that which you cannot put down – 7.4

Previous Chapter

In a minor miracle of grip strength, I’d managed to hang onto the filthy blanket during our rapid descent from Glasswick tower. Which was lucky, because a January morning in Sharrowford was no place to be out of doors dressed in only one’s pajamas.

“We should uh … we should … ” I mumbled. “We should … yes … ”

Bloodstream still awash with the receding floodwaters from a tidal wave of adrenaline, I attempted to get to my feet, and discovered my bruises.

“Ah!” I winced. “Ahh, oh God, okay. Ow. Ow, my stomach.” I bit my bottom lip and squeezed my eyes shut. Our landing had tenderised my abdominal muscles. How was it possible to be this bruised without breaking any bones? I sat very still, breathing very gently.

“Best I could do,” Zheng rumbled. She still grinned with success, but had her head tilted to one side, as if listening to a distant sound on the air.

“No, it’s fine,” I said. “I’m alive. That’s what counts. That counts.”

Ting, agreed Praem, the lead weight jumping inside her bottle. I felt a bizarre urge to press my face against the glass.

I spent a good minute figuring out how to stand up without using my stomach muscles or dropping Praem’s bottle. In the end I had to put her down, turn over and use my hands to lever myself off the ground, then tucked Praem back into the crook of my arm underneath the blanket around my shoulders.

“How am I not concussed?” I said, blinking hard at my own left hand. “Am I concussed? I should absolutely have a concussion.”

Clink-clink. Praem didn’t think so.

“I paid the meat price,” Zheng purred. She didn’t bother to look at me.

Her meaning failed to penetrate my adrenaline-addled brain. I touched the back of my neck as if expecting to find protruding bone, gingerly rotated my head on my shoulders, swallowed and blinked and searched for damage. “Shouldn’t I have whiplash? That was like a car crash.”

“I am smarter than a seatbelt.”

I nodded automatically. As the adrenaline drained away, my teeth threatened to chatter. “We should go, we should really go. We can’t stay here.”

“Should,” Zheng echoed.

“That boy might alert somebody. Parents, police, I don’t know. And Sarika could be on her way, she said she was coming here. We’ll need to keep out of sight, both of us. How do we do that? We can hardly take the bus.” I spoke more to myself than Zheng, trying to marshal my thoughts and reboot my brain after the fall. “If somebody spotted us falling … well, we’ll make the strange and unexplained news. I don’t know how we’re going to get home without being seen, I … what, what is it?”

Zheng had turned her shark-toothed grin on me as I rambled on.

“Zheng? We really should go, we need to leave before-”

“Should and could. Different things.”

“ … I’m sorry?”

“Seven fractures.” Zheng tapped her left thigh, then her right. “Four fractures.” Her finger rose to the wide swell of her hips inside her jeans, to her pelvis. “Two fractures. One in my spine as well. Structural. I take a step, I fall down.”

“Oh.” Suddenly the cracking sounds I’d heard earlier made sense. Iron and rock she may seem, but even demon-altered corpse-born flesh and blood was still only flesh and blood. “Oh Zheng, I’m sorry. You- for me. Thank you. I-”

“I’m fixing it.”

“Fixing? … oh, yes. You can do that, can’t you? Like when I … ” I trailed off, wincing in slow motion, gratitude and guilt mixed into a heady cocktail by the rush of being still alive. “I never apologised for severing your arm before. So, I’m sorry. And thank you. Thank you, Zheng, I … thank you. I still can’t believe you jumped out of a building.”

Zheng shrugged, rattling Praem’s wooden body on her shoulder.

“How long will healing take?” I asked. “Sarika might be on her way here. And, well, people might see us.” I glanced around at the thin barrier of old bushes and partially dismantled security fence, the twin concrete cliffs of Gleaston and Glasswick towers looming over us. Nobody had chanced by yet, but it was only a matter of time. “You look like you stepped out of a Greek myth. Plus we’ve got quite a bit of … red, on us.”

“Fifteen minutes, give or take. Bones need time.” Zheng shrugged again. “Don’t run off alone.”

“Believe you me, I am not going anywhere.”

I tugged the blanket tighter around my shoulders and adjusted Praem’s bottle. The road beyond the secluded patch of scrub ground was deserted for now, the gap between the towers hostile with graffiti and broken bottles, but it would only take one passer-by to glance down here at the wrong moment, one stay-at-home mum in Gleaston tower to look out of her bathroom window, and we’d be the subject of a very bizarre phone call to the police. Headly council estate might be numb to vandalism and pretty drug crime, but I doubt they’d shrug off the sight of a seven-foot-tall monster covered in dried blood and concrete dust, accompanying a shell-shocked college girl in her pajamas.

But despite what I’d said, I didn’t care.

Perhaps it was the adrenaline, or the joy of not being dead, or the sheer madness of surviving a twenty-five story fall, but for once in my life I simply couldn’t bring myself to give a damn.

I filled my lungs with frigid air, and didn’t care how much it made me shiver. I was alive and I was free, and my bruises would heal.

My only witness – other than Zheng, her eyes tilted to the sky, her attention focused inward – was the omnipresent spirit-life, the pneuma-somatic background noise to my life. From where we stood on that half-hidden patch of scrub ground I could already see a dozen different spirits; a blob of tentacles and orange suckers climbed Gleaston tower, a clump of creatures all stalk and eye picked their way across distant rooftops, a Roc-sized bird of black fire hovered low over the city to the east – and a pair of hound-ghoul things snuffled down the nearby road, barely thirty feet away.

An idea struck me, one I would never have dared fifteen minutes ago. That was the old Heather, who had not yet survived death with her eyes wide open.

Well, eyes screwed shut in terror. Still counted.

“Zheng, I-”

“You feel invincible,” Zheng said before I could finish. She lowered her eyes to meet mine. “Maybe you are.”

“I … how did you know that?”

“Go out in a storm.” Zheng’s voice dropped low and quiet, a tiger-purr in the night. “Naked and alone, and climb to the highest point you can find. The trees shake, the rocks shiver. But you shout back at the thunder and the lightning, defy the Gods to kill you. Maybe they do, maybe you die. But if you live, you’re invincible. That’s how your kind do it. The old way.” She took a deep breath and her grin broke the spell. “Or it’s just how you monkeys get when you cheat death. Endorphins.”

“Yes, probably that second one.” I took a deep breath as well. “I’m going to … it’s hard to explain, I’m going to take a risk. Please trust me for a moment.”

Zheng shrugged. Couldn’t help but notice she kept her legs and hips and spine rock steady as she moved.

The two spirits nosing at the road hadn’t moved too far along yet. I wet my lips, wrapped myself in false courage, and opened my mouth.

“You,” I said in a level voice, far too quiet to carry from our hiding place.

One of the spirits looked up at me. Goat-like eyes in a pale lupine face. Its companion stopped too, and they stared at me like a pair of wolves examining a baited trap.

“Come here,” I said. “Or don’t. Your choice.”

A hesitating first step turned into a trot, and the pair of spirits edged up toward the patch of scrub ground, pacing back and forth.

Supremely ugly, a unnatural combination of wolf and ape, leathery hands instead of paws and scraggly fur like old man’s hair sprouting in clumps on their rubbery skin. Big loose jaws full of blunt teeth worked silently on empty air. Eyes too large and too far apart kept sliding over at Zheng, unwilling to venture within her range. That’s right, I’d seen her pick Tenny up by the throat once before, hadn’t I? And Praem had wrestled that spirit at the Saye estate. Demons could touch them, hurt them, and they knew it.

“You know who I am, or what I am.” I raised my voice slightly and reminded myself I’d done this before; I’d spoken to spirits, I’d pressed them for information, I’d even commanded them – briefly. This was unlikely to work, but I had nothing to lose by trying. “I have a task for you.”

Pacing, back and forth, back and forth. No indication they cared.

“There’s a magician approaching this tower, a mage, understand? She’ll be here soon, and she might go up inside the tower. Follow her when she emerges again, follow her home. Then come back to me, and show me where she hides.”

Both spirits stopped, sat on their haunches, staring at me. A demand, a refusal? This wasn’t working.

“In return … I … ” I what? I couldn’t think of anything.

Before I could get out another word, both spirits leapt up and ran off with a skidding and skittering of feet, nipping at each others’ faces and hides. I puffed out a long sigh. A failure. I’d think of something else. I had to.

Zheng was watching me with quiet fascination.

“I thought it was worth a go,” I said. “I can see … uh, spirits, it’s-”

“Of course you can see them, shaman.”

That word again. She’d called me that over and over since I’d freed her, but now she imbued the word with that awful reverence once more, a dark intensity in her eyes.

I sighed to cover my discomfort. “I do hope we didn’t scar that boy too badly. Not to be rude, Zheng, but you’re the sort of thing that causes recurring nightmares.”

Or wet dreams, if one was like me, but I didn’t say part out loud.

“Thank you.” Zheng grinned in savage delight, back to normal. She rolled her neck and one shoulder, then twisted her torso and hips sideways in a slow motion that produced a machine-gun sound of every spinal vertebrae popping in sequence. She coughed, flexed her thighs, bent a knee, went up on tiptoes, produced more popping noises as her joints realigned. She coughed again.

“Almost there?”

“Mm. Minute,” she grunted, coughed a third time, then opened her jaw wide and fished a chunk of concrete out the back of her throat. “Huh.”

Zheng didn’t strike me as remotely in need of what we mere mortals thought of as dignity, but I averted my gaze all the same. I looked up at Glasswick tower, at the vertical dungeon we’d escaped, and tried to spot the window we’d jumped from. Couldn’t see it from all the way down here, not at this angle.

“Did you know that would work?” I muttered. Zheng grunted an interrogative, busy rotating her ankles. “Jumping that far, I mean?”

“Fallen further before,” she rumbled.

“Carrying a person?”

“Three goats.” She broke into a grin, enjoying the look on my face. “Off a cliff. They lived too.”

“Goats. Glad to know I’m in good company.”

Clink-clink-clink went Praem. Three times? Was that laughter? I frowned at the oily smoke in the bottle.

“They were good goats,” Zheng said. “Good meat.”

“I’m certain they were, but I better not be.”

Clink, went Praem.

“Yes, thank you,” I sighed, and stared up at the tower again.

The corruption, the tentacles, the imprint of Alexander Lilburne’s mind – none of it was visible from the ground. Nobody knew it was there, except for me and my friends, and a bunch of cultists dedicated to my worst enemy.

 Zheng took several steps, rolled her torso around in an arc from her hips and drew herself up to her full height, swapping Praem’s wooden body from one shoulder to the other. She stretched, a tiger preparing to sun itself. “Ahhhhh. Much better.”

“I’ll be back for you,” I whispered to the tower, hugged Praem’s jar, and turned to Zheng with a question on my lips.

“Shaman.”

“Zheng. Are you … ” I cursed my hesitation. Zheng was a demon and a monster, but I couldn’t think of a better way to phrase the question. “Are you certain you’re coming with me?”

“My legs work again. Bones,” she grunted amused disapproval.

“No, I mean are you comfortable coming home with me?”

“Mmmmm?” she purred, watching me carefully.

“The house – my home – it belongs to Evelyn. She’s my best friend, I love her, but she’s a mage. I understand if you’d rather not go there. You don’t owe me anything. I’m pretty sure I can get home on my own if I have to. If this is where we part ways.” 

Zheng shrugged. “I’m still here, shaman.”

==

Walking all the way home took almost three hours.

Zheng and I stuck to less-used roads, back alleys, side streets, with much stopping and starting, on a circuitous route to avoid the city centre, the shops, the homeless camps under the motorway, anywhere with people. Peering around corners, listening for footsteps, lurking in back alleys; a painstaking trek through the concrete jungle, all the way to the other side of Sharrowford.

My fears were proved justified a couple of weeks later. A grainy picture of Zheng and I surfaced on the internet, snapped from the window of a passing car with a shaking phone camera, along the motorway embankment near one of the clusters of tents. Nothing visible to recognise me by, only the back of my head atop a shapeless lump of blanket – but Zheng was clearly far too tall. Supernatural sighting or trick of perspective? Photoshop or clever stunt? Luckily enough, the responses to the photograph descended into jokes about giant Yorkshire-men escaped from the moors. I’m certain some amateur paranormal researcher has glanced at my awful matted hair and hunched shoulders, and wondered about some obscure species of Northern English gremlin.

My unshod feet plagued me, sore and hobbling after the first hour, one sock-less soft sole bleeding by the third, so Zheng picked me up and carried me. Princess style. Twice. An experience my body didn’t forget in a hurry.

She carried me until I could walk again, and I didn’t reject the help, despite the quasi-sexual discomfort and Praem’s fleshless wooden bones bumping alongside me.

Raine needed all the help I could get. From any quarter, any monster.

By the time number 12 Barnslow Drive finally hove into view I was back on my own two feet, ready to drop, dehydrated, and shivering with cold.

Home, this cracked and weathered redbrick leviathan, roof tiles patched with tarpaulin. wreathed in shrivelled ivy for the winter, squinted at me from dark windows and made my heart soar.

I hurried the final stretch, feet stinging, bruised abdomen complaining, and pushed through the garden gate with an unbidden smile on my lips. Praem didn’t say anything from within her bottle, and perhaps it was only my imagination, but I swore I felt her respond as well. This was the place she’d come into our reality. Her home too.

“This one?” Zheng purred from behind. In my moment of relief, I missed the warning note in her voice.

“Yes,” I sighed. “Yes, we’re home.”

And not a thing out of place. I stopped on the garden path and bit my bottom lip.

Front door intact and sturdy, not smashed in as I’d half-expected. Raine’s battered old car still squatted next to the pavement a few feet down the road, where she’d last left it parked. No lights showed around the cracks in curtains, all was dark and quiet under the brooding winter sky. The inside of the house sometimes felt like a cocoon or a womb, sealed and guarded from the city beyond.

“Question is,” I murmured. “Who exactly is at home?”

Click, agreed Praem.

I finally tore my eyes from the house to glance back at Zheng, and realised she hadn’t crossed the threshold of the front gate. Spirit-life lurked in the street behind her, at a respectful distance. All the way here the pneuma-somatic wildlife had given us a wide berth, as if Zheng was one of their natural predators. One of them – barred from the Saye house as they were?

“Zheng, you can come inside, can’t you? I didn’t think to mention, the property’s warded. I actually don’t know what that means, but … can you?”

“Signs won’t stop flesh,” she rumbled, and stepped through the invisible barrier, stalking up alongside me like a panther, without once wavering from her staring contest with the house. She watched the building with a slow, wary regard, tilting her head one way then the other, as if getting a good view through each separate eyeball.

No dark amusement, no face-splitting grin. Not amused.

“What’s wrong?” My words emerged as a whisper. I cleared my throat and tried again. “Zheng, what’s wrong? You’re spooking me. Do you see somebody?”

Slowly, she shook her head. “I see this place. Not so different to the tower we ran from.”

I sighed and resisted an urge to roll my eyes. “I did tell you it’s an old magician’s house. Everyone’s so upset by it – you, Twil, the Brinkwood people. Why weren’t the cult scared? None of this would have happened.”

“Because they’re fools,” Zheng purred, gaze still locked onto the house.

“Zheng, I’ve known you for one morning, and this is the second time you’ve wanted to fight a building. Unless you’re secretly intending to murder Evelyn or steal her books, I don’t think the guards will pay you any attention, and the house won’t care. It’s not a haunted house, there’s nothing to be afraid of.”

The shark-grin returned to Zheng’s face, directed down at me. “Afraid? Perhaps you should be afraid of this house, shaman.”

“Well, I’m not. It’s home, it’s treated me well, and it’s where my friends live. Speaking of which, Zheng, you … I don’t mean to imply- and I do want to just get indoors already, but-”

“Spit it out.”

“You won’t get violent with anybody, will you?”

“Anybody?” Zheng purred.

“Any of my friends. You know what I mean.”

“And if the house bites?”

I huffed, curling my freezing toes against the pathway flagstones. “Bite back.”

And without further ado, I marched up the path and knocked on the front door.

Luckily for my remaining credibility, Zheng decided to join me, a tower of muscle at my shoulder ready to threaten, kill, or eat anybody who wasn’t supposed to be here. If she’d hung back, well, I would’ve had to retreat and try again. Maybe go around the back, find Tenny. I’d check on her as soon as I could.

Nobody answered my knock. The house echoed with a long pause through which dark things crept in silence. I rattled the handle and knocked again.

“It’s me!” I called out. “I don’t have my key, for obvious reasons.”

My mind backed up a step and I looked at the door properly – and my heart crawled into my throat. Number 12 Barnslow Drive had indeed been broken into, quite expertly. The keyhole showed a scuffed ring of fresh metal amid the decades of old scratches, and the thick wood had been dented slightly, about level with my head; the lock been forced, a shoulder rammed against the door? After Twil had run out into the night, had Raine closed the bolts? I didn’t recall. If only we’d locked it properly, if only-

A rapid patter of feet sounded suddenly from inside the house. I jumped, my heart leapt, and my stomach dropped. Somebody – something – bumped into the door, turned the lock and rammed back the bolts with a clatter.

“Oh.” I backed up, right into Zheng. She put a hand on my shoulder and put herself in front of me, just as the door flew open.

Sharp amber eyes in an angelic face, wide and blinking in surprise.

“Twil!” I half-shouted her name in a shudder of relief. Suddenly my knees felt weak and rubbery.

Twil didn’t hear me, not from behind seven feet of zombie muscle; I scurried around Zheng to hug my friend, not even thinking, but then things got tiresomely predictable.

Twil catapulted herself backward from Zheng in a feat of canine gymnastic shock. I flinched and swallowed a yelp. She landed already bristling with fur and claw and the elongating snout wrapping itself around her human face, growling deep and loud through clenched teeth – not a warning, a war cry.

“Twil! Twil, it’s me, it’s fine, it’s me!” I blurted out as I hurried over the threshold. Praem agreed with a clink from inside her bottle. Wolfish eyes caught me and Twil’s entire body jerked as she aborted a forward charge.

“Heather?” she growled through a snout of ghostly wolf-flesh.

“Yes! Yes it’s me, I’m here, and I’m- well, I’m not okay, but I’m unhurt- wait, no, that’s not accurate. I am hurt.” I almost laughed at the absurdity of the moment, an edge of hysteria in my voice. My strength was draining with relief, my body knew I was home. This warm dark cavern of old wood and familiar scents, of our shoes by the door and the unique way the light through the curtains dusted the front room with plush shadows. A wall of warm air washed over me, the heating still turned up against the cold outdoors.

And under it all, the faint iron scent of blood tainted the air. Blood, and cleaning chemicals.

Zheng had to duck to follow me through the doorway, then straightened back up to her full height. Twil’s eyes flicked between me, the giant zombie, the huge glowing bottle in my arms, and the twisted wooden mannequin over Zheng’s shoulder. Much more of that and she’d make herself dizzy.

“Twil, it’s okay,” I almost laughed again. “It’s okay, we’re all friends here.”

“Yeah right, sure, fuck,” Twil managed.

Like a huge jungle cat squaring off against a rival, Zheng showed all her teeth, and grinned at Twil. “Laangren?” she purred.

“And you can knock that off!” I snapped at Zheng, emboldened by finally being home. “And please, shut the door before somebody sees us. Please?”

Zheng closed the door without removing her eyes from Twil. My werewolf friend growled back, eyes narrowing in threat posture as Zheng’s grin widened again.

“Please, both of you, please,” I repeated, exasperated. “I am exhausted, we are in a crisis, please.”

“Heather?” Twil asked through gritted teeth. “You’ve gotta be joking.”

“I freed her,” I rushed to explain. “Zheng, I mean, I freed her. She’s on our side – my side, sort of. Zheng, this is Twil, please-”

“We’ve met,” Zheng rumbled. “Never got to have a proper fight, did we, skinchanger?”

Twil reacted like a startled hound, blinking and shaking her head. “Hey what, you talk proper now?”

“I have a mouth, I must use it.”

“She saved my life this morning,” I said to Twil. “Yes, she is extremely dangerous, but not to us. I think.”

“Your trusted are mine, shaman,” Zheng purred, but her grin stayed fixed on Twil. “But don’t you want to feel it too, laangren? I haven’t had a good fight, a real fight, in decades. We’ll both walk away, no real skin in the game, just the sheer joy of it.”

Twil blinked at her. “ … later. Maybe. Fuck’s sake.”

Zheng grumbled like a tiger having a dream, but finally allowed her shark’s grin to simmer down to a dark smolder. She shrugged, and Praem’s wooden body rattled on her shoulder. “I’m up for a round with you anytime, skinchanger.”

“Not indoors you’re not.” I tutted.

A ripple of change passed through Twil’s transformed musculature. Her wolf-flesh melted away, wisps curling and vanishing into nothing as she tilted her chin up at Zheng, all human again. “Beat you last time, didn’t I? What, you want a rematch between my foot and your face?”

“No,” Zheng corrected her. “You ran away.”

Twil frowned, not quite following. “Fuck it, whatever. Who cares.”

That should have alerted me to how dire the situation was – Twil refusing to rise to the bait. Instead, she stepped forward and pulled me into a fierce hug.

“Ah! Ah, careful,” I winced as Praem’s bottle was squished against my abdomen. Sometimes Twil didn’t know her own strength. “Stomach, stomach’s very bruised. Ow.”

“Sorry. Sorry, Heather. S’just, you know, shit’s so fucked up. Welcome home, yeah?”

“Yes,” I managed. “Thank you.”

A wave of emotion welled up in my chest, but I swallowed it down. My body said rest, you’re home, everything’s going to be alright; I told it no, we still had miles to go.

Twil pulled back to look at my face. “God, fuck this morning. I’m real glad you’re okay, Heather.”

“’Okay’ is a relative term, but I am alive. Thank Zheng.”

Twil glanced up at the zombie, frowning hard. Zheng shrugged and stepped away from us to prop up Praem’s altered wooden mannequin on some of the many boxes of junk Evelyn kept stacked in the front room. Better than dumping Praem’s body on the floor, I suppose, but it still hurt to see.

“The hell is that?” Twil asked.

“Luggage,” Zheng purred.

“Praem’s body.”

Twil gaped at me.

“Oh, oh, don’t worry,” I hurried, and held up the bottle. “She’s in here, this is her, for the moment. Say hi.”

“Um … hi, Praem?”

Clink, went Praem.

“I think we can put her back together,” I said.

Twil nodded, frowning, quite lost indeed. “The hell happened, Heather, where were you?”

“Bad places, then the ground. Long story. Twil, where’s everybody else? I’m worried sick, I think they took Raine, at least that’s … that’s what they … ” The look on her face made it obvious. “She’s not here, is she?”

Twil winced and shook her head. “Hoped she was with you.”

“The cultists kidnapped her. I think.”

“Shit!” Twil swore through her teeth. “Last night, I got back here as fast as I could, I really did, I promise, but you and her were both gone already! I’m sorry. Evee won’t wake up. Kimberly, she- I think she was hiding somewhere, under a table or some shit, and-”

“Kim’s okay?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Twil nodded. “Scared, you know? But yeah. We put Evee upstairs in her bedroom, and Kim’s been doing stuff, you know. Magic? Trying to get Evee to wake up. I called my mum too, but she says none of them can come into town right now, not with this going on. My folks are in full panic mode, I’m supposed to be at home, but sod them. Evee won’t wake up. Heather, I can’t wake her up.”

I looked at Twil – really looked at Twil, and realised she was closer to the edge than I. Face puffy with lack of sleep and panic, eyes wild, still in the same clothes she’d been wearing when she’d torn out into the dark last night. Her easy exterior was cracking. Nothing to chase, nothing to punch, a faint shaking in her chest and face. She didn’t know what to do.

I did.

“We’re going to wake Evelyn up, and I’m going to find Raine,” I said, and surprised myself with the conviction in my voice.

In truth I had no idea if we could do either of those things, but if we wanted a ghost of a chance then Twil had to believe, because I might need her, so my job was to make her believe.

“ … yeah,” Twil mouthed.

“Twil. We will. We absolutely will. I will do anything. Understand?”

Clink, agreed Praem.

“Yeah. Yeah, we will, we can do this.” She nodded, going along with me. “Right. We can … oh!” Her face suddenly lit up. “You can make things vanish! Right?”

“I … I can, yes?”

“Oh, fuck me. Lifesaver.” Twil let out a huge sigh of relief. “Heather, you are a lifesaver. I didn’t know what to do with the corpses!”

“The … ” I blinked, rewound, replayed that word. “I’m sorry, Twil, the what?”

“The corpses,” she gestured at the floor – and the wall behind me, and the door-frame. And the inside of the door. In all the excitement I had failed to notice the wood was slightly damp, and still stained faintly in a way recent scrubbing had failed to completely eliminate. The whole area was punctuated by several patches of damage that looked like impact craters from railway spikes. I reconstructed the scene in my head: blood on the floorboards, blood up the walls, blood up the door.

My eyes travelled upward, and I flinched. One of Evelyn’s spider-servitors still hung over the doorway, in an ambush position, so well-concealed I hadn’t seen it when I’d stepped inside.

The Eye Cult had paid a high price for invading my home.

“Thank you,” I said to it. “Next time, don’t let anyone take Raine, please.”

“ … is it … it’s not one of the invisible spiders, is it?” Twil whispered, as if it might hear her.

“Yes. It is,” I sighed.

“Ugh. Well, yeah then, I guess that must have been it. When I got here, there were these two dead guys on the floor. Huge mess. Put them both in the kitchen, but uh-”

Twil wasn’t exactly a master of misdirection, or of concealing her emotions. Her eyes flicked to the closer door to the disused sitting room.

I followed her gaze. “I thought you said you put them in the kitchen?”

“Uh, yeah. Yeah I did. They’re both still there, you know, getting cold and stiff. It’s just, um, there’s- it’s a been a bit of a complex morning and we’ve got, um … ” Her eyes wandered over my shoulder, frowning at Zheng.

I sighed. “We can discuss this in front of Zheng. She’s on my side, and yes, she’s also a violent cannibalistic demon-”

“Cannibal implies the same species,” Zheng purred, almost as if distracted. “I’m no monkey.”

“-but she saved my life twice this morning, and I think she wants to help.”

“Uh, no.” Twil pointed. “I mean, what the fuck’s she doing now?”

“I can hear you, laangren,” Zheng rumbled.

“What? She … oh.”

Our friendly neighbourhood flesh-eating demon had also noticed the Spider-servitor, and was now locked in a staring contest. The spider’s head of crystalline eyes rotated to return Zheng’s look, both of them frozen in the moment of eye contact. Two supernatural beasties vying for who was bigger and scarier.

“It’s fine,” I said with a sigh. “She and the spider are squaring off, just like you did too. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t care. It’s okay, Zheng, I … I think.”

“I have eaten spider many times,” Zheng purred.

“Not one of those, I’d wager,” I said.

“A first time for every kind of meat.”

“I’m extra glad I can’t see any of this,” Twil said, hands up in surrender.

I stared at Zheng for a moment, trying to figure out if she was serious. The last thing we needed was a demon getting into a death match with what was left of our security system.

“Look, Heather,” Twil was saying. “It’s just, we’ve got a situation to deal with. Uh, a really … delicate situation, and maybe like, she should go somewhere else for a bit?”

Caught between a territorial zombie and Twil sounding worryingly un-Twil like, I frowned at the latter in confusion. “Delicate situation? What are you talking about?”

Her eyes slid to the sitting room door again. She winced and struggled over a word or two. I was about to tell her to get on with it, I’m too tired, I need to sit, I need to wash my sore feet, I need to eat, and we need to save our friends – when a cry of delight split the air. My name.

“Heather!”

My name, from the most unexpected source.

Thundering down the stairs in a clatter of bare feet, flying the distance between us in a twirl of plaid skirt and pink poncho, throwing herself at me in an uninhibited tackle-hug, here came Lozzie.

I almost couldn’t believe my eyes – and barely remained standing when she hit me, that flying hug not just for show. She wrapped her arms around my shoulders, squeezed all the air out of me, and nuzzled her face into my neck. Pulling back, laughing, making me laugh back at her in surprised delight, wheezing from the bruises in my stomach but not caring. I almost dropped Praem’s bottle, but Twil reached in and took it from me, like sticking her hands between a pair of wrestling ferrets.

“You’re here! You’re here! You came back!” Lozzie laughed at me.

“You too,” I croaked, speechless, smiling all over. “Ow.”

“Mmm!” She made a sound like a small excited animal, and hugged me tight. I went ‘ow!’ again but I didn’t care.

“Yeah,” Twil added. “And your spooky friend is here too. Turned up outta nowhere.”

“Why didn’t you say anything?” I asked Twil over Lozzie’s shoulder, hugging her hard as I could stand.

“Other things on my mind.”

Lozzie pulled back again, half-dancing on her bare feet. God, she looked so healthy, her elfin face glowing, well-fed and clean – though still pale and mushroom-like, as if her skin had seen no sun in months. Which made sense if she’d been Outside, beyond the reach of terrestrial light. Where’d she gotten the clothes? The plaid skirt was so her, and the pink poncho had a cute little hood with floppy rabbit ears. Her hair was everywhere as she raked back wisps out of it out of her face. She smelled of foreign bath soap and medical moisturiser, mango and Vaseline. And underneath it all, the lingering taint of Wonderland ash.

“I have so many things I need to ask you,” I said, overwhelmed by emotion.

“Heather, Heather, where did you go? Why did you go?” She laughed, bewildered with me. “I was getting you out.”

“Somebody – something grabbed me. Pulled us apart! Lozzie, I wouldn’t leave, not … not when … I thought you were gone.”

“Ahhhh,” she sighed, nodding and smiling. “Same thing. I can’t leave! Have you tried? I can’t get back Out, it’s so weird.”

“You … you tried to leave again?” An unexpected barb of pain twisted in my chest.

“To find you! You were supposed to be here!”

I swallowed and focused. “Hands on your ankles? Dead hands?”

“Yeah! You too?”

“Mmhmm.”

Weird, huh?” Lozzie smiled at me, a bouncing, happy sort of smile, and hugged me again.

“Ahh, ow. Lozzie, I’m sore, I’m so sore.” She’d come back to me. She was healthy and whole and safe. I laughed, and realised I was crying too. “You got me from Wonderland. You got me. Thank you, Lozzie. Lozzie.” The tears came on full now, I couldn’t stop them, and my voice emerged as a whine. “Lozzie, I’ve lost Raine. They took her somewhere. I can’t- I-”

“No!” Lozzie pulled back, her face set in a serious little frown. “They can’t do that! I’ll help! You love her, this is important! We’ll get her back, I have an idea already!”

“You- you do? Of course you do.” I took a shuddering breath, sniffed, and managed to stop the tears. Lozzie nodded and helped wipe my face. I had to focus. Lozzie likely did not have any ideas that made sense in this reality, but her sheer blinding enthusiasm helped hold me up.

“Little … little Lauren,” Zheng purred, almost a whisper, and we both looked up.

Zheng wore an expression I hadn’t thought her capable of, a lost fragile wonder, her staring contest with the spider forgotten. One huge hand reached out and brushed the top of Lozzie’s head, the gentlest gesture I’d seen Zheng make.

“Oh!” Lozzie lit up again. “You’re awake! Hi, Zheng.” She gave the zombie a little wave. “How’s it feel?”

“This is … I spoke to you, little Lauren, in dreams,” Zheng purred, the stone of her voice softened and blurred. She blinked heavily. Can demons cry? “You gifted me with dreams where I was free.”

“Uh huh, yeah, it was fun!” Lozzie wriggled out of my arms – leaving me more than a little unsteady on my unsupported legs – and threw a hug at Zheng, as unafraid and uninhibited as she had been with me, utterly unintimidated by this rippling giant of barely suppressed violence. Zheng looked as surprised as I felt. Lozzie danced away again, panting and red in the face with excitement. “Did you get her out, Heather? How did you do that?”

“Um, I just removed some of her tattoos. It was … well, it wasn’t easy, it made me pass out. But it was simple enough.”

Lozzie tilted her head back and forth quickly, as if this feat was beyond her imagining. “Wow, cool. Heather, you’re so clever! I could never figure it out.”

“Little Lauren, little … ” Zheng grinned again. “Hahhh. I remember now. My little mooncalf.”

“Mooncalf?” Lozzie pulled a face, stuck out her tongue and pulled down on one lower eyelid. “Ruuuuude.”

Zheng rumbled a low laugh – then froze.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt,” a tiny voice came from the kitchen doorway. Kimberly, one shuffled step into the room, staring at Zheng with poorly concealed horror, then at me with an uncertain smile. “Heather, hi. I’m- I’m glad you’re alright. I’m sorry.”

“It’s alright, Kim,” I said, trying to sound soft. “I’m glad you’re okay too, you-”

Zheng moved like a foxhound after the scent of blood. She pounced past me in a blur of uncoiling muscle made of quicksilver and lightning. I flinched and gasped, Lozzie let out a little ‘oop’ and hopped backward, Twil growled like a startled dog – and Kimberly wasn’t fast enough to scream. Zheng picked her up by the throat and slammed her against the back wall, knocking all the breath out of her lungs.

“Little wizard,” Zheng hissed through a shark-toothed grin.

“Aw fuck,” Twil shouted, first off the mark – but she had no idea what was happening.

Legs kicking, eyes wide in naked terror, Kimberly opened her mouth to scream. Zheng’s other hand whipped out like a snake and darted forward into the opening, fist jamming Kimberly’s jaw wide open.

“Zheng, no!”

Luckily for Kimberly’s tongue, I got there first, one hand on Zheng’s arm. I knew that all the strength in my body wouldn’t be enough to stop the demon’s little finger, but the tone in my voice worked better than any physical restraint. Not a shrill cry, not a scream of panic. A command. A command given to a freed slave.

Slowly, her hand still ready to rip Kimberly’s tongue out at the root, Zheng turned her flesh-eating toothy grin on me.

She radiated cold malice. She thought Kimberly was a threat, but I’d offended her, in probably the single way anyone could.

“Zheng.”

“ … shaman,” she rumbled through her teeth.

“Kimberly is my friend.” Keeping my voice steady was impossible. I let it quiver. I was terrified, why pretend otherwise? I glanced at Kimberly, pinned to the wall and staring back at me, panting through her nose. She moaned a muted scream around Zheng’s fist, her feet scrabbling at the wall for purchase. In the corner of my eye I saw Twil circling to Zheng’s other side, half-transformed, ready to take her up on that offer of a rematch. “Twil, don’t,” I said out loud. “Zheng, Kimberly is mine. Understand?”

“I recall this one, skulking and worming, filling her grey meat with secrets. Making more like me.”

“What she did in the past does not matter. Or what she was forced to do. Now, she’s mine. And free, like you.”

Zheng let out a growl, a nasty one, like a mountain disagreeing with me. I hiccuped.

“And,” I added, shaking all over. I hiccuped again. “You said that removing your tattoos guaranteed no wizard can bind you with words. I heard you say that. Was that a lie? Is Kimberly dangerous to you? I don’t think she is. She’s helped me. She’s with me. Are you with me?”

Zheng grimaced. She turned a hateful gaze on Kimberly, made the poor woman squeeze her eyes shut, still fighting to breathe.

“Don’t hurt Flowsie, she’s harmless,” Lozzie said. Her little blonde head appeared over Zheng’s arm, peering up at Kimberly. “She’s kind of boring, and stiff, but she’s harmless. Sweet if you catch her alone.”

Zheng looked down at Lozzie and the awful toothy grin died in an instant, as if it couldn’t touch her little mooncalf. The fury in Zheng’s frame dropped away. She levelled a mere nasty look at Kimberly instead, and her huge tongue slowly inched out of her mouth to brush Kimberly’s cringing cheek, before whipping back again.

“Woah shit what,” Twil muttered.

“One betraying twitch from you, wizard,” Zheng purred in Kimberly’s face, and clacked her teeth together. Kimberly tried to nod – difficult with a fist in your mouth – and Zheng dropped her to the floor and stepped back.

“Back further, you big fuck,” Twil growled. Zheng grumbled, but amazingly enough she did as she was asked.

Hacking and coughing, wheezing for breath, shaking and crying, Kimberly flinched as I went to my knees and put my arms around her. “I’m so sorry, Kim. I’m sorry. I didn’t … I didn’t think … I didn’t think, that’s it. I’m sorry.”

“I hate magic so much,” Kimberly whined.

“Good,” Zheng purred.

“You shut the fuck up,” Twil snapped at her.

“Yes, Zheng,” I added quickly. “Please just … just leave it alone.”

Zheng grumbled and refused to look at anybody.

“It’s okay, Flowsie, I don’t hate you.” Lozzie patted Kimberly on the head too, but I suspect that didn’t help. Twil, still eyeing Zheng like an unexploded bomb, fetched Kim a glass of water, which went down without obstruction and was quickly followed by another. It took us a while to get the poor woman back to her feet, by which time Zheng had retreated to the other side of the room, brooding like a moody teenager.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be here,” Kimberly kept saying. “I keep screwing everything up, I-I can’t-”

“You don’t screw everything up, and that wasn’t your fault,” I said.

“It was,” Kimberly hiccuped. “I deserved it. The zombie’s right, I did so many terrible things. And now I’ve screwed up everything here too. We can’t wake miss Saye up, and I hid when you needed help. And it’s my fault that we’ve got … ” She trailed off at a look from Twil. I glanced between them.

“She thinks the police woman’s her fault,” Lozzie said. “Typical Flowsie.”

“ … police?” I echoed, going cold inside. “Oh no, what is this? Twil?”

“Oops!” Lozzie bit her lips. “We’re not talking about that?”

“I was, like, getting there. Okay?” said Twil.

“I’m so sorry, it’s all my fault,” Kimberly repeated. “I shouldn’t have opened the front door in the first place.”

Twil?” I demanded.

Her eyes slid to the closed door of the disused sitting room.

With terrible inevitability and a growing sense of unreality, I stepped over to the door, turned the handle, and opened it on the curtained and shadowed room inside.

I’m not certain exactly how long I stared. It felt both too long and too short at the same time. Mortified, my mind racing at a million miles an hour, yet unable to process the implications of what lay in front of me. A pair of solidly stoic eyes stared back at me, neither accusing nor pleading, but quite afraid.

I closed the door, paused, then turned the handle and opened it again, hoping that something different might be inside. Nope, still the same. I closed the door a second time. Straighted up, took a breath, let it out slowly.

“Heather-” Twil started.

“Please, Twil.” I raised a finger. “Please, please tell me that is not a real police constable we have bound and gagged in there?”

Previous Chapter

that which you cannot put down – 7.3

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

“It’s alright, Praem, I’ve … I’ve got you. It’s going to be alright, you’ll be alright.”

Meaningless reassurances, spoken to a near invisible wisp of oily-rainbow smoke trapped inside a glass bottle.

Tink, went Praem’s lead weight against the glass. One for yes.

One for yes Heather, I trust you, you’ll save me, you’ll get me out of here, won’t you? One for I’m helpless and tiny and vulnerable, my strength stolen and my flesh banished. One for please, don’t leave me here.

A veil of red descended inside me, along with a shaking that had nothing to do with the cold, my jaw tight and my breath coming fast and hot. I turned to the cultist – Jacob, still hunched on the floor with his hands bound.

“How do I put my friend back in her body?” I hissed through clenched teeth.

“I don’t know, I’m not trained. It’s not my … ” He trailed off when he saw the anger boiling behind my eyes. If the bottle in my hands hadn’t contained Praem’s soul, I would have smashed it across his head. I bit my lips and swallowed too hard, struggling to find an outlet for this awful rage.

I felt rather than saw Zheng’s grin, the shark-toothed smile in my peripheral vision.

She reached down and took the end of Jacob’s rope, dragged the cultist to his feet, and pulled him close. One of her hands encircled the top of his head to hold him immobile.

“Looks like the shaman in angry,” she hissed in the man’s ear. “Dangerous when she’s angry, a large bite for such a small jaw.”

Her huge tongue slid out of her mouth in silent threat, a wet pink tentacle that made my heart squeeze. Jacob cringed away, his eyes pleading with me for relief.

“And you can stop with the theatrics,” I snapped, too angry too care about Zheng’s sadistic needs. The tongue whipped back inside her mouth and slowly she turned to regard me. I ignored her, thrusting Praem’s bottle at the cultist. “Did you have anything – anything at all – to do with this … this violation? Did you?”

A tiny part of my mind, trying to calculate and analyse even now, noted that the lead weight inside didn’t swing as I moved the bottle. External force was cancelled out, only Praem’s spirit could affect the line and the attached weight.

“No! No, I don’t know how to!” He pleaded. “Really, I can’t- it was-”

“Did he?” I asked the bottle – asked Praem.

Clink-click. Two for no.

“Lucky you,” Zheng growled into his face and he squeezed his eyes shut.

“Praem, can you … I’ll get you out, I promise. I promise,” I told the bottle.

Tink, the little lead weight jumped. The oil-on-smoke wisp curled about itself, impossible false colours shifting and turning, glowing faint as a daylight moon.

“Can you … you can hear me, yes? You can hear everything I say to you?”

Tink.

“What about other people, you can hear them? Things happening beyond the … the bottle?”

Tink.

“Can you see?” I waved a hand in front of the glass.

No response. The lead weight didn’t move.

“When they were up, they were up,” Zheng growled in a slow, sing-song voice. “And when they were down, they were down. And when they were only halfway up they were neither up nor down.”

I boggled at her.

“Halfway up.” She pointed a finger at the bottle. “Meat-senses aren’t the same.”

“Yes, thank you so much for the metaphor. Do you know how to put Praem back in her body?”

Zheng shrugged, a performance of disinterest.

“T-there should be-” Jacob started. “There should be a way, to get it out, I mean. Marcus was saying things like- uh- telling her she’d be free if she answered- h-he was asking her questions about you- t-the Saye girl, all sorts. Really, real talk, he was interrogating her, offering her a way out. H-he would know, Marcus would know. It’s him you want.”

Zheng let out a growl of laughter.

“Marcus put her in this bottle?” I asked, and he nodded. “Praem?” I asked her.

Clink.

And Marcus had died a violent and painful death. Why didn’t that make me feel any better?

Because Praem was still trapped in the bottle.

I swore, worse than I’d ever swore before, a short train of vile words borrowed mostly from Evelyn, culminating in a choice scatological paradox. In a way I was glad only the demons were here to witness that.

“I … I know where he lives,” Jacob hurried on. “I think. Or Sarika might. If you make him show you how-”

“He’s dead,” I said.

“ … o-oh.”

“I ate him,” Zheng purred, a nasty grin spreading across her mouth.

“I-I … I don’t- here!” Jacob blurted out. “You should call Sarika! Take my mobile, it’s in my back pocket, her number is on there. She and Marcus, they both know how to do things like that.”

Zheng hitched an eyebrow, turned our captive around with a shove, and extracted a mobile phone from the back pocket of his jeans. He babbled something inane about how we could keep it.

“Thank you, Zheng.” I held out one hand – but Zheng held onto the phone. She watched my eyes with the slow judgement of a predatory reptile. At any other time that look would have reduced me to pudding, but my indignant rage ran too deep and too hot right now to be quenched by even a seven-foot tall Amazonian goddess. “ … what now?” I snapped.

“You need allies, yes, but this one comes at a high cost,” she purred. Her eyes indicated the bottle in my arms.

I squinted at her like she was an idiot. “Praem is my friend, not an ‘ally’. You can eat me before I’d leave her behind. Really. Kill me then.”

Zheng growled, exasperated or unimpressed or merely thinking, it was hard to tell. “What can she do that I can’t?”

Clink-clink. Tink, went the lead weight inside Praem’s bottle. Tink-tink. Practically a tantrum.

“We absolutely do not have time for a- a- demonic territorial pissing contest,” I said. “Please, Zheng, give me the phone.”

“Time, exactly,” Zheng growled. “You make this phone call, and Sarika – I shit on her name – will move against you. She’s sharper than her predecessor. Less mad.”

“ … and?”

“Do you have a plan, little shaman?”

I shook my head, bewildered. “For what? Talking to Sarika?”

Zheng shrugged, sullen and watchful.

I opened my mouth to say no, of course I didn’t have a bloody plan. To tell the giant zombie that a plan didn’t matter. Hot anger and inner cold and intense worry ate at my mind. I had to get Praem back into her body, or out of here; I had to find Raine, get home and make sure my friends were safe. A plan? Sod plans! I was ready to scream threats down the phone at Sarika until she gave me what I wanted. The only answer was act.

Zheng hadn’t been allowed to make plans of her own for a very long time indeed. A slave, always forced into other people’s designs. Watching monsters like Alexander Lilburne stumble and crash, good intentions leading to hell and worse. All her former masters were dead. Now she was free, she could choose to have none.

She was also correct: I was exhausted, worn out, and now blind with anger.

