The spell was cast, the impossible hole in the ground had closed, and reality had reasserted itself; the damage to Edward Lilburne’s defences had already been done. Even if we had been able to watch the metaphorical trebuchet payload-boulder batter down the equally metaphorical wall, it was too late: Evelyn had assured us that any effect would be instant, magic did not respect the human perception of time. There simply was no firework explosion for us to appreciate, no matter that we might have enjoyed a bit of pyrotechnic release after the unbearable tension of the last few hours and days. Stopping us now would make no difference. Edward’s only rational move was to limit our ability to exploit the opening we had created — or run away. Hence Evelyn’s plan to get back inside and await his inevitable answer, or the lack of one.
Whatever instructions animated the blur of canine muscle and slavering teeth did not care about that. The hound-shape shot directly at Kimberly, flying across the fresh-cut grass and the bare-mud grooves of the magic circle, a dark and glinting shadow in the clean sunlight.
Or maybe it was a terror weapon. Maybe cruelty was the point.
The hound-thing was swift and sharp. Zheng was faster, but the intruder had already broken through the outer cordon, the line meant to defend the mages in the centre; it had bounded from the tree line, ducked the fence, zipped past Twil, and zigzagged the pursuing bubble-servitors.
Everybody was moving but nobody was close enough. It all happened so quickly, only a second or two from sighting to impact.
I clung to Zheng’s back as she sprinted toward the mages, wrapped in tentacles and vibrating with the need to act; Twil was up on all fours, all wolf, hot on the heels of the unidentifiable nightmare-hound; on the opposite side of the circle Sevens had dropped Aym and seemed to stride forward several meters for every measured step; bubble-servitors peeled off Amanda Hopton, their protective role fulfilled, streaming toward the centre of the circle like soap suds swirling down a drain; over by the farmhouse a knot of armed humans was spilling into the field — Raine, Benjamin with his hunting shotgun, the young Church member Katey pulling out a revolver.
The bubble-servitors swirled toward the mages, moving to cut them off from the hound. Canine muscle pumped and kicked, outpacing them by inches. As if designed specifically for this one task.
Kim stood in the dead centre of the field, a red exclamation mark of success; stark naked, shivering, clutching herself, coated in a rapidly drying layer of sticky crimson animal blood, hair plastered to her neck with gore, eyes a shocking round wide in that bloody smear. The hound-thing was so fast that she didn’t have time to scream before it was all over, caught in the intake of breath and the widening of blood-rimmed eyes. Felicity was next to her, already turning, wrenching down her own sleeve to expose her tattoos in magical desperation. Evelyn was still stunned, reacting too slowly, her withered leg buckling with effort even as her prosthetic held firm.
Zheng veered, going for the hound instead of Kim.
Her whiplash motion clacked my teeth together inside my skull and pulled my body weight against the harness of my tentacles. She had realised she wasn’t going to reach Kim in time — fast enough to pull the hound off her, but not fast enough to prevent it bowling her over and ripping her throat out.
I had a split-second to act, maybe less. Pushing myself up on Zheng’s shoulders, bunching my tentacles like an octopus in a strong current, hissing incoherent noise at the top of my lungs: I had no idea what I was doing, but I used Zheng’s momentum and my pneuma-somatic muscle mass to turn myself into a kinetic sabot — a term that Raine had to explain to me later. Ready to spring, to leap, to knock the unknown creature sideways, hopefully into the unkind embrace of a waiting bubble-servitor.
It was stupid, dangerous, and probably wasn’t going to work. But I could have done nothing else. We had failed in a way I could not countenance. Failed to protect Kimberly, the one person who wanted nothing more than to stop putting herself in harm’s way, stop involving herself with magic, stop living with the threat of supernatural death hanging over her.
Even as I readied the spring, coiled up my tentacles, and opened the valves of my bioreactor, I could see my leap would not land quickly enough. The hound was too fast. We were one step too slow.
Kimberly’s mouth opened in a scream. The hound-shape lunged for her throat.
Evelyn had accounted for this possibility. She had accounted for every possibility, every mistake, every vulnerability. My general, my genius.
Praem stepped away from Evee’s side and in front of Kimberly in one fluid motion, the black edges of her maid dress cutting the air like a bouquet of knives. Straight-backed, prim and proper, she didn’t even bother to brace her feet. Praem had been included in the centre of the circle, but not for Evelyn’s comfort and convenience; she had been included because she was the best bodyguard a mage could ever ask for.
Praem caught the hound’s jaws on her forearm. Canine teeth cut through three layers of maid uniform fabric, sliced open one layer of pneuma-somatic flesh, and stopped hard in wooden bones.
The creature slammed to a sudden scrambling halt, fur-less muscles twitching, metal braces glinting, lean paws lashing.
Maybe it had been a dog once, but nobody had time to think about that just then.
Praem grabbed the creature’s snout so hard that I heard bones fracture, a snap-crack-crackle of gut-wrenching breaks. It whined and squealed and tried to loosen its bite to let go of her arm, but she had it now.
Everything around Praem and the hound was chaos: Kimberly was screaming as Felicity dragged her away; Evelyn was up on her feet and shouting directions to somebody; Sevens appeared and bizarrely enough decided to open her lilac umbrella in front of Evee. Raine was sprinting across the field. Twil was skidding to a halt just shy of Praem.
The doll-demon leaned in close to the hound, staring at the two patches of smooth flesh where the hound’s eyes should have been.
“Bad dog,” she said.
Then I slammed into the dog in a squirming mass of tentacles, ruining Praem’s graceful victory and her one-liner. I’d been so panicked and so pumped full of adrenaline that I hadn’t been able to abort my springing motion, not without kicking Zheng in the face and probably eating a mouthful of field.
I dragged the dog-thing to the ground in a tangle of strobing tentacles, gnashing teeth, scraping claws, and clods of mud going everywhere. Praem let go the moment I made contact, which is how she managed to stay perfectly on her feet.
There was nothing heroic or even sensible about my late intervention. I was actually far less capable of dealing with a spooky mutant dog than Praem was. But between the initial tussle with the Shambler in Edward’s cottage, and springing up to Kimberly’s bedroom window when Aym first arrived at our home, I had gotten far too familiar with using my tentacles to hurl myself at things. It was a terrible habit and was going to get me in trouble sooner or later.
I needed to take lessons from Raine — when to leap and when to look.
The hound and I rolled, but it ended up on top; I had neither the body weight nor the experience for this kind of grappling on the ground. I twisted one knee in a groove of the circle, banged my head on the thankfully soft dirt, and ended up eating that mouthful of field which I’d been trying to avoid in the first place. The hound-thing then attempted to eat a mouthful of Heather, which I would not recommend unless one’s name is Raine.
Snapping jaws like an animatronic big bad wolf, inches from my face. Eyeless and noseless and smooth, robbed of all mundane senses. Slavering and dripping and hurling itself at my nest of tentacles. I pushed and slapped and slammed it in the head with tentacle-tips, hissing and kicking. I was too far off my head on instinct and adrenaline to take the sensible option and just brain-math the beast over to Camelot, so a Knight could run it through with a lance.
Twil and Zheng pulled the thing off me in the end. It did not get a free sample of raw squid. Zheng broke its spine over her knee, then held it down while Raine put a bullet through the skull. It was not a pretty end.
“Defence in depth, bitch!” was Twil’s idea of a victory cry.
Panting, filthy, shocked beyond words; Kim was still naked though Felicity had whipped off her own coat and draped it over Kim’s blood-soaked shoulders; Praem’s sleeve was delicately shredded, but she didn’t bleed; Raine had her gun out, sticking close to my side, saying nothing and watching the tree line; the bubble-servitors, Hringewindla’s angels, had come down in a triple-layered wall around us, as if embarrassed by their failure to stop the speeding intrusion.
“Stop standing around!” Evelyn shouted, her voice raw and croaky, blood on her lips. “This changes nothing! Inside, now!” She jabbed her walking stick at the bleeding, twitching corpse of the unnatural hound-construct. “And bring that inside. Tarpaulin, sheets, old t-shirts, I don’t care what, get it indoors and on the kitchen tiles. Now! Move!”
“What the hell are we even looking at?” asked Katey. “It doesn’t look real.”
The stocky Church bodyguard had untied and retied her dirty blonde ponytail five times in the last ten minutes, pulling a face like she was examining a sculpture made of poo. She had also shed her baggy hoodie and dumped several weapons on the kitchen sideboard — two knives, a massive shiny revolver that was probably one of the most illegal things I’d ever seen, and an actual sword. The sword looked more like a prop piece from a movie about ancient Rome, but I wasn’t about to go over and pull the stubby thing out of its black leather scabbard to find out. I wasn’t that curious.
“Halloween dog?” suggested Nicole Webb. The detective was squatting down on her haunches, examining the corpse with incautious curiosity. She used a pen to poke and lever at various parts of the anatomy. “Whatever this is, it’s not biologically possible. Poor thing should have been stumbling around, blind and deaf.”
“‘Poor thing’,” Katey said with a tut. “It nearly took poor Heather’s face off. We’d never live that down.”
I cleared my throat, feeling awkward. “I could have just sent it elsewhere. I really should have. I wasn’t thinking.”
Apparently that was the wrong thing to say. The Church bodyguard, Katey, a woman who looked like she could eat nails for breakfast and then me for afters, looked at me with an expression of barely concealed awestruck terror.
“You mean you really do that? Twil said, but … ”
“She reeeeeally can,” Twil said, shooting us both a wink. “Scary, huh?”
I pulled an awkward smile.
“This isn’t a dog,” Nicole repeated. “I refuse to believe this is a dog.”
Evelyn sighed for the fiftieth time in the last hour — she was in the dining room, with the nice big fireplace and the sun streaming through the back windows, but we could hear her all the way over in the kitchen.
She called out. “Stop trying to classify it by mundane standards, detective. You’re only going to hurt your brain.”
Nicole snorted a little huff and shook her head. She muttered under her breath, “Impossible bullshit. I hate everything about this. It’s not a dog.”
“Maybe it started as a dog,” Katey said. She glanced at me again, near the rear of the kitchen, as if I would know. I smiled awkwardly and shrugged back. “Dog but modded. Mod dog. Yeah.” She swallowed, nodding to herself, then glanced out of the kitchen window, craning her neck. “Yeah, that makes more sense. I can live with that. Cool.”
Twil said, “That’s not dog. It’s imitation.”
Twil wore a barely suppressed grin, a bulging of the lips that told me she was desperately trying not to laugh. She was lounging by the fridge, eating scraps of meat from a packet of jerky. I didn’t know how she could stand to eat in the same room as something freshly dead and horribly wrinkled, too much like her own snack food.
Katey turned around slowly and gave Twil a look of deep, blaze-eyed disbelief. “Don’t fucking quote a line from The Thing. Don’t go all Thing on me, Twil. Not when we’re locked in a fucking building together with … with that.” She pointed at the corpse on the kitchen floor. “Fuck you. Fuck you sideways for that one. Fuck.”
Twil, absolutely straight faced, said, “I think we can safely assume it’s not a zombie.”
Katey looked like she wanted to hold Twil’s face down in a toilet bowl. I assumed that line was another quote from a spooky movie that Katey didn’t want to think about right now, locked in with a gruesome corpse and expecting a siege.
“If I stab you,” she said to Twil, “it doesn’t kill you. It just hurts like a bitch. Remember that.”
Twil grinned and threw another piece of jerky into her own mouth, chewing loudly. “Try that and I’ll give you an atomic wedgie.”
“Girls,” came Christine Hopton’s voice, also from the dining room, edged with strict warning. “Stop, please.”
Twil chewed through her grin. Katey shook her head, then returned to staring out of the window.
“Pay attention,” Evelyn called from the dining room. “Watch the windows. Stop getting distracted. Detective, if you want to be useful, stop poking at the body and watch the tree line.”
Nicole Webb blew out a big sigh, stood up from her crouch, and then frowned at the end of the pen she’d been using to interfere with the corpse. “Don’t really want to put this back in my pocket.” She turned with a half-hearted grin and offered it to me, Twil, and Katey. “Anyone fancy a pen. Lightly soiled. Never used.”
“Burn it,” Katey said.
The corpse of the hound-thing lay spread out on the Hoptons’ kitchen floor. Michael and Mister George had located some old blue tarpaulin, then some slightly newer green tarpaulin, then put down a couple of animal blankets for good measure. Only then had Zheng been allowed to dump the steaming body onto the makeshift containment. They needn’t have bothered: despite the gaping head-shot and fist-sized exit wound from Raine’s bullet, the dog-construct had barely bled at all, as if its veins were filled with dust and scabs. A little watery red fluid had leaked onto the grass in the field and the tarmac out front, but there was only a tiny puddle of pale plasma and brain matter sitting on the tarpaulin.
It also had no smell, which was creepy in a way I couldn’t put my finger on.
The nightmare hound was all too familiar — an amalgamation of disparate parts pressed into a canine shape. In a way, Twil was correct, it was not really dog at all. Parts of it were lizard, grey-green and shedding old skin. Other parts were thick hide, like a herd animal, a buffalo or a bison. The legs looked bird-like, spindly, but wrapped with metal braces and supporting struts, all well-oiled and greased. It had no eyes, no nostrils, and no ears, just a smooth expanse of hairless skull. The jaw looked as if it had come from a miniature crocodile. It was attached with metal hinges. The teeth were stainless steel.
Raine and I had taken one look at the thing and both agreed we’d seen one before.
“What? Where?” Evelyn had demanded, during those first few frantic minutes back indoors. “I need to know, right now. Where did it come from?”
“The looping corridor trap,” Raine said. “In Willow House. Remember that? When the Sharrowford Cult set a trap for you, but Heather and I blundered into it?” Raine patted her thigh. “I’ve still got a little scar from the bite. Praem, we’re scar buddies now.”
“I do not scar,” said Praem. She had already rolled up her ruined sleeve and washed out the odd, bloodless wounds.
Evelyn blinked, eyes far away for a moment. “That was last year. We’ve not seen anything like this since then. Not even in the Cult’s castle.”
“Edward special, then,” Michael Hopton suggested. “His own private style?”
“Right on, dad,” said Twil. I realised how alike she and her father really were.
Raine nodded down at the hound-thing. “They had a couple o’ dozen like that. Along with Zheng.” Raine raised her voice, calling out of the kitchen to Zheng, who was lurking by the front door, watching the bubble-servitors surround the house in protective layers. “Hey, left hand? Come look, yeah?”
Zheng stalked in a moment later. Raine pointed at the corpse. “Remember these, right?”
“Mm. When we duelled.”
“Hardly a duel. You had a lot of help. You know where they came from, back then?”
“Puppets for a mage,” Zheng rumbled. She didn’t even look at the corpse; her eyes were glued on any window she could find, watching the tree line beyond. I found it deeply reassuring, especially since I was still buzzing with adrenaline and covered in smears of mud.
“Eddy makes them?” Raine asked.
Zheng shrugged. “He brought them to the plan. They are his. That one is dead.”
“You don’t fuckin’ say,” added Twil, with a big, fake laugh — she was on edge. I had the sense she was faintly embarrassed that the hound had slipped past her earlier. Now she was covering for that with big laughs, back-slapping, and wind-up jokes.
“Like I said,” her father added. “An Edward special.”
Evelyn had spent a little while considering and investigating the dead hound. She had even forced herself to crouch down and look closer so she could sketch the thing, though the position put pressure on her hips and made her wince. I didn’t like that. Casting the spell had taken a lot out of her and she wasn’t even trying to pretend otherwise, or slow down; Praem had to help her with every step, help her stand up straight. She kept coughing blood, but thankfully that trailed off.
“At first I thought it might be an organic response to what we did with that spell,” she said. “Nothing to do with Edward at all. But it’s not; it does belong to him. Which is better, actually, much better.”
“How’d it get here so fast?” Michael asked.
“It didn’t, it must have already been on the way. Perhaps he already knew about us casting the spell,” Evelyn mused, a dark frown on her brow. “But that should be impossible.”
“Traitor in our midst?” Raine asked with a laugh, but nobody took that seriously.
“Is this it then?” Twil asked. Everyone in earshot had gone quiet at that, to hear Evelyn’s response. “Is this his return fire? We done?”
“Far from it,” Evelyn replied. “This is a scout, at best. Stick to the plan. We bunker down. Everybody to your places. Eyes on the windows.”
We’d been bunkered down inside Geerswin farmhouse for nearly an hour, behind locked and bolted and barred doors — literally, in one case. Michael Hopton had broken out an antiquated-looking steel bar, taller than Zheng, which fitted into a pair of covertly placed brackets either side of the mostly-glass back doors onto the patio.
“Bit much, innit dad?” Twil had said.
“No chances, love,” was his answer. “We all saw how fast that dog moved. No sense in being sorry later.”
Evelyn had instructed us that nobody was to set foot outside, no window was to be opened by even a crack, and no door left untended. The first few minutes of our retreat indoors had been a mayhem of to-ing and fro-ing as we’d all piled in with Zheng carrying the corpse. Praem helped Evelyn, who was still coughing up clots of blood. Felicity too, staggering along under her own power and spitting into a handkerchief, even as she helped Kimberly and herded her in through the front door. The bubble-servitors had followed us to the walls of the house, contracting in a fortified ring and leaving the rest of the farm bare — though I was relieved to see three angels squatting on top of the brick-and-sheet-metal stables, to look out for the sheep and alpaca.
Felicity and Christine had worked together to take Kimberly upstairs without getting blood all over the carpets. Poor Kim was shivering, teeth chattering, eyes wild with adrenaline and fear. We could all hear water splashing into a bathtub upstairs; Lozzie was on the case already. Nicole had politely watched them go, and not with the expression of a woman who was trying to catch a glance of the naked body of somebody she fancied.
After the initial confusion, the hurrying back and forth along the corridors, the triple-checking of windows, the stowing of weapons, and the sight of Praem forcing Evelyn to sit down and drink a glass of water, the house slowly settled into an expectant waiting.
There were a few tasks to take care of — double-checking the magic circle wards which Evee had placed before all of the doors into the house; getting myself cleaned up, the mud wiped off my face and my hoodie; making sure that everybody had their modified pneuma-somatic seeing glasses ready.
Of course we checked the corpse of the dog, but that was really the only distraction. Most of “this here motley crew” — as Raine put it — took up the process of wandering from window to window in a slow circuit of the house. All eyes stayed on the tree line, the driveway, the shadows at the edge of the forest. Glances were shared in passing. One or another person would stop before a window — Raine here, Michael Hopton there, Zheng looming large against the front door — outlined by the crisp, sharp sunlight, dark silhouettes, watching.
Once Evee was settled and no longer coughing up blood, Praem set about making tea and passing out mugs. A scrap of domestic comfort went a long way.
“It really does feel a bit like a castle under siege,” I murmured to Raine.
We were standing together in the little sitting room off the right side of the main spinal corridor. She was leaning against the corner of the bookcase and looking through the mostly-glass door in the side of the house, so she could watch the driveway and a sliver of road beyond.
“That’s exactly what it is,” she said, then flashed a grin without looking at me. “Enjoying it much?”
“Not really,” I sighed. “Castles should be more picturesque than this.”
Raine pulled a comedy wince. “Don’t let Twil’s mum hear you say that. She’s pretty house-proud, I think.” Her expression shifted as she pulled her attention away from the driveway and looked at me. A twinkle glinted in the depths of those rich brown eyes, warm and soft. “That was real brave of you out there, Heather.”
I sighed and blushed, dropping my voice. “Really stupid, more like. Please don’t flatter me, Raine. It wasn’t needed. I should have let Praem deal with it. I don’t have to be everybody’s angel all of time.”
“You’re my angel one hundred percent of the time.” She winked, then leaned forward quickly and planted a kiss on my forehead, running a hand through my hair.
“Raine!” I squeaked, blushing far too hard. “I’m still dirty from rolling around outdoors!” I sighed and tried to smooth my hair down; I needed a bath too. “I just … I felt such a sense of responsibility to Kim. We all have a responsibility to her. She didn’t have to volunteer for this. And she’s got work on Monday morning, just like usual. Going from this to back to normal, it’s hard. Maybe impossible.”
Raine’s smile turned deeply warm, as if she saw something in my eyes that I wasn’t aware of. “You’re right, Heather. We do have a responsibility to her. Good call.”
I sighed again and leaned my forehead against Raine’s arm for a moment. “I think I’ll go see her and say thank you.”
“Bet she’d love that. Kim trusts you a lot, you know?”
“Are you being serious?”
“Hundred percent. Always. You know me.”
“Do you think she’s out of the bathroom yet?” I glanced up at the ceiling, as if I could somehow see through brick and plaster and paint and tell if Kimberly was decent yet.
“Don’t hear anybody moving around again or refilling the tub, which means she’s either done, or she’s fallen asleep in the water. Fliss should be on hand to stop that though.”
I frowned at Raine as an unspeakable thought ghosted through my mind. “You don’t think Felicity was … well, because Kimberly was naked, in the bath, and … ”
Raine shook her head emphatically. “Nah. I went up to check. Fliss was on guard outside the bathroom door. We got enough shit to worry about without something like that happening. Fliss is weird as hell but she’s not that.”
I blew out a slightly embarrassed breath. “Okay, fair enough, I’m sorry.”
“Hey, no need to apologise. You’re looking out for everybody. It’s good.”
My initial question was a fair one: it had obviously taken quite a lot of effort for Kim to wash off all that blood. We’d heard the bathtub fill and empty three times over, interspersed with a lot of creaking floorboards, the sound of somebody moving about, and two long periods of water glugging through the pipes to feed the shower. Kimberly had been coated head to toe in bull’s blood; I was surprised she hadn’t asked to be scoured down with steel wool.
Despite seeing the Hopton’s home quite extensively once before, both in nightmarish parody and by the light of day, I had never actually mounted the narrow, carpeted stairs up to the second floor. So out I went, past the tasteful paintings of alpine views, past Katey watching another window and exchanging some quiet words with Amanda Hopton, past Zheng lurking just inside the front door — where I paused to touch her hand, and she responded by ruffling my hair — and up the stairs I went.
The upper floor of Geerswin farmhouse was much the same as the first floor: unreconstructed, untouched by the cruel hand of modern interior design, never remodelled. Bare beams, old plaster, even some exposed water pipes for the radiators fed by the massive exposed wood boiler downstairs. I approved deeply. The only downside was that the corridor was kinked, cramped, and a bit low; not a problem for somebody of my height, but I did wonder if Michael Hopton ever bumped his head on his own bedroom door frame.
My tentacles instantly attached themselves to the walls and ceiling, eager to pull me along like a squid in a tube. I resisted the urge, as I didn’t want poor Kimberly or perhaps Felicity to step out of a room and see me hurling down the corridor. They’d both had trials enough for one day.
The corridor formed a stubby little T-junction in the top of the house, cradling several bedrooms and one surprisingly large bathroom. I poked my head inside the open door of the bathroom and spent a moment admiring the absolutely gigantic claw-footed tub. It looked about eighty years old and could have easily contained Zheng, Raine, and me all at once. I banished that thought; now was not the time, Heather. Not the time, sadly.
The air in the bathroom still held a little steamy heat. The mirror was still fogged. A cluster of bathroom cleaning products sat at one end of the room, the kind of bottles which usually lived under a sink, like I had witnessed the rare emergence of a cave-dwelling species. Somebody had dutifully cleaned the bath itself, leaving behind no trace of blood.
Felicity’s coat sat in a bucket of cold water, to wash out the worst of the bloodstains, looking rather sad and wet.
To locate the others, I simply followed the sound of video games.
I found Sevens first, standing at the window at one end of the T-junction. It afforded her a perfect vantage point across the back fields, one of which was scarred and scored with the mud-runnels of the magic circle we had carved earlier. The canvas still lay in the middle, covered in blood, inert now.
Seven-Shades-of-Suitable-Sentry did not glance back over her shoulder as I approached. Low voices and the sounds of controller buttons came from the other end of the corridor, but I chose to go to her first.
“Sevens,” I said, stopping next to her.
The Princess Mask, so starched and straight-backed, umbrella rolled up and held like a prop walking stick in one hand, granted me a sideways shift of unreadable eyes. “Kitten.”
I sighed, but with a smile. “If I’m a kitten, what does that make you?”
“Hardly!” I laughed. “Where’s Aym gotten to? I must admit I’m slightly nervous about her running around unattended again.”
“She has gone to inspect the woods.”
“Oh.” I bit my lip. “Evee did say we should all stay indoors.”
“Aym’s unique nature allows her to inspect the woods while remaining indoors.” Sevens answered by talking to the window, not to me.
“So she’s not here, not right now, not really?”
Seven-Shades-of-Spiky-Standoff shot me another inching sideways look. For some reason my shoulder blades itched. I crept tentacles behind me and behind Sevens, like an early warning system, in case Aym was about to sneak up on us and go ‘boo!’
“Why do you ask that specific question, kitten?”
I made myself look like an absolute fool by glancing down the corridor behind us, as if worried about eavesdroppers. “Because I haven’t had any of you to myself for several days. Not that I’m claiming any right to you or something!” I blushed a little and pulled an increasingly awkward smile. “Just that a hug would be nice. You can wear the vampire mask if you’d rather not crease your nice smart blouse— o-oh!”
A tiny squeak of surprise escaped my lips as Sevens turned precisely ninety degrees and enveloped me in a sudden crushing hug. The Yellow Princess ruined the neat creases and crisp lines of her white blouse, and fatally disturbed the ruler-straight sheet of her blonde hair. She squeezed me as if trying to pull me into her chest, which was, I will admit, quite pleasant, though I was too surprised to fully enjoy it.
I hugged her back as best I could, suddenly very self-conscious of my hands and my tentacles messing up her aesthetic.
After what felt like minutes she finally let me go. She had not lifted me off my feet, but the way she set me back a pace or two made it feel that way regardless. I was suddenly breathless, flushed in the face, a little ruffled. The Yellow Princess betrayed no emotion, but her clothes were just that tiny bit out of place, blouse askew, hair less than perfect.
“Oh, Sevens, I’m sorry, you’re all mussed up.” I reached for her blouse. Why, I have no idea — I was not exactly good at this sort of thing. Any attempt to straighten things out would likely leave them worse than if I hadn’t tried at all.
Seven-Shades-of-Sudden-Snuggles caught my wrist in one hand.
She held me there for a heartbeat, staring at my eyes. Then: “Leave your mark on me, beloved.”
We stayed there like that for several long seconds. I waited for more, heart pounding in my chest. Sevens stared into my eyes as if expecting to find terrible sadness there. She was like a statue, rock solid, absolutely still. I wondered for a moment if she had vacated the mask, left it empty, an echoing vessel.
“Sevens?” I murmured eventually. “Are you … ? You want me to … ?”
No, I chided myself very gently. This wasn’t how Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight worked. I tried again.
“Sevens, are you wearing the wrong mask right now?”
“I wish to monopolise a fraction of your attention,” she said. “I wish to claim what is mine.”
“Okay,” I said, which was a terrible thing to say because it said nothing. Then I swallowed hard and tried to stop glowing like a light bulb. “Well, I’m here right now. I was going to check on Kim, but there’s no crisis, not yet, I’ve got time for you.” I added in a hurry: “I mean, I’ve always got time for you. You only have to ask. I … I think that’s how it works.”
“Time in the opening of a siege,” Sevens said. “Locked in together. What better moment to face inward?”
I sighed. “It’s hardly a siege. Might turn out that nothing happens. All a bit anti-climactic”
Sevens let go of my wrist. She caressed it as she let go, so I pulled it away very slowly. She said, “I am being unreasonable.”
“I don’t think you are. You’ve been stuck with Aym for several days and—”
“I have not been stuck with Aym,” said the Princess. “She is sweet on the inside. Soft. A little bitter. I wish I had been there, in my prior years, when she had needed guidance.”
“I’m glad you and her are getting along. I think. Gosh, this is very strange. It’s like you two come from the same place and have things in common that you and I don’t. Is that jealous of me?”
“Do you want to feel jealous?”
“I don’t really. I’m more interested in how you feel, Sevens.”
The Yellow Princess stared at me for several heartbeats, then turned away to stare out of the window again. The sunlight dusted the sharp lines of her face, her smooth cheeks, her clear eyes. “I feel unmoored, kitten. This is not your fault.”
“ … well, I’m going to … re-moor you,” I said. Then I reached up and tucked a lock of her already messed up hair behind one of her ears.
It didn’t suit the shape of her face or the look of her hair, not one bit. But she turned her head and blinked at me.
“If I’m an angel,” I said. “If I’m going to be an angel, if I’m going to define myself that way to help deal with all the nonsense that flows around me, then I have to be that to you, too. So if you feel unmoored, you can come to me.”
Sevens stared, then nodded, then returned to looking out of the window.
I touched her fingers, she touched mine. I stayed there for a minute or two, staring out at the dark tree line and hoping nothing showed up. Then we parted for now and I padded down the corridor in my socks, following the sounds of video games and the soft murmur and trill of familiar voices.
Twil’s bedroom was at the opposite end of the corridor, next to a matching window which looked out over the trees next to the driveway. I paused for a moment to peer down at the slip of visible road and up at the rustling treetops, thinking about zombified pigeons and magically-reanimated mosquitoes. But nothing moved except the grass in the wind and the vague oily blobs of the bubble-servitors. All was quiet. Perhaps we were waiting for nothing.
I poked my head gingerly around the door of Twil’s bedroom. “Hello, everyone. Just here to check. Hi. Hello.”
“Brrrrrrrr!” went Tenny, without looking around from the telly.
Twil waved me in. “Big H! Come join! We’re about to get totally mullered here, ‘cos Tenny doesn’t understand the first thing about football.”
“Brrrrrt!” Tenny trilled again. Tentacles were flickering, antennae were twitching; somebody was very frustrated.
I crept over the threshold and into exactly the kind of room I expected Twil to cultivate.
Despite the low ceilings and narrow corridors, the upstairs rooms of Geerswin farmhouse were large and airy. Twil’s room had the same exposed-beams-and-bare-plaster look as the rest of the house, but she’d painted the plaster a soft, cool blue and covered the beams in junk, video game cases, loose books, a primary school sports trophy, a rugby ball with a spike through it — I reminded myself to ask if there was a story behind that one — and a dozen other pieces of personal bric-a-brac. The walls in between were covered in posters of all kinds: bands, movie posters, pages ripped straight out of old video game magazines. I spotted weird movie monsters and spooky landscapes, footballers and rugby players I could not have named if somebody had threatened me, cartoon characters and anime characters and even a couple of Evelyn’s colourful ponies.
Above Twil’s narrow bed was a 3D poster of a werewolf, in pride of place. Laminated corners curling, printed in that green-and-red 3D style that hadn’t been in fashion since the 90s, I had the sudden flash of insight that it had been above her bed for a very long time indeed.
Two narrow windows at the far end provided woefully little light, but she had a pair of standing lamps casting a warm glow on the low ceiling and spilling back down onto the rest of the room.
On one side was a narrow bed, covers neatly made, tucked in, pillows forming a sensible bulge at one end. At its foot was a large and overflowing dresser, proving that Twil loved clothes but had little ability to organise them. The top was stacked with all sorts of junk — more clothes, more books, old mugs in need of being taken downstairs. Hand cream, a takeaway menu, a plush albatross as big as Aym, a tower of empty tissue boxes which made me wince, and what I’m quite certain was a dirty magazine, which should not have been left visible while Tenny was in the room.
The desk past the dresser surprised me. Beneath the window so it got the best light, absolutely piled with textbooks and school-work and well-thumbed notepads, it was organised to perfection. Twil had ring-binders and post-it notes, coloured separators and a mug of highlighters. She had three calculators and a reading lamp. A reading lamp.
Sometimes it was easy to forget that Twil was — academically speaking — incredibly driven and quite smart.
Twil herself was perched on the end of the bed so she could watch the action unfolding on the telly which dominated the opposite side of the room, currently wearing the grin of a blood-mad football hooligan.
Kimberly and Lozzie were sat on the bed behind her. I had expected Kimberly to look like hell, probably shell-shocked, maybe in need of a very big hit from one of her special hand-rolled cigarettes. I wouldn’t have blamed her; she’d stripped naked and been drenched in bull’s blood in front of everybody, then come within inches of being killed by a rip-off Hammer Horror mutant dog.
But Kim was glowing.
She was wearing clothes borrowed from Twil — a bright orange t-shirt and a pair of pajama bottoms — and wrapped in a large fluffy green dressing gown which I guessed belonged to Christine Hopton. She was scrubbed and pink from the bath, with huge bags under her eyes. And she was smiling like I’d never seen her smile before. It wasn’t a grin or a smirk, but something subtle and deep. The smile reached all the way up to her eyes and made their corners crinkle.
She wasn’t even smiling at anything in particular. Lozzie was just behind her and in the process of kneading the muscle knots out of Kim’s shoulders, but she didn’t seem lost in physical bliss. She was simply here, present, surrounded by others.
Felicity was sat more distant, on the cheap swivel chair in front of Twil’s desk. She looked shell-shocked and exhausted and drained, back bent, feet flat on the floor. Without her coat she was thinner, more unhealthy, wrapped in an old jumper and jeans. I felt a bizarre urge to make sure she ate something.
Sitting cross-legged on the floor next to the bed, video game controller in her hands, face pinched in a frown, tentacles wiggling and waggling with hard concentration, was Tenny.
I couldn’t make any sense of the rows of numbers and statistics on the screen.
“Well,” I said in reply to Twil. “I don’t know anything about football either. You’re not teasing Tenny, are you?”
“Footbaaaaall,” Tenny trilled. She pressed buttons and made some numbers switch around on the screen.
“Nah!” Twil laughed. “We’re playing Football Manager! Well, Tenny’s playing, and losing.”
“Buuuu,” went Tenny, pouting. Twil leaned forward and ruffled her fluffy white hair, careful to avoid jostling her antennae. Tenny made a frustrated noise and navigated through a series of menus, which included pitch diagrams, player positions, and a very authentic looking team shirt, in bright red.
“Are you meant to be watching a window?” I asked Twil.
“Nah. Mum said to take a break, watch Kim.” Twil shrugged.
Kimberly spoke up, much to my surprise. Her voice was light and airy, a smile in her words. “Oh, I don’t understand anything about football either. I’ve never even seen a real game. But Tenny is very enthusiastic.”
She blinked slowly, eyelids heavy, feet stretched out on the bed. She scrunched her toes and sighed.
I caught Lozzie’s eye and glanced at Felicity too, frowning a silent question at both of them in turn. Just behind Kim’s sight-line, Lozzie shook her head and mouthed ‘sober!’ Felicity shrugged, too tired to say anything.
Others had been up here to check on Kimberly, of course, I wasn’t the first or only. Praem and Christine had both made sure she was well; Praem had even reported back to Evee. Neither of them had mentioned that Kimberly looked like she’d downed a fistful of codeine.
“Kim?” I ventured softly, walking over to join them on the bed. “Kim, how are you feeling now?”
Tenny pressed a button and a football match started up on the telly, virtual crowd murmuring to itself as the simulated players got started. Kimberly’s eyes wandered from the screen and found me, lazy and slow.
“Not bad,” she said. “Considering.”
I eased myself down on the bed. “If you don’t mind me saying, you seem a little … abstracted.”
“High,” she said. “You mean I seem like I’m high.”
I glanced at the back of Tenny’s head. She didn’t seem to have noticed, too focused on the video game. “I’m not sure we should talk about that in front of certain people.”
Lozzie, leaning over Kimberly’s shoulders, did a funny little bounce on the bed, making everybody wobble. “Tenns knows what drugs are! I taught her all the things, Heathy.”
“Yeah,” Twil added without looking over her shoulder. She was glued to the fake football match too, which seemed to be just random highlights. “Knowledge is always better than ignorance. Better the devil you know, all that.”
Felicity spoke heavily from the rear of the room. She was watching the match too, vague and uninterested. “Better not to know the devil at all.”
I struggled not to pull a grimace, knowing what I knew about Felicity’s personal history with addictive pharmaceuticals. Perhaps she was trying to share a piece of wisdom, but between her tone and her scarred half-mumble it came off as especially grim and grisly.
“Well,” I said awkwardly, smiling back at Kim. “You do seem very happy.”
She shook her head. “I don’t know why.”
“Endorphins,” Felicity added, low and serious. “Survivor’s high. I’ve told her a dozen times already.” She looked over to me with a sort of sympathetic sigh on her half-burned face, then dropped her eyes, almost ashamed. “Sorry.”
“Nah you’ve got a point,” Twil said. She hadn’t seen the look. “Brush with death, makes you feel alive.”
“I do feel alive,” Kim said. “I feel like I want to … I want to … go on a bike ride, or something! Oh, oh that sounds so lame. I mean I want to do something exciting. Something I normally wouldn’t do.”
I nodded along. “You deserve it. If there’s anything we — me and Evee and the others, I mean — if there’s anything we can do, anywhere we can take you, let us know.”
Kimberly blinked. Her eyes were shining, but her smile dribbled off, replaced with a slow-struck awe. I didn’t like that look; it had too much in common with the way Badger looked at me.
“Kim,” I added quickly, trying to head that off before she said something to make me cringe. “Thank you. What you did today, nobody else was ready to do. You didn’t have to. Thank you. You’ve done a lot for me. And it is for me, I’m not going to pretend it isn’t.”
Twil snorted a laugh. “Getting rid of Eddy is gonna be good for everybody.”
“Well, yes,” I said. “That too.”
Kim reached out and brushed my elbow with her fingers. I almost wrapped a tentacle around her hand on instinct, but managed to stop at the last moment, mostly because Lozzie poked the tentacle in question.
“Oh, no,” Kim was saying now she had my attention. Her lower lip was wobbling slightly. “Thank you, Heather. So much. For leaping to my rescue. You’re too good to me. You’re all too good to me.”
I cringed through a smile. “I didn’t need to leap like that. The others had it all under control. Thank Praem instead.”
“I did!” Kimberly nodded. “Praem … I love Praem. She’s been so … kind. Nice. She’s just always there. You know when I can’t sleep, she knocks on my door sometimes? She’s so sweet.” Her eyes were growing wet and scrunched as she spoke. “I love Evee too. I’d be on the streets without her, I really would, I never would have gotten that job.” Kim sniffed hard. Lozzie patted her shoulder with flaps of her pastel poncho. “And it worked. The spell worked. I hope we find Edward, that old … old … guy. Thing. Get that book. Get your sister. I’d like to meet her.”
Kimberly was crying now, holding herself right on the verge of tears. Everyone else had gone awkwardly quiet, embarrassed by this slow and heartfelt outburst of raw emotion. Two of Tenny’s silken black tentacles had crept up to clutch Kim’s left leg, but that was all. Only Lozzie knew how to respond, scooting around and giving Kimberly somebody to hug. Kim responded without thinking, clinging to Lozzie.
“Flowsie, Flowsie,” Lozzie murmured, a little sing-song. “You were always such a dummy. Dumbo dummy doos.”
“I don’t deserve that name,” she murmured into Lozzie’s shoulder.
I hadn’t heard Lozzie call Kimberly ‘Flowsie’ in months — the private name from their time in the Sharrowford Cult. I was reminded, once again, that these two had known each other long before I’d known either of them. When we had first dragged Kimberly out of the cult’s castle alongside us, Lozzie had declared that she didn’t care if ‘Flowsie’ lived or died. Now she was giving her a shoulder to cry on.
Felicity managed to look most awkward of all. She caught my eye and pulled a grimace. “Survivor’s high,” she whispered again. “It’ll pass.”
“You were beautiful,” Kimberly was saying, one eye watching me over Lozzie’s shoulder. “You and Zheng. Zheng! I knew her for years, big frightening monster, and she was running, for me. And Praem.” Kimberly’s eyes fluttered shut. “There is a beauty in magic. There is. There can be.”
She trailed off to nothing, breathing softly into Lozzie’s shoulder. Maybe she’d fallen asleep.
Twil cleared her throat gently. The simulated football match on the television had gone to penalties. “Hope you’re not talking about that bloody great hole in the ground,” she said. “Wouldn’t call that beautiful myself.”
“Twil,” I said. “Language. Tenny’s here.”
“Oh shit!” Twil clapped a hand to her mouth. “I mean, sugar!”
“Bloody is a bad word,” Tenny trilled, sing-song style. Lozzie giggled, setting a very bad example.
“Please don’t tell Evee, okay?” Twil said. “And don’t repeat that word. It’s bad. Rude. A rude word, alright Tenns?”
“I’m not rude,” Tenny said, all a-flutter.
Felicity spoke as if she hadn’t heard the last few moments of conversation, untouched by levity. “That breach was unexpected,” she said. I didn’t have to ask for clarification to know she was talking about the gigantic void which had opened in the ground, out in the field, the impossible sucking hole in reality.
“Was that normal?” I asked.
Felicity looked up. The bags were heavy beneath her eyes. She always had such a haunted look, even below the exhaustion. “There’s nothing normal about what we’ve done here. We did real magic. Large scale. We changed something about the arrangement of reality. That’s not going to go unnoticed, and not just by this Edward guy.”
I froze, staring at her. “Are you saying we’ve opened ourselves up to additional danger?”
Felicity shrugged. “I don’t know. I try to keep my head down, most of the time. This is the first in a while I’ve broken that habit.”
She raised her gloved hands, either to check herself or to show them to me. Both of them were shaking with anxiety.
“I haven’t had a chance to talk to Evee about it, not yet,” I said. “Everything has been so hectic. But I doubt she would countenance something which would create even more danger, not these days. Even if she was reckless when you knew her, she’s not that way anymore. She’s got much more to live for.”
Felicity returned her hands to her lap, linking her fingers to hide the shaking. “That’s … that’s good to know. Good to hear. She has seemed … driven. She was always driven, I mean. I’m sorry. Forget I said anything, forget—”
“Sweeties and sweetums,” crooned a voice made of rusty knives and the smell of melted plastic. “Don’t look now, but somebody’s stolen our horizon.”
All eyes — including Kimberly’s, which snapped open — looked to the doorway. Aym stood there like the spooky little sprite she was, head to toe in black lace, hood up, voice coming from a dark oval of nothing.
“Aym?” Felicity said instantly, not missing a beat. “Explain. Right now.”
Aym giggled, a noise like nails pattering on a blackboard. Down the corridor, Sevens’ shoes went click-click-click until she joined Aym in the doorway. The Yellow Princess was a mask of self-control.
“Aym is not exaggerating,” she said. “You should see. Tenny, stay here. Lozzie, watch her.”
Shouts of surprise and alarm were coming from the bottom floor of the house. Evelyn was calling my name. Raine was shouting to “look at it through the glasses, use the glasses! It’s not just the dogs!”
I was out of the room and into the corridor as fast as my tentacles could carry me. Others followed. Sevens ushered me along, down to the window she’d been staring out of earlier. Aym capered and scurried, but I could see her nervous energy was a false amusement.
Across the field, beyond the farm, the tree line was full of hounds. Maybe a dozen creatures similar to the dead one downstairs, pacing back and forth, staring at the house with sightless eyes or mismatched orbs.
Dark shapes hung in the trees, avoiding the sunlight, heavy and hanging like lumpy and unnatural sloths.
And above it all, forming a new skyline, dwarfing farmhouse and trees and all, was a spider-servitor the size of an oil rig.
And we’re back! Thank you for waiting. The arc now resumes, right where we left off.
Don’t mess with Heather’s friends! Even if they’re people who tried to kill her once! She’ll leap at you and paff ineffectually at you with her tentacles until her other friends have to pull you off her and then you’ll both be embarrassed and muddy and nobody will be having a good time. Looks like Edward’s counter-attack is here. Something doesn’t seem right though. He sure has reverse-engineered those spiders fast.
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Next week, somebody better summon Godzilla, because we’ve just passed the threshold. Maybe Felicity can do that?
Geerswin Farm — Twil’s family home, the seat of the Church of Hringewindla, the archaic secret tucked away in the forest behind the village of Brinkwood, ringed by trees older than the industrial revolution which had turned the village into a bypassed backwater — loomed large in my imagination as the perfect location to perform real magic. Our previous visit had involved an unexpected collapse of reality, though we hadn’t known that at first: the onrush of false dusk, things going bump in the night, wind-storms and monsters and a trip deep into the earth to meet a god. The crumbling, isolated farmstead had all the hallmarks of a beautifully Gothic setting. Where better to waggle one’s fingers with mystical import and mutter ‘abracadabra’, while thunder crashed and spooky violins played in the background?
Raine had shown me far too many Hammer Horror classics. They were rubbing off on me.
So, as we trundled along the road out of Sharrowford and through the still-damp countryside, the rational part of me was trying to keep calm in the face of one of the most serious and dangerous magical tasks we had ever set ourselves, hands plucking and picking at the hem of my hoodie, tentacles bundled in my lap and trying not to clench. But another part of me — small and girlish and perpetually nine years old, giggling over spooky stories with Maisie — was beside herself with fan-girl glee.
She didn’t dare come to the surface. That would have been wildly inappropriate. I was too afraid for the safety of Evee and Kim, and yes, Felicity as well. Too focused on the day ahead. Too worried about Edward Lilburne’s response to our opening salvo.
But when we reached Geerswin Farm, gingerly unfolding ourselves from inside Raine’s battered red car to stand around on the old broken tarmac and wait for Felicity to catch up in her Range Rover with the others, that girlish and excited Heather inside my chest did a little pout.
Geerswin Farm was not dressed in grand rags of black lace and the heavy shadows of ghostly promise, like some cheap Halloween decoration; it was after all the height of summer, despite the aftermath of the Aym-born storm.
The sky was a clear, milk-tainted blue, brushed by a few wisps of fluffy cloud, ringed by the healthy, thick, verdant green of the woodland canopy, like one stood at the bottom of a bowl of wood, topped with leafy garnish. The forest rustled softly in the gentle wind; distant birdsong soaked through the trees. Strong sunlight revealed the general disrepair of the farm as anything but grandly melancholic — I wondered if Hringewindla understood that his most faithful worshippers, the core of his cult, desperately needed funds for major renovation work. The pair of alpacas and the cluster of sheep had been moved to the smallest of the uneven, soggy fields, the one attached to a proper shelter for them, made of old brick and new corrugated steel. The largest of the fields had been prepared for us in advance — mowed by hand, a task that Twil had complained about incessantly, despite the fact it had apparently only taken her thirty minutes. Being a werewolf conferred some major advantages in stamina. A massive area of field was shorn down to stubs of grass, thistles chopped, weeds murdered, to make way for the unnatural act we were about to commit. But the pile of grass cuttings and bits of weed against the nearest fence made it look more like an unfortunate site for a village fairground.
Hringewindla’s bubble-servitors were all over the place, many dozens stronger than on our previous visit. They ringed the fields in overlapping curves of silently bobbing sentries, hovering over the clearing like on-station drones, lurking along the driveway to intercept any unwanted visitors. A few waited out in the road, watching for the wrong kind of car. They clustered on the roof of the house, piled up on each other in a slowly seething mass of semi-transparent, greasy, iridescent spheres. The effect was not menacing; it made the house look like it was wearing a silly wig.
I obviously couldn’t keep the disappointment off my face entirely. Zheng noticed.
Zheng had arrived at the farm ahead of the rest of us. She had set off out the back of Number 12 Barnslow Drive as we’d been figuring out who was going in which car. She wasn’t even out of breath, standing there like a muscular and immovable statue. She wasn’t locked in a face-off with Hringewindla’s bubble-servitors this time, though a pair of the dubious, disgusting ‘angels’ had detached from their guard duties to discreetly shadow her. Very discreetly.
She stood there in her grey jumper hiding her curves, long coat containing her toned muscles, booted feet planted firmly on the crumbling tarmac. She stared out across the fields as if they would soon be the site of a battle. Impassive, heavy-lidded, undeniable. She was everything this situation was not. And she heard my tut and looked around.
“Oh, um, it’s nothing. Nothing.” I tutted again, huffed at myself, and dithered on the spot, which made ‘nothing’ sound like a total lie. Which it was.
