“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.
“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.”
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?”
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.
“ … 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.
“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-”
“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.”
“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.
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.
“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.”
“Tenny,” I said. “Those were Tenny’s tentacles.”
“Sick o’ stickin’ my face into dead animals,” Twil grumbled.