense, if I could bear to watch.

But I could not stay here.

I dived deeper, to sip from the abyss, to anchor myself on that submarine shore of barren silt and dunk my head into the deeper waters to draw strength from the dark. Maybe I could hide until the Eye’s attention passed over us both. Maybe I could drag Badger down here. Or maybe I could come back as something more suited for the task, and endure fleeting seconds of the Eye’s attention as it played over the inside of Badger’s mind, and by watching him disintegrate, I would finally comprehend, I would be granted insight.

The idea was seductive. Would it be murder?

Halfway down to the abyss, playful hands snagged my ankles, and pulled me sideways.

==

Calm haze settled on my mind like a warm blanket. I blinked clear eyes up at a night sky, devoid of clouds and blanketed with stars, bright as diamonds in the void.

“Heather! Come on, up, up, up time, up time! We have to really seriously super-duper mega-hurry!”

“ … Lozzie?”

I sat up slowly, and found myself on a vast plain of bare grey earth. Cool night air hung still and soft around my face and head, like dusk after a hot day. No light but starlight fell on me. I felt unhurried and safe, not menaced by nocturnal predators or vulnerable and alone after dark. The grey plain stretched off forever in three directions, but right in front of me, perhaps miles away or perhaps only a few hundred meters — I sensed that distance was difficult to judge because the atmosphere was so thin — stood a rampart of mountains that scraped the heavens.

The mountains were dark too, though I thought I could see a hint of dawn at the line of sharp summits.

“Upppppp!” Lozzie repeated, and grabbed my arms to pull me to my feet.

“Lozzie, what— I was—”

“I would question what I’m doing here,” my own voice said, from off to one side, “but apparently I don’t have a choice. The little one didn’t ask my permission.”

I turned and blinked at myself, at a vision of me, standing a few feet away on the grey soil. She — the other Heather — was dressed in my pink-scaled hoodie and triple-layered skirt, with blonde highlights in her hair and LED light-up shoes on her feet.

Seven-Shades-of-absolutely-not-Heather sighed and gave a little shrug.

“I had to invite disco you too!” Lozzie chirped. “We have to find him quick! Super quick!” Lozzie was at her absolute worst, shaky and jittery, all but vibrating on the spot as she glanced left and right across the endless plain. She was in her pastel poncho, wispy blonde hair flying everywhere, and I realised I was in the same clothes I’d been wearing back in the house for the—

“Vivisection,” I murmured. “Lozzie, Lozzie, stop. I was in the middle of the vivisection. I was doing brain-math. I don’t—”

“You still are!” She whirled back to me. “Don’t think about it too hard!”

“ … we’re in a dream? The dreams? Like we used to?”

“I don’t know why I’m here,” Sevens said. “This is not my area of expertise, not at all.”

“Pleaseeee don’t think about it too hard, Heathy,” Lozzie went on at high speed. “Yes and no. But don’t think about it or it’ll stop working and if it stops working Badger will die. Die-die. Dead-dead, not getting him back dead. You can’t do it alone so I’m helping but I can’t help like you do so it’s this or nothing!”

“But saving him isn’t … important?”

Lozzie bit her lower lip.

With my emotions blunted by what I quickly recognised as dream-logic, I glanced around the grey plain again. There was no sign of Badger, or anything that might stand in for him.

The mountaintops seemed a touch lighter.

“That’s bad,” Sevens said, my own shaking fear leaking into her version of my voice. She hiccuped softly.

“You … made this? Lozzie?” I asked.

“I’m making it all right now, but it already exists, but it’s not a place but it is a place but only while we’re here. But it’s okay, we can get him and get gone before the peeper comes up! We need to be reeeeeal quick. Like five minutes quick.”

“I would estimate,” said Sevens-as-me, “that we have four minutes and twenty three seconds of subjective time. And I will be leaving before then, believe me.”

That washed away some of the dream-logic calm. I had a sinking suspicion about what exactly was rising on the other side of those mountains.

Previous Chapter

any mortal thing – 14.2

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The first thing Sarika did when she saw Badger was walk up to him and slap him in the face.

Well, no, that’s not quite accurate. She didn’t walk, and it was worse than a slap. She spent at least twenty seconds hobbling across the kitchen on her pair of crutches, pausing and panting to catch her breath every couple of dragging paces, shaking all over with effort — and from the lingering pain I knew she felt, but which she refused to admit out loud. She had made a very specific request on the way here in Raine’s car, that we were not to help her in front of Badger, not unless she fell over and broke a bone, or literally passed out. She’d been quiet and docile in the car, but the moment she’d seen Badger through the kitchen doorway, she’d sunk deep into the murky river of her emotional waters, and dredged up that bitter scowl like the rusted hulk of a warship pulled from toxic silt.

Badger had risen to his feet as she’d approached, greeting her with a hesitant smile and an amazed look in his eyes. I think until that moment he may have suspected she really was dead after all, and we may have been lying to him. But Sarika hosed him down with contempt and spite, her determination reforged into strength with every step toward him. Her eyelids kept twitching out of sync, and she struggled to stay straight on her crutches.

“Sarry,” he said with breathless tenderness, as she finally reached him.

Over by the door, Raine and I shared a covert grimace. Praem stood prim and proper on the other side of the room, betraying nothing. I hadn’t consciously predicted what was coming, but I could feel it in my gut.

Evelyn had made a prediction, however, and was proven right when Sarika attempted to punch Badger in the face with the handle of her crutch.

“Sarry,” he was saying, “I thought you were dead. I’m so glad you’re— woah!”

I yelped too, hand to my mouth to stifle a shocked hiccup.

Sarika was much fitter and stronger than when she’d first visited us. She’d come a long way since I’d reached into the mathematics that defined who and what she was, since I’d re-knitted the worst of the lingering damage left by the Eye’s unkind grip on her soul.

She still wouldn’t have made it up and down the cellar steps though, which was why this little reunion was taking place in the kitchen.

I’d worked on Sarika twice in the weeks since then, as she’d sat in the magical workshop under Raine and Evelyn’s careful supervision, and I’d held an emergency sick bucket between my knees. I’d hunted down a dozen mangled sub-values in the impossibly complex equation that was Sarika Masalkar, filled them as best I could, smoothed out the worst of her shakes, and tried to eliminate her newfound propensity for explosive migraines. It felt like repairing a cathedral with wood glue and play-doh.

She’d regained a little of her muscle tone, and had less trouble keeping down solid food, but she was still a mess, still looked like a bruise in human form, and never seemed free of suffering except when asleep, which apparently never lasted long without either nightmares or drugs to keep them away. Her eyes were still bloodshot and ringed with dark exhaustion, and her face was still slack and pale and waxen beneath her coffee-brown skin. Her twitching was better. She’d stopped biting her own hands. I doubted I was ever going to be able to eliminate her tremors or her chronic fatigue. She was not yet fit enough to perform her penance — burying the bodies of the Sharrowford Cult’s victims, still lying desiccated and abandoned in the empty shell of their castle — but I was learning a lot from the process of mending her shattered soul. Transferable skills for Maisie, I hoped.

She also wasn’t quite capable of swinging that punch, let alone with the added weight of the crutch or the awkward angle she had to adopt to stay on her feet.

It was a messy, clumsy, embarrassing moment for everybody present. She flailed at his head with the handle, letting out a great heaving grunt of effort. Badger flinched and stumbled back with a yelp, getting bashed in the side with the crutch, crashing into a chair, and almost tripping over his own feet. Poor Whistle went skidding across the floor to escape the sudden outbreak of hostilities, his little doggy paws scraping the kitchen flagstones as he scurried for safety behind Evelyn’s skirt.

Sarika whacked at Badger another couple of times with increasing difficulty, but he was safely out of range now, gaping at her as he clutched a chair.

“Can we please stop the violence!” I hiccuped again. “Please.”

“Alright,” Evelyn raised her voice. “That’s enough.”

Raine strode forward between them, hands out like a referee separating a pair of boxers; she’d left her crutch upstairs in a show of strength, now that her leg was healed to the point she could at least pretend she didn’t feel any pain.

Praem didn’t move, judging Badger entirely capable of recovering on his own. Or perhaps she was just unwilling to lend aid to the people who had once removed her from her body and tried to kill her mother. I sighed and stepped forward a little as well, arms out in case Sarika was about to topple over. She almost did, stamping down with her crutch again and swaying hard as she struggled to regain her balance.

“Back to your corners, back to your corners,” Raine was saying in a passable imitation of a ringside announcer voice.

Sarika twitched an elbow in my direction in a subconscious refusal of help. I would have rolled my eyes if I wasn’t busy dealing with my own sudden pain. My phantom limbs had reached out in an effort to steady her, all of them currently mere brain-ghosts, not pneuma-somatic glory; but my mind still said the limbs needed support, and the bruised muscles in my flanks duly obeyed, sending a shiver of stiff pain up my sides. I was much healed since the middle of the week, but still tender and sore.

The reactor organ responded too, control rods shivering for retraction, telling me to make those limbs real so I could hold Sarika steady. I resisted the urge, however oddly pleasurable.

Badger shook his head, wide-eyed at Sarika. “Sarry … what was that? Why?”

She inclined her head, doing her best to stare down her nose though Badger was taller than her. Sarika handled her spite like a gutting knife. She cut him deep with nothing but a flicker of her eyes. But Badger held her gaze.

“You always were a coward, Nathan,” she croaked at him, voice a scratchy mess.

Badger closed his gaping mouth, surprise replaced with resignation. “Yeah. Yeah I am, no lie. But not for the reasons you think.”

“Is that it, then?” Evelyn asked, with a tone as if she’d been watching a particularly disappointing variety show. “Was this entire excursion an excuse to lightly abuse a condemned man? Well, I’m so glad we helped facilitate that. It’s a good thing we actually have some important questions to ask the pair of you, or this would be a total waste of my time.”

“No,” Raine said slowly, looking first at Badger, then at Sarika, trying to catch her eye. “No, I don’t think these two are done with each other yet.”

Sarika snorted, then had to breathe deeply and cough to make up for the effort of snorting.

I resisted the urge to roll my eyes, and screwed up my courage instead. Unless I was using brain-math to rewire her nervous system, I still found her difficult to deal with.

“Sarika,” I said.

“ … what?” she croaked.

“Is that all you wanted? If you’ve said all you have to say, then we’re not going to make you stay or anything. I don’t like it, and I’m a little annoyed at you deceiving us, but I’ll respect it. If hitting Badger is what you needed.”

Sarika turned her bitterness on me, and I steeled myself to stand my ground, but she spared me the corrosive acid she had used on Badger. She was just exhausted and unimpressed. “You think I would waste my time if all I wanted to do was belt this idiot in the head? Well, you’re right, Morell, as you’re usually right about fucking well everything, aren’t you?”

“Hey, Sarika, come on,” Raine said, in a warning tone just the wrong side of gentle.

“It’s alright,” I said to Raine. “Let her vent.”

“I would waste my time to do that, yes,” Sarika croaked on, voice like a handful of burnt gravel, panting between her words. “It’s worth the satisfaction. But right now there’s a design competition on, and I am taking valuable time out of something I actually give a shit about. So yes, I do have more to say.” She glared at Badger again, in a way that suggested ‘more to say’ was going to be a string of creative insults like an artillery barrage aimed at his self-worth. Badger stared back, making no effort to defend himself.

“Design competition?” Evelyn muttered.

“Yeah,” Raine piped up with an odd smile. “Forgot to mention in the car, but I saw your latest video, Sarika. Good stuff.”

Sarika’s contempt faltered and fell beneath the hooves of battered pride. Eyelids twitching, a full-body shake intensifying, she waved the dismissive hand of the terminally unable to accept praise. “Whatever, it’s crap.”

Raine shrugged. “Twenty thousand views says otherwise.”

“What are you talking about?” Evelyn hissed. “What has she been up to? Sarika, what have you been doing?”

“Yes, um,” I added. “Did I miss something here?”

Raine looked at us both with surprise. “Oh, yeah, she’s been doing magic right under your nose and I didn’t tell you, Evee.”

“Sarcasm does not become you,” Evelyn said.

Raine laughed. “Sarika’s been making Minecraft videos on Youtube. She told us, remember? Last time she was over.”

“They weren’t listening,” Sarika croaked. “Morell was being sick at the time. And who cares?”

“I care,” Badger said.

“Shut up.”

Evelyn did a very long, slow blink, accompanied by a worrying tightening of her jaw muscles. “Mass murderer turned Minecraft youtuber. Fine. Forget I asked.”

“Stranger things have happened to us,” I said.

“It’s three videos,” Sarika wheezed. “Stop making a big deal.”

“Yeah,” Raine said, “but what she’s not telling you is one of those videos is about one of the coolest, largest castles I’ve ever seen. It’s got sky-trains and docks and luxury bedrooms. Must have taken her days.”

“Five hundred hours, give or take,” Sarika said. “Not like I can do much else.”

“You’d love it, Heather,” Raine said.

I held my hands up in polite surrender. “I’m not sure I can separate the ‘shared responsibility for mass murder’ part from the ‘cool Minecraft video’ part, I’m sorry.” Then I added, “I don’t even really know how Minecraft works, anyway.”

“That’s why I said forget it,” Sarika croaked.

Her arms were shaking as she gripped her crutches, the effort too much to sustain as we stood around, but she refused to ask for a chair, or even to just assert dominance by sitting down first. I had to leap in before she forced her dignity all the way to collapse.

“Why don’t you two sit down then?” I asked — then hiccuped, worried this wouldn’t work. “If you have more to talk about, that is. Praem, would you be so kind as to make us some tea? And where’s Whistle gone? Whistle, Whistle? It’s okay to come out now, all the scary fighting has stopped, here boy, here.”

My forced domesticity did the trick. Badger made the mistake of pulling out a chair for Sarika, and Raine had to stop her from whacking him with a crutch again, but they did eventually get sat down. Sarika sat as far as possible from Badger, refused to accept any help stowing her crutches, and took out her phone to show Raine some kind of video game full of strapping young men wearing implausible outfits. Raine nodded politely, more at the various large numbers attached to Sarika’s characters than the visual designs. Praem made tea, Evelyn thumped down in a chair like a professional adjudicator, and I retrieved Whistle from the floor, hugging him to my chest for some much needed comfort. So much for not growing attached to the dog. He was too sweet.

We had warned Badger about Sarika’s physical state, but even softened by whatever obscure feelings he harboured for her, he still struggled with the sight of her, now that he’d gotten past the whole getting beaten with a stick part.

She saw him staring too, at the way her once black hair had turned almost completely white, at her slack facial muscles and twitching eyes, at the way she laboured to breathe, and how she struggled to control a constant quiver in all her misfiring muscles.

Praem set tea in front of both of them — Sarika’s mug cooled preemptively, and supplied with a saucer, to help mitigate the danger of her spilling any during one of her shaking episodes. Praem supplied Evelyn and Raine with tea as well, and coffee for me, and then reappeared at Evelyn’s elbow with a plate of biscuits, holding them there until Evelyn huffed and accepted two chocolate chip cookies. After she put the biscuits on the table, Praem fussed — if ‘fussed’ is the right word for several extremely precise motions — with the short blanket that Evelyn was using like a shawl, draped around her shoulders. Evelyn waved her away, but not before Praem made sure those kinked shoulders were properly warm.

“Well?” Sarika croaked at Badger. “Not so bloody pretty anymore, am I?”

“Does your voice hurt?” he asked.

“ … yes. What, they didn’t tell you I’m a mess?”

“They did.” Badger sighed and took an awkward sip from his tea.

Sarika had come armoured to this meeting. The previous two times she’d visited the house for our brain-math sessions, she’d worn pajama bottoms and a comfortable old sweater beneath her long coat, with Croc shoes on her feet. But for Badger she kept the coat buttoned up, her legs inside a pair of loose jeans, and wore boots. Raine had helped her get those boots on, she couldn’t have done it by herself.

She could not be further from the sobbing voice I’d heard over the phone three days ago.

The first thing Sarika had said to me when Evelyn had handed me the phone on Wednesday was, “Please don’t kill him.” Over the course of ten confused and guilt-inducing minutes, she’d dialled that down to, “Please don’t kill him yet,” and finally, “Please give me time to come see him, before you do this thing.” She’d stopped crying by the end of the phone call, but she had asked me not to reveal any of this to Badger. Her pride could not take it.

Badger, on the other hand, looked far healthier than he had on the night I’d claimed him from Ooran juh. He wore clean clothes, which Raine had fetched from his tiny bedsit flat when she’d gone to rescue Whistle, just plain jeans and a t-shirt with a band logo on the front. He was still oddly greasy, no matter how much he washed, an effect I hope would be solved when I tore up the Big Man’s contract. His hair was forever a mop of messy brown curls falling about his eyes, the type which even a good barber’s shop could only hope to hold back for a week or two. But he radiated a sort of inner peace. His pathetic hangdog vulnerability and bitter aggression had mellowed into calm acceptance.

No amount of inner peace could hide the wound on his left shoulder.

That was where he’d bitten himself the first time he’d summoned Ooran juh’s mouth into his own palm. Praem had arranged and applied a fresh dressing to the weeks-old bite wound, and changed it every day this week, but the wound constantly weeped thin blood and yellow pus, soaking through the gauze and bandage within twelve hours. It refused to close or stop bleeding. Evelyn directed Praem in trying a few basic first-aid techniques, some magical, some of which had involved rather a lot of pain for Badger, disinfecting and cleaning and binding the bite. But the wound simply would not heal.

I doubted I could treat his wound the same way I’d treated Zheng’s. He lacked her supernatural constitution, so if I did bite out the Big Man’s infection, Badger would probably end up with a hole the size of a fist in his arm, and we’d have to rush him to hospital.

And besides, the wound wasn’t the problem. He’d made a contract. I had to find it and rip it up, whatever that actually meant in the metaphors of hyperdimensional mathematics.

“Sarry, look,” Badger started awkwardly, after Sarika had finished taking a very careful sip from her own mug of tea. “I know we never saw eye to eye, like, about a lot of things—”

“About Alexander,” Sarika growled.

Badger dipped his head and cleared his throat in pained acknowledgement. “About a lot of things. But I’m really glad you made it out. I’m really happy you got out of that house, no matter what state you’re in now. I thought you were gone.”

“I was. I was dead. I came back from the fucking grave.” Sarika indicated me with a roll of her eyes. “Thank her if you must.”

“I have.” Badger nodded awkwardly at me. I felt like hiding behind Whistle. They both fell silent.

Evelyn sighed. “However much I am just loving listening to this reunion, do we need to leave the room so you two can have your heart-to-heart?”

I had to try very hard not to cringe, not to give the game away. There was no way we were actually going to leave the room. This was all part of Evelyn’s plan, to let the pair of them talk and see if in their emotional distress they slipped into details which might be useful to us. But that meant they had to keep talking. I, on the other hand, would have loved to flee upstairs.

Please, I thought, this is so awkward. Whistle was beginning to get restless in my arms, I’d have to put him down soon. I needed something else to hide behind.

“No,” Sarika croaked quickly. “Don’t leave me alone with him. He’ll get weepy.”

“It’s alright, yeah,” Badger agreed. “I don’t mind.”

“Hold up a sec,” said Raine, voice sharpening. “Sarika, are you scared of being left alone with him? Is that what this is about? He’s got a thing for you, hasn’t he?”

Sarika managed to dial her odious contempt up to about an eight out of ten. She glared at Raine. “Don’t you even insinuate that about him.”

Raine put her hands up and laughed. “Right, got it. You get to call him things, but I don’t.”

“Sarry,” Badger said. “All I wanted to say was I’m glad you’re alive. And … ” He glanced around the room at the rest of us, then lowered his voice for Sarika. “You’ve still got shooters out there if you need ‘em.”

“Shooters?” Raine raised her eyebrows. “You pushing your luck there?”

“A metaphor, like,” he said, hands up. “I mean not everybody’s dead, yet. Sarika, you still have friends.” He took a deep breath. “If you want to tell me I’m an idiot, go ahead. If that’s all you wanted to say.”

Sarika snorted. “I’m not going to offer you a pity-fuck.”

“I don’t want that!” Badger exploded, actually lost his temper, all his inner peace shattering back into a frustrated young man.

My eyes went wide and I felt like I was trapped inside a terrible soap opera. Raine paused in the middle of sipping her tea, and stayed stuck like that. Evelyn closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose. Praem appeared at Evelyn’s shoulder again, with more biscuits, and a packet of paracetamol.

“I never was in love with you, Sarry,” Badger went on. “I don’t even know where you got the idea from. You’re my friend, you were always my friend. We made a stupid decision together and—”

“You never liked Alexander,” she croaked.

“You were in an abusive relationship!”

“You were jealous. And he was never abusive to me.”

Badger did a mock-shock wide-eyed double-take, and gestured up and down at Sarika, at her ruined body.

“That was different,” Sarika croaked.

“He sold us out. All of us, you included. He sold us out to the thing that whispers inside my head, all the time, every day. He didn’t spare you from that. He sold us out to save his own skin. I don’t care how good a boyfriend he was.”

“Coward,” Sarika croaked.

“Yeah!” Badger spread his arms. “Yeah, okay. Because I should have put my—” He cut off and thumped his hand on the table, then took a deep breath and let his anger flow away. “Should have put my foot down years ago.”

Evelyn caught my eye across the table; she’d predicted this too — an attempt to claim they’d never liked Alexander in the first place — but not quite in this form. Sarika would not let it go.

“You ran,” Sarika croaked at Badger. I realised fresh tears were shining in her eyes. “You ran when the rest of us tried to negotiate with … to … t-to—” She screwed up her face, gasping for breath. The memory of the Eye was too much, even if it didn’t cause throat constriction and physical pain anymore.

“Sarry?!”

“Sarika,” I said her name out loud, and put Whistle down on the kitchen table, right in front of her.

“Feet off table,” Praem intoned, then, “Take a biscuit,” to Evelyn.

“What?” Evelyn frowned at Praem. “I’m fine, put that down.”

“In a moment, I’m sorry Praem,” I said. “Sarika, listen to the sound of my voice.”

“Don’t need … help,” she panted. One quivering, shaking, pale hand reached out and awkwardly stroked Whistle’s flank. The Corgi made a soft whining noise and licked Sarika’s fingers. She grimaced, but it seemed to do the trick. “You ran,” she repeated. “We stayed. You left me when I needed you.”

“And I was right,” Badger said. “I survived, yeah? I shoulda’ dragged you out of there, fuck the consequences.”

Sarika said nothing. With a jerky, shaking arm, she wiped half-formed tears on her sleeve, gritting her teeth at the evidence she could still cry over this betrayal.

“Sarry,” he went on, and shot a glance at me, “if I’m still alive this time next week, I’m not letting you do anything like that ever again.”

Sarika snorted. The tears had dried up. “You’ve always been such an old woman. You don’t have the right to let or not let me do anything. And I can’t do magic any more, ever, I’m fucking broken, you idiot. What are you going to do, police my bedtime?”

“Then tell me I’m not your friend anymore,” he said. “And I’ll shut up.”

“Fuck you, Nate.”

Badger braced, waiting for the follow-up, the real rejection, but the words never came. I had to suppress a hiccup. Sarika lowered her eyes back to her mobile phone, dismissing some alert from her questionable game full of athletic men. The tension in the kitchen dialled down via the half-conscious shared chorus of body language. Raine finally finished that swallow of tea and lowered her mug, catching my eye with exaggerated second-hand embarrassment. Evelyn looked ready to shoot somebody.

“Now that we’ve finished playing at couples’ therapy,” Evelyn grumbled — then cut off as Praem bumped her elbow with the plate of food and painkillers. “I’m fine, put that down!”

“Eat,” Praem intoned.

“Did you not have breakfast?” I asked.

“I—” Evelyn huffed. “I had … tea.”

“Eat,” Praem repeated.

Evelyn snatched up another biscuit and took a scowling bite, chewing and swallowing before asking Praem a silent question with an irritable look, a look that said ‘well then?’ Praem withdrew again.

“As I was saying,” Evelyn attempted a second time. “Now that we have you both in one place, and Sarika is feeling healthier, we have an important question to—”

“And it was never a stupid decision,” Sarika wheezed at Badger. “He was right.”

“Alexander?” Badger asked. “You’re still banging on about this?”

Evelyn rolled her eyes and let out a sound like a malfunctioning steam engine. Raine hid a smirk behind her sleeve.

“He was right,” Sarika repeated. “Everything I … I … experienced,” she squeezed the word out, eyelids involuntarily squinting. “It proved that. We’re so small, we’re nothing. Being human is a dead end. You can’t fight it. The— the— Eye,” she spat. “Or anything else from out there. We are a dead end.”

Badger pointed at me. His voice dropped to a hush, an almost religious awe. “You haven’t seen what she can do.”

“Fixed me,” Sarika grunted. “Luck.”

I bit the inside of my lips. Please, please don’t talk about this, don’t talk about me in that way. My phantom limbs tried to curl up, to hide me away, like an octopus making itself into a ball.

“She can fight it,” Badger said. “She can! I can’t even explain what I saw her do, Sarry. She’s human, look at her, she’s a human being, whatever I saw her turn herself into, and she fought off something I can’t even put into words. Screw the stuff Alexander did to his body, this was the real thing. It was like a manifestation. You remember those, in the early days before Alexander broke his sister’s head? It was like watching an angel take form. She’s the real thing, Sarry, she’s everything we were always looking for—”

“Could you please not?” I hissed.

“Yeah, dial it back there, friend,” Raine said. “Don’t make me put you in time-out for five minutes. Don’t be getting creepy about my girl.”

Badger cleared his throat and nodded awkwardly, but shot me a look that turned my stomach. I was no messiah, I did not want that awe.

“She can’t fight it,” Sarika croaked. “All you can do is refuse to engage. The only way to win is to not make contact, because the moment you do, it’s already won. You and everyone else who survived that house, you’re a vector. Should take all of you, all of you, and … ” Sarika raised two shaking fingers to the side of her own head, thumb out to mime a gun, and pointed it at her own temple. “And burn the bodies.”

“Sarika,” I said gently. “We talked about this.”

“You’re not right,” she said to me, panting with the effort of her conviction. “You’re not right. You shouldn’t be leaving any trace of it. The only reason I haven’t slit my own wrists to remove myself as another vector, is because I know I’m free of it. You should be burning us all. Burn it all, and the books.”

I couldn’t take that look, that certainty, that iron-hard need to destroy what had hurt her, expressed as omnicidal rage. Poor little Whistle must have sensed my discomfort, because he whined softly from the table, beneath my lingering hand. I had to look away.

“ … the fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool,” I quoted, quietly.

Winning will put any man into courage,” Sarika quoted back at me. I blinked at her in surprise, and she sneered with thin satisfaction. “You’re not the only one who knows your Shakespeare, Morell. Don’t lord it over me.”

I shook my head. “I’m not wise. I don’t have much courage. And I haven’t won, not yet.”

She snorted and rolled her eyes.

“Then it worked on you,” Badger said. “You admitted it, you’re free of the Eye, it worked on you.”

Sarika made a face like she’d been eating lemons. She tried to fix Badger with a withering look, but her face was slack and exhausted. She looked like she needed a nap. Badger glanced at Evelyn, who now had her arms crossed, staring at the ceiling.

“I’m sorry about this, Miss Saye,” he ventured. “Sorry we’re taking so long.”

“No, no,” Evelyn sighed. “You are about to give your life for the cause.” She made that sound very cynical indeed. “The least we can do is let you go without any regrets. Say whatever you have to say. It’s not as if I could do anything else with you two both in here.”

But Sarika spoke first. “You’re really going through with this, Nathan? You’re going to let her rummage in your brain?”

“Yeah,” he said instantly. “You did.”

“She didn’t give me a choice. And it wasn’t my brain.”

Badger shook his head. “It’s not just about me. If this works, if I’m alive this time next week, I’m gonna go find the others. I’m gonna tell them there’s a way out. It’s not unbeatable, Sarry. You’re living proof of that.”

We’d briefly discussed his desire to help the other remnants of the cult, all of them desperate to escape the Eye, earlier this morning before Raine and I had gone to fetch Sarika. I’d alluded to it previously, when I’d convinced Badger to agree to the vivisection, but I’d been trying not to think about it. This wasn’t just about him.

Sarika didn’t say anything for a long time. Evelyn even looked like she was about to interrupt, but then Sarika looked down at the table. I saw her throat bob as she laboured for breath.

“How many of us are left?” she asked.

Badger glanced at Raine, then at me. He knew we wanted to know as well.

“ … eleven,” he said, voice gone hollow.

“Eleven?” Sarika managed a slack, squinting frown. “At least … no, no, at least twenty five of you left Alexander’s old house that night. At least. More like thirty.”

“And eleven are left. Including me.”

Sarika didn’t know where to look for a long moment. Eventually her eyes found her phone again.

Evelyn unfolded her arms and cracked her back by rotating her neck from one side to the other. “Eleven members of a murderous cult, who engaged in kidnapping, child murder, and attempting to kill all of us. You’re lucky there’s even two of you left, because if it wasn’t for Heather, I would have eliminated every last one of you. You all deserve life in prison. Do I make myself clear?”

Sarika said nothing, but Badger nodded.

Then he hesitated, before saying, “You said ‘us’, Sarry.”

“Eh?”

“You asked, how many of ‘us’ are left,” he echoed her earlier words.

“We’re not going to rebuild the cult, you idiot,” she wheezed at him. “What are you getting at?”

“Maybe we build something else.”

“Not in my city you don’t,” Evelyn snapped.

But Badger wasn’t listening to her. He wasn’t listening to Sarika’s objections either. He was looking up at me, with the light of a terrible awe behind his eyes. I was beginning to understand how he’d ended up in a cult. Here was a man who’d been looking for meaning his whole life. And I didn’t even possess any charisma.

“Devious,” Praem intoned, bell-clear and sing-song.

Evelyn swivelled awkwardly in her chair to frown at Praem, and found the demon-doll staring right back at her with those blank, milk-white eyes, expressionless and unreadable. Next to Praem, Raine raised her mug of tea in a toast.

“Sneaky,” Praem continued. “Underhanded. Ingenious.”

“What are you on about?” Evelyn hissed.

“She’s got a point, Evee,” Raine piped up.

“She’s teasing you,” I said.

Evelyn shrugged at Praem, but Praem declined to explain.

“Because, yeah,” Raine jumped in, “planning to resurrect their cult, talking about it right in front of you, that’s the last thing you’d expect, right? Clearly little miss chronic fatigue disorder here is gonna get back together with mister bites himself in the arm, and throw a coup for control of the city.”

Evelyn gave her a very unimpressed look.

Raine put her hands up. “Hey, I’m just interpreting.” She gestured at Praem.

Evelyn’s withering glare tripped and fell before her eyes reached Praem. She cleared her throat, looked away, and finally met Praem’s silent stare with a visibly embarrassed effort. “Yes, I’m paranoid,” she said, “but that doesn’t mean there aren’t people out to get me. This one tried to have me killed.” She pointed at Sarika. “She took you out of your body.”

“Incapable now,” Praem intoned. “Crippled. Neutered.”

Sarika huffed a single puff of non-laugh. Praem resumed her straight-backed perfect poise. Raine shrugged in agreement.

“I think she just wants you to worry less, Evee,” I murmured.

“We’ll all worry less when we have fewer enemies,” Evelyn grumbled, turning back to the table, to Badger and Sarika. “And on that subject, now you two have quite finished, I want to know everything that you do about Edward Lilburne.”

“I’ve already told you everything I’ve got,” Badger said. “I never had much contact with the old bastard. Sorry, like.”

“I did,” Sarika croaked.

We all turned to regard her. She shrugged, slow and lopsided and painful.

“Well?” Evelyn snapped.

“Told you most of it already. Knew him through Alexander. I can’t find him for you.”

“Yes, we’re working on that ourselves,” Evelyn said. “I’m not interested in repeating what little you know about how to locate him, I want to know what he’s like, as a person. I would like to know my enemy.”

“Ask Lauren,” Sarika croaked.

“Lozzie doesn’t know very much,” I said softly. “Mostly just that he’s cruel and efficient.”

Sarika snorted, a painful sound that ended with her having to clear her throat. She hacked and coughed and struggled to get a tissue out of her pocket, and brought up a twisted glob of mucus into it. We all waited awkwardly for her to get her breath back.

“Sarry, you—” Badger started.

“No, Nate. I’m not okay. I hope you like what you’re seeing, because this might be your future as well.” She sneered at him, then continued once he shut his mouth. “Lauren is correct. Edward is cruel, and he is efficient. He’s also a sadistic old freak. Alexander was … he … he did what he did because he believed in it, he believed in something. I never got the impression Edward believed in shit.”

“Not even himself?” Raine asked. “Or money, or power?”

Sarika thought for a moment, running her tongue slowly over her teeth behind her closed lips. “He never bragged. Never used his position to abuse any of the cult. Never took liberties. But he never justified anything.”

Badger nodded along. “Alexander always had justifications.”

Sarika gave a puff of breath that was probably meant to be a snort. “For everything. Rolled off his tongue. Edward didn’t. Like he was an alien, studying people, studying things from Outside, pulling them apart, to … ” Sarika trailed off and squeezed her eyes shut, visibly exhausted by the effort.

“Classic sociopath?” Raine offered.

“Perhaps,” Evelyn muttered. “Maybe not. Doesn’t sound like he has any problems with impulse control. This thing with the book, our book he stole, Sarika, do you think it’s a trap? Or do you think he expects us to negotiate in good faith?”

“Both. Neither,” Sarika went on, eyelids heavy in a half-squinting scowl. “He’ll have plans for both, and he won’t care which option you take as long as he gets what he wants.”

“Do you think there would be any options he would habitually not account for?” Evelyn asked. “Before you answer, I do want to let you know that I don’t trust you, I don’t trust your answers to these questions. So tell the truth anyway, because I will analyse it.”

“She won’t lie to me, Evee,” I murmured.

Sarika stared at the tabletop, hazy-eyed and heavy. For a long moment I thought she was nodding off, but eventually she answered.

“Losing.”

“ … losing,” Evelyn echoed, deadpan.

“He would not account for losing.”

“Well then!” Raine said with a great big smile. “That’s easy enough, we’ll be fine. We’ll just stick to winning. That’s my speciality, it is, winning.”

I rolled my eyes and let out a big sigh, exhausted by the emotional tension of being in this kitchen with these people, having to listen to what should have remained private matters, getting to know a little about a man I did not want to know, because I was probably going to kill him. I resented being here, knowing these things, resented the ugly necessity of Evelyn’s plan.

“Raine,” I whined, folding my arms over my chest. “The performative absurdity isn’t helping. And Evee, you can’t expect a serious answer if you tell her you don’t believe her anyway, that’s just … silly … ”

I had expected Evelyn to be as equally exasperated as me. But she was staring at the look in Sarika’s exhausted, dark-ringed eyes, with total comprehension.

“Yes,” Evelyn murmured. “Yes, I see. He doesn’t even care if he wins or loses, not in that sense, does he?”

Sarika half-shrugged. “My impression.”

“He only cares about results.”

“You mean he’s not the sort of guy who gloats over a dying enemy?” Raine asked. “Seemed like a right arsehole that time we met him. And in the letter he left for us.”

“Exactly,” Evelyn muttered, still frowning at Sarika. “Which means everything he’s done might be in order to rile us up. Intentionally. And Sarika, you’re not lying. Why?”

“Because he should be dead,” Sarika wheezed. “You all should be. Maybe you’ll kill him. Good.”

Evelyn sighed. “Fair enough.”

“I have a question as well,” I spoke up, stepping back, leaving my arms folded protectively over my chest. Evelyn blinked at me in surprise. I hadn’t discussed this with her earlier. Raine nodded, backing me up.

“Ask away,” Badger said. Sarika just blinked, slow as a sleepwalker.

“After Alexander and I … fought,” I said, “I know he clung to life for a few hours, long enough to make the deal with the Eye. But you have no idea where the body ended up, after it went missing from Glasswick tower?”

Badger pulled an apologetic face, so pathetic it made me want to sigh at him. Sarika nodded, it was something I’d already asked her, weeks ago.

“Do you think he could still be alive?” I asked. “Or in some other state that isn’t life, but isn’t death, either?”

“Don’t,” Sarika croaked, an angry hiss in her voice.

“Fucking well hope not,” Badger said, then swallowed. “Possible, technically, I guess. But he was gone. Totally gone.”

“Okay, okay,” I said quickly, vaguely mortified. “Part two of the same question. Badger, when Edward Lilburne sent you to kidnap Lozzie, did he make it clear we wouldn’t be able to escape by going Outside?”

“Uhh … yeah.” Badger nodded. “Yeah, it’s the only reason we took the job. Ed’s man said neither you or her would be able to slip away, like. I dunno why. Dunno how he knew.”

Evelyn’s eyebrows climbed her forehead. “He knows.”

“He knows,” I echoed. “That’s bad.”

“What does this have to do with Alexander?” Sarika croaked.

I sighed heavily. “I don’t know. Hopefully nothing. God grant he stay dead.”

Evelyn nodded slowly at my use of a familiar phrase, with unwavering agreement. May all mages lie quiet in their graves. If only we could find his body.

“You seem different,” Sarika croaked at me. She blinked one eye, then the other, lids painfully heavy, then turned back to the game still lit up on her phone screen, swiping left to select between several shirtless men.

My stomach turned. Were my changes really that obvious? On one hand, it felt like a compliment, like an acknowledgement that others could see me for what I really was, even with my pneuma-somatic changes tucked away, my abyssal truth hidden from the world. I’d come to terms with not really being fully human anymore, because I was still a person; those are two different categories, not every person is a human. For a moment I felt warm and right, felt a smile tugging at the corners of my mouth. My reactor organ ached to blossom with power, instinct tugging at me to manifest myself in full, just for the sheer pleasure of it.

On the other hand, that urge worried me. I was still bruised and sore. I swallowed it down, like stifling a purr.

“Different how?” I asked.

Sarika shrugged. “I don’t know. Don’t care. Are you doing this thing today?”

“ … thing? I’m sorry?” I blinked at her, my hands wandering idly down to my sides where the bruises from my tentacles lay beneath my clothes. One hand pressed against my abdomen, feeling the residual heat of the reactor in my belly. This was me now, this is what I was, it’s what I wanted. I suspect it’s what I needed long before even my trip to the abyss. That had been a catalyst. The Eye had changed me first.

“The vivisection,” Sarika said. “You gonna cut Nate’s skull open today, or what?”

“This afternoon,” Evelyn answered for me. Her eyes found mine and left me no choice. I turned away, clamping my lips together.

“I’m ready,” said Badger. “Whenever you are, Miss Morell.” He reached across the table, and drew Whistle into his lap. I couldn’t help but notice his hands were shaking as he stroked the Corgi’s fur.

A lump grew in my throat.

“You staying?” Evelyn asked Sarika.

“Should I?” Sarika wheezed.

“It’s up to you,” Evelyn said. “I don’t entirely know what will happen. Regardless of how Heather does it, or how well it goes, I want the fucking thing Badger made a contract with out of my city. If the big greasy fat freak doesn’t leave after Badger’s contract is annulled, then I’m going to break out the big guns, right there on the spot. If you can’t handle that, I suggest you leave.”

“Miss Morell isn’t the big guns?” Badger asked.

Evelyn turned to regard him with glacial slowness and an icy cold stare to freeze the blood. “Look at me. Remember what I am. She is not what you should be afraid of, you vermin.”

Deep in my private heart, I said a silent thank you to Evelyn, with a note to hug her later. Maybe cry into her shoulder a bit too. Thank you, Evee, thank you for taking the heat off me, my big scary mage with her bitter mannerisms and venomous attitude. Maybe she understood or maybe she didn’t. My best friend, my surrogate sister.

“Hooooo, Evee,” Raine said, wincing.

“I don’t give a damn if she saves you from the Eye,” Evelyn carried on. “I don’t give a damn if she feeds you to—” a tut “—‘Orange Juice’. All I care about is that she comes out of this unharmed and a little wiser. And gets your filth out of my city. And if you ever track any back in again, I will have you hunted down and skinned and left in a shallow grave in the woods. Do I make myself absolutely clear?”

Badger nodded, throat bobbing.

“Good,” Evelyn snapped.

“If you survive,” I managed to add, trying to play the good cop, the good girl, the merciful and gentle thing that I was not, “then I’m going to make you bury bodies alongside Sarika, the ones you left in the castle. Maybe you and all the other cult remnants, maybe you can do something good. I haven’t thought of what, not yet.”

“I’m staying,” Sarika announced.

“Sarry,” Badger sighed with relief and met her eyes, but she snarled at him, an ugly sound like rubbing wet gravel down the inside of her throat.

“Somebody needs to give you a kick in the head when you wake up,” she wheezed. “Well, what are we waiting for? Get on with it. Unscrew his dome.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

any mortal thing – 14.1

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

It wasn’t until five days later that I felt confident enough to perform the vivisection.

After our fight with Ooran juh — who Raine insisted on calling ‘Orange Juice’, much to Evelyn’s eye-rolling exasperation — I took the rest of that week off university classes, to heal and recover. I even officially and formally ‘called in’ with flu symptoms, which wasn’t far off the truth. Every muscle in my body ached, from the thick slabs of quadriceps and gluteus, through my underdeveloped abdominals and weak arms, right down to the tiny muscles that controlled my eyelids, the slow squeezing tube of my oesophagus, and the delicate muscles between my fingers and toes. Even my tongue and jaw ached, along with the narrow anchor muscles up the sides of my skull, which made eating difficult for the first day or two.

But I still felt terribly guilty for skipping class. My well trained, good girl upbringing did not relent for anything, not even abyssal euphoria.

“I could still go to class,” I protested in a raw voice that next morning. “I’m not weak, I can stand and walk.”

“Yeah, sure, while wincing and shaking with each step,” Raine said.

“It just hurts. Alright, it hurts a lot. All over. But pain is just pain. I feel pretty good in every other way.”

“Regular people get sick too, Heather. Plus, hey, imagine how we’d look. We’d make a right pair in one of your lectures, me on my crutch and you wobbling like you’ve just been screwed six ways to Sunday.”

“The shaman can do what she wants,” said Zheng.