Her approval was a tightrope.

“All right,” I said – and left.

I left Zheng and the sad, defeated cultist together by the radiator, the last thing either of them expected me to do.

Cradling Praem’s bottle gently in my arms, I padded back over to the beach chairs and settled the bottle in one of them, so it couldn’t be knocked over by accident. I had no idea what smashing the glass or popping the cork might do, and I didn’t want to take that risk yet. I regained the filthy but warm blankets, pulled them around my shoulders, and shuffled over to the tote box full of bottled water and emergency cereal bars.

Not the most appetising, but I took two, and another bottle of water to wash it all down. Then I got myself settled in a chair, folded my legs to keep my feet warm, and commenced eating.

Zheng levelled a slow stare at me. Jacob seemed confused too, slack-jawed.

“What?” I said after a swallow, and held up one of the cereal bars. “Peanut and chocolate, not bad but not terrible. Would you like one?”

“What are you doing, shaman?” Zheng purred.

“Getting more protein, like you suggested. One can’t make a good plan on an empty stomach.”

Zheng snorted a laugh. “Monkeys.”

“This monkey needs to eat.” I drank some water to drown the embers of my indignant rage. It sort of worked. Sitting still and going through the mechanical process of putting food in my mouth did drain away the hottest thoughts, give me a moment to pause and think, begin to scrape together the scraps of the plan Zheng demanded.

I was in charge here, I was in control, this was my responsibility. At least that’s what I told myself to stop anger decaying into panic.

Zheng dropped Jacob’s rope, and in lieu of tying him back to the curtain rail, she gave him a horrible silent grin instead, one that left no question as to what would happen if he dared try to escape. Even all the way on the other side of the room, I flinched as well, and the cultist cowered against the wall, curling up tighter.

Zheng grabbed a cereal bar from the box. With a dubious look on her face she peeled the wrapper, gave it an experimental sniff, and wrinkled her nose.

“Not to your taste?” I asked.

“No,” she growled. She did pour a bottle of water down her throat, though not before crushing the cap with a twist of her hand.

“Don’t suppose you have any painkillers up here? Paracetamol, anything at all?”

Jacob took a moment to realise I was speaking to him. He blinked several times and tentatively shook his head. I tutted and sighed. No longer cushioned by either sleep or anger, a splitting headache was brewing inside my skull, the product of dehydration or brainmath or stress, who knew? I settled for drinking more water. Zheng wiped her mouth and squatted down on her haunches to watch me – which almost rendered me unable to eat. Like being observed by a hungry six-hundred pound tiger.

“Before I freed you,” I said to her. “You said you’d ‘be mine’, in the ‘old way’. What does that mean?”

I’d expected a grin and a glib comment, perhaps a laugh. Instead, Zheng shrugged, and a subtle discomfort crossed her features, a twitch or a tic akin to a suppressed wince at the pain from an old wound. “Means I’m still here.”

I nodded, let it drop. “Fair enough. Thank you.”

She grunted.

“So what about you, do you have a plan?” I repeated her own question. “To get downstairs, past the ‘corruption’, as you called it?”

Zheng looked over at the lead-grey sky visible through the dirty glass in the room’s windows. Sharrowford lay below, hidden by the wall. “Jump out the window?”

Clink-clink, Praem disagreed.

“Right, I’ll take that as a no then.” I sighed, took a deep breath, and drew myself up. “But you know more about that than I do. You work on that part, getting us downstairs.” Zheng raised an eyebrow. My turn to shrug. “I can’t do everything on my own now, can I?”

“Mmhmm,” she grunted agreement, and her brow furrowed in thought.

“I have three problems,” I continued, letting it all flow out, the real plan assembling itself at high-speed in the back of my head. “One, getting out of here. Two, putting Praem back in her body. Three, finding Raine – my lover – and possibly Lozzie too, though the more I think about it the more I doubt she’s anywhere near right now. One is your job. Two and three, well, I need to get home, find Evee, the others, but while we’re here we have two options. Option one, we could force him,” I nodded toward Jacob, “to call Sarika for us, lure her back here, but he could spoil the whole thing with a single word.”

“If he wants his heart eaten.”

“Or,” I corrected her gently. “They might have a code phrase to use in emergencies, which means we wouldn’t even know.”

“Mmmmm. Clever.”

“I’m going to go with option two, which is more work and quite difficult, but may yield better results.”

“Which is?”

“A series of threats and lies.” I held out my hand for the phone again, and to my surprise it wasn’t shaking. “Don’t say a word while I call. Don’t let them know you’re free. That could be useful later.”

Zheng grinned in approval. She handed me the phone, and I did a pretty successful job of concealing my anxiety. I felt almost like Raine, competent and clever and quick, decisive and devious and – well, no, not dashing. In my best moments I can almost manage cute, at the right angle and in the wrong light, but I will never be dashing. I hoped she would be proud of me, proud of this plan, proud of how strong I was trying to be. I hoped with all my heart I’d get to tell her about this.

Sarika’s number wasn’t hard to find among the two-dozen Jacob had in his contacts list. He stayed silent and Zheng stayed squatting before me, as I placed the call.

Sarika picked up on the third ring.

“What is it?”

That same voice, thin and tight with bone-deep exhaustion.

“Jacob?”

“He’s alive,” I answered. “For now.”

A long pause, stretching out the seconds. I think she was trying to spook me, get me to break first and offer information by accident, but I harnessed my cold anger and my cold toes, lost myself in the numb sensations inside my body.

Eventually, Sarika let out a big sigh down the phone. “Got free in the end, did you?”

“I’m going to find you. If you touch one hair on Raine’s head, I’ll do far worse than kill you.”

“Raine? That’s her name? She wouldn’t tell me that. Thank you for that one, makes my job easier.”

I mock-hesitated as I shot Zheng a tiny, wavering smile of triumph. Sarika had taken my bait. They did have Raine, no question about that now. They knew of Evelyn, Kimberly had once been one of them, and they’d never be able to hold Twil – but Raine? She’d give them nothing, not even her name.

“Let me speak to her.” I didn’t have to work hard to make myself sound nervous.

“Or what? You don’t have any leverage.”

“My leverage is that when I find you, I’ll only kill you, instead of sending you to the Eye. The best thing you can do right now is let my friend go. Drive her back to the house and let her go, and then there’s a small chance that you can get out of Sharrowford before I and Saye find you. Twil – that’s the Brinkwood werewolf to you – I know she’ll be after you already, and I doubt you want her to catch you.”

I heard Sarika cover the mouthpiece on her end, muffle a question beyond earshot. She came back to the phone and spoke quickly.

“How’d you get past Zheng?”

“Sent her Outside. If she’s not dead she will be soon. Marcus too.”

“Fuck you,” Sarika snarled. Zheng grinned like a skull, laughing through silent teeth. “God fucking damn you, Morell. You don’t understand anything. You think I put that monster up there to just threaten you, is that it?”

This time I didn’t have to fake the hesitation. I glanced at Zheng, and wondered what that grin really meant.

“What … what do you mean?” I said.

“You think Zheng’s going to stay outside, with Lauren Lilburne running about? She’ll be back here within hours, and that girl will be holding the leash. Trying to! Do you understand what that fucking means? Do you know what that thing is or what it’s capable of? Of course you don’t. Alexander could barely control Zheng, his little sister certainly can’t. That thing gets free, you and I are the least of each others problems in this city.”

Zheng winked at me. I stared back and shivered, and not in the good way.

“You’re bluffing.” I held my voice tight and steady. “You wouldn’t- wouldn’t put Zheng in a room with me and not expect me to get rid of her.”

“I expected you knew better than that. That was the whole point! She was mutually assured destruction!”

“I’m not a mage.”

“Evidently,” Sarika spat. “Thank you for the heads-up. Fuck this.”

The plan was running through my fingers. Had to think on my feet, think past the headache and the fear and the suspicion about Zheng. What would Raine say? A bombastic threat, probably. What would Evelyn do? Get angry and call these people filth. What would I do? What should I do?

Lie. I was good at lying. I’d lied to myself for ten whole years.

“Let my friend go,” I all but stammered. “And I’ll bring Zheng back from Outside and deliver her to you.”

A thinking silence, stinging sharp. Zheng’s grin twisted with sadistic mirth. She mouthed a phrase at me, one that contained the words ‘eat’ ‘skin’ and Sarika’s name. I nodded.

Sarika finally spoke again. “You’d have to provide first. Get us the zombie, then I’ll think about letting your friend go. But what happens after that?”

“We go our separate ways.”

“You know I can’t do that, Heather. The Eye wants you. How about you give yourself up in exchange for your friend? You care so much, and I can’t back down without my … ” She paused, pain in her breath. “You, of all people, you understand this, don’t you? It wants you, every time I close my eyes. Same for all of us. I can’t tell it no. I can’t even tell it fuck off. Stay where you are, we’ll loop back to pick you up, we’re not far. In exchange we’ll let your friend go, I promise. We’ll bring her with us, and we’ll let her go right in front of you.”

“No. The zombie for Raine, that’s what you get. Or you say no and I send you all to meet the Eye instead.”

Sarika sighed. “Alright, alright, but this ‘Raine’ girl is our insurance now. You come after us before we get Zheng, and we’ll hurt her, got it?”

“You-” I almost snapped out the words ‘you started it’, reduced us to the level of a playground fight. “I know where you are, and I know how to find you.”

“Try me, bitch. Zheng wasn’t the only zombie we’ve still got.”

We were both bluffing now, playing both ends; why threaten me with zombies if they would hurt Raine? I tried to think through the bluster, to predict the Eye Cult’s real next move.

“Okay, deal, as long as you don’t hurt her,” I said, heart thumping, playing this out as far as I could. “But listen, I’m going to need help.”

I heard the sneer in Sarika’s voice. “From-”

“Not from you. Don’t be stupid. Praem, I’ve found her … ” I swallowed a throat full of bile, and tried not to look at the warped-wood mannequin splayed out on the floor, tried not to think of that as Praem’s bones. “The bottle. How do I get her out, put her back in her body?”

Tink went the lead weight in Praem’s jar. I smiled at it, then recalled she probably couldn’t see my face.

Silence on the line.

“Sarika?” I prompted.

“Your zombie? Just smash the bottle, that should work.”

“ … smash the bottle?” I repeated. Zheng bared her shark’s teeth and shook her head. Tink-tink went Praem, two for no.

“Yes, smash the bottle near the vessel she arrived in,” Sarika repeated. It didn’t take a master of deception to know not to trust her. She rushed her words and spoke them flat. A bad lie.

A naked lie. Which meant the fake deal was already so much rubbish.

Zheng held her hand out for the phone. She whispered at me, silk rustling through fire. “You’ve lost, shaman. My turn.”

I hesitated, a mistake; Zheng surged up from her squatting position, a mountain of muscle in motion, and plucked the phone from my grasp. Her other hand gently gripped my head for a moment – a warning love-bite from a war-hound – then let me go. She stood tall and lifted the phone to her ear.

“Sarika,” she purred. “Sarikaaaaa. Guess who?”

Then she laughed, long and low, bowel-quaking and chest-constricting. When she lowered the phone again, the line was dead.

“Zheng!” I almost screamed at her. “I’d- she’ll- I’d gotten her to agree! To not … not hurt … ” I trailed off at Zheng’s raised eyebrow, and forced down a shuddering breath. Impressive how much this inhuman zombie could communicate with mere expression. “She was lying,” I said. “Of course.”

“Mmhmm.”

“Yes, yes she was lying, yes,” I said, trying to convince myself as much as agree with Zheng. “She would still hurt Raine if she needed to, she knew the deal meant nothing. Now she knows you’re free, she’ll be more cautious, she’ll be afraid.”

“Shitting herself,” Zheng growled with obvious pleasure, and dropped the phone back into my lap.

“Yes. Good … good move. Yes. She might think if she hurts Raine, I’ll let you eat her. Or something along those lines.”

“You think that’s why I did it? I just wanted to make her scream.”

Zheng grinned, wide and mocking.

I stared at the zombie for a second, trying to figure out if that was sarcasm, or something much darker. Had Sarika been telling the truth about Zheng? What exactly was this demon-possessed corpse capable of, that had made Sarika so worried? Could I trust Zheng?

Trust, maybe not, but I didn’t have a lot of choice right now, no other friends and no support, and even if I wanted to go it alone from here, I doubt very much I could have made Zheng leave.

She must have caught the incredulous curiosity on my face, because she grunted and pointed at the phone. “Why not call your friends now?”

“I can’t.” I sighed and let the phone flop against my leg. “I’m terrible at memorising numbers. I can’t even remember Raine’s number, not off the top of my head. I could call my mother at home, I guess, I still remember my home’s landline number. But that’s not going to help.”

“Sarika’s clever, you know?” the cultist said.

I turned to look at Jacob, surprised he’d spoken up. Zheng just growled, but to my surprise he kept talking, still rubbing his throat where he’d almost strangled himself earlier, sparing Zheng only a flicker of attention before he focused on me again.

“She’s kept us alive, since the … since … ” He tapped the side of his head with one blunt paw of a hand. “She’s kept us together, given us something to work towards. Stopped us from killing ourselves. Most of us. Look, I don’t have anything against you, I don’t even really care, but I can’t … I can’t live with this in my head.”

“A solution to that can be provided,” Zheng rumbled. She didn’t bother to look at him.

“The Eye,” I said.

“If that’s what you call it.” Jacob nodded.

A terrible notion wormed into my mind, a suspicion I hadn’t the time or energy to consider until now. “You dream about it, yes? That’s correct?”

He nodded, half-shrugged.

“Does it … ” The words caught in my throat. “Does it teach you things? Mathematics?”

“What?” He blinked at me. “No, no nothing like that. It just … it wants things. It doesn’t speak, it doesn’t do anything, it- it- it just is. It is, all the time, behind the- the-” He groped and gestured helplessly at the air, face contorting with the effort of expressing the ineffable. Behind the fabric of reality.

Whatever deal Alexander Lilburne had struck with the Eye, he’d given it a pipeline to these peoples’ minds – but it wasn’t using them in the same way it had spent a decade tormenting me.

Why? Why not hand them the same tools it had given to me? Why not take one of them to Wonderland instead?

“Stop. Stop,” I said. “I know what you mean. Look, here.”

Not sure why I was doing it, I rolled back my left sleeve to expose the thick black lines of the Fractal. Raine and I had last refreshed it a week ago, a shared ritual I relished every time. I held it up to show the cultist, proud of the ink on my skin. Zheng frowned and tilted her head at it too.

“This keeps the Eye out of my nightmares. Do you have a pen?”

The cultist’s face lit up with fragile hope, frowning, uncertain as he realised what I meant. He cast around for something to write with, settled on a black marker pen discarded near the magic circle at the back of the room. Still tied to the radiator, eyes asking permission, he reached out with a foot and hooked the pen toward himself.

“Make sure to get the angles correct,” I said, as he furiously scribbled the Fractal on his arm. “Memorise it, write it down, I don’t know.”

When he was finished he gripped his arm tight, staring at the design, then at me. “Will- will it-”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. Good luck, I guess. You probably deserve to die, but … maybe you don’t deserve the Eye. That’s all. And don’t thank me, ever.”

“Monkeys,” Zheng grumbled.

“Sarika said she had more zombies. Is that true?”

“I-I’ve never seen them,” Jacob said.

“Yes,” Zheng purred. “Nothing as old as me. Leftovers from the castle, a few months old at most. Closer to her,” she nodded at Praem’s jar.

Clink-clink went Praem’s disagreement.

“Okay. Okay.” I stood up, shed all but one of the blankets as a final defence to keep out the cold, and scooped up Praem’s bottle. After a moment’s thought I wrapped it in a blanket too, in a sort of protective sling.

Briefly I considered trying to put her back into her body myself; hyperdimensional mathematics could do anything – in theory. In practice, I was capable of performing the magical equivalent of tying a sharp rock to the end of a stick. Returning Praem to her physical vessel would be more like restarting a nuclear reactor.

“I have to get her home,” I said to Zheng. “To Evee, to … to Evee. She’ll know what to do. I can’t carry all of her.” I allowed myself a lingering glance at the grotesque and beautiful sight of Praem’s altered wooden bones. “I’m not strong enough, but you are.”

Zheng raised an eyebrow, watching me.

“She’s my friend, Zheng,” I said. “You claim to know how humans work, you’ve got to understand that. I am not leaving her behind. Please, help me carry her.”

“What’s it worth to you, shaman?” she purred.

I played the card, the trump card which might mean nothing. “ … are you with me or not?”

Zheng shrugged, bent down, and lifted the limp wooden doll over her shoulder in a fireman’s carry.

“Right, getting home means getting out of here,” I said. “Do you have a plan yet?”

Zheng grinned a dark and ugly grin. “We walk. Down.”

==

Zheng took the lead into the dark bowels of Glasswick tower. I crept along in her wake, clutching Praem.

Thankfully for life, limb, and my threadbare dignity, Zheng hadn’t insisted on killing – or eating parts of – our captive cultist. We’d left poor Jacob tied to the radiator for his comrades to find, head between his knees, staring in silence at the jagged Fractal he’d scrawled on his arm.

This was not the time to examine my feelings, trapped at the top of a magically corrupted tower block with only a murderous cannibalistic demon for help, still covered in my own dried blood and desperately worried about Raine, but as I followed Zheng into the concrete gloom I couldn’t stop thinking about these cultists, about what they might not deserve.

Marcus had been a true fanatic, potentially very dangerous, and I was glad he was dead. But Jacob? Even if he had been part of the homeless-killing zombie-making operation, having the Eye screaming at you in your dreams was worse than any punishment I could think of. No torture would compare.

I’d made the threat several times this bleak morning: could I actually send any of these cultists to meet the Eye? Was my heart that hardened?

Alexander, I could have done it to him. Sarika – no, this wasn’t the same.

But what if they hurt Raine?

I wanted to feel anger like before, clean hot razor focus, but I’d drowned that heat in order to think and plan clearly. All I had now was the sodden dregs of fear, scared of losing Raine. Revenge meant nothing if she was-

No, that train of thought would paralyse me, and Raine needed me moving forward. I pushed the toxic idea down, bottled it up, and focused on the problem at hand: getting out.

The old stripped flat the cult had been using as a guard room was situated right next to the top-floor entrance to the stairwell, a tube of echoing concrete draped with shadows. Shafts of winter sunlight probed through the windows on one side of the stairs, but left pools of deep darkness stretching off on the opposite side, into the forbidding unknown of the residential corridors.

Two floors down from the top of Glasswick tower, on a mid-way landing before the next set of stairs, Zheng stopped.

I almost blundered into her back in the gloom. Praem’s wooden body, held over Zheng’s shoulder, stared at me with an accusing blank face.

“What is it?” I hissed, peering past the zombie. “Oh.”

“Mm.”

We’d reached the edge of the corruption.

Frozen ridges of concrete muscle pushed up through the floor of the next landing, as if emerging from wet tar. Structures like tendons jutted from corners, vanishing back into the building at sickening angles. Scales and bone spars and protrusions like teeth dotted the walls, all cast in concrete. The windows above the next flight of stairs looked puckered and rounded, the metal frames half swallowed by metastasised concrete growth.

“Alright,” I said, trying to tear my eyes away from the sight. Praem’s transmitted vision through Evelyn’s remote viewing setup had not done this place justice. It made my skin crawl. “Alright, what’s your pla-”

“Shhhhh,” Zheng hushed me. She reached into her coat pocket.

Before we’d left the flat-repurposed-as-guard-room, I’d taken several cereal bars from the stash in the tote, just in case. Zheng had filled her coat pockets too – with anything and everything. Pens, bits of paper, all the ritual detritus around the magic circle, discarded wrappers, a small paperback book. She’d even torn up pieces of one of the blankets and shoved those in her pockets too. When I’d asked why, and she’d explained the first step of the plan, I’d wished I hadn’t said anything.

Now she extracted one item from her magpie-collection – an old shoe – and threw it underarm, down the stairs.

Tap-tap-tap it went, then rolled to a stop amid the warped concrete below us. Zheng watched it like a hawk, eyes fixed, every muscle held in perfect stillness. She didn’t even breathe, and I wasn’t certain she needed to.

Thirty seconds went by, perhaps, and she finally grunted. I let go of a breath I hadn’t been aware of holding.

“You follow, shaman?” she purred.

“Yes. Yes,” I nodded. “So it’s … ‘asleep’ for now? Or it would have reacted?”

“No idea. Maybe it only sees souls. Maybe it’s a trap. Clever enough to let your demon get up here before it did for her. Or maybe she shouldn’t have gone around pulling heads off.” Zheng broke into a grin. “Don’t blame her though.”

Ting went the lead weight in Praem’s bottle.

“Like a Venus fly trap,” I muttered, and hugged Praem’s bottle to my chest. In a way it was comforting to know that the cultists hadn’t taken Praem out – the building itself had, letting her get deep enough that she’d be unable to escape. Or, at least, that was Zheng’s theory. “What is it, exactly?”

Zheng shrugged. “An echo in matter. Thinks it’s him.”

“Alexander?” Disgust twisted inside my chest.

“Just processes, no mind. We stay silent, we tread softly, it’ll take longer to react.”

“Is there a plan B, if … if we’re noticed?”

“When.” Zheng grinned a nasty grin. “Not if. No plan B. The lower down we get the better plan A will work.”

I sighed, couldn’t help myself. “Zheng. Zheng, what is plan A?”

Her grin widened. “We both live, that’s plan A. More I tell you, more scared you’ll get, and my part gets harder. Come on, shaman. And touch nothing.”

“You don’t have to tell me that,” I hissed, rolled my eyes, and scurried along behind Zheng as she descended the stairs.

Creeping down the corrupted concrete stairwell was a singularly disgusting and unreal experience, with my heart in my throat and my every extremity tingling with adrenaline despite the cold.

Surrounded by biological shapes cast in looming, bulging concrete, pitted and cracked like concrete should be, but shaped by the hand of a mad giant sculptor. Nausea took me at the sight of gigantic muscle and tendon emerging from the walls in frozen curves, and at the feeling of rough uneven surfaces beneath my one sockless foot. Microbes inside a corpse, we trod across empty blood vessels down an architectural trachea.

The windows on one side of the stairwell made it worse. Far below lay Sharrowford, normal and dingy on a overcast morning. The sun was up behind the clouds and the city moved on as normal, oblivious to what had taken root in Glasswick tower.

Zheng walked with the silence of a stalking cat; how could somebody so big move so quietly?

I felt like a blundering elephant by comparison, my padding footfalls and shaking breath echoing up and down the cylinder of warped concrete.

Two, three, four floors further down, we must have been nearing the hollow floors which cradled Alexander’s headless corpse, when Zheng stopped and tilted her head, like a dog listening for a distant sound.

“What is it?” I breathed in the barest whisper.

She stayed like that for a few seconds, then grunted softly and gestured for me to follow again. We made it another four steps down the stairs before a groan filled the air.

A groan like layers of concrete sliding over each other. Like a building taking a deep breath.

Zheng froze, statue-still. I froze too, but shaking all over, clutching Praem’s bottle tight under the blanket. With an effort of will, I kept my lips closed, and made not a sound.

Silence didn’t save us.

Invisible at first, mere bumps on the concrete walls indistinguishable from the rough and knobbly surface, then growing, pushing out, extruding and extending, with thick bases and flared ends. From walls, ceiling, and floor, tentacles of shiny wet concrete felt their way into the throat-like cavern of the stairwell.

Neither very thick nor very long, about three feet in length and as wide around as my arm. In retrospect there weren’t very many of them, but I defy anybody to stay calm when a building sprouts cilia with which to digest the people inside it.

I did, to my credit, successfully resist the urge to scream. I bit down on my lips.

Ducking, squeezing, making myself small, trying to hold my breath in silence as the tentacles probed and tasted the air – it worked. For once in my life, being tiny and scrawny helped me survive, because the tentacles couldn’t see. They groped blind. I crammed myself as tiny I could get, heart hammering, holding on tight to Praem’s vulnerable, breakable jar, untouched.

Zheng wasn’t so lucky. Too big, too unwieldy. She gritted her teeth in naked frustration, seven foot of muscle too large to hide amid the reaching feelers. She dodged and twisted, tried to step between them, and failed.

I stared, helplessly, too scared to even whisper, as one of the tentacles caught her arm.

A brush, the merest touch on her coat’s sleeve, and the slick-wet tentacle shot forward to wrap around her arm. Every other tentacle went berserk, straining toward her, whipping for her face and feet. In a second three more had her, then six, then ten, then a dozen. In moments they had both of her legs, her throat, her ribcage.

Zheng fought like a titan, pulling and ripping, digging in her heels, roaring like a goaded lion. She dropped Praem’s wooden body to the floor with a clatter but the tentacles ignored it, ignored me as I put a hand to my mouth, ignored everything but constricting the giant zombie woman like a dozen pythons.

She pulled tentacles apart with sheer force, tore handfuls of concrete out of the floor as they dragged her along it, toward the wall.

The wall slopped open like a mouth. Toothless and wet, gaping and dark, from floor to ceiling.

“Zheng!” I couldn’t stop myself now. Luckily the tentacles were too focused on the difficulty of reeling her in. “What- what do I do!?”

“Stay still!” she shouted.

“What about- what was plan A?”

“This!” she managed to roar – and then tentacles of concrete closed over her mouth and covered her eyes, and heaved her into the obscene wall-mouth.

The wall closed like poured concrete, slurping and slapping and then going still, as if the mouth had never been there.

Glasswick tower swallowed Zheng whole.

Silence fell, broken only by my racing heartbeat. The concrete tentacles calmed, but didn’t retract. Their purpose now fulfilled, they waved lazily in the air.

Hand to my mouth, tears on my cheeks, I clenched my jaw and forced myself not to panic. A single mistake, a single misstep, a single sound could end my life. I hugged Praem’s jar close to my chest as if to hide her.

‘Zheng?’ I mouthed in silence. The nearest tentacle twitched ever so slightly, and I quashed the urge to speak.

No Zheng.

Between the spot I stood and the next landing, two dozen tentacles dotted the floor and walls. More waved in the gloomy stairwell below.

No choice, no way back. I had to protect Praem, and I had to get out of here; her body was unrecoverable now. Even well and whole I couldn’t have dragged all that wood down Glasswick tower without making a sound.

I took the first careful step, threading my way between the tentacles, cringing and shaking, a sob held tight in my throat. The urge to run was almost unbearable.

The air I displaced betrayed my presence. The nearby tentacles twitched toward me, exploring and groping. A scream clawed up in my throat.

A scream echoed by a roar.

Zheng burst out of the wall.

In a shower of concrete and dust, seven feet of avenging god exploded through rock and rebar like it was paper. Bleeding thick red from a score of cuts, covered in fragments of concrete, her coat and tshirt torn, she slammed back into the stairwell like a tank shell. She spat a mouthful of crushed concrete and a savage grin tore across her face.

Blinking, coughing, half-blinded by rock dust, I saw the tentacles react with panic, rushing to close the hole in the wall, whipping and lashing over the gap like a wound.

In one swift motion, Zheng scooped Praem’s wooden body off the floor and hauled it over her shoulder, then took two steps forward past me and kicked the glass out of the nearest widow, her boot sweeping the shards aside and smashing the frame open to the cold air.

“What-” was all I had time to say before she swept me up too. Over her shoulder in a fireman’s carry, one arm pinning my rump.

“No, no! Zheng, no!” I screamed as I figured out what she was about to do.

Zheng laughed, loud and exuberant and utterly bonkers. The tentacles were writhing back toward us, snaking for Zheng’s ankles and my face as she climbed through the window. She braced herself against the slim foothold of the exterior windowsill, as the clean air ruffled my hair and whipped out her trench coat. I twisted, half to look and half in an animal-instinct attempt to wriggle out of her grip. My head whirled at the view below. So very far below. A wave of vertigo sent my stomach flopping end-over-end and turned my legs to jelly.

“Plan A was always jump, shaman!” Zheng roared.

And jump she did.

==

Falling out of a high-rise tower block is a rare experience, but then so is having your toenails pulled out, or being attacked by a polar bear. Placing little value in this terminal lesson, I decided to close my eyes and forgo the once-in-a-lifetime sight of the earth rushing toward me from twenty five stories up.

Well, no, that’s a lie. I didn’t decide to close my eyes. I screwed them shut because falling out of a building is terrifying.

Clinging to Zheng with one arm and clutching Praem’s soul-bottle with the other, with the wind whipping past my ears – and whipping Zheng’s coat into my face; with Praem’s wooden bones rattling, and out of breath with which to scream, that fall took a lifetime. An adrenaline junkie’s dream, to be certain, but not one of mine. Free fall was not fun or exciting, because I was convinced that I had put my life in the hands of a homicidal, suicidal demon, and I was about to die.

Over the sound of Zheng’s mad laughter, my brain groped in panic for a relevant equation.

Later – much later, weeks later, with the terror safely behind me – I actually sat down and calculated how long that fall took. About 5 seconds, give or take the effect of Zheng’s coat on wind resistance, and how much Praem weighed without her pneuma-somatic flesh.

Five seconds.

Not enough time to dredge for hyperdimensional mathematics when I didn’t even know what I was looking for.

Hitting the ground knocked the wind out of me, forced a gut-deep ‘oof’ from my lungs, and bruised my stomach muscles for days afterward. A loud crack, a softer crunch, a moment of shock and sudden stillness.

Shaking all over, clutching both Zheng’s flesh and Praem’s bottle in a death-grip, I found that I was still alive. Still held over Zheng’s shoulder, her arm an iron-hard restraint over my hindquarters.

With no little difficulty I got my eyes open. I must have said something akin to ‘put me down’ because Zheng dutifully planted me back on my feet.

Of course I fell over onto my arse right away, because my legs muscles now consisted entirely of custard.

I did, however, not drop Praem’s bottle. Panting, dizzy, apparently with nothing broken, I couldn’t get any words out. Luckily I’d had my head at the right angle when we’d landed, or whiplash would have broken my spine.

Zheng straightened up. I heard several distinct cracking, crunching sounds from her legs. She’d stopped laughing, but wore a triumphant grin. Her feet had made a sort of dent in the ground, embedded into the compacted dirty by several inches.

She’d absorbed the impact.

I just shook my head at her.

We’d come down on the rear side of Glasswick tower, in a bit of scrub-ground that had once been a common green area, now a mass of weed trying to climb the graffiti-caked concrete, inside an old metal security fence that was supposed to block access to the lowest level of residential windows. Some old raggedy bushes and a electrical junction box hid us from the little-used, run-down road along the rear of Headly council estate.

Out of the tower. Mercifully, beautifully free, under the open skies of Sharrowford.

With company.

A young boy in a school uniform and coat, maybe twelve or thirteen years old, with russet hair and freckles and a face upon which puberty was not being kind, had been busy spray-painting one of those ghastly graffiti tags on the wall.

His eyes like saucers, mouth hanging open as if we’d fallen out of the sky. Which, to be fair, we had. We were also both covered in blood, carrying a stripped wooden mannequin and a huge faintly glowing bottle. And Zheng was seven feet tall, can’t forget that.

The spay can he’d been using dropped out of his hand, and a wad of chewing gum fell out of his mouth.

I swallowed, coughed, made sure my voice worked, and said the first thing that came to mind.

“Shouldn’t you be in school?” I asked.

“I’m … I’m bunking off,” he managed.

“That’s not good. You’ll get in trouble. Stay in school, yes?”

“Boo,” Zheng rumbled.

He nodded once, backed up several paces, and ran away.

Sensible lad.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

that which you cannot put down – 7.2

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Zheng’s question made perfect sense, both rational and reasonable – why had this trembling scrap of humanity decided to set her free?

My brain, held in a death grip by fight-or-flight response, cowering and cringing beneath a seven-foot tall monster leering over me with a mouthful of bloodstained razor-sharp teeth, squeaked an answer through my closing throat.

“Personal space, please.”

Zheng tilted her face-splitting grin and leaned closer. She sniffed me – fear-sweat, dried blood, and the lingering ash taint of Wonderland.

“Scared?” she purred, as a tiger would.

My head jerked in a nod. “I … I n-need you to straighten up, or … personal space.”

Zheng placed one huge hand on top of my head. “Hmm,” she rumbled.

How did I stay standing? How did I, tiny weak Heather, not collapse to the floor and curl up in a ball?

Because Wonderland had acted as a paradoxical inoculant.

Zheng was terrifying, yes, but her terror was all reassuringly bodily and terrestrial. She moved with the barely-veiled violence of a predatory cat at rest, but like a living being should do, not the awful click-clack ratcheting of the Lozzie-thing. Big – very, very big – and dangerous and scary, but not an affront to my senses or an invasive dismantling of my consciousness.

With every passing second my lizard-brain arousal liked Zheng more and more, and that probably helped too, loathe to admit it though I was. If we’d met under any other circumstances she’d have easily reduced me to a stuttering, blushing mess.

I closed my eyes, felt my fingers twitch, and took my mind to the edge of the equation to send her Outside.

She let go of my head.

“Personal space. Room to breathe. That enough for you, little wizard?” Her voice was like granite wrapped in silk. I opened my eyes and found her still far too close. She’d straightened up and eased back, kept only one hand against the concrete wall.

I took a shuddering breath and felt a sudden deep appreciation for still having all my vulnerable extremities attached.

“Still scared?” Zheng purred.

Somehow, from the God-forsaken black pit in my soul, born of a death-wish or sheer exasperation, or perhaps with fear blotted out by my worry for Raine, I managed to level a capital-L look at Zheng.

She laughed, a low-throated chuckle of real amusement.

“Of course I’m scared,” I managed. “You’re huge.”

“Thank you,” she said.

“And you’re not what I expected.”

“Hmmmm? Expected something more like your little demon? Barely awake, an idiot and half-mute? I’ve been here a long time, you monkeys have rubbed off on me.”

A long time? I almost asked her age. Was that a rude question, when speaking to a demon from Outside?

Still clutching the reflective space-blanket Marcus had thrown me a few minutes ago, trying not to think about the poor man’s cooling corpse several feet away, and also trying to ignore the overwhelming urge to inch away from Zheng, I did my best to see through the crimson gore on her face and read her as a person, as I did with Praem.

Sharp-edged intelligent eyes, a wide and mobile mouth, and that thatch of greasy dark hair sticking out in all directions.

She didn’t make it easy, almost like she was showing off. As I watched, Zheng looked away and unhinged her jaw, working it from side to side as if the muscles were sore from disuse. She swallowed, grunted, and ran her tongue over her bloody teeth – a tongue easily twelve inches long, tapered to a point, a wet red tentacle of muscle.

The tongue retracted back into her mouth, and I breathed a quiet sigh of relief.

“Praem. You mean Praem,” I said. “And she’s not an idiot.”

Zheng’s awful grin widened again. She made a head-tilt radiate more threat than a entire room of professional thugs. “What does it matter what I call your pet demon?”

“Because-” I swallowed. My mouth was so dry. “Because it’s her name. I gave it to her. And she’s not my pet, she’s my friend.”

Zheng made a ‘hmm’ noise that sounded like a tiger turning over in its sleep.

“Don’t … don’t you have a name? Zheng? T-they’ve been calling you-”

“Zheng is a name. And we’re both mangling it.” Her grin faded to sullen boredom. “No ‘zz’. More like ‘jyung’, quicker.”

Her pronunciation sounded vaguely Chinese to my ears, though the amount of spoken Chinese I’d heard in my life amounted to almost nothing. Zheng did look somewhat East Asian, but in a way I couldn’t place. Her skin, light chocolate with a hint of red, gave me few clues. Not Chinese, I’d thought, but then again China is a very big place.

“Then I apologise,” I stammered. “I didn’t mean to say your name wrong. I-”

“Doesn’t matter. Call me whatever you want.” She grinned again. “Could teach you my real name, but I’d have to break your jaw in three places and split your tongue, or you’d mangle that too.”

“Of course,” I sighed, unable to control my exasperation. “Of course your true name would collapse my windpipe or blow out my eardrums or something. Obviously.”

“Smart monkey,” she purred.

“You are a demon, yes? The same as Praem?”

She shrugged, a huge gesture from her. “I’m not from here.”

“Clearly. Zheng, then?” I did my best to say it right.

“Mm. Can you answer me now, wizard? Have I satisfied your little monkey brain that I’m not going to eat you too? Is your heart pumping a few paces slower?”

“ … yes, yes, no,” I almost squeaked. “In that order.”

That extracted another grin from Zheng. She liked it when I shot back, and that gave me a few more scraps of courage to work with, to keep me on my feet, to keep up with her.

“Why free me?” she rumbled. The grin grew across her face once more, toothy and bloody.

I allowed my eyes to flicker toward the door, the now-unlocked door, the key presumably still in Marcus’ pocket. I tried very hard not to look at his ruined corpse on the floor with its burst-melon skull. “Aren’t you worried they might … come back? You … we … ”

Zheng stared at me, grin fixed like the smile on a skull.

“Zheng?”

“No.”

“ … no?”

“No, as in you and I are doing this right now, little wizard.” She leaned in close again, slow this time, a snake hypnotising a quivering mouse. I tried very hard not to be that mouse, to keep my spine upright and my knees straight. “You freed me, and we’re in trouble, you and I. Deep in enemy territory, both woefully friendless. I need to know why, so I can choose between picking you up and carrying you out of here, or crushing your skull against the wall behind you.”

A lump in my throat. My limbs turned to water. I couldn’t control the shaking.

“A-alright, I- b-because you were guarding me. And I need to get out of here. That’s why.”

The grin widened. “No, that’s not the real reason,” she purred. “I’ve seen what you do, little wizard. You-”

“Heather,” I squeaked.

“Hmm?” A tilt of the head.

“That’s- that’s my name. Heather. Not ‘little wizard’. I’m not even really a mage.”

Perhaps I was merely buying time for the moment I would brainmath her into oblivion, but I told myself that if she knew my name, she might be less inclined to murder me.

Zheng tilted her head the other way, thoughtful. “Exactly. I’ve seen what you do, watched how you killed the old chief of this pathetic milk-blooded rabble. I’ve been gagged for years, but nobody’s been able to blind me for decades. I remember you, Heather, and I think you could have dumped this body” – she tapped her own chest, bloody fingertips sticky against the crimson-stained tshirt – “anywhere you liked. Exploded my head. Taken my arms and legs off, left me to roll around like a turd. But you didn’t. Why take the risk?”

“I … I don’t know … I-”

Twitch my fingers, get ready to reach out and grab her. All I needed was a second. Oh, this was such a terrible mistake. Why was she demanding an answer to this question? This was more like it, wasn’t it? A classical demon wrapping the summoner in riddles, toying with me like a cat with crippled prey.

“Not good enough,” she purred.

“I freed you to … to free myself!” I blurted. “Because I’m trying to escape, a-and I thought maybe you would want … ”

“Naive, or stupid? Not stupid, no. Naive? Maybe. Why did you free me, little wizard? Dig deep, and speak truth. I can’t defang you, your magic works differently, but I can shatter your brainbox faster than you can touch me with that little hand.”

My eyes went wide. Zheng made her point – she grabbed my wrist just to show me just how unafraid she really was. She held me like a gentle vice, iron-strong but without squeezing.

“The things you were saying to me mere minutes ago, Heather. Those assumptions. I liked those. I liked those very much. Were they lies?”

I could have executed the equation right then, with her skin touching mine; despite all her threats I knew I could unweave the fabric of reality at the speed of thought.

She was bluffing.

Terror peeled back. A seed of doubt sprouted.

The shark-toothed grinning, the lazy intimidation, the riddle-like question she’d accept no rational answer to – was this her survival strategy?

She knew I could obliterate her with a thought, send her Outside and strand her in some alien dimension, even if that’s where she was originally from. So the only way for her to live through the next few minutes, after murdering – perhaps justifiably – one of her former slave-drivers, after giving into her hunger for meat right in front of me, was to for her to intentionally trigger all the animal fears in my soft mammal brain, remind me that I was small, keep me guessing, make me think she was totally unafraid – all while skirting the line at which I’d resort to self-defence.

She was trying to forge an understanding. And doing an awful job of it.

“Oh, dammit,” I swore softly, right in her face, shivering all over. “If you’re going to kill me, at least I’m going to die warm.” I huffed and shook off her hand – luckily, she let me go. I would have been rather out of face if she’d decided to hang on. I tugged the space-blanket around my shoulders and pulled it tight, hugging myself against the interior cold.

Zheng did this thing with her eyebrows, a quizzical kink so deep it would have been comical if she wasn’t covered in blood.

“I freed you … ” I started, then made myself meet her eyes and stand up straight. All my body rebelled, but it was either this or murder her. “I freed you instead of getting rid of you, because you were a slave. Nothing that can think for itself should be a slave.”

The grin returned, a wall of teeth. “I’m no djin, no friendly genie,” she rumbled. “Freeing me doesn’t win you infinite wishes.”

I glared at her as best I could, a mouse staring down a tiger, as I wriggled one arm free and pointed at the door. My hand shook. “Then go. Go wherever you want, do whatever you want. I have things to do.”

Zheng shook her head. “No wizard would ever say that to me. I’m the greatest prize this side of the Volga.”

“And I barely even know where that is. I’m serious.” I waggled my finger at the door. “Go. Go on. Leave. I’m won’t stop you.”

Zheng’s grin faded to nothing. She clacked her teeth together, still shaking her head. Her breathing turned rough and urgent, halfway between confusion and desire. She squinted at me, incredulity and wonder around her eyes.

“I’ve been a slave for a very long time,” she purred. “The leash, sometimes short, sometimes long, often muzzled, but never withdrawn. Until now. Any other wizard would want me.”

“I already told you. I’m not even really a mage.”

Zheng nodded slowly, regarding me with a strange fascination in her eyes. Her silk-and-stone voice dropped to barely a breath, to caress an ancient reverence.

“Shaman, then,” she said.

Shaman; that word meant something important to her. If she’d been human, she would have shivered, her arms covered in goosebumps. I got the shivers instead, and they had nothing to do with how cold it was in that room.

I stared back, eyes wide at the awful, hungry way she looked at me.

“Z-Zheng, I’m not-”

“Prove it,” she grunted. She yanked up the hem of her bloodied tshirt in one fist, to bare her tattoo-covered washboard abdomen and heavy breasts. It was like being flashed by a Olympian Goddess, she was big in every sense of the word. I swear, my eyeballs almost popped out of my face. “Take it all.”

“ … I … uh.” It took an effort of will to close my gaping mouth, to look up at her eyes again. “I … what?”

“The binding. Take it all,” she said between clenched teeth.

“ … your tattoos?” I swallowed and tried to see past Zheng’s impressive physique, tried to ignore the boobs shoved in my face.

The mass of semi-faded, layered tattoos on Zheng’s torso really did cover every square inch of her dusken skin. One could spend hours unravelling and cataloguing even a single hand-span. I saw Chinese or Japanese in there, and stranger writing-systems which while not alien, were so foreign in time as to be utterly unknown today. My parents had taken me to museums when I was younger – Maisie and I, when we were little girls – and the artwork on Zheng’s flesh reminded me dimly of the relics of a lost antiquity, seen under the harsh electric lights of the modern age, robbed of all their context and culture.

Zheng was a work of art in more than one sense.

I shook my head, lost for words. “It’s beautiful, I-I can’t destroy -”

She leaned in close, fast enough to make me flinch. “It is a chain,” she growled. “You freed me, shaman. Either you want me free or not, or was that talk about slavery so much flapping meat?”

I focused on the tattoos again. Wet my lips. Trying to think. I’d been right about Zheng, despite everything. Despite the gruesome cannibalism and the ugly threats, I’d been right. ‘Zombie’ was a fancy mage word for slave. How could I blame her for asking this?

“Zheng, Zheng I can’t.” I raised a hand to stall her snap-toothed rebuke. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’m freezing cold. I’m dehydrated, I’ve been through an ordeal, and if I push myself too far, I could pass out and die.”

“I will catch you,” she purred, softly. “I will look after you. I know this place, this tower. They have rooms up here, their usual mess, but there’s a heater, emergency supplies. Food. And you won’t get out of this building intact, little monkey, not without help. Not past the corruption downstairs.”

I cast about for some way to explain myself. “But we need to get out of here first, we-”

“No.” She edged even closer, almost pressing herself to me. “Not later. Now. You remove this, all of this, because as long as this remains I can be re-bound with the right spells, the chains laid again, and I cannot trust you or yours yet, little shaman. I want to believe you, but I would sooner take my chances crushing your skull and slipping into obscurity. I will live under rocks and eat rat-meat, naked and free, rather than risk it again.” She bared her teeth. “Finish cutting my chains.”