Everyone else was already in motion: Raine striding up to our welcoming party at the front door, to shake Christine Hopton’s and Michael Hopton’s hands, and clap Twil on the shoulder; Praem unlatching the boot of the car to haul out the buckets of blood; Evelyn clomping forward with her walking stick to frown professionally at the fresh-cut grass in the field.
I made a grumbly sound. “You’re too perceptive, Zheng. It’s the sunlight. The birdsong. The nice outdoorsy feeling. This isn’t the right place to do magic. It should be darker. Less clean. Spooky?” I winced and put a hand to my own face, followed by a tentacle. “Oh, listen to me, this sounds so stupid.”
Zheng chuckled, low and dark. “The shaman has a point,” she said to Evee, only a few paces away. “Poor aesthetics, wizard.”
Evelyn answered without a moment’s hesitation: she was truly switched on this morning, present and correct in every single second of the clock. “Mechanics care not for aesthetics.” She looked around not at Zheng, but at me. “Heather, what was the very first thing I ever told you about magic? I know you recall, because you seem to recall everything I’ve ever said to you.”
“I know,” I sighed. “I apologise for being silly.”
Evelyn tutted. “You have absolute license to be as silly as you bloody well like.”
“But you can’t take the literature student out of me. My imagination insists we should all be wearing robes and tying somebody to a sacrificial altar. Joining hands and chanting. Drawing pentagrams. Taking copious amounts of hallucinogens.”
“Magic is not black cats and broomsticks.”
I sighed again. “I know. I’m sorry.”
Praem stepped up to join us. A pair of sealed white food-grade buckets dangled effortlessly from each hand. “Black cat,” she said, staring at Evelyn.
Evelyn frowned, sudden and sharp. Her knuckles turned white on her walking stick. She looked quickly at me, then back at Praem. “Where? When? Where did you see it, exactly? Drop those buckets, get moving, catch it, right now! Zheng, you as well! I know you don’t take orders, but fuck it!” She looked around, free hand fumbling her modified 3D-glasses out of her pocket and trying to get them onto her face. I went to her side quickly, taking her cane-arm to support her. “Hringle-whatsit’s bubble things should be dealing with any interlopers. Even animals! Anything could be a trap, a scout, a fucking bomb for all we—”
“No,” said Praem. “I would like a black cat.”
Evee and I blinked at her. Zheng stared too, though less surprised.
Evelyn lowered her glasses. “Praem, what?”
“Black cat. Brown cat. White cat. Orange cat. Cat.”
“ … are you asking for a pet?” Evelyn let out a sudden, sharp sigh. I felt a horrible, winding tension go out of her, felt her weight press down on my support. “Praem, now is not the time. Come on, we need to go greet our hosts. You and I can talk about cats later. Bloody hell.” Evelyn shook her head and stomped off toward where Twil and her parents were waiting, with Amanda Hopton hovering just inside the doorway, her shoulders flanked by a pair of smaller bubble-servitors. “All I need, right,” Evelyn muttered as she dragged me along after her. “Daughter wants pets. What next? Later, later.”
I looked back and caught Praem’s eye, blankly milk-white. But I could have sworn I saw a twinkle in the depths.
Silently, I mouthed back at her, “Good job.”
Praem followed, buckets of blood in hand. Zheng set off for a circuit of the fields, probably to antagonise the locals. Felicity’s car finally pulled into the driveway behind us. Evelyn dragged me onward, to greet the Church.
“Listen carefully,” said Evelyn. “And no — not because I’m only going to say this once, or some equally puerile nonsense. I will happily repeat any part of this as many times as you need, backward or forward. I will translate it into Latin and German. I will draw diagrams — I have already drawn diagrams. Wait, no, Kim has drawn diagrams; thank you, Kim. Everyone say thank you to Kim, because God knows I can’t draw. I will repeat myself until I am blue in the face, and then I will step aside so Kimberly or Felicity can repeat it again in a slightly different accent. Listen carefully, because there are a lot of us here, and we all need to know our places. We are about to do something incredibly dangerous, in the sense that operating a large piece of industrial machinery is dangerous, while also bracing for return artillery fire. We need to not get in each other’s way, and we need to know exactly what to do if something goes wrong. So, listen up.”
Evee’s steel-shod eyes softened instantly as she lifted them toward the back of the room, and added, in much gentler voice: “That goes for you too, Tenny. Your job is to stick with Lozzie and stay safe, indoors, and then go with her to Camelot if something bad happens. But it’s important that you understand what the rest of us are going to be doing. If you don’t want to speak up in front of everyone else, you can ask me or Lozzie whenever, after we’ve all finished talking. Do you understand?”
Tenny, with three biscuits in the mouth-ends of three different tentacles, had a look on her face exactly like a child who knew that all the adults would be more comfortable pretending that she was too young to understand the topic of discussion. But she wasn’t. And she was here for her own safety. She bit her own lips and hunched slightly in her chair. She didn’t need further encouragement to stick close to Lozzie.
I had hoped that a change of scenery would be a nice trip for Tenny. She got on well enough with Twil, surely she’d be interested in where Twil lived. But since the moment she and Lozzie had Slipped back from Camelot, appearing in the Hopton’s kitchen, Tenny had adopted all the overt nervousness of a little girl who didn’t know how to act in an unfamiliar household.
“Tenns will be fine!” Lozzie chirped. One of her arms was buried deep in the grasp of two of Tenny’s tentacles. “Won’t you, Tenns?”
“Mmmmrrr-rrrr,” Tenny trilled, which made the Hoptons jump again — all except Amanda.
The Hoptons had so far responded to Tenny with polite bewilderment and nervous flinching, which I thought was a bit much considering their giant cone-snail god-friend beneath the soil of the forest. At least Amanda Hopton — Hringewindla’s conduit and closest and most beloved of this generation of human beings — had taken Tenny entirely in her stride. She’d even shaken Tenny’s hand, which was very sweet. Tenny had instantly liked the idea and shaken everybody else’s hand.
Amanda’s golden retriever, Bernard, was currently curled up at the foot of Tenny’s chair, content to receive slightly nervous pettings from one of Tenny’s tentacles, filling for Marmite. Marmite himself had been left at home; we didn’t want to risk him getting hurt if something went wrong and he panicked.
We — and there were a lot of us — were gathered in the Hoptons’ dining room, the spacious and airy termination to the long spinal corridor which ran the length of the house.
Cosy, rustic, and genuinely lived in, the dining room boasted a large and functional fireplace, currently unlit, very much to my taste. Two massive landscape photographs of forest vistas seemed to invite the woods indoors, along with the bank of windows and the glass patio doors looking out on the back fields. Waves of bright, clean sunlight flooded the room. The last time I’d visited this space it had all seemed rather more sinister, in the wake of the nightmare-twisting effect of Hringewindla’s parasitic infection. But now, sitting around with cups of tea and complimentary ‘planning biscuits’, it felt more like we were organising a harvest festival or an elaborate surprise birthday party.
The mages — Evelyn, Kimberly, and Felicity — stood up front, Felicity politely off to one side while Evelyn and Kimberly flanked a whiteboard on a wheeled frame. Christine Hopton had produced the whiteboard from somewhere seemingly without effort. She was a teacher, after all.
While the rest of us had bustled around getting seated, Kimberly had drawn an illustration on the whiteboard: two concentric circles, one inside the other, surrounded by little dots and arrows, framed by a quite charming doodle of what was obviously the tree-line which surrounded the farm.
I could think of nothing more blandly reassuring and less magical than a whiteboard.
The rest of us were seated around the scratched, chipped, still-grand table. The Hoptons took one side. Christine and Michael — Twil’s parents — and Amanda, formed the triumvirate leadership of the Church. Benjamin sat at their rear, their meaty bodyguard. They were joined by a further pair of Church members none of us had ever met before: a wiry, leathery middle-age man introduced only as ‘Mister’ George, who looked like he’d been pickled in tobacco. The other was a young woman named Katey, stocky and solid, dirty blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail, and obviously armed beneath her baggy clothes.
“Members of the Church who are prepared to do violence in our defence,” Christine had explained, very matter-of-fact, when Evelyn had asked. “However capable Benjamin may be, we thought it best to play all our cards for this.”
George had cleared his throat and answered in a voice more smoker’s cough than words. “We won’t get you in your way, madam wizard. Hringewindla has vouched for you. We all feel it. This is the truth.”
At that, Katey had rolled her eyes and shared a long-suffering glance with — of all people — Twil. “Shut up, dad,” she had said. “So fucking cringe.”
Myself and Raine took the opposite side of the table, joined a little awkwardly by Twil. I tried not to read too much into that seating decision, but I respected whatever Twil was trying to communicate. Praem sat at the front, ready to attend to her mother if required. Tenny and Lozzie took the rear of the room, separate and apart, because their job was to stay safe. The only reason they were here instead of back in Sharrowford was to avoid the risk of the house getting hit while the rest of us were absent; the only reason they weren’t squirrelled away in Camelot was in case something went unfathomably wrong in new and interesting ways.
Sevens had donned the mask of the Yellow Princess, starched and proper, umbrella in one hand, skirt perfectly pressed, blonde fringe cut straight as a ruler. Perhaps the blood-goblin was not proper for serious meetings. Aym — amazingly — had stayed fully manifested, climbing out of Felicity’s car alongside the others. Her black-lace layers had grown a matching black hood, which hid her face in deep shadows. Her sleeves had elongated to cover her hands as well, so not a sliver of skin showed. She held Sevens’ hand through a scrap of black, said nothing, and moved in total silence.
Twil had grimaced at this. “Could you like, drop the spooky nun act? I still don’t get what you are, but you’re making it look like you’re a secret weapon or something.”
Sevens had answered for her, with icy precision: “Aym is uncomfortable. Please respect her need to withdraw.”
Felicity had looked both embarrassed and relieved by this performance, as if she was glad for Aym but also felt a deep responsibility.
Zheng lingered in the doorway, drawing nervous glances from the new bodyguards.
Stack had not turned up, nor returned Raine’s call, nor been spotted lingering at the end of the driveway. After twenty minutes of extra waiting, we had started the meeting.
“Right, good,” Evelyn said to Lozzie and Tenny, then flicked her gaze to Amanda, hardening instantly. “Everything I just said goes triple for your … your god. The last thing we need is him trying to intervene without warning. I take it he’s paying attention?”
The Hoptons all bristled very slightly at the tone in Evelyn’s voice. Evee was trying so hard to be polite about Hringewindla, but her basic contempt was impossible to conceal. Her lips soured around the request, but she went through the form. I found myself clenched up in sympathetic embarrassment.
Amanda Hopton had looked glassy-eyed and sleepy until that moment, sitting next to her sister along the side of the table. Unhealthy, very pale, with the look of a woman perpetually exhausted, unable to shift the few pounds that kept her overweight. In a way I felt sorry for her — she’d spent most of her life attached mind-to-mind with her god.
But she seemed to value that connection. As she answered, she sat up straighter, still a little unfocused.
“He is remaining aware,” she said. “Staying aware. Comprehending … us. He will direct his angels to protect this house and his family. While you are here, the protection extends to you all. In grace and hospitality.”
She smiled, which transformed her face into an innocent bliss. She blinked: a vastness moved behind her eyes, as if iris and pupil were tiny windows on a gigantic aquarium tank.
“Say hi for me, please,” I added.
Amanda nodded again, neck muscles like springy rubber.
“Oooooooh,” said Nicole Webb, rubbing her hands together and ostentatiously smacking her lips. “I do like a good all-hands briefing. Miss Saye, I do hope you’re prepared for some very stupid questions.”
Detective Nicole Webb was our one unexpected arrival, the one we hadn’t planned for. She sat to the rear of the group, dressed for a woodland hike, in a brand new and very practical jacket, with lots of pockets and pouches. Hair pulled into a tight bun, energetic in every movement, eyes alive in the manner of a woman who had gotten a full ten hours sleep last night — or no sleep at all. I couldn’t tell.
Evelyn stamped on the floorboards with her walking stick. “There—are—no—stupid—questions,” she hammered. She managed to make it sound absolutely terrifying. I would have flinched if that tone came from anybody but Evee. Privately I winced; she wasn’t exactly making herself approachable.
Twil tutted. “Steady on, Evee. Stop shoutin’.”
Evelyn chose to ignore that and spoke to Nicole again. “Detective, you really do not have to be here.”
Nicky raised her hands. “Three of you have said that in three different ways. Look, if you want me to bugger off out, let me know, just be blunt. Be clear. I’ll run off and you witches can do whatever you’re gonna do.”
“Please do not swear in front of Tenny,” Evelyn said without missing a beat. “She is a child.”
“Oops. Er. Sorry.” Nicole twisted in her seat to give Tenny an awkward smile. “Bad words. You shouldn’t use them, Tenny.”
“Bad woooorrrrds,” Tenny trilled. She didn’t smile.
I cleared my throat. I was near the front of the table, closest to the mages and their ragged presentation. “Nicky, none of us want you to leave, not really. But you don’t have to put yourself in harm’s way, not for us. We can handle this. We know what we’re doing.”
Did we? I had no idea.
Evelyn added, level and sharp: “You have no responsibility to us, and I will not put you out in the field, even if you are carrying a dozen illegal firearms.”
“I am not,” said Nicky.
“Then you stay in the house with the others, that’s—”
“But hey, if anybody has a spare, I won’t say no?” Nicole spread her hands and gestured around at everybody else. “I won’t report it or anything. I think we’re a bit outside of Sharrowford jurisdiction here.”
The joke fell like a lead balloon. Nicky’s smile was stiff as wire. She was more nervous than she was pretending.
Raine jumped in to save her. “I thought you hated guns, officer?”
“I’m not an officer anymore. And that was sergeant to you, Haynes. Less ‘o your lip.”
Raine did a boxing-stance duck-and-weave as if dodging a blow, grinning. The atmosphere warmed by half a degree.
“And for the record,” Nicole said, “yeah, I don’t have any idea what to do with a gun. Point and pull the trigger? I’m well aware this room is probably filled with several weapon and firearm offences in progress. Nobody call the police, please, it could all get very embarrassing.”
Katey, the young woman who was obviously festooned with weapons, shifted uncomfortably in her seat. She clinked. Mister George looked like he was trying to pretend he had not heard any of that.
Benjamin Hopton, the shaved-headed, heavily muscled Church bodyguard, nodded toward the double-barrelled hunting shotgun which lay in the crook of his arm. The shotgun was open to reveal the breach, empty and unloaded. Even then he kept the ends of the barrels pointed firmly at the floor. “This is licensed. Legal.” He paused and cleared his throat. “Detective.”
“Yeah,” added Michael Hopton. “Licensed to me, Ben. That’s my shotgun you’ve got there.”
“We’re on your land,” Benjamin said slowly and carefully, as if speaking for the benefit of a hidden microphone. “You’ve given me permission to handle and discharge the firearm. Which means it’s legal.”
“Yeah, okay, and I’ll rescind that permission if you get too happy with it. You be careful with that thing.”
Christine Hopton, high priestess of the Church, cleared her throat and laid one gentle, wrinkle-backed hand on her husband’s shoulder. “Mike, dear, you would just shoot your toes off. Ben was in the army, you know that. Let him handle the gun.”
Michael Hopton pulled the uncomfortable face of a man who knew he was wrong. He wasn’t doing a good job of keeping his nerves down.
“It’s going to be alright, Mr Hopton,” I spoke up, making eye contact and holding it there. “We’ll deal with all of this, and … and … ” I swallowed and tried to think of what to say. To be an angel, to be reassuring. They already held me in uncomfortable respect and a touch of awe, after I had communed with their god, but I needed to assure them we weren’t going to bring Edward Lilburne down on them. Or rather, that we could deal with him, if we did.
“Mine’s not legal,” said a familiar half-mumble.
Everyone glanced at Felicity, but she was staring directly at Nicole. The ex-copper and the outlaw mage locked eyes, dense with frost. I suppressed a wince.
Nicky and Fliss had politely shaken hands upon meeting, but the ice had grown between them thick and fast, flash-frozen on the bleeding shore of how Kimberly seemed entirely comfortable inside Felicity’s personal space. As the mages had set up, Kim had darted about with her pen, asking Felicity for clarification or suggestions on the diagram, and shown zero discomfort at being only inches apart.
A mage-detective-mage love triangle was the last thing we needed that day; I made eyes at Nicole, hard eyes, and willed her to be professional.
She must have noticed, because she cleared her throat and nodded. “Good for you,” she said to Felicity. “Keep it to yourself, yeah?”
Evelyn cleared her throat louder, rumbling with suppressed irritation, like an animal asserting dominance over lesser squabbles. “Then why are you here, detective?. We informed you as a courtesy, because we trust you, and frankly I wanted you warned so you can protect yourself if necessary. My intent was not to call you here.”
Nicole Webb shrugged and folded her hands over her stomach. “In for a penny.”
“In for a pound,” Raine finished the saying. She winked.
“Yeah,” said Nicole. “something like that. Gotta see it through, you know? Maybe you’ll need somebody to slap cuffs on Edward when this is all over.”
Evelyn stared at her, pinch-lipped. “It is highly unlikely that we will directly engage Edward Lilburne today.”
“Yeah,” Raine murmured — low and soft, not a tone I heard from her often. I turned and blinked at her in surprise, but she was staring at Evee.
Twil snorted. “Directly engage,” she repeated in a silly voice. “Evee, we’re not the marines. Don’t talk like that.”
Benjamin interrupted. “Clarity is good. I like it. Right on.”
Evee ignored the both of them and spoke to Nicole. “Detective, this is your last chance to leave. Once we begin, you’ll have to stay until the spell is done and we’ve confirmed or ruled out a response. Mid-afternoon, if we’re lucky.”
Raine laughed softly. “What happened to ‘over by lunch time’?”
“I want the spell itself over by lunchtime. The response, we can’t predict.”
Nicole nodded once, holding Evee’s gaze. “I’m staying with you wizards. Get me a pointy hat if you like.”
“Fine.” Evelyn raised her eyes to the room again. “Right. Listen closely, as I said. Everyone on the same page. We’re taking no chances with this.”
Evelyn ran through the ritual on the whiteboard, pointing with her walking stick, punctuating herself by tapping the wooden head against the plastic surface.
I sat in quiet adoration, restraining myself, wrapped in my tentacles; this was Evelyn at the most organised I had ever seen her, marshalling her thoughts, her plans, and her troops. Her eyes were alight as she spoke, soft blue dancing from the board to the people and back again, watching for unspoken questions, for kinked brows, for any hint that somebody was not following. She had missed nothing, covered everything, accounted for the position of every person involved.
“The mages will only have to remain in the centre circle for just under twenty minutes. All three of us will be exhausted when the spell completes, but Kimberly more than myself or Felicity. That’s the most vulnerable moment, the moment we need to get back indoors as quickly as possible, regardless of the side effects or anything else that happens.” Evelyn jabbed a finger at Zheng. “Kimberly is your responsibility. I don’t care how filthy she is by the end. The moment it’s done, cross inside the circle, pick her up, and take her inside. You’re the quickest of us.”
Zheng stared, dark and unmoving, leaning against the door frame, the rustic kitchen behind her. Evelyn held that gaze and added, “If you don’t want to help, I will assign this task to somebody else. If you agree and then fu—” Evelyn bit down, gaze flickering to Tenny for a split second. “If you agree and then don’t go through with it, you put us all in danger.”
“I will handle the little wizard,” Zheng rumbled. Kimberly kept her eyes anywhere but Zheng; I got the impression she would have been happier to walk, or be carried by a bubble-servitor.
“Good,” Evelyn said. “Zheng, thank you. Praem, you’re to help me. Twil, you have Felicity.”
“Can’t I help you?” Twil asked.
Evelyn ignored that and carried on, going over the details of what was to happen next, the part after the spell. The long, drawn-out part, the waiting and watching. I don’t think I was the only one who saw the shadow pass over her face as she explained this part of the plan, the part we couldn’t predict.
Michael Hopton asked the obvious question. “Miss Saye, pardon me, but you keep talking about a response to the spell. What are we expecting here?”
Evelyn had been about to tap on the sketch again, the lower portion that showed the house with sight-lines and a list of who was not allowed outside until this was done. She paused, sighed slowly, and couldn’t meet Michael’s eyes for a heartbeat.
I jumped in. “Anything,” I said.
An invisible chill settled over the room. ‘Mister’ George and Michael Hopton shared an uncomfortable look. Benjamin sighed. Christine smiled with bland politeness. Tenny had gone very still. Zheng was unreadable, impassive, a quiet giant.
“Mages are difficult like that,” said Raine, in a voice I’d never heard her use before, a quiet smile through the ghost of a grimace. She was watching Evelyn. “You can never predict. Right?”
Evelyn finally looked up and cleared her throat. “He may not respond at all. But that is unlikely.” She held up one hand, her good hand, with four fingers raised. “There are four possible outcomes. Number one,” she lowered a finger, “is that he chooses to do nothing. A bluff, to throw me off and convince me the spell has not worked. Number two,” another finger down, “is that the collapse of his labyrinth will trigger an automatic defence, sending something to the location of whatever has collapsed it. So, us, here.” She stared at her remaining two fingers. “Option three is he chooses to send something against us, consciously, intentionally, rather than automatically.”
She fell silent for a moment, swallowed hard. I noticed the faint tremor in her throat and longed to get up and go to her.
Evelyn was hiding it so very well, so well that even I hadn’t noticed until that moment. I wasn’t even sure Praem had seen. Maybe Evee herself didn’t realise.
She was terrified.
So was Raine — though Raine responded to terror with the biological promise of terrible violence. I’d been so wrapped up in my own self, my own worries, my own trouble keeping track of what we were about to do, that I hadn’t noticed the two people closer to me than all others were replaying the emotions of an ancient murder as they prepared to go to war with a mage.
The ghost of Evelyn’s mother hovered over both of them, invisible to all others. Loretta Julianna Saye haunted Felicity too; though Felicity was so on-edge it was hard to tell the difference.
“What’s option number four?” asked Hringewindla, speaking through Amanda Hopton’s mouth, slightly slack in the lips.
“Two and three at the same time,” Evelyn answered quickly. “Automatic response plus manually dispatched agents of some kind.”
Twil snorted. “Bit dry, isn’t it? ‘Agents’? We’re not in The Matrix or something, Evee, come on.”
Evelyn’s eyes flashed with sudden anger, sharp and hot, all her carefully suppressed terror flowing outward at once as a single burst of redirected rage.
“Evee!” I said before she could open her mouth and offend everybody, sitting up so suddenly I almost got out of my chair. “Evee, Evelyn. Evee.”
She blinked three times and found me, gaze anchoring to mine with an intensity I had not expected. I desperately wanted to get up and hug her right then, but I knew it would undermine her confidence and everybody else’s confidence in her; I did not want to emotionally unbalance her before one of the most difficult magical operations of her life.
“What might Edward send here?” I asked. “Just, any ideas at all. Guesses. Educated guesses. Guesstimates.”
“Guesstimates,” Twil repeated with a big wince. “Ugh.”
“I know, I know!” I huffed, playing along with Twil’s hasty save. She must have seen the anger in Evee’s eyes too.
Raine leaned back in her chair. “I reckon it’s gonna be a big marshmallow man. Like in Ghostbusters, you know?”
“Raine,” Evelyn snapped, “do shut up. Now is not the time.” But she said it at her usual level of Raine-based irritation, rather than giving vent to the burning incandescence of over-pressurised fear.
“Servitors,” Felicity spoke up, half-mumbling, but with her head raised to address the room. “Servitors, or constructs. Possibly revenants, like … like Zheng there.” She nodded toward the back of the room. “Or possibly other things. We can’t predict. Please understand. He could even send a group of people, maybe a mage he’s trained himself. That would be a worst-case scenario … ” She gulped hard.
“That’s what bullets are for,” Raine said, ice cold and deadly serious. A shiver went up my spine, not all bad.
“Right,” Felicity agreed with a little dry swallow. “Right.”
I did not add that last time we had tried to kill a mage, the bullet had gone right through him to no effect.
Amanda spoke up, dreamy-voiced, “Hringewindla’s angels will turn back any assault.”
“Yes,” Evelyn said, a little sour. “That’s what we’re counting on. With luck — even if things do go wrong in some fashion — none of us will actually have to face any direct danger.” She sighed. “If something does show up, the direction of arrival could give us an idea about the location of Edward’s house.”
Christine Hopton raised her head and spoke. “We know it’s somewhere between our home and Stockport, correct? That is a very large area to cover.”
Nicole said, “Yeah, somewhere about there.” She sounded a little bitter. “Wherever I went.”
“Yes,” said Evelyn. She indicated a curve of space on the whiteboard, just inside the tree-line. “Which is why I expect that if anything arrives, it will enter the clearing here. Assuming it’s not clever enough to circle the farm, in which case we’ll have to follow any tracks.”
Kimberly helpfully added a curve in red, along with a little exclamation mark at either end.
Evelyn continued, straight-backed as she could make herself, wearing her invisible general’s hat. “It is very important that we kill or capture whatever turns up. It will be very difficult to stop any scouts returning to Edward with information, but we must try. Birds, tiny constructs, zombified rabbits. Anything. Make sure Hringewindla understands.”
Amanda nodded. “He does.”
“Does everybody understand?” Evelyn swept her eyes across the room. Nods, murmurs, folded arms. Dark eyes of silent acknowledgement. Raine’s big thumbs-up grin. My smile for Evee alone.
“Hope you know what you’re doing, Saye,” Twil said. She said it with a smile, then added, “Love you, dumb arse.”
However, to my relief and surprise, Evelyn said simply: “I have no idea what I’m doing, you moronic mutt. You should know that by now. But, we? We know exactly what we’re doing. Now grab a spade. For that, you’re digging half the circle by yourself.”
No matter how much I made light of the atmosphere, I would have preferred mundane disappointment to the frightening pleasure of Gothic aesthetics; in the end, the three-mage spell did indeed possess more than a whiff of black cats and broomsticks, despite the sunny day and blue skies.
Digging the outer circle took about two hours. Twil and Praem set to work, both of them basically tireless, helped by Michael Hopton and Mister George. The mages directed, darting about with diagrams, making sure that each curve of circle and accent of esoteric symbol was at the perfect angle. Zheng could have helped, but she drew an unspoken line at wizards directing her in manual labour. I didn’t blame her. Besides, she was required to guard the whole operation at this early stage.
“The likelihood that Edward is aware of any of this is minimal,” Evelyn explained. “The real danger is after we fire, not before. But it never hurts to post a lookout. You keep your eyes open too, Heather.”
“Don’t we have plenty of those already?” I murmured to her, shading my eyes as we stood side-by-side at the edge of the field, with Zheng only twenty feet away.
Bubble-servitors, Hringewindla’s angels, bobbed everywhere. The way the things moved set my teeth on edge, and made my tentacles twitch with restless motion of pre-emptive self-defence, but I couldn’t deny we were very well protected. There must have been over two hundred of the things.
“I don’t entirely trust them,” Evelyn murmured back.
“I trust Hringewindla,” I said. “Evee, I really do. He wants to help. I know they look … icky. But we’re in a fortress of the things.”
“Yes, Heather,” she sighed. The gentle wind tugged at stray strands of blonde hair. “But I don’t trust his judgement.”
Evelyn sighed and rubbed her eyes. Raine was calling for her from halfway across the field, Praem marching over to collect her, to check some minor symbol. I’d managed to draw her off for only a moment, not long enough or private enough to address her buttoned-down, glued-shut fears, the terror leaking from her pores. I imagined I could smell it on her, hot and raw and shivering. Or was I scenting pheromones for real?
“Evee. Evee this is going to be fine. We’re going to be perfectly safe.”
She shot me a frown just before Praem reached us. “Of course we are. Stop worrying, Heather. This has been mapped out to the smallest possible degree. The worst thing that could happen is we have to spend the night in Twil’s house, playing tower defence.”
I blinked at her “ … tower defence?”
“Video game metaphor. Never mind.” She turned away as Praem stopped behind her. “Come on, let’s go fix the spelling, or whatever the problem is.”
When the circle was finished it filled almost the entire field, leaving a thin margin of untouched grass around the edge, where the sentries were meant to stand while the mages performed the spell. I could barely look at the design dug into the wet, dark, clay-clogged earth of Brinkwood mud; the swirls and spirals of esoteric symbols made my eyes ache, not by themselves but only when placed in reference to each other. The outer circle was a quadruple-layered monstrosity of interlinked lines, with scraps of Latin and Arabic at right-angles, enclosing a whirling dance of overlapping symbols, stomach-wrenching signs, and shapes with far too many sides. I stood as far back from the edge as I could without climbing over the fence and entering the tree-line. It was like a great dark hole had opened up in the ground. Abyssal instinct wanted me to stay as far away as I could.
Evelyn, Felicity, and Kimberly were already waiting right in the centre for Praem to return with the canvas which contained the inner circle, the payload for this field-sized gun. Even from halfway across the field I could see Kimberly was quivering with nerves. Felicity was saying something to her, low and soft and undoubtedly reassuring, holding one of her hands. Evelyn had turned away, staring out at the woods.
“Shaman,” Zheng rumbled from a few paces to my right.
“I’m exactly where I’m meant to be,” I said. But I couldn’t take my eyes off Evee. “Evelyn isn’t pulling any punches, I might be needed out here, to do brain-math if something goes horribly wrong. Don’t tell me to go inside with the others.”
The others — the baseline humans who were more liability than protection — were beginning to trudge back toward the house. Evelyn’s plan called for them to wait on the crumbly tarmac, far away from the spell, and then head inside right away when it was complete. The heavily armed young woman, Katey, was already waiting there, along with Benjamin Hopton, his shotgun loaded and the breach closed. Michael Hopton and Mister George were heading back too. Nicole was sitting on the front step, a smudge of black jacket and blonde hair. Raine turned and raised a fist to me before she joined them. I smiled and waved. The smile did not reach my eyes.
Tenny and Lozzie were already indoors, given free run of Twil’s video game consoles. But I spied a little silken black face peering out of one window.
Zheng said nothing, just brooded in silence. I let out a long, slow, shaking breath.
“You are nervous, shaman.”
I turned a gentle frown on her. Zheng was a dark silhouette against the rustling trees, her sharp-edged eyes somehow cold in the bright sunlight. “Yes, well spotted. I am very nervous.”
“Your tentacles are tense.”
I huffed. I thought of saying something like how could you tell? But I was too irritatingly polite for my own good. Besides, Zheng didn’t deserve to be the target of my own bottled fears. I gestured at Evee — with a tentacle, so she wouldn’t see. She wasn’t wearing her modified 3D glasses, not yet.
“Evee is terrified,” I said.
“Raine is ready for violence. Real violence. I know not everybody can see it, but I can.”
“Felicity is … I don’t know. I don’t know what she’s capable of.”
“It didn’t really hit me until we were in the middle of that meeting,” I went on. “This is unspeakably dangerous, isn’t it? We’re inviting some kind of attack. A real one. I was thinking of all this more like a … I don’t know. A Maypole dance, or something.”
Zheng rumbled in contemplation. I knotted my hands together inside the front pocket of my hoodie.
“Your wizard is a wizard,” Zheng purred eventually, almost too low to hear. “Like any other. But she is … yours. She follows you. Same as I.”
I glanced at Zheng again. She was staring at Evee too, her expression unreadable, eyelids almost closed as if on the edge of sleep.
“Does that mean you’ll protect her, if you have to?” I asked.
Zheng rolled her neck from side to side, making popping noises with her spine. She rolled her shoulders, flexed her hands, and did not answer — possibly because Twil was trudging across the field toward us, skirting the edge of the circle. She shot me a grin and waved.
“Twil”, I called softly. “You’re not meant to leave your spot.”
“Yeah, yeah,” she said as she jogged the rest of the distance, curly dark hair bouncing on her shoulders. “But we ain’t started yet, right? Least not the main event. You doing okay, yeah? Looked at you through these.” She waggled the modified, black-rimmed glasses she was holding in one hand. “You look sort of nervous. Tentacles all bunched up and stuff. Bit on edge, you know?”
Zheng said nothing. I pursed my lips.
“Ah?” Twil said, catching my expression. She even took a half-step back.
“Yes,” I sighed. “I am nervous. Evee is more nervous, can you not see that?”
“Evee?” Twil looked out into the middle of the field. “I mean, yeah, duh. Evee’s always nervous about this sorta shit.”
“More than usual. Twil, she’s terrified! She’s bottling it up, and I … I don’t know what to do.”
Twil eyed Zheng briefly, then shrugged and carried on. “It’s easy, Big H. Just be there for her when this is done. Everything’s gonna go off fine, then we can all have tea and you can rub her back or whatever.”
I didn’t find that particularly reassuring. “What if it doesn’t go off fine? What if we get attacked? What if Evee is wrong?”
Twil shrugged. “We’ll deal. Hey, between Zheng and me, we can take anything. You’re here too, for like, spooky tentacle magic bullshit. There’s at least three guns here. And uh, Seven-whatever, too, right?”
Twil nodded past Zheng and around the curve of the circle. Much to my growing consternation Sevens had also left her post and was heading around the circle to join us. Aym trailed in her wake, clutching Sevens’ pale palm through a handful of black lace. Aym looked like a stick dressed in black robes.
“Oh yes,” I said when they approached, unable to keep the sarcasm out of my voice. “Everybody just abandon Evee’s plan and come join me instead. Sevens, you know where you’re supposed to stand.”
The Yellow Princess replied with a tilt of her chin and a mute flash of her eyes. She cocked that umbrella like a walking stick against the ground, daring me to answer. I frowned, refusing to back down.
“You need to stay where Evee said to stay,” I muttered.
“The ritual has not yet begun,” said Seven-Shades-of-Technical-Insubordination. “Aym and I shall return to our appointed section of the circle momentarily.”
Twil squinted. “Wait a sec, what are you gonna do with the spooky goth kid if we do have to fight something?”
Sevens answered as if this was a very tiresome question. “If I must don another face, Aym will leave for the house.”
I frowned down at the deep-hooded, faceless demon-thing. Not a sliver of flesh was visible beyond the lace. “You better not bother our hosts, if that happens.”
Sevens said, “Aym has a message for you, kitten.”
Kitten utterly and unexpectedly disarmed me. Zheng grunted — I think it was a laugh — while Twil snorted and covered her mouth, then waved away my embarrassed and offended look.
“Aym?” Sevens prompted, as if the coal-sprite horror was a nervous child. I was about to sigh and roll my eyes when Aym finally spoke up.
“She is desperately in love with you,” Aym said from deep within her hood, in a voice like needles thrust into a mouldy pie. “You horrible fuck. Stop stringing her along.” Aym paused, perhaps to savour my shock, then added: “Bitch-arse bitchy bitch,” which rather undermined the spooky little girl aspect of her current outfit.
“Yes, I know!” I almost shouted. Halfway across the field, the three mages looked up, so I lowered my voice, face hot with embarrassment. I huffed and puffed and wriggled my hands free from inside my hoodie so I could gesticulate pointlessly. “I know! Everybody knows! Twil knew before I did. Zheng probably finds it obvious. Sevens certainly knows. And Evee herself knows it full well, even if we don’t … don’t talk about … oh, for pity’s sake, we have a relationship. It’s just … awkward. Don’t mess things up for us, Aym.”
The twig wrapped in black rags looked up at me. There was nothing but darkness inside her hood.
“Dumb-arse,” she said.
A call echoed across the field like the toll of a soft and distant bell: “Places, please.” Praem, telling us all to get back into position. She was standing with the mages, inside the inner circle.
Evee wore a frustrated little frown on her face, gesturing with her walking stick for us all to stop mucking about. I composed myself, still burning red, and tried to look professional. I didn’t fool anybody, least of all myself. I had no idea what I was doing.
The others trailed off to their own positions. Sevens shot me an ice-cold look as she left. Perhaps an apology for Aym saying that, I wasn’t sure. Zheng stayed by my side — as Evelyn had so carefully stipulated, I was not to be left actually alone during all this. Twil bounded away. Amanda Hopton took up position on the far side of the circle, in case the hovering bubble-servitors should need any extra direction. The things were everywhere — one of them bobbed not ten feet behind Zheng and I, watching the tree-line. I tried to take some solace in that. I did, in a way, trust Hringewindla, even if his judgement was a bit strange.
Once every participant, guard, and observer had assumed their proper positions, Felicity raised a hand and turned in a circle, checking that everybody was watching, everybody was on the same page, and everybody was ready. The alpacas and sheep were tucked away inside their stable. The unaltered humans were by the front door. One could have heard a pin drop.
Felicity lowered her hand and said something to Evee. Praem turned and raised her voice.
The twenty minutes which followed were among some of the longest and most uncomfortable of my life. Nineteen minutes and thirty three seconds, according to Evee, but it felt like hours. The minutes slithered along as the three mages stood at equidistant points in the inner circle, whispering bits of language lost to the wind and the rustle of the trees. Seconds crawled slower and slower as I saw Evelyn spit blood, as Felicity turned away to cough red into a handkerchief, and as Kimberly shook with barely contained anxiety. She had the most pivotal role in this, of course. I wished she’d had somebody to support her in that inner circle, as Evee had Praem, but perhaps that would have been too awkward for her, considering what she had to do.
Evelyn had told us to brace for “anomalous atmospheric phenomena”, “auditory hallucinations”, and “possibly vertigo, but that’s unlikely. If you have to vomit, make sure you do it outside the circle. Don’t break the lines.”
So when the ambient air temperature plummeted by ten degrees, we were ready. I put my hands back in my pockets. Zheng gently slid my hood up for me. When the air grew thick with illusory heat-haze, we were mostly prepared, though it was very strange to blink away the blurred ground and wavering air, only for it to re-form seconds later, like a layer of oil on one’s own eyeballs. Nobody freaked out — not too much, anyway — when the air began to sizzle and crackle with something akin to static electricity, moving in waves across one’s clothes.
Vaguely unnatural, but they were hardly the stuff of nightmares. A light show, at best.
Nobody was ready for the vertigo. Evelyn had grossly underestimated it. To be fair, she probably hadn’t expected it to be that bad.
At about six minutes into the spell, into the concentration and chanting and mage-ly communal bleeding, the ground began to fall away.
My earlier sense of the outer circle as the edge of a pit suddenly became all too real. The earth tilted toward a black and gaping mouth; yet it was still level and flat, my senses providing two conflicting sets of data. The inside of the outer circle was a void, hundreds of feet deep; yet the grass was still there, close enough to touch, healthy and green in the blushing sun. The mages in the middle were suddenly very far away, tiny specks on the edge of perception; yet I could see Evee’s brow still furrowed in concentration.
Illusion or not, the vertigo caused a general panic. Everyone perceived that impossible pit and felt their feet sliding toward the precipice. I found myself clinging to Zheng with a tentacle, lashed to her like an octopus to a rock. Zheng had one hand on the fence, fingers cracking the wood. Twil had gone full werewolf, all bared teeth and bristling fur, claws dug into the dirt. Sevens, to my later amusement, had picked Aym up in both arms, like carrying a small child, and was braced as if against a terrible wind. Amanda Hopton was a vaguely human-shaped blob beneath the gooey, gluey anchor of a dozen of her god’s angels.
Even the bubble-servitors felt it, scudding upward like greasy clouds, trying to escape a sucking gravity well.
The circle was a void, the open maw of something from which the mages were stealing power, a sucking wound in the universe itself. It was an affront to reality and I knew with a bleeding certainty that to step on it was death. Abyssal instinct quivered. I half-climbed up Zheng. Somebody screamed. Maybe me. Maybe Evee.
All I knew for certain was that Evelyn opened her eyes and went white as a sheet, eyes pointed downward into that void just beyond the inner circle. Praem said something to her, lips moving, but it didn’t help.
I squirmed onto Zheng’s shoulders and stuck all my tentacles up in the air, all except the one I was using to hold onto Zheng. I pushed their strobing rainbow pulses to maximum brightness.
Evee’s eyes rose and found the rainbow glow. She stared, nodded, and returned to the spell.
In a way, the shock — which was probably an illusion in the end — helped undercut the deep embarrassment of the core part of the spell. While we were all busy getting our monkey brains in a panic over a big hole in the ground, in the middle of the inner circle Kimberly was taking off all her clothes.
We’d all been warned about this part in advance. Kimberly had repeated over and over that she was willing to do this. Evelyn lacked the physical strength; Felicity was capable, but she had to keep certain parts of her body covered, for magical reasons, and this part of the spell required actual full-body nudity.
Nobody had made a single joke during planning. Not Raine, not Twil, not even Aym. If anybody had dared, I think I would have slapped them with a tentacle.
Shaking and shivering, well aware that everybody was politely averting their eyes — or too busy up-chucking their guts onto the front steps of the farmhouse, overcome by vertigo — Kimberly stepped right into the very centre of the inner circle, spread her arms wide, closed her eyes, and held her breath.
Praem then emptied both buckets of bull’s blood directly over Kimberly’s head.
She did it slowly and carefully, so not too much blood went off target and splattered across the ground. Once she was done, she tore open the smaller packets of blood and began painting symbols on Kim’s back, with a little brush. Kimberly stood there shivering, eyes screwed tight, as the mages made her into a conduit for a metaphorical trebuchet rock we were about to hurl at Edward Lilburne.
When I’d asked her one last time the previous night, Kimberly had struggled to explain why she’d agreed to play the central role.
“It’s no danger to me,” she’d said. “I trust Evelyn. I trust Fliss too, though … I don’t know why.”
“Yes, I trust Evee too,” I’d said, unable to keep the deep and concerned frown off my face. “But that doesn’t mean you have to agree to get covered in animal blood in front of everybody. Naked, too. Let Felicity do it. She’s more experienced.”
“Fliss has a lot of burn scars. A lot. Really. She doesn’t want to be exposed.” Kimberly had smiled with surprising gentleness, but then again she had been red-eyed with cannabis. “I don’t mind. I don’t think I’m really ugly or anything. And it’s not like anybody’s going to perv over me in the middle of a spell like that. Everyone’ll be too busy getting dizzy and stuff.”
And so we were. Praem finished the design on Kimberly’s back, daubing pale skin with crimson blood. That black hole in the earth yawned wide, sucking down great heaving mouthfuls of air. The treetops themselves leaned inward, pulled low by otherworldly force.
Kimberly raised her arms over her head, eyes screwed shut, crying softly. For a split-second I thought I could hear Evelyn’s voice and Felicity’s voice together, a jumbled, impossible, burning whisper of sounds not meant for human throats.
Then, a hypnic jerk. A blink, as if reality itself had briefly closed and reopened.
And then we were all just standing in a field, in the middle of the woods, on a bright and sunny day. The ground was the ground, nothing more, nothing less. I was clinging to Zheng’s back, panting. In the middle of the circle the mages all stumbled — Praem caught Evee, Felicity whirled and almost fell over, while Kimberly stood there, shivering and clutching her naked body, caked in bull’s blood, slowly drying in the sun.
None of us had expected it to end so suddenly. A moment of shock made us all take a breath.
“Everyone move!” Evelyn spat at the top of her lungs, then coughed blood into the crook of her arm. Praem was already picking her up. The spell was over, time to get indoors, just in case.
Zheng didn’t peel me off her shoulders, she just dropped into a loping run with me still attached, headed for Kimberly like a bird of prey.
I almost enjoyed the ride; after all, the spell had worked, we were done. All we had to do was bundle everybody indoors and commence waiting. Time to run Kimberly the most luxurious bath of her life and play video games with Tenny. Time for tea and talking and maybe making sure that Evelyn wasn’t so afraid anymore. There was barely time to think — riding Zheng was like riding the wind. I clung on tight.
On our left, a quarter-way around the field, just behind Twil, something dark and low burst from the tree-line.
A blur, almost as fast as Zheng. Lean muscle and sharp teeth. Canine-shaped, without fur, and wrong.
It shot under the fence like a bullet, straight past Twil, weaving between the bubble-servitors that crashed into the ground like little comets trying to smash and smother this interloper. It shot for the centre of the circle, ignoring all else, aimed straight at Kimberly.
Magic is weird. Evelyn is a good strategist. And Kimberly is horribly vulnerable. Zheng is fast and Heather is so very throwable.
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Next week, woof woof. Who’s faster?
Mentions of animal death, bones, and the meat industry
Single reference to domestic violence
Grey eternity walled the horizon with banks of towering rot, blanketed the sky with a sea of frozen lead, and choked the earth with a witch’s brew of endless mud. The swamp crawled off in every direction, thick and soupy with wet soil, sluggish with unseen currents, all the colours of concrete, dead leaves, and ash. Trees shaped like skeletal alien hands reached for the ceiling of simmering grey cloud cover, draped with sheets of grey vegetation, their ends trailing in the water below, rotting from the bottom up with slick grey decay. Far to our left the trees fell away before a mud-flat the size of a continent, the skies raked and smeared by the torrential rainfall of a distant storm; on the right the trees reared taller, growing into swamp giants, silent sentinels for the half-glimpsed tower of grey stone, lost in the ragged ends of greasy grey mist.
The air was sharp and pinched in one’s nose: salt and soil, heavy and dark, with undertones of sulphur and organic rot.
“Cor’,” Raine said behind me, flapping her arms to keep herself warm while we waited. “They always told me it’d be grim up north.”
I didn’t look round at her, though Raine’s stunning visage would offer a welcome break from my improvised vigil, tempting me to fall back from self-imposed discipline. But I didn’t have the right. I kept my eyes on the carcass, watching the patch of dark red spreading into the grey mud, tainting this dimension with a crimson blush.
“It’s not the north, Raine,” I sighed. “We’re Outside.”
“Maybe this is their north. You never know. Maybe the Shamblers speak Geordie. Maybe we should offer them some Newcastle Brown to go with the meal.”
Zheng rumbled like a half-awake tiger, and said, “They will come, little wolf. The blood is in the air.”
Zheng was sitting on the rocks a little way ahead of me, so I could see her without turning away from our sacrifice. Cross-legged, straight-backed, eyes heavily lidded as she stared at the meat, she looked like a monk meditating on some lonely Himalayan mountain peak. She’d taken up station between myself and the swamp waters as soon as she’d finished her task with the carcass; I suspected that was an act of silent protection, a bodyguard between myself and the Shamblers, lest something go wrong. Raine had her pistol inside her jacket, as always, but that meant nothing in this place, with these creatures. Zheng’s muscles didn’t mean anything either. If the Shamblers wished me ill they could simply step past her, but I wasn’t about to say that out loud. My protectors and lovers needed to feel useful.
Raine clicked her tongue. “Amazed you can smell it over the swamp. This place reeks. Twil would hate it. Or love it, I’m not sure which.”
“Pongy,” said Lozzie, muffled by the hand clamped over her own nose.
“Not long now, mooncalf,” Zheng purred. “I hear them moving.”
The Shambleswamp felt colder than my previous visits. A nip in the air, enough to chill the skin and leave behind a paradoxical thin sweat, but not enough to mist one’s breath. It was quieter too, no distant hooting from deeper among the trees, as if the locals were sheltering from the brief chilly spell. Not so unlike back home in England, though I doubted the Dimensional Shamblers switched to wearing shorts at the first sign of sun. The only loud noise we’d heard while waiting was something massive shouldering its way through the trees, many miles away to our right, sloshing and wallowing, large enough to briefly shake those redwood-sized giants.
I was wearing both hoodie and coat, hands burrowed deep in my pockets, wrapped in my own tentacles for extra insulation. Upon first arrival we’d realised the temperature was slightly risky for us. We didn’t know how long we’d have to wait, how quickly the Shamblers would respond to our arrival, or the blood-scent in the air. And I was set on waiting. Lozzie had hopped back and returned with more layers for myself and Raine, though Zheng wore only her big shapeless jumper and a pair of jeans. I longed to cuddle up against her internal heat, feel the furnace of her skin on mine.
It couldn’t possibly get that cold here. The mud would freeze, the plants would die — or would they? It wasn’t as if I’d ever seen a single insect out here. This ecosystem was not earthly, it did not run by our rules, even if the Shamblers were interdimensional ambush predators.
