nostalgia for infinity – 9.9

Previous Chapter

“Sick o’ stickin’ my face into dead animals,” Twil grumbled.

Hard raindrops hammered her hunched shoulders, swirled through the air between us, dripped from the rim of my hood. Sad, defeated crows sat in the trees above, awaiting an opportunity to return to the last of the mutton scraps. Twil straightened up from the jumble of red-streaked sheep bones which poked up from the bloodstained grass and mud, and turned a hood-shadowed, scrunch-faced frown on the rest of us.

“There’s nout here!”

“Try again,” Raine said from inside the depths of her own hood.

“There’s bugger all scent left in this!” Twil yelled over the sound of the rain. A wide shrug sent arcs of water sluicing off her coat sleeves. Her wellington boots squelched in the thickening mud as she turned and waved a hand at the devoured sheep. “This is fucking pointless!”

“Raine, I think she’s right,” I spoke up through slowly numbing lips. “We’re getting soaked. We need to go home. Lozzie’s getting cold.”

“M’fine fine, finey-fine-fine,” Lozzie muttered, almost a chant. Her voice trailed off into a sleepy sound that clutched at my heart. Not again, not now.

She’d started shivering almost as soon as we’d stopped moving, standing around in this rain soaked field. On the journey back to the sheep corpses she’d seemed normal, but I cursed myself for missing the tell-tale signs of another relapse. She’d grown quieter, her footsteps had lost their bounce, dragging through the carpet of woodland leaves; she’d slurred a couple of times, slow to turn when called. Now Lozzie was huddled close against my side, hood up and face hidden, arms crossed beneath her coat and poncho. Shivering. She felt so small. I hugged her tighter, but her teeth went on chattering.

I wasn’t faring much better. Pelted by the rain, struggling not to shiver, fighting an urge to hunch up and move as little as possible. My coat had held up until we’d braved the open sky, but now my hoodie felt damp at the neck and shoulder seams.

“I’ll crank the heating to full once we get back to the car, promise,” Raine said, then turned back to Twil. “Sure you didn’t miss something? Anything? Tracks even?”

“Nothing here but her.” Twil nodded at the only one of us who seemed to be enjoying the storm.

Zheng stood tall, face upturned to the roiling sky, eyes closed in pleasure. Rainwater had slicked her greasy hair back across her scalp and forehead, soaked her old ragged jeans and jumper until they hung off her like sheets of water themselves. She was drenched to the bone and didn’t care.

“This is gonna sound like a crazy question,” Raine said with a knowing smirk, “but could foxes have done this?”

Twil squinted at her like she was an idiot.

“Humour me,” Raine added.

“Brought down three fucking sheep? No! No way! Eaten the remains, sure, if something else killed ‘em and brought ‘em here. Nothing around here’s big enough to take three sheep. Nothing that should be out here anyway.”

Raine glanced along the tree line. She wet her lips with a dart of her tongue. “Escaped big cat, maybe?”

“Pffft, what, Sharrowford’s own Beast of Bodmin Moor?”

Raine shrugged. “Why not?”

“I’d smell it, duh. Big cat scent’d be all over the kills.” Twil huffed, crossed her arms, and hunched her shoulders against the driving rain. “This is some other shit.”

“Mmhmm,” Raine hummed in agreement, nodding slowly, staring off into the forest gloom beyond the open field. “Our shit.”

“Fuck it, come on Raine,” Twil said. “We gotta hunt something, we can do it tomorrow.”

“Lozzie is getting cold, and sleepy,” I said, my voice harder than I wanted. “I’m getting cold. None of us except maybe Zheng can do anything useful in all this rain. We need to go back to the car, and go home. Now.”

For a second, Raine didn’t react. I felt my patience fraying, was about to explode at her, snap her name; then I realised what she was doing. Without moving her hood so as to maintain the illusion of staring into the woods, in the corner of her eye, Raine was watching Zheng. In a split-second of judgement, the right hand assessed the left.

Then Raine turned to me and broke into a grin, all confidence. “Right you are, Heather. Give Lozzie here, I’ll carry her to the car. We’ll crank up the heat and drive straight-”

“Can’t you feel it, yoshou?” Zheng rumbled. “Laangren? Don’t you feel it?”

We all looked up at her. Zheng hadn’t moved. Eyes still closed, upturned to the sky, water running down her face and throat.

“Feel what?” Raine asked.

“The lurker in my shadow,” Zheng purred. “Still here. Still close.”


==

On our way back through the woods to the overgrown field and the mysterious, meat-stripped sheep carcasses, the sky had split asunder.

The storm which had been threatening all day had finally burst, into those long slow waves of rain that herald the beginning of two or three grey, wet days. No triumphant cacophony of thunder and lightning to burn itself out in an hour or two, no hope of sheltering under a thick part of the woodland canopy until the clouds parted. This storm possessed the true grinding endurance of a maritime climate. Even if we had been heading straight back to the car, we were in for a soggy ride home.

Instead, we’d all stood around in an open field for ten minutes, scratching our heads and getting soaked as Twil sniffed at sheep bones.

The trees had sheltered us from the worst of the downpour on the walk, but the rain came in gusts and squalls heavy enough to send sudden scattershots of raindrops penetrating through the woodland canopy. A deep gloom had crept across the forest floor, thickening the shadows and confusing the senses.

Twil had grumbled like an old solider. Raine had taken it in her stride and helped me along with her hand in mine. Lozzie had scrambled down off Zheng’s shoulders to shelter in the giant’s lee, and Zheng hadn’t seemed to care about the wet and the cold one whit. By the time we broke cover back into the overgrown field, we were all huddled up inside our coats, dripping wet, wellington boots caked with mud, squelching and sucking with every plodding step.

My stomach had clenched into a tight knot, my veins touched by an adrenaline ghost. Phantom limbs scrunched tight, a defense against the unknown, a dull throbbing pain in my stiff flanks. I took Zheng’s emotional bombshell and the enigma of Raine’s urgent kiss, and shoved them into the back of my mind. Had to stay focused.

None of us said it out loud, and Raine was actively groping for any other explanation.

Anything intelligent enough – and supernatural enough – to hide its kills in Zheng’s shadow was absolutely our problem.


==


“Wait, what?” Twil asked, head swivelling to glance around the field and the tree line. “What’d you mean, still here?”

“Whatever killed those sheep is still nearby?” Raine asked. She didn’t wait for an answer, she simply drew her handgun, holding it carefully shielded from the rain beneath the curve of her coat.

“There’s-” I swallowed hard. Nothing here but us, the crows, and four dead sheep. A sudden gust of wind drove the rain into our faces. Twil growled, flexing fingers rapidly turning into claws.  Lozzie shivered harder in my grip. I squeezed her tight. “Zheng, what are you talking about? There’s nothing here.”

“Yeah,” Twil grunted. “Is this some weird invisible shit again?”

I shook my head. “There’s no spirits here, no pneuma-somatic life visible, nothing I can see.”

“Nothing-nothing,” Lozzie mumbled. I ducked down to catch her face; her eyelids flickered in an effort to open wider. “Nothing here, really good hider. Hidey-ho.”

“Zheng,” Raine said, hard and clear. “What are we looking for?”

Slowly, like a sleeper awakening, Zheng peeled her eyes open and looked about herself. She gazed down at the sheep bones, up at the crows, out at the field. We all waited, tense with baited breath amid the static of the rain.

“ … mmm,” Zheng rumbled. “You don’t feel it? We are being watched.”

“By what?!” Twil snapped at her. “From where? There’s nothing here!”

“Live by tooth and claw long enough, laangren, and you will know when you are being watched. It is close. Very close.” Her lips split into that awful, shark-toothed grin.

“What is it?” Raine asked. She stepped out to cover Lozzie and I.

Zheng frowned, eyes roving, slow and watchful. “I do not know.”

“T-this is all the more reason to head back, right now,” I raised my voice, swallowed down the sudden burst of adrenaline. “We can’t find anything in this storm.”

“Uh huh,” Raine murmured. “Hardly home ground advantage.”

“You could find it, shaman,” Zheng purred.

“I won’t be able to do much of anything if I catch cold out here,” I said “Or if … if one of the cult’s zombies escaped the house fire, and it catches us unawares.”

“Yeah,” Raine admitted with a heavy sigh. “S’what I was thinking too.”

“Nah,” Twil said. “One of those things would stink, it would be all over this place. Hell, Zheng does. No offence.”

“Ha! Correct, laangren, this is no puppet piloted by a blind fool. I would see that a mile off.”

“We are going home,” I said. “You all want me to be a leader, well, that’s my decision. We’re not all invincible demons or regenerating werewolves here. I’m getting soaked. Lozzie is falling asleep, and we’re being hunted? No, we leave. Back to the car. Zheng, you’re scarier than anything that-”

“I am going nowhere, shaman,” Zheng rumbled. She was staring off into the woods, turning her gaze slowly across the length of the abandoned field, mud and thistles and weeds. “It is right here. Right in front of us. I can almost smell it.”

“Fuck it,” Twil said. “I’m with Heather. We’re out.”

“Back to the car, without Zheng?” Raine murmured, then shook her head gently. Twil winced. I shivered, squeezed my eyes shut.

“Oh for God’s sake, Zheng, I’m not leaving you in the woods again,” I said. “There’s nothing here.”

Zheng turned on me, baring her teeth in a display of frustration. I almost flinched out of my skin. Raine twitched, but managed to resist the urge to point her gun at the giant demon-host. “There is, shaman. Lingering. Watching us. Hiding?” She tilted her head away, as if listening. “You should be able to smell this, shaman. Use what you brought back.”

A block of ice settled in the pit of my stomach. “ … what? Zheng, now isn’t the time for-”

“It is all around us.” She nodded at the tree line, the field, the sky itself. “At every angle. We are surrounded.”

“ … you serious?” Raine asked, with a soft danger in her voice.

“No jest, yoshou.”

“Right then, executive decision.”

The command in Raine’s voice left no room for argument; a familiar thrill ran down my spine. She tucked her gun away and pointed to the far end of the old field, at the tumbledown barn we’d passed on the way to find Zheng. It stood there amid the streaming rain, indistinct behind a veil of water.

“We can have this argument in the dry,” Raine said. “C’mere Heather, gimme Lozzie.”

“Good- yes,” I said. “Yes, good idea.”

Lozzie grumbled like a sleepy child as we peeled her out of my grip. Clods of wet mud fell from her wellington boots as Raine hoisted her into the air, princess-carry style.

“You stick right by me, Heather,” said Raine, throwing me a wink and a follow-me sideways jerk of the head. I nodded, almost blushing. “Not a step behind. Twil, you cover Heather.”

“Fuckin’ capital notion there,” Twil said.

“Zheng?” I turned back. “Zheng, please, at least follow us to the barn.”

“Mm. Go along, monkeys.”

We hurried across the field on sucking mud and slippery grass. Lozzie mumbled sleepy sounds into Raine’s shoulder. Zheng stalked backward away from the sheep bones, following us at a distance.

The tumbledown old barn loomed larger as we approached, a bigger structure than it had seemed from all the way across the field. Overlapping boards formed the walls, painted black many years ago, pitted and rotted at the corners from decades of woodland weather. The entire structure leaned to one side. Cracked tile roofing streamed with rainwater, pooling in puddles and ruts which ringed the dirty concrete foundation. A dark slit peered at us from the barn’s side, where a fifteen-foot tall swing-door sat forever jammed in place by collapsed hinges as thick around as my wrist.

“You think that structure is safe?” I hissed to Raine.

“Better than getting sick in the rain and ambushed by an invisible zombie.”

“There’s nothing here. Zheng’s … excitable.”

“Maybe. Maybe not,” Raine whispered.

“S’alright, these things are built to last,” Twil spoke up, and went first. She darted ahead, splashing through the puddles, tutting as she sunk ankle-deep into the water and pulled her foot free with a sucking slurp of saturated mud. She hopped up onto the wet concrete lip, twisted sideways, and slid through the slim gap into the barn. Darkness swallowed her whole.

A beat later her hooded head popped back out. She flashed us all a smile. “S’fine, dry too. Bit dark. Come on!”

Raine and I picked our way across the boggy moat of pooled water. Almost there, and my hiking stick stuck hard in a patch of thick mud. I pulled it free and overbalanced, feet slipping out from under me, a gasp tearing from my throat as phantom limbs uncoiled to catch me before I fell into the mud. They scrabbled uselessly, incorporeal and powerless.

Raine broke my fall instead, no small feat while she carried the semi-conscious Lozzie in her arms. She darted around my side with two precise steps and I fell against her, Raine’s feet braced in the mud to stop us all going over together in a tangle of limbs.

She flashed a grin. “Slow down, hey?”

“I’m sorry, I’m so clumsy, I-”

“Nah you’re not. Here.” She offered me her elbow, and I took it. When we reached the lip of the barn’s concrete foundation, Raine urged me in first with a nod of her head.

“No,” I said, still getting my breath back. “Get Lozzie out of the rain first, please.”

“Right you are, boss.”

Raine twisted and ducked to manoeuvre Lozzie through the slit in the side of the barn. I glanced back over my shoulder.

Zheng stood amid a dancing curtain of water. Head high, eyes wide, her massive body thrumming with the promise of sudden, terrible violence. She turned every which way as she backed toward the barn, watching for an ambush from a bare field, an empty quarter. Truly, there was nothing here but us.

“Zheng! Come inside!”

She tossed me the slimmest sidelong glance, and went back to her hunt.

I sighed. Zheng was hardly the easiest person to coerce, and she wasn’t exactly in danger. With a little wobble and an awkward clack of the hiking stick’s metal tip against the concrete, I ducked through the slender gap and shuffled inside the old, lopsided barn.

Deep darkness and dripping gloom covered my sight. Vast shapes reared up from hazy shadows as rain drummed on the tile roof and turned all sound to static; for a moment I felt as if I’d stepped into the mouth of something that had only been pretending it was a corpse. The heavy smells of machine rust and old straw and spilled petrol hung beneath the reek of mud. A predatory figure turned to me in the grey darkness, a vision of primal fear.

Then Twil shook her mobile phone to flick on the built-in LED torch. The light blinded me.

“Ow!”

“Oh, shit, sorry Heather.” Twil grimaced and turned the light away, across the wooden-board and breeze block walls.

“It’s fine, I’m fine, just … you surprised me.”

She gave me a sheepish look. “Tryin’a find a door or somethin’. Least it’s dry.”

“Dry, yes.”

I couldn’t suppress the shivers anymore, both inside and out. Cold had settled into my neck and shoulders where my hoodie was damp. My fingers and nose and cheeks were freezing. Could barely feel my toes inside the wellington boots. Water dripped from my coat, from Twil’s too, making wet tracks in the thick dust. Caught in the sidewash of Twil’s light, Raine had set Lozzie on her feet once more. Lozzie was hunched up tight, teeth chattering.

“Raine? Raine, is she- Lozzie, are you okay? Lozzie?” I moved closer, one hand out to take Lozzie’s in mine. Twil’s light whirled off as she resumed her search, leaving us in flickering afterwash.

“She can stand on her own,” Raine said.

“Standy-wandy-woo,” Lozzie sang. She blinked heavily at both of us, eyes struggling to stay open. Then she closed them and grumbled low in her throat, slumping against Raine’s front.

“Lozzie?” I squeezed her hand. “ … damn this, why now?”

“Maybe she just ran outta juice,” said Raine. “She is very cold though, like her body’s desperate for sleep. You’re right, we need to get her back to the car.”

“I know. Raine, what do we-”

“Aha!” Twil made the sort of sound that one only indulges in after epoch-making scientific discovery. “Here we go, but- ahh fuck it, who cares!”

With a grunt and a crack and a crunch of splintering wood, Twil burst a hole in the side of the barn. I turned just in time to see the hinges give way on a little side-door. Twil barely caught herself as the door popped open, claws scrabbling at the door frame to halt her face-first journey into the mud beyond. The sound of rain echoed up and inside the barn.

“Good job,” Raine called.

Twil grinned at back us and waggled her phone to flick the light off. With the side door wide open, the barn’s interior filled with just enough grayish storm-light by which to see.

The floor was caked a thick layer of dust, scraps of old straw, patches of unspeakable stains in effluviant browns and yellows, some in the sticky rainbow-tint black of petrol, and the tell-tale red of agricultural diesel. A few birds moved in the rafters, wood pigeons riding out the storm. Splatters of dried bird poo marked the corners of the room.

A tractor lay in a partially disassembled ignoble death at the rear end of the barn’s floor space, its engine gutted for parts, the cab doors wide open, tires deflated in great heaps of rubber. Tools had been tossed against one wall, half-rotten pitchforks and a couple of dented shovels. A huge pile of worm-eaten wooden pallets occupied one corner, some of them broken up into loose boards. Nearby on the floor, some of the pallet wood formed a circle of burned stubs. A very old, very cold campfire.

Twil shoved her hood back and shook water off her coat. Raine did the same, brushing at her arms, then noticed that I could only stand and shiver. She pushed my hood back for me, watching my eyes with mounting concern.

“Lovely place, hey?” Twil laughed without humour.

“If it keeps us dry,” I said.

Raine looked very pointedly at the burnt-out campfire in the middle of the concrete floor. “Hey Twil, you thinking what I’m thinking?”

“What?”

Zheng chose that exact moment to join us. She had to duck low as she manoeuvred her massive frame through the slender gap in the side of the barn. She straightened up with a stony look on her face, dripping water from her sodden clothing, hair plastered to her scalp. Twil stared at her.

Laangren?”

“ … uh, nothing.” Twil shook herself. “Just forgot how fuckin’ big you are indoors.”

“Huh.” Zheng allowed herself a flash of teeth.

“Hey, heads up zombie girl,” Raine said. She nodded sideways at me and Lozzie. “We can’t stay here long without warming these two up. Me too, to be honest. Decision, now, or I’ll make it.”

“Mmm?” Zheng purred a curious sound. “What ails the mooncalf?”

“She freezing cold and falling asleep, and we can’t stop that.”

“She’s not meant to be here,” I said to Zheng. “In this dimension, our reality. We fixed it before, sort of, but I didn’t think she’d suffer it again so soon.”

“Maybe it’s just an episode,” Raine said. “Maybe she’ll come round. Heather, we’re all here with her, and we’re not gonna let anything happen to her.”

I nodded, my guts churning. “Yes, okay. Okay, Raine, I just worry about-”

“Healthy,” Lozzie suddenly burbled, eyes heavy with unnatural exhaustion. “I’m fine, fine! Just need a snap. A nap. Snap nap. Don’t need Outside for … a week more? Two double? Mmm.”

Nod nod went Lozzie’s sleepy head. She sniffed twice, then sneezed into her hand. Raine found a tissue and helped her blow her nose.

“We cannot leave,” Zheng purred. “We are surrounded.”

“Define that,” Raine said. “Surrounded by what?”

“I didn’t see, or smell, or hear shit out there,” said Twil.

“Something hunts,” Zheng purred. A contemplative look came over her face, the look of a jaguar in the jungle, peering out of the undergrowth. “Watches. Waits, for prey to stumble in.” She sighed, blinked with glacial slowness. “Feels familiar.”

“Familiar?” I echoed.

“As if it has snuck up on me before. This … slowness, this clumsy lack of concealment.”

“Pretty well concealed if we can’t see the thing,” Twil scoffed.

“Obvious to a predator’s senses, laangren.”

“But what is it?” Raine asked.

Zheng shrugged.

“How do we find out?” I said.

Zheng stared at me, paused in a moment of deep thought, then turned away to stare out of the small side-door Twil had smashed open, at the distant tree line.

“It was not present when I butchered and ate that mutton,” she purred, soft and curious. “It has slid here since. Invisible? Incorporeal? Can’t you feel it, shaman?”

I shook my head. “Should I be able to?”

“Probably. You can do anything, shaman.”

“What happens if we just walk out?” Raine asked. “We were here before, we walked into the forest to find you.”

Zheng rolled her shoulders in a shrug. “I don’t know, yoshou. Are you willing to risk the shaman?”

Raine glanced at me, then down at Lozzie.

“Raine, she’s freezing,” I said. “We can’t stay here, we-”

“I know.”

“We have to go back to the car, this is absurd. There’s nothing even out there, nothing-”

“Heather, I know. It’ll be okay. Lemme think a sec.”

“Then we need to find out what’s watching us, correct? Lozzie? Lozzie?” I ducked down to try to catch Lozzie’s eyes – but they were both closed. “Lozzie, do you sense – smell? – anything out there? Lozzie?”

“Mmm-mmm,” she grumbled, shrugged, and huddled closer to Raine.

The ghost of panic crept up my throat. My teeth chattered inside my skull. I was shivering hard now.

“I can warm the shaman,” Zheng purred.

“Nice thought,” Raine said, raising one finger, “us all getting in a big body-heat pile, but also kinda inefficient. If we’re not moving, we need heat.”

“Fuck, fuck I don’t know how to make a fire,” said Twil. “Don’t you need like, kindling and shit?”

“That you do, that you do,” Raine said. A tight grin spread across her face. She passed Lozzie off to me, one hand lingering for a moment to ruffle my hair. “Heather, hold Lozzie, you two cuddle up close for a moment. Twil, get your claws ready.”

Twil blinked at her. “What?”

“Get your claws out, girl, you got work to do.” Raine strode straight to the back of the barn, to the pile of old wooden pallets. She planted one mud-drenched boot on a stray outermost pallet, leaned down and tore a board free with a cracking of dry wood, then turned and tossed it to Twil.

The werewolf caught it awkwardly in one half-formed ghostly paw, the false flesh still coalescing into claws and fur. Raine pointed a finger-gun at her.

“Shred that best you can.”

Twil frowned. “Shred … what?”

“Kindling.” Raine rummaged around inside her coat, in one pocket, then the other, then an inside pocket, then a hidden inside pocket in the sleeve. For a second I thought she wasn’t going to find what she was looking for, then she pulled out a small metal box. With a flick of her thumb she opened the lid of the lighter, and up sprang an inch of clean flame.

“You know how to make a fire, like, from scratch?” Twil gaped at her. I sighed with sudden relief. Zheng grunted her approval.

Raine flashed us all a grin, burning confidence. “How hard can it be?”


==


Harder than it looked.

Twil spent several minutes reducing boards to wood shavings and sawdust, snapping them apart with brute strength and shredding them with her claws. Raine pulled fresh fodder off the old wooden pallets, and piled them tight in the centre of the room as main-stage fuel, over the cold fire left so long ago by some unknown passing campers. Why had that first fire been made, I wondered. What desperate situation – or teenage hijinks, more likely – had taken place out here, in this corner of some forgotten farm?

I hugged Lozzie tight, doing what little I could to share my own body heat. She shivered and chattered, curled in on herself, her head buried in my shoulder. My phantom limbs tried to embrace her too, so I had to close my eyes tight for a few painful heartbeats to control the ghostly impulse.

Zheng ventured back outdoors.

“To hunt,” she explained when I asked her a silent question. “Maybe I find what watches us, maybe not.”

And with that she stalked back out into the wind and rain, lost behind the walls of the barn. For a moment I felt a terrible foreboding, as if she might not return, as if she’d break with everything we’d discussed and vanish into the woods to forget about me.

Perhaps, a tiny part of my heart whispered, that would be easier on all of us.

“It’s not catching!” Twil growled. Raine was down on her knees by the unlit fire, holding her lighter flame beneath a thick pinch of wooden chips. “It’s not hot enough! Fuck, shit, alright, I’ll rub two sticks together, I-”

“Hold up, I ain’t done trying yet.” Raine paused in thought as she flicked the lighter shut with one hand. “We need accelerant.” Her eyes wandered over to the gutted tractor.

“Petrol?” I asked through chattering teeth. “Raine, that’s so dangerous.”

“Yeah, nah. That thing’s been sat there for too long, anything in the tank’ll be long evaporated.”

Twil suddenly jerked. “Ah! Ah!” She bent down and scrabbled at the floor, then held out a few scraps of old straw, fallen off the back of some long-forgotten tractor-trailer.

Very old straw. Very dry straw.

“Yeeeeah!” Raine lit up. “Brilliant, get as much as you can.”

Thirty seconds later Raine had a sizable handful of straw stubs. She flicked her lighter on. We all held our collective breath. Even Lozzie had her eyes open, heavy-lidded and thick with sleep, as Raine touched the flame to the end of the bundle.

The straw caught instantly in a flutter of orange and yellow. Quickly, no time to lose, she went to one knee and nestled the bundle into the shredded curls and chips of wood, and shoved the whole lot beneath the unlit fire. The kindling smoldered for long moments, and it seemed as if the straw might burn out before anything else caught – but caught it did.

The flames grew, consumed more of the shredded wood down to blackened crisps. Twil shoved more inside. The larger pieces began to catch too, flames licking the darkness as the air filled with little crackles and pops. I watched, fascinated, taken beyond this bizarre situation for a moment by the primal experience of a growing fire. A slow wave of warmth washed over me. Strange shadows danced on the barn’s walls.

“Ray Mears, eat your heart out!” Raine whooped.

Twil puffed out a sigh and grinned like a loon. She held up a hand for Raine. “Eh? Eh? Up top?”

Raine high-fived her.

“Thank you, both of you,” I managed though the relief. “I can’t believe we ended up needing to build a fire, this has been absurd. The woods are terrifying.”

“Hey, it ain’t the woods,” Twil said. “It’s the spooky shit following us around.”

“Nah it’s the woods.” Raine smirked. “Screw the woods. They suck.”

Twil rolled her eyes, but she was still smiling.

Getting warm and dry wasn’t as easy as simply pulling up a seat at the fire. The ground was far too filthy to sit down. Twil dragged a pair of intact pallets over so we had some buffer, however minor, between our backsides and the cold concrete. Raine sat Lozzie down at a comfortable distance from the crackling flames and peeled her out of her coat and damp poncho. Lozzie wobbled a little, but sat up straight, eyes half open, smiling in silent thanks. Raine shook the coat out and held the poncho up before the fire to dry and warm it, before helping Lozzie squeeze it back over her head and tuck herself up tight.

“You too, Heather. Let’s dry the hoodie before you get it back on.”

I submitted to Raine’s tender attentions in turn, with Lozzie leaning on my shoulder, her eyes slipping closed as we perched on the pallet together. The warmth was wonderful, but oddly uncomfortable too. Damp patches lingered, and the cold lurked at our backs, not even held at bay by the walls and roof. I still desperately wanted to get home.

Twil crossed to the door to peer out into the murk, a tut on her teeth. “Still running around out there.”

“Zheng? You can see her?” I asked.

“Yeah. Sniffing about.” Twil scuffed her feet along the floor back to the fire, hands in her pockets. “She really thinks there’s something out there.”

“I believe her,” Raine said, holding my hoodie up to dry the shoulders and neck. I had trouble keeping my eyes open, the heat of the fire was so soothing, despite the odd smells in the barn and my worries for Lozzie. But Twil’s next words woke me all the way up.

“You reckon this is fuckboy’s doing?” she asked.

“’Fuckboy’?” I echoed with distaste. “Excuse you?”

Twil winced. “Erm.”

“Lilburne?” Raine asked. “Don’t think so. Eddy-boy would only hit us if he was sure he wouldn’t miss. This? Seems too random. Nobody but Evee and the others even know we’re out here. What would be the point in a weird trap like this? Why the sheep?”

“Yeah but like, what if it is?” Twil asked, frowning deeper. Suddenly she fished her mobile phone out of a coat pocket. She thumbed the screen open, stared at it for a moment, and swallowed once, hard. “Um … uh … Raine, Heather, don’t um, don’t you dare fuckin’ laugh at me, but … uh … I haven’t got any signal. Could you … like … ”

“Raine, be a dear,” I said softly. “Call Evee to check everything is alright at home? Please?”

Raine paused for a beat. Twil ducked her head to hide her obvious blush.

“Sure thing,” Raine said. She pulled out her own phone. “Wahey, two bars o’ signal. Score.”

She dialled for Evelyn. A handful of seconds seemed to stretch forever, in the flickering, rain-soaked gloom around that makeshift campfire. Three seconds was too long for me. Five seconds and I thought Twil was going to bite off one of her own fingers. Then the call connected, and we all heard a faint ‘What is it? What happened?’ from the other end of the phone, unmistakably Evelyn.

Twil blew out a huge sigh of relief.

“S’only me,” Raine said down the phone. She winked at Twil. “Ran into something weird. Not an emergency, but- yeah. Yeah. Yeah, Zheng was fine! We played a game, tell you all about it later, but- but- you- Evee, hey, listen for a sec, here, something odd’s come up.” Raine quickly outlined the situation. “Ah? No, course not, I know there’s not much you can do from there, just making sure- yeah. Yeah, you know, Twil was worried about you.”

“Raine!” Twil hissed, blushing beetroot red. Raine laughed.

“Yeah, sure thing, Evee. Keep her alert, keep an eye on the front door, but I’m thinking this isn’t related. We’ll seeya later. Stay safe.” Raine signed off with a huge, shit-eating grin at Twil.

“Did you have to-” Twil said. “I mean, she- you- argh!”

“If you won’t do it, we’ll do it for you, eventually,” I said. “And you know that won’t impress Evelyn very much.”

“Yeah, yeah, don’t rush me.” Twil glowered into the dancing fire.

“Home front’s fine,” said Raine. “Nothing’s up. Evee’s got Praem on watch in the front room.”

“There’s nothing even out there,” Twil threw a wave at the field beyond the barn’s walls. “This is bullshit.”

A moment of silence descended, lost in the static of rain on the roof tiles and the crackle of the fire. My head felt fuzzy and slow in the raw heat, my muscles melted buttery-smooth by the warm hoodie Raine helped tug back over my head. Lozzie breathed softly against my side, head tucked into my shoulder, no longer shivering. Her eyes fluttered open now and again.

“Never sat by a campfire before,” I muttered.

“S’cool, huh?” Twil said. “Used to do it a lot with family.”

“All we’re going on here is Zheng’s hunch,” I sighed, confronting the concern in my heart. I tried to sit up straighter, blink myself into alertness. “Twil, you could be right.”

“I trust her on this,” Raine said, dead serious. “We made a promise, ‘bout your safety.”

“Yes … but … Zheng’s not the most … emotionally stable person.”

“You think she’s making it up?” Raine asked, and it wasn’t a rhetorical question. The way she looked at me, face side-lit by the fire as she settled down on the other pallet, made it clear she wanted to know the truth, what I really felt.

“I’m not sure,” I admitted. “It’s not impossible, I think, maybe.”

“Maybe?”

“She’s not even human,” said Twil.

“Neither are you,” I warned. “And that has nothing to do with it.”

“You think she’d deceive you like this?” Raine asked. She planted her chin in her hand, tip of one wellington boot tapping against the concrete floor. “I’ve seen the way she looks at you, Heather. That big zombie lady adores you. Not as much as I do, but hey, not everybody can be the best.”

“Raine,” I sighed, and glanced at the open side door, as if Zheng might be lurking and listening at the threshold. “Exactly. That could be the problem.”

“Eh?” Twil grunted.

“You think she’s delaying the journey home?” Raine asked. “Trying to keep you here?”

“No … no, she was honest earlier, when she … ” I cut myself off with a swallow, glancing at Twil. I’d share anything and everything with Raine, and Zheng probably knew that, but I doubted all the things she’d told me were for Twil’s ears. I turned back to Raine, blushing slightly, frustrated. “Raine, why didn’t you ask these kinds of questions earlier? Why didn’t you … why are you being protective now? Why not when … when Zheng and I were, you know, talking?”

“You don’t like it?” she asked with a smirk.

“Oh great.” Twil rolled her eyes. “Fuckin’ lovebirds.”

“You don’t have to listen to this,” I hissed to her, then turned back to Raine. “No, Raine, I love it, but why not … with Zheng … why-” I huffed, squeezed my eyes shut, tamped down on my bizarre reverse-jealousy. “We don’t have the luxury of time to talk about this right now. No, I don’t think Zheng is lying, not exactly, but something isn’t right here.”

“Yeah. Agreed on that part,” Raine said.

“Fuckin’ ey,” said Twil.

“Twil, when you looked at those sheep bones, was there anything at all out of the ordinary?” I asked. She opened her mouth with a frown, but I carried on. “Or even things that seem ordinary to you, but wouldn’t to me? Anything at all, any detail, no matter how mundane?”

Twil shrugged. “Dunno what to say. They were just bones. Uh, I smelled Zheng a bit, mostly the sheep, the crows too. There was some old rabbit dung in the grass, few snake holes off toward the tree roots.”

“What about the bones themselves? Could you see … I don’t know, tooth marks?”

“Nah, not really. Stripped. Like, totally sucked clean, most of ‘em. Whatever it was was eating a lot. More than’d fit in a regular stomach, you know?”

“Multiple attackers?” Raine asked.

“Maybe that’s why the brick shithouse thinks we’re surrounded,” Twil said.

“The brick shithouse would find and kill any number of watchers,” Zheng rumbled from the doorway, ducking through in a sudden squall of rain, dripping all over the floor again. “If they could be seen.”

“Nothing?” Raine asked. Zheng shook her head.

“We can’t stay here all bloody night,” Twil said. She glanced at her phone. “I’m gonna miss bake-off if I’m not careful. That wasn’t in the deal.”

“S’lots feeding,” Lozzie mumbled. I turned and found her trying to talk to me, slurring her words, struggling to keep her eyes open. “Feeding feeding. Big feed, f’big growing. Biiiiig.”

“Lozzie? What’s feeding?”

Suddenly Lozzie took a deep breath, filling her lungs as her consciousness surged. She blinked hard, putting in every ounce of effort she could muster into forcing herself awake. She stared at me, eyes wide.

“It’s fine! Heather, it’s fine, you just need to go say hi!” she chirped at me. “She’ll recognise you whatever state she’s in, I promise! She’d never attack anybody close to you, never ever ever!” Lozzie’s eyes wavered as she barrelled ahead. One eyelid twitched with the effort of staying awake. “I didn’t even know she could eat meat and that’s so weird it’s not like it’s supposed to happen but there’s a … mmhmm … s’no … preci- prepiden- … seee?”

Her burst of energy dribbled out, fell to nothing, and she snuggled up against my side again, half-asleep.

“Well, that answers everything then, yeah, great,” Twil said.

“Actually, I think it does,” I said in slow realisation.

“Shaman?”

“Heather?”

I stared out into the swirling rain. “If Lozzie says it’s safe … ”

Raine cleared her throat. “Lozzie’s track record on the meaning of ‘safe’ is a bit rough. No risks, Heather, please.”

“I know, I know, but … ” I wet my lips, my mind racing. “Something we can’t see. Not in the woods, not in the sky. Something even I can’t see. If only I could … ”

As the thought condensed and took shape, my phantom limbs uncurled away from Lozzie, already putting my plan into action. Pointless. They were only extensions of my self-image, they couldn’t feel or sense or touch anything unless I made them real with hyperdimensional mathematics, and I wasn’t about to do that again, not now, not out here, not putting myself at such terrible risk.

I concentrated on a single one of the tentacles, a mental ghost-image I couldn’t actually see, only feel. To anchor it, to give it pneuma-somatic mass, the ability to touch and affect matter, that was a step too far for me in my current state.

But I didn’t need to touch.

I needed to see that which could not be seen, shrouded in a darkness beyond sight, hidden to all our senses save Zheng’s predatory intuition.

“Heather? What are you up to?” Raine asked. She leaned forward and put a hand on my knee. Must have recognised the look in my eyes.

“Tentacles weren’t the only thing I had in the abyss,” I murmured to myself.

A spike of headache blossomed in the back of my skull. An old, familiar pain, like a friend I hadn’t seen in a while. I almost smiled at it, as the concepts summoned themselves from the dark, oily sump down in the pit of my soul. The muscles, the mental spaces, were still sore and healing, raw and tender as the socket of a missing tooth. But the flesh would never heal right if I refused to ever exercise.

The mathematical principles presented themselves.

But for once, they were not the Eye’s lessons. Oh no. I had learnt this out in the abyss, by myself.

My stomach turned over. I wretched hard as my body rebelled.

“Heather,” Raine called my name. “Hey, hey, Heather, what are you-”

“Brainmath,” I croaked – and allowed the mental image of that single tentacle to plunge downward, passing through the barn’s concrete foundation and into the mud and dirt. Into the ground.

Because that was the only place left to hide.

The equation fell into place as if it was natural. It was not – it was new and raw and it hurt the inside of my head like an icepick through both eyeballs. Natural, perhaps, to a creature in the darkness of the abyss. Natural to the thing I’d been, to a being that didn’t use something so crude as physical sight. A pulse, a wave described in pure mathematics, burned my mind like white-hot steel, complex enough to make my nose bleed. A picture of density in darkness and pressure, air pockets and wriggling, crawling life, roots bundled like frozen lightning.

Sonar, of a kind. A lesson from the abyss, remade here in hyperdimensional mathematics.

And right there at the edge of my perception, at the limit of my range, I found something that should not be.

I gasped and clenched my stomach muscles up tight, my bruised flanks shuddering and quivering as I hung forward with my head between my knees for several long moments. My pulse thudded in my ears, my vision went black – brainmath was still not entirely healed, pushed right to the edge of unconsciousness – and I did finally spit a few strands of stringy bile and stomach acid into the dust and dirt.

“Heather? Heather? Hey, hey, come on, slow now, sit up, sit up and breathe, breathe.” Raine’s hands on my back and shoulders, her voice purring in my ear. Her scent in my nose as she helped me sit. I clung to her. Held on tight.

Hold me here, Raine, because I might slip away. A sliver of guilt entered my chest. At least this made her possessive.

“The hell was that?” Twil asked.

“Real magic,” Zheng rumbled, awe in her voice.

“It’s in the ground,” I croaked. “It’s underground.”


==


We traipsed back out into the storm and the mud. Raine had to support me, my legs gone weak from the effort of the brainmath, my phantom tentacles uncoiling and twisting, trying to track the movements below our feet, sending spasms of pain up my sides, drawing sharp gasps from my throat. Raine had helped wipe my face too, but I could still taste bile and blood in the back of my throat. Lozzie stumbled along, half-supported by Twil. All of us were dried and warm from the makeshift campfire – except Zheng, striding ahead of us.

“Point, shaman.”

“I can’t. It’s not in one place, it’s a ring. A-a web? It’s-”

“All around us, yes!” She roared a laugh to the heavens as we stopped by the meat-stripped sheep bones. Twil grimaced beneath the shelter of her hood. Raine held steady, a rock at my side. “Shaman, I do not care. I will fight anything.”

“Shiiiit,” Twil hissed, flexing one suddenly summoned claw. “I’m not up for this. What is this thing, the size of the entire field?”

“We disturb whatever this thing is, it could overwhelm us,” Raine said over the patter of raindrops on her hood. “Zheng, you distract, we run. Got it?”

“Raine-” I started.

“Heather, I’m not letting you stay here for a fight against something the size of a field. No. End of.”

“I don’t think we’ll have to,” I said. “I … this is crazy, but I think it’s … no, it can’t be, but-”

“Twil,” Raine said. “Get ready to pick Lozzie up. We run when it starts.”

“Monkeys,” Zheng rumbled. “Point me, shaman!”

I stretched out one finger and indicated a rough line along the ground. Beneath the churned mud, deep in the earth, twelve or more inches down, part of some unseen web pulsed and throbbed in the darkness.

“Right,” Raine said. “We-”

She was too slow.

We’d all assumed that Zheng would probably dig it up and pull it out, that perhaps we’d have a few moments to reach safe distance, that even with her superhuman strength and endurance, she couldn’t beat a foot of hard-packed, root-filled earth.

Zheng pulled one hand back and slammed it into the ground, rammed her hand right through the grass and dirt, ripping, tearing, putting all her strength into a single strike.

Raine bundled me back, ducked to sweep me off my feet. Twil growled.

Zheng, elbow-deep in the ground, roared in triumph and ripped upward with all her strength. Her fist, dripping mud, clods of dirt falling from between her fingers, drew something tarry-black and writhing from out of the earth. A pulsing, flexing tube of muscle, about as thick around as my wrist, the ends of which vanished into the earth below.

Zheng paused, struck dumb with surprise – then roared with laughter at the thing in her grip.

“She miss?” Twil muttered. Raine hesitated. Lozzie made a little ‘ooh’ sound and clapped her hands. And I realised.

Twil and Raine couldn’t see it.

Zheng was laughing, deeply amused. She’d recognised the thing too. With a motion like a fisherman reeling a shark to the deck, she planted her feet and hauled.

Hundreds of feet of the black tentacle whipped up out of the ground, through the earth without disturbing even a blade of grass, a thrumming line all the way along the length of the field and off into the woods. Pneuma-somatic flesh. It passed straight through the ground, torn up by the force of Zheng’s muscles, whirled up into the rain and grey light, exposed.

Oily-black, the surface shifting like wet tar.

It didn’t waste a second. Stronger and more slippery than Zheng, the super-long tentacle yanked her off her feet as it tore out of her grasp. Loops and coils of tarry-black flesh, dripping with oily discharge that seemed to vanish before it hit the ground, stood up like a startled snake. All around the perimeter of the field, the great looped mass of the thing writhed out of the ground and drew back, fleeing from us.

“She got really, really big!” Lozzie threw her hands in the air, all awake now. “Well done!”

“I-I can’t- I don’t- ” I shook my head, wide eyed with shock.

“I can’t see shit! What are we looking at!?” Twil turned on the spot, claws out, eyes wide.

“Your puppy followed you all the way from home, shaman!” Zheng roared with laughter. “I remember her, weak but loyal!”

“Heather?” Raine demanded, on the verge of sweeping me up into a princess-carry. “Heather, what is it?”

“It’s … it’s fine.” I shook my head, heedless of the raindrops falling on my face. “She’s leaving, retreating, I think.”

“Who?”

“Tenny,” I said. “Those were Tenny’s tentacles.”

Previous Chapter

nostalgia for infinity – 9.8

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

A functionally immortal, seven-foot tall, man-eating demon had just declared that I – yes, me, Heather, scrawny and weird and terminally awkward, who’d probably be dead or in a mental hospital without serious help, an emotional cripple missing half my soul, twisted forever by a trip to the outer darkness – am a metaphorical reincarnation of her centuries-dead pseudo-incestual lover.

It was a testament to how bizarre my life had become that this was not the strangest thing to happen to me lately.

“L-love?”

Unfortunately I had a lump in my throat, my chest felt fit to burst, and my eyes were filling with tears.

“Yes, shaman.”

“Uh, Zheng, s-slow down, please.” I held a hand up. “Take a- I need a moment, I’m sorry, I … ”

“Mm.”

Zheng’s story had skewered my heart. Perhaps it was the inherent tragedy, or perhaps the thought of her pining for a lost love for hundreds of years, or perhaps the painful devotion in her eyes.

Or perhaps it was guilt, because I finally understood what this situation was doing to her.

She was right; she couldn’t do this again.

I sniffed back tears and rummaged in my coat pockets. My fingers felt clumsy and blunt as I unfolded a tissue and wiped my eyes. The woods around us rustled in the wind, punctuated by the occasional patter of fat raindrops falling from the leaves. Zheng watched me with affectionate intensity as I struggled to regain my composure. Lozzie, still all snuggled up in Zheng’s lap, was biting her lower lip in sympathetic response. She’d heard this all before, extracted Zheng’s past from her in the dreams, but the emotional feedback still affected her.

“Okay, okay,” I said, more to myself than Zheng. “I … oh, this is absurd,” I sighed with a choke in my voice. “What am I supposed to say to any of that? I mean, thank you, Zheng, thank you, but I can’t be the girl you lost. I’m not your Ciremedie. I’m pretty certain reincarnation isn’t real. And I’m … I like you, yes, a-and I want you in a way I don’t fully understand, but I don’t … love you, not exactly. I’m sorry.”

“Too late, shaman. We made our choices. You will never be rid of me.”

“Zheng, I don’t want to be rid of you.” I sniffed hard again, trying to hold back the waterworks. An involuntary laugh of emotional overload crept up my throat and burst into an odd giggle on my lips. “I would hardly have spent an entire day tracking you through the woods if I wanted to be rid of you. That’s even more absurd than the idea I’m your reincarnated lover – really!”

An affectionate grin curled the corners of Zheng’s mouth. She flashed a glint of teeth. “With every word you prove me right, shaman.”

I flustered at the look on her face. “You’re- you’re attributing pure intentions to my motives, when they’re anything but. I’m as ruthless as you.”

Zheng tilted her head to one side. “Then why come find me, shaman?”

“Because Heather needs you,” Lozzie murmured, then puffed her cheeks out.

“Because I need your help,” I blurted out. “Because you’re big, and strong, and you came from the abyss, and I need to know things about that. Because Maisie told me to gather my friends, that I wouldn’t be able to rescue her otherwise. Don’t do it alone. So here I am, asking my friend for help.”

Zheng nodded. “I will.”

I faltered, swallowed hard. “Because … ”

“Not all love is eros, shaman,” she purred. “But if you wish it so, I will gladly take you into the woods and make you squeal.”