“Any divinely appointed monarch needs good advisers,” said Raine. “And I ain’t advising, I’m making an executive decision. Heather needs to take it easy. You wanna fight me over that?”

“I’m not a monarch,” I croaked, blushing. “Raine!”

Zheng rolled one shoulder and blinked a slow blink of silent acquiescence.

The muscle soreness did not fade quickly, but transmuted down the ladder from spiritual concern to material reality, from omnipresent full body ache into a more discrete series of very impressive bruises. My flanks blossomed black and blue where my tentacles had been anchored, and my skin broke out in dozens of tiny short-lived contusions wherever I’d sprouted spines. My knees and ankles grew stiff and creaky as the muscles recovered from my hasty pneuma-somatic reinforcements and exoskeleton frames, and my skin was raw and red and oversensitive, an aftereffect of how I’d flushed myself with warning colouration and defensive toxins. At least that last effect faded within twelve hours. It would have been torture otherwise, even dragging on a fresh set of clothes was like rubbing myself down with a cheese grater.

Raine went to class as normal, because I made her go, but she hurried back as soon as possible; Zheng stayed slow, stayed indoors, stayed close to me, like an injured bear in her den. She was still wrapped in bandages that Praem insisted on changing for her. My emergency field surgery had been a success, but even Zheng’s post-human body took over forty eight hours to close the supernatural bite wounds. She lingered at the windows, watching the streets at dusk and dawn, like a jungle cat waiting for a glimpse of her territorial rival.

Tuesday I vegetated all day, after a night of sleeping like the dead. I lay in bed until noon, eating whatever was put in front of me, visited by Lozzie and Tenny and little stubby-legged Whistle in rotation. Whistle didn’t seem to mind Tenny. She even turned up once carrying the dog in her arms, with one of her silken black tentacles wrapped around his rotund belly.

That was a good sign, if we did end up adopting the dog. But I wasn’t up to thinking about that yet. If we did have to adopt Whistle, that would mean I’d failed. It would mean responsibility for another death.

When Tenny offered Whistle to me on the bed, I had to turn her down.

“Pet,” she trilled, trying to place the cuddly dog in my lap, lowering him in a clutch of her tentacles. His little legs waggled and he seemed confused but not alarmed. “Stroke. Feels good. Good touch.”

“Thank you, Tenny,” I croaked. “But … but no, thank you, it’s too much. I can’t.”

“Can’t pet?” Tenny blinked those huge black eyes at me.

“I mean I can’t … get too attached. Um … ”

I didn’t mind the dog. I’d never been much of a dog person, always vaguely afraid of them as a child, but since Wonderland, they’d rather paled in comparison to what I saw every day, and Whistle was a very well-behaved, well-trained ambassador for dog-kind, never barking or slobbering or nipping with his teeth. But I was not to up to explaining the moral and emotional intricacies of potentially growing attached to the pet dog of a man whose brain I was about to peel open, certainly not to Tenny. She was too young, still seemed like a child, no matter how fast she was learning and how quickly her speech patterns were maturing. Lozzie jumped in to save me.

“Auntie Heathy needs space!” Lozzie chirped, and plucked Whistle out of Tenny’s arms, giving the dog a quick hug before placing him back down on the floor. “Lots of space, she’s sore alllllll over, up and down and in and out and no touchy-touchy, okay? Not without special permissions.”

Tenny blinked at Lozzie, blinked at me, and blinked at the dog as he trotted back out of the room. I don’t think she entirely bought it. She was getting very perceptive lately.

Lozzie then undermined her own lesson by having me turn onto my front so she could rub my back. I grumbled and complained and couldn’t get comfortable, especially with my once-again-phantom limbs trying to help steady me. Lozzie weighed so little as she clambered up to straddle my backside, but as soon as she started squeezing and kneading the large, bruised muscles down my back, I felt such relief I had to groan into the pillow. It was still painful. Her hands hurt. But that was the point.

Painkillers worked too, strangely enough.

“I can get you stronger stuff than the codeine, if you need it,” Evelyn said to me in the kitchen that evening.

I’d been working my incredibly slow way through dinner — homemade chicken casserole with rice and lots of soft vegetables, spiced with paprika and cumin, one of Praem’s increasingly complex forays into unsupervised cooking. Between the jaw pain and stiff bruising in my fingers, it had taken me an hour and a half to eat, even dosed with pills from Evelyn’s secret stash.

“ … I could put it in a blender and drink it,” I said.

“No,” Praem intoned from behind Evelyn’s shoulder. Her new maid uniform had finally arrived in the post, and she’d been wearing it all day. Evelyn refused to divulge how much the outfit had cost, but there was no way it was a standard off-the-rack imitation ordered from Amazon. Even the packaging had looked expensive. Between the high collar and the understated bust framing, the crisp, sleek skirt and the smooth lace at cuffs and collar and hems, Praem managed to look extremely pleased with herself even without an expression on her face.

I sighed. “Maybe I’ll be better by tomorrow. What other painkillers do you have?”

“I’ve got prescriptions for all sorts,” said Evelyn. “Tramadol or vicodin at least. Or we could go ask Kimberly to share some of her special crop.”

“Oooooh yeah,” Raine said, feet up up one of the chairs. “Getting high’ll help out with that sort of pain.”

“I think I’ve had enough of altered states of consciousness lately,” I said.

“What you’ve done to yourself this time is undeniably biological,” said Evelyn. “Inflammation, soreness, muscle strain. Which I for one find much preferable to you vanishing Outside or bleeding from your face holes. Take some painkillers, Heather. Take it from me, there’s no dignity in suffering needlessly.”

Evelyn was right. This wasn’t spiritual, not another untouchable bruise or ghostly abscess inside my chest, not some mystery ache behind my sternum that medical science couldn’t help. I wasn’t exaggerating about the lack of weakness either — I felt strong, vital, and healthy, in a way I hadn’t since the very first time I’d used hyperdimensional mathematics to force a Slip, so many months ago now. Every time I’d used brain-math since then, I’d come away with an aching void inside my chest, which never truly closed. The trilobe bioreactor had operated on more than a purely physical level, and finally filled in that void. I felt it all the time now, a brimming cup in my core.

But this omnipresent pain was debilitating for the mind. I wanted to just sit or lie in a heap, not moving, and switch my brain off.

I accepted a vicodin.

“And we do need you capable, ASAP,” Evelyn added. She glanced past Raine, into the utility room where the door to the cellar stood ajar. “That idiot can’t live down there forever.”

“Hey, Evee,” said Raine. “Give her some time, she fought a giant monster, yeah? I wouldn’t throw Godzilla at you and then expect you to seduce Twil two days later.”

Evelyn glared at her, unimpressed. Raine pulled an innocent smirk.

“I could do it now,” I murmured, mostly to myself. Why did that prospect make my chest go tight? “The longer I wait, the less time Maisie has.”

“Heal,” Praem intoned.

“Yes, yes, heal up. That’s not my point,” Evelyn huffed. “Look, it doesn’t make any difference to our plans. Even if you extract the Eye’s embarrassing diary entries and incriminating phone logs from that fool’s mind, it doesn’t speed up our schedule any. Nicole needs to find Edward’s house, and we need to steal our book back.”

Raine raised a confused eyebrow at Evelyn. “Why the rush then?”

“Because there is a condemned man in our cellar. He is waiting to die.”

“Oh,” I said.

“I may not be happy with what you’re going to do, Heather,” she said. “But while I accept the necessity, it doesn’t matter how well he understands the risks, or how disgustingly enthusiastic he seems about it.”

“Yeah, no joke,” Raine muttered.

“It’s the only way,” I croaked. “It might help him, and it’s better than the Big Man. Better than the Eye.”

“Yes, and I agree,” Evelyn sighed. “I understand. I get it. But you wouldn’t let me be cruel, Heather. You taught me otherwise. I won’t let you, either. Don’t make him wait too long. Get it over with.”

==

Wednesday morning I woke up with six tentacles wrapped around my lovers.

Zheng and I had fallen asleep while spooning, with my backside tucked tight against her lap and one of her arms cuddling my tiny frame against her front. It was like sleeping with a giant hot-water bottle which could also autonomously wrap around you, which was basically the best thing ever. We’d figured the heat might help soften my bruises, so Zheng had gotten the lion’s share of me that night, and Raine had cuddled up in front of me, beneath the covers, holding my hands.

I wasn’t aware of what I’d done until the early sunlight started to filter through the curtain, grey and heavy with the threat of dawn showers. I’d blinked barely conscious, bleary-eyed and heavy-lidded as Raine had stirred and attempted to turn over in bed.

Then she’d discovered far too many limbs holding her in a gentle embrace, and had shot wide awake, frozen and tense right in front of my eyes.

“R-Raine?” I croaked in shared panic, not understanding.

The tone in my voice must have woken Zheng as well, because suddenly my big cuddly water bottle was levering herself up, ready to fight off monsters or eat an intruder.

“Woah woah woah, slow down, big girl,” Raine said, one arm out. But she didn’t look up, eyes fixed down on her own body below the covers.

“Shaman? Little wolf?”

“It’s okay, I’m fine, it’s just us. I think.” Raine rummaged below the covers. I felt her hand on my arm, first hesitant then firm. She squeezed and rubbed. “Heather, that’s you, right? This is you?”

“I— I’m sorry?” I tried to clear my eyes, deeply confused as I wriggled my arm away from her. “What’s wrong? I don’t … ”

Zheng was chuckling low in her throat. She was touching one of my arms too. “The shaman has sprouted in the night.”

Raine was holding one of my hands, and my other was under the pillow — but Zheng had one of my arms as well, and raised it to her lips to kiss my skin; but Raine was holding yet another arm, and somehow I was hugging her with two more and had one around around her backside and this was far too many limbs to account for.

“Oh.” My eyes went wide. Realisation dawned like a bucket of cold water over my head. I was suddenly very awake. “Oh, oh shit.”

I yanked my free hand out from under the pillow and patted along my face and shoulders. Had I sprouted spines in my sleep and hurt Raine? Was I covered in armour plating and toxins?

I wasn’t. Apart from the tentacles, the rest was just a vague phantom feeling on the edge of my conscious mind.

“Hey, hey, it’s fine,” Raine said, right up close to my face. “Heather, it’s fine. It’s just you. It’s only you.”

“I’m not meant to … in my sleep? I don’t— I didn’t— are you hurt?”

“You cannot see them, can you, little wolf?” Zheng purred.

“Sure can feel ‘em though.” Raine flashed a smirk. “Especially the one between my legs.”

I blushed beetroot red and withdrew that particular tentacle with a slither across the bedsheets, though Raine playfully clamped her thighs around it as I wiggled free. I hid behind my hand, blushing and cringing.

“They are beautiful,” Zheng purred. “They deserve to be seen, little wolf.”

“I’m sure they do. Guess this is a new perk of sleeping with Heather, huh?”

“Please don’t,” I whined.

When I concentrated, I could feel the trilobe organ in my abdomen humming away with a steady pump of energy, to keep these pneuma-somatic additions fresh and healthy. It was spreading a subtle yet deep heat through my belly. A single biochemical control rod from the shutdown array had slid upward in the metabolic channel it occupied within the reactor, allowing the reaction to ramp up just enough to manifest my tentacles, but no further. I’d done it in my sleep, by instinct, because I’d wanted to hug Raine as well as Zheng.

I wriggled one tentacle free and poked it out of the covers. Rainbow fluorescence cast slowly shifting colours over my pillow and Raine’s face and the walls, brightening the room in the grey dawn static, the colours sleepy and heavy beneath the pale flesh. What a strange paradox, that I was casting bioluminescence that Raine couldn’t see. I ran a human hand over it to be absolutely certain.

“Oh. Oh, okay,” I panted, heart thudding in my chest.

I could only thank God and Maisie that my tentacles were in their smooth configuration, not a barb or hook in sight, and no necrotizing or paralytic mucus smeared on Raine’s vulnerable skin. Even fast asleep, my body knew to never to hurt my mates. When I’d been staggering home from the fight on Sunday night, unable to fold away my sharp edges and toxic spines, I’d still been flushed with adrenaline, ready to drive the Big Man off a second time if I had to.

In fact, I’d only ever manifested my tentacles before in panic and self-defense, or for euphoric combat problem solving. This was the first time I’d done it for a purpose other than fighting.

The roots, buried deep in my flanks and anchored in already bruised tissues, ached like pulled muscles whenever I moved them.

“Here, little wolf, here, feel.” Zheng guided Raine’s hand, to touch what she couldn’t see.

I let out a little gasp and a not unpleasurable shudder of surprise, as Raine drew her fingertips down to where one of my tentacles thickened. “U-um, maybe not … not right … ”

“Hey, it’s only us three in here,” Raine purred. “Are these erogenous, or what?”

“No! N-no they’re not, not like that.” I blushed so hard my throat turned red. I did my best to sit up in bed and push the covers down, airing out my pajamas, no matter the aches and sore muscles. My tentacles followed me up and out, spreading either side of me, drawing out the deep aches in my flanks. “I-I’m very, very, very sore. I really don’t think I would survive a … double.”

My eyes flicked from Zheng to Raine and back again. They shared a knowing look. Raine laughed.

But I really was too sore. For now.

==

Evelyn got me in a magic circle in the workshop two hours later, half-naked and shivering in my pajama bottoms and bra, though by then I’d shut down the bioreactor and folded the tentacles away.

“But why?!” Lozzie asked from the sofa, both hands planted between her spread knees as she rocked back and forth, wispy blonde hair floating everywhere. “They’re so pretty, you don’t have to hide them away, it’s not like anybody’s going to see if they wouldn’t already be seeing them!”

“Well … it does hurt,” I said. “The bruises, I mean.”

Evelyn huffed an unimpressed laugh down by my belly. “Not surprising. You do look rather like a bad Jackson Pollock painting right now.”

“Oh, thank you,” I muttered.

Lozzie pouted and puffed her cheeks out. “That’s not fair, even the bruises are pretty. They’re proof! Of good things!”

Evelyn straightened up, putting her weight on her walking stick and lowering the magically modified magnifying glass she’d been using to examine my flank, where the bruising was most coherent and regular, from the anchor-points of the tentacles themselves. The magnifying glass was a recent invention of her own, the lens itself painted with a magic circle of her own design and the lens frame covered in tiny eye-watering script. I caught a glimpse of the swirling, headache-inducing view through the lens, a vision of the floor behind her cast in psychedelic shifting neon, and had to look away. She winced and rubbed her hip, not used to bending over like that, but apparently unbothered by the effect of staring through the glass for several minutes.

She wasn’t exaggerating about the bruises. My torso and hips and most of my legs were covered in a patchwork quilt of visible bruising, busy turning dark purple, stiff and painful, though a few areas were already going green and yellow with the healing process. I looked like I’d been beaten. Get me in front of a doctor and Raine might get arrested on suspicion of domestic abuse. Which was no laughing matter.

“Yes, but they’re also causing Heather considerable pain,” Evelyn said to Lozzie, then added, for me, “but you do look better. I don’t think sleep-tentacling Raine has pulled anything loose.”

“And the bioreactor?” I asked.

Evelyn wet her lips, meeting my eyes with an expression I’d seen on her too many times before, hungry curiosity and cold fascination. But this time it was softened by frowning concern.

“I’ve never heard of anything like it before,” she said slowly. “But then again, you keep doing things I’ve never heard of before. It’s a true, actual, real biological organ, Heather. You grew it. And I’m neither a doctor nor a surgeon.” She waved the magnifying glass. “This isn’t an MRI machine, it’s not going to tell us anything medically significant. The best I can say is the organ isn’t doing anything magically dangerous to you. You can probably activate it if you want, just keep it gentle. Don’t go all the way. Don’t pull a muscle.”

I glanced over to the table, where the far more medically significant device still lay, a yellow box with a glass dial and an adjustable tube. Evelyn saw the direction of my gaze and sighed.

“You heard it as well as I did,” she said. “There was nothing but regular background radiation.”

“But that wouldn’t pick up alpha particles through my skin. I Googled it.”

Evelyn rolled her eyes. She actually snapped at me. “Heather, if your new appendix mark two-point-oh was shedding alpha particles into your fucking bloodstream, we would know, because you would be dying of radiation poisoning by now. Stop it. Stop worrying yourself.”

I took a deep breath and nodded. “Sorry … I … just sorry. It’s like part of me doesn’t believe I deserve to feel good about any of this, I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, for something to go wrong.”

“Impostor syndrome for your own body?”

“That’s why I turned the reactor off and put the tentacles away, I’m worried it’s going to fall apart again.”

“Mm.”

“ … why do you have a Geiger counter, anyway?” I asked.

Evelyn shrugged. “It was in the house. God alone knows what it was for.”

“Get one out!” Lozzie urged. “Get a tentacle out! They’re prettyyyyyy. I wanna touch one again!”

I sighed and awkwardly crossed my arms over my chest, feeling self-conscious. “You sound like you’re asking me to get my boobs out or something.”

Lozzie giggled, flapping a sleeve. “Heathy! No!”

“You do need to keep the bruises flexible,” Evelyn said. “Work the muscles a little bit. It’ll help. She’s not wrong.”

“Doctor’s orders!” Lozzie chirped.

“They feel clumsy,” I huffed, telling the full truth at last. “Clumsy and less dexterous. In bed, when I woke up, when I was moving them around, they didn’t feel the same as before. At first I thought it was because I was half-asleep, but then I … I kept knocking things over in the bathroom. Like suddenly I can’t use them right.”

“Not an emergency,” Praem intoned from by the door. We all stared at her.

“ … that’s a good point,” Evelyn muttered. “Thank you, Praem.”

Praem nodded her head ever so slightly.

“Look, are we done?” I asked. “Can I put my shirt back on now? I’m cold.”

“Of course,” Evelyn said. She tossed the magnifying glass onto the table and eased herself into a chair, while Lozzie passed me my t-shirt and hoodie. I slowly and painfully tugged both on over my head and snuggled down inside the warmth, hiding my bruised body and my embarrassment.

“Whenever you’ve manifested your tentacles before,” Evelyn spoke slowly, thinking with each word, “it’s always been in a crisis. Correct? Unless you and Raine have been up to some truly degenerate activities behind closed doors.”

I think she was trying to soften the seriousness of the subject, but I didn’t laugh. I blushed and hid behind a hand.

“Oh,” Evelyn said, voice gone hollow. “Okay, no, I don’t need to know that. That was a joke.”

“We haven’t!” I blurted out. “But you saying it as a joke is bad enough!”

Lozzie was giggling so hard she had to fling herself back onto the sofa and bury her face in the cushions. Evelyn cleared her throat and held up both hands, but embarrassment at her own joke had ruined her composure, and she couldn’t locate the start of her next thought.

“Only in a fight?” Praem said, coming to the rescue with her sing-song silver-bell voice.

“Yes, yes, exactly.” I nodded, fighting down the blush that had risen at the unspeakable yet intriguing suggestion. “Every time I’ve made my tentacles real, it’s always been in a fight, or a crisis, and I’ve used them right away. The most I’d gotten out of them in the past, before Sunday, was perhaps a few minutes. And on Sunday it was all fight and then aftermath. But this morning, I don’t know how long they were active. It could have been hours.”

“You may not be used to them,” Evelyn said, “when you’re not using them on instinct.”

I nodded. She had a point. When I’d woken up with my tentacles all manifested, it had felt very right to be that much closer to the shape my abyssal memories said I should be able to adopt. But a hand can feel right to possess, yet still be clumsy.

“Then you do need to get them out!” Lozzie bounced to her feet and wrapped her arms around my chest from behind, in a hug. Somehow she didn’t aggravate a single bruise.

“Are you going to use the tentacles on Badger?” Evelyn asked.

I blinked at her in white-faced incomprehension, mouth agape, almost offended. “ … E-Evelyn, excuse me?”

Evelyn gritted her teeth. “I mean to perform the vivisection, not whatever you were thinking.”

“O-oh. Oh. That makes much more sense. I’m sorry.”

At the word ‘vivisection’, Lozzie had let go of me and flopped back into the sofa. She began humming loudly, and buried her head in the cushions again, swinging her legs back and forth.

She didn’t want to hear this. Didn’t want to think about it. Neither did I, but it was my responsibility.

I glanced over at the open door to the kitchen — we hadn’t sequestered ourselves away for this, Raine was at class and Zheng was napping and Tenny was playing video games upstairs — and then beyond that, to the utility room at the back of the house. I couldn’t see the cellar door from here, but I knew it was standing open too. Down there beneath the floors, Badger was asleep or reading a book, or perhaps watching the old television we’d dragged down there for him.

We weren’t keeping him tied up and handcuffed in the cellar; he was no Amy Stack. We’d only kept him confined for the first day, until Evelyn had a chance to make sure he wasn’t carrying the magical equivalent of a cranial bomb, and Raine had decided his earnest awe of me was not an act. He’d seen me fight Ooran Juh and watched me bite out Zheng’s infection, and in a way, I had rescued him. That had changed something about his priorities, but I didn’t yet understand what. Perhaps I would never know. Perhaps I would flay his mind before he got a chance to tell me.

But he’d requested to stay down in the cellar, sleeping on the camp bed Raine had dragged out of storage, petting Whistle and awaiting my inevitable attentions. Perhaps it was penance.

More likely it was fear. He’d seen something out in the streets beyond the house, twice — once as a vague impression and the second time as an actual fat man who’d been standing and watching the house, not headless, just a very obese human. It could have been a coincidence, but as soon as we’d opened the front door, the fat man had vanished.

Ooran Juh, waiting for him. The Big Man was not bothering with the rest of us, but he was waiting for Badger.

Though I had my suspicions. If I stepped outdoors, it might follow me or watch me — but not challenge me. This was my territory, I’d made that clear, but this rival predator would wait forever for his target.

Zheng had taken to shadowing Badger whenever he emerged to use the bathroom, and Raine and Evelyn had both spoken to him multiple times. Kimberly made herself exceptionally scarce. She informed us she’d not had much contact with Badger while they were both in the cult. He’d been several levels above her, not a real mage but somehow important, but she still didn’t want to see or meet or even hear anybody who had been involved in the Sharrowford Cult ever again, as long as she lived. I had a mind to grant her that safety, as much as we could.

I had not been downstairs to see Badger either.

I’d heard him, though. We’d all heard him. Badger suffered the most unimaginable night terrors, full-on screaming fits and somnambulant flailing and falling out of bed, though no actual sleepwalking. He needed constant mental occupation when awake, which is why Zheng had carried the old telly down there, and we’d given him a pile of books and let him keep his mobile phone. Any unguarded mental moment was another opening for the Eye to torture him, trying to get him to do something he couldn’t. Last Raine had told me, he was watching the whole of Dark Shadows from beginning to end, some American soap opera I’d never heard of.

We’d ruled out drawing the Fractal on his skin, even as a compassionate measure. After what had happened to the Cult, when they’d used the Fractal to attempt negotiation with the Eye, we thought it too risky.

“Well?” Evelyn prompted when I didn’t reply. “Are you going to use the tentacles on him or not?”

“Maybe.” I gathered my wits, then hugged myself through my hoodie. Wished Raine was here. “Honestly, I don’t know. I won’t know until I begin.”

“You don’t know?” Evelyn asked, then sighed heavily. “Heather, how long is the man supposed to wait? He’s on death row.”

“I could do it right now, if I was hurting less,” I said. “A few more days, at most. Plus, we still need to convince Sarika to come see him. Don’t we?”

“Maybe we should respect her wishes,” Evelyn said.

After two short phone calls, Sarika had made it abundantly yet laconically clear that she did not wish to see “that fucking idiot coward Nathan.” But I was using that as an excuse, no matter how sore my muscles. I didn’t need muscles to do brain-math. Not with the reactor organ in my belly.

“We keep using the word ‘vivisection’,” I said, in a naked attempt to avoid the actual problem. “But that’s only a metaphor. What I’m going to do to him is primarily hyperdimensional mathematics. Very similar to what I did with Sarika, in fact, but with the added complication that the Eye is technically still in him. Connected to him. Somehow. I’ll need to be ready, for contact, maybe. My tentacles are a secondary issue.”

Evelyn raised her eyebrows in sardonic disbelief. “Need I remind you this all started when you got your tentacles out in the middle of the park? What were you going to do with them, tickle a cultist into submission?”

As if roused by thinking about them, my six phantom limbs rose up from my sides, forcing a wince from me as the muscles inside my torso adjusted to support structures which were not there right now.

“Of course not, Evee.”

“I’m serious. You got the tentacles out. You were going to trepan one of them.”

“That was only instinct! I’m not going to crack open his skull and root around in his brain, not literally. The tentacles might just provide some … I don’t know. Some kind of catalyst component. A stronger connection. I know they can pass through flesh if they have to, Tenny did that once, with a person’s head, but—”

“So maybe you will have to get physical,” Evelyn finished for me.

“Why are you so insistent on this?”

Evelyn gave me a deeply unimpressed look, hunched over the handle of her walking stick like a gargoyle, sour and squinting. “Because I’m a horrible bitch who can’t help but torture my closest friends and loved ones, by forcing them to think about horrible impending tasks they would rather avoid.”

“Liar,” Praem intoned.

“Yes,” I agreed. “That is very transparently a lie, Evee. And you’re not a bitch.”

“Yes I am.”

“Don’t use that language for yourself.”

Evelyn stamped with her walking stick. “I want you to be prepared for this, Heather. Doing everything last minute, running on instinct, that might work in a fight, but not for this. If you have to stick your fingers into his actual brain, whether you’re reaching through his skull or boring a hole in it, I don’t care which, I want you to be ready. I do not want you to be consumed by guilt if you kill this man and then blame yourself for being under-prepared. Stop avoiding the practicalities.”

I averted my eyes. Behind me, Lozzie had stopped humming, hiding beneath the cushions like a burrowing ferret. But I could tell she was listening now.

“I don’t know if I could do that part,” I muttered. “I can do the brain-math, but … ”

“Then I suggest you get some practice in,” Evelyn said.

I puffed out a humourless laugh. “Practice brain surgery? On what? You? Whistle? Myself?”

“Not brain surgery. Basic dexterity. And we do have somebody you could learn from.”

==

“Cheeeeeeck,” Tenny trilled.

Raine drew a sharp breath through her teeth. “Ooooh, she’s got you dead to rights there, Heather.”

I frowned at the board, holding my hands clasped in my lap. On the other side of the kitchen table, Tenny started to bob and weave in her seat, rocking like Lozzie sometimes did. A playful smile spread across her mouth as she watched me think, those huge pelagic eyes fixed on my face rather than the board and the pieces between us.

“It’s check, not checkmate,” Evelyn supplied.

“Shhhhhh!” Lozzie scolded, a finger to her lips. “Let Heathy think!”

Evelyn rolled her eyes and hid her mistake behind a long sip of post-dinner tea. But she couldn’t keep her mouth shut. “Watching Heather lose to a child over and over is like pulling teeth.”

“You don’t have to watch,” I muttered. “And this was your suggestion in the first place.”

“I didn’t suggest playing a game you have no hope of winning.”

“Hope-ahhhh,” Tenny said in her fluttering voice, leaning toward Evelyn’s chair. Two extra tentacles slid from their hidden sheaths in her shoulders, beneath the white fluffy layer of her flesh-cloak wings. Black and silky, they waved through the air toward Evelyn, who made a valiant effort to stay still and calm.

“Yes?” Evelyn said, somewhat strained.

But Tenny stopped short of patting Evelyn’s shoulder with the tentacles, making a sort of blinking, tilting expression which meant she’d remembered or realised something.

“Auntie Evee, not touching,” she announced, and mimed patting the air instead, much to Evelyn’s visible relief.

“Good girl, Tenns,” Lozzie stage-whispered.

“Thank you, yes,” Evelyn said. “But what was your point?”

“Heath can win,” Tenny trilled.

“Exactly my point too.” Evelyn cleared her throat. Then, in the way one would indulge a precocious child, she pulled a very awkward smile and raised her cup of tea to Tenny. “Great minds think alike.”

“Great minds,” Tenny echoed. One of her tentacles was still close to Evelyn after the air-pat, and it quickly dipped into the mug of tea to steal a sip. Evelyn blinked and pulled the mug back, leaving the tentacle dripping brown tea, but Tenny was already making a weird trilling feathery sound that was probably a giggle.

“Wonderful.” Evelyn pulled a face at the remaining liquid in her mug.

“Tenns is clean!” Lozzie chirped. “It’s fine!”

“Of course she’s clean,” Evelyn huffed. “That doesn’t mean I want to share her mouth … gut … tentacle? Tentacle flora. Assuming she has any. Oh, sod it.” Evelyn threw back the rest of the tea.

I’d been frowning at the board the whole time, trying to ignore the peanut gallery. As Evelyn downed the rest of her tea, the pieces on the board finally stopped conspiring against me and gave up their secrets.

“I can see the way out,” I muttered — and promptly banged my hands on the underside of the table. “Ow.”

Raine started laughing. “Are you okay? Heather?”

“I’m fine.” I tutted, and manoeuvred my hands from beneath the table, my wrists bound together with the soft fabric belt from Evelyn’s dressing gown. “Is this still really necessary?”

“Until you stop trying to move your hands before your tentacles,” Evelyn said. “Try again.”

I sighed and rolled my eyes, replaced my hands in my lap, and concentrated on moving a tentacle instead.

It was after dinner that same Wednesday. Night was struggling to fall out in the garden, over the streets and houses of Sharrowford in spring. Sunset gripped the horizon with tendrils of orange and rose larger than anything I could ever hope to summon. For the first night since I’d started living at Number 12 Barnslow Drive, we had the heating turned down to barely a trickle, the old iron radiators lying dormant and quiet. The first feelers of summer were still perhaps a month away, but this house had been built back in a time when people still cared about proper insulation. Despite the missing roof tiles and cracked brickwork and old windows and creaking floorboards, it was still strong in its bones, still determined to shelter its human charges. I was still wearing my pink-scaled hoodie, but I’d gone down to only one t-shirt beneath.

We’d pushed aside the dinner detritus of dirty plates, and set up the chessboard in the middle of the table. Then I’d sat there for twenty minutes, making everybody else simultaneously very bored and a little worried, as I’d closed my eyes and concentrated on easing a single biochemical control rod out of its metabolic channel inside my reactor organ.

I could have just slammed the whole thing onto full power. As instinctive as taking a deep breath; but half the purpose of this exercise was to consciously discover the breakpoints.

I’d edged the trilobe organ into throbbing, pulsing life — an operation which felt like trying to pluck a single eyebrow hair freehand, with a pair of kitchen tongs, in the dark. But I’d stuck with it, until a faint blush of heat spread through my abdomen, enough to make me purr with pleasure. Summoning the two tentacles had been easy by comparison, a simple flicker of hyperdimensional mathematics, not even complicated enough to cause a nosebleed. Though I had experienced a brief stabbing headache behind my eyes.

The pain was worth the euphoria, as they had arced out either side of me, beautiful and strong and perfect.

Lozzie had ooh’d and ahh’d at them, wide-eyed and smiling like she was watching the sunset out in the garden. Zheng had nodded silent approval, then stalked off to watch the street from the windows. Praem had acknowledged nothing, and Tenny had watched my movements like a squid meeting another squid in the dancing ocean sunlight, trying to follow along with the motions of my tentacles.

I’d positioned one above the chess board, concentrating hard on the action of curling the smooth flesh and the muscle inside.

The other had gone into Lozzie’s lap, so she could massage it. A little deal we’d made, to help alleviate the deep-bruise pain in my sides. She had to let off after a few minutes though, I couldn’t concentrate on the chess board; having the tentacle kneaded was like getting a foot rub, it felt too good and made me want to go to sleep.

Tenny made the first move, inching a pawn forward. I watched very closely as her tentacle-tip curled around the chess piece, then attempted to mimic her.

We’d chosen chess specifically to distract my conscious mind between each move; it was one thing to prioritise my tentacles in a fight or a crisis or in a moment of fear, when abyssal instinct was concerned with pure survival, but it was another thing entirely to use them for delicate, complex motions when I was relaxed and safe, while considering a difficult problem. We couldn’t do brain surgery, but this was the next best task.

After all, to last even a few moves against Tenny did require exceptional concentration. I was no strategist — that was Evelyn’s department — and I had not exactly played much chess before, so I had to do a lot of concentrating.

It must have been a strange experience for Evelyn and Raine. Whenever I made a move, to them, the chess piece seemed to float.

“I recommend never doing this in public,” Evelyn muttered as I made my first move. “You look like you’re using telekinesis. You’ll freak out the whole country.”

I had since lost five times in a row, and bashed my hands and wrists into the table about quadruple that number.

And I kept knocking the pieces over.

“Tch.” I tutted as the curling tip of my tentacle fumbled the rook piece I’d been trying to move to block Tenny’s check. It fell on its side and rolled away. I tried to grab it — whacked my hands on the table again — and not only did I not catch the piece, but also managed to knock over two pawns with the flailing end of my tentacle. “Oh, bum!” I swore, losing my temper.

The rook rolled off the board and off the edge of the table. Raine caught it before it hit the floor.

“Hey, hey, Heather.” She held the fallen castle piece out to me, smiling a comforting smile. “Relax, take a deep breath. Here, try to take it out of my hand instead.”

“I can’t do this!” I whined, then felt terribly guilty, because Raine didn’t deserve my anger. I rubbed my face with both my hands, still trailing the belt from my wrists. “I keep trying to copy what Tenny does, but it’s not working, I don’t have any fine control. And I’m still sore all over, doing this hurts. My tentacles aren’t meant for this human scale stuff, they’re apparently only good for beating up monsters and hurting people.” I huffed. “Not that I mind. Still feels right to have them.”

Raine smirked. “I wouldn’t class that one between my legs this morning as ‘beating up monsters’.”

“Raine!” I squeaked.

Evelyn rapped the table with her knuckles and gestured at Tenny. “There is a literal child in the room, Raine. I will hit you with my walking stick. I will.”

Lozzie wasn’t exactly setting a good example either, giggling like mad behind the ends of both her sleeves.

Raine cleared her throat. “Sorry. I forgot. It’s alright, Tenns, Heather and I were just cuddling this morning. Tentacles are good for cuddles, you know that already.”

“Cuddle!” Tenny trilled. Four of her tentacles snaked over to Lozzie and gave her a hug, all while Tenny was looking the other way. I had to avert my eyes, fuming with unreasonable and irrational envy of her easy dexterity.

“Heather,” Evelyn said, in a much softer tone than the one she reserved for Raine. “Do you know how long it took me to learn to walk again?”

My envy faded with sputtering shame. “No? No, I don’t believe you’ve ever told me that, Evee. I’m sorry.”

“Two years,” Evelyn said quietly. “And I had to re-learn periodically as I grew up, whenever I needed a larger replacement.” Her free hand wandered down to where the socket of her prosthetic leg cradled her thigh, beneath her comfy skirt. I noticed Lozzie staring with innocent, blinking interest. “This will not come quickly, and it will not be easy.”

I took a deep breath. “I know that. But I only have a couple of days, yes? The point of this is to be ready for— ahh!”

A surprised squeak escaped my throat and a sudden embarrassed blush rose up my cheeks. Tenny had wrapped one of her tentacles around my own, curling around and around as if braiding them together. She was gentle, but it was still like linking arms without warning.

“T-Tenny, what—”

“Here. Here here. Here,” she trilled, and guided me toward Raine’s hand.

She acted as a living crutch for the direction and support of my own tentacle, the equivalent of a person reaching over from behind my back to correct my grip. Together, we plucked the rook from Raine’s waiting hand, and placed it back on the chessboard, blocking Tenny’s check attempt. She smiled at me and waggled her head side to side, her feathery antennae twitching.

“ … thank you, Tenny. Thank you. I … maybe you can show me how.”

Tenny nodded, and set about picking up the two toppled pawns as well.

Over on the kitchen counter, Evelyn’s mobile phone rang suddenly and softly. She frowned at it, but Praem was already picking it up and handing it to her.

“Answer,” Praem intoned.

“Hey, is it Nicky?” Raine asked. “She found anything?”

“No,” Evelyn said at length, frowning at the phone screen. Tenny and I were concentrating together on moving another chess piece, but something in Evelyn’s voice made me look over at her. She pressed the answer call button and held the phone to her ear. “What do you want?”

A long pause. Raine and I shared a look. Lozzie fussed about with two of Tenny’s tentacles.

“Calm down,” Evelyn said eventually, rolling her eyes, not sounding very placatory at all. “No, he’s still alive.” Another long pause. “Oh, that changed your tune, did it? Like you deserve to. Mmhmm. Saturday then. Alright, alright, no I don’t care, I’ll put her on.”

Evelyn held the phone out to me, looking very unimpressed.

“Me?” I asked.

“It’s Sarika. She’s changed her mind, wants to see Badger. Preferably before you operate on him, I assume.” She pursed her lips down at the phone. “Careful, she’s doing crocodile tears.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

a very great mischief – 13.14

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Ankle-deep in filthy water, besieged by cloying greasy darkness, trapped in a rotting mockery of Sharrowford that was about to swallow us alive, with Zheng bleeding from bites the size of my hands and wounded in a way even she could not shrug off, I had taken the only option left.

I screeched and leapt at Ooran juh, with no idea what I was doing.

No amount of pneuma-somatic body modification or magical prostheses gave me the faintest notion of what to do in a fight, however perfect and beautiful my new form, however euphoric I would have felt under any other circumstances. The trilobe reactor organ in my abdomen supplied limitless biochemical energy, but the muscles in my arms and legs were still those of a twenty year old woman who generally did not exercise. Perfected abyssal instinct joined in chorus with savannah ape tribal loyalty, screaming at me to protect my pack, my mate, my partners, but I still had no idea how to actually win a physical fight.

I slammed into the headless giant as a flailing mass of barbed tentacles, toxic spines, and snapping teeth, no more coordinated than a little girl in a playground slap-fight. But this little girl was armed with all the fruits of the abyss.

Ooran juh stood his ground before my inexpert charge. Why not? He probably weighed ten times what I did. A plate-sized hand smacked away one of my tentacles with wrecking-ball force, bruising and tenderising the rainbow-strobing flesh.

But there was no bone inside the tentacle to break, only springy pneuma-somatic muscle. No shock, no transmitted impact, and no way to stop me.

He didn’t have enough hands. My five other tentacles hit him all over like a squid fighting a whale, lashing at his soft, wormy, rotten-oat flesh, digging in with thousands of hooks and barbs. Tiny muscles in my tentacles all twisted in a wave, rotating each hook to tear every wound wider, before whipping back, ripping great tracks out of his hide. He bled slow sickly off-white pus from hundreds of lacerations, the broken flesh covered in necrotizing mucus I’d left behind.

Ooran juh struck back, trying to catch the strobing rainbow beauty in the teeth of his hand-mouths as I lashed at him a second time.

He did, twice, biting chunks of quivering, bleeding pneuma-somatic flesh from my tentacles.

I screeched and yowled, but the trilobe reactor organ was already compensating, flooding my veins with new kinds of white blood cells — and things that were not really mammalian leukocytes at all, flushing the inflamed skin around the bites with eosinophils and lymphocytes that had no proper place in a human body, fighting off the Big Man’s claim. My wounds closed with rapid-growth scabs of pastel florescence; each tentacle blossomed with chitin plates for armour.

The Big Man’s hand-mouths retched out gobbets of my flesh, their lips swollen, gagging on mouthfuls of tetrodotoxin and conotoxin and approximations of compounds that should not have been possible in our reality.

He compensated too, ignored the third strike from my whipping tentacles, and reached for my head and mantle instead.

Head and body instead, insisted a still-ape part of my mind.

Even in a life-or-death fight, running on pure instinct, I knew that to let him bite my core of true flesh would be too much for me to combat. Pneuma-somatic matter was renewable, plastic, malleable, but a bite from one of those mouths could rip out my entire flank, snip off three of my tentacles in one chomp, and snap my spine with ease.

He bore down on me, taking giant crashing steps through the filthy water which was now up to my calves, spraying the rank sewage everywhere as he tried to grab me in a bear hug. Animal fear flashed sirens in the back of my head at his sheer size and weight, this towering mountain of pale meat about to crash into me. I hissed in warning and panic, trying to scramble back. Without the clean moonlight, our fight took place by the disorienting flicker and dying glow of the street lights, casting the Big Man’s bulk in roiling shadows, confusing human eyesight. Pneuma-somatic additions rewired my eyeballs and optic nerve, racing for an advantage as my sight flickered through infra-red and ultra-violet, and other colour spectra which we have no vocabulary to describe.

Abyssal memory provided theory, pneuma-somatic flesh executed praxis; new ligament strong as steel cables sprouted along my ankle tendons, articulated exoskeleton wrapped my knees in springy cages, and the surface of my skin rose in warning spines of red and yellow.

My new legs bounced and I dodged below his grasp, stepping sideways to circle him, hitting his arm and flank with my tentacles again, ripping off great strips of his flesh even as his mouth-hands caught the spines along my shoulders and snapped them off.

But I was too ungainly to make full use of what I was. Too new. Too unfamiliar.

I couldn’t stay steady on my new legs, overcompensating for the muscle difference and the fluid resistance in the rising flood. As I tried to dodge I tripped, sprawled, and splashed down into the road. Water closed over my face.

Membranes slid across my eyes to protect them from the slopping, roiling filth. Valves slammed shut in my nose and throat to keep out infection as I surfaced and spluttered, spitting out the taste of sewage.

Ooran juh turned and stomped and reached toward me.

I attempted to right myself with organs I didn’t yet possess, syphon-jets and internal gyroscopes and gas bladders, organs too complex to grow from idea-seeds in the time it took the headless giant to reach me.

I hissed and spat and screeched and sprouted new spines and armour plates, but he grabbed me and bit through them even as I wrapped tentacles tight around his wrists to hold him back. The rotten pudding flesh on his arms and torso was blackening around the thousands of tiny wounds I’d inflicted, but still his monstrous strength pressed me down. Even pumped full of paralytic toxin, he was a hundred times stronger than I.

The water around us was bucking and chopping, and the great red wall was convulsing, drawing tighter and tighter. Ooran juh — the greater entity of which this obese headless giant was only a projection – was still in the process of swallowing. He was only fighting to keep us occupied.