As I stood there on the little rocky outcrop — the low and dry island where Natalie and Turmy had passed their Outside ordeal, where I’d discovered the corpse of the man Badger had called ‘Rally’, and where I’d broken Natalie’s parents — I once again tried to accept how little I understood the Outside.
But, the shrine?
I understood that, no matter how much I might deny. I understood why the Shamblers had built it here, on this low, crumbling island.
Zheng and Lozzie and I had spent several hours over the last three days combing the little rock outcrop for animal bones — the remains of the many victims of Edward Lilburne’s slow seduction of the Dimensional Shamblers. He had appealed to their unique habits of predation, and their near-constant state of semi-starvation, by feeding them kidnapped pets.
We took nine trips out and back, nine Slips, all together. This was the tenth, but not for that same purpose.
Cracked canine femurs, the delicate skulls of cats, little toe-knuckles and claws and tiny teeth, we dug them out of cracks and picked them from crevices in the rock, sometimes with kitchen knives or the stick Lozzie brought along, but often with hands, gloved or bare. Most of the remains were probably domestic cats and dogs, though we also turned up quite a few chicken bones, at least one deer skull complete with antlers, and what I think may have been parts of a pig.
To be fair, Lozzie and I did very little of the actual collecting, compared with Zheng. Lozzie didn’t like it and I wasn’t about to force her, it wasn’t her responsibility, though she did try. I put in as much effort as I could, but Zheng was just so much more efficient. We mostly let her handle it.
The morbid haul went into a black bin liner. Not exactly dignified or glamorous, but it was practical. The poor creatures would have all the dignity and respect they deserved, once they were buried in Camelot. After Zheng and Lozzie had transported the bones to the castle-under-construction, Lozzie informed me that the Knights were happy to accommodate. They already had one body to bury, why not more?
We also sent them the various collars we found. Dog collars, cat collars, some with tags still attached. We didn’t toss those into a bin liner: we took them home first, to wash them. I did that myself, in the kitchen sink, with a pair of rubber gloves and an old toothbrush, and I took my time. I felt a responsibility. I had no idea what the Knights would do with them — mount them, place them in a reliquary, nail them to the graves? But I couldn’t just leave them there.
All of that was very time consuming, but we had little else to do over those three days, other than attend university like the supposed normal people we were. The mages, as I’d come to think of them collectively — Evelyn, Felicity, and Kim — were still working on the spell to crack open Edward Lilburne’s magical shell.
They were finished now and it was almost time to make our move. Felicity had spent enough nights sleeping in her car with her shotgun clutched to her chest. Kimberly had spent enough evenings helping to collate and catalogue and refine. Sevens had spent enough days shadowing Aym. Evee was visibly exhausted.
But every time we’d come to the island to retrieve more bones, the shrine had grown.
On our first visit I thought it was a fluke, a strange coincidence, like a crop circle made by hedgehogs and mistaken for extra-human meaning: in the very middle of the rocky outcrop, on the high, flat area where the Shambler had left Rally’s corpse, three large stones had appeared. Arranged in a triangle pattern, each stone close enough to spherical, caked with a grey crust of dried mud about an inch thick, the stones looked like they’d been dredged from the bottom of the swamp. They probably had. On closer inspection the mud on each stone showed smeared impressions of clawed, three-fingered paws.
I had been unable to keep the alarm off my face. Zheng had crouched and touched my flank. “It is recognition, shaman,”
“Yes, they clearly placed them here on purpose. I can see that. But recognition of what? The dead body that was here? Are they … showing respect?”
Zheng had blinked, slow and vaguely amused. “You, shaman. This is your place now. This patch of ground.”
I had sighed and almost managed to laugh it off. “A holy mud island. Wonderful. I’ll be sure to thank them.”
It was hard to summon further laughter when the trio of stones turned into a little pyramid. The next time we returned we found that the Shamblers had piled up rocks about four feet high, then slathered on great globs of mud until the shape was almost regular, roughly four-sided. When we visited again the following day the mud had dried to a hard grey crust. The Shamblers must have gone at it with their claws, or perhaps basic tools: each pyramid face was made smooth, with neat angles, perfect.
“Who do you think they learned this from?” I asked, staring at the thing in muted awe, then looking out at the swamp and the trees, the endless grey. We hadn’t seen a single Shambler in the flesh, not even hiding eyes-deep out in the mud. They only added to the shrine while we were absent. “Making pyramids, that’s … ”
“Nobody!” Lozzie chirped. She was apparently delighted by all this, capering around the pyramid on tiptoes, flapping her poncho, ooh-ing and ahh-ing and calling out to any listening Shamblers: “Well done! Well done!”
“Nobody?” I echoed. “Pyramids are a human thing, aren’t they?”
Lozzie giggled at that, then made a big pfffffft sound at me. “Pyramids are pyramids! Everyone can make pyramids! They probably made it up themselves.”
Next came the offerings.
First was pieces of wood, lined up carefully at the foot of the pyramid — grey wood, or at least wood-analogue, presumably cut from those things out in the swamp which pretended to be trees. Carved into S-shapes or C-shapes or even experimental spirals and helices, then polished smooth until they shone in the weak sunless grey light. The smallest were no bigger than my palm. The largest one was three feet across.
“Art.” I was breathless, my fingers shaking as I picked up one of the little twists of wood. “They’re giving us art. How do they make this? These are so delicate. Look at this, Lozzie, look. I assumed they wouldn’t have the tools.”
Zheng grunted. “Art is universal, shaman.”
“I suppose so.”
“Pretty!” Lozzie chirped.
Bones appeared next. Not earthly bones, not bits of dog or cat which our Shambler had spirited away into the swamp at some earlier point in time, now returned to our stewardship, but Outsider bones. Grey and black, too heavy for terrestrial animals, all the wrong shapes and sizes. Long bones like femurs, smaller ones like knuckles, and one massive rib that couldn’t possibly have come from a Shambler, eight feet across and so heavy that only Zheng could lift it. The rib was left facing a different angle of the pyramid. When I inspected it, I realised it had little geometrical carvings in the surface, repeating patterns like fancy carpet. They didn’t hurt my eyes; they weren’t magical. Just art.
Skulls joined the bones. Three skulls, Shambler skulls. There was no mistaking the heavy jaw, the rearward bulge of the cranium, or the massive front-facing eye sockets. They sat separate from the other offerings, on a ridge of rock, facing the pyramid.
“Okay,” I said when we spotted them. “Okay. Those are … those are skulls. Nobody, um, nobody touch them, please? We don’t want to offend the Shamblers by messing with the positioning of their ancestors or something.”
“They are giving them to you, shaman.”
“Do not touch those, Zheng. Do not. Please. We have no idea what they’re doing! They could be telling us off for interfering!”
Wooden sculptures, bone trophies, their own venerated dead. We had no idea what any of this meant and I felt as if we were on very thin ice, doing something risky beyond my own understanding — and not because we might get hurt. The Shamblers could not really hurt me, after all.
I was worried for them. They were inventing religion, or perhaps re-orienting their pre-existing beliefs. Around me. It made me feel sick and guilty. I had done this, I had to correct it, quickly.
Finally came the hand-prints and the random pieces of bric-a-brac.
The last time we had returned to the Shambleswamp, the pyramid itself was no longer a smooth-sided monument, but riddled with the three-clawed impressions of dozens of Shambler paws, each one pressed into the dry mud with the help a little swamp water to soften the surface. Each hand print stood alone, not overlapping with others. A record of attendance, or witness, or worship? I wished I knew. I had to know.
The stuff they left around the pyramid that final time was far less regular: half a skull, not Shambler at all but something far more alien, sleek and sharp and elongated, a shape which made me shiver and made Zheng instinctively growl; a long stick of wood, much darker than the grey trees populating the swamp; a piece of grey brick, unmistakably artificial, with some scraps of grey mortar still clinging to the top edge; a rust-covered tool about the length of my arm, so warped with age and water that none of us could figure out what it was; a chipped ceramic mug, white, filthy, with no maker’s mark; a book, absolutely ruined by exposure to the swamp, the pages so fragile that we dare not open it, the leatherbound cover shrivelled like skin on a dead skull, but the whole thing had been so carefully kept away from the water that it was still intact; and finally, most bizarrely, a wheel, complete with a narrow ring of decaying rubber and a rust-caked metal core. It looked like it belonged on a classic car which had spent the last fifty years sitting at the bottom of the North Sea.
“That settles one question,” I said with a sigh, hands shoved deep in my pockets to stop my fingers from shaking. “They’ve definitely had contact with Earth, before Edward.”
“Mages cannot leave well enough alone,” said Zheng.
“True. Very true, I suppose. Zheng, do you recall when we came here with Natalie’s parents — one of the Shamblers, one of the big pair who stayed in the rear, he was holding a length of stainless steel pipe?”
I shrugged. “Or she. Maybe their sexual dimorphism is the other way around. But that’s not the point.”
“Do you think they’re learning to make and use tools, or … ” I trailed off and sighed. “Why do all this?”
“Meat, shaman. We gave them meat.”
I winced at that. All my fault. Unintended consequences and spiralling knock-on effects of my stupid, rash, foolish actions. “That may have been a terrible mistake,” I said slowly. “I sincerely hope we haven’t accidentally started a cargo cult. They don’t deserve to get so confused. I don’t want them to think I’m a god, coming out of the sky and blessing them with meat. It’s wrong. It’s really, really wrong, Zheng. I have to … change their minds. Show them I’m just— we’re just— oh, I don’t know.”
Zheng listened in silence, staring out into the swamp. Lozzie chewed her lip, worried by my harsh tone of voice.
“You do not exploit them, shaman. You do not use them.”
“Yeah!” Lozzie chirped. “It’s not like you’re taking stuff from them.”
I stared out into the swamp too, at the sucking, cloying, soupy mud. This was not a place for us, we were not evolved for it, we had no rights here. “They won’t even show themselves. Won’t approach us. Are they scared, respectful, confused? What about the one I befriended? She must know I won’t hurt her. I didn’t want to hurt her. I won’t.”
Zheng grunted a soft laugh. “They have learned to hate and fear mages. They have learned well.”
When it was just the stones and the mud, just the pyramid, I could tell myself it was a monument to the dead man they hadn’t understood, to Rally. Or perhaps an acknowledgement of Natalie’s bravery and Turmy’s protective powers. Even when the offerings had started to appear I had held out hope that one of the Shamblers would see me on the island, stumbling around and scrabbling for bits of bone between the cracks, cleaning my fingers with wet wipes, protected and shepherded by Zheng, and conclude this weird little swaddled ape was not a god, but just another creature like them. But the worshippers themselves never appeared, the offerings grew in size and complexity, and beyond the offerings themselves I could feel an attention on me, on all of us, especially when we examined the last wave of offerings — the hand prints, the skulls, the rare trophies.
That tower of grey blocks far off to the right was watching us. I spent a long time on that final trip just staring at it over the tops of the tall trees, past the thickening mist, outlined against the roiling grey sky.
I felt an obligation to reply.
At first I’d asked Lozzie if she could communicate for me. She knew Outside far better than I ever would. But when I’d broached the idea she had bitten her lip and swayed from side to side, hands tucked away beneath her pastel poncho.
“Mmmmmmmm this isn’t really my sort of place?” she had said. “Too solid, no dreams. No dreamers, either! I’d have to dream it. Talking to them like this? Noooo way. Plus, this is all about you, Heathy, isn’t it?”
Lozzie had a good point. She was still willing to help, though. After a little more negotiation, we had settled on the cow carcass.
That was what lay sinking into the pudding-thick swamp mud, a little ways out from the island: the skinned and prepared carcass of a cow, raw and bloody, leaking red into the grey. Lozzie had sourced it for us — stolen it, to be more accurate and honest — fresh from some unthinkable production line. She had reappeared on the island looking a little white and queasy, one hand on the massive hunk of raw meat. I didn’t blame her. It was one thing to steal a side of beef from a Sharrowford butcher’s shop, another entirely to Slip into a slaughterhouse.
“I-I’m fine!” she’d squeaked. “You know! It’s just kind of nasty and bloody and stuff!”
The way she laughed, high-pitched and itching, reminded me too much of how she’d laughed down in the bowels of the cult’s castle, ragged with captivity. I would never ask her to do this again. Raine gave her a hug — it was a good thing she’d come along, on this special trip before we turned our attention elsewhere. Lozzie had buried her face in Raine’s shoulder.
Zheng had picked up the dead cow and hurled it out into the mud for us, a long, low throw to minimize splash-back.
Then we waited for the Shamblers.
Zheng might have heard them moving, but the rest of us couldn’t. Behind me, Raine rummaged in her leather jacket and pulled out her compass again, turning on the spot with little scuffs of her boots against the rocks.
“Weird, weird, weird,” she murmured. “Just spins.”
“I told youuuu!” Lozzie crooned. “Nope-nope-nope! Not gonna work!”
Raine laughed and said, “Any luck we’re never gonna have to navigate through this place anyway. You’d need a hovercraft on that mud. Think Evee can source us a hovercraft? How much do you reckon one goes for, hey?”
“Million pounds!” Lozzie chirped. “I have no idea!”
Zheng said, “If the watcher in the tower wishes to talk, it can come to us.”
Raine clicked her tongue. “Can, sure. Rather it didn’t, though. Don’t meet your idols and all that. You know who’s up there, Loz?”
I felt Lozzie shake her head. “Naaah.”
Raine let out a big sigh, half performance, half trying to relax. She had requested to come along for this final trip, as moral support for me, but I should have refused. Outside was taxing on the soul and mind of any human being, and Raine was as human as could be. It was much less pressure than Carcosa, but worse than Camelot. Raine was holding up well, doing her best not to show it, but I didn’t want her to have to stay here any longer than necessary. If the Shamblers didn’t come soon, I didn’t know what I would do. Send her back with Lozzie? She’d never agree.
I stared at the bloody meat of the dead cow, out in the mud, and said, “I’m thinking of going vegetarian.”
Raine had been in the middle of telling Lozzie a joke, but she stopped dead. Zheng looked up, eyes neutral, heavy-lidded, curious. Lozzie peered around my other side, but I just kept staring at the dead cow, the raw meat, the reply.
“For real?” Raine asked, utterly devoid of prior judgement or doubt. I could have turned and kissed her, if I wasn’t so focused.
“That cow didn’t consent to come Outside,” I went on. “Look at it. We didn’t kill it ourselves. We didn’t have to do the deed. We just … well, I suppose we didn’t buy it. But we should have done it ourselves. I should have … oh, I don’t know.” I sighed. “Sent Zheng to hunt a cow for us? Slit the throat myself? I don’t know what I’m saying.”
“Hey, you wanna go veggie,” Raine said, “I’ll go with you. Or at least try my best.”
“I don’t know,” I repeated. “I wouldn’t ask you to do that. I just … I wish we’d killed it ourselves. There’s more respect in that.”
“Mm,” Zheng agreed with a dark purr. “Hunting is sacred, shaman. Your gut knows.”
I finally took a deep breath and smiled at Zheng, then turned to reassure Raine with the same smile, but the pyramid stood right behind her, framing her black leather jacket with grey mud and mottled bone, flanked by that trio of silent skulls. Lozzie bumped her head against my arm, a bit like a cat.
“We don’t have to stay,” Raine said when my face faltered. “I’m sure they’ll get the point.”
I shook my head and wiggled one hand out of my coat pocket, holding the apple I’d brought from the kitchen. “I want them to see me,” I said. “They have to see me. They have to see me eating, like them. I need them to know I’m just flesh. I’m not a god, and I’m not going to pretend to be one. I have to correct this mistake.”
Zheng turned back to the swamp. “This is why you are no mage, shaman.”
Raine nodded in total acceptance, not merely indulging or humouring me. She put her compass away, the needle still spinning wildly, and stepped up so she was by my side. “I should have brought my shades, a pint of hair gel, and maybe an electric guitar.”
I blinked at her, utterly confused. “I’m sorry?”
Lozzie snorted. Raine grinned and explained. “I figure, hey, maybe if I introduce them to how cool I am, they’ll stop worshipping you and switch to me instead. Convert the lot of them. Problem solved.”
I shook my head, not even really laughing. “Raine, you can’t play guitar. Can you?”
“Dimensional Shamblers won’t know the difference.” Raine stuck her thumbs into her belt loops, raised her chin, and shot me a wink. I blushed a little, rolling my eyes, but it was exactly what I needed.
Zheng turned out to be right. The first Shamblers trickled in a few minutes later.
Many of the leathery-skinned, angler-fish-faced creatures appeared as if from nowhere, almost perfectly camouflaged against the grey world of mud and hanging vegetation and reaching trees. It was impossible to tell if they’d crept up through the swamp or just materialised already waist-deep in the waters. Others glided in from behind the tangles of trees, with only their huge black eyes showing above the surface, like crocodiles sneaking up on prey. A few of them openly waded through the swamp waters, heavy limbs somehow making quick work of the thick and sucking mud. All of them were silent as ghosts.
They came to the carcass in ones or twos, and a few trios as well, to rip off nice big chunks of meat, a helping of raw steak for each Shambler. Once acquired, they retreated a little way to join a rough circle of slow eaters, slicing meat and cracking bones with their teeth. I noted that they ate with surprisingly small bites. Family groups crouched or squatted together, but many just stood alone, or with companions the same age. The smaller ones — younger, I assumed — took comparatively smaller portions, but I noticed that the largest and most scarred, the battle-worn and aged Shamblers, did not take more than any other adult.
I couldn’t figure out a pecking order, but there was a social convention. They were exceptionally careful not to get in each others’ way, not to block another’s path, or push ahead at the same time. Sometimes two Shamblers would pause equidistant from the bleeding beef, if it seemed like their paths might intersect. Then they would stay locked in each others stare for long moments. Often one would eventually move again, and the other would wait, or take a different route.
Twice we witnessed this stand-off result in what looked like acceptance instead of avoidance — two Shamblers paused, waited in silence, then moved ahead together, close enough to touch.
“You think they’re making friends?” Raine whispered to me, from the corner of her mouth.
“I hope so,” I murmured back.
Only one time did we see the opposite unfold.
Two Shamblers who were among the last to approach the corpse almost came to blows. One of them was huge, a swamp gorilla giant of grey muscle and little spines, covered in raking scars. I vaguely remembered him as the one I’d seen holding the length of stainless steel pipe — but the weapon was nowhere to be seen. Maybe I was mistaken. As he went for the dead cow, another Shambler approached as well, not quite as large, and missing most of one forearm.
They paused. Watched. Waited. The bigger one went to move ahead, but the amputee Shambler moved at the same time, sloshing the mud around their thighs. The pair repeated the process. Pause. Lock stares. Move — again, both at the same moment, overlapping, out of sequence. This process went on twice more until they were close enough to touch.
And touch they did. The bigger one snapped his blunt angler-fish jaws at the smaller Shambler. The smaller Shambler seemed unafraid, opened its mouth, and hooted.
It was like a chimpanzee crossed with a hippo, a hooting, bellowing noise of offense and question. Up until that moment none of the Shamblers had spoken, communicated, or made any vocalisations at all. I flinched hard. Zheng stood up. Even Raine took a sharp breath.
The bigger Shambler swiped at the smaller one. The smaller one took the blow — an open-pawed strike to the ribs — and struck back with a knuckle-slap in the larger one’s face. The larger Shambler jerked round and raised both paws.
“Stop!” I yelled, flaring my tentacles out in a fan-halo of strobing rainbow.
My breath was pounding like bellows, my heart racing, my bioreactor aching to ramp up production. Watching the start of a physical fight so close to me had set off so many instinctive alarm bells, I couldn’t help myself.
They couldn’t possibly have understood the word, but they couldn’t mistake my tone. Both Shamblers lurched backward from one another and looked up at me.
All throughout the process of sharing the carcass, the Shamblers had cast dull-eyed, disinterested glances in my direction. These two were the same, despite the violence. Perhaps that’s just how they looked.
“Oh no,” I whispered through my teeth. “No, they shouldn’t listen to me. They shouldn’t have me adjudicating their disagreements, no, I don’t want this, I—”
“Naughty naughty!” Lozzie chirped. “No fighting!”
“Yeah,” Raine added, “come on lads. Share and share alike.”
Zheng just growled.
That seemed to do the trick. The bigger of the two Shamblers glided through the remaining mud and ripped two chunks of meat off the cow carcass. Then he waded back over and gave one of the two chunks to the smaller one. We watched in awe as the smaller Shambler accepted the meal, then leaned over, stuck out its tongue, and licked the larger Shambler’s flank in a single, long stroke of rough grey tongue. The larger one appeared not to notice.
“Did we just … ” I cleared my throat. “Did they already know each other?”
“Assume so,” Raine said. “Regular brawl, maybe.”
“They are mates,” Zheng rumbled.
I blinked at her. “Excuse me?”
“I can smell it on them.”
“O-oh. Um.” I cleared my throat again, a touch embarrassed. “Did we stop an incident of domestic violence?”
“No more than playing,” Zheng said. I wondered if she was just humouring me. “A real fight would be bloody, and quick.”
Dozens of Shamblers stood and squatted and hunched and hung, in a semi-circle before the island, before their shrine. Before me. Dozens more could be on their way — they hadn’t stripped the carcass down to the bones yet — but Raine was taking deep, intentional, calming breaths. Lozzie was restless. And Zheng was up on her feet, flexing her hands.
I spotted our Shambler, the one who had led me to Natalie, the one which Edward had tried to train. She was munching away near the middle of the group, looking directly at me. As I maintained eye contact, the others slowly joined her, until at least half the group was watching.
Raine gently nudged me in the ribs. “Go on, then. Show ‘em you’re human.”
I pulled a sour smile, tucking my tentacles back in close to my body. “That might be difficult.”
“You know what I mean, squid-girl. Show ‘em you’re just squid. And a beautiful one at that.”
I blushed faintly. Lozzie giggled behind her hands. Raine looked proud.
But stuck to my lame and minimalistic plan: I raised the apple to my mouth and took a bite, a nice deep crunch. Before my assembled congregation I chewed, swallowed, took another bite, chewed, swallowed, grew tired of chewing, slowed down, and made a show of being sort of bored with eating the apple.
“Oh, Raine, what am I doing?” I muttered after another swallow. “How do we know this is even going to work? They probably think this is important somehow.” I raised my voice to the Shamblers. “Don’t worship me, okay? I’m just a thing, like you! Look, I’m eating! I don’t even particularly like it! This apple is a bit old and I think it’s a red delicious, so it’s … bad. It’s a naff apple. Divine visitors do not eat naff apples.”
The Shamblers did not understand low-quality fruit production, nor a word of what I said to them. They ate their meat, watching me with plate-sized black eyes, thinking alien thoughts.
“Oh, blast it all,” I said.
One of the swamp gorillas let out a low, soft hoot in my direction.
“Thank you,” I said, under no illusion that it was an actual reply to me.
“You’re doing your best, Heather,” Raine said.
Zheng agreed. “They see, shaman. They see.”
I sighed and turned my gaze briefly to the grey stone tower far to our right, past the giant trees and through the thick mist. It was silent too, though I could feel the sense of being watched crawling over my skin. I hoped whatever lived there treated the swamp apes well. I hoped the inhabitant of the tower understood the portion of this statement which was directed to them: these creatures are under my protection, even if I’m not present; I am not a danger. Maybe come say hi?
“I only hope it’s enough,” I muttered.
I left out the other half of that sentence: in case we never come back again.
The siege-spell was ready.
Crafting the magic had consumed three full days, not counting the initial scraps of disorganised work before Kimberly had joined in. Three days of Evee and Fliss with their heads down in the magical workshop, with the rest of us walking on eggshells lest something set Evee at the older mage’s throat; three days of pretending to be normal, going to classes, never knowing what exactly I would return to; three days of Kimberly coming home from her job at the florists, donating hours of her free time to keeping the less level-headed mages on track; three days of knowing Aym was lurking in the walls and beneath the beds, held back only by Sevens sticking to her like glue.
By the time Evelyn put the finishing touches on the magic circles and the rigorously recorded order-of-operations for the ritual, we were all emotionally exhausted.
And we still couldn’t cast it, not until the weekend.
“Don’t call it a ‘siege-spell’,” Evee grunted at me that next morning. “That’s inaccurate.” Then she blinked hard. “Actually, on second thought, yes, call it a siege spell. Use that term in public. And on the phone. Throw Edward off.”
“Door-kicker spell?” Raine suggested, between mouthfuls of cereal at the kitchen table. “We are sort of using it like a battering ram, right?”
Evelyn rolled her eyes. Praem placed slabs of buttered toast in front of her, and a mug of strong, hot, steaming tea. Evee thanked her for the breakfast and shook her head. “The spell is more like a specific, single, limited siege weapon, with one shot. But the single shot will bring down his outermost wall and reveal the keep. Metaphorically speaking. Oh hell, I hate this.”
“Catapult spell?” Raine offered.
I spoke up. “I think we should call it a trebuchet spell. Trebuchets are a kind of catapult, but they’re more reliable, sturdier, larger, more complex, and designed for heavier weights. This spell has taken too long to make and too much effort to write it off as just a little catapult.”
Evee and Raine both looked at me for a beat, surprised and possibly impressed. I felt colour creep up my face.
Evelyn shook her head. “Since when do you know so much about siege weapons?”
“Our Heather does like her castles,” said Raine.
“I just thought it was appropriate … ”
“Trebuchet,” Praem echoed like a muffled bell. She raised her perfectly manicured hands and clapped softly, exactly eight times.
Evee snorted. “Oh, so Heather gets to name it?”
“Heather is good at names,” said Praem.
Evee shrugged, giving ground before her daughter. She gave me a thin, tired, awkward smile. I smiled back and reached over to pat her hand. She wasn’t actually chagrined about me naming the spell; I knew her too well to make such an uncharitable assumption. If she was genuinely irritated she wouldn’t have smiled at all. No, she was putting on a show to distract herself from the coming assault.
Evee and I had spent two of the last three evenings together, sitting side-by-side on her bed, watching cartoons on her laptop: more small horses — ponies — along with a very long anime show, which Evelyn called a magical girl story but appeared to be about playing mahjong, a game I’d never even heard of before. Raine joined us for an hour, once, and sometimes Praem was in the room, but mostly we were simply by ourselves. I couldn’t do anything to help with the spell itself — Evee already had all the tea and biscuits and enforced bath and mealtimes she needed, courtesy of Praem — and I couldn’t help with the nerves either, the pre-murder jitters, as we silently prepared for a showdown with a terrible old man. So I did what little I could. I made sure she relaxed and watched some cartoons.
We didn’t talk about the spell, or about Edward Lilburne, or make plans. We certainly didn’t talk any more about the fade stone. The lump of white quartz had vanished from my awareness; part of me dimly thought Evee had handed it off to somebody else. Maybe Praem. Perhaps Kim. My memory wasn’t certain, only that Evee did not have it in her possession right then.
On the second of those quiet shared evenings, Evelyn nodded off with her head on my shoulder. At first I hadn’t noticed, not until she’d let out a tiny, fluttery snore and sleepily clenched a handful of my hoodie with her maimed fingers.
“Evee … ?” I whispered. “Okay, no, you’re sleeping. Okay. Okay, good, just … just sleep. Sleepy Evee, good. Yes, sleep.”
I was just about able to prepare my heart for that, for minutes or perhaps hours of Evee’s soft, fragile body weight against my side. I hadn’t been planning to spend the night in her room; I would sleep with Raine and Zheng, as always. But maybe this changed my plans.
Except Praem opened the door and stepped into the room five minutes later, moving in perfect silence so as not to wake Evee, with two unexpected figures in tow.
“P-Praem!” I mouthed silently, eyes wide, a blush washing upward through my cheeks. “She’s sleeping, she’s sleeping! It was an accident, she’s sleeping … ”
Praem simply put a finger to her lips.
Seven-Shades-of-Slumber-Study stood just inside the doorway, shoulders wrapped in yellow robe, tiny red-and-black eyes peering into the room. One hand poked out from beneath her robes, and holding that hand was the equally pale and delicate palm of a very sulky and petulant Aym.
They both stared at me and Evee for a moment, Sevens neutral, Aym pouty. Praem turned to them, expressionless, while I sat there turning into a boiled beetroot.
“See?” Sevens hissed after a moment.
Aym, head-to-toe in her black lace and multiple layers without a scrap of skin showing outside of her hands and head, rolled her eyes and let her shoulders slump, like a grumpy child who had been argued out of having a tantrum.
“See?” I echoed in a whisper. “See what? Praem, you shouldn’t have let them in here! I mean Aym, not Sevens. I mean—”
“Oh shush,” Aym whispered back, like a breeze on rusty wind-chimes. “Don’t wake her, idiot.”
They left without another word, slinking off into the corridor. Praem paused as she closed the door.
“Sleep well,” she mouthed.
That was hardly the weirdest behaviour I’d seen from Sevens and Aym over the period Felicity and her mind-goblin were forced to remain in Sharrowford. Felicity herself was strictly barred from sleeping inside Number 12 Barnslow Drive. When it became apparent that designing the spell would take more than one extra day, Evee had made a cruel joke about building a dog house in the back garden. The joke hit too close to home — Felicity was clearly and openly terrified about sleeping in a random hotel, so in the end she bedded down in the back seat of her range rover.
“Sleeping in a car?” I had asked Felicity, blinking at her in disbelief as she lingered by the front door. “Is that healthy? Are you going to be okay?”
“S’not so bad,” said Raine.
“Not so bad?” I squeaked.
Raine shrugged. “I’ve done it before. Hey, Fliss, you got plenty of blankets and stuff?”
But before Felicity herself could answer, Kimberly piped up from next to the bottom of the stairs. She and Felicity had descended together, close but not touching, a strange and unfamiliar chemistry in the air between them. It wasn’t romance, but I wasn’t sure what to call it — only to keep my nose out of other people’s love lives. I’d learned my lesson. “Um, yes, um … I have a lot of extra … sheets? Plush … stuff … um.”
“I’ll be fine,” Felicity said, about to step out of the front door and retreat to her battered old vehicle. “I know what I’m doing. Old habits die hard.”
“Ah,” Raine said, eyes lighting up. “Lived in your car before?”
“Long time ago. Before you knew me. Before I ever met Evee’s mother. Long story, another day. Besides, the car is somewhat warded. It’s safe enough.” Felicity still had her bagged shotgun over her shoulder. She patted it awkwardly. “Good night, Kim. Sleep well.”
“You too … ” said Kimberly.
All this meant that Aym never left the building. Sevens chaperoned her everywhere, mostly hand-in-hand or touching in some other fashion, though often they would vanish for hours on end and I wasn’t certain where they went. Aym did not look pleased with this arrangement. She spent the entire stretch of time “grumpy as a smacked arse” as Raine so delicately put it. I didn’t much like it either; Sevens was absent from my bed, distant and weird, though she did touch my hand several times and give me long, lingering, meaningful looks whenever we ran into each other. I could never get her alone, certainly not alone enough to ask her what she and Aym had discussed that first night, out in the dark beneath the tree.
They did talk though, a lot, but it was complete nonsense, like listening to a private language.
“But what about scorpions?” Sevens rasped.
“Scorpions.” Not a question, not from Aym.
“Several of them.”
“I never eat more than two.” Dead-panned.
“But two is not enough. You need eight to six.”
“More than enough. Bleeeeeeh.”
The first few times we overheard this meaningless patter, Aym sounded just as grumpy as she looked, as if she was reluctantly playing a game she hated. But as the days wore on she started to snort, laugh, and giggle. She and Sevens swapped nonsense back and forth at high speeds, totally beyond the rest of us.
Other than that they just hung around, reading, watching other people working, lurking upstairs like attic creatures, avoiding Zheng. Once they did attempt to play chess against Tenny. They gave Tenny the single most difficult game of her life so far, with her single head — and tentacles — against two of them. Aym crouched over Sevens’ shoulder, clicking and tutting at any tentacles which wandered too close. Not that Tenny could spare the brainpower to wonder about Aym once the game got under way. She sat rocking very gently between each move, tentacles spinning and twisting, eyes locked on the board as she chiselled out a very difficult win against the Outsider double-header.
“Yeeeeeeah!” she trilled at the end, loud enough that it could be heard down in the basement. She followed up her victory cry by hugging Lozzie, then Sevens, then Aym, which produced a horrified hiss from the nasty little mould-demon.
The storm — Aym’s personal weather, as I kept thinking of it — had cleared, sucked back into the secret place beyond the horizon from which all storms came. But summer was reluctant, spooked out of its natural place. The air warmed and the temperature improved, but the skies stayed draped with grey overcast, the sun only peeking through occasionally in weak shafts of watery light.
It was in that weak and watery light filtering through the kitchen window, that Evelyn and Felicity had their one and only real argument — real, because neither raised their voice.
“You’re hunting a mage,” Felicity said in her half-mumble. She had even looked Evee in the eyes. Kimberly hovered in the doorway to the workshop, providing a subconscious break on Evelyn’s most colourful and vile insults. Did she know that Evee would hold back in front of her? I wasn’t sure.
“That I am,” Evelyn replied, jaw tight.
“I want in. I know what that means. Make use of me. You know you can make use of me for this.”
Raine cleared her throat. “We’ve hunted mages before.”
Felicity did not glance at Raine. She spoke to Evee. “You need all the help you can get.”
Evelyn’s lip curled with naked disgust, the first hint of real hate she’d shown since they had started work together on the siege-spell. “You are asking me to give you the satisfaction, you rotten bitch. You are asking for something I can never give. Which I wouldn’t give even if I could. Even if you were on fire, you—”
Felicity flinched at that, involuntary and shuddering. I winced privately. Kimberly gasped and put a hand to her mouth.
“Oof,” Raine said. “Call her a cunt, Evee, but that’s, uh … you know.”
“Alright! Fine! Poor choice of words!” Evelyn snapped, thumping her mug down on the table so hard that she lost control of it. Praem had to step in to stop it rolling onto the floor. “I’m not giving this … this woman the satisfaction.”
Felicity had averted her eyes, cowed and silent during the outburst. “Make use of me.”
“Why should I?” Evelyn growled.
“Because I’ve done this more times than you have. I know how to kill mages. You know I do.”
In the end there was no proper agreement, no resolution, no confirmation that we would accept Felicity’s help during the hunt. But she was not explicitly barred. Evelyn never mentioned it again.
The preparations were physical as well as magical; by the end of the second day, the fridge was rammed full of blood. Bull’s blood, apparently, in a pair of sealed food-grade buckets and a number of sloshing plastic packets. I cringed every time I had to open the fridge to get food, though the blood didn’t smell, it was merely a grim reminder.
Evelyn had explained, after she saw my distress. “A hundred times easier than carting an entire live cow out there. Less chance of splattering ourselves with blood, too. We do this efficiently and properly, Heather. Leave exsanguination to the professionals.”
Felicity sourced other items too — several jars of pale ash which I dared not ask about, a single massive black feather from an ostrich, the dried husks of several kinds of woodland mushroom, and a piece of plain canvas, twenty feet across.
The canvas was for the inner circle, where the mages themselves were to stand when performing the ritual. The outer circle was going to have to be drawn live — or more likely, cut into the earth. There simply wasn’t anything reasonably large enough which we could roll up and transport with us, not for the scale this spell required.
It was also projected to take twenty solid minutes of concentration. Apparently this was a long time, in magical terms. I was worried for Evee’s health. I raised this in private, with Praem.
“They will all be cared for,” she told me.
“You can stand in the circle with her?” I asked.
“Nowhere else would I stand.”
The necessary space for this most unwieldy of spells left us few options. It had to be cast close enough to the likely area already covered by Edward Lilburne’s labyrinth of concealment, so we couldn’t just drive off into the Pennines for the day to carve occult nonsense into a hillside while Zheng scared off any unwary hikers.
“Boooo,” said Raine. “Zheng and I could have fun with that. Mad slasher in the hills! Shock! Horror!”
“Raine,” I tutted.
“No, she’s got a point,” Evelyn said, sucking on her teeth.
Felicity cleared her throat. “We would be able to see the response coming. It’s pretty clear sight-lines up on the Pennies.”
Evee tutted. “But too far away. No, it would be a waste to try.”
Our own back garden was ruled out as well. The neighbours on one side of the house may have been slightly more distant than the usual suburban squish, but they were near enough that if somebody decided to look out of their window at the wrong moment, they would see all of us busy drawing Satanic magic all over the ground. We’d probably get a visit from the police. Or worse, an exorcist and a news crew.
Kim had voiced opposition to this plan as well, for more sentimental reasons.
“I-I would really rather we not ruin the garden, regardless,” she said. “It’s got so much potential. Cutting up the grass like that … ”
Raine had patted her shoulder. “You can’t do a grow-op out in the open, Kim. Good on you for thinking of it, though.”
“I didn’t mean that!” Kimberly squeaked, deeply embarrassed. “It has real potential. It could be a lovely space. If only somebody had the time for it.”
We needed a firing position for our trebuchet: large, secluded, defensible. And the Church of Hringewindla was happy to provide.
“We want this gentleman dealt with as much as you do,” Christine Hopton said over the phone — Twil’s phone, sitting in the middle of our kitchen table after she had rocked up and presented us with the offer from her mother. “The back fields should provide plenty of space for the work, and you can do as much damage to the soil as you have to. We can clear out Amanda’s boys for the weekend. No bystanders. And of course, Hringewindla’s angels will be guarding our home, as always. They will guard you too, come what may.”
“Thank you, Christine,” Evelyn had replied. “And thank … ” A short, suppressed sigh. “Thank your Outsider for us. We accept this offer.”
“You’re very welcome. Saturday, then? What time shall we expect you?”
“Saturday, yes. Early.”
We all needed the unexpected extra two days of rest, though Evee wouldn’t admit it and Felicity didn’t seem capable of true rest.
I was, as Raine might put it, ‘wired to the gills’. That entire week I suffered a mindless, tense, undirected alertness, as if I was worried we were about to be attacked. Perhaps it was Felicity’s presence in the house, or my bruised — but not broken — trust in Evelyn, or some instinctive response to being incapable of helping. I found myself waking suddenly in the night, or standing at windows for minutes on end, watching for movement out in the street or the back garden. Raine did a good job at calming me down and distracting me whenever she noticed, but I couldn’t fulfil this drive, this need to watch our periphery, to keep my attention switched on, my eyes wide open.
We were, after all, planning to start a little war.
The trips to the Shambleswamp were a relief.
There were two people we needed to contact, of course, two minds we needed to keep in the loop of what was about to happen. One of them was Jan — or rather, Jan and July. Lozzie assured me that she’d explained everything, but Evelyn and I called Jan anyway, in case she wanted to erect a firewall between us for the next few days, or offer some help, or fly to China.
“Oh, I’m just going to pretend I don’t know you,” she said down the phone.
“Lovely,” Evelyn grunted.
“Just stay safe, okay? Send Lozzie to me if you must. And Tenny. I can always provide a safe bed!” A small, self-conscious chuckle followed. “Look, I’ve got your prospective cultists on hold, pretty much, but I’m not breathing a word about this, obviously. But if you all get turned into paste, I’m doing a runner. I’m not sticking around for Edward-whatever to extend his influence over them and have one of them shank me with a carving knife. They’ll be on their own. If you care.”
“I do care,” I said. “Thank you, Jan. We’ll be in touch.”
“Call me if you need distant artillery support, I suppose. Very distant.”
The other phone call we left until Saturday morning. As the rest of us were getting ready to depart, to pile into Raine’s car and Felicity’s range rover, or to Slip via Camelot, all of us suited and booted and with Twil hanging around Evee as if our poor mage was made of glass, Raine placed a phone call to a number that did not pick up.
“Stack,” Raine said by way of greeting, speaking a message to a voice-mail box, with a big smile on her face. She winked at the rest of us as we listened. “It’s me. You know, me. Thing is, see, we’re off to pay a visit to your old employer. You’ve been looking for him too, right? We haven’t got the directions to his place, not just yet. But we’re swinging by Brinkwood first, to get our bearings. Thought you might want in.”
Raine waited a beat, as if hoping Stack might pick up. Evee rolled her eyes and made a ‘hurry-up’ gesture. She did want us to get moving, though it wasn’t even nine in the morning yet. Tenny kept yawning. Lozzie looked like she wanted to go back to bed. Zheng stood with her eyes closed.
Raine flashed a grin at Evee and spoke on. “Well, don’t be a stranger, Stack. You wanna join us, you gimme a call any time, right here on this number. It’s gonna be quite a party. Maybe today, maybe to—”
We all heard the voice-mail system cut out. Line closed.
Raine lowered the phone and stared at it, eyebrows raised at the screen, then at us. “Ooooh, she heard that. Yes she did.”
“Do you think she’s going to join us?” I asked. “We could do with … well. That.”
“Who was that?” Felicity asked from over by the door. She had taken Kimberly’s hand — because Kim had gone white as a sheet, eyes wide in mute terror.
“Somebody you’re better off not knowing,” said Raine. She shot Kim a wink. “Don’t you worry. She won’t come anywhere near you. She’s not interested in that.”
“Ablative meat,” Evelyn grunted, swinging round toward the door on her walking stick, leaning on Praem. “She doesn’t matter. Forget her. We have enough bloody firearms as it is. Let’s go, everyone get moving. We have a war to start. And I want it over by lunchtime.”
Shamblers are weird, but also friend-shaped, hopefully not religion-shaped. Heather might not like that part. Evee, meanwhile, has everything covered. Mages gonna mage, but this seems like the most competent they’ve all been in a while. The whole gang is together, organised, and keeping things safe. Let’s hope it all goes off without a hitch.
No Patreon link this week! Instead, I figure it’s been a month, so here it is again: Katalepsis arcs 1-4 is available as an ebook and audiobook! Here’s a link to a page on the Katalepsis site with links to where you can get it! And if you want the audiobook but you don’t want to pay full price, you can get it free via the audible free trial! The podcast re-reading through the entire serial is now up to Arc 2.7-8! It’s really cool, I’m still blown away that two wonderful readers have decided to do this.
In the meantime, you can always:
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Next week, it’s catapult trebuchet time! Whee! Throwing big rocks at high speeds for fun and profit.
Discussion of gaslighting
Mention of suicide as a metaphor
Kimberly — fragile, underfed, vulnerable Kimberly Kemp, a woman more than five years my senior who I couldn’t help but think of as younger than me, with a permanent shiver in her heart and a haunted look etched into the lenses of her eyes — descended into the house to join the other mages.
She was right to ask for support: Kim spent the entire journey leaning on my arm. I even wrapped a tentacle around her waist to help hold her steady. I asked permission and warned her first, made absolutely certain she understood what I was offering, and indicated the exact spot where my invisible appendage would make contact with her garish purple hoodie. She had extracted the garment from a pile of half-clean laundry, revealing a wrap-around illustration of an elegant, gauzy, glamorous lady elf inhaling a huge lungful of green smoke from a ‘bong’ shaped like a tree. Not exactly a suitable aesthetic for a real-life magician, but I respected Kimberly’s desire to armour herself with her personal tastes, no matter how fanciful those tastes may be. She still flinched when I touched a tentacle to her waist.
Emotional time dilation stretched out that journey to the point of impossibility. I was too much in sync with Kimberly.
From the upstairs hallway to the door of the magical workshop, a distance I walked multiple times every day, the same route I shuffled and stumbled every morning on my way to breakfast, seemed to expand into a fifteen or twenty minute trudge. It was as if we picked our way through a jumbled maze of corridors and empty rooms, swaddled by the warm enclosing darkness of the house, made quiet and secret by the drizzle of rain on the roof tiles. Kimberly took the stairs down with shaking legs and trembling feet. Adrenaline, the cannabis in her bloodstream, or the impending submersion in something she’d spent months running away from — or all three of those at once. I was not going to rush her.
She paused at the foot of the stairs to look at the stout wood of the front door for a very long moment. Maybe she was thinking of leaving. I didn’t say anything. It wasn’t my place to convince her otherwise. But then Kimberly forced down a deep, shuddering breath, and pulled me onward to the kitchen, and the magical workshop beyond.
Sevens had trailed in our wake for a while, dragging her yellow robes along the floor and whispering down the steps, but I wasn’t surprised to find her gone when I looked back. Aym had vanished somewhere too; I didn’t really care where, as long as she wasn’t setting up an ambush for Evelyn.
Raised voices floated from the workshop, filling the grey light in the kitchen.
“We’re cutting,” Evelyn snapped. “Not building. Don’t make me repeat the principle a third time. Do I need to have Praem fetch a pair of scissors to illustrate?”
“Scissors, exactly,” Felicity said in her natural mumble, half her voice trapped behind the fused corner of her lips. “Scissors, that’s perfect.”
Evelyn’s reply oozed sarcasm. “Oh, yes, use a metaphor. I instantly understand what you’re talking about.”
Felicity’s voice shook; she still couldn’t stand up to Evelyn’s anger. “Scissors are a device with which to cut. But they have to be built.”
A sharp huff of breath. Raine, laughing to defuse the situation. A liquid acid giggle — Aym, enjoying the pre-fireworks show.
“Oh no,” I hissed to myself as I helped Kimberly toward the magical workshop door. “They’re already arguing. Kim, I’m sorry, I don’t think you want to step into that. Wait at the table, I’ll see what I can do.”
But Kimberly dragged me onward with a surprising burst of energy. She paused on the threshold of the magical workshop, leaning on my arm, the toes of her fluffy socks not quite touching the junction between kitchen flagstones and ex-drawing room floorboards. The argument on the other side of the threshold died, like a small animal shocked by the arrival of monsoon rains. Three pairs of eyes turned toward Kimberly in surprise — Evelyn, Felicity, and Raine. Praem stared at nothing. Raine met my eyes with a silent question. I shook my head ever so slightly, willing her not to intervene. Aym deliquesced into a glob of darkness which swallowed itself, leaving nothing behind.
Kimberly stood there, hanging on me, breathing unsteadily, eyes roving over the magical workshop, over the notes and sketched circles and open tomes on the table, down to the gateway mandala at the far end of the room, the vast and unique wonderwork of membrane-breaching that she had helped create. She hadn’t been in the workshop since then.
Evelyn spoke with a gentleness which surprised me. “Kimberly? Are you lost?”
Felicity cleared her throat. “Er, yeah. Kim? I thought you—”
Evelyn shot Felicity a dark stab of the eyes, but for once Felicity didn’t seem to care. Kimberly mattered more.
Kim swallowed so hard I thought she would choke on her own saliva. Her arm tightened on mine, a woman wrapping herself around a piece of driftwood in a storm. She murmured so softly that I suspected even I wasn’t meant to hear: “Oh, I need another hit. I need to be baked out of my mind for this.”
I whispered back. “I can go fetch your ‘spliff’ for you, if you want?”
Kimberly couldn’t have looked more embarrassed if I’d offered to wipe her bottom for her. I blushed too, in empathetic horror. She shook her head. “No, not you, Heather. Please don’t.”
“Oh … kay. Okay.”
Kim finally let go of my arm and shuffled sideways, bumbling into the door frame before righting herself: treading water over the yawning void of a dark ocean. She drew herself up, not so very tall, but for a moment she seemed as tall as Raine.
“I’m sure … ” she tried once, then faltered. Felicity caught her eye and nodded. Kimberly rebooted, though she couldn’t look directly at anybody as she spoke on. “I’m sure both of you are very knowledgeable and capable magicians. Well, no, I know that for a fact. Sorry. But you’re like professors without any graduate students to do all the actual work.”
“Oooooooh,” went Raine with a big silly wince. “Burn.”
“What would you know about graduate students?” Evelyn asked.
I tutted. “Evee.”
Kimberly balked. “M-maybe that wasn’t the best metaphor. Um, I mean, you’re not great at … at … ”
“That was wrong of me to say,” Evelyn snapped, colouring in the cheeks a little. “I apologise. Explain, please.”
Kimberly screwed up her eyes, like she had a headache. “Neither of you are very good at all this grunt work. Experimenting, yes. Genius, yes. Not the slow stuff. Procedural stuff.”