I blushed so hard my head span, my sides ached with the pounding of my own heart, my pulse raced inside my flanks, in my bruises, a strangely satisfying pain. I had to put my face in my hands and take a very long, slow breath, in case I blurted out a ‘yes please’ in a moment of weakness.

“Zheng, I- … let’s, um … let’s put that to one side for a moment? I can’t, um … I mean, you’re a murderous, man-eating demon, I’ve seen you eat human flesh, and I … I don’t care about that, which is absolutely crazy, but- I … you’re- you’re welcome, Zheng, to stay by my side, if that’s what you want, if you-”

“Use me, shaman.”

Zheng’s voice cut hard, all her tenderness banished.

I looked up at her face again, at a brooding darkness in her eyes.

“I-I’m sorry? I’m sorry, Zheng, I’m still struggling to express myself, I-”

“Use me. Shaman, your goals are far in excess of the possible, even for a wizard; you plan war on Laoyeh, to recover your beloved. And here I am. Willing and free, I am a greater tool than any wizard has ever known. Use me.”

“I … ” I stopped, frowned, and sighed.

“Use me, shaman,” she repeated. Artificially cold. No fire in her words.

I was beginning to learn. Zheng was almost as bad at concealing her emotions as Twil was.

Lozzie picked up on it too. She frowned up at Zheng and flapped her arms beneath her poncho, but the demon-host ignored her serious little face.

“Zheng, you are not a tool,” I said, a school-mistress tut in my voice. “And I know what you’re doing, it’s blatantly transparent. I refuse to use anybody. You’re my friend, at the very least, maybe my-”

With a heave in her throat like a rhinoceros readying for a charge, Zheng surged to her feet. Lozzie scrambled out of her lap as she rose, bouncing up in her flopping wellington boots, pastel poncho and raincoat both flaring out as she almost lost her balance. Zheng towered over both of us, seven feet of muscle staring down at me like a cornered animal. Buried instinct told me to rise as well, to get to my feet – or make myself small, slink away into some hole beyond the reach of this large, angry predator, but I refused to give in. I stayed sitting, did my best to control the shake in my voice, and clutched my sides as my phantom limbs attempted to adopt a defensive posture.

“Z-Zheng-”

Shaman.”

“Zhengy! No, don’t!” Lozzie chirped. “Bad Zheng, bad Zheng!” She bounced on the balls of her feet in front of Zheng, arms up in the air, but the demon-host had eyes only for me.

“Zheng, I understand what you’re trying to do,” I said. “But that’s not the kind of person I am. I can’t treat you like a tool, I can’t treat anybody like that, I’d never be able to live with it.”

Zheng’s darkness broke as suddenly as it had fallen, in a rolling, rising laugh. She bared all her teeth and laughed herself into a roar of frustration at the treetops, shook herself from the head down like a berserk warrior. For a moment I thought she might tear at her clothes, but she came down in a deep breath, then seemed to sag into herself as old melancholy took hold of her frame once more.

“You name the torture with every word, shaman. You can’t treat anybody like that, neither could Ciremedie. Even a demon standing in her sister’s skin.”

“Heather?”

Raine called my name, her voice cutting through the trees. I glanced down the length of the woodland ridge. Raine had one hand raised in distant question, watching Zheng and I. Twil stared up at us too, hands in her pockets, eyes narrowed beneath the shelter of her hood.

“We’re fine!” I called back, then turned to Zheng. “Sit down. Zheng, please, sit back down.”

With a sullen grumble and a shrug like a sulky teenager, Zheng slumped back down onto the slab of concrete. She folded her legs, waxed coat pooling around her, and levelled a dead-eyed gaze at Raine. Lozzie did a big theatrical sigh, arms flopping to her sides. From down the ridge, Raine flashed a thumbs-up. I nodded to her. Everything is totally, one-hundred percent under control, I lied.

“Devoted protection, shaman. Your right hand is vigilant. Good.”

“She is that,” I sighed, struggling to get my breath back. I rubbed my chest, over the place inside where the pneuma-somatic repair flexed and twitched. The ghost of amusement crept back onto Zheng’s face.

“Put the wind up you, did I, little monkey?”

“You know quite well you did.” I tutted. “And you were trying to.”

“Good.”

“Zheng-”

“Nothing you can say will make this easier, shaman. I am yours now. You are too kind to drive me away or abuse me into hatred. And seventy or eighty years from now your heart will seize up or plaque will fog your brain or your cells will eat your organs, and I will once again wish my little bird had never dragged me from the dark.”

Lozzie refrained from crawling back into Zheng’s lap. Instead she drew our attention by tip-toeing around Zheng’s side, watching the demon-host’s face like one might with a wary dog. Zheng watched back, as Lozzie reached out and awkwardly patted her on the head.

“What about Lozzie?” I asked, grasping at straws. “She made friends with you before I did, she’s shown you kindness too. Why hasn’t she inspired this … this?”

“She is not you, shaman.”

“Oh.” I felt a blush in my cheeks.

Despite everything, despite the horror and tragedy of Zheng’s story, it is still a heady cocktail to be told you are desired by the object of your own attraction.

“Mm. The mooncalf is a sweet thing, but only a small piece of her is here.” Zheng reached out and wrapped one huge, grimy hand around the back of Lozzie’s neck, then squeezed and kneaded her muscles. Lozzie’s eyes fluttered shut. I swear she let out a purr. “I am all here, shaman. As physical as you.”

“Yes, yes indeed you are.” I sighed. “That aspect of you is especially difficult to overlook.”

A glint of savage joy entered Zheng’s eyes. “You like that, shaman?”

“I … I’m sorry?”

“As a woman – you like?”

Zheng didn’t actually move a single muscle, not that I could see, but a change passed through the air between us. It began in her eyes, a deep intensity of predatory intent that radiated throughout her entire body, the heavy weight of her chest beneath the ragged, filthy old jumper, the curve of her hips inside her jeans, the unseen ripple of her abdominal muscles.

“Y-yes. Zheng, my goodness, don’t-”

Zheng burst into laughter. I went bright red in the face, overheated and flushed, my heart fluttering in my chest like a bird trying to escape a cage. Lust was not appropriate right now, not after Zheng’s story, after her pain – or was it?

She certainly seemed to enjoy it.

“Horny zombie,” Lozzie stage-whispered.

I glanced back down the ridge, down toward Raine and Twil, certain in my gut that Raine would see me blushing and she’d know. She’d know I was getting turned on by another woman, and I knew that in her secret thoughts she would not be happy.

Twil and her were still talking. She wasn’t even looking at me.

“I don’t-” I managed, then paused and swallowed. “I don’t think Raine is comfortable with the idea of sharing me. I’m- I’m sorry, Zheng, but I can’t, I can’t hurt her, I won’t- I-”

“As if that matters, shaman!” Zheng laughed. “You monkeys, your need for neat solutions. Ha!”

“A neat solution would rather nice right now, actually.”

Zheng ended the laugh with a heavy sigh as she came down from her peak. Her amusement simmered down into a resigned ache, like somebody who’s been in hospital for too long.

“You understand, shaman? This traps me more completely than any chains, more securely than any magic.”

“Zheng, I can’t-” I swallowed, tried to stop my voice shaking. “I can’t be responsible for that, for your emotions, for you. I’m not in control of you. Why- why not- why not leave?” I raised one arm, with more courage than I thought I possessed, and pointed off into the darker depths of the wood, where the ridge-line vanished between the thicker, older trees. My throat tightened with awful guilt that I couldn’t swallow away. “Get up right now and walk away and- and forget about me.”

“Do not be a fool, shaman,” she rumbled. “You plan war on Laoyeh. You prepare for the greatest fight I have ever seen. You are a beacon to all manner of tooth and claw, mage and monster. You will be lucky to make it to thirty, let alone eighty! Ha! You need more than your right hand to help you get there. A third time, shaman, you will never be rid of me.” Zheng’s voice grew thick with emotion. For a terrible moment, I thought she might cry. Was she even capable of that? Probably. “I cannot do this again. To laugh with you is torture.”

“I know, Zheng, I-”

“No, monkey, you do not know.”

“I do.”

Zheng turned a gaze of such displeasure on me that it made me shake inside. Lozzie did a little flinch too, hopping backward two steps, her wellington boots clacking against the concrete. I swallowed, but sat up straighter.

“When I … a decade ago … I-” I struggled to begin. The comparison made me feel dirty and vulnerable, like I was doing something forbidden, but I had nothing left with which to help. “Ten years ago I lost my sister, my twin, my other half, when the Eye kidnapped us both. You know that much already.”

Zheng stared at me, slow and dark. I drew in a shuddering breath, and forced myself onward.

“I still don’t feel like a real person without her. Despite my friends, despite Raine. Despite my … what I brought back from the abyss. I’m not a full person without Maisie. I’m just a shell, pretending.” My throat tightened. “We did everything together. We had separate beds, but we’d sleep together six out of seven nights. Neither of us had school friends that weren’t mutual. We touched constantly, we were- she was the other half of my soul. And it hurts. It hurts all the time, more than I can put into words. Sometimes I seem like I’m alright, like I’m normal, but she’s always there in back of my mind. In the mirror, when I look at myself. I have her face.”

Zheng tilted her head to one side.

“If I could reach into your mind,” I continued. “And God knows, maybe I can, maybe I can make hyperdimensional mathematics do that. But if I could remove your memories of Ciremedie, would you have me do it?”

“I drove memory away,” Zheng growled, low and angry. “For-”

“Yes, but would you do it now? Would you forget her, forever?”

Zheng bared her teeth in a joyless grin, a rictus of conflicted pain.

“Because I would never forget Maisie,” I said. “That’s what the doctors wanted me to do, what my parents wanted. I was meant to purge those memories, to discard her, not think about her, pretend I’d never had a sister I loved. Pretend she didn’t exist. Forget, because the memories hurt me.” I shook my head with old anger. “Never. Never. I wouldn’t trade my memories of Maisie for anything. The pain is worth what I had.”

“I was not made for this, shaman. I was born in the dark, where such things do not exist.”

“None of us were made for this!” I almost shouted at her. “Are experiences not worth anything if they’re fleeting? I’ll … I’ll lose Raine one day, eventually, maybe when we’re old, I hope. Or she’ll lose me first, more likely.” I choked up a little as I said that. “I’m skirting the edge of self-destruction all the time, I know that, both with hyperdimensional mathematics and what I’m doing to my body, but that doesn’t mean she’s willing to abandon me to avoid hurting herself. People die, Zheng, all the time, of disease or accident, it comes suddenly and there’s no meaning to it, the meaning is in living, the bit that comes first. When you … ” I swallowed hard, struggled to hold back tears, to keep my thoughts of Maisie at arm’s length, if only I could finish what I was trying to say. “When you lose somebody you love, you don’t want to regret what you didn’t do. Time you didn’t spend with them.”

I choked back a sob, screwed my eyes shut, and took a deep breath.

Lozzie’s little footsteps crossed to me in a patter of rubber. She went to her knees and hugged me from the side, elbow in my chest, awkward and bony and exactly what I needed right now. I hugged her back with one arm.

“Spending life like that, like an animal,” I said. “Not feeling, not having to feel like a person, it would be like … ” My throat tightened up. Almost couldn’t admit it. “Like deciding to take my medication. Like being back in the abyss.”

A terrible yearning. For freedom, for lack of care, for pure survival easier than living.

“And I get that,” I forced myself to say. “I get that because part of me wants it, wants to go back, wants to be like that again. But pain is the price we pay for being here. For getting to be a person. For getting to love? If you feel so strongly about me, if you want to stay with me, then do it for me, for yourself. This time – us, now! – it’s real. It’s passing but it’s real. That’s all. I’m sorry, Zheng, I’m terrible at putting this into words.”

Zheng regarded me for a long moment, and I saw that my passion was not enough. I’d been on this Earth barely two decades, inexperienced, naive, all too human. She was hundreds of years old. She’d killed dozens of people, at the very least. She ate human flesh and hunted for pleasure. She was a thing from the abyss, a pure predator.

And then Zheng smiled. Showed her teeth, snorted a humourless laugh, shook her head.

“Sentimental monkey.”

“You’re sentimental too, you huge oaf.” I sniffed, and scrubbed at my eyes with my sleeve. “Oh blast, where are my tissues?”

They’d all called Zheng dangerous. Evelyn, Sarika, Felicity, all mages. Warned me that she was inherently unstable because of what she was, that she might wreak havoc if left loose, that she would devolve into a wild animal. But none of that was true, was it? She was dangerous, but mostly to those who would keep her in chains, who refused to treat her as a person.

She was also a cannibal psychopath, yes. No person is perfect.

“You are her, aren’t you? You are my little bird, returned.”

“I’m not.” I rolled my eyes. “Zheng, you can’t treat me like that, it’s not healthy for you, or me, emotionally. None of this is is healthy, but at least we can spare ourselves that as well.”

“Shaman.”

I had the creeping sense that Zheng had just agreed to disagree.

“Isn’t being here fun?” Lozzie spoke up in a little chirp, a question for the demon.

“Being here?” Zheng purred, a grin on her lips. She sighed a big sigh, filled her lungs with the damp forest air. “The taste of meat. The burn of hot muscle. The feeling of victory. Yes, mooncalf, some things are worth being here for.”

“Some things are worth being here for, yes,” I echoed.

Zheng raised one hand and pointed a finger at me. I felt myself blush again, but huffed at her. She chuckled.

“Is that what you want?” I asked.

“Mm. I’m yours, shaman. Even if you are fleeting. We will make a deal, you and I.”

I blinked at her, a sinking feeling dragging at the pit of my stomach. “In the same way you did with Raine?”

Zheng shook her head. “From you, shaman, nothing but the vow.”

“A vow to … what?”

“When your time comes, seventy or eighty years from now, I go first. You do it yourself, you pull the spark from my core and send it back to the deep dark, and I return to what I was for an eternity before here.”

A horrible knot pulled tight inside my chest. I felt short of breath. The pneuma-somatic flesh inside my lungs seemed to tighten up in sympathetic panic. Lozzie said my name, but she seemed too far away.

“You’re asking me to … to kill you?”

Zheng shrugged. “Eventually. Can’t do it myself. Too robust, too fast to heal. I’ve had half my brain blown out before.” She smiled with a touch of pride. “It grew back.”

“What if- what if-” I stammered, searching for a way out. “But what if I die suddenly, or violently, or-”

“You won’t, shaman. Because I am with you.” Then she broke into a real Zheng grin, showed those face-ripping, flesh-tearing, razor-sharp shark’s teeth that made my gut clench. “Or maybe you leave monkey ways behind, shaman. Maybe you come with me.”

I shook my head, numb and overwhelmed. The sounds of the rain-washed forest seemed to fade out, heard as if through a concrete wall.

“Promise me, shaman. Promise me I go first.”

“But … but you could live for hundreds of years more.”

“You’ve convinced me, shaman. You made your truth, and you made it well. We, now, we are good. Even if we end. The next eighty years will be worth it, and then I will end. Same as you. Or not, in the abyss.”

I gaped at her, struggling to find my words.

“Zheng, I … I don’t think I can kill you. I- God, I don’t think I’m capable of that now, let alone if you decide to spend the next few decades with me. Zheng, I can’t make that promise. It would be a lie.”

“Your twin still lives.”

My blood went cold. “ … what?”

“Your twin still lives,” Zheng repeated.

“I … yes? Yes, I know that. Zheng, what are you trying to say?”

“Zheng, noooo,” Lozzie murmured.

“I know you, shaman. You are a natural leader, and you make yourself unstoppable. If you have to, you will promise anything.”

“ … to get her back,” I voiced the unspoken part of Zheng’s sentence. “What are you saying? That you won’t help unless I make that promise? Unless I agree to euthanize you?”

Zheng shook her head. “Regardless, I am yours.”

I sighed again. “So you’re pledging your devotion, and there’s nothing I can do about it. You’re making me use you.”

“It is your nature, shaman.”

Guilt grew inside my chest, a tumour of self-loathing. Despite everything I’d said, Zheng was right. If she had been willing to leave, to deprive me of the advantage she represented, I would make that vow in a heartbeat. But Zheng was making this request as a person, asking for a very different kind of respect, not a negotiation, or a bargain.

“So if I don’t promise, I’m a hypocrite,” I murmured.

Zheng shrugged.

“Alright,” I said past the lump in my throat, put strength into my voice. “Then you’re going to help me save my sister.”

“Of course, sha-”

“No,” I snapped. “You’re going to help me save my sister, and I am going to live through it, and you are going to live through it. And when I’m old and grey I’ll keep my promise, I’ll send you off first, but damn you Zheng if you don’t get there with me I’ll return to the abyss and drag you back here myself.”

Zheng stared at me, and for once I think I’d managed to truly shock her.

“I mean it,” I said, tears freely running down my cheeks. “I- you- Zheng, you tell me you love me, then manoeuvre me into promising to kill you. That means you’re not going anywhere. Your half of the deal is you stay with me. There. It’s done.”

My fire ran out. I sniffed, scrubbed my eyes on my sleeve, and took a great, shuddering breath. Lozzie hugged me tight, and I screwed up my eyes.

“Can’t believe I’m having an emotional crisis over a cannibal demon,” I managed through the tears. “This isn’t quite the demonic pact I expected to make.”

“Comes with the territory,” Lozzie whispered, nodding seriously.

I almost – almost – laughed.

“A lot can change in eighty years,” I said. “Perhaps you’ll decide you don’t like me very much in the end.”

Zheng snorted. “Unlikely, shaman.”

“I could surprise you. I can be pretty awful.”

Lozzie helped wipe my eyes. From down the ridge, I noticed Raine and Twil watching us now. My tears weren’t exactly covert. I waved awkwardly to Raine, and she waved back. Eventually the guilt and the horror of what I’d agreed to subsided a little. One weight lifted from my shoulders as another longer-term one settled onto them.

At least I had a lifetime to prepare.

“Shaman.”

“I’m fine,” I lied. “I’m fine. Zheng, does this mean you’re coming back to the house with me?”

Zheng rolled her shoulders in a shrug. “Difficult, shaman. Your wooded isle is no great forest, no wild steppe. Things like me are not accounted for. But I would rather be closer to you. Yes, for now.”

“Where does this leave … well, us?”

Zheng tilted her head to one side in silent question. I glanced at Lozzie, as if this wasn’t for her ears, but she bit her lower lip with impish fun, mock-scandalised.

“I mean,” I tried again, “you can hardly tell me you love me and then not-”

Zheng looked away from me, down the ridge at Raine instead, and to my incredible surprise she took a deep breath and called out. “Yoshou, laangren, join us.”

Raine threw us a wave of acknowledgement and started to jog up the incline. Twil was caught flat-footed. She blinked several times before scrambling after Raine.

“Zheng, we can hardly talk about … s-sexual … things,” I flustered, going red in the face, “with Raine and-”

“What is your plan, shaman?”

I blinked at her, mouth open, paused in my own embarrassment. “My plan?”

“Mm.”

“ … go … go home? Go home and have dinner, frankly. Take you, run you a very hot bath, and continue this conversation. Zheng, I need to ask you about the abyss, about these damn tentacles I keep trying to grow. About what we’re going to do about-”

“No, shaman,” Zheng purred. “What is your plan for Laoyeh?”

“Hey, hey, Heather, you alright?” Raine asked as she jogged up, a smile on her face as she hopped up onto the concrete, quickly crossed to me, and squatted down at my side. She reached out and touched my cheek with one hand. My eyes were still red from the brief cry. “That bad, hey?”

“I’m fine, for a given value of fine,” I sighed. “Just a very emotional exchange, that’s all.”

“You makin’ our girl fuckin’ cry, huh?” Twil added, springing up onto the wall of the shattered pillbox in one athletic bound. She tossed her head back, all sudden fronting aggression. Zheng flashed a grin back at her.

“I think we were both on the verge of tears,” I said. “Please, it’s … private. Mostly.”

“You want a round, laangren?” Zheng rumbled.

“Any fuckin’ time, you stack of turds.”

“Hey hey hey, first things first,” Raine said with a smile and a wink on her face. “Zheng, we gonna double-team Heather tonight or what?”

Raine!” I gaped at her, spluttering, red in the face.

“You know, after she’s had a good bath first.”

Twil wrinkled her nose. “Ugh, get a room.”

“Exactly the proposition.” Raine shot a finger-gun at Twil.

“Ask her yourself, yoshou,” said Zheng.

“I- you- Raine! I don’t believe you. You can’t- it’s not the time- you-”

“Well?” Raine asked me, and I realised she was totally serious.

I dropped my voice to a low hiss. “How can you even ask that question when you made your feelings so clear earlier?”

Lozzie put a hand to her mouth, mock-gasping.

“Heather, hey, come on, do you like that idea or not?” Raine asked.

“Yes, you blithering idiot!” I whispered to her, blushing furiously. “But also no! Drop it before my entire head explodes from mortified embarrassment.”

Raine laughed out loud and shrugged to Zheng. “Guess we’re not on for tonight.”

“Mm,” the demon-host grunted. “Shaman – your plan?”

“Plan?” Raine asked.

“Oh, yes, yes, let’s talk about that,” I said with relief. “Much safer, yes, please.”

“What we planning for now?” Twil asked. “I’m getting hungry again, we’re not straight off on some other wild goose chase, are we?”

“The plan to fight Laoyeh,” Zheng purred.

“To rescue Maisie,” I clarified.

“Shaman.”

“ … I don’t even know where to begin,” I said. Suddenly the woodland air felt colder, the concrete beneath my backside was too hard, too dead. I wanted to go home and curl up with Raine. Deep inside, I shivered. “Up until a few weeks ago, the last time I’d actually encountered the Eye was as a child. In that house where the cult all died … you all remember that feeling, don’t you?” I glanced around. “Not you, Lozzie, but you recall it from when you saved me, probably.”

“Mmhmm!” Lozzie spread her arms up high. “Biiiiig eyeball in the sky.” She touched her head. “Nasty feelings in skull. Ow.”

“Ow, yeah, right,” Twil grunted. “Freaky shit. Why are we talking about this now?”

“The shaman’s plan,” Zheng rumbled.

“It’s okay, Twil,” I said. “Zheng wants to know what she’s getting herself into. Which isn’t much, so far. As I was saying, in that house, and then earlier, when the puppet that looked like Lozzie took me back to Wonderland … ” I trailed off, at a loss, and when I spoke again my voice felt very small. “I don’t know how we’re going to fight something like that. How I’m going to fight something like that. I thought maybe if I got good enough at hyperdimensional mathematics, I could stand up to it for a while, a moment at least, find the strength to pull Maisie from it’s grasp, but brainmath led me to the abyss, and the abyss was a dead end, and it’s turned me into … ” I gestured weakly at the current position of my phantom limbs, images that existed only in my own head, images none of the others could see. Not even Lozzie.

For a few seconds, nobody said anything. Lozzie wobbled her head from side to side, aching to speak. Raine rubbed the back of my neck with one hand.

“Concrete plans, shaman,” Zheng said eventually, not unkindly.

“Well-”

“Knights!” Lozzie burst out. “Heather-Heaths, you remember my knight, don’t you?”

“Yes, Lozzie, of course I do.” I smiled at her – and shuddered inside at the memory of that thing she’d summoned to Wonderland. “You said there’s more, Outside, and that’s wonderful-”

“Lots more! Dozens and dozens and they’re all waiting but I hope they didn’t wander off or get bored because I’ve been gone for so long, they shouldn’t though because I told them to stay put if I was anywhere else.”

“ … right. Okay. And that’s wonderful, but that one I saw didn’t last very long against the Eye.”

“What’s this?” Twil asked with a frown.

“Yeah,” Lozzie said, face falling. “It died. Melty.”

“When she saved me from Wonderland,” I explained, “Lozzie had a … helper. Something she made. It looked like a knight. Sort of.”

I didn’t mention the thing that had been wearing the suit of pneuma-somatic armour. That was a discussion for Lozzie and I alone, preferably when we finally met her other creations and I could ask her what on earth I’d seen.

“What does Laoyeh mean?” Raine asked.

“Lord,” Zheng purred. “Great One, Khan.”

“And what do you know about it?”

Zheng shrugged. “Less than the shaman. It is a surfaced leviathan, born in the same place as I, bearing the logic of the deep dark, not a body like this.” She raised a hand and made a fist.

“What would happen if we like, summoned the Eye into a corpse, like a zombie?” Twil asked.

“Evee would have a fit, for a start,” I murmured.

“Ka-boom!” went Lozzie.

Zheng just laughed, long and loud. Twil looked around as if we were all mad.

“Somehow I don’t think that’s possible, Twil,” I said. “Like squeezing a star into a matchbox.”

“Extra tip.” Raine grinned at her. “Don’t tell Evee you suggested that. She’ll belt you over the head.”

“No she won’t,” Twil grumbled, a little red in the face. “She doesn’t do that. Not really.”

“Concrete plans, shaman,” Zheng repeated.

“Yes, yes,” I said. “Well, we do have a few leads.”

And so, we monsters and mad women and werewolves and serial killers, we sat together in the shell of a wartime bunker, and told a thousand-year-old demon about how we were preparing to fight an alien God. We told her about the plan to visit the library of Carcosa, for Evelyn to plunder it for knowledge, at which Zheng rumbled something unkind about wizards. I told her we still had the Eye’s minion trapped inside a vessel of clay, tentacles and all, rotting away in Evelyn’s workshop, but with no way to truly interrogate the thing.

We explained how Lozzie and I still couldn’t get Outside, and the hypothetical sources of that blockage – Alexander’s ghost in Glasswick tower, or Edward’s offshoot cult daring and edging their way back into Sharrowford.

“I will eat that man’s heart and shit into his rotting brains,” Zheng rumbled.

“Agreed,” Raine said. “Well, personally I’ll skip the eating and shitting parts.”

Twil grimaced. “Ugh.”

“You need a stronger stomach, laangren.”

“Look, just because I’m a werewolf doesn’t mean I have to eat raw meat, right?”

“Yeah, she prefers fried chicken,” Raine said with a smirk.

“Don’t say that like it’s something bad! More civilised than you.”

“You are not more civilised than Raine,” I sighed. “Say that again when you manage to tell Evelyn how you feel.”

“You- Heather! Fuck! Shut up!”

Lozzie giggled. Raine shook her head. Zheng didn’t care.

And then there was the core of the plan. As Evelyn had already outlined months ago, we had three obstacles to overcome. Getting to Wonderland was solved, in theory at least. The gate would serve, when the time came.

“Avoiding the Eye’s attention, that’s challenge number two,” I said.

“Or blunting,” Raine added. “If I remember Evee right.”

“Yes, exactly,” I said. “Lozzie’s knights, maybe something else, I don’t know. Not to mention dealing with it in a physical sense. We didn’t see them much when the puppet-thing took me there, but it has physical worshippers and minions, mundane threats, I suppose, if we get that far. Some of them are … rather large.”

Zheng grinned. Her intent was plain.

“Yeah, that’s what you’re for, brick shithouse. Fighting stuff,” Twil said. “Me too!”

“Don’t,” I said softly, and somehow the quiver of truth in my voice got through to both of them. “Don’t talk about it like it’s a pub brawl. We’d be lucky to survive the first few seconds unprotected in Wonderland. We need more than just ourselves, we need everything we can muster, and even that’s not going to be enough. Evelyn’s pretty certain that with the right techniques, the right knowledge, then maybe she can avert the Eye’s attention for long enough for … me.”

“You, shaman?” Zheng asked.

“Yes, because that’s the final challenge. I have to actually find my sister. And somehow I suspect she’s not exactly physical anymore. Sarika’s experience taught me that.”

“The wizard,” Zheng rumbled. “Still alive, hmm?”

“Don’t you dare,” Raine said softly, with a subtle smile and a quirk of her eyebrows.

“Protecting the wizard, yoshou?” Zheng purred at her, low and dangerous.

“No, don’t,” I huffed. “Please, not now. We have enough to deal with already, without you breaking into Sharrowford General Hospital to murder a patient. Trust me, Zheng, Sarika isn’t a threat to anybody anymore. She’s a shell of the person she was.”

“Mm.”

“My point is – the lesson is – Sarika was partially entangled with the Eye itself, but only for a few hours. I pulled her out, but it took everything I had, and made me cast off being human. I came back, eventually, yes, but … ” I shrugged. “My sister, she’s been in Wonderland for over ten years now.”

“Yeah, like, a lot more difficult, right?” Twil said into the ensuing silence. Raine gave her a bit of a look.

“So that’s the plan,” I said, struggling to keep my voice from breaking. “I’m supposed to become strong enough – skilled enough at hyperdimensional mathematics – to fight an alien God with my mind, and pull my sister free.”

“You believe it impossible,” Zheng purred.

“Nothing’s impossible,” said Raine, softly, but with such confidence that she stopped me from breaking into tears again.

“Talking about this is going to make me cry for a second time today,” I said, thick-voiced. I wiped my eyes on the back of my hand.

“Embrace what you brought back, shaman.”

“I tried that! All I managed was to nearly kill myself by growing tentacles out of spirit-matter. I tore a lung open and I almost bled to death.”

“Hmmmm?”

“I patched her!” Lozzie chirped. “Like a spare tire!”

I rubbed my chest, over the spot where Lozzie’s pneuma-somatic replacement flesh still stretched and flexed with every breath. “Yes, she did.”

“They were very cool tentacles though,” Raine said. “Rainbow-strobing.”

“Huh,” Zheng grunted, but shook her head. “Try again, shaman.”

“Oh, that’s easy for you to say, you heal broken legs in minutes. I almost died.”

“You won’t.”

“Let’s not encourage her to try the tentacles again, hey?” Raine said. “Sort of hoped you might be able to provide some input, Zheng.”

“That is my input,” Zheng purred. “Laoyeh is not pure thought. It is thought made flesh, expressed in flesh, brought into flesh. To learn, you must be like it. You must make thought flesh, and flesh, thought.”

“Ew,” said Twil.

“No, that … that does make some sense,” I said slowly. “To be … like it.”

“Heather?” Raine said my name.

“So if I want to contend with the Eye, I have to keep risking ripping myself apart.” I nodded, sighed, and shrugged in weary resignation. “I suppose I do need to break out the biology textbooks after all. I’m lucky I have access to a university library. No shortcuts, ever. Story of my life.”

“Can’t we go home yet?” Twil grunted. “You two’ve worked out whatever your … thing is, right?”

“Yes,” I sighed. “I think we should all go home. Zheng, you are coming, aren’t you?”

“Mmmmmm!” Zheng rumbled, and stood up – and up, and up – to her full height where she rolled her neck and cracked her joints. “Yes, shaman. For now.”

“You even housebroken?” Twil asked her.

Zheng shot her a nasty, toothy grin, as Raine helped me to my feet as well, my arm linked through hers. Lozzie bounced up in her wellington boots and attached herself to my other side, hard enough to send a minor shock wave of shuddering through my bruised flank, but I didn’t mind. For once, I felt like everything was going at least roughly according to plan. I’d had to make some hard promises to get here, and my life – not to mention my heart – was as confusing as ever, but we were making progress. Finally.

“Want to find out, laangren?”

“Ewwww, fuck.” Twil wrinkled her nose, then thumbed at Zheng. “What about those sheep we found? How you gonna keep her fed?”

Raine laughed. “Put her out to hunt. Like a house cat.”

“Sheep?” Zheng purred – and went very, very still indeed.

The bottom dropped out of my stomach. Ice ran through my veins. Raine sensed it too, suddenly alert. Lozzie made a little ‘uh-oh’ face.

“Yeah, four sheep.” Twil frowned in confusion, the only one of us not yet following. “Up in that field, uh … like … that way? Or that way? Sense of direction is screwed in here.”

“I know the field, laangren,” Zheng purred. “I ate there.”

“Yeah, and you ate a lot, you-”

“Zheng?” Raine said.

“I ate one sheep,” Zheng purred, looking around us, into the woods, with a sharpness in her eyes as her face split into a shark-toothed grin. “Not four.”

“What?” Twil squinted. “Then where did the other … oh. Oh fuck!”

“Oh fuck is right,” Raine murmured.

“Something else killed and ate three sheep? Like that?” I asked. “Around here?”

Zheng laughed, long and low. “I am being used, shaman. Used to cover tracks. Let’s go find what’s hiding in my shadow.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

nostalgia for infinity – 9.7

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Zheng had made a demand, a challenge, a taunt – but she showed no relish, no savage glee, no laughter. That’s what tipped me off.

Zheng’s stipulation – that her and I could talk, but alone – hung for a heartbeat in the damp woodland air, blurred out by the static wash of leaves and rain. She gazed down at me with dark, heavy-lidded eyes, morose and brooding. A raindrop hit her brow and slid down one cheek. Swaying treetops and snatches of iron-grey sky framed her greasy hair and raggedy old coat. The greater giants of oak, elm and yew seemed to exult this monster in their midst.

Her dramatic figure was only slightly undermined by Lozzie hugging her around the middle.

“Alone?”

“Alone, shaman,” she purred.

“I … okay, I’m comfortable with that, I think, but why-”

“You gotta know we’re gonna have a problem there, big girl,” Raine said, right on cue. “Why ask, if you know I’m gonna say no?”

I sighed. “Raine, really?”

Zheng’s face split into a shark-toothed grin, slowly spreading wider and wider to show off her maw of razor-sharp teeth. Her eyes blazed at Raine with a predatory intensity to put a Komodo dragon to shame. I shivered with instinctive fear and gut-deep arousal, and clamped down on both. My mouth went dry and my stomach clenched up. Twil let out a rising growl.

“Twil, please,” I hissed.

“Because you are not the shaman’s voice,” Zheng rumbled at Raine. “Because no is not your’s to say, monkey.”

Zheng,” I managed to squeak, and had to clear my throat. Zheng refused to look at me, locked onto Raine like a tiger with her prey.

“Mine to advise, perhaps,” Raine said.

Raine’s composure was a miracle. How did she do it? Zheng’s look reminded me of the desperate, dangerous first few minutes after I’d freed her in Glasswick tower, her sheer joy in the anticipation and goading of violence. That look reduced me to jelly, triggered Twil’s defensive instincts. Even Lozzie had gone quiet and wide-eyed. But Raine stood her ground with easy calm. She rolled one shoulder in a shrug, the shoulder which wasn’t occupied with helping me stand up straight. I clutched her arm too hard, as if to anchor myself against Zheng’s effect on me.

“The fuck … ?” Twil hissed. “Fuck you two facing off for?”

“Ha!” Zheng barked. “The shaman and I were alone for hours in that tower. I carried her. Kept her head from hitting the concrete. Wrapped her up, kept her warm, kept her safe. What else did I do, hmmm?”

“Zheng!” I snapped. “Raine, nothing else happened. She rescued me, and you already know that.”

Raine shrugged with her free shoulder and another easy smile. “Heather tells me everything, Zheng, old girl. Dunno what you’re playing at here, but it ain’t working.”

“Are you sure about that, zuishou?”

“Zheng, what are you … playing … at … ” I trailed off in realisation, let out a huge sigh, and slowly disentangled my arm from Raine. She helped me stand by myself, a hand on my lower back, and I tilted my chin up.

“Shaman?” Zheng’s face-tearing grin dialled down into curious amusement.

“I know what you’re doing, and it’s not necessary. I’m sorry, Zheng.”

“Why do you want to talk to Heather-Heaths alone?” Lozzie asked, looking up at Zheng and blinking big blue eyes, still hugging her around the middle. “Why can’t I come?”

“Because she doesn’t really want to talk to me at all,” I said. “Because she’s trying to drive us off, indirectly. Isn’t that right, Zheng?”

“Mmmmmm?” Zheng rumbled low in her chest. A shiver went down my spine, but I forced my words onward, a knot of guilt in my throat.

“I’m making you do this under duress. You knew Raine would react like that, you’re taunting her on purpose, trying to provoke her. But you didn’t look like you enjoyed making that initial challenge. You don’t really want to talk to me alone – you don’t want to talk to me at all. I’ve put you in a corner somehow and I don’t understand, I’m sorry. Please, don’t make your way out through Raine?”

“Ahhhh.” Raine raised her eyebrows. “Getting shirty, trying to start to fight, all to dodge a ‘we need to talk’ moment, eh? Ouch. Don’t blame you there.”

Zheng stared at me for several heartbeats of brooding silence.

She was too beautiful, a figure from a dream I’d never known I wanted. Even with her red-chocolate skin and bronzed muscles hidden inside filthy jeans and a ragged jumper and a stolen coat, she radiated power and presence. Even dirty and greasy and stinking of sheep’s blood and forest mud, she was majestic. No clothes could conceal the heavy curves of a Greek Goddess, but the attraction ran deeper than that.

“Zheng?”

“Shaman, you barely know me.”

“Maybe, but I feel as if I do. I think I do.” The lump grew in my throat. Unconsciously, I rubbed my flank, kneading the bruises up and down my sides, the anchor-points of phantom limbs, an expression of a different place, a different body. Proximity to Zheng drew the abyssal thing in me to the surface, from the memory of what I’d once been; pain seemed to matter less, my phantom limbs wanted to reach for her, to make contact. “I feel a … a kind of kinship with you. We both came from the same place, didn’t we? Even if I wasn’t born there, it changed me. Zheng, you’re the only person, other than maybe Praem, who was … I need … please? I need your help, not just with this. We need to … I need to figure out how I feel. And we need your help, and I want you to come home, and … ”

A subtle transformation passed beneath the surface of Zheng’s face, a taint of awful melancholy and terrible, tender awe. She let out a thick, heavy sigh, like a exhaling bull.

“This is danger for all of us, shaman. You should have left me in the wild and forgotten about me.”

“Unfortunately, that’s not the sort of person I am. I like to think so, anyway.”

“And I cannot do this again.”

“Do … Zheng? Do what again?”

Zheng chuckled, a touch of her amusement returned. She shook her head. “But I can’t even begin to do it again, can I? If I fight you, zuishou,” she nodded to Raine, “I win, and the shaman hates me forever. I win, but I lose.”

“Don’t count your chickens before they hatch, big girl,” Raine said. “Might surprise you.”

“Ahhhhhh, zuishou, you tempt me,” Zheng purred, her voice dipping to a threatening rumble. She flexed her shoulders and spine, opened her jaw wide, clicking and rolling the joints. Firmly but gently she took Lozzie’s shoulder in one hand and moved her back, pulled her out of the hug.

“Uh oh,” Lozzie sing-songed as she tripped back a few paces. “Silly Zheng.”

Twil sensed it before I did, went tense all over, ghostly wolf-flesh forming up around her hands as she quickly dragged her coat back on.

“Stay out of this, Twil,” said Raine. “This ain’t yours.”

“Oh, no. No, don’t you do this,” I warned.

Raine stepped away from me. She shifted her footing, an all-too-familiar change flowing through her posture. She slipped one hand inside her coat.

A grin ripped across Zheng’s face, a rictus of savage joy.

“No!” I snapped, and raised my buckled and broken hiking stick as if I could possibly stall either of these monsters. “No fighting over-”

Zheng jinked to one side, so fast I flinched. A blur of ragged clothes, a dark whipping shape against the forest background. Raine took a single calculated step backward and drew a knife – the big knife, the big black combat knife which I was certain was not legal. She spun it over her palm and raised it in a reversed grip, so focused and wound so tight she was like a living spring of corded muscle.

Zheng’s arm flashed through the air. Raine twisted out of the way and brought the knife round in a shallow cutting arc. My eyes said that strike surely hadn’t connected, but Zheng pulled her arm back with a huge gash in the coat and jumper beneath, dripping blood into the leaves and mud.

“Better, zuishou!” Zheng roared. “Much better!”

Raine said nothing, eyes locked on the centre of Zheng’s chest; but a smile lurked at the corners of her mouth.

She slid one foot back, ready to pounce.

“No fighting over me!” I yelled at the top of my lungs, red in the face with fury.

I stepped right between Raine and Zheng and brandished the broken hiking stick at them. Phantom tentacles tried to help, tried to uncoil and spread in a warning posture, lash out to grab Raine’s knife and Zheng’s wrists – and my bruised sides exploded with twin lances of pain. I gasped and almost doubled over, wincing through my teeth, but forced myself to stay upright.

“Heather!”

“Oh shit-”

“Shaman?”

“Heather?!”

“No- fighting-” I wheezed.

Lozzie scurried over and got her shoulder underneath mine. I clung to her for support, panting for breath, my forehead covered in sudden cold sweat.

“Sha-”

“You, shut up!” I whirled – well, stumbled and reeled, caught by Lozzie – on Zheng. “No fighting!”

“Heather-”

“Raine! Put the knife away. Now, put it away! No fighting! Absolutely none. I will walk out of here on my own and all the way back to Sharrowford and I will tell Evee neither of you are allowed inside. No. Fighting.”

“See, zuishou?” Zheng shrugged. Like a tiger which had decided that playtime was over, the aggression fell from her. “The shaman does not want it. So I will not do it.”

Raine cleared her throat awkwardly, wiped her knife on a tissue, and slipped it away again. “Sorry, Heather. You holding up alright?”

“I’ll be fine,” I croaked, trying to get my breath back past the pain. “Why let her provoke you? You knew what she was doing.”

Raine didn’t even try to conceal her smirk. “It’s what I do.”

“Mm,” Zheng grunted. “We are the same there, zuishou.”

“What does ‘zuishou’ mean, anyway?” Raine asked, taking a beat to get her mouth around the unfamiliar word. “That Chinese?”

“Rival.”

“Ahhh, thought so.”

“Why does it have to be like that?” I asked, still incensed. “Why does it have to result in you two trying to pull each other’s heads off? That would make me very sad, yes. Also, very angry.”

Raine laughed. “We noticed.”

“I told you it would be this way, shaman,” Zheng purred. “Pointless.”

“Can’t we at least talk about it? About this, about … how we feel? You’re … Zheng, you’re free to leave. If you really, truly don’t want to talk to me, you can go. If you don’t want to be part of this. And I won’t try to find you again.” I managed to squeeze the words out, past a lump in my throat, as I straightened up. “Even if nothing else, I respect your freedom.”

Zheng stared at me for a moment, then broke into a rueful grin. “Shaman, you are impossible.”

“She is, ain’t she?” said Raine.

“Mm.”

“Okay then, so … can we talk?” I asked. “Please? Just me and you, I’ll quite happily talk to you alone.” I turned to Raine. “I’ll be safe. I promise. She was only trying to provoke you.”

Raine gave me an indulgent smile. “Is that a promise you can make?”

“Yeah come off it,” Twil grunted. “This is so bloody transparent. Heather, she’s a fucking demon, she’s reelin’ you in.”

“It’s not- Raine, that’s not your choice to make,” I said.

“Sorry, Heather.” Raine had the good shame to wince. “But I’m not sure I trust your judgement here.”

“Mm,” Zheng rumbled in agreement.

“Oh, so this is what you two agree about? That I can’t make my own choices?” I huffed. “Wonderful, I really pick the people who think the best of me, don’t I?”

“What is my promise worth, zuishou?” Zheng asked. “What if I promise no harm comes to a single hair on the shaman’s head?”

“You’re a demon,” Twil muttered. “Isn’t lying your thing?”

“Your promise?” Raine made a show of nodding, thinking that over. “Why change your mind though? Thought you didn’t want to talk at all?”

“The shaman will not be stopped, you and I both know that,” Zheng said with a grin. “If I run, she will find me again, and again, and again, until she asks her damn questions and decides what to do about the fire in her loins.”

“True that,” Raine said.

“Wait, what?” Twil said, frowning between Zheng and I. “What- did I- did I miss- what?”

“Love triangle,” Raine said over her shoulder. “Heather’s got the hots.”

What?” Twil boggled at me, eyes wide, mouth hanging open. “Heather, what the fuck? R-Raine, you’re like … helping?!”

I blushed hard, exasperated and rapidly losing control of the situation. Zheng rumbled with laughter. I sighed. “And this is why I was perfectly happy to talk to Zheng alone, thank you Raine.”

Twil looked like somebody had just walked over her grave. “Heather? Are you and … Raine? Oh shit, no, you two aren’t gonna break up, are you?”

“I wouldn’t worry about-” Raine started.

“No!” I actually stamped one foot. The gesture sent a shiver of pain up through my abused, bruised muscles. Lozzie turned as I did, frowning along with me. “It’s not a love triangle. I am not breaking up with Raine. I am not going to cuckold Raine. I am not betraying Raine. I am not going to be seduced away from Raine. I am trying – trying! – to figure out what to do about myself and my need to grow bloody tentacles. And what to do about Zheng. And yes, part of that is sexual, fine, yes!”

Raine let out a low whistle. My cheeks burned red.

“Then it’s a foregone conclusion,” Zheng rumbled with a dark chuckle. “Your lover has already won you.”

“And stop competing over me.” I turned on Zheng. “I won’t have it. We’re all people, not prizes.”

“Yeah! Bad Zheng!” Lozzie chirped.

Zheng raised one eyebrow, then looked over my head at Raine.

