a very great mischief – 13.3

Previous Chapter

Between sleep inertia, trembling courage, white-hot embarrassment – and a touch of mechanical unfamiliarity – I took over an hour and half to put on my new clothes. Probably some kind of record for dressing oneself in the morning.

“You can do this, it’s going to be fine, Raine’s going to love it, everyone’s going to love it. You’re going to be fine.”

I took a shower first.

Alone, to cool my head and warm my body, muttering jumbled affirmations while I gave my legs a once over with the safety razor. Halfway through it began to feel too much like a ritual cleansing, and I fought down a heady mixture of self-consciousness and ambient sexual anticipation. The heat soaked through my skin and bones, waking me up. As I drew closer to the moment I would have to step out of the shower, my nerves grew into an unstoppable heart-flutter. So I turned the heat up and closed my eyes and stood under the stream of almost scalding water.

“Breathe. Breathe, Heather, breathe. It’s fine. It’s fine. Nobody is going to laugh at you. What are you even afraid of?”

Rejection? No. Raine loved me. Zheng would do anything I asked.

The new clothes waited neatly folded on the bathroom counter: bubblegum pink ribbed sweater, nebula-purple triple layered skirt, the beautiful pink-scaled hoodie, and a pair of white tights that Raine had bought for me months ago.

If Sevens was watching – and if she was, I was going to give her such a slap – she must have been pleased as pudding to see me following her suggestion so closely.

But she might not like what I was going to do with it.

Before my shower, while Raine had dozed in bed after her promised half-dose of painkillers and a brief shared breakfast of toast and tea, I’d slipped downstairs in the slow-growing apricot dawn, to fetch my new clothes from the dryer in the little utility room, and to check on Zheng. She was asleep in her usual spot, in her baggy grey jumper and jeans, sprawled out across the broken-backed sofa like a tiger on a log. I couldn’t spot any grisly trophies, and Zheng didn’t smell of blood or meat, so I assumed her hunt had not borne fruit.

To be fair, if she had found and killed the ex-cultist, I fully expected her to leave the severed head on the kitchen table, or bound upstairs to show me like a cat with a dead mouse.

When I crouched down and eased the dryer open, Zheng purred behind me.

“Shaman.”

“Z-Zheng? S-sorry, I was … getting stuff. I didn’t mean to wake you.”

She cracked open one razor-sharp eye and regarded me from beneath a heavy lid. “Your heartbeat alone could wake me from death, shaman, but you reek of fear and heat, both.”

Couldn’t hide anything from Zheng, certainly not my physical state, not with her senses. I’d straightened up, arms full of clothes, and gathered my courage.

“I want you and Raine to play the dice and stories game today,” I said, every word a guitar string tightened too far. “With each other.”

Zheng stared, unmoving and unmoved, a tiger in the baking tropical sun, listening to a chimpanzee hoot and howl.

Akarakish.”

I blinked rapidly, uncomprehending, heart in my throat. I was so nervous I’d lost command of my memories. “Wha-what? I-I mean, I’m sorry? Pardon?”

Akarakish is the name of the game, shaman.” Zheng’s mouth curled into a sleepy, toothy smile. “And the yoshou best have stories to wager, or she will have to pledge other secrets.”

“No violence. No hurting her. That is the exact opposite of what I want you two doing,” I said quickly. “If you can’t play it without hurting her, tell me now. Please.”

Zheng’s stare did not relent. Breakfast turned to lead in my belly. A small, animal part of me which still hadn’t internalised Zheng’s indebted devotion wanted very much to squeak apologies and scurry away, just to get out from under her languid predatory attention. But the rest of me, the hybrid combination of abyssal memory and ape instinct, felt her gaze as the warm kinship of a pack-mate. And she would not harm me. So I stood my ground.

“Don’t give me the silent treatment, please,” I managed to say.

“You want us to play nice, shaman.” Her smile turned sharp and unimpressed. “Hnnh.”

“She won’t insult you,” I said, struggling with the complexity. I wasn’t even showered and in my new clothes yet and I was already negotiating the most treacherous broken emotional ground of my life. “If she does, I will be there to tell her off and correct her.”

“Hnnh.”

I rolled my eyes, mostly at myself. “Okay, fair enough, she won’t insult you any more than her standard level of teasing for anybody. A bit of gentle ribbing is part of how she expresses friendship. And she’s been making a real effort lately. And yes, I want you two to get along. I do. I want … I … I think we should … ”

I trailed off, narrowly resisting the urge to bury my burning face in the clothes I was carrying.

Zheng’s eyes snapped wide open, alert and dark in the orange light of the growing dawn. She uncoiled on the broken-backed sofa, staring at me like a big cat surprised to find a rodent had wandered close during sleep. She arched her back, flexing bunched muscles, showing off her Olympian curves, tilting her head up to present an expanse of bare throat – but paused halfway, as if unable to believe what she had scented. Raw physicality pulled me to climb into her lap, snuggle in close, bathe in her heat and scent.

This was, to put it lightly, quite arousing.

But I clamped down. I told myself no, and I meant it. I swallowed, took a long shuddering breath, and Zheng somehow sensed the iron-fisted control over my own sexual drive.

“Do not torment me,” she rumbled. “Mean it, or-”

“This is not about sex.”

Zheng paused, cold scepticism on her face. She leaned forward and opened her mouth and unrolled twelve inches of wet red tongue, then snapped it back between her teeth again.

“You’re in rut, shaman. I can smell you.”

I blushed bright red. “Well … thank you for that. Alright then.”

“And you have made a decision.”

I huffed a huge sigh, powered more by nerves and embarrassment than exasperation. “It’s not my decision to make-”

“I am yours, and I am still here. Ask. Ask and-”

“Not. My. Decision,” I repeated. “It’s your decision. And Raine’s decision. A-and I can’t think about it right now, and it’s not the decision you’re thinking of anyway, and-”

“We are your hands, shaman. And you are in rut. Use me as you-”

“It’s not just about me!” I almost exploded at her. “I’m not trying to mash you two together like Barbie dolls for my amusement! If there’s three of us, then there’s three of us. And we are not starting with sex. We’re not even going third or fourth or fifth with sex, to be quite honest. And if you try to make it about sex, about my gratification, then I will … I will get up and bloody well leave. I will take Lozzie and go sit in the park for the rest of the day and have her teach me how to do cartwheels or handstands or something. We’ll play on the swings. I’ll nap with Tenny.”

Zheng blinked once – then broke into a laugh, a big rolling chuckle that made her hunch forward, raise her eyebrows, and shrug at me.

“I’m serious!” I squeaked.

“You are, shaman. I do not mock you, I laugh at myself. This is why I follow you. Very well.”

She folded herself back onto the sofa again, coiling up like a great serpent hidden in the roots of the house. She rolled her neck and cracked her jaw and wiggled her toes, getting comfortable before she closed her eyes again, and fell still.

“So … you’ll play the game – akarakish – with Raine?” I asked.

“I will. But I will not play nicely with the yoshou.”

I sighed. What had I missed? What had I misunderstood? “Zheng, I can’t have you two hurt each other.”

“I will be myself, shaman. And I swore an oath not to fight her. I will not break that.”

“ … ah. Well. Fair enough. Okay.” I managed a nod, cheeks burning as I came down from my burst of courage. We were actually going to do this. It was happening. “I’m going to go shower and … dress. Yes. So, later, okay? But not too much later today or I’ll lose my nerve. If you understand. I hope you understand.”

“Mmmhmmm,” Zheng purred.

“I’ll just … ” I gestured with arms full of clothes, but Zheng seemed already asleep again.

I’d backed out of the utility room and scampered across the kitchen like a child running to bed after switching off a hallway light, pursued by imaginary monsters in the sudden dark, by the notion that Zheng might lurch from the old sofa and sweep me up in a skin-hot hug and I’d melt in her embrace. But she didn’t, and I’d escaped my own libido with my intentions intact.

Taking the clothes into the bathroom was a masterstroke of self-deception.

I only realised once I was standing there half-wrapped in a towel, covered in goosebumps, wreathed in the collected steam from the shower’s heat, and staring at the little pile of colourful clothes which commanded my attention with all the seductive succulence of a carnivorous jungle plant.

Getting dressed in here gave me time and space. Raine would happily have vacated the bedroom to let me get dressed in privacy – or even more happily watched me – but then it would be an event, she would be waiting for me, the pressure would burst my heart and I’d have seized any opening to retreat, any excuse to back down, to put this off until tomorrow, or the day after, or next weekend, or never.

But like this?

My pajamas were already in the laundry hamper. Dragging them back on would waste the freshly showered feeling. I had left myself only one choice.

I spent too long drying my hair, then hung up my towel with shaking hands, heart juddering in my chest and throat.

“You are allowed to wear these,” I hissed to myself. “Evelyn spent money on them, for you. For pity’s sake, fighting giant spirit monsters didn’t leave you this shaken. Get dressed.”

Easier said than done. Getting dressed had never before proven so complicated. My hands shook through the entire process, and I’m pretty certain I stopped breathing at one point. I’d worn tights before, of course, but always with the intention of looking as smart as possible, donning standard femininity like a suit of anonymous armour. The last time I’d done so was when I’d passed myself off as Kimberly’s girlfriend at the Wiccan coven meeting, and I’d had no time to appreciate how I looked then, no focus to spare on the aesthetics of my own body.

But now I slid the clean nylon up my legs, settled it smooth and snug and tight, and my heart caught in my throat as I turned my attention down at my own legs, wrapped in thick and warm one-hundred-forty denier white.

Not terrible, I suppose. Compact. Slender.

“ … concentrate,” I hissed.

I barely recalled putting on my underwear, let alone tugging the triple-layered skirt around my waist or wriggling into the plush pink ribbed sweater. The whole thing was a blur of shaking hands and catching breath and before I knew it I was staring at myself in the mirror, wide-eyed and flushed and numb.

“Oh,” I breathed. Couldn’t think.

On a detached, technical, mechanical level, the outfit fit together surprisingly well; the white tights and bubblegum pink balanced each other out, soft bookends to the ostentatious dark skirt, flaring out from my hips in exuberant display of dusky purple frilled layers. I had to give Sevens that. Whatever showy aesthetic tastes she’d catalysed in me, she had a good eye for symmetry and proportion.

On the other hand-

“I look so silly,” I whispered, cringing at myself.

Lump in my throat, water in my eyes, chest tight with the need to retreat. Confronting this was too much. My hands twitched toward the skirt to yank it down, but I quickly grabbed the hairbrush from the bathroom counter and began dragging it through my hair, focusing on my face and taking deep, shuddering breaths.

“Have to brush your hair,” I whispered to myself. “Can’t go back out there with messy hair too. It’s gotten longer now, so you have to take care. Take care. Take care of your hair. Haircare take care. Oh dear.”

Eventually, with great effort, I looked myself up and down again.

I turned slightly to the left and right, pivoting on the balls of my feet, and the triple layers of the dark skirt moved like diaphanous membranes floating in ocean waters, brushing my thighs and knees as I moved. A joyous display in the dark. The bubblegum pink ribbed sweater was thick and soft, a supple membrane over my vulnerable tissues, but bright and showy, not covert camouflage. Between the top and the tights I felt almost sleek, as if I was ready to slip through undersea currents with a flick of my feet.

My phantom limbs rose in acknowledgement, at rest, content.

In the abyss I had been a thing of pure survival, of toxins and sharp teeth and raking claws, of corded muscle and speed and stealth. When I had seen Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight through abyssal senses, she had been revealed as beautiful, as a thing of vast display and aesthetic power, and I hadn’t understood.

Now I did, in the tiniest way.

A few stray tears rolled down my cheeks. I wiped them with the back of my hand, not wanting to stain my new clothes. Euphoric joy was too much.

I stood there a while longer, trying out different expressions in the mirror, different poses, experimenting to see what felt silly and what felt right, making my skirt swish and tilting my chin up, but in the end it all defaulted back to me. This was just me, and I could be this if I wanted. I didn’t need to become somebody else to wear clothes that affirmed what I really was.

I felt almost powerful.

What I still didn’t feel was particularly pretty. It was, in the end, just me, and that was a double-edged sword. I wasn’t wearing makeup and wasn’t about to start; that held no affirming power for me. I finally picked up the pink-scaled hoodie and draped it over my shoulders like a layer of semi-shed snake-skin, framing my chest and belly, and narrowly resisted the urge to drag it on properly and zip it up just to hide the shape of my own body.

I felt more right than I had before, but it was still only little old me, scrawny five foot nothing Heather.

“But maybe scrawny five foot nothing Heather is okay?” I asked myself in the mirror.

My reflection smiled at me, warm and encouraging.

“Exactly,” she said.

“Don’t spoil this now, Sevens,” I blazed at her, surprised at the sudden heat of my anger. “You keep out of this. This is mine. Go away.”

My reflection’s expression snapped back to my own. I spent a few moments frowning at myself, watching for an uncharacteristic twinkle in my eyes or a floating halo of yellow about my head, but Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight stayed firmly buggered off.

The nervous heart-shudder flooded back when it came time to leave the bathroom. I lingered by the doorway, taking my time with the final, improvised element of the outfit: a pair of fluffy boot slippers borrowed from Kimberly. Usually I wore thick socks around the house, sometimes more than one pair, and it hadn’t taken me much time standing on the bathroom floor in only tights to realise Raine had not been speaking in metaphor when she said I might get ‘cold feet’. No matter how sleek and smooth and pretty the white tights were, they were very thin compared to a good pair of thermal socks, so I snuggled my feet into the welcoming warm fuzz of the slippers.

“Just don’t give them back to me smelling of Zheng, okay?” Kimberly had asked.

“We’re not going to- … get physical,” I’d said.

“Okay. Okay then.” Kimberly had nodded and smiled and not believed a word of that.

But I was determined not to mess this up.

At the last moment before I screwed up my courage, with my hand on the bathroom door handle, I felt a final pang of guilt. Here I was dressing up, preparing to embark on the first uncharted step of creating an absolute drama nightmare of a three-way relationship that might not even work. And Maisie was still out there in the cold and the dark, imprisoned by the Eye, alone.

But Sevens was right. She was right about anchors.

Not about everything – she could shove off with her insinuations I needed to have a threesome.

Sex would be no anchor alone. Sex to the exclusion of love, well, there was nothing wrong with that. But it wouldn’t make me secure.

When I’d been out there slipping down the edge of the abyss like a foolish diver sucked into a marine trench by an undertow, I had needed an anchor. Somebody to hold my ankles and around my waist so I could lower myself over the edge. Sevens had pulled me up, but she was a half-abyssal thing herself, a creature that understood the logic, the deep, and the math which described it all. When I’d dived willingly into the black waters beneath creation, I’d taken the memory of my friends and their names and their smells and touch and our home together in a pressurised bubble in my core, but even that had served only as guide and curious comfort, not an air-line to the surface.

Diving bell, bathysphere, air-line, anchor. I had to build something, and I only had certain materials to hand. Self, math, those who loved me.

I wasn’t deluding myself. I had zero idea what I was doing, let alone how I could feed any of this into brainmath, but Sevens’ suggestion was better than anything else I had so far. And I did know the first step was to get Raine and Zheng talking.

“Please don’t end in a fight,” I prayed, and opened the bathroom door.

Raine and Lozzie and Tenny were all waiting for me.

Thankfully they weren’t lined up in the hallway like the audience at a catwalk. If they had done that, I might have slammed the door shut and hidden inside and needed coaxing back out with books and chocolate. Instead I took a couple of nervous steps out into the crooked upstairs hallway, with the thin light of a Northern spring creeping in through the window, and found it much the same as always, not transformed into an alienating environment in response to me simply wearing a few different clothes.

“Heathy!” Lozzie said, making me jump, half-leaning out of her own bedroom doorway. She must have been listening and waiting for me.

“O-oh, Loz-”

My eyes went wide and I almost choked up, but Lozzie bounced and bounded down the hallway in a few quick steps, a whirling pastel tornado, her own version of abyssal display, and threw her arms around me for a very quick, very nuzzly hug, and then just as quickly drew back with a playful elfin giggle on her lips.

“You look great! Yeah! You did it! I thought I was going to have to come into the bathroom with you and help and make you comfy and stuff but you did and it looks so good it’s really really you, it’s your style if you want it to be and I like it and ahhhh I kinda wanna borrow the skirt already but it’s yours it’s yours give me like six months!” She giggled again, a rapid-fire stream of overwhelming positivity.

“T-thank you, Lozzie. I … yes, it’s difficult. Thank you.”

Tenny drifted out of the bedroom behind her and wandered closer. Silken black tentacles crept forward to gently investigate the frilled hem of the triple-layered skirt and the texture of my tights. Her face was so serious, blinking with curiosity as she peered into my eyes.

“Heath?” she trilled.

It was very much a question.

“Yes, Tenny, it’s just me. I put a new outfit on. You’ve seen me in different clothes before. Tenny?”

In a moment of mounting awkwardness, Tenny just blinked her massive oil-dark eyes at me, as if she wasn’t sure who I was – but then she broke into a big smile, an extra-level-smile, a Tenny-has-been-copying-Lozzie smile. She read my nervousness and my scent, and bobbed her head from side to side as if I was being the silly one.

And then she patted me on the head with one tentacle.

“Silly Heath,” she said, and made a trilling pbbbbbt sound.

I laughed, nerves releasing in a flutter of embarrassment, all flushed in the face. “Of course, Tenny. S-sorry. I-I’m so self conscious right now, I can’t … I can’t think, I-”

“Heeeeeey.”

Raine’s voice made me jump and twirl to find her in the corridor behind me, leaning on her crutch, like I was a marine scavenger surprised by the sub-vocalisation of a shark. She must have been waiting in our bedroom, resting her leg, and gotten up at the sound of our voices.

She looked me up and down with the biggest smile on her face, and the smile was all encouragement and warmth, her burning confidence lighting me up brighter than the sun.

“Raine,” I squeaked, vibrating so hard I thought I was going to pass out. “How do I … look?”

She paused, cocked an eyebrow at me, and grinned a grin to stop my heart. “How do you look? Does the sun rise in the morning? Does two plus two equal four? Is the sky blue?”

I blushed hot enough to cook an egg. Lozzie snorted and hid behind both hands. Even Tenny made a fluttery fffffftttt noise.

Raine,” I tried to scold, but it came out as a pleading whine that made Lozzie attempt to put a whole fist into her own mouth.

“You look like the sort of goddess revealed in an LSD trip to heaven,” Raine carried on. “You are every dream I’ve ever had, and all the others I didn’t know I wanted. You look brilliant! Look at you! You’re pulling it off, I knew you could.”

Raine stepped in close and for a moment I thought she was going to do something incredibly sexual, not only inappropriate because Tenny was right there, but because we’d talked about this earlier, about how this was not going to be about sex, not today, not until after the game at the absolute least, that I couldn’t let it be about sex. But I knew that if she slipped a hand up my thigh beneath that triple-layered skirt or slid her fingers across my stomach underneath the ribbed sweater, all my resolution would crumble and my new clothes would shortly be forming a crumpled pile at the foot of our bed.

But she kissed me on the forehead, winked, and leaned back again. “You look amazing. See? You can wear whatever you want.”

“ … ”

I waited, wide-eyed, vibrating, for the other shoe to drop. For Raine to lean back in and whisper something in my ear that I couldn’t resist.

“Heather? Hey, Heather, breathe, yeah? You look good, for real, I’m not just humouring you. Hundred percent.”

But she didn’t do it. She respected the request.

I blew out a long breath and nodded, shaking and numb but coming back together. “T-thank you, of course I know you’re telling the truth. Thank you, Raine. Thank you. Oh, goodness, I’m so self-conscious, I-I-I’m not sure I can deal with everyone seeing me right now.”

“Then you’re in luck.” Raine shot a finger-gun at me. “Evee’s at campus for a couple of hours.”

My heart juddered in an entirely different direction. “What? Why? Alone?”

“Not alone!” Lozzie chirped.

“Alone?” Raine cocked an eyebrow. “Heather, come on, I’ve taken a bullet in the leg, not a concussive head wound. She’s taken Praem with her. Right now, yeah, Praem makes a much better bodyguard than me. Can hardly strike an imposing figure with this.” She shrugged the shoulder propping herself up on the crutch.

“Why now though? What’s she doing?”

“Going to class?” Raine smirked. “It’s Monday.”

“Oh. Oh, of course. Uh, silly me, yes.” I squeezed my eyes shut and shook my head, feeling stupid for a moment. “Sometimes it’s easy to forget magic isn’t her entire life.”

Raine pulled a knowing smile. “She barely needs classes anyway. Probably just wants to jabber in Greek for an hour to clear her head. Anyway, she and Praem are out, Kim’s at work, Lozzie’s going to … ?” Raine raised her eyebrows and peered past me, with gentle encouragement in her eyes.

“Play video games!” Lozzie said, arms in the air.

“Vid’ gam’,” Tenny purred.

“I’ve lent them my old Gamecube,” Raine said to me with a wink. “Tenny’s gonna learn about Pikmin and maybe Luigi’s Mansion, if she can handle the spooky.”

“Handle spookeeee,” Tenny trilled, insistent and defiant.

“I have no idea what any of that means,” I said. “But that’s very sweet of you, Raine.”

“Ten-tens, here here,” Lozzie murmured behind me, taking Tenny by the tentacles and doing a little dance with her.

Before I could draw in another shaky breath – or ask what exactly Pikmin were, a kind of Pokemon? – Raine offered me her free hand with a little flourish, a twinkle in her eye, and a rakish tilt to her grin.

“May I have the honour of accompanying you downstairs to join the third point of our triangle, Lady Morell?”

I’d automatically put my hand in hers before processing what she actually said, and almost recoiled with distaste. “Raine! Don’t you call me that, that’s … weird.”

She burst out laughing. “Sure thing, Heather.”

“And yes, let’s go fetch Zheng before I completely lose my nerve, please, yes. Lead on.”

“Last I saw she’d put her feet up in the kitchen, the moment Praem was out the door.”

Raine held my hand high as she led me down the stairs, somehow graceful and smooth even with her crutch thumping on every step as we descended, but I didn’t have the spare mental capacity to tell her off for presenting me like we were entering a ballroom. I was far too conscious of the way my skirt looked, the way it made me move, the way it felt against my legs, and the way the scaled pink hoodie over my shoulders hung off me like a cloak. By the time we were at the kitchen door, my heart was fluttering at full speed again, my stomach a hollow void.

“And here she is!” Raine announced. “Our lady of the hour.”

Zheng was indeed sitting with her feet up in the kitchen, wide awake, quiet and brooding like a tiger contemplating the coming hunt, waiting for us with a razor-edged grin playing across her lips.

“Shaman!” she roared, clacked down the chair she’d been balancing on two legs, and stood up, stretching to her full height.

“H-hi. Zheng. Yes. I-I got changed.”

Zheng had changed as well – she’d swapped out her baggy grey jumper for a second, identical but cleaner baggy grey jumper, which still did very little to conceal her sheer size. I breathed a silent sigh of relief at that. The fresh clothes were a sign she was taking this seriously.

“The shaman transforms,” she purred.

“Yeah, no kidding,” Raine agreed, with great enthusiasm.

“I’d hardly go that far,” I protested in a stage-whisper.

“A bear’s pelt gives strength, a wolf’s head mask bestows stealth, and crow feathers can be sewn into a cloak so even monkeys can fly,” Zheng said. “As long as respect is given to the bear and the wolf and the crow. Do you respect what you are, shaman?”

I stared at her. “Yes,” I breathed. “Though I’m not sure I follow.”

“You do. Even if you do not know.”

“This is an awful lot of fuss over a fancy skirt,” I tutted, self-conscious and blushing. “You could just say I look nice and be done with it.”

“You look nice,” she rumbled.

“T-thank you.”

“So, big girl,” Raine said. “Apparently you and I are going head-to-head today, and neither of us have a choice.”

“You always have a choice,” I muttered. “That’s the entire point of this.”

Raine gave me the most affectionately ironic smile. “Neither of us has a choice when it comes to you, Heather.”

“I go where the shaman goes,” Zheng purred.

I huffed and rolled my eyes, feeling a little like a child throwing a tantrum in my party clothes – but my phantom limbs twitched and weaved through the air, and the shape of my skirt reminded me of what I was.

“Fine,” I said, with a second huff and a sharp look at the other two corners of my presumptive triangle. “Then I command both of you to tell me right now if you don’t want to do this. And tell the truth.”

Raine shrugged. “I’m game. I’ll also win.” She winked at Zheng. “Hope you’re ready for a whuppin’.”

Zheng grinned like a shark on the scent of a wounded seal. “I go where the shaman goes. You have guts, yoshou, and I will feast on them.”

“Metaphorically,” I said, a little too hard.

“Metaphorically,” Zheng allowed.

==

A three! Aaaand a one … and another one, ooof.” Raine winced as the dice rolled to a stop in the tray. “My loss, yeah?”

Zheng leaned back in her armchair. “You learn quick, yoshou. And you lose.”

“Ahhhh well, can’t win ‘em all.” Raine grinned and leaned back as well, sprawled on the desk chair a few feet from the foot of the bed.

“You had courage,” Zheng purred. “You held your ground. Anything less would be certain defeat. But chance was not with you. No warrior can control the weather.”

Raine shot a lazy finger-gun at Zheng. “Ah ah ah, you keep making excuses for that first round. You want me to believe it was just beginner’s luck, but I surprised you, big girl. I’ll have you zeroed in soon enough.”

“Perhaps. First, you owe a tale.”

“Haaaaaah, that I do, that I do.”

Raine nodded slowly as she looked over at me. I’d made a sort of pillow throne-nest-perch at the head of the bed, in pride of place. I felt her eyes on me, and fought down a rather enjoyable blush.

“You do!” I said, already enthralled by the last half hour. “It’s your turn, Raine. Please.”

“Yes,” Zheng purred. “You must satisfy me, and our judge of truth.”

“True that, true that,” Raine mused, adjusting her sitting position, drawing one leg up to place a foot against the end of the bed.

“Did you not come prepared, yoshou?” Zheng purred, with a hidden mocking edge to her tone.

Raine gave her a mild eyebrow quirk. “I’ve got loads of stories, s’just all my most interesting ones aren’t really mine to tell, they belong to Evee. All the ones with violence, magic, and plenty of blood. All the ones that meant so much. But hey, I guess Heather knows most of those already. If we’re going to calibrate her truth-telling, I best start with one she doesn’t know. Right?”

“Mmmmm,” Zheng purred.

“Gotta warn you though, big girl, I’m no globe-trotting ancient like you, or baby-killing murderer like Stack. I’ve got some heavy ones in my quiver, some real life in there, but nothing epic, nothing soaring. My stories might bore you a bit.”

“Then tell them well.”

“We won’t be bored, Raine. Really!” I added. “I absolutely will not be, I can promise you that.”

“Alright then.” A mischievous twinkle entered Raine’s eyes. “Let’s start with something light. I’ll tell you about the time I became the devil.”

I could barely contain my excitement.

We were gathered in our bedroom. Well, my bedroom, Raine’s bedroom. Anything more than that was yet to be discussed. Zheng lounged in an old armchair, while Raine sat on the spinny desk chair, legs alternately up on the end of the bed or the desk itself or just oscillating herself back and forth as she thought or spoke or watched Zheng roll the dice. She moved her injured leg slower than she would have in the past, but her range of motion wasn’t too constricted. I was quite comfy, installed at the head of the bed, both audience and observed. I burned with self-consciousness in my nice clothes, especially with the way both Raine and Zheng would switch from focusing on each other to running appreciative glances over me – or was that my imagination, were they just looking at me like normal? – but the promise of good stories kept me from burying myself in embarrassment.

We’d commandeered a tray from the kitchen on which to roll the opposing sets of dice, which now stood on the foot of the bed between Zheng and Raine, close enough for either of them to toy with the dice between rolls.

As we’d been getting seated and situated, but before Zheng had explained the – to me, at least – mind-boggling rules of holding and raising and betting your hand, Raine had dug around in her possessions and presented Zheng with a set of very odd dice with lots of sides. They were very colourful, some were even little rainbows, or variations on rainbows. I’d never seen anything like them before.

“Dice can have more than six sides?” I’d asked, staring in fascination.

“Wait, hold up,” Raine said with a grin. “Heather, you’ve never seen a dee-twenty before?”

I shook my head, dumbfounded. Raine had kissed me on the cheek in sheer amused delight.

Zheng had declined the opportunity to integrate the special dice into the game, and for that I was exceptionally glad, no matter how pretty they were. The maths of ‘walls’ and ‘scaling’ and ‘little gods’ was difficult enough for me to follow without adding extra improvisation with entirely new sets of numbers.

Raine’s special rainbow dice were mine to play with now, and I rolled them idly in my lap as I listened. I felt like a deep-sea mollusk, flushed and colourful with protective toxic display, perched on coral close to the surface to warm myself by the light of twin suns, showing off my frills and pigments, toying with pieces of smooth stone.

I felt content and safe and home.

And fascinated.

I’d purposefully chosen to bring us all upstairs into the bedroom in order to invite Zheng inside, into this intimate space, and Raine had accepted the gesture without question. But secretly even I wasn’t quite sure what I’d meant by it. Bedrooms had never been nice places for me, not since Maisie was taken away. My childhood bedroom was forever marred by an open wound that only I knew about, a constant reminder of loss, and my short-lived bedroom for the first couple of months at university had turned into a torture chamber of Eye-sent nightmares and sleep deprivation, forever stinking of fear-sweat and vomit.

But the room I shared with Raine at Number 12 Barnslow Drive was different. Nestled in the heart of this strangely solid old house, large with a high ceiling and plenty of space for a double bed, desk, armchairs, television and Raine’s video game consoles, not to mention my endless little piles of books, it felt more like part of a continuous warren up here in the top of the house, comfortable and known, and ours.

Zheng had – incredibly – lost the first round of akarakish to Raine.

In a game of wit and guts and holding one’s nerve, Raine excelled at pushing the limit and pushing her luck. She’d raised and raised and raised until Zheng had finally shown a speck of doubt and rolled one too many dice, and lost.

They’d stared each other down, two massive cats sizing up claw and muscle and territory. But then Zheng had roared with laughter, slapped the arm of the chair so hard I was afraid she might snap the underlying wood, and declared Raine’s victory a fair one. If rash.

So Zheng had gone first.

She’d told us a story about a man she’d known in the armies of the khans, an important warrior who had wanted Zheng dead – not for being unnatural or eating through enough horse meat to supply ten men for weeks, or even for insulting him by urinating on his tent, but simply because she was strong and he thought himself strongest. He had owned a magic sword. It was a short and bloody tale, almost a fable, which ended with her blunting the man’s supposed magic sword on her forearms and beating him to death with the pommel.

She told it with a dark smile and a lizard-like fixation on Raine, and I did not like the thematic undertones. But she looked at me at the end, for approval.

“ … um?”

“Truth, shaman?” she purred. “I am telling truth?”

“Oh, um.” I’d hesitated, fascinated and disgusted at the violence, but mostly worried by the unsubtle message she’d sent. “It seems truthful to me, though it was a bit … fable-like, with the ending and all. Almost too convenient.”

“Hey, I liked it,” Raine said, grinning. Did she miss the message or was she being polite? “Real hack and slash.”

Zheng had stared at me for a moment longer, and I’d held her gaze, and then she’d split into a wide grin, showing all her teeth. “Shaman! I cannot deceive you. The tale is true, but the ending is a lie.”

“Oh.” I blinked.

“Jirghadai did bury his sword in my left arm, but I didn’t beat him to death afterwards. I ran off with the sword!” She barked with laughter. “All over the camp, out onto the steppe, and back again. He rode after me, puffing and shouting, but I am faster than any horse. Every one of his friends and fellows was roaring with laughter at his folly. I dropped the sword at his wife’s feet. She was laughing too.”

And so Zheng had scooped up the dice again, plus two more she had to roll as a handicap for her lie. I had a funny feeling she’d fully expected me to pick up on that one, but I wasn’t sure what to make of her intentions now. But she’d won that next round, and here we were.

“So,” Raine began her story, kicking her feet up on the end of the bed and leaning back on her hands. “My parents were very religious. Real serious God-botherer types.”

“Mmmmm,” Zheng purred, eyes narrowed. I perked up at the prospect of anything from Raine’s childhood, as welcome as gold dust.

“Heather knows a bit of this already, but the context’s for you.” Raine nodded to Zheng. “Not nice cuddly modern CoE types either, or even regular Catholics – er,” she broke off with a raised eyebrow. “’Scuse me, Zheng, I’ve just realised, you’re gonna need a tiny bit of Christian theology for this one to make sense. Do you … ?”

“I spent a century in the deep cellars of a monastery in the Carpathians,” Zheng said. “The monks assumed I was a fallen thing. Tried to make me repent the sin of rebellion. I have heard the Christian book front to back thousands of times.”

Raine winced. “Ouch. My condolences.”

“Mm.”

“Anyway, okay. So my parents were very, very religious, and when I was little we went to Church like clockwork, every Sunday. Not a real Church, mind you, not something built out of stone in the middle ages, but this fancy modern building, all white and ridiculous fake beams and glowing displays. You’d hate it, Heather,” she nodded at me.

“Ugh, probably,” I said.

