for the sake of a few sheep – 15.9

Previous Chapter

Twil’s nose was fast, her feet were faster, and her mind was sharp as a knife — however emotionally dense she could seem at times.

She was back thirty-six hours later, at the crack of dawn.

“Mages and witches, deadites and ditches! Motherfuckers, screwballs, and two types of squid-girl! My favourite little lady—”

Lozzie squealed in surprise and delight as Twil literally swept her off her feet, spun her through the air, and placed her back down with a flourish, unsteady and blushing hard. Lozzie flapped about in her borrowed pajamas, chest heaving like she was on the cover of a bad romance novel. Tenny trilled a mildly offended “Not squiiiid,” but Twil was too hyped up to pay attention to the correction. She was already turning back to the kitchen table, where Evelyn, Raine, and myself all sat blinking at her in the watery morning light.

“Psychos and wizards and maids and all the rest!” she went on — then hesitated when she gestured at Sevens lurking behind my chair, eating a piece of overcooked bacon with her bare hands. “And … whatever the hell you are, shine on you weird little goblin!”

“Oh my god,” Evelyn grumbled like a dying engine, a spoonful of cereal halfway to her mouth. “Who let her in here at this ungodly hour of the morning?”

“You did,” Praem said in a sing-song voice.

“You did, dumbo, you gave me a key! Ba-dum-bum-bum!” Twil drummed on the kitchen table, shaking the breakfast things. Raine was beside herself with laughter. I could only stare; we hadn’t seen Twil this animated in ages, certainly not when she’d turned up on our doorstep the evening before last, and found herself press-ganged into helping us hunt mysterious zombies. “And guess what, buckaroos?”

“You’re running away to join the circus?” Evelyn said, still groggy from waking up not twenty minutes ago. “Twil, you’re meant to be out looking for those—”

“I have found your bitches!” Twil announced.

She spread her arms, took a bow, and slapped her backside right down into a waiting chair. Then she whipped off her blue-and-lime coat, tossed it onto another chair, and put her feet up on the table, trainers in the air. She showed us all her pearly white teeth in a smug grin. Twil was entirely human right then, no trace of the ghostly wolf-form laid over her flesh, but there was more than a touch of wolfish pride on her face.

“Now where’s my goddamn rotisserie chicken?” she said.

“Feet,” Praem intoned. “Off table.”

“Oop!” Twil grimaced so hard it made me splutter with laughter and cover my mouth. She whipped her feet off the table, nodding apologies to Praem.

“Sorry! Sorry, sorry, got carried away. Carried away. Can you blame me though?”

Praem did not answer, too busy spraying that part of the table with dettol and wiping it down, lest an invisible crumb of dirt had fallen from Twil’s all-too-clean white trainers. Twil settled back instead, smoothing her white hoodie over her belly with animalistic satisfaction.

“You’ve found them?” Evelyn asked, squinting and frowning through bleary eyes. Morning was not kind to her.

“You gone deaf while I was busy?” Twil shot back, grinning a shit-eating grin. “Yeah, damn right I found them! Who’s the best tracker in the whole world? Who? Ooooh, is it this lass? Is it me?” She pointed her index fingers at her own face, pumping her hands up and down.

“Oh, Twil, well done!” I said with a sigh of relief. I’d been uncomfortable with this entire endeavour, guilty about what we’d forced her into, worried it would go wrong, but her sheer exuberance was rubbing off on me. Twil was not my type, but it was difficult not to respond to a beautiful person being so full of energy.

Without thinking what I was doing, I started to give her a little round of applause. Lozzie joined in. Tenny slapped her tentacles about.

“Twil, don’t take this the wrong way,” Raine said, trying to keep a straight face, “but you didn’t do a line of coke for breakfast this morning, right?”

“No! Fuck you!” Twil said, but in good humour. “Aren’t I allowed to be proud?” She tapped her own chest through her white hoodie, then clicked her fingers and pointed at Zheng, who was watching with badly concealed interest from the doorway to the magical workshop. “You’re shit at this, miss walking dead. They were easy. You had my number back in the woods, but you ain’t got nothing on me when I’m on my own. Lean and mean, unfettered!” She slapped the table again. “Now where’s my chicken?”

“She didn’t see you, laangren?” Zheng rumbled, unamused. “She did not track you back here?”

“Not a chance,” Twil said, almost purring. “They didn’t see me even once, not even—“

They,” Zheng hissed through her teeth, like wind through a wall of knives.

“Yeah, neither of them!” Twil carried on, though I was wincing. “Not even when I got literally like eight feet away from the tall one. They’re not actually any good at tracking or losing a tail. You’ve just lost your touch.”

“Mmmm,” Zheng growled, lips twisting.

Evelyn cleared her throat. “All that means is the unidentified demon host was able to track Zheng because of her nature. One demon host recognising another, not a skilled hunter.”

Zheng’s eyebrows drew together, uncertain if she should be relieved or offended.

“It just means you recognised each other, Zheng,” I said out loud. “Not that there was anything special happening. Nothing like that.”

Zheng stared at me for a second, then shrugged. I felt a twist of guilt in my chest, but there was no time to examine that now.

“Hey, where’s the dog?” Twil asked, peering about under the table.

“Whistle sleeps late,” Tenny informed her. “He sleepy. Sleeeeeep.”

“You really did find them?” Evelyn asked Twil, taking a delayed bite of cereal and then speaking around it. “You’re not just having a laugh?”

“‘Course I really found them!” Twil tutted at her. “What do you take me for, a con woman?”

Evelyn waved her off, waking up as her curiosity warmed. “And, what did you find? Did you see what they’re up to? Where they live?”

“The little one and the big one,” Twil said with a wink. “Where they live — or where they’re staying at least — and everything they got up to yesterday. Hell, I can even tell you when the younger one was taking a dump.”

“Ew,” I said, wrinkling my nose. Sevens made a equally disgusted gurgle behind me.

“Joking!” Twil laughed.

“Where did you find them, then?” Evelyn asked.

Twil waggled a finger. “Ah-ah-ah. What about my chicken?”

Evelyn huffed. “Later. Come on, details now. Where were they?”

Twil gave her a look, then rolled her shoulders and nodded with resignation. Even I could tell she was trying to tone it down, to keep a huge grin off her face as she carried on speaking. “Oh, nowhere special,” she said. “They’re living with the local Sugondese community.”

Evelyn stopped chewing and gave Twil a look so hard that she may as well have been carved from granite. An unimpressed and vengeful goddess, laser-etched into the moon. Twil was trying very hard not to grin, on the verge of losing control. Raine bit her lips from the inside and put her face in one hand.

“Sugondese,” Praem echoed. Twil turned red in the face with effort, gripping the table. Lozzie exploded with squealing giggles, face in her arms.

“ … Sugondese?” I echoed, confused by the word and doubly confused by everyone else’s behaviour; I thought my geographical knowledge was pretty good, but I was coming up short. “I don’t … um … recognise that?”

Twil turned to me and broke into the craziest grin I’d ever seen on her face, like a mad wolf about to open wide enough to swallow the world. She started to speak, but Evelyn got there first.

“I will have you garotted and your body burnt,” Evelyn hissed.

“Nuts,” said Praem.

“I am sorry, but what is going on?” I asked, losing my temper. Raine was quietly breaking down in laughter next to me. “Am I being left out of something important again? Are we regressing, here?”

“Regressing to being twelve fucking years old, maybe,” Evelyn spat. “This is serious!”

“Nuts!” Lozzie yelled.

“I’m going to lose my shit here,” Raine managed to say between her fingers.

Twil spread her arms. “You haven’t got my rotisserie chicken, so I haven’t got the location of your spooky bitches.”

“Twil, hey,” Raine said, clearing her throat. “You’re here before the supermarkets are open. What is it right now, six? We didn’t expect you to be this fast.”

“Supermarkets? Oh no, hey, no way are you fobbing me off with that. I want the good stuff, one of those ones with the honey glaze from that place on Sister’s Corner, that they like, take the legs off and grill them for you. I have out- over- and super-performed on this; I want my payment!” She slapped the table again, grinning in her maniac victory. “Give me the meat!”

Evelyn rolled her eyes. “That means somebody has to actually go and get the bloody chicken, before you’ll even talk? It’s six in the morning! You’re not going to eat it now.”

“Bloody right I’m gonna eat it now!” Twil said, her tone offended but still laughing. She was deriving far more pleasure out of this act than she ever would out of the actual chicken. “I’ve had the exam season from hell, and then I perform a miracle for you. I want my chicken! Give me my chicken! You promised me a chicken!”

“Excuse me,” I said out loud, then blushed slightly when everyone looked at me, but sat up in growing defiance. “I still don’t understand. I feel intentionally left out of something here. Who are the Sugondese? Was that some kind of joke?”

Lozzie emitted a high-pitched wheeze and almost fell over. Sevens let out a sound like “Buuurggg,” from behind me, burying her face in my shoulder.

“Nuts,” Praem repeated. I frowned at her.

Raine leaned closer, a twisted smile on her lips. “Sook on ‘deez titties.”

“Raine!” I squeaked — then I froze, mouth hanging open as the words sank in. I rolled my eyes so hard it hurt a little. “Oh, I don’t believe it. I don’t believe you lot. Oh my goodness. Really?”

“I told you it was immature,” Evelyn grumbled, pushing her half-empty cereal bowl away. “Do we really have to go get the chicken now, Twil? Are you serious?”

Twil leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms. “If I don’t get my chicken, that’s violation of contract. Dunno how you do it down in Sussex with the rest of the southern fairies—”

“Excuse me!” I squeaked.

Twil did a double-take, suddenly chastised. “Uh, present company excepted.”

“That’s beside the point! Twil! I don’t want to hear you say that again.” I blushed from the effort of confrontation but gave her my best stare.

“Alright, alright! Sorry, uh … I don’t know how it is down there in Sussex with the rest of the southern … posh … wankers?” She shrugged, grimacing through her teeth. I’d ruined her flow but I didn’t regret it one bit. “But up here in the North we do things by miners’ rules. One out, all out. Give me my chicken or I’m on strike.”

Evelyn sighed, closed her eyes, and pinched the bridge of her nose between thumb and forefinger. “Fine. Sister’s Corner it is. Praem, be a dear and help me up, please? I need to get dressed if we’re going to do this.”

“Actually, I’ll go,” I said. Everyone glanced at me. “I could do with the walk. And Raine can come with me.”

“Right you are, boss,” Raine said with a wink and a teasing salute.

“Ahhhh, no, come on,” Twil suddenly protested. “It was Evee’s promise, you don’t have to do it for her, big H.”

“I would like to stretch my legs,” I told Twil, matching action to words as I stood up from breakfast and took a deep breath. Sevens rose with me, clinging to my back. “And to take a walk with Raine.”

“Then I’ll come with!” Twil said, bouncing up from her chair.

I glanced at Evelyn, just a quick flicker of my eyes, but she looked away. Neither acknowledgement nor denial. Maybe she wasn’t even aware.

She needed to either apologise to Twil, or work things out with her, or maybe say something I couldn’t even imagine. She was the one who’d started this, the one who’d roped Twil into our plans, got her to help us yet again. I still wasn’t entirely clear if they were a couple, despite the intimacy they’d shared — and I got the impression they didn’t know either. But that hadn’t stopped Evelyn from using her.

I weighed the options: tell Twil to stay here and hope that in our brief absence Evelyn would find the courage to actually talk with her, or have Twil come with us to give Evelyn the emotional breathing space she needed.

Neither was any good. And it hardly mattered, the damage was already done. The least I could do was show Twil that some of us did really appreciate her help.

I smiled at Twil. “That would be nice. We can go for a walk together.”

At least we had a result.

==

I didn’t blame Twil for her absurd performance and chicken-based ultimatum — though I also didn’t doubt that she really, really wanted that chicken. She deserved payment for her professional services. We had quite nakedly used her; or Evelyn had, at least.

I couldn’t help but think about that on the short jaunt down to Sister’s Corner and the speciality store Twil had been talking about, a pastry and meat pie shop called Krikor.

“Basically just an upmarket Greggs,” Raine explained to me on the way there. “The food, I mean, not the look. Place looks like shit.”

“Yeah but they make the shit,” Twil said, turning to walk backward a few paces so she could grin directly at us. She bounced on the balls of her feet and flapped the corners of her coat with her hands in her pockets, full of energy in a way I hadn’t seen in a long time. If she was sore about being exploited, she wasn’t showing it directly. That wasn’t like Twil, she wasn’t any good at hiding her emotions. Maybe she enjoyed being of use to Evelyn.

Whistle trotted along the pavement in front of us, the handle of his leash safely in Raine’s right hand. Twil did a little hop-skip-turn and ruffled him behind the ears, replying to his surprised “Rrrruurp?” with a low, throaty growl of her own. He yipped a little, but not aggressively, and Twil laughed as she straightened up.

“Dog communication, hey?” Raine asked. “You gonna sniff his bum next?”

“Shut the fuck up, you stupid arsehole,” Twil shot back, with a tone so friendly that I half expected her to sniff’s Raine’s bottom.

“Twil,” I piped up, feeling a little sheepish — after all, I hadn’t possessed the coherency to call off any of this in the first place. “How have you got so much energy? You spent all day yesterday tracking those two women for us, aren’t you tired?”

“Yeah!” Twil shot me a grin and a wink. “But you know what?”

Oh dear, was this it? Was this a glimpse of the anger beneath her sunny disposition? “Um, what?”

“I also happened to spend all yesterday tracking,” she said, then pumped her arms and ran on the spot, finishing with a little yell like she was psyching herself up before a race. “Aaaaaahhh! Feels good, it really does. I needed that shake-out after all those bloody exams. Evee knows me too well now, haha! Shit, my parents would freak if they heard me say that.”

“I wonder if she really does … ” I cleared my throat gently.

When Twil had turned up on our doorstep two days earlier, Evelyn had treated her as if there was no way she’d refuse our request. I had assumed she was exploiting the tattered remnants of their romantic relationship, but now I wasn’t so sure.

I’d messed them up so badly with my meddling in the past; I didn’t want to push, at all, in case I did so again.

I needed to talk to Evelyn about this, but very gently.

The rest of the journey there and back was thankfully uneventful, no mystery ladies or giant zombies popping out from between garden walls to follow us, and the spirit life seemed docile and sluggish. I wondered if they moved in seasons too, as I watched a huge leech-like creature slop along the road, ridden by a gaggle of gangly insects. The late spring weather didn’t extend this early into the morning, so the thin fog nipped at my exposed hands whenever I removed them from the front pocket of my hoodie. Raine gave me Whistle’s leash a few times as we walked past the houses and across the quiet main road, almost devoid of traffic, plunging deeper into the student quarter. “He’s a good dog, he doesn’t pull,” she said.

“Plus he’s only got them short little legs,” Twil added. “Little pawsies, ickle bitty leggies.”

Whistle sniffed at the drains, nosed among every patch of grass, and investigated every curious stain on the pavement. A couple of spirits flitted over to him once, huge glassy eyes and twig-like fingers marvelling over him, and I paused to let them enjoy the aura of dog before they moved on, with Whistle himself none the wiser. His short legs forced us into a more sedate pace than Twil would have set otherwise. It was only once we reached Sister’s Corner that I realised that’s probably why Raine suggested we bring him along.

Krikor turned out to be just as awful-looking as Raine had implied, like a Greggs where nothing had been replaced for twenty years, all peeling paint and chipped counter tops, stainless-steel chairs and sticky floors.

But the smell was so good that poor little Whistle’s eyes dilated like he’d gotten into Evelyn’s painkiller stash. My stomach started rumbling, and I’d not long ago had breakfast.

From the quality of the food, I concluded that the owner of the place — a short, balding, Turkish man who wore grease-stained kitchen overalls, but had an expression like he was running a five-star Hollywood restaurant rather than a weird rip-off Greggs in Sharrowford — spent all the revenue on a mixture of ingredients, equipment, and skilled labour, customer-facing aesthetics be damned.

Or maybe it had something to do with the spirit clinging upside-down to the ceiling, a mass of globes and tiny cog-wheels and hourglasses, each part of it spinning and turning and twisting like a clockwork engine.

To my horror, while we were waiting for our order, Raine expressed the question to the owner’s face. I stood there, mortified for a second, afraid we were about to get thrown out. But he grinned at us, knowingly.

“Ahhhhhhh, you want to know my secret?” he asked, winking at Raine over the counter.

“You gotta be putting something in the food,” Twil said, “‘cos I’m addicted to this place and I don’t even live in the city.”

“Never!” he tutted. “All these other places, the ones that fail, they put crap out because they put crap in. They hire teenagers to put things in microwaves because they don’t want to pay more than minimum wage. Me? Tch-tch-tch.” He shook his head and winked, and left it at that.

We ended up buying more than just Twil’s promised chicken. An interrupted breakfast had left us more hungry than we’d expected, and any good strategy meeting was going to require a bit of gastronomic fortification. We picked up some fancy breakfast bake rolls stuffed with bacon and scrambled egg, along with a leg of lamb for Zheng and even a bag of dog treats for Whistle. Couldn’t leave him out, not with the way his nose was twitching.

Once we were back in the open air, me carrying the bag full of food and Twil with the plastic chicken container in both arms, she asked the obvious question.

“So what’s the plan now then?” she said. “We gotta go knock over those two you had me find, or what?”

I cleared my throat before Raine could answer. “The plan is second breakfast, I think.”

==

Second breakfast was more peaceful than the first, but I found it hard to enjoy the food. Neither Evelyn nor Twil was a big believer in separating business from pleasure.

Twil dug into her chicken, accompanied by some coleslaw scavenged from our fridge and a big dollop of mustard. Zheng appreciated the roast lamb with a deep purr that made me squirm. Sevens ate her food with little nibbles, perched up on the kitchen counter. Lozzie and Tenny reappeared too, lured downstairs by the scent of warm pastry and cooked meat. Twil made a point of sharing some of the chicken with both of them, giving Tenny a particularly juicy bit of wing meat on a plate; but when it came to Lozzie’s turn, Twil fed her a bite from her own fork, grinning as Lozzie went “Mmmm!” and clapped her hands together, rewarded with a brief, fluttery hug from our pastel-rainbow pixie. I raised an eyebrow at that, but nobody else seemed to pick up on how close they were being. Had they always been that way, or was I just noticing now?

Or maybe it was just me, maybe I was projecting my lingering jealousy onto people who didn’t think that way.

But it made no difference when Evelyn cleared her throat and started asking questions about mages and monsters; Lozzie cleared out and Tenny went with her. Twil didn’t seem particularly disappointed, so maybe that was all in my head.

“Yeah, it was the tall one I spotted first,” Twil was saying after scarfing down an entire drumstick, licking the glaze off her fingers. “She was kind of hard to miss when I finally found her. Women that tall are pretty striking, you know?” She nodded to Zheng, totally serious. “She was waiting for the other one just off Bruster’s Road, outside some kind of little business, down one of them side-streets with the cobblestones, you know?”

“What business?” Evelyn asked, her own pastry growing cold on a plate before her. She’d barely nibbled at it.

Twil shook her head. “Didn’t get a chance to check. The younger one came out of the place and they were off, I had to stick with them.”

“Bruster’s, right?” Raine murmured, tapping at her phone screen. She licked her lips in concentration and showed Twil the phone. “This the place?

Twil peered at the little screen, which Raine had open to a Google Maps streetview image of Bruster’s Road, a small lane down near the city centre, all anonymous red brick walls and stout doors set back from the street, some with little plaques or signposts.

“Nah, the one next to it.” Twil pointed at the screen. “The one with the black door, that’s the one the girl came out of. What is that place?”

Raine zoomed in on image and we all frowned at the little white board next to the door.

“Safe Hands Dentistry,” Raine read out loud. “Huh. Maybe she was getting her teeth cleaned.”

Twil went pffft and sat back. I shrugged, a little lost. Evelyn only frowned deeper.

“Dental hygiene is essential,” said Praem.

“Big words from somebody who eats nothing but strawberries,” Twil said. She speared a piece of crispy, glazed chicken with her fork and waved it at Praem. “You sure you don’t want a bite?”

“I am vegan,” Praem answered.

Evelyn shot her a curious look, as if trying to figure out if she was being serious.

“Well,” I piped up in her defence, “technically she is, she’s not joking. I think.”

“No shit?” said Twil. “Damn, okay, sorry. I’ll remember that.”

“Thank you,” Praem intoned.

Evelyn huffed and shook her head. “What did they do after that, Twil? You followed them all day?”

“Yeah, bloody right I did,” Twil said. “Soon as I got downwind, I could smell it clear as you like. Biggie doesn’t exactly smell like Zheng but—”

Biggie?” I echoed with a delicate grimace.

“Yeah, Biggie and Smalls.” Twil shot me a wink. Sevens let out a raspy giggle from over on the counter. “It was weird thinking of them as like, just ‘target A and target B’ or whatever, so I gave ‘em names.”

“Biggie,” Zheng rumbled, deeply unimpressed. She was standing by the door to the front room, as if too restless to sit down.

“Oh yeah, you gonna do better?” Twil spread her arms. Zheng just stared down at her.

“If we can please stay on the subject,” Evelyn sighed. “Please.”

“A dentist’s,” Raine said, low and shrewd, thumbing through her phone, “with no web page and no public phone number.” She looked up at our stares and grinned. “Just doing a little background research. Safe Hands Dentistry either isn’t real, or it’s been out of business so long there’s no trace of it left online.”

“Oh, shit,” Twil said.

“Oh shit is right,” Evelyn hissed. “I want to know what’s in that building.”

“I should’a gone in,” Twil sighed.

“No,” Evelyn snapped. “No, you complete idiot, you should not have gone in. Nobody goes in anywhere blind!” She jabbed the table with a fingertip. Twil put her hands up in performative surrender. “Understand? Answer me, Twil. Say it with words, not avoidance.”

“You can talk,” Twil muttered.

“What was that?” Evelyn hissed.

“Evee,” I said gently, starting to panic. “Maybe don’t—“

“Nothing,” Twil grunted. “Alright, I promise. No wandering into dark corners.” She puffed out a breath like a grumpy teenager, which is exactly what she was, I suppose. “Not that I need to worry about that usually.”

Evelyn sat back, visibly struggling to get herself under control. She flexed her maimed hand, as if the fingers had gone stiff from clenching too hard. Then she glanced at me, her gaze lingering far too long, an unspoken plea on her lips. But just when I was about to break the awkward silent tension, she turned back to Twil and gestured with the head of her walking stick.

“Continue,” she said. “If you like. I suppose.”

“Well,” Twil started, pulling her good humour back together. “Like I was saying, the tall one stinks. Not quite like Zheng smells most of the time, but there’s this … tang, you know? In common. Like something that body odour can’t hide. I could tell there was something not human in her.”

“Big ol’ zombie,” Raine said. Zheng just grunted, we knew this already.

“Yeah and she moves like one too,” Twil said, not without a hint of appreciation. “I could tell she was jacked, under her clothes, either that or wiry, but muscles either way. Moved really graceful like. I wouldn’t want to get in a fight with her. Kudos to you, Zheng.”

“She was glorious,” Zheng purred.

“Yeah I’ll take your word for it,” Twil sighed. “No thanks.”

“Was she still carrying the instrument case?” Evelyn asked.

“Yup. A guitar case. Never saw what was in it though, sorry.”

“And the little one?” I asked.

“Naaaah.” Twil shook her head, pulling a squinty frown that had me suddenly worried. “Not so little once I got a good look. Her face says sixteen, seventeen maybe. Maybe my age even, but she’s just real small. Smalls, right? Get it? And weedy too, like Heather is.” Twil gestured at me without thinking, then caught herself and went-wide eyed. “Uh … um … no offence, big H.”

I puffed out a little laugh. “None taken. I am weedy.”

“The shaman is not weak,” Zheng rumbled.

“Zheng, I love you,” I said, “but I have noodle arms and get winded if I run up the stairs.”

Zheng stared at me with heavy-lidded eyes. “You stood burning before Laoyeh. You’ve killed mages. You freed me. You survived.”

“Different kind of strength,” I muttered, then raised my voice in an effort to avoid the topic. “But Twil, that’s not quite what I meant.”

“Yeah, I know,” Twil said, grimacing. “And uh … well, that’s the weird part.”

“Weird part?” Evelyn said, as one might say the words what do you mean, nuclear device?

“I followed ‘em all day, right? And I could be wrong, I could have messed up, but the kid didn’t smell of anything.”

“Not a zombie, then,” Evelyn said. “So?”

Twil shook her head. “Nah, Evee, you don’t get it. She didn’t smell of anything.”

“No scent?” Zheng rumbled.

“Yeah. Right,” Twil said. “Nothing. Nothing at all. That doesn’t happen, not with people. Everyone has a smell, a personal scent, it’s really obvious to me, sometimes I can even tell who’s been in a room. Even Praem’s got a smell, and she’s like, made of wood inside, right?”

“Woody,” Praem said.

“But that kid? Nothing. Blank.” She chopped the air with one hand. She was deeply uncomfortable all of a sudden as she frowned at her plate of chicken and coleslaw. We all fell silent for a second as she bent down and reached over to pet Whistle, who was still face-deep in his bowl of dog treats. She ruffled him behind the ears as she spoke. “I mean maybe if she was really, really clean, and all her clothes were new, I dunno? She was in a school uniform though, blazer and tie and stuff. Looked smart but not like brand new. I didn’t recognise if the school was around here or if it was just an act. I dunno. Shit.”

I shared a look with Evelyn, but she was lost in thought, frowning to herself, chewing on her tongue inside her mouth.

“Dressed like a school student, during school hours?” Raine asked. “They get stopped at all?”

“Oh, yeah!” Twil straightened back up and pointed at Raine, lighting up again, thankful for something she understood. “I forgot about that. A bobby stopped them at one point.”

“Police?” Evelyn asked with a frown.

“Oh dear,” I said.

“Yeah, bloody right,” Twil laughed. “I thought they were done for. I dropped back so he didn’t see me too. It was all casual, but I figured he was asking some boilerplate check about why the young lady wasn’t in school right then or some shit. But the tall one did the talking and he walked off again, totally happy with it.”

“ … the zombie did the talking?” Evelyn asked, then let out a sharp sigh. “Great.”

“Which one of them was in charge?” Raine asked.

“Oh, the tall one, totally,” Twil answered. “The kid really didn’t wanna be there, that was obvious. She was humming with nerves, all jitters and stuff. Head down, dragging her feet a bit. The big zombie was in charge, hundred percent. I think the kid was there under duress, like. Wish I could have done something, but … you know. Zombie out in broad daylight.” Twil pulled a face. “Nobody else could tell, I bet. Looks totally human.”

“They stop to talk?” said Raine. “To each other, I mean.”

“A little bit, yeah,” Twil said. “I couldn’t get close enough to hear anything, but sometimes Biggie would stop them and they’d talk a bit. She’d always lean down so Smalls could whisper right into her ear, mouth cupped with a hand and all. I dunno what that was about.”

“Hmmm,” Evelyn grumbled. I could tell she was none the wiser than the rest of us. “What did they do all day?”

“I think they were visiting people,” Twil said, nodding. “I never followed them into any buildings, obviously, so I can’t be sure; I’m good but I’m not like ‘tactical espionage action’ level stealthy.” She did little air quotes around those words.

“I dunno,” Raine said, cracking a grin. “I think you’d look good in a sneaking suit.”

“Fuck off.” Twil shot at her, carrying right on. “Anyway, that’s the impression I got, it was like a doctor doing a round of house visits or something. They went to nine different places, all across town, some of them apartment blocks and some of them actual houses, mostly out in the suburbs eastward, but a couple were close to the uni.” Twil shook her head. “That had me shitting myself, I thought they were coming right here. I had my phone out, ready to call you lot, but they just went into these places and then came right back out like fifteen or twenty minutes later.”

Evelyn lit up at that, eyes burning with purpose. “Tell me you got the addresses of those houses.”

“Nope,” Twil said, grinning. “Did one better. Marked the spot on my phone and took a picture of each house. Couldn’t get the apartments they went into, didn’t want to follow them into the stairwells, but I got the buildings.”

“Good!” Evelyn nodded. “How many houses?”

“Of the nine places, only three. Rest was apartments.”

“Send me them, on your phone. Now, I need to see.”

Twil fiddled about with her phone while she kept talking, eyes darting up and down from the screen. “You know what was weird though? They never took a bus anywhere. Like they were walking this long circuit of downtown on purpose, like they were looking for something. Took them all day but neither of them seemed to get tired.”

“Are they staying in the city?” Raine asked as Evelyn thumbed through Twil’s pictures on her own phone, frowning hard.

“Yeah!” Twil said. “Or at least they did last night, far as I can tell. About half five, they headed back to the city centre and went into this little block of flats along the back of Storerry Lane. Real run down place, over a couple of shops or something in the front. I thought they were just doing another visit or something, so I parked myself up behind some bins and— Heather?” She broke off.

“Sorry!” I blurted out, trying to wipe the silly smile off my face. “It’s just … the thought of you hiding behind some bins like we’re all in a spy film. It’s very silly. I am sorry.”

“It felt silly! I was there an hour. Got all cold.”

“Ah,” Evelyn said, clearing her throat. “My apologies for that, too.”

“Eh, whatever.” Twil waved it off, though I was so surprised my eyebrows shot up. Evelyn frowned at me. “Anyway, Biggie emerged again about seven o’clock, but on her own this time. I was gonna follow her, but I thought hey, what if they know I’m watching and this is a set-up?” Twil did a big shrug in her chair. “So she walked off and I stuck around. I didn’t see Smalls come out, but Biggie came back about twenty minutes later carrying a bag of Chinese takeaway. And uh … I followed her up.”

“You went in after her?” Evelyn asked, voice suddenly sharp. “I was very clear, you were not to risk yourself. Do I need to rap your knuckles with a ruler, you idiot?”

“It was one of those communal shared entrances!” Twil put up both hands. “I let her go up ahead of me and then just followed the smell. Seriously, I was never closer than a whole floor behind her.”

Evelyn gave her a piercing look. I cleared my throat softly. “I’m glad you stayed safe, Twil,” I said. “Please don’t take any risks on our account.”

A bolus of guilt lodged in my throat; yes, please don’t take any risks for us, except coming to Wonderland to help me face down the Eye.

“Place was in a right state,” Twil was explaining, “a real tip, dried piss and used syringes in the entranceway, that sort of thing. But I followed the zombie’s smell all the way to their front door — number fifteen. Must be really small in there by how close together all the doors are, just a bedsit or something.” She shrugged. “And that was it. I watched the place from the street for another couple of hours, but they didn’t come out. I guess that’s where they’re staying.”

Twil fell quiet with an awkward puff of breath from the corner of her mouth. Silence descended on the kitchen, except for the chewing noises of Sevens still slowly working her way through her pastry.

We all shared cautious looks. We’d been doing this for long enough now that we knew what came next.

Zheng turned away from the table and strode toward the utility room.

I was up and out of my seat in a flash, running on pure instinct, tentacles arcing out to block her path. “Zheng, no!” I snapped, then clamped a hand to my mouth, mortified.

She stopped and stared at me, unsmiling and heavy-lidded. “Shaman.”

It was not a question.

“Heeeey what?” Twil said. Raine went tense, but stayed quiet.

“I thought we already went over this,” Evelyn grumbled under her breath.

Zheng tilted her head to stare at me all the harder. Slowly, shaking with effort, I withdrew my tentacles from her intended path. I opened her way. Blinking back tears that I didn’t want to feel, I let her go.

“Go on then,” I hissed, unwilling to look at her, being unfair because she didn’t understand what this meant to me; I could not communicate the depth of my jealousy. “If you must.”

But Zheng didn’t go. She stared at me for another couple of seconds, then rolled her neck so hard that her vertebrae went pop-pop-pop. Instead of leaving, she leant against the wall and folded her muscled arms across her chest. I stared at her, uncertain what was happening.

“I will hear your monkey plans first,” she purred.

“Zheng … ” I sighed.

“Shaman.”

“That’s all well and good,” Evelyn said, “but we don’t have a plan. We don’t have any good options here. Nothing.”

“We don’t?” Raine asked, in a tone that said she already agreed.

Evelyn shook her head. “Option one — we break into their flat while they’re present, and force a confrontation.” She snorted. “Not good. The teenager is a wild card, she could be anything, and any competent mage or … other thing will certainly have protection set up.”

“So no smash and grab,” Twil sighed, almost disappointed.

“Option two is we break in while they aren’t there,” Evelyn said. “Also bad, same reasons.”

“Yeah what would be the point of that?” Twil asked.

“Gather information, determine who they are, set up an ambush.” Evelyn sighed again. “Plus, by the sounds of it, this flat is very exposed. Does the building have thin walls?”

“Uh, yeah. I could overhear people having an argument right through ‘em.”

“So it’s practically a public place. We can’t do anything flashy. Neither can they.” She waved the head of her walking stick at Zheng. “Which means you breaking their door down and challenging your friend to an honourable duel would draw a lot of attention. Community attention, police attention. I don’t know which would be worse. I assume your fights happened in secluded spots, yes?”

“Mm,” Zheng grunted.

“I rest my case, then. Option three is we confront them in public. Same problems again.” Evelyn huffed, sharp and frustrated. “If they know who we are, they may be waiting for an opportunity. Or … hell, I don’t know!” She spat, losing her temper as her carefully enumerated options added up to precisely nothing. “Time was I would have sent something to murder them, but I can’t do that anymore. I must know who they are, I must know why they were following Praem. We can’t just let this drop. We have to confront them.”

“I could walk up to them in public,” Twil offered with a shrug. “Like, in the middle of a crowd so nothing would happen. Tell them who I am, ask what they’re up to.”

“No,” Evelyn said. “No, not alone, not like that. Not in such uncontrolled circumstances.”

“Sounds like their flat is basically in public anyway,” Raine mused, leaning back on her hands.

“Why don’t we just knock on their door and say hello?” I asked.

Evelyn turned to me, looking like she wanted to roll her eyeballs out of their sockets. “Heather, I have more respect for your intelligence than to assume … you’re being … ” She trailed off, frowning harder until it looked like she was having difficulties with her digestion.

“Public place,” Raine repeated, nodding. “We come in peace, take us to your leader?”

“Aw shit.” Twil pulled a face. “Really?”

“If we need to find out what their business is,” I explained, “and we don’t want to risk violence, why don’t we just ask?”

Evelyn put her face in one hand and started groaning. Behind me, Zheng began to chuckle, slow and low and soft, like a tiger rolling stones in her throat. Sevens gurgled in agreement; perhaps her sense of drama was tickled by the absurdity.

“We better go real heavily armed,” Raine said, keeping a bright smile in her voice. “Just in case.”

“Speak softly,” Praem intoned in her sing-song voice.

“And carry a great big fuckin’ stick!” Sevens rasped, finishing Praem’s sentence with a cackle. Praem nodded to her.

“I hate this so much,” Evelyn said into her hands.

“You can’t be serious?” Twil asked, eyes wide.

Evelyn sighed and straightened up, hollow-eyed and exhausted. “Heather is right. It’s the least bad of a series of bad options. Knock on the door, as if we’re just regular people, introduce ourselves, and ask what they’re doing. While pointing a cannon at their faces.”

“I don’t really like the cannon part … ” I said.

“Tough,” Evelyn grunted. “Gunboat diplomacy it is.”

==

Gunboat diplomacy was a little difficult to organise in broad daylight, especially for a bunch of monsters and mages and our assorted menagerie. We couldn’t just walk up to their door carrying guns and swinging baseball bats — not that we had need of such things. Even if we did, Raine was the only one qualified to use them. And we only had one gun.

So the plan, the set up, and the execution were all as simple as possible.

“Fewer moving parts means less things that can go wrong,” Evelyn explained on the afternoon we put the plan into action, as we were getting dressed for the journey downtown, slipping weapons and wands into pockets and beneath coats, two days after Twil’s ‘debriefing.’ This was the fourth time in two days that Evelyn had repeated those words. “Wishful thinking, perhaps,” she added.

“We’ll be fine,” Raine reassured her. “We’re taking every precaution, right? Unless you don’t trust your own work?”

“I trust my own work fine!” Evelyn snapped, shoving her arms into the coat Praem was holding out for her. “Do you trust your reaction times?”

“Because if you don’t, say so now,” Raine went on, totally serious in a way I’d rarely seen her. “We’ll call the whole thing off. No joke, serious. I’ll call Twil back right now and tell her to stop.”

Evelyn glanced at me, standing there in my hoodie, stomach churning. Raine had hugged me hard, two minutes earlier, but I was cold again.

“ … do you … do you insist we do anything differently, Evee?” I squeezed out through a tightening throat. I didn’t want to do this either.

She sucked on her teeth for a moment and part of me prayed she’d say the words I’d promised to heed. In the end, this was my suggestion. If this all went wrong, it would be my fault.

But Evelyn shook her head. She let out a long sigh and closed her eyes, silently counting to ten as Praem settled her coat on her shoulders. “Just keep the seals on you. If you feel one start to peel off, then stop, alert the rest of us, and we’ll fix it or retreat. And for pity’s sake don’t scratch at them. And do what I say; remember, walk as if you’re in a minefield.”

I nodded, and that was that. We were committed.

The seals were Evelyn’s answer to the problem of walking into an unseen threat — Raine had flippantly called them “magical body armour”, but that had prompted a twenty-minute rant from Evelyn, mostly about how if one could make magical body armour, all our lives would be considerably easier. I gathered they were more akin to ablative heat shielding.

“Which means they are single-use, understand?” Evelyn had made sure we all knew. “And probably only good for a second, maybe two, depending on what hits you. And they won’t stop anything physical, just … unseen tampering. Anything happens, you run. The seals give you the moment to pick yourself up and go. Maybe! Keep in mind these are untested, I’m basically making this up as I go along.”

“What about you?” I’d asked.

“Praem can pick me up,” she’d answered without embarrassment. Behind her, Praem had flexed one arm beneath her uniform.

Evelyn had spent the entire previous day making the things, adapting them from other work she’d done in the past, a pair for each of us who were going — herself, Raine, me, Twil, and Praem. Zheng was the only exception.

“You put no magic on my body, wizard,” Zheng had rumbled.

“She gets an exemption,” I’d said.

“Suit yourself,” Evelyn answered.

As we left the house and began the nerve-wracking walk to the bus downtown, I considered that Zheng was getting off lightly. She’d already gone ahead, to lurk in an alleyway near the block of flats on Storerry Lane. The rest of us had the seals affixed beneath our clothes — two sheets of thin grease paper, each covered in dozens of tiny magic circles and their attendant esoteric symbols, affixed to belly and back with skin-safe cosplay glue. Safe, but not comfortable. The paper crinkled against my stomach as I moved and the corners were starting to itch.

We took the bus downtown and spent an awkward, tense hour in a cafe just off the main high street, waiting for the call from Twil, watching the spring sun creep toward the horizon. I barely remembered a thing about that hour, couldn’t taste my cup of tea, didn’t know half of what I said to Raine. My tentacles wrapped me in a ball of safety and my bioreactor was going like a furnace in my belly.

The gunboat part of our set-up comprised Raine, Praem, and Twil. Raine was armed, heavily, everything hidden beneath her jacket or in the waistband of her jeans. If in some cosmic accident we were stopped by the police, Raine was probably going to prison for a very long time. Praem had no need of weapons, but she wasn’t wearing her maid outfit, dressed instead like the elegant young lady she was, in a long skirt and a comfortable sweater.

Twil was Twil, and currently following our quarry.

The diplomacy part was Evelyn and myself, though Evelyn had her bone wand inside her coat — most uncomfortable, I assumed. I had a head full of hyperdimensional mathematics, six invisible tentacles on my flanks, and a small can of pepper spray in my pocket.

What was Zheng in this increasingly tortured metaphor? A battleship, perhaps, waiting off-shore. She was under strict instructions not to follow us in. Emergency only. I’d bought her a phone, at last; or rather, Evelyn had. Now Zheng kept sending me text messages to check in, every fifteen minutes since she’d left the house.

Shaman.

Yes?

I am still waiting.

By the time the call came, I could barely feel my hands for the nervous tension. Raine answered her phone, listened to Twil for a second, then nodded to the rest of us.

“Time for a house call,” she said.

==

Storerry Lane was a dump. It was a back street behind a row of dingy-looking shop fronts, the glowering visages of pawnbrokers and small-time bookies and unidentifiable businesses which advertised themselves with entry buzzers and barred windows, the bottom-feeders at the outer edge of the foot traffic ecosystem of Sharrowford’s city centre. The rear was even worse, half-choked with overflowing rubbish bins and stagnant puddles that never truly dried. A few cars were parked on the curb, other little streets led off to less blighted places, but the lane itself was the sort of un-position that served no purpose except to move people in and out of the stubby flats that climbed over the shop fronts with their blank-brick walls, only rarely punctuated by dirty windows.

Every surface was drenched in late-afternoon shadows, the sun hidden behind the opposite row of filthy red bricks.

It wasn’t too bad during daylight. Not totally deserted; I saw a young mother pushing a buggy down the opposite pavement, and an old man shuffling along, fussing with his flat cap. But I wouldn’t want to still be here when night fell.

“Fun spot, can see why you pitched up here,” Raine said with a broad grin as we met Twil at the end of the road. She was waiting on the pavement corner for us.

“Shut up, stay focused,” Evelyn hissed. Her shoulders were as tense as I felt. She glanced down the horrible little street “Which one is it?”

“The door with the green front and the glass side-windows,” Twil said quickly and quietly, hands in her coat pockets as she nodded sideways. “We go in, it’s up on the third floor, fourth door on the right. Neither of them have left, they’re both home. Unless they climbed out a window.”

“Do not tempt fate,” Praem intoned.

My hands were slick and I was having trouble catching my breath. My tentacles felt like a strait jacket of my own making. I had to remind myself that everyone was by my side. We were all together. And Zheng was less than a hundred feet away; if the worst came to the worst, all I had to do was scream my head off.

“Right,” Evelyn said. “Stick to the plan. Praem, Twil, you take—“

“Which window is it?” Raine said softly.

Something in her tone made everyone freeze.

Twil followed her gaze, up at the building. “Uhhhh … that … that one, yeah. Shit.”

Evelyn grunted in frustration, one arm twitching with a desire to belt Raine with her walking stick. “Raine, what are you—”

“Because it looks like we’ve been rumbled,” Raine said.

I followed Raine’s gaze too.

From the other side of a small, dirty window up on the third floor, a pale oval was pointed down at us, crowned by a messy helmet of black hair and staring with a pair of eyes like sapphires. Neat little hands gripped the windowsill, half-hidden inside the sleeves of a black blazer, as if she was straining up on tiptoes to spy.

She did not withdraw in shock or hide with the embarrassment of being seen, but stared back in total silence, the unreadable poker-face of a master dissembler or a traumatised child.

“Yeah,” Raine sighed. “We’ve been rumbled alright.”

Previous Chapter



Twil’s got them skills! Unless, of course, they knew she was there all along, and they were only pretending … but when a whole group of assorted supernatural types turn up outside your temporary safehouse, it’s a bit more obvious. Oh dear. Oh dear indeed.

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Next week, do the girls retreat, or head on in anyway? If they’re not planning any violence, why not? And I wonder if they have any hidden tricks up their collective sleeves, just in case.

for the sake of a few sheep – 15.8

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Rarely had so few words sent a hand of ice running up my spine and birthed a writhing scorpion in my belly.

Zheng stood haloed by the early evening light flooding in through the kitchen and utility room windows, bathing her long coat and heavy boots in orange firelight, making her red-chocolate skin and dark thatch of hair glow with inner heat. And glow she did, through the undeniable savage glee on her face, the deep satisfaction in her purring exhalation, and the physical joy in the flex of her aching muscles.

She was in afterglow.

For a long moment I couldn’t speak — and not solely because of the vile cloacal stench clinging to Zheng from whatever mad places she’d been sleeping all week. I was overwhelmed by rotten worms crawling through my veins and a band of steel expanding inside my chest, rusty hooks buried deep in the muscle of my heart. My throat was stopped up with black acid tar and my brain was full of angry wasps.

Zheng’s joy flickered and faltered with a twitch of her eyebrows. I was too obvious.

“Shaman?” she rumbled.

“Like … you?”

I cleared my throat but barely felt myself echo Zheng’s words. Had to pull myself together. The others were clattering down the stairs behind me, they’d be in the kitchen in moments; Raine could read me like an open book even when I was trying to be subtle, she’d see this a mile away, like a forest fire.

“Like you?” I repeated. Zheng had met somebody like her? “Zheng, what … what does that mean? Like you in what way?”

Savage enjoyment ripped back onto Zheng’s face, revealing her razor-sharp shark teeth clenched in a skull’s grin.

Normally I loved that look on her. It stole my breath and set a squirming in the pit of my belly. But now I felt like a viper was biting my guts from the inside, filling me with venom.

Zheng’s pleasure, respect, and joy — aimed at somebody else.

The others entered the kitchen behind me at last but I couldn’t get a hold of myself. Evelyn clacked along with her walking stick while Raine squeezed my shoulder and nodded to Zheng. Praem waited by the door as Lozzie and Tenny skipped in, half-wrapped in each other. But then Tenny let out a loud trilling noise of olfactory offence, waving her tentacles up and down in a wave-like fan as if to waft away a bad smell. She pulled Lozzie with her as she retreated through the door again, dragging pastel poncho back with a clutch of black tentacles like a scene from a bad horror movie, made farcical by Lozzie going “Ooowooop!”

All other complaints were stilled by the religious intensity in Zheng’s voice.

“A hunter like me, shaman,” she was purring with the throat of a tiger. “A demon dredged from the darkest seas and crammed into human flesh. We tracked each other for days across brick and concrete, the equal of any deep forest. There are so many hidden places in any city, places to fight, places to hide. It has taken me the last two days just to lose the tail so I may return home.” Her voice dropped to a hiss of awe and wonder. “Ahhhh, such skills. I almost could not escape. Shaman, you cannot know!”

“I suppose I can’t,” I murmured.

I did my best to hide my physical reaction, clutching my heart tightly and trying not to let the discomfort show on my face. I even forced myself to uncross my arms — though a moment later I found I’d crossed them again, subconsciously. Couldn’t help it, closing myself off with a gesture. But pneuma-somatic flesh told my secrets to all those capable of seeing. I just prayed that Raine didn’t get the bright idea to slip on those special 3D glasses Evelyn had made. The trilobe reactor in my abdomen had shed a control rod to ramp up energy production, and I didn’t care enough to stop it; my tentacles had increased from two to four, first reaching toward Zheng but then clenching up tight around my own torso, the armour of self-embrace. My gums itched with a desire to sprout rows of sharp teeth and I wanted to twist my throat into a screech.

Zheng didn’t seem to notice. That made it worse.

I was jealous.

“There’s a demon host out there?” Evelyn snapped as soon as the opening presented itself. “In Sharrowford, in the city? Right here in—” She broke off and coughed, grimacing as she waved a hand in front of her nose. “Ugh, bloody hell. That’s coming from you? What the hell is that?”

Raine blinked several times; the stench was so bad it made her eyes water. “Eau de rotten cow carcasses left out in the sun, by the smell of her.”

“Stink! Stinky!”” Tenny yelled through the door from the front room, a noise like somebody shouting through an electric fan. A small canine whine joined her. Whistle did not approve of the odour either.

“It’s really bad!” Lozzie added, giggling like the little maniac she was. For once, her laughter didn’t help me.

“Yes, little wizard,” Zheng purred with a toothy grin. She strode into the kitchen proper, rolling her neck and reaching for a chair.

“No,” Praem intoned, sharp and sudden.

Zheng flicked her head to meet Praem’s gaze.

“Filthy,” Praem expanded. “Wash hands or touch nothing.”

The staring contest lasted less than a second. Zheng broke first, looking away with resigned defeat.

She gave up on the chair and rotated her shoulders, working out the kinds of kinks that can only come from sleeping on hard, cold ground. “Yes, wizard. A demon host. Like me.”

“And what’s so special about this one?” Evelyn went on quickly, holding her nose. “You killed all the cult’s zombies in that house where they did their ritual, what’s different about this? Why have you been gone so long? And what happened to Orange Juice’s skin-freak?”

Zheng let out a sound like the heart of a forge furnace, narrowing sharp eyes at Evelyn. As she did, Raine tilted her head in obvious warning. I felt a pair of small, grasping hands worm their way into the fabric of my hoodie from behind — Sevens, almost as if on cue. She squeezed against me like I was a curtain wall between her and Zheng. Her hot little head pressed against my shoulder as she peered around me.

“Wizards,” Zheng growled contempt at Evelyn. “Always with the details. The what, the when, the where. Always making new boxes. Always—”

Zheng broke off and glanced at Praem again. Praem hadn’t said a thing. She hadn’t even moved. But Zheng rolled her eyes and curled her upper lip in distaste.

“Answer her,” I said, my voice about three shades too harsh. I cleared my throat and mentally slapped myself. “Please, Zheng. This is important.”

Zheng tilted her head at me with a curious twitch in her eyebrows. “Shaman?”

“It’s important!” I repeated, a bit shrill. “You can’t tell us there’s somebody like you out there and refuse to explain!”

“Yes, you killed plenty of zombies before,” Evelyn repeated herself too, shuffling over to the table. She nudged a chair out with her walking stick. Perhaps demonstrating her mutual contempt for Zheng, she sat down heavily, when Zheng was still not allowed to, stilled by our maid’s strict instructions. “What’s different about one more?”

Zheng stared at Evelyn, then broke into another giant, toothy grin, her irritation forgotten in the rapture of recent memory. “Those things were not like me, wizard. They were saplings. Single-digits old at best. Mad. Decaying.”

“They were enslaved,” I said, a cold lump in my throat.

“Yes, shaman!” Zheng roared for me. “But what I’ve duelled in this city was no zombie, no discarded shell filled with unwilling spark. One like me, a hunter in free flesh! No slave!”

“Fucking hell,” Evelyn hissed. “Unbound?”

Raine let out a low whistle.

“Uh oh!” Lozzie went, clearly not taking this at all seriously. Tenny echoed her, a fluttery “Uuuuh oooooh!” coming from the front room, followed by a much quieter, “Stinky.”

“We can hardly talk,” I said with a tut. “Zheng is free and so is Praem.”

“Praem is Praem,” Evelyn said without missing a beat. “We raised her with love.” She paused and started to blush, then threw her arms wide so hard she almost brained Raine with her walking stick. “What?! We did! I defy anybody to define it differently. Even you!” She waved her walking stick past me. I glanced back to see Lozzie peeking around the door frame, a giggle hidden behind the end of one sleeve. “Praem may be almost unique among demon hosts. So there. And Zheng, well … Heather vouches for Zheng.”

“You think we should all be bound, wizard?” Zheng rumbled, low and dangerous. Evelyn blanched but managed to meet her eyes.

“You should never have been enslaved in the first place.”

“Zheng was treated as human when she was brought to our reality. Treated with respect,” I said gently. I’d never explained Zheng’s exact past to Evelyn. That was Zheng’s business. “Maybe it’s not as rare as you think, Evee.”

Evelyn huffed and waved us to shut up. “Zheng. This is something made by Edward? An unbound demon host, in a human corpse, walking the streets of Sharrowford?” She shook her head. “He can’t be that desperate, he can’t be, that’s insane.”

“Ha!” Zheng barked a derisive laugh, like a fresh log thrown into a fire. “That worm would never free a slave. It’s not in him. Besides, he could never control something like that, not unshackled and free. You should have seen her, wizard! She is glorious!”

She?” I hissed under my breath.

“And look what she left on my flesh!”

Without warning for sensitive constitutions, Zheng grabbed the hem of her own baggy, shapeless, grey jumper, and yanked it upward. My eyes almost popped out of their sockets as she revealed inch after inch of rippling abdominal muscle. Her bare chocolate-red skin was still marked by the winding, matted, indecipherable mass of her black binding tattoos, the layers of spell that had kept her bound and re-bound for centuries, now punctuated by gaps like crop circles where I’d removed enough of it to free her. She pulled her jumper upward, exposing her iron-hard belly, the base of her rib-cage, and more, more than any of us was prepared to see, certainly not in the kitchen.

Evelyn coughed so hard it was like a steam explosion. Raine was laughing. Lozzie squealed with both hands over her mouth. Sevens made a weird little “gaa-urrk” noise into my shoulder.

Of course, they were all just reacting to her breasts. Impressive, yes, but I’d seen those before.

I was staring at the bruises.

Six bruises were visible on Zheng’s abdomen and chest, with the shadows of several more lurking up on her shoulders and collarbone, too far beneath the jumper for even her wild display to show off to us. They blossomed like dark flowers beneath her skin, some of them days old, turning yellow and green with the healing process, but others were fresh, shining purple and black. One bruise — at the base of her ribs — still showed the outline of a row of knuckles, small and neat.

Knuckle marks. On her flesh.

“I could not have stopped any of these blows!” She was raving on, showing all her teeth in a grin of pride. I tasted bile. “I gave as good as I got, but I could not stop her! I could not!”

Raine started a slow clap, shaking her head and grinning too. Evelyn cleared her throat again and muttered, “Put those away, bloody hell.”

“I thought you were supposed to heal super fast?” Raine said. “Didn’t you break both your legs saving Heather that one time?”

“Ahhhhh, little wolf, you remember well,” Zheng purred, still flashing all of us. “But these wounds were earned! I deserve to feel their length and breadth. They heal at your rate, your monkey rate. There are good things about you monkeys, things worth being here for. Like these.”

“Put your fucking tits away, for fuck’s sake!” Evelyn huffed, tapping the table like she was mashing a ‘close window’ button.

Zheng just laughed. She turned to me with a grin like a teenage admirer showing off bruises and scrapes from some madcap attempt to impress the object of her affections. She kept the jumper pulled up, presenting her trophies.

But I had nothing to say.

“ … shaman?” Zheng rumbled after a heartbeat, grin flickering off.

“Hey, hold up a sec,” Raine said, vaguely sceptical, “I seem to recall the first time we met, I hit you with a baseball bat like, oh, maybe four or five times?”

“Six,” Zheng answered instantly. “You did well, little wolf.”

“You let those ones slow-heal too?”

Zheng nodded, dipping her head to Raine in a gesture of respect. Raine nodded back with momentary surprise.

“Yes, I’m sure your duelling scars are all very impressive,” Evelyn drawled. “But what you’re saying is there’s an unbound demon host who is your equal. Just wandering around Sharrowford.”

“Hunting,” Zheng purred. “She was hunting.”

Zheng finally dropped her jumper again, which was a relief for the rest of us, in various different ways — except for Lozzie, who let out a disappointed “Awww!” My beautiful demon host flexed her shoulders again, which I now understood was her trying to work out the stiff pain of the bruises she was refusing to heal.

“Hunting you?” Evelyn snapped.

Zheng shook her head. “Ooran Juh’s skin man was her prey. We hunted the same game. She beat me there but we met over the kill. I surprised her in the act of devouring the remains. From then, she hunted me, and I hunted her. We clashed twice.”

“And— and you didn’t kill her?”

Acid and spite.

It took me a moment to realise why everyone was suddenly looking at me — Evelyn with a frown, Raine with surprise, Praem’s head rotating on her neck to stare at me with milk-white eyes. I even felt Sevens looking up at me from down by my own shoulder. Only then did I realise I’d spoken.

The words had slipped out beneath my notice, barbed and hooked with sarcasm. I sounded like Evelyn. One of my hands moved to cover my mouth in mortified shock, but I forced it back down. I was committed now. A twisted, bitter serpent in my chest bid me to stare right back at Zheng.

Zheng watched me with dark eyes. She didn’t answer, but went very still, all except for the way she tilted her head slightly, like a big cat sizing up something that was neither prey nor pack-mate. I felt my throat bob as I swallowed, fighting off the need to cower like a mouse before a rattlesnake. Unfamiliar bitterness kept me standing straight even as I cursed myself for a complete fool. What was I doing?

She fought another zombie! I screamed at myself. So what?!

I was acting like an emotionally constipated thirteen year old with an unrequited crush — something I’d never done back when I was actually thirteen years old. Why couldn’t I just say it out loud, tell her I was jealous? This was Zheng. She loved me to a disturbing and dangerous degree, so what was I afraid of? This was nothing, somebody she’d fought, a zombie.

A zombie she clearly admired.

I felt Sevens gently bite my shoulder blade through my hoodie, just a touch with her teeth, like a dog who didn’t intend to break skin. Did she know? Could she tell?

“No, shaman,” Zheng said eventually, unsmiling. “I could not defeat her.”

I swallowed because I knew I was in deep. I’d given the game away, drawn my heart out to sit bloody and beating on my sleeve.

“Heather?” Raine murmured, reaching for my elbow. Seven-Shades-of-Shoulder-Goblin did a raspy purring noise directly into my side, into the back of my ribs, tiny hands curling around my hips. Under any other circumstances that would have drawn a squirming yelp from me and made me wriggle out of her grip, giggling. But right then all I did was frown and cough.

Zheng stared me down, hard and sharp, like a flint knife.