“We better do what she says, Zheng old girl,” said Raine. “You know how she gets.”

“What are you setting up here?” Twil asked, still gaping in confusion. “Some kind of weird three-way … thing?”

“I don’t know!” I snapped at her. “I don’t know. I. Don’t. Know.”

“Alright, alright, geeze. Stop with the Evee impression.”

“I’m sorry, I just … I don’t know, not yet. I need to talk to Zheng, we have to figure out … look, this is all going to be so much easier if we can just talk to each other.”

“Mmmm,” Zheng purred, watching Raine. “Then we need a pact, zuishou, you and I.”

“That sounds better,” I sighed. “Now we’re getting somewhere.”

“You and I, we don’t fight each other-”

“Not lethally, anyway,” Raine added with a smirk.

“Ever.”

Raine paused. “Ever?”

“Ever. This is not about us, zuishou.” Zheng blinked, dark and slow behind her eyes. “You and I never fight each other, because for the shaman it would be as if her left hand and right hand went to war.”

“Ex-excuse me? Zheng?” The gravity of her language made me flush, deep down in my belly, a level beyond embarrassment. My chest tightened.

“You spent a single morning with Heather,” Raine said. “But you’re her left hand?”

“That is for the shaman to understand.”

Raine glanced at me. Blushing, I nodded. “It … feels okay. I think.”

“Fair enough.”

“Whatever happens … yoshou, right hand,” Zheng rumbled at Raine. “Neither of us ever harms the shaman.”

“I’ve been driver on that train for months already,” Raine said. “You wanna hop on, be my guest.”

“You trust my intentions now?” Zheng narrowed her eyes. “You monkeys are too changeable.”

“Trusted your intentions right from the start, old girl,” Raine smirked. “You saved her life twice, after all. Figured you out before Heather did. I was just playing along, seeing where you took it.”

“Huuuh,” Zheng rumbled. “More devious than you look. Good.”

“Raine?” I gaped at her.

She shot me a wink. “Just making openings for you.”

“A pact, then, yoshou,” Zheng rumbled. “You and I. Here, now.”

“Sure thing.” Raine rolled her shoulders, limbering up. “Seal the deal. What do we do?”

“I cannot believe you two are doing this over me,” I blustered, flushed in the face and unable to believe my ears. “Can’t we just agree to talk? Can’t we-”

Zheng placed one huge hand on my head. “Doesn’t concern you, shaman. This is between me and her.”

“Yeah. Making a pact with a demon,” Raine said. “That’s my business.”

“Oh I don’t believe you two,” I hissed.

“We need a bear,” Zheng said. “One that has eaten human flesh. We kill it together, share the meat, make the vow.”

“Bear?” Twil squinted. “We’re not in fucking Canada.”

“Yes, you might have trouble finding a bear here,” I said with a sigh.

“Fluids then. Blood,” Zheng said. “You have a knife. We cut.” She drew her hand over her palm. “We shake.”

Raine took out her knife from her jacket and slid it half out of the sheath, then paused with a raised eyebrow. “Dunno how things were when you were little, but the twenty first century’s a little messier. You haven’t got any blood-borne diseases, have you?”

Zheng rolled a shrug. “I have yet to meet a disease that can survive me.”

“It’s a good point though,” I said. “Don’t make yourself ill doing this, Raine. It’s silly enough already.”

“Spit will do,” Zheng rumbled. She raised her right hand to her face and hawked a huge glob of saliva into her palm. Raine smirked, and followed suit as Zheng held her hand out.

Under the rustling canopy, surrounded by the sputtering mist of rain, my lover shook hands with a creature from the abyss, in an agreement to protect me – from myself, or from each other? I wasn’t sure. This situation had left me behind several moves ago.

I couldn’t stop blushing, caught between outrage and a secret, unspeakable enjoyment. On one hand I was almost offended. I, who’d swam the abyss, who’d defied the leviathans of the deep, who had inhabited a body of starlight and mathematics stronger than anything one might find on this plane of reality, did not need my friends and lovers to make a pact of protection.

On the other hand, I was small and scrawny and two of the most attractive people I knew were bonding over me. That lit a white-hot fire in my belly and made me squirm inside. A thrill went down my spine, and ended as low as it could go.

Bad, mad Heather, I cursed myself. Not the time or place.

Zheng and Raine parted again. Raine wiped her hand on her jeans.

“We are both the shaman’s now,” Zheng purred. “But alone still stands. We talk alone.”

“You’re not gonna spirit her away into the woods, though?” Raine asked. “You do that, we got a problem again.”

“Monkey nonsense,” Zheng purred. “We walk. You and the laangren stay out of earshot. You too, mooncalf.”

“But why?” Lozzie repeated. She pouted at Zheng and puffed both cheeks out, then let go of me and bounced up and down on restless toes. “You know I know all the things about you, don’t you? We talked in the dreams sooo much, I know all about where you were made and what you did for years and years and everything! All the things! You don’t want everyone to hear because it’s personal and private but I’m already personal and private so why can’t I come?”

Zheng blinked three times, then chuckled, a sound like granite rocks being rubbed together. “Very well, mooncalf. You can come.”

“Should’a said that at the start,” Raine muttered.

“Yaaay! Up? Up!” Lozzie threw her hands in the air.

“Up?”

“Up! Up! Climb?” Lozzie bit her bottom lip, eyes wide with expectant desire. Zheng tilted her head to one side, frowning. I wondered if she had as much issue with the dream-memories as I did.

“Up,” she echoed. “Yes, mooncalf. Up you go!”

And without another word, Lozzie suddenly swarmed up Zheng’s side, all legs and arms. Zheng bent slightly to accommodate her, to give her a foothold on a thigh, a handhold on a shoulder. With a hup and a heave and a handful of Zheng’s hair, Lozzie climbed the giant like a true monkey, swung one leg over Zheng’s head, and sat on her shoulders, braided hair swaying.

“Tall now!” Lozzie announced with a giggle. Zheng placed both hands on Lozzie’s thighs to keep her steady.

“Hahaha, what the fuck?” Twil laughed.

“The mooncalf gets. Come along, little monkeys. I’ll show you where I sleep. We’ll talk there.”

==

Zheng led us back into the deep heart of the woods, through the undergrowth and past fallen trees, wrapped in the static of rain on leaves. Far above our heads, held at bay beyond the green canopy, the roiling clouds refused to burst into storm.

Lozzie’s nightmare spirit friends followed us a way, stomping along, their huge tentacles dragging across tree bark and dipping to the forest floor to investigate old stones or fallen branches, but eventually they dropped behind, distracted by the ineffable needs of pneuma-somatic life. Lozzie twisted on Zheng’s shoulders to wave goodbye, almost tumbling off before one of Zheng’s huge hands caught her around the waist.

A tentacle rose from the woods in answer, thirty feet up.

Part of me wanted to wave too, but I don’t think the spirits would have appreciated that.

Raine took my broken, buckled hiking stick and gave me her one instead. She seemed entirely comfortable with how events were unfolding, but if our roles had been reversed I doubted I could have said the same for myself. No hint of anticipation in the way she walked, no concealed discomfort, no worried tension; her faith in me was unshakable. I wasn’t sure how to feel about that. I was about to discuss – among other things – matters of the heart with a person I’d admitted to being deeply, wildly attracted to. Where was the jealousy, the possessiveness, the protective hand?

Twil gave me funny looks the whole way.

“What?” she grunted when I gave her one back.

“I know this is strange, Twil. I’m sorry for dragging you here.”

She shrugged, hands wide. “No judgement. Just, fuck, Heather, and I thought my deal was complicated.”

I sighed. “Your ‘deal’ is crystal clear. It’s not complex at all.”

“Yeah, but … ” She glanced at Raine, two paces ahead, and lowered her voice. “Feels like it.”

“Evee’s not complex,” Raine threw back over her shoulder. “You just gotta let her shout it out a bit before you jump her.”

“W-what?” Twil went wide-eyed. “Fuck me, does everyone know?”

“It has been extremely obvious,” I said. Twil’s shoulders slumped. She grumbled, red in the face, and hunched up at Raine’s good-natured laughter.

Zheng’s route took us back to the edge of the shallow woodland valley, the opposite direction along the near-invisible overgrown path, dotted with ancient fencepost stubs and the looming ridge-line of concrete bars which jutted out from the earth. She led us up the ridge. No easy climb for me. Raine had to take my hand and help me up. We followed the ridge another hundred feet or so, to a place where it turned sharply and vanished into a thicker, deeper part of the woods.

On the sharp turn sat the ruined shell of a wartime pillbox.

“Here,” Zheng purred.

Grey concrete, clad in a second skin of dry lichen, had long ago been split by the irresistible forces of nature; a tree had grown through one of the pillbox’s foot-thick walls. The roof had partially collapsed, fallen to fill the single, cramped room below and form a sort of sloped floor, open to the woodland air and shadowy light. The fortuitous angle of the ridge prevented any pooling of stagnant rainwater. A bank of packed earth had once protected the sides and rear of the pillbox, but was now covered in a carpet of spring bluebells.

Zheng sprang up onto the ragged concrete wall, and then settled herself down cross-legged on the largest single slab of fallen roof. Lozzie wobbled on her shoulders, arms out for balance, then hopped off with a bounce of one wellington boot, staring around at the shattered concrete shell.

“You’re sleeping in a ruin?” Twil asked, peering around the pillbox’s now-pointless doorway, choked solid with rubble. “Cool!”

“Slept in worse places, worse times,” Zheng purred, a slow smile showing all her teeth. “It is dry, it is solid. It does not roll, and you can’t fall out of it.”

“You could sleep in an actual bed, if you want,” I said, slowly working my way up the side of the earthen bank with my hiking stick, onto the cracked slope of the collapsed roof. Next to me, Raine tested the concrete with her foot.

“Looks safe enough,” she said. “Packed solid, nothing else left to fall. Better than the mud.”

“Mm,” Zheng grunted. “Alone.”

“Yeah yeah.” Twil rolled her eyes.

“One last time,” Raine said to me, and took my free hand. “You’re absolutely certain about this, Heather?”

I nodded, a lump in my throat. “Nothing to be nervous about, I’m just going to talk to her. About coming home. About tentacles. About … well, us.”

“She is safe with me, yoshou,” Zheng purred.

“I believe you,” Raine said to her, but never broke eye contact with me. Those beautiful brown eyes, alert and intelligent, saw through me in ways I barely understood, despite that Raine and I shared a bed every night. How could she – how could anybody – be comfortable with their lover in this situation?

For a split-second I saw behind the calm in the depths of her eyes. A devotion that made me feel small.

“Raine?” I murmured her name.

The spell broke. Raine kissed me on the forehead. “Alright. Twil and I’ll be just over there.” She nodded off to the side, along the ridge.

“We will? What?” Twil frowned.

“We’ll have a chat of our own. I’m gonna give you some sage advice, little lassie, about how to get into Evee’s panties.”

“Fuck you! Oh, for fuck’s sake, I’m all just a big bloody joke, aren’t I?” Twil stomped off, throwing two fingers up behind her. “Fuck you, Raine!”

Raine laughed, then in a flash of motion she turned back and planted a surprise kiss on my lips. In full view of everyone except Twil.

In full view of Zheng.

Sudden and rough, forceful and deep, the kiss took my breath away. Raine slipped a hand up my front, quick and hidden by the angle of our bodies. I squeaked into her mouth, and she pulled back, a dark smolder in her eyes.

“R-Raine?” I squeaked.

She let go of me, stepped back, and winked. Before I could splutter for an explanation, she turned away and jogged off after Twil. I touched my fingertips to my lips, my heart racing from her sudden aggression.

Calculated aggression. She’d gotten Twil to turn away, then made her point. To me – or to Zheng?

Had I gotten Raine all wrong, all this time?

She wasn’t comfortable with this at all.

“Oh God, Raine, say something first,” I hissed to myself.

I glanced over at Zheng, but she seemed unconcerned, watching me in slow contemplation. Lozzie was busy wriggling into Zheng’s lap like a small puppy looking for warmth.

“Um … ” I swallowed, still red in the face. “I’m sorry, I think she was trying to make you jealous, maybe.”

“Jealous?”

“Yes, I-”

“Monkey nonsense.”

“ … you mean, you’re not jealous?”

Zheng shrugged. If she did care, then she was doing a very good job of hiding her emotions. “Sit down, shaman.”

“Oh, yes, that’s probably a good place to start, right.”

I pulled myself together and decided to take a seat against the trunk of the tree which had ruined the side of the pillbox decades ago. Hardly the most comfortable surrogate chair I’d ever sat in, but the concrete was mostly dry and broad enough for my scrawny self. I smoothed my coat underneath my backside and got settled a little ways from Zheng, at a safe distance. My feet throbbed inside the over-sized wellington boots, sore from all the walking. Zheng ignored me, stroking Lozzie’s hair as the girl snuggled into her lap.

“Say your piece, shaman.”

“It’s not a piece. Oh Zheng, I don’t even know where to start.” I glanced off to the the left, back along the ridge. Raine and Twil stood about fifty feet away, talking among the trees. Twil had her hood up and her face down, shoulders sulky and glum. Raine was laughing at something. Even at this distance, I recognised that grin. “Zheng, why didn’t you want to talk to me? Why is this dangerous?”

“All animals avoid pain.”

“I’m going to cause you pain?” I asked.

She blinked a slow blink at me, then sighed, a huge sigh worthy of a giant. An old, aching melancholy came over her, deep in her eyes and in every muscle of her body. For the very first time since I’d freed Zheng in that blood-soaked, empty flat in Glasswick tower, I had a dim, half-seen sense of just how old she was. Of a weight unseen.

Zheng stretched her shoulders and rolled her neck, puffed her chest out. I noticed the gash Raine had cut in her arm was healed already, the blood dried on her sleeve.

“You are too much like her, shaman.”

My ears pricked up. “Who? You said that once before. Who is ‘she’? Who are you comparing me to?”

“You never stop, you never give in. You plan to make war on Laoyeh.” She shook her head. “You are too much, shaman.”

“Who was she, Zheng?”

Ciremedie,” Lozzie said, small and serious. She bit her lip and ducked her head, as if expecting Zheng’s anger.

The demon-host chuckled softly and stroked Lozzie’s hair. “Ciremedie. ‘Little bird’.”

“And who was … Si-rem-a-day?” I struggled to pronounce the name. Not Chinese, that was certain, and the name didn’t sound Mongolian either, from what little I’d heard Lozzie or Zheng speak before.

“Ciremedie,” Zheng repeated. “Let it flow, shaman.”

“Ciremedie. Ciremedie.” I tried a couple more times. “I like it, it’s a very pretty name. It’s not Mongolian, is it? I always assumed your first language was Mongolian.”

Zheng shook her head. “Further north, shaman. Much further.”

I pictured a rough world map in my head, and frowned. “Siberia?”

“Mongrel Rus word,” Zheng sneered. “It had no name. It was the great forest, and it went on forever, covered the world, for us.”

“Us?”

Zheng shrugged. “Monkeys. My monkeys. The first. As close as I ever came to being one of you.”

“That’s where you were … brought here? Made? In a Siberian – I’m sorry, I don’t have a better name for it – a Siberian forest?”

“Mm.”

I hesitated, gulped, and gathered my courage. “Who was Ciremedie?”

Zheng stared at me, a molten darkness in her eyes, sullen and reluctant. For a moment I was certain this was the line for her, this was all I was going to get. Any kinship with her would remain theory alone, because even a demon has her secrets.

Then, finally, she sighed another gargantuan sigh. She stroked Lozzie’s head, and spoke to a point on the ground, not to me.

“Her parents named her ‘little bird’ because she was a sickly child. She grew slow, not like the stronger girls in the clan, not even like her elder sister. Something had gotten to her in the womb, leeched her vitality away, poisoned her body. But she was clever, born with a fast mind and obscure gifts. She spoke whole sentences before she was a year old. She saw omens in clouds, in the entrails of dogs, in the pattern of moose prints in snow. She predicted when people would die, and she was right eight out of ten times.”

The forest itself bent to listen. I dared not breathe too loud lest I interrupt.

“The alma took a liking to her,” Zheng continued. “Taught her … huh, monkey nonsense, but some of it worked. Some of it was real. And raw.” Zheng fell into brooding silence for a moment before she resumed. “When Ciremedie was eight years old, her elder sister died in an accident. She fell in the river and drowned. Useless body, no air and the whole thing stops working, mm? Wearing too many layers of fur and hide, dragged her down, filled her lungs with icy water. She drowned, but they fished her corpse up downstream an hour later. Still fresh. Little bird, she knew things by then, things no adult mind could contain. She convinced the alma and her parents that she could bring her beloved sister back from the dead, if only they let her try.”

“Oh,” I murmured, and knew exactly where this was going.

Zheng looked up, right at me, as if only just reminded I was even here. “Those people had none of the tools wizards do. No magic circles, no ritual language, no knowledge to bind or control. They would have if they could, because you monkeys are all the same in the end. But they couldn’t. They could only grope for something to summon back into the dead body. They had mushrooms and smoke, exhaustion and chanting, bent their monkey minds around the truth with brute force. Ciremedie was a shaman, not a wizard.”

Zheng spoke the words like a challenge. Her tone made my throat close up. Even Lozzie looked like she wanted to squeak and shrink away.

“Okay,” I said. “Okay, Zheng. Okay.”

“Mm.” Zheng grunted. “Why am I telling you this, shaman? Why must you know? Why do I want to?”

“Because I’m your friend,” I said. A reflex, a truth without thought.

Zheng laughed, a deep belly-chuckle. “A friend! Yes, shaman, you are like her. Ha!”

“If you held her in high regard, I count that as a compliment.”

“She dived into the darkest sea. You’ve been there, shaman. You know the – abyss? That is the word you’re using. Fitting. That place should have devoured her, but she was clever enough to change, to adapt, to leave behind the limitations of being a monkey. She dived into the abyss thinking it the underworld, thinking she could drag back her sister’s soul.” Zheng sat up and breathed out like a bellows. She spread her arms and grinned that shark-toothed grin. “Instead, she caught me.”

I nodded, and found my eyes watering. “Then I have something else in common with her too. I went there to find my sister as well.”

“Mm. You did, shaman.” Zheng deflated again. “Her face was the first thing I saw, lying on her side in a tent full of smoke. The clan had no idea what to do with either of us. I wasn’t the only piece of the abyss my little bird had brought back with her. She couldn’t recall how to be human. Could barely talk. Couldn’t wipe her own arse for weeks.”

Zheng trailed off into the labyrinth of memory. Her eyes seemed so far away. Lozzie bit her lip, worried.

“What happened to her?” I prompted after a moment.

“She was eight years old, small,” Zheng said. “But then so was I, at first. This body was, mmmm, twenty-three? Twenty-four? Didn’t matter. I made it bigger over time, grew into it, learnt how it works. Made my bones strong, my flesh new. Didn’t take them long to figure out I wasn’t the dead girl, I was something else. Ancestor, spirit-lord, sun-emissary, something from the dark. They were afraid to name me. But she called me sister, even though she knew more than any other that I was not. Even when she grew into an adult and I kept growing.”

“She must have been very kind.”

“Mm.”

“So, she was like a real sister to you?” Even as I asked, I knew it was the wrong question, and winced inside.

Zheng shook her head. “No, shaman. Not like a sister.”

“Ah. Yes. You loved her.”

“Mm.” Zheng grunted. “But not at first. At first, I didn’t even know what I was, and neither did the clan. They threw me meat, whole deer carcases, dogs with their bellies cut open, buckets worth of alcohol. They threw me young men as well, and a woman or two in case I didn’t take, but I had no idea what to do with any of them. Ha! I picked up their language quickly. Monkey chatter, always been easy. I fought a bear – one that had gotten a taste for human flesh, and that was when I became one of them.”

“And … Ciremedie?”

“I was hers,” Zheng purred, but slowly trailed off as she spoke, circling something she didn’t want to touch. “I was with her, and for her. She taught me how to speak, how to feel, how to be. How to be a like a monkey. She grew up, but she was always crippled, always broken by the fire she’d stolen from the gods, no idea how to wield it, and it burned her. Shaman, yes, and brilliant, but mad, lost. I hunted – bear, deer. Made war on other clans. Lived. My shaman, my … ” Zheng trailed off to nothing.

“ … what happened?”

Zheng roused herself and fixed me with a dark look. I shuddered, and none of it was good. Old anger, old, wordless, boundless frustration and rage.

“She did what all you monkeys do eventually, peasant or khan. She died.”

“Oh. Oh, Zheng-”

“A very long time ago,” Zheng rumbled. She turned her gaze from me and into the woods. Lozzie seemed very small in her lap. For a long, long moment she said nothing, breathing too hard, and then muttered, “I cannot do this again, shaman.”

I sat in uncomfortable silence, searching for the right thing to say, for anything to say. I felt like a blistering idiot. Of course Zheng’s maker – Zheng’s lover? – had died. This was hundreds of years ago, in pre-Russian Siberia. Zheng was older than I’d imagined.

“What … ” I ventured, had to find a way to keep her talking while I processed this. “What did you do? How did you end up … not in Siberia?”

Zheng shrugged. The melancholy did not leave her, but something simple and blunt and brutal crept over to cover it. She looked at me again as she spoke. “I went into the forest, and I didn’t come back. I wanted to be an animal again, didn’t want to think like a monkey. Memory, emotion, curses to be endured. I drifted south, through the forests. Five decades, give or take. Time doesn’t matter when you lose your sense of self. I drove it away.”

“Oh, Zheng.”

“The edge of the forest met me, in time. And so did the horsemen.”

“The … Mongolia?”

“Mmmmm,” Zheng purred. “On the steppes. They brought me down with nets and arrows and spears. Took a dozen warriors with me, and fifteen horses. Took them three whole days, the bastards! Ha!” She grinned, full of glee at the memory of a truly good fight, but then darkened as she spoke onward. “Then they brought Song iron, chains and manacles, bastard mongrel Han wizards whose guts aren’t worth shitting in. They dragged me into a camp and used twenty horses to hold me in place as they laid the first lines.” She lifted the hem of her jumper to show the toned bronze of her abdomen, the remains of the tattoos I’d ruined, and ran one fingertip along the circle I’d cut from the infinitely dense mass of black tattoos.

“They enslaved you? Why?” I frowned, incensed. This was a long time ago indeed, but Zheng’s dark fury was fresh and real.

“Because they were building an empire, shaman. Empires always enslave.” She shrugged. “But at first, I didn’t care.”

“You didn’t?”

“The leash was so long it was invisible. All I cared about was eating and killing, and the khans gave me plenty of that. They set me amongst their enemies and I enjoyed it. The Song, the Rus, the Arab.” She smiled again, showing her teeth. “The Magyars, that was where I first changed hands. Monkeys wearing metal shells, ha!” Zheng laughed at the absurdity.

“Knights?”

“Mm. I spent a … a long time. A century? Mm, in the basement of some monastery, in a magic circle, until a monk divined the correct words to write on my skin to stop me from eating his flesh. Then it began, the long chain of slavery, passed from wizard to wizard when one group died or took over another. Lots of waiting. Years of waiting. At one point I was upside down in a well for seven years. Sometimes my memories get fuzzy, the wards were too strong, but sometimes … ” She grinned a dark, savage grin. “Wizards, always so afraid they would lose control of me. I was so much older than anything they could summon. And sometimes they did, and I killed them. But never freedom. Spent so long leashed and bound. Sometimes the leash was short, sometimes long. But always there.” She spoke with broken awe, melancholy and hurt, like a wounded lion. “Until now. Until you, shaman.”

“I only … ” I found a lump in my throat. “Zheng, I only did what was right. Anyone would. That doesn’t mean I’m your reincarnated lover.”

“No, but you are too much like her, shaman. Like her if she came back whole. You are a natural leader, but you don’t see it.”

“I’m- Zheng, I’m not a leader of anything.”

“Wizards make poor leaders, but I’ve known plenty of others. You monkeys think leadership is about power – or willpower, to bind, to impose, to command. But it’s not. True leadership is about love.”

I blinked. That was not a word I’d expected from Zheng. “Love?”

“Mmmm,” she purred. “Love, shaman. It is why I’m yours. You should have left me in the wild and forgotten about me, because now you’ll never be rid of me.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

nostalgia for infinity – 9.6

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Twil’s wellington boots – silvery grey and well-worn – scuffed to a stop, squelching into the leaf mulch as she raised her nose and sniffed the air.

“Everyone uh … uh, hold on a sec?”

“Twil?”

I stumbled to a stop too, leaning on my hiking stick and wincing as my phantom tentacles tried to help halt my momentum. Lozzie bounced on a few paces, then turned and scurried back, peeking over my shoulder.

“She’s got a scent!” Lozzie hissed.

“Is it her?” Raine asked. “How close?”

Twil sniffed again, a series of short sharp inhalations followed by several deeper breaths. She turned this way and that, craned her head around. A subtle change flowed through the set of her shoulders and the manner in which she held herself. Grumpy, sulky, rained-upon Twil fell away, replaced by a wide-alert animal, eyes swivelling and fixing on tiny movements, nose twitching, ears cocked.

“Twil, hey, don’t keep us in the dark,” Raine hissed.

“Shhhh!” Twil hissed back.

The green canopy rustled overhead. A squirrel hopped silently up a nearby tree trunk. The forest floor drummed with intermittent raindrops from the leaves above. My own breathing sounded like a steam engine in my ears.

“Yeah,” Twil eventually hissed through bared teeth. “Gotta be her. Close. Been here in the last … I dunno.” She sniffed deeply again. “Ten minutes? Nothing else smells like that. That’s her. That’s Zheng.”

After our encounter with Zheng’s leftovers, we’d plunged back into the woods, past the meat-stripped, bone-gnawed sheep corpses and the murder of crows eager to resume their carrion meal. The forest had closed around us once again, insulated against the wind, consolidated the thin misty rain into an occasional patter of fat droplets. The sky, visible through breaks in the tree cover, grew gravid with rain, a darker, brooding grey. Raine had unfolded the thin anorak she’d brought along for Lozzie, and I’d convinced Lozzie to wear it over her poncho in case the clouds broke without warning.

But the deluge never came.

At the time Twil picked up Zheng’s scent, we’d been walking for another fifteen or twenty minutes, and discovered the remains of an old path. It was overgrown, almost invisible but for the high ridge up one side, lined by the ragged remnants of fenceposts rotted down to stubs, a few scraps of rusty barbed wire still affixed, all drowned in clusters of spring bluebells. Further up the ridge a line of sharply angled concrete posts jutted from the ground, covered in moss and lichen, untouched for decades. Each post was almost six feet tall.

“Tank traps,” Raine had informed me when she’d seen the curious look on my face, as we’d plodded along. “From the ‘40s.”

“ … you’re joking.”

Raine smiled, delighted to surprise me with something I didn’t know for once. “Nah, serious. That angle? Those concrete sticks were meant to snarl up panzer tracks. This whole area – like, the gap between Manchester and Liverpool, and out toward Sharrowford – this was all crisscrossed with wartime defence lines.” She nodded up at the old concrete posts. “Not worth the work to remove from woodland in the middle of nowhere. Bet if we searched we’d find a couple of old pillboxes or bunkers too.” She shrugged. “Urban explorer types probably have them all mapped out.”

“Yeah,” Twil had chipped in from a few paces ahead. “There’s this old concrete bunker near Brinkwood too. S’pretty cool. Roof fell in when I was a kid though.”

History, both ancient and modern, lurked beneath the surface of this landscape at every turn. Scuff at the ground with a boot, and one would likely turn up Roman coins and Victorian tobacco pipes. We forged along that forgotten track until it dipped to meet the edge of a shallow valley in the woods, with a brook at the bottom, the banks a mess of animal-churned mud and driftwood sticks.

And then Twil had caught Zheng’s scent.

“ … so like … what now?” Twil hissed. She looked to me, then to Raine, for help.

“You’re the hunter, Twil.” Raine grinned. “You’re up.”

“What?! That wasn’t part of the deal, come on. I’ve never hunted a demon before. What if she … I dunno, what if she doesn’t want to be found?”

“Hide and seek!” Lozzie whispered.

“Then you gotta prove you’re the better hunter, right?” Raine said. “You-”

I turned away, cupped my hands around my mouth, and called out at the top of my lungs. “Zheng!”

Raine winced, even past her indulgent smile. Twil growled a grumbly growl. Lozzie danced two paces away from my shoulder and stared around, as if Zheng’s answer might come from any direction.

“It’s me!” I shouted. “I’m not alone, but it’s me! Zheng!”

The woods swallowed my voice, and returned no echoes. Raindrops and wind filled the air.

“Well shit.” Twil gave me a look. “If she doesn’t wanna be found, she’s got plenty of warning now.”

“If she doesn’t want to be found, we’re not going to find her,” I said, watching for movement out in the trees.

“Oh great, thanks,” Twil huffed. “Thanks for the vote of confidence, yeah.”

“That’s not what I meant, I’m sorry, Twil. I wouldn’t insult you, you know that. I mean that I’m here to appeal to her. Not to corner, not to coerce.”

“Huh.” Twil dipped her head. “Alright, I guess. Sorry.”

“Yeah, best refrain from cornering the seven foot killing machine, right?” Raine said. “Trust me, I’ve been there. She’s too fast for you, Twil.”

“Fuck’s sake, why’s everybody ragging on me?”

“She’s not a killing machine,” I said softly. “Zheng’s a person, whatever she was before she came to our reality.”

A moment of silence passed.

“Ahhh, I’m sorry Heather,” Raine said after a beat. “Silly turn of phrase, that’s all. You know me, leaping before I look.”

“It’s okay,” I muttered, feeling my cheeks flush as I watched the woods. “I just … well, it’s not as if you’re wrong. There’s fewer spirits here, I suspect they’re keeping well away from her. The only ones I can see are big enough to make even her think twice.”

I cast a glance sideways, across the tree-choked span of the shallow valley. The only visible spirit stood on the other side, another one of those lorry-sized tar-black things with the three massive hooves. It stood stock-still. Pretending to be a tree, perhaps?

“What does she smell like?” I asked.

“What, Zheng?” Twil blinked at me. “Kinda spicy.”

“Spicy?” My turn to frown at her.

“Yeah. Like blood and iron and … strong? Hot?” Twil grimaced, struggling for for a metaphor. “Mostly human, I guess? Like her body’s human, right? She hasn’t bathed in weeks, so there’s some like, regular stink too. But she’s got a high-meat diet, she’s the biggest carnivore around, and she’s got a higher body temp, so, spicy. Yeah.”

Lozzie cupped her hands around her mouth, and called out into the woods.

Garch irij baina! Zheeeeng!”

Twil frowned at her. “ … what?”

“Come out come out wherever you are,” Lozzie sung the translation.

“Was that Mongolian again?” I asked. She nodded. “Zheng’s native language.”

Twil squinted. “She doesn’t have a native language, she’s some wibbly-wobbly demon in a meat suit.”

“Where she grew up does matter,” I said gently.

“She ain’t comin’, no matter what language we shout in,” Raine said, and set the tip of her hiking stick a pace ahead. “Might be out of earshot, might be asleep. Might be waiting to see if we can find her. Might not wanna be found.”

Or she might not be thinking like a human being anymore.

I kept that grim hypothesis to myself. Zheng was dangerous, we all knew that, but my gut said she’d never harm me. She’d saved my life, she’d gone out of her way to help me multiple times. Lozzie was our trump card. Zheng had treated her ‘mooncalf’ with a tender reverence I’d thought impossible. Whatever fears Evelyn had about her, Zheng was not going to maul us in a fit of animalistic behaviour. To think in such a way was an insult to the trust she’d previously placed in me.

Wasn’t it?

If all else failed, well, Twil was effectively invincible.

“Heather?” Raine prompted. I snapped back to the moment.

“Um. Yes, we should keep going then,” I forced out. “Please be careful. If she … ” I wet my lips and shrugged. We all knew it, but I couldn’t say it.

Raine nodded. Twil bared her teeth. Lozzie didn’t seem to understand.

“Twil, you move as fast as you need to,” Raine said. “We’ll catch up.”

Twil cracked a wolfish grin. “Fat chance, slowpoke. I shit faster than you run.”

Lozzie snort-giggled at that one.

Despite the banter, we slowed to a crawl. Twil led, sniffing and stalking like a hound on a fox trail, nose in the air, eyes darting back and forth to take in every new line of sight around the bole of each tree. She took each step slow, as if noise might disturb her prey. She’d rarely looked more wolf-like without transformation. Eventually she even flipped her hood down and tucked her curly dark hair into the back of her coat to keep it out of the way, and endured the occasional raindrop. Now and then she paused, head cocked to one side, listening for a pattern in the endless static of rain and leaves. Each time she grit her teeth and shook her head, and resumed the creeping pursuit.

Raine, Lozzie, and I trailed behind. Lozzie stuck close to my side, seemingly impressed by the need for quiet. She wore a serious little frown, lips pursed tight, and moved on exaggerated tiptoes in the leaf-mush. Raine brought up the rear right behind us, head on a swivel, contributing what attention she could.

We left the shallow valley behind, lost the old eroded footpath, and entered an area of the woods marked by several fallen trees. Their root systems lay half-exposed to the air in great ragged masses of woody tendril and crumbly clay, like the open mouths of gigantic mud-beasts, even after years of decay and fungus had turned the fallen trunks spongy and slick.

“S’getting stronger,” Twil hissed over her shoulder. “She’s around here, gotta be.”

As we passed the third such fallen tree, Twil froze mid-step.

Lozzie and I blundered to a halt, clinging awkwardly to each other. I tried to hold my breath, but my sides ached too bad, stiff and sore from all the walking.

Raine froze too. “Twi-”

“Shhh!” Twil stared at a point off in the trees, but I couldn’t see anything except bark and branches and a tangle of holly bush. Twil raised her nose and sniffed the air several times, deep slow breaths. “Reeks of her,” Twil whispered, ultra-quiet, barely a breath. “She’s right nearby or I’m losing my head.”

“You see her?” Raine whispered.

“Fuck, I dunno.” Twil hunched, readying to spring after fleeing prey.

“I’m going to call out to her,” I hissed, then filled my lungs.

Twil bared her teeth. “Don’t-”

“Zheng!”

Something big and brown and skittish flickered among the trees, bounding away in a sudden startled flinch. Something that had been right in front of me but invisible against the tangled background. I blinked in surprise – and Twil exploded forward.

She went from zero to sprint in an instant, suddenly all wolf all over, her ghostly flesh flowing together as she loped across the forest floor after the bolting prey, kicking up leaves and a spray of loose mud. She sprang with both legs, leapt, and plunged into the holly bushes. The sounds of her feet raced away on the far side, off into the depths of the wood.

Three seconds, and she was gone.

“Was … um,” I stammered. “Was that a … ?”

“Oops!” Lozzie chirped.

Raine was too busy to answer, bent over in laughter with her hands on her knees. I couldn’t keep a smile off my face either, trying to cover my amusement behind one hand.

“What do we do now?” I asked.

“Give her a sec, she’ll come back,” said Raine. “‘Less she’s too embarrassed.”

Twil trudged back through the trees a couple of minutes later, blushing hard, dusting bits of leaf and twig off her coat. Tiny scratches from the holly bushes covered her face and hands, already closing with werewolf healing as she wiped the blood away with a thumb.

“Having fun?” Raine asked, a huge, shit-eating grin on her face.

“Yeah yeah,” Twil grumbled. “I was on a hair-trigger, alright?” She sniffed the air. “Place still stinks of her, she must have been round here a couple ‘o minutes back or something. We gotta be right behind her.”

“Did you catch it?!” Lozzie asked.

“What?” Twil blushed harder. “Nah, ‘course not.”

“Twil, I’m sorry,” I said, “but did you just chase a deer?”

Twil sighed, shoulders slumping.

“We should set you up a track rabbit, like for greyhounds,” Raine said. “Let you get it out of your system.”

“Yeah fuck off,” Twil snapped. “I couldn’t help it.”

“You know,” I said, as an idea occurred to me. “That’s not a bad starting point.”

“What?” Twil frowned at me. “Heather, you’re cool, but you can fuck off too.”

“No no, that’s not what I meant. I mean, Twil, maybe you need somebody to chase around now and again?”

“Heather! Fuck! Shut up!”

Twil blushed even harder, stammering a defence. Lozzie giggled. Raine pretended polite incomprehension. I opened my mouth to expound upon the point as much as propriety would allow.

And Zheng dropped out of the sky.

For a split-second none of us knew what was happening. Too fast, too sudden, too big. Zheng fell as a blur in a rapid leap from tree trunk to tree trunk so she hit the ground at less than leg-breaking velocity. She landed right on top of us, a whirlwind of flapping coat and dead leaves thrown into the air, boots slamming into the mud and shaking us like a beaten drum.

She must have been hiding in the treetops, statue-still, perhaps not even breathing, with the hood of her stolen waxed coat turned up to conceal the dark thatch of her hair.

I shrieked in surprise and flinched so hard I almost fell over. Phantom tentacles rushed to help, to hold me up, and managed only to pierce my sides with convulsive pain. A gasp caught in my throat, but Lozzie caught me, interrupting her own yelp of shock.

Twil’s ghostly wolf-flesh flowed back together, a growl in her throat.

Raine moved to step in front of me, one hand reaching into her coat.

“No, it’s-” I started.

But in the split-second it took me to scream and stumble, Raine and Twil had read her correctly. Zheng straightened in a flicker of motion, seven feet of rippling muscle wrapped in a baggy old jumper and ragged jeans, face hidden deep inside the shadows of her hood. I expected a rumble of greeting, a laugh, a purr, for her to turn to me and call me ‘shaman’.

She whipped around with one hand out, so fast she blurred, and grabbed a fistful of Twil’s coat.

My heart lurched.

Raine drew her pistol.

“Zheng, no!” I screamed.

Zheng lunged and I saw the trajectory her fist would take, where momentum would carry her strike – right into Twil’s skull.

Worst case scenario. Zheng had attacked us on sight. Evelyn was right.

Twil tried to backpedal with a fighting growl in her throat, but she wasn’t fast enough. She lashed out with a clawed hand and missed, snapped at empty air with a snout full of teeth as Zheng bore down on her, towered over her. Raine tried to aim her handgun, barely a split-second of time to draw a bead on Zheng. Everything was going too fast, they all needed to stop, this was a terrible misunderstanding. Zheng was my friend, my ally, I’d freed her, this couldn’t be happening, if only I had time to say something. My flanks shuddered with pain as phantom limbs tried to reach out and stop her, bind her, as instinct told me exactly how to end this. I almost let them, I almost gave in.

But Lozzie was laughing.

Twil slipped in the mud and her feet went out from under her. The giant zombie had her, fist about to crack her skull, ghost-flesh or not.

At the last second, Zheng executed a perfect pirouette and span past Twil. She used the motion to tear Twil’s coat off in one fluid tug, and sent a very confused werewolf tumbling into the mud.

As she spun, I caught a flash of face-ripping, shark-toothed victory grin.

“Fuck, wha-” Twil spluttered.

Zheng landed the twist with a slam of one boot, facing away from us. She threw back her head, let out a roar of laughter, and sprinted for the cover of the woods.

She leapt a fallen log in a blur of coat and boot, and vanished among the trees. A heartbeat later the sounds of her crashing through the undergrowth simply stopped. She’d melted back into the forest. Gone, silent and invisible.

“God fucking- what- what the fuck!?” Twil staggered to her feet, all human once more, a great big slick of mud down her back and bum. Her hoodie was all askew and she tottered off-balance from being spun like a top. “She took my fucking coat! You bitch!”

“It’s the trophy game!” Lozzie chirped, a big smile on her face.

“The what!?” Twil boggled at her.

“Raine, I think you can put that away,” I said, swallowing down the pain in my sides as I forced a deep breath. Raine glanced at me, her handgun still aimed off into the woods where Zheng had vanished. She looked from me, to Twil, to her gun, then lowered the pistol and puffed out a held breath.

“Sorry. Thought she might … you know.”

I nodded. “I know. She won’t. She was laughing.”

“The trophy game,” Lozzie repeated, still braced against my side. “It’s from where she grew up – um, grew … in? Whichever! We played it once, in the dreams, and she won by taking all my clothes!”

“What.”

Raine and I shared a glance. Lozzie giggled.

“Not like that! It’s a game! Nothing happened after, sillies.”

“She’s fucking shitting with me,” Twil said.

Lozzie shook her head. “No, you have to try to win too.”

“I do hope we’re not all playing this game,” I said. “Twil might be able to endure the cold out here if she gets stripped further, but the rest of us are all a bit more fragile.”

“Speak for yourself,” Raine said.

“Hey!” Twil bristled. “She’s not gonna strip me naked. You hear that, you giant fucking cockhead?” she shouted into the trees. “Try that again and I’ll take your fucking head off!”

“Don’t be a sore loser, Twil.” Raine smirked. “You’re only one point down.”

Twil spread her arms at the dripping canopy. “She took my fucking coat! I’m getting wet here!”

“You have to take it back,” Lozzie chirped.

“Four on one is pretty good odds,” Raine said with a doubtful click of her tongue. “But she got the drop on us real good. We need a better plan of attack. Split up, multiple directions? What do you say, Twil?”

“Fuck her,” Twil grunted.

“More than four on one,” Lozzie said, then turned her head and hooted into the woods.

She hooted, whistled, and clicked in a rapid-fire refrain of non-human language. Raine and Twil both stared at her. They hadn’t heard this before, hadn’t been out in the back garden with us when Lozzie had spoken to the pneuma-somatic life. Lozzie trailed off and waited with an expectant little smile.

“It’s okay, she’s calling for some help,” I said. “I think. Lozzie, do you have plan?”

“Mmhmm! They can be a distraction!”

“Okay, I … um … Lozzie?”

My breath caught in my throat at the approach of the nightmares she’d called from the woods. Two of the lorry-sized black tarry creatures stomped through the trees, their three massive hooves thudding against the ground, audible only to Lozzie and I. A dozen toothless mouths flapped open and closed across their hides. Thick tentacles reared overhead like imitation trees.

Lozzie clicked and whistled in greeting.

I took an involuntary step back, mouth dry. My voice shook. “Lozzie, are you sure these are safe?”

“Heather?” Raine said my name. She raised her handgun again, pointed it at where I was staring. Twil went tense all over, claws of ghostly flesh forming up around her forearms.

“Yeah?” Lozzie blinked at me over her shoulder. “They’re friendly? Of course they’re friendly.”

“Um … ” My guts clenched up as the creatures drew closer. They towered over us, at least eleven or twelve feet tall from hoof to tentacle-base, perhaps another ten feet of tentacle above that. I heard a faint whispering on the edge of my consciousness, as if those sucking mouths were hissing foul secrets into the air.

A deep throb of pain passed through my flanks. Phantom limbs attempted to uncoil, to throw up a warning display. I winced and curled up, free hand clamped to my side.

Both the nightmare things stopped dead. Despite the lack of eyes or other visible sensory organs, I had the sudden impression both spirits were looking right at me.

And they did not like what they saw.

“They’re fine!” Lozzie chirped, and skipped right up to the pneuma-somatic blobs, a tiny scrap of humanity next to their tarry bulk. “Fine fine fine! Here-” and she exploded once more into a cacophony of little hoots and whistles at them, waving her arms about.

“The fuck is she doing?” Twil hissed, looking everywhere but seeing nothing.

“Enlisting-” I hissed, and had to close my eyes for a second to fight down my need for territorial display. “Enlisting help. Raine, put the gun away. You can’t shoot something that’s not made of matter. And they’re more afraid of me than I am of them.”

“Right,” Raine said. “Right you are, boss.”

Lozzie finished her rapid-fire explanation, and I opened my eyes to see the two giant monsters stalking off into the woods again, one going left and the other right. Lozzie turned to me.

“They’re going to flush her out for us!” she chirped. “Or get round behind, if we get her first.”

“Like beaters for pheasants,” Raine said. “Smart.”

“What, invisible monsters are gonna scare her?” Twil boggled. “I am like, the only sane one here?”

“Zheng can see spirits,” I said. “Praem can too. Good plan, Lozzie, thank you.”

Lozzie beamed with pride. I made a mental note, she need praise, she needed encouragement. She needed something to set her mind to. She was intelligent and resourceful and a friend to anything she wanted. She deserved better than being cooped up and direction-less.

“Then we best get moving before these invisible lads get too far ahead, right?” Twil asked, already setting off the way Zheng had escaped. “I’m gonna get my fucking coat back if I have to fight her myself.”

==

The next twenty minutes dissolved into a farce.

We simply could not catch Zheng. She ran rings around us. Even with the somewhat dubious help of Lozzie’s friendly pneuma-somatic monsters, Zheng taunted us and evaded us with all the expertize of a chimpanzee in the jungle treetops.