“But hey, to my parents, the most important thing about going to Church was being friendly with the right people, climbing the social ladder, and though I hate to admit it, they were actually quite good at being a pair of greasy little toadies and sucking up to their ‘social betters’.” Raine did little air-quotes. “And by the time I was about nine or ten – I think that’s when it happened – they were actually pretty friendly with the vicar. Preacher. Whatever. They didn’t call him a vicar because he wasn’t CoE, but it’s basically the same thing, with a touch more insane ranting about modern fabrics causing hurricanes.”

“Tch,” I tutted under my breath.

“One Sunday afternoon my parents stayed behind after a service, for some kind of social call with the vicar and his wife. Some tea and cake nonsense. My parents didn’t want their weird daughter hanging around, so they sent me off into the Church grounds to amuse myself.” Raine spread her hands as a grin crept onto her face. “Now, I didn’t give a toss about any of this. What did I care about? Well, the vicar had a daughter.”

“Oh no,” I said out loud.

Raine laughed and turned to me, holding up a finger. “We were ten. Seriously. S’not like that.”

“Okay, okay, I’m sorry,” I said, blushing. “I just … it is you.”

“We’ll get there.” Raine winked. “This girl, her name was Gracie. Not Grace, but Gracie. We were actually in the same class at school, but we were so far apart in playground social status we may as well have come from different planets. She was a real little madam, nose-in-the-air type, spoilt rotten by her parents, owned a pony. Meanwhile, I was a bit of a weird child. Kinda quiet.” She gave me a side-eyes look, and I knew that was all Zheng was getting of Raine’s peculiar personal history for the moment. “So, there we are, two ten year old girls, alone in this stupid looking ornamental garden of a crackpot Church, while our parents amuse themselves discussing whatever adults discuss beyond earshot of their kids.”

“Children’s games make good stories,” Zheng purred in the dramatic pause, and to my surprise, she sounded like she meant it.

“Oh, but we didn’t play a game,” Raine said, lighting up with slow-building glee. “We decided to discuss theology. A ten-year-old’s version of theology.”

“Oh dear,” I sighed.

“Oh dear is right. I don’t remember how it started, probably with a totally innocent question, but seeing as to our vast gap in social status, Gracie got it into her head that she needed to assert dominance.”

Rrrrrr,” Zheng purred – low and animal and appreciative. She understood dominance.

“She was pretty, she was popular, she was the daughter of an important man,” Raine went on. “She was blonde, she was wearing a nice dress, she wanted a place in the pecking order, and she’d absorbed all this jumbled up religious jargon. So little Gracie decided this made her better than me, holier than me, closer to God than me. And I was a weird little child, I was very quiet and very intense. So as we’re wandering through this garden and poking at the ground with sticks, she’s telling me this mish-mash of half-remembered Bible stories, like she’s trying to instruct me, and I think she read my quiet lack of giving-a-shit as defiance, when I was honestly just listening, because she was kinda pretty and even at ten years old I sort of wanted to hold her hand or be her friend or something.” Raine shrugged.

“Awwww, Raine.” I couldn’t help myself.

“Wait, you won’t be going ‘awww’ in a minute.” Raine struggled to control her smile. “So eventually we reach the rear of the garden. It’s pretty secluded, there’s high walls, vines climbing the brickwork, some tall trees, and an ornamental pond, where we pause for a moment. Gracie’s really worked up by now, thinks I don’t know my place. She was puffed up with importance because this is her daddy’s Church, and he’s a holy man, and she thinks I’m not recognising her place, that she’s special and one of God’s chosen or whatever. So she turns to me and declares with complete confidence that she can walk on water.”

I involuntarily put my hands to my mouth, eyes going wide. “Oh no, oh Raine don’t tell me she drowned.”

“No, no, nothing like that! That would be really dark, I said we’re starting off light. Relax.”

Zheng was grinning, chuckling softly in the back of her throat.

“Yeah, I know,” Raine said. “Blasphemous. Anyway, I was smart enough about metaphor and meaning to know that she was barking up completely the wrong tree, and I told her so. Only Jesus walks on water, right? No, says Gracie, ‘my dad says I can walk on water, and my dad knows Jesus better than your dad’. And we were nearly shouting now, how kids do sometimes when they argue, from zero to sixty in an instant. And I was thinking well, she’s pretty, but she’s kinda dumb.”

“Tch,” I tutted softly, but I was gripping a pillow now, squeezing it in my lap, on the edge of my seat.

“So I said ‘prove it’, and I pointed at the pond.” Raine mimed the gesture. “And to her credit, Gracie nearly tried to walk on water.”

“But she didn’t?” I asked in a whisper.

Raine shook her head. “She almost took the first step, but she stopped at the last moment, with her shoe hovering about an inch from the surface of the pond. I remember the way her face changed, it was so subtle. This moment of doubt, the moment she realised she’d talked herself into a corner, and she was going to have to back down or apologise. To me! Little weird Raine, with the stare and the ugly clothes and the slimy parents. She was about to be humiliated, in front of a social inferior.” Raine pulled a faux-tragic expression.

“Deserved the lesson,” Zheng purred, so soft it was almost inaudible.

“Naaaah she didn’t. At least I didn’t think so, not back then. I wanted to save her. So I did.” Raine couldn’t keep the grin off anymore, bursting into full shit-eating life across her face. “Before she could pull her foot back to dry land, I put one hand against her back and – wufff!”

Raine mimed a hearty shove.

“You pushed a child into a pond?!” I exploded.

“I was a child too!” Raine laughed, then flicked suddenly serious. “And it did save her. It was only a foot deep, but it was full of algae and pond scum and probably rat piss, and she went splashing in face-first. Her dress was absolutely ruined and soaking, water in her hair, she was bawling her eyes out. I jumped in after her and pulled her to her feet, because she was so paralysed by the surprise of it. She was crying in my face, sobbing with, well, I guess embarrassment, asking why I’d done that, why I’d ruined everything, why anybody would be so nasty?” Raine shrugged. “Nowadays I know why I did it, because I figured that a ruined dress was a lesser wound that having to apologise to me, but I didn’t figure for breaking her rudimentary faith. But back then, with this girl crying at me, I didn’t have an answer.”

“Oh, Raine.”

“So I said the first thing that made theological sense. I looked her dead in the eye and said ‘maybe I’m the devil.’”

Raine paused for effect. I was open-mouthed with disbelief. Zheng was purring like a tiger.

“She wasn’t terrified of me,” Raine went on, more casually. “She just cried a lot, clung to me, let me lead her back to the Church. Didn’t tell her parents what had really happened either, she just went along with my lie that we were playing and fell in. I went home, parents told me off for getting the child of an important person dirty, and I forgot about the whole thing.” Raine paused and mock-hesitated, then shrugged. “Gracie didn’t forget though. Three and a half years later, when word was getting around school that I was a massive lesbo, she cornered me in the gym cupboard and asked me if I was the devil. I said ‘uh, maybe?’, and then we made out for twenty minutes.”

I burst out laughing, I couldn’t help it. “Raine!”

To my surprise, Zheng barked a laugh too.

“I know! I know! It wasn’t my fault!” Raine raised her hands in surrender. “I think I awakened something in her, but I never found out what. Look, wherever she ended up, I hope she found somebody more suited to play the devil for her. And that’s the story. That’s the end.”

Raine finished, looking at Zheng, waiting for approval or a round of applause or a scoff of derision. But she got none of those. Zheng just glanced at me and raised an eyebrow.

“Shaman?”

“I … I think it’s all true.”

“Even the kiss?” Raine asked, surprised.

“Especially the kiss, that’s very you.” I tutted.

“Point to the yoshou,” Zheng purred with a sharp smile. “No penalty.”

Raine grinned back and scooped up the dice with one hand, holding them in a fist. “Ahhh, but no penalty doesn’t mean I can’t choose to roll more, right? I’m going all-in, all six starting dice.”

Zheng leaned forward, intrigued, predatory intensity awakening on her face. “The odds do not favour that. Better to start small, hold each victory, not pray for strength. You know that, yoshou. What is this?”

Raine shook the dice, clack-a-clacking in her hand, and grinned back at Zheng.

“Guts.”

Previous Chapter

a very great mischief – 13.2

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

“I can’t believe I bought all these,” I said, again.

“Six,” Praem intoned softly, like the striking of a cloth-muffled bell.

“Technically speaking, you didn’t buy anything,” Evelyn said from beside me, punctuating her words with a clack of walking stick on concrete as we descended the pedestrian ramp in the multi-story car park. “I did, and I’m allowed to do whatever I want.”

“I do what I waaaaant,” Lozzie sang under her breath.

“But I still can’t believe it,” I repeated. “I’ve never even really picked out my own clothes before. I don’t feel like I’m allowed to. I can’t believe these are mine.”

“Seven, eight,” Praem continued.

“I really can’t.”

“Nine.”

Raine was at the front of our little group, a few paces further ahead down the ramp. She pivoted on her crutch and walked backwards for two steps, pulling out a quick-draw finger-gun and flicking her thumb down to shoot me through the heart.

“Believe it, cutie!” she said.

“R-Raine … ”

Self-conscious, embarrassed – and enjoying it on a level I did not care to analyse right now – I choked out a giggle, or at least an awful little sound that passed for a giggle to my ears. I clutched the bag from Hartellies tighter against my chest, as if an unseen hand might take it from me, or the cold wind passing through the open sides of the multi-story car park might pluck it from my arms.

Raine shot me a wink, then stumbled ever so slightly as she pivoted forwards again. She hid the fumble well, suppressed the wince as she put too much sudden weight through her still-healing left thigh. She turned the weakness into a rolling swagger-step. But that didn’t stop my heart from leaping into my throat and my feet from scurrying to catch up with her.

“Raine? Raine, please be careful, I saw that. Please.”

I loosened my grip on my bag of goodies and put one hand awkwardly on her side, in case she needed support, in case the unthinkable happened.

She flashed a rakish grin down at me. “S’all your fault, Heather.”

“ … wa-wha-”

“I’ve gone all weak at the knees from the thought of your new getup.” She nodded down at the bag with a twinkle in her eye.

I tutted and blushed. If she’d used that husky, private, teasing tone with me in any other context, I would have melted like candle wax under a blowtorch. Inside, I squirmed with barely suppressed pleasure, but this was not appropriate, not when she was deploying the compliment as a shield.

“Raine,” I struggled to phrase a coherent sentence. “I do not appreciate-”

“The deflection, yeah, sorry.” She cleared her throat, not meeting my eyes but looking ahead to where the ramp opened out onto the car park floors. “I don’t like to stumble, that’s all. Thanks for being here.”

“Uh … of- of course, you’re welcome, yes. Always.”

I hadn’t expected an acknowledgement, let alone an apology, certainly not so quickly. Raine really had changed.

“Still serious about the outfit though,” she added in a faux-casual tone. “Should need a license to be that spicy. You’re gonna burn my tongue and present a choking hazard, if you know what I mean.”

I blushed harder this time, denied the bulwark of irritation. I stared down at my shoes for a couple of paces. “I still can’t believe I did it.”

“Ten,” Praem sang.

“Praem?” I glanced back over my shoulder at Praem, who was carrying the majority of the other bags. “I’m sorry, Praem? What are you counting?”

Praem locked eyes with me, and declined to answer.

Evelyn snorted a single laugh. “She’s keeping track of the number of times you’ve expressed disbelief at your own acquisitions.”

“Yes,” Praem intoned.

“O-oh … I’m sorry, Praem, I didn’t mean to make this day about me-”

“Us,” Praem interrupted.

She didn’t need to expand that point. I nodded and looked down, chastised by kindness.

Of course, Praem couldn’t possibly know how hard I was distracting myself right now. I would tie myself in knots over my new clothes to avoid thinking about what Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight had revealed to me.

“Day’s not over yet,” Raine said with rousing approval. “Gotta get you home and get you in that full outfit, hey?”

“Don’t be disgusting, Raine,” Evelyn drawled. “All these new clothes are going in the laundry first. You don’t wear new things without first … well … ” Evelyn trailed off, her eyes lingering on the pink cat-ears beanie which Lozzie was already wearing.

“It’s okay,” Lozzie stage-whispered. “I’m special.”

Evelyn cleared her throat. “Fair enough. Lozzie gets special dispensation, but you don’t get to make Heather wear anything without washing it first.”

“Dunno if I can wait that long,” Raine said, and flashed me a wink.

I clutched the bag to my chest again, burning and self-conscious, and trying not to think about polyamory.

==

The bag from Hartellies – or rather, my bag from Hartellies, in addition to the two Praem was carrying, along with the rest of our haul – contained some of the most lovely clothes I’d ever owned, not counting the incredible scale-patterned Superdry hoodie which Evelyn had forcefully bought for me earlier in the day.

Back in the clothing store, after Sevens had vanished from the mirror, I’d disappointed everybody by emerging still dressed exactly as I had entered.

“Aww, Heather?” Raine’s face had fallen with sweet concern, misinterpreting my stricken state. “It’s okay, it’s cool. You don’t fancy it anymore? We can try another thing if you like. Or just, hey, sit down and advise Praem, yeah?”

“No, I-” I choked on my words, on the sight of Raine’s face, on polyamory.

“She’s fiiiiine,” Lozzie stage whispered. “She’s changing her mind flipways!”

“Flipways, yes,” I gathered myself. Oh, Lozzie, you were more accurate than you knew. Or maybe you did know. But this was neither the time nor the place.

Sevens had one good point amid the madness; if I was going to do this, I may as well feel good about myself while breaking everything.

So I’d screwed up my courage, marched right across the fitting area with Lozzie bouncing at my shoulder like a pixie companion, and spoken to the attendant at the little desk.

And yes, as it turned out, they did have some less popular colours of ribbed sweater in the stock room. Old leftovers, stray returns, abandoned styles.

“Only this one I’m afraid, no other sizes,” the attendant had told me, and I’d had to remind myself forcefully that this pretty young woman was not Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight right now. “It’s in small. Is that-”

“Perfect,” I’d breathed, on the verge of hyperventilating with sheer nerves and brittle courage. “Thank you so much. Yes, I’ll take it. Right away. I-I mean, I’ll try it on. Thank you again.”

One polo-neck ribbed sweater. Tight like a hug. Bubblegum pink.

Raine’s face had lit up like a carnival.

The other components of Sevens’ sartorial suggestion were far less easy to source. Hartellies didn’t carry anything like the triple-layered skirt of frill and fluff and lace, it simply wasn’t that kind of place. Praem finished up her wardrobe randomisation session and carried an armful of clothes to the register, so Evelyn could pay, and I added my single sweater at her prompting.

“Are you certain you don’t want to get a new skirt too?” she’d asked me. “Because I will spend that money on you eventually, one way or the other.”

“No bullying,” Praem intoned. The young man behind the cash register had stared at that, at Praem’s musical tone, but his eyes had quickly slid off her.

“Can we save it for now?” I asked.

Evelyn raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”

“I’d like to look for something else,” I said. “Something specific. Probably on the internet. ” I shot a nervous glance at Raine, but she and Lozzie were checking out belts while we paid for the clothes.

“I’m going to assume I don’t want to know,” Evelyn said. “Fair enough.”

Evelyn had paid. The figure made my eyes water. Praem received two large, smart, stylish bags stuffed with self-definition.

“How much have you spent today, in total, Evee?” I asked.

“Never you mind.”

“Retail therapy,” Praem added.

By the time we plunged back into the labyrinth of Swanbrook Mall, my burst dam of heart-juddering white-headed courage had run out into a confused jittery trickle. Felt like my head was going to melt. I’d actually bought the thing. Not the jumper which Raine had suggested, not the little personal experiment in style, but element one of three of Sevens’ absurdly girly version of me.

Well, element one of four. But I was not going to dye my hair. No thank you.

Unlike homo abyssus, I could achieve this in reality without putting my internal organs at risk. And it was a wonderful distraction.

I wasn’t completely unaware of what I was doing. The events of the previous six months had proved to me that I did possess a certain kind of courage, the split-second decision making of life or death, and I had come through with that time and again. But this was different, this heady cocktail of self-indulgence and embarrassment and pleasure as fragile as dried petals. This courage was slow, grinding inside my gut like a bellyful of stones, and ultimately born of deflection.

I drew the courage to buy girly clothes from a steadfast refusal to face what Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight had told me.

We scouted out a couple more shops in Swanbrook Mall – Topshop and Next – but Praem seemed satisfied with her selections from Hartellies, I couldn’t find anything that even approximated the beautiful skirt Sevens’ had been wearing, and we were all beginning to slow down. It was high time to drive home and have a big late lunch. I resigned myself to internet shopping, with all the accompanying self-consciousness of Raine inevitably peering over my shoulder.

But then, as we decided to head back to the escalators, towards the suspended walkway which led to the multi-story car park, a vision in yellow led me astray.

We were passing by one of the offshoot corridors, the sorts of wrong turns which terminated in public toilets or service doorways with ‘Staff Only’ signs, little artificial alleyways lined with stores which had resigned themselves to missing out on most of the mall’s foot traffic, places that sold CBD oil or computer parts, with grimace-inducing names like Ye Olde Crystale Shoppe or Tekniks.

And in the corner of my eye, a figure all in yellow – a voluptuous figure of pure feminine physicality, wrapped in flowing yellow satin and trailing scarves fluttering in unfelt wind – stepped into a store, and vanished.

“Heather?”

I’d stopped to stare down the artificial alleyway, along white plastic walls. Had I seen that, or hallucinated it? A spirit – a sort of slug thing made of raw organs – was inching along the ceiling, but it hadn’t cast that bait, it didn’t care. I leaned forward and tried to see what manner of shop Sevens was trying to make me notice. The name hung over the doorway in absurd faux-calligraphy letters.

“‘Scorching Subject’?” I murmured. “What now, Sevens?”

“Heather, woo?” Raine waved a hand in my peripheral vision. “Ground control to space cadet Morell? You okay?”

“Ah, um. Sorry,” I said, flustering a smile. The others had drawn to a curious halt a few paces onward, but Raine had come back for me. “I-I got distracted by something.”

Raine followed my previous line of sight and lit up in recognition. “Oh hey, I remember that brand. They’re still around? Wow.”

“Can we take a quick look?” I asked, before I lost my nerve.

Raine raised an eyebrow, faintly amused. “Sure.” She glanced back over her shoulder. “Hey, Loz, you might like this one too. C’mon.”

We ventured down the little corridor, past a shop that sold refurbished record players and a hole in the wall that I gathered used to contain a perfume store, until we stood in front of Scorching Subject, and I realised what it was.

“Oh.”

“Yeah. Goth jazz.” Raine cracked a huge grin. “Scene kiddies. Teenyboppers. Place must be on its last legs, this stuff went out of style before I hit puberty.”

She wasn’t wrong. Scorching Subject looked like a sun baked corpse picked over by vultures and left for the flies. A sign in the window informed us that ‘Everything Must Go!!! Closing Down Sale, all items %75 off!!!’ but the sign itself looked at least six months old. Inside, a high ceiling lined with tacky spotlights picked out clothing racks and spinny turnstile displays, mostly empty now, populated by only the most repulsively silly belt buckles and a few garments a witch might wear to a secret woodland ritual. A single staff member sat bored and distracted at the register, no older than any of us, staring at his phone. At least he looked the part, with his dyed black hair slicked down over one eye and those huge intimidating hoop piercings in both earlobes.

A wisp of yellow, the glint of sunlight on chalk, slipped around the corner of some clothing shelves.

I sighed.

“Yeah, I know, right?” Raine said, misreading my huff. “Kinda sad. I like this stuff, it’s got a place. Should have a place. Goth girls are cute.”

“Yes,” Praem agreed.

“Ugh,” went Evelyn, wrinkling her nose.

“Wheee!” went Lozzie, going straight past us and into the store, bee-lining for a display full of absurd hats.

“Oh, really?” Evelyn tutted.

“We should go in,” I said.

“You serious?” Raine asked me, genuinely surprised. “You want something here? Right on, Heather, go for it.”

“For Night Praem,” I lied. “Isn’t that right, Praem?”

“Night Praem,” Praem replied.

“Night Praem?” Evelyn enunciated so hard I thought she was going to do herself an injury. “What is this, her goth alter ego? Praem, you haven’t told me anything about this.”

But it was too late for Day Praem. I was already wandering into the store, pulling Raine in after me, following Sevens’ breadcrumbs.

To my complete and total lack of surprise, I did not find a tall and shapely woman in yellow behind the depleted shelving, but instead a rather sad looking series of rolling hanger racks full of gauzy tops, spooky tshirts, and belts as wide as my arm.

“What am I supposed to see?” I murmured under my breath.

“We looking for anything in particular?” Raine asked, flicking through some of the tshirts. “Oh hey, you know who’d love these? Kimberly. Here, this one’s got a dragon on it. And this one has a dragon and a wizard, score.”

“Sort of just browsing … ”

I trailed off, relaxed with a long, slow breath, and let my peripheral vision guide me to a small yellow tag poking out between two long black skirts. Tentatively, half expecting Seven-Shades-of-Shop-Attendant to appear from a blind corner, I approached the skirts and parted them, in search of buried treasure.

And there it was. Knee-length, made from three separate layers of frill and fluff and lace, in dark purple like boiling midnight skies, accented with void-black. How this rare find had survived the carrion eaters, I had no idea.

Tacky. Girly. Flouncy and silly and actually beautiful, everything I was not.

I sighed again as I pulled it off the rack. “Really, Sevens? I thought you were making the outfit up.”

The layers were like the flesh-skirts of a jellyfish, frilled and ruffled and faintly toxic to the eye. The me of six months ago would have hated the thing; but to the me right then it was an object of desire, even though it embarrassed me to admit so. A faint echo of abyssal aesthetics, the same as with the scale-pattern hoodie Evelyn had so generously bought for me, the same in the colourful display of bubblegum pink sweater.

For a heady moment I couldn’t tell what I was doing. Was I distracting myself from thoughts of polyamory by forcing a confrontation with a totally different set of hang ups? Or was I preparing for the plunge?

Secretly, I felt like polyamory was for people with a few relationships under their belt. Extroverts. Party girls. Pretty people.

But anything would be possible, with even a false echo of abyssal aesthetics.

Then I would be beautiful too.

“Heeeeeeey, look at thaaaat,” said Raine, catching up with me and breaking into a grin. “Where’d you find that? You brainmath your way into a sixth sense for diamonds in the rough?”

“In a manner of speaking.”

She caught the wistful conflict in my eyes, saw something was off. “You don’t like it?”

“No, it’s not my style,” I said. “It’s terrible, too girly. It’s more Lozzie than me. I will die on the spot the moment you see me in it. I’m going to buy it anyway.”

“Yeeeeah, rock on.” Raine lit up, all for me. “That’s more like it!”

“Thank you, yes. I shall endeavour to ‘rock’ to my best.”

My abyssal-prosthetic skirt was not the only thing we purchased in the goth clothing shop. Raine and I emerged from the skeletal racking and found that Lozzie had gotten stuck into the suitably gothic selection of novelty hats. Somehow she had convinced or bullied or simply overpowered Evelyn into trying one on.

“Not a word,” Evelyn deadpanned at us, from beneath the floppy brim of a midnight black witch’s hat.

Raine decided to buy the tshirt she’d found for Kimberly, an extra-long dress-style affair in black, with a graphic on the front of three unicorns galloping across a moonlit moor. And to Evelyn’s curious, sharp interest, Praem had picked up a small box of makeup.

“You want to try on black eyeliner?” she asked Praem, and did a stellar job of controlling her own distaste.

Praem only stared back, so the makeup joined our haul as well.

Between the bubblegum pink sweater hidden in overflow stock and the triple-layered skirt tucked away in a forgotten corner of a store that should have gone out of business, I was beginning to suspect that Sevens wanted me to acquire the entire outfit here, today, right now. But this was my limit. I doubted there was anywhere in Sharrowford one could purchase trainers with LEDs in the soles.

“Light up shoes, absolutely not,” I whispered under my breath as we went up the escalator.

“Heather, sorry?” Raine prompted, and squeezed my hand.

“Oh, um, nothing.”

The last minute detour had put us far past time for lunch, and we’d already agreed to avoid the shopping centre’s food court, up on the top floor. The first and only time I’d been up there was to meet Alexander Lilburne in an out of business coffee shop, and none of us wished to ruin a perfectly nice day with memories of attempted kidnapping. So we made our way back along the route toward the multi-story car park, up to the rear of the shopping centre’s top floor, where fake marble and bright lights gave way to concrete walkway and grubby glass windows suspended three stories up over the roads below.

The enclosed bridge connected Swanbrook Mall directly to a series of shallow sloping pedestrian walkways, which climbed the height of the multi-story car park, separated by automatic doors to keep the heat in. The multi-story itself was open to the fresh spring air, each floor ringed by chest-high concrete bulwark but not much else.

My blush and Raine’s teasing banter died away as we stepped through, among the thin trickle of other lunchtime shoppers.

“Don’t know about you lot,” Evelyn drawled, “but the first thing I’m going to do when we get home is make lunch.”

“I am making lunch,” Praem said in her sing-song voice.

“You will make lunch, you mean,” Evelyn said. “Tense is important, I don’t mean to-” She cut herself off, and frowned at Praem as we descended the wide concrete ramp. “Wait, no, you didn’t just-”

“I will make lunch,” Praem intoned.

Evelyn huffed. Lozzie giggled. I suppressed a smile. Outwitted by her daughter again.

==

The car park floors themselves were dingy and grubby affairs compared to the false majesty of the shopping centre, all roughly textured concrete in dirty grey, held up by thick support pillars amid a maze of pedestrian pathways, half-filled parking spaces, smelly puddles, and discarded wrappers. The open sides let in some natural light, but the centre of each floor was dim with orange street lighting from little insets in the ceiling. Lozzie made a game of hopping and skipping ahead, over the walkway markers and crossings. I subconsciously pressed myself closer to Raine, as we crossed the tangled space toward her car parked on the far side.

We were less than twenty feet from the car when Lozzie stopped.

She froze mid-step and her head flicked around like a rodent sighting a snake. She quickly scurried back to me and grabbed my arm, pressing herself so close she almost tripped me. A small animal, looking for solidarity.

“Lozzie? It’s okay, I know it’s a bit grim in here but-”

“Heather,” she hissed – tight and afraid.

She was staring off to our left, at nothing. Ragged rows of parked cars. A few spirits lingered here and there: a dark shadow beneath a van with cartoonish red eyes, a stilt-legged insect walking upside down on the ceiling, a weird amalgamation of deer and bird covered in fractally splitting antler shapes as it flomped down a row of vehicles.

“Yo, what is it?” Raine said, alert, switched on, all here all of a sudden at Lozzie’s fearful tone.

“What’s this?” Evelyn prompted, following our collective line of sight.

“I-I don’t know,” I said. “Lozzie, there’s nothing-”

“I know that man,” Lozzie hissed. “He was one of my brother’s friends.”

Oh. A person.

I’d expected a servitor or an assassin or a magic cloud of sleeping gas – or Seven-Shades dressed as a traffic warden, here to give us a comedy ticket – not a regular human being.

The man Lozzie had recognised wasn’t the slightest bit interested in us.

A few rows over, just beyond earshot, he was talking on his mobile phone. With one hand on the top of his car and one foot planted on the rim of the open driver’s side door, he had the distinct air of calling home to make sure he’d not forgotten anything on his shopping trip. Maybe in his early thirties at the oldest, he looked trim and fit, with artfully tousled hair and a few days of stubble, dressed in jeans and a Manchester United football shirt. Utterly unremarkable.

“Right, I see him,” Raine dropped her voice, going very still. “Lozzie, friend or ‘friend’, is he one of-”

“One of my brother’s men.” Lozzie nodded rapidly.

A wave of undeniable instinct crashed through my nervous system. Phantom limbs shot out wide into a hunting pattern, tugging on support muscles by sheer psychosomatic suggestion. I felt my pupils dilate, my extremities tingle, my veins flood with adrenaline. My breath fluttered as muscles vibrated with the need to move, move fast, move now. My heart climbed into my throat and my vision narrowed to a tunnel and my thoughts went white-hot with predatory focus, and I very nearly pulled clear of both Raine and Lozzie to tear this man limb from limb.

The urge was overwhelming and terrifying and made perfect sense – and would have been a very bad idea to follow.

If I’d given in and did as my body demanded, thrown myself at this unsuspecting ex-cultist like a berserker, I was unlikely to actually hurt him much. I was still just me, five foot nothing, with very little muscle. My options for removing threats were brainmath, or tentacles via brainmath, and those required a clear head, equations, and careful thinking.

But instinct screamed.

Parasite carrier. Disease bearer. Agent of the enemy.

Kill it, screamed the cold survivalist logic of the abyss.

I hiccuped.

“Woah, Heather?” Raine hissed, squeezing my hand. My palms had gone clammy, my back coated in cold sweat, and I was shuddering all over. Lozzie squeezed against my other side, somehow aware she needed to anchor me.

“If he was one of Alexander’s men,” Evelyn murmured, putting voice to the logic inside my body, “that means he’s either Edward’s man now – or he’s an Eye cultist who escaped before their defiant ritual.”

A hiss climbed up my throat. I wished with every fibre of my being that Zheng was here.

“And,” Evelyn carried on, “that man does not look like an outsider-ridden tortured shell from here.”

Ape brain took a moment to catch up with abyssal logic.

“Oh,” I breathed. “Of course. Right. Right.”

I could barely think. The predatory instinct was similar to the hunting urge I’d felt when I’d stood alone with Zheng in the night, the pull to run and leap and bare my claws in the dark, but magnified a thousand times, directed at a visible target. Even backing down now, I was shaking and panting.

“Heather, hey, you okay?” Raine tried to catch my eye. “Heather?”

“She will be!” Lozzie whispered.

“ … w-we should get to the car,” I managed to hiss. “He doesn’t even know we’re here.”

Evelyn frowned at me. “You heard what I said, this cannot be a coincidence.”

“You think Eddy-boy is stupid enough to tell his low-level thugs where to find him?” Raine asked. “What say we commit a mugging?”

“No,” Evelyn snapped.

“Maybe it is a coincidence!” I squeaked. “Not everything has to do with us! Maybe he was just shopping?”

“And maybe it’s a trap,” Evelyn grumbled. “Praem, do not even think about it. Nobody approach this man.”

“We could find out,” Raine said, low and soft and lethal, and slipped her free hand inside her leather jacket.

But the ex-cultist chose that moment to end his phone call. I saw a little smile and an ironic shake of his head as he said goodbye to whoever was on the other end. Without looking up at us, he got into his car and shut the door. The engine purred to life a few seconds later, far too quickly for Raine to catch up with him and knock on the window, even without the handicap of her crutch.

His car backed slowly and sensibly out of the parking space, then turned to leave.

“See?” I hissed, then hiccuped so loudly it echoed off the concrete. Cold sweat broke over me and the hunting instinct finally began to ebb away, leaving me hollow and exhausted. “It was just a coincidence, just a … ”

The car’s route brought it alongside us, creeping along the narrow passageways of concrete and speed bumps and stop signs. My phantom limbs still itched to grab the wheels, stop the car, pull the man out by the scruff of his neck and strangle him on the spot.

And as the car passed us, the man turned to look; slowly, directly, filled with blind purpose.

At me.

Ragged dark bags ringed the haunted emptiness in his eyes. Gaunt cheeks, skin sallow with exhaustion, lips cracked and dry. His hands on the wheel showed nails bitten to the quick, cuticles gnawed raw and bleeding and scabbed. The veneer of normality was a thin and cracking shell on his placid expression. From a distance he had looked almost normal, but up close, even through the glass of the driver’s side window, this was quite clearly a human being out on the lost reaches of sanity.

And he had seen me.

Abyssal instinct coiled up like gooseflesh in freezing air. My phantom limbs wrapped around me in a protective barrier. I had the sudden urge to run away.

Eye contact lasted only half a second, and then the car was past us.

“Heather? Heather, what was that? What’s wrong?” Raine was asking, even as she fumbled her phone out, snapping a picture of the number plate.

“Heathy?” Lozzie was squeezing me, her own fear forgotten as I struggled to keep my knees.

“Oh dear,” Evelyn deadpanned. “I was wrong, wasn’t I?”

I nodded, numb all over.

“What?” Raine asked, looking back from her phone screen and squeezing my shoulder. “Look, I half wanna tail him in the car, but I’m not leaving you here like this, Heather, you look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“That was an Eye cultist,” I whispered. “One who escaped, before the rest defied it. And he knows who I am.”

==

We spent the rest of the day descending into curtain-twitching paranoia.

The drive home was bad enough. Our good cheer was gone. Raine drove again, so at least she had to focus on the road, but her tension was plain to see every time her eyes flickered upward to check the rear view mirror, expecting a car on our tail at any moment. Evelyn went quiet and intense, frowning into the middle distance as her mind chewed on possibilities and potentials and preventative measures. Praem sat still and straight-backed, her special day rather spoiled, but she didn’t complain.

Lozzie sat next to me in the back of the car, stroking my hair like I was a spooked hound – which was exactly how I felt.

Our fashion show plans fell apart once we got home, before we even got in the front door, sacrificed on the altar of security. Raine spent a full ten minutes standing in the garden gateway, propped up on her crutch, watching the end of the road. Half of me grew incandescent with worry, with the way she was suppressing pain behind protective intensity, while the other half of me wanted to scurry into her shadow and clutch the back of her jacket.

“He’s not going to fucking drive up and shoot us,” Evelyn hissed at her. “Get indoors, you idiot.”

