pale student of unhallowed arts – 17.5

Content Warnings

Discussion of dysphoria.
Sensory deprivation.



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“Does literally everybody know?! First Twil, then you! Sevens is probably aware of it too, even if she really has stopped reading our minds, or whatever it is she does. Not to mention Raine trying to lend me out that one time, like I’m a plush toy or something. Who else knows? Praem? Zheng? Has Tenny noticed? Oh, that would be a disaster, she’s too young to understand the complications involved, she’d say it out loud. At least tell me you don’t all sit around discussing it behind our backs? Tell me Evelyn and I aren’t the only ones who haven’t discussed our own bloody relationship.”

Lozzie couldn’t stop giggling.

The more I ranted, the worse she got. She’d started with a delicate little giggle-snort, but my impotent outrage drove her into a flapping frenzy of pastel poncho and laughing fit. One hand clamped over her mouth in a futile gesture at tact, heaving for breath through her nose, eyes watering with laughter. She capered from foot to foot in a little circle next to Jan’s hotel bed, overflowing with vicarious energy.

I could hardly blame her. I was being absurd. Ranting and raving meant I didn’t have to stop and think.

But I couldn’t go forever. Lozzie laughed and giggled and guffawed, so eventually I shut my mouth.

“Heathyyyyyy,” Lozzie squeaked like a steam train. She hadn’t expected such a bounty.

For a split second I almost went Outside. It’s what Lozzie would have done, cornered inside her own emotional thicket of thorns and barbs. She would have escaped via Outside. Why not? I didn’t have to sit here and have this conversation. I didn’t have to face these things. I could not be forced.

Lozzie would follow me though. There was no escape, not even Outside.

I shut up and sat there in that increasingly uncomfortable hotel room chair, arms crossed, tentacles folded, fuming silently, blushing like a beetroot, and scowling at the sea-green carpet. Maybe the floor would open up and swallow me if I gave it a rude enough look.

Jan cleared her throat with a delicate little ahem-ahem, still sitting on the foot of her incredibly messy bed. She was trying to sound diplomatic and detached, but she couldn’t keep the amusement out of her voice. Lozzie’s giggle fit was infectious.

“I am so very sorry,” Jan said, trying for formal but sounding like a schoolgirl gossip caught in the act. “Once again, I appear to have misinterpreted the relationship between mage and octopus-girl. I have embarrassed you. My apologies for misspeaking.”

I scowled at her too. “You said that on purpose. I do possess a working memory, thank you.”

“Ah?” Jan’s eyebrows rose. Innocent, or mock-innocent, it was hard to tell. She was too good at this. Lozzie bobbed from side to side, fanning her face with both hands, trying to hold her laughter.

“In Camelot,” I snapped. “When we were waiting for Zheng and July to start their duel. You asked Evee and I if we were dating. You already knew we’re not.”

“Oh, that.” Jan’s expression scrunched up with mingled distaste and embarrassment. “You can’t seriously expect me to remember that? You took me into the wild beyond outside the spheres, and you expect me to remember every last little bit of conversation? Excuse me, squid-britches, I was struggling just to keep from having a dozen different kinds of panic attack. I barely remember half that afternoon. I touched a nerve, and I’m sorry, but this wasn’t intentional. Tch.” She tutted. “It’s not as if I’ve caused some great problem, or outed you, or messed up your plans. Have I? You and Miss Saye, you’re not star-crossed lovers of some kind, are you? Fated to certain doom if you brush hands over the last muffin in the box? Is she allergic to seafood?”

Jan struggled not to smirk at her own terrible joke, biting her lips together to stop from bursting out laughing. Lozzie howled with the giggles again and threw herself at the messy bed covers to contain the laughter, rolling around in the sheets. Pastel poncho flapped and flopped behind Jan.

I stared at Jan, unamused. “No.”

“Well.” Jan shrugged. She squeezed her pink stress ball. “Oops.”

I scowled at Jan, at her pastel-butterfly dressing gown and her exposed doll-joints. I scowled at Lozzie, still rolling on the bed. I scowled at the video game console over on the floor. I scowled at the curtains, the bags, the magic circle on the inside of the door — oh, to escape down the lift shaft, if only — and I scowled at Jan again.

She had known that Evelyn and I were not together, romantically speaking. That I was certain.

Had Lozzie put her up to this? Lozzie knew that Evee and I were stuck at an unspoken impasse. Despite my indignant ranting, I knew it was obvious. Lozzie wasn’t one for casual subterfuge, but she was also unusually close with Jan. If they’d planned this in advance, Jan could simply have been waiting for the right moment to ambush me with that line, or some variation of it.

Jan sighed. “You can hardly blame me for assuming you and the mage are romantically entangled. It seemed obvious enough.”

I sighed too. I was still shaken by the Slip spitting me out alone in the corridor, without Lozzie. I was still worried over Lozzie’s safety and Jan’s reliability. Paranoia can be a useful tool; I’d learnt that much from Evelyn. But paranoia shaped the mind that dared to wield it. Paranoia became a habit, then a way of life. My paranoia had shifted from serious matters to nonsense.

What did it matter if Lozzie had put Jan up to this? What difference did it make to me and Evelyn?

“Evee and I, we’re not romantically entangled,” I said, stiff and careful — and I wondered if that was true. “We are very close, yes. A pair of lesbians can be close friends without being romantic with each other. Obviously.”

Lozzie sat up behind Jan, trailing bits of sheet like a pastel-rainbow orca bursting from the ocean surface. “Yeah!” she chirped. “But you and Evee aren’t! She loves you!”

“I … I … I know.”

“And you love her!”

“ … yes, but as a … a fr—”

“Pfffffffffffffffffffffffft,” went Lozzie. “You keep avoiding it!”

And you didn’t even hear what Evee shouted to me, I thought, down in Hringewindla’s shell, when she thought I was walking into ego-death.

“We’re complicated, all right?” I huffed and hunched in my chair, tentacles drawn in tight like I was battling a tummy ache. I even laid one across my own front so I could hug it for comfort. I wanted to run away. “Lozzie, Jan and I have really serious, important matters to discuss. Matters that don’t involve my romantic problems. Okay?”

“Hmm-hmmm-hmmmmm-hmmmmm?” Lozzie tapped her chin with a finger, all mock-innocent.

Jan shrugged with her hands, looking oh so very reasonable. “We could have a proper girls’ talk first, if you like. After all, I’m not part of your bizarre extended polycule, all crammed into that one house together. I’m outside your system, and sometimes what you need is an outside perspective.”

I glared at her, aware that my face was burning up. She rotated her hands so she was surrendering instead of shrugging, then squeezed the stress ball.

“No, thank you,” I said.

“Won’t even charge. Agony aunt Jan. A free session.”

“Heathyyyyy,” Lozzie cooed. “Why not just talk to Evee-weevey?”

I hiccuped, loud enough to make Jan jump, hard enough to hurt my throat and chest. I was shaking, gripping myself with all my tentacles, as if to armour my flesh against the teeth and claws of some unseen predator. I was right on the verge of fight-or-flight, stuck to the inside of my own clothes with sweat, overheated and constricted.

I had to stand up. I got to my feet and sucked down a deep breath, then flapped the hem of my hoodie to get some fresh air against my skin. The air-conditioning made the room taste dry and sterile.

Lozzie leaned close to Jan, to whisper something in her ear. I felt anxiety transmute to irritation, and decided I needed a distraction.

Perhaps it was the way I’d been conversationally ambushed, or perhaps it was the result of coming down from the adrenaline high and paranoid-defensive mental posture, but I was liking this hotel room less and less by the minute. It was clean and airy, simple and modern, without decoration or ostentation, but the longer I spent here the more it reminded me of the kind of anonymous box I’d left behind when I’d moved in with Raine and Evelyn. Human beings were not meant to live alone inside air-conditioned cages, no matter how convenient.

I was well aware that was horribly unfair. Jan wasn’t living alone, she had July. For all I knew she spent most of her time on that laptop, talking with hundreds of online friends. Or maybe she went out clubbing every night. I really knew very little about Jan. One woman’s alienation is another’s paradise.

Trying to clear my thoughts, I walked over to the heavy curtains which covered the hotel room’s large window.

Thin strips of sunlight like white fire showed around the edges, the burning day held at bay behind thick fabric. With my tentacles, I peeled back the edge to look outdoors. What I got was a full face of direct sunlight, enough to make me blink and squint.

Sharrowford, sun-cracked by the strange June. For a moment I wasn’t sure where we were located, other than several stories up. Heat-haze rose from a tangle of black tarmac roads, the kind of meaningless intersection that you might find in any city, hemmed in by glass and brick and metal all around, punctuated by traffic islands as isolated as undiscovered Pacific atolls. Plants wilted and turned brown. A few hardy trees along the pavements sucked sustenance from unseen sewer lines or buried stream-beds — or from piles of corpses, for all I knew. Few pedestrians braved the heat. Even the pneuma-somatic life seemed sluggish, sticking to the shadows of tall buildings or congregating beneath trees — though I did notice more plant-like ones up on the tall rooftops, petals of ice or metal or flesh wide open to drink in the heat. Plenty of cars navigated the tangle of back roads. As I watched, a couple of city buses passed by. A pneuma-somatic dog-thing the size of a horse was riding on the roof of one bus. It looked at me as it went past, then threw its head back in a silent howl.

I raised my eyes and recognised the spires of Sharrowford Cathedral on a distant hill. An ape-like thing was wrapped around one of the spires, fast asleep. It must have been huge.

I spoke without looking back at Jan and Lozzie. “We’re near the station, aren’t we?”

“Mm, a five minute walk,” Jan replied. I heard Lozzie whispering again. Plotting how to get me and Evee to kiss, I guessed. Was this how it felt? I still ached with guilt for banging Evee and Twil together like they were toy dolls, pairing them up for my amusement. I sighed inside and told myself I would need to explain to Lozzie why this was a bad idea.

“Kimberly must be close, then,” I said, just for distraction. “She works at a florist near the station. Not sure exactly where, though.”

“A florist?” Jan laughed softly as Lozzie’s whispering broke off. “The girl I bought weed from, she works at a florist?”

“I gather that’s some kind of stereotype?” I asked, still squinting out of the window, into the sunlight.

My phone buzzed in my hoodie’s front pocket before Jan could answer. I tutted at myself, highly conscious that I still hadn’t called home. I fished out the phone and found a text message from Raine.

Having fun with Lozzie?

I hurried to compose a reply, just to reassure her that I was safe — talking to Jan, Lozzie’s fine, going to discuss some sensitive subjects, please don’t worry about us, and so on.

Don’t worry about us? What about Slipping home? But Lozzie had tested it. We were safe.

“Heathyyyy,” Lozzie said, bouncing on her knees on the bed. “You didn’t answer the question!”

“Hmm?” I blinked up at her as I sent the text message to Raine. Lozzie looked like a melted jellyfish in blue and pink.

“Why don’t you just talk to Evee?” she chirped.

Jan cleared her throat and nodded very intently, catching my eye with a silent, pre-emptive apology. I wasn’t sure about earlier, but this time? Yes, Lozzie had absolutely put her up to whatever was about to happen next, that’s what all the whispering had been about, and she was very sorry to do this to me.

“Yes, quite,” Jan said. “Now, I don’t have the widest range of romantic experience, to put it lightly, but I have discovered that generally these things go better if you communicate. Why not speak with her?”

Under duress or not, that question grated on me. I gave her a bit of a look. “Yes, I’m well aware.”

Lozzie giggled. “Heathy! You even sound like her sometimes! Like Evee!”

I sighed and rubbed my face with one hand. “She’s rubbed off on me. Her way of speaking is very … courageous.”

Jan pulled a grimace and muttered, “I was thinking ‘bitchy’.” Lozzie poked her gently in the shoulder, a very obvious signal. Jan raised her voice. “But the question stands, Heather. Why not speak with her? Are you afraid of rejection? That’s very normal, very rational, everybody faces it, everybody has to deal with those feelings, but there’s no sense in letting those fears dictate your actions.”

I answered without hesitation. “No, I’m afraid of the opposite.”

Jan snorted a very inelegant laugh, then flapped her hands and pulled a grimace. She finally lost her grip on the stress ball, which fell and vanished among the bed covers. “Sorry. I was a bit overcome with your sheer confidence.”

I tucked the curtain back into place, shutting out the sun once more. I turned and leaned against the wall, head against the plaster, tentacles stretching out wide. I closed my eyes in emotional exhaustion.

“My love life is already complicated beyond reason,” I said. “You think going Outside is bad? Try juggling my three — yes, count them — three girlfriends.”

I heard nothing for a moment, saw nothing but the inside of my own eyelids, the play of coloured darkness across the underside of my own flesh.

Then Lozzie said, “Mmhmm! It’s true.”

“Heather, please,” Jan sighed, a bit tighter than before. She was running out of patience, but I wasn’t sure who with. “Enumerate for me? You’ve already proven that your polycule is beyond my comprehension.”

“Raine is my girlfriend. We’re a couple. We fuck.”

“Oooooh,” went Lozzie. “Heathy!”

I opened my eyes and pulled an apologetic smile. Lozzie had both hands on her cheeks in a mock-scandalised look.

Jan seemed puzzled. “Ah?”

“Heathy never swears,” said Lozzie.

“I can swear if I wish to,” I said. “It’s not like I’ll burst into flames. I just don’t, not very much. Sorry, Lozzie, it’s just this is a difficult topic.”

“And I’m not part of your polycule,” said Jan. “Go on, if you’re comfortable.”

More than a hint of teenage girl crept into Jan’s tone when she said that. The mask of the con-woman, non-threatening and safe to speak with, just a young girl without a care. Was that intentional, or was it her way of trying to reassure? She wasn’t that dissimilar to Sevens, in some ways. The mask was a mask, but also real.

“Zheng,” I went on. “She’s … well, I think we have an asexual partnership. She worships me, in a quasi-religious sense, partly because I freed her from slavery, partly because I remind her of somebody from her past. I think I love her too.” I shook my head. “I thought it was going to turn sexual between her and I, but … it just didn’t. And I don’t mind that.” I sighed heavily. “And you saw how things have turned out between her and Raine.”

Jan nodded. “Most interesting, yes.”

“And then there’s Sevens.”

Jan winced. “The … I really hesitate to say the word, but … the vampire?”

I laughed. “You wish she was just a vampire.”

“Excuse me?”

“Never mind. She’s not a vampire. Apparently there’s no such thing, not really. She’s … from elsewhere, let’s put it like that. Sevens proposed marriage to me.”

Jan whistled low. “And you said … ?”

The laugh went away. “It’s complicated.”

Jan winced. “Poor girl.”

“She’s got a lot to make up for. And she’s changing, a lot. I don’t know if we’re meant to be together, but I’m happy to have her by my side, whatever she wants to be.”

Lozzie poked Jan in the shoulder again, in some kind of pre-arranged code. Jan gave her a doubtful look, so Lozzie leaned down and whispered in her ear for a moment, before bouncing back up and grinning at me. Jan shot me another apologetic look.

What was the point of this? I knew these were Lozzie’s words, via Jan. Was this supposed to convince me of something?

“Well,” Jan said, without much conviction. “Why not add Evee to all this?”

I stared at her and Lozzie for a moment. Lozzie shot me a broad, obvious wink — which Jan couldn’t see.

“Evelyn Saye’s sexuality is none of your business,” I told Jan.

“Of course, of course—”

“The short version is I’m not sure she’d be comfortable. The slightly longer version is I’m not even sure she knows what kind of relationship she would want. I think we’re fine where we are now. She and I are very, very close. And maybe that’s how we’re meant to be. And that’s okay. We hug, we touch, we care for each other, we talk a lot, we’re always around each other, every day. We don’t make out or have sex, but I don’t really think we need to.”

I spoke the words, but I only half-believed them myself.

For a moment, in the silence and peace of my mind’s eye, I tried to picture Evee snuggled up to me under her bed covers. That wasn’t too hard, it came naturally; we’d done that before, or at least something close enough. Then I tried to imagine her without any clothes on. If I did the same thing with Raine, I felt that familiar hitch of lust in my chest, the feeling like I was going to buckle at the knees.

But with Evee, that was absent. Naked Evelyn was just naked Evelyn. Not that I’d ever seen.

Lozzie was right though, I did love her. But how?

Why was I finally comfortable facing up to this? Perhaps because I was away from home, in the naturally liminal space of a hotel, held in a brief artificial bubble. Or perhaps because I was away from Evelyn, beyond her contact, for a moment.

Lozzie dipped her head to whisper in Jan’s ear again, but I spoke up first.

“Don’t raise this with her,” I said, a little harder than I intended. Protective instinct growled in my chest. My tentacles twitched, they wanted to wrap Evee up tight, look after her. Lozzie looked up in surprise. “That goes for you too, Lozzie. I’m serious. Evelyn is safe, and … and somewhat happy. Happier than I’ve seen her before. She and I might not be perfect, our situation might not be perfect, but she’s safe and happy. She has purpose. Don’t bring this up with her, please. It could hurt her.”

Because hurting Evelyn is my job, part of my mind whispered. Hurting her by refusing to acknowledge what she feels.

“Oh my goodness,” Jan sighed. “We’re past useless lesbian and into oppositional defiant disorder lesbian.”

“I’m serious,” I snapped.

Lozzie bit her bottom lip and nodded. “Okaaaaaay,” she whined, pouting like a fussy child.

“Look, Lozzie, I do love Evee, but it’s not like that. Not every relationship has to be—”

My phone buzzed in my hand.

Raine had sent me one of those creative text messages she sometimes composed, a picture made out of text symbols. She’d crafted an image of two figures sitting on a magic carpet, flying through the air, complete with little wisps of cloud and passing birds. The girl in front had long hair and a striped poncho, though the text couldn’t manage colours. The girl in the rear had a hoodie and tentacles. My heart felt like it was growing too large for the inside of my chest.

“I … I’m sorry, Lozzie,” I said to the phone screen, unable to make eye contact. “I know you just want us to be happy.” I sniffed, felt tears. “But I can’t … Evee doesn’t … she doesn’t even know what she wants either. And it would be asking her to share, I can’t. I can’t.”

“Do you two want some food?” Jan asked. Her changing of the subject was so obvious that even Twil would have picked up the hint. “I’m starving, I could go for a mid-afternoon snack. Goodness, actually, it’s almost dinner time. This place doesn’t really have room service, but they have a bar.”

“Oooooh!” went Lozzie.

“I hardly think it’s the time for alcohol,” I said, scrubbing my face, sniffing back tears that had not quite started.

“Maybe not for you,” Jan said with a little wink. “But if we’re going to sit down and talk shop, I want some fortification. If we want something more substantial, I could call July, send her out to get us a proper meal from one of the places around here. What do you say, Heather?”

“Um … ”

She scooted off the bed and hopped to her feet, little black socks sinking into the carpet, then crossed to the desk. Her pentacolour dressing gown billowed out behind her like an exotic species of jellyfish. She found her phone in her pink tote bag, neat and pink like so many other things she owned, but it was old — a flip-phone. She flipped it open.

“We’re going to talk magic and bodies, aren’t we? I think we both need some calories in us for that. I’m going to call July.” She cracked a subtle, cheeky smile. “It’s so good having a personal delivery service. What else are demons good for, hm?”

==

We got Chinese food in the end, after very little debate. Real Chinese food, from a place which was apparently called The Chonky Little Dragon, a name so atrocious that I never would have imagined it was anything except a terrible gimmick. But Jan’s experience proved her right. I never saw the place, because she sent July to fetch the food with a phone call, straight from her dip in the pool, without us. Jan paid.

I called Raine while we waited for July to return, just to reassure her that everything was fine and there was no emergency unfolding.

“Hey, Heather, relax,” Raine laughed down the phone. I couldn’t tell if she was genuinely comfortable with this, or if she’d grown more skilled at hiding her worries. “You’ve gone out with Lozzie for the afternoon, that’s all. It’s cool, I get it. Hell, there’s no better safety line than Lozzie, right? Can’t promise Zheng won’t come to join you though, I can’t do anything about that.”

“Oh, please do try to stop her,” I said. “I don’t think I could deal with that right now.”

Raine laughed again. “No promises. Say hi to Jan for me. And Heather.” Her voice dropped, suddenly serious. “Good luck. Love you.”

“Love you too.”

Raine probably had a pretty good idea what we were going to discuss.

But not before food.

July took long enough that I had ample time to recover from thinking about kissing Evee, but not so long that things grew awkward in the hotel room. She let herself in, unlocking the door and looming inside like a knife-thrust from a blind angle.

She was carrying a pair of thin plastic bags full of food, and made a stalking bee-line to dump them on the little table as Jan hurried to scoop the fancy laptop out of the way. The bags clinked.

I had to struggle to suppress a flinch, away from July. The demon host was much as I remembered her, tall and built like a runner, with the wide-eyed look of a predatory bird. Her every motion was a knife-slash, so sharp I swear she didn’t displace the air as she moved. July was dressed for the heat outdoors, in a grey tank top which showed off the toned muscles of her arms and shoulders, and a pair of loose dark shorts below, with converse shoes and no socks. Her long black hair was loose, stretching almost to her backside, thick and dark and still damp from the pool. She carried a faint chemical smell of chlorine.

“Juls-Juls-Juls!” Lozzie greeted her, darting forward to look at the food around her side, like July was a piece of wall blocking her way.

Jan rummaged through the bags and started distributing polystyrene boxes, then reached into one of her invisible magic pockets and produced a pair of chopsticks.

July didn’t greet Lozzie or Jan, but she stared at me for several long seconds, until Jan bumped her in the ribs with a box of food. “Yours. Take it. You want a fork, or chopsticks? You too, Heather, you want a fork?”

The demon host must have decided I wasn’t there to pull Jan to pieces like a squid with a shellfish. She nodded at me with muted respect, then accepted her food.

“Fork.”

“Uh, please,” I said. “Fork for me too.”

It was a strange time of day to be eating a heavy meal, far past lunchtime but not yet late enough for a proper dinner. I’d opted for rice and vegetables in some kind of plum sauce, and ended up pleasantly surprised. Lozzie had a big plate of sweet and sour chicken, while Jan had a gingery version of something similar. The two of them swapped choice bits the whole time, though Jan seemed a little embarrassed by the process. July had a box full of what looked like charred twists of leftover meat, but she seemed to enjoy it well enough.

Lozzie, July, and I all had tap water, but Jan had two bottles of beer.

“Both for me, don’t worry,” she said, with a wink.

We sat around eating. Lozzie occupied the desk chair, while Jan and I took the two chairs around the little table. July sat straight as a rod at the head of her perfectly made bed, watching everything with wide eyes. Lozzie got up and went over to her several times, offering her random bits of meat, which she accepted mechanically, like a very large and patient bird of prey. I tried not to watch her eat.

As we ate, Jan wanted to ‘nerd out’ over my tentacles, as Raine might put it.

“May I touch?” she asked, hand paused politely in the air over the table.

She’d had me lay one of the gently strobing pale limbs across the plywood between us, so she could peer at the colours. The others I kept tightly tucked in toward my body, feeling a little self-conscious in a room with three other people who needed no magical aids to see what I really was. I didn’t mind Jan’s professional attention, but it did feel a little strange, like I was being examined by a very polite mad scientist.

When I didn’t answer for a moment, Jan cleared her throat and pulled a delicate grimace. She placed her chopsticks down for a moment. “Pardon me, they’re not erogenous or anything, are they? I’m not asking to touch a sex organ here, am I?”

Lozzie giggled, but Jan shot her a tiny frown. She was being genuinely respectful, or trying to.

“No,” I said with a sigh, poking at my own food, all self-conscious now. “Well, I mean, I could probably modify them to be, but no, I’ve never tried that. You can touch if you like. It should be safe at the moment.”

Jan paused again. “Safe?”

“I can put contact toxins in the skin,” I explained across our pair of half-empty fast-food boxes. “Paralytics, neurotoxins, the kinds of things you might find in a puffer-fish or a poison dart frog.” Jan’s eyes widened. I blushed and felt horribly awkward. “It’s something I can do when I’m in trouble, the toxins aren’t always there, they’re re-metabolised into other compounds. I think. It’s perfectly safe at the moment.”

“And how did you learn to do that?” she asked.

I’d misread Jan’s expression. She wasn’t afraid. She was fascinated.

She was watching me with naked fascination, though it was nothing like the hunger for knowledge that used to creep onto Evelyn’s face, back in the early days of my brain-math experiments. It wasn’t religious awe either, which was such a relief that I could have hugged her. It was admiration.

“Instinct, mostly,” I said. “I did some reading up on biology, only a little, just textbooks from the university library. That may have helped, but it’s mostly just innate gut feeling.”

Jan couldn’t help but laugh softly, amazed. She fortified herself with a swig of beer, then finally touched my tentacle. She blinked in surprise as she ran her hand down the length that lay across the table. Her doll-like joints showed faintly at her knuckles and wrist, as almost invisible artificial lines in her own crafted flesh. Neither of us was fully human. Part of me liked that. Part of me liked sharing this with her, specifically.

“It’s smooth,” she said with a soft little laugh. “I didn’t expect that either. Like you’d be akin to a shark, or something, all rough and rasping.”

“I can make it non-smooth. Barbs, spikes, even those little rotating hooks that colossal squids have. Though I don’t know if I got those right, I was mostly working off knowledge from youtube videos and wikipedia.”

Jan stared at my face again. She blinked once, hard, then drained more of her beer.

“Heather, don’t take this the wrong way, but I’ve never seen anything quite like you before. You’re clearly human, there’s just … more of you.”

The unspoken question was a thorn in my throat.

But Jan didn’t inhabit her original body, either. Maybe she would understand.

“It’s very hard to explain exactly what happened to me,” I said. “I went somewhere else. Not Outside, but the … oh, I can’t explain it, even now. Human language can’t do it. I went to the place that all the bubbles of reality are floating in. Somewhere more real than reality. My physical body stayed here. And out there I was different. I was a different kind of being altogether. I was more perfect, faster, elegant. Unburdened. I was more … just more.”

I closed my eyes. Had to swallow hard.

The abyss always lurked at the edge of my consciousness, a constant flavour to my thoughts and memories, a lost perfection and beauty that haunted me every waking hour, every day, forever. Sometimes I would wake in the night from a dream of slipping through ice-cold waters in the endless dark, sharp and quick and clever. Baths were risky, always a temptation to float beneath the surface, submerged in water and memory alike. Sometimes I would cry, afterward.

I was anchored now, by Raine and Zheng and all my other worldly attachments. In an emergency I did not doubt that I could swim to the edge of the abyss, the lip of that metaphorical marine trench where I could perform hyperdimensional mathematics on the substrate of reality itself, rather than my own brain. Such a feat would be doable now, without the risk of sinking.

But the abyss in my blood and marrow called to the space between the spheres. Always, I would want to return.

On the canvas of my own eyelids, I tried to feel that perfection, but I couldn’t.

The others seemed to sense I was having a moment. Jan awkwardly patted my tentacle. A foot snuck up out of nowhere — Lozzie’s — and rubbed against my own.

I opened my eyes, blinking as if thrust into the light, back into the world of solid objects and warm flesh and strong smells. For just a second I felt horrible, rotten inside, a sloshing bag of meat and fluid. I shivered, but I forced myself to take a big mouthful of rice and vegetables, chewing and swallowing. Taste anchored me back in my body, firmly here again.

Jan cleared her throat. “If you need to stop … ”

I shook my head. “When I came back, my own body seemed completely wrong. Disgusting. Like I was never meant to be a bipedal ape at all, and certainly not … here.” I blew out a shuddering breath. “So I started to modify myself. That helped a lot, over time. I still feel it, this lingering wrongness in the back of my head, in the shape of my own body, but only sometimes, and nowhere near as bad as it used to be. The tentacles, they’re not an alien affectation or a solution to a physical problem or a cool experiment, or anything like that. They’re part of my body, they feel right to have. And I risked a lot to make them, too. I bruised myself very badly when I first started making them. I did internal damage to myself, tore muscles, risked internal bleeding. And all of it was worth doing. I would risk it again.”

My voice had grown thick with emotion. Jan nodded, genuinely fascinated.

“Thank you,” she said. “For sharing.”

Lozzie leaned over so she could pat my head. Jan took a thoughtful drag from her beer. I sniffed hard, then laughed without much humour.

“If you think the tentacles are impressive,” I said, “then you should see me when I’m ready for a fight, though I have no idea what to do. I can modify practically my whole body, though it’s very risky to do so in normal reality, I think.”

Jan blinked at me several times. Lozzie nodded enthusiastically and said, “Mmhmm! It’s true! I’ve seen it! Spiky spooky armoured Heather!”

“Well,” Jan said. “Well well well.” She gently squeezed my tentacle, just enough to gauge the weight of muscle. “How did you solve the energy problem?”

“The energy problem? I’m sorry?”

“Mm. Not to mention the processing power to control it all.” Jan smiled, took a bite of her food, and chewed thoughtfully. I could tell she was trying to find solid ground, to make a personal connection to what I’d just told her. Perhaps it was genuine, or perhaps it was the instincts of the con artist in her. She lifted her right hand and showed me the back of her palm. “Back when I first designed this body, I tried to do something analogous. Well, a little bit. I didn’t try for tentacles, but I wanted to do something with more arms. Two hearts. Thicker skin. A beak. I had a plan for larger joints, to give my own muscles more leverage. But as you can see.” She gestured wider with both hands, spreading out her fancy dressing gown too, showing off her petite form beneath lilac t-shirt and pink shorts. “I went for something more compact. Comfy and easy to wear. Something more me, which is really the most important consideration in the end.”

“And cute!” Lozzie chirped.

“And that.” Jan laughed, a little awkward, and blushed faintly before she caught herself again. “The notion that I would have been remotely comfortable in some improved-model human body was just absurd. Youthful idiocy. Too much science fiction as a kid. But, even discounting issues of physical dysphoria, it’s surprisingly difficult to add extra limbs or such, as a human being. You need the neurological set-up.” She gestured at July, who was sitting on the bed, watching us intently as she chewed her toasted meat. “Demons solve it via other methods. Their soul is closer to the surface, if that makes sense?”

“It doesn’t,” I admitted. “But never mind.”

Jan waved in apology. “Whereas you, you must have returned with the right set-up, from … wherever you went.”

“The abyss,” I said. “That’s what I call it.”

Jan winced in slow motion. “Lovely.”

I mirrored her wince. “Truth be told, there’s a strong possibility that the abyss was just a catalyst. I may have been this way from much earlier, though it’s very hard to explain why. My time in the abyss may have simply woken me up to my own nature, so to speak.”

I pulled an awkward smile. I didn’t feel like going into detail about my theory right then — my theory that the Eye had changed me, a decade before I’d plunged into the abyss. Jan didn’t need to know that part, it would scare her even worse, and it only raised further questions.

“Oh, absolutely,” she said. “I understand that, totally. Still, my question stands. You must be ravenous all the time, unless you’ve got a … power plant … ” She trailed off, staring at me. “Ah. Reactor, yes. You said it earlier.”

I forced an awkward little laugh and patted my lower abdomen. “Bioreactor. I don’t really understand how I made it. It runs on abyssal logic, abyssal physics and biology, but translated into human flesh. You’re right though, I had appetite problems before I made the reactor, to put it lightly.”

Jan blew out a long breath, then tried another smile, then took another hearty bite of rice and meat from her takeaway meal. I could practically see the slow transition from fascination and terror to ‘oh-well-none-of-my-business’. Where Evelyn would have stared and probed with professional awe, compiling a catalogue of supernatural facts, Jan wadded up the information about my miracle body and crammed it into the mental equivalent of an overflowing backpack.

“I think Heathy’s really really really really pretty,” Lozzie said. She tilted her head up and let her sleepy-lidded eyes fall even heavier than usual. “And she glows in the dark!”

Jan swallowed her food and blinked in polite interest. “I’m sure she does. And yes, Heather, your body is magnificently impressive. I hope you don’t take my questions as anything except admiration.”

“Um, thank you, yes, I … I suppose it probably is. Though it doesn’t feel that way.”

“It’s also bloody scary,” Jan’s smile turned stiff and forced, on purpose. “I hope you understand why I’m being so forward about this. About needing to understand your body?”

“Because of my twin sister,” I said.

Jan nodded, slow and serious. “Because of your twin sister.”

I took a deep breath and steadied myself. Jan watched me across the table and the two half-eaten boxes of food. In that moment she seemed both old and young at the same time, delicate in two different directions. She was serious in the way only a serious young girl can be, but overflowing with the experience of age. She watched, and waited, for me to make the first move. Was she being polite, or shrewd? Lozzie and July both declined the opportunity to interrupt. I could feel July’s gaze on me from over on the bed.

This was what I wanted, wasn’t it? I swallowed a hiccup.

“Will you do it?” I asked. “Will you make a body for her?”

Jan’s composure broke down instantly, without even a token attempt to hold out. Her entire self-image just slumped and sloughed off. She puffed out a huge sigh and almost rolled her eyes, sagging a little in her chair. “Payment has been agreed on, so I suppose I’m duty-bound to attempt it, at least. But I really, really do not like the idea.”

“Why?” I asked. “Not that I’m trying to make things better — I mean, I will, if I can. But mostly I need to understand. I need to understand the challenge here. Please. I need to know.”

Jan held my gaze for a moment with a sort of tilted non-smile on her face, then sighed and nodded. She took another big bite of greasy chicken and leaned back, adjusting the folds of her pink-and-blue dressing gown and crossing one delicate leg over the other. The doll-joint of her knee was fully exposed, as if she was intentionally showing it off.

“On one hand there is a technical problem,” she said, slipping into the practised tones of a used car salesman. I refrained from frowning. She was probably trying her best to take this seriously. “Or rather, several intertwined technical problems. On the other hand there is a philosophical problem.”

“Let’s start with the technical problem?”

Jan snorted a tiny laugh — that wasn’t part of the sales pitch. “I should charge a consultation fee.”

“I’ll pay it. I’m serious.”

Jan winced and raised a hand. “No, no, please. Don’t. That was a joke.” She took a moment, then slowly looked me up and down. “Your twin’s body would be based on you, correct? Identical twins? I think I asked you that before, but remind me.”

“We were identical, yes. Are identical.”

“Were?” Jan asked, sharper than I expected. “When?”

“Ten … eleven years ago, almost.” A lump grew in my throat. “That’s when she was kidnapped.”

“So she didn’t go through puberty?”

“Oh.” I blinked. “Um. I … uh, I suppose not. Unless she kept her body, out in—”

“Would she have squid tentacles by now as well?” Jan asked. “Or something else?”

“Um, probably not. It’s not the same situation. Well … it might be, but that’s complicated.”

“Complicated?” Jan prompted. When I looked at her blankly, she sighed and smiled, dropping the sharp edges and the sharp tongue. “Making a body like mine is not simply a matter of buying a life-sized doll from Amazon and then hopping over to it. I’m aware that’s how Evelyn made Praem — which is a fascinating subject, by the way, genuine achievement — but demons and humans don’t work the same. Demons can anchor themselves in almost anything, because they’re coming into this world without any pre-existing structures of the soul. For a human being, the process of crafting a body is also the process of inhabitation.”

I pulled a sceptical pout. “I don’t think it was too different for Praem.”

Jan waved a hand. “The end result is a person, yes, I’m not disputing that. But the route is different. Look, Heather, I can’t just craft a copy of you in the same way I made myself, and then expect your long-lost sister to just happily inhabit it. If she still has a physical body, what if she’s modified it, like you have, adapted her physical body to her internal circumstances? You can’t just rip her out of it and put her in a humanoid doll, that would be torture. I know, I know, I said this before, but the more I think about it, the less I like it.”

“Where she is now, that’s torture,” I said. I stared into Jan’s crystal-blue eyes. She was deadly serious, but so was I. “I’ve spoken to her, down in the abyss. I found a … a crack in the wall. That’s a metaphor, but it’s the only words I have for it. And she’s suffering. She wants out. If she stays there much longer, if I don’t rescue her, and soon, then she’ll cease to exist. There will be nothing left of her.”

Jan frowned harder and harder, uncomfortable with all of this.

“She begged me,” I said. “And I will bring her back here, with or without a body ready for her. So if you don’t help me, then I’ll do it myself.”

Jan held my gaze for a moment, then puffed out a big sigh and nodded. “All right. Fair enough.”

Lozzie set her food down on the desk and bounced out of her seat, so she could skip over and give me a hug. I was shaking, and Lozzie stayed there until I stopped. Then she let go and fluttered away to hug Jan as well. Jan cleared her throat with incredible awkwardness and returned the hug with one arm.

“If you do make a body for her,” I said, “it would be a back up option, or perhaps a kind of foundation for what I’m going to try to do.”

Jan had to poke her head around Lozzie’s poncho. “Explain?”

I bit my lip, wondering how much I should tell her. Too much about the Eye might send poor Jan screaming for the hills. “My sister, Maisie, she’s trapped by a … an entity. We call it the Eye.”

“Wonderful,” Jan muttered.

“Several months ago, I freed somebody else from the Eye.”

Jan’s eyebrows shot up. “Oh. Oh, well, that’s good. And here I was sort of taking you as a heroic type. No scouting, no prototypes. So you’ve actually done this once before, you’ve made it work?”

“Sort of. The person I saved, she’d only been in the Eye’s grip for a few hours. I brought her back and re-wove her body, but I think I could only do that because she still existed, sort of. I was just following the lines already imprinted on reality. Like a colouring book, but a human being.”

Jan looked more and more concerned as I explained. Lozzie patted her head, slowly floofing up her already messy black hair.

“And she didn’t come back healthy,” I said. “She was a mage, before. She’ll never do magic again. She suffers from terrible post-traumatic stress disorder and a laundry list of physical issues, some of which I’ve been trying to fix. But Maisie’s been gone much, much longer. I don’t think there’s going to be a body to re-create. But if I have a vessel to put her in, maybe that will give me something to work with. If we can make it her. Somehow.”

Jan nodded, lips pursed, brow furrowed. “That might actually work. That might actually solve the technical problem.”

“Oh?”

Jan waved a hand. Lozzie leaned over her chair from behind, draped over Jan’s shoulders.

“I got rather off-track earlier,” Jan said. “The process of creation is the process of inhabitation, that’s the important part. That’s why it’s so difficult to create a body for another person.” She hunched in her chair, looking mightily uncomfortable for a moment, and looked over her shoulder at Lozzie, self-conscious but steeling herself for some vital task. Lozzie booped her on the nose with a fingertip, which made Jan blush and clear her throat and look back to me. She finally carried on. “When I made this body for myself, I didn’t craft it and get it all nice and finished, and then leap into it once it was ready — well, actually I did, but I wasn’t supposed to.” She huffed. “The process of creating it was supposed to be the process of transference. There was meant to a long, slow period where I would have slid from my old form and into this new one, achieved via the act of creating this.” She poked herself in the chest. “Creation is inhabitation. You understand?”

“Ah,” I said. “I think I’m beginning to see the problem.”

“Only beginning to, trust me.” Jan pulled a sardonic look. Lozzie rested her head on Jan’s shoulder. “As things happened, my old body, um, died. Unexpectedly.”

“You were murdered,” said July.

Jan winced and rolled her eyes. “And whose fault was that?”

“You were careless. I was a child.”

Jan’s wince turned to a grimace. “Yes, well. I was murdered. Before this body was ready. Do you know what it was like?”

I felt vastly out of my depth. “Being murdered?”

“No, being in an unfinished body.” Jan tapped the table with an impatient fingertip, glanced at Lozzie on her shoulder again, as if for reassurance, then sighed and rolled her neck back. “Alright, you shared your physical secrets with me. It’s only fair turnabout that I do the same for you.”

“Oh,” I said. “No, please, you don’t have to.”

“Jannyyyyyyy,” Lozzie cooed, stroking Jan’s hair again. “You don’t have to if you don’t want to! Even to me!”

But Jan focused entirely on me, trying to look very serious, which was challenging with Lozzie’s fingers buried in her thick, dark, fluffy hair, slowly massaging her scalp, and Lozzie’s sleepy head resting on her shoulder.

Jan spread her own hands, as if presenting herself for my inspection.

“My body is mostly made of CFRP,” she said. “That’s carbon-fibre-reinforced polymers. Hand crafted by yours truly. Very expensive, but it keeps me light and durable and will last a long time. I’ve got some metal parts too, mostly platinum and gold. Inside me, in my core, there’s a bulletproof box, welded shut, which contains a sort of soul-trap, attuned to me personally. That’s how I got in here.” She frowned. “Though that makes it sound a lot more straightforward than it turned out to be.”

I frowned as well. My mind snagged on a detail.

“Ahhhh,” said Jan. “Questions, already?”

“Yes. I’m sorry, excuse me for being rude, but Jan, you’re a very … um, cautious person.”

“I am a self-confessed coward. You can say it. I don’t mind.”

Lozzie giggled. I winced. July said, “Correct.”

“But why?” I asked. “If your soul is contained in a bulletproof box, then … ?”

“I bleed,” Jan answered. “I bleed, I bruise, my bones will break. I breathe, I eat, I sleep, I shit. And if you shoot me in the head, the bullet will pulp my brains, and I will die.”

Lozzie made a pouty noise.

I frowned harder. “ … but you’re made of carbon fibre.”

“No, this body started as carbon fibre. Big difference. I’ve quite settled in by now. You’ve literally worked with spirit-flesh, you’ve got six limbs of it attached to your sides. You don’t understand this principle?”

A light bulb went on inside my head. “Like Praem … ”

The core of Praem’s body was made of wood, while her exterior was formed from a kind of pneuma-somatic flesh, similar to my tentacles and other abyssal additions, except hers was both solid and visible to normal sight, kind of like Twil’s werewolf transformation. But once, months ago now, I’d seen Praem’s wooden core itself, stripped naked of her flesh. Back when the Eye cult had kidnapped Raine, they’d managed to pull Praem out of her body. They had trapped her soul inside a jar. I didn’t have the best memories of that day; I’d been rather preoccupied with saving lives. But I did recall the sight of Praem’s wooden-doll core, covered in anchor-spikes and the web-like structures of a nervous system, her wooden joints augmented with sheaths of strange sinew-like material. The head of the doll — Praem’s skull — was covered in warped wood-grain, the underlying structure of her face. Or her brain.

“Excuse me?” Jan asked.

“Just something I saw once,” I said. “But I think I understand. Being present in a body, even if that body isn’t flesh, modifies it over time, yes?”

Jan nodded. “Exactly. The soul knows its own shape.”

I nodded with growing enthusiasm. I almost laughed. “That’s how it feels!”

“Old-school mind-body duality is nonsense. We’re taught that the mind — or soul — is the self, and the body is merely a vessel. But this is not true. People like you and I are proof of that.” Jan pointed at my tentacles. I felt a rush of warm fuzzy feeling in my chest, and hugged one of my extra limbs to myself. Jan carried on. “The soul remembers its own shape. And it will go to great lengths to reshape the body.” Jan raised her fingers and wiggled them in the air. I wasn’t sure if she was showing off her semi-visible doll-joints, or the sheer fact that she was. “My core is carbon fibre and metal, but I’m wrapped in pneuma-somatic flesh, manifested by sheer force of will and self-image and the engine of my soul. For somebody like me, the soul shapes the body. That’s how this works.”

“So you have a functioning digestive system, circulation, a heart, and so on?”

“Mostly.” Jan sighed. “It’s not a one-for-one for a ‘normal’ human body, but it does all the things I need it to do — the things my mind says it should do. I can’t go to the doctor, obviously. I’d look like a nightmare under an x-ray machine and an MRI would pull me to pieces. And I probably can’t get pregnant, though I’ve never tested that.”

Lozzie lit up, wide-eyed, biting her lips to stop a giggle. Jan cleared her throat.

“Then, Maisie could have a real body.”

I don’t recall the taste of food very well, but I think I want to eat.

Maisie’s words echoed in my memory. I had to blink hard, several times, so as to stop the tears before they had a chance to begin.

I didn’t need to cry anymore. This was what I needed. I was taking a concrete step to prepare for our success, to be ready for the moment we won my sister back from the Eye. It was going to work. Doing this, planning with Jan, this was far more convincing than any amount of reassurance.

“Eventually,” Jan said — hard and sharp, unexpected.

“Ah?”

“When I was … cut down,” Jan said, shooting a sideways glance at July, “I had to enter this new body prematurely. The soul works, yes, but my goodness does it work slowly. I spent two weeks on my back before I could move. A month with no senses, blind and deaf and mute. Even touch didn’t work properly. Have you ever been in a sensory deprivation tank? No? Well, after a while you start to go a little bit crazy. I didn’t have a face for six months.”

I put a hand to my mouth, mortified. “Oh. Oh, I’ve been so flippant. I’m so sorry, Jan.”

“Jannyyyy,” Lozzie buzzed, resting her cheek in Jan’s hair. Jan went a little stiff, but smiled all the same.

“Do you see why I’m reluctant to design a body for somebody else?”

“I do, yes. But—”

“But it’s going to be a foundation, a base, a platform for you to wrap in flesh, yes.” Jan nodded. “That’s why I think this might actually work. Depending on what’s become of your sister. She may have changed, out there, changed to survive.”

“Evee always says that nothing human can survive out there, not for long.”

Lozzie stood up straight and wiggled her eyebrows. “Hello!”

“Except Lozzie,” I said with a small laugh.

Jan pulled a comedy grimace and shrugged. “Humans can get used to anything, you know? Given enough time. I wonder if there’s people, I mean human people, living out there somewhere. Not in that dimension where you kept all your giant caterpillars and knights of the round table.”

“Camelot!” Lozzie announced.

July agreed. “Camelot,” she said. “Good name.”

Jan cringed at that. She didn’t approve. “Camelot, yes. Not in that dimension, but elsewhere, further out. There must be human beings out there, if people have been visiting it before you lot.”

I half-shrugged. “I met one human, Outside.”

Jan’s eye’s lit up. “Oh?”

“Well, a mage. I think that still counts. She lives in a giant ball, I’m not sure she can leave it, kind of like a snail. Actually, I’m pretty sure the giant ball prints her body every time she opens the shell to interact with people.”

“Oh,” Jan said, a mask of sudden frozen politeness. “Well then.”

I smiled awkwardly. She probably would have been happier not knowing about Saldis.

“She had magical pet rats, though. But I don’t think they were really rats. Long story. Sorry.”

Jan’s mask of polite rejection got more and more stony with every word I said. “Indeed,” was all she added.

“That’s the technical problem answered, then,” I said, feeling extra awkward. “You mentioned a philosophical problem, too?”

Jan blinked at me several times, lost. Lozzie giggled and kissed the top of Jan’s head, which made the petite mage jump slightly and struggle with a sudden blush.

“You did!” Lozzie chirped.

“I did? I … oh, that.” Jan relaxed in her chair, a visible unclasping of fasteners and slackening of mental springs. She sighed and let her professional exterior drop away. She reached for her beer bottle, shook it, and drained the last few mouthfuls in one deep swig. Big sigh, small belch. Lozzie giggled. Jan spoke. “I’ll be blunt, Heather: I shouldn’t really be associating with you people at all. I’m breaking all my own rules. If it wasn’t for Lozzie, and Tenny — who is just the most miraculous being I’ve ever seen — and maybe Praem, too, then I’d have left you all in the dust, with no forwarding address. Screw the money. I’d probably have left some choice booby-traps in my wake, as well, just to dissuade you from trying to find me.”

I tried to see the humour in all that. “We’re not that scary,” I said.

Jan frowned, delicate and sceptical. “I make it a policy never to associate with anybody who is suffering from an abundance of destiny and-slash-or fate.”

I actually laughed. “I’m not a chosen one. This isn’t destiny. I’m nobody remarkable, or at least I wasn’t, once upon a time. I was kidnapped by a giant alien god! It’s not my fault.”