My reactor was running hotter and hotter as I squirmed to my feet, locked in a death-grip with the Big Man, caked in sweat, heart pounding like a piston. The trilobe organ raced through and discarded entire new classes of reaction, as my body demanded more with each new pneuma-somatic germination, each addition wove at speed, each physical reinforcement and enhancement.

The Big Man forced one hand against my faltering strength, right toward my unprotected face.

“Stop fighting him, shaman!” Zheng roared from somewhere nearby. “Stop fighting and get rid of him!”

A ball of teeth and claw and grey-russet fur shot out of the gathering dark and slammed into Ooran juh’s legs from behind, scything for his hamstrings and the backs of his knees, snapping teeth closed on the classic canine crippling targets.

He let go of me and hit Twil with an almighty backhand, sending her flying. She crashed into the garden wall of Number 12 Barnslow Drive, but hopped to her feet again in a split second, spitting blood and grinning through a wolf’s snout.

“Can’t fucking dodge me now, you rancid cunt!” she screamed at him. “Come at me, bitch-tits!”

Behind her, Badger had picked up the Saye Fox, cradling the animal in his arms like a pet, to shield her from the rising water, even as he cringed at the re-opened wound in his hand, squeezing it tight to stop the blood flow. She was screaming at the Big Man too, those long open-mouthed fox screams of warning and panic, as the water rose and the whale’s mouth pressed in all around us.

Zheng couldn’t even get to her feet. She was sagging, still bleeding, her side coated in her own blood.

“Get rid of him, shaman!”

I’m trying, I thought, I’m trying but I’m not strong enough, even when I’m perfect and beautiful and—

And I could be such an idiot sometimes. That’s the downside of entering a fight without any training. You get tunnel vision.

As Twil picked up her paws and charged the Big Man again, I lashed out at the exposed flesh of his back with all six tentacles, and connected in a great slapping rip of rending flesh.

Then I dredged up that familiar old equation.

This headless giant was only one part of the entity, a projection into our three dimensions of something so much greater and more alien, a human who had journeyed into the abyss and returned as something more, like me. Unlike me, he had pursued a transformation that had left his body and humanity behind, transcended the mere physical, become so other that he was truly untouchable to us.

Also unlike me, he couldn’t do hyperdimensional mathematics.

Best I could achieve was to send this part of him Outside, but it would be like sending a person’s arm or hand Outside, without the rest of him. The impact would rip him apart on the dimensional membrane itself, like throwing a person against an electric wood saw.

Bleeding and quivering with white-hot fire across the surface of my consciousness, I raced through the equation, and put into practice lessons from an adoptive parent far more dangerous than this predator.

Out.

But to my incredible surprise, Ooran juh fought back.

He was clumsy and blunt, the struggling of a crab turning the curve of its shell against a cephalopod’s crushing beak. He did not know brainmath, but he had once visited those impossible depths of mathematical principle and starlight and dancing photons. He understood just enough to turn away my beak for a fraction of a second.

That fraction of a second was all he needed. As the equation snapped shut, he took one giant, striding step forward to leave my tentacles behind, ripping wormy flesh off his back. He batted Twil away again so she crashed into the roiling water. Then he turned and backed away from me, palms out and grinning wide with their wet, red mouths.

He only had to wait, stall a few more seconds, until his vast whale-mouth was ready to swallow.

Unconsciously, on the level of autonomic reaction, below true flesh and pneuma-somatic addition alike, down in my soul, I prepared to dive.

If he was going to drag us down into the abyss, I would be ready to swim.

I would eat him from the inside.

Perhaps he retained enough human intellect to read the change in my expression, or perhaps some other less physical sense allowed him to understand what I was about to do, the lengths to which I would go. Perhaps in that moment he realised that I was like him, I had been in the abyss too, and I would not die on the first swallow. My friends would die, but I would linger in his gut, chew through his intestines, sear his innards with acid, and worm my way to his heart like a killing parasite.

I made myself indigestible.

And he let go.

The greasy headless giant stopped moving, frozen on the spot. The life seemed to go out of it for a split second before the entire thing collapsed into jelly, melting down in a mass of yellow-white pus and liquefied flesh. Ooran juh could not rotate this part of himself out of the dimensions accessible to us, I had him pinned here with a cage of hyperdimensional mathematics, so he was forced to gnaw the limb off like an animal in a trap. He abandoned this part, this projection, the fight lost to the threat of real damage in the abyss if he dared swallow me.

Clean silver light crashed down into the dark.

Above our heads, the great red wall opened, puckered around the full moon and rapidly widening, pulling away and down toward us, sinking into the ground only twenty feet away where it bisected the road. The water began to drain as well, slopping and sloshing down hidden sluices as Ooran juh’s jaws receded back into the abyss, without us.

“Holy shit,” Twil breathed, staring up at the wall, before she splashed through the draining water toward the huge mound of rotten white goo. “Where’d he go?! What— what’s happening? Heather?”

“Spitting us out,” I croaked — a scratchy, twisted sound from an inhuman throat.

“You’re sure?” She stared at me, eyes roving nervously along my body, my tentacles, my spines, my toxic colouration. Here, she could see it all, and I looked barely human.

“Mmhmm,” I grunted.

Badger was staring up as well, still hugging the fox. “Never thought I’d be so glad to be regurgitated,” he said.

The fog rushed back in, flowing over the lip of the great red wall as it descended, plunging us into thick soupy mist as the last of the filthy water drained away from the road surface. For a moment the fog was so thick I couldn’t see any of the others, only the disgusting greasy mound of white mess that had been Ooran juh.

“Z-Zheng?” I called out.

“Here, shaman.”

She was right by my shoulder in the fog, bent over with pain, heaving ragged breaths between her teeth, blood caked all down her hip and one leg of her jeans and dripping from the bite wound in her forearm. She put her other hand on my shoulder, and I realised with stomach-lurching horror that she was using me to stay standing.

The fog thinned but didn’t clear — normal fog, not greasy and thick, the ordinary weather of spring fog in Sharrowford — and revealed everybody else still standing. Twil gaped around us, wide-eyed and panting and dripping wet, same as myself. Badger closed his eyes, shaking with relief. The Saye Fox wriggled out of his arms and trotted over to me.

We were next to the bus stop where we’d caught up with Badger. Right where we’d first plunged into the beast’s maw.

Relief was sweet, but I didn’t have the luxury of collapsing or passing out. My bioreactor was still burning hot, still fuelling pneuma-somatic flesh.

“Are we—” Twil panted. “Are we out? We won?”

I was too busy gaping at Zheng’s wounds to answer.

“Shaman,” Zheng said, her throat thick with blood and pain. Zheng wasn’t meant to be in pain, not real pain, she wasn’t meant to feel this way, she was meant to shrug it off, to leap and howl and laugh. “Shaman, you must get home. Ooran juh is still waiting for us. Go.”

She shoved me away and I stumbled a few steps as she crashed down to one knee again, heaving for breath, drooling blood.

“Zheng, no!” I said, and rushed back, falling to my knees by her side.

“Oh shit,” said Twil, and hurried over to us. She jabbed a finger back at Badger. “Don’t you fuckin’ move.”

He shook his head. “I’m not going anywhere without you lot.”

“Shaman, go,” Zheng grunted. Her eyes were heavy and unfocused. I ignored her plea and wormed underneath her arm, got close to her side, then pulled up the shredded fabric of her jumper to expose the wound in her flank. I gasped and had to blink back tears, a hand to my mouth.

Her wound looked very, very bad. The flesh was chewed and mashed, hanging in strips and dangling shreds. Grey and black patches were already blooming with necrotic infection on fast forward, leeching Zheng’s strength with a claim beyond mere biological damage. I grabbed her forearm too. The second bite there was much the same, ruining her on a level deeper than the physical.

“We’re not leaving you behind, you dumb-arse,” Twil said, but her voice shook at the sight of those wounds. “Fuck knows how we’re gonna get you back if you can’t walk. I can maybe toss you over my shoulder, I dunno, you’re too tall.” Her eyes flickered to me. “Heather’s lost all her like … extra limbs, or she could have carried you.”

Had I? I could still see and feel my tentacles, my toxic colouration, my webbing and my spines, all the miracle of what I really was, Homo abyssus in the flesh.

But we were back in our reality now, and my additions were confined to pneuma-somatic invisibility once more.

“I cannot be saved, shaman,” Zheng croaked. “Ooran juh has me. Go, before—”

I bared my teeth and hissed, to shut her up and establish who gave the orders here, enough to make Twil jump and Badger flinch and the Saye Fox hop back. I hissed in defiance of anything and anyone that would attempt to take what was mine. I was willing to violate reality itself to rescue my sister from the Eye, and I was not about to allow some jumped-up mage who’d spent too long in the abyss to take away any other members of my family.

Abyssal instinct provided the methods.

I opened my mouth wide, shoved my face right into the wound in Zheng’s side, and started biting.

“Unnn!” she grunted in sudden, surprised pain. “Shaman—”

“Holy shit what is she—”

Somebody vomited. I think that was Badger.

I bit away the infected flesh around and inside Zheng’s wound, sheering it off with the clean razor-sharp edges of pneuma-somatic teeth that only she and I could see. I nuzzled in deep, didn’t care about her blood smeared all over my face, gripping Zheng with all my tentacles to keep her in place, barbs safely retracted. I drooled great looping ropes of pneuma-somatic antiseptic mucus into the wound as I worked, forming new glands in my throat for the task, sharing white blood cells with Zheng’s immune system, even as scraps of her actual blood slid down my throat to be sampled and re-purposed by the trilobe reactor organ in my gut. I spat out chunks of grey and black infection to sizzle on the asphalt road surface, melted by bootstrapped enzymes in my saliva.

The physical act of biting away her infection was more than mere biology. Whatever I was doing, I did not understand it on a conscious level, but I knew in my gut that it had a spiritual mirror. I dug out the Big Man’s claim on her, made her safe, made her mine, cleaned away any trace of him with my own abyssal biology.

By the time I finished on the first wound, Zheng didn’t need to be held still anymore. She offered her arm for me to do the same to the second bite, breathing clearer and easier, staring at me with wonder.

“Alright,” Twil was saying, her werewolf transformation dismissed to leave a wet and bedraggled teenage girl standing there. “Alright, this takes the award for weirdest shit I’ve ever seen.”

“She can do it,” Badger whispered. “She can.”

Eventually I was done, and stood up, wobbling on my knees despite the sheer power of the bioreactor in my abdomen. Even backed up by near-infinite energy, cleansing the Big Man’s infection was taking a toll. My immune system — or whatever abyssal processes were analogous to an immune system — were working overtime, producing white blood cells and flushing me out, detoxifying the infection.

“Shaman,” Zheng breathed in awe, and got to her feet. She was shaking too, weak from the effort, but much stronger than before, no longer being actively drained. She caught me under one arm before I stumbled. I wrapped a tentacle around her in return. “You are a beautiful thing, shaman.”

“Mm,” I grunted.

My pneuma-somatic mucus had formed a sticky layer over her raw flesh, stopped the bleeding, and was encouraging and supporting her own rapid healing processes. I stared at it, unwilling to split my attention until I was certain the wounds were beginning to knit closed, however slowly.

“Shaman, we must go. This is not over.”

“Bloody right,” Twil agreed, bouncing on the balls of her feet. “You okay now, Zheng?”

“Not yet. I will be.”

I nodded along. The Saye Fox rubbed herself against my ankles. “Home,” I muttered.

My pneuma-somatic additions were blurring against the fog and the backdrop of real terraced houses, in a trick of the light. They didn’t start falling apart into ash and nothingness, I wasn’t running out of energy. As the last of the Big Man’s infection was cleansed away, the trilobe reactor did not ratchet down, did not cease production. If anything, I was getting hotter inside as my reserves filled to the brim.

“You better not run,” Twil growled at Badger.

“Not a chance,” Badger replied. He’d wrapped his bleeding hand in his sleeve again. His eyes wandered over to where the great greasy mound of liquid flesh still lay in the middle of the road, the remains of the Big Man’s physical form.

Twil noticed it too. “Gross. It’s dead, right? Looks like a fatberg. What do we do with it?”

“Leave it here,” Zheng purred. “Let the monkeys hose it into the drains. Now move, the shaman is burning up.”

==

We staggered back through quiet midnight streets, comforted by the normality of good old English fog, and the sounds of the occasional car passing along distant roads. The Saye Fox trotted ahead of us as if she knew the way, nosing at the overflowing rubbish bins and sniffing the walls, just like an ordinary fox, but with far more self-assurance than any natural vulpine visitor.

Zheng supported me with one arm, but she couldn’t have picked me up even if I’d needed it.

Unlike Badger and Twil, she could still see the truth of Homo abyssus, my six rainbow-strobing tentacles, the snapped spines on my shoulders, the chitin plates on my legs and sides, the strange shape of my pupils and the toxic colouration in my skin. Carrying me with all that might have presented some difficulty. She was careful to avoid my various spikes and sharp edges.

“Concentrate, shaman,” she purred. “Do not leave me.”

I blinked up at her, blinked four different sets of eyelids, and tried to deny that I knew what she meant. “Zheng? Of course I won’t. I won’t, I’m … fine … ”

I tried to soften my pointy bits, to round them off, to retract my spines and re-metabolise the toxins, to fold away the slashing claws studding my tentacles — but as we crept toward home, my sense of my own body grew harder to hold onto, the plastic metamorphic process running away with abyssal memory and euphoric longing. My tentacles grew blurry, hazy and indistinct, with both hooked and non-hooked configurations laid on top of each other, occupying the same space. I blinked, and the tentacles appeared to be doubled, tripled, quadrupled. I was coated with sweat; my belly burned with fire like I’d swallowed the sun and become its master.

Laangren, call ahead,” Zheng rumbled to Twil up in front. “The shaman is collapsing.”

“I’m not,” I said. “I’m fine. I can … I’m still here, I’m not … going … ”

“Eh?” Twil glanced back. “Uh, yeah, she looks fine? Better than ever. What are you—”

“Call ahead,” Zheng repeated. “Tell the wizard. Now.”

I didn’t argue.

Twil dug out her mobile phone, mercifully undamaged by her various trips into the water, and called ahead. By the time we reached the real Number 12 Barnslow Drive, a welcoming committee was waiting for us in the front garden, lit from behind by a little warm light spilling from the windows of the house.

Raine, Evelyn, and Lozzie all lit up with relief in their own separate ways as we came into view, but Praem merely stared at me in expressionless recognition. Raine called my name and Evelyn puffed out a huge sigh — and quickly blocked Raine with her walking stick, stopping her from scrambling out of the garden gate to meet me.

“Stay inside the property boundary!” Evelyn snapped. “How many times must I say it?!”

“Ohmygoshohmygosh—” Lozzie was breathless, mouth agape, hands flapping wildly. “Heathy Heathy Heathy oh my goodness! Oh my goodness!”

“Loz, what?” Raine’s relief faltered.

“She’s so beautiful!”

“The shaman is unstable,” Zheng called out. “Mooncalf, wizard, I do not know what she needs. And Ooran juh may still be after us.”

“Unstable?” Raine asked, deadly serious. “What does that mean? Hey, big girl, talk to me here.”

“Wait, wait,” Evelyn snapped. She took in our state, Badger walking in front of Twil, sweating with nerves, and the way I was hanging off Zheng’s arm, burning with fire-hot fever sweat. “Actually, no, don’t wait, get inside the wall, for fuck’s sake.” She pointed at Badger. “What about him?”

“He’s volunteered for Heather’s … thing,” Twil said, then growled at Badger to encourage him into the garden.

Badger swallowed as he stepped over the threshold, sweating and afraid. “Right, yes. I … yeah.”

“Then get him indoors,” Evelyn snapped. “Into the cellar, there’s a circle waiting, I want him inside it five minutes ago.”

Then the Saye Fox hopped up onto the garden wall, bushy and russet and proud. Evelyn froze and stared at her, dumb-stuck and going white in the face. Praem stepped closer, as if ready to shoo the animal into the road. The fox flashed firelight eyes at the doll-demon, perhaps in memory of how she’d been captured the first time we’d met.

“It’s okay. She’s okay,” I croaked. “She helped us escape. Sevens sent her.”

Evelyn blinked at the weird, scratchy sound of my voice, but then just stared at the fox as it watched her in return. Zheng led me over the garden threshold too, which Lozzie took as her cue to bounce over and wrap me in a sudden hug, somehow avoiding all of my spines and spikes. Raine was stuck between Evelyn’s distress and my unknown state. Twil set about prodding Badger into the house, but she was distracted too, fascinated by the connection between Evelyn and the fox.

“I don’t need your help,” Evelyn hissed at it.

The Saye Fox turned in a circle on the wall, lowered her head, and let out a chitter-chatter yip-yap unmistakably both friendly and amused. Quickly she hopped down into the street and scampered away into the Sharrowford night.

“No!” Evelyn reached out one hand. “Wait—”

But the Saye Fox was already gone.

“That’s some serious helicopter parenting,” said Raine.

“Oh, shut up!” Evelyn exploded at her, whirling on the rest of us. “We’re still in a crisis. Now what is wrong with Heather?”

“She went full squid-girl,” Twil explained. “I could see it and all. Kinda cool, I guess, but she’s back to normal now. I don’t really get it.”

I’d fallen quiet as we’d entered the garden, growing less conscious, less connected, less here. Lozzie disentangled herself from the hug and leaned back, said something sweet, something positive, something affirming about what I’d done to myself — but the words no longer made any sense. Human-shaped shadows moved in the orange street lighting which bathed the garden, but my new body parts were so much brighter, fluorescing and strobing and glowing with energy from the star in my belly.

Praem spoke, a bell-clear sound I would recognise anywhere, even on the other side of the abyss, and hurried voices followed. Lozzie’s face fell as she grabbed and squeezed one of my tentacles, as if trying to hold it steady. Raine appeared by Lozzie’s side, peering at me in concern, lips flapping sounds that might have been my name. In my blurring vision the tentacles seemed to multiply either side of them a dozen times, spinning out into an infinity of ruffles and tendrils and beautiful variations that I could iterate on forever.

I felt myself flowing between one form and the next. Endlessly mutable. But that was impossible here, there was only one place I could be so incandescent.

A snatch of Lozzie’s voice filtered through, thick and muffled, like I was underwater. “Heathy, you have to turn it off you have to turn it off. You don’t have to get rid of it because it’s beautiful but you need to turn it—”

I knew what she meant. She wanted me to shut down the trilobe bioreactor.

“Everyone’s home?” I said. Or, I thought I said. I had to repeat it twice before ape heads nodded in response. “Safe?”

“—safe, yeah,” Raine’s voice glugged above me as I sank deeper. “—did good, you did good, you can stop now. Rest—”

But I didn’t want to rest. The threshold of the house was only a few paces away now, my body dragged there unresisting, but I didn’t want to smother the reaction inside me. This euphoria of being was too delicious. My body told me I could run and leap, burrow into the earth and swim the skies, leap into the abyss and back again — though a tiny, screaming part of me knew that particular urge was neither sane nor sensible.

My new state of being did not have to end.

I’d just encountered an example of where that path led; if I didn’t stop here, would I become something like the Big Man? Unanchored in my physical body, without definition or concrete self-image? How long had it taken him to build his abyssal-crossing multi-dimensional self? Could I do that?

I sensed that I could, that I was already slipping down that slope, toward the same old destination.

The abyss was calling. I loved the way it felt.

And I had still not forged my anchor.

But on the sandy lip of that submarine shore, that drop into the infinite sunless depths, I found a new principle. I dug my heels in and raked my hands into the silt, turned fingernails to claws and hung on, rammed tentacles into every crack of stone that was not stone at all but maths and physics and starlight and thought. I anchored myself with the meaning of the very thing I had finally summoned into reality; I’d lit that reactor and built my new form to save Zheng, because I loved her.

Homo abyssus — me — had been made whole and complete by that act of purpose. I was both abyssal and human, and would not be taken by one or the other.

An act of love, practised as an abyssal thing, served as the most sturdy anchor in all reality.

I ripped myself up and out, back to full consciousness, gasping and spluttering through a waterfall of nosebleed in the front room of Number 12 Barnslow Drive. Voices were shouting my name, somebody was propping me up, a ring of faces surrounded my sight. I held my hands up — and half a dozen tentacles with them — to make some space.

“Stop, stop, I’m fine, I’m here, I’m not going anywhere, I’m—”

“Heathy you have to stop!” Lozzie said, tears making tracks down her cheeks.

“Ease down, shaman,” Zheng purred. “You must slow the fire.”

“For fuck’s sake,” Evelyn snapped. “I don’t know what you’re doing, but stop it.”

“Hey, Heather,” a familiar voice crooned my name, brimming with confidence. Raine took my hand. “Hey, you can relax now. I’m here.”

Raine cracked a beaming smile, just for me. Not a shred of doubt in her.

“You gotta chill out, though,” she added.

“Oh, right, yes, okay,” I croaked. “One second. I think I can—”

And with a flicker of thought, before I knew what I was doing, I slammed home an array of biochemical control rods inside the trilobe organ. They snuffed the reactions out to a decimal-point percentage of their previous runaway heat. It was like plunging every cell of my body into ice water. A gasp ripped from my throat, my pneuma-somatic additions folded up and shrivelled away, and the pain-debt I’d incurred hit me all at once in a wave of bruises and muscle spasms and torn tissues.

I was unconscious before I hit the floor.

==

I slept for sixteen hours.

There was no fugue state, no dissociation, no out of body experience; I was very much inhabiting my own flesh — much to my discomfort. I was exhausted as if I’d run a dozen back-to-back marathons, and bruised all over in various new and interesting ways, several of which I hadn’t even realised were possible. After I passed out in the front room, I spluttered back to consciousness a few seconds later and found myself in Raine’s arms, but I had no recollection of who carried me upstairs.

I was present but mute with dragging exhaustion as caring, tender hands cleaned the blood off my face, and dunked me gently in the bath to wash off the rancid sewer water. A swirl of voices and busy commotion filled the house, and more than once I snapped to awareness, panicking that we needed to defend ourselves. But every time, Raine’s face or Lozzie’s words would enter my senses and I would sink back below the surface. I think Praem saw me naked, but I was beyond caring, head lolling with sleep on a warm shoulder as somebody else picked me up and took me to bed.

Sleep was deep and dreamless, the sleep of bodily healing, newborn sleep. I woke up three times and support was always there, to help me hobble to the bathroom on legs that lacked the necessary extra parts, to press a glass of water into my hands when I tried to reach for it with tentacles that made my sides ache, to briefly feed my wordless moans for calories with a microwave pastry and a cheese sandwich.

True awakening came slowly, in a chorus of bruises, to the backdrop of the next day’s sunset glow filtering through my bedroom curtain.

I lay on my back for a long, long time, wrapped in bedsheets like a mummy, staring at the ceiling with eyes that slowly learnt how to focus again. My body wanted to stay very still, but my brain had taken its fill of sleep. Five minutes passed, then perhaps ten, and I wasn’t falling back asleep.

Then I tried to scratch my leg.

“ … uhhhhhh,” I groaned. “Oh, I am so sore.”

“Heather?”

“Shaman?”

A pair of familiar voices greeted me. Brain said safe, safe and home. Body complained.

“Mm,” I grunted.

“Think she’s awake for real this time?” Raine asked.

“No,” Zheng said. “Let her sleep.”

“I wish I wasn’t awake,” I grumbled.

Furtive sounds moved beyond the limit of my vision, and a face appeared above me — Raine, peering down with mild concern. I met her eyes, made contact, and puffed out a tiny breath.

“Oh!” Raine lit up. “Hey, no, she is awake. Hey there, Heather. How you feeling?”

She put a gentle hand on my shoulder through the covers, but even that was too much. I winced and groaned. “No, no touch, no touch.”

“Ah, sorry. Sorry.” She withdrew her hand. “That bad, huh?”

I made a noise like a very grumpy pig. Even my throat felt bruised. My eyeballs ached. The tiny muscles between my fingers were strained and every inch of my skin felt vaguely red and raw. It was like waking up from a whole-body transplant.

“I cannot believe how sore I am,” I murmured.

“You wanna sit up? Want some help? I can try to be as gentle as possible.”

“I think I’ll die if I try that.”

“You will heal, shaman,” Zheng purred. “Your body is strong. They are only bruises.”

“Yeah, no joke,” Raine said, grinning that confident grin down at me. “Lozzie’s been over you inch by inch, there’s nothing broken, no permanent damage, you’re just super inflamed and very bruised. Hey, but you know what? You already look better than when you got home.”

“Sit up. Mm. Okay,” I croaked. If I didn’t sit up now, I’d lie here for the next twenty years.

“You want help?” Raine asked.

“Please.”

Sitting up in bed was not the most difficult physical adjustment I’d ever made — I’d been slower, weaker, hungrier, and more tired on occasion before — but it was by far the most painful. A million tiny bruises leave the human body with no comfortable position to adopt, no hiding place from the irritating aches and pains and undignified fleshiness of being mortal.

But as I winced and cringed at the pressure of Raine’s hands on my oversensitive, raw skin, I didn’t feel undignified. I felt whole. As she helped me sit up, my phantom limbs tried to help too, tentacles reaching out to brace against the bed and push the covers back. But those pneuma-somatic additions had already folded back into incorporeality when I’d switched off the bioreactor. Their efforts served only to pull on the already abused muscles in my flanks, drawing a hiss of deeper pain from my throat.

I liked that pain. I valued it. For the first time ever, it was not a reminder of what I yearned for, not a source of abyssal dysphoria. The pain was proof of what I was, no matter that most of Homo abyssus was currently tucked away for safety.

Only most.

As I finally reached a sitting position and Raine held me gently, I placed both my hands over my own abdomen, and felt the residual heat banked inside.

The trilobe reactor organ was still in there. Not a ghost of abyssal body image and phantom pain, not a pneuma-somatic blueprint waiting to be re-summoned like my tentacles, not a hypothetical piece of impossible biology. When I’d slammed the biochemical control rods into their metabolic channels, the reactor had switched over into a self-sustaining mode. It was part of my body now, an internal organ, and I could not truly switch it off, any more than I could quieten the beating of my own heart.

“Hey, Heather?” Raine murmured very gently. I blinked — ow, even my eyelids ached, how was that possible? — and came around from my self-directed awe.

“It feels good to be … to be,” I croaked. “I’m … I … um … ”

Raine was standing next to the bed, ready to catch me if I collapsed, back-lit by the sunset on the other side of the window. Zheng was sat on the floor with her legs stretched out in front of her, leaning against the wall. She was half-naked from the waist up, one arm and her flank wrapped in bandages and gauze, over the wounds the Big Man had left on her. Clearly her own supernatural healing factor wasn’t quite enough, and needed a tiny bit of helping along by modern medicine. But even the sight of her almost topless wasn’t what stopped my words.

A dog was sitting on the foot of the bed.

Small and round, brown-furred, with stubby little legs. It had its tongue out, panting softly, looking at me with friendly curiosity.

“I am hallucinating a Corgi,” I croaked.

“Oh, this is Whistle,” Raine said. “He’s Badger’s dog. You would have missed him if you’d slept five minutes longer, he keeps doing circuits of the house and nosing in on everybody.” Raine reached over and rubbed Whistle behind the ears. The dog certainly didn’t seem to mind.

I blinked three times, very slowly. “Badger’s dog.”

“A last request,” Zheng purred.

My heart juddered. “He’s not dead, is he? Not after all that?”

Raine laughed. “Nah, Badger’s alive and well, so far. We stuck him in the cellar, but he’s on real good behaviour. Whatever you did, Heather, you really convinced him. He keeps asking if you’re awake, if you’re going to be okay. Made me mighty suspicious at first, but he means it.”

“That doesn’t explain the Corgi.”

The dog in question — rotund little Whistle — tilted his head as I spoke, ears flopping about.

“Badger’s two requests,” Raine said. “He didn’t want his dog to get left locked indoors if he never makes it home. So, if he … well, you know.” Raine sketched me a smile. “We’ll take responsibility for Whistle. The second request is he’d like to see Sarika before you go to town on his head. We can do that. I think he’s sweet on her.”

I sighed — my throat hurt, but never mind. “Raine, what I’m going to do to Badger might kill him. Or leave him as a vegetable. Meeting his dog does not make that any easier.”

As if he understood my tone, Whistle let out a curious whine.

“Yeeeeah,” said Raine, with an exaggerated grimace. “Sorry about that. Can’t leave the poor bugger to starve though.”

Raine was right, but I was too distracted by pain to focus on abstract ethical issues right then. I slowly gathered the sheets in my lap, closed my eyes, and started to drift off while sitting up.

Then memory crashed back in. I gasped, blinked back awake, groping for Raine’s hand. Whistle flinched. “Where’s— is everybody—”

“Everyone is just fine,” Raine purred, one hand gently on the back of my head. The slight pain was worth her touch. “Everybody’s safe.”

“He’s not come back? The Big Man, he’s gone?”

“No, shaman,” Zheng purred.

Raine sighed softly and rolled her eyes, but she told the truth. “There was a knock on the door, round about dawn. There wasn’t anybody actually there, kinda spooky, and then Badger started screaming because he saw something outdoors. But it seems our big fat friend can’t actually get in here, can’t violate Evee’s boundary. We’re safe.” She gave me a slightly strained smile. “Twil’s gone home. She wanted to stay, but she and Evee had a bit of a set-to, ‘cos Twil’s got classes this morning. But no worries, she’s been texting Evee all day to let us know she’s safe. Lozzie’s somewhere, doing … ”

“Cooking,” Zheng purred.

“Ha. Yeah. Tenny wanted to snuggle with you, but we thought it maybe best to leave you untouched for a bit, so she’s downstairs with Lozzie. Evelyn’s been wondering about that fox all day, but she’s doing fine. Kim’s still at work, almost none the wiser, but we’ve had her checking in. Seems like Mister Blobby only cares about Badger.”

“We made a phone call,” I croaked. “Evelyn said … things, I was worried.”

“Yeah, we heard the whole story from Twil, it’s cool. You said some strange stuff down the phone at us, too, but it can’t have been you.”

“Oh. Good. Good.” I blinked, trailing off, then remembered. “Have you seen Sevens?”

“Nah, not yet,” Raine admitted. “Heard all that from Twil too, how she helped. Almost enough to get Sevens back in my good books. Twil and Zheng both told me you went full-on squid-girl transformation too.”

“The shaman was glorious,” Zheng purred from the floor.

“Which is the coolest thing I’ve ever heard.” Raine flashed me a grin. “Wish I could’a seen it. Lozzie couldn’t stop singing your praises. Bet you looked a right stunner.”

“Oh.” I felt myself blushing faintly and pressed my hands to my abdomen again. “There’s a … I made a … a reactor. In my gut. Pneuma-somatic.”

Raine nodded slowly. “Lozzie explained it, yeah. Well, kind of. You know how Lozzie is. Evelyn took a look too, but I don’t think she understood it.”

“None will,” Zheng purred. “None who have not dived in the dark.”

I glanced down at myself. “I might have shaved years off my life with this. I don’t even know how it works. But I had to. Had to.”

“How do you feel though?” Raine asked.

“ … healthy. Hungry.”

My mind crept back to the events of last night.

I’d fought that thing, for real, that towering mountain of greasy, pallid meat, amid the flooding darkness. A dribble of adrenaline leaked into my bloodstream, and I found my breath hitching, my gut clenching up, my senses opening.

“He’s still out there,” I croaked.

“He still has a claim on the worm,” Zheng rumbled, and raised her arm with the bloody bandage. “But not on me.”

“Good,” I croaked.

The memory of biting into Zheng’s wound was almost unreal. Had I really done that? A strange blush rose inside me. Little Heather Morell, acting like a cannibal horror from some shock movie.

I hadn’t really killed Ooran juh. To kill such a thing was a feat beyond me. But I had won, in a very real way. I had come out victorious, in a contest between two vastly inhuman entities, and protected my family and friends.

I was not insensible to the parallels, though I doubted the Eye could be defeated in a fistfight, no matter how many tentacles I grew.

“You did it once, shaman, you can do it again,” said Zheng, and for a moment I thought she was reading my mind, but then she continued. “With no contract, Ooran juh will leave.”

“Yes, yes. Though it might be a little more difficult with Badger,” I murmured, but Zheng’s faith helped. “There’s a lot of work to do. I need to … get up. If I even can.” I sighed. On the foot of the bed, Whistle rose to his little doggy feet and hopped down to the floor, then slowly trotted out into the hallway.

“Heather,” Raine said, bringing her face to eye-level with mine. “I am so proud of you.”

I averted my eyes. “I did what anybody would do. I wasn’t going to let Zheng go.”

She straightened up, and didn’t press the point, but she and Zheng shared a private, knowing look.

“Are you here, shaman?” Zheng purred a moment later, soft and tender.

She levered herself up off the floor and stood over me, dark hair sticking up in every direction, clean from a bath earlier. She gazed down on me with tender awe and fascinated devotion, a look that still had the power to make me deeply uncomfortable. I did not deserve to be looked at like that. I was no messiah, no miracle worker, not somebody to be worshipped.

But that wasn’t what that expression meant, was it?

It was the same way Raine looked at me, just filtered through a different set of needs and desires. It was love.

“Of course she’s here,” Raine answered for me. But Zheng blinked slowly, waiting.

I pressed my sore hands to my aching abdomen again, felt the residual heat of the reactor organ. My tentacles, my spines, my toxic defenses, my webbing and fins, exoskeleton plates and springy joint reinforcement, it all lay just on the other side of perception, folded away for now as an echo, but undeniably real. Homo abyssus had completed her metamorphosis, anchored herself with one foot in the real and the other foot in the deep.

“I’m here,” I said, more to myself than my pack. “For good.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

a very great mischief – 13.13

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The Saye Fox — if she was indeed the very same preternatural animal we had met skulking around the grounds of Evelyn’s childhood home months ago — ran along the garden walls and fences down Barnslow Drive, hopping from corner-post to crumbling brick on silent paws, skirting patches of slimy black mold, her russet tail flicking as she stayed out of the rising water in the street below.

She led us back out into the city, this false and twisted Sharrowford, as it closed up around us and filled with filth at our feet. We followed as best we could.

The fox turned left at the end of Barnslow Drive, but not before stopping and glancing back again. Those lamplight orange eyes found mine as her paws danced in place with restless urgency, her ears swivelling to catch the distant meaty slapping sounds of the great red wall, and the closer slopping noises of the water in the roadway, as dark shapes disturbed the deeps below.

Vulpine eyes asked me a silent question, but I didn’t speak fox.

“What?” I spluttered out loud over Zheng’s shoulder, my voice still a croaking, weakened mess, dragged down by exhaustion, hunger, and pain. The spiking, prickling sensation in my abdomen was a constant presence now. “Don’t stop! Go!”

“Save your strength, shaman,” Zheng purred.

“B-but she’s— she needs me to … ”

I had no idea what she needed.

But the fox was already away again, as if the hounds of hell had her scent. She had to hop down to the pavement, to round the corner to the next set of walls, darting between the slowly forming puddles of rank, stinking water, before leaping up again and leading us onward. My voice was lost in the splash of three pairs of feet, as Twil and Zheng and Badger all raced to keep up, plunging around the corner through the rising flood.

In the seven months since I’d met Raine and Evelyn and discovered I was not crazy after all, I had fled or been carried out of more than one nasty situation — looping stairwell traps, fake shopping centre fires, defeated cults with collapsing ambitions, actual for-real deadly house fires, the Library of Carcosa — but with the exception of Wonderland itself, this place took the award for most bowel-clenching terror, because it was very obviously trying to swallow and digest us before we could escape.

As we ran after the fox, the great red wall in the impossibly unreachable distance kept up a disgusting shuddering and shaking, undulating like a layer of flesh, or a mucus membrane inching slowly shut. I realised with detached recognition, as I kept my head tight to Zheng’s shoulder and my arms firmly clinging to her neck with all the strength I could muster, that perhaps this explained the deep red colour of the wall: it was slow-twitch muscle, on a scale my mind refused to comprehend.

Whenever I risked a glance upward, I could see the circle of dark sky around the moon was shrinking, as the mouth of this well of flesh tightened around our only source of clean light.

I tried not to dwell on what might happen if it closed.

The mock-city around us was rapidly degenerating now, and filling with what I could only think of as digestive fluid.

We raced past houses straight out of an Edgar Allen Poe story, the rotting bones of buildings long abandoned, terraced houses collapsed in on themselves, Victorian redbricks devoured by waves of dark ivy and left open to the elements. The trees had reduced to skeletons too; not the hardy gnarled stereotype of a Gothic horror uberwald, but brittle grey things flaking apart like burnt logs, coated with parasitic fungi and greasy biofilm. The pavement itself turned crumbly, rent from beneath by cracks as if undermined by tree roots and weeds. Fewer and fewer streetlights shone with any warmth, many of them had shattered bulbs, and the ones that did still function were flickering or dim, leaving us to rely on the narrowing moonlight.

Everything was covered in grease, cook-fire grease, fatty grease, soft and yellow where it had built up in the corners of windows and walls, the sort of grease one might find in the gut of a drowned corpse.

The filthy water was worse. By the time the Saye Fox turned again — left a second time, a double-back? — the vile sewer water had crested the kerbs and spread beyond mere pavement puddles. Oily with grime, full of floating black rot and tiny white wiggling worms lifted from the drain entrances and gutters. It stank too, like sulphur, rotten cabbage, and bad eggs. Zheng and Twil and Badger were forced to splash through a thin layer of the rancid water, and the Saye Fox spent as little time down on the pavement as possible, darting through as quickly as she could and shaking her paws off once she leapt onto a garden wall again.

Twil was in trainers, her feet must have been soaked through when the water inched up above her soles, but at least Zheng and Badger were both wearing proper boots, and I was safe and dry on Zheng’s back for now. I was most worried about Badger. He was the only true human here. Neither he nor Twil complained — not that they had time to, with the running and the huffing and the puffing — so at least the water wasn’t actually corrosive acid. But there was no telling what it might do to unprotected flesh.

Vast dark shapes moved beneath the murky water in the middle of the road, as if we looked down into an actual oceanic gulf.

They weren’t illusions. Their weight and displacement disturbed the water, forming swells and humps and slopping waves against the kerb. As we splashed along the pavement, limbs and feelers began to break the surface out in the road.

“Oh fuck off with that!” Twil shouted as she ran, shooting wide-eyed glances into the street.

Grey tentacles like a parody of a giant octopus rose slowly to wave in the air, accompanied by multi-hinged insectoid arms clad in dark exoskeleton, along with strange thin feelers like marine plants, and thick muscular tongues like a clam’s pseudopod.

“Ignore it, laangren,” Zheng rumbled.

Badger, huffing and puffing and splashing along behind us, was repeating ‘oh shit oh shit oh shit’ in every gap between his heaving breath.

“How am I meant to ignore this?!” Twil skidded to a halt, throwing up a shower of filthy water, and turned to face the road.

One of the insectoid arms had ventured close to the kerb, plated like a knight and tipped with a hook to rival any butcher’s gutting tool. Zheng slammed to a halt as well, and I clung to her back with muffled squeal, but the arm was already dipping for Twil, darting down to snare her and drag her below the surface of the water. Her ghostly werewolf form whirled together like a second skin. I swallowed a tiny scream as she dodged sideways — the thin stinger missed her — but to catch her balance she put one foot over the edge of the kerb, down into the road itself, into the deep water.

But Twil didn’t go tumbling and splashing into the darkness. Her foot found the asphalt of the road surface, not a thousand fathoms of cold water.

She turned so fast I could barely follow the motion, ripping through the insectoid arm’s exoskeleton with both sets of her claws.

Black blood erupted from the flailing stump. The severed portion flopped to the ground, falling into a nearby garden. The owner of the arm darted beneath the surface of the water and vanished back into the general murk.

“Yeah!” Twil roared. “How’d you like that?!”

Several other marine appendages which had been circling closer suddenly decided we presented too much difficulty to pick off, and drifted back out into the middle of the road, or slipped beneath the waves.

“Not so good at dodging me now, are you, you big bitch?” Twil went on, fired up and grinning with her wolf’s snout.

“It’s not him,” I croaked. “Just parasites. Keep going. Keep moving.”

The Saye Fox had stopped to wait for us almost twenty feet ahead, restless and fidgeting on a garden wall. Her eyes kept darting out into the road too, keeping watch on the circling scavengers below, but then she looked directly at me again. Abyssal instinct stirred at the question behind those fire-lit eyes, but I didn’t understand. I looked past the fox, at the route she was taking through the darkening streets, and felt a tugging from the black pit at the bottom of my soul, from the hyperdimensional mathematics always lurking in my subconscious. The Eye’s lessons presented some solution to this place, an answer to why it existed. A wave of nausea and vertigo passed through me and I clung to Zheng’s back even harder.

“Eh? What?” Twil frowned.

“Parasites, laangren,” Zheng answered for me, already striding past Twil and hurrying after the fox. “Ooran juh’s tapeworms and lice, picking over the scraps of his meal. We are beyond them.”

“Speak for yourself,” Badger muttered, voice shaking with terror as he slipped past too, sticking close to Zheng and I.

“Watch your feet, Twil,” I croaked back, loud as I could.

“What? Oh, shit!” She only just realised she’d stepped into the road, soaking the cuff of her jeans and filling her trainer with water. She pulled her foot up and shook herself off, then frowned at the visible asphalt beneath the water. “How … but— it’s deep, but— what?”

“Don’t think about it!” I called.

Impossible space, broken causality, not meant for the unprotected human mind. I could comprehend it, of course, if only I was willing to dredge up the Eye’s relevant lessons.

“Hurry up, laangren!” Zheng roared, taking off after the fox as it scampered away again, leading us deeper into this roiling, rotting Sharrowford. Twil did not need telling twice. She picked up her feet and passed us seconds later, hot on the fox’s tail.

==

A minute later, the Saye Fox turned left a third time.

“The hell?!” Twil called out as we rounded the corner. “Is it confused or something? We’re heading back toward the house!”