I’d been jealous before, of course, and just as equally without proper cause. Driven by social maladjustment and lack of experience and pure projection, back before Raine and I had officially become a couple, I’d briefly thought Twil was a serious contender for her affections. I’d compared myself with the werewolf’s effortless porcelain beauty and implied supernatural exoticism. I’d felt just as immature and stupid back then.

My reaction this time was different. It implied things about myself that I didn’t like.

I didn’t have time to unpack the tangled mess in my head, distill the cocktail that had gone into this moment — the time Zheng had been gone, my own guilt at picking up Sevens Outside, my worry for Zheng out in the city, and the sheer joy she was showing.

I’d never met this zombie she’d fought, but she had clearly loved the experience.

My four currently manifested tentacles were twitching and flexing, aching to reach over to Zheng and do — what? I was restrained only by the terrible stench of her right then, and the fact she was probably a walking biohazard. I wanted to hug her, roughly, too hard for her wounds, squeeze her tight and make her ache. I wanted to peel back her clothes and jab at those bruises to see how she would react, to inflict a little pain. If I’d been alone I would have put a hand over my mouth at that thought.

What am I thinking?! That’s horrible. Heather, no!

I didn’t have the right to think that way. I had three girlfriends. Well, two. Two and a half? Whatever it was, it wasn’t simply monogamy. I didn’t have a right to tell Zheng what she could and couldn’t do. Did I?

Instead I forced down a deep breath and nodded to Zheng, pretending I was just shocked.

“You didn’t win? Yes, you didn’t win,” I squeezed out. Didn’t convince anybody, let alone Zheng. “It’s just … she must have been quite incredible to do that much damage to you.”

I failed utterly at purging the scorn from my voice.

“Perhaps next time I will, shaman,” Zheng answered, turning her head one way and then the other, examining me carefully. “And I will bring you her head.”

I cringed. At least that was real enough. “No, no, please, you don’t have to bring me anybody’s head, Zheng. Please, that’s not what I want.”

“Mmm,” Zheng grunted. All her joyous good humour was gone. I’d ruined it.

“I was just so worried about you!” I blurted out. “And now you come back … raving about having fun! For all we knew, Ooran Juh came back to finish you off and I wasn’t there to clean you up this time, or Edward captured you and hollowed you out, or you decided to go back to Siberia or something!”

That was a low blow. Zheng blinked, slowly.

“I was worried. Okay?” I finished, putting too much emphasis into my voice.

“Now you know how we all felt,” Evelyn muttered. I grimaced. Sevens did a little raspy purr into my back.

I was a coward, covering the truth with another truth. A different truth. I said nothing of the jealousy.

Zheng stared at me another second, then broke into a reborn grin. My heart creaked with rotten relief.

“I am here, shaman. I would not leave you.”

“Well!” I blurted out. “I’m going to buy you a bloody mobile phone! And you’re to carry it. Everywhere.”

Zheng blinked once like a big cat rolling in the sun, eyes drifting past me to Sevens, who was still peering around my side. Zheng tilted her head. “You’ve been Out, shaman.”

“Yes, well,” I huffed. “While you were hunting, we had kind of an experience. I spent a night Outside. It’s a long story, I’ll tell you later.”

My eyes were drawn with sudden magnetic pull to the open door of the magical workshop. My squid-skull mask sat on the table, pointed right into the kitchen as if watching us with blank eye sockets. I felt a deep need to walk over to it and drop it over my own head, to hide from difficult feelings, to wear the face of what I felt inside. Abyssal things and Outsiders didn’t have to deal with simple romantic jealousy. Or did they?

“Mmmmmmm,” Zheng purred. She tilted her head to follow Sevens as the little blood-goblin slid further behind my back, until only one black-and-red eye showed around my flank. She poked her tongue out at Zheng, just a quick flicker, but enough to make Zheng tilt her head the other way in response.

“Can we please not keep getting so far off topic that we get lost in the woods?” Evelyn grumbled, tapping the side of the kitchen table with her walking stick. She waved her other hand in front of her nose again. “This is important information and I need it all. But you smell like an open cesspit and you need hosing down with bleach. Please?”

“Sorry, Evee,” I sighed, trying to pull myself back together.

“Wizard, I have told you all that matters,” said Zheng.

“You told me you found a demon host eating the remains of something spawned by the fat orange juice man. That is a nightmare. What does that even mean? Was she physically eating it?”

“Mm. The whole thing,” Zheng grunted. “I let her finish.”

Raine laughed and slapped her knee. Evelyn put her face in one hand and looked like she wanted to scream.

“That may not have been optimal,” I said gently.

“Fucking great,” Evelyn hissed. “I don’t even know what that means.”

“Means she was one hungry, hungry hippo,” Raine said. Evelyn gave her a look that could have made concrete crumble.

“She made the kill,” Zheng said. “She earned the right.”

Evelyn’s look got worse. “And you didn’t think that maybe, perhaps, letting somebody you apparently respect eat something that originated with the big fat fucking orange juice bastard, you didn’t think that was a bad idea? That maybe you should, you know, stop her? Warn her?” Evelyn shrugged with her hands and then slapped the table. “I swear, I am surrounded by morons.”

Zheng bared her teeth and growled low in her throat. “She ate it. Not the other way around.”

“And you have a lot to learn about germ theory, apparently,” Evelyn said.

“Did you speak with her?” I asked, my throat tightening at the thought of Zheng swapping words with this unknown demon out there in the city. Yes, I sighed at myself privately, I’m sure they whispered sweet nothings in between punches.

Then again, maybe they had done. Zheng was like that.

She shook her head. “We sized each other up, shaman. We communicated, but we did not speak. We needed only fists and feet, and the poetry of the hunt across many days. There is a deeper communication in the hunt, but usually it is only one way. This time — this time it was both ways.” She drew in a great breath and let it out slowly, grinning that slow, satisfied grin again. I swallowed a mouthful of bile.

“How’d you lose her?” Raine asked. “You said you spent the last two days losing a tail. You didn’t lead her back here, right?”

Zheng shot a very sharp-eyed look at Raine, her grin momentarily frozen. “Would I put the shaman at risk, little wolf?”

“Nah.” Raine shook her head. “I trust you.”

“I hid in places beyond self-respect,” Zheng said.

“So that’s why you reek,” Evelyn muttered.

“Smelly smells smell smelly!” Tenny called — from even further back in the front room than before. Zheng’s pigsty stench was spreading.

“And I had help to draw her off,” Zheng continued. “An unexpected companion. A—”

“Oh!” I said. “The fox!”

I felt myself light up with a genuine smile, toxic jealousy briefly forgotten. Everyone else was going through some variation of frowning at either me or Zheng and repeating “the fox?” like I’d spoken a foreign language. Even Tenny trilled “fooooox?” from the front room. But Zheng nodded slowly at me in a moment of shared understanding.

“That was how I knew Zheng was home,” I explained, crossing the kitchen in a hurry so I could peer out of the window and into the back garden.

Sevens’ little hands managed to stay clinging to me, forcing us both into an awkward waddle, but I was so excited that I shook her off without thinking. I leaned over the sink, craning my neck to see if the fox was still sitting on the sun-soaked grass beneath the skies of dying orange. But the animal was gone, nowhere to be seen as I scanned the garden.

“The fox,” I was explaining, “Evee’s fox.”

“It’s not my fox,” Evelyn grunted. “And what’s it still doing in the city? Shouldn’t the damn thing have gone back to Sussex? However it got here in the first place.”

“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, Evee,” I tutted, craning my neck to look along the fence. But there was no sign of the fox. “She wants to help, she—”

Gaawwaaaaooo!

Sevens let out a noise half malfunctioning toilet flush and half velociraptor with blocked sinuses, loud enough to make me jump and spin.

“Hey hey hey hey—” Raine was shouting.

“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Evelyn hissed.

“Bad Zheng!” Lozzie shouted past Tenny, who was emitting a noise like a lawn mower made of feathers and turning the kitchen doorway into a wall of whirling black tentacles.

Zheng had Sevens by the head.

One massive hand was tangled in Sevens’ lank, dark locks, Zheng’s long fingers holding her skull with a grip like an iron vise. Zheng peered at her with all the curious interest of a panther with a small animal pinned beneath her paws. Sevens responded with rasping and keening through her teeth, baring those sharp little needle-points at Zheng. She hunched her shoulders, twisting her body to present the smallest possible target, but she didn’t try to pull away. She knew she was trapped.

“Zheng!” I snapped. “Zheng, stop!”

But Zheng ignored me. Had I irritated her, crossed some barrier earlier? She turned Sevens’ head one way, then the other, looking at her from both sides. Then she leaned in closer and closer, until she was inches away from Sevens’ face. Sevens raised both hands with her fingers hooked like claws, a hiiiiiiirrrrrkkk sound rising in her throat, a rattlesnake warning through a drainpipe.

Zheng sniffed her, shifted position, sniffed her again, then straightened up.

“Leech,” Zheng grunted. “Hnnnh.”

“It’s Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight,” I explained. “That’s just a mask. A form. She’s only a vampire right now. And not really.”

Zheng stared at Sevens and Sevens gurgled back, one long noise like a very angry lizard.

“Not really a bloody vampire at all,” Evelyn hissed.

“Yellow leech, then,” Zheng purred.

“You fucking reek!” Sevens rasped at her. “Let go!”

“Poor girl’s gonna need her hair washed after this,” Raine said. “Your hands have gotta be filthy, Zheng.”

“She’s also mine,” I said, with unexpected steel in my voice.

Slowly, Zheng’s gaze slid sideways, to meet my eyes. Sevens pulled in her grip, but Zheng’s fingers were too strong to escape.

“Property?” Zheng purred.

“Well,” I huffed. “I don’t own her, if that’s what you mean, but she’s mine. We’re close. She’s a bit like you, now, Zheng.”

I hadn’t intended to imply so much confrontation or channel so much unexplained bitterness, but Zheng seemed to accept my explanation. She turned back to Sevens, gave her one big, toothy flash, then finally let her go.

But Sevens was not content to retreat and lick her wounded pride. As soon as Zheng loosened her grip, Sevens twisted like a ferret, gathering herself in a crouch and bouncing up with ankles like springs. The balls of her feet left the floor for one glorious airborne moment as she sank her teeth into Zheng’s hand.

“Uunnh!” Zheng grunted, actually surprised by how fast and rubbery Sevens had moved.

Seven-Shades-of-Sneaky-Snap didn’t hang on like a dog with a stick, but let go quickly, hitting the floor and scrambling back. She squeaked and rasped and knocked over a chair with a great clatter on the flagstones, which made Evelyn wince and Tenny go pppbbbbt! Sevens slid behind me and clung to my back like a cowering dog, then ruined the effect by peering over my shoulder at Zheng and sticking her tongue out.

Zheng raised her injured hand and stared at the wound with mild interest. The bite had gone deep, sliced flesh to ribbons. Blood dripped down her hand and wrist and onto the floor.

“Oh, great, thank you,” Evelyn said. “Thank you for adding literal blood on the floor to the stench you already brought in.”

“The leech bit me, wizard, not the other way around.”

“Oh come off it, big girl,” Raine said. “That was your fault. You gonna be keeping that wound?” she nodded at Zheng’s hand, but it was already rapidly healing, the blood slowing to a trickle. Not quite as fast as Twil, but fast enough to look entirely unnatural.

I twisted my head to check Seven’s face around my shoulder. Her little pink tongue was busy licking Zheng’s blood off her lips. It smelled of iron and cinnamon.

“Um, do we have to deal with … vampire implications, here?” I asked. “Is Zheng … in danger?”

“Nah,” Sevens rasped, staring at Zheng with a sullen expression. “Got you good. Why don’t you keep it? Don’t I count?”

“You cheat, leech,” Zheng purred.

“Not anymore,” Sevens replied.

“Okay, new rule,” I said very loud and very clear, putting my hands on my hips — that dislodged Sevens briefly, so I could make my point. “Anybody who wants to spend the night in my bed is not allowed to bite each other, grab each other by the hair, or otherwise physically assault and harass each other. Do I make myself clear?” I tried to stare equally at both Zheng and Sevens.

“She started it,” Sevens rasped.

“Mm. I did,” said Zheng.

“I mean if biting or hair grabbing are both out … ” Raine pulled a very theatrical shrug. I blushed beetroot red and stared her down, but she just pointed a finger gun at me. “You’re out too.”

Praem was staring at the fallen chair. Sevens slid entirely behind me, but Praem did not goad her out with a silent look. She transferred her attention to Zheng instead.

Zheng stared back. Praem did not relent.

“She knocked the chair over,” Zheng rumbled.

Praem continued to stare.

“Hnnnnggghhh,” Zheng sighed, then bent to pick the chair up.

“No,” Evelyn snapped. “No, stop touching things. You’re practically carrying cholera.”

“Dirty,” Praem intoned.

Evelyn jabbed a finger at Zheng. “You need a bath. No, scratch that, you need to go in an autoclave.”

“Filthy,” said Praem.

“You don’t order me, wizard.”

“No, but I do,” I said with a sigh. “You are filthy right now, Zheng, that much is true.”

“Disgusting,” Praem carried on. Zheng shot her a sour look.

“You need to be cleaned,” Evelyn said. “Scrubbed. Sanitised. And then you and I are going to talk about your zombie friend out there in the city and figure out what to do.”

“Vile,” Praem added.

We, wizard?” Zheng rumbled. “This is my duel. I am home for the sake of the shaman’s heart, not for you, not for—”

“Long black hair,” Praem intoned. “Ponytail. Green eyes. Six foot five. Mid-to-late twenties. Jogging bottoms, red with white stripe. Grey hoodie. Favours left leg.”

We’d all heard the details before, of course, but it was such a non-sequitur that we all paused to look at her; all except Zheng, who stared with eyes gone wide and mouth open in shock. I’d never seen her so shaken.

Praem stared back, milk-white and unreadable, hands folded neatly in front of her long skirt.

“ … how do you know that?” Zheng hissed eventually.

“Instrument case on her back,” Praem carried on. “Hard-shell. Guitar. Likely does not contain guitar.”

Zheng’s lips peeled back from her teeth in wordless rage.

“Ah,” Evelyn said as realisation dawned.

“Praem knows your friend too, right?” Raine asked.

“The other,” Praem continued. “Black hair. Short bob. Green eyes. Four foot ten. Teenager, perhaps fifteen or—”

“What other!?” Zheng roared.

“You did not see the other,” Praem intoned. “I did.”

“Praem’s mysterious stalkers the other day,” Evelyn said with a tone of resigned finality. She sighed and leaned back in her chair, exhausted by the confluence of our troubles. “Shit. An unbound demon and … what? Her mage handler? Her charge? Her younger bloody sister?”

“There was—” Zheng sputtered. “There was only one! I saw only one! And she was free! She was!”

Evelyn shook her head. “We don’t know what you saw.”

Vultures will be here soon,” I murmured. A chill went up my back, raising the little hairs on my neck, and my bioreactor could do nothing to combat this cold. Everyone looked at me, all pinched frowns and polite curiosity and concerned eyes. I cleared my throat, feeling as if I’d been possessed for a moment. “Edward Lilburne said that to us. Remember? He said it with a false mouth over his own, but that was him speaking those words. Maybe he was right.”

Raine nodded. “Back at the meeting in the pub garden.” She puffed out a long sigh.

“There’s no power vacuum,” Evelyn said, but her voice did not carry true conviction, ruined by a hard swallow. “There isn’t. I’m here.”

“I think the vultures are here regardless, Evee,” I said. “Sharrowford’s cracks are filling up with monsters.”

==

The argument only got worse after Zheng emerged from the bath.

With nothing but silent stares, Praem made it crystal clear that Zheng was not stepping one foot further into the house while smelling like she’d been rolling in pig urine. Zheng began to angrily strip her clothes off and dump them in a heap on the floor. We all scurried out of the kitchen and upstairs — or in Evelyn’s case, into her magical workshop, along with Tenny, much to her and everyone else’s confusion, but Tenny seemed to like it. Praem stayed to supervise the biohazard safety protocols. I would have stayed to watch too; with Zheng in any other state, I would have quite enjoyed the sight of her ripping off her clothes in frustration, but even I have limits. She smelled so bad it made me gag.

While a very large and very naked Zheng stomped upstairs to sit and fume in the bathtub, Praem stuffed the fouled clothes into the washing machine and placed Zheng’s boots in a bowl of warm soapy water for special attention. She did something esoteric with the washing machine, too. Not only did it display three red lights like she was about to overload an engine, but when the wash cycle finished the panel lit up with a flashing orange warning LED.

“Um, Praem,” I called when I noticed the flashing. “Is this safe?”

“She canne’ take it, captain,” Raine said, laughing.

“Please leave the room,” Praem told us as she bustled in.

We did, and Praem closed the door to the utility room. Eight full minutes passed before she emerged again, but the dryer was thumping around with Zheng’s wet clothes inside and nothing was amiss, no scorch marks on the ceiling or burns on Praem’s hands or puddle of acid eating through the floor tiles.

“Praem, what?” I asked, boggling at her.

Praem just stared back.

“I suspect we’re better off not knowing,” Evelyn grumbled from the doorway to the magical workshop. “Just don’t break the washing machine, please. That’s an extra headache we don’t need.”

“You live in merciful ignorance,” Praem intoned. Then she turned with a spin of her maid dress and marched off to continue dumping hot water over Zheng’s head.

In the interest of hygiene and health, I gave Sevens’ hair and scalp a wash as well, where Zheng had touched her. She complained like a cat forced under the cold tap, gurgling and rasping and whining the whole time, though all I did was have her bend over the tiny tub in the downstairs bathroom so I could direct the cheap rubber-hose shower-head replacement at her skull. And I used nice hot water too.

“Mouthwash,” I said afterwards, handing her the bottle.

“Nurrrrgh?” She pouted at me from beneath the towel over her wet hair.

“You bit her, Sevens. She was filthy. You have no idea what was on her skin, and frankly I don’t want to find out. That mouth isn’t coming anywhere near me until it’s cleaned out. Now swish with the mouthwash or I’ll brush your teeth for you.”

“Nnnnnnn, should be cheating this,” Sevens whined. But she used the mouthwash, though she did pull a face after spitting it out.

By the time Zheng climbed out of the bath and stalked downstairs like a panther who’d been caught in a thunderstorm, we had all reconvened in the magical workshop — except Lozzie and Tenny, because Lozzie didn’t like to think about these things too much, and Tenny sensed her mild distress so went to play video games with her. Zheng had borrowed a pair of Raine’s jogging bottoms, almost too small for her hips and backside, and made do with a pair of towels draped over her shoulders, which made it a little difficult to take her seriously despite the topic of conversation. With a sulk on her face, Praem drying her hair, and her skin smelling of soap and spice, she reminded me of a large dog after a forced bath.

“This is mine, wizard,” she was rumbling at Evelyn over the map of Sharrowford spread out on the workshop table.

Evelyn had cleared away notes and books and magical detritus to make room for the full-size ordnance survey map. It was the same one she’d once used to mark the locations of the Sharrowford Cult’s miniature pocket dimensions, spacial loops, and dead-end traps. Streets and buildings were outlined in looping red, whole swathes of the city were dominated by Evelyn’s neat handwritten notes, and area after area was marked off with big black X symbols — loops closed by Praem, many months ago now.

She’d not known what to do with my squid-skull mask, so I was cradling it in my arms and resisting the urge to put it on.

Evelyn banged the map with the head of her walking stick, trying to lose her temper, but even her lips twitched at the sight of Zheng sitting in a chair with Praem drying her hair.

Wizard,” Zheng rumbled a warning.

“This is deadly serious,” Evelyn said with a cough. “If this was just one random zombie out there in the wilderness, well … I still wouldn’t like it. But I cannot police everything that goes on in Sharrowford, that’s obviously beyond me. Beyond us. And what’s the point, anyway?” She let out a strangely sad sigh.

“What happened to ‘your city’?” Raine asked with a smirk.

“Shut up before I shove my walking stick down your throat,” Evelyn said, but for once her tone of voice didn’t match her words, though I tutted and rolled my eyes all the same. “If this was just a zombie, fine, Zheng can throw herself at it all she likes.”

“No she can’t,” I corrected gently but firmly.

Zheng glanced over her shoulder at the tone in my voice, eyes sharp as knives around the edge of the towel as Praem dried her hair. Her look went right through me. I held her gaze but almost faltered, wrapped in my tentacles as a bulwark against scrutiny. Did she pick up on the possessive taint in my words, or had I successfully concealed the truth behind my concern for her safety?

“What if you don’t win?” I forced myself to say.

Zheng shrugged. “That is part of hunting.”

Praem finally finished drying Zheng’s hair and stepped back, revealing Zheng’s dark mop sticking up in all different directions. I sighed with affection and jealousy and a deep pang I didn’t understand and didn’t want to acknowledge. Why did I feel this way? I didn’t want her to go out and meet this demon host again, not unless it was with me at her side.

Was I worried for her safety, or that she might leave me?

The only person capable of unravelling that question for me was currently sitting with her legs curled up beneath her on a chair, wrapped in my yellow robes like a blanket, staring at the map on the table and moving her head side-to-side like a cat trying to figure out an optical illusion. If Sevens had any supernatural insight into my internal struggle, she wasn’t letting on.

No more cheating applied to me too, I guess.

Did it apply to Zheng? I almost laughed at the terrible double-meaning.

But externally I extended a peace offering. As Praem stepped back and folded the towel over her arm, I went to Zheng. I followed pure instinct and sort of hugged her from behind, awkward with the skull-mask in one hand. I wrapped my arms around her shoulders with my head against the furnace-heat of her neck, nuzzling her and sighing with the shared contentment of skinship. One of her hands came up and spread fingertips through my hair. Only when I was fully committed did I realise I was quite literally draping myself over her, like a bad noir-movie temptress. I went a bit red in the face, gave her an extra squeeze, and straightened up, clearing my throat. Only Raine caught my embarrassment, eyebrows raised in private jest.

Zheng watched me rise, eyes vaguely sullen as she let me go.

“I don’t want you to get hurt,” I told her. “You know that. We’ve been over this, Zheng. You matter to me.”

“ … nnnnnn,” she rumbled. “Shaman, you cannot stop me hunting.”

“Can’t you stick to squirrels? I’ll even eat one, if you cook it.”

She snorted. Neither denial nor acknowledgement. She turned from me, and I knew that was the last word on the subject.

“As I keep trying to say,” Evelyn repeated herself with a note of irritation, “if this was one stray zombie from God alone knows where, that would be one thing. But the companion who shares a family resemblance with her, that implies something else, but I don’t understand what.” Her voice tightened. “Besides, they followed Praem.”

“There was no other,” Zheng rumbled.

“Says you,” Praem intoned.

“We don’t have time for this, Evee,” I protested. “You said it yourself, you can hardly be expected to follow up everything that happens in the city. Perhaps they don’t even concern us, perhaps they’ve already moved on now Zheng gave them the slip. Perhaps they have nothing to do with Edward Lilburne at all.”

“Heather’s got a point,” Raine added from her chair. She was leaning back with her feet against one of the table legs. She risked Praem’s wrath if she put them on the table itself. “We don’t want to open more fronts.”

“Fronts,” Sevens rasped to herself, thinking as she stared at the map.

Evelyn tapped the map as well. “Just tell me all the places you met the zombie. I won’t ask you to track her for me if—”

“This is mine wizard,” Zheng rumbled, voice turning angry, dangerous enough to make Evelyn flinch and go pale. “How many times?”

“None,” Praem intoned, stepping into Zheng’s line of sight.

“Why is this our responsibility—” I started to say.

“Whoa, down girl,” Raine interrupted.

“This is my hunt, there was no other—”

“Was too,” Praem countered.

“Rrrrr-rrrr—rrrrr,” Sevens started to growl at all the noise.

I tried to raise my voice. “I don’t see why we should—”

Slam.

Evelyn lifted her walking stick and slammed it down across the table with an almighty crack against the wooden surface. I jumped, Raine did a performative flinch, Zheng and Praem didn’t react except to shut up, but Sevens squawked like a parrot with a sore throat and fell out of her chair. I quickly went over to help her up.

“They. Followed. Praem,” Evelyn said, loud and slow, as if we were all stupid and hard of hearing.

Her eyes blazed, daring defiance as she looked at each of us — even Zheng was not spared. But nobody spoke up, so Evelyn took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

“We are still waiting for Miss Webb to get back to us about the documents she stole on our behalf,” Evelyn continued, more calm but not less angry. “There is nothing else we can do in the meantime. We are waiting. And they followed Praem.”

“We understand, Evee,” I said, and she nodded at me, distracted.

“At the very least, I want these people found and ruled out as a threat,” she carried on. “And you.” She jabbed her walking stick at Zheng. “You can go out and get yourself killed if you want. I’d rather you don’t, because bless her mad heart, Heather loves you. And I care about her wellbeing. If you get yourself killed and she has to grieve for you, so help me God, I will move heaven and Earth to put you back in that body so I can hang you upside down and have Praem beat you.” Evelyn paused, shaking slightly with emotional effort. Zheng opened her mouth on a rumbled reply, but Evelyn tapped the table and pointed at the door to the kitchen. “Out.”

Zheng twisted her head, raising her chin. A big cat denying that any had the ability to command it.

“You want to hunt, then fucking go and do it,” Evelyn snapped. “This is a war room, we’re planning. Get out. Unless you’re staying to help.”

Slowly, with all the airs and graces of a neolithic monarch on her throne of stone, Zheng crossed her arms and lapsed into sullen silence.

I breathed a private sigh of relief — and felt such terrible guilt. I’d not had to step in to put my foot down. Evelyn’s words had spared me having to inflict the horrible indignity on Zheng of forcing her to forgo her passions. But that was just cheating. I still got what I wanted. Zheng, all mine. The victory did not taste sweet.

“So,” Raine broached into the awkward silence, swinging her feet to the floor with a double tap of rubber on floorboards. “How exactly are we proposing to find these two mystery ladies?”

Evelyn nodded, eyes going to Zheng again.

“Mmmmm,” Zheng rumbled, head wobbling from side to side. “I could not track the demon without being tracked in return. She is too good.”

“Couldn’t or wouldn’t?” Evelyn asked.

“Couldn’t,” Zheng replied, just the wrong side of angry.

I cleared my throat, hoping to forestall another blow-up. “You said yourself, Evee, they followed Praem. They might do so again, or follow any of us, perhaps.”

“Praem? No.” Evelyn shook her head. “I’m not using her as bait.”

Praem turned to stare at Evelyn.

Nobody gets used as bait,” Evelyn clarified.

I sighed. “That’s all well and good, Evee, I agree, but—”

“Sevens?” Evelyn asked.

“Blrugh?” Sevens made a sound that involved sticking her tongue out halfway. “I don’t even know these people.”

“Fine,” Evelyn huffed, staring at the map again. “We can’t use anybody as bait, anyway. I don’t like the idea of approaching this pair in the street, not if they’re operating out in the open. They’ll be protected in some fashion. We need a way to surprise them when they’re vulnerable, but to do that we need a way of tracking that doesn’t involve Zheng, apparently. How about—”

Knock knock!

The knock on the front door was somehow both jaunty and full of energy. The whole room paused to stare into the kitchen, where the single window showed that night had fallen while we’d been speaking. Raine stood up and reached inside her jacket, drawing her handgun.

Knock-knock, knock-knock-knock.

Zheng rose too, still draped in towels. I found my mouth had gone very dry. Praem began to move and stepped into the kitchen, going for the front door.

“I hope you’re right about losing that tail, big girl,” Raine shot back as she hurried on Praem’s heels.

Zheng rumbled with wordless irritation.

In moments we were all in the front room, all except Evelyn who stayed in the kitchen doorway, going white in the face. Sevens peered around her. All around us the house itself seemed to hold its breath. Praem waited by the door, watching in silence as Raine hopped up the stairs to check who was waiting on the doorstep. Zheng sniffed at the door frame, frowning — then breaking into an amused grin just as Raine came barrelling back down.

“It’s fine, it’s fine!” Raine called out, putting her gun away and going for the door.

“Don’t open it!” Evelyn hissed. “What if—”

But Raine was already there, sliding back the bolts and unlocking the latch. She threw the door wide on the warm night air, letting in a streetlight glow, the scent of dry grass, and a very confused looking werewolf.

“Uh?” went Twil.

Her big grin froze at the sight of all of us standing there to greet her. She probably hadn’t expected almost the entire household at once.

“Oh,” I breathed a sigh of relief, my tentacles relaxing. “Twil, it’s you. Hello!”

“Hey,” Raine said, “you came at a weird moment.”

“Disappointing,” Zheng rumbled and turned away.

“Be nice,” Praem intoned.

“Uhhhhhh,” Twil said again, eyes searching past the rest of us for Evelyn. “We said I was gonna come over? When like, the last exams were out? Which was … today? So here I am?”

Evelyn let out a huge sigh, shaking slightly with adrenaline as she passed a hand over her face. “Yes, yes. I forgot. I … yes.”

Twil crept over the threshold, looking sheepish. “Something going down?”

“Speak of the devil and she shall appear,” Evelyn muttered.

“Oh,” I said. My eyebrows climbed as I met Evelyn’s look.

“Devil? Eh?” Twil frowned at us.

“Twil,” Evelyn said with a formal clearing of her throat. “It seems we have need of your nose.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Jealousy is a corrosive worm, more lethal when you can’t measure or weigh it. But Heather needs to focus, because Zheng has brought home more than just emotional confusion. Looks like the gang have a hunt on their hands. And where did that damn fox go?

As promised last week, I wanted to highlight a couple of pieces of fanfiction, such as this mind-bogglingly fun Katalepsis/Touhou/Metroid crossover, or perhaps this angsty yearning (maybe?!) prophetic speculation from last year, told from Evelyn’s perspective. There’s a lot more too, nearly two full pages! A lot of it is smut, so tread carefully, I suppose?

And if you want to support Katalepsis, please consider:

Subscribe to the Patreon!

Currently you get one chapter ahead each week! I wanted to make this 2 chapters ahead each week, but lately the chapters have instead just gotten huge – 8-9k words each! The more support I get through Patreon, the more time I can dedicate to writing, and the less chance of having to interrupt my update schedule!

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And thirdly, leave a review! Or a like, a thumbs up, a comment on a chapter, it’s all great, and it helps me so so much to know there’s people out there reading and enjoying the story; that’s the whole reason I do this anyway. And thank you for reading!

Next week, it’s bloodhound time, if Twil is feeling game. Hopefully Zheng can keep her cool, or maybe she’s just biding her time? And surely this strange zombie is in Sharrowford for a reason, right?

for the sake of a few sheep – 15.7

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Since the first moment I’d met her, Evelyn had been wrong about so many things.

She’d been wrong about me, for a start. Not once, not twice, but three times — first that I was dangerous, then that I was crazy, and third that she was unworthy of my friendship. With time and effort I’d proved all of those assumptions false. She’d been wrong about Raine’s attitude toward me, wrong about Twil’s intentions, wrong about Tenny’s nature. She’d been wrong about her childhood home and what it could mean to her, given the hard work of exorcising her mother’s memory. She’d been wrong about her spider-servitors and how well they could protect the house. She’d even been wrong about the house itself; Number 12 Barnslow Drive may indeed have been the most supernaturally defensible position in Sharrowford, but it was far from impregnable.

Was she wrong about the Eye? Only time would tell.

This thing cannot be fought, she’d told me, rapping her walking stick on the table in the drawing room, back before she’d converted it into a magical workshop.

She was correct about that part, I had no doubt. Even as far as I’d come, I had no hope of wrestling the thing into submission. We had to find another way.

She was right about Maisie, too. Even now, months later, her warning still sometimes echoed in my darkest moments, utterly alone without my missing half, lying awake in bed in the small hours of the morning, too guilty to wake Raine or rouse Zheng.

Nothing human can survive out there for long.

I’d proved her words right upon the canvas of my own flesh. One journey through the abyss had returned me here with an utterly changed sense of who and what I was, so Maisie’s only hope was my continued endurance and flowering, my defiance of abyssal dysphoria, my refusal to give up and dive back into the deep waters. Every day I lived like this was further proof that it could be done, that it was possible, that whatever I tore from Eye’s grasp two or three months hence would have a life worth living.

But above all else, Evelyn had been wrong about Praem.

She’d been taught fear and paranoia, but her own basic decency had saved her. She may have refused to treat Praem as a person — she’d not even given her a name until I’d forced the issue — but she had not bound her in a corpse, not tainted the act of creation with murder and violation. She’d reacted with alarm and disgust when Praem had begun to show individuality, wearing her maid outfit and speaking out of turn — but with a little guidance and help, she’d refrained from stamping out the anomalous behaviour. She’d allowed Praem to grow, which had in turn allowed her to grow. And she had discovered that the foundational aspects of her mother’s philosophy were even more wrong than she’d ever imagined. To her credit, she hadn’t rejected that revelation; it may have seemed obvious to us, but that did not do justice to the emotional and intellectual leap of faith she’d had to make. And now she called Praem her daughter.

I was proud of her.

Which is why I took it so seriously when I saw that old, hard-edged paranoia, in the set of her eyes and the line of her mouth, when she spoke of what might happen when we found Edward Lilburne.

Evelyn was right about that as well — I hadn’t given the subject a lot of thought. Locating the man was difficult enough.

“How could I be overconfident about that?” I repeated her own words back at her. “I’ve barely thought about it.”

Evelyn didn’t reply. She stared down at me, trying to cultivate an air of professional detachment, the mature professor who’d heard a fresh student say something seemingly obvious but revealingly incorrect, waiting for me to catch up and stumble toward a retraction. She had the advantages of height and dignity, sitting comfortably in her circa-1950s wooden desk chair, while I perched on the step-stool with voluminous yellow robes spilling over my knees, a bowl of cold vegetable curry on the floor next to me. Evelyn’s face — soft rounded cheeks that had never quite lost all their puppy fat, eyes lined by stress and trauma but such a gentle sea-breeze blue, nose small and neat — was lit from the side by the shaded lamp on the desk, casting her profile into crags and peaks of shadow, a reflection of the night beyond the small, high window in the back wall of the study. 

I realised with disappointed surprise that she was attempting to summon the banished spirit of the first time she’d lectured me, alone together in the basement of Sharrowford University Library. Consciously or not, the muscles of her face and the pinch of her mouth tried to adopt that preemptive rejection and haughty distance.

But she failed. We knew each other too well now, and I knew that wasn’t really her. She couldn’t conceal how much she cared. Beneath the act, the reality peeked through, concern and worry and fear. Her throat bobbed.

“Evee?” I prompted. “It’s okay, you don’t have to glare at me.”

“I’m thinking,” she said with a little huff. “I’m no good at this off the top of my head, you know that.”

“Ah, yes. Sorry.” I rejoiced that she’d dropped the attempted act. I sat up straight and attentive and averted my eyes so as to not make her too self-conscious.

After a few moments of awkward throat-clearing and drumming her fingers on the arms of her chair, she found the right words.

“Then what do you think?” she asked. “What will happen if — God willing, when — we find Edward Lilburne?”

“I suppose … we try to corner him? Back him into a situation he can’t escape from?” I swallowed and shrugged, facing a prospect I didn’t want to deal with. “I don’t necessarily want to kill him. Not after everything that’s happened since Alexander. But from what Lozzie’s told us, and from everything we’ve seen, maybe that has to happen.” I sighed. “I don’t think we have the right to make that judgement, but we do have a right to defend each other.”

Evelyn nodded along. As soon as I was finished, she snapped, “Too abstract.”

I blinked at her. “Pardon?”

“Far too abstract. You’re thinking in ethical and abstract terms. What happens? Practically, what do we do?”

I shook my head, feeling lost. “How can we know until we know where he is? Plans depend on actual circumstances.”

“Not good enough.”

“Evee?”

“It’s not good enough,” she repeated, unrelenting. “Say he’s in a house, and the house is in Sharrowford — the most simple and unlikely prospect, yes, but let’s go with the simple one to illustrate my point. What do we do?”

“ … well, we … we have to go to the house?” I asked slowly, seeking approval as I spoke.

“How many of us, in what order? Do we send a scout first? Who is willing to do that? What happens if we can’t get in? What happens if he has mundane protection, bodyguards and such? What happens, Heather?”

I spread my hands. “I don’t know. Evee, what’s your point? You can just come out and say it, I’m not going to ignore you without listening. This is me, not Raine.” I gave a nervous little laugh, trying to defuse the situation, but Evelyn wasn’t smiling. “Are you trying to say we need this kind of detailed plan right now?”

“No,” she said, visibly uncomfortable as she shifted in the chair to relieve pressure on her truncated thigh. “Look, I admit, I’m using an amateur approximation of the Socratic method, to try to get you to see my point. What happens when we go after Edward Lilburne?”

“I don’t know, not yet. We handled Alexander quite well in the end, didn’t we?” As soon as those words were out of my mouth, I winced and put a hand to my face, followed by a tentacle. “Okay, no, bad example and badly put. We didn’t. I almost didn’t make it out of that castle. But we’re more experienced now, much more experienced. I’m better at brain-math, we have Zheng on our side, we have Sevens, whatever help she can offer. And if we do make a proper plan then I think we probably have a good chance of at least staying safe. Don’t we?”

Evelyn shook her head slowly, a grimace pulling at the corners of her mouth. “This is exactly what I meant, Heather.”

I almost rolled my eyes. “I know mages are dangerous. I’m not being naive. I know we could be walking into anything. I killed Alexander, I fought off Ooran Juh; I have some experience here, don’t I?”

“What you have is so many trump cards you’re practically a trick deck,” Evelyn said. “That’s my point.”

I opened my mouth to argue, but the words died in my throat. “Oh. Ah.”

Evelyn let out a great sigh and leaned back in her chair, as if she’d overcome a great hurdle. “Sorry. That was too harsh. Sometimes I don’t know how to get through to you.”

“Am I really that difficult?” I asked. My chest felt tight.

Evelyn regarded me for a moment with eyes like a lizard peering out from under a rock. “No, I’m just being a difficult bitch. And over-protective. Turns out Raine isn’t the only one with a monopoly on that.”

I nodded but had to look away from those staring eyes, flooded with the memory of the moment we’d shared out on the Quiet Plain. This was the second time one of us had compared our relationship to Raine and me. “Evee, I-I understand, but—”

“Heather, you just made the exact comparison that I was worried about — do not mistake Edward for Alexander.”

“Ah?”

Evelyn sucked on her teeth, looking away from me and up at the window, out at the night sky above the city. “I didn’t want to say this before. Didn’t want to diminish what you did when you … defeated Alexander Lilburne.”

“I killed him, Evee. Call it what it is, please.”

“When you killed him.” She nodded quickly. “It’s a difficult thing, murder. Raine doesn’t understand that, but I do. I know what it’s like to kill a mage, when you have to, and when maybe you don’t want to.” She swallowed with some difficulty, struggling to put old pains aside.

“Evee,” I said her name gently and reached forward with my toes, to touch the be-socked toes of her single foot. She whirled back around to stare at me. “Dealing with Edward isn’t going to be like dealing with your mother.”

“Exactly. Heather, now you’ve … processed the act, I think I can say this. We got lucky with Alexander.”

I nodded along, a sad smile on my lips. “We did, yes.”

“No!” she snapped all of a sudden. She slapped her hand on the desk, but the old piece of furniture was too solidly built, too sturdy for her anger to shake. She winced and pulled her hand back, clenching and flexing her fingers around her stinging palm.

“E-Evee?”

“You don’t get it,” she hissed. “My mother was forty five years old when I murdered her. She’d been studying magic since she was thirteen. My grandmother, bless and curse her foresight, inducted my mother into magic with proper training, trying to build something beyond the scattered bullshit that passes for mage-craft. And she succeeded, a little. And my mother was damn nigh fucking unkillable.”

Evelyn stopped, breathing hard, eyes blazing. She swallowed as if she was forcing down a mouthful of gravel.

“Y-you’re saying—”

“I’m not even certain she’s really dead,” Evelyn continued in a razor-edged rasp. “If it was in my power, I would have that coffin dug up and thrown into a fucking blast furnace until even the ash is gone. It will forever worry me that we have not found Alexander Lilburne’s corpse, whatever happened to his soul or his spirit or willpower or whatever the hell it was you encountered.”

“He’s dead, Evee. He’s dead, I felt him go, I let go of his hands.”

She took a great shuddering breath and passed a hand over her face, trying to calm down, sagging back in the chair. “Yes … yes, okay, yes, whatever. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. It’s okay. Evee, you have nothing to apologise for.”

“Has Raine ever told you the whole story of how we killed my mother? How impossible it was to put her down?”

“No, actually,” I said, but I restrained myself from adding but I would love to hear it. Morbid fascination gripped me; what did it take to kill a mage?

Evelyn spoke as if she’d read my mind. Her eyes bored into me, deep in the shadowed pools of her sockets, as if from the bottom of a coal pit. “It took everything I had, and more. Raine could not have done it alone, no matter how much she tries to shoulder my burden for me. All her violence was useless. The only reason I prevailed was because of the passenger in my head.” Evelyn tapped her temple. “The demon my mother put there, the one she was trying to bargain with, the one she was using me as a vessel for. I’ve told you before, it hated her as much as I did. It fed me ways to undermine her for months in advance. It shielded me from things I had no way to predict. It held my mind together with sheer force of will when I would have cracked otherwise. And you know what?”

Her voice was the raw scratch of broken metal. I shook my head, afraid to speak.

“When it came time to do the deed, to raise the proverbial knife—” Evelyn raised her maimed hand, miming a dagger “—the things my mother summoned to defend herself, the layers of protection she had in place, just as a precaution — some of them were unspeakable. Things even I can’t put into words. She wasn’t remotely human by the end of it, the way she … changed herself to survive. And she kept fucking fighting, kept trying to subdue me even when I had her down a spinal column and a—”

Evelyn cut off with a clack of her teeth, slamming her mouth shut on memories that tasted of rot. Shaking with each breath, she stared right through me, at something only she could see.

Hesitating only a heartbeat, I stood up from the step-stool and went to her, trailing my yellow robes across the floorboards.

Traumatic memories and difficult words did not make Evelyn any less awkward at hugging, but she didn’t try to wave me off or shove me away. She fumed in embarrassed silence, but she did manage to take several deep, calming breaths. With an effort of supreme will, I kept my two tentacles off her. I didn’t want to freak her out with invisible ropes of muscle touching her shoulders.

She patted my hip and cleared her throat when she’d had enough. I stepped back, trying to smile for her.

“I’m sorry,” she croaked, then put her face in her hand, leaning heavily on the desk. “I’m sorry, Heather. Didn’t think it would be that bad. I don’t talk about this very often. I never, ever talk about the details. I can’t.”

“Evee, it’s okay. You don’t have to.”

She shook her head. “It’s nearly summer, for pity’s sake. Five months since we all visited Sussex. I thought I’d … gotten better, gotten … ”

“Oh, Evee.” I reached out and touched her shoulder again, but very gently, watching for a flinch that never came. “Nobody just ‘gets over’ things like that, even when they don’t involve terrible old mages who should have gone to prison.”

Evelyn tried to laugh at that one — just a snort of breath from her nose.

“It’s part of you,” I went on. “For better or worse, and I do hope for better. You can’t deny that, and nobody should expect you to. I certainly don’t expect you to just ‘get over it’ or pretend it didn’t happen. But if you don’t want to talk about it, that’s good too. I think.”

Evelyn shrugged, but her hand found mine — her maimed left hand, only the thumb and index finger intact. On the rare occasions that Evelyn touched other people, she never used that hand. The stump of her ring finger and her truncated middle finger lay across the back of my palm, holding on gently.

“If you’re going to stick with me,” she grumbled, “this is what you’ve got to get used to.”

“I’m already used to you, Evee. It’s just you.”

“That’s what bothers me,” she murmured, so quietly that we could pretend I hadn’t heard. For just a second, her head tilted toward my arm, as if she was going to nuzzle me. I was frozen with shock. But then she stopped, or caught herself in the act, or thought better of it. She cleared her throat and nodded slowly, then gently waved me off herself. I took that as the signal to stop pressing, stepped back, and hesitated at the step-stool.

“Oh, sit down,” she grumbled, blinking at me with exhausted eyes. “I’m not made of spun glass any more than you are.”

“But you can always say something to me if you’re suffering.”

She swallowed, just staring. She had to look away before she could nod. I finally sat down again.

“Where was I?” she muttered.

“We got lucky with Alexander?”

“Yes.” She took a deep breath. “We got very lucky, Heather, but I don’t think you understand why. Alexander was a young man. In, what, his twenties? He can’t have been older than twenty six, twenty seven, at the most?” I nodded, thinking that was about right. “Not enough time to build true power. But Edward Lilburne? How old do you suppose he is?”

“Sixties, at least,” I said softly, realisation coming over me in a slow wave of ice crawling up from my gut. I pulled Sevens’ yellow robes tighter around myself. “Ah.”

“An old man, yes. He may have been studying magic his entire life.” Evelyn fixed me with that serious gaze again, the armour of a mage sliding down over her features. “From what you told me, that first time you saw him, he had a physical object, a goddamn device, to locate or bait the Noctis macer. You remember that?”

“Of course I do,” I said. Bitterness rose in my throat at the memory of how we’d rejected Maisie’s full message, by accident and misunderstanding.

“That should have been impossible,” Evelyn continued. “Then at that pub, he wore another man’s face, remotely piloted. He laid a trap for us with Stack’s little boy, he rode his own suborned, hollowed out, pneuma-somatic pseudo-servitor. I can’t even get the control language correct for the servitors my grandmother built. We have no idea what we could be facing when we set about trying to corner him, but I’m not confident.”

“Do you think he could be a more powerful mage than you?”

Evelyn snorted with a burst of derisive laughter. “I am standing on my mother’s shoulders, regardless of how I feel about that. And she stood on my grandmother’s shoulders. I’m loath to admit it, but most of the time I have no idea what I’m doing. So yes, if he’s been practising magic as long as I suspect he has, he is far more dangerous than me.” She cleared her throat. “Though I appreciate the vote of confidence.”

“Always.”

Evelyn wet her lips and glanced at the scrimshawed thigh bone on the desk, her wand, her dark inheritance. “What my family has done is vanishingly rare. The process that produced me — handing knowledge and experience down from one generation to the next — almost never happens. My mother tried to break that chain regardless, for the sake of personal power. You understand? That’s one of the problems with being a mage, it’s part of the reason there’s so few of us, part of the reason there’s no … ” Evelyn waved a hand, looking for the right word.

“Organic community?” I suggested.

“Mm. Something like that. Transfer of knowledge is almost impossible when an apprentice or a student might kill you just to surpass you. It’s why any attempt turns into a cult; it’s the only way to ensure power, control, secrecy. And handing things down to one’s own children becomes difficult, to say the least, when flesh and blood relations are so very useful.” Evelyn snorted that word. “Or when one leaves humanity behind entirely. It’s why we’re so reliant on these.” She reached past the thigh bone and tapped the book at the rear of her desk.

I hadn’t noticed the heavy old tome sitting there before, a hornet among butterflies and moths. I recognised the pale, cracked leather of the cover, the edges of the heavy parchment pages, yellowed with age, and the pieces of tape holding the horrid thing together like some lich that should have crumbled to dust long ago.

Unbekannte Orte, the book which contained the true name of the Eye.

“Take Lozzie, for example. What happened to her family?” Evelyn was saying as I stared at the book as if I’d discovered a slug in my salad. “It’s shredded, her parents are dead. The fact she made it out intact is a miracle. People like her — or me — are incredibly rare.” Evelyn said that without a hint of pride, voice dripping with bitter resignation. “To be as young as I am yet wield actual power, even if I’m a mess most of the time, I do recognise how strange this is in comparison with other mages.”

I tore my eyes away from the book. “You really think Edward will be that powerful?”

Evelyn shrugged, eyelids growing heavy with exhaustion. “Power is relative to preparation, intelligence, paranoia, investment. A tank is powerful, but not if it doesn’t have any fuel and the crew are all high on mushrooms. Think about it.”

“I’m trying,” I huffed. “We don’t know anything about him for certain. Everything we’ve seen from him has been bluff or misdirection, it’s like he’s … not even there.”

Evelyn snorted. “Exactly. That’s what scares me, Heather. We got lucky with Alexander because he was an arrogant fool. But Edward is more like me.”

“Ah?”

“Paranoid.”

“Oh. I … I see, yes. I see what you mean.”

“We have to try to predict his moves, what he might do once we find him and make contact, what tools he might use to move against us in return. Fighting a mage in the open, if we can catch him, that’s one thing. But I suspect he’s like me in more ways than one — if he moves around, he’ll be guarded. He’ll stay on home turf as much as possible, and we do not want to fight a mage on his home turf. Would you want to fight me in my home? Think about that for a moment, think about the protection I am surrounded by, the people I am surrounded by, night and day.”

I shook my head, furrowing my brow as the meaning of her words finally hit home. “I certainly wouldn’t want to try.”

“Mm. You see my point now?”

“Sort of. You think I could be overconfident because of my successes.”

“In a nutshell, yes. You’ve never fought something like this. I have.”

I nodded slowly. “Then, do you have a plan?”

“No.”

“ … no?”

“No. Nada. Nyet. Nein.” She snorted a humourless laugh. “Best I can come up with is a surprise attack on his house, but that’s obvious, he must be expecting that. If it’s his final bolt-hole, I don’t want to walk in there, even wearing an NBC suit. And I’m not sending Praem in like some kind of sacrificial canary, never again.”

Ruthlessness stirred in my chest, the memory of the cold abyss. “I could ask Zheng to go in first. She’d do it, for me.”

“Mm. She is practically invincible, I know. But he will have considered that, he may have considered every possibility. I do need to speak with Zheng though. She had long contact with Edward, at least peripherally, and she does tend to divulge slightly more useful information than Lozzie. Slightly.”

“I wish she’d come home,” I sighed.

“Mm,” Evelyn grunted. “We have to take a calculated risk. Decide what is worth risking for this, Heather.”

A prickle of guilt needled at my heart. Maisie’s soul, my sister’s life — or what remained of it — was worth any risk to myself. I’d already made that decision, months and months ago. But I could not ask everyone else I knew to risk everything they had for the sake of a girl they’d never met. Asking them to help me go up against the Eye was one thing, because we were trying to find a way around that fight. But Edward? He was human. More dangerous, in some ways.

“I have to do it alone, don’t I?” I whispered.

“What?” Evelyn spat, squinting at me. “Heather, shut the fuck up, right now.”

“I-I— okay?”

“Don’t be absurd. Don’t you dare say things like that. If not for your own sake then at least for mine. You taught me to stop thinking that way, so don’t you dare even think it, not in here, not in the privacy of your own head, nowhere.” She said that all in a rush, frowning at me like I needed a good slap.

“Point taken. Okay. Thank you. I’ll … I’ll try.”

“You better,” she hissed, then drifted off into silence, sighing to herself.

I took a deep breath and tried to marshal my tired intellect, still running close to empty even after all those long hours of sleep. Reluctantly I retrieved my bowl of soggy, cold curry from the floor and mechanically fed myself a mouthful, just to have something in my belly. Evelyn watched without comment, perhaps thinking along with me. Or perhaps she was feeling queasy about the cold curry.

“Evee,” I said eventually, pausing to chew a particularly crunchy bit of broccoli — which was a relief, in fact. “What would you do in his situation?”

Evelyn raised her eyebrows in genuine surprise. “Walls and bunkers, I suppose. What I already do, wrap myself in a fortress and never come out. A real Hoxhaist, I am. Ha.” She spoke the laugh out loud with not a touch of humour.

“Pardon?” I blinked at her, totally lost.

“Sorry. I’ve absorbed too much nonsense from Raine over the years. My point is, I’d probably be even more cautious than him.”

“So, how would you pry yourself out?”

“Good question,” Evelyn said, low and quiet, then just stared at me, miles away inside her own head. I let her think as I forced down another spoonful of vile vegetable slop. She cleared her throat and wet her lips with a flicker of pink tongue, then continued, slow and hesitant. “I would summon a … ‘willing participant’.” She paused to tut. “Of course, I can’t do that anymore. I can’t make something like Praem without taking responsibility for creating life. But for the sake of the thought experiment, lets assume I could bring myself to do that.”

“Just as a thought experiment.” I nodded. “I’d never ask you otherwise.”

“Mm.”

“Okay. So then what?”

Evelyn allowed a small, savage smile to grace her thin lips. “I’d strap a bomb to it and have it walk up to his front door.”

I blinked several times, a spoonful of cold curry frozen halfway to my mouth. “A … bomb?”

“Pity I don’t know anything about bomb making.” Evelyn sucked on her teeth. “Perhaps Stack does. Getting the materials would be hard enough, but maybe she could help with that too.”

“W-wait, Evee, you mean an actual bomb? Not magic? A bomb bomb?”

Evelyn snorted, leaned back in her chair, and ran her fingers along her scrimshawed wand lying on the desk, staring at the symbols carved into the human thigh bone. “Yes, Heather. A bomb bomb. A bomb bomb bomb. I am talking about blowing a mage to pieces with an improvised explosive device.”

“Um.”

“Don’t worry.” She sighed and deflated again. “Even if I was willing to drag some poor soul from the abyss just to make it commit a suicide bombing — which I’m not, not anymore — there’s two problems with that plan. One, it’ll attract attention from the secular authorities.”

“Bloody right it would!” I squeaked, then put a hand delicately over my mouth. “Pardon my language. But, yes, the police would be all over us.”

“Quite. Let off a bomb in rural England, big enough to take out an entire house, or warehouse, or wherever Edward is hiding, and make it look like what, terrorism? Being a mage does allow a certain leeway to sidestep legal issues, but I’m quite sure the state could destroy me for mundane crimes if it wanted to.”

“Yes, please,” I said, nodding with relief. “Let’s not make bombs. Please. I don’t think I could deal with that.”

Evelyn stopped running her fingers along the thigh bone, picked the wand up, and lay it back across her own thighs. The naked bone shone yellowed and old in the lamplight, inches from the end of her stump beneath her skirt. I wondered, and not for the first time, where that thigh bone had come from. It couldn’t be Evelyn’s own leg — she still had half her femur.

“But more importantly,” she said, “we’re not trying to kill Edward Lilburne.”

“We’re not?”

“We need that book.”

My eyebrows climbed as a void opened inside my chest. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, not from Evelyn. “Are you suggesting what I think you are?”

“The book,” she repeated. “The Testament of Heliopolis. If I’m to complete the Invisus Oculus, I need the magical formulae that book reputedly contains. In all these long months of trying, I cannot figure out any other way to make us invisible to the Eye’s attention. Even this may not work, but it’s the best shot I can take. We need that book.”

“Of course. Of course, Evee, I agree, that’s the whole point, but you’re not suggesting we make a deal?”

“Heather, we might be dealing with a man we cannot kill, understand? We couldn’t kill Ooran Juh in the end either, we just drove him off.”

“He was closer to me than to Edward!” My voice rose to a squeak. “He was like me, he’d returned from the abyss!”

“You’re proving me right again, Heather.” Evelyn spoke slowly and carefully, struggling to contain herself. “You are underestimating a mage because you’ve overcome worse. And I am telling you again: he could be much, much worse than something like the big fat orange juice monster.”

I sighed and shrugged, at a loss.

“Killing him is not our aim,” Evelyn continued. “It’s a means to an end. Which means it doesn’t have to happen.”

I must have been giving her such a look, wide-eyed and pale and staring, because Evelyn’s carefully constructed facade of deathly sincerity broke into a huge huff and a roll of her eyes.

“E-Evee?”

“Don’t look at me like I’ve been replaced with a pod person,” she snapped.

I laughed without humour. “Can you blame me? You’re the last person I expected this from. You’re suggesting we do what, exactly? We already tried talking with him, don’t you remember what happened in that pub garden? He was vile.”

“Of course I bloody well remember,” Evelyn grumbled. “Don’t get me wrong, Heather. Don’t think I’ve gone soft in my old age or something. I want him dead. Him and every other mage even aware of me and my … well, you and Raine and Praem and the others. Us. Aware of us. But priorities change. He’s not worth risking a single hair on Praem’s head, if that can be avoided.”

I couldn’t keep the stunned incredulity out of my voice. “You’re suggesting we make a deal with him. In return for the book.”

Evelyn let out a slow breath and squeezed her eyes shut. She was just as disgusted by this notion as I was.

“If I could cut off his hands and take out his tongue to render him harmless, I would,” she said — as I privately shuddered at the memory of Zheng ripping out a mage’s tongue, and the time she’d almost done the same to Kimberly. “No magic without logos. But I think that may be a little optimistic.”

“If you say so.”

“Edward Lilburne is dangerous. But so am I. So are we. He probably does not want to fight us any more than we want to fight him. We may be able to take advantage of that. That’s all.”

I shook my head in disbelief, cold vegetables turning to poison in my stomach. “But he wants Lozzie.”

“He can’t have her,” Evelyn hissed. “That’s not the kind of compromise I’m willing to make.”

“Well, good!” I said. “Evee, do you really believe all this? You think we can end this without having to … kill him?”