“Kidnapped. Chosen.” Jan shrugged apologetically, then searched for another mouthful of beer, but came up short.

“I’m not a chosen one, that’s ridiculous.” My voice turned sharp. “You can’t say that to somebody like me.”

I didn’t explain why. Jan didn’t need to know about the long, painful decade of illusory schizophrenia diagnosis.

“Really?” Jan shot me a look like a bitchy schoolgirl about to land a conversational coup de grace. “You’re looking to save a twin sister who might not have a body of her own, and you happen to run into the one mage in England — hell, maybe the one mage in the entire world — who just so happens to possess the right experience and skills to make a body for her?” Jan lifted a hand again and showed off the joints of her fingers. “And you tell me you’re no chosen one. Excuse me if I have trouble believing your own self-assessment.”

“That … that’s just … coincidence. Luck. There’s not many mages, after all.”

“Yes, yes,” Jan sighed. “We’re drawn to each other, inevitably. Regardless, it doesn’t matter if this is the work of divine providence or the action of random atoms, you are still a very dangerous person to know, Heather Morell.”

I opened my mouth to argue, but found that I couldn’t. “Um … ”

“You’re planning to raid a god’s dungeon for the life of your twin sister. That is the stuff legends are made of, and I have had enough of that, thank you very much.”

I almost missed it, but Jan glanced sidelong at the guitar case leaning against the wall, the one that contained the magic sword which she and July had declined to explain further. July, on the other hand, looked almost unimpressed by this statement.

“Legends are cool!” Lozzie chirped.

Jan raised her empty beer bottle in a lonely toast. “To witness titanic events is always dangerous, usually painful, and often fatal.” The words had an air of recitation about them.

“That sounded like a quote,” I said. “Who was that from?”

“A very cautious being indeed,” Jan answered. “I should be running for the hills. I should be getting as far away from Sharrowford as possible. I should be on a flight to Tibet, days ago. But I’m here, agreeing to help you.”

Behind Jan, Lozzie stuck her tongue out between her teeth, mischievous and elfin. Over on the bed, July folded her arms, closed her eyes, and nodded. It seemed as if everybody in Jan’s life was glad she wasn’t running away.

“And I can’t thank you enough,” I said. “Thank you, for agreeing to try, to make a body for Maisie. I mean it, Jan, thank you.”

Jan fixed me with a sceptical look. “Yes, well. I’ll have to negotiate an actual price for making the body. Materials, work hours. Like I said, I’m top-of-the-line expensive. Carbon fibre is not cheap. I’ll need tools, and my workshop, my real one, at home. Which means I can’t start until we’ve wrapped up this nonsense with your cult friends in Sharrowford.”

“We’ll get that fixed. I’m sure they’ll listen to me.”

“And I’m not going with you on this heist nonsense, to this big eye, or whatever it is. You couldn’t pay me enough to even watch from a distance.”

“I’m going!” Lozzie said, grabbing Jan’s shoulders and leaning forward, so they could make eye contact. “I’m going to help! With all my catties!”

Jan pulled the most awkward of smiles, but she couldn’t break eye contact with Lozzie, held in place like a rodent before a snake.

“Before we do any of that, we’re going to fight a mage,” I said, coming to Jan’s rescue. “Or at least outsmart him and steal his property.”

“Yes!” Jan turned to me, with both horror and relief. Lozzie bounced back up and giggled again. “Yes you are. I don’t like the sound of that, either.”

“You’ve seen this kind of conflict before, correct?” I pulled a pained and apologetic face. “I don’t suppose you happen to have any advice?”

“I certainly do,” Jan said. “You want my advice for conflict between mages? Don’t. That’s my advice.”

“We don’t have a choice,” I said. “It’s that, or hand Lozzie over to him. So, not a choice at all.”

“We’re going to kill him,” said a small voice — barely a whisper. “Kill him.”

It took both of us a moment to absorb the shock; Lozzie had said that.

For a moment she stood there, still half-attached to Jan, but staring at me with sleepy-lidded eyes, deadly serious, only half-there, as if half her mind lay across the membrane. Dream-Lozzie stood in the room with us, whispering of murder.

July nodded. “A sensible course of action, with any enemy. We should approve.”

Jan stood up without hesitation and grabbed Lozzie in a hug, awkward but insistent. Her pastel dressing gown flowed after her. “Lozzie, I’m sorry we’re talking about this. Sorry, we shouldn’t do this in front of you.”

Lozzie blinked several times, like a sleep walker waking up. She let out a giggle and cuddled Jan in return.

“It’s okay,” she purred, nuzzling Jan’s shoulder. “It’s okaaaaaaay.”

Things rather trailed off after that. Jan and I silently agreed it was best not to discuss Edward around Lozzie; if Jan had any further suggestions for dealing with mages, she could always call us. I hoped she would, we needed all the help we could get. We’d already discussed the most important subjects, the reasons I came to see her in the first place, so I was content to allow us to relax a bit. She and I could figure out details later, over the phone. I promised to relate the relevant bits to Evelyn.

July seemed like she wanted to make some pointed suggestions to Lozzie, about Edward and murder, but Jan headed her off with some sharp looks.

We finished up our food. Jan and Lozzie ended up on the video game console, playing some kind of racing game against each other. Lozzie wasn’t very good, but Jan was teaching her. I settled in to watch for a while, half-interested. On the other side of the heavy curtains, the sun burned late. True evening was still a while off.

I felt better than I had in several weeks. We were going to build a body for Maisie. I could do this.

Eventually, it was time to go home. Lozzie and Jan conducted some half-whispered, semi-embarrassed negotiations about Lozzie possibly staying the night, but Jan eventually convinced her that would have to wait. I pretended not to overhear any of it. July watched openly, staring at the pair of them.

As Lozzie hugged Jan goodbye for now — and skipped over to July to do the same, despite the demon host being stiff and awkward as a board — I sent Raine a quick text message. I let her know we were on our way home. Just in case.

“Janny Janny, come see you again tomorrow, yah-yah?” Lozzie chirped. She bounced over to me and hit me with a hug too, as I was slipping my phone back into my pocket.

Jan laughed softly, then cleared her throat. “Certainly. Any time. You don’t always have to bring Heather, though. Um, no offense, Heather.”

“None taken,” I said. And I meant it.

Lozzie and I stepped back from the table together, to ensure a safe Slipping distance. She linked her arm through mine, warm and wiggly all up my side. I wrapped my tentacles around her in return. She snuggled in close.

“One more piece of advice though, Heather,” Jan said, pulling her dressing gown closed around herself. “Go talk to your Evee. You clearly need to.”

I opened my mouth to argue, then closed it again, then sighed through my nose. “No comment.”

Lozzie giggled. “I’ll pester Heathy reeeeeal hard!”

“Lozzie!” I squeaked.

“Bye-bye for now, Janny!”

Jan waved with one hand. July nodded politely. Lozzie did a funny little hop in place, and reality folded shut.

==

Crash landing.

Like being clipped by a lorry at ninety miles an hour as we came out of the Slip. My feet found carpet but I couldn’t stay standing, not this time. Pneuma-somatic whiplash jarred my soul inside my flesh, slamming me up against the interior of my own body, compressing me into a winded, wheezing animal.

Fell over, crumpled onto my side. Tentacles whipping out to fight off an imaginary foe, knocking over chairs, pulling at sofa cushions, toppling an end-table, then clenching in tight when they found nobody to rip apart. I heaved and squeezed and held in the contents of my stomach with force of will alone. Jan’s words gave me strength; I was the absolute master of my own body.

Bioreactor running hot — even hotter than the first time. Skin coated with cold sweat, shivering with a flash-fever, fighting off infection, invasion, violation.

“Lozzie?” I croaked from the floor. “Again?”

No reply. No Lozzie. Again.

It was the smell that clued me in, before I opened my eyes. The room smelled of dust, old fabric, and unfamiliar cleaning agents.

This was not home.

I opened my eyes and scrubbed away the pain-tears on my sleeve. This was no time for curling up in agony. I pushed with my tentacles, forced myself to my feet, legs shaking.

Lozzie’s Slip had deposited me in a place I’d never seen before.

A cramped sitting room, with a low ceiling, and white plaster walls. Faint cobwebs in the corners. Two sofas, one chair, all upholstered in ghastly floral patterns. A massive television in one corner, old and unplugged from the wall. Wooden mantelpiece covered in horrible little porcelain figures of cherub-faced children. Unused brick fireplace. Glass coffee table.

On the table was a folded sheet of paper, a note. Three words.

To Heather Morell.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Heather can’t avoid the question of Evelyn’s feelings any longer, even if those feelings are quasi-romantic, or platonic but close, or something else??? Or can she? She’s done great at avoiding the subject so far. Meanwhile, Jan’s body sure is unique, seems like there’s more to her than meets the eye; but she might be right, between her and Heather they might just be able to lay the groundwork for a body for Maisie. But what’s this? A letter, for Heather?

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Next week, where the hell is Heather now? Let’s be honest, it’s probably Edward, right? But why a note with her name on it? Does Heather need to tentacle-slap a motherfucker? Probably.

pale student of unhallowed arts – 17.4

Content Warnings

Bodily dysphoria.



Previous Chapter Next Chapter

This was not the first time Lozzie and I had been separated by a Slip gone wrong.

When Lozzie had rescued me from Wonderland, months earlier, she’d snatched me from right beneath the Eye’s gaze, albeit briefly blocked by the daring and dutiful sacrifice of one of her shining Knights. I had never forgotten the courage that must have required — courage, or madness, or a bit of both. But as we’d punched back through the membrane to our own reality, the pressure of that singular, vast attention from the Eye had ripped Lozzie and I away from each other. Perhaps her late brother’s lingering shade had helped knock us off course.

Whatever the true cause or catalyst on that fateful day, Lozzie had successfully transported herself to Number 12 Barnslow Drive, while I’d been left adrift, unconscious, spat out somewhere not of our intention or design, dredged from Outside by barbed hooks and caught by bold poachers. I’d woken up in the clutches of the nascent Eye cult; or the shattered, ragged remains of the Sharrowford cult, depending on how one saw their situation.

And here I was again. A Slip had gone wrong. No Lozzie. Alone, by myself, in a strange and unknown place.

Well, alone in a nice-looking hotel corridor. Rich green carpet and tasteful cream-coloured wallpaper, all modern and clean and tidy, welcoming and non-threatening. It was really quite nice. Even managed to overpower my usual distaste for modern interiors.

I wasn’t handcuffed to a radiator in a bare concrete room, crusted with my own blood and vomit. I wasn’t under the watchful, dead eyes of seven feet of enslaved zombie muscle. I wasn’t dazed and confused and shaking with horror at one of the worst experiences of my life, re-exposure to the Eye. I wasn’t sobbing for my lost twin.

Trauma didn’t care about any of that.

I tried to whisper, but I could barely get air through my throat. “Lozzie … ”

For a heartbeat I was back there in Glasswick tower, helpless and confined and lost. I thought I’d processed that experience. I’d won, I’d escaped and saved my friends and all that was in the past. But the echo of fresh terror clawed up my throat and roiled in the pit of my stomach. My teeth chattered. My knees threatened to give out. I started to cringe, to curl up, to listen to that urge to cram myself into a corner and strangle my sobbing, lest something out there might hear, and come looking for the prey I was always destined to be.

But only for a heartbeat.

Fight-or-flight settled firmly on an answer.

I was not the terrified, quivering girl I’d been this time last year, or even a few months back. That Heather, the older me, she rested deep in my heart, safe and sound, swaddled in cotton wool and care. She didn’t have to be afraid anymore, not of this. I had swum through the abyss, I had duelled with post-human magicians, and I had taken tea in Carcosa with the King in Yellow. I was sharp and quick and I was loved.

Abyssal instinct reared up inside me, a many-headed hydra making ready for instant violence. Adrenaline poured into my veins. Cold sweat broke out across my skin, sticking my t-shirt to my back. My bioreactor hummed hot in my belly. All six pneuma-somatic tentacles fanned out to fill the corridor from wall to wall, reaching wide and strobing bright, ready to grab the first figure to emerge from one of the hotel room doors, ready to pop limbs out and rip heads off.

This time there would be no hostage situation, no cold threats in a concrete box, no negotiation.

A hiss tore up my throat, low and threatening.

Fuck off and die! Come get me! Here I am!

I’m not usually a violent person, believe it or not, considering some of the things I’ve done. But in that moment I fully believe that I was ready to kill the next person I saw, human being or demon-host or anything else. They — whoever they were in this context, my irrational displaced fear-rage wasn’t quite sure — they had taken Lozzie, or tried to take me, they were going to burst through the very nice cream-coloured wallpaper or step out from the lift at the end of the corridor with a gun, or maybe appear behind me and call me Lavinia. My skin itched with the threat of warning colouration and bio-toxin, bubbling with pneuma-somatic potential. Another few seconds and I would have sprouted spines, plated myself with chitin armour, and probably howled like a deep-sea leviathan.

One of the cream-yellow doors halfway down the corridor swung open. Twenty feet away, perhaps. I readied myself to spring and scratch and sting.

Lucky the door wasn’t closer, in retrospect.

A young man stepped out of the hotel room. Mid-twenties perhaps, only a few years older than me, slim and tallish in an awkward sort of way. He had a scraggly little goatee on his chin, and long dark hair pulled into an absolutely awful looking ‘man-bun’ on the back of his head, as Raine later informed me was the proper name for such a hairstyle. He was in a clean shirt and pressed trousers, nothing out of the ordinary, carrying a tote bag over one shoulder. He started fussing with his key card, to lock the hotel room door behind him.

He glanced down the corridor and did a double-take in my direction. We made eye contact. Just a second, a fleeting moment.

The young man averted his eyes, swallowed with no small difficulty, and concentrated very hard on checking his door was locked.

I didn’t pounce, or hiss, or even call out to him. Instead, I felt very embarrassed indeed. Realisation was a bucket of cold water dumped on my anger and adrenaline.

He’d looked away like that because he was worried he’d just made eye contact with a crazy person.

Regular human beings couldn’t see my tentacles all flared-out and ready to fight, but you didn’t need to be a supernatural creature to see that I was caked in cold sweat, shaking with adrenaline, and bug-eyed with murderous intent. I’d just terrified some random hotel patron leaving his room. We were both very lucky his door wasn’t any closer to me, or I would have picked him up with my tentacles and slammed him against the wall the moment he’d emerged.

Mister Man-bun, bless his terrible hairstyle, patted his tote bag and hurried down the corridor toward the lift. He was very careful not to look back at the gorgon behind him. He pressed the lift call button, stood there awkwardly for about two seconds, then pressed it twice more. I saw his head twitch as he barely resisted the urge to check I wasn’t creeping toward him. Then he thought better of waiting, and hurried down the stairs instead.

I let out a long, shuddering breath as reason dripped back, pressing a hand to my chest. I even pulled my tentacles in, though only halfway.

This was a hotel corridor. Almost a public place. I was surrounded by entirely ordinary daily noises of human habitation, soft voices and the hum of a television and even the distant rumble of traffic outdoors. Anybody might step out of one of these rooms, and none of them had anything to do with me. That random man I’d just scared might be about to tell the front desk there was some crazy girl upstairs, having a panic attack in the corridor, wearing no shoes.

The Slip had gone wrong, but I wasn’t the one who’d been snatched.

With shaking hands, I fumbled my mobile phone out of my pocket, praying as I jabbed at the contact list.

I called Lozzie and held the phone to my ear. “Please please—” hic— “please—”

Click.

“Lozzie?!” I fought to keep my voice down. “Lozzie, are you—”

“Heathy!”

Lozzie. Bright and bouncy, not terrified. The relief was too much. I almost sat down on the floor right there.

“Lozzie, what just happened? Where are you? Are you safe? Right now, where are you?”

“I’m in Jan’s room!” Lozzie chirped, like nothing was wrong. “Heathy, where are you?”

I blinked up and down the corridor, at the rows of cream-yellow doors. My head felt numb. “In a … a hotel hallway. Um.”

With a familiar squeak, a delicate thump, and a loud clack, one of the doors at the rear end of the corridor flew open, bouncing off its doorstop with a rubbery boink. I flinched and turned, tentacles flaring out wide, a hiss in my throat. I was still on edge and ready to fight, if I was wrong.

Lozzie bounced out into the corridor, sideways on one foot, carried by her own momentum, pastel poncho flapping along with her.

She lowered the phone from her ear and spread her arms. The poncho flapped upward. “There you are!”

Numb all over and shaking with an adrenaline crash, I tripped down the corridor toward her, shaking my head in confusion. She gave me a quick little hug when we met, squeezing me hard. She took one of my tentacles in hand, to gently but firmly lower it from the lingering threat-display position. She didn’t need to bother; I lashed two tentacles around her, as if she might vanish without an anchor.

“Lozzie.” I squeezed her arms as she peeled back from me. “Lozzie, what … what happened, I … I don’t … ”

“Come come!” Lozzie pulled me by the hands. “Come in, come in, Heathy. Inside Heathy, inside time, talk inside — inside!”

I allowed Lozzie to half-steer half-drag me into the hotel room, my fears and adrenaline soothed by the fact she was not lost to the tides and time of Outside, or to the devious plans of her uncle, or random chance imposed by a cold and uncaring universe. She stayed hand-in-hand with me as she scurried inside as well, past the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign hanging on the room’s door handle. She got the door properly locked and closed behind us, throwing the latch and hooking the safety chain in place.

Jan was sitting on the nearest of a pair of twin beds, staring at me with wide-eyed alarm. Of course, she could see my tentacles perfectly well.

“ … hi,” I croaked.

“Heather. Hello,” she said, her delicate voice formal and tight. “My goodness, you look like you’ve just seen an entire chorus of ghosts.”

I didn’t know much about hotel rooms — all my home-away-from-home experiences were with children’s mental hospitals, and no matter how welcoming those tried to appear, they could never be home. But even I could tell that this hotel room was on the nicer side. To be fair, even the worst dump of a hotel would have been a step up from the rotten, ancient bedsit that Jan and July had been using as a temporary safe-house when we’d found them.

All cream and soft yellows on the walls and curtains, accented with cheap ply-board wood dressed up in dark colours to make it look like oak. A pair of single twin beds occupied pride of place, complete with a headboard built into the wall. The sheets on the furthest bed were smooth and tight with military precision, every wrinkle removed, the pillows gone as well. The nearest bed, where Jan currently sat cross-legged, looked like it hadn’t been made in over a week, and seemed to boast all the pillows from the other bed as well, piled up as if to seat a very fussy princess.

The room boasted a desk with a mirror, a tiny little table with a pair of functional but comfortable chairs, a miniature fridge that worried me for a moment — was it full of alcohol? — and a tiny kitchenette with two burner rings, a built-in microwave, and a toaster bolted to the worktop. Jan and July had evidently made themselves at home there, because the little bin was overflowing with food wrappers, takeaway cartons, and empty coffee cups.

The entrance had a little rectangular area of polished wooden floorboard, so you could remove your shoes without dirtying the carpet. It was currently occupied by a pair of massive boots — July’s, I assumed — and Jan’s neat little pink trainers. Very civilized, I thought. Pity Lozzie and I weren’t wearing any shoes.

An open door led off to the left, showing clean white bathroom tiles beyond. I could see the corner of one fluffy towel. A single window dominated the far wall, currently covered by heavy curtains. Bright, blazing sunlight crept around the edges. Air conditioning hummed from two overhead vents, keeping the room soft and cool while the world baked outdoors. I wasn’t used to that, not at all.

How very mage-appropriate, shutting out the sun.

Our mage friend and her athletic demon had made themselves at home in other ways too. I spotted the sword-carrying guitar case propped up by the window. Jan’s massive white coat was draped over a chair, swallowing it whole, though I could see various other practical garments on the seat of that chair, with straps and holsters and what I later realised was the corner of a military-style flak jacket. Jan’s pink tote bag lay on the desk, spilling out books and odds and ends of clothing and a small make-up pouch. A large rucksack and a massive sports bag sat on the floor near the end of the beds, doing the luggage impression of a dead animal in the process of being gutted; clothes lay about as if dragged from the bags by smaller scavengers. A laptop stood open on the little table, showing a youtube video of a cartoon horse. Other detritus lay all over the place: a phone charger cable, a couple of notebooks, an abandoned bra. They’d hooked some kind of game console up to the hotel television; I think I recognised it as one of the kind Evelyn kept saying we should get for Tenny.

On the inside of the front door was a magic circle.

Plain black, drawn in pen, on a piece of white A3 paper, held up with sticky tape. Three circles of descending size, like ripple-rings, connected by jagged lines and surrounded by snippets of a language that I recognised after a moment, though I couldn’t read a word of it — Vietnamese. The magic didn’t stir any nausea in my gut, but the triple-circle design made me feel like I was staring into a tunnel, a tube that reached into a white void of infinite space. A whine started on the edge of my hearing.

Jan cleared her throat. The whine cut out. “Wouldn’t stare at that for too long, if I were you.” I could hear the wince in her voice. “Not that it’s dangerous. Not exactly. Just uncomfortable. You know.” She cleared her throat again. “I’m just being polite, of course, you can do whatever you want.”

Lozzie pulled me away from the door and pulled my attention away from the magic circle. I allowed her to guide me out onto the thick sea-green carpet, our socks sinking into the fabric. I held on to her hand, unwilling to let go, and kept two of my tentacles wrapped around her like a squid in a strong current, lashed to a rock. One wrapped around her shoulders, the other about her waist.

She cooed to me. “Heathy, Heathy it’s okay, it’s okaaaay.”

I shook my head, still trying to gather myself. “Lozzie, stop. Stop, please. What just happened? What was that? How did we get … separated?”

From the nearest of the two beds, Jan cleared her throat delicately, a third time. “I feel as if I should be the one asking that, seeing as this is currently my temporary home. Well, sort of. In a way. A bit.”

Jan cast her eyes up and around, at the meagre surroundings of her hotel room. She hooked her hands under her folded legs and rocked backward. She still looked extremely worried. Her eyes quickly returned to me and the threat-posture halo of my tentacles, strobing bright and screaming with warning colouration in a rainbow of toxic potential.

She was dressed as if she’d been lounging around in bed all day, or perhaps transferring herself between bed and desk, between working and napping, or watching youtube videos and napping. She had little black socks on her feet and pink shorts on her hips, leaving her slender legs bare to the conditioned air, and bare to the gaze of anybody who cared to pay attention to the just-visible tell-tale lines of doll-joints on her knees. She wore a loose lilac t-shirt beneath the most fancy dressing gown I’d ever seen — gauze-thin, probably not silk but something approximate, tie-dyed in spirals of pastel blue and pink on a background of white. It floated out whenever she moved, giving the impression of a particularly delicate butterfly thinking about taking to the air. I doubted very much that it had come from the hotel bathroom.

I could just about see the doll-joints of her wrists and elbows through the thin fabric, fully on display. Warm, soft, human-looking flesh terminated in sudden artificial joints. So much like Praem. I did my best not to stare.

Jan looked so very petite and compact, wrapped in that big dressing gown. Her messy bob of thick black hair was even messier than usual. And her pneuma-somatic eyes of storm-blue crystal were ringed with anxiety as she stared at me. She was pale all through.

I cleared my throat and did what I could to reel my tentacles in. Terrifying somebody my own size made me feel bad. I wasn’t a monster.

“Thank you,” she added quickly. “So, what was that all about? What’s going on? Do I need to prepare for men with guns to burst through the door? Because I can do that, in a pinch, but I’d rather not ruin my new clothes, and also it’ll piss off the hotel management.”

I let out a big sigh. “No, it’s not that kind of problem. Lozzie, what just happened?”

“Nothing!” Lozzie chirped, dancing forward a few steps on the carpet and patting my tentacles around her waist. She shook her head, confused but not distressed, biting her bottom lip. “Nothing happened! I got here and you were already out!”

Jan snorted delicately behind one hand. “I think we’re all out, here.”

Lozzie giggled. I shot Jan a look. “This is no time for gay jokes.”

“If there’s no emergency, then it’s always time for gay jokes. Is this seriously not an emergency? Lozzie seemed very distressed and now you seem very distressed. When powerful people get distressed, I get distressed. Please, what is happening?”

“We got … separated. During the Slip. The teleport thing we can do. That shouldn’t happen. Lozzie, what was that? Did you feel anything? Something pull us apart? Anything at all?”

Lozzie didn’t answer right away. She bit her lip and furrowed her brow, small and intense. At least she was taking this seriously rather than brushing it off. I took some basic relief from that.

“Normal,” she said eventually. “Regular. No push, no pull, no evil spooky hands. I promise, nothing touched us! It felt normal.”

I glanced around the hotel room, then back at the magic circle on the inside of the door.

Could this be Jan’s doing?

Perhaps the Slip hiccup was the result of a trap she’d laid for Lozzie and me. Maybe she’d intended to peel me off, then entrap Lozzie while she was alone and beyond my help. But her plan had failed, so Jan was acting scared to cover for her mistake. The failure would already have her terrified. I knew she was frightened of me, of us, so acting alarmed and worried wouldn’t be too much of a leap. She could draw on her real emotions to make it believable.

“Um,” Jan said when I stared at her. She raised her eyebrows. “Yes?”

“Heathyyyyyy,” Lozzie whined.

“Where’s July?” I asked.

Jan didn’t answer for a second. I didn’t blame her; I was standing there with my tentacles ready to whip her off the bed and slam her to the floor, though I didn’t know it myself at the time. I was bristling like a cornered animal. I’d just asked her Where’s your back-up? while looming over her, ready to inflict terrible violence.

She glanced at Lozzie. “A little help, please?”

Lozzie did a side-to-side flap with her head and her poncho, like a jolly little jellyfish adjusting her position in a column of seawater. Then she flounced across the last few steps separating her from Jan. She crawled onto the bed beside Jan and leaned into her, so that her pastel poncho and Jan’s matching dressing gown were momentarily one and the same.

I kept a tentacle wrapped firmly around Lozzie’s waist, like a life-line. Jan eyed it with open anxiety.

“It’s okay, it’s okay!” Lozzie purred to her. “Mmhmm, mmhmm!”

“If you say so.” Jan swallowed hard. “If you must know, July is currently in the hotel pool. Downstairs. She likes to swim. Doesn’t get much opportunity, so she’s been doing it every day we’re here.” She wet her lips with a delicate flicker of pink tongue. “Excuse me, Heather, but you are scaring the shit out of me. Please stop.”

I turned my head to look back at the little wooden entrance area. I stared at July’s boots for a couple of seconds, then back to Jan again.

Then I hiccuped, loudly and painfully, because I could barely keep this up. I wasn’t good at intimidation.

Jan disagreed. She hurried to explain. “July owns more than one pair of shoes. You’ve seen her in different shoes, I’m almost certain of that. Don’t beat me up over misplaced shoes.”

“Heathy,” Lozzie added in a whine. “It’s okay! It’s Jan!”

But I couldn’t let it go, not yet. “What about your pockets?”

Jan tilted her head very slightly, giving me a you-can’t-be-serious sort of look. “I can’t prove a negative. July is downstairs. She’s not in one of my pockets.”

As if to demonstrate her point, Jan reached out with her left hand and dragged her fingertips through the air. They vanished for a split second, swallowed by the invisible curtain of exotic matter, and returned holding a pink ball, just smaller than Jan’s fist. I almost flinched, because I assumed she was going to throw it at me. But then she squeezed the ball, compressing it in one hand as she blew out a long breath.

“A stress ball?” I asked.

Jan smiled, sweet and curdled. I got the impression she very much wanted to throw the ball at me.

Adrenaline and anxiety and abyssal instinct were making me paranoid. Jan was terrified of us, terrified of me. She wouldn’t have tried something like this. I blew out a deep breath as well, finally letting go of Lozzie and forcing my tentacles in. I flexed both my hands, trying to fight down the adrenaline.

“Sorry,” I said. “I’m sorry, Jan. I … I don’t know what just happened, that’s all. It’s upsetting me.” I gestured back at the magic circle on the inside of the door. “What is that magic circle? Or, no, don’t answer that, I’m sorry. I’m not a mage, I wouldn’t understand. What does it do, in simple terms?”

Jan put her hands up. “It’s a basic ward to keep out servitors and the like. Look, I had nothing to do with this.”

“Jan can’t stop me!” Lozzie chirped from her side, nodding so hard she bounced on the bed. Jan looked mildly jarred by this. “Or you!”

“Too right,” Jan added. “And I wouldn’t seek to, either. You lot can come and go as you please, that’s your business. I certainly couldn’t stand in your way.” She gave a nervous little laugh. “I don’t even really understand how Lozzie comes and goes.”

I put one hand on my abdomen, through the fabric of my pink hoodie, feeling the fading heat of my bioreactor.

“Lozzie, when I arrived out there in the corridor, my reactor was going crazy. Like I was fighting off an infection, or an attack, or something. I don’t know what, but something happened that wasn’t done by us.”

“Reactor?” Jan echoed, frowning like I’d said loose tarantula.

“Um, never mind. I have extra organs, it’s a long story.”

“Okaaaay then. Okay.”

Lozzie was biting her lower lip again. She looked sort of sheepish, like she wanted to duck behind Jan. “I think I did a whoopsie,” she said in a small voice. “Heathy Heathy, it must have been all me! I went too fast and I was too happy to get here so I didn’t pay attention and it must have been me. I’m sorry. Okay? Okay.”

Jan shrugged, adjusting her tie-dye pastel dressing gown around her shoulders. “Makes sense to me. People sometimes trip when walking, don’t they?”

I shook my head. “Lozzie, let’s not Slip home. We don’t know what that was.” I fumbled with my mobile phone, trying to navigate to Raine’s number with clammy fingers. “I’ll call Raine, she can drive over in the car, pick us up instead. Jan, where are we, where is this?”

“Heather!” Lozzie puffed her cheeks out.

“Jan?” I repeated.

Jan glanced uncomfortably between me and Lozzie. She kneaded the stress ball in both hands. “Please don’t put me in the middle.”

“Heathy, it’s fine!” Lozzie chirped, rocking on the bed. “We’re fine! All I did was make a mistake! Look, watch, I’ll do it right now and it’ll all be fiiiiine!”

Before I could gather my wits and my muscles to launch myself at her, Lozzie bounced to her feet on the bed, hopped back from Jan, and leaped into the air.

She vanished.

“Lozzie!” I almost screamed. Jan had to duck and cover to avoid my whirling tentacles, whipping through the air where Lozzie had vanished, as if I could pluck her from the membrane. “ … Lozzie? Lozzie, for pity’s sake.”

But of course, Lozzie wasn’t there to answer. Just me and Jan, alone in a hotel room.

Jan cleared her throat and pulled an incredibly awkward smile. I squeezed my own ribcage with both arms, terrified that Lozzie wasn’t going to come back.

After a long, uncomfortable moment, Jan said, “She is irrepressible, isn’t she?”

I heard the affection in her tone, but couldn’t process the meaning. I just stared at her, head going numb, then hiccuped loudly. “Sorry?”

“Lozzie, I mean. It’s quite endearing, but living with her must be a handful.”

I squeezed my eyes shut. “If she’s gotten lost or kidnapped again … ”

Again?”

“That’s another long story. She hasn’t told you?”

Jan shook her head, trying to look casual, but I could tell she was burning up inside with curiosity. “She’s told me some things about herself, her life. Her brother and all that, I assume? She never used the word kidnapping, though.”

“It’s not my place to say.” I squeezed the words out through a closing throat. Lozzie had been gone for thirty seconds, longer than I expected, longer than I could stand. I looked down at my phone again, fumbling for Raine’s number. “Lozzie, Lozzie you idiot, you irresponsible—”

“Boo!” went Lozzie.

She jumped out from behind the bathroom door, flapping her poncho out wide like a bird doing a mating display.

“Ah!” Jan lit up. She did a little round of applause. “Well done!”

Lozzie took a bow, then did a curtsey, then performed a sort of wiggly tumble over toward the bed. I was so overpowered by relief that I had to sit down. I barely recalled Lozzie flapping over and pulling out one of the plastic chairs for me, or the feeling of thumping down into it, or her brief but heartfelt hug. She danced back again, smiling with pride, a little bit smug.

“See?! Slippery-slips all lickey-split, not a problem within sight! All I did was make a mistake, Heathy! Please don’t make a big deal about it! Even Lozzies mess up sometimes.”

She trailed off and bit her lip. I nodded along and muttered an apology. Lozzie had Slipped, gone there and back, and everything was fine. If somebody — Edward — was trying to kidnap her, then they would have taken her while she was alone, ricocheting off the membrane like a pink-and-blue pinball. Nobody was trying to snatch Lozzie during a Slip; nobody could except me, anyway. As far as I knew, there was nobody else like us. I took deep breaths and massaged my forehead, feeling the tension flow out of my muscles.

Edward wanted Lozzie, but he hadn’t tried to snatch her just now. My mistake. My paranoia.

But one hand strayed to my abdomen. I gnawed on the memory of that burning sensation, of my bioreactor running hot. What had caused that? It was quiet again now, back to normal. But I’d felt that. The reality of my body could not be denied.

Lozzie perched on the edge of the bed and flopped backward, lying down next to Jan, amid the jumble of covers. Jan gave me an awkward smile. “Well, this certainly wasn’t the afternoon I had planned. This makes the second time you’ve burst into my room and threatened me, you know that?”

“I’m sorry,” I sighed. “I’m … protective, of Lozzie. We all are.”

“Mm. No hard feelings, not for that. Um … yes.” Jan cleared her throat, awkward in a very different way.

When I looked up, I found that Lozzie had draped one lazy arm and part of her poncho over Jan’s hip and thigh. Her slender, pale hand rested on Jan’s bare knee, directly on the doll-joint. Jan met my eyes, blushing faintly, trying not to acknowledge her position. I studied Jan for a moment, her petite form beneath her gauzy dressing gown, the faintly visible doll-joints on her arms and legs, her fluffy hair and delicate facial features. Quite a form to choose, if one had the opportunity to engineer and design one’s own body. I watched the colour growing in her cheeks, and the shift of her eyes with their infinite blue depth, like watching a shining sea from orbit.

Jan wet her lips with a dart of pink tongue. “Oh dear,” she said. “Am I about to get scolded?”

I took a moment to gather my thoughts, but found I had misplaced several of them. “ … uh, scolded?”

Jan pulled that self-consciously oily smile she’d used a few times before, the look of the con-woman who’d been rumbled, and knew that her mark was onto her. “You never got to tell me off for pressuring your house-mate to share her weed with us. Kimberly, wasn’t it? I did pay, above market rate. And it was very good stuff.”

“Oh, that.” I shook my head. “Well, it didn’t do any harm in the end, but you were sort of the responsible adult.”

“We had fun!” Lozzie chirped from the far side of Jan’s hip. She looked like she was about to bite Jan’s flank. “It was giggly!”

Jan’s smile got more awkward and a lot more toothy. “Sorry.”

I sighed and waved the idea away. “We were in the middle of an emergency, but it wasn’t your fault. Check with us next time though, please?”

Jan bobbed her head. “I really didn’t know. And um … ”

She glanced down at Lozzie, just a flicker. I suppressed another sigh. She’d had a chance to get high and emotionally involved with somebody she was very interested in, and she’d taken the opening. I could hardly fault her for that part.

“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “Besides, I don’t know if I can really scold somebody so much older than me. You seem so much more … adult, compared to when we first met you.”

Jan’s smile relaxed. She spread her hands in a self-deprecating shrug. “Well, I’ve shed most of my camouflage. It’s why I’ve moved, too. Why stay in that awful dump when I’m on good terms with all the local players? You and Evelyn, the rest of the silly cultist people, the local whack-jobs out in the woods — there’s always a few of those in every place, you know?” Jan’s smile creaked. She was leaving somebody out, and we both knew it. She gestured at the room with a flick of her wrist, still holding the stress ball in one hand. “To answer your earlier question, we’re in the Sharrowford Metro. Metropolitan hotel, that is. Better than a travelodge, but not so much better that it breaks the bank. Also the staff are paid terribly, so they’re easy to bribe.”

Lozzie snorted a giggle. She scooted over further so she was curled around Jan’s hips and backside, like a living, pastel-coloured pillow for Jan’s lower back, head on one side of Jan, legs on the other. Jan stiffened, eyes widening slightly, trying to hide her reaction, like a cat who wasn’t certain about being petted. With a visible deep breath, she forced herself to relax.

“I need to ask you a question,” I said. Then I hiccuped and sighed.

“Ah,” said Jan.

“Ah?” went Lozzie, half sitting-up.

I didn’t want to do this, and I really didn’t want to do this in front of Lozzie, but there was no better opportunity.

“Jan,” I said, trying to play the words forward in my head before I spoke them. “I apologise in advance, but I have to ask this question. I realise the answer is probably no, and we … well, Evelyn, mostly, has already decided to trust you. But I have to ask you, if only as a warning.”

“Yeeeeees?” Jan looked very alarmed again. Lozzie had gone quiet.

“Edward Lilburne, the mage we’re in conflict with, he’s Lozzie’s uncle,” I said.

At the sound of his name, Lozzie buried her face in the covers.

Jan’s alarm faded, replaced with quiet caution. I half expected her to place a hand on Lozzie’s shoulder, but she didn’t touch her. She just said, “I am aware of that.”

“Has he approached you?”

“No.”

Instant. No hesitation. Was that a good sign?

“We suspect that he might make an approach, if he’s aware of you. He may offer you money, in exchange for helping him to kidnap Lozzie.”

Lozzie whined into the covers. I wrapped my arms around my own belly, feeling awful, but I had to say this. She had to hear this too. I had to make her aware of the possibility.

Jan watched my face, searching me with those eyes like blue fire trapped behind glass. I stared back into those eyes, right into her pneuma-somatic core, trying to read her thoughts from the surface of her soul. A failure, unfortunately. Mind-reading is not within the scope of hyperdimensional mathematics, not without reducing a human being to their mathematical description, and even then I’d never tried to read surface thoughts or deep intent, only history, components, what made up a person.

Jan stared at me. I stared at Jan. Like a pair of small, fluffy, domestic cats, trying to judge if it was time for the claws to come out.

I struck first.

“If Edward Lilburne approaches you,” I said, “would you take the money? Yes or no?”

Lozzie reared up from the bed like a snake hidden behind a log, red in the face, wiping her wispy blonde hair away from her forehead, eyes blazing. She far outmatched us oversized house cats; Jan and I both flinched before Lozzie even opened her mouth.

“Heathy!” she yelled at me. “Why— why— why would you ask that it’s not fair it’s not fair to her or to me either why would you ask that she wouldn’t she won’t don’t make it sour and—”

I shrank from her, trying to get a word in edgeways. “L-Lozzie, I’m sorry, I have to—”

Lozzie actually stood up on the bed as she went on, flapping her poncho up and down. I thought she was about to leap at me.

Jan cleared her throat. “It’s a perfectly fair question,” she said.

Lozzie stopped mid-word, looking down at Jan, who was simply staring at me again.

“It’s not … ” Lozzie said.

Jan shrugged, watching me. “And the answer is most definitely no.”

I nodded, slowly. “I’m sorry. I did have to ask.”

Jan returned my nod. Lozzie glanced between the two of us, frowning like she was having trouble following the exchange. Jan reached up and patted her awkwardly on the hip, and then said to me, “Now, yes, I would say the exact same thing either way, wouldn’t I? If I was planning to help a terrible old man carry out a kidnapping, I would hardly let you know my intention ahead of time.”

“Um … I was trying to avoid that implication.”

Jan rolled her eyes. “Well, you’ve implied it regardless, well done. I am very mercenary, indeed I am. I make no secret of it, but even I have some limits. You think I’m just a con woman, that I have no values or beliefs, but I do. I’ve only been in Lozzie’s life for a couple of weeks—”

“Week and a half,” Lozzie corrected with a pout. “Almost.”

“Has it really been less than two weeks?” Jan smiled up at Lozzie. “Feels like longer.”

“Mm-mmmmm.” Lozzie bobbed from side to side on the bed, which momentarily made Jan look like she was on a ship in a storm, and slightly queasy. Lozzie eventually steadied herself by putting two hands on Jan’s head, buried in that fluffy black hair. Jan blushed faintly and blinked rapidly.

“Be gentle, Lozzie,” I said.

“I am!”

“As I was saying,” Jan continued. “I’ve known Lozzie for less than two weeks, but there are certain kinds of people you can betray, and certain others you can’t betray without betraying yourself.”

“Well said,” I muttered, feeling suitably ashamed of myself.

“You could pay me a small fortune to betray a favourable client, certainly. Another mage? Absolutely, no question. No honour amongst thieves and all that. And I understand perfectly well that basic solidarity can count for very little between beings like us.” A hint of deep melancholy passed behind those storm-tossed blue eyes. She leaned forward on the bed. “I know what you see when you look at me. You don’t have to pretend otherwise.”

“Janny … ” Lozzie murmured, slowly running her fingers through Jan’s hair.

I frowned, blinking, feeling like I’d wandered onto the court of an unfamiliar game. “What am I supposed to see when I look at you?”

Jan laughed, once, not really amused. “Well, that’s the question, isn’t it?” She gestured at her own body, one wave of her wrist from fluffy crown to her toes tucked away in her little black socks. “This is what I want you to see. But you already know better.”

“Jan, no no. Jan no,” Lozzie chirped. She tutted, then placed her hands on either side of Jan’s head, as if trying to squeeze the bad vibes out of her brain.

Jan had left me behind about three sentences ago. “I’m sorry,” I said, “but this is getting a bit esoteric for me. What do you think I see when I look at you?”

Jan frowned, delicate and sceptical, and said, “A mage.”

“Oh.”

“My exterior often says ‘teenage girl’, and that’s intentional. Just a teenager, passing through, don’t pay me any attention — except a respectful glance because I’m so cute.” Jan allowed herself a little smile, but it didn’t last, not even with Lozzie making sad little whining noises above her. “And in a way that’s not a lie; in a very real way I’m stuck in a forever puberty. I don’t think I would survive the leap to another body, and I’ve come to terms with that, I’ve accepted it. I like this body, it’s me. But you and I both know that I am not a harmless teenager. I am an old and powerful thing. And you have enough experience to know that things like me are dangerous. So I don’t blame you for your caution. I would do the same, in your position.”

“Not a thing!” Lozzie chirped. Jan reached up and patted Lozzie’s hand, but she stayed staring at me.

“Lozzie’s right, you shouldn’t call yourself a thing,” I agreed.

Jan smiled. “You know what I mean.”

“Words have power,” I said. “We are what we pretend to be.”

We are what we pretend to be. The advice given to me by The King in Yellow. I said the words before I realised who I was echoing.

And Jan did the last thing I expected — she started crying.

She resisted it well, holding my gaze for several long, awkward seconds as her crystal-blue eyes scrunched up and filled with tears, as her mouth curled and she had to bite her lips, as she turned red in the cheeks, but then finally failed. She was a very delicate crier, sniffing and wiping her eyes on the thin sleeve of her dressing gown, swallowing through a thick and heavy throat. It wasn’t a full-on weeping session, just the threat of vulnerability nibbling at her emotions.

“Janny,” Lozzie whispered. She went down on her knees and hugged Jan around the shoulders.

“Oh, damn you, Heather,” Jan said, though not unkindly. “It’s been a long time since somebody made me cry my own tears.”

“I-I’m sorry,” I said, feeling terribly awkward. “I hadn’t intended that to be so cutting. Do you, um, want a tissue?”

“Please,” Jan croaked softly. I pulled two tissues from a box on the desk, then thought better of it and simply handed Jan the whole box. She wiped her eyes and blew her nose, flapping tissues about, her dressing gown sleeves billowing. “Oh, damn you. Here I was trying to be all appropriately spooky and you just … tch.”

Lozzie giggled. “Heathy’s good at that.”

“We are what we pretend to be,” Jan echoed me again. “So, what do you think I am pretending to be, Heather?”

“You’re a mage, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be Lozzie’s friend. Um. Or whatever you are to each other.”

She nodded, still dabbing at her eyes, and laughed softly. “What I was trying to get at in the first place is that you’re right to be suspicious of me. If you were any less protective of Lozzie then I’d be the one growing suspicious, with good reason. You know what I am, you have some idea of what I’m capable of.” She tugged at the pastel fabric of her dressing gown with one hand. “This could be so much protective colouration, for all you know, but it’s real. Solidarity is … ”

Jan trailed off as she recognised the confusion on my face.

“I don’t think I follow,” I said. “Protective colouration?”

Jan frowned at me, then frowned at her own shoulder — at Lozzie, still wrapped around her in a hug. “Am I getting the wrong end of the stick here? Heather is aware, yes?”

“Excuse me?” I said. “Aware of what?”

Lozzie tilted her head side-to-side, suddenly rather puppy-like. She didn’t follow either. Jan cleared her throat and glanced back and forth between Lozzie and me, suddenly deeply uncomfortable again, no longer crying but caught in the middle of something which wasn’t her business. I could almost see the cogs turning in her head, as she tried to think of a way to back out from what she’d been in the middle of saying.

“Oh!” I caught on all of a sudden, second-hand embarrassed for Jan’s sake. My mind had been on mages and magic and monsters, not something so mundane. “You mean Lozzie’s trans flag poncho, and you’re wearing … um … ” I gestured at Jan’s matching tie-dye dressing gown, in swirls of blue, pink, and white. “Of course I know about Lozzie. I thought that was just a given.”

Jan nodded, clearing her throat, silently thankful that I’d taken the leap in her place. “Well, what I meant to say is that as far as you’re concerned, this—” she straightened the dressing gown, “—could be just so much deception.”

“But it’s not. It actually quite suits you, though it does look a bit on the thin side.”

Jan brightened, almost preening as she sat up a bit straighter. “Then it’s perfect for the summer weather, isn’t it?”

Lozzie let out a giggle-snort. Jan blinked at her.

I sighed. “I can tell you’re not from the North. Don’t expect the heat to last. Or at least, that’s what I’ve been told. I’m not a local either.”

Jan nodded graciously. “I take great pride in never being a local.”

“Where are you from, anyway?”

Jan winked and tapped the side of her nose.

Lozzie giggled again. “I know! But I’m not telling!”

Jan looked momentarily discomforted, then cleared her throat and adopted an intentionally serious expression again. “We are what we pretend to be. I like that idea. As I said, there is precious little basic solidarity in our world. So I pretend, and I make it real.” She patted the corner of Lozzie’s poncho. “And furthermore, Heather, you’ve given this girl a family. A home. You, Tenny, Evelyn and Raine by the sounds of it too. Twil. Praem. All of you. You’ve given this girl a real family. I’ve heard about her biological relations—”

Lozzie made a soft, uncomfortable whine.

“—and they all ceased being real family to her, a long time ago. I’m not going to betray that. If I’d had something like that, maybe I would have had a better time of it. Besides,” she sighed, “you’re all absolutely terrifying, to be frank. Betraying something like you would be suicidal nonsense.”

“Thank you,” I said. “I think.”

“So, now,” Jan carried on, back in full flow, her half-mask of attitude firmly back in place. “If this mister Edward Lilburne approached me with a big sack of money—”

“I understand, I’m sorry, you don’t have to—”

“I would accept the money—”

A shock of sudden cold, deep in my belly. Only Lozzie’s giggle kept me in my chair. “What.”

Jan carried right on. “—and then inform you wonderful and trustworthy people exactly where he is, so you can throw him into the wild beyond, or have him shot in the back of the head, or whatever it is you have planned for him. Don’t tell me, by the way. Plausible deniability is so much more comfortable.”

I blew out a breath in unamused relief. Lozzie had disengaged her hug and briefly put her hands over her ears. I think Jan was a tiny bit relieved by that.

“I think I mentioned it earlier,” I said. “But Evelyn has chosen to trust you. Which means a lot, coming from her.”