The spirits did indeed flush her out, force her to move before she could surprise us, but she could relocate so fast it hardly mattered. The great stomping monsters were too slow to catch her themselves, only able to alert us when Lozzie or I could see them directly, their tentacles grasping upward at the bole of whatever tree Zheng was hiding in, or stomping toward a clutch of bush or holly where she slunk and crept at ground level. But she evaded them every time, ran off into another part of the woods, and taunted us with laughing roars of good-natured defeat as she was found.

We couldn’t keep up. Twil ranged ahead at speed, all wolf for minutes at a time, racing across the carpet of leaves, almost fast enough to catch Zheng but eluded and misdirected at every turn. Once she even slammed face-first into a tree like in a classic cartoon, led blind through a stand of fern while Zheng escaped.

Twice Twil attempted to climb after her, but Zheng simply leapt to another tree, far beyond the werewolf’s abilities.

Lozzie and I were both out of breath. Raine had little to contribute except her eyesight. This wasn’t a fight, not a real one.

She hit us four more times, dropping from a tree, stepping out from a concealed hiding spot, lurking in the undergrowth. She stole Raine’s hiking stick, tugged on Lozzie’s braid, and in a gesture of heart-stopping intimacy, managed to place one massive hand around the back of my neck for a full three seconds, purring with animal affection.

I’d blushed hard, a quiver in my throat and belly as she’d vaulted away that time. Twil had sailed through empty air in a frustrated attempt to tackle her, landing hard in the mud and leaves.

“Fuck! Give me back my fucking coat!”

“She’s counting coup,” Raine said after that last successful attack, grinning with approval despite the way she hovered protectively at my shoulder. “And she’s damn good at it.”

“Counting what?” Twil asked through a snout of too many teeth as she got up, covered in mud and twigs.

“Counting coup. American Indian thing, I think. Rather than fight a battle, you prove your bravery by touching the enemy with your hand, and escaping unscathed. Lots of variations on it. She’s proving a point to us.”

“No,” I said, my mouth dry with embarrassed excitement.

“No?” Raine raised an eyebrow.

“She’s having fun!” Lozzie said.

“Yes.” I nodded. “Proving the point is secondary. The way she keeps laughing, this is pure elation for her. She loves a good fight, I think. She’s not trying to humiliate us. She wants a challenge.”

“Hmmmmm.” Raine smiled tight, narrowed her eyes, and glanced up at the trees. “We’re not putting up much of a fight so far. Hate to lose five-nil, might disappoint our big friend.”

“Fuck her, I almost got her that time!” said Twil.

“Yes, Twil. You almost did,” I muttered, my mind suddenly turning the concepts over, looking at the game from a different angle. “But you probably won’t.”

“Tch.”

“We’ve tried a chase, and cornering her doesn’t work,” Raine said. “She’s too fast for that, and there’s too many escape routes.”

“I’m going to go talk to her,” I said.

Raine shook her head. “Nah, I doubt she’ll talk until the … ‘game’? Game. Until the game is done and-”

“No, I mean, I’m going to talk to her.”

Raine glanced at me, eyebrows raised, and grinned slowly. “Heather, Heather, I see a plan in those beautiful eyes. Go on?”

I wet my lips, the idea still forming as I spoke. “Lozzie, call your- our friends back here. Are they clever enough to follow very specific instructions?”

“Mmhmm!”

“Twil, can you move through the forest without making too much noise?” I asked.

“Sure, yeah. I mean, good enough to fool like, a bird or a rabbit. Why?”

“Okay then, good. Here’s how we’re going to catch Zheng.” An unfamiliar kind of smile teased at the corners of my mouth. I felt like I was doing something deliciously naughty. A thrill of excitement thrummed inside my chest.

Raine must have read the look on my face. “Heather? This one’s special, isn’t it?”

“I’m going to be the bait,” I said. “And the hook.”

==

Zheng was too smart to simply blunder into a trap, and too fast to be caught by one. She could not be ambushed or blindsided, hoodwinked or misled. She was a hunter at heart – perhaps that’s what she’d been before flesh, out in the abyss where she’d been born. Not only was she capable of terrible violence, but she had a long lifetime of practice behind her, enslaved or otherwise. Twil might be good at this, but Zheng had been doing this for decades. Or centuries.

So we made our intentions obvious, we broadcast what we were doing, loud and clear. Stupid monkeys trying to catch a demon.

And then, inside that first trap, I set a second.

One that did not rely on speed, or cleverness, or misdirection, but on curious desire.

“Shaman,” Zheng rumbled. A shark-toothed grin opened inside the shadows of her hood.

“Zheng,” I sighed. “Finally. You certainly took your time.”

I shifted my footing to ease sore knees, leaning on the hiking stick, shivering inside my coat and hoodie. I’d been standing alone for too long in this little clearing, beneath a thinner patch of green canopy, waiting for Zheng to take the bait.

She grinned wider. Occasional raindrops pattered off her hood. I couldn’t see her eyes.

“Here to surrender?” she purred. “Lose the chaperone, shaman.”

“It’s … hardly that.”

One of the nightmare pneuma-somatic creatures stood just behind me, close enough to make my skin crawl. A subliminal whispering noise filled the edges of my hearing, emitted from those slopping, toothless mouths. I’d steadfastly refused to think about it for the last ten minutes, since the others had withdrawn from the clearing and left me behind. From Zheng’s perspective I stood framed and dwarfed by a true monster. A bodyguard.

But not Raine. The real trap wouldn’t work, if Raine was by my side.

It was working so far. Zheng kept her distance at the clearing’s edge, beyond the reach of the nightmare’s tentacles.

“Oh?” Zheng tilted her head and rumbled a question. “No? Isn’t it to make sure I don’t-”

“So you don’t snatch me off my feet and carry me off into the woods to have your way with me, yes, that’s why it’s here,” I lied. I even blushed, though I didn’t need to fake that part. “I just want to talk to you.”

Zheng threw her head back and laughed.

“Shaman, I am winning. What’s to discuss, except terms of surrender?” Her huge tongue slid from between her teeth and into the light, inch after inch, a thick pink rope of muscle – and then whipped back. Her teeth closed with a clack. “Or this is a badly planned trap. You monkeys are always at your worst when you think you’re being clever.” Her grin faltered suddenly, as if the thought had dredged up bad memories. “Blunt, direct, yes. That’s how you’d win this, but you don’t have spears and nets. You don’t even have mounts.”

“I disagree,” I said, and frowned for real. “Zheng, I’m not going to bludgeon you into submission. I would never do that. I’ll play by the rules.”

“Bah,” Zheng growled. “You monkeys are so bad at it. I can already hear them now, trying to creep through this excuse of a forest.” She nodded out at the clearing, and I made a show of keeping my expression neutral. “The kharankhui zaluu make so much noise on approach I could hunt them blind. The laangren, she is fast and strong but inexperienced. Your lover, she … ” Zheng rumbled as she trailed off, then seemed to sigh. “She is as smart as me, but her gun fires only lead.”

“What about Lozzie?” I asked. Buy time, Heather, keep her talking.

“My mooncalf?” Zheng chuckled. “If I was asleep, she would be deadly. I am not. None of you can catch me, shaman.”

“We’re not trying to corner you, or ambush you. I promise. Zheng, I promise.”

Zheng purred in thought. I couldn’t see her eyes, but I felt the narrowing of her attention. “You’re not lying, shaman. How can that not be a lie?”

“I am telling the absolute truth, in technical terms yes. There is a trap here but it’s not a surprise. You can see it right now. Because I respect you, I respect your intelligence, you’re too clever to be caught in a simple ruse, and-” I swallowed. Raine might be close enough to hear now, but she already knew this, and it was a vital part of the plan. Go for the low blow.

“And because I’m wildly attracted to you,” I finished.

Zheng moved her head one way, then the other, a predator sizing up a curious new animal, unsure if it was prey or danger. “What are you up to?” she purred. “Clearly I’m meant to try to snatch you, that’s what the zaluu behind you is for. But I don’t see the catch.”

“There is no hidden trap here.” I spoke the words I’d rehearsed, trying to fit them to the situation, my heart pounding in my chest – why? This wasn’t a life or death situation. It was a game. Zheng wasn’t going to kill or eat any of us. Why did it matter so much?

Because, as I realised in that moment, I craved her approval.

I craved the approval of a predatory, cannibalistic demon. My body, the abyssal thing I’d brought back, craved her kinship and her understanding. Inside, I sighed.

“There’s only me,” I continued, voice shaking. At least it helped the act. “Zheng, please, I really want to talk you, but I realise the game has to end first. We’re very close, and I am about to win.”

Zheng looked off to the left, rolling her shoulders as a wave of readying tension flowed through her massive frame.

“The other zaluu is circling that way. Your lover skulks toward us from there,” she nodded past me, “along with my mooncalf, which means the laangren is over there somewhere,” she gestured off to the right. “I have at most ten or fifteen seconds before I am surrounded, but I can move in the last two and still escape. In the last four I can take you with me, zaluu at your back or not.” She grinned at me again with those shark’s teeth, and flickered her huge tongue out.

“Please, do try,” I said, in a pitch-perfect polite voice, despite the flush in my cheeks.

Eyes beneath her hood glinted in the shadow. “But you overflow with confidence, shaman. You know you are about to win. You are so certain I will try to take you, but I do not see the catch, I do not see the winning play.”

I had her now, she’d taken the real bait. Had to keep her on the line.

“There is no hidden catch, it’s right here in plain sight,” I said, and allowed myself a smile which burst, uncontrolled, into a grin. I couldn’t keep it off my face. I’d rarely felt so excited. “I am about to outwit you, and I must admit that I am rather enjoying it. Oh dear.”

Zheng rumbled low in her throat, anger or approval or arousal, all three mixed into a heady cocktail that made my bowels and my groin both quiver. A chuckle ran beneath the growl. She shifted her footing, ready to spring into action, or up into the trees, to make good on her boast of speed.

“Of course, maybe I secretly want you to snatch me,” I said quickly. Two seconds was all we needed – I saw Twil in full wolf form slink out of hiding to Zheng’s rear. “Maybe this is all a ruse, a convenient excuse to offer myself up like a goat tied to a stake. Don’t you want to try, Zheng?”

Zheng froze for a split second, a heartbeat of doubt. She’d waited too long, fascinated by me and my ruse.

Better than I’d ever hoped for.

Twil took the cue. She let out a deep, low, warning growl and rushed at Zheng, kicking up leaves and mud in a headlong charge with no hope of contact. Raine burst into the clearing at full sprint a moment later, from behind me, Lozzie trailing after and almost tumbling over, a mad laugh on her lips. The second of Lozzie’s nightmare spirits bumbled through the trees to the left, exactly as Zheng had predicted.

Zheng span toward Twil like a matador preparing to twist away from a bull.

She couldn’t jink left, into the path of the kharankhui zaluu, and Raine was about to block her right.

She had three choices – back away toward me, avoid Twil and then run forward, or leap up into the trees. The former would simply reel her in further, the latter two would give me the opening I needed.

Twil flew right past Zheng’s dodge, a bundle of incoherent limbs and gnashing teeth as she overshot Zheng and skidded into the mud. Zheng laughed and terminated her evasive spin. She slammed her boot down into the leaves and mud, to give her the instant leverage to push off, to sprint into the depths of the woods.

And my hiking stick slammed against the back of Zheng’s head.

Thwack, went the crack of plastic.

Zheng was so surprised she actually flinched, ducking her head and jerking around to stare at me, wide eyed. I smiled up at her through the awful spasms of pain in my sides, clutching at the way my phantom limbs had tried to uncoil and help, had tried to restrain Zheng for me as I’d walked toward her.

As she’d turned to Twil, I’d hurried forward, unnoticed and unaccounted for amid the werewolves and heavily armed sociopaths and giant tentacle beasts. Scrawny little Heather had not been not a factor in Zheng’s threat calculations.

Raine jogged up and slipped an arm under my shoulders, helped me stand straight. “Woah, Heather, deep breaths, deep breaths.”

I shuddered and winced as the pain in my sides slowly ratcheted down. Zheng stared at me. Twil picked herself up with an angry snarl. The pair of nightmarish spirits lingered on the edge of the clearing, intelligent enough to understand that the game was over.

Lozzie threw her arms up in the air and shouted. “Score!”

“Shaman,” Zheng breathed in savage awe, one hand on her head where I’d landed the blow.

“I’m the one you have to watch out for, Zheng,” I managed to croak, my chest still pounding with victory. “Me.”

A heartbeat of wild-eye stare – and Zheng burst out laughing. She threw her head back and her hood finally fell away to reveal that beautiful red-chocolate skin and thatch of dark hair, greasy and matted. Her sharp eyes glittered with amusement. She roared with belly-laughter, grinned at me, and finally bowed her head.

“On pure points I still win,” she rumbled. “But I concede moral victory. A point to you monkeys. Well done, shaman.”

“That’s right, you shit!” Twil snapped. “Now give back my fucking coat!”

“Victory!” Lozzie chirped. Surprising nobody, she ran right up to Zheng and tackled her with a hug around the middle. Zheng took it like she was made of reinforced concrete, and placed one huge hand on Lozzie’s head.

“You fell for the tree trick, laangren,” she rumbled. “If you want your spoils returned, you shall have to win them.”

“Oh yeah?” Twil bristled, and raised her snout of ghostly wolf-flesh. “You wanna go, one on one? No running off again, you-”

“Zheng, give her coat back,” I sighed, my high already fading. “Please. And what it is with you and falling long distances? You’re such a show-off.”

“Jumping, shaman. Not falling.” Zheng dug Twil’s rolled up coat out from inside her own. “Why the pain, shaman?”

“Invisible tentacles,” Raine answered for me. I sighed and rolled my eyes.

Zheng cocked an eyebrow at me, a silent question.

“I’ve had some … experiences,” I said. “Your advice produced an unexpected result. I’ll tell you all about it, later. Twil’s coat, please?”

Zheng grunted and tossed the coat to Twil, who caught it in one claw – one claw rapidly melting back into a human hand. Twil’s normal face emerged as the rest of her transformation fell away. She frowned, wrinkled her nose, and immediately held held the coat out at arm’s length.

“Ugh, this reeks, and not just of your dinner. Do you not bathe or what?”

Zheng shrugged. “It is winter. It is cold.”

“You’re afraid of a little cold?” Twil snorted at her.

Lozzie, who was busy with her face smooshed into Zheng’s side, came up for air. “She does stink. Pongy Zheng.”

“Mooncalf?” Zheng rumbled.

“It’s true,” Lozzie chirped.

“Huh.”

Zheng fished Raine’s stolen hiking stick – retracted into its compact form – out of her pocket, and offered it back to Raine. I looked down at my own stick, sadly buckled in the middle now.

“Cheers, big girl.” Raine winked at her. “So how’d we do? Enough of a challenge?”

“Tolerable,” Zheng purred.

“What was all that, anyway?” Twil asked, trying to shake the smell of dead sheep and body odour and forest out of her coat. “Why the hell run us around like that?”

“You walked into my woods.”

Your woods?” Twil squinted at her.

Zheng shrugged. “I am the scariest thing here. You monkeys don’t count, not here.”

“Where do you get off on calling us monkeys anyway, huh? Look at you, leaping around in the trees.”

Zheng grinned at her. “You’ve forgotten how to do it, laangren. You enjoyed it too.”

“Where’d you pick that skill up?” Raine asked. Zheng blinked once at her, slowly.

“Another forest,” she rumbled.

“You know, if you came home, you could have a hot bath whenever you like,” I said. Zheng levelled a curious gaze at me, and her smoldering amusement turned dark.

Home?”

For her, that word contained entire philosophies.

“Yeah,” Twil muttered under her breath. “You don’t have to live like a hobo-demon, you know?”

“My home. Our home,” I said. “Zheng, I’m dying to talk to you, you must know that. About all sorts of things. And I do want you to come home with us. With me. I’m not saying you’re not at home in the woods, but there’s always a place for you. Can we talk now? Surely we’ve won that right, if we could take a point off you.”

Zheng stared at me for a long, brooding moment, with no smile. A tremor of animal fear shot through my belly, drawn tight by her predatory regard.

“You took a point off me, shaman. You lead.”

“She’s good at it, ain’t she?” Raine beamed. Zheng didn’t bother to look at her – or wouldn’t look at her.

“Then, please don’t run off again,” I said. “Can we go somewhere and-”

“We can talk.”

“Good, we-”

“You and I, shaman,” Zheng purred. She indicated the others with a jerk of her chin, Raine, Twil, even Lozzie. “You and I, alone.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

nostalgia for infinity – 9.5

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Trees stretched toward heaven either side of the road, sunk deep in a lake of their own shadows. Open stretches of muddy field and dank hedgerow grew fewer and fewer. We lost sight of the overcast sky for minutes at a time, blotted out by the rain-thickened canopy far above, plunging the inside of the car into ghostly twilight. Triply enclosed – wrapped up warm against the coming hike, inside our temporary machine of metal and glass, and deep in the woods.

How paradoxical, I thought, that leaving the confines of the city can lead us into a far more claustrophobic tangle.

“I suspect this is as close as we’ll get,” Raine said.

She turned the car off the road and into a lay-by, tires crunching across patches of crumbled asphalt. Raine set the handbrake but she kept one hand on the wheel and left the engine running, a soft chuttering purr undercut by the sound of occasional raindrops on the metal roof.

The woods marched away either side of us, dark and inscrutable.

“If you go down to the woods today,” I sighed.

“You better go in disguise!” Lozzie finished. She was already twisting against her seatbelt to press her face up against the passenger-side window.

“This is some goose-chase shit,” Twil grunted from next to me on the back seat.

“You just concentrate on your chips,” Raine said. Twil huffed and rolled her eyes, and dug another curly chip from her crinkled bag of fast food treats.

“I see a rabbit!” Lozzie whispered.

“What? Where?” Twil twitched her head around like a pointer dog, craning to see.

“There’s probably fields or isolated houses closer,” Raine said, as she stared out past Lozzie, into the depths of the woods. “But I doubt they’d overlook four young women driving a car onto their land. This is it then, we need to walk from here. What does our glamorous navigation officer think?”

She shot a glance over her shoulder, at me bundled up in my coat and hoodie on the back seat, and favoured me with a rakish smile and a little wink, for morale.

I felt about as far from glamorous as I could get without being covered in my own vomit. My sides ached and itched, stiff and sore, and I had to keep worming a hand inside my hoodie to scratch at the slowly healing flesh. Every breath I took stretched and flexed the replacement lung tissue inside my chest, impossible to forget about, always there on the edge of my consciousness. My breathing sounded clear, but I felt like I should be wheezing and coughing.

“Um … ” I squinted down at the map on the screen of my mobile phone. “I think Lozzie’s spot is … about … a mile … mile and a half, straight that way?” I pointed directly into the woods. “Maybe?”

The map hardly resembled the territory.

Neat yellow lines represented roads that in reality surprised the driver with blind corners, dipped into hollows without warning, were pitted with ancient potholes and dessicated roadkill and crumbled edges churned by muddy ruts from tractor tires. Jolly green rectangles indicated fields choked with spring mud and populated by sad, soggy sheep. Darker green hatching meant trees; great vast swathes of the stuff filled the empty spaces between road and farm, carefully contained and delineated in ink. The map proudly labelled this entire area as ‘Berndsey Ancient Woodland (protected)’.

Up close, the tree trunks vanished into chaotic infinity, rooted in centuries of leaf-mulch and ragged undergrowth.

“Spot, spot,” Lozzie chirped and twisted the other way in her seat. “It’s an area, a whole area.” She spread her arms wide, almost knocking Twil’s fast food out of her lap.

“Which means brick shithouse could be anywhere out there,” Twil said.

“Light rain, damp ground, that’s good scenting conditions,” said Raine. “I did read up on this before I asked you to track for us, you know.”

“I’m not a fucking bloodhound,” Twil grunted. “And yeah, you’re right, I’m real good at this, but these woods are full of animals, it’s gonna be like finding a needle in a stack of other needles. More likely to pick up a deer or a badger or something. This is a stupid goose-chase. Come on, Heather’s still too fucked up to spend like three hours wandering around the woods in the rain, right? Uh,” she blinked sideways at me. “No offence, Heather?”

“It’s not stupid,” I said softly. Twil grimaced, hunching her shoulders like a dejected dog. “Please? Lozzie can only tell us the general area, but you can pinpoint Zheng. You’re the only one who can even try.”

“ … mmmm,” Twil made a grumbling sound. “Pretty close to Brinkwood. Could just run home.”

“You got your mercenary price,” Raine said with a smirk and a nod at Twil’s bag of fast food. She finally killed the engine. It sputtered out, and the car’s heating shut off. Fat raindrops pattered on the roof, dripping from the foliage overhead. “You ain’t goin’ nowhere, lassie. I’ll call your mum, tell her you stiffed us. Eat your last chicken strip.”

“Tch,” Twil tutted. She dug out her final chicken strip and bit it in half with one frustrated bite.

“I thought you’d relish this, Twil,” I said. “An opportunity to show off your skills. Ah, but Evelyn isn’t with us right now, is she? That explains that.”

Twil swallowed so hard she almost choked on her food. “W-what? Heather, what?” she spluttered, blushing slightly, doing an absolutely awful job of concealing her true reaction.

“ … are you serious?”

Of course she was. I shouldn’t have asked. Twil was either genuinely confused or too embarrassed – or in denial.

“Serious about what?” Twil boggled at me.

This was not the right moment for this discussion. Raine was rummaging around in the driver’s foot-well, switching her trainers for wellington boots like the rest of us already wore. Lozzie was biting her lower lip, bouncing on the back of the passenger seat, head swivelling this way and that to spot things out in the woods.

“Never mind,” I sighed. “I just don’t understand why you’re so grumpy about this.”

“’Cos it’s raining, duh,” said Twil.

“Oh.”

“Fuckin’ hate gettin’ rained on.” Twil devoured the last piece of chicken strip with some quick, angry chewing, then noisily sucked the grease off her fingers.

“It’s because Zheng’ll want to fight you!” Lozzie declared with a big serious nod and a big happy smile. She stopped bouncing for a moment to reach out and pat Twil on the head. Twil shrugged her off, but not too aggressively.

“Fuck that,” Twil grunted. “I can take her.”

“Bet you’d want Evee to watch that too,” I muttered, unsure if I should smile or sigh.

“H-Heather, what are you going on about?” Twil squint-frowned at me.

“I like the rain, it makes me feel outdoorsy and outdoorsy is healthy, isn’t that true? That’s true.” Lozzie asked herself – then, before any of us could stop her, she popped her seatbelt free with a click, opened the passenger door, and bounced out of the car. She landed with an unsteady little hop in her borrowed, over-sized wellington boots, with her pastel blue and pink poncho flapping outward. She got her footing then skipped across the asphalt of the lay-by to the edge of the woods, and turned her face upward to feel the rain-mist on her skin.

March cold, the cold of the North in early spring, swept right into the car through the door she’d left open. I huddled up tighter inside my coat and pink hoodie. Twil shook herself and growled. Raine laughed.

“Guess we’ve been decided for,” said Raine. “Time for a hike.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Twil grumbled.

We piled out of the car. I took a long time, even when Raine offered me a hand up. I still had to move slowly so as not to aggravate my bruises. Over the last week they’d turned to great shapeless masses of black and purple, stiff muscle, knotted flesh, then coloured into a fascinating array of sickly yellows and greens as the healing process had gotten underway.

As I found my feet and thanked Raine, the smell of the woods washed over me.

Organic rot, centuries of dark loam enriched by mountains of leaf and branch; a hint of fungal growth beneath the vegetable overtone; thick-packed clay slick and wet. Spring had filled in the canopy and covered the trees with buds, but not yet fully clad their skeletal appearance in green flesh.

And the mud. So much mud, this time of year.

When we’d prepared for this little outing, I’d thought wellington boots were an over-reaction. I’d had to borrow a pair from Evelyn, great loose rubber stompers which would inevitably make my feet sore. The area around Sharrowford was fractured into a mosaic of farms and woodland, split by hedgerows and the outposts of villages, slashed through by the high line of the train-tracks and the deep cut of the motorway – and none of that was visible out here to the north, deep in the woods. We couldn’t even hear any other cars.

But surely the countryside wouldn’t be that muddy?

Proved how little I knew. The mud was thick and cloying, already sticking to and sucking at the underside of Lozzie’s wellington boots as she ventured out past the crumbling asphalt. She pulled her left foot free of a boggy hole with a slooorp-pop sound.

I felt utterly out of place. My natural environment was safely ensconced in the heart of a city.

“You sure you’re alright for this?” Raine murmured, quietly so Twil wouldn’t hear. The werewolf was busy rolling her shoulders, cracking her knuckles, limbering up, her hood flipped up against the rain – barely mist down here under the canopy.

“I’ll be okay,” I said.

“You get out of breath, you want to turn back, you tell me, Heather. Please don’t bottle it up. Not out here. Promise?”

“I said I’ll be okay, Raine, really.”

I attempted a little stretching of my own. My flanks were even stiffer than usual from the car journey, though we’d only left Sharrowford about thirty minutes ago. I tried an experimental twist from side to side, then reached over my head with alternate hands. My core muscles complained like overstressed rope. I could practically hear the muscle fibres creaking and crackling. The pneuma-somatic symbiont inside my lung flexed and twitched, and I winced.

“Promise me, please?” Raine asked.

“If I don’t feel up to this, I will tell you, I promise.”

“Thank you.” Raine shot me a smile and the look in her eyes changed, just enough to make me blush a tiny bit.

“ … Raine?”

“You look good, s’all.”

“Well … thank you, yes, but not right now.” I sighed and tucked my hair back over one ear, still self-conscious about it.

“Suits you.”

Yesterday I’d had my first hair cut since I’d started university. Self-administered at first – until Praem had stepped in. Evelyn swore blind she hadn’t directed the doll-demon to do anything, hadn’t even known. My attempt to tidy up split hairs and deal with stray locks in my eyes had turned into a straight fringe and an inch off all round. So now it was too long and too neat.

“I look like a doll,” I sighed.

“You look like a girl genius protagonist in a YA novel,” Raine laughed, winked, and bent down to fetch a pair of collapsible hiking sticks from the back of the car. She’d found them this morning, God alone knows how, in some forgotten corner of the house. She clicked one of them open with a flourish, locked it in place with a button on the handle, and offered it to me.

I sighed again. “A walking stick, really?”

“It’s got a cool spike on the end. For stabbing.” Raine grinned and brandished the stick as if fencing with an invisible partner. “Come on, don’t you want a cool spike? Stab a motherfucker?”

“That’s for grip.” I rolled my eyes, but couldn’t keep a smile off my face. “But yes, Raine, I would love a cool spike. Thank you.”

I accepted the stick and placed the metal tip awkwardly against the ground. The grip-spike clacked against the asphalt.

Was this my future? I’d once swam the infinite oceans of abyssal darkness, swift and graceful, a thing of lean muscle and sharp claw, evading predators and defying leviathans. I had been so pure. The memory would haunt me forever, beautiful and unattainable. And now I needed a walking stick to hobble through the woods.

“Hey, Heather, no shame,” Raine said. She must have seen the look on my face, though she could never understand the full depth of my longing, the failure of this blunt, clumsy ape-body. 

“I was just thinking, this must be how Evelyn feels. Relying on a stick to walk everywhere.”

Raine waggled the other stick. “I’m gonna be using one too. Hiking’s tough, no joke, even if we’re only going a little ways. Might be more if Zheng gives us bother. I’ll pass the stick off to Lozzie if she needs it though.”

“Oh, I doubt she will.”

Lozzie was peering deeper into the woods, like a child escorted to the threshold of adventure. She raised a hand and waved – to something only her and I could see.

We weren’t the only creatures in this stretch of woodland.

Spirit life out here was less than in the city; less feral, less frantic, less wounded. Giant stick insects crossed from trunk to trunk way up in the treetops, waving blind limbs. Flat, undulating creatures like manta rays lurked on the forest floor. A giant of shadow and shell drifted past above, briefly obscured the overcast sky.

And standing like silent sentinels deeper out in the trees was a trio of true nightmare monsters. Each was as wide as a lorry, with skin like wet tar and three giant hoofed feet, bodies covered in a dozen toothless, slopping mouths. They were crowned by clutches of upward-pointing tentacles, thick dark ropes like they were trying to imitate trees.

Lozzie waved to the nightmares, but they were already shuffling away. Away from me. Away from the abyssal thing clothed in human flesh.

Lozzie wasn’t disappointed though. She giggled at the way they waddled, and then tiptoed forward another few paces in the mud, enjoying the way it squished under her boots. She hugged her poncho tight, though I’d made sure she was properly dressed for the cold, in borrowed tshirts and a thick jumper too. Her hair swayed as she walked, tidied back into a long, very thick braid which reached past her waist. I’d braided it myself, to keep it out of the way on this trip.

She was so excited, and I wondered if she’d ever been out in the woods before. Had she spent her whole life cooped up inside that castle, or wherever her parents had kept her before Alexander, the dreams of Outside her only escape?

And now she was free. Her joy was my joy. I smiled, for real.

“You really love her, don’t you?” Raine murmured.

“Ah?” I cleared my threat. “Love? I don’t know. I suppose so. She was a friend to me in a place I had no friends, Outside. She needed help, she … well, she’s not innocent, but … ”

“True that,” Raine laughed softly.

“But she’s a good person. I want to protect her.” Something swelled inside my chest. “The bastards and the monsters won’t get her. I won’t let them. Not like Maisie.”

Raine squeezed my shoulder. “Yeah. Bloody right.”

“Thank you, Raine.”

“Also ‘bastards’? Heather, strong language for you.”

“It’s a strong feeling.”

“Hey, Loz,” Twil called. “Don’t go too far alone, hey?”

“I’m fine!” Lozzie called back.

Raine raised her voice too. “Lozzie, has Zheng moved?”

Lozzie bobbed her head in an odd little rotating motion, closed her eyes and stood stock-still. Seconds ticked by in silence. I tried to concentrate, tried to pick up the ‘scent’ in the way she’d described it to me, the way Zheng herself had found me during the meeting at the pub. An abyssal scent, deeper than blood and flesh and bone, a mark left on reality below the level of human perception.

But all I smelled was rotting leaves.

Lozzie whirled an arm out suddenly, pointing back over her own head without opening her eyes. She held the position, then her eyes flew open and she giggled. “Ow!” She shook her hand as if she’d burned it. “Yeah, thattaway!”

“And what does your nose say, oh great hunter?” Raine asked Twil.

“Nose says it’s bloody well raining, isn’t it?” Twil pulled a face and shrugged, then nodded off to the side of the lay-by. “And there’s a dead pigeon over there. Stinks.”

“Yes, I’m certain we all wanted to know that,” I sighed.

“You fuckin’ asked.”

“Right, Twil, you lead with Lozzie, keep your eyes peeled.” Raine clicked her own hiking stick to full length, and gestured me forward, into the woods. “After you, Heather. I’ll bring up the rear.”

“We’re walking in the woods, this isn’t a … ” I gestured with the head of my stick. “Military operation.”

I didn’t say it out loud, but we hadn’t seen hide or hair of Edward Lilburne or his minions all week. Caution was still our watchword, but nobody beyond our little group knew we were out here. Evelyn and Kimberly and Praem were all back home. We were in Zheng’s territory. To strike now, Lilburne would have to possess perfect intelligence, and also be a staggering idiot.

Raine cracked a grin, dangerously attractive. She looked good too, dressed in a loose raincoat and jeans.

“No, it isn’t,” she said. “It’s a hunt.”

==

For a week before we set out to find Zheng, we found a new normal – and for me, normal turned out to be incredibly sore all over.

The full extent of my bruises took a couple of days to really set in, both the first three from the confrontation in the pub garden, and the full six from our idiotic fight with Lozzie’s ‘friendly’ squid—moon. The stabbing, lancing pain in my sides faded, became less frequent as my flank and core muscles turned so stiff and tight I swear they should have creaked when I moved. My abdominal and oblique muscles especially felt like one giant bruise, strained from supporting structures they’d never evolved to account for.

It was a profoundly different pain to what I’d adapted to over the last half-year; after brainmath I always felt distant from my own body, hollow inside my chest, my biological processes rejecting what I’d done with my mind, as if I’d frayed the thread which anchored soul to flesh.

But the result of my ill-advised tentacle experiment was all bodily. I had never before felt so aware of so many small muscles. And they all ached.

Raine made me take several long, very hot baths to unclench the tissues, but I still spent the first half of the week hobbling about the house like an arthritic old woman, moving with great care, guzzling painkillers, curled up in bed while she massaged the stiffness out of my sides.

It wasn’t as if we went anywhere, except to class. Edward Lilburne’s answer was still pending.

Every day we expected a knock on the door, or a surprise in the street, or Amy Stack. Raine carried her gun everywhere, concealed inside her jacket, and despite my discomfort I did not ask her to desist. At university I felt a curious itching between my shoulder blades on several occasions, buried abyssal instinct trying to tell me I was being watched, but we never spotted the culprit, if there even was one beyond my own paranoia.

Evelyn spent a lot of time in her workshop, still poring over the books we’d looted from the site of the Sharrowford Cult’s final, suicidal mass ritual. She kept the door open more often though, as she drew new versions of pieces of the gateway mural.

“We’ll need a plan”, she told me one morning, as I sipped coffee in the workshop doorway. The non-human book I’d retrieved from the library of Carcosa sat on the table in front of her, rifled through but still impossible to read.

“Of course we will?” I frowned, not following.

“I mean, we need a better plan, Heather. Better than we had when we visited the castle.”

“Ah. Yes.” I took a sheepish sip of coffee.

Ah, indeed. Getting into difficulties when we can run straight home is one thing. Going Outside, for real, even for an hour or two? All bets are off. I will not gamble on anything. No risks. You and I both know that, Heather. We’ve both been out there. You said the library was inhabited, by thinking beings. The last thing we want is a clusterfuck. We’d all end up dead.”

“Yes.” I sighed. “If only we could find a librarian.”

“Huh,” she laughed, humourless. “Indeed.”

“A bodyguard may have to do.”

“You mean Zheng.”

“Zheng and Praem. And Raine. And … ” Me, I almost said. Evelyn frowned.

“Yes, Heather, I’m sure your tentacle display would intimidate the natives for all of five minutes before you bleed out on the floor.”

“I wasn’t-”

“You were thinking it.”

“ … I was,” I sighed. “It would be so much easier if I could … ” I waved a hand at my head. If I could Slip reliably.

“Quite. We’ll see what Zheng has to say about that. If she can go back to Glasswick tower … mm.” Evelyn picked up her walking stick from next to her chair and levered herself to her feet, gesturing at me with a toss of her fingers, then at the magic circle on a piece of canvas in front of the sofa. “In the meantime, take your top off and get back in the circle. I want to look you over again.”

“You should probably use that line on Twil.”

I placed my half-finished coffee on the edge of the table and wriggled my hoodie off over my head, which took a lot more effort than usual with all my bruises. Phantom tentacles tried to help, to drag the fabric off my head, to disentangle me, and I had to keep pausing to let the pain pass, to ignore the extra limbs which weren’t really present.

When I got the hoodie off my head, Evelyn gave me a very unimpressed look, but I was too sore to care.

“Evee, I’m serious. Maybe a little romantic aggression will help?”

She tapped the circle with the tip of her walking stick. “Get.”

I sighed and managed to struggle out of my tshirt too, my exposed flesh ruffled into goosebumps by the lingering morning cold. My sides were a patchwork of purples and greens and yellows, bruises in various stages of healing. Shivering a little, I stepped into the circle and closed my eyes – not for any silly mystical purposes, but from a fifty-fifty mix of tiredness and exasperation. And because I didn’t want to see what Evelyn was about to look at.

She stomped over to the half-full child’s paddling pool she’d set up once more in the corner of the workshop, settled into the chair before it, and muttered a string of incomprehensible Latin under her breath. I kept my eyes tightly closed. The first time she’d done this I’d seen the inside of my own lungs, and the sight of my own fluttering flesh had made me faint with dissociation and nausea.

“Two inches to the left,” she said. “And raise your arms … no, back to the right. Smidgen left. There. Hold still.”

“Why not just tell Twil how you feel?” I asked. “Tell her to get topless for you.”

Evelyn sucked on her teeth.

“Worst that could happen is she turns you down,” I tried.

“Far from the worst that could happen,” Evelyn grumbled. I was certain I wasn’t supposed to hear that, a hiss between her teeth so soft it was for her ears only. She raised her voice back to normal. “Why must we talk about this now, Heather?”

“Because for a few moments, you are a captive audience,” I admitted with a rueful smile.

“Tch.” She sighed, clicked her fingers, and stood up. I opened my eyes. The pool had faded back into nothing but water, instead of a horrible lightless view of my own insides. “I don’t see any tearing or bleeding. Not sure if your flesh is converting it yet, but we’ll keep checking. Times like this make me wish I knew a doctor.”

We did know a doctor, sort of, but I wasn’t about to mention Felicity, not when I’d almost, almost got Evelyn to talk about Twil properly for the first time in weeks.

Slowly, painfully, I pulled my tshirt back over my head. “Evelyn, my dear friend-”

“Oh, great.” She rolled her eyes.

“- are you going to answer my question, or ignore it?”

Evelyn gave me another look, a tired glare. “I can look at you stripped down to your bra, Heather, because I don’t care about you stripped down to your bra, I care about you remaining alive and well. Twil may not be … may not be … ” She swallowed. A hint of blush coloured her cheeks and she averted her eyes. “May not be so simple.”

“You mean, you like idea of Twil in her underwear.”

“I-” She paused.

“It’s okay to think about it, Evee. Thinking about these things is how we figure out what we like.”

“Alright, maybe I do!” she snapped. “But what does that mean? I have- I have- it’s not like I don’t think about her, but I can’t make the connection between Twil in here,” she jabbed the side of her own head, “and Twil out here in reality, walking around and talking nonsense and being all … all … Twil.” She huffed, shook her head in frustration, and I did my absolute best not to giggle.

This isn’t funny, I reminded myself. Your best friend is deeply confused, sexually and romantically. Rightly or wrongly. Render what help you can.

“Evee, the best way to resolve all these feelings is talk to her.”

Evelyn looked me straight in the eye, and said, “She deserves better.”

“That’s Twil’s decision to make, isn’t it? Plus, she’s obviously interested, how haven’t you noticed? Would it be different if she made the first move, she-”

“Yes, because that’s what everybody wants, isn’t it?” she grumbled, turned away and stomped toward the kitchen. “A bitch of a woman with no future, a terrible temper, and anorgasmia. I’m a real fucking gem, aren’t I?”

As Evelyn stomped out of the room, a tremor passed through my sides, a slow-muscle quiver of limbs that didn’t exist. I winced in silence, and let her go, clutching my sides as my body tried to stop her leaving, wanted to turn her around, make her see.

Sorry, abyss-thing Heather, but you can’t solve a friend’s emotional problems by grabbing them with tentacles.

Such attempts to uncoil phantom limbs needled me a dozen times every day. Reaching for a mug, trying to hug Raine, washing myself in the shower as I ran my fingers over the mass of bruised flesh. Even in bed, I found myself flinching and gasping with pain as muscles tried to move tentacles which I didn’t possess anymore. When I’d summoned those six extra limbs, the flood of information had overwhelmed my brain – but the human brain is wonderfully adaptive. Fresh neural pathways had been laid down, the beginnings of a pattern by which to incorporate the tentacles.

Rather counter-productive when I didn’t have them.

Memories of lost glory tortured me. I could have neither tentacles nor peace.

But I did have Lozzie.

And thankfully, she took no convincing to stay at home.

“Where were you?” I asked, that very same afternoon I was recovering from her pneuma-somatic surgery. “For all those weeks, you just vanished. I had no idea what happened to you, where you were, if you were alive or hurt or anything. Why didn’t you visit, even just for a few minutes? I needed to know you were safe.”

“I was safe! I was Outside! It’s the safest place for me!”

“Lozzie … ”

“I couldn’t come back because he’d know,” she lowered her voice to a whisper and glanced left and right, then nodded at Praem standing by my bedroom door, as if we were in a spy novel and Praem was guarding out retreat. “He knows when things plop through from one side to the other – he’s got this machine!”

None of us had to ask who ‘he’ was.

“Machine?” Evelyn had frowned. “What do you mean, machine?”

“He’s spent like forty years building it.” Lozzie nodded to her, all serious and po-faced. “My brother said he’d been building it since before either of us were born, which is – wow! Wow. That’s a lot of screws and nuts and bolts.”

“A machine to detect translation from here to Outside, and the reverse?” Evelyn grit her teeth. “That’s impossible. Great. Have you ever seen it?”

Lozzie shook her head.

“Might not even exist,” Raine suggested. “Could be a bluff.”

“He knew about the Messenger,” I croaked, still massaging my chest, trying to rub away the feeling of the shifting, flexing replacement flesh inside my lungs. “Maisie’s messenger.”

“Mmhmm!” Lozzie nodded several times. “I thought about it some more and he’s probably the one keeping us here. Probably maybe. Trying to trap me!”

“He won’t get you,” I told her. “I won’t let him.”

“Yeah,” Raine said, soft and assured. Lozzie gave me a hug, and I tried to hold it together. It was a minute or two until we parted again.

“Lozzie – this isn’t really important,” I started a little while later, after I’d wiped the threat of tears from my eyes. “But forgive me-”

“Forgiven!” She announced, one hand raised.

“If you couldn’t come back here, where did you pick that up?” I nodded at her comfortable poncho, with the pastel pink and blue bands around a white middle. As soon as I’d been safely in recovery, she’d insisted on finding and wearing it again.

“Oh!” She giggled and flapped it outward. “I love this, isn’t it pretty?”

“It is,” I agreed. “But where did you get it? Where did you get all the clothes you had on? Your shoes? And you had a brownie … ”

“Oh I could come back here, but not here here,” she chirped. “The poncho is from London, the brownie was from a shop in … um … somewhere south! Somewhere hot! I didn’t know the language but I took it from a shop.”

“Took it?” Raine smirked. “Lozzie, Lozzie. Learning fast.”

“Oh,” I sighed. “You weren’t carrying any money when you left.”

Lozzie shrugged and giggled again. “It’s not like I hurt anybody! I just pick up a thing and – poof! Off I go!”

“A budding criminal mastermind,” said Raine.

“As long as you don’t … well … ” I sighed. “I suppose you had no choice.”

“Be gay, do crimes,” Lozzie whispered, and did a little twirl in her poncho.

If she’d insisted on tagging along with me to university, or wandering off into Sharrowford by herself, I would have been stressed out of my mind. Perhaps Lozzie sensed that. If she put herself in danger again, I would not be able to deal with it. I wouldn’t stop her, couldn’t stop her from doing what she wanted, it went against everything I believed she needed. But I also needed her to be safe.

She stuck to the house and occasionally the back garden, reading, playing video games – and cleaning.

She had the most bizarre reading habits. She walked while she read, in a circuit of the house with her nose in a book borrowed from myself or Evelyn, eyes wide and skipping across the pages, feet moving on automatic. She would emerge from a doorway with whispered words on her breath, not even looking up to see where she went, sometimes supernaturally graceful, never bumping into a chair or a corner – and sometimes clumsy on her feet, hopping to stop herself as she bumbled into a wall.

At other times she parked herself in front of Raine’s playstation, with ample encouragement from Raine herself and a whistle-stop introduction to the small pile of Japanese role-playing games Raine kept on hand. I had the distinct impression she’d never been allowed video games before. Like me, she’d had little exposure, but unlike me she took to it with wild gusto, declared particular characters as her favourites, and had something to talk about with Raine.

The cleaning was most bizarre.

 Clumsy, haphazard, sometimes producing more mess than she eliminated. She raided the kitchen for dusters and rags and cleaning spray, tucked her hair up in a big haphazard ball of loops and dragging ends, rolled up her sleeves, and then inevitably got distracted within fifteen minutes. But she kept coming back to the task, over and over.

“This place doesn’t need cleaning. We keep the worst of it in order,” Evelyn had grumbled toward the end of the week. “She-”

“She’s trying to pull her weight,” I’d whispered. “She’s trying to chip in. Evee, it’s sweet.”

“Its … uurrggh,” Evelyn sighed. “Alright. But keep her away from the bleach.” She raised her voice, projected it from the kitchen where we stood, to the front room where Lozzie was inexpertly running an old feather dust with half the feathers missing over the stacks of old boxes. “You hear that, Lauren? No bleach. Please.”

“But you’re meant to put bleach down the toilets to kill all the germs and bugs because poop makes a lot of germs and bugs.” She looked up and blinked. “Doesn’t it?”

“ … yes.”

“It’s okay, Lozzie,” I said. “Please just don’t do the toilets. Leave that for me.”

And she talked. A lot.

She talked to Kimberly, despite the older woman’s nervous tension around her. She cooed and encouraged Tenny’s still-closed cocoon when we went out into the garden to see it, telling her to ‘get bigger!’ She rattled to spirits over the back of the garden fence, but I only caught that once or twice, and whatever language she used was far from human. Lots of soft hoots and little whistles. She even spoke to Praem, though only in private. More than once I caught snatches of one-sided conversation when they were alone together, Lozzie’s voice in a long stream of solitary chatter. If Praem was replying, none of us could hear the words.