The fox stopped on a low garden wall, waiting for us to catch up, but she offered no explanation. Orange eyes like clean fire burned into mine, pleading now, begging me to see. Twil slowed to a jog as we reached the fox, casting a wary look at the tentacles and pseudopods and tongues which were keeping level with us out in the water. Zheng and I were not far behind, but my mind was spinning, my stomach rebelling at the thoughts darting through my head.

“Keep going!” Twil shouted encouragement at the fox, even as it was leaping up and racing away down the garden walls and fences, lean vulpine body stretched out in that distinctive loping sprint. “Keep going, we can keep up, we can!”

“The worm is struggling,” Zheng rumbled.

She wasn’t wrong. Badger was having a hard time keeping up. A few paces behind us, his face was red with effort and coated in sweat. He was heaving for breath, legs pumping, the slowest by far when compared to Zheng and Twil, either of whom could easily have outpaced the fox in a foot race.

“I can— can— don’t leave me—” he panted, almost drooling from the strain.

“You will not be left behind, worm,” Zheng rumbled. “The shaman needs your brain, even if I must rip it out with your spinal column still attached.”

Badger swallowed hard, and redoubled his efforts.

“Shit, I’ll carry him!” Twil skidded to a halt and doubled back, ready to grab Badger and sling him over her shoulder. “And don’t complain, you arse, this is for Heather, not you.”

“She’s not waiting for Badger,” I croaked out with considerable effort. Up ahead, the fox halted again, staring back at me, proving my point.

“Eh?” went Twil.

“Shaman?” Zheng purred.

“It’s waiting for me,” I went on, my eyes aching and burning, my skin itching from the aftermath of the screech, my abdomen clenching and spasming inside. I had to see, had to pull aside the veil, figure out what hyperdimensional principle I was meant to apply. I was too exhausted and spent to risk getting it wrong. I would only have one shot. “Running doesn’t matter, running won’t get us out. It needs me to … to … ” My stomach roiled. Out in the road, the water roiled too, slopping as the parasite predators sensed weakness. “Twil, keep moving!” I snapped. “We have to keep going, I can’t— can’t think—”

Twil nodded and turned around, after the fox again. Badger did his best to keep up.

“Focus, shaman,” Zheng whispered.

“Trying,” I croaked.

Miss Fox turned left again. We followed, past rotten trees and collapsed houses, and I realised we’d entered the far end of Barnslow Drive. The insulting parody of home rose into view once more, covered in soot and grease, ruined and empty. The rising water was flooding the front garden now, sluicing through the gate and soaking into the soil, turning the overgrown grass into a reeking, fecal swamp.

“It’s taken us in a bloody circle!” Twil shouted. The fox didn’t slow down, sprinting at top speed along the garden walls.

“Can’t you—” Badger panted. “Talk to it? You’re a— canine too?”

Twil answered with an insulted snap of her teeth.

The Saye Fox slammed to a halt at Number 12 Barnslow Drive, skipping and hopping across the brickwork of the wall and then doubling back, pacing as if in a cage, as she waited the few seconds for us to catch up. Twil looked like she wanted to pick up the animal and throttle her.

“What now?!” she asked the fox. “We’re back where we bloody well started!”

“No we’re not,” I croaked, then had to pause and wince and gasp as a fresh spike of pain raked through my abdomen. I pressed myself tight to the warmth of Zheng’s back. “It only looks that way.”

The fox stopped pacing and locked eyes with me again. Then she looked at the house, the garden, and out at the road with the marine parasites and the slopping water, now up to our ankles on the pavement. I followed her gaze, over the disgusting details of this hostile parody. Then up, up at the great red wall, shuddering and flexing.

The moon was now separated from the mouth of the wall by only a thin margin of sky. Moonlight cast a clean silver circle on us, but only us. All else was plunged into the shadow beneath the ring-wall.

“Talk, shaman,” Zheng whispered.

“Running didn’t matter,” I squeezed out, my mind beginning to detach. “Running was just ritual.”

“Oh,” Badger panted. “Great. Right. Yeah. Some ritual.”

“This isn’t the same spot,” I went on. “Because this isn’t space, not really. We have to reach the wall, but we can’t because we’re not oriented correctly, because … a … a tongue keeps food pushed back?”

“Ahhhh, don’t say it like that!” Twil whined.

“And she’s trying to get me to … rotate us?”

As I voiced the idea, the logic fell into place with a searing lance of familiar old headache pain. I drew a sharp wince between my teeth as the true meaning and structure of this place was outlined in hyperdimensional mathematics, too hot to touch, the abyssal truth beneath the human sense-data. We stood in the mouth of a whale, risen from the abyssal depths, hanging open in our reality. Crusted with barnacles and filled with parasites, all the life of a miniature ecosystem that grew in the centuries between gargantuan swallows. And now it was about to hinge shut and vanish back below the waves, with us inside.

It all seemed so unfair, so absurd, so without meaning or purpose. This ancient mage, Ooran juh, the Big Man, we hadn’t even been aware of him three hours ago. For all we knew, he hadn’t been aware of us either, totally uninterested in anything except collecting his due from Badger. But this was the inevitable result of being involved in this world of magecraft and secret monsters, of brushing up against Outside, wasn’t it?

I’d never truly agreed with Evelyn’s paranoia. I’d proved it wrong enough times, proved that the people we encountered were in the end just people, even some of those who weren’t human, and that we could deal with them as people, not cognitive hazards or insane berserkers or unreachable mysteries to be killed and burned.

But here was the truth and justification. We’d simply bumped into this thing, going about its own grisly, incomprehensible business, absolutely lethal and totally beyond our ability to counter.

A mage, more dangerous than any God.

In the end it was just another threat to my pack, and another obstacle on the path back to my sister. There was only one thing for it.

I was running on fumes, but we had to get out. It didn’t matter if I fell unconscious or vomited up my entire digestive system the second we were out, as long as we got out.

With a scream and a shudder and a stab of white-hot pain inside my head, I drew the relevant equation from the dark rooms in my subconscious, gripped the dripping levers of reality, and pulled.

Zheng leaned forward so I could vomit over her shoulder without getting it all down her front. Very considerate.

Long hard heartbeats passed as my vision throbbed dark and my nose bled all over Zheng’s jumper. Muffled voices shouted in panic — Twil? Badger? — and then the world came trickling back to my senses, my ears clearing with conscious effort as I wiped my mouth on Zheng’s shoulder and lifted my head.

“We’re still here!” Twil shouted up at me. “What did you do? We’re still here!” She was ankle deep in the filthy water. The ruined version of our home still haunted my peripheral vision. I was so weak I couldn’t even nod past her.

“Look, laangren,” Zheng breathed. Badger was already staring, breathless and wide-eyed. When Twil turned and saw, she ducked her head and cowered.

The great red wall now stood a mere twenty feet away. I had brought us here, we had travelled without moving.

The wall looked as if it had erupted from the ground in the manner of a giant tooth from dying gum tissue, displacing pavement and asphalt and overgrown grass, blocking off the road and bisecting one corner of the house. The vast length stretched off to the left and right either side of us. Up close the surface of the wall was gnarled and pitted, covered in bumps and ridges like the inside of a diseased throat. Each red block was so large that we could only spot one seam, sixty or seventy feet up in the air.

Water slapped against the base of the wall, but the parasites in the deep were retreating in haste. Their questing limbs slipped beneath the surface as they fled down the road and away from the edge of their world.

The Saye Fox opened her russet muzzle and let out a laughing chitter-chatter vulpine yip-yap.

“Yes, shaman!” Zheng roared in triumph. “You have brought us here, now we break through. No wall will keep me in.”

“What happened to ‘don’t touch the wall’?” Twil boggled at the vast edifice, then at Zheng. “Evee said don’t touch it, right? And that part was really her?”

“Wizards are often wrong,” Zheng purred. “Shaman, I must set you down if I am to rend this giant’s flesh.”

“No,” I whined as Zheng began to crouch. “Zheng, no. I have to do it.”

Zheng paused.

“Don’t touch it,” I said, sniffing back my nosebleed. “Can’t touch it. Evee was right, don’t touch. You’d get infected. Have to use brainmath. Punch a hole, with math. Not fists.”

Twil and Zheng shared a glance. Badger swallowed so loud I could hear it over the slopping water.

“She’s nearly spent,” Twil said through gritted teeth.

“The shaman knows well enough,” Zheng purred.

“She’ll pass out,” Twil went on. “She’ll pass out, she’s gone. Look at her!”

“I get one shot,” I croaked. “I know. One shot. I can do—”

But the end of my sentence was drowned out by an earth shattering schlooooop-pop as the great red wall shuddered again, a vast ripple of slow motion passing up through the muscle in a wave of contraction. We all followed the motion upward, to the opening far above our heads.

Like a puckered sphincter squeezing shut, the circular opening of the great red wall closed in on itself, and blotted out the moon.

We were plunged into rancid darkness, left with only the weak orange light from stuttering street lamps.

The Saye Fox went frantic, hopping and bouncing from paw to paw. Twil bristled all over and muttered curses under her breath. The water in the road started to slop and slosh, as if disturbed far below.

“It’s okay,” I croaked. “I can still do it.”

“Oh God, oh fuck, oh God.” Badger closed his eyes and put his hands together, wincing at the pain in his wounded palm. “Please God I’ve never asked you for anything these last few years and I’m sorry I’m sorry, please please let this work, I won’t resist, I’ll let her v-vivisect me, please don’t let this be—”

“Shut up, worm,” Zheng growled. “Let the shaman concentrate.”

Badger bit his own knuckles, tears running down his cheeks.

Ooran juh is preparing to swallow,” Zheng said. “Work fast, shaman.”

I didn’t waste breath on reassurances. I concentrated.

If we were in the mouth of a true whale, then no amount of bone and hide could have resisted the atomic fire I knew my mind could put out, no cartilage and tendon would stand up to pure force. But this was not mere flesh I was preparing to punch through — it was self-expression, a construct of abyssal truth and genius creativity and human cruelty, which had taken centuries to grow in the mind and body of a mage so far beyond me that they almost rivalled the Eye in sheer power. But I was an abyssal thing too, and I already understood what I was looking at.

With a hiss of pain I laid out the beginning equations of comprehension and definition, the framework that would allow me to define what lay in front of me. Once I had that ready, pulling the cell walls apart would not be too difficult in theory, though it would take everything I had. I would pass out in a welter of my own vomit and blood once I was done. But we would be out, and the others could take it from there. I trusted Zheng to carry me home through anything.

I moved my mind to slot the first figure of the equation into place.

But then the front door of the dark mockery of Number 12 Barnslow Drive flew open, sheering off rusted hinges and slapping down into the water in the overgrown garden. The door frame bulged and cracked, then exploded outward in chunks of brick and a shower of wood splinters. Ten feet of obese worm-eaten pale meat strode out of the house and straight toward us.

Ooran juh, the Big Man, ‘Mister Blobby’ — he’d figured out what I was doing.

He’d rotated himself down to our level to stop me.

Badger screamed. Twil turned and growled through too many teeth, hunched and ready to pounce. The Saye Fox froze in place, ears back, tail bristling. Zheng backed up into the deeper water with me still clinging to her back, but I was insensible with sudden explosive pain in my head and a streaming nosebleed, as the equation fell apart in pure shock.

How could we be in his mouth, yet fight him like this at the same time? I sensed that the answer that question would drive me irrevocably insane.

“Yeah!” Twil was shouting. “Come at me, dickhead! You wanna fuckin’ fight?! I got you a fight right—”

“It is after the shaman!” Zheng roared over her.

But that was all she had time to say.

Ooran juh moved fast and sure for such an impossibly fat figure, slapping down those slab feet and kicking up huge sprays of filth, rather than troubling himself with water resistance by striding through the muck. Headless and towering, both hands held out in front like a cheap zombie, each palm split by a curled red grin filled with dripping saliva and sharp teeth. It bore down on us at full speed, like a man power-walking, taking the garden wall in one stride, coming straight for Zheng and I.

It was like being charged by a hippopotamus.

Even with no energy left, my body instinctively tried to recoil, to make myself small, curl up to protect my vital organs. My phantom limbs joined in, trying to make a ball like a threatened octopus, around both myself and Zheng.

Twil — oh Twil, so full of stupid bravery — launched herself at the Big Man’s side, all teeth and claw at an angle impossible for him to dodge without breaking his stride. But he simply stepped onward and she sailed through the open air behind to crash down into the water, spluttering and confused. She should have hit him, the angle was impossible for her to miss, but he’d simply not been there.

Zheng feinted one way, then darted the other. I hiccuped into her shoulder and clung on for dear life as she moved fast enough to wrench my guts out of place.

For a split-second, I saw Ooran juh in two places at once; the headless giant was bearing down on us from his former angle, but also at the same time intercepting Zheng from another direction. Abyssal senses or pure luck, I had no idea how I saw that, but the trick made my head ache and my eyes sting.

Then he was very much in front of us. Zheng slammed to a halt as he reached out one plate-sized hand to rip me away from her.

“Hey, you,” came an angry, shaking voice.

It was Badger. He’d walked right up to the Big Man’s side, holding his head high, eyes raised, gripping his wounded hand tight in his other. Fresh blood dripped between his knuckles.

The Big Man stopped, as if bothered by a fly. If he had possessed a neck and head, it would have turned slowly to regard the tiny human form of Badger. Zheng took the opportunity to back up, splashing through the water as I wheezed and spat bile and tried to gather myself enough to try again.

“Shaman, we cannot run,” she hissed quickly. “There is nowhere to go. Get us out.”

“Try—” I gurgled. Had to restart the equation, but I had nothing left. Not even fumes. I would have to dip into the abyss. “Trying, to—”

In a display of some of the most idiotic courage I had ever seen in a human being, Badger quickly opened his wounded hand and raised it high, to strike the Big Man’s side or leg. In that frozen moment, I saw the disgusting mouth had re-opened in Badger’s palm – and the blood, his own blood, in his own teeth in his real mouth — and realised what he had done. Weaponless and helpless, Badger had bitten open his own wound and summoned the mouth-hand again, to turn Ooran juh’s teeth against itself.

Badger slapped his palm down onto the Big Mans’s tree-trunk thigh. The mouth bit deep into wormy, greasy flesh, and came away spitting out pale off-white fluid more akin to pus than blood.

The Big Man shook Badger off like a puppy clinging to his trouser leg, and used the back of one his massive hands to move Badger out of way, forcing him to stumble and trip through the water. It wasn’t even a violent gesture. It was the act of an uncaring adult toward a small and stupid child. And he could have simply avoided the whole thing, we were all familiar by now with how he could step past any physical attack. He had chosen to get bitten, to show how little our weapons mattered.

All Badger’s courage drained away into nothing. He went white with horror as the Big Man turned back to Zheng and I.

Twil went for him again, but she just skidded into the empty water where he should have been standing, growling and snapping and shouting in frustration. Over on the wall, the Saye Fox was yipping and yowling, doing what little she could.

And then he was on me.

I saw it again — Ooran juh at every possible angle all around Zheng and I, a dozen mouth-hands all reaching to pluck me off her back, to bite my soul out. Every escape was accounted for.

Zheng chose the unseen option.

In a flash of motion she let go of my thighs, pulled my arms from around her neck, and turned fast enough to fling me off her back.

She shook me off and threw me clear. I screamed in surprise, phantom limbs frantically trying to anchor myself to her, like a squid shooting out feeding tentacles to hook prey — but my tentacles were not real, not right now. I landed with a splash in the filthy water six feet away, the impact knocking the wind out of me, soaked and freezing in an instant.

“Shaman, get out!” Zheng roared, and turned to face the momentarily confused Big Man.

She’d bought me a few seconds.

Zheng struck like lightning wrapped in molten honey. Her fists moved as pounding pistons, aiming a dozen punches in the blink of an eye at the vulnerable bones of the Big Man’s sternum and upper ribs. A single one of those blows could shatter concrete and bend steel, I’d seen it before, and I had no doubt that even the Big Man’s substantial physical form would be hard pressed to withstand that.

Zheng’s fists passed through empty air, as if the headless giant was just to one side of her reach, trapped by an optical illusion of perspective.

Ooran juh reached out to bite her.

One drooling mouth in a fat-fingered hand moved toward Zheng’s face, slow and easy, like he was going to pet a cat, with no need to exert himself. Zheng stood her ground, because if she dodged, the Big Man would go for me instead. I was lurching to my feet, a horrified scream in my throat, my face smeared with nosebleed, barely able to stand on quivering knees and weighed down by my soaking clothes.

But to my incredible surprise, Zheng caught the flabby pale meat of the giant’s wrist with both her hands, bracing her feet and digging her fingers into the greasy skin. A savage grin of blood-lust joy ripped across her face, showing all her teeth as she held the snapping mouth at bay inches from her own.

“Shaman!” she roared.

“Heather get us the fuck out!” Twil shouted too.

“I can’t—” I panted in horror. I had nothing left. My vision was throbbing black at the edges.

Then Ooran juh slapped his other palm onto Zheng’s side, and bit deep.

She didn’t scream, barely grunted. Razor-sharp teeth pieced her flank just beneath her ribcage, ripping straight through her clothes and tearing off a huge chunk of quivering, bleeding flesh. The hand pulled back, swallowing and then darting out a thick red tongue to lick the blood from those smiling lips.

Zheng sagged all along one side as blood streamed down her hip and thigh, soaking into her trousers and streaming into the water. She stumbled as if the strength had gone out of her, and lost her grip on Ooran juh’s wrist as he pulled his hand away. He moved to bite her a second time. She got an arm in front of her face as she staggered backward, and he ripped a chunk of raw meat out of Zheng’s forearm.

That time, she screamed. An angry roar of frustration and pain, open-mouthed like a lion.

I cannot adequately describe the horror of watching somebody you love being hurt in that way. Not just shot or stabbed. No wound could kill Zheng. She’d shrugged off far worse, and she’d revelled in the damage. She’d leapt from a building for me, back when we’d barely known each other. But Ooran juh’s bites were far more than mere wounds. They were an infection, a violation, a claim. Like watching a loved one step on a rusty nail, or drowning in sewage, or taking a poison arrow to the gut.

Zheng sagged backward, one leg going out from under her. She splashed down in the filthy water, barely managing to stay upright, balanced on one knee. Her blood flowed in twin rivers from the pair of massive bite wounds.

The headless giant reached down toward her with both hands.

A hiss rose in my throat, a counter-claim, because Zheng was mine and nobody hurts any of my pack mates and she was mine, my claim, don’t you touch her — but I was spent. Empty. I didn’t even have the energy to wheeze a challenge, let alone transmute my throat again and screech defiance. I could barely stay on my feet, my legs were quivering with the effort. In my blurring vision I saw Twil drop into a crouch behind the Big Man, ready to pounce, but that was a hopeless gesture. I could not get us out, my brain was too full of fog, I was ready to collapse, and Ooran juh would murder my friends and my lovers, eat my pack, and then turn to me regardless.

I lacked the energy.

But I did not lack the means to produce it.

By the split-second that idea shot through my exhausted mind, it was already too late to stop myself. I was already reaching down into the black tar pooled at the base of my soul, to flick a single mathematical value from a zero to a one. It was a minor miracle I didn’t kill myself by accident. I had studied nothing, made no plans, had no idea how this even worked, but there was no time for experimenting. Everything was screaming at me to to help Zheng, to fight off her attacker, to get us out, to protect. And if I had been thinking clearly, if I had been wide awake? I would have made the exact same decision. Consequences did not matter.

With one change in the hyperdimensional equation that defined myself, I spun imagination and phantom pain and abyssal memory together, into pneuma-somatic reality; I forged new flesh and simulated muscle and artificial tendon, tied into a knot so complex that evolution itself could never have woven something so beautiful.

I built the trilobe reactor organ in my abdomen, with pneuma-somatic flesh, made it real — and lit it with a spark of metabolic fire.

Heat, real heat, body heat running hot, flushed up my side and through my gut and pumped strength into my legs like a shot of adrenaline. My heart rate climbed to maximum and stayed there, sustained and supported by processes that would have killed an unaltered human being. My head cleared with a single shake, senses so wide that they hurt, and I gasped as my lungs filled and every inch of my skin broke out with sweat. Glucose pounding through my veins, every muscle overproducing ATP, and the hungry void at my core filling up like an empty fuel tank for which I’d finally found the input nozzle. The trilobe organ inside me was not a mere physical reactor. Other processes were already running away, approximations of chemistry and biology that should only have been possible down in the abyss.

The rest came a split-second later, as naturally as taking a breath — my tentacles sprouted from my sides, six rainbow-strobing pneuma-somatic limbs lashing the air, ready for war, reinforced with ropes of muscle, tipped with razor-sharp claws, and lined with hundreds of tiny hooks.

But the pneuma-somatic changes did not stop there. I was too deep now.

I blinked nictitating membranes over my eyes; the surface of my skin flushed with tetrodotoxin and warning colouration; my shoulders sprouted defensive spines like a sea urchin; my teeth ached and elongated and sharpened; webbing formed between my fingers, thick and leathery; a tail tipped by a venom-packed stinger grew from the base of my spine; my throat twisted into an impossible configuration and my jaw hinged open in a screech of challenge. All pneuma-somatic modifications, none planned, all drawing power from my new reactor, a furnace wedged deep in the left side of my abdomen.

I suspected I would never be able to sleep on my left side again. Never sleep again, full stop. I had more energy than I could ever use, drawn from a source that would never run dry, and I had completed the first stage of true alchemical transition, the great work. I was perfect.

And I had no idea if I could ever go back.

Didn’t matter right then.

The whole process had taken the blink of an eye, and Ooran juh was still reaching down toward Zheng’s face with his drooling mouth-hands — but he had paused. Despite the lack of a head or face, I had the distinct impression he was looking at me.

“Holy shit,” Twil breathed. “Heather?”

Badger was staring at me too, mouth open in awe. The Saye Fox had gone quiet and still, ready to flee.

“Shaman,” Zheng grunted, voice bubbling with blood and pain. “Do not—”

I was barely even there. Words registered, but I didn’t care about the meaning of the hooting ape sounds. Those were for later. With a screech and a hiss and a warning display of tentacles to put a colossal squid to shame, I lashed out at the Big Man.

But of course he simply wasn’t where my tentacles struck the air. He was to one side, as if I was mistaken and had missed.

Whatever I had just become, I was still physical and pneuma-somatic, I couldn’t just reach out with my tentacles and stop him.

But I’d thought of that. Or at least, abyssal instinct and ape brain and whatever Heather they had constructed between them, had thought of that. In the illusory split-second where the Big Man was not where he should be, I plunged my mind back into the Eye’s lessons, screeching at the pain in my head, and threw a cage around him. A cage of mathematical redefinition, a cage of here and now. Through effort that would have knocked me unconscious without the reactor thrumming and throbbing in my belly, I defined this part of him, this projection, this slice of his true form, and forced it to stay on our level. Like a giant squid hooking a shark and dragging it down into the black ocean depths.

The equation was still not gentle or easy on my body and mind, no matter how changed or how much I’d added to myself. Lances of pain rammed through my skull like molten-hot railway spikes, and my stomach clenched into a ball as I spat up bile. My nosebleed restarted and I smeared the mess across my face, gagging and panting and whining with pain.

But I didn’t pass out. I couldn’t have passed out if I’d wanted to.

Ooran juh was suddenly in only one place. Straightening up, turning toward me. Even if the full, real entity could not be fought, this slice of him could bleed and die.

“Six or seven or eight dimensions!” I screeched and spat, my voice a trilling abyssal mess of knotted muscle. “Fight in this one or let us go! Take it back! Take back the bites! She’s not yours!”

The headless giant raised both hands toward me, split by leering grins, licking their lips in mocking obscenity.

So I screeched, cast my tentacles wide, and threw myself at this rival predator.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

a very great mischief – 13.12

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Panic set in quicker than I had expected.

The warped goldfish bowl perspective, the rows of impossibly curved terraced houses leering down at us, this twisted version of Sharrowford; the lurking threat of the Big Man, ‘Mister Blobby’, Badger’s contract-holder, my rival predator, ten feet of pallid wormy meat that had spooked even Zheng; the layer of greasy moisture left on every inch of brick and asphalt by the retreating fog; the moon above, seen as if from the bottom of a well, with the great red brick wall forming a barrier vaster than the world; and the strange blood-soaked words in Evelyn’s voice before the call had cut out. All of it combined into a cocktail of total incomprehension.

The sheer still silence was intolerable. In a way it would have been easier if we’d been surrounded by grisly monsters.

Badger was quivering with adrenaline and fear, his breath shaking, arms wrapped around himself. Twil was whirling every which way, trying to look down all three roads at the same time. Zheng stood statue still with the deceptively relaxed readiness of a big cat. I clung to her for support, still staring at the phone in my hand. My mind raced to replay the bizarre things Evelyn had said, or been forced to say, trying desperately to divine if we’d just been taunted – or if something worse had happened, back at the house.

Twil turned to me, panting and wide-eyed. “D-do you think we can call Evee back?”

I’d never heard her stammer like that before.

“No,” I said, swallowing down my own panic and lingering pain. My abdomen was sending deep stabbing pains up into my guts, hopefully just an aftereffect of stress. “No, I don’t think that would be a good idea. Not if that wasn’t really her and- Twil!” I snapped as Twil fumbled out her own mobile phone, already thumbing through the screens to Evelyn’s number. “Please don’t risk it. Twil, please, we don’t know if our phones have been compromised somehow.”

“The shaman is right,” Zheng purred. “Ooran juh will take any opening, and force it wide.”

“Shit,” said Twil. “You don’t think it got to the house somehow, right? Right?”

“No, I believe that was some kind of illusion.” I sounded much more confident than I felt. I was guessing, at best, but we had to stay calm and collected. “Or it hijacked the call. Imitated Evelyn’s voice, to taunt us, to make us afraid.”

“So was that her or not?!” Twil asked.

I hesitated.

“Heather!” she growled.

“I don’t know!” I snapped, then had to pause and cough. My throat felt twisted inside, delicate muscles burning with unfamiliar effort, like walking on a dislocated hip. “I think that was the real Raine and Evee, at first. She sounded completely like herself, right up until the subject became … well. And Barnslow Drive is like a magical fortress. People can knock on the door, but that thing wasn’t a person, not at all. Even if it went for the house, it couldn’t just walk in. It couldn’t.”

“He can go anywhere,” Badger muttered, voice thin and reedy. “No door, no lock, no bolt may deny him entrance. No key is complex enough to escape his genius.” He swallowed and glanced up at us. “That was a quote from the pages we had. I’m sorry.”

“You don’t know if that’s true,” I said, and failed to sound either calm or collected.

“Sod it,” Twil spat, and pressed her phone to the side of her head. “What’s it gonna do, reach through the speaker and bite my ear off?” She turned to the empty, silent streets and stuck two fingers up at nothing. “Fuck you! You hear me, bitch?! Fuck you, I’m invincible!”

“Oh my goodness.” I had to suck down a deep breath, chest constricting inside. “Twil, don’t, please-”

Laangren,” Zheng rumbled. “I will not save you from your own stupidity.”

“Shhhhh-shh-shh, it’s- it’s-” Twil waved a hand at us, then frowned at whatever she was hearing on the phone. “What do you mean, out of range or switched off? Evee’s got voicemail, I know she has.” Twil lowered the phone again, frowning at the screen. “I’ve got signal, but there’s no connection. Like she’s taken her sim card out. What the hell?”

“It’s an illusion,” I said again, trying to make myself believe. “The call was hijacked. Our phones have been cut off.”

“Nothing like this ever happened before,” Badger said, voice far away and hollow. He was staring up at the leering houses, face slowly going slack.

Zheng reached out, grabbed a fistful of his hair, wrenched his head down.

“Wha-” Badger flailed in panic.

“Zheng, don’t hurt-”

“Eyes on the ground, worm,” Zheng rumbled at Badger as he blinked rapidly, panting his lungs out in animal panic, his attention ripped from the impossible amphitheatre back down to street level. Zheng let go with a tiny shove. “The shaman needs your mind intact.”

“R-right, right, right you are,” he babbled. “Right, Z-Zheng, yes, yes, good idea. Focus. Focus.”

“You arsehole,” Twil growled, suddenly stepping toward him, scraps of ghostly flesh flowing together into more wolf than human. Badger recoiled. “This is your fault, you stupid little shit.”

Down,” I snapped, as hard as I could, as Evelyn as I could. The effort made the spiking pain in my abdomen worse, clenching and shuddering.

Twil stopped and bared her teeth at me instead.

“Evee is fine,” I said. “She’s behind the walls of a house strong enough to keep out any other magical influence. She has Praem and Raine and Lozzie all with her. Not to mention Tenny. I’m sure Tenny could beat up our disgusting stalker. It would be no contest.”

The intentional absurdity of my statement drew a tiny humourless huff from Twil, but the accuracy of my reading her concerns doused the worst of her anger. She looked away, still steaming, but no longer about to tear Badger’s face off.

“And we need to focus on getting ourselves out of here first,” I said. “We can help Evee once we’re clear.”

“Yeah … yeah, alright, fine. I get it.” Twil ran a hand through her dark curls, looking out at the deserted streets again, shooting a quick glance at the way they climbed the impossible sides of this curved plane. “What do we do then, walk back to the house? I know you said it won’t work, but we could at least try, yeah?”

I took a deep breath and steeled myself.

“Shaman?” Zheng must have felt my accelerating heartbeat.

“I want to try to use brainmath to slip us all Outside,” I said.

“Oh no,” Badger breathed.

“What?” Twil frowned.

“If this space, whatever this is, is located in our reality but cut off somehow, then maybe the dead hands phenomenon is cut off as well. If so, I may be able to relocate us Outside, and then back again, free of this … this.” I gestured around without looking up. “And if we’re not in reality, then maybe I can take us back there manually.”

Twil grimaced. “You sure you wanna do that, Heather?”

“The shaman is always sure,” Zheng purred.

I tutted. “I am not.”

“Sure you’re up to it?” Twil asked. “You look like shit already.” Her eyes widened and she blushed before she even finished the sentence. “Uh- I mean, uh- I mean you’re exhausted! I mean, you don’t look like shit. Fuck, sorry.”

Her flustered clumsiness would have been heart-fluttering under any other circumstances.

“It’s okay,” I said. “I feel just as excremental as I look. I’m falling apart here, Zheng’s going to have to carry me regardless. I may as well try. I might pass out, but this an emergency.”

Twil nodded, then glanced up at Zheng. “You got her, yeah? Don’t drop her if she falls.”

Zheng grunted an affirmative.

“Everyone needs to touch. Hold hands or something,” I said. “Like we did with Lozzie on the way back from Carcosa. Don’t let go. And keep your eyes firmly closed. You too,” I added to Badger. “I don’t want you losing your mind in the transition.” He nodded, and squeezed his eyes shut, gone white in the face.

Twil grabbed Badger by the shoulder. Zheng held me tight in one arm, and after a moment’s hesitation, Twil offered her a hand. My stomach was churning with the anticipation of pain, but there was no sense in delaying.

“Okay, here goes nothing,” I said.

I plunged my mind into the black sump at the bottom of my soul, thrust into the boiling tar up to my elbows, burning away skin and lighting my brain on fire. I dredged up that familiar old equation, the one I’d used so many times now, the most fundamental of the Eye’s lessons, the mathematical formula to rotate matter from reality to Outside and back again. It rose like a dripping hulk from the depths, the machine parts awakening as I touched them one by once. Molten metal slammed into place across the surface of my brain, scraping away slivers of who and what I was, shooting splinters of impossible knowledge deep into my subconscious to burrow and fester. Each figure of the equation clicked down in sequence, the hyperdimensional mathematics completing itself in the span of a hummingbird’s wing beat.

And then a pair of cold vices closed around my ankles.

Dead hands, anchored in deep soil, and holding fast.

The equation fell apart in a cry of pain and a sudden welter of nosebleed. My vision blurred, throbbing black around the edges as I hung in Zheng’s grip like a rag doll with my strings cut. Zheng cradled my head and chest and let me lean forward as I clenched up every muscle in my body to stop from vomiting. I let out a gurgling cry as my stomach muscles tried to convulse, but I held on. I had bested this formula before. I would not surrender now.

Panting, wiping nosebleed on my coat sleeve, shaking all over with pain like the aftermath of an electric shock, I straightened up and let Zheng take my weight. Could barely work my legs.

“Shaman,” she purred.

“Didn’t work?” Twil grimaced. She let go of Zheng’s hand and let go of Badger, who was looking at me somewhat awestruck.

“No hitchhiking for us,” I muttered, a little bit out of my head.

Twil squinted. “Eh?”

“We walk, laangren,” Zheng purred.

==

For lack of any other option, we did indeed try to walk home.

“ … oh that is too weird,” Twil said, staring back the way we’d come after about a hundred meters. “I really really really don’t like that. Really mega total do not like. Uh uh. No way. Screw this place.”

“Then do not look, laangren,” Zheng purred.

The goldfish bowl effect, the leering houses, and the great red brick wall all moved with us, as if the whole world rotated relative to the awful sights above us. We seemed unable to reach the point where the road curved impossibly upward into the space between those dark houses, walking through a silent Sharrowford as normal instead – or as close to normal as it could be, covered in a sheen of shiny grease and darkened by soot and grime. Behind us, once we walked far enough, the junction with the bus stop had risen up into the ring of houses and jumbled streets, all details rapidly lost to sight. Where we’d stood only minutes before was pulled up onto the side of the goldfish bowl plane.

The effect was dizzying to watch. We all tried to keep our gazes less than a hundred meters ahead, on the relatively normal road as it descended from the illusion above.

I did wonder what would happen if we split into two groups and walked in different directions, but decided not to risk any experiments.

I didn’t even speculate out loud; we may have had a hidden eavesdropper.

Twil went in front – ‘taking point’ as Raine liked to call it – and stayed in full-on werewolf mode. Why not, we reasoned, there was nobody here to see. We made our way down the middle of the road, slow and cautious, no leaping walls or sprinting at speed, all the better to spot an ambush if our corpulent stalker decided to have another go.

Badger stayed in the middle, partly so Zheng could keep an eye on him, and Zheng herself brought up the rear, but never too far away.

I rode on Zheng’s back again, exhausted beyond words, my eyelids like lead.

Attempted brainmath had drained me down to fumes. Combined with the stabbing pains in my abdomen and the aftermath of the screech and the lingering ravenous hunger, I felt barely present, a numb sack of meat clinging to my packmate’s back. Even my phantom limbs were limp, wrapped around Zheng in an embrace she couldn’t feel, like an injured squid with a friendly shark.

“I’m- sorry Zheng, there’s still nosebleed, I can’t-”

“Bleed on me, shaman,” she’d purred.

I knew she’d never drop me. I could have slept like this, if only we were elsewhere.

Sharrowford degenerated as we walked. Hastings Road could have been mistaken for normal, on a rough night, in the dark, after a storm, but by the time we reached Sparrow Street, the city at ground level had transformed into a dark parody.

The houses were coated with grime, coal-dust and soot and pollution, their windowpanes darkened from the inside by layers of dirt, brickwork eaten away by lichen and pale moss. The garden walls were coated in disgusting grease that made my skin crawl, and the gardens themselves were thin with dead grass, littered with old kitchen appliances or piles of rubbish. Streetlights seemed dimmer as we passed, parked cars had faded paint-jobs, and the gutters were clogged with rotting organic matter like leaf mulch or mud, with tiny white worms writhing within.

“Come on, what the hell?” Twil growled through her snout from up ahead. She was flexing her claws, wolf ears swivelling to catch the slightest sound, jumping at shadows. “Sharrowford doesn’t look half this bad, this is bullshit. Come out and fight us, fucko!”

Her challenge echoed away between the houses.

“Calm, laangren,” Zheng purred.

“How am I meant to calm down if this motherfucker won’t come out and fight me? Shit-eating coward bitch-tits … ” She trailed off into muttered insults. I noticed Badger trying not to flinch every time Twil opened her mouth.

Ooran juh wants you tormented,” said Zheng.

“I’ll show it bloody torment.” Twil gestured at the dark and filthy houses. “What about all the people? Come on, there was people sleeping in these houses, right? It’s the middle of the night. They can’t all have vanished.”

Not a single light shone in any window. Not a whisper moved behind any curtain.

“We’re not in Sharrowford,” I croaked.

We crept on a few more steps in tense silence. Zheng turned her head very slightly, meeting my eyes sidelong across her own shoulder.

“What is your plan, shaman?” she whispered.

“ … get home. Maybe … maybe there … ”

“I will fight anything for you,” she whispered on, “even Ooran juh, though I cannot win. But I do not know how to get you out of this gullet.”

Zheng’s warmth down my front made me feel so safe, but here it was a false hope. I tried to nod.

“I love you too, Zheng. I’ll get us out. Get us out,” I whispered back. “I’ll think of something.”

Up ahead, Twil stopped by a low garden wall, gritting her teeth at one of the worm-eaten wooden doors.

“I could go ring a doorbell,” she said. “See if anybody’s home.”

Laangren,” Zheng rumbled a warning.

“Twil, no-” I croaked, but it was too late. Twil was already vaulting the low wall, onto the patch of scraggy grass that passed for a lawn. She trotted up onto the front step and pressed the doorbell twice, bouncing on her wolf-pad paws and rolling her furred shoulders, ready to spring away or throw a punch.

Zheng stopped with me on her back, a good safe distance away. Badger scurried behind us.

“Bad plan, hey,” he was muttering to himself. “Bad plan, bad baaaaad plan. What is with this werewolf stuff, man?”

“Hey hey!” Twil called up at the house. “Anybody home?”

“Twil, leave it, please,” I said.

“Quiet, shaman,” Zheng purred. I shut my mouth.

Twil jabbed the doorbell twice more. Seconds ticked by, maybe a whole minute, but nothing happened. My phantom limbs tried to ready themselves, sluggish and tugging on my bruises. Eventually Twil let out a huge grumbling huff and shrugged her shoulders.

“Guess that answers that,” she sighed. Twil looked back at us over one shoulder and pulled a self-deprecating smirk with her wolf’s snout, a very strange sight. “Made myself look like a right arse, didn’t-”

“Twil!” I screamed.

At the moment she’d turned to look over her shoulder, the door had begun to open, a dark crack widening with silent glacial slowness.

When I screamed, a fat pale arm squirmed out through the gap like a great albino worm forcing itself through corpse-flesh.

Twil whirled just in time, leaping back with a yelp, stumbling on the house’s front step. The slavering mouth in the Big Man’s palm snapped razor teeth shut on empty air, an inch from Twil’s head. She scrambled back, panting and wild. The door and frame bulged outward, creaking and warping as a giant bulk pressed against them from behind.

“Back up, laangren,” Zheng rumbled.

The mouth in the palm opened wide, and curled red lips into a toothy smile, flickering out a wet red tongue as a whispering filled the air, soft and serpentine and full of secrets.

I tried to hiss again, but only croaked. I wanted to clamber off Zheng’s back and – what? I ached all over, my whirling phantom limbs were no help, all they did was send shooting pains up my bruised flanks. Zheng held tight around my thighs, ignoring my squirming to get down.

“Fuck you!” Twil roared at the arm and the hidden giant behind it. “I’ll bite your fucking hand off you coward!”

“You cannot fight it-” Zheng raised her voice, but Twil was already hurling herself at the arm.

And in a motion that made my eyes water, she failed to connect.

It was like watching an optical illusion in real time. Twil’s claws seemed to sail through the place where her target should be, her motion itself revealing that the Big Man’s arm was actually at a totally different angle. It was impossible, a trick of the light that made my eyes water and forced a pained groan from Badger.

Twil sailed past and hit the wall with a surprised thump, and the mouth-hand went for her again, opening wide to take a chunk out of her scalp.

But Twil was fast. And the Big Man was trapped behind a door.

She dropped to her belly, rolled beneath his reach, and came up level with his giant hinge of an elbow, ready to rip into greasy flesh, claws angled to disarticulate and debone his joint with the first strike – but then his arm slithered back as quick as it had thrust forward, folds of loose skin gathering and bunching against the door and frame for a split second, before the whole mass vanished back into the gap.

The door slammed shut.

“Coward!” Twil growled, and threw herself at the door. She kicked at the wood, sending splinters flying and awful cracking sounds echoing down the deserted street. “Get out here and fight, bitch!”

Laangren, stop,” Zheng rumbled. I was still squirming, instinct desperate to get down and drag Twil back.

Twil’s forth kick knocked the front door clean off its hinges. The worm-eaten wood crashed into the darkness of an unlit corridor.

Empty. No Big Man. Nothing to sink her claws into.

Twil made an incoherent sound of animal rage through her gritted teeth. She kicked at the door frame and whirled, looking for something to fight, making fists with her claws.

“Twil!” I tried to snap – but the word came out as a cough. “Twil, for pity’s sake, stop,” I wheezed. “Please. It’s trying to trap us, to lure us into getting bitten, to give us the creeps. Stop.”

“Well it’s working!” Twil snapped.

But she did rapidly simmer down, heaving for breath and hanging her head as she stepped back over the wall to rejoin us in the street. She shot dark looks up and down the road, and back over her shoulder at the empty toothless mouth of the broken doorway. She wouldn’t meet anybody’s eyes, flexing her claws and hunching her shoulders.

“I hate this,” she hissed.

“Twil,” I tried again, more gentle this time, looking down at her from over Zheng’s shoulder. “I know you do, but we need you to stay alert and not get distracted. If we do get attacked, you need to be on your toes.”

“‘Stay frosty,’” she said, almost mockingly, but then grimaced and shrugged. “Sorry I’m like this. I know it’s no good.”

“There is no shame in courage, laangren,” Zheng said.

“Yeah but it’s supposed to bloody well work, innit?” Twil huffed, and then turned to lead the way again. “I’ll try to keep a lid on myself. Sorry, Heather.”

“Wait, Twil,” I croaked. “If this thing is trying to get to us, you need to speak your mind. Don’t let it needle you.”

She shrugged. Wouldn’t meet my eyes. “Already have.”

I struggled to marshal my thoughts. I ached all over, with pain and exhaustion, but Twil needed help or she wouldn’t get through this. I knew this landscape, this nature of landscape, this barren waste, far better than she did. On some level I felt like I understood the Big Man. A rival predator. I knew all the tricks, because I’d learned them in the abyss. Twil would be baited by a flickering among the rocks, a stray tendril in the shadows, a piece of odd-looking coral, diverted away from us and hunted down.