“You want to help,” Felicity said. She made it sound like You want to ascend the scaffold and tie the noose.
“Want is maybe a strong word.”
“But earlier … ”
Kim and Felicity both looked so terribly morbid. But then Kim smiled. It was bruised and pale, but it transformed her face from strung-out victim to Wiccan weed pixie. She almost laughed. “I meant everything I said. I just changed my mind. I can do that, I think.”
“Kimberly,” Evelyn said with a sharp sigh. “You don’t have to martyr yourself. You don’t owe us anything, I keep telling you this, and you didn’t have a debt in the first place. Even if you did, you’ve already done more than enough. I owe you, you do not owe me shit. Go back upstairs. Actually, better idea, wait for Twil and then have her take you out for dinner or something. Go out, forget about us for a few hours.”
Kimberly took a step over the threshold of the magical workshop. I let my tentacle slither out from around her waist. She stood free.
“It’s not for you, Evelyn,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
“Welcome,” said Praem. Kimberly flinched at that, then nodded awkwardly at the demon maid.
Evelyn pinched the bridge of her nose. “Heather, is this your doing?”
I shook my head. “Not at all. I’m just respecting Kim’s wishes.”
“Big respect,” said Raine, raising a fist as if for a bump. “Yo.” Kimberly mimicked the motion, awkward and uncertain, looking as if she’d never made a fist in her life, let alone raised it to anybody.
“Look,” Evelyn went on, working herself up into a lather. “Kim, I understand you want to assist, but what could you possibly do here? You don’t even comprehend what we’re working on. I doubt Heather could have explained it to you — no offense — and there’s already two mages working on this. It’s already utterly unprecedented. I don’t think we need more. This is only going to hurt you.”
Kimberly nodded at the table. “That draft for a circle, the one by your elbow, I can tell it’s wrong from here.”
“What?” Evelyn frowned in disbelief, then glanced at the sketched magic circle on an open notebook page, then back at Kimberly.
“The inner ring is too busy, you’re putting all the weight of action on one part of the design. You should be using something other than Latin for the ignition. And I don’t know what you’re doing with the outer ring, all the proportions are wrong. The letters are too far apart. If you’re trying to ‘cut’ another spell, like you said, then you’re cutting with a blunt spoon.” Kimberly let out a weird little laugh. “Makes a poor knife.”
I had no idea what Kimberly was talking about. The magic circle at Evee’s elbow meant less than nothing to me — I could barely look at any of the designs scattered across the table without a spike of pain going through my optic nerve and into the back of my skull. But Kimberly spoke with the most confidence I’d heard from her in months. She didn’t waver or stutter. She just rattled it off.
Evelyn frowned at the circle. Felicity turned her head to judge too, and said, “She’s right. I think. I don’t know enough about the construction principles, only the underlyings, but, well, she’s got a point.”
“That,” Evelyn said, somewhat tense, “is why we’re refining.”
“It’s why you’re stuck,” Kim said. Then she seemed to remember who she was and who she was speaking to. “S-sorry, I don’t mean to criticise.”
“Critique is growth,” said Praem. Raine nodded sagely. Felicity sighed and nodded too.
Evelyn cleared her throat and looked horribly embarrassed for a moment. She still wouldn’t meet my eyes, and now she couldn’t look at Kimberly either. “You don’t even know what this spell is for, Kim. You don’t want to be involved in this, trust me. You can hardly help refine it if you don’t know the purpose.”
“We could tell her?” Raine suggested.
“Do I want to know?” Kimberly asked, resigned and beaten down. I longed to step forward and give the poor woman a hug, but this was her choice and her courage. I dared not undermine that.
Evelyn turned cold and hard. “This spell is intended to break the concealment on the hidden home of Edward Lilburne. Once that is achieved we’re going to either kill him, or drive him off, then steal back the book we need, to complete the magic to hide us from the Eye.”
Kimberly froze, then swallowed dry. I reached out for her hand, but held off, embarrassed, uncertain — ultimately it was my sake that all this was happening, even if Kim was taking this step for her own motivations.
“See?” Evelyn said, gone gentle again. “You don’t want to know. Go back upstairs and—”
“I only needed to know the first part.” Kimberly walked over to the table, legs wobbling only a little bit. She fell down into a chair and looked like she wanted to pass out, then dragged the unfinished circles toward her. “I’d rather not think about the rest. All I need is the mechanical purpose.”
Raine chuckled, then said in a sing-song voice, “Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?”
Evelyn turned her head like a stone statue come to life and gave Raine a look that could have frozen a lava flow. Raine actually paused mid-grin.
“Raine,” Evelyn said, teeth iced over with cold intent, “I do not care how long you and I have known each other, if you compare Kimberly helping us to a fucking Nazi rocket scientist, I will have Praem tie you to a rocket and fire you into the sun.”
Raine laughed in embarrassment and put her hands up. “Didn’t mean it like that, hey.”
“You of all people should know better. Moron.”
Raine pulled a goofy grimace and bowed to Kimberly. “My apologies, o’ glorious and gossamer magical one. Instead I shall compare thee to a fairy mistress, gracing us from the forest realm. Such a visitation! Such ephemeral delights! How may we serve?”
Kimberly went terribly red in the face. Felicity stayed carefully composed, because like me she could follow what Raine was really doing. Evelyn huffed and swiped at Raine’s shins with her walking stick, a blow that was easily dodged.
Raine had made a stupid, vaguely offensive comparison on purpose. Now the mages had a mutual foe, Evelyn’s ire had been redirected, and Kimberly was more focused on being compared with a fairy than on the magic she was about to subject herself to. As Raine laughed and hopped out of the room, I grabbed her in a quick hug. She was too good at this. Even in a room full of mages and magic, working on a problem that neither of us could even begin to grasp, she knew exactly the right thing to say.
“Well done,” I whispered in her ear.
She winked, kissed me on the forehead, and went to make more tea.
The mages got down to work.
I’d seen Evelyn working on magic before, plenty of times, from improvised blood horrors to the gruelling process of research, the mental strain of grappling with principles smuggled from Outside, cutting oneself on the sharp hidden edges of reality-denying knowledge, exhausted in ways the human mind was not meant to approach. I’d even seen her and Kimberly briefly work together once, to finish the first iteration of the gateway to Outside; they had shared the burden, spread the load, made it easier on both of them.
But this triumvirate of magecraft was a transformation, more than simply three being a bigger number than two. It was obvious even as little as twenty minutes later. Evelyn, Felicity, and Kimberly became greater than the sum of their parts.
One might not have noticed it if one wasn’t intimately familiar with at least one of the participants. A casual observer might have assumed that these three had known each other for years, a well-oiled intellectual machine, swapping hypotheses and designs and additions at high speed, discarding ideas that didn’t work, re-using each others’ suggestions without a second thought. The three mages were not identical in their functions, obviously — Evelyn supplied the focus, the dive for specificity, the edge of the blade; Felicity had her head in the clouds, on concepts and generalisations and pure thought; Kimberly consolidated their work and turned it into concrete function, checking that everything actually joined up and fitted together and wasn’t about to fly apart as soon as they hit the metaphorical on-switch.
A couple of times in that first hour they did actual magic. Felicity and Kimberly had to stand up and back away as Evelyn put some minor part of the spell into practice, running some tiny sub-circle of the ultimate design, making sure it didn’t short-circuit or explode in her hands, figuratively speaking, I hope. Spitting Latin, feeling the room go flash-cold, thanking Praem for wiping the spittle from her lips, Evee was in her element.
I’d never seen her like this before. I’d never seen her doing magic and it just flowing.
To be fair, I’d never seen Kimberly like this before either. Or Felicity. The research and application was taking a toll, but the toll was so much less than any one of them would have suffered alone. Praem wafted in and out on silent skirts, bringing tea, supplying biscuits, ensuring adequate hydration. Evelyn muttered to herself, producing designs and sub-designs and variations and corrections at high speed. Kimberly once held Felicity’s hand under the table, surprising the older mage; they thought nobody else noticed, but I did. Raine and I were totally surplus to requirements. Twil was going to be bored out of her mind once she arrived at last, unless she wanted to go play video games with Lozzie and Tenny.
And there was nothing magical about this. It wasn’t about the magic, it was about the mages.
Aym threatened to ruin the whole thing.
The abrasive little madam had been gone for nearly an hour, nowhere to be found. I even popped upstairs to check on Lozzie and Tenny and Marmite — Tenny was playing the same farming game that Kimberly had, but on her console instead of a PC, with the tarantula-squid-friend half in her lap, watching the screen. I briefly went looking for Zheng too, only to find her huge and asleep in our bed, lying on her back with her hands on her chest, the room unlit beneath the rain pattering on the roof and the window. She rumbled in acknowledgement when I stroked her hair.
“Are you feeling okay?” I asked.
“I am lying in ambush,” she rumbled without opening her eyes.
“For the shape-shifting coward, yes.”
“Well. Good luck, I suppose. Love you.”
Aym returned like a blotch of black mould growing on the fabric of reality, secret and hidden until it was too wet and deep-rooted to scrub out.
Kimberly was in the middle of offering an opinion on a diagram of a circle: “Too slender. The connections are all too slender. You’re putting too much strain on the mind of the mage casting this — yourself, Evelyn, I’m sorry. You’ll lose a pint of blood, for what? Double it, strengthen the core.”
“I suppose,” Evelyn grumbled, sour and quiet. “I could take it if I had to, I could deal with that. We should really try not to draw this out too mu—”
“Alllllllllways with the self-sacrifice,” purred a voice like boiling tar poured over dry ice. It was the first thing Aym had said since she’d vanished. “Anybody would think you’re a masochist, sweet bun. Get it out of your system, have Heather tie you up and tickle you unconscious or something. Don’t let it ruin your craft.”
Aym oozed out of nowhere, right onto the chair at the far end of the magical workshop table, grinning like a skull.
I flinched, because I was quite close to the unsettling visual effect; it was only when she spoke that I realised she’d been slowly materialising there for several long minutes, starting as a point of dripping shadow in one’s peripheral vision, then expanding like damp-fed spores, until she was large enough to sluice away from the air and slap down into the chair.
The poor spider-servitor behind the chair skittered backward, spike-tipped stingers raised and quivering. The poor things were terrified of Aym, like she was a rarely encountered natural predator. Why they didn’t fling themselves at her and tear her to pieces, I had no idea.
“Hey, yo,” said Raine, who had contrived to appear in the kitchen doorway at the sound of Aym’s voice. “Don’t make me go get Zheng. You keep that mouth shut around these three, they’re working hard.”
Aym flapped the lace ends of her sleeves and pulled a dubious smile at Raine. “As if you or that giant lumbering fool could make me do anything. Besides!” She slapped the table lightly with her fingertips. “I’m helping. I’m offering a useful suggestion.”
“You’re interrupting,” Evelyn grunted. She pointedly did not look at Aym. “That’s what you’re doing.”
“I’m checking on my investment,” Aym said, feigning seriousness. She met my eyes and winked. I stared her down, still angry about earlier, angry about how she’d hurt Kimberly, but unwilling to disrupt and derail everything by having it out with her right then.
“This isn’t the time, Aym,” I said. “You’re lucky these three are busy. Go away.”
“Tch! It’s always the time. And where else can I go? I’m here, I’m near, and you better get used to it.”
Felicity swallowed hard and raised her eyes to meet Aym. “Actually I agree with Heather,” she said in her usual half-mumble. “We’re trying to get this finished. The longer we take, the … longer … ”
Her words died under Aym’s light and breezy stare. Not for the first time, I wondered what terrible hold Aym’s amusement had over Felicity.
It took me a moment of dull shock to realise who had sworn with such a blunt and bland tone: Kimberly. She was staring at Aym with all the mildly frustrated ire with which one held for the local disruptive stray cat, stealing things off windowsills and defecating in flower-boxes.
“Go Kim,” Raine laughed. “Yeah, fuck off with you, Aym. Go play with Sevens or something.”
Aym stared back at Kimberly, a little surprised, ignoring Raine — then slowly grinned. “Hoping for an in, are we?” she purred like rotten wood writhing with maggots.
Kimberly hesitated. “I told you to fu—”
“A shared session of dark secrets and self-torture, something horrible in common, and you’ll bat your eyelashes and flex your brain-meats,” Aym laughed. She trailed a corner of lace across the tabletop, then hopped to her feet, taking slow steps toward the mages. “And then she’ll fall for you, sweep you off your feet and all that. As if she hasn’t already. As if she wouldn’t tongue-fuck a disease-ridden horse if it showed her the slightest bit of affection.”
Kimberly had gone dark red up to her ears. She clattered to unsteady feet. “That’s not why I’m doing this!” she cried. Felicity had gone white in the face, staring down at the open tome in front of her, not breathing.
“Aym,” I snapped. “That is … is … terribly rude and uncalled for.”
“Bad girl,” Praem said, taking a step forward — but unlike previously, Aym only flinched a little, without slowing down.
“You’re both vile,” Aym said. “And you’re sick in the head if you think I’m going to let it happen.”
Aym took another step. Evelyn was glaring at her in the same way she might look at Twil trailing mud in across the kitchen floor. I saw her reach for her scrimshawed bone wand on the table. Praem moved forward too; for a dizzying moment I thought she was going to scoop Aym up in her arms like a naughty child being carried off to get locked in her bedroom. But Aym ignored the motion, grinning at Kimberly’s quivering denial, and in that moment I knew Aym would simply vanish into a puff of black smoke the moment Praem touched her.
“Sick, sick, sick,” Aym said, enjoying this way too much — and then stopped.
A tiny, long-nailed hand crawled out from under the table to tangle itself in the lace of Aym’s little black dress. Aym flinched and spluttered, blinking and recoiling as our own terrible little gremlin emerged from hiding.
Sevens stood up from beneath the workshop table. She was still in the blood-goblin mask but she’d shed her — my — yellow robes. In greasy black tank-top and loose black shorts, claw-like bare feet and bony exposed shoulders, she was about the same height as Aym, and sort of the same build, if more like a hungry hound than a pampered aristocrat.
Black-red eyes bored into Aym. The coal-sprite stared back, frowning in confusion. She looked past Seven-Shades-of-Suddenly-Showing-Up, as if she might find a hidden trapdoor under the table.
“Ruuuuurrrrgggg,” went Sevens. “Dish it out good enough, but you can’t take it.”
Aym squinted at her. “Unhand me, leech-thing. I don’t know how you … how you … ”
Sevens waited, fingers tangled in a fistful of lace, nails snagging loose threads. Aym’s eyes went wide, then her whole outline shuddered and shivered, as if she was trying to blur herself out of reality, but couldn’t take a step. Outdoors the storm suddenly intensified in a burst of rain slamming down on the roof, a single gust spent in a moment.
“Yeah?” Sevens rasped. “Did you really think I was just some little bloodsucker they keep around like a pet?”
Raine laughed from her belly. “Ah, yes. Meet Sevens. Or have you two met before?”
“Nah, not before,” said Sevens. Aym was too busy looking like an animal which had just discovered it was not the top of its local food chain.
I sighed, “You probably shouldn’t have mocked the prospect of a budding lesbian relationship. Or threatened to block it from happening. Sevens, is that why you’re here? Are you okay?”
“Mmmmmmmm. Maybe?” Sevens sounded genuinely conflicted. She looked away from Aym to meet my eyes and Aym shivered and shuddered again, a weasel in a trap, trying to wriggle free.
“As long as you’re not straining yourself in the wrong direction,” I said. “We can deal with Aym, if you’re … getting risky.”
“Nah I think this is the right direction,” said Sevens, then turned back to Aym. “Good use of talents. You reckon so too?”
Aym turned only her eyes, as if any movement might get her eaten alive, and looked right at Felicity. “Help,” she whispered.
Until that moment, Felicity had looked vaguely amused, if a little confused. At Aym’s plaintive, genuine fear, she sat up straight. Her hands came together, left threatening to remove the glove on the right. I recalled with the dim memories formed by a very stressful set of events that Felicity had extensive magical tattoos beneath that glove, a sheathe of them crawling up the skin of her unburnt arm. Last time she’d visited our house she’d used the spell etched into her flesh to diagnose what was wrong with Evelyn. She’d called the arm-tattoos a kind of magical sixth sense, but she had also explained that wasn’t quite accurate. She’d said we wouldn’t understand. The way she reached for her own hand now was more like reaching for a weapon.
But she paused and said, “Is Aym actually in danger? Please don’t. Please don’t hurt her. I know, but don’t hurt her.”
I said, “No,” at the exact same moment Evelyn said, “Yes.” We looked at each other. Evelyn blinked, embarrassed; she still struggled to hold my gaze since the unfair trick with the fade stone. I smiled, but it felt like cringing.
Sevens clacked her needle-teeth together. Raine laughed. Praem stepped back, yielding the capture to Sevens.
“I’m serious,” Felicity said.
“Help meeeeee,” Aym whined. She was crying now, slow tears running down her cheeks and making little wet patches in the dark lace around her throat.
“M’not gonna hurt your friend,” Sevens rasped for Felicity. She even glanced back with a blood-eyed smile. “She can sit quiet. Or we can play a game. Her choice.”
“Game? W-what game?” Aym asked.
Sevens clacked her teeth again. “Chess. With wagers.”
“ … I’ll … I’ll sit quiet,” Aym said. “I promise.”
“Yaaaaaay,” Sevens deadpanned. She led Aym over to the sofa. The diminutive lace-and-mould demon followed her like a girl caught on a fishing hook, drawn along by Sevens’ fist in the multi-layered fabric of her dress. Seven-Shades-of-Unsought-Escort pulled her prey down onto the sofa. Aym was forced to sit, straight-backed and very proper, as Sevens the greasy-looking blood-goblin curled up beside her, placed her head in Aym’s lap, closed her eyes, and fell instantly asleep — or at least pretended to. But for Sevens, pretending was doing.
Aym sat there, frozen, deliciously uncomfortable, with an expression like a chicken which found itself adopted by a fox. I had to bite my lips to stop from laughing.
“What,” said Aym.
“Reaping,” Praem intoned. Evelyn snorted and shook her head, turning away.
“Well,” Raine said, dusting off her hands. “Guess that settles that.”
Aym spoke in a tiny voice. “This … I … Fliss. Fliss, help me.”
Sevens let out a little snore: “Gurrrrk.” Aym flinched so hard her toes pattered on the floor.
Felicity was frowning in academic interest now, seemingly insensible to Aym’s plea. She turned her head to address me without actually taking her eyes off the scene. “What is she?”
“Bigger than me!” Aym hissed, unamused.
“You called her ‘Sevens’?” Felicity pressed.
I sighed. “You really don’t want to know.”
Evelyn said, “Wouldn’t believe it, anyway. She’s an Outsider.”
Felicity did a double-take, but not out of fear. She clearly didn’t believe Evelyn. “If you say so.”
“Felicity,” Aym said, voice high and scratchy, like metal points tentative and gentle on flakes of rust. “Fliss. Fliss. Fliss.”
Felicity looked vaguely uncomfortable, trapped between two sides.
“Ooooh,” went Raine, affecting a fake frown and tutting in that professional way that said something was broken and would require expensive parts and a team of four to fix it. “I wouldn’t mess with Sevens while she’s sleeping, not if I were you. Big, scary Outsider. She’ll take both your hands off and curse you so you can’t ever take a shit again.”
I frowned at Raine, mouthing, “That’s disgusting.” But the colourful nonsense gave Felicity a boost of confidence.
“Well, if our hosts say so,” she said, not quite meeting Aym’s eyes. “I’m hardly going to tangle with an … Outsider for the sake of your dignity, Aym. She’s not … actually hurting you?”
“This thing has me pinned,” Aym said, voice a thin quiver. But she wasn’t crying anymore.
“Are you being hurt?”
Aym pressed her lips together.
Felicity said, “If she actually hurts you, I’ll give every last drop of blood in my body. If she’s just playing, then play along.”
“Play along!?” Aym squeaked. Sevens snored again and Aym flinched as if hit with a cattle prod.
“Play nice,” said Praem.
The rest of that long, dreary, work-filled afternoon played out without further demonic incident. Or abyssal incident, to give Aym the benefit of her real dignity: her ambiguity.
Seven-Shades-of-Softly-Snoring kept Aym safely contained on the sofa while the mages worked, much to everybody’s amusement, though the novelty wore off quite quickly. Evelyn, Felicity, and Kimberly returned to drafting and revising magic circles, discussing “correct resonance with the existing waveforms”, “expected countermeasures already woven into the spell”, and “what if he’s posted zombies — or worse? — to quash any source of interference?”
That last question was answered by Raine: “Hi. Thanks. I’ll be here all week.”
“We have Zheng,” Evelyn grunted. “And Twil. She’s the equal of any zombie.” She looked up after that one. “Do not repeat that to her. Do not tell her I said that. I don’t want her being any more reckless than she already is. Where is she, anyway? I thought she was meant to be here by now.”
“Buying us all dinner,” I said. “Taking her time about it.”
Twil quashed our worries for her safety shortly later by turning up carrying a truly staggering amount of food. She’d walked the entire width of Sharrowford to purchase a very specific kind of apple pie which one could apparently only acquire at Marks and Spencer, but then stopped on the way to load up with several frozen pizzas, ingredients for a vegetarian curry, cake, crisps, dips, and enough biscuits to feed an army. She’d even bought some steaming, fresh, crumbly pastries. She was carrying so many bags that if she’d been anybody else I would have worried for her muscles.
“We’re not having a bloody party here,” Evelyn called from the magical workshop as Twil bounced in and dumped the whole lot on the kitchen table, a huge grin on her face.
“We are now!” Twil laughed in return.
I peered through the bags, bug-eyed. “Didn’t this … cost you a lot?” She’d even brought a bag of coffee grounds; I suspected that would be much more relevant to the coming night. “Twil, we owe you for this, I’m serious. How much was all this?”
“Naaaaaah,” said Twil, hands on her hips. She even tossed her head back, springy dark curls going anywhere. She looked exactly like a wolf trapped in human skin, brimming with energy, despite the rainy drizzle all over the hood and back of her lime-and-blue coat. “Mum gave me the cash for it. I said you lot were starting on the magic to fuck up that Edward bastard. She wanted to chip in.”
Evelyn drawled from the workshop, to nobody in particular, “Check it for poison.”
Twil bristled. “Hey!”
“I was joking, you dog-brained fool. Praem, please remind me later to send a thank you to the High Priestess of Hringewindla.”
It didn’t take long for Twil to hand out the pastries, making sure everybody got one, even Lozzie and Tenny upstairs, even Zheng. She’d purchased extra, just in case. Praem let her do that part herself. We could all tell she wanted to help.
“Bloody hell,” she said in the magical workshop, when she first spied the trio of mages working together. “You weren’t kidding. Full party, hey?”
“Three DPS, no healer,” said Raine.
“Bloody right,” Twil laughed. “Who’s in charge?”
I got the joke this time, clearing my throat after a mouthful of pastry. “I can be the healer. Or Lozzie can.”
“Felicity, right?” Twil said, offering Fliss a pastry too. “I remember you, yeah. Bacon or veggie?”
“ … vegetable, please. I recall you, also.”
Twil actually jumped when she saw Aym — not because Aym was doing anything other than sitting there, slightly pained, with a cup of tea and book next to her. I’d provided the book, but Aym had read two pages and then looked slightly ill. Twil jumped because Aym was so quiet.
“Er, who’s the little goth?” Twil asked, suddenly serious. “Is she … actually thirteen years old, or … ?”
“God no,” Evelyn snapped. “You think I would do magic with an actual thirteen year old in the room? She’s not human. Don’t touch her. Don’t talk to her. Pretend she does not exist and never think about her again.”
“Oh,” Aym said, voice small and measured, as if normal volume would risk waking the sleeping yellow tiger in her lap. “I am to be denied even conversation, now?”
“Demon?” Twil asked Aym. “Outsider? Something else?” Aym just shook her head. “What are you, then?”
Despite Twil’s best efforts and the generous donation from the Church of Hringewindla, we didn’t quite manage to cultivate a party atmosphere. The mages spurned a proper dinner and ate while they worked. Crafting the spell to open Edward’s fortress for a siege drew on into the late afternoon and claimed the evening too. Outdoors, the storm finally dribbled away to nothing more than a chill wind and a clinging damp, perhaps as pinned as Aym’s physical body was, but the magical workshop remained soaked in deep, lamp-lit shadow, filled by the scratching of pencils and the muttering of magicians. It was as if the shadow over Sharrowford had contracted, compressed, and concentrated itself on the work, on the spell, on the mages themselves.
Perhaps it had, perhaps that was Aym’s doing, though I wasn’t sure if Aym was capable of doing much of anything while Sevens dozed in her lap. She spent the entire time glued to the old sofa, looking like a very nasty girl subjected to a very unpleasant punishment. The spider-servitors crawled back to their usual spots in the corner, though they watched her with great caution, stingers held ready. Marmite stayed sensibly upstairs.
We didn’t totally neglect Aym, of course. Irritating and irascible and borderline abusive she may be, but Aym was still a person and we didn’t know enough to condemn her totally. Praem brought her tea like everybody else — peppermint, strong and dark. She was included in the sharing out of food, though she ate like a bird and left most of her portions untouched, except for the pizza with pineapple on it. She ate both slices of that and politely requested more.
“As expected,” Raine commented.
“There is nothing wrong,” said Aym, in a voice like acid going through meat, “with pineapple on pizza.”
“I agree with that part,” said Kimberly. “Um, sorry.”
Sevens woke up for food but never broke contact with the coal-sprite demon. She swung her legs over Aym’s lap, ate, then returned to her cat-like nap without conversing. By the time true darkness fell outdoors, Aym seemed a touch less like an animal attempting to avoid being eaten and more like a bored teenager forced to endure a tiresome family friend.
The mages didn’t work that whole time without a break, just not a properly organised one. Kimberly grew less and less focused as the hours wore on, until she was visibly twitchy and nervous, until Felicity reached across the table and touched her hand. That seemed to act as some kind of permission, because Kim then went upstairs to smoke more cannabis, returning calm enough to carry on. I wasn’t sure what to think of that. At least Felicity didn’t follow her to join in. Felicity barely left the table, but she did fall asleep in her chair once, sitting up with her arms crossed. She looked no more relaxed asleep than she did awake, the burned half of her face twitching with some unpleasant dream. Evelyn took a break as well, a short lie down, enforced by Praem; she took her bone wand with her but left the fade stone behind on the table, which was a strange experience because I kept losing track of the thing, certain it had moved or forgetting that Evelyn had not carried it upstairs in her hand.
While she was out of the room and nobody else was looking, I scooped the thing up with the end of one tentacle, pressing pale pneuma-somatic flesh against warm quartz. Nothing happened. The world did not flash grey-and-black as I stepped into some negative space behind reality. The others in the room didn’t look up as I vanished. The stone wasn’t a machine, after all. One had to be a mage to make it work, one had to think the right thoughts; one probably had to be Evelyn Saye.
When I put the stone back down, I realised Aym was watching me, sulky and bored and curious. I held her gaze, but she said nothing.
Twil discovered that mages making spells was actually quite boring to watch. Eventually she ended up playing video games with Tenny. Praem hovered at Evee’s shoulder, tireless and devoted. Raine and I stuck close to the ‘action’ — a word I use under duress — just in case Evee should need us, but there really was almost nothing for us to actually do.
“Don’t give yourself a migraine by looking at the circles,” Evee said to me when I decided to peer over her shoulder at the half-finished designs laid out across the table. She didn’t meet my eyes when she said it, casting half-back toward me but not quite getting there.
“I thought I might be able to help,” I said to the back of her head, past a surprising lump in my throat. “This is going to take more than just today, isn’t it? Maybe if I could use brain-math … ”
That made Evelyn meet my eyes at last. She sighed, irritation and exasperation covering a deep affection. I almost blushed. “Heather, this is magic, not brain-math. You’re not built for the former. It’ll hurt you. Stop trying.”
“I thought I might speed things up.”
Evelyn stared at me, fake-impassive. “If you start hurting yourself I won’t be able to concentrate. It’s not like I’m doing this alone.” She gestured at Kimberly and Felicity. Kim looked up with a painfully awkward smile, the kind of smile one wears when the hosts of a dinner party start a domestic argument in front of their guests. “Go play video games with Twil and Tenny. Go read a book to Aym. Go have sex with Raine.”
“Woo,” Raine deadpanned.
Evee carried on, not even blushing. “I’ll need you later, I’m sure. Let me concentrate.”
I didn’t try again. After that particular exchange I retreated to the kitchen with Raine, to chew on cold pizza dipped in HP sauce and gaze out of the window at the gloaming over the garden. The big old tree out there was heavy with rain, the wooden fences soaked through, the ground sodden and mushy. Both of us pretended that we weren’t monitoring the mages in the workshop, just beyond earshot. Once or twice, Praem appeared in the doorway, a blank-eyed look silently reassuring us that all was going well.
“This isn’t something mages do, is it?” I asked Raine as we sat side by side at the kitchen table. She had coaxed me to put my legs up over her lap and was busy rubbing the tension out of my calf muscles, one hand up the left leg of my pajama bottoms.
“Yeah,” Raine said with a twinkle in her eyes. “It’s like small children.”
I blinked. That wasn’t what I’d meant at all. “I’m sorry?”
“It’s not when they’re being noisy that you gotta worry. It’s when they go quiet. Means that something’s up.” Raine flashed me a wink and a beaming grin, enjoying her own joke a little too much. I rolled my eyes, but I was smiling.
“I mean working together,” I said. “Evee has always implied this doesn’t happen. Like it’s not meant to happen. Like they should all be turning each other to frogs or setting their demons on each other, like Pokemon trainers but more violent.”
Raine’s turn to laugh. “Wouldn’t that make you the champion, by default?”
“You’ve got Zheng.”
“Tch! Raine. Zheng is her own person. And she’s not my demon, I didn’t create her.”
Raine shrugged with a grin on her lips. Praem chose that moment to appear in the doorway again, maid dress swishing in her wake. She gave Raine one very long and pointed stare. Raine raised one hand in surrender. Praem moved on.
“And yes,” I added, “Praem beats Zheng. We’ve tested that. At least when arm wrestling.”
“I wouldn’t mind seeing a real test,” Raine muttered, but then she snapped back to the subject at hand. I was a tiny bit disappointed; she always looked so dashing and exciting when she started talking about that kind of thing, her passion for measured violence. She leaned closer to me, as if worried about being overheard, a cheeky smile playing on her lips. “Our mages are behaving because they’ve got a pecking order. That’s my theory, anyway. Evee is in charge. Kim’s under her wing. Felicity is grudgingly tolerated. There’s no territorial bullshit, no risk of betrayal, no hidden motives. Well, maybe Fliss on that last point, but her hidden motive isn’t steal all the books and kill everybody before leaving, so everything stays nice and calm.”
I chewed this over while chewing another mouthful of pizza. Raine rubbed my leg, working the knots out. “Is that really it? Pecking order? Hierarchy? That can’t be the whole story here. That can’t be the solution. You of all people can’t believe that, Raine.”
“It’s not hierarchy, it’s just lack of ambiguity. They all know exactly where they stand and exactly what each other wants.”
I chewed my lip and frowned into the open door of the magical workshop, then out into the gathering twilight over Sharrowford. I wasn’t sure if I liked the notion. “Evee deserves better than that.”
“Believe it or not,” Raine said, “when it comes to magic, this is the best I’ve seen her in years.”
I blinked at her, but Raine wasn’t joking. She wore a rare and sober look on her face, nodding along to her own words.
“She’s incredibly stressed by this,” I said. “And I don’t blame her. They’re going up against another mage. Raine, how is that the best of anything?”
Raine took a deep breath, leaning back in her chair and running her hand downward until she was rubbing my foot, the ball of her thumb slowly working at the muscles of my arch. I struggled to concentrate and not to make little noises of relaxation. She was very good at that. She sighed in thought and ran a hand through her thick chestnut-coloured hair, making it stand up in little waves. Eventually she spoke again.
“Reminds me of how she was after her mother died. Right after. Long before we left Sussex for university.” Raine lapsed into a moment of silence, but I was frozen in attention. “There was just so much for her to get done. Too much for a kid. Her dad handled all the legal stuff, did the cover-up, all that. But the magic, that was all Evee. That house was floor-to-ceiling with grade-A mage dung.” Raine caught my eye, grinning. “And I don’t just mean her mother’s old zombies. When you visited the place, it was quiet. But it wasn’t always like that.”
“I can only imagine,” I said. I couldn’t.
“Wards to crack, constructs to put down, circles to destroy. There was even a booby-trapped book. A taxidermied stag’s head we had to burn. The whole thing with the hidden wall — ask me about that sometime, but not right now, long story, that took us weeks and I nearly got stabbed. And the dog in the cellars.”
“The dog in the cellars? I haven’t heard that one.”
“Oh, right.” Raine grinned, but even I could see the beaming confidence plastered over something vile. “Well, there was a dog, in the cellars.”
“Raine,” I sighed.
“It was a German Shepard. Possessed. Evee’s mum’d used it for something messy. The demon inside that dog wanted out, but it couldn’t get out. It was … ” Raine paused. “It was strapped to a wall in the cellar. Gruesome shit. And hey, that’s coming from me.” She brightened again, by force of will. “Point is, Evee had to go deal with it, and a dozen other magical projects that needed unravelling. Picking through her mother’s notes. And she just did it. Pushed through it all.”
An image of a younger, barely-teenage Evelyn floated out of the formless deep of my imagination, probably very incorrect. Scrawny and exhausted and terrified, not used to her prosthetic leg, suppressing the guilt and pain of murdering her own mother, so she could focus on defusing a dozen magical bombs, unpicking her mother’s work like trying to guess the right wire to cut.
“Evee … ” I murmured.
“I did help hold her up,” Raine said. “And she paid me back a dozen times over. Got me back into education, got me into Sharrowford uni. She was dealing with physical rehab at the time, too. Spinning so many plates. It’s no wonder she stumbled once we were here. You know?”
I nodded, then leaned over and hugged Raine. She put her arms around me and fell silent for a few moments.
“But hey, look at her now.” Raine winked down at me. “Collaborating. In her element. Magic fucked her up — it still fucks her up. But she’s bested it yet again.”
I pulled back and nodded. “This is what she needed. Other mages. Community.” I sighed. “Even if it is just Fliss and Kim.”
Raine cracked a terrible grin. “Should we call Jan over too? Make it a foursome?”
“I haven’t had much time to get to know Jan, but I’m pretty sure if we invited her, she’d stop returning our calls and move to the other side of the planet. So, no.” Then I added, “Not yet, anyway.”
It was past eleven at night by the time the clockwork began to run down.
Kimberly bowed out on the grounds that she had work tomorrow, she didn’t want to call in sick, and she wanted to unwind before bed; nobody likes to dream about magic. She cast a nervous glance at Aym before leaving, but the black-lace monster was still firmly in Sevens’ soft grip. Felicity followed a while later, saying she wanted to speak with Kimberly about a few things. Raine cleverly and covertly made sure they weren’t going to be totally alone, courtesy of Lozzie, but I doubted that precaution was entirely necessary anymore. Still, better safe than sorry.
Sevens and Aym vanished together while nobody was looking. Tenny had been tucked up in bed, sound asleep. Praem went upstairs without Evelyn, either to check on Kim or poke Zheng in the eyes, I wasn’t quite sure which.
My own concentration hung by a thread; I hadn’t helped directly, but I was exhausted for some reason, drained by the awkwardness, by the effort of watching, as if the mages had sucked willpower right out of the air. Eventually, unaware of how exactly I’d drifted there, I found myself back in the magical workshop, peering through the tiniest crack in the curtains at the darkness of the back garden.
Two petite figures stood beneath the dripping behemoth of the old tree, both of them dressed in shadows, one in lace and the other tinted yellow, talking softly in the muffled night air.
“I wonder what they’re discussing,” I murmured to myself.
Behind me, the others didn’t hear. Evelyn was still sitting at the table, eyes dull in a brittle face. Twil was a few seats further down, feet up in Praem’s absence, munching her way through the final — and very cold — pastry. Raine blew out a big theatrical sigh at something I had heard but not processed; I was too engrossed in the hidden show between Aym and Sevens, out in the private dark beneath the open black skies.
“If Praem’s not here to put you to bed,” Raine was saying, “then I will.”
“Oh, don’t get your knickers in a twist,” Evelyn grumbled, out of energy. “I’m done for the night. This can’t be finished in one day, even with three of us working on it. However much I’d like to. However much I want Felicity out of this house.”
“She not staying the night?” Twil asked around a mouthful of food. The spluttering sound that followed made me turn away from the crack in the curtains, if only to examine the sheer withering displeasure on Evee’s face. Twil put her hands up. “Hey, hey, I just meant like, where’s she laying her head, that’s all.”
Raine pulled a serious frown. “I think we can trust her not to burn the house down or anything.”
“Trust has nothing to do with it,” Evelyn spat. “She’s welcome to talk to Kimberly all she wants, but she’s not sleeping in this building.”
“I’ll make sure of that, then,” Raine said slowly. “We’ll see her out.”
Evelyn waved one hand, as if a little embarrassed. “Praem already said she was on it. I trust her tact.”
I spoke up without thinking, my mind lost in a whimsical wander, still outdoors with Sevens and Aym. “Night Praem would remove Felicity, if she tried to stay.”
The other three all looked at me, Twil with a frown, Raine with a wink, and Evee with a sigh.
“I still don’t understand this ‘Night Praem’ business,” Evelyn said.
“You’re better off that way,” Raine said with a grin and another wink. “Some things humans were simply not meant to know.”
Twil chewed on her tongue and said, “It’s just Praem in her goth gear, right?”
Raine clicked her tongue and changed the subject, covering for my embarrassment at saying something silly. “Fliss is gonna have to come back tomorrow, yeah? Can she rock up whenever, or do we need to do the thing with the phones again, verify it’s her and all that?”
“Verify, yes,” Evelyn said. “Full procedure. Don’t let her in unannounced.”
“Is she going to be safe?” I asked. “Staying in some hotel or something, by herself?”
Evelyn frowned, but she didn’t meet my eyes. Raine pulled a thinking face and said, “Ah.”
“She can come stay with me,” Twil offered.
“No,” Evelyn and I both said in unison. We looked at each other and shared an awkward smile. Evee explained: “Aym follows her everywhere, she’ll torment a member of your family.”
“Ask Jan to look after her?” Raine suggested, but the look on her face said she knew that was a non-starter.
“Jan would run,” I added, then wandered over to the table, trying to look at the sketches of magic circles without my eyeballs rebelling and trying to crawl back into my skull. “Is this magic really that complex?”
Evelyn rolled her neck from side to side before she answered, popping vertebrae and sighing with release. She placed a hand on the table — inches from the white quartz lump of the fade stone. “Well, no,” she said, then made a grumbling sound. “It’s not the most complex. That is the most complex.” She gestured toward the gateway at the far end of the room. “But this spell would take … months, maybe years, to construct by oneself. And you’d have no way of telling if it works or not. You’d have to go out there, do the spell, then try to find the house again. With three of us we can prop parts of it up, keep them running, confirm the breach.” She frowned harder and harder as she spoke. “If Edward Lilburne built this containment by himself … ”
“Met your match, hey?” Raine said, not unkindly.
Evelyn snorted. “Not yet.”
“Errrr,” went Twil. “Is this gonna be like, some seriously spooky nonsense? When this thing goes off?”
Evelyn roused herself and shook her head. “Not unless your Church is hiding something in the same way — which, no, they’re not. We’re essentially going to be breaking a barrier, but we won’t see anything, won’t know about the effect. Not unless Edward has rigged countermeasures. Which he probably has.”
“Zombies?” Twil lit up.
“Probs,” said Raine.
“Yeeeeeeeah.” Twil grinned, swung her feet to the floor, and licked pastry grease off her fingers with an explosive pop. “Let me at ‘em! Better than sitting around like this!”
Evelyn was staring at the circles, and then at the fade stone, unmoved by Twil’s lust for something to punch. She muttered under her breath. “Felicity will want to help.”
“Maybe we should let her,” I said quietly. “Evee, maybe we should let her help.”
Evelyn glanced up at me, a pinched frown on her brow, a biting retort on her lips. But then she hesitated. Perhaps my expression gave it away. I didn’t really care one way or the other if we let Felicity help or not. Some inner impish irritability had provoked me to say something to inflame Evee’s ire, to make her look at me and focus on me, to make her face me properly.
She stared at me for a second, lips parted, then glanced at the fade stone on the table again, inches from her fingertips.
When she reached for that lump of quartz I almost knocked her out of her chair.
I didn’t touch her, of course; if I’d pushed Evee’s chair over or blundered into her I would never have forgiven myself. Even my tentacles acting independently and my worst moments of pure abyssal instinct could never willingly harm Evelyn Saye. All the other three saw was me flinch toward Evee and then stumble to catch myself. They didn’t see the whirling mass of tentacles, the pair of lashing limbs reaching for the stone, or me grabbing the table and floor to halt myself mid-lunge.
The pair of spider-servitors flinched. Raine froze, eyebrows raised at me. Twil cocked her head. Evee blinked up at me, the stone cupped in one hand.
“Heather? Hey?” Raine said.
“I’m fine,” I lied.
“Here,” Evelyn said — and held the stone out to me. My eyes went wide. I shook my head, blushing like crazy.
“Evee, no, no, I don’t—”
“Hold it for me, Heather. Hold it for me or I’ll throw it through the window and break the glass. And then we’ll have to get the window repaired, and that’ll slow everything down even further.”
I accepted the stone, still warm with Evelyn’s body heat. Evelyn let out a huge sigh and leaned back in her chair, visibly uncomfortable, shoulders tense, mouth a pressed line.
Twil was showing her teeth in a pained grimace. “Ohhhhhh-kay then. Did I miss something? Are you two fighting?”
Raine put her hand on Twil’s shoulder. “Give ‘em a sec.”
This didn’t help. Twil looked how I felt. “Do we like, need to leave the room?”
“No,” Evelyn snapped. “I’m not hiding from this.”
“Evee,” I sighed. “You … you kind of betrayed my trust, but you don’t have to make a show of it.”
“I had to use the stone, Heather,” she said, talking to the far wall instead of to my face. “I was not leaving you alone with Aym. I don’t care that you turned out to be right and I was wrong.”
“You could have told me,” I said, chest aching all of a sudden. “How many other times have you done it? Used the stone around me — or any of us — without saying?”
Raine cleared her throat. “Not even for a sneaky naked trip to the bathroom? You ain’t lived until you’ve sat on the throne in the nude.”
Evelyn gave Raine a look to crack granite. Twil looked like she wanted to shrivel up and die. I shot Raine a frown too, but apparently she was immune to criticism right then.
“Not even for shoplifting?” she carried on. “Missing a trick there, Evee.”
“Raine, I love you,” I said, voice quivering, “but do be quiet.”
Raine shrugged and cracked a grin. I knew exactly what she was doing and it was working perfectly, but I still resented it a little bit.
Evelyn turned back to me, eyes blazing, finally looking at my face. She was like a banked fire. “I get to protect you too, Heather. I disagreed with your decision to speak with Aym alone. In this case, the ends justify the means. Even if I was wrong.”
“Don’t say that. The ends never justify the means, Evee.”
“It does when your safety is involved.”
“Bloody right,” Raine added, sotto voce.
“You could have insisted!” I squeaked to Evee. “You could have said ‘I insist’ but you didn’t, you wouldn’t, I was waiting for it!”
“Would you have listened to me?” Evelyn demanded.
Evelyn paused. Something inside her turned soggy and then disintegrated. She swallowed and turned away. “Oh hell. I still don’t understand you. Your honesty puts me to shame, Heather. I’m … I’m sorry. I didn’t intend to gaslight you.”
“And I forgive you,” I said.
“Maybe you shouldn’t.”
“It’s my choice, not yours.”
Evelyn sighed. She still couldn’t look at me, like my face was a fire burning too hot and she might catch alight if she came too close. “Keep the stone, Heather. Hold onto it for me. You don’t deserve to wonder and worry if I’m pulling the wool over your eyes. Keep it until—”
“Evee, I’m giving the stone back to you.”
I said it simply, politely, and quickly, but it was a lot harder than I made it sound. My tentacles wanted to wrap the stone up tight, embed the thing in my flesh, swallow it and have it live in my guts, so it could never again slip out of my sight, never again remove Evelyn from my world. But that wouldn’t heal this sudden and shocking rift.
I held the fade stone out to Evee. She stabbed it with her eyes, huffed a great sigh, and looked me in the face. “Heather, for fuck’s sake, I’m trying to—”
“Take the stone.”
“I trust you with it.”
“Maybe I’m not to be trusted!” she snapped, throwing her hands in the air.
“I trust you regardless. Take it before I change my mind, please.”
“I insist,” I said.
Evelyn rammed to a stop. She clenched her jaw so hard that her teeth creaked. Then she scooped the stone out of my hands and clacked it back on the table in front of her. Slightly red, exasperated beyond words, she glared at me — but not without affection.
“I trust you with it,” I repeated. “Please don’t do that again.”
“I won’t make that promise, Heather. I can’t. If you do something I think is dangerous—”
“Insist, and I shall stop.”
“She really will,” Raine added. “Believe it.”
Evelyn looked like she wanted to curl up into a ball and shut us all out. I eased the situation back down out of the heights of awkwardness by giving her a very gentle, very careful, very well-signposted hug. She accepted it even more awkwardly, huffing through her nose and patting me on the shoulder like I was a very muddy dog. “Love you,” I murmured as we disengaged. She nodded, but didn’t repeat it back to me.
Instead, Evelyn said to all of us: “Well, you better get ready for us all to do some very dangerous and stupid things. Because this—” she gestured at the magic on the table, gathering itself like a coiled spring of paper and pencil. “This is one of the most stupid and dangerous things we’re ever going to do.”
“High bar to clear,” said Twil. “We’ve been Outside. How is this worse?”
“This spell,” Evelyn said, “is the first shot in an open war against a mage. And I don’t think it’ll be a long war.”
Mage war! Well, at least they have three mages now, that has to count for something, right? It’s just a little war. A skirmish. A border situation. And hey, Heather really hates that lump of rock. Weird, huh? Maybe there’s a reason she’s barely recalled it since almost the beginning of story. At least Evelyn and her made up, sort of, mostly.
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Next week, new arc! It’s time for spooky mages to do dangerous things, mostly trying to murder each other. Fun!
Brief discussion of abuse
Mental health institutionalisation
Aym did not stay physically manifested all the time, which made the logistics of the next few hours much more convoluted and confusing than was necessary. Knowing Aym, that was probably the whole point, and a likely source of great amusement as well. Aym may have agreed to help us, but she was still elementally herself. We couldn’t trust her not to take an opportunity to jump on somebody’s back in a dark hallway, or creep over the edge of an unattended bed, or heaven forbid, surprise one of us while sitting on the toilet.
It was like having a cartoon bogeyman — bogeygirl? — as a house guest.
She started by vanishing from the sofa in the magical workshop, right in front of us, during a momentary lapse in concentration. I had been looking down at Evee, struggling with lingering shock and numb betrayal after her trickery with the fade stone; Evelyn’s eyes were glued to a point on the floor, burning with embarrassment at her own transgression; Praem must have turned her head just enough for Aym to slide into her peripheral vision. The coal-sprite of black lace and pinched face on the sofa blurred into a shadow on the edge of three sets of consciousness, human and demon and abyssal, and then she went up in puff of black mist.
“H-hey!” I said to the empty air. “Aym!”
Praem turned, snap-sharp. “Back. Here. Now.”
Evelyn huffed explosively. “Calm down, this is just what she does. Unless you want to pin her to the wall with iron spikes.”
“Hahaha!” Aym chortled. Her voice came from behind the sofa, her laugh like a rusty awl dragged through a bucket of decayed bolts. “Don’t worry, silly magey-wageys and anime demon maids, I’m not running away. Go get Flissy! Then we’ll talk magic. Real magic. I pinky-swear double-special promise, swear on my best little black dress. Which is every little black dress.”