For the first time since I’d met her all those months ago, as a diminutive figure wearing a goat skull on her head, I had the chance to actually talk with Lozzie, at length, with no crisis to interrupt us, no half-remembered dream logic to cast a haze over my memories.

But she made even less sense than in the dreams.

“Why could I never remember them – remember you – after I woke up? It was so … I was always so happy and relaxed in the dreams, but they should have been terrifying. We were Outside, unprotected, but half the time I didn’t care. Like you’d … done something to my mind? Did you? Please, Lozzie, I have to know.”

“It was you, silly,” she’d giggled. “Of course you were happy, dreams are happy if they’re not nightmares, right? Outside’s not scary when you know it’s a dream!”

“ … I suppose so, but were we not really there, or-”

“Up here!” Lozzie tapped her forehead. She rolled over on the bed, my bed. We’d woken up from a nap together, Raine was off at university alone, and the house was quiet and close around us. I was wrapped up in a blanket around my shoulders in the chair, asking questions that made no sense to anybody but Lozzie and I. She tapped her head again. “We were out there, up here.”

“So it wasn’t real.”

She huffed with a little ‘pffft’ of her mouth, and rolled over the other way, the long blonde waterfall of her hair splaying out behind her on the bed. “Imagination is real! Heathy-Heather I told you all this so many times, in the dreams!”

“I … yes, I sort of remember, but it doesn’t make sense.” I squeezed my eyes shut and rubbed the bridge of my nose. “Lozzie, what was happening when we shared dreams? Really? Please, help me understand.”

“You can’t understand something that you’re supposed to just feel,” she said, and puffed out a cheek.

“Please try?”

Lozzie flopped her legs against the bed, then spread her arms and held up both hands, far apart, palms facing each other. “So like, there’s you, and there’s you. And they’re mirrors, and they see each other but can’t see behind themselves, and that’s why everybody is just a body. Yes?” She blinked big eyes at me, waiting for an answer.

“Yes,” I said automatically, but meant ‘what?’

“But if you turn the mirrors away from each other they can see everything else – but they can’t see themselves anymore! It’s stupid and it doesn’t work! That’s what my brother tried to do.” She sighed, shaking her head.

“Okay … and?”

“But if you make the mirrors double-sided, you can do anything.” She burst into a bouncy smile. “That’s like us. Then you can have yourself and yourself but not get confused. I learned it a looooong time ago, but you hadn’t got it yet when I came to see you the first time. I had to teach you.”

“You mean … I could go Outside, in a dream, without having to go there physically?”

“Mmmm, kinda?” Lozzie bobbed her head back and forth. “But you’re still not getting it, Heathy-Heaths.”

“It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.”

Lozzie smiled, closed her eyes, and spread herself out on the bed. “You just have to stop thinking so hard.”

==

The woods thickened as we walked. Fifty feet in, we couldn’t see the road anymore.

We took it slow. We had to, because this part of the woods had no permanent foot trails, no cleared paths. Protected ancient woodland meant no ground-clearing, no cutting back overgrowth, no chainsawing apart fallen trees. We picked our way through a maze of brown tree trunks, across a carpet of mushy leaves compacted into the mud and left to rot for years. The greenery of the canopy swayed in the wind far overhead, but comparatively little light reached the forest floor, enough to nourish a few holly bushes and clusters of fern and some half-dead stands of birch.

Raine carried a torch in her coat, in case this took much longer than expected, but I was half tempted to ask her to switch it on now. Between the thin mist of the rain, the overcast sky, and the enclosure of the woods, we trekked deeper and deeper into a world of strange grey twilight and sucking mud.

At least Lozzie was having fun.

She danced ahead of us by a good twenty feet or so, peering around every tree and looking up at animal noises in sudden interest – squirrels running up the tree trunks, furtive foxes in the undergrowth, birds high up in the leaves. Every couple of minutes she paused and stood stock-still, then nodded and pointed us onward. Twil trudged along behind her, hands in her pockets, sniffing at the air.

“Picked up anything yet?” Raine asked.

“Mud, badgers, mud, rabbits, mud, rats. Did I mention mud?” Twil shrugged.

Slow going was good for me too. I wasn’t exactly thriving out here.

The hike wasn’t difficult in the way I’d expected, especially with the aid of the stick Raine had given me. The wellington boots rubbed my feet sore, yes, despite the double layers of thick socks I’d worn, and my thighs and hips quickly tired, but I could endure that. I’d endured worse, and I was determined to find Zheng and talk to her, even if I wasn’t yet a hundred percent sure how I was going to convince her to come home. We had to enlist her help – I had to enlist her help, with my tentacles – and I wanted her, in some as yet undiscussed way.

No, the walking itself wasn’t too difficult – but my tentacles kept trying to help.

As my legs tired and my feet got sore, my bruised flanks began to shudder and quiver. Tentacles tried to uncurl and grasp at branches to anchor me, to pull me forward, to support my weight. Throbs of dull pain shot up my sides, made me gasp, made me have to stop and close my eyes to halt the reaction.

Because it was a reaction, pure instinct. The tentacles, however short-lived, had adjusted some fundamental neurological assumption. Now my body acted like they should be there, should be available to help, to steady my other muscles. To assist on this hike.

“You just have to plan them properly!” Lozzie had told me. “You gotta feel them with your hands, or do it in a dream so it doesn’t pop you apart. Just plan them and let them do their thing, you’ll be fine!”

Needless to say, I’d kept my promise to Raine and Evelyn. No more tentacles. For now.

We crested a sort of ridge in the woods and came upon the brief respite of an open field, overgrown with thistles and weeds, grass going to seed, old fenceposts sticking out of the clay. A tumbledown barn loomed at the far end. We passed along the edge of the field, toward a bend back into the trees, and a few crows rose on the wing from around the corner, cawing and calling to each other as they peered at us from the treetops. Raine pulled ahead a little way to keep an eye on Lozzie, and Twil naturally fell back to keep me company, still sulking under her hood. Thin misty rain enveloped us.

“So,” I asked between puffing breaths, raising the subject to distract myself from the pulling, shifting sensation inside my lungs. “Twil, what’s your strategy with Evelyn?”

She did a double-take at me, face shadowed by her hood. “My what? What?”

“Your strategy. For Evelyn?”

Ahead, Lozzie was gesturing to Raine, pointing around the corner of the field to where the woods resumed.

“ … for … like … ” Twil blinked. “What?”

I rolled my eyes and sighed, and gestured with the hiking stick – and suddenly understood why Evelyn did the same thing with her stick all the time. There was a primal satisfaction in having a big stick to wave around. Like swinging a club. Still ape, at heart. “Twil, I’m well aware of what’s been going on between you and her. It’s obvious.”

“Well it’s not fucking obvious to me. What are you talking about?”

I halted and turned to Twil. She looked at me awkwardly, framed by the grey sky and the woods behind. She was painfully pretty, angelic face somehow emphasised by her blunt frown and the roughness of her speech. No surprise what Evelyn saw there.

“You like her. You’re into her,” I said. “And you should probably just tell her, because she’s not going to make the first move.”

“I’m what?” Twil gaped at me, wide-eyed. “I … I … am I?”

I blinked at her.

“Ahhhh fuck,” she sighed, as her face collapsed into a grimace. “Yeah, yeah shit I am, aren’t I? Awww fuck.” She put her face in one hand. “Fuckin’ shit.”

“Oh. Oh dear. You mean you didn’t know?”

“I … I dunno! She … I … fuck.” Twil grit her teeth. “Why’d you have to bring this up now?! I’m meant to be psyching myself up for a fistfight with your weirdo demon friend! Fuck! Heather!”

“I’ll tell Evelyn you were both strong and brave.”

“Don’t do that! Jesus. Oh shit. Oh-”

“Twil!” Raine called. We both looked around. Raine nodded around the bend in the trees. “You gotta see this.”

“We can talk about this later,” I whispered.

“Uuuunnn,” Twil made a grumble of dread and embarrassment. We trudged down the length of the field to join Raine. Lozzie was nowhere in sight, probably just around the corner where the field stretched out to rejoin the woods.

Even before we got there, Twil went stiff. She sniffed the air several times and wrinkled her nose.

“Is that-”

“Not human,” Raine answered quickly as we caught up.

“Oh thank fuck for that.” She sniffed again. “Sheep?”

“What? What’s not human?” I demanded as we rounded the corner. “What did you … oh.”

On the edge of the woods, four sheep carcasses had been opened and gutted. Blood was smeared all over the grass, splattered up the fenceposts and the nearest of the trees, half-washed by the rain into a pink froth all over the remaining tufts of wool. Crows squawked at us from above, irritated at the interruption of their carrion meal. Bones lay scattered about, with scraps of dark red flesh still clinging to them, though between the original act of predation and the crows’ appetites, the dead animals had been stripped of almost all meat. Skin and bone and lots of crimson, guts and hoofs. Skulls.

Lozzie was bending forward to peer at one of the skulls on the ground, hands on her knees, braid tucked neatly into the back of her poncho.

Twil let out a low whistle.

“Yeah, right?” Raine murmured. “Don’t think any fox or buzzard is gonna get a whole sheep way up there.”

One of the dead sheep – just a ribcage and a flesh-stripped skull – was up in a tree, tangled in the thicker branches.

“What was she doing?” I murmured when I found my voice. “Why … eating, yes, but this looks more like … ”

“Stress relief. Taking it out on some sheep,” Twil said. She shrugged at my horrified look. “Some predators kill for fun, you know?”

“I know, but … ”

I swallowed. What if Evelyn was right? What if Zheng was forgetting how to be human?

“Least it means we’re on the right track,” said Raine. “Looks fresh.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

nostalgia for infinity – 9.4

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Hiss.

An alien giant reached for my friends with tentacles as thick as tree trunks; I threw my own tentacles wide, and hissed – like a little girl in a school playground, pretending to be a dinosaur.

I sounded ridiculous.

It was an absurd response. My defiance was not born of heroism or bravery, because I am neither a hero nor possess any notable courage, no matter what affectionate lies Raine tells me. When faced with predatory mega-fauna the size of an asteroid, any sensible, fragile, cowering ape should run away as fast as its stubby little legs can carry it.

But I wasn’t entirely ape any more. The response came from my gut, from the principles and instincts I’d bought back from the abyss, a set of drives that were not remotely human – but which I had turned to human purposes. The ape, the savanna monkey, saw her friends, her family, her tribe, in danger. And the abyssal marine thing stepped in with territorial display and a pathetic attempt to make me look bigger than I was.

Or perhaps I hissed because the only alternative was to scream.

A still-rational part of me did try to scream. Blind panic lit up the back of my mind, as I spread my tentacles out in the manner of a cat arching its back. Even over the sudden euphoria and glory of these extra limbs, terror took my heart, took my legs with a tremor, dumped adrenaline into my bloodstream.

Me, Heather, all of five-foot-nothing, a tiny woman hissing her lungs out at a creature the size of a interplanetary body.

Suicidal.

But it worked.

The sky-child reconsidered.

All three of its tentacles paused in mid-air, mid-strike. Giant worms, pitted and grey, armoured in stony hide. The one aimed at Raine turned slowly, like the head of a snake, to point a tapered tip toward me. The two going for Lozzie and Praem reared back – then drifted.

The trio of tentacles all drifted, like unanchored cables in zero-gravity. To the untrained eye the motion appeared random, listless, meant nothing; abyssal instinct read the message loud and clear.

Posturing, manoeuvring, testing for reaction.

I’d confused the sky-child for only a few precious moments. Now it wanted to see what manner of creature I was, and try to outflank me.

I hiccuped. Could scarcely breathe. My heart pounded in my chest, a panicked bird trapped in a cage, and my head throbbed with my own pulse. Cold sweat broke out on my forehead, my face, under my armpits, down my back. The euphoric echo of my once-beautiful abyssal form paled to nothing before this giant. I had no idea what to do.

One thing was certain, both ape and abyss agreed; if I turned and ran, the creature would be on us in an instant.

Up close, in more intimate detail than I ever wanted to see again in my life, the asteroid-thing’s vast tentacle limbs revealed their secrets. They creaked as they moved. Muscles or bones – or whatever it used for bones – produced a soft, meaty creaking which filled the air just below the level of human hearing. The outer layer of stony hide was semi-transparent, like cloudy plastic. Beneath that lay a shimmering substrate, coppery orange.

Somehow, in reference to some buried abyssal knowledge, I knew that coppery sheen was a sensory organ, hundreds of feet long. It could see us, quite clearly.

How complex must the creature’s awareness be, to keep track of so much input? Visible through the empty windows as only a great shadowed bulk, the sky-child’s main body hovered just beyond the castle walls, a kaleidescope of slowly rotating colours.

The ever present cosmic whale-song continued uninterrupted. We weren’t even important enough to disrupt the chorus.

In panic, I mirrored the drifting tentacles – or, attempted to. I tried to adjust the position and angle of my extra limbs this way and that, left and right, to cover every angle at once. But the effort sent my head spinning, my vision askew, filled my brain with fog. Bile rose in my throat. One of my tentacles seized up, another drifted aimlessly. I couldn’t track them all, I couldn’t move them all at once. Throwing them wide, grabbing things, those had been easy, but this wouldn’t work. My eyes bulged in panic.

“Heather!” Raine hissed in a stage-whisper. “Let go!”

I felt a tug, risked a glance sideways. One of my tentacles was still wrapped around the barrel of Raine’s handgun, keeping it pointed off at the wall, clenched hard like a muscle-locked fist. I’d forgotten about it. How could I forget about part of my own body?

“I get it,” she hissed, and how she managed to make eye contact with me instead of staring in terror and awe at the giant tentacles, I don’t know. She nodded down, at my pale, rainbow-strobing limb which gripped her gun. “I get it, no shooting! Use another tentacle!”

I managed to jerk a nod, and let go. Raine blew out a sharp breath and backed away toward me, covered by the extra tentacle I now threw into the air to ward off the sky-child’s attention. One of the three stony giants tracked her as she edged across the throne room to rejoin me.

“Heather!” Evelyn hissed from behind us, way back by the doorway. Her voice was tight with terror. “For God’s sake, back away from it! Praem, get over here, now!”

“I … ”

“Back away slow,” Raine said, low and calm. She reached me, eyes flickering over my extra limbs – she could see them! But I barely had the brainpower to speak, let alone process that right now. “Pull Lozzie along with us.”

“I … I can’t.”

My legs were paralysed.

Knees locked, hips aching, all I could do was stand in place. Maintaining my extra tentacles took every ounce of energy I had, and I could already feel it fading, feel myself going faint, blood sugar crashing out. Moving them – six of them, all at once – took so much concentration that I couldn’t even wiggle my toes. For two whole seconds I forgot to breathe.

What had I said last night, in my post-euphoric bravado? That I could wield a dozen tentacles, a hundred, and instinct would scale up?

Optimistic nonsense.

My brain simply wasn’t made to track six extra limbs, each one performing a different function. I felt them anchored deep inside my torso, three on each side now, pneuma-somatic flesh embedded deep inside my core muscles, wrapped around ribs, cushioning organs and infiltrating tissues. Alien muscle attached to my own, forming a new web of neutral connections and signals too complex for the ape to pilot and too fleshy for the abyssal memory to recognise.

Lozzie’s limp weight sagged in the only still-occupied tentacle, the one I’d wrapped around her like a harness. I could feel her breathing, feel her heartbeat transmitted down my extra limb. Her wispy blonde hair tickled me.

She was still singing, a reedy mumble of nonsense-sounds.

Behind her, Praem was frozen to the spot, deceptively calm with her heels together and hands clasped in front, out of place in her maid uniform. She’d ignored Evelyn’s frantic command.

“Heather?” Raine hissed.

“I can’t move my legs,” I choked out. “Raine, I’m- I’m going to run out of energy. I can’t-”

Raine jammed her handgun into the waistband of her jeans. “Praem, get ready to grab Lozzie and run,” she called out. “Evee, back into the corridor, now. Heather, I’m going to move you. Hold onto Lozzie as tight as you can.”

“Raine, I can’t hold this up! I can’t do it, I-”

“Praem, on three,” Raine said, as if they were about to lift a sofa together. Her blind confidence kept me going another few seconds. Raine had a way out, she always had a way out, a plan. “One, two, three.”

Raine swept me off my feet.

The tentacles in my flanks made it more complicated than usual, but she scooped me up in one swift motion, an arm hooked under my knees. My tentacles whipped around with the sudden change of position and the sky-child’s massive trunks surged forward into the opening. Raine was already turning, making for the doorway and Evelyn’s wide-eyed face beyond.

Praem broke for Lozzie, but even the doll-demon wasn’t fast enough. Three strides of dead sprint with artificial muscle was not going to be enough. The trunk-like tentacle would win, reach Lozzie first and – what?

With a scream and a shout and an awful tearing sensation inside my chest, I hoisted Lozzie into the air.

I recall very little of the next few moments. Several things all happened at the same time, and only by later reconstruction could I piece them together.

The sky-child’s tentacle that had been reaching for Lozzie slammed through the open space where she’d occupied a moment before.

My chest felt like it was on fire, like I’d torn a hole in my lungs and broken all my ribs.

Raine turned back, staring down at me in horror as I screamed.

Praem jerked to a halt.

The other two asteroid-thing tentacles went for me, arcing through the air as Raine – confident Raine, unphased by anything – stumbled in sheer animal terror at the size of the things. To her infinite credit, she didn’t go over, she didn’t fall or cower or even scream; she swung me backward with her entire body weight.

For one weightless, stomach-dropping moment I knew she was going to throw me at the door and hope I made it, her own safety be damned.

But with my ape-brain distracted by pain, the abyssal thing in me took over. Four tentacles met the two massive trunks from the sky-child, and held them there for a split-second, wrapped around them, pushing back, exerting a strength that I’m certain took a decade off my life expectancy. My ribcage creaked and I screamed again, awful pain, jagged and cutting, sawed up my chest.

All for one split-second, all because there was no way that I, whatever survival instincts I’d brought back, was going to let Raine go. It wasn’t until later that I realised I’d anchored myself to her with my final available tentacle. I’d wrapped it around her waist and clung on tight as she’d tried to throw me.

The split-second ended.

My strength failed. The power in my extra limbs faded. I felt it like pins and needles, like a leg going numb.

“Wheeeee!”

Lozzie cheered with child-like exuberance. So very out of place.

It froze us all. Even the sky-child – which is what saved us.

She was wide awake.

Wide awake and wide eyed, laughing and giggling, all the way up in the air where I still held her aloft with what little of my strength remained. She twisted and turned in my tentacle-harness, flailing to push her hair out of her face, staring around at the paused chaos.

“Lozzie!” I tried to say – but my breath came out in a broken wheeze.

A tremor of failure passed through my extra limbs, fading, shrivelling, turning to ash from the tips on down, flaking away into dust on the wind.

“Heather!” Lozzie lit up at me.

“No, no no no,” I moaned. I hissed, I spat, I felt more like an animal than a human being.

The tentacles gave out. I dropped Lozzie.

Praem stepped underneath and caught her with ease. The first of the sky-child’s tentacles was rearing back, attention locked on Lozzie and Praem. I keened through my teeth as my own tentacles finished dissolving, desperately trying to reform them, to perform the hyperdimensional mathematics all over again. Awful stabbing pains lanced into my sides where the tentacles had been rooted, but I had to help, I had to stop it, I had to make Lozzie safe.

“No, bad! Down!”

Lozzie held a finger up at the giant rearing tentacle. She screwed up her brow and turned her delicate, elfin face as stern as she could manage, as if she was admonishing a naughty puppy. She quickly wriggled out of Praem’s grip, though with nothing like the slippery grace she’d shown the first time. Praem helped by setting her on her feet.

“No! Down!” she repeated. The sky-child’s tentacles lowered toward the floor, all three of them, in a distinctive bow.

“Lozzie,” I wheezed.

She looked back over her shoulder at us and pulled a half-cheeky, half-worried smile of gritted teeth and wide eyes, an ‘I-can’t-believe-that-worked’ smile.

“What now?” Raine asked, sharp and quick.

“We should go!” Lozzie stage-whispered, grimacing as she tiptoed backward from the trio of giant snakes. She kept one finger out to ward them off. They followed slowly, a poorly trained animal testing its boundaries.

“Right on,” Raine said.

Of the rest in the castle, there is little to tell. Lozzie and Praem backed away from the tentacles until they rejoined us, and together we all crept to the door, Raine carrying me in her arms, clutching me close as I hissed and spat and writhed in pain. The sky-child’s tentacles followed us a way, splitting and splitting and splitting again down into dozens at the slender opening of the doorway back out of the throne room. But even that technique did not allow it to worm its way through the entire castle structure. Even giants have limits.

We made the gateway back to Sharrowford seconds later and plunged through in a rush. Lozzie tumbled into the table, and Praem caught Evelyn by the arm as she dropped her walking stick.

I was almost delirious by that point, uncontrollable in Raine’s arms. Awful, bone-deep pain wracked my sides, and a worse pain roiled in my chest. Cold sweat plastered my hair to my forehead and glued my clothes to my skin.

“Little suggestion, maybe close the gate?” Raine threw back over her shoulder as she carried me to the sofa. Lozzie scurried after us, a pale, worried little face bobbing over Raine’s shoulder. “No rush, you know, take your time and all that.”

“You do not have to tell me twice,” Evelyn snapped.

I caught a glimpse of her back, one arm out as she drew a scribble in black marker pen on the wall, marring the complex perfection of the gateway mural.

It collapsed without so much as a sound. No pop, no flash, no implosion of mirror-smooth surface. One moment it showed a vision of grey jade and fog, the next it was the bare wall of the ex-drawing room, an outline scored into the plaster.

Raine set me down onto the sofa. I clutched at her arm, I hissed, I tried to stand up. I was barely aware of what I was doing.

A gasp ripped out through my throat, and it did not sound right. Wheezy, serrated, like broken glass inside my chest.

“Lost them again!” I whined through my teeth. “No, gone again, no, noooo.”

“Heather, Heather look at me,” Raine snapped hard, and took my face in both hands. “Heather, concentrate. I need you to stay awake, okay?” She glanced over her shoulder and raised her voice. “Kimberly! Kim! Get in here!”

I couldn’t focus. Not on Raine’s mask of worry. Not on Evelyn as she stomped over to us, raving about idiot decisions and mortal dangers and ‘what the fuck has she done to herself?’ Not on Praem, straightening her skirt. Not on Kimberly as she appeared wide-eyed in the kitchen doorway.

Lozzie’s face bobbed over Raine’s shoulder, and I could focus on that.

“It worked,” I croaked. “You’re awake. Worked.”

Then I coughed, and up came a mouthful of blood.

“Oh, Goddess, what?” Kimberly’s said. “What- what-”

“Call an ambulance, now,” Raine told her. She turned back to me, and for once Raine failed to cover her fear with confidence. “Heather, Heather don’t look at it, it’s going to be- you’re going to be fine. You’ve probably torn a lung, maybe. Focus on me. Heather.”

I couldn’t. All I could see was my own blood on the hand I’d raised to my mouth. Bright red. Another cough – more half-strangled choke – produced another splatter of crimson. Tasted iron in the back of my throat.

Inside, my body was trying to change, trying to close the wound. The memory of the abyss tried to knit me back together with logic meant for starlight and photons, not flesh.

Impossible, of course. The pain spiked, a hot needle in my lungs, and I screamed again, bucking and kicking on the sofa.

“What do we do?” Raine asked, hard and urgent. “Evelyn, what do we do?”

“I don’t fucking know!” Evelyn shouted. “I don’t know the first thing about healing fucking wounds, let alone internal ones.”

“Hospital,” Praem intoned.

“Yes, yes exactly,” Raine said. “Kim!”

“I’m calling, I’m calling now.” Kimberly had a mobile phone to her ear.

“Surely there’s something we can do in the meantime,” Raine said. “Evee, please, come on-”

“There is!” Lozzie chirped.

Her head suddenly wriggled into view from beneath Raine’s armpit, like a puppy nosing her way into a lap. She smiled a resolved little smile and nodded seriously to Raine.

“I’m going to do a thing to help her do what she’s already trying to do and it’ll replace missing parts for a bit, okay?” she said to Raine all in a rush. “Might hurt though! Like, lots and lots! Don’t hit me afterwards?”

“I won’t hit you, Lozzie. Do it.” Raine took my flailing hand and squeezed tight.

“Heather, it’s me, it’s meeee,” Lozzie said. “And look, now it’s going to be you too!”

Lozzie put her hand on my chest, at the base of my ribcage. I’d love to say that I passed out from the pain, that I didn’t feel what happened next, what she knitted inside the lung I’d torn out of position. I’d love to say that merciful oblivion took me, as it so often did with the pains of hyperdimensional mathematics.

It did not.

I felt every moment of Lozzie’s emergency pneuma-somatic ‘surgery’. Five seconds was all she took. Fast, I’ll give her that.

Five seconds of broken glass, molten steel, and burning tar.

==

“It’s all my fault! It’s all my fault. I’m sorry, Heather, I’m really sorry. It-” Lozzie hiccuped, sniffed, and scrubbed her nose and eyes with her sleeve in a huge wet mess. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry!”

“It- Lozzie- it’s okay,” I said, and tried to smile encouragingly. “I’m going to be okay, aren’t I? You fixed me.”

“ … I fix you and you fix me,” she said, smiled a shaky smile, then let out another wet sob and – gently, thank goodness – buried her face in my shoulder. “It’s my fault. I was in a dream and I heard them calling and wanted to join in. They’d never hurt me, I know they’d never hurt me! It was all a big mistake and I couldn’t tell anybody, I couldn’t tell you! Please don’t hate me, Heather, please, please.”

Lozzie sobbed and shook. No crocodile tears, no childish attempt at invoking sympathy to avoid disapproval. Her anguish was painfully real. I would have cried too, if it wasn’t for the bone-crushing exhaustion. Instead, I touched my head to hers.

“You didn’t do anything wrong,” I said. “It was my fault, over-reacted.”

“Hey, me too,” Raine put in gently. “I tried to shoot at the thing. I’m sorry too, Lozzie.”

“I wasn’t-” Lozzie sniffed. “I wasn’t awake when you needed me to be.”

“Then I forgive you.”

“Please don’t hate me,” she said in a small voice.

“I don’t. I won’t.”

“Does Lozzie maybe want some hot chocolate too?” Raine ventured. “Though I think hers would be sans the vodka.”

“Mmmm-mmmm?” Lozzie shrugged minutely. I gave Raine the nod anyway, but Praem was the one who left the room to go downstairs and whip up another batch.

We were all gathered in my and Raine’s bedroom, over seven hours after our return and Lozzie’s impromptu surgery. Lozzie herself was tucked half under the covers with me while Raine sat on the edge of the bed. Evelyn was perched in the desk chair, frowning like a hawk, distractedly rubbing at the junction between her thigh and her prosthetic. Outdoors, the sun was almost down, just a thin orange glow on the horizon as the street lamps flickered on. We’d turned the heating up, the radiators struggling.

I’d spent most of those seven hours curled up in a tight ball of pain, caked in cold sweat, at first dissociating heavily in the aftermath of Lozzie’s work – not to mention the awful stabbing pain of the bruises in my flanks, old and new.

Of the surgery itself I recalled little.

According to Raine, I’d screamed my head off. I did vaguely remember trying to shove Lozzie’s hand away. Raine had to grab my wrists and hold me down by the shoulders, not an easy feat despite my scant muscle mass and small size. By the time Praem had joined, Lozzie was done, and sobbing apologies over and over as I lay there in a shell-shocked heap, wheezing and shuddering.

Raine had fed me sips of water and painkillers, then carried me up to the bedroom and watched me for any signs of relapse.

Only two things kept her from rushing me to the hospital regardless; first, that I’d stopped coughing up blood as soon as Lozzie had finished. My breathing had returned to normal, no longer that awful fluttering, guttering sound. And second, if she did present me for medical treatment, the doctors would find a very curious structure inside my chest, supernatural stitches and staples and surrogate tissues holding my left lung together. I’d become instant medical history; or more likely their brains would refuse to see reality, and whatever treatment they attempted would hurt me far worse.

“No more blood. It’s all packed down. It’s safe, safe, really, serious. Double serious! I wouldn’t guess, wouldn’t guess about this!” Lozzie had chattered, sniffing between her tears as Raine had listened to my breathing. She seemed even more reluctant to leave my side than Raine was. “I didn’t even do it, not really, it was Heather, all her, I just encouraged it over the finish line because she couldn’t think right then.”

Her tiny elfin face, wracked with awful lip-chewing guilt, had watched me from the edge of the bed.

“But how long will it hold for?” Raine had asked.

Lozzie’s answer was a whirlwind of overlapping statements and explanations, retractions and loop-backs, how my own cells would replace the ‘sticky-fix pollyfiller happy goo’ – but that didn’t help with the pain. Eventually I’d drifted off into a state of feverish half-sleep. Raine had tucked me in under the sheets. Voices whispered on the edge of my muddy consciousness.

“Thank you,” said Raine. “Thank you, whatever you did.”

“But it hurt her so much … ”

“And it’s kept her alive. Who knows if she’d have made it to the hospital?” Raine sighed heavily. I think I heard her raking her fingers back through her own hair. I’d never heard her sound so shaky. “Thank you.”

“ … okay.”

“Hey, Lozzie, it’s alright. We haven’t talked much in the past, we barely know each other, but Heather cares about you, which means I do as well.”

“Of course, mmhmm,” Lozzie said, voice still sad but recovering a little. “You fuck a lot, after all, right?”

“I-” Raine failed to suppress a ‘snrk’ of laughter. “Uh, yeah. Yes, we do.”

“Oh for pity’s sake,” came a third voice – Evelyn, further away. “This isn’t the time. You’re absolutely sure this ‘replacement flesh’ will hold?”

“Mmhmm! Mmhmm! It’s her own body!”

“Hmm … well, when she’s awake, I want her downstairs, in a circle. I want to check for myself. Make sure she’s not going to bleed out internally one night if she tears something.”

“Yes. Good,” Raine said. “Do that, please.”

Silence fell. I drifted off. Minutes or hours later, voices filtered back in as I turned over, my throat thick and heavy with sleep and the lingering taste of blood.

“- be fine if I can go play with the kids again,” Lozzie was saying. “They’re fun! They’re safe, really! You just have to speak the language!”

Fun, right,” Evelyn said through clenched teeth.

“And that’s what woke you up? Proximity?” Raine asked.

“Mmmmhmmm! Like, they remind me what I am, you know? It’s cool, it’s fine, I can go myself if you just open the door.”

“How often?” Evelyn asked.

“Um … maybe … no … um, wait and see?”

I slipped off again as my friends hammered out the logistics of keeping Lozzie awake. Dozed for maybe an hour, maybe two, but not full sleep, only scraps of life’s great feast.

Even hours later I was still shaky and weak, when I finally woke. Raine helped me sit up in bed and pull the sweat-soaked hoodie off my head. Sitting there with my tshirt hiked up, bent forward on the bed, Raine found six bruises this time. One anchor-point for each tentacle old or new, clustered on my flanks between the base of my ribcage and my hips. Each one throbbed, deep and lasting.

“Take it slow, real slow, okay? Try to straighten out, but move slow, that’s it.”

Raine helped me sit upright, as I struggled up through the haze of painkillers and the throbbing ache in my sides, but I froze halfway there.

A foreign object, an alien structure, tugged inside my chest.

“Ah! W-what is that? Ah- ahh!” I broke out in panic sweat again, a hand fluttering to my chest. One should not be able to feel one’s own lungs pulling and tightening, like a mass of scar tissue immobile against the elasticity of the surrounding skin. “What is that?!”

“It’s all supposed to be! Supposed to be!” Lozzie leaned on the bed and peered at my chest. “It’s all supposed to be. It’s going to be fine! It’s your own body, it’s okay. It’s just you, all you, all Heather.”

“I can … I can feel it. I can feel the inside of my own lungs. Oh, ugh.” I swallowed the feeling down.

“Only for a bit. Then it’ll become you!”

I blinked at Lozzie’s elfin face as she swept her wispy golden hair back, trying to comprehend what she’d said and link it with what I felt tugging and stretching inside me. Despite all the words I’d heard earlier, I’d been in too much pain to internalise the meaning. It came to me slowly, in waves of invasive horror; every time I breathed, I felt replacement lung-tissue flex inside me.

“Heather?” Raine murmured softly, one hand stroking the back of my head.

“ … I grew pneuma-somatic flesh as a replacement,” I said at length. “Right. Okay. I can- I can deal with this.”

I almost couldn’t. As Raine helped me sip from a mug of hot chocolate, I felt too nervous to move, disgusted and flinching at every tug and pull of tightened tissue inside my chest, weak and shaking from hunger despite the biscuits Raine brought me, despite inhaling an entire packet. Lozzie read me like an open book, great big eyes watery and sad, biting her lip in guilt, and then she finally clambered half into the bed to hug me and wail her apologies.

==

“You’re saying that thing – that … ” Evelyn sighed. “We need a name for those things.”

Praem had returned with more hot chocolate. Lozzie sat cross-legged on the bed now, sniffing and snuffling and feeling awful about herself.

“Shitfuckers,” Raine suggested with a smirk. “Okay no, for real. Squid-moons?”

“Squid-moons,” I sighed. “Farcical.”

“Ruuuuude,” Lozzie said, but without any hooting exuberance. “The one we saw … um … well, he’s called-”

She made a sort of breathy honking sound which was absolutely not meant to come from a human throat. Whatever else Lozzie was, the piece of her we knew was physically human, so she managed to sound like an asthmatic duck. Raine was very polite and did not laugh.

“ … mmm.” Lozzie made a sad little pout of failure.

“S’okay,” I croaked for her. She shrugged and wiggled her backside deeper into a mass of bedsheets she’d pulled up around herself.

“Let’s go with squid-moons,” Evelyn said with a long-suffering sigh. “Lauren, please. You’re saying that thing was, what, playing with us? Like an oversize dog that doesn’t know it’s own strength?”

Lozzie dipped her head, puffed out one cheek, and sketched a sheepish shrug. It was like she felt responsible for their behaviour, for our easy mistake.

“That’s a yes, isn’t it?” Raine asked. For the first time, I got a preview of the sort of tone Raine might use with a child – a gentler version of the usual bursting, overflowing confidence.

Lozzie nodded. Evelyn let out a huge sigh.

“Which means all this was unnecessary,” I croaked. Gestured at myself. “Could have defused it without hurting myself. Stupid Heather.”

“Hey, Heather,” Raine said. She reached over and rubbed the back of my head and my neck. Her touch took my mind away from the pain and exhaustion. “We don’t know that for sure. Right, Lozzie?”

“Um … ” Lozzie bit her lower lip.

“Thank you for attempting to make me feel better,” I managed. “But I am an idiot.”

We all knew what Lozzie was. We all knew those squid-moon-thing were the children of the dessicated Outsider below the castle. But in a moment of panic and terror we’d simply reacted. Like the stupid, aggressive apes we were.

“Don’t beat yourself up, it’s not-”

“We were all idiots!” Evelyn interrupted Raine with a snarl. She lurched up out of the chair, too much weight on her walking stick and withered left leg. Her prosthetic socket was bothering her, too much stress in the last two days. She stomped to the door, then turned and stomped back again. “We should never have gone any deeper into that fucking place without serious preparation. How else are we supposed to respond to a giant fucking tentacle monster?! I could have sent Praem, I could have- Goddammit!”

“Evee,” Raine said. “Hey-”

“Don’t you hey me,” Evelyn snapped. “This was all our fault, we’re all responsible for Heather’s condition, you as well as me, Heather herself, my-”

“Evelynnnnn.”

Evelyn cut off at the sound of her name in Lozzie’s mouth. Lozzie straightened up on the bed next to me, and I had the distinct, skin-crawling impression of a puppet drawn up by a set of strings – and then it was just Lozzie again, blinking big wet eyes at Evelyn.

“What?” Evelyn boggled at her. When Lozzie didn’t reply, Evelyn cleared her throat and looked to Raine and I for help.

“Evelyn,” Lozzie repeated with a determined little nod.

“ … Lozzie?” I croaked.

But she was suddenly busy disentangling herself from the sheets, hopping on one foot as she bounced to the floorboards, hair everywhere, willowy limbs windmilling as she caught her balance. She got both feet down, erratic and clumsy for somebody who had seemed almost puppet-like moments before, and let out a long, almost theatrical sigh. She closed her eyes.

“Lozzie?” I repeated, heart in my throat. This reminded me far too much of when she first left us. The poise and theatre of her movements, the sudden change of attitude. “Are you … Lozzie, what are you doing?”

“Oh!” Her eyes flew open, and she giggled. “This.”

She put her hands together as if praying, and bowed her head to us, a little Buddhist monk with too much hair and borrowed clothes.

“Thank you,” she said, heartfelt and bouncy. “Thank you. Evelyn. Raine. Praem too! But especially Evelyn, yes. Special thank you, special.”

Evelyn frowned at her in utter confusion. I wasn’t exactly up to speed either.

Lozzie straightened up and let out another sigh, this time with a contented smile on her face. Before Evelyn could back away to safe distance, Lozzie tripped and hopped across the gap between them and threw her arms around Evelyn in the same way she might hug me, with zero inhibitions and the wild abandon of a person who rarely wears shoes.

“I- what- I- yes, okay, yes, you’re … welcome?” Evelyn flustered, trying to withdraw. Lozzie squeezed. Raine hid a laugh behind one hand.

“Thank you!”

“Yes, okay, yes-”

“Lozzie,” I croaked. “Let her go. Evee has spinal problems, it’s hard for her to hug back.”

Not technically a lie, but Evelyn looked in need of rescue.

“Okey-dokey!” Lozzie withdrew her arms and pushed her hair back again, trying to keep it out of her face. She did a happy little foot-to-foot bob at Evelyn. “Thank you, Evee!”

“Yes, stop … stop yelling everything, please.”

“Okay!” Lozzie whispered. “Thank you, for giving me somewhere to sleep, for letting me eat your food, for looking after me and putting a roof over my head. Thank you.”

“ … oh, um.” Evelyn frowned again, at a loss for what to say. She frowned and cleared her throat, averted her eyes. Lozzie bowed her head again, a deep bow this time, the ends of her tresses trailing on the ground.

“You are welcome,” Praem supplied the words stuck in her mistress’ throat. Evelyn harrumphed and hemmed and cast about, deeply uncomfortable.

“The least I can do is provide what resources I have at my disposal,” she grumbled under her breath. “Not as if I’m much good for anything else.”

“Not true!” Lozzie chirped, one finger raised. “You are incredibly pretty, you know that?”

“I’m-” Evelyn frowned hard. “Alright, compliments are nice, but that’s a bald faced lie. I’m shrivelled and crippled. Don’t insult me.”

“Mmm—mmm.” Lozzie shook her head, a big smug smile on her face, as if she knew something that Evelyn didn’t.

I suspected I knew what Lozzie meant. She wasn’t talking about the physical world perceptible to the rest of us. Evelyn was a mage, and Lozzie, at least inside, was as non-human as I had become, even if she’d gotten there by a different route. The inside of her head had been forever changed, when the thing below the castle had used her as a way out of its prison when she was little. What did she see when she looked at Evelyn? The rest of us could only guess.

To see Lozzie recovered gave me strength. Up and around, bouncing from foot to foot, well and happy and whole. It made all the pain and terror seem worth the risk, even if it had all been an idiotic mistake. Lozzie was whole once more, and I would protect her, from her uncle, from the vengeful ghost of her brother, from everything and anything that might harm her. Surrogate be dammed, she was not Maisie; Lozzie was Lozzie, and if she wanted to be a little sister to me, I would accept.

“And you’re not an idiot, Heather,” she said. “You’re beautiful too.”

“Thank you, Lozzie. You’re too sweet.”

She beamed at me, and clambered back onto the bed.

“Ahem, well,” Evelyn cleared her throat.

“Beautiful,” Raine echoed. “But also incredibly brave. Heather, I’m serious, don’t beat yourself up for making the decision to protect Lozzie, or anybody, ever. Hey, I should know. You’re braver than me.”

“No I’m not,” I croaked. “You were going to toss me out the door and sacrifice yourself, weren’t you?”

“Ah.” Raine pulled a rakish grin. “I won’t say I wasn’t, but hey, turned out we didn’t need to.”

“Please don’t ever do that again,” I croaked at Raine.

Lozzie gasped and put a hand to her mouth, mock-scandalised.

“It’s what I do.” Raine shrugged.

“I protect you too, Raine.” The pain made me both bold and bitter. She blinked at me, and I saw the internal denial, the refusal of the premise, in the way she smiled. I frowned. “I protect you too.”

She put her hands up. “Okay, okay! I will admit, you getting all territorial, puffing yourself up? Kinda hot. The tentacles were even cooler than I imagined, too.”

“Oh, right,” I grunted, and swallowed down the other pain – the loss, all over again, for the second time in as many days, of watching my beautiful, shining tentacles crumble to dust, of losing that bodily perfection yet again. I curled up around my wounded flanks, and felt like I’d been sliced apart rather than returned to normal. A shudder of suppressed pain passed through my sides, and I winced, hard, as the phantom limbs tried to uncurl, but found themselves seized up, invisible, never born. “You could see them, couldn’t you?”

“It was that place,” Evelyn mused. “All that crap out in the streets, that was pneuma-somatic life, but we could all see it. Same with your … additions,” she added that word through her teeth.

“You saw them too?”

“Yes,” she sighed. “Rainbow strobing. Very flashy. Didn’t exactly seem like your style, Heather.”

“What, rainbows?” Raine asked with a smirk. “Come on, Evee, do the math.”

Evelyn rolled her eyes.

“Yes, I’m with Evee on this one,” I croaked. “Just because I’m a lesbian doesn’t mean I automatically sprout rainbow tentacles, don’t be absurd.”

“Lesbian limbs,” Lozzie whispered.

“Very cool,” Raine said.

“You should not have done that,” Evelyn grunted. “Any of that. We are all clear on that, aren’t we?” She glanced around at all of us – Praem too – with a thundering frown. “Extenuating circumstances, yes, emergency, yes, but not like that.”

“Evee?” I croaked.

“You could be dead, Heather. You were lucky it was a lung, and not your heart, or your spine. You could have ripped your insides apart right there on the spot, and no amount of pneuma-somatic replacement could save you then. Do not. Do that. Again.”

I nodded. The deepest recesses of my heart tried to deny it, but I’d almost killed myself back there. Evelyn was right.

“You did promise you wouldn’t,” Raine said gently – and the hint of her disappointment, the gentle reminder that I’d broken a promise, cut me to the quick.

“I won’t- I won’t do it again,” I said, and couldn’t look Raine in the eyes. “I’m sorry, I … I just reacted. It’s not an excuse. Never again, yes. Until I can make it safe.”

Evelyn grumbled, not happy at that final qualifier I’d added.

But how? I needed to understand biology, my own biology and musculature, how to attach the limbs, the physics, the neural wiring. So much, too much. How could I even begin?

“I can show you how!” Lozzie chirped. “I … I think!”

“You think?” Evelyn asked, dark and unimpressed. Lozzie bobbed her head, utterly unphased by Evelyn’s glowering ire.

“I think! I do it a lot, there’s a lot of things to think about, you know?”

Raine laughed. Lozzie looked at her as if she didn’t understand the joke. Perhaps it wasn’t a joke.

“There’s so much I want to ask you,” I said to Lozzie, and reached over to take her hand. She interlocked her fingers with mine and waved our joined hands back and forth.

“Ask away. Away-away!”

A million questions surfaced in my mind, curiosities and important matters I’d bottled up for weeks or months. The dreams we’d shared – how? Where did Lozzie go for all that time after we rescued her? Why had she trilled at the Flutist creature back in the castle? How had Maisie contacted her to save me from Wonderland? Where did she get her clothes out there? The memory returned to me in a flash; Lozzie with a half-eaten brownie paused on the way to her mouth, standing amid the black ash of Wonderland. Her Knight, her history with Zheng, the nature of the Outsider under the Cult’s castle.

A horrible voice whispered in the back of my head.

What if she doesn’t last? What if she leaves again?

She won’t. She can’t, not right now.

What if she goes back to being a vegetable? What if this wasn’t enough? She needs to be Outside. She shouldn’t be here – you’re selfish for wanting her to stay.

“Lozzie … ” I wanted to ask so many things, but I settled on the practical question first, because my self-loathing didn’t fully believe she was going to stay. “Lozzie, we’ve been trying to find Zheng. We don’t know where to start, but you were … friends, of a kind, with her, weren’t you?”

“I was! Am! Zheng is lovely I know she’s scary sometimes but she’s such a sweetie if you talk, but I had to go inside her head to talk, because she couldn’t.”

“Do you know how we could find her?”

Lozzie lit up in a smug smile. “Easy! You have to smell her out. She has a pretty strong smell, you know?”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

nostalgia for infinity – 9.3

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

We’d expected a derelict.