“Twil, what did you mean earlier, when you said this is what you were made for?” I tried.

Twil finally looked up and blinked at me. “ … my granddad, right?”

“I’m sorry?”

“S’why he made me a werewolf,” she said, and her voice brimmed with sudden pride. “I mean screw whatever Evee says, the old man is dead. He made me a werewolf so I could deal with stuff like this, when it gets sent against my family, against the Church. That’s why I’m like this, s’what I’m meant to be good at. Fighting monsters, yeah? But it’s not working, is it? Not this time.”

“I think this is beyond any of us,” I told her. “There’s no shame in that either.”

Twil shrugged and gave me an awkward wave. “I just don’t get what the hell’s going on. Look, I’ll be alright, let’s just keep moving, yeah?”

“Good idea,” Badger added from behind us. Twil shot him a nasty look.

“One foot in front of the other, laangren,” Zheng purred. “I have your back.”

Twil and Zheng shared a very different sort of look. After a moment, Twil swallowed and nodded.

We carried on, down dark streets clogged with filth and grease and oily sheens on every surface. A stench was rising on the night air, like old cabbage and rotten eggs and fish left in the sun. Twil began to breathe through her mouth to drown out the worst of the smell, wolf’s jaw hanging open. Once or twice I raised my eyes and risked a look at the vast ring-wall above us, and the the moon in the sky. At least the moon seemed unblemished.

“Zheng,” I mumbled from Zheng’s shoulder, trying to raise my croaking voice as much as I could so Twil could hear too. I had to keep us together, keep our spirits up, keep our thoughts focused on what we could understand.

“Shaman?”

“Why are you sc-” I caught myself. “Why are you so cautious of this big fat man? Mister Blobby, if that’s what we’re calling him? Not to put too finer point on this, but I have seen you gleefully fight a building once before.”

Ooran juh cannot be fought.”

“And a tower block can?” Twil shot over her shoulder. “I’ve heard the story, you doing your Kool-Aid Man impression.”

“You are not listening,” Zheng purred. “I fear no physical contest, no God of this world or the shaman’s dark sea. But Ooran juh does not fight with muscle and fist. It is no Outsider. It is no God. It was a monkey once, a wizard. Much worse.”

I blinked several times in surprise, trying to process this fact.

“A person?” I asked. “That was a human being?”

“Mm. Once.”

“Makes sense, trying to scare us like this,” Twil growled. “If it was some alien from beyond, it wouldn’t be trying to freak us out on purpose. Bastard.”

“That’s not what it says in the book,” Badger spoke up quietly, without raising his eyes. “In the photocopies from the book, I mean.”

“It wrote the book,” Zheng purred.

“How do you know that?” I asked.

Zheng said nothing for several paces, brooding in silence as we rounded the corner of another street. The road surface itself was caked with gunk, oil runoff and grime, and the drains were clogged with black rotting filth, forming puddles of stagnant water.

“A wizard had a theory, about a book,” Zheng eventually rumbled as we crept down the middle of the street. The low, soft purr of her voice soothed my anxiety a little, even if she was talking about horrible subjects.

“A Song wizard,” she said. “His name was Liu Bai. I knew him twenty nine years, with the Khans. Used me as a sounding board when he couldn’t get his fellows to listen, and my bindings were such that I was not permitted to rip his tongue out and gut him, so I heard most of it. The book was an unnamed rotting thing he had picked up in Samarkand, but when he tried to lead the rest of us back to the bookseller, the place was gone. He swore blind that the bookseller had not been truly human, but something else wearing the skin of one of you monkeys, a man so obese he should not have been alive.”

“Sounds like our friend,” Twil grunted.

“Perhaps,” Zheng continued. “Liu Bai swore the book contained instructions for a contract of power, for the shaping of flesh. A contract with a much older wizard who had been beyond, to a place of endless cold water, where the reshaping of flesh was achievable at but a thought.”

I shivered with recognition, no longer soothed.

“The abyss?” I whispered. “That thing is a person who returned from the abyss? Like me?”

Zheng shrugged gently, not wanting to jostle me too hard on her shoulders. “That is what Liu Bai believed. None of the other wizards could see this in the rotting book. They saw only diseased ramblings.”

The road curved to the right, past houses fallen into deep disrepair, their windows blackened and their roofs threadbare. The garden walls were covered in a tiny black filigree of creeping fungus. We weren’t too far from home now.

“I do not know when he made the deal. In a dream, perhaps,” Zheng purred. “But over several weeks he grew fat. Weeping sores opened in both his palms, and the edges of the wounds seemed to twitch like lips. He drooled, soiled himself, stumbled about in a daze. The others shunned him. He was confined to his tent. He was going to be left behind when the army next moved. None had seen him for days when he finally emerged, but he was not Liu Bai anymore. Ooran juh had found a new host.”

Badger kept glancing back over his shoulder, eyes growing more horrified with every turn of Zheng’s account. He was squeezing his wounded hand tight inside the end of his bloodied sleeve.

“What, the fat guy like, possessed him?” Twil asked.

“Or used him as a gateway, or a lighthouse,” Zheng purred. “Or ate him for sport. I do not know. Half the camp burned that night. The warriors could not stop him, though none lacked courage. He was always where their weapons were not. He declined every fight, and bit every arm turned against him. I can move in the blink of an eye, but even I cannot be in two places at once. We lacked the means to bring Ooran juh to battle. He left when he grew bored, simply ceased to be. Not because we drove him off.”

I was having trouble concentrating on Zheng’s story. That greasy pale fat man, that obscene headless thing, that was something like me? A human being who had journeyed into the abyss between spheres, like I had?

That grotesque mountain of pale meat, was that his Homo abyssus?

“The warriors who were bitten did not heal,” Zheng was saying. “Their wounds turned infected, would not be cleaned with either fire or steel, or even amputation. The sickness was in the blood. They suffered dreams and waking visions of Ooran juh offering them a contract, to end the pain. Many slew themselves, many others turned up dead, many walked off into the steppe alone.”

“Alright, don’t get bit,” Twil said. “Evee already told us that part.”

“I met it once again, hundreds of years later,” Zheng purred. “It took a wizard who owned me at the time. She had been dabbling in dubious books, but she could not possibly have had the very same tome as Liu Bai. That time Ooran juh simply strode out of a locked room. He took her to wherever he takes his prey, but I just stood and watched. I was below his notice.”

“I-I think what we see of him is a projection,” Badger spoke up, voice unsteady. He glanced back over his shoulder at Zheng and I, then hurried to face forward again, keeping his eyes carefully on the ground.

“Speak up, worm,” Zheng rumbled.

“ … it’s like a, uh … ” He struggled for a moment, then wet his lips and took a deep breath. “Imagine if we were all two-dimensional shapes, right? Bear with me here a sec, okay? Like if people were all circles, squares, triangles, whatever. Then imagine a three-dimensional shape comes to visit us. We’d only see one projection of it where it intersects with our world on a two-dee plane, not the whole thing. Right?

“Like Flatland,” I croaked.

“Yeah, yeah,” Badger nodded. He looked back, the brightest and most alert I’d seen him so far. “So like, the Big Man, and things like him, they’re like a five or six or seven dimensional shape, visiting us shapes that only move and see in three dimensions. Four dimensions if you count time, I guess. Get it?”

“Wizard filth,” Zheng rumbled. Badger flinched and stumbled, like he wanted to run from her.

“I get it,” I spoke up. “Let him speak, Zheng. I think this might be valuable.”

Or at least it would keep our minds focused on something other than the grease and filth and decay all around.

“S-so that’s why the Big Man can be in multiple different places, and why we can’t touch him, but he can touch us if he wants to,” Badger stammered on. “He’s just one projection of a larger entity, and he can rotate away from us whenever he wants.”

“Like the messenger,” Twil piped up from in front. “Remember that, Heather? Back in the Medieval Metaphysics room? I jumped straight at it, but it didn’t even have to dodge.”

“I do remember,” I croaked softly.

“Where’d you get all this from anyway?” Twil growled at Badger.

“Learned it from Sarry, mostly,” he said. “I’m not as stupid as I look. And I know I look really stupid, right.”

“Could’a fooled me.”

“I did go to uni, you know?”

“What?” Twil squinted back at him. “What’d you study there?”

“Maths,” Badger said. “S’kinda how I got into the cult … ”

He sighed and fell silent, as we crept along the final stretch of filth-streaked road before the turning into Barnslow Drive. This corner, this street, had become so familiar to me over the last half a year. My Cape of Good Hope before warm sanctuary and real family. But this place was not really Sharrowford, not right now.

The nearby houses were coated with dirt and grime, the pavements smeared with unspeakable black slime, the drain gratings submerged beneath a scum of oily dark water. The overhanging trees on the opposite side of the road were leafless and dead, dotted with black fungal infection and patches of rot. Defamiliarisation crept over me, a sense of spiritual vertigo, and I had to resist the urge to bury my face in Zheng’s shoulder and screw my eyes shut.

We reached the stretch of pavement opposite home.

“Great,” Twil growled.

I don’t know what I’d expected to find at Number 12 Barnslow Drive. A signpost to the exit? A secret door back into the real world? Evelyn and Raine, waiting to rescue us? An idea, inspiration, a clue at least.

The house was an even worse wreck than the other mockeries in this ruined place. All the lifetimes of effort which had gone into holding the building together in reality were absent here; missing tiles left the buckled roof open to the elements in several places, the walls were covered in dark creeping ivy thick as blankets, and the brickwork was loose and crumbling. The windows were streaked with black filth from the inside, and the front garden was overgrown with waist-high weeds, thick grasses and twisted thorns. As we stared in crushed hope, I saw small scuttling insects dart from under the eaves and vanish into cracks in the walls. Nobody lived here.

“What now, shaman?” Zheng rumbled.

I stared at the house, feeling violated. My home, even as an illusion, reduced to this? Was this meant to be a vision of the future, or a stab at my heart?

“Hey,” Twil suddenly barked. “Hey, hey, is that Evee? Guys, guys, there’s a face in the window! Don’t you see that?” Twil pointed, whirling to us and then back again. “That’s Evee! It must have got her, it must have!”

All I saw was a white smudge on the other side of a second-floor window. Fungus on the glass.

“Twil,” I said, slowly and carefully. “That’s not Evee. That’s nothing.”

“I don’t- I-” Twil frowned up at the window, squinting and blinking her eyes. “But … but what if she’s inside-”

“She isn’t,” I said, hard as I could. “Twil, don’t look at it. Look at me instead. Twil, please. If a regular house was a trap, this is a definitely a trap. Don’t be stupid. Stop looking at it.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know!” Twil snapped – but she did look away from the house, down at the ground, then at me, gritting her teeth. “It’s a stupid trap. I mean, come on, who would walk in there, right? It’s obviously not your bloody house. Try harder, bitch-tits,” she spat at the empty road.

“We need a way out, shaman,” Zheng murmured.

“I know,” I whispered back. “I just can’t think of anything. I could try brainmath again, try to … comprehend this place. It’ll be difficult-”

“No, shaman. We need a way out, quickly.”

“I know, I-”

“Uhhhhhh, guys,” Twil said. She was looking directly up. “Is it just me, or does the big red wall look … taller?”

I followed her gaze, craning my neck up past the rows of dark terraced houses, toward the very top of that impossibly giant ring-wall of scabby red.

Twil was right. As if reaching toward the moon in the centre, the wall seemed taller. Almost like we were sinking deeper. Or the opening was getting narrower.

“It … does,” I admitted.

“Oh no,” Badger murmured. “The way out is closing up. It’s closing up. It’s over.”

“We are in his mouth,” Zheng rumbled. “Behind his teeth. We must climb out, before he finishes chewing, but I cannot grasp the walls to pull us up.”

“What?” Twil stared at her, wide-eyed with panic. “Oh fuck that, come on, that was just a metaphor, right?”

Zheng blinked at her, once, slowly. “Shaman.”

“I-I’m trying to think of something,” I stammered. “Maybe if I try brainmath again, try something different, try-”

Buzz-buzz.

We all jumped out of our collective skin when my phone went off, buzzing in my coat pocket. Twil bristled all over and Badger gasped and I felt like I was going to have a heart attack, but Zheng held fast. With one shaking hand I fumbled my phone out as it kept ringing.

“It’s Evee, right?” Twil asked.

I shook my head. “I don’t recognise the number.”

“It’s him,” Badger said. “Taunting us. It must be. Don’t answer it, don’t answer it!”

“Shut up, you prat,” Twil growled at him. “It might be Evee, giving us a way out.”

“Shaman,” Zheng purred, and nodded out into the street. “Decide quickly.”

I followed her gaze, and saw that the blocked drains along the kerb were overflowing more than before, flooding the entire road with a thin layer of backed-up sewer water, with disgusting oily patches and dark substances floating in the liquid. Bubbles of rank gas rose from the depths of the drain entrances, popping softly in the silence.

The phone kept buzzing in my hand.

“Okay,” I said, phantom limbs rising to defend me from an unseen threat. “Everyone brace yourselves.”

I pressed the answer call button, and held the phone out at arm’s length, heart racing as I waited for the trap to spring shut, ready to counter it at the speed of thought.

“ … Morell?” asked a voice from the phone’s speaker.

Dead flat, utterly cold, the voice of a predatory lizard. I’d recognise that voice anywhere. I was so surprised I forgot to be afraid for a moment, and jammed the phone against my ear in shock.

“Stack?” I said. “Amy?”

“Morell,” she repeated. Her voice was a little distorted by poor connection, but it was absolutely Amy Stack.

“W-what … what are you- is this really you?” I asked.

A beat of silence. I swore I could feel the exasperated sigh.

“You asked me to call you,” she said.

I boggled at that. Zheng narrowed her eyes, Twil shrugged wide, both of them able to overhear the conversation and just as confused as I was.

“I … Stack, we’re in the middle of a crisis right now,” I said quickly. “Did you call by chance, or did Evelyn contact you, or-”

“You told me to call you, Morell,” Stack said, level and calm. “You’re standing in front of me right now, and I don’t know how you got in here. But I’m talking to you as well, on the phone. I don’t want to know. Here.”

The phone changed hands with a rustle.

“Heather? Can you hear me?”

It was my own voice.

“Sevens?!” I asked.

“Unless there’s another identical copy of you running around Sharrowford, yes, it’s me,” said Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight, in an irritatingly accurate copy of my own voice, complete with that touch of patronising intellectualism in her tone. “And at the moment it’s also my exact words reaching you. We have a few moments before that boorish gentleman interrupts us.”

“Are you coming to help?” I asked.

“Oh, fuck, please,” Twil said.

“Help?” Sevens echoed. “Oh dear, oh no, I absolutely cannot come in there. That philistine would run rings around me and bite both my hands off. We’re simply not evenly matched, I’m not capable of that.”

I suppressed an urge to slap her. “I know this doesn’t fit your delicate theatrical sensibility, but I can hardly conclude a sweeping lesbian romance for your enjoyment if we all get drowned in rising sewer water.”

I glanced at the road. The blackened, scum-filled water was an inch deep now, and still rising. Twil shuffled away from the kerb, baring her teeth at the water.

“Sewer water?” Sevens asked. “Ugh. Oh dear, that means he already knows. He’s panicking though, which is probably a good sign.”

“Knows what? Sevens, are you helping or not? What is this phone call even for?”

“To open another connection, of course,” Sevens said with that infuriating hint of smugness – me at my absolute worst, when I thought I was being clever. “I’ve sent a … well, an acquaintance, to help guide you out. I can’t vouch for her quality or her intentions, because I’ve known her for all of about fifteen minutes, but she was very insistent, and I don’t know why anybody would willingly throw themselves down that particular gullet for anything less than deepest love.”

“Why- why-” I tried to gather my thoughts. “Why not call from Raine or Evelyn’s phone? What does Stack have to-”

Sevens-Shades-of-Heather sighed, losing her patience. “Because he’s already found and closed those connections. You needed a fresh one, and if I showed myself to Lozzie, you’d all be dead by the time she finishes hugging me. Not that I mind her, of course.”

“Oh shit, oh shit, look at that,” Twil said.

I followed her wide-eyed gaze.

The great red wall was shuddering.

Vast ripples and pulses flowed up the scabby red bricks, more like a twitching biological sphincter than stone and rock under the influence of an earthquake, trying to inch closer to the clean light of the moon in the middle of the sky. A moment later, as if it had taken seconds to cross a vast distance, a sound like slapping meat reached us, distant and distorted, the first sound to break the silence of this mock-city.

“He’s knows you’ve almost figured out how to escape,” Sevens was saying down the phone, in my own voice. “So he’s going to do his best to force you down his throat now.”

“How!?” I croaked into the phone. “I haven’t figured out anything!”

The water in the road was lapping at the kerb. Dark shapes were moving in it now, giant shadows beneath the surface, as if the water were miles deep rather than an inch or two of muck over dirty asphalt.

“Oh don’t be stupid, of course you have. You’re the only one who can perceive matter in the relevant way. The help I’ve sent will only be able to signpost you, it’s up to you to do the rest,” Sevens explained. “But it’s dead help, a dead friend, a friend who has tasted worms once before. I’ve never tasted worms,” Sevens’ voice – my voice – carried on, and it took me a moment of shock to realise it wasn’t really her anymore.

“My flesh is forever, held between here and there, between decay and life. Are you forever, Heather Morell? You could be, but you are small and weak, you refuse to grow strong, to eat good meat, to grow fat with good food and good-”

Twil flinched at a sudden flicker of dark motion in the front garden of Number 12 Barnslow Drive. Zheng whirled and growled. Badger tripped back in surprise.

But I lowered the phone, and ignored the rattling voice of what was no longer Sevens imitating me.

A fox stood on the garden wall.

Toned and sleek from a good diet and plenty of exercise, russet fur fluffy and healthy, black-tipped ears swivelling. Bright orange eyes met mine, then the fox quickly looked behind herself, as if she’d recently escaped a hunter and could hear it following on her trail. Then she bounded forward along the wall, and turned back to look at me again.

The fox was not part of this place. She was too clean. Too familiar.

“What the hell?” Twil said.

“It’s- it’s okay,” I said, struggling to gather my thoughts as I ended the call and put my phone away. “I think I know this fox. Is it you? … Saye?”

“You what?” Twil boggled at me.

The fox tilted her head, quickly looked forward along the road, then back at us again. Filthy water was beginning to overlip the kerb beside us, millimetre by millimetre.

“It’s a long story,” I said, shaking my head. “I think this is Evelyn’s … well, it’s part of her family. Maybe. Sort of. What are you doing here?” I asked the fox. “How did you get to- oh, well, I suppose we aren’t actually in Sharrowford, are we?”

The fox replied by hurrying along to the next garden wall, hopping the gap with a spring of her back legs. She looked up at the sky and the great red wall closing in on the moon. We didn’t have long, the gap was getting smaller and smaller, tightening around that one source of clean natural light.

“Foxes are good allies, if they will have you,” Zheng purred. “Both predators and eaters of the dead. They know the secret ways. Do we follow her, shaman?”

“She’ll do her best to lead us out. I think.”

If only I could figure out what Sevens had meant.

“Oh bloody great,” Badger said. “Now we’re following an animal.”

“Stay here with the shit water if you want, numb-nuts,” Twil said. “Looks like a chance to me.”

She was already picking up her feet and trotting after the fox, trying to skirt the rapidly forming puddles on the pavement. Zheng settled me more comfortably on her back, and set off as well, at a rapid ground-eating lope. Badger let out a groan, but jogged after us, boots splashing through the muck.

The fox raced ahead along the low garden walls, hopping from brick to brick, staying clear of the rising water in the street. We tried to ignore the vast shadows moving below, and the way the great red wall shuddered and flexed above our heads.

Pinned in the mouth of a predator, we fled between its teeth.

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Hello dear readers! Yes, it’s me, the author, not Heather. I don’t normally like to add anything after chapters, but I have a little announcement for everybody who follows and enjoys the story, but isn’t either subscribed to the Patreon or in the discord channel.

Katalepsis is going to get an official, professionally produced audiobook version, from Podium Audio!

For any readers who want more information, here’s a link to the public post all about it on the Katalepsis Patreon page!

a very great mischief – 13.11

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There are times in life when one acts without thinking. No matter how rational and cool headed we tell ourselves we are, we’re all animals beneath the thin shelter of ego and prefrontal cortex. In moments of great stress we can commit mistakes of self destruction and casual cruelty, or shining examples of heroism and selflessness – or simply reveal the amoral truth.

When this pale obese giant bore down on us through the greasy fog, striding across the asphalt on feet like slabs of frozen meat, as it raised a hand the size of a dinner plate, rent by a mouth full of fangs and drool, as Zheng yanked me to my feet and braced to pull me away, as Badger screamed in white-faced terror, as Twil’s growl stuttered out into a whine, I did not think.

Zheng was panicked. That should have gotten through to me.

We were not cornered, we were not at bay; we could run, off into the thick fog clogging Sharrowford’s streets.

Badger’s skull contained invaluable information, but he was also my enemy. He’d tried to kidnap Lozzie. Leaving him to his fate would ruin my plan, but it would also spare us a horrible decision.

None of those things mattered. I was not making a decision, I was obeying a biological imperative. I pulled myself free from Zheng’s grip, barely aware of what I was doing, only succeeding because my reaction surprised her.

I rounded on the pale obscenity, and I screeched.

No mere imitation hiss from a human throat, and nothing like a human scream, I screeched my lungs out. A warning display, on reflex, a complete surrender to gut impulse and bodily logic. I’d been high on hunting instinct the whole way here, this reaction was no great leap. A part of me had recognised the pale headless giant, not for what it was, but for the role it currently filled in our ecosystem. Zheng had even put it into words, perhaps seeded the concept in my mind: we were ‘late to the kill’.

The headless giant was a competing predator.

My screech meant mine.

In truth I sounded awful, like a cross between a goat and a fox and a gibbon. I do hope the fog soaked up the worst of the racket I made, that I didn’t accidentally terrify some small child tucked up in their bed or some poor old lady sitting up late at night. Another strange occurrence to add to the list of paranormal happenings in Sharrowford, the case of the mystery night-time screech.

My body wanted to back up the claim to my prey, flashing irrelevant nerve impulses and trying to dilate organs I didn’t possess. My phantom tentacles lashed the air in a warning display, lined with bone hooks, tipped by venomous stingers, laced with paralytic mucus. My jaw ached, trying to fulfil the biological impossibility of sprouting a double-row of razor sharp teeth. My skin itched with the need to flush my exterior with toxic colouration. And deep inside my abdomen, tissues and muscles tried to adjust themselves, to cradle and support and supply a bio-reactor that was not yet real.

If I hadn’t been acting on instinct, I might have gone over the edge and made it real. Fortunately for me, even the most simple operation of hyperdimensional mathematics required a great deal of brainpower, rather than screeching one’s lungs out like an animal.

Halfway into the screech, the pain in my bruised flanks hit me like a wave of fire.

I didn’t ‘snap out of it’, I was in too deep for that, and the circumstances were too dire, but I came back to conscious thought with a shuddering hiss of tight-clenched burning pain down my sides, playing across the bruises I’d given myself that morning. New kinds of pain blossomed across my body as well. My jaw ached like I’d been punched, my legs felt as if they were on backwards, my eyes itched, red and raw. My skin was flushed all over like I’d been dunked in a hot bath. Worst of all was the sharp stabbing inside my abdomen, making the muscles shudder and seize up, like particularly bad period pain.

But the pain was almost worth it. The most bizarre combination of agony and euphoria stirred in every cell, as if I was on the verge of orgasm.

Under any other conditions I would have curled up on the ground with a whine in my throat, but there was no time for that.

The headless giant had stopped about twelve paces away in the middle of the road, a wobbling tower of pale, wormy, grease-streaked meat. He had both hands stuck out in front of himself, past the huge mass of his gut, with the pair of slavering red-lipped mouths pointed at us.

“Holy fucking shit, big H,” Twil hissed through a snout which contained far too many teeth. She’d gone full wolf transformation. “It stopped! What do we do now?!”

“Shaman?” Zheng growled, her entire body curled around a hair-trigger motion, ready to sweep me off my feet and bundle me away from the bench and Badger.

“I know what I’m-” I tried to croak, but my throat didn’t work right. The words came out as a hissing gurgle, barely even human, and painful like a pulled muscle. Twil flinched from me in horrified amazement.

I swallowed, hard and dry and difficult, like I was unknotting my own trachea and vocal cords. I coughed, which turned into a convulsive choking sound, but then I drew clear breath once more.

“I know what I’m doing,” I wheezed, and sounded almost human this time.

Something whimpered.

It was only then that I realised I was using one hand to grip Badger by the side of his head, like a bird of prey with a rabbit’s skull caged in its claws – though my hand was much too small to complete the impression. He was paralysed with terror, eyes flicking back and forth between me and the pale giant, not sure which one of us was more threatening. When I met his eyes he whimpered again, slow tears tracking down his cheeks.

Mine, instinct hissed. My prey.

I elected not to let go of Badger’s head. Yet.

Perhaps I felt he deserved it.

The obese headless man was moving his mouth-hands back and forth like an obscene interpretive dance, slowly turning them to look at each of us, his flesh wobbling and sagging. A thick wet whispering began to fill the air as the lips of those mouths slapped together, slurping and rolling their tongues.

“Oh this is fucked up, this is so fucked up, this is fuuuuucked,” Twil babbled, her words mangled into a low growl by the shape of her wolf muzzle. She was shivering all over, fur bristling, panting hard, not her usual overconfident self.

“Stay still, laangren,” Zheng growled – but she was not faring much better, tense down to the last muscle. I’d never seen her afraid like this before.

Judged objectively, the headless giant was not half as weird or alien as most pneuma-somatic life. True, he was incredibly big, two or three feet taller than Zheng, and his flesh was unhealthy and pale in a way that made my stomach turn. But in the end this thing was just a very large man with no head or neck, and mouths in each hand. Hardly scary compared to some of what I’d seen on a regular basis since I was ten years old.

But there was something very wrong about this. About the rotten oats and old cheese texture of his grimy skin. About the nudity, which seemed intentional, an affront, a statement of power. About the sheer weight of cold flesh, as if he was a super-dense object, a black hole warping the space around him. About the meaning of those mouths. I felt as if I would understand everything if I only listened to that whispering, if I only leaned in close, if I only allowed him to bring his hand to my ear.

And he was absolutely not a spirit.

“This is mine,” I raised my voice over the whispers. “Mine. Understand?”

The headless giant turned both hand-mouths toward me. A tongue slopped forth, waggling up and down.

“I am quite sure that you are not supposed to be here,” I croaked. “And you are made of matter. Which means I can send you elsewhere. Whatever you are, I am certain I can find a place Outside that even you can’t endure. Leave, before I escort you out.”

The mouths in the pale hands curled into an answering pair of lascivious grins, drooling great thick loops of saliva onto the road. He raised one calloused leathery foot – and took a step backward. Step by lumbering step, he backed away into the wall of fog, his vast bulk turning hazy as the mist swallowed him up. The last we saw of him were the grinning red lips in his palms, until they too vanished beyond the greasy fog.

Silence returned. Several heartbeats passed. The dark rows of terraced houses pressed close.

“You think its buggered off? For real?” Twil hissed eventually.

“It waits,” Zheng growled, watching the fog.

“It’s gone for now,” I managed to squeeze out. “It didn’t like me. That’s what matters.”

My skin was coated with cold sweat, clothes sticking to me. I was quivering with adrenaline, but mostly with pain, dozens of small aches and spikes and prickling all over, to join the chorus of screaming muscles in my flanks.

I let go of Badger’s head at last, and he let out a shuddering whine, squeezing his eyes up tight and cradling his wounded hand.

“Yeah, no kidding,” Twil said, still all wolf and not the easiest thing to look at, crouched tight in a defensive posture, ready to bite and snap. “I’d shit myself and run too, if a girl made a noise at me like that.”

“You’re one to talk,” I croaked. “You growl.”

I scrubbed at my itching eyes and cleared my throat, but couldn’t seem to shift whatever was in there. I turned and shielded my mouth with a hand as I spat a wad of thick, glue-like mucus onto the pavement. There was blood in it. Straightening up again proved almost too difficult, triggering another round of deep-tissue jabbing inside my abdomen, like a fist clenched so long that the muscles had started to seize up. I clutched at myself and staggered, tripping over my feet.

Zheng caught me with one arm.

“I-I can’t- can’t stand up-” I clung to her.

“I have you, shaman.”

She did, but she didn’t spare even a second to look down at me. Zheng watched the fog, quietly alert.

“No complaints here though. It worked, right? Yeah.” Twil was already babbling, breathing too hard, her words mangled into a series of throaty growls. “Fuck, no way I wanted to fight that thing, like it was … wrong. I dunno, shit. I’m not meant to be scared by this sorta crap, this is what I was made for, this is why I’m, you know, a werewolf. I’m meant to stand up to this stuff. What the hell? What the hell was that!?”

Ooran juh,” Zheng purred.

“It wasn’t a spirit, not pneuma-somatic,” I said.

“Yeah, no shit. I could smell him,” Twil spat. “Like rotting cheese and stanky feet. How is it even in Sharrowford, just walking around?”

“I don’t think we’re technically in Sharrowford right now,” I said, trying to stay calm as I stared into the fog.

Twil squinted at me like I was mad. She gestured at the road, the houses, and finally at the glass and metal of the bus shelter.

“It’s just a feeling,” I sighed.

A broken voice interrupted us.

“He hasn’t gone away,” Badger said.

Badger was still sitting on the bus stop bench, hunched forward and cradling his wounded hand, curly hair matted with sweat, hood thrown back. He looked like a man at the gallows, utterly defeated and spent as he stared at the ground between his boots. He’d also wet himself, and under the circumstances I was not surprised. None of us mentioned it, though Twil did wrinkle her nose.

“Zheng is right,” he went on, thin and weak. “He’s out there, waiting. Always waiting. It’s started now, I can’t escape.”

“Then we’ll take you back to the house,” I said, firm as I could. I tried to draw myself up and ignore the dozen sources of pain stabbing at me. Twil shot me a frown. “Under guard,” I added. “We’ll tie him up.”

“We’re not leading Mister Blobby out there back to the house,” Twil said. “Not for this shit head. Heather, what are you on?”

“It’s the most magically defensible position in Sharrowford. I can hardly … question him,” I cleared my throat, “if that thing gets to him first.”

“There’s no point,” Badger said, regaining a little self-control, no longer mumbling with fear. He raised his head with what little pride he could muster. “I’m good as dead now. The Big Man can take me from inside a closed and locked room, you’ll see. Look, Morell, I’ll tell you anything you want to know, just promise to snap my neck after, pull my head off, shoot me, anything you want, just kill me, don’t leave me for him.”

“Yeah, sure,” Twil said. “But what the hell is he?”

Badger shrugged. “The real name hurts to say, makes your mouth bleed and your ears hurt. We just called him the Big Man, for short like.”

Twil huffed a snort, not really laughing, then nodded to me. “Ask him then. Let’s get it over with and get the hell out.”

“I can’t,” I hissed. “I need to … you know what I need to do. And I can’t do that here.”

Twil pulled a grimace.

“The shaman is right,” Zheng rumbled. “We cannot stay here. Look.”

Zheng extended a finger and pointed at the fog off to our left. Twil growled. Badger bit his lips to strangle a whimper. I stared for a second before I saw it, and then my stomach lurched.

A red-lipped grin in a pale hand, barely visible at the extreme limit of the fog.

As we watched, it retreated and vanished.

The Big Man – ‘Mister Blobby’ – had retreated only to circle around us, perhaps to find a weakness, or stage a better ambush, or simply to wait for us to get cold and tired. I doubted our human logic applied to the thing anyway. But I wasn’t leaving Badger here. Badger was my prey. I would have what I needed from him, but I couldn’t risk doing it here with that creature still stalking us.

“Alright.” Twil whirled back toward us. “I’ll sling Badger over my shoulder, and we make a run for it, back to the house.”

“Too late, laangren,” Zheng purred – and pointed the other way.

Another hand-mouth greeted us with a drooling grin, way back in the fog, from the opposite end of the road.

Twil’s eyes went wide. She mouthed ‘what the fuck’, as the Big Man’s mouth receded back into the mist once again.

He had every escape covered. Either there was more than one of him, or running past him wasn’t an option. Almost as if he’d heard us making plans.

“Badger,” I said. “This thing that’s after you, how does it work?”

Badger tore his eyes from the fog and stared at me, then swallowed in an effort to gather himself. He looked down at the wound in his hand where the mouth had been. The long shallow cut still oozed a thin trickle of blood, slowly pooling in the lines on his palm.

“You get three bites, and you have to land them all,” he said, wincing as he tried to flex his hand. “Three times, and then you’ve fulfilled your end of the contract, the deal, the agreement. We got it from a book. Well, from photocopies that Sammy made when she wasn’t meant to. You sign the contract in a dream, but it’s real. If you miss a bite though, if you don’t go through with it, then he owns you. That’s the terms. He comes to take you instead. Gets his pound of flesh in the end.”

“Okay,” I said. “And?”

“None of this tells us anything,” Twil hissed. Her werewolf form was rapidly unweaving itself, dropping away in shreds of translucent matter, leaving her mostly human once more. She kept the claws out though.

“But it might give Evee something to go on,” I murmured, and Twil shut up.

“First time, I bit myself.” Badger shook his head, grimacing, as he pointed at his opposite shoulder. I couldn’t tell through the shapeless lumpy hoodie, but he could have a dressing wrapped around his arm under there, bleeding into a pad of gauze and cotton wool. “That was the idea, see? Bite yourself, replace one God with another, then fill the contract anyway, and you’re free. Smart idiots we were. Thought we had it all figured out. But it didn’t work. He couldn’t take us from the … the … ” Badger’s head twitched in suppressed disgust. “The Eye.”

“I’m not surprised,” I said. “There’s more than one of you doing this?”

Badger’s face contorted, holding back tears. “Not any more, no. There was three of us what signed the contact. Me and the guys, Stibby and Dingle. I’d known Stibby since school, he was my friend, we … but no, it’s just me now. I had to bite Dingle, that was my second bite. He wanted to go back on the plan, so … he didn’t live through it. I didn’t mean to.”

“You mean you murdered a man,” I said.

Badger raised his eyes and gave me the worst glare he could muster, full of bitterness and anger. “I would murder this whole city to get the Eye out of my head.”

“Why’d you come to the house, hey?” Twil asked. “What the hell were you trying after this morning?”

Badger shook his head. “Last ditch attempt. Never seen your place before, Morell. Thought maybe I could … I dunno, shimmy up a drainpipe and sling Lauren over my shoulder? Stupid bloody idea. Even her brother could never control her. She’d have scratched my eyes out.”

“Very stupid,” I said, struggling not to give vent to cold fury. Nobody touches my friends.

“Then why pull the hand mouth thing if it’ll kill you?” Twil squinted at him.

“Didn’t wanna die,” he said. “Just wanted to get away. Figured maybe I’d bite myself again.”

“How do we get past the Big Man? How do we make him go away?” I asked.

Badger shrugged, utterly defeated.

“Shit, Heather,” Twil said. “Maybe we do gotta leave him here.” She held out a hand to stall my objections. “Hey, Badger. Edward sent you, right? Lilburne? How do we find him? Where’s the hell’s he hiding? Tell us that and maybe … yeah. Yeah.”

She glanced at me for approval I could not give. She couldn’t say the words either. Twil was good at fighting and brawling, but she wasn’t like Raine. She couldn’t kill an unarmed person in cold blood.

“I don’t know where he lives or anything,” Badger said, cringing with apology. “He says we’re contaminated. Deals with us through a fence, a middleman, a fixer.”

“Oh, come on!” Twil spat.

“We did get to see him in person once,” Badger added quickly. “So we knew it was really him, back from when the cult was together for real. The fence he uses is this guy, Adam Gore, a small time drug dealer, guy’s no big deal at all. We always met him in the Ostler’s Arms, off Station Road. You know the one? Anyway, second time we met him, when we were figuring out terms for the job, Adam says Edward wants to see us himself, to judge if he can actually help us. That was the deal, he was offering to help with the … ” Badger broke off and tapped his own forehead. “If we could snatch his niece for him. That was the price.”

“Interesting,” I said, colder even than I intended.

Badger swallowed. “Edward was in a back room in the pub, and we had to go back there one by one. And I know it was really him, I’d recognise him anywhere. Look for Adam, you could maybe get something out of him, I guess. Or the pub landlord must’ve been on it, with the back room and all.”

“That’s hardly any use,” Twil huffed.

“How many of you are left now?” I asked softly, trying to bargain with my darker impulses. We could kill Badger now, leave him here, if only I could snatch another opportunity, another one of these ex-cultists with the Eye’s tendrils lodged in their head. Nicole hadn’t rejected my request, yet.

But Badger looked at me with an ember of defiance. “I’m not telling you that. You’ll kill everyone.”

I blinked in shock, at the conviction in his eyes, at the vehemence in his voice.

“What?” Twil pulled a full-face squint at him.

“What- what- what do you mean?” I asked.

“Like you did the rest,” he went on. “Look, I get it, I made a choice to live to like this, but most of the others don’t deserve to be die. They’ve still got a chance. Maybe Edward really will help them, or maybe they’ll find another way. But if I lead you to them, that’ll be it. No, I won’t.”

“What ‘rest’?” I boggled at him. “What are you talking about?”

“He means the house,” Zheng purred. “The idiot wizards who thought they could bargain. The fire.”

“That was you people,” he said. “I’m not stupid.”

“Oh for fuck’s sake.” Twil rolled her eyes and huffed like the teenager she was.

“That wasn’t us,” I said, slowly and clearly. “They defied the Eye, tried to negotiate with it, and it killed them all. They killed each other. Went mad. We walked into a slaughterhouse, and yes we burned it, as a precaution. I’m sorry they had such horrible deaths, but it wasn’t us.”

“Sure, sure,” Badger said. “‘It was like that when I got here.’ Heard that one before.”

“If you don’t believe us, you can ask the only survivor. You can ask Sarika yourself.”

Badger froze. The faintest spark of hope kindled a frown across his forehead. “Sarry’s alive?”

“You dumb-arse,” Twil said.

I looked at him like he was an idiot. “It was all over the newspapers. Some other survivors from the cult even contacted her. How can you possibly have missed that she lived?”

“I … I thought … I dunno.” A strange transformation came over him. He took several deep breaths, tried to sit up straighter, pushed his hair back. Like an alcoholic after coming clean, his eyes seemed clearer. “I assumed you’d faked it somehow. Or done something to her. Please, please don’t lie about this. Sarry’s alive? Really?”

“She’s crippled,” I said. “But yes, she’s alive.”

Badger let out a strangled breath and had to blink away tears. He looked down at his wounded hand, then out at the fog.

“What am I doing?” he asked, voice gone tiny.

“Shaman,” Zheng rumbled. “Ooran juh will not wait forever. The net tightens.”

The greasy cold fog was beginning to creep beneath my coat, leeching away my body heat, and I could feel a shiver starting in my limbs. The hunt and the terrifying confrontation had gotten my blood up, but now we’d been standing still and talking for several minutes, and hunger still gnawed at the roots of my belly. The fog seemed to be thickening as well, obscuring even the nearest terraced houses. When I glanced past Zheng, we appeared to stand on a island of damp asphalt, surrounded by murky seas of infinity. The battered old bus stop was our only landmark.

“ … this isn’t natural,” Twil said.

At least the moon still hung untouched in the sky.

“Shaman, we were late to the kill,” Zheng purred. “You may have to accept that.”

“He has to come with us,” I said.

“Then we run for it,” Twil said. “Come on, what else can we do? You’ll get another chance, Heather, these idiots are out there still gunning for you, right? You and Lozzie?”

“I don’t want to die,” Badger said, softly, as if surprised. He wasn’t talking to us at all. But then he snapped together, blinking at our faces with a new and mounting panic. “I don’t want to die, but I can’t live like this. The Magnus Vigilator, Alexander’s fucking patron God, the Eye, it’s in my head, all the time. In every gap in my thoughts, any time I lose focus, between every word, it’s there. I can’t sleep without drinking half a bottle of vodka every night to drown it out. Every chance, every stray thought, it’s there, injecting the worst-” He paused and shivered all over. “The worst feelings ever. Always prodding me, prodding me, driving me forward like a slave, to find you.”

He jabbed a finger at me.

“Oi, off,” Twil snapped at him.

“I don’t even know how to send her back to it!” He shouted, voice swallowed by the fog. “None of us know anything. Maybe the cult did, when it was still together, but we literally cannot give it what it wants now! I’m fucking harmless to you.”

“Not to Lozzie you weren’t,” I said.

The flame of his anger guttered out in shame and guilt. He looked down, and winced again as he tried to curl up his wounded hand. “Kill me then. Don’t leave me for the Big Man. Zheng’s right, you should get out of here.”

“No,” I said. “You and I are going to make a deal.”

“I’ve told you everything I know.”

“I can remove the Eye from your head.”

When he looked up, there was no hope in his eyes. Badger did not believe me.

“I’m not doing this out of the goodness of my heart,” I said, and tried not to shiver in the gathering cold, leaning close into Zheng’s side for heat and comfort. I did my best to ignore the pain in my abdomen, and put strength into into voice. “I have very little sympathy for you, Badger. You were part of the Sharrowford Cult, and I don’t know the depth of your personal involvement, but you were one of the leaders after I killed Alexander. I should let Zheng pull your head off, but I need to operate on you to understand the Eye, to understand how it affects human minds, how it works. That’s what I get out of this. The Eye has held my twin sister for ten years. Understand? I need every scrap of insight I can get, and I will vivisect you for that knowledge, one way or the other.”

A glint of fear flashed back into Badger’s eyes. I swallowed and tried to dial down, taking a deep breath of the cold air.

“But I can try to minimise the damage,” I said. “Try to put you back together afterward. I can’t guarantee it will work. I might be able to sever the Eye’s connection, but it might kill you. Or it might leave you brain dead, or crippled, or give you any number of debilitating neurological conditions. Think of it as volunteering for a clinical trial.”

Badger shook his head in disbelief.