Evelyn snapped, “You’re trying to get her to occupy the same room as me. I can see right through that. Just give her the information.”
“Uh-uh,” Aym croaked like a broken frog. “She won’t be able to do this one alone. This spell’s going to need more than one mage. Time to put your heads together, naughty kittens.”
“Ah,” I murmured. That was close to a worst-case scenario.
Evelyn stared at the sofa cushions as if her gaze might burn holes through them and smoke out Aym. I hesitated to touch her shoulder, she seemed on the verge of losing her temper again, and I felt a stinging, dull resentment that I didn’t like, didn’t want to acknowledge. But I gathered my courage and touched her with my fingertips.
“Evee?” I said. “You won’t be … ”
Alone, I meant to say, but the declaration died on my lips. She had ensured I wasn’t alone, either.
Evelyn shot a single glance up at me, furtive and guilty. She couldn’t hold it for long. “Fine,” she grunted.
“I said fine,” she snapped. “Go get her. Let’s get this farce over with.”
So, with much too-ing and fro-ing and making certain that nobody went anywhere unaccompanied, we fetched Felicity down from upstairs, prying her out of whatever dubious heart-to-heart she was having with Kimberly, though thankfully chaperoned by Sevens-Shades-of-Serious-Scrutiny.
This process meant leaving Praem and Evelyn alone together in the magical workshop, while Raine and I went upstairs to Kimberly’s bedroom, with strict instructions to Lozzie and Tenny that they were to stay together, and a suggestion that Zheng not wander around too much, at least not yet. It felt like a magical version of that old puzzle about getting a cabbage, a goat, and a wolf across a river, in a boat that can only hold two at a time, without somebody or something getting eaten.
Upstairs, Raine and I found a curious tableau: Kimberly was sat cross-legged on her bed, tucked inside a nest of blankets pulled up around her shoulders and neck, with Sevens perched not too far away, knees drawn up to her chest beneath the yellow robes. They looked very comfy and cosy. I yearned to join them, especially with the rain drumming on the roof and windows, the room a shadowy grotto of resumed safety in the depths of the house. Felicity was sitting on Kim’s swivel chair by her desk, leaning forward with her elbows on her knees, hands together, sober-faced, as if she’d been listening intently to a grim tale. They’d heard us coming down the corridor, so the conversation had trailed off, but Kimberly seemed dry-eyed and calm, despite looking puffy-faced and a little strung-out. Felicity managed to look guilty, ashamed, defiant, and somewhat worried all at once. I caught Sevens’ eyes quickly, but she was unreadably heavy-lidded, like a lizard caught in the cold. I assumed that meant there was nothing to worry about — or that Sevens needed a mug of human blood. I made a mental note that somebody we trusted needed to talk to Kim, and soon.
“It’s go time,” Raine said to Felicity. “Your little shit of a friend says you’re needed. Let’s bounce.”
Felicity stared for a second as if she couldn’t believe her ears. Her good eye, her right eye, went wide with surprise, the burned-out left eye hanging dull in its socket of scar tissue. Then she nodded stiffly, picking up her sports bag and pulling herself to her feet like an elderly lady with terrible arthritis. She nodded once to Kimberly too, pulling the awkward smile of somebody who knew no words could suffice. I think I was the only one who noticed Kimberly raise her fingers as if to catch Felicity’s hand; the gesture was so truncated, aborted before it could begin, but there was no mistaking the way her red, puffy eyes followed the older mage out of the room.
As Felicity and Raine ducked out into the corridor, I lingered for just long enough to say, “Sevens, Kim, you two stay together for a while longer, please. Aym is still being difficult, to put it politely. Are you okay together, or do you want to swap with somebody else?”
Kimberly stared at me, then stared at Sevens as if only just remembering that the blood-goblin was right next to her on the bed.
“Guuurk,” went Sevens. “S’okay. We’ll talk about video games for a bit.”
Kimberly stammered, “V-video games?”
“Video. Games.” Sevens wriggled a hand free from her nest of yellow robes and pointed one pale finger at Kimberly’s computer. “Show me the one where you farm crops but also date girls. I saw you play it before. Want to see more.”
I left Kimberly to get distracted by Seven-Shades-of-Agricultural-Dating-Sim, and followed Raine and Felicity downstairs. The rest of the house was resuming around us, now unbound from temporary restriction in the disused sitting room; Lozzie bounced past in the front room, pausing to inform me that “Twil’s on her way!” When I asked who called, she only giggled. Tenny followed Lozzie upstairs; curiously enough she was leading Marmite by a tentacle, black silken appendage wrapped around one of his own segmented bone-tentacles. Marmite trotted along quite happily. Perhaps Tenny wasn’t going to require a new pet of her own after all. But then again, poor Whistle could hardly make friends with a giant invisible spider-squid-thing. Could he?
“Stick together, please!” I called after them as I hurried along in Felicity’s wake.
Zheng, of course, was impossible to truly control, but at least I didn’t have to worry about her going off alone and getting ambushed by Aym. I suspect that Aym would have regretted such an ambush very much. What we did have to worry about, apparently, was Zheng going feral with the desire to hunt. By the time Felicity, Raine, and I stepped through the workshop door, Evee was yelling at her.
“You’re going to damage the bloody sofa! Stop that!”
Zheng had hoisted one end of the sofa up into the air with a hand, tipping it almost onto its end. She was peering at the dusty wall behind it, shark-teeth bared and lips peeled back, a resonant rumbling noise in her chest, searching for Aym.
“Aym is not there,” said Praem, in a voice like a silver bell.
“Rrrrrrrrrrrr,” Zheng growled.
“Oh!” I said. “Oh dear, Zheng, please, no.”
“Zheng yes! Haha!” Raine laughed.
“Put it down!” Evelyn snapped. “This isn’t funny.”
“Come out, coward-thing,” Zheng rumbled. “Both formless and spineless.”
A voice cackled from under the table, “Ooooh, she’s got me dead to rights there.”
Zheng dropped the sofa with a spine-jerking clunk; I was surprised it didn’t just break in two. Me and Felicity both flinched. Evelyn huffed and tried to whack Zheng on the shins with her walking stick. I never got to find out if Zheng would have endured the abuse without retribution, because Zheng moved like greased lightning. She was across the room in a flash and down on her haunches to reach under the table. But her swiping hand and wide eyes found nothing. She growled in frustration and shot upright again, rumbling through her teeth as she turned in a slow circle.
From somewhere impossible to determine — perhaps beneath Evee’s chair, perhaps behind the open door, or perhaps inside the cavity of the walls themselves — Aym let out a snorty giggle.
Zheng showed her teeth in challenge. Felicity’s hand lingered over the opening of her sports bag, too near to her shotgun. Perhaps whatever it was loaded with would work handily on Zheng. The spider-servitors looked very nonplussed by all this. The one crouched on the table hadn’t moved an inch. I think they’d figured out how much of this was for show.
I tutted. “It’s like a pair of cats who don’t know each other’s scent. Zheng, stop it, please. I know she’s extremely annoying, but Aym has agreed to help us. At least wait until we’re done.”
Aym giggled. “But then I’m fair game? Sooooo scary!”
Zheng’s eyes tracked something invisible, something moving behind a wall, a signal only she could hear.
“Hey,” Raine said to Zheng, voice easy and soft in a way I hadn’t expected. “I don’t blame you, but ease down, yeah?”
“Aym,” I said, “stop winding her up. Maybe then she won’t want to eat you.”
Zheng huffed, grunted, and stalked for the door — but then she stopped at the last second. One muscled reddish-brown arm whirled outward, a hook of fingers aimed straight for Felicity’s face.
I think I yelped; somebody did, anyway. Somebody else gasped in horror. Raine moved to grab Zheng’s arm, but not quite fast enough. My tentacles whipped out too, about to drag Zheng off balance. We were all too slow, too off-guard, too relaxed.
But Zheng’s killing blow slammed to a halt, half an inch from shattering the delicate bones of Felicity’s jaw and skull. Arm held rock-solid still, paused in the moment before murder, Zheng froze. She wasn’t even looking at Felicity. She was watching a point on the far wall, waiting for her bluff to pay off.
Evee was panting in shock, gone grey in the face. Praem placed a hand on her shoulder.
“Hey!” Raine said, voice like a whip. She clapped her hands together twice. I jerked upright in obedience, Raine’s voice was so full of command. “Hey, both of you, down, right now!”
It was only then that I realised Felicity had drawn her sawn-off shotgun.
If Zheng’s strike had been for real, from that close, Felicity wouldn’t have had time to drag the weapon out of the sports bag slung over her shoulder. But the quivering bluff had given her the moment she needed to wrench the gun free of its concealing towels, flick the safety off, and press the double muzzles of the shotgun right against Zheng’s ribs, just below her armpit. Free of its improvised wrappings, the sawn-off was a dark viper of black metal and polished wood, well-oiled and properly cared for, a pure expression of mechanical violence.
Felicity herself was grey with terror, eyes gone wide as saucers, taking shallow, panicked breaths through her nose. But her grip on the gun was rock solid, her index finger touching the trigger.
“Felicity, no!” I snapped. I reached toward the shotgun with a tentacle, but I dared not risk jerking the weapon. Felicity’s trigger finger was so very tight.
“I’m not moving until this demon-host backs down,” she said in a near-incomprehensible half-mumble from her damaged mouth. Adrenaline and fear rendered her much harder to make out. “Call her off. Call her off. Heather, call her off.”
“Zheng, please,” I said. But Zheng didn’t move. She was like a hunting hound, utterly focused on Aym’s potential appearance.
“Fuck’s sake,” Evelyn huffed. She stamped with her walking stick. “This is the absolute last thing I want to be dealing with on top of everything else! Is Tenny in the kitchen, is she seeing this? Is a child witnessing this bullshit?”
I cleared my throat very gently. “Tenny and Lozzie went upstairs.”
“Good!” Evelyn spat. “At least vulnerable minds are spared this nonsense. Zheng, you great big brainless fuck, get off her, now! And you — you lower that fucking shotgun in my house or I will have Praem flog you.” Evelyn fumed silently for the space of two heartbeats. “You think I’m joking, try me. She’ll have to glue your skin back on.”
Praem agreed, “It is no jest.”
Slowly, the mutual stand-off disengaged. Zheng moved her hand forward, then dropped it away from Felicity’s face, muscles rippling. Felicity removed her finger from the trigger and lowered the weapon. Zheng stepped away, still not bothering to even look at Felicity, or anybody else. Fliss clicked the safety on her gun.
“Coward,” Zheng snorted.
Aym giggled, apparently from inside the ceiling. “I knew you weren’t really going to punch Flissy’s brains out through her neck. I can smell a bluff a mile away, even through all that muscle. You reek.”
Zheng pulled a face of utter disgust, then finally turned on her heel and stalked out of the magical workshop.
A collective creak of tension passed through the rest of us. Felicity stowed her sawn-off shotgun back in her bag with shaking hands, a terrible tremor coming over her. Then she staggered over to the sofa and sat down without asking. Evelyn was taking several deep breaths, rubbing the bridge of her nose. Praem managed to look unruffled and perfect, but she stayed in physical contact with Evee, hands on shoulders. Raine clapped me on the back and asked me if I was alright. It took a moment for me to gather my wits and answer, nodding along, mouth bone dry, heart still racing.
“Fucking zombie,” Evelyn muttered.
Zheng’s aggressive stunt had served as a reminder of what we were dealing with here: monsters and mages, all of them very dangerous, regardless of pleasant words or amusing asides. This was still a very delicate situation, complete with armed self-defence and malignant demons.
I wasn’t the only one who had been reminded. Even as we all took a collective breath and gathered ourselves, Felicity and Evelyn found each other.
Evelyn did not look angry. Felicity did not warrant a glare or a scowl or a sneer. Evee looked at the other mage as if she was an unidentified brown stain on a pair of underwear. Felicity couldn’t return that look, not even with her burned-out eye. She placed her bag on the sofa, then stared at the floor, a woman quietly enduring exposure to deathly cold.
“Okay, alright then,” Raine said, stepping forward. She was braver than I, to step into atmosphere chillier than the interstellar void. She clapped her hands together. “We’re all here now, no need to get off-topic again. Aym, if you would take it away, please? Let’s get this sorted out so we move on and get out of each other’s hair, sooner rather than later.” She shot a look at Felicity, dense with meaning, but Felicity was staring at the bare floorboards, a withered and dying plant before Evee’s blank-faced hatred.
To my surprise, Felicity said, “Yeah. Let’s get this over with. I’ll get out as soon as I can.” She wet her lips and started to add, “I’m sorry—”
“Ohhhhhhh,” Aym purred from behind the table, somewhere on the other side of the spider-servitor, which scuttled back out of the way as if catching scent of a terrible predator. “Oh oh oh, I am afraid this is going to take so much longer than that.”
Aym’s pinched and pale little face rose on the other side of the table, framed by her long black hair, as if she had hidden by ducking down in the seat of a chair. Like a black and dripping mushroom, a skeletal stick festooned with sheets of lace, she popped up into one of the chairs on the other side of the table, planted her boney elbows on the wood, and decided to ignore us in favour of winking at the spider-servitor. The spider was firmly unimpressed, standing stock-still and pointing its cluster of spike-tipped stingers at Aym’s face.
“Well well well,” said Raine. “There she is. You aren’t quite what I was expecting.”
Aym made a kissy-face at the spider. When she still didn’t get a response, she sighed and shrugged and turned her attention toward Raine, answering with nothing but a little smile.
“Be nice,” said Praem. Aym winced, blinking as if she had received a face full of cold air.
Felicity was frowning at Aym, mystified by something. She started to shake her head. “Aym?”
“What’s wrong, Flissy?” Aym purred.
“Well … you’re here. You don’t usually … not in front of other people. What are you doing?”
Aym smiled, toothy and girlish, and spoke in a voice made of hydrochloric acid. “Don’t ask questions to which you don’t want to know the answer. How many times, Flissy?” Aym giggled, wiggling her fingers and toying with the loose black lace around her wrists.
Felicity swallowed hard, holding Aym’s gaze for a moment before dropping her eyes back to the floor.
“Be nice,” Praem repeated, “includes Miss Hackett.”
Aym flinched and stiffened, as if Praem’s words had dropped an ice cube down the back of her dress. She hissed through her teeth, a sound like an angry komodo dragon, then smiled an increasingly sour smile.
“Enough with the comedy act,” Evelyn snapped. “What do you mean this is going to take longer? What are you trying to pull now, Aym?”
“Yes,” I agreed. “That is a rather worrying statement.”
Aym made a faux-innocent face, batting dark eyelashes and touching the fingertips of one hand to the middle of her chest. “Me? Play a trick? Never! I’m only supplying a personal estimate, based on prior experience. Why, if you and Felicity were to outstrip my expectations, I would be delighted!”
I cleared my throat and let my tentacles drift outward. Of all the people in the magical workshop only Praem and Aym could see them unaided. The meaning could not be mistaken.
“Aym,” I said. “The longer this takes, the harder my ultimate task.”
“Quite,” Evelyn added. “The longer we take to break the spell which hides Edward’s home, the less time to overcome him — or steal his books — and the less time to prepare the Invisus Oculus. Do not fuck us around.”
Aym rolled her eyes so hard I swore it was beyond human norms. “Flissy, what did I tell you about this before?”
Felicity took a moment to answer — she’d been staring at Evelyn, lost in a moment of undisguised fascination, the first time I’d ever seen her look directly at Evee without shame or pain or an apology on her lips. For a moment my skin crawled and my spine threatened to peel itself right out of my body; I assumed Felicity was taking the opportunity to stare because everybody’s attention was glued to Aym. Perhaps Evelyn had been right about her all along. Perhaps we really should have ensured Felicity not ever step foot in this house again.
But then I realised Felicity had only looked up at the words Invisus Oculus.
“Uh,” Felicity murmured, gathering herself before anybody but me could notice her staring. She took a deep breath and spoke with more confidence, back in her element. “Aym told me the original magic to conceal Tannerbaum house wasn’t actually that complicated. Basic geometrical principles — the pentagram and the circle — applied via the occlusion principles in Manus Cruenta.”
“Yes, I recall that much,” said Evelyn. “That principle isn’t possible to scale up. We’d need hundreds of dead peacocks. Thousands. It’s ridiculous.”
Felicity’s left hand strayed to her sports bag. I saw Raine stiffen, but she relaxed again when Felicity just patted the canvas. “I brought the book with me, in case we need to … ” She trailed off and shrugged. “Well. You know.”
Evelyn sneered and said without looking at Felicity, “You stole that from my mother’s old collection.”
Felicity froze, open mouthed. “Wha … I didn’t! I didn’t. I-I swear! I never stole from Loretta. I never.”
“Not when she was alive,” Evelyn muttered.
Felicity rummaged in the sports bag with both hands, then pulled out a thick leatherbound book, brown and cracked with age, but not quite old enough to crumble from regular handling. With desperate eyes and a greying complexion, she held it out toward Evee in both hands.
“I-it’s yours then!” she said. “Take it!”
Praem reached out and gently refused the book on Evee’s behalf, pressing it back toward Felicity. Evelyn didn’t even look.
Raine pulled a mighty grimace and caught my eye. I felt just as trapped as she did; this was no place for non-mages right now. I felt like a wildlife documentary maker in the middle of a group of posturing predators. If it wasn’t for Evelyn’s need for support, I would have scuttled away. The fade stone still sat heavy in her lap, the lump of white quartz mocking me silently. I stared down at that instead.
Evelyn sucked on her teeth and watched Aym. The coal-dust demon stared back, a little smile playing across her lips. They had made an agreement earlier, even if only in spirit: Evelyn was to stop tormenting Felicity every time they spoke. That was half the price for the spell.
Aym opened her lips with a wet click and a devious smile. For one horrible moment I thought she was going to demand Evelyn apologise to Felicity, right there in front of everybody. My tentacles twitched with protective affection, despite the sour feeling in my gut as I stared at the fade stone.
“That stupid little book,” Aym said in a voice of acid melting through silver, “is incomplete. And it lies. Sort of like me.” She rolled her eyes upward in thought, then giggled. “When Tannerbaum house was placed in its labyrinth, the grand old bastard used that book. I know, because I watched the whole thing happen. He couldn’t conceal anything from me. Just like you, Flissy. Just like you.”
Felicity swallowed hard, suddenly very focused on Aym. “But?” she prompted.
“But! The first time, it didn’t take. The labyrinth was born, but the house was not in it. He had to do the whole thing again, with a lot of blood, most of it his own but lots of it from elsewhere, all painted inside the house to make it correspond with the twisty turns of the place it was supposed to be hidden.”
“Simadia,” Evelyn murmured, her eyes alight with that familiar old magician look — cold and hungry fascination. Then, unexpectedly, she laughed, a single hard bark.
“Don’t think I get that one,” said Raine, a wry grin on her lips.
“Me neither,” I said awkwardly. I was feeling increasingly out of my depth.
“Simadia,” Felicity echoed, frowning to herself. “It’s a Greek grimoire — Byzantine, actually, not ancient — on the magic of making places into signs and symbols, which then correspond to other places.”
“And it’s nonsense,” Evelyn grunted at Aym, though she seemed oddly amused. “Monk bullshit. Folk magic. Not real.”
Aym just shrugged, tiny shoulders beneath too many black layers.
Evelyn drummed her fingers on the handle of her walking stick. Felicity clenched her hands together, lost somewhere inside her own head.
“Soooooooooooooo,” Raine said after a moment. “What now? We need to find a different book? Complete one fetch quest to unlock another fetch quest? I never liked that kind of thing.”
“I’m thinking,” Evelyn said.
“Mm,” went Felicity.
“Time for tea,” said Praem. She didn’t wait for acknowledgement, turning on her heel and marching into the kitchen, maid uniform swaying around her legs as she went. A moment later we could hear the gentle clink of mugs and the watery slosh of the kettle being filled. Neither Evee nor Felicity responded to that. Aym made a show of checking her flawless nails.
Evelyn murmured, “If Edward used the same method … ”
“Which is an assumption,” Felicity said. Evelyn hissed softly and tossed her head sideways. Felicity added, “But one we have to make.”
“Question is how to reverse it.”
Felicity sighed. “You’d need a magic circle that covers the entire countryside, the whole area where this house might be. I assume that’s defined?”
“Mm.” Evelyn grunted. She still didn’t look at Felicity. “Made a map. It’s on the table. Quite large, from here to Stockport.”
“Tch,” Felicity tutted. “Do we even have the resources for that?”
Evelyn finally looked up at Felicity, as if coming out of a trance. Her eyes blazed with such disgust that for a second I thought she was going to reach over and hit the other mage with her walking stick. Raine actually stepped forward, to put her own body in the path of any violence. I crept one tentacle around Evee’s side too, not quite touching. I had a sudden and vindictive urge to covertly snatch the fade stone out of her lap.
But then Evelyn said, “We … do not have the resources. Correct.”
Felicity nodded, lowering her eyes again. “Right. Right. Yes.”
“But,” Evelyn said, “there may be another way. I have a copy of Simadia upstairs, in my study. We can work from that. Are you going to try to steal that, too?”
Felicity looked up, moving only her eyes. “No.”
The two mages stared at each other for a long and uncomfortable moment. On the far side of the room, on the other side of the table, Aym sank into a black cloud of her own lace and hair, a Cheshire Cat grin in the threatening gloom from beyond the walls. Raindrops on the roof filled the room with static, broken with difficulty by the boiling of the kettle in the kitchen. I felt an urge to speak, but kept my mouth firmly shut. One of my tentacles touched a tip to the white quartz of the fade stone, then retreated.
This was a mage thing. I had no place in this particular conversation, other than at Evee’s side.
Evelyn huffed and seemed to expand into her chair. “Then let’s get this over with before the end of the day. I hope you’re still sharp, Felicity, because I have no use for you otherwise.”
Magic talk made me feel like a third wheel. Perhaps ‘fifth wheel’ or ‘seventh wheel’ would be more accurate, with the number of people who spent that afternoon in the warm cocoon of the magical workshop, poring over ancient tomes, sketching magical designs, debating how best to perform a large-scale, long-distance, low-signal magical work which nobody had ever attempted before — or just listening to Felicity and Evelyn doing all that, to the background of the storm drizzling on outdoors.
At first there was simply no question of leaving them alone. Even with Praem in the room to support and protect her mother, I couldn’t dream of wandering off and leaving Evelyn with Felicity, let alone Aym as well. So I settled in with fresh coffee and a sandwich for lunch, listening to things I didn’t understand. Praem bustled about making sure Evelyn ate something. Raine set up camp too, with a hand-held game console and her headphones.
Felicity and Evelyn planned real magic on that table, the kind which made my eyes ache to look at. They debated how to proceed, how to crack an existing spell. Evelyn filled page after page with rough magic circles, suggestions of designs to “unravel the knot” and “break the field at a pre-determined weak point, because it must have one.”
Felicity made notes on the Ordnance Survey map, the same one we’d used to figure out Nicole’s route during her magical fugue state, when she may have visited Edward’s house.
When they spoke, they stuck to the problem, which was a relief.
“Closer to Stockport would be better, require a smaller circle,” Felicity said.
“Nonsense,” Evelyn snapped. “It makes no difference. We may as well do it in the woods. Besides, how would we conceal it? We’re going to be using a lot of blood.”
Felicity frowned at the map. “Where are we going to get that?”
“A butcher’s. We’re not carting a live bull out there.”
“It has to be male. A bull, not a cow. Not mixed blood.”
“As I said. A butcher’s.”
“Or Zheng,” I offered, but neither of them were really listening.
The spider-servitor who had been crouched on the table had to scoot all the way to the end, then clamber down onto the floor. Maps and notes and half-scribbled designs proliferated across the tabletop, spiralling outward. Despite the massive size of the old oaken table, Felicity and Evee sat very far apart, with plenty of room between them, well beyond arm’s reach. Evelyn kept her bone-wand right in her lap, like a loaded gun ready to threaten with. Felicity left her concealed shotgun in the bag on the sofa. Praem often took up station on a chair equidistant between the two of them.
Twil called us twice, to let us know she was on her way over; then to let us know she was going to be late because she was buying us all dinner. She didn’t seem to understand the gravity of the situation, but nobody had the heart to tell her.
Aym came and went seemingly at random, which kept spooking me, putting my abyssal instincts on edge, making my tentacles twitch and flinch at every errant shadow. She didn’t seem to have much left to add after her cryptic reveal of how to hide a house. Sometimes she sat on the opposite side of the table, sharp chin in delicate hands, swinging her legs back and forth as she watched the mages work, like a child watching her mother at the stove. Other times she appeared on the sofa, dozing and bored, or lying on her stomach and waving her feet in the air inside thick black socks. Once or twice she materialised in front of the gateway at the far end of the room, going up on tiptoes to examine Evelyn’s handiwork, the huge mandala design which cupped and surrounded the doorway of blank plaster cut into the wall. Evelyn gave her a sour, dark look, but didn’t complain. It wasn’t as if Aym was a rival mage, stealing her secrets.
Felicity tried not to look at her, suppressing tension in her shoulders whenever Aym was too close.
Occasionally Aym vanished altogether. Once I thought I heard low voices from over in the utility room; Zheng and Aym speaking to each other, but that couldn’t be right. Later on, when we were approaching an entire hour of endurance, Aym sat across from me at the table, staring and smiling with the manner of an irritating child who knows she is technically not breaking any rules by watching an adult, but is nonetheless being an intentional irritant.
“What do you normally do for fun, Aym?” I asked eventually. I’d meant it mockingly, but I couldn’t quite manage the tone.
“I like to read poems,” she answered with an innocent little moue, a dimple in her cheeks, and a voice like a rusty nail in salt, “paint watercolours, and take long walks on the beach. What about you, squid-brains?”
I couldn’t stand it — Aym, that answer, this whole situation.
I was terrible at waiting. I always had been ever since Cygnet Children’s Hospital, since the long and lonely hours in that blank grey place, coupled with the unspoken pressure to not acknowledge that one could not in fact get up and leave. It wasn’t polite to draw attention to one’s confinement. Good girls waited to be dismissed, for the proper times to go to the common area, to go to one’s room, to see the doctors. Good girls waited and did not ask.
This was hardly the same, sitting in a familiar and safe place, deep in the heart of the truest home I’d ever known. But I was antsy and uncomfortable, and the situation was degenerating.
At first, Felicity and Evelyn had swapped theories and suggestions at speed, but as the hour wore on, they slowed down, retreating more and more to their own ends of the table. It wasn’t a resumption of hostilities; that we could have dealt with. It was something far worse, something I couldn’t help — they were running up against a brick wall, running out of ideas, running on empty. Two mages with their heads together, if only in metaphor, were not enough for this spell. Evelyn grew grumpy and monosyllabic. Felicity went quiet and timid. I felt trapped.
The fade stone didn’t help. The lump of white quartz sat at Evee’s elbow while she worked. I kept looking at the thing to check it hadn’t moved. Every now and again I replayed my memory of the last few moments, trying to locate Evee and see if I could recall exactly where she’d been. Deep down, I was a little sore at her earlier deception. I ached to talk with her about that, but now wasn’t the time. Now was the time for mages to do magic, no matter how much I wanted to bend her ear about tricking me.
After an hour, I decided it was probably safe to excuse myself; the strange truce between Evelyn and Felicity had developed into a professional understanding, but now it was dormant, hibernating. They were clearly getting nowhere and it didn’t take a mage to see that.
“I’m just going to head upstairs and check on … people,” I said, clearing my throat as I stood.
Raine tipped her headphones off her ears. “You okay by yourself?”
I glanced at Aym. She was sitting on the sofa with a comic book spread out across her black-clad knees, watching me in return.
“Yes,” I said. “Aym can follow me if she wants.”
And if you do, I thought, we can have another little chat — without Evee.
Raine nodded and shot me a wink. “I’ll stick around with this lot for now, then. Call if you need me.”
“Safe travels,” said Praem.
“I’m only going upstairs for a bit,” I said. “It’s not like I’m going Outside.”
Aym said nothing. She watched me leave.
As soon as I was out of sight and beyond earshot, a wave of cringing relief crept over me. Standing in the front room, before the stairs, I blew out a big sigh and flexed all my tentacles, rolled my shoulders, and wiggled my arms as if I’d been confined in a straight jacket for several hours. The magical workshop was currently the single most socially awkward situation I’d ever experienced. And it wasn’t going to end any time soon, certainly not by nightfall, not by the way the technical conversation had slowed to a crawl. Evelyn and Felicity were both grinding their minds down to stubs. There was only one thing for it: I needed a social butterfly of infinite grace and lubrication.
I mounted the stairs and made for Kimberly’s bedroom.
The raindrops on the roof tiles had scaled down their pounding fury, the static haze which drowned out thought now reduced to a background plinking on the windows. Wind had returned, churning the clouds over Sharrowford so they no longer dumped weeks worth of rain directly onto the city. I paused by the window to watch. The unnatural quality in the storm had moved on, withdrawn back inside Aym, leaving merely a grey and gloomy day outdoors.
Tenny and Lozzie were busy in their bedroom. Low voices floated into the corridor, voices like one might use to speak to a dog. I think they were fussing over Marmite.
Kimberly’s bedroom door was still wide open near the end of the upstairs corridor, opposite the left-hand L-shaped turn to the empty rooms full of ancient crumbling furniture and boxes of bric-a-brac. As I padded closer I heard the click-click of a computer mouse and the occasional clackety-clack of fingers on a keyboard.
“Muuurrrrr.” That was Sevens. “No, the other one, the artist. You have to give her a present before the event will fire.”
“How do you know that?” Kimberly asked. Click-click went her mouse. “Aren’t you … ”
“Yes, she is. I like the cottage-core aesthetic. But that doesn’t answer the question.”
“Still not an answer.” Kimberly sighed. “But don’t. Please. I don’t actually want to know. Sure, we’ll date the artist lady, then. But I do prefer the goth.”
Kimberly laughed with astonishing awkwardness.
I announced myself with heavier footsteps, a cough, and a little knock on the door frame, but I still managed to make Kimberly jump in her computer chair. Her hands flew up from the keyboard like I’d caught her looking at questionable websites, though the screen was filled with a pixelated farm. She jerked her head around to stare at me, blinking and flushed all of a sudden.
“Hello, hi, yes. It’s only me. Sorry, Kim.”
Seven-Shades-of-Suitably-Supportive was draped over the side of Kim’s chair, long yellow robes trailing down the arm and pooling across the floor like liquid sunlight on melted gold. Kimberly’s elbow actually rested on a fold of those robes. Sevens peered at me around Kim, little black-and-red eyes watching me with knowing intensity.
“It’s alright,” said Kim. “I’m just a bit tense. Um.”
I nodded and then proceeded to stand there like an utter lemon, feeling guilty for interrupting the video game session, but not certain how to proceed. Kimberly swallowed, paralysed by proxy. She was still wearing the clothes she’d slept in, pajama bottoms and all. She looked terribly vulnerable, her auburn hair in need of a wash, her face pale and greasy, something shivering about her frame. Sevens blinked like a large cat, slowly and luxuriously. She was probably fully aware of my sudden dilemma.
“So … ” Kimberly ventured, breathing too hard, speaking stiffer than a wet t-shirt left outdoors in Arctic cold. “So … how’s it going so far? Downstairs, I mean. How is it coming along?”
“Oh,” I said, almost as awkward. “Well. It’s … going.”
Kimberly nodded. “Good. Good to know. That’s … that’s good.”
Kim and I stared at each other for a long moment. Kimberly’s expression told me that she was trying very hard but if this went on much longer then she was going to crawl back into bed and start crying.
“Oh Kim, I am sorry,” I sighed all at once, bulldozing the small talk aside and stepping into the room. “That was a lie. It’s not going great down there. We’ve managed to avoid a thermonuclear exchange, but they’re not getting anywhere with this spell. And I suspect that has nothing to do with a failure to work together, nothing so absurd as that. I think it really is that difficult.”
“Ah,” Kim said. She even managed a tiny smile, though with some difficulty. The authentic Kimberly peered through the awkward shell.
“But you don’t want to hear about magic, I know, I’m sorry.” I stepped a few more paces into the room and peered at the computer screen, then at Sevens. “I really came up here to fetch Sevens. Somebody’s going to have to break that stalemate down there.”
“I’m watching,” Sevens rasped. “Busy.”
“We-we’re not busy,” Kimberly hurried to add. “I can pause the game.” She swivelled back and hit the escape key. A menu obscured the pixel-art farm. “See? Paused. If you need … Sevens.” She glanced at Seven-Shades-of-Petite-Vampire, still a little perturbed.
Sevens clacked her teeth twice. Oddly enough, that did make Kimberly jump. “Aym might come back to bully you again. I’m not going anywhere.”
Kimberly pulled a terribly self-conscious smile, looking anywhere but at me or Sevens.
“That’s very kind of you, Sevens,” I said.
“Kind shmind,” she gurgled. “It’s purpose.”
I raised my eyebrows at that, but Sevens examined something on the computer screen instead, an icon that I think was meant to be a potato. Maybe such things were not for discussion in front of others. I blew out a sigh and surrendered to circumstances. After all, I had other responsibilities too, other things I had promised myself that I would do.
“Kim,” I said — and something in my tone made her flinch. I held up a hand, trying to smile. “It’s okay, you’ve done nothing wrong. I just wanted to ask how you’re feeling, after all that mess earlier.”
Kimberly looked surprised. “Oh. Um.” She shrugged, boney shoulders moving beneath her pajama top. “Normal, I suppose. Talking with Felicity helped.”
“Ah,” I said before I could stop myself.
Kimberly went stiff. “Ah?”
I spread my hands in helpless exasperation. “Felicity is … of unknown quality.”
Kim frowned at me and I deserved it; that was one of the most tortured pieces of phraseological evasion I’d ever uttered. I sighed and rubbed the bridge of my nose.
“I’m sorry to say this,” Kimberly ventured, roused in defence for once, “but that seems hardly fair. Quite judgemental? Don’t you think so?”
“Mmmhmmm!” Sevens agreed.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s just hard to know what to believe about her, considering the things Evelyn has said in the past. And then she uses the whole mess earlier to get in here, and then when you’re in a crisis she manages to get you to talk to her, and her alone. It’s a bit worrying, Kim. That’s all. I didn’t mean she’s low-quality, or some equally weird judgement.”
Sevens said, “You’re so bad at this.”
“Oh, thank you.” I laughed without humour.
Kimberly looked incredibly awkward, like she wanted to curl up inside her pajamas and pretend she wasn’t there. I didn’t blame her. Her eyes strayed back to the computer screen as if longing to dive into the video game again.
“Look, Kim,” I said, “you don’t have to tell anybody else what Aym said to you, or what you and Felicity spoke about. But it’s only right that I let you know about Felicity, in case she—”
“She’s a mage.” Kimberly didn’t look at me. Her voice was thin and tired. “I really don’t need the details.”
Raindrops on the window filled a moment of silence. Sevens bumped her head against Kim’s shoulder, like a cat, then disengaged from the chair and clambered onto the bed, curling up amid the sheets and her yellow robes. I noticed the three hand-rolled cigarettes on Kimberly’s desk.
“No, I suppose you don’t,” I said.
Kimberly smiled without joy. “She understood, though. Between Evelyn and Felicity … maybe mages aren’t … I don’t know.”
“Understood what?” I asked softly.
Kimberly looked up at me at last, eyes sad and exhausted, still ringed with red from crying earlier. She looked very small and frail in her computer chair, something unwell and diseased in her complexion. An episode triggered by Aym. I suddenly wanted to throttle the coal-sprite demon with a tentacle. She’d played the fool and the trickster downstairs, but up here she’d tormented a woman who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. She had no excuse.
“You don’t have to tell me,” I said quickly. “But you should talk to somebody other than Felicity, as well. Maybe one of your friends from the Coven. Or maybe Sevens here.” I winced at that. What a suggestion. “Or Tenny? No, Tenny’s a child, I’m sorry. I’m talking nonsense.”
Kimberly gestured at the bed. “Do you want to sit down?”
Surprised, I nodded, then perched on the end of the bed. Sevens shuffled over and put her head in my lap, suddenly warm as sun-heated fabric. I raked my fingers through her black hair. Kimberly just watched.
“Felicity didn’t say anything bad,” she said after a moment, in a very small voice. “I know you don’t think I’m very good at looking after myself, but I know an abuser when I smell one.”
I winced. “That’s exactly what I’m worried about. You’re easily exploited, Kim.”
It wasn’t a real question. Kimberly looked so defeated. I said, “We just don’t know if Felicity is what she appears to be.”
“She understood. She knows what it feels like. That’s all we talked about. I wouldn’t mind talking with her more. I’m sorry, Heather, I just can’t bring myself to care what she might have done. I know the sort of things she might have done, she’s a mage. I know, okay? But she made me feel less alone, in a single half-hour conversation.” Kimberly’s voice grew thick with emotion. She had to turn away and pluck a tissue from the box next to the computer. She blew her nose. Sevens reached out and touched her knee with a fold of yellow robe.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “None of us are very good friends to you.”
“Not true,” Kim said from behind the tissue. “Tenny is lovely. But you said it too, she’s a child.”
“You’re not ‘freaked out’ by Tenny?”
Kim shook her head. “No?”
“I just assumed you would be. You want to get away from all this, don’t you?”
Kim blinked at me. “Tenny’s great. She’s healthy and happy. She’s curious and clever and all that other stuff that clever kids are. She’s not … a … a dead body. A magical symbol. A … zombie. A bloody surprise wake-up call from a demon looming over my bed.” Kimberly swallowed hard again, hunching up in her chair.
“I’m sorry that we forgot to warn you, there’s really no excuse. Everybody just forgot this was your morning off.”
Kimberly shrugged. “It’s okay.”
“No, it’s not okay,” I said.
“Whatever you say.”
I straightened up and stopped stroking Sevens’ head. I was only making this worse for Kimberly. “Well, Kim, like I said, you should talk to at least one other person about what Aym said to you, about whatever you talked to Felicity about, just in case—”
“She told me there’s no escape.”
I froze. Kimberly looked at the crumpled tissue in her hands. Sevens went very still in my lap.
Kimberly carried on after a moment’s silence. “Aym, when she appeared over my bed she said, ‘there’s no escape once you’re in’. And I knew exactly what she meant. I was half-asleep and I knew exactly what those words meant. And they went through me.”
“Magic?” I murmured. Kimberly nodded. “Once you’re in the know … ”
“There’s no going back,” Kimberly finished. She said it very matter-of-fact, with a tinge of ironic humour in her tone. “When she perched on my shoulders in front of everybody else, she whispered the same thing, pretty much. Just in more detail. No matter how long I last, the knowledge will always be there. I could make it five years, ten years, twenty years, and it’ll be there, always waiting. You can’t un-know things.”
“You don’t have to be involved,” I said. “Today was my fault, a mistake, nothing more.”
“I’m already involved, just by being alive. There’s always the chance I rationalise something, I take another step forward, because I’m in so deep that I may as well keep going. Because I can never go back.”
“I am in blood stepped in so far, that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go over.”
Kimberly smiled, thin and unhappy, without looking up. “Shakespeare, right?”
“Macbeth, yes,” I said.
“That’s one way of putting it.”
Kimberly shook her head, still staring at that tissue in her hands, as if the crumpled lines might hide a revelation. “I work in a flower shop, I smoke too much cannabis, and I play video games. That’s my life now. Enduring the knowledge.” She sighed. “I’m greasy and ugly and broken.”
In desperation, I said. “You know Nicole likes you, yes?”
Kimberly looked up in shock, as if I’d just told her that Zheng wanted to kiss her. “The police officer?”
“She’s a private detective now. She quit the police.”
“Still,” Kimberly squeaked.
“Well. Sorry. I was trying to illustrate a point. You’re not a goblin or something, Kim. And it would be okay if you were.”
“Hey,” Sevens gurgled.
“Figure of speech,” I said. “Sorry. My point is that Kim isn’t broken or wrong somehow. Or ugly. Certainly not.”
“Still,” Kimberly repeated. “But thanks, I think?”
“You deserve better,” I said.
Kimberly laughed a very sad laugh. “Better? Better what? What am I even good for, Heather?”
“You don’t have to be good for anything except yourself, Kim. I mean it.”
“I’ve got talent,” she said. Those words were so barren and desolate. “Did you know that? I’ve got magical talent. It’s why the cult used me. Back when you got me out, when I was first free, I avoided thinking about it at all. But recently I’ve been able to understand a little better.”
“Talent? In what way? They had you raising corpses, putting demons in corpses.”
“Procedural talent.” Kimberly sighed sadly. “I think that’s the best way to put it. Most mages are self-taught renaissance types, genius inventors. Everybody wants to be Doctor Frankenstein. The mad scientist making new discoveries. Nobody wants to spend hours fixing a magic circle, figuring out how to fit goal to result, unpicking sigils and welding them back together. Practical results. That’s my talent.”
“And you used that talent to save Praem,” I said. “You put her back in her body that one time.”
“I did.” Kimberly didn’t seem proud or happy about that.
“Did Praem ever thank you?” I asked.
“Mm. She did. Made me dinner.”
“Oh. Was it good?”
“Vegetable curry. Praem’s cooking is always good.”
Raindrops spattered against the window. Kimberly’s computer hummed away below her desk, casting rainbow light up the wall. Sevens purred in my lap, eyes closed as I slowly scratched the back of her neck. And I had no idea what to say, no idea how to help, except to listen. Kimberly was in a position unlike anybody else I knew, lost in trauma and dislocated from her own sense of self, of purpose, of meaning. Maybe Sevens was the right person to speak with her.
“You didn’t make a choice to get involved,” I said eventually. “You can make a choice to not be involved anymore.”
“None of us choose to be born.”
My turn to smile awkwardly. My goodness, Kimberly could be morbid sometimes. I even felt Sevens grimace in my lap. What possible answer could anybody have to that?
“Ow,” said a voice like rusty spoons dragged across bathtub mould. “Ow, ow, ow.”
A twist of black lace rose up from within the cold abandoned nest of blankets on the bed. Aym unfolded as if she’d been hiding under the covers, throwing both stick-like legs over the edge of the bed, grimacing at Kimberly, who was staring back in frozen shock.
“No,” I snapped. “Go away. Aym, leave. Right now!”
“Ow!” Aym said to Kim. “Oh you are just absolutely down there. What is this emo trash?”
Sevens had gone very stiff and very still in my lap, like a cat preparing to pounce. I could feel that her eyes were wide open, fixed on Aym.
“Emo … ?” Kimberly echoed, barely able to form the word.
Aym let out a sigh, which sounded like a broken machine trying to gutter back to life. She gestured with one little hand held flat. “You’re right, nobody gets out of this. Look what happened to your old cultist friends when they tried: minds eaten by a giant eyeball in the sky. You’re still walking about and breathing and pining after women you’re too scared to talk to, so that’s one up for you. But this whining! Really!”
“Aym!” I snapped. My tentacles unfurled behind me, ready to pluck her off the sheets and throw her out of the window. But Sevens grabbed my thigh and squeezed hard. I flinched, confused.
Kimberly was looking Aym up and down, eyes wide, mouth hanging open slightly, as if a live dodo had just appeared in her bedroom.
“You’re … ” she managed.
Aym cupped one of her own ears. “Yeees?”
“You’re just a weird little goth kid.”
Aym blinked once, pole-axed. She paused, cleared her throat, and sat up straight. “And what if I’m a demon?”
“Your voice is horrible,” Kimberly said. “What happened?”
“Excuse me!” Aym whined, a noise like a grinding engine. “Sorry I’m not ASMR-quality! Huh!”
Slowly and deliberately, Kimberly turned away from the lace-and-tar demon on her bed. She picked up one of the hand-rolled cigarettes from her desk, fumbled around for a lighter with a shaking hand, and stuck the roll-up in her mouth while she held the flame to the other end.
“Aym,” I repeated myself. “This is deeply offensive. You—”
“Guuurrrrriiieeek,” went Sevens. Aym turned to stare at her. For a moment the two creatures had a tiny stand-off, Sevens intent as a wild cat, Aym curious and slightly confused.
Then Kimberly got her reefer properly lit. She filled her lungs with a deep intake of breath, lowered the smouldering cannabis cigarette — and blew a plume of smoke right into Aym’s face.
“What— I— pfffft—” Aym flapped her hands in front of her face, screwing up her delicate nose and eyes, recoiling in shock.
It was, with the exception of stabbing Twil in the hand, the bravest thing I’d ever seen Kimberly do. And the weirdest.
She didn’t even seem to register what she’d done. After the single plume of — admittedly strong-smelling — smoke, she stubbed out her reefer in the ashtray on her desk, and stood up, looking somewhat shaky but resolved.
“Evelyn and Felicity don’t need peeling apart, or encouraging closer,” she said. “They need a third head. They need a procedural mage.”
“ … are you sure?” I asked. As I spoke, I saw Aym melting back into the nest of blankets in the corner of my eye, muttering about smoke and stench.
Kimberly nodded, then swallowed very hard, then blinked several times, eyes watering. “I’m going to need a hand downstairs though, please, or I’m going to get light-headed and fall over.”
Kim Kim Kim Kim! Kim! I love Kimberly. She’s been in the background for so long, but you know what, she’s got a spine too! She’s a mage, or was, under terrible duress, but she’s more than just a target for spooky bullshit. Aym, meanwhile, is a little shit and probably going to get herself in trouble sooner or later. At least Fliss and Evee are working well, for now.
If you want to support Katalepsis and also read a couple of chapters ahead of the public ones, there’s always the patreon! But I’m not linking the patreon this week because it’s almost the end of the month and it’s very unfair to people to pay twice. So, you know, wait ’till the 1st of November if you want to! But in the meantime, thank you all so very much for reading. Couldn’t do this without you readers. I mean it.
You can still:
And leave a review! Or a like, a thumbs up, a comment on a chapter, anything! It helps me so much to know there’s people out there reading and enjoying the story; that’s the whole reason I do this in the first place, to bring a fun story to those who read it. And thank you for reading!
Next week, more mage nonsense, this time with extra mage. Triple mage threat. Or maybe Kim will just get really high and fall asleep.
Aym — demonic dissembler, shadow silhouette, ineffable imp — sat in frozen promise across the imitation abyss of the magical workshop, deep in the dregs of storm-light, drenched in the drumming of the rain, and pressed close by the squeezing of an unseen revulsion, as if the house itself was eager to expel this foreign object lodged in our collective flesh.
She had made an implicit offer, if only I would consent to talk alone, about myself.
“Forget me,” I said, staring into that formless darkness. “I’m not interesting.”
“I beg to differ,” Aym purred in a voice like knives dipped in boiling acid. A voice that made my spine shudder. A voice that made Evelyn go stiff, sitting next to me in the dark with my tentacle still wrapped securely around her shoulder and arm and hand. I squeezed that hand; I’m still here, Evee, you’re not by yourself in front of this demon.
I cleared my throat. “But you just mentioned the Eye. I know you did that on purpose, to bait me. I’m not completely naive, not totally inexperienced at this kind of thing. I have bargained with far worse things than you, Aym.” Then, because her hook was firmly through the flesh of my cheek: “What do you know about the Eye?”
“Heather!” Evee hissed through clenched teeth. “She doesn’t know shit!”
Writhing like seaweed in a dead current, oozing darkness like silty mud, Aym smiled.
Almost invisible, a suggestion of widening shadow. Girlish, teasing, full of taboo knowledge and things she shouldn’t know. I blinked twice and suddenly understood, abyssal instinct feeding me hidden layers of reality. Aym wasn’t really smiling; that was only my brain doing its best to process the nonsense data my human senses were picking up. Aym was like a radio broadcast more noise than signal. Part of me wondered what I might see if I dipped my senses down into the abyssal range — but I’d not done that in months. The last time I’d attempted that trick I’d been left insensate for several minutes afterwards. I couldn’t risk that in front of Aym, not when I had to protect Evelyn.
I felt a pull toward her, an urge to get closer, to get a better look at what lay beneath the shadow. But I was anchored to Evee.