“He might. Wait.”

Waiting drew Zheng’s curiosity, and eventually she ventured out under the thin spring skies. We told her what we’d seen.

Laoyeh gropes blind in the dark,” she purred, “but its reach is long and wide.”

“It was a coincidence,” I repeated. Wide eyed. Twitchy. I did not believe my own words.

Zheng put a hand on my head, and I desperately wanted her to pick me up.

“There is no such thing as coincidence for Gods, shaman. But none shall touch you.”

“Well said,” Raine added, staring at the end of the road.

Lunch plans collapsed too. With the front door closed and locked and bolted, we fell apart in our separate frantic directions. Evelyn went to check the Spider-servitors, then clacked about from room to room, doing what she could to reinforce the ancient wards embedded in the walls and foundations of the house. Eventually she ended up in the kitchen, quiet with contemplation, drumming her fingers on the kitchen table and staring into the depths of an untouched cup of tea.

Lozzie went upstairs to find Tenny.

Raine gave me a hug, told me it was going to be okay, and then she could not stay still. She made endless circuits of the windows, staring out into the street, across the back garden, checking the latches and locks, popping painkillers without water.

I loved her for that, but she needed to sit with me.

Abyssal instinct told me to find the deepest, darkest, most secluded part of the house, and curl up in a protective ball until I was certain the vast predators out in the cold water had moved on. The instinct was out of place, of course, no different to the ape imperative to climb trees to escape danger. Instead I spent half an hour haunting Raine’s shadow, embarrassed whenever she noticed me and waved me over for a hug, because it was never enough. Abyssal limbs tried to cling to her, but it was not enough. Nothing was enough.

Edward Lilburne was a frightening adversary, but at least he was only a person. Our last brush with the Eye had nearly killed us all.

Zheng left the house, coat collar up, eyes narrowed to razor-sharp slits.

“I go to hunt, shaman. Laoyeh’s slaves are clumsy.”

As she’d slipped out the back door, I’d tried to speak up, to say “please don’t go, please stay with me.”

But the words had stuck in my throat. Raine had been within earshot. Pathetic Heather, this was the perfect moment to take the plunge, an excuse to ask for both of them to comfort me. Sevens was undoubtedly rolling her eyes in exasperation.

Maybe that’s why I couldn’t. I didn’t want it to be an excuse. It had to be real, and raw, and without reservation.

Team effort rescued us eventually. Praem had retained more than enough emotional stability to stand in the kitchen and make a stack of sandwiches, and the first thing to break through my shell of nervous tension was a bite of peanut butter, forced upon me by Praem’s insistent stare. Lozzie and Tenny appeared too, and Tenny innately recognised my tension and wound her tentacles around my shoulders and forearms. She stood half-guard with me, until Lozzie’s gentle encouragement pulled us all back into the kitchen, our orbits reuniting at last. The lovely new clothes sat forgotten in their bags by the door, until Praem began the laborious process of running the washing machine multiple times.

“They’re still around, then,” I said, sitting at the table, halfway through a single chocolate cookie, the only thing I felt like forcing down.

“We always knew some might have survived,” Evelyn answered, staring into her tea. “In theory.”

“Maybe he was the only one.”

“Sure hope so,” Raine said, leaning against the kitchen counter so she could glance out of the window. She caught the hollow look in my eyes, and shot a wink and a grin my way.

“I wouldn’t wager on that,” Evelyn mused out loud. “A splinter faction. Anybody who rejected the rebellion against the Eye, left the house before they did their ritual. From everything we saw, Sarika and the others, anyone who’s survived this long with the Eye in their head must possess considerable psychological resilience.”

“Which means it might just be this guy alone,” Raine said. “Right.”

Evelyn huffed and rolled her eyes. “Keep up, Raine.”

“He has to have a support network,” I said, filling in Evelyn’s gap. “You don’t survive something like that alone. I should know. He has others, people who understand.”

“Exactly,” Evelyn grumbled. “Did you call Sarika?”

“Yeah,” Raine sighed. “She didn’t recognise the description of the guy. Said she’s not been contacted or anything, but hey, can we trust her?”

“On this, yes,” I said. “She’d scream so loud we’d know from here.”

My phantom limbs tried to curl up tighter. I wanted to vanish in a dark hole.

“Heath, Heath,” Tenny trilled softly against my side.

“I wish Zheng would come home,” I said, and felt Raine’s eyes on me.

Tenny didn’t leave me alone the entire rest of the day. She made herself my security blanket, until she and Lozzie passed me off to Raine at almost eleven o’clock at night, after two hours snuggled up with the pair of them in the warm safe dark in the core of the house. But I couldn’t sleep. Even after Raine had finally relented and ceased her one-woman watch and turned to comforting me, rubbing my back in bed, being the big spoon in the dark, I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t let myself. Every slide toward the edge was arrested, my mind scrambling back up toward tattered consciousness.

Abyssal senses stayed stretched, listening for scratches at the utmost rim, for probing at our defenses. Or that’s what I told myself.

Really I was listening for Zheng, waiting for her to come home.

She would not slink back until the small hours of the morning. Maybe she would return with the severed head of the Eye’s slave, or maybe she wouldn’t, but I found it hard to care. I didn’t want that. I wanted her.

Abyssal instinct demanded her be close to me, and that was all that mattered. And I could not sleep until she was by my side, safe, and mine.

Same as Raine.

==

Bodily need clouds the meaning of time, especially deep in the night and deep in the bed covers, curled up tight and warm alongside another soft ape, so intimate and close that one forgets where one’s own body ends and the other begins. So it was with Raine and I, that strange night of half-sleep and semi-listening, snatches of nightmare blurring into reality, and reality distorting into dreamlike nonsense.

Her hand was down the front of my pajama bottoms when I woke up, but bizarrely there was nothing sexual about it when I realised the hand wasn’t my own. Her hand was my hand. The phantom tentacle wrapped around her waist and backside was not mine, but hers. Our legs were tangled, her ankle between mine, and for a moment I couldn’t tell which feet were which. Our breathing had synchronised in our sleep, and I tasted her on my lips without needing to kiss a dry mouth.

But there was third body, a presence on the edge of my consciousness, like a weight pressing on me through several layers of clothing. Impossible to ignore, but not yet part of me.

“Zheng’s home,” I murmured into the dark.

“Mmmmm?” Raine made a sleepy noise behind me, and I did a tiny, tiny flinch. Hadn’t realised she’d awoken along with me. Synchronicity, unspoken and instinctive. I took heart.

“Can feel it,” I added, slurring. “Her.”

“Mmmmm.”

We both slipped back down the steps of lighter slumber. Part of me wanted to leap out of bed and rush downstairs, but I held that feeling in both hands like a glass ball, and tried to examine it for flaws. A dream I dare not grasp too hard lest it shatter and fill my flesh with razor shards.

“Wanna go to her?” Raine murmured.

“Not alone.”

“Mmmm?”

“ … what time is it?” I asked.

“Mmmm … ” Raine rolled half over to check her phone on the bedside table. Her motion pulled open a small gap in the sheets, a chasm between us into which rushed a knife of cold air. Suddenly I could not abide that gap. That distance should not exist, should not be. “Nearly six,” Raine slurred, heavy with sleep. “Not bad, s’pretty good sleep for- hey, Heather?”

I squirmed around beneath the sheets until I was facing her, and closed the gap, burrowed in against her front, buried my face in her chest, pulled the sheets tight so no chill air could separate us. I allowed my phantom limbs to embrace her too, though she couldn’t feel them. I felt like a very small animal, seeking warmth.

“Mmmm, hey cuddle bug,” she said, voice reaching me from above the covers as she wrapped her arms around me. “What’s up?”

“How’s your leg?” I asked.

“Aching. Sore. Better though.”

“Will you take more painkillers this morning?”

“You don’t sound too happy about that?”

“I’m not. Your body is mine too, you know that?” I murmured, and only sleepiness gave me the courage. “You’re mine and I’m yours and we’re each other and you have to look after yourself for me.”

“You want me to stop taking the painkillers?” she asked.

“Not necessarily. That’s not the point.”

“I’ll dial them back,” she said, dead serious and awake all of a sudden. “Half dose this morning.” A little laugh escaped her lips. “This isn’t the first time I’ve been hooked on painkillers, I know my way around the rodeo, but I’ll prove it to you.”

I wiggled my head up, breached the heat of the covers and gasped in the open air, and met Raine’s face, inches away in the dark. She smelled of sleep sweat, mine and hers both. Shadowed in the gloom, I caught her smile.

“You’ve been hooked on painkillers?” I asked.

“Yeah. Back after I first met Evee, for a bit. Nothing major, just co-codamol for a few months.”

“For a few months? Raine, you never told me that.”

She shrugged beneath the sheets. “I needed it, at the time. I was homeless for a while, had some physical issues, you know?”

“Of course, of course, I’m not judging you, I never would … just … wow.” I went quiet, shaking my head in surprise. Raine kissed my forehead and stroked my hair away from my face.

“Half dose,” she repeated. “I’ll taper down.”

I screwed up my courage, before my mind woke all the way up, before a decade of being a good girl supplanted the blended purity of abyssal instinct and ape need.

“Raine,” I said. “Did you get around to playing the dice game with Zheng?”

“From last weekend? Nah, not yet. She kinda keeps her distance from me. My fault for being a rude bitch, but it’s cool, I respect her for-”

“Have you ever had a threesome?”

Despite the dark, I saw her blink, once.

I thought my heart was going to dance right out of my chest.

Then Raine laughed. “Uhhhhh, believe it or not, actually no, I haven’t. Bit of a playgirl in the past, yeah, I deserve my rep, but I’m sort of a one-target-at-a-time type. There was this incident in the first term here at university, where I almost did, but I have trouble splitting my attention.”

“Can’t imagine you turning it down,” I said, trying as hard as I could to keep my nerves out of my voice. But I couldn’t conceal the sudden adrenaline burst, the shaking in my core.

“Hey, Heather.” Raine squeezed me. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why you’re asking this.”

“It’s not what you’re assuming-”

“If you want to-”

“Please-”

“With Zheng-”

“Raine, stop-”

“If you want a threesome, if it’s for you, if it’s what you really want, then I’m down, I’m game,” she told me.

“No!” I snapped.

I pushed myself away from her and half sat up in bed, thrusting myself out into the chill morning air in the dark, my phantom limbs trailing after me as I felt my eyes blaze, my heart lurch then steady with something I had not realised until now. More certain than I’d ever been before, I stared down at Raine as she pushed herself up after me, half naked and glorious and not getting it at all.

“Heather? Hey, if I’m getting this wrong, tell me, I’m listening. If you want a-”

“No,” I said. “No, Raine. We’re not going to have a threesome with Zheng.”

“It’s cool, I’m cool with-”

“Stop. We’re not going to have sex with Zheng. We’re going to play the dice and stories game with her.”

Raine blinked, surprised again. “Okay?”

“This has to be about more than sex. It has to be about what you want too. And Zheng. It has to be.” I huffed, shaking inside, but I’d said it. “Besides, I want to try on my new clothes, and I can hardly do that with both of you trying to get up my skirt.”

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a very great mischief – 13.1

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Praem drew back the privacy curtain, drew her spine up into perfect poise – with the same almost imperceptible hand-flourish she’d used the last half dozen times – and drew a tiny round of applause from Lozzie.

“Here I am,” she intoned, and took two steps forward out of the cubicle, into the seating area where we were all waiting for her between outfits.

“Very blue!” said Lozzie.

“Very … very cuddly,” I managed, trying not to stare too much. “Yes, Praem, you look very cuddly.”

I fought down a blush when Praem’s milk-white eyes located me and stared back.

“Mmmmmm.” Evelyn sucked on her teeth. “Much more her style than the hoodie, or the loose blouse, but blue with blue does seem a touch like a rendering error in a video game. Can’t we compromise, the same skirt but in white or black?”

“Purple,” Praem intoned.

“Purple is good too!” Lozzie said. “Oooh the back is also also good.” She capered in a little circle around Praem, her pastel poncho fluttering.

“Hold up.” Raine pointed a finger-gun at Praem. “I’ve actually got a question, if you don’t mind, of course? Bit personal and all that.”

Praem turned her head to direct a silent stare at the request. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up; my Raine senses were tingling. I detected a twinkle in her eye, hiding behind her oh-so-serious expression.

“That a yes or a no?” Raine prompted.

“Yes,” Praem echoed.

“Cool, okay. How do those things not give you terrible back pain?”

Her faux-serious expression crumbled a moment later, no match for Praem’s poker face.

“Raine!” I spluttered, and swatted her on the shoulder. Blushing, self-conscious – and trying to look anywhere but at what she was referring to – I shot a glance back at the wide entranceway to the clothing shop’s fitting area and changing rooms, where it opened back out into the brighter lights and softly muted colours of the display floor. The attendant lady at the service desk didn’t appear to have overheard us, more interested in her glossy magazine.

Evelyn sighed and rolled her eyes. Lozzie snorted.

“Come on, she’s probably heard worse!” Raine stage-whispered, nodding toward the attendant. “I bet people shag in these cubicles sometimes.”

“That doesn’t make it okay!” I hissed back.

I glanced at Praem’s impassive observation – then spared an involuntary flicker of my eyes down at the source of Raine’s comment – and had to avert my gaze again.

However crude her phrasing, I had to begrudgingly admit that Raine had a good point. My eyes had betrayed me.

Praem looked gorgeous. This morning, Evelyn had finally attempted to fix Praem’s hair, still singed here and there and curled up at the ends from our crisis in Carcosa. With a pair of kitchen scissors and me hovering nervously within arm’s reach and neither of us with any idea what we were doing, we’d been fully prepared to absolutely butcher Praem’s beautiful cold-blonde hair.

But then Kimberly had appeared, by chance, and luck, and bless her for that, because it was Saturday and she wasn’t at work. She’d seen us from the kitchen doorway, poor Praem sat very still and uncomplaining in a chair, Evelyn frowning in concentration like she was defusing a bomb, the scissors poised to sever an entire springy lock.

Kimberly had all but stumbled into the kitchen, with a “No no no! You need to wet her hair first, what are you doing!?”

“Would you like to take over?” Evelyn had asked her, straightening up with barely concealed relief, then clearing her throat when Kimberly flinched. “And no, that is not sarcasm. I am fully aware I am about to fuck this up.”

“Please do,” I’d added.

Kimberly had gone in with spray bottle and comb and scissors, and done a much better job than we ever could.

“It’s not that difficult,” she’d told us, snipping off stray singed hairs here and there, fingers and comb working in smooth strokes to isolate split ends. “I’ve never done it professionally, that’s a whole school thing you have to do, but I’ve done it for friends and stuff. I can neaten up a mess. And this isn’t too bad, not really. She’s got a lot of hair and it’s very thick, easy to work with.”

Praem was so impassive and still, it was like working on a doll.

When she was all finished, Kimberly glowed with a satisfied smile, a rare, delicate thing like an exotic flower, a little jerky and nervous, but undeniably happy. She’d jokingly brushed off Praem’s shoulders and said, “Anything else I can do for you, madam? Colour, shampoo, blow-dry?”

“No, thank you,” Praem had said – and Kimberly had jumped about a foot in the air.

Renewed, Praem had pinned her freshly neatened hair up in a loose bun at the back of her head, a big trailing mess of blonde loops and loose strands. She seemed to prefer that, and would accept no efforts to tidy it up.

“If that’s what you want,” Evelyn had sighed.

Most of Praem’s bruises and cuts and scrapes were healed up now too, leaving only a few fading gazes and thin scabs on her knuckles. None of us said a word, of course, that her hair and skin and flesh were all pneuma-somatic, a solid projection created by the abyssal soul inside a doll made of wood. If being human meant healing like a human, so be it.

Which is also why nobody pointed out her hair gained three to four inches of length after being cut.

As I said, gorgeous.

Her current outfit – the latest of about half a dozen different combinations she’d been trying on in the shop’s fitting area for our varied opinions – consisted of a long skirt the colour of a clear sky seen from underwater, with a very high waist that hugged her abdomen. The waistband was a tall expanse of overlapping and interwoven ribbon material over the base fabric. I knew nothing about fashion, I wore shapeless layers more for protection and enclosure than appearance, but even I could tell that particular item was both fancy and probably quite expensive. But the skirt wasn’t the problem.

The problem was the thick, ribbed, polo-neck sweater. A beautiful deep blue, tucked into the skirt, and fitting Praem perfectly.

How could a cuffs-to-collar top put such emphasis on Praem’s already substantial chest?

“Do not make her self conscious,” Evelyn growled at Raine. “I will whack you so hard with my walking stick, they’ll arrest me for grievous bodily harm.”

“Boobage is fine!” Lozzie agreed, puffing out her cheeks.

“Of course it’s fine, of course!” Raine held up both hands in surrender. “Suits her, of course, perfect, elegant, beautiful. I’m just, you know, mechanically curious how Praem doesn’t get back pa-”

“Because I am much stronger than you,” Praem said in her sing-song voice.

Raine burst out laughing. Evelyn rolled her eyes again. Lozzie said “big strong” under her breath.

“Well, that’s me told,” Raine said. “Fair point, rock on.”

“I like them,” Praem said, and made me blush beetroot red.

“Could we maybe stop talking about boobs?” I asked.

“Quite,” Evelyn grunted.

It was lucky we were in here mostly alone.

We’d been in the changing rooms now for a good twenty five minutes while Praem tried on outfits, a mix and match of various promising prospects. She and Lozzie had piled up exciting clothes from the racks and display shelves out on the shop floor and then checked in with the attendant. Two separate piles had grown either side of Evelyn on the little seating bench – one for items to purchase and one for rejects, next to the few bags of things we’d acquired from other shops.

Slowly but surely we were building a mental picture of Praem’s personal style, beyond variations on maid uniforms: plush, smooth, cuddly, and mostly unornamented.

The store was called Hartellies, buried deep in Swanbrook Mall, Sharrowford’s only shopping centre, an ugly labyrinth of fake marble floor tiles, gaudy kiosk stands, shiny chrome store fronts and too much glass everywhere. The mall sprawled out across two consolidated blocks next to Sharrowford’s main high street, with metastasised extensions connecting to a massive M&S department store – in which Evelyn had purchased for Praem precisely ten pairs of socks and six pairs of tights – and the concrete shell of a multi-story car park.

Hartellies struck just the right balance between trendy and traditional – for Praem, at least. I doubted Raine or Lozzie would have found anything to suit them here. The little fitting area was a major bonus, structured to allow exactly what we were doing right now, ringed with curtained cubicles on two sides and larger cubicles with doors in the back, all with full-length mirrors.

It was so far the most successful shop we’d been to. The others on this windy and mild Saturday morning had yielded little to pique Praem’s interest.

We’d taken Raine’s car. It was barely a fifteen minute drive, and cost a whopping five pounds to park in the multi-story, a sum which made me so outraged I’d spluttered in disbelief as Evelyn had fished about in her purse for the coins, but under the circumstances it didn’t seem wise to take the bus. Not with walking sticks and crutches and my lingering exhaustion from failed brainmath yesterday. The psychological balm of a mobile safe place was worth the petrol. Plus, Lozzie and I were quite small, so cramming ourselves into the back seat either side of Praem wasn’t that much of a squeeze.

Raine even drove. After a week of recovery she swore up and down that she was well enough to drive, that her left thigh was stiff but functional. She hadn’t dialled back on the painkillers, which worried me, but she wasn’t lying.

I found it rather intoxicating in the end, watching her drive, watching her be in control, performing with skill.

I was considerably less intoxicated when she needed to sit in the driver’s seat for a full ten minutes after we arrived, waiting for the ache to subside.

“It’s cool, you can go on without me,” she tried to shoo us out of the car. “I’ll catch up, I’m fine. I’ll be fine, five minutes. Fine.”

“You are a terrible liar, stop trying,” Evelyn grumbled.

“Raine!” I tutted. “I’m not impatient, you dolt, I’m worried about you. I’m not going anywhere until you can stand up properly. And if you can’t stand at all, then Praem is going get behind the wheel and take us right home again.”

“Awww, no, come on-”

“No buts.”

“No but,” Praem echoed me.

So Raine had rested, rubbing her left knee, and we’d not needed to go home.

We’d made a real day out of it so far, a kind of fun I was not used to. ‘Shopping’ as a teenager had meant timidly trailing my mother around Reading town centre, dragged up and down Broad Street in her infrequent efforts to acclimatise me to places other than home or hospital. I’d certainly never gone clothes shopping with friends, and the strange inherent intimacy surprised me. I’d never even really picked my own clothes before, just worn whatever my mother bought for me.

First we went somewhere fancy, a little boutique shoe store called Kline, where I felt deeply uncomfortable and out of place and like everyone was looking at us. Then Evelyn spent almost two hundred pounds on a pair of boots for Praem and the glances changed.

Then we tried Primark – a mistake. The place was wall-to-wall with young teenagers, lit up like a football pitch, and the women’s clothing selection was what Evelyn derisively described as “disposable rubbish.”

“But this!” Lozzie had held up a sort of weird floaty cross between a dress and a hoodie.

“It’ll fall apart inside a month,” Evelyn grumbled back, her shoulders hunched, grumpy around so many people. “Besides, Praem isn’t interested. Are you?”

“Pajamas,” Praem had said, staring halfway across the store. We’d left ten minutes later with a set of tartan pajamas and lots of tutting from Evee.

“The trick, Heather,” Evelyn explained to me later, after we’d left the mall to head down the high street and into a Superdry store which Lozzie had known about somehow, “is that sometimes spending more money upfront costs less in the long run.”

Raine was holding up a black-and red jacket to Lozzie’s front, to their shared interest, but I didn’t like the Superdry store. Bright lights but dark surfaces, like my mental image of a nightclub, trendy and hip and covered in clean marketing full of perfect smiling people, nothing like the real lives that came in here for self-presentation.

Though I did like the contents.

“Evee,” I sighed. “I can’t justify seventy pounds for a hoodie, no matter how pretty it is.”

And it was pretty. Dark pink, the colour of shadow-soaked tropical petals, with palm-sized diamond patterning in lighter pink across the shoulders and upper arms, like lizard scales, with the hood and zipper and pockets rimmed in white. Thick fabric, double-stitched seams, the thing was like armour. I loved it the moment I saw it.

Evelyn shrugged and glanced at Praem, who was staring at a selection of beanie hats but otherwise uninterested.

“Say you buy a five pound tshirt from Primark,” Evelyn continued, “and the seams start to go within six months. Or you spend twenty pounds on a tshirt from somewhere like this, and you’ll be wearing it for twenty years. I assume I don’t need to do the maths for you?”

“ … well, that’s obvious, but-”

“How old do you think this is, Heather?” Evelyn tilted her chin up.

Evelyn had come out dressed as normal, wrapping herself in too many layers for her frame. She wore pajama bottoms tucked into her socks beneath a long skirt, and a tshirt beneath a heavy cream jumper, coat over the top, though at least the pockets were flat today, all her magical detritus left at home. Today we were as normal as we could get.

She was of course talking about the cream coloured jumper, the one she wore often. Thick enough to smother an elephant, the collar and cuffs and one armpit repaired with slightly different coloured thread, the thing was obviously a little old.

“I’m not exactly good at fashion. Ten years?” I guessed.

“Twenty five. At least.”

I blinked. “ … are you serious?”

“Mmhmm. This jumper is older than me,” she said, a little pleased with herself. “My mother’s, actually, but I’m not going to let that get in the way of quality. Things last, if you look after them, and you get what you pay for, in the long run.”

I glanced back at the hoodie with the beautiful scale patterns. An echo of reptilian life. Could clothing make up for a mental gap in my self-perception?

“But still. Seventy pounds,” I said.

“I’ll buy it for you, if you want.”

“Evee! Absolutely not. I couldn’t let you do that. Oh, no, please don’t, I-”

“I’m doing it.” She reached over to the rack of hoodies.

“But-”

Evelyn turned an unimpressed, dead-eye stare on me. “Heather, we’ll leave the theory to Raine, but the least I can do with my incredible level of class privilege is look after my friends. Now shut up and let me buy you a present.”

“Well … I … I suppose, but- but Raine already bought me a hoodie. This one.” I poked a pink cuff out from the end of my coat sleeve. “It’ll be a bit odd if you’ve both done it.”

Evelyn raised an eyebrow. “Is hoodie purchasing some sort of lesbian mating ritual that I’m unaware of? Are you duty bound to climb into my bed if I get you this?”

I blushed and went quite still. “I-I- I m-mean, you’re- t-taken-”

Evelyn’s expression transformed into a perplexed frown. “That was a joke, Heather. I’m not flirting with you.” She sighed, and added under her breath, “What does ‘taken’ mean anyway? Tch.”

I let out a huge embarrassed sigh, colour blooming in my cheeks. “You kind of were!” I hissed, and cast a glance at Raine, but she was just beyond earshot, watching Lozzie getting excited over an oversized hoodie with a sort of oil-film rainbow tie-dye effect. “I have enough trouble threading the needle between Raine and Zheng lately without you flirting with me too.”

“I thought that needle was throughly discarded by now,” she grumbled, taking down the hoodie and checking the size label. “Small, I assume?”

“Uh, yes, small. Obviously. And yes, I think. I … I couldn’t use the needle to knit anything anyway. I don’t know how to knit … this … weave.”

“We are torturing this poor metaphor to death.” Evelyn checked the hoodie over for loose threads as she spoke, almost deadpan. “Are you bumping uglies with Zheng and I haven’t noticed? I assumed she’d make a lot of noise, or make you make a lot of noise. One way or the other.”

“Evee! And no, we’re not!”

“Mm, just thought to check.”

“You’re being as bad as Raine, and no, I can’t-”

“Hat,” Praem intoned from the blind spot over my shoulder.

“Oooooooh.” Lozzie rejoined us too, eyes going wide at the beanie Praem had pulled down over her hair. Velvet white, high quality, and rising at the top corners into a pair of cat ears.

“Oh, really?” Evelyn huffed and tutted. “That’s so-”

“I want one too!” went Lozzie. Evelyn stifled a word inside a cough, which I’m pretty sure was ‘tacky’.

“Meow,” said Praem.

We left there with two hats, one in white for Praem, and one in pink for Lozzie.

The rest of our route took us all the way down the high street, toward the big pedestrianised ‘town square’, lined with fast food places and bakeries and real estate agents and jewellers, all sterilised and clean, air-dropped in from an external vision of a trendy Northern city. Even the local pneuma-somatic life shunned the big open area with its clean white frontages and twee cafe seating. The spirits preferred to scurry across the rooftops in the corners of my vision.

The real Sharrowford lurked at the threshold like a ancestral affliction, branching off into the warren of brick-paved lanes beyond the square, where the tall buildings cast deep shadows on unique shops and strange businesses.

One of which was a women’s underwear store catering to larger sizes. Evelyn assured me this was “unique enough, believe me.”

“Hey, no judging here,” Raine said, deadly serious through her smile. “Support’s important, you know?”

“Oh, right, of course,” I’d said, stifling a blush.

Evelyn took Praem to buy underwear, but Raine and Lozzie and I waited across on the other side the lane, window-shopping in a bizarre little store which sold nothing but hand-carved wooden statues of animals.

Inside, I happened across something remarkable, which had nothing to do with us.

Lozzie took a liking to a carved ferret, about ten times life size, and squealed with muffled joy. She would probably have stolen the thing if she could fit it under her poncho. Raine found a palm-size tiger, and purchased it.

I found a spirit.

Attached to the ceiling with a mass of brown sticky webbing, hanging upside down and shaped like a splash of frozen muddy water caught in mid-air, the thing possessed two dozen multi-joined limbs, spindly and precise, each one terminating in a pneuma-somatic approximation of a carving tool, chisels and knives and little scrapers. Its head was shaped like a CCTV camera, and it hung behind the store’s owner – a middle-aged woman busy with the latest of her creations, breaking away only to take Raine’s payment. She gave us warm smiles and answered Raine’s polite, impressed questions with striking enthusiasm.

A three-foot carving of a crocodile lay on a table behind the cash register, emerging from a block of featureless wood, taking form in slow motion.

And as she returned to her work, the spirit mirrored every motion of her wood-knife and chisel, with each limb copied four times in a whirling blur.

Had this random stray spirit imprinted on this woman? Was it trying to mimic her, trying to create art?

Or was her skill and passion a gift from this unseen guardian angel?

I’ll never know. The world is full of strange things, unique things, phenomena which defy classification, which one passes by a hundred times a day and does not know about. My struggles with the Eye and our rivalry with Edward Lilburne did not define even a percentage of a fraction of what went on all over Sharrowford every day.

Praem and Evelyn returned carrying a glossy little shopping bag from the underwear store, which even Raine knew better than to joke about.

But Lozzie had no such qualms. “Can I see later?” she chirped to Praem, in total innocence.

“Lozzie,” I tutted gently. “It’s private-”

“Not like that!” Lozzie went wide-eyed at me – or at least as wide as her permanently sleepy ocular muscles could manage – and giggled in scandalised mirth.

“You may,” Praem intoned.

We made our way back toward Swanbrook Mall, planning to try more stores. Despite a few successes we still hadn’t found anywhere for the real staples of sartorial choice. We passed by the alleyway that I knew led to Mount Emei Secondhand Books, and I yearned to spend the next three hours exploring the shelves.

“I’ll take you out here in a few weeks time,” Raine murmured to me as I cast a longing glance back over my shoulder. “A bookshop day, just for you.”

“Oh, I wasn’t- wait, how did you know I was thinking that?”

Raine winked, and slipped her free hand into mine. “If I didn’t track your book lust, I wouldn’t be a very good girlfriend to you, would I?”

Book lust?” I grimaced through a giggle. “Please don’t call it that.”

I endured the same reaction to the all-too-spotless chain bookstore back inside the shopping centre, but I was a good friend to Praem and did not derail our entire trip to spend half an hour gazing upon hardback copies of books I’d already read a dozen times.

Raine did not let go of my hand. She’d spent most of the shopping trip up until that point with her head on a covert swivel, always in the rear of our little group despite her crutch, always eyes-up and watching the periphery. She did it quietly, without making a fuss, but I knew she was watching to see if we were being followed. Once we got back inside the shopping centre though, she finally began to relax, and I was the self-conscious one, my hand in hers in public.

Nobody cared. Not about the pair of lesbians holding hands, or about Evelyn Saye the magician, or about Lauren Lilburne out in public.

We didn’t look that different to any other group of students out on a Saturday. Walking sticks and crutches, Praem’s impassive intensity and Lozzie’s pastel poncho, my lingering bestial twitches and Raine’s bodyguard aura, all of it combined to mark us out as ‘very student’, as Raine put it, but we wouldn’t draw a second glance in the centre of Sharrowford, a city that very much wanted to be what it thought we represented.

We’d scouted out a few more likely shops, but kept coming up empty handed – too bland, too expensive, “too bloody middle class,” as Raine phrased it – until we found Hartellies and Praem had waded in without reservation.

I would have hated this sort of trip by myself. Alienating and meaningless. The last time I was in the shopping centre, I’d been stumbling along next to Amy Stack, on the way to a meeting with Alexander Lilburne. We did avoid the food court, if only to stay away from bad memories, and I was faintly sad that neither Zheng nor Tenny could join us. Too big, too scary, too different to be out in public.

But I was with friends, and that bottled up the failure and the guilt.

I felt unworthy of such a reprieve.

“You want one of those too?” Evelyn murmured, pulling me off the path which led to dark thoughts.

I blinked at her. “I’m sorry?”

Praem had returned behind the thick privacy curtain of the changing cubicle, handed Lozzie the blue skirt and ribbed sweater, and was busy trying on another outfit, while we waited on the little low backless couch seats. I’d been idly drawing my hand across the thick fabric of the ribbed sweater. Lozzie was chattering something to Raine, and Evelyn had leaned in beside me.

“The jumper. Polo-neck seems perhaps your kind of thing?” She frowned over the words, as if not quite certain.

“Oh. Uh.” I tried a smile, chasing away the ghost of guilt. “Maybe. It certainly looks comfy, but I doubt I could pull off the look like Praem. I don’t have as much, if you know what I mean.”

Evelyn frowned. “You’re the one who asked us to stop talking about breasts, Heather.”

I felt my cheeks colour slightly, but I retained my composure. “That’s not what I meant. I mean I’m not-”

“You could pull off any look you want,” Raine added from my other side.

“Listen to your lover, Heather,” Evelyn said. “She wants you in that skirt.”

“Stop- stop double teaming me,” I protested.

That one made Lozzie giggle.

“If you want one similar,” Evelyn deadpanned, as if none of this mattered, oddly detached, “I’ve still got a hundred and fifty pounds earmarked for you.”

“What?” My eyes went wide. “Oh, Evee, no, not after you already bought the hoodie for me, I can’t-”

“Yes you can,” she almost snapped.

“I- I mean- the blue is too much for me-”

“Weren’t they in white, too?” Raine asked. “Cream, or black, or lilac? Anything you like.”

“I want a rainbow one,” Lozzie added. “With a hood.”

“Different store for that, I’m afraid,” Evelyn sighed, then much to my surprise she poked me in the side. “Go pick one out. Go on.”

I glanced at Raine, either for help or permission, I wasn’t sure which, but she just winked at me and nodded over Evelyn’s shoulder, toward the clothing racks beyond the fitting area. “I can see them from right here. Go on, go grab one and come try it on.”