“I’m sure it does,” Jan said. “We mages are a paranoid bunch. Usually.”

“I’ll choose to do the same.”

Jan bowed her head, formal and stiff, almost a little sarcastic, though I wasn’t sure that undertone was intentional. “I’ll do my best to be worthy of such regard.”

Lozzie giggled at that and hugged Jan from behind again, snaking her arms out of her pastel poncho. Jan cleared her throat and looked a bit embarrassed. I decided she wasn’t used to Lozzie’s normal level of platonic physical affection.

I needed to ask the obvious question, but my mind hit several speed-bumps of embarrassment too.

“So,” I said, glancing around the hotel room. “I take it you and July have decided to stay in Sharrowford for a bit? At least until the stuff with the cult is resolved?”

Jan shrugged eloquently. “It’s a delightful little city.”

I couldn’t help it, I frowned in disbelief. Lozzie wrinkled her nose.

“It’s … functional,” I said.

“Okay, alright,” Jan admitted with a laugh. “It’s rotting from the inside out, yes, and that’s just for the normals. It’s also absolutely lethal. The walls between reality and other places are very thin here, even I can feel that, and I’m not the most powerful mage going. No wonder so many different people are so eager to hang onto this place. I’ve got reasons to stay for now, though I usually make it a policy not to stop for long in places where mage-on-mage conflict is about to break out.”

I felt a tug of curiosity, though it was distracting me further from my real intent. “Mage-on-mage conflict,” I echoed. “Have you seen quite a bit of that?”

“From a distance. I’d rather not be involved when you deal with Edward. Or whatever happens afterward. Though I would happily give sanctuary to some.” She bit her lower lip and glanced at Lozzie. “Wait, what am I saying? You can teleport wherever you want, can’t you?”

“Mmhmm!” Lozzie chirped. “Aaaaanywhere!”

“Well. Why am I staying in Sharrowford?” Jan laughed softly. “July and I could head to more familiar climes. You could come visit down Tru—” Jan caught herself, cleared her throat, and glanced at me. “Is there a reason I need to stay in the city, if Lozzie can bring people along?”

“Lozzie’s Slips are very rough for passengers,” I said.

Something in my tone must have communicated the awful, jarring truth behind such a bland statement. Jan swallowed and nodded. She understood the look in my eyes. “Well then. I’m here for a little longer, at least. I suppose.”

“Reasons to stay,” I echoed, glancing between Lozzie and Jan.

Lozzie seemed so very comfortable, hugging Jan from behind. She and Jan could not possibly have been any more different, one so neat and delicate and devious, one so free and floaty and uninhibited. Lozzie met my eyes and winked.

“Jan, there is something else I want to ask you,” I said, and managed to sound casual enough not to cause a second panic.

“Mm?”

“Here we goooooo,” went Lozzie. She giggled.

“Are you and Lozzie in a … romantic … situation?” I sighed, sudden and sharp. “Oh wow, I really made that sound precise, didn’t I?”

Jan blinked three times and blushed like a tomato. I hadn’t expected that.

Lozzie giggled like crazy. “Heathy!” she squeaked.

“I … um … we—” Jan struggled. “We haven’t … kissed. Or anything like that! I don’t—”

“We’ve snuggled!” Lozzie told me. “Jan’s a good snuggler!”

Jan was mortified.

I put my hands up, blushing too. This situation was obviously far, far from what I had worried about. “I’m sorry,” I said. “You don’t have to tell me everything. Or even anything. I just needed to check. For Lozzie. I mean, not that it’s any of my business!”

“Oh for … ” Jan huffed, fighting through her embarrassment. “Well maybe it’s a tiny bit romantic. Quasi-romantic? Is that a thing?”

“Mmhmm-mmhmm!” Lozzie nodded sagely. She was enjoying this far too much.

“But just because we’re both trans girls doesn’t mean we’re in a relationship,” Jan tutted at me.

Lozzie peered around her side and made eye contact. “Doesn’t it?”

Jan was rendered speechless. I had to turn away, deeply regretting that I’d ever asked. Whatever Jan and Lozzie were up to, I think I knew who was in charge. Apparently there wasn’t anything sexual about it either. And even if there was, it was none of my business. Lozzie was an adult. In some ways, Lozzie was a mother. She was her own person, and I didn’t need to wrap her in cotton wool.

And I decided to trust Jan.

I examined myself carefully, for jealous feelings. I found none. Lozzie was my friend, practically family, and if she was happy, then I was happy. That was a relief.

“Jan, um,” I said, trying to bring some normality back to the situation. I cleared my throat. “We do have a lot to talk about. Technical matters, magical matters, that sort of thing. Now seems like as good a time as any.”

Lozzie took the hint. She let go of Jan and bounced to her feet, skipping across the room to fiddle with the video game console plugged into the television. It was like she’d had her setting switched from ‘cuddle’ to ‘distracted’. Sometimes I forgot how astute Lozzie could be, beneath her playful exterior.

Jan looked like a steam boiler on a cooling cycle. She nodded along, trying to compose herself. “Yes. Um. Indeed.”

“And I should probably call home,” I said, gesturing with my mobile phone. “We did say where we were going, but we left in kind of a rush. Raine and the others might be worrying about me.”

“Look,” Jan said with a sigh. “Before we move on, thank you for understanding. I will admit, I wasn’t expecting this. Whatever … um … develops between myself and Lozzie, I don’t intend it to be romantic.”

“Awww!” went Lozzie, but she was giggling behind a sleeve. Teasing Jan like crazy.

Jan cleared her throat again. I caught her eye. We both understood how Lozzie tended to be. “Though,” she added, “if things go that way … well. Ahem. Yes.” Jan blew out a huff. “I did not expect tolerance as a mage. Though I suppose you can hardly talk, Heather. You’re far from normal yourself — and I mean that as a compliment, by the way.”

“I’m sure you do.”

“Your tentacles are extremely impressive. I must ask you more about them, some time.” Jan laughed. “Besides, you’re romantically entangled with a mage too.”

I blinked. “What.”

“What?” Jan echoed me.

Lozzie giggle-snorted, flapping out her poncho. “Oopsie! Heathy doesn’t like to acknowledge that she and Evee-weevey love each other very much.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Imagine just being a regular guy, stepping out of your hotel room, and then you see a girl halfway down the corridor who looks ready to rip your eyeballs out of your head (and you can’t even see her tentacles). Heather really didn’t have anything to be scared of; she’s the scary one now. But did Lozzie really make a mistake? Who knows. Slipping seems fine now! And Jan is very talkative. And Lozzie is very sneaky indeed. Whoops, looks like she cornered Heather in a whole new way.

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Next week, Heather can’t avoid talking about Evelyn, not unless she makes like Lozzie and Slips on out. And she did need to discuss some serious things with Jan, anyway …

pale student of unhallowed arts – 17.3

Content Warnings

None this chapter.



Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Felicity was not an easy person to contact. Like most mages, I suppose. Hiding in their shells of matter and magic.

We called three times, with nearly six solid minutes of ringing in total. No answering machine, no voice mail. This was a land-line number, a direct route into the lair of a mage much more reclusive and questionable than our dear Evelyn. Raine encouraged me to stay on the line and keep trying. Twil suggested maybe she wasn’t at home right then; Evelyn assured us that was vanishingly unlikely — if, that was, Felicity had indeed arrived home safely after her visit to Sharrowford, months ago now.

The phone rang and rang and rang. My determination soured into sore feet. Praem nudged my chair toward me, so I sat down and tried again, hanging up and redialling.

A minute later I was on the verge of giving up. The ringing of the phone felt like a soporific, insect-like mantra in my ear, a cricket’s drone from the edge of the forest, lulling me half to sleep. Twil was muttering something about how we should get some drinks if we were going to be waiting much longer. Evelyn opened her mouth and sighed, about to admit defeat.

Then, with a soft mechanical click, the call connected.

I held up one hand for silence.

And silence was what I got. Dead air.

I had prepared myself for the ash-and-oil voice of Felicity’s demonic parasite, the laughing nightmare thing that pretended to sound like a little girl, the nails-down-a-blackboard scratching at one’s ears.

Instead, a black silence, like a standing wave just beyond the range of human hearing. The phone line had connected to a lightless void. A winking light in the deep dark of an unexplored cavern, illuminating nothing. I tried to open my mouth to speak a greeting, but instinct screamed at me to be quiet and still, as if I might attract the attention of some vast unmoving watcher out in that frozen darkness. I stared sideways at the phone against my head, fighting the urge to fling it to the floor and crush it with a tentacle.

It was like I’d called the abyss.

Then somebody inhaled, as if stirring from sleep.

“Tannerbaum house,” said a voice I recognised, female and heavy, a blurred half-mumble from one side of her mouth. Wary, distant, exhausted. “Who is this?”

I let out a sigh of relief. I felt like a mouse hiding inside a rotten log, passed over by a snake who had missed my scent. The others were all staring at me from around the table. Evelyn was frowning hard, deeply concerned in her own sort of way. It took me a moment to realise that I’d wrapped my tentacles around myself in a tight ball, a self-hug of pneuma-somatic flesh to make myself small and armoured and toxic to any would-be predator. My friends couldn’t see that, of course, but one didn’t need pneuma-somatic sight to see that I’d turned pale, broken out in cold sweat, and was shaking with a sudden adrenaline high.

Abyssal instinct had not liked that feeling from the other end of the phone.

“Heather?” Evelyn mouthed my name silently. I shook my head and uncoiled my tentacles, struggling for self-control.

I mouthed back to Evelyn. “Just creepy. I’m fine.”

“Hello? … hello?” On the other end of the phone call, the mumbled voice was growing suspicious. The speaker on Evelyn’s mobile phone was high quality enough that we could all hear her words. Evelyn gestured at me: there you go, now talk.

“Felicity,” I said out loud, trying to still my racing heart and put on my good-girl phone voice. “It’s Heather. Hello, good afternoon. I’m sorry for calling so insistently. Heather Morell. Do you remember me?”

A long, silent pause. Normal silence, not the creeping black silence of the unknown void. Felicity was simply speechless for a moment. Evelyn crossed her arms and hunched in her seat, all but scowling at the phone. Raine listened carefully, chin in her hand. Twil seemed a bit lost. Praem stood to attention.

“Heather Morell,” Felicity said eventually. She swallowed audibly and took a deep breath. Her voice came through a bit clearer, less of a mumble. “Evee’s friend. Yes, of course I remember you.”

Felicity’s face drifted up from the fog of memory. She was not exactly a difficult person to recall. Narrow, soft features gave her face the illusion of being unguarded and inattentive. A long messy mop of reddish-brown hair crowned a stiff and willowy frame, awkward and furtive, like a cornered rabbit ready to kick out a predator’s intestines. And the burn scar, how could I forget that? The entire left side of Felicity’s face was consumed by an old burn scar, the skin discoloured and shiny. Her left eye was blind, blank and glassy. The left corner of her lips was mangled, fused together. Despite everything about her, the scars still stirred my sympathy, even in memory.

“That’s good, I’m glad you remember,” I said. “Again, I’m sorry for calling so—”

“Why have you called me?”

Urgent, afraid, a little bit hostile. I blinked in confusion before the pieces fell into place, then I sighed and made sure I was making eye contact with Evelyn as I spoke.

“Evee is fine,” I said. “She’s perfectly safe and doing very well. There’s no emergency. This phone call isn’t about that.”

“Oh.” I heard a sigh go out of Felicity. I could almost see her slump in my mind’s eye, one hand to her forehead with relief. It ended with a throaty sound, like she was suffering a chest infection. The creak of an old chair, a faint rattle of window panes, the distant whistle of wind, lonely and desolate. And right at the edge of my hearing, small bare feet pattering on naked stone, moving away from the phone. “Oh. Th-that— that’s good. That’s good.” Felicity swallowed audibly again, as if trying to clear her throat. “You are telling the truth, aren’t you?”

In front of me, Evelyn didn’t even roll her eyes. She stared as if she could transmit the evil eye across a phone call.

“Of course,” I said. “Evee’s right in front of me. She’s right here. We see each other every single day. She’s fine.”

Felicity was breathing a little too sharply, like a woman on the leading edge of a panic attack. “I-I know I don’t have any right to demand this, but … may I … just one word … I need to know if—”

“I am alive and well,” Evelyn spoke up, loud and clear. Her tone of voice could have turned an angel to stone. “That is all you’ll get.” She made eye contact with me again, eyebrows raised in question. Praem gently placed both hands on her shoulders, as if keeping her from rising, but Evelyn didn’t complain. I winced, feeling guilty again; the whole point of this was that I would be Evelyn’s conduit. I wanted to take this burden from her. She could even leave the room if she wished.

Felicity was silent.

“Did you hear that?” I asked.

“Yes. Oh, yes, yes I heard.” Felicity’s mumble blurred into near-incomprehensible gratitude. “Thank you. Thank her for me, Heather. I— no, no, don’t say anything. I-I shouldn’t— I don’t deserve—”

“Felicity, please, slow down. I can’t make out your words. I’m sorry.”

Truth be told, I could understand her words perfectly, I just wanted her to stop. Her tone made my skin crawl and left a sour taste in my mouth. I could imagine her cringing from her own guilt. I spoke mechanically, precise, with as much emotional distance as I could muster. Keep this strictly to business. The others evidently agreed. Evelyn had turned away in disgust. Raine puffed out a long breath, full of pity. Twil cringed with second-hand embarrassment.

“Sorry,” Felicity said, slow and steady now. “Sorry. I apologise. Heather, if it’s not about Evelyn, then why have you called me?”

“We do need your help with something.” I tried to stay crisp, measured, business-like. It came surprisingly easy. I reminded myself with every word, who I was doing this for. “Perhaps just you knowledge and advice, or perhaps practical help. It’s a magical problem, a magical question. Something we’re trying to figure out. All of us, Evelyn included.”

Another long silence, followed by a sigh. Felicity’s chair — or perhaps the floorboards beneath her desk — creaked again as she adjusted her weight.

“Okay.”

Guarded. Careful. Closed off.

Neither acceptance nor rejection. I contained a sigh of my own and reminded myself we were dealing with a mage here, no matter the personal connection or shared history. She may have come running to Evelyn’s rescue when needed, but without the guilt of her past to keep her caged, Felicity Hackett was just another potential monster, draped in supernatural unknowns.

I hardened my heart and considered my options for a second. We did have a couple of ways into this, a couple of different types of leverage I could apply. I summoned every scrap of abyssal ruthlessness, repeated Maisie’s name in my mind, and opened my mouth to speak.

Raine got there first. “Hey, Fliss,” she said with a smile in her voice, leaning toward the phone. “What’s up? How you doing? Hey, hey, Heather, put it on speaker phone so I can hear her proper.”

An animated but silent argument then erupted between Evelyn and Raine, all gestures and mouthed obscenities, while I sat there vibrating like a squid who’d been about to pounce before my prey had been whisked away on the end of an invisible fishing line.

Evelyn swiped the air — no speaker phone. Raine made it clear this was a plan, a ploy, a clever plot. Evelyn should get up and leave if she wanted, Raine indicated, none of us would judge her. Evelyn did not want to leave, even when Praem offered her a hand up. Evelyn would stay and stew in her disgust.

“Heather? Heather?” Felicity was saying.

“Sorry, I was just trying to find the speaker function,” I lied, lowered the phone from my ear, and switched the speaker mode. “There, now Raine can hear you as well.”

“Is … is Evelyn still in the room?”

Evee looked right at me and shook her head once. Absolutely not.

“No,” I said. “She went upstairs.”

“Heeeeey,” Raine repeated herself. “So, Flissy, how’s things?”

“Raine, hello.” Felicity did not sound particularly enthused by Raine, but not frightened or put off either. “Things are … things.”

“Ha! Yeah, I know what you mean, know how that feels. Things are thingy.” Raine sighed, fake-long-suffering. She grinned as she spoke, all acting, all fronting. “Sounds like something our Lozzie might say. You met Lozzie, right? When you were down here before?”

“The girl with the trans flag poncho, yes. Left somewhat of an impression.”

“Things are thingy,” Raine repeated. “Sounds like something she might say, that’s all. Anyway, Fliss, I missed you when you came down Sharrowford way to help us, on account of getting kidnapped and everything. Heard you had to skedaddle before they got me out. Big mess, I had to kill a guy and everything. Hoooo, you’re glad you didn’t stick around, believe that. But I heard it all from Heather later on, ‘course. Never got a chance to thank you for helping out. Helping Evee. Helping Heather. Heather’s my girl, you know, so, I owe you one.”

Evelyn pulled a face at Raine like Raine had just made a deal with a terrorist. Raine mouthed back, ‘Just go with it.’

But Felicity seemed to be having trouble absorbing Raine’s gratitude. “I … uh … yes. You’re welcome. I’m glad you didn’t … die. Was there a risk of you dying?”

“Eh.” Raine shrugged. “Maybe. Don’t worry about it, hey. Just wanted to thank you.”

“Well, you’re … you’re welcome. Yes.”

I had rarely heard another human being sound so fundamentally uncomfortable. Well, except for myself. Raine’s bluster and confidence was doing an incredible job of pinning Felicity to the wall. She did not want to be thanked. Not by anybody but Evee, perhaps.

Evelyn seemed to pick up on this as well. She was still frowning at Raine, but more with curiosity than anger now. Raine caught my eye and winked. Her plan was working.

Gently, I placed the phone on the table and drew myself upright. Raine had prepared the ground, now it was my turn.

“Felicity,” I said. “Briefly, before I explain our problem, I wanted to ask you, how is Aym? I … can’t help but remember what I saw in the back seat of your car, before you left.”

That was true, at least. What I recalled was a twisted lump of oil-slick darkness, huddled on the back seat of Felicity’s range rover, covered with a blanket, mewling and panting like an injured animal after exposure to the pressure of the Eye’s attention. Beady black eyes, shape-shifting claws, nothing at all like the ‘little girl in a black dress’ Felicity had warned us about. Aym, the demon-thing that followed her around. Whatever she was, she’d gotten hurt trying to help us. I did genuinely owe something in return for that. I wasn’t sure what. Perhaps just a thank you.

Evelyn looked like she wanted to vomit.

“Aym.” Felicity sighed that name with a blend of pain and love so heady that I felt bad for asking. For a terrible moment I thought she was about to say the demon-thing had died after her encounter with the Eye, but then Felicity added, “She survived the experience. Thank you for your concern.”

“May I thank her?”

A moment of blank silence. “Thank her?”

“For going into that house for us. She helped. Or, she tried to. Didn’t she?”

“She— she is none of your concern.” Felicity’s voice hardened. “I will pass on your thanks, if you really want that. But please don’t. She—”

The patter of small feet on bare stone interrupted Felicity’s voice. Such a gentle sound, but somehow it drowned out the words. Like a flash-storm of freezing rain smothering a weak fire.

A rough, raspy, high-pitched breathing joined us on the phone. Excited and rapid, like the bearer had been running around for quite some time. There was something aberrant about that breathing, as if it came from a throat twisted all wrong to be human.

My skin crawled and my spine itched, but I managed to swallow the inevitable hiccup.

“Is that you?” I asked. “Aym?”

The reply I received was not words, but a vibrating, hissing hack-hack-hack. Maybe a laugh, maybe something else, more animal than human. Then, just as it trailed off, a theatrical “Mwah!” A kissy-noise.

Raine winced. Twil bared her teeth in frozen growl, bristling all over. Evelyn shuddered with naked disgust.

Praem leaned down toward the phone on the table.

“Bad girl,” she said, bell-clear and sing-song beautiful.

On the other end of the phone, Aym — or what I assumed was Aym — yelped like a puppy bapped in the nose with a newspaper. The high-pitched breathing sound slithered away, feet trotting off into the black silence beyond the phone call. Felicity let out a shuddering sigh, as if she’d narrowly avoided danger.

Evelyn stared at the phone with unparalleled disgust.

“Please, don’t,” Felicity said. “Don’t attract her attention.”

I cleared my throat. “Sorry. I only wanted to thank her.”

“She knows. Trust me, please, she knows. What … what help did you want? What is this about?”

The plan had worked. We’d broken down Felicity’s barriers, though I hadn’t expected the weird assist from Aym; I wondered, for a moment, if her interruption had been intentional, timed for just that moment. But how could she have known? Demons can be even more strange than mages.

I shared a glance with Evelyn. She looked hollow-eyed and wracked with disgust, but she shrugged and gestured. ‘Tell her everything,’ she mouthed.

“We’re trying to find a hidden house,” I said. “Much like your own. Or so I’m told.”

I explained the situation to Felicity, as efficiently as I could, without either leaving too much out or providing too much information about things she didn’t need to know — such as the Brinkwood Church, or their hidden god, or our exact level of involvement. But I had to explain Evelyn’s method to find the house, the steps we’d taken so far, and our looming failure. Evelyn nodded along, silently interrupting me at several points to indicate something I should or shouldn’t say.

Felicity went quiet at first, then began to ask technical questions: did we have a description of the house; had any of us ever visited it; did we think it was located near a specific species of tree; were there any large hills in the specified area? She went on like that for a while, as I checked Evee’s map and her photos. Felicity’s voice grew in confidence, settling into familiar things and away from the sucking quicksand of her own emotions.

But of course, I also had to explain why we were looking for the place.

“Edward Lilburne?” Felicity echoed. I could almost hear her shaking her head. “The name doesn’t ring a bell.”

“Hey, Fliss,” Raine interrupted. “You’re not exactly the most gregarious type, right? No reason you’d know about the guy.”

“And he knew Loretta Saye, you’re certain of that?”

I cast a glance at Evelyn, but she seemed unperturbed by the mention of her mother. In fact, she even shrugged.

“We don’t know if that part is true,” I interpreted for her. “Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. Felicity, is this possible? Could his house be magically hidden in this kind of way?”

“Mmm.” Felicity made an audible thinking sound. Uncomfortable. Uncertain. “It’s not impossible. My own home cannot be found unless you already know the way. It’s … secluded, in special ways. That’s why I use this land-line. I had to lay the final portion of it myself. Mobile phone signal doesn’t come here. Neither does anything else. Well, nothing normal.”

Raine and Evelyn shared a look. Twil pulled a face like she didn’t want to know more.

“Then you know how this would work?” I asked.

“No.”

“ … no?”

Felicity sighed, almost apologetic. “I wasn’t responsible for the working. I didn’t do it myself. As far as I’m aware, my home, my house, has been this way since long before I … inherited it.”

The way Felicity said the word ‘inherited’ made my spine want to curl up and slink out of my body.

“This isn’t the kind of magic you do in a single day,” she was carrying on like she hadn’t just spoken a rotting slug, “or even in a year or three. It’s serious working. It was performed by one who came before me. I wouldn’t even know where to … ”

Across hundreds of miles, spanned by the narrow bridge of electromagnetic radio waves and buried cables, I could almost feel Felicity curl up in her chair as she trailed off. That black silence pressed in around her, at the edge of my hearing.

“Felicity?”

“You’re going to fight this mage regardless, aren’t you?” she asked, voice a shaking murmur, pressed to a cold stone floor, somewhere in the dark.

Around the table, safe and sound in the bright surroundings of Number 12 Barnslow Drive, we all shared a mystified look. Even Evelyn didn’t know what to make of the feeling radiating from the phone. Praem tightened a hand into a fist. Up on the wall, Marmite hid himself inside his black membranes, totally obscured. I wasn’t the only one who could feel this. It wasn’t the product of an over-active imagination or the twitchy caution of abyssal instinct.

“Yes,” I said at length. “Yes. We have to get that book from him, there’s no other way to do this. Maybe we fight, or maybe there’s another way, but we do have to locate him first.”

“You’re going to do this anyway,” Felicity murmured. I got the impression she wasn’t really responding to me. “Just like … mm. Should have stayed. Stayed to help. Should have been there. Should never have left when she—”

“Shut up,” Evelyn said.

Felicity stopped, instantly. We could all hear her swallowing hard, sniffing, pulling herself back from some private precipice. Raine looked away, as if trying to spare Felicity the embarrassment, even though she couldn’t see us. Twil winced and put her face in her hand, overwhelmed by second-hand embarrassment. Praem tilted her chin upward.

“Yes,” Evelyn carried on, voice hissing with contempt. “We are going to hunt and possibly kill this mage, regardless of your help or the quality of it.”

“I … I … yes,” Felicity said. “Aym would know. I mean, Aym might know, about the house. This house, I mean, not the one you’re trying to find. She was here when it was done, when the house was hidden. I might be able to … to convince her to … ”

I cleared my throat. “We would be very grateful.”

“I would need to come to Sharrowford. Eventually, I think. If I can feel out the contours by which this place has been hidden, if it’s the same techniques, or similar techniques, Aym may be able to … peel them back.”

“Hey,” Raine said, spreading her hands. “If it gets us Edward, you can peel back the whole countryside. Crack open the hills and burn down the woods.”

Felicity laughed, more of a jerky hiccup, forced and difficult. “I don’t think that’ll be necessary.”

“You’re not coming to this house again,” said Evelyn.

Felicity did not answer.

“Will you call us back?” I asked. “Maybe when you’ve spoken to Aym?”

“It might take a day or two. It’s not as simple as it sounds. Should I … this number, or—?”

I gave Felicity my number and Raine’s number. We didn’t want her calling Evelyn’s phone.

“I’ll try my best,” she said before we ended the call. “I promise that. I promise.”

Evelyn pulled a disgusted face. She met my eyes and drew her thumb across her throat.

When I disconnected the call, it was like shutting off a pitch dark room behind an armoured door. Suddenly the magical workshop seemed brighter. Only then did I realise how tense I had grown; my head was pounding, my chest was tight, my hands were quivering with strange effort. All the hard-edged ruthlessness went out of me in a rush. I hiccuped loudly.

A collective sigh went through the others, all except Praem, who stood there as crisp and straight-backed as always, though she did raise her hands and give me a polite, gentle round of applause. Raine rubbed the back of her own neck, then reached over to rub mine, as a reward for a difficult job well done. Twil slumped in her chair, didn’t seem to know what to say. Evelyn scowled at the phone like it was evidence in a murder case.

As abyssal logic receded, guilt trickled back in.

With one numb and shaky hand, I picked up Evelyn’s phone and re-blocked Felicity’s number, so she wouldn’t have to think about that. Inside my chest, a spike of jagged iron worried at my heart. I was hurting two people here: Evelyn, by re-exposing her to the trauma of her own past, and Felicity, by emotionally manipulating her into working for us.

Justifications formed like a pearl around a speck of grit inside my soul. Evelyn had agreed to this. She’d said go ahead. And I owed nothing to Felicity.

But I owed so much to Evee. I stared down at the phone in my hand. This was my responsibility now, not hers. Anything to lift the burden of strategy from her shoulders. This is how it was meant to be. She could make the plans, but I would be her conduit, her hands.

“Well,” Twil said eventually, blowing out a big sigh. “That was real fuckin’ weird.”

“Uh huh,” said Raine. “Fliss is kind of a weird person.”

Evelyn snorted. “Yes, grass is green, water is wet, bears defecate in the woods.”

“Nah,” Twil went on. She sounded horribly uncomfortable. “I mean like, she seemed kinda fucked up, you know? Does she need help?”

“She’s a mage,” Evelyn drawled. “We’re beyond help.”

“Evee!” I couldn’t help myself, her name flew from my mouth as I looked up from the phone. “Don’t talk about yourself like that.”

But Evelyn didn’t look fatalistic at all. The disgust had dropped away, replaced with a cool, level focus. She nodded to me, once, an admission that she shouldn’t be putting herself down. That was the last thing I’d expected. Then she smiled at me. I didn’t know what to say. Guilt flared, and then receded, dying away without a target.

I awkwardly reached over the table to return her mobile phone. “Are you certain you’re okay with this?”

Praem took Evelyn’s phone for her. Evelyn reached across the table toward me with her maimed hand, palm up. I didn’t know what she wanted, then I almost blushed as I realised. I returned the gesture, though I had to stand up a little to take her hand in mine. Without meaning to, I added a tentacle, wrapping it around her wrist without thinking. She didn’t even flinch.

“We can do this,” she said. “But Felicity is sure as hell not staying in this house. Not even a little bit.”

“Agreed, yes, absolutely.”

“No problem with that,” Raine agreed. Twil shrugged, several step behind.

“Evee, I … thank you,” I added.

Evelyn squeezed my hand, the stumps of her missing fingers cradled in my palm. Her eyes burned with purpose, and I knew her purpose was me.

==

The impromptu strategy meeting broke up without being officially declared over — though Praem’s insistence that it was time for a cup of tea seemed to do the trick to dispel any lingering tension. Twil wanted to show Evelyn an amusing video on her phone, something to do with too many cats in a single box. Raine followed me out into the kitchen, concerned for my state of mind, so I recharged with a nice long hug, snuggling into her front. Then I told her I was going upstairs, by myself.

Time to talk to Lozzie.

Evelyn’s look had given me courage, a hot glowing ember in my chest. Besides, if I put it off again, I might never get to this conversation. If I told myself ‘I’ll do it tomorrow’, well, Badger was getting out of hospital tomorrow. We had things to do. Easy excuses to put it off. No time like the present.

I half expected Marmite to follow at my heels as I made for the front room and the stairs. He was no stranger to following me around the house on occasion, often trailed by a spider-servitor. I’d assumed he might want to get out of the magical workshop after the raised voices and unexplained tension earlier, but when I peeked back around the door frame, he was hanging upside down from the ceiling. His metallic eyes were fixed on Twil’s mobile phone. Maybe he liked cats, too.

In the upstairs hallway, June sunlight burned hot and bright through the window, etching a patch of aching light on the old paint and older plaster of the wall, divided into four by the window lattice. I paused to soak my face and throat in that heat, squinting my eyes shut like a cat. Even my tentacles spread out for a moment, relaxed and soothed. Beyond the window, Sharrowford wavered with distant heat haze rising from the black tarmac of the roads. Summer inside Number 12 Barnslow Drive was strange, the sun beating down on the exterior of the house but never spreading out beyond the cracks and slivers where it could enter. Out in the garden, the grass grew wild, and sometimes I could hear crickets or the whine of horse flies. But we never saw more than the occasional spider indoors.

Cool air washed over me again like fresh bedsheets when I stepped away from the patch of direct sunlight. The bedrooms and Evelyn’s study were dim and shady, like rock pools beneath the tide.

The door to Lozzie’s room was ajar by just a crack. Soft voices came from within. I knocked gently. My reward was one of those delightful fluttery trilling noises from Tenny, from deep in her chest.

“I’m coming in, okay?” I said.

The cosy grotto of Lozzie’s bedroom — and Tenny’s too, technically — was a much more comfortable sight than it had been months earlier. It was no longer the barren and empty space where Lozzie laid her head, bereft of possessions except borrowed clothes and the mobile phone we’d purchased for her. From the bean-bag chairs around the low table, to Raine’s old ‘gamecube’ hooked up to the television, to the piles of books and puzzle toys, Tenny’s presence had changed everything.

There was even a laptop in here now, usually sitting on the desk at the back of the room. A hand-me-down from Raine, specifically for Tenny. Raine had handled parental controls for the internet connection, though we’d had a bit of a debate about that. Evelyn hadn’t liked the idea of restricting information, not for a being who was already stuck indoors almost all the time. Lozzie hadn’t seen what all the fuss was about, but then Raine had taken her to one side and explained something in private, and Lozzie had quite happily gone along with making sure Tenny was always supervised.

“Tenn-Tenns needs to grow up a bit more first, mmhmm, mmmhmm.” Lozzie had nodded along at the time.

“She’s growing up quickly,” Evelyn had said, “regardless of what we do. She’s what, effectively acting like a teenager now? We don’t want to shelter her unduly. Not that we have a choice.” Evelyn had sighed heavily, apparently more pained by this than Lozzie was. “Maybe if we take her down to Sussex, to my family home. Maybe somewhere without too many prying eyes. Oh, I don’t know.”

“She can almost do the illusion cloak thing now!” Lozzie had chirped. “Alllllmost perfect. Then we can go for a walk!”

I pushed the door open to discover pretty much the exact kind of comfy scene I had expected. Lozzie herself was curled up on her bed, amid a big nest of rumpled blankets and sheets, with a book propped on her knees. Her pastel poncho lay draped over the end of the bed, leaving her in just pajama bottoms and t-shirt for once. The only thing out of the ordinary was her phone on the pillow, kept close at hand. She’d started paying a lot more attention to it this last week.

Tenny and Sevens were sitting together at the low table, before the open screen of the laptop. Tenny was sprawled in a beanbag chair with Whistle in her lap. The dog was happily wrapped in a black tentacle and half asleep. He opened one eye in curiosity as I entered, then returned to napping. Sevens was in full goblin mode, squatting on the floor next to Tenny, chewing on the end of a pencil with her needle teeth. I don’t think the pencil stood much chance.

Tenny was multi-tasking to the extreme. One hand clutched a pencil, the other braced against a notebook on the table. A tentacle was busy twisting a Rubik’s cube, solving and scrambling and re-solving it every few seconds. Another two tentacles were casually wrapped around Sevens, as if the blood goblin might try to run off at any moment. Another tentacle was wiping the inside of a very empty, very well-licked jar of peanut butter.

One additional tentacle was reading. Or at least it was pointed downward, at a book lying on the table, past the laptop and the notes. Two other tentacles held the book open. The silken black skin on the ‘reading’ tentacle had peeled back from the tip, as if to reveal an eye, but all I saw was shiny blackness.

Tenny’s normal eyes, big and dark and pelagic, looked up at me as I stepped inside the room. Her fluffy white antennae were twitching like reeds in a breeze.

“Heath! Heath!” she trilled.

We had long ago established that Tenny was perfectly capable of pronouncing my full name correctly, but the nickname had stuck. I didn’t mind it.

“Hello Tenny.” I gave her a wave. Another tentacle snaked out from under her wings, making for me and joining with one of my own in an unspoken touch-greeting. “Are you … having fun?” I peered at Sevens, who greeted me with a low, throaty, raspy noise. “What are you up to?”

“Histy’,” she said, voice an excited flutter.

“History lessons,” said Sevens in a raspy gurgle. She pointed at the screen. “Romans, Vikings, middle ages. Mmmmmm, keeping it kinda low on the bloody parts.”

I blinked, wrong-footed all of a sudden. “Oh, I … sort of expected you to be playing video games, I suppose.”

Tenny giggled, a fluttery sound like a thousand moths inside her chest. “Can’t play all the time, auntie Heath.”

“Um, yes, that’s very true.” I cleared my throat. “Can’t play all the time. That’s very sensible of you, Tenny. That’s good. Um, Sevens, you … ”

I trailed off as Sevens stared back at me, red-on-black eyes daring me to question this course of action. I couldn’t tell if she was exhausted and exasperated by acting as Tenny’s private home-school tutor, or if she was oddly smug about this arrangement.

Instead, I asked, “Wouldn’t there be a better mask for teaching?”

“Mmmmmmmmrrrrrrr,” Sevens rasped. “Tenny likes this one. Too much.”

Tenny confirmed this with a fluttery giggle and by hugging Sevens with her tentacles. Another spare tentacle reached over and ruffled Seven’s long, lank hair, messing it up and sending it flying all over the place. Sevens rasped a complaint, but Tenny was being too affectionate to truly restrain her. I suppressed a giggle and shared an amused look with Lozzie, who was keeping her peace, though with some difficulty. Her lips were twisted against each other to stop from laughing.

I cleared my throat. “You do know you can do this in the kitchen, if you’d like more space? Or in Evee’s study, maybe?”

I nodded at the low table. It did seem a bit cramped, between the laptop, Tenny’s notes, the open book, an unfinished chess game, and the usual assortment of Tenny’s toys and puzzles scattered about. There was even a miniature plush shark sitting on the edge by the laptop, facing the screen as if reading along. Tenny’s favourite. We’d tried to purchase one of the larger plush sharks for her, but everywhere that stocked them had them on back order. Raine had suggested we go on an actual trip to the nearest Ikea, but that would mean a whole day out to Manchester. We didn’t have time for that during exam season, at the very least.

“Tenny likes her things,” Lozzie chirped. “It’s comfy-comfy!”

One of Tenny’s silken black tentacles snaked out and stroked the miniature plush shark. Her wide black eyes stared down at the plush toy, suddenly unreadable. Perhaps it was my imagination, but for just a second, she seemed almost melancholy.

I’d come up here with a clear intent to talk to Lozzie, but I couldn’t help myself, not when faced by sad Tenny.

“Tenny,” I blurted out before I could think about what to say. “Would you like your own bedroom? Your own space? Your own bed?”

“Mmmmmuuuuur?” Tenny fluttered, looking up at me.

“You still sleep in Lozzie’s bed, with her, don’t you?” I asked.

“Mmmhmm,” Tenny confirmed with a nod. She peered at me, head tilting from side to side, fluffy white antenna twitching rapidly.

I glanced at Lozzie, afraid that she was not going to like the sound of this in the slightest. But she was lighting up.

“Tenny is the most cuddly!” Lozzie chirped, scooting forward on the bed, pulling her blanket-nest apart as she moved. “Buuuuut maybe it’s time for Tenny room? You could have a table for chess!”

Tenny blinked at the pair of us, big black eyes beneath a delicate frown. Her tentacles pulled Sevens in tighter, perhaps a subconscious gesture. Sevens didn’t complain, but she did gently bite at Tenny’s shoulder to get her to relent. Whistle woke up too, perhaps sensing the tension. He half-wriggled half-fell out of Tenny’s lap. If Tenny had been human, I swear she would have been chewing on her bottom lip or fiddling with the hem of her clothing. Her wing-cloak flexed, momentarily flushing with a rush of colours like oil on running water. Her camouflage, sparking in a moment of anxiety.

“You don’t have to,” I said gently, crossing the room and crouching down next to where Tenny was sitting, so we were eye-to-eye. She stared back at me, wide-eyed. I held her tentacle tight in my own, wrapping around it like a woven rope. “It was just a suggestion. And we’ll all be right here, still under the same roof. Evee’s bedroom is on the other side, so you won’t be next door to Lozzie, but I’m certain we can clear out one of the spare rooms.”

“One of,” Sevens said with an amused rasp.

“We could get Praem to help,” I carried on. “You could choose things to put on the walls, posters or pictures. You could have a whole pile of plush sharks on the bed, if you wanted. And you don’t have to sleep in there if you don’t want to.” I lowered my voice to a stage whisper, leaning in close to Tenny. “You could always sneak back in here and sleep with Lozzie.” I nodded very seriously, as if this was a secret revelation from the depths of the abyss. I glanced back at Lozzie, who was pretending not to be amused by all this.

I thought that was rather clever, but Tenny didn’t quite agree. She stared at me, then up at Lozzie on the bed again, then back at me.

“I don’t want to go anywhere,” she said in her trilling voice.

“Awwww, Tenns!” Lozzie said, then emitted a sound like a concerned seal.

“Tenny, it would only be another room in the house,” I said, struggling not to melt completely. “But you don’t have to. It’s just a thing you can do, if you decide you want to. It’s your decision. Not mine, not Lozzie’s, not anybody else’s, okay?”

Tenny puffed her cheeks out — a Lozzie-gesture, which at least let me know she was back on track — then blew out all the air and said, “Will think about it.”

I nodded, then reached forward to give Tenny a proper hug, with both my human arms and all my tentacles. She returned the hug, suddenly giggly again. It was like hugging a bag of snakes covered in cooking oil and engine grease, slippery and muscular and with patches of fluffy white fuzz in between. Tenny purred and vibrated like a giant cat.

“We all love you, Tenny,” I murmured. “I love you, Lozzie loves you. Nobody is going anywhere. Even auntie Evee loves you, even when she’s grumpy. Even Zheng cares about you.”

“Urrrump?” Tenny made a doubtful noise at that last one.

“It’s true,” I whispered.

We slowly disentangled our hug, though Tenny stayed attached by a couple of tentacles even as I stood up and stepped back. The momentary melancholy had lifted from her features. I shared an amused glance with Lozzie. Somehow, the solidity and simplicity of reassuring Tenny had banished the worst of the guilt and frustration, smothered the razor-sharp core of abyssal ruthlessness, and soothed most of my worries.

But all that buckled and threatened to collapse again, as I watched Lozzie wiggle her legs over the side of her messy bed.

I’d told Tenny a lie, hadn’t I?

I did love her, little Tenns, and so did Lozzie, her mother. But I’d told her very clearly that nobody was going anywhere. And that just wasn’t true.

Like an insensitive fool, I opened my mouth and almost spoke the dreaded words: Lozzie, we need to talk. But I caught myself at the last moment and transitioned into a hiccup. Last time I’d used that phrase, I’d terrified Lozzie out of her wits. There was no need for that now.

“Heath?” Tenny trilled. She’d picked up on the sudden change in tension. Or maybe just the hiccup. Whistle had too, trotting past me with a wide berth, like I was a whirlpool and might suck him in.

“Tenny, Praem is making tea downstairs,” I said, plastering a fake smile across my face. Lozzie caught that, peering up at me from the bed, all curious. “If you go and ask very politely, and say please, she might make you some hot chocolate. I think there’s another jar of peanut butter earmarked for you, as well.”

I was not very skilled at this kind of conversational subterfuge. Sevens came to my rescue though, standing up and encouraging Tenny to follow her. She must have understood my intention. But even if she hadn’t, the promise of peanut butter monopolised all of Tenny’s attention and made her tentacles very excited. She dropped half of what she was doing, scooped up her plush shark, and hopped to her feet, waving the empty jar of peanut butter on the end of one tentacle.

“Peanub bubber!”

“Gaaaoorrrr,” went Sevens, dragged along in Tenny’s wake like a small girl with a large dog. “Yes yes, peanut butter.”

“Hot choco and peanub bubber!”

Seconds later we heard Tenny fluttering down the stairs, followed by Sevens doing her best not to get swept off her feet. Whistle nosed out of the door after them, but not before he cast a doubtful look back at me.

I sighed heavily. Even dogs could tell. I was an open book.

Lozzie looked up at me from the bed. No imitation human gestures for her, she was very openly biting her lower lip. She knew I’d wanted to get her alone for a second. “Heathy?”

“It’s okay, Lozzie, it’s fine. It’s fine.”

Gently, I pushed the bedroom door almost shut. The sunlight from the corridor dwindled to just a crack, closing us together in the fuzzy shadows inside the house.

“Heathy? What is it?” Lozzie asked.

Her eyes had gone wide as they could, with her permanent sleepy-lidded look. Her hands twisted at the bedsheets in her lap. She seemed so much smaller without her poncho on — she was wearing a pair of pajama bottoms borrowed from me, pink with little strawberries up the legs, and an old t-shirt I think she’d gotten off Evelyn, with a cartoonish pink-haired pony on the front, from one of those cartoons Evelyn liked.

“Lozzie, it’s fine,” I said in a rush, sitting down on the bed next to her. “I just … I never thanked you. For last weekend. With Hringewindla.” I let out a big sigh of relief and nervous tension as Lozzie made a little oh-shape of realisation with her mouth. “You showed up just when I needed you, and I … I didn’t thank you.”

I looked down at my hands in my lap. That was only half the truth.

Lozzie didn’t answer. Instead she slowly wrapped an arm around one of my tentacles, entwining with me without speaking, letting my automatic responses guide one of my pale, rubbery limbs to creep up and around her own arm, until I reached her shoulder. I sighed. She was only playing with me.

“Lozzie, I—”

But when I looked up, I found her staring back, head tilted so her hair hung loose, down on to her lap. “Aaaaaaaand?” she prompted.

I sighed, self-conscious and shaky. “Oh, you see right through me sometimes.”

Lozzie giggled. “I just see you, Heathy!”

“Yes, well.” I rubbed my face with one hand, trying to gather myself. “I’m just … I’m very grateful that I didn’t have to do everything alone. I feel like I’ve really learned that now. I don’t have to do anything alone, not even talking to something like Hringewindla. If I couldn’t get him out of my head, I would have been stuck, or I would have needed to get … violent.”

Lozzie averted her eyes briefly, but she nodded.

“But I didn’t have to do that,” I said. “Because you were there. The others were there too, and they helped. But mostly it was you. Butting in at the last moment. When I was communicating with him.”

My lower lip shook. I had to bite it, too hard.

“Oooooooooh,” went Lozzie. “Ahhhhhhhhhh. Hmmmmmmmmmmmmm. Hrm.”

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I just … I wish I’d had more … time? I don’t even know.” I shook with each breath. Lozzie reached out and put her other arm around my shoulders. “I’m not ungrateful, but Lozzie, speaking with Hringewindla was the closest I’ve ever gotten to speaking with something like the Eye. And the only thing I could do was make a metaphor out of it. I was talking to my own mind, processing him into something I could understand. And the Eye won’t be helpful, not like Hringewindla was.”

Lozzie nodded against my shoulder. “He’s reaaaaaally sweet. Mmhmm!”

I looked up and met her eyes, half-sleepy and heavy-lidded. For a moment, my heart blazed with hope. “Did you see the old man, in the cabin?”

Lozzie blinked several times and shook her head. “No?”

The lump returned to my throat. I took a deep breath and nodded. “All in my head. Even if I can communicate with the Eye, it’s not going to be so helpful.”

Lozzie squeezed me tighter.

“I’m sorry, Lozzie. But I sort of wish you’d left me there for a few more minutes. Alone with Hringewindla. So I could learn how to … ”

How to hurt him. I left that part unsaid.

I didn’t even know if it was right. I had no idea what I would have to do to the Eye. I still didn’t know. The experience with Hringewindla suggested methods. Painful ones.

“Never alone,” Lozzie said. “Never alone, never by yourself, that’s the point, Heathy! You’re not going to be alone.”

I looked up at her again, so hard she almost flinched at the look in my eyes. I felt like grabbing her and shaking her. “Are you going to be there for the Eye, in Wonderland? Could you do that to the Eye?”

“Heath—”

“Because I don’t want you to, Lozzie. I don’t—” I cut myself off and glanced at the open crack of door. I could hear Tenny burbling and trilling happily downstairs. “I don’t want you to leave Tenny behind.”

Lozzie bit her lip.

“You’re her mother,” I continued. “I can’t even ask you to come to Wonderland, to take that risk. I can’t ask you to come with us and maybe … maybe not come back. I can’t ask you to do that.”

Lozzie blinked at me several times. Then she wiped the tears from my cheek with the back of her sleeve, and looked at me like I was an idiot.

“Um,” I said, suddenly blushing.

That was a very unique look from Lozzie. She’d never done it before. It seemed almost alien on her face, lips twisted together and one eyebrow raised. I think she copied it from a mixture of Raine and Evelyn, via pure observation.

It was very effective at getting me to shut up.

“Heathy,” Lozzie said, booping me on the nose with her free hand. “Why do you think I’ve made all the cattys? And the knights too! Everyone wants to help you! I promised I was going to help you, remember? You saved me, so I help you! Don’t you remember? Mmhmm, mmhmm?”

Lozzie bobbed her head insistently, catching my eyes and stopping me from looking away.

I did remember. I remembered all too well, because it was one of the defining events of my life. Lozzie, barefoot and bloodied, filthy and greasy and twitchy with trauma, surrounded by pneuma-somatic creatures, on that morning last year after we’d pulled her out of her brother’s castle. I remembered Lozzie, promising that she’d return to help rescue my sister, that she would find a new kind of help. And she had. The Knights and the Caterpillars. Lozzie’s secret supernatural army, just on the other side of the membrane, waiting Outside.

I shook my head. “Of course I remember. But I can’t exploit them, either. You made life. I can’t send them all to their doom. It would be like genocide.”

“It won’t be doom!” Lozzie all but yelled in my face. I blinked in surprise as she surged with outrage.