“I know a secret,” Aym cooed.
“About the Eye?” The words slipped from between my lips before I could stop myself blundering into her game.
“Mmmmmmhmmmmmm,” she purred, an oversized house cat full of flaky iron rust and carcinogenic gravel. Dark tendrils rose from the shadows on the sofa, their tips kissing in the still, cold air above her head, like she was touching her fingertips together.
“You’re going to tell me that secret.”
I did my best not to phrase it as a question. I even considered slipping my squid-skull mask on before I spoke. But here in the dark, Aym and I were already equals. I needed no true face.
Aym’s smile became a grin, toothy and deep, like a leatherback sea turtle with spikes running down the oesophagus to stop prey escaping the final swallow. “Evee-pie leaves,” she said. “Then we can talk about you, or the Eye, or about Raine making you scream an orgasm into your pillow, or whatever else you want. I’m easy.”
“And then you’ll honour the deal?” I asked. “You’ll give Felicity the rest of the spell?”
“Sure.” A shrug rolled in the shadows. Too many elbows. “Why not?”
“Heather, for fuck’s sake,” Evelyn hissed up at me from the darkness closer at hand, her face a pale white oval in the grey gloom, lit only by the residual bioluminescence from my tentacles — which she couldn’t even see. “This is bait! This is a trap! How can you not see that?! I cannot believe you are entertaining this bullshit!”
“I … I have to try,” I said, listening to that tug in my chest. I ached to get closer to Aym.
Evelyn sighed with explosive frustration. She fumbled with her walking stick for a second, got a proper grip on the bone-wand in her lap, then lifted it to point in the direction of the shadowy mass on the sofa.
Instantly, poor Marmite scrambled backward, out of the firing line. His pneuma-somatic mind may not have understood the subtle nuances of tension and negotiation, but he understood well enough the business end of a weapon. The spider-servitor on the table backed up a few paces too, in a more controlled and practised manner, giving its mistress room to wield terrible violence.
I whipped out a tentacle. Instinct rode me.
A hiss tore up my throat and stopped only because I bit my lips hard enough to draw blood. Sharp pain and the taste of hot iron brought my mind around like I’d been slapped.
“ … Heather?” Evelyn hissed in shock, frozen in my grip.
The moment she had raised her bone-wand toward Aym, I had lashed out with a spare tentacle and caught the wand in coils of smooth, pale muscle, wrapped it around and around to immobilize the wand and Evee’s hand, and then pointed it down at the ground. Despite the useful metaphor, the wand was not a gun; pointing it away from Aym wouldn’t make a lick of difference to Evelyn’s ability to use the thing. But holding her hand tight in the tip of my tentacle stilled her fingers from the necessary movements.
Aym was not the target of my aborted hiss. Evee was.
Horrified and confused, I let go of her arm and hand as gently as I could. “I-I’m sorry, Evee! I didn’t hurt you, did I? I’m sorry … I … I don’t know what came over me.”
Evelyn stared up at me in the gloom, brow furrowed hard, the soft puppy-blue of her eyes swallowed by the static grey. The bone-wand was like a floating skeletal apparition against the darker patch of her skirt and the floor beyond. “No,” she said eventually, hard and cold. “I’m fine, thank you.”
“I’m sorry,” I murmured. “I don’t know why I did that.”
Aym cackled in the dark. She rocked on the sofa, a child having a giggle fit. Pseudopods slapped against each other, making no sound, black mist passing through black mist. “Some ally and friend she is! What did you think you were going to achieve anyway, butter-roll? Were you going to dispel me? John Dee himself couldn’t have come close. Then again, you are so much more than your mother’s daughter. If anybody has to put me in a box, I wouldn’t mind so much if it was you!”
Evelyn snorted derision, gritted her teeth, and pulled her composure tight around her shoulders once more with nothing but a lift of her chin. Even half-blind in the dark, unintentionally undermined by my instincts, and taunted by a demon, Evee was glorious in her imperious posture.
“Heather has counselled me in mercy,” she said. “You should thank her.”
“Oooooh,” Aym cooed, a horrible sound like a crocodile trying to be cutesy. “Good save.”
“Believe what you want,” Evelyn spat. “Heather, don’t speak with Aym alone.”
“I think Heathy-smoots can do whatever she wants,” Aym warbled.
I waited for an extra word from Evee, watching her eyes, begging her to say it; she could collapse all my uncertainty with one little phrase. But it never came. And I didn’t prompt her.
A sensible response stuck in my throat. My hands would have quivered if I’d unclenched my fists or unhooked my arm from around my squid-skull mask. My tentacles itched to reach across the room and peel back that darkness from around Aym. I had told a lie; I knew exactly why I had tried to restrain Evelyn, and why I’d almost hissed in her face when she’d threatened Aym.
Abyssal instinct recognised Aym as something not unlike myself. A kinship across the cold water.
I simply had to look her in the face.
“Evee,” I said, watching Aym. “I’ve debated my own guilt for murder over coffee with the King in Yellow. I don’t think Aym is going to present much challenge to my self-worth or self-doubt.”
At the name of the Yellow King, Aym’s smile died. I felt it go out like a black hole swallowing itself, leaving behind a field of clean stars. A head twisted and kinked in the darkness, peering at me from one angle, then another, drooling black saliva onto the floor. I watched her in return, my eyes moving from point to point on sheer gut feeling.
You want to call my bluff, I thought, but you can’t tell if I’m making that up.
A high-pitched whine eased in on the very edge of my hearing, like a massive television set left on mute in another room. Focused Aym, pressing down on her. Like the house itself was trying to force her out.
Evelyn yanked on the tentacle which I had wrapped around her arm, dragging me downward so she could hiss in my ear. “I am not leaving you alone in here with her. You’ll have to throw me out of the door, Heather! Go on, pick me up and hurl me out there, I’m sure Praem will catch me!”
“I’m serious,” I whispered back. “I don’t think she can hurt me.”
“Why not just rip the information out of her?” Evee demanded in a whisper. Across the room, Aym was still swaying from side to side like a piece of greasy seaweed snagged on a nail. “She’s right there, she’s already hurt Kim, and now she’s trying to mess with our heads. You said you can do it, were you bluffing?”
I didn’t answer. I just watched Aym.
Truth was, I probably could do what Evee suggested, but I simply didn’t want to. A very important part of my soul did not want to hurt Aym, at least not in that way. I would restrain her from assaulting my friends if need be, but the idea of doing permanent damage, of vivisecting her with brain-math to pull out the wet and dripping morsels from her mind, that was now unthinkable.
What I wanted to do was reach across the room and peel back her camouflage. The urge was a physical thing, a twitching in my gut. Not quite hunger, and certainly nothing sexual. A new form of need. A burning need to know, to observe truth, unimpeded by appearance.
“Thaaaaaat,” Aym purred at last, “wasn’t true. Was it? Coffee with the king. A king. A yellow monarch. No, just a book.”
Silently I dared her to push deeper. Technically I had lied: I had never sipped from the coffee the King had offered me. But Aym didn’t know that.
Evelyn, however, snorted in grim amusement. “That’s what I thought. Just a book.”
“What,” Aym deadpanned.
Evelyn’s own exasperation at the mere existence of Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight, and indeed the entire Yellow Court, was about to give the game away and ruin my advantage. I jumped in with both feet, in panic, with the first thing that came to mind.
“If we say that we have no sin,” I recited off the top of my head, straightening my back, certain I was going to get the words wrong, “we deceive ourselves, and there is no truth in us. Why then, belike, we must sin, and consequently die. Ay, we must die an everlasting death.”
Aym and Evee both went silent for a heartbeat. Raindrops drummed on the roof and the windows. Somewhere in the distance, thunder rumbled.
“Well,” Evelyn sighed, “I don’t recognise that one.”
Aym lit up like a Christmas Tree made of frozen asphalt. “Ahhhhhhhhhhh! She knows her roots!”
“I have read Doctor Faustus, yes,” I said. “And Aym, really, you’re no Mephistopheles.”
“Confident you’re free of sin?” she asked.
“Confident I’m not.”
Aym cackled. She seemed to get the point. Evelyn was shaking her head, exasperated beyond words. Probably feeling left out.
I pressed the advantage, following that abyssal urge down in my gut. “Tell me what you are, Aym. What you really are. Then Evee will leave the room, and we’ll talk about whatever you want.”
Evelyn exploded. She actually slapped my tentacle, though not hard enough to hurt. “I bloody well will not! You’ll have to crowbar me out of this chair, I—”
Aym made a sound of such utter disgust, more lizard than human. Evelyn flinched and I whirled all my tentacles up in a protective cage around her.
The shadow on the sofa had gone still, all except for a ragged, rough, shallow breathing.
“ … Aym?”
“You people,” she purred, dark and wet and full of scorn. “You love your definitions so much. You love them more than the world. Your limits. Your carefully demarcated edges. Your words and numbers and things on pages. It’s what mages and wizards and the like have been doing for thousands of years. Writing things down in dusty books. Cataloguing, describing, defining. Everything has to have a name, a type, a label. And when it exceeds those labels, you all go ‘oh, this can’t possibly be true, this can’t be right, wah wah wahhhhhh’.” Aym huffed, a petulant teenage girl turning down a gift that wasn’t quite expensive enough. “And then you write new definitions, new limits, new types. All of them just as wrong as before.”
Silence reigned for a moment, filled by the storm outdoors. The shadow on the sofa had turned dense and sulky. Evelyn’s palm had gone sweaty and cold on my tentacle. I squeezed gently. She didn’t squeeze back.
Eventually I asked, “Where are you going with this, Aym?”
“Huh. Your ancestors were smarter. They understood that a saint’s finger bone could be in more than one place at the same time. Do you? No, of course you don’t. The scientific method is only a method. Maybe you need a different method for something like me.”
“Well,” I said, “what are you, then?”
Aym reared up, all dark suggestion lost in the grey gloom. I had the distinct impression she was standing on the sofa cushions. “There you go again! With the same thing!”
“It’s not the same thing at all,” I said, doing my best to hold my ground and keep my voice steady before this screeching apparition. “I’m asking you for self-definition. I’m not going to test it, or debate it, or write it down. I want to know what you consider yourself to be.”
The smile crept back at last, a slash in the dark. A forked tongue flickered out to taste the air. “I prefer not to say.”
“She’s just a demon,” Evelyn grunted. “She likes to put on a show, that’s all. Why does this even matter?”
“It doesn’t,” Aym purred. “Listen to her, Heather. My sweet little raspberry crumble gets it.”
I couldn’t answer either of them. Aym writhed in delighted irritation. Evelyn stared up at me from her chair, fuming in the grey gloom.
“Aym,” I said after a moment, trying to relocate my footing. “You want a private conversation, about the Eye.”
Evelyn spoke through gritted teeth. “I am not leaving this room.”
“Then there’s no deal,” Aym cooed. “I’ll just take my leave, shall I? Be off then, toodle-pip!”
I leaned down toward Evee, speaking for her ears only, though I suspected Aym would hear every word even if I only thought them. “Evee, please,” I whispered. “I will be completely safe. There’s nothing she can touch me with, not after everything lately. What’s she going to do, taunt me about having power? About how I might fail? About what? She can’t touch me.”
Evelyn’s face was a grey mask, lips thinned, eyes boring through my skull.
“If you want me to leave,” she said through her teeth, “you will have to remove me yourself. And we both know you won’t do that.”
Aym let out a dark giggle. “It’s for your own good, butterscotch biscuit. Some things about gods aren’t meant for human ears.”
Those words only acted as more bait. My skin itched, my feet wouldn’t stay still; I had to know. I wet my lips, trying to bring these two together in some agreement, something that would let me square this circle. “What if Evee stays?”
“Then I,” said Aym, “go.”
And so she did.
The shadow on the sofa stopped moving, becoming one with the grey background of cushions and curtains. In a moment of optical illusion it was possible to convince oneself that Aym was still sitting there, inhabiting the angles of shadow on cloth, the disturbed fabric of the furniture, the imaginary ghost-shapes of shadows upon waking. But then I moved my head and realised there was nothing there.
The high-pitched whine had vanished as well. The pressure in the room seemed lighter. My gut and my tentacles both relaxed.
“Oh,” I sighed. “There goes our chance.”
“Bugger it all!” Evelyn spat, stamping her walking stick against the floor. She slapped at her mobile phone on the table, cancelling the twenty minute timer and jamming the phone back into her pocket. “Heather, she was trying to entrap you! You saw that, you heard every word of it!”
“Evee, please.” I squeezed her arm gently with my tentacle. “I think that was the whole point. You were the one falling into her trap, not me.”
Evelyn opened her mouth to snap at me again, but then she paused, scowling. “Explain.”
“She knew full well you wouldn’t leave me alone with her. So she engineered a situation where you had to override my wishes. She’s laying the groundwork for tormenting you later, I suspect, by making you take responsibility for me failing to get what we need from her. Does that make sense? Maybe I’m just projecting, but I think that’s what she’s doing. And … well … I was trying not to give away that I suspected.” I sighed heavily. “I probably should have just said it out loud. I’m sorry. I’m not actually very good at this, am I?”
Evelyn stared up at me, brow knitting harder and harder. The rain drummed on the roof and the windows, turning Number 12 Barnslow Drive into a resonant cave. The grey gloom seemed now to swaddle us in safety. I wanted to melt down onto the floor next to Evee and put my head in her lap.
“I don’t agree,” she said eventually. “But you may be right. Fair enough.”
I let out a weak laugh. “You trust me but you don’t trust my judgement.”
“Don’t be a fool, Heather. I trust you with my life.” She said it so matter-of-fact that I couldn’t possibly remain angry with her, but she looked away quickly, back into the comforting darkness of the magical workshop with the lights off. With Aym here the room had felt abyssal and strange, a piece of fairie-magic transported to the heart of Sharrowford. But now it was just our home, in the dark. “Besides, she’s probably still here.”
“Maybe she’s a fairy,” I murmured.
“What?” Evelyn squinted up at me.
“Nothing. Forget I said that. Just a silly thought.” I blushed faintly in the dark. “If she really is still here, then she’s probably overheard every word I’ve just said.” I cast my eyes around the room too, looking for a tell-tale patch of darker shadow, a dripping blackness out of place, a slasher’s smile in the night. “By speaking her plan out loud, I’ve already disarmed it. I hope.”
Evelyn snorted and shook her head, but her heart wasn’t in the gesture. “Better at this than you think, Heather. No wonder everybody believes in you. You’re always so right and—”
“Bleeeergh,” came a voice of razorblades and acid, imitating being sick, from the far end of the workshop table.
I whipped around, tentacles whirling in surprise, then shooting outward to protect Evee. Evelyn flinched hard, despite doing her best to hide her reaction, then turned in her seat so she wasn’t showing her back toward Aym. The spider-servitor on the table scuttled around in a little circle, bringing its stinging spikes to bear, each glistening point quivering in readiness to strike. The other spider-servitor, clinging to the wall over the gate, looked ready to unfold like a toxin-tipped spring, only a few feet away from where Aym now sat.
A writhing shadow of grey and black, indistinct and hazy, perched on the very end of the table. A number of what might have been legs dangled over the side, melting into shadow as they swung back and forth, like a child whose feet didn’t reach the floor. The shadow curved, curled, cracked and coiled, then lowered a hand from the suggestion of a mouth.
“Bleh,” Aym repeated. “You two are disgusting. Old people in love are disgusting. Don’t start making out in front of me, I’ll be sick all over your floor.”
I blessed the darkness, for it hid my rising blush. I opened my mouth on a reflexive denial. “W-what? Lo—”
“Old?” Evelyn spat. “I am twenty one years old, you rotten cow. You are infinitely older than me.”
“You were born at forty,” Aym purred. “Face it, strawberry tart.”
“Aym!” I snapped on reflex. “All this negotiating and playing games with us and vanishing in a puff of shadow like you’re a pixie, that’s one thing. But do not insult Evelyn. It’s extremely rude.”
Aym laughed, a bubbly, wet, rotten sound, like her throat was stuffed with decaying cardboard.
The shadows seemed to be pressing around her, tight and grasping. That high-pitched whine had returned to the edge of my senses, focused on the figure of the demon sitting at the end of the table, but not originating from her. I felt myself involuntarily inch forward, as if I might grab her and pluck her from her seat. My tentacles itched, drifting outward like a muscular, living net in the darkness, their faint rainbow strobing soaked up by the gloom and returned as mere shades of black. I felt like a hand was on my back, urging me forward.
The house itself wanted her gone, and I wanted to catch her like a spider under a glass — not to hurt her, but just to look. Once I was done, we could throw her outdoors, back into her natural environment.
“You know,” said Aym — and then went still, grey, an empty space of shadows.
Then her voice came from behind me again, from where she’d sat originally, back on the sofa, hissing with sudden irritation: “Tch! Do not make me repeat myself, it’s so boorish. Shooing Evee out is for her own good. I won’t talk to you otherwise, Heather. And stop trying to catch me! Don’t assume that because it’s dark I can’t see you trying.”
Evelyn and I both turned back to the sofa again. The spider-servitor whirled as well, looking quite harried by this absurd back-and-forth. Aym was back on the sofa, a shadow-shape of suggestion and suspicion. I had the distinct impression she was sitting up very straight-backed, almost formal. A forked tongue flicked at the air, licked things that were not lips, and then darted back behind far too many teeth.
Evelyn snapped, “Stay still or I’ll have Praem tie you to a chair.”
“Oooooh,” Aym mocked. “Scary scary!”
But I was shaking my head in wonder, refusing to be misdirected by her words. “You’re more like Sevens than a demon. You’re a spirit-thing, but there is a physical body under there. I can sense it, I can feel it. How did you know I was going to grab you?”
Evelyn sighed. “Heather, for fucks’ sake, it doesn’t matter. This is over. She won’t talk and I won’t leave. We can do this some other way. Either you pluck it from her mind, or I … ” I felt Evelyn swallow and stiffen, felt the cold sweat break out beneath her clothes. “Or I work with Felicity to solve the problem the old-fashioned way, research and experimentation. Fuck Aym. We’ll do it ourselves.”
I waited a heartbeat, but Evelyn did not add the words I expected. So I leaned down close, close enough for my breath to touch her ear.
“I don’t know if Maisie has the time to spare. And I think I can take Aym. But if you … if you insist?”
I let the word sink in the gloom. Evelyn opened her mouth, closed it again, opened it a second time, then gritted her teeth and said nothing.
Slowly, reluctantly, Evelyn stood up from her chair. She used me for support and I gave it freely, taking half her weight as she stared daggers at Aym across the room. Shadow-fingers undulated in a mocking wave.
“Bu-bye for now, blackberry jam,” Aym giggled.
“If you hurt Heather, I will hunt you down, kill you, and then re-summon you to posses a septic tank on a pig farm.”
Aym grinned in the dark. I helped Evelyn over to the door. She whispered in my ear.
“You be fucking careful, Heather.”
“I promise. I will.”
When I opened the door to the kitchen the magical workshop was flooded with lighter grey, storm-born illumination chasing back the darkness. I couldn’t resist a glance back over my shoulder, but the shadow was gone, Aym melted away into nothing in the clarity of sunlight, no matter how weak. Only lumpy sofa cushions remained.
Evelyn called for Praem. We weren’t going to let her walk alone from here to the old sitting room. Even that was too much risk with Aym lurking about. Praem appeared a few moments later, clicking across the kitchen tiles, with Raine dogging her heels.
“Hey hey,” said Raine, tense and ready, but trying to smile. “We done already? Quicker than I thought you’d be. Everybody in one piece?”
Evelyn snorted derision, letting Praem take her arm as I handed her off. “Far from it. Heather is going to talk to Aym, alone.”
Raine’s eyebrows shot upward. She found my eyes and asked, “You gonna be okay?”
Just like that. No assumption that I wasn’t. No horrified warning. No fear. A genuine question, simply asking if I needed help. I wanted to melt into her arms and kiss her. Raine was perfect.
“I think so,” I said.
Raine nodded, once. “Shout and I’ll be there in a flash.”
I smiled back. “I know you will. Love you, Raine.”
“Love you too, Miss Morell.”
Just before I started to close the door to the magical workshop, Marmite scuttled out around my legs, eager to be away from Aym. His spider-friends did not follow, but Praem greeted him with gentle hand on a passing tentacle. He made for the front room, moving fast.
Praem turned her head to me. Blank, milky eyes locked with mine, fixing me in place. “Say hello from me,” she said.
“Of course,” I replied, as if we were discussing a pleasant social visit to a friend, with tea and scones, rather than a negotiation with something dark and horrible, coiled in on itself like a giant snake, that I couldn’t even identify.
I closed the door on my friends — on Raine’s jaunty thumbs-up, Praem’s blank and elegant stare, and Evelyn’s pinched scowl — and plunged myself back into the sucking pit of static gloom. Footsteps clicked and shuffled and stomped away from the other side of the door, across the kitchen, and into the front room. A moment later I could hear nothing over the incessant drumming of the storm. I pressed a hand to the cool, smooth wood of the door, readying myself, then let go, casting off into the abyss.
Aym was waiting for me on the sofa.
She made no pretence of humanoid form now. A gelatinous mass of shadow squatted on the sofa, impossible to render into details even if I squinted. Octopus-bodied, frog-fleshed, seaweed and salt and sinuous motion, she seemed more abyssal than terrestrial now. More recognisable. More like me. My instincts sang with kinship.
Just us now, no human beings to worry about protecting. I felt less human myself. I even forgot to relate Praem’s greeting.
“Aym,” I murmured, stepping into the middle of the room, my tentacles floating after me. “Aym, what are you? No, no don’t answer, I know you won’t. But I already know. You’re like me, aren’t you? You’ve seen the abyss. That’s what I call it, the deep dark place between the spheres. I can feel—”
“You’re going to die.”
Aym said it with a sound like ramming a serrated sword through a suit of rusty chain-mail. I think that meant she was angry.
“I’m sorry for undercutting the drama,” I said, “but is that meant to be a threat?”
Aym sighed like a terminal tuberculosis patient in her final moments. “Why don’t we level with each other, Heather? Now it’s just you and I, can’t we drop all the pretences?”
“We already have, haven’t we? You are what you are, I am what I am. Here we are.” I swallowed, heart racing with anticipation, legs itching to move.
Aym sat up straighter, or at least higher. “The Eye.”
“Yes, the Eye, indeed, what do you know?” Then I laughed softly. “Does it even matter?”
“Less than you.”
“So you were lying after all. You don’t know any secrets about it.”
“Neither do you, squid-brains. And you haven’t been paying attention. You’ve been trying to apply the scientific method to the Eye. Like a moron. Building all these models with metaphors — a lost chick, a cuckoo, a protege. An angel!” She laughed at that one, a hissing sound. “That one might have something to it, I admit. But you’re going too slowly. You’re going to visit Wonderland — what a shitty, stupid name for a place like that — with a head full of theories and figures, and the Eye is going to kill you.”
“I’ve accepted that danger. I know what we’re going to be facing. It’s still worth the risk.”
“It’s not a risk!” she hissed. Aym rose even higher, an octopus rearing up, ready to crack the shell of a crab with her beak. “This isn’t hyperbole, or a prediction. It’s a fact! You’re going to die. All your friends are going to die. Your sister will wither away and fade into nothing.”
“It’s still worth a shot,” I said. “Is this meant to make me sad, Aym? I’ve felt these things my whole life.”
“What are you going to do, huh?” Aym leaned forward and suddenly she seemed like a giant, pressing down on me. A teacher, demanding a real answer, not just a bluff and a shrug. A parent demanding an explanation. Reality itself, material and undeniable, demanding an answer with steel upon flesh. “I mean what are you actually, physically, practically going to do? Shout at it? Reach up and stab it with the universe’s largest broken bottle? Raine’s idea, that one, by the way; at least she had something! None of that makes sense, and you know it. But you’ve spent months avoiding this, because it’s the only method you’ve got!”
A lump grew in my throat. “That’s not true.”
“Then what is your plan?”
“I’m going to reach out to it with brain-math. I’m going to try to pull Maisie out. That’s what I’m going to do.”
“Tch!” Aym hissed. “So, fight it. A tug of war for a soul. That’s your answer. Waste of thought.”
“Why do you care?”
“Evee will die.”
No shame, no hesitation, no secret blushing embarrassment. With her and I, alone in the dark, Aym did not balk from the truth.
“You care about Evelyn?” I asked.
Aym sank back into the sofa cushions, lolling, spreading out, glaring at me from shadows within shadows. “If you come back from your stupid quest and everybody except Evee dies, fine. Who gives a fuck? Magicians, demons, idiots. But if you make it back and she’s the only one lost, I will eat you piece by piece. And I will keep you alive while I do it.”
My tentacles flared outward in silent warning. Faint rainbow glow threatened to reveal Aym’s truth, but the shadows refused to take form. “I don’t think you could achieve that, Aym. I don’t think you understand what I am.”
“You don’t understand what I am,” purred a thing in the dark.
I nodded and sighed, then nodded again. “Fair enough. I don’t understand why you care, either. If it helps, if it matters … I would protect Evee from anything, under any circumstances. To be honest, I don’t even think she should be coming to Wonderland. Nobody but me should be going.”
Aym coiled and writhed on the sofa for a moment, then said, “If I give Felicity this key, you’re going to get Evee killed. As soon as I give you this spell, you’ll go get that book, and then you’re there. And all dead.”
“I won’t let Evee get hurt.”
“You mages will go fight other mages, because you’re like that. Like animals. Territorial and violent. And then you’ll get your special little book and sweet Evee will finish her spell, and then you’ll open a gateway to Wonderland, where you will all — fucking — die.”
“I would sacrifice myself first.”
As I said the words, I realised they were true.
“Would you?” Aym laughed. “I’m talking with Heather Morell right now. But down there in the dark, you don’t have a name.”
“You do know the abyss!” I said. “You’ve been there, you understand.”
“And you understand nothing.”
As I stared across the static grey gloom of the magical workshop, locking eyes with something that had only dark pits where sockets should have been, I accepted that this was not really a negotiation at all. Aym had indeed dropped the pretences she’d used in front of Evelyn.
Her entire reason for coming down here was this private conversation. This confrontation, with me. Perhaps she had planned it from the beginning, but more likely her goals had changed once she’d gotten here. Perhaps the attack on Kimberly had been part of that, to provoke me into reaction, to see if I would leap to the defence of somebody who wasn’t even particularly close to me.
Aym was judging me. She wanted to know if I was leading Evee to her death. And she didn’t like what she saw so far.
“You’re right,” I said. “When I dived into the abyss, I forgot my own name. But I didn’t forget Evee’s.”
Aym said nothing, just floating in a gentle current of cold rain.
“Evee, Raine, Twil, Lozzie, Zheng,” I said their names. “Tenny was only a spirit back then. I didn’t know Sevens yet. But everyone I knew, I sealed their names inside a pressurised bubble of … well, it couldn’t be flesh. But I kept them in my core. It’s what drew me back, buoyed me back to the surface. I will always remember the names of my friends, my family, those I’ve chosen to be with. I don’t care what I’m reduced to. Even the version of myself which returned from the abyss, it knows — I know — that Evelyn Saye is part of my pack. Sorry Aym, you’re wrong.”
Aym sighed, dry rubber down a cheese grater. “Lucky you.”
“Luck has nothing to do with it.”
I felt myself edging forwards, toward Aym, creeping across the wooden floorboards on the silent pads of my socks and the supporting curves of a pair of tentacles. Achingly slow, like a cephalopod drifting in dead water, easing myself closer and closer to my target. Tentacles uncoiled from my core, inch by slow inch. An unconscious predatory advance.
“She was fine,” Aym drawled, her rusty-razor voice tinged with bitter melancholy. Teeth moved in several places on her blob-like body. “She was safe with Raine. She was safe, and alive, and away from her rotten cradle. She was safe, Heather. Maybe not loved, but close enough. You’ve ruined that.”
“It’s not enough to be safe,” I murmured into the dark, watching the tendrils of Aym’s black form coalesce and melt against the cushions of the sofa. “One has to live.”
Aym hissed, sinking lower, as if she knew I was about to spring. Her attention was turning inward, away from me. I crept closer, sliding my sock-clad feet along the floor.
“I forgot somebody once,” she said, voice reduced to a cold stub. “We went down together. He forgot my name, and I forgot his. I came back alone.”
“Me too,” I said.
I lifted one tentacle in silent, quivering anticipation, a perfect curve of serpentine muscle, poised to strike. Within leaping distance now, and then I would have her. My heart climbed into my mouth, the tentacles supporting my legs went tense. I wet my lips and—
“Ha!” Aym spat — from the other side of the room.
The shape left on the sofa in front of me was mere shadow, wrought by imagination. I whirled on the spot, tentacles whipping after me, to find Aym standing at the far end of the magical workshop, a dainty little figure of black and grey haze, framed by the outline of the gateway to Camelot, blank plaster and old paint.
The spider-servitor on self-appointed gate-guard duty did not approve of this trick, this travelling without moving. A pair of spike-tipped stingers lanced downward to spear through the top of Aym’s head.
“No!” I snapped, flinching forward, about to hurl myself to knock Aym out of the way.
But the spider-servitor’s chitin weapons passed through smoke and shadow and gouged chips of wood out of the floorboards. Recoiling in confusion, the poor servitor almost lost its grip on the wall, head whirring around for the new location of its original target.
“Hoooooo,” went Aym, now tucked neatly into the far corner like a cobweb. “Spicy, spicy doggy!”
“It almost had you,” I said, panting with mixed relief and shock. Had she moved again fast enough to avoid the attack, or had the spider’s weapons passed through her body and found it no more substantial than a cloud of oil? “Aym, what are you? How do you move like that?”
“Hell hath no limits,” Aym purred, clicking her syllables with a wet tongue, “nor is cicumscrib’d in one self place.”
I finished the quote for her: “But where we are is hell, and where hell is, there must we ever be.” I shook my head. “More Faustus. You do enjoy your literary metaphors.”
A grin spread in the dark. “So do you. Now you’re getting it.”
Aym waited in that corner, still and silent, too thin to be a person, too hazy to be real. Bait.
I stepped away from the sofa, trying to pay attention to how my weight was balanced. There was no way I could round the corner of the table without her seeing what I was doing. I could leap, I supposed, springing with the power of my tentacles — but this was becoming embarrassing. Instinct thrummed hot and huge in the back of my head, urging me to catch her and peer through the shadows up close, so I could identify her.
I pushed it down. I forced a deep breath into my lungs. I drew my tentacles back in. I could not catch her over there, not without making a fool of myself.
It wasn’t as if I would be able to catch her when she was hiding from all this light, either.
I sighed and crossed over to the door which led out to the kitchen. Why had I left it open earlier, when Evee had gone? It was ajar just enough for a person to pass through, flooding the magical workshop with the lighter grey storm-washed sunlight from the kitchen windows. Aym was reduced to little more than a memory in the corner.
I shut the door and placed my hand against it for a moment, once more sealed in the abyssal darkness, alone together with Aym.
Then I frowned.
“Wait,” I murmured out loud. “Wait, I did close—”
“Feeling ill, squid-brains?” Aym cooed.
Slowly I turned and looked at the corner again, at Aym gathered there like oil-soaked rags floating in a marine trench.
Had she done something to me just now? Everything felt dislocated, like I’d just jumped back a minute. Or forward? Time didn’t add up. But abyssal instinct was silent, unbothered, completely focused on the desire to pluck Aym from her protective shadows.
No, that made no sense. I was just confused.
I had seen nothing.
“Aym,” I said, trying not to sound like my heart was going at high speed. “I never got to thank you for your help against the Eye. You went into the cult’s safe-house for us. You got hurt, for us. I gathered from Felicity that you were injured somehow. I saw you, in fact, if only for a moment. Thank you.”
I took a step forward, openly.
Aym snorted and tossed something that might have been a head, or might have been a pair of crocodile jaws, wrought in shadow. “If I had known, maybe I wouldn’t have gone in. Your big friend really sees everything. I don’t like that, not at all.”
“The Eye?” I nodded — and took another step, making for the corner of the table, making for Aym. “I suppose you wouldn’t.”
“You’re the same.”
“You mean I’m becoming like the Eye?” A shiver went up my spine; I already knew that. Out in the dream-landscape where Lozzie and I had freed badger, I’d stared back at the Eye with what little observation I could muster. A raindrop against the ocean, but both were water.
I took another step.
“And just as trammelled,” Aym said.
I froze. “ … pardon me?”
“You heard me, squid-bones.”
I turned that over in my mind. Aym was being cryptic. This was like Sevens, but without any affection or showmanship behind the display. Aym was just being difficult for the sheer fun of it. I stepped past the chair which Evee had been sitting in earlier, reached the table, and placed my squid-skull mask gently on the wood.
“What do you suggest, then?” I said.
“Eh?” The shadow-shape in the corner twisted something long and dripping at me.
I slid another step closer, along the length of the table.
“Against the Eye. You’re worried that I’m going to get Evee killed because I don’t know what I’m doing. So what do you suggest?”
A moment of silence and shadow.
Then Aym screeched. “I don’t fucking know! I don’t know! I’m not its adopted daughter! Think like a giant eyeball in the sky, Heather! Stop trying to figure it out, or it’s going to kill all of you by looking back!”
I pushed into the face of Aym’s ire, walking right toward her.
The shadows folded away to nothing.
I caught myself on the edge of the table, tentacles hooking, grasping, bunching as my feet kicked for purchase and I turned on the spot, spinning and scrambling in the other direction, shooting back toward the sofa before the shadows had a moment to wrap themselves around Aym’s materialising form.
But materialise she did, right there on the sofa, already snapping with irritation.
“Stop thinking like one of them, Heather! Think like one of us!” And then, “Eeeeeep!” as I landed on top of her.
I plunged two tentacles deep into the shadows where Aym was hiding, gripping whatever I could. My flesh tightened around cold slime and ridged scales, around bulging sacs of fluid and dripping orifices. I gritted my teeth and forced myself not to flinch. Rainbow bioluminescence glinted off chitin and scale, slime and salt. Aym kicked and hissed and writhed and bit the air and flailed against the cushions, but all was insubstantial, nothingness on grey gloom.
And when my grip was secure, when Aym was held not with terrestrial flesh but by the pneuma-somatic truth of my body, I reached back behind me with a third tentacle, and hit the lights.
Dull electric illumination guttered back to life, as if smothered by the gloom and drowned out by the storm. Shadows rolled up and scurried behind the furniture. I blinked against the sudden light, a deep-ocean creature dredged to the surface. The shape in front of me snapped into focus, grey haze blown away like mist in the morning sun.
I recoiled, gaping, mortified at what I was holding. I had one tentacle wrapped around a throat, another looped around a belly, both very human.
She was just a girl.
Aym was tiny. Dainty and delicate. A sprite dipped in coal dust.
Dressed from toes to chin in black, she wore thick black socks, shapeless woollen black leggings, a black dress of overlapping layers and intricate lace that reached down past her knees and right to her wrists and up past her throat, cupping her chin with a soft curl. She had long black hair, clean but messy, framing a face of pinched sharpness, all angles and planes. Her eyes were human, with pupils and irises and whites with little veins, but tilted at a fey and inhuman angle. Eyes just a touch too wide. Nose a fraction too sharp. Ears a notch too high. Neck a few inches too long. Something imitating a human being but revelling in the small differences, impossible to ignore. She was maybe thirteen years old, but I didn’t believe what I saw.
I still felt terrible. I felt so bad I hiccuped.
“I’m … I-I’m sorry,” I blurted out, loosening my grip on her throat. “I didn’t know … I thought you were … like … you convinced me that you weren’t remotely human!”
Aym swallowed as her throat was given space. She looked up at me with heavy-lidded eyes, then smiled with a mouth full of blunt, normal human teeth. Smugging for all she was worth.
“Couldn’t resist, could you?” she purred — her voice was still a nightmare, a jarring scratch of knives down a blackboard. “It’s in your nature. You want to look, to see, to know.”
I sighed sharply, blushing hard, then hiccuped again. “I’m sorry for grabbing you. I … I’m sorry for invading your personal space. I thought you were … I don’t know. Like me.”
“But you did it anyway,” she said. “And then you blame me for being the wrong thing. The thing you didn’t expect. Too mundane. Too boring. Oh no! Oh dear!” She raised her hands and cupped her face, a mocking pantomime of innocence. “I’ll have to play it up so you don’t strangle me to death!”
Shorn of her shadows, Aym had the most annoying expressions I’d ever seen. She managed to remain smug while also oozing with fake simpering. Her voice pitched higher, whining, then dissolved into a wet and rotting giggle.
I made to withdraw my tentacles, ashamed of myself, confused by the lack of something I recognised. Abyssal instinct had gone quiet as soon as the lights had come up. The ‘real’ Aym was just a girl. Demon or not, Outsider or not, this was her true form, and it was just what I saw. I was certain of that.
“Nooooo!” she whined, suddenly grabbing the tentacle I had looped around her belly. “I said I’ll play it up for you. I can be whatever you want, after all.”
“Aym, stop.” I huffed and pulled on my tentacle, but she dug her fingertips in, grinning wider. “I’m sorry I invaded your personal space. I was wrong. I thought you were like me, like—”
“But you found the wrong thing when you looked too closely?”
“Yes! I’m sorry! Let me—”
Aym reared up in my grip — and up, and up, and up.
Black hair thickening and whipping into dark and ropey tentacles. Face dissolving into a mass of teeth, a circular maw, with eyes the size of tennis balls. Her dress became ridged scales and the rasp of shark-skin. Shadows pulsed out from her like membranes in sluggish current. Feelers and roots grasped the sofa and more of them grasped my tentacles. She drooled black, sticky, hissing venom right before my face.
“Are you sure about that?” Aym giggled. “I’m only small, after all!”
Abyssal instinct lit up in triumph; she was like me.
And then she was a girl again, sitting on the sofa, grinning at me like a mad little pixie who had lured me into a ring of mushrooms.
I stood there for a long moment, panting and shaking, covered in sudden flash-sweat.
“ … was that … ” I cleared my throat and tried again. “Was that the real you? You must be from the abyss, you weren’t even surprised by my tentacles when you first saw them. You must be.”
Aym tilted her head sideways and gave me a look like I was being exceptionally slow. “Stop asking.”
I shook my head and pulled my tentacles away. This time, Aym let me go.
“You just couldn’t resist a look,” she said. “But did it help? Do you understand more, now?”
“ … no, I suppose it didn’t, b-but—”
Aym smiled, showing neat little white teeth. “And I’m only very small. The Eye is so much bigger.”
I took another step back and realised I was smiling like a moron, trying to get my head around what I was looking at. Aym had been to the abyss, she was like me; I was dying to ask her so many questions, but my mind finally pulled together and started to process her actual words.
Logically, I could deduce what Aym was. She had begun as mortal, or perhaps Outsider, and then swum the abyss, like me. Had she been a mage, like Ooran Juh, or something else? I almost asked out loud — but that would just set her off again. I might be able to define what she was, technically, but that told me nothing about her.
On reflex, abyssal instinct stirred my senses, preparing to see with new eyes.
“Ah!” Aym shot up straight on the sofa, suddenly angry, little face pinched and blazing. “No!”
“N-no?” I blinked, shocked out of the process of dipping into abyssal senses.
“No! You do that, and I’m gone, I’m out, no bluffing. Turning the lights on, that’s all part of the game. But looking like your big Eye does? No way. Stop.”
I took a deep breath, quite deflated by that. “You mean … wait, Aym, then how am I supposed to understand the Eye, if not by looking at it?” I sighed and shook my head. “This is getting too lost in metaphor.”
“I told you,” Aym purred. “I don’t know. But looking is what the Eye does.”
I opened my mouth to sigh again, then froze, and said slowly, “And looking isn’t understanding.”
Aym smiled, a nasty little pixie all in black. “Stand still, you ever-moving spheres of Heaven.”
“Huh!” I laughed without humour. “Another quote, wonderful. Irritating me with my own techniques. How am I meant to approach an ever-moving sphere of Heaven, then, if I can’t make it stand still?”
Aym shrugged. “That’s your problem.”
“Raine was right about you,” I muttered.
Aym lit up. “Rainey? Really? What did she have to say about me? Something violent, I hope!”
“That you’re a little shit.” I cleared my throat. “Pardon my language. Lots of people have tried to give me advice on how to handle the Eye. Magic, brain-math, lesbian threesomes.” I huffed at that one. “Blind faith, dreams, ‘you’ll know what to do when you get there.’ You’re just the latest in a long chain. And you’re not helping, either.”
“You need to stop thinking like a mage.”
“I’m trying!” I huffed, feeling peevish, and stalked away from Aym. The fun was over, abyssal instinct gone sullen, the game ruined by the harsh lesson. Aym was right, I just didn’t know what to do in response. “I don’t know what I’m going to do about the Eye, all right? Is that what you want to hear? That I know I’m doomed? That I don’t know what to do once I get there? I don’t even know where to start! You’re right, I’m going to look up at it with brain-math and probably die right there on the spot. Thanks, Aym.”
Aym the coal-sprite grinned. “You’re welcome.”
“Evee was right,” I said. “I shouldn’t have been alone with you.” I felt myself buckling inside. Was this Aym’s plot all along, to ruin my resolve, to protect Evelyn by stopping me from going to Wonderland? Because it was working. “Maybe we shouldn’t go,” I said past a growing lump in my throat. “Is anybody’s life worth Maisie’s return? I need to believe it can be done … ”
“Uuuurrrrghhh,” Aym grumbled. She rolled her eyes so hard that a real human would have detached both retinas. “You liked me better when you couldn’t see me, right?”
“ … right?”
“You could deal with me then! You don’t need to understand something to deal with it. You just need a shared medium.” She pulled one corner of her lips up in a sneer, as if this was obvious. “Shadows. Or words. Or maths, in your case, but don’t try that, you’ll get shouted down. It’s better at maths than you.”
I frowned at her, not quite following. “A shared medium with the Eye? What?”
“I don’t fucking know!” Aym screeched. She threw her arm up, all lace and gauze. “Don’t ask me!”
I blew out a long, deep breath, and said nothing for a moment. We stared at each other, two things alike in kind but completely different in every way that actually mattered. Aym sneered at me, tiny and delicate and wrapped in shapeless black. I felt stupid and lost.
“So, communicate with the Eye?” I said eventually. “In some … shared medium, whatever that means.”
“That’s up to you.” Aym bounced slightly on the sofa cushions, tilting her tiny chin up, rolling her eyes. “All I can see right now is you people driving toward the edge of a cliff. And I’m not going to pay for your petrol. I can easily stop Flissy from working together with Evee, you know. Hell’s bells, Heather, I could go find this Edward fuck-face and cut a deal with him.” She spat a little ‘pfff’ of disgust. “Though I’d rather not. Probably make me puke.”
I shook my head and wandered over to the table, touching my squid-skull mask. Cool bone-metal soothed my heart. “You go to the abyss, come back, and spend your days keeping Felicity on the straight and narrow. What’s the story behind that one?”
“None of your business, nosy nelly,” Aym sneered in a voice like cats destroying a rusty toy mouse.
I felt myself sagging inside. “Are you going to give us the magic we need then, or not?”
Aym paused, tilting her little face one way, then the other, black hair hanging down in a messy wave. “I don’t like you, Heather. But I like this angel thing you’re doing,” she mused in a lighter voice. “Stick with that and maybe we can make a deal.”
“A deal. Ah.” I walked over to Evee’s chair and wondered if I should tuck it back under the table. “I could just take the magic from you. The knowledge. Do it myself.”
Aym showed me her teeth again, a big toothy smile. “Are you sure about that? You don’t even know what I am.”
“You’re like me.”
“Wrong! Ehh-uuuuhh!” She made a noise like an old fashioned computer error, grating and metallic.
I nodded in exhausted surrender. “Praem says hello, by the way.”
“Tch.” Aym flicked one bony, delicate hand. “She really ought to get your roof fixed. I was up there waiting. Great big holes in the tiles! Tarpaulin doesn’t last, you know?”
“You really care about that?”
“Evee could catch cold,” she said, then grinned a mocking little grin.
“Fair enough.” I moved to sit down on the chair, this negotiation wasn’t over yet — and then bumped into something soft and unexpected.
My brain short-circuited, like in a dream.
I had bumped into something which wasn’t there. Something invisible. I had bumped into nothing. I blinked several times. I had bumped into nothing.
I had bumped into nothing.
Nothing was there.
Maybe don’t sit down in the chair? But nothing was there.
I stood there blinking several times, stuck in a small loop, until an explosive sigh split the air.
And suddenly there was Evelyn, my soft and well-wrapped Evee, sitting in the chair where she’d been sitting all along. A piece of familiar white quartz fell from her hand and into her lap, where it dimpled the fabric of her skirt. She looked slightly bashful, blushing, unable to look me in the eyes.
I gaped at her. “ … Evee?”
Aym had a hand over her mouth, eyes wide with amused shock.
“Evee,” I said. “That’s … the … the … the stone you used when we first met, to hide in plain sight. What’s it’s called?”
“The fade stone,” Evelyn replied with a grunt.
“You lied to me. You came back in! That’s why the door was open! Evee!”
Evelyn looked up at me with blazing eyes. “You didn’t seriously think I would really leave you alone with her? Heather, I am not letting you hurt yourself.”
“You could have insisted!” I squeaked.
Aym, horrible little goblin thing that she was, burst out in peals of sharp laughter, rocking back on the sofa and clutching her stomach. “I haven’t seen that trick in years! Evee, you little bitch!”
Evelyn looked at Aym like she was a zombie made of dog turds. “And I haven’t seen your face in years. What are you still doing here, you little monster?”
“Well—” Aym began, wiggling her eyebrows.
She never finished the rest of the sentence, because the door of the magical workshop flew open with a bang. Praem filled the doorway, staring at Evee.
“Ah,” Evelyn cleared her throat. “Praem. Yes. Well. I’m fine. I’m safe. Sorry.”
“Yes,” said Praem, sounding none too pleased.
“Wait,” I said. “Praem, she didn’t even tell you she was doing this? She didn’t tell me!”
“Yes,” said Praem.
“Evee,” I admonished.
“Yes!” Aym joined in. “Naughty Evee! You—”
Praem silenced Aym with a single look. The coal-sprite demon-thing flinched like she’d had a bucket of water dumped over her head, cringing back on the sofa.
Evelyn was blushing with embarrassed fury. I didn’t know what to say, lost for words. Praem looked like she was about to fetch a rolling pin and beat Aym into mince. Aym came back down from her flinch, inch by slow inch, eyes locked with Praem. Behind Praem, in the kitchen, Raine appeared, peering over her shoulder at me. She shot me a questioning thumbs up. I shrugged, grimacing.
“Yes or no?” Praem said.
Aym pointed at herself with a faux-innocent me? gesture.
“You,” said Praem.
Aym hesitated, then smiled, a nasty little thing dipped in black mud and cobwebs. “Alright then,” she said. “Go get Flissy. Let’s do some magic, ghoulies and girlies.”
Do not try to define Aym, for she resists labels, she refuses to tell what she is. Heather could just open her eyes and look right at the truth, but Aym asked her not to and Heather is sometimes too polite for her own good. Also Heather, wow, getting rather predatory there. That was unexpected. Wants to make contact with a fellow abyssal creature? That probably answers the Aym question. But what about Evee? Heather couldn’t see that one coming at all.
No Patreon link this week! Why? Because I want to shout out somebody else for once! There are so many delightful and fun stories out there which all deserve attention. You might like one!
Cosmosis (by the very talented Pel-Mel) is one of the most wonderfully creative and bizarre concepts I’ve come across in web serials: alien abductee science fiction de-facto isekai. Give it a look! Especially if you like in media res openings. It jumps right in, both feet first.
And go vote for somebody else on TopWebFiction for once! Go vote for another favourite! You can always vote for Katalepsis next week, if you like.
In the meantime, leave a like, a thumbs up, a comment on a chapter, it’s all great, and it helps me so so much to know there’s people out there reading and enjoying the story; that’s the whole reason I do this in the first place, to bring a fun story to those who read it. And thank you for reading!