“She totally can,” Twil said. “She did it for Sarika once already, and she was way more screwed up than you, mate. At least you’re not flickering all over the place and stabbing yourself in the head.”

“Sarika’s situation was very different,” I said with a sigh and a sideways look at Twil. I was starting to understand why Evelyn looked at her that way sometimes. “The Eye had her held more tightly.”

“How?” Badger stared at me. “How can you stand up to something like that? I don’t believe it, it’s not possible. Look what happened to Alexander, and he was on his ubermensch power trip. He could shrug off bullets, and tell the Godlings what to do. Even he couldn’t control it, not one bit. What makes you special?”

“She is the shaman,” Zheng purred from above me.

I blinked at Badger’s incomprehension, and then I realised.

“You people never understood why the Eye wants me, did you?” I asked.

He shrugged. “Figured you pissed it off somehow. A ritual. Failed summoning. Or you belong to it, like us.”

I sighed. “No. No, you silly little thing.”

Goodness, I sounded like Evelyn.

“Wha-” His mouth hung open.

“Heather?” Twil went tense at my tone. Zheng let out a low chuckle.

“Did you never think to ask why I can send people Outside, why I can go there myself? Why I can stop bullets with my mind? How I killed Alexander? Or do any of the things I can do? Did you never ask yourself?”

“W-well you’re like Lauren is, back when-”

I shook my head. “Lozzie’s powers are not the same as mine. Do you know why?”

Badger looked at me now with the same dawning terror as when I’d screeched at the Big Man and held his head like a bird of prey.

“The Magnus Vigilator took me and my twin sister ten years ago, to the place it lives, and taught us to be a little bit like itself,” I told him. “I am its adopted daughter. If you could see me for what I really am, beneath this.” I pinched my own cheek. “You would go mad from the revelation.”

It was a miracle that I didn’t cringe as I said all that. Big scary Heather, ready to peel your scalp back and crack your skull and root around in your grey matter, but you can trust me because I’m like the other terrifying thing that’s in there already, and I haven’t yet forgotten how to be human. Not entirely.

Also the last part was a lie. Homo abyssus was not terrifying, it was beautiful. I hoped Raine would one day call me cute like that, tentacles and membranes and webbed fingers and feathery feelers and all.

Badger stared, wide-eyed. He must have thought me off my rocker.

“I’m your best hope,” I said. “And the best hope for all the others. Now, are you going to be my test subject, or do I have to put somebody else through it?”

Badger took a deep, shuddering breath, looked to Twil and Zheng for help – found none in Twil, and Zheng was watching the fog – and then nodded, slow at first, then very emphatically indeed. I had made him believe.

“Alright. Alright, but you have to promise me one thing,” he said.

“You’re not in a position to demand shit,” Twil growled at him. Badger flinched.

“Wait,” I said gently to Twil. “Promise what?”

“If it doesn’t work, I don’t wanna be a vegetable and still have this thing in my head. If you mess up and you put me in a coma or whatever, and you haven’t pushed it out, you have to kill me. Don’t leave me like that. Just make sure I’m dead. Cremate me. That’s what I want, if it doesn’t work. Okay? I don’t wanna go on like this, I can’t do it anymore. And I’m dead anyway, really.”

He raised his eyes past us, to the wall of fog. To my relief, the mist had rolled back a little in the last minute or two, revealing the dark windows and low garden walls of the terraced houses once more, though the combination of moonlight and orange street lamps served to create a strange optical illusion. The houses seemed to bend toward us, as if the buildings themselves were eavesdropping.

“The Big Man’ll get me,” Badger said. “Finish me off before he takes me behind the wall. Okay?”

“Behind the wall?” Twil asked

But Badger blinked at her, as if his words had made perfect sense.

“If I can remove the Eye’s umbilical, I’m certain I can tear up whatever contract you made with Mister Blobby out there,” I sighed. “You don’t get the easy way out. If I fix you, you’re going to make up for being part of the cult.”

Badger swallowed, nervous and still broken, but with a resigned hope in his face now.

Twil sighed. “Fuck me, Heather, you’ve got more mercy in your little finger than I have in my whole body.”

“It’s not mercy,” I said. “Killing him would be mercy. What I’m going to do could be much worse, and don’t remind me.” I pressed a hand to my abdomen, beneath my coat, trying to ease the spiking, prickling pain that suddenly worsened as I straightened up and looked out into the fog. “But I’m not going to perform complex brainmath out here, not with that thing waiting for us. Plus I’m freezing. I’m in bloody pajama bottoms because of this … this … ” I gestured at Badger. “Very stupid and rude person.”

Badger averted his eyes. Really, I thought? You came at us with intent to harm, to kidnap, and that makes you look down in shame? I felt like shouting at him.

“Let’s get you back to the house.” was all I said. “Under lock and key. Stand up.”

“Right, right you are,” Badger muttered as he awkwardly got to his feet, trying to wring out the wet patch from the front of his jeans.

“We’re really gonna do it?” Twil said, bouncing on the balls of her feet and limbering up.

“Maybe,” I said. “I think we should call Evee first, see if there’s anything she can do or recommend. She recognised the trick Badger pulled, she might know something useful, about how to avoid this creature.”

“Evee’s gonna go thermonuclear over this,” Twil muttered

“Then I’ll explain to her,” I said. “That bringing Badger back is … my … decision … ”

Like the tide rolling out, the fog began to peel away.

No breath of wind stirred the wall of mist. The air was still and silent, even as the fog flowed away over brick and asphalt, leaving behind a faint shiny layer of cold greasy moisture on every surface. As the road junction opened up and the terraced houses emerged in a ring around us, I began to breathe a sigh of relief, despite the unnatural weather phenomenon. Twil muttered a ‘thank God for that’.

But as the fog receded, the houses kept rising, and we discovered we had nothing to be thankful for.

Behind the first row of terraced houses was another row, higher up and arranged in a true circle, impossibly bent toward us like a scrum of listening giants leaning over the shoulders of their fellows below. And behind them, another row, further away and bending forward too. And another, and another, and another, climbing away from us as if we stood in the bottom of a giant amphitheatre the size of a city.

Twil’s mouth dropped open and she cowered like a terrified hound. Badger whimpered. Zheng growled in frustration.

The effect was dizzying, like an optical illusion to induce vertigo. The houses furthest away must have been impossibly large to be visible at that distance. If I tried to focus on any one detail I felt like a speck of dust, surrounded by millions of dark misshapen windows like empty eye sockets.

“What the fuck, what the fuck-”

“Oh no, no no no no-”

The fog raced away, sucking back through streets that ran at impossible curves up among the leering houses, the roads themselves twisted into a maze-like mess of switchbacks and loops upon the inside of a rising plane. As if the city had been transformed by a magic trick while we weren’t looking.

At the very limit of the city, miles and miles and miles away but visible as if looming over us down here at the bottom of this pit, the fog stopped, bunching and thickening against an unseen barrier – and then it flowed up and over and vanished at last, to reveal the wall.

Red bricks piled like dried scabs, drystone without mortar, hundreds of miles high in a ring that rose in every direction behind the houses.

Even Zheng had to lower her eyes with a pained grunt.

“I told you we weren’t in Sharrowford anymore,” I whispered.

==

“But you’re not Outside,” Evelyn said thirty seconds later.

“Great, yeah,” Twil hissed at the phone in my hand, keeping her voice low as if something might overhear us. “That’s a real consolation here, thank you very much. You don’t have to see this place every time you look up!”

Evelyn cleared her throat, distorted by interference on the line. “Calm down, look at your feet if you have to.”

“Look at my goddamn feet, she says,” Twil muttered. “I’ll look at your bloody feet.”

“You’re not Outside,” Evelyn repeated – and I wondered if only I could detect the hint of a tremor in her voice, as she struggled to cover her emotions with deadpan analysis. “Or we wouldn’t be speaking. If your phones work, you’re still in range of a cell service tower, which means you’re technically still in Sharrowford.” She paused. “Or still on Earth, I suppose.”

“Thank God for small mercies?” I asked

“Exactly,” Evelyn said.

I sighed heavily, clinging to Evelyn’s measured words to stop myself from panicking, and to Zheng’s arm to stop myself from sitting down on the ground with physical exhaustion and hunger shakes.

“So how do we get the hell out of here, huh?” Twil demanded, shooting glances down every twisted road and sneaking her eyes up at the looming, bent houses above us.

“I’m working on it,” Evelyn grumbled.

She was thumping about on the other end of the phone, rapidly leafing through books, twice breaking off from our conversation to shout orders or requests to Praem for specific objects from her workshop. In the background, I could hear a hurrying pair of feet, and I feared I knew exactly who that was.

“Heather,” Evelyn added quickly. “Is Twil going to hold herself together?”

Twil pulled the most exasperated, irritated shrug I’d ever seen from her, and shook herself like a wet dog, baring her teeth. Her face and hands kept flowing back and forth between human and wolf, betraying the level of terror she felt.

“We’re all going to hold it together,” I said, staring directly at Twil. “Isn’t that right? Twil, isn’t that right?”

“Sure,” Twil said. She did not sound sure.

“The laangren will be fine, wizard,” Zheng rumbled. “Concentrate.”

“Mm,” Evelyn grunted, whispering something under her breath, speed-reading in what sounded like Latin.

“Could this be some kind of illusion?” I asked.

“Doubtful,” said Evelyn. “There’s four of you, and you’re all seeing the same thing, yes?”

“Yes, of course, as I said.” We’d already compared impressions when describing the problem to Evelyn.

My eyes crept upward, to the rows upon rows of giant houses and the vast, heaven-scraping ring-wall in the distance. Each red brick must have been the size of a mountain. My head swam, dizzy at the scale and distances involved. The perspective was impossible, as if the whole world had been turned into a curved goldfish bowl, with us at the bottom.

This place did not look much like the real Sharrowford either. Except for the street corner where we stood, with the bus shelter and the old terraced houses, the vast buildings that marched away from us were too dark, too uniform in their grotesquery, greasy with soot and coal-dust that this city hadn’t seen for forty years or more. When we looked along the streets nearby, they seemed familiar, but as one’s eyes travelled upward, the perspective became impossible to endure without nausea.

It was also dead silent. No sounds of cars passing in the distance, no voices snatched on the night air. And no spirits. Not a single crumb of pneuma-somatic life. Utterly sterile.

At least there was still a familiar moon above us.

I’d seen worse Outside, in my nightmares and my Slips. This warped version of Sharrowford had nothing on the Library of Carcosa, and certainly not on Wonderland.

But the very fact it was somehow still Sharrowford was intolerable. We were lost in a place that should not be.

“Shaman,” Zheng purred, and her free hand cupped the back of my head, suffusing me with heat. I managed to pull my gaze back down to street level, shaking slightly.

“The city looks normal to us too,” Evelyn was saying. “Raine, look out the window again,” she called over her shoulder.

“Already done!” Raine’s voice floated back from deeper in the house. “Just good old Sharrowford out there!”

“Wait,” Evelyn said, bringing her voice closer to the phone. “Heather, you used the word ‘amphitheatre’ earlier, when you were describing the perspective.”

“ … so?”

“Are you absolutely certain this isn’t the doing of your theatrical friend?”

“Sevens? No. No, this doesn’t seem her style. And I only meant that as a metaphor. We’re not on a stage. Besides, abducting Badger for brainmath medical experiments isn’t an event she’d be interested in.”

Badger was not taking this at all well, though surprisingly his panic was more controlled than Twil’s. Maybe he was resigned to this as his punishment. He stood as close to us as he dared, keeping his eyes firmly on the ground and trying not to hyperventilate or shake too badly. He’d wrapped his wounded palm in the end of his own sleeve, wincing and hissing now and again whenever he tried to flex the fingers.

“Can you ask her for help?” Raine’s voice suddenly came across the phone, as if she was leaning over Evelyn’s shoulder.

“ … I’m sorry?”

“Sevens!” Raine said, breathless. “Ask her for help! Drama queen has to be useful for something, maybe she can chase off Mister Blobby.”

Evelyn hissed a wordless complaint.

I glanced about the road junction, careful not to raise my eyes to the wide carnivorous sky.

“Uh … Sevens?” I called out softly. “Are you here? Feel like offering some help?”

The silent city told no secrets. No shred of teasing gold edged out from around a window frame, no welcoming sunlight glow, no yellow ribbons.

“Nothing,” I said into the phone for Raine and Evelyn’s benefit. “Either she’s not here or she doesn’t feel like helping.”

“Where the flying fuck is here anyway?” Twil spat. “Can’t we just walk back to the house? I can see Notte Street from here. It’s right there! What if all the rest is just messing with our heads?”

“You stay exactly where you are,” Evelyn said. “Not a step further, not until I figure this out. I have the relevant passages right here, let me bloody well read them.”

“Twil,” I said gently. “There’s no spirits. We can’t hear any cars. I don’t think we can walk back to the house.”

“We are watched,” Zheng purred, blinking her eyes slowly at the end of each road like big cat. “That is where we are.”

“You know how this works?” Evelyn’s voice floated up from the phone.

“No, wizard.” Zheng sounded quite regretful. “I do not.”

“He wants me,” Badger said. The first thing he’d said in minutes. He pulled a horribly pained smile. “That’s how it works. This is all because I’m his, by right of contract. It’ll stop when … ”

“Should let the bastard thing take you then,” Twil growled.

“Do. Not,” Evelyn snapped down the phone, exasperated beyond proper sentences. “Do not let the-” She sighed sharply. “‘Mister Blobby’ abduct or eat or throw a bloody surprise party for that fool. Do not introduce more variables. We have no idea what that will do.”

“Hey, Heather, hey,” Raine’s voice shot back on the other side of the phone. “I’m coming to get you, I’m gonna walk-”

“Raine, no,” I pleaded. “Stop. Please. I don’t think you’ll be able to find us.”

“But hey, if I can-”

“Shut up, you oaf,” Evelyn snapped at her. “What are you going to do, stomp out there and twat the thing with your crutch? Sit down. I have the relevant passages right here now, let me translate.” Evelyn huffed a great sigh. “Heather, are you listening?”

“I am on the edge of my seat,” and said, struggling to stay calm. “Evee, please. We would all very much like to get out of here.”

“Right. First. Absolutely do not under any circumstances touch the wall. The big wall, that is. You said it was red?”

“I don’t think there’s much risk of us touching it, looks like it’s miles away.”

“Nevertheless.”

“No touchy wall, got it,” Twil said, nodding along. Clear instructions seemed to blow away the worst of her panic.

“Second,” Evelyn went on. “I suggest you all stay close together, but I hope that much goes without saying.”

“Duh,” Twil almost laughed.

“Of course,” I confirmed.

“Third,” Evelyn continued. “You’re going to have to cut each other’s eyeballs and tongues out.”

“ … what.” Twil blinked at the phone.

I went cold all over. “Evee?”

“Preferably with a rusty spoon. Make sure to get the entire optic nerve, and don’t stem the bleeding. Fingers must go as well, and you need to devour those, you disgusting sacks of rotting meat, but that’ll make it difficult to hang the apostate upside down by his feet and drain his blood into a bucket, so best do that first.”

Evelyn’s voice rattled on. Twil and I stared at each other. She’d gone white. Zheng started to growl deep in her chest. Badger just stared.

“Organs will come out last, but start with the lower ones, the kidneys and liver, don’t go straight for the heart because that will end things early. You thought you could get out by calling a friend, but you can’t, because I’m here now. I’m here. I’m right here, and so are you. Hello.”

The line went dead. My phone screen popped up a cheery little query about call quality.

“That … that wasn’t really Evee, right?” Twil asked.

“The wizard is irritating,” Zheng rumbled. “But those were not her words.”

I sighed, and tried to stop shaking. “I think that’s a safe assumption.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

a very great mischief – 13.10

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Abyssal instinct came roaring back.

I’d spotted Badger through the kitchen window, caught him in the act of sneaking through our back garden, unmistakable even beneath the ghostly moon and the distant backwash of orange light pollution, in his lumpy shapeless hoodie with curls of springy hair escaping from under the hood, frozen in shock about six feet from the gnarled old tree where Tenny’s cocoon had once grown. A fleeting glimpse, a quarter of a second – and a tidal wave crashed through my endocrine system.

Human adrenaline and oceanic hunting drive, the affront of territorial intrusion, the implicit threat to my friends, my pack, to Lozzie sleeping upstairs unaware, the sudden vibration in my arms and legs, the dilation of blood vessels, tunnel vision, hunger; all of it hit me before the others had time to react to my gasp.

A single aching heartbeat of predatory urge wracked me, body and soul.

I wanted to sprout tentacles, to fling myself headfirst through the glass and metal of the kitchen window, like a squid ejecting herself from a crack in the rock in ambush. Instinct provided a plan, a trajectory straight to Badger’s cranium, a crystal clear mental image.

Luckily, I was still me, and therefore still an exhausted wreck. If I’d been well-rested, less bruised, and perhaps if I hadn’t already attempted to mutilate and murder a person that very morning, perhaps I would have discovered that smashing through windows with one’s own body does not work like it does in the movies. I’d likely have bounced off and made a complete prat of myself. Even if I had managed to shatter the glass, I’d have covered myself in wounds and landed in the garden like a sack of wet meat. Abyssal instinct cannot make up for multiple lacerations from broken glass.

Guilt or willpower or weakness, all or one held me back for a crucial second, no matter how I drooled and shivered with desire.

And then my phantom limbs were whipping through the air, trying to grasp the edge of the table to hold me steady, lunging for the doorway to the utility room to follow Zheng. Even as psychological constructs, mental ghosts, their motion demanded support and response in the tension and flex of real muscles in my flanks – real muscles which I had abused to breaking point that morning, and which were currently a mass of bruises.

Incredible pain flared through my sides as the muscles seized up.

“Ahhhhh!” I cried out and almost fell over, losing sight of Badger.

For a few moments everything was chaos. I was clutching myself, panting and sweating with pain. Somebody caught me and held me up. My own name shot right past my ears. A growl, scrambling feet, shouting, the back door slamming open followed by a tiger’s rumble through a throat of granite.

That got through. Zheng was outdoors, going for Badger.

“N-no!” I ripped myself back up, eyes watering, and nearly pulled myself right out of Raine’s arms. “She can’t, she-”

“Heather, woah-”

“She can’t!”

The kitchen was bedlam. Twil span away from the window and raced for the back door as well. Evelyn was white-faced and stuck in a silent stammer, half-retreated toward her magical workshop. Praem was opening one of the kitchen cupboards for God alone knows what reason. I’d tipped over two chairs somehow and managed to knock an empty plate onto the floor, which had shattered across the flagstones in a dangerous mess of sharp fragments. Raine had her pistol in one hand, me in the other, crutch abandoned. She was putting her weight on the wrong leg.

And through the kitchen window, out in the dimly lit garden amid the overgrown grass and untended flowerbeds choked with weeds, I glimpsed the shadowy figure of Badger again.

The idiot hadn’t run.

This time he’d managed to open his folding knife without injuring himself. In a whirl of confusion as I was already turning for the back door, I saw him holding the tiny blade out in front, with his other hand curled in a defensive posture.

He knew what Zheng could do. He must have known she’d go through that like wet paper. He had seconds.

Which meant so did I.

“Heath-” Raine started to say my name, to hold me back. To be fair, between the pain in my sides and general exhaustion, I could barely walk, and Badger might not be alone.

“Help me!” I screamed in her face.

To her infinite credit, Raine understood me before I even understood myself. She didn’t argue. She jammed her shoulder beneath mine, which sent a ricochet of pain shooting down through my bruises and playing discordant notes across my nerve endings. I cried out through my teeth, but it was worth it, as she dragged me quickly along in Twil’s wake, into the darkness of the utility room and through the now open back door, beneath the massive hanging bulk of the spider-servitor which could not or would not go beyond the boundaries of the house. We burst out into the sudden chill and silvery moonlight in the back garden.

Badger was about fifteen or twenty feet away, just in front of the gnarled old tree. The grass at his ankles, green and verdant in the warming spring weather, was a blanket of sliver threads beneath the moonlight.

Twil was only a pace or two ahead of us on the little patio, teeth bared, head swivelling left and right to track for other threats in the thick shadows of the overgrown garden.

Zheng was about to pounce.

A savage grin ripped across her face at the prospect of a fight, her massive frame lowered and rocked back on one leg, tensing and ready to spring.

“Zheng, no!” I choked out.

She juddered to a halt like a stalled train, a frustrated growl between her teeth. One eye flicked back over her shoulder at me.

Badger, wide eyed and panting with terror, clearly could not believe this reprieve. Beneath his hood I could make out the whites of his eyes, his shuddering mouth as he heaved for breath, the cold sweat rolling down his face. Both his hands shook, knife held out before him.

Hunting instinct stirred in my chest once again, told me to rush at him, bring him down, hold him in place. Eat his brain.

I said no.

“Shaman,” Zheng rumbled, deeply displeased.

“Yo, Heather, what?” Twil said.

“I have to do it right this time,” I wheezed, as Raine raised her pistol to cover Badger all the same. “I have to do it right, to-”

Badger’s eyes flickered from Zheng to me. He wet his lips, and found the shreds of his courage again.

“Sod it!” he spat.

He brought his knife and his free hand together, screwed up his eyes in a grimace – and slit open his own palm.

None of us had expected that. Not even Zheng knew how to react.

“What the shit?” Twil said.

“Uh oh,” Raine murmured.

Badger drew rapid shuddering breaths through his teeth, holding his wounded hand low and clenched into a tight fist. A thick trickle of blood dripped between his knuckles, the crimson made black by moonlight, staining the grass beneath.

“Ahhhhhh, ahhhhh,” he hissed in pain. “Alright, yeeeeeeeah, ah fuck. Fuck me. There we go, there we go.”

He raised the fist, toward us, and began to uncurl his fingers.

We were all familiar enough with magic and paranoid enough to predict what this might mean. Twil tensed to leap out of the way. Raine twisted her body to shield me. I gasped as I scrambled for some kind of hyperdimensional equation to protect us, though I had no idea exactly what Badger had just done to himself. Zheng bared her teeth and was about to leap in front of his aim, when a sudden snap wave of cold washed over us all, sucking the breath from my lungs and the heat from beneath my clothes.

Evelyn stepped out onto the patio beside us, walking stick clicking on the stones, her scrimshawed thighbone held tight in one fist, breathing hard as her own magic took effect. Praem followed beside her, carrying a carving knife.

“Whatever you are trying to do, I have us all protected.” Evelyn snapped at Badger. “And you are doing it practically in public. There are neighbouring houses barely … across … ”

Badger finished opening his hand. Evelyn trailed off in shock. Zheng retreated a couple of paces, which made the little hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, and set abyssal instinct screaming warnings into my lizard brain. Zheng, retreating? Very bad sign.

“Siiiiiick,” said Twil.

A mouth had opened in Badger’s palm, where he’d cut himself. Thick red lips framed a set of discoloured teeth filed down to needle-sharp points. A tongue rolled out, lapping at the air, making slick wet noises as it rolled. Behind that tongue the interior of the hand-mouth was dark as the void, and seemed to extend back further than Badger’s flesh could possibly accommodate.

The mouth began to whisper, on the edge of hearing.

Badger grimaced at us, in obvious pain. His eyes flickered around, a cornered animal still looking for escape as he warded us off with this strange grotesque magic. Quickly, reluctant to take his eyes off us, he glanced over his shoulder at the garden fence, about another twenty feet behind him.

Abyssal instinct did not care about the strange hand-mouth. Did not recognise it. Abyssal instinct screamed at me to pounce.

“Bet that comes in handy,” Raine said with a laugh.

“What the hell have you done to yourself?” Evelyn snapped. To my surprise she sounded both offended and outraged.

Ooran juh,” Zheng growled with naked disgust.

“You know it too?” Evelyn shot at her.

“I heal any wound, any bite,” Zheng growled at Badger. “I am faster than you, idiot wizard, for that thing will devour you before it can touch my flesh.”

“Then why don’t you fuckin’ leap at me, hey?” Badger spat back at her, panting and glancing about, licking his lips. His eyes met mine. “Let me pass. Let me go. Come on, you tell them let me go, or I’ll-”

“No,” I told him. “You’re my chance to do this right. And you came here for Lozzie, I’m not letting you walk away.”

His grimace got worse, face screwing up in panic.

The whispering from the hand-mouth teased at my ears, the words impossible to make out, but somehow promising secrets if only I would listen closer.

“I don’t think we have an option, Heather,” Evelyn said. She lowered the thighbone and the cold snap collapsed like a bubble. Spring night wind whipped back in, ruffling my hair with invisible fingers. Evelyn sagged slightly and Praem supported her side. “Plus, he’ll be dead within hours anyway.”

“What?” I blinked at her.

“Yeah, thanks,” Badger said, dripping sarcasm. “Just let me go then.”

“How long have you been doing that, hm?” she asked him, almost pityingly. “Days, weeks? That thing will kill you. Never thought I’d see it in reality. What on earth kind of deals have you been making, you little fool?”

“Anything that might get the Eye out of my head,” Badger raged. “Screw you all!”

“No,” I muttered, trying to raise my voice. Raine understood, and helped me stagger forward a pace or two. “No, no, I can- I can help, I can-”

“And it doesn’t work anyway,” Badger went on. “Now let me past, at the door round to the front.” He nodded past the side of the house. “I’ll go, we can forgot I was here. Just let me go.”

But Zheng was already moving, sliding sideways to cover his one obvious retreat. Twil bared her teeth and raised her hands as ghostly wolf-flesh began to wrap around her forearms, turning nails into claws.

“Stop that,” Evelyn snapped at Twil, and the werewolf transformation halted, Twil blinking at Evelyn in surprise. “Don’t you go anywhere near him! And what are you thinking, transforming out here in public?”

“But- I- Evee, he-”

Badger took a step back.

“Don’t,” I whined at him. “I can help, I can, I know I can, I-”

Badger turned and fled. Stumbling, sprinting, he threw himself at the back fence, dropping his knife in the process. Feet kicking at the boards, hands hauling himself up, he scrambled for the top of fence as Zheng broke for him like a loosed hound. She covered the gap in the blink of an eye, moving fast as any cheetah, but he waved the hand-mouth in her general direction and she skidded to a halt, growling in frustration. He finally managed to get one leg over the fence, then fell with an undignified thump on the other side. A moment later we could all hear him running across the broken scrub ground, making for the nearest road on that side – Brickbridge Lane – or perhaps for one of the other nearby gardens.

Zheng crouched, tensed to spring, to leap the fence.

“Zheng, no!” I cried out.

I pulled myself free from Raine’s supporting embrace and almost fell over in the grass as I staggered forward, desperate in the grip of so many conflicting desires, clamping my arms around my middle as my bruises flared with pain. The damp grass soaked through my bare socks, chilling my toes. Zheng stalked back toward me with wild eyes and a growl in her teeth.

“He’s getting away!” Twil said. “What the hell?!”

“Yes, shaman,” Zheng rumbled, eyes boring holes through me. “What use mercy in the face of death? He stands as nothing before me, not even with the mark of the defiler in his hand, he-”

“It has to be me!” I blurted out at her, panting for breath. “It has to be me. You don’t get it, it has to be me.”

Raine caught up, limping slightly, and put her arm around my shoulders. “Heather, hey, hey, slow down. Let Zheng go after him. Zheng, you ready?”

“The shaman desires me not to go, little wolf,” Zheng growled, staring at me for a real explanation.

“Yo, dumb-asses, he’s getting the fuck away.” Twil backpedaled past, going for the fence, looking at us like we were all mad. “He gets to the bridge or back onto Bluebell, we’ll never catch him.”

But Praem strode right up to Twil and grabbed her wrist, held her firm.

“H-hey!”

“Stay,” Praem intoned.

“You are not going anywhere near that man,” Evelyn snapped at her.

“Oi, off!” Twil shook Praem free. In retrospect I’m certain the doll-demon let her go to forestall a fight, which was the last thing we needed right now. Twil turned back to Evelyn. “We’ve gotta track him, Evee, while these two figure what the hell they’re doing.” She thumbed at me and Zheng.

“If that mouth bites you, the wound will never heal,” Evelyn said. “Werewolf or not. In the worst case you will bleed to death. Understand?”

“Look, I won’t go near him, promise.” Twil held both hands up as she skipped backward toward the fence.

“And do not listen to the whispering!” Evelyn shouted. “Not a word of it!”

“I’ll track him only, keep my distance. I’ve got his scent, it’s easy. I’ve got my phone. Heather, yo?” She caught my eye and waggled her hand. “I’ve got my phone. Call me, I’ll be on his tail.”

And with that, Twil went up and over the fence in a flash, still dressed only in tshirt and jeans, vaulting like an Olympic athlete. She hit the other side at a dead sprint.

“Full moon’s gone to her idiot head,” Evelyn hissed.

Praem stepped back toward Evelyn, eyes up and alert for other cultists hiding in the corners, but the night around us was empty as Twil’s footsteps raced off into the city.

“I want you to catch him, yes, but you have to take me with you,” I was babbling to Zheng. “You have to take me too, it has to be me, I have to try, I have to.”

“Heather,” Raine said with a touch of steel in her voice. “You can hardly walk upright.”

“Then Zheng can carry me,” I said, colder than I intended as I shrugged off Raine’s arm. She staggered slightly without her crutch. “S-sorry, Raine, sorry! Oh, it has to be me.”

“You need to atone, don’t you?” Evelyn asked.

Raine’s eyes lit up. “Ah.”

I shook my head. I couldn’t lie, not to myself here, not with this. “I need to hunt.”

Evelyn frowned with exasperation. Raine laughed. Zheng grinned in sudden savage approval. I blushed hard and confused, the urge pulling at my chest and my tentacles, driving my legs into motion, a tingling at the back of my skull. Abyssal instinct was like a full-body itch I could not scratch. I needed to run, to propel myself through the night after fleeing prey, to sink barbed hooks into-

“Nature is red in tooth and claw,” Praem sung.

Evelyn side-eyed at her. “Yes, thank you.”

“I have to do it right this time,” I said. “I can do it. I can hunt without the intent to kill him, t-to vivisect him. This is part of me. But the violence this morning was not. That was a choice, it doesn’t have to be nature. I can offer him help, a way out. If he’ll take it.”

“Is this really the time for your personal redemption?” Evelyn deadpanned at me.

“It’s an opportunity to study how the Eye interacts with a human mind,” I stammered out quickly. “And if he’s going to die, if he’s so difficult to get near, Zheng can hardly disable him and bring him back to house. I have to go. It has to be me. It has to be. Nobody deserves the Eye.”

A huge hand descended onto my shoulder. Zheng’s grin split the night and my heart leapt like fire.

“Shaman, I will take you into any hell you care to conquer. The hunt is in you, we must move fast to catch this prey, but you cannot run. I will carry you.”

She started to turn and crouch, to let me climb onto her back, but Raine put out a hand and gave us a doubtful twist of her head.

“I won’t be able to keep up with this one.” Raine gestured at her left leg, at the way she was struggling to keep her weight on her thigh. To my incredible surprise she made no effort to hide her doubt and discomfort. There was no joke in her expression, no dawn of confidence. Only truth. “Heather, you’re wiped out already. You go brainmath, you’re liable to collapse, and I won’t be there to catch you.”

I had no answer to that. Not because Zheng could protect me, but because Raine wouldn’t be there.

“I will be,” Zheng purred. “I will keep the shaman safe.” Soft as velvet. I’d never heard her speak like that before.

Raine locked eyes with her. “She’s exhausted. Worn out. Hungry. You better not slip up, Zheng.”

“I will never.”

I grit my teeth in humiliated frustration, face burning as they spoke about me. Raine was right, but her words hurt me on a level she couldn’t possibly have known.

My flanks, my oblique muscles, my abdominal wall, all of it was bruised black and blue from using my tentacles for too long this morning, and the tissue damage ran deep. I was already dreading a whole week of recovery, of those bruises stiffening and turning green and yellow as they healed. My head was still thick with sleep despite the adrenaline and the cold night air, and I was hardly dressed for a nighttime jaunt, still in the tshirt and pajama bottoms I’d dragged on to join Lozzie in bed, with nothing but thick socks on my feet. My teeth were already threatening to chatter.

But bruises and muscle damage were only the tip of the iceberg. I was drained. Running on fumes. Despite a belly full of food, my body felt like it had been burning fat reserves for hours, to fill the void inside.

Manifesting my tentacles required so much energy, let alone maintaining them. I needed to pick myself up and go, Zheng piggyback or not. I needed energy, right now, but all I had was biochemistry, lugged around in this sloshing chemical factory of a body. Instinct said be a predator, but I didn’t have the physical form to achieve that.

I needed a power plant. A nuclear core in place of my heart, a fusion reaction in my gut.

And with that thought, I almost made one.

On my journey home through the deepest, darkest parts of the abyss, I’d clung to geothermal vents for heat and scraped pale slime off rocks for protein. I’d harvested every scrap of nutrition I could, and run it through metabolic pathways which weren’t even possible in our reality. In the absolute black of crushing pressure at the bottom of the oceanic wasteland, I’d often had to turn those pathways in on themselves, twisting like a mobius strip. None of that was possible here.

But if tentacles and webbed fingers and a hiss in my throat could approximate the perfect form I’d possessed out there, then a pneuma-somatic reactor inside my torso could approximate abyssal biochemistry.

In the same way my phantom limbs had first appeared, I simply became aware of it, as if it had been there all along. A trilobe knot of gritty muscle and thick tissue nestled deep in the left side of my abdomen, filled with honeycomb structures for glucose production, riven by crypts for enzyme transport, laced with sacks for lipid synthesis – and other structures for unspeakable processes, ones that had no proper home in a human body.

Heat, glorious heat like a banked fire, flooded up my side. And just for a second, that heat almost filled the merest fraction of the hungry void.

I gasped and shuddered and placed both hands against my abdomen.

“Heather?” Raine’s eyes went wide and she grabbed me by the arm. Zheng was up as well, ready to catch me as I stumbled back, blinking down at myself.

The trilobe organ wasn’t real, of course. It wasn’t even pneuma-somatic. Not yet. It was an image-ghost, a memory of abyssal perception imprinted on my human biology. A phantom limb. The heat wasn’t real, it was all in my head; pressing my hands beneath my tshirt proved my skin was just as cold as before. But the tentacles had started as phantom limbs too, and they were very much real when I made them so.

I didn’t actually make the organ real, bring it into pneuma-somatic life, let alone light the thing with the spark of metabolic fire. I had no idea how it would work. Making mistakes with additional external limbs was one thing; screwing up an internal power plant was a very different kettle of fish. For all I knew, I’d explode on the spot like a bomb going off. I’d be a headline item in ‘strange but true’ news by the following morning. ‘University student detonates in back garden, are drugs to blame?’

I stood there, staring down at myself and taking shuddering breaths as I realised the implications.

“The shaman is right, little wolf,” Zheng purred. “But she is also in crisis. Perhaps I should go alone.”

“No!” I blurted out. “No, no, I can do it. Raine, I can do it, I just … ”

Was it my imagination, or did I feel more energetic? It wasn’t possible. The organ was not real.

“I-I just thought of a way to … to solve the energy problem,” I finished, shaking my head. “But not right now. Raine, please, it has to be me to confront Badger. I have to do this, for myself, for the knowledge I might gain, the edge it might give me. Please, trust me, trust Zheng to take care of me. She won’t let me hurt myself.” I whirled to Zheng, still unsteady on my feet. “Promise?”

“Always,” Zheng purred.

Raine locked eyes with me for a heartbeat too long, and then laughed. She broke into one of those beaming grins, the ones she’d used one me when we’d first met, and leaned forward to kiss me on the forehead, both hands on my shoulders.

“Come back safe,” she said. “Good hunting.”

Her gaze flicked to Zheng, and some unspoken exchange passed between them as Zheng crouched down to offer me a piggyback.

“Wait,” Praem intoned, surprising us all. She turned her milk-white eyes on me. “Coat. Shoes. Phone.”

“O-oh,” I stammered, having forgotten the basic essentials in my rush to solve abstract problems. “I-”

Praem turned and marched toward the open back door, vanishing inside with a swish of her skirt. Evelyn glanced left and right. She looked so small and vulnerable with her walking stick as she stood suddenly alone in the moonlight, but then Raine stepped back to stand by her side.

“We’ll watch the house, and Lozzie,” Raine went on, “and check to see if Badger had any friends nearby. Right Evee?”

“Right,” Evelyn deadpanned. “Zheng. Zombie. Whatever the hell you you want to be called. Unlike Raine I do not place infinite trust in your handling of the most important-” She bit down. “You bring Heather back safe or I will empty your soul from your vessel like a carton of apple juice, I don’t care how ancient you are.”

“You will have no need to try, wizard,” Zheng purred.

“Keep away from the mouth in his hand. Do not get bitten. And don’t listen to the whispers.”

“I know, wizard.”

“That’s mostly for Heather,” Evelyn snapped. “Do. Not. Listen.”

I nodded vigorously. “I understand.”

Praem returned a moment later and I submitted to coat and shoes, suddenly aware of how I was beginning to shiver. No amount of phantom bio-reactor could actually keep my flesh warm. Praem also slapped my phone into my hand, the screen already unlocked and open on Twil’s number.

“Thank you, Praem, thank you,” I whispered, and made a mental note to hug her later.

“You are welcome,” she intoned.

As I climbed onto Zheng’s back and she looped her arms beneath my thighs, I looked over at Evelyn and asked the question which had almost slipped my mind.

“Evee, what was that mouth in Badger’s hand anyway? What was he doing?”

“Old magic,” Zheng rumbled before Evelyn could answer. “Blood-rot and corruption.”

“It’s a technique mentioned in several old tomes,” Evelyn said, tight and unimpressed. “Well documented, widely known, especially if Zheng is familiar with it too. But very stupid. He’s made a deal with … well, I shan’t pronounce the name out loud, it might hurt your ears.”

“You said it’ll kill him within a few hours?” I asked.

Evelyn shrugged. “Or days. Hours is more likely if he’s been doing it for a while already. This might be his last hit.”

Zheng straightened up and I suddenly felt very tall indeed, pressing myself tight to the heat pouring off her muscled back, looping my arms around her neck to hold myself in place. She turned toward the fence, and my stomach lurched with anticipation of the leap. But I twisted my head to catch Evelyn and Raine and Praem one last time. Raine shot me a broad wink and a cheesy grin.

“How will it kill him? Evee?” I asked.

“The owner of the mouth will come to collect the debt,” she deadpanned. “Let’s hope you find him first.”

==

Catching Badger was not difficult in the end.

As soon as Zheng leapt the back fence – a rocket-ship journey for both my heart and the pit of my stomach – and once I’d recovered and located my lungs again, I raised my mobile phone to my ear and called Twil, clinging hard around Zheng’s neck with my other arm.

Zheng set off at a loping pace, eating up the scrub ground and empty lots and darting past the few dark houses on this side of the road, heading for Brickbridge Lane. I struggled not to squeak; I was not used to moving so fast.

Twil answered the call in a rush. “Heather?”

“Yes, it’s me. Where-”

“I’m right behind him!” She was panting, still on the move. “Down Brickbridge, then left onto uh … the one with the big trees! We’re coming up on the roundabout now. He slowed a bit but then he spotted me, maybe, and he picked up again. I’m gonna try to corner him-” Her voice cut out as a vehicle passed by on her end of the call, and my other ear pricked up, hoping maybe I could hear the distant car, but it was impossible to pick out one sound from Sharrowford at night. “- but not until the bus stop, yeah?” Twil finished, then quickly went on. “Shit, he’s gone right, onto Sparrow Street, I’ll never find a spot out of view here. Hurry up! You with Zheng?”

“In a manner of speaking,” I said, then started relaying the directions to Zheng. But she didn’t need them. She’d heard every word.

“As the crow flies, shaman.”

And fly she did. Like the wind.

She’d been pacing herself while I was on the phone call, to allow me a moment to communicate, but as soon as she knew where we were headed, Zheng moved so fast it scared me. She took a direct route too, straight across the quiet road and plunging through the patch of scraggly woods, then up and over a brick wall without so much as a ‘hup’ of effort, flitting through the pools of street-lighting like a dragonfly. Down the embankment, then darting along the rows of terraced houses on Windsor Road, ghosting through Sharrowford at night like ball lightning. Spirits scattered before us, running into alleyways or vanishing over the rooftops, retracting tentacles and scuttling into drains.

For the first few seconds I kept my mouth shut and my head pressed to her shoulder, seeking solace in Zheng’s baking body heat down my front, with my guts lurching and my head spinning, scared that at any second I was going to slam face first into the pavement. What was I doing? How had I gotten myself to this point? Riding a demon through the night at speeds enough to break my neck.

But Zheng would never drop me. She’d sooner break every bone in her own body. She’d fallen much further with me, once.

As my mind was reassured I wasn’t going to end as a smear on the ground, something else woke up inside me.

It may not have been my feet eating up the distance, or my lungs pumping with effort, or my senses tracking our prey – but I was hunting. Finally, for real. And it felt so very good.

An electric tingle buzzed through all my senses, my brain on controlled fast-forward, the cocktail of adrenaline in my veins taking on a subtly different flavour. As I raised my eyes from Zheng’s shoulder, everything seemed sharper, the details stood out with greater clarity – the lichen on the walls, the marks on the pavement, the discarded food wrappers in the gutter. I felt the most bizarre urge to peel my lips back from my teeth, to hiss under my breath as if flushing out prey. I had to scrunch my aching eyelids up again when I tried to blink with membranes I didn’t possess, and I felt my phantom tentacles flex and ready themselves as if they they were tipped with bone hooks once more.

Zheng hurled herself around the corner into Sparrow Street, a huge shadow flitting along the rows of parked cars, and I hissed with glee.

I spotted the answering grin across her face, and mumbled ‘I love you’ into her shoulder.

It was impossible for our chase to go completely unnoticed, even on a Monday night in a residential area with nobody around. Perhaps Twil was an expert at silent stalking with her wolf senses and hunting instinct, but Zheng was seven feet of muscle moving at high speed. However she normally kept herself concealed was hampered by carrying me. No leaping on rooftops for her with me clinging to her back.