“I can’t!” I shouted back in her face. Couldn’t believe myself, not courageous but desperate. “I have to rescue my friend – my lover. You heard what they were saying, the- the- them! The Eye cultists! She might be here right now, and they’re going to hurt her. I have to help her now, not in an hour after I pass out.” A spark of thought snagged in the back of my mind. “And Lozzie too, don’t you remember her? She liked you, she said you were her friend. She might be here too.”

“Lozzie … ” Zheng rocked back, blinking, dropping the hem of her tshirt as a strange confusion came over her features. She looked away, at nothing. “Lauren, little Lauren. Yes … I … I dreamed of her. I was free in my dreams.” Zheng’s attention whipped back to me. “Is she here too?”

“I don’t know!”

“Then trust me, damn you, you hooting ape. Unchain me and I will find her, and your lover too. I will kill in your name. We’ll have a deal, I’ll be yours, in the old way, not in this false flesh.” She grabbed a handful of her own skin.

I ran my eyes over her imposing frame, over the tattoos beneath her flimsy tshirt, over her muscles and what she represented.

I couldn’t find Raine by myself. Zheng was our best chance.

“Alright, okay. What is the minimum amount I can remove to make it safe? Safe for you, I mean?”

Zheng bared her teeth in a growl, a sound to make the bowels quake and the knees weak. She yanked up her tshirt again, craning her neck to look down at herself – then she exploded with frustration. She shrugged her trench coat from her shoulders, dumped it on the floor, and then ripped the tshirt off over her head in the most impressive act of disrobing I’d ever seen.

I’d like to say I found nothing sexual about Zheng’s nudity in that moment, but that would be a lie.

Stripped from the waist-up, she twisted and turned and lifted her arms to examine her skin, flexing the chords of toned muscle beneath. Quite a sight.

“Here, this spiral here,” she circled a portion of her belly with a fingertip, then traced upward and across. “To here, under my armpit, and here, below, that needs to go too. The shoulder blade, this stuff, and this, and these.”

I stared at her, trying to follow all the twists and turns she mapped out across her own flesh.

“This one as well, this is the root, this has to come out. And-”

“Wait, wait, stop,” I held up a hand. “Slow down, I need to … I’m going to have to do this in one go. I need a mental picture. Turn around again, let me start from behind.”

Zheng grunted her acquiescence and twisted to show me her back. The part I hadn’t said out loud was that her back was easier on my libido, less distracting. My eyes traced the patterns she’d indicated, and my hand wandered up, throat dry with anticipation. Could I really do this? It would be far more complex than selecting only the ink under my hand.

Gingerly, I touched the Zheng’s muscled back, and began to nod as I linked the various structures together in my mind. Her skin felt hot, as if her body temperature ran several degrees above human.

“Alright. Turn back around. Show me again, slower, and trace some connections too. I don’t think I can do multiple places at once unless they’re part of the same … pattern. Object. Thing.”

Zheng nodded. She turned around and I tried not to marvel at her breasts. “Here, this spiral is the root,” she pointed. “And here, and here, then up here. And here, then here. That is the minimum. After that, any wizard wants to bind me, they’ll have to find a way to pin me down and write their name on my flesh. Can do you this for me, little shaman?”

Already half-rummaging through the necessary equation in the black abyss of my mind, I nodded, distracted by the technical questions of the task. “I think … I … how do I know you’ll really help me afterward? That you won’t just leave?”

“You don’t. I’m a demon.” She grinned. Combined with her top-half nudity, the effect was a little too heady for me. “You have to trust me, monkey.”

I made myself frown at her, made myself look like what she thought I was. This wasn’t my life on the line – who cared about me, what happened to me? At least if I died of exposure in this concrete room, I’d never see the Eye again. This was about Raine, this was about my friends.

Zheng’s grin died. I’d made my point.

“You’re Lozzie’s friend,” she purred. “You killed my former master, and freed me. I owe you, in the old way, the real way. Finish freeing me, and I’ll repay the debt.”

A tiny and intensely rational part of my mind screamed that Zheng was a demon, an Outsider walking around in an ancient corpse, that her expressions and words were mere imitations of human communication. She’d follow her own unfathomable ends as soon as she’d gotten what she wanted. Perhaps she was lying to me, perhaps every part of this was a trick toward some incomprehensible end. She was alien. She wasn’t supposed to be here.

Praem was a demon. I trusted Praem, I stuck up for her, and she’d come through for me.

Before I could second-guess myself, I pressed my hand against Zheng’s abdomen, just above the waistline of her jeans, and stared at her tattoos.

“Should I do anything?” she rumbled.

“Stay still,” I hissed. “And quiet. And … and if I go, catch me before my head hits the concrete.”

“Mm.”

Hyperdimensional mathematics with my eyes wide open, trying to describe the delicate tracery of Zheng’s tattoos in mathematical terminology, to excise specific chunks of ink, was infinitely more difficult than I’d imagined. To remove what lay under the shape of my own palm was one thing, but the math required here made my eyeballs ache and an ice-pick headache tingle at the back of my skull before I’d even begun.

I needed a better way to define Zheng’s chains.

I closed my eyes. Chains, bindings, ropes around her soul – that’s what I was really removing. The ink needled under her skin was only outward representation. I dug with my mind, tried to define and see Zheng in mathematical representation, the same way I had done during my ill-fated attempt to track the Lozzie-thing in Kimberly’s flat.

The ink itself, old and faded, in a hundred languages; Zheng’s skin, hot and supple; thick muscle and iron bone, cords of sinew and tendon, appropriated from her vessel and adjusted in a million-million inhuman ways too deeply biological for me to understand, filled with new structures and cells and impossible additions.

Deeper, much deeper, past matter and blood, I found Zheng.

A writhing shard of starlight, in chains.

The whole picture, every layer described in hyperdimensional mathematics, held still in my mind. In that final instant before execution I felt hot crimson dripping from my nose and across my lips.

I really needed to start taking iron supplements.

“You’re ble-” Zheng said.

Out.

==

Warm temptation lulled me back to the edge of sleep, but I found only shark-toothed grins and terrifying giants waiting there.

I struggled up through layers of unconsciousness and jerked awake, gasping for air and scrubbing at my own eyes.

“Welcome back to meat-world,” Zheng’s voice greeted me

“Where-” I croaked, pulling myself into a sitting position as my feet found the floor. I’d been curled up in a low chair of some kind, wrapped and warm, loose canvas cradling my weight – a beach chair? A jumble of shapes and colours faded back into focus through my blurry vision. More plain concrete walls, but not the same room as before. “I don’t rememb- … I need water.”

A shape detached itself from the corner, rising and unfolding, and Zheng walked over to me. Rough but gentle hands took mine and pressed an open bottle of water into my weak, shaking grip. I didn’t care if it was stale, drugged, or actually a bottle of lighter fluid, I put it to my lips and drank like my life depended on it. Which, to be honest, it probably did.

Coughing, spluttering, my vision returning, I looked up – and up, and up – and met Zheng’s eyes. Blue. She’d washed the blood off her face while I’d been out.

“I feel like death,” I groaned.

“You’ll live,” she purred. “Seen plenty of you monkeys die, and you’re not there yet.”

Zheng looked like a wheat field after a UFO visit – her tattoos were covered in crop circles. She’d donned her blood-stained tshirt again and draped the trench coat back over her shoulders, but that couldn’t conceal the transformation I’d wrought on her body-art. Wide circles of blank untouched flesh now punctuated the black mass of ink, each circle connected by at least one clear line of unblemished skin.

Whatever I’d achieved with brainmath at the end there, it had erased almost all the spirals from Zheng’s tattoos.

She grinned, the same unnerving shark-toothed grin as before. “Thank you, little shaman.”

“You’re welcome, I think?” What on earth does one say to a newly liberated giant zombie animated by a spirit from outside reality? I cast about the room instead, squinting through a real monster of a headache and trying to figure out where I was now. “Sick of passing out and waking up in other places,” I muttered.

I tipped a little of the bottled water into my cupped hand and splashed it on my face, rubbing the corners of my eyes, before I downed the rest to wash the taste of blood and bile out of my mouth.

Zheng had wrapped me in a pair of filthy blankets, apparently warm enough to stop me from freezing. A hissing gas-powered space heater poured warmth into the concrete room, rubber hose plugged into a free-standing cannister, like some sprawling industrial spider dredged up from a nightmare of the 1970s. Well done, Zheng.

“Where … ” I gestured vaguely.

“One of their lairs,” Zheng purred. “Top floor. You passed out, easy to carry though. You weigh nothing, shaman. Need to eat more protein.”

One of the cult’s lairs – the Eye Cult now, I suppose – and it looked the part as well. Another stripped concrete flat in Glasswick tower, whether the same unit or a nearby one I couldn’t tell. Once a sitting room, perhaps. Light entered through two filthy windows in the longest wall.

The room was full of supplies and equipment: a first-aid box, a plastic tote full of bottled water and cereal bars, a couple of crowbars against a wall, binoculars on one windowsill, rolls of tarpaulin, a tin of paint, and a dozen other innocuous everyday items, though I did wonder at the expensive fishing rod propped up in a corner. A magic circle had been inscribed onto the floor at the far end of the space, in black paint, surrounded by a few odds and ends – a bundle of feathers, a small knife, a single leather glove. An empty glass bottle stood in the middle of the circle. Whatever magic had been performed there, it wasn’t active anymore.

Another two beach chairs stood near the one Zheng had placed me in. Along with the space-heater and a small stack of paperback books, they gave the distinct impression of a sort of watchtower or guard room.

Zheng had caught one of the guards.

A thin young man with a face like a seagull, wearing jeans and a zipped-up athletic hoodie, had been roped to the room’s radiator much like I had, but with far more medieval sadism. A rope ran from each of his wrists down under his groin, then up around his neck, then to the radiator pipe and up to an old rusted curtain rail. The arrangement forced him to stand on tiptoes if he wanted to keep breathing. A dark blotch of urine had stained the front of his trousers. Terrified eyes met mine.

“Help me,” he whined, tears on his cheeks. Appealing to a fellow human being. “Please!”

“ … are you one of them?”

He stared, half-shaking his head, not understanding my question.

“He is. I remember him well enough,” Zheng grunted. “Jacob something. Unimportant.”

“She- she’s going to eat me!” Jacob pleaded.

“Will you?” I asked Zheng.

“Be a waste if I didn’t.” She shrugged, and turned a nasty grin on the bound man. “Still full after the first course, but I’ve got room.”

Jacob closed his eyes in mortal resignation, trying not to weep. I looked away, didn’t have the bandwidth for this right now. I was painfully aware I’d made an unspoken pact with something cruel and violent, which liked me for reasons I didn’t entirely understand yet.

My eyes alighted on a bundle of discarded clothes and a coat on the floor nearby, wrapped around strangely curved and spiked pieces of polished wood, lying as if dragged there. I blinked, couldn’t quite make the connection, a sick feeling in my stomach.

“You want the bad news or the good news first?” Zheng rumbled.

“What?” I blinked up at her, my jumbled thoughts all lining up suddenly. “Raine! Did you find-”

Zheng shook her head. “Bad news. She’s not here. Neither’s little Lozzie.”

A wrenching emptiness settled in my chest. “What? No, they said … ”

“Top two floors.” Zheng squatted down in front of me, lowering her incredible height so I didn’t have to crane my neck. She looked almost apologetic. “Been right down to the line where the corruption starts, but no further. I don’t have safe passage through that anymore. You’ve seen that place?”

I nodded urgently. “I-I know what you mean.”

“Good news: he was the only thing here,” she nodded toward the bound man. “Sarika and her sad hound must have left, gone downstairs, gone home. Doubt they’d keep any prizes below the line, besides the dead master’s corpse itself.”

“No, no they must have her somewhere else, you … you know all their safe houses, all the places they use, don’t you? You know where she might be? You know how they think, you-”

Zheng pulled a shrug with her face. “Less than I know you, shaman. Furniture doesn’t get the need-to-know.”

“You mean you don’t know anywhere they might be?” I started to shove the filthy blankets off me, wanted to stand up, felt so drained and weak, but had to do something. Had to find Raine, get back to Evelyn, call Twil. Something, anything.

“Not doors I’d knock on without knowing what’s behind them,” she rumbled. “But yes, three ‘safe houses’ I can think of, maybe, perhaps, if we’re very lucky.”

“Where? Zheng, tell me, where?”

The grin crested her features again. “Why don’t we find out for certain?”

“ … what?”

She stood up without explaining herself, and met the eyes of the terrified man tied to the radiator.

“No, please!” Jacob blurted out before either of us asked him anything. “I don’t know anything! I don’t know- I don’t- I don’t- I-”

His pleading dissolved into babbling as Zheng did what I suspect she’d first been designed for. The grin spread on her face as she opened her jaw, wider and wider, taking each step toward him with slow purpose. Her tongue lolled out of her mouth, inch after obscene inch, fat and thick and wet, extending far below her chin. The man cringed, closing his eyes and trying to press himself back from her without choking himself on the rope around his neck.

“Zheng!” I snapped. The tongue whipped back into her mouth, and she turned to regard me, oddly neutral. I had the sudden and unmistakable feeling of getting between a dog and its food. “What are you doing?”

“You want to know where your lover is?” she asked.

“Yes, of course I do, but … don’t … ”

“Do you have a better suggestion?” She took the final step toward the terrified man, and grasped his chin in one huge meaty fist, ignoring me once more. “First I will take one of your eyes,” she hissed. “Then a hand. Which do you use to wipe your arse, worm?”

Zheng only did her thing for a few seconds, but it made my stomach turn and my blood run cold. She slid up close to the shaking, cowering cultist, her hot breath in his face, hissing something between her teeth about how he had to open his eyes, an obscenity I will not repeat here because I don’t wish to think about it ever again. Her teeth in his face, her frame radiating animal threat and lust and hunger all at once – she was going to eat him. She wanted to eat him, every cell in her body screamed it out loud. He was crying, panting, babbling denials, when her tongue extended again, a rough tentacle crawling up the side of his face, daring him to close his eyelids.

“Actually,” I managed to say out loud. “Yes.”

She stopped. The tongue whipped back into her head again. She didn’t look at me. “Yes?”

“Yes, I have a better suggestion,” I said. My voice shook, but I got the words out. Zheng tilted her head one way, then the other, a low hiss of frustration in her throat. “I’m not- I’m not telling you what to do, but I’m going to politely request that you not eat parts of that man. Please.”

Zheng sighed, shrugged, and let him go.

The cultist – Jacob – looked at me like I was an angel. I glared back. “I’m not saving you from her,” I said, only half a lie. “I’ve got an ultimatum.”

“Anything, anything- I- they just pay me!” he said. “I’m hired to watch the room, I-”

“I don’t believe that,” I said.

Zheng grinned.

“But it doesn’t matter,” I continued. “I assume you’re not a mage, at least, or Zheng would have pulled your head off by now.”

“Mmhmm,” the zombie grunted.

“Well, believe it or not, I’m worse than her. I can do a lot worse than kill you or torture you.” I managed to get to my feet, hugging one of the blankets around my shoulders. I felt wobbly and ill, a hollow pain inside my chest, bones fragile as fine porcelain. “Do you know who I am? Tell me the truth, or I’ll … I’ll … or Zheng will eat one of your eyeballs.”

Had to swallow, to keep the bile down.

He glanced at Zheng, then back at me, feet adjusting to keep the rope from closing his windpipe, and nodded once.

“Then you know what I can do,” I said. “I will send you to meet your new God, the Eye, whatever you people call it now. I will send you there, and you will not come back, unless you tell me what I want to know.”

A horrible realisation dawned on his face. Zheng had terrified him, but the prospect of meeting his God sent claws of soul-horror raking across his beaten mind. His face went grey and his jaw went slack.

“I don’t-” he choked out.

“Don’t is not the word I want to hear,” I managed. Deep down in the back of my mind I felt like a monster, like something hatching from a misshapen shell, but I would do anything to find Raine.

“I don’t know!” he almost screamed. “I don’t know where they took the other girl, I swear! I swear, oh God, please no, no, I swear, I-”

“You must do, or you’re going to meet your God.”

His eyes darted back and forth, sweat on his brow, shaking all over.

Then he tried to kill himself.

He did a little hop on one foot and kicked his own legs out from under him; the rope snapped taught with his weight, and almost snapped his neck. Luckily for all of us, Zheng had seen this coming. She moved like greased lightning, and hit about as hard, grabbing the ropes that ran from the cultist’s wrists and under his groin in the split-second before his entire body weight slammed through his spine.

Instead of breaking his neck he jerked and writhed, choking for air, squealing like a stuck pig. Zheng reached up and unhooked the top rope from the curtain rail, and poor Jacob crashed to the floor in a sobbing, retching heap.

I stared, numb, lost for a moment, trying and failing to convince myself he had deserved that. My threat had made a man want to die.

“So eager to leave this mortal coil, monkey?” Zheng rumbled down at him, grabbing a handful of his hair. “At least let me do it for you.”

“Alright,” I snapped out, before Zheng could pick him up and eat his fingers. “Alright, I believe you, you don’t know where Raine is.”

The cultist nodded, clutching at his bruised throat, trying to squeeze himself away from Zheng. His eyes found me like a drowning man clutching for a piece of driftwood.

“But you’re going to tell me every place your cult has, every place she might be. Addresses, details, any-”

He didn’t take much convincing. I suspect he was broken long before Zheng tied him to that curtain rail. As he babbled out a trio of targets – a place on the riverfront, an old pub out west I’d never heard of, a suburban address he swore was Sarika’s – he broke down slowly, all energy fleeing his body until Zheng finally let go of his hair and he curled up on himself like a wounded insect. He slowed, words deadened, eyes drained of vitality.

“That’s all? Just those three places?”

He nodded. “Those are the only- only ones I know. I know they took another girl, I don’t know who, I never saw. If I had, I would … I … I-I never agreed with … with … ”

He trailed off at the look on my face. “Whatever you have to tell yourself,” I said quietly. “You’re not worth killing.”

She’s not going to kill you,” Zheng corrected me. The man flinched, but that was all. The horror of the Eye had drained the life from him. He’d given up. Zheng tutted, unimpressed with the lack of reaction.

“What about Praem? Where is she?” I asked.

Tink. A clink of metal on glass, a fragment of gravel on a window, too faint to notice beyond the subconscious.

“Who? What?” The cultist blinked at me.

“The zombie. Who came here last night? Sarika told me you people captured her too, unless that was another bluff. She’s my friend, where is she?”

Blink blink. Incomprehension. “Last night? Oh, you- you mean that.”

He nodded past me at the floor, and for a moment I thought he was being funny or we’d pushed him so far he’d lost his mind. He was nodding at the bundle of clothes and polished wood.

A sick pressure mounted in my chest. I took a shaking step toward what resolved itself as a splayed figure, wrapped in a pair of ugly cargo trousers and a big puffy coat. The boots. I recognised the boots, I’d seen them so many times before. Another step and I fell to my knees, shaking my head. Reached out with one hand, but stopped, confused. To touch would be only further desecration.

“Shaman?” Zheng purred.

“It’s her,” I managed.

A wooden mannequin, ball-jointed, of the kind only found in the most expensive and exclusive boutiques or the workshops of fashion designers. Evelyn had spared no expense in making Praem, but the wood had been warped by the effects of Praem’s inhabitation. Little spars and anchor-spikes jutted from the limbs, threads like a nervous system or frozen blood vessels lay just below the surface, and many of the joints had been added to with sheaths of wooden sinew or strange adjustments to their ranges of motion. The head was a blank oval, the wood grain twisted in impossible ways.

I shouldn’t be seeing this. It was like looking at a friend’s bones.

“Praem?” I whispered.

Tink.

Only in the silence of impending grief did I hear the little clink of metal on glass. I cast about with sudden wild hope. “Praem? Pra-”

Clink. Clink clink.

“Ahhh,” Zheng purred, and pointed at the magic circle, at the empty bottle standing within. “Found her.”

Careless of the danger, stupid and rash, I scrambled over to the magic circle on freezing feet and scooped the bottle up in shaking hands. A cork filled the neck, trapping a piece of fishing line so it dangled down inside the glass enclosure. A bead of lead, like a fishing weight, hung at the end of the line.

Inside the glass, I could see the faintest suggestion of a rainbow discolouration shifting and curling, like oil on water transmuted into the slimmest wisp of smoke.

“It’s-” Jacob spoke up. I stared at him with too much anger and steel, made him flinch and cringe; right then I wanted to murder him. I wanted to get my hands on the person responsible for this and slap them.

“This is an obscenity,” I hissed at him.

Zheng snorted mean-spirited laughter. “Got herself corked.”

I whirled on her and, without meaning to, vented cold anger at the target she’d presented. “Don’t you dare laugh. You were like this, an hour ago! You were as good as in a bottle!”

She blinked once, and lowered her head to me in acknowledgement.

“It- it’s one tap for yes, two for no,” Jacob stammered out, nodding at the bottle. I turned back to it, shaking my head in denial.

“Praem?” I whispered.

The piece of lead jumped, as if caught in a breeze, and clinked against the side of the bottle.

Tink.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

that which you cannot put down – 7.1

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Handcuffed to a radiator in a empty concrete room, in only my pajamas and underwear, dried blood crusted around my nostrils and eye sockets and the edges of my scalp, aching and cold and missing a sock, with only a terminally taciturn seven-foot tall zombie for company.

Still an improvement over Wonderland.

I stared back at Zheng, met those empty, dead-fish zombie eyes, but she didn’t move. Apparently my regained consciousness didn’t warrant a response.

“Hi, Zheng,” I croaked, then cleared my throat. So dry. “Don’t suppose you’d know what I’m doing here?”

She said nothing. What had I expected?

Reluctantly, I tore my eyes away from the huge zombie, and inventoried my various aches and pains. I probed my face, my tender hairline, my sore nose, rubbed flakes of a dried blood away from my eyelids until I could blink freely without too much stinging. To my surprise I’d sustained only a couple of external bruises – probably acquired fighting the Lozzie-thing, as well as a nasty livid purple mark on my wrist from where she’d grabbed and held me.

Internally was a different matter, fragile and tender.

My soul, my sense of self, the coherency of electrical impulses in my brain, whatever you wish to call it – that felt bruised and bloodied. That was why my heart ached, why I felt so cold inside, brutalised by the Eye’s rummaging. My connection to my own body was thin and torn, and slow to repair.

I tucked my knees in closer to my chest, shivering, desperate for some warmth.

“Shouldn’t you … I don’t know, go fetch whoever’s in charge of you now?” I asked Zheng.

She stared back at me, eyes empty, face devoid of expression. No body language, like a shop dummy or a sculpture. Her statue-like inhumanity seemed worse than before, but I wasn’t in a state to catalogue exactly how. If her eyes hadn’t moved to meet mine, I’d have assumed she wasn’t in there anymore.

I sighed and tutted at her, and glanced around the room.

Shouldn’t I be terrified? Panicking? Pulling on the handcuff, sobbing and shivering? Crying out for somebody to come help me? That was what young women tied up in cellars did in television and movies. This was supposed to be everyone’s worst nightmare; kidnapped, restrained, by parties unknown. An empty concrete room, even. How cliche.

I’d just survived my worst nightmare, for the second time in my life. A sort of numb euphoria still cushioned my mind. What could be worse than the Eye? This was nothing.

Mostly I felt irritated, cold, and thirsty.

Real fear – for my friends – tickled the back of my consciousness, but I crushed that down under the practicalities of the moment.

I examined the handcuff. Shiny, new, with a rigid black plastic midsection, the metal cuff itself cinched tight around my thin wrist. I tried to squish my thumb down and wriggle free, but couldn’t squeeze through. No getting out without the key.

“Feel like coming over here and crushing the mechanism in here for me?” I rattled the cuff as I asked Zheng. “No? Didn’t think so. May I get up, then? Yes or no? Blink once for yes, twice for no.”

She didn’t blink at all. Spoil-sport. I began to ease myself to my feet. Zheng’s eyes tracked me.

“I’m going to look out of the window, figure out where I am. Shouldn’t you be trying to stop me? … alright then, don’t say I didn’t ask permission.”

Uncurling made my teeth chatter. So cold in here, inside this bag of wet meat I was dragging around as an excuse for a body. The handcuffs limited my range of motion, but I managed to slide them up the radiator pipe, stand up straight, and look out of the window.

Up – dawn. Grey skies. The North in winter.

Down, and a touch of vertigo clutched at my legs. Sharrowford spread out below like a concrete-and-brick skid mark, caught in the vulnerable process of waking itself up, shaking off the shadows and cobwebs. Streetlights flickered off and cars passed in the distance.

Below us, so very far below us, lay Headly council estate.

“Oh, great,” I sighed.

If I craned my neck to the right and pressed my face close to the filthy glass, I could see the corner of the other high-rise tower. I didn’t need to guess which one I was in, or how high up I was. Intact glass, beyond range of the concrete-warping effect of Alexander’s corpse, in a stripped flat.

Glasswick tower, top floor.

I tried the window, but they’d thought of that – the catch was closed and locked, with a key. If I found something heavy to smash the glass, I could wave my arms and shout to attract some attention, but why bother?

Time to leave.

“Well, um, nice seeing you again, I suppose?” I said to Zheng, then took a deep breath and closed my eyes.

The bravado wasn’t entirely false. Whoever had handcuffed me here had no idea what I was capable of. Physical restraint couldn’t hold me, not in this reality.

I’d have lost my nerve if I’d stopped to think about the risks. I felt more fragile and paper-thin than any other time before; I could be about to collapse and pass out in some Outside place, choke to death on my own vomit, or perhaps my body would finally give up. The alternative was to sit here, thinking about what might have happened to Evelyn and Raine. Unable to help. Far away, and alone.

No. Much better to Slip, to take the risk, than wait in this empty room for whoever – or whatever – had imprisoned me.

Considering where I was, I could make an educated guess.

Familiar by now, almost deceptively smooth, the first pieces of the equation slipped into place. Pain spiked in the back of my head. I grit my teeth, tried to hold my breathing steady, focused on the rest of the hyperdimensional mathematics that would get me out of here and my wrist out of these handcuffs. Another piece slid into place, white-hot metal burning a passage through my brain.

Dead hands found my ankles. Held on tight.

Held me here.

I gasped out loud, opened my eyes, and dropped the equation – on purpose this time, carefully, though it still stung like star-fire and made me curl up around my stomach, wincing and wheezing pained breath through my teeth. I blinked down at my feet, but no skeletal hands clutched my actual flesh. Where had that sensation come from?

“That wasn’t … you? Was it?” I asked Zheng, but she didn’t look like she’d moved in weeks.

Shaking, confused, with real panic rising up my throat, I tried again.

I got further that second time. Pushed right up to the edge, stomach heaving on nothing but bile – and the feeling of bony, dessicated hands wrapped themselves around my ankles, held on tight, clawing at the periphery of my soul.

Crumpling to the floor, hacking and coughing flecks of blood onto the bare concrete, exhausted by the effort of failed brainmath, I whined in horrified frustration. The calm and lack of fear slipped through my fingers. I scratched and scrubbed furiously at my ankles, trying to wipe away the memory of that awful grasping.

“Get off me, get off me!” I hissed. “Let me go!”

I couldn’t Slip.

==

My captors came to check on me ten minutes later. Felt like eternity.

Turned out the reason I’d been so unafraid was the assumption I was able to Slip away, use brainmath, get out of here. As soon as I couldn’t, it all came crashing down.

Nothing to do except think, huddled against the wall, going around and around inside my own head, faster and faster. I needed to get out of these handcuffs and break the window, but with what? How? Could I get past Zheng? Hit her with a wrecking ball of force again, like I did before? I’d pass out afterward, and then I’d end up right back where I started, unless I took the top off the entire building.

Nobody was coming to rescue me. Raine had been knocked out, maybe worse. Vulnerable. Acid burned in my throat – Raine, made vulnerable.

Chest tight, shivering in the cold. Evelyn too, in a magical coma, alone and unprotected, except for Kimberly, and she’d run away. Didn’t blame her. How long ago had those strange men been hammering on our front door? An hour? Two? I needed to get out of here, they could be anywhere, anything could be happening. The Eye could be coming back for me.

What about Lozzie? Why wasn’t she appearing to help me? Was she trapped here too? Nearby, tied up like this, unable to Slip out because of dead hands grabbing at her feet? Was she scared too?

The radiator was bolted to an exterior-facing wall, so I couldn’t hammer on the concrete. The best I could manage was to stretch out a leg and thump my heel on the floor.

“Lozzie!” I yelled at the top of my lungs, throat hoarse and raw. They should have gagged me. “Lozzie?”

Dust and echoes.

I wanted to cry, but I was alone, no heroic Raine coming to rescue me, no friend about to appear around the corner to help. Alone. I did cry, a tiny bit. I’m not ashamed to admit so.

No, not like in films or television at all. Sometimes there’s no way out, unless you cheat.

I focused on Zheng, and started thinking like a mage.

Last I’d seen the giant zombie woman was in the Cult’s ridiculous castle, in the last moments before I’d killed Alexander Lilburne. She looked as if she’d been treated to at least a perfunctory wash since then.

Clean boots, new denim trousers, greasy black hair sticking up in all directions from a pale scalp. Her trench coat was mercifully free of blood – but was still missing the left sleeve where I’d knocked her arm off, the reattached limb still exposed. The arm looked much healthier, her shoulder no longer a mass of pulped tissue, now all clean, lean, toned muscle.

Unlike every previous time we’d met, her trench coat hung open. She wore a thin white tshirt beneath, and obviously no bra.

Also unlike every previous time, I finally witnessed the true extent of Zheng’s tattoos.

I’d seen the tattoos on her left arm before, in those terrified moments when she’d confronted Lozzie and I in the cult’s castle, but I’d had neither time nor presence of mind to examine them.

Now I had nothing but time and fear, and Zheng stood there, unmoving, the white tshirt doing little to conceal either modesty, muscle, or body-art.

The looping, winding, spiralling black of the tattoos covered her entire muscled torso. Emerging from below the waistline of her jeans, reaching the rough terminus of her wrists, scrawled on her heavy breasts and washboard stomach, crawling up her throat and across her bold collarbone, in a design so complex it stung the eye not with magic but with sheer visual confusion. A thick mass of infinitely tiny text, in dozens of languages, formed into symbols, whorls, loops – but mostly spirals, so many spirals, etched into the skin over corded muscle.

All of it was faded, some more, some less, some almost to nothing – from different times, different ages, inscribed in different hands, some on top of older designs, some interlocking with them. Zheng’s skin carried a multi-generational work of art.

Among the faded, blurred tattoos, one unmistakable addition stood out, bold and clear.

On her exposed left forearm, the one I’d injured, a half-complete spiral shape interlocked with a much older part of the design. The ink looked fresh.

“That’s new,” I said to Zheng, meeting her eyes again. “And you didn’t do that yourself, did you?”

A mad and dangerous idea took root in my mind, based on too many assumptions. I wet my lips, weighed my courage. Better than sitting here. If I could only reach her.

Then, I realised I was an idiot.

“The cuff,” I said out loud, and sighed in sudden relief. “I’m so stupid. Heather, you’re so stupid.”

Heart fluttering with nervous tension, I grabbed the rigid middle of the handcuffs with my free hand. If I couldn’t go Outside, then these could – and the glass in the window could, too.

A key rattled in the door, interrupted my small nervous victory.

Jerking to my feet, heart in my throat, I rose as best I could to meet whatever had come for me – Alexander’s walking, headless corpse, or the Lozzie-thing with a hole in its chest, or robed cultists with knives and chanting. I kept my hand on the cuffs, but internally I began to prepare, painfully and with some reluctance, for a very different kind of brainmath. Whatever they wanted, whatever came through that door, I was going to fight.

The last thing I expected to step into that barren concrete room was three very ordinary looking people. A woman, and two men.

The woman was the leader, I think. She stepped inside first, with a pause at the threshold and a curious raised eyebrow at me.

“You gonna to try to kill me?” she asked.

“ … I don’t know,” I managed. “Should I?”

She shrugged and strode into the middle of the room, but stayed well beyond my reach, ignoring Zheng and watching my eyes. Short and trim, severe in the face from too much shouting in her life, perhaps in her late twenties or early thirties, with a long shock of black hair and the fine-boned, classically pretty features of a British Indian or Pakistani. Long grey coat, high leather boots, and exhausted. She looked as if she hadn’t truly rested in several days, kept on her feet with a cocktail of determination and spite.

I recognised her. This was the woman who’d been outside number 12 Barnslow drive, directing the men.

The two who followed her into the room, however, had not been at the house. The first was exceptionally clean-cut and very young, perhaps no older than me, not a hair out of place on his blonde head, in a crisp white shirt and a plastic smile. He had a large notebook open over one arm and a pencil ready in the other hand, and went straight to Zheng, peering down at her exposed arm and making ‘hmm’ noises.

The second man looked like a teenage drug-dealer or pothead who’d aged badly into his twenties. He squinted at me from under scraggly twists of hair escaping from his beanie hat, and played with an unlit cigarette held in grubby fingers. For some reason, he made me think of a badger.

Neither of them looked like capable muscle. The woman scared me much more than either of them.

She sighed and cast about the room. “Well, she’s still here.”

“Mm. You owe me twenty quid,” the badger man said.

“Later,” she grunted.

They watched me for a second, in silence, though the clean-cut man was absorbed in taking notes as he examined Zheng’s tattoos. Their looks felt nothing like the pressure of Alexander Lilburne’s infinite self-satisfaction. His gaze had been like a snake waiting for a twitch. This lot looked more like they weren’t sure how to proceed.

As a second turned into two, then three, then five, I realised the look was no act – they genuinely had no idea what to do with me. If they were hoping I’d say something, they didn’t know what.

“Would you leave the zombie alone?” The woman hissed at the clean-cut man. “For five fucking seconds?”

He ignored her and lifted Zheng’s wrist, to examine the new tattoo up close. Zheng didn’t even glance down at him.

“I’m speaking to you, Marcus,” the woman snapped. “For fuck’s sake.”

“The new sigil is taking properly,” Marcus murmured. “Despite the constant changes in her binding. This is good, this is good news.”

“This is also not the time,” she hissed through gritted teeth.

“This is important work, you know that.”

“Uh, maybe we shouldn’t use names in front of … ” The badger-like man nodded toward me.

“What fucking difference does it make?” the woman asked him. He shrugged.

“Who … ” Had to swallow, my throat was so dry. “Who are you people?”

The clean-cut man – Marcus – turned away from Zheng and pointed his plastic smile at me, before the woman could answer.

“We are the favoured and the blessed,” he said, his voice floaty and not-quite-here. The voice of a missionary, or of drugs crossing the blood-brain barrier.

“We’re what’s left,” the woman answered – measured, quiet, and filled with hate.

“Left of … left of what?” I swallowed again, playing for time, for information. I couldn’t make myself confident here, but I could make myself seem oblivious.

“Don’t be obtuse,” the woman said.

“The Brotherhood of the New Sun.” The badger man snorted an empty laugh.

I glanced between the three of them, but there was no joke in their eyes. The woman sighed and shrugged.

“Just … just you three?” I asked.

“I’m not completely stupid, I’m not going to tell you that,” the woman said, then narrowed her eyes and smiled in a thin, dark way, voice turning sarcastic and mocking. “No, in fact, there’s dozens of us, hundreds even. All of us exist purely to torment you, because you’re the centre of the Goddamn universe.”

“Hey, Sarry … ” the badger-man muttered, half reaching for her shoulder, and then thought better of it. She ignored him.

Undignified, dressed in my pajamas and ugly with my own blood on my face, I tried to turn vulnerability into the only form of strength I could grasp. I pulled on my right wrist, let the handcuffs clink against the radiator.

“I’m the one cuffed to a wall.”

“Yeah, that’s right. You are. So why the hell are you still here?”

“She’s run out of juice,” the badger man said. “Too tuckered out, eh?”

“That,” the clean-cut young man raised his pencil. “Should not be possible. That never happened with the younger Lilburne. She was irrepressible. Something else is keeping our guest here. Reluctance, perhaps? Maybe she’s seen the light.”

“Maybe,” the woman drawled. She sounded unconvinced. “She looks pretty tired to me. You feeling tired, Heather?”

I blinked at her. Too many things to take in at once, struggling to hold onto every scrap. Every piece of information could be valuable, could get me out.

They didn’t know why I couldn’t Slip. They didn’t know about the dead hands.

“I’m thirsty,” I said, instead. “And how do you know my name?”

“We all knew your stupid name. Alexander wanted you on the team, so we all had to fucking know about it.”

“Then you appear to have me at a disadvantage,” I said, raising my chin.

I don’t know how I put so much haughty weight into that sentence. Half an impression of Evelyn, half stolen confidence from their petty infighting. I couldn’t see a way out, yet, but I knew there must be one. These people were tired and bitter and not what I’d expected.

“Why not, hey?” the woman said. “Why not pretend we’re all regular fucking human beings? I’m Sarika, and this is Nate. Marcus you heard earlier.”

“Call me Badger,” Nate said. “Not that we’ll know each other for long.” I blinked at him, not quite believing my ears. “Yeah, you were thinking it weren’t you?”

“I … yes.”

“This is our chance,” Marcus said, eyes shining with zeal. “This is our opportunity, to prove ourselves, to Him. She can’t leave, or she’s unwilling to go, and the construct – well, the construct is missing. So we send her, ourselves. We send her back to Him.”

“Mm,” Sarika grunted, staring at me. “Sounds good.”

“We must. We must do it!”

“Alright. We will. Hold onto your pants,” she grunted.

“What?” I asked, stomach sinking, but I didn’t really have to ask. A cold shiver ran down my spine and into my blood. “Send me where? You … you people work for the Eye now, don’t you?”

“ … ‘Eye’?” Sarika raised an eyebrow. “That’s what you call it?”

“Makes sense.” Badger shrugged.

“He has a name and His glory should not be diminished by our fragility,” Marcus said, raising his head and closing his eyes.

Then he spoke the Eye’s true name.

A not-sound with no business issuing from a human throat. My eyes stung and my ears popped as a static crackle passed through the frigid air. I assume the temperature dropped, as it had months ago when Evelyn had spoken the Eye’s name to make a point, but the bare concrete room was already too cold to notice. Sarika jerked and winced, gritting her teeth. Badger grunted and screwed his eyes up.

Zheng blinked.

Marcus raised his voice, a little blood on his lips. “We speak His name and embody His will and-”

Sarika grabbed a handful of Marcus’ collar and got up in his face, bearing her teeth. “If you do that again without warning me first, you little shit, I will have her,” – she jabbed a finger at Zheng – “split you from your cock to your throat, and feed you your own steaming guts. You’ll die with a mouthful of your own shit. Do I make myself clear?”

“She’ll do it, man. You know she will,” Badger said.

“I will not apologise for my devotion,” Marcus said through his plastic smile.

Sarika let go and pushed him away – then gestured at Zheng.

My heart leapt into my throat. For one terrible moment I thought their leader was about to make good on her gruesome threat. Zheng came to life all at once, whirling into motion, one hand grabbing Marcus by the shoulder and shoving him at the wall. He bounced off – but Zheng stopped at a click of Sarika’s fingers.

“Want me to keep going?” Sarika snapped.

Marcus straightened his shirt and turned his plastic smile back on. He tilted his head down in the smallest gesture of submission. Sarika sighed, and Zheng returned to her waiting pose, eyes locked back on mine again. Badger took a deep breath and swallowed.

“Right, now that’s over, we don’t want her to die in the meantime,” Sarika muttered. “You said you’re thirsty?”

“Yes,” I answered after a moment. “Very much so.”

“Here.” She dug around in her coat pockets and pulled out a plastic bottle. She tossed it to me, and of course I couldn’t catch it with one hand cuffed to the wall. I crouched to fetch it off the floor.

Half empty. Seal on the cap already broken. I met Sarika’s eyes.

“ … what?” she huffed. “You think it’s drugged? We don’t need to fucking drug you, we can have Zheng drag you wherever we want. Drink it or not. I’m beyond caring.”

I didn’t touch the water, but I placed the bottle on the windowsill.

“So you people do work for the Eye? I don’t understand, how?”

“’Work’ is perhaps a little too optimistic,” Sarika sneered.

“What’s to understand?” Badger said with a shrug. “We’re here, and none of us are getting out.”

“We serve Him now, as we always should have,” Marcus added.

Great. The Eye, my childhood nightmare, my twin’s jailer, and the ultimate foe of everything good in my life, now had a real-life doomsday cult in Sharrowford. I could connect the dots even if I didn’t know the details – Alexander had found out about Maisie and my past, somehow encountered knowledge about the Eye. And now his former followers had decided to worship the thing as a God.

I’m certain Evelyn could have told about a worse possible outcome, but right then I couldn’t see one.

“How did I get here?” I asked.

“A wonderful question,” Sarika said. “One we were hoping you could answer, in fact.”

“ … what?”

“We found you on the floor in front of Alexander’s body. That’s what.”

“Where’s the construct?” Badger asked me.

“Mm, yes, that too. We know it came for you,” Sarika added. They were getting into the swing of this now, back and forth, hitting me with questions – but only because I’d given then the opening, ceded control of the tempo. Marcus may have been a loon, lost to the Eye, but these two had at least some brains cells to share between them. “In fact, I’m pretty certain it got you. Got there before I did, and spirited you away. So how the fuck’d you get free from it?”

“It should be coming for her right now,” Badger muttered. “Should be here already.”

“Yeah, and it’s not.” Sarika shivered. “Thank fuck.”

“It is otherwise occupied,” Marcus said, nodding to himself. “It is His creature and His ways are not our ways.”

“You mean the thing that looks like Lozzie?” I asked.

Sarika tried to laugh, but it didn’t take an expert on body language to read the shudder in her face. “Yeah, the thing that looks like Lauren Lilburne. The construct.”

“It’s dead,” I said – and relished the looks on their faces.

“A lie,” Marcus said.

I didn’t respond, through more because I wasn’t actually certain it was dead than any calculated intimidation tactic. He frowned at me.

“She ain’t lying,” Badger clicked his tongue. “It’d be here if it was still walking about. They must have killed it before it took her.”

“Killed it after it took me. The Eye can’t hold me,” I almost spat at them. “Sending me back would be pointless, because I’ll just escape again.”

“Okay, that’s obviously nonsense,” Sarika said, sighing. “If it had you, you wouldn’t be here. I’ll accept you killed the construct, or your friend with the gun did, but there’s no way you escaped the … the ‘Eye’.”

“Him,” Marcus corrected.

“You think it has a fucking gender? Really?” She shook her head.

“The Eye can’t hold me, and you can’t hold me.” I managed to sound much more confident than I really felt, shivering cold and restrained in front of these people. “I could kill all of you with my mind, right now, and there’s nothing you could do to stop me.”

Except that I’d pass out for hours and freeze to death on the floor. I didn’t say that part out loud.

“Oh yeah? Just like you and your friends did to Alexander?” Sarika’s voice twisted with disgust – and a strange touch of sorrow, a catch in the back of her throat. “Did to my friends? You gonna kill me too, now, huh? Go on. Bitch.”

“We should be thanking her,” Marcus said. “For acting as the catalyst of our revelation. Without her actions, rash and destructive as they may be, we would never have found Him.”

My turn to frown at this fanatic – what did he mean, my actions?

“She doesn’t know,” Badger said with a sad chuckle.

Sarika blinked at me. “You really have no idea, do you? You don’t think about the consequences of your actions, people like you never do. You just do violence, and then swan away. I hate your type, I really do.”

I stared at her. Couldn’t quite process the words. She was outraged – at me?

“What do you think happened, hmm? After you and your friends killed Alexander? Killed the best visionary I’ve ever known? Cut off our fucking head? My … ” She paused, pressed her lips together.

“You found a bigger monster to follow?” I tasted bile in my throat.

Sarika regarded me for a moment, bitter and silent, then spoke. “He didn’t die right away. Lingered maybe three or four hours, I don’t remember exactly. I don’t remember much of that night very well. Zheng brought him back here, he was just … limp meat … and he … ”

“He gave us a God,” Marcus said, his eyelids fluttering half-closed

“He made a deal. A shitty one, with this ‘Eye’,” Sarika continued, gritting her teeth. “With the Magnus Vigilator. It was supposed to save his body, put him back together, but I don’t think that thing understood the meaning of human biology well enough. In return he gave it raw material. His memories of his sister, I assume, to form an avatar, a puppet, a … I don’t know how it works, alright? I don’t care. Something that can move back and forth between our reality and the Beyond, the way the real Lauren had done. An abomination, no? All that’s left of him, all I’ve got left of him, and it’s a walking nightmare.”

She couldn’t keep the emotion out of her voice. I wasn’t certain what Alexander Lilburne had been to her, but it had been more than a follow-messiah relationship.

I think I was talking to the ex-lover of the man I’d killed.

Oh dear.