Even Evelyn had privately predicted an empty hulk, despite her dire warnings and sensible precautions; the cult’s unyoked creatures fled to the outer wild, the infernal apparatus gone cold, intrusion replaced by an eternity of silence and fog.

Instead, the ruins of the Sharrowford Cult’s great experiment echoed to a million alien calls and scuttles from down in the copied streets. A cacophony of strange sounds floated through the empty windows, muffled by fog and distance and the castle walls. The ever-present orchestra of whale-song and flutes washed over it all. Whatever otherworldly jungle of spirit the cult had slashed and burned, cleared and colonised, it had since flowed back in, regrown, reclaimed.

“Life finds a way, huh?” Raine whispered. She stared at the row of empty windows.

“This is not the time for movie references,” Evelyn hissed through her teeth. She’d turned pale, a little green around the gills, and I couldn’t help but note how close she stood to Praem. Her throat bobbed with a nervous swallow. “Actually, sod it, I would rather be in Jurassic Park than here.”

Raine experimented with a smile, but she couldn’t make it stick. Deep, sonorous cosmic whale-song filled the moment of silence, a sound that was not true sound, merely the closest analogue our fragile meat senses could invent.

“This doesn’t have to be a bad thing,” I tried, thinking as I spoke. “Maybe … ”

I trailed off at Evelyn’s incredulous look.

“Stay here,” Raine said, unquestionable command in her voice. She crept toward the row of windows, her hands deceptively loose and relaxed on her gun.

“Oh yes,” Evelyn whispered. “Great plan. Stick your head out, why don’t you?”

Raine,” I hissed, but I couldn’t reach forward to stop her, occupied as I was by Lozzie slumped against me, holding her up.

Raine reached the windows and looked out – and went very, very still. Not the coiled-spring tension of my beautiful Raine ready to leap into action, but the heart-stopping animal alertness of instinctive fear.

“ … Raine?” I whispered.

With obvious effort, Raine exhaled a long, steadying breath. She edged closer to the windows, quickly checked right and left along the exterior of the castle walls, then up into the sky – at which she paused again, though for only a heartbeat – and finally down, into the fog-choked streets. All the while, a chorus of ethereal whale-song filled the air. Something down in the fog hooted. A reply came from deeper off, a chittering, chattering, snicker-snacking.

“Alright,” Raine whispered, and finally backed away from the bank of windows.

“Raine? Raine, what was it?” I asked as she rejoined us. Calm, collected, focused, but with a sheen of cold sweat on her brow.

“Strongly suggest we stay away from the windows.”

Evelyn rolled her eyes. “Yes, very informative. Thank you.”

“What?” I adjusted Lozzie’s weight as she moved in her half-sleep. “Why?”

Raine glanced back at the open gateway behind us, then at me, her face a mask of concentration. On the other side, back in Sharrowford, the spider-servitor still fretted and stared.

“So we won’t be seen,” she said. “How long?”

“ … I’m sorry?”

“How long do you think Lozzie might need? I know you can’t be exact, I know we’ve got nothing to go on, but can you guess?”

“I, um … ” I tried to look down at Lozzie’s sleeping face. She hung off my arm like an exhausted child, slumped against my side. She didn’t show any change yet. If anything her breathing seemed deeper and slower. I shook her very gently. “Lozzie? Lozzie? Wakey wakey, rise and shine? No?” I sighed. “No, I don’t know how long. I haven’t the foggiest.”

Raine laughed softly. Evelyn tutted and rolled her eyes.

“Um, sorry,” I rushed to correct myself. “Maybe not the best metaphor right now. Raine, what’s out there? What did you see?”

Raine opened her mouth, closed it, then opened it again. “I’m not sure. I think maybe we should call this off, get back through the gate.”

“Surely we can give Lozzie few minutes, can’t we?”

Raine finally managed to pull a proper smile. She shrugged, and her eyes slid back and forth between me and Lozzie, her protective instinct short-circuited by the conflicting needs. “I don’t know.”

“Of course you don’t know. You don’t know your arse from your elbow here,” Evelyn hissed, then jerked her head at Praem. “Go look.”

Without pause or complaint, the doll-demon marched over to the windows.

Raine winced. She put an arm out as if to stop me following, as if to encourage me and Lozzie back through the gateway. When nothing reached through the windows to pluck Praem from her feet, Evelyn bustled up alongside her and took a good look as well. She didn’t freeze like Raine had, but she frowned up a terrible storm, her face dark as thunder.

“Yeah,” Raine said with a sigh. “I don’t think we should stick around here.”

Evelyn swallowed. “It’s just wildlife. I’ve seen worse.”

“Wildlife can still take your head off, if you wander alone in the bush. Never get off the boat.”

“We’re indoors,” Evelyn muttered, gritting her teeth. She eyed the edges of the window, the grey jade walls, the horrible osseous fibre that made up every surface. “For all this counts as indoors. Those things are too big to get in here.”

“Raine, let me see,” I hissed.

“I really do think we should leave.” Raine laughed once, without humour, and gestured at nothing with her handgun. “This is sort of useless. I can’t protect either of you here. Evee, please.”

“Raine!” I snapped.

She glanced down and I saw it in her eyes; Raine would not allow me past. In fact, she’d pick me up and carry me home if she had to, and I had no say in the matter. For a moment, protection trumped respect. She’d been so gung-ho before, about taking the castle for ourselves, even planted the notion in Evelyn’s mind, and her rapid transformation both terrified and infuriated me.

“Evelyn is perfectly safe by the windows,” I said, cold and a little too sharp. “Why not me?”

The flash of outrage in my eyes must have been too much. Raine paused for a heartbeat, then lowered her arm. Instead, she placed a hand on my back in a gesture of support. “See for yourself. But quietly, yeah?”

“Quiet as a mouse,” I whispered, not entirely happy with her.

A moment later, with Lozzie’s weight dragging on my arm, I peered out and saw what lay beyond the castle, and understood.

From back by the gateway only the very tops of the most distant of the grey jade structures had been visible, the rooftop outlines copied from a square mile of Sharrowford in some bizarre alien mimicry, blurred by fog and distance. Up close, one could see the way the castle’s hill fell away toward the copied streets, the streets themselves choked with fog, the limitless fog stretching out into the distance forever. Above, the wide sky was a soupy grey sea.

I’d expected a distant glimpse of the planet-creatures, the vast sphere-like entities that Alexander had summoned from their rookery in the sky, the children of the crippled, trapped Outsider far below our feet. When I’d first seen them during that encounter, I’d mistaken them for moons. Their cosmic song reached us now, and I expected to see them far out in the fog, lost in the shrouded deeps above.

They’d landed.

The sheer size of the things took my breath away.

“Heather, hey, breathe,” Raine whispered. “I’m not going to pretend it’s fine, but if they could see us, I think they would have reacted by now.”

Three of them had settled on the ground, two within the limits of the copied city itself and one further out in the fog beyond, a vague sphere in the mist. The closer ones had crushed the dead jade buildings under their incredible weight, cracked the ground itself, made shallow craters for themselves.

Marbled in ochre and cerulean and violet, their outer shells slowly shifted through a spectrum of colour, in bands and rings like the surface of Jupiter. Each one was easily larger than the castle, a sphere hundreds of feet across, with no visible features, except orifices for tentacles. Tentacles the width of train carriages, grey and pitted, armoured in stony hide.

A high-note counterpoint accompanied the cosmic whale-song, like a hundred frantic, atonal flute players. Perhaps it was the wind, whistling through tiny gaps in those giant tentacles.

Each asteroid-sized being possessed somewhere between eight and twelve tentacles, half of them waving in the air – not with the listless vegetable motion of seaweed, but active, a complex dance that never seemed to replicate into a comprehensible pattern, displacing great slow waves of fog – and half sunk deep into the ground.

Anchors? Or were they digging? Digging for the core of their parent, far below?

I felt, in that moment, a bizarre, unspeakable kinship. A physical empathy beyond words, beyond any human expression. The bruises in my flanks, my own tentacle anchor-points, itched and throbbed as I recalled my own abyssal beauty.

“More things in heaven and earth, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” I murmured.

“Heather?” Raine hissed my name.

“What’s wrong with her?” Evelyn asked.

“Nothing, I’m fine,” I lied. “Just … um, coping.”

“Swear I’ve heard you say that line before,” Evelyn grumbled.

“Shakespeare. It’s one I come back to again and again. Given me some comfort over the years, that’s all.” I nodded at the vast asteroid-things out in the fog. They made me feel so very small. “Seemed appropriate.”

“Huh. Quite.”

“More things in heaven and earth,” Praem echoed, softly.

The thought of these giants lurking just behind Sharrowford made me profoundly uncomfortable. Separated from our reality not by the near-impenetrable barrier of the abyss, like Outside, but by a membrane so thin even our jury-rigged gateway could get us here. Like descending into one’s basement to discover hyper-intelligent blue whales had taken up residence. As we stared out at the things, the deep, rumbling whale-song intensified, changed direction, and a fourth sphere-thing floated into view. Low in the sky, orbiting the castle at a distance so close I could see the individual pockmarks in its trailing tentacles. The fog parted and swirled back before its vast bulk. It passed across the sky at a crawl. None of us breathed until it vanished around the side of the castle again.

“Evee,” Raine said. “Professional assessment then, are they dangerous?”

Evelyn shot her a look that spoke volumes.

“I mean, actively dangerous,” Raine corrected herself.

“I’ve seen worse, Outside,” I managed with a shrug. “I mean, they’re just sitting there, being all … plant-like. If they were actively hunting us, I think we would know. I think. Alexander isn’t here to control them anymore. Perhaps they don’t care.”

“Too big to give a toss, right,” Evelyn grunted.

The planet-creatures were far from the only life which had re-colonised the foggy dimension, but all the rest paled in comparison.

In the sky, the huge jellyfish and sky-whales scudded and floated, gathered in shoals and clusters up there in the fog, trailing long ropes of tentacle, opening wide jaws to filter-feed on whatever sustenance they drew from the fog itself. On the ground below, in the copied streets and across the roofs of the imitation Sharrowford buildings, all manner of strange life flopped and flapped, slid and slithered, with all the chaotic variety of pneuma-somatic life back in actual reality. Striding vegetable things made of green sticks, coral structures that appeared to breathe, barnacles of brilliant gleaming metal, bubbling mollusks and scuttling crustaceans.

“Was it not like this when Praem came here before?” I asked.

Evelyn shook her head, then paused and glanced at Praem. “You told me it had gone wild, you didn’t mention those things.”

“Aloft, then,” Praem sing-songed.

“They hadn’t yet landed,” I murmured. “Something drew them down?”

“We can talk theory later,” Raine said. “Right now, I still think we need to leave. I doubt Alexander’s lot made sure the front door was closed and locked on their way out, and I don’t much fancy the idea of that jungle party in the streets getting indoors with us.”

“Mm, point,” Evelyn grunted.

“I would say we could check the front door, but this place is a labyrinth and the lights are all out.”

I tore my eyes away from the spectacle and looked straight down, to the rise of the hill on which the castle sat. “I don’t see anything by the outer curtain wall,” I said. “Maybe they don’t like it in here.”

“We can bloody well hope,” said Evelyn.

“Still, let’s step back toward the gate, yeah?” Raine said, very carefully keeping her voice measured and calm, but I heard right through it. She was pulled wire-tight. “If we’re not secure, we should leave. Give Lozzie five minutes, see if she improves, and then-”

A shadow passed over the windows. Flitting, writhing, announced by a sudden burst of that mad fluting sound, loud and close.

And all of a sudden we met the musician.

In the split-second before Raine bundled Lozzie and I back, before Evelyn shrieked in shock, before Praem moved to cover her, before any of that, Lozzie opened her mouth and cracked open her eyes.

Before any of us reacted, she trilled back at the thing which peered in through the window.

Moments such as these never make sense as they happen, a whirlwind of instinctive flinching retreat, surprised screams, spiking heart rates. The ancient lizard-brain takes over from the conscious pilot of the neocortex, hijacks the visual input and dumps a pint of adrenaline into one’s bloodstream. And that’s merely when surprised by mundane physical threat.

All hell broke loose. I nearly tumbled over with Lozzie. Evelyn would have fallen over too if Praem hadn’t caught her. Raine, cool as ice, pointed her handgun.

Only once the moment had passed did my brain process the sight: a cross between a cactus, a cone, and a flying squid. It was very green, maybe eight or nine feet tall, with a long head and a tapering cone-like body made of distinct curved staves of tough, leathery plant material. The body ended in a skirt of long tentacles. Recognisable eyes – maybe two dozen of them, with yellow, side-slit pupils – but no mouth. In four of its many, many tentacles it held a long rod of bone, punctured through with dozens of irregular holes. One end of the rod was plugged into its flesh like the junction of a horn. With other tentacles it gripped the edges of the window, peering in at us.

My body reacted in the worst way possible. With pain.

Self-defence, before I could even think. Abyssal memory attempted to sprout spines and flash warning colouration and arm me with tentacles and claws and razor-sharp teeth. Pain raked at my sides and my back, in my gums, in my eyes – and a hiss, a loud, resonant hiss of warning, of go-away, of I’m too difficult to eat, ripped out of my mouth, left my throat raw and stinging.

At that – or perhaps our screaming, or Raine’s shout – the Flutist’s eyes went wide. It’s tentacles raced across the bone-rod, produced a frantic burst of piping, a screeching crescendo of discordant music.

And as suddenly as it had appeared, it let go of the window and scudded away on jets of air squirted from the ends of thicker tentacles. Jerking, bobbing, it turned and regarded us once more, then quickly jetted off back toward one of the planet-creatures.

For a long moment, nobody said a word.

“ … Heather?” Raine turned to me. “You alright?”

I almost hissed at her. The instinct still lingered in my throat. I clutched my side with one hand, clinging to Lozzie with the other, throat muscles aching and sides throbbing, abyssal echoes of the body I did not have wracking me with shuddering and quivering.

“No, not really,” I croaked. “Oh, I can’t keep reacting to everything like this. Ow. Oh, this is absurd. That was the stupidest thing.”

“Stupidest thing?” Evelyn spat. “No, I think violent reaction to that makes perfect sense.”

“Unn-nuuuh?” Lozzie made a sleepy noise, eyes half open. She pulled at my arm, trying to take a step forward. My sudden pain made her seem so much heavier than normal.

“No, it doesn’t,” I croaked.

“Oh.” Raine lit up. “Oh, right, yes.” She started laughing.

“What the hell are you laughing at?” Evelyn demanded, boggling at her.

“Evee, we just got jump scared by a cat in a closet.”

“We surprised it as much as it surprised us,” I croaked. “The way it turned around and looked back? It was only curious. I think. We- I-” I gestured at my throat, coughed hard. Muscles and tendons felt out of place. “Didn’t you hear Lozzie?”

“Wanna- mmmm,” Lozzie mumbled. She tried to pull away again. I had to lurch to catch her, sending a spike of pain ratcheting up my ribs. Praem and Raine both stepped in to help, propped Lozzie up and into my arms.

“What?” Evelyn asked after I had recovered. “What does that have to do with anything?”

“She replied to it, when it appeared. Lozzie made a noise at it. A weird hoot or something.”

Evelyn blinked at Lozzie, then me, than Raine.

“I think she knew what it was,” I said. “Probably from her time stuck here.”

“I find that hard to believe,” Evelyn said. She frowned at me, but then sighed and shook her head, readjusting her clothes. “Some jump-scare cat. That thing was ugly as sin and I swear it knew what it was looking at. At least it’s too big to get inside.”

She was right about that part – the reason we’d all screamed and jumped out of our skins was how the Flutist had been so distinct and direct. I was used to bizarre pneuma-somatic life, terrifying amalgamations and mutations; I’d been dealing with their unwanted attention for a decade. But whatever the Flutist was, it had been intensely curious.

Before any of us could suggest a course of action which included not getting ambushed by the Flutist again – such as going home, which sounded increasingly sensible – Lozzie made another sleep-addled noise, puffed her cheeks out, and tried to lurch away from me.

“Ah- Lozzie? Hey- please, Lozzie?” I croaked.

She didn’t stop, trying to take another step as I held on, down the corridor toward parts unknown. If I let her go, she’d drop, but I could hardly allow her to wander off into the depths of the castle. She grunted and pulled, and only relented when Praem stepped in to restrain her more firmly than I was capable of. She hung in the doll-demon’s grip, limp and grumbling like a petulant child.

“Fresh air and exercise,” she mumbled. “Fresh and washed and farm to table.”

Raine and Evelyn and I all shared a glance.

“Maybe she knows what she needs?” I ventured. Evelyn huffed and grit her teeth.

Raine glanced out the window, down the corridor, and took a deep breath. “Executive decision. Time for real quick poke around. Just down the hallway. Follow Lozzie’s footsteps. Five minutes, tops.”

Evelyn opened her mouth to object, then caught my pleading look. We couldn’t give up on the reason we came here. Couldn’t give up on Lozzie.

“Immediate surroundings only,” she hissed through clenched teeth. I noticed she was gripping the head of her walking stick extra tight, knuckles almost white with pressure. “And you stick close,” she added to Praem.

“Thank you, Evee,” I said.

“No fear,” Praem intoned. Raine allowed herself a small laugh. Evelyn shook her head.

We strayed not far beyond sight of the gateway. To the sound of our footsteps echoing along the castle’s hallways – Lozzie’s dragging, sleepy feet, the click-click-click of Praem’s heels, and the clack of Evelyn’s walking stick – accompanied always by the ethereal cosmic whale-song and the mad flute playing, we spent a few minutes shuffling through the wreckage of the Sharrowford Cult’s great experiment.

Detritus lay everywhere, equipment and incongruous everyday items abandoned by the Cult as they’d rushed to leave before getting cut off here – food wrappers and empty plastic boxes, an overturned telescope, a discarded robe, burnt-out candles, a heavy wooden bat, a dead mobile phone with a cracked screen. We passed one of their own inactive gateways, far more elaborate and precise than Evelyn’s work. She stopped to take pictures on her phone.

As she did, Raine picked up the telescope and settled it back on its tripod. After a moment’s thought, she pointed it out of the nearest window, at the closest of the asteroid-creatures.

“Are you certain that’s a good idea?” I asked. Lozzie pulled at my arm, trying to drag me onward. She felt so heavy compared to usual. Was I weak from sleep deprivation last night?

“It’s cool.” Raine shot me a wink. “Takes more than a giant marble to upset me.” She bent down, squinted one eye shut, and looked through the eyepiece. “ … huh.”

“Huh?” Evelyn echoed, slipping her phone away. “‘Huh’, what? Raine, don’t go ‘huh’ in this place. Explain.”

Raine looked up at the asteroid-creature with her naked eyes and gestured for us to take a peek too. “Looks like our wibbly-wobbly flute-playing octopus has got friends.”

“What?!” Evelyn’s eyes went wide. “You mean it’s coming back? It-”

“No,” Raine said with a grin and a knowing kink in her eyebrows. “If it was heading back with a posse, I’d be carrying Heather to the gateway ten seconds ago, not talking about it. Take a look for yourself.”

Evelyn followed the suggestion, and bent down to peer through the telescope’s eye-piece. Bending forward looked hard on her spine. Too much weight on her walking stick. She sucked on her teeth, and straightened up.

“Hmmm. Huh, indeed.”

I managed to take a look as well. Praem held Lozzie still for a moment, sleepy heels scuffing at the ground as she tried to walk on.

The Flutist had a whole herd of friends.

Dozens of them flitted and bobbed through the air around the nearest of the asteroid-creatures. Specks when seen with the naked eye, obscured by thick fog and the omnipresent glow. The telescope showed them weaving and dancing, playing their flutes, oblivious to us.

“ … at least he’s not lonely, I suppose?” I tried. Evelyn huffed and pinched the bridge of her nose.

“Heather’s got a good point actually,” Raine said.

“What, that it has friends?” Evelyn’s voice dripped with sarcasm. “Yes, wonderful, I’m sure we’re all very happy for it.”

“Evee, Evee, think tactics for a moment,” Raine said. I could see Evelyn wanted to snap at her. “If it’s got a lot of mates out there, and it wanted us gone, they’d be coming for us already.”

“Yes, obviously. I’m not a complete idiot, despite the state of my life. That doesn’t answer the question of what the hell they’re doing, why they’re here, why any of this … this fucking zoo is here.”

“I think that creature was from Outside,” I ventured.

Evelyn frowned at me. “Explain.”

“Look at all the stuff down there, in the fog. That’s all pneuma-somatic life, but in the flesh, somehow, something to do with this place. This isn’t Outside. But those things,” I nodded at the huge colour-shifting sphere in the middle distance. “They’re the young, the children, spawn, whatever, of the thing below the castle, and that was – is – an Outsider. It taught Lozzie hyperdimensional mathematics, like the Eye did with me. Which means, maybe it came from the abyss. Maybe it made all of this, maybe before the Cult got here. Maybe they drove it all out.”

“Like panspermia,” Raine said.

“I’m sorry?” I asked. Evelyn raised an eyebrow too.

“The theory that life came to earth on a comet. Didn’t Lozzie say something about the Outsider down below having crashed here? Like this is an impact crater.”

“This sub-dimension is an impact crater in reality itself,” Evelyn muttered. “Behind Sharrowford. Good metaphor. The thing below seeded this place with life? But from Outside instead of outer space?”

“Yes!” I felt myself light up inside, despite the shock. “Yes, exactly.”

“‘I want to believe’,” Raine laughed. “We should put pictures of this online. Send the conspiracy types up the wall.”

Evelyn shot us both a dark look, then turned to stare through the nearest windows once again, at the asteroid-sized lifeforms out in the fog. Her dark frown faltered, and for once Evelyn’s Saye’s leathery exterior gave way to a hard swallow, a worried brow, and nothing to say.

“Evee?”

“We absolutely cannot let Edward Lilburne have access to any of this,” she whispered.

==

Lozzie led us to two corpses.

The first we found in a short corridor, just around the corner from the gateway. The remains of a man were slumped against the wall, little more than a bundle of sticks and dry leather wrapped the cult’s distinctive cream-coloured robes. The corpse was dessicated, denied the natural process of decay, mummified by the air in this unnatural place.

The second corpse was in the throne room where I’d killed Alexander.

It was the body of the heavyset man Lozzie had knifed in the throat during the fight. Alexander’s chief disciple, the one who’d been tending to his wounds. He’d been left to shrivel and dry where he’d fallen, surrounded by the cracked stain of his own blood.

“I’d really rather not go in there,” I said at the threshold, but Lozzie dragged me on, as if she’d been searching for this place specifically. Why come back here? This was the stuff of nightmares.

Raine went ahead first, just in case.

The throne room was much as I recalled it. A wide space flanked by ceiling-height empty windows which let in plenty of the colourless light, with a sort of raised dais area at the rear. Off to one side sat the cult’s bizarre magical experiment – a series of interlocking circles, chunks of the green-gold matter mined from deep underneath the castle, and pieces of dismantled medical machinery pilfered from some hospital back in reality.

The rear of the room looked like a bomb had hit it. Which, in a way, it had.

I’d retained only seconds of consciousness after I’d used brainmath to kill Alexander. Hardly time to get a good look at the physical result.

Nothing had been touched, nothing moved out of place since. The folding tables at the rear were still covered in bags of drugs, bottles of strange liquid, hypodermic needles, much of it smashed aside by the blast. Alexander’s blood was still all over the floor, dried to a brown crust. Some of the blood-soaked towels had survived. I even spotted the pair of pliers he’d been using to dig Raine’s bullet out of his ribs, knocked to the ground along with the table they’d been sitting on, contents scattered wide.

A crater of cracked grey jade, slightly oblong from the direction of force, marked where he’d stood. The wall directly behind – a good twenty feet away, my goodness – was punctured by a gaping hole where I’d blasted him through. The edges of the hole were torn, ragged, splintered like bone.

Raine crept over and scuffed the ground with the tip of one boot. Alexander’s dried blood flaked away to dust.

“Almost nothing left.”

“Good,” I said.

“Admiring your own collateral damage, hey?” Raine grinned back at me. I shook my head and her grin switched off instantly. “I’m sorry, Heather.”

“It’s alright, I just … I don’t like being back here.”

Understatement of the year award, first prize, Heather Morell. Truth was, I tasted bile in the back of my throat, felt a shaking in my belly and my limbs. To commit terrible violence in defence of one’s friends or community is one thing, but to return to the scene and contemplate the aftermath, accompanied by that unceasing cosmic whale-song from beyond the walls, made me feel sick to my heart.

Not to mention the faint nausea. The brainmath I’d done here had been brutal, blunt, violent. The memory of it ghosted at the back of my mind, prodding at that bloody socket I dare not touch. What I’d done here had left an echo.

Was this what Lozzie had been struggling to reach? Even now she pulled at my arm, making sleepy noises, trying to walk deeper into the room.

“Me neither,” Evelyn hissed through her teeth. She’d hung back in the doorway and Praem had stuck close to her. “These windows are too big, not to mention that hole in the wall. We’re exposed here. Raine, get back in the corridor.”

“No! Noooooo- … oooouuuu … ” came Lozzie’s reply, strident denial trailing off into nothing. Her eyes struggled open, lids uneven and heavy.

“Lozzie? Hey, Lozzie, look at me,” I tried. “What are you looking for? Please, try to tell me, what-”

As if on cue, a giant shadow fell across the hole I’d blasted in the back wall. It drifted past the upper reaches of the windows, blotting out the diffuse light in a glacial whirlpool of shifting colour, a giant marble of which we could see only a tiny portion. The cosmic whale-song touched us like a foghorn. Vast tentacles trailed behind the asteroid sky-child as it orbited the castle. I suddenly felt extremely small, a rodent inside a rotten log as an elephant strode past. Even Raine seemed to hunch, the gun in her hands a hopeless nothing as the creature passed by.

And pass by it did, off to complete the orbit of the castle. I let out a shuddering breath.

“You know what, going back sounds good,” Raine said, backing away toward us. “I think we’ve had enough.”

“Lozzie?” I bent around again, tried to look in her eyes. “Lozzie, can’t we go back to the gate?”

“Mmmm-mmm!” she shook her head.

“What do you need, what are you looking for? Lozzie, tell me, let me know.”

She smacked her lips and made more sleepy noises. I felt so helpless. Couldn’t tell if this was doing any good for her at all. In my secret heart I’d imagined her waking up after thirty seconds here, or that the atmosphere might act like a bucket of water to the face. With disappointment I began to accept that she’d probably need to spend a whole night in this awful edifice.

She needed to dream again. I hoped she might take me with her, Outside.

“If she needs to stay here longer, we can return better prepared,” Evelyn said. She must have seen the look on my face. “I can whip up a protective barrier, set something up on this side of the gateway.”

“Better prepared,” Praem echoed.

“Maybe,” I sighed. “I don’t know what she needs. She won’t speak.”

“Help,” Praem intoned – but kept her voice nice and low.

“Yes, that much is clear … o-oh.” I flushed as I realised Praem had not been competing for the title of Captain Obvious, but was offering to help with Lozzie. “Thank you,” I said, and passed the struggling, sleepy girl off to her. Praem hoisted Lozzie from her feet, ready to carry her back to the gateway.

“Right, yeah, we’ll go back, make a new plan,” Raine said, smiling with her beaming confidence as she rejoined us. “Figure it out. Hey, maybe we can just bring Twil, sic her on anything that tries to get in here. She can go fight a whole moon.”

“Yes, wonderful,” Evelyn drawled her sarcasm. “That’s exactly how I’d love to spend a weekend with her.”

Raine cocked an eyebrow. Evelyn flustered, blushing hard when she realised what she’d just implied. “Don’t you say another bloody word. We need to leave, we don’t have time for this. Come on, get-”

Like a cat that had decided it had enough of being held, Lozzie woke up.

She woke up, limbs flailing, baffed Praem in the face with a loose hand – the doll-demon didn’t even react – and as if by some miracle of grease and contortion, extracted herself from Praem’s grip. It was like watching a weasel break from a trap. I’d seen Praem restrain a possessed fox, but Lozzie all but fell out of her arms.

“Lozzie-”

“Hey!”

“Praem, grab her.”

Lozzie got three paces, stumbling, head loose, hair a wild mess, eyes still closed in sleep, before she opened her mouth.

And sang.

It was not the most horrible sound in the world. That trophy goes easily to another. But it was one of the most eerie. Lozzie opened her mouth and sang, wordless sounds, tuneless notes, rising and falling like religious chanting. With a shudder we all realised exactly what she was doing: imitating the cosmic whale-song of the asteroid-creatures. Those sounds had not been made for a human throat, and Lozzie did not exactly do a good job of replicating them, high-pitched and whiny and gummed up  by passing air over all that inelegant human meat.

But she sung her little heart out. The only reason Raine didn’t grab her was shock, as Lozzie stumbled into the throne room and fell to her knees, raised her head and belted out alien noises.

“Grab her!” Evelyn hissed again.

But the shadow was already returning.

The orbiting sky-child thing had changed direction at the sound of Lozzie’s voice, at a familiar call from an unfamiliar throat. A vast shadow of shifting colours fell across the room once more. Panic gripped my heart, and my bowels. We did not want that thing’s attention on us. Hide, screamed every cell in my body.

But I didn’t.

I went for Lozzie.

So did Raine, and Praem. Another pace and we would have stopped, Raine would have bundled me back while Praem retrieved Lozzie, and we would have scuttled away back into the corridor of the castle, back to the gateway, away from the attention of this floating giant.

But the sky-child was faster. Before any of us could reach Lozzie or stop each other, a pitted grey tentacle as thick as a train car probed at the hole in the rear of the throne room. My legs turned to jelly at the size of that thing. My bladder almost let go, an involuntary animal reaction. But it couldn’t get in, it couldn’t. Too big, its own size worked against it. Raine grabbed me by the waist, made to drag me back.

The tentacle split. First in two, then in four, then eight, on and on in a dizzying multiplication that suddenly surged into the room like a shoal of hunting squid. Grey armoured tentacles filled the air.

Raine dropped me and pulled her handgun.

Praem reached Lozzie, who smiled as she sang, eyes still closed.

I think Evelyn screamed, I don’t remember. Maybe it was me.

The sky-child’s tentacles reformed, recombined down into three, each as thick around as a oak tree; one went for Lozzie, the second for Praem. The third hesitated, poised; Raine’s finger tightened on the trigger of her handgun, and the third tentacle darted for her.

I never had a choice. Raine broke her promise, didn’t she? She’d told me she’d make sure I’d never be put in a situation again where growing my own tentacles seemed a like a good idea. That’s how I justified it later, but in the moment I followed only instinct, only the need, the body. Pure survival.

Right then, at that moment of the unknown, possible violence, growing my own tentacles seemed like a very good idea indeed.

One variable of hyperdimensional mathematics, just like before, just like yesterday. At the speed of thought I pictured exactly what I wanted to do, where I wanted to reach, what to touch and push and grab and slam. Pictured the limbs in my mind, felt them where they should be attached to my body. One variable, from non-existence to reality.

I didn’t even think about the pain. That was for later.

Six tentacles of shining pneuma-somatic flesh sprouted from my sides, straight through my clothes again. I felt their anchor points deep inside my torso – three where they’d been before, and three new.

First pushed me up off the disgusting bone-substance of the floor, righted me. Second grabbed Raine’s gun, turned it to the side with a flick so her bullet hit the wall. Third stretched out and wrapped around Lozzie’s middle, held her with tight affection, a safety harness.

I had only seconds. Moments of energy reserves with which to ward off this vast creature.

Had to make myself understood.

My remaining three tentacles, slender as my wrist, ghost-pale beneath the strobing rainbow bio-luminescence, I threw wide. Body language of the predator, the abyss, of marine display and threat. Loud and clear – I am poison and toxin and acid and I will fight you.

I opened my mouth and hissed.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

nostalgia for infinity – 9.2

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Dawn took us unawares.

Heather?”

Raine’s voice drifted down from the upstairs hallway, sleepy and heavy, muffled by the labyrinthine acoustics of the house. I snorted awake, blinked out of my doze on the sofa, confused for a second, and found the ex-drawing room aglow as faint sunrise peeked through the curtains and the kitchen windows.

“Heather?” Raine called again.

“Oh,” I croaked, mouth dry, and pulled my arm out from underneath Lozzie, filled with pins and needles. She made a sleepy sound and cuddled closer against my side.

“Shouldn’t you …  say something?” Kimberly asked, frozen in mid-motion in front of her work spread out across the table, her eyes bloodshot and ringed with dark circles. The upstairs floorboards creaked under Raine’s tread.

“Yes,” I hissed, heart in my throat and awkward guilt where my heart should be. “Yes, I should have gone back to bed. Tch.”

Raine’s feet hurried down the stairs, searching for the presence that should have been in bed next to her – or at least in the bathroom, or answered her by now. I struggled free from the blanket-nest I’d been sharing with Lozzie, pulled my hips from her insistent grasp, and almost fell over onto my face as the bruises in my sides seized up. I lashed out for a grip with tentacles that I didn’t have, winced and hissed through my teeth, but managed to stay vertical. Just.

“Heather? Heather, where are you?” Raine hurried through the front room, her voice tight with focus.

“In here!” I choked. “I’m fine.” I hopped up onto one foot, forcing myself to look calm and presentable. Kimberly had gone wide-eyed, ready to bolt, as if Raine might blame her for my absence. Raine appeared in the doorway seconds later. She stopped as soon as she laid eyes on me.

“Heather.” She let out a big sigh. “There you are.”

“Hey, hi. Morning. I’m sorry I wasn’t in bed, I should have woken up you or something.”

An uncharacteristic flicker of hesitation crossed Raine’s face – then she grinned and leaned against the door frame, at casual ease once more.

“You being up before me is a minor miracle,” she said. “Where’s my morning cuddle-bug?”

Still dressed in the black tank-top and shorts she’d worn to bed, flushed and warm from sleep and search, Raine radiated limitless confidence and easy physicality – especially when compared to my own numb-footed groggy stumbling. Weak sunlight glow slowly filled the kitchen behind her, like static fuzz laid across the textures of the world. In the liminal space between night and day, the house held its breath. Raine was a vision from a fantasy on the edge of sleep, half-dressed and hot to the touch, an invitation to stop thinking and come back to bed. Almost enough to smooth over her moment of incongruous hesitation.

“I’m really sorry you had to come look for me,” I blurted out.

“Hey, hey, Heather, it’s fine. Last place I expected to find you, tucked away down here, that’s all.” Raine’s jaw stretched in a huge yawn. She blinked her eyes to clear sleep-clogged vision. “Morning to you too, Kim. And same, Praem, looking sharp.” She sketched a little salute at the doll-demon. Kimberly nodded a jerky hello from her chair, too uncomfortable to turn back to her notes. She sensed it too; Raine was on alert.

“Good morning,” Praem intoned.

“I couldn’t sleep,” I said. I took a step toward Raine, instinct calling me for a morning hug, but my heart told me something was wrong. “Neither could Kim, we decided to work on something, we … Raine, you’re not okay with this. I can see that you’re not okay with this.”

Raine opened her mouth with a grin, and I knew what was coming – a clever bit of affectionate misdirection. But then she sighed. Her smile turned self-deprecating.

“You know me too well,” she said. “Just, you know, couldn’t find you for a good couple of minutes. Spooked me out cos’a yesterday, that’s all.”

I tripped my way along the last few paces toward Raine, and fell against her. She pulled me into a hug and kissed the top of my head. Kimberly finally took the opening and turned away, focused on her notes and diagrams.

“I’m not going anywhere. I promise,” I murmured into Raine’s shoulder.

“Yeah.”

After a minute of warm, post-sleep hug, Raine pulled back and cast a curious eye over the room – over Kimberly with her magical diagrams and slack, stoned expression, over Lozzie drowsing on the sofa, over Praem standing ram-rod straight as if supervising us.

“I would ask if you wanna come back to bed,” Raine said slowly, as if experimenting with the idea. “But you lot seem busy. Like, interesting busy.”

“We’re doing a project,” I said, then blushed. “I mean, Kimberly’s doing the project. It was my idea, but I’m only helping.”

Truth be told, for the last two hours I hadn’t even been doing that. I was a bit of spare wheel until Evelyn woke up.

At first, in the wee hours of the morning, I’d provided moral support. Kimberly had begun by drawing up diagrams of the mural, tried to identify the pieces of it she understood, to pinpoint the part of the design which defined the output location of the gateway. I’d supplied her with regular infusions of coffee and a useful ear off which to bounce concepts I didn’t understand. I’d nodded along as she’d explained, stoned and slow and thinking hard, muttering disconnected bits of Latin, testing how angles of magic circle might look when drawn on paper – papers that now covered fully half of the tabletop in a mass of rejections and possibilities.

One time, I’d made the mistake of asking how something worked – why this angle for the interior lines of that circle with those words of Latin?

“It’s all relative,” she’d said, her eyes bloodshot and heavy with the THC in her bloodstream. She seemed calmer when high, made all this easier to face.

“Relative to what?”

She gestured at the sketches, the walls, the room, us. “Everything. That’s how magic works. Works, that’s a joke, ha,” a sad non-laugh. She cast a sidelong glance at me, embarrassed by her tiny outburst.

“It’s okay, go on, please.”

“Mm, well … one object or symbol or angle has no effect by itself. It’s just a thing in the world, normal. It’s only when you bring these things together, they work in relation to other angles or shapes. Stuff interacts in ways we can’t see or understand, at a level beyond physics. Sympathetic resonance.”

“Loopholes in reality,” I muttered.

“Yes.” She puffed out another humourless laugh. “Did you just make that up?”

“Those are Evelyn’s words, actually. She once described magic to me as like ‘exploiting God’s shoddy workmanship’.”

“I wish,” Kimberly said, hollow and sad. She stared down at a mess of squiggles on a sheet of paper. It all meant nothing to the untrained eye. “It’s nonsensical causation. Magic doesn’t make any sense, none of this should work. You have to … fit your mind around it, and it always feels wrong. I hate it. I hate it so much.”

“Thank you, for doing this, for Lozzie.”

She sniffed, shrugged, and carried on.

After that, I did not ask again.

I did glean one detail of real meaning; Lozzie’s additions were completely beyond Kimberly’s understanding. In all the possible adjustments and replacements she sketched out, never did she change a single one of the dried lines of finger-smeared paint and ink. When Evelyn had removed a section of the mandala in order to deactivate the door, she had done the same, left the unexplained dream-additions untouched.

Eventually, in my uselessness, I’d been relegated to serving as Lozzie’s pillow. She’d nuzzled my side, flowed into my lap, and sleep had claimed me.

“It might not work,” I finished my explanation. “But I think it’s worth a try, if it helps Lozzie. I just want her to be well again.”

“You’re amazing, you know that?” said Raine.

She gave me a smile of beaming pride. I blushed, confused. “R-Raine? I’m barely doing anything, I told you, Kim’s doing all the work. Don’t heap praise on me.”

“L-look, please don’t,” Kimberly stammered out, even more embarrassed than I was. “I-I’m only doing what I can.”

“It’s cool, Kim.” Raine gave her a serious, curt nod. “Keep it up.”

Somehow, Raine knew exactly the right thing to say. Short and blunt worked on Kimberly in a way that effusive thanks or affectionate inclusion didn’t. She nodded several times and turned back to her papers, to sketching out one of her increasingly refined possibilities. Raine reached up and ran her fingers through my sleep-matted hair, and lowered her voice.

“What I mean, Heather, is that you had one hell of a day yesterday,” she murmured. “Thought you’d need to recover, sleep in. Was gonna get you breakfast in bed, run you a bath. But hey, here you are, right back at it. You’re right about Lozzie.” She pulled an almost regretful smile. “None of us were paying attention to her. My bad too, yeah?”

“Thank you, I think,” I sighed, and smothered a bubble of guilt low in my gut. I wouldn’t have done any of this if I hadn’t snuck out of bed to hurt myself in the bathroom, if I hadn’t broken my promise. I swallowed, and told myself I’d confess that to Raine later. “Although, I don’t think Evelyn will agree with your positive assessment when she’s up and about. I’m going to have a lot of explaining to do. And convincing.”

“Ahh, she’s be cool.” Raine grinned and ruffled my hair. “She’ll get it, she’ll understand. Don’t worry about it.”

“Raine,” I sighed.

“You’ll see.”

==

Raine’s confidence was soon put to the test.

The sun spent an hour struggling up into a layer of thick grey cloud, orange sunrise glow quickly smothered by another overcast day of heavy leaden skies and sputtering rain. We’d taken a disorganised break. Raine had whipped up breakfast, scrambled eggs on toast all round with more to come for Evelyn when she woke up. Raine was busy crunching her way through an apple, lounging on the sofa with Lozzie and myself, when Evelyn finally stirred.

Heavy footsteps stomped about upstairs. Floorboards creaked. We all looked up.

Kimberly went white in the face. “I should- should go wait in the … in the kitchen?”

“Um, maybe,” I said. My own lingering exhaustion was not a good state in which to face a potentially irate Evelyn. I stood up, out of Lozzie’s grip again, and brushed a few stray crumbs from my lap. “We should brainstorm what to say. Oh, why didn’t I think of this already?”

“It’ll be fiiiiine,” Raine said. “She’s gonna be fine. It’s not like we’re not allowed in here. We’re not naughty kids.”

“We shouldn’t be allowed in here,” Kimberly muttered. “I-I can’t stay here, I-”

“Stay,” Praem intoned.

Kimberly jerked around to stare at her, transfixed by indecision as Evelyn’s heavy tread clomped down the stairs. Raine leaned back on the sofa, projecting a complete lack of concern. To my surprise and delight, Lozzie transferred her sleepy affections to my girlfriend, slumping into Raine’s lap. Raine stroked her hair, which triggered the tiniest, silliest twinge of jealousy I’d ever felt.

The clack of Evelyn’s walking stick crossed the front room, then changed pitch against the flagstones in the kitchen. She appeared like a drifting ball of wind-blown fuzz, framed by the doorway in dressing gown and pajama bottoms, heavy-eyed and hunched, her hair all askew and flat at the back from sleep. She was muttering under her breath, something about chocolate and breakfast pop-tarts – which was odd, because I knew for a fact we didn’t have any of those.

I cleared my throat. Evelyn turned, saw me through the workshop doorway, and stopped dead.

“Um, good morning, Evee.”

“Come in and join us,” Raine added. “We’ve been up for a bit already. Plans are afoot.”

“Afoot,” Praem said.

I think Kimberly squeaked. Wasn’t sure. Might have been a floorboard.

Evelyn frowned as if she’d just discovered a whole herd of talking horses. Slowly, with incredulity written on every line of her face, she crossed the kitchen and stood in the doorway. Raine greeted her with a wave of half-eaten apple. I tried a smile, started to speak, then stopped. Kimberly visibly shrank, as if before a very angry school mistress. Praem stared. Lozzie let out a snore.

“What the bloody hell are you all doing in my workshop?”

“Working,” Praem intoned.

“I had an idea,” I said.

“Nothing, nothing,” Kimberly blurted out.

“It’s fine, Evee,” said Raine. “They’re all on their best behaviour-”

“Pffffft,” Lozzie made a sound like a beached seal, trilling and puffing. Everyone stopped talking over each other and looked at her instead, but unfortunately she didn’t continue, only smacked her lips and dropped back into deeper sleep.

Heather?” Evelyn said my name through gritted teeth.

“Yes, this was my idea,” I said quickly, drawing myself up. “I couldn’t sleep, and I had an idea. And I’m sorry for intruding on your private space. I wanted to start as soon as possible. I didn’t think about that when I came in here. I’m sorry.”

“You think that matters?” Evelyn asked – low and strangled. I’d never, ever heard her speak like that before. She stared at me, as if in disbelief. “You think that’s what matters here?”

“E-Evee?”

“Evelyn? Hey,” Raine said, scooting forward to get up. We exchanged a worried glance.

“I don’t believe this,” she hissed.

In the corners of Evelyn’s eyes, I saw tears.

“Evee, I- I’m sorry. I had an idea in the night, let me explain.”

And I did, as quickly and on point as I could, trying to keep the worried shake out of my voice. As I spoke, a change came over Evelyn. The dark horror of tearful disbelief left her, replaced by a reassuringly familiar angry Evelyn scowl. She scrubbed her eyes with the back of her hand, then scowled at me and at Raine, and especially at Praem. Only Lozzie escaped her silent wrath, a strange sympathy on her face as she glanced at the semi-comatose girl on the sofa.

As I trailed off toward an unpolished apology, she hunched her shoulders and transferred her ire to Kimberly.

“And you know how this works?” She jabbed the head of her walking stick toward the gateway mandala.

“ … a … a tiny … tiny bit.”

“You know how this works,” Evelyn growled at her. “And you didn’t tell me.”

“She was afraid,” I said. “She’s helping us now.”

Evelyn sniffed the air and narrowed her eyes. “And you’re high as fucking kite. I can smell it from here.”