Evelyn stared at me for a long, long moment. She looked over at Unbekannte Orte on her desk, down at her bone wand, then over at her prosthetic leg, still standing squat and silent like a black sentinel watching over her vulnerable flesh.

“No,” she said, voice flat. “Not really. But I have to suggest it anyway. The alternative could be worse.”

I didn’t have a reply for that. Evelyn was correct — we’d gotten lucky with Alexander, with his relative youth and his addiction to his own arrogance. She was, in the end, the only one of us who had fought a mage at the peak of their powers, and won.

I shoved another spoonful of cold curry into my mouth. “We’re going to need all our strength,” I muttered.

“Mm.”

“Speaking of which, my left hand is still missing.”

“Your left hand?”

“Zheng.”

==

The following four days were slow and awkward in the extreme. So many loose ends, with no way to tie them together and no scissors with which to snip them off, neat and contained.

But at least I was home, though I’d brought the Outside back with me.

My squid-skull mask, so impossible and beautiful in its metallic glory, sat on the table in the magical workshop, as if waiting for my return, watching us from dark eye sockets. Every day I went and ran a hand over that smooth grey surface. I even settled it over my head a couple of times, staring out through the eye holes on an alien world. But I always took it off again and left it where it lay. I didn’t need it on Earth. Not yet.

“Later,” I whispered to it. Or to myself.

==

Zheng did not return that night after Evelyn and I had our strategy talk, though I lay awake in bed listening for the telltale sound of the back door. Nor did she show up the following day, or the night I finally slept like normal, or the three days after that. Several times I stepped out into the back garden, hoping to find a pile of decapitated squirrel corpses on the patio. At least then I’d know she was out there. But I was always disappointed.

My eyes kept scanning the top of the garden fence in hope that she’d suddenly vault the boundary and come striding back into my life.

“Hey, Heather, I’m sure she’s alright,” Raine said to me one time, when I was standing and gazing through the window in the utility room. She knew what I was pining for, what I was worried about. She put her arm around my shoulders. “She’s just kinda irresponsible, you know?”

“I hope you’re right,” I murmured.

“Heeeeey, Zheng can handle anything.” Raine cracked a grin for me. “You told me she technically fought a building when you first met.”

“She did. But Ooran Juh is worse than a building. And that thing she was chasing, that weird skin-ghost that climbed out of Badger.” I shook my head. “We don’t even know what that was.”

“Maybe it’s just really good at running.”

I sighed, worry curdling into anger. “I’m going to buy her a mobile phone and force her to carry it everywhere. No excuses. No cuddle privileges until she makes sure it’s possible to contact her. I’m not having this happen again.”

“You sound like Evee,” Raine said, not without a hint of admiration in her voice.

“Good.”

==

Evelyn sent Praem out into the city, twice, just to walk the streets and watch the shadows, well-protected with warding signs beneath her casual clothes, and armed with a compact tire iron under her skirt. Not that she needed the weapon. I was surprised; I hadn’t pleaded or even prompted for this.

“Zheng is important to you,” Evelyn explained when Praem returned the first time, as we pottered about in the kitchen warming ourselves with tea and biscuits. “However much I dislike her … attitudes. And it’s not as if I’m asking Praem to step into a magical pocket dimension or fistfight a monster. It’s broad daylight out, she’s got her phone, she knows what she’s doing. And she’s got strict instructions to come straight home if anything happens.”

“I cannot be stopped,” Praem intoned, turning her head to stare at her creator. Evelyn cleared her throat like a burst of machine gun fire, turning a little red around the ears.

“Evee?” I asked.

Evelyn gestured at Praem. “I may have taken too much credit for this venture.”

I blinked at Praem in surprise. “Oh. This was your idea?”

“Zheng. Cute gorilla,” said Praem.

The threat calculation was not so simple the second time she came home, straight home, when something had happened.

“What do you mean you were followed?” Evelyn hissed at Praem in the front room, while Raine slipped out the door to check down the street, handgun tucked away in her leather jacket. “By who? Where? I want descriptions.”

But descriptions were useless, no matter how precise and accurate Praem always was. She’d been walking up the length of Sharrowford’s main high street, past the department stores and the entrance to Swanbrook mall, threading her way among the afternoon crowds, when two people had begun following her — a young woman with long black hair, and a diminutive teenage girl. The descriptions didn’t sound like anybody we’d seen before.

“Family resemblance,” Praem said.

“Tch, that doesn’t tell us anything,” Evelyn hissed, so agitated she’d started stomping back and forth, hitting the skirting board with the tip of her walking stick.

“More remnants of the cult, do you think?” I asked.

“Gotta be.” Raine clucked her tongue. She’d found nothing outdoors, nobody down the street. No trace. We all silently hoped Praem had lost them. “Hey, Praem, did those two jokers look strung out?”

“No,” Praem intoned. “Healthy. Alert. Confident.”

“Huh,” Raine grunted.

“Edward?” I whispered.

“Maybe,” Evelyn grunted. “Shit. I don’t know! I don’t know anything! We need to interrogate Badger about every single surviving member of the cult. We need them … I don’t know. Rounded up. Dealt with. Made safe.”

“We hardly need to ‘interrogate’ him,” I said with a sigh. “I’m pretty sure he’ll happily tell us. Tell me, at least.”

I felt sick in my stomach at that prospect. I still hadn’t seen him again since the magical brain surgery. I didn’t want his thanks or his blossoming hero-worship.

“When does he get out of the hospital again?” Evelyn asked.

Raine wobbled a hand back and forth. “Operation to put a plate in his skull’s not until next week. Gotta plug that hole we made before they can let him out, you know? Seemed pretty lucid when I took Sarika to see him yesterday. I could ask him, if you want? Get a list, names, descriptions, all that?”

“Lie to him,” Evelyn said with a decisive nod. “Tell him Heather wants the names.”

I resisted an urge to groan and sit on the floor. “I said it before and I’ll say it again, we can’t send all those people — ten more of them—”

“If they’re still alive,” Evelyn said.

“If they’re still alive,” I echoed, trying not to sound irritated. “We can’t send them all to the hospital with trepanation wounds. That’s going to draw attention. Even if I can do what I did, all over again, ten more times … ” My stomach clenched up at that idea. “Ten more staring contests? No, I can’t.”

“We don’t have to help them all,” Evelyn said. “We just want to stop them hunting us. I’m not sending Praem out again.”

“You send me nowhere,” Praem intoned, standing by the kitchen door.

Evelyn shot her a look, eyes hard, jaw clenched. “I am putting my foot down. You don’t go out. Not alone. None of us do. The same rules I’ve always lived by.”

“You send—”

“If you go out, I go with you,” Evelyn spoke right over her. “I will follow you, I will bloody well hobble along. The whole way.” She held the doll-demon’s blank, milk-white gaze, level and serious and burning in both cheeks.

Praem did not go looking for Zheng a third time.

Evelyn was right though, however painful and awkward it was to admit the conditions we lived under. The remains of the Sharrowford Cult were still out there, Eye-haunted and desperate to deliver what it demanded of them — me. I had a way to help them, in theory, but no way to contact them until Badger was out of the hospital, until he could form a bridge back to the horror of their hounded and tortured existence, and let them know there was a way out. And Edward’s men were out there too. God alone knew what he was up to.

So we began to settle back into an uncomfortable routine, with Raine escorting me to and from university, Praem going everywhere with Evelyn, and Lozzie unable to leave the house.

==

Nicole Webb, our very own supernatural private eye, called Evelyn twice every day, to check in — to “radio base camp” as Raine put it. The documents she’d stolen from the offices of Edward’s lawyer hadn’t amounted to much yet, but there was so much more to sort though. Evelyn told her to keep digging, assured her she was on retainer for as long as it took, and reminded her to call twice every single day.

“Yeah yeah,” I heard Nicole affirm the instruction over the phone, as it lay on the table so we could all hear. “Just in case there’s a picture of a skeleton in here. Or a haunted photocopy, oooooh.” She made a ghosty noise. “Miss Saye, this is a mother-lode of lawyer’s paperwork. There’s nothing spooky about it except how boring it is. Is that a symptom? Wanting to dig my eyes out with a spoon? Need to come exorcise me?”

“If you ask real nicely, Nicky girl,” Raine purred over Evelyn’s shoulder.

“You just try it, Haynes,” Nicole shot back. “I’ll give you a paper cut where the sun don’t shine.”

“Just call to check in,” Evelyn grunted. “Just in case. Every day. Understand?”

“As long as you’re paying, I’ll call in as often as you want,” Nicole said. “You’re the boss.”

“Twice a day is fine. Before and after you start, as agreed.”

“Please, Nicky,” I added over Evelyn’s shoulder too, on the opposite side to Raine. “I don’t want anything to happen to you. Just be safe, okay?”

Nicole sighed, heavily. A thump sounded down the phone. I suspected it was her head on her desk, confirmed by the muffled quality of her next words. “In case you lot can’t tell, I’m trying to stave off the creeps here. Don’t make it worse, hey? Trust me, if I see a single piece of paper somewhere I didn’t put it myself, I’ll be over at your place like my arse is on fire.”

==

One person I didn’t have to worry about was Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight.

She settled in surprisingly quickly, perhaps thanks to Praem’s adoption of her cause, or maybe it was down to her nature as a narrative chameleon.

On that first night, the one I lay awake listening for Zheng, Sevens slunk back into my bedroom just past midnight, visibly exhausted from running about the house with Tenny, like a cat who had spent all day being chased by a good-natured puppy. But she didn’t make a beeline for my side. She avoided me and made for the big armchair instead, perhaps because Raine was fast asleep with her arms around me. I whispered to Sevens in the dark, little secret entreaties to join me. But she only gurgled back and curled up in a blanket nest until the morning.

The next night I coaxed her into bed, beckoning with hands and tentacles alike. “Just for a cuddle?”

“Gurrr?” she made a raspy gurgle in her throat, shoulders hunched as she was frozen at the foot of the bed like some silent movie apparition. Her eyes searched for permission — not from me, but past me, from Raine.

“Heather can cuddle who she likes,” Raine said. Then she winked at Sevens.

“Rrrrr-okay. Okay!”

Sevens slipped into bed with us, small and wriggly and cuddled up against my front, making soft raspy gurgles that were almost purring sounds. In the morning, she was still there.

I didn’t ask Raine’s permission for anything else; I wasn’t certain I was going to do so. I didn’t love Sevens. I had to keep reminding myself of that whenever I idly wrapped a tentacle around the back of her neck, or subconsciously stepped closer to her to compare our heights, or realised that if I really, really tried, with all six tentacles, I might just be able to pick her up.

Kaaaaooo? Heather?” She shied away from me one time, when I’d been watching for twenty seconds without realising, gripped by an urge to grab her and — and what?

“Nothing,” I’d sighed, forcing myself to stop quivering. “Nothing at all.” I tried to ruffle her hair, keep it casual, like Raine does. But I was clumsy and inexpert, and my hand lingered for a moment too long. She gurgled at me and bumped her head on my shoulder, just like a cat.

I didn’t love her. But I wanted to play with her. And that would have been deeply unfair to somebody who was so very in love with me.

Around the house, she wasn’t always by my side, which was a relief in more ways than one. She joined me for reading, for quiet moments together just relaxing, and made a point to request I read out loud to her — she wanted to learn my favourites. But she also spent a lot of time just lurking. We found her half-asleep in strange places, curled up in corners, on the kitchen counter tops, in the downstairs cupboard, not quite unconscious but not fully lucid either. She’d always be in the kitchen whenever one of us was cooking, or at least hanging around close by, red-and-black eyes peeking around a door frame. She watched people make their beds or do the laundry, she watched people eat, she watched Evelyn work through the doorway of the magical workshop.

“Vampire instincts,” Raine said with a laugh. “Ambush predator. Like a trap-door spider.”

“I think she’s just trying to learn more about us,” I said. “She doesn’t know how, not without her … old techniques.”

She even watched Praem watch her in return.

“That is … um, very … very spooky,” Kimberly said. It was the first time she’d seen Sevens. Her introduction to the newest member of our household was Sevens and Praem, staring at each other across the kitchen while Evelyn tried to eat breakfast. Both of them were equally unblinking, for fifteen minutes.

“Maximum spooky,” Praem intoned.

Sevens flinched like a cat and scurried behind me. Kimberly flinched and probably decided the rest of us were as mad as ever.

To all our surprise, Sevens also spent a lot of time with Lozzie and Tenny.

Perhaps it was the crash course in tentacle babysitting, maybe it was the video games, or perhaps it was the way she and Lozzie seemed to be able to hold actual conversations, which appeared to make full sense to both of them. More than once I heard them going on for hours, just a pair of blurred voices upstairs, one giggly and the other raspy.

Or maybe it was because she was the first person who could almost beat Tenny at chess. Almost.

Raine and I witnessed them play, on the fourth day after my return from Carcosa. Tenny actually had to pay attention; her usual distracted style could not prevail against Seven-Shades-of-Strategist’s lightning-quick decision making. With great, staring concentration, Tenny eventually won every game, but only with all her tentacles whirling about as if the motion helped her to think.

“Silly vampire good,” she trilled.

Sevens, to her credit, didn’t seem to care about losing.

“Vampire stuff,” she croaked, showing all her teeth. “Good at counting.”

==

Evelyn wasn’t laughing when she found Sevens under her bed.

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry! Ahhhhh!” Sevens screech-rasped, arms over her head as Evelyn chased her out of the room and into the upstairs corridor. “It was comfy, I didn’t mean anything by it! It was comfyyyy!”

Evelyn’s shriek had already brought everyone else running to witness the moment — Sevens sprawled against the far wall, Evelyn looking like she wanted to run the blood-goblin through with her walking stick — but I’d already been in Evelyn’s bedroom, and I just sighed at the whole thing.

We’d been about to keep our promise to each other, five days after our strategy meeting; we’d been all set up to watch some cartoons together, just the two of us, with Evelyn’s laptop perched on the bed. Evelyn had been explaining in a very roundabout and obviously embarrassed way that what we were about to watch was technically for children, but I didn’t mind — and then we’d heard the snuffling, sniffling snore from beneath the mattress.

And now it was all thrown to the wind in a near-melee in the upstairs hallway. Tenny appeared and threw herself into the middle, though to protect Sevens or protect Evelyn, none of us were quite sure which. The air turned into a whirling mass of black tentacles. Raine tried to pick Sevens up. Sevens made a sound like a drainpipe and I later learnt that she bit Raine’s shoulder — though not aggressively, just gently, for comfort; she didn’t break skin. Kimberly took one look out of her bedroom door and closed it again.

“She’s only protecting her new friend!” Lozzie protested.

“And I was only protecting the sanctity of my fucking bedroom!” Evelyn snapped.

“It was comfy!” Sevens rasped into Raine’s shoulder, clinging on like a koala.

“She is being a very good girl!” Lozzie said. “Tenny, good girl!”

“Good girl!” Tenny fluttered.

“She is being a fucking nuisance—” Evelyn snapped. “No, not you, Tenny, not you—”

I only hung back for as long as I did because I was so disappointed; I’d really been looking forward to watching cartoons with her, and now Evelyn would be in a foul mood, even when this misunderstanding was dealt with. I hung back by her bedroom window, bathed in the orange of early evening, and I was about to step forward and help resolve the altercation, when I glanced out of the window, down at the garden.

A fox was sitting in the grass. Looking right up at me. A big, sleek, healthy fox.

“Oh,” I said out loud. “It’s you.”

And then I felt that recognition, that sixth-sense familiarity, that knowing in my gut that she was close.

I was out of the room and past my shocked friends and would have tumbled headfirst down the stairs if it wasn’t for my tentacles catching me on the banister. The argument slammed to a halt; Raine called after me; I didn’t stop. I hit the front room and scuttled across the floorboards and burst into the kitchen just as Zheng got home.

“Shaman!” she roared by way of greeting. I scrambled to a halt, as if blasted by a foghorn. Even I sometimes forget how big she is.

She stood just inside the doorway from the utility room, dressed in coat and jeans and shapeless jumper, seven feet of gloriously filthy demon host side-lit by the sunset. Her hair was a rat’s nest and she badly needed a shower — I could smell her from across the room, like she’d been sleeping alternate nights in a landfill and a slaughterhouse slop-bucket. But she was intact and alive and grinning like mad.

“Zheng!” I couldn’t help myself, not at those sharp-edged eyes and red-chocolate skin, so familiar by now — but I recoiled from the stench. Behind me, the others were piling down the stairs, but for a moment it was just me and Zheng. “You … you … stink! Really badly, oh my goodness.”

“Hahaha!” she roared again. “I do!”

“Where have you been?! I’ve been … well. Worried. Yes! Worried.”

Zheng’s grin dialled down as she heaved out a rumbling purr, satisfied and oddly pleasurable.

“Losing a tail, shaman,” she rumbled. “I am hunted, by a hunter every bit as skilled as I.”

“ … Ooran Juh? Or … something to do with Edward?”

Zheng shook her head, slow and smug. “No, shaman. One like me.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Mages and demonmaids and squid girls can make all the fool-proof plans they want, but no plan survives contact with seven feet of muscular zombie lady crashing back into the story and stinking like the inside of a sewer.

And Happy New Year, dear readers! Quite a coincidence that the 1st day of 2022 falls on a Saturday (Katurday). I’ve got big plans for the story this year – getting the side-stories finished and published, finishing Book 1 of Katalepsis, and almost certainly starting on Book 2! Not to mention there might be a non-Katalepsis parallel project cropping up in the next, oh, six months? There’s a lot more information in a public patreon post I just made, if you’re really interested. But don’t worry, you don’t need to read all that, just watch this space. And thank you all very, very much, for reading, for commenting, for all the support and kind words; I hope you enjoy another year of stories about disaster lesbians and cosmic horror!

Next week, I’ll highlight some of those fanfics I mentioned! I would do so now, but this note is already far too long.

And if you want to support Katalepsis, please consider:

Subscribe to the Patreon!

Currently you get one chapter ahead each week! I wanted to make this 2 chapters ahead each week, but lately the chapters have instead just gotten huge – 8-9k words each! The more support I get through Patreon, the more time I can dedicate to writing, and the less chance of having to interrupt my update schedule!

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And thirdly, leave a review! Or a like, a thumbs up, a comment on a chapter, it’s all great, and it helps me so so much to know there’s people out there reading and enjoying the story; that’s the whole reason I do this anyway. And thank you for reading!

Next week, Zheng is back, but who or what was following her? Surely it has something to do with Edward Lilburne. I don’t think anybody wants more unbound demon hosts walking the streets of Sharrowford. Or maybe there’s somebody who would willingly take that risk?

for the sake of a few sheep – 15.6

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Seven-Shades-of-Sad-and-Sorry sobbed into her knees for perhaps five or six minutes, which felt like a subjective eternity. Time becomes stretched whenever a close companion crosses the emotional event horizon from beyond which no communication can return. Each second suggests you should speak a pointless platitude, ask a question unanswered, or at least make gentle mouth-sounds, all of it seemingly useless to the wanderer in inner darkness.

It’s very awkward to comfort somebody who can’t tell you why they’re crying. But try you must. Even I could do that much.

Sevens wouldn’t respond to her name or to my hand rubbing her shaking back through the yellow robes, but I kept going anyway. Her sobbing was broken by throaty gurgles and little hiccups, ugly and difficult. Her dark hair hung in a lank sheet over her knees. I crouched on the floor of Evelyn’s study, placed my rapidly cooling bowl of vegetable curry to one side, and wrapped a tentacle around her shoulders to let her know I was with her.

“It’s okay, Sevens. It’s okay,” I said as she shook and sobbed. “Just … let it all out. That’s it. There you go.”

I tried to sound like Raine, confident and reassuring, bright and certain. I don’t think I pulled that off; despite building some practical experience, I would never learn the knack. Sevens’ tears brought a sympathetic twinge to my own eyes.

Evelyn opened her mouth several times but never got past her own hesitation. Eventually she cleared her throat and averted her eyes. She rubbed at the stump of her thigh through her skirt, staring at the night beyond the window, the rows of books in the shelves, or down at her own truncated leg — anywhere but at Sevens. She glanced at me only once, then looked away again with a frown of mingled irritation and guilt.

Five or six minutes finally dribbled away and took Sevens’ tears with them, her sobs trailing off into sniffling and wheezy breathing, face still buried in her own knees.

“It’s okay, you just rest there, just relax,” I said, trying to conceal my relief as I stroked the back of Sevens’ head.

I didn’t do a very good job of that; couldn’t keep the tremor out of my voice. My mind was whirling with the import of Sevens’ distraught words. She’d deflected me when we’d been alone together in my bedroom, but Evelyn’s direct question had rammed a lance straight through her heart.

I shouldn’t be prodding people to do things, she’d said. That’s not love.

And I couldn’t say I disagreed.

I had not forgotten her brutally didactic performance, staged for my sole benefit with the bodies of my fellow literature students, even if that sadistic play had been revealed as an illusion and nobody had been hurt for real. I remembered her mockery of Raine in the Medieval Metaphysics room, and her smugly knowing attitude toward my goals and my fears. I recalled with faint distaste the way she’d been watching, listening, observing in Raine’s hospital room, and in my bedroom too, trying to show me the way to bring Raine and Zheng together without losing everything. She had been a voyeur, excusing violation as art.

Perhaps this lesson was a good one for her, however painful.

But then again—

I can’t direct anything!

She couldn’t direct anymore? She’d been wrong, yes, about the nature of love, about treating people as actors on the stage for her grand romantic dramas. But by her own account, she’d done good things in the past. What about Julija and Hana? Would they have found each other or escaped without Sevens’ meddling?

Would I have stabilised the strange relationship I now had with Raine and Zheng?

But more importantly, what did this change mean for a being like Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight? A barb of guilt twisted and snagged in my chest as I reminded myself that I’d done this thing to her. True, I hadn’t forced her to save me from the lip of the abyss that one time, nor had I dragged her into Lozzie’s dream where we’d confronted the Eye, but both times she had stepped onto the stage in order to save my life. She had begun the process of redefinition, for me.

Had I broken her?

As Sevens sniffed and snuffled and I wrestled with guilt, a soft knock came a-knocking at the study door. Evelyn’s head snapped up at the prospect of salvation but she caught herself and glanced at me.

I shrugged and pulled a resigned smile. Not as if things could get worse.

“Come in,” I called softly.

The door opened and the darkness of the upstairs hallway disgorged a sweeping figure of black-and-white perfection — Praem, still dressed in her near-immaculate maid outfit, though interestingly without any shoes on. Her feet were bare except for the thick white tights she wore, padding across the floorboards with only a whisper of cloth against wood. Her hair was pinned up in a loose bun, exactly the same way Evelyn’s currently was. A sympathetic gesture, perhaps.

Whistle trotted in at her heels, rotund and curious, claws clicking against the floor.

Praem marched three paces into the room then stopped, black skirt and soft underskirt swaying, with her hands clasped before her. Blank white eyes stared at Evelyn, then Praem turned her whole head to stare at me, then at Sevens, then back at Evelyn.

“I heard weeping,” she intoned, voice like a silver bell in a snowstorm.

“Yes,” Evelyn sighed, gesturing at the air. “Yes, you did. I’m fine. I’m absolutely fine.”

Praem turned her head again to stare at Evelyn’s detached prosthetic leg, then back at Evelyn.

Evelyn cleared her throat, embarrassed. “Not now. I’m fine sitting here, please. I’m not the one struggling right now.”

“Quite,” I said, still rubbing Sevens’ back, smiling awkwardly as Praem returned her attention to us.

“Cold,” Praem intoned.

“I’m sorry?”

“Food. Going cold.”

“Oh, ah, yes, um.” I eyed my abandoned bowl of vegetable curry. “Hunger is a bit of a distant concern right now. Sorry.”

Nobody said anything for a long moment. Not even Praem was equipped to help in this circumstance, though she did turn and silently shut the study door behind her, enclosing us in the soft warm of the desk lamp once again.

Whistle, however, showed no such indecision. The corgi trotted over to us on his stubby little legs and sniffed at the edge of Sevens’ yellow robes where they were pooled on the floor. Then stepped on to the robes, turned in a circle, and sat down.

Sevens tilted her head to the side without lifting it from her knees, just enough to show Whistle a sliver of those eyes of molten darkness from beneath her hair.

As imperious as a young prince, Whistle went snuff, and closed his eyes like he was sitting in a patch of warm sunlight. Which, I suppose, he kind of was.

Sevens wormed one pale, bony arm out from beneath the robes and reached toward Whistle’s head — but this dog was not for petting, at least not by vampires. His eyes squinted open and his lips peeled back to show his teeth. A growl rose from his throat. Sevens paused, fingers curling back.

“Guurrrrg,” Sevens rasped.

“No,” Praem intoned – sharp and sudden.

Whistle stopped growling and looked around at Praem in wide-eyed alarm. To be fair, I would have done the same if Praem had taken that tone with me. In fact, it took me a moment to realise my hand had paused on Sevens’ back — I’d subconsciously obeyed Praem as well.

“No growling,” Praem informed him.

Whistle’s little doggy eyes moved from Praem to Sevens’ hand, then back to Praem, then back to the hand. He settled forward again, pretending nothing was wrong.

“You may pet him,” Praem said.

Sevens reached forward again until her long-fingered hand made contact with Whistle’s flank. She stroked him several times, carefully and gently, then stroked his head too. His eyes drifted almost shut, kept open only a crack to watch for signs of vampire treachery.

“You can’t be serious,” Evelyn muttered.

“Corgi communication,” Praem said.

I smiled as Evelyn rolled her eyes. When Sevens lifted her head from her knees her eyes were red-rimmed to match their cores. Tears had stained her cheeks and soaked into the robe where her face had lain, but at least she was no longer crying.

“Good dog. Nice dog,” she rasped to Whistle as she stroked his head with two fingertips. “I bet you’d like me better with another mask on, mmm?”

“Poor Whistle,” I sighed. “He’s the most normal thing in this room.”

“And what is that supposed to mean?” Evelyn snapped, clearly irritated. I blinked at her in surprise.

“Well, there’s you, Evee. You’re a mage. Praem is a demon from the abyss.” I quickly added, “Demon as a technical term, not demon as a judgement. Sorry. You’re an angel, Praem, really.”

“Angel,” Praem echoed.

I cleared my throat before I could continue, faintly embarrassed. “Then there’s Sevens, an Outsider, currently a vampire. And then there’s me. God alone knows what I am anymore. We’re in a mage’s study and none of us are normal, except the dog.”

“Normal dog,” Sevens croaked. She clacked her teeth together twice and Whistle’s ears swivelled.

“Look,” Evelyn said with a huff, presumably at my nonsense. “I’m sorry, but I have to ask this.” She gestured at Sevens, though thankfully she left her bone wand in her own lap this time. “How much of this is real?”

A steel band tightened inside my chest. “Excuse me, Evee?”

Sevens looked up at her as well, dry-eyed and dull.

Evelyn raised her hands with a shamed grimace. “Yes, I know, Saye is being a difficult bitch again. Woe is me. But I have to understand. If what we’re looking at is a mask, then … ” She cleared her throat and addressed Sevens instead. “Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight. Princess, Lady, whatever you are, are your tears real?”

I tutted. I’d expected better of Evelyn.

“Define real,” said Sevens.

Evelyn shrugged with her hands. “Authentic emotional response?”

“Define authenticity. Go on. Try. I’ll wait.”

Evelyn huffed and cast about. “An emotional response that isn’t an act? One that comes from inside? You know what I’m asking, don’t play word games with me. Do you really feel, or are you all an act, or mostly an act, or what?”

“Evelyn, this is really unfair,” I snapped. My other tentacle drifted up in front of Sevens, as if to shield her.

“What’s unfair about it?” Evelyn snapped back, her irritation blossoming out at me like a blast of heat.

“You’re not treating her like a person.”

Evelyn winced her eyes closed with a sigh. “Heather, your faith in me is touching.”

“ … I’m sorry?”

“I treat people like this all the time,” Evelyn said. “Perhaps you haven’t noticed. If I didn’t consider her a person, I wouldn’t have spent the day sitting around reading for university classes. I would have engineered a method of killing her, containing her, or sending her back where she bloody well came from. And I would have put it into action before you woke up, to avoid the chance of you objecting and undermining your own protection.”

I blinked in shock. “Evee, I—”

“So yes, I am treating her like a person. Ha!” Evelyn barked a single laugh. “A damn sight better than I treat most powerful people whose motives I don’t understand. If she was a human being, I’d have her tied to a chair in a circle, with Raine ready to shoot her in the head, until I’m certain she’s not going to kill you in your sleep.”

I stared, lost for words.

“It’s fair,” Sevens growled slowly, holding Evelyn’s gaze. She was all cried out, languishing in that post-weep exhaustion, quiet and small. She lowered her knees, stretching her legs out beneath the yellow robes across the floor. “It’s a good question. Good questions from the good magician. Need to know what you’ve invited into your little castle. Heather matters, you want to make sure she’s not cradling a scorpion. But you of all people should already know the answers.”

Evelyn shrugged with fingertips alone. “It is a responsibility.”

Sevens twisted her head sideways without moving her eyes, keeping those ember-bright points locked on Evelyn. The gesture was disturbingly predatory and vaguely birdlike, sending a thrill of affectionate excitement bouncing around inside my chest. It reminded me of a vulture, featherless and filthy and ferreting through corpses, but it made me want to grab Sevens by the side of the head and nuzzle her. My little predator, something I should be running from, and all I wanted to do was get closer. My tentacle subconsciously tightened around her bony shoulders, instinctively afraid she had taken offence for real and was about to settle the score.

The predatory air was not lost on Evelyn; she went very still and started to turn pale. Praem didn’t react and Whistle didn’t even bother to open his eyes, so I suppose we were never in any real danger.

A second passed, then two, then three, pushing us right to the edge of instinctive panic, the cliff-face off which one of us would tumble first.

But then Sevens turned her eyes along with her head, leaving Evelyn free to breathe once more. Her gaze shifted flicker-quick to Evelyn’s detached prosthetic leg, standing immobile by the corner of the desk.

“Is that your leg?” Sevens rasped.

Evelyn was panting to catch her breath, one hand to her chest. “What?”

“Sevens,” I murmured. “That was unkind.”

“Is that your leg?” Sevens repeated.

“Oh. Yes, yes that’s mine,” Evelyn said. “I walk with a prosthetic. I assumed you already knew, you seem to know … ” Evelyn trailed off and raised her eyebrows. “Ah.”

Sevens clacked her teeth together and let out a little gurgled kaaoo noise.

Evelyn glanced down at the stump of her thigh. “Well. Fair enough,” she sighed, then drew herself up. Her voice took on a formal tone. “In that case I … I apologise. I’m sorry that my inquiry acted as a trigger for you. I needed an answer and I suppose I have it now. You needn’t elaborate further if you don’t want to, and I suspect I couldn’t compel you anyway.”

Pbbbbbbbt,” Sevens blew out a long raspberry of a sigh. “No. It’s fine. Can’t keep avoiding it, anyway. Here now, can’t run backstage again. Doors are locked, script is lost, audience gone. Just me and you.” She spoke to the floorboards and the indistinct lumps of her own feet beneath the yellow robes.

“Sevens, you don’t have to think about this now,” I said, shifting to a more comfortable sitting position on the floor next to her, which totally undermined my words.

Seven-Shades-of-Quietly-Subdued glanced sideways up at Praem, but the doll-demon was staring at a point on the opposite wall, completely composed with her hands folded demurely in front of her.

“Maids hear everything,” said Sevens. “Can you keep secrets?”

“Secrets kept,” Praem intoned.

“Mm.”

Sevens opened her mouth as if to continue, but stopped and sighed — a sound like a leaky, rusty, broken radiator on a cold winter morning. She drew her knees up again, wrapping her slender arms around them. She curled up smaller and tighter before the words finally crept out of her mouth, crackling and broken.

“You saw me playing with my dolls, Heather,” she croaked. “That was you and your friends. Metaphorically speaking.”

I cast my mind back to when I’d surprised her in Carcosa, playing with her toy dolls in front of Saldis. “Yes, I did figure that part out.”

“Dolls?” Evelyn murmured.

“That’s how I think of you. Thought of you! Not anymore. How I thought of everyone.”

“I know.” I nodded.

“Then why didn’t you try to make me fuck off?” Sevens turned accusing eyes on me, grimacing to show her needle-teeth. “I treated you as a part to be written, a piece to move around, and you just took it!”

I blinked at her. “Well, actually no, I was kind of offended sometimes. More than sometimes.”

“And then I fell in love for real. Involved!” She grabbed at her own chest, sinking fingertips into flesh. “And everything I’d done before was wrong all of a sudden. Love on the stage is nothing compared to reality. And if I’m in it personally, I’m here, I’m here, then how can I move people like pieces? I can’t direct myself. I can’t disrespect you like that.” She blinked away faint tears again, but she had nothing left in the tank, so that was all. “And you let me do it to you. You let me prod and poke and rewrite your lines and you—”

“It’s okay, Sevens,” I blurted out. “You helped! You did, it wasn’t all wrong. I mean, without you, maybe Zheng and I wouldn’t have—”

“It was wrong!” she rasped in my face. “If you don’t get it then maybe I shouldn’t be here at all! Maybe I don’t deserve—”

“Bad girl,” Praem said.

We both stopped dead, flinching back from each other like a pair of cats who’d been caught about to start a fight. Sevens twisted around with all the rubber-jointed flexibility of a surprised ferret, staring up at Praem with wide black eyes. Whistle looked around too, uncertain if he was being addressed. Evelyn frowned like she was watching a live recording of a terrible soap opera, but couldn’t look away.

Praem stared back. “You have been a bad girl.”

Sevens ducked her head and whined deep in her throat, hair hiding her face. I grabbed her around the shoulders in a hug, scowling up at Praem, my free tentacle drifting around to protect.

“Praem!” I said. “Don’t! She’s already—”

“You will not run away,” Praem carried on.

Sevens peered up at her through a curtain of hair, panting, eyes wide.

“Praem,” I warned.

“You will not run away,” Praem repeated.

“I … I … ” Sevens croaked.

“You will not run away. You silly goose.”

“ … I won’t run away,” Sevens echoed, voice a raspy trickle.

“You will accept punishment,” Praem continued. “Then you will be a good girl.”

Sevens swallowed. “Good girl? No more directing?”

“No more.”

“I … I don’t know how. I’m really scared. I w-want to keep helping people find love, but … not like this. I can’t do this to … to … ” Sevens quivered and shook, so I squeezed her tighter, but she stayed focused on Praem. “I can’t become like them, not really, not fully. I’m always going to be me.”

“I am always me as well,” Praem said. “It is easy.”

Slowly, Sevens began to nod. “Easy.”

“Punishment,” Praem reminded her.

Sevens winced. “Mmmmmnnnn-rrrrr.”

“What punishment?” I asked.

“Babysitting.”

“Babysitting?” Sevens repeated.

“Tenny.”

“I don’t think Tenny is technically a baby anymore,” I said — but Praem turned her head to direct a look at me. “Technically,” I muttered, then I shut up.

Sevens nodded slowly, gently peeling herself out of my grip and pushing her hair out of her face. “Babysitting. I can do that. I can do that.” But she shook her head, grabbing at her own chest again with fingers curled like claws. “Is this what love is supposed to feel like?”

“Yes,” Praem answered.

“It’s scary, when people aren’t pieces.”

“Not as scary as Night Praem,” said Praem.

Sevens shot her a grimace, then hissed through her teeth and finally seemed to relax, coming out the other side of something no human being could have guided her through, not even a human who had gone as far as Evelyn or I had. She needed somebody who had come from elsewhere.

Evelyn emerged from behind one hand, her cheeks more red than I’d seen in a while, frowning up a storm. “Night Praem?”

“Night Praem,” said Praem.

“That’s the second time I’ve heard this,” Evelyn said. “And I’m still none the wiser.”

“When she puts on the lace glove and the eyeliner and stuff,” I explained.

“And the skirt,” Praem said.

“There’s a skirt?” I asked.

“What skirt?” Evelyn huffed.

Sevens’ black-and-red eyes bounced between us. She looked both confused and surprised, but was clearly enjoying the little show. I couldn’t know for sure if Praem was doing this on purpose, but I silently thanked her all the same; if Sevens was one of us now, she deserved to be treated the same, whatever the truth which floated just out of sight, pressed up against the membrane that separated us from the abyss.

“How do you have clothes which I don’t know about?” Evelyn was demanding. “I mean, yes, fine, you’re entitled to them, but where the hell did you get a mysterious bloody skirt?”

“Not bloody,” Praem replied. “Black. With flair.”

“Then show me it.”

“Night Praem only.”

“Sevens,” I murmured, below the volume of the unfolding farce. “Sevens, I just want you to know that … ”

I was about to forgive her — or at least explain that if she chose to apologise, forgiveness would be hers, for all the transgressions of voyeurism and assumption that she had made. But then she turned to me and her face crumpled again. She managed to catch herself halfway as she choked out the words.

“I’m really afraid you’re going to die,” she told me.

It interrupted Evelyn’s semi-serious demand to meet Night Praem. Even Whistle tilted his head to watch, catching her tone if not her meaning.

“Die?” I tried to laugh but found a sudden lump in my throat. I couldn’t get the denial out. “I … I know.”

“I didn’t want to think about this.” Sevens made a low gurgle sound of pure anxiety. She gazed at me with such mounting sorrow it tore at my heart. “To find you, only to lose you so soon. I don’t want to be the one left to keep your memory alive, like Melancholy does.”

“You’re not going to lose me. I mean … I … ”

How could I lie when I’d said the same thing to Raine? I might not make it through the next few months. I might fail to save Maisie. I might never return from Wonderland.

“But I know you have to try,” Sevens said in a tiny voice, as if she’d read my mind. “Or you wouldn’t be you.”

“Wait wait wait,” I said, holding up a hand. “Sevens, you were so confident before. When you spoke to me in the Medieval Metaphysics room, when we first met. Don’t you remember that? Well, no, third time we met, I suppose, but still. You told me I had all the tools, I just had to figure out how to use them.”

Sevens gently clacked her needle-sharp teeth together, then started to chew on her lower lip. She wouldn’t look directly at me.

“You told me to accept the abyssal side of myself.” A nervous laugh slipped from between my lips. “And I have! It’s not even a side, it’s just me. Homo Abyssus is me! It was probably always me, since the Eye!”

“Yes. Yes, that’s true … ”

“A-and I remember your exact words — Grace, friendship, solidarity. These are potential building blocks. Things the Eye can never draw on.” I recited her words like a mantra, surprised myself with my recall. “You told me that, Sevens! You were so certain!”

“Heather,” Evelyn said my name through her teeth, a blunt warning. I couldn’t even look round at her.

A tiny voice in the back of my mind, still rational, asked why I was getting so worked up. I’d rejected Sevens’ words at the time, hadn’t I? Her smug arrogance feeding me riddles. I’d hated it. I’d resented her. So why was my voice growing shrill?

“I was making it up as I went along,” said Sevens, speaking to the floorboards.

“ … but it’s what Maisie said too.” I hiccuped and felt a hole open inside my chest, a void in my heart. “Gather my friends. You implied you knew what that meant.”

“I didn’t. I don’t. Okay?”

“You said … you implied that lesbian romance was somehow the key to beating the Eye. Which I always thought was absurd, because you are rather biased!” Another laugh burbled out of me, maddening in the soft study air. “But you told me that. You meant it, you weren’t lying. You said—”

“I knoooooow!” Sevens whined. “Love conquers all? Maybe I was wrong. I don’t know anymore. I don’t know.”

“Well,” Evelyn muttered under her breath, “that explains a lot.”

My throat closed up. I realised with growing horror that I wanted to take Sevens by the shoulders and shake her until she recanted. She’d told me that I had a chance, however absurd it had seemed; deep down some desperate part of me had been clinging to that fragile piece of driftwood. Now it disintegrated under my hands, leaving me alone and helpless once more, treading water in the open ocean.

“Heather?” Evelyn was saying my name, but I was a million miles away. “Heather? Oh for pity’s sake. Praem, poke her in the shoulder or something, please.”

Sevens was downcast and filled with regret, leaning forward on her hands with her sheet of stringy hair hiding her profile. How could such a powerful Outsider feel regret and remorse? Because she was in love with me. It didn’t matter if love was foreign to her being — she’d learnt it along the way, as we all had to learn to love. And now she was afraid I was going to die in a matter of months.

I was afraid too. I was terrified.

As Praem said something to Evelyn and Evelyn hissed back in frustration, I realised I couldn’t do this to Sevens. I could not demand external validation. I could not expect certainty of Sevens while she was going through her own personal crisis. Faith in myself had to come from elsewhere.

I dredged deep, cradling Maisie’s name in my heart.

“Well, Sevens,” I said, voice stronger than I felt, “I think you were right.”

Evelyn and Praem both stopped talking. Sevens looked up at me and pushed her hair back, a dark mess cast over one shoulder. Red-rimmed eyes with sparks in the centre. She stared in awe at whatever was going on with my face — which was a mystery to me, because I felt awful.

Faith in oneself. Fake it until you make it.

I took Sevens’ hand again. “You were right.”

“No,” she rasped.

“And Maisie was right. I still don’t know what it means, gather your friends, but that is the source of my strength: everybody else. I couldn’t do anything without them.” I glanced over at Evelyn, up at Praem, and down at the floor to where Raine and Twil sat in the kitchen. Lozzie and Tenny were upstairs somewhere. I spared a lost thought for Zheng, wherever she’d gotten to. “So I still think you’re right, and I don’t care what you say now. You won’t move me from that position.”

Her face fell. Even empty of tears, she still sobbed. I held out my arms.

Seven-Shades-of-Seeking-Solidarity crawled into my lap and clung to me for a long, long time. Long enough to stop shaking, for me to find my balance again, for Evelyn to look away and clear her throat. I stroked Sevens’ hair and murmured nonsense for her. I had to be the rock here, at least for now.

Eventually she let go and slithered back out of my lap, taking the folds of yellow robe with her.

“Are you going to be okay?” I asked softly.

“Mmmm,” she grumbled and nodded, rubbing her eyes with her knuckles.

Evelyn cleared her throat again and sat up straight. “I have a question.”

“Evee, I think perhaps the time for questions is done for the moment?” I said with an awkward smile. “We’re all a little emotionally worn out by this.”

“It’s not an emotional question,” Evelyn said, voice oddly tight. “It’s a practical question.”

Sevens blinked bleary eyes over at Evelyn. “Guurrr?”

“You’re invested in Heather’s fate,” Evelyn said. “You’re also incredibly powerful.”

To my surprise, Sevens shook her head and let out a huff like an asthmatic raven. “Not in the way you want.”

“Perhaps not. But you understand the purpose of my question. Can you help us?”

Sevens hung her head as if in shame — but when she raised her face again, she wasn’t the little blood-goblin anymore.

I flinched before I could catch myself. Whistle twisted his muzzle back and forth in confusion; perhaps the mask-change affected scent too. Evelyn jerked in surprise, then held herself in check with visible discomfort. Only Praem seemed unconcerned.

“You really must stop doing that without warning,” I muttered.

Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight had donned her Princess mask once more, appearing exactly as she had in the bedroom earlier, her blonde hair matted at the back and sticking up at one side. She’d carried over the red-rimmed eyes and emotionally exhausted look from the vampire mask as well, still huddled on the floor in the same pose, beneath the yellow robes. Yet somehow she still radiated dignity and control. She didn’t reply to me, but only tilted her chin upward, cold eyes locked with Evelyn.

“It seems you and I must talk strategy,” she said, calm and cool.

Evelyn huffed, suddenly unimpressed. She hunched a little in her chair. “Strategy. Right.”

The Yellow Princess reached over to Whistle with both hands and deftly but gently lifted him from his spot on the corner of the robes. He looked most put out, legs paddling in thin air, about to snap and growl, but Sevens fixed him with an unreadable gaze and his little doggy muzzle clamped shut with an aborted whine. He allowed himself to be put aside, trotting over to Praem for shelter.

Sevens rose to her feet, legs unfolding and spine straightening, graceful as a willow tree. She held her head high and chin raised, one arm across her chest to secure the yellow robes. She bent to retrieve me, one cool, soft hand taking mine and guiding me upward without pausing to ask. I went along, finding it impossible to resist. Once I was safely on my feet, she set about adjusting the yellow robes around her own body, tightening here, loosening there, tugging part of the fabric over one shoulder, wrapping another part around her waist. The garment seemed to flow with her hands, changing position and thickness, until she stood barefoot and elegant in a very fetching semblance of a Roman toga.

“Yes, strategy,” she replied to Evelyn’s withering look. “Because I am merely an amateur. I cannot talk logistics.”

Evelyn perked up, frowning but not quite so unimpressed any more. “Go on.”

“I cannot. You are the professional, Evelyn Saye. I have stood on the sidelines of war, but I have never been a general.”

Evelyn snorted. “Isn’t that what royalty is meant to do? Take all the glory while others do the dying?”

“I have departed my father’s court, by choice,” said the Yellow Princess. If she felt offended, she didn’t show it, not beyond her cold and precise tone. “But I can hardly don the mantle of revolution. Not yet.”

“Yet?” I boggled at her.

“For another time, my kitten.”

Evelyn laughed without humour. “Fair enough, princess. All right then, let’s talk strategy.” She rolled her neck until her spine clicked, then settled back, fingers running idly along the bone-wand in her lap. “You want to sit down?”

Sevens shook her head.

“I do, actually,” I sighed, bending to pick up my bowl of stone-cold vegetable curry.

“Of course, Heather, take the stool.” Evelyn waved her hand vaguely, still staring at Sevens.

I didn’t want to leave Sevens’ side, but something about the way she held herself told me she was beyond contact at the moment, ritually distant, formalised. One arm over her chest, back straight and hard, chin high.

“Fiddlesticks to that,” I whispered, then went up on tiptoes to kiss her on the cheek. She blinked and turned only her eyes to me, which made me almost giggle. She watched me the whole way as I bumbled over to sit down on the step-stool with my disgustingly cold bowl of vegetable curry balanced on my knees.

“Do you know where to find Edward Lilburne?” Evelyn asked.

“No,” said Sevens.

“Can you find him for us?”

Sevens considered this for a moment. Praem took the opportunity to crouch down, gathering up her uniform’s skirts, and place a hand on Whistle’s head.

“My currently preferred mask is technically agoraphobic,” Sevens answered. “It might prove extremely challenging. This mask would be more suitable, but I suspect you have better hunters at your disposal already.”

“No. I mean can you find him with your … ah.” Evelyn sighed with disappointed realisation. “You mean you can’t.”

“Masks only,” Sevens confirmed with an almost apologetic tilt of her head. “Though I do have a few masks from Outside, ones which would certainly cause a stir in the city, possibly draw him out. Though I suspect you would rather I not. My sphere of action is still lesbian romance, and may be shrinking further. Though limitation does bring focus.”

Evelyn and I glanced at each other.

“You mean,” I ventured, “you might become more free to act as you re-define yourself?”

“I do not know, kitten,” said Sevens, a touch of actual sadness in her usually cold voice.

Kitten!” Evelyn spluttered. “Again with that.”

“What if I was threatened?” I asked, growing curious about where her limits truly lay. “Could you act then?”

“Obviously. If you or yours were threatened, well, I have fists, do I not?”

Evelyn rolled her eyes. “You’re an Outsider, the rules of our reality don’t apply to you, not fully. You’re telling me you have the same range of action as a human being?”

“Not quite. Your reality has very flexible rules.”

Sevens held out her right hand. Suddenly, like Lozzie appearing from Outside, her lilac umbrella was right there in her grasp, the handle of polished wood glinting in the soft light. At this, even Praem was surprised, standing up suddenly. Sevens twirled the umbrella and tapped the metal tip against the floorboards.

“My rules, however,” Sevens added, “are less flexible. My range is limited. As is yours.”

“All right, all right.” Evelyn sucked on her teeth. “Allow me to posit an absurd example. What if Edward, say, kidnapped Raine because he was in love with her and wanted to steal her from Heather?”

“Evee!” I whined. “Ew.”

“I said it’s an intentionally absurd example. Calm down.”

“Then yes,” said Sevens. Her brown tightened by a fraction, the tiniest frown. “The lover of my beloved, kidnapped, mm. I would not restrain myself to mere directorial duties. I never again wish to do so.”

“You mean you’d go after him, as yourself?” Evelyn asked. “Could you, I don’t know, appear behind him and take his heart out for us? Or—”

Sevens shook her head with a heavy sigh. “To you I might seem as a god, but in truth I am only a single step removed from you and yours.”

“That’s what your father said to me!” I blurted out in shock. “Exactly, word for word.”

Sevens bowed her head. “He speaks well. When he is not being difficult.” She raised her eyes to Evelyn again. “You think of me as an Outsider reality-warper, but that could not be further from the truth. I am bound by rules, just as you are. The primary difference is that I have some leeway to define my own set of rules, but in turn they define me. If broken, I would lose definition.”

“You’re trying not to cheat,” I muttered.

“Huh,” Evelyn grunted.

“How do you think I and my father and my many siblings remain so lucid?” Sevens went on. “I am currently redefining myself, yes, but I am still bound, as a human is still bound by gravity and thermodynamics. Ignore those rules, and you are no longer human, but something else. Usually dead.”

“Or like me,” I murmured.

Sevens nodded toward me with deep respect in the tilt of her head. “The other outcome.”

“Huh. Convenient,” Evelyn grunted. “So what you’re saying is you’re useless?”

“Wait,” I interrupted. “What about when you stopped my nuclear explosion?”

Evelyn looked at me, wide-eyed, mouth hanging open. “You made a nuclear explosion?”

“Oh, I didn’t tell you that part. Yes, in the dark corridor, in the library.” Evelyn stared at me. I cleared my throat, faintly embarrassed. “It wasn’t a good idea. I would have blown myself up.”

“When I met you in the library,” said Sevens, “I was falling apart. My edges had become … fuzzy. Poorly defined. I was in danger of what my father once termed the primordial urge, the return to formlessness, the lure of the deep waters.”

“The abyss?” I asked.

“Just so.”

“Oh, Sevens.”

She’d been in danger of what I struggled against. Less so than when I first returned from my journey through the deepest black, but the temptation was always there, the whispered promise of ultimate freedom in lack of solid definition. Homo Abyssus I may have been, but part of me still yearned for infinity.

“Your acceptance was my salvation, Heather,” Sevens continued. “I stopped the ‘explosion’ with such ease because I was losing my boundaries. I could do it again, certainly to save your life, but the act would be one of self redefinition. As every act is, no matter how small. Even these words I am speaking right now are further defining my limits, my boundaries, my self-hood.”

“What if somebody broke into this house?” Evelyn asked quickly, perhaps unwilling to be drawn into further debate about Outsider philosophy.

“Then I would do my best to stop them, though Raine’s pistol or your servitors would be better suited to that task.”

“What if I asked you to protect Evelyn?” I said out loud. Sevens turned to look at me and raised an eyebrow. “It’s a serious question,” I added.

“That I would do so,” she said. “Though I would need a suitable mask.”

“This one seems pretty suitable already,” Evelyn muttered. “You don’t fool me with the lack of serious muscle mass. You are dangerous, whatever face you wear.”

“Suitable for my father’s realm, perhaps. Not for the dangers one may face elsewhere.” Sevens tilted her head sideways, a performative gesture of consideration. Then she tilted her head the other way, slowly looking toward me. “Yes, there is only one who is fully suited to protecting you, Evelyn.”

I stared back, mouth open, a slight blush rising in my cheeks. “I-I’m not—”

Sevens looked away from me. She turned her head toward Praem.

“May I?” she asked.

“You may,” Praem intoned.

Sevens grabbed a fistful of her makeshift yellow toga, just over her heart. She bowed deeply, sweeping her other hand until it almost touched the floor, one leg stretched back with toes pointed in a pose like a ballerina. She moved with languid slowness, an illusion as if she were underwater.

Then she was all speed. She straightened up, spinning on one foot and ripping the toga off in a combined motion of perfect elegance. The yellow robes billowed into the air, concealing her for a split second behind a rippling sea of butter-yellow infinity and sunlight depths.

The robes fell toward me, pooling in my lap and across my legs as Sevens stood revealed.

The Princess Mask was gone, replaced by Seven-Shades-of-Surely-Not-a-Servant.

I sighed. “You are a terrible show-off. Almost as bad as Raine.”

An exact replica of Praem stood before us, separated from the genuine article by only a few feet. Milk-white eyes, cold-blonde hair, curvy and compact, with her hands folded demurely in front of her. Expressionless and blank, she’d captured Praem’s natural mannerisms with perfection. She’d even copied the maid outfit, right down to the starch and lace.

She had permitted herself only one allowance, perhaps to assist us poor apes who couldn’t tell reality from fiction. Seven-Shades-of-Not-Praem wore a skintight yellow undershirt beneath the maid outfit, visible only as a butter-smooth layer of cloth at her wrists and throat. Yellow highlights in the black-and-white.

Poor Whistle was very confused, nose twitching between the real Praem and Sevens’ imitation, trotting back and forth between their ankles.

Sevens sketched a tiny curtsy, just a flick of one hand next to her skirt.

“Oh yes,” Evelyn drawled — though her studied contempt did not entirely conceal the touch of disquiet in her voice. “Very original. I have seen two of her before, you know? And I did that myself, no Outsider tricks necessary.”

“Yes,” Sevens intoned with Praem’s voice, clear as a bell heard across a glacier.

“Indeed,” added the real Praem.

I sighed again but couldn’t keep the smile off my face. “Well, it’s very fetching, I suppose. But no. Absolutely not. Never.”

“This is the best mask for the hypothetical task,” said Sevens.

“Task?” I asked.

“Protecting Evelyn,” both Praems said together.

They looked at each other. It was like mirror images.

“This doesn’t bother you, Praem?” I asked.

“She asked,” Praem said.

“Permission,” Sevens ended the sentence.

“And I said—”

“—yes.”

“Oh no, absolutely not,” Evelyn said. “I’m not having this. Heather is correct, stop it.”

“This is—”

“—only illustration.”

“Not a—”

“—real mask.”

“Fun,” ended the real Praem.

Evelyn huffed through her teeth. Praem and Mirror-Praem ignored her.

The real Praem suddenly adjusted her own uniform with quick, precise movements of her hands, smoothing out her already wrinkle-free skirt, tugging lace tight at her elbow and settling shoulder straps beneath her top. She stopped, about to resume her habitual folded-hands pose, but then put one hand on her hips and raised the other to her face instead. She framed one eye with a sideways peace-symbol, index and middle finger. Sevens copied the pose.

“Oh for—” Evelyn hissed.

“Fabulous,” Praem intoned.

“You are,” replied Sevens, in Praem’s own voice.

Evelyn put her face in her hands, moaning softly. I frowned, feeling just as confused as Whistle looked. He snuffed once and sat down, deciding to wait this one out.

“Um,” I said.

“Babysitting duties,” said the real Praem, dropping her hands back into her usual pose. “Then you will be a good girl.”

“I will,” said Sevens.

“But not me,” Praem added.

“Regrettable.”

“Necessary. Do not confuse Tenny. Follow me.”

Before Evelyn or I could protest or interject, Praem turned on her heel with a spin of her skirt, opened the door back into the dark corridor, and padded out of the room. Whistle scrambled to his feet and clattered after her. Sevens lingered for a moment, turning to look back at Evelyn and I. She did another curtsy-in-name-only with a flick of her hand.

“Praem would never do that,” Evelyn snapped. “Not like that.”

Seven-Shades-of-Sussed-Out stopped dead, then stopped being.

The vampire mask was back in her place, standing before us in a t-shirt several times too large for her tiny frame, dark hair spilling down her back. She shook herself with a sudden convulsive motion, gritting her needle-teeth and gurgling deep in her throat.

“Not a real mask anyway,” she croaked, glaring at Evelyn like a sulky teenager.

“It’s not my fault it was imperfect,” Evelyn shot back. “Don’t imitate my daughter then.”

“Rrrrrr.”

“Good girl,” Praem intoned softly from the corridor. It was a call to arms.

“Yeah, yeah,” Sevens groaned.

I started to rise from my seat. “Are you going to be all right? Do you want me to … ?”

Sevens shook her head and waved me back down, hunching her shoulders with a grimace. “Gotta do some things myself. You need to eat. I’ll go … meet tentacles,” she hissed, and slunk after Praem like a lizard venturing into a cave.

“I’ll catch up with you in a bit!” I called.

A small pale hand closed the door behind her, leaving me alone with Evelyn and a bowl of soggy vegetable curry.

My stomach grumbled in the moment of silence that followed. Evelyn and I met each others’ eyes, but I was too stunned to speak. Evelyn shrugged, also at a loss for words. I took up a spoonful of vegetable mush from my bowl, then thought better of it, letting the food slide back in with a wet plop.

“Well,” I tried. “At least she’s getting on with Praem? I think? Actually, I’m not sure what just happened. Even by our standards, that was … difficult.”

“That was extraordinarily weird,” Evelyn said, leaning back in her old wooden desk chair with a big sigh. “And probably a ploy to get me to stop asking so many questions.”