We didn’t confirm anything until two months later, when Raine found a post on one of the supernatural and paranormal internet forums she kept an eye on. Zheng’s run had been spotted that night, by a middle-aged man who’d been looking out of his kitchen window, at the exact moment we’d passed by. A huge blur in the dark, a glimpse of nightmare creature racing through the streets of sleepy Sharrowford, a monster here in England. Who’d believe it? Certainly not his wife, according to the forlorn forum post.

Who knows how many others spotted us but dismissed it, or never spoke about it, or couldn’t process what they glimpsed in the corner of their eye, out in the dark?

To be fair, it got harder to spot us once the fog rolled in.

Thick, soupy, grey fog, which sprung up out of nowhere once we hit the end of Sparrow Street. I assumed it had rolled in off the countryside, creeping through the gaps between the houses, just bad luck. The local pneuma-somatic life didn’t seem to like the fog either, and we saw fewer and fewer spirits, glimpsed vanishing into the haze. The mist turned Sharrowford into a ghostly vision around us as Zheng raced on.

Twil’s voice came from the phone in my hand. We’d kept the line open.

“Heather! I’ve got him boxed in!” she hissed rapidly when I pressed it to my ear. “By the old bus stop between Noreen and Hastings. Hurry! If you’re gonna do anything, this is the place, you can’t see shit from here, there’s loads of fog!”

We reached Twil seconds later.

She whirled toward us as Zheng loomed out of the fog at the corner of Hastings Road, half-werewolf with claws and fuzzy muscled legs and a snout, eyes wide and dilated in hunting mode. The sight made my heart hitch into my throat.

“It’s us!” I hissed over Zheng’s shoulder.

Twil blinked once at Zheng, and once at me. “Alright there, Master Blaster?”

“What?” I squinted at her, but Twil was already turning back the way she’d been looking, tense from tip to toe as she peeked around a corner of brick wall, at the junction between Hastings and Noreen. She was still panting for breath.

“Later,” she hissed. “Can’t take my eyes off him.”

Zheng leaned out too, and even with my own abyssal hunting instincts activated like aching salivary glands, it took a moment to appreciate what Twil had achieved.

“He’s stopped now that I’ve looped around twice to cut him off,” she whispered. “But he might break for it again. If you’re gonna nab him, do it now.”

Badger didn’t look boxed in at all, except by the tightly packed terraced houses in this more run-down area, some of them with boarded up lower windows. The three-way road was open in all directions, clogged only by the thickening greasy fog. But he’d stopped by a bus shelter, a shell of green metal with a few panes of glass left, the empty advertising panels caked with graffiti. Head up, eyes wide and swivelling all about, he didn’t seem to know which way to turn, chest rising and falling as he heaved to get his breath back.

He thought Twil was everywhere.

“Good technique, laangren,” Zheng purred with obvious appreciation.

“We gonna jump him together?” Twil hissed. “We can take him, both of us, beat him-” she glanced up at me. “I mean-”

“Put me down,” I said. “And we’re not going to jump him. I’m going to talk to him. Offer him help.”

“What?!” Twil boggled at me.

Zheng crouched until my feet touched the ground. I let go of her and almost fell over, my legs wobbly with adrenaline and twitchy anticipation. This was all so new, so fresh, a biological urge I’d never embraced before. My phantom limbs bunched and gathered, ready to spring forward, to pounce. I was almost panting too, but for a totally different reason.

“Heather, he was one of them!” Twil hissed. “Experimenting on kids and shit. And he just tried to kidnap Lozzie again, and you wanna help him?!”

“I’m not saying we let him go,” I whispered back. “I’m saying I’m not going to torture and dismantle him. Nobody deserves the Eye. We can both get something out of this.”

Twil blew out a breath, grimacing at me in painful doubt.

“But I’m going to try to help this time,” I hurried to add. “Not kill him. And I need you two to back me up. Flank me. Look scary.”

“Easy, shaman,” Zheng purred.

“Ahh fuck it,” Twil grunted. “Just don’t torture anybody in front of me, alright?”

“I promise,” I whispered.

We must have made quite a sight, stepping out around the corner into the middle of the road, wading through the fog. I went first, with Twil on my right and Zheng on my left, a pace behind me. Twil unwound her transformation, just in case, but I don’t think it made her any less intimidating under the circumstances.

Badger froze to the spot, eyes locked on me.

“It’s time to stop running,” I called out softly.

“Shit, Heather,” Twil whispered out of the corner of her mouth. “Maybe be less intimidating?”

I’d tried my best to make myself sound confident, to speak level and even and calm, as if to a skittish animal, but it was impossible. My voice shook. My entire body was gripped with an overwhelming urge to pounce, to grasp with my tentacles, to inject paralytic toxins and spin constricting webs and begin a process I could not even name.

Badger’s eyes darted left and right in panic – and he raised the hand-mouth toward us.

Needle-teeth clicked together twice but the fog soaked up the whispering. For a second I thought he was about to turn and run into the mist, and the urge to spring became almost overwhelming. I twitched, biting my bottom lip, on the verge of losing control. Twil started to growl.

But then Badger gave a huge sigh and dropped his arm. All the fight went out of him. My abyssal hunting urge guttered out, like a flame without oxygen.

Shoulders slumped, expression slack, Badger staggered the few paces to the bus shelter bench and sat down in a dejected heap.

“Uh,” said Twil. She and I shared a glance. Zheng shrugged.

Badger stared at the gruesome mouth he’d cut into his palm, with such defeat on his face, but then frowned up at us and waved his other hand at the rest of the bench like a grumpy teenager.

Without the guide of instinct, it took a few moments to organise my thoughts. Twil leaned close and whispered, “We’re right next to you. If he tries anything like.”

I nodded, steeled myself for the task, and walked up to Badger.

The moment seemed somehow surreal, the air and angles and silence all wrong, as if we’d stepped Outside directly from the streets of Sharrowford. No spirits lingered here, not a single watching eyestalk or lurking ghoul in sight. Moonlight filtered through the fog and mixed with the overhead glow from the street lamps. One would assume that silver and orange would wreathe the street in ethereal phantasm – but the fog felt heavy, pale, and greasy. The rows of terraced houses seemed too tall for this part of the city, and I had the sudden irrational impression of a wall of ancient houses closing up as the fog swallowed the roads.

Badger eyed the three of us, still panting to get his breath back.

He was a mess. Big, wet eyes more suited to a puppy than a cultist, and a hangdog face once built for smiling, but which didn’t smile much anymore. His curly dark hair and scraggly beard clearly hadn’t been washed in days, he’d put on a little bit of weight. He looked like he hadn’t managed a good night’s sleep in many weeks. He held the disgusting mouth-hand away from his own body, pointed at the ground. It seemed to have stopped whispering.

“I don’t care if you kill me,” he said as I stopped a few feet clear of him. “Just make it quick, alright? And if you’re gonna send me … Out make sure I’m dead first. Snap my neck. Zheng? You can do that, right? Come on, I never treated you badly, I never did anything to you.”

Zheng answered with a tilt of her head.

“Just don’t … don’t send me to Him,” Badger added, his eyes pleading with me.

“Him?” Twil asked.

Badger frowned and groaned. “Magnus Vigilator. Him. It. The Eye. Just fucking kill me already.”

“We’re not here to kill you,” I said. “Well, I’m not, at least.”

Badger managed to slump even further, like a building collapse. He rolled his eyes. “Well fuckin’ sit down then if you’re not gonna kill me, so I don’t have to keep looking up at you.”

I nodded. “Very well then.”

“Shaman,” Zheng purred in warning.

“Uhhh you sure that’s a good idea?” Twil asked.

But I stepped forward. I was not afraid of this broken man, or the teeth in his palm. I was a hundred times more frightening. I sat down on the cold plastic bench, smoothing my coat beneath my backside as I sat. Zheng and Twil hovered close, ready to leap in, but I shot them both a look to make my intentions clear.

Though I did keep a nice safe few feet between Badger and I. Beyond arm’s reach.

Badger stared at his hand, the mouth still turned toward the ground. I couldn’t see the lips moving anymore.

“Badger,” I said. “Or … ” I rummaged through my memory. “ … Nate?”

“How the hell do you remember that?” He frowned sidelong at me. I shrugged. “Just call me Badger. Only my parents call me Nathan.”

“Badger then. Badger, I need information.”

“Edward Lilburne sent us,” he said without hesitation. I struggled to contain my surprise at his instant surrender. “That’s what you wanted, right? The old goat had a job for us, another task before … ” His eyes went wide. “Oh … oh no.”

Badger straightened up, visible terror creeping through him like slow rot through dead flesh.

“What? What is it?!” Twil spat.

Zheng was suddenly turning every which way, staring out into the fog. “Shaman,” she rumbled. “We are too late.”

Badger had eyes only for his own hand. He turned it over slowly, shaking all over, his breath coming in short little gasps.

The grotesque mouth was gone, replaced by a shallow slash across his palm, still bleeding a thin trickle of crimson.

Badger squeezed his eyes shut in a grimace of such intense sorrow that I almost sympathised with him, with this man who had promised to cut Raine’s fingers off, twice tried to kidnap Lozzie, and was previously determined to send me back to the Eye. He hissed between his teeth in rising panic, tears running down his cheeks.

“Time to pay the piper?” I asked – though my own heart was pounding too.

“You want information?” he managed to squeeze out. “You best be bloody quick. Oh fuck, not like this, not like this!” He scrabbled for his knife – before recalling he’d dropped it back at the house. “Kill me!” he shouted at us. “Come on, fuck, don’t let me go like this, it’s not human, it’s not right. Please!”

“The hell is that smell?” Twil said, wrinkling her nose as she turned outward toward the fog. Bulges and eddies were forming in the swirling mist, around a dark spot which seemed to be getting bigger.

Shi zai chung wai de ren,” Zheng growled in Chinese. “Get up, shaman. We run.”

“Run?” I blinked at her in shock. Zheng, run? “No, we can’t, not now. Badger, Edward sent you, but where is he? Where did-”

But Badger was insensible, arms wrapped around himself, staring out at the fog, hyperventilating. His legs were vibrating against the plastic bench, as if he was desperate to move but fixed in place.

“Shaman!” Zheng reached back for me without taking her eyes off the fog. “This is beyond me. We are too late to the kill. Leave him.”

“Oh no,” Badger murmured.

A figure lumbered out of the fog.

Perhaps it had been human, once. Or perhaps it was simply failing to imitate a human.

Greasy pale flesh the colour and texture of rotten oats, hugely obese, with massive slab-like feet, hands as big as dinner plates, and shoulders wide as a car. Impossibly tall, nine or ten feet in height, a tower of pallid meat. Naked, completely naked and hairless, and there was something obscene about that, something intentional.

It had no head or neck. No facial features anywhere – except a drooling mouth in the palm it raised in silent greeting.

“Shaman, up!” Zheng roared, and pulled me to my feet.

The pale giant took a lumbering step toward us, and Badger screamed.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

a very great mischief – 13.9

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Everybody should experience being tackled to the ground, at least once. Preferably with a soft landing.

Perhaps not ‘being tackled to the ground by your werewolf friend only seconds before you maim or kill a person who (probably) does not deserve to die’. That part was all on me.

It is quite the humbling experience. Twil hit me from behind, shoulder ramming into the base of my ribs, arms looping around my middle, head tucked against my side. The impact knocked the wind out of me and scrambled the inside of my head before we even hit the ground. All one’s plans and thoughts get shaken apart like a snow globe. A hundred pounds of meat and muscle has slammed into you, so the brain drops back to basic survival instinct. Doesn’t matter if it’s your friend hitting you, doesn’t matter if you have a rugby ball in your hands, or six additional limbs tipped with pads of rotating bone hooks, everything stops and restarts from cold. It’s like being switched off and on again.

Which was exactly what I needed.

I went down face first in a tangle of limbs. The ground wasn’t too hard this time of year, not yet baked solid by summer sun, so the worst I got was a bruise on my chin and grass stains down my hoodie. My pneuma-somatic limbs and human arms alike lay stunned. Felt like minutes but it was only a second or two, as I lay there panting for breath and blinking at the grass suddenly so close to my face.

Twil knew what she was doing, and didn’t take any chances. She quickly let go of my midsection, sat up, planted her weight firmly on my backside, and pinned my shoulders to the ground.

“Er … Heather, right. Stay down, yeah?” she said.

My tentacles twitched and slapped at the ground. One of them followed a still-stuttering half-thought and reached forward for the boots of the ex-cultist woman in my peripheral vision.

“I can still-” I panted.

“Heather, fuck,” Twil grunted through her teeth. “Stay down.”

“ … okay.”

Predatory instinct and abyssal euphoria guttered out to almost nothing. I was in shock, at myself. If Twil hadn’t hit me that hard, would I have turned on her? Would I have tried to fight her too? Had I really been about to do the unthinkable?

Twil hadn’t actually hit me that hard, which probably saved me an injury. She hadn’t needed to run particularly fast to catch up, still well within normal human limits. No amount of abyssal instinct nor any number of additional limbs could overcome the fact that I was five foot nothing with a stride to match, and possessed the leg muscles of a medieval scribe. Raine could have caught me instead, if she hadn’t been slowed by her crutch; Lozzie could easily have matched me too, though she might have struggled to keep me pinned to the ground as Twil so easily did. By any reasonable standard I had taken a relatively long time to cross those fifty feet which had separated me from my cowering, wide-eyed, ex-cultist prey.

Which raised the question – why hadn’t she run?

I was too winded and too horrified at myself to realise the implication. Twil was too busy keeping me pinned to think of asking. Raine and Lozzie were two pairs of footsteps still hurrying across the grass to join us.

“Oh sh-shit,” I heard the ex-cultist stammer. She stumbled back, almost tripping over her own feet.

“You stay right fuckin’ there,” Twil growled at her – really growled, deep and low and dangerous, reverberating in her chest. To hear that so close, while pinned to the ground, was not a fun experience. Ancient ape instincts screamed warnings about predators. My bowels clenched up and my heart threatened to burst from my chest.

The Eye Loyalist was panting almost as hard as me. Sideways in my peripheral vision, framed by towering clouds in the void of blue sky above, I saw her shake her head.

Then, suddenly, Lozzie filled my vision, all pastel colours and floating strands of wispy blonde hair. She was on her knees in an instant, face right up to mine. A few remaining diminutive spirits clung to her poncho and shoulders, but they fled and scattered rather than stay close to me.

“Heathy, Heathy, it’s okay, no, no-no, it’s okay,” she whispered.

One of her hands went to my cheek, but the other went to one of my restless tentacles, quickly sliding up and along on a collision course with the pads of razor-sharp rotating hooks. Lozzie’s soft skin versus pneuma-somatic bone. There could be no contest; I retracted the hooks completely before she reached them. I folded them back below the pale luminescent flesh, put them away, and unmade them.

“Good girl,” Lozzie whispered for my ears alone. She was smiling, but it did not look easy.

“Oh God, oh fuck, oh fuck,” the ex-cultist was saying.

“Run and I’ll shoot you in the back,” Raine said.

I would have rolled my eyes at that, but I was too busy freaking out.

Raine spoke not a single decibel louder than normal, but somehow her voice cut through all indecision. I couldn’t see her from on the ground, but I knew she was a pace or two behind us.

Twil twisted round on top of me. “In public?! You fucking mad?!”

“Heather,” Raine said, “you okay? Lozzie said you have your tentacles out.”

“She’s an Eye cultist,” I panted, trying to twist my head to see Raine. “She is. I- I know it. She is!”

“Okay, I believe you. Are you okay?”

“I did it as gentle as I could,” Twil said.

“I’m … I’m … ” I managed, throat closing up, face burning. “I-I won’t … I won’t- I won’t hurt … I-”

“Let her up,” said Raine.

“You sure?” Twil asked.

“Yeah. And thanks, Twil. I mean it. Let her up.”

“Sorry Heather,” Twil mumbled as she let go and stood. She reached down to help me up.

But the second her weight was off me, I was already lurching to my feet, pneuma-somatic tentacles pushing me up, one hand in Twil’s, the rest of me wobbling into Lozzie’s arms. I was still panting, half with panic, half from the sprint, my face burning. The Eye Loyalist gasped and flinched back, as if afraid I was going to touch her.

Sensible woman.

Horror and guilt mingled into a sickening cocktail, spiced with abyssal euphoria. With my tentacles still manifested, I still felt inherently, elementally right, despite what I’d almost just done. I could not reconcile myself. I felt like I was about to fly apart. I hiccuped and panted, with nowhere to turn.

But none of us had time to think, let alone wallow in guilt.

“Want me to take her now?” Twil growled between her teeth, locked onto the ex-cultist lady.

“Wouldn’t risk it,” Raine said, low and soft, nodding at the little metal cylinder the woman was still holding out toward us in one shaking hand. “What’s that you got there, a pipe bomb?”

Now I was more than a guided missile of tooth and claw, I saw it clearly – a steel cylinder about the size of a commercial glow-stick, with a cap on either end. The middle was decorated with a trio of pronged symbols that made my eyes itch.

The ex-cultist, the Eye Loyalist, the lady who’d been watching us, the human being I’d been about to vivisect and devour, she was right on the edge of her own sanity, holding herself from the precipice by sheer willpower. She looked as if she’d been awake for a week straight and hadn’t eaten in a month, eyes bloodshot and ringed with dark bags, gaze darting between the four of us at high speed. Her complexion was almost grey beneath her dark skin, face gaunt with short term malnutrition. Her hair was pulled back in a long, unwashed, greasy ponytail, though her clothes were clean. Her breathing shook with adrenaline. She had no idea how to hold the penknife in her other hand.

“Heathy,” Lozzie whispered, and I blinked in surprise as a small hand squeezed the base of one of my pneuma-somatic tentacles. “Heathy you have to put them away put them away before you get tired and fall over, you have to put them away-away. Please please please. For me.”

Lozzie was right. I was burning through my energy reserves. A minute or two left, at most, before I crashed out.

“This wasn’t meant to happen, wasn’t meant to happen,” the Eye Loyalist babbled.

“Fuckin’ ‘ey,” Twil grunted. “How about you drop your shit and I won’t break you in half?”

“A lot wasn’t meant to happen,” Raine said. “Lower whatever that is and we’ll have a nice little chat, okay? We just wanna know why you’re watching us. Maybe this is all a big misunderstanding. Maybe you were just here by chance. Come on, we’re all in public. Somebody’s gonna walk by any second, or somebody’s gonna spot us doing this. Lower the weapon. We ain’t gonna hurt you.”

“How does that jive with ‘run and I’ll shoot you in the back’?” Twil grunted.

“S’just how I roll,” Raine said.

The cultist swallowed hard and wet her lips, like she was about to say something. But then her eyes flickered past us, to the left and the right.

She made no attempt to hide the glance, no effort to be subtle. She wasn’t trained, or experienced, or the least bit capable of what she’d set out to do today, and it was that glance which convinced me. She’d held her ground before me not with courage, but with exhaustion and lack of options. Abyssal instinct dismissed her in that moment, read her as a liability to her own cause, a floundering pup. She was a normal person, who had once led a normal life, and no idea what she was doing.

Neither did the other two.

They closed on us from behind, at diagonal angles, forming a rough triangle with the young woman. That was the only competent thing they’d done, watching us from three equidistant spots.

Lozzie clamped herself to my side and clung onto my arm. She was shaking like a leaf. My tentacles hugged her close on pure instinct, while the others threw up a warning display. Of course, nobody but her and I could see that.

The second Eye Loyalist was already quite close. He drew to a stop about twenty paces away. He’d probably been waiting back among the trees that lined this side of the park. A black gentleman, perhaps in his fifties or even sixties, with greying hair but built solidly the way a lifetime of casual exercise does to a person – but he was drained inside, eyes exhausted and face sagging with incredible stress. He wore a dark green raincoat and had one hand in a pocket, pointing something at us without revealing it, but his expression did not communicate threat. Wide-eyed, cold sweat rolling down his forehead, his other hand raised in a placating gesture. He was absolutely terrified, even more than the young woman, and it did not take a rocket scientist to figure out why. They shared an obvious family resemblance, in the eyes and mouth and jawline.

A third ex-cultist jogged across the grass from the other side, and skidded to a halt.

He looked like a slightly aged-up version of a stereotypical teenage drug dealer, with little twists of dark hair escaping from under a beanie hat. Shaking inside a lumpy hoodie, a closed folding knife held in both hands in front of him, he clearly had no idea what to do – except lock eyes with me in exasperated mutual recognition.

Even with his face covered in scraggly self-neglect beard growth, the animal impression was as strong as it had been at the top of Glasswick Tower.

“Badger?” I blurted out.

Badger just sighed.

“Fuck!” Twil spat.

“Woah, woah,” Raine said, holding up her free hand, addressing everyone as she stood tall even with her crutch. “Let’s not get too close, yeah? Let’s all keep this nice and cool.”

The older gentleman began to nod.

“Screw cool, man,” Badger said to him, voice shaking, manic and almost spitting his words. “We gotta get this done, right now, man, we gotta get this done.”

“Hey, you, badger-face,” Raine said, sudden and sharp. “I remember you, from that house, with the rest of the cult. You made it out, right? Smart man. You wanna be smart here too, this isn’t worth your life.”

“My life’s in the shitter,” he hissed back, then glanced to the older guy. “What do we do now, dude? Richie, come on, what do we do?”

“Nothing,” the older gentleman – Richie – said, voice strained to absolute breaking point. Cold sweat rolled down his face and he almost seemed to be struggling to breathe. “We do nothing. Okay?” His eyes flicked to the young woman – his daughter, his niece, granddaughter? “Why aren’t you running?”

She just shook her head, wide-eyed. “I-I … ”

“If she runs, I’ll shoot her in the back,” Raine repeated, casual as talking about the weather. She slipped her free hand inside her jacket and pointed something at the woman – her fingers or her handgun, I couldn’t tell.

Richie gritted his teeth and glanced left and right – checking to see if other people were too close to us – and then showed the edge of what he was gripping inside his raincoat pocket. A revolver. The sliver of revealed metal almost looked rusty. He shoved it back in his pocket and pointed it at Raine again.

“You do that,” he told her, voice shaking. “And I’ll shoot you too. Swear to God, I will do it.”

“Any of you try anything, I’ll rip your fucking heads off!” Twil growled.

“Who the fuck is she?” Badger nodded at Twil.

“I have no idea,” Richie said between clenched teeth.

“You can’t shoot Raine,” I spoke up, then hiccuped once, “because I can stop bullets.”

Badger and Richie shared a glance. Badger nodded. Richie drew a hand across his face.

“That is true,” Richie said. “We- we know that’s true. She can. She’s done it before. Look,” he said to us. “Look, we’ve made a mistake-”

“Mistake?” I hissed, anger mounting, outrage barely kept in check, abyssal instinct beginning to scream at me to pull these people apart where they stood. “You’re still doing the Eye’s bidding, like Saturday morning cartoon villains. You came here to kidnap me and send me back to it and you don’t even know what you’re doing.”

Richie and Badger shared another glance. Something was wrong. Raine shifted her footing, and I could feel the violence approaching.

“There’s no need for anybody to die here today,” Richie said, making a placating gesture with one hand. “Let’s just-”

“Bugger this,” Badger spat. He fumbled to open his folding knife, but only managed to cut himself in the process, yelping and shaking his hand. He sucked on the tiny wound, grimacing.

“You gotta press the little release catch,” Raine pointed out. “Then the blade is free to move. And don’t pull it open toward your body.”

Badger scowled at her, then down at his knife, then shoved it in his pocket. “Richie, we can do this right now. Come on, man,” he said.

Richie shook his head.

“We could!” the young woman piped up. Too close. I rounded on her, a hiss in my throat.

“Don’t let her touch you!” Richie called out.

The ex-cultist lady tripped back and almost went sprawling in the grass, stumbling and righting herself like a woman before a rabid dog, biting down on a scream. She waved her tiny pen-knife in front of herself to ward me off.

“Hey, hey,” Raine raised her voice. “We’re in public, in the middle of Yare park, in broad daylight. The university’s right there,” she pointed, “and there’s plenty of people within shouting distance. One of us starts screaming, this is done. And if you still wanna rumble while there’s people watching, we can make bodies vanish with no fuss. Heather’ll just send you Outside.” She nodded at me. “Who’s going to believe a witness claiming three people just vanished into thin air?”

“Yes,” I hissed – and realised I was almost at the end of my reserves. A hollow space was forming inside my chest, a spiritual abscess, even as adrenaline pulsed through my arteries.

“She can’t get us all,” Badger said. “Right? Right? All we need is to grab her and reach the car.”

“You’ll never get there, dickwad,” Twil growled at him. He flinched.

Raine made eye contact with Richie, who had spoken the most sense so far. “I’m gonna let you leave. Back away, right now.”

“Dad,” the young woman whined. “We can’t. We can’t! I can’t do this anymore.”

“You promise you won’t come after us?” Richie’s throat bobbed. His eyes flicked to the young woman.

Raine took a beat to answer – a beat too long, because Twil got there first.

“Fat chance,” Twil growled.

“Come on then, dude, we do this, right now, right now,” Badger said, trying to work himself up.

“We’ve fucked up, mate,” Richie said. “Just run!”

Badger, sweating and shaking at the end of his rope, did just that. He broke and ran – straight at me.

Richie swore and drew the revolver from his pocket.

I got halfway into the dripping molten fragments of a physics-breaking hyperdimensional equation at the speed of thought, before I realised the gun was a bluff. The weapon was a rusted shell, didn’t even have a cylinder. Richie levelled it just long enough – the blink of an eye – to give cover for his daughter to pick up her feet and run. Raine was still in the process of half-drawing her own weapon when Richie broke and ran too, sprinting back toward the tree-line and the edge of the park.

Twil jerked one way – after her fleeing prey – and then the other, in the split-second that Badger bore down on us.

Reeling from aborted brainmath, with sudden nosebleed running down my face, energy almost spent, I whirled my tentacles to face him. I thrust Lozzie away too, clear of whatever he was going to attempt.

Madness, sheer madness that he’d even try to grab me. The moment he made contact I would send him Outside.

But then he veered, almost tripped, corrected his course. He wasn’t aiming for me at all.

He was going for Lozzie.

I think Lozzie tried to Slip, on instinct, like a bird trying to take flight and discovering the stubs of its own wings. Her eyes unfocused and this horrible shiver passed through her, a spasm that started in her head and shot down her spine, as if she was about to suffer a epileptic fit. But of course, she couldn’t go. Instead she screamed and scrambled back toward me and I felt like such an idiot for pushing her away. Abyssal instinct responded with new hooks of bone and a hiss to shatter glass and was I fully prepared to rip Badger’s arms off and pop his head like a grape and-

And Twil’s fist caught him in the jaw. Span him over like rag doll. He went down very undramatically, and somehow lost his beanie hat in the process.

Lozzie slammed into my side and stayed there, clinging on tight.

“That’s what you get, shitface!” Twil swung at Badger again as he scrambled to his feet, knocking him in the ribs as he scrabbled for the knife in his pocket. He managed to draw it, but Twil knocked it from his hands and he staggered back, blinked at her twice, then turned and ran.

Twil let out a growl and sprinted after him – but she got less than three paces.

“Twil!” Raine snapped – hard and angry, not like her usual self. “Stop.”

Twil obliged, skidding to a stop like a cartoon.

“But he’s-”

“Raine, no!” I blurted out in panic, burbling through nosebleed and the urge to vomit. “We need one of them. Twil, get him!”

“We need to move, right now, people are going to start asking questions,” Raine said quickly, nodding at distant figures in the park. Richie and his daughter were already gone, but a jogger on one of the pathways had stopped running, and was looking our way with his hands on his hips. The day-drinking student picnic were all looking in our direction as well.

“We have to go home, and we have to walk there,” said Raine. She crossed the few paces to me as I wobbled and blinked and felt my tentacles beginning to collapse, my energy running out.

“Then go!” Twil said. “They’re getting away!”

“They are!” I said. “They- ahhh, oh, aahhhh.”

The pain started in my sides, tentacles collapsing into pneuma-somatic ash from the tips downward. Lozzie shivered and whimpered, clinging to me, and that was the only thing which kept me on my feet. Raine grabbed me under the arm, lent me her support.

“I’m on a crutch,” she said to Twil. “Heather’s about to collapse. That might not have been the last of them. I need you to help.”

Twil glanced after Badger, who was almost at the little turn where the pathway vanished around a copse of trees. Another twenty seconds and he’d be at the park gates, and then out into Sharrowford’s streets. Twil grit her teeth and made a huffing noise, a hound straining on her leash.

Lances of pain stabbed into my sides, muscles seizing up as the tentacles’ support structures pulled themselves free from my flesh and fell away into nothingness.

“No … ” I whined through my teeth.

“What are you gonna do if you catch him?” Raine said quickly. “Beat answers out of him in broad daylight? Don’t run off, Twil.”

Twil finally sighed and nodded, the tension flowing out of her as she shook herself, standing down. “Shit, yeah, okay. Let’s get you all home first. Shit.”

With the last of my energy, with the ghost of a tentacle, merely phantom limb once more, with tenderised muscle and shredded cell walls and bruised ribs, I reached out toward the distant fleeing figure of Badger. He ducked around the trees and put himself beyond our power to catch.

Then the edges of my vision throbbed dark. I keened between my teeth at the pain in my torso, and almost passed out.

==

Lozzie cried for hours.

She held it together until we got back to the house, sniffing and wiping at her red-rimmed eyes, doing her best to add her attention to Raine’s and Twil’s as we hurried home. I was no good, Twil practically had to carry me, and it was minor miracle that nobody paid us too much attention, what with my nosebleed and the fact I could barely work my legs and the one time I had to stop along Bluebell Road to vomit into the gutter.

But as soon as we got home, as soon as the door was locked and Raine was calling Evelyn at campus to tell her what had happened, as soon as Zheng appeared at the merest hint of my pain on the air, as soon as Twil zipped about the house checking the locks, Lozzie broke down crying.

She retreated to her bedroom, with Tenny, and buried herself under the covers, crying into her pillow. Even exhausted and bruised and aching inside, I insisted on seeing her as soon as Raine had helped clean my face and forced me to drink a pint of water.

Perhaps Lozzie’s distress kept me together. Perhaps it was easier to think about her than myself.

I stroked her hair as she sobbed into her pillow, at the end of my own energy too, tender and aching and with the ghost of bile in my throat, Raine half propping me up. Tenny sat on the end of the bed, po-faced and lost and not quite understanding. After an hour Lozzie finally calmed down and slipped off into an uneasy sleep, the only escape still open to her. I went down too, dragged under by exhaustion and a helping from Evelyn’s stash of painkillers.

“You keep her company,” Raine murmured, kissing me on the forehead as she tucked a blanket around my shoulders. “You need rest too. Don’t worry about anything, we’ll keep watch.”

“But … ” I mumbled back through sleep and pain. “But Twil’s … if she finds … ”

“If Twil drags anything back with her, I’ll wake you. Promise.”

The next eight hours descended into a blur of animal instinct and shared body heat and stiffening bruises that denied me any true sleep. I’d kept my tentacles active far too long, drained myself right to empty, and painkillers could not fight every twinge and ache as the bruises set in. I curled around Lozzie as her big spoon, and tried not to move too much, drifting in and out of consciousness.

But some hours later Lozzie got up to go to the toilet, and I woke to find myself wrapped in Zheng’s arms instead, soaking in her ambient body heat. Her hunt must have come up cold. Tenny was nowhere to be seen either. When Lozzie didn’t return, I pulled my aching carcass from between Zheng’s arms and out of bed, hissing pain between my teeth.

“Rest, shaman,” Zheng rumbled. “You are spread thin.”

“Lozzie’s been too long,” I slurred.

Zheng did not argue further. After a sleep-addled stumble through the unlit upstairs hallway while the house brooded in shadows, we found Lozzie huddled on the bathroom floor. The moment we saw her she did that little shake again, the unfocused eyes and the shiver in the head that told me she was trying to Slip.

But she couldn’t. Still restrained by the ghostly dead hands around her ankles, the grasping of a hyperdimensional phantom across the membrane between here and Outside. She started crying all over again, burying her head between her knees.

Zheng scooped her up like she weighed nothing, and carried her back to bed.

She cried for another hour, perhaps, until we lulled her back to sleep.

I didn’t blame her, and if anyone had I would have slapped them. Our trip to the park was meant for her, a brief sally of freedom to punctuate the long unspoken siege, and it had ended with a kidnapping attempt. A clumsy failure of an attempt, but it had reminded her of just how trapped she was, and what was waiting for her if we ever let down our guard.

And now she couldn’t rely on me either. I had pushed her away – that it was mistaken didn’t matter – and when she’d tried to escape, she’d found her wings clipped.

And she’d had to help control me.

I tried not to think about that part, but snatches of nightmare broke through the pain and exhaustion. Sleep came and went in fits and starts, and I dreamed of my own hands covered greasy grey brain matter as I rooted around inside a shattered skull.

Energy dripped back, filling the cold void in my chest with something except my own pulped flesh.

Hunger woke me eventually. Deep, gnawing, hollow-belly hunger that set my hands shaking before I’d even finished sitting up in Lozzie’s bed.

“Lozzie?” I croaked into the dark, but she slept on, breathing slow and even.

Zheng was gone, but somebody had tucked me in snug and warm, and Tenny had appeared on the opposite side of the bed, silken black tentacles wrapped around Lozzie’s hands and hips. She was asleep too. Past the foot of the bed, the television cast jagged blue light over the low table and Tenny’s toys, with a video game paused on the screen.

The hunger was overwhelming. I simply had to eat. There was no way I was leaving Lozzie to wake up by herself, so I don’t know what I would have done if we’d been alone – stuck my head out of the bedroom door and squawked for food like a baby bird? But with Tenny curled up by her side, I didn’t feel too much guilt when I wriggled out of bed, leaving Lozzie to stir and murmur against my sudden absence. Though I did have to pause and stay very still for several long moments, as I swallowed a gasp of pain at the stiff bruises blossoming across my flanks, the slow rolling deep aches stabbing into my sides, while simultaneously trying not to quiver too hard with hunger shakes.

I felt like an ancient shrivelled vampire rising from a tomb, as I cracked the door open and shuffled out into the upstairs hallway, my sides creaking like old leather.

The hallway was dark, but cold clear moonlight spilled in through the open curtains, turning the wooden surfaces of Number 12 Barnslow Drive into ephemeral silver. I’d slept the day away. Missed class.

Such a bad girl, Heather. What would your mother say? Skipping classes, trying to commit murder, and torture, and worse. Bad girl.

Monster.

Abyssal instinct drew me to the window. I stared down at the street, silvered by moonlight between hazy orange puddles beneath the street lamps. I scanned for tell-tale shadows cast by waiting predators, or the stealthy lumps of hidden bottom-feeders, or anything out of place. The muscles around my eyes twitched oddly, and I had to screw them up when I realised I’d attempted to blink nictitating membranes I did not possess.

Food smells made my stomach rumble like a tar pit, and drew me downstairs. I had to take the steps carefully, one at a time, descending into the cavernous space of the front room where spars of moonlight broke the inky darkness, and the far end was flooded with warmth spilling out from the kitchen doorway.

Deja vu struck me, for the second time today.

I’d done this before, months and months ago, when Raine had first brought me to this house. Crept downstairs in the dark, aching and bruised, drawn by the smell of food.

Was I still the same person? Had I become a monster yet?

Too hungry to think about that right then. The soft machine demanded fuel, ape and abyss and Heather all agreed on that.

I shuffled into the warmth and light of the kitchen, following my nose and the sounds of soft conversation. Five pairs of eyes rose to greet me.

“Heather! Hey, you’re up!” Raine was up too and out of her seat, almost forgoing her crutch in her haste to reach me.

“Yo,” Twil said, raising a hand. She was sat on the far side of the kitchen table and looking extremely awkward, like a teenager forced to endure a dinnertime argument between her parents.

“Shaman,” Zheng rumbled, leaning against the wall like she was propping up the whole house. She reached over and placed one hand on the top of my head, and I felt my muscles relax in sympathetic pleasure.

Praem said nothing, just standing off to one side of Evelyn with her hands clasped before her. Evelyn raised an eyebrow at me, waiting while Raine pressed a hand to my forehead and gave me a hug and peered into my eyes to make sure I was truly awake and truly here.

“You with us, yeah?” Raine asked. “Heather?”

“Mmm,” I grunted. “I’m … here, I’m just … sides hurt. Bruises.”

Post-meal debris was scattered across the kitchen table – a crock pot still half-full of chicken stew, thick with gravy, alongside some leftover rice at the bottom of a pan, and four dirty plates. Four? Had Zheng joined the others for dinner? That or Praem, I don’t know which seemed more unlikely.

“How are you feeling?” Evelyn asked eventually.

“Hungry,” I croaked.

Raine laughed. Twil laughed too, but it sounded forced. Evelyn huffed a snort, but that was enough for me.

I let Raine guide me to a chair while Praem reheated a very generous portion of rice and stew, and Twil found an excuse to hop up and hover about and get in Praem’s way. That first helping of rice and chicken and thick chunky vegetables barely registered on my palate, I ate so fast, and didn’t fill me up in the slightest. I sat there blinking and half-awake while Praem fetched another.

As hunger started to abate, my mind came back. That’s when I realised everyone was both quiet and tense. Twil was sneaking awkward glances at me. Evelyn was staring at her phone on the table. Zheng was brooding – which was normal, so that didn’t count. Raine was quiet too, which spooked me. She noticed my pause after the first bite of my second bowl of food.

“It’s okay to slow down a bit,” she said with a warm smile.

“ … what’s happened?” I croaked.

That roused Evelyn. She took a deep breath, sighed, and gestured at her phone, her other hand rubbing at her aching hip in an unconscious gesture.

“We’re all on the edge of our seats,” she said, with faux-sarcasm. “Nicole Webb called fifteen minutes ago, to let us know she was about to begin. If everything is going to plan, she’s already elbow-deep in Harold Yuleson’s files. If not, well … ” She gestured at the phone again.

“Then we’re ready to move,” Raine said, quiet and confident, with a wink for me. “But my bet is we won’t have to. Nicky knows what she’s about.”

“Oh,” I managed. “Oh, it’s really that late?”

“Mm, past ten.” Evelyn eyed me oddly, as if waiting for something else, a cold curiosity in her eyes.

A lump grew in my throat. I opened my mouth to say something – to beg forgiveness, to apologise, to sob, I don’t know. I never got there.

“Hey, uh,” Twil piped up, having obvious difficulty in the way of a teenager trying to ask their crush on a date. “Heather, are you … like … are you alright?”

I blinked at her, my guilt briefly short-circuited. “ … mostly. I think. Thank you for asking though.”

Twil’s throat bobbed. In the corner of my eye, I saw Zheng’s face crack into a truly shit-eating grin, showing all her teeth. Twil shot her a scowl, but that only served to make the grin pull wider.

“Shut up, zombie,” Twil growled.

“I did not speak a word,” said Zheng.

“Oh for pity’s sake, Twil,” Evelyn huffed. “Just say it. You’re not a coward.”

“Everyone just shut the fuck up, okay?” Twil said, then cleared her throat. She wet her lips and grimaced at me. “I mean, like, I did have to tackle you. Are you … are we … I’m sorry. Sorry, yeah!” She lit up. “I’m trying to apologise, right. Sorry.”

“Oh. Um … that’s the last thing I was thinking about,” I admitted. “There’s no hard feelings. We’re okay.”

“I did it textbook like,” Twil went on, grimacing. “Best I could. Tried not to bounce your skull or anything or-”

“Twil, there’s no need to apologise,” I said.

She opened her mouth to carry on, but then stopped and nodded. “Just didn’t wanna actually hurt you. You’re kinda small and fragile, you know?”

I actually laughed a little, a tiny giggle. “Twil, you’re barely taller than me.”

“The shaman is not fragile,” Zheng purred.

“Yeah yeah.” Twil waved us off, blushing. “You know what I mean. Heather’s like, petite. Felt weird hurting her.”

“Besides,” I sighed, looking down at my second bowl of stew, feeling as if I did not deserve food. “I did more damage to myself than you ever could.”

Raine squeezed my shoulder.

“Quite,” said Evelyn, very unimpressed.

Zheng made a low growling sound in her throat – at Evelyn.

“Down,” Praem intoned. I shook my head too, I would not have them fight over this principle. Zheng trailed off with a grudging snort. Awkward silence fell, and I wanted to curl up and go back to sleep.

“What happened this morning, Heather?” Evelyn asked eventually.

Raine opened her mouth with a soft click, but Evelyn’s hand chopped the air to cut her off.

“Shush,” Praem intoned for her.

“In your own words,” Evelyn added. “Raine and Twil have both told me what they saw already. What happened?”

I looked up into those big blue eyes with their stress lines. Evelyn was impossible to lie to. I respected her too much, liked her too much. And in that moment, that moment in which Raine and Zheng would make any excuse for me and Twil was too accepting to push back, I realised how much I needed Evelyn to like me too.

“I was going to take that woman apart,” I said. I expected my voice to shake, but it came out plain and even. “I was going to use a tentacle, stick it into her head and hollow out her thoughts, I suppose. Dig out the Eye’s secrets. Core her like an apple.”

‘Shit,’ Twil mouthed silently. Raine rubbed my back. Evelyn stared at me, unreadable.

“I don’t have an excuse,” I went on. “Instinct told me what to do, but … I wanted to do it. I made a promise, and then I tried to break it. Because I’m turning into … ”

“You are not becoming a monster,” Raine said, and I flinched slightly at the whip-crack in her voice.

“Yeah, I mean, shit,” Twil added with an awkward smile. “Humans do horrible things to each other all the same. Er, I mean, not that … horrible, uh … ”

“Why the tentacle in the head?” Evelyn asked, eyes hungry with curiosity.

I shrugged. “I don’t know. It just came over me. The logic of it made sense.” I laughed once, a humourless sound which threatened to turn into a sob. “Maybe that’s what the Eye does. Maybe that was another one of its lessons.”

Evelyn sighed heavily. “I would say that you and I need to have a talk, but I suspect you’re beating yourself up worse than I ever could.”

I nodded, hanging my head.