“Oh, fine!” I huffed and stood up. “I’ll be back in a moment.”

“You’ll look great!” Raine called after me as I all but scurried out of the fitting area and back under the lights of the shop floor. I cast a backward glance at the young woman at the attendant’s counter, feeling like I was doing something wrong, but she didn’t look up from her magazine.

Raine hadn’t exaggerated, the display shelving with the ribbed sweaters wasn’t far from the fitting area, and I could see my friends unobstructed. Raine raised a thumbs up and gave me a broad wink, and I responded with a performative little huff before turning to focus on the clothes. These ribbed sweaters did feel very comfortable. Like a hug, warm and tight and thick. I doubted they’d look any good on scrawny little me. I didn’t have Praem’s plush layers to fill one out. But I picked one up anyway, in white. Not my usual sort of look, but maybe it would work, maybe it would be okay.

I didn’t deserve this.

The feeling was sudden and crushing.

I didn’t deserve such good friends. I certainly didn’t deserve presents or treats or fancy new clothes. I’d failed.

Yesterday, I’d failed to find Edward Lilburne. I’d filled a bucket with sick and blood, over-topped it with pain, gotten precisely nowhere, and had to be rescued. I hadn’t told anybody how close I’d come to the edge of the abyss, consumed by an awful sense of defeat. Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight knew, but she hadn’t appeared to offer help or advice. She’d ignored my pleas in the bathroom mirror last night.

I shouldn’t be here, having fun. I should be banging my head against the problem of the Eye until either I cracked it or cracked my skull.

We’d called Nicole’s personal number and left a message, to let her know we were interested in employing her very particular skill set. That was, for the moment, all we could do. The best course of action, Evelyn had assured me. Safe. Detached. Without personal involvement.

But surely I shouldn’t be here, pretending to be normal.

“Why did you save me?” I whispered under my breath, to the only person who knew what had happened out there on the edge of cold infinity.

“Can I help you find anything?”

The bright and cheery voice made me jump – half in surprise, half in embarrassment. I turned with an expression like a startled squirrel, and found the young lady attendant from the desk standing a few feet behind me, all polite and proper, with a perfectly plastic customer service smile on her heart-shaped face, framed by a helmet of brown hair.

“Oh, no, thank you,” I rushed to reply. “I was just going to try … this … on.”

I trailed off, deeply unimpressed.

There were two of her.

The attendant was still sat at her little desk next to the fitting area, nose in her tacky magazine, dressed in white blouse and denim jacket and hoop earrings – and the exact same person was also standing in front of me, but wearing a smart one-piece dress, totally appropriate for a shop attendant in a slightly upmarket clothing store.

A yellow dress, with matching yellow shoes, and little yellow sunflower earrings.

There was a tiny percentage chance that this particular clothing shop just so happened to employ a pair of identical twins, and one of them had by chance decided to dress all in yellow, on the exact same day that we ended up here, and then by the pure perverse mechanism of cosmic determinism, walked up to offer me help. This slim possibility sustained my veneer of normality for about a quarter of a second, until I realised the one in yellow had approached me from the exact angle to make the doubled twin impossible to miss.

Perfect theatrical blocking. A professional at work.

Sevens,” I hissed. “What are you doing?!”

I flicked a glance at my friends, but Praem was stepping out of the changing stall at that exact moment, and Raine had looked away. I had no doubt Sevens had timed that to perfection as well.

The pretty young Service Worker in Yellow batted her eyelashes at me. “I’m sorry, miss? I was only offering assistance, if there’s anything I can help you find? I’m very sorry if I’ve given offence somehow.”

“Oh my goodness, don’t do that.” I grimaced at her. “That is positively creepy.”

Her plastic smile slipped, tainted by simulated nerves. The Banana-Coloured Shop Assistant had particularly mobile eyebrows, involuntarily raised in surprise. “C-creepy?” she stammered, glancing over her shoulder for help.

“You haven’t done something … something unnatural to that poor woman, have you?” I whispered, gesturing with my eyes at the lady she was copying, the one sat at the desk. “I haven’t forgotten what you did to the students in that lecture hall, even if you did reverse the effects. Don’t you dare, Sevens, not here.”

The Precariat in Sunburst looked back at me, throat bobbing, hands clasped just a little too tight, sweat breaking out on her brow, the very picture of a put upon service worker subjected to a unjustified berating by an unreasonable customer. For a horrified moment I came up short, my heart juddering to a stop as one of my worst fears threatened to unfold into reality.

What if this wasn’t Sevens?

What if I was ranting nonsense at some uninvolved woman? Heather Morell, being openly insane and unstable in public. Everything I’d always been trained to avoid at all costs. All the blood drained from my face as the woman in the yellow dress struggled for the right words.

Then, in the split-second between two flustered blinks, the irises between her thick dark lashes flashed from deep brown to the yellow of an electric storm.

“Sevens!” I hissed at her, almost spitting with outrage. “Don’t make me feel like I’m abusing a service worker, that is disgusting!”

Sevens-as-Part-Timer cleared her throat and resumed her plastic smile. “I’m very sorry you feel that way, miss.”

“Heather?”

I flinched. I would have jumped, but Raine’s voice was far too deeply ingrained as a source of safety and comfort and protection. She was at my shoulder, and I’d been so absorbed in telling off Sevens that I hadn’t heard Raine approach, even with her crutch. She leaned on it now, peering at me with curious concern as she put her free hand gently on my forearm. Far behind her, back in the fitting area, Evelyn was casting an idle glance our way as well.

“You okay?” Raine asked.

I spun back to Sevens – and found nobody there.

“Heather?” Raine dropped her voice. “Hey, saw you talking to yourself, is this invisible monster stuff?”

I screwed my eyes up and let out a deep sigh. “No, no, just … an irritant. It’s gone now.”

Raine went tense, eyes roving beyond me, over the racks of clothes and neatly folded jumpers and hanging skirts.

“Not another servitor?” she whispered.

I almost laughed. “No, no. Nothing so clear as that. It was Sevens. Being infuriating.”

Raine relaxed instantly, and raised an eyebrow at me. “What’d she say?”

“Um, nothing. She asked me if I wanted help finding clothes, bizarrely enough.”

“Ahhh, being a weirdo. Gotcha.” Raine’s mouth tilted into a knowing smile. “Hey, you ever need help scaring off some invisible stalker, you lemme know.”

“I will do.” I managed a little smile, and felt fake all over.

Raine nodded down at the ribbed sweater I was still holding. “Going for one in white, hey?”

“Oh, yes. Well, I don’t know, really.”

“I do know. And I know you’d look great in that.” Raine shot me a grin, the sort of heart-stopping rakish smile she’d used on me when we’d first met. It still worked. “I don’t tell you that often enough,” she lowered her voice. “You could wear anything you’d want and you’d look incredible.”

“D-don’t be absurd. Raine. I’m flat as a board, this won’t do anything for me.”

“Nonsense. Hey, no, don’t look away,” she put the tiniest whip-crack into her murmur, and I had to obey. “I mean it, Heather. You wanna try a different look, do it, I’m on board. Hundred percent. I know you like lots of layers when you’re out and about, but if you wanna experiment at home, go for it.”

“ … I … ” I swallowed and bit my lower lip, my brain caught up on too many different things to put up any resistance. “I suppose I would like to wear skirts more often … maybe.”

“Yeeeeah, that’s more like it. Tell me what you want. Skirts, huh? I got you all those coloured tights way back. Come on, hey, you in a ribbed sweater, a ruffly skirt and a pair of purple tights? Practically royalty.”

I laughed, despite myself. “Raine, that sounds so silly. I don’t know if I can pull off ‘girly’.”

“Forget can,” Raine. “Focus on want.”

I sighed and shrugged.

“Go try that on, at least?” she said.

“Oh, alright. Alright, I surrender. I’ll try it on. As long as nobody laughs at me. You must promise.”

==

Three minutes later I was behind the closed door of a changing cubicle, peeling myself out of my coat, alone with my reflection in the full-length mirror.

I stared at myself for a long, long minute, in my shapeless hoodie and jeans. Abyssal dysphoria blurred my self-image.

“I’m just going to look silly in this,” I muttered under my breath, and pulled my hoodie up over my head.

“You’ll look wonderful if you let yourself believe,” my own voice answered.

I scrambled to get my hoodie off, freeing my vision in a tumble of hair, heart rate spiking – and discovered the me in the mirror had taken the liberty of a full-on top-to-bottom wardrobe transformation.

Ribbed sweater sleek and neat and form-fitting – in bubblegum pink, not white – highlighting curves in a way I didn’t dare acknowledge I possessed, matched with a knee-length skirt made of at least three different layers of frilly, fluffy, lacy material, flouncing out from my slender hips in dark purple accented with black. My own slim legs emerged beneath, wrapped in white tights and terminating in a pair of pink trainers.

Seven-Shades-of-Heather pulled a nervous, flinching smile I recognised all too well, and did a little hip-jutting hands-out pose to show off the outfit. She slid one foot back and tapped the heel, and the sides of the pink trainer lit up briefly with LEDs buried beneath semi-transparent rubber.

I just stared, open mouthed.

“ … w-well?” she said after a moment. “Don’t just stare, say something, please.”

“I do not look like that,” I managed. “I could never look like that. Those clothes are too lovely for me, I’d ruin them with vomit and blood. You’ve made me look pretty and I am not-”

“Heather, how many times?” The Me-In-The-Mirror slipped into that know-it-all diction which made me cringe, sighing and dropping the cutesy pose. “I can only play your role, I can add nothing which you are not already fully prepared for. And you are fully prepared for light-up shoes, believe me, you are so ready for these.” She tapped her heels again, and both shoes lit up in a flashing pattern of pink lights.

“You’ve got highlights,” I said, outrage racing to catch up with the shock. “I would never get highlights, don’t be so silly.”

“Don’t be so silly yourself,” Seven-Shades told me with my own voice, in my own faintly offended tone. One of her – my – hands went to her fringe in the mirror, to the little blonde highlights in ‘my’ hair. “Raine would eat you alive. Not that she doesn’t regularly do that already.” Sevens-as-me flushed slightly and cleared her throat. Goodness, I was a horrible little oversexed goblin.

I sighed. “This is not the time for that, Sevens.”

“It is exactly the time for that. For me!”

“I don’t have the emotional bandwidth for your games. Plays, sorry. I don’t have the emotional bandwidth to even be here on this shopping trip. I certainly don’t have the time to be dressing up like a novelty cake. I should be at home, focusing, trying again.”

“And almost tumbling head first into the abyssal waters beyond reality?” she asked with a disapproving press of her lips. Infuriating habit, and all mine.

“ … thank you,” I said, but with a little huff. “For yesterday. For saving me.”

“You are welcome,” she said, with genuine grace and a little smile. At least I was polite.

“I thought you weren’t supposed to interfere though, beyond putting on your plays?”

“Natures are different in the deep abyss,” Sevens told me. “You know that. You’re not the same when you’re unexpressed in reality. Do you think the same differences don’t apply to me? You think a play means anything in the dark? I don’t wish to go there either.”

“Oh. Um. Okay, fair enough.” I frowned. She had a point; Sevens was a thing of frills and light and the crumbly taste of fresh bread, she’d get eaten fast down there. “I suppose you wouldn’t last a minute in the abyss.”

“Oh, I would last. I would just be very different.”

She split my face in a grin which looked nothing like me – to reveal a double-row of razor-sharp shark-teeth in my mirrored mouth.

“Goodness,” I breathed, flushing in the face with abyssal envy. “That’s more like it, yes.”

Sevens closed her abyssal maw again, and her teeth returned to normal.

“Besides, all I did was anchor you.” She huffed, exactly like me getting exasperated. “Because you still refuse to use the secrets of creation.”

I huffed too. “That is the exact same thing you said before. Along with all your ‘I am only a question’ nonsense.” I waved a hand at her in the mirror, at her making me look pretty and well-dressed. “What sort of question is this supposed to ask?”

Sevens-As-Heather gave me the most infuriating look, a sickening cocktail of condescension and timidity. My own superiority, on ugly display in a nice skirt.

“You cannot address failure through sheer bullheadedness,” she told me, with a tone like a schoolmistress, totally at odds with that playful outfit. Did I ever sound like that? “I anchored you once, but I won’t be able to do it again. Now that I’ve done it, now that you’re aware, doing it again would cost me dearly. If you must sip from the cold depths, you must be anchored first.”

“Anchored? How?” I asked. “I can’t push brainmath further without more … I don’t know! More power, more knowledge, more-”

“Must I put on a play to communicate something so fundamental?” Seven-Shades gestured at herself, at me in the mirror. “Not that you have to dress like this at all, actually. Both of them would gladly devote themselves to you even if you were dressed in rubbish bags from an open sewer.”

“Both of them … ”

I trailed off, throat closing up, heart rate climbing. I knew exactly what she was talking about.

“Your sister told you what to do,” she said.

“Maisie told me to gather my friends! She didn’t tell me to have a lesbian threesome!”

“There we go.” Sevens sighed. “I know you haven’t accepted it, I know you need educating, and I will be producing quite the show for-”

“You mean polyamory,” I spat. “Yes, I looked the word up, like Evelyn suggested. Were you watching that too? You’re saying what exactly? That I’m supposed to emotionally anchor myself by … with … well, with Raine … and … Zheng too? How is that supposed to work?”

Sevens pulled that smile, my own knowing smile, tight and twitchy, and I wanted to swear quite loudly at her.

“You’ll figure it out,” she said.

“It’s not … it’s not normal,” I replied, vaguely aware that meant nothing.

“Nothing about you is normal, Heather.”

I sat down with a thump on the cubicle’s tiny built-in wooden bench. “This is absurd. I can’t do that to either of them. I can’t exploit them just to-”

“Choosing family is not exploitation,” Sevens told me with a little frown.

“ … don’t make me confront this. Please. Not now.” I shook my head. “I didn’t even know polyamory was a thing until recently. Until six months ago, I’d never had a relationship. I barely know what I’m doing with Raine, I am not the person for this.”

“But do you want it?”

Yes.

“I don’t deserve it! I never expected to be attracted to somebody like Raine. Let alone Zheng. I always thought my type was more … well, like how Evee looks, I suppose. Soft and cuddly. Somebody I can build a pillow fort with.” I felt myself on the verge of cracking, a pressure inside my chest.

“Yes dear, sapphic love comes in many forms, yours is not invalid.”

“Besides, Raine … ”

“Is not jealous unless you tell her to be. Haha!” Sevens-As-Me lit up – and also lit up her shoes again in a little double heel stomp.

I stared at the me in the mirror. At me, dressed up and confident and shining inside. I noticed that Sevens had a sort of semi-transparent aura, a flickering and wavering halo of phantom tentacles, my tentacles made beautiful even in echo.

“I don’t want my life to sound like the title of a vaguely offensive pornographic film,” I huffed. “‘Petite lesbian gets gang-banged by two bulldykes.’”

“Heather!” said the Other Heather, aghast and blushing.

I blushed too. That was unfair and rude of me.

“Getting into a polyamorous relationship isn’t going to solve anything,” I whispered. “It’ll just create more problems. Big, complicated, emotional problems that I am not prepared to deal with.”

“Ahh, but they will be wonderfully fun problems.”

I gave her a death glare.

The Heather in the mirror cleared her throat, looking suitably chastised. “And I will help you, I will help you make it work,” Sevens said.

“How could I possibly focus on that when a man I don’t even know has stolen the means of rescuing my sister?”

“Sapphic love is the means of rescuing your sister, and nobody can take that from you. Think about it, Heather. You refuse to see what is right in front of your eyes.”

“But-”

“Do you want it?” she said, losing patience. Me, irritated. “Do you want both of them?”

Knock knock came a gentle knock on the door.

I jumped. “Yes?”

“Heathy, okay?” Lozzie’s voice called through the wood. “Need help?”

I glanced back at the mirror. Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight was gone. It was just me again, staring back in rumpled reflection.

“Yes, Lozzie,” I murmured. “Yes, oh, I do need help with this. I absolutely do.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

water of the womb – 12.6

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Evelyn was correct.

Between the trip to Carcosa, Raine’s gunshot wound, dealing with Stack, and tidying up Edward’s servitor, the weekend had demanded too much from us. It was a minor miracle nobody had suffered worse injuries, physically or emotionally. We were all worn down, even if some of us didn’t show any outward signs, and even if certain rewards were worth the exhaustion. I was intimately familiar with the creeping weight of true exhaustion, how a little more would seep into one’s limbs and guts and head every day. I’d been deep in that mire too many times before. We needed a break, a rest, time to think. A return to normal – whatever passed for ‘normal’ between the walls of Number 12 Barnslow Drive.

She was also correct about me, which was less reassuring.

My vitality and energy were undeniable; I was recovering faster, from both tentacles and brainmath.

I hadn’t suddenly developed an immunity to bruises, much to my disappointment. I still felt like I’d been given a going over by a kangaroo holding a pair of rolling pins. Twenty four hours after my tug of war with Edward’s servitor, the six circular bruises in my flanks had stiffened, turned deep purple and black, aching and pulling whenever I moved. The inside of my own torso felt tender and sore where I’d anchored my tentacles to real muscles, and if I lay very still and very quiet I could feel my entire body throb to the beat of my heart pumping blood through damaged tissue, pushing protein and platelet for the repair process. Intercostal muscles twinged and cramped in stabbing pain between my ribs, abdominal wall complained when I sat up, obliques screamed down my nerve endings when I reached over my head. I wasn’t exactly about to touch my toes or do a dance routine.

But there I was that Monday morning, creeping up and down the stairs, using my body without a second thought, and I hadn’t noticed how odd that was until Evelyn had pointed it out. Weak and tender, yes, and I suffered through the occasional aftershock of nausea the rest of that day, but I should have been curled up in bed around my bruises, or shuffling about like an old lady, head spinning with brainmath echoes.

Instead I felt young and healthy and euphoric with the memory of intoxicating strength.

The feeling scared me. A paradox – I was infinitely fragile, a scrap of ape-flesh anchored to the membrane of reality by biochemistry and neuroelectrical flicker, a pale shade of the abyssal truth I’d once been.

Why was I recovering faster?

How had I changed?

“Raine,” I whispered in our shared warmth that night, as she lay dozing before the wall of sleep, minutes after taking her painkillers but not quite over the edge yet. Selfish, stupid Heather, hoping to catch her off guard. I didn’t need to mug Raine for the truth, I could have asked her any time.

“Mm?” Her eyelids moved, but didn’t open.

“If I grow actual tentacles, if I … change, how will I-”

“I’ll kiss them,” she murmured, and pulled me in close where I couldn’t speak but into her chest.

That week crawled by in a haze of attempted normality. I read a lot, worked on essays for university, and found myself restless with the need to run and climb and squirm into small gaps. Evelyn watched a lot of anime – several old favourites, apparently – and invited Praem to join her, though the few times I looked in on them I had no idea if the doll-demon was enjoying it or not. Praem haunted the study, the workshop, the kitchen, and started leaving books about the house, mostly non-fiction. She also hauled the servitor’s severed leg from the car, along with Edward’s barbed-wire mannequin, both dumped in the workshop for examination.

Raine cracked jokes, called in sick from work, and hobbled back and forth from campus whenever I went to class. She played video games while I worked, then sometimes lost interest and listened to me read out loud.

Lozzie slept a lot, so we activated the gateway to the fog castle one morning and spent twenty minutes watching the alien life in the streets below. Lozzie and I invented names for the most interesting creatures.

“They’re not bloody pokemon,” Evelyn had grumbled, unsure how to deal with Lozzie’s bouncing enthusiasm.

Lozzie returned perked up back to normal, re-charged with whatever strange sustenance she drew from Outside.

We heard nothing from Stack. Edward made no move. Shuja sent Evelyn the requested pictures when he refreshed the wards on his son’s back.

And I took to examining myself in the shower. Not that I was the sort of person to remain a stranger to my own body, but I started to inspect myself for changes. I probed the bruises in my flanks, swallowing the pain, feeling for raised bumps that might be the green-shoot flesh buds of tentacle growth. I held my eyelids apart in front of the mirror and looked for nictitating membranes. I rubbed and scratched at my neck, checking for the slit-formation of gills. I flexed my fingers and toes, watching for any extension of webbing.

“Sevens,” I spoke to my reflection in the mirror. “Show me again. Show me me. Please?”

Of course I found nothing, and Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight wasn’t responding. I didn’t know if I should be disappointed or relieved.

Yes, Evelyn was right. We all needed downtime. We all had things to think about.

But some of us were on a time limit.

The notion returned to me slowly, first as undirected anxiety, then as creeping guilt. It burst into full bloom in the small hours of Friday morning, when I was snuggled in next to Raine in bed, trying to alternately cling to and chase away thoughts of bodily euphoria, and dreaming up ways to find Edward Lilburne.

It hit me in the pit of my stomach, and I rolled over onto my back.

“What if he just leaves?” I asked the darkness.

Raine stirred and sighed in her sleep, but I didn’t wake her. She needed to rest, she was still downing painkillers like smarties, and the crutch had become a permanent fifth limb. Instead I slid out of bed, consumed with worry rapidly unfolding into a multi-layered plan of panic and counter-panic, of whispered self-reassurance and lip-chewing fear. I paced back and forth on silent feet, wiggled back into bed, then left again when I knew sleep was impossible. I was half-tempted to go wake Evelyn and explain my worries, or seek solace in Lozzie’s bed – but Evee needed sleep too, and I didn’t wish to plague Lozzie with thoughts of her uncle.

That night, five days after Carcosa, I wandered alone in the warm womb-like darkness of our castle, chewing indigestible fears into a fibrous pulp that wouldn’t go down no matter how many times I swallowed. Wrapped in my pink hoodie and two pairs of socks, I descended from the cramped and crooked upstairs hallway down into the front room, to stand helpless and lost amid the boxes of old junk and the solid barrier of the front door.

“What if he leaves Sharrowford? What if we can’t get the book back?” I asked the gloom.

I slipped through the waiting stillness of the kitchen, into the magical workshop among the detritus.

Walking alone in the dark solved nothing, but it felt right, and soothed my nervous system. I let my phantom limbs rove free, touching door frames and handles, probing behind chairs and trying to rifle through Evelyn’s papers. The mental constructs set up a sympathetic ache in my sides as my bruised muscles tried to support limbs which weren’t really there. I winced in silence, bit my lip, and savoured the sweet pain of truth.

I had to do it, didn’t I? I’d told Evelyn I had some ideas about how to find Edward Lilburne with brainmath, but then she’d scared me.

Was repeated use of hyperdimensional mathematics – and manifesting my tentacles – beginning to force changes to my biochemistry?

Was I becoming closer to the euphoric reflection – homo abyssus – which Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight had shown me? The thought of looking like that in reality haunted me as temptation beyond a whisper, a prospect I dare not breathe out loud, equal measure both exciting and terrifying. I wanted it, I wanted to be that, in the way one wants food or sex or warmth.

But I wasn’t completely naive. This wasn’t Outside. I couldn’t walk around Sharrowford waving tentacles and blinking brass-coloured eyes and smiling through a mouth of needle-point teeth.

I’d felt so powerful during my tug of war with Edward’s servitor, doubly so as I’d rooted him out. I shivered in the dark, not in cold or fear, but with the echo of adrenaline as the moment came back to me, as I’d stood before the rushing bone-tentacle as scrawny little Heather Morell, with no muscle mass, five foot nothing, and then unfolded myself.

Into me.

Euphoria was worth the pain.

But was it worth being like Tenny? Never able to walk the streets in the open? Or like Zheng, just the wrong side of normal to move among mundane people without being wrapped in clothing from head to toe? Was that my future if I kept going, hidden inside coats and scarfs and hats?

Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t back away from brainmath now.

“Anything to save Maisie,” I said out loud.

A glint of molten amber and smooth butterscotch twisted in the corner of my vision, like the hem of a skirt ruffled by fingers of wind. I flinched and turned, and caught a ghostly yellow sheen vanish around the corner of the kitchen door.

I sighed. “Being creepy doesn’t work when I know it’s you, Sevens.”

No reply.

“What am I supposed to do, follow the hint like this is a haunted house?” I huffed as I slipped through into the kitchen. “Yes, please, do make my life as absurd as possible, thank you.”

A ribbon of honey yellow receded into the thin opening left by the utility room doorway.

“If you jump out at me and make me scream, I am going to … spank you,” I hissed, nudged open the utility room door – and found nothing but Zheng.

No yellow anywhere, no vanishing ghostly hint of dusk, no whiff of fresh butter and sunflowers. The cellar was tightly shut, the night poured in through the window set into the back door, and Zheng was fast asleep.

She was sprawled out on the broken-backed sofa, feet up on the top of the washing machine opposite. At least she’d taken her boots off, and wasn’t sleeping in her coat either, down to her thick baggy jumper and jeans. Her arms were crossed over the vast expanse of her chest, and she breathed deeply like a sleeping giant in a cave.

She’d been hunting after sundown – wildlife or farm animals or stealing from a butcher’s shop, I didn’t care to know which – and the air around her smelled faintly of blood and meat, mixed with the heady spice of her sweat and the hot sensation of her reddish brown skin.

The bloody scent teased at my instincts.

I felt an ache in my jaw and an itch in my fingertips, as if I should be sprouting fangs and growing claws.

Surprised and confused but almost seduced, I pulled my eyes away from Zheng’s dark sleeping bulk and stared out of the window set into the back door, at the old tree in the garden, and felt the most absurd desire to step out there and scurry up into the branches.

“You’re not a squirrel,” I hissed at myself.

But instinct insisted. Step out into the cold spring air. Wake Zheng and go together. Run through the woods and leap the suburban roofs and sniff out Edward Lilburne like a snake hiding in a burrow. Zheng and me, a pair of mongooses. The need crept up my spine like a warm hand encouraging me to stretch my limbs. Edward Lilburne was old and his body was not strong, and the abyssal side of me had gotten a taste of him when I’d cornered him in the mind of his own servitor.

Blinking, going hot in the face, I took a confused step back, and realised that Zheng was so warm her heat soaked into my side even when standing a foot away from her. I sidled closer, then held one hand inches from her flank. Instinct purred at me to squirm into her lap and convince her to take me outdoors to-

“Heather,” I tutted softly at myself in the dark. Zheng shifted but didn’t wake, sending a thrill through my heart. “If Zheng can’t find him, you can’t either,” I whispered. “You’re not tracking by scent along ocean bed currents here.”

“Shaman,” Zheng purred, thick and sleepy. She cracked one eye open. I froze like a rodent in an owl’s descending shadow.

“ … Zheng,” I squeaked. “ … I was just … couldn’t sleep … ”

Her eye swivelled down to my hand, which still hovered inches from her body. I braced, heart racing, for a sleepy razor grin and a comment like ‘you can touch if you wish’, already preemptively blushing and preparing a stammered denial. But Zheng’s slit-sharp gaze met mine again, slow and intense with the heat of the air between us.

“Y-y-you know you don’t have to sleep down here like this,” I stammered. “You live here too now, you can have a b-bed if you-”

“Your body cannot lie to me, shaman,” she purred. “Or to yourself.”

“ … I don’t know what’s come over me,” I whispered.

Zheng’s face split into a grin at last, a set of razors at rest. She shifted herself to present more easily the expanse of flank over which my hand still hovered, and simultaneously leaned forward into my personal space.

“You want to hunt, shaman,” she purred. “I can take you.”

I swallowed, hard, frozen to the spot.

Zheng slid her tongue from her mouth, as if to taste my scent in the air, twelve inches of wet red muscle flickering back between her teeth. “You would enjoy it, shaman.”

“I … I can’t- not- Raine-”

“It is not unfaithfulness if we do not rut. I am not asking you for that.”

For a long moment I was a hair’s breadth from clambering into her lap, and I suspected that if I did, I would surrender to instinct in more ways than one. Instead, with an effort of will, I closed my fingers and straightened up and blew out a shaking breath, quivering all over and red in the face.

“It wouldn’t work,” I managed to squeak. “We wouldn’t find him. However he does it, he’s too well hidden.”

“Mmmm,” Zheng purred, rolled a shrug, and leaned back with a note of slow disappointment in her eyes. “You have domesticated me, shaman. I should just take you.”

She closed her eyes, and instantly fell back asleep. Or at least pretended to.

I scurried out, blushing like the sunrise, and ran the kitchen tap so I could splash water on my face. I’d left Raine upstairs in bed with a healing wound and here I was flirting with Zheng.

But in my heart I admitted the truth – if Zheng’s way worked, I would have surrendered myself completely, if only it would lead me to the book.

I’d spent a week pretending to be normal, and Maisie was waiting. I would try anything.

Upstairs again and at my bedroom doorway, still shaky and a little flushed from my libidinal risk-taking, I turned the opposite way and cracked open the door to Evelyn’s study, hoping to locate some Shakespeare and cool my head in old familiarity.

But I wasn’t the only one awake in the night.

Praem was sitting at the desk, in the little pool of light spilling from the lamp. Straight-backed, prim and proper even in the middle of the night, she had a book spread out before her, a thick tome which I recognised as Kant’s The Metaphysics of Morals. Raine’s copy, I think. Praem had not been able to replicate her trick of summoning a fresh maid uniform, like back at the Saye Estate, so she was still wearing Evelyn’s borrowed clothes, at least until the shopping trip planned for Saturday.

Tenny was dozing against Praem’s legs, wrapped in a bundle of sheets very obviously dragged across the floor in a disorganised heap, tentacles idly winding and unwinding around the doll-demon’s ankles. She reminded me of a sleepy child who had refused to go to bed.

Praem looked up and met my eyes in passive silence.

“Ah,” I said. “Night Praem.”

“Night Heather,” she intoned – but very softly. Tenny stirred against her legs, eyes still closed, feathery antenna twitching. To my surprise Praem reached down and stroked the white fuzz on Tenny’s head.

“Fair point, yes, I should be sleeping,” I whispered back, then stepped inside and pushed the door shut behind me. Instinct tugged at me to stay at the limit of the lamplight, to stay crouched in the dark. I overcame that urge with a frown and wandered forward, nodding at the book. “Are you enjoying that?”

“No.”

I blinked at her. “Oh. Well. Um.” I shrugged. “Philosophy.”

“Philosophy,” she echoed – and I caught the faintest hint of amusement in her softly ringing voice.

My eyes wandered to Tenny, dozing and snuffling. Then I searched along the bookshelves which lined the walls, until my eyes alighted upon the three volume collected works of Shakespeare. I pulled down the third volume, and let it fall open in my hands on whatever page fate chose.

“‘The time is out of joint’,” I read out loud. “‘O cursed spite, that I ever was born to set it right.’” I sighed heavily and turned to Praem with a self-deprecating smile.

“Explain,” Praem intoned.

“Oh, um.” I blinked, hadn’t expected that. “It’s Hamlet. I pick at random and the book gives me the indecisive prince.” I sighed again. “What if Edward leaves with the book he took from Carcosa? Or what if Stack … gets him,” I said delicately. “And then she leaves, and we never find where he was hiding? I don’t know what to do, and the ways forward frighten me.”

Praem stared. Tenny stirred to wakefulness, perhaps at the anxiety in my voice. She blinked several times, eyelids out of sync, and smacked her lips before she noticed I was there.

“Heath?” she trilled. Silky black tentacles rose toward me.

“Yes, hello Tenny.” I smiled, then looked back to Praem again. “Maybe he doesn’t know the significance of the book. Or maybe he does. Maybe that’s the real leverage he has, not the things he put in the letter to Evelyn. Maybe he knows I need that book, and why, and thinks I’m cruel and heartless and monstrous enough to trade Lozzie for Maisie.”

“No,” Praem intoned.

I smiled at her. “Of course. I’m sorry, that was rhetorical. I’m … I’m trying to make a decision.”

Tenny reached me with her tentacles. One wrapped around my thigh and touched my belly. Another brushed the book and my hand. The third stroked my cheek and nose and lips, like a blind person feeling the face of their beloved, and then patted my head and made me laugh. Tenny watched me with big black eyes, and probably no idea what I was talking about.

Gently, I caught one of her tentacles in my hand. She wrapped it around my wrist in return. My own phantom tentacles tried to meet hers, but simply passed through.

“Heath?” she fluttered, rolling sideways and resting her head on Praem’s thighs.

“Why aren’t you sleeping with Lozzie tonight?” I asked.

“Woke,” she trilled. “Water. Night Praeeeeem.”

She elongated Praem’s name as if trying to sing – then giggled, a wonderful bouncing trilling sound like an otherworldly insect seen through veils of fog, a sound on a lost island in a Greek myth. Praem stroked Tenny’s white fuzz again, and Tenny unfolded into a big cat-like stretch, legs vibrating as she worked her strangely bunched muscles, yawn opening beyond the limits of a human jaw to show black tongue and coal-dark throat.

She flexed her fuzzy-lined flesh-cloak, her wings, muscular sheets rippling just beneath the surface of her silken dark skin. Her cracking yawn forced a trilling noise from her alien lungs. Big dark eyes squeezed shut and blinked open again.

“Tenny,” I murmured with a sigh. “You’re so beautiful. Do you know that?”

Burrrrr?” she went.

Tenny was a miracle, however she’d been made. She was quite possibly unique, yet totally comfortable in her own skin. If I had my way, she would never be given cause to doubt that.

Could I be the same?