“Lozz—”

“No doom! No doom! No doom-brained bad thoughts!” I’d never seen Lozzie like this before, with such a serious little frown etched on her forehead, eyes pinched with determination. “We’re gonna make the opening. You’re gonna reach in! The cattys are made for this, they’re so good at it! I didn’t even know they’d be so good, but they are! We can’t go wandering around Wonderland — ahaha,” she giggled at the double meaning, “but they can! They’re built for it. And the Knights are determined too, they can deal with all the other stuff, the mess and ruins and looking after us. We’re going to need that, yes? Yes? Yes! Even with Zhengy and Evee and everything, we can’t do it alone. And they want to help! And … ” Lozzie trailed off. For a moment I thought she was going to crumple and look away. Her whole posture wavered, about to go. But then she screwed her eyes shut and carried on. “And maybe they don’t all come back. Okay. Okay okay okay. Maybe some of them don’t. Maybe some don’t. But everyone wants to help. Everyone knows you! Everyone wants to know Maisie. Me too, Heathy. Me too.”

I struggled to find an answer to that. Lozzie’s sudden confidence was like warm butter inside my chest. I couldn’t look her in the eyes. I almost curled up into my own lap, wishing I could vanish.

“I know. I know, you’ve told me that, I just … there’s so many other things I’m supposed to do. Things I have to do. I need to talk to Jan about making a back-up body for Maisie. We need to get the book. But I don’t … I don’t know what to do. When we get there. To Wonderland.” My voice trailed off to barely more than a whisper. “I haven’t said this next part to Raine, or Evee, or anybody. I can’t. It’s … really hard to keep going. To keep doing these things, to stay focused on these things. It’s really hard to be preparing for … for after, when I don’t know if we’re even going to survive it.” I took a deep breath and felt the guilt purge itself from me as I finally admitted it. “And it’s all on me. You’re going to help, and thank you. But the last piece of it, it’s all on me. And I’m so scared. And sometimes I just want to climb into bed and forget everything, stop trying, stop thinking.”

I squeezed my eyes shut. Lozzie hugged me tight. We stayed like that as I lost track of time, one minute drifting into another. I found myself listening to her heartbeat, wiping my tears on her shoulder.

“I haven’t told anybody that part,” I said eventually.

“It’s okay.”

“I don’t know what to do.”

“It’s okaaaaaay.”

“But I don’t.”

“That’s what the knights and the cattys are for,” she whispered. “And Evee-weavy’s magic circle. And everything else. You don’t have to know everything right away. Wonderland has secrets, we’ll find them, then you can use them!”

I sniffed loudly. “I hope you’re right.”

“Lozzies are always right,” said Lozzie.

Eventually I managed a small laugh. Lozzie and I stayed wrapped together for a long time, long enough for somebody — Raine, I think — to call up the stairs. Lozzie called back, but nobody came to look for us.

We separated, but stayed holding hands, side by side on the jumble of bedsheets. Lozzie rummaged in her poncho on the end of the bed, produced a hair brush, and set about brushing my hair while humming happily.

“Oh, Lozzie.” I almost started crying again, but I held it back. Something had released inside me, some muscle that had been twisted up for weeks now. The guilt had faded to mere echoes. “You’re too sweet.”

“Sweety-sweets as sweets does.”

I managed to laugh. “What does that even mean?”

“It means, don’t eat me.” She tapped my head with the hairbrush, very lightly.

“I do need to ask Jan about a lot of stuff.” I sighed, staring down at my lap. “That wasn’t me being hyperbolic. And, well, I do need to ask you about her, too.”

“Janny is cuuuuuute,” Lozzie chirped, still brushing my hair, slowly and methodically. She guided my hand up to feel how smooth she’d made it, smooth and silky against my head.

“Yes, of course,” I said. “But are you and her … um … ?”

Lozzie ducked around my side, back into my field of vision, blinking innocently. “Mm-mmm?”

I sighed and gave her an indulgent smile. “Oh, I suppose I should talk to her really. Or both of you, together? We do have a lot to discuss. Maybe Evee and I should call her again, I’m not sure.”

Lozzie tilted her head at me. “Wanna go visit right now?”

“ … now?”

She broke into a mischievous, elfin little smile. “She won’t expect me to bring you along! You can surprise her, catch her off guard!”

“Ah?”

Lozzie dropped the hairbrush, patted me on the head, and hopped to her feet. “All done!” She pulled her poncho off the bed and wriggled into it, making a little ‘pwah!’ sound as her head popped free of the collar, hair going everywhere. Then she grabbed her mobile phone from the bed, jabbed at the screen, and held it up to her ear.

“Lozzie?”

“Shh-shh-shhhhh!” She shushed me, then bobbed from one foot to the other as she waited for her call to connect, then suddenly said, “It’s meeeee! Are you wearing all your clothes right now? Or at least half your clothes?” A pause. “Because I’m gonna be there in about ten seconds! Hide all your secrets, now!”

Lozzie ended the call before giving Jan time to respond — at least, I assumed it was Jan. I hadn’t been able to hear the other end of the phone. She was giggling like crazy, biting her lip, swiping hair out of her face, like this was the funniest jape in the world. Then she stuck her hand out to me.

“Ready?” Lozzie asked.

“You … you mean we’re going to Slip?”

“Mmhmm!” Lozzie nodded. “Quicker than walking! Smoother than cars. Not as cool as trains, because trains are cooler than most things, but still cool.”

I cleared my throat, struggling not to grin. “Lozzie, I’m sorry, I feel like I’m the one being caught off-guard here. I’m … okay, I suppose I am dressed for this.” I glanced down at my hoodie and jeans, though I wasn’t wearing outdoor shoes, only socks. At least I had my phone in my pocket.

“We’re only going to her room. Not Outside!”

“What about everybody else?” I gestured at the door. “They’re going to wonder where we’ve gone.”

Lozzie lit up, nodded very enthusiastically — which sent her hair flying about again — and hopped over to the door. She flung it wide, stuck her head out into the corridor, and called out, “Heathy and me are heading out for a bit! Be right baaaaack!”

A smattering of confused voices replied to her, calling back up the stairs.

Lozzie bounded over to me and stuck her hand out again.

“Lozzie,” I sighed. “We can’t just … go. Can we?”

“We can! We can call when we get there!” Lozzie puffed out her cheeks at my stick-in-the-mud exasperation. “And we can both hippity-hop a hundred percent fine now, Heathy! You can just come straight back if you don’t like it.”

“I suppose that’s true … ” I stood up and straightened my hoodie. At least my hair was brushed. I looked presentable, mostly. “I do need to let … oh.”

Praem appeared in the bedroom doorway, staring at us, hands folded in front of her perfectly starched maid uniform. Milk-white eyes bored into mine.

She didn’t even need to ask.

“We’re going to see Jan,” I said with a sigh. “Let Raine and Evee know, please. Sorry, Praem.”

“Mmhmm!” Lozzie nodded and stuck out her other hand toward Praem. “We gotta be quick or she’ll be ready for us! Wanna come too?”

“No, thank you,” said Praem. “Have fun.”

“We will!” Lozzie giggled. She grabbed my hand, and before I could raise any further complaint, reality collapsed like a badly balanced house of cards.

==

Rough landing, rougher than usual, even for a Lozzie-Slip. Like slamming on the brakes too late. Soul jarred loose, rattling around inside too much flesh. Senses jumbled, overlapping, taking too long to reboot.

I managed to keep my feet, digging my toes into thick green carpet through my socks. Stumbled into a wall, tentacles thumping against plaster, bracing my weight, keeping me upright. Doubled over, panting and heaving, but I didn’t vomit. Carpet was too nice to ruin with vomit.

My trilobe bioreactor pulsed hot for two or three seconds, burning like a fragment of star in my gut. Hotter than it needed to, just to keep me standing and conscious. My skin broke out in cold flash-sweat. A full-body shiver gripped me.

Fighting off an attack. But from what?

“Lozzie?” I croaked.

No answer.

I reeled upright in panic, blinking hard to clear my eyes. Something had gone badly wrong during the Slip.

Fancy corridor. Thick green carpet with a darker green pattern down the middle. Cream-coloured wallpaper, muted and tasteful. Soft lighting at sensible intervals. Air conditioning humming away. Voices, distant and muffled. The sound of a television playing somewhere behind a wall.

Doors ran down either side of the corridor. Soft cream-yellow. Numbered in brass, with card slots for locks. One-oh-five, one-oh-six, marching down to shiny steel lift doors and the right-hand turning of the stairs.

Hotel corridor. Empty, except me.

“Lozzie?” I said.

No Lozzie.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Mages have agendas of their own, dark and unthinkable; what does Felicity really want? Who knows. Heather certainly doesn’t, but maybe she can keep this particular mage under control long enough to get what they need from her, without inviting too much extra danger. At least things went well with Lozzie! And Tenny is growing up fast. Heather might not know what to do, but she doesn’t need to, not yet … 

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Next week, where’s Lozzie? Does Heather need to panic, or is this just a mistake? Or is Jan finally revealing her true colours?

pale student of unhallowed arts – 17.2

Content Warnings

None, I think.



Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Twil stomped back into the magical workshop armed for a food fight, clutching a sausage roll in each fist. A third dangled from between her teeth for a second before she scarfed it down, licking flakes of pastry off her lips. I’d never before seen somebody look so grumpy while eating; she was like a hound who’d been denied her treats. If we’d been discussing any other topic, I would have laughed.

But nobody was laughing that afternoon. Outdoors, the June sunlight burned high and bright in a clear sky of hammered blue iron, while we huddled in the shadows indoors, behind the heavy curtains of Evelyn’s magical workshop, talking about subjects that had no place in the light of day.

As Twil chewed, she stared at the piece of paper on the table, flawlessly printed and neatly creased — the letter from Edward Lilburne.

“Two?” Evelyn sighed from the far side of the table. She’d drawn herself upright, as far as her kinked spine and back problems would allow. She radiated grim confidence. “You said another sausage roll, not two. That is my fridge, you know.”

“Our fridge,” said Praem, at Evelyn’s shoulder.

Twil scoffed. She gestured at the letter with a sausage roll. “It’s a reward, right? For dealing with all this bollocks.”

Raine cracked a grin and rocked back in her own chair. “Dual-wielding to take down Eddy boy, huh? I can see it.”

“Pffft,” Twil snorted. She bit one of the sausage rolls in half, chewing thoughtfully. “Alright, I’ll bite—”

“You’re already doing that,” Evelyn grumbled.

“Yeah yeah, ha ha.” Twil jabbed the air with the intact sausage roll, like brandishing a dagger. “Why do we—”

“Crumbs,” Praem intoned, sudden and clear and sharp. She turned to stare at Twil, prim and straight-backed in her maid uniform.

“Eh?”

“Crumbs.”

I cleared my throat. “You’re getting crumbs everywhere, Twil. Praem does not approve of crumbs.”

Twil looked at the end of the sausage roll, then down at the table, where a few flakes of pastry had fallen. “Oh, er, shoot. Sorry, shit. Sorry, sorry!”

Praem took charge of the crumbs situation. She marched into the kitchen and returned with a plate, put it down on the table, then gently but insistently encouraged Twil to put her food on the plate like a sensible person. Twil blushed a bit, but she obeyed. Praem then handed her a piece of kitchen roll. A moment of embarrassed and amused silence passed as Twil wiped her hands, looking sheepish. Raine struggled not to laugh. Evelyn just sighed. I managed to smile, despite the black-hole weight of the letter on the table, sitting in the centre of the shadows and sucking up all my attention.

Twil huffed. “Sorry, sorry. Shit.”

“Don’t be sorry,” I said. “I think we all needed that, actually.”

“The floor does not require crumbs,” said Praem.

“Yeah, yeah, glad to be the fuckin’ clown around here,” Twil grumbled, she was smiling now too. She’d taken the edge off, bless her. She tossed the piece of kitchen roll onto the plate, then thought better of that and used it to pick up the other sausage roll and take a bite. She chewed thoughtfully again. “Alright, so. Evee. Evee-weavey puddin’ and pie.”

“Don’t you start talking like Lozzie as well,” said Evelyn.

Twil snorted a perfunctory laugh. “You said you want Ed afraid, right? Why do we want him afraid, instead of, you know, unsuspecting and surprised when we turn up to dome him with a crowbar? Actually, nah, forget that for a sec, reverse up even further. How is this making him afraid? Nothing in that sounded afraid to me. You know what it sounds like? Like a stuck-up arsehole who thinks he’s in charge. Why’d we even let him know any of that shit with the parasites happened? This bastard wasn’t scared of us before, when we met him at that pub. He fuckin’ should be though.”

Twil scowled at the letter as if she could see through the black print, to the face of the man who had composed the words.

That impression was so strong that a shiver went down my spine all of a sudden, a cold weight settling in my belly. I stared at the letter as well, worried that the thought might be literal. Bushy grey eyebrows and liver-spotted pate and thin, bloodless lips, framing a wide-eyed owlish stare, peering at us from behind the page.

Was that possible? Could the letter be a trap, a trojan horse? Praem had checked it and found it safe, Evelyn had kept the thing in a magic circle for an hour earlier, testing it, and she’d even held it up to the spider-servitors to see if they reacted.

They hadn’t, of course, or we would have burned the letter. I told myself I was getting paranoid and upset. Everything felt wrong. Even the womb-like embrace of the house all around us felt wrong for once, more like a smoky, dark room where horrible people discussed horrible things in secret. I wrapped myself slowly with my tentacles in a self-hug.

Evelyn raised her chin, nodded to Twil, and said, “I’m glad you asked.”

She reached out and shifted Edward’s letter, turning it so she could tap the first paragraph with a fingertip. Before she even opened her mouth, I recognised the shift in her posture, the taut composure in her face, the squaring of her twisted shoulders. Evee adopted the mantle of strategist-teacher, the magician Evelyn Saye; she had rehearsed these words, I was certain of that much.

“This letter reeks of fear,” she said. “Perhaps you can’t see it, but I can. Believe that. Informing Edward of the crisis with the parasite lets him know two things. One, we are actively hunting him. He would have assumed that already, but letting him know acts as a threat and a challenge, with no ambiguity, no beating around the bush.”

Twil raised her eyebrows and nodded along. She liked the sound of that part. So did Raine.

I felt a twitch of self-disgust.

“Two,” Evelyn continued, “it lets him know we’ve already overcome a major layer of his security. It lets him know we’re looking for his house, and we’ve figured out how to find it. As far as he’s concerned, we may already know where he is.”

“Yeah,” Twil sighed. “That’s the bit I don’t get.”

“There is a third reason.” Evelyn allowed herself one of those narrow, dangerous smiles. She was enjoying this. I shivered inside when I saw that, Evelyn in her element, hunting another mage. “Now he knows I’m not afraid of telling him this. I’ve informed him that he is being hunted. Do you understand the implication? The letter I sent to Edward Lilburne was a death threat.”

Evelyn smiled even wider. She almost laughed, shoulders slumping again beneath her cream sweater.

Twil frowned, pulling a face. She popped the last piece of sausage roll in her mouth and chewed slowly. “Okay, so, yeah, we all know you can be kind of intimidating when you wanna be. But this guy already knew we were gonna try to take him out, right? I still don’t get how his reply means he’s afraid of us.”

Raine clacked her chair back down onto all four legs. “I can kinda see it. Think I get it. The way he totally deflects instead of having a gloat. And he tries to insult Evee, too.”

“Mm,” Evelyn grunted. “Trying to rattle me in return.”

“That’s how you can tell,” I said with a sigh. My words felt bland and empty, not really what I wanted to say. “I agree with Evee about that part. I think the news about the parasite really shook him. He really wants to turn it around and accuse Evee. Make her angry. Reverse offender and victim, all that sort of stuff.”

“Exactly,” Raine said. She shot me a wink, then reached over to squeeze my shoulder. “Old bastards like him are always the same.”

Twil puffed out a dismissive breath. “We don’t even know this fuckin’ guy. We don’t know how he’s reacting, what he’s thinking. Maybe that’s the kind of thing he says when he feels in control?”

Raine shook her head. I shrugged, though I disagreed. I could practically feel the man himself leeching through the paper, like oil or fat leaving stains on the fingertips. I didn’t even want to touch it.

Evelyn was staring down at the letter, dark and intense. I wanted to reach out and grab her shoulders, but she was on the other side of the table. A tentacle crept outward from my side, but I couldn’t cross the gap. I’d put her in this position in the first place, hadn’t I?

“I may not know Edward Lilburne the man,” she said. “But I know exactly what he is. I know that kind of response, I recognise it. Maybe ‘afraid’ is not the right word, fine, whatever. But he’s upset. Angry, afraid, the specifics don’t matter. As long as he knows we’re close.”

Twil visibly swallowed, staring down at Evee. Then she cleared her throat. “So what, all this is bluster, he’s trying to fuck with us?”

“Trying to fuck with me,” Evelyn said.

She raised her eyes from the letter and the dark spell over her countenance broke like a summer storm, into clear skies and clear eyes. She took a deep breath and glanced around at the rest of us. Her gaze stopped on me for a split second. Maybe she saw the guilt, I wasn’t sure.

“He doesn’t seriously expect me to believe a word of this,” she added. “It’s an attempt to irritate. A show of power and contempt. But it is aimed squarely at me, and that’s important.”

Twil laughed and thumped down in a chair, kicking her legs up and stretching. “Bloody hell, Evee. You’re good, sure, but you’re so full of yourself sometimes. You know that, right?”

Raine leaned forward in her chair, frowning at Evee, then turning her head to re-read the letter Evelyn had sent to Edward. She was fascinated by something all of a sudden. “No, hold up a sec. Evee’s on to something here.”

Evelyn nodded. “Mirror imaging,” she said. Raine whistled low, genuinely impressed.

“Errrrr,” went Twil.

I made eyes at Evee, both politely interested and seeking to prompt her from slipping too deeply into rehearsed responses.

“Mirror imaging,” she repeated with a nod at me, awkwardly clearing her throat. “It’s a kind of cognitive bias. It means you assume that the thing or person you’re trying to analyse must think in the same ways that you do. How much do you know about the Vietnam War?”

Twil and I looked at each other, both equally out of our depth. Raine laughed and shook her head, leaning back and blowing out a long breath, as if Evelyn had just performed some impressive trick shot.

“Er,” Twil said. “Not … a lot?”

“Evee,” I sighed. “I appreciate the illustration, but this is a bit esoteric.”

“Esoteric,” Praem said. I think she was agreeing with me.

“Sometimes esoteric is useful,” Evelyn huffed. “During the Vietnam War, the Americans kept searching for a hypothetical ‘bamboo Pentagon’ in the jungle, mostly in Cambodia, because they assumed the Vietnamese had the same kinds of power structures as they did. So there had to be some kind of secret command centre that they could blow up, kill all the commanders, the planners, the strategists, and the rest of it would just fall apart without the head of the system.” Evelyn made a ‘pffft’ sound. “Mirror imaging. Assuming your opponent thinks like you.”

“Projection?” Twil suggested.

“Kind of.”

“You could have just said projection.”

Evee gave her a pinched look. She tapped the letter she’d sent to Edward then pointed at us with her maimed hand. “In my message to him, I mentioned you, I mentioned Raine, and Heather. Zheng as well. I phrased it as being from all of us. In his reply, it’s all me.” Twil turned her head to re-read the letter as Evee went on. “Edward Lilburne is an old and powerful mage. There’s probably a grain of truth in his claim of respect for me, though I don’t think it would stop him from killing me, or worse. But I’m the only one he bothered to address directly. Mage-to-mage, appealing to my pride and vanity, all that guff. He may consider me to be like him, and all the rest of us as just … followers. Mirror imaging. I wanted to see if he would do it, and he did. Well, either that or he’s done a fantastic job of faking.”

“Could be trying to throw us off,” Raine suggested.

“Mm. Could be, yes. But it also may indicate a very serious blind spot for him.”

We all stared at the letter for a long moment.

“So, uh.” Twil cleared her throat. “You never explained why we want him to be afraid.”

Evelyn took a deep breath and raised her chin again. Proud, in control, focused and obsessed. “Because I want him to start expending his energy. I want him calling up extra security right now, demons or muscle or whatever he’s got. I want him expending resources, the sooner the better. That house will already be fortified as much as possible, more warning won’t make any difference to that. But I want him on edge. I want him thinking that we’re almost on him. I want him struggling to sleep and jumping at every shadow. I want him to get sloppy.”

My stomach turned over.

“Seems pretty fuckin’ optimistic,” said Twil.

I sighed. My mouth was dry. “It’s all we’ve got right now,” I said. “Good … good plan, Evee. I think it’s good.”

Evee smiled at me. Oh, she liked that. She liked it when I told her she was doing good.

Coward, a little voice whispered inside my head.

I was a coward for not breaking her out of this cycle all week. Down in Hringewindla’s shell, she’d shouted something to me, and all week I’d been pretending I didn’t know exactly what it meant. Because that would be Evee, my best friend, maybe more. But right now I needed her to be the strategist. I needed Evelyn Saye, mage, territorial and devious, so I’d been allowing her to sink deeper all week long. And now she was planning terror and murder, for my benefit.

I had to change the subject, anything, anywhere other than this. “Evee, um, may I ask, why did you ask him about Amy Stack?”

Evelyn nodded, a twinkle in her eye. “To confirm that he has no idea where she is.”

I frowned, then turned my head to read Edward’s reply again.

Your inquiry as to the whereabouts of Miss Stack is equally puzzling. Furthermore, it inclines me to believe that you have inherited not only your late mother’s reckless pursuit of power, but also her sadism. We both know what has happened to Amy Stack. I will not dignify the question with an answer.

“Does he think we killed her?” I asked.

Evelyn shook her head. “He’s hedging his bets.”

“Lettin’ us fill in the blanks,” Twil said. A grin spread across her face. She nodded along with Evelyn.

“He has no idea where Stack is,” Evelyn said. “I hope that scares him too.”

“Bloody well should do,” said Twil. “Fuckin’ skinhead whack-job runnin’ around out there.” She paused and frowned. “Wait, do we know where she is?”

“Not exactly,” Raine supplied. “But I called her last week, regular check-in, make sure she’s still breathing. I let her know all about the parasite stuff, what happened with Nicky. Gave her the same range where Evee’s looking for the house.” Raine nodded at the Ordnance Survey map with the potential range of Nicole’s fugue-state wander marked out in red. “She’s out there doing the same thing as us, in her own way. Kind of.”

“If they kill each other,” said Evelyn, “it’ll be less work for us in the long run.”

Twil shook herself, a bit like a wet dog. She looked horribly uncomfortable at the mention of Amy Stack. “Fuck. I hate that she’s out there.”

“She’s been warned off killing any of the Eye Cult,” I said. “We’re … still going to, well, try to help them. I think.”

“She’s our tool,” Evelyn said. “For now.”

Twil puffed out a big sigh. All her sausage rolls were gone. “You’re gonna share all this stuff with my parents, right?”

Evelyn waved a hand over Edward’s letter. “There’s nothing in here of use to them.”

Twil suddenly growled Evelyn’s name — a real growl, a canine rumble deep in her chest. The sound reached down into my brain-stem and poked the part of me that was descended from savannah apes, who’d spent their lives running from large predators with sharp teeth. I flinched hard, almost scrambling out of my chair, tentacles whirling to knock Twil away from me, hiccuping twice. It was a minor miracle I didn’t slap her right across the face. Instead I just sort of punched her in the ribs.

“Ow!” Twil yelped, grabbing her side.

Marmite flinched too. He’d been perfectly content to slip back into a semi-doze earlier, after Praem had soothed him, but Twil’s growl woke him like a fire alarm. He scuttled back and halfway up the wall, taking shelter between the two spider-servitors, tentacles bristling and black membranes wrapping him in shadowy camouflage.

Raine had too much practice and self-control to lose herself to a flinch, but she still jerked, hand halfway to where her knife lay on the table, safely sheathed.

Evelyn flinched almost as bad as me, accompanied by a sharp gasp through her teeth, going white in the face.

“Twil!” she snapped.

“Bad dog,” said Praem.

“Ow, Heather!” Twil looked at me like I’d slapped her with a fish. She didn’t need to guess who had delivered the invisible punch to her ribs.

“I-I’m sorry!” I blurted out, mortified. I hiccuped again, then hissed in frustration with my own body. “Twil, you were growling! Really growling!”

“Bad dog,” Praem repeated.

“Hey, I’m not actually a dog!” Twil spread her arms at Praem, as if ready to throw down for a fight.

“Bad wolf,” Praem corrected. “But not big.”

Twil tutted. “Oi. And hey, I can’t help being angry! I thought we were supposed to be on the same side now, us and my parents, right? They need to know this shit too, if you’re winding Edward up on purpose! He even mentioned them, you think that part is a lie? You think he’s going to go after them, huh?!”

I tried saying her name. “Twil—”

“They have the protection of their god,” Evelyn replied. “And the glasses I’ve made for them. Twil, I am not worried about your family.”

“Then fucking share information with them!” Twil snapped.

“Alright!” Evelyn shouted back, throwing her hands up. “Fine!”

“Hey, heeeeey,” Raine said, standing up and raising her hands up to lower the sudden spike in temperature. “Ease down, girls, ease down. What have you been putting in the water, Evee?”

“Indoor voices,” said Praem.

“Yes,” I said, one hand to my heart, feeling it flutter and race beneath my ribs. “Oh my goodness, you two. Where is this coming from all of a sudden? Evee, Twil is technically right, we did agree to share information. But Twil, you growled. That was frightening. Please, don’t.”

Twil gritted her teeth and ducked her head, embarrassed and ashamed. She put a hand to her own forehead, hiding behind it. “I’m sorry, alright? I didn’t mean to get angry.”

Evelyn and I shared a confused look. She shrugged. I pulled my battered nerves together and sat back down in the chair next to Twil, trying to peer at her face. “Twil?” Gently, I touched her shoulder. “Twil, what’s wrong?”

Twil peered out at me from behind her hand. She glanced away, then back again, then gestured at Edward Lilburne’s letter.

“I’m angry about this, okay?” she grumbled under her breath. “All the stuff in it about … about Lozzie. It’s setting me off.” She sniffed, though I didn’t spy any tears gathering in her eyes. She nodded awkwardly to Evelyn. “Sorry Evee. Not really mad at you. Just this shit’s setting me off. I don’t like the way he talks about Lozzie.”

Twil hunched in her chair. I patted her shoulder.

“Me neither,” I said.

“Perfectly understandable,” Evelyn said, clear and formal. “No need for an apology.”

“Mm,” Twil grunted.

Praem stepped away from her habitual position at Evelyn’s shoulder. She walked around the table, bustled over to the doorway, skirts rustling, and then flicked the light switch. We all sat there blinking for a second, casting weirdly guilty looks at each other, shadows banished to the corners. Marmite stood out on the wall like a splotch of ink.

“Not a big fan of that shit either,” Raine said after a moment, putting her hands on her hips. She leaned over to examine the letter again, as if she had to reread to remember. “Nope, not in the slightest. Doesn’t change anything from the other letter though, the one in the library. Not a nice reminder though, hey.”

I didn’t need to remind myself of what it said about Lozzie. Praem had read the words out loud. Even the sing-song beauty of her voice hadn’t robbed Edward’s words of their toxic poison.

He really, really wanted Lozzie. His niece. His property. The thought made my skin crawl.

“Why?” I whispered. I hadn’t meant to whisper, but the word came out as a choke.

Evelyn shrugged. “Her unique powers, I assume. Her nature. Edward and Alexander spent years, maybe decades, trying to tap into that dying star beneath the castle. Lozzie upended all that, learned more from it than they ever could. But she wasn’t easy to exploit.”

Twil was scowling at the letter like she wanted to sink her teeth into it. “Then why didn’t he, you know, brain-rip her or whatever, back when they had her in captivity?”

“ … maybe,” I started to say. The words stuck in my throat. I didn’t want to even suggest this. But everyone glanced at me. “Maybe her brother protected her from their uncle.”

Twil squinted at me like I was mad. “That fuck? Protect her?”

I shrugged, feeling intensely awkward. “He was … evil and abusive, yes. But it’s not impossible. It doesn’t make him good or anything. It doesn’t redeem him. It’s just a theory, anyway. It’s not like we can ever ask the man himself.”

Twil snorted. “Fingers crossed.”

“Hey, hey,” Evelyn said, tapping the table to get our attention. “Do not tempt fate when it comes to the mortality of mages.”

I couldn’t help but notice that her hand was shaking. She quickly made a fist to hide the tremor.

“Evee, he’s never coming back,” I said. “He’s gone.”

“And I pray you are correct,” she said, without any hint of mockery.

Silence fell on that dour note. Evelyn sighed and rubbed her eyes. I had to take several deep breaths — I may have put the mage to rest at long last, but the memory of Alexander Lilburne and the weight of his murder still lay across my shoulders, even if the King in Yellow had helped settle that burden more comfortably. Raine must have seen it written on my face, because she stepped over to give me a hug, rub my shoulders, and squeeze the back of my neck, working out the tension. I almost purred. I also wrapped a tentacle around her leg without thinking, which made her jump slightly, but only slightly — she was getting used to my invisible touches.

Twil pulled an awkward grimace and looked up at the ceiling. “Could always ask Loz’ herself, I guess.”

“She doesn’t really like to talk about her brother,” I said softly.

“Can hardly blame her for that,” said Raine.

Twil just kept staring at the ceiling, as if she could see right through the wood and plaster, into Lozzie’s bedroom upstairs. She gritted her teeth and swallowed. She was terrible at hiding her emotions.

“Twil?” I murmured her name. Evelyn grunted as well, curious or concerned.

“There’s no question about it, right?” Twil said through her teeth. “There’s no way we would trade Lozzie for that book. Right? There’s no way we’d give her up, for … ”

Twil looked away from the ceiling as she spoke. She tried to conceal what she was really thinking, but she was never any good at that. Her eyes flickered across Evelyn and Praem, and met Raine’s serious look, but her question wasn’t addressed to them, not really. As she trailed off, she left the truth unsaid, staring at me.

“No,” said Praem.

“How is that even a question?” Evelyn spat. “Under no circumstances.”

“Yeah, Twil,” Raine said with a little chuckle. “Hell, I’m almost offended.”

But Twil waited for me.

A cold ball of rotten meat settled in my belly. Abyssal ruthlessness reared out of the dark of my mind, a thing of blade-sharp claw and absolute survival. I’d already been ruthless this week, I’d channelled cowardice into getting what I needed from Evelyn, telling myself it was respect. What was one more betrayal? A larger betrayal, certainly, but it was far from impossible. Instinct whispered.

I took that idea and turned it over in my mind, consciously, with both eyes open.

“ … Heather?” Twil was frowning at me.

I took a deep breath, looking right back at her, and said, “Twil, I will never trade Lozzie for Maisie.”

Twil’s teeth-gritting tension morphed into a mortified grimace. “H-hey, I wasn’t saying that! I wasn’t saying that!”

“It’s what you were thinking,” I said, forcing the words up a closing throat. “And it’s a fair question.”

Twil put her hands up to ward me off. “I didn’t mean—” She slammed to a halt. “Wait, what?”

“And the answer will always be no.” I blinked a distant threat of tears out of my eyes. “I’m not going to pretend the concept has not occurred to me. I … would be the only one capable of it, I think. Of … trapping her.” I shook my head and blew out a shaking breath, then hiccuped. “But I reject it. I reject the decision. There would be no point in getting my twin sister back if I have to become a monster to do it. She wouldn’t want that.”

“I-I really didn’t mean—”

“So it was a fair question,” I said, my voice dying.

We all slipped into embarrassed silence. Raine squeezed my shoulders, but I nearly pushed her off me. Twil nodded and hung her head. “Sorry Heather,” she murmured under her breath. I felt disgusting. Abyssal ruthlessness withered inside me.

Evelyn opened her mouth with a soft, wet click of her tongue. “True integrity doesn’t come from never having the evil thought in the first place. It comes from having the evil thought and rejecting it.” I stared at her. She shrugged, suddenly embarrassed. “You can’t resist temptation if you’re never tempted in the first place, all that. You know what I mean.”

I nodded, wiping my eyes. “Thank you, I … thank you, Evee.”

Her words washed away the filth. But why had I gone there in the first place? Why would I even acknowledge the temptation? Something was eating me inside.

“Of course,” Evelyn said, “it’s possible he doesn’t really want Lozzie at all.”

Twil squinted at her. “Eh?”

Raine laughed softly. “Seriously, Evee? You second-guessing yourself now?”

“It’s not a second guess. It’s merely possible.”

“Why?” I asked, shaking my head. “Why would he lie about that, why would he pretend?”

“To make us angry,” Evelyn said. “To rile us up. Potentially, to divide us against each other.” She gestured at Twil and me. Twil grimaced. I bit my lip. “If I’m correct and he is committing the error of mirror-imaging, then his repeated demand for Lozzie makes perfect sense. I’m the mage, he’s negotiating with me for control of a resource, so on and so on. But if I’m wrong — and I have been wrong in the past—”

Twil snorted. “Yeah, right.”

Evelyn shot her a poisonous look. “If I’m wrong, and he’s only pretending to be mirror-imaging, then he must know the demand for Lozzie would make us very angry. He’s an arrogant and powerful old bastard, yes, and he probably does want Lozzie. But is he smarter than he is arrogant?” Evelyn shook her head. “I don’t know.”

“No way to know that, yeah,” Raine said with a sigh.

Twil swore softly. “I mean, damn, it kinda worked, right?” She glanced at me. “Sorry again, Heather.”

“Apology accepted. Please don’t worry about it.”

“Do we … ” Twil bit her lip and glanced around. “Do we like, know anybody who would give Lozzie up, for some kind of reward? Not that book we need, but like, something else? Money?”

“The five of us in here, absolutely not,” Evelyn said. “I trust all of you completely.” Evelyn’s composure held for a couple of seconds, but then she cleared her throat and turned away. A faint blush crept up her cheeks. Praem crossed the room again and put one hand on Evelyn’s shoulder.

“Zheng as well,” I said, covering for Evee’s embarrassment. “Zheng loves Lozzie like family. And she really hates mages.”

“Can Sevens be bought?” Raine asked.

I shook my head. “Not unless Edward kidnaps me or something. And she’d probably suggest something else, first.”

Twil laughed awkwardly. “Obviously Tenny is cool.”

“Oh, of course.” I nodded along, feeling increasingly uncomfortable. If Edward intended to turn us against each other, isn’t this exactly what he would want us to discuss?

“I think my family’s good, too,” said Twil. She huffed. “Though I would say that, yeah.”

“No, I agree, you’re right,” I said. “Their god … likes her, a lot. He wouldn’t demand otherwise of them. I think.”

“ … Kim?” Twil ventured, grimacing.

Evelyn shrugged. “At gunpoint, perhaps. But otherwise, no.”

“Badger and Sarika are risks,” Raine said softly. “We should keep them away from her.”

“I really don’t think either of them are a risk anymore,” I said.

Raine redoubled her efforts to rub my shoulders. “Hey, just in case. That’s all I mean.”

“Nicky’s not gonna flip, right?” Twil asked.

Raine laughed. “What, the one good cop from the Sharrowford Police? The one cop good enough to get the fuck out of the force? Nah. Nicky’s incorruptible.”

“Stack?” I asked.

“Not while her boy is under my protection,” Evelyn said.

We all shared an increasingly awkward look. We were avoiding the obvious.

“But … hey,” Twil said, clearing her throat. “Lozzie can Slip now, right? Free and everything? We don’t even know if she’s upstairs right now. She might be off somewhere Outside, making out with a giant lizard or something. Right?”

Evelyn shook her head. “They confined her once before, in that castle. Edward could find a way to do so again. Perhaps he already has a way.”

“Aw come on, Evee,” Twil huffed. “Just a second ago you were saying he might be faking it.”

Evelyn sighed heavily, the weight of the world on her chest. “Both. Both are possible. We must account for both. My point is that confining Lozzie, stopping her ability to step sideways, it would require time, research, a mage of considerable power and creativity … ”

She trailed off. Swallowed hard. Twil looked away and scratched her head. Raine pulled a performatively awkward expression.

“Jan,” I said.

Evelyn cleared her throat. “Well … ”

“Nah, nah,” Twil said. “Jan was, like, cool, yeah?”

“She really likes Lozzie,” said Raine. “To put it lightly.”

“We’re all thinking it,” I said, then I sighed. “Refusing to voice it isn’t going to make us feel any better.”

Evelyn opened a hand toward me. “Lozzie’s been to see her twice this last week, correct?”

“Yes,” I said. “Twice. And we don’t know where she’s staying now.”

“What?” Twil asked. “Like, does Lozzie teleport over there?”

“She does.”

“Shit.” Twil snorted. “Wish I could do that. Would save me some time.”

Evelyn clucked her tongue. “Jan has had plenty of opportunity to entrap Lozzie.”

“Yeah, sure.” Twil sounded suddenly doubtful. She sprawled back in her chair, grumpy teenager style. “But what if Ed-fuck decides to offer her a new opportunity, like? We don’t really know her, do we? She’s a con-artist who does mercenary work for the highest bidder. No standards, no morals, right? What if he offers her like a million quid to trap Lozzie for him?”

Evelyn took a deep breath and closed her eyes briefly. “I’ve decided we can trust Jan.”

“Yeah well maybe I don’t.”

“Lozzie clearly does. Twil, I want to trust her.”

Twil pulled a face at Evelyn. “Since when do you trust anybody?”

“Since it became expedient to do so.”

“Hey now,” Raine said. “I think we left an impression on Jan, but Twil’s got a point. We can’t totally trust her. Cute as a button, but maybe a snake, right?”

Evelyn swept her hand across the bare table, as if sweeping away a mess. “We can’t just tell Lozzie to stop visiting her.”

“We could try!” said Twil.

I cleared my throat. “I’ll speak with Lozzie.” Evee and Twil both looked at me. I couldn’t meet their eyes, so I looked at where my squid-skull mask sat on the workshop table, idly stroking it with one tentacle and then picking it up, as if I was planning on going somewhere I might need to wear it. “For the record, I trust Jan as well. And I can’t promise anything. But I’ll speak with Lozzie.”

That seemed to do the trick and lower the temperature in the room again. Evelyn nodded to me with exaggerated polite intention. Twil huffed and puffed and shrugged and muttered, “Fair enough.” I tried very hard not to sigh with exasperation.

They were more on edge about this than I was. I suppose I couldn’t blame them; Edward’s letter was a vile thing. The way he spoke about Lozzie made my skin crawl. There was no question, of course we would protect her. But Evelyn, my genius Evee, she didn’t know what to think — was Edward Lilburne an arrogant monster, or was he an arrogant monster smart enough to hoodwink us? And Twil was fond of Lozzie, she’d said as much to me. Back last year when we’d rescued Lozzie from Alexander, Twil had thrown herself into the raid on the castle almost without question. For a friend, a companion, a member of her pack, Twil would always stand up and fight. But we had nothing to fight, not yet. So I would talk to Lozzie.

Though I hadn’t said what I would talk to her about. I kept that part to myself.

Gosh, I thought, Evelyn’s deviousness is rubbing off on me.

Raine stepped back from my chair and pointed a finger-gun at an imaginary target on the wall. “None of this matters if we take him out first.” She lowered her thumb like the hammer on a revolver. “Bang.”

Low, confident, utterly serious. Her pose was playground make-believe, but her tone could make me believe anything.

Evelyn didn’t quite agree. She sighed sharply and drew a hand over her face. “What have I told you about mages and bullets? How many times?”

Raine raised her finger-gun to her lips and blew away an imaginary plume of gun smoke. “Maybe this time it’ll be different. He is pretty old, after all.”

“Alexander shrugged off a bullet to the chest,” she snapped, then gestured at me. “You remember what Heather told us. He was prying the thing out of his own flesh, didn’t give a damn.”

“Yeah,” Twil agreed. “That shit was spooky.”

Evelyn gave her a pinched look.

Twil shrugged at her. “What?”

“You’re also immune to bullets, in case you’ve forgotten.”

Twil tutted and rolled her eyes. “Yeah, yeah. I mean, I probably can. I’ve never been shot or nothing. Don’t really wanna confirm it, thanks.”

“Evee, Evee, Evee,” Raine said as she ‘cocked’ her imaginary revolver again, drawing her thumb back like a hammer. “You’re the one who told me to shoot him.”

“It was a desperate gamble, yes,” Evelyn said.

“Maybe, next time, we go bigger.” Raine lifted her own pair of modified glasses from the table and snapped them open with a flourish. “Maybe, next time, we should use … ” She lowered the glasses over her face and cracked a grin. “More bullets.”

Twil spluttered with laughter. “You fuckin’ goof.”

I blushed faintly. “Stop being so silly, Raine.” She was being absurd. The pose might have worked with sunglasses, but the modified pneuma-somatic seeing glasses were just plain black with non-prescription lenses.

“More bullets,” said Praem.

“Yeeeeeeeah.” Raine pointed at her. “Praem knows what she’s about.”

Evelyn was not impressed. She put her face in one hand and sighed.

But I was very impressed. Not by Raine’s absurd show-boating, but by the way she’d dragged the tension down and strangled it to death. Between Twil’s laughter and Evelyn’s exasperation, the built-up horror and anxiety of Edward’s letter had finally been banished. Raine’s real talents ran deeper than violence and intimidation. I loved her for that too.

“More bullets,” Praem echoed.

“Woo!” went Raine

“Yes, yes,” Evelyn sighed. “I’ll take the suggestion into consider … ”

Raine lowered her imaginary guns and raised an eyebrow instead. Twil perked up. Evelyn glanced up at Praem and met deadly serious milk-white eyes.

“Eyyyyy,” went Raine, grinning. “Did I just stumble on gold?”

“More bullets,” Evelyn echoed. She shrugged, sucking on her teeth and frowning to herself. “Even a very old mage is still a human being, if he’s here, on Earth. He’s still flesh. So yes, Raine. Enough bullets, enough physical damage would … disable him, at least. In theory.” She shook her head. “But we don’t have access to that kind of fire-power, not even illegally. Not on the scale I mean. Not on the kind of scale that would have stopped my mother.”

Twil’s eyebrows climbed at those words, but she managed to keep her head and clear her throat. “Haven’t we still got Stack’s gun?”

“The Sten, yeah,” Raine said with a melancholy sigh. She took the glasses back off. “She’s a beauty of weapon, but she’s not aged well. It’s a miracle Stack kept that thing from jamming up in her hands. Plus it takes nine millimetre rounds, which I think is a bit smaller than what Evee is talking about?”

“Mm,” Evelyn grunted. “Unless somebody is willing to sneak into a police armoury and spirit away an automatic shotgun, I don’t think firearms are going to be much of a solution to a mage problem.”

“ … what about Lozzie?” Twil asked.

We all shared a very awkward look.

“I’ll talk to her?” I suggested, wincing. “I don’t think she’d like that though.”

“Frankly, magic will serve us better,” Evelyn said. “Less likely to get us arrested, too.”

“I hear you on that one,” Raine said. “Still. A riot shotgun? Wouldn’t say no.”

“Don’t get your hopes up,” I said, feeling horribly awkward. I was already planning to ask Lozzie some uncomfortable questions; requesting she filch a gun for us might be a step too far. “I’m half afraid she’d hop Outside for a month and not come back, if I asked her that. She really doesn’t like to think about violence.”

I tried to laugh, but I couldn’t hide the nerves. Raine nodded, serious again, and squeezed my shoulder.

Twil gestured at the Ordnance Survey map and the photos of houses pinned on the board behind Evelyn. “None of that’ll matter if we catch him first, right? What’s the hold up with finding the house?”

Evelyn cleared her throat and glanced over her shoulder at the photographs. “We — that is Nicole and myself — have almost finished confirming the owners or occupiers of every house she could possibly have reached during her fugue state.” Evelyn cleared her throat again and sucked on her teeth, staring at the photos.

“But … you said you were like, having trouble or something? You’re almost done, so it’s gotta be one of them that’s left, yeah?” Twil laughed. “Shit, I’ll go run around the woods myself if it’ll help.”

“We’ve already had Zheng do a bit of that,” I said. I couldn’t make it sound confident, not at all. Twil looked at me, increasingly worried. “It didn’t help,” I added. “I think she’s out there now, actually.”

Evelyn examined the heavy curtains which still hid the creeping sunlight, as if she could find answers in the glow. “None of the remaining residences seem likely. I’ve begun to suspect that Edward Lilburne’s house may be … concealed.”

“Concealed?” Twil echoed, eyebrows up. She looked at me and Raine. I smiled even more awkwardly. Raine shrugged.

“Concealed, yes,” Evelyn repeated.

“Hiddeny,” said Praem.

Twil just blinked at her. “Like … what … what do you mean? Evee? What does that mean, hey?”

Evelyn rubbed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose, then swept a hand across the red-marked Ordnance Survey map. “It means that either I am completely wrong and all this has been a waste of time — unlikely, mind you,” she added with a snap. “Or, Edward Lilburne is so paranoid and obsessed with security that not only did he hide the location of his house from attempts to find it via official documents and records, but also from trying to find it on foot.”

Twil stared at her, a bit blank.

“What Evee is trying to say,” I explained. “Is that it might be tucked away in some kind of pocket space.”

Evelyn raised a finger and pulled a tight-jawed face. “I don’t think it’s the cult’s pocket dimensions and loop spaces. Those were collapsed when we broke their hold over the castle. The entire system folded in on itself. It’s gone. His house is not in a pocket dimension.”

“Then where the hell is it?” Twil asked. “Is it fuckin’ invisible?”

Evelyn sat up straight again, then rubbed at her nose, adjusted the position of her empty mug of tea, and half-turned to Praem. Then she thought better of it and turned back, looked at me, looked at Raine, and rubbed her hip.

Apparently, Twil wasn’t the only one incapable of hiding her emotions.

“Evee?” I asked, surprised.

She was wracked with anxiety.

She looked up and met my eyes. But then Twil leaned into her field of vision. “Yoooo, earth to Evee?”

Evelyn clenched a fist, she looked like she wanted to thump the table. “I have … only a very basic understanding of the kind of magical principles and practices that would allow one to conceal a building like this. Twist perception and space so you can’t walk up to it or stumble across it. I … can’t figure this out.”

“Evee?” I repeated. “Evee, there’s nothing wrong with not understanding something. We can find a way. I might be able to find the house via brain-math. If it’s hidden, that might even make it easier somehow.”

The guilt flowed out of me, finally relieved. It was my time to step up now. Evelyn could drop the mask, ease back off the throttle. Maybe I could even talk to her about other things so far left unsaid.

But Evelyn didn’t answer. She stared at the curtain.

Raine cleared her throat with exaggerated delicacy. “We do know somebody else who’s real good at keeping their house hidden. Don’t we, Evee?”

Evelyn gritted her teeth so hard I heard them squeak.

Raine continued. “She might be able to tell us how this works. Share some insight, all that. Or even find it for us, if she’s feeling so inclined. And hey, Evee, I’m pretty sure if you make the request, she’ll do anything you—”

Evelyn snapped around and fixed Raine with a glare like a barrage of railway spikes. “The last thing we need to introduce to this situation is more fucking mages. No, Raine. No.”

“‘Scuse me,” Twil said with exaggerated offense. “Who the hell are you two talking about?”

“Yes, quite,” I added. “Please, you two, I’m having trouble following this.”

Evelyn and Raine stared each other down, Evelyn visibly disgusted and bristling on the far side of the table, Raine with her hands on her hips, wearing that sort of ironic told-you-so smile. Eventually Raine broke eye contact and looked away, but it wasn’t because she’d lost.

“Remember Felicity?” she asked.

“Oh.” My heart sank. I glanced at Evelyn. She did not look very happy.

Twil frowned. “The mage who fixed Evee that one time? She was kinda whack. We never heard back from her, right?”

“Good,” Evelyn spat.