Next week, cute dangerous mages doing cute horrifying mage things.
Meanwhile, my other project has now begun!
Mention of abusive relationship
A scream in the storm.
Lost inside the enclosing shadows of the upper floor with its labyrinth of rooms, muffled behind the thick plaster and stout brick of the exterior walls, soaked up by the cloud ceiling like an inverted grey ocean pressing down on the city, almost drowned out by the aural static of the rain pounding against roof tiles and pavement and asphalt and mud, Kimberly was screaming in terrified panic — and there could be only one possible cause.
Kimberly wasn’t much for screaming. A scream is a call for help, after all; Kimberly had spent too much of her life learning that nobody was coming to help. A scream — even a metaphorical one — would only attract more attention, and attention could only ever come from predators, exploiters, and abusers.
It would take a lot longer than a few months of safety and security for Kimberly to unlearn any of that, no matter how good our intentions or how well we treated her. Sometimes I wished she could seek therapy, but what would she say? She would have to craft an elaborate lie, or else speak in such general terms that any competent psychologist would smell a rat. I’d seen how she reacted in her very worst moments, pushed right to the edge of her thin and ragged sanity. One of those times had come after days of silent torment, hiding alone in her old apartment, wondering if the Eye-sent Lozzie-thing would return, intimidated by Amy Stack, waiting for death, or worse than death. On that occasion she had been driven to violence in the end. She’d stabbed Twil in the hand after we broke into her flat, but as soon as the violence was done she had crumpled in submission and begged for mercy.
Weeks later Zheng had almost killed her right there in our front room, or at least came within a muscle-twitch of ripping out her tongue. That time Kimberly had offered almost no resistance, crying softly in the aftermath.
She tended to hide and retreat, preferred to make herself small and unseen, to minimize her exposed contact surfaces, like a tiny rodent living in a land of blood-mawed carnivores. She’d been living with us for months but she still stuck mostly to herself. She went to work, exchanged hellos and good mornings whenever somebody bumped into her in the kitchen, and chipped in a little for the usual grocery shopping and electricity bills — but she lived in her bedroom, playing video games, smoking cannabis, and talking incessantly with a very large number of online friends. According to Raine she was also spending a lot of time with her Wiccan coven. Good for her, I thought.
I ventured into her bedroom now and again, if only to make sure she was getting on okay. She steadfastly pretended that Zheng didn’t exist, and seemed embarrassed by Lozzie’s very presence. She was on good terms with Praem somehow, though I’d never seen them talking. We all knew that Tenny sometimes crept into her bedroom to peer at strange and exciting video games. I did hope they would maybe become friends, in time.
For Kimberly, screaming like that was a big deal. Fear and shock had overpowered her desire not to be seen or known.
Evelyn and I rarely discussed this out loud, but we both knew why we kept Kimberly close, why we gave her a comfortable and safe place to live, rent-free. It was our way of trying to help one of the victims of the Sharrowford Cult, to take some of the vast responsibility demanded by our power. Kimberly wanted nothing to do with magic anymore, so we sheltered her from it, paradoxically enough, by keeping her close to the centre of our own magically-derived safety.
Kimberly Kemp was a survivor of a very specific kind of abuse and exploitation; she was reclusive and shy, sweet and funny; she probably had post-traumatic stress disorder; the last thing she needed was an unscheduled wake-up call by a horrible apparition in the dark of an unnatural storm.
Aym was up there, whispering unknown nightmares in Kimberly’s ear.
Abyssal instinct, ape-pack imperative, and simple decency all agreed on one thing — that scream would not go unanswered. Kimberly was one of us.
Standing by the passenger-side door of Felicity’s range rover, Raine and I wasted all of half a second staring back toward the house through the pounding raindrops.
Then Raine shot me a look. She didn’t need to ask with words.
“Yes!” I said. “Go!”
Raine snapped her umbrella shut and sprinted for the front door, wellington boots splashing through the churning water on the garden path, raindrops bouncing and spattering off her shoulders, soaking her jeans, and slicking her hair to her skull in an instant.
Strictly speaking that was totally unnecessary. The house currently contained several people far scarier than Raine, more than capable of dealing with Aym, who would be up those stairs just as quick. But my instincts demanded that I send my own best protector to save Kimberly.
Instinct demanded I go too. Prudence kept me rooted.
Felicity was still fumbling to raise the passenger side window, winding the hand-crank at speed. She had gone white in the face, shakily jamming her towel-wrapped shotgun into the bag on the back seat. The sensible part of my mind was calmly explaining to me that Felicity was our best bet at peeling Aym away from her new toy. Whatever I’d said a few moments ago about not allowing her inside the house, that no longer mattered. I should wait the few seconds for her to scramble out of the car, and then take her inside; she had claimed she couldn’t control Aym, but she must be able to do something to help. Raine was at the front door, yanking it open, kicking off her wellington boots.
Then Kimberly stopped screaming. The silence filled with the pounding of the storm.
Abyssal instinct and savannah ape pack imperative rocketed through me like an electric shock.
I barely knew what I was doing when I picked up my feet up and shot after Raine, my own wellington boots splashing halfway down the path before I veered off into front lawn and around the side of the house, squelching in the sodden grass, water swirling over the toes of the boots.
I must have lost my umbrella, because I was soaked instantly, hair plastered to my skull as I looked up at the second floor of the house, searching for Kimberly’s bedroom window.
“Kim!” I shouted up into the rain. My voice was a whisper in the storm. “Open your window!”
The rain slammed down in sheets of water, turning the air to static grey, pouring out of the overflowing gutters along the roof. I couldn’t see the house properly, let alone tell one window from the other. One window was lit and lacked curtains, that must have been the one in the upstairs hallway. The dark and curtained one next to it, that must have been my bedroom. But in the other direction there were four windows. Surely Kimberly’s was the one right on the end but that made no sense. The bathroom should have been on the end. Or was it Lozzie’s bedroom?
For a moment the second floor of Number 12 Barnslow Drive made no sense. It was like looking at a house I’d never seen before.
My tentacles gathered behind me, coiling up and bracing against the water-saturated ground, like six great muscular springs. Deep in my belly, my trilobe bioreactor squeezed out a control rod, flushing my skin with heat to counteract the chill of the rain. My legs itched to kick and bounce. My stomach lurched with anticipation.
This was one of the most ill-advised impulses I had ever followed, but I couldn’t stop. Raine would be up there in seconds, she was already inside. Zheng might already be up there, tearing Aym to pieces. Why was I preparing to fling myself into the air?
Because abyssal instinct had finally found an ideology around which it fitted like a glove.
Angel-squid Heather had no choice but to protect.
Only confusion held me back. I had no idea which window to target. I wasn’t so far gone as to hurl myself at the house and burrow through the brickwork.
Then, just at the moment I might have come to my senses and thought better of trying to imitate a flying squirrel, the lights flicked on behind the last window in the row. The curtains twitched, then swept aside. A terrified pale face peered down at me, framed by messy auburn hair.
“Kim!” I shouted again, bouncing on the spot like my legs were going to explode. “Open the window!”
Kim fumbled with the latch. The window swung outward, banging on its hinges. A few stray raindrops fell on the back of Kimberly’s shivering arm before she pulled herself back inside.
And I let go with all those muscular springs.
At the time, I felt like a squid shooting through the oceanic deep on a plume of water-powered jet-propulsion, sleek and athletic. A momentary shadow of abyssal grace touched me inside, like a point of glowing warmth inside my chest, a feeling of rightness in my own skin. Perhaps it was the pounding rain, the water running down my face and neck. In reality I probably resembled one of those children’s toys that you can stick to a hard surface with a sucker cup, then wait a few seconds for it to bounce upward under its own vacuum pressure.
My stomach lurched as I left the ground behind. For one dizzying heartbeat I felt like I was the one who should have been screaming, as I slammed right into the aperture of Kimberly’s open window. But my tentacles did the thinking for me, whipping around to catch the frame like I was a spider clinging to my own self-made web.
A few paces inside the room, Kimberly gaped at me, wide-eyed with shock.
I didn’t blame her. It wasn’t every day a squid-girl climbed in your window. I certainly hoped none of the neighbours had seen, or we were about to appear in some very outlandish news-of-the-weird style articles on the internet.
I tumbled into the room and landed in a wet heap on the floorboards, like an octopus dumped on the deck of a fishing boat, tentacles and limbs lashing and flapping, coat drenched on the inside, hair stuck to my skull. I had the presence of mind to kick my wellington boots off where I’d landed, so I didn’t create an even bigger muddy mess on the lovely soft rugs Kimberly had further in.
As soon as I was clear I leapt to my feet, a warning hiss in my throat, head whipping left and right.
Kimberly stood shaking in the centre of her bedroom, arms clasped across her chest and belly, staring at me with more than a touch of awe. Small and mousy and twitchy as ever, she was panting, tear-tracks down her face, her auburn hair in a post-sleep mess. She was still in her pajama bottoms and an old t-shirt, with a picture of a pretty-boy elf on the front. There was a big crease down the side of her face from where she’d been sleeping.
Her bedsheets were all askew, pastel blankets yanked to one side as if she’d just lurched out of bed and gotten tangled halfway. Her pillow was on the other side of the room, presumably hurled there moments earlier. Her computer, a proper desktop tower, was happily humming away to itself beneath her desk; I politely pretended not to notice the two boxes of tissues next to the monitor, along with the open comic book of dubious content on the desk.
Her bookshelf had suffered a casualty from the commotion. A couple of books had fallen off, presumably when she had blundered into it, and knocked one of her little statues over. A porcelain unicorn statue, wild and noble and suspiciously muscular, lay on the floor, neatly shattered into two pieces.
The room smelled faintly of cannabis, of course. I spotted several little baggies full of green stuff on her bedside table, next to rolling papers and other detritus.
Aym was nowhere to be seen — but then again, I didn’t know what to look for.
At least the lights were on, blazing and bright.
The door was closed, but I could hear half a dozen footsteps hurling themselves up the stairs and then along the hallway. Somebody called out Kimberly’s name.
Kimberly found her voice, robotic and stunned. “ … tentacles working well, then?”
I blinked at her. “Kim, are you alright?”
She swallowed, blinking several times, like a waking sleepwalker. Her eyes flickered around the room, dazed and confused. She was caught between sleep and adrenaline, more animal than human right then, confused about where she was, what she was, how to respond.
Then she cringed and hunched, the terror coming back in a sudden panting hyperventilation. “There was … a … a thing—”
Raine chose that exact moment to burst in through Kimberly’s bedroom door. Zheng was right on top of her like her shadow, filling her blind spot. The pair of them looked ready to wrestle a monster, Zheng moving with that flowing predatory muscularity that made my bowels quiver with the echo of old fear, Raine with a naked combat knife in one hand. Kimberly whirled and squeaked, backing up and bumping into her desk again. But Raine and Zheng both stopped in surprise when they saw me already standing there, dripping wet by the open window.
“Heather?” Raine broke into a grin, then started laughing. “How did you get up here? Did you climb through the window? You’re soaked!”
“Um, sort of,” I said, coming to my senses. I had to swallow down a hiss and wipe the dripping water out of my eyes. My hair was soaked, my clothes were stuck to my skin. My reactor was ramping up, my skin feeling like it should be glowing with heat. Any further and I might start steaming.
“Neither wall nor ditch can bar the shaman,” Zheng purred, then whipped her attention around the room, dark eyes narrowed, teeth exposed. “Where is the goblin?”
“Gone already,” I said.
Kim’s eyes flicked between faces and corners, badly shaken. “I-I don’t even know what that was, what was … what was … ”
Raine quickly crossed the room, putting away her knife so she could squeeze Kimberly’s shoulder. She was a little wet too, but nowhere near as bad as me. “Hey, Kim, ease down, you got nothing to worry about, nothing to be afraid of. We’re all here now, nothing else is gonna happen. Me and Zheng, we’re your bodyguards right now. How’s that feel? Safe, right? See, you’ve even got Heather up here to look out for you. Take a deep breath with me, okay? Nice deep breath, in and out. That’s it, that’s good. And another.”
Kimberly stared up at Raine with eyes just as intimidated and terrified as before. But she obeyed, she did as she was told, sucking down a great shuddering breath and then letting it in unison with Raine.
“There, that’s better,” Raine purred for her, blasting her with a full dose of Raine confidence. “Good girl.”
“Kim,” I said gently. “What happened? If you can tell us.”
Kimberly looked caught between a rock and a hard place. I think Raine’s “good girl” encouragement had done more harm than good. But she found her voice and stumbled over the words. “It— it was— I was in bed. I heard a scratching sound so I rolled over onto my back and … and there was a shadow on the headboard. It was … drooling this black stuff—” Kimberly’s hands went to her chin and neck and chest, but she was clean of any mysterious black ichor. “And then it … it leaned down and … whispered … I … I can’t … ”
“So she appeared and then vanished again?” I asked.
“That is her style,” said a familiar half-mumble.
Felicity joined us in the room, which surprised me.
Out of her car and up on her feet, Felicity was tall, more than six foot, willowy and brittle, moving with the caution of a long-term osteoporosis sufferer. A sports bag was slung over one shoulder, her shotgun presumably contained within. The hood and shoulders of her coat were wet from the rain. Her hands were free, black gloves plainly visible, so at least I could be certain she wasn’t pointing any weapons at anybody.
She seemed to have located her spine, both literally and metaphorically; straight-backed and clear-eyed, she was still pale and shaken, still pouchy-eyed and fragile, but there was unmistakable confidence in her musculature and unhesitating stare. It was like she’d flicked a switch in her own head. She kept a careful distance between herself and Zheng, fingers flicking once in some covert gesture when the hulking demon-host looked at her and growled, but apparently Kimberly was more important.
“This is her?” she asked, staring at Kim, then answered her own question quickly, speed-mumbling as if talking more to herself than anybody in the room. “Kimberly, yes, I remember you from last time. You saw Aym, what did she say to you? I-it could be important. What did she say?”
Kimberly blinked at her, unable to process the sudden arrival. “N-nothing important … what … who … ”
“Heeeey Flissy,” Raine said. “Back off a step or two, hey?”
Felicity grimaced and gritted her teeth; confidence had not changed her erratic agitation. “It could be important, alright?”
Behind her, three little faces peered around the door frame — Lozzie, Tenny, and Sevens, all lingering at the threshold. It was already getting quite cramped in the room with five of us in here already. Tenny looked especially distressed, trying openly to catch Kimberly’s eye, waving with her black tentacles.
“Kim!” she fluttered. “Kim-Kim! Kim!”
To my surprise, Kimberly called softly past Raine. “I-I’m okay, Tenny!”
Lozzie petted Tenny on the head. “She’s okay, Tenns. Everybody’s here to help!”
But Tenny still seemed very worried, shifting from foot to foot, but seemingly unwilling to push past Zheng.
“Where’s Evee?” I said. “Lozzie, where is Evee? Nobody should be alone right now, especially not—”
Evelyn herself answered from much further down the upstairs corridor, yelling at the top of her lungs.
“I want her out! Out of this house, right fucking now! You— Praem, get off! Go throw her out of the fucking window or something!”
“Don’t do that, Praem!” I called back. “Don’t leave Evee by herself!”
Praem replied in a voice like the chime of a bell. “Evelyn is accompanied.”
Raine cleared her throat with forced politeness and shot Felicity a meaningful look, as if over a pair of imaginary glasses. “Evee’s got a point, you ain’t supposed to be in here. Aym’s already gone again, so we’re cool now, okay? Crisis averted, everybody’s alright, not gonna happen again. Time to head back out to your car.”
Felicity stared for a second, her one good eye frozen on Raine in a moment of indecision. She no longer appeared like the woman we’d seen out in her car, consumed by apology and self-hatred. For one strange moment I was certain she was about to challenge Raine. My own tentacles twitched as if to reach out and restrain her. Zheng’s gaze slid round to the lurking mage, teeth peeling back on an implicit threat. Above our heads, raindrops drummed on the roof, turning the house into a great echoing cave. Behind me, the window still stood open, admitting the static haze of grey noise and the creeping cold of the ever-present storm.
Then Felicity’s new-found confidence ebbed away. She swallowed and nodded and looked down. “Yes. Yes, you’re right, I shouldn’t be in here. Just … Kimberly, are you okay? I-is she okay?”
“Not really,” said Kim. She kept her arms pressed to her front. Her eyes seemed unable to stay still. She looked like a mouse amid a group of well-fed snakes, hoping that none of us were hungry.
Raine squeezed her shoulder again and caught her eye. “You’ll be fine, you can spend the rest of the day with Lozzie and Tenny, that’ll keep Aym away from you. You can all go play Mario Kart, cool?”
Kim let out a nervous, weird laugh, a forced hiccup of confusion. “I didn’t even know anything was happening today … ”
I winced. “I’m sorry, Kim. I should have kept you in the loop. It’s my fault.”
Kimberly shot me a wide-eyed, confused look. She didn’t even understand what was going on, but that wasn’t her fault.
“And hey, Heather,” Raine said with a smirk, “you need to get dry. You’re soaked all the way through.”
“Ah. Yes.” I sighed a little sigh, suddenly embarrassed, and flopped my dripping coat sleeves against my sides. I hardly felt cold at all, the heat from my reactor already burning off the worst of the water. “Yes. Well. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time.”
Felicity suddenly tensed up and frowned at me. “Wait, how did you get up here?”
“Through the window,” I sighed.
Tenny trilled with deep amusement, from just beyond the doorway. “Wet Heath goes boing!”
Lozzie snorted. Zheng grinned a grin that showed all her teeth, proud of her shaman. Sevens made a gurgly little noise. Felicity just stared at the window, then back at me. Even her blank, burned-out eye looked concerned.
“I’ve changed quite a bit since you met me,” I said with another little sigh, my face going hot with embarrassment. “Suffice to say, I don’t usually make a habit of jumping through second-floor windows. It was probably a bad idea.”
Lozzie leaned further into the room, hanging from the door frame, long blonde hair hanging down, pastel poncho flopping sideways. She was biting her lower lip, either feeling mischievous or doing a great deal of thinking. “Fliiiiiis, how are you surprised at Heathy going boing but not by everything about Tenn-Tenns?”
Felicity frowned more. “Tenn … tenns?”
“Tenny!” said Tenny. “Is me. Hi!”
When Felicity looked at Tenny, I realised that Lozzie was correct; Felicity wasn’t the least bit surprised by the obviously inhuman sight of Tenny, with her swirling patches of white fur over coal-black skin, her obviously non-human wings hanging down either side of her body, her mass of tentacles waving above her shoulders, the pair of twitching, fluffy antennae on her head, or the simple fact of her huge black eyes.
Felicity didn’t return Tenny’s greeting, but just glanced at Lozzie and shrugged, as if confused why any response was required from her at all.
Sometimes it was easy to forget this woman was a mage.
I cleared my throat. “Tenny is a child,” I said. “Tenny, it’s good to greet people. Felicity, what do you say when a child greets you?”
Felicity looked at me in a moment of unsettled confusion, as if she wasn’t certain whether I was being serious, but was utterly sure about my tone of voice. I gave her a look. She glanced back at Tenny.
“Hello,” she said, stiff and uncomfortable, then looked away again.
I kept my pained sigh to myself. I suppose Tenny would have to learn sooner or later that not all adults were capable of returning a pleasant greeting.
“Tenny!” Evee called from far down the upstairs hallway. “Don’t speak with her! She’s dangerous! Lozzie, you keep Tenny away from her!”
Lozzie made a pouty face and took one of Tenny’s tentacles in hand. Tenny let out a fluttering, trilling noise of confusion, glancing over her shoulder, presumably at Evee. Head tilting side-to-side, Tenny didn’t quite follow.
Raine cleared her throat. “Fliss, back to your car, please. We’ll take care of Kim, she’ll be fine.”
“Right,” Felicity said. She nodded, eyes finding the floor easier than anybody’s face.
“Lozz,” Raine said, “would you please run down the corridor and make sure Praem takes Evee down the stairs first? We don’t want these two bumping into each other like a pair of cats in the hallway.”
“Clawing and biting and merrrow!” went Lozzie, making a little paw with one hand. She sketched a joking salute and then tugged on Tenny. “Let’s go help auntie Evee, Tenns!”
“Auntie Evee!” Tenny agreed.
And that was when the lights went out.
There was no dramatic pop of a bursting fuse or the electric crackle of a failing bulb, just the fall of sudden gloom as the lights in Kimberly’s bedroom died. The faint happy hum of her desktop computer shut off as well. The lights must have failed out in the hallway too, because we were plunged into a deep, sucking, rain-washed gloom of grey shadows and thickened darkness. The storm outdoors had already swallowed the sun; the only illumination was the thin and sickly light creeping in through the windows.
I flinched in surprise. Kimberly let out a pitiful whimper. Tenny made a surprised trill, like a tree-dwelling rodent discovering the floor had disappeared. Lozzie went ‘burrrr!’ and Sevens gurgled. Down the corridor, I heard Evelyn huff in sheer disbelief and exasperation.
Zheng seemed unaffected, of course. Raine, by contrast, went into action instantly, stepping away from Kimberly so she could peer around me and out of the open window.
I think I was the only one who noticed how Felicity reacted — she went wide-eyed and tense, holding her breath, one hand on her sport bag. She was staring right at Kimberly.
“A bloody power cut!” Evelyn yelled. “Now? Really? Very original, Aym!”
“I hunt better in the dark,” Zheng rumbled. “The goblin will have nowhere to hide.”
Raine craned her head to see out of the window. I realised she was looking at the house opposite.
“Nah!” she called back to Evelyn. “It’s just us, lights are on up the street. Praem, you wanna check the fusebox? Take Evee with you! Nobody moves around alone, okay?”
“Safety trio,” Praem said from out in the corridor. “Lozzie, Tenny.”
“Yah!” Lozzie chirped.
Raine turned to me. “Heather, you wanna get out of those wet clothes. If we can’t get the power back on quick, we’ll lose heat fast. Get dry, take Sevens with you, I’ll stick with Kimberly and—”
“Kiiiiiiim-beeeeer-leeeeee,” scratched a voice from the fever dreams of a medieval diabolist.
A shadow was clinging to Kimberly’s back. It had not been there a moment earlier.
The thick grey gloom of the storm-light concealed all details beneath a veil of hanging darkness; the shadow was indistinct, peering over Kimberly’s left shoulder from behind, like a small child or a koala bear or the top half of a bisected corpse lashed to her back. Talons or claws or sharp fingers dug into the shoulders and sides of her t-shirt, visible only by the indentations they made in cloth and flesh. The grey, dead light washed out any facial features, leaving behind only pits for eyes and the suggestion of a slash for a mouth.
“What an interesting naaaaaame,” Aym purred like a voice-box filled with rusty iron filings. Black drool fell in sticky ropes onto Kim’s shoulder.
Kimberly was frozen in terror, eyes wide, tears falling silently down her face.
Out in the corridor, Tenny let out a noise of trilling alarm. Lozzie said something indistinct, some muttered reassurance. Closer at hand, Raine turned, ready to tackle something she could barely see. Zheng pulled an arm back, fingers wide, limb blurring with sudden motion as the rest of her body rocked forward, the opening split-second of a move to rip the demon off Kimberly’s back.
“No!” Felicity yelled, one hand up. “Don’t touch her! It’s dangerous!”
To my surprise, Zheng actually paused, dark eyes swivelling to look at Felicity. “To me, wizard?”
“To anybody,” Felicity said in an urgent mumble, eyes locked on Aym. “Do not touch her.”
“Oh,” Kimberly whimpered, so soft and small. “P-please, please, somebody … ”
I couldn’t not respond to that. My tentacles were whirling upward into a star of threat posture, growing sharp at their tips. I felt a hiss crawling up my throat. This violation would not go unanswered.
“Hey!” Raine said, taking a step to one side, as if trying to flank Aym. “You get off Kim right now, you little shit.”
“Aym,” I said, struggling to keep my voice sounding at least a little human. “I will hurt you. I warned you. I will.”
But Aym didn’t seem to care about what anybody said. She wasn’t even interested in my tentacles, let alone surprised. She giggled, an awful noise like gravel being pulverised. Kimberly closed her eyes and started to hyperventilate.
Felicity dropped her sports bag, spread her arms, and took a step toward the demon.
“You get off that girl’s back, Aym,” she said.
“Hnnnnnh?” went Aym. A row of claws seemed to ascend up Kimberly’s sides. The shadow rose higher, pushing itself upward so it was level with the top of Kimberly’s head. “Standing up for somebody, now? Where’s that spine when you’re all alone, Flissy-poos?”
“Get off that girl right now, Aym,” Felicity said. “I won’t repeat myself a third time.”
“What do you care?” Aym spat. “She’s so delicious, I can taste her in the air, raw. A little heat and pressure and she’ll go from quiet self-pity to tearing her hair out and—”
Felicity did the absolute last thing I expected, especially for a woman who moved around like she was recovering from a dozen broken bones.
She lunged at Aym.
Apparently Aym hadn’t expected that either.
The shadowy wisp of irritating demon let out a yelp, a sound like a pair of rusty knives getting snapped beneath the wheels of a tractor. She detached herself from Kimberly’s back and seemed to melt into the shadows, like a swimmer pushing off from an underwater ledge. But Felicity was faster. One gloved hand shot past Kimberly’s shoulder and grabbed a fistful of darkness, gloved fingers sinking into nothingness made solid.
Aym squealed — an awful sound, half-animal, half-metal, all teeth-grating. Kimberly cried out and ducked down into a crouch, arms wrapped around her head. Felicity held Aym aloft by what might have been her throat. The actual shape was impossible to make out.
Aym kicked and hissed and squealed. I saw hints of what looked like claws, stingers, and rolling eyeballs deep in the shadowy mass. All of it could have been an illusion, a mind-ghost one sees in the shapes of familiar furniture and discarded clothing in the corner of one’s room upon awakening. Tendrils lashed at Felicity’s face. Black drool fell on the arm of her coat, hissing and burning. Feet like bird talons raked at the front of her coat. But she stood and took it all, unflinching and untouched.
Then, with a flicker, the lights came back on.
Blink blink went the bulbs in Kimberly’s bedroom. Chunk-whirr went her reanimated computer. Artificial light pushed back the edges of the storm, forcing it outdoors again, into the rain.
And Aym vanished like a shadow in the light.
Felicity held the pose for another second, staring at nothing, arm outstretched, fingers making a claw. She was truly untouched — all of Aym’s tantrum was apparently immaterial, shadow-play and fakery. Then she swallowed hard and lowered her arm, panting and sweating. Tenny and Lozzie peered in at the door, both wide-eyed, Tenny looking mightily alarmed. Raine blew out a breath. I wasn’t sure where Sevens had gone.
I raised my voice, fearing the worst. “Evee! Are you okay?”
“I’m fine!” Evelyn called back from down the corridor. “That was astoundingly stupid, even for Aym.”
Zheng bared her teeth. “I will rip you from the air, shadow!” she rumbled. “There is no hiding in this place, shapeless thing.”
“Apparently there is,” Raine said. She moved toward Kimberly, to help her up.
But Felicity got there first. Before Raine could reach Kim, Felicity crouched down and took Kimberly’s hands in her own. Kimberly’s head shot up, surprised and blinking and still terrified, panting and crying and losing control. She looked like she wanted to crawl back into bed and curl up and sleep through the rest of the day.
“You need to share what she said to you,” Felicity said, right to Kimberly’s face.
Kimberly tried to pull away, but she was weakened by her own shock. “N-no, please, s-stop—”
“Hey now Fliss,” said Raine, stepping closer, smiling but oh so very dangerous. “Let her up. Let her up and step back, yeah? This is none of your business.”
But even Raine’s implicit threat wasn’t enough to get Felicity moving. She kept talking to Kimberly, eyes never once leaving that terrified, crying face. “Don’t let her use it against you, don’t let her twist it up inside you. I don’t know what she said, but I know it was bad. Whatever it is, however shameful, however horrible, don’t let her. Don’t. Tell somebody. Anybody. You can tell me right now, I’ve been listening to her for years. I know!”
Kimberly was in so much shock I thought she might keel over and pass out right there. Raine was almost on top of them, I could see her moving to grab Felicity by the shoulder and pull her off Kim. Poor Kim’s personal space had already been violated by one intrusion today, this was the last thing she needed.
But then, Kimberly leaned forward. She was so stunned, so used to obeying authority, that she just went along with it.
And deep down I knew it was probably better than the alternative.
So I darted out with one tentacle and grabbed Raine’s arm. Raine flinched, then blinked back at me. I put a finger to my lips and shook my head.
Down on the floor, one woman on her knees and the other crouching, Kimberly put her lips close to Felicity’s ear, cupped her mouth with one hand, and whispered a single sentence. She choked back a sob in the middle, but managed to finish. She whispered so softly that even I couldn’t hear. I had no right to.
Then she rocked back, shell shocked and drained.
“That’s not true,” Felicity said, instantly.
Kimberly’s face scrunched up. She was trying desperately not to cry. “It is.”
“It’s not!” Felicity snapped in her painful half-mumble; difficult with those lips, it drew a wince from her. Outrage was a strange emotion on her half-burned face. The half covered by burn scars twisted uncomfortably, pulling at the junction between scarring and healthy skin. “She tells you lies to hurt you. That’s what she does.”
“But it’s true … ” Kimberly whimpered. Her resolve crumpled. She started crying, ugly crying, the kind of crying that one has to either turn away from, or respond to with instant, empathetic comfort.
I had to turn away. Not because I didn’t want to help, but because Kim was already in another’s hands. Raine stepped forward to rub Kim’s back. Tenny crept into the room, tentacles reaching for her friend, though unwilling to get close to Zheng. To our combined surprise, Kimberly clung, child-like, to the front of Felicity’s coat.
Raine and I shared an awkward look. Was this safe? We had no idea who Felicity really was, or if it was emotionally safe to allow Kimberly to reach out to her like this. Felicity herself at least seemed aware of the difficulty; she pulled one of those intensely awkward un-smiles, made even more awkward by the fact she couldn’t use her whole mouth. Zheng snorted and turned to look back into the upstairs hallway. Lozzie had vanished somewhere, probably to help Praem with Evee.
I cleared my throat. “This situation is rapidly spiralling out of control, and I would rather that descent be halted right now. Felicity, do you believe our deal with Aym is still going ahead?”
Felicity nodded at me, deadly serious. “I believe she’ll honour it. Be careful though. I don’t know why she did this.”
“Because she is an awful little shit,” Raine said with a snort.
“I don’t need to be told that twice,” I said. “What should we do about … ” I nodded down at Kimberly, who was still sobbing softly, not quite all down Felicity’s shoulder, but not far off.
“We should all stay in one place, right?” Raine asked.
Felicity nodded. “Nobody should be alone. Until I leave, at least. Groups of three, maybe?”
I sighed and tried not to look as exasperated as I felt. “You told us that Aym only shows herself to people by themselves. So what was that just now?”
Felicity blinked at me several times with her good eye, looking increasingly uncomfortable, her sudden unexplained confidence finally draining away to nothing as the crisis passed. “She’s never done this before.”
Zheng grunted. “The mewling, failed wizard is too tempting for her appetite.”
Felicity stared at Zheng, then at Kimberly. “Failed wizard?”
I cleared my throat. “Thank you, Zheng. Felicity, I think it’s best if you drop that subject.”
“Kim,” Raine was saying, rubbing Kimberly’s back. “Hey, Kim, come on, I’ll take you downstairs. Fliss has to head out.”
“N-no,” Kimberly murmured. “No.”
A high-pitched, throaty gurgle came from down by my left side, familiar but surprising; Sevens had somehow slunk around the edge of the room without anybody noticing. She poked her face around my hip, black-and-red eyes staring at Felicity, shoulders wrapped in yellow cloak which pooled around her feet. “Guuuurrr-uuuuk,” she went. “I’ll stay up here with these two. In here. Rule of three. ‘Kay?”
Raine and I shared another look. Raine pulled a slightly pained grin. I shrugged and said, “It’s better than having Evelyn and Felicity in the same room for any length of time.”
Felicity was frowning at Sevens with the tiniest touch of a look I’d seen on Evee so many times before — cold, calculating mage-thoughts of judgement and appraisal.
“Gaaaaao,” went Sevens. “You don’t know what I am, and it’s none of your business. I’m just here to watch.”
Raine clicked her fingers, suddenly serious and calm again. “Hey, Fliss.”
“Hurt Kim and I’ll kill you.” Then she smirked. “We cool?”
“Buuuurrt!” went Tenny, mildly alarmed.
Felicity stared back. She blew out a long slow breath, shaking only a little bit. “I’m not going to hurt anybody. She just needs … an ear. That’s all.”
“Good,” said Raine. “Sevens, call us if anything changes. Okay?”
I rolled my eyes, but secretly I thanked Raine for making absolutely certain. “Right, everybody else to the kitchen,” I said. “We’ll let you know when this is all over.”
Felicity looked straight at me, and said, “Good luck. For Evelyn, too.”
I answered with a thin smile. There was little more to say.
Twenty minutes later Evee and I waited alone together in the magical workshop, the old drawing room, the location of our much-changed gateway to Outside, the seat of power for Evelyn Saye the mage, the secret at the heart of the house, and the location I kept habitually leaving my squid-skull mask.
Evee was already in an absolutely foul mood. She had stomped all the way downstairs, barely accepting Praem’s help and certainly not anybody else’s, looking always on the verge of hitting somebody with her walking stick. I hadn’t been able to calm her myself — Raine had insisted that I take the time to shed my wet clothes and change into something dry, which I had done, accompanied by herself and Zheng, leaving Evee to get more and more angry.
Now Evelyn sat in one of the chairs pulled away from the large workshop table, half-hunched and glowering at nothing, scrimshawed thigh-bone placed across her lap, both hands planted on the handle of her walking stick, balanced in front of her.
“Try not to think about it,” I murmured out loud.
“Huh,” Evee grunted.
I didn’t have to define what ‘it’ was. The mere presence of Felicity inside the house gave Evee an expression as if she could taste vomit on her tongue.
Perhaps this was Aym’s strategy all along, to unbalance Evelyn before the conversation even began. Perhaps all that stuff with Kimberly was just a red herring.
We weren’t taking any chances on either front. Kimberly was upstairs in her bedroom with Felicity and Sevens, safe as could be. Everybody else was waiting in the old disused sitting room, so as to satisfy Aym’s condition of no eavesdropping — though I suspected that at least one person was going to try to sneak into the kitchen and press their ear to the workshop door. My private, unspoken bet was on Zheng.
I stood a couple of paces away from Evee, at her flank, occupying the position usually taken by Praem, or the position Raine sometimes occupied in relation to myself. Bodyguard, attendant, and naked blade. Odd to think of myself that way, but this was about Evee, not me. I kept my tentacles spread wide, all except one that was wrapped around Evee’s right arm, down to her wrist, to anchor her in case the worst should happen. I cradled my squid-skull mask with my own right arm. My left sleeve was pulled back to expose the blocky black lines of the Fractal against my sunless skin.
All my weapons on full display. I even did my best to stand up straight and look intimidating. I doubted Aym cared about the can of pepper spray in the front pocket of my hoodie, but it never hurt to be prepared.
We were not truly, technically alone, not by the strictest definition. Two spider-servitors hung in their usual spot in the corner, frozen like statues of black chitin. Marmite was crouched below them, his bony, segmented tentacles drawn in close. He could feel something was approaching, or perhaps he sensed our tension. A little further away from the spider-corner, a piece of blue tarpaulin pinned to the wall hid the bucket of possessed clay, which still contained the undefinable demon that Felicity herself had extracted from Evee, months ago now.
But this would have to do. Aym would have to accept this. We weren’t doing it anywhere else.
“Aym?” I said out loud, into the empty room, after we’d been waiting for perhaps twenty seconds. “We’re ready. Are you here?”
Storm rain drummed on the roof and windows. The house seemed to press close with protective warmth, as if something was trying to break through from the storm above.
Evelyn sighed and looked very unimpressed. I heard her teeth creak as she clenched her jaw.
“Feels like a seance,” I said. “Are the spirits listening, wooooo, is anybody there … ” I trailed off and cleared my throat. “We’re here, Aym, as we agreed. If you keep messing us around, I shall … get quite angry.”
“She’s probably waiting for us to turn the lights off,” Evelyn said. “She doesn’t like being seen.”
“Heeeeeeeheeeeeee,” came a hissing, grinding fake laugh, like the sound of liquid sulphur boiling away from broken glass, apparently from behind the sofa. “Some of us like to do it in the dark, that’s true,” said Aym. “I’m soooo shy!”
Both spider-servitors reacted like they’d just caught wind of an arachnid-hunting jungle wasp; two banks of crystalline eyes swivelled to stare directly at the gap between the sofa and the wall; a dozen spike-tipped stingers whirled up into a defensive formation, quivering and pointing; a split-second later, both spiders shot across the ceiling, scuttling at high speed. One of them slammed into the far wall, just above the gateway, poised as if to pounce. The other dropped onto the table and assumed a similar pose, just ahead of Evee, pointed back toward the source of the demonic voice.
I flinched hard, my tentacles twitching — not at Aym, but at the spiders’ reaction. At least they knew what their job was, senile or not: protect the gate, protect Evee.
My flinch made Evee flinch. I sighed and huffed. “The spiders reacted, that’s all,” I said. “Marmite … less so.”
Marmite didn’t seem bothered by Aym at all, which was quite strange. Instead of retreating, he peered around the side of the sofa with his swivelling cone-eyes.
Evee slipped her modified 3D glasses on over her face briefly, saw the spiders, and grunted in approval. Then she took them off again and nodded to me. “Lights, Heather, please.”
“Are you sure? Upstairs, she … ”
“Do iiiiiit,” Aym hissed, then giggled.
I sighed, reached over toward the light switch with one tentacle, and plunged us into the deep gloom of the storm beyond the walls.
Thick as tar and dark as oil, these shadows were so much more dense than the ones upstairs, with the curtains pulled tight over the windows. Suddenly I felt my lungs expand, my senses awaken, the pressure lessen on my feet as two tentacles took some of my body’s weight.
Before our eyes could adjust to the gloom, something terrible crawled out and over the back of the sofa.
Shadowy frills, dark scythes of blade or bone, light-drinking scales, eyes burning like black holes in a starlit void. Too many limbs, the suggestion of more than one tongue in a twelve-inch mouth, and a light, airy little puff of cushions as she landed on the sofa, straightened up, and crossed what couldn’t possibly have been a pair of legs.
Petite, compact, frilled, delicate — all shadow and indistinct. A grey mass of suggestion that the eyes filled out and the brain turned to monstrous ghost. Anything could have been sitting there in the dark.
“Hiiiiiiii,” purred Aym. The sound sent a shiver of physical revulsion up my spine. “Evee-Eve. Been a while, crocodile!”
Evelyn calmly reached over to the edge of the table, where her phone was waiting, and pressed the start button on the timer.
“Your twenty minutes has started,” she grunted, staring back at Aym. “Talk.”
Evee was doing so well — steel in her voice and steel in her spine — but through her jumper and her t-shirt beneath I could feel the slam of her pulse. I could smell the cold sweat on her back. I could hear her muscles creaking. I tightened my tentacle-grip on her arm, reminding her that she was not alone before this shade from her past. I bit my own tongue; however angry I was about Aym’s assault on Kimberly, to talk over her now would jeopardise the deal.
Aym — whatever she was — said nothing.
Ten seconds, fifteen seconds, twenty seconds. I tried to keep my nerve and not glance at the timer counting down on the screen of Evelyn’s phone, but the pressure was too much. Thirty seconds had passed and we were just sitting in the dark. Was this part of Aym’s strategy too?
Then the shadow on the sofa rolled her head from side to side, with a sinuous motion more snake than human.
“Oh God,” Aym moaned. “I don’t believe it. You’re so boring now! The deal is off.”
“ … what?” Evelyn said, dark and angry.
“Yes, Aym, I’m sorry, what?” I added, just to say something to release this awful tension.
Aym laughed, a sound like a thing from the darkest pit of hell trying to imitate a girl. “I’m not interested in Evee anymore. My butter roll has turned to boiled oats. She’s boring now. The deal is off. You may as well turn off your silly timer. What are you timing? How long it takes for you to bore me to death?”
Evelyn replied, slowly and carefully, with very precise wording. I understood instantly what she was trying to do. Aym was a demon, after all, wasn’t she? “The deal was for twenty minutes of private conversation in return for completing Felicity’s understanding of the necessary magic. You are receiving your twenty minutes right now. This is it.”
“Ha!” Aym honked like a goose. “We didn’t shake on it. Or sign a contract in blood. You want to go small-print with me?” A clap in the dark, like two hands slapping together. “A lady’s agreement was all we had, and you are not what I was promised.”
Evelyn was speechless, staring at the shadow.
“The agreement was with me,” I reminded her.
“Wait,” Evelyn grunted. “What do you mean, boring?”
Aym flopped backward onto the sofa, exactly like a petulant little aristocrat girl. She let out a huge, fussy sigh. “Look at you, Evee! You’ve actually grown up, you’re not fun anymore. You’ve got purpose, you know what you want, and you’re honest about how much you love what you love. Where’s the fun in any of that?” She sat up again, like a roiling darkness boiling upward on the sofa. A chin went into a pair of shadowy hands, shifting and adjusting in the dark. The pose was rather undercut by Marmite peering over the armrest. Aym ignored him. “You’ve got a little lingering guilt about mummy dearest, and jealousy over Raine, and you’re horrified about that time you tried to kill yourself—”
I felt Evee go stiff. I squeezed her shoulder and arm, hard. Aym just kept on talking.
“—but those are all scabs. If I pick them, what’s beneath? Healthy flesh! What am I going to do, wind you up about your missing leg? What would be the point? You really have come so far.” Aym sighed, as if suddenly nostalgic. A grin of dark-on-dark spread inch by creeping inch. “Your mother had no idea what she’d spawned when she gave birth to you. You’re worth ten of her, my sweet chocolate roll.”
Evelyn swallowed and raised her chin. “Talking about my mother is hardly a poorly-defended angle of attack. You’ll have to do better.”
“Always with the drama!” Aym hissed. “Always with the touchy-touchy nerves. Or … maybe you’re worried because you’re a mummy now too? Mummy Evee with her speed-grown adult daughter. How does it feel to bring a demon into the world?” Aym hissed and giggled, a wet and rusty sound. “Good, right? A surrogate you can command and control, but you never know what she’s really thinking about—”
“I love my daughter,” Evee replied, absolutely stone-cold. “I suspect she is immune to your brand of torture, but if you try, I will do everything I can to murder your body and send you back wherever you came from, deal or not.”
“Uuurrghhh,” went Aym. She made a finger-down-throat motion in the dark, then mimed being sick. Strings of black, hissing drool pooled on the floor in front of the sofa. Marmite backed away from that. “Mages. Disgusting. Sick.” Aym put up several limbs in surrender. “Fine, I’ll leave your doll-child out of this.”
I spoke up. “Praem scared you before and that was only over the phone. She could catch you in person. I don’t think you should insult her.”
Aym looked at me — or at least I think she did, it was hard to figure out what was really going on in that mass of half-hidden shadow — and blew a raspberry at me.
I blinked in surprise. “Well.”
Evelyn sighed. “I was not expecting you to act so childish. This is still your twenty minutes, Aym. You are sticking to this deal, or Heather will hurt you.”
Aym giggled again. “You can threaten me all you want, Evee my little sweet butter roll. My rumbly-pumbly. My sleepy girl.” Aym suddenly straightened up, going still in the darkness. “But I want to settle accounts between us.”
Evelyn went still too. Her tension was contagious; I found myself holding my breath.
“What trick are you trying to pull now?” Evelyn asked.
“Haaaaaaaaa, Evee-Eve. We both know you can never forgive Felicity for what she did. Being a willing, eager, wet little tool for Loretta Saye, for mummy dearest. Did you know they fucked several times? Ugly, ugly stuff. Felicity cried afterwards, every time, but she kept going back. Loretta wasn’t even into it, she just needed the power trip and the—”
“My mother was a vile woman, yes,” Evelyn said between clenched teeth. “We all know that. Get to the point.”
Aym grinned, a splash of oil on black paint. Then the grin flickered off again. “Felicity was deep in the drink at the time, did you know that?”
“Yes,” Evelyn hissed. “I know full well she was drunk when she cut my leg off.”
“No, I mean even when she wasn’t doing that.” Aym did not sound amused.
A light bulb went on inside my head. “She’s an alcoholic?” I asked.
“Mmmmmhmmmm,” Aym purred. “Not like she can get any booze up in Tannerbaum House. Last time she tried, the forest floor drank it for her. That wasn’t a pretty sight. She lay on the ground screaming and weeping for an hour, in a puddle of vodka soaking into the mud. Can’t get anything up there. No smack, either.”
A shiver went down my spine — a response to the change in Evelyn’s tension. She was frowning into the dark.
“Heroin?” Evee asked.
A dark nod from Aym, a wisp of shadow and claw waving in the gloom.
“Oh,” I murmured. “Oh, goodness.”
“But she’s clean now?” Evee asked.
Another two nods.
“Is that … ” I ventured, then cleared my throat. Was it safe to ask this? Was this some kind of conversational trap? “Is that why it’s so hard for Felicity to leave her house? It keeps her safe?”
Aym did not reply, but carried on speaking to Evelyn — a cold little rumble like gravel in a pool of frozen rocks. “You don’t have to forgive her. You won’t, after all. Not in your heart and not to her face. But stop threatening to kill her, please. Stop making it worse.”
Evelyn paused, considering. “This is what you wanted to talk about?”
“No!” Aym burst into a giggle. “I already told you, you’re boring now! So I may as well tidy you away. I put my toys away when I’m done with them. I’m a good girl.”
“And if I promise to do that, then you’ll give her the rest of the spell we need?”
“Mmmmmmmmmmmmmm-maybe,” purred Aym. “Half of it.”
Evelyn sighed, sharp and angry. “You were always like this, you insufferable creature. Stop playing games and name what you want.”
“Dangerous words,” Aym said.
“No blood contracts,” Evee shot back.
Aym snorted in the dark, an awful sound more insect than mammal. To my surprise, I felt Evee smile. There was an understanding between her and Aym, something very old and very dark.
I couldn’t help myself, the curiosity was too much. “Aym, how does this line up with what you are? Why do you care about Evee threatening Felicity? You exist to torment Felicity, as far as I can tell.”
The shadow-shape turned toward me again, shifting on the sofa. Dead cold, she said, “Is that what it looks like to you?”
“We all heard what you did to her on the phone. You abuse her emotionally.”
A twist of gloom, a tendril or a hand. “And you don’t like that?”
“It’s disgusting,” I said.
“I keep her alive,” Aym rasped, voice fading into the dark.
Evelyn tilted her head up at me, giving me the floor, letting me take the lead, but I didn’t know how to continue. Was Aym misleading us, or being serious? Did she care about Felicity in some twisted, co-dependent way? Did she tell lies to hurt people, to torment the weak and damaged? Or was she the only thing standing between a friendless, depressed, isolated mage and a slow, pitiful, unmourned death by drug addiction and alcoholism?
“Why did you assault Kimberly?” I asked. “That was rude of you. Oh, what am I saying, rude? It was criminal. We should be chasing you out of here. Why did you do it?”
Aym didn’t answer, but I felt the rolling of too many eyes, somewhere over there in the dark. Wrong track. She wasn’t going to answer that.
I took a deep breath and did something I didn’t want to do, especially after she had attacked Kimberly.
“Aym,” I said, forcing myself through the words. “When you came here last time, you helped us. You went into that house, the cult’s safe house. You put yourself in danger. Thank you.”
I had half-hoped that would send Aym into an embarrassed paralysis of refusal; perhaps thanking such an elementally nasty entity was the weak point in her psyche, human or not. But I was sorely disappointed. Aym shifted on the sofa and seemed to grow half a dozen extra limbs, all wiggling in excitement and burrowing between the sofa cushions. Marmite backed up another few paces, withdrawing his eyes into his head. On the table, the spider guarding Evee stood up higher, making itself look bigger. Aym had shifted modes, somehow becoming more threatening.