“You forget the most important aspect of our ascension,” Marcus said, his plastic smile tinted with smugness.

Sarika sighed heavily, bringing her emotions under control. She displayed remarkable restraint in not thumping Marcus across the face. “Yes. Yes, how could I possibly forget? He gave it another bargaining chip too, to spice the deal. Us.”

“A God is no God if it is not deserving of worship,” Marcus said. Badger cleared his throat, lowered his eyes.

“You?” I blinked at her, not quite getting it.

“We’ve all … communed with it now, we all dream about it. That was the deal.” Sarika said. “It’s in my head, when I close my eyes. It’s in all our fucking heads, girl, and in a way that’s your fault. Yours and Alexander’s, and I can’t throttle him.”

“It is a blessing,” Marcus admonished her. “The vistas of thought that open before the human mind, if one is but willing to accept, are beyond words.”

“Sure is that,” Sarika grunted. “This thing Alexander found, when looking into you, Heather. Your background. It wants you, and I am fucking well going to find a way to give it what it wants. Nothing personal, understand?”

I almost – almost – didn’t blame her.

“You don’t have to listen to it,” I said, but my voice shook too much to sound convincing. “I’m going to … to defeat it.”

Sarika started laughing.

“Why not just park her back in front of Alex’s corpse, like we all had to?” Badger asked. “Let it in her head?”

“You want to risk touching her?” Sarika shook her head, laughter dying.

“Ehhh.” Badger shrugged. “She’s out of juice.”

I raised my chin, stood as tall as I could, and tried to stop shivering. “I can still send you Outside – Beyond, whatever you call it – if you let me touch you. You want to meet your God, in person? I can send you there.”

Marcus’s eyes flashed with a split-second of interest, but the other two merely stared at me, thinking.

“Come on, we need to hit the books, find a way to send her back,” Sarika said eventually. “And Marcus, you need to go pray again, figure out if there’s something He wants done with her. There’s got to be a way. Make another construct, I don’t know.”

“What if we get her to go willingly?” Badger muttered.

“Hmm?”

“What?” I said.

Badger wet his lips, swallowed, and played his hand.

“We’ve got your friends. All’o them,” he said, nodding. “We could hurt them, cut bits off’o them, until you just … poof, go back to the … ‘Eye’. And then we’re all free, and your mates go free too. Or we can hurt ‘em. That’s a promise.”

A sudden weight on my chest. Sick and blinking through a flush of heat in my face. They had hit the house, Raine and Evelyn had both been unconscious, and I doubted very much that Kim could have put up much of a fight. I tried to focus on the tone of the man’s voice, to read his expression.

“You’re bluffing.” I shook my head.

“No I’m not,” he replied, too quickly.

“We picked up Evelyn Saye, and her bodyguard, and the Brinkwood werewolf,” Sarika said. “We were following the construct, got brave, got lucky. You’ve got nobody left.”

Relief pulsed through my chest. A tiny, borderline hysterical smile curled on my lips. “You couldn’t hold Twil,” I hissed. “That’s a bluff. And you missed somebody else. How’d you get past the invisible spiders? How many people did they kill?”

That struck a nerve. Badger frowned and grit his teeth – perhaps Evelyn’s Spider-servitors had hurt one of his friends.

“Alright, we have one of them,” Sarika admitted with a sigh and a side-eyes glare at Badger. “You think you can do that, Nate? Torture some fucking kid? Cut off a finger?”

Badger shrugged. “Yeah. You know? Yeah.”

“No,” I said, clinging on. “No. Who, who have you got? You’re lying. That’s a lie, it-”

Sarika tilted her head, slowly. She had me now, and she knew so.

Who?” I almost screamed at her.

“I wouldn’t tell her if I was you. This is working,” Marcus announced. Sarika sighed and ran a hand over her face.

“Torture it is then,” she grunted. “We’ll let you stew a bit, have a think if you wanna save your friend. We’ll be back with a finger, or an ear, or … fuck knows. Come on you two, out.”

They turned to leave.

“Wait!” I said, scrabbling for a handhold, for anything. If they’d broken into the house and had time to take only one person, I knew exactly who they had, and I did anything to deny that reality. “It’s Praem, isn’t it? You’ve got Praem. She was here, she came to the tower. You can’t hurt her, she’s not even human, she’s made of wood.”

Sarika squinted at me. “Praem?”

“She means the zombie we found,” Badger grunted.

“Oh, that thing. Yeah, we’ve got her too.” Sarika smirked. “Don’t worry, she won’t be mounting a rescue anytime soon. She’s in a bottle. Corked.”

My world shrunk, walls closing in, head throbbing with more than simple pain. Sarika was last out, and I stared at her as she left.

“Try to keep warm, yeah?” she said. “Don’t freeze to death up here.” She closed the door, turned the key, and locked me in.

They had Raine. I knew, in my bones, they had kidnapped Raine.

My Raine, my beautiful Raine, handcuffed to a radiator pipe like this? What would she be doing – planning a way out? She’d have a plan, of course she would, she was probably already free, right? There was no way she’d let them hurt her, I could barely imagine it. She’d fight like a cornered fox, she’d find a way, she’d break free.

Wouldn’t she? She was only human, and perhaps she was as cold and drained as I was. Unarmed. Alone.

In the dark watches of the night, in my most private, isolated moments, I’d feared a time like this would come – ever since Raine had slid into my life over the top of a bathroom stall, and made the choice to help me, defend me, become part of me. Feared that if the certainty of her confidence was ever taken away, I’d crumble to nothing. I was a half-person pretending to be real, an emotional dependent, a weakling. So afraid that without her, I’d relapse into retreat and reclusion, give up, give in.

Shaking all over, eyes wet with tears, I did the opposite.

As soon as the door was locked and I heard the cultist trio’s footsteps vanish, I didn’t even think. I grabbed the rigid centre of the handcuffs with my free hand, grit my teeth and tensed to stop myself vomiting, and jammed the familiar old equation into place so fast that my eyeballs hurt.

Out.

The handcuffs vanished.

Reeling, spitting blood, doubling up with pain as my stomach spasmed and my head pounded like an explosion, I clung onto consciousness – and my stomach acid – with pure force of will. Forcing myself to breathe, breathe, in and out, I straightened up, made my legs take my weight.

Zheng stared back at me. Seven feet of statue-still zombie muscle.

“I think it’s time we test some assumptions,” I said, voice shaking.

It wasn’t courage. I’m not a courageous person, I refuse to believe so. I simply lacked any other options. Sit in this room and wait for those awful people to return, with a magic circle or Raine’s severed index finger? Smash the window and shout and wait for Zheng to stop me? Try to Slip Outside again, and leave Raine – or somebody else, if I’d gotten it wrong – behind?

Those weren’t options. Easier to stop breathing than pick one of those, no matter how much this new plan terrified me. Not courage. Blind and unthinking, the only choice.

“Assumption one – you didn’t attack me. That night. And you … a-and you … dammit, Heather.” I swallowed, sniffed, forced steel into my voice as I spoke to the towering zombie. “And you stood by when I killed Alexander.”

I took a step toward Zheng, and she didn’t move.

That awful night when the Sharrowford Cult had mounted its last attempt to kidnap me, the night I’d knocked Zheng’s arm off, broken the integrity of her tattoos, she’d gone berserk. She’d killed two of the Cult, eviscerated them, left their corpses behind as she’d careened off into the labyrinth.

But she hadn’t attacked me.

That night, I’d regained consciousness underneath one of Evelyn’s Spider-servitors, and I’d assumed that it had protected me from Zheng. Perhaps, but perhaps not. She’d also not attacked us when we’d stumbled across her in the labyrinth. And, in those final moments in Alexander’s throne room, she’d seen what Lozzie and I were doing. She hadn’t stopped us.

“Assumption two.” My eyes flickered down to the new tattoo on her forearm, black spiral half-complete. “That’s how they control you.”

Another step toward Zheng. Her eyes tracked me.

A major assumption, that. One of Evelyn’s theories, not my deduction. Please, Evee, please be safe, please be well. I hope Twil found you in time.

Another step. God, but Zheng was so tall. An animal part of me quivered, told me to back away, out of her arm’s reach. But I stepped closer, almost close enough to touch her.

“Assumption three. You hate these people,” I hissed. “And if I’m right, you deserve this.”

I lunged for the door.

A very poor lunge, on exhausted, shaking legs and slippery feet, at the wrong angle and without enough reach. I wouldn’t have touched the door handle even if Zheng hadn’t decided to move. She didn’t so much grab me as catch me around the middle to stop me falling on my face. One huge hand whipped out like the jaws of a snake, hauling me up and back.

Quick as I could, flailing and missing once, twice, heart in my throat – third time lucky! I wrapped a hand around Zheng’s exposed left forearm. Directly over the new tattoo.

Out.

No time to plan the equation, to minimise the pain. I’d never attempted such physical finesse before, such delicate mathematical selection of what I was touching. Not skin or muscle or bone, and certainly not the whole of her, clothes and all.

Only the ink, under my palm.

The effort almost blacked me out. A second of oblivion as I reeled away from Zheng, a second of sagging and choking, as I spat a string of bile onto the floor, gritting my teeth and holding on and holding on and-

An intake of breath, sharp, surprised, deep. Not mine.

Blinking through the darkening edges of my vision, I braced myself against the radiator to avoid a rapid meeting with the floor, as I boggled at what I’d done.

Zheng exhaled, and life blossomed on her face. She blinked three times, eyes wide. Her gaze lowered as she lifted her arm, to examine the small palm-shaped blank spot where I’d erased a section of her tattoos. I’d removed the new one entirely. Good aim. Cleaner than severing her whole limb, at least.

She flexed her arms, rolled her shoulders, let out a grunt.

I’d expected a change akin to Praem’s growth over the last few months, but simply accelerated – a few subtleties of expression, a little more willingness to communicate, the power of independent decision making – but this wave of physical awakening surprised me. With every second that passed, Zheng looked more like an actual human being rather than a demon possessing a corpse.

She lifted her eyes, no longer dead and empty, but alive and alert, expressive even. The colourless pallor in her skin was flushed away with those first few hungry breaths, returning what I assumed had once been her natural colouration, a dusky light red-chocolate.

She made eye contact with me.

And grinned.

My stomach contracted, my entrails tried to climb up through my chest cavity, and all the hairs stood up on the back of my neck.

Wide, wider, baring row upon row of teeth suddenly much, much sharper than they had been a few moments ago. A shark’s grin.

Zheng took another deep breath, relishing the taste of the air. She grinned at me, and spoke.

Yaagaad ve? Yaagaad, jijig shidten?

Voice like granite, deep but unmistakably feminine, the question filled with confused wonder.

“I don’t-” I squeaked. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand you.”

Her grin twisted. She flexed her jaw wide, clicking and grinding, limbering up, and tried again.

“Why?” she repeated, in perfectly accented English, as if this seven-foot monster had lived in the North of England her whole life. “Why, little wizard?”

The key in the door interrupted my frantic grasping for an answer. A click, and the door eased open. A face peered inside – Marcus, the fanatic, returned for some private reason.

Zheng didn’t bother to turn and look at him, still staring at me, still grinning like a shark. He glanced at her from behind. He didn’t see the transformation.

My heart, hammering in my chest. He must have seen the fear on my face, but misread the reason.

“Still here? Good. Perhaps we can convince you yet,” Marcus purred as he stepped into the room, carefully shutting the door behind him. He carried an emergency space blanket over one arm, the kind that you might find in a first aid box or survival kit. He stepped past Zheng, favouring me with his plastic smile.

He didn’t see the way she turned her head to fix the grin on him.

“Here, for you. Catch,” he said, and tossed me the blanket.

I caught it awkwardly in my left hand, trying to hide that I had freed my right.

“I don’t want you to die of hypothermia. Malice is not our purpose here, death is not our purpose. You must return to your benefactor, and for that, well, you need to stay warm. I can get you some fresh clothes, too, and … oh, you’ve defeated my handcuffs. Ahhhh. Yes, yes, I think we can indeed convince you to go back of your own accord, can’t we? Zheng, hold her wrists still, please, I must do an experiment.”

Zheng exhaled, warm breath through her shark’s teeth.

“Zheng?”

Marcus looked over his shoulder. Saw the grin. His eyes went wide.

Ret-”, he managed. Half a word of Latin, I suspect.

Zheng moved so fast it confused my eyes, her limbs whirring like animated quicksilver. One hand grabbed his head. The other shot forward into his mouth, breaking several teeth. A jerk and a twist, a choking cry of pain from Marcus, and a scrap of wet pink flesh dropped to the floor from the zombie’s fingers.

She’d ripped his tongue out.

“No more chains from you, wizard,” she growled at him.

“Oh my God, oh-” I clamped a hand over my own mouth.

She picked him up by the head, blood streaming from his face. No time to look away, no comprehension of what she was doing. Zheng spun her whole body, one clean arc, and slammed his skull into the concrete wall. Once was all it took. Like a burst melon. The most awful sound.

I must have squeezed my eyes shut – and crammed myself as far back against the wall as I could – because I remember the sounds that followed, not the sights. Zheng’s breathing, huge and rough and urgent. A ripping of fabric, then of meat. A pop, a crack – was that bone? Then a sound like peeling.

“Unngghhh. Meat.”

Zheng grunted, through a very full mouth.

Shaking, horrified, I opened my eyes to the sight of her eating the dead man’s leg.

She’d ripped his trousers open and had somehow torn his leg off at the knee, then peeled part of the skin away to reveal the bloody muscle beneath. As I watched in abject horror, she crammed another handful of torn flesh into her mouth.

She chewed and swallowed, blood down her face and throat and tshirt and pooling around the man’s shattered skull.

“S’been so long since meat.” She almost purred, like a huge sated tiger.

Then she remembered I was there.

For a split-second I considered throwing myself out of the window. No, I reminded myself – then I would die for certain, whereas Zheng was still a gamble. A gamble with human flesh in her teeth.

No, no, she’d killed Marcus, not me. Stand fast, Heather. Don’t show too much fear. She’d looked at me and asked a question. If she wanted me dead, I would be dead.

None of that mattered when this blood-splattered giant stood up, grinning like a demon from hell, towering over me.

I actually cowered. It’s a very specific sensation. I was caught between trying to make myself as small as possible, and trying to prepare to zap her to another dimension when she got too close.

She dropped the severed leg and stepped toward me, eyes fixed on mine, turning her head one way and then the other, as if not quite sure what to make of me – or waiting for me to scream and mess myself in terror, a response not entirely off the table. The grin split her face, wider and wider. She came close enough to touch, muscles moving under her bloodied tshirt, breasts hanging downward as she loomed overhead.

She slammed both hands into the concrete either side of me.

Deep down in my lizard brain, an animal part of me sat up and paid attention – the same part that had paid attention when Raine had first pulled out a nightstick and called it ‘insurance’, the part that had shivered in arousal when I’d watched Raine beat a monster to death, the part I tried so often to ignore, that found violence attractive.

Oh no. Oh no no no no, not this, not this, I told it, not now. This was not Raine. This zombie had just eaten human flesh, right in front of my eyes. She was seven feet tall and terrifying. She was exceptionally dangerous and I had made a terrible miscalculation.

That part of my mind quite liked Zheng.

I told it no. Absolutely not. Not now. Down.

“Why, little wizard?” Zheng purred down at me, eyes wide with savage amusement above her bloody grin. “Why take the risk?”

“What … ” I swallowed, trying not to panic, trying to prepare the brainmath to make her go elsewhere, permanently. “What risk?”

“Freeing me.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

and less pleasant places – 6.9

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

That voice was an awful thing – because it still sounded like Lozzie.

Even muffled through the thick wood of the front door, it was a noise from the pit, a discordant mockery of human speech that set the little hairs standing up on the back of one’s neck. Like hearing a foreign language for the first time, the brain stumbled to render raw vocalisation into comprehensible words. The sounds were all wrong.

The inflection, the cadence, the timbre – wrong, wrong, wrong. Not merely not-Lozzie or not-human, but not even biological. A hissing of breath over dessicated meat, the crackle of static, rusted metal on cracked stone.

My brain refused to accept that I’d heard actual words. I broke out in a cold sweat. Kimberly’s hand tightened on my arm like a vice.

“Not by the hair on my chinny-chin-chin,” Raine called back.

For a confused, horrified moment I had no idea why she’d said that. The words made no sense. Had my language processing centre been corrupted by that terrible voice? Was Raine losing her mind, too close to that thing on the other side of the front door?

Three little piggies.

I blinked, came back to myself. The three little pigs, of course – though there were four of us in here – and the wolf at the door. Lozzie’s sense of humour.

Raine had talked back to that voice. Her eyes glued to the door, handgun held steady, muscles whipcord-tight. I could barely squeeze a breath down my constricted windpipe, but Raine had talked back.

What was the next step?

I’ll huff and I’ll puff, and blow your house down.

“Don’t open the door,” I hissed. I clutched the blanket tighter around my shoulders.

“Ain’t gotta tell me that,” Raine murmured.

A second passed, two seconds. Next to me, Kimberly trembled like a sapling in a storm. “Heather, w-we should … we should hide,” she whispered, but I was rooted to the spot.

Was it really Lozzie out there? I couldn’t imagine that voice issuing from her throat, it was unthinkable, even possessed by a demon from Outside. My skin crawled at the thought of that thing getting inside the house. A bone-deep panic settled into my marrow as I realised what was happening, as I realised what I was truly afraid of.

The cult didn’t know that Evelyn was unconscious and Praem was gone and Twil had run off – the Eye did.

Or at least, its servants did, between the graffiti and Alexander’s corpse. And now this thing pretending to be Lozzie had come for me.

“Lozzie,” I heard myself say out loud, calling to her. Where I found the courage, I had no idea. “Lozzie, please … please don’t come in … please … ”

No reply.

Three seconds. Five. Ten.

“That all you got? No comeback?” Raine called out again – and received no reply. She crept up to the door on silent feet, gun still pointed at approximately where Lozzie’s head would be on the other side.

“Raine!” I hissed. “Don’t-”

“Shhhh,” she hushed me. I bit my lips, tried to convince myself that Raine knew what she was doing. She pressed her ear against the door, then backed away again. “Nothing.”

“Y-you can’t hear her breathing?” Kimberly stammered.

“Nothing,” Raine repeated. Reluctantly, she glanced over her shoulder, at Kimberly and I. “Kim, I need you to do me a favour, quickly. Go-”

“Me?” Kimberly’s face looked like that of a condemned woman. “I-I’m not going out there, I’m not, I can’t, I-”

“Go upstairs. The corridor.” Raine said, clear and firm. “Second window on the right has a view down to the doorstep. Call out what you see.”

“I-I-”

“If I know what’s there I can shoot it through the wood,” Raine said, in the same tone one might discuss assembling furniture. “I need a spotter. Upstairs, now.”

“Raine, no!” I hissed. “You can’t-”

“Okay, okay, I’m going.” Kimberly scrambled away from me and up the stairs, unsteady on her feet but doing as she’d been asked. I stared at Raine in mounting horror, shaking my head, trying to form words.

“You can’t, Raine, you-”

“It got her to go upstairs,” Raine whispered. “Besides, that ain’t Lozzie out there. No way.”

Kimberly’s footsteps stumbled and hurried across the upstairs floorboards, then stopped. A horrible two seconds of silence.

“Kim?” Raine called.

“There’s nothing there!” Kimberly’s frightened voice called back. “S-she’s gone.”

“The back door!” I hissed.

“It’s locked,” Raine said. Her eyes roved over the house, seeing the walls beyond the room as she calculated. “Windows too. I made sure after Evee passed out. Plus, the house is warded. This is a fortress, it can’t get in.”

Cold realisation clutched at my guts. “ … I could.”

Raine raised an eyebrow.

“Don’t you remember? When I saved Evee? I could get into the house. Go around the door, around the walls, come in from Outside.”

Raine paused, assimilating this new vector of threat in a split-second. She crossed the front room to my side, eyes flicking between the doors to the kitchen and the disused sitting room and up the stairs, gun still in both hands. “Kim, get back down here,” she called, then turned to me, a bad attempt at an easy smile on her lips. “We need to stay with Evee, all together in one place. This thing comes for us, we’ll be-”

“It wants me, Raine. It’s from the Eye.” I couldn’t stop shivering. She grabbed my shoulder and squeezed – stable, firm, so confident, whatever situation we found ourselves in. I wish I could feel such courage.

“It’s not getting you,” she said, then turned and raised her voice. “You hear that, out there? You can fuck right off back where you came from, she’s mine!”

“W-what?” Kimberly clattered halfway down the stairs, blinking at us.

“Talking to the nasty, never mind. New plan, Kim, we’re all going back to wait with Evee while I make a couple of phone calls. I think we’re safe inside the house, for now, but we need-”

Heather?

My name in that thing’s mouth.

It stepped out of the corner of the room, as if it had been standing there the whole time.

In an instant, I understood why Kimberly had hidden in her flat for a week after this thing had visited her. Uncontrollable revulsion took me, every muscle responding on a pure animal level. I must have backed away, because I recall my shoulders bumping against the wall. Raine span and pointed her gun, but even she took several involuntary steps of disgusted retreat. Kimberly screamed and tripped over her own feet as she scrambled back up the stairs.

Stack had told the truth – this thing was not Lozzie. It could not be. I refused to believe such violation was possible. The alternative was to go mad with horror for my friend.

Perhaps if you’d only ever met Lozzie a few times, distracted and pressured by the Sharrowford Cult and the nightmare of your own life, perhaps if you were terrified out of your mind and alone and scared, and unwilling to examine her too closely. Perhaps if you’d only ever seen Lozzie in her wretched, abused state, rather than the bright, energetic girl I’d known in the dreams. Perhaps then, you might mistake this mockery for the real thing.

The Lozzie-thing walked toward me, limbs jerking and muscles pulling as if connected to a puppeteer’s strings. The mouth – a slash in a plastic bag pretending to be a face – pulled and twitched into an alien approximation of a smile.

Heather,” it repeated.

Skin and face like plastic, without a single blemish or pore, bunching as it moved. The hair long and straight and limp, nothing like Lozzie’s wild tail of floating gold. The clothes – jeans, tight shoes, a tshirt – moved as if extruded from the skin beneath, not fabric at all, and failed to conceal the flawed operation of the lungs in the chest. The eyes, empty and dead, pointed at me but contained nothing inside.

It was so deep in the uncanny valley, it should have flown apart or fallen down under the conditions of our reality. To breathe the air it exhaled was to risk contamination.

It stretched out one hand toward me, every fingernail a precise arc of white.

Back to school,” it sang.

I shook my head and tried to back up into the wall, willing the plaster and brick to swallow me. I couldn’t think with this abomination bearing down on me. I couldn’t even scream.

Raine stepped away, gave it clear passage.

In that moment, I didn’t blame her. The only thing worse than letting it touch me would be for it to touch her. Once it had me, it would leave. Evelyn and Raine, people I cared about, at least they would remain uncorrupted by this thing’s mere presence.

Raine took one more step to the side – yes, get away from it while it’s still ignoring you, Raine, please, don’t let it take you too – then two quick steps toward the Lozzie-thing.

She raised her handgun and shot it in the head.

The deafening bang-crack of the gunshot sent a whip of reaction through my adrenaline-tightened body.

The shot passed clean through the Lozzie-thing’s skull. No puff of blood and brain, only a jerk of the head to one side from the kinetic force of the bullet. It paused mid-step, as if it was trying to decide whether a bullet through the head was fatal or not. Raine held the gun ready for a second pull of the trigger, but even her hands were shaking. Stepping closer to that shambling thing went beyond bravery and into madness.

Then the Lozzie-thing crumpled. It clattered to the floor in a tangle of limbs, eyes staring at nothing, and lay completely still.

“Fuck,” Raine said.

My breathing returned too fast, lungs sucking down great heaving gouts of air as my head span. I wrapped both arms around my chest and squeezed, tried to stop myself hyperventilating.

“Fuck,” Raine repeated. She looked at the gun in her hand, then at the dead thing on the floor, then at me. “Heather, I’m so sorry, I had to-”

“It’s not Lozzie!” I almost screamed. “Make sure it’s dead.”

Raine nodded, levelled her gun, and shot the Lozzie-thing in the head a second time. Another bang-crack to make me jump and jerk. The corpse didn’t even twitch.

“It- it’s dead. It’s stopped moving. It’s not moving anymore, and that is great.” Raine blew out a long breath, recovering much faster than I could. “I am super happy that thing is not moving any more. Top of world, in fact. And yeah, it ain’t Lozzie. S’not her. Look at it, no way.”

“Raine,” I whined.

That pulled her together, the sound of me still in pain. She was on me faster than I’d been prepared for, half-hug, half-lift, bundling me away from the Lozzie-thing’s corpse on the floor. “Hey, hey, breathe, yeah? It’s dead, I got it. And it wasn’t Lozzie.”

“No, no no, it wasn’t, there’s no way, no way-”

“It’s okay. Don’t look at it. I know, I know, it’s not as bad now it’s not moving, but-”

“It was never Lozzie, couldn’t have been.” I couldn’t take my eyes off the thing. Now the animal terror was beginning to subside, the deeper fears surfaced. “Couldn’t have been. It’s nothing like her.”

“Heather, Heather? Hey, look at me.”

“I’m okay, I’m okay,” I lied, nodding, pulling the blanket tight around my shoulders, shivering inside and out.

“Hey, it’s alright to admit it,” she said, and the grin – that endless, confident grin – eased back onto her face. “Neither of us are okay right now, you don’t have to pretend otherwise. But we will be. We need to deal with this.” She squeezed my hands, pressed them to my chest, and turned away. “Hey, Kim?” She called out. “It’s dead, I domed it, get down here.”

Kimberly appeared from the top of the stairs, wide-eyed and ashen-faced. She stared at the ‘corpse’ on the floor.

“You … you shot Lauren?” she asked, voice so small.

“It wasn’t her. Not really,”

“Oh.”

I shook my head, and bit down on the sob in my throat. I couldn’t be certain, but I had to convince myself that this was not Lozzie, had never been Lozzie, that such a beautiful friend could never, ever be violated like this. It wasn’t her. It was a trick, from the Eye, or the cult, or both somehow. I tried to draw myself up, not look at the thing.

“Wait,” I murmured. “Wait, why didn’t Evee’s spiders respond?”

“Hm?” Raine quirked an eyebrow at me.

“The Spider-servitors. They’re supposed to, when there’s a threat in the house. They came for Twil that one time. Where are … ah.”

The spiders had responded – two of them. One of the Spider-servitors lurked behind the kitchen door, frozen in place. The other was upside down just beyond the stairs, mass of crystalline eyes fixed on the Lozzie-thing’s corpse. Until that moment, I’d considered the spiders incapable of showing any form of emotion, but somehow in the set of their many legs and the limp, retreated poise of their stingers, I read their feelings exactly.

“They’re here?” Raine asked.

“ … as terrified as we were, apparently,” I said, then murmured, “Thanks for the assist, guys. Not that I blame you.”

“Evee’s gonna kill me for that,” Raine said, nodding at a new and prominent hole in the skirting board – a bullet hole, from the first shot, after it had exited the Lozzie-thing’s head. The round itself was likely embedded in the wall, or in the ground. Raine sighed, smiled, and turned to us, a light in her eyes. “Somebody’s gonna have heard those two gunshots. Maybe they call the police, maybe not. Maybe the police knock on our door, maybe they don’t. If they do, the one thing we don’t want them to see is that,” she pointed at the body. It didn’t look much like a corpse – it wasn’t even bleeding. The head wound was round and dark, like an unlit room seen through a hole in a piece of paper. “And I don’t think any of us wanna touch it. Right?”

Kimberly nodded. “R-right.”

“Absolutely not,” I breathed.

“Kim, there’s a tarpaulin in the corner of Evelyn’s workshop. Green, about yay high, rolled up. Grab that, check on her, call out how she looks, then come back here.” She turned to me. “Heather, the old utility room. There’s a broom and I think a pair of gardening gloves in there somewhere. If you can’t find the gloves, get me bin bags, the whole roll. Actually, scratch that, grab the bin bags regardless.”

“Got it.” I nodded. God, it felt good when Raine took charge. Her direction scraped away the outermost layers of panic and worry, gave me something to focus on.

“I’m gonna stay here, keep an eye on the kill.” She waggled her gun at the corpse. Kim turned and started for the kitchen. I hugged my arms around myself and moved to go after her as Raine called out. “Keep talking, keep shouting to me and each other, okay? We’re all here, we’re all together, we’re not going any- … ah. Ahh.”

Raine trailed off, eyes rising to the ceiling. We all heard the sound out in the road, the distinctive thrumming of a large car engine pulling up and then sputtering into silence.

A car had stopped in the street outside the house. At seven in the morning. This morning.

“Oh, I don’t believe this,” I said.

“Yeah, we’re all bloody well here alright, aren’t we?” Raine growled to herself. “If that’s a coincidence, then I’m the Pope.”

“What do we do?” Kimberly hissed. “What do we do?”

“We keep the door shut,” I said.

“What if it’s the police?”

“That quickly?” Raine shook her head, a sardonic smirk on her lips. “Nuh-uh.”

“They must have been following her- it.” I couldn’t make myself nod at the corpse. “Maybe it’s Stack?”

“I hope so, I owe her a hole in the head. Kim, back upstairs, same window, tell us what you see.”

“Again?”

“I’ll do it,” I hissed, desperate to get away from the corpse on the floor. I hurried up the stairs, hands shaking, into the shadowy darkness of the upstairs corridor. Floorboards creaked beneath my socks as I peeked around the edge of the window, into the lingering night.

A long black car squatted beyond the garden wall like a battering ram. Four people were climbing out and carefully shutting the doors behind them – three men and one woman, none I recognised, age and details blurred by distance and darkness. Staring up at the house, glancing down the street, their hands in their coat pockets. No robes or magical symbols, no visible weapons or lurking servitors, just coats and gloves against the cold. Stamping feet, tense shoulders.

The woman pointed to the side of the house and spoke a few words. The others nodded. One of the men went to the back of the car, opened the boot, and lifted out a long cloth-wrapped package.

My heart leapt into my throat. My brain said gun, but then the man slipped a pair of baseball bats out of the cloth and handed them to his companions.

I scrambled back down the stairs. Kimberly had scarpered off somewhere. Raine already had her phone to her ear, still covering the Lozzie-thing’s corpse with her pistol.

“Not police,” I said all in a rush. “Four of them. They’re armed, but I didn’t see any guns. I think.”

Raine nodded at me and gestured with her eyebrows for me to get into the kitchen, get out of the way, get safe. Then her call connected.

“Twil,” she barked down the phone. “Get your furry arse back here, now. We’ve got all kinds of trouble. Need you to knock some heads together.”

I stopped in the kitchen doorway – what was I doing? Why was I going to hide? I could stop bullets with my mind, let alone a baseball bat. I could threaten those people out there with a fate worse than death, and it would be no bluff. I turned back, and took a step toward the front door.

“There’s no time, dumb-arse,” Raine continued into the phone. “You’re supposed to be a good sprinter, right? Get back here … Heather? Heather, where are you going?”

“To get rid of our visitors,” I said, and swallowed.

“Twil, hey, shut up a sec, you- Twil? Okay, cool, great, now, yeah? You don’t hurry, I’ll tag them all, none left for you.” Raine lowered the phone. “She’s on her way. We’re gonna be fine, Heather, but please, please get back in Evee’s workshop, it’s the safest place in the house.”

“I can help. Fuck these people!” I put a hand over my mouth, surprised at myself. Horror had transmuted to outrage. Raine’s eyebrows shot up. “They- they’re with the Eye, somehow. They hurt Evee! It can’t be allowed, Raine. They want to make murals to the Eye, they can all go to Wonderland and stay there.”

Raine grinned. “Sure thing, after I’ve got them gut-shot and hogtied, okay?”

I opened my mouth to complain.

Bang bang bang – a fist, hammering on the front door.

“Open up,” a man’s voice called out.

“Unless you’re police, you can stuff it up your arse, mate,” Raine replied, her grin widening. We were back in her territory now. She knew what to do, and I trusted her utterly to do it right.

“Yeah,” he replied through the door, voice dripping with sarcasm. “I’m a regular policeman, me. Now open the fucking door or I’ll break it down.”

“It’s a diversion,” Raine hissed. “One’ll be going round back. Think the spiders’ll go for ‘em?”

I looked around for our pneuma-somatic arachnid friends. The one by the stairs was now halfway down the wall, creeping toward the door. The one in the kitchen had vanished – toward the back door, perhaps?

“Yes.” I nodded. “Yes, they’re with us.”

“Nice.” A savage grin pulled at Raine’s face, the sort of look I’d seen on her so many times before, the anticipation of violence written in every muscle. She gave me courage, gave me something to hold myself together with. We’d get through this. In a couple of hours it would all be over. She checked her gun, then dragged the big black combat knife from her waistband and flicked it out of its sheath. Cold metal, sharp in the morning chill. “This is gonna be a huge mess, but they don’t stand a chance. Here’s the plan, you-”

The Lozzie-thing got back up.

Perhaps it had been waiting for the moment Raine’s attention wandered. Perhaps the men hammering on the front door had pressed the issue. Or perhaps it had finally chosen to give up its ridiculous attempt to pretend it was a human being. It didn’t stand – it writhed to its feet, every joint pointing in the wrong direction, as if it had never risen from prone before and wasn’t certain which bones were meant to turn which ways.

Raine reacted faster. She did everything right. She backed up, one-two, raised her gun again, trigger-hand braced on the opposite wrist.

Smooth and calm and correct. Everything she was supposed to do. The Lozzie-thing lashed out with one failing hand, fingers all turned in the wrong direction, and Raine should have been able to dodge at that distance, she was already ducking away, lining up the shot. She was good at this. She was meant to win.

But the Lozzie-thing cheated.

Elbow and wrist moved at impossible angles, writhed around into the space Raine was about to be instead of the space she’d just vacated. A miracle of instinct, really, that Raine understood what was happening, that she managed to turn and shove her big black serrated knife up and into the thing’s throat, through imitation windpipe and imitation brainstem.

The Lozzie-thing’s palm slammed into Raine’s chest.

A crack.

I remember the cracking sound – the sound of one Raine’s ribs snapping. All else was panic, contextless snippets of memory in a sea of adrenaline.

Raine sliding down against the wall, unconscious, the force of the blow more than mere physical impact.

The Lozzie-thing stepping toward me again, wheezing “back to school” through a ruined throat.

Kimberly, in the kitchen doorway, screaming and scrambling away, dropping a tarpaulin on the floor, which I promptly tripped over.

The hammering on the front door, again, again.

I think I grabbed a chair in the kitchen – no, I know I grabbed a chair from the kitchen. I grabbed a chair and tried to throw it at the Lozzie-thing, the un-thing, the thing that should not be, shambling toward me, the sheer physical pressure of its mere existence enough to crush all thought and reaction down into a singularity of disgust. Me, weak little Heather, who didn’t have the upper body strength for a dozen push-ups, throwing an old heavy chair.

The chair bounced across the floor. The Lozzie-thing smashed it aside.

It grabbed my wrist – that un-skin, fingers like alien bones, flesh without human warmth or prosthetic logic – and smiled, and wheezed “time to go home.”

Reality folded up.

==

How quickly one can lose everything. Reduced to thin clothes and lingering body heat. Friends, defences, ideologies, all shed in an instant, leaving behind an ape whimpering to itself on the ashen ground of an alien dimension.

We are home,” the Lozzie-thing said.

I didn’t need to open my eyes to know where she’d taken me.

As reality reasserted itself, I crumpled to my knees and refused to open my eyes. Perhaps if I didn’t look, I could retreat to a safe place inside myself, and everything that was about to happen would happen to another person – but I knew that was impossible. In a few heartbeats, I would be denied any coherent sense of self.

A great pulse of awareness, from the sky above. My lips formed ‘no no no no’ over and over and over.

The Lozzie-thing still gripped my wrist. A leathery shard of myself said fight, get up and fight, but any strength I had was drowned out by a childhood nightmare screaming up out of my memories. Ashen wind robbed the heat from my skin, wriggled invasive fingers through every gap in my pajamas. The smell of this ruined place filled my nostrils, and I remembered. If despair could have a scent, it would smell like this. Darkness and ash.

I felt ten years old again, and I was back in Wonderland.

My eyes wouldn’t stay closed, of course. The first teasing barbs and hooks of pressure snagged at the edges of my consciousness, flensed layers of thought from my mind, forced my eyelids open.

Rubble and ruin stretched away across an endless plain, to a horizon of broken teeth I remembered from every nightmare. Mists like shadow drifted across the wreckage, obscuring snippets of looping alien script on every broken wall, words that made me wince with pain. In the distance, life – of a sick, malformed kind – crept through the hollows and beneath the fallen monoliths. Jellyfish creatures bigger than whales pulsed the through air, and in the distance the terrible mountain-sized watchers stared upward at the sky in mute devotion.

Up, up, up – to the sky that was not a sky. To the vast ridged eyelid that filled all creation.

The sky cracked down the middle, a hairline fracture on a sea of infinite night, as the Eye began to open.

Tendrils of alien thought wrapped tight around my mind, pushed through the whorls of my brain, began to take me apart – in the most fundamental sense of me.

The word ‘pain’ fails to do justice to the Eye’s attention. It was beginning an examination, an awful rifling through my neutrons and atoms. I was naked and alone on the altar of an alien God.

Sobbing, whimpering, bleeding from nose and eyes and even from my hair follicles, tugging on the Lozzie-thing’s grip to get away, I did the only thing that made any sense. I groped inside my own mind for the familiar equation, the piece of brainmath that spelled O-U-T, that would let me wriggle free like a greased fish, escape back to reality, away from this living nightmare.

The first few pieces slipped into place, as yet beyond the Eye’s deepening reach. My head pounded with a sudden spike of pain – and then the Lozzie-thing tightened her grip on my wrist.

Stay,” it rattled, Raine’s knife bobbing in its ruined throat.

The equation fell apart, trickled through my fingers.

Writhing, choking on the pain, sobbing, I howled through my teeth in despair. That’s why the Eye had made this mockery of my friend. That was her purpose. To stop me using what it had given me.

This wasn’t how I’d imagined myself returning to Wonderland. I was supposed to be ready, prepared for anything, surrounded by friends and shielded by magic and knowledge and love, to rescue my twin sister. In the private, quiet hours of the night, sometimes I’d imagined myself armoured – though I couldn’t have defined exactly how. Nonsense, a fairy-tale to soothe a lifetime of anxiety and sickness. This was always my fate in the end, wasn’t it? Cold and terrified, dressed in my pajamas, my mind flayed down to nothing until I was a screaming ape in the dust, the same as ten years ago. No escape. Even if I’d lived to see seventy years, there was no escape.

Was this how my life ended? After not even six months of warmth and meaning. At least I’d be with my sister again soon.

We were all the way down now, from the rarefied heights of firearms and friendship, heroics and hyperdimensional mathematics.

I was just an ape – an ape with a sharp rock in its hand.

My free hand had moved on automatic. There wasn’t enough of conscious Heather left to make a plan, the Eye had already displaced too much. But a tiny, warm part of my mind held out for a few precious moments – a part nurtured and fed and encouraged by Raine week after week, day after day – the part that still believed in myself, that I deserved to live, that this scrawny messed-up scrap of flesh called Heather was going to win.

That part of my mind had found a piece of shattered masonry within arm’s reach. A leftover shard of whatever had inhabited this dimension before the Eye had arrived, or been born, or been wrought by some magical insanity.

You can sling all the alien math you want, but at the end of the day a rock can still bash your brains out.

A Raine-approved course of action.

The Lozzie-thing was busy staring up at the Eye, communing, communicating, whatever. Ape-Heather didn’t care. Ape-Heather lifted the rock up and slammed it down as hard as she could on the Lozzie-thing’s wrist. Slam slam slam! I wasn’t really there, it wasn’t me doing that, I was pure animal by that point. I spat and screamed and howled my little defiance at the Eye’s tendrils worming their way through my brain, and I shattered whatever the Lozzie-thing used for imitation bone.

I pulled free, fell back onto the ashen ground. The Eye was open another sliver – a million miles wider, up there in the firmament. Its thoughts were in my soul, the pressure of its massive tentacles strangling all thought, let alone emergency brainmath.

I believe I tried to throw the rock at it.

Then, a light.

A light that touched my mind, my soul, the tiniest bright spot from amid the vast probing darkness of the Eye. The smallest, weakest ebb against this tidal wave of pressure. It passed over me, like a lighthouse searching for a reply, and for a second I was myself again.

I did have one ally here in Wonderland, didn’t I?

I think I managed to speak my sister’s name. I’m not sure.

The light passed away from me. Only a second’s pulse of relief, and I felt the Eye’s attention gathering to crash back down. Relief had served only as false hope. Neither of us could hold this back for long.

A tiny pop of displacing air, the crunch of gravel under shoes, and a “Wah?”

Maisie hadn’t been calling to me. She knew we had no hope here. She’d been calling for help.

Lozzie – the real Lozzie – stood there on the ashen dark ground of Wonderland, five feet away from me and her abominable double, eyes wide, a chocolate brownie halfway to her mouth. She dropped the brownie in surprise.

How could I ever have mistaken a fake for the real thing? Lozzie was beautiful – though part of that was the relief speaking, the relief that she was neither dead nor possessed. She looked healthy, no more bruises or bloody scabs. She was wearing flip-flops on bare feet, a plaid skirt, and a pink poncho. Somehow, she’d had a hair cut, fringe a neat line, trailing ends tidied up. How in God’s name did one get a hair cut Outside?

“It’s me!” She blurted out at the double, then saw me. “And you!” She lit up – then looked up. Her face fell. “Oh … oh dear.”

“Lozzie!”

The Eye’s tendrils pierced my brain again, thoughts peeled back. Lozzie winced – she felt it too. The double turned toward her.

“Kill it!” I managed to scream.

She blinked, and said, “Oh, right,” in the sort of tone one might use when asked to please put the laundry on.

Lozzie raised her hand, clicked her fingers, and pointed at the imitation-thing. The gesture seemed superfluous at the time – only later did I realise it resembled the manner in which one might issue a command to an attack dog.

Lozzie’s attack dog did not disappoint.

Burning chrome and lightning-etched steel – shining armour. A bulwark of metal – a tower shield. A shining star – the point of a lance. A helmet, no visor for eyes. Seams in the armour but not cut for a human. It rose behind Lozzie, twice her height in pneuma-somatic spirit flesh.

A knight.

Under the circumstances, my brain simply accepted what I saw. A knight, why not? We were beyond the rim of the sane universe out here, it was hardly the weirdest thing around. If the knight had removed its helmet and introduced itself as King Aurthur reborn, I would not have complained.

The lance took the imitation-Lozzie full in the chest, threw the creature fifty meters to crash down in the rubble and dust.

The knight raised the tower shield over its head to shelter us both – I gasped, spat blood and bile, and drew in a shuddering breath, suddenly myself again. Bruised and bleeding, my sense of self was intact once more. The Eye’s invasive thought-tentacles had been blotted out, cut off, held back – for a second.

The knight’s shield was melting fast, its armour burning and buckling as it absorbed the weight of the Eye’s attention. As it melted, I caught a glimpse of what lay beneath that armour, what manner of creature wore that suit of pneuma-somatic metal, and couldn’t tear my eyes away.

“We gotta go!” Lozzie yelled, and bundled into me, dragging me to my feet and hugging me tight. She grinned in my face, then in an act of pure absurdity she waved upward at the Eye. “Buh-bye!”

“Lozzie! Yes!” I yelled back. “We have to-”

Wonderland dissolved into a kaleidoscope, folded up, and collapsed into nothing. I screwed my eyes shut and clung to Lozzie with all my strength.

All my strength was not enough.

Dead hands grasped my ankles.

==

Cold, hard, rough – bare concrete beneath my cheek.

I gasped awake and sat up in a rush, confused and dehydrated, eyes gummy with dried blood. Everything ached. Tried to move my right hand to my face and found I couldn’t. My wrist clinked, caught, stopped.

My right wrist was handcuffed, the other cuff attached to a radiator pipe in a concrete wall. Left hand still worked, rubbed at my face, made me wince as I touched my bloody scalp and eyes and nose. Freezing cold, shivering, one sock missing from the feet I drew up toward myself, curling into a ball, back against the wall.

“Where-” I croaked, swallowed.

For one long moment I didn’t care where I was or how much I ached or why I was handcuffed – all I knew is that this was not Wonderland. Sweet, blessed relief. Tears made tracks on my cheeks. Maisie had called Lozzie, and Lozzie had saved me.

“I love you, I love you,” I whispered, eyes closed, thinking of my sister. “Thank you, I love you, thank you.”

And then Lozzie and I had been pulled apart?