I recalled Felicity all too well. Felicity Amber Hackett, the eccentric, twitchy, damaged mage who had known Evelyn’s late and unlamented mother; the not-quite-a-doctor who had long ago performed the amputation of Evelyn’s leg; the mumbling, broken, haunted woman who had pointed a shotgun at us and then done magic so bizarre it seemed entirely out of our wheelhouse. Evelyn had described her as a demonophile psychopath, and worse. I’d briefly met — though not seen in the flesh — her bizarre semi-spiritual parasite, ‘Aym’, who had sounded like a cross between a young girl and a serial killer’s soul, a creature not quite like any other demon I’d encountered.

But Felicity had dropped everything and came running when I’d called, when I’d told her Evelyn needed help. After the Eye Cult had raided our home and left us scattered, Felicity had helped purge the demonic infestation from Evelyn’s body. The last I’d seen of her had been outside that awful house where the Eye Cult had come to ruin. She’d had her demon friend-slash-parasite in the back seat, injured on some level by exposure to the Eye’s attention. I’d told to her leave. Didn’t have time to deal with her right then.

I wasn’t sure if Evelyn was correct about Felicity, not completely. But I was absolutely certain that Evelyn still hated her.

Raine smiled and spread her arms in a placating shrug. “She’s got experience with this, Evee. You know she has. Her house is like a needle in a haystack, right? She might know how this shit works. And she’ll do anything you ask.”

Evelyn looked ready to bite the head off a small animal. Praem had her gently by the shoulders, but that didn’t seem to be helping. She opened her mouth to spit a justified rejection — and I agreed with her. Even if she was wrong about Felicity, it would be the height of insensitivity and unkindness for us to expect her to have polite and reasonable relations with the woman her mother had used to cut off her leg.

But then a cold feeling bubbled up my throat.

“Exploit her if you must.”

It took a second to realise I’d spoken. Everyone was looking at me. Cold-blooded thoughts coiled in the back of my head.

Ruthlessness.

Evelyn had turned her bitter frown on me instead, demanding an explanation. I cleared my throat and tried to justify that cold-blooded impulse, to work it back into my sense of self.

“I know you hate her,” I said, throat turning thick. Evelyn nodded, once. “And I didn’t think much of her either, even if she did … help us. But Raine is right, she came running when you needed help. Why not exploit that?”

“Heather.” Evelyn sounded very unimpressed with me. “Because—”

“You don’t have to do it yourself,” I said, holding her gaze. I had to pause to hiccup. My courage may have been cold-blooded, but I was still myself. “I’ll do it. I’ll call her. I’ll tell her it’s for you. And I’ll tell her the truth, that you don’t want to speak to her. All of it goes through me. You never have to speak with her. Let me do it, Evee. Let me do it for you. Otherwise … ” I trailed off and stared down at the map, hugging my squid-skull to my stomach like a favourite plush toy. “We could lose him again. Lose the book. Lose the opportunity. And then what? We spend another three or four weeks doing this? How much is left of my sister?”

My words came out clipped and sharp. I hadn’t intended that, but I was breaking.

“Hey,” Raine murmured gently, reaching for my shoulder. “Hey, Heather. It’s gonna be okay.”

But I caught her wrist with one of my tentacles, hard and harsh. She almost flinched, held fast. I felt terrible, but there was no turning back now. My cold-blooded impulse had curdled into frustration.

“I’m serious,” I hissed, rising up out of my chair, half with my legs, half with tentacles against the floor. I stared at Evelyn across the table. She didn’t deserve this, but the words poured out of me. “If we have to wait much longer, I may as well go by myself. Throw myself at the Eye and hope for the best. I don’t even know how to fight the thing. Fight?” I scoffed. “Fight, talk, dazzle it with a glitter-bomb, I don’t know what I’m supposed to be planning for, Evee! I still don’t know! I spoke to an Outsider god last weekend and I still don’t know!”

Raine had slipped on her pneuma-somatic glasses back on, so she could see my tentacles twitching and writhing like a furious squid. Furious at myself. My cowardice.

“Heather,” she murmured. “We’re going to figure it out.”

“Are we?” I hissed through a closing throat.

Evelyn stared back at me, frowning hard as if deep in thought. Did she even care? She’d spent all week only thinking about how to outmanoeuvre Edward Lilburne, her new rival, her territorial target, her tangled problem of professional dominance and paranoia.

A lump grew in my throat. Shame, mostly. Of course Evelyn cared, I didn’t even need to ask that. I’d turned self-doubt and Outsider fears into outward-facing spikes. I looked down, let go of Raine’s wrist, and felt all the determination flow out of me.

“I’m sorr—”

“Fine,” Evelyn said.

“A-ah?” I looked back up to find her nodding at me.

“Fine. We’ll use Felicity. We should try your brain-math, too. Anything we can use. You’re right, I think we have him cornered here. If he’s not running already, then this house must be his final refuge, the one place he doesn’t want to abandon. So yes, we might take a long time to find him. Let’s cut that short.” Evelyn gestured at Praem with her fingers. “My mobile phone, it’s on the kitchen table. Please.”

Praem turned and marched into the kitchen.

“You sure about this?” Raine asked.

Evelyn shrugged. “I’m never sure about anything, despite appearances. Don’t ask the impossible. Unless it’s … ehhh.” Her eyes flickered to me as she waved the notion away.

“E-Evee,” I tried to say, stammering over half my words. “T-this isn’t fair of me, I’m just so afraid, you don’t deserve to have to put up with my—”

“I can’t help you with the Eye directly,” she said. “I don’t know how. You’re going to have to talk with the gods to figure that out. Literally.” She sighed, ironically, and Twil snorted a little too. “But I can help you with this part. I will get that book and finish the Invisus Oculus, and you will stand in Wonderland unseen by the Eye. I will get you to the finish line, Heather. I can’t tell you how to cross it, but I will get you there.”

I almost couldn’t meet the fire in her eyes, burning cold and hungry.

Praem stepped back into the workshop with Evelyn’s phone, but Evelyn held up a hand and gestured to me.

“Give it to her,” she said.

“Ah?” I blinked as Praem pressed Evee’s phone into my palm. “I don’t follow.”

Raine shot me a wink. “You did say you’d do the talking.”

Evelyn gestured at the phone. “Her number is in the list of blocked contacts. Should be obvious. The name I’ve given her is rude enough.”

Twil stood up and peered over my shoulder as I opened the block list. My eyes went wide. Twil snorted with laughter. Raine chuckled and said, “Evee, didn’t know you had it in you.”

“Praem helped with that one.”

We all stared at Praem. She stared back at us with milk-white eyes, hiding unknowable thoughts.

Twil laughed. “Hard to imagine you coming up with something so … er … scatological.”

“Poop,” said Praem.

“Now?” I asked. “Should I call her now?”

“No time like the present,” said Evelyn. “You’re up, Heather. Besides, you’re far better at dealing with mages than I am.”

Twil laughed again. “Maybe that’s why she’s so good with … you … er. Ahem.” Twil trailed off, clearing her throat awkwardly when I shot her a frown. “Yeah. Right.”

Evelyn looked away, blushing faintly.

“Here goes nothing, I suppose,” I said. I unblocked the contact, briefly considered renaming it to just ‘Felicity’, then sighed and decided that would probably count as defacing art. So I pressed the call button, held the phone up to my ear, and said, “More mages, takeaway delivery style, coming right up.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



A strategy meeting or a guilt-trip session, Heather doesn’t know which way to turn. Evee’s got plans for Edward, but is she thinking circles around him, or is he one step ahead of her already? Getting in too deep, with too many different mages, and now there’s even more of the blasted things being thrown into the mix. Heather’s got a point though, time is running short. They have to move on him, and soon.

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Next week, did Felicity ever make it home, all those months ago? Probably. Mages, mages, mages, they’re coming out of the walls, crawling up from the basement, clawing at the windows. Heather needs to start dealing with them.

pale student of unhallowed arts – 17.1

Content Warnings

None this chapter.



Previous Chapter Next Chapter

To Miss Evelyn Saye,

For the transparent courtesy of your recent correspondence, I extend my gratitude to you and your associates. I was greatly disappointed by the lack of a timely reply to the letter I left for you in the great outsider library. I had considered the slim possibility that you did not seek the The Testament of Heliopolis, and had therefore not received my letter. I am glad to discover that my original deduction was correct. One so rarely gets the opportunity to correspond with another real magician, let alone a woman of your calibre, as an equal. Many obstacles stand in the way of open communication, such as mutual suspicion, the inherent danger of our vocation, and basic paranoia. I am delighted you have decided to re-open this dialogue.

However, the content of your letter leaves much to be desired. I had hoped for better relations between us.

The parasitic crisis you describe is highly alarming and completely unacceptable. I am gladdened by the news that the Brinkwood Church is unharmed by these events. I have no quarrel with those people or their way of life. However, these events have nothing to do with me or my work. Such recklessness would be more in keeping with my worries for your development, not the fruit of my own researches. Forgive me for being blunt, but there is no other way to say this: this is akin to something your mother would have done. I cannot but interpret this wild accusation as anything except a sad attempt to warn me about the fallout of your own excesses, while shielding yourself from blame by pinning it on me. I am certain you have convinced your associates, but I am made of sharper materials. For the warning, you have my thanks. For the accusation, my disappointment.

Your inquiry as to the whereabouts of Miss Stack is equally puzzling. Furthermore, it inclines me to believe that you have inherited not only your late mother’s reckless pursuit of power, but also her sadism. We both know what has happened to Amy Stack. I will not dignify the question with an answer.

As to your blunt demand for access to The Testament of Heliopolis, this book is not your property. It is mine. My conditions remain the same as outlined in my previous letter. I am willing to share limited portions of the text, in as safe a manner as possible, in return for custody of my niece.

You write that Lauren is an adult and that this is impossible, but this is pure sentimentality and deflection. You and I both understand that she is not fully in command of her faculties, that she has special requirements and needs, which cannot be fully met here, not by those who do not understand her. You do not understand her, or what she represents, or what she is capable of. Mishandled, she would be very dangerous, and requires special attentions. I urge you to contact my lawyer again, Harold Yuleson, with further correspondence so that we may organize the beginning of negotiations. Do not send—

“Skip the rest of that paragraph, it dissolves into legalese.”

Evelyn interrupted Praem’s reading of the letter. Praem paused, milk-white eyes flicking further down the neatly folded sheet of paper in her hands.

I will warn you now, so as to save you the time,” Praem resumed. Her lilting, sing-song voice was almost enough to bury the meaning of the words. “This letter, the physical object that has been delivered to you by my lawyer, was printed out by him, at his offices. This paper and ink has not touched my hands. Any attempt to use it as a sympathetic focus for magic will result in failure. I urge you not to attempt underhanded attacks on my person, but come to the figurative table where we may discuss how to move forward.

I have greater respect for you than you might assume, Miss Saye. Let us deal as equals, and dispense with any further unpleasantness.

Yours sincerely,
Edward.

Praem finished without fanfare. She stood there for a moment, holding the letter, framed by the soft June sunlight creeping around the edges of the heavy curtains. Dust motes hung in a shaft of light, not far from the hateful thing in her hands. She placed the letter back on the workshop table, next to our copy of the one Evelyn had handed to Nicole, to hand to Edward’s lawyer. She smoothed the cuffs and skirt of her maid uniform, then resumed her habitual poise, straight-backed and staring at nothing with blank, milk-white eyes.

We all stared at the letter like it was a live scorpion. Evelyn let out a grumbly sigh.

Twil bared her teeth and said, “Fucking cunt.”

Evelyn actually laughed, a tiny snort. “Would have put it a bit more delicately myself, but yes. Well said.”

“Should fuckin’ send him a pipe bomb next time. Or an envelope full of anthrax. Is that still a thing?”

Evelyn shrugged. “I doubt that would get past the lawyer.”

Twil gestured at the letter with both hands, rocking back in her chair. “What was the fuckin’ point of this? Like he was gonna say ‘yeah, sorry mate, my bad with the whole mind-eating prawn-worm thing, here’s the book by way of apology’. Fuck. Fuck all of this.”

Raine clucked her tongue and hissed through her teeth. She leaned back too, put her hands behind her head, and got halfway into the process of putting her feet up on the table before Praem stopped her with a sharp glance. She cleared her throat and winked an apology up at Praem. “Gotta agree with Twil here,” she said. “We shouldn’t have made a peep about all this, Evee. Lost the element of surprise here. He’s gonna know we’re coming.”

“There would be no element of surprise either way,” Evelyn said with a sigh. “How many times do you need to hear this? His home is going to be festooned with early-warning systems, some of them probably very much alive. You’re not going to climb a drainpipe and shove a pillow over his face, Raine. Stop thinking about this like jumping a thug in a back alley. Think bigger, both of you.”

Raine blew out a long breath and nodded at the letter. “You think it’s safe to keep that in here?”

“Safe,” said Praem.

“Yes,” Evelyn said. “I’m not a total idiot. Praem checked it when we got it off Nicole. It’s just paper.”

Raine shrugged. “So that part wasn’t a lie, at least. How much of the rest of it you think is true?”

“It’s all lies!” Twil spat. She huffed and stood up, knocking her chair back in frustration. “It’s just bullshit! Can’t believe my parents agreed to this shit too. This was stupid. What the hell has this guy got to say that’s worth hearing, huh?”

Evelyn gave Twil a dark look. “Do I instruct you on how to bite off a rabbit’s head?”

Twil blinked at her. “What?”

Raine laughed, spreading her hands in a shrug.

Evelyn said, “Then don’t instruct me on strategy, unless you have useful suggestions. Sending the letter to Edward Lilburne was the right move.” She reached out with one hand, her maimed hand, missing fingers on full display instead of hidden in the end of her sleeve. She tapped the letter. “This is exactly the kind of response I had hoped for.”

Twil spread her arms. “It’s full of lies!”

I cleared my throat, loudly, then regretted it because everybody looked at me. Rather a paradoxical action, but I felt responsible for this. I hadn’t done anything to stop Evelyn’s plan. None of us had, all week. I toyed with the half-empty mug of cold tea on the table as I spoke. “That’s kind of the point. I think. We can tell what he’s thinking by the kind of lies he tells.”

Evelyn nodded. “Thank you, Heather. At least somebody around here actually pays attention.”

Twil huffed and flopped her arms.

“Also,” I added, “please don’t yell so much. You’re upsetting Marmite.”

I nodded toward the corner of the magical workshop. Twil opened her mouth, about to continue getting pointlessly upset that we weren’t committing terrorism by posting improvised explosive devices to a house we still couldn’t find, but then the meaning of my words filtered through her brain. She fumbled inside her hoodie for her pair of magically modified glasses. Her ones weren’t 3D, just cheap black frames with flat, clear plastic instead of lenses, part of keeping the expenses as low as possible. The magical working was etched in miniature across the frames and down the arms. From a distance of a few feet, they could pass for normal glasses, as long as nobody looked too closely or for too long. The fruit of Evelyn’s recent work.

Twil slipped them on so she could see what I saw. She frowned at the corner of the magical workshop, where the two sofas were wedged together, then tilted her head to one side. “How can you tell?” she asked.

“He sort of hides himself more when he’s feeling threatened or unsafe. It’s okay, Marmite,” I said to the huge spider-squid. “Nobody is angry with you. You’re a good boy.”

Marmite was in one of his now-habitual spots, curled up on the arm of one of the sofas with all his legs tucked under him, a pose that Lozzie had taken to calling the “spider-loaf”. He’d been half-asleep minutes earlier, his metallic cone-eyes drifting open and shut like a dozing cat, his bony tentacles anchoring him to the sofa, the wall, and the pair of spider-servitors in the corner above him. The spider-servitors were his new best friends. They’d taken to following him around the house whenever he moved, though one of them always stayed in here, watching the inactive gateway to Camelot.

We hadn’t established if Marmite and the servitors could actually communicate with each other, but they kept touching, Marmite wrapping them in tentacles, them laying their stingers across him without harm, so we assumed they were talking somehow.

Since Twil had started shouting, Marmite’s eyes were wide open, darting about the room. His shadowy black membranes had fluttered outward, wrapping his pale-furred body in the illusionary shadows.

“Yeah, Twil.” Raine laughed, peeping through her own modified glasses before putting them down on the table again. “Stop scaring the puppy, hey? You’re meant to be the big sister dog.”

Twil sighed. “He’s not mine.”

Praem walked over to Marmite. She didn’t need a pair of novelty glasses to see pneuma-somatic flesh. She reached down and gave Marmite scritches behind where his ears might have been if he was a canine.

“Good boy,” said Praem. “Good boy. Good boy. Good boy.”

Slowly but surely, Marmite relaxed. He reeled in his membranes. His eyes grew heavy. Was that a purring I heard on the air? No, just my imagination.

“Alright,” Twil said, removing the glasses from her face again. She gestured at the letter from Edward Lilburne. “I still don’t get this though, seriously. Like Raine said, he’s warned now, right? You don’t warn somebody you’re after, not until the last possible second. We gotta fuckin’ smack the guy as soon as we figure out which house is his, yeah?”

She pointed at the dozens of photographs and Google Map printouts stuck to the wall behind Evelyn. Every single one was of a different house. Some of them were small and suburban, from the very edge of Stockport. Others were large, rural, rambling things on the edges of villages or deep in the forest around Brinkwood. Some of them were crossed out with big red Xs through them, others lay in a pile on the table, next to a brand new Ordnance Survey map already covered in Evelyn’s notes.

Evelyn cleared her throat and looked away, drumming her fingers on the table.

Twil stared at her for a second, then glanced at me and Raine. “We are gonna figure out which house is his, right? It can’t be that hard now. Isn’t Nicky supposed to be on this?” Twil forced an awkward laugh. “Can’t be that many houses between Stockport and Brinkwood.”

“Hidden house,” Praem intoned. “House, hidden. Housey. Hiddeny.”

Twil stared at her. “Oh fuck off. Seriously?”

I winced.

Evelyn cleared her throat again and relocated her dignity. “The decision to send the letter to Edward Lilburne was taken before we ran into difficulty pinpointing the house. The purpose stands, and it’s a good one.”

“I’m sorry, Evee, but I’m lost as well,” I said. “We have given up the element of surprise by letting him know about the whole thing with the parasites. I understand the need to get inside his head, to ‘know your enemy’, but … you’re acting like this is a win of some kind. I don’t see it.”

Evelyn turned a narrow-eyed look on me. But she smiled one of those thin and satisfied smiles, Evelyn at her devious best. It sent a shiver up my spine.

“I want him afraid,” she said.

The shiver turned hot.

Twil huffed, rolled her eyes, and slouched like the grumpy teenager she was, as if Evelyn had explained in great detail why Twil was not allowed to go out clubbing tonight. She took a step toward the kitchen door and said, “Screw it, I need another sausage roll.”

We were gathered in the magical workshop, safe and sound in Sharrowford, a week and two days after the incident with Nicole wandering through the woods, the magical infovore parasites, and the journey into Hringewindla’s shell.

We’d spent that week hunting a mage. Well, Evelyn had. But we still didn’t have our prey in sight.

==

It had been a relatively quiet week by the standards of my life those days. That was a blessing, because after the emotional overload and physical exhaustion of that weekend, between the duel and meeting Hringewindla, I was ready to curl up into a ball and go to sleep for a month. Sadly, my powers of abyssal biology did not extend to a bear-like hibernation period, let alone packing on the necessary layer of fat, and even if they had, we had a mage to hunt and university essays to turn in, so I settled for a nice long twelve hours of merciful unconsciousness. I was so worn out that I barely recalled the journey home. I remembered the greenish soapstone coin clutched in one fist, Marmite crammed into the boot of Raine’s car, us leaving the Hoptons with promises of spirit-seeing 3D glasses and more regular coordination.

Jan and July had stayed over that night, the former on a sleeping bag in Lozzie’s room and the latter sleeping sat upright in the workshop, with Praem. None of us had the energy to care. Jan was in absolutely no fit state to be going anywhere with all that cannabis in her system, and Lozzie was delighted by the notion.

Poor Kimberly was so embarrassed and apologetic that I actually had to sit down with her the next day, in her bedroom, to stop her from offering to move out.

“It was irresponsible and stupid and I’m- I- I don’t deserve—”

“Kim, stop apologising,” I told her. I’d even squeezed her hand. “You didn’t even fully understand what we were doing. And you can’t be expected to act as our backup if we don’t explain to you in the first place. And even then, that would be terribly unfair. I’m … well, not angry with Lozzie, she did turn up to help, but … ”

Kimberly pulled an awkward smile. “She was high.”

I sighed and nodded. “She was high, as a kite. I don’t think it made that much difference in the end, but … ” I shook my head at the absurdity. “I’m not pleased with her for that, or with Jan for starting and encouraging it. What if Edward had made a move against the house? But, again,” I hurried to add, “that’s not your responsibility. Just … refuse to share, if this happens again. Please.”

“July was sober,” Kimberly offered, her eyes a haunted shadow. “I wasn’t about to say no to her.”

I sighed and nodded and patted her hand. This was about Lozzie and Jan, not the mousy and timid supplier who could be so easily pressured into anything.

“I screwed up,” she repeated for the tenth time that morning, trying and failing to look me in the eyes. “It was my fault. I’m the adult here. I should have … I should … ”

“Don’t move out, Kim,” I said. “Nobody wants you to do that.”

But we had so many other things to think about and prepare for — and Lozzie had helped, even if she was irresponsible. I let that difficult conversation fall by the wayside. I let it slide, refused to find the courage and strength to confront her over this, not least because I wasn’t sure what I was confronting her about. She hadn’t exposed Tenny or Whistle to the smoke, she hadn’t hurt herself or started an incident of some kind. There was nothing wrong with what she’d done — just when she’d done it.

Could I ask Lozzie to practice constant vigilance? Was that fair?

But I sure could have a proper go at Jan. She was much, much older than us, if my suspicions were correct. She had, in a way, been the responsible adult in charge.

Perhaps that’s why she and July made themselves so scarce after that. Jan and Lozzie were very giggly with each other in the early hours of the following morning, though Tenny was in the room with them so I was safe to assume nothing was going on that I shouldn’t have overheard. But then as soon as the house was waking up and we were all finding our collective feet again, Jan thanked us all profusely, gave us seven entirely different contact numbers for her, one of which was a French phone number, and assured us that she wasn’t leaving Sharrowford any time soon, lots of work to do — for us, mostly — but she needed to get out of our hair and change her clothes and whatnot, they do smell of weed smoke now, and so on and so on, don’t worry about her, she and July can take care of themselves — until she was backing out of the door and almost tripping over her massive white coat.

“Can I come with!?” Lozzie had asked.

Lozzie had come bouncing past me in the front room as we’d been awkwardly seeing off Jan and July. She was still in her pajama bottoms beneath her poncho, tugging on her shoes with a little hippity-hop motion, not waiting for an answer. She almost crashed right into Jan with sheer exuberance. The terrified look on Jan’s face was almost worth the trouble. July caught Lozzie in one arm and Jan by the scruff of her neck, and then settled both girls safely back on their feet again before they could go tumbling down in a tangle of limbs.

Lozzie was all giggles and a quick thank you hug for July. The demon host didn’t care.

Jan made a show of dusting herself off, though she hadn’t actually touched the floor at any point. “Well, um, I wouldn’t be … opposed, but uh … well. You know.” She cleared her throat and looked at me.

I resisted the twin urge to sigh and put my hands on my hips. I didn’t want to be some kind of disciplinary ogre.

Lozzie turned to me, giggling and wiping hair back out of her face. “Please please please! Only ‘till after lunchtime! And then if I know where Janny is staying I can just poppity-pop over there without walking and stuff!”

“‘Janny’?” I murmured, at the exact same moment Jan turned to her and said, “Janny?”

Evelyn’s voice came from the kitchen doorway, thick with the kind of exhaustion that sleep hadn’t touched. “I think that’s a grand idea.”

I turned to see Evelyn leaning heavily on her walking stick, a mug of strong black coffee in her other hand. She never drank coffee, not like me. Evelyn was much more of a tea woman. But that morning, the morning following the journey into Hringewindla’s shell, she looked like she needed a good cup of coffee. Black bags under her eyes, skin sallow and pale, almost grey with stress, hair limp and dry, back more hunched than usual. Never mind caffeine, she looked like she needed a shot of adrenaline and a dose of codeine. I half-suspected she’d already dipped into her secret stash of hard painkillers.

I cleared my throat. “Evee? But, I mean, Lozzie, going out alone, it’s … ”

Evelyn ran her tongue over her teeth beneath her lips, then took her time sipping from her cup of coffee. “What? Too dangerous?”

I bit my lip, feeling terribly awkward. “Maybe. What if something happens?”

Evelyn just raised her eyes past me.

“Oh,” said Jan. “Oh, of course, Lozzie would be safe with us. Isn’t that right, July?”

“Mm,” July grunted. She sounded so long-suffering, so done with this, but I had no doubt as to her sincerity.

“Evee,” I whispered. “We’ve only just met these two.”

“And Lozzie has befriended January.”

“Just Jan, please,” said Jan. Evelyn cleared her throat and gestured a casual apology with her mug.

Praem clicked out of the kitchen, carrying Lozzie’s mobile phone in one hand and a twenty pound note in the other. “Good catch,” she said to July as she passed, and then pressed the phone and the money into Lozzie’s hands.

July frowned down at Praem. “Perhaps.”

Praem held Lozzie’s hands for a moment, until Lozzie was paying full attention to her.

“After lunchtime,” she said.

Lozzie nodded hard enough to send her hair flying everywhere again. She hugged Praem, totted over to hug me, and then did this playful air-hug thing with Evee, which made Evelyn frown and blush and nod along. Then she raced upstairs to hug Tenny and pet Whistle.

Two minutes later she was out of the front door in July’s wake, chattering to Jan about turtles. I watched them go. Lozzie turned back and waved to me when they reached the garden gate, just before Praem closed the front door.

“She’ll be just fine,” I said, mostly to myself.

Praem looked directly at me. White eyes bored into mine. “Jan is good.”

I sighed and couldn’t help myself. “Jan is a con artist and, well, sort of a coward. But so am I, I suppose. Though July isn’t. Oh, damn it all, Evee,” I said as I turned back to her. “Your paranoia has rubbed off on me.”

But when I turned back to Evelyn, she was staring at the closed front door like a lizard peeking out from beneath a rock. Her eyes held a cold blade, buried deep, briefly exposed. She blinked and the moment passed.

“Lozzie will be fine, I’m certain of that,” she said. “If the worst was to happen, she can always just … poof.” Evelyn smiled awkwardly.

“Evee. Evee, what are you thinking?”

“I’m thinking that Lozzie just made a real friend. Maybe more. Maybe a friend with benefits, who knows. That’s none of my business though.” Evelyn took another long sip from her coffee, avoiding my eyes.

I let her words hang in the air for a moment, unanswered, then said, “And?”

Evelyn sighed heavily and gave me a guilty glare. “And it’s to our advantage if their friendship continues. Alright? Jan and July are trustworthy. Listen to me say that, Heather. I never thought I’d say words like that. Bloody hell, we left those two alone in this house with only Kimberly to stand between them and the entire contents of my workshop. And you know what?”

“I-I’m sorry, Evee, I think I got the wrong end of the stick, I thought maybe you were—”

“They didn’t touch a single thing. I checked. Not a page out of place.” Evelyn swigged her coffee this time, then pulled a face as she got a mouthful of dregs. “Heather, we took them Outside, we let them sleep in this house. Either they’re playing a very long and very clever game, far beyond our level, or we’ve just met a trustworthy mage. I want that woman on our side. I could probably buy her loyalty with money, certainly, but this is different. If that means encouraging Lozzie to … ” Evelyn cleared her throat and gestured with her empty mug. Praem caught the mug before Evelyn could slop the dregs out of the bottom and onto the floor, then stepped through into the kitchen to go wash it up.

I cleared my throat, blushing before I even said the words. “I don’t think they’re actually having a, you know. Sexual relationship.”

“And it would be none of our fucking business if they are,” Evelyn snapped.

“Yes, I-I couldn’t agree more. Absolutely. None of our business.”

“Except Jan is much older. I think.” Evelyn sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose. “God damn it.”

“You know that Lozzie came back from Outside with a hickey once, yes? I think she’s capable of being responsible for herself.”

Evelyn gave me a look.

“I’ll talk to her,” I added with a little sigh. “Just to be sure. That she’s being safe.”

Evelyn sighed again, shook her head, and said, “You wanted me to be a strategist, Heather. This is a good strategic move. I want Jan on our side.”

“You’re really good at this, Evee.” I meant it, too. “I’ll talk to Lozzie, make sure she isn’t getting in too deep. Even if that’s kind of absurd, considering where she goes half the time. More importantly, how are you feeling, after yesterday?”

“Eh,” Evelyn grunted. “I’ll live.”

Lozzie kept her word. She returned shortly after lunchtime, by appearing around the doorway of the magical workshop while Evelyn was making plans, much to my unspoken relief. I should have known better than to worry. This was Lozzie’s home now, whatever friends she made elsewhere.

Jan and July didn’t drop entirely off the radar, which was also a relief, though a mixed one. I’d half expected them to up and vanish now that July’s duel with Zheng was over and done with, friendship with Lozzie or not. But they didn’t leave Sharrowford or ignore our calls. Lozzie went to visit them again a few days later, though I gathered they’d moved out of the tiny little bedsit flat and into somewhere less filthy and depressing. They didn’t need the camouflage anymore, not from the ragged remains of the Eye cult, and not from us either.

“Where are they staying now?” Evelyn asked Lozzie. She made zero attempt to sound casual.

Lozzie tapped the side of her nose and winked, so broadly that she should have been on stage in a Christmas pantomime. “I’m not supposed to tell!” she chirped.

Evelyn sighed and rolled her eyes. “Fine. I suppose I would do the same.”

But Jan returned Evelyn’s calls — and mine. In fits and starts, around the more pressing emergency of pinpointing Edward Lilburne’s house — and the mundane pressures of wrapping up Sharrowford University’s exam and coursework season — we began to coordinate the difficult process of figuring out how to contact the remnants of the Eye Cult and call them in from the cold. Jan said it might take a while, a couple of weeks to talk to them all, to explain what we might be able to offer. She and Evelyn talked money.

They also talked about Badger, and included me.

“We can’t move forward until Nathan is out of the hospital,” Jan said over the phone. She’d opted for a video call, perhaps to show good faith. All we could see behind her neat little face and fluffy black hair was bland beige walls and heavy curtains. Raine was certain that it was some kind of long-stay hotel.

Raine peered over Evelyn’s shoulder, butting in. “Metal plate goes in his head on Friday. They reckon he’ll be out next week, if it goes well. Which it better.”

“Yes, I’m well aware.” Jan pulled a too-sweet smile. “I’ve been to visit him again, to make sure he’s not about to run off or something. We get him on his feet after he’s discharged, then he’s our living proof that you can help them, that you’re not going to spirit them away to meet their doom in the spheres beyond. All that.”

What we didn’t discuss was my request for a doll-body, for Maisie. Not yet. I had important things to ask, and I didn’t want to ask them over the phone, with everyone listening.

Regardless of the secret, hidden realities of the supernatural world, full of mages and monsters and giant snail-creatures buried beneath the woods, it was still assessment period at Sharrowford University. Raine had another exam to sit that week. I had an essay to finish, edit, footnote, and proofread. Evelyn trundled back and forth to campus several times, to turn in work she’d already completed to absolute perfection. She really was brilliant, at anything she turned her mind towards, even if she couldn’t see it.

I was putting off a very difficult conversation with my mother. On Wednesday of that week, she left a message on my phone; I think I was snuggled in Raine’s lap at the time, talking about nothing in particular. My mother wanted to know when I was planning to come home for the summer, after term ended on the 14th of June. I called her back two days later, at a time of day when I knew she’d be at work. I left a message saying I wasn’t sure yet.

Of course I was sure. I wasn’t going anywhere that summer.

My childhood home wasn’t really home anymore. My home was with everyone else, here.

That was far from the only difficult conversation left unspoken during that slow and strange week of psychological recovery. We didn’t really talk much about what had happened with Hringewindla. Evelyn tried to gather us together for a basic run-down a couple of days later, but everyone was so scatterbrained and distracted, and Evelyn was eager to focus on her new work, on the hunt. Sevens re-assumed her blood-goblin mask and her clingy, scratchy, almost bitey physical affection for me, and I didn’t have the strength of mind to ask her about her beautiful and alien war-form, Hastur’s Daughter, or about the moments of silver-tongued anger she’d displayed. I let sleeping dogs lie. Not a smart move. But then again, I’ve never claimed to be smart.

Number 12 Barnslow Drive was filled with a secret tension that I couldn’t quite identify. It was like walking across shifting sands, feeling the grains adjust around each footstep, yet knowing that deep beneath the earth, whole landslides and hidden earthquakes of sand gathered, ready to upend the landscape.

Or maybe it was just me. Maybe I was shell shocked after Hringewindla, the Church, all of it, not to mention Raine duelling with Zheng.

That was one source of solid, unshakeable comfort — Raine and Zheng.

==

On that very first night after the journey down into Hringewindla’s shell, when I slept for twelve hours wrapped in my tentacles like an octopus ball, I woke up in the small hours of the morning to find Sevens nestled against my front beneath the sheets, like a sleepy marsupial. Half-asleep and feeling comfy, I cuddled her in the dark. But then I saw that Zheng was flat on her back at the edge of the bed, which was how she usually slept — but there was Raine, between us, one hand casually flung across Zheng’s iron-hard abdominal muscles.

It was the first time I’d seen such casual touch from them.

Some ineffable barrier between them had finally broken down, and I don’t think either of them understood exactly how it worked. Over the next few days they began to share strange, private glances, more open than before, Raine grinning with her usual rakish cockiness, Zheng sharp and dark and brooding. An unfamiliar observer would have seen nothing different from the way they used to look at each other, all challenge and passive aggression. But to me it was plain as day, a non-verbal conversation they’d been stopped from having all this time, until they’d shared blade and blood together.

On Saturday morning, almost a week later, I happened to wake up very early, plagued by the physical necessity of a full bladder and the June sunlight peeling back the curtain with white-yellow fingers. I would have stumbled to the bathroom and back, perhaps dragging Sevens with me, wrapped in my tentacles, or perhaps leaving her there after some gentle untangling — except, Raine and Zheng were missing. Ape instinct and abyssal drive agreed that this was very strange, so I rubbed the sleep from my eyes, left Seven-Shades-of-Sleepy-Leech to cuddle a pillow full-body style, and ventured out in the early-morning glow to go find the other two angles of my mutual triangle.

I discovered them by following the growled comments and occasional flesh-on-flesh impacts floating up into the kitchen from the open door of the cellar.

For a moment after I entered the kitchen, I stood frozen, hoodie dragged on skew-whiff, draped in shadow as the morning sunlight burned outdoors, like a tiny mouse on the threshold of leaving her desert cave. I put a hand over my mouth, eyes going wide.

Slam-thump, slap. Zheng, growling in deep appreciation. Raine laughing, then heaving for breath.

Another three impacts, quick and hard. Zheng grunting. Happy. Very happy.

“Oh my goodness,” I whispered behind my hand, heart hammering against the underside of my rib cage. I didn’t know if I should feel betrayed or aroused or start laughing. “Oh my goodness, what are you two doing down there? Why in the cellar!?”

“Sparring.”

Praem’s voice rang out from the shadows at the other end of the kitchen. I was already primed to go off like a tripwire, so I jumped about a foot in the air, toes dancing across the kitchen flagstones, yelping behind my hand. My tentacles fanned out, grabbing a chair, the edge of the table, the worktop, anything they could reach.

Praem was sitting at the far end of the kitchen table, reading a book, fully dressed in her maid uniform, with her hair pinned up. Between the deep shadows of the early morning and the rather distracting sounds from below, I hadn’t noticed her sitting there. A pair of milk-white eyes stared back at me.

“Praem!” I hissed. “Don’t make me jump like that! I-I didn’t see you there, I was … distracted by … ”

Slap-slap, smack. They were still at it.

“Sparring,” Praem repeated.

“ … oh!” My eyes went wide. I blushed all over. “Oh, sparring. Like fighting. Fighting, yes. I thought they were … well … maybe … you know.”

Praem stared at me, impassive and unreadable. I pulled a face like I’d bitten into a lemon.

Raine’s voice floated up from the open cellar door. “Heather? Heather, that you up there?”

I stared at Praem, feet glued to the floor. The doll-demon stared back at me.

“What do I do?” I hissed.

“Go watch,” Praem said, and then looked down, back at her book.

“Heather?” Raine called again.

“Oh, fine,” I whispered. I unstuck my feet, crossed my arms, and stalked across the kitchen, tentacles trailing after me. “But you better not be naked together down there. Not that I have any right to stop you. Just … should have … invited me … ”

My words trailed off to less than a whisper. There was no way I could say that out loud, not with Praem sitting right there.

I ventured down into the stale, cool air and bare red brick of the cellar. The cold flagstone steps leeched the heat through my socks, making me curl my toes up tight. Daylight faded as I descended, unwilling to join me in the depths. I hadn’t been down here in weeks and weeks, not since before Badger had slept down here, having night terrors about the Eye and awaiting pneuma-somatic brain surgery.

The remains of his brief stay were still there — an uncomfortable looking camp-bed piled with a few sheets and a lumpy pillow, a neat tower of books on the floor next to it, and one of the televisions dragged down from upstairs. He had needed every distraction he could get.

I didn’t like the reminder of what we’d done, even if I had saved him in the end.

As I reached the bottom of the steps, Raine’s head appeared around the bannister. She was flushed and sweating, breathing hard, glowing with physical exertion. She beamed at me and said, “Hey, you!”

“Hello and good morning yourself,” I murmured. I kept my arms folded, though I wasn’t sure why. Raine leaned in and kissed me on the forehead. I tutted and half-heartedly ducked away. “Raine, you’re so sweaty. What on earth are you … two … ah.”

“Shaman,” Zheng rumbled.

My words trailed off as I reached the cellar floor and finally understood what my lovers were doing with each other.

Between the thick support beams for the house, they’d unrolled a number of exercise mats across the ancient flagstone floor, covering up the remains of dozens of magic circles. Zheng was wearing nothing except a pair of shorts and a thin t-shirt, her rippling muscles coated with sweat, red-brown skin glistening in the light of the two bare bulbs hanging overhead. I noticed that beneath the t-shirt, her chest was tightly bound with a long strip of cloth, to keep things in place, so to speak. Her hair was swept back with grease and sweat, little droplets running down her neck. A lazy, toothy smile greeted me as I involuntarily ran my eyes up and down her body. I swallowed and blushed and looked away.

Raine wasn’t any easier on my sleepy libido. She was in her exercise gear, the outfit she normally only wore to the gym, tight black spats and a sports bra beneath an equally tight top. She bounced on the balls of her bare feet, as if she didn’t want to stop moving.

“We’re sparring,” she said, shooting me a wink and a grin. “Hey, sorry for not waking you. We were both just already up. You looked nice and comfy with Sevens, so.” Raine shrugged. “You hear the good news yet?”

“I … sorry, what?”

“Got a call from the hospital, in the night. Badger got the plate in his skull, no complications.”

“Oh,” I said, totally overwhelmed in more ways than one. “That’s … good. Yes.”

Raine’s grin got wider. “Wanna watch us?”

I blinked at her, wide-eyed. Raine struggled not to laugh. Zheng chuckled.

“I-I mean, I’m not going to say no,” I stammered. I took a few tentative steps deeper into the cellar, toward their makeshift sparring ring. The air smelled of dust, but also the hot spice of feminine sweat and the heady scent of Zheng’s furnace-like skin. “That would be an obvious lie. Yes, of course I’d love to watch my two girlfriends getting sweaty and punching each other. Of course.” I huffed as Raine laughed again. “I thought you were … you know.” I murmured those last two words, blushing and half-hiding behind the end of my sleeve as I looked at the floor.

Raine and Zheng shared a glance.

“Uhhhh,” said Raine. “Thought we were doing what now?”

Zheng purred. “Shaman?”

“I … I thought … ” I hiccuped. “Oh, for pity’s sake, I thought you were doing it.”

Raine snorted. Zheng tilted her head, then chuckled low in her throat. I waved both of them off, hunching my shoulders, and said, “I mean, not that it’s any of my business if you are.”

“‘Course it’s your business,” Raine said, nudging me in the side with her elbow. She caught my eye when I tried to look away, then caught my chin in one hand. Suddenly serious, she said, “Hey, Heather. Of course it’s your business.”

“I … I suppose.” I couldn’t keep the blush off my cheeks.

“Not that you get a veto or something. But you got a right to know. Maybe watch, if you wanna.”

I stared at Raine, wide-eyed and dry mouthed, then hiccuped again. “Oh, damn it. I can’t think about this right now. I’m sorry. I got it wrong.”

“Yeah, just sparring.” Raine cracked a grin and ruffled my hair. I didn’t make any effort to fix it, I already had wild bed-head.

Zheng rumbled low in her throat again, rolling her half-naked shoulders, and asked, “Are we going to fuck, little wolf?”

I felt like my head was about to catch fire. I think I whined.

Raine laughed and stepped back onto the exercise mats. She stretched both arms above her head, working out the tension locked within her muscles. I struggled not to stare. “Dunno. Who’d be on top? No, wait, don’t answer that. Gotta be me.”

“Mmmmmmmm,” Zheng purred. She stared Raine down, as if daring her to lunge.

Raine shot me a wink. “Seriously though, Heather, I dunno if Zheng and I are like that. But this?” She raised her fists and rolled them back and forth, like an early 20th century cartoon boxer. “This is better than sex with Zheng. Wanna see?” She raised one knee, like she was about to deliver a kung-fu kick to Zheng’s midsection. Zheng flowed aside, an easy dodge, even though Raine didn’t actually lash out with the implied attack.

“I … I mean, y-yes, but … ” I was shaking my head, still lost. “Why are you doing this down here?”

“We make a lot of noise, shaman,” said Zheng.

Raine jerked a thumb at Zheng. “Can hardly take her to the gym. Snapback effect only goes so far.”

I blinked at her. “Snap what now?”

“Snapback effect. What does Evee call it? The thing that happens in people’s minds to explain magic, when they see it.”

“Oh, yes, I know what you mean. What does that have to do with going to the gym?” I eyed Zheng up and down briefly, then swallowed without meaning to. “Oh.”

Raine laughed. “Yeah. See her in a dark alleyway or racing through the night, a bystander will fill her in as something else. But if I took her down the uni gym to go lifting together, right out in the open? She’d be all over instagram in about twenty minutes, for all the wrong reasons.”

“Huh,” Zheng grunted, a snort through her nose.

Raine cocked an eyebrow at her, hands on her hips. “That bother you, big girl? You wanna show off those muscles to the world?”

“Only to the shaman,” Zheng said. “And you.”

Raine did a little theatrical bow. I blushed so hard I had to turn away and take a deep breath to steady myself and slow my heartbeat.

“Yes … but … why … ” I struggled for a quick subject change. “Why in sight of all of this?”

I gestured around the cellar with one hand and two tentacles, at some of the most gruesome and inexplicable magical artefacts that Evelyn kept in the house — the wire-mesh cage which contained the unrotting corpse of the demon-possessed rabbit which had saved us in the library of Carcosa, the mysterious pair of empty coffins along the back wall, the ugly piece of twisted metal sculpture sitting on a workbench and covered in ancient bloodstains. And the most recent addition to the room: the chair to which we had tied Stack when we’d debated her fate. Raine and Zheng had chosen to spar amid all this magical detritus, not to mention the sagging, empty wine racks and the boiler gurgling softly to itself in the corner.

Raine glanced about, hands on her hips. “What do you mean?” she asked.

“Wizard spoor,” Zheng said. “You live surrounded by this, shaman. No need to look away.”

“It’s just old junk,” Raine said. She winked at me. “Hey, seriously, pull up a chair, watch a while. You might learn a thing.”

Zheng bared her teeth at Raine. “You want more, little wolf?”

Raine ran a hand through her own hair and cocked her head up at the towering, half-naked demon host. “Always,” she purred right back.

“I-I think if I stay and watch, the only thing I’m liable to learn is how embarrassed I have to feel to pass out … ”

I trailed off as both women turned to look at me, both of them amused in their own ways, Raine teasing and suppressing a smirk, Zheng dark and intense as her eyes cut through me. I swallowed a hiccup, groped for a chair with a tentacle, and fell into it like a mouse paralysed before a snake.

Raine shot me a wink. “Good girl.”

“Raine!” I whined. I crossed my arms and coiled my tentacles around my tummy, but that didn’t help.

She laughed and bounced on the balls of her feet, throwing lazy punches toward Zheng, shadow-boxing. “How about we give Heather a little demo, yeah? Let me hit you again?”

Zheng answered by spreading her arms and grinning wide, showing her shark-toothed grin.

So I curled up in the old wooden chair, hand over my mouth, watching my lovers showing off their bodies to each other. Raine and Zheng’s sparring didn’t look anything like the duel they’d had out in Camelot; for a start, Zheng wasn’t moving at full speed, and Raine didn’t have her knife. It was all very stop-start, showing off strikes and lunges and the beginnings — but not the follow-throughs — of throws and mat-pins. Zheng allowed herself to get punched, a lot, but never landed anything fully on Raine in return, no closed-fist strike that would have sent Raine’s head spinning or shattered her ribs.

I got the distinct impression that this was not really a practical exercise at all. It was pure pleasure, expressed in fragments of formal structure, in the flow and knowledge of fighting. And not for my benefit. This was for them, not for my sake, even if I was watching. I couldn’t have joined in even if I’d wanted to. Oh, certainly, if I’d used my tentacles I probably could have done something creative and violent, but that wasn’t the point. The point was play.

Though, I won’t lie. I enjoyed it very much as well, and not only because they were having so much fun.

==

Evelyn didn’t waste a single day that week before she began the hunt for Edward Lilburne’s house.

I hadn’t really agreed with the plan to send him a letter, but by the time Evelyn explained to the rest of us what she was already doing, the process was well under way. While we were wrapped up in our own recovery, or in each other, or in university work, Evelyn was working on the problem. Exhausted, sallow-eyed, shaky as if she was malnourished, the price of her true magic down there in Hringewindla’s shell weighed heavily on her, but she moved quicker than anybody else.

On the morning following our encounter with Hringewindla — while I’d been sleeping off the effects of stitching together a giant pneuma-somatic rooster and conversing with an Outsider cone-snail the size of a football stadium — Raine had taken Nicole to find her car, on the edge of Stockport. Praem and Evelyn had tagged along. They’d located the car, mercifully untouched and right where Nicole had left it in a Church graveyard. Then they’d followed Nicole back to her apartment in Sharrowford. Evelyn had retrieved the bundle of stolen documents and computer files that Nicole had taken from Yuleson’s offices.

Evelyn hadn’t even risked bringing those inside the house; on the way home, they’d driven out to a little isolated stretch of woodland, and had themselves a brief bonfire in an old metal rubbish bin.

“Incineration is always the best way,” she had explained to me once they’d all gotten home.

“Kill it with fire,” said Praem.

Evelyn had cleared her throat at that suggestion. “I wouldn’t go that far, but yes. When a mage screws up — really screws up — just burn everything. It’s safer that way. Safer than allowing the contagion to spread. That’s one thing my mother had correct.”

“I’m just sad I didn’t get to meet Nicky’s dog,” I said.

“Good doggo,” said Praem. “Very fluff.”

Evelyn purchased two fresh Ordnance Survey maps, to replace the one of Sharrowford that was covered in red ink and her own scrawled notations. But these two showed the countryside between Stockport and Brinkwood, every last little copse of trees and swell of hillside. Praem helped her clear off the table in the magical workshop for this new and challenging project. The maps took pride of place.