“You can’t blame her for being a little bit spooked by you,” Raine put in. “You gotta admit, you’re pretty scary when you’re angry.” Raine got to her feet. As she stood, Lozzie clung on, dragged to her feet by Raine’s considerable strength. She put an arm around Lozzie to steady her.

“And you,” Evelyn ignored Raine and jabbed a finger at Praem. “You should have woken me up. The moment they started, you should have woken me up. What were you thinking?”

“More sleep for you,” Praem sing-songed at her mistress.

“Tch,” Evelyn tutted like an angry goat, face contorted with frustration. She scrubbed at her eyes again, wiped away the tears that hadn’t quite blossomed, and then turned on me. “You absolute idiot, Heather, you-”

“Evee, that’s not fair,” I said, feeling a lump grow in my throat.

“Yeah, hey, come on,” Raine said.

“- you can’t sleep, you have an idea, you come wake me.”

“ … I … I’m sorry?”

“I don’t care what kind of bloody awful day we’ve all had. I don’t care if I’m unconscious and have a demon in my head – you need help with magic, you come to me. God dammit, just ask me.” She turned to Kimberly, who flinched like a startled sheep. “And you, stop being so bloody afraid of everything. We’re both … ” Evelyn ran out of steam suddenly, huffed, and composed herself with some difficulty.

She stomped right past us and over to the table to examine Kimberly’s work, leafing through the loose papers and half-completed magic circles, tossing several aside with unimpressed grunts, glancing up to compare others to the mural on the wall.

“This is wrong, this one is awful, try this one again.” She shoved a particular sheet to the other side. “I don’t know what the hell you think this one will achieve, it may as well send you to the bloody moon for all I know.”

“Sorry,” Kimberly squeaked. Evelyn looked at her and she flinched again, shrinking into herself, eyes bloodshot and scared.

Evelyn huffed and rolled her eyes. “Oh for pity’s sake. We’re both mages, even if you are far less experienced. Do you know how often I’ve actually been able to share any kind of practice with another mage? Hm? Take a guess. Wild guess. Go on.”

“ … mm?” Kimberly managed a squeak, wide-eyed and bewildered.

“Zero. None. And now we’re both right here. We may as well work on it together. Sit down.” She jerked a nod at a chair. Kimberly hopped into it without question.

Evelyn looked around at us again, at my surprise and Raine’s barely concealed laughter and Praem’s po-faced observation.

“Well?” Evelyn demanded. “What are you waiting for? I smell eggs, and I haven’t had breakfast. Both of you are surplus to this task, go put some tea on. Hop to it.”

==

“Evee, I just want to say sorry again. Just between me and you, where it matters. You’re right, I should have waited, or woken you up. But I’m also really glad you think this is a good idea.”

Evelyn studied me for a long moment, sighed, then glanced back into the magical workshop. Back in there, Kimberly had her head down, puzzling over the final piece. Evelyn lifted a mug to her lips and took a careful sip of the piping hot tea.

“I don’t.”

“ … you don’t?”

She studied me again, sighed and shrugged, her shoulders slumped.

Evelyn and I stood together in the kitchen, hours and hours after she’d first rattled down the stairs and had a good shout at everyone. Dark clouds glowered down at us through the kitchen windows and a cold wind blew through the trees in the distance. Evelyn had since replaced her pajamas and dressing gown with a long skirt and comfortable warm sweater, while I’d had a shower and gotten dressed, but all of us felt a touch chilly today, even me wrapped in my pink hoodie and two layers of tshirt.

Kimberly had taken a long nap in the late morning, but Raine and I both had class today, so we’d gone out. At first I’d toyed with the idea of skipping entirely, but getting out of the house had been good for me. A touch of normality injected into the whirlwind of implausible events that was my life. Sitting in a lecture hall for an hour and then waiting for Raine in the library had made me feel almost normal – though I’d had to dose up on painkillers first, and even then still endured a twitching in my sides, in my abused muscles, whenever I spotted an interesting library book I wanted to reach for.

We’d returned home after lunchtime to find Evelyn still hard at work, with Lozzie curled up on the sofa next to her. To our surprise, Evelyn and Kimberly had been thick as thieves, heads almost together as they pored over the details. The topic of their discussion was far beyond my understanding – the correct angles, the right esoteric words, which parts of the mural to attempt replacing. Kimberly still sounded mousy and hesitant, but at least Evelyn didn’t snap at her.

“It’s necessary,” Evelyn said to me with a resigned smile. “Not all necessary things are good ideas.”

“Ah. Necessary. Okay.” I nodded.

Evelyn held my gaze for a lingering moment, then looked away. I struggled for the right words, any words. A odd barrier still lay between us.

“Evee,” I tried. “When you came downstairs this morning, and you saw us, you-”

“I blew up. I’m sorry.”

I blinked in surprise. She cleared her throat, put her tea down, picked it up again, and couldn’t meet my eyes.

“Well, that’s a rather transparent lie,” I said.

Evelyn frowned at me, then sighed. “How could you tell?”

“A straightforward apology, without preamble, from you? Of course I could tell.”

“Ah. Right.”

“Then … what was that about? You looked like you were going to cry. Evee, I don’t want to make you cry. You’re … I mean, you’re my closest friend.”

“Don’t flatter me. Raine is your closest friend.”

“Raine’s my lover. That’s different. At least, I’m pretty sure it is.”

“What about Lozzie?” she grunted.

“What about her?” My turn to sigh. “Evee, this is about you.”

Evelyn didn’t say anything for a long moment. Then she sucked on her teeth and shot me a look. “Thought I’d walked into a fucking assisted suicide.”

“ … you … I’m sorry?”

“Your tentacles. Thought you’d enlisted Kimberly, with Raine’s encouragement, to … I don’t know, to mutilate yourself with inexpert knowledge.” She sighed, shrugged, and covered by sipping her tea.

“Oh. Oh, well, no.”

“Yes, obviously I was wrong. Jumped the gun.”

“I won’t lie and say I’m not going to try to find a way, but I won’t do that to myself. If I was going to do that, I’d get the best mage I know. Wouldn’t I?” I added a note of irony at the end, a joke. Evelyn caught it, and huffed a tiny laugh.

“One would hope. Look, I jumped to a conclusion. I’m … sorry, about that part. Alright?”

“Apology accepted.”

“I need to control my bloody anger better.”

I smiled. “You said it, not me.”

“Somebody needs to tell me off more often,” she muttered.

“Could you let Twil do that?”

She waved that suggestion off. “Now’s not the time.”

“Speaking of Twil, have you called her?” I gestured at the magical workshop again. “She’s going to come with us, yes?”

Evelyn drew herself up, much more comfortable with the logistics of a mad magical expedition than the intricacies of her own emotions. “Yes, and no.”

“ … yes and no?”

“Yes, I called her. And no, she’s not coming with us. She’s in school today. I don’t want to completely fuck up her life. That would be a wonderful cherry on top of my personal shit sandwich, wouldn’t it? Twil gets expelled for truancy, fails to get a university offer. My fault. Teaches her what happens if she spends too much time around the likes of me.”

“Evee, you don’t mean that.”

Evelyn shrugged in irritation. “As if I could ever possibly be good for anyone.”

“Well, this is just a suggestion,” I ventured, putting on my best social worker voice. “But you could start by trying to refrain from insulting her or snapping at her.”

Evelyn gave me a withering look, but I refused to wither. “You think I haven’t tried that?” she asked. “This is just how I am. What? What does that look mean?”

“I do think you haven’t tried it,” I said. “Not really.”

Evelyn let out a huge sigh and shook her head. I didn’t press the issue further, not right now, in the middle of all this.

“Besides, I doubt we’re going to get the gateway working today,” she said eventually. “It doesn’t make sense. Can’t decipher what Lauren’s additions actually do, and they’re the anchor, the bit that makes it really work. They do something, that’s for certain, but … ” she shrugged. “Maybe we wait until the weekend. Maybe Twil does come with us. Maybe I play nice and polite, mm?”

“I do hope so. Just talk to her, Evee.”

“Yes, yes.”

“So, how dangerous it is, really, over there in the … ” I cast about for the right name. “The fog?”

“Sounds about right.”

“The fog, then. You sent Praem there one last time, before it closed off, didn’t you?”

“Mmhmm, I did.” Evelyn paused to sip her tea, then sucked on her teeth for a moment before she answered. “It’s uncontained. You were unconscious on our way out, weren’t you?”

“Mostly.”

“Well then, you might not recall that Twil ripped up part of their fencing, whatever was keeping the presumed fauna at bay, further out in the fog. It’s possible the place won’t be quite as we remember it, whatever they were doing out there might be uncontrolled, or spent itself, or … anything, really. You had the right idea, basically, which is what we’re working on. Getting into the apex of the castle is our best bet at a safe place. Praem can go first, Raine can bring her handgun. Either we make a little safe pocket quickly, or we leave, also quickly.”

I nodded. “I don’t know how long Lozzie will need.”

Evelyn shrugged. A noncommittal expression passed across her face, made it clear she didn’t have much hope.

“ … you don’t think I’m right, do you?” I asked. “But you said this is necessary.”

“Checking the … urgh,” Evelyn sighed. “Checking the ‘fog dimension’, is necessary. Curing Lauren’s condition would be a nice bonus.”

“I … don’t follow?”

“If Edward Lilburne wants it, we should take a look first.”

“Ah.”

And suddenly it all made sense.

Evelyn frowned at me, her cheeks flushed. “Don’t look at me like that. I have to be cynical, that’s how I’ve survived this long. Don’t treat me like I’m heartless.”

“I wasn’t, I’m just … ” I sighed. “Practical consideration trumps everything else? I don’t like thinking that way.”

“Practical considerations keep us alive.” Evelyn tapped her walking stick to emphasise her point. “For the record, I do hope it works, I do hope this helps Lauren – Lozzie, whatever. She is … ” Evelyn lowered her voice and glanced into the magical workshop, to verify that Kimberly wasn’t listening. “Her state, her past family life, I … I understand. A little. That’s all.” She cleared her throat awkwardly.

“Ah, yes. Thank you, Evee. I’m sure she’ll appreciate that.”

Evelyn grunted and waved me off.

“You know, I think we should push it further,” Raine’s voice interrupted. She sauntered through the kitchen doorway and leaned on a chair, then reached over to ruffle my hair.

“Were you eavesdropping out there?” Evelyn grumbled.

“Never!” Raine grinned. “Only the last bit. We should push it further.”

“Which means?”

“We should take the place.”

“‘Take’ the place?” I echoed. “You mean the castle?”

“Yeah. Why not?”

Evelyn gave her a very unimpressed look. “With what fucking army? Don’t be absurd, Raine. What are you suggesting we do, occupy territory?”

Raine rolled her shoulders in an eloquent shrug, let her expression do the talking. Evelyn frowned harder in deepening thought.

“Oh no,” I said. “You two aren’t serious? This is about Lozzie, for pity’s sake.”

“It is,” Evelyn murmured. “Yes, it is about Lozzie. But if Edward wants this so bad, we should probably keep it out of his hands. If we can’t find him and
can’t counter him, perhaps we can deny him what he wants? Which means Lozzie, and the fog, both.”

“Now you’re thinking like a general.” Raine winked at her, and got an Evelyn glower in return.

Speak of the devil and she shall appear – with a rustle of dragging sheets and a patter of bare feet. A groggy-faced Lozzie stumbled out of the magical workshop and into the kitchen, where she stopped and stood still, swaying gently like a sapling in the breeze, her hair all a-waft about her, willow fronds of blonde.

“Ro-tay,” she mumbled.

“What? What’s she saying?” Evelyn asked, taking a step back from the sudden apparition.

“Nothing, I think. Most of what she says is sleep-talk. Lozzie? Are you awake?”

Lozzie nodded but closed her eyes, then bumbled toward us. Evelyn took another step back, but before she could do anything Lozzie walked right into her and put her head on Evelyn’s shoulder. Evelyn froze.

“That means she likes you,” Raine stage-whispered.

“It’s not funny!” Evelyn hissed. She looked intensely uncomfortable, like she’d been trapped by a large, affectionate dog. She turned her walking stick an awkward angle, stiff and stuck. “I can’t hold unbalanced weight as easily as you two, if she drops, I’ll drop with her.”

Grinning, shaking her head, Raine stepped forward and took Lozzie’s weight. She hefted the smaller girl like a sack of rice. Lozzie mumbled under her breath and clung to Raine, sleepy Koala bear style.

“Ro-tay … tiiii,” Lozzie said out loud. “Ro-tay-tit.”

“ … ‘rotate it’?” I echoed.

“Rotate what?” Raine asked Lozzie’s sleeping face, raised an eyebrow. “Rotate you?”

“Ah!” A eureka moment, an exclamation of discovery – from Kimberly.

“Kim?”

We all hurried over to the doorway of the magical workshop just in time to see Kimberly reach down and place two fingers on opposite corners of the piece of paper she’d been puzzling over. Mouth open in awe, eyes wide as saucers, she rotated it one hundred and eighty degrees.

“Kimberly?” Evelyn ventured, then frowned over at Lozzie.

“It works,” Kimberly said, but not to us. Her voice sounded so far away. “Rotate it in place.” Quickly, hands shaking, eyes bloodshot with cannabis and sleep deprivation, she pulled other sheets of paper from nearby and sketched in a frenzy, connecting disparate parts of the new design, pencil flying across the paper. Evelyn and Raine and I all shared a glance.

Suddenly, Kimberly stopped mid pencil-stroke, as if broken from a trance. A hysterical hiccup of laughter stole up her throat. She stared at her work, breathing unsteady.

“Could have finished it hours ago,” she muttered.

“Kim?” I said her name as gently as I could and edged forward into the room. Her head jerked up, a sleepwalker disturbed, one eye twitching.

“Rotate it. How did- how did she know that? She didn’t even look at this!” Kimberly’s voice rose to a shout, then she seemed to catch herself, and let out a long, shuddering breath. She pushed back from the table and put her face in her hands, moaning softly.

“Kim, are you-”

Before I could finish, Evelyn marched forward and around the side of the table. She glanced over Kimberly’s work, eyes moving quickly across the whorls and scribbles and conjoined circles, and – with obvious and hesitant effort, hovering once and then completing the motion with a suppressed grimace – she put her hand on Kimberly’s back.

“You’ve done well,” Evelyn said.

“I hate this. I hate this so much,” Kimberly whined into her hands.

“Then stop thinking about it. Praem.” Evelyn tossed her head in a unspoken order. Praem turned and marched out into the kitchen.

“It’ll work. It’ll work now.” Kimberly was muttering to herself, voice pitiful and small. “How did she know? It’s like she was in my head.”

“Stop thinking about it,” Evelyn repeated, hard and sharp.

With a lump in my throat and a churning in my guts, I slipped out of the room and went after Praem.

I think Raine must have said my name as I left, but I was too numb in that moment. Praem was busy pulling a thick bar of dark chocolate out of one of the cupboards, but I reached up and found another one as well, part of our special supply in case of moments like this. Praem turned to look at me, and my sudden crippling guilt projected justified accusation onto her blank expression.

“Just … Praem, just let me take it to her. Please.”

I’d convinced Kimberly, to immerse herself in magic, to help Lozzie, for me – but Kimberly wanted out.

I knew that. I’d argued for it in the past. And still I’d convinced her to do this thing which was crushing her already fragile mental health.

Why? I searched myself but found no answer. Had I ignored that knowledge because of how much I cared about Lozzie? Or was it abyssal coldness, uncaring calculation? I couldn’t tell. I couldn’t tell which ‘me’ had made that decision. I couldn’t even find the distinction between the ape and the abyss anymore.

“Heather? Wooo?” Raine called.

“I’m fine,” I lied, because this wasn’t about me. I forced a smile onto my face with as much acting skill as I could muster – probably didn’t convince Raine – and walked back into the magical workshop before Praem could stop me.

“Kim, here, you should eat some chocolate,” I said, and tried to make amends.

Wasn’t enough.

==

An hour later, we opened the gate.

We carried out our little experiment with all due precaution, as if about breach some ancient sarcophagus with no notion of what awful survival may emerge.

Praem did the honours, filled in the final sections of mandala under Evelyn’s instruction, as we prepared. Raine dressed in jacket and boots, fetched her handgun and her knife, held the pistol in both hands, ready to raise and point it at the doorway. Evelyn found her coat and her strange, carved thighbone. Between us, we got Lozzie into outdoor clothes, draped a spare coat over her shoulders and helped wiggle her feet into her shoes.

Kimberly had long since retreated, first to the kitchen to put her head on the table, then to the utility room to roll herself another joint and blow the smoke out of the back door.

“Are you sure you don’t want to watch?” I’d asked. “It’s the fruit of your work, after all.”

Kimberly had shaken her head, twitchy and jumpy. “No. No, thank you. I’m … I’m done. I want to sleep.”

“I’m sorry … ” I tried to call after her as she shuffled away, but my words emerged as a whisper, because I wasn’t entirely certain if they were genuine. Part of me wanted to follow her, half to apologise, half to flee from my own growing self-disgust.

Instead I took more painkillers, washed them down with water, and tried to quell the unease roiling in my belly.

 My body was mounting a rebellion. It did not care why were going to the castle, nor about helping Lozzie. My nervous system remembered only terror, murder, and the unnatural disgust of the place to which we were about to return. Earlier, in the abstract, I’d felt okay about it, but now abyssal memory demanded armour plates and toxic flesh and protective spines. My flanks quivered and ached with phantom limbs, my skin crawled with biology I did not possess. I had to grip the kitchen counter-top and squeeze my eyes shut, fight the pain down until the pills did their job.

Evelyn and Kimberly were absolutely certain the gateway would open into the fog-choked dimension behind Sharrowford, and ninety percent sure it would open into the castle – somewhere.

Aiming at a particular point was apparently much more difficult. According to Kimberly’s limited comprehension – filtered through my uneducated interpretation of her words – the Cult had used simultaneous rituals here and in the fog as a sort of anchor between two points, allowing them to open several precise gateways. We didn’t have that luxury. We had guesswork and an emergency firearm.

How the Cult had gotten over there in the first place, Kimberly had no idea.

Another question for Lozzie. I filed it away for now.

We all stood ready as Praem drew the final set of lines on the wall with a washable green marker. Evelyn leaned heavily on her walking stick with one hand, brow furrowed as she studied the doorway for the first flicker of motion. Raine watched too, alert and ready. I fetched Lozzie from the sofa, pulled her up without difficulty, featherlight weight on my arm. Her sheet of wispy blonde hair hung down in a messy wave in front of her face, so I swept it over her shoulder, loose hairs clinging to my hand like bits of cobweb.

“Out?” she mumbled.

“Yes, hopefully,” I whispered back.

“Either it’s safe, quickly, or we leave, quickly,” Evelyn said to nobody in particular. “We are not getting stuck there again. This is not an expedition.”

“Agreed,” I said.

“Sure thing, boss,” Raine added.

“All done,” Praem intoned. Neat and precise, she stepped back three paces, capped the marker pen, and placed it on the table.

Raine opened her mouth to ask a question – perhaps a ‘what happens now?’ or ‘how long does it take?’ – but even her bravado and bluster faltered before the sensation that crept through all flesh.

The first time I’d witnessed the gateway open, I’d just been shocked awake from a sleepwalker’s nightmare, a shared dream with Lozzie, and was faced with a kidnapping attempt moments later. Hardly the right conditions to appreciate the terrible beauty of unnatural magics. This time I was wide awake, with full knowledge of what was about to happen, but it still sent a shiver down my spine and into my bowels.

On the edge of awareness, before any visible change, a distant window opened. Sounds beyond human hearing teased at our ears, made my eyes water.

The ambient temperature suddenly dropped. Not quite enough for a flash-freeze, but enough to mist our breath in the air. I hunched, huddled up tighter inside my coat and hoodie, and pulled Lozzie’s borrowed coat closed around her front.

A ripple passed through the plaster inside the doorway’s outline, as if solid had become water. Slow concentric ripples passed through the matter – the first ripple turned plaster to smooth, oily, featureless black. The second, an inch behind, produced an image as if seen through frosted glass.

The third brought clarity. Sharp, crystal-clear, unobstructed.

“Ding ding ding, what’s behind door number one,” Raine murmured. She stared into the gateway, pistol held low, every muscle taut and tense, coiled like a spring.

The view through the open door showed several feet of clear ground and terminated in a view of a blank stretch of wall – dead grey, rough and osseous, shot through with black veins and an ethereal memory of jade green. A curl of fog edged through the gateway and into the magical workshop.

My skin crawled and I broke out in cold sweat, automatic response. I clutched Lozzie closer.

“Heather,” Evelyn hissed. She nodded behind me, at the corner of the ceiling.

“O-oh, right, yes.” I turned to check on the spider-servitor. Thankfully it had reacted as expected, as required. The dog-sized spider stared right at the doorway, its mass of crystalline eyes fixed together on a single point, stingers rigid and poised. A faint heat-haze poured from the bio-mechanical vent stacks on its abdomen, as it spun up pneuma-somatic engines, readied itself for rapid motion. “Yes.” I nodded. “Yes, he’s on guard, he doesn’t like it.”

“Good,” Evelyn grunted. “Don’t want any of this crap getting into my house.”

“It’s cool. Be cool,” Raine said, forcing calm into her voice. Worked quite handily on me. I let out a long breath. “Be cool, Heather. I won’t let anything happen. In and out, right?”

“Yes, yes,” Evelyn grumbled. She jerked her chin toward the open doorway. “Praem.”

The most durable of everyone present, Praem went through first. A lifetime of movies and television and silly special effects still had me trained to expect a crackle or a pop as she crossed the threshold, but the doll-demon stepped through as easily as if into an adjacent room. She paused just over the threshold, looked quickly left and right, then took another three paces and turned around to face us. Creepers of fog wound around her legs and long skirt.

“Nobody home,” she intoned.

Raine went next. I didn’t like that, but I couldn’t help but appreciate the way she moved, a flowing of muscle and tendon, the quick-snap of her head and eyes as she double-checked Praem’s assessment. The way she carried herself made me feel a little safer.

Evelyn stomped into the castle as if she owned it. Perhaps she intended to. Clutching walking stick in one fist and carved thighbone in the other, she marched up next to Praem, looked about, then frowned at something off to the left.

Lozzie and I went last. Raine offered me a hand of support to step over the threshold. I took it, my palms clammy and my heart unsteady, and stepped into that soft, clinging fog-light.

And like that, we were back in Alexander Lilburne’s castle.

“Heather, you holding up alright?” Raine asked quietly.

“Just about.” I tried to smile. Couldn’t quite.

We’d emerged into a short, wide section of corridor, cut – grown? I tried not to think about it – from that dead grey jade substance, the dessicated outer shell of the thing which lay in the chasm far beneath our feet.

The Cult had strung light bulbs along the ceiling here, on bolts driven into the material, but they all sat dark. Whatever portable generator they had brought here was long cold by now. The light through the gateway cast a warm rectangle on the floor, but quickly faltered, soaked up by the fog – the fog which crept in through the long row of glass-less windows off to the left.

Of the copied section of Sharrowford below, we could see only imitation grey-jade rooftops blanketed in fog. None of us doubted where we were, the apex of the castle. Perhaps close to the throne room where I’d killed Alexander.

But none of us said it. All of us were too busy – listening.

“Nice aim,” Raine whispered eventually. “Have to buy Kim some good weed.”

“What is that sound?” Evelyn hissed, eyes wide, knuckles white on her walking stick.

“Singing,” Praem said, and even she whispered.

We all knew exactly what that sound was. We’d heard it once before, amplified and directed at us like a weapon, but it was different this time. Deep and low, passing though the air and the walls and our very bodies in slow waves like undersea currents. A calling, a marine chorus, a cosmic whale-song.

When Alexander had directed the vast planet-things down from the sky of the fog-dimension, their voices had been battering rams of mental force. What we heard now was more like the wind, flowing through us. Omni-present, rising and falling, with a million gradients and subtitles of tone – and undercut by other sounds outdoors, down there in the fog. Chirps and chatters and skitters; wet popping and soft clicking and furtive rustling; mad musical piping as if from a dozen separate flutes.

The gateway must be proof against sound, for surely we would have heard this back on the far side, back in the light and sanity of Sharrowford. Goosebumps rose on my arms, even wrapped up inside my hoodie. My own breathing seemed far too loud. I swore I could feel Lozzie’s heartbeat against my arm.

With the Sharrowford Cult in residence, this place had been dead, silent, empty except for themselves.

But now?

Lozzie mumbled a word.

“Life,” I echoed her out loud. “It’s life, I think.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

nostalgia for infinity – 9.1

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

My promise barely outlasted the day.

That night, the night which followed the meeting and our trip to the hospital, Raine and I slept especially close.

We usually did, ever since the very first time we’d slept together, tangled up in each other’s arms and scent and body heat beneath the bedsheets. I’d had precious little opportunity for skinship over my decade-long purgatory between Maisie and Raine, but these days it all came out. Often we spooned – with Raine always the big spoon – or I’d snuggle up against her side and she’d put an arm around me. In the night we’d shift, semi-conscious, sometimes part and rejoin. Often we’d awaken together for a while before returning to sleep.

Even moreso since my return from the abyss, and the insatiable physical needs I’d brought back with me.

But after the day we’d had, and the strain placed on my body by the seconds-brief demands of my pneuma-somatic tentacles, sex was the last thing on my mind. Raine tucked herself in behind me, gentle and slow, careful to avoid pressure on my bruises. She nuzzled the top of my head, but I’d already slipped through the wall of sleep.

I didn’t stay there for long.

A few hours later I struggled up from the depths to find myself adrift in the dead of night. Sore and cold even in Raine’s arms, my flanks throbbing and burning, the painkillers worn off, an exhaustion headache churning in the cavity behind my eyes where my brain should be. Try as I might, sleep would not return. I lay awake and listened first to Raine’s breathing, then the noises beyond our bubble of warmth.

A chorus of nocturnal sounds crept through the building, as they do in any house as old and as badly maintained as number 11 Barnslow Drive. Snatches of mournful wind whistled under loose roof tiles, aged beams creaked inside the walls as they contracted from the night’s cold; the boiler gurgled softly to itself in the basement, and copper pipes carried the almost imperceptible hiss and glug of hot water to the iron radiators in every room.

Unspeakable need tortured me, tempted me with an opportunity for furtive fulfilment.

I wriggled free from Raine’s arms – then held my breath as she murmured and turned over in bed, but she didn’t wake.

On silent feet, I cracked open our bedroom door, and padded out into the dark corridor.

The darkness in this beautiful old house is never quite total, unless one cares to venture down into the shallow basement. Only real blackout curtains can hold back Sharrowford’s distant light pollution, not to mention the closer glow of the streetlights along the pavement, no matter that two of them within sight of the house had been burnt out for weeks. Diffuse orange seeped around the edges of the windows, provided just enough light for me to shuffle my way to the bathroom.

Just enough light as my eyes adjusted, to outline the doors in the upstairs hallway.

And the dark misshapen thing which lurked there.

A white oval turned to face me.

In the split-second before I recognised Praem – the wide skirt of her maid uniform had complicated her human outline in the dark – a hiss rose in my throat. I almost jumped out of my skin. Phantom tentacles and spines reacted in panicked defence, triggered muscle spasms in my sides, and a gasp of pain cut off the hiss. I winced and curled up, clutching at my flanks, gripping at myself, trying to hold still my own quivering, abused muscles.

“Ahhhhh, ahhh,” I hissed through my teeth and crouched down, all but sat on the floor as the wave of pain passed through me.

Praem just watched.

“Praem- ahh,” I winced. “That’s the second time you’ve surprised me in the night! Why are you standing here in the dark?”

Dressed in her full maid uniform, Praem had seemed like some moth-winged black ghost caught in the shadows of the hallway. She stood outside Evelyn’s bedroom door, as if on guard. I knew she didn’t need sleep. At night she usually sat on one of the sofas in the magical workshop, and over the last month I’d taken to giving her books. She did go through the physical motions of reading, most nights, but I had yet to extract a response from her about the content of anything she’d read.

What she didn’t habitually do was lurk up here, spooking me on my way to the toilet.

Praem declined to answer. I eased myself up from the floor. “Is something wrong with Evee?”

“No,” Praem intoned – at full volume. I winced and put a finger to my lips.

“Shhhhh. Praem, everyone else is still sleeping.”

“Not you,” Praem said in her musical, sing-song voice, thankfully much quieter this time. My spine still itched at the way her lilting words might carry through the closed doors and old walls. Guilt crept into my chest.

“Yes, because I need to use the toilet,” I whispered, an easy lie, one I’d told myself as I’d gotten up. “Praem, what are you doing standing around in the dark?”

Blank white eyes stared back at me.

I sighed. “Alright, have fun standing there, I suppose? You do know there’s nothing stopping you from taking some blankets and having a lie down? I’m sure Evelyn won’t mind. Sleep is relaxing. No? Well, um, I do need to use the bathroom, so … ”

As soon as I made to move, Praem stepped forward. She didn’t quite block my way, nothing so obvious, but the intent was clear. Up close now, her perfectly smooth artificial skin looked like milk in the darkness.

“ … P-Praem?”

“Promised,” she intoned.

My heart skipped a beat. Mouth went dry. How did she know what was I thinking about?

“ … I’m … Praem, I’m not-”

“Promised,” she repeated. “Heather, you promised you would not hurt yourself. You promised everyone. Don’t break promises.”

I blinked in surprise. Praem hadn’t spoken such a complete statement since our strange encounter just before Christmas, in the kitchen of Evelyn’s family estate.

She put me to shame. My cheeks burned with guilt and my sides burned with dull throbbing. I wanted to curl up and vanish.

“I’m not going to … Praem, I’m not going to try to summon the tentacles again. I just … I want to look at my bruises in the mirror. I want to … I need to … I don’t know. I want to think about them. Picture them. It’ll hurt a little, I guess, but not much and-”

“Promised you wouldn’t hurt yourself,” Praem repeated.

“Praem.” I tried to huff, but couldn’t get it out. I looked away, felt tears prickle in the corners of my eyes.

“Promised.”

“Okay!” I hissed. “Okay, okay, I won’t, I won’t hurt myself. I just want to look. And I really do actually need to use the toilet as well. I’m … I’m sorry, Praem.”

Praem stepped back. Blushing with shame, I slipped past her, past her wide, rustling skirt, and into the bathroom.

For a long moment after I closed the door I pressed my back against the thin wood, in the dark, the closest I could attain to true peace, the abyss echoed in absence.

Then I flicked on the light. Removing my tshirt was made harder than usual by the stiff bruising in my sides, difficult to raise my arms above my head. I finally got free, the night air cold against my naked skin, and looked at myself in the mirror.

The Heather in the mirror examined me in return.

My skinny frame, my pale and pasty skin, an ape kept from the sun. My hair which I hadn’t cut in months, now almost as long as when I’d been a child. The bold black lines of the Fractal inked on my left forearm, a secret tattoo hidden from the world. The bruises on my flanks, angry and inflamed.

Scrawny and weird, that’s how I’d always thought of myself. Never had much pride in my body, never liked it much, never felt beautiful or even notable, no matter how much Raine told me so. As a teenager, looking in the mirror had hurt. Alienated from my own body, but at the same time defined by it; seeing my own face reminded me of Maisie. I saw her, looking back.

For the first time in my life, something else crept in.

I had the most bizarre urge to photograph myself.

Not for sexual purposes, oh no, not at all. I wanted to capture the Fractal, record my bruises. A slightly mad, paradoxical part of me hoped that the bruises would leave scars or permanent discolouration. History, written on my body. I liked this, this physical proof that I was defined by something other than how I saw my body in relation to others. Scrawny and slight, reedy and flat – somehow that all mattered less, now.

I raised and flexed my right arm, thought about the way the tendons pulled and the muscles bunched. Tried to flex my side too, but stopped and winced.

Raine had been kind to describe the bruises as ‘not too bad’. Already they seemed darker than before, almost black, ringed with angry inflamed skin where the pneuma-somatic flesh had passed through my own.

My own – the tentacles had been my own as well.

With my breath held, ashamed and furtive and hoping Praem was not listening at the door, I thought about my tentacles. I didn’t try to summon them again. Such splitting of hairs served as my excuse – I wasn’t really doing it, not for real, no promise broken here.

Pain did not care about promises kept or broken.

I recalled the way the tentacles had felt, imagined them stroking the edge of the mirror, touching my own reflected image – and the anchor-points, deep inside the core muscles of my torso, seized and shuddered with searing pain, a throbbing bruise far deeper than the surface of my skin. I could almost visualise them, almost see them, but the pain was too much. I bit down hard on my lips, scrunched up my eyes as my breath shook. Sweat broke out on my forehead. I gave up.

“Ahhh … ahhh, ow, ow,” I whispered to myself, crouching down and clutching at my sides, tears of stinging pain in my eyes. “Heather, you idiot. You idiot. Idiot. Why?”

Because I wanted it. Because an abyssal body made me strong. Defend my friends. Rescue my sister. A mad part of me, a growing hybrid of abyssal creature and tribal ape, wanted to fight the Eye, pull it apart like a giant squid might fight a whale. Even in the rapture of my moment of glory, I knew that was simply impossible.

Shivering on the bathroom floor in secret, hurting myself in private, breaking my promises, spinning fantasies of impossible revenge. One of my lowest points in months.

Suddenly, the bathroom door handle rotated. The door cracked open.

“I’m- I’m still in here,” I croaked and staggered to my feet. I grabbed my tshirt off the side of the bath and clutched it to my naked front. “I- oh.”

Light spilt out into the upstairs hallway to reveal Praem supporting a sleep-addled, heavy-lidded, curious Lozzie. Her long wispy blonde hair hung down in a curtain of gold.

With obvious difficulty, blinking and bleary, Lozzie managed to focus her eyes on me. She broke into a smile. “Heatherrrrrrr.”

“Lozzie? Did you wake up?” I asked, and scanned Praem’s face for an explanation. Had Lozzie stumbled into the hallway after a random awakening, or had she somehow felt my pain? Or, more likely, had Praem decided to wake somebody up to stop me from hurting myself?

Before I could pull my tshirt back over my head, Praem stepped forward and deposited the sleepy warm Lozzie straight into my arms. She slumped against me in a rough hug, warm from sleep, soft in her borrowed clothes.

“Mmm-mmmmmm,” Lozzie made a sleepy sound and rubbed her face into my shoulder. She weighed so little that I had almost no trouble holding her steady, even as Praem withdrew to the doorway again.

I sighed and gave Praem a look. “Emergency Lozzie, is it?”

No answer.

“Sleeeeep?” Lozzie murmured. “Come bed?”

“Maybe. Maybe, I- I should be in bed with Raine right now, I-”

Lozzie’s nose twitched. She blinked several times and forced her eyelids wider, but couldn’t quite overcome her natural heavy-lidded look. She slid down me. For a moment I thought she was going to slump to the floor, but she stopped at my side, clinging to me for support, her breath warm on my chilly skin.

She stared at my exposed bruises. Tilted her head back and forth, her little elfin face like some sprite conjured from the night.

“L-Lozzie? I’m fine, I’m okay, they don’t hurt too badly. Something happened earlier today, but I’m fine.”

“Growing little helpers for your help,” she mumbled, to herself or my side or just the empty air. “A helping hand, happy helping help hand … hand.”

“Lozzie?”

“Mmm?” She sniffed and blinked and jerked upright again like a Jack-in-the-box. The light of consciousness glowed in her eyes. For a moment, she was all there, excited and smiling. “You’re growing new parts! Yay! Did you have trouble, was it easy?”

“ … no, no it wasn’t easy. Lozzie, how did you know what happened? You’ve been asleep the whole afternoon.”

“Mm-mm.” She wobbled her head, blinked heavily, and was gone again, her mind deficient after so long denied whatever sustenance she drew from Outside.

I gripped her shoulders. “Lozzie? Lozzie do you … do you understand what happened to me? You know what’s happening?”

Potentials raced through my exhausted mind. Lozzie knew how to make spirits – make things like Tenny, like the barely recalled monstrosity that had been revealed inside her Knight’s suit of armour as it had defended us from the Eye. She could craft and shape pneuma-somatic flesh, though I’d had no chance to ask her how, not since she’d slipped into her semi-conscious state over the last couple of weeks.

Maybe, just maybe, she might know how to stabilise my tentacles.

That is, if she could hold onto a coherent train of thought for more than ten seconds.

“Gotta take all the rubbish and put it in the rubbish bin and take the bin out,” she mumbled, sleep-talk nonsense.

“Lozzie? Lozzie, please concentrate. I need your help.”

Lozzie squinted and strained with effort, and let out a grumble of frustration. She blinked at me, her brain addled, trying so hard. From all our abortive conversations over the last couple of weeks, I knew she’d never get a full answer out. Her consciousness would drift away, like she’d been starved of oxygen.

“Mmmmmm-mmmm.” She slumped against me again, dragging at my shoulders with her feather-light body weight. “Heatherrrr.”

“Yes? Lozzie?”

“Take- take me home, home where … where … ”

“Home? Lozzie, what do you mean?” I tried to heft her up onto her own feet, the bruises in my sides complaining all the while, but she was like a sack of potatoes, all loose and bony.

A single choked sob escaped her lips. “I can’t live like this anymore.”

I froze. Glanced at Praem for help. The doll-demon’s expression showed nothing, so perhaps I only imagined my shock mirrored in her eyes.

“Lozzie?”

She sniffed, eyes unfocused. “I want to help, I do. Heather? Heather, I can’t think. Can’t. Can’t. Heather fix me. Fix please … nnn-mmm … ”

Eyes fluttering shut, she trailed off into a snore.

My heart felt fit to burst.

When Lozzie had saved me from the Eye, and then returned to reality, I’d been overjoyed to have her back. Since my own return from the abyss I’d been too preoccupied with myself, my phantom limbs and abyssal needs and the wrenching heart-pain of speaking with Maisie again. Hadn’t thought too closely about Lozzie’s slow deterioration.

We’d all treated her condition as almost cute. Cute sleepy Lozzie, flopping around the house. She ate, she kept herself clean, she wasn’t wasting away; I could cuddle up with her in the dark and feel right. A life-sized cuddle toy. A temporary replacement for my sister. Couldn’t get Outside, didn’t know how to break the interdiction, so Lozzie’s issue was something to solve for later, something to put off until tomorrow. We’d decided without discussion. We could fix it by killing her uncle – except that had failed.

Cute Lozzie, sleepy and bumbling around the house – trapped inside a brain that had stopped functioning.

I was a horrible friend.

“ … Lozzie? Oh, Lozzie, we have to get you Outside,” I whispered, furious with myself for letting this continue for so long. I managed to lower her to the bathroom floor where we slumped together, her head lolling on my naked shoulder.

“Mmmm,” she made a sleepy noise.

“This is killing you, isn’t it?” I felt hot tears threaten in the corners of my eyes.

She made another sleepy noise, child-like, a tiny mewl of sadness.

“There has to be a way.” I glanced down at the Fractal on the bare skin of my left forearm, then up at Praem, as I cast around for an idea. “There has to be some way of getting through to Outside. If only … ”

If only the lightest touch of hyperdimensional mathematics didn’t feel like jamming my fingernails into a barely scabbed-over wound. If only I was smarter, stronger, if only my thoughts would move faster. If only I could define the dead, grasping hands that had fastened around my ankles when I’d tried to Slip, if only I could tear them apart.

If only there was somewhere else I could take Lozzie.

“Somewhere else,” I whispered out loud, as a light bulb went on inside my head. “Somewhere else.”

A different place, a substitute; a place in which Lozzie had once been confined, without access to the Outside, and had retained her faculties.

“Lozzie, you’re going to be okay. I have an idea.”

“Idea,” Praem intoned. I nodded at her.

“Yes, an idea. One her own uncle gave me.” I hefted Lozzie’s semi-conscious form. She weighed so little, like a bunch of feathers, but my sides ached with the deep throb of abused flesh, and I was more than a touch worn out. I gestured at Praem with an elbow. “Praem, pick her up and carry her downstairs, please?”

Praem didn’t move. I sensed the unspoken question and let out a little sigh.

“I can’t sleep and my own body is torturing me. The least I can do is have a good think about a practical problem. I’m not going to do anything rash. In fact, I’m not going to do anything at all, certainly not without Raine or Evelyn awake and helping. I promise. I only want to look, and think it over. Then, maybe I can get some sleep.”

Another heartbeat passed and I thought Praem wasn’t going to help, but then she stepped forward and bent down to take Lozzie’s weight in her arms, pulling her up to her feet in one effortless motion. Lozzie let out a sleepy sound and clung happily to Praem, burying her face in the doll-demon’s chest.

I allowed myself a wince as I eased myself to my feet as well, then took Praem’s elbow when she offered it in support.

“Thank you,” I muttered, and set about the difficult process of manoeuvring my tshirt back over my head with my currently limited range of motion. Oddly, I didn’t feel at all embarrassed in front of Praem. She didn’t care if I was topless. I’d seen her naked before. More than naked, disembodied.

“Downstairs,” Praem said once I was done.

Before I could second guess myself, I leaned over and gave Praem a hug, with Lozzie in the middle. It was most comfortable.

“Thank you,” I said. “Thank you, Praem. I … needed that. Emergency Lozzie was a good call.”

Praem did not respond. Both her hands were busy holding Lozzie up, and besides, no matter how human or well-developed she’d become, Praem wasn’t exactly the touchy-feely type.

Which is why I was so surprised when she gently touched her head against mine, her smooth flat blonde hair against my bird’s-nest mess. A laying together of human skull and illusion-wrapped wood. A surprised smile crept across my face.

“Praem?”

“Bonk,” she said. I pulled back and blinked.

“Bonk?” I echoed. “Praem, you-”

“Boooonk,” Lozzie sleep-mumbled.

“Downstairs,” Praem repeated.

“Yes,” I sighed, and put aside the issue of Praem’s learnt affection for now. “Downstairs. First things first, I need more painkillers.”

==

Despite all my determination, I was still no mage. I didn’t understand the first principles of the thing I was looking at.

Mostly it made my eyes water.

“Evelyn said she was going to rebuild this to take us to the library of Carcosa, with that book I brought back,” I said, as much to myself as to Praem. She already knew this. I was merely thinking out loud. “Which means it still functions. Will function.”

I glanced back over my shoulder, down the length of Evelyn’s magical workshop, at Lozzie curled up on the sofa and wrapped in a spare blanket, her heavy-lidded eyes open just a crack. Praem stood by the table, her hands folded demurely in front of her, right next to the open box of strawberries I’d fetched from the fridge. Behind and above them, Evelyn’s resident spider-servitor clung upside down to its corner of ceiling, stingers waving in the air like lazy fronds of seaweed, its mass of crystalline eyes looking nowhere in particular.

“Lozzie?” I said. “You completed this in the first place, do you remember that?”

“ … mmmmm-mmmhmm.”

“Do you remember how? Could it take us back again? Back to the castle?”

“Mmm … mmm?” Lozzie squinted one eye shut with the effort of thinking, then closed the other, then chased with a snore. I sighed and turned back to the gateway.

Evelyn’s door; Lozzie’s collaboration. The Sharrowford Cult’s inept trap. The doorway-portal-thing to the foggy emptiness behind the city, where they’d carved their citadel from the protective scab-shell of a fallen, stranded Outsider. I cast my mind back to the moment I’d watched it open, the matter peeled away by an oily darkness, then replaced by a vision of a long hallway, on that night the still-enslaved Zheng had snatched me through by the head.

Afterward, Evelyn had deactivated the gateway, removed a specific portion of the massive ink-and-paint mandala.

Now it was just the outline of a doorway, scored into the paint and plaster of the wall.

The rest of the fan-shaped mandala was still intact, a complex interlocking mass of magic circles, esoteric symbols, bits of Latin and non-human language, with Lozzie’s – or my, depending on how one thought about it – finger painted additions in rough streaks, left to dry where we’d made them. Looking too closely hurt my eyes, made me wince, stirred the echo of nausea in my belly.

In theory, the door could be opened once more by simply replacing the piece of the design that Evelyn had scrubbed away. She’d even photographed it and made a sketch, just in case.

In practice? The pockets and folded spaces the cult had dug were gone now, closed up, had slowly collapsed in on themselves after Alexander’s death. Only the foggy sub-dimension itself remained, the wound in reality around the cult’s captured god.

Evelyn had sent Praem back there, once, before the cult’s hidden byways had vanished completely.

It had, in Evelyn’s delightful metaphor, ‘gone native’.

Not a place for human beings.

Perhaps we didn’t have to stay there for long, especially if we could get straight into the castle. Just long enough to get Lozzie what she needed. Five, ten minutes?

I knew I was bargaining with myself, trying to find a way to help Lozzie, but I lacked any other distractions to occupy my mind.

“Question number one,” I muttered, “is can we connect the doorway to the castle directly? Question number two, how dangerous is it there?”

Without answers to my questions, my eyes wandered down and to the left, down to the magic circle on the floor which still contained the horror in clay.