By the Eye? Dimly, I recalled a sensation like dead hands on my ankles, dragging me out of Lozzie’s arms as reality had un-blinked. We were both back in reality, but in different places? Or was this some other Outside dimension?

I couldn’t think, everything hurt and my heart felt strained, like I’d put my body through too much in the last few hours. Where was I? I blinked and rubbed at my eyes, brought my blurry sight back into focus.

A concrete room. No furnishings except for the door, the radiator bolted to the wall – to which I was handcuffed – and a second, empty doorway on the left, leading off into what looked like a stripped kitchen. A single window above the radiator let a shaft of thin winter daylight into the room. Dawn, perhaps.

A figure stood in front of the door. Guarding me. Seven feet of zombie muscle, dressed in her trench coat and boots.

Zheng met my eyes, and said nothing.

At least I was back in Sharrowford.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

and less pleasant places – 6.8

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Sleep lay light on my consciousness, despite the late hour and the exhaustion of a long and difficult evening; when Evelyn knocked on our bedroom door, Raine was the one who roused herself to answer. She disentangled herself from my arms and clambered out of bed, but I followed her up the steps of lighter slumber too. I rolled over under the covers, grumpy in a deprived animal way at Raine’s sudden absence. I groped for my phone.

“Evee?” Raine whispered. She angled herself to block the faint light from the hallway.

My phone’s back-light blinded me, and I read the time through a squint. Barely four hours of sleep. “S’five thirty in the morning,” I groaned.

“That it is,” Evelyn said from the doorway.

Cold tension in her voice made me sit up in bed, rubbing at my puffy eyes. Raine tried to usher Evelyn out into the corridor. “Hey, Heather, go back to sleep, you need it. I’ll be right back, okay?”

“No you won’t,” Evelyn grunted. “And Heather deserves to see this too. May as well show everybody at once, I’m not running through this multiple bloody times.”

“See what?” I asked. “Evee, what’s wrong? Have you not been to bed?”

Evelyn shook her head. She looked how I felt, with an added layer of tightly controlled worry around her eyes, mouth set straight, knuckles white from gripping the handle of her walking stick too hard.

“I sent Praem to the tower block.”

“Evee, Evee, Evee,” Raine sighed and smiled, shaking her head. “You said you’d wait at least another day. We’re all exhausted. ‘Cept for Twil, I guess.”

“I couldn’t sleep. Thought I may as well do something useful. Deal with it.”

“Alright. Dealt with, forgiven, no worries. Now what? What’d she find up there?”

Evelyn hesitated.

“Evee?” I prompted. Her worry was infectious.

“The busses aren’t running this time of night. It took Praem a while to reach Glasswick on foot. I’ve already sent her up, inside, seen it all for myself.”

“Cultists?” Raine asked.

“No, I … nothing alive. You both need to see.” She glanced at me. “You especially.”

“Evee, what’s up there?” I said.

Evelyn swallowed, a chill passing over her face. “I have only theories.”

==

“Thought you said she was already up in the tower?” Twil asked.

She squinted downward, at the contents of a half-full inflatable paddling pool on the floor of Evelyn’s magical workshop – at the Praem’s-eye-view in the still water.

Praem was currently looking at the boarded-up front entrance to Glasswick tower, lit by distant orange street-lighting. The view through her eyes was crystal clear, but quite disorienting.

Evelyn’s remote viewing setup was barely believable, but I reminded myself I’d witnessed far weirder things. I’d seen all this the first time she’d ridden Praem at a distance, but I’d never watched it working before.

A child’s two-tone blue paddling pool, filled about halfway, with a magic circle written in permanent maker onto the plastic itself, maddened black scrawl extending below the waterline. A delicate ring of ice had formed around edge, a by-product of the magic. Twil was the only one of us not wrapped in extra layers against the lingering cold. I had a blanket around my shoulders, while Evelyn wore two jumpers, a shawl, and gloves. She’d been at this for hours already.

“I pulled her back out.” Evelyn settled into a chair in front of the remote viewing setup, grimacing as her leg gave her trouble in the cold. She turned the grimace on Twil as she rubbed at her thigh. “I wasn’t going to leave her up there without instruction while I fetched you lot, I’m not a complete fool.”

“Alright, fair do.” Twil raised both hands in surrender.

“Uh, Evee,” Raine said. “I’m a bit more concerned at the ruddy great beastie over yonder.”

“Yes,” Kimberly breathed from the doorway, unwilling to come any closer. “What- what is that?”

At the back of the ex-drawing room, Evelyn had cleared another wide space for a second large-scale magic circle, on a piece of unrolled canvas. Glancing at the circle made my head swim and my heart constrict, the arcane symbols and scraps of inhuman language clutching at the part of my mind which recognised them – but the content of the circle was so much worse.

Trapped inside the circle, a creature of shadow and claw twisted and brooded, chitinous plates gliding over leathery flesh as it hid inside a veil of darkness. Filmy, oily black eyes peered out at us now and again before vanishing back into the murk.

Evelyn’s Spider-servitor clearly hated the thing, whatever it was. Clutching its habitual ceiling corner, the Spider’s mass of crystalline eyes were fixed on the writhing shadow-creature.

I’d already guessed what it was for, and tried to ignore it.

“Never you mind what,” Evelyn snapped at Kimberly, then turned to Raine. “It’s for clearing what I’ve found in the tower. I’ll need several of them, probably. Three or four should be enough.”

“As long as it doesn’t stage a breakout over there,” Raine muttered. She glanced about, located her nightstick propped against the wall, and picked it up.

“It won’t. It’s mine. I already bound it,” Evelyn said, rapidly losing patience, nodding at the view in the paddling pool’s water. “Pay attention.”

“Can she hear us?” I asked. “Praem?”

“Heather,” Praem intoned from the other side of the water, clear as ever, miles away on the other side of the city. Evelyn huffed and gestured as if to say there’s my answer.

“Nobody beyond her can, but she can hear anything we say here,” Evelyn explained, then clicked her fingers. “Back inside. Make your way upstairs.”

“What did you find? Was there anyone in there?” Twil asked.

“Shut up and watch.”

Praem crossed the pathway toward Glasswick tower’s boarded up front entrance. Her gliding pace lacked the nauseating small motions that one might expect from, say, a person with a camera strapped to their head. Her eyes stayed locked on specific points rather than flicking around, like those of a human being. Still, looking down into a pool of water and seeing straight ahead did afflict me with the gentlest touch of vertigo. I had to keep glancing away.

She climbed through the shattered hole in the damp boards over the entrance, past the huge police notice threatening a £500 fine on trespassers, and everything went dark.

“Get the torch out, shine it ahead, same as before,” Evelyn ordered, then muttered to us. “She can see in the dark. We can’t.”

“Speak for yourself,” Twil muttered.

A light flicked on and a compact maglite lifted into view from below, held in Praem’s small, deceptively soft hand. The torch beam played over the filth in the entryway. The space was identical in layout to its twin in Gleaston tower, but heavy boards had been nail-gunned over the lift doors, and the stairwells had been blocked with walls of plywood. The only access to the stairs – a small door in one of the plywood sheets – stood open.

People – and likely a few animals – had camped here at some point, but they were long gone now. Water damage, a few dirty bedrolls, a gutted tent collapsed in one corner.

“Head up, stop at the fifth floor and give us a quick look there,” Evelyn said. Praem turned, slipped through the little door, and started her way up the stairs.

“Were there no people? No homeless people?” I asked in a whisper. Evelyn shook her head.

“None. Some had been here, I think. I’ll show you.”

“That’s a red flag, alright,” Raine grunted.

“Mmhmm.”

“What do you mean?” Twil hissed.

“Concrete building. Shelter, isn’t it? And the police don’t give a toss, not out there,” Raine said, still watching Praem’s slow ascent up the echoing, dark stairwell. “The lower couple of floors should have a few people trying to live there, at least, even if just shooting up or sleeping. Why keep away?”

“Uh … huh.” Twil nodded slowly, frowning to herself.

“The kids, around … ” Kimberly started, and crept a few paces into the ex-drawing room, terrified eyes glued to the horror in the magic circle at the back of the room.

“Kim?” I prompted. She swallowed.

“The kids around the estate,” she said, rallying. “They wouldn’t go in there either. They used to dare each other, I think, but they stopped for some reason. I’m sure I heard a silly urban legend about it being haunted.”

“Ha,” Evelyn barked with humourless laughter. “They’re not wrong.”

“Haunted, by like, a ghost?” Twil’s eyes went wide. “You found a ghost?”

Evelyn sighed and shot a withering look at her. “It’s a metaphor, you idiot. I’d prefer I had found a ghost.”

Praem stopped at the fifth floor and walked a few paces from the stairwell into one of the tower’s residential corridors. The light from her torch slid over closed and locked front doors, but a few hung open, kicked in or broken down.

“Poke your head into the first couple,” Evelyn ordered her. “This is all normal, all like this, all the same, up to the fifteenth floor. Most of the flats are locked tight, but there’s a few that people have obviously tried to live in, at some point. Maybe there was still running water, who knows?”

Praem showed us the evidence, and it didn’t amount to much. A few lost possessions in otherwise stripped-bare concrete boxes, places that had once been homes. A few candles had burned down to long-cold stubs. Discarded food wrappers. A condom in a corner. Nothing spooky, except the claustrophobic dark and the spectre of poverty.

“What’s at floor fifteen?” I asked.

“That … is beyond my powers of description.”

Praem returned to the stairwell and continued up, her precise footfalls echoing down the long concrete tower, the torch beam ascending the stairs ahead. She passed the landing for the tenth floor, above the level of the boarded up windows, and the cave-like darkness finally abated. Light pollution leaked in through the smashed glass, catching jagged concrete corners and the metal handrail. Snatches of night-time Sharrowford passed by on the edge of Praem’s vision. Sunrise was still hours away.

“Wonder if she can see us from up there?” Twil mused.

“Don’t be stupid. We can’t see the towers from here,” Evelyn said.

“Hey Praem,” Twil spoke up. “Flash your torch out one of the windows.”

“No,” Praem intoned, her voice echoing off the concrete.

“See?” Evelyn snorted. “Even she knows not to listen to you.”

“S’just a joke.” Twil huffed and crossed her arms.

The stairwell beyond the fifteenth floor was blocked off by another construction-site plywood barrier. The only way through was another one of those flimsy doors. The beam of Praem’s torch caught on three thick steel chains lying on the floor, complete with big chunky padlocks – all three locks crushed and broken, metal sheered and shattered.

“Stop there,” Evelyn said. “Show us the chains.”

“Lemme guess, they were like that when you got there?” Raine asked.

“What? No. I had Praem rip them off. But they’re all new. Look, no rust on them.” I peered forward at the image in the water. She was right. Compared to everything else so far in the crumbling, abandoned shell of Glasswick tower, the padlocks and chains were conspicuously shiny and new. “Combined with the general pattern of wet footprints lower down and a track relatively free of dust, somebody’s been coming up here, regularly.”

“Should have been a private eye, Evee. You’ve got the knack,” Raine said.

“Knack, nothing,” Evelyn snapped. “I’ve got magic, and that’s cheating. Praem, show them where the sign was.”

Praem’s viewpoint swung out, torch beam passing over the wooden barrier. Another ‘no entry – condemned’ sign lay on the floor, nails recently yanked free.

In the space it had occupied on the plywood. a magic circle stared back at us.

Raine whistled. Twil grunted a ‘huh’. Kimberly swallowed.

“Good thing I thought to have her check behind the sign,” Evelyn said. “Had to disarm it. No idea what it does. You recognise that one, Poundland?”

“Evee, don’t call her that,” I scolded quietly, as Kimberly blinked in confusion before she realised she was being addressed.

“No, no I don’t. I-I’m sorry.”

Evelyn grunted. She didn’t have the ire to spare for Kimberly right now. Somehow that worried me more than anything else. “The real treat’s further up. Praem, on you go, same route as the first time, but stop at the final corner before … before you see it. Stay alert.”

Praem continued up. She didn’t even reach the next floor before we all noticed what was wrong.

“The hell’s going on with the walls?” Twil asked.

“Optical illusion?” Raine suggested.

“No,” Evelyn grunted. “It gets progressively worse further up. Praem, pan your torch a bit, give us a view as you go.”

“It looks like it’s … ” I swallowed, struggling for the right word. “Diseased?”

The concrete of Glasswick tower had contracted an infection, a warping sickness, a mutation. In places it looked like a frozen sculpture of living muscle pushing from underneath the concrete surfaces, in others it was ridged and bumpy, or raised like flexing tendons beneath an inorganic skin, on a huge, tower-block scale, as if melted and re-set along distinctly biological lines.

Evelyn was right, the further up Praem climbed, the worse it got.

Praem climbed through the ossified corpse of a mutated whale cast in concrete. Kimberly had to turn away as the effect worsened, a nauseated look on her face. Twil pulled a grimace, and even I felt a little ill at the sight of this architectural violation.

Then the stairwell suddenly opened out, the interior walls fell away. Stairs still continued upward to the remaining floors, but around Praem a wide darkness yawned. She showed us what lay within, pointing her torch left and right.

“Holy shit,” Twil breathed.

“Shit is right, but there’s nothing holy here,” Evelyn grunted. “I think it’s five floors worth of space, semi-hollowed.”

Pieces of concrete wall and floor remained, but shot through with gaping, organic-looking holes and gaps, twisted into disturbingly biological shapes – ganglia and nerve bundles, sinews and cartilage – as if the building had tried to become part of giant body, and failed. Steel rebar poked from shards of cracked wall, piles of concrete grit lay everywhere, shed as the structure had crumbled and buckled. Whatever this was, it had died – or failed to be born.

Praem strode into the space, up a sort of walkway of concrete, toward the centre of the cleared floors. She approached a corner, and the leading edge of her torch beam caught what could only be the heart of this place, a nexus of bunched imitation muscle-fibre, tendons, and nerves.

The core of this thing was not the grey of dead concrete, but distinctly crimson, and glistening.

“Stop,” Evelyn snapped. “Praem, stop there.” She turned to me, and sighed a deep sigh. “Heather. I think you should sit down. This is going to upset you the most.”

“What?” I blinked at her, then back at the view in the pool. My stomach turned over. “It’s not … no, it’s not Lozzie, it-”

“No, of course not. Bloody hell. I wouldn’t do that to you. If I’d found her, I would have … well, I wouldn’t do it like this.” She waved a hand. “Sit.”

“Okay, okay sure, I-”

Raine already had a chair for me, pulled from the table. I sat down, a little shaky, and Raine gave Evelyn a measured frown.

“Evee, drop the suspense act,” she said. “Heather’s plenty tough, but I don’t think any of us want to get surprised by something horrible, yeah?”

“It’s gruesome, yes, alright? Turn away if you’re suddenly feeling squeamish,” Evelyn said. “But that’s not the point. I just … I … look, if I just say it, you’ll all freak out. I need to show you the proof. He’s dead. Praem, go ahead.”

“He? Evee, who … ”

The question died in my throat, as Praem turned the final corner of knotted concrete. She walked the length of a projecting spar, up to the centre and purpose of this disgusting aberration, and played her torch over her discovery.

Meat.

Like a heart – no, I corrected myself, like a tumour. Muscle fibres of frozen concrete converged on a central point, blood and meat colours fading in as they approached, as they wound around and merged with the figure in the middle. Minced flesh, spars of shattered bone, ribs exposed and cracked from awful crushing force, limbs clad in charred shreds. Head a burst melon, a few scraps of blonde hair clinging to flaps of scalp. Once-red blood was now dried and black, shiny like tiny beetles.

The wreckage cradled by a concrete harness was barely recognisable as a human being – let alone as Alexander Lilburne.

“But I killed him,” I breathed. A terrible, numb feeling came over me, an emotional violation. I’d dealt with becoming a murderer, and he was still here? My breath caught in my throat, stalling the more animal reaction to this awful sight. “I-”

“I was fukkin’ right!” Twil pointed at the image in the still water. “I called it!”

“No you didn’t, he’s dead,” Evelyn snapped at her. “Heather, listen to me. He’s dead.”

“Heather?” Raine squeezed my shoulder, hard, and put a hand on my forehead. “Heather, hey. Evee, dammit, you could have picked a better way than this.”

“What else was I supposed to do? You’d all have insisted on seeing the corpse anyway! We’d be playing Chinese whispers. At least this is fast.”

Their words didn’t make sense. I shook my head, staring at Alexander’s broken jaw and the glassy emptiness of his single remaining eyeball. I was vaguely aware of Kimberly hurrying out of the room, retching sounds coming from the kitchen.

“But I killed him. It’s not fair. It’s not-”

Heather,” Evelyn snapped. I jerked around to meet her eyes. “He’s dead, yes, you killed him. Well done.”

I stared at her for a moment. The words finally went in, even as paranoid scepticism rolled up for its turn at my strings. “How can you be sure? He’s a mage, he could be doing anything, he-”

“Does that look anything like alive, to you?” Evelyn thumbed at the human wreckage on display. “And I already had Praem check. No pulse, no heartbeat, no breathing. He’s stone cold, he- Praem? Praem, stop, you-”

Praem was walking the final few steps toward the mangled corpse. “Heather,” she intoned, and suddenly I knew exactly what she was doing, for me. She ignored Evelyn’s instruction, and lifted Alexander’s head with one hand. His dead, empty eyeball stared at nothing. Evelyn sighed.

“Point taken, thank you for the demonstration,” she grunted. “He’s dead. We won. He’s not coming back.” She waved her hand in front of my face. “You with us?”

“Evee,” I tutted at her, pulling myself back together. “I- yes, I- how did you expect me to react?”

“Like that, mostly,” Evelyn grunted.

“You’re fine, Heather, you’re fine.” Raine murmured, for me alone, and squeezed my shoulders.

I shook my head and sighed. My gaze drifted back over to the view through Praem’s eyes. She’d stepped away again, allowed the corpse’s head to droop. Alexander Lilburne looked like he’d been run over by a tank. “That’s what I did to him?”

“You killed him super dead,” Twil said, then frowned. “Why’s he not, you know, rotted an’ all?”

Evelyn cleared her throat. “I can only presume what we’re looking at right now is an attempt to prolong his life – a failed attempt. The flesh is preserved, but nothing else.”

“Yeah, I’m no doctor,” Raine said. “But that looks like major brain damage. His bone dome is cracked right open, I see brains. He dead.”

“Right,” Evelyn grunted. “His people must have brought him here, or maybe his big zombie did, as a sort of final act of devotion. Plugged himself into whatever the hell they were already working on, but it didn’t take. It wasn’t exactly guarded well, I can only assume they’ve abandoned him.”

“What was he doing? Turning himself into a building?” Twil asked.

“Heard of weirder fetishes,” Raine added, shrugging. “Maybe he was into that.”

“What?” Twil squinted at her. Raine laughed. Always trying to keep it light. How could she laugh at the sight of this?

“Evee,” I said, gently, carefully, while glancing at Twil. I doubted Evelyn wanted her to hear the details, but I had to ask this. “What if he was doing the same thing you mother tried to do?”

Evelyn’s eyebrows rose. She nodded, taking me seriously, thank God. “I already thought of that. It’s vanishingly unlikely he access to the same resources she did. And anyway, he lacked the essential component: an emotionally and psychologically dominated close relative. You can’t just – poof.” She made a gesture from the side of her head. “Takes years of preparation. Lozzie’s a lot of things, I gather, but she’s not cowed or submissive. No.”

“Okay,” I nodded, trying to take a deep breath. “I’ll try not to worry about that part.”

“What’s this?” Twil asked, frowning.

“Never you mind,” Evelyn grunted. “S’personal.”

I noticed Kimberly peer carefully into the room again, her face pale and drawn. She turned away at the sight of her former master’s shattered corpse, but Evelyn wasn’t about to let her go. She raised her hand and clicked her fingers.

“Kimberly. Yes, you, I see you lurking there. Any idea what he was doing? Any insights to share?”

“N-none. I’m sorry, I-”

“You must have some idea. Use your brain. They were training you as a mage, you must have heard something. Part of a plan, an overheard conversation. Think.”

I opened my mouth to tell Evelyn off, to get her to ease off Kimberly, to tell Kim it was okay – but then I noticed an oddly familiar shape hanging in the darkness above Alexander’s corpse.

My blood went cold in my veins.

“Praem,” I said, my voice on autopilot. “Please … please step back a pace and pan the torch upward. And to the sides as well. There’s more.”

Praem moved the torch as directed. Evelyn frowned at me, at the shake in my voice, and then she saw what I saw. We all saw it.

Above and to both sides of Alexander’s shattered corpse, his followers, his cultists, whoever had put him here, had drawn a trio of identical murals on large flat pieces of uncorrupted concrete. Daubed in charcoal or tar, black dried flaking blood, and a brown substance I’d rather not speculate on.

Eyes.

Each mural showed a single great lidless eye. Black. Expressionless. Six feet wide. They all gazed at a point in front of the body, as if positioned to regard a supplicant or worshipper before this twisted altar.

Graffiti, drawn in natural – if abnormal – materials. That was all. Nothing special. But somehow this urban cave art captured the faintest echo of the unspeakable feeling, the unyielding, crushing attention. For a split-second I was a child again, naked in the dark, my skin and flesh and neurons and atoms peeled back by the watching of the Eye.

Then the feeling passed. A memory of trauma, sinking back into the abyss.

Just murals – horrible ones. Placed there by a supernatural cult.

Oh dear.

“I didn’t see these before,” Evelyn muttered, leaning forward, brow knotted. “I was so focused on the corpse I didn’t see them. Praem, step closer, get me a better look. Do not touch them.”

“I-I don’t recognise those,” Kimberly hurried to say. “I don’t, I swear.”

“It’s the Eye,” I managed to say, my throat closing up. “It’s art, of the Eye.”

“Heather, it’s okay, it can’t hurt you. It’s okay,” Raine murmured. She squeezed my shoulders, tried to keep me from getting lost in my own memories.

“Could be a coincidence,” Evelyn said through gritted teeth.

“No. No it’s the Eye, it is. I can tell, I-”

“Alright, okay. I believe you,” Evelyn snapped. “Don’t know if that helps us figure out what he was doing, though.”

“He must have … he made contact … he … I don’t know.”

“They magical? They do anything?” Twil asked.

Evelyn shook her head. “I don’t believe so. I don’t see any magic circles, no workings connected to them. Nothing. They’re just … art.”

I nodded, trying to let go. “What if the cult … what if … ”

“If they made contact with your ‘Eye’?” Evelyn finished for me. “I don’t know. What I do know is we destroy this place, tonight, and smash those images.”

“Burn it down,” Raine said.

“Oh, please,” I said.

“A tower fire is easy, if we get enough petrol in there.”

“It’s ninety percent stripped,” Evelyn said. “There’s nothing to burn.”

“At least this doesn’t have anything to do with Lozzie, does it?” I asked.

Evelyn took a moment, then shrugged. That didn’t fill me with hope. “Certain kinds of magic are stronger when family is involved – blood family, I mean. I doubt very much it’s a coincidence that the brother is enmeshed in this … this,” she waved a hand at the whole awful concrete mutation. “And the sister is wandering around with some Outsider living in her head. This is connected. We need to clear the place out, the upper floors may contain more nasty surprises, or hopefully some way to find who put him here, somebody we can beat until they tell us what we want.”

“Bloody right,” Raine said.

“That’s what my little nasty back there is for.” Evelyn thumbed over her shoulder at the shadow-creature in the magic circle at the back of the room. “Three or four of them, clear the whole place out, the upper floors, and burn Alexander’s corpse, yes, to be sure. Just in case. Can never be too careful. Praem, time to leave again.”

“Hold up,” Twil said. “Why not be sure right now?”

“What do you mean?” Evelyn grunted at her.

Twil looked at the pool, at Alexander’s limp corpse, then back at Evelyn. She gestured with both hands, as if it was obvious. “Pull his fukkin’ head off.”

“Pull it off,” Praem echoed from the other side of the water.

“Yes, please, please do,” I added. Raine snorted. “Make sure he’s dead.”

“ … sometimes, you big dumb mutt,” Evelyn said. “I really like how you think.” She favoured Twil with a nasty smile. “You heard her, Praem. Twist his head off.”

“Mind your sleeves on the blood,” I said, trying to focus on anything except what those eyes might mean.

Praem held the torch between her teeth. The circle of light jerked as she grabbed the sides of Alexander’s head – his corpse’s head, I reminded myself, that is a corpse – put her back into it, and twisted.

A dry crunch, the sound of tearing meat. His neck put up little fight against Praem’s inhuman strength. I squeezed my eyes shut. I hated the man, but I couldn’t watch that. Kimberly made a pained noise in her throat and turned away. Twil winced and let out a little ‘urgh’. Evelyn sighed, trying to conceal the way she turned green in the face.

“That’s him done then,” Raine said. When I turned back, Praem was holding up Alexander’s severed head in one hand, pointing the torch at it with her other.

“Done,” Praem echoed.

It wasn’t much of a head, with the skull cracked and the jaw broken and teeth missing and one eyeball burned away. I tried not to dwell on the threads of tendon and tail-like spine dangling from the neck. His remaining eye was stuck looking up and to the left, forever.

He deserved this. An evil man, come to an evil end.

“Where be his quiddits now, his quillets, his cases, his tenures, and his tricks?” I whispered.

“What?” Twil blinked at me.

“I’m going to guess that was Shakespeare,” Evelyn said. “Mm?”

“Yes. Hamlet. It seemed … appropriate, that’s all.”

“Oh. Poetry? Right.”

“Quite right,” Evelyn grunted. “That’s him done. Even my mother wouldn’t have survived a good guillotining. Dump that skull and come on home, Praem.”

In the moment the head began to tilt from Praem’s hand, Kimberly was still turned away, Raine must have been looking at my face, and Twil had glanced upward.

That saved them.

Evelyn and I were not so lucky.

I saw it because I was still staring at his eyeball, thinking about what I’d become by taking on responsibility for this. Evelyn saw it because she was directing Praem.

As Alexander’s severed head fell from Praem’s hand, it passed through the precise intersection point of the invisible gazes of those three eye-murals.

Behind that glassy, dead eye, embedded in its bruised, puffy socket, I saw a ripple of motion. The settling of a vast underwater bulk, as seen through a tiny porthole. It reminded me of what I’d witnessed moving behind the eyes of Twil’s mother – a passenger inside a human mind, but unlike that one. A vast, dark attention turned on us. A split-second was all it needed.

Alexander Lilburne was dead – but nobody said an Outsider needed an intact human brain.

The attack – and in light of what unfolded in those remaining thin hours before sunrise, I do believe it was an attack – was quick and sharp. Pain blossomed inside my head, in my frontal lobe, through the vector of my own sight. I think I screamed, clamped my hands to my skull, and fell out of my chair.

For a few moments I knew nothing but darkness and pain. Awareness returned slowly with a throbbing intensity, my thoughts struggling up through thick tar, everything muffled and too loud at the same time, panicked voices, hands on my shoulders. I sat up suddenly as if freed from a net, panting, my heart racing.

“What- we-”

Raine took my head firmly in both hands, and peered into my eyes. She glanced over her shoulder and back, saying something – Twil’s name, a command to calm down, muffled by the pounding of my own blood in my ears.

An awful keening sound filled the air, interrupted by a repeating heavy thump; the summoned thing in the magic circle at the back of the room was going berserk, throwing itself at its invisible cage over and over, clawing and hissing and spitting, a mass of whipping black limbs and boiling dark fog. Kimberly was over there, snatches of terrified Latin drifting across the room as she fumbled with a book.

Raine peered into my eyes again, and I realised I’d never seen her so worried before. For once, she couldn’t hide it.

“Heather. Heather, you with us? Oh, thank fuck.”

“Yes- yes, Raine, I- it was-”

“It’s okay, it’ll be okay. You were out cold for a few minutes there. How many fingers?”

“ … two. Now three. Raine, what-”

The image in the paddling pool had gone out. Just water.

Evelyn had been a few inches further forward than I. She’d taken the brunt. She must have slid out of her chair. Twil had caught her before she hit the floor, and now held her gingerly, wide-eyed, clearly with no idea what to do.

Evelyn was unconscious, her breathing erratic and laboured, eyes rolling under their lids, blood-flecked froth on her lips.

==

“Why won’t she wake up? Come on, Saye, why won’t you wake up?”

“Twil.”

“I don’t get this. She’s always so fucking stubborn. How can she be out like this? E- … Evee?” Twil grabbed one of Evelyn’s shoulders and shook her gently.

Twil,” Raine snapped. Twil rounded on her, turning away from Evelyn’s unconscious form laid out on the sofa, baring her teeth in a growl. “Give her some room. Don’t crowd her.”

Twil straightened up, still baring her teeth. “Oh yeah? Like that’s gonna work? She won’t fucking wake up, Raine! She’s in a fucking coma!”

“I’m thinking,” Raine said.

We’d done what we could. Or rather, Raine and Twil had. More than enough muscle between them to lift Evelyn onto the sofa and make her comfortable. Raine had fumbled around under Evelyn’s skirt to remove her prosthetic leg, in case she hurt herself somehow. Her breathing had stabilised but her eyes twitched and flickered as if she was in deep REM sleep.

Almost half an hour later, we couldn’t wake her.

I was able to sit upright, hunched in a chair, but I felt awful, as if a fist had reached into my head and punched me in the brain, left me weak and woozy. If I hadn’t been so scared for Evelyn – not to mention Praem – I would have happily curled up in bed and passed out for twelve hours.

If I hadn’t been so terrified.

“Thinking, fuck. We need to do something.” Twil cast about, settled on Kimberly. “Kim, come on, don’t you know anything? Isn’t there some magic you can do, or … ”

Twil trailed off as Kimberly shook her head. She looked almost as bad as Evelyn, slumped against one wall, a thin trickle of bloody drool leaking from one side of her mouth.

None of us knew exactly what had happened with the smoky-dark creature Evelyn had summoned. Perhaps her control had broken when she’d been knocked unconscious, or perhaps it was trying to protect her. The latter seemed unlikely. Whatever the cause, the thing had gone feral. Not one of us had known what to do, except let it free and have Twil or the Spider-servitor rip it apart, but for all we knew that might not work.

Kimberly, with her tissue-paper knowledge and abuse-learnt skills, had stepped in, cringing and terrified of the very thing she was trying to banish. I suspected she’d only succeeded because Evelyn’s notes and books were nearby, already open to the relevant pages, but that didn’t diminish the act of courage. The magic circle was empty now. She’d been spitting blood into a wad of tissues since – the words had hurt her mouth and throat.

“I’ll fucking kill him all over again, fucking Alexander, I fucking will,” Twil said through gritted teeth.

“It wasn’t him,” I said. My voice felt thin and weak. “It was something inside him. It was the Eye. It was those murals, the graffiti.”

“It’ll be okay,” Raine said, squeezing my shoulder. “It can’t get us here, it can’t do that again.”

I shook my head. She didn’t know anything, no more than I did.

“Oh yeah?” Twil spread her arms. With every fury-driven word she looked less and less human, wisps and fragments of her wolfish transformation gathering to her arms and face. “Crush that fucking severed head of his, I bet that would work. Fuck, are we just gonna sit around? We need to take Evelyn to a hospital, now, call an ambulance or something. Come on!”

“That might not be a bad idea,” I said, nodding my agreement, clutching for any shred of normality here.

“And what do we tell the doctors?” Raine asked. She wouldn’t look away from Evelyn, staring, frowning.

“Tell them fucking whatever!” Twil spat.

“And what if they can’t help her?” Raine shook her head. “No, we need a mage.”

“ … we … we could take her to my family.” Twil swallowed. “My mother, she’ll get this, she knows stuff. There’s gotta be something they can do.”

“Not sure we trust your family, not with Evee.”

“Fuck you!” Twil shouted at her.

“Twil, please, stop,” I said, but I had no steel left for my voice. The Eye, it was the Eye. It had gotten to Alexander, somehow – how? He’d known about my sister, hadn’t he? He’d know about Maisie. He’d made contact, somehow? My mind whirled. I couldn’t stop shaking.

“If you’re just going to stand there, I’ll take her back to Brinkwood myself.” Twil bent down toward Evelyn, preparing to lift her.

“I said, I’m thinking.”

Twil froze. Kimberly stared at Raine, spooked-animal style. A tremor of adrenaline shuddered through me. Raine had crammed such threat into those four simple words, without moving a single muscle. Twil straightened up, slowly, staring at Raine as if she couldn’t believe what her ears. She bared her teeth and let out a growl, a deep, thrumming sound. Raine finally looked away from Evelyn’s unconscious form, and met the eyes of a very angry werewolf.

“This time last year you would have been happy to see her dead,” Raine murmured.

“Yeah, well things change, don’t they?” Twil thumped her own chest with one hand. “We’re fucking friends now, and that means something to me, yeah?”

“Good. ‘Cos we’re gonna need some of that. I’m not your enemy here, big bad wolf, but the one thing you’re not doing is carrying Evee out of this house.”

“I don’t believe you, Raine. Still, you don’t fucking trust me? Now?!”

“Raine, it’s Twil,” I managed to murmur.

Raine shook her head. “Trust’s got nothing to do with it. I’m cool with you these days, you’re with us, you know that. Drop the anger. I don’t like to admit it, but we’re real vulnerable right now. You get me?”

Twil blinked at her. Claws faded back into human hands. “What?”

“Evelyn’s always been her own best asset. Not me, not her reputation, not even this house – which, right now, might be the only thing keeping her safe. If this was a trap, a set-up by the cult-”

“It was the Eye,” I hissed

“Yeah, maybe it was.” Raine glanced down at me, tried a smile. For once, it didn’t land. “Maybe that’s what the cult’s doing now. They might have a line on her, know she’s helpless. Might be on the way here. I don’t think they’re stupid enough for that, but they might. And this house – the wards, the servitors, everything her family left here – is the only barrier we’ve got. Following me now?”

Twil stared for a moment, then cast about as if lost. She nodded and scratched wildly at her own head. “The hell do we do then? Wait for her to wake up?”

“Could wait for Praem,” Raine said. “But being realistic … don’t think she’s coming home.”

I felt a sob catch in the back of my throat.

“That’s it then?” Twil said. “We just fucking wait?”

“No, I said I was thinking.” Raine nodded at Evelyn. “There is one person who’d drop everything and come running to help her. Evee’ll kill me for it, but I can make a phone call, and I think we’d all rather have her awake and breathing fire, yeah?”

“Who are you talking about?” I asked, confused.

“Remember back when we were trying to figure out Tenny? Remember the phone calls, the other mages? Remember Felicity?”

“ … a little. Vaguely. I thought she was dangerous?”

“Not to Evee, not in that way. Long story. I’ll get my phone. If I tell her what happened, she’ll be here by nightfall.”

“Nightfall?” Twil gaped. “Fuck, Raine, that’s too long. I can’t- I have to- shit. Fuck it, I’m going. I’m gonna smash that bastard’s skull apart.”

None of us could have stopped her. Kimberly couldn’t even rise to her feet without shaking. By the time I managed to get myself out of the chair and through the kitchen, Twil was already in the front room, shoving her arms into her coat and stamping into her shoes.

“Twil, I’ve never asked you for much, but right now we need you here,” Raine was saying. “The house gets hit, we’re gonna need you. You care about Evee? She needs you here.”

“I can run to Glasswick in fifteen minutes!” Twil all but shouted in her face. “Up the stairs in five, thirty seconds to find the head, and then-” She swung a fist into her own palm. “And then she wakes up. Right?”

“What if it gets you too?” Raine asked. “Only thing spared us is we weren’t looking.”

“I’m fucking invincible, remember?” Twil clacked her knuckles against her own head. “Like to see ‘em try.”

“It won’t make any difference,” I heard myself say.

Twil blinked at me. Her determined expression collapsed. “I gotta do something. I don’t want her to die, I … she … You lot’ll be safe for fifteen minutes. Come on, you’ve got a gun, right?”

“Yeah … yeah I have,” Raine murmured. “Twil, please, hey-”

But Twil wasn’t listening anymore. She unlatched the front door and bolted into the night like a racehorse, more wolf than human. She vaulted the garden wall, and sped off into the darkness, footfalls echoing in early morning hours of Sharrowford before dawn. Cold tendrils of air reached my face, but I couldn’t shiver any harder.

“Raine,” I whined.

Raine stared after Twil, then quickly shut and locked the door. “Wait here,” she said, and hopped up the stairs, three at a time. She returned as quickly as she’d left, the matte black threat of her pistol in one hand, a sheathed knife in the other. “I should go after her. I really should go after her,” she said, grinning. “But no way I’m leaving you and Evee here alone.” She tucked the pistol into the waistband of her pajamas – a image I’d probably never forget – and pulled her mobile phone from her pocket. “I’m gonna make the call now. This might get weird, you don’t have to listen.”

“I … Raine … ” I swallowed, terrified, but I knew what I had to do. “I have an idea.”

Raine’s eyebrows climbed. “Heather?”

“I want to try to use brainmath – hyperdimensional mathematics – to wake Evee up. Break whatever’s been done to her.”

Raine lowered her phone. “You think you can do that?”

I shrugged, and my voice shook a little. “I have no idea. In theory, I can do anything, if I can endure the pain. It’ll hurt, it might go wrong, I’ll … I’ll definitely pass out, but it’s worth trying. Isn’t it?”

“Heather, hey,” Raine tucked her phone and the knife away, and then gave me a hug. Goodness, I needed that. She wrapped her arms around me and for a moment I felt that tiny little bit better, that shred of safety in the one place I’d found real security in life. She sighed. “I don’t want you to hurt yourself too”

“It’s worth trying.”

“Okay, okay, I get it, yeah.” She pulled back, glanced at the kitchen door. Kimberly was bracing herself against the doorframe. “Kim, you holding up alright?”

“I think so,” Kimberly croaked. “May I … may I get some water?”

“’Course you can. We’re gonna try to wake Saye. We might need you nearby, I don’t know, this isn’t my-”

Knock knock.

The room echoed with a knocking on the front door. All three of us stopped and stared.

“It’s Twil, she came back,” I said.

“Maybe.” Raine stepped away from me and drew her gun, held it low, in both hands. She transformed in a split-second, from comforting softness to whipcord-tight tension in every muscle. “Both of you get in the kitchen, behind a wall. Somebody watch Evee.”

“Raine, be careful.”

“Careful’s not in my vocab. I’ll try,” she hissed. She stalked toward the front door, but kept herself off to one side, listening to the deafening silence. Kimberly put a hand on my arm, tried to encourage me to hide with her.

Knock knock knock.

Raine pointed her gun at the door.

“That you back with us, Twil?” she called out.

The reply came after a long silent pause, as if the speaker had to think very carefully about how to form words, how to use its lungs and larynx, mouth and tongue. It didn’t do a very good job.

Open up, open up, three little piggies,” it said, in a nightmare imitation of Lozzie’s voice.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

and less pleasant places – 6.7

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

“Bloody unlikely there’s anyone up there,” Evelyn said.

Exhausted by extrovert acting and hasty brainmath, coming down off the high of strangled righteous anger, and still choked by the oily toxin of self-disgust, I managed only to lift my eyes across the kitchen table to where Evelyn sat.

“How’d you figure that?” Raine asked for me.

Evelyn frowned at her, then at me, then over at Twil.

“Anybody? Really? Am I the only one with two brain cells left?” Evelyn huffed. “The Sharrowford Cult wasn’t naked screaming madmen, they were otherwise normal people, with homes, jobs.” She flung an irritated gesture toward Kimberly, who was still sitting quietly in the corner where we’d deposited her. The untouched mug of tea in Kimberly’s hands betrayed her nerves, and she flinched so badly she almost spilt some. She quickly averted her eyes to avoid her share of Evelyn’s glare.

“It’s alright, she doesn’t bite,” Raine said to Kim.

“I certainly do,” Evelyn snapped. “Why would these vermin ‘hide out’ in an abandoned building? This isn’t a cheap murder mystery novel or noir film. We’re looking for Amy Stack, and guess what, she probably lives in suburban Manchester.”

Raine raised her eyebrows and pulled a ‘fair enough’ face.

Twil laughed. “Evee, what are you talking about? They had a castle.”

Evelyn let out a slow sigh and fixed Twil with a capital-L look.

“What?” Twil spread her arms and tilted her chair back on two legs with perfect balance. At least one of us was in high spirits. “They did! Why not Glasswick tower block? S’not where I’d go, I’d go get lost in the woods, but these people are wackjobs, right?” She tapped her temple.

An internal struggle passed across Evelyn’s face. I wasn’t privy to what she and Twil had talked about while Kimberly and I had spent two hours pretending to be Wiccan girlfriends, but I recognised Evelyn fighting to swallow one of her usual scathing responses.

“Go on then,” Twil said. “Call me a dumbarse, tell me why I’m wrong.”

“You are not only astoundingly stupid, you’re capable of missing things right under your own nose,” Evelyn said, then sank into a very private glower. Oh dear, I suspected that comment had more meaning than Twil knew. “They had a castle because they were doing magical experiments, in their own pocket dimension, hidden from me. They wouldn’t be able to hide for long in an old tower block. It’s useless.”

“I told you already,” I said, and bore Evelyn’s glare with ease for once. “Tenny reacted, when she saw the tower. She didn’t like it at all.”

“ … oh, fuck, alright,” Evelyn spat, and all but threw her empty mug at the tabletop. It bounced once, and Raine snatched the mug out of the air before it could shatter on the floor, muttering ‘mad skills’ under her breath.

“I don’t want to believe it either,” I said. “It’s too silly.”

“It’s absurd,” Evelyn said through gritted teeth. “That’s what it is.”

That was all I could muster for the moment. I screwed my eyes shut in a vain attempt to control the lingering headache inside my skull. All I wanted right now was to curl up under my bed covers and forget this entire evening, shut out the echoes of pain and the awful awareness of the line I’d crossed. None of the others seemed to notice the difference. Even Raine treated me as if nothing had changed.

“Surprised you didn’t know about the place, right next door to you and all,” Twil said. I eased my eyes open to find she was addressing Kimberly.

“I-I didn’t. Nothing.” She shook her head. “I knew the castle, that was it.”

“I find that exceptionally hard to believe,” Evelyn said. Kimberly froze up and swallowed on a dry throat.

She’d been white faced and quiet since the moment Gillespie had finally spilt the beans about Glasswick tower. Huddling in the back of Raine’s car on the return journey, the only thing Kimberly had said was a tiny, terrified plea to please let her come with us, that she couldn’t go home, not now, she had nowhere to go, they’ll get her and they’ll-

“’Course you can come with us,” Raine had said, not missing a beat. “Wouldn’t dream of sending you off alone, not now.”

At least that was one problem less, no need to coax or threaten poor abused Kimberly into coming back with us. I’d almost rolled my eyes to hear Raine play knight in shining armour for another girl, but there was no real jealousy in my heart. I didn’t have the emotional bandwidth.

She hadn’t taken much convincing to come inside either. To her eyes, number 12 Barnslow Drive was another run-down Victorian redbrick in some forgotten Sharrowford street. She wasn’t informed enough, important enough, involved enough, to know about the Saye house – and she’d been coerced into much creeper places before. Evelyn had glanced her up and down in the front room, grunted, and told Raine to park her in a corner.

“I believe her,” I said, summoning myself back to the present, tearing myself away from the guilt. The last thing we needed was Evelyn going off on one. “Kim?”

“Y-yes? Yes, Heather?”

“You’ve never been in Glasswick tower, and you don’t know what the cult did or does there? Tell me the truth.” My words felt so fragile, having to play both enforcer and diplomat, Kimberly’s magical idol and Lozzie’s only link.

“Yes, I promise. I’ve never been in there, I don’t know anything about it. If I did I would tell you. I would tell you, Heather.”

Evelyn grumbled in her throat, unhappy but disarmed for now.

“Maybe Alexander’s in there?” Twil suggested.

“He’s dead. I killed him,” I said.

She shrugged wide. “Seriously? We never saw a corpse, and the big fucko zombie woman made off like a ghost afterward, right? Tch, it’s like you lot don’t even have basic instincts. If you don’t see the kill, it might have run off.”

“Don’t say that. Twil, don’t say that.” I shook my head and sighed. “That is the last thought I needed preying on my mind right now, please.”

Raine squeezed my shoulders. “Hey, Heather, why don’t we go upstairs and get you changed out of this outfit? You feel pretty cold still, could do with some thicker layers, yeah?”

“No, not yet, I … ” I caught Evelyn’s expression – hard, staring, taking Twil all too seriously.

“Think I’m right?” Twil asked with a smirk. “See? I do have good ideas.”

“Unlikely,” Evelyn murmured, then cleared her throat. “Mages are hard to kill, but they’re not invincible.”

“Heather put him through a stone wall,” Raine said. “That’s a lot of broken bones.”