By halfway through Tuesday, after consulting with Nicole over the phone, she had marked out a snaking area between Stockport and Brinkwood, in red — the maximum range that Nicole could have reached on foot, while under the influence of the parasite, between the time she’d left her car and the time she had arrived at Geerswin Farm.

By the end of Wednesday, Evelyn had a list of houses. Every residence, suburban or rural, farm or isolated house, inside her hypothetical Nicole-rambling range. She printed out street view images from Google Maps and started pinning each house up on a board behind the table in the magical workshop. The ones she couldn’t identify online, she sent Nicole to take pictures of.

“Evee, are you certain she’s okay being involved in all this again?” I’d asked.

Evelyn snorted. “She’s a detective. This is a mystery. She’s in her element.”

Raine peered over the table, leafing through the houses. “How we gonna narrow this down? Have Zheng go knock on every door?”

“The old fashioned way. Nicole wants to help with that. Verifying owners, that sort of thing. The moment we get one that doesn’t add up, we’ll … figure out the next step.”

I picked up one printout, of a lovely little cottage somewhere in the countryside near Brinkwood. “What about Lozzie’s description of the place? It should have a gravel driveway, and a statue of a naked woman in the garden. Apparently.”

Evelyn sighed and took the printout from me, placing it back with the others, as if I had disturbed some specific ritual order. “None of these have anything like that. But it could be camouflaged in some other way. Or he could have had the place redesigned since Lozzie saw it.” She tapped the red area of her map. “If it’s in here, we’ll find it.”

“Then what?” Raine asked with a smirk. “We gonna send him a pipe bomb?”

Evelyn and I shared a look at that. We both smiled, in slightly different ways.

Raine’s eyebrows climbed and she said, “Hey, whoa there, you two. I’m all up for improvised explosive devices, but I wasn’t being serious. Unless you think that’ll actually work?”

Evelyn snorted. “Heather and I spoke about this. No. I don’t think we’re going to send him a bomb. We’re going to try the opposite.”

Raine and I both frowned. “What’s the opposite of a bomb?” Raine asked. “Hey, that sounds like a riddle!”

“The opposite of a bomb,” said Evelyn, “is a diplomatic missive.”

“Evee?” I said.

Raine nodded sagely, as if this made perfect sense. “Right. Bore him to death. I’ll get printing out the whole of one of those old-school websites where everything is one long paragraph about lizard people and the royal family. Heather, you go to the library and find the worst piece of literary theory you can. We’ll combine both.”

“I am being serious,” Evelyn grumbled.

“Oh?” Raine spread her arms. “I assumed you were having a laugh, because what the fuck, Evee? You’re gonna find this guy’s house just so you can send him a letter?”

“No,” Evelyn huffed. “I’ve already sent the letter.”

Raine and I both stared at her.

“Evee, what?”

“Yes, um, how?” I asked.

“Via his lawyer. Look, I’ve sent him the letter, then I’m going to find his house. Then we’re going to … corner him. In that order.”

I couldn’t help but notice the pause before Evelyn had said ‘corner him’.

We’d made Evelyn show us her own copy of the letter she’d sent, and I had to admit, it was a masterpiece of double-speak and careful wording. She’d raised each topic without actually giving anything away, radiating aggression in every line, browbeating and insulting without ever being direct. She could be terribly underhanded when she needed to be. It was quite impressive.

“Evee, Evee, Evee,” Raine sighed. “I’m glad you’re on our side, you know?”

“It’s just a letter,” she snapped.

And Evelyn was so animated, so in her element, that I didn’t have the heart to argue with the plan. As the week went on and she crossed off houses, talking to Nicole over the phone and tightening her net, she slowly recovered from the effects of too much magic. She got her strength and energy back, pouring it into the hunt. She stopped coughing up blood and wincing whenever she sat down, stopped having to lean on Praem just to get up the stairs. I wasn’t about to interrupt her progress.

Besides, I wanted to find Edward Lilburne too. I wanted that book — needed that book. My sister was on a time limit, so almost any risk was worth taking. When the days stretched out into a week and almost every house was crossed off with angry red on Evelyn’s board, I privately began staring at that Ordnance Survey map. I hadn’t been able to define an entire city with hyperdimensional mathematics, but this patch of countryside, it was so much smaller.

But when I brought it up with Evelyn, she told me to wait for Edward’s inevitable response, his unwise move, his tipped hand.

And she turned out to be right. She’d met the man once, while he’d worn another person’s face, but her read on him was perfect. The letter came on Tuesday morning, hand-delivered by special courier, from the offices of Harold Yuleson.

She called Twil over right away. We needed to discuss strategy.

So all that week, I didn’t ask Evee about what she’d said, down in Hringewindla’s shell. I didn’t want to distract her. Or at least, that’s what I told myself.

I was right about one thing; I am a terrible coward.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



A letter from a monster, filled with lies and misdirection. Or is there a grain of truth buried in the bile? Evelyn seems to think so, and she’s the one matching wits with Edward Lilburne. I wonder how Lozzie feels about all this. Surely they must be close to identifying his house, his lair, his secret laboratory. But what to do when they find his bolt-hole? Maybe Raine’s suggestion about bombs isn’t far off being a good idea. And there’s other things to deal with too, like wayward cultists and difficult doll-ladies … 

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Next week, what on earth is Evelyn actually trying to do here? What’s her plan? And how is she to sort truth from lies?

and walked a crooked mile – 16.9

Content Warnings

None this chapter.



Previous Chapter Next Chapter

“Geerswin farm! Twil’s farm! Okay maybe not actually Twil’s farm — but Twil’s farm, yaaay! Fluffy llamas yes I love them yes I doooooo! Hihihihi, hi, hi!”

The moment we arrived back on the surface, Lozzie wriggled out of our collectively collapsing grip and sprang away, bouncing on the balls of her feet, fluttering her pentacolour poncho in the leaf-dappled sunlight, giggling and rambling as she skipped over to the curious and friendly alpaca sticking its head over the nearby fence.

Alpaca, not llama, I thought to myself, but there was no way I was getting those words out.

The rest of us were mere passengers on the Lozzie-train, alighting at this terminal station — myself, Evelyn, Praem, Nicole, Sevens, and poor little Marmite. We all but collapsed onto the crumbly, weathered tarmac next to Raine’s car.

Nicole was the only one who actually lost her footing and went down. She staggered as if sea-sick, then doubled up, slammed to her knees, and vomited noisily onto the ground. She groaned, clutching her stomach, spitting stringy bile. I would have winced with sympathy — I’d been there so many times before, hurling my guts up as my body rejected the brutal exposure to supernatural truth. But right then I was busy wrapping my arms and tentacles around my swirling, pounding, spinning head. I almost crumpled as well, knees buckling and giving out, wracked by the stress of Lozzie’s translocation-Slip. But Sevens stood tall and confident, holding me up with one strong arm around my waist, silently enduring the way I lashed myself to her with my tentacles. The Princess Mask was apparently unaffected by the pressure of skipping across the membrane between here and Outside.

I held my squid-skull mask to my stomach, a poor substitute for a pillow, but it sufficed.

Evelyn hung limp and moaning in Praem’s grip, eyes squeezed shut, face gone pale and grey, coated with cold sweat. Her pain was more than physical. Praem stared into blank space, her demon mind still rebooting. Too human to avoid the aftershocks.

Marmite curled into a ball and covered himself with shadowy membranes, terrified and sick.

Riding along with one of Lozzie’s intentional Slips was always an ordeal.

Whenever I Slipped on purpose, the bulk of the damage to mind and body was not actually from the transition itself, but from direct interface with the necessary brain-math to etch the equation upon the surface of reality. The damage was from touching the levers, not the outcome of pulling them. Slipping was disorienting and disgusting, yes, of course. Popping through the membrane between here and Outside was like having one’s soul slid partway out of one’s body, then jammed back in at the wrong angle. One was forced to wait for the parts to shift and adjust until container and self lined up again, like the tight and uncomfortable feeling of shrugging your coat on too quickly, but a hundred times worse. For a few seconds, a Slip always made you feel misaligned with your own body.

But Lozzie’s Slip hadn’t taken us Outside at all; if I’d been the one to pull us out of Hringewindla’s core, I would have taken us to Camelot first, then back to Twil’s house, a long-distance slingshot. Lozzie took us straight there, a no-stopping service, express route. Choo choo.

It was like being dragged across the membrane at high speed, skipping and bouncing like a flat stone upon the surface of a lake, one’s soul jarred and juddered and shaken out of place. No human being could experience that and stand up straight afterward. Even Praem was shaken. I suspected Sevens hadn’t actually gone along with it at all, but had used her own, personal, Outsider methods of locomotion, and then just pretended she’d piggybacked Lozzie along with the rest of us.

But we were out of Hringewindla’s shell. We were back on the surface. Firmly back in reality, whatever that meant.

Late afternoon sunlight, the colour of fire on bronze, filtered through the gently swaying ring of trees that surrounded Geerswin Farm. The tarmac was solid and earthy and crumbling at the edges. The air smelled of pollen and grass and rotting leaves. Shafts of light glinted off Raine’s car, the faded red paint dappled by long, leafy shadows. The overgrown fields were matted with weeds and dotted with the tall, proud spikes of thistles, but the landscape was green and healthy and very, very normal. The old farmhouse squatted right where we’d left it, peering back at us with dark windows. The front door showed only a gaping shadow, as if the building itself was surprised by our return.

No more living nightmares, no more absurd spooky alpacas with human faces, no more reality warping around our senses.

Hringewindla was back in control. And so were we.

The only physical evidence that anything untoward had happened here was a lump of pulped grey meat and broken carapace, still lying on the tarmac a few feet away, a miniature copy of the leviathan monster Hringewindla had pulled from his snake-knot core, complete with little barbs and hooks and grasping legs. The parasite I’d ripped out of Sevens’ throat had not resurrected itself and wandered off, or melted through the ground to contaminate the local water supply, or turned into a ghost or a vampire or something equally silly. I’d half-expected it to do that. Can you really blame me?

Of course, I couldn’t enjoy the relief. My head was spinning, my senses were filled with a high-pitched whine, and my skin felt thin as rice-paper, ready to burst and let me float away into the woods, dispersed and forgotten. Only Sevens’ grip kept me on my feet. I had an overwhelming urge to jam my squid-skull mask back on over my head and curl up in a tight ball of tentacles, like an octopus protecting herself against the dragging currents.

And it wasn’t only the Slip; the whiplash was too sudden. Had I really been a mile underground only minutes earlier, talking to an ancient Outsider god via my own neuroelectrical signals?

Reality felt unreal.

But then hurrying feet and voices and chaos filled the air, the undeniable weight of other people.

“Heather! Hey! Hey, they’re all out here! Twil, get out here!”

My heart soared at the familiar chord of Raine’s voice. I heard the sound of her feet leaping down the brick steps of the house in one bound, racing to join us.

“Raine … ” I croaked, groping for her even with my eyes screwed shut. “Raine?”

“It’s alright, kitten,” Sevens purred from right beside me. “She is here. Everyone is here.”

“Oh shit, fuck me!” said Twil a second later, another voice hurtling from the open front door.

“Twil!” her mother scolded, not far behind, little shoes hurrying down the steps. “Oh, but thank heavens, thank goodness, they’re all here. They are all here, aren’t they? I am so sorry, Miss Saye, Heather, d-detective, and … and … um.”

“Good evening, high priestess,” said the Yellow Princess. “Do not worry yourself about me.”

“I told you they would show up!” Amanda said from the doorway, her voice filled with equal parts pride and relief. “He told me they were okay! I told you! You never listen!”

“Amanda,” Christine said, voice a bristle of smothered irritation. “Do not get into this right now, please.”

I reached blindly for Raine with one tentacle, found her, and hung on tight. She laughed, wrapped me in a hug, and kissed my forehead.

“She is safe, but there has been much brain-math,” Sevens informed her.

“You got us out of that, hey?” Raine asked me.

“Got you out,” I croaked, face cushioned in her chest. “Everyone out.”

“Everyone out,” Praem echoed.

We spent the next few minutes going precisely nowhere; Evelyn, Nicole, and I were in no state to be standing up and walking in straight lines, let alone climbing the steps to the house or explaining everything that had happened, down there in the dark beneath the earth. Praem wasn’t doing too well either, though she wasn’t about to fall over any time soon. Raine opened the back door of her car again, so Evelyn could have somewhere to sit. Twil helped Nicole stagger to her feet, though the detective looked punch-drunk, and grumpier than a cat after a cold bath. Twil didn’t look too great either, more than a little pale and haggard. I felt my own mind piecing itself back together, but it was painfully slow, eased along by the pressure of Raine’s hands on my arms when she started rubbing me like I’d just come in from a snowstorm.

“Is every— everyone—” I slurred and mumbled, held between her and Sevens.

“Everyone is fine, Heather,” Raine said, staring into my eyes. She held up one hand. “Here, open your eyes up proper, okay? How many fingers?”

“Three,” I groaned, trying to laugh, delighted by the simple, familiar sight of Raine’s chestnut-brown hair raked back from her forehead. “I’m not concussed, Raine, I’m post-Slip. Blame Lozzie.”

I batted at Raine’s hand with a tentacle. She jumped, then laughed. No glasses, not Outside. She couldn’t see all of me.

From inside the back of Raine’s car, Evelyn made a sound like she was ordering Praem to execute a war criminal. Her eyes were still scrunched up against the lingering after-effects, head bowed with pressure, both hands on her walking stick like an old woman who couldn’t find the strength to rise from her chair. For once, even Praem couldn’t make sense of her request. The doll-demon stared at her own mother with blank-faced incomprehension, more empty-eyed than usual.

“Kids,” Sevens echoed. “She was asking about the children.”

“Oh!” Amanda said. “My boys are fine, yes, thank you. They’re right here, Miss Saye. Well … right … ah, up there.”

Zheng chose that moment to join us, ducking low through the front door of the house. Her eyes found me with a dark twinkle. “Shaman,” she rumbled. I managed a nod, though she deserved more for what she’d so obviously done.

Zheng looked like she’d been having the time of her life.

Her lower half was splattered with blood, as if she had kicked a spooky alpaca to death. She had three bubble-servitors following her like hounds trailing after their master, and an additional, actual, flesh-and-blood hound in the form of Bernard, Amanda’s golden retriever. He was currently doing his good-boy best to look fearsome and protective.

Zheng was also carrying two small boys, one on each shoulder. They clung to her head and neck with both arms like marsupials to a mother. Amanda’s boys — Richard and Oliver, as I later learned — looked about five or six years old, both of them po-faced and serious and utterly unafraid of the giant zombie whose shoulders they were riding on.

“Whee,” said Praem.

A man I’d never seen before was doing his best to emulate that lack of fear, following as close to Zheng as he could without cringing in animal terror. Gareth — Amanda’s ‘gentleman friend’ that she’d told us about earlier — had obviously been through quite an ordeal. He was rail-thin in the way of a professional runner, with salt-and-pepper grey hair and a concerned, intelligent look on his face, framed by a neat little goatee. He was splattered with blood too, though it looked like back splash from Zheng’s violence. A rolling pin shook in one of his hands, held like a club. To the man’s credit, he didn’t look like he was about to break and run.

Everybody was accounted for, quickly enough to still my worried heart and soothe Evelyn’s guilty conscience. Raine was practically untouched — she hadn’t even needed to use a weapon while trapped inside the spooky nonsense house. Christine Hopton, Twil’s mother, was faring similarly, though obviously shaken and upset. She kept her arms tightly crossed, shoulders squared, chin drawn inward. Amanda was none the worse for wear at all, still sporting a bubble-servitor on her shoulder like the world’s largest and gooiest parrot; she was also beaming at me.

Benjamin, Twil’s cousin, the ill-fated and rather useless ‘muscle’ of the Church, had apparently found the shotgun he’d gone searching for earlier, an old-fashioned double-barrelled thing with a wooden stock. The gun hung loose in his hands as he guarded his aunts. For all his imposing bulk and carefully shaven head, he looked utterly out of his depth, like he’d seen a ghost. Maybe he had.

The bubble-servitors slowly oozed out of the house as well, squeezing themselves through the windows and gathering once more on the roof, floating through the air to take up their guard-post positions out in the fields and down the driveway. Bernard the dog watched them go. Amanda hadn’t been exaggerating, I realised. He could see pneuma-somatic life quite clearly.

Lozzie was away with the alpacas, arms entwined with the fence, petting their fluff with both hands.

“Who’s a good fluffy-fluff lad?” she cooed. “Yes, it’s you, you big llama, yes! You’re like a pillow!”

“They’re alpacas, actually,” Twil called to her, but Lozzie didn’t seem too worried by the distinction.

“Twil, are you okay?” I tried to ask, still hanging on to Sevens and Raine. What I actually said was a slurred mess. It was a miracle Twil understood me.

“Eh?” Twil blinked several times, then wiped her mouth on her coat sleeve. “Eh. I guess. Was hurling real bad when things all … snapped back, like.”

“Her body,” said Sevens. “Purging the parasite. Her unique physiology would be capable of that.”

“Parasite?” Twil frowned at Sevens. “Also when the fuck did you get here, did I miss something?”

“When you weren’t looking.”

“The parasite is a long story,” I said. “Sevens is helping.”

Twil shrugged. “What is all this shit about, anyway? What the fuck just happened? Did we just get stuck in a Scooby-Doo episode?”

“Probably need to compare notes,” I sighed.

“Hringewindla is very thankful and very pleased,” Amanda said in a floaty and formal voice. She turned to gaze at Lozzie. “And very impressed.”

“Yes, that’s wonderful for him,” Christine said, looking somewhat small and reduced, shoulders more hunched and face more pinched than I’d ever seen her before. I didn’t blame her. That was her house this little invasion had violated and twisted. “I, on the other hand, would prefer a clear explanation for what has just happened. I gather you have all visited our god, somehow. But I don’t … I don’t understand.”

“He is explaining as clearly as he needs to,” Amanda replied. Did I detect the tiniest bristle in her words? Christine certainly did, frowning sidelong at her sister.

“Err,” Ben said, clearing his throat and gesturing with the shotgun. “Sorry, I’m with aunt Christine on this one. I’d love to know what the hell that was all about, right? Also maybe get us out of the open and back indoors, in case something else happens.”

“Word,” said Raine. “Smart man.”

“You wanna go back into that?” Twil scoffed.

He shrugged. “It’s over, right? I mean, like, that part of it. House is back to normal. Hringewindla seems … alright. But he doesn’t know what else might be lurking, does he? He’s not omniscient. We need to get indoors, ‘case something else turns up. And call Mike, call your dad.”

Twil grimaced, but she nodded along.

“Ben,” Christine tutted his name, one hand forcing the shotgun barrels to point at the ground. “I told you to put that back. Stop waving it about.”

“It’s not even loaded,” Ben grumbled. “And I wasn’t waving it.”

“Yeah, fair’s fair,” Raine added. “He was keeping it pointed at the ground. Good trigger discipline too, mate.”

“Cheers. I think.” Benjamin frowned at her, looking like he wanted to be anywhere but here. He eyed the road and the tree line, clearly on edge, but not for show. I had a gut feeling that the man knew exactly what he was doing when it came to precautions for violence.

“Everybody shut up and stop talking nonsense,” Evelyn rasped in a voice like sandpaper. With superhuman effort she rose to her feet, squinting as if the fading sunlight was too strong for her eyes. Praem offered her arm, Evelyn took it, balanced between doll-demon and walking stick. She stomped forward a few paces, so she could address Amanda and Christine directly.

“Miss Saye,” Christine said, getting there first, suddenly straightening with the effort of polite regard. “I’m very glad to see you are okay as well. This has been … this was all so … ”

Christine trailed off, lost for words, shaking her head.

“Mm,” Evelyn grunted. “You owe me a cup of tea.”

Christine blinked several times. “ … I’m sorry?”

Benjamin nodded along. “Girl’s got the right idea. Indoors, cup of tea, wait for the counter attack or—”

Christine tutted. “Ben, stop, please.”

Raine pointed at Ben, eyebrows raised in agreement. Muscle nodded to muscle.

“You owe me a cup of tea,” Evelyn repeated. “And some biscuits.”

“O-of course,” Christine said. “I’d be happy to, I just—”

“We just met your god and helped de-worm him. In the process, I have had to perform some deeply inadvisable magic, to discourage the giant moron from crushing us all to death.”

Benjamin’s face flickered with a scowl when Evelyn said ‘moron’, but he kept his peace when Evelyn jabbed at him with her walking stick and squinted like she would poke his eye out.

“Hey, Evee,” said Raine, voice suddenly tight. “What do you mean, ‘inadvisable magic’?”

“Yes,” I added, suddenly worried on a level I hadn’t acknowledged until that moment. “What does that mean? Evee, are you okay?”

“I’ll be fine,” Evelyn grunted without looking at either of us. That didn’t help, but the conversation was already moving on.

“It’s true,” Amanda said. “Hringewindla is very pleased now. And clean. So clean again. This is good. This is a good thing, we should not be hostile or vindictive.”

“Speak for yourself,” Nicole grunted, eyeing Amanda with lingering suspicion.

“Mm,” Evelyn said. “Which means you owe us all some tea and biscuits, and … ” She trailed off, frowning at Zheng. “Whatever she wants, I suppose.”

“Meat,” Praem suggested.

Zheng grinned the grin of a deeply satisfied carnivore. “The worm has been very thankful.”

The boys on Zheng’s shoulders shared a glance. One of them spoke up, high-pitched with childlike offense. “Don’t call mummy a worm.”

“Your mother is a worm, your father is a worm, you are both worms.”

The boys shared another glance, rather nonplussed.

Gareth finally cleared his throat and spoke. He had the voice of a gentle and bookish librarian, not the sort of man who should be tangling with gods and monsters and getting splattered with blood. But then again, I suppose plenty of people would make the same assumption about me.

“I don’t think that’s a good thing to be saying to small children, to … um … ”

The poor man withered under Zheng’s smouldering gaze.

“Worm,” she added.

“Zheng, don’t insult children, please,” I croaked. “Especially not right now.”

“Can I be a snail instead?” asked the younger boy. “Like Hingey?”

“Hringewindla,” his mother gently corrected him.

Evelyn cleared her throat as loudly as she could manage, which unfortunately involved coughing spots of blood onto her own sleeve. “Tea, food. Yes?”

Christine Hopton nodded slowly, still shell-shocked and gathering her wits.

I spoke up. “What Evee is trying to say, is that we would like to come inside and have a sit down, and a rest. We’ve all been through rather a lot. Maybe we can share experiences. Figure out what happened. Clear this up. All that … diplomacy stuff?”

Benjamin nodded at me in silent approval.

“ … yes,” Christine said after a moment. “Yes, of course. You’re all very welcome. We should sit down and … and, well, I assume the danger is past? Hringewindla seems certain.”

I nodded. “It’s over. For now. I think.”

“Assuming none of this was intentional,” Evelyn grumbled.

“Yeah,” Ben grumbled. “Fucking right.”

“Intentional by whom?” Christine asked. Her eyes flickered left and right suddenly, as if she would catch the culprit lurking behind a nearby tree. Benjamin sighed out loud, drawing a hand over his face.

“That’s something we should probably discuss,” I said.

“Edward Lilburne,” Evelyn said. “This is all his doing, his trap, his creation run out of control.”

“Assumption,” said Praem.

Evelyn snorted. “I think it’s a bloody safe assumption,” she grumbled, then caught herself and shot a guilty grimace at the two little boys perched on Zheng’s shoulders. “It’s a safe assumption.”

Christine drew herself up and clapped her hands together, putting real effort into re-assuming the role of sweet and welcoming older lady, her schoolteacher visage slipping on as certainly as my squid-skull mask. “Yes, you’re all welcome to come inside and have some food. We could all do with a proper explanation. You’re welcome to stay as long as you need. My husband will be home soon too, I’ll call him right away, yes. We can get this all cleared up. I hope.”

Lozzie looked back over her shoulder while still petting the alpaca. “Jan’s gonna be wondering where I am!”

Nicole sighed heavily. “Can somebody please, please go check on my dog?”

Evelyn raised her walking stick and pointed at the smashed lump of grey meat, the dead parasite on the ground. “Before we go anywhere, that needs to be burned. Right now.”

“Ben, if you please?” Christine said.

Benjamin Hopton sighed and shrugged. “On it.”

For a moment he seemed to share a look with Evelyn, one of understanding that went deeper than muscle and mage. Apparently we weren’t the only ones used to disposing of evidence.

==

Almost two full hours after our return from the inside of Hringewindla’s shell, I couldn’t stand the way his cultists looked at me.

They tried not to be obvious about it, but they couldn’t conceal it completely.

We were all sitting in the Hoptons’ dining room, in the rear of Geerswin Farmhouse, gathered around the large wooden table covered in decades of chips and scratches. The fireplace lay cold and unlit, but the heating from the kitchen kept the room comfortable in the early summer evening. Mugs of now-cold tea sat atop the table, along with plates of biscuit crumbs and the remains of two sandwiches, the evidence that we’d been breaking bread with the Church, well into the growing dusk. It was all very domestic, very normal, very human. Except for the topics of conversation.

“These glasses are a miracle,” said Twil’s father.

Michael Hopton held Evelyn’s modified 3D glasses up to the back doors looking out onto the patio, handling them like an exposed circuit board. He peered through them again, at the bubble-servitor perched on the nearest fence, bathed in dying sunlight.

“Just magic,” said Evelyn.

“We’ve never been able to make anything like this. Even the old man—”

Christine Hopton cleared her throat, loudly but politely. Michael caught himself and grimaced under his wife’s sidelong look. So much like Twil, I thought. She really did take after her father.

“Even my late father-in-law,” he corrected himself, “Clive, he—”

Clive?” Raine interrupted from ‘our’ side of the table, unable to keep the smirk off her face. “‘Scuse me, sorry,” she added with a wink when everyone looked at her. “Just, you know, big-shot intimidating cult-wizard guy, but he was called Clive? Kinda undercuts him a bit, you know? No offense meant, though. Very normal name.”

Christine looked none too pleased at the mockery — the ‘old man’ had been her father, after all. She pursed her lips, but she was too polite to complain. Amanda shrugged, still fuzzy-eyed, bubble-servitor still perched on her shoulder as she sat in her chair. Michael worried at his lower lip.

Twil growled. “He wasn’t intim—”

But I got there first. “He wasn’t intimidating,” I blurted out. “He was more like you than you realise, Raine.”

Raine turned a smirk on me without missing a beat. “You’re saying I’m not intimidating?”

I sighed and rolled my eyes. “You know what I mean.”

Raine laughed and nodded a silent apology to the Hoptons, raising her hands in surrender before taking a long sip from her tea. Twil huffed, putting up with the implied insult for now.

But Amanda and Christine were both staring at me in muted awe.

I looked away, seeking Raine’s hand under the table. I tightened my clutch of tentacles around the chair I was sitting in, gripping tighter and tighter. Maybe if I gripped hard enough, I might splinter the wood.

“As I was saying,” Michael Hopton resumed, making a show of peering through the glasses again. “Even old Clive, rest his soul, couldn’t have made something like these glasses, Miss Saye. Even with all the contacts he had, all the things he did achieve, the second sight was beyond him. Beyond any of us.” He lowered the glasses and nodded respectfully across the dining room table, at Evelyn — though he couldn’t resist a little flicker at me too, like a tiny petition to some aloof idol in the corner of the room. “I am very glad that we are not in conflict with each other any longer.”

Evelyn stared back, half-squinting, curled in her chair as if her back hurt more than usual. At any other time, I would have read her attitude as hostility, but we all knew how exhausted she felt. She let the implied question hang in the air.

“Mm,” she grunted eventually, then looked at Amanda. “I know you have pneuma-somatic sight. How is that beyond you?”

“So does the hound,” Zheng rumbled from behind us, from her more comfortable seat on the sofa, sprawled out like a tiger at rest. She was still chewing her way through the dried rabbit meat that Gareth had found in the fridge. She raised one hand and pointed at Amanda’s dog.

Bernard looked up at the sound of Zheng’s voice, panting at her with approval. I’d never known an animal to approve of her before. He was sitting very calm and comfortable on the little rug by the back door — right next to Marmite, who he’d apparently decided was a member of his pack now. Of the dog and the huge squid-spider thing, Marmite was the one who looked slightly unsure, still half-wrapped in his shadowy membranes. Bernard was perfectly happy, panting softly with his tongue out, watching us humans — and other-than-humans — talk ourselves out.

At least the dog wasn’t looking at me like I’d descended from the heavens.

“Huh, yes,” Evelyn added. “Thank you for that information, Zheng. A dog seeing spirits. I can only imagine how that works out.”

“Very well, actually,” Amanda answered, voice floating away as she spoke. “He’s kept my boys safe.”

“Good boy,” Praem said to Bernard, from where she stood at Evelyn’s elbow. Bernard looked up at her and tilted his head sideways, ears flopping about.

“Yes, but how?” Evelyn grunted, wincing harder as if fighting off a sudden spike of headache. “Rather contradicts all this praise for my magic eye glasses if you can just … ” She waved a hand vaguely, gesturing at her own head.

Michael shared an awkward look with Amanda, turning the glasses over in his hands. “Being god-touched is not enough to grant the sight,” he said.

“Yes,” Christine spoke up. She was sitting very straight-backed and formal in her own chair, trying to appear calm and in control. She’d spoken very little compared with her sister and her husband, more shaken by these events than I’d suspected at first. And constantly distracted by me, of course. “My sister’s position is special, it … she … went through a very different experience, in her communion with our god. Please understand, this is not a normal thing for us. We do not all see beyond the veil. We are not gifted, not as … ”

Christine met my eyes. She tried a smile, a warm, welcoming smile, but the sweetness was soured by worship.

“It’s not a gift,” I said. I tried to sound normal, but I couldn’t keep the disgust out of my tone.

“Of course,” she hurried to add. “Of course, my dear, I apologise.”

“There’s no need to say sorry,” I added, feeling horribly awkward.

Evelyn just stared at that exchange, exhausted down to her bones. “Still doesn’t explain the dog,” she grumbled.

“I asked for a dog,” Amanda said. “I prayed and pleaded. A dog, to see with me. When I was little. Hringewindla has always honoured the request. Bernard is the most recent of my friends to have the sight. There were others before him, all passed away in their own time.”

“Awww,” Nicole said from her place on the other sofa. “You know, that’s almost enough to make me forgive you for threatening to hollow my skull out.”

Amanda nodded to the detective, as if this was a perfectly normal thing to say.

A dull pang of jealousy gnawed at the roots of my heart. If only I’d had a dog as a companion all these years, a spirit-seeing canine friend who could understand.

“Hringewindla has never extended that favour,” Michael explained. He reached across the table to return the glasses. Raine accepted them in Evelyn’s stead. “Those glasses are a miracle, I mean it, really. Having something like that, even one or two pairs of them, it would seriously improve our safety and security.” He swallowed. “The security of the church, I mean. The safety of my family.”

Christine sighed and closed her eyes briefly. “Mike, you can be so indirect sometimes.”

“Yeah dad,” Twil tutted. “These are my friends, not like, a fuckin’ weirdo mage or something.”

Christine sighed again, sharper. “Twil, please. Stop with the foul language. Not in this house.”

“Thank you for the inclusion,” Evelyn grumbled.

“Weirdoes,” said Praem.

Michael Hopton huffed and looked away, exactly like Twil would do when challenged like this. It was a bit different coming from a man built like a compact lumberjack, with a face like a granite outcrop, radiating physical readiness. But he and his daughter shared the same total inability to conceal their emotions. He was terribly embarrassed by all this.

“I’m trying to be polite here,” he said to the mug at his elbow. “These people have just saved us.”

Heather saved you,” Evelyn hissed. “As I have already explained.”

“Yeah, and Big H is the big ace, yo,” Twil said with a grin. I ducked my head and looked away, struggling to deal with Twil’s effusive gratitude, on top of the way her family looked at me. “And Evelyn is a big softie, and Raine’s … fuckin’ … Raine, you know?”

“Fuckin’ Heather, actually,” Raine corrected, totally unembarrassed. Evelyn sighed, I blushed and hissed under my breath, Raine cracked a shit-eating grin.

“Language, dear, please,” said Twil’s mother, tone turned hopeless.

“My point is,” Twil went on, “if we want copies of the glasses, we can just ask. Evee, hey, can you make more of those glasses?”

“In theory.”

“Caaaaaan we have some?”

Evelyn turned a look on Twil, more plain tired than grumpy. Twil pulled a ‘obviously-I-am-asking-a-rhetorical-question’ face. Evelyn sighed and turned back to Michael, Christine, and Amanda, the current ruling triumvirate of the Church of Hringewindla.

For just a moment, instead of keeping their attention on the grumpy mage in their midst, all three glanced at me. As if I was the power behind the throne.

I couldn’t stand it. I wanted to put my squid-skull mask on and hiss at them to leave me alone.

The awestruck behaviour had started earlier, when we’d sat down and explained everything that had just happened, matching our experiences and putting all the pieces together.

We’d had ‘official’ meetings with the Church twice before — once when Christine Hopton had visited Evelyn’s house in Sharrowford, to offer Hringewindla’s ‘help’ with the gateway spell, then a second time when they’d joined the fraught and dangerous détente between us and Edward Lilburne, though that second time had not included either tea or biscuits. But this time was different, we’d just been through an ordeal together — for a certain value of ‘together’ — and had come out the other side with a very different perception of who these people were and what exactly they worshipped.

And they’d come out of it with a completely different perception of me as well.

Geerswin Farmhouse was entirely back to normal. On the inside, the walls stood sensibly upright, the doors led to where one expected them to go, and the view through the back patio windows was of dying sunlight, overgrown fields, and the shadow-haunted forest. Wind dragged through the trees outdoors, sounding the leaves in a slow, all-pervasive rustle. The long shadows crept across the farm, past the sheep and the pair of alpacas huddled outside, and over the roof of the house, covering the dozens of bubble-servitors keeping watch up there, in case Edward Lilburne should decide to make a move. But it was a natural darkness, long welcome after the cartoonish fears of Hringewindla’s nightmare.

It was hard to believe that giant shell lay buried underground, only a short walk away. As we all talked, I kept staring out of the window, thinking about that pressurised bubble of Outside, here on Earth.

Some things that sleep in English soil should never be disturbed.

At first, Christine and Amanda had done their best to show real hospitality, helped by Gareth and ‘helped’ by the boys once Zheng had put them down. We had cups of tea all round, plenty of snacks, and an offer of painkillers for Evelyn.

“Thank you, but I have my own,” Evelyn had grumbled. She had accepted a glass of water to wash down the pills she’d produced from inside a coat pocket.

“Mind if I have one?” Nicole had asked from the sofa.

“Mm. Sure. Praem?”

Praem had to take a pill to the detective, because Evelyn didn’t want to stand up again. I wasn’t sure if she could stand up right then.

Evee really was faring the worst of any of us. At first I wasn’t sure how much of it was the after-effect of the Slip, and how much was the price of her magic. The crackling, electric blue shield she’d created earlier, down there in Hringewindla’s guts, was by far the most pyrotechnically impressive piece of magecraft I’d ever seen from her. Real, physical, tangible magic, with a twist of her hands. And she’d done it to protect us — to protect me. I told her so, as we’d gotten settled in waiting for the kettle to boil.

“I thought you said magic was never fireballs and broomsticks. Evee, that was incredible,” I’d murmured to her, squeezing her hand beneath the table.

“It was stupid and costly,” she’d grunted back, then coughed more crimson into a borrowed handkerchief. Praem picked up her glass of water and put it down six inches closer. Evelyn obeyed, taking a sip to wash away the taste of her own blood.

But where Nicole and I slowly recovered from Lozzie’s overenthusiastic slip, Evelyn did not. As we and the Hoptons talked, she hunched in her chair like a gargoyle, dark-eyed and clutching her walking stick. I stayed close. At one point I even wrapped a tentacle around her wrist, which unfortunately made her flinch. She couldn’t see that part of me without the glasses.

But after the flinch, she hung on tight.

Her bone-wand lay on the table before her throughout the entire conversation, like a loaded rifle. I wasn’t sure what that meant; I even toyed with the idea of asking her to put it away, as a show of good faith. But then the Hoptons started looking at me like I was an Outsider god, and I was thankful for the shelter of an implicit threat.

The rest of us weren’t doing too badly. Nicole sat on the other sofa, first nursing a mug of tea, then a glass of beer. It wasn’t as if she was going to operate a vehicle any time soon. Somebody would have to go with her to recover her car, but not today, not after all this. She was still lucid and speaking clearly, her parasite very much dead, but she looked shell-shocked and exhausted and said very little. She looked how I felt.

Zheng had put the boys down, much to their pouting disappointment. She had also consented to have several towels spread out on the sofa so she didn’t smear the cushions with blood.

“Llama,” she said when I asked, grinning with satisfaction.

“They’re alpacas,” I sighed. “And I don’t think you actually killed one. It was a nightmare-thing, a piece of living fiction, a ghost, sort of.”

She chuckled, placed one huge hand on my head, and purred so deep it made my entrails vibrate. “Ghosts don’t bleed.”

The Hoptons looked far more shaken, but none of them were actually hurt. Twil’s father turned up about half an hour after we’d returned, racing home after his wife had called him. Their home had been invaded, their god violated, their physical safety threatened, and they were powerless to do anything about it themselves, except wave useless shotguns around and hope the bubble-servitors would help.

Benjamin was relieved of said shotgun by Twil’s father, gently but firmly. Once it was clear the threat was past, Ben sulked off home himself. I gathered he had a life of his own, things to do, places to be, despite his dutiful bodyguard work. Gareth, Amanda’s gentleman friend, seemed eager to get out from under our feet, or perhaps just happy to get away from Zheng. He excused himself by saying he needed to go upstairs and change his blood-stained trousers, then spent most of his time shepherding the boys out of the dining room and pottering about in the kitchen. I got the impression he was on the periphery of the cult, not privy to the inner workings of the leadership, even if he was sleeping with one of them.

In fact, Michael, Christine, and Amanda all seemed to engage in a wordless agreement not to begin discussing any serious details until the two boys were upstairs, Benjamin was off in his car, and Gareth was firmly out of the room. But then came some awkward deliberation over Twil’s presence.

“She’s an adult now, Chris,” her father had said. “She’s our daughter, and she’s involved. She’s got a right to be involved.”

“She is not part of the decision making process.” Christine had huffed. “Michael, you know this, you know the rules.”

“We make the rules!”

“Yes, and they exclude her.”

“Mum!” Twil had whined. “For fuck’s sake!”

“Language!”

“Hringewindla doesn’t have an opinion on this,” Amanda added from one side. The other two ignored her.

“She’s my daughter, and she’s staying,” Michael crossed his arms, trying to look stern, but the man almost flinched under the grey wrath of his wife’s piercing stare.

“Either we stick to the rules, or we—”

But Evelyn had cleared her throat and banged her tea mug on the table. The Hoptons all looked at her instead, though Amanda had spared a glance for my twitching tentacles. She could still see them.

“Twil is with me,” Evelyn grumbled. “If she has to leave the room, then I go too, and everyone else comes with me.” Her exhausted stare dared any to argue.

Twil stayed, but didn’t say much, looking intensely awkward.

Lozzie and Sevens did not stay, however. As soon as it was clear we weren’t going to light up or play video games, Lozzie vanished — literally, just vanished when nobody was looking. I was worried for about ten minutes, until she reappeared on the sofa and started gushing to Nicole about how cute her dog was.

“Husky! Husky husky! Hucky! Hucksie!”

“Not a husky, actually,” Nicole had said, still squinting over a mug of tea. “He’s some kind of cross. Husky, German Shepherd, something. He was a stray.”

“Husky!”

“And he’s—”

“Watered and fed and given many pets please please Nicky please can I go see him again? I won’t even call you a pig, please?!”

“Sure. Fine. Knock yourself out, you little goblin.”

But Lozzie did not zoom through time and space to go spend the rest of the evening with Nicole’s dog, partly because I requested she stay close after that. None of us wanted to risk Edward Lilburne making a move amid all this. We were exhausted as it was. But Lozzie wasn’t sticking around to listen to all this serious talk. She declared she hadn’t been here for any of this, had little to add, and went to find Amanda’s boys to see if they wanted anything. The Hoptons watched her go, somewhat awkward and unreadable. I didn’t understand why they looked at her as if she was on another plane of existence. To them, she was just some random teenage girl, wasn’t she? Just another friend of Evelyn and Twil.

We called home before we got down to business. Raine called Kimberly, to check that the house had not burned down and nobody had started doing anything more dangerous than cannabis. I had half a mind to speak with Kimberly myself, to request a word with Jan, and to put Tenny on so I could hear the comfort of her familiar, trilling voice. But I was so exhausted by this long day that I just sat there with Evelyn, and let Raine handle the details.

Seven-Shades-of-Proper-and-Prim followed Lozzie upstairs as well, but she stayed in the dining room long enough to confirm her earlier assessment — the parasites were all dead.

“That’s why you were vomiting so badly, little puppy,” she said to Twil.

“Puppy?” Twil spat. “Hey! And you still haven’t explained this ‘parasite’ thing.”

“I still don’t understand where they all went,” Nicole said.

I cleared my throat. “I think I can explain that, but only because I’ve watched too many marine life videos on youtube. Certain parasites secrete anti-competition chemicals or hormones, to kill smaller members of their own species that might compete for hosts or resources. I think the big one inside Hringewindla killed off all the others, when it got too big. Just a natural consequence.”

“I’m sorry,” Michael said. “Big one, inside Hringewindla? I am going to need a serious explanation, please.”

“I already told you,” Amanda said. “I told you all.”

Michael and Christine both suppressed pained winces. Clearly, Amanda was not very good at relating direct communication from their god.

We all shared what had happened to us, right back to the moment Hringewindla’s nightmare had begun to isolate us from one another, leaving us to wander inside the suddenly expanding labyrinth of the farmhouse. We even drew up a basic timeline of events so we were all on the same page. Michael Hopton handled that, playing secretary for the rest of us with a pad and pencil, as the only one who hadn’t been here in person.

Everyone except me had experienced a true maze, doors opening on hallways and rooms that shouldn’t exist, blood-grinning mutant sheep peering in through the windows.

“When I dropped down out of the window,” Raine explained, “you were just gone, Heather. I took my eyes off you for a second. Scared the hell out of me.”

“Me too,” I admitted.

“Eyes, yes,” Evelyn muttered, thinking out loud. “Heather saw what others didn’t. She was the only one it didn’t work on. She saw through it.”

“But why would that be?” Christine asked. “You’ve mentioned that Heather here has … unique powers, yes. But Hringewindla, he is a god. How could any mortal have avoided his thoughts?”

“It’s complicated,” I said.

What nobody understood was how Zheng had broken the rules of the maze; other than people bumping into me — Raine, Amanda, and Nicole — she was the only one who had apparently been able to gather others to her. Bernard the dog, then the boys, then Gareth, like she was a magnet for protection in the false darkness.

“Maybe it’s because she kicked one of the fake alpacas to pieces?” Raine suggested.

“You didn’t burst through a wall, did you?” Evelyn asked.

“Oh yeah,” Praem deadpanned. Evelyn frowned up at her.

Zheng rumbled from the sofa. “No gods and no masters can keep me bound,” she said. “The shaman’s blessing frees me forever. Even from your worm-filth.” She directed those last few words at the Hoptons.

Christine bristled, but Amanda reached out and placed a hand on her sister’s arm.

“Zheng,” Amanda said. “Thank you. Again, thank you, for looking after my boys. I think they have become fond of you.”

“Shut up, worm,” Zheng rumbled. Amanda quivered. “It was not for you.”

Things became more complicated when we tried to explain how I had escaped, let alone the nature of the parasites, how we had removed them, and why I was immune. At first the Hoptons asked a lot of questions about every assumption we made, but all three of them grew quieter and quieter as Evelyn and I explained what details we thought were safe to share.

I made a silent and private executive decision not to explain Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight. As far as the human members of the Church were concerned, she was just another magically inclined friend of Evelyn Saye, the local mage of note.

I was too emotionally exhausted to realise the impact of my own actions. There were too many things to address, too many things to think about — the fallout of the duel between Raine and Zheng, the nature of Sevens’ terrifying and beautiful new form, the words Evelyn had spoken down inside Hringewindla’s shell, not to even mention the possible involvement of Edward Lilburne in all this. But I was wiped out, everyone was wiped out. All I wanted to do was stop thinking for a week.

So we just told them. We told them that we went to talk to their god and journeyed into his shell. We told them that I woke him up by force, spoke to him inside my own mind, and cast him out when I was done.

The nightmare had indeed broken as soon as we’d woken up Hringewindla. According to everyone we’d left behind in the house, the transition had been a sensory kaleidoscope of collapsing walls and melting doors, the nightmare sloughing off like shed snakeskin, depositing them back into the heady and raw textures of the real. They hadn’t known what to make of it at the time, though Raine and Twil had deduced it quickly enough when they’d realised who was missing.

That was when the awe started.

Christine, Michael, and even Amanda, they all started to look at me with shell shocked reverence, with the kind of eyes that Badger had turned on me after he’d seen me defeat Ooran Juh.

I was worried they would look upon me as a profane interruption, as an outsider who had insulted and bullied their god. Though the very idea that I could ‘bully’ a god was rather worrying in the first place.

But what happened was far worse. They stopped asking questions. Michael and Christine kept looking at Amanda, as if for confirmation of what I was telling them. She nodded, floaty and numb, as Hringewindla’s distant communication matched up with my own.

“All I did was speak with him,” I said, struggling to look them in the eyes as they watched me. “It wasn’t difficult. Well, okay, no, that’s a lie, it was difficult, but it wasn’t … a … ” I sighed and looked away. “He’s just an Outsider.”

“He spoke to you, directly?” Christine asked me. Her voice quivered. “And then … you made him leave?”

“Yes. Sort of. Lozzie encouraged him to leave.”

None of them knew what to say.

“The little one is a marvel of creation,” Amanda said after a moment, voice a heavy mumble. Christine and Michael both turned to look at her, half-alarmed. Evelyn perked up too, frowning hard.

But Hringewindla had nothing more to say.

Little one? That was the same way Sevens always referred to Lozzie. Was Hringewindla talking about her, or about me?

From then onward, they did not look at me as a human being again. I couldn’t stand it.

“You did … de-worm him,” Christine said, clearing her throat delicately. “And without that, we would all have been trapped. You have rendered an invaluable service to us, and to Hringewindla. You took his blessing and then … left it. For this, I thank you.”

She bowed her head. Her husband did the same. I shrugged, feeling deeply awkward, hands around my mug of tea.

“The shaman dispenses her own blessings,” Zheng rumbled.

“Heeeeey,” Raine added. “That’s that. Heather does that by herself. No need for a higher power.”

Michael snorted. Christine frowned at him sidelong. Amanda nodded, the only one who understood how Hringewindla himself really felt — or so I assumed. The bubble-servitor on her shoulder seemed to agree, bobbing up and down.

In a misguided effort to re-normalise myself in their eyes, I told them about Hringewindla’s gift. The soapstone coin was still in my pocket, weighing as heavy as a fragment of neutron star. But I was completely wrong, this was not the right move. I passed it across the table and Michael accepted it with both hands, like it was the relic of a saint. He bowed his head and couldn’t look me in the eyes.

There was much ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the coin as they passed it from hand to hand.

“Tch,” Evelyn tutted. “You do understand that object might be dangerous, yes?”

“How could it be of danger?” Michael said in a hushed voice, holding the coin up to the light so he could inspect the strange five-dot design on the top — or was it the underside? “Hringewindla gave it to … human … hands … ”

He trailed off, flicking a worried glance in my direction.

Zheng snorted. “The shaman is no monkey. What burns your hands may not burn hers.”