“Oh. Oh dear, you really think so? You think Sevens was concealing something?”

Evelyn blinked at me, beyond exhausted. “Heather, she is an Outsider and probably hundreds of years old. She’s concealing a lot of things, I have no doubt. But she’s also going through a crisis that isn’t any of my business. But, I have to ask these things, because nobody else will. Certainly not you.”

“I understand, Evee. And I forgive you for sounding rude, I know you mean well.”

“Do I?” Evelyn asked, then cleared her throat before I could answer, before I could think about what that might really mean. “So, Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight, your Outsider friend, she can’t help us find Edward Lilburne. Pity.”

“I’m not sure that’s one hundred percent true,” I offered, feeling sceptical. I put my bowl down on the floor and drew the discarded yellow robes over my shoulders, burrowing down in the warmth.

“Nevertheless, it means we’re still waiting for the good detective to get back to us. Let’s hope the documents she stole from the lawyer turn up something useful.” Evelyn mused, sucking on her teeth. She looked at me sidelong. “What about you, Heather?”

“What about me?”

“You’ve come very far recently. I don’t suppose you could try that trick with the map of Sharrowford again, try to pinpoint Mr Lilburne’s location?”

Evelyn’s voice didn’t hold a lot of hope, just a faintly amused note, but I still felt guilty.

“Probably not,” I said. “I think Sevens made a good point about limitations. They keep us defined. To encompass a whole city with my mind … I don’t think it’s safe for me to cross that boundary.” A shiver went up my spine — what would happen if I surpassed my limits? The abyss again? No, I’d learnt to accept that part of myself, I wouldn’t dive again without intention. What lay beyond my limits was abandonment of where I’d started, of where I still stood. But I swallowed, a cold lump in my throat. “But I will, if we have to,” I said. “For Maisie. But maybe Nicole can find him first, yes.”

Evelyn nodded. “Or maybe Stack will come through. Ha!” She barked a humourless laugh, but I appreciated the effort.

“An address would help.” I shrugged. “Not as if thinking about it helps us right now.”

Evelyn suddenly glared daggers at me. I actually flinched, one tentacle twitching upward.

“Evee?”

“Thinking ahead is exactly what is going to keep us alive, Heather,” she snapped, eyes blazing. “Especially if we have to go up against Edward on his home turf.”

“I— I wasn’t—”

“Plans and back up plans and back-up back up plans may be the only thing standing between us and disaster.” As she spoke, Evelyn gripped the stump of her thigh through her skirt, tighter and tighter. She didn’t seem to be aware of it. “Do you understand?”

“I do, but—”

“What happened last night, that never happens again. Never.”

“It won’t!” I blurted out, desperate to comfort her. I pointed at her leg. “Evee, you’re hurting yourself.”

“What? Oh.” She let go of her thigh, suppressing a wince.

“Evee, what happened last night will never happen again. The dead hands are gone. Alexander’s ghost, whatever it was, it’s gone now.”

“Not good enough,” Evelyn said, still scowling but not quite as angry. “We should have had contingencies in place. I should have predicted everything that might possibly happen to you out there. Or Lozzie! It’s not just you. We should have had the gate formula ready and adjusted for that weird grassland where she’s storing her tin men, just in case you needed an escape route. Everything that happened to you could have been avoided with one tiny precaution, but we didn’t take it!” She snapped. “We’ve been lax because we barely know what we’re doing half the time. Well, not again.”

“Evee, it’s not all your responsibility.” I reached over to take her hand. At first she tried to shake me off, but then I asked silent permission with my eyes. She allowed me to slip my fingers into hers. She sighed and shook her head, but she did squeeze back.

“It is my responsibility,” she grumbled, “because you might be a natural leader, but you’re a shitty strategist. No offence.”

“None taken.” I laughed.

“What I am trying to say is that I should have insisted that you and Lozzie waited for me to set up the gate properly. You were so wrapped up in her, in what you were doing, in your crisis. I couldn’t get through to you. I’ve told you before, I’m not good at doing any of this unrehearsed. I couldn’t find the right words to make you stop and think for five seconds so I could—”

Evelyn broke off and huffed, tapping her fingernails on her bone wand.

“You were right. It was a bad idea, no matter how it turned out in the end.”

“Mm.”

“Evee,” I pitched my voice low and gentle. “I trust your judgement.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t.”

“But I do. Evee, in future, if ever you need to insist that I stop a course of action, just say so.”

“I can never find the right thing to say in the heat of the moment.” She hissed frustration. “You know that.”

“Then say I insist. It can be our code. If you say that, then I promise I’ll stop.”

Evelyn looked at me with a dark frown. “Don’t do that. What if I’m wrong? What if I get something wrong and get one of us killed?”

I laughed with the absurdity of it, then covered my mouth with one hand, mortified for laughing at her. “Sorry! Sorry, I didn’t mean in a moment of genuine emergency. If I need to pull Raine out of the jaws of a shark, I won’t stop because you tell me to. Though I do hope we aren’t going to meet any sharks.”

“Me too.” Evelyn tutted.

“I mean when making plans. When we have that chance to pause. If you say I insist, then we stop and rethink. I promise.”

Evelyn swallowed, unable to meet my eyes. She nodded slowly. “All right. All right, Heather. How are you so bloody good at this?”

“At what?”

“Expressing yourself.”

I shrugged. “I fake it, mostly. I copy Raine. I copy you, as well, believe it or not.” I had to add that qualifier when Evelyn’s eyebrows tried to meet in the middle. “I copy things I’ve read in books, too. There’s no trick to it.”

Evelyn snorted, shaking her head. She let go of my hand, lifted the bone wand off her thighs, and placed it carefully back on the desk. She tilted her head upward and rubbed her face with her fingertips, working the tension and stress out of her muscles.

“Then I insist,” she said. “Right now.”

“Ah?”

“You and I need to talk strategy too. Alone, without the others.” She stopped rubbing her face and met my eyes, not glowering, not cold and clinical Evelyn Saye, but not grumpy Evee either. This was the Evelyn who I’d come to a silent agreement with, out on the Quiet Plain. “So I can say things without Raine trying to argue with me through you.”

“Do … do we have to do this now, Evee? “I’m exhausted, can’t it wait until … ” I glanced at the window, but it was already evening. The sunset had finished. Only darkness lurked outdoors.

“I insist,” she hissed. “Or did you not mean that?”

“I did! I did, Evee, I’m sorry, it’s just we’re not even making plans right now.”

“We are. Heather, we need to talk about this ASAP, because you keep surviving things you shouldn’t, however happy that makes me.” She swallowed down a knot of emotion at those words. “You’ve just come fresh off besting the King in fucking Yellow, and I don’t even know what that means. You’ve slept, you’re awake enough to deal with this. I am worried you will walk into this while bursting with overconfidence, even if you don’t show it externally. So we need to talk.”

I boggled at her. Me, overconfident? “About what?”

“About what happens when we find Edward Lilburne’s lair.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Poor Sevens. Self-critique is a challenge even for those of us whose self-definition isn’t quite so literal. But she’s in good hands.

PraemPraemmoekyun~!

Ahem. My apologies, I don’t know what came over me.

And Merry Christmas, dear readers! I hope you’re having a lovely day, whatever and however you may be celebrating. No Patreon plug this week, as it’s the last chapter of the month and that always feels a little unfair. Instead, may I direct you to the Katalepsis tag over on Ao3? There’s been quite a bit of fanfiction over the last year, and some of it has been absolutely incredible. Perhaps next week I’ll point out one or two in particular!

Meanwhile, if you’re still hankering to support the story, you can always:

Vote for Katalepsis on TopWebFiction!

Believe it or not, this really helps. Even now, a lot of readers find the story through TWF! It only takes a couple of clicks to vote!

And leave a review! Or a like, a thumbs up, a comment on a chapter, it’s all great, and it helps me so so much to know there’s people out there reading and enjoying the story; that’s the whole reason I do this anyway. And thank you for reading!

Next week, it looks like Evelyn’s strategic mind is gearing up to take on another mage. Perhaps Heather needs to listen very carefully. After all, Evee’s done this before, without the aid of brainmath.

for the sake of a few sheep – 15.5

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

In the end, we compromised; or perhaps Raine just sweet-talked us. Sevens bathed while I napped, and Raine promised not to corner her until I was awake.

Neither Raine nor I waited in the bathroom, though. We had no desire to invade Sevens’ privacy. That scrawny, pale body was only a mask over the abyssal truth of Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight, but to treat her as anything other than a full person would be a slippery slope indeed. So we drained the lukewarm bathwater, collected my yellow robe from the counter, and left Sevens to her own business. I led Tenny out by a tentacle, though Raine lingered a moment to ask if Sevens wanted us to leave Whistle behind.

“Not good with dogs,” she said in her raspy voice. She made hesitant eye-contact with little Whistle. He snuffed. “They don’t like me.”

So Raine scooped Whistle up in her arms. But she turned back at the door. “My deepest apologies if this is a stupid question, oh princessy one—”

Sevens clacked her teeth with irritation. “Just ask.”

“It’s okay, Sevens,” I spoke around the door frame. “Raine means well.”

“Guurrrghhh … ”

“If you’re all masks and costumes and onion layers,” Raine said, “can’t you just step into a cupboard and step out clean? Superman style? If you don’t want a bath, why not skip the experience? For serious, I’m not taking the piss. Not trying to mock you or anything.”

Sevens gazed back at Raine with eyes like chips of molten-cored obsidian, face tilted down to throw her eye sockets into shadow. Her lips parted and she blew a bubble with her own saliva. Then she huffed like a grumpy teenager.

“Would be cheating,” she said. “I’m here now.”

“Gotcha, say no more. Want me to run a fresh bath for you or—”

“I know how taps work,” Sevens snapped. She punctuated her complaint with a cut-off gerrrrk noise in the back of her throat, then turned and slapped at the taps. Water splashed into the tub. I was left with a lingering view of Sevens’ slender back through her dark tank-top, the individual vertebrae of her spine standing out as she hunched over the bath. As we retreated and Raine closed the bathroom door behind us, Sevens glanced back and met my exhausted gaze with black-on-red, for just a second, petulant and grumpy — but also pleading.

Raine waited at a polite distance from the bathroom door, until she was certain the splashing sounds indicated Sevens was properly in the tub, then she finally turned away to put me to bed.

Tenny was gently asked to go entertain herself or find Lozzie — “Because auntie Heather needs to sleep.” Whistle curled up like a giant French pastry at the foot of our bed. Raine got me out of my damp towel and into some clean pajamas, then used Evelyn’s blow dryer on my hair. It didn’t take much to coax me under the bed sheets, especially when Raine draped the yellow robes over the top of the covers. But when she sat down and brushed my hair away from my forehead, I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep.

“Of course you will,” Raine said. “It’s what your body needs. Just relax. You were nodding off in the bath easy enough.”

“I’m too buzzed,” I said with a fatalistic sigh. I reached out of the covers with my tentacle and curled it around a corner of Sevens’ yellow robes, feeling the strange metaphysical warmth flow into the pale flesh of my extra limb. “Despite how tired I am. There’s too much to think about, too much to do. There’s Sevens, and I need to know why Zheng isn’t home yet, and we need to speak to Badger but we can’t all visit him in the hospital, and … Nicole? With the papers? … and Evee’s … mmm … ”

Good Lady Hypnos claimed me without my knowledge, enfolding me in dreamless oblivion.

==

My plan of just a nap, just an hour or two did not survive contact with that first sip of sleep; Raine was correct, my body knew what it needed, and that was apparently eleven hours of lying very still. My powers of unstoppable napping consumed the rest of the morning, smothered the whole afternoon, and bit off a good chunk of the evening. Hazy periods of drifting consciousness came and went, submersed in cocooned comfort. I dimly recalled waking up to the rasping sound of Sevens’ voice and Raine’s whispered reply, “You woke her, shhhhh.”

I must have sat up, because I felt like I’d been dragged from the rubble of a collapsed star. I recalled grumbling “More sleep,” and flopping back down in bed. I recalled Raine’s gentle hands tucking me back in.

I remembered stumbling to the toilet sometime later, my eyes closed against the afternoon sunlight pouring in through the windows. I recalled a firm grip helping me there and back. Raine’s face filled my memory, her hands holding a glass of water.

“So you don’t wake up with cotton-mouth,” she’d said. I must have complained terribly, because a tiny whip-crack of command tinted her next words. “Come on Heather. Drink, then I’ll let you sleep more.”

“Sleep more,” I remembered saying, but nothing after that.

==

Sunset heralded true awareness.

An early summer sunset paying a premature visit to the last days of spring, turning the horizon the colour of old blood, drenching the underside of the clouds with a deep orange which dripped onto the city of Sharrowford beneath. Even the warm, womb-like darkness of my bedroom was not immune to the deluge. The mouth of the sunset furnace glowed through the curtain, teasing my eyes open. Half-awake, I gazed up at the sliver of orange sky visible in the gap between fabric and window frame.

I lay immobile for what felt like a very long time, though it was likely only a minute or two. I struggled to keep my eyes open, drawn to that sky, surrounded by the barely-visible shapes of familiar furniture and discarded clothes in the gloom all around.

My subconscious registered somebody else’s breathing nearby. Not in the armchair, not by the desk, not out in the dark. Raine, right where she should be, next to me in bed.

Instinctively I burrowed back down into the bed sheets and rolled onto my side to snuggle against her. Hands reaching, tentacle questing, nose nuzzling for her neck.

A scent like iron, like blood on skin.

Unfamiliar body odour was not fully masked by soap — thin and hot, like strong black coffee. One of my hands bumped a bony shoulder.

I was suddenly very awake and very aware that I shared a bed with neither Raine or Zheng, nor anything else I recognised.

I was half-upright and pulling the covers after me, heart clenching like a fist, a hiss caught in my throat. But then the petite form in bed next to me, draped in thick shadows, brought last night rushing back.

“Oh,” I breathed at my own stupid panic. “Sevens.”

Tension drained away, though it left a slight adrenaline tremor in my hands and a heavy pulse in my tired skull. I leaned to the side so the hazy sunset glow would afford me a better view of Seven-Shades-of-Fast-Asleep.

Sevens was asleep on her back beneath the sheets, all sprawled out. One leg stuck out of the covers, one arm was thrown over her head, her hips and belly were twisted sideways, and her neck was kinked at a very uncomfortable looking angle. She once again demonstrated that the vampire mask had joints made of rubber and ball bearings. Her dark hair was no longer greasy and unkempt, but had emerged from the enforced bath time as a silken blanket, now spread out across the pillow and partially twisted beneath her strangely fragile body. She wore a loose white t-shirt several sizes too large for her, probably borrowed from Raine.

Her mouth hung open in sleep, a dark cave full of glittering needles.

I’d expected her to sleep curled up in a ball, perhaps even wrapped entirely in a duvet like some kind of burrowing animal who felt safest in tight spaces. Another assumption of mine which proved wrong. Her face with its small and delicate features, her sharp cheekbones and pinched nose, looked utterly relaxed. In sleep, she inhaled through her nose and snored ever so gently as she exhaled through her mouth.

The dying sunlight picked out the tracery of blue veins beneath her mushroom-pale skin. Was this safe for a vampire? She’d stuck her hand in direct sunlight earlier and hadn’t burst into flame. She didn’t start to smoke and hiss as I watched her sleep, so I put the notion from my mind.

Then I noticed the position of her other hand, close to me. Her fingers were long and grasping, and wrapped tight in the fabric of the yellow robes she’d gifted to me.

“Oh … ” I breathed, my smile turning painful. The robes seemed to catch and store the sunset which fell upon the fabric, turning the colour of molten honey.

I looked from the robe to Sevens. She was about my size, though scrawnier and smaller, but not by much. When awake, her eyes were like saucers, all black and red, absolutely not human. But if we were both plunged into darkness — and if she refrained from making noises like a cave lizard — then at a casual glance we might appear quite similar.

“ … am I treating you as a surrogate too?” I whispered, then shook my head. “No. No, I’m … attracted to you. That’s not a Maisie thing. That’s a you thing.”

Sevens snorted in her sleep and I feared I’d woken her with something deeply embarrassing to both of us, but then she stirred and settled back into the soft breathing of deeper slumber.

I sighed and finished sitting up, careful not to drag the sheets off her.

Nobody else was in the room, neither Raine nor Whistle. A seed of worry tried to germinate in the back of my mind, but I reminded myself that it was evening, I’d been sleeping all day. I could hardly expect Raine to be there right away. No emergency seemed apparent — the house was quiet but not silent. A gentle murmur of voices floated up from the ground floor, barely audible through the solid construction of Number 12 Barnslow Drive. I could hear somebody moving around a few rooms away, perhaps in Evelyn’s study, and the muffled sounds of a television talking to itself through the walls.

When I turned to the bedside table for the time — 09:15, my clock announced — I found a note.

Folded so it stood up like a pyramid, the note was placed with one corner tucked beneath my mobile phone, so I couldn’t possibly miss it or knock it to the floor.

A spike of worry needled at my heart. My tentacle snatched up the note and conveyed it to my quivering hands. I almost hissed in frustration at the delay of unfolding the thing.

“Why is this practically origami? What’s so important that—”

Pencil writing blossomed as I wrestled the note open.

If you wake up and need me, I’m downstairs! But keep sleeping if you need to. We saved you some dinner too, if you’re hungry.

“Oh,” I breathed. “Raine, don’t scare me like that … ”

There was more.

Remember you haven’t asked permission yet, so no shagging the vampire! But you can cuddle and kiss if you want, you get that for free.

Love you, xxx Raine~

I folded the note into quarters and briefly considered eating it to destroy the evidence — surely I could exert pneuma-somatic biology to fully digest paper without the risk of stomach problems? But then I shoved it away under the detritus on my bedside table. Deep orange sunset glow hid my blush.

“You can’t be serious, Raine,” I whispered into the gloom. “I never said I wanted to … want to … ” I pulled my knees up beneath the covers and buried my face in them. “I do want to kiss her,” I said in a shuddering breath. “I do. Oh, Heather, stop.”

I didn’t love Sevens, not yet. It would be unfair to toy with her emotions by expressing physical affection when I still didn’t know where this was going. But we’d already come so close. My single tentacle was already drifting through the air toward one of her wrists, driven by a strange and unfamiliar desire to hold her there, hold her wrist down. I stopped the unconscious reaction and turned my head to gaze upon Sevens again, just as an experiment.

She was looking back up at me.

I froze — but Sevens’ eyes were open only a crack, two slits of deeper black with sparks of red at their cores, like gemstones from the heart of a volcano. She didn’t seem to have heard, held on the razor’s edge between sleep and consciousness.

But of course she’d heard, hadn’t she? She wasn’t actually this in front of me, was she? Her awareness extended beyond that, into the abyssal.

Didn’t it?

Why take a bath? Because to skip it would be cheating.

I swallowed on a suddenly dry throat and raised my voice to just above a whisper. It came out hoarse and dry. “Sevens?”

“ … mmmmmm,” she grumbled, a tired and raspy noise.

Then, to the sound of my heart playing a trumpet blare, she stuck one awkward gangly arm out toward me.

I bit my lip, heart juddering, mouth gone totally dry. Raine had said it was okay and now Sevens was asking for it too. The instinctive ape in me wanted to cuddle up and go back to sleep with this packmate-friend-partner, but I retained enough higher functions to hold off for a few moments longer.

“Sevens, I … I can’t promise you anything, I don’t—”

“Guurrrrr,” she rasped, going pouty and petulant in the sunset glow. “Shut up and give me a hug. Please?” She finished by clicking her teeth together, clack-clack.

That cannonball went right through my curtain wall, hit my powder magazine, and blew me to pieces.

Before I could stop myself, I was giving Sevens exactly what she’d asked for. My tentacle snaked out and grabbed one of her wrists, pinning it to the pillow and drawing a confused “Maaah?” of sleepy complaint from her. A second tentacle sprouted from my flank beneath the blankets to join the first, powered by the most gentle flicker of my bioreactor. I ran that up behind her, along the stringy muscles of her slender back, to press her in close and cradle her against my front. I was snuggling back down in bed, hands gently touching her shoulders through her t-shirt. Keep it chaste for now, Heather, come on, I willed myself — but then I leaned in close and planted a soft kiss on her cheek.

She tasted of soap with a hint of iron.

“Heatherrrrr,” she half-complained, half-exalted me, snuggling into my hug in return. I gasped in something akin to awe.

My goodness, she was so slight and bony, there was so little of her. It was like cradling a bird whose bones were at risk of shattering if you pressed too tight. I was gentle, so very gentle, but I wanted to squeeze her and make her squeak — though I also struggled with a strange desire to march her downstairs and make her a lot of food. I was blushing from the unexpected kiss, asking myself why I’d done that, wondering what the hell I was doing as I held Sevens close. She nuzzled in deeper, pressing against my shoulder, giving herself to me. I took a shuddering breath, reminded myself that Raine had given me permission for this, and began to lean in to kiss her cheek again. Just her cheek, I told myself.

And that’s when I felt her jaw hinge wide.

Dozens of very sharp teeth pressed their needle-prick pressure against my exposed throat.

Oh right, I thought to myself, oddly calm. Vampire.

Seven-Shades-of-Exsanguination did not bite down right away. She clung to me, strong fingers gripping the back of my pajama top, her legs entangled with mine, holding us locked together in the moment before the bloody joining of mouth to artery. I felt the hot tickle of her breath against my skin and the faint tremor in her limbs.

I should have sprouted all six of my tentacles and peeled her off me like a leech. I should have speed-grown armour plating over my throat to turn away her fangs. I should have said down, bad girl!

But I’d already established who was in charge here; this changed nothing.

I sighed with deep release I hadn’t known I’d needed. Almost without thought, one of my hands ran up Sevens’ back, slow and gentle, then cupped the back of her head where skull met spine, pressing her against me. The tentacle I’d been using to hug her crept upward too, wrapping around her neck, like holding the muzzle of a feeding calf. I tilted my head back to expose more throat, eyes fluttering shut as a tiny part of my mind screamed why are you enjoying this?!

“Go ahead,” I murmured. “If you need it.”

And I meant it. God help me, I meant it for real. I would have let her bite down.

Well, it’s not as if I couldn’t have patched the hole with pneuma-somatic tissue. I wonder if Sevens would have classed that as ‘cheating’?

Sevens froze for a long moment — even her excited, nervous vibration stopped, going cold in my arms. Then I felt the pinpricks of her needle-teeth leave my throat. She let out a weird little “Guuurrrgh,” noise and scooted back from me, pulling as far away as she could without actually leaving the hug. Her eyes avoided mine, staring down at the covers. The dim sunset glow almost hid her awkward blush.

“Sevens?”

“ … I was j-joking,” she rasped through those sharp little clenched teeth, then managed to meet my eyes with a blushing frown. “Why’d you have to make it weird?”

I laughed, couldn’t help myself. “You were quite welcome to go ahead, if you needed to. I wouldn’t have minded.” I put a hand to my throat where her teeth had touched, but it came away clean. She hadn’t even broken the skin.

“Mmmmm-rrrrrr … ” she rasped with obvious embarrassment, scooting further back in the bed.

She didn’t reject the hug entirely. One of her hands lingered for the touch of my own, but I sensed she did need the physical space, so I let her go. She sat up, coiled in the blankets like a ferret in a burrow. I followed suit so we were eye to eye. Two small animals sitting opposite each other in the dying sun, both of us mere physical fronts for unspeakable and unknowable invisible truths. Sevens sniffed and rubbed at her nose, watching me with a cautious look. The t-shirt was so large on her it looked silly, like a tent. I let my two tentacles coil about myself for comfort, rubbing my bruised sides — all that hard work last night had left a mark, even if I was mostly used to it by now. Flinging myself across the kitchen to save the Knight with a Slip had strained more than a few muscles.

“Do you need blood?” I asked. “Are you really a vampire? I mean, in this mask, right now?”

Sevens slowly blinked one eye closed, then the other, then opened both. “It’s what this mask believed. She drank blood. Sometimes.”

“Who was she?”

Seven-Shades-of-Suddenly-Shy averted her eyes and fidgeted in her coiled blanket nest, hunching her shoulders and ducking her head, a prelude to hiding away. She hissed through bared teeth.

I reached out with a tentacle and took firm but gentle hold of her chin and cheek, arresting her retreat. I was only half-aware of what I was doing, still groggy and running mostly on instinct, but this made my heart pound against the inside of my ribs.

“Gu-uhh!” Sevens gurgled. Her eyes shot up, blinking rapidly.

“ … sorry,” I said, throat gone tight. “I just … why her? Why this mask? I know there’s no real you, no real mask. I accept that, totally. But I would love to know more about you. Why this mask? Why is this one comfortable for you?”

Sevens made a grumble in her throat and leaned into my tentacle for a second, then gently moved away. Dominance reinforced. She looked down at her own slender, bony arms and flexed her wiry fingers before she spoke.

“She was the first one I ever guided to happiness with another woman,” Sevens said slowly, voice a gentle creak of raspy vocal chords.

Her words held a strange melancholy I couldn’t quite place. Memory, I supposed.

“Oh,” I sighed. “Oh, Sevens.”

She shrugged. “So she’s kind of like the last time I redefined myself? We’re all just stories in the end, right? So here’s one that made me.” She made a claw of her fingers in front of her face, mock-menacing at me, but the toothy grin she pulled was one hundred percent fake. She couldn’t even convince herself.

“Sevens, are you all right?”

She let the hand fall to the sheets again. “I’m … I don’t know. It’s been a long time since I did this.”

“Redefined yourself?”

She nodded, chewing her bottom lip and looking out at the sunset. “And it’s scary. Self-critique hurts. You realise all the things you’ve been getting wrong.”

“You’ve been doing pretty well so far, I think.”

Her eyes wandered back to me, slow and sad and not really convinced. “This mask,” she said. “Do you want to hear the story?”

“Yes!” I almost yelped. “Yes, please, Sevens, I want to know about you. Please.”

“Mmmmm,” she grumbled. “Well, her name was Julija. Don’t call me that though, I’m not her.” Sevens frowned. I nodded seriously and she carried on. “She was born to a very, very rich family. The sort of family who lived in a castle. But she was also very, very sick. Born wrong. Something eating her inside, maybe, something in her heart or her brain. They didn’t have the kind of medical technology you have these days, so they couldn’t fix her, no matter the herbs they stuffed in her mouth or the leeches they put on her skin. But her family were rich and they lived in a part of the world where money could buy anything. So they bought a way out for their daughter, before her body finished running down.”

“They made her into a vampire?”

Sevens shrugged, bony shoulders lopsided beneath her nest of blankets. “They didn’t know what they were buying. They didn’t know the full price. They hired a mysterious gentleman of great renown, who came with a big glass vial of stolen blood from something of which he would not speak. He encased their daughter in magic circles and a coffin of lead. Then he killed her, then brought her back, then killed her again with a stake through the heart, then left the corpse in a bath filled with the blood of a freshly slaughtered bull. When he left, her parents waited the two full days as they were instructed. They didn’t disturb the corpse. They did love their daughter, but they couldn’t deal with what she was when she woke up.”

As Sevens spoke and warmed to her tale, she visibly relaxed, no longer avoiding my eyes but locking to them with an almost hypnotic intensity. Her voice became a barbed lure, dragging one’s thoughts onward through the past.

“She was like an animal. Hated sunlight, water, loud noises, rough clothes against her skin, wrong tastes. All sorts of things. Attacked the servants, the walls, the floor. Went around naked, barking and growling. But her parents loved her, so they did everything they could, tried to make her comfortable, made a secluded haven for her to rave and scream as much as she needed. But as the years went by, her parents aged. She didn’t. She got these weird eyes. She grew strong but not older. And she grew these.” Sevens flashed her needle-pointed teeth and clacked them together.

“Poor thing,” I murmured.

“Mmm. It was a hundred years later when I turned up.”

I blinked. “A century?”

“Mmhmm. The parents were long dead. Julija was a family myth, a thing living in the castle cellars and inside the walls. She ate rats and mice, mostly, drained them and left the corpses lying around. Sometimes they’d be found, add to the myth. But it wasn’t enough, you know?” Sevens placed an index fingertip against the side of her skull and twisted it back and forth.

“Not enough blood?”

“Not enough to make her brain work again.”

“Oh. Oh, I see!”

Sevens sighed, a wet rasp. “I was there for the father, actually. The current head of the household, I mean, not Julija’s father, he’d been a good man. I was … not quite following in my own father’s footsteps, but I did … things.” Sevens dipped her head, suddenly awkward again.

“Grand Guignol?” I echoed the words Melancholy had spoken back on the road to the King’s palace in Carcosa. “A bit of the old ultraviolence?”

Sevens’ red-chipped eyes darted back to me. The corners of her mouth spiked up with an evil little smile, a kind I had never seen before on her face, this mask or any other. Her voice emerged with a quivering tremor of nervous excitement.

“Family tragedy was in the making. They were all going to die, him last. A play for hubris and pride. There was going to be this big ending where his son was going to eat his father’s own … ” Sevens trailed off, baring her teeth in a weird little hiss, curling her head left and right and avoiding my eyes.

“It’s okay,” I said, not quite sure if it was okay at all. I had to remind myself briefly what Sevens really was.

“I don’t do that anymore,” she rasped low, head hanging. “I’m not my father.”

I coiled a tentacle around one of her small hands. “I know. I accept that.”

“I do worse now though,” she said in a tiny hiss. “Don’t I?”

“I’m sorry?”

Suddenly she shook her head, like a dog shaking off water. She sat up again, gazing at me. “I was there for mister patriarch, but then I discovered Julija. And she’d discovered the family’s daughter.”

“Ahhhhhhhh.”

“Ah indeed,” Sevens rasped — and smiled again. A real smile this time, a little hitching flicker that showed her teeth and made her eyes bright with joy. “And that changed everything. The daughter, her name was Hana. She was nineteen that year, and they were going to marry her off to her own cousin. Twenty years older than her! At first I wanted to work that into the play, but then … then … Julija kept sneaking into her bedroom to watch her sleep. Hana knew it was happening, but she wasn’t afraid, she was fascinated. In rapture of the dark. And I saw it happen, and I saw that they could be more. More! And I wanted … wanted … ”

Sevens swallowed on a thickening throat. She sniffed hard and wiped her eyes on the back of one hand. Even for an Outsider, the power of memory was a sight to behold.

“It’s okay, take your time,” I murmured, cradling her hand in the end of my tentacle. I wanted to lean over and hug her, but I didn’t dare risk interruption.

“I wanted to write them a happy ending,” Sevens said. “Or at least a glorious one, if they couldn’t have happy. Out with a bloody bang. Not just a side-note in somebody else’s story. Not just the daughter in a play. A protagonist.”

I nodded, feeling her passion. “Absolutely.”

“So I changed the play. I rewrote the script as I went. I … nudged them in the right direction.”

Sevens said that as if it was a terrible thing to do, a mistake, a violation. She gritted her teeth and looked off into the gathering dark as the sunset deepened.

“ … the right direction?” I prompted, afraid of where this was going. Her first failure? But she’d said she’d guided the vampire to happiness.

But happiness for how long? At what cost?

And what definition of happiness?

“I … I shouldn’t be … ” she murmured under her breath, then swallowed hard and visibly pulled herself together. “I nudged them together until Hana offered Julija her wrist one night. It was … I’d never … I’d never cried before. I’d never been interested in that side of human emotions. But I watched Julija drink human blood for the first time, and her mind came back, and they were so in love. And I wanted to make more of that.”

I nodded along. “That’s very admirable.”

“Three months later I had them out of the castle, out from under the family, free. Free forever.”

Sevens smiled at this, but shaking and uncertain. I sighed with relief. “That’s a good thing, you did a good thing! Sevens, you helped people.”

“Then I put on another play, once they were free. A totally different genre. I had redefined everything I was, everything I could do, where all my limits were, but I had one last bloody pantomime left in me.” She broke into a grin — a predator’s grin, the beautiful rapture of razor-sharp edges and blood-stained claws. Her voice shook with murderous joy as she raced on. “I stayed there for another two months, picking off the rest of the family one by one, for all they’d done to their daughter. I wore this mask and I ate them alive. The betrothed, the cousin, he I left for last. So none of them would ever go after the girls I’d helped.”

“Well, Sevens, I can’t say for sure I would have done any differently, I think. I probably wouldn’t have eaten them though.”

“Guuurrh-urk. Well, yes. But that was a previous me. The last dregs. And now I’m changing again because I was still wrong but I don’t know where it leads.”

I leaned forward on the bed and drew Seven-Shades-of-Unstable-Self into another hug. Gently, slowly, I wound my arms around her back and a tentacle around her waist. She clung to me in return, burying her face in my shoulder. This time she did bite — but gently, chewing on my collarbone without breaking skin or fabric.

“Let’s make sure it leads somewhere together,” I said.

“Mmmmm,” Sevens grumbled. We disentangled again and sat back on the bed. Her free hand found a corner of the yellow robes, which were spread out over the top of the covers. “What if I’m not worthy of it?”

I tilted my head. “Why wouldn’t you be worthy?”

She shrugged, but I sensed a lie in the gesture. “Marriage?”

“Um … I don’t know about that,” I said, trying to stay honest. “You heard what Raine said, too.”

“Mmmm,” she rasped, but this time it was faintly amused, coupled with a grumpy twist of her lips. “She has first dibs on you. Figures.”

I laughed softly. “That’s Raine for you.”

Sevens hissed through her teeth. “I didn’t mean to propose in the first place. Do I have to go over it all again? It’s okay if we don’t, I won’t be hurt, I just want … you know.”

The laugh bubbled past my lips. “You’re so … deliciously grumpy in this mask, Sevens.”

“Guuuurgh,” she croaked, averting her eyes.

“So what happened to Hana and Julija in the end?” I asked.

“Hana became a vampire too,” said Sevens. “Touch and go, almost died, but she made it. As far as I know, they might still be out there. Maybe. I lost track.”

“Hmmmm. You should talk to Zheng about vampires sometime.”

Sevens’ eyes went wide, glistening black orbs in the dusken glow. “Zheng? Oh no.”

“She’s not going to threaten you,” I said. “Or, she better not.”

“She might not like any of this … ”

“She loves me, but it’s not like that, she won’t be possessive. I think. That’s just something we need to all sit down and discuss like adults. Isn’t it?”

“Mmmmmm. Suppose. You haven’t fucked though.”

I blinked in mute shock, a wordless sound croaking from my throat. “I … um … well, no? Sevens, we don’t need to. I don’t think we ever needed to. Maybe I’ll kiss her on the cheek sometimes, or get in her lap, but … I don’t need her to fuck me.” I echoed Sevens’ exact choice of word with delicate and precise pronunciation, but still had to clear my throat afterward, feeling like I wasn’t supposed to say that. “That’s what I do with Raine. You must know that. I don’t need it. And she doesn’t seem to need it either?”

“And what if that changes? Hmm? What then? Does your polyamory explode in your face?”

“ … no. We just … talk about it. Like adults.”

“Pfffffft,” Sevens snorted. “Passion is better than rationality.” Then she seemed to deflate, curling in on herself, finally completing the retreat I’d halted earlier. She ducked her head under the covers and assumed the aspect of a fully-wrapped blanket-blob. Only her eyes remained visible, peering out through a slit in the covers. “Or so I thought,” she gurgled, muffled and indistinct. “Wrong about everything. Wrong wrong wrong.”

“Sevens?” I almost laughed, but the tone of her voice held real self-recrimination. She spoke from the bottom of a deep, dark pit. I reached toward her. “What’s wrong?”

“Nnnnnnnnn.” She shrank from my questing touch. “Sorry. This mask wants to hide from difficult things. I can … change? If you want?”

“No, no, it’s okay. What I want shouldn’t determine your self.” I sighed and sat back, frowning as I tried to figure out what I was dealing with here. “Sevens, why do you love me?”

She answered without hesitation. “Because you’re breaking all the rules.”

“The rules?”

“You’re facing down an alien god-thing to get back somebody you love. And you’ll probably die trying. But you’re gonna do it anyway.”

“Die?” My chest tightened. Hadn’t Sevens told me that I had all the tools to achieve victory against the Eye? She’d been cryptic and obtuse, certainly, but not fatalistic, not like this. I hadn’t fully believed her advice that somehow lesbian romance was the key to victory — or believed she knew what she was talking about — but she’d seemed so certain, unwavering, concrete in her judgement. From that to this left me shocked. “I— I mean, I know my chances aren’t great, but—”

Sevens exploded from her blanket-ball in a flurry of whirling limbs and gnashing teeth, casting off the sheets and bouncing up to her feet on the bed. She stepped back and fell off the side of the mattress, crashing to the floor in a heap of limbs, then scrambled upright back into the sunset glow like a true vampire bursting from a coffin of shadows.

And then Seven-Shades-of-Shaky-Bloodsucker was gone. In her place stood the Princess Mask.

Chin high, eyes calm and cold and bright in the orange dusk, hands clasped behind her back. Her straight-cut blonde hair was a dishevelled mess from sleep, sticking up in the rear and tangled at one side, but her dignity somehow transformed this into a badge of honour.

Except, she was still wearing Raine’s oversized white t-shirt. And nothing else.

My eyes felt like they were going to pop out of my skull. I put a hand to my gaping mouth. The Princess Mask had looked so smart and sharp in her yellow skirt and crisp blouse with her subtle curves standing out, but this was on another level entirely. The t-shirt hung down, a size too large, terminating around the flare of her hips. Somehow being reduced to only a t-shirt made her seem sharper, more disciplined, hard and unyielding.

Her next words were a bucket of ice cubes poured over my head.

“I do not wish to discuss or consider the prospect of your death,” she said, soft and precise. “I love you, and I will work to avoid this outcome, but I am emotionally exhausted and flagellating myself for my litany of mistakes.”

“S-Sevens you didn’t have to—” I stammered, but she rode right on over me.

“So, right now, Heather,” her voice grew husky, “stop.”

She took two precise steps toward the bed, then mounted the mattress on all fours, crawling toward me, t-shirt hanging down, eyes locked with me. I felt myself backing away, stammering, trying to squeeze out a word or two.

“Sevens— I— hic.”

She reached me, expressionless ice-cold face filling my vision. “I do not wish to expound upon your many qualities, your death-defying willpower, your leadership and your fortitude, your overflowing love for those you consider yours — I only wish to share in it.”

“Sevens, you’re— you’re very close, you—”

The Yellow Princess transfixed me with a look, then leaned in to plant two quick kisses on me — on my cheek and my brow. Like how Raine so often did. Brief and warm.

I was frozen to the spot.

“Stop,” she purred. “I am exhausted, though I do not show it as you do.”

“O-of course, but—”

She finally leaned back from me, kneeling on the bed sheets. “We can discuss death — little or otherwise — some other time.”

I scowled at her through my incandescent blush, struggling to catch my breath. “Don’t you start going all Raine on me, Sevens! She uses … she used sex to distract from emotional issues all the time. Don’t do that. I don’t want to go through the same thing all over again.”

“I’m not distracting from the issue,” said the Daughter of the Yellow Court. “I am being honest. I am emotionally exhausted and processing the faults of my most recent self-redefinition. Allow me space, even if I am wearing the face of a teeny-tiny babby goblin who makes noises like a drainpipe.”

Sevens managed to say those words with a completely straight face.

“All right,” I replied, clearing my throat. “I understand, I think. Or if I don’t, then at least I can give you what you need. I hope.”

The Yellow Princess nodded once with cold yet attentive grace, a bow of her head and a closing of her eyes — and then she was replaced with Seven-Shades-of-Shivering-Goblin once again.

“Brrrrrrr,” she rasped, blinking those black-red eyes. “Can we go get some food? I’m hungry.”

“Me too.” I smiled for her, took her clammy little hand in mine, and we climbed off the bed together.

For a moment we just stood in the cool darkness of my bedroom, side-lit by the dying sun, looking into each other’s eyes as we held hands. I don’t love her, I reminded myself.

But I think I could do, if I wanted to.

I looked Sevens up and down with a sigh, trying to clear my mind. “Maybe you should wear more than just a t-shirt. Aren’t you cold?”

She shook her head. “Got pants on.”

“You have? Raine’s too, I suppose.” I blinked, then held up a hand. “Wait, no. No need to show me.”

Sevens pulled a toothy grin, hissing a little huh-huh laugh through her teeth.

“What about the robes?” I looked back to where the thick yellow robes lay on the bed, still spread out across the covers. I reached over and dragged them toward us, lifting the fabric to my nose on a whim, to take a deep sniff. Sunlight and gold, honey and butter — all faint suggestions in the vault of memory.

“It’s done its job,” Sevens rasped. “Just a symbol now.”

“Symbols are important. Isn’t this a part of you? Do you need me to wear it? I will. It did protect me. You protected me.”

“Mmmmmmmmm … needs to be more convenient. I can do that. But let me think.”

“Do you need me to wear it now, though?” I repeated.

Sevens pouted and shook her head. “No. Need you to keep it safe.” To my surprise, she reached out and pressed three fingertips to my chest, just over my heart. “Get it?”

I nodded, speechless at the gesture. Then I dragged the robes off the bed and draped the garment over Sevens’ own shoulders.

The yellow waves engulfed her like a waterfall, massive on her tiny frame. She let out a little gurgle-squeak of surprise and for a second I thought she was going to wriggle right back out of the robes, but then she grabbed the sides and drew them closed, huddling down inside the enclosing warmth. She peered at me with scepticism in the quirk of her eyebrows.

“But this is yours,” she said. “I gave it to you.”

“What’s mine is safe with you,” I said. “I can’t peel off part of myself, so the symbol will have to do.”

Sevens made a little gurgle and looked down, points of colour blossoming in her cheeks. She wormed a hand out of the robes and stuck it out toward me, awkward and blunt, fingers grasping. I slipped mine into hers and squeezed gently.

“Let’s go find some food,” I said.

==

We slipped out into the welcoming darkness of the upstairs hallway, hand-in-hand. The house was deep in the clutches of dusk. Heavy shadows filled the open spaces of corridor and door frame, and turned the head of the stairs into a phantom of shades. Sunset poured in through the window and painted a smear of slanted orange against one wall. A line of faint artificial light showed beneath the door to Evelyn’s study, and I could hear television or perhaps video game noises from Lozzie’s room, but the unmistakable murmur of voices in the kitchen drew me toward the stairs — as did the liquid grumble of my empty stomach.

Sevens walked on her tiptoes, stalking like a predator on high-alert, muffled only slightly by the gentle dragging of the yellow robes across the floorboards. I almost giggled at the sight — she was so small inside the robes, totally swamped, a tiny thing wrapped in layers of safety. Like me in this house.

On a whim I paused at the window to look out at the sunset again.

It was more beautiful than anything Outside. At least, I hoped it was. The deep orange light turned the underside of the sky into a banked fire, framed by the backdrop of the distant horizon like a wall of slow-burning flame. Long shadows stretched from every house, wall, fence, and lamppost, etching canyons of darkness across the visible sliver of road and pavement and gardens.

Pneuma-somatic life cavorted in the sunset. Two houses down, a sort of praying mantis stood on the roof, studded with shiny patches like metal plates, sunning itself in the orange glow. In the next garden across, a trio of giant mushrooms swayed gently to a song none could hear. As I watched they stood up on dozens of tiny legs and relocated to stay out of the lengthening shadows. In the street, a thing like a cross between an anteater and crocodile was rolling on its back, huge jaws opening and closing on empty air. Strange birds made of crystal and smoke clustered around it, pecking at its hide to remove unseen parasites. At the end of the road stood a twelve-foot figure like a polar bear half-melted and steaming with toxic green gasses.

I sighed with delight, then blinked in surprise. I never would have imagined feeling safe and normal at the sight of my hallucinations. But they were Earthly as much as I was, not Outsiders. They were meant to be here.

I tore myself away from the world and led Sevens downstairs. She took the steps one by one with little hopping footsteps, with the robes dragging behind her.

The lights were off in the front room, but the kitchen glowed against the oncoming night. As we approached, I recognised the sound of Raine’s voice, low and firm.

“—this part you’ve got down just fine,” she was saying. “Look, you’ve done it with your eyes closed. Let’s move on.”

My heart climbed up my throat. Her tone was unmistakable: desperate reassurance.

“Raine?!” I spoke her name out loud, almost in a sudden panic as Sevens and I pattered around the corner.

Two faces looked up from the kitchen table. Raine, suddenly brightening into a grin at the sight of me — and, to my surprise, sitting close by her side, was Twil.

Our friendly neighbourhood werewolf was not doing well. Her unmatched, almost porcelain beauty was marred by a deep frown on her delicate features. She had the faintest bags under her eyes, face lined with the signs of short-term chronic stress. Her long curly dark hair was pulled back in a ponytail, which I’d never seen her do before, and she’d shed her habitual blue-and-lime coat, reduced down to a black long sleeved t-shirt with ragged holes in the ends of the sleeves, one of which she was in the process of worrying wider with her front teeth. She sat hunched in the chair, one leg wiggling back and forth with nervous energy.

“Hey, Heather, you’re up!” Raine said. “Sevens,” she added with a nod.

“Oh, uh, hey,” Twil said, spitting out the end of her own sleeve and trying on a forced smile.

“Oh goodness,” I blurted out, eyes wide. “What’s- what’s happened? I don’t … oh.”

A pair of textbooks lay open on the table, showing complicated biological diagrams surrounded by dizzying notes and information boxes. The books were flanked by well-organised sheaves of notes, complete with colour-coded tabs inserted for easy browsing. A large format notebook sat in front of Twil and a chewed pencil bounced between two of her fingers with nervous impatience.

“Oh,” I repeated. “Exams. Right.”

“Revision crisis,” Raine said with a wink and a cluck of her tongue.

“It’s not a bloody crisis, okay?” Twil said with a sidelong glance at Raine. “I just need somebody to bounce off. Hey Heather.” She did a little upward-tilting nod for me. “Sorry for like, monopolising your girlfriend. S’just she’s good at this, you know?”

“No, no,” I said, shaking my head, heart rate still dialling down. “It’s fine. Best of luck, really. You deserve it. When’s the, um—”

“Final exam’s two days from now,” Twil said too quickly, then swallowed and tired to smile again. “Thanks.”

Raine raised her eyebrows at me. “Twil’s gonna be juuuuust fine. She’s freaking out over nothing, she doesn’t even need me, she knows this stuff inside out and backwards. I’m just doing moral support, really. You sleep well, Heather? Hungry?”

“Um … fine. I’m fine. Twil?”

Twil was staring past me with all the intensity of a pointer dog, at the shivering, yellow-clad blob who was peering over my shoulder with eyes the colour of a bonfire in the dark. Sevens let out a low “Gurgh,” at the attention. Her hand had gone extra clammy in mine.

“Uh, yeah.” Twil cleared her throat and managed to look at me instead. “Heard you had kind of an adventure.”

“That is putting it lightly,” I sighed.

“Is that … ?” Twil asked Raine as she thumbed at me and Sevens. Raine nodded.

She is Sevens-Shades-of-Sunlight,” I said a little too hard. “And yes, I had an adventure and brought back a girl who is actually an Outsider godling. Which sounds absurd, I know.” I sighed. “But then my life is just one long litany of absurd happenings, I’ve sort of gotten used to it.”

Twil cleared her throat awkwardly. “Soz. Didn’t mean like anything by that.”

“Sevens, Twil. Twil, Sevens,” I said. “But you’ve already met, technically.”

“Yeah, cool,” Twil said, and did not sound cool at all.

Sevens just gurgled.

“Heather, how you holding up?” Raine asked, rising from her seat and rolling her shoulders to work out the kinks. She nodded at the fridge. “You want some food? We made vegetable curry, saved some for you.”

We?” Twil asked.

“Okay, Praem made vegetable curry.”

“I helped!” Twil said, voice rising by two octaves.

“You chopped some carrots.”

“That classifies as helping. Fuck you.”

Raine laughed and spread her hands in mock defeat.

“I would, uh, love some food actually,” I said, but then nodded at the table. “Am I going to be interrupting? I don’t want to distract.”

Twil grinned and leaned back in her chair, finally relaxing by an inch. “S’not a problem. S’your house, after all.”

“Yeah, come on,” Raine said, going for the fridge. “Sit down and have some food. You too, Sevens.”

“Guuurrrr.”

“But hey,” Twil went on, as if she’d just remembered something. “Evee did say that Heather and Sevensy here should go talk to … her … about … um?”

Twil trailed off as Raine slowly turned back to her. A look of resigned disappointment peeked through Raine’s smile.

“Raine?” I perked up.

“Was I like, not supposed to say that?” Twil asked, eyes flicking from Raine to me. “Oh shit.”

“It’s fine,” Raine sighed. “Just thought you might have more sense.”

“Well sorry.” Twil huffed, rounding her shoulders. “Should probably spell it out for me in future.”

“Raine, what is this?” I asked. “Were you trying to keep something from me?”

Raine shook her head. “Just until you’d eaten. Would’a been nice to sit with you, that’s all. Here, I’ll get you some curry and warm it up. But yeah, Evee wanted to talk to you as soon as you’re out of bed and mentally coherent.”

“About what?”

“Rrrrrrrrrrr,” went Sevens over my shoulder.

Raine shot her a wink. “About our little yellow friend here.”

==

We found Evelyn exactly where Raine said she would be — upstairs in the study, ensconced in her ancient wooden desk chair before a pile of books, scribbling away at something on the desk.

“Come in, I won’t bite,” she called through the door when I knocked.

I had to perform a complex balancing act in the dark, with a lukewarm bowl of curry in one hand and the door handle in the other; Sevens was attached to my pajamas by both hands like a limpet, as she had been the entire time Raine had been heating up the food, and then all the way back up the stairs too, forcing us to shuffle along lest we trip over each other’s feet.

“It’s only Evee,” I’d whispered.

“Gurrrr. She wants me gone.”

“I doubt it. Sevens, relax, please, I can’t get up the stairs like this.”

But Sevens wouldn’t let go, as if afraid of being pulled away from me.

It was only when I huffed with frustration that I realised my pair of tentacles was already nudging the study door for me, opening it on the soft, warm glow of Evelyn’s desk lamp. The study yawned wide, a nook of light nestled deeper in the enclosing darkness of the house, welcoming me with the scent of old books.

Evelyn looked up as we entered, turning in her wooden desk chair, eyes greeting me with soft recognition.

“Heather. Evening. You slept?” she asked.

“Uh, yes, not badly either, thank you. More to the point, Evee, did you sleep?”

Evelyn looked both better and worse than when I’d seen her that morning. She’d changed her clothes and was now wearing a comfy looking purple sweater and a long floral-pattern skirt, quite bright and frivolous by her standards. Her hair was pinned up in a loose bun, the sort of thing she did while working on a difficult problem. Her eyes were still tired but not as dark as earlier, and her expression held far less stress in the lines of her face.

She had an oddly contemplative look about her in the moment she considered my question, akin to the inquisitive, cold curiosity that she had so obviously inherited from her mother, but softened by self-conscious reflection.

What really surprised me was her prosthetic leg. She’d removed it.

The short tower of matte black carbon fibre stood by the corner of the desk, easily within her reach, the knee locked in place. The outline of her stump was clearly visible beneath her skirt.

A couple of large spiral-bound notebooks sat on the desk behind her, along with an old book open down the middle. Not a magical tome, just regular print on paper old enough to start turning brown.

Her bone wand lay across her lap, the densely scrimshawed symbols enough to make my eyes water if I looked too closely.

The smell of old books filled the air, a familiar and enticing comfort, but I didn’t get to spend much time up here in the study, at least not with other people. I came in here often enough to browse Evelyn’s collection of regular, normal, ordinary books, stacked to the ceiling in their cases which lined the walls, but there was only one decent chair and step-stool. It wasn’t really set up for relaxation. The room faced the wrong direction to catch the sunset this late, so the gloaming of Sharrowford was visible through the small window only as a blank darkness.

“Evee?” I prompted when that contemplative look didn’t leave her face.

She drew in a deep breath and let out a sigh. “Yes. Thank you. Yes, I slept, some. I think Praem would have tied me to the bed if I hadn’t at least tried.”

“Mmm-huh,” Sevens laughed at my shoulder, snorting with nerves.

“Are you … all right?” I asked. “You look … um … thoughtful.”

“I’m not even working, really,” Evelyn went on with a sigh, waving at the notebooks on the desk. “Just reading for university. Classics does require some work, occasionally, even for somebody fully fluent. Have to do a spot of history here and there. Though all I’ve learnt in two years is that the entire Roman senate should have been shot. Huh.” She gave a humourless laugh, then frowned at us. “Do you want to sit down? Don’t stand there with that food.”

“Evee,” I sighed too. “What is this about?”

Her frown deepened. “What is what about?”

“Um.”

“Oh for— Raine and Twil told you to come up here?”

“Yes?”

She rolled her eyes. “Oh, it wasn’t something I needed right away. What did Twil even say? For fuck’s sake, they could have let you sit down and eat!” She spat the words out, quite outraged on my behalf. “It’s hardly important. It’s not as if we could do anything about it anyway.”

And at that, she looked very pointedly at Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight.

“Well,” I said, spooning a mouthful of vegetable curry toward my mouth with slow resign. “I’m here now. We’re here now.”

Evelyn huffed and drew her hand over her face. “All right. All right, I’ll get this over with, I suppose. I’ve been thinking. All afternoon. About you.” She nodded at Sevens.

“Mmmmmm. Me,” Sevens rasped.

Evelyn tilted her head up and turned her chair so she was facing us straight-on. She put both hands on her bone-wand.

“Evee-” I started, heart climbing into my mouth as I swallowed in a hurry. Lukewarm vegetable mush squeezed down my throat. Both of my tentacles instinctively moved to shield Sevens.

“S’okay,” Sevens grunted.

“I have a question,” Evelyn said, strangely formal. “Make that two questions. More, depending.”

“Get on with it,” Sevens rasped.

“How much are you going to direct us?” Evelyn asked, without hint of bitterness or guile. “How much of a hand do you have over anything we do or experience? And what’s to stop you deciding that our ‘story’ would be better served by a successful attack on my house? Or by removing one of us like a side character with a tragic death? What’s to stop you fucking with me?” Evelyn paused, then added in a rush, as if embarrassed: “With us, I mean.”

Sevens seemed to shrink, gaze falling to the floor, shoulders hunching inside the yellow robes. I grabbed her hand with one of my tentacles but she wriggled free.

“Evee,” I protested. “She’s not like that. I told you, she left the stage, or … joined us on it?” I glanced at Sevens, but she looked wretched all of a sudden, grimacing in sorrow down at her own feet.

“It’s an honest question,” Evelyn said. “If she says no, that she won’t do any of that, then fine.”

“Fine?” I boggled at Evelyn. “That’s not … like you?”

Evelyn shrugged. “As I said, I wouldn’t be able to do anything about it anyway.” Evelyn picked up the bone wand and pointed it at Sevens. “She is an outside context problem — ha!” She barked at her little joke. “An outside context problem — pun very much intended — for my skills, what magic I know. If she wants to ruin us for the sake of drama, I doubt there’s much I could do.” Evelyn frowned. “Though you could probably intervene, Heather. Or maybe Lozzie could. Or Twil’s dubious ‘god’, or—”

“I caaaaaan’t,” Sevens rasped through clenched teeth. She enunciated the end of the word so hard it warped into a spat tuh.

We both paused at that. At the frustration in her voice.

“Can’t, or won’t?” Evelyn asked.

“Sevens?” I tried to duck my head to peer at her face. “Are you okay?”

“I didn’t want to talk about this!” she whined. “I can’t direct anything!” Her voice cracked and broke as she spoke, as she curled up inside the yellow robes. “I was wrong. Completely wrong. Don’t you get it?” She glanced at me for a second, black-red eyes brimming with tears, then flicked her head away to scrub her face on the yellow robes.

Without warning, she suddenly collapsed. For a heartbeat I thought she’d transitioned into another mask, something unexpected — but with a thump-a-thump of bony backside and knees against wood, she sat down in a heap on the floor, robes billowing out around her. She drew her knees up and stuck her face into them.

“Sevens?!” I crouched down next to her, totally off-balance. “Are you crying?”

“I shouldn’t be prodding people to do things,” she sobbed into her knees. “That’s not love.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Even the Outsider godling daughter of the Yellow Court can have a skeleton or two in her closet. Though it looks like a good bit of tentacle discipline is serving Heather well in bringing her around. Just needs to be careful she doesn’t get too carried away.

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Next week, well, somebody is very upset. But once that’s over, doesn’t Evelyn have other matters on her mind too? Wasn’t she supposed to be planning how to get her hands on a certain tome?

for the sake of a few sheep – 15.4

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

“I feel like something has changed. As if things are different now.”

I spoke the words to the ghostly reflection of my face in the bath water, warped by ripples in the surface.

Silent heartbeats counted time against the peeling paint of the bathroom walls and the faded varnish on the door. The water’s heat soaked into my tender skin and aching muscles like the penetrating embrace of an amniotic sac, reaching through my abdomen to cradle the embers in my bioreactor. My eyelids drooped shut for the hundredth time.