Growing up as I had, caught in the cloying grasp of mental illness and the Eye’s lessons and the loss of my sister, I hadn’t spent a lot of time daydreaming about the future. Truth be told, I hadn’t expected to make it to thirty years old. But since meeting Raine, I had begun to entertain fleeting thoughts about the rest of my life. After Wonderland, after the Eye, after rescuing Maisie – if there was any normal life on the other side of being aware of magic – maybe then I could finish my degree, maybe I’d do well enough to enter a postgrad program. At least my parents would support that.

“Hard to plan a life if I’m waving extra limbs around,” I said out loud. “But Maisie’s worth any sacrifice, and … I want it? I do.”

Pbbbbt?” went Tenny, curiously rocking her head from side to side. Praem just watched as I smiled back.

“I’m sorry, Tenny. It’s nothing for you to worry about. I’m just deciding if I’m going to look a bit like you, one day.”

“Can’t go ouuuut,” Tenny trilled, and a lump caught in my throat.

I was about to say no, that’s not true, of course you can go out, we’re going to find a way, it’s all just been so busy lately. We’ll take you out to the woods and you can fly there, Tenny, you can stretch your wings, you will. I promise we’re not keeping you indoors because we don’t understand. A hundred pained apologies rose unbidden to my lips.

But then Tenny hopped to her feet, bouncing on her springy ankle bones – which probably weren’t bone at all – and in one quick movement she vanished inside the shifting camouflage of her flesh-cloak.

Where she’d stood had turned into a wavering vision of the desk and wall and books behind her, an impressionist dream of light and colour. My eyes watered and I had to squint.

“Tenny, oh no, Tenny I didn’t mean … ”

The camouflage flickered. My words trailed off and my eyes went wide.

“Bravo,” Praem intoned, and gave Tenny a polite little clap of fingertips against palm.

On the exterior of her camouflage, Tenny projected a version of herself – as a human.

A rough approximation, still with huge all-black eyes and skin the colour of dark satin, her musculature and fat closer to the mark but still distributed all wrong for a human being. But the illusion had finger nails and toe nails, shoulder-length white hair, and no wings. As I watched, antenna flickered and vanished on the illusion’s head, as if Tenny was still learning how to get the look right. The illusion shifted and wavered like heat haze, but I clapped too.

Tenny’s head – her real head – popped out of her cloak, and she smiled in obvious pride and went “Haaaaa!”

I laughed. “Oh, Tenny. That’s good! Have you been practising?”

“Loz showing me how,” she replied.

“As long as … ” I struggled to chart the right course between encouragement and caution. “As long as you know that the real way you look is beautiful. An illusion is only for cover-”

“She knows,” Praem intoned.

Tenny puffed her cheeks up, a gesture I’m certain she’d learnt from Lozzie.

“’M buuu-ful,” she trilled.

I laughed again, and a wet click of tension released deep in my chest. “Yes, you are, Tenny. Thank you.”

“Thank you?” she fluttered back at me.

“We can both be beautiful.”

==

Which is how I found myself sitting on the floor of the magical workshop ten hours later, with an ordinance survey map of Sharrowford spread out in front of me, and a clean bucket wedged between my knees.

Deep breaths, in and out. Nice and slow, count to ten, then take another deep breath. It’s going to be fine, I told myself. It’s going to work.

It’s going to hurt like hell, whispered a scared part of me.

“What if he’s not in Sharrowford?” Evelyn asked.

My palms were turning clammy, and I didn’t know where to put them. I tried to focus on the map, on the shape of the streets, the urban weave and everything it represented. I wanted to visualise the city as if from above, from a birds-eye view. My heart was going too fast and my guts were churning and I hadn’t even started. My brainmath notebook sat face-down next to me, ready to turn over once I wanted to begin the pain.

“Heather?” Evelyn repeated. “What if he’s not in the city? Beyond the edge of the map?”

I swallowed. Tried to answer. Couldn’t. Paralysed.

“Get a bigger map, right?” Raine said.

“Do you not understand the point of this? I doubt we’ll get anything useful with a larger scale,” Evelyn drawled. “We need a house, an address, a street at least. God alone knows how he’s hiding himself, but if Heather just points us at Manchester or something that’s hardly useful, is it?”

“Maybe we can get the neighbouring ordinance survey maps then,” Raine suggested. “Clear off one of the walls and pin them up side by side, until we’ve got a big enough area. Heather? Heather, hey, you holding up alright down there?” Raine reached forward and squeezed my shoulder.

I nodded, and glanced back, aching for support – but I was the only one who could do this.

Evelyn had taken a seat on the old sofa, with Praem standing prim and ready next to her, while Raine was right behind me in one of the chairs, her crutch leaning rakishly against one shin. I suppose she wanted to be close in case I needed help, but we’d prepared for that too; sofa cushions taken from the disused sitting room formed a sort of crash mat behind me in case I fell backward, and Lozzie crouched on her haunches ready to catch me in case of something completely unexpected.

“What do you think, bigger map?” Raine asked.

“It won’t help,” Evelyn grunted.

“Can you just let me try this one first, please?” I asked them both, trying to keep the tension out of my voice. “I don’t even know if I can do it, yet.”

Evelyn cleared her throat, nodded, and opened one hand in acknowledgement. Raine stroked my hair back from my forehead, and whispered, “Hey, I know you can do it.”

I turned back to the map.

“There is still another way, shaman,” Zheng purred from the workshop doorway. I risked a glance at her, at her sharp-edged eyes watching me.

Pulled taut by indecision and fear, I took some of it out on her. “Yes, well, If this doesn’t work, I suppose you and I can go running around naked in the woods and smear mud all over each other. Fine.”

I looked back at the map again with a little huff. Stunned silence followed in my wake.

“Oooooh,” went Lozzie, clapping her fingertips together in scandalised glee.

“Mud,” Praem intoned.

“Can I join in?” Raine murmured.

“That was sarcasm, by the way,” I stammered, blushing bright red and sorely tempted to put the empty bucket over my own head. My palms prickled. The fear receded a tiny bit, snagged on sexual embarrassment.

“Let her concentrate, for pity’s sake,” Evelyn said. “This is complex enough as it is, don’t-”

I took a deep breath.

“Zheng and I running around naked in the woods covered in mud!” I raised my voice into a shout, blushing so hard I turned molten, wielding mortified embarrassment as a bulwark against fear. I flipped over my notebook with a shaking hand and stared at the equation. “Everyone shut up I’m doing it now!”

And with that I plunged both hands into the tarry sump at the bottom of my soul, and hauled the Eye’s lessons up and out into the burning daylight of my conscious mind.

With eyes open and nerves screaming, I attempted to define the entire city of Sharrowford with a single equation.

Defining a living being with hyperdimensional mathematics – a trick I’d pulled off three times before – was difficult enough when I knew what I was looking for. When Raine had been kidnapped, I’d only succeeded because I knew her so well. My body remembered the shape of her body, my fingers recalled the texture of her skin. I knew the sound of her laugh, the press of her weight on my back when we slept together, the colour of her eyes in shadow. I could effortlessly picture her with perfect clarity upon the dark canvas of the inside of my own eyelids. And even then, locating her had very nearly pulled me over the edge of the abyss.

When I’d done the same with Sarika, I had her right in front of me, I spent long minutes preparing, and I did it as fast as possible. To do the same to the Shadow-servitor last Sunday had required actual physical contact, in the heat of the moment. Collapsing each degree of separation made the trick easier.

And I barely knew what Edward Lilburne looked like.

A faint impression of owlish age and liver-spots and thin grey hair, a voice like curdled milk poured over wet gravel, and the taste of flesh and blood that was not flesh and blood, processed by abyssal senses into something the human mind was not meant to know. This was not enough.

We’d tried to get something useful from the Servitor’s severed leg or the mannequin wrapped in barbed wire, but Evelyn concluded they had gone through the magical equivalent of being wiped down to remove fingerprints. If Edward Lilburne had personally constructed either, he’d left no tell except the strings of control which I’d already cut.

But I knew Sharrowford. I was touching Sharrowford, right now. Defining a whole city would logically contain everybody within it. Including him. I just had to sort through the data.

At least I’d had the foresight to tell everyone about my plan this time, rather than do it alone behind a locked bathroom door.

Sharrowford itself, the living city an organism of concrete and steel and glass inhabited by flesh and thought and dirt and uncounted microbes, unfolded into a billion billion lines of equation and I realised too late that a human city was almost as complex as the Eye. The Eye had dragged itself from the abyss, thought itself into flesh; the city had been dragged by countless hands from neolithic wattle and daub through Roman occupation and medieval peasantry and the stench of early modern gunpowder and the hacking black lungs of industrial coal mining and all of it met my consciousness at once.

Like swimming through a soup of polluted seawater. Oil clogging my gills and toxins seeping into my flesh, data as radioactive isotopes stuck to the thin moist film of my eyes as every stagnant puddle of rainwater, every soaring tower downtown, every flat tire and crying baby and smear of excrement on a public toilet wall poured into my head in a single undifferentiated mass.

What a stupid assumption I had made. A city is too much for one mind. This place had taken millennia to make.

I came up a heartbeat later, shaking like a leaf, caked in cold flash sweat, icepick headache digging at the centre of my skull – and promptly vomited up the bile from my empty stomach. Good thinking on the sick bucket, Heather, well done. You had prepared to make a huge mess, and then followed through on that promise.

“Woah, woah, Heather, it’s okay-”

“Breathe, deep breath, woo-”

“Keep her nose forward-”

Droplets of blood ran from a nosebleed and dripped into the bucket. I clenched my teeth, raised my eyes back to the map of Sharrowford, and shrugged Raine’s hand off my shoulder. Guilt tore at my chest.

“Again,” I croaked.

And back in I plunged.

Or, I tried to. Imagine pulling oneself from an ocean of tar, bleeding from a dozen wounds made by jagged metal hidden in the dark liquid, feet shredded on razor rocks, shaking and blinded and gagging – and then forcing oneself to turn around and jump back in.

Oh dear sweet thing, what are you doing to yourself?’ whispered a voice of young fire and beaten gold.

On the edge of my perception in that space-that-wasn’t, a trailing periphery on the equation itself, a million canary-soft frill-folds peered over my shoulder.

My body rebelled, my brain juddered to a halt, the whole equation smashed against itself like a derailed train, and out in reality I hissed and groaned and shuddered as my body had nothing left to vomit out. At least I managed to drool into the bucket rather than onto my own lap. Small dignities.

I found Lozzie’s arms clamped around me from behind, holding on tight. She was murmuring nonsense song-sounds into my ear. All my phantom limbs had joined her, curled in tight around my body in a protective shell, as if an extra layer of flesh could cushion my stomach and head and straining heart against the pain.

Everyone was talking at once.

“-been in a trance for three minutes, this isn’t normal-”

“She knows what she’s doing, trust her-”

“Shaman,” a purr in the dark.

“Again,” I wheezed.

Third time lucky.

This time I found my courage in guilt made the leap, forced myself over the edge on shattered ankles and torn soles. The equation to describe the whole of Sharrowford unspooled in my hands like magnetic tape made of razor-wire and acid, burning away skin and muscle down to bone and there was too much and why couldn’t I hold onto any of it? Surely if I was recovering faster I had to be useful for this, I had to use what I’d been given to find Maisie, I had to. I did not deserve to feel strong, to feel bodily euphoria, not if I couldn’t use that to help rescue my sister.

Of course, there was always another ledge to cross, to leap off, into the deep places where I would sink forever and become real.

Drag my own mind beyond the confines of ape flesh, write burning mathematics in the air.

The temptation was different, this time. Out in reality I had finally begun on some level to be what I was inside. Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight had shown me that truth. The abyss still called, but I had a piece of it within me now, and nothing could ever deny that.

But we needed that book.

We needed every edge against the Eye.

I had to make this work.

Maisie had told me not to, fear of ego-death told me not to, but I leaned out over that gap, and thought perhaps I could anchor myself on the cliff-face of reality as I drank deep of the cold abyssal waters.

I couldn’t. I began to slip, ankles skidding, fingers clawing for purchase, and I wanted to fall. I wanted to go.

Oopsie-daisy!’ said a yellow voice.

Lemon flesh folded outward to infinity and caught my wrist, pulled me back up, and planted me on my metaphorical feet. Buttery fronds and skirts of dying starlight dusted me off, cleaned the gunk from my wounds and sucked out the threat of infection, leaving behind honeyed antiseptic. An eye that was not an eye, which was the opposite of an eye, winked.

Won’t be having much of my kind of fun if you go back down there.’

“Lesbian relationship drama isn’t going to solve this,” I snapped at Sevens – or thought at her, or wove into a mathematical equation and slapped her with it. I’m not sure which better describes how we were communicating in that frozen heartbeat of time.

Don’t be so sure of that.’

With a guttural hiss of pain and frustration I crashed back a third time, into absolute pandemonium.

Raine was on her knees in front of me, repeating my name, a blurry shape seen through blackening vision as I blinked sticky blood out of my eyes. Evelyn was shouting something about slapping me. Lozzie’s hands were beneath my clothes and on my belly, surprisingly warm and comforting as she crooned some wordless song beneath her breath.

“Not enough,” I croaked, voice cracking with blood in my throat. “Again-”

A pair of strong hands slipped beneath my armpits and hauled me bodily off the floor as if I weighed nothing. Lozzie let me go with an ‘oop!’ of surprise. I was so shocked the brainmath slammed to a halt, jaws of my mind crashing shut on nothing, and I had the faintest impression of yellow silk slipping away into the dark.

My legs dangled in the air, hands limp and filled with pins and needles, head spinning, the taste of blood and bile in my mouth. I flinched as Zheng’s face filled my vision.

Unsmiling, eyes hard as grey steel.

Stop,” she said.

Panting with animal fear, my phantom limbs stuck between lashing out and trying to hug her, I squeaked out an affirmative. Yes, big scary lady, anything you say.

Zheng adjusted her grip and caught me properly behind knees and around my back, then went down on one knee and lowered me onto the sofa cushions spread out across the floor.

“On her side, one arm- yes, that’s it,” Raine murmured instructions, until Zheng had me rolled into the recovery position.

“M’not going to be sick again,” I croaked, struggling weakly.

“Stay down, shaman,” Zheng rumbled.

Lozzie’s hands stroked my head and made me still.

“Resty-time for Heathers,” she whispered.

Silence descended. The smell of my own blood stuck in my nose. I coughed gently, and whined as the headache pain began to set in.

“Hey, Heather, it’s okay, it’s okay.” Raine’s hands appeared with water and towel, and she set about wiping the blood from my face as I moaned and wheezed. I’d pushed myself much too far.

“How is she? Heather, are you conscious?” Evelyn asked.

“Too much information,” I muttered. “Couldn’t … process- couldn’t-”

“Don’t explain,” Evelyn grunted. “You did your best. It’s okay. Just stop, yes.”

“She’s not hurt herself!” Lozzie chirped. “She had help.”

Big sighs all around. Zheng rumbled something under her breath. Small hands kneaded my back.

“Well, I think we can conclude this is not going to work,” Evelyn said at length. “You’ve never doubted her before, why now?”

I wasn’t sure who she was talking to. My hearing felt blurred, my consciousness a thin soap bubble.

Zheng answered. “The shaman has led herself astray. I do not understand how.”

“She’s just trying too hard and sometimes you have to let go to try your best,” Lozzie said. Nobody else seemed to know what to say to that.

Ten hours passed. Or maybe it was only ten seconds. Maybe I fell asleep.

“-locating him is theoretically possible, but it’ll give Heather a seizure at best if she keeps going like this. No. Not again,” Evelyn was saying.

“Mmmm,” I grumbled, an awful headache behind my eyes, and without thinking I pulled myself up into a sitting position.

The motion made my head spin and my vision throb, and nearly knocked me out again. Somebody propped me up. I squeezed my eyes shut.

“Do not stand,” Praem sang.

“Maybe we-” I croaked, cleared my throat, winced at how the cough made my head throb, then tried again. “Maybe we should contact the lawyer, what’s his name, and I can raid his mind instead.”

“Heeee,” went Lozzie in amused approval.

Easier than this miserable failure, anyway.

“Raid his offices, at least,” Raine murmured. “I could do that. Here, Heather, take a sip.” She pressed a glass into my hand, and I forced cold knives down my bloody throat.

“Not with that leg you can’t,” Evelyn grumbled. “I was hoping Stack would have turned up something by now, but perhaps we should do this the old fashioned way. We need an expert in finding people who don’t want to be found.”

“Nicky?” Raine suggested. I blinked open my blood-crusted eyes.

Evelyn nodded, sucking her teeth in thought. “Perhaps tomorrow-”

“Tomorrow we’re going shopping,” I gave an angry croak, and drew only surprised silence from everybody else. Even Zheng. “Don’t let my failure ruin anything else too. I’ll feel even worse.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

water of the womb – 12.5

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

We called Lozzie twice that Sunday afternoon – and a third time just before we all clambered back into Raine’s car for the drive home – to check that nothing untoward had transpired in our absence, that Stack hadn’t revealed some dark miracle and overpowered Zheng, that Edward Lilburne hadn’t sent large men carrying bats to our front door, that Tenny hadn’t wandered off to take to the skies over Sharrowford and get herself plastered all over the evening news as a stray weather balloon.

“I’m here and I’m queer and everything is clear!” Lozzie answered the phone each time with a cheery little chant. Once I could even hear Tenny in the background, going “Heath? Heath?” as she realised the function and purpose of the old land-line phone, and tried to press her face to the receiver over Lozzie’s shoulder.

Evelyn shook Shuja’s hand. Little William gave Praem one last hug. Raine kept touching her own thigh, in need of more painkillers. I was antsy and tense, eager to be back home in the gathering dark.

The drive across town took less than ten minutes, but I still expected disaster.

What I didn’t expect was Zheng and Stack playing dice.

“Hi hi hi hi hi!” Lozzie greeted us with one rapid-fire ‘hi’ each as she opened the front door of Number 12 Barnslow Drive, beating Praem’s time by about half a second, leaving the doll-demon hanging with the key in her hand.

Lozzie’s beaming face was relief incarnate, but she ushered us inside with bouncing urgency, springing on the balls of her feet and biting her lips and wiggling her head from side to side. She couldn’t wait to get the door closed and locked and bolted behind us again, and did so with alarming speed.

“Lozzie? What’s wrong?” I croaked, still holding onto Praem’s arm for support, my legs weak despite hours of post-brainmath recovery.

“What’s happened?” Evelyn snapped. Next to her, Twil had gone tense, sniffing the air.

“Ahhhh? Wrong?” Lozzie whirled away from the front door, poncho twirling outward. “Nothing’s wrong! I’m just going to miss the ending! But thank you!”

She threw her arms around Raine in a sudden hug – then broke off just as swiftly and hugged Twil next. “Thank you fuzzy wuzzy,” she murmured. Then she grabbed me – gently – and kissed my cheek, squishy with the giggles. “Thank you, Heather, I love you.” Praem received the next surprise hug, a big wordless squeeze that made it look like Lozzie was sinking into a pillow. “Thankeeee.” Finally she paused with arms half-open in front of Evelyn, a silent question in her sleepy eyes.

“I’m not the hugging type,” Evelyn huffed. “Oh, alright. Make it quick. And don’t touch my spine.”

“Eeeee!” Lozzie let out a sound like a miniature steam kettle. She followed Evelyn’s instructions to the letter, and gave her the most fleeting of affectionate hugs. “Thank you Evee, thank you, thank you.”

“Yes, yes, but for what? What is this?”

“For beating up Edward, duh.” Lozzie almost rolled her eyes, but she was smiling too hard. She bounced away on the balls of her feet, and fled back into the kitchen. “I’m missing the endiiiiiing!”

A moment later we heard the sound of Lozzie’s feet pattering downward, into the cellar.

“Um,” went Twil.

“Uh oh.” Raine grinned, leaning heavily on her crutch but trying to hide it. “Think Zheng got hungry?”

“If that zombie ruins everything … ” Evelyn hissed. She started toward the kitchen, walking stick clacking on the floorboards.

“If Zheng had done violence,” I croaked, “Lozzie would not be watching. She hates that.”

“Yeah, right,” Twil said. “But shouldn’t we better … check … ” She trailed off, cocking her head with a look like a hound catching a distant sound.

I heard it too. One did not need canine senses to hear Zheng’s voice rumbling in the deep.

Our plan had called for a brief regroup before confronting Stack a second time, if only to drink a glass of water and get our bearings. But now, consumed by curiosity and the magnetic pull of Lozzie’s enthusiasm, we made for the cellar. Fingers of shadow pressed in at the kitchen window, heralds of the night creeping across the floor to join the lurking darkness which spilled from the cellar door.

At the top of the steps down we found a much friendlier kind of darkness. Tenny was crouched on her haunches, tentacles wrapped around handrail and doorknob as if to anchor herself. She was so enraptured by the words floating upward that she spared us barely a glance, peering down into the cellar. I patted her on the head as I passed by, and she replied with a soft fluttery trilling noise. Two tentacles rose to momentarily grasp my hand and wrist as we descended.

“- but that was the last night the temple stood,” Zheng purred in the gloom.

“Samaya went out onto the mountain pass the next morning, to meet Xiang Shui’s army. Alone, unarmed, half naked,” she was saying, as we clattered down the stairs, past Lozzie who was sitting on the final step, listening in awe, arms tucked into her poncho. “I still remember the sky. Have you ever seen the sky from the roof of the world, little fox? Blue as old ice, but thin, so thin. The Song cowards were terrified of old Samaya. He screamed at them for three hours. Cursed them to seven lifetimes as worms, told them their cocks would rot off, called Xiang Shui a cuckold and a dung-eater.” She paused to chuckle. “True smyon pa … mmmmmm.”

Zheng trailed off in a soft slow purr as we reached the cellar floor. Heavy-lidded sharp eyes turned to greet us, like a sleepy tiger seen from the jungle’s edge.

The demon-host was lounging in a chair taken from the kitchen, kicked back on the two rear legs like a teenager showing off her perfect balance. She’d dragged over one of the ancient wooden coffins and turned it upside down to use as both footrest and table. A dozen dice were scattered across the surface.

She rolled another three dice between her knuckles, and as we watched, she span them over her fingers in a trick of almost supernatural dexterity.

“I know for a fact you got those from my bedroom,” Raine said, indulgently irritated.

“Sorry!” Lozzie hissed. “Was me!”

“Ah well that’s different.” Raine shot her a wink. “You’re cool, little Loz. No worries.”

“Shaman,” Zheng purred at me. “Care to listen?”

“Zheng … um,” I croaked, a little bewildered. “Are you … having fun?”

At least Amy Stack was exactly where she was meant to be, and still possessed the same number of parts. She was still tied to her chair in the middle of the room, still cold as dead stone behind flint chips for eyes. She’d sat up a little straighter as we’d entered, betraying her interest.

“I have to roll for her,” Zheng purred, gesturing lazily at the dice. “But akarakish is not a game of secrets, it is a game of wit and guts, and the little fox plays well. She cannot have known the rules before this afternoon, but I have taken more defeats than victories.”

“How wonderful.” Evelyn dripped sarcasm. “Made a friend, have you?”

“A brief understanding,” said Amy Stack, cold and level.

Evelyn shot her a pinched frown. “Delightful, I’m sure.”

“Never seen this one before,” Raine was saying, head tilted sideways as she hobbled over to Zheng’s makeshift table and considered the number of dice. “What’d you call it again?”

“You wouldn’t have, yoshou,” Zheng purred back. “The inventor of akarakish taught me how to play. A very bored monk, with a brilliant mind wasted on prayer, and no friends who could understand his game, only the half-dead thing locked up in the crypt.” Zheng nodded past all of us, up the stairs to where Tenny crouched. Tenny saw the look and replied with a tiny hiss. “The puppy would play well, if she could overcome her fear of me. She has the mind for it. Though,” Zheng sighed, “she has nothing to wager, not yet.” Zheng rolled the three dice between her fingers again, as if doing a magic trick.

“Stack,” Evelyn said. “Let’s get this over-”

“No, wizard,” Zheng rumbled with good natured amusement. “You cannot slay the little fox yet, I have not finished telling my tale.”

“Oh for fu-” Evelyn hissed at Zheng. “You can’t be serious. You’ve had the whole afternoon.”

“You cannot send her off without the ending of this tale.” Zheng flashed a toothy grin. She knew exactly how irritating she was being. “I lost the round, I owe the story, and I fulfil the oaths I make.”

“You were betting stories?” I asked, fascinated. “Is this some kind of One Thousand and One Nights ploy?”

“It’s been soooo good,” Lozzie stage-whispered.

“Wagering tales, shaman,” Zheng said, and opened her palm to show me the three dice, all sixes. “The game relies on stories, true or otherwise. A listener levies penalties if they perceive a lie.” She glanced sidelong at Lozzie. “And so we are compelled to speak truth.”

“Lauren Lilburne is very perceptive,” Stack agreed.

Lozzie giggled and wrapped herself tighter in her pastel-striped poncho.

“The little fox has good tales,” Zheng purred with obvious appreciation. “Warrior’s tales. Slum tales. Blood tales. At first she embellished, but she quickly learnt not to. The truth is so much stranger than fiction.”

“I wouldn’t mind hearing some of your life stories, big girl,” Raine said to Zheng with surprising affection.

But Zheng slid a heavy-lidded look over Raine like the flat of a knife. “Then you must wager and win. Do you have tales to stake, yoshou?”

Raine grinned back, leaning forward on her crutch. “Plenty. But what about Lozzie? She got them all for free, right?”

Zheng shrugged. “The mooncalf is as the shaman. She has no need to bet, I owe her already.”

With a great huff and rolling of her eyes and a string of curses under her breath, Evelyn stomped a few paces deeper into the cellar and cast around for one of the spare chairs to sit on. Twil scrambled to help, and Evelyn thumped down into the offered seat with a sharp wince of indrawn breath. She sagged, leaning on her walking stick with both hands, clearly exhausted by the effort of the afternoon’s work.

“Get on with it then,” she snapped at Zheng. “I have an appointment with a very long, very hot bath, and I would like to get this over with. Finish your bloody story.”

Zheng rocked back and grinned, opening her mouth like a cabinet full of knives. Praem helped me toward another chair, close to Zheng’s side.

“Wait,” Stack said, hard and urgent as she stared at Evelyn. “My little boy?”

“Is very sweet,” Praem intoned before anybody else could answer. “We read about spiders.”

“Your son and his father are both alive and well,” Evelyn grunted. “They are expecting a phone call from us soon. You can confirm it for yourself then.”

Stack was perfectly still for a long moment, level gaze meeting Evelyn’s grumpy scowl. Then she nodded, just once, so curt and shallow as to be almost invisible. She turned back to Zheng in silent assent.

“Mm,” Zheng grunted. “Where was I?”

“Old Samaya, shouting,” Stack supplied. I listened too, fascinated.

“Mmmmm. Three hours he cursed the army in their camp, from a little mound before the temple,” Zheng purred slow and soft once more. “Three hours while Xiang Shui’s officers made the men draw straws, to make up a crossbow volley to shut Samaya up. Half the chosen men fainted the first time he was hit, and he kept spitting fire even as he lay bleeding out in the dirt! Ha!” Zheng roared with laughter. “They tried to find a volunteer to cut his throat, but by then all the other monks were gone, escaped down the stone stairs. I left too. Over the mountainside hand-over-hand, while they burned the temple. They won, but they lost their courage.” She sighed a great sigh. “I took Xiang Shui’s head a year later, but that is another tale.”

“What happened to the white bear?” Stack asked, with genuine interest running beneath her cold voice.

Zheng shrugged. “The mi dred? I never saw it again, not after it ate the assassin. I hope it lived long and ate well.”

Stack nodded – and to my incredible surprise she took a deep, cleansing breath, closing her eyes for just a moment. “Thank you,” she said.

Lozzie started clapping.

Raine nodded sideways at Stack. “You actually respect her, don’t you?” she asked Zheng.

“She won many rounds. If I cannot eat her, and cannot fight her … mm.”

“Are we done here?” Evelyn drawled.

Zheng stirred the dice on the upturned coffin, dropping the trio from her hand among them. “Debts are paid, wagers settled. The little fox is all yours, wizard.”

“Mind if I play a round?” Raine asked with a shrewd grin.

“You need painkillers and a long sit down,” I told her, unimpressed. “No.”

“I can have both of those while I gamble childhood stories, right?” She flicked a wink at me. “How about Heather acts as our listener and lie-judger?”

“Raine, you’re-” I bit my words off. Raine’s childhood stories? She’d baited me, hook and line and all. “I- I mean … later-”

“Yes, later,” Evelyn grumbled. “We’re here to deal with Stack.”

“I am listening,” Stack said.

“Good, because I’m far too tired to indulge your need for intimidation theatrics. We’re done, the pest has been removed. That’s it.”

“My boy-”

“Is under my protection,” Evelyn said – and left that hanging. She and Stack stared each other down like a pair of lizards.

In the corner of my eye I saw Lozzie hop up from her seat and quickly skip up the cellar stairs, taking Tenny gently by the hand and a cluster of tentacles, to lead her back out into the light and warmth of the house above. I didn’t blame her. This part was not for young minds.

“Phone call,” Stack said.

We’d planned this bit with Shuja. Raine produced her mobile phone and placed the call. To his credit, Shuja picked up on the second ring. Poor man had probably been waiting since the moment we left his house.

“Yes? Yes, hello?” his voice emerged, made tinny and quivering by the speaker as Raine held the phone up.

“It’s just us again, Shuja, right on time,” Raine said, easy and relaxed. “Your-”

“It’s me,” Stack said out loud.

“Amy? Are you … no, no, I need to-” Shuja gathered himself with an audible deep breath. “These people, they have removed the … the problem. William is well. Will, say hello to your mother.”

“Hiiii!” went a tiny, further-off voice.

Stack’s throat bobbed once. She stared at the phone like it was a star.

“Amy, can we talk soon?” Shuja asked.

“That’ll be all, Shuja,” Evelyn spoke up. “Thank you.”

“ … yes. Yes. Alright.”

Raine ended the call. Stack stared at nothing for a long time, then turned back to Evelyn. “You can’t hope to stop Edwa-”

“Yes I can,” Evelyn snapped, in a sudden flare of temper. “We removed the pest, and the servitor controlling it – which you didn’t even know about, I might add. Shuja’s home is now warded, extensively. The boy himself is warded, with warning signs and triggers that will light up like a Christmas tree if Edward touches a single hair on his head. Your child – and by proxy, his father and the house they live in – is now under my protection. I have deployed every trick I have, short of summoning demons to hide in their attic, and tomorrow … ” Evelyn trailed off.

Twil cleared her throat. “Tomorrow I’m gonna talk to my mum, get the family involved.” She jutted her chin at Stack. “You know what we’re about, right?”

Evelyn rolled her eyes.

“Evee? You didn’t mention that part,” I said.

“In extremis, one must call upon all one’s resources,” Evelyn grumbled. “Even idiots with Outsiders living in their heads.”

Twil opened her mouth with a frown, as if to take offence, but then shrugged. “I guess.”

Stack stared at Evelyn and Twil for a moment longer, then turned with the glacial slowness of a freezing sea to look at me.

“ … Amy?” I croaked.

“Morell.”

The tiniest tilt of her head. A question, communicated as pure body language and clear as diamond, driven by an understanding gifted from the depths of the abyssal ocean. Perhaps Zheng understood too, but she let me answer.

“It’s the truth,” I said.

Stack blinked once.

“I bit off Edward’s hand, too,” I added.

That made Stack blink in an entirely different way. Zheng raised a silent eyebrow at me too.

“He was there, sort of, remotely, running the servitor,” I explained. “I … interfered with it. I … it’s not as simple I’m making it sound, obviously, but I may have damaged him. Somehow. Maybe.”

Stack just stared. Was she taking this in, readjusting her strategy – or just paralysed?

“Don’t worry, baby killer,” Raine added with a grin. “Kid’s under our wing now, whether you like it or not. Tough shit.”

“Until mister Lilburne is dead-” Stack began.

“No,” Evelyn snapped. “The deadline is my death. The boy has been exposed to our world, and I aim to make sure that doesn’t happen again. This child is going to be safe. He is not going to end up like any of us. No more traumatised children. No more dead children. You hear me?”

Stack turned to lock eyes with Evelyn. The air in the cellar seemed to thicken. My own breath turned to treacle in my throat, as if the slightest sound would provoke one of these two great reptiles to lash out. Even Zheng went very quiet and very still.

“I am going to make you an offer,” Evelyn said with slow and exaggerated care – she’d rehearsed these words, I could hear it, but when? “There is a place you can hide, with your son, and with Shuja if he wishes. My ancestral home, in Sussex. With a word I can have my father put you and your son up for months, until this is all over, all dealt with.”

Raine pulled a pained grimace, but kept her mouth shut. Twil went “uhhh,” out loud, and received a sharply raised finger in reply.

Stack stayed locked on Evelyn.

“You wanted out,” Evelyn continued. “I am offering you an exit that Edward Lilburne cannot follow, even if he wanted to. We both know he’s obsessed with Sharrowford, with what he could gain here, perhaps with certain members of his family. If I hide you on the other side of the country, in the magical equivalent of a nuclear bunker, I don’t think he’ll even bother trying to find you.” Evelyn tried to shrug with a touch of Raine’s eloquence, but her twisted spine held her back.

“Why?” Stack asked.