“Ah,” he said, blinking in frozen alarm, like he was holding a piece of radioactive meteorite. “Yes, um.”

“Yeah, Heather is protected against a lotta crap,” Raine said. She nodded at the soapstone coin. “Let us know if your skin peels off in a couple of days, yeah?”

Michael shared a sudden and worried glance with his wife.

“Oh, I’m sure it’s fine,” she said.

“I’m joking!” Raine laughed.

“It is only stone,” Amanda said. That seemed to settle the worries.

“But still, from his hand directly … ”

When Michael passed it back to me, he averted his eyes from my gaze. He handed me the stone like he was making an offering to a dangerous god at some dark and forgotten shrine.

I decided to ignore it as best I could. I didn’t want to start a fresh argument with the Church, with Twil’s family, not when we’d finally reached some kind of understanding at last. Even Evelyn was being diplomatic.

But after Evelyn shared the modified 3D glasses, Michael and Christine both stared at my tentacles like I was a hidden revelation. And then after they handed the glasses back and made their request, they looked at me for the answer, not at Evelyn.

I snapped.

“Stop it!” I blurted out. I think Evelyn had been about to answer them seriously, because she half flinched and frowned at me as I scraped my chair back and stood up. My cheeks were burning and my tentacles flared out, I couldn’t stop it happening, couldn’t stop the hiss clawing up my throat.

“Heather?” Raine said my name.

“Whoa, whoa, what, what?” Twil was up on her feet too, panicking at my sudden anger. Bernard let out a soft ‘wuff’, which made Marmite flinch. Praem tried to place a hand on my shoulder, but I shrugged her off.

“Stop looking at me like that!” I snapped at Hringewindla’s cultists. All three of them stared at me, suddenly ashamed and shocked, but more awed than put off. “I am not like your god. It was just an old man in my head! He’s in all of yours, isn’t he? Isn’t he?!”

Shocked silence. A gentle hand took my wrist. This time I allowed it. Raine, holding me softly.

The Hoptons all looked at each other. Amanda just bit her lip and shook her head. Michael and Christine looked exactly like shepherds being shouted at by a biblically accurate angel, afraid to express their fear. Twil groaned and put her face in both hands. I think she swore under her breath.

“It was just an old man in my head … ”

“It’s not like that for us,” Michael said, averting his eyes from mine. “You spoke with him. As an equal. You’re a … ”

“I am a twenty year old university student with tentacles,” I said, trying very hard to keep my voice steady. My cheeks burned and a hiccup forced itself up my throat. “I am not an Outsider god. Stop looking at me like that.”

“You rejected him,” Christine said, shaking her head, as if this explained anything. “You … you’re … how can we … you’re on his scale, his … ”

“Heeeeey,” Raine said, trying to lighten the moment with her tone. She pointed a jokey finger gun at the Hoptons. “Stop looking at my girl like that, yeah? She says stop, so stop. I’m the only one allowed to ogle her, alright?”

Zheng purred from the sofa. “How can they help themselves, little wolf? They are right. The shaman is more than flesh.”

“Great,” Twil grunted through clenched teeth. “Just what I fuckin’ need.”

“Reformation,” said Praem.

“She’s just a kid … ” Nicole added, but her tone gave away that she didn’t really believe. She’d already been awed by what I was and what I could do.

I started to turn away from the table, peeling my tentacles off the chair, itching to go upstairs and find Lozzie. I did not want to be looked at like this. I was a thing of the abyss, a creature of the oceanic darkness between the spheres, but I was not a god, not a thing to be worshipped. I sniffed and hid my face, pulling Raine with me.

“Wait,” Evelyn grunted. “Wait a second.”

“We’re so sorry,” Christine hurried to say. “Try— try to see this from our perspective. I’m so sorry we’ve caused offense, but nothing like this has ever happened before. We don’t—”

“Shut up,” Evelyn said. “Listen. Seeing as we have met your god, I would like to propose a formal cessation to any hostility between us. Any suspicions. We’re allied against the same man, the same one responsible for all of this. I would like to make this explicit, before you lot go off and have a religious crisis — without Heather here, thank you very much.”

Evee, oh Evee. My heart hurt.

“Of course,” Michael said, pulling himself up. “But this Lilburne man, we still don’t know where he is. Was this a move against us?”

Evelyn shrugged. “I don’t think so. I think it was an accident. But I also think we now know where he is.”

I turned back, as surprised as everybody else. “Evee?”

A thin, deeply satisfied smile creased Evelyn’s exhausted face. She gestured at Nicole. “Why did the parasite scramble Nicole’s short-term memory? Any takers?”

Nicole sighed. “Because I must have subconsciously figured out where Edward Lilburne’s house is, right. We’ve been over this. I don’t remember anything. It’s like I had the worst drunken night possible, but without the fun part.”

“You may not remember, but your feet do.”

“Eh?”

Twil lit up first, getting it before anybody else. “Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit.”

“Twil,” her mother tutted.

“Why did Nicole end up here?” Evelyn asked. I heard that familiar old tone in her voice, the aloof professor, waiting for a slow class to catch up. “Why did she walk all the way here while under the influence of the parasite?”

“What are you saying, I figured out where the house is, and went to it, on foot?”

“Exactly, detective.” Evelyn nodded to herself. “It’s just a theory, but I think the parasite didn’t walk you here. You walked here. You figured out where Edward Lilburne’s house is and set off to find it, which triggered the parasite to begin gestating. By the time you reached it on foot, the parasite was fully grown, to knock you off course and make you forget.”

“Then why’d I end up here?” she asked.

“You’re a professional detective. You’re also a very special kind of paranoid idiot. I should know, because I’m one too. You’re telling us that you never looked into any of us, after our difficult first meeting, months ago?”

“Ah.” Nicole cringed. “I mean, yeah, I did. Just to … you know, confirm you weren’t all using fake names or something.”

“And you looked up Twil’s address.”

Nicole cleared her throat and scratched the back of her head. “So what, it was lodged in my subconscious?”

“Yes. With the parasite scrambling your mind and your ability to walk, you made for the nearest place you knew you could somehow get into contact with us. So, sometime between the moment you stepped out of that graveyard in Manchester, and when you stepped out of the woods and onto this farm, you found Edward Lilburne’s safe house, somewhere between there and here. Or close enough. Which means we know where it is, we know where he’s hiding, because it has to be somewhere you could have reached, on foot, within the window of time you went missing.”

“That’s our Evee,” Raine said into the stunned silence. “Got a theory for everything.”

“Theory of everything,” said Praem.

Evelyn’s smile got thinner and darker. She was so very pleased with her hypothesis.

“I hope you’re right,” Nicole said, sounding very sceptical. “What do we need to figure this out then, a map?”

“Of course it’s right,” Evelyn grunted.

But she didn’t look at Nicole for approval. She allowed her eyes to creep and flitter upward, searching for my face. She was so tired, so drained, lips still stained with a little of her own blood.

Evelyn looked at me with more love and worship than a legion of cultists. And nobody else could see that.

“Good idea,” I managed to say, staring back at her in surprise. “Good idea, Evee. I … I think you might be right.”

She nodded and looked away again. “Of course I’m right. Now, let’s figure out how to hunt a mage.”

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Heather doesn’t want to be treated like a godling child, she’s not an Outsider, not like Sevens, or Lozzie, or all those mages who’ve slipped over the edge of their own humanity. Right? Right. Glad that’s settled. So stop looking at her like that. On the other hand, Evelyn must be using everything she’s got to stay this diplomatic and reasonable. And who knew that Zheng could be good with kids?

No Patreon link this week! It’s almost the end of the month and I never like the idea of Patreon charging readers twice in quick succession, so if you feel like subscribing, feel free to wait until the 2nd of the month! Instead, if you haven’t been over to the fan art page in a while, go take a look! There’s a few new pieces nestled in there, and even a short youtube video at the bottom of the page, which you might give you a giggle!

But, please, if you have a moment:

Vote for Katalepsis on TopWebFiction!

This really helps. A lot of readers find the story through TWF! It only takes a couple of clicks to vote, and it keeps the story visible!

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

Next week, like Evee says, it’s time to hunt the most dangerous game of all, an old and experienced mage, hiding in his lair. That is, if she’s right about her little theory. Though there’s a lot of other things going on right now too, and not of them about Heather.

and walked a crooked mile – 16.8

Content Warnings

Human sacrifice
Choking/asphyxiation



Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Alone in a cabin deep in the woods, far from the paved roads and familiar signposts of civilisation, in the dead of night beside a crackling fireplace, a pair of comfortable armchairs, and a butcher’s toolbox of knives displayed on a bare wooden wall. Some of the knives are chipped and scratched from years of use, from biting into bone or sawing through cartilage. Others are worn down to nubs of their former glory from decades of re-sharpening. But every blade is free of rust, clean and cared for, trophies of the hand that made the stroke and sliced the meat and severed the tendons.

Alone with a disabled old man, bent-backed and shrunken, skin dry and papery and yellowed like parchment, his hair and beard a scraggly mess, his legs braced by steel and plastic to support his crumbling bones, with crutches under his armpits to help him hobble about his reduced and narrow world, the inside of this single cabin.

Alone with an old man, clutching a well-used knife in his hand, asking why I didn’t want to be his friend.

It was like a scene from one of the horror movies that I refused to watch with Raine, not the silly, comfortable, over-the-top Hammer Horror style at all.

Except I wasn’t actually there. I wasn’t experiencing any of that with my real senses. These images were merely my human imagination doing the best it could to frame and process the wordless conversation I was holding with Hringewindla. This was how my mind interpreted direct contact between me and an Outsider god.

My physical body, the ‘real’ me — whatever that meant anymore — was still standing inside the heart of his vast and ravaged shell, next to the shrivelled remains of his fleshy core, the gigantic snake-knot inside the purple membrane, and the three tentacles he had extended beyond that final barrier.

The kindly old man gripping the knife was actually a blob of Outsider flesh the size of a football stadium.

He was inside my head in a very literal sense — Hringewindla’s contact medium, a slug of black ooze, had slipped along the inside of one tentacle and crawled up my spine until I’d let it past my own final barrier. Now it lay across the physical fabric of my brain, soaked into my grey matter like a film of oily slime, sluicing between my neurons. It should have felt disgusting enough to make me retch and scream; on the edge of my awareness, abyssal instinct twitched and flexed with a desire to scratch at my scalp, bore a hole in my own skull, and remove this infestation. But Hringewindla had quieted that disgust, wrapped me in warm comfort and reassurance, and made having a brain-slug seem almost normal.

Alone with an Outsider, in my head.

Except I wasn’t alone, not really. I was never alone anymore, not unless I chose to be.

Evelyn must have seen the flare of panic behind my eyes, the sudden alarm when Hringewindla turned to me with that metaphorical knife in one hand. He wasn’t the only one holding a weapon. Evee brought her bone-wand up in both hands again, contorting her fingers across the surface of scrimshawed magical symbols. She stumbled, mishandling her own walking stick, but Praem was there to catch her and hold her tight.

“Heather?” Evelyn hissed between gritted teeth, eyes blazing. “He doesn’t know how to leave? Then I will make it very clear to him. You hear me in there? Do you?”

I knew very well she wasn’t talking to me.

“Ah,” said Sevens, with a wet click of her lips.

Marmite tightened his grip around my left thigh, like a hound trying to stay close to his master.

“Hey, what?” Nicole said, suddenly alarmed again. She turned away from the sight of Hringewindla’s removed and dead parasite, lying far off to one side like a slowly blackening mountain range of grey flesh and cracked carapace. It lay beneath deep drifts of bubble-servitors still cooking the thing to make sure it was inert. The sound of sizzling meat still filled the air. “What’s the panic? What’s going on now?”

“Our new friend has overstayed his welcome,” said Sevens. “Which is a pity, because he deserves the company.”

“Heather?” Evelyn hissed my name again. I swear she moved like she was going to bonk me on the head with her bone-wand.

“Wait, wait, please, wait!” I snapped at everybody, putting my hands and several of my tentacles up to get them to stop talking at me for a second. “I can’t concentrate on two things at once. Let me talk with him, please.”

Evelyn looked at me like I didn’t know my own mind, like I was suggesting I should go walking alone in an abandoned and semi-flooded mineshaft. She looked ready to knock me out and solve this herself, probably with far more violence.

“Evee, I’m going to be fine,” I blurted out. “If the worst comes to the worst, I can always—”

“Everybody grab a tentacle,” Evelyn spoke over me, then glanced at Nicole. “Mostly you, detective.”

“W-what?” I blinked in confusion.

“In case of emergency,” Evelyn said through clenched teeth. She nodded sideways at the trio of giant white tentacles far up in the air above our heads, still dripping with vile fluids from Hringewindla’s dead parasite.

It took me a moment to catch on.

What Evelyn meant is that I might have to Slip us out, and quickly.

The old man inside my mind tilted his head to one side. He didn’t understand that at all. He didn’t understand how I could leave.

“O-oh!” I said out loud, for the others. “Um, go ahead, yes, uh, feel free, tentacles for everyone, I suppose … ”

We then commenced what had to be one of the most awkward group hugs in all history, still plagued by that toxic purple light making every exposed inch of skin itch. I wrapped a single tentacle around Evelyn and Praem combined. Evee helped by pinning it under one armpit, like I was securing her into the seat of a roller coaster. Nicole grimaced and politely allowed me to coil a tentacle around her arm, a firm handshake to anchor her if I had to leave in a hurry. Sevens shrugged minutely and said something about being fine on her own, but she graciously accepted the tip of one tentacle in her free hand, like a dancing partner. Marmite already had a very firm grip around my thigh.

“Well?” Evelyn said. “Speak to him, then.”

“I think he’s just confused, just doesn’t understand. He’s never left somebody’s head before, he doesn’t have the concept … ”

What need for confusion? We’re friends now, we’re getting to know each other, and I can tell you’ve got so many interesting and fascinating stories to share. You’ve been to all sorts of places and met all sorts of strange people, people I could never even imagine. The others, my other friends, they’re all very interesting and sweet and Amanda is very affectionate, but I would also like to hear your stories. Stay by the fire? Why do you need to go back out into the dark?

The old man still held the knife, staring at me with eyes sunken in great masses of wrinkled flesh and liver-spotted skin. He smiled and showed the stubs of his teeth.

“Those aren’t my thoughts,” I sighed out loud, staring up at the vast bulk of the real, physical Hringewindla, to keep myself grounded.

But they could be my thoughts, couldn’t they? They could be our thoughts. Like Amanda’s thoughts are my thoughts and your thoughts and—

“Stop, please,” I said out loud. “I’m not one of yours.”

Alone with an Outsider in my head? Even Evelyn didn’t really understand what that meant.

I’d been here before.

Inside the image that was both metaphor and reality, the dialogue of electrical impulse and pneuma-somatic mind-link, the cabin in the woods that was not real but also more real than my physical body, I unfurled my self-image.

Unlike physical reality, there were no boundaries, no limits, no pesky bone structure or blood vessels or nerve endings to worry about, no risk of massive haemorrhage or organ damage or strangling myself on my own umbilical cord. In here, I was unbounded.

I uncoiled six, then twelve, then two dozen tentacles, creating for myself a halo of barbed and venomous threat display. I blinked three sets of eyelids, layering species of vision than no human eyeball could receive, no human brain process. I plated my soft and vulnerable skin with bio-steel and chitinous carapace, flushed the gaps with toxins, and coloured myself with warning pigments in pink and red and yellow. I rammed my muscles full of excess fibres and anchored them beneath a growing exoskeleton. I sharpened my teeth to razor points and hollowed my tongue for a darting stinger and felt a tail sprout from the base of my spine as the vertebrae extended into spikes. Spines sprouted from my skin, the gaps between my fingers filled in with webbing, and my voice became an abyssal hiss from the darkest pit of my own childhood terrors.

Hringewindla’s little gutting knife shook like a leaf; I reached out with one tentacle and took it from him.

“I already told you,” I said in a voice not remotely human, “you’re inside my head on sufferance.”

The little old man ducked and cringed, fumbling his crutches as his knees quivered. He wiped grey parasite blood on his jumper with shaking hands. He hobbled away from me and all but collapsed into a chair, burying his face in his arms.

In reality, I breathed out a shuddering breath; I wasn’t sure if any of that was going to work until I’d taken the risk. After all, the real Hringewindla was very large, no matter how much scary-squid I could channel. He could have called my bluff.

But he really was a terrified old man.

Evelyn was looking at me with terrible alarm, eyes wide, lips tight. Nicole seemed a little worried too.

“Ah?” I croaked.

“I know you make strange noises sometimes,” Evelyn said, “but that was a little disconcerting, even for you.”

“Ah?” I blinked several times and cleared my throat — which felt like untying a knot. “Oh, um, did I say that part out loud?”

Nicole forced a very awkward laugh. “Less ‘say’ and more ‘gargle with acid’.”

Sevens nodded with gentle agreement, though I got the sense she somehow approved.

“Pretty voice,” said Praem.

I cleared my throat again, blushing and fussing with my hands at my neck, like I wanted to reach in and straighten out my vocal chords.

“Well?” Evelyn snapped.

“Uh … I’m pretty sure he’s absolutely terrified of me,” I said. “He genuinely doesn’t understand how to leave my head. I think I can do it myself though, but as soon as I do, we’ll lose the connection. No more communication. And he’s so … old.”

Nicole pointed at Hringewindla, the real Hringewindla, the giant tentacle monster cone-snail from Outside. “That, that is scared of you?”

“Sort of. Yes.”

She sighed and pulled a very odd smile. “Remind me to bring you along on my next dodgy job, I guess.”

“Absolutely not,” Evelyn said.

“Hey, hey.” Nicole put her hands up. The gesture pulled one of my tentacles with her. “It was a joke, yeah? A joke. I’m not gonna take a uni student on a stakeout. Even one of you lot.”

“ … right. Yes. Of course.” Evelyn cleared her throat and looked back to me. “Well, Heather? Get on with it so we can leave.”

“Um … ”

I’d made it sound too simple.

Back in the deep dark forest of the mind, I was staring down at that withered old man, huddled in an armchair that dwarfed his twisted body. I couldn’t hate him, or even be afraid of him, not really. He was barely even still here, just a scrap of memories and leathery old flesh, hanging on in this hole in the ground for a few more centuries. He was desperate for experience, for a life beyond this. He’d found it in the companionship of creatures so much smaller than himself. Who were we to tell him that was wrong? Nobody was being coerced here. Were they? I didn’t think they were.

In a distant and difficult way, he reminded me of Maisie.

So I told him about her.

Not with words, of course, but in a slew of emotions and images, human principles and human thoughts. I told this Outsider god about my twin sister. I told him all about how we’d grown up together, so very similar and alike, physically identical twins wearing each others’ faces. He looked up as I began to explain, the fear on his face replaced with a hungry look, ravenous for information and experience. But when I told him what had happened to us, his curiosity turned grey. His lower lip quivered. His hands clutched at the arms of his chair. I told him a little about Wonderland. He ducked his head and shivered, whimpering. I told him about the Eye and he mewled, please no.

I told him about the bad years of madness and pain, but then I also told him about Raine, and Evelyn, and the others, and how far I’d come, and what I was planning to do. He listened, nodding slowly, staring up at me with those glassy eyes filmed with cataracts.

And that’s why you don’t want to come with me. You don’t want to go to Wonderland, even inside my head.

You know what I am.

I wasn’t quite sure if that was my thought, or his, but his liver-spotted head bobbed up and down in his chair.

He was really trying — and not just because he was terrified of my razor-tipped tentacles and my maw full of sharp teeth. He was trying to absorb, to comprehend, to relate. But as he nodded his head and blinked those shrunken and rheumy eyes and smiled a papery little smile, I got the impression he didn’t really understand at all.

Hringewindla did not understand what a ‘twin’ was, or why I cared; I had a vague sense that to him we were as difficult to tell apart as a pair of ants. Can a human tell if two gnats are identical twins?

But he listened anyway, fascinated and deeply interested, trying to imagine what life was like for me. Even if he failed, the attempt was real.

When I finished, Hringewindla the old man opened his dry and thin-lipped mouth with a sound like dusty parchment, behind the tangle of thick grey beard.

And he told me a story too. A story of jumbled sense impressions and powerful, raw, unfiltered emotion.

Outsiders — true Outsiders, beings dredged from the deeps of the abyss to impose their self-hood upon the myriad worlds beyond Earth — do not experience memory or sensory processing in the same way as a human being. They don’t even experience those things in a consistent way to each other. But I had stretched my own sense of self so far beyond human baseline. Hringewindla’s stuttering, halting, rambling tale built his own perspective for me, from elements he did not understand. Any other human mind may have frayed under the strain, found it impossible to separate the sensory inputs into ones that we could actually process.

But I did. So he told me a story.

==

Half a mile up, through senses that had no human analogue, Hringewindla looked down on a gathering of his friends.

The inside of his shell was identical to how we had found it, but the human was different. There was no portaloo back then, no little petrol-driven generator, no modern camping supplies. The tents were a much older design as well, archaic two-peg style shelters from the blasting light of his presence.

One small scrap of thinking flesh stood forward from the gathering, past the line of red paint. They’d used red paint back then, too.

Amanda Hopton, nine years old, dressed in a scarlet robe, hands bound and eyes blindfolded, the kind of bloody-altar-and-ritual-chanting business that Evelyn had been so certain the cult must still practice. And they had, only a few decades earlier.

Hringewindla did not understand terms like ‘human sacrifice’.

Amanda Hopton, a tiny shivering figure, no older than I had been when the Eye had taken me and Maisie away from reality. Hringewindla had already soaked deep into the whorls and wrinkles of her brain; he knew her, he’d known her since she was six months old, he’d cradled her and rocked her to sleep and not understood any of it, except this weird mewling puppy needed to be held and encouraged to exist. But now her head was full of enforced devotion, the religious fervour of other friends that he didn’t understand either, a feedback loop of the darkest corner of human culture dumping toxic waste back into this Outsider god. Our toxicity. Our madness. Not his.

Hringewindla’s memories didn’t identify the other members of the cult there that day, not as individuals. But I could.

I spotted Christine Hopton, another little girl only a few years older than her doomed sister, hiding her eyes in a woman’s skirts, a woman holding a third baby in her arms and trying not to weep.

Two figures led a rising chant by the stone altar in the ancient church, a man and a woman, both of them old and sinewy, stripped half-naked, painted with symbols in black tar on their flesh. Others joined them in praise for their god, urging him to accept their offering of new flesh for his ravaged form.

The family resemblance was unmistakable, but I didn’t need to rely on human facial recognition. I could dip in to Hringewindla’s memories with senses I did not possess, I could read their pheromones, their bodily history, their DNA.

The man and the woman, screaming and chanting, were Twil’s great-grandparents.

But then everything had changed, very quickly. Several of Hringewindla’s friends had gone away. The noise had spiked, then stopped. The urging to eat eat eat had faded.

The images he fed me made no sense to him. He held them out to me like photographs of a strange dance from a foreign culture he’d only ever seen in badly explained television documentaries.

A man with a very old rifle in his hands, who looked like he knew how to use it.

A striking family resemblance to Twil, in the face and the compact frame, but mostly the sheer physical confidence.

An argument — the man with the gun on one side, the half-naked great-grandparents on the other, going red in the face with rage at his interruption. Everyone gesticulating at the tiny, shivering child, Amanda Hopton, past the red line and waiting for the final communion with their god.

I watched Hringewindla’s memories as he showed me Twil’s grandfather shoot his own parents.

There were six corpses that day. The old heads of the cult. Patricide, matricide. Nobody else had guns. The cult, cowed.

There would be no more human sacrifices.

The man with the rifle stepped over the red line too and scooped up little Amanda in one arm. A new prayer blossomed in Hringewindla’s mind.

Hringewindla lowered the photographs and stared at them again, lost in memories he didn’t understand. He didn’t know why several friends had gone away, or what ‘murder’ was, or why a parent might slaughter the most repulsive elements of their own community to save their child’s life. All he knew is that Amanda touched his outstretched tentacle with a little hand and he wouldn’t be fed any more thinking flesh.

He knew this was important. That’s why he told me. But he had no idea why.

==

“Heather?” Evelyn hissed.

Out in reality, only a moment or two had passed.

“Ah … ”

“Heather, you’re crying. What is happening in there?”

“Crying, yes, I know,” I said, sniffing back tears and scrubbing my eyes on the back of my already bloody sleeve, smearing the earlier blood-tears around even worse than before. I was already a mess, more didn’t matter right now. “I’m learning just how much Hringewindla doesn’t understand, that’s all. It’s … well, he’s telling me a story.”

“Stories can be lies,” Evelyn said gently.

“Not from one so old, I think,” said Sevens. She was gazing up at the real Hringewindla, her face lit by that purple light, shifting like oil on water. Evelyn kept scratching her own scalp and hands, but Sevens seemed largely immune to the irritating quality of the light.

“He doesn’t understand anything,” I said. “About us, I mean. He’s … oh, um.”

Hringewindla’s confusion was not over.

Inside my imagination, the extended and slightly tortured metaphor of the old disabled man did the equivalent of reaching beneath his chair and pulling out a photo album. He opened the cover and held the album up to me with shaking hands, asking a question that my mind could not even process into human terms, a question so wordless and ultimate that I felt a pang of sympathy deep in my chest.

Twil, it was all Twil.

Being born, growing up, seen from the eyes of every single person in her family, a scrap of thinking flesh that he didn’t know, that he couldn’t know. He knew her because he knew all her family. He knew all these people who loved her, everyone in her life. She was wrapped at the core of so much care. But he didn’t know her.

Why? I managed to form the question, as best I could.

He’d tried to, once, a long time ago. But the man with the gun — Twil’s grandfather, I realised, old and grey in this memory, leathery and sinewy with age and determination — had done something to her, made her poisonous to him. He recoiled from a memory of snapping canine jaws and sharp, raking claws, hiding within her like a secret second self ready to tear his connection to shreds.

But who is she? He asked me the question and my answer was not enough.

“That’s Twil,” I said out loud. “It’s just Twil.”

“Heather, what?” Evelyn said.

“Sorry, I … he … he doesn’t know who Twil is.”

Evelyn gave me a scrunched frown. “What? Don’t talk nonsense, she’s … oh. Oh.” Evelyn cleared her throat. “Then I was right.”

“About her grandfather’s motivations, yes.” I sniffed hard, but tears were running down my cheeks.

Twil did not become a werewolf as a teenager. The seeds were planted when she was barely an infant, against her parents’ consent, to keep the god out of her head. She wasn’t a footsoldier at all. She was an experiment in freedom.

I did the one thing I’d been resisting this whole time, assured at last that it was not a trap. I walked over to the crackling fireplace and sat down in the other armchair, opposite the metaphor of Hringewindla.

That wasn’t even his real name, just a description of him in Old English, the best that some intrepid fool had managed to choke out upon first discovering him down here. His real name wasn’t a word, obviously. Trying to speak it with a human mouth would have caused terrible pain, and probably hurt the ears to hear it said aloud. But it meant something like ‘spiralled explorer’. He’d chosen it himself, a long time ago.

He showed me other relics that lay about his isolated cabin in the woods, not just the knives. He had a piece of shell wrapped in a handkerchief — not a piece of his shell, but that of his best friend, or mate, or double, I couldn’t quite understand. He had a coin, a little five-pointed star made of greenish soapstone, taken from somewhere that had used currency, somewhere he’d once visited where the locals had liked him very much. He had a dead rat preserved in a jar, an old pet from somewhere else, never buried because she had asked not to be left for the worms. He had a collection of dice carved from the bones of a mentor, a cracked and chipped cup that had held the blood of a saint, and a wooden puzzle box that he still didn’t know how to open, gifted to him by a sinister figure in his youth.

Were these physical objects, held somewhere within his snake-knot core? Or were they just metaphors for memories?

I asked the question but it made no sense to him. I decided not to think too hard.

Eventually I made the mistake of asking how he had gotten here, to Earth.

The story was a blast of incomprehensible memory, of a fight on a scale I could not comprehend, not without totally abandoning my person-hood and plunging into the abyss. I listened politely, nodding along to an old man’s war story that meant nothing to me, full of sound and fury but no sense.

Out in reality, a hand squeezed mine, and pulled me back.

“Heather,” Evelyn said, peering into my face, far too close for comfort. “Heather, that is all well and good, but he needs to leave your mind, now. Are you listening to me in there, Hringewindla? You need to leave Heather’s mind.”

I pulled back from Evelyn, suddenly self-conscious at our faces being only inches apart.

But Hringewindla didn’t understand. It was like asking one of us to cease all communication — not just to stop talking, but to stop body language, all sound, even the reflection of light on our skin and clothes.

“He’s not going to resist or try to hurt me,” I said. “But I am going to have to remove him by force. If at all.”

“If at all?” Evelyn echoed back at me.

“He’s just lonely … ”

“He’s not a dog that’s followed you home,” she snapped right in my face. “Heather, he’s messing with the inside of your head. He’s not meant to be in there. Sevens, for pity’s sake, help me here.”

But Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight merely blinked slowly and sighed a sigh full of melancholy. “I cannot deny others the balm of her attention. You should understand that better than myself, Evee.”

Evelyn slammed to a stop, mouth working but no sound coming out. It was the first time Sevens had called her ‘Evee’.

“You best be bloody sure he’s not going to resist,” Nicole said, leaping in before I could start blushing at the deeper meaning of Sevens’ words. Nicole pointed up at the three giant tentacles standing tall as skyscrapers above us.

“He’s not … what we thought,” I managed to say. “He’s not.”

But that didn’t mean he wouldn’t crush us in confused pain.

Could I remove the oily sludge from between the neurons of my own brain? Absolutely. All I had to do was allow my own abyssal immune system inside my grey matter. Modifying the selective permeability of my own blood-brain barrier was not beyond the limits of abyssal biological modification. I had purged Ooran Juh’s influence with relative ease, and that had been a fast-growing rot in flesh and soul. Hringewindla’s contact surface was nothing by comparison, a gentle hand on my shoulder. I could melt and re-metabolise it in seconds, I had no doubt.

But he was old and sweet and very confused, very tired, very curious. It would burn him, scorch his flesh, make him retract his hand. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to do it, but I had to. My mind was my own, no matter how much I had enjoyed this little chat.

I tried to tell him I had to go, tried to explain this might hurt. I asked him please not to lash out.

He stared at me with gummy, sunken eyes, and did not comprehend. He wanted to show me more of his special treasures, hobbling around his cabin, animated and happy now.

“You know, you should really visit my father,” said Sevens.

“A-ah?” I turned to her, my eyes brimming with tears. She nodded to herself.

Inside my mind, the old man paused, as if hearing a voice from nowhere.

“My father does not get many chances to spend time with those of his own calibre,” Sevens went on. “And a good show can always invigorate a degraded mind. What do you say, Hringewindla? Would you like to visit the palace?”

Inside my imagination, an image floated forth, a gracious refusal, an embarrassed old man being modest about his social circles — that being, none at all.

“Sevens,” I hissed, “I-I need to concentrate, I need to make him understand this might hurt, it might be a kind of severing, a—”

“Heather,” Evelyn snapped. “Just take us all Outside.”

“But then we’d be abandoning him!” I blurted out. “And I need to make him see, before I do it.”

“A visit to the stage,” Sevens purred. “To the backstage, to back rooms of—”

“Whoa, hey,” Nicole said. “Outside again?”

Evelyn snapped. “You owe this thing nothing, Heather. Get us out of here.”

I almost sobbed. “If I can’t communicate properly with him, then what hope do I have for communicating with the Eye? I can’t just leave and—”

With a gentle puff-pop of displaced air and a tap-tap of pink converse shoes on the surface of Hringewindla’s shell, a floaty jellyfish flutter of blue, pink, and white appeared in front of us.

“Lozzie!” I cried.

“Heathy!” she cheered, throwing her hands in the air. “There you are! Found you found you!”

Lozzie was a splash of vibrant colour against the bone-white dead surfaces of Hringewindla’s shell, wrapped in her pastel poncho, her hair all fluffed up, blonde strands all over the place like she’d been dancing outdoors in a storm. She had the goofiest grin on her face, eyes so bloodshot she looked ready to sleep, hands bunched in her poncho to flap it about. Hringewindla’s toxic purple light did not seem to touch her, as if she was lit by some other, invisible source, her hues and shades inviolate from exterior interference.

She was also wearing nothing on her lower half except her shoes. Luckily her poncho was long enough to cover her hips. Bare legs poked out below the hem, unselfconsciously nude.

“Oh shit,” Evelyn snapped, eyes whipping over to Nicole and then the giant, dead parasite that Hringewindla had ripped out of himself.

“Calm yourself, magician,” said Sevens. “The little one is untouched. The parasites are all dead.”

Lozzie didn’t give a hoot about parasites, dead or otherwise. She was too busy throwing herself at me in the most wriggly, fidgety hug I’d ever experienced. She somehow got in between everyone else, avoided all my tentacles, and wrapped her arms around me, but then wouldn’t stop moving and making purring noises and jiggling one leg. It was like being hugged by a cat which wasn’t sure if it wanted to be picked up or not.

“Loz- ah- Lozzie!” I hugged her back, laughing but concerned. “What- how did you—”

“Raine called me!” Lozzie chirped, then hopped back a step like a bird considering a curious worm, tilting her head to one side, giggling all the while. “She didn’t know where you’d gotten to! Then she called me and Jan but Jan didn’t want to come so I went beeeeeeep and went on my own to Raine, because I know Raine so well it’s easy to find her. And it’s chaos! Everyone is there. Twil’s family too. So then I came to find you! And … ooooh, hello-hello!”

Lozzie ducked her head and waved to Marmite. The huge squid-spider pressed himself lower to the ground and more firmly behind me, as if suddenly shy.

“This is Marmite, yes, um, Lozzie—”

“Hi Marmite!” Lozzie waved with both hands. Marmite bobbed one bony tentacle back at her.

“Lozzie,” Praem intoned. That got her attention, head up, eyes sleepy and bloodshot, but listening clearly. Praem gestured at me and Lozzie’s eyes followed the gesture to the end of Praem’s fingers, again like a cat.

“Lozzie,” I said, trying not to explode with worry, “are the others okay? Raine and Zheng and Twil? And Twil’s family? There were kids there, too, little children trapped in the nightmare.”

“Mmmm-mmmmm!” Lozzie closed both eyes and nodded like she was a bobble-head figurine, far more than necessary. “Nobody was bleeding and nobody was crying. Bubbles everywhere though! Zooming about!”

“The bubble-servitors,” Evelyn said, jaw clenched tight. “Lozzie, you’re certain there wasn’t anything untoward happening?” She didn’t even wait for an answer before turning to me. “We have to get back right now, before something else goes wrong.”

“Y-yes,” I said, trying to feel confidence that I didn’t believe.

“It’s fiiiiiiiiiine,” Lozzie said, eyes still closed, as if she could see without sight.

“Lozzie,” Evelyn said sharply. “We are in the middle of a crisis. Are you still high?”

Nicole sighed, sounding sort of wistful. “Looks like it to me.”

“Yes!” Lozzie shot one hand into the air like an overeager student ready to answer an easy question. I started laughing, all the tension of the last few hours peeling off me under the force of the Lozzie pressure-washer.

“Wish I wasn’t sober right now,” Nicole added. “Don’t suppose I could get some of that good stuff later, hey?”

Turning to Evelyn had finally forced Lozzie’s eyes out across the rest of the plain of bone-shell and twisted pillars, out toward the vast mountainside of dead parasite, still sizzling gently as the bubble-servitors cooked every inch of grey meat to make sure it was dead. Lozzie’s mouth opened, slack with sleepy-eyed fascination as she took in the surroundings, as she stared at the distant hole in Hringewindla’s shell, and the vast scorch and claw marks that had ruined his once great flesh, so long ago.

“Oooooooh,” she went, as if we were standing in a theme park.

“How are you not freaked out by this?” Nicole asked. “Is it the weed?”

“Be gay, do crimes,” Lozzie whispered as she looked up at Hringewindla himself, the vast purple dome and the snake-knot inside.

“Oh yeah, sure,” Nicole scoffed. “That explains everything.”

“Be gay,” said Praem. “Be polite.”

“Usually better than my solutions, sure,” Evelyn muttered.

“Hey hey!” Lozzie suddenly flapped her poncho high in both hands, shouting up at the real, physical Hringewindla. Luckily we all discovered she was not nude beneath the poncho, but was wearing a pair of pink shorts I’d never seen before. I had the sudden and unshakable knowledge that those shorts belonged to Jan. “Hey you! Woooooo, you’re big! Yeah!”

Inside my mind, Hringewindla-the-old-man stood up out of his chair suddenly. He smiled like he was seeing an old friend he hadn’t clapped eyes on in decades.

“Um, Lozzie?” I said, clearing my throat. “Do you and Hringewindla know each other?”

“Mm?” Lozzie turned back over her shoulder to look at me, chin popping up over the corner of her poncho, sleepy-lidded eyes blinking like an owl in the light. “No? I’ve never seen him before, not until riiiiight now.”

Second-hand pride welled up inside me. The old hunter, his knives worn down, his bones like dead wood, his flesh failing, drew a breath deeper than he had in centuries. Something about this meeting was revitalising him.

“Wait, wait a second, please,” I said, struggling to keep up. “Lozzie, are you communicating with him?”

Lozzie answered with a song.

She turned back to Hringewindla, opened her mouth, and tilted her head back so she was facing directly upward. Her eyes fluttered shut as she let out three long, high-pitched, ethereal notes of warbling beauty. For one strange moment she was frozen on the spot, neck stretched upward like a swan, body held poised like a statue as the notes trailed off. Her angelic voice made me blink back tears. Nicole gasped in surprise. Evelyn cleared her throat.

Then Lozzie adjusted her posture like a dancer switching to a different freeze frame, or a puppet yanked into a different configuration. She swayed to one side, stopped, and sang again, a ghostly and almost inhuman sound, but still girlish and sweet.

Inside my mind, Hringewindla was nodding and crying.

“The little one has that effect,” Sevens murmured. “There is a reason she is so beloved by the kami.”

Lozzie’s singing went on for several minutes, stop-start as she paused to sway and lurch, as if she was searching for the right acoustic angle. The old man inside my head stood up straight and put more strength into his arms to pull himself up on his crutches. The clouds in his eyes seemed to clear away.

Eventually, Lozzie trailed off and sighed a little sigh. She gazed out at the distant hole in the shell for a moment, her giddy high transmuted into slow and soft melancholy.

“It’s okay,” she murmured to nobody in particular. “It’s not that big.”

“Lozzie,” Evelyn said, clearing her throat and wiping a stray tear from her eyes. “We do need to leave. Sooner rather than later. And Heather has to get Hringewindla out of her head. Can you make sense to him for us? Communicate this?”

“I’m really afraid of hurting him,” I said. “Were you speaking with him just now? Is there anything we can do to make him understand?”

Lozzie bobbed her head from side to side, flapping her poncho like a stingray’s wings, building up steam again after her bout of melancholy. Then she pivoted on one foot, spun toward me, and reached out to press my nose with her thumb.

“Boop!”

I laughed, tutted, and rolled my eyes. “Lozzie, that’s very cute, but it’s hardly the time for … uh … ”

Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight took my arm quickly. I suddenly gripped everything I could with my tentacles — Evee, Lozzie, Praem, the ground, my own legs. My eyes bulged and my stomach clenched up like a fist. I gasped and heaved, flailing in panic.

The oily slug inside my brain was on the move.

Hringewindla’s contact medium gathered itself, leeching its own slick and slimy matter from between my neurons, sliding across the inside of my skull. I have felt a great many disgusting sensations in my life, from the sensory violence of Outside, to mage nonsense here in reality, from things I don’t understand growing inside my own body, to biting infected flesh away from the wounds of a lover. But the brain-slug won an award, a round of applause, and almost overpowered my no-vomiting techniques. How many people can say they’ve felt an alien god physically crawling across their brain?

Inside my imagination, the withered old man waved me a friendly goodbye. He turned toward somebody more his own size, somebody wrapped in a pentacolour pastel poncho.

But as the contact medium peeled away from my grey matter, the metaphor in my imagination collapsed like reality itself unravelling.

I was not talking to an old man at all, I was communicating with something so vast and so alien that the human mind could barely process the information. The warm blanket was pulled off my shoulders, the crackling fire went out, the walls of the cabin fell away, and I was in a void of churning self-hood that threatened to swamp me and drown me.

It was a good thing Sevens was holding me, and that Evelyn was wrapped in one of my tentacles. If I’d been alone, I think I would have ripped my own head open to get Hringewindla out.

Instead, Sevens held me like a steel vice. Somebody was shouting my name — Evelyn, probably — before being soothed by Lozzie’s giggling reassurances. I heaved and flailed and wanted to vomit up my entire digestive tract to purge this sensation. A pair of very strong arms found my waist and helped to hold me up as I retched.

With a noise like unsticking a melted shoe from hot tarmac, Hringewindla’s oil-slick brain-slug contact-medium detached from the inside of my skull and found its way through cells and tissue, down into my esophagus.

I hacked and coughed and choked, until Praem bent me over and slammed her hand against my back.

A glob of purple and white mucus shot from my mouth and splattered on the ground.

I hung there, wheezing for breath, watching the little blob of Hringewindla twitch and flex, like a deep-sea mollusc dragged up to the surface to die. Inside my mind, he was gone. The cabin in the woods, the surrounding night, the crackling fire, all of it was gone. Just me again, alone inside my own head. The relief was like a pulled tooth.

“I’m okay, I’m okay,” I wheezed as Praem and Evelyn both tried to handle me in different directions.

“Yay!” went Lozzie. She threw her arms up.

Before anybody could make a sensible suggestion, Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight let go of me, took a half-step away, and ceased being human.

Hastur’s Daughter reared up all of a sudden, beetle-black armour plates and yellow frills covering her body, her front a downy mat of soft fur, pincers and needle-legs braced against the shell-surface ground.

It had been bad enough when she’d been standing at a safe distance, but this mask change was up close and personal. Evelyn recoiled so hard she nearly sent us all sprawling with her. Nicole flinched and yelped and covered her mouth. Marmite yanked back and almost took my leg with him. Luckily Praem didn’t care, she kept us anchored. Lozzie stared in open-mouthed awe and appreciation — I’d seen that look on her before, but it took me a moment to remember when. It was the exact same way she’d looked at Zheng’s boobs.

Seven-Shades-of-Slick-and-Spiky reached down with one bone-like hand, plucked the dying purple slug-thing from the ground, and popped it past her facial mandibles.

Small chitin plates moved in her throat. Her mouth-parts closed. She swallowed.

Then, just as suddenly, she was back to the Princess Mask, unruffled and starched. She shot us all a cool and collected look.

“My apologies,” she said. “I have sent that to my father.”

“Oh, well, that’s all right then,” Evelyn said, dripping with sarcasm. “Perhaps next time you transform into an eight-foot alien monster, you can warn us all first?”

“Very pretty,” said Praem.

Lozzie was looking at Sevens like she was a pin-up model, biting her lower lip and twisting on one foot. I didn’t blame her. If we’d been anywhere else, I would have been having a very difficult and embarrassing conversation with Sevens right then.

But Sevens turned to Lozzie with a strict and unimpressed look. “Little one, you must warn us about this sort of thing in future. Not everyone has multiple breathing holes. Heather was in very mundane and boring danger.”

“Fucking right!” Evelyn snapped. “You could have choked her!”

“I didn’t know it would happen like that!” Lozzie protested, gone shrill, hands suddenly fluttering everywhere. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry! Heathy, I’m sorry!”

“It’s okay, Loz,” I croaked. Praem helped me to straighten up. Evelyn caught my eye, still brimming with misplaced anger. “Evee, she was just doing her best to help. She got Hringewindla out of my head. It worked.”

“Yes, and, well, good, okay!” Evelyn huffed, gritting her teeth and looking like she wanted to belt something with her walking stick — probably Sevens. Lozzie did a nervous, slow flinch away from her, hands curled into the fabric of her poncho.

I opened my mouth quickly. “You’re not actually angry at—”

“I’m not actually angry at—” Evelyn said at the exact same time.

We looked at each other. Evelyn sighed and averted her eyes.

“We love you,” Praem said, speaking to Lozzie.

“Mmmmmm,” went Lozzie, more than a little confused, heavy-lidded eyes flicking from face to face.

Evelyn cleared her throat loudly and turned to Lozzie. “I’m sorry I snapped. I’m not actually angry at you, I’m angry at Hringewindla. I’m angry at this entire damn situation, and I’m angry with your uncle, who is subhuman filth for risking even a sliver of this in the first place by creating this kind of monster.” She spat the final word and gestured at the vast, dead parasite, the low mountain of blackening flesh and cracked carapace.

Lozzie had brightened when Evelyn had begun to apologise — she knew that Evee was sweet on her, really — but her face froze in stoned, bleary-eyed paralysis when Evelyn explained the true and final target of her ire.

“ … Edward did all this?” she said, in a tiny voice. “Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.”

Evee froze too. “Oh, bugger,” she hissed.

“We’re not sure,” I blurted out. “Probably. Maybe.”

Lozzie bit her lower lip, but there was nothing coquettish about it now. She suddenly looked much worse for wear, high and confused and far from secure. I reached for her with a tentacle. She accepted it with both hands, hugging it tight to her chest.

“You’re safe with us, little one,” said Sevens.

“Oh, yes, of course,” Evelyn added awkwardly, trying her best, clearing her throat again. “He’s not directly involved, I think that’s for certain. You’ve nothing to fear. We’re all together. Aren’t we?”

I nodded along, smiling at Lozzie. She puffed out her cheeks.

“And Tenny is safe back at the house with Jan and July, yes?” I asked. Lozzie nodded at that. “Then we’ve nothing to worry about.”

“Nothing to worry about, she says,” Nicole added, deep in habitual sarcasm. “I think we’ve got plenty to worry about right here and now. What are we doing about … him?”

She gestured up at Hringewindla.

Luckily, whatever Lozzie had actually done to eject his brain-slug from my cranium, it hadn’t hurt Hringewindla — or at least she’d somehow communicated enough to stop him from lashing out in alienated pain. The three vast scaled tentacles hung placid in the air like a trio of seaweed fronds waving in slow current. The snake-knot inside his core slithered over itself in an endless dance of leviathan flesh. The bubble-membrane poured out toxic light, but had fully sealed itself once more, healing the self-inflicted parasite-removal wound.

“I don’t think we need to do anything?” I said. “I … think?”

Lozzie turned to look up at Hringewindla, still hugging one of my tentacles like it was a plushie. “I’ll come see you. Yeah.” She glanced back at me. “Can I come see him?”

“Do you want to?”

Lozzie nodded enthusiastically. “He’s smart! He’s got a loooooot of smarts, and he’s feeling a lot better now! I think I can help him walk, maybe!”

“Walk?” Nicole echoed. “Uhhhh.”

“It’s a metaphor,” I said.

“Nope!” Lozzie chirped.

“Like I said,” Evelyn grumbled. “Don’t think about it, detective. You’ll be happier that way.”

“Look, I’m trying my best not to think about much here,” Nicole replied. “But that thing is still a giant squid-monster, alright? Can I think about that?”

“If you want,” Evelyn grunted.

Lozzie was skipping around my side, trying to get close enough to pet Marmite. The squid-spider wasn’t quite sure about her yet, but he didn’t flee. But then Lozzie caught a hint of something in the air. She sniffed loudly.

“Why does it smell like chickens here?” she asked.

“I’ll explain that part later,” I sighed. “I think it’s high time we left.”

“Indeed,” Evelyn agreed. “What are we doing, a round-trip through Camelot, or—”

“Ooh, ooh!” Lozzie bounced up on her heels, which made Marmite flinch. “I can take us straight back to Twil’s farmy-farm farm-place!”