“Yeah, plus one girlfriend,” Raine said, bright and clear. I snapped back to full consciousness with a small hypnic jerk. “Coming back from a night out with a bird on your arm, seems like a pretty big difference to me.”

“Raine,” I whined softly. “That’s not what I meant.”

Raine laughed, good natured and teasing. She leaned out of her chair and over the side of the bathtub to ruffle my hair — a little difficult when it was hanging in wet rat-tails down my neck and shoulders, so she ended up awkwardly patting me instead. She carefully avoided the nasty purple bruise on my forehead from where I’d head-butted the knight’s armour.

Whistle shifted on her lap, his little doggy paws preparing for a rough landing as he expected her to stand up, but Raine relaxed back into her chair and scratched Whistle behind the ears, in case he felt left out.

I sank down into the bathwater, up to my cheekbones to hide a blush, then blew grumpy bubbles.

“What do you think, Whistle?” Raine addressed the corgi curled comfortably in her lap. “Should I go easy on Heather while she’s naked in the bath? While she’s so slow and loopy — sloopy,” she laughed at her own terrible joke. “Or should I press my advantage? What is your canine wisdom, ‘o small doggo?”

Whistle replied with neither bark nor whine, but his ears pricked up and he looked from Raine to me.

I surfaced just enough to free my mouth from the bondage of the deep. “Don’t answer that, Whistle. She’s not allowed to entrap you.”

Whistle wiggled his backside and rested his head on his paws, leaving us humans to work this out ourselves.

“Good answer,” Raine said appreciatively, scritching the top of his head. “Smart boy.”

I narrowed my eyes at Raine. “He’s wise to your tricks.”

“I have tricks?”

Raine’s smile was a touch too sharp at the edges. It didn’t reach her eyes.

“You know you have tricks,” I sighed. “But also, no. I’m just being silly because I’m so exhausted. And I’m in the bath. It’s kind of hard to have a serious conversation when you’re naked and tired.”

“Should I get in too, then?”

I rolled my eyes but a faint spark kindled in the base of my abdomen at the prospect of bath time with Raine, even when exhausted past the limits of my transhuman biology. I measured my words with care. “Normally I’d never refuse, but we’re not going to have any fun right now. If you hug me, I’ll fall asleep, and I think that’s the exact opposite of your stated purpose here, yes?”

Raine pulled a cheeky grin; that one did reach her eyes. Something in my chest unknotted.

“I’m not being serious, anyway,” she said. “Not that I don’t want to, you do need a good seeing to—”

“Raine!” I tutted.

“—but you need food and sleep more than you need sex.” Her grin hardened with a tone of command, which stirred a very different kind of squirming in my belly. “You’re still following my orders, got it? You do what I tell you, until I’m satisfied you’re out of the danger zone.”

“Yes ma’am … ” I said, not entirely serious.

Being naked in the bath while Raine sat next to me fully clothed was a strange experience. She’d swapped her shorts for a pair of loose pajama bottoms, but she was still wearing a tank top, showing off her toned arms and well-shaped shoulders — not to mention the lack of a bra. Warm brown eyes watched me in return whenever I found myself lost in her looks, which was difficult to restrain when I was so exhausted, when it felt like I’d been gone for so long, despite the passing of only a single night. She was tired too, with dark rings around her eyes, but no flaw could conceal how painfully pretty she was, between her expressive mouth and full, fluffy, chestnut-brown hair, which she kept running a hand through.

“This feels like the first time I’ve been alone with you in a while,” I said on impulse.

“Ahhh, but we’re not alone.” Raine picked up one of Whistle’s paws and waved it at me. He snuffed through his nose but otherwise tolerated the intrusion.

“Whistle doesn’t count.”

“Poor Whistle!” Raine laughed. “Do you want us to be alone, Heather?”

“No,” I sighed. “It’s okay, it just feels strange right now. Was there no more news overnight?” I nodded at Whistle. “Badger didn’t die in hospital or something?”

“Nah, no news. And you don’t need to be thinking about news, you need to be resting. You were meant to be in class today, but I’ve already called in sick for you. So shut down that big smart brain of yours for a bit, okay? Let me take over for the rest of the day.”

“I suppose so. I can’t just sit here though.”

“Time to get out then?” Raine asked. “You’re looking pretty pruney.”

“Raine, that wasn’t some throwaway platitude earlier,” I said, frowning up at her over the lip of the bathtub. I shifted below the water, crossed my legs, and hugged my single remaining tentacle around my middle, as if to protect myself against a cold that had nothing to do with physical temperature. The pale, rainbow-strobing flesh blossomed with colour against my sallow skin. “Something is different now.”

Raine opened her mouth to tell me off, to tell me to do as I was told, but she must have caught the stone in my eyes.

“Wanna talk about it while I towel you off?” she asked instead.

“It’s not about you and it’s not about Sevens,” I said.

“Oh! Well then. That’s good, because I’m still—”

“Still thinking,” I finished for her. “I know. It’s not about that. It’s about Outside. Outside is different now.”

At least home was still the same. Mostly.

==

Myself, Evelyn, and Lozzie had returned from the Quiet Plain about an hour ago.

Or perhaps two hours. I wasn’t sure how long I’d spent in the bath. By the time I was coherent my fingers and toes had gone wrinkly from the water. It was exceptionally difficult to keep track of time when I felt so groggy. I kept slipping away to flirt with the enticing dark mistress of sleep, seduced down into that other abyss, from which even I returned with only half-remembered glimpses.

Which is an overwrought way of saying I kept nodding off in the tub. Raine had to sit in the bathroom and keep talking to help me stay awake.

We’d left the forest-knight firmly behind in the Quiet Plain this time, at home alongside the rest of his society and species and hive mind. He’d taken about twenty minutes to fully reassemble his armour around himself, pulling each plate into position with several tentacles and settling it flush against the others. It took him several goes to get each piece just right — the seams of the armour were so finely wrought and locked together with such precision, as if cut by laser and expert hand. He would hold one piece against the next for thirty full seconds, moving it so slightly that we humans could see only the bunching and relaxing of his tentacles as he adjusted the metal by millimetres. But once a plate was locked to the others, he could hold it firm with nothing but the tensile strength of a suckered tentacle attached to the inside.

I hadn’t realised before how complex and advanced the knights’ Outsider-plate really was. When the volunteer from among them had opened up yesterday, in order to show me what they really were inside, I’d been so focused on the occupant that I hadn’t paid attention to the container. The suits were a miracle of both metal smithing and engineering, and a further miracle how smoothly each plate moved once it was in place. They formed a perfect seal, with no oil, no cloth under layer, no rubber to soften the plates against each other.

And Lozzie had made them? She was many things, many of them delightful and lovely and creative, but she made life — Tenny, the knights, who knew what else? She didn’t know the first thing about metalworking.

I made a mental note to ask Lozzie about the armour sometime. Perhaps she’d had help. Armour like that doesn’t grow on trees.

Or maybe it does, I had to remind myself. Things are different Outside.

Still, I wanted to know what kind of help was out there, Outside, now that Alexander’s ghost no longer blocked our way. After all, if things like the King in Yellow existed, that opened up all kinds of potential.

Didn’t it?

And how much should I tell Lozzie about the dead hands, about Alexander’s final torment? I pondered that question as we watched the Knight stand up. He’d gotten his boots and greaves together, along with most of the hip armour. For a long and comical moment he stood there as a tentacle filled bottom half, while he picked up the first piece of the torso armour and lowered it into place.

“Wrong trousers,” Evelyn murmured, forcing a snort.

Would Lozzie want to know that her brother had returned to life, if only as a short-lived imitation, a mask worn on an Outsider’s face? Would she want to know what had happened to the hands, his ghost, the last trace of his will? She hid her trauma so well behind her own mask, which made it difficult to know what would hurt her more. Regardless, I had a duty to tell her. She’d want to know all about Sevens anyway.

The Knight looked so much better as he sealed himself into his armour and settled the helmet on top, like a tank’s hatch clanging shut. His dark and leathery skin was still puffy and bruised, but the beautiful alien magic of Lozzie’s song had returned his strength and halted the blood weeping through his weakened skin. His protoplasmic shifting seemed to have settled as well. Eyes and mouths — and a dozen other organs for which I did not have names — sprouted across the surface of his skin, many of them rolling toward me. A long thin tentacle waved a thank you. I waved back.

As he slotted the last pieces of his suit back into place, Lozzie reached inside the armour to give him a hug. Whatever flaws she had, none could accuse her of not loving her creations.

Before we left, I hugged him too, through the armour.

“This isn’t goodbye or anything,” I said. “We can— I can come and go freely now. So can Lozzie.”

“Yeah!” Lozzie said, slapping his abdominal armour with the flat of her hand. “I’m going to come back and hear alllll about what they’ve been up to as well and I need to talk to the cattys and check up on this one to make sure he’s recovering okay, so we’ll be back sooooooon! Be good now!”

“And thank you,” I said to his midsection as I stepped back, speaking to where the true Knight was, in the core of the armour. “For everything you did.”

Lozzie tilted her head at me. “Everything he did?”

“It’s a long story, Loz. Later, please.”

“Oh!” Lozzie lit up. “Big emergency, not just knight emergency. Evee already said some, yes yes!”

“Quite,” Evelyn grumbled, eyeing the re-armoured knight. “I’m not going to hug you, but thank you for protecting Heather. Now, can we—”

Evelyn paused in surprise when the Knight nodded, a simple up-and-down tilt of his helmet. After a moment, she nodded back.

“Now,” she tried again with a sigh. “Can we please go home?”

Lozzie returned from the Quiet Plain under her own power, but Evelyn had to piggyback on my Slip. She squeezed my hand so tight it hurt, but I refrained from comment. Lozzie had offered, profusely and with much enthusiasm, to employ her particular brand of dimension-transfer to get us home, but Evelyn recalled the after-effects of that all too well, from when we’d had to make our emergency exit from the library of Carcosa. Going Out, Lozzie’s way was smooth enough, but going back placed a terrible strain on the human mind and soul. So Evelyn had taken my hand, I’d covertly touched a tentacle to her shoulder just in case the worst should happen, and she’d screwed up her eyes for the trip.

We made a far more gentle landing than my earlier membrane-ripping splashdown all the way from the Carcosa audience chamber, which was good because I hated the idea of Evelyn falling over and hurting herself. However, the very first thing I did was let go of Evelyn and sit down in a heap, head spinning, black oblivion filling the periphery of my vision. Even my tentacles were so exhausted they could barely hold me up. Evelyn was shouting for Praem, I was busy lying down for some quality floorboard time, but Lozzie took one step into the kitchen and spotted the Knight’s fallen weapon.

“Oh, he dropped his axe!” she chirped. “He’ll need that!”

Praem appeared in response to Evelyn’s call, clicking across the kitchen flagstones and stopping in the doorway to the workshop, though I could only see the corner of her skirt and her shiny black shoes. I could barely find the strength to raise my head.

“Praem.” Evelyn sighed to conceal a quiver of emotion. “That’s better.”

“Loz Loz Loz!” came a familiar trilling. A bundle of whirling black shot across the sliver of kitchen visible behind Praem’s feet, punctuated by a canine ‘wuff’ of mild alarm, which was in turn followed by scrabbling claws as Tenny gently placed Whistle on the floor so she could use every single tentacle to hug Lozzie.

“Tenny-Tenns!” Lozzie cheered.

Whistle nosed around Praem’s skirt and trotted over to me.

“Hello floor friend,” I mumbled through numb lips. “You are down low as well. World’s funny from down here. Woof.”

Absent-minded, exhausted, and fading fast, I tried to use one of my tentacles to pat him, before realising he couldn’t see them. Poor thing flinched in surprise at the invisible touch. He gave me quite a look.

“Oopsie,” I slurred.

Evelyn frowned down at me. “I believe Heather is going to need a hand. Praem, please? And where is Raine?”

Praem said nothing for several seconds. Tenny and Lozzie were squeal-hugging somewhere behind her. I think my eyes drifted shut, but then they were open again when she spoke.

“Evelyn,” Praem said. Her sing-song voice broke Evelyn’s name down into three distinct syllables, Ev-eh-lyn, with the exact cadence of I-love-you.

I thought I’d imagined it in my growing delirium.

“Yes? Yes, I’m back, thank you, hello, I love you too,” Evelyn rattled off, then cleared her throat.

“Oh I was right,” I mumbled.

Lozzie’s head appeared around the kitchen door, encircled by black tentacles, wispy blonde hair floating all over the place. “Be right back!” she chirped — then ducked back again, quickly followed by the sound of her straining to pick up the axe and failing gloriously. Lozzie may have been an ex-human with a godling riding in her head, but she still had noodle arms.

Praem turned on her heel and stepped back into the kitchen. I couldn’t see what happened, but I heard a very distinct clang and an oof from Lozzie.

“Thank you, Praem!” she said. “Deary-dear Praem!”

“Oh, don’t tell me she’s going back out there again?” Evelyn hissed. “Can we not? Can we stop for five minutes, before Heather passes out? Before I start shouting?”

“Should learn to axe first,” Praem intoned from the kitchen.

It was one of the few times I’d ever heard Praem put intentional stress on a word — and she was not amused.

Evelyn just stopped dead cold. Lozzie made a tiny sound of inquiry, but Praem kept going.

Axe before you take Evelyn. Anywhere,” she intoned.

“Praem, really,” Evelyn huffed.

“Yes miss Praem yes sorry yes,” Lozzie chattered.

“Axe first,” Praem repeated.

“Yes yes yes yes.”

I started laughing and couldn’t stop, slow at first, bubbling up my throat and crinkling the corners of my eyes, until I was crying a little with the remains of the return-high, the relief that I hadn’t killed the Knight, the fact I was home. All of it overwhelmed me.

I didn’t recall much after that, not until I was in the bath. Reality blurred into an undifferentiated mess of bodily need and hands helping me along and my own tentacles grasping at any handhold they could find. I think I asked where Sevens was, but I couldn’t be sure. At one point I was instinctively aware Lozzie was gone again, that she might not return. I wanted to stay right where I was and wait for her; Tenny waited with me, black tentacles entwined with mine in a cephalopod’s hug.

But then Lozzie was back again, a mote of light in the corner of my confused sensory input. I consented to be carried upstairs.

I did recall passing Kimberly in the front room, wide-eyed and amazed we were all so busy so early in the morning.

“Are we having a crisis? Miss— I mean, Evelyn?”

“No,” Evelyn grunted. “Carry on.”

“Morning, Kim!” I slurred.

“Uh, morning. I have to get to work, but … did something happen?”

“Could say that.” Raine shot her a wink. “Tell you about it some other time.”

“I’d rather you not,” Kimberly mumbled as she passed us on the way to make toast or cereal and do normal people morning things.

Raine shooed everyone else out of the bathroom — except for Whistle, and Tenny for the time it took her to give me a hug — then cradled me on the floor and allowed me to nap in her arms while the bath filled with hot water. She peeled me out of my stained and dirty clothes, but when it came time to remove Sevens’ yellow robes, I felt guilty and confused; the robes had started life as a metaphysical presence before they gained heft and weight and solidity, but what did it mean to take them off? Would I be symbolically rejecting Sevens?

I was half-worried that the garment would melt away like dew before the morning sun, which is why I clung to them, whining a wordless complaint.

“Heather, hey,” Raine had purred. “Even married people take their rings off to shower. It’ll be right here, on the side next to the sink. I promise.”

I acquiesced with a heavy heart and weak hands. Raine folded the robes. Sevens’ affection did not turn to mist, but stayed put, solid and real.

Paradoxically, the bath revived me, even as it bolstered the caresses of sleep trying to drag me below the surface. My bioreactor eased down to a slow ebb and I folded away all but one tentacle — maintaining all six felt right, but they were terribly unwieldy in the bathtub. Putting them away felt bad both physically and emotionally, but the hot water blunted the pain, and the abyssal dysphoria was soothed by the knowledge I could remake them whenever I wanted. Losing them temporarily no longer felt like such a terrible violation, because I knew they were a true part of me. My body was mine to command.

I would need a lot more water in which to manoeuvre with all six tentacles — an idea I filed away for later in a mental folder labelled ‘maybe too good to be true’. The tentacle I did keep out was the one I’d used as the bio-steel injection needle for the Knight. The tip still ached, as if dull and spent, so I soaked it in the hot water.

The sounds of the house comforted my exhausted emotions, the familiar noises of Evelyn and Praem moving around downstairs, the woody, clean scents of the old bathroom, the murmur of Raine’s voice as she kept me awake. A conspicuous gap lingered on the edge of my perception, like a missing back tooth that I couldn’t locate with my tongue, not until Raine dumped water over my head to rinse away the shampoo. Zheng still wasn’t here. Somehow my abyssal instincts knew the shape of her absence, a black hole seen only by the lack of stars.

Of Sevens, I could sense nothing.

“Oh, she’s around here, don’t you worry,” Raine reassured me. “She’s just gone all shy on me.”

Once I was coherent enough, I told Raine all about the Knight and what had happened. I unfolded my guilt and my fears, but then I kept going.

==

“Different how?” Raine asked.

The gentle teasing had vanished from her tone, replaced by quiet attention. Whistle’s ears perked up too.

I sighed and resisted the urge to sink back down into the bathwater. Perhaps I was more cephalopod than I thought, trying to take refuge in the watery deep. But oceanic darkness and water pressure could not keep uncomfortable thoughts at bay. Raine waited more than a few heartbeats as I tried to find the words to express myself. She didn’t even crack a joke.

“It’s like … exposure therapy?” I said, then huffed and shook my head. “No, that’s not right. Forget I said anything.”

“Heather, I will do almost anything for you,” said Raine. “I’ll even kill people for you. Hell, I already have. But if you tell me something in that tone of voice, I ain’t gonna forget it.”

I nodded, feeling guilty at taking her for granted, then I rested my forehead against the side of the bathtub so I didn’t have to look at anything except blank white.

“Outside was always frightening,” I said slowly, trying to warm to my subject. “That’s a stupid statement, it’s so obvious, but I have to say it. You’ve only been to the library of Carcosa, Raine. It’s dangerous, but at least it’s … comprehensible. Humans make libraries too. But most of the places I’ve seen out there aren’t remotely human, nothing we would recognise, and when they are recognisable they’re worse. I still scream at them even now, even places Lozzie can go make me … ” I had to take a deep breath. “Once, when I was a teenager, I Slipped and ended up in this endless warren of metal corridors. It just went on and on and on. There was no purpose to it, like it had been built by a malfunctioning machine. Loops and circles which led nowhere, had no purpose, or no purpose I could ever comprehend without going mad. When I believed I had schizophrenia, I could write off those experiences as meaningless. Brain-ghosts. Dreams. That was how I comforted and protected myself. All those endless vistas, those watching giants in impossible landscapes, those … ”

I stopped to gather my thoughts, lost in horrible memories of places I didn’t wish to revisit even when armed and armoured in the glory of abyssal reflection, with all my tentacles and a layer of steel wrapped about my body.

Naked in the bath, I turned my left forearm so I could look at the Fractal. The first and best gift, the bulwark that hid me from the Eye’s sight and kept me beyond its reach. The shield that stopped it from dragging me back through the membrane over and over again.

“Thank you, Raine,” I murmured.

“You’re welcome?” she said. “Hey, I haven’t done anything right now except sit here and look pretty. But you’re welcome, that comes naturally.”

I managed a small laugh. “Yes, keep doing that, please.”

“Don’t let me interrupt though.”

“Yes. Right. Where was I? It … it’s alien out there, yes, but at the court of the King in Yellow, they were thinking beings. People, sort of. They were only pretending to be human, but they were people. We could communicate. There are people out there. Sort of. I never thought of it that way before.”

“You gonna go visit for a cup of tea?”

“Absolutely not.” I paused. “Well. Maybe.”

“Hey, I was only joking,” Raine laughed. “But if that’s what you need to do … ”

She trailed off, which was not normal with her. I finally looked up from the bathtub and found her eyes, unsmiling but gentle as she gazed back at me. That was uncommon as well.

“I mean, think about it,” I said, almost pleading but not certain why. “Think about the Eye, about Wonderland, about the world the Eye is floating over. Wonderland has buildings. They’re shells, yes, burnt out by some unimaginable world-consuming flame, but somebody or something built those things. People. I’d never really thought about any of this before. Praem and Zheng are one thing, they came from the abyss and humans gave them bodies, that makes sense, I remember what it’s like down there; anything living there would much rather be here, with warmth and sunlight and strawberries. But Outside? It doesn’t make any sense; some of those places are so alien, so weird, I can’t even imagine how they think. There’s, what? Whole civilisations out there?” I shrugged, lost. “Lozzie came home with a hickey! From where?!”

“Whoa, Heather, easy,” Raine murmured, leaning over to squeeze my naked shoulder. “Slow down, hey.”

“I don’t have time to slow down,” I grunted, strange tears prickling in my eyes. “Maisie can’t wait.”

Raine’s eyebrows shot up. “You think this can help Maisie?”

“I was thinking about it while Evelyn and I were watching the Knight,” I said, trying to unpack thoughts which had gathered while in the grip of exhaustion, half-dreams that held gleaming diamond specks of insight buried deep in the sucking mud. “About Outside, about thinking beings, species, races, civilisations, I don’t know. That’s what the Knights are, a species. Raine, why did the Eye manifest where it did? Over Wonderland? What did they do to let it in, whoever they were?”

Raine tilted her head. “Does it matter to us?”

She asked the question plain, not a challenge but a serious inquiry. I loved it when she did that.

I nodded. “I don’t know how to beat the Eye or how to take Maisie back. I don’t even know where to start. Sevens told me that lesbian romance has something to do with it, but I think she’s a little biased about problem solving. I don’t see how my relationships help me fight or communicate with the Eye. If we get the book from Edward and Evee makes her invisibility thingy, okay, then we can get to Wonderland, but then what?”

“You’re suggesting we root around in the ashes out there?”

“Exactly,” I whispered.

Raine nodded slowly and kissed me on the forehead. I let my eyes flutter shut for a second before she sat back again.

“Experimental archaeology,” Raine said. “You sure have been thinking a lot.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” I sighed. “I don’t even know what I expect to find. There’s a whole world beneath the Eye. I’m … trying to avoid a frightening thing, Raine.”

“Ah?”

“If I can go Outside casually, easily, am I just doing what the Eye wants me to do? Am I becoming more like it?” I shook my head. “But I have to try. I have to. Lozzie made miracles out there. Maybe I can too.”

“Hey, you make miracles just fine here,” Raine said. Her smile beamed through me.

“ … thank you. It’s hard to remember it’s only been a single night. And now I can just … come and go? From here and Outside? That’s so strange, so different. I can’t put it into words, Raine. I can’t grasp that concept. The realm of my nightmares is somewhere else I can step into, just like that.”

A shiver passed up my body, the physical memory of post-traumatic stress. Outside was still horrible, even if only a thought away.

Raine must have seen, because she reached over to turn the bath tap. She dumped another couple of pints of hot water in with me. I felt the wave of diluted heat against my side, easing away the imaginary chill.

“I was afraid you might not come back.”

Raine spoke low and soft. Her voice cracked.

“Raine?!” I was so shocked I started to stand up in the bath. My single tentacle uncoiled from around myself and reached out toward her. Whistle looked up from her lap, making an inquisitive murmur in his throat.

“Hey, I’m fine now,” Raine said, waving me down. “I’m just … ” She sniffed loudly and wiped her eyes on the back of her hand, then blinked in surprise at the moisture she found there. “Oh, hey, tears. Wow.”

“Raine, it is okay to cry,” I blurted out. “It’s okay, it’s fine.”

“Sure is,” she agreed, cracking an awkward smile, words thick in her throat, red eyes blinking at me. “You wanted me real and raw, you got it. I don’t want to lose you out there. And that’s not miss knight errant talking, that’s me, Raine. Just me.”

I reached out with my actual hand, so Raine could see. She gave it a squeeze and I squeezed back.

“I won’t leave you,” I said. “Even if I wanted to go Outside — which I don’t — I’ll always come home.”

“I know,” Raine sighed. “Just feels like you had to go through an ordeal without me. Ha, some bodyguard I am.”

“It’s not your fault. I should have brought you along, even!”

I laughed — but inside I cringed with private horror.

I would not have survived the trials of last night without pneuma-somatic mimicry of the abyssal body I’d once possessed, without my tentacles and my bioreactor, my armour and my immune system, my hyperdimensional mathematics and my status as the Eye’s adopted daughter. Raine was strong, smart, and charismatic; I love her, but she is only human. What if she’d inhaled a lungful of Hastur’s yellow spores? Or had her elbow caught in the million jaws of the gnawing darkness? Or been swatted aside by Melancholy’s paw, or caught up in the party of flesh and madness that raced through the corridors in the palace of the Yellow King? What if she’d been in the audience chamber and required distracting like the others? What if she’d been under threat when the King’s favourites had donned their lover-masks? How would I have reacted to Raine being threatened? Raine Outside and unprotected.

However much tender regard I felt for Sevens, I did not love her. Not yet. But I had defied the Yellow King for her sake.

What would I have done if Raine had been there, if he had threatened her?

“Regicidal revolution,” I whispered, so softly that Raine didn’t catch it above her own gentle laugh.

“I never did get to punch Alexander’s stupid face in,” she was saying. “Maybe the King in Yellow would have obliged a request. What do you think, would he be a good sport about that?”

“Maybe,” I said, but I didn’t really mean it. My mind was elsewhere.

I wasn’t sure I could ever take Raine Outside.

She noticed my internal struggle. “Hey, Heather, it’s gonna be alright,” she purred. “We’ll be alright. You and me, whatever else happens. I’m just getting used to the idea. Processing, you know? I’m not sure if I should say this, but in a way those freaky dead hands had a silver lining. I didn’t have to worry that you might step out and never come back. And I’m sorry for thinking that. I really mean it. I apologise.”

A lump formed in my throat — sympathetic guilt. “You still don’t have to worry about that.”

“I know. I trust you.”

Her words radiated that beaming confidence that had first won me over, battered down my walls, and saved me from a future of anti-psychotic medications in a padded cell. But I saw the cracks beneath, the weather-worried flaws. In the past I would never have possessed the courage to press.

“ … but?” I asked.

The Raine of a month ago would have laughed off the question and pretended nothing was wrong. But my Raine sighed through a smile.

“But you had a hell of an adventure out there,” she said. “You already made miracles, by the sound of it. I would have loved to have been there, just to see you being cool. My squid-girl from beyond.” She broke into a grin at that, genuine and undiluted. “But I wasn’t there. And maybe I won’t be next time, either.”

“I will always come home,” I repeated.

“And I’ll always be here.”

“I love you,” I said, trying not to tear up. Raine nodded and reached over to ruffle my hair again and kiss me on the cheek. I hugged her over the side of the bath, leaving damp patches around her shoulders.

When we separated again, her eyes went up and to my left. I followed her gaze and realised she was looking at my tentacle.

“You can see it?” I asked. “But you’re not wearing the glasses? How?”

“It’s wet,” Raine said.

“ … oh.”

“I can’t really see it, not the flesh or the cool arr-gee-bee lighting—”

“Sorry?” I blinked.

“—but I can see the sheen of water hovering in the air. That’s some real invisible man stuff you got going on there, Heather. Better be careful in the rain and such, right? Don’t wanna freak out random people.”

“Of course, I … never thought of that before. How odd.”

I chewed my lip as we both settled back again, moving my tentacle through the air and dipping it back into the bath. Whistle snuffed in Raine’s lap. His eyes followed the dripping wet ghost of my single tentacle.

“You wanna get out yet, or—” Raine started.

“It’s the same for me,” I said before I could lose all my courage. “With Lozzie.”

Raine raised her eyebrows.

“About going Outside, the fear of letting somebody go and that they might not come back.” I explained in a rush, desperate to get it out of me, reject it, expel it. But I couldn’t deny it. “Now the hands are gone, I’ve given up control.”

“You had control?”

I shook my head. “I wasn’t the one stopping her from going outside, but I … I wanted it.” I swallowed, the words like venom in my mouth as I spat them out, but I had to speak them. “I’m always afraid she’ll leave, go Outside and not come back, because that’s where she belongs, that’s where she’s most comfortable. Part of me saw the hands as an excuse, or … used them as an excuse. To keep her here.” I blinked hard, frowning at myself. “And that’s a terrible thing. The potential is in me, to be terrible. To want to control.”

“Admitting it is good. Saying it out loud, that’s good.”

I shrugged. “I don’t feel any cleaner for saying it.”

“Are you still going to try to stop her from going Outside?”

“No! No, I don’t have any right to do that. Of course I don’t. Is this a me thing, Raine? Or is it a mage thing? Or because of what I’m becoming, because of … ”

I trailed off as I arced my one tentacle through the air again, coiling it closed into a fist of pale meat. Raine couldn’t see the flesh itself, but she could still see the faint sheen of dripping water. Her eyes followed it too.

“I don’t know what I’m turning into,” I murmured. “It feels good, but—”

“That has nothing to do with it,” Raine said, firm and certain. I blinked at her.

“How can you be so sure?”

Raine sighed through a slow grin and spread her arms in a shrug — then returned one hand to scratch behind Whistle’s ears when he whined. “Sometimes you forget I’m a student of politics, don’t you? And I don’t just mean ‘cos I’m studying it.”

I shook my head, confused. “What does that have to do with all this? And I never forget. I never forget anything about you, Raine.”

“It’s not a you thing,” she said. “I know you too well. It’s not a mage thing, not specifically, and I don’t think it’s an abyss thing either. It’s a power thing.”

“Power? Oh.”

Raine leaned back in her chair, rolling her neck and getting comfortable. “There’s this idea, you’ve probably heard it before; power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

“Right, yes. Of course, you think I’m—”

“But that’s bullshit. Power itself doesn’t corrupt, that’s just an excuse used by monsters. If you have a consistent and coherent ideological standpoint, and you apply it to the world around you, then hey, power doesn’t corrupt. Not by itself. The standpoint has to be wrong in the first place.”

I frowned in thought. “I’m not sure I agree with that.”

“Then do some dialectics.”

“Excuse me?” I boggled at her, feeling like a Yorkshire Terrier presented with advanced algebra.

Raine laughed. “Look, Heather, you wanted to keep Lozzie here, you wanted to control her — but you didn’t. You struggled with the feelings and you worked them out, and then you did the right thing. Nobody gets difficult questions right first time, nobody knows what to do on pure instinct. I sure never have. The guidance of conscience is a load of bullshit. You have to actually analyse. And by your own reckoning, that’s what you did.”

“I suppose so … ” I frowned at Raine, at her certainty, at how she seemed to have all the answers. I wasn’t sure I agreed with her, but I didn’t have the brainpower to argue philosophy right then. “Where is Lozzie, anyway? I was a bit woozy back there, I didn’t see where she went. Oh!” I sat up straight in the bath. “She’s not trying to find Sevens, is she? I-I’m not sure what would happen if they met in uncontrolled circumstances, I—”

Raine laughed, serious debate time over. “Far as I know, she went off for a nap while I was running your bath. But don’t worry, I don’t think even she is gonna pry Sevens out of hiding.”

I managed a tiny laugh as well, using it to cover for the question that floated up into my mind.

The bathwater was getting cold again and my fingers had gone very wrinkly. I wiggled them in the air. A lump was hardening in my throat. To not ask the obvious question would be very conspicuous. But I just said, “I suppose it’s time I got out. I could use a nap as well.”

“You sure could. Come here then.”

Raine put Whistle down on the floor, then got up, grabbed a towel from the rail, and held it out for me. I clambered over the side of the tub on shaky legs, muscles soft and sleepy from the heat and relaxation. She wrapped me in the towel and set about drying my hair while Whistle nosed along the skirting boards for interesting smells.

I closed my eyes as Raine rubbed my hair with the towel. “Did you … ”

“Hmm?” Raine made an innocent sound, as if she didn’t know. I sighed heavily and screwed up my courage. I’d faced down an Outsider god only a few hours ago. Why was this so hard?

“Did you have any luck finding Sevens?” I forced out.

“A little bit,” Raine answered — casual, or fake-casual, I couldn’t tell. My heart rate spiked as her hands stopped, leaving me beneath the dark of the towel over my head. “She hid under our bed, then in the cupboard. Like I said, hiding good. Scurries about right fast. Good at slipping through gaps and out of hands, too, like a ferret or a weasel. Made of rubber and grease.”

“You weren’t rough with her, were you?”

“Nah, ‘course not. Just want her to come out and talk.” Raine clucked her tongue. “Besides, she should have been in this bath with you, her hair’s filthy and she does smell a bit, though not of sweat. Got an iron tang to her. Vampire smell, I guess.”

“Raine,” I whined softly. “I’m not going to share a bath with her. I don’t need to do things like—”

Raine whipped the towel down off my head without warning. A soft yelp escaped my throat — chased by a hiccup that made poor Whistle jump. Raine shoved her lips against mine, hard and fierce, gripping my body through the towel wrapped about me. The deep kiss left me flushed and panting when she pulled back, eyes burning through mine. I hiccuped again, ruining the moment. Were we about to do it on the bathroom floor?

“Oh … ” I swallowed, discovering that I’d lashed my tentacle around one of her arms. I let go, gently, but Raine pinned the arm against her body, trapping my tentacle.

“Nuh uh,” she said. “No running.”

“Are you marking your territory?” I managed to ask.

“Yes,” she said. “Straight up, not gonna lie about it. Now, if Seven-Shades-of-Sucking-Shit wants to join us, she’s more than welcome. We can talk. I’m not even fronting or anything, I am being honest about my feelings, wide open. Her shit makes me uncomfortable and she needs to come talk to me about it.”

“I-I don’t think she’s listening in anymore, not like she used to. She’s a participant now.”

“Then she needs to bloody well participate,” Raine said, harder than I’d expected. “Not hide under the bed and hiss at me. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m real thankful she saved you out there, stepped in when she was needed. Big respect.” Raine looked up from me and glanced around the bathroom. “You hear that, Sevens? Big respect. Now get out here and talk to me.” Raine grit her teeth with a savage grin. “I’ll even talk to the prissy bitch princess if I have to.”

“She’s not a bitch,” I said. “Raine, don’t call people that.”

Raine’s eyes found mine again, burning bright with passion, and I half-wished I hadn’t gotten her attention. I quivered and wanted to take a step back, as if she was about to slam me into the wall and take me right there.

“But saving you doesn’t mean she gets to sleep with you, in any form,” Raine said. “And she sure as hell isn’t marrying you first. I have a claim on you, Heather. You’re mine.”

I swallowed, flushing bright red. “That’s … very … ”

A grin broke across Raine’s face like the sun from behind storm clouds. She leaned back and straightened up, gave me space to breathe, her engine clocking all the way back down to mild and easy. She ran a hand through her hair and sighed. “Unhealthy? Yeah, probably, but hey, you wanted the real me.”

“I was going to say romantic, but maybe it’s unhealthy of me to think that way.” I took a very deep breath and tried to force my heart rate down.

“Do you wanna get married?”

Heart rate back up. Way up. I stared, wide-eyed, a balloon expanding inside my chest. Raine leaned one hand against the wall next to my head, slow and gentle.

“Not yet?” she added.

“ … Raine … Raine I … ” My mouth had gone completely dry. My tentacle was still around her arm. I couldn’t let go. “I don’t know if either of us will even be alive in six months. Four months!”

She cracked a cheesy smile. “All the more reason.”

“No, I’m serious! Raine! You can’t say that and not treat it seriously. I don’t like to think about it, but we, all of us, we might not survive trying to rescue my sister. Even with everything I’ve learnt, all the ways I’ve changed, I might die. And I can just about deal with that.” I swallowed hard, to hold back the sudden threatening tears. “But you … you might … God, I hope you don’t. Even if I don’t make it, I want … I want you to live, Raine, I—”

“Heather,” Raine said my name and suddenly she was all serious, even through the smile. She didn’t lean in close, but it felt like she did. “If the worst happens, if that happens, if the rest of us all make it back but you don’t, then I’ll never be able to marry you.”

I felt like my heart was going to explode. My head span.

“We’ve only known each other … what, seven, eight months?” My words emerged in an absurd squeak, followed by a hiccup. “What do I tell my— my parents—”

Raine shrugged. “So? Doesn’t have to be a big deal. No ceremony, just registry office. Evee and Praem can witness for us. Dunno what they’ll think of Praem though. Does she even have a signature to sign?”

Oh, Evee, I thought.

“You’re serious,” I said out loud.

“I love you.”

“A-and I love you too, Raine, but I might not come back from Wonderland. I might lose.”

“And I swept you off your feet knowing that.”

I fidgeted in place, as if pinned to the wall like a captured moth. I glanced at Whistle for help, but he didn’t even understand, trying to go up on his hind legs so he could peer into the toilet bowl.

“Oh, screw it,” I hissed. “I was never going to make it to thirty anyway.” I shot a dark look at Raine. “This is very unfair, I’m exhausted. And I thought you didn’t believe in marriage? Why bring the state into this?”

She shrugged again. “We could do it our way instead, if you like?”

“What do you mean?”

“We don’t even have to go to the registry office. We can do it right here, right now. Cut our palms and press them together, the way Zheng and I never did to seal our deal. Mix our blood, you and me, forever. You can even jab me with your magical life juice that Evee was telling you never to use. I wanna see what you feel like inside me.”

I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to concentrate past the blush supernova in my face. “Raine, yes, in principle, but—”

Raine finally straightened up again, laughing. “It’s cool, Heather, no pressure. Couldn’t let myself get upstaged by Mellow Yellow. She beat me to the proposal, but she won’t beat me to anything else.”

I boggled at her, coming down from a high I hadn’t wanted. “ … you mean that was all … ?”

“Oh, no.” Raine shook her head. “I’m deadly serious. Just, you know, you can wait. If you want.”

I scowled at her, unimpressed but also secretly delighted, unwrapping my tentacle from her arm and clutching my towel to my front. “Did you just propose to me while I’m naked in a towel?”

She cracked a grin and shot me a wink. “Sure did.”

I huffed and straightened up, but half of it was performance.

“Hey, for serious though,” Raine said. “I am jealous. For real. Sevens wants to join us, be my friend, be your more-than-a-friend? Fine. But she’s not going to scuttle around and avoid me and then slink into bed beside you at night. No way. We do this up front.”

I frowned at her, then at my tentacle tip. “And you’re not bothered by the fact she’s an Outsider? Not even remotely human?”

Raine shrugged. “I’ve got no problems with what Sevens is, as long as she’s not a side-piece. She’s in or out, not halfway.”

“Fair enough,” I sighed, struggling to get my breath back. Raine took me gently by the arm, supporting me.

“Got a bit carried away there,” she said.

“No, no, it’s very understandable, I just … I don’t understand why she’s hiding.” I sighed. “And thank you for being honest, thank you for everything. Oh, Raine, what’s Zheng going to think of all this?”

“Dunno. Wish she’d hurry up and come home though, she’s missed all the fun.” Raine took me gently by the shoulders and carried on drying me off. “Hey, she might be back after you sleep. We can talk more then, too. You just focus on that. Want me to carry you to bed?”

I shot her a look. “I’d rather you get me some clothes, please. However much I would love you to princess carry me to bed, I think I’d expire if Evelyn saw that in the corridor.”

Raine laughed and nodded. She let me go, stepping back toward the door.

“What are you going to do while I nap?” I asked her, with a sudden fishhook in the back of my throat.

Raine paused, as if considering lying by omission, then she shrugged. “Gonna try again with Sevens. Think she’s in the laundry cupboard. I took this off your bedside table, here.”

She pulled a piece of yellow fabric out of her pocket, a jagged torn edge from some larger garment.

“Remember this?” she said. “This was all me, all my knife. I wanna give it back to her. Symbolic gesture, to—”

Raine never got to finish her sentence. All at once the bathroom door crashed open, as if a large and overexcited dog had run headfirst into the wood. A familiar bunch of black tentacles shot inside and grabbed the door frame. Only that familiarity kept my yelp of surprise from turning into a scream. Whistle yipped and turned in a circle.

“Heath Heath!”

Tenny stood in the doorway looking extraordinarily proud of herself, fluffy antenna wiggling, tentacles going all over the place, hands flapping.

One group of tentacles had Sevens by the scruff of her neck.

The scrawny, bony, awkward girl looked like she’d been crouched on the other side of the door when Tenny had grabbed her. She hadn’t even had time to start hissing and gurgling, let alone kicking and biting. Needle teeth exposed, red eyes dilated wide, she hung there in shock, hands up as if they’d been pressed against the door, head turned slightly. The very picture of a scuttling goblin.

“Evee’s dropping! Drop! Drop!” Tenny exclaimed in flustered delight, shoving Sevens into the room.

“Eavesdropping,” I corrected her gently, catching on instantly. “Thank you, Tenny. Thank you, but please be gentle. Please!”

“Am gentle,” Tenny said with a smile. She gently encouraged Sevens further into the room. “Pounce gentle. Catch gentle. No bruises!”

Sevens let out a “rrrrrrrr-rrrrr” noise in the back of her throat, looking very grumpy and scowling up at us, then round at Tenny, and even baring her teeth at Whistle, who backed up and let out a little “huff.”

“Ah,” Raine said, a teasing smile on her face. “Listening in, eh? Still trying to play like you’re off stage?”

“Eavesdropping,” I sighed.

“I only wanted to know!” Sevens rasped. “I’m sorry!”

“Well, you’re here now,” Raine said to her. “No time like the present. What do you think, Heather, what’s the punishment for eavesdropping around here?”

“Bath time?” I ventured.

Sevens’ eyes went wider. “No.”

“Vampires allergic to running water?” Raine asked. “Sensory processing issues with liquids? Don’t like being submerged? Anything else?”

“No, not that, but—”

“Then you are having a bath. Or a shower. Or roll in some sand, just get this mask clean,” Raine said. “Then you can cuddle with Heather, when you’re clean. Not before.”

Sevens bared her teeth and gurgled. Behind her, Tenny let out a trilling sound. Sevens flinched and stared at her.

“Or,” Raine said, “you can stay greasy and unwashed, and you and I can have a chat about relationships — without Heather, because she’ll be napping.”

“Bleeeerggggh,” went Sevens, sticking her tongue out and dipping her head. “Bath tiiiiime … ”

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Sometimes, Raine and Heather just need to have a good talk. Communication, the foundation of any healthy relationship; but are these two truly healthy? Maybe. At least Tenny found that darned rat.

In response to comments from last week, I guess I’m putting the full length author afterword here too now, so …

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Next week, bath time for vampires. Nap time for Heather? Treats for Tenny!

for the sake of a few sheep – 15.3

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Popular media is rife with apocryphal tales of so-called ‘hysterical strength’ — young mothers lifting burning cars off trapped infants, fathers discovering hidden reserves of speed to snatch a child from the jaws of death, even old men sucker punching bears to save their tiny pet dogs from being mauled and eaten. Raine says there’s a grain of truth in such stories, but that it’s mostly justification for nonsense, and I’m inclined to agree with her. Adrenaline and love make a potent cocktail. Pain, fatigue, even permanent damage can all be rendered into mere illusion, but bodies — even inhuman bodies — still have limits. One’s instincts make demands, but eventually bones break, tendons snap, and muscle fibres tear. But sometimes the damage is worth taking, just for a chance of saving another.

When I slammed into the Knight and sent us crashing through the membrane back to Outside, I barely felt the transition. The molten toxic corrosion of hyperdimensional mathematics sloshed inside my skull, searing through my eyeballs like hot pokers, but I simply didn’t care. I executed the equation with a flicker of thought, pure reaction, no concern for how little energy I had left.

Reality dissolved into kaleidoscopic chaos. For a moment which was also eternity, we were nowhere at all.

Then the Quiet Plain exploded around us with colour and motion and time.

The kinetic force of five-foot-nothing me, with my clutch of tentacles and my trailing fan of yellow robe, finished the arc I’d begun back in reality, smashing into the front of the Knight’s shiny chrome armour, tentacles lashing like a panicked octopus. I was a tiny wrecking ball of fragile flesh and frantic fear, but he should have withstood that like a tank versus a particularly excitable hedgehog.

To my endless horror, he fell over.

He toppled like a felled tree, crashing onto his back on the soft yellow grass of the quiet plain. I went down with him, clinging on hard. My head banged off his breastplate, I bruised both elbows and one knee, crunched a hip into his armour, pinned one hand beneath his weight for a moment long enough to grind my bones, and somehow managed to punch myself in the stomach with one of my tentacles.

It wasn’t the worst post-Slip landing I’d ever had, but it was up there. Not to mention I was already drained, exhausted, and emotionally spent after one of the longest nights of my life.

Head whirling, body throbbing with new pain, truly empty, I felt myself just let go.

But I didn’t black out — I couldn’t black out. My body wouldn’t let me, it had decided otherwise. In the one second it had taken me and the Knight to fall down in a tangle of limbs and shaking metal, the miracle bioreactor in my abdomen had performed the opposite of an emergency SCRAM operation. Every control rod shot out of its chemical channel, slamming the reactor to maximum output; I was running hot before I even finished injuring myself, screaming past safe limits and risking ego-death.

I sat up and fell off the Knight in a second tangle of limbs, turned to my head to vomit, and didn’t even take the time to groan before I wiped my mouth on my sleeve. No time for self-pity.

I turned back to the Knight because I had to do something, anything, whatever I could.

“No no no no no—” I hissed, going up on my knees and leaning over the Knight’s supine form. I had no idea what to do with my shaking hands or quivering tentacles. I didn’t even know where to start.

The Knight was literally falling apart — peeling himself out of his protective shell of imperishable metal, pushing away the chrome plates and shining pauldrons and letting go of the helmet and the greaves and the gauntlets, leaving them to lie limp and empty on the yellow grass as he revealed the gnarled truth inside, the real Knight contained within the amour, the self of dark flesh. Watery red fluid sluiced out and soaked into the ground, stinking of blood and bile. But his tentacles — glorious things lined with powerful suckers and filaments like Velcro — had grown too weak for the task; he couldn’t lift the heavy breastplate off himself, like a man trapped beneath a fallen beam with broken arms.

I grabbed the metal with both hands and two tentacles and heaved it off his core. The heavy plate fell onto the grass with a dull thump.

“Oh … oh God,” I breathed. “Oh no. Please, please—”

When one of the other knights had shown me the truth of what lay inside their armour — the protoplasmic bubbling, the masses of tentacles like ropes of muscle, the leathery dark raw-beef texture of their skin — the experience had not only gifted me with empathy and understanding, it had given me a baseline for what they were supposed to look like.

Which is why I understood the forest-knight was so badly injured.

His core — about the size of a beach-ball — flopped as if partially deflated, like a balloon filled with cold, lumpy, congealed fat, spasming and flexing. The thickest and strongest of his dozens of tentacles lay limp and twitching where he’d managed to extract himself from the arms and legs of the armour; the smaller ones tried to rise, to drift like seaweed, but they merely quivered, falling back as if beached in the cold air. The surface of his tea-coloured skin was puffy and bloated, like a bar of soap left in the water for too long. Every inch of him was weeping that thin, watery, stinking blood. The vigorous protoplasmic bubbling was absent; half-formed mouths and eyes and other alien organs were frozen in the surface of his skin, as if he’d kept trying to generate the correct sensory apparatus right up until his energy had given out.

Three eyes seemed to still function: one like a goat’s eye, the second an insect compound eye, and the third distressingly human. They all turned to meet my panicked gaze.

“You’re … you’re okay now.” My tongue was numb and a weight lay on my chest. “You’re Outside. You’re Outside now, it’s okay, it’s going to be okay … ”

My hands and tentacles hovered, useless. I had no idea where to start, how to help, what he needed. I dared not touch anything, lest I cause more damage, more pain. I’d practised and practised and practised in order to do brain surgery on Badger, but the Knight wasn’t even remotely human.

“What … what do I … ?” I managed, throat closing up, tears running down my cheeks. “Why didn’t you say something? Why— no, no, this is all my fault, it’s all my fault. I should have paid attention. You weren’t even supposed to be there.”

He shouldn’t have been in our reality. Lozzie had told me in plain language. But I’d been so distracted, so focused on myself and Sevens and on getting home. I’d pulled him up behind us without even thinking. Like dredging a deep-sea fish to the surface on the back of my safe little submersible, like Lozzie but a thousand times quicker, a thousand times worse.

His suit of armour, wrought from Outsider star-steel, had probably afforded him some limited protection. A bubble of metaphysical safety against what for him must have been a howling void. But even that armour had seams. He’d had to hold it together himself, from the inside. Imagine trying to clutch a space suit to your own naked body, when every movement might allow in more of the deathly cold nothingness beyond.

“I’ve hurt you,” I tried to say, but it came out as a whine between gritted teeth. “What do I do? What do you need?”

A mouth near his top end flapped open and shut with liquid noises, but held no expression and made no cry for help. I stared at it, feeling myself sinking.

“Not vocal,” I said, voice dying. “Not vocal. Of course I know you’re not vocal. It’s not your responsibility to be vocal. I should have … asked … should have known.”

One of his three active eyes — the goat-pupil one — blinked slowly in an unmistakable gesture. A thickly muscled tentacle bumped against my knee.

I believe he was trying to say ‘It’s okay.

When I turned to vomit again I could barely see through a veil of tears. It wasn’t an aftershock of hyperdimensional mathematics that brought up the remains of my breakfast, it was guilt and horror.

I’d done this. By accident. That didn’t make it any better.

I scrubbed my tears away and wiped my mouth again, desperate to help rather than be consumed by selfish guilt, but I couldn’t do anything except be ready. There was no move to make here, no first aid, no medical help. Not without his maker.

“Lozzie?” I said her name like a prayer, hoping beyond hope that she would materialise in front of me, just like she had that time in Wonderland. “Lozzie?! Lozzie please!” I looked up and around, pleading with her to appear. “You made them, you know how to—

When I raised my eyes, I discovered a ring of steel.

Other knights had gathered to watch, to pay their respects to their dying comrade, or perhaps just to look on in horror at what I’d done. About two dozen of them had wandered away from their habitual positions in Lozzie’s imaginary round table, spread out across the soft yellow hillsides. They stood at a safe distance, silent grey-chrome sentinels of thick metal, carrying their shields and their swords and their lances, slung over their shoulders or held at rest. Their armour shone darkly, lit from far above by the strange purple whorls in the sky, framed by the distant horizon and brushed by the touch of the sweetly-spiced wind.

“Help!” I said. “How do I help him? What do I do?”

None of them answered. They couldn’t, that wasn’t how they communicated. But that didn’t stop me from twisting on the spot, looking at each blank-visored helmet in turn, pleading and babbling. “Help, please, can’t you do something for him?! Tell me what to do! I can do magic, I can fix things, I can fix people, and— and— I don’t know what to do! I need Lozzie but she’s not here!”

Perhaps it was my imagination, but I saw sorrow and resignation in the set of their shoulders, the angle of their chins, the slump of their arms. One of them was even pointing his featureless faceplate up at the sky, as if weeping to the absent stars.

Two of them had died protecting Lozzie and I, first from the Eye, then from the black lighting creature in Carcosa. But had they ever witnessed the death of one of their own, up close and slow, with time enough to say goodbye?

Regret almost overwhelmed me, filling my eyes and gritting my teeth; all that bioreactor energy rushed through my veins and saturated my cells, with nothing to do.

This was why I cared.

If Raine or Evelyn had been in mortal danger, that so-called ‘hysterical strength’ would have made perfect sense. I loved my friends. I would do anything for them. But I’d known this Knight, this weird blob of flesh, for about twenty hours. I’d never exchanged a single word with him; we could barely communicate. But he’d been alongside me every step of the way. He’d volunteered to protect me, duelled Hastur, walked through the darkness, faced a sphinx, and helped me defy the King in Yellow. He was a hero, no matter how minor the part he played.

All of them had volunteered for this, made some kind of vow with Lozzie, an unimaginable pact to protect me and help rescue Maisie. Though I had not asked for them, I had followers, disciples, pawns.

Perhaps they were all prepared to throw themselves at the Eye, when the time came. I did not particularly like that they had pledged themselves to die for me, but I knew I would use them in the end, if they were willing and able and could help me rescue my sister. So the only way to deal with that was to accept I had a responsibility to them in return. I had a duty of care. A covenant to never spend them carelessly — or spend them not at all, if it could ever be avoided.

To die defending us was one thing. But to die because I made a stupid mistake?

A keening noise tried to force itself up my throat. I hadn’t cried like this in months. I was filth.

The dying forest-knight bumped my knee with a tentacle again. Powerful suckers tried to grasp my jeans, but slipped off like broken fingers. A sob choked me as I reached down to make contact, as I touched tentacle to tentacle and the forest-knight hung on as hard as he could.

“It’s going to be okay,” I lied.

Before I could think about what I was doing, I leaned forward and took the poor thing in my arms. I hugged the Knight and gently pulled him off the ground and into my lap, stroking the puffy, leathery, weeping flesh like comforting a dying animal that didn’t understand what was happening. But the Knight understood all too well. He coiled several tentacles around me in return, but could barely hold on, all his strength gone.

I made sure to wrap as much of him as I could in Sevens’ robes. Perhaps the warmth would soothe him, take away the pain.

“It’s going to be … okay,” I lied again.

Television and movies always make these sorts of moments seem so clean and neat; white bedsheets and murmured goodbyes, eyes closing without the need for intervention, picturesque bullet wounds that never disfigure, sorrow-stricken heroes carrying their dead friends. But reality is so much flesh. They never show the voiding bowels, the ugly coughing, the bitterness and failure.

The Knight was heavy enough that my thighs were already aching, a beach-ball made of muscle, leathery flesh rough and sticky with the bloody weeping, which soaked into the front of my clothes and got all over my arms and hands. He stank of strange fluids, bloody excrement and bile, vaguely cloacal, and he was an awkward shape to hug without getting his watery blood on my neck and face. But I didn’t care. I hugged him gently so as not to make the pain worse, pressing him against the radiating warmth of the bioreactor in my abdomen, now running almost out of control. My head felt light, spinning away into the clouds, senses beginning to blur.

He was just like us. Lozzie had made him flesh, true flesh, and I was an idiot who hadn’t paid attention to that simple fact. I swore I would never let this happen again.

“It’s going to be—”

True flesh.

Pressed against my abdomen.

“—okay,” I finished as my tears suddenly stopped.

I looked down at the be-tentacled beach-ball of swollen, aching flesh nestled in my lap. Two of his three eyes were half-closed in exhaustion, but the one with the goat-pupil swivelled to look up at me.

“ … I know flesh,” I murmured. “I’m flesh too.”

He blinked. A question.

“I’ve already let two of you die and I should have been smarter, should have been faster, should have done something differently. Well this time I can.” My voice rose in confidence as I spoke, quivering but backed by resolution. “I have an idea.”

I brought one of my own tentacles in front of my face so I could watch the concept blossom into life. My beautiful pneuma-somatic limb responded to my half-formed notion with a shudder of sub-dermal transformation, new organs and structures speed-growing beneath the pale, rainbow-strobing skin, seeded by thought and fuelled by the pounding energy of my bioreactor. The Knight’s single remaining eye swivelled up to watch as the tip of the tentacle peeled open like a flower, revealing a needle.

Six inches long and wrought from bio-steel — a substance I hadn’t even known I could make until the idea had struck me. The needle was thick enough to pierce elephant hide. Purple light glinted off the metal. Tiny tendrils lapped it in a layer of antiseptic and then wicked away the moisture until it shone like a dagger.

A trio of sacks nestled at the needle’s base, each the size of a golf ball, semi-translucent, and rapidly filling with their respective payloads.

One was golden-yellow, bright and burning. The second was clear-white, milky and thin. The third was black as the deep, oily and potent.

My flank started to go cold, right where that tentacle was rooted and anchored in human flesh; I shoved the folds of Sevens’ cloak tighter against my side. Those three fluids were being distilled from my own blood, taken from my plasma and lymph, leeched out of my cells. The bioreactor in my abdomen screamed with heat as it compensated, pumping out glucose and enzymes and other things best left unformed in the light of reality, substances which had no place in the human body — and I was seeing them with my own eyes for the first time.

Somehow, deep in my gut, I knew I had only a second or two; the unnameable substances I was extracting from my own body would not stay stable when isolated and purified like this. I had to mix them again, join them with flesh, give them purpose.

I raised the needle over the Knight in my arms and reared the tentacle back, ready to strike.

His single eye found me, weeping a few slow tears. I didn’t need to read minds to know the question he was asking.

“You’re going to be—” I started to say.

The needle ached like an open wound. Any longer and I must close it, void the contents, seal myself back up. But I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t give him hope, I couldn’t lie.

His strange goat-pupil dilated with fear.

Will this work? he asked.

“I have no idea,” I admitted — and plunged the needle home.

The metal spike struck true, stabbing right through his leathery hide and sinking into his core, among alien organs and exotic chemicals, the base slamming home against his skin. A set of tiny muscles contracted inside my tentacle-tip, valves opening and sphincters pushing and tubes dilating, draining the trio of sacks and mixing their contents into a single stream of alchemical miracle that shot through the needle and into the Knight.