“I told you why,” Evelyn grumbled with genuine venom. “Were you not listening? Ears full of cloth? Your boy lives, not because I am making a calculated move, but because it is right. You’re a hunter, Stack. You’re a professional. And I’ve made my enemies into your enemies – but I am offering you an out. No questions asked. You can leave Sharrowford behind, leave this life behind. You are not bound to me – your boy is, and ultimately it is we who are now responsible for his safety. Not you.”

“Congratulations, old girl,” Raine said, coldly mocking through her grin. “You being dead or alive makes no difference now.”

“Then why not kill me?” Stack asked.

“I might, but let me finish first,” Evelyn drawled.

“I didn’t tentacle-wrestle a servitor just to execute you anyway,” I snapped, and struggled back up to my feet, clutching for support. A strong hand – Zheng’s hand – took me by the waist to hold me up. “Don’t be so selfish, Amy.”

Stack just stared at me. I shivered.

“The sins of the mother do not pass down to the child,” Evelyn said quietly.

Stack turned to Evelyn and stared holes right through to the back of her skull, trying to read Evelyn’s thoughts through flesh and bone.

It didn’t work. Evelyn managed to look positively bored.

“Sometime,” Evelyn began again, “in the next six months – and more likely sooner rather than later – myself, Heather, and the others here are going to carry out one of the most dangerous tasks I could ever imagine. The task itself is stupid, reckless, near-impossible – and totally non-negotiable. To do it in a way even approaching correct, we need that book you stole for Edward. You probably worked that part out already, we’re not all complete morons, despite appearances.”

Twil frowned behind her, unsure if she was the target of that one.

“But without the book,” Evelyn continued, “we will probably try it anyway, which will significantly increase our chances of dying. Our chance of succeeding and returning with all our body parts in roughly the same places will be greatly improved if we are not being interrupted all the time. Do you understand?”

Stack stared. The unspoken message was crystal clear. I found myself digging my fingernails into my own palm, willing Stack to accept the implication.

“Describe the task,” she said.

“We’re going Outside,” I spoke up, the words spilling forth like old vomit. “To a place much worse than the library. To find my twin sister, and bring her back.”

Stack blinked at me. “Alexander was telling the truth?”

“Hard to believe, I know, but yes, I have a twin.”

To my surprise, Stack dropped her eyes from me and stared at a point on the floor. Several long heartbeats passed before she looked at Raine, then at Evelyn, then at nothing again. Twil opened her mouth with a soft click, but Evelyn made a covert chopping gesture with one hand, and Twil thought better of interrupting.

Stack’s expression was that of an exhausted animal caught in a snare trap, knowing it was dead, knowing escape was impossible, but unwilling to submit to the approaching hand of the hunter. Dying was no longer a way to take responsibility. She had to act.

“Need I repeat myself?” Evelyn murmured.

“No,” Stack said.

But the seconds drew onward, and it slowly dawned on me that Stack could not make a decision. Perhaps this was the kind of choice she had avoided all her life, the choice between accepting defeat – or hunting, not for money, but for herself.

Raine hobbled forward, rubber-tipped crutch squeaking once on the cellar flagstones.

“Raine, don’t!” Evelyn hissed, but Raine ignored her. She walked right up to Stack, well within the danger zone.

“Raine, what- oh!” My eyes went wide, as Raine reached inside her leather jacket and drew out her handgun.

“Amy, hey,” she said softly. Stack finally looked up, and met Raine’s strangely serene smile. “I get it. Rest ‘o them here maybe don’t. Not even Heather. But for me? Yeah, I know you. All you gotta do is say the word, one more time.” She clicked the safety off and pressed the muzzle of her gun to Stack’s forehead. “I’ll do it, promise. Just say the word, go on. I promise.”

Evelyn had frozen, white-faced. Twil was going “hey hey hey!” and Praem was about to step forward to intervene. Zheng grinned like a tiger.

All I could think about was the way Raine and Stack locked eyes.

They understood each other perfectly.

“Untie me,” said Amy.

Raine’s serene smile spread into a knowing grin – and she lowered the gun.

Evelyn bit her bottom lip so hard she drew a bead of blood. If a picture could speak a thousand words, Evelyn’s face was a portrait of some very colourful swearing indeed, but she held herself back. No sense appearing unprofessional in front of our ‘guided missile’.

“So,” Evelyn cleared her throat. “Right. So. Can we just untie you and see you out the front door, or do we need to release you like reintroducing a bear to its natural habitat, throwing rocks and sticks at you?”

“No way to treat a bear,” Zheng rumbled.

But Stack and Raine both ignored Evelyn. Raine slipped her gun away and rather awkwardly pulled out her big black combat knife instead, struggling a little to draw it from the sheath with one hand occupied with her crutch. She crouched sightly, never once breaking eye contact with Stack, and slipped the blade of the knife between the ropes keeping her left leg secured to the chair.

“Ummmmm,” went Twil, stepping pointedly in front of Evelyn.

“Is this strictly a good idea?” I asked, trying to keep the quiver out of my voice.

“Raine,” Evelyn snapped. “We have not yet established-”

“Yeah we have,” Raine said, soft but somehow undeniable. She used the point of her knife to work the knot apart, freeing one of Stack’s legs, then the other. Then she straighted up with a wince, stepped behind Stack – finally breaking eye contact – and freed her hands. “Yeah we have.”

The ropes fell away.

Despite appearances, I could feel Zheng tensed like a spring next to me. She’d shifted one foot back, all the better to uncoil across the room in an instant. Praem was ready too, unassuming and prim and straight-backed.

Stack brought her hands slowly round in front of her and massaged the ugly red rope marks on her wrists. Even the smallest movements of her body set my teeth on edge. The muscular predatory intent in every gesture and adjustment sent my phantom limbs twitching in an effort to cover her, counter her, pull her head off. Like a wolf uncertain why its cage had been left open, she watched all of us in turn, and very slowly stood up from the chair, trying to rub feeling back into her numb legs.

Raine took a step to the side and they made eye contact again.

The moment stretched out. My heart was fit to burst from my ribs like a dying bird. Raine grinned. Stack’s fingers twitched.

“I could still take you,” Raine purred, and it was one of the most attractive things I’d ever seen her do. “Even with a bullet wound.”

And with that, Stack turned her eyes away, and all the tension flowed out of her.

“If I locate mister Lilburne, I will prioritise a kill,” she said, smoke-soft. “Not your book.”

“If you find the bastard, let me know, preferably before you get yourself killed,” Evelyn said. “I believe you already have a contact number for us.”

“Mm,” Stack grunted. “Same in reverse?”

Evelyn raised her chin. “If I find him, I will let you know. But I’m not saving the kill for you, no absurd indulgences like that.”

“Save the head.”

Evelyn frowned.

“As- as proof, I assume?” I asked. Stack nodded.

“Gnarly,” said Raine.

“Tch. Ugh,” Evelyn huffed. Zheng rumbled out a laugh. Twil raised a warning growl as Stack cracked her neck from side to side.

“Not getting your gun back though,” Raine said. “That’s mine now.”

Raine,” I sighed, exasperation hiding the way I was shaking inside with the release of tension – and at Stack’s unnerving proximity. Even with this apparent truce, I wanted her out of here, right now.

“Fine,” Stack said.

“Can’t believe we’re trusting this bitch,” Twil grunted.

“We’re not,” said Evelyn. “We’re trusting her self-interest.”

“Mm,” went Stack.

“Now get the fuck out of here, war criminal,” Raine said. “Before I change my mind and light you on fire.”

“Gladly,” Stack said, cold and blank, and looked at the stairs. “Alone?”

Zheng did the honours of providing an escort. She clacked her chair down and stood up, unfolding herself to her full height, and crossed to Stack with a razor-toothed grin. To Stack’s credit she managed to limit herself to a single small flinch, as Zheng placed one massive hand on top of Stack’s head and the other around Stack’s throat, and sniffed her like she was judging a piece of meat. After a few moments Zheng let the smaller woman go.

“Up, little fox,” Zheng purred in her face. “Time to hunt.”

They left the cellar together, Stack in front as Zheng watched her from behind. Raine followed too, perhaps for some final comment at the door.

As soon as they were beyond earshot, Evelyn let out a deep, shuddering breath and drew her hand over her face. Even across the cellar gloom, I saw the moment she broke out in cold sweat. Praem crossed to her side as if to help.

Twil stared after the departing trio, gormless in disbelief. “We actually doin’ this? Damn.”

“I cannot believe that worked,” Evelyn hissed.

==

By the early hours of the following morning, the old radiators were struggling against a spring chill blown in off the Irish Sea. Cold grey drizzle blurred the first sheets of dawn, forcing us fragile little apes to burrow deeper into our warm beds.

Which is why I was so surprised, on my sixth trip downstairs, to discover Praem and Evelyn had appeared in the kitchen.

“Oh. Oh no, I do hope I didn’t wake you … both?” I asked.

Shrouded in the grey static flooding in through the kitchen window, sitting at the table with the lights off and wrapped in pajamas and a dressing gown, Evelyn turned red-rimed, sleepy eyes on me, through the steam from a fresh cup of tea. Praem wasn’t standing to attention at her shoulder or by the doorway as usual, but sitting diagonally across from her in one of the kitchen chairs. Straight-backed, hands folded neatly in her lap, dressed in Evelyn’s borrowed clothes, hair still singed here and there and curled up at the ends. Milk-white eyes turned to stare at me with her habitual impassivity.

“What, stomping up and down the stairs five times?” Evelyn grumbled, nodding at the contents of my hands – Raine’s empty plate and the bottle of painkillers.

I blushed, mortified. “I-I don’t stomp!”

Evelyn cleared her throat. “I’m winding you up, Heather. I’m sorry. You’re light as a feather. And no, I only heard you because I was already awake.”

“Oh.” I swallowed my blush. “Well. Uh … I had to … Raine’s … ” I crossed to the sink and put down the plate and pills.

“Breakfast in bed,” Praem intoned.

I almost laughed. “Not quite. She’s finally asleep again after another dose of painkillers.” I wandered over to the table and nudged out a chair next to Evee. “Do you mind if I join you? I don’t want to risk creeping back into our bedroom and waking her again.”

“It’s your house too,” Evelyn said.

I sat down and smiled at her, trying to overcome my own tiredness. Raine and I had both slept like logs for the first part of the night, until …

“The pain keeping her awake?” Evelyn asked, with grudging sympathy born of long experience.

“It woke her up about an hour ago.” I sighed heavily as my worries spilled out. “I want to let her doze now, at least. She’s not got any classes today, but she’s supposed to go to work at the student union bar later, and that means hours on her feet, and she can’t do that in this state. She needs to call in sick. This weekend, Carcosa, everything, it really took a lot out of her. More than she lets on. Not to mention getting shot.”

“Mmmm, yes.” Evelyn fixed me with a curious, penetrating frown. “Took a lot out of all of us. Understatement of the year.”

“Evee?”

Evelyn looked surprisingly good in the grey dawn haze, with her mane of blonde hair in post-sleep disarray, soft and comfy within her many layers, flexing her back in the hard chair. I suddenly wanted very much to give her a hug, to feel how warm she was beneath her clothes, to sigh together in our mutual sleepiness – but she held me pinned with that searching look.

“Tea?” Praem suddenly asked, her voice a bell-note to break the silence.

“Oh, I, uh- I wouldn’t say no?” I said.

Praem got up from her chair and stepped swiftly over to the kettle.

“Tch. Praem, don’t,” Evelyn snapped – but softly, as she groped for her walking stick. “You’re not a domestic servant, I can-”

“Remain seated,” Praem intoned.

“-get the tea myself-”

Sit.”

Evelyn paused, then huffed and abandoned her stick again, looking at me with an exasperated shrug in her eyes as Praem bustled about making more tea.

I almost giggled. Evelyn sighed and sipped from her own cooling mug of tea.

“Is Twil still here?” I asked.

Evelyn gestured at the ceiling with her eyes. “She’s got class. A full day. I’m going to have to wake her in an hour if she’s to have any hope of making it back to Brinkwood in time. Shouldn’t have let her stay.”

“Did you … ?” I cleared my throat.

“Between my spine and my leg, I never sleep without pain as it is,” Evelyn grumbled. “And she’s a … ”

“Cuddler,” Praem supplied.

“Yes, that,” she said. I suppressed a smile and tried to look as if I was taking this all very seriously. Evelyn caught the twinkle in my eye anyway, shook her head with a huff, and sipped more tea. “Might try to get more sleep in a bit,” she said. “But … too much to think about.”

I could have made a joke. I could have dived into a heart-to-heart about Evelyn’s love life. I could have brought up the inorgasmia elephant in the room. But a far sharper topic was on my mind, so I ruined the moment.

“I doubt I can get back to sleep either,” I admitted. “I keep thinking about Stack.”

Evelyn raised an eyebrow.

“About the decision we made,” I explained, twisting my hands together on the tabletop. “Are you worried she’ll betray us?”

Evelyn placed her mug down with exaggerated care and drew herself up. Perhaps it was subconscious, but the transformation was remarkable. Sleepy, cuddly, warm Evee, a friend with whom I would gladly share body heat and snuggles, turned into miss Evelyn Saye, lethal and mysterious mage. But she was still Evee, beneath it all.

“No,” she said. “We found her fulcrum.”

“ … okay?”

“If she was going to attack us, she would have done it when Raine untied her. Think about it. If she was set on her plan of performing loyalty to Edward Lilburne – in effect, begging for her child’s life – she would have fought us right there and then. If she won, she could slink back to Edward with our heads. If Zheng pulled her limbs off, then she’d have died doing Edward’s work. What’s she going to trade to him if she goes back to him now? He already knows where we live, he knows we’re protecting the boy. Siding with us is the best bet for her boy’s life.” She sighed and shook her head. “Raine took a hell of a gamble. Even I wasn’t certain until the moment came.”

“What would you have done otherwise? What if she took the offer of going down to Sussex?”

Evelyn laughed, once, without humour. “I would have honoured the deal. I meant it, Heather, I meant everything I said, even if half of it was also a tactical play.” She shot me a resigned look. “Don’t be surprised if Stack takes Shuja and William and simply vanishes, though. That’s another possible outcome. Planted the idea in her head, just in case, a backup option to give her a way out in case she’s cornered, stops her turning on us. But I hope she does go for Edward. Even an unsuccessful attempt on his life is good for us.”

Evelyn trailed off into contemplative quiet in the grey gloom. I glanced over at Praem, who was watching the tea steep.

“Evee, you’re really good at this,” I said.

“Mm,” Evelyn grunted. The look she gave me was not entirely happy.

“Evee? What’s wrong?”

She sucked on her teeth for a moment, then sighed. “This is the exact sort of game my mother used to play, how she kept her web of advantages. Layers of implication and blackmail and protection rackets, with other mages, with mundane people, with my father. She was very, very good at it. It is part of what made her such an effective monster.”

“Oh. Oh, Evee, I didn’t mean to imply-”

“Of course you didn’t, Heather, you’re too sweet, you never would. I’ve never been comfortable with the idea before, that’s all. Which is, well, stupid, because I’m such a screw up at everything else in life-”

“Evee-”

“You are not,” Praem said in her sing-song voice as she clacked a steaming mug of tea down in front of me, and slid a plate of biscuits in front of Evelyn. She gathered her skirt, and sat back down.

“But I’m not like my mother.” Evelyn’s voice thickened as she gazed at Praem. “I know that now, beyond a shadow of a doubt. I … I think.”

“You’ve hardly had time to stop and think about that,” I said gently. “To process you and Praem, I mean. It’s okay to do that.”

“What’s to process?” Evelyn drew in a great sigh.

“An awful lot,” I tutted at her.

“My mother had a daughter, and treated me as a tool. I tried to make a tool, and now I have a daughter.” Her voice cracked on that final word, and she had to dip her head to wipe her eyes on her sleeve. She let out a weak laugh. “Look at me, like this, idiot that I am. Twenty-one years old is too young to have a grown up child.”

“Evee, hey.” I patted her hand.

“I didn’t grow her in my womb – fuck knows if that thing even works – but she is my child, isn’t she? I made a body for her and I brought her into the world. I did something deeply irresponsible without thinking about what it meant. A demon isn’t just a pre-existing entity, it’s a kind of blank slate, no experience of here, of thinking, of being a … an adaptive system a- fuck!” she spat. “A person. And I told others not to treat her as a person.”

“Evee, you couldn’t have known. Not with what you’d been taught, your experiences. It takes a village to raise a child, we filled the gaps. I think we did pretty well?”

“Well,” Praem intoned.

“Heather, Praem hasn’t been properly bound since Kimberly put her back in her body.” Evelyn looked up at me, serious and angry in a slow, deep way, like a river with rapid depths. “There’s nothing holding her here. Nothing holding her to her behaviour. And she hasn’t erupted into psychosis or cannibalism or mass self-harm. She is nothing like the zombies my mother made, and I am forced to confront that most of what I assumed I knew was complete bollocks.”

“We’ve treated her like a person.”

“No thanks to me,” Evelyn scoffed. “But it’s not only that.”

Praem looked on in placid silence, even when Evelyn glanced at her.

“Think about a zombie, Heather. Imagine knowing you were brought into the world by an act of murder and the desecration of a corpse. Imagine you could feel the electrical echoes of the person who used to inhabit your stolen shell. Fighting a battle to comprehend your new body before too many parts of it rot off. Getting it wrong. Never being whole. Being commanded by iron dictate of infernal contract, to commit violence, and that is your entire experience of human beings.” She shook her head. “No fucking wonder the things are dangerous.”

“I … I never thought about it like that.”

“Me neither,” Evelyn said through gritted teeth. “And I did everything I could to differ from my mother’s methods. I selected a body of wood, thinking that would slow the control, thinking control mattered. Stupid. I followed old instructions to make a ‘maid’, an obedient thing, a doll, something that couldn’t possibly think itself human. Blue! Do you remember when she was blue, Heather? Nonsense! That had nothing to do with what she was, where she came from, it was all imposed.”

“I like blue,” Praem intoned.

Evelyn blinked at her. “Do you actually? Or is that something I’ve inflicted-”

“I like blue.”

“She likes blue,” I echoed.

Evelyn nodded. “And then you treated her as person, Heather.” Evelyn’s voice cracked again. “Which I should have done from the start.”

“You’re doing better at it now,” I said, and meant it.

“You are,” Praem agreed.

Evelyn’s cheeks turned red, and she tried to cover with a frown. “I … I don’t feel … oh, dammit all.” She glanced at the front room, at the stairs, and up at the ceiling, as if worried she was being overheard. “With a human child, you’re biologically programmed to … to …” She grimaced around the word. “To love it. Nobody would put up with the blasted things otherwise. But I made Praem out of wood and words. I … I … ”

“I love you,” Praem intoned.

Evelyn grimaced. “I know. I just don’t know if I’m capable of being … ”

“Love is a choice,” I said before Evelyn could hurt herself further.

Evelyn turned a bewildered frown on me. “What on Earth does that mean?”

“Love is a choice you make every day, with every action,” I said, fumbling my way through something I barely understood myself. “It’s a feeling, certainly, but that feeling isn’t always there. Sometimes it runs dry, sometimes you feel frustrated or awkward or difficult. Passion runs out eventually. Duty or obligation only go so far under pressure. But you can always make the choice to love a person, and that’s real.”

“That’s … ” Evelyn cleared her throat, blushing and looking away. “That’s silly.”

“Evee.”

“Oh, alright. It’s not silly.” She huffed. “But it feels that way.”

“Do you want to love Praem, as a mother?” I asked.

“Deeply,” Evelyn whispered.

Praem got up, walked around the table, and leaned down to give Evelyn a hug. Slow and careful, with probing fingers to request consent. Evelyn said nothing, but hugged her back and took a great shuddering breath, hiding her confused tears in Praem’s shoulder.

I didn’t say a word, just gave her the space and time to dry her eyes. Praem stepped away too, to attend to breakfast things on the kitchen counter. Eventually Evelyn settled back again and sighed.

“Not a word to Raine,” she said.

“Bit late for that,” I said with a pained smile. “She’s going to make ‘milf’ jokes at you eventually. It’s inevitable.”

“Urgh.” Evelyn rolled her eyes, then caught mine. “Wait, since when do you know what ‘milf’ means?”

“I’m not completely innocent!”

“Yes, but Raine should not be teaching you about internet filth.”

I frowned in growing confusion. “Milfs are from the internet?”

Evelyn gave me such a look.

“W-what? I … Evee?”

“What exactly do you think … ” She paused. “Actually, no, I’m going to let Raine deal with this. I suggest you ask her for a more exact definition of the word.” Evelyn’s tone left no doubt; that line of inquiry was cut. I mentally shrugged, and sipped my tea.

Praem bustled about for a few minutes, making breakfast, as a companionable silence settled over Evelyn and I. After a moment I risked a glance up at the ceiling.

“So, what are your plans?” I asked.

“Mm? Oh.” Evelyn dug around beneath her dressing gown and to my surprise she pulled out a familiar-looking lump of white quartz – the psychological invisibility stone I hadn’t seen her use in months. I recalled how she’d used it when I’d first met her, to place herself temporarily beyond my perception when I’d slipped into the Medieval Metaphysics room. She placed it delicately on the table. “Even without the book from Edward, I can still begin the work. This is the basis. Might take me a month. Or I might complete the work, and go blind and deaf and eat my own fingers the first time I look at it. Who knows?” She shot me a wry smile. “First I am planning some serious downtime. And I am taking Praem shopping.”

“Oh. Um. I meant plans about Twil.”

Evelyn raised an eyebrow at me. “More importantly, Heather, what about your plans?”

“I … ” I sighed, feeling useless. “I don’t have the foggiest idea about how to get to Edward. There’s … well, I have some theories, about things I might do with brainmath, perhaps, maybe.”

“Mmmmm,” Evelyn purred, staring at me with sharp curiosity. “Not what I mean.”

“ … I’m sorry?”

Evelyn narrowed her eyes again, and a creeping sensation crawled up my back.

“Heather, you executed extensive, experimental hyperdimensional mathematics yesterday. And the day before you ripped the three of us back from Carcosa. Not to mention you pulled off your little tentacle-summoning trick again yesterday, and had a tug of war with a servitor. Feeling at all sore?”

“Oh, yes, very.” A hand wandered to my side, to the circular bruises along my flank, muscles stiff and aching whenever I moved.

Evelyn frowned in fascination. “Have you really not noticed?”

“ … noticed what? Evee, please don’t get cryptic on me.”

“Growing,” Praem intoned.

“Exactly,” Evelyn purred, peering at me like a specimen on an examination table. “Heather, in the recent past, any one of the feats I just mentioned would have left you weak and shaky for days. But here you are, running up and down the stairs multiple times this morning, with fist-sized deep-tissue bruises in your sides. You’ve been recovering faster.”

“Oh.” I blinked in surprise. “I … have I?”

“Whatever you are, Heather, you’re getting better at being you.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

water of the womb – 12.4

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

“Servitor?” Evelyn hissed an echo of my warning.

I hiccuped loudly, and nodded.

She reached inside her baggy coat with her free hand, and awkwardly drew out her scrimshawed wand of human thigh bone.

No wonder she’d looked so laden down. Evelyn had kept the magical tool close at hand, while sparing Shuja and his son from the grisly reality, but the time for keeping up appearances was over. She wedged her walking stick under one armpit and held the yellowed femur in both hands, running her fingers along the length like an arthritic flutist doing warm-up exercises.

Twil leapt away from the mannequin, teeth bared, ghostly matter coalescing into claws and furred muscle around her forearms. Raine tried to follow my gaze, but saw nothing on the kitchen ceiling.

Praem was very still out in the little corridor, staring upward.

“I am sorry to ask, but what is happening?” Shuja was saying, one hand protectively reaching for his son.

“Heather, are you certain?” Evelyn demanded.

Without extensive experience, one may find it difficult to distinguish between spirit and servitor.

One is pneuma-somatic life, born from the primordial soup of atomic interaction and aetheric energies and cast-off emotional resonance and ancient crimes and human myth-making – or whatever actually animates the world beyond the boundaries of ordinary human perception, because I don’t know where they all come from. With myriad and often incomprehensible motives, moving on their own plane to their own rhythms, they can interact with true flesh only with great effort and to minimal effect. They scared me when I was a little girl, because they liked that I paid them attention. But they’re not dangerous. They just happen to live here, like we do.

The latter are robots, made from pneuma-somatic flesh cast into artificial nerve and synthetic muscle. And perhaps robots can learn to feel. Perhaps Evelyn’s spiders recognise her as master and carer, not just a series of data inputs; perhaps they define themselves as closer to pets than machines, and I fully invite them to do so. I have not forgotten how one of those nightmare machine-spiders crouched over me as I lay unconscious and bleeding, after the Sharrowford Cult attempted to kidnap me, or how one of them protected our home when we could not.

But I doubted a servitor made by Edward Lilburne was allowed much in the way of independent thought.

In truth, even I couldn’t tell the difference at a glance, but the context of the situation left little room for other conclusions. Spirits did not lie waiting in perfect stillness for an unwise hand to brush a series of web-strands. Neither did they drag around spooky mannequins for no reason.

Servitors could also touch physical flesh with impunity. Important distinction.

As I stared up at the limb creeping across the ceiling – a sort of segmented tentacle, a cross between predatory insect and ocean mollusk, easily twelve or fifteen feet long, covered in pale fur and biological armour plate, the tip a blunt hooked claw as if for clinging to bark, each segment an omni-directional joint, kinking and twisting as it felt along the line of spider-silk for the source of the disturbance, toward the immobile mannequin – I realised we may have made a mistake by leaving Zheng at home.

I swallowed hard, struggling to resist the urge to hiss and screech, fighting to keep my phantom limbs under control as I stared up at the awful appendage, feeling like I was pressed to the floor of a tidal cave as a predator groped blindly in dark water. Abyssal instinct screamed fight or flee, prompted me to make myself big, to hide in a dark corner, to flood my meat with toxin because we had drawn the attention of an ambush predator right in the centre of its web.

“Heather?!” Evelyn hissed again.

“Certain? Well, no?” I hissed back. “But I think it’s a pretty good assumption?”

“He can’t have made a servitor,” Evelyn said in outraged disbelief. “He can’t have that kind of expertise. Describe it. Now. And where is it?”

“It’s … a … big tentacle leg … thing. On the ceiling.”

“Why is it always always tentacles?” Twil said, with feeling. “And invisible? This is totally not cool.”

“It is here,” Praem intoned out in the corridor – and pointed up into the stairwell. Little William at her side followed her finger up, but clearly couldn’t see a thing.

“Alright, don’t- don’t move yet,” Evelyn hissed. She was turning pale green in the face.

“We gotta get out, yeah?” Raine murmured, a hand on my back.

“Yes, yes,” said Evelyn. “Everybody listen carefully. We need to back away and exit the house. Shuja, take your son outdoors, right now, don’t argue or ask questions. Raine, get moving, you’ll take ages with that crutch. Heather you-”

“It sees me,” Praem intoned.

Evelyn froze, staring at her.

Twil was shaking herself, still disgusted at the idea of invisible monsters she couldn’t punch – and in the corner of my eye I saw the flicker of diamond-light caught on the dozen strands of spider-silk attached to the hand she’d used to touch the mannequin. The segmented bone-tentacle dipped away from the ceiling, reaching down toward her.

“Twil!” My heart tried to climb out through my mouth. “Twil, you’re- Evee, the spider-silk is stuck to Twil, it can tell where she is!”

“Bring it on!” Twil yelled. She raised a pair of sleekly furred claws and swung wide at nothing, like a boxer trying to fight bees.

“Don’t be absurd,” Evelyn snapped. “Stay still, stop giving it reason to react. I’m going to try something, stay still.”

Evelyn’s fingers stopped moving, slipped into the right places on the bone wand.

The ambient temperature plummeted by several degrees in an instant, sucking the breath out of my lungs, drawing a surprised gasp from William, a shiver from Raine.

And we discovered that Edward Lilburne’s servitor was programmed to recognise magic as an existential threat.

Three things happened at once. Everything moved so fast, there was no time to think.

The segmented tentacle which had been inching for Twil instead whipped around for Evelyn’s head like a barbed club, whirling the mass of its own loops and coils to build enough momentum to shatter bone.

The painted mannequin jerked to life with unnatural fluidity in its plastic joints, pulled on dozens of spider-silk strings, and lurched for Evelyn like a battering ram of barbed wire.

Out in the corridor, a second segmented tentacle shot down from the ceiling – followed by a third, and a forth, and fifth, turning the hallway into a pneuma-somatic cage for its real prey. Praem scooped William up in her arms and turned her own back as a shield.

Evelyn screamed at the mannequin, the only part she could see. So did Shuja. The boy was giggling, seeing nothing of what was really happening.

Somebody was hissing and spitting like a wild animal – later I realised that was me.

I was a split-second away from what was rapidly becoming my favourite trick of hyperdimensional mathematics – manifesting six tentacles with which to defend my friends. But in the moment before I could switch that metaphysical zero to a pneuma-somatic one, a whirling ball of fur and claw and snapping teeth slammed into the mannequin and sent it flying.

Twil barked a canine war cry as the animated statue bounced off the wall and fell to the floor in a flailing mess of white plastic limbs and barbed wire.

She’d also stepped into the path of the invisible segmented tentacle. Instead of connecting with Evelyn’s skull, the hooked bone-club hit Twil in the chest, knocked the wind out of her, and broke several ribs with that awful dry cracking sound like a bundle of twigs snapping underfoot. She yelped and howled and spat blood.

Fully transformed werewolf and segmented tentacle were entangled with each other now. Twil got stuck in with tooth and claw at random, fighting an invisible foe that was trying to squeeze her torso to snap her spine.

Evelyn was shaking all over, waxy with cold sweat as she stared at the awful fight, quivering fingers struggling to re-cast her spell.

The mannequin started to rise.

Raine planted the tip of her crutch on its chest and pinned it the the floor, wincing as she put weight through her wounded leg. I knew that would only hold for a moment.

Out in the corridor, one tentacle was groping for Praem’s back and William in her arms. She curled up tighter, caught by the cage of bone.

Too many limbs.

Evelyn’s leadership had fallen apart in the face of a thing that could think in twelve different directions at once, at speed, improvising as it went. She was a strategist, not a fighter, and standing in very much the wrong spot, in the middle of a melee.

I, on the other hand, knew exactly what it felt like to have ten limbs and not enough neural bandwidth. That’s how I saw the weak spot.

Tearing myself away from my friends took an effort of will almost too much for either ape or abyss. Both sets of instinct screamed at me to get the tentacle off Twil or dismantle the mannequin before it knocked Raine off her feet, or just send the whole thing Outside right now, get rid of it now. But I lurched for the kitchen doorway and tumbled out into the peeling paint of the corridor. I ducked below the tentacles which formed the cage of bone, and put myself directly between Praem’s back and the groping tendril, beneath the darkness which lurked in the stairwell.

I risked a glance upward, and met a dozen cone-shaped metallic eyes looking back.

The servitor’s main body was nestled in the corner of the stairwell like a funnel-web spider the size of a pony. Diaphanous skirts of ruffled rippling flesh formed very convincing camouflage, appearing as mundane shadow, designed to fool the eyes of any being that could see pneuma-somatic life. If only I’d shared my architectural distaste out loud, we would have realised something was up there.

With camouflage parted to allow egress of its own tentacles, the servitor within was revealed. Part spider, part squid, part lizard. Eight thick climbing limbs attached it to the wall, and I spotted a massive sharp beak at the front, ringed by the array of forward-facing segmented tentacles like a squid. The thing’s rear was topped with a bulbous abdomen from which emerged the multitude of spider-silk lines thrumming on the air. Armour plated in pus-white where it wasn’t covered in scales and bristles, eyes placed as a spider’s but projecting forward as cones like no earthly creature, I had no doubt this thing had been intentionally designed to overwhelm any rescue attempt.

I hissed at it, of course.

I let go. I hissed and hissed and opened my mouth so wide I thought I was going to dislocate my jaw. I followed abyssal instinct and let my phantom limbs throw themselves wide to make myself look big. I had chosen fight, and for a bizarre, heady, feather-light moment I felt powerful and threatening. Adrenaline pounded in my head. Consciousness threatened to give way to pure reaction. I hissed so hard I screeched.

The segmented, armoured-plated, barbed tentacle stopped reaching for Praem’s back, and pointed at me instead.

I had the servitor’s attention.

Now I had to hold my nerve.

I had to stay still.

Easier said than done. Standing still as the tentacle whipped toward my head took every ounce of courage I had, and the moment would come back to haunt me in dreams, in the shower, in quiet moments for months to come. How odd the mind is. I’d been exposed all those sanity-jarring sights Outside, but this was what stayed with my nervous system long after the danger had passed.

At the last moment, with my eyes wide on a blur of barbed club and a hiccup in my throat, I plunged one hand into the black tar at the bottom of my subconscious, and flicked a value from zero to one.

Six pneuma-somatic tentacles blossomed into reality from my flanks – and caught the segmented limb in mid-air.

Raine later told me I was laughing with manic triumph, a sound halfway between rapid hiccups and the throat-noises of a mutant dolphin.