“Look,” Evelyn said. “None of us disapprove of trying to kill these people-”

“Hey, hey,” Raine piped up with a smirk. “Badger’s made it this far. Dude’s a survivor, big respect. If I catch him I’ll beat him black and blue, but I won’t kill the guy.” She cleared her throat, and added under her breath, “‘less I have to.”

Evelyn rolled her eyes.

“I don’t want to kill them either,” I said. “Not after what we saw. They were just regular people, Evee. They were so scared of me. Of us.”

Evelyn wet her lips and huffed. “Well, good. Fine. I suppose. My point is, you-”

“Almost crossed a line, yes. I know.” I bit down on my lower lip.

“The predator does what it must,” Zheng purred. I tried to give her a scowl, but she met my eyes with such placid calm I couldn’t keep it up. “Do you blame the wolf or the bear, for eating, shaman? You are real, you cannot live forever on tinned meat without facing the truth.”

Evelyn thumped an elbow on the table and put her forehead in her hand. “Yes, thank you for keeping the message coherent, Zheng.”

Zheng shrugged, unconcerned. “The shaman will not bring herself harm by following her nature.”

“I almost did,” I hissed.

“But hey, Heather,” Raine said. “You didn’t. That’s what we’re all here for, right? Help each other keep promises.”

My anger boiled over in a sudden flash. “I wouldn’t even be in this position if Edward Lilburne didn’t have our fucking book!”

Everyone stared at me. I blinked several times, red in the face, not knowing where to turn my eyes. Then I hiccuped twice in quick succession.

“Holy shit,” Twil whispered. “She swore.”

“Well, it’s true!” I snapped again. “He probably doesn’t even know why we need it, doesn’t understand that he’s delaying everything, that he’s holding up-” I huffed through my nose. “So I’m scratching for any advantage, anything at all, and I’m willing to hurt people and commit horrible acts, yes. Because we don’t have the book so we can’t safely face the Eye so I have to grow claws. And he must have sent those people. He must have! For Lozzie. I won’t have it! I won’t!”

I felt like punching the table, but that would only have earned me another bruise. Instead I sat there taking deep breaths while Raine rubbed my back. Zheng stepped over and put a huge hand on my head as well, and I slipped out of anger and into sheer exhaustion.

“That part I agree with,” Evelyn said softly.

“Snap,” said Twil.

“These two have both been hunting,” Raine said with a nod at Twil and Zheng. “But they didn’t turn anything up, not near the park, and not near the house. Those three clowns who came at us, I think we terrified ‘em. I doubt they’re gonna try again. Don’t worry about Lozzie, okay?”

“You don’t know that,” Twil said, then shut her mouth at Raine’s warning smirk.

“I appreciate the effort,” I said. “But it’s hard to feel reassured right now. I’m sorry.”

“There is a very serious question here, which none of us have asked yet,” Evelyn said, slowly and carefully.

“What’s that, general?” Raine asked. Evelyn rolled her eyes, but went on nonetheless.

“How could anybody know you were going to be at the park this morning?” she asked.

Evelyn’s mobile phone chose that exact moment to light up with an incoming call, vibrating against the table and playing an anime theme song as the ring tone. She jumped, I jumped, Twil jerked round. Evelyn slapped the ‘answer call’ button.

“Speak,” she said.

“In, out, in, out, shake it all about,” Nicole’s voice came from the phone’s speaker, made tinny and electronic, but singing with pure exuberance. “You do the hokey-cokey and you turn around, and that’s what it’s all about! Wheeeey!”

We all looked at each other, except Evelyn who frowned at the phone as if it had turned into a live frog. Raine burst out laughing.

“Miss Saye? Hello?” Nicole tried again, a little breathless.

“What the fuck was that?” Evelyn spat. “Where are you? What’s happened?”

“I’m sitting in my car,” came Nicole’s voice again. She did not sound like herself. She sounded like Nicole Webb processed through a kilo of cocaine. “Safe and sound, with one cloned computer hard drive and a stack of photocopies of everything and anything I could grab, and a gut absolutely saturated with adrenaline. Yeah!”

A slap resounded down the phone, Nicole hitting her car’s steering wheel with the palm of her hand.

“Well done Nicky!” Raine cheered. “Hell yeah, girl.”

I sighed with relief too. At least we were getting somewhere.

“Thank you so much, Nicky,” I added.

“Thank you, thank you. I’ll be here all week. Actually no, I’ll be reading these documents, but first I need to go pick up a lot – and I do mean a lot – of weed, and get very fucking stoned, thank you very much, ladies.” She let out a long breath, suddenly slowing down. “Actually sod that, I’m gonna sit on the toilet for an hour. This is not glamorous. I am getting too old to start a new career as a burglar.”

“Have you made it look like a break in?” Evelyn asked.

“Yeah, like we said. Cleared out their petty cash, just a couple of hundred. I don’t think we’ll fool somebody like Yuleson, but whatever.”

“Send me another message when you’re home safe,” Evelyn said. “And Nicole, thank you. I appreciate a job well done.”

“Haha!” Nicole laughed. “And thank you for paying me, because fuck doing this for free. Signing off for now.”

Evelyn ended the phone call and we all breathed a collective sigh of relief. Zheng purred like a huge, satisfied cat.

“That’s more than enough excitement for one day,” Evelyn said, leaning back in her chair. She rotated her neck, which made her spine click three times. “Heather, do you think we could do anything for Lozzie? To make her feel any more safe-”

But Evelyn never got to finish that sentence. She cut off in surprise as three of us – me, Praem, and Zheng – all turned to look at the top of the open doorway to the magical workshop.

One of the spider-servitors, all black chitin and waving stingers and crystalline eyes flickering in the light, came scuttling out of the doorway upside down, shooting across the ceiling with surprising speed. I flinched and almost yelped, I’d forgotten how fast the things could move when they needed to. The armoured servitor crossed the ceiling as Zheng showed all her teeth, but it wasn’t going for her.

It vanished through the opposite doorway, into the little utility room.

“Heather? What was that?” Evelyn demanded.

“Woah, yeah, hey-” Twil was saying. Raine was already tense all over, ready to move. She knew.

“Spiders,” Praem intoned, and pointed very accurately so Evelyn would know where it went.

“On the move,” Zheng purred, as the second one shot from the workshop doorway as well, sideways along the wall and into the front room. Praem pointed again.

Evelyn stared for a moment, eyes wide at nothing. Our gazes met.

“Something’s here,” I said.

“Yes,” she agreed, gone quite pale in the face, swallowing hard. “Something has crossed the boundary of the house, at the front wall or the back garden.”

Raine was already on her feet, grabbing something from inside her jacket on the back of her chair. Zheng was three paces away in an instant, loping toward the back door. Twil bared her teeth in a growl. Praem stepped closer to Evelyn. My eyes went to the ceiling, up to where Lozzie was still sleeping.

I pushed the chair back and stood up, wobbly but mobile, intending to go her – and that’s when I saw him.

In the back garden, visible through the small kitchen window, picked out by the moonlight like an idiot standing on a ridge in the middle of a battlefield; crouched in the grass, as if that would make any difference.

Badger saw me looking, and froze.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

a very great mischief – 13.8

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On Monday morning I kept the easiest of the many promises I had made; I took Lozzie to the park.

And while we were there, I came within a hair’s breadth of breaking a different promise – and almost broke myself in the process.

Strictly speaking, Raine and Twil took Lozzie and I to the park. We could hardly go wandering around Sharrowford unaccompanied. Though I was technically capable of supernatural self-defense up to and including cold-blooded murder without a trace, such feats of hyperdimensional mathematics always came at a cost. We couldn’t discount the idea of Edward Lilburne sending a sacrificial pawn to draw my attention, before trying to kidnap Lozzie once I was busy regurgitating my breakfast. With Lozzie unable to slip Outside at will, her natural escape route was cut off. Like a bird with clipped wings.

Neither of us could risk going anywhere alone, but we weren’t going to let that stop us living. We had Raine’s handgun and Twil’s claws for protection.

Raine was happy to get out of the house too. She relished the opportunity to stretch her muscles, to prove to herself she hadn’t become a long-term invalid, despite still needing the crutch.

She hadn’t been to the gym since the bullet wound, denied her usual routine of exercise – one I’d watched a couple of times, when she’d dragged me to the gym in the very early stages of our relationship. Back then she’d baited me with the implicit promise of her own body, the sight of her getting sweaty, a temptation I fully and proudly admit as one of my many weaknesses. These last couple of weeks, she’d attempted some limited routines at home, push ups and crunches and such, and somehow dragged me into participating again.

Not that I had any complaints.

“Gotta keep the core muscles conditioned. That goes fast if you’re not careful,” she’d told me, before discovering that each push up sent a jagged spike of pain down her injured thigh.

She still beat my precisely three reps.

In the end she’d settled for lifting her small set of hand weights, sitting on the edge of the bed and working her upper body with methodical, meditative precision. I’d never had the opportunity to watch that up close before, and I found the motion of her back muscles quite hypnotic.

Twil proved a little more difficult. Lozzie had made the request, but I delegated the ‘call Twil’ part to myself. Then I discovered, on Sunday morning with phone in hand, that I had no idea what to say. I’d never invited a friend to ‘hang out’ before. I’d never had friends in that way. If I wanted to talk to Evelyn, she was in the same building most of the time, I could knock on her bedroom door. If I needed to see Lozzie, she was always right there. How was this supposed to work?

In the end I sent her a text message.

Hello Twil. It’s me, Heather. Lozzie and Raine and I are going to the park tomorrow. Would you like to come with us? Only if you are free, of course.

I read the message over three times, changed the wording twice, and it still felt awfully stuffy when I hit send. Less than thirty seconds later I received a reply which consisted of a string of emotes and three acronyms.

“Um,” I’d said out loud, blinking at my phone as it lay on the kitchen table.

Evelyn, halfway through the process of supervising Praem’s construction of a sandwich large enough to use for a doorstop, frowned sharply over at the phone and let out a sigh. “I assume that’s Twil?”

“ … there’s no actual words in this.” I stared at the message like a magic-eye picture, but it still didn’t make sense.

“Give it here.” Evelyn marched over and all but snatched the phone out of my hands, tucking her walking stick into the crook of her arm as her fingers flew across the touchscreen. Behind her, Praem paused with a slab of cheese in one hand.

“Don’t tell her off, Evee, please,” I said.

“I’m used to this. Sometimes she needs a kick in the backside. There.” Evelyn slapped the phone back into my waiting hands.

She had sent a message.

Heather doesn’t speak your live-laugh-love-poisoned deep fried. Use real words.

“I don’t understand what that means either,” I told Evelyn.

“Good,” she said. “Best keep it that way.”

“Do you want to come to the park too, Evee?” I asked. “The last thing I’d want to do is leave you out, especially if you’d like to hang out with Twil.”

“Ehhhh.” Evelyn frowned and waved the suggestion away like a bad smell. “I’m not really the park-going type. Besides, I have a lecture at eleven tomorrow.”

“Do you want Twil to hang out afterward? Back here? I’m sure she’d be happy to.”

“She needs to get back to studying,” Evelyn grunted.

I caught Praem’s milk-white eyes over Evelyn’s shoulder. The doll-demon was not going to say it, so I did.

“Is that the only reason?” I asked, making my voice as innocent as I could.

Evelyn sighed. “ … no, but I’d rather not go into detail right now. Even with you. It’s just, I don’t know what to do with her. But thank you, Heather. You’re too sweet and none of us deserve you.”

“Sweet,” Praem echoed.

I blushed and frowned down at the phone. “That’s not … well, I … Evee, you-”

Twil saved me. The phone buzzed in my hands, and the first message was filled with herky-jerky panic, obvious even via text.

Evee is that you???? Sorry! Sorry, you know it’s just how I am! What are you doing on Heather’s phone? Something up?

I concentrated on a measured reply-slash-apology, and eventually made myself clear.

It’s nothing special or important,’ I messaged her. ‘We’re just going to hang out in the park together for an hour or so. It’s okay if you don’t want to come or if you don’t have the time to spare. Evelyn wants me to remind you that you are very busy in the run-up to exam season and it’s okay to say no. Lozzie specifically wanted to see you, but I’m sure she can wait.

And all I got back was a ‘Loz? Sure! What time?

==

We left the house around nine thirty on Monday morning, just after Twil turned up, but not before she bounded upstairs to see Evelyn. Raine and I exchanged a knowing glance as Twil called Evelyn’s name at the top of the stairs, and was answered by a distant grumble.

“Don’t make out for too long!” Raine called.

I nudged her gently in the side. “Don’t.”

“What?” Raine shot me a grin and gestured at Lozzie. “Somebody’s liable to pop if we wait much longer. Twil doesn’t have time for a snuggle.”

She wasn’t wrong. We’d visited the castle yesterday to sit at the windows for half an hour and watch the strange alien life in the streets below, to recharge Lozzie’s metaphysical batteries. It showed.

Lozzie was practically vibrating, hopping from foot to foot by the front door, her pastel poncho flapping out like the frilled skirts of a jellyfish. I half expected the cat-ears on her pink beanie to start twitching. She’d found a tennis ball somewhere, perfectly clean and brand new – which was a mystery in itself – and she was currently bouncing it off the floorboards, catching it again in one hand with surprisingly perfect dexterity.

“I’m fine! I’m fine!” she chirped at our attention. “Fuzzy and grumpy can kiss for hours, we can go alone!”

“We’ll wait for Twil,” I said gently.

Raine cupped her hands around her mouth and called up the stairs again. “Stop necking and get down here!”

“Raine!” I hissed. “They’re probably not.”

“Oh yeah? You underestimate our Evee.”

“I don’t even think they’re properly together,” I whispered. “It’s more complex than that.”

Raine hiked an eyebrow at me. “You were so sure about them. What changed?”

“Well, maybe I was wrong.”

But Twil bounded back down the stairs a minute later, with a cheeky grin for me and a friendly “Fuck off, hey?” for Raine.

Raine raised her hands in mock-surrender. “Don’t shoot the messenger for speaking truth.”

“S’none o’ your business, yeah?” Twil bit back, a touch less friendly. She clacked her teeth together, an unconscious gesture that showed the contours of the wolf beneath the woman, lurking just below the surface of her angelically pretty face and artfully messy long dark curls.

“Fuzzy fuzzy fuzzy!” Lozzie came out of nowhere and slammed into Twil, a head-butt-hug hard enough to knock the wind from even an invincible werewolf. She’d been too busy tripping into her shoes when Twil had knocked on the front door, so now she buried her face in Twil’s oversize white hoodie, and wormed her hands beneath Twil’s blue-and-lime coat.

“Oof- okay, alright,” Twil puffed to get her breath back. “Uh, hey Lozzie.”

Lozzie smiled up at her. “Go fuzzy?”

“Eh?”

“Fuzzy-fuzzy?” Lozzie bounced on the spot like a released spring.

“Uh. N-not right now?”

“Awwww. Okay then!” And Lozzie bounced away as quickly as she’d begun. She threw the locks on the front door and skipped out onto the garden path, and we three had no choice but to follow.

It was good to see her like this, even if she’d had to leave Tenny behind today. No amount of imitative camouflage would convince sober eyes under daylight that Tenny was a human being. Zheng had stayed behind too, half to babysit Tenny, half because she would draw so much attention out there on the streets, even if she could just about pass for human.

I was already planning a repeat outing, at night, for them.

The walk to the park wasn’t too long, just up to the university campus and then a little further along Bluebell Road, though we planned a small detour near the end for the sake of ice cream or chocolate or whatever took our fancy. The sky was ringed with clouds built up like ramparts, and the sun gave a thin trickle of warmth to the waking world, enough to keep the chill off one’s face, but not enough to chase away coats and jackets. The threat of rain stood on the horizon, the ever-changeable weather of the North.

Raine and I had to be on campus later, but not until three in the afternoon, so for this morning we had all the time in the world, and we took it slow. Not just because of Raine’s crutch.

Taking it easy was the point.

I hadn’t yet worked up the courage for tri-layered skirts and rainbow tights in public, but I wore my new pink-scaled hoodie. An ankylosaurus, armoured and secure, emerged from the depths of abyssal time onto the streets of Sharrowford. Raine wore her leather jacket, and Twil always looked ready to call somebody questionable names and throw down for a fight, despite her porcelain beauty.

I’d half-entertained the notion of asking Lozzie to wear something less conspicuous than her pastel hoodie and the pink hat with the cat ears. She stood out. But I didn’t have the heart. She loved herself, and I wasn’t going to step on that.

Her uncle knew where she was already, knew where we lived. If he was going to move on us, he’d do it regardless. A few passers-by with strong impressions of the girl in the bright poncho wouldn’t make a blind bit of difference.

If the Heather of four or five years ago had seen us walking down the street, she would have thought we were the coolest people ever. She would have assumed we were on our way to somewhere very mature and exciting – a literature class with a famous professor, a notorious lesbian club, a subversive political meeting – rather than what we were actually doing, which was going to the park to eat ice cream and play on the swings.

“Hey, I see that little smile,” Raine murmured, walking beside me with her crutch under the opposite armpit.

“Just feeling presentable. For once.”

“Looking gorgeous, more like,” she purred back.

My cool did not last long. We were barely five minutes out from the invisible protective bubble of the Saye house, when Lozzie began to gather an entourage.

The streets of Sharrowford always teemed with pneuma-somatic life in all its dizzying alien variety. I’d simply grown used to it, and grown used to the quiet refuge of Number 12 Barnslow Drive. More recently I’d grown used to the way the spirits kept a respectful distance from me, well clear of the scent of the abyss clinging to my soul.

I spotted a dozen different strange amalgamations and alien impossibilities before we even reached the end of the road. A creature like a polar bear but with tentacles in place of a head was snuffling along the opposite pavement, following the sticky slime trail left by a humanoid figure with a tail like a slug. A bat-like giant glided overhead with wings of jagged obsidian, slow as a blimp on unseen air currents. Ghouls – crosses between dogs and people and apes – lurked in alleyways and scattered in polite deference before my passing. A flower made of glowing flesh and shining steel had attached itself to a stop sign, brown roots running down the metal and penetrating the asphalt, but when I approached, it withdrew its anchors and shuffled off along a nearby wall.

Lozzie smiled and waved at eyestalks which rose above the nearby houses, and blew brief kisses at hulking, slumping creatures at the ends of the roads we passed. She trailed her fingertips across the tops of floating flesh-masses and made ‘fffttt fttt’ come-hither noises at skittish deer-creatures with claws instead of hooves and eyes of molten silver.

In the past I would have been mortified with embarrassment, but now it didn’t seem to matter. So what if random people thought she was mentally unwell? She wasn’t, and I knew that. If anybody had a problem with her then they could answer to me, and that was all that mattered.

Until the hound.

It was loitering in one of those thin alleyways between two sets of terraced houses, with overflowing bins and lichen-covered walls. Lozzie was skipping a few steps ahead of us when it padded out onto the pavement and nosed against her leg.

“Awww, hello there.” She instantly stopped and squatted down to pet the scaly head. “Aren’t you a friendly one? Yes you are, yes you are!”

Raine laughed softly and Twil pulled an uncertain grimace. They couldn’t see the hound, only Lozzie talking to thin air.

It was a cross between canine and deep-sea predator, as if a dog had evolved around an oceanic geothermal vent. The size of a golden retriever, but plated with thick overlapping scales instead of fur, showing patches of wrinkled grey skin beneath. Huge black eyes stared up at Lozzie, surrounded by wiry black bristles. A mouth of needle-teeth hung open as a long thin grey tongue lolled out. Slender tentacles rose from the creature’s back, waving like seaweed in an invisible current.

Deja vu and disquiet stopped me in my tracks.

“Heather?” Raine stopped too. “Is it not safe?”

“Good boy,” Lozzie was whispering to it. Ears like armoured flaps twitched at her words. “Good boy good boy, wanna come with us, good boy?”

“Um, Lozzie,” I managed, and my voice came out far too tight. “Lozzie, is that … is that one of the … dogs, that was following you around before you first left for Outside?”

“Mmm?” Lozzie looked up at me, puffed a cheek out as her eyes rolled up in thought, then shrugged. “Maybe! Dunno! Sometimes they don’t let me know but that’s okay because they’re all good and one is just as good as the others, if they’ve gone somewhere else that’s okay too, they don’t have to come back to me. I took some of them Outside to help but some of them stayed here so maybe!” She stood up and slapped the side of her thigh several times as she took a step forward. “Good boy, come with us!”

“Heather, hey?” Raine got my attention, voice sharp and focused. “Is this not safe?”

“Yeah, yo,” Twil piped up, hands deep in her pockets, trying to look nonchalant. “I got no problem with friendly invisible monsters, I think, but I can’t see what we’re dealing with here? Clue me in?”

“It’s fiiiiiine,” Lozzie said.

“It’s … I … it’s technically safe, yes.” I sighed, mostly at myself. “Lozzie used to have a whole … group of spirits following her. I just don’t … don’t like-”

I made eye contact with the hound, and found it looking back at me. The wrong sort of intelligence lived behind those oily eyes. Neither canine nor squid, but something truly alien to our order of being. Abyssal instinct and savanna ape answered with one voice – a shiver down my spine and a flex of phantom limbs and a hiss clawing up my throat.

The hound dipped its head, flattened armoured ears against its skull, and hid behind Lozzie’s legs.

“Oh no!” Lozzie chirped, squatting down again. “Heathy’s nothing to be scared of! It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay,” she chanted to the poor spirit, arms going around its scaly midsection.

The hiss died in my throat, replaced by a mortified flush.

“You scaring dogs now?” Twil laughed at me.

“I’m sorry,” I blurted out. “I just- Lozzie, you know how I feel about pneuma-somatic life. I can’t just get over it. I’m sorry.”

“It doesn’t feel the same way about you,” she told me, looking back over her shoulder. “See? See? He’s just scared. It’s okay, good boy, you’re a good boy, Heathy’s not scary, see? She’ll give you a pet too, okay? Yes! Yes!”

“Um.” I froze.

“You don’t have to have to,” Lozzie said. “But it’s not scary and it doesn’t feel slimy or cold and you can just do it once and then stop again.”

I swallowed and looked around for help. Twil was still mostly bewildered. Raine shrugged and said, “It’s up to you. No pressure, we can just walk on if you like.”

“No pressure!” Lozzie agreed.

“No, I’ll- I’ll do it,” I said.

And I did, though I got it over quickly so I didn’t have to think about it too much. I made a conscious, deliberate effort to fold back my phantom limbs, took three steps forward, and bent down to briefly pat the head of the nightmare aquatic dog. It was barely even there, a faint impression of pneuma-somatic scales and warm flesh. Lozzie held it still and whispered to it about how I wasn’t scary, and before I knew it I’d straightened up and stepped back again, shaking slightly.

The real hurdle was doing that out in public. An empty residential street, but still. Crazy Heather, petting things that didn’t exist.

“Hey, Heather, you okay?” Raine asked me softly, as Lozzie stood up and gave me a big beaming smile. Raine took my hand.

“I … I think so,” I said.

“You didn’t have to do that, you know?” Raine murmured even softer. “You don’t have to let Lozzie pressure you into stuff.”

“She didn’t,” I said firmly. “They’re not scary. That’s all. It’s me, not them.”

“Hey, yo, invisible monsters are pretty scary,” Twil put in. “Like ghosts.”

Lozzie was already skipping ahead again. The oceanic hound trotted along at her heels, and other spirits were already taking an interest. A thing like a cluster of seedpods and tiny wings landed on her shoulder, and a lizard the size of my hand, made of spun glass, climbed up her poncho.

“They’re not monsters,” I said.

==

By the time we reached the park, Lozzie had accumulated almost a dozen pneuma-somatic friends. Another hound had appeared along Bluebell Road, almost identical to the first, along with a sort of goat-like creature with horns of brass and human arms instead of legs. Weird little collections of flesh and teeth and lizard-skin sat on her shoulders or rode on her poncho, along with a faceless owl sitting in the hood and a lime-green jellyfish thing trailing in her wake.

They all kept a respectful distance from me, which I very much appreciated, but for the first time in a long time I didn’t mind them so much. Their presence made Lozzie happy. That was enough.

We stopped at a newsagent’s on Bluebell Road, before doubling back to the park. Lozzie and I got ice cream cones with flakes. Raine bought a grape popsicle. Twil made an unconventional choice.

“It’s ice cream time,” Raine laughed. “Not fried chicken time. You’ll be sick if you run around too much after that.”

“Shut up, no I won’t,” Twil whined back through a mouthful of meat. “I’m hungry, alright? I can eat chicken if I want.”

“Don’t food shame,” I teased Raine.

“Yeah, listen to your better half,” Twil shot back. “‘Sides, I’ll be finished by the time we reach the swings. Iron stomach, that’s me.”

Lozzie led us the rest of the way, past the car-barriers and beneath the shadow of the university buildings and through the park gates.

Yare Broad park is not broader than it is long, and I have no idea what a ‘yare’ is meant to be, but it’s very good at being a park.

Sprawling out from the far edge of the university campus, sloping down before collapsing into several miles of open wetland crisscrossed by raised wooden walkways and filled with wild ducks, Yare Broad is by far Sharrowford’s largest park. Sequestered from the busiest parts of the city by the bulk of the university campus, the views are marred only slightly by one of the huge modern off-white student residential blocks. Quiet on weekdays, except for an occasional thin trickle of university students, which kept it always more than totally empty, it was the perfect public place to feel neither crowded in nor completely alone.

We wandered past little copses of trees, down snaking pathways, toward a children’s playground area on the far left of the park, shaded by several very old oak trees. Almost nobody else was about this time of day, late Monday morning. We spotted a couple of joggers, a few people sitting on distant benches – probably university staff getting some fresh air and sunlight on a break – and one group of students having a picnic which seemed to consist of a lot of alcohol and not much food.

Lozzie was first on the swings. She scoffed down the rest of her ice cream and leapt up onto one of the old metal-chain swings, planting her feet on the broad rubber seat and standing tall. Her spirit friends scattered across the area, doing the sort of inexplicable things that spirits do. The hounds started sniffing for something along the ground. Several of the smaller creatures still clung to Lozzie as she began to rock back and forth.

“Er,” said Twil, stopping at the edge of the playground asphalt, frowning at the ancient metal slide and slightly rusty swing frame. “How is this place still standing?”

“I’m sorry?” I asked, focused on the last few bites of my ice cream cone.

“Because it’s cool!” Lozzie said.

She produced her mystery tennis ball from inside her poncho again, and started bouncing it off the ground as she swung backward, catching it each time on the return, a feat of dexterity that even Raine would struggle with.

“It’s a fuckin’ death trap,” Twil started laughing. “This is the sort of shit they tear down, you know? Replace it all with modern plastic and a nice soft landing of wood chips.” She tapped the asphalt with a heel.

“We’re hardly going to be doing somersaults,” I said with a little sigh, and wandered over to join Lozzie. I brushed a few stray leaves off the seat of the swing next to her, and sat down. “We’re just here to hang out for a bit. For fresh air and sunlight.”

“Could’a done that in the back garden,” Twil muttered. She went over to a bin nearby and tossed the wrapper from her chicken, licking the remaining grease from her fingertips. “I know, I know why I’m along. Bodyguard duty, right? I don’t mind, it’s cool.”

“Noooo!” Went Lozzie. The old metal chains made a rhythmic creaking as she rocked back and forth, adjusting her body weight to swing further each time. “I wanted you to come, fuzzy! And we’re gonna do handstands.”

Twil blinked at her.

“Yes, Lozzie’s going to teach me how to do a handstand,” I said. “We are going to enjoy ourselves. We are. We’re just sitting in the park. ‘Hanging out.’ That’s all.”

We were going to enjoy ourselves for half an hour, eat these ice creams, and relax, and most certainly not think about the fact that PI Nicole Webb would be breaking into the office of Edward Lilburne’s lawyer that very night. In less than twelve hours we would all be gathered around the kitchen table with butterflies in our collective metaphorical stomach, waiting for the phone call.

The Heather of just six months ago would have felt awfully self-conscious sitting on a swing in a park, childish and silly.

That all mattered so little now.

“Yeah, lassie,” Raine said with a grin, clacking forward with her crutch. She very gently pushed against my back, rocking the swing by a couple of inches. “Don’t be a stick in the mud. Scared you’re gonna skin your knees?”

Lozzie was really going for it now, rocking her whole body back and forth on the swing, the seat almost vertical on both ends of the arc, the chains creaking like a ship at sea.

“Pfffft,” went Twil. “Me? I’m alright. I’m invincible. Just hope you lot are up to date on your tetanus jabs.”

With a sudden lump in my throat, I looked up at Lozzie, swinging back and forth further and further, her pastel poncho streaming out behind her as she bent her knees. My guess was she hadn’t seen the inside of a GP’s surgery since her parents had died, let alone been scheduled for booster jabs. She caught my look and giggled, face whizzing past at high speed now.

“I don’t need it!” she yelled.

“But what if you fall and cut yourself?” I asked.

Lozzie answered by forcing her momentum to the absolute limit, arcing the swing as far forward as it could go under her body weight – and then she jumped.

My heart leapt into my mouth as she sailed through the air, poncho streaming out behind her, small spirits clinging to her shoulders or tumbling onto the grass as she cleared the edge of the asphalt. The stunt lasted less than two seconds, and she was probably less than four feet off the ground at the apex of her jump, but my phantom limbs whirled to life as I jerked out of my own seat in a futile effort to catch her.

Lozzie landed on the balls of her feet with all the grace of a ballerina, bending knees and spinning on the spot to face us with arms thrown wide.

“Also I never fall!” she announced.

“Fuckin’ ‘ell,” Twil sighed.

I had a hand to my heart. “Lozzie.”

But Lozzie just stuck out a hand toward me, the other one already busy bunching up her poncho and tucking it into her trousers. “Come over onto the grass! I’m gonna teach you to do handstands, like we said. You too, fuzzy-wuzzy.”

“I can do handstands, easy,” said Twil.

“Then show us how because Heather wants to learn. It’s easy, I promise-promise. It’s easy you just have to balance right upside-down and not let all the blood to go to your head too.”

I let out a huge sigh, but Raine took that moment to squeeze my shoulder, cutting off whatever complaint was brewing in my heart. She caught my eye.

“We won’t let her hurt herself,” she whispered.

“ … it’s not that,” I managed.

I wasn’t afraid of Lozzie falling and scraping herself, not really. Bruises and grazes were part of life. On a level I didn’t understand, I knew she was safe from that. Whatever Lozzie was, she was above such concerns.

But at the apex of her leap, I’d been terrified she was going to vanish before she hit the ground.

“I know,” Raine whispered back. “All the better reason to spend time together now, yeah?”

I forced myself to eat the last bite of my ice cream cone, then got up and joined Lozzie and Twil as they wandered out onto the grass. Lozzie stuck her hand out again, and this time I took it in my own.

At first I was quite incapable of imitating Lozzie’s demonstration of a handstand. She bent forward, put her hands on the ground, and just flipped her legs into the air, waving her shoes about as her poncho flapped down into her face despite her efforts to tuck it in. Twil made it look even easier, but she was cheating, with her werewolf strength and regenerating muscle.

I tried three times, couldn’t get myself up, and then when I finally did I just wobbled and fell over sideways, to the sound of Raine’s affectionate laughter. I felt faintly embarrassed, but I’d made this request, I’d suggested this little outing, and I was going to stick with it even if I looked like the biggest idiot in the world.

I had more success when Lozzie became my training wheels. She held my ankles as I huffed and puffed to keep strength in my arms.

But it was worth the effort. When I finally managed to balance by myself and Lozzie took her hands away, she clapped and laughed, and I laughed too when I finally fell over and rolled onto my back. Lozzie helped me up and hugged me and I hugged her too. Then Twil showed up both of us by doing a cartwheel.

“Show off,” Raine laughed.

“Flaunt it if you got it,” Twil shot back.

Lozzie produced her tennis ball again, out of nowhere. With a manic giggle on her lips and a flick of her wrist, she said, “Fetch!”

Twil almost fell for it. She jerked one way on sheer instinct, before catching herself and blushing incandescent red. Lozzie broke down in giggles.

“Lozzie!” I scolded, hand to my own mouth, but I was laughing too.

“You- you didn’t even throw the ball! It’s still in your hand!” Twil spluttered.

“That’s your complaint?” Raine asked.

“It’s cheating!” Twil snapped.

“It’s- it-” I struggled to control myself. “Lozzie, that was quite rude.”

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” Lozzie said through a bout of terrible giggles. “I just had to! And it’s cute and it’s sweet and I didn’t mean it in a bad way and I’m really sorry I didn’t throw the ball for real and you’re lovely fuzzy and I shouldn’t joke about it and-”

“You know if you throw that ball I can catch it before it hits the ground, right?” Twil said.

Lozzie stopped dead and bit her bottom lip at Twil, eyes shining beneath her heavy lids.

“Out here?” Raine asked. “At full speed, in public?”

“Nah, like, half speed,” Twil said. “Normal person speed. Just, you know, good.”

“Can I?” Lozzie whispered, face lit up like a star.

“Do it,” Twil said.

So Lozzie threw the ball.

She didn’t throw it far, more vertical than horizontal, but Twil’s confidence proved well founded. Our werewolf friend had more energy than any actual dog, and it was always impressive to watch her run, though she kept her promise and stuck well within human limits. We were in public, after all.

Handstands, playing catch, relaxing on the swings. This was all so normal, but it touched me in a way I was having trouble processing. Lozzie and Twil went on like that for a few minutes, but then we all retreated to the swings again, talking about everything and nothing while we swung back and forth. Even Raine put her crutch down and sat on the swing next to me, as Lozzie and Twil debated how fast they could both run. By the time I’d gathered my thoughts, they were up again, and this time Twil was trying to show Lozzie how to do a cartwheel. The spirits had followed her out there, the oceanic hounds circling like sharks, other creatures sitting in the grass, or following at Lozzie’s ankles.

I watched, and wasn’t even aware of my own smile.

“Hey,” Raine murmured, rocking back and forth gently on the swing next to me. “You needed this as much as Lozzie, didn’t you?”

“I suppose so,” I said, and caught my smile, guilty and confused.

“Hey, it’s okay, it’s good to see you happy.”

“I feel like I’m Outside,” I said.

Raine stopped swinging, eyebrows raised.

“Not in a bad way,” I hastened to add. “This is how it felt in the dreams, the Outside dreams with Lozzie. I’ve told you about them before, but I can’t explain how they felt. Her enthusiasm, her energy, it’s infectious. As long as I didn’t wake up too far, I was never scared, no matter the weird places she took me. She’s so unconstrained, so free. I like it. I like that she shares it. It’s how we became friends.” I sighed. “There’s just a touch of that here, right now. Just a touch.”

Raine said nothing, but reached over and ruffled my hair. I let her, and closed my eyes, feeling like a cat being petted.

“Only a shame that Zheng couldn’t come,” I said.

“I dunno,” Raine said. “Put her in a big coat, she’ll be alright. Nobody’s going to freak out about a tall lady, which, you know, if she doesn’t show off her teeth, that’s all she is.”

“Maybe,” I murmured.

We lapsed into companionable silence. I used the toe of one shoe against the asphalt to rock myself back and forth on the swing. Raine’s gaze wandered past me, over my shoulder, along the pathway that led away from the little playground area.

“Also, I’m not sure if I should say this, considering my track record,” I built up my courage with every word. “But it’s good to see Lozzie and Twil getting on.”

“Oh?” Raine snapped back to me, a smirk on her lips. She glanced at Lozzie trying to do a cartwheel on the grass, before Twil caught her again, Lozzie’s slender form crashing into the werewolf’s front with a tangle of limbs before Twil righted her. “You think Lozzie’s … ?”

“No,” I said, quick and sharp.

“She did ask for Twil to be here,” Raine said. “You can’t rule it out. I think this calls for a ‘puppy love’ joke.”

I shot Raine a look. She cleared her throat in surprise.

“Don’t,” I said. “I mean it. Lozzie’s not given any indication, and I would prefer to respect that. Plus, I’m not making any more assumptions about this sort of thing. I made assumptions about Evelyn and Twil, and I don’t think that was good for Evee. I think I helped the pair of them into a mistake.”

“Ahhhhh,” went Raine. “Evee’s not talked to me about it.”

“She has to me. A little. And I think maybe I shouldn’t have encouraged them into it. Even if it works out. I was … pushing too hard.” I sighed, and shut my mouth as Lozzie wandered back toward us. Spirits padded after her, and a particular creature – a sort of long-tailed lizard made of translucent greasy crystals – stuck so close to her it seemed almost protective.

Twil stood out there on the grass for a moment longer, hands on her hips, frowning at something off to our left. When she finally turned to follow Lozzie, she kept looking at – I followed her gaze – a lady on a bench?

A young lady, in coat and jeans with dark hair in a ponytail, sat on a bench about fifty feet away down one of the snaking pathways, eating a sandwich out of a plastic wrapper. The trees sheltered her from the rest of the park, but did not obstruct the view between us, like a natural cubby in the park’s topography.

Twil’s pose, the set of her musculature, everything about how she held herself, set me on sudden edge.

Like a hound with a scent.

“Twil?” I asked when she got close, my stomach suddenly churning. “What’s wrong?”

“I saw her too,” Raine said softly, rising from the swing and putting her weight on her crutch. “What do you think?”

“I don’t think it’s anything!” Lozzie stage-whispered, eyes wide as she could make them. “I don’t recognise her, it’s just a person. Just a person. Nothing-nothing.”

Suddenly her hand was in mine, and I was on my feet, trying not to stare too openly at the woman on the nearby bench. Something tingled in the back of my skull.

“She keeps looking over at us, and she’s crap at being subtle about it,” Twil growled between clenched teeth, doing a far better job of not giving us away. She kept sneaking sideways glances. “Was watching Lozzie. I could feel it, yeah? You know my senses are good at things like this, she was, sure as sure.”

Raine nodded. “I believe you. Thought so too. Getting the creeps, you know?”

“Maybe she just liked the look of my poncho,” Lozzie murmured. She pressed in close to me and I wound a protective arm around her.

“I’m sure it’s nothing,” I spoke up. “We’re being … ”

I glanced at the woman on the bench.

She can’t have been much older than me, perhaps in her mid-twenties. She’d glanced up briefly and met my eyes by pure chance. Twil was right, she was doing a terrible job of pretending not to watch us. She made a show of looking one way, then the other, eyes oh-so-innocently wandering over to check on us, then quickly darting away again.

Eye contact at fifty feet distance, for less than a second. I couldn’t even see her pupils, let alone read what lay behind them.

But abyssal instinct just knew.

She must have realised we’d seen her watching, because she started to get up.

“Want me to go get her?” Twil grunted. “Could question her, quiet like. There’s hardly anybody around.”

“Nah,” Raine said. “Too much risk. We should leave, and call Evee, let her know, if she’s-

“Heather? Heathy-Heathy? Heathy?” Lozzie was tugging on my arm, going panicked and breathless. “Raine, Heather’s not here.”

Lozzie was right. I was not there, and I was not listening.

Abyssal instinct knew.

And this time, that side of me was not afraid. There was no conscious decision. One half of me simply acted, took control, and damn the consequences.

“It’s one of them,” I murmured through numb lips.

I took three paces forward before I even knew what was happening. I let go of Lozzie’s hand before the mental transformation completed, before the hiss rose up my throat and abyssal instinct overwhelmed my rational mind. Somebody said my name – probably Raine – and somebody else said “woah, what the fuck” as I picked up my feet and took off at a dead run, straight at the woman getting up from the bench.

She looked up, saw me coming, and swallowed a scream.

I just went for her. Full on, no restraint, running across fifty feet of grass, pure instinct. One foot in front of the other, as fast as I could make them go.

Now, I will be the first to admit that I am not the most athletic person in the world. In fact, I hadn’t sprinted in a very long time. If anybody in the park saw me in that moment, all they’d have seen was a rather scrawny young woman doing a very poor job at covering ground. I stumbled, I planted my feet wrong, it’s a miracle I didn’t twist an ankle or pull a muscle, and I was panting my lungs out before I’d covered even half the distance.

The cold survivalist logic of the abyss did not care. This prize was worth the damage.

She stank of the Eye.

Staring at me in blind terror, she fumbled with her bag, dropped it, had to pick it up again and managed to draw a pen-knife in one hand and a small metal cylinder in the other. Hands shaking, eyes wide, she backed up a few paces as if resisting the urge to run. She had only seconds to make the decision.

Instinct demanded the tools for the job, and hyperdimensional mathematics happily provided. I was maybe twenty paces from her when a tiny pop of pain burst inside in my head as I flicked the essential value from a zero to a one, and my phantom limbs exploded into writhing, strobing, perfect life from my sides, tugging and pulling on flesh deep inside my torso.

But this time they had some additions – barbed hooks of bone set in rotating sockets.

I hadn’t needed to consciously build those. Too much time watching squid videos on youtube.

In the abyss I’d been prey. I’d hidden in the dark and lived off algae and slime. But for this task, I needed to be a predator, and my body knew how.

Instinct screamed at me to shove a tentacle into the woman’s head. Pin her down and eat her thoughts, pluck apart the electro-chemistry of her brain, find the Eye’s subtle control just like I had with Edward’s servitor. A human being was so much more complex than a servitor, and there was no chance I could go blundering about in there without doing incredible, irreversible damage. I’d leave this woman a gibbering wreck, or in a coma, at best.

Abyssal instinct did not care. It cared about my friends, my mate, my pack, and it cared about Maisie. But it did not care about random apes.

And it was me. I cannot pass responsibility off onto a part of me by externalising it. I made that decision, I gave in to the urge, I wanted to do it.

When I was almost upon her, the ex-cultist, the Eye-ridden woman, lifted the little metal cylinder, pointing it at me, hoping to catch me with the end before I could touch her. But she couldn’t see the strobing pneuma-somatic tentacles. Her other hand held the little pen-knife in a white-knuckle grip. Up close, she was obviously a wreck. Eyes ringed with dark bags, a twitching tic in her face, her body bony beneath her clothes in the manner of somebody who had not eaten enough for weeks on end. She clamped down on a scream, teeth together, feet scuffing in panic as she forced herself to stand her ground.

I was almost on her, ready to grab her at wrists and ankles and hold her in place while I unpicked her brain.

And then Twil slammed into my back and brought me down.

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