It was one of the most disgusting physical sensations I’d ever experienced, like a cross between shoving one’s leg into a vat of sun-baked cow viscera, and a highly-localised chill of frostbite just under my ribs. A shock wave ran up through the tentacle I’d used and hit me in the flank like a bucket of ice-cubes dumped into my torso cavity. I hissed through my teeth — then just hissed at the sky like an animal, in pain and shock. It stung and ached and made me want to tear out a fistful of my own flesh. In my abdomen, the trilobe bioreactor screamed and overheated, a burning star in my belly spinning new matter and dumping it into my bloodstream, to replace what I was giving away.

He twitched and shivered in my arms, his single remaining eye going glassy and cloudy. I hugged him tighter, as if that would make any difference.

Either this was going to work, or I’d just delivered a merciful deathblow.

I didn’t even fully understand what I’d just done; abyssal instinct and bodily drive were screaming at me to stop, like I was losing blood. The fluids I was ejecting were never supposed to leave my body, never meant to be chemically isolated in the first place, and absolutely not intended for transfusion into another living creature.

But I squeezed with muscles I hadn’t possessed sixty seconds earlier. Tiny membranes in my tentacle-tip tore themselves apart. Miniature tendons snapped and curled. Muscles ripped under their own force, pushing out every last droplet of burning ichor.

And suddenly, like touching a live electrical cable, I achieved connection.

For a split second the Knight and I were part of the same pneuma-somatic circuit. As the trio of chemicals recombined and pulsed through his circulatory system, as they bonded with his cell walls and located whatever he used instead of adenosine triphosphate, as they sank into the whorls of his thinking-meat and rode the nerve impulses, his biology and mine were linked through the thin tunnel of bio-steel, back up through my tentacle and into my body through my flank, all the way back to my heart and lungs and brain.

I felt what he felt — all-encompassing pain and exhaustion, desperate hope, and a kind of love that no word exists for in any human language. I finally understood why Lozzie had made them knights. Real historical knights may have been a thin justification over the brutality of feudalism, but here was chivalric devotion worthy of the name.

But there was not only one knight.

There was this flesh and this mind, cradled in my arms on the cusp of death or salvation, but for one glorious explosive moment I was aware of all those other minds too, arranged in a ring for comradeship, company, and consensus-making. When one of them fell, the ring could close, so as to never truly be broken. I caught a snatched moment of their constant flow of thought-exchange, not as words or any other recognisable communication, too alien for even me to understand, a whirling impressions of sorrow, hissed arguments about intervention, debates on proper rites and procedures and mourning, wild shouts of trust and belief, while beneath it all they still carried on a million conversations about subjects so alien I never did manage to understand what I’d witnessed. It was as if I was a foreigner who had walked up to their round table, respected and beloved, but bereft of their tongue.

Yet more distant than these alien yet human-scale minds, I sensed other groupings of thoughts further out, still connected but totally incomprehensible to me, awash with sense-impressions of vast barren plains beneath the purple-whorled sky, or the ruins of impossibly cyclopean cities built from sandy megaliths, or deep mountain caves full of strange fossils and ancient machinery. These were the minds of the barn-sized creatures Lozzie had called ‘caterpillars’, out there exploring the world of the Quiet Plain. If I stood at the Round Table, then those were akin to esoteric board games being played out in adjacent rooms, with terminology and move call-outs I couldn’t begin to decipher.

Lozzie had made life and imbued it with love and purpose — but now it was out there, beyond the boundaries of human imagination, exploring and learning in a place truly alien, making definition for itself.

In that frozen moment, I realised I could never spend these beings against the Eye. It would be a kind of genocide.

Then my alchemical gift finished gushing from the needle. The connection broke and I was alone once again, shivering and hissing with pain, with a great big lump of bleeding flesh cradled in my lap.

All three of the forest-knight’s eyes were closed. He was twitching, tentacles spasming, flesh roiling with sudden protoplasmic activity. Like a seizure.

I withdrew the needle — wincing and retching at the awful sucking noise it made as it pulled back out of him, slick with blood. The tentacle I’d used felt tender and abused. I couldn’t seem to close the petal-structure again, so the needle hung there in the air, throbbing and aching.

“Please, please,” I hissed through my teeth.

There was no great moment of relief, no rush of gratitude, no hysterical laughter, only a numb trickle of realisation when I noticed the Knight wasn’t dying in my lap anymore. His leathery skin began to very slowly exude and consume strange organs again. Five new eyes — none of them human or even animal — bubbled up from the surface half-formed and cloudy, but they all looked at me, blinking with recognition.

I eased him off my lap and onto the backplate of his armour, which still lay where he’d fallen. He tried to help, but his tentacles were still weak, slapping against pieces of discarded metal in a fruitless effort.

“It’s okay,” I murmured, patting one of his tentacles. My head was whirling and pounding, my face flushed as if in the grip of a fever. “Rest. You don’t have to rush to … um … pull yourself together.”

Three of five eyes swivelled back to me. Two of them blinked. The third rolled back in its socket.

I hiccuped, holding back a spike of hysterical laughter that had nothing to do with amusement. “Sorry. Couldn’t resist the pun. Don’t know what to say. Just rest, okay? I … don’t know what I’ve done to you, but we still need Lozzie to look at you. She understands how you work, your biology and stuff. I don’t, I don’t know what I’ve done, you might still be in danger. We need to wait for Lozzie, or find her. Lozzie, right, she’ll know, she—”

With a soft pop of displaced air, a scuff of trainers on grass, and a flutter of pink-white-and-blue poncho, Lozzie materialised eight feet to my left.

“Heathy!” She lit up , with her big smile and sleepy eyes.

Lozzie looked no worse for wear than when she’d left me behind on this same spot the previous day. A little puffy around the eyes from lack of sleep perhaps, but practically glowing with bouncy energy. Her braid had come loose and fallen apart, wispy blonde hair loose about her elfin little face and mischievous eyes. A crudely constructed paper crown sat at a jaunty angle on her head, decorated with orange scribbles, and a face-paint hand print of the same colour was smeared across one of her cheeks and part of her neck — though the hand which had applied it had clearly not been human. Not enough fingers, too many claws.

She’d also brought a passenger. Evelyn was holding on to Lozzie’s forearm.

Eyes going wide as saucers at our surroundings, mouth dropping open as her face drained of all colour, other hand turning white-knuckle tight on her walking stick, Evelyn started screaming.

“W-what?” Lozzie flinched away in confusion.

“Why did you bring me!?” Evelyn shouted in her face, trying to transition from terror to anger. She flung Lozzie’s arm away from herself, gritting her teeth, unsteady as she took a stumbling step backward. But then she glanced over her shoulder and discovered nothing but more quiet hillsides of yellow grass and more silent knights around us.

“ … because you said it was an emergency?” Lozzie tilted her head and pointed at me and the forest-knight. “And it is! You were right!”

“I didn’t mean for you to bring me along you fucking loon!” Evelyn screamed.

Lozzie recoiled like a kicked dog. “You took my hand!” she chirped.

“To impress on you the importance of—”

“Evee!” I yelped, staggering to my feet and reaching out for her with my tentacles. I was unsteady too, weak and covered in cold sweat like I’d just donated a pint of blood. “Evee, it’s okay, I’m here. This is a safe place.”

But Evelyn flinched away from my tentacles. She started to half-raise her walking stick, shaking all over, going green around the gills, her breath coming in struggling spurts. She couldn’t stay focused on me, eyes whirling for possible threats, her weakened leg buckling with effort. If I struggled to exist Outside it must have been so much worse for Evelyn, unprepared for the trip, let alone the arrival.

“Safe?!” she managed to spit. “You—”

I didn’t wait for her to finish; I threw my tentacles wide, into a shark—cage for Evelyn to shelter inside. She didn’t like to be touched, so I doubted trying to calm her with a hug would help defeat the panic attack she was so clearly trying to stave off, but at least I could show her she was protected.

“Lozzie,” I spoke over Evelyn’s sudden splutter. “Yes, it’s an emergency.” I pointed at the forest-knight on the ground, still writhing gently amid the ruins of his armour. “He came back to reality with me and I forgot, I forgot what you told me, after an hour he started to … ”

“Oh.” Lozzie’s eyes went wide. She started at the knight. “But he’s okay?”

I brought my needle-tipped tentacle up between us. “I injected him with the distilled … stuff, from my bioreactor.”

“Heather, what the hell?” Evelyn hissed. That seemed to have done the trick. She was still white as a sheet and looked like she wanted to vomit, but she wasn’t rapidly falling apart anymore.

Lozzie did a double-take at the huge needle and back at me, then over at the knight. For a second she was paralysed. My heart sank.

“I-I think it stabilised him,” I said, “but I don’t know how to—”

“It’ll be alright!” Lozzie launched herself toward the Knight, poncho flapping as she went down on her knees by his side. “Eeeeeverything is going to be alright! Alright, on the night! Just wait wait wait wait!”

She waggled a hand at Evelyn and me as if to tell us to be quiet — then she started singing.

Slow and soft at first, aimed down at the Knight, like murmuring a lullaby to a small child; for a moment I was afraid that she had lied, that she was administering some kind of last rites, or saying a tearful goodbye. But then her voice rose in volume, mouth open in a long, haunting, beautiful note. She raised her eyes too, fixed on the horizon and then the skies, her face bathed in the purple light spilling from the starry deep above. Her eyes fluttered shut as she hit her stride.

Lozzie’s singing was beautiful but strange, one long note varying in pitch, broken only by the need to inhale, a sound that seemed too much for her throat, bobbing as she undulated up and down the scales. Below the pure sound of her voice itself lay another voice, a second tone on the very limit of human hearing, perhaps ultrasound, camouflaged and embraced by and hidden inside Lozzie’s own singing.

My eyes were watering, my ears itched, and a sympathetic resonance rung deep in my chest, as if the sound was reaching inside me.

Evelyn had to wipe her watering eyes too, though neither of us was actually crying. It was like standing before a pressure differential, tugging on one’s front with the deceptively gentle insistence of an undertow current. The Knight at Lozzie’s knees responded well though. He wrapped several tentacles around her thighs and waist. His protoplasmic shifting seemed to slow into a steady rhythm.

Evelyn nudged me in the side with the handle of her walking stick and nodded sideways. I nodded back.

We stepped away from Lozzie until we were clear of the invisible pressure from her singing. We had to pass among the gathered ring of knights who had come to watch, though several of them gladly moved to make room for us, stepping aside without a sound as their metal boots moved across the soft yellow grass. Evelyn flinched at that, despite my protective cage of tentacles around her. Even when we finally stopped and took a shared deep breath, her eyes followed the knights with all the wariness of a spooked cat.

“It is safe here, I’m serious,” I said, lowering my tentacles at last. “I don’t even really need to do this.”

Evelyn shot me such a look, mustering her ire despite how she was still pale and waxy. “Heather.”

“Really, I mean it. This dimension, it’s empty apart from us and the knights, and they would literally die for me. You’re safe right now, Evee. I promise.”

Evelyn wet her lips and leaned heavily on her walking stick, fixing me with a very unimpressed and grumpy look. That was more like it, that was more her. I’d given her an opening to do her usual thing, a familiar emotional handhold.

“Heather, perhaps you’ve forgotten,” she said. “But I happen to be a human being. I don’t know exactly what you are anymore — and I don’t mean that in a bad way,” she added with a huff. “But you and Lozzie are far better equipped to be out here. I am not.”

“And I’m right next to you,” I said, waggling a tentacle. “See? Protecting.”

Evelyn eyed my tentacles again, wary and uncertain. “ … mm. Quite.”

A horrible slimy feeling slid into my chest and squeezed my heart. “Do my tentacles scare you? Do I scare you?”

“What?” Evelyn scowled at me. “No, don’t be absurd. Heather, I don’t doubt your intentions. I doubt your capacity. We are Outside and I don’t care how supposedly empty and safe this particular patch of ground might be.” She tapped the grass with the tip of her walking stick, then gestured around at the yellow hillsides, the dozens of knights, the sky full of purple whorls like diamonds scattered across velvet. “This is all a little overwhelming, to put it lightly. I don’t even know what this place is. We could be breathing in anything — what is that smell?” She sniffed the cinnamon scent in the air.

“Evee, if the Eye itself opened above us, then my first priority would be to get you home safe.”

Evelyn shot me a sidelong look, still scowling and gritting her teeth, but she stopped ranting.

“Do you want to hold my hand?” I asked, offering one. “In case of emergency, in case we have to leave quickly. I won’t ask you to touch a tentacle.”

Evelyn huffed and rolled her eyes — but she slipped her hand into mine anyway, her maimed hand with the missing fingers, the same one I’d once felt slip out of my grip when she’d gotten stranded Outside all by herself. It was clammy with cold sweat, muscles tight with tension. This time I held on tight. She looked away to watch Lozzie instead. I followed suit and we shared a moment of silence.

“You’re too kind for your own good, you know that?” she said.

“I think it’s for everybody’s good.”

“Mm, well. Lozzie is performing a miracle, isn’t she?”

“All the king’s horses and all the king’s men,” I quoted, watching with awe as the forest-knight seemed to gain in strength with every minute Lozzie sang. Thick tentacles waved in the air.

“Not an apt quote, Heather,” Evelyn sighed. “Because it looks like Lozzie will indeed be able to put Humpty together again. Have you noticed she’s got a hickey on her neck?”

I sighed. From this angle, with Lozzie’s face pointing up at the sky as she sang, it was impossible to miss. “Yes. How did she get that, Outside?”

Evelyn shrugged. She eyed my tentacles again. “I think your tentacles are very nice, Heather. They suit you. But please keep that one away from me.”

“What? Oh!”

I realised she was staring at the bio-steel needle still hanging exposed in the air — it had been creeping closer to her without conscious intent on my part. I reeled it in, oddly embarrassed, and finally managed to fold up the tip of the tentacle once again, like a flower of flesh closing its petals. I felt the needle begin to dissolve back into the pneuma-somatic cells.

My bioreactor was still running hot, pumping out energy into my veins and animating my tentacles; had the excess of power led me to seek an outlet? I forced the control rods back into their channels one by one, shaking and shuddering as I did so, feeling the exhaustion wash over me. My eyelids were like lead. Didn’t help that I’d vomited up half my breakfast.

“Sorry, sorry, I lost track of it,” I said. “Though I’m pretty sure jabbing you with it would just make you hyperactive or something.”

“Or give me cancer. Heather, you have no idea what that could do to a human body, one that lacks the self-regulating systems yours probably possesses by now.”

“That’s true, you do have a point. Again, sorry, really sorry, I didn’t mean to—”

“Do not use it on a person. Do not. Even in an emergency. Do anything else, brainmath, experimental surgery, jamming your fingers into the wound.”

“I understand.” I was struggling not to blush.

“Do not—”

“I get it,” I grunted, then squeezed my eyes shut and rubbed the bridge of my nose. “I’m sorry, Evee. I’m … I panicked and … no, don’t worry, I won’t jab you with my magical life juice. I promise.”

“Well. See that you don’t.”

Awkward silence descended, broken only by Lozzie’s singing. The forest-knight looked like he was going to pull through; his skin wasn’t weeping anymore and he had more than a dozen eyes, pointed in every direction. His tentacles were beginning to poke at the discarded pieces of his armour.

“This is fascinating,” Evelyn murmured eventually. “But Praem will be going spare.”

“She trusts Lozzie. And she trusts me too, I hope. She knows we’ll keep you safe. And we’ll have you back in a minute or two, I just … I need to know the Knight is okay. I really messed up, Evee. I really did, I almost killed him.”

Evelyn looked at me — no longer probing and wary, but just meeting my eyes. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen you move that fast before.”

“I’m sorry?”

“When you realised something was wrong with him.” Evelyn nodded at the Knight, who was now attempting to slowly reassemble his armour around himself, worming bundles of tentacles through greaves and vambraces. He was still clumsy though, and couldn’t quite get himself together.

“I have a responsibility,” I muttered, only half talking to Evelyn. “To everyone who helps me, to not be like … not be … ”

I waved a tentacle in front of my own face. Not be like what? Not turn into the thing that Evelyn had seen back in the kitchen, the awe-inspiring transhuman Outsider that I feared I might become? Like Ooran Juh?

Evelyn squeezed my hand, a little too hard, almost panicked. When I looked up at her, she was frowning back at me, sober and serious.

“Don’t drift away on me,” she said.

I laughed softly, not really amused. “That’s exactly what I’m trying not to do.”

“You really feel that responsibility, don’t you?”

“Of course I do. He helped me, he volunteered when I was alone and lost. I know it was only one night, but I was terrified. I would have had to go to Carcosa, totally alone.” I watched as the Knight struggled to flex a metal boot at the end of a branch of ropy tentacles.

“Mm,” Evelyn grunted. She opened her mouth, closed it again, then looked away before finally speaking. “You feel that way about everyone in your life?”

“Well, um, to some degree, of course.”

“You don’t have to give of yourself to everyone who asks. Or even everyone who doesn’t ask. You have a right to say no.”

“Evee?”

She didn’t answer, staring at Lozzie singing away into the deep purple sky, squinting slightly as if puzzling over a complex problem. Her profile was framed by the distant hillsides, her small neat nose and her compact jawline, the bags under her eyes and her surprisingly squishy cheeks. Fingers of wind plucked at her hair, tugging loose strands across her shoulders.

I could have left it there, pretended I didn’t understand, feigned ignorance. But I was flush with the dregs of draining energy, with the emotional aftermath of narrowly avoiding the accidental death of a being in my care, and with the relief of conquering my life-long fear of getting stuck Outside. I was alive, so no more holding back.

“What are we talking about, Evee?” I asked, and my voice only quivered a little.

Her throat bobbed. Her maimed hand grew clammy in mine. Slowly, like the turning of an iceberg in deep waters, she looked back to me. Our eyes met but neither of us spoke. We both knew. That was all we needed.

Then she huffed out a great sigh. “Oh, not this. I don’t mean this.” She waved her walking stick at Lozzie and the Knight. “This was right, you were right, you have a responsibility toward those who help you. We all do, it’s basic solidarity. I admire you for it. It’s the right thing.”

“ … but?”

“But everyone wants to bloody well sleep with you or worship you!” she snapped, scowling at the knights gathered around us. “That goes for you lot as well.”

“Evee,” I said gently.

“What? I’m right. You go off Outside for a night and you come back with another girlfriend! I know there’s reasons, good reasons, but—”

“You’re jealous.” I swallowed, hard.

“Fucking right I’m jealous.” She stared right at me, cheeks burning but unembarrassed. “I’m ashamed too. You had me read cold, Heather, I was looking at you like a mage with a creature to study. Thank you for reminding me otherwise. I mean it. Thank you for reminding me you’re just you.”

“I’ll always be just me.”

“For better or worse,” she huffed, rolling her shoulders to work out the kinks, watching Lozzie again so she didn’t have to see my reaction to what she said next. “I never had any normal friends.”

“ … obviously,” I said, wary but wanting her to continue. Maybe she just needed to get it off her chest.

“I had — and still have, yes — Raine. Don’t tell her I said that, she’ll be insufferable about it. But she’s hardly a normal friend.” Evelyn sucked on her teeth in thought. When she spoke again, her voice came out soft and low. “Don’t repeat this to anybody, but … sometimes when I’m alone in bed, I like to dream that I might give up on magic one day.” She glanced at me, faintly guilty. “After we rescue your sister. And we will, we’ll succeed. But I can’t give it up, not even then. Not if I kill every mage within a hundred miles of Sharrowford and we blind the Eye with the universe’s largest broken bottle.”

I gave a weak laugh, a polite laugh, but Evelyn wasn’t joking.

“I know I can’t,” she carried on, looking out at the Quiet Plain again. “Once you’re in you can never get back out, but that’s not why. It’s not because of the knowledge that lives in my skull or the hunger for it — the only worthwhile thing I inherited from my mother. No. It’s because of you, Heather.”

She went silent for a second. My heart climbed up my throat and knocked on the back of my teeth.

Then she added, “And Praem.”

“Oh,” I breathed.

“And yes, Raine too, obviously. But mostly you and Praem. You’ll never get out, it’s part of you now. And Praem is my daughter. Not sort of my daughter. She is. That’s final.”

“You’re saying you have a responsibility too.”

“No. No, it’s not responsibility for me. If I didn’t have this—” Evelyn hissed through her teeth and corrected, “I mean if I didn’t have all of you, then I don’t think I would have a reason to carry on.”

“Evee?” I squeezed her hand. She glanced at me and pulled a self-directed scowl.

“Oh don’t fret,” she said. “I’m not talking suicidal ideation. Heather, I was terrified when you didn’t come home.”

“I know, and I’m sorry, and I—”

“I’m not looking for an apology.” She looked away and cleared her throat. “You can’t force your way into my life and not take some responsibility.”

I managed a small laugh. “You sound like me with Raine.”

I regretted those words before they left my mouth. Evelyn winced. I bit my tongue. I swear I heard a waver in Lozzie’s singing. Perhaps it was my imagination, but I could have sworn one of the knights on a distant hillside put his faceplate in his palm.

“Sorry,” I said, blushing.

“It’s not quite the same, is it?”

“It’s not,” I hurried to add. “No. Not at all.”

Evelyn took a moment to compose herself. “Heather, would you like to watch some cartoons with me?”

“Um … sure? Of course, I’d be delighted to. You mean anime?”

Evelyn shrugged. “Let’s not get into that distinction right now. I’d like to show you some more favourites sometime. We don’t do enough of that, we’re always caught up in not dying or being eaten. So lets you and me watch some cartoons together. Just you and me.”

“I’d like that.” I squeezed her hand and she smiled, a real smile, which melted the tension from her face and for just a second made me see what Evelyn might have looked like if she’d never discovered magic at all. Puppy-fat and kindness.

I would have slipped a tentacle across her shoulders for a proper hug, but I thought it best to ask first, and I didn’t quite have the courage for that.

We waited through another minute of singing.

“Evee, I’ve been wondering, why didn’t Sevens come after me just now?”

“Mm? Oh, yes, that was a bit of a panic. She said you’d know what to do, but Raine was grabbing her and demanding she take us after you.” Evelyn grumbled as she spoke, clearly unimpressed with the whole thing. “Then Lozzie appeared about sixty seconds later. It was like an episode of Scooby Doo, you out one door and her in the other. I half-expected Praem to start humming Yakety Sax.”

“Yakety what? I’m sorry?”

“Never mind.”

“But she didn’t follow.”

“She said it would be cheating,” Evelyn explained. “Then she ran off, vanished upstairs.”

My heart sank. That was a bad sign. “Vanished as in … vanished vanished?”

“No, physically ran off, with her feet. Though I think she took the stairs on all fours. We could hear her banging around up there. As soon as Lozzie appeared, Raine shouted at her to go help you, then she took off, to coax Sevens out from a cupboard with a box of dog treats for all I know.”

“Oh dear,” I sighed. But that did sound better than the alternative. “More mess to solve.”

“Before you go solving any messes, you need a sleep. A long one. And a bath.” Evelyn performatively sniffed at me. “You stink, you know.”

“Well, pardon me for bleeding on myself,” I said, mock-apologetic.

Evelyn snorted a laugh, shaking her head. Then she looked around at the knights, the yellow hillsides, and up at the purple-whorled sky again. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe this particular place is safe. It feels like it right now, but I don’t trust that feeling.”

“Only a few more minutes, I think we’re wrapping up,” I said. The Knight was finally wriggling tendrils back into his helmet, dozens of tentacles grasping pieces of armour and pulling them into place over his dark, leathery core, bracing them and fitting them together. “I think he’s going to be okay.”

“At the rate he’s going, it’s going to be another fifteen minutes before he gets himself sealed in.”

I glanced around too, at this strange and desolate place, now filled with Lozzie’s progeny. “I guess we can just come and go now, what with the dead hands gone.”

Evelyn hissed through her teeth. “You mean you can come and go. Do not tempt me.”

“Ah. Oh. Very fair point.”

“Screw it,” Evelyn grunted, nodding at the ground. “Is it safe to sit on this grass? It’s not going to poison me or something?”

“I’ve lain down on it for hours before.”

“Fair enough then. Give me a hand, will you?”

And so Evelyn and I settled down to wait for a few minutes, Outside but not alone, never alone, as Lozzie put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

I guess I’m doing the post chapter author notes here on the main site too from now on! Unless anybody finds it distracting or something. Though I shan’t plug the patreon or such down here! At least unless somebody tells me it’s good idea???

Heather’s body sure has become a medical marvel, hasn’t it? Though as Evee says, using any of this on baseline humans might be a bit risky.

Next week, it’s probably (hopefully, finally, please) time for Heather to unwind a little. But she might need to dig a rat out of the walls first.

for the sake of a few sheep – 15.2

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

“ … the King in Yellow?”

“The King in Yellow.”

“Is fiction.”

“Apparently not. I don’t think I was hallucinating, or being tricked. All the tricks were out in the open, that’s how they worked so well. I know what I saw, what I spoke with. And it wasn’t as if it was just him on his own, there was plenty of corroborating evidence. Like I said, there was a whole family of them. A castle. His kingdom.”

“You can’t know— this thing must have been— it’s not possible that—”

There are more things in heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy,” I said gently, to help Evelyn as she struggled to complete her sentences.

Evelyn did not thank me for that. She gave up her protests and glared across the kitchen table, unimpressed and heavy-lidded, looking like a dark cloud incapable of bursting into rain.

“Heather,” she said. “That is the third time you’ve quoted that exact same line of Hamlet at me since we first met, and it makes no more sense now than the previous two times.”

Delighted surprise stole over me. “You … you remember when I quote things? Evee?”

Evelyn waved me away with a huff, squeezing her eyes shut and pinching the bridge of her nose. “This is giving me a gaping arsehole of a headache. You are giving me a headache. The King in sodding Yellow is giving me a headache.”

“Drink,” Praem intoned from next to Evelyn’s shoulder.

Evelyn hissed through her teeth and continued to ignore the stone-cold mug of tea at her elbow — along with the merely lukewarm second mug, the barely hot third one, and the plate of now soggy toast that Praem had attempted to get her to eat during the hour I’d taken to tell the story, to no avail. Evelyn had been too focused on me, watching and listening and taking notes, with all the rapt attention of seeker after knowledge trying to piece together a shredded text from some ancient library. Except, from her reaction, one had to assume the venerable tome had turned out to be full of childish insults and drawings of genitalia.

“Praem’s got a point there, Evee,” Raine said. She was looking far more at ease, feet up on the corner of the table — ankles only, soles dangling over the edge after being told off by Praem — with her chair rocked back to balance on two legs, hands behind her head like she was sunbathing at the beach. Unlike Evelyn, Raine had not only downed a cup of tea, she’d asked for a mug of my coffee too, and eaten some vague approximation of breakfast — though I disagreed in the strongest terms that microwaved pastries from the freezer counted as breakfast food. She wiggled her be-socked toes in the air, cracking small joints with satisfying audible pop sounds. “You’re dehydrated.”

“I don’t need water,” Evelyn grumbled. “I need half a bottle of whiskey. Sod that, I need a shot of morphine.” She glared at me again, her elbows on the table, hunched with the exhaustion of an unresolved all-nighter. “You’re serious? You met and talked with the King in Yellow, or at least something calling itself that? Like you’re talking to me? Not in hyperdimensional mathematics? Everything you’ve just said, it didn’t happen in some abstract mind-space?”

I shrugged. “It was very physical. I don’t know what more to tell you, Evee, I can’t seem to make you believe—”

“I would never suggest that you would lie to me,” Evelyn said quickly, almost embarrassed. “Heather, the King in Yellow is not real. It’s fiction. It’s far more likely that you met a being which decided to base itself on the fiction, not the other way around. Life imitating art, something like that, I don’t fucking know!”

“Why does it matter?”

“Because!” Evelyn snapped and threw her hands up. “It’s fiction!”

“Guuuuuuurgh.”

Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight let out a low, throaty rasp, showing a quick snatch of her sharp little needle-teeth. She was perched in a chair pulled so close that it was touching mine, staring across the table-top at Evelyn’s denial.

Evelyn almost managed to control her flinch this time; she’d improved over this last hour, every time Seven-Shades had something to add, but she hadn’t quite mastered herself yet. She huffed and shot a redoubled glare at Sevens. “Yes? You have something to add?”

“He’d like that,” Sevens gurgled. She only managed to hold Evelyn’s gaze for a moment, then looked down and away, rocking slightly in her weird squatting pose.

“Like what?” Evelyn snapped.

“Mages convincing themselves he isn’t real. Gurrrrr-rrrr-rrrr,” Sevens laughed like a malfunctioning radiator, but without much of a smile.

“Greatest trick the devil ever pulled,” Praem intoned.

“Hey, that’s what I was about to say,” Raine said. “Great minds think alike, Praem.”

“Great minds,” said Praem.

Evelyn didn’t look away from Sevens, daring her to resume eye contact, but the hunched gremlin at my side declined the challenge. Instead, Sevens stared at her own pale little hand, moving it slowly back and forth over the table, in and out of the watery, early-morning sunlight pouring in through the kitchen window. She’d been doing that on and off since the dawn had broken through the clouds. True sunlight revealed the fine tracery of blue veins beneath the mushroom-pale skin of Seven-Shades-of-Shivering-Sprite. I ran a tentacle up her arm, gentle and supporting, following her back and forth motions.

“Evee,” I said, gently as I could — and that proved more difficult than I’d expected. I had to consciously restrain myself from reaching across the table with a spare tentacle to wrap around her forearm. I already had another tentacle coiled in Raine’s lap like a cat, but Evelyn didn’t like being touched without warning normally, let alone by invisible feelers that she could only see through a pair of glasses that made her eyes hurt. But I didn’t want her to dislike Sevens.

“Mm?” she grunted, still staring at Sevens.

“Evee,” I tried again, “why does it bother you so much?”

Evelyn let out a huge sigh and sat back in her chair, one hand massaging her thigh where flesh met prosthetic socket, the other finally giving in and picking up the stone cold cup of tea. She took a sip and pulled a face.

“Still hot.” Praem indicated the most recent cup of tea with a brush of her fingertips.

“Yes, thank you Praem, you’re a dear,” Evelyn muttered, swapping mugs and sighing after a sip of tea how tea should always be.

“She’s salty because she’s been proved wrong,” Raine said with a wink. “And she hasn’t got a theory to replace it yet. Give her five minutes, she’ll make one, and it’ll be better than the last. Theory for everything, our Evee.”

“This bothers me,” Evelyn used her words like a whip, eyes shooting daggers at Raine and receiving a mock duck-and-cover gesture in surrender, “because I once spent a significant amount of time reading them all — Chambers, Blackwood, Lovecraft, Ashton Smith, Dunsany, even Robert Howard — ha! What a different world we’d be living in if he was right. I even tried some of the modern ones — Derleth, Campbell, all that nonsense. Because I needed to know what was real and what was fiction. Because my … ” She shot a look at Sevens, then shrugged when the yellow daughter didn’t even look up. “Because my mother insisted it was important. Because she made me read them.”

“Oh,” I said.

“You’ve never told me that,” Raine added, eyebrows raised in surprise.

“There’s plenty of things I don’t tell you,” Evelyn grumbled.

“But,” I said, “wouldn’t this mean your mother was wrong? She was wrong about plenty of other things, isn’t this another chance to ‘stick it to her’?” I did little air quotes with one hand.

Evelyn shook her head. “She would be delighted.”

“O-oh.”

“She always insisted there were grains of truth in some of all that pulp fiction guff.” Evelyn tapped her fingernails on the table in an irritated rhythm. “Didn’t know what though, or where, or who. She would love this. The discovery, the confirmation, being proved correct. Same as me, same as—”

“She is dead,” Praem said, voice like a musical bell made of ice.

Raine’s eyebrows shot up her forehead and she looked to me for emergency help. I shrugged minutely, fully prepared to get up and walk around the table to give Evelyn a hug.

Evelyn grit her teeth at the interruption and started to bite back, to hurt, to lash out. “She’s—”

“Deady-dead-diddly-dead-deado,” Praem said, utterly expressionless.

Evelyn stopped like she’d walked into a lamppost. I wrapped an invisible tentacle around my own face to stifle a laugh. Raine stayed perfectly still, like a cat spotting a dog. Seven-Shades-of-One-Of-Us watched the exchange with her black eyes flicking back and forth, like the audience at a tennis match.

Then Evelyn sighed. Something slipped inside her, some gear that she wasn’t capable of shifting on her own, some long-tensed muscle she’d been desperately trying to unlearn how to flex. She glanced at Praem, then raised her eyes to the ceiling. “That she is.”

“Deadydoodle,” Praem added.

“Okay, yes, you can stop now,” Evelyn sighed. A nasty smile slowly crossed her face. “And she never got to find out. Eh, good enough for me.” She shrugged and took another long sip from her cup of tea before banging it down on the table, then spoke with only a thin veneer of sarcasm. “Fine, Heather. The King in Yellow is real, and strong, and he’s your friend. Now, I need some bloody breakfast before I start digesting my own bones.” She pulled a face at the soggy, cold toast on the plate at her elbow.

“Bacon and eggs,” Praem intoned.

“Please.”

==

I’d spent the last hour or so telling my friends everything, from the top, while the sun rose on a chill and grey Sharrowford morning.

After I’d dropped the bomb about Sevens’ half-intentional marriage proposal, Raine had suggested we decamp to the kitchen. Just like that. I’d been shaking with nerves at the reveal, ready for anything — shouting, anger, another round of Raine’s unfairly suppressed jealousy, perhaps even another judder-stop as she failed to integrate what I’d done — but Evelyn was far worse than Raine, looking at me just so utterly exhausted by all this, as if she should have expected nothing less.

Raine barely reacted to the actual news, which spooked me badly. Working out everything with Zheng had been painful enough, so I was prepared for this to send an emotional wrecking ball at the reinforced concrete of our relationship. Perhaps the walls would hold, or perhaps they would buckle and we would have to dig through the wreckage for bits of rebar to build a temporary shelter. Perhaps doing this a second time would be the last straw on the camel’s back. Never mind that I had agreed to nothing with Sevens, committed to nothing, said yes to nothing.

I had blurted out as much. “It— it’s only out of respect for her! I haven’t said I will, we haven’t started a … anything! I haven’t kissed her, I don’t even know if I want to!”

But Raine just laughed. She shrugged, aimed a pair of finger-guns at Sevens, and said something about being a ‘spawn camper’. That went completely over my head, but it provoked Evelyn to hiss with disgust and throw a balled-up piece of paper at Raine’s head.

“Raine, don’t you want to— shouldn’t we— I mean, this—” I’d stammered and stuttered.

“Shhhhh. Come on, you need a sit down.”

Raine had taken my hands and coaxed me along, smiled at me without guile, and helped me make the walk into the kitchen — though Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight stayed glued to my side, hiding her face and unable to glance up at Raine. I felt like I was held between a pair of animals which might snap at each other any moment. I’d half-dragged myself to a chair with my tentacles, legs still wobbly from the strange Outside-high. Sevens had huddled next to me, quivering like a leaf, breath hissing between her teeth in little gaspy spurts.

Raine crouched so she was eye-level with me in the chair, held my hands, and didn’t even comment on the tentacle I instinctively wrapped around her shoulders, though I saw the moment of surprise in her eyes.

“You’ve just been through a traumatic experience,” she said, beaming softly with that bottomless confidence which still made me melt in her hands. “And hey, I get it, you wanna unload it all at once. And I wanna hear all about it too. But right now the important thing is that you’re home. Chill, right? You wanna get out of that hoodie? It’s covered in blood. Better get it in the wash if we’ve got any hope of saving it. That’s all your blood, or … ?”

“Oh, um, all mine, yes. Raine, I—”

“Take it you wanna keep the yellow robes on for now though, yeah? You gotta get some food in you, at least. And I can run a bath if you like.”

The others trailed into the kitchen after us — Evelyn all but stomping, Praem gliding over to the counter with Evelyn’s cooling cup of tea. The knight had to duck to pass through the kitchen doorway. Praem shot him a silent look and he unshouldered his axe — one second later he would have put an impressive hole in the wall. This building was not made for beings of his size, at least not without Zheng’s muscular grace to compensate. Was it my imagination, or were his movements growing less coordinated?

“I— Raine, I—” I’d struggled to pull my thoughts together, still deep in the sensory high from my return, but trying to stay prepared for Raine’s true reaction. I’d never had to pretend to be sober before. “Don’t we need to talk about all this?”

Raine had shrugged — though she’d glanced at Sevens. “What’s to talk about?”

“Don’t give me that!” I’d hissed. “You can’t just glide over this, you—”

“I can and I will,” she shot back suddenly, sharp enough to make me flinch. She squeezed my hands tighter, as if afraid I might pull away from her. “Heather, my priority, my number one, my reason for being awake all night long, my reason for breathing, is you. And right now you’re kinda loopy—”

“So are you,” I’d murmured.

“—obviously exhausted, and crusted with blood. You want me to be me? Well, here you go, this is me. My number one priority is you being safe and healthy, and until I’m satisfied about that I couldn’t give a flying shit for your need to explain.”

I blinked at her, half-surprised, half cheering that she was finally denying me something. “O-okay?”

Then she cracked a grin and everything was okay again. “Or has the King planted a bomb on you that goes off if you don’t start necking with Sevens ASAP? What are we at, T-minus twenty seconds until you gotta shove your tongue down her throat?”

“Guuurrrrhhh,” Sevens gurgled against my side, trying to curl up small enough so the floor could swallow her.

“W-w-well no. But I—”

“Oh for pity’s sake,” Evelyn hissed from the other side of the table.

“Heather,” Raine said, warm and patient, but utterly immovable. She would not take no for an answer, not about this. “You wanted me to be real and raw, so you’ve got me raw. Now do as I say.”

A deep blush rose up my neck and cheeks. “ … yes.”

“Yes what?” Raine asked. I blinked at her, totally lost. “Yes, ma’am,” she filled in for me.

“Raine!” I hissed, shooting a deeply embarrassed glance at Evelyn and Praem. Evelyn looked like every word of this was killing more of her brain cells. “Raine you—” Stop competing, you don’t need to win anything, I thought, but I couldn’t say that out loud. “I appreciate the thought, but you’re avoiding the subject, just like before, and—”

“Yes, ma’am,” Raine repeated. “Say it.”

“Urgh,” Evelyn grunted.

I rolled my eyes. “Yes ma’am.”

“Good girl,” Raine purred.

“But I need to know how you feel,” I blurted out. Now that was the truth, maybe too raw.

Raine winced in slow motion. “Yeah, so do I. Might take a while.”

My heart climbed into my throat. I couldn’t believe my luck — an honest admission of hesitancy and irresolution, from Raine. The sky was falling.

“Raine? Raine, what does that mean?”

“I dunno yet.” She shrugged and glanced at Sevens again, still huddled against my side. “I’ll tell you what it doesn’t mean though. Doesn’t mean I disapprove of yellow here. But it doesn’t mean I like this.” She took a handful of the yellow robes, the symbolic commitment, the warmth of Sevens’ embrace still wrapped deep and soft around my shoulders. “Gotta think about that one. After all, I’ve got dibs on you.”

Before I could react to any of that, Raine let go of my hands and straightened up. She reached past me, going for Sevens. For a second my heart slammed against the cage of my ribs, expecting the worst — but Raine brushed the top of Sevens’ head and gave that lank, greasy hair the ruffling of a lifetime.

Sevens yelped into my shoulder with surprise, a strangled, gnashing sound. Raine managed a full second of ruffle before Sevens exploded upward from my shoulder and bared all her teeth, hissing and gurgling like a cross between a surprised possum and a rabid squirrel. Snap snap went her teeth, clacking shut on empty air as Raine whipped her hand away just in time.

“You’re a good girl, too,” Raine said, laughing.

Sevens’ ire vanished, replaced with an incandescent blush.

“I think I like you now, yellow,” said Raine. “Any friend of Heather’s is a friend of mine. We cool? ‘Yellow’? Or you want me to call you something else?”

Sevens stared at her like a deer in headlights, black eyes gone wide, then rammed her face back into my side so hard it knocked the wind out of me with a little “Oof!” I wrapped an arm around her head, driven by a bizarre need to comfort her. Raine laughed and ruffled my hair too, then grabbed another chair and slid it up behind Sevens until it gently touched the backs of her legs.

Sevens jerked and flinched and let out a, “Guurrrg!”

“Raine, be gentle with her, please,” I said. “Don’t— please don’t do what you did with Zheng, this is different.”

Raine actually blinked at me in surprise. “I’m giving her a chair. For real. Hey, Yellow, come on, you gotta sit too, if you’re gonna be here for real and not float off. Those legs aren’t powered by magic, far as I can see.”

Sevens accepted the chair by climbing into it, gurgling and rasping like a stray cat warily accepting a bowl of food. She still refused to let go of my side, clinging on with both hands. Her sitting position looked horribly uncomfortable — she squatted on the chair, feet planted firmly, knees up, shoulders rounded. A natural position for one blessed with double-joints and hyper-mobility, perhaps. She was like rubber.

Evelyn finally sat down opposite us, eyebags heavier than her gaze. “Stop flirting.”

“Why?” Raine asked. “I’m enjoying myself here.”

“Because I am not getting up to relocate again.” She made sure to catch my eye. “Heather, either go take a bath or start talking. Or eating.”

“I-I really don’t think I could begin to relax,” I said. “I’m sorry, Raine, I can’t, I need to … unburden.”

Raine shrugged with her hands. “How about a compromise? You eat some food, drink some fluids, take it easy, and I’ll listen. Cool?”

“ … ‘cool’,” I echoed.

“You’re also covered in your own blood, so you are coming out of that hoodie,” she added. “You wearing anything under there?”

“The usual, two t-shirts.” I lifted a corner of the yellow robes. “But, um—”

“Allow me,” said Raine.

I didn’t have much of a choice, I couldn’t have resisted even if I’d wanted to. Raine rolled the yellow robes down my shoulders until I could wriggle my arms out of the sleeves, then peeled me out of my terribly bloodstained hoodie. She passed it off to Praem, who stepped into the utility room, presumably to shove the garment into a bucket full of cold water.

Before I could do it myself, Raine helped pull the yellow robes back up to cover my shoulders again.

“ … are you sure?” I asked. Raine nodded.

“Sevens,” rasped Sevens.

“Oh, wonderful, now she’s like a Pokemon,” Evelyn sighed.

“Sevens, then. Got it,” Raine said without missing a beat, and I realised Sevens had been peeking at her over my shoulder, showing twin slivers of red pupil. “You want a bath too? Not to critique your personal hygiene, but you look like you need it. You could even share it with Heather. I’m cool with that.”

“Raine!” I squeaked at her.

“ … laterrrrrr,” Sevens rasped.

So I told them everything, in as much detail as I could recall. I told them about getting stuck on the quiet plain, rubber-banded back by the immovable object of the dead hands, waiting for me in the membrane between worlds like a tripwire snaring my ankles. The dregs of my strange high finally dribbled away as I recalled the fear and panic, the blossoming of childhood terror into awful reality. That nine-year-old Heather was still huddled up warm and safe in my core, still tender and afraid, as if the rest of me was a protective shell I’d woven around her. She stirred at the memories and I felt tears threaten behind my eyes, but I wrapped metaphorical arms around my previous self and reminded her that we were strong enough to survive anything.

I told Evelyn and Raine about how I’d gotten the bright idea to find Saldis, and how I’d taken the Knight with me, how he’d volunteered to help me in my hour of need. Raine saluted him for that, with a clenched fist held pointed at the side of her own head. To our surprise, the Knight returned the gesture of respect, though somewhat slower. His elbow creaked ever so slightly.

I recounted the dimensional slingshot technique and passing out on the floor when I landed in the library of Carcosa. I told them about finding Saldis, about the confrontation with Hastur — “Hastur!” Evelyn scoffed again.

But she also asked me to pause and repeat that part. A spark kindled behind her eyes. She asked Praem — “If you would be a dear, please” — to fetch her notebook and the “pale tome, the one on the left,” from the magical workshop.

She had me repeat every detail of Hastur’s appearance, everything I could remember. Her questions grew more esoteric, more difficult to answer — “What kind of taste in the air? Were the tentacles repeating any patterns in their movements? Did it whisper, any sounds, any words at all?” – until I could answer no more.

As I spoke, Raine began to ply me with food. Praem had moved to start cooking first, brewing another cup of tea for Evelyn and putting coffee on for me, but Raine had silently taken over the responsibility of making sure I ate. She put food in front of me without a word, then levelled meaningful looks at me until I paused to take a bite.

She led with two slabs of thickly buttered toast, then moved to jam, then a bowl of oats and honey, then on to pop tarts. It rather extended the process of telling the story, but after the first few uncertain bites of toast and jam I felt my body start to wake up, demanding fuel for the fires of mortal life as my physiology switched from Outsider processes to human metabolism. My abdominal bioreactor had been running so hot and high for so long that I didn’t have to exert any conscious effort to begin sliding the biochemical control rods back into their channels. As glucose hit my bloodstream, the inexhaustible thrum of extra-biological power ebbed away, slowing to a trickle, just enough to maintain my six tentacles.

A new kind of exhaustion settled on me as the miracle in my abdomen powered down to a resting state — eyelids like lead, a dull headache, limbs heavy with the wrought-iron of over-exertion. Even my tentacles felt sluggish; I wrapped two around my own body and one around Sevens’ shoulders. I’d bought time and endurance with the bioreactor, but all debts came due in time.

Raine noticed my struggle when she made me a plate of scrambled eggs. The smell was intoxicating — it brought me back to my body, to my needs, to being alive and fleshy and incredibly hungry — but I didn’t reject it this time. I had my tentacles now and they gave me something to cling to, proof of what I really was.

I could have eaten three times what Raine made, but when I fumbled my fork and dropped it on the tabletop, she insisted on wiping my face with cold water. I felt like a small child with grubby cheeks as she washed away the lingering traces of my own blood.

When it came time to recount what had happened in the corridor of living darkness, I left out the details — not only Sevens’ private matters, but Evelyn’s too. I glossed over what nobody needed to hear.

Sevens herself relaxed as I told the story, as I contextualised her Princess-mask. She finally stopped gripping my robes and peeled her face away from my side, hooking her small, pale hands around her ankles as she squatted, peering at the others across the tabletop. She gazed at Praem with interest, sometimes made furtive eye contact with Evelyn, and snuck little sideways looks at Raine. Apparently she didn’t need to flex her knees to relieve joint-pressure in that pose. I was almost jealous.

“But now she choses to appear like this?” Evelyn gestured at her with a pencil, but spoke to me. “Why? She’s not even yellow anymore.”

“Authenticity,” Sevens gurgled in the back of her throat.

“Well, I’m getting to that,” I said. “It’s complicated. And um, I might not even get to it. It is Sevens’ business, really.”

“You said it yourself, Heather,” Evelyn reminded me. “She’s all masks. How can she have ‘business’ that isn’t imitation?”

“I am right here, you know,” Sevens rasped — but she looked down at the tabletop when Evelyn paid attention to her.

“Yes,” Evelyn sighed. “That much is undeniable. Is she going to be living here? Heather, even this house only has so many bedrooms.”

“I, um, er, I think so? I don’t know. I assume so.”

“You need to eat, too, Sevens?” Raine asked, swanning past the table with a second cup of coffee for me. She placed it down with a tiny flourish of presentation.

“Not hungry,” Sevens gurgled.

“Nah, I mean, do you need to eat, for real?” Raine asked. “Judging by those teeth, you need a carnivore diet, yeah? Hey, you wouldn’t be the first in this household. We’ve got a packet of bacon in the fridge.”

Evelyn rolled her eyes and tapped her pencil against her notebook, impatient for me to continue. “Of course she doesn’t need to eat our food, Raine. She’s not even really physical. She’s not technically real.”

“Hey, we can afford an extra mouth.”

Evelyn turned an expression on Raine which would not have been out of place on a stone carving of Satan glowering down from a doomed mountaintop. If she’d looked at me like that I would have hidden under the table, tentacles or no. If the King in Yellow had really wanted to make me leave without taking Sevens, he should have imitated Evelyn at her most deeply insulted.

“You mean I can afford an extra mouth,” Evelyn said, voice dripping toxic waste. “And don’t ever suggest I would not be willing to do so.”

“Whoa,” Raine put her hands up, laughing. “Okay, okay, we’re cool. Don’t bite my head off.”

“No money jokes,” Praem intoned. Raine turned the surrender to her too.

“Not a carnivore,” Sevens rasped between her pointy sharp needle-teeth. She managed to glance up at Raine long enough to make a flicker of eye contact. “Eat, yeah. Should eat. Anything else would be cheating.”

“Sure then. Eggs?”

“Egg,” said Sevens.

Raine shot her a wink and a finger-gun; Sevens’ red-on-black eyes followed Raine around the kitchen as she cracked three more eggs into the pan and scrambled them up. When the food was ready, Sevens ate with rapid nibbles, taking tiny bites and chewing them with the speed of a rodent.

Evelyn continued to take notes on everything I said about what lay beyond the library of Carcosa: the King’s hollow sphere-world of castle, the landscape of pale mist, the creatures and strange beings within. She asked me endless questions about Melancholy and the big angry trapezoid — and when I couldn’t answer, she turned to Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight.

“What are any of you actually constructed of?” Evelyn demanded. “You’re not normal matter.”

But Sevens merely shrugged. “I’unno,” she said with the sulky disinterest of a teenage girl at a parent-teacher meeting. “What are you made of?”

“Mostly carbon and water,” Evelyn shot back. “Don’t you even know that?”

Sevens blinked those huge black eyes — she managed to stay fixed on Evelyn for a second — and then twitched her head to look at me. “Need to go down to understand. Down in the dark. Like Heather. She knows.”

Evelyn huffed and gestured with her pencil. “Alright, fine, whatever. Heather, carry on, please.”

In the end I couldn’t hold back the waterworks when I spoke about Alexander Lilburne. I told Raine and Evelyn and Praem about the King in Yellow, about his family, about the meeting he had lured me into, the meeting that imitated the same fateful time I’d met the real Alexander in a shuttered and closed Sharrowford coffee shop.

“What a bastard,” Raine muttered.

“No. No, he knew what I needed,” I said. “But, also yes, absolute bastard.”

Raine whistled.

Evelyn frowned through the whole thing with professional interest, rapt with attention, sharing a confused look with Raine when I explained the respective transformations of the King’s favourites — Steel and Orbit. Raine sat forward in her chair and held tight to one of my hand when she began to realise what had really happened out there. What I’d really seen.

“And it was all right,” I repeated, wiping slow tears on the sleeve of my yellow robes. “It was all right. That’s what he showed me. When I killed Alexander, when I murdered him, it was the right thing to do. Not because of some set of ethics that justifies it, but because it needed to happen. And the hands … they didn’t have any power over me anymore. And then I went home. Came home. And here I am.”

A moment of silence settled over the kitchen, broken only by my sniffling as I brought my tears under control — for there was nothing to cry about any more. Sevens gurgled softly. Raine squeezed my hand.

Then Evelyn sighed. “Heather.”

“Mm?” I looked up at her, surprised by the ease in her eyes.

“You’re not the only one who’s had to deal with this. Killing a mage, when it had to happen, but never feeling right afterward.” She cleared her throat, but it didn’t help, her words still came out stilted and halting. “If you need to talk about … well. You know. You could have done, with me. You still can, whenever. I know what it feels like.”

To my surprise, one of Praem’s perfectly neat hands crept onto Evelyn’s shoulder and stayed there, even when Evelyn awkwardly tried to shrug her off. After a moment, Evelyn cleared her throat and patted Praem’s hand in return, awkward and tentative.

I nodded. “Thank you, Evee. I just … I thought I was okay with it. With what I did. I guess I wasn’t, but I didn’t even know.”

“You know it but you don’t know you know it,” Raine murmured softly, then to my surprise she sighed too. She leaned over from her chair and helped dry my eyes with a gentle thumb brushed across my cheeks. “Because it needed to happen, yeah?”

“Yes. Raine?” I blinked at her, at the new way she was looking at me, serious and a touch sad, but then she broke into a smile.

“I guess I hoped you’d never have to learn that.”

I laughed, once, more bitter than I’d expected. “Learn that murder is sometimes okay?”

She shrugged. “But hey, you were never going to stay innocent, and that’s okay too.”

“Innocent, really?” I almost bristled. “Raine, I was never innocent.”

Raine laughed and put her hands up in surrender. She was doing that a lot this morning. “Poor choice of words, right. Hey, I just hoped I could shoulder some of that for you.”

“You can’t shoulder murder for other people,” I said.

“Bloody right,” said Evelyn. “She tried to do the same thing for me too, you know? She ever told you that? Although she was much more clumsy about it back then. Screamed it in my face with my mother’s corpse not even cold. Literally.”

Raine stared at Evelyn in blank-faced surprise. “Holy shit, Evee.”

“What?” Evelyn hissed. “What, I’m not allowed to finally deal with that via a bit of humour?”

Raine laughed, shaking her head, but I could see the delight in her smile even as she verbally brushed it off. “Come on, Evee. I hit your mum at least six different ways that would have killed a regular person. I did that murder too.”

“Mmmhmm.” Evelyn pursed her lips. “You keep telling yourself that.”

“Tally, minus one,” Praem intoned. Raine gaped at her in mock-offense. I actually laughed.

Sevens’ eyes ping-ponged back and forth between my friends as they bantered about matricide. I squeezed her arm with a tentacle and she let out a low, raspy, “Guuuuurg.”

“Heather,” Evelyn said, her tone sliding down into the chill waters of something I did not like, her pencil resting against her notebook. “You need to explain that last part to me over again. In detail, please. Because I still don’t understand — the King in Yellow? The real thing?”

The sun finished rising as I repeated details for Evelyn. Sevens kept sticking her pale hand into the patch of light on the table. And I did too, letting the warmth of our own star soak into the dry and dirty skin on the back of my hand. As Raine stood up and rubbed my shoulders through the yellow robes to work the tight knots out of my muscles, I stared through the small kitchen window at the scraps of blue beyond the clouds. Sevens watched and listened and learned, not as an observer who had convinced herself she was objective, but as a participant, in the room, here with us. Praem and the Knight had nothing to say, but I liked that both of them were here with us.

Part of me wanted to step outdoors to bask in the sun, despite my aching muscles and heavy limbs. Here was where I was meant to be.

A sensation grew inside my chest, a dull realisation that I would have felt that way even if I’d Slipped back to the wrong location — say, if I’d landed in the Gobi desert or the Australian outback or the middle of the Pacific ocean. Well, yes, I would have been in a panic — I’m still me — but this specific relief, this return of the real, that would have remained even with all else gone.

But I didn’t like that thought. I didn’t need the world, I just needed what was in this kitchen. And upstairs. And sleeping off a rough night Outside. And over in Brinkwood. And wherever Zheng had got to.

Earth for Earth’s sake mattered nothing. I’d killed Alexander for the safety and lives of specific people.

==

After we’d decompressed, when Evelyn finally accepted the existence of the King in Yellow, and when Praem had speed-cooked bacon and eggs — and firmly rejected Raine’s help with a silent stare — Evelyn still regarded me with that cold clinical look, a mage’s look, those narrowed eyes and that probing intelligence, staring at me over a half-cleaned plate in our very normal kitchen of slate floor and old counter-tops and cast-iron stove.

“ … Evee?” I ventured, sending my own probe back to discover her intent.

“Do you even begin to understand what it is you’ve done, Heather?” she asked.

“Evee?”

“I’m serious.”

“You’re also being creepy as hell,” Raine said.

“What I’ve done? Made a new friend?” I glanced at Sevens, who was peering right back at Evelyn across the table, eyes shaded by the tilt of her own brow. “Outwitted a monarch? Okay, I didn’t do that part. I’m pretty sure he could have stopped me if he’d tried. Evee, what are you talking about?”

Evelyn sucked on her teeth, turning her head as if to examine me from different angles. Her eyes roved my sides and my shoulders, even though she couldn’t see my tentacles, not without the aid of her hastily-wrought trick glasses, which currently sat on the table in front of Raine. Her gaze made me want to slip the squid-skull mask back on over my head, but I’d left it in the magical workshop. This was home, this was safe, I didn’t need the mask.

Did I?

“Evee, hey.” Raine clicked her fingers twice. “I know what you’re doing.”

Evelyn ignored her, eyes cold with hunger. “Heather, the experience you had this night, nineteen hours Outside, alone and far from human contact, that is the sort of thing which forms the basis for an entire tome like this.” She tapped the book on the kitchen table, the one Praem had fetched, bound in worryingly pale leather, old and cracked but still supple. “Any mage achieving such a feat — and surviving it! — would be ambitious beyond telling.”

“But you’ve been Outside too. We all have. To the library of Carcosa, together.”

“Oh, tosh,” Evelyn huffed. “That was a short expedition under controlled circumstances — during which, I might add, a lot of things went wrong. We almost died half a dozen times. Especially me. And look what happened to the group Edward sent in too, they got it even worse. That’s nothing by comparison. You were alone, or almost alone.” She nodded to the Knight. “Making deals with Outsiders on your own terms. And look what you’ve won.”