Rainbow-brilliant in the cramped space of the little corridor, smooth taut muscle anchored deep in my torso, my tentacles hung on tight to the servitor’s limb, wrapped around it in unbreakable coils, hooked into the gaps between its armour plates. I’d seen videos of squid and octopus using their limbs like this, and that’s how I overcame my lack of neural processing power; I had a model to work from. Fake it ‘till you make it, Heather. If I’d stopped to think, I would have failed, paralysed by the conscious effort.

It helped that I was only trying to do one thing – win a tug of war for half a second.

And half a second was all I had. The servitor tried to pull away and almost dragged me off my feet, wrenched a screech from my lips as my tentacles’ anchor-points yanked inside my chest cavity like ripping hernias.

But now I had contact.

At the speed of thought, I unfolded a hyperdimensional equation. To execute self-implementing hyperdimensional mathematics of this complexity while calm and collected would have given me the mother of all migraines and left me a bleeding wreck for hours afterward, but I was flying high on adrenaline and bodily euphoria and an alien sensation of feeling strong, and I didn’t care as the mathematics burned and cooked my metaphorical hands, as ice-picks stabbed through my eyes and into the back of my head, as I doubled-up and vomited two cups of tea onto the carpet of Shuja’s house.

I’d done this before with human beings. Never with a servitor.

I defined the servitor in hyperdimensional mathematics, saw the creature as an equation. It was as complex and as beautiful as when I’d defined Raine to locate her or Sarika to fix her. Life seen as logic and mechanics is not a cold thing, not a thing of predation and transaction and lizard-brain simplicity; it is a dance of a hundred trillion tiny machines working in concert, a transcendent chorus in the furnace of biology and soul. The funnel-web servitor was a living thing, but put together without the kinks and redundancies and loop-backs and inefficiencies of something that had been allowed to grow and think for itself.

So I went looking for a signature.

Any artist or sculptor leaves their signature on their creations, whether they intend to or not. I’ve heard tell that even bomb makers leave obvious traces of self expression in unexploded examples of their nightmare craft. Edward Lilburne’s self-definition would be in here somewhere, his fingerprints, his techniques, the DNA of his thoughts, something with which to track him. I sorted through the mathematical matrix at the speed of thought, in the split-second while a half-choked scream caught on my lips as the servitor pulled on my tentacles.

Instead, I found the man himself.

To our mutual surprise – and his horror – Edward and I stumbled into each other like two bumblers in the dark.

Like the filigree mycelium of cordyceps fungus infiltrating the servitor’s brain, he was in here, a remote hand nudging the creature’s nervous system via a pneuma-somatic neurological back door. He made one confused attempt to extend his control over this strange intruder in his creation’s soul, one push with his mind to colonise mine – and recoiled as I bit off his hand.

I closed tentacles around the mathematics that defined his self, and he ran from me.

I burned out his fungal mat, scorched his spores to ash, smashed through the back door he slammed in my face. He panicked, shutting down connections and hurting himself in his haste to escape. A metal iris sealed shut behind him and I pried at the seams of that final portal, melting and corroding it until I reduced his armour to rust – and found nothing behind, just an empty cyst in the servitor’s brain.

An echo remained, the faintest mental impression of a liver-spotted owlish face, forehead smeared with electrode jelly, yanking contact pads off his skull, spitting blood.

All that in a split-second, and I was back in time to finish my scream.

The servitor spasmed as if hit with an electric shock, and fell out of the corner of the stairwell. A mass of black-shadow camouflage frills and pale furred legs and clacking tentacle parts landed on the stairs with a clatter. From the kitchen I heard a thump and a yowl as it dropped Twil. The tentacle-cage retracted from Praem instantly, whipping back past me and into the cloud of roiling shadow.

“Heather?!” Raine shouted. I heard Twil cursing, Evelyn bustling past, Shuja shouting something behind us.

Before I could react, the servitor wrapped its other tentacles around the base of the one I was still holding onto, and with a wet meaty crunch it ripped off its own limb. Like a spider escaping a larger predator, it left me holding the severed appendage. It quickly righted itself and scuttled up the stairs, up the wall, onto the ceiling – and through, vanishing upward as it decided to simply ignore the minor inconvenience of regular matter.

I span on my heel and almost fell flat on my face. My own tentacles were already flagging and turning to ash as my energy ran out, and pain lanced deep into my flanks as the abused tissues quivered and bruised. I lurched past Praem – still hugging William tight – and Shuja gaping open-mouthed as I bumbled past him and almost bounced off the front door, forcing myself past the stabbing in my sides and the huge nosebleed running down my face, the price of hyperdimensional mathematics.

I fumbled with the latch and stumbled out into the tiny bare front garden, then turned and looked up.

The amalgam servitor was escaping across the rooftops, a flapping mass of shadows revealed as translucent black flesh, scuttling on eight legs and dragging itself along with the segmented tentacles. It turned and warbled at a spirit, a soft-bodied slug-thing made of crystals and glass, and I knew in that moment it was acting on instinct. I’d burned Edward’s controls and shattered his back doors, and the thing he’d made was free.

Twil – all human now – bounded out of the front door just in time to catch me under the armpits before I collapsed.

She boggled at me. “What the fuck was that?!”

Twil was an absolute mess, clothes all twisted about, stained with patches of blood, but she had the enviable advantage of werewolf healing. Her bruises and scrapes and cuts were already vanishing and closing, sucking shut and fading back to pale skin.

“ … you look how I feel,” I croaked. “Ow.”

I spat a thin stream of blood-flecked bile onto the ground, and choked back a sob at the aching absence left by the euphoric strength of my tentacles, gone again. They were real, I told myself, they were real. That was me, all me, not a lie.

Raine rushed out of the front door a second later, hobbling on her crutch, wincing as the effort pulled at her stitches.

“Hey, hey, Heather, woah,” she said. “Twil, you got her?”

“I got her, yeah, she weighs nothing. Fuck me, what was that?”

“It ran?” Evelyn snapped from the doorway. “Heather, it ran?”

She was pale and green around the gills and unsteady on her feet, but she was standing straight as she could and hadn’t lost the command in her voice. Praem appeared at her side, suddenly followed by little William peeking around her skirt.

“I freed it,” I croaked out. “I think. He was in its head. Ed.”

Evelyn’s eyes went wide.

“But he got away,” I finished.

Evelyn looked like she very much wanted to say a swear word out loud.

==

We spent the rest of Sunday afternoon warding Shuja’s house.

Well, Evelyn and Praem spent the rest of Sunday afternoon warding Shuja’s house. Twil stalked from room to room sniffing the air, peering out of windows and doing circuits of the nearby streets, occasionally returning to hover at Evelyn’s elbow until she was shooed away again on another patrol, our early warning system in case Edward Lilburne decided retaliation was in order.

I spent that time huddled in a big old armchair in Shuja’s cramped but comfortable sitting room, wrapped in a pair of blankets against the inner cold frosting my heart and lungs, nursing a sextet of deep bruises in my flanks and a stubborn post-mathematics headache behind my eyes, and generally feeling like I’d been sat on by a gorilla. Raine brought me cups of hot chocolate from the kitchen and made endless cheese sandwiches for me to inhale in three bites each. She wielded her crutch like a comedy third leg to make William laugh. The boy sat on the floor in front of the television, and we all watched cartoons together, endless reruns of Spongebob Squarepants and My Little Pony.

Raine took her painkillers on time, at my grunted insistence. She’d almost popped her stitches earlier in the general melee, but I couldn’t get her to sit down with me. She called home to check on Lozzie, made sure I was warm, took my pulse and my temperature.

“That was reckless and brave and also incredibly hot,” she whispered to me while William was distracted by the television, and kissed my forehead. “I hope you know that.”

“Mm. Not brave.”

As soon as I’d broken Edward’s control and the spider-squid-dragon had left, the ugly mannequin had fallen to the floor, strings abandoned in a dissolving puddle of silvery pneuma-somatic goo. Wrapped in tarpaulin, bound in rope and wire and three magic circles, the thing was crammed into the boot of Raine’s car, awaiting dissection back home.

The severed servitor leg lay next to it in the boot. Praem had to carry that one, because only her and I could see it, and I certainly wasn’t lugging it around.

I don’t think Evelyn had much hope there. She focused on protection, not detective work.

She hadn’t exaggerated the work required to ward the house. After combing the place for further evidence of Edward’s magical intrusion – and finding none – Evelyn set to work. She inscribed secret symbols in the corners of every door-frame, beneath the unscrewed backing-plates of every door handle, on the underside of bed frames and the insides of cupboards. She had Praem knock fist-sized holes in the plaster to scratch magic circles on the brickwork behind, undo light fixtures to reach through and draw in the ceiling cavity, clamber into kitchen cupboards to scrawl on the backing boards. She worked from one of her mother’s notebooks, a precious and dangerous resource to carry so far beyond our own castle, full of observations and recordings on the wards and protections which kept Number 12 Barnslow Drive as one of the safest magical redoubts in the North of England – and other, less sane notes, about the ancient magical work which secured the Saye Estate down in Sussex.

I don’t believe she referred to those latter formulae. I don’t think she could.

Evelyn couldn’t replicate our home, not without several lifetimes more experience and twenty years in which to execute the necessary work, but she did the best she could without blood sacrifice or summoning demons or suchlike.

Shuja followed as Evelyn directed Praem. Evelyn made it clear that he needed to know where everything was, in case something got moved or disrupted, and he needed to repair all the collateral damage she was doing to the walls and ceilings – though thankfully he need not know how any of the magic worked.

Did he believe? I don’t know. Evelyn explained as little as possible. At least he took notes.

Afternoon trudged on into early evening, the sun lowering behind the terraced houses and slanting dull orange across the rooftops. Twil was sent out into the gathering darkness on an errand for kebabs and curry – and a loaf of bread to replace the one I’d devoured. When she returned I found myself still ravenously hungry. My appetite burrowed a hole in my stomach at the delicious food smells, as Twil piled the little white styrofoam boxes on the dining table in Shuja’s sitting room.

I tried not to sound like an absolute pig as I shovelled curry sauce and thick chips down my gullet. William had his own treat, a child’s portion of kebab meat and vegetables. Outdoors, the streetlights were guttering on, and a sense of security had settled over the house. Perhaps via abyssal senses, or perhaps simply because I was finally recovering from my feat of arms, I felt a sense of walls having gone up, of being inside a log-stake camp in the middle of a dark forest.

But were we the people huddling close to the fire – or were we the things from the woods? Shuja and William needed protection, yes, from other things like us.

All of us gathered to eat in the cramped sitting room, as Evelyn completed the final and most delicate stage of protecting Amy Stack’s little boy.

“And this last one is a kind of tracker,” Evelyn was explaining. Her own food sat untouched in front of her, as she and Shuja sat around the table along with William and Praem. “If your son was to go missing, this will allow us to locate him, wherever he may be. You call me and we will be able to find him, quickly. Far quicker than the police, and in places they cannot go.”

“Alright, yes, okay.” Shuja nodded. He concentrated on Evelyn’s instructions with all the attentiveness of a worried father memorising medical advice. “Should I write this one down too or-”

“No,” Evelyn said. “Do not record any of these, not the ones on his skin. Nowhere except in your memory.”

Shuja nodded and swallowed, adjusted his glasses, and stared hard at Praem’s handiwork as it took shape across William’s flesh.

The boy was sat sideways in one of the dining chairs, with his pajama top bundled in his lap so Praem could draw small, precise magical symbols across the exposed skin of his back. She was sitting behind him, using a black-ink body-art pen, not unlike the one Raine used to refresh the Fractal on my own skin every night.

When Evelyn had sat William and Shuja down in here and begun to explain the process, she’d had me roll up my sleeve and show them the hard-edged symbol on my left forearm, to prove this was something we did to ourselves as well, that it wouldn’t hurt the boy.

“Does it give you magic powers?” William had asked, fascinated but too hesitant to touch my arm.

“Keeps me safe,” I croaked, too exhausted to explain.

“Twil here has them too,” Evelyn told Shuja. “Much more extensive, but those are … private. If you want … ” She’d glanced sidelong at Twil.

“Ehh.” Twil shrugged. “I can show the kid, I don’t mind. S’all down my back,” she said to William with a flashing grin and moved to pull up the back of her coat. “S’pretty cool, you know? Actual tats. Mine are forever. Not like Heather’s.”

“Tattoos?” William’s eyes had gone very big indeed.

“No, no, please, it is fine, please,” Shuja had said, waving a hand in mild alarm. “I … I trust your … methodology.” He nodded at my arm and caught my eye. “After your display earlier, miss. Yes. I trust you are at least … well protected.”

William giggled all the while as Praem had worked on his back, but he did an admirable job of staying still for well over twenty minutes, a big ask for a seven year old. She was on the last of six symbols now – one of which was the Fractal, and three of which were tiny magic circles – ranging from the base of his spine to between his shoulder blades.

Protection, warning, tracking. Anti-magical wards. Remote viewing anchors.

Evelyn could not turn the boy into a walking magical trap – or rather, she could, in theory, but she refused, as she later explained to me. To go further than warning signs and wards, with a living human being, would require crossing certain ‘ethical boundaries’.

Perhaps worryingly, the boy seemed to have taken the events of the day entirely in his stride. He hadn’t seen much, scooped up in Praem’s arms like that, and his eyes had lit up like saucers at the sight of Twil’s rapid healing, but his young mind had smoothed over the logical inconsistencies. With any luck, by the time he’d grown up far enough for this to be a childhood memory, it would all be forgotten.

I saw a little of myself in that child, and hoped he would be allowed to simply forget.

His father was having a harder time. He kept throwing polite but badly concealed glances at Twil, as if trying to judge if she was about to burst out of her skin – and at me. He’d seen me fight the servitor, in what must have seemed like a one-sided invisible farce. But the proof was in the pudding; the mannequin had collapsed after I’d finished screaming and bleeding and being sick on his carpet, so I must have been doing something right.

Chewing the dregs of my curry and chips and wishing there was more, I drifted back to the present, to the sound of Evelyn delivering more instructions.

“You will have to refresh the symbols yourself, by hand, every night, preferably after he’s had a bath,” she was saying to Shuja. “Use a body art pen like we’re doing now. We’ll leave this one with you. If you make a mistake, it wipes off with makeup remover, but if you use a regular marker pen and make a mistake, it’ll be much more difficult to correct.”

Shuja nodded along, concentrating hard.

“The first few times, I want you to take a photograph of his back,” she continued, eyeing Praem’s work as she spoke. “And send it to me so I can judge if you’re doing it right. Too much deviation from the symbols or letters will ruin the mechanical effects. I’ll come check up personally once a month. And you need to get him exempted from physical education at school. Make up an illness if you must, whatever it takes. We don’t want other children or his teachers to see these.”

“I can’t show anybody?” William himself suddenly piped up, distraught in the way only a disappointed child could be.

“No, Will, you must not,” his father told him, but William pulled a little pout, and I saw disaster approaching.

“Young master William,” Praem intoned, soft as a silver bell, her pen paused before the final touches. “Please look this way.”

He turned to look at Praem over his shoulder, into her milk-white eyes.

“You must not tell,” Praem sang. “Because I will know. I will be very sad. And I will cry. Do you want to make me cry?”

William bit his bottom lip, eyes wide and shining. For a moment, it had been all too easy to forget that this solid little boy was only seven. The threat of making his strange new friend cry was too much for him.

“No,” he said in a small voice, and reached out to her.

Praem gave him a hug, being very careful not to smudge the magical work on his back.

“Then I will not cry,” she said.

We all breathed a silent sigh of relief. Twil seemed especially relieved that we weren’t going to witness a small child bawl his eyes out. Shuja nodded a thank you to the rest of us, not sure how to interact with Praem himself. What did he even see when he looked at her?

“How long?” Shuja asked. “How long will he have to be subjected to this?”

“Daaaaad,” William complained, turning back around. “It’s fine! It just tickles.”

“’Till we whack-” Twil choked off the rest of her sentence beneath a white-cold glare from Evelyn. “Ahem, I mean, uh-”

“Until we deal with the man who did this,” Evelyn said.

“With a bit ‘o luck, not long,” Raine added, with a wink for William and a grin at Shuja.

Shuja took a deep breath and nodded, checking the notes he’d made in a little spiral-bound notebook. He took his glasses off, placed them on the table, and massaged the bridge of his nose.

“William,” he said, “it is very important that you not wash those pictures off. Do you understand?”

“’kaaaaaay,” went William, swinging his legs back and forth over the side of the chair. “Don’t want to anyway. It’s so cool!” He turned to smile at Praem over his shoulder again. “Do you do drawings? Other drawings? Like art?”

“I will do,” Praem intoned. William blinked at this, a little confused.

“And you must not tell anybody what you’ve seen today,” Evelyn told him, then cleared her throat awkwardly, looking away when the boy made eye contact with her. “It … it will confuse … ”

“It’s a secret world,” I croaked, still raw and exhausted.

William nodded with the solemn unselfconscious seriousness only a child could show. “Mum told me that.”

Shuja replaced his glasses and let out a huge sigh, then reached over to ruffle his son’s hair “Are we done? Can he put his shirt back on?”

Praem tested the ink with a fingertip. “It is dry,” she intoned.

“Certainly then,” said Evelyn.

William hopped off the chair and wriggled back into his pajama top, head of messy hair popping out even messier than before. “Dad, can I get an ice cream from the freezer? Please?”

His father gave him a gentle frown. “You have already had a lot of kebab, and that is a big treat for a small stomach, are you not full yet?”

“I can fit more!”

“That’s the spirit,” Raine said.

Evelyn cleared her throat and caught Shuja’s eye. “Perhaps Praem can take William into the kitchen for a few minutes, while we discuss other matters? You don’t happen to have any strawberries in your fridge, by any chance?”

“I’m sorry?” Shuja blinked. “No, but … but yes, Will, you may have an ice cream. Only one, mind you.”

“Only one,” Praem echoed. She stood up and followed William as he hurried out of the sitting room. A moment later we heard the freezer open in the kitchen, and the sound of William burbling some happy explanation to Praem. Raine reached over and pushed the sitting room door almost shut, closing in our voices.

“Miss Saye, please, before you say anything further,” Shuja started. “This thing is gone from my house, yes? You say it was … invisible, yes, so how can I be certain it does not return as soon as you leave?”

“There was a man controlling it,” I croaked. “He can’t anymore. I burned him out.”

Shuja stared at me.

“If anything odd happens,” Evelyn told him. “Anything at all, you call one of the numbers I gave you. I don’t care if it’s three in the morning and chucking it down outdoors. We will be here to remove the problem and plug the gaps.”

“Yeah mate,” Twil piped up with a cheesy grin on her face. “Who you gonna call?”

“Oh, and I was a nerd for the Evil Dead reference?” Raine shot back.

“We can both be nerds, s’cool,” Twil said.

Shuja’s eyes followed the conversation back and forth, with considerable doubt as to our professionalism.

“What if … people come to my door?” Shuja asked. “What if men come to kidnap us? Sent by this ‘enemy’ of yours?”

“We deal with that too,” Raine said, soft and sharp at the same time, even full of painkillers.

“Maybe call the rozzers,” Twil put in. “If like, somebody’s tryin’ to break in, you know? They gotta be good for somethin’.”

“Then call us later,” Raine finished for her.

“I would wager ten thousand pounds that you have little to worry about now,” Evelyn said, calm and collected, though she hunched in the chair, exhausted by the slow grinding effort of the afternoon. “Anybody who is part of … ” she cleared her throat, “‘our world’, who tries to interfere with your home, or your boy, is going to see the equivalent of a warning sign fifty feet high, with my face and death threat. Besides, there is only one man behind all this, one man with any interest in harming you, and I believe he already got what he wanted. I doubt he will make a return attempt, considering his caution. The traps I have placed are simply too risky for him to disarm.”

“Are they really?” Twil asked.

Evelyn shot her a withering look and Twil had the good sense to pull a grimace. But then a flicker of a smile, of dark satisfaction, tugged at the corners of Evelyn’s lips. “Yes,” she said.

“How can you be satisfied in this? You do not understand what this is like,” Shuja said softly, fighting against a crack in his voice as he lowered his face into one hand. “You are too young, you do not have children.”

“Yes I do,” Evelyn answered without hesitation.

“Wait what,” went Twil, wide-eyed and gormless. Evelyn gave her a darkly embarrassed look.

Raine cracked a grin. “First I’ve heard of this too.”

Shuja totally didn’t follow either.

“Not all children are born,” I croaked – and that made no sense to poor Shuja, but Twil lit up.

“Oh!” she went. “Oh right, damn. Holy shit, Evee. Like … for real?”

“Later,” Evelyn snapped at her. “Mister Yousafzai, I have to ask you one final question before we get out of your hair. Are you going to hold it together?”

Shuja stared at her. “I … don’t understand?”

“You’ve been exposed to things that break lesser minds. There is no shame in admitting you need this out of your thoughts. Repair the holes in the plaster, I’m sorry about those. Forget about the wards, forget we were here. Forget any of this happened.”

Slowly, Shuja nodded.

“What do you do, mister Yousafzai?” Evelyn asked him, slowly and carefully.

“I am sorry?”

“Your job. What do you do?”

“Oh. I teach mathematics and French, at the comprehensive, King’s Way secondary school.”

“Maths and French at the same time?” Raine asked with a cheeky grin.

Shuja managed a small laugh. If Raine and Evelyn had been tag-teaming a return to normal subjects, they could not have planned it better.

“No, no,” he said. “Simply multi-disciplinary.”

“I thought you looked like a maths teacher,” I croaked. Shuja glanced at me, vaguely pleased with that on some level I didn’t understand.

“It is my understanding that Amy Stack makes a lot of money,” Evelyn said. “Doing what she does.” She glanced up at the ceiling, at the house in general. The tiny old terraced house that hadn’t been renovated in at least thirty years, wrapped in a shell from the 1960s with neighbours wall-to-wall on both sides. “Do you not see much of it?”

“She pays into a trust fund, for William,” Shuja said, and cleared his throat as if deeply embarrassed.

“Right noble of her,” Raine said – and couldn’t keep the sarcasm out of her voice. “Kept some back for herself though. Gotta pay for bullets, you know?”

“Raine,” I croaked. “Don’t.”

But Shuja nodded at Raine. “I am so sorry. Was she the cause of your limp?”

Raine pulled a non-committal face and dropped the subject. I wormed a hand out of my blanket-lump and found hers, and squeezed.

“I am the sole trustee,” Shuja explained further. “Amy does not have access to the money she sends. William is attending Milcastle primary, and I am planning on sending him to the best private school I can find, perhaps here in Sharrowford, perhaps Manchester if he can handle the train every day when he is of age. I make no secret that will be expensive. He will have every opportunity, and yes, I owe his mother for that.” Shuja sighed. “I do not want him to have the life I have led, nor that of his mother. He can grow up to be whatever he wishes.”

Evelyn nodded – and I could see she didn’t care about the exact words, the plan to get Shuja’s mind on other topics had worked perfectly. “We’ll be out of your way shortly, mister Yousafzai. Let us pick ourselves up and … ”

“Shuja, please,” Shuja said.

Evelyn nodded. “Perhaps you better go check your son hasn’t convinced Praem to allow him more than one ice cream. She’s soft like that.”

Shuja nodded and rose from his chair, taking the hint without question. He stopped at the doorway and turned back. “Thank you, miss Saye. Thank you, uh … Twil, was it? I understand you took … injuries … but-”

“Don’t think about it, mate,” Twil said.

“Yes, yes, quite. I shall try not to. And miss … Heather?” his eyes lingered on me. “Well, thank you, indeed.”

He turned and hurried away, before I could tell him things that might haunt his mind the rest of his life.

Twil blew out a long sigh. Raine reached over and rubbed my upper back, trying to distract me from the lingering ache in my sides. Evelyn turned to me.

“Heather, tell me again what you saw,” she said.

“ … um,” I croaked. “I didn’t ‘see’ exactly, it’s not like that, the image from the brainmath is interpretation.”

“Can’t this wait, Evee?” Raine asked. “We’re all tired as hell, s’been a long weekend.”

“You know what I mean,” Evelyn said to me, ignoring Raine. “You’re certain it was Edward?”

I nodded. “He was controlling the servitor. Directly. Like some kind of brain interface, I think? I don’t know what I saw, not really.”

“It wasn’t a true servitor,” Evelyn said. “Not if it needed him to control it.” She sighed in frustration, frowning tight and hard. “It may be he can build a pneuma-somatic body and grow a mind, but not a programmed one. Not like our spiders.” She trailed off, then snapped back. “And you’re certain he was rigged up with wires? To a machine?”

“That’s the impression I got … ”

“Could it have been a visual metaphor?” she pressed.

“Like a brain-scan thing?” Twil asked. “Or a … what are those big magnetic things in hospitals?”

“Cat scan,” said Raine. “Isn’t this gonna be your thing, Twil? Bio-med science degree candidate doesn’t know what a cat scan is?”

“I’m not there yet, you twerp.” Twil rolled her eyes.

“I … I don’t know,” I said. “Evee, why does it matter?”

Evelyn sucked on her teeth, gaze intense, spine hunched with mental exhaustion. “Machinery and magic is an odd combination. Actual machinery, electrical machinery, used as machinery. I don’t know, it’s not something my mother ever dabbled in. Machinery as parts, as conduit for magic, certainly, but … mm.” She trailed off, lost in thought.

“Whatever,” Twil declared. “I can break machines as easily as skulls.”

“Speaking of cracking heads,” Raine said, and let the implication linger. I shuddered.

Evelyn took a deep breath and nodded. “Our success here today turns miss Amy Stack into a guided missile.”

“Evee,” I scolded, as hard as I could in my wheezing, croaky voice. “Must you?”

Evelyn looked at me, and I caught the exhausted practicality in her gaze, the admission that I was right, but that this had to be done. “Heather, I commend your compassion, but you misunderstand. Yes, this potentially makes Stack into a weapon, but it also keeps her alive. It has given us an alternative to executing her.”

“Oh. Oh, I think I see, but … ”

“Yes,” Evelyn sighed, weary. “Now we get to go home and see if we hold her controls or not.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

water of the womb – 12.3

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Shuja Yousafzai did not look like the sort of person capable of dealing with Amy Stack.

But then again, neither did I.

He cracked open the front door of his narrow terraced house just enough to peer out at us from behind thick-rimmed spectacles, blinking and squinting like a furtive nocturnal mammal exposed to sudden daylight, watchful for buzzards and foxes and cats. He showed little surprise at the sight of five young women on his doorstep, beyond his exhausted frown and a wary tightness around his eyes.

“Hey there,” said Raine. She smiled and gave him a curt practical nod, doing her best to stand up straight despite her crutch. “I’m the one from the phone call.”

“Hello sir,” I added quickly. “We’re very sorry to interrupt your Sunday.”

I smiled too, doing my best to look nonthreatening, hands folded neatly in front of me like a good girl scout here to provide aid to the elderly and infirm. I suppose I was the sole representative of normality – at least outwardly. But he’d settled on Raine.

“And who are you?” he asked, and did an admirable job of controlling the quiver in his voice.

Raine just smiled.

“A-at least tell me who sent you,” he said. “At least that.”

“She’s not the one in charge here,” Evelyn said, terse and impatient. “We best talk inside, mister Yousafzai. The responsible parties may be observing us.”

“Yeah,” Twil muttered, head on a swivel as she brought up the rear, glancing up and down the street. “Don’t see anybody right now, but that doesn’t mean shit.”

Shuja swallowed hard on a dry throat, then nodded. “Alright. Alright, very well, yes, I suppose if you wanted to hurt us, you would … you best come inside, yes.”

He opened the door and stepped back. Raine moved to go in first but Praem took her place, flanking Evelyn. I gently helped Raine manoeuvre her crutch over the threshold, and Twil entered last. With all the awkward invasive intimacy of stepping into the unfamiliar home of a person who didn’t really want you there, we filed in through the front door.

Inside was a short corridor from which the rest of the rooms branched off, carpeted in threadbare brown. Off-cream paint on the walls and skirting board had peeled and flaked with age, showing patches of plaster beneath. Two umbrellas, some boots, and three pairs of child-sized shoes lay next to a bristly welcome mat just over the threshold, along with some coats and scarves and a pair of very small gloves hung on a trio of hooks. At the far end a small kitchen was visible through an open door, just beyond steep stairs which climbed up to the second floor. The top of the stairs were wreathed in heavy shadows that seemed to sag from above. These post-war terraces had been thrown together as quickly as possible, and I tutted inside at the poor use of natural light. So dingy up there.

“Wipe your shoes,” I murmured to Twil.

“Oh, yeah, sure. Uh, sorry.” She cleared her throat and did an awkward shuffle on the mat, as Raine and Evelyn and Praem moved forward to make room.

“Shut the door, please,” Shuja said. “You will let out all the heat.”

He had backed away from us as we’d entered, staying at a safe distance from the unknowns he was letting into his home.

Shuja – the father of Amy Stack’s child – had an intelligent face with expressive blue eyes the colour of unspoilt seas, bespectacled and somehow sad, always nudging the thick rims back up his nose with a fingertip. A neatly trimmed goatee beard matched his hair, thick and black, showing a little grey with the onset of middle age. In a big grey fisherman’s jumper and old jeans, his height a little shorter than Raine, he seemed like a maths teacher or a PhD student, not a man who had seen war up-close. That judgement said more about my naivety than it did anything about the man I was measuring.

He was holding a wooden baseball bat. Tip-down, half-behind his leg, as if he couldn’t decide whether to hide or brandish the weapon. Even I could tell he had no idea what to do with it.

He saw me looking at it. Saw Raine looking at it. Saw the suppressed indulgent smile on her lips and mistook it for something else.

“I have this, yes” he said, swallowing and raising his chin. “And I will warn you, I also have a knife in the back of my trousers.”

“Hey what? What? Knife?” Twil whirled as the latch on the front door clicked shut. In three paces she shouldered her way past Raine and I and tried to get in front of Evelyn. “Nobody said shit about knives, mate.”

“Woah, woah, hey Twil, it’s fine,” Raine said.

Shuja flinched at the strange growl in Twil’s voice, but stood his ground with planted feet, which surprised me. “I do not know who you are, young miss. I do not know-”

Heel,” Evelyn snapped at Twil.

That brought Twil up short, blinking and frowning and almost blushing. “ … o-oi, uh … ”

“Think before you open your mouth,” Evelyn hissed at her. “We are guests in this man’s home. Act like it.”

“But he … you … a knife-”

“He is entitled to his caution. It’s not like he can do anything to us. Apologise.”

Twil puffed out a sigh and shrugged at Shuja. “Uh, sorry, mate. No beef. Just don’t pull a knife on my girl, alright?”

My girl?” Evelyn huffed under her breath.

Frowning in utter incomprehension at the exchange he had just witnessed, Shuja acknowledged the apology with a polite nod.

“There won’t be any need for weapons, sir, I’m sorry,” I spoke up. “We’re not here to do you or your son any harm. Quite the opposite, in fact. We are here to solve your problem. Or try to.”

Shuja’s gaze settled on me and I pulled my best nice-young-lady smile, but he could only frown, lost.

“Who sent you?” he asked.

I shared a glance with Evelyn. She nodded.

“We’re here now,” she murmured to me. “There’s no point keeping it secret. The moment we interfere, Edward will know. We play our hand.”

Evelyn turned to Shuja and raised her chin, expression composed and calm and faintly grim, walking stick held out at an angle, other hand behind her waist. I swore her back was slightly straighter than usual. For this moment, for this purpose, Evelyn was the very picture of the arch-mage, the general, the commander, a cold and competent mind, ready to move her pieces on the board.

“Mister Yousafzai,” she said. “My name is Evelyn Saye. I suggest you remember it-”

“I will not be intimidated in my own-”

“- because you may want to invoke my name,” she raised her voice over him. “To warn off any further attempts on your family’s safety.”

He blinked at Evelyn, taking stock of her anew, and tried very hard to be polite and not look her up and down. Evelyn, with her twisted back and awkward posture, her walking stick and coat pockets laden down with notebooks. What did we look like to him? At least Praem wasn’t back in a maid outfit yet, still dressed in Evelyn’s borrowed clothes. That would have been confusing.

“But … ” he said. “But … you are … ”

“I am very likely the most dangerous person you have ever met,” Evelyn grumbled. “And yes, that includes Amy Stack. She sent us.”

A shuddering sigh of mixed relief and horror went out of Shuja. He nodded, and pressed one hand to his own chest. “More friends of Amy? Alright, okay. Oh, God above.”

“More?” Raine asked sharply.

“More, yes, I-”

“Is there anybody else in the house except for us and your son, right now?” Evelyn’s voice cracked with command. I would have climbed a tree if she’d ordered me in that tone.

“No?” Shuja blinked. “No, I-”

“Has anybody else except us visited you today or yesterday? This is very important, do not conceal anything, especially if you have been instructed to by somebody else.”

“No. No, I swear.” He shook his head, catching on fast. “When Amy came before, she brought a friend. More of an associate I suppose, to … attempt to deal with the … the … ” He had to pause and take a breath. “The thing in my home. That is what I referred to. The only instruction I have received is from her. She told me not to call the police. Which I have not, of course, because how would I explain such a thing?” He shrugged with one hand in utter helplessness, trying to conceal a shiver.

I recognised all too well the hollow space in his eyes when he spoke of the ‘thing’ in his home. I knew the sleep-deprived fragility in his movements, the tightness in his face, the exhaustion that gave away how this man was holding himself together with pure willpower, strong willpower gone brittle under the strain of exposure to the supernatural.