Evelyn wanted to give her a look. I could see it in the tightness of her jaw. But she resisted, and I adored her for that.

“All right,” Evelyn said, sounding covertly unhappy about this. “We’ll take Lozzie’s way, it’s quicker and more direct. Nicole, be warned, this does tend to be a little more rough than Heather’s technique, so brace—”

Hringewindla wasn’t done yet.

With a deep thump of displaced air, one of his three vast tentacles descended toward us once again. Everyone froze in shock and horror; for a moment Evelyn scrambled for her bone-wand and Sevens went very still, about to switch masks. But then Lozzie cried out “It’s okay!” and she turned out to be right. Hringewindla’s tentacle slowed as it dipped, buffeting us with wind from above, but far gentler than before.

Down and down and down it came, until the skyscraper of white flesh hung level with us once again, facing us with a blunt tip of thick scales.

Lozzie let go of my tentacle and skipped forward. For one horrible moment it seemed as if that wall of flesh would swallow her, like she was vanishing into the distance. But then she stopped and bowed, as if with great respect. She held out both hands and touched the end of the tentacle, bowed again, and skipped back over to us, her poncho flapping as she came.

“For you!” she announced, and pressed an object into my hands.

It was the coin.

A little five-pointed star, made of greenish soapstone, about the size of a fifty pence piece. Hringewindla had shown me this, inside my imagination, a relic of somewhere he’d once visited. But that was all a metaphor. Wasn’t it?

I stared at the coin, then up at the snake-knot, and ached to ask him a dozen more questions.

“He says you might need it more than him, one day!” Lozzie chirped. “Because you might meet the people who gave it to him!”

“People … ” I murmured. “Outsider people?”

Lozzie shrugged, giggling and flapping her hands, still stoned out of her mind.

“Sevens,” I said. “Do you know … ?”

But the Yellow Princess shook her head. “To you I may seem well-travelled, but compared to the old man here, I have never ventured beyond the village where I was born.”

“Is he done?” Evelyn asked. Lozzie nodded, then turned to wave at the white scales of Hringewindla’s tentacle. He did not wave back, which was lucky because the pressure wave would probably have knocked us all over. “Good,” Evelyn said. “Then let’s get out of here before he changes his mind. Everyone grab onto Lozzie.”

“I’m popular!” Lozzie giggled, turning on the spot and swaying from side to side. Sevens gently took her shoulder to stop her wriggling about.

“Hey, one more thing,” Nicole said. “Just before we go.”

“You want to delay this even further?” Evelyn asked with a huff.

“Nah. Just … can somebody please, please go check on my dog after this?”

“We’ll make sure your dog is safe, yes,” Evelyn grumbled.

“Doggy!” said Lozzie.

“Good doggo,” said Praem.

Marmite shuffled behind me, unsure if he was the subject of this unexpected praise. Nicole sighed with a great weariness and joined the Lozzie-circle. Evelyn made sure to be holding one of Lozzie’s hands. Praem helped me stand up straight as we all braced for the journey.

I cast one last glance up at Hringewindla, at his shrunken and shrivelled glory, then closed my hand around his soapstone gift.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter



Lozzie to the rescue! Well, sort of. Lozzie to the interrupting-actual-communication-with-an-Outsider-god. Still, Heather’s come away from this experience with knowledge she didn’t have before. She can talk to something on this scale, even if it’s challenging! Though ol’ Hringle-wingely has been around humans for hundreds of years, so he’s kind of used to it. Maybe she can apply this elsewhere, in due time. And now she knows the true story behind the Brinkwood Cult, and Twil’s mysterious grandfather … 

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Next week, the girls need recovery, rest, reconciliation … and perhaps revenge, against the mage responsible for all of this.

and walked a crooked mile – 16.7

Content Warnings

Parasites
Parasite removal
Mind control
Self-surgery
Ableist language



Previous Chapter Next Chapter

“Alarm clock.”

My lips moved in the private darkness behind the metallic bone rampart of my squid-skull mask, forming the words once again. Accurate pronunciation, clear meaning, without adornment. I gazed upward at the gigantic soap-bubble membrane as I spoke, watching the surface swirl with spirals inside spirals, liquid and smooth like oil gliding across water. Toxic purple light poured from the oily sphere, like a blazing fire of biological heat. My eyes and hands and scalp all itched like crazy, as if I was covered in sea-lice.

Vast white snake-forms slithered over each other inside the bubble. That knot of otherworldly flesh was all that remained of Hringewindla, a living god who had once filled this barren cavity at the heart of his shell.

“Alarm clock … ” I whispered once more, then bit my lower lip.

“Alarm clock,” Sevens echoed from beside me, her own voice so much more precise and formal.

But no amount of precision or detail would help me with this task. Sevens could have spelled the words forward and backward, recited the etymology of the term and the entire history of alarm clocks. Or she could have called Evelyn and Nicole up here so we could play a trio of mobile phone alarm noises. None of it would help.

Alarm clock was just words, not the thing itself. The words had no relation to the thing except for those of us who used language, and a specific language, too.

Did Hringewindla speak English, except through Amanda?

Did he even speak?

I shook my head, my confidence draining as I waded through miles of swamp. “Sevens, I don’t think I can do this,” I said. “What am I supposed to do here, summon a giant alarm clock?” I forced an awkward laugh behind my mask.

“If you like,” said Sevens.

“I suppose I could always spin my tentacles together and bob through the air, like one of those novelty alarm clocks you have to catch to turn it off?”

“Exceptionally cute, kitten. But no.”

I sighed. “You could rise to my bait on occasion, you know that? Raine would.”

“Raine would tell you that signifier and signified cannot be—”

“Yes, yes, I know what Raine would say. She would start talking a lot of philosophy that goes over my head. Besides, neither signifier nor signified is relevant here. Somehow I doubt that making a loud enough racket is actually going to wake him up, or drag him out of the nightmare, or whatever it is we’re trying to do.”

In the corner of my eye, Seven-Shades-of-Stressful-Pedagogy nodded her head in graceful surrender.

“Alarm clock,” I huffed, trying to steel myself. I kept scratching at my hands. My cuticles itched.

“Heather!” Evelyn called in a very silly stage-whisper from behind us, from the relative shelter next to the ancient church, along with Nicole. “Heather, what are you two doing?”

“Is it not obvious?” Sevens replied.

“No! You’re just staring at it! Keep us in the loop, for pity’s sake!”

“We’re building an alarm clock,” I called back to her, then cast a look upward at the slowly orbiting halo of bubble-servitors. Would too much noise bring them crashing down on our heads? “Let me concentrate, please, Evee.”

The Eye’s lessons lurked in the deepest parts of my subconscious, the parts I preferred not to examine too closely. I used to think of that as a series of back rooms, cobwebbed and lightless, full of stalking monsters eager to jump out at me and drag me off into the dark. But over the last nine months of my increasingly confusing and dangerous life, that metaphor had become useless. It wasn’t applicable anymore, not when I reached down there so often to drag those lessons forth, to put them to my own uses. Nowadays the Eye’s teachings were more like infernal machinery, stored in a lake of toxic black oil to stop their reactive nature from running out of control when exposed to light and air. And when I was willing to burn my hands and forearms with caustic chemicals, I could use that machinery to perform miracles.

But the Eye had taught me only the principles, the mathematics which described the angles of an alien yet universal physics. Light, heat, kinetic force, these were all simple things. Gravity, nuclear attraction, magnetism. Even the act of sliding matter through the membrane between here and Outside was just another kind of force, in the end.

If I was willing to endure pain and risk permanent damage, I could put a lance of energy right through Hringewindla’s body, no matter how big he was. That would certainly wake him up, as would a thousand slightly-less-violent solutions.

But none of those were an alarm clock.

I’d made a beacon for Evelyn earlier, to guide her out of the house-maze, and I hadn’t even thought about that. But a beacon was just light, turned to the purpose of guidance. My body had an analogue for the concept, in the rainbow strobing of my tentacles.

And an alarm clock was just sound, turned to the purpose of waking somebody up.

Something clicked into place in my thoughts; I didn’t need an alarm clock, I only needed Hringewindla to wake up.

“Sevens,” I murmured, trying not to break my concentration even as I asked the essential question, still staring up at the god-bubble before us. “What happens to the others back at the house, if we wake him up?”

“Nothing, I think.”

“ … you think?” I resisted the urge to turn and look at her. I had to hold on to this concept.

“The nightmare will not end until we extract the parasite and kill it. The parasite is the one projecting the confusion. I think.”

“Again, you think?”

“I am not an expert on Outsiders.” She paused. “That would be you, my dearest.”

I sighed and tried to ignore the clenched fist in my belly. “I’m hardly an expert.”

“My father would probably disagree. As would I.”

“Well, thank you for the vote of confidence.” I tried not to sound too sarcastic. “I’m … I think I’m ready. Ready as I’ll ever be.” My mouth was so dry I could barely swallow. “I’m going to try something. It might not work, I have no idea what the result will be. Do you need to step back?”

“Do you wish me to do so?”

Unable to summon the words, I stuck out my hand, clammy with the fear of pain and failure. Sevens took my hand in hers.

We stepped back together, away from the line of red paint. Nice and safe.

I didn’t do anything so cheesy or obvious as give us a countdown, but Sevens could probably tell I was about to dive by the way I took three short, sharp, nervous breaths.

And then I plunged in, face-first, full-body, and falling, down into the vat of black oil where I kept the things I did not want to know.

It would not be enough to simply locate the correct lessons from the Eye and put them together in the right order to achieve a desired effect. Even dragging Sarika from the Eye’s grasp had been a matter of motion and force, even if I’d had to leave my body to attain enough leverage to perform the equation. But this equation was not brute strength, not a giant gulp of cold waters, no deluge of information overwhelming my tiny ape brain; this was delicacy and dexterity. I had to swim through the waters of the sump, like cave diving in pitch darkness, surrounded by sharp rocks and jagged steel, with the toxic gunk and the burning acids, to forge a human concept from the mathematics of the gods. I had to use the abyssal logic of star-shine and electron mass to build an alarm clock.

My last coherent thought before the pain was that perhaps the Eye had intended this all along. Perhaps this was the point. The pupil must learn to apply herself.

My brain was on fire from the first figure of the equation, white-hot and melting through my neurons, but I couldn’t just slam the pieces into place like with every other hyperdimensional equation. I had to stop and examine each one, select the next piece from the depths and fit it together, then turn the shape over in my mind to see if it looked right. Like building a real clock, with springs and winder and hands.

For some absurd, subconscious reason, I clung to the memory of an egg-timer that my mother had possessed when I was little, shaped like a rooster about to crow. Once, feeling mischievous, Maisie and I had set it to sixty seconds, then peered over the kitchen counter with nervous anticipation, waiting for it to ring out and irritate our parents.

I rebuilt that little egg-timer, piece by piece, from repurposed infernal machinery.

Extrapolating from first principles took seconds. That doesn’t sound like long, but at the speed of thought that may as well have been hours.

I think I screamed. I know I squeezed Sevens’ hand hard enough to hurt her, grinding her fingers together. Lucky it wasn’t Evelyn who’d offered to hold my hand through this messy and imperfect delivery, because I could have hurt her badly, broken a finger or dislocated her wrist. But Sevens was made of sterner stuff. My six tentacles flailed, slapping the ground. The equation-building process went on so long that I felt blood start to drip down my face.

A final piece burned and hissed in my hands, melting my flesh and turning it black. A tiny hammer to ring the bell, to waken. I screamed myself raw with a sound like a beached dolphin as I slid it into place.

An angel was born.

In the open space halfway between me and Hringewindla’s dome, a twelve foot high golden rooster burst into reality, like a sudden flare of molten gold dust. The centre of its body was a giant clock.

The abyssal cockerel filled his lungs, scale-feathers puffing up, glinting black-gold in the purple light. He raised a snapping squid-beak, spread diaphanous wings of glinting crystal, and gripped the shell-surface with rending claws, like an artillery piece anchoring itself to the ground.

He crowed so loud that he exploded.

Later, the others told me that nothing visible had happened, other than me flailing about like a wounded octopus and crumpling to my knees, hissing and spitting blood as I tried not to pass out. Not even Sevens actually saw the giant golden rooster-squid or heard the ear-splitting cock-a-doodle-doo.

The only evidence that I hadn’t hallucinated the entire thing was a small ‘news of the weird’ article a few days later, in one of the local Sharrowford newspapers. Every domestic and farm rooster between Manchester and the Pennines had all screamed their tiny little lungs raw in unison, at about four fifteen in the afternoon that day, for no discernible reason. Some of them had gone on for almost an hour, wearing themselves to exhaustion in an effort to see off some invisible challenger. Farmers irritated, locals baffled. Enthusiasts of the paranormal pointed to a Civil War battle that had taken place on this very same day, in the year 1643, in a field not too far from the south end of Sharrowford. Roundhead ghosts are a better explanation than squid-girls summoning giant imaginary egg-timers, so I’ve never made an attempt to correct them.

My abdominal bioreactor flared to life as the squid-rooster exploded into nothingness. I crumpled and banged my knees on the ground, struggling to stay standing even as the reactor worked overtime to hold me up and keep me conscious. The delicacy of that brain-math had taken every ounce of concentration and intellectual power I could muster. My head was stuffed with cotton wool. I wanted to stop thinking and stare at a wall for twelve hours. Sevens’ held my entire forearm, just to keep me from landing on my own face.

“I’m alright—” I tried to say, but my lips slurred the words and my mouth tasted like blood. My eyes were thick and gummy, tears running down my cheeks. My head hurt like a band of iron was expanding inside my skull.

My stomach tried to punch its way up my throat and out of my mouth — but something stopped it, held it back, kept it in place. I was physically incapable of vomiting into the squid mask.

I reminded myself to thank the donor, somehow, one day.

Sevens was saying something, a low purr of congratulation, calling me a good girl. Stomping footsteps hurried to join us. Another voice floated from behind, perhaps saying my name, maybe scolding me, I couldn’t be sure. My ears still rang with that rooster’s crow.

And then a wet slooooruuummph filled the air.

It was like the sound of an entire sewer system being unblocked with clean sea water all at once, or perhaps a power-generating dam being switched on for the first time and sluicing its internal machinery with muddy silt. I raised my eyes from the surface of the shell.

Hringewindla was awake.

A trio of those vast snake-like shapes breached the inside of the oil-on-water membrane, punching through from inside like sensory tendrils reaching out from the confines of a shell. Blunt-ended, covered in glistening, glinting, glittering scales, millions of tiny points of light reflecting the purple illumination. Each one must have been as thick as a skyscraper.

And all three lashed toward me, crumpled and cowering on the ground.

In that exact same moment, the halo of bubble-servitors gathered and swirled downward, like a tornado forming in a stormy sky.

I raised a hand, pure instinct and panic, my bruised mind spinning together the familiar old equation. Out! Out, all of you Out!

But then something made of black armour plate and white flesh grabbed my hand in a gentle claw. Hastur’s Daughter towered over me, shrieking and wailing up at the awakened god. Yellow spores covered her back in a cloak of deadly promise. Hands tipped with black razor-blades made right-angle signs with each other, rotating back and forth in some unknowable symbolism. Seven-Shades-of-War-and-Ruin stood over me like a bodyguard.

And on my other side, a familiar drag-thump of foot and walking stick heralded a crackle in the air.

A discharge of static electricity rippled out across the shell-surface and terminated in a visible bubble of blue-on-blue that seared my eyes like living fire, surrounding myself and Sevens with a ten-foot bubble of our own. Evelyn stood next to me, hands contorted into painful angles on the surface of her scrimshawed bone-wand, sweating buckets and gasping out a torrent of jumbled Latin. Praem had both arms around her waist, holding her up.

In the corner of my eye, I spotted Nicole too, still sheltering in the cover provided by the ancient church. She’d gone white as chalk. Marmite had joined her, cowering behind her legs.

Nicole had her pepper spray out, held aloft in one shaking hand.

Sevens was hissing and screeching up at the giant descending tentacles. Evelyn was almost panting her Latin chant, but she couldn’t resist darting a terrified look at Seven-Shades-of-Spikes-and-Blades.

I lurched to my feet, spread my tentacles wide, and hissed.

Hringewindla hesitated.

The trio of vast snake-tentacles halted in their descent, whipping outward with sheer muscular momentum. A wave of displaced air buffeted down on us like storm winds, pulling at my hair and plastering my hoodie against my body. The whirling threat of bubble-servitors slowed, circling and bobbing, but not yet returning to their halo formation. We were mad to think that a line of red paint on the ground could ever hold back something that large.

“You mad bastard!” Evelyn shouted up at Hringewindla, sounding like she’d just smoked an entire packet of cigarettes. Blood flecked her lips. Her eyes were wide with barely suppressed terror, her pupils dilated with pain and effort, the side-effect of real magic. “We’re trying to fucking help— you— shit—”

“Do not try to speak,” Praem said, clear as ever.

Sevens made a sound up toward Hringewindla too, a bit like the sound a crab might make if it was losing a game of chess and decided to flip the board. She clacked several claws and did a skirts-to-tip muscular strain, as if threatening to release something from within herself. I didn’t understand a word of it, but the intention was clear enough.

“No, no,” I croaked, groping to brace myself against the floor with my tentacles so I didn’t fall over again. “He’s just trying to smash his alarm clock. Woke up cranky.”

Seven-Shades-of-Chitin-and-Iron turned her bulb-tip head toward me — at least I assumed it was a head, what with the various void-black eyes and razor-sharp mouth-parts surrounded by armour plates.

“He’s terrified of you,” she said in a voice like the god of all wasps.

“Fucking hell!” Evelyn shouted. I couldn’t tell what spooked her more, Sevens or Hringewindla.

“We need to talk to him,” I croaked. I had to clear my throat, tasting mucus and iron, eyes itching and sticky with my own blood beneath the squid-skull mask. Hringewindla’s vast white tentacles floated hundreds of meters above our heads; my abyssal instinct bridged the gap of species and nature and time, reading his body language in those giant feelers — fear and shock, held back for only a brief moment by our barely credible threat display. “He doesn’t know why we’re here, he’s confused.”

“We’re talking to him—” Evelyn tried to say, but then coughed and wheezed like she was having an asthma attack. Her hands held the bone wand in a death-grip, refusing to halt the spell. “Talking to him—” she wheezed out, “right now!”

“We’re not here to hurt you!” I yelled up at the giant purple soap bubble, waving my hands in the air. “You’ve been infected by a parasite!”

The three vast snake-tentacles pulled upward — retreating to gain momentum, to smash us to paste.

Sevens screeched like a banshee crossed with a hornet. Evelyn whimpered in pain. Even between their doubled threat, I doubted they could hold back the fist of a god.

“He doesn’t communicate with language,” I murmured inside my mask. “He doesn’t even have ears. Oh, damn it all, Lozzie would know how to talk to a god. What would she do?”

Lozzie wouldn’t be afraid. Lozzie would make contact, with open arms and a joyous heart.

I raised my voice so the others could hear. “I have to let him into my head!”

“What!?” Evelyn choked on the word.

“Kitten,” Sevens warned me, a sound I did not care to hear again from this particular mask. Her voice made my bowels shiver.

“He doesn’t even understand what we are,” I said. I took the first step toward the line of red paint and the edge of Evelyn’s protective bubble. “He doesn’t get it, he has no eyes to see, no ears to hear. We have to make contact.”

“Wait, wait!” Evelyn snapped. She somehow found the reserves of energy to strain forward in Praem’s grip. “Heather, no! I can do that better than you can. I’ve had demons in my head before, remember? Let me.”

“Denied,” said Praem.

Above us, Hringewindla’s tentacles twitched, as if eager for our defences to fail. We were some horrible irritant or infection, not meant to be here inside his shell. To be repulsed, like others before. He didn’t recognise us.

I turned back to look Evelyn in the eyes. My tentacles worked like extra feet, pulling me toward the boundary, to where I would be exposed to the Outsider god. “Evee, I can’t. What if he doesn’t leave your head afterwards? I can’t risk that.”

“What if he doesn’t leave your head, Heather?!”

“I can force him out,” I said, almost laughing with the absurdity of the statement. “That would be easy. I’m the Eye’s adopted daughter, remember? I can do anything to my own body. Anything.”

Heather,” Evelyn said my name like it was a desperate curse.

“But forcing him out of you?” I hiccuped, loudly, but I wasn’t sure why. “I can’t do brain surgery on you like I did with Badger. Evee, I can’t risk hurting you. I can’t, I can’t. I can do this but I can’t do that.”

Evelyn started at me, eyes bulging, panting with the effort of maintaining her spell, relying entirely on Praem to stop her collapsing. She looked more openly distraught than I’d ever seen her before. Evelyn was a woman of surly, self-directed disdain, even in her darkest moments, not naked horror as I saw now.

“P-Praem, stop her. Stop her!”

“I cannot drop you,” said Praem.

Evelyn glanced at Sevens, all eight feet of towering war machine, and found half her courage again. “Say something, you useless B-movie rubber monster!”

Seven-Shades-of-Scary-Silicone turned her array of glistening black eyes on Evelyn, then on me, then ceased to be.

She vanished without a flicker, like dropping the rubber monster suit and stepping out of the remains. The Yellow Princess stood there instead, umbrella tip against the floor, face calm and unreadable.

“Heather is correct,” she said. “Hringewindla lacks the means for communication. This is not coffee with my father.”

Far up in the air, Hringewindla’s tentacles jerked, a hundred thousand tons of smooth mollusc muscle trying to decide if now was the time to crush us flat. Evelyn flinched and gritted her teeth, knuckles going white on her bone-wand.

“Heather!” she croaked. “Heather, for fuck’s sake. You might not be the same person after this!”

I staggered sideways toward the crackling blue surface of Evelyn’s protective spell, supported more by my tentacles than my shaking knees, unwilling to turn away from Evee’s vulnerable, naked fear.

“Evee, it’s going to work, it’s going to be fi—”

“Take that fucking mask off!” she cried, her eyes filling with unspent tears. “Let me see you!”

The request made little sense, but I didn’t hesitate. With my tentacles occupied in keeping me standing, I pulled the squid-skull mask off my face with shaking hands, then sniffed back the blood dripping from my nose. I must have looked an awful mess after the brain-math, with my own blood smeared around my eyes and dripping off my chin, mucus and snot all down my face.

Evelyn stared at me, eyes scrunched with more than physical pain. Hringewindla’s oil-bubble cast purple light on her horrified face. Vast tentacles bunched and coiled. Bubble-servitors descended in a slow, spiralling wave.

Evee opened her mouth but she couldn’t find the words, even with Praem holding her tight.

She thought I was about to leave.

“Heather … I … ”

“I know,” I said, croaking through the blood and mucus in my throat, smiling for her. “Evee, I know. I know. And I’m not going to stop being me. I promise. This will be nothing.”

We were out of time. Above us, Hringewindla’s skyscraper-thick tendrils reared up like a nest of cobras about to strike. I lurched toward the edge of the electric blue bubble, finally turning my attention away from Evelyn.

Static electricity crackled across my clothes and tingled on my skin. I shouldered my way through Evelyn’s spell. The bubble offered no resistance, then collapsed behind me as Evelyn screamed with frustration and gave up, hands finally slipping from the bone-wand.

She said something to my back, something she couldn’t say to my face, something that made Sevens turn and stare at her with surprise, right at the limit of the Princess Mask’s emotional range.

But a boom of displaced air drowned out Evelyn’s words; Hringewindla’s tentacles cracked like thunder and raced toward me like meteoric buckshot.

I was exhausted beyond thought, despite the bioreactor working overtime in my abdomen, like a sweat-shedding infection in my gut. Between the revelations and duels this morning, the emergency of Nicole’s mysterious appearance, the absurd and spooky house, and the descent into Hringewindla’s shell, I was about ready to crawl into bed and cuddle in Raine’s arms and stop thinking for the rest of the month.

So I lurched over the painted red line and stopped with my arms wide open.

Hringewindla stopped too.

His tentacles drifted to a halt. The bubble-servitors floated, aimless and uneasy. I held my tentacles wide too, as many of them as I could spare without falling over. Inside, I was shaking with adrenaline as my gamble paid off.

I was right; the red line wasn’t the danger line at all. Hringewindla could likely reach into every nook and cranny of his shell-core with those vast appendages.

The red line indicated how to commune with him. How to get close enough to whisper hello.

One of the three giant tentacles split off from the other two and descended toward me, but gently and slowly this time, pushing displaced air down against me like a slow rolling storm. I held my ground, but had to grit my teeth to keep from screaming or hissing or scrambling back. Instinctive fear made me want to cower and hide at the approach of the largest limb I’d ever seen.

Hringewindla dipped his tentacle, down and down and down, until a wall of white, scaled flesh drew level with me, only a few feet away.

“Right,” I whispered, hoarse and frozen. “Hello. Okay, so, how do we do this? How do we do this … ”

I already knew, even as I asked the question. I stretched out one of my own tentacles — a final concession to caution and reluctance, not to use my own right hand — and touched the very tip of rainbow-strobing pneuma-somatic flesh against Hringewindla’s scaly hide.

An intrusion, probing, slick and wet and wriggling, like an injection of living fluid flowing back up my tentacle and into my core of true flesh.

My abyssal immune system gathered itself to repel the invader, assembling macrophage and tetrodotoxin, flooding my veins with white blood cells and raging up my spinal column in a red-hot flash-sweat of internal fire. But I clamped down on the reaction, forcing control rods back into the reactor.

I pulled my tentacle away from Hringewindla’s touch, like I’d grasped bare metal in a snowstorm, but the intrusion was not severed. It was inside me now, wriggling upward, seeking contact.

Shaking, shivering, gasping in the throes of a fever, with a black liquid slug inching up my brain-stem, mouth-parts feeling along the surface of my hind-brain for a way inside. A wave of terrible disgust and sickness rocked me. I wanted to vomit, purge my body, get this thing out of me.

But this was what I wanted, wasn’t it?

There was no choice. If I couldn’t talk with Hringewindla, then what hope did I have of communicating with the Eye?

I opened the gate of my mind and let him inside.

The moment of transition was like dunking my head in a bucket of cold coffee. I felt something ooze across my cranial membrane and settle into the wrinkles of my brain, filling the creases like oil. Suddenly I was wide awake and panting, my heart racing, my skin tingling all over. I smelled alien pheromones — but then my nose filled with the scent of fresh-cut grass and dandelions, a forest glade in spring. I tasted strong tea and lemon cake, felt an enclosing warmth around my shoulders and on the small of my back, and imagined a whispered welcome on the edge of my hearing.

“Oh, oh, that’s … weird,” I panted. “Is that you? Hello, yes, nice to meet you. I think?”

A question suggested itself, as if I was listening in on somebody else’s subconscious. It wasn’t words, just a jumble of sense impression and deep curiosity.

“Heather Morell,” I said out loud, though I doubted it was necessary to speak my answer. “You know me, we’ve met enough times.”

The slug-oil in my brain slid deeper, soaking into the tissues and staining the grey matter. I retched and almost lost the contents of my stomach, but then suddenly the disgust vanished like a lifting fog. A feeling like a warm blanket settled on my shoulders, tucked itself in around my neck, and took my hands, patting them with papery, dry reassurance. My eyelids drifted shut. I felt completely and utterly safe, like I’d wandered out of the woods on a dark night and found a little old cottage, with a crackling fire and a single occupant, welcoming me to this oasis in the endless dark. All in return for whatever tales I could spare of the lands beyond the woods. Warmth, safety — and acceptance, a glowing wave of rightness, of knowing that something more powerful and much older than me was offering me protection and purpose, unlike any I’d ever known before.

No human being could have resisted that opiate.

I wasn’t really a human being anymore.

Abyssal instinct screeched and hissed and thrashed. I forced my eyes open and wide, like I was trying to avoid nodding off.

“Excuse me!” I snapped, shrugging and waving my hands to force the imaginary blanket off my shoulders. “No, I’m not here for that. I’m not one of yours. Stop it.”

Gentle now, rest your feet, sit down by the fire. I want to hear all about you, please, dear. I know you little people out there love to talk about yourselves.

“Those aren’t my thoughts!” I shouted.

They are now, and that’s okay, isn’t it? I’m a lot bigger than you but I won’t blot you out. I wouldn’t learn anything new if I blotted you out and sat on you and ate you up, so that’s not what I do anymore, I promise. Just stay and talk, please stay and talk. Here, I’ve got coffee with spices, and more cake, and we can put on reruns of Home and Away. Or do you prefer cartoons? Spongebob is a favourite of mine.

“Stop it!” I snapped, hissing the words. “I’m going to assume those are Amanda’s tastes, and I’m not Amanda, I am Heather Morell. I am the adopted daughter of the Eye and soon to be daughter-in-law to the King in Yellow. You are in my head on sufferance.”

The strange thoughts went quiet. Quiet and sad, like a little withered old man standing there with a full teapot, confused about why I didn’t want to have a drink with him.

That image sharpened, as my mind took over again and interpreted what it could from the jumble of information spewing forth from the connection with Hringewindla. A little old man, hobbling about his cabin in the woods with his crutches, wearing leg braces to keep himself mobile. But vital and full of energy.

“I can etch the surface of reality with my mind,” I went on, softer now. “I am a master of hyperdimensional mathematics. I can send your physical body Outside with ease. So, don’t make me do that, please.”

The old man went quite still.

The brain-slug was still nestled in my cranium.

I turned away from the massive scaled tendril and back toward the others. Sevens looked calm and unruffled. Evelyn was slumped against Praem’s side, staring at me in mute horror. Praem didn’t seem too worried. Further behind them, Nicole was watching me with a deep frown, still pale and covered in cold sweat, utterly uncomprehending. Marmite crouched at her feet.

“Evee, I’m fine! It’s me! I’m fine!” I said, stumbling back toward my friends, almost tripping with my tentacles.

Evelyn lurched out of Praem’s arms before I could reach her. She let her walking stick clatter to the ground and grabbed my face with both hands, staring into my eyes with a piercing scowl. I had to catch her with my tentacles to stop her from falling over.

“E-Evee—”

“It’s you,” she hissed, hoarse and raw. “It’s you alright. Alright.”

“Of course it’s me, Evee. I’m fine. I’ve had worse in my head for my whole life.”

Evelyn sniffed deeply and wiped her face on her sleeve. Suddenly she couldn’t meet my eyes, watching the floor and then gesturing at Praem to help her once again.

“Greetings,” said Sevens. “Good afternoon.”

She was speaking in my direction, but it took me a moment to realise she was not talking to me.

“Uh … he says hello,” I replied. “I think. It’s not words, it’s just a jumbled impression of … stuff.”

“We are not here on a social call,” Sevens went on. “We are solving a crisis.”

I did my best to stand up straight, even if she wasn’t talking to me exactly. We had to be formal now, sensible, business-like; at least that’s what I told myself, the wrapper I used to process this increasingly absurd situation. Praem took Evelyn’s weight from me as Evelyn fussed about with her walking stick. Nicole slowly approached us as well.

“He … doesn’t understand?” I said slowly, trying to sort through vague impressions. “I … think. He just wants to … sit around with us, hear about us.” I shook my head and sighed. “He doesn’t understand any of this.”

“What the fuck is going on?” Nicole asked, still at a safe distance from us. She eyed Hringewindla’s great drifting tentacles, and the one white tendril down at ground level, like a skyscraper on its side. “Did you tame it?”

“No, he’s in my head. For now.”

Nicole boggled at me. “Like with Amanda?”

“Not quite the same. More like I’ve broken into his house to interrogate him.”

The little old man in my mind hobbled to a chair and eased himself down, hands shaking in his lap, confused and afraid; at least, that’s what it felt like, the closest my human sense-impressions could approximate.

I sighed again and glanced over at the gigantic purple bubble with the roiling snake-monster inside, partly to remind myself of what we were actually dealing with here. “Stop trying to be so pitiful. You were about to crush us to death.”

“Why is it always tentacles?” Nicole sighed.

“Outside has carcinization too,” Evelyn grunted.

“You good, Morell?” Nicole asked. “What’s it feel like?”

“Like being invited for tea,” I answered without thinking, then shook my head. “Never mind.”

“You have a medical condition,” Praem said, clear like a silver bell.

Hringewindla sat up and paid attention to that. He stirred inside my mind, a sudden innocent attention behind rheumy old eyes.

“We are here to deworm you,” Praem explained.

That was apparently the wrong thing to say. The vast white tendril of scaled flesh that had descended for me to make contact with now began to lift from the ground, as if unsure.

“Wait!” Evelyn snapped, stamping once with her walking stick.

All her horror and dismay was gone, or at least crammed inside where she didn’t have to examine it for a while. She still leaned on Praem’s arm for support, but she straightened her spine as much as she could, and raised her chin. She did not address me, but spoke to the soap-bubble-and-snakes of Hringewindla’s physical form.

“Now you listen to me,” she hissed, simmering with anger. “And listen good. Because if you’re going to use Heather’s ears to hear, then you better bloody well be paying attention.”

“Evee,” I whispered. “There’s no need for aggression.”

“I have no love lost for you, you … thing,” she carried on, ignoring me. “So believe me, I would not be here if this was not a very serious emergency. And when we’re done, if you don’t leave Heather’s mind again, I will have your entire cult slaughtered, then come back down here with fire and acid until you’re gone. Do you understand me?” Evelyn took a shuddering breath and turned to me, swallowing down a burning anger that she could not hide. “Heather, does he understand?”

“Actually, I don’t think he does,” I murmured. “He’s already terrified of me in the first place.”

“Huh,” Evelyn grunted. “He’ll still have me to answer to.”

“Yes, yes, I think he understands that part, a little.”

Evelyn turned back to the soap-bubble. “You have a parasite, Outsider. You caught it from Amanda Hopton, who caught it from Nicole here, who caught it from … well, we don’t know where from. Not yet. But I have my suspicions.”

Calmly but sharply, Evelyn explained what we knew about the parasite, the information-scrambler. She recounted what had happened back in the house, from our human-level perspective. She related what had happened to the physical parasite inside Sevens, and the fact that Amanda and others were very likely still infected. As she spoke, I felt the brain-slug-ooze-thing shifting inside my skull, a kind of pneuma-somatic parasite itself, a link back to the vast creature that sat in front of us.

“The nightmare exists because of the parasite inside you,” Evelyn said. “It has jumped the species gap, hijacked whatever higher-dimensional nonsense you’re capable of, and is now running wild. We have to get it out of you.”

“Yes,” I echoed softly. I couldn’t tell what Hringewindla was thinking, he had gone very quiet inside my mind, like a placid pool of black water. “We need to get it out, somehow.”

But my mouth had gone dry and my hands were shaking inside the front pocket of my hoodie. Hringewindla was not anything like what I had expected when we’d decided to venture down here. Reaching into Sevens’ throat to remove a physical parasite was one thing, but this? Hringewindla was simply too large, unless I was prepared to step inside his soap-bubble membrane, like some kind of miniature medical robot inside a giant body. Brain-math was an option, but the last time I had attempted to comprehend an Outsider god via direct brain-math, I’d plunged into the abyss with the sheer effort. I did have anchors now, but if Hringewindla was even a fraction as complex as the Eye, it might be too much of a risk.

And how big was his parasite, anyway?

Evelyn finished explaining and looked over at me. “Does he comprehend?”

“I … I don’t know. He’s gone rather quiet.”

Evelyn frowned harder, clenching her jaw.

“Pretty shocking,” Nicole said with a forced casual tone. “I mean, being told you’ve got a parasite. I’d be pretty freaked out if a doctor told me I had a tapeworm, you know?”

Evelyn rolled her eyes.

“Hringewindla,” I said out loud, voicing my thoughts. “I’m not sure how I’m going to get this thing out of you. I-I do want to help. I don’t know what trying to share my blood— m-my immune system, I mean. I don’t know what trying to share that with you would actually do. It might not be good for you. If there’s some other way, we can try to—”

Hringewindla’s trio of exposed tendrils suddenly whirled into motion once more, including the one he had extended to the ground in order to make contact. It was like standing too close to an ambulatory crane; the white scaled flesh shot upwards, the sheer size and strength buffeting us with a gale of wind. Praem had to hang onto Evelyn. Nicole’s coat flapped out with an audible crack. I stumbled and clung to the shell with all my tentacles, swallowing an instinctive hiss. Sevens stood unmoved, hair ruffled by the breeze.

The three tendrils of pale flesh arced high above the dome of purple liquid, then curled inward like fish-hooks. The spiralling mass of bubble-servitors shot upward to join them, moving as if caught in high winds, then pulling into a tight circle.

“Heather, what the hell is he doing?” Evelyn spat.

“I don’t know!”

“Self-surgery,” said Praem.

Evee looked at her in slowly dawning realisation.

“Mm,” went Sevens. “I strongly suggest that none of us move. He knows where we’re standing. He will take care. If I am correct.”

“What?” Nicole turned wide-eyed terror on Sevens. “You don’t mean … oh you massive cu—”

Nicole’s colourful insult was drowned out by the noise of three giant snakes plunging through the world’s largest and messiest soap bubble, a vast, ground-shaking splooooort that sounded more scatological than I had expected. The sound probably would have made Lozzie giggle, if the sight wasn’t so overwhelming. Above us, Hringewindla jammed his three tendrils right back through his outer membrane and into the writhing-snake core of his own body.

The purple membrane split open at the top, where he’d inserted the three tendrils, peeling open like a flower made of flesh, but instantly trying to wrap itself closed again. Great ripping and tearing sounds rolled from within Hringewindla’s depths, like a distant earthquake grinding below our feet. The snake-knot inside him suddenly stopped moving, then seized hard as if with a great muscular spasm.

I couldn’t help but cower at this vast spectacle, hiccuping and cringing and trying not to hiss. Evelyn was the same, huddling in Praem’s arms and gritting her teeth, hands clamped over her ears. Sevens was unaffected, but Nicole had curled up, arms over her head. Marmite was clinging to the ground like a spider in a hurricane. We weren’t built to experience something on this scale. It was like standing too close to the fury of a volcanic eruption.

But deep down inside, I recognised this moment; an abyssal leviathan, exerting all its strength.

I yearned to join in.

Hringewindla’s muscular clench ended with a meaty ripping sound worse than the innards of a thousand slaughterhouses. His bubble membrane seemed to flex and bend, as if something inside him was moving in the wrong way, bulging outward. The three vast tentacles went taut with strain.

“Reel it in,” said Praem, her voice clear as a bell amid the chaos and cacophony. “Almost there.”

Inside me, I felt Hringewindla nod a thank you for the encouragement. Perhaps we should have had Praem doing the talking all along.

With one giant muscular pull, Hringewindla’s three tendrils hauled their catch up from inside his own body, wrenching it past the membrane and up into the open air.

A parasite, a grey slug-shrimp thing plated with thin beetle-like carapace, covered with little barbs and hooks and wriggling legs.

Except Hringewindla’s parasite was the size of a cargo ship.

Sheets of rank mucus fell from the parasite like rain. Hringewindla’s tentacles gripped it so hard that flakes of carapace cracked off and fell through the air, large enough to flatten us all; we were only saved by the sheer sizes and distances involved, and perhaps by Hringewindla’s care toward the weird little apes who had ventured inside his own body.

“Fuck me blind,” Nicole whimpered.

“No thank you, detective,” said Sevens. “You must find a special friend for that.”

“What?”

Sevens’ moment of absurdity helped short circuit Nicole’s instinctive panic, which was lucky because I couldn’t help. I was lost deep in the rapture of shared victory, a feedback loop from Hringewindla’s own sense of violation and rage. He was very, very angry, with this thing that had the gall to invade his body. He’d seen off much worse in the distant past, nightmares this little gnat couldn’t even dream of. In my mind’s eye, the old crippled man with the crutches and the bent back was clutching a gutting knife.

Hringewindla slammed the parasite against the ground with two tentacles, like a man killing a fish by smashing it against the side of a boat. It was like a bomb going off. The ground shook. Grey meat splattered like an earth-slide of blood and guts. Fragments of grey carapace cracked off and spun away in all directions — except toward us, carefully blocked by the third tentacle.

Far off to our right, the parasite was like a new mountain range of ruined shell and pulped meat. It writhed and shook, pinned by two vast tentacles, making a pitiful effort to drag itself away.

But then the bubble-servitors descended upon it, like a cloud of bees, or perhaps a shoal of piranhas. They swarmed every exposed scrap of flesh, pressing in close, covering the parasite with semi-transparent bubbles.

A horrible hissing, popping, fizzing sound filled the air, louder and louder. Moments later, the parasite stopped struggling, and lay still.

A smell like cooked meat filled the air, rancid and rotten.

Silence slowly returned, like the world filtering back after an avalanche. The crackle and pop of carbonising meat went on like a distant bonfire, joined briefly by a long, slow slurping sound, the sound of Hringewindla’s membrane repairing itself, sealing his snake-knot core inside once again. Our own panting, shocked breathing finally filled my ears. Nicole looked like she wanted to curl up in a ball and stop thinking. I was thrumming with sympathetic rightness and shared disgust, nodding at Hringewindla even though he probably had no idea what the gesture meant.

Praem raised a fist.

“Kaiju fight-o,” she said.

Nicole burst out laughing, a bit too hard, grimacing through her teeth. Evelyn sighed and groaned into her hand.

“I … ” I croaked more like a lizard than a human being, then cleared my throat and tried again. “Well done, um, well done Hringewindla. Thank you. I … uh, I don’t know what I was expecting.”

“What need does a god have of mortal help?” Sevens asked. She shot me a sideways look and I read it instantly. Except me, she seemed to say.

“Exactly,” Evelyn managed to squeeze out, wrinkling her nose at the terrible meaty stench. “Hringewindla is much larger than us, for a start. Though, Heather, he hasn’t hurt himself doing that, has he?”

I blinked several times as the idea descended through my subconscious.

An image returned like a bubble of swamp gas floating up from the murky depths: the crippled old man, cleaning his knife, licking fresh blood from his yellowed teeth. He winked at me.

“I think he’s just fine,” I said.

We all took a moment to gather our wits and share exhausted looks. Marmite slowly crept out from beside the ancient church and got close enough to wrap a bony tentacle around my leg.

“Good boy,” I murmured, absently patting him with a tentacle of my own.

“So … is that it?” Nicole asked, putting her hands on her hips and staring out at the massive dead parasite, like a beached whale. Beneath the semi-transparent layer of bubble-servitors, the grey carapace and burst flesh were slowly turning black. “That lifts the whole nightmare, that’s it?” She snorted and shook her head. “Listen to me, wow, ‘is that it?’ like we didn’t just watch a kaiju fight.” She shot me a look. “And you were so certain this wouldn’t be a Godzilla situation.”

“Kaiju fight,” said Praem. She almost seemed excited, though no less impassive than always.

“I have been known to be wrong,” I said, still a little dazed.

“Why is everything so bloody big?” Nicole asked. She gazed up at the huge soap bubble with its three tendrils, still towering over us and pumping out that purple light. “Your great big caterpillar thing, in Camelot, that was big too. Why is everything so massive?”

“Gods are big,” said Praem.

“Not always,” said Sevens. Then she added, almost like an afterthought, “The nightmare is lifted.”

“What about all the others?” I asked. “Oh, Raine!” I fumbled my mobile phone from my pocket, hands still shaking with adrenaline. Inside my head, Hringewindla leaned over my shoulder to have a look. But there was no signal, not down here in the bowels of the earth and half outside of reality. “Oh, oh no. If she’s been freed, she’ll be looking for me.”

“I suspect we’ll be hearing from them soon enough,” said Sevens.

“Wait wait wait,” Nicole said. “What about all the other parasites? Or is this like a Dracula’s castle thing?” She thumbed at the giant dead parasite.

“Dracula’s castle?” I asked, blinking in confusion. “And, no, um … Hringewindla is dealing with the ones inside his family. His cult, I mean. Right now. I think. It’s hard to process what any of this means, I’m sorry.”

“What about the one inside me?” Nicole tapped her chest.

“It’s dead,” said Sevens. “Parasitic proximity.” She gestured at the mountain of blackening meat with her umbrella. “The larger one took precedence. No doubt it would have tried to re-jump the species gap, back to us, if we had continued to communicate.”

“So … so I’ve got a dead thing wedged in my chest?” Nicole swallowed, going pale, one hand pressed to her breastbone.

“No. It has reverted to information.” Sevens nodded once to her, a slightly amused look in the arch of her eyebrows — or was that just my imagination. “If it had died while you were Outside, that would have been different.”

“Then where are we now?” Nicole gestured around us.

“Inside Hringewindla,” I answered on reflex.

Nicole gestured angrily at the dead parasite again. “Then why was that one not information?!”

Evelyn sighed. “I keep telling you, detective. Don’t think about it.”

Nicole threw up her hands, but she laughed with undeniable relief.

Inside my mind, down in a subconscious place I’d never known about before, Hringewindla and I were having a kind of conversation.

It wasn’t conducted via words or speech, but images and ideas. I didn’t have to vocalise, and he didn’t have to explain himself. The withered old man with the leg braces and the gutting knife was busy dicing up the grey-fleshed parasites that had invaded the minds of his friends.

I asked him if he wanted help. Real help. He was terribly disabled, after all, and even if I couldn’t stretch brain-math that far, I felt compelled to offer. He was alien and gigantic, had almost killed us by mistake, and infested human minds with an irresistible need for information, but he was hardly comparable with the worst that Outside had to offer.

He turned me down with a twinkle in his eye and a creased smile on his papery face. Even if I patched the hole in his shell, there was so little of him left now. So much flesh to re-create, so much of him lost. And would it really be him? He wanted safety and security now, not more risk. He was so very old and very tired, but very comfortable here.

Was there any other way I could help?

Yes, oh yes, little ape. Little squid, I am sorry, I apologise. These old eyes are not what they once were. Little squid, you can help, by not cutting off Hringewindla from his friends. His interface with the world. His eyes and ears and life beyond this shell. Don’t be so cruel to them. Please.

In an imaginary space that was not a space at all, I patted the hand of an old and slightly confused man. He went on slicing up dead meat, angry with the person who dared to meddle with his people.

Mages. Dealt with plenty of them before, haven’t we? Edward Lilburne? Mm. No idea where you might find him. Good luck though.

Back out in reality, Evelyn was frowning at me. Her face was lit by that oily purple light.

“Heather?”

“Mm, I’m here. Just … communicating.” I blinked at her, pulling myself back from the crackling fireside.

“Time to go, I think,” she said.

She wasn’t talking to me.

The oily slug-ooze in my brain did not move. I swallowed, suddenly worried. The old man went on chopping and chopping and chopping.

“I … I don’t think he knows how to leave,” I said. “I’m going to have to use brain-math, like I said, to remove the connection. I … ”

Why would you want to leave, little squid? Don’t you want to be my friend too?

The old man turned towards me, inside my imagination, with the gutting knife in his hand.

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Giant cone snail, or kindly old man in his isolated cabin? In any case, Heather managed to communicate with him! And briefly summon a giant abyssal rooster-thing which exploded so loudly it freaked out every normal rooster for miles around, oh dear! And what was that Evee said back there???

No Patreon link this week! (Though please feel free to head over there and subscribe if you like, of course!) Instead I want to shout out a very new story, by a long-time reader and fan of Katalepsis. Noctoseismology, in the author’s own words, would not exist without the encouragement and support of the Katalepsis discord server, and is apparently planned to go in a direction that readers of my story will very much like. Go check it out, it’s still on the first few chapters and shaping up great!

 Ah, but, please consider:

Vote for Katalepsis on TopWebFiction!

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And last, leave a review! Or a like, a thumbs up, a comment on a chapter, it’s all great, and it helps me so so much to know there’s people out there reading and enjoying the story; that’s the whole reason I do this in the first place, to bring a fun story to those who read it. And thank you for reading!

Next week, it’s brain-slug removal time. Somebody brought the salt, right? Right?