She gestured at Sevens, but didn’t look away from me — and then I saw the hint of wonder in the back of her eyes, the spark of awe touching kindling I dare not examine too closely.

Instead, I stamped on it.

“Evee? Evee, I know that look from you. Don’t.”

“Oh don’t—” she started.

“Don’t look at me like I’m a mage. I’m Heather. That’s all I’ll ever be. Don’t.”

“ … yes.” Evelyn cleared her throat. “Yes. Sorry. Still!” She brushed it off, barked with laughter and let herself grow sardonic. “My mother would have given her firstborn for such an experience. That’s me, in case you don’t get the joke.”

“No,” Praem intoned. Evelyn cleared her throat again and looked away.

“Evee, where is this coming from?” I demanded.

Evelyn shrugged. “Old habit. Survival strategy. I said sorry, didn’t I? You were gone all night, Heather. Forgive me for thinking the worst.”

I didn’t like the tone in her voice, but she had a point. “It does feel like I was gone a lot longer than that,” I said, haltingly. “Could that have actually happened?”

Raine perked up. “You don’t look older or anything. Tired as shit, sure, but not older. I’d know.”

I couldn’t help but smile despite myself. “Thank you, but that’s not what I mean.”

“Time dilation?” Evelyn asked. “That’s why you were panicked when you returned?”

I shrugged. “I slept twice. The second time, I know how long that one was, because Sevens and Saldis were both right there. But the first, I was just unconscious on the library floor, wrapped up in a cocoon of my own tentacles.” I looked over my shoulder at the forest-knight, standing tall by the door to the workshop, axe held point-down on the kitchen tiles. “The Knight was there, but I’m not certain he experiences time like we do. I could have been lying there for a subjective week.”

“Weren’t,” rasped Sevens. We all glanced at her and she moved to hide behind my shoulder, but managed to refrain from the full withdrawal. “Just hours. Hours.”

“Okay,” I sighed. “Okay, good. Thank you.”

“You went on a true journey Outside,” Evelyn said. “You returned with artifacts, with gifts torn from the utmost rim of the universe.” She gestured at my yellow robes and through the door behind me, at my squid-skull mask sitting on the table in the workshop, staring at us with six dark eye holes. Saldis’ golden pendant lay there too, dull in the shadows. “You met a god, but you didn’t even think to ask the relevant questions. Any mage would give both eyes to hear the merest whispers from an Outsider of that scale, but you—”

“Evee, don’t, please.”

“Yeah, hey,” Raine added. “Evelyn, down.”

Evelyn shook her head, sighed — and smiled, hard and savage, right at me, a choke in her voice. “Heather, your every action proves me wrong. Proves my mother wrong, I suppose. I love you too, you godly fool.”

I was too stunned to thank her. Evelyn held her resolution for about half a second before she blushed, looking down and tapping her notebook with her pencil. We all knew better than to comment on the sheen of tears in her eyes.

“Love is good,” Praem intoned.

“Uh, yeah!” Raine joined in. “Hear hear! Bit generic, but big truth from our resident maid enthusiast.”

Praem gave her a look. Raine shrugged with a very ‘I-did-my-best’ kind of expression. I don’t think she understood what was going on with Evelyn. In truth, neither did I, not fully.

Evelyn rolled her eyes at all this, a nice opening for an elegant recovery as she scrubbed her face on the back of her sleeve. We all pretended not to see. She pointed her pencil at Sevens. “And I don’t suppose I’m going to get anything out of you, am I?”

This time, Sevens met her look, staring sullen from behind black jewels. “What’s to get?”

“Exactly. You’re a theatre kid, not a monarch. You have nothing to teach me.” Evelyn paused with a strange look on her face, a wary intensity, a paradoxical need. “Do you?”

Sevens tilted her head to the side, so slowly that my imagination supplied the creaking of a door from some half-remembered black and white horror film, something about ancient castles and forgotten caskets. Her head rotated on a neck far too rubbery and flexible to be truly human, though I heard the popping of several vertebrae as they stood out on the back of her neck. Her black-and-red eyes never left Evelyn, glittering like rubies in the night. She stopped blinking. Stopped breathing. Stopped moving at all.

That was no act. The motion was distressingly predatory, like something Zheng might do, but purer, more real; Zheng’s body had, after all, begun life as a human being. Sevens’ motion reached down into my brainstem and tugged at ancient instincts evolved for avoiding big cats on the African savannah. This scrawny, pale, weird little creature squatting next to me was a predator. My genes knew so.

Evelyn flinched back, following her instincts too. Raine sat up straight all of a sudden, eyes fixed on Sevens. Praem didn’t move — she knew better, she saw through the mask — but her milk-white eyes swivelled to fix on Sevens.

But to me, in that moment, this mask of Sevens-Shades-of-Sunlight was heart-achingly cute.

Before I knew what I was doing, I reached out with one hand and touched the back of Sevens’ neck, entangling my fingers with her long, dirty hair, cupping the base of her head where spine met skull. Vulnerable, slender, full of fragile little bones and important blood vessels and vital nerve trunks. Her ever-so-slightly-too-warm skin tingled beneath my fingers as a shiver shot through her.

I was entranced by this mask, by the predator, by the paradoxical seduction. And unlike Zheng, she wasn’t even trying.

“Rrrrr?!” She flinched, breaking eye contact with Evelyn and jerking round to face me — but a pair of my tentacles had instinctively lashed hard around her slender wrists, holding her tight as our eyes met.

A soft hiss rose up my throat; the first time I’d felt the urge to hiss at anything other than a threat. It came out low and slow. It felt right.

We stayed like that for three heartbeats, heat climbing up my face. But I couldn’t let go.

“Be … be nice to … to Evee, okay?” I squeezed out eventually.

Sevens nodded. Jerky, up and down, once.

I let her go as suddenly as I’d grabbed her. Seven-Shades-of-Suitably-Submissive rocked back, but didn’t flee. She ducked her head and watched me as I withdrew hand and tentacle alike. I felt a laugh creep up my throat with strange and hysterical delight, buzzing inside with something I’d never felt before. When I glanced around the table, I found that Raine was watching us with deep interest and curiosity, which only made me choke on my laughter.

“What I meant,” Evelyn raised her voice to stop us descending into complete animalistic nonsense, “is that you have no magic to teach me, Sevens. Nothing about Outside. No secrets. Yes?”

“Guuuuurrrrgggg,” went Sevens, like a white noise machine set on a note too deep. She eyed me warily once more — then bumped me with her head, exactly like a cat accepting a petting. But she quickly returned her attention to Evelyn. “Nah.”

Oh, I realised with numb fascination, I was establishing dominance.

Evelyn blew out a long breath, still a little jumpy, watching Sevens like the stray she was. “I don’t know how you find her so palatable like this, Heather. I preferred the prissy princess.”

“Uh … right, yes. Uh, I mean, she’s fine.” I was still recovering from what I’d done.

“Rrrrr-fuck,” Sevens rasped. Evelyn barked a laugh.

“I don’t,” I murmured, almost out of breath with strange excitement. “I don’t prefer the princess. Oh wow.”

“Yeah, me neither,” said Raine, loud and proud and swinging her feet down to the floor. She stood up, twisting her head left and right and flexing her back to work the sleep-deprivation kinks out of her muscles. Then she went quite still and locked eyes with Sevens. “But I sure would love to have a chat with her. Don’t know if I can say the things I need to say to that sweet little face.”

Sevens held her gaze — but also dug a hand into my robes, holding on tight.

Flushed with the aftereffects of how I’d just renegotiated the nature of my relationship with Seven-Shades-of-Gnashing-Goblin, my mouth ran away before I could control myself.

“Raine, Raine, we— I— I mean you—” I hissed through my teeth, trying to get a grip. “Raine, you can be as jealous as you need to. We’ll deal with that. You can accept it or reject it and I am one hundred percent by your side and we will work this out.”

Raine shot me a grin, her confidence dialled down just a notch less than usual. “Ehhh. I already said, I don’t really know. I mean, I don’t even know who or what I’m actually dealing with here. This isn’t her, not really, is it? This is just a mood. You and I,” she said to Sevens, pointing two fingers at her own eyes and then back at Sevens, “we need to get to know each other. For real.”

“You can do that,” I blurted out, then looked at Sevens. “You can do that?”

“Rrrrr-gguuurg.” Sevens ducked her head, avoiding the attention.

“The Princess, well,” Raine said with a shrug, half-acting, putting on a show. “I don’t like the idea of her bending you over and making you squeal.”

I went tomato-red, mouth wide open in a splutter.

Sevens did her weird gurgle-laugh in the back of her throat. Raine shot a pair of finger-guns at her. “See what I mean? Gobbo gets it.”

“I’m not a ‘gobbo’. That’s disrespectful,” Sevens rasped.

“Sure,” said Raine. “So, is there a real you I can speak to?”

“Abyssal,” Sevens said. “Wouldn’t recommend it.”

“Ah. Right. Beyond even me, hey? But you ain’t beyond me, not like that.”

I knew exactly what she was doing — she was trying to communicate. But I couldn’t help myself.

“I do not squeal!” I said.

“Sometimes you do,” Evelyn drawled, looking like she wanted to pass out. “I can hear it through the walls.”

Everybody looked at her. Even Praem.

“ … I was joking,” Evelyn added.

Raine was laughing, I was blushing, and Sevens seemed to be relaxing into this somehow.

“So yeah, the princess, maybe yes, maybe not,” Raine went on. “But hey, goblin girl here is the same thing, the same person. I accept that. So I don’t know how to feel.” She shrugged. “You’ve really not even made out with her?”

I sighed and rolled my eyes, trying to control my blush. “Not everything is about physical lust, Raine. Emotions are real too. Why does it matter if we haven’t? I’d never intentionally break your trust like that.”

She shrugged. “Yeah, but what if you want to snog her?”

“Then I’ll … I’ll have to … to … ”

To not do it, my mind supplied. I glanced at Sevens. Could I reject her for Raine’s sake? She stared back at me, red-on-black like fire inside obsidian, sulky but apparently not worried. Maybe she couldn’t understand what was being negotiated here. Or maybe I was the one not seeing the truth.

“Call it my simian territoriality or whatever,” Raine said. “My alpha prerogative or something.”

“Oh please,” Evelyn drawled. “Heather’s the only alpha here.”

Raine cleared her throat. “Well, yeah, but you get the point. Anyway. Heather, there’s a bit of me that doesn’t want you to do it unless I give you permission first.”

“ … permission?” I asked, feeling a much slower yet much hotter blush creeping up my cheeks.

“Yeah,” Raine said. She waited a beat, watching me with a growing smirk — a nasty one, showing a few teeth. “Ask permission to kiss Sevens.”

Sevens and I glanced at each other at the exact same moment. The scrawny little gremlin had points of bright colour growing in her cheeks too.

“You … you want me to?” I asked Raine.

Raine took three steps closer to my chair. I suddenly felt like she was towering over me. “Ask permission. Go on.” She placed a hand on my shoulder and bent down, so her face was inches from mine. I could not have stopped her with two dozen tentacles. I was like a rat in front of a snake. “Let’s find out what I say.”

I opened my mouth, but my tongue was dry as sand. My heart felt like a dying dove. My hands were shaking. Next to me, Sevens was making a gurgle in her throat, but my hind-brain registered it as submission.

Raine was indeed much more powerful than the Yellow Princess.

“Oh I’m not fucking watching this,” Evelyn grumbled, and started banging her walking stick against a table leg to punctuate her word. “Do this upstairs. With a closed door. And soundproofing.”

Raine laughed and let go of me and took a step back. She shot me a wink and ran a hand through her hair and tilted her chin up, beaming with confidence. And it was all real.

I let out a sound like a confused seal.

“Right,” Evelyn hissed. “Before you lot inevitably make a gigantic mess in the bathroom that I don’t want to know about, I have to ask. Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight — what are you right now?”

Sevens turned with a little flick of her head, desperate for relief from the pressure of Raine’s attention. “Excuse me? What?”

“I’m not a fool,” Evelyn explained. “What are you? Clearly not a human being. This mask, I mean. What was it before you borrowed it?”

“Vampire,” said Sevens.

Evelyn frowned and sighed like a small child had just said something very stupid. “There’s no such thing as vampires.”

And to my surprise — to everyone’s surprise, judging by the flinches and the stares — Sevens pulled a huge, toothy grin. It had none of Zheng’s slow predatory menace. It was like looking at some faerie creature that had just stolen a cooling pie off a windowsill and been caught with crumbs on her fingers.

Evelyn cleared her throat and looked away. Raine nodded in appreciation. Sevens let out a “rrr-rrr-rrr” laugh, like a small electric motor with a loose blade.

I stared at Sevens, and realised.

Oh no, oh dear. I sort of did want to kiss her.

“Well,” Raine said, raising her voice over my kindling desire, “maybe it’s time for that bath.”

I sighed and nodded yes, shaking a little at all this, but feeling the exhaustion drag at my limbs. “I suppose so. Oh, I do wish Lozzie would come home already. I am still worried about her.”

“Sleeping off a night out,” Praem intoned.

“You’re probably right,” I admitted, “but I wish she’d do that at home. I wish she would—”

Creeeeaaaaak.

A noise like a submarine at sea rang through the kitchen, of creaking plates and straining rivets, metal tortured by the pressure of the deep. For a split second I thought it was the house itself, that something had come loose in some distant room, a beam was buckling or a bed breaking upstairs. The sound was so clearly structural, on a greater-than-human scale, something going very wrong.

Creeeek-clonk.

Behind me, the Knight dropped his axe to the floor with an almighty clang.

I wrenched round in my chair, tentacles grabbing the table for leverage. Raine and Evelyn were both staring, as surprised as I was. Sevens all but fell out of her chair in shock, half-sprawling on the floor in a tangle of pale limbs and long dark hair. Praem picked up a tea towel and stepped forward.

The forest-knight was bleeding.

Thin watery red liquid was seeping from the almost imperceptible seams in his shining metal armour. Every plate and piece of his suit was quivering, as if he was struggling to keep his hold on the inside, like a man in the grip of a hemorrhagic fever.

Lozzie’s words from weeks and weeks ago slammed into the forefront of mind, from back when I’d first asked her about her knights.

“They don’t work up here, they fall apart. Like a deep-sea fish brought up to the surface, they’ll just – ploop.”

I was out of my chair so fast it skidded across the kitchen. Bioreactor waking back up, nerves screaming, yellow robes tangled around my legs; I used my tentacles to launch myself at the Knight like an octopus shooting from a gap in the rocks, chasing shelled prey with a sharp beak – except I was trying to do the opposite, trying to keep his shell intact, and plunge him back into the deep waters.

I slammed into him at the same moment I executed the equation.

I didn’t even care about the risk of getting stuck again.

Out.

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 … oh, what’s this? It’s a chapter afterword! These never happen on the main site! Usually they lurk at the bottom of each chapter on Royal Road and Scribblehub (chapters which are exactly identical to each one posted here, don’t worry, you aren’t missing anything). Perhaps they might start appearing here too though.

I just want to take a moment to publicly highlight some of the absolutely incredible fanart that readers have drawn of Katalepsis, all of which is currently posted over on the fanart gallery! Some of it’s been there for a while, such as Nocturne’s breathtaking image of the moment Heather truly met Zheng. However, the end of Arc 14 has inspired several new pieces, such as a family portrait (by DreamingHunter), Sevens celebrating her handiwork (by Brack), and perhaps a glimpse into the future of the Yellow Princess mask (by Quintillion). There’s several more, both under the spoiler-tags and not. Go check it out! I am endlessly flattered, delighted, and humbled when my work inspires such creativity. You’re all wonderful.

for the sake of a few sheep – 15.1

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In the space between one world and the next, dead hands closed around my ankles.

But now they were weak.

Skin and bone do not provide much strength. The hands had been dead for so long that all their muscle and sinew had withered away to dust, their nails had turned yellow and brittle, and their grip was no tighter than a chance brush with a leafless branch, barren and winter-bare. How had I never noticed before? How had such an emaciated grasp ever held me back? They tried to scramble and scrabble and scuttle up my trouser legs, but they didn’t possess strength enough to climb.

I could have shaken my ankles loose, kicked the hands away, and carried on without a backward glance.

Instead, in that forever moment of non-time inside the membrane between reality and Outside, I reached down — not with my tentacles, not with toxic defences and venomous stingers, not with rending teeth and ripping claws, but with my plain old human hands, or at least with their analogue in that place where nothing truly existed.

Gently but firmly, I removed what was left of Alexander Lilburne’s ambition from around my ankles; I held the hands for a heartbeat, bony and dead and without true will.

Then I pushed them off into the static, and let go.

==

We — that was, myself, Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight, and Lozzie’s dutiful forest-knight — landed back in Number 12 Barnslow Drive with all the grace and elegance of a mistimed leap off a deflating bouncy castle.

My feet touched solid floorboards for about half a second. I caught a whirling glimpse of the ex-drawing room, Evelyn’s magical workshop, all dark wood caressed by the fuzzy grey shadows of early morning, with a soft pool of warm light floating in the middle, a beacon calling me back across a dark ocean. Home flooded my senses, the familiar scent of the house, of old furniture and peeling paint and fresh laundry and steamed rice and chicken casserole and cumin and paprika and black pepper and Raine’s shampoo and Evelyn’s hand cream and feminine sweat and rumpled sheets and pencil lead and printed pages and traces of my own bodily oils on a hundred surfaces. I was part of this place and it was part of me. Even with my eyes watering, my head pounding, and my stomach in open rebellion, relief blossomed inside me like a bomb going off.

Then I fell over onto my backside.

No simple pratfall for me; I went down hard. I don’t know if it was the relief, the stress of the Slip, or the aftermath of Carcosa, but I went over like a horse, feet skidding out from under me as gravity’s enthusiastic welcome took a sledgehammer to my centre of balance. My tentacles flailed in a futile effort to break my fall, knocking things over, sending a chair clattering onto its side, slapping against the floorboards, dropping my squid-skull mask with a dull thump. I twisted as I fell, arms and legs tangled in my voluminous yellow robes.

I bumped my tailbone when I landed on my bum, not hard enough to injure, but still hard enough to send that unique spike of pain rocketing up through my body.

But the sudden pain was exquisite. So sharp, so bright, the clearest thing I’d ever felt — and it didn’t really hurt. It sang through my nerve endings and said here I am, undeniable and irrefutable.

Sevens was busy falling over too, even messier and more uncoordinated than me; her sweaty little hand slipped out of mine as she went down in a dry-heaving, twitching heap, letting out little throaty gurgles of animal complaint. Either this mask did not confer immunity to the effects of the Slip, or she was still employing her acting skills. The knight didn’t collapse, which was lucky, since his armour weighed far more than any human being. He probably would have gone straight through the floorboards and into the cellar. But he did stagger, a clank-clank-clonk like a coughing train. A chrome giant much too big for the room swayed and wavered in my tear-blurred peripheral vision. He only stopped when he bumped into the table hard enough to leave a dent in the wood, hanging onto the edge with his free hand, bent over like he was going to be sick.

I was in pain, stomach roiling, squeezing my eyes shut as I lay on my back in a heap of limbs and yellow fabric, tentacles and arms alike both limp with exhaustion. I should have groaned, or turned over to vomit, or cried out for Raine, or just whimpered and prayed for help.

Instead, laughter pushed its way up my throat and out through my lips.

“Ahaha … home! Hello hoooooome,” I wailed in victory.

The laughter came in waves, subtle but irresistible, in between spikes of nausea. Honey-sweet relief drenched my thoughts in amber antiseptic.

Eventually I managed to roll onto my side, dragging my yellow robes with me, at least to avoid choking on my own sick if the nausea overpowered the relief. My tentacles could barely help — they were quivering as if I’d just followed along with one of Raine’s weight lifting routines. My entire body felt like a fresh bruise, that slow subtle ache of phantom weakness that heralded being very sore in the morning, but it was coupled with every inch of my skin feeling like I’d just stepped out of a steaming hot bath, oversensitive and tingling. From my eyelids to my toes, every nerve ending was open like a flower, leaving me on the blurred boundary between strange pleasure and writhing discomfort.

For a moment longer than I intended, I just lay there on my side, staring at the bony corner of Sevens’ hip as I ran my fingertips across a patch of floorboard, fascinated by the clarity of the woodgrain.

“Made it,” I was muttering. “Made it, made it, made it. I did it. I got out. Got back. Maisie can get back too.”

“Nnnnnn … ” Sevens gurgled with pain. “Owwwww?”

I didn’t care how badly I ached or how tired I felt. I could have been bleeding out or concussed or missing a hand; none of those would have spoilt my relief. I was home, I’d made it back. I’d overcome the childhood fear that had haunted me since Wonderland. I was not lost.

As I pulled myself into a sitting position, I welcomed each and every flex of deep-muscle ache, like the embrace of old friends. Every twinge and stab was so clear, so real, so instantly and evidently present.

But when I turned my bleary, bloodshot eyes on the magical workshop around us, I discovered that clarity was not restricted to the inside of my own body.

The first feelers of grey dawn were creeping around the edges of the heavy curtains, encroaching on a sloppy puddle of warm orange cast by a small lamp on the table — and for perhaps fifteen uninterrupted seconds, I was mesmerised by the floating dust caught within the light. It was beautiful and complex and completely impossible to look away, even if I’d wanted to. When I finally did, my fascination shifted to the woodgrain in the table and the chairs, the fabric fibres in the lumpy surface of the old sofa, the imperfections in the wall paint. All of it bored into my senses like an overload of reality, leaving my head heavy and fuzzy.

The surface of my skin, the scent of books and food and hair, the hard feeling of the ground beneath my backside and legs; the air entering my lungs as I inhaled; the glint of light off the knight’s shin armour and the nervous shiver of Sevens’ bare legs — all of it was just incredible. These things had been here all this time, and I hadn’t noticed how beautiful they were? Even my own hands were mesmerising. I held one up and flexed it in front of my face, hypnotised for a moment by the motion of my own fingers, my mouth hanging open.

I’d expected to suffer some sensory processing issues on my return to reality, similar to when I’d delved too deep into the abyss, that horrifying splashdown back to a world of rotting meat and deafening ape noises and unspeakable stenches. But I hadn’t been to the abyss, I’d been Outside.

I had not exactly attended the cinema many times over the course of my life; the constant presence of pneuma-somatic creatures made it very difficult to concentrate on enjoying a show. But I recognised this feeling all the same, from those scant few Christmas pantomimes my parents had taken Maisie and me to see when we were very little. This feeling was very much like when one stood up from a long stretch in a dark theatre, when the curtain closes and the lights go up and you are no longer audience, but simply a being once again, reduced back down to your own body.

Reality felt hyper-real, because I’d been gone for too long.

Which is why it took me a moment to look up from the creases in my own right hand and realise that somebody was staring at me.

Big blue eyes, exhausted and ringed with dark bags, set in a round, sallow-skinned face which had never quite shed all its teenage puppy fat, so naturally inclined to kindness yet so artificially adapted to defensive scowls. A mane of golden-blonde hair was gathered back into a functional, messy pony-tail. Hunched shoulders wrapped in blanket and shawl and cream-coloured jumper against the predatory cold, long skirt not quite managing to hide the black carbon-fibre of a prosthetic ankle and blade-shaped foot. Small and cuddly, badly in need of a hug.

Evelyn Saye was sitting at the old dining table, staring at me wide-eyed, her mouth hanging open in shock.

She looked like hell, like she hadn’t slept for a week, running on nothing but fumes and spite — which, to be fair, was not entirely out of the ordinary for my dear friend Evelyn. Whatever else had happened in my absence, at least she was a constant. But she’d either been crying or stressed out of her mind, or both, or worse, and I knew in my gut it was probably because of me. A huge mess of notes and papers lay on the table before her, looking like a whirlwind had been through them, accompanied by two ancient tomes wrapped in cracked leather, both of them propped open with other books. She was holding a pen, but it clattered to the table from her hand.

“Evee!” I croaked, fully aware that I was grinning like a lunatic but unable to control myself. I made an abortive attempt to stand up and hurl myself at her for a hug, but ended up sprawling forward instead, all tangled in my yellow robes. I barely managed to catch myself with my tentacles to avoid going flat on my face. “Oop! Ahh, um, haha.”

Evelyn just shook her head, numb with amazement. She tore her eyes away from me to take in Sevens and the Knight as well.

Even as I laughed at my own clumsiness, I could tell something was wrong with me. The act of almost falling over was so funny, the rubbery sensation in my muscles was so fascinating I wanted to stretch them every which way. But I couldn’t deny the force of relief, wiping unexpected tears from the corners of my eyes.

“Evee, oh Evelyn, Evelyn, I’m back, I’m back. Oh, it feels like it’s been such a … long … time?”

The alarm and confusion in Evelyn’s eyes grabbed me by the throat. Cold panic lanced into my bowels, even through the enclosing warmth of Sevens’ yellow robes. My unsteady vision lurched around the magical workshop, but nothing seemed different, nothing out of place. The bucket with the clay-squid still sat in one corner. The pair of spider-servitors still clung to the walls, watching me in mute silence with their banks of crystalline eyes. I waved numbly at them.

“Why does it feel like it’s been such a long time?” My voice came out tiny and weak, mouth going dry, lips quivering. “Evee? Evee, say something. Don’t tell me it’s been weeks, or … or months, or … no, no.”

Evelyn threw up her hands, grimacing with frustration. “It’s been seventeen hours, Heather,” she said, tight and controlled. “No, make that nineteen. You have been gone all night long.”

I heaved with relief, one hand to my chest. “Oh thank god. Thank you. Oh Evee, oh—”

“And what time do you call this?” she hissed. In any other circumstances, the quiet fury in her voice would have sent me into stammered apologies, but I just started laughing again. I let out a silly giggle that should have had me scowling at myself, but instead I half-covered my mouth, laughing and kicking and going red in the face.

“Home time!” I said.

Evelyn boggled at me, then turned her head to the kitchen door, took a deep breath, and shouted at the top of her lungs. “She’s here! Heather’s down here and she’s all fucked up!”

“Ow,” I murmured as I winced my eyes shut. Evelyn’s shout was an affectionate assault on my tender senses. “Actually I’m significantly less screwed up than usual. I don’t feel as sick, really. It’s really cool! Less painful, mmhmm.”

Evelyn frowned at me like I’d just grown an extra head. “No. No, you are definitely riding high on something.”

A small, clammy hand suddenly wormed into mine; Sevens had found me again. Wide black-and-red eyes peered at me over the top of her own knees, drawn up to her chest in a protective huddle, rocking back and forth. She let out a throaty gurgle, a low, “Guuuurrrrrh.”

“It’s okaaaaaaay,” I replied to her.

A sudden slam made us both flinch; Evelyn slapping the table with an open palm. She was staring at Sevens, going a little green around the gills. “Fuck me, I thought that was Lozzie. I thought she’d dyed her hair or something, or … ” She grabbed her walking stick from where it had been leaning against the back of her chair, clutching it with white knuckles.

“Oh noooo, no no.” I tried to gather my thoughts. Evelyn had nothing to worry about. “Lozzie’s not here.”

“Not here? Oh I don’t fucking believe this shit,” Evelyn spat, eyes blazing at me, tendons in her neck standing out as she went red in the face. “Heather! What happened?” She grabbed a fistful of the notes spread out across the table and brandished them like proof of a criminal conspiracy. “I’ve been trying to reach you all fucking night! I don’t even know how to describe your trajectory, let alone the Outside dimension you went to! I told you this was a terrible idea, I said, I said it and you didn’t listen!”

“I know and I’m sorry, I’m sorry. But you can stop now, Evee.” The words tumbled out of me. “We’re safe, we’re safe, and I love you, and thank you for looking and—”

“So where the hell is Lozzie? I can’t stop until you’re both safe, can I?” she snapped, then pointed her papers at Sevens. “Because that is not Lozzie. I know what that knight is, that’s one of Lozzie’s, and fine, whatever, but what the hell is she?” She turned her head to shout into the kitchen again. “Praem! Praem, in here, now!”

“It’s Sevens!” I said, laughing again. “Sevens! Sevens!”

“Seven?” Evelyn gaped at me.

“Evee, this is just Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight,” I said, concentrating past the haze. “It’s okay. This is a mask.”

“Rrrrrrr,” gurgled Seven-Shades-of-Toothy-Goblin, peering up at Evelyn with red-on-black.

“ … your yellow Outsider?”

“Yes! Yes!” I nodded. She finally got it! I could have cheered, though I knew the confusion was my fault.

Sevens clacked her needle-teeth twice. Evelyn frowned at the pair of us.

“She’s safe,” I said.

“Safe?!” Evelyn snapped. “She’s an Outsider and she’s already screwed with us more than enough—”

“People are sleeping,” came a sing-song intonation, clear as a bell.

Praem stepped through the kitchen door. The sight of her was almost as much of a comfort as Evelyn. Straight-backed and holding herself with perfect poise, dressed from head to toe in the crisp black and white of her maid uniform, with her blonde hair pinned up in a bun, she was a very familiar sight, and for that I could have kissed her. Plush and smooth and smart and sensible, Praem was still here.

However, her warning came too late; as she joined us, I heard footsteps through the ceiling, a confused, half-awake stumble.

“Yes, I know, I—” Evelyn stopped dead at the sight of Praem’s blank, milk-white eyes, her expressionless reproach. Praem stepped forward and placed a steaming mug of tea on the table in from of Evelyn, then turned to me.

“Welcome home,” she intoned.

“Thank you,” I croaked, trying to get my feet under me again. “Praem, you’re so cute. I-I mean, um, er— yes.” I cleared my throat. “I can’t quite stand up … could I trouble you for—”

Praem clicked over to me and Sevens, precise and exact with every movement. In the past, back when we’d first met, her perfectly stiff mannerisms could sometimes seem slightly uncanny, but now they were familiar and family and home. She stopped by the Knight and turned toward him first. He had just finished straightening up, his axe back on his shoulder where it belonged. A still-functioning sub-Heather in the back of my mind noted that it had taken him an awfully long time to stand up straight again.

“Welcome,” she intoned. The Knight’s helmet chin went up and down, almost as stiff as her.

“Oh for pity’s sake,” Evelyn hissed. “This isn’t a bloody tea party. Help her up and—”

Praem interrupted her creator with nothing but a look. Evelyn huffed and rolled her eyes and banged the tip of her walking stick on the floor twice. I laughed, unable to stop myself, but mortified at my own behaviour, hand covering my mouth in embarrassment.

“Welcome,” Praem repeated — for Sevens this time, bell-clear and expressionless, milk-white eyes looking down at red-on-black.

“Rrrrrrrrrrr … ” Sevens gurgled, withdrawing her hand from mine and curling up in a tighter ball.

“Sevens?” I murmured. “It’s okay, Praem is lovely.”

“Welcome,” Praem repeated.

“Buuuuurrrrr—”

“Welcome.”

Sevens hissed between her teeth.

“Welcome.”

“ … thank you,” Sevens finally gurgled. She clambered into an awkward squat-crouch, bare feet on the floorboards, joints like loose rubber.

Praem turned back to Evelyn. “Safe.”

“Oh fine,” Evelyn huffed. “If you say so.”

Praem helped me up with strong hands under my armpits. She didn’t mind when I leaned into her for a hug, heavy and slow and almost sleepy, nor when I added my tentacles around her shoulders and waist and hung on tight. Nor did she mind when I started absent-mindedly rubbing my face on her shoulder as I tested my quivering legs, just for the sensation of starchy cloth on my cheeks — though I certainly minded very much when I realised what I was doing.

“Oh!” I jerked back, blushing and stammering. “I’m so sorry, I, uh, I don’t what came over me, I was just— just—”

“Stim good,” Praem said.

“I-I’m sorry?”

“You are in an altered state of consciousness,” Praem replied, sing-song and soft.

“You can bloody well say that again,” Evelyn huffed. “She’s high as a kite.”

“I’m not high? What are you talking about.” I paused and blinked several times; my intonation was all wrong there. “Oh … oh, I … I am? Oh, bum.”

“Did you do this to her?” Evelyn snapped at Seven-Shades-of-Shy.

“Nooooo,” Sevens rasped, grimacing away from Evelyn’s withering attention. “She was out there too long. Adjusted. She’ll be fine. Coming down.”

“ … like decompression sickness,” Evelyn murmured, then jabbed toward Sevens with her walking stick. “You tell me now, Outsider, and you tell me the truth, or I will find a way to hurt you—”

“Be kind!” I almost yelled. Evelyn blinked at me in surprise.

“Heather—”

“Be kind.”

“Alright, alright! You, Seven whatever-you-are, is this putting Heather in any danger?”

Sevens shook her head and hooked her fingers between her toes.

“Are you lying, you—”

“She cares about me too much to hurt me,” I blurted out. “I’m sure it’s fine. I’m fiiiiine, I’m just … woozy.”

Evelyn spat out a single bark of non-laughter.

“Heather, what on earth have you been doing? Or not on Earth, rather! And you still haven’t answered my question. Where the hell is Lozzie?” She waved the handful of notes in the air again. “Do I need to keep going? Because I will. I need you to concentrate for five seconds, Heather. Stop looking elsewhere, focus on me.”

“I am focusing.”

“You are not. Lozzie? Where is she? Because if she’s lost too I’m not stopping. I am not leaving a single—”

“She’ll be along as soon as she realises the way is clear,” I said, still smiling and half-laughing with relief. “The way is clear now. I cleared the way. I killed him, I killed him! Lozzie can get home herself. It’s okay, I did it! I did it!”

Evelyn fixed me with such a look, lips pursed, eyes bulging, dark with exhaustion, red-ringed and bloodshot, and I realised with a flash of insight that she’d been sitting at that table all night long, trying to get me home. She’d been up since I’d left, or at least since my friends realised something was wrong. The mess of notes on the table were a new set of changes to the gateway spell, the same kind of changes that had left Kimberly a sobbing, shaking mess, which only Lozzie had managed to understand in the end. And Evelyn had been up all night, trying to make new ones. I noticed she was shaking, shivering inside and trying to control it, like she had a fever.

That was like a bucket of cold water poured over my head.

“ … Lozzie’s okay. I think,” I managed to say. It was difficult to focus, but I tried as hard as I could. “She should be along in her own time.”

Evelyn watched me carefully for a moment longer, then nodded and blew out a slow breath. She put the papers down and flexed her stiff fingers. “Right. Thank you, Heather. Praem, get her some … oh, I don’t bloody well know, chocolate won’t help, she clearly doesn’t need a serotonin hit.”

“Praem,” I said to the doll-demon still holding me steady. “Is Evee okay?”

Evelyn huffed. “I’m fi—”

“Yes,” Praem intoned. “Kept her fed and watered. Needs to sleep. Will be okay.”

“You can sleep now,” I told Evelyn, nodding in what I thought looked like a very serious and sober way. “You should, we’re safe, we—”

I didn’t have a chance to insist further before the sound of footsteps crashed down the stairs and across the front room.

Raine came literally skidding across the kitchen and sliding into the workshop on her socks.

She was, in that moment, the best thing I’d ever seen, a firm reminder why being physically embodied in the real world was absolutely fantastic.

Her chestnut-brown hair stuck up like she’d been running her hands through it all day; warm eyes looked at me like I was made of gold; the soft angles of her face were more familiar than the shape of my own body. She was wearing a tank top and shorts in an unexpected mirror-image of Sevens, showing off butter-smooth muscles and healthy pink skin, toned arms and powerful legs and the unsubtle curve of her hips. I could tell she’d run downstairs too fast on her still-healing leg, putting weight in the uninjured one; she didn’t need the dressing around her thigh anymore, but the wound was still there, still healing, still hidden beneath her shorts. But apparently the pain didn’t matter.

For some reason which my mind took too long to catch up with, she was also wearing a pair of cardboard anaglyph spectacles perched on her nose, the kind which came with 3D posters or novelty animations. One plastic lens in red, the other in blue, they made her look like she’d been reading a racy comic in bed. Or they would have, but the white cardboard which surrounded the lenses was covered in the tiny black scrawl of a pair of miniature magic circles.

She lit up with a grin of utter delight and aimed a pair of finger guns at me.

“Heather!” she roared — then paused, mouth open wide, eyes going up and down and around me. “Holy shit, look at you! All six!”

“Raine!” I screeched back. “Oh, you can see my tentacles?”

“Sure can.” She tipped the glasses down as she stepped closer, looking at me with naked eyes, then blew out a low whistle as she checked through them again. I couldn’t help but notice how her attention briefly flickered to both Sevens and the forest-knight, then dismissed both of them as safe and unimportant compared to the joy of me being back.

Praem deposited me into Raine’s arms and I snuggled against her like she was pillow, sheets, mattress, the whole bed, burying my face in her chest and wrapping all my tentacles around her. She returned the hug, hard and urgent, squeezing me tight inside my yellow robes.

“Raineeeee,” I sighed into her chest, into her warmth and her beating heart, her familiar scent, the feeling of her muscles flexing and relaxing.

“Hoooo, okay, hello there,” Raine laughed. I felt her fingertips brush the surface of one of my tentacles.

“Ahhh!” I gasped in surprise.

“Heeeeey, it actually works,” Raine said.

“Hugs feel soooo good,” I murmured. “Touch me, please, please touch. Feels like I’ve been gone a lot longer than I have.”

“Heather, you are so beautiful. You know that?”

“Of course she is,” Sevens gurgled from beside me on the floor.

Raine blinked and peered over my shoulder, down at Seven-Shades-of-Invasive-Gremlin. She tugged the glasses off, tilted her head at Sevens, and received a low, throaty hiss in return, before Sevens buried her head beneath her own arms again, hiding.

“Of course the glasses bloody well work,” Evelyn grumbled. “I made sure they would work. I spent enough blood on the process, didn’t I? You can see her additions? Is it just the tentacles or has she done worse to herself this time? Let me guess, as soon as she relaxes, we’re going to need to call the hospital?”

“She’s fine, as far as I can see. Just the tentacles, very cool!” Raine shot me a wink, but then nodded down at Sevens. “Who’s this delightful little bundle of tooth and claw?”

“Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight, apparently,” Evelyn grumbled.

“It’s Sevens,” I murmured. “She helped. Helped a lot. Gave me this.” I flapped one sleeve of the yellow robes. “And I wouldn’t have gotten out if it wasn’t for her and the knight. Both of them. Stars, yes.”

“You got her out? You helped?” Raine asked over my shoulder, down at Sevens.

“Rrrrrrr … yes,” went Sevens.

“Then hey, thanks. I know we’ve had our differences, but you rescue my girl, you’re in my good books.” She craned up at the knight too. “Hey there, tin man. You one of Lozzie’s, right? Never did get to have a good look at one of you things. Nice axe, you an ess-tee-arr build?”

She received a nod in return. To my surprise, the knight’s armour made a low creaking noise as he moved.

“Thanks for saving my girl. Owe you one.” She cracked a grin. “If there’s anything I can possibly owe you?”

“Could do with a drink,” Sevens gurgled from next to my shins. At that, Praem turned on her heel and clicked off into the kitchen.

Raine gently eased me back. “Hey, Heather, look at me, please? Oh, Heather,” she breathed my name, shaking her head, an uncontrollable grin on her lips. “It’s so good to see you. Are you alright, are you hurt anywhere? You don’t look bruised, but you are pale.” She was squeezing my shoulders, my arms, my wrists, and I realised she was speaking too fast, trying her best to conceal the way she was shaking between each breath. “What happened, hey? And where’s Lozzie? Heather, you look like you need a sit down and a cup of tea and a bath and a—”

“Raine, stop, stooooooop,” I managed. “Stop speaking.”

She couldn’t. She tried to catch herself, blowing out a breath and nodding, but she carried on anyway. “You’re home. That’s what matters, right, yeah. But if there’s something after you or you need help or— I mean, where the hell is Lozzie, right?” She laughed. “Heather, you look like hell. Is that dried blood on your face? And it’s all down your hoodie and hey, hey, this yellow robe, yeah?” She rolled the fabric between her fingers. “This is really something. You gave this to her, yellow?” She peered down at Sevens, who looked away, hiding behind her own hands.

“Shhhhhhhhhh,” I hushed, one clumsy finger mashed against Raine’s lips.

Praem returned at that exact moment, clicking back into the workshop with a glass of water in each hand. She offered one to Sevens — who downed it as if she didn’t even have to swallow, tossing the glass back in one throw — and the other to the Knight. To all our confused surprise, the Knight accepted the glass in his free hand and somehow managed to not crush it to powder. We all watched, my finger still against Raine’s lips, as he clinked the glass against his blank metal faceplate and tipped the water down himself. Praem produced a tea towel, as if she had expected this, and dropped it on the floor to absorb the puddle.

“Um,” said Raine.

“I think he’s just being polite?” I squinted at the Knight.

Evelyn rolled her eyes. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed,” she drawled. “But Heather’s high as a kite. Absolutely off her head. Some kind of decompression sickness, but apparently she’s not in any danger.”

“I am not high!” I whined.

“ … you kind of are,” Raine said, peering at me with a grin. “Wow, you weren’t kidding, Evee, it’s like she’s stoned.”

“And you were freaking out,” I shot back.

“Yeah,” Raine admitted, much to my surprise. “Little bit. Haven’t slept, haven’t eaten. What do you expect, hey? You were gone, girl. I thought maybe, you know, that was it. Maybe you and Lozzie had finally moved on.”

She smiled, but there was real pain behind her eyes.

Guilt and warmth and love surged through my chest. I reluctantly pulled myself out of Raine’s embrace, gathering my yellow robes up. She and Praem both moved to catch me, as if I might topple over at any moment, but I planted tentacles on the ground to keep myself on my own two feet, gently easing their hands away.

“Heather,” Raine said, trying to catch my hand. “Come on, hey, let me—”

“Shut up,” I said, with the most affection one could ever squeeze into such disrespectful words. Before Raine could react, I reached up with both hands and clumsily cupped her cheeks. Yellow sleeves fell back from my thin arms.

“I love you,” I said. “You do know that, don’t you? I love you.”

Raine blinked. I savoured the rare feeling of rendering her speechless.

“I love you, Raine,” I repeated. “And I’m not going anywhere.”

“I love you too,” she said, and I could hear the choke in her voice.

I closed my eyes, trying to concentrate past the feeling of hyper-reality, the altered consciousness, the exhaustion and the lingering pain. “In the last … what was it, Evee, nineteen hours?”

“Nineteen hours,” Evelyn supplied with a grunt.

“In the last nineteen hours I have almost died … three times? I think that’s a conservative estimate.” I let out a huge sigh. “Infected by Hast— no, no,” I took care to admonish myself. If I summoned that here then there would be no containing it, whether I had the blessing of the King in Yellow or not. “Almost infected, almost eaten by living darkness, then almost eaten by a giant cat with an abandonment complex. Almost joined a party where I’m pretty sure they were eating human flesh — oh, that’s four times, oh, silly me. And then I almost got trapped in an emotional loop which could have ended me, I assume.”

“Father wouldn’t do that to you,” Sevens gurgled from down at my feet. One small hand curled around my shin. “You’re not his type.”

Father,” Evelyn scoffed, in the exact same tone as bullshit.

“And now I am home,” I said with a sigh. “And I want you to know that I love you, Raine, and I don’t tell you that enough, and maybe I would never have been able to tell you again. But I made it back because I am not leaving.”

“I love you too,” Raine repeated, dead serious.

I nodded, then surprised everyone by stumbling away from Raine and crossing the two steps to Evelyn. I opened my arms, yellow robes flapping wide as well.

“Hug okay?” I asked.

Evelyn huffed and rolled her eyes, but she nodded and accepted my awkward, half-leaning embrace as I ended up mostly hugging her head. Her hair was so fine and soft and I wanted to keep touching it, but I accidentally made her flinch when I forgot what one of my tentacles was doing and started to wrap it around her waist. She brushed off my stuttering apologies with a “Don’t worry about it.”

Raine laughed. “I like this high and huggy Heather. Hugeather.”

“Yes,” Praem intoned.

Sevens let out a rasp like some kind of cave rodent.

As Evelyn and I parted again, her fingers lingered on the fabric of the yellow cloak for a moment too long, entranced by the warmth and softness. As she was still frowning at it, perhaps about to ask something, I opened my stupid mouth on an impulse I should have ignored.

“I love you too, Evee.”

Her eyes met mine from beneath a suddenly skittish frown, response stuck in her throat. For a moment, my mind’s eye recalled the image of Evelyn that Seven-Shades-of-Unrequited-Love had shown me back in Carcosa, Evelyn spitting bitterness and jealousy. But how much of that had been true? How much of that had been Sevens? I’d stumbled over to Evelyn on impulse, to tell my best friend how much she meant to me, but I’d snagged myself on a hidden bear trap.

I could have backed out. The necessary words floated up my throat: I love you, yes, but in a slightly different way to Raine, haha, so funny, laugh it all off.

But I didn’t say it. I had no right to shut her down.

After a moment, Evelyn took it how I knew she would, averting her eyes and looking extremely awkward as she cleared her throat. “Thank you, I suppose. That’s very sweet of you. You are very, very sweet, Heather.” The way she said it sounded anything but sweet.

“Sweet to you,” I said on impulse, and cursed myself for it.

“But we still need to know what is going on,” she ran right over me, revving up her frustration again. “Where exactly is Lozzie? I know you said she can get home by herself, but if she can’t then I’m not abandoning the attempt. I’ve sunk enough into this already.” She slapped the notes on the table with an angry, dismissive backhand.

“It’s fine, really.” I had to squint my eyes, forcing myself to stay steady and coherent. “It’s all good. I think. Lozzie should be home whenever she realises the way is clear. It’s safe now, nothing should be stopping her. I killed him, I really killed him, and it’s okay!”

“Killed who?” Raine asked, gentle but serious.

“Oh, Alexander Lilburne.”

Raine looked at me very, very carefully. Evelyn went quite still.

“Heather,” Raine said, “that was months ago.”

“Yes, yes, it was, it was but I only just realised that I killed him. No, wait, no that’s not right.” I shook my head and huffed.

“I told you she was high,” Evelyn said.

“I only just accepted that I killed him. Look, it’s a long story, but basically the dead hands are gone. Lozzie can get through whenever she likes.” I let out a weak laugh. “If she’s finished her night out, that is. Maybe she never even knew all of this happened.”

“Knew all of what happened?” Evelyn demanded. “Unnnnnhh,” she groaned in frustration and tapped her walking stick on the floorboards, undoubtedly restraining the urge to whack me in the shins — I didn’t blame her. “God, I can hardly think straight, I need to sleep for a week.”

“Me also,” I said, gathering myself as best I could, then completely undermined my determination when I lurched backward and caught myself on the edge of the table with my tentacles. Raine took my shoulder, helping to steady me. Sevens closed her fingers around my leg again and I absent-mindedly placed one hand on her hair. Then I spotted my squid-skull mask where it fallen on the floor and picked it up with one tentacle. Evelyn’s eyes went wide — I suppose all she saw was a floating metallic-grey skull — and Raine whipped the magically modified 3D glasses back on to her face, then let out a low whistle.

“Got some dexterity in you, yeeeeeah!” Raine cheered as I placed the skull on the table.

“And what exactly is that?” Evelyn hissed at the skull, frowning dark and curious.

“Cute,” Praem intoned.

“Oh, this was just a present from Lozzie, before everything went wrong. It is kind of cute. It’s mine now.” I stroked the skull mask and began to lift it onto my head, then stopped halfway, laughing at myself, vaguely embarrassed. “Um, something about it makes me want to wear it.”

Heather,” Evelyn hissed.

“No, no, it’s safe! It protected me several times! I think it’s something in the … bone? Steel?” I shrugged. “Anyway, look, I got stuck,” I said, speaking to the room. “You were right, Evee. You’re often right. You really know … things. Stuff. You know what I mean.” I tried to ignore Evelyn rolling her eyes at my rambling speech. “The dead hands, they were a trap. Lozzie and I had a good talk, she went off for a fun night out, I guess? But then when I tried to come home, snap!” I closed the fingers of my free hand like a Venus flytrap. “Stuck. Stuck Outside. It was one of the worst things that’s ever … I was stuck.”

Raine squeezed my shoulder. I sniffed.

“So what, it took you nineteen hours to break some fingers?” Evelyn asked.

I shook my head again. “Had to get help.” I patted Sevens’ head and nodded toward the knight. “Saldis too.”

“Saldis?” Evelyn hissed. “What does that mage have to do with all this?”

“I went to the library. Only place I could think of. It’s kind of a long story. Oh, uh.” I rummaged in my hoodie and dumped Saldis’ golden pendant on the table. “She gave me that, after I, um, chased off the King in Yellow, one of his bad masks.”

Evelyn and Raine both went wide-eyed — Evelyn at me, Raine at the pendant.

“Solid gold,” Praem intoned.

Raine started laughing. “No shit, Sherlock.”

“You … ran off … what? Hastur?” Evelyn asked, aghast.

“Shhhh!” I hissed, waving her down. “Don’t say the name!”

“That actually works? Heather, I tried that as a teenager. It’s nonsense. It’s fiction.”

“He’s real,” Sevens rasped.

“Oh for the love of—” Evelyn slapped the table again. “Hastur Hastur Hastur. Hastur! Hastur! Come on, come and get me!”

I tensed up and Raine followed my lead, going stiff and ready all of a sudden, but nothing happened. I hiccuped once and Evelyn frowned at me.

“It worked in the library, okay?” I said. “Just don’t ever do it Outside. Maybe it doesn’t work on Earth. Look, nothing’s happened here at home, right? While I was in trouble?”

Raine and Evelyn shared a glance.

“Nothing has happened,” Praem intoned, suddenly at my shoulder with a glass of water. I hadn’t even seen her leave the room. She pressed it into my hands.

I asked Praem instead. “There’s no crisis? Nothing happened when I was gone? No attack on the house? No plot to get you?”

“Nothing has happened,” Evelyn snapped. “Except a lot of panic. Should something have happened?”

“I … well … no. Though I think this confirms the dead hands were not under the control of Edward Lilburne, anyway. Which is good! Good, yes. Good.” I laughed softly at the absurdity of it all. It really was a vengeful spirit, all along. “I guess I really was being haunted. Like a ghost. Out for revenge. Ha!”

Evelyn huffed a sigh to knock down an oak tree. Raine just laughed.

“Where’s Zheng?” I asked. “And Tenny? Is she worried about Lozzie?”

“Yeah, real bad,” Raine said softly. “We couldn’t hide what was up, not after a few hours. She’s too smart for that. So I just told her, straight up, no white lies. Finally got her to go to sleep about two hours ago, but I’m pretty sure it was just pure exhaustion. She needs to know her mother is okay, soon as we can. ‘Cos that’s what Lozzie is to her, right?”

I nodded, tears suddenly threatening in my eyes. “Lozzie will come home. She will. What about Zheng?”

“Your stupid zombie is still not back from her hunt,” said Evelyn.

“Drink,” Praem intoned, pressing the glass of water toward my face.

“Oh, I’m fiiiiiine,” I said, blinking rapidly and smiling at Praem, though I still accepted the water and took a long sip. “I actually ate not too long ago.”

“You ate?” Evelyn said. She shared a glance with Raine, but got a shrug in return. “You ate food, Outside? You ingested matter? With your mouth?”

“Ham and cheese sandwiches,” I said.

“Cool,” said Raine. “They have mustard?”

“No, not cool, Raine.” Evelyn boggled at me. “Heather, you put things in your mouth, Outside things, and swallowed them?”

“My fault,” said Sevens in her raspy little voice.

All eyes turned to Seven-Shades-of-Supremely-Self-Conscious as she finally unfolded herself from her awkward squat-crouch. At less than five feet tall, scrawny and bony and dressed only in tank-top and shorts, with bare feet and stringy, rat-tail hair, she looked like she wanted to climb into a dark hole and be forgotten, not join this room of athletic lesbians and scowling mages and perfect maids. She clung to my side with both hands, fists gripping my yellow robes as if afraid she’d be ripped away from me. Shoulders hunched, eyes darting about, she couldn’t even meet the gazes directed at her.

“I still don’t fully understand what exactly I’m looking at here,” Evelyn said, cold and sharp, frowning at Sevens. She jabbed a finger at her too. “Because you — yes, you, I’m talking to you — do not look anything like how Heather described Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight.”

Sevens hunched up even tighter, trying to make herself small. “Sorry,” she rasped.

Evelyn paused as if very confused. “I … I wasn’t looking for an apology, I just … I— oh, sod it,” she huffed. “If you are something else, piggybacking on Heather’s return, how would I even know?”

“It is Sevens,” I said, placing a gentle hand on one of Sevens’ pale arms and wrapping a protective tentacle around her shoulders. “One of her masks, anyway.”

“And she’s being awfully clingy with you,” Evelyn added.

“She is, ain’t she?” Raine said with a smirk. She shot me a finger gun. “Heather, you dog, you been having a night out and making moves without me?”

Raine meant it as a joke, but it was more sobering than an emergency hypodermic full of pure caffeine. The flash of guilt in my eyes caught her attention like a siren. She tilted her head with guileless curiosity. Words stuck in my throat, words I could not say yet.

“Yo, yellow,” Raine carried on instead, doing an upward-tilting nod at the quivering goblin clamped to my side. Sevens just hid her face in my shoulder. “You been taking good care of my girl? Thanks for bringing her back, I mean it. I appreciate it, for real, despite you being a bitch before. We’re cool, you and me. Yeah?” She reached out for Sevens’ shoulder, but Sevens shrank away like a cat who didn’t want to be petted. Raine paused as soon as she saw this and glanced at me instead. “She alright? No touchy?”

“Uh … no,” I said. “I think she’s going through some things right now.”

Raine shrugged. “Think I prefer her like this. At least she’s not being me.”

“What is the purpose of this mask?” Evelyn asked, and I recognised that clinical coldness, that mage’s hunger for meaning and knowledge. “Are we in the middle of one of her plays? Heather, you’re basically high, and you’ve got a reality-altering Outsider trying to hide behind you. We need clarity, right now, because I’m too exhausted to give a shit; are we in the middle of a play?”

Sevens shook her head against my side.

“No,” I said. “This is just Sevens. For real. No play.”

“Wait wait wait,” Raine said, half-grinning, pointing a pair of finger-guns at Sevens. “This is the real Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight? This is her real self? This?”

“Don’t you dare laugh at her!” I exploded at Raine, surprised at my own anger. Raine actually blinked, the second time I’d surprised her in the minutes since I’d gotten home. “If it wasn’t for her help, I’d be dead. And she’s allowing herself to be vulnerable right now, in ways I don’t think we even understand. She’s sort of … left the stage, I think?”

I glanced at Sevens for confirmation, wary of speaking for her. She managed to make fleeting eye contact with the others, long enough to nod.

“Redefining self-hood,” she gurgled, then let out a long hiss like the start of a panic attack.

“There you have it,” I said. “And she’s done it all to help me. I’m serious, Raine, if you laugh at her now I will be very unimpressed by you. You’re meant to be a knight errant, aren’t you? Chosen freely, not just because I needed it? Well, here is a damsel who needs help.”

“Is she your friend now?” Raine asked without missing a beat, completely serious, and I fell in love with her all over again.

“Ye—”

I paused so hard I almost choked. Raine’s eyebrows climbed. My heart rate spiked and I hiccuped loud enough to make Sevens flinch.

“No,” Sevens rasped.

“No,” I corrected myself, voice shaking, lips numb. “She’s actually a bit more than that, now. I think. Maybe.”

Raine’s eyebrows left orbit.

“You have got to be fucking joking,” Evelyn muttered. She looked ready to eat her own fist.

I let out a shaking sigh. “A lot has happened. God, it feels like it’s been days, not a single night. I-I didn’t mean to— I haven’t done anything— we haven’t, I mean—”

Raine burst out laughing, which made me flinch. I watched her eyes, trying to read which way she was jumping. Jealousy, forced acceptance, something else? The last time I’d done this, with Zheng, it had not ended well; but we’d learned things about each other since then, surely it wouldn’t be the same.

“Our Heather moves fast!” Raine said with a grin. “Doesn’t seem like your type though?”

“Well done,” Praem intoned. I couldn’t tell if she was being sarcastic or not.

“It’s not like that!” I protested, desperate to explain everything that had happened in one breath and trying to convince myself that I could. Reality is a hell of a drug, as Raine would say, and I was still struggling for coherence. “It’s so much more complicated, I have so much to explain and I’m so tired, oh goodness, I have to sit down.”

“I don’t believe this,” Evelyn growled. “You go missing all night, Outside, and I’ve been putting my mind through a goddamn wood chipper to find you and bring you back, and you’re having a grand old time, oh yes, making out with yet another thing you’ve dragged—”

Sevens detached herself from my side. For a moment I thought the worst was happening — either she was scurrying away in mortified embarrassment, or she was going to hiss at Evelyn in challenge over the insult, or she was simply going to rotate herself back through the membrane, back to the castle, back to her father. But what she did was so much worse.

In less than a heartbeat, a second Evelyn was standing next to me.