“Evee might be boring now,” she said. “But I am sooooo much more interested in you, Heather.”
My blood went cold.
“No!” Evee snapped. “The deal was for twenty minutes with me, you—”
Aym ignored her. “I’ve been thinking all about you the last couple of days, Heatherrrrrrr.” She drew my name out in wet, bubbly purr. “The last time Flissy-poos came down here it was all too much of a panic for me to get ready. But now I’ve had lots and lots of prep. I’ve been learning all about you.”
“The storm!” I said, breathless with awe. “The storm, it was you, I was right!”
“Heather?” Evee hissed. “What the fuck?”
“No, it’s true,” I said, unable to tear my eyes away from Aym, the roiling grey shadow on the sofa. “She made the storm, it’s … I don’t know. I don’t know what she is.”
Something strange and soft was stirring in my chest, a writhing familiarity, a recognition that I could not put into words. Abyssal instinct screamed caution — but also curiosity, like I’d caught scent of something moving in the deep. Perhaps it was the artificial darkness, the pressing storm, the shapeless presence of Aym, but I felt for a strange and weightless moment like I was floating in the abyss.
“Let’s talk about you, Heather,” bubbled Aym. A tongue flickered forth and licked at her chops, black and dripping. “Let’s talk about you and your Eye.”
“No,” Evee snapped, hard and unyielding. “Never. Heather, don’t listen to her, she’s trying to mess with you.”
“What are you?” I asked, softly, but somehow louder than Evee’s anger. “You’re clearly not a demon, not like Praem or Zheng. Or are you? Are you what happens when demons develop far enough? But you can’t be as old as Zheng, you’d be ancient. What are you?”
Aym’s amusement vanished. She went very still. The shadows stopped moving.
“Aym?” I asked.
“What a boring question,” Aym drawled. “How about no? How about Evee leaves, and we talk about you, Heather? Doesn’t that sound like fun?”
A demon in the dark, formless and mysterious, spinning lies and misdirection … or just an annoying little shit running her mouth and about to get tentacle-slapped by Heather? Or is there a third option? Is Aym telling the truth, that she somehow keeps Felicity alive and well? Heather sure does want to know what she is, maybe just to know what they’re dealing with, but that way lies only darker confusion.
Next week, more Aym. Too much Aym. Infinite Aym. But what kind? Not that kind that Heather likes. This is going to be deliciously irritating.
And, next week, something else lurches up from the grave.
Felicity and Aym — mage and demon, master and servant, prisoner and jailer — stood us up. Twice.
In truth, the two false starts in Felicity’s journey down to Sharrowford obviously had everything to do with Aym and very little to do with Felicity. Whatever else one might say about Felicity, whatever sins and horrors she had committed in earlier life, whatever dark alliances and deals she’d made, it was plain to me that she would never willingly leave Evelyn waiting for help. This was all Aym’s doing, I had little doubt of that.
It was a very effective tactic, the last thing we’d been worrying about, and it drove Evelyn up the wall.
The drive from Felicity’s manor house up in Cumbria was meant to take a little under three hours, accounting for traffic, a stop on the M6 motorway, the need to skirt around Manchester, the changeable mood of Felicity’s battered old range rover, and some kind of unpredictable complexity involved in actually leaving the surroundings of her home. She had tried to explain that last point, but had rapidly dissolved into a string of half-understood esoteric terminology, which would probably have made sense only to Evelyn. Felicity hadn’t been in much of a state to go into detail at the end of our previous phone call, sitting on the floor and recovering from her horrible, tortured weeping. But she had promised to call Raine’s phone early the following morning, to give us advance warning of when she was leaving, and when we might expect her.
“The four minute warning,” Evelyn snorted that morning. “Fantastic. We’ll all huddle together in the cellar and wait for the blast wave, shall we?”
“Evee,” I sighed, though gently and indulgently. “I’m sure it’ll be a lot longer than four minutes. Felicity is taking this seriously. We’ll have hours to prepare.”
Evelyn cleared her throat and blushed faintly. “It’s … it’s a joke, Heather.”
“Duck and cover,” said Praem.
Felicity had made the same journey in a similar window once before, back when I’d called her for help during our crisis with the Sharrowford Cult, when Raine had been kidnapped and Evee had lain helpless in a coma. She’d had far less prep time for that drive, but also the extra motivation of a real emergency. Evelyn’s life had been at stake. Perhaps that had encouraged her to quite literally ‘step on the gas’ — or perhaps, more worryingly, it had motivated Aym to not muck about and get in the way.
But on that first morning after the phone call, Evelyn’s fears appeared to be crystallising into reality.
Nine o’clock came and went without any word from Felicity, not even a text message; her mobile phone would apparently work once she was on the road, after all. Then ten o’clock passed as well, then eleven, the hour-hand creeping round on the old grandfather clock which stood in our front room. Time slowed to an awful, torturous plod. Raine sent Felicity a text message, then called her twice, both the land-line phone and the mobile phone number she’d given us. Both times, nothing. The calls rang and rang, answered by nothing but the void.
Evelyn had already struggled to eat breakfast that morning, wracked by anxiety gnawing at her guts. Praem had pulled out all the stops, made bacon and scrambled eggs and fried mushrooms. Raine had wolfed her portion down, Sevens had happily chomped away, Tenny and Lozzie had briefly appeared and joined in too; even Zheng had complimented the bacon, which was rare. She preferred her meat raw and bloody. But Evee herself had managed only a few bites before complaining of nausea and retreating to the safety of cold porridge. I ended up finishing her portion for her.
As the hours wore on she found it harder and harder to hide her nerves. She sat in the kitchen, pretending to read but actually doing nothing, rubbing and worrying at the old scarring on her maimed hand. I’d never seen her do that before. She usually didn’t fiddle with her maimed fingers and palm, or draw any attention to it at all.
She got up eventually, stomped around the house in wordless irritation, left mugs of tea to grow cold, and spoke in monosyllabic grunts. She barely even heard what was said to her.
I couldn’t watch her like that. It hurt. She’d been so happy and fulfilled last night.
The previous evening, Evee and I had sat up until long past midnight, watching her pony cartoon together. It had been absolutely delightful, even if some of the context of the show was a little lost on me; Evee sometimes laughed at things that I didn’t understand, or gestured at the screen for moments that seemed quite mundane, but I felt like I started to get it after a while.
At first she’d acted quite embarrassed when I’d asked which character was her favourite. She had refused to answer for another three episodes, then ventured the truth while awkwardly looking away from my face.
“ … you mean, the one that does magic?” I’d said, trying not to sound too shocked. “I … well, I assumed with all the … you know, being a mage in real life, I assumed you wouldn’t—”
“Yes, yes! I know! Don’t you dare repeat this to Raine, I’ll never hear the end of it. I’ve always had to be quite clear to her that I do not identify with the magical cartoon unicorn, so do not tell her I’ve been lying about that, Heather. Do not.”
I’d sworn myself to secrecy.
Evelyn had finally relaxed after that, and began to share all sorts of details about this this obscure and esoteric passion — though according to Evee it was anything but obscure.
“It’s a big deal on the internet,” she said. “People draw art. They write fanfiction. There’s a whole subculture.”
“Oh. Well. I wouldn’t know, not really. Have you ever done that?”
Evelyn had cleared her throat, staring at me in a frozen state. “You mean … write … fanfiction?”
“Or draw art! Either or. It sounds really exciting.”
“No,” she said, too quickly. “No, I don’t. Never done that.”
Praem had stuck around for a few episodes of magical ponies and the occasional sparkling unicorn, but then she’d left me and Evee alone together. Raine had stuck her head in briefly, then left in wordless glee, shooting us a thumbs up and going off to play video games about girls with improbably large bosoms beating each other up. Kimberly had ambled past on her way to the kitchen at almost eleven at night, overheard some very distinctive bits of dialogue, and knocked on the door, much to our surprise. Kimberly, timid Kim who so often scurried about the place like she wanted us to forget she existed, had stood in the doorway with bloodshot eyes and a dazed smile, and nodded her heartfelt and touched approval that we were, “getting into the ponies at last.”
“Yes, well,” Evelyn had said, guarded and short and snapping, mostly from embarrassment, though perhaps also a little worried about being interrupted yet again. “Heather’s never seen it before. That’s all.”
Normally, Kim would have jumped out of her skin at being spoken to like that, then scurried off in terror, but right then she was high enough to start a new career as a cosmonaut.
She’d blinked at me in delighted surprise. “No shiiiiit, Heather? Awwww, that’s great. You’re one of us now. Have fun, yeah, have fun.” She’d clapped her hands twice, then bowed her way backwards out of the door, like she was giving thanks at a shrine. Maybe she had known that Evee was irritated, after all.
After that, it had been just me and Evee for the rest of the night, leaning on each other, watching cartoon ponies having adventures. She’d seemed so happy. Eventually I’d tucked her into bed.
But this following morning, waiting for a woman she hated, who might arrive at any moment, Evelyn was chewing herself to pieces.
She couldn’t stand the waiting and the not knowing. I couldn’t stand what it was doing to her, to her state of mind, her nerves, her well-being. Raine kept her own spirits up with that beaming grin, cracking jokes about how we were going to make Felicity sleep in a dog house in the garden, or how maybe we should all pretend to be out when she arrived. Praem stayed close to Evee, making sure she stayed hydrated, never leaving her alone. Sevens lurked in the shadows and around the door frames, but she couldn’t do anything. I got the sense she wanted to help, but maybe couldn’t find the right mask, the right role to play.
I turned into a curtain-twitching maniac. I couldn’t do anything to help Evee either; I’d tried to distract her but she was barely answering. So instead I lurked at the windows, trying to watch the road. I sent Zheng out to stand covert sentry near the end of the street, but that was pointless, and boring for her, so it didn’t last long. At one point I even opened the front door and stood there in my pajama bottoms and one of Raine’s old black hoodies, staring down the street. I probably looked like a total madwoman, silently rehearsing the indignant rant I was going to deliver to Felicity as soon as she dared show her face.
The weather was foul as foul could be. Summer had fled like a startled deer. Heavy rain-clouds battered the city, drizzling and spitting and whipping with cold, but refusing to break into the clean rain of a proper storm. My teeth ached. My fingernails itched. My eyes hurt.
Eventually, I asked out loud, “Is she causing this?”
I’d been staring out of the kitchen window. My eyes must have looked like dark pits of frustration. My tone brought Evelyn around for a few minutes, dragging her out of the stupor of anxiety.
“ … Heather?”
“The weather,” I explained.
“What? What are you talking about?”
“The weather! It’s cold, it’s dark, it’s so oppressive. Normally I’m more of an autumn sort of person anyway, but this feels wrong. Is this Aym, doing this at a distance?”
“Don’t be absurd,” Evelyn grumbled, but her heart wasn’t in it. “Demons can’t control the weather.”
“Says you,” Praem chimed from behind her. Evelyn snorted a single not-laugh at that, a token effort of forced disbelief.
“What about mages?” I asked.
When I turned away from the window to gauge Evee’s response, she’d seemed so small and sad and shrunken, sitting there on the other side of the kitchen table, thick shawl over her shoulders, with a book in front of her, pretending to read. A hardback copy of Frankenstein which looked about as old as the house. That wasn’t a good book for her right now, she needed something light and fluffy, or at least something funny. A bit of Pratchett, maybe, but I wasn’t sure if we had any in the house. I had a sudden urge to suggest I do a one-woman dramatic reading of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for her, but then I dismissed the idea as absurd.
“The weather?” Evelyn echoed, then sighed and drew a hand over her face. “Why not? What do I know? Sure, maybe they’re sending rain to irritate us. Maybe they’re trying to ruin our harvest or make our bowstrings damp. Maybe we’ve been cursed by a rain god. Bugger it and let it rain.”
“Evee,” I sighed, feeling awkward all of a sudden.
“No, Heather, they’re not controlling the bloody weather. You sound worse than I get. Stop being paranoid. Hypocritical of me to say, I know.” She shrugged, eyes dropping back to the book. At least she wasn’t actually reading it.
At three minutes to midday, Felicity finally called.
Unfortunately, Raine had stepped into the bathroom for a few minutes, leaving her phone on the table like a ticking bomb. When it went off I jumped out of my skin and almost slapped the thing to pieces with my tentacles. Evelyn flinched and scooted her chair back.
Praem had enough presence of mind to scoop the phone up and press it to her shoulder. Raine skidded into the room ten seconds later, sliding on her socks, stopping just short of Praem before accepting the phone.
The rest of us could only hear one side of the rushed, chaotic conversation which ensued. Raine actually frowned in confusion, a rare look on her face.
“Heeeeeey Flissy, where the hell you at, girl, you— hey, hey, slow down. Slooooow down, you’re talking too fast. Okay. Okaaaaay.” Raine listened for a long moment, giving Evelyn and me a bemused look across the kitchen, eyebrows knotting together. Evelyn mouthed ‘is she here yet?’ and Raine shook her head, which provoked Evelyn to throw up her arms in frustration. “So, you’re leaving now, right?” Raine said into the phone. “Well, sure thing then, just let us know as soon as you’re ready. No sweat, no blame, just let us know. Cool? We okay? Okay, we’re cool. No worries, Fliss, just stay in contact. Like we said.”
“What do you mean, no fucking worries?!” Evelyn spat before Raine could end the call. “She hasn’t even fucking left yet?” Evee’s eyes found the phone itself. “What are you playing at, you—”
Raine held the phone up. She’d already cut the call. “She’s gonna phone back. Once she’s in the car and on the road. Evee, hey, come on, take a deep breath. Just breathe for me, yeah? Just breathe.”
“Oh this a fucking farce!” Evelyn spat. “What is she doing?”
“Crying, by the sounds of it,” Raine said with a sigh. “Held up by somebody having a little tantrum.”
“A bad girl,” Praem said.
“Oh I can’t believe this shit,” Evelyn said. “I bet she’s loving this. She’s found a way to torment me by not being present.”
We received five more phone calls from Felicity over the course of that afternoon, and not one of them was made from a moving car. She called us in a state of distress, apologetic and mortified, shocked, weeping with frustration, and then finally just broken with emotional exhaustion. Raine fielded all the calls but it wasn’t hard to overhear snatches of Felicity’s distraught voice on the other end. I could imagine her scurrying through the half-empty, echoing hallways of that dark and void-like manor house, below the dripping boughs of an evil forest, the walls whipped by cold winds and menaced by dark, creeping ivy, her own footsteps swallowed up by rotten wood and crumbling furniture, in pursuit of a tormentor that would not let her leave.
But that was only my imagination. Maybe Aym had just hidden her car keys.
Whatever was truly happening up in Cumbria, the final phone call at six forty-five in the evening was the last straw for Evelyn.
“Don’t fucking bother!” she shouted at the phone. She lurched up from her seat in the kitchen so fast that Praem almost didn’t round the table to catch her in time. Evee didn’t even care, stomping toward the phone and looking for something to hit with her walking stick. Raine tried to turn away, to shield the phone from Evelyn’s rage, but it was no use. One could probably have heard her three streets away. “If you leave now, you’ll get here at ten, or past ten, and you are not using that to worm your way into staying the night, you rancid fucking monster! You can try again tomorrow! First thing in the morning, you useless shit!”
I heard a pitiful whimper from the other end of the phone, before Raine managed to step out of the room to make real alternative arrangements.
In a way, I didn’t blame Evelyn, though I like to think I would have phrased my irritation with a little bit more tact — I also probably wouldn’t have muttered the absolutely unspeakable insults she strung together under her breath afterward, as Praem helped her sit back down. We’d done nothing all day except wait, but I felt utterly exhausted, yet without the clean ache of overexerted muscles and the dull thrum of a humming cardiovascular system. My trilobe bio-reactor could do nothing to soothe this particular kind of drawn-out weariness.
Raine reappeared a couple of minutes later and cleared her throat awkwardly before relating the new plan.
“Flissy is gonna try again tomorrow morning. No promises, though. We should probably prep for the worst. Maybe buy a deck of cards and settle in.”
The joke did not go down well. Evelyn looked about ready to bite the head off a live chicken, or crumble to dust.
With an unspoken agreement of shared glances and covert gestures, Praem, Raine, and I all set about making sure Evelyn didn’t slip further into a deep pit of depression and loathing. When Aym arrived, she was going to need all her wits about her, even if I was going to be glued to her side like a bodyguard for her soul.
Praem supplied tea, turned up the heating, and somehow made the kitchen smell faintly of warm butter for about half an hour. She also applied shoulder rubs, which first met with an angry hiss and a, “Get off, for fuck’s sake, can’t you see I’m trying to think?” but then finally earned her a, “Sorry, Praem. I shouldn’t have snapped. Thank you.”
I don’t know how Praem did it. Demon hands were apparently dexterous enough to avoid hurting Evelyn’s warped shoulders and kinked spine. Sevens reappeared from somewhere too, taking up her seat close to Evee, though she didn’t have anything much to say; I think I was the only one who noticed how focused she was, as if watching Evelyn for a sign of something. Zheng went out hunting. Perhaps that was her way of helping, returning with a brace of dead squirrels for the unlucky pack-member.
Raine went out too, to fetch a takeaway curry for dinner. We hadn’t actually had one in a while. Evee needed treats, even if she wouldn’t admit so.
Lozzie and Tenny ventured down from upstairs at long last. They’d spent most of the day staying out of the way, though I had noticed Lozzie eavesdropping from behind door frames at least twice, her face peering out just above Sevens. Apparently she could be very quiet and sneaky when she wanted to be.
Tenny instantly picked up that “auntie Evee” needed help.
I don’t know if it was some extra-sensory knowledge, some product of her non-human biology, or merely the intuition of a child. Tenny crept across the kitchen exactly like a nervous child approaching a grumpy parent, po-faced and serious, tentacles reeled in close, until Evee did a double-take at her and then just stared, grumpy and exhausted. Tenny stared back with her big shiny black pelagic eyes. Lozzie peered around from behind her.
Tenny hadn’t gained any additional height since her hatching several months earlier, but her straight-backed, oh-so-serious pose made her seem more mature than Lozzie, at least more mature than she’d ever looked before. All of her poses and gestures still held that strange, alien note to them, despite her basic humanoid body-plan, her two arms and two legs, her eyes and jaw and lips and chin and facial muscles, and her healthy upright torso — though I wasn’t certain she possessed a spine, not exactly. It was often hard to tell with Tenny where human influence ended and pneuma-somatic heritage began. She was plainly not homo sapiens, with her silken, coal-black skin, her wings hanging down her back like a cloak, her mass of tentacles that crept up and out from their hidden origin points in her shoulders, but at the same time her gestures and mannerisms were so very human, so very us.
As she stood opposite Evee’s exhausted anger, she obviously empathised.
“Tenny,” I whispered gently. “Auntie Evee isn’t feeling so good right now. Please … please don’t … ” I tried to say please don’t bother her, but I couldn’t get the words out. Tenny wouldn’t understand. She might be hurt.
“Auntie,” Tenny said in her fluttery trill-voice. It was not a question.
Lozzie whispered from behind her too, gently tugging on a tentacle. “Tenny!”
Evelyn sighed, squeezed her eyes shut, and grunted an affirmative. “Yes, that would be me. Auntie Evee. Hello, Tenny. I’m not mad at you, it’s okay.”
“Mad because bad?” said Tenny.
Evelyn froze, as if she couldn’t believe her ears. Lozzie’s eyes went wide and she clamped a hand over her mouth, trying to smother a laugh. Praem turned her head to stare at Tenny. Whatever those words meant, it went completely over my head.
“Excuse me?” Evelyn asked.
“Or … sad because mad?” Tenny tried again, tilting her head to the side and doing a wobbly gesture with one tentacle, like somebody waving a hand. “Bad things make me mad too. Mad and sad!” Tenny’s flutter-voice grew louder, agitated, desperate to help. “Auntie Evee sad. Makes me mad. Bad. Bad sad.” Tenny blinked several times, her eyes finally wandering away from Evee and off to one side. “Bad mad sad,” she muttered to herself. “Glad?”
Lozzie snorted and winced. “Tenn-Tenns has just discovered rhyming!”
Tenny puffed her cheeks out. “Already knew!”
Evelyn sighed and shook her head. “I thought she was mocking me at first, it’s fine.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, “but I followed absolutely none of that. Is everything all right? Tenny?”
Tenny’s attention snapped back to the room, as if she had been using all of her mental processing power to compose a new poem. Even her tentacles had all frozen for a second — I hadn’t realised until they’d resumed moving again. She seemed to remember what she’d been trying to do in the first place.
“Auntie Evee!” Tenny spread her tentacles out. “Hug for sad?”
Evelyn cleared her throat, frowning and flushing a little. “Uh, well. It’s not that I don’t … ”
“Air hug, Tenny,” I said. “Remember that auntie Evee has delicate bones? Air hug.”
“Mm-mm!” Tenny nodded. “No touch! I know! I know that, silly Heath!”
Evelyn looked intensely awkward and quite embarrassed as she and Tenny shared an air-hug, with a wide cage of Tenny’s silken black tentacles thrown around her, though without actually touching her directly. Tenny didn’t seem embarrassed in the slightest, tilting her head and pretending to lay it on Evee’s shoulder at a distance of about two feet away. Evee blushed and looked down at the floor tiles. As Tenny withdrew, Evee’s free hand brushed against the final tentacle to leave, which then paused and waited. Tenny didn’t look, already turning away to say something to Lozzie and I, but perhaps that was intentional. Perhaps Tenny understood that auntie Evee needed the excuse of not being seen.
Evee patted the tentacle and muttered something under her breath, something I almost didn’t catch.
“You deserve better.”
By the time Raine got back with the curry, Evelyn wasn’t so angry anymore, even if she was still exhausted.
The second day of waiting for Felicity was less irritating than the first, because I turned out to be correct. But it was also infinitely more worrying — also because I turned out to be correct.
When I woke up in the morning the first thing I did — after disentangling myself from Raine’s arms and clambering over Zheng and planting a kiss on Seven’s forehead — was to creep out into the upstairs hallway and check the weather through the window, to make my prediction. The heavy storm clouds that had spent the previous day bullying Sharrowford had now receded from the city, but not actually left. They waited on the northern horizon, like a dark wall of roiling smoke and oil, waiting to descend and drown the land below. Above the city the light was clearer, the sun poking through in weak shafts of diluted gold, but the threat of a deluge still lay close.
“She’s not coming today,” I whispered to myself in the quiet of the morning, staring out of the window across the smothered dawn. “But she’s still planning on a visit. She’s not bluffing.”
“Edging,” Praem said from halfway down the corridor.
I jumped out of my skin, lashing myself to the walls and ceiling with my tentacles, my human feet tapping on the floor several times before I crammed my heart back down my throat.
“Praem!” I hissed. “How do you always do that?”
A pair of milk-white eyes met me from the shadows, reflecting the dull grey beyond the window. “Stealth.”
I stared for a second, then laughed and smiled and shook my head. “Yes, I suppose, that’s technically accurate. Be careful not to do that when you’re standing too close to me though, I don’t want to accidentally slap you with a tentacle.”
Praem’s head went up and down in a very precise and graceful nod. “I will avoid such an outcome.”
“Of course,” I sighed. “Of course.” Then I looked out of the window again. “So, you agree with me? She’s not coming today? What did you say, ‘edging’? What do you mean?”
Praem stared at me, declining to answer.
I blinked at her in the gloomy hallway. Praem could be so esoteric at times. “You agree that she’s … somehow … oh,” I sighed, “this sounds so silly, Evee was right, it’s absurd, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but … do you agree that she’s controlling the weather, somehow? This is Aym’s doing?”
Praem clicked softly down the floorboards to join me at the window. She emerged from the shadows, a great mass of maid uniform and the soft, cuddly Praem beneath, solid and real, hands clasped before her, prim and proper.
As she stared at the distant horizon, the gravid storm roiled in her eyes.
“If the mountain won’t come to Muhammad,” she said.
“Then Muhammad must go to the mountain,” I finished the saying, sighed, and shook my head. “Praem, what does that mean, in this context?”
Praem turned her head from the window to stare at me. All-white eyes in a pale face, her complexion like milk with a hint of rose, hair pinned up behind her head in a loose, messy bun, all blonde loops and loose locks. She stared, waiting for me. I sighed again and smiled with long-suffering indulgence.
“It means … ” I chewed on my tongue, thinking. “Aym is still intending to visit, as promised, she’s just irritating us in the meantime. We don’t need to make alternative plans. We just need to shore up this one.”
“Mountain climbing is difficult,” said Praem.
I nodded. “Evee can’t climb a mountain. At least not by herself.”
“She can be carried.”
“Then we’ll carry her,” I said. “Praem, of all the things to worry about. I love her too, you know that.” I glanced at Evee’s bedroom door on the other side of the hallway, currently closed, no light showing from the crack at the bottom. “The last thing I’m going to do is let Aym anywhere near her alone.”
“She has to reach the mountain first.”
I frowned at Praem. “Now you’re mixing your metaphors.”
“Now you’re mixing your motivations.”
I blinked several times. “Praem?”
Praem the demon-doll, Praem Saye, Evelyn’s daughter, stared at me in the private gloom of the upstairs hallway, lit only by the storm-tossed horizon beyond the city. She declined to explain.
I sighed, intentionally, blowing out a long breath and pulling my tentacles in close, halting their habitual random drift. I even pulled my back straight; odd, but I wasn’t the slightest bit nervous in front of Praem, saying this. “Praem, whatever confusion or difficulties I might be suffering regarding the exact nature of my personal relationship with Evee, you and I both know that I would lay siege to hell itself to stop her from getting hurt. We saved her together once before. Let’s make sure it never gets to that point again.” I blew out a second breath and discovered I was shaking slightly. “My motivations might be mixed, but they’re also very clear. Like mixing water and … and … vodka. I guess. Wow, I’m sorry, that was bad.”
It was the third such smile I had ever seen on Praem’s face, a mechanical pulling at her soft, plush cheeks and the bow of her lips. Lack of practice had not improved her form. The smile was deeply unnatural, a forced pantomime of emotion; her face simply wasn’t made for it.
“ … are you smiling at my joke, or … ?” I cleared my throat and trailed off.
Praem stopped smiling. She stared at me instead, without saying anything. How very Praem.
“Praem, you don’t have to pretend a smile,” I said. “You don’t have to do that if it doesn’t feel right.”
I bit my lip, unsure if she was just humouring me. “And what about you? Are you okay with all this? I know this Aym thing is a lot to deal with.”
“Where is this coming from?” I asked. “Are you just worried about Evee?”
Stare. Silent. I sighed.
“Are you … worried Aym is going to get out of control? Are you worried she’ll be beyond my powers to contain? Beyond your powers?”
“No,” said Praem, sudden and sharp.
“Okay, okay, no offense meant. I’m sure you can make her cower with nothing but a sharp word. Praem, this is obviously bothering you. I … I think. I’m still not that great at reading your emotions.”
“I will not be present to carry her for the final stretch.”
I blinked, then realised. “Oh. Oh … ”
“Oh,” echoed Praem.
“Oh, Praem, I’m so sorry. When I was making that deal with Aym, I didn’t even think. I didn’t think! You’re not going to be in the room. It’s going to be me and Evee. I should have included you. I should have. I’m so sorry.”
I reached out a hand toward Praem, subconsciously pleading for forgiveness. She was right — I had made the deal with Aym to protect Evee, but I hadn’t included Praem. Who was better at protecting Evelyn Saye than her own beloved daughter?
To my surprise, Praem took my hand in hers. My eyes went wide.
“Is that … ?” I said. “Is that ‘apology accepted’?”
“Apology is not necessary.”
“I’ll look after Evee, I promise. It’ll only be twenty minutes.”
Praem let go of my hand again. She turned back to the window, a punctuation mark on the entire conversation. I turned to stare outdoors too, at the looming storm clouds. But it was difficult to adjust. This was the most I’d heard in Praem’s own words in a while.
“We should talk more often,” I said after a moment. “You and I don’t get many chances to chat.”
“Yes,” said Praem.
“I suppose the storm clouds will stay at least until tomorrow.”
“Do you really think Aym is controlling the weather?”
“ … do you think it’s just to irritate us?” Praem turned her head to stare at me. I sighed and shrugged. “Ask a stupid question,” I muttered.
I didn’t like being correct when it came to weird things that shouldn’t be happening.
The rest of that second day was an exercise in imposing my will by subterfuge, which I was exceptionally bad at. Luckily for me, Evee mostly went along with it. I had help, too.
We knew Aym was going to delay Felicity again. Praem knew it, Raine trusted my judgement, Zheng picked it up without needing to be told, Sevens heard it through a door, Lozzie probably learned it in a dream, and Tenny didn’t really care. But Evee was determined to get very angry and shout at the phone again — so I spent the entire day luring her away with small horses.
Ponies, I mean ponies, of course.
Rather than allow her to spend the day in the kitchen again, sinking deeper and deeper into a fugue state of anxiety and worry, I put into action every trick I’d learned from Raine, called on every bit of theatrical interruption owed to me by Seven-Shades-of-Surreptitiously-Sly, and had Praem stare at Evee from about three inches away, all for the aim of getting her upstairs and in front of those cartoons again.
“She might turn up any bloody minute, Heather! We can’t sit here, indulging ourselves all day. We have to be ready.”
“One more episode.”
“This is the end of the season! Heather, that was the end!”
“Then … next season?”
Evee huffed and crossed her arms. “I would have to download it.”
“We have good internet though, don’t we?”
“Yes, but you should let it sit. Digest what you just watched. Really.”
“What about that show you mentioned two days ago, the … the one with the … ” I wracked my brain. “The sad magical girls?”
Evelyn put her face in her hand. “We are not watching more anime, not while I’m waiting for a demon to show up on my doorstep. Certainly not that one.”
“Suffering,” said Praem.
“Then how about … ” I poked at the track pad on Evee’s laptop, which was sitting on a book on her bed again. “How about this one? These two on the cover, are they a couple? They’re cute. I like the style.”
“One of them is a vampire,” Evelyn grunted. “It’s silly.”
I swear I heard a gurgle from under the bed, but I chose to ignore it. “Even better!” I said. “But they’re a couple?”
Evelyn stared at the ceiling, looking like she couldn’t decide if she wanted to shout at me or go to sleep. “Yes. Well, canonically no. But yes. It’s complicated, one of of them finds the vampire in the woods and goes back to her house and there’s … ”
Evelyn trailed off when she realised what I’d baited her into. She shot me a hard-eyed, blushing look. I just stared back, smiling and waiting. Innocent face! I told myself, keep an innocent face, you’re just super interested in Evee’s very sapphic cartoons, not distracting her from the frustration of waiting another day.
“Heather, we need to be ready.”
“We are ready,” I said. “I’m ready for anything, including hearing about this vampire couple.”
“Only one of them is a vampire,” she sighed — and then surrendered to my pestering.
In a very real way, Evelyn was correct. Aym’s attempt to wind her up and ratchet her anxiety to new heights really was getting in the way of important things. Or at least things I needed to get done. I still had no replacement for my broken mobile phone and we couldn’t risk going out to buy one, in case Felicity did in fact begin her journey to Sharrowford that day. And there was no way I could mount the short but vital expedition to the Shamble-swamp, to check on the Dimensional Shamblers, as I had promised. Not until this task was safely over.
But I took plenty of solace in spending the day with Evee regardless. We watched two different anime shows on that slow, strange, dreary day — the one about the vampire girl and her mortal totally-not-girlfriend, and another one about a group of lady assassins who all seemed to be in love with each other in a dizzying web of romantic nonsense. It was very distracting, which was exactly what Evee needed, especially when Raine started fielding the inevitable calls from Felicity about how she was still stuck.
That evening, when Felicity’s attempt to get herself moving had once again ended in abject failure, I made sure that Evelyn spent a nice long time soaking in the bath. Sanctuary for the mind, solace for the body. It took quite some convincing — plus Praem’s insistent stare — but eventually we got her in there.
Raine found me standing half-in half-out of the doorway to Evelyn’s bedroom, staring down the corridor and listening to the distant, muffled splash of water behind the closed door of the bathroom.
“How’s she holding up?” Raine asked.
“ … mm? Sorry?”
Raine came up beside me, put one hand on the back of my neck, and started rubbing my muscles. I let out a low moan, almost a purr, and let my eyes flutter shut. Raine laughed softly.
“You seem kinda shell shocked, Heather. Take some time for yourself too, okay?”
“I’ve been relaxing with Evee all day, I’m fine.” I opened my eyes again and looked up at Raine, at her warm brown eyes brimming with confidence, her hair raked back like she’d just run a hand through it. “You’re the one who’s been dealing with all the phone calls. Thank you, Raine. I mean it. I wouldn’t be able to do that and look after Evee at the same time.”
Raine smirked and shrugged. “S’nothing. Phone’s easy for me.”
“Still, thank you. I think today was the last of it. I think they’ll set off for real tomorrow.”
Raine raised an eyebrow. “Oh yeah? You got a theory?”
I nodded toward the dark panes of the window. Evening darkness had fallen far too early for a summer’s night. On the horizon, lit from below by the glow of light pollution, the storm-wall loomed over Sharrowford like the face of a nightmare god. “That storm’s going to break in the morning. She’ll arrive at the same time.”
Raine raised both eyebrows at me in surprise. Not disbelief or scepticism, not even a little bit. “For serious?” she asked.
I suddenly felt very silly. “I … I think. It’s only a theory. Evee says it’s just weather, but it feels wrong to me. Maybe I’m wrong. I don’t know.”
“Hey, Heather, there’s no shame in being wrong about something,” Raine murmured, soft and intimate, for my ears only. She leaned over and kissed me on the forehead. “It’s better to have a theory and get proved wrong, rather than not bother thinking at all, right?”
“Right,” I sighed. “I just mean … magic. Even after all this time, it feels so silly. Magical weather because of a demon, really?”
Raine laughed and ruffled my hair. “You’re real tired. I can tell. You’ve done real good today, looking after Evee. Better than I ever could. Well done, Heather.”
I shrugged and pulled an awkward smile, looking down the corridor again, toward the bathroom.
“I really love her, do you know that?”
Why did you say that!? part of my mind screamed — but the rest of me was totally at ease, even as I looked up at Raine, seeking approval or understanding.
Raine ruffled my hair again. “‘Course you do. So do I.”
“No, I mean I … I love her.”
Raine grinned. “Wanna go join her in the bathroom?”
“Tch!” I tutted. “Raine. No. I’m serious.”
“So am I! Go join her in the bathtub, that’ll keep her spirits up.”
I gave Raine a withering look, but she just snorted. What was I trying to do here, confess something important, or express something she already knew? My heart rate was steady, my palms were dry, I was utterly at ease. Raine already knew all this, or thought she knew.
“Praem’s already in the room with her, in case she has trouble getting out of the tub,” I said as a compromise, falling back on the practical dimension. “As always.”
Raine laughed, pulled me into a rough and sudden hug, and kissed the top of my head. “Between you and Praem, Evee’s gonna be just fine.”
I melted into Raine’s arms, leaning my head against her shoulder and closing my eyes. Only then did I realise just how tense I was.
The storm boiled away on the horizon of my mind’s eye, to reveal a dripping grin beneath the clouds.
Distant thunder woke me the next morning, slow waves of mercury and molten silver crashing against a shore of broken glass, rolling across the sky. Raindrops tapped and danced on the roof tiles, hesitant for now, testing us. The sun was dead and buried.
Less than twenty minutes later, I was proven correct; into the gloom of our bedroom sprang the sickly light of Raine’s phone screen, flashing with an incoming call. Felicity, and it wasn’t even seven o’clock in the morning yet. Zheng growled from the other side of me, a shifting bulk moving to protect me from an unseen threat. Raine sat up in bed, sneezed into her elbow, and scooped up the phone.
She answered the call by saying, “You better be on your bloody way this time, Fliss.”
She was. The reclusive mage and her difficult demon were finally on their way to Sharrowford, just as the storm was breaking.
The rain steadily worsened over the next three hours as the storm moved over the city. Then the clouds seemed to stop overhead, hanging low and thick and dark, turning Sharrowford damp and chilly with the unbroken drizzle. Felicity called us twice more, once from the road and once from a service station on the M6, to let us know that all was well and she was making good time. We prepared for her arrival, but there was little left to do, except keep a close eye on Evelyn’s mood. She sat in the kitchen, reading, waiting, seemingly calm and ready. I had given her all I could.
By the time Felicity reached the outskirts of Sharrowford the storm’s drizzle had turned into a torrential downpour. Raindrops slammed against the roof and pounded through the leaves on the old tree out in the garden. Muddy wallows were forming around the back patio where short-lived streams cut through the unkempt grass. The garden path was under half an inch of water and the road itself was swirling with little eddies and puddles as the drains backed up. No wind, so the rain fell straight down from the unmoving clouds.
We even checked the news and found the newsreaders in serious mode, frowning and nodding, the weather lady gesticulating over a map of the north west of England, with Sharrowford picked out beneath a cross-hatching of alarming red. This storm was a big deal, flooding low-lying parts of the city centre and dumping months worth of rain into the river. Downstream would be even worse.
Amid this veil of storm, a dark chariot drew to a stop outside the house.
“She’s here,” Raine announced, peering out of the window in the old disused sitting room. “Places, ladies, places please.”
Nobody had to be told twice.
Felicity had been given very specific instructions about what to do when she arrived. Much to my relief, she followed them to the letter. She was probably terrified that I might set Zheng on her. Raine received two text messages from Felicity, confirming that she was here and that she was ready. Raine and I got into our shoes, following our part of the plan, though we hadn’t planned on the need to wear coats and grab umbrellas, but we did so anyway. No sense in getting soaked.
Evee waited in the kitchen, heavily guarded. There was no chance of Aym ambushing her before we were ready. She had Praem, Zheng, Sevens, Lozzie, and Tenny all in there with her. If Aym wanted to appear to her without warning, she was going to get “choke-slammed by two demons and a playwright”, as Raine so delicately put it.
That failed to get a laugh out of Evee. “Get on with it,” she said. “Go make sure she’s alive, or whatever. Or not.”
“Stay dry,” said Praem.
That was easier said than done. Raine and I stepped out of the front door and into the pounding rain, huddling close together. Water streamed off the pair of umbrellas we’d brought for protection, but even they couldn’t keep the storm entirely at bay. I kept my tentacles wound in close, wrapped around my limbs and anchored to Raine’s waist too, as if we were venturing into an Arctic night. We started off down the path, wellington boots splashing in the rushing stream of water.
“That’s the car, right?” Raine asked, speaking over the static of the raindrops.
“The same one from the last time she visited, yes.”
Felicity’s car was partially obscured by the sheer density of the rain pounding against the bodywork and tinted windows, but there was no mistaking it for any other vehicle. A battered old range rover, dark green, eaten away at the edges by slow rust. Even washed clean by the rain, the thing looked about ready to lie down and die of exhaustion. I knew very little about cars, but Raine had informed me that when new, such a car would have cost a very large amount of money.
The engine was silent, no lights showed inside the cabin, and the windscreen wipers lay still. But I could see a vague outline through the windscreen as we approached, a figure sitting in the driver’s seat, watching us draw close.
Felicity — for it must have been her — raised a hand in limp greeting.
Raine and I stopped on the pavement next to the passenger-side door, our wellington boots squeaking against the wet ground. Raine tilted her umbrella so Felicity could lower the window without getting a torrent of water inside her car. I huddled close to Raine, bracing for anything, one tentacle raised to — to what? To punch through the glass and grab Felicity by the face? To intercept Aym if she darted out like a missile?
Through the tinted glass, the figure inside leaned over and found the handle to manually crank the window down. With aching slowness, the dark glass lowered, revealing the unmistakable face of Felicity Amber Hackett.
Felicity was a very strange looking woman indeed, a certain kind of face one never forgets. Whatever she had been responsible for, whatever she had once inflicted upon Evee, however much she was a mage, it was difficult to look at the facts of her flesh and not feel at least some sympathy.
The entire left side of Felicity’s face was a burn scar. Old, reddish, rough scarring stretched from her scalp, blurred her brow and cheek and jaw, and vanished down inside her neckline. She had no left ear. Her left eye was blind, milky-white, sight burned away. The left corner of her lips was missing, wiped away by flame, the source of her permanent mumble.
The healthy side — her right — was unguarded, skittish, and soft. She didn’t look like a mage at all. In fact, she reminded me in an uncomfortable way of some of the older girls I’d briefly known at Cygnet children’s hospital. Gentle, afraid, haunted, forced into constant hyper-vigilance.
Felicity wasn’t intimidating at all. She was a very pitiful thing, brittle and willowy, moving as if always suppressing internal pain or hiding an injury.
Her reddish-brown hair fell to the middle of her back. She was wearing a dark cardigan and a battered blue coat, big boots on her feet and black leather gloves on both hands.
“Heeeeeey Flissy,” said Raine, grinning without guile. “Here at last, hey? Didn’t get to see you in the flesh last time you came down.”
Felicity froze, then straightened up very, very slowly indeed, back into the driver’s seat, as if Raine was a rattlesnake she had disturbed by turning over a rock. Her good eye stayed locked on Raine with all the focus of a gunfighter preparing to draw. She took great care to keep both hands in view as she moved, then carefully placed them back on the steering wheel, at two-and-ten.
Which was smart, in front of Raine, because Felicity had a gun lying in her lap.
I sighed sharply when I realised, shaking my head. A towel-wrapped bundle lay across Felicity’s thighs, about the right size and shape for the sawn-off shotgun she’d brought with her on her previous visit. One end was pointed off at an angle, not quite at us. The other end was open, the towel partially unwrapped, probably so she could access the grip and trigger.
“What is it with mages and paranoia?” I snapped. “You could have at least kept the thing in a bag. What is it even for? Were you planning a drive-by?”
Felicity blinked at me, suddenly self-conscious and mortified. “I’m— I— I— I’m sorry,” she said in her distinct half-mumble from her restricted mouth. “Precautions. You have to understand, there’s— there’s always precautions to take, when I’m away from home.”
“Hey, it’s all cool,” Raine said, still smiling. She leaned forward, one elbow on the lip of the car window. “Nothing to worry about, no danger to us.”
“Y-yes,” Felicity agreed. “It’s not for you, not aimed at you. I never know who I might see on the road. Have to be careful.”
“Besides,” said Raine. “Even with your gun in your lap and mine in my coat, I’d still draw faster than you.”
Felicity went white with fear.
“Oh Raine, for pity’s sake,” I hissed. “This isn’t Amy Stack. You don’t need to have a surrogate penis-measuring contest with Felicity. Really!”
Raine had the good grace to look a little sheepish, clearing her throat and looking away, out into the pouring rain, but she still grinned like this was all a big joke. “Well, you know. She started it.”
“It’s a gun, Raine. Take this seriously.”
“I am taking it seriously.” She laughed. “That’s why I’m armed!”
“Tch,” I tutted and sighed, then turned my anger on Felicity too. She flinched before I even opened my mouth, but she kept her hands glued to the steering wheel. “And you, this is practically a replay of last time you visited! Pointing a concealed weapon at us again! Mages, I swear to good sense, all of you are impossible.” I huffed and peered into the back of the car, past the passenger seat, but there was nothing back there except a couple of large bags, some towels, and a bundle of wires. “Where’s Aym, anyway?”
“It’s not even loaded for people,” Felicity mumbled.
“I’m sorry?” I blinked back at her, not sure if I’d heard that right. Felicity was staring at me with a kind of hollow horror in her one good eye, exhausted and twitchy.
Raine laughed. “Silver shot or iron pellets still work just the same on human beings, Fliss.”
“Good thing it’s not loaded with those, then,” Felicity said to Raine. “I could point this at you and pull the trigger and it wouldn’t hurt you. It’s not for you. I have things of my own going on, okay?” Felicity’s voice threatened to break. She panted twice, to get her composure back, as little as it was. “I need to carry protection. It’s got nothing to do with you.”
Raine studied her for a moment, then nodded, no longer laughing or grinning. “Okay, Fliss. We’re cool. Does this mean you gotta carry that gun into our house?”
Felicity blinked twice. “I … I wasn’t expecting to … be allowed inside.”
I sighed, hunching a little against the rain, despite my umbrella. “Yes, I think it’s best if you don’t come in. Evelyn has agreed not to try to kill you, I want to make that clear. But it would make her very unhappy.”
Felicity looked down at her car’s dashboard, her eyes miles away. She nodded to herself. “Yeah. Yeah. I … I don’t get to see her. I don’t. Can you maybe … maybe tell her … from me—”
“After she’s spoken to Aym,” I said.
It took all my ruthlessness, all my hard-hearted love for Evee, to tell this broken woman no.
Felicity drew in a shuddering breath, then nodded. She didn’t look at us.
“Hey, Fliss,” Raine said. “Serious question, yeah?”
“Mm?” Felicity looked up at last.
“That gun, you out here on your own, once Aym comes inside with us and all. Are you safe?”
Felicity stared for a moment, then swallowed, then straightened up. She seemed to find some strength in the answer to that question. “Probably. If I was being followed, I would know by now. If something … arrives, well, that’s what the gun’s for. I’ll be alright.”
Raine nodded. A professional reassuring a rookie.
I peered into the back seat again. “Where’s Aym?”
“Yeah,” Raine said “You hiding her in the boot?”
Felicity sighed. “She’s always here, always with me. If you go inside and go into a room alone, she’ll be ready. Heather and Evee alone, I mean. She normally never shows herself to more than one person at a time, but she’ll cooperate for this. I guess.”
“Real spooky.” Raine shot Felicity a wink.
“And make sure,” Felicity added, “make sure nobody else is alone during this. She might … well … I don’t know what she might do. I don’t control her. I can’t. She might … ” Felicity trailed off and shrugged.
“We’ve made sure everybody is together,” I said. “All in one place.”
Raine opened her mouth — then stopped, eyebrows shooting up. She turned to me. I frowned at her, then my eyes went wide and I put my free hand over my mouth.
“Don’t say—” Felicity started.
“Kim’s not at work today,” Raine said, then snapped back to Felicity. “Oh. Shit. Did I just jinx us?”
“Kimberly!” I hissed. “You’re right. She was sleeping in late, she always sleeps in late on her days off.”
Felicity went grey, panting with panic. “You said it! You said it! Not me! She’s going to have heard that!”
Raine rapped her knuckles on the car door to get Felicity’s attention. “Hey. What do we do?”
“Interrupt her! Quickly!”
“Kimberly is tougher than she looks,” I said. “We have time to get back indoors and get her with the others before—”
A scream of mad panic suddenly cut through the storm, muffled by the pounding rain and the walls of the house and the complexity of the second floor bedrooms. I had not heard that scream in months and months, the sort of scream that went on and on as somebody scrambled out of bed and hurled objects and fell over and banged into things.
Kimberly, screaming her head off.
Aym isn’t even there and she’s causing problems. She is causing problems by doing the one specific thing that Evelyn would actually prefer: not turning up. It’s a talent and a skill, being a little shit without even being present. Still, it did give Evee and Heather another chance to watch pony cartoons together. Very important use of everybody’s time. And Praem! This is the most she’s spoken in a while. Storms, meanwhile, are very comfy!
Incredibly enough, there is now another podcast also talking about Katalepsis! Perhaps encouraged by the release of the Volume I ebook and audiobook, the podcast In Media Les have made an hour long discussion about arcs 1-4. I swear, I didn’t plan this! Go give it a listen, if you like!
All Patrons get access to two chapters ahead! No matter what level you subscribe at! That’s almost 20k words. The more support I get through Patreon, the more time I can dedicate to writing, and the less chance of having to slow down the story. The generous and kind support of Patrons and readers is what makes all this possible in the first place, I would literally not be able to do this without you, so thank you all so very much! And in this spooky, kooky month of October, something is about to happen …
Next week, Heather is going to tell Aym off so much. Nobody frightens Heather’s found family, not even those on the very edge of the pack.