Whatever his demeanour, Shuja Yousafzai was not a weak man. He was a strong man at his limit.

“We will make it go away,” I blurted out. “I can do that. It’s sort of something I’m good at. Making things go elsewhere, for good.”

He stared at me, and did not believe any of that. After all, Amy Stack hadn’t been able to remove this invasive presence, and she looked infinitely scarier than me, scrawny little twenty-year old that couldn’t fight her way out of a wet paper bag.

“The people who sent this ‘pest’ to plague you are my enemies,” Evelyn explained, slowly and carefully. “The man ultimately responsible is so cautious of any contact with me that he won’t even risk hearing my voice without an intermediary. If I catch anyone working for him, I will torture them for all the information I can and then probably have them killed. If, after our … ‘pest control’, anybody is stupid enough to ignore the very clear warnings I will put in place, if anybody bothers you, comes to your door about this, pesters your son, anything, then you give them my name. And then you call me, and we will deal with it.”

“ … alright,” he said, slowly.

“Best not think about it too much,” Raine said. “Soon as we’re out of your hair, forget we even exist. All this can just be a bad dream.”

“Don’t try to understand,” I suggested.

“I am an expert,” Evelyn went on, “on what you are dealing with. This is Heather, she is another expert. These three are Raine, Twil, and Praem. They are experts on doing violence to those who wish harm upon us.”

“Yeah, that’s me.” Raine cracked a grin.

“Don’t make me sound like a thug,” Twil muttered.

“Good day,” Praem intoned in her sing-song voice, and Shuja blinked at her.

“Mister Yousafzai,” Evelyn used his name like a whip. “Listen very carefully, please. We need to begin at the beginning and this needs to be done properly. First, where is it right now? Which room?”

“It … it was in the kitchen, last I checked. But, I am sorry, where is Amy? I haven’t heard anything from her since she saw it. Did she explain to you what it-”

He broke off and glanced back over his shoulder, at the open kitchen door, as if the unspeakable presence might be creeping up on him as we spoke. I saw his throat bob as he repeated the nervous tic of adjusting his glasses. Twil went up on tiptoe, peering and sniffing, taking his alarm with utter seriousness. Raine reached inside her leather jacket with her free hand, adjusting her weight on the crutch, but I placed my hand around her forearm and squeezed.

When Shuja turned back to us, he must have caught the bestial cast to Twil’s musculature and pose, because he flinched again, eyes going wide at her.

“She has described it, in general terms,” Evelyn said with a huff. “But she is under considerable strain. Where is it?”

“The kitchen,” he repeated. “But it moves from room to room, and we never see it move. Ever. It goes through closed doors, through walls, through locks. I have tried everything, everything. It follows Will – that is my son – and it … it watches him sleep.” He hissed those last four words with such vehement outrage, but his anger subsided quickly below bewildered terror. “Sometimes it watches me sleep, but that is better, in some ways.” He shrugged. “I turn around and it is there, where it was not standing a second before.”

“Creepy,” Twil hissed.

I was not immune to the communal tension. My hackles rose, my phantom limbs bunched tight in a defensive posture. Imagining this unseen thing creeping up on me in the dark gave me the sudden, bizarre sensation that I had stepped into something else’s lair, that I was the invader here. I glanced up and behind us, at the corners of the ceiling, as if a watcher might be lurking there – but there was nothing. I sniffed like Twil, as if I could pick the hint of a scaly scent. I stared at the shadow-draped stairs, like a cave in the rock, concealing an ambush predator.

Abyssal instinct fed on savanna ape fear of the unknown, and suddenly did not like this house.

“Heather?” Evelyn hissed at me. “You see something?”

“It’s … nothing.” I swallowed the feeling back down. “Not even a spirit in here, it’s fine. I’m being paranoid.”

Evelyn turned back to Shuja. “When did this start?” she asked.

“Three and a half weeks ago. On a Wednesday. I have counted every day, how could I not?” He ran his free hand through his short-cropped hair and adjusted his glasses again, fingers shaking. “I have found it difficult to keep track of time, to think clearly.”

“Hey, we know,” Raine offered, surprisingly gently. “You’ve done great to last so long, seriously. We can take it from here.”

“This is normal for you people?” he asked softly.

Evelyn sucked on her teeth and then murmured to me. “Three and a half weeks. Which means this started after mister Joking presumably stole the gate plans. Matches up.” She raised her voice again. “Did anything happen before it arrived? Anything at all?”

Shuja swallowed. “Maybe. I don’t know.”

“Anything at all,” Evelyn repeated, harder.

“Yeah, even if it seems wack,” Raine added. “Somebody leave a dead bird on your doorstep? Say some weird words at you in the street? Hand you a pamphlet for a new-agey religion?”

“I do not wish to believe in magic,” Shuja said. “It cannot have been connected. I keep telling myself it cannot be connected, it cannot-”

“Then it wasn’t,” Evelyn said. “Describe it anyway, please.”

“It was … so strange, but I thought nothing of it at the time. My son, I was taking him to the park after school, the one off Banner’s Street, with the little playground. There were a few other children around. A boy my son’s age came up to him and handed him something, and he … he brought it to me … it was this … this ugly thing a child might make, a plastic doll’s head with needles pushed through it. I looked for the boy who had given it to him, but he was gone. He didn’t seem to have been with any of the other parents there. But little Will, he wouldn’t let go of the ugly thing, so I let him carry it until we reached home, and then when he forgot it, I threw it away. In the bin, outdoors.” Shuja struggled with the words, did not want to believe. “Then the thing was here, within the next hour. And then I called Amy.”

As Shuja spoke, a tiny presence crept out of the darkness and down the stairs at the end of the little corridor. With big wide eyes of flinty grey inherited from his mother, a head of dark hair sticking up in all directions, wearing pajamas and overlarge socks, carrying a huge plush sheep hugged against himself with one arm, little William had decided to come see what his father was discussing with the strange people.

He moved so slowly, so precisely, so silently, definitely his mother’s child. He made it all the way down to the floor before any of us actually noticed him.

“Hi there,” Raine gave a little wave over Shuja’s shoulder as the man finished his strange tale.

Shuja whipped around in surprise, awkwardly hiding the baseball bat behind his leg.

“Will!” he said. “Will, I told you, you must go play in your room. Daddy has important things to do. Please, go back upstairs.”

But William didn’t pay the slightest attention to his father’s words. He walked up and took Shuja’s free hand, peering past his father’s side at us. His eyes were so wide and staring in that way only an innocently curious child can be, set in a face effortlessly composed and openly expressionless. He looked like his father, but he had a lot of his mother in him. There was no doubt Stack had told the truth about that. At about six or seven years old, his age lined up with her story as well.

“H-hello,” I said awkwardly.

“Yeah, uh, hey kid.” Twil cleared her throat.

“William,” Shuja was saying, struggling to contain the worry in his own voice. “William, please go back upstairs and stay in your room. You are not being punished, you have been a very good boy, but you must, must stay in your room for now, it is not … you need … it is-”

It’s not safe in your own home, the father did not want to admit to the son.

“No,” Evelyn cut across Shuja’s dilemma. “If we’re going to interfere with this thing, there may be a reaction. Best the boy stays close for now.” She glanced down at the child, but said nothing.

“Yeah, we’ll look after you, sunshine.” Raine shot him a wink, but William just stared at us, curious and very quiet.

Shuja went wide-eyed behind his thick glasses. “A reaction?”

Evelyn shrugged.

To everyone’s surprise, Praem squatted down on her heels until she at was eye-level with William, smoothing her borrowed skirt over her backside so it didn’t drag on the ground. She made eye contact – or did so as best she could, with those milk-white, empty orbs.

“Good afternoon, young master William,” she said, in her silver-bell sing-song voice, backed by the faintest tinkle of icicles.

Will finally lit up, with the kind of easy smile that should be on a child’s face. “Your voice is funny,” he giggled.

“William,” his father said, swallowing and trying not to stare at Praem in bewildered incomprehension. “That is rude, it is rude to call other peoples’ voices funny. I-I am sorry, he can be quite precocious, I-”

“Daaaaad, I mean it’s pretty!” Will insisted, frowning up at his father.

“Thank you very much,” Praem sang. Will giggled again.

Evelyn cleared her throat awkwardly, not sure if she should be frowning at Praem or praising her. “Yes, well, be that as it may. We need to-”

“What are you all doing here?” Will asked, and Evelyn stumbled to a halt. Shuja opened his mouth, but hesitated as well. A man who wanted to tell his child the truth, but did not know what to say.

“Your mum sent us to get rid of the nasty thing,” Raine said, and winked again.

“Oh.” William’s good humour fled his face. He wrinkled his nose. “The nasty statue.”

“Mister Yousafzai,” Evelyn said. “Show us, please.”

==

Edward Lilburne had sent a child’s nightmare to watch Amy Stack’s son.

It was a miracle the boy wasn’t traumatised already. Perhaps he had inherited a strong constitution from his mother. I whispered that conjecture to Evelyn as we stood in Shuja’s small clean white tiled kitchen, examining the statue from a safe distance.

“Unlikely,” Evelyn murmured back to me, without taking her eyes off the lunatic sculpture. “Small children are always more resilient. They accept magic easier. Neuroplasticity. If this had happened ten years later, yes, he’d be traumatised for life. As it is, he’ll probably be okay.” She frowned. “Though he has been exposed now.”

Twil had ventured forward, to within arm’s length of the bizarre art. She sniffed the air around the thing.

“Nuthin’,” she grunted. “Fuckin’ ugly bastard though, innit’?”

Evelyn tutted.

“Twil,” I hissed. “Don’t swear in front of children.”

“Oh, uh, shi- I mean, sorry, yeah! Uh.” Twil turned and grimaced at Shuja and William. Father and son stood in the rear, barely inside the kitchen doorway as we ‘experts’ took stock. Shuja managed a disapproving frown, his hand on his son’s head, but William blinked at Twil in innocent fascination.

“Those were like, really bad words, yeah?” Twil told him. “Don’t ever say them, okay? Good boys don’t say swear words.”

“Yes, we’ll all be very angry at her later,” Evelyn drawled, supremely uninterested, then clicked her fingers at Twil. “Pay attention in case it moves.”

“It won’t,” Shuja supplied. “It never does, not while watched.”

For which I was extremely thankful.

The statue had begun life as some kind of clothing store mannequin, made of opaque off-white plastic. Complete with hands and feet, knee and elbow and shoulder joints, a rotating ball-and-socket waist and a featureless oval for a head, the thing would have seemed uncanny anywhere but in a shop window. Its skin – no, I had to forcefully correct myself, it didn’t have skin, it was made of plastic – had been scored with a knife, carved into great looping spirals and whorls up and down the torso, and the resulting grooves had been filled with red paint, so it looked like a sacrificial victim covered with ritual scars. Barbed wire completed the look, wrapped around the figure’s wrists and ankles and then looped around the neck and waist and the featureless smooth groin.

The blank head sported an inexpertly painted face, in black and red. A slash for a mouth, a tick for a nose.

I focused on the eyes, of course – black pupils in black outlines. But they were just badly drawn eyes on a plastic surface, nothing more. Nothing stared back at us. Certainly not the Eye.

The mannequin was currently posed as if leaning against the kitchen counter, but the head was turned toward the wall, in the manner of a person who had heard a sound in another room. I drew an imaginary line with my finger from the eyes to the wall and beyond.

Raine cleared her throat, coming to the same uncomfortable conclusion as I did. “Yeah, he’s looking at the front door, ain’t he?” she said.

“That is very … spooky,” I settled on, then tutted. How absurd.

“It was not looking in that direction when I left the room,” Shuja said softly. “It must have heard you arrive.”

“Heather,” Evelyn said. “I assume you don’t see any invisible components?”

I shook my head. Other than us and the mannequin, the plain little kitchen was empty. A single window above the sink showed the back garden, a tiny strip of sad grass bounded by high brick walls.

“I only see the plastic,” I said. “Uh, paint and barbed wire too. There’s not even anything pneuma-somatic in here.”

“Invisible?” William piped up, excited. “You can see invisible things?”

“Will, please, don’t ask questions about this.” Shuja stroked his son’s hair, smoothing it back to soothe his own nerves. “I am sorry, miss Saye, are you really sure he must be in here for this?”

Evelyn frowned at the boy for a long, uncomfortable moment, then took a sharp breath. “The safest place is where he can be protected. Which means next to us. We don’t know what might happen when we … ” She gestured at the statue.

“It … it’s putting my hackles up quite badly,” I said. Raine gently took my shoulder and squeezed.

“Yeah, me too,” Twil growled.

“No, I mean, instinctively.” I swallowed hard and tried to clamp down on the feeling. The sensation had crept over me as we’d entered the kitchen, passing under the shadow of the stairs. My phantom limbs – mirrors of the real me, the homo abyssus that was the core of my self – were twitching and wary, trying to cover every direction in a defensive halo. A hiss kept trying to climb up my throat. “I sort of want to pull it apart. Very badly. But also not touch it.”

“If you can dismantle it, you are more than welcome to,” Shuja said, with feeling.

“Have you touched the thing?” Evelyn asked.

“No, I dare not, but Amy did. She couldn’t move it, not at all, not even to adjust a joint. As if it is anchored somehow. It did not react then either, it never reacts to anything. It isn’t-”

“Twil, don’t!” I hissed, mortified at interrupting. “S-sorry, she was going to touch it.”

“I wasn’t!” Twil protested, caught in the act of creeping closer to the awful thing. “Honest!”

“Do you know mum?” William suddenly asked, looking up at Evelyn with big, curious eyes. “Where is she? She hasn’t been to see us in a while. Is she busy?”

Evelyn stared at the boy again, her frown caught on barbs as she swallowed. She cleared her throat awkwardly as Shuja tried to shush his son again.

“Hello, William,” I said awkwardly, trying to pull a smile appropriate for a child, but I could see the strange suspicion behind his eyes as he looked back at me. “I’m Heather, I’ve spoken to your mum, she’s-”

“Heather,” Evelyn warned.

“It’s okay, Evee, let me-”

“Your mother has been trying to solve this problem in her own way,” Evelyn said to William. She made no attempt to gentle her voice, to descend to his level, to soften the frown on her face. “She has been working hard to keep you safe.”

The boy smiled a sad child’s smile, and nodded as he pressed the side of his head to his father’s thigh. He looked away, at nothing.

“I have changed my mind,” Shuja said.

“I’m sorry?” Evelyn arched an eyebrow.

“You said there might be a … ‘reaction’.” He swallowed and cast his gaze over us, trying to take us in. “If Amy is still working on this, I would much prefer a method that poses no risk to my boy.” As if subconsciously, he briefly slipped a hand over William’s exposed ear, the one not pressed against his leg, so he could speak things not meant for a child’s mind, so he could show us his anger. “Not in our own home. If you interfere with that thing, will it come alive? Will it try to hurt him-”

“I don’t know-” Evelyn said.

“- or try to hurt me? Is it a trap, or a bomb, set for you, by your enemies, using my family as bait? As-”

“Mister Yousafzai-”

“-as fodder? No, I-” He cut himself off as William wiggled free and made an irritated noise. Shuja took a shuddering breath and forced the gentle anger out of his voice again. “I have changed my mind. Better to suffer this thing than risk worse. I am sorry, I-”

“Praem, take the boy upstairs to his bedroom, please,” Evelyn grumbled, and I could tell she was at the limit of her patience.

“Evee, be gentle,” I murmured.

“No, no you will not-” Shuja started to say.

“I am going to explain to you why this is necessary,” Evelyn said, dead-toned. “And I am not going to do it in front of a child. Praem, please.”

“Young master William,” Praem sang, and offered her hand to the little boy.

William, utterly unafraid, reached out and took Praem’s hand. For a moment, his father was reluctant to release him, but Praem fixed her eyes on Shuja and William spoke up, as if channelling the doll-demon’s will. “Daaaaaaad,” he said, as if embarrassed. “I wanna show her the new spider book. Pleeeease?”

“I enjoy spiders,” Praem intoned.

Shuja let go. Praem led William out of the kitchen. A moment later we heard the sound of two pairs of feet mounting the stairs.

“Never have guessed she’s good with kids,” Twil said.

“Hey,” Raine said softly to Shuja’s hollow-eyed look. “Praem’s one of the two people here who can break concrete with her bare hands. If this goes wrong and something comes for your kid, it’ll run into her first.”

Shuja swallowed.

“Yeah, real reassuring, clever-clogs,” Twil grunted.

“How much contact do you have with Amy Stack?” Evelyn asked.

Shuja snapped out of his fear. “I’m … I’m sorry?”

“I am trying to make a judgement about something which you would be better off not knowing, but which you are forcing me to tell you. How much contact do you have with Amy Stack? She is part of why this has happened.”

“Oh, oh. That is what I feared.” He sighed heavily, took his glasses off and wiped them on the hem of his jumper. “What has she done?”

“You know what she is?” Raine asked.

He smiled to himself, very faintly and very sadly. “She thinks I am a fool, that I do not know what she does. But I do, or at least some of it, and I try my best not to think about it. I know the nature of what I love.”

I swallowed, unspoken empathy hot in my throat.

“How. Much. Contact?” Evelyn prompted.

“She visits William every two weeks, except when she cannot due to … work,” Shuja went on. “But she and I do not talk much. We do not really have a relationship. We never did, beyond … well. We were never married, nothing like that. She ignores me, mostly.”

“Still, impressive,” Raine said, with genuine if completely inappropriate admiration. “Woman like that. Surprised you’re still breathing.”

“Raine!” I hissed, and would have elbowed her in the ribs if she wasn’t recovering from a gunshot wound.

“I am trying to do the right thing, mister Yousafzai,” Evelyn said, raising her chin and looking him in the eye.

“Yes, yes, I do appreciate that, but any risk is too much when-”

“A person did this. A person very much like myself.” Evelyn spoke slowly and carefully, and as she continued I realised with cold familiarity that she had rehearsed these words many times over. I longed to reach out and take her free hand, her maimed hand, but she had clenched it into a tight fist, and I dared not interrupt her as she continued. “He sent this thing in order to blackmail the mother of your child. To pressure her into doing a job. A job she had previously abandoned for reasons of self-preservation, because that job involves fucking with me.”

And me, I thought with a touch of nausea, but I kept quiet and let Evelyn work her oratory power.

“Oh,” said Shuja.

“Geeze, Evee, dial back,” Twil murmured.

Evee did not dial back. “I am not Amy Stack’s friend. I am very much her enemy. The job has led miss Stack into a position in which she has very few choices indeed. Her predicament presents me with a problem. She has threatened to kill me. She has threatened to kill my friends and my family. She has threatened, with very specific language, to drive a truck bomb into my house.”

“Oh, oh dear,” Shuja said, hand to his mouth, eyes wide.

“You see that I am left with a choice. Either I deal with the blackmail, I protect your son, I take you and him and this house under the umbrella of my protection, I ward him, all of which is going to involve inscribing unnatural symbols inside your home, on the door frames, under your beds, and on his skin.” Evelyn paused, and I wondered for a moment how much of this arch-mage act she was mimicking, perhaps subconsciously, from memories of her mother.

“Or, I go home,” she finished. “And have one of my associates put a bullet in Amy Stack’s head.”

Shuja stared at her, speechless as his throat bobbed with a dry swallow. He tore his eyes away and glanced at the rest of us – at Twil’s resigned shrug, Raine’s sigh and nod, my awkward smile.

“I would much rather we not do the latter,” I spoke up.

“Do not … ” Shuja managed, voice quivering slightly. “Do not make me choose-”

“You do not have a choice,” Evelyn told him. “I will force the issue. I am simply explaining why I am going to force the issue. Mister Yousafzai, I will do my best to avoid any danger to your son, but this has to be done. The man who did this has to be caught, and killed. Do I have your agreement?”

With a shell-shocked look behind his eyes, Shuja nodded.

“Good. Go fetch your boy, then stay close. You don’t have to be in here, the next room is fine. We’ll get started.”

Evelyn turned away from him without another word. Shuja hesitated, but I managed to catch his eye and nod and smile, and he hurried out of the kitchen and up the stairs to find William before the boy could teach Praem too much about arachnids.

Twil puffed out a huge sigh. “Bloody hell. Bit intense, Evee.”

“Yes,” Evelyn said, voice tired as she squeezed her eyes shut and pinched the bridge of her nose. She let out a shaking breath. I reached over and touched her elbow and she flinched slightly.

“Evee?”

“I’m fine,” she lied, unconvincingly.

“You did real good,” Raine said, low and serious. “Knew you had it in you.”

“Yes, well, whatever,” Evelyn grumbled and gestured at the bizarre statue. “Save the love-in session for later, we need to get to work.”

“No, hey, Evee,” Twil said, trying really hard to find the right words. “Good on you, yeah? Doing the right thing and all. Putting on your scary face but it’s cool and-”

“It’s not the right thing,” Evelyn grumbled – but her cheeks coloured faintly as she failed to meet Twil’s gaze. “It simply leads us to our enemy. And the fact this poor fool actually loves Amy Stack made convincing him easier. Make yourself useful, Twil, go fetch the bag from the back of the car. I need all my tools.” She waved Twil toward the kitchen door. “Please. Go on.”

“Right you are.” Twil flashed her a smile, and skittered out.

A moment of silence descended on the kitchen, on Raine and Evelyn and I, alone with the awful plastic mannequin.

“Proud o’ you, Evee,” Raine said.

“Oh, do shut up,” Evelyn muttered, squaring her shoulders and crossing her arms as best she could while leaning on a walking stick.

“No, seriously. You’re on a roll today. Haven’t seen you like this in a while. A long while, if you know what I mean.”

Evelyn gave her a look like spent coals.

“Evee,” I cleared my throat and gently touched Evelyn’s elbow again. “It’s fine to need a moment after that act. You were incredible. You really are confident about this, aren’t you?”

Evelyn turned her dark look on me, but it softened and fell apart like ash as I looked back at her. She shrugged.

“I feel confident,” she said with a sigh. “Heather, as of yesterday, for the first time in my life, I have living proof that not only am I nothing like my mother – I am her opposite. It has rather sharpened my mind.”

“Yeah, she sucked arse, you’re kickin’ rad,” Raine said with a grin.

I tried not to giggle. Evelyn rolled her eyes. “Very eloquent, Raine,” she drawled. “Right. Ground rules, mm. I doubt we can get this thing’s feet up, which means I’m going to have to draw directly on the kitchen floor. And don’t touch it unless I instruct you.”

“Am I going to have to … well, send it away?” I asked. I shivered inside at the prospect of touching the thing. In the end it was just a plastic figure wrapped in barbed wire, but something about it made my skin crawl, made my tentacles retract, forced my instincts rebel against making contact.

“Not yet,” Evelyn said. “First I’m going to take it apart, see if I can trace it back to the man who did this. Or at least to somebody who works for him.”

==

Seven magic circles, two rounds of weak tea, and ninety minutes later, Evelyn finally admitted she had no idea what we were dealing with.

The circles hadn’t worked, an increasingly complex series of enclosures around the statue’s feet which had failed to produce any effect whatsoever, except for covering the kitchen floor and part of the cabinets in chalk-scrawled Latin and symbols which made my eyes water. They were intended to flush out whatever power lurked inside the plastic, or cut the remote piloting and hand Evelyn the reins, or simply poke the thing with enough magic to force a self-preservation response. She’d tried everything short of physical violence, including one circle which she made everybody back away for, but the thing just stood there, inert.

About twenty minutes into the experiments, we’d made a collective mistake: Evelyn had looked away, I’d been looking at Evelyn, Twil had turned to pick up her cup of tea, and Raine had been sitting in the chair I’d fetched for her and closed her eyes in brief exhaustion, leaning heavily on her crutch. Praem had been out in the corridor entertaining William with a game of ‘thumb war’ – using a fraction of her actual strength, I’m sure – taking a break from the work of physically inscribing Evelyn’s magic circles.

For about two seconds, nobody had been looking at the carved and bound mannequin.

Then Twil had jumped out of her skin and growled like a startled hound. We’d all whipped around to find the thing had straightened up, moved about eight inches away from the kitchen counter, and turned its painted face to point at Evelyn.

“Fucking cunt bitch arse,” Twil had sworn.

“Language,” Evelyn muttered, fascinated. “The boy can hear you.”

Since then, we made sure to keep at least one pair of eyes on it at all times.

But now Evelyn gave up, exasperated at the thing, and told Praem to get up off the floor. The doll-demon stood, placed down the piece of red chalk she’d been using to draw yet another circle, and dusted off the knees of her borrowed skirt.

“Still nothing?” I asked, a little cautious of Evelyn’s thundercloud frown.

“It’s nonsense,” she all but spat at the plastic clothing dummy. “It’s nothing. I don’t understand. We saw it move, we saw it was in another position, but it’s nothing.”

“Maybe it’s a red herring,” Raine mused from her chair.

“We saw it move,” Evelyn repeated. “If it moves, it must possess some animating force, but it is not possessed. It’s not a vessel for anything, not like Praem. There’s nothing in there, no strings, no control. All this, this … ” She waved her walking stick at the spirals and barbed wire, and I got the impression she very much wanted to just give the thing a good hard whack. “This is all so much bullshit. None of it does anything, none of it is magic, it’s all for show.”

“What if something picks it up and moves it around?” Twil asked, squinting in thought. “Like, when we’re not looking?”

“Oh don’t be so completely stup-” Evelyn cut herself off and frowned at Twil. “Alright, that’s possible. You may be on to something.”

Twil grinned at the praise. “Go me.”

“It’s not such a bad idea … ” I said, trailing off as my stomach clenched up tight. I’d seen nothing enter, no pneuma-somatic tentacles adjusting the mannequin, no secret forces moving the limbs.

“Alright, well, I can rule out any adverse effects from the object itself,” Evelyn said, huffing as she gathered her patience once more. “Twil, I want you to do the honours.”

“The what?” Twil asked.

“Smack it upside the head.”

“Oh, Evee, no,” I said, as my phantom tentacles tried to physically pull me backward out of the kitchen. Raine saw me shudder, and put her hand on the small of my back. “I really don’t think we should touch it. I really don’t.”

“I respect your caution, Heather,” Evelyn said. “But it’s inert. It does nothing. And Stack touched it before, remember?”

“It moved!” I hissed.

Evelyn frowned at me. “You’re going to have to touch it too, eventually, to get rid of it. Heather, where is this coming from? Is this an instinct thing? Tell me, it may be important.”

“I … I don’t know,” I admitted, blushing and confused. “It feels wrong. Like … like being on the ocean floor and seeing food out in the open, too obvious. Maybe just brainmathing it Outside first is safer, instead of having Twil stick her hand in the fire?”

“Oi,” Twil said.

Evelyn considered me, then the mannequin, then Twil. Raine just shrugged.

“You think it’s bait?” Evelyn asked, and didn’t wait for an answer. “Possible. But getting rid of it will cost us this lead.”

“If I send it Outside and nothing happens I can always bring it back,” I said. “I’ll need a sick bucket, but I can.”

“Oi, hey, shut up,” Twil said. “If this is a trap, you ain’t touching it first. I’m invincible, remember? Danger can sit and swivel. Watch!”

And before we could stop her, Twil reached out and grabbed the plastic forearm, just behind the loop of barbed wire.

I winced and flinched. Evelyn stiffened. Raine raised her eyebrows.

Nothing happened.

“Nothin’ to it!” Twil said with a smug grin.

“Twil!” I whined.

“Yes, how very brave,” Evelyn drawled.

Raine gave her a little round of applause and a full-throated ‘wheeeey!’ Drawn by the commotion, William’s little face appeared around the kitchen door, shadowed by Praem, and Shuja behind them both.

“Doesn’t budge an inch though,” Twil said, straining backward and grunting, planting both her feet and trying to shift the elbow joint, or just pull the figure over onto the floor. “Not kidding,” she grunted through gritted teeth, muscles locking beneath her hoodie and coat as she contorted herself for better leverage.

“Curious,” Evelyn mused. “As if anchored in space itself. Perhaps if we cut into it and-”

Shivering threads of light caught my eye.

“Oh,” the breath went out of me. My eyes went wide. The bottom dropped out of my stomach. “Twil, stop!”

Gossamer-thin and steel-strong, invisible when still, catching diamond light when disturbed. Vibrating with the transmitted energy of Twil’s strength, wrapped around the plastic mannequin’s neck and fingertips, pulled taut over our heads and beneath the lintel of the kitchen door and out into the corridor.

Praem was looking up too. None of the others could see them.

Pneuma-somatic spider-silk.

No wonder I’d missed the invisible component. Couldn’t see it until you touched it.

Out in the short little corridor which led to the stairs, a huge shadow – the one I’d assumed had been merely a lack of lighting up on the second floor – shifted like a tapeworm coiled in the guts of the house, a million folds writhing over themselves as the owner parted its own camouflage. A single pale-white insectoid limb, long as two people, furred in the off-white of fresh pus and twisting every which way with far too many multi-directional joints, groped in upside-down through the kitchen doorway, tracking along the ceiling.

Pneuma-somatic flesh, but unnatural. Each piece of thick chitin armour-plate was too regular to be the product of anarchic spirit life.

I swallowed a hiss.

“Heather?” Raine sensed my fear first, hauled herself out of her chair and moved to protect me from something she couldn’t even see.

“Twil, away from the mannequin, now,” Evelyn snapped. “Heather, what do you see? Praem, what is it?”

“I think Edward made a servitor,” I whispered.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

water of the womb – 12.2

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

“What sort of desperate idiot would stick his dick in you?” Raine asked Amy Stack.

I winced and let out a sigh. Perhaps not the most diplomatic opening salvo to get Stack to open up again, but under the circumstances I found it difficult to blame Raine for getting some light psychological revenge. At least she was smiling.

Evelyn was less understanding. I caught her rolling her eyes.

“Like screwing a rat trap filled with broken glass and acid,” Raine went on. “Wouldn’t risk my fingers with you, girl, I wouldn’t get ‘em back. Or hey, who am I to judge? Maybe he was into the whole ‘Eastern European mercenary stuck in a prefab bunker for twelve months’ look you’ve got going on.” She held up thumb and forefinger as if framing Stack for a photo-shoot. “A real romantic epic, straight from the Donbass basin.”

Stack declined the bait, staring back in affectless silence.

“Stop taking your pain out on her,” Evelyn grumbled. “It’s easy, it feels good, and it doesn’t solve anything. Trust me.”

Raine turned in her chair and flashed a grin. “Who said anything about pain? I’ve got enough tramadol in me to kill a bull elephant. I am flying, Evee. Never better!”

Evelyn returned a look of such blank disbelief she could have given Stack a run for her money.

“Liar liar,” Praem sang.

“Seriously!” Raine insisted a little too hard, turning left and right and over her shoulders, to include me and even Zheng, lounging against the cellar’s back wall, in her unconvincing performance. “The painkillers work great, I’m fine. I’m only having a sit down for a proper chat with our guest here, face to face. I’m doing just fine. Fine. Don’t you worry about me, Stack.” She winked at Amy. “Word of advice, use bigger bullets next time, hey?”

Raine did not look fine. She hadn’t looked fine all morning. Swaddled in a big fluffy grey dressing gown, with dark bags under her eyes, and a pinched tightness in her face, she mostly looked exhausted.

She was the only one of us sitting down. Except for Stack.

“Raine,” I scolded gently. I was standing behind her, trying to rub the unfamiliar tension out of her shoulders.

Her grin turned into a grimace, at Stack.

“Alright. Alright, yeah,” Raine gave up. “It hurts like a red-sore whipped bitch. Hasn’t stopped aching since the morphine wore off overnight. Constipated ‘cos of the drugs. And I can’t take a shower, which sucks big fat hairy donkey balls. You ever been shot before, Stack? Know what it feels like?”

As she spoke, Raine gripped the jagged machine of black metal which lay in her lap – Stack’s gun.

She’d brought the thing down here to the cellar, laid it across her thighs like a pet cat as she’d sat down to face Amy, and I didn’t pretend to understand why. We couldn’t threaten Stack with it, and according to Raine it was out of bullets anyway. Stack had saved one for herself and then put it through Raine’s leg instead. We’d found spare magazines in her military-style webbing, but they were empty, used up in panic back in Carcosa.

But I wasn’t about to critique Raine’s emotional processing of her bullet wound. Unless she got unhealthy – and Evelyn had already called her out on that – she could carry the gun around for a week, or take it apart and eat it, or sleep with it for all I cared. If that helped.

Raine lifted the gun off her lap with one hand, pointed it at Stack, and squeezed the trigger on an empty chamber – click.

I pulled a face, but said nothing. Evelyn tutted.

Stack’s level gaze ignored the gun and travelled down, to Raine’s left thigh, to the spot Raine kept unconsciously touching when she wasn’t paying attention. The dressing was a vague bulge beneath fluffy robe and pajama bottoms.

“Waterproof tape and a plastic bag,” Stack said to the hidden wound. “Good enough for a shower.”

Raine lowered the gun and raised her eyebrows. “You serious?”

“Worked for me.”

Raine laughed through her grin, shaking her head. A real laugh. She was incapable of that bitter lack of humour which anybody else would probably have shown to a person who had shot them yesterday. Bizarre, perhaps, but her laugh made my guts unclench.

“Guess that answers my question,” she said.

“Great,” Evelyn grumbled. “I’m so glad you two have established something in common.”

Raine balanced the gun upright, resting the stock – according