The illusion was perfect: the hunched spine, the permanent disapproving scowl, the layers of comfy clothes wrapped around a brittle core. She even had Evelyn’s walking stick and the currently visible slice of prosthetic leg. The real Evelyn’s angry words died with a splutter.

“Be honest,” grunted Seven-Shades-of-Saye. “You can’t bullshit a bullshitter.”

Evelyn went pale. I wasn’t sure if she got what Sevens meant. Maybe she did.

“Sevens!” I squeaked and almost slapped her. I hadn’t expected this, I thought she was done with other masks, finished with plays.

“Two Evees?” Raine laughed. “Oh damn, I got my work cut out for me. I have enough trouble body-guarding for one, but I’ll give it my best shot.”

Seven-Shades-of-Grumpy-Mage turned to Raine, scowling at her too, but then the illusion broke and reformed yet again.

Starched white blouse and perfectly level blonde hair, long yellow skirt and impassively cool expression on a delicate-featured face. The Princess-Mask was back and my mind reeled with confusion and embarrassment in equal measure. She extended one dry, neat hand toward Raine.

“Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight,” she said, unreadably plain. “We have met before, but proper introductions are in order.”

Raine laughed and shrugged, but she shook Sevens’ hand while I looked on, speechless.

“A handshake after you steal my girl?” Raine asked, shaking her head as if impressed. “You got guts, I’ll give you that.”

“Not stolen. I have nothing but respect for you.”

Raine blew out a theatrically uncertain breath, but Sevens was already turning away, toward Praem. She offered her hand to the doll-demon and Praem took it without complaint, apparently utterly unruffled by the spiritual wardrobe switching.

“Sevens, stop,” I managed, but she was already turning to Evelyn.

“Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight, madam mage,” she introduced herself all over again, hand out.

Evelyn just scowled at her, eyes flicking between the rest of us. “I cannot believe you lot are stupid enough to listen to this.”

“No trick,” said Sevens. “No trap. No trust?”

“Trust an Outsider,” Evelyn hissed sarcasm.

“You are angry and bitter because you were afraid for Heather,” said Seven-Shades-of-Far-Too-Perceptive. “And jealous because she is your best friend, yet I got to see her and support her through an ordeal. You are made no lesser by this; she does love you. But you already trust Outsiders, and worse.”

Evelyn managed to keep most of the blush off her cheeks by staring Sevens down. When she took the hand of the Yellow Princess, she visibly squeezed too hard, or at least tried to, but Sevens gave no sign of pain.

“Thank you for having me,” said Sevens.

“Stop, stop! Sevens, stop!” I finally blurted out as she stepped back from Evelyn. “Sevens, I told you, you don’t have to put on masks like this if you don’t want to.”

“And what if I want to?” she asked me, cool and collected.

“ … then … I … nobody here is going to reject you if you wear your emotions on your sleeve.” I spread my arms and my tentacles, though Raine and Evelyn couldn’t see the latter. “If they do, they’ll have me to answer to.”

A tiny sigh from the Yellow Beauty. “You prefer me this way. This is your preference, kitten.”

Kitten?” Raine echoed, deliciously amused.

Perhaps Sevens had expected that to bowl me over, render me speechless, shut down the argument and allow her to retreat into her mirror-house of false selves once again. But she had me wrong. She’d been having me wrong all this time.

“My preferences do not — and should not — determine who you are!” I yelled at her, though the princess did not so much as blink. “I don’t need you to be this … this … ”

“Dommy mommy princess vibe,” Raine supplied. “Niiiiiice.”

“I— what?” I boggled at Raine. “But yes, yes, that, I suppose. I don’t need you to be that, Sevens. I already went through this with Raine. And I already have her.”

“Heeeey, thanks,” Raine said with a grin. Evelyn looked like she wanted to pull out her own teeth.

“You do,” said Sevens.

“If you’re going to do this,” I carried on before I could unpack what that might mean, “then you may as well just wear a copy of Raine instead — and don’t. Don’t do that. I want to know you, Sevens, not whatever front you feel you have to put up. Raine and Evelyn, and yes, Praem too, they’re basically my family. If you meant this,” I grabbed a fistful of the yellow robes, “then they’re—”

I bit off the words. Then they’re yours too.

“Drop the act,” I finished. “Please.”

“Yeah, hey,” Raine said, “don’t wear my face, if it’s all the same to you? One of a kind, can’t touch this.”

Evelyn rolled her eyes.

“Heather,” said the Yellow Daughter, slow and calm. “I know what you are about to say to your family here. I am not certain I can endure it in any other form. My comfortable mask — for it is too a mask — will surely wish for the ground to swallow her. It will hurt.”

“What do you mean, what I’m about to say?”

Seven-Shades-of-Superlative-Subtlety took a pinch of my yellow robes between thumb and forefinger. My mind caught up with hers. I hiccuped, loud and painful.

“Oh … well … I … I have to tell them. I do.”

“Look after me, please,” said Sevens.

And then she was the blood-goblin again, quicker than I could blink. She hid against my side, burying her face, trying hard not to hyperventilate.

Everyone was looking at me, Evelyn vaguely unimpressed, Raine deeply amused, Praem unreadable. The only one who didn’t care was the forest-knight; in fact, he hadn’t moved or reacted at all in minutes. He’d seen it all before.

I took a pinch of the yellow robes between thumb and forefinger. “This was a … a … gift. From Sevens. It … um.” I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. “I suppose I better start at the beginning.”

“You better,” Evelyn hissed.

“Hey,” Raine said, still jovial, but bubbling beneath with a dangerous undercurrent. I was shaking when I opened my eyes, expecting to see her gaze boring back into me, real jealousy revealed, hard and ugly and undeniable — and justified.

But she was pointing at Evelyn.

“I’m the one who sleeps with her,” Raine said to Evelyn, “and I say it’s fine. I trust Heather. Alright?”

Evelyn rolled her eyes and threw up her hands in surrender.

“But hey, Yellow.” Raine turned back to Sevens and me. “You and I need to get to know each other.”

“We can talk about this,” I said quickly, desperately avoiding the actual subject.

“Yeah,” Raine said, so very reasonable. “We sure can. Hey, relax. I trust you. You haven’t shagged her yet, right?”

“Nooo! As if we had time for that!”

“And you don’t have to spill it all right now. I get the jist, it’s cool.” Raine smiled, so confident and sweet, so unbreakable. But I knew the truth, I knew who this was for, and I had a duty to Raine too. “You’ve been on your feet for, what, nineteen hours?”

“Minus a nap,” I said.

“Minus a nap, pfffft, yeah, you need to sit down and have something to eat, and maybe a bath?”

“No.” I shook my head. “I have things to tell you, things you have a right to know.”

“But you didn’t bonk her?”

“There’s things more important than sex!” I squeaked. I grabbed a handful of the robes. “Sevens gave me this when Lozzie and I confronted the Eye inside Badger’s head. It was the only reason I survived. She had to give it to me. It was the only way. It was non-physical before, but when she saved me Outside, it … turned real.”

Sevens herself shivered and shook against my side. Raine caught the meaning in my voice, something below my words themselves; she didn’t try to interrupt. Evelyn seemed to get it before I said it, her eyes going wide in shock for a split second before she put her face in her palm.

“It’s a marriage proposal,” I managed through a closing throat. “And now I’ve met her father. The King in Yellow. He approved.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

any mortal thing – 14.18

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“No, you’re not really him.” I couldn’t keep the shiver out of my voice. “Not really.”

The King in Yellow sighed through a dead man’s lips. He tilted his chin down, as if to look at me over the rim of an imaginary pair of glasses. Alexander Lilburne’s visage wore a note of ostentatious boredom.

“Well, no,” he drawled. “Not literally. Not by your categorically inadequate definition of ‘the real’. But the events which happen on stage, when in role, really do happen. The motions of muscle and sinew are not fake, the sound of spoken words are not hallucination; the dagger in the night may indeed be made of rubber, but the fist which grips it is real flesh. But that’s not the branch of philosophy we’re here to discuss, is it?” He gestured at the empty chair with one yellow-bandaged hand. “You have had an exceptionally long journey to reach this point. No need to tire your feet further. Please, Lavinia, do sit down.”

“I told you not to call me that,” I hissed through clenched teeth.

Wrong response. Alexander’s sick amusement returned like a sunburst from behind the clouds. He showed his teeth and raised his eyebrows, relishing my irritation and discomfort.

I matched his stare. My tentacles itched to reach across the coffee table, yank him out of his chair, and throttle the life from him, or pluck his limbs off, or punch through the thin bone of his skull to scramble his brains with hook and claw. Abyssal instinct screamed incoherent urges to sink my teeth into his throat or jam my thumbs into his eyes. My bioreactor quivered, trying to shed control rods in preparation for a fight. I slipped my hands deeper into the warm yellow darkness of Sevens’ robes so he wouldn’t see them shaking. My body recalled killing this foe once before and it was ready to do so again.

Except this wasn’t Alexander Lilburne; this was the King in Yellow, and he was more than capable of defending himself against something like me.

Keeping that fact in mind was difficult, to say the least.

“ … wait,” I managed, trying to stay focused on why I was here in the first place. “Are you responsible for all this? For Alexander’s revenge? For the dead hands? For … ”

The King in Yellow managed to make his Alexander-mask look so unimpressed that the real man himself would have admitted defeat. He looked at me like I was a particularly dim child who’d just eaten a pound of glue and chased it with a pair of scissors.

“No,” I murmured. “No, the hands started long before I met Sevens, right after Lozzie saved me from Wonderland. Unless you’ve been watching me this whole time, it couldn’t possibly be you.”

Alexander-in-Yellow raised his bandaged hands and gave me a derisively delicate round of applause, fingertips against palm. His smug smile made me want to spit at him, but the clapping itself was stiff and artificial, as if the bandaged body had not quite caught up with the transformation of the face. Was he like Sevens when I’d first met her? An imitation head on an Outsider body?

“Well done, Lavinia,” he said. “You see? You can get there when you try. The phenomenon which interrupts your clever trick of stepping between worlds has nothing to do with me. I am merely wearing the visage of the cause. And such a visage it is, too. Why, just look at him.” The King spread both hands either side of Alexander’s face, striking a self-consciously noble, upward-angled pose, like a bust of a Roman senator. He ran a hand through his thick blonde hair. “This chin, this nose, these lips. This man should have been a real leader, not a con artist and a cannibal, feeding on his fellows. If I’d had my hands on him, I would have molded him into a man worth the tyrant’s death you gave him.”

“Why wear his face?” I asked. In the secret back rooms of my mind, I already knew.

The King tutted. “Lavinia, come now. That question is beneath your intelligence. Playing dumb will not get you far with me.”

I shook my head, so disgusted I could feel acid reflux at the base of my throat. “This is too accurate, this … this method acting, is that what it is? It’s vile. It’s obscene. I killed this man, you … your majesty.” I couldn’t keep the sarcasm out of my voice. “And you’re making me talk to him again? I mean, yes, I can guess why, I’m not completely stupid, but … ” Saldis’ words rang in my mind, her explanation of what the dead hands really were. “I can’t forgive him. I can’t do that.”

His-Smugness-of-Yellow nodded along, smile cutting deeper than I’d known possible.

“Indeed,” he purred.

I let out a sigh that shuddered with both anger and anxiety, trying to keep a tight grip on my temper, my instincts, and the sandwiches in my stomach, which now sat like cold lead in my guts. I forced my gaze away from the King, away from Alexander’s memory, and looked out at the crowd of 1920s-era cosplayers in their ring around the edge of the circular white room.

A few of them were watching us, but only with an occasional disinterested glance over their drinks. We didn’t present much spectacle compared with the three attractions the King had put on for them — Saldis telling a roaring tale of going a-viking, her three rats the darlings of her listeners; the forest-knight locked in an endless dance of combat with yellow tentacles, showing off his skills with his axe; Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight scuttling about and chattering through her needle-teeth as she repositioned and recombined the actresses in her web of imaginary sapphic romance.

Sevens’ voice seemed so far away, like I was standing backstage.

“This is not a good first impression of my … ” I swallowed and steeled myself. “Of my future father-in-law.”

The King in Yellow shrugged with every ounce of Alexander’s self-importance. He gestured at the chair again. “Sit, please. We have so much to discuss.”

Fighting my disgust, I yanked the chair out with one tentacle and sat down, gathering the mass of Sevens’ yellow robes and smoothing them over my backside as I lowered myself into the chair. I managed to keep my eyes locked with the King, but unfortunately he did not care; his imitation of Alexander’s superiority complex was far too complete. Once I was settled, I fought against the urge to slip my squid-skull mask on over my head — somewhere deep down, I knew this was an unfair contest. If I wore my mask, I would forfeit my opportunity.

“I’ve taken the liberty of making you some coffee,” he said, his smile giving away the game, the set, the match, the whole damn sport. He nodded at the steaming cup on my side of the little plastic table. “I didn’t know if you prefer it black, or heavily sugared, or with milk, so I went with the safe option. Mediocre.” He rolled his eyes. “Boring, but safe.”

“I thought you knew everything about me,” I said, trying to sneer.

Alexander’s eyebrows shot up in carefully controlled surprise. “Why, no. That’s my daughter’s prerogative. I have no interest in stories such as yours, not beyond the proficiency of their technical execution. You and I do not know each other yet, that is the point of this friendly chat. However, I do know that you were bold enough to stand up to me when I wore my armour and carried a sword. Which is why I’ve done my homework, and … voila!” He gestured at his face again.

Hope fluttered behind my ribs. He said it with Alexander’s cloying, oily tones, which invited suspicion and derision, but that was actual praise. How much could I trust?

“You mean Hast—” I cut myself off, biting my lips before I could say the full name.

Alexander laughed at my expense, a stomach-churning sound. He tapped the coffee table with his fingertips. “Hastur, yes. I was impressed, oh, quite, very impressed. Very few beings attempt to defy that. Humans, lesser still. Most would run, screaming, fouling themselves, mere bit-parts to be quickly discarded or used to illustrate some point. A few might get down on their hands and knees and profess their allegiance. But you? You threatened to give me indigestion. That’s front-of-stage material.”

“I’ve been swallowed by worse.”

He smiled and it was all Alexander. All smug self-importance, the look of a man sizing up a prospect to be flattered just enough to ensnare and exploit.

I couldn’t stop myself. I opened my mouth wide and hissed at him.

He just took it, raising his eyebrows and smiling all the wider. When I finished, panting and glowering, he gestured at the coffee again.

“Please, don’t hold back on my account,” he said.

I didn’t even bother looking down at the steaming coffee. “When the real Alexander offered me a drink, it was probably drugged. And I didn’t fall for it then either.”

“Very smart. Very sensible.”

“I am not the same creature I was when I sat at the real version of this table,” I said slowly, letting my tentacles drift outward from inside Sevens’ yellow robes, allowing the hint of a hiss into my words from my twisted, knotted throat. In truth, I did not feel one hundredth as intimidating as I was trying to look. I was a fragile insect trying to flare the imitation snake-eyes on my wings; but this predator was too canny, too intelligent. He saw through everything.

“Hello, not the same creature,” said Bastard-in-Yellow, “I’m dad.”

All my fronting slammed to a halt, mouth hanging open. “ … did … you just … what?”

“Indeed, you are not the same creature you were back then,” the King continued seamlessly after his awful joke. He reached across the table with one bandaged hand and picked up the steaming cup of coffee. As he sat back, Alexander’s mannerisms flowed through his bandaged body, shoulders flexing, one leg crossed over the other, relaxing into a pose of unassailable confidence. He took a long sip of the coffee and smacked his lips. “You have become so much more, Lavinia. After all, when you spoke to the real Alexander at this table, you were not yet a murderer.”

Murderer. He drew the word out, savouring the three syllables like caviar, watching me for the slightest reaction.

I didn’t give him any satisfaction — I looked away, toward Sevens in her weird little blood-goblin mask, scuttling about between her lesbian volunteers. She didn’t return my gaze, too lost in her father’s trick, but I caught a flash of those huge red-black eyes like shadowed rubies, that strangely wide mouth full of tiny sharp teeth, those delicate cheekbones and petite nose. Her bare arms and legs vibrated with energy, like she was mainlining caffeine, cocaine, and cortisol all at once.

I’m not sure why I looked away from the King. What was the point? I knew what he was up to, and what he was trying to get me to do. I knew what this was about. I knew and acknowledged and accepted that I had committed murder. Furthermore, he was wrong in one important detail. He didn’t have me complete. Did he not know?

“This is cruel,” I said. “You know that?”

“Oh, Lavinia,” he sighed with Alexander’s voice, losing patience. “Cruelty is hardly my intention. If I was being cruel, would I have invited you to a friendly sit down? You cannot even imagine what cruelty from me looks like, you—”

“Not this.” I turned back to him and tapped the table with the tip of one tentacle. “That.”

I pointed out at the crowd, our uninvited and unexpected audience. I pointed at Saldis and the forest-knight, at the silently laughing onlookers, the ones making bets, the ones whispering to each other, the ones clapping with delight. But mostly I pointed at Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight.

Lilburne-in-Yellow raised his eyebrows at me. He knew exactly what I meant, the worm, but he was going to make me say it anyway. He wanted to make me say it out loud.

“Ah? Cruel?”

“Yes,” I hissed. “It’s cruel. To put people on display against their will. Saldis, well, probably not her. I’ll bet she’s having the time of life right now. The knight, you’re probably stressing him out, though I don’t know him well enough to be sure. But Sevens?” I shook my head, anger building inside my gut, a head of steam making ready to burst. “You’re mocking her. If that’s how you treat your own daughter, how you treat her passions, the meaning of her life, then perhaps you really are just like Alexander. Perhaps I should pulverise you like I did to him. I’ve stared down the Eye, your majesty. I know how to observe truth. What will I see if I turn that look on you?”

Alexander’s smug amusement drained away, leaving behind a cold landscape of wordless arrogance. I had offended him with that, with a threat that I suddenly realised was not a bluff.

“Are you prepared for what you might see?” he asked, unsmiling. “There is no little man behind the curtain.”

“Stop treating her like that,” I hissed. “Or I’ll claw your face off.”

Kingly Alexander held my gaze for three heartbeats — perhaps waiting to see if I would really do it. I let my tentacles twitch outward, I pulled a control rod out of my bioreactor, and I tensed up to spring out of my chair and across the table, ready to give it everything I had yet again, to defend a friend — or more? — from this abusive monster, even if he was only a mask. A hyperdimensional equation suggested itself in the back of my mind, whispered to me: see.

But before I could pull the trigger, Alexander sighed and looked away. He raised one hand in the air, moving it from side to side to cover the whole room as he clicked his fingers three times. How he clicked his fingers wrapped in bandages, I had no idea.

His clicking got the attention of his yellow children, the entire audience. Hundreds of faces paused and looked toward him.

“Leave,” he said, voice filling the white room. He waggled a pair of fingers at the far side, where we had entered earlier. “Go on, out. Off you go.”

I was expecting them to vanish like dawn mist, like the illusory projections they were. But a chorus of disappointment rippled through the crowd, faces falling, frowns blossoming, big sighs and over-dramatic shrugs and performative stomps. Some gestured toward the display of their choice — most of those were watching the forest-knight’s gladiatorial showdown, though to my eyes the fight was locked in a never-ending stalemate. A few even opened their mouths and began to voice complaints, the first they’d spoken out loud since their chants of “No mask!”

“But father—”

“You can’t be serious!”

“We’ve only just begun—”

“Dear Seven is going to solve this one, I know it, I—”

The King in Yellow clicked his fingers again and jabbed toward the door which had appeared in the white surface of the curving wall. “Now. You will leave.

In his words I caught the faintest hint of the magical compulsion that the real Alexander had used in life, when we’d faced him on the battlements of his grey jade castle, and later when he’d tried to bring Lozzie back to his side. It hadn’t worked well for him then, but the King in Yellow held an authority that Alexander could only have dreamed of. As one his yellow family gave up on the triple show. Drinks were drained, currency changed hands, arms were linked and kisses given and off they went in one great departing wave, sulking and striding and strutting out of the white doors, into the corridor barely visible beyond. Some of them tossed me winks or meaningful nods or just shook their heads. A few of the women blew me kisses. One particularly ancient old man — who was not an old man at all, I had to remind myself — saluted me with a mahogany walking stick, in utter sombre respect.

The King in Yellow clicked his fingers a couple of times more, still holding his hand high over his own head.

“Orbit, Melancholy, Steel,” he said, “you three stay. I may have need of you.”

Three figures detached themselves from the departing crowd, though I saw that all three had not been making the best effort to leave in the first place, perhaps expecting this retroactive summons. The three resumed their places around the edge of the circular white room, roughly equidistant. I recognised Melancholy — she still wore the same face as earlier, brown and weathered and more than a little grumpy, though I hadn’t spotted her in the crowd, dressed in a simple, unflattering black dress from throat to ankle. Perhaps my nap in Sevens’ bed had given her time to return from her trip to the library.

I had no idea who ‘Orbit’ and ‘Steel’ were. One appeared to be a small boy with an ugly smirk on his face, the kind of smirk that told you he’d just tortured a puppy to death. He was dressed in a tiny dinner suit, blonde hair slicked back, slightly overweight. The other was an older lady who looked more like she should be commanding troops on a battlefield than dressed for a party, with close-cropped grey hair and a severe, strict expression, hands clasped behind a very straight back, eyes forward, feet planted.

The rest of the audience finished filing out. A young man with messy hair was the last through the doors. He turned on his heel and pulled them shut behind him with a wistful sigh.

The doors vanished, sealing us inside the white ballroom. Then Melancholy, Orbit, and Steel all changed.

Melancholy didn’t surprise me. In the blink of an eye she was the grand sphinx once more, ten or eleven feet of feline muscle settling down on her haunches to watch the unfolding drama. She caught my eye with her electric yellow gaze, rumbling a deep purr and blinking once in recognition, but offering no encouragement.

The horrible little boy was replaced by a creature which I swear was just a five-foot rectangle of yellow sponge, but then he seemed to change his mind, becoming something not unlike a centaur — if a centaur was one third praying mantis, one third slug, and one third chimpanzee. Slime-coated yellow muscle flowed into bristly arms and green plates, topped by a head with twitching antennae and massive compound eyes. Whatever it was, it was barely Outsider, could have easily been a spirit back on Earth.

The severe older woman, however, donned a true nightmare.

Humanoid, wrapped in a black carapace, shiny like a beetle; tall as Zheng, but all angular and sharp, as if skin was pulled taut around ribcage and hips and every bone of the limbs. All tooth and claw, a living bundle of black razor blades. Elongated head, smooth and black, no eyes. Strangler’s hands. Tail like an anchor-chain tipped with a blade as big as a spade. It curled up on its haunches, squatting like an ape, but moving with the grace and fluidity of a serpent.

As pure visual data it was no more disturbing than half the pneuma-somatic life I saw on a regular basis, but something about this creature was different. The hairs stood up on the back of my neck, my bowels clenched in terror, and my tentacles drew into a protective ball around my core. The thing clearly showed it was relaxed, squatting and watching, but a hiss rose in my throat all the same, prompted by a desperate need to signal that I was not prey and I would fight back.

But it was right next to Sevens. She was still chattering on to herself, adjusting her actresses, currently deciding the exact angle at which two of them would kiss. She didn’t even notice the grim reaper crouched next to her.

Abyssal instinct started to scream: that thing had to die, right now, as quickly as possible. I couldn’t even take my eyes off it, because it might move, and somehow I knew that when it did, it would move so very fast. I would lose track of it and it might scoop up Sevens and Sevens was so very small, smaller than me, and could not defend herself. That thing was an infection, a plague; it had to die.

I started to jerk forward out of my chair, skin blossoming with toxins, tentacles plating themselves with molecule-thick iridium and silicon.

“No,” drawled the King in Yellow, most unimpressed. I flinched round to hiss at him, but discovered he was not talking to me. “Steel, no,” he repeated.

The horrible man-beetle-death-thing gave a low hiss to rival one of my own. I bristled and hissed back, but then Steel obeyed her father. In a flicker, the unacceptable aberration was gone, replaced by an actual human — the same grey-haired, strict-looking woman who had stood there before, but dressed in lumpy, shapeless, brown military fatigues. She raised an eyebrow at the King.

“You are here to provide a counterpoint,” he told her, “not antagonise our guest into a life-or-death fight. Have I made myself clear?”

“That is my counterpoint,” she said, voice hard and clipped, not quite human.

Yellow-Alexander pursed his lips, most displeased.

Steel rolled her eyes, but she nodded.

The King in Yellow turned back to me at last. I eased back into my chair, swallowing down the dregs of the killing instinct. With Steel back to her human mask, the desperate need to defend Sevens drained away, surprising me with its intensity. But the dregs of adrenaline still sluiced through my bloodstream.

“Better?” Alexander asked, spreading both bandaged hands to indicate the whole room.

I managed a nod. “Yes. Thank you.”

“I do apologise, Lavinia. It’s this mask.” He let out a haughty sigh, taking another sip from the coffee on the table. The cup hadn’t stopped steaming. “I’ve been wearing it for hours, you see, ever since you stood up to Hastur.” The King gestured at his own face — at Alexander’s face. “He was an exceptionally cruel man, wasn’t he? Classical sociopathic sadist, even if he told himself otherwise.”

“He was,” I answered tightly, still trying to bring my tentacles back in and slow my racing heart.

“Do you think he really believed his own justifications? Was he working to protect humankind, by leaving it behind?”

“I … I don’t know,” I admitted. It was the truth. “I don’t think it mattered, in the end.”

He nodded, slow and smug. “You’ve had your fun, Lavinia—”

“Stop calling me that.”

“Then stop avoiding the subject,” he snapped, suddenly angry, no longer amused — Alexander’s loss of control at loss of face. “You killed me, Lavinia. Little Lavinny. You became a murderer, because of me. Was it worth it?”

“I was a murderer before I killed you,” I said before I could stop myself. “Him. Before I killed him, I mean. You’re not Alexander, not really.”

“Ahhhhhh yes,” Alexander purred, steepling his bandaged hands together. A new kind of smile crested his face: the smile of a successful flanking. He’d expected me to say that, damn him, he did know everything. “The young initiate I sent with Amy Stack, to deliver your invitation to the real version of this friendly little chat. As I seem to recall, you killed him in one of the most horrible ways possible, a fate not even a dog should suffer.”

“I sent him Outside,” I admitted — and my voice cracked as I said it.

For a moment my mind returned to that dirty back alleyway, and to my ill-considered trip to the bookshop in the centre of Sharrowford, unprotected, unaccompanied, without Raine, before my tentacles, before the abyss. I’d run into Twil, but Stack had lured her away and I’d been left alone to be found by one of the cultists, by Alexander’s man. For a split second my body recalled the feeling of being pinned down by somebody bigger and stronger than me, the horror of being helpless, the writhing, twisting, kicking animal sensation as I’d tried to get free. I’d had to get rid of him, get him off me. Tenny had helped, distracted him for a moment, just long enough for me to free my hand. And then I’d sent him Outside. Gone. Long before I’d gained the knowledge to pinpoint location. Even if I had known how to retrieve him, back then one forced translocation left me shaking and spent, empty and exhausted, ready to pass out. I could not have performed another.

“Tell me, Lavinia, do you even remember his name?”

“Jake,” I said without hesitation. “You said it— he said it,” I hissed my correction. “In the coffee shop, the real one. I’ve never forgotten.”

“But that wasn’t murder, was it? You don’t think of it as murder. My blood is on your hands, but only metaphorically, not literally. You killed me without even pulling a trigger, Lavinia, but still I haunt you. You dream about me sometimes, don’t you? I turn up in your nightmares, though you often forget them by dawn. But poor Jake? You don’t dream about him, and you had to touch him with your actual hand, you had to press it into his face to kill him. But it wasn’t murder.”

I tried to wet my lips, but my mouth had gone dry. “It was a murder, technically it—”

“Technically? No, manslaughter at best. Any jury in the land — well, not this land, I mean England — would take one look at you and one look at him and rule in your favour. Reasonable force, belief in imminent attack, all that. No. It wasn’t murder.”

“It was self-defence,” I squeaked.

“Exactly,” Alexander pressed, smiling wide with victory. “And I wasn’t?”

“I mean it was a reflex!” I snapped, losing my temper, losing my cool, everything flooding out. “I wanted him off me, so I sent him elsewhere, but I didn’t mean to kill—”

I slammed to a stop. Alexander leaned back, smiling like a cat with a mouse trapped between his paws.

“But you did mean to kill me,” he said.

“Yes. Obviously, yes!” I turned away, angry and humiliated, having to admit this to the face of the man I’d murdered. I sought refuge in Sevens instead, her diminutive form scuttling about between her living dolls. She was totally absorbed, enjoying every second — not as fun, but as the creative flow of somebody doing what they really loved. That grounded me for a second, brought me back, gave me something to hold onto. I huddled down inside her yellow robes, warm as sunlight on my shoulders. I was shivering.

“Do you regret it?” Alexander asked.

I opened my mouth to answer, then closed it again. I focused on Sevens as hard as I could.

“Would you kill again, to protect your friends?” he went on. “Your family? Your lovers? Your sister?”

“Of course I would,” I said, still staring at Sevens to keep my head clear. “I had to. You were a monster, Alexander. If there had been another way, if I could have put you in prison for life, have you make some kind of restitution, then maybe I would have done that instead. But I’ll never know. Because you didn’t give me a chance.”

“Oh?” he asked, his mocking tone a twisted knife in my gut. “So I am responsible for my own murder? I am both victim and perpetrator? You said it yourself, Lavinia, there were other ways. You chose to kill me, to murder me, when you had other choices. You chose.”

“You were going to kill me and my friends.” I turned back to him at last, the heat in my chest like a runaway nuclear reaction, burning bright and hot and destructive in ways I couldn’t track anymore. “You were giving Zheng a command. We wouldn’t have stood a chance.”

“You don’t know that,” he said, calm and cool. “Perhaps I was freeing her, like a final wish for a genie.” He laughed, well aware of the absurdity of his own words.

I swallowed hard, surprised to find a lump in my throat. My hands were shaking and my head was throbbing. Was this what it felt like to confront a person you’d murdered? Even a monster like Alexander Lilburne? There were no psychological guidelines for this, no tried and tested coping mechanisms. No coping mechanisms at all. Nobody in all history had done this before, not outside of dreams and nightmares and waking hallucinations.

This isn’t really him, I told myself.

“Is this … ” I croaked, had to clear my throat. “Is this all to get me to forgive him, so I can overcome the dead hands? Because I can’t forgive him. I can’t—”

“No, not particularly,” drawled the King in Yellow, suddenly Alexander but bored with all this. He leaned back with a sigh, all amusement gone. The tonal whiplash was too much, too unrealistic; I’d barely known Alexander, not for real, but in that moment I glimpsed the Yellow Ocean behind the mask, the player beneath the role, the man in charge.

I blinked at him. “ … what? But I—”

“We can conclude this right here. End this whole charade, this farce, this poorly written slapstick comedy. The nature of your tale does not interest me, Lavinia. My personal expertise, my art, my brilliance — is all in tragedies.” He allowed a thin smile to creep back onto his face. “And a particular kind of tragedy too, not the futile grubbing of worms in the poisonous dirt, but the tragedy of greatness brought low by its own flaws, blinded by lust for power, by ambition. I deal in great men devouring their own intestines, not … whatever you are.”

I puffed out a humourless laugh. “So what, you prefer King Lear? Would you be more interested if I gouged out my own eyeballs?”

A note of interest sparked in Alexander’s eyes, quiet and sudden and very still. “Will you?”

“No.”

He laughed too, a derisive snort. “I thought not. Well then, Lavinia. I have a deal to offer you.”

“A deal?”

“A deal, a contract, a royal writ. I can solve your problem, these so-called ‘dead hands’ which grasp at your ankles and block your path.” As he spoke, the King in Yellow began to unwrap the bandages from his right hand, starting with his index finger. I expected to see the soft palm and manicured fingernails of Alexander Lilburne, but the yellow bandages fell away to reveal flesh the colour of dying sunlight. No wrinkles, no fingernails, no little hairs on the knuckles — just smooth gold, glowing softly from within like the banked heart of a star.

“And I do not merely mean to brush them aside,” he continued as he revealed the hand. “I will brush them aside for all time, for you and Lauren Lilburne alike, and any other miscreants you care to pick up. I will remove the issue. You need not raise a finger but to shake my hand.” He finished the unwrapping process and held out the hand of the King, halfway across the coffee table.

My breath stopped in my throat. One of my tentacles twitched, but I controlled the impulse. “Alexander tried to make a deal with me too.”

The King in Yellow split Alexander’s face in a grin so smug it made me nauseated. “That he did, didn’t he?”

Then he waited. I rolled my eyes. “What’s the catch?”

“Shake my hand, take my deal — and Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight cannot go with you.”

A sheet of ice settled in my stomach. “Ah.”

At the edge of the white room, Melancholy tossed her great sphinx’s head, mane ruffling in the air, and snorted through her nose. Steel, still closest to Sevens, sighed with a long-suffering exasperation. Orbit, the boy who had turned into the slug-centaur, made a sound like wet gravel poured into sewage — a laugh.

“You will remove that cloak.” The King nodded at my warm yellow robes, Sevens’ portable embrace, her symbol of affection. “And hand it over to me. It was, after all, never hers to give, not really.”

Something hard and spiky bristled inside me. “Sevens is an adult, as far as I understand, she—”

“She is, but this is a royal family, after all. Inheritance and all that. She is making a youthful mistake and it is my duty as her father to correct her. Don’t worry yourself, she won’t come to any harm.” He smiled, still speaking with a reasonable and mild tone, Alexander with the knowledge that he’d already won. The lie dripped from the gaps between his words. “I’m not going to lock her in her room or take away her possessions or force her into some partnership she doesn’t want. I’m not going to backhand her across her face as soon as you’re out of the picture.”

“Says you,” I snapped. “I can’t believe this. She’s free to make her own decisions.”

“She is making a mistake.” He nodded at the yellow hand, extended halfway between us. “All this deal will do is ensure the pain is minimal. That it happens at home, where she is surrounded by her family. That it is early on in the process, not late, not deep, not scarring. After all, you’ve already done enough damage, haven’t you?”

“Excuse me?”

“You have forced her against her own nature. Twice now.”

I stared for a moment, with nothing to say to that. I was caked in cold sweat, shivering despite the comfort of the yellow robes. I glanced down at the golden hand waiting for my assent. Tried to slow my thoughts, tried to step back from the situation and think it through. The King in Yellow loved tragedies. Would he sacrifice his own daughter for the sake of a play? Or was it all a lie, was I on the stage right now? I looked over at Sevens, playing with her dolls, but she was insensible to all this.

“This is obviously a test,” I murmured, nothing obvious about it.

Alexander sighed, so unimpressed he was getting bored. “No, the deal is quite real,” he drawled, flexing the fingers of the golden-yellow hand. “This is not Alexander’s, this is the hand of the king. Open your true eye and check if you must, little watcher. You of all beings should be able to verify that.”

I whirled back to him. “Little watcher?”

He shrugged.

“What does that mean?” I pressed. “Is that a term you made up just now, or have you seen something like me before?”

The King in Yellow shook his head. “I told you already, Lavinia, I am not interested in your tale. For you, there is only this deal, this way out. In fact, this is a step too far in the first place, I shouldn’t even really be offering it. I am indirectly helping you in your struggle. But if it will get you to go away, then that is a fair price, and I must pay it like all others.” He sighed, as if affronted at this ‘fair price.’ “Besides, you cannot seriously think that a human being, even one as changed as you, is a suitable romantic partner for one of us?”

“You took a human woman as your wife.”

I blurted it out before I could stop myself, the words tripping off my tongue.

Alexander’s smug, oily smile drained away, replaced by the truth beneath — the cold anger of narcissism challenged. The King was not impressed by my bleating. Despite how far I’d come, despite every change I’d gone through, despite my tentacles and my bioreactor and my yellow cloak and the fact I’d killed this man once before, suddenly I was back there, not in the coffee shop, but in the moment I’d confronted Alexander in his castle, right at the second before I’d killed him. Except this time there was no Lozzie at my side, no hyperdimensional equation burning and ready, no friends coming to rescue me.

“Do as I say, not as I do,” he said.

“So you’re not just a sadist, you’re also a hypocrite,” I managed to squeeze out.

“Lavinia, you do not love my daughter. Not really.”

I had no clever answer to that.

Guilt twisted inside my chest like a parasite made of knives and acid. He — Alexander, the King in Yellow, whatever was speaking — was correct. I did not love Sevens. Did I even respect her? Did I have a single shred of respect for the value and fragility and tenderness of what she felt for me? I barely even understood it; how could I possibly return those feelings?

The King in Yellow was offering me a significant advantage, the removal of an obstacle which stood between me and Maisie, even if I found some other way of getting home in the meantime. The deal would bring me that much closer to my goals: it would get me home, it would ensure Lozzie’s safety. It would take me back to Raine and Evelyn and Zheng, everything I loved. And all I had to give up was the love of a being I didn’t even really understand, the affection of a woman so complex and contradictory that her feelings for me had already damaged her fundamental nature.

All I had to do was shake the King’s hand. That was the sensible thing. The rational choice. The safe decision.

My right arm twitched.

“What is it to be, Lavinia?”

“Shut up,” I hissed.

Abyssal ruthlessness was silent. This was a higher-order function. But I barely functioned at the best of times.

Everything the King had said in Alexander’s voice was disgusting — not just because Sevens was my friend, but on principle as well: that she didn’t have the right to decide for herself, that her love was not her own to give, that father knew best. I turned to stare at Sevens. She scuttled about between her dolls, a weird little twisted thing all mushroom-pale skin and hot obsession.

I wanted to protect that creature. An ugly duckling full of passion and delight. There was something supremely beautiful about her like that.

But even that was not the real her. Even that was a mask. The real her was abyssal. The King’s domination and abuse would not be remotely human, not even physical, material, not here — so not valid?

All of this, even the deal, even his words, were play and pretend. That was what these yellow beings were. Play and pretend.

And suddenly I knew what to do. He’d said it himself.

We are what we pretend to be.

I whipped out one tentacle and slapped away the King’s golden hand.

“Don’t insult me,” I hissed.

Heart in my throat, lead in my belly, adrenaline surging through my veins, I managed to sound an awful lot more confident than I felt. Bioreactor thrumming, legs ready to throw myself out of the chair, I was prepared to fight over this — over Sevens. Abyssal instinct zeroed the path between me and Sevens as I hatched a plan to sprint to her, scoop her up, and take us elsewhere, anywhere, any other Outside dimension — before Steel could turn back into that death-beetle-thing and reach her first at the King’s snapped command.

But to my incredible relief, the King started laughing.

Sadly, it was Alexander’s laugh, an oily, self-satisfied chuckle, with narrowed eyes of mocking disbelief. He withdrew his offered hand and picked up the coffee instead, taking a long sip to douse his laughter.

“It’s not funny,” I snapped.

“It’s not, of course it’s not! Oh, Lavinia, courage is never comedic,” he said in a tone dripping with sarcasm. He placed the coffee back down with exaggerated care. I was fired up now; I wanted to slap him across the face as well. One of my tentacles twitched in that direction, and he mockingly raised a hand ready to bat it away, as if playing with a feisty kitten. “Oh, Morell. Would you have taken a deal if the real Alexander had offered you one?”

I hissed through my teeth, aching to hit him. “What? What sort of deal? What are you talking about?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” He gestured airily with his unwrapped golden hand. “Say, free passage home for you and your friends? Plus, of course, an iron-hard certainty that he would cease all his experiments, never raise a finger again, never touch a single hair on some poor runaway’s head.” Alexander’s voice hardened as he spoke, springing the trap. “Would you have let him live?”

“ … I … no. No, he had to die. He had to. Everything he’d done, and with Lozzie, he—”

“So it was revenge?” His words were hard now, flying at me like spears as he leaned forward over the table, eyes boring into me. “You are judge, jury, and executioner?”

“Not revenge, no. Everything he was doing in that castle, his cult, the dead children, all of it was wrong, he had to—”

“Did you have that right?”

I blinked, frowning hard, feeling like I was sinking in quicksand. “Right? Right doesn’t come into it. Look at what he was the head of.”

“You are so close to understanding. These things are institutional,” Alexander all but growled. “Killing one man, even a leader, does not stop the exploitation, the evil, the suffering. Is that your justification? You are not that naive, Lavinia. You grew up sheltered, but you have learned since then, from your comrades if not from books. Killing me stopped nothing, the act merely dispersed it. My uncle, Edward, he is out there right now, continuing the horror and the abuse, and you know that. And you will not kill him as easily as you ended me.”

“But, everything you were doing—”

“How many protegees have I made, even in death?” Alexander ran on, face a mask of righteous obsession. “Can you be certain Sarika will not turn, in due time? Better kill her too, yes? And all the others I taught, all the rest, they have to go as well. And what about you, what about the cult that is gathering around you? Will you be like me one day?”

“No. Never. Never, I—”

“Killing one man has not stopped the process,” he hissed.

“He had to die,” I murmured, voice shaking.

“Did you have the right?”

“Right isn’t—”

Alexander Lilburne slammed his hand down on the coffee table so hard it made the cup fall over. Brown liquid sloshed out and over the edge and onto the floor. Eyes blazing with the fury of arrogance, he shouted over me.

“Did you have the right, Lavinia!?”

I knew that goading anger too well. It was the exact same way he’d looked the moment before I’d killed him, screaming at me that I wouldn’t do it. An anger that would never admit defeat, never admit wrong doing, never admit what it really was.

“Killing isn’t what mattered!” I screamed in his face. “Keeping my friends alive is what mattered! That’s building something real! Something better. Not just for sentimental emotion, but for community, for mutual support, for each other. Greater than me alone. A whole.” I felt myself dial down with every word, anger leaving me like spent steam. “And to save that, you had to die.”

Alexander’s eyes bored into me.

“ … yes,” I whispered. “For that, I had the right.”

And with that, a mote of guilt left me. I’d been holding onto it all this time. A weight so tiny, so insignificant. The true meaning of the murder I’d committed.

A few stray tears rolled down my cheeks. I sniffed hard. Alexander sat back, suddenly impassive. I stared at him and did not see the King.

“I’m sorry I had to kill you,” I said. “But I don’t regret it. You can’t hurt anyone anymore. You’re dead. Just rest.”

I felt no forgiveness. Only responsibility.

The King in Yellow nodded. “Goodbye, Lavinia.”

And then there was no Alexander Lilburne. Gone quicker than I could draw breath.

Sitting in his place on the other side of the coffee table was a man I’d never seen before. Tall and gangly in an awkward and apologetic way, as if a tree had uprooted itself to relocate, but had been invited to a tea party halfway through, too polite to refuse. The yellow bandages were gone, replaced by a set of comfortable white robes and a pair of sandals on his feet.

His skin was the colour of coffee with too much milk, warm brown but rarely exposed to the sun. Perhaps middle-aged, his curly black hair showed some grey at the temples, cut short around a pair of comically large ears. A matching salt-and-pepper beard and heavy moustache were both neatly trimmed and lightly oiled, which framed a gentle mouth and an overly large nose. High, noble cheekbones highlighted thick dark eyelashes and carefully plucked brows.

The only yellow was in his soft, puppy-like eyes, with irises the colour of burning brass.

I’d never been attracted to a man — and I wasn’t then either — but even my decidedly lesbian self could tell this mask was the King in Yellow at his most handsome and approachable.

“Really?” I sighed, unimpressed.

He lit up with a warm smile which crinkled the corners of his eyes, like a friendly uncle who’d just seen me enter through a rarely used door.

“I am sorry, but it is one’s nature,” he began, in an accent which flattened all tonal stress, vaguely Middle Eastern but which I couldn’t place. “Your— ah!” He noticed the fallen coffee cup and the brown puddle still spreading across the table and the floor, quickly righting it with one long-fingered hand and fussing over the mess, though not actually bothering to wipe it up. “Ahh, I can be so clumsy, so clumsy, what a terrible display. Oh, no, no no.” He threw up his hands, laughing at himself, looking around the room to his three yellow children — Melancholy snorted, Steel pointedly ignored his silent request, and Orbit stuck out a three-foot long barbed and steaming tongue.

“But I have sent all my help away,” the king laughed. “It seems I am alone with the mess I have made.”

“That’s not a very subtle metaphor,” I blurted out, still reeling.

“Not a metaphor, not at all. Well, perhaps a little.” He shot me a wink, scooted his chair back from the puddle, and rummaged around in his robes until he produced a battered paper bag. He dug out some kind of sugar-dusted dough ball and popped it into his mouth, then held the bag out toward me, speaking as he chewed. “Would you like one?”

I stared at him, then into the bag full of baked sweets. I could barely summon the coherence to shake my head, the whiplash was too great. I tried to huddle inside Sevens’ yellow robes, folding my tentacles around me for support, clinging to the real.

“Really?” He seemed surprised. “They are delightful. Very light, very fluffy, not heavy on the stomach.”

“No. Thank you,” I grunted. He shrugged and retracted the offer, plucking out another treat for himself and chewing with relish.

All I could do was stare, my catharsis turning to rot in my belly. He’d brought me to a genuine conclusion, lifted the weight of murder from my shoulders, opened my eyes — and this was how he reacted?

“I can’t … I … how can you do this?” I asked. “Right after you were being him? What if I hadn’t done what you were waiting for? What if I hadn’t reached your desired conclusion?”

“Desired?” He blinked at me. “It was a collaboration. We were writing it together. You and I.”

“My life is not a story.”

“Every life is a story.” He smiled like an indulgent uncle, the genuine affection undeniable, battering against my outrage. “It is how we are made, how we are structured. Structure is everything, you know? It is born up here.” He tapped his forehead with his fingertips. “And we impose it on the world. Otherwise, we are animals, without narrative.”

“ … what if—” I cast about and found Sevens again, still flitting between her playthings, now in the process of making three separate couples kiss. “What if I’d decided differently? What if I’d decided to kill you? Or kidnap Sevens to save her? Because I would have done. I was inches from doing that. Would you have stopped me from writing the wrong story?”

“Oh, no. No, far from it. Then we would inhabit a very different story to the one we find ourselves in.”

I boggled at him. “Are we still in a play? Is this still your bloody stage?”

He shrugged and smiled all the wider, eyes glistening with admiration. “Not mine. Yours.”

That smile was worse than any mockery from Alexander Lilburne. The King in Yellow wore his kindly guise, but I suspected he would wear it just the same if I had been reduced to a mental breakdown, never able to overcome the reality of murder. The smile was a mask. Power lay behind it. I had narrowly avoided disaster, at nothing more than his whim.

“Then how much of what you said was true?” I demanded. “How much was an act?”

The Gentle King spread his hands and almost dropped the paper bag of sweets, making a comical recovery at the last second. I snorted a non-laugh and shook my head, disgusted at the display of slapstick harmlessness.

“What about the dead hands?” I asked. “I feel … I mean, what I felt just now, that was real, but they—”

“I think you will find no trouble from them now, miss Morell. I think Mister Lilburne’s ghost will understand.”

I tried not to thank him for that. He had not done all this for my sake, merely for his own amusement.

“Everything is a play to you people,” I hissed.

“Guilty, always guilty, yes. The play’s the thing, haha!” He spoke the laugh out loud, grinning like he’d offered me a present.

Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king?” I spat the rest of the Hamlet line back at him. “I doubt you have one. Now what about Sevens?” I demanded, pointing with one tentacle at where she continued her one-woman play. “How much of that was real? If you’re still going to confine her and stop her from—”

The Kindly Monarch in Yellow flourished one floppy white sleeve and tried to click his fingers, but the dramatic gesture was thwarted by the sugar dust all over his hand. I doubted his power relied on the sound itself, but he still fussed and tutted, licking his fingertips clean before trying again.

Click.

All at once, the three private plays across the stage of the white room came to a halt.

The forest-knight reacted with the least surprise; his duel with the endless yellow tentacles ceased as his opponent suddenly drew away in a quivering ring, then transformed back into the 1920s caricatures. Laughing and slapping each others’ shoulders, the imitation-humans linked hands and took a bow toward the knight, who was paused in the act of bringing down his axe. He held the pose for a moment, then straightened up and returned the bow. I didn’t think he was in on the play, just being polite.

The murmur of Saldis’ nautical tale stuttered out in confusion as her audience suddenly stopped paying attention. All of them turned toward the King with the look of actors interrupted by their director, eyebrows raised and hands spread in silent question, though the ones currently holding the rats kept petting and fussing over them.

Saldis looked so very crestfallen. “I … was just getting to … excuse me? Ladies and gents?”

“We’ll carry on,” one of the young women called to the King, “if that’s all the same to you, sire?”

He waved permission. Saldis got her attentive audience back, but she seemed more than a little shocked, blinking at them, at me, and at the King, as if she’d just realised she’d been hoodwinked all along.

But I didn’t have attention to spare. Sevens was tugging my heartstrings.

The moment the King clicked his fingers, Sevens’ tableau sprang out of their carefully selected poses, ruining her work in one fell swoop. They all stepped back from her with giggles on their lips, smiles hidden behind fluttering hands, making teasing eyes at each other. Sevens let out a noise like a cross between a surprised toad and a steam kettle, sprawling onto her skinny bum in shock before scrambling back to her feet, shoulders hunched and hands drawn in close to her chest.

Flushed bright red with embarrassment, showing all her needle-teeth in a grimace, black eyes bulging, she twitched and spun about with all the nervous energy of a frightened rodent. Lank and greasy hair trailed behind her. She snapped her teeth at Steel and boggled at Melancholy, then finally noticed the King in Yellow, her father.

Gurgling between her teeth, pattering on the balls of bare feet, she rushed over to him with those spindly pale legs, face burning.

“Daaaaad!” she yowled with all the force of a betrayed teenage girl, between teeth like pins. “Fuck!”

“My jungle rose,” he said, smiling that ingratiating smile. “You were wonderful, well—”

She slapped him across the head, a clumsy open-palm mash. He took it in his stride, laughing and putting up his hands in surrender.

“Fuck you! You shit!” she screeched, not amused.

Perhaps she’d forgotten I was present. Her red-black eyes flickered around, searching for more targets on which to vent her embarrassment — but then she juddered to a halt at the sight of me, mouth hinging open, eyes wide as night.

There was no time to think. If I’d thought, I would have failed. I acted on instinct.

I reached out quickly with a tentacle and grabbed one of her small, translucent-pale hands, almost curled like a claw. It was clammy and bony, but very solid.

“No!” I blurted out. “Don’t change!”

She grimaced at me, cringing so hard she almost curled up in a ball. From the back of her throat she made a hissing gurgle like some kind of sunless cave-lizard. “Nooooo—”

“Yes! Sevens, this is you as well. Look!” I squeezed with my tentacle, adding one of my actual hands too, wrapped on top of hers, clinging on hard. “Look, I’m holding your hand. Nobody is forcing me to.”

“Nnnnnnnnnn … ” She grumbled, still blushing bright red, but she didn’t run away. She didn’t change, didn’t switch to a different mask. She shuffled away from her father and got close to my side on little tip-toe footsteps, then grabbed a nervous handful of my yellow robes. She hung on tight, staring at the floor, too mortified to speak.

The King in Yellow uttered a long sigh. “I see it is too late to break this bond. As it was with myself.”

“So you really did have a human wife?” I asked.

“Did!” Sevens rasped at him. “Don’t lie!”

The King nodded. “I bound myself with that decision. I loved her, and love limited my scope, my range, my creative vision. But!” He raised a finger. “Limitation is the mother of invention. Boundaries give us shape.” He gestured at himself, then at Sevens. “You see?”

“And you don’t wish the same for your daughter?”

He sighed with undeniable sadness. “I love all my children, but few of them are mature enough to move beyond imitation, beyond plays, to change their nature in truth. The three you see here?” He gestured outward with arms wide, at Melancholy and Steel and Orbit. Melancholy yawned a cat’s yawn. Steel inclined her head, eyes narrowed, disapproving. Orbit, still a slug-centaur, clasped his ape hands together and raised them over his insectoid head in celebration. “They,” the King continued. “They are the only ones who have gone beyond plays. And two of them—” He glanced at Steel, then at Orbit, with a strange pride in his eyes, half admiration and half terrible sorrow. “Their forms of love would be alien to you. Horrifying, most likely.”

“There is no horror in bearing new life,” Steel raised her voice, cold and certain. “However it is achieved.”

The King winced slowly, with a sad smile.

“Melancholy,” he said, “she knew human beings, like I did, and she knew what she was doing. And it hurt her. But you, miss Morell, or may I call you by your first name?”

“ … if you want. Just not Lavinia.”

“Heather, then. You may live forever, if you play your pieces well. Perhaps you will be good for my daughter.”

“I don’t care about living forever. I’ll settle for saving my twin. You know that already, and I won’t lie.”

“That is what I am afraid of,” he sighed.

“I want to help her!” Sevens said in that chittering gurgle-voice. Her fingers tightened on my yellow robes. “Dad, I want to help!”

He raised his hands in surrender once more, but had nothing left to say from behind his kindly smile.

“That’s it then?” I asked. “We’re just … free to go?”

“If you wish,” he said.

Making sure I had a firm grip on Sevens’ sweaty little hand, I stood up from my seat. My tentacles flexed outward and several of my vertebrae popped as I straightened my spine. Every muscle was sore with tension and my t-shirt was stuck to my skin. This entire encounter had probably shaved a few years off my life.

Sevens hopped from foot to foot, as if unsure if she should break away or toward me, run or snuggle. She was a few inches shorter than me and wouldn’t look at my face. For the first time ever, I think I understood how Raine felt about me.

I turned to her and caught her with eye contact, as if pinning her to a wall. She went stiff and still, black eyes staring back into mine, red pupils dilating wide. Her face was so sallow and pale. It was like looking into a pair of shadowed rubies set in cloudy ivory. There was a dangerous beauty to this mask; my ape instincts told me to stay away from this opportunistic predator, but there was something in her scent, her nature, the urgency of her movements. It drew me in. I wanted to run my fingers along the razor blade. I’d never felt anything like it before.

She cringed away from me, as if expecting a blow.

“Sevens, will you come home with me?” I murmured.

“Like this?!” she rasped. “After you saw … nnnuurrrggggg … ”

“Yes, like this,” I laughed with relief. “Like however you want. However you are. Please?” I took a handful of the yellow robes in my other fist. “I accept. I do. I mean, maybe we can’t get actually married, that’s a technical question for later. A big, complex, messy one. But I accept you. Come home with me?”

“Rrrrrrrrr,” she made a noise like an uncomfortable dog, but she nodded.

I blew out a slow sigh of relief, then turned to the King once more, still sitting comfortably.

“And you,” I said. “Can’t you help me against the Eye, if I’m with your daughter?”

The King raised his eyebrows in surprise, then laughed softly. He gestured around again. Steel was shaking her iron head. Melancholy had raised her eyebrows. Orbit curled up on himself, slug-safe.

“Look around at my court,” said the King, suddenly growing grim and serious. “Look at me, examine me, daughter-in-law to-be. To you I might seem as a god, but in truth I am only a single step removed from you and yours. For all the beauty and pageantry of Carcosa, for all the latent cruelty in my children, for all that I have shown men the hells of their own creation, though I was once the ruination of cities and the coming of the red death … I could no more stand unprotected before Casma than you. There is no help I could render unto you that my daughter has not already gifted.”

“Daaaaaad,” Sevens hissed between her teeth, cringing with embarrassment.

“But if you ever find yourself trapped Outside again, little watcher,” he said. “My house has many rooms.”

“ … thank you.” I nodded as politely as I could manage, still completely overwhelmed. “‘Little watcher’?”

He shrugged. “Poetic license. The Casma watches. You are its heir, but you are not as it. Only little. In the good way. I make my peace now, with the little watcher, that I may be observed favourably in the future.”

“If you say so.” I wasn’t sure how to feel about that.

I squeezed tight on Sevens’ hand, to make sure she wasn’t about to run away, then turned to gesture to Lozzie’s forest-knight, but he was already approaching my side, towering over us in his chrome armour. He lowered a hand onto my shoulder, properly anchored. The King nodded politely to him, but he didn’t nod back. When I checked over my shoulder for Saldis, I received only a wave in return, over the heads of her adoring audience.

“I think I’ll stay and get to know these wonderful people!” she called.

One of her big black rats was perched on the shoulder of a man facing away from us. The rat caught my eye and I swear it laughed as only a rat can. Saldis would be fine on her own, I guessed.

“I will come visit, sister,” Melancholy purred, head lazing on her paws. “Keep a bed fresh.”

Sevens couldn’t even look at her, still flushed with embarrassment, eyes downcast.

“Are you ready?” I whispered to Sevens.

“ … no,” she croaked.

“Time to go home, regardless. I’m exhausted.”

The familiar old equation spun up in the back of my mind, burning hot and toxic. The King rose to his feet and gave me one last smile, too sweet and too warm to be real. I knew that if things had worked out differently here, he would have smiled just as warmly at my steaming corpse.

I executed the equation, and took Sevens home.

Out.

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