The vessel in which Felicity had trapped the Eye’s minion had all but dried up. It still looked like a bunch of rotten squid covered with an old sheet, but now it was a husk, barely able to move its many tentacles without the clay cracking, shedding fragments all over the floor.

“You’re next on the list,” I whispered, but of course it didn’t respond.

How similar were my tentacles to the ones of this Outside creature? In fact, why tentacles at all? Was the uni-directional tube of muscle some kind of universal principle, more simple and more widespread than the humanoid arm?

A pang of dull pain throbbed in my sides. I clutched myself and tried to suppress a wince. Thinking about my tentacles was a bad idea, unless I wished to overwhelm the painkillers I’d downed ten minutes earlier.

I cast about for a distraction, but kept looking down at the squid-thing in the magic circle.

Was that where my metamorphosis would lead?

“Feed me a strawberry,” Praem said. Her sing-song voice carried like a clear bell.

“Ah, alright, okay,” I said, and privately wondered if Praem had recognised my distress. I went over to her and selected another strawberry from the open box on the table. Faint traces of juice from the last two still lingered on her pale lips. “Open wide.”

Praem opened her mouth with a wet click and I pushed the third strawberry of the night onto her tongue, trying not to blush at the intimacy of the action. She ignored my faint discomfort, and chewed slowly.

“I still don’t understand why you can’t do this yourself,” I told her.

Praem looked me in the eye – somehow I could tell, despite the lack of any pupil or iris in her milky-white, empty orbs – and continued to chew. I sighed.

“I mean, you’re my equal,” I said. “Evelyn’s equal, too. I don’t care if you’re not human, you’re still a person, whatever you were before. You’re no slave. You can take a strawberry, or anything else from the fridge, whenever you like.”

Praem swallowed. Her lips parted again.

“I enjoy.”

“But, enjoy what?” I mused. “The act of being served?”

“I like strawberries.”

“That doesn’t explain the … ” I waved a hand. “The ritual.”

“Kiss my arse,” Praem intoned, in perfect, sing-song voice. My jaw fell open.

“What.” Had my ears deceived me? “Praem, I’m sorry? Excuse me?”

Praem declined to expand on her point. Perhaps my imagination was playing tricks on me, but I could have sworn I saw the slightest crinkle of a smile in the corners of her eyes. She hadn’t smiled since that one time before Christmas, and I didn’t particularly wish for her to repeat the performance.

“Well, alright then,” I said. “I’ll take that as ‘please stop asking stupid questions.’ I’m sorry for prying.”

“No,” Praem said. I frowned, increasingly lost.

At that moment we both heard the soft creak of footsteps making their way down the stairs. Not clunky enough to be Evelyn, and too light for Raine, there was only one person left in the house who’s tread that might be. A handful of seconds later, the kitchen light guttered on, visible through the gap we’d left in the workshop doorway. A splashing from the sink, the sound of somebody fetching a glass of water.

Praem opened her mouth.

“Shhh,” I hissed. “Don’t make her jump.”

Praem closed her mouth and looked at me. I shrugged, a little embarrassed, then turned and spoke up.

“Kimberly?”

A gasp, a clatter of mug dropped into the kitchen sink: mission failed. I’d startled the poor woman.

“Kim, it’s only me.” I crossed to the door and pushed it wider as Kimberly’s surprised face hove into view. “I thought you might have noticed the light was on, I’m sorry.”

“I-I, n-no, you made me jump. That’s all,” Kimberly stammered, blinking at me and then at Praem. She had one hand raised to her own chest in an unconsciously defensive posture.

“Kim? Kim it’s me, relax.”

“ … I’m sorry.” She swallowed and made a visible effort to lower her hand. She seemed even more skittish and jumpy than usual.

“Are you alright? I’m sorry I surprised you.”

“Yes. Yes, sorry.”

Kimberly was dressed in her pajamas, and I must say she had a very exacting taste in nightwear – bottoms patterned with little round cartoon dragons, and a tshirt with a print of a fairytale castle on the front. Big fluffy socks protected her feet from the cold flagstones of the kitchen floor. She tucked her auburn hair behind one ear, looking self-conscious and trapped. Behind her, the kitchen windows stared out into Sharrowford’s light pollution, Tenny’s cocoon illuminated sidelong in faint orange hue. Around us the house seemed a warm, dark cocoon of its own.

I smiled and tried to crack a joke.

“The last time anybody surprised you in … your … pajamas … ” I trailed off. Stupid, stupid Heather, I tutted at myself. The last time anybody surprised Kimberly in her pajamas, yes, she had stabbed Twil in the hand. “I’m sorry, that’s really insensitive of me. I wasn’t thinking, I was trying to tell a joke to … calm you down?”

“Oh. Oh, it’s okay. Don’t worry about it. I’m just … I only came down to get a glass of water.” She tried a nervous smile too. “Can’t sleep.”

“Me neither, actually. Want to talk about it?”

She shrugged. “What’s to talk about?”

“I’m sorry?”

Kimberly swallowed and looked guilty. “I just … what you all did today. Yesterday. I don’t want to risk getting tangled up with Edward Lilburne again. I don’t ever want to see that man again, any of them. I’m scared, alright? I’m just scared. Of everything.” She sighed heavily. “Story of my life.”

“Ah. Yes, good point.” I tried to formulate an apology, but couldn’t summon the right words. Sorry that you’re still involved? Sorry you have to be here?

“I was going to … you know. Light up for a bit. N-not that I’m smoking in the house!” she hastened to add. “I’ve been blowing it out the window.”

I smiled at that, despite myself. “Care to join us for a bit?”

Kimberly glanced over my shoulder, at Praem and the contents of the magical workshop, then noticed Lozzie on the sofa. A note of worry crept back into her voice. “What are you doing?”

“Nothing, actually.”

“ … ” She stared at me, worrying more.

“Um, I mean, I’m just thinking over a problem.” I frowned in sudden thought. “Actually, you know, you’d be the person to ask about something that just happened.”

“About what?”

“Why might Praem tell me to kiss her arse?”

Kimberly blinked twice, paralysed. I think she was attempting to figure out if I was joking.

“I mean, you rebuilt her – put her back into her body,” I said. “You know a little bit about these things, yes? I was feeding her a strawberry, and asked why.”

I hurried to relate our bizarre exchange, glancing back at Praem, but the doll-demon silently declined the invitation to provide her side of the story. Kimberly chewed her bottom lip in thought. A visible relaxation passed over her shoulders.

Osculum infame?” she said.

“Latin?”

Kimberly blinked at me as if surprised to find me there, then to my immense surprise, she blushed. “Um, I mean, I don’t know why she can’t eat strawberries herself. I’m … ” She swallowed. “Despite what I … learned, I’m no expert. Demons should be able to take what they want after they develop enough, the binding doesn’t hold for long. It’s enough to draw them here initially, that’s all. But um … what she said, it reminds me of osculum infame.”

“Which is?”

Kimberly blushed harder. “’Shameful kiss.’ Medieval Christian mythology stuff. They used to believe that in order to make a pact with Satan, or a demon, a witch would have to kiss the demon’s … um … ” She pointed awkwardly downward. “Rear end.”

“Oh. Huh.”

“I-I only know that because of reading books about Wicca and stuff.” She fidgeted with her fingers.

I looked back at Praem. “Makes you wonder how much truth made it into those myths.”

“Feed me a strawberry,” Praem intoned.

“Another one?” I asked. “You’re insatiable.”

“Maybe that’s her equivalent,” said Kimberly.

“Maybe, yes,” I agreed. “Do you want to feed her?”

“I- oh, that’s okay, I-”

Praem twitched her head and looked right at Kimberly. “Feed me a strawberry.”

“Looks like you need to kiss the devil’s bum as well,” I said, and couldn’t help but smile. Kimberly blushed and hesitated, so I stepped back into the room and left the doorway as an open invitation. I crossed back to Praem and the box of strawberries, selected one and held it up toward Kimberly. “Have you ever done this before?”

Kimberly ventured into the room, casting a curious look at Lozzie asleep on the sofa. “No, um, no I haven’t.”

“You should try. It’s almost relaxing.”

“She’s not a pet.” Kimberly briefly met Praem’s staring eyes. “She’s a demon.”

“A demon that likes getting fed strawberries. Also very friendly.”

“She is kind of nice, I suppose.” Kimberly sighed as my peer pressure broke through. With a touch of Evelyn-esque huffiness she accepted the strawberry and held it up, unsure where to put the thing. “What do I- oh.”

Praem opened her mouth. Kimberly popped the strawberry inside, then withdrew her hand as if she might lose a finger. She, much like I had done my first time, flushed in the face as two fingertips brushed Praem’s lips. Praem closed her mouth and focused on chewing.

“ … that was … weird.”

“I know,” I said with a sigh. “Sorry, I had to share it with somebody. Also helps keep my mind off the pain in my sides.”

Kimberly gave me a look of sad sympathy. “Is it really bad?”

“It’s tolerable. Just trying to take my mind off thinking about my body, that’s why I’m down here.”

“Do you … do you want some cannabis? You don’t have to smoke it, I could put some in a brownie or something for you. It really helps with pain. I got into it originally for period cramps, when I was a teenager.”

“Thank you,” I said. “Not yet, but I’ll give it some thought.”

“Think about it,” Praem said. We both looked at her.

“So, Kim,” I said at length. “I’m working on a problem here, and you might also be the person to ask about that too. Well, you or Sarika, I suppose.”

“Sarika?” Kimberly’s voice caught in her throat. “I-I had very little contact with her, I-”

“It’s okay. It’s not about her.” I pointed at the mandala on the wall, at the inactive gateway. “It’s about that, and Lozzie.”

I took my time – and why not, neither of us could sleep – to outline my thoughts, my theory about Lozzie’s condition, and the open questions about getting through the gate and back to the castle.

“You were involved with this stuff for a long time. Do you have any idea what-”

“I don’t,” Kimberly blurted out. “I was never involved with that part. You know what I was … what I was doing, what I dealt with. Making … ” She nodded at Praem instead of saying the words. “I don’t know how they made the portals, or the weird pocket dimensions, and I don’t want to know, I don’t want to think about it.”

“Nothing at all?” I asked, my heart falling.

She looked at the mural – and gave herself away. A second of hesitation before she shook her head, guilt in the bob of her throat and the shift of her eyes. Kimberly took a halting, half-step back.

In a moment I’m not exactly proud of, a stabbing pain lanced into my sides – my phantom limbs, the tentacles that weren’t, had tried to reach out and block Kimberly’s retreat, hold her here, grab her by wrists and ankles. A gasp ripped out of my throat and I curled up, squeezed my eyes shut with the sudden pain.

“Heather?!”

“I’m fine,” I hissed. “Fine. Just a- twinge.” I panted for breath, swallowed hard, tried not to think. Guilt filled my chest; I’d tried to stop her leaving. Brute instinct had taken over, triggered by the hint of a lie in her eyes. Thankfully, I’d had nothing to work with.

“If you say so,” Kimberly said, but she sounded far from certain.

“Flowsie,” a sleepy, bubbly voice floated from the sofa. “Flowsieeeee.”

We both turned and looked at Lozzie, curled up there like a cute, sleepy little woodlouse. Even Praem turned to look. Lozzie had one eye half open, the lid twitching and fluttering.

“Flowsie,” she repeated. “I know you know that you know. You know. Know. Don’t be a liar, or you’ll get … layered.”

I don’t know if it was the content of Lozzie’s words, or her ethereal tone of voice, but Kimberly looked terrified. As Lozzie’s eyelid finally slid shut, Kimberly turned to me, stunned with nervous guilt.

“I … um … I … ” she stammered.

I straightened up from my pained crouch. “Why does she call you Flowsie?”

Kimberly all but rolled her eyes, a shudder of relief passing through her. I felt like a snake in the grass, biding my time. “I don’t know, it’s just a pet name. She had funny names for all the people at the castle. Worse ones for those she disliked.”

“So she didn’t dislike you?” I asked, and sprung my trap. “She trusted you, a little bit?”

Kimberly’s face froze. She nodded slowly, then swallowed.

“Because, well,” I carried on. “What she said-”

“I do know some,” Kimberly snapped. Her hands shook. “Just- just bits and pieces I picked up, things I overheard. Once I- I read a book I wasn’t supposed to, notes partly by one mage, and partly by Alexander. I can’t make those pocket spaces myself, you have to be … well, not human, really, to do that. You have to speak to the thing in the pit, under the castle. I can’t- I can’t do that, please don’t ask me to do that, Heather, please-”

“I won’t, I won’t. It’s okay, Kim, I’m sorry, I thought you were holding back on me.”

“I was.” She sniffed and swallowed.

“But can you re-route the gateway?”

Kimberly stared at the mandala for a moment, then let out a shuddering sigh, and shrugged. “Maybe. Maybe. It would take time, and- I don’t have the notes. I- I didn’t want to tell Evelyn I knew any of this, she’ll hate me more than she already does. She- you’ll suspect me! I never did anything I haven’t already told you all about, I swear-”

“I believe you. And Evee doesn’t hate you. We’ll explain to her together. Please, Kim, I need to help Lozzie. I need to take her back to the castle, if only for a few minutes. It might make her well again.”

Kimberly swallowed. She closed her eyes and nodded. “Alright. I’ll try.”

“Will it be easier if we get Evelyn to help too?”

“ … yes,” such a small voice. “I suppose this is better than you bringing Sarika here.”

“Indeed.” I sighed too. “Kim, I can get you anything you need, if you want to start now.”

“Now?”

“The sooner the better.”

She sighed, shoulders slumping. “Not as if I’ll be able to sleep now, anyway.”

“You want some coffee? Tea? I’ll get you some food.”

Kimberly shook her head. “No way I’m doing this without getting stoned first. I need a smoke.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

covenants without the sword – 8.6

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

After three hours in the A&E department of Sharrowford General Hospital, the doctors couldn’t find anything wrong with me.

They took my blood and blood pressure and had me pee in a cup. They poked and prodded and asked me the requisite ‘does this hurt?’ They ruled out internal bleeding and an x-ray ruled out broken bones. They hemmed and hawed and could not find a reason for the pain.

Except the bruises.

Three bruises, one for each tentacle anchor-point. Two on my left flank, above the outward crest of my hipbone, and one on the right side of my waist, just below the base of my ribcage. Dark mottled purple, almost black with damaged capillaries, not quite perfectly circular but close enough to provoke medical suspicion. Doctors asked questions I couldn’t answer. The attending nurse gave me a funny look, saw right through my stumbling, stammering excuses as I sat half-naked, wincing and shivering on an examination bench, trying to keep the Fractal on my left forearm concealed as much as I could.

Raine, bless her quick thinking and boundless courage, pretended embarrassment as she spun a fanciful comedy of sexual errors, to explain both the bruises and my reticence. Her tall tale involved something called a ‘doorframe harness’, and obliquely hinted that I’d refused to stop, gripped by the heat of my own lust, and thus injured myself. Raine implied that she was bruised too, though far less painfully.

I hung my head and blushed tomato red – I didn’t have to pretend – and our mummery appeared to mollify the medical staff. The nurse went from tutting suspicion to barely concealed amusement. They’d probably seen the aftermath of far worse sexual accidents than a pair of young lesbians doing some acrobatic experimentation.

The absurdity of our lie also took my mind off the pain, for a while.

No ordinary bruises, these. Each one felt like a knotted fist in my side. I wasn’t exactly physically flexible at the best of times, but now I could barely bend or twist at all without a throb of pain. Even while sitting still, my oblique muscles would occasionally spasm and shudder, echoing a deeper quiver of abused flesh.

The first time the doctors left us alone for a few minutes, Raine asked me a question.

“Were they really tentacles, or was that just poetry?” She held my hand, cracked a grin, distracted me from the ache in my sides. “Am I in for a surprise next time we’re in bed?”

“Ha-ha,” I deadpanned. “Yes, they were, tentacles. Three, and- ah-ahhh!”

I winced and sucked air through my teeth as jagged spikes of pain lanced deep into my torso. To even think about the phantom limbs was to invite the pain of their thought-echo. On instinct I’d attempted to uncurl limbs I did not possess, to show them to Raine, to gesture with a tentacle-tip and place another in her hand. None of that happened though; pain blossomed anew.

Couldn’t stop eating, either. Low blood-sugar made me shake and shiver. Raine brought me hospital vending machine food, and I must have inhaled over a thousand and a half calories before the shakes subsided. My tentacles, however short-lived, had burned a huge amount of energy.

“Nerve damage of some kind, perhaps,” a kindly-looking young doctor told Raine and I from behind his square-rimmed glasses, once I was properly dressed again, hunched over and clutching myself as I waited for the painkillers to work.

“Perhaps?” Raine echoed.

“Yes. It’s our best guess. I’m very sorry, but I’m afraid we’ll have to refer you to a specialist, miss Morell. Here in Sharrowford there’s a waiting list, but we could get you over to Manchester as early as next month, St Mary’s or the Royal Infirmary perhaps.”

“I’ll be … alright. I think.” I felt terrible for wasting doctors’ time – what I’d done to myself was beyond medical science. “I can wait. Thank you.”

“But she’s not in any danger?” Raine asked. “It can’t get worse, anything like that?”

“No danger at all, as far as we can tell, aside from the pain itself. The bruising looks bad and is going to hurt, but everything is where it should be. The bruises themselves should heal as normal. In some of these cases, especially for a young person, the pain works itself out on its own, or the painkillers sort of ‘reset’ the system, and it fades over time. Try to stay on them as much as possible, stick to the schedule the nurse wrote up for you, at least for two weeks. You have enough for two months, I think? Good, yes. If the bruises heal but the pain is still there, you could see your GP to get referred to another specialist, or we could go ahead and get you on that waiting list now, just in case.”

“I’ll be alright-”

“Yes,” Raine said. “Put her on the list, please. Just in case.”

The painkillers did work, though they took a while to kick in, to smother the discomfort and inflammation. The hospital discharged me with a big bottle of take-no-more-than-four-times-a-day and a smaller bottle of may-cause-addiction. Nothing more they could do. Raine drove us home, but not before we sat in the front of her car and shared a long, difficult hug.

“I’ll be alright”, I told her. I had the number of a physical therapist, a prescription for more drugs – and a yearning of which I could not let go.

“You will, Heather, yeah. Just bruises, hey?”

In my heart, that moment of glory had been worth all the pain in the world.

==

“You are not a fish, Heather!”

“I know that, I know-”

“Or a squid, or an octopus, or a fucking orca. I can’t believe you did that to yourself. I told you to be careful, specifically! Did you listen? You’re as bad as Raine.”

“I know. Evee, I’m sorry, I-”

“Don’t apologise to me,” she snapped. “You’re the one who could have minced her own organs.”

“I didn’t though, I made it work. It worked, and it felt-”

I failed to smother a wince and a gasp. A strangled sound escaped my throat. The tentacles had felt wonderful, yes, a euphoria beyond words, but now the memory of them summoned only their painful echo in my flanks. My sides shuddered as I curled up against the burning bruises, the torn muscle, the sharp daggers slipping past the bulwark of painkillers in my bloodstream.

“Hey, hey, don’t think about it,” Raine purred, one hand on my back. “Focus on me, listen to my voice.”

“You were incredibly lucky,” Evelyn hissed. She finally shoved a chair out from the kitchen table and slumped down, one hand on her walking stick.

“It’s not as if I grew tentacles for real,” I struggled past the haze of painkillers and the throbbing in my sides. “They were pneuma-somatic, spirit fl-”

“And I suppose your bruises aren’t for real either?” Evelyn snapped. “They don’t count. Good to know.”

“You know, they don’t look too bad really,” Raine said, as she peered at my bruises. “I’ve had worse myself.”

Raine had me sitting forward in one of the kitchen chairs, my tshirt and hoodie hiked up to expose my waist. She gently probed my quivering flanks with warm fingers, not on the bruises themselves, but on the unblemished flesh around them. She’d been careful to run her hands under hot water first. Despite everything, Raine’s touch helped.

“Raine, this is not external blunt impact trauma,” Evelyn all but spat. “She hasn’t come away from a bar brawl with a black eye. She’s modifying herself. How do you think Zheng got so tall? She didn’t start out at seven feet, I’ll guarantee you that.” She waved a hand at Praem, standing by the door to the magical workshop, dressed in her maid uniform once more. “The only reason Praem is so stable is because she’s made out of fucking wood. Are you made out of wood, Heather? Well? Are you?”

“Evee,” Raine sighed. “Come off-”

“No I will not calm down! You’re enabling her, Raine. How do you think you’ll feel if she breaks herself, and you encouraged her to do it? I told you to be careful, Heather. You’re a human being, not a demon. You’re more likely to break your own biochemistry, contract gangrene, screw up your hormone levels and give yourself a fucking brain aneurysm!” She swung her leg outward with a stomp, her prosthetic leg, and yanked her long skirt up in a fit of frustration, red in the face. She revealed the long stretch of naked black carbon fibre, and the rubber sheath which cradled the stump of her thigh, then gripped her own artificial knee. “You want this? You want something like this to happen to you?! Do you?!”

I blinked at her, shocked by the heat of her outrage. “E-Evee, I … ”

She glared at me, then broke off with a silent curse on her tongue, hurriedly covering her prosthetic again. “Yes, yes, none of us can imagine what happened to you. Of course.” Her voice dripped with sarcasm.

“Evee, I’m sorry,” I said, and felt a lump in my throat. “I’m sorry for making you worry about me.”

Evelyn jerked a shrug, wouldn’t look at me.

“Evee, uh,” Twil started from the doorway. “If it’s really that dangerous, then-”

“Oh, you can shut up as well,” Evelyn grumbled. “Just what we need, advice from a person who thinks she’s a dog. She’s not a fish, and you’re not a wolf.”

Twil rolled her eyes and let out an unexpected soft grumble as she refused to rise to Evelyn’s bait. “Why can’t you just, you know, admit that you care?”

Evelyn gave her a capital-L look, genuine hurt behind her anger. “This is caring. If you can’t deal with me- with that,” Evelyn hastily corrected herself with a guilty glance at Raine and I, “then … then … you can- … argh!” Evelyn waved a dismissive hand, out of words.

While Raine had driven me straight to the hospital, Evelyn and Praem had headed home, with Twil in distant, violent tow.

Evelyn and Twil were both still in the same clothes they’d worn to the meeting, with the exception of Twil’s lime green coat and white-cream hoodie, now draped over the back of a kitchen chair. The coat had been slashed open in three places and both garments were stained with blood – all Twil’s. Every now and then she flexed her right arm and rolled her shoulder, opened and closed the fingers of her right hand, working out the kinks left behind by her rapid healing. Not a mark remained on her bare skin now, but the real wound was deeper. Twil wore her heart on her sleeve.

“Hey, that’s not- that’s not what I meant,” Twil said, low and just as hurt. “Come on.”

They’d been alone together in the house for hours – save for Lozzie, asleep upstairs, and Kimberly, far too timid to get in their way. Whatever had happened between them in that time, the result was less than encouraging.

Raine settled my hoodie back down to hide my bruises again. “Evee,” she said softly. “How much danger is Heather really in?”

“I don’t know,” Evelyn said. “This isn’t exactly well-charted territory.”

“Nothing about this in any of your books?”

“Not that I know of. We could dig, maybe in the library.” Evelyn shrugged. “I doubt anybody has ever been stupid enough to try to grow tentacles before. Or they died before writing it down.”

“Then it’s an educated guess,” I said.

Evelyn’s eyes flashed at me again. “Are you so desperate to find an excuse to warp your own body?”

I swallowed, looked away, and with great difficulty, nodded.

“Heather?” Raine asked, one hand gently on my back again.

“I grew tentacles and it felt good.” I pulled a sad smile. “It felt right. And yes, for the record, I do realise how bonkers that sounds.”

“S’how it feels for me,” Twil put in, gingerly at first, then growing in confidence when Evelyn refrained from biting her head off. “When I transform, I mean.”

“You don’t transform,” Evelyn drawled. “You put on a suit.”

“You know what I mean,” Twil grumbled on. “It feels right. Like … I dunno … like eating, or putting on a warm pair of socks from the dryer or something. Or like, popping a limb back into place?”

“Growing a limb which should be there in the first place,” I murmured.

“S’not so different to what I do, right?” Twil continued. “I mean, I had teething pains too, hurt the fuck out of myself the first few times.”

“Your grandfather probably knew what he was doing when he made you,” said Evelyn. “Considerably more than we do. And you’re still a walking disaster.”

“ … oi, Evee, come on.”

“You act like a canine half the time.” She waved a hand at me. “Even if Heather manages to stabilise what she’s doing, without pulling her own digestive system out through her mouth, what is that going to do to her, hmm? What’s the end result? Squid-woman?”

“It felt right,” I repeated. Evelyn shot a look at me again, and I sighed and shrugged. “I’m not going to deny that. It was disgusting and weird but … right. I’m not going to be able to resist it again.”

“What was it like?” Raine asked, her tone one of genuine interest, not clinical investigation. “If you can describe it without thinking too hard.”

“Like … like tentacles. Slim, I suppose. No suckers or anything, just smooth. They strobed with light, like a fish from the sea floor. They were beautiful and- ahh!” I closed my eyes, bit down through the throb in my flanks. Almost time for another dose of painkillers.

The only part of my physical self I’d ever thought of as beautiful, and it wasn’t even real flesh.

“Yeah.” Raine grinned. “I can picture that, you’re beautiful all over. But what was it like?”

“Oh. Um … ” My heartstrings tugged with nostalgia for lost glory. I swallowed. “It just felt … right. I didn’t even have to think about how to move them, how to use them. It was like they’d always been there. I could have a dozen, a hundred, and instinct would have scaled up, I’m certain. It was like living in a wheelchair, and suddenly getting up and running. Feels like I could have done anything with them, no matter how complex, how hard.”

“Kinky.”

Evelyn put her face in one hand. “You can’t do this, Heather, you’re going to kill yourself.”

“I know.” I said, and felt tears threatening in my eyes.

“Heather?” Raine said my name.

“I know, I know, I just … it felt so good.” I sniffed, scrubbed at my eyes with the back of a wrist. “I want to feel that again, I … I don’t think I’m strong enough to resist again. If the moment calls for it, I know I’ll do it. I promised Maisie I wouldn’t go back into the abyss, but I-I … should have promised her I wouldn’t change myself.”

Raine got up and fetched a box of tissues, then helped me dry my eyes. I nodded my thanks. Evelyn looked away in second-hand embarrassment.

“Promise,” Praem intoned a moment later.

“Eh? I’m- I’m sorry?”

The doll-demon looked right at me, expressionless and blank. Why couldn’t I be more like her? Life as a piece of wood.

“She’s got the right idea,” Raine said with a grin. “Heather, make that promise to us then. Or to me, if it helps. Promise me you won’t hurt yourself.”

I averted my eyes, pulled a weak shrug. I couldn’t lie like that.

“Promise,” Praem intoned again.

“She takes promises serious, don’t she?” Twil mused, watching Praem. The doll-demon watched her back.

“We have to find a way to make it safe for you – isn’t that right, Evee?” Raine asked, but didn’t wait for an answer. Evelyn shrugged wide, exasperated. “And we will. There’s bound to be something, maybe something like what Twil’s got, maybe we can talk to her family. Maybe something in Evee’s books. Maybe Lozzie will know. Yeah? Heather? Hey, Heather, look at me.” She took my hands, and I did. “It’s gonna be okay, we’ll find a way. But for now – just for now – promise me you won’t do it again. In return, I’ll promise to do my best so you’re not in a situation where growing magic tentacles seems like a good plan, no matter how cool that sounds.” She cracked a grin. “And hey, they do sound kinda cool.”

I sniffed again, nodded. “You wouldn’t be able see them anyway.”

“Ya’ never know. Promise me, please?”

“Promise,” Praem repeated.

“Yeah,” Twil added. “Come on, don’t hurt yourself.”

“Self-harm is unhealthy,” Evelyn added, cleared her throat. Best I was going to get from her, under the circumstances.

With some difficulty, I nodded. Raine’s confidence helped, and her promise that we’d find a way. We did have plenty of avenues to explore – Twil’s family, books, Zheng, Lozzie, all with their own challenges. For a moment I glanced at the ceiling, thinking about Lozzie asleep upstairs.

“Promise?”

“Promise,” I whispered. “Sorry. You too, Evelyn. I’m sorry, I won’t … I don’t want to hurt myself. I’ve told you off for it before, so it’s only fair. Thank you.”

Evelyn shrugged, clearly uncomfortable.

“You gotta admit though,” Raine said. “The look on Stack’s face was pretty funny, ey?”

“Yeah.” Twil smiled wide. “Served her right. Wham! Right on her arse. Seriously thought you’d gotten like, mind powers.”

“I do have mind powers,” I said with a sigh.

“Yeah yeah, but you know what I mean. Like, super spooky mind powers.”

“Super spooky,” Praem intoned from over by the doorway. Twil jumped, Raine laughed, and I made fleeting eye-contact with the doll-demon. For some reason, she didn’t seem amused.

Evelyn finally allowed herself to relax a fraction. A slim, satisfied smile crossed her face. “Yes, quite. They never saw that coming. I don’t approve of the danger of the method, Heather, but on that account, well done. And thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” I managed, not comfortable with being the sudden centre of smug attention. “I only wish we hadn’t failed.”

“Mm,” Evelyn grunted. “Your methods won us something there, despite, well, everything else.”

The atmosphere in the room shifted. The immediate crisis of internal bleeding and phantom bruises gave way to the wider matter at hand.

“We gave better than we got, at least,” Raine said.

“Wait, what?” Twil asked. “But we didn’t get ‘im. Bastard got away.”

“Indeed,” said Evelyn. “Indeed he did. Why didn’t we just kill them all when we had a chance?”

==

After Edward-as-Julian had vanished into thin air, our little peace conference broke up in total chaos.

The bulk of my attention had been occupied by the searing pain in my sides and the struggle to retain consciousness, as Raine had helped me hobble to her car, parked around the front of the pub. As such, I was only aware of a small portion of what happened at the time.

Michael Hopton was demanding answers from Yuleson, who was left all a-flutter like a startled rabbit in the wake of his master’s disappearance. He stammered along as best he could, a staccato background to the rising swell of everyone suddenly talking at once. Amanda still stared at me, spellbound by what she’d seen me do. Her dog watched me like I was some unknown animal. Evelyn snatched the white handkerchief Edward had used off the table, and gestured to Praem. Nicole was on her feet, saying something so very standard about how we should all calm down. Even the math students at the other end of the pub garden could tell a fight was brewing. One of them was on his way over, raising his voice.

Twil had stood up and growled at Stack.

“I’m out,” Stack repeated once more, blank faced as she took a step back.

“You better start running, bitch!” said Twil.

Raine already had me five paces away from the mounting confusion when Twil vaulted the table. Stack dodged by the skin of her teeth. My goodness, but she was fast. Twil hit the ground in a roll and came up growling.

In my pain-addled state I had a horrible vision of the two of them, werewolf and trained assassin, laying into each other in the middle of a pub garden. Evelyn seemed to have the same fear, eyes wide and paralysed for a split-second, an order to Praem frozen on her lips.

But Amy Stack was too professional for that. She turned on her heel and sprinted away, round the side of the pub and out into the street.

Twil was so surprised it took her several heartbeats before she gave chase.

A moment later all we knew of them was the sound of running footsteps receding into the warren of houses beyond.

“She’ll kill her!” Nicole said, moving to go after them.

“I wouldn’t bother, detective,” Evelyn grumbled. Everyone else had fallen quiet in surprise, the sudden explosion of violence more than enough to end the chaos. The trio of curious math students were looking rather shocked. One of them shrugged, and another went back to her drink. In the corner of my eye I noticed that Twil’s parents both had oddly pained expressions on their faces.

“Which way ‘round?” Benjamin asked. “’Cos I know my cousin’ll win.”

“She- I- … alright, fair point, I don’t know,” Nicole said.

A still-functioning part of my mind almost laughed; this was the second time Twil had chased Stack through Sharrowford, and I didn’t expect her to do any better than previously.

“Twil will tear her apart,” Michael Hopton sighed, no relish in his voice, scant pride in his daughter.

“Exactly,” Nicole said. “Can’t you … ”

His look said it all. No, he could not stop her.

Yuleson managed at last to gather himself up, all his myriad papers stuffed back into his briefcase. The last thing I saw before Raine and I hobbled around the side of the pub was the little rat-like lawyer offering firm handshakes all around. He had few takers.

When we at last got home, Twil told us what we’d missed.

Exceeding all my estimations, shaming me for my lack of faith in my friend, she had caught Stack. In a back alleyway behind an Indian takeaway place, between Oldham Street and a row of shuttered light industrial plants, Stack had turned and fought.

“You’re kidding,” Raine had said. “With just a knife? Against you?”

“Yeah.” Twil cringed. From the unimpressed look on Evelyn’s face, I gathered Twil had been over this explanation once already, likely while stripping ruined and bloody clothing off her rapidly-healing arm.

Raine let out a low whistle, shaking her head. “That’s real skills.”

“Never even fuckin’ touched her,” Twil huffed.

Stack had turned and fought, against Twil gone half-wolf in the privacy of a dingy, dirty back alleyway. To hear Twil tell the tale, the fight had lasted only three or four seconds, and ended with Twil howling in transient pain, on her back in a splatter of her own blood. Stack had escaped, off into the city, untouched.

“That’s real knife skills,” Raine repeated. “Glad she quit on her boss so publicly, hey?”

“Yeah,” Twil grimaced. “No rematch.”

I almost didn’t believe it. I’d seen Twil fight zombies by pulling their heads off, wrench a steel chain apart with her bare hands, crack concrete with raw strength. If it wasn’t for Twil’s heartfelt earnest nature – and the blood all over her slashed-open clothes – I would have suspected her of lying, that she’d been caught in some clever trap too embarrassing to admit, or that she’d lost Stack entirely and invented her defeat to cover for failure.

All her strength and enthusiasm hadn’t meant so much, faced with trained skill.

By the time I’d gathered enough brainpower to ask the questions, Raine was helping me to the table to check on my bruises, and Evelyn had started shouting.

==

Why didn’t we just kill them all, indeed?

“Because Edward Lilburne wasn’t really there,” I answered Evelyn’s question. “Because killing a nasty old lawyer wouldn’t have achieved anything useful.”

The instrument of our deception lay in the middle of the kitchen table, a broken square, the fabric torn down the middle to disarm any further magic – the white handkerchief which Edward-as-Julian had produced from his suit pocket.

Upon closer inspection at home, Evelyn had discovered a magic circle stitched into the fabric in white-on-white. Obvious when one looked, but very hard to distinguish during a rushed moment in a pub garden. A faint hand-print remained inside the circle itself, as if the outer layer of Edward-as-Julian’s skin had been left behind in whatever process had allowed him to dismiss his remote mouthpiece.

Our own trap – the rabbit corpse stuffed in a sports bag – was safely contained in the basement. It would keep some weeks, apparently. A nuclear option, just in case.

“Would have made me feel better,” said Evelyn.

“Yeah.” Raine grinned. “Wish we could have stayed and given him a good kicking.”

“What?” Twil frowned. “The lawyer? Beat up an old man?”

“You seemed pretty into the idea of smacking him one.”

“Yeah, yeah, but like … he didn’t really matter in the end, did he?”

Evelyn waved a dismissive hand. “What about Stack? We should have killed her, taken her off the board. Should have pulled the bloody trigger and have done with her. Not for want of trying, I suppose.”

“Yeah yeah, rub it in, why don’t you?” said Twil.

“She is off the board,” Raine said. “Far as we know.”

“Still should have gotten rid of her,” Evelyn grunted. “Can’t be certain.”

“World’s full of evil people, Evee. We’re not responsible for all of them,” said Raine. From Evelyn’s pursed lips and silent nod, I got the impression this was a discussion they’d had before.

I let out a huge sigh, arms wrapped around myself, rubbing gingerly at my bruised sides. “We all screwed up.”

Deep down inside, past the exhaustion and the shadow of pain, I was glad we hadn’t killed anybody – even Stack.

Intellectually I knew I was right; without Edward Lilburne present, there was no point in springing a trap. The head of the snake would slink off to hide and heal, to prepare for revenge. Leaving them alive but filled with doubt made far more sense. Peel Stack away from her employer. If Julian had been real, perhaps we could have worked on him too. The real Julian was out there, so perhaps we still could.

But that wasn’t what I’d felt when I’d grown those beautiful, shining tentacles.

I’d been intoxicated by the power and beauty of them. By the ability to defend what mattered to me. If I’d lasted longer I would have strangled Stack to death, at the very least. Would I have beaten Amanda Hopton’s dog for growling at me? Pulled apart the Hopton’s bubble-servitor?

I’d have given in to that abyssal ruthlessness, and where would that end?

Maisie needed rescuing, but she also needed me; it would not serve either of us if I turned into a monster.

“Heather, hey, we didn’t screw up,” Raine said. “Not like that.”

“Zheng told me-” I started, swallowed, and came as close as I could to expressing what I really felt. “Zheng told me to eat them first, before they eat me. At first I thought she meant don’t bluff, don’t take the bait, just … kill them. Embrace what you are, she said. Then I thought she meant the tentacles, maybe, but maybe I was wrong.”

“Cryptic bullshit,” Evelyn grunted. “Wonderfully clear advice, yes.”

“Yeah, we can hardly take advice from that thing,” said Twil.

“Look, at least we put in our demands,” Raine said, cracking a smile and looking around at everyone. “We can’t find the bastard, so that was the next best move. We made our point, loud and clear.”

“And what exactly was our point?” Evelyn asked, a bite to her voice. “That we’re too collectively stupid to see through such an obvious trick? That we’re too cowardly to do what needed to be done?” She turned away, her gaze focused inward. “What the hell do I do now?”

“Wait for his answer?” Twil suggested, and earned herself a glare from Evelyn.

“It’s alright for you, isn’t it?” said Evelyn. “You can run off back to your mummy and daddy-”

“Hey!” Twil bristled, but at the same time, her face fell. Evelyn stopped short, cleared her throat, and took a different course.

“Edward Lilburne will come back at us, I know he will. We’ve got something he wants.” Evelyn pointed at the ceiling, and I knew she meant Lozzie. “Not to mention Sharrowford itself. No, we need something on him, we need to find the bastard and … ” Evelyn grit her teeth and got out of her chair, clacking her walking stick against the kitchen floor. She walked three paces with sudden purpose, then stopped and turned as if lost.

“We could put the squeeze on Yuleson,” Raine suggested. “He’s a figure of public record and all that, takes clients, not like he’s hiding.”

“Don’t be an idiot,” Evelyn hissed. “Even you know threatening a lawyer is an astoundingly bad idea. Even with magic; especially with magic. You want to get arrested?”

“Maybe we don’t do it with magic,” Raine said.

“Oh for pity’s sake, you-”

I retreated into myself, closed my eyes, hugged my aching sides through the warmth and softness of my pink hoodie. Raine and Evelyn talked past each other, Twil made impotent suggestions, Praem stood like a statue but I imagined I could feel her slow thoughts. Outdoors, the sun was going down, letting the shadows creep over the garden and Tenny’s cocoon in the tree. I imagined I could feel that too, a vast pneuma-somatic heartbeat. Maybe she would understand how I felt.

“Heather?”

We had too many issues to address to make ourselves safe – Edward Lilburne’s next move and the problem of Glasswick tower, Lozzie’s slow deterioration and our inability to get Outside, the Eye’s squid-thing still languishing in Evelyn’s workshop and the giant zombie running wild across the countryside. I was on a time limit, Maisie was on a time limit, and I could barely make my own hard-won chosen family safe, or keep us on track.

The tentacles, the echo of the body I’d brought back from the abyss, it gave me strength. To defend me and mine? To make us secure so I could focus on my sister?

A poor justification, but tempting.

“Heather? Hey, earth to space cadet H? Come in, this is Sharrowford calling.”

I ran my fingers over my own ribs, pressed as close to the bruises as I could stand. Winced. Pain, a source of clarity.

“Heather?”

“I’m listening,” I lied, and opened my eyes to find the others all looking at me in various states of amusement and concern. The argument had faded without resolution. Evelyn looked like she’d been sucking a lemon.

“No you’re not,” Raine chuckled. She reached over and ruffled my hair. “But that’s okay. You need some sleep.”

“I need to find Zheng,” I said.

“Yes, yes you bloody well do,” Evelyn grumbled. “She might give us an edge, if you can control her.”

I shook my head. Not what I’d meant, not at all. “I think she might know how to make it safe.”

“Safe?” Evelyn frowned.

“Ahhhh,” Raine let a smirk creep onto her face. “Not the only reason though, eh?”

“It was, um … I just had a gut-feeling when I went to talk to her, it’s hard to explain, but I think she might understand these things. Might know how to … ” I gestured at my sides, at the hidden bruises. “Maybe. Maybe then I could … grow them for real, I-”

“For pity’s sake,” Evelyn hissed through her teeth. She turned and stomped off, almost limping, past Praem and into her workshop. She tried to bang the door behind her, but Twil crossed the room in a quick bound and caught it before it slammed shut.

“Evee?” She slipped in after Evelyn.

A torrent of muttered abuse flowed back into the kitchen – I didn’t hear full sentences, but I got the jist of it well enough.

“-not taking this seriously- -more concerned with turning herself into a fish- -going to fucking kill herself-”

I winced inside, wished I could curl up into a ball and vanish.

Evelyn was right; we’d solved nothing. I still couldn’t get Outside, and Lozzie continued to deteriorate. We couldn’t begin to enact the plan to save my sister, not if we couldn’t get to Carcosa to plunder it for knowledge, or ask Lozzie about her mysterious knight that had saved us from the Eye.

“She doesn’t mean half of that,” Raine said softly, stroking my hair. Sometimes I felt like she was the only thing keeping me here. “Evee’d never admit it, but she’s scared of this. This Edward guy.”

“Are you?”

“What, scared?” Raine cracked a grin. “Nah. I think he’s gonna fold.”

“I have to find Zheng,” I repeated, and tried not to feel guilty.

I had to get myself in order if I was going to rescue my sister. Had to keep everyone together, remove distractions, carry out the plan. Had to rely on my friends? That’s what Maisie had said. Her advice still shone clear and plain.

Was Zheng a friend? Yes.

I had a problem, and a friend who could help. I chose, in that moment, to trust my sister’s advice.

Or at least that’s how I justified the desire.

“You wanna jump her bones?” Raine asked. I frowned at her, a blush in my cheeks.

“It’s not- not like that. N-not entirely, anyway … oh.” I let out a huge breath. “You’re joking. A joke. Right, yes.”

“Not entirely,” Raine said, but her voice told the opposite. “Tell me how she made you feel.”

The way Raine slipped the question in, right after making me almost laugh past the pain in my sides, was nothing short of professional grace. No guile, no trick, just open curiosity. If she’d cornered me in our bedroom and said ‘we need to talk’, or ‘can I ask about Zheng’, or suchlike, I would have frozen up inside, tried to evade the guilt and her scrutiny together. Instead, she found the one way to unlock the truth.

“The … the me I brought back from the abyss, I felt right to be near her,” I said. “Like a kindred spirit, one of my own, a person like me. Which makes no sense, because obviously we’re nothing alike. Not even the same species.” I sighed heavily. “Raine, I don’t think I’m human anymore. Not really.”

“Who cares about that?”

“Who … Raine, excuse me?”

“Who cares if you’re human? You’re still you. Heather Morell, Time Lord.”

I laughed ever so slightly, then winced and let out a ‘mmm!’ as a spike of pain travelled up my sides. Raine rubbed the back of my neck, trying to distract me. “Thank you,” I said. “I think.”

“So what’s the plan with Zheng? You wanna organise a threesome?”

Raine,” I spluttered.

“Hey, had to ask,” she said, and couldn’t hold back a grin.

“I’m-” I glanced over at the door to Evelyn’s magical workshop. Soft murmurs came from within, Evelyn and Twil still talking. I lowered my voice, mortified by the subject matter. “I’m not going to cheat on you, Raine. I couldn’t do that to you. Never.”

“Cheating doesn’t come into it. You need what you need, can’t help that.”

I blinked at her, didn’t understand – didn’t want to understand. “Raine? What does that mean?”

“Means I don’t blame you. Means I’m not scared you’re going to be unfaithful, Heather. That’s not who you are, I know that.”

“Oh. Um, fair enough, I suppose. Thank you. The same goes for you.”

“So, what’s the plan with Zheng?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. Find her, convince her to come back to the house? Talk to her about … why I felt like that around her? Yes, just unpick the emotions of a centuries-old demon living in the body of a Greek goddess. So simple. Oh, blast it all, I sound like Evelyn.”

“Gotta find her first,” Raine mused.

“Exactly, and how do we do that?”

“Lay out the right sort of bait.”

“Such as?”

“You, maybe.” She winked. “Let me think on this overnight, Heather. Let me try to get into Zheng’s head.”

Perhaps tracking live game across the countryside was indeed more Raine’s speciality than mine.

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