“That wasn’t stone,” I reminded her.

“Good as. Through a stone wall, down like five stories, and then a hard landing – splat. Not even counting what she did to him first. If the bastard lived, he’d have no bone unbroken, no muscle unpulped. You’d be healing from that for years, even with magic to keep his brain fluid from slopping out his ears.”

“Yeah, true, he’d be a sack of mincemeat now,” Twil said. “But maybe that’s why they need an abandoned building. Keep him hidden. Wouldn’t take him to a regular hospital, would they?”

“Unlikely,” Evelyn grunted. She stared at nothing, eyes far away.

“Don’t,” I hissed. Raine squeezed my shoulders again.

Evelyn drew herself up, sharp and resolved. “The last time we confronted these people in their lair, we were completely unprepared. Miracle none of us died. This time we’re going to do it right, or not at all. We’re in no rush, we’re not rescuing Lozzie – she’s popping in and out of reality somewhere, doing God knows what, so forget her.” She tapped the table. “If Alexander’s blood-sodden corpse is in that building – which it isn’t, because they won’t have anything in there at all, and he is dead – I’m going to bury him in a mountain of rubble. I’ll demolish Glasswick tower myself. It’s well overdue.”

“With … magic?” Twil blinked at her. “You can do that?”

“In theory.”

That raised of an entire level crossing worth of red flags. “Evee, you can’t be serious,” I said.

“Deadly serious. We do this right.”

“Evee, they demolish buildings like that with explosives. Careful explosives. And they evacuate the surroundings first. None of us understands the first thing about controlled explosions.” I gaped at her. “Uh, unless … ” I glanced up at Raine.

She burst out laughing. “Heather, that is so flattering. But no, blowing stuff up isn’t in my skill set.”

Evelyn frowned at her. “Don’t lie. You built a bomb once. I watched you do it.”

“ … I did?” Raine looked bemused. “Oh, the petrol bomb. Come on, I made that with a plastic bag and stolen diesel, and it didn’t work. Teenage stupidity doesn’t count.”

“Evee, I’m serious,” I pushed on. “I think demolishing a building might be a little beyond us.”

“How hard can it be?” She scowled at me.

“Pretty hard. One brick wrong and Glasswick tower could fall and hit the other tower, or fall on people’s homes. And there’s bound to be a few homeless people camped in there, too. Evee, no.”

“Yeah, uh, look,” Raine cleared her throat. “I know I have pretty flexible ethics, and I’m all for anything that keeps us out of danger, but we’re not gonna take the risk of killing a thousand people with a magically induced industrial accident.”

“Please don’t-” Kimberly squeaked, swallowed, tried again. “Please don’t destroy my home.”

Evelyn huffed and rolled her eyes.

“I could go check the place out,” Twil said. “Poke my head inside, run up the stairs. It’ll take like ten minutes tops once I’m there. Anybody freaky shows up I’ll knock ‘em sideways and we’ll be done.”

Evelyn looked at her like she was an idiot. “Do you have the memory of a goldfish?”

“Eh?”

“Do you not recall the sorts of things in their little pocket dimension? You want to get eaten that badly, hm?”

“Yeah.” Raine nodded. “Even without that, the inside of Glasswick’ll be a nightmare. Even for you, big bad wolf. No lights, lots of blind corners, those big stairwells. Too many angles, too many hiding places. A gun would be the least of our worries. Kim, you weren’t the Cult’s only trainee mage, not by a long shot, right?”

Kimberly swallowed. “Yes, that’s right. At least three others, t-that I knew of.”

“I rest my case.”

“What could they do?” Twil laughed. “I’m invincible! None of you have to come wi-”

“You are not fucking going in there!” Evelyn exploded. Of all of us, only Raine didn’t flinch. Kimberly nearly fell out of her chair. Even Twil herself jerked back in shock as Evelyn shouted at her. “Not now, not later, not alone, not with us, not at all. I will have Praem tie you to that fucking chair with steel wire if I have to.”

“Alright, alright.” Twil put her hands up. “Fuck. Be cool. No need to shout. If you care that much, alright, I won’t.”

“I shouted because your idiocy is only outstripped by your … ” She huffed and screwed her eyes up, hand to her forehead.

“It’s okay, Evee, we know,” I said. I’m not certain Twil did know. “And I agree. Nobody goes in Glasswick tower. We’re not doing that all over again.”

“If not me, why not send Praem?” Twil asked gently, words on eggshells. “She’s … well.”

“Don’t you dare say expendable,” I hissed.

Twil winced. “S’not what I meant. I mean like, she’s, you know, you can just put her in a new body if you need to, right?”

Evelyn huffed and crossed her arms over her chest, scowling down at the tabletop. “I’ll think of something else. But we’re not setting foot in there. Absolutely not.”

==

Praem already had her own task to carry out, complete with its own risks, and we waited for her to return home before we placed the phone call. Just in case.

I’d retreated from the crowded kitchen to the sanctuary of upstairs, the familiar textures of wooden floorboards and old rugs under my feet, with the intention of shedding the skirt and tights, wiping the foundation off my face, peeling myself out of the sticky, uncomfortable shell I’d worn all evening. I’d never been to a party, not a real one, but I assumed this was what the aftermath might be like if one had a very bad time indeed, bedraggled and upset with oneself.

Raine found me ten minutes later. Still in all my clothes, squinting into the bathroom mirror as I tried to scrub the foundation away from around my eye, wincing as the bruise still stung underneath.

“Hey you,” she said, came up behind me and gently caught my hand. “Hey, hey, let me do that. Soap and water won’t do the job so well, you need some of the good shit. Here.” She grabbed one of the bottles from by the sink and sprayed the contents onto the wet flannel I’d been using, turned me around to face her, and began wiping the makeup off my face. Gentle fingers traced my cheekbones.

I felt like a small girl having her grubby face cleaned, and for a reason I couldn’t admit yet, I felt awful.

“Heather? Hey, it’s okay. You really pulled it off tonight, you know? It was hard, but it’s over now.”

“I’m fine.” I shook my head. “Well, no, that’s a lie, I’m not fine. I’m … emotionally exhausted.”

“Let’s get your face clean first, yeah?” Raine set back to work on me. “I was getting Kim a bit more settled, that’s why I was a few minutes. She’s freaking out ‘cos all her stuff’s back in her flat and she’s gotta go to work in the morning. I’m gonna give her a lift though. She’ll be alright here overnight.”

“Mm.”

I allowed Raine to lead me over the creaking floorboards to our bedroom, to the fresh pajama bottoms and a blanket we’d left draped over the old iron radiator. I craved the heat, but somehow I knew it wouldn’t touch the ice inside me. I went to sit down, to tug the skirt off, but Raine stopped me, lifted one of my hands by the fingers, looked me up and down, and smiled.

“What?”

“You look really good in that getup. Those tights, oooh.” She pulled an approving face. “Killing me.”

I sighed, not up to blushing or feeling flustered right now. “Raine, I was vomiting an hour ago. I feel disgusting.”

“When we’ve found Lozzie, and things quieten down again, we’re gonna both get dressed up and go on a real date. Just you and me, screw everything else for a day. We could go to that noodle place, the fancy one in the shopping centre, and that bookstore you like, and anything else you fancy.”

“Raine, anything-”

“Shh.” She pressed a finger to my lips. “You don’t get to say no to this one. I gotta get you in colourful tights again, ‘cos it makes me randy.”

“Raine.” I rolled my eyes. I knew what she was up to, but it did the trick. The cold in my chest finally began to thaw.

She helped me out of the skirt and tights, rubbed my freezing cold feet, and I wriggled back into the warm pajama bottoms as she wrapped my shoulders in the blanket. I closed my eyes and luxuriated in the heat for a moment, or at least I tried to.

“Snug as a bug in a rug,” Raine said.

The words spilled from me before I could stop them. My voice didn’t shake or shiver, only sounded hollow. “I shouldn’t have done that.”

“Heather? Done what?”

“I crossed a line tonight. One I didn’t even know was there.”

“Heather? Hey, hey.” She sat next to me on the bed, arm around my shoulders. “I’m not gonna pretend I don’t know what you’re talking about, but the last thing you should do is beat yourself up about it.” I met her eyes, silently sceptical, and she replied with a smirk. “Come on, I know you inside out by now. You feel bad about what we did to that Gillespie woman.”

“I tortured her. Me. I did that.”

 Raine let out a big sigh and her smirk dialled down. “I was about to do the exact same thing. Who knows, maybe a trip Outside was less traumatic in the long run than me whacking her in the stomach a dozen times.”

I shook my head. “I sent her Outside. I tortured her with an experience I’ve been through. Self-defence, that was one thing, but … how could I?”

“Hey,” Raine said. “She deserved it.”

“I know she did,” I whined. “I know. She deserves worse. She should be locked up, for life. But I tortured a person.”

“You were justified. You had good bloody reason. We had to find out what she knew, and she’ll never see any other punishment for what she did with the cult. If it was up to me, she’d have gotten off a lot less lightly.”

“It wasn’t lightly, Raine. I broke that woman.” I felt an awful choke in the back of my throat. “How can you not see this? You’re a philosophy student, you’ve studied ethics. Is torture ever acceptable? Is it? I did it without thinking, in the heat of the moment, and it was an awful thing to do.”

I buried my face in her shoulder and tried to shut out the world.

“So you made a mistake,” she said, in a tone of voice that would have made more sense if I’d left the oven on or spilled coffee on a carpet.

“Ugh,” I groaned.

“Everybody makes mistakes. I’m not great at judging these things, it’s up to you. If you think you did wrong then that counts as a mistake. Learn from it, think it over, so next time you’ll act differently. And hey, when it came time to think carefully, you didn’t kill her.”

==

I didn’t kill Gillespie, that much was true, but it hadn’t been an easy decision.

Cringing up at me from the chair in the back office of Grey Magicks, she’d stared in utter terror when I’d pronounced her sentence.

“You’re going to leave Sharrowford. Tonight,” I’d said.

“Leave? I- no- no no please not again-”

“Shut up.” My lips still tasted of vomit and my head rang. Raine had to hold me up, arm around my waist, but I felt no less vengeful for being weak. “I don’t mean where I sent you. I mean leave the city. The cult gave you money, didn’t they? I don’t care how much you’ve already spent, or how much debt you have, or anything like that. Leave. I don’t care if you die in a ditch somewhere. If I ever see you again in Sharrowford, I will send you Outside, and nobody will bring you back.”

“Oh, I- t-thank you, yes, yes I promise, I won’t ever come back. I promise, just- yes.”

“It’s better than you deserve!” Kimberly hissed at her. I jerked at hand at her to shut her up too, this wasn’t her fight anymore.

“What if she talks to the cult?” Praem intoned – Evelyn speaking through her. “We can’t just let her go, don’t be stupid.”

“Yes we can,” I spat.

“I- y-yes … m-my husband, he-”

“I don’t care. No sob stories. You’re leaving.”

“Heather, we need some kind of insurance here,” Raine murmured softly.

“We’re letting her live,” I said. “I’m not- I’m not- oh, fine. You want insurance?”

I forced my feet underneath me, still shaking from the brainmath, shoving Raine’s help away and bracing myself with the corner of the desk. Gillespie stared at me. Her eyes went wide. I reached out one hand toward her and she screamed, tried to scramble away until Praem caught her, tears streaming down her face. She babbled nonsense, pleading, begging, tearing at her own clothes.

“Shut up!” I shouted at her, my throat raw, and lowered my hand. “You see? You see that? I don’t have to explain myself.”

“Saw,” Praem said. That was her, not Evelyn.

“Take her mobile phone if we have to, take her … does she have an organiser, a phone book in her bag? Do you?”

“Yes, yes! Take it, take it!”

Praem did as I suggested, stripping phone and other important things from Gillespie’s handbag on the desk. “Praem, you can go with her to her home, make sure she leaves. Tonight.” Gillespie had fallen to her knees again. I stared down at her. “You understand what I’m trying to do? Because I’m trying really hard to win this argument with myself. If you talk to anyone from the cult, you set foot in Sharrowford again, you do anything, anything – I’ll send you back Outside.”

“I understand! I do! I promise, please- what if- what if the Brotherhood-”

“That’s why you’re leaving.”

“The cult gave you money, yeah?” Raine asked slowly. “How much money?”

“I … uh … e-enough. W-why?”

Raine smirked. “Just curious. Praem, she got a chequebook in that bag?”

==

“I’m gonna make a guess, Heather, a bit of a shot in the dark,” Raine said. My head was still nestled against her shoulder, and I felt the words vibrate through her chest.

“Mm?”

“Are you afraid of changing? Becoming something you don’t recognise anymore?”

“That’s hardly a guess,” I said, and sat up so I could see her face properly. “And no, for once you’re wrong.” I gave her a little smile, the best I could manage. “Killing Alexander didn’t change me. This won’t change me either. It’s … who I was all along, I suppose.”

“That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, not unless you make it that way.”

“Says the woman who’s killed several people right in front of me.”

She grinned and shrugged. Couldn’t help it, could she? “Hey, when it works, it works.”

I sighed. “Maybe we should have killed her. All those homeless people … every one of those zombies, every one was a person. Maybe that’s what bothers me more. Removing one exploitative monster – even Alexander – doesn’t change the world, doesn’t affect anything, all that real horror going on out there.” I gestured vaguely at the window, at Sharrowford beyond. “It doesn’t make a difference. I can’t even save one person.”

“Yes, you can. You have. And we will.”

“I hope so,” I muttered.

==

“You originally from Sharrowford, then?” Twil asked Kim, as we all sat about in the kitchen waiting for Praem.

Evelyn had left the door open to her magical workshop, serenading us with the sounds of her stomping about and leafing through books. Raine kicked out a chair next to me and put her feet up, then dug out the slip of paper with Gillespie’s ‘emergency number’ and tossed it on the table.

A few figures on a torn piece of note paper, and I’d tortured a woman for this. I hugged the blanket tighter around my shoulders, but at least I didn’t feel so damned cold anymore. Raine produced her phone and said muttered something about checking the number.

“Um, yes. Born and bred.” Kimberly tried a smile, but it didn’t last long.

“Where’s all your family about then?” Twil said.

“Both my parents died, six years ago, and five years ago. My dad went first, and my mum didn’t outlive him by much. They couldn’t live without each other.”

“Aww. Sad. Yeah, yeah I get it,” Twil said, nodding. She reached over and awkwardly nudged Kimberly in the shoulder.

“It was a fifth of my life ago. It’s fine.”

“It seemed to me that you had plenty of family tonight,” I said, dragging myself away from dark thoughts. “You should go back to the coven again.”

“I don’t … I don’t know if I can, I … I don’t know.”

I sighed and let myself sag against the table. All I wanted to do was curl up in bed, to not think, but this night wasn’t over yet. “Do I have to command you? Is that what you need?”

“Heather, oi.” Twil frowned at me. I shrugged.

“You should have seen her,” I said. “She was a completely different person.”

Raine looked up from her phone and grinned. “Maybe you should be the new high priestess. A hostile takeover.”

“No, I … I couldn’t. But maybe you’re right.” Kimberly stared into her untouched mug of tea. “Jerry can’t do everything on his own, maybe … with Cathy gone … ”

When Kimberly didn’t resume her train of thought out loud, Raine clonked her phone down on the table and stretched her arms above her head. “Well, it’s a Sharrowford number, for sure, and it’s real. Shows up in listings and stuff, but not who or what it’s registered to. Could be anything.”

“You think the old bitch might have lied?” Twil asked.

“No.” I shook my head. “She was too afraid to lie to me.”

Raine reached over and squeezed my shoulder.

“Mmm,” Twil grunted, shrugged, then turned to Kim again. “Why’d you like being Wiccan, anyway? What’s it like?”

“Why are you so interested in her life story?” Evelyn drawled from the doorway to her workshop. She had a face like a thunderstorm. “You know what she was.”

“’Ey?”

“Evee,” Raine sighed.

“I’m sorry,” Kimberly squeaked “I-”

Et tu?” Evelyn snapped at her, rattling off Latin at sudden speed. “Quid de te? Intellige quae dico?”

“I-I don’t- I only know a few words, only the things I needed for the spells I was taught. That’s all, I promise.”

Evelyn stared at her like she was trying to bore holes in Kimberly’s head, then grunted a dismissal. She shoved discarded mugs out of the way with her walking stick, unrolled a piece of canvas from under her arm, and laid it down on the table. A magic circle draw in hasty marker pen stared back at us, and set a tingling feeling in the back of my skull.

“Precautions.” Evelyn held her hand out. “Whose phone are we using for this?”

Raine’s phone, apparently, which she carefully deposited in the centre of the magic circle.

“Who does the talking?” Twil asked.

“Me obviously,” Evelyn grunted as she sat down, rubbing her thigh where her prosthetic attached. “I’m the only one who can credibly threaten them over a phone line.”

“Can you … ” Kimberly asked. “Can you really do that?”

Evelyn gave her a withering stare. “What do you think?”

I caught Evelyn’s eyes, asking the same question without words. She sighed and shook her head ever so slightly. So, we were powerless.

Praem returned a few minutes later, a smart click as she unlocked the front door and let herself in. Raine went to check she locked up again properly, and Praem glided into the kitchen. She took her usual place a few paces behind Evelyn.

“Success, or not?” Evelyn grunted at her.

“Success,” Praem intoned.

“In my account?”

“Success.”

“Went off without a hitch?” Raine asked, coming back in and grinning at the doll-demon. “She really did it, huh? How much she have her bank account?”

Praem’s musical lilt all but sung the number out. “Thirty three thousand seven hundred and twenty two pounds.”

None of us said anything for a long moment. I believe my mouth hung open. Evelyn snorted, Raine laughed.

“That is so much fucking money. Fuck,” Twil said, gaping at us. “What- how-”

“Thirty thousand quid. Bugger me.” Raine grinned.

“What are you going to do with it all?” Kimberly asked.

“That is so much fucking money,” Twil repeated.

“It’s not that much,” Evelyn tutted.

“Yeah, and you’re rich. You don’t get to weigh in,” Twil said. “Fuck. Fuck.”

“We could buy a boat!” Raine laughed.

“It goes to Shelter,” I said, gathering my wits. I put some steel into my voice. “We can keep a little – a little – but it goes to Shelter.”

“Who? What?” Twil blinked.

“The homeless charity,” Evelyn said, nodding. “She’s right.”

“Oh. Oh, right.”

“And- and the Trussell people, the food banks,” I added. “Gillespie preyed on the homeless. Her money goes to helping them. None of us are anywhere near that desperate.”

Nobody argued, thank God. Thirty thousand was more than I’d expected. We had to be very, very careful with this. No time to think it over right now though.

We turned all the lights on. No sense doing this in the dark, Raine said. No sense making this more creepy than it had to be. Carefully, Evelyn reached over and set Raine’s mobile phone to speaker mode, then punched in the number, and let it ring.

Five rings, six rings – seven, eight, still not going to answer-phone.

“Please, please,” I whispered.

“It is like, almost midnight,” Twil hissed. “Whoever has it might be asleep.”

“Or dead,” Raine offered. “Might be we slapped ‘em back in the castle.”

“Or they’re not stupid enough to fall for this,” Evelyn sighed, and reached forward to kill the call.

Click.

The call connected. Evelyn whipped her hand back as a voice whispered out from the phone’s speaker.

“Who is this?”

Soft and measured, drained of affect, a gauze-thin layer of supreme detachment over the promise of quick violence. My stomach clenched up with instinctive recognition.

“Stack,” I mouthed silently.

“Bingo,” Raine whispered, wiggling her eyebrows.

In the corner of my eye I noticed Kimberly tense up in the way a small animal might do. Evelyn nodded her understanding, took a breath, drew herself up, and raised her chin.

“This is Evelyn Saye. You know who I am, and I know who you are, and you know that if you put the phone down I can hurt you much faster than you can escape. Understand? Are you listening to me, Amy Stack?”

Silence. Slow, brooding silence.

“I hear you,” Amy Stack said eventually. Like she didn’t even care.

“You’ve been tracking Lauren Lilburne. She’s been back to this side of reality. You’re going to tell me how you’re doing it, or where to find her.” Evelyn raised her eyes to meet mine. I nodded, heart in my throat.

Another long pause. So long that Raine raised an eyebrow and Twil bared her teeth.

“Mm,” Stack grunted. “Can’t tell you that.”

“Can’t, or won’t?” Evelyn snapped.

“Can’t,” Stack repeated. She drew in a long breath and sighed slowly, the sound distorted by the phone connection. A creak – settling into a chair, or back on her bed? Had the call woken her? “I can’t tell you that, because it’s not Lauren we’re trying to catch.”

“Not Lauren?” I blurted out. Evelyn shot me a pinched frown, but I’d convinced myself I knew what I was doing.

“ … miss Morell. No, if you’ve seen the same thing we have, it’s not Lauren Lilburne.”

“She could still be in there,” I hissed.

Silence.

“Who is ‘we’?” Raine asked.

“Mister Edward Lilburne and his associates.”

Evelyn barked a derisive laugh. “Another cult. Don’t put on airs, you sad little thing.”

“As you say.”

My patience ran thin as stretched skin. Was this what I’d tortured a human being for, this stonewalling? Evelyn and Raine were busy making silent eyes at each other, debating how to proceed, while Twil scowled at the phone as if it had offended her. Kimberly was no help at all, curling smaller and smaller on her chair in the corner.

“I need you to talk to me, Stack,” I said, summoning up the shredded reserves of my determination. “I tortured a woman today, I sent her Outside and brought her back, because I thought she might lead me to Lozzie. And right now I think you’re the next link. I don’t care what I have to … ”

The words died in my throat. Instinct told me Stack didn’t care about threats.

Another long silence before she spoke again, reptile thoughts at reptile speed.

“I need to talk to my boss,” she said. “I’m going to have to put the phone down.”

“Oh no you don’t,” Evelyn hissed. “You tell me right now, exactly what you people have been up to again in my city.”

“Mr Lilburne may decide to share certain facts with you,” Stack said. “Otherwise I wouldn’t suggest I ask him. And he’s too much of a coward to talk to any of you himself. I’ll call you back on this number, likely within fifteen minutes. Do we have a deal?”

“ … deal,” I mouthed, nodding. “Deal,” Raine whispered. Evelyn grit her teeth. Twil shrugged, Kim stayed silent.

“Deal,” Evelyn said out loud.

The call disconnected. None of us spoke for several seconds, until Raine shook herself and blew out a long breath. “What’s the odds on her actually calling us back?”

“Slim,” Evelyn grunted.

“It’s worth a try,” I said, throat tight.

“It’s a bloody good thing I have this in place.” Evelyn reached forward and tapped the magic circle on the piece of canvas. “Her boss is probably about to try something stupid. This is a fool’s errand. Best case, she feeds us a pack of lies. Our next step is Glasswick tower, but fuck me if I know how.”

“I,” Praem intoned.

Everyone looked at her, but Praem stared straight ahead.

“Was that meant to be you stepping forward?” Evelyn asked. “Yes, for your information, of course I’ve thought of using you. What do you think you’re here for?”

“Going anyway,” Praem said. Evelyn frowned at her.

“For Lozzie?” I asked.

Praem turned to stare at me, but said nothing. I nodded a silent thank you. Raine chuckled softly and shook her head, opened her mouth to speak, when the phone on the table rang softly and made me jump. Evelyn put a finger to her lips, waited a beat, and pressed the answer call button.

“It’s me,” Stack’s voice floated from the phone’s speaker.

“You again, indeed.” Evelyn eyed the magic circle, tension plain on her face, but nothing started glowing or hissing or sparking, my vision didn’t swim and my head didn’t hurt any more than it already did.

“My boss has decided it’s better you’re informed than not.”

“Oh, lucky us,” Twil sneered.

“ … I don’t recognise that voice,” Stack said.

“You wanna get to know it, bitch?” Twil asked.

Evelyn swiped a finger at Twil, a silent shut-the-hell-up gesture. “Never you mind who that is. Now why would your boss want to share anything with us at all? Convince me this isn’t a trap, if you can.”

“Better you deal with this than we have to,” Stack said. “Mr Edward is a much more sensible leader than his late nephew. Less ideological, more practical. Terrified of everything. Whatever it is wandering around Sharrowford and the surrounding countryside, if you want it, you’re welcome to it.”

It is Lozzie,” I hissed.

“No, it’s not. I’ve seen it up close. It’s a passable facsimile at a distance, but it’s not Lauren Lilburne. It’s pretending to be her.”

A spark of dark hope kindled in my chest, but I couldn’t believe it, not from this source. “You’ve seen her?”

“That’s a lie!” Kimberly said. “I’ve seen her too, I know it’s her. It looks like her!” She clamped a hand over her mouth, wide-eyed.

“ … is that who I think it is?” Stack asked softly.

“You leave her alone, slaphead,” Raine said, low and dangerous. “Or I’ll be the thing going bump in the night on your skull.”

“Mm,” Stack grunted. “She’s wrong. It’s not Lauren. It visited us, in broad daylight, to speak with Mister Lilburne, except it didn’t say anything that made sense.”

“What exactly did she say?” I asked, and could almost feel the shrug from the other end of the phone.

“Nonsense words. Nothing with any meaning, like a old person with advanced Alzheimer’s. Then it left.”

“Where’d it visit you?” Evelyn asked. “In Sharrowford? Over in Manchester? Where are you, exactly?”

“Nice try.” Stack’s tone said it wasn’t a nice try at all. Evelyn snorted.

“How do I find her?” I asked. “How did you find she’d gone to Kimberly’s flat?”

“Mister Lilburne is unwilling to share his techniques.”

“You-”

“But,” Stack said, soft and affectless as all her speech – but something new lurked behind her words. “Pretty sure it’s the same method he used to to detect your extra-dimensional messenger. Back in the autumn, I believe?”

“Maisie’s messenger?” I breathed. “You have a way of picking up things entering our reality from Outside, don’t you?”

“I don’t know. I’m no magician.”

We all shared a glance with each other. Evelyn grit her teeth and shook her head, powerless over the phone line for all her threats and bluster.

“I think it’s looking for things from Lozzie’s life. Locations. People. Maybe trying to imitate her better, who knows.”

“Is that what your boss speaking, or you?” Raine asked. She must have picked up the same undertone I heard.

A very long moment of silence. I half-thought she’d put the phone down without us realising it.

“Let’s keep this line of communication open. If he … ” She paused. “If we detect it again, we’ll call this number. You catch her, you let us know.”

“We’ll let you know both bull and shit, skinhead,” Raine said, a smirk in her voice.

“Wait,” Evelyn growled. “Glasswick tower. What do you know about it?”

“Glasswick tower? Wouldn’t go there if I wanted to keep my skin. Alexander Lilburne had a project in there, something ugly. Needed a few bodies for it. I never went up.”

“Are there any of you lot left in there? Any of your idiot ‘Brotherhood’?”

“We’re not with them anymore. That’s all.”

“You tell us-”

“That’s all. Good hunting.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

and less pleasant places – 6.6

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Two days later, on an evening of clear black skies and frosty pavements, Raine pulled her car to a stop in the Foxenden Road multi-story car park, set the handbrake, killed the engine, and turned to Kimberly and I in the back seat.

“Was gonna ask if you two feel ready.” Her grin was almost lost in the concrete gloom. “Don’t need to, do I? You look ready.”

“As much as I’ll ever be,” I muttered. I wriggled my hands into the white leather gloves I’d borrowed from Evelyn, and tucked my scarf around my throat.

Kimberly nodded and exhaled slowly and steadily. She didn’t look too shaky in the dim orange light cast by the car park’s overhead lamps. I suspected she had some cannabis in her bloodstream, but I didn’t blame her one bit. Everything tonight rested on the strength of her nerves – and her acting talent.

She didn’t need to hold it together for long; two hours from now this would all be over, one way or another.

“It’ll be okay,” she said. “I’ll be okay.”

“Focus on the fun part, hey?” said Raine. “You get to hang out with some of your actual friends for a bit, right? The messy part, that’s all me and Heather. You don’t even have to stay and watch that part if you don’t want to.”

“That’s very kind of you. But … I’d rather not walk home by myself. Please.”

I cleared my throat and shot Raine a look. “You won’t have to.”

“Sure, no problem, we’ll give you a lift.” Raine shrugged. “I’ll even walk you up to your flat, make sure there’s nobody lurking about. Sounds cool?”

“Yes. Yes, thank you.”

I treated Raine to another few seconds of my best glower. She just grinned at me, attractive and infuriating in equal measure.

What Kimberly didn’t know – and what left me so irritated before we’d even begun the evening’s absurd plan – was that she wasn’t going home tonight. She was coming back to number 12 Barnslow Drive whether she liked it or not. Supposedly half for her own safety, but also half because Evelyn had demanded they meet. I suspect Evee wanted to interrogate the poor woman herself.

Raine had insisted we treat Kimberly’s nerves with cotton wool, which meant lying to her, so as not to spoil our chances of pulling off this mad escapade. The deception tasted like rotten bile in my mouth. I had an entire paragraph-long apology to deliver, not to mention some choice criticism for my friends when we got home.

I checked the contents of my pockets: purse, lipsalve for the five minute walk through the biting cold, mobile phone for emergencies, personal attack alarm for bigger emergencies, and Raine’s most recent present for me – a slender black palm-sized can of highly illegal pepper spray – for absolute emergencies.

“Wanna go over the plan one last time?” Raine asked.

I shook my head. “It’s not exactly difficult. Kimberly?”

“I’m fine too.”

“You’ve got to sell the girlfriend angle,” Raine said. “Stop high priestess spooky smelling a rat. We’ve got to get her alone. She suspects anything, then I’ll have to do this all in a much uglier way.”

“And how do you suggest we do that, Raine?” I asked. “Make out in front of the Wiccans? Dress in rainbow flags?”

I’d heard all the reasoning, three times over, but I still huffed and crossed my arms. Kimberly swallowed, and I felt even more sorry for her. She was the one who’d have to fake a lesbian relationship in front of all her old friends and acquaintances.

She hadn’t raised a squeak of protest though. Privately I wondered if she’d made this about atonement.

At least we were dressed the part. I’d played up the clean-cut student angle, a thick cream-coloured polo neck borrowed from Evelyn under my coat, and a long skirt over a pair of burgundy tights. Raine had helped me choose, helped soften the nasty bruise around my eye with foundation and concealer, and helped me do my hair too, brushed it smooth and teased the ends up. A fake date night outfit, far beyond the usual limits of my courage, but this was for Lozzie’s sake.

Kimberly still looked deeply unhealthy, but she’d cleaned up well, her auburn hair twisted back and pinned up with a pair of chopsticks, the worst of her dark eye-circles hidden with a little makeup, neat sky-blue polish on her nails. Comfortable denim jeans drew attention upward, to her hips and her showy tshirt visible through her open coat, the front printed with a rearing unicorn locked in combat with a dragon.

“Hold hands, stick close to each other, make eye contact,” Raine said. “And Kim, introduce Heather as your girlfriend. That’s all. S’easy. Just don’t make a move ‘til you see me. I’ll be right there the whole time, in case things get too weird. You won’t be in any danger, either of you.”

“What if you can’t get inside?” Kimberly asked. “I know you can pick locks, but … ”

“Then I’ll text Heather, like I said. Anything doesn’t go to plan, the smallest nut or bolt, then I text Heather, and suddenly you both have to leave because of family in hospital, or your car’s been clamped, or one of you has the shits. Walk out without explanation if you have to. We’ll be right there.” She turned to the fourth member of our little team. “Ain’t that right, Praem?”

“We shall,” Praem intoned from the passenger seat, staring straight ahead, hands folded in her lap. She’d peeled herself out of – or been peeled out of – her maid uniform, dumped unceremoniously into a pair of ugly cargo trousers and a big puffy coat.

I did feel sorry for her, but one could hardly conduct occult espionage dressed like a domestic servant.

“Bear with it for now, Praem,” I said. “Won’t take long.”

“Bearing,” Praem replied, a musical lilt in her voice.

Raine cocked a curious eyebrow at me, but I waved her down, too jittery and impatient to explain. She shrugged, smirked, and twisted around to wave a hand in front of Praem’s eyes. “You tuned in as well, Evee?”

“Evelyn says she is watching,” Praem replied.

“Have fun with Twil while we’re all away, yeah?” Raine winked at Praem, or more accurately she winked at Evelyn, watching through the doll-demon’s eyes via a paddling pool full of water in her magical workshop back home, while Twil kept her company and guarded the house.

If we’d been doing something less mad, I would have rather enjoyed the thought of those two alone with each other for several hours. I did so hope Evelyn found her courage.

“Stop wasting time,” Praem said, and I could tell those weren’t her words, the doll-demon’s musical tones warped by Evelyn’s cadence. “Fashionably late is one thing, but really late is going to look suspicious. Shit or get off the pot.”

“Right you are, right you are.” Raine laughed and rubbed her hands together, then leaned back over the seats and kissed me once, hard, on the forehead, and patted Kimberly’s shoulder. “You won’t see me, but I’ll be right behind you.”

“I still can’t believe this doesn’t make you jealous,” I said.

Raine winked at me. “Break a leg.”

==

Sheltered from the worst of the cold by the close-leaning commercial buildings of the city centre’s edge, the five minute walk from the car park to St. Helen’s road was still punishing in the January evening.

We walked hand-in-hand through the pools of orange streetlight, without speaking. Kimberly’s hand felt clammy and limp in mine, as she led me past closed sporting-goods stores and office supply places. When we rounded a corner, I looked up, and caught a brief glimpse of Sharrowford Cathedral in the distance, the beautiful stonework lit from below, before we turned down a less-used side road.

Along the pavement and leaf-choked gutter, past a hole-in-the-wall sandwich place and a greasy little pawn shop, and there it stood on the last corner before a half-lit dingy residential street.

Grey Magicks, the shop sign read, in big jagged letters faded by the weather.

I assumed the font was meant to resemble runes. It looked tacky.

Besides the unfortunate sign, the exterior of the shop struck me as quite charming. The door was short, stout wood, with an iron knocker shaped like a lion’s head. A bank of narrow, metal-latticed windows looked out on the street, overhung by oddly thick walls and glowing with soft light inside. A chalk signboard sat out the front, advertising, of all things, ‘self-confidence, good energy, and love of nature!!!!’ Each exclamation mark was written in a different colour.

Nothing gave the casual observer any idea of what the shop actually sold. Not the sort of place one wandered into without already knowing what one was in for.

“This is it,” Kimberly breathed. Her eyes darted up and down the darkened street as we stopped on the opposite pavement. I did my best to conceal my own nerves. The last thing the star of tonight’s show needed was my second-hand jitters.

“We’re late, but that’s fine. That’s part of the plan. Everyone else must already be here.”

“I was-” She swallowed and sniffed. “I wasn’t looking for others. I was looking for Raine.”

Kimberly hadn’t really led me here, of course, and she knew that too. Raine would never leave such an important factor to chance. We’d used Google maps to check out the route, the layout of the surrounding streets, and even dug up a picture or two of the interior of Grey Magicks – although I seriously doubted I’d remember any of the details in a crisis. For now though, I knew exactly what to expect, inside and out. No surprises.

The last 48 hours had not been easy, not on anybody except Raine – she hadn’t been able to suppress her relish at embarking on this kind of mischief, which for once didn’t put me in explicit danger.

I, on the other hand, had spent every spare minute since Sunday wracking my brains for another way to find Lozzie. It wasn’t that I didn’t have faith in this plan, but I couldn’t bear the waiting, the not knowing, the dwelling on what Lozzie might be going through as I pretended everything was normal, went to university classes, slept and ate and felt useless.

Could we go back to the little park where she vanished Outside, could I somehow trace her from there? Did Evelyn have a way – her answer was not encouraging: maybe, perhaps, with the right tools, if, if, if. Could I somehow follow her trail Outside, do it myself, alone, unprotected? That line of thought terminated last night, with me sobbing in the bathroom, the door locked behind me, as I’d tried to summon the courage. Raine had found me first, of course.

Which part of Sunday’s news got to Evelyn so badly, I was never really sure. She didn’t care much for Lozzie, I knew that, but I trusted in the basic goodness of her heart, and I chose to believe at least part of her frantic attitude was born from care.

She’d demanded to speak with Kimberly, ranted and raved about an Outsider loose in Sharrowford, locked herself in her workshop for the whole of Sunday night and emerged again to interrogate me about Lozzie’s behaviour. She couldn’t wait either, but neither did she have a solution.

“Espionage,” I whispered to myself as I gathered my wits and prepared to cross the road. “If only my mother could see me now.”

Kimberly attempted a smile. She was shaking.

“Just remember what Raine said,” I murmured, squeezing her hand. “Act like nothing’s wrong.”

She nodded. Her eyes were unreadable dead pools of sterile blue ice. “I won’t let you down. I promise.”

I did have some inkling of what she was bottling up, didn’t I?

I nodded toward Grey Magicks, at the faux-rustic building, and completely failed to make my point properly when I opened my stupid mouth. “You know, I’m pretty sure Evelyn Saye believes in God.”

“ … I … o-okay.”

I sighed, both at myself, and at Kimberly’s meek acceptance of my non-sequitur. “That didn’t come out right. And it’s not entirely accurate, either. I think Evelyn believes in God, on some level. She told me this complex metaphor once, for reality, about a castle, and how, well, a castle has to have a builder. I’m not saying she’s Christian, that would be absurd, but she believes in something.” Kimberly eyed me warily, so I forged on, trying to explain myself. “I’d never really thought about it before, but considering everything people like us have seen, perhaps it’s difficult to not believe in something, at least. What I’m trying to say is … all that stuff, in there,” I nodded toward Grey Magicks. “It’s as valid as anything else. Perhaps you don’t have to give up on it.”

Kimberly blinked several times and looked away. “I don’t know … ”

“I’m sorry. This probably isn’t the best time to discuss that.”

“No. No, it’s okay. Maybe you’re right. I don’t know anymore. I wish I’d never found religion.”

I squeezed her hand again, and this time she squeezed back, no longer so limp.

“Nothing more to do out here,” I said, my heart fluttering too hard in my chest. We were perfectly safe. Raine was nearby, and so was Praem. All we had to do was pretend for an hour or two, and then we’d have a talk with Catherine Gillespie.

A little chat, that was all.

==

The Wiccan coven meet was technically called an ‘esbat’, although I wasn’t informed exactly what that word meant.

It was also exactly what I expected it to be, and despite my best efforts it all felt quite silly indeed.

Fourteen regulars were in attendance on this Tuesday evening, though apparently the coven proper was over double that size. This was only a bi-weekly extra, for those who had the time and inclination on a week night. I spotted a few faces I very vaguely recognised from campus, but not all the Wiccans were young impressionable hippie-adjacent women, not by a long shot.

A trio of older ladies – and one much older gentleman – formed the emotional bedrock of the congregation, and they looked the part to absolute perfection. All long grey hair and faces crinkled from lifetimes of smiling, wearing pentagram pendants and comfortable cardigans, fanciful old tattoos on liver-spotted arms. They were already sitting and chatting in comfortable chairs toward the back of the store’s floor space, in a nice large cleared area before a desk which obviously served as the shop’s till while open, but was now covered with a white cloth and several ritual items – wooden bowls, a blunt knife, a silver mirror, lots of scented candles.

The rest of the coven was a mixture of fresh-faced bright young things, and middled aged women, though to my shameful surprise it wasn’t all women. Why had I expected that?

Three other men were here, one a huge barrel-chested giant of a man with enough hair to drown an elephant, who was meditating quietly when we entered, sat on the floor with his eyes closed, legs crossed, hands balanced on his knees.

Four of the younger Wiccans in their 20s – Kimberly’s old friends from before the Cult got her, as I was about to discover – were wearing crowns of fake ivy, and despite myself I thought it looked sort of sweet, especially as they were the ones to perk up and greet Kimberly first. We’d barely gotten through the door and out of the cold, when we were suddenly surrounded by a storm of attention.

“Kim! You’re back again!”

“Oooh, who’s this with you? Hello!”

“Give us a hug, Kim. Here, don’t be a stranger.”

“Thought we’d lost you yet again when you weren’t here Saturday. Can’t stay away, eh?”

“I’m- I- yes.” Kimberly managed a shaky smile, and gave the requested hug to a particularly plush looking friend of hers. “I can’t stay away, you’re very right there, yes. T-this is Heather.” She held up my hand, still in hers, and her friends took her nervous awkwardness in their stride. “She’s- she’s my girlfriend.”

“Oooh, lovely to meet you, Heather.”

“Yes!” One of them clapped. “Well done, Kim, about time you found somebody again.”

“Is this your first visit?” Another asked me. “Have you ever been to a Wiccan esbat or sabbat before? You do look a bit nervy, it’ll be fine, promise. You don’t have to do anything.”

“Oh, look at her, she’s so cute! You’re tiny! How tall are you?”

“Um, not- uh- not very.” A terrible blush crept up my cheeks, though not for the reason Kimberly’s friends assumed; for a split-second Kimberly was not the liability here – I was, and I almost cracked.

All I could do was smile and nod.

But that’s what I’d do if this situation was for real, wouldn’t I? Brought on an awkward date, surrounded by kooky neopaganism, intimidated by a gaggle of older girls.

I smiled, and I nodded.

“Heather,” Kimberly continued, with a real smile on her face now as she indicated her friends one by one. “This is Ginny, and this is Kate. The one who is about to hug you, that’s Natalie, and last but not least, this is Spike.”

“S-spike?” I stammered, already forgetting which names went with which faces. Unlikely I’d ever seen any of these people again after tonight.

“It’s a nickname,” ‘Spike’ said, and the others all laughed. She didn’t look much like a ‘Spike’, with long curly brown hair and big glasses. I smiled and nodded, and went with the flow.

“Come along you two, now you’re here. It won’t be long now, they’re about to start,” one of them said.

We all wandered down the length of the shop together, past bookshelves and wooden racking, glass cases and display tables, all filled with glossy ‘occult’ texts, fancy ritual tools, crystal balls, statuettes, robes, and all manner of pagan knick-knacks. At one point a large orange cat got under our feet, purring loudly and looking for attention. One of the girls picked him up and carried him along with us.

Over the next ten minutes of settling down in a rough ring of chairs and stools in the cleared portion of the battered old store, I couldn’t help but notice that Kimberly positively transformed as she spoke to her coven-mates. She smiled without forcing her expression, sat up straighter, spoke without being spoken to – and not only to her old friends either. Almost everybody greeted her by name, and some asked if she was coming back for good this time. The much older gentleman in one of the comfortable chairs actually stood up and crossed the circle, and Kimberly all but bounced out of her seat to give him a friendly hug.

“Are you staying this time, Kemp?” he asked her. “We’ve all missed you dearly. You know that, don’t you?”

“I’m … I’m sorry, Jerry. I hope so, yes, I do hope so,” she said after a moment, then turned to me. “Heather, this is Gerald Hower. He’s been here the longest, and he owns the shop. Jerry, Heather. She’s my uh … mine.”

Couldn’t quite lie to the old man, could she? A surrogate father figure. Better than Alexander, at least.

“Oh. Welcome, you’re very welcome.” He nodded to me and beamed the sort of smile that only genuinely kind old men can. “I hope you decide to come back too. Might be a bit spooky, your first time, but don’t you worry.” He gave me a broad wink.

“I’m quite good with spooky,” I said, and smiled. At least in that, I could speak the truth.

A middle aged woman – perhaps in her fifties, wearing a rough-spun green robe over her clothes – stepped up behind the table with the white cloth and rung a tiny silver bell. All fell silent, and my heart climbed into my throat. She smiled at everyone present, open and welcoming, crow’s feet in the corners of bright eyes, as she raised both hands. Loose dark hair fell about her shoulders, and she wore more makeup than most, heavy lashes and long false fingernails.

“I declare this esbat, begun,” said Catherine Gillespie.

==

She didn’t recognise my face, didn’t know me, was none the wiser – and didn’t seem surprised to see Kimberly still alive and breathing.

Or perhaps Gillespie had plenty of practice concealing her true feelings.

I wasn’t as singled out as I might have felt, because there were two other first-timers in attendance that night: a young woman about my age, and the twelve year old granddaughter of an another coven member. The little girl was certainly much more nervous than I, even though when this was over she’d be off home to bed, whereas I’d be staying behind to do things both illegal and cruel.

The proceedings felt very silly to me, from the moment Gillespie led the group in a prayer – though they didn’t call it a prayer – to ‘beseech the Goddess and God for help and comfort, love and support’, all the way through the whole hour and a half of greetings, coven news, and then a great big ritual they organised in the middle of the floor. Chalk pentagrams with candles and lacquered wooden offering bowls at the corners, lots of chanting and flowery language, a blunt silver ritual knife and cups of spiced wine.

Despite my assumptions, the ‘high priestess’ didn’t actually lead the ritual. That was left for the older gentleman, Gerald, who I gathered had been doing this sort of thing for a long time indeed. To my surprise, he invited Kimberly to help him.

She lit up so much, waving around those bowls of rose-scented water.

The ritual was a petition for for aid, a “magical working to encourage the good health and speedy recovery of one of us who cannot be here today,” Gillespie said. One of Kimberly’s friends leaned over to me and explained that one of the younger members of the coven was in the hospital. Leukaemia.

At least these people’s hearts were in the right place. I was starting to understand why Kimberly valued this, no matter how silly it felt.

Would my reaction have been any different this time last year? What I felt was not the mere embarrassed scepticism of a lifelong agnostic, or the usual polite British distaste for ostentatious displays of religion, but a much deeper absurdity, one which only emerged in full once the coven started their ritual.

As they chalked their pentagrams on the floor, I couldn’t help but compare this to the very real magecraft I’d witnessed over the last few months. The blood and pain, the eye-searing magic circles, the languages that were never meant to be spoken with human mouths. This was like children playing dress up in adult clothes, and it made me uncomfortable – and more than a little sad.

I did my best to seem attentive and interested, sitting on the sidelines with the other observers, as I focused all my real attention on watching Catherine Gillespie.

Twil hadn’t liked that our target was named Catherine. “S’my mum’s name, isn’t it? That’s just weird. Ugh,” she’d complained.

“Maybe we put the wind up her bad enough, she’ll change it for you,” Raine had said, elbowing Twil in the ribs.

Gillespie didn’t look like the sort of woman who would funnel vulnerable victims to the likes of Alexander Lilburne and the Sharrowford Cult. An icy shard of doubt settled in my gut as I watched her smile at the other coven members, exchange encouraging words with her flock, counsel those who looked up to her. Her whole bearing radiated motherly kindness.

Could this be a trap?

Could Kimberly have lied to us?

No, paranoia. Nothing more. My eyes flickered to the back of the cramped, junk-packed store, to the two doors that led into the back, to where Raine likely now lurked.

The ritual ended with an offering – cake and wine – lifted on a tray over the pentagram, dedicated to their deities, and then laid down on the table to be shared out among us mere mortals.

The atmosphere descended into something more like a party than a religious gathering.

It was utterly exhausting.

I’ve never been a social butterfly, or even a social moth. Pretending to be Kimberly’s girlfriend, and interested in Wicca, and keep track of Gillespie, and ready myself for the moment we put the plan into action? I felt ready to spin apart.

One of Kimberly’s friends pressed a cup of spiced wine into my hands. I pretended to sip, pretended to follow the chatter, gave answers that I forgot as soon as I’d said them. Had to keep my wits about me. Kimberly returned, all smiles, but faltered when she caught the look in my eyes.

“Heather. I’ll uh, yeah. I’ll go have a word with her. I’ll be right back. Right back.”

I watched Kimberly in the corner of my eye, pulse heavy in my throat, heart tight inside my ribcage, as she slipped back through the crowd to seek a private word with Gillespie. She found her high priestess and took her briefly to one side. I heard Kimberly’s words inside my head, the ones we’d rehearsed.

‘I brought Heather tonight because our … mutual friends, they suggested to me that she should be introduced, through yourself.’

This was the fulcrum on which the plan turned. The entire reason for this absurd setup.

We had to get Gillespie alone, but the problem was how. If she really was connected to the Cult, she’d be cautious, and possibly paranoid of discovery. We needed her curious – why had Kimberly come back again, who was this with her? – but not spooked by the obvious, open threat of somebody like Raine turning up.

I readied myself to break for the front door, for the plan to crumble, but Kimberly held her nerve. Gillespie glanced my way, and put a reassuring hand on Kimberly’s shoulder, and nodded to herself.

Kimberly made her way back over to me and took my hand for real, not just for appearances sake. Her smile was frozen, her palm clammy. I squeezed, and she squeezed back. I watched for Gillespie to pull out a mobile phone or disappear into the back, but she did neither.

Slowly, agonisingly, the gathering wound down. People began to dibble away into the night in ones and twos. Kimberly’s friends asked if we would walk with them.

“We’re going to stay, actually,” Kimberly jumped in for me. “Heather wants to ask Catherine about initiation.”

That earned me many approving noises and another hug, but it didn’t help our cause. If even one person lingered with us, the plan was off. We were counting on Gillespie’s assumed need for secrecy.

Eventually, when there were only half a dozen people left inside Grey Magicks, Gillespie came to see me.

“Heather. Heather Morell, yes?” Her voice was soft and slow. She greeted me with a big smile and an extended hand, which I shook. Dry and cool. “Kim’s told me a little about you, that you’re very interested in us, in perhaps joining the coven? I’m delighted to hear that, we’re open to all here. Have you enjoyed today?”

“Yes, quite,” I nodded, and looked at Kim. “We both have.”

She smiled broadly again. “I hear you’re also … ” She paused, the air pregnant with unspoken meaning. Another coven member called to her from the door, interrupting us. Gillespie raised a hand to wave goodnight. Only two left to leave now, a pair of women talking over by the table. Gillespie turned back to me. “I hear you’re also interested in certain … deeper mysteries, yes?”

“Oh, yes.” I tried to look awestruck and naive, widened my eyes, nodded eagerly, and hated it. “Yes, yes indeed. Kimberly told me you might have … ways.”

Oh damn it all, I wasn’t pulling this off. I sounded like an extra from a bad Hammer Horror movie, the sort Raine liked to laugh at. A young woman in a white dress about to be drained by a vampire.

But it worked.

“Ways and means, yes, ways and means,” Gillespie purred. “Witchcraft can be a rewarding path, and there are others with so much more knowledge and wisdom than I. If you like, I can set up an introduction.”

“Perhaps we should-” Kimberly almost squeaked, then took a shaky breath. “Talk about it somewhere. In private?”

“A lovely idea, Kim, certainly.”

Gillespie turned to the two lingering coven members, told them she was going to speak with us about initiation – a sensitive, personal matter, individual to every aspiring witch. They bowed out, with much approval and serious promises to be here on the coming Saturday. The front door of Grey Magicks closed with a soft click. Gillespie went over to turn the latch.

“We do have much to discuss, girls, much to discuss. Shall we?”

We had her now. I tried not to shake with nervous tension.

Gillespie ushered us into the store’s back room, and I discovered that twenty-first century witches still need computers. It was far less fancy than the front of the shop, despite a pentagram on one wall and a fertility goddess mural on another. A compact office space with a dusty computer on an old desk, cardboard boxes full of excess stock on the floor – and a single open doorway connected to a cramped, dark storage area.

Our host settled herself into the old wooden office chair next to the desk, and gestured with a smile at a trio of plastic chairs opposite. “Please, girls, please do sit down. Make yourselves comfortable. I can’t offer you any tea in here, sadly, Jerry doesn’t believe in kettles.”

She had her back to the open door to the storage area. Perfect.

Was Raine ready? She needed to be, needed to make her move now. I couldn’t wait any longer.

Couldn’t wait any longer? For what?

Oh.

A shard of ice, a remnant of an old feeling, wormed it’s way into my chest.

“T-thank you, Cathy,” Kimberly said, and half sat down before she realised I wasn’t moving a muscle. She straightened back up, eyes glued on me, going white in the face.

“Kimberly, dear, whatever’s the matter?” Catherine asked, frowning gently. “Now, I thought you were-”

“Do you know a man named Alexander Lilburne?” I asked.

The words came out low and easy. Not part of the plan, not at all.

Gillespie blinked in polite surprise. So measured, so reasonable, so kind.

She disgusted me on a level I hadn’t time to process. She’d all but confessed her involvement with the Cult already, and I seethed inside with a cold certainty I hadn’t felt since I’d faced Alexander. No more delay, no more waiting, no more pretending.

“Yes,” she said at length, then drew herself up straighter, gathering her confidence again. “Yes, that name belongs to an old friend of mine, in fact, if you’re referring to the same person. Do you happen to know-”

“When’s the last time you saw him?” I said.

She frowned, and her mask finally began slipping, that slow motherly benevolence falling away. “ … who are you, exactly?”

“The woman who killed him.”

Gillespie’s face froze, but only for a second. She rose to her feet in a rush, thundering at us with an outraged frown. “Who on earth are you? Kimberly, who is this girl? And don’t be so absurd. Lilburne, killed by some- some- whatever you are?”

Behind her, a shadow detached itself from the doorway into the darkened storage area, rippling into the light with razor-sharp precision, every muscle held tight.

Raine slipped toward Gillespie’s back on silent feet, eyes glued to her target, matte black handgun held casually at her side.

If I hadn’t been so focused, that sight would have given me the shivers, and not in a bad way. With an effort of will, I resisted the urge to look. Kimberly failed, and her wide-eyed stare gave the game away.

Gillespie turned – but Raine was faster. The high priestess found herself staring down the barrel of a gun.

“And a good evening to you,” Raine said to her, face splitting with a grin. “Now be nice, and sit yourself back down.”

“Who- who- what are you? Who- what-” Gillespie went white in the face.

Praem stepped out of the back stockroom too, hands clasped, eyes staring at nothing. I let out a shuddering breath and realised how badly my knees were shaking. Kimberly backed away a couple of paces, swallowing loudly. We hadn’t warned her about the handgun.

“Hey there you two,” Raine said to us without taking her eyes off Gillespie. “Took your time. We almost ran out of things to talk about, didn’t we, Praem?”

“Hey yourself,” I managed to breathe.

“Who- who are you people? What is this?” Gillespie asked.

“I thought I told you to sit down?” Raine asked, smiling, all calm and casual. “The next question you ask, I’ll break your nose. That’s a promise. Sit. Down.”

Gillespie sat down, slowly and carefully, eyes wide with terror, hands shaking as she grasped the chair’s armrests. I would have felt sorry for her, if it wasn’t for what came out of her mouth next.

“I’m no apostate!” she cried out. “I’ve not breathed a word to anybody, I’ve kept every secret, I swear! I’ve not spoken to the police, my husband, anybody. Nobody knows. Nobody.”

“Knows about what?” Raine asked, grinning.

“The … the … ”

“Answer her,” I hissed.

“The supply agreement. The scum. Is it not enough? I can always find more, there’s always more out there. Don’t, please don’t!”

Raine raised her eyebrows, feigning polite interest. “Sounds like we got the right person.”

“Yes. We have,” I managed, staring at this unassuming woman. The Sharrowford Cult’s supplier.

“Unfortunately for your future health prospects, we’re not from the Sharrowford Cult,” Raine said to her. “We’re more like a wild card. About to get wild all over your face, if you don’t tell us what we want to know.”

Gillespie frowned, and her panic drained away as quickly as it had mounted. She tugged her robe straight, and then to my utter amazement she stood up again, ignoring the handgun pointed right at her.

“Kimberly,” she snapped. “This is completely unacceptable. Your masters will hear of this behaviour, I swear they will.”

“No they won’t,” Kimberly said, voice filling with unaccustomed nervous confidence. “Because they’re all dead. Weren’t you listening?”

“Don’t be so insulting. You expect me to believe-”

“You’re not talking to her,” Raine said, amused. “You’re talking to me. Sit down before you hurt yourself.”

“Absolutely not. Who do you think you are, ordering me to do anything?” Gillespie drew herself up and tried to look down on Raine – which didn’t work, because she wasn’t tall enough. “If you’re not with the Brotherhood, then you should know I have Alexander’s personal protec-”

Raine punched her in the nose.

Gillespie sat down, sudden and hard, crying out in pain with one hand cradling her face. “Ah- ahh- ow- ah!”

“Who do I think I am?” Raine grinned. “That counted as a question. Did warn you I’d break your nose. Fair’s fair.”

“Fair’s fair,” Praem echoed from the doorway. Gillespie stared her for a second, wounded and shocked, bleeding down her face.

Raine loomed over the high priestess. “Look, Gill – can I call you Gill? Maybe you’re not scared of the gun, maybe you think this is a toy or something. It’s not, and I will shoot you in the head if you keep giving us shit. We’ve got plenty of other ways to find out what we want to know, you just happen to be the easiest. If you make it harder, we’ll take the next easiest. Get me?”

Gillespie’s eyes roved the room, as if searching for help. She settled on Kimberly and I.

“She’ll do it,” I said.

Kimberly nodded, and did her part with commendable gusto, though I suspect she didn’t need to act. “She has- she’s s-shot people before, right in front of me. Please. Please give her a reason to. I hate you.”

Gillespie straightened up, slowly, gathering her dignity and poise again, and looked us all in the eye one by one, nose bleeding. “You may address me as Catherine. What is it you want to know?”

Raine glanced at me. I was supposed to ask the question, that was the script – but I couldn’t speak, gripped by a growing cold anger inside my chest. I hadn’t even flinched when Raine had lashed out, I could only think about one thing.

What had Gillespie meant by ‘supply agreement’ – and ‘scum’?

I knew, didn’t I?

“You have a way to contact the Cult – or what’s left of them, since we tore them up. We know that,” Raine said eventually. “Kimberly came back to your Wicca happy hour, and you told your contact, because then she got hassled. Maybe you even know where they hang out these days, and you’re gonna tell us.”

“I have a contact, who visits me, not the other way around. I have no way of reaching them outside of that, which I cannot predict, or direct. I don’t know what it is you people want, but you’re meddling in things you don’t understand.”

“Shut up,” I hissed. “Answer the questions.”

Gillespie scowled at me.

“Who’s the contact?” Raine demanded. Gillespie crossed her arms.

“Alexander Lilburne cannot possibly be dead. Don’t take me for some fool, I know how the world really works. Killed by some slip of a girl? Don’t make me laugh, this is ridiculous. I shan’t answer a single further question, and I shall call the police.”

She reached for the battered cordless phone on the desk, but Praem was there first, hand on the receiver. The doll-demon stared into Gillespie’s eyes, and the high priestess recoiled at what she saw there.

“What- what are-”

Raine sighed and levelled her handgun at Gillespie’s head, an unimpressed smile on her face. “I wasn’t bluffing, you know? Don’t make this difficult.”

“What are you going to do, shoot me?” Gillespie almost spat. “Here, in the middle of the city? A dozen people will hear the gunshot, and you’ll never get away with it. You children have absolutely no idea how the world works, how your coddled little lives are kept safe – by people like me. You won’t shoot, you can’t possibly do it. Get that thing out of my face.”

Raine’s tongue poked out of the corner of her mouth, and for a split-second I thought I saw her finger tighten on the trigger – but that wasn’t why we were here. She glanced at me, smiled sadly, and shrugged.

“I did say no killing,” I muttered, cold creeping out of my chest and into my brain.

“Don’t you worry, we came right prepared for that.” Raine lowered her gun. “Praem, hold her down.”

“What?” Gillespie swivelled in her chair. Raine dug a sock out of her jacket pocket, one that I knew was loaded with a bar of soap in the end. “No, don’t you dare! You-”

“Stop,” I said, barely able to get the word out. “Praem, you too. Don’t touch her.”

“ … Heather?” Raine raised her eyebrows. “We talked about this. You don’t have to watch us hit her.”

I shook my head, and took a step toward Gillespie. She scowled at me like she’d found me on the underside of her shoe. “That’s more like it,” she muttered.

“What did you mean, when you said ‘scum’?” I asked.

She blinked at me. “I don’t recall-”

“She means me,” Kimberly blurted out, voice blurred by bitterness and suffocated anger. “People like me.”

“I most certainly do not mean you, my dear. You’re a valuable addition to the Brotherhood of the New Sun, aren’t you? You’ve found purpose, and acceptance, and something useful and important to do with your life.”

“Answer the question, or I will do to you what I did to Alexander.” My voice emerged with a shake, a strange, cold anger. It rushed through me, almost beyond my control.

“Don’t be so sanctimonious, you know exactly what I mean. The Brotherhood does good work, necessary work. Have you seen the filth-filled tent villages growing like mushrooms by the motorway? There’s no helping those people. They’re all drug addicts and illegal immigrants. You saw my coven, this night, you saw the sorts of decent, vulnerable girls those animals prey on, and now you’re blaming me for helping clear them off the streets?”

“You funnelled the homeless people to the cult.” Raine nodded slowly. “Makes sense. You look pretty non-threatening.”

Gillespie raised her chin. “As I said, necessary work. Don’t you dare look at me like that, none of you have the courage.”

I took another step toward her. “I saw dead children. In a cage.”

She rolled her eyes and huffed. “Don’t be so absurd, you saw nothing of the sort. And where? Where exactly did you see this? You, you are play-acting. Virtue signalling. Who do you expect to convince, here?”

“I’ve changed my mind. You don’t get to live.”

I moved before the others could react, before Raine could stop me, before the cold certainty abandoned me to doubt. It took only a split-second, clarity and speed born of indignant rage.

I reached out and grabbed Gillespie’s wrist.

Out.

The equation, the one I knew so well, spun into place with a wrenching of my skull and a heaving in my guts. I grasped the dripping black levers of reality, and pulled hard.

Gillespie vanished.

I reeled away and almost fell over, clawing at the edge of the desk before Raine caught me. Blinking through stabbing headache, nose bleeding, I groped for the office’s waste paper bin, into which I promptly vomited.

“Oh Goddess, oh, oh-” Kimberly was panting.

Raine helped me sit down on the floor, bin between my knees as I spat bile. I shook all over, half from the brainmath and half from adrenaline. Raine passed me tissues from a packet to wipe my bloody nose, as she gently smoothed my hair out of my face.

“You okay? Heather? Breathe slowly, yeah?”

“Ehh,” I croaked. “Been better.”

She handed me an almost empty bottle of water, and I sipped the dregs to wash the taste of sick from my mouth. “Gotta admit, Heather, I didn’t see that one coming. Would’a brought more water along if I’d known you were gonna do that.”

“You were homeless once,” I croaked.

“Sure. I just thought, you know, we were meant to be bluffing?” She looked over at the now empty chair with a rueful sigh. Kimberly walked over and touched the chair’s arm, then stared at me.

“That’s our lead gone then,” Praem intoned, and I knew it was Evelyn speaking through her.

“We are bluffing,” I grumbled, blew my bloody nose into a tissue, and squeezed my eyes shut. “I can bring her back. The map. S’possible now.”

“If she survives,” Praem said.

“She’ll be fine. As long as she closed her eyes on the way, I suppose.”

Raine raised an eyebrow at me, rubbing my back. “You sent her somewhere specific, didn’t you?”

I nodded. “Place I slipped to as a teenager. Windowless metal halls, darkness, things moving. It’s bad. Everywhere Outside is bad. This won’t kill her. Leave her there for ten minutes, should be enough.”

“Right.” Raine nodded. “Right you are then.”

We spent those ten minutes going through the office, just in case, though the only thing we found was Gillespie’s handbag, which contained nothing incriminating or out of the ordinary. Well, Raine did that, while I sat in a heap and tried not to be sick again, and Kimberly vibrated with terror and awe.

“Time’s up,” Praem said, and it felt far too soon, but I nodded and closed my eyes.

“Do you need to go touch the chair?” Raine asked.

“No. I only need to concentrate. And this is going to hurt, come touch my head, please.”

In truth the hyperdimensional mathematics was relatively simple, at least in theory. Now I had the map, the pathways, the vectors through which matter could pass, all I had to do was reverse the equation – but I’d never done it before. I wasn’t one hundred percent sure I could bring Catherine Gillespie back.

I hadn’t really been bluffing either, but I kept that to myself.

Catherine Gillespie did not deserve to live. I knew I had no right to judge, certainly not to torture her by sending her Outside, but I’d done it anyway.

Alexander may have been the head of the snake, but by himself he would have been nothing. Dark Lords only exist in fantasy stories, real people need support networks. Alexander Lilburne had willing helpers, followers, people who turned a blind eye, others bribed or bought out for the price of their humanity, along with those who rationalised evil to themselves – as Gillespie had done so openly, right to our faces.

Slamming my mind back through the equation, clenching up hard on the roiling in my guts as I pieced it together with the map, I wasn’t certain I even wanted to bring her back.

Had I thrown away our only lead to Lozzie, in order to satisfy my righteous anger?

I was turning into something I didn’t like very much.

“Unnn,” I grunted, grit my teeth, endured a spike of pain battering through my forehead.

I dragged the high priestess back from Outside, back to our reality.

Then I vomited into the bin again, wining, my head throbbing.

Gillespie had fared far worse.

She was curled up in a ball on the floor, panting and shaking, cringing in on herself like a wounded insect. Perhaps she’d found a corner in which to wedge herself, out there. Her face had turned bone pale, eyes wide as saucers, makeup running from her tears. Strange sticky white dust covered her shoulder and one arm, where some Outside creature had brushed against her, investigated this terrified fragile ape. She’d lost control of her bladder, too.

Her eyes whirled between us, sanity hanging by a thread.

“You deserved that,” Kimberly hissed. Raine just rubbed my back, shaking her head, not even bothering to level her gun at the broken woman I’d brought back.

“Can you speak?” I croaked, quashing my self-directed horror. I’d done this thing, now I had to make it worthwhile. For Lozzie.

“I-I-I c-can! Yes! Y-yes. I’ll tell you- anything- anything. Yes, y-yes.” Gillespie lurched to her feet, unsteady and shaking all over. Raine rose too and covered her with the gun, but there was no need. The high priestess stared down at the sticky dust on her shoulder and arm, an empty thousand-yard stare glassing over her eyes. “Oh. Oh G-goddess. Where was that? Where- An illusion, you- no, no that wasn’t real, can’t be real-”

“Do you want to go back there?” I asked.

“No! Please! Please no, not again.” She scrabbled for her handbag on the desk. “They gave me money- paid me well. Lots of money. I’ll give- give- give-” Her open purse spilled from her fingers as she tossed banknotes on the desk.

I sighed. “Tell us about the Cult.”

“Cult. The Brotherhood of the New Sun. Yes. Yes, I-”

She told us everything, most of it both useless and horrifying, about the supply line she’d established for the Cult, luring vulnerable homeless people with promises of help or shelter. She babbled every secret she had in sheer animal desire to never, ever go back to the place I’d sent her. I’d broken this woman, tortured her, and while I managed to keep my expression neutral, self-disgust boiled inside me.

She deserved it, part of me whispered, and it was right.

But I still felt sick.

“T-the visits, that wasn’t a lie. I-it’s only once every few weeks, and never the same time. I can’t lead you to them, I don’t know where, please- please don’t-”

“Who visits you?” Raine asked. “Give us a name, or a description.”

“Stack,” Kimberly said.

“Amy Stack, yes, a-a s-sort of thug, or something. I swear, I don’t really know-”

“We know of her,” Raine said with a nod. “Keep going.”

“She came here last week, and of course, I told her about Kimberly returning. She didn’t care, though. She was asking after Alexander’s younger sister, but I don’t know anything about that either, I swear, I swear I’d never heard of the girl before. I do have an emergency phone number. I’m not supposed to ever call it, ever, only if the police catch wind of- of- you know, yes, yes, you know. For an emergency only.”

“Write it down,” Raine said. “And it better be correct, or … ” She trailed off, with a meaningful head tilt toward me.

“O-of course, of course, y-yes, yes. You can have the number, here, here, take it!”

Gillespie had to write it three times before she could control her shaking hands enough to form legible numbers. Raine tucked the slip of paper into her jacket.

“This isn’t enough,” I muttered.

“I swear, I-I- I don’t have anything more to give! Please-”

“Hey, you heard the lady,” Raine said. “She’s in charge here. She says it’s not enough, it’s not enough.”

“That’s not what I … ” I murmured, and trailed off. I’d meant this wasn’t enough to justify what I’d done. A phone number, was that all?

“They had a- I mean, I know of a couple of places in the city where they did … unsavoury things. They might have … retreated there?” Gillespie said. She was blinking rapidly, her eyes wild and all over the place, wracking her brains for any scraps that would save her hide. “One was on that- uh- that terrible council estate, in the condemned tower, uh-”

In the corner of my vision, I saw the blood drain from Kimberly’s face. Her mouth hung open in silent horror.

“Glasswick tower?” Raine asked. “The Cult have a hideout in Glasswick tower?”

“Yes, yes that’s the name.” Gillespie nodded, smiling and desperate, so very thankful. “Glasswick tower.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

and less pleasant places – 6.5

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

I’d built an equation to find Lozzie – via locating Kimberly’s mysterious uninvited guest – jury-rigged from scraps of half-understood hyperdimensional mathematics, so certain that the worst possible outcome was mere failure and pain, vomiting and unconsciousness. Not exactly unfamiliar. A risk worth taking, a punishment worth subjecting myself to. What kind of friend was I if I wasn’t willing to endure that for her sake? How could I ever hope to rescue my sister if I couldn’t muster the courage to find Lozzie?

But the subject of my search had found me first. An awareness, staring back at me through the cracks in the equation, summoned by the act of giving it definition.

It was not Lozzie.

I didn’t see it with my eyes, of course. I saw nothing. I suspect I’d have gone screaming mad on the spot if I had. My physical eyes still looked at Raine as she reached for me, frozen in an elongating moment as if caught on the edge of a black hole, the time inside my mind stretched out to infinity by the instant of terrible contact.

Meaning coalesced out of the mathematics, greater than the sum of the equation’s parts, true definition found in the spaces between. Like the moment an autostereogram – a magic-eye picture – resolves into an image, or one flicks on the light at night and does a double-take at a coat over a chair, thinking it’s a person.

I see you, it said.

Not in words, but via that unspeakable feeling crawling inside my skull – the feeling of being caught looking.

I felt like a mouse, wedged inside a rotting tree trunk on the forest floor, peeping out through a crack in the wood at the undergrowth and damp leaves, as something huge and reptilian slithered along the ground outside and put a great, unblinking eye to the window in my hidey-hole.

Such sensations were sadly – and fortunately – not alien to me. The Eye’s attention, in my horrid memories and the old dreams, had felt much the same way, except magnified a thousand times more than this, a scrutiny that peeled away one’s skin and bone and neurons and atoms. I was perhaps the one person in the world who could endure this attention without losing my mind, because I’d had worse before.

How it saw me, I had no idea, but I knew what to do: I let go of the equation, let it unravel, like cutting a fishing net loose when you’ve accidentally caught a shark.

Then I felt the rest, the trailing sensations behind ‘I see you’: recognition, familiarity, knowledge.

I see you, Heather.

And I can dance like that too! Watch!

The Lozzie-thing, the Outsider in her head, whatever in God’s name it was, it came scuttling up through the equation I’d built, using the collapsing strands of my own work as a ladder to reach into my mind, spanning the gaps with its own hyperdimensional mathematics. Like a spider spinning webs to mend the holes in a rickety scaffold, it scurried across the fabric of reality, toward me.

A trap.

This whole thing was a trap, aimed at me.

All that happened in a split-second, at the speed of thought, in the time it took me to blink, as Raine reached across Kimberly’s little table to grab my shoulders.

“Stop,” I wheezed – and slammed the brakes on the equation.

Bits and pieces of hyperdimensional mathematics span off like an exploding combustion engine inside my head, seared my mind with fragments of white-hot metal, shook my soul like a storm in a bottle. The throb of a truly earth-shattering headache washed over me in a wave of pain.

I jerked forward, an involuntary spasm, banged my face into the table, then reared back up with a ragged choking gasp, and noticed I’d left a bloody smear on the cheap wood.

“Holy shit,” said Twil.

“Oh Goddess, oh, what, oh-” Kimberly stammered, scrambling to her feet.

With the equation dead, that scuttling awareness finally receded into the abyss.

“Toilet,” I squeezed out between my roiling guts and the icepick lodged in the back of my skull. My mouth tasted of blood. My vision swam, black at the edges. My legs shook as I tried to stand up, banging my knees on the table and sending my empty measuring jug of tea skittering across the carpet. Even Tenny sensed something was desperately wrong, bunching and retracting her tentacles like a panicked squid. “T-toilet-”

Then Raine had me. She pulled me to my feet and into Kimberly’s cramped bathroom.

She held my hair while I vomited.

Only once, only a little, and that only bile and tea. I clenched up so hard I strained my stomach muscles, determined to keep my breakfast down, to master this. It hurt, but I didn’t give in, though I did kneel in front of the toilet for a long few minutes, breathing slowly and trying to process what had happened, what I’d seen.

“That’s it, breathe real slow, Heather. Take it slow, take all the time you need, I’m right here.” Raine’s free hand rubbed the base of my neck.

“The hell was she doing?” Twil asked from the bathroom door. “Shit, Heather, you alright?”

I gave her a sarcastic thumbs up from down by the toilet bowl.

“Give her a minute,” Raine warned.

“You found her, didn’t you?” Kimberly asked, voice barely a whisper. “You found Lauren, and it wasn’t her, was it?”

“I said, give her a minute,” Raine repeated, but I shook my head, wiped my body nose on the back of my hand, and felt tears threaten in my eyes.

“It worked,” I croaked. “And it was her. It was Lozzie.”

==

Three glasses of water for the lost fluids and to wash out the taste of blood, a blanket around my shoulders for the clutching cold inside me, and a bag of frozen peas from Kimberly’s tiny box freezer for the bruise around my right eye. That last one would be interesting to explain if anybody at university asked, let alone any concerned staff. Yes, I head-butted a table, thank you for asking, and no, my girlfriend doesn’t hit me.

“It was Lozzie because it sounded like her,” I repeated for the third time. “I’m certain.”

“I thought you said it was just like, maths?” Twil squinted at me. I’d lost her minutes ago, but I was too drained to come up with a proper metaphor. “And hey, Kimberly, you said this thing didn’t sound anything like Lozzie at all, right?”

Kimberly nodded to Twil, but her eyes watched me. For approval.

She’d been staring at me with renewed awe since the moment Raine had helped me stagger back out of the little bathroom. It made my skin crawl, especially after spending minutes on my knees, delivering a technicolour yawn into her toilet. How could she look at me like I was some kind of pagan idol? She understood even less about what I’d done than Twil did, but incomprehension didn’t stop Kimberly hanging on every word I’d said in my halting, confused effort to explain what just happened.

Didn’t want to know any more about magic, did she? Kimberly was lying – perhaps to herself, too. Moth to a flame.

She couldn’t hold my stare though. If I hadn’t been so emotionally wiped out, I probably would have avoided her eyes in sheer mortified embarrassment. Instead, I stared back, dull and frustrated, and she had to look away.

I pulled my knees tighter against my chest, so small and vulnerable. We were all tiny, squishy, fragile little mammals compared to that thing which had seen me looking, that construct of pure mathematical principles; even Raine seemed fragile right now, by comparison. An awful thing to feel.

Raine had insisted I sit in the beanbag chair, the comfiest place in the whole flat, save for Kimberly’s own bed. I wasn’t so bad that I needed to lie down. After all, I hadn’t actually gone through with the equation, not the whole way. Raine rubbed my shoulders, on her knees behind me, trying to massage the tension out of my stress-knotted muscles, and Tenny crouched nearby, an attentive dog to her wounded master. Her ropey black tentacles kept drifting down toward my head and face, touching my hair or brushing my cheek, concerned, confused.

Sweet, yes, but getting on my nerves.

I eased the closest tentacle away with one hand. “Tenny, stop that for now, please?”

She tilted her head left and right, and her tentacles drifted up, toward the ceiling. Yes, quite, you don’t understand what happened either, do you? At least you listen to me though. I gave her a smile, though I still wasn’t certain if she could read human expressions. “I’m fine, I’ll be fine,” I muttered to her.

Kimberly stared at me again, wide eyed at the empty air to which I’d spoken.

“She talks to invisible monsters sometimes,” Twil informed her, with a very serious nod. I didn’t have the energy to correct Twil before she continued with her theory. “So, uh, maybe it wasn’t Lozzie here in the flat, but it was Lozzie you found?”

“It sounded like her,” I groaned again, and winced at the bruise on my face. The makeshift ice pack wasn’t doing much good, and I tossed it onto the table in frustration.

And I can dance like that too!’ – so undoubtedly Lozzie, the exact phrasing she might use, her bright mind and playful expressiveness bent to alien purposes. It had been her voice, but she hadn’t been the one speaking.

“Why didn’t you tell me what you were doing?” Raine asked with a softly indulgent laugh, her thumbs kneading the muscles of my shoulder blades. “Could have gotten Evee to help, back home, could have been ready for it.”

I shook my head and waved a dismissive hand. “Lozzie needs me.”

“Mmhmm. She also needs you conscious and healthy, if you’re gonna help her.”

“I know!” I snapped at her, wallowed in guilt all over again. My impatience and self-loathing wasn’t Raine’s fault. She was the best antidote to it all. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I’m being awful.”

“It’s okay, I know how it feels,” Raine said, so softly that only I could hear. At least that’s one thing we shared completely: was this how she felt about me, all the time?

“I have to find her,” I muttered, but all my certainty was gone. I could try the brainmath again, but that thing would be waiting for me this time. The thought made me shudder inside.

“We have to find her,” Raine corrected gently. She stopped rubbing my shoulders and moved around to my side, so I couldn’t avoid her gaze. She raised a hand to my chin and gently tilted it to examine my face. “Hooooo, that bruise is gonna be a nasty one, you really nutted that table.”

“First class head-butt,” Twil added with a nod. “Coulda knocked somebody out with that.”

“As if that helps anything right now,” I muttered.

“Heather,” Raine said, her voice pitched low and serious, the kind of tone that made me sit up and pay attention. “I’m going to ask you a hypothetical question, alright? Pure theory here, it’s not a request or a suggestion. The brainmath you just used, how you made contact with Lozzie – or not-Lozzie – do you think you could do it again?”

“Yes,” I answered, then hesitated. “But … it fought me. With the math. The same thing I can do. I don’t know if I can- if I’m good enough to- I don’t know, fight back? I have no idea how that would even work. If I hadn’t stopped, it would have reached me.”

Raine nodded slowly, her face etched with deep focus. I knew that look all too well. She was making a plan.

I loved her for that – but I hated myself for wanting it. Raine cooking up a way to save the day, to save me, yet again. To save her useless girlfriend, again. Because I couldn’t do it myself, because I was an unprepared coward, and a terrible friend.

“I guess Lozzie wouldn’t try to fight you, would she?” Twil asked. “Or is that something you two did?”

“It’s Lozzie because it tried to fight me,” I said, patience running thin. “It knew how to use hyperdimensional mathematics. I’ve never felt that before, anything like that. It must have learnt from her mind. And it knew me, it recognised me, it was expecting me. It’s her – it’s got her, I mean. Everything she is.”

Twil shrugged. “I remember what that … that bloody great Eye felt like.” She shook herself once, a theatrical shiver, but I didn’t blame her. She’d been exposed, once, to the briefest moment of the Eye’s attention, filtered through Evelyn’s magical observation window, across the boundary between here and Outside, when we’d performed that ill-fated experiment in the Medieval Metaphysics room, so many months ago. “Who’s to say it couldn’t send something here, with all its stuff, to get you, like?”

“If it could do that, I think it would’a done a long time ago,” Raine said for me. “And why wander around Sharrowford, why come to Kim? Unless it was Lozzie, trying to say hi to an old friend.”

“I was never her friend,” Kimberly murmured. “P-please don’t- I didn’t- never did … ”

“Or setting a trap for me,” I hissed.

“Yeah, that’s what I was thinking.” Raine’s voice dropped to a low growl. She stared at me with a kind of slow contemplation. If I’d been less bruised by brainmath the attention would have made me feel self-conscious. “Heather, I want you to make me a promise.”

“Now?”

“Right now, yeah. Promise me you won’t do that again. Don’t try to find Lozzie a second time.”

“But … no, Raine, I can’t. I have to-”

Raine put a finger to my lips. “You have to do one thing, for me: be careful. Whatever this thing is, it wants you. It’s not getting you. Promise me.”

I couldn’t look at her. I didn’t deserve to. Raine was giving me exactly what I wanted – a way out, a refuge, an excuse not to dive back in and confront that vast, slithering awareness I’d felt. Raine didn’t need my promise, I knew she was right, and secretly I was terrified and disgusted on a level I couldn’t process: I’d never had hyperdimensional mathematics turned on me before. I felt so violated and offended on Lozzie’s behalf. That was her gift this thing was abusing, and I was powerless to take it back.

Raine offered me a way out, and I felt like a coward.

“Please, Heather? You were taken by an Outsider once, perhaps there’s some desirable quality in you.” She cracked a grin. “Hey, I know that part’s right. Worked on me.”

“Raine.” I muttered her name and rolled my eyes. “It’s hardly the time for that.”

“It’s always the time.”

“ … I won’t try again. I promise.” A lump formed in my throat, and I sniffed back the threat of more tears. Coward, you useless coward, backing away from this. “I doubt I’d win, anyway. I can’t help her.”

Raine leaned back and took a deep breath, completely unembarrassed by our shared private moment. Twil was still frowning at me, but Kimberly had at least pretended to look away.

“I wouldn’t say that yet,” Raine almost purred, a twinkle in her eye. “If we can’t find Lozzie ourselves, we need to enlist somebody who already did.”

With deliberate slowness, Raine turned to regard Kimberly again.

“M-me? What do you- what do you mean?”

“Ahhhh,” Twil grinned, and underneath the table she stretched out one foot to poke Kimberly.

The poor woman almost jumped out of her skin, flinching and jerking up.

“Steady on. S’just playing,” Twil said, hands up. “Relax, damn.”

“I-I-I’m sorry. Sorry.”

“Kimberly,” I croaked. “Stop apologising.”

“Yes, yes, I’m s-” She stopped, swallowed, staring at us.

“So, Kim,” Raine said, easy and relaxed as she leaned forward to put one elbow on the table, idly playing with an empty mug. “You didn’t think I’d forgotten in all the excitement, did you?”

“I’m- pardon?”

“Where did you ‘go’? Where’d Amy Stack see you?” Raine asked, then smirked.

Kimberly froze up again, but only for a second; perhaps the experience of seeing me do brainmath, the awe and reverence I’d inspired, had some bizarre effect on how much she trusted us. Trusted me. Or maybe she’d merely decided our mercy was a better bet than Amy Stack.

She’d be right, of course, but Raine’s stare implied otherwise.

“Yeah come on, what were you up to?” Twil asked, a little too hard.

“Nothing- nothing bad,” Kimberly blurted out. She squeezed her eyes shut and took a deep breath, reached for the stub of her reefer but then decided not to light up. She cradled her hands in her lap instead. “I went back to the Wiccan coven. That’s all. But I shouldn’t have.”

“The what?” Twil squinted

“Wiccan coven?” Raine asked.

“Wicca. Right,” I muttered.

I should have guessed, considering the new agey pagan books lining Kimberly’s shelf. I tried to keep my exasperated sigh to myself, told myself not to judge, but my reaction must have shown on my face, because Kimberly suddenly gave me a wounded look.

“Coven?” Twil repeated. “You mean like witches?”

“Yes, like witches,” Kimberly said, the hurt plain in her voice.

Back to the coven?” Raine asked.

“Hey, hey.” Twil pointed at Kimberly. “I thought she said no more magic. I thought that was bloody point, you-”

“It’s not real magic, Twil,” I said gently. “Wicca’s a new-age pagan revival movement. A religion. And not like yours.”

“Oh. What, like the druid guys who go to Stonehenge?”

Raine smirked and nodded. “Yeah, like druids.”

“I know it’s not real,” Kimberly hissed. “How can I believe in anything anymore? After … after everything?”

As she trailed off, eyes downcast, she seemed so small and lost, and in that moment I think I understood Kimberly a little better.

I’d never really believed in anything much before I met Raine and Evelyn – except the power of a good book. My parents weren’t religious. Having faith is challenging when you believe your brain is broken, and you’ve spent half your short life terrified of the unimaginable monsters that nobody else can see. A merciful God would not curse me so.

Kimberly had believed in something – kooky nature Goddess something. Easy to scoff at, perhaps, but it had clearly been important to her. Meaningful. Comforting. Real.

Then the Sharrowford Cult had shown her the truth behind reality, and taken all that away.

“Kimberly, I didn’t mean to insult you,” I said. “I apologise.”

“Apology accepted,” she muttered.

“You don’t have to accept it. Why not tell me I’m rude?”

She blinked at me, as if this might be another rhetorical trap, and I hated that. I hated that I made this woman afraid. I smiled at her, best I could through the residual headache pain and the guilt.

“ … y-you’re not,” she managed. “It’s only fair. None of it was ever real. I even don’t know why I went back, I just wanted some … some community again. Anything.”

“Stack saw you going there?” Raine asked. “But not to work? Why?”

“Because the coven is how I found the Brotherhood,” Kimberly said. “Because one of them must have told her I came back.”

“Ahhhhhh,” Raine sighed. “Now, I did wonder how a person ends up in the Sharrowford Cult. Guess that’s one way.”

“Yes.” Kimberly nodded. Beneath the hurt and the exhaustion and the fear of us, I saw a black smoky curl of real bitterness in her eyes.

“Tell us about this Wiccan coven then,” Raine said. “The truth, all of it. Because we need to find Stack.”

“Wait what, we do?” Twil asked.

“We … yes, yes we do. Raine.” I felt myself light up inside as I put the pieces together. I could have hugged her, but Raine stayed deadly serious, staring at Kimberly.

“We do, yeah,” Raine nodded. “Because she was here, at this flat, less than twenty four hours after Lozzie. And from the sounds of it, Lozzie just popped in right outside Kim’s door, yeah? If we find Stack, and I get my hands on her, then we discover how she knew Lozzie was here. And hey, if I get to Stack fast enough, maybe she won’t be in any state to come back for you, Kim. So tell us the whole truth. You might get to live.”

Kimberly let out a shuddering breath and nodded. “The coven, they’re completely normal, except for one person, that’s who you want, I swear. Uh, there’s this shop off St. Helen’s Road, the-”

Grey Magicks, right?” Raine asked.

“ … y-yes. How did you know that?”

“Checked it out before.” She looked to Twil and I. “Back when me and Evee first moved to Sharrowford. Had to make sure it was regular old occult stuff, not a front for the real thing. Full of stuff like this.” She gestured at Kimberly’s pentagram-stuffed bookcase, the crystals, the dragon statue, the wolf posters.

“It is, it is,” Kimberly agreed. “Except for one person, the woman who leads the coven. Everyone else there is normal, I-I think, even the owner of the store. It’s just where we meet.”

“How’s a nice girl like you end up casting spells?”

“I joined a couple of years ago, and it was really nice, really nice. I never used to take any of this stuff seriously, I just liked the aesthetics, but I was going through- I mean, I needed … people. And they were really welcoming. Really positive.”

“So you did what, rituals and stuff?” Twil said.

“Mmhmm.” Kimberly nodded, earnest and open. “Nothing scary at all. Candles, chanting. We had these little ceremonies for the lunar cycle, it was lovely. It was really good energy. And I got really into that side of it, the witchcraft. I knew- I mean, I thought I knew that none of it really worked, but I sort of wanted to believe, and it helped. I led a few circles, made sigils and stuff, for health and- a-and I made friends. One member, she was so sweet, her name was Hannah, she ended up in the hospital, pregnancy complications. I went to visit her and we did a spell together, for easy delivery and- I know, I know it didn’t do anything, but she pulled through. She had that baby, and it felt good to … ” Kimberly stopped herself, took a deep breath and blew it out slowly. “This isn’t what you want to hear.”

“It’s cool,” Twil said. “I get it.”

“Mm,” Raine grunted, nodding seriously.

Kimberly gathered herself. “The … uh … the High Priestess, that’s what you call a coven leader, an experienced witch. She’s still there, Catherine Gillespie. She took an interest in me, took me under her wing. Told me I could go further, that I had a special knack.” Kimberly’s voice dropped, quiet and bitter. “Told me she wanted to introduce me to some people.”

“The Sharrowford Cult,” Raine said.

Kimberly nodded. “Their magic really worked, but it … it hurt. The um … ” She glanced at Raine. “The woman you killed in the castle, her name was Sarah Pince. She taught me … well, taught is being a bit generous. She showed me. A-and then when it got too much, she made me.”

“Magic,” I croaked, then swallowed to clear my throat. “Real magic requires you to already be broken. Already exposed. That’s the knack. How did you have that?”

Kimberly stared at me, shaking her head. “I don’t know. I saw a ghost once, when I was little. Does that count?”

“Maybe the High Priestess,” Raine suggested. “Maybe one of those rituals was real, did something, maybe that’s the point, using an overt Wiccan coven to find fresh meat.”

“I was already broken. I know that much,” Kimberly muttered, then realised we were staring and struggled to regain her composure. “I mean- I was going through a bad time. I-I had a stalker, an ex-boyfriend. I wasn’t well. I’m not well now, I know.”

“Maybe that was enough,” I said.

I failed to sound comforting – because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to.

Now we discussed the Sharrowford Cult once more, I couldn’t shake the memory of what I’d seen in their castle, what Kimberly had been a part of, no matter how small or how unwilling. Had she really been pressured into doing magic because she had the talent, abused and used up? Or was this a sob-story, an attempt to absolve herself of her involvement? Everything so far pointed to the former, that she was a victim too. Why couldn’t I fully accept that?

Because we were scary, and we had her in a corner – she’d tell us whatever we wanted to hear.

“This coven, they have a name?” Raine asked.

Kimberly nodded eagerly, climbed to her feet and went over to the bookcase. She returned with a cheap looking pamphlet, little more than a few pages stapled together like a student magazine. She handed it to Raine and we all leaned over to see. The front cover sported a stylised design of a statuesque nature goddess, wearing wreaths of blossom, stood in the centre of a pentagram made from living ivy. A title crested the top of the page, in a fanciful, flowery font.

Shadow of the Moon, introductory workings for any Sisterly Coven, by Catherine Gillespie.

Twil wrinkled her nose. “Crap name.”

“What did you do?” I asked. “In the Sharrowford Cult?”

My question caught Kimberly in a half-crouch, straightening up from handing Raine the little book. She stared at me for a second, as the question reached deep down inside her, how I’d intended it to. She stood up, but didn’t seem to know what to do with her hands, letting them flop against her unicorn-print pajama bottoms. But she did meet my eyes.

“I raised corpses from the dead,” she said, a choke in her voice. “You know that.”

Such a surreal phrase, in these surroundings – a cramped high rise council flat in northern England – and even stranger to know it was the truth. I sighed without meaning to, at the never ending parade of impossibility my life had become.

“Mostly homeless people, yes?” I asked. I did know that already. What was I doing? I couldn’t stop myself.

Kimberly’s face fell, slowly, as she tried desperately to keep it together. She nodded, but only halfway, an odd downward jerk of the chin.

“And what about those cages I saw?” Cold fingers crept through my gut, and came out through my mouth. “The dead children in the cages. Did you know about them as well?”

Kimberly didn’t look up. She nodded again, and mouthed a word or two under her breath.

Why was my heart racing? It made my headache so much worse, why was I doing this? Surely Raine or Twil were about to interrupt. Raine was going to put a hand on my shoulder and get me to ease down, back off, let this go, because I was too weak from the brainmath, too addled by my panic over Lozzie, and deep down I knew she’d be right. I was wound up and frustrated, displacing my helplessness, finding a person to blame for the very real crime I’d witnessed.

I’d punished the man responsible, the head of the snake. I’d killed Alexander.

Wasn’t that enough?

To my surprise, Raine stayed silent, watching me carefully, and Twil looked on with all the attentiveness of a wolf waiting for her pack’s cue.

“I didn’t quite catch that,” I said.

“I know,” Kimberly choked out.

“Did you know about the dead children? Kimberly? Did you?”

“I know it’s my fault!” She shouted in my face – the clearest and strongest thing she’d said since we’d broken into her flat – then she coughed, her throat not up to the task as she fell apart again, eyes full of tears. “I know, I know! I should have taken a knife and stabbed them all, I know! I could have strangled Pince, or- or stabbed Alexander, something, anything! I would have died, but I should have put my body in the way. I should have help Lozzie escape. Or gone to the police. They would have thrown me in the loony bin, but at least they might have saved a couple of those kids. I know I’m a coward. I should died instead. I know.”

Kimberly’s confession drained what little strength she had left. She down down suddenly, almost a collapse, drew her thighs up to her chest, and wept behind the shield of her arms.

Raine gave me a look, a sympathetic shrug which said it was my show, my choice, fair enough. Twil pulled a pained grimace, and silently mouthed ‘wow’.

I sat there blinking at Kimberly like the idiot I was. What had I expected? Her wet sobbing and collaborator’s guilt didn’t sound fake, but how could I know?

A insidious voice whispered in the back of my head: of course there’s a way to be sure. I could drag Kimberly back to the house, and have Evelyn interrogate her with magic. Evelyn was no stranger to that, she’d done it before, she’d probably agree with the idea. Or do it myself, threaten to send Kimberly Outside and leave her there until she told the truth. That would be just as effective, because in the end it amounted to the same act, the same monstrosity.

Torture.

Lying or not, Kimberly was not very robust anymore, if she had ever been. She was a fragile young woman suffering a loud and messy kind of post-traumatic stress disorder, and there were no therapists who’d listen to her, not on this side of reality.

If I wanted to believe she was lying, and I hurt her enough, she’d tell me anything I wanted.

I cut that impulse off and dug out the root, disgusted with myself for considering it, even for a fleeting moment. My natural inclination to help this poor woman made me uncomfortable, because I couldn’t know for sure what she’d done.I wished I had an authority to turn to, a ‘real adult’ to take this off my hands, absolve me of the responsibility.

I thought back to what Evelyn had said to me, all those months ago, after I’d pulled her back from the underside of reality.

There is no community of mages. There’s just us.

And right now I didn’t have a clear mind or a clean heart, filled with guilt over Lozzie, and worse guilt over being useless, and I’d taken it out on Kimberly without knowing what I was fishing for.

Maybe she was right, she was responsible, on some level. But her pain was real enough. I decided to believe her.

“You didn’t deserve that,” I said with a sigh at myself, the words oddly difficult to say. “I’m sorry.”

Kimberly didn’t respond at all. She kept crying into her knees, her thin frame shaking from the sobs.

Raine gestured toward Kimberly with both hands, and raised her eyebrows at me in silent question. I nodded, embarrassed at what I’d caused. Raine was much better at this sort of thing than me. I should have left it to her from the start.

“Hey, hey, Kim,” Raine murmured, low and soft, the same voice she used with me sometimes. She crossed over toward Kimberly, knelt down, and reached out slowly. “I’m gonna touch your shoulder, okay? Don’t jump, it’s only me.”

Kimberly flinched anyway, hard, the precursor to fleeing, but Raine quickly took her by both shoulders, gently rubbing her upper arms. I clamped down on a bizarre spark of jealousy, hardly appropriate right now.

“Kim, it’s okay, it’s alright,” Raine purred. “None of us think you’re a criminal, none of us think you killed anybody.”

“Yeah,” Twil said. “Me neither. Right.”

Raine gave Twil a slyly unimpressed look. Twil shut her mouth and cringed.

“Surviving alone was hard enough,” Raine continued, her soft tone more important than the words themselves. “And you managed that, you don’t have to feel guilty. Heather’s just very cautious. She saw more than us, most of the same things you probably did. We’re not gonna use you up and then decide to get rid of you for something that wasn’t your fault. That’s something I can promise, at the very least.”

Kimberly managed a jerky nod, still hiding her face. Her crying had dried up, except for the occasional sniff.

“Need a tissue?” Twil asked, jumping to her feet. “Here, uh, um … there!”

She bounced off and back again, returning with a half-empty box of tissues, and slid them across the table.

Slowly, carefully, Twil and Raine pried Kimberly back out of her shell. She blew her nose and wiped her puffy eyes, as Raine rubbed her back. The weeping seemed to have cleaned her soul, at least for the moment, changed her in a way I couldn’t identify. When she risked eye contact with me again, she seemed empty, calm, waiting.

I frowned when I realised why.

“I’m not going to pass judgement on you,” I said, feeling vaguely disgusted. “Don’t look at me like that. For pity’s sake, I’m, what, five or six years younger than you? How can you look at me like I’m going to decide your fate?”

“Because you are?” she ventured.

“Hey, only you decide your own fate around here,” Raine said, cracking a smile.

“Quite right,” I said. “I’m not a … I’m not whatever you’re looking for, Kimberly.”

Kimberly nodded to herself. She pulled more tissues from the box and blew her nose again.

“So, Kim,” Raine said, gentler than earlier. “This High Priestess, this Gillespie woman, she’s the one in contact with the Sharrowford Cult? You’re sure about that?”

Was,” Twil corrected before Kim could answer. “We smashed them, right? Heather killed their boss and the rest of them are – poof! Scattered.”

“Amy Stack’s still lurking about, at the very least, and don’t forget Lozzie’s creepy uncle.”

“He left the city!” Twil said.

“People can come back into Sharrowford, you know?” I said. Twil grumbled and shrugged.

“Yes,” Kimberly said. “Yes, Catherine Gillespie, she’s the one who introduced me to the … um, the cult.”

“Better get used to that word,” Twil said. “They call my lot a cult too.”

“Don’t suppose you’d happen to know where she lives, would you?” Raine asked. Kimberly shook her head. “Worth a shot. So, the Sisterly Coven, Shadow of the Moon, whatever they call themselves – when do they meet?”

“Usually Saturday evenings, but also sometimes alternating Tuesdays. This Tuesday too, I think,” Kimberly said. “You’re going to go there, aren’t you?”

Raine’s face split with a dangerous grin.

“Oh, Goddess. Please, I- there’s good people there, f-friends I had, normal people, they don’t have anything to do with all this … this awfulness.”

Twil barked with laughter. “What, you think we’re gonna go in there and slash everyone up?”

“That is what we did last time,” I deadpanned.

“Yeah, but this is like, in public, in the middle of Sharrowford,” Twil said. “Not in some weird spooky fog-world.”

“That’s it then,” Kimberly said, her voice resigned and hollow. “I’ve lost everything, haven’t I? I’ve probably gone and lost my job by now as well. No more friends, no more coven, it’s all gone.” She put her face in her hands, but this time she didn’t cry. She looked dead.

“We’re not going to kill anybody,” I said. “We’re not.”

Kimberly nodded, but I could see she didn’t really believe me.

“Might be able to square things up at your job,” Raine said. “They already know me, I went round there and told them I was your mate. Here, come on, you go back to work tomorrow morning and I’ll come with you, have a little word with your boss. We’ll figure something out. Say you’ve had awful flu and you’ve been delirious for days, and I found you asleep on the toilet, yeah?”

Kimberly shook her head. “You won’t be … oh.” She shuddered at the look in Raine’s eyes.

Raine nodded slowly. “When I say ‘have a little word with your boss’, I mean I’ll have a little word with your boss.”

“Raine does have her uses,” I said. “Nice to have somebody like her on your side, isn’t it?”

Kimberly swallowed. “Oh-okay. Thank you, very much. Please don’t hurt anybody though.”

“I won’t. Promise. But in return, you’re going to do something for us,” Raine said.

“Raine,” I tutted, but she held up a hand.

“It’s cool, nothing crazy. In fact, it’ll let us find Stack easier, and the quicker we do, the better, yeah?”

Kimberly nodded, hesitant and afraid, her eyes seeking help from both me and Twil.

“This Catherine Gillespie, Mrs High Priestess,” Raine said. “Do you think she’d recognise any of us three?”

“Um … I … I don’t know,” Kimberly frowned in thought. “Maybe she’d know about Twil, but … probably not yourself, or you, um, Heather. But maybe she does, I’m not sure, please don’t rely on what I say.”

“We can still work with that, oh yes we can indeed. Now, listen close, ‘cos I’ve got a cunning plan.”

“Why don’t I like the sound of that?” I asked.

“Ooooh, she’s got a plan, has she?” Twil said, grinning from ear to ear. “I’m game, been a few weeks since I got some real exercise.”

Even Kimberly followed the undertones, and managed a shaky smile.

“You’re gonna go to that Tuesday coven meet, Kim,” Raine said, squeezing Kimberly’s shoulder in a gesture that made me irrationally jealous. “And you’re gonna pretend to be Heather’s new girlfriend.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

and less pleasant places – 6.4

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Numb.

A weight pressing down on my chest.

Hands quivering, a high pitched ringing in my ears. Ashes in my mouth; the taste of inevitability.

Raine and Twil both spoke, but they sounded so far away, as if I was underwater. I screwed my eyes shut, and when I opened them again I realised I was staring right through Kimberly, still cowering on her sitting room floor.

“When Lozzie was here-”

Kimberly flinched at the sound of my voice – stretched tight, to breaking point. I struggled to focus.

“When Lozzie was here, you saw her- was she- she was … ”

“Y-yes?” Kimberly squeaked, so eager to please.

I squeezed my hands into fists, digging fingernails into my palms. Must stop shaking. My head swam, hot panic forcing its way up my throat. Too many questions, and I already knew the answers. Nowhere go. Nothing I could do. I felt so helpless, a wave of strangled frustration super-heating itself into black despair.

“Heather, hey,” Raine murmured, squeezing my shoulders, trying to catch my eye. “None of this means a thing yet. We all need to slow down and figure this out, okay?”

“What did she do? What did she look like?” I snapped at Kimberly, too hard, enough to make her start in fear again. “Was it really her? Was it her?”

“Heather.” Raine put a firm hand on the back of my neck, fingers in my hair. “Hey, look at me.”

“Don’t you understand?” I whirled on her. “If Lozzie was here, that means-” I stopped short, as if giving voice to my horrified deduction would make it true. I rounded on Kimberly again. “What did she look like? Exactly, what did she look like?”

“Like, um … I-I don’t-” She raised her hands to ward me off. “Please don’t be angry-”

“Did she look like herself? Like the Lozzie you knew?”

Slowly, hesitating, eyes locked on mine, Kimberly shook her head.

“Did she … ” I could barely squeeze the words out. “Like something was pulling her around, like a puppet??”

Kimberly bit her lower lip and glanced at Raine, who graced her with a reassuring nod. “It’s okay, you can answer. Nobody’s angry with you.”

“T-that’s a pretty good way of putting it, yes.”

I shook off Raine’s grip, suddenly claustrophobic and constricted, too hot in my scarf and coat. I pulled them away from my throat. Breathing too fast, almost hyperventilating. Needed more air, couldn’t breathe, had to take action, had to do something. I cast around the room for a handhold, anything at all, my eyes glazing across Twil still at the sink, staring at me, Raine speaking, her words lost to the ringing in my ears, Tenny waving her bunched tentacles, agitated by my panic.

“Lozzie, what have you done to yourself?” I whined, and bit down on my lips to still my voice.

“Heather, hey, hey.” Raine tried to catch my frantic hands as I tugged at my scarf. “Heather, slow down, breathe. You’re having a panic attack.”

“A justified one!” I snapped at her.

“Uh, did I miss part of this?” Twil asked, wide eyed, still flexing her blood-smeared hand to shake off the remains of the knife-wound.

“Could say that, yeah,” Raine answered.

I turned on Twil. “Can you smell if Lozzie was in here? You can do that, can’t you? If she was here a week ago you must be able to pick up her scent. Was she here?”

“Uhhhhhh.” Twil stared at me, frozen, balanced on eggshells.

“Was she here? Twil, please, please try.”

“Heather, Heather look at me,” Raine said, soft and coaxing, but I couldn’t, I couldn’t think of anything else right now. If Lozzie had been here, then I was right, and Evelyn was wrong.

Twil made a show of sniffing the air, then shrugged, still frowning at me like I was an explosive pressure-plate. “Kinda hard to tell with all the ganja smell, and it was a week ago, yeah?”

“Then she wasn’t? It wasn’t really her?”

Later I felt awful for putting Twil on the spot like that, subjecting her to my wild demands. Desperate for the slimmest handhold, I pleaded for her sense of smell to prove my worst fears incorrect.

“I uh, I dunno. I never knew her for long, not enough to learn her scent proper.” Twil pulled a pained grimace. “Look, I can’t smell Lozzie, so maybe it wasn’t her?”

“I’m not lying!” Kimberly almost shouted. “I’m not lying, I promise, I wouldn’t lie to you. I promise, promise. N-not lying.”

“Nobody’s accusing anybody of lying,” Raine said, and finally grabbed me by the wrists, holding my hands down. “Heather, look at me.”

She used her voice like a steel whip, the kind she never directed at me, enough to make me flinch and obey from sheer shock. I blinked back at her, almost panting.

“Heather, breathe,” she said, soft and serious. “Focus on breathing. You’re in the middle of a panic attack, okay? Just breathe with me, in and out. Slow right down, yeah?”

“Raine,” I whined. “What if I saw the real Lozzie, Outside? What if it was her? What else can teleport between dimensions except her and I? If she was here, if what I saw Outside was here, it must really be her.”

“Then right now Lozzie might need you, and she needs you to be thinking clearly. I know how much she means to you. We will find her, I promise.”

I shook my head. “More than that. It’s more than that. I-I can’t put it into words.”

“I know,” Raine murmured.

And in that moment, staring back at her boundless confidence, she made me believe she knew all my fears, the ones I couldn’t voice, the terror of leaving myself behind. For a moment, she made me believe, and it worked.

I knew she didn’t, not really. But it did work.

“Take a deep breath, Heather. Do it now, okay? Just one, for me, come on.”

I nodded, managed to suck down a deep breath, and another, and another, slowing, steadying. The numb, hot panic began to ebb away. I nodded again, tried to still myself. “I have to do something. I have to find her.”

“We will. But first, let’s get some information, okay?” Raine cracked a smile for me. “Look before you leap isn’t exactly my style, I know, but I think this is your show now.”

I managed another nod.

“Hey, don’t look at me,” Twil said, and I turned to see she was addressing Kimberly with a shrug. “I don’t know what this is about either. Second time they’ve pulled this on me, I’m in the dark here.” She gave us both an unimpressed look.

“I’ll tell you, but first I really must sit down,” I said.

Raine raised her eyebrows and pointed a thumb at the kitchen. “Cup of tea, anybody?”

==

Not the most relaxing cup of tea I’d ever had, but it did the job.

Kimberly needed that space and time as much as I did, to calm down, and it provided a good excuse for us to all sit around the little floor-height table and pretend, if only for a couple of minutes, that we were normal people. A group of young women visiting a friend on a Sunday lunchtime, for a chat and a cup of tea.

The truth sounded like the setup to a bad joke: a sociopath, a werewolf, and a mathematician all prepare to interrogate a necromancer.

None of us expected to laugh at the punchline.

Raine made the tea, not Kimberly, who seemed to require every last scrap of courage to merely sit cross-legged at her own table without bolting, though some of that may have been embarrassment at the rather sad state of her kitchen. She only owned two mugs, one of which was badly chipped, so instead I was allotted a measuring jug, and Raine was going to drink out of a cereal bowl.

The waiting was so awkward that – perhaps paradoxically – it helped me calm down further.

Twil stared at Kimberly, grudge written on her face, and Kimberly stared at the tabletop, frozen in fear. Now that Kimberly was no longer waving a knife around, Tenny had decided she approved, and stopped trying to interpose herself between us, wandering off to run her sticky black tentacles over the contents of Kimberly’s flat. I thought it better not to mention Tenny, and I could have stayed quiet while Raine took thirty seconds to brew the tea, but my frayed nerves couldn’t take the tension in Twil’s omni-directional scowl.

“Twil,” I said. “You’re death-glaring. Stop it.”

“Uh huh, am I?” Twil grunted, not looking away from poor Kimberly. She slapped her hand on the table, palm up, flexing the fingers and wincing through clenched teeth. “Still stings like a bitch, you know?”

Her palm was blemishless. Werewolf healing had sealed it up already.

I rolled my eyes. Panic had turned to exasperation – we had more important matters to deal with.

“Hey, so, Kim,” Raine piped up from over in the little kitchen.

Kimberly flinched, eyes jerking up as if to obey an order. “Yes? Yes?”

“If you don’t remember names, here’s some for you,” Raine said, as she filled the mugs and substitute-mugs with hot water over teabags. “The very pretty short one to your left is Heather – she’s kind of in charge, so listen to what she says – and the one with a face like a smacked arse, that’s Twil.”

“Oi!” Twil twisted and barked at her. She waved her hand in the air. “I got fucking stabbed here.”

“So you’re going to sulk, like a big baby?” I asked. Twil boggled at me. “You’re invincible. I assumed you caught the knife on purpose, to spare Raine’s arm.”

“Well, yeah! But it still bloody well hurt.”

“I am so very sorry,” Kimberly said.

We all paused at Kimberly’s quivering apology. In the moment’s silence that followed, I looked at her – really looked at her, for the first time.

She was a wreck, much worse than the scared woman I recalled from the aftermath of the cult’s pocket dimension. Her clothes were clean enough – and actually quite cute, between the unicorn print pajamas and the bubbly, goofy cartoon dragon on her tshirt – but Kimberly herself looked far from healthy or whole.

Her face was pale and drawn, gaze downcast, eyes ringed by dark circles of exhaustion. She’d been chewing and biting her lips, mangling her own flesh in a nervous tic that must have been going on for weeks, spotted with dried blood and half-healed cracks. An irritated scab had formed on the side of her neck, from incessant scratching, and her chin was bruised where Raine had thumped her to the floor. I had the distinct impression her auburn hair was naturally much brighter, as if the colour had been leeched from her.

She looked weary – a weariness that even adrenaline couldn’t shake.

I’d know that look anywhere. Here was a woman who hadn’t slept properly in a long time.

Had we done this to her, or was this the backlash from her own memories, payback for being part of what I’d witnessed in the cavern beneath the cult’s castle? My heart went out to her, but I hardened it a little, on purpose. Lozzie had vouched that Kimberly had never killed anybody, but that was all.

“Yeah, bloody right you should be sorry, you-” Twil barked.

Kimberly shuffled back from the table. At first I thought she was retreating from Twil’s shout, but then, shaking like a leaf, hands clasped tight in her lap, she bowed her head until her face was level with the floor.

“ … you … should … uh, hey, don’t- uh-” Twil trailed off, frowning. “What are you doing?”

“I apologise for harming you, and I’m very sorry for attacking you all. I am very s-sorry.” She swallowed, her effort not quite enough to keep her voice steady. “Please accept my apology. I’m not worthy, and I’m not import-”

“Stop, stop. Bloody hell.” Twil squinted at her in horror. “Don’t do that, just say sorry. You don’t have to grovel.”

Kimberly didn’t move. She stared at the floor.

I think I was beginning to understand her. Perhaps she didn’t deserve my heart to be quite so hard.

“It’s alright, you can sit up,” I murmured to her. “You don’t have to treat us like that, we’re not like the Sharrowford Cult. Your apology is accepted. Isn’t it, Twil?”

“Eh? Oh, uh, yeah. Sure. As long as you don’t do it again.”

Kimberly still didn’t move a muscle, except a hesitant glance at me from the corner of her eye.

“Kimberly, sit up,” I ordered.

She stayed frozen for another moment, then slowly straightened up, blinking at us like a cornered animal.

“Look, no harm done, yeah?” Twil smiled and held up her hand, flexed her fingers like claws. “S’already healed, just like that. Cool huh? Bet you wish you could do that.”

Kimberly nodded. “M-most impressive.”

Raine bustled over with the tea, clacking mugs and substitutes down on the table, settling herself on her knees across from me. Twil gulped the stuff down like it wasn’t piping hot, and Kimberly seemed to rejuvenate slightly after a sip or two. She began to breathe a little steadier. I forced myself to drink, still flushed and unsteady from the panic attack, still trying to distract myself from the million questions and gut-wrenching worries, still a useless lump without a way to help my friend.

“Ahhh,” Raine sighed, big smile on her face. “There, isn’t that better? Nice and civilised now. Best thing about a brew.”

I nodded, not trusting myself to answer properly, and focused on another sip of tea.

“So what’s all this about Lozzie, then?” Twil asked, first me, then Raine. “Is this another one of Evelyn’s big secrets?”

Raine shook her head. “Bit complex. Heather’s seen her, that’s all, or something pretending to be her.”

“Yeah, I kinda followed that part, I think.”

I took a deep breath, trying not to let the panic back in. “Outside,” I said. “I saw her Outside. And she was all wrong. Not herself.”

Twil’s eyebrows climbed. She stared at me in exactly the way I didn’t want to be stared at. “Right. Right then.”

“We don’t know it was really her,” Raine added, for my sake – but it had the opposite effect.

“If she was here as well, that means it’s the same thing I saw Outside,” I snapped, then shuddered as I forced a deep breath. “That means it’s Lozzie. Don’t treat me like a child, Raine. I can deal with this.”

“I’m serious,” Raine said, and I could see she was. “We don’t know it’s really her.”

I had to avert my eyes. My panic had transmuted into anger – a determination to do something. But there was nothing I could do. Hard but brittle, determined but rudderless.

I’d suffered a panic attack once before, in the bath after the failed kidnapping attempt, and I remembered it all too well. The shaking, the replaying memory, the shortness of breath. I knew it didn’t mean I was a coward – though I was, for other reasons – it was a physical response that I had no control over. But this time was different, nothing had happened to me, no bottled trauma bursting forth.

I felt utterly useless.

Useless.

Turned out I was more similar to Raine than I’d always assumed. I’d learnt that over the past few months; to my enduring surprise, I could be good in a crisis – but only when a clear action presented itself. A person to flee from, or run to, a foe to defeat, a friend to save.

But what could I do here, now, for Lozzie?

Nothing. I didn’t even know how to locate her. She was out there somewhere, in God alone knows what state, maybe even worse than dead, and I was sitting in a nice warm room having a cup of tea. I cursed myself for a fool. Perhaps I didn’t care enough, perhaps that was the truth; Lozzie was a stand-in for Maisie, or for myself, and I was terrible. Half a person, and a bad friend.

I had to find her – how?

“You’re the … ” Kimberly murmured, interrupting my rousing self-hate session. She took another sip of tea to steady herself, and addressed Twil again. “Please excuse me for using a crude term. You’re the Brinkwood … w-werewolf, aren’t you?”

Twil grinned like a cat that got the cream. Kimberly was about to stammer out another apology.

“Your reputation proceeds you,” I said. “Lucky you, Twil.”

“Haha!” Twil barked with laugher. “Yeah, you know it. That would be me, yeah. Your lot – sorry, former lot – knew all about me, huh?”

“You did come up in conversation several times.” Kimberly swallowed before adding: “As a person to be wary of.”

“Rarr.” Twil made a silly monster noise and mock-menaced with her hands, laughing. Kimberly managed to pull a very, very hesitant smile.

“Twil’s a huge numpty, she’s not scary at all,” Raine said. “And neither is Heather,” she added before Twil could launch off on one at her. “We’re all friends here now, right?”

“I’m not a numpty, you dick,” Twil muttered.

“ … sure,” Kimberly said, and I saw her throat bob as she swallowed. “Friends.”

“Raine.” I sighed. “Couldn’t you phrase that in a way which doesn’t make you sound like a mafia enforcer?”

“Ah?” Raine laughed. “I’m serious though. We’re taking it nice and slow, having a cup of tea, all friends now.”

“Kim, can I call you Kim?” I asked, and Kimberly nodded hesitantly. “Raine is incredibly stupid sometimes too, and I’m sorry for how intimidating she can be. She didn’t bother you the first two times she came to visit, did she?”

Kimberly glanced at Raine from the corner of her eye, then shook her head. “Not at all, no, not at all. I understand you have to … be sure of me. I just … I just want out.” Her carefully guarded front slipped, her face falling before she took a shaky breath and pulled herself back together. “I’m sorry. I understand.”

“How’s your chin feel, Kim?” Raine asked, and gestured a little too close to Kimberly’s chin with her bowl of tea. “Bumped you pretty bad there, sorry about that.”

“Oh, um.” Kimberly probed the bruise on her chin, which was rapidly turning purple. She suppressed a wince. “No, no I’m fine. Thank you.”

“Raine.” I gave her a look. “I might not to able to speak your private language of subtle physical intimidation, but even I can read that. Stop it.”

“Stop what?” Raine spread her hands. “Hey, I’m sorry, really.”

“You didn’t sound it.”

“It’s okay, I’m okay,” Kimberly blurted out. “Really, I’m fine, please. Please don’t … don’t … don’t fight.”

Raine and I shared a glance, equally embarrassed. A lover’s quarrel, at a time like this? I sighed.

“We’re not,” I said. “I’m scared for my friend, and it’s making me irritable. I’m sorry too.”

Kimberly stared at me, uncertain how to accept that apology.

“Shall we start at the beginning then?” Raine asked. “Take it in your own time, Kim, tell us what you saw.”

“The beginning?”

Raine raised her eyebrows, then looked at me.

I did not feel in charge. I felt lost and useless – but I had to be strong, somehow. Marshalling my thoughts, I tried to start at the beginning.

“What time did Lozzie show up here?” I asked.

“Oh,” Kimberly mouthed. “The … beginning. Yes. Okay. Okay.”

Kimberly’s fragile composure came tumbling down. She opened her mouth, closed it again, swallowed very hard on a dry throat and took a long draft of tea, hand trembling. Nervously, she glanced at our faces, then pointed at her little plastic bag on the table, the one full of dried cannabis, next to the hand-rolled cigarettes on their protective plate.

“May I- I’m sorry, this is very difficult for me. Do you mind if I … ?”

“You wanna toke up?” Raine asked. Twil snorted to herself.

Kimberly nodded, seemingly embarrassed. “It’s the only thing that helps anymore.”

“You can’t sleep,” I blurted out, a moment of true empathy.

Kimberly stared at me. “How did you know that?”

“It’s sort of obvious. I’m not a mind reader or anything, don’t worry. I know the feeling, that’s all.”

“Obvious, mm. You’re right, I can’t sleep, things keep running through my head. Things, um, all the time. I can’t stop thinking about-” She came up short, lost and distracted. “I wish I could delete all memory of the last six months. I’m sorry. I-I don’t want to be blowing smoke in your faces. I can go to the bathroom window, or something?”

“Is that when you joined the cult? Six months ago?” Raine asked. I heard a hint of cold in her voice, though I doubt any but me would have noticed.

Kimberly shook her head, hugging her arms around herself protectively. “No, no, that was earlier, last February, but it didn’t get bad until I realised I couldn’t leave. I-I can tell you all about it, if you like?”

“Lozzie first,” I said, softly, and Kimberly nodded, resigning herself to the task.

“Well, I don’t mind thirty minutes of second hand smoke,” Raine said. “Any tobacco in that?”

“Oh, no, no.”

“What about you two?” Raine asked Twil and I. Twil shrugged, and I shook my head, too focused on thoughts of Lozzie to care right now.

Kimberly bowed her head, muttered a thank you, and plucked one of the hand-rolled cannabis cigarettes from the little plate on the table. She dug around under the plastic bag full of weed and located a lighter, flicked the tiny flame on, and lit up.

She didn’t smoke very much of the reefer – I’ve been informed by Raine that’s the correct term – one short puff to start her off, then a long, deep drag which made the end of the roll-up glow like embers. Kimberly closed her eyes, held the smoke in her lungs, before carefully blowing it out the corner of her mouth, away from us. Still, the smoke filled the air with a heavy, musky scent.

Perhaps it was a placebo effect, but I swear I saw her muscles begin to relax, saw the tightness around her eyes let up, saw her become more human and less a terrified animal. She blinked several times and knuckled at her bleary eyes, then awkwardly offered the reefer to us.

“Would you like some?”

“Nah,” Twil grunted.

“Oh, uh, thank you, but no.” I shook my head. “I wouldn’t know where to start.”

“I would,” Raine said, “but I gotta keep a clear head on my shoulders. Wouldn’t wanna be all floppy if Stack turns up right now, would I?”

Kimberly’s eyes widened at Stack’s name. Suddenly her gaze flicked up, over Raine, toward her front door. “Did you lock the door? You did lock it, didn’t you?”

“When I made the tea, yeah. Made sure. No worries.”

Kimberly nodded. She took one more long drag, then put the cigarette out with great care, gently stubbing it on the little plate, then pinching the end with her fingers to make sure it had stopped burning.

“Better?” Raine asked.

“Getting there, yes, thank you,” Kimberly closed her eyes again for a long moment, concentrating on the contents of her own head – and bloodstream, I assume. Raine and Twil shared a wry look, but the whole process had fascinated me, and I couldn’t help but wonder what she felt like now, what kinds of pain the drug took away from her. When she opened her eyes again she looked almost relaxed, and younger, her real age, less haggard and run-down.

“Your hair is longer than I remember,” she said to me, voice a little loose, and even managed a small smile. “Suits you.”

“Oh, um, thank you.”

That was the last thing I’d expected. Kimberly was right though, my hair was longer than on our first, brief meeting. My hair hadn’t seen scissors since I’d moved to Sharrowford, getting on for almost seven months now, the ends of my tresses well past the base of my neck. I hadn’t thought about that in months, until a random stoned compliment from a ex-cultist.

Raine laughed. “We’re onto the stoner talk already?”

“I’m sorry,” Kimberly blurted out. “It’s only to take the edge off.”

“Will you tell me about Lozzie now?” I asked. “Please.”

Kimberly nodded. “Are you going to help her? She’s a good kid, she never deserved any of this. I-it’s a good thing you killed her brother. I never thanked you for that. I should. I think.” She frowned to herself, suddenly lost in confused thought.

A lump formed in my throat. “I’m going to try. I have to find her first.”

“Start at the beginning,” Raine prompted softly. “What happened?”

Kimberly sniffed and stared at the extinguished blunt for a heartbeat. “She wouldn’t stop knocking.”

“ … what?” I breathed.

“A knock on the door doesn’t happen much around here, not to me anyway. There’s only a few people who might knock on my front door, and the door frame won’t hold a chain properly, so I have to call out. You know, ‘who is it?’, and hope they don’t decide to break in.” She pulled a weird little smile. “That’s never happened before, by the way, so well done.”

“I didn’t break the lock,” Raine said gently. “Picked it. It’ll work fine.”

“So, I get home from my shift about half five last Thursday night, and then there’s this knock on my door. Right away, like somebody had followed me up the stairs, right behind me. Only I hadn’t seen a soul. I’m very careful. I have to be.” Kimberly took another deep breath, hands gripping each other tight in her lap. “So I called out, but there wasn’t any reply, just another knock. The first couple of times, I thought it was kids messing around, I thought they would run off when I came to the door. So I … I-I stood there, to listen. And I heard this … this breathing.”

“Through the door?” Twil said. “S’pretty thick.”

Kimberly nodded, shaking slightly. “I’ve seen some weird things, with the Brotherhood, things I don’t want to think about again, and when I heard that breathing I knew something was standing out there, something that shouldn’t be. Waiting for me to … to … I don’t know, to stop paying attention, so it could hurt me.”

“What made you feel that?” Raine asked. I couldn’t say a thing, hanging on every word.

Kimberly shrugged. “Intuition? The breathing sounded wrong, like she couldn’t pump the air in and out of her lungs properly.”

“But you opened the door eventually, right?” Raine said.

Kimberly closed her eyes, radiating regret, before she nodded again. “I couldn’t take it anymore. It was dark out, and getting late, and she kept waiting longer and longer between knocks, and then hammering on the door all at once. I figured if it was the Brotherhood, then they’d be more direct, so maybe it was a junkie or something, just somebody from the estate messing with me. Then I got this idea in my head, that maybe one of my thralls had survived, come back to me, just for somewhere to go.”

“Thralls?” Twil squinted at her.

“She means zombies,” Raine said.

“Zombies? Oh, oh, I suppose so, yes. That’s a good word. Anyway, I thought maybe that wouldn’t be so bad. I mean- I didn’t want to think about them again, I-I’m never going to do it again, I swear, I swear to the Goddess. But … at least I could put it to rest. I thought maybe I’d get it safely inside, then call you, maybe Saye could put it down. Send it back? I don’t know how that part works. I was sure that’s what it was, but I was just making myself feel better. I took a knife from the kitchen, hid it behind my back, just in case, and opened and the door. And it was her.”

Kimberly stared at nothing for a moment. The weed and the tea wasn’t enough to hold back what she’d seen.

Lozzie, what had you done to yourself?

“Kim?” I almost couldn’t whisper. “Please, I have to know. She’s really important to me.”

Kimberly swallowed and pulled herself together again. “Lauren- Lozzie, she wasn’t herself. I’d know her anywhere, she was always so sweet to me. She tried to step inside. I didn’t say a word to her, I couldn’t, but I didn’t want her to touch me, not the way she looked, so I just backed up and let her in. I wanted to scream. The knife, that was stupid, stupid, pointless.”

“What did she look like?” I whispered.

“She just stepped inside and circled each of the rooms, it was so weird. Have you ever seen a cat in a new place?” Kimberly jerked round at us suddenly, eyes wide and blinking. “When they don’t know where they are, they’ll circle around the edge of the rooms. It was like that. Mapping? I don’t know, I have no earthly idea what she was doing.”

“Kim, please.”

“She looked wrong, alright?” Kimberly blurted out. “Like you said before, like something else was pulling stings connected to her muscles. I think she was trying to smile at me, but Goddess, it didn’t look like that, she couldn’t pull the muscles right. She walked like a machine, all her parts all wrong, and I was so afraid she was going to touch things, like my bed, and everything would be contaminated.” Kimberly was tearing up, squeezing the words out. “I don’t know why I felt that. She wasn’t human anymore, but it wasn’t like a thrall, it was something else and it was filthy and wrong and it wasn’t supposed to be here.”

“Filthy … ” I echoed, and let the word hang in the air, in my mind, the idea wrenching at the inside of my chest.

Raine reached across the table and took my hand, squeezed hard. “It wasn’t her. Heather, we don’t know if it was really her.”

“She spoke,” Kimberly said. “Once.”

“She spoke?”

“If you could call it speaking. When she finished circling the rooms, she stood right there.” Kimberly pointed at the middle of the floor, staring at me. “Her voice, it was like she couldn’t inflect the words, didn’t know how to say them. In a way, it wasn’t her, you’re right. It wasn’t Lauren Lilburne at all. She said ‘back to school’, and then she left.”

A moment of silence stretched out over the low table. Twil puffed a big sigh and muttered, “That’s some creepy shit alright.”

“Back to school?” I echoed. “What does that mean?”

“I don’t know, I don’t want to know,” Kimberly said, burying her head in her arms. “I don’t want to to know any more about magic, I don’t. It’s not real, none of this. Please, I don’t want to know.”

‘Back to school’. The phrase echoed inside me, down into the abyssal depths, until it found suitable material with which to resonate.

The Eye, the Eye’s lessons – I’d never questioned before why I thought of them as lessons. Back to school? Had the Eye gotten to Lozzie somehow? Why would it? Why would it care about her? What did that mean?

What if it was directed at me?

A cry for help.

‘Back to school’.

In the black silt-layer of my soul, I began to make a plan. I sent the first tentative mental probes down into that lightless abyss where I buried all those years of the Eye’s lessons, where I tried not to think about them. The first tremors of nausea and the pinprick tingling of a headache reared up slowly, the heads of a watchful hydra, as I posed a question of all that inhuman knowledge: I had to find Lozzie – there had to be way. How?

My fingers strayed unconsciously to the Fractal on my left forearm, underneath my sleeve. Time to dredge the depths.

“What did Lozzie look like, other than the obvious and creepy part?” Raine asked.

“What?” Kimberly emerged from behind her arms.

“What was she wearing? Was she clean? Glowing blue and purple? Rainbow socks?”

“Oh, yes, that’s what surprised me. That’s why I thought she was with you, c-clean, I mean, not glowing or whatever. Taken care of, you know? I don’t remember what she was wearing. Uh, jeans, maybe? A coat? But she was clean. Hair was all brushed. She was even wearing shoes. That’s not like her.” Kimberly sniffed. “Do you mind if I smoke again?”

“Go right ahead,” Raine murmured, more concerned with me than Kimberly. She raised an eyebrow at me, a silent question.

I realised I was sweating, eyes scrunched tight, trying to hide the mad thing I was doing.

“I’m fine,” I lied, then forced a strained smile and a deep breath. “I’m just thinking.”

I wasn’t fine. Even the effort of defining the right question of the Eye’s lessons was enough to make me feel like vomiting. I had a map of the universe in my head – our reality, Outside, everywhere – and the tools to use it, but I could barely touch them without searing my mind with white-hot fire, let alone rummage through them for such a specific purpose.

“When she left, where did she go?” Raine was asking Kimberly. I squinted, trying to think of another way.

“I don’t know,” Kimberly said. “I didn’t follow her. Look, I know I’m falling apart, but I’m not crazy, I wouldn’t have followed her for anything. I locked the door and … cleaned up, and then I hid, alright? In bed. Anyone would have.”

“Mm. Maybe.” Raine nodded, trying to keep it light. “Maybe I would have too. Still, you should have called me.”

“I’m sorry, I’m really sorry.” Kimberly’s head twitched, on the verge of another scraping bow, but she caught herself at the last second. “Stack came the next morning, I-I couldn’t.”

Finding Lozzie with hyperdimensional mathematics would be the most complex thing I’d ever attempted. This was no bending or breaking of physical laws, no bullet-deflecting or teleporting a handful of dirt. This was metaphysical. How could I even specify her, define her? Her body? Her soul?

Did I have the mathematics to describe the human soul – a particular human soul?

I winced. A spike of pain jabbed into the back of my skull, just from thinking of that idea. Too deep, too toxic, too dangerous. Perhaps I could find the correct equation to define the human soul, but I’d cook my brain long before I got there.

There must be another way.

“Did she leave anything behind?” I asked. The others all looked at me. I sniffed and wiped my forehead. “Lozzie, I mean. Did she leave anything behind?”

“No. No, nothing at all.”

“Heather?” Raine asked.

“I’m fine,” I lied again. “I’m just worried, and … hungry. It’s been a morning, hasn’t it?”

“Why don’t we all go out and get something to eat?” Raine asked, and nodded to Kimberly. “I’ll treat you too, yeah?”

“Not yet. Let’s finish this first,” I said quickly. We couldn’t leave the room now – I had an idea, and I needed to be in here for it to work, or so I thought.

Raine frowned at me. “Are you sure you’re feeling alright?”

“I’m fine, Raine. What happened with Stack?” I asked Kimberly, to get the conversation moving again, to take everyone’s attention off me. “She knocked on your door too?”

Kimberly nodded. “In the morning, at dawn. The knocking woke me, though I hadn’t really slept. When I asked who it was, she said it was her, completely open. She said, uh, she said if I didn’t open up, then she’d wait on the estate for me and find me when I came out and … do things, to me. I believed her. She would. She would really do that. She asked the same things you did, about Lauren. And told me not to tell anybody else.”

“Meaning us.” Raine frowned.

“I-I didn’t tell her I’m in contact with you, because she didn’t ask. Believe me, please, if she had, I would have. She only cared about Lauren’s visit, and then she left. Now she … if she knows you came here … I … oh, Goddess, please, I don’t want her to come back. She’ll kill me, she’ll really do it.” Kimberly shook, barely able to hold her reefer without dropping it. “The others, they’ll call me an apostate, be angry, but Stack, there’s nothing inside her.”

My mind was a million miles away, elbow-deep in the mud at the bottom of my soul. I tried to hide it, sit upright, hold back the mounting pain in my skull, resist the urge to clench up around my stomach.

An equation, wedded to the map, not to find Lozzie – but to find whatever was in this flat last Thursday night.

Time, that was definable, I could just about do that without being horribly sick everywhere. Space, well, I had that right in front of me, Kimberly’s cramped sitting room. All I had to do was rewind, track backwards, find that ‘Lozzie’ who was here and use her as a reference point.

So simple, put into words. Just like that, just rewind time inside my head, pinch the loose threads left behind by a passing entity and follow them to their current destination.

It was the most complex piece of hyperdimensional mathematics I’d ever attempted, and I couldn’t even touch each component as I prodded them into place. I’d put it together all at once, when it was ready – and try not to foul Kimberly’s carpet with the contents of my stomach. I glanced up, at her open bathroom door. Yes, I’d make it there in time, it was only a few paces. I’d apologise afterwards. I had to do this now. Lozzie needed me.

Raine leaned back, watching Kimberly’s face with shrewd attention. That’s the only reason she failed to notice what I was brewing. “We might be able to help with Stack, maybe, depending on … well, you see, when you were trying to explain yourself to us earlier, Kim, you said that Stack must have seen you ‘go’.”

Kimberly blinked up at Raine, frozen for a second.

“Ahhh, what’s this?” Twil grinned. “Been up to no good again?”

Kimberly shook her head. “No, no, I-”

“Go where?” Raine asked, low and gentle – and then happened to glance at me. “Heather? Heather?”

“Hey, what’s wrong?” Twil asked.

“Oh,” Kimberly mouthed, and scooted back from me.

I felt a bead of blood leak from my nose and trickle down to my lips. I couldn’t speak.

“Heather, what’s-” Raine’s eyes went wide – she knew what this looked like, by now. “What are you doing?”

“Fi-finding- Lozzie,” I squeaked.

“Heather, woah, woah, stop!” Raine reached for me. I rocked backward, away from her. All I needed was another few seconds.

I nudged that final essential piece into place, that conceptual assumption, the one I hadn’t questioned: who did I need to find? Whoever was in this flat last Thursday.

The definition in place, I saw, as a molten spire of pain erupted up my brain-stem and into my skull. Described in mind-melting hell-math, I saw.

And the thing I’d defined – the thing in this flat last Thursday – stared back at me through the equation I’d built, and caught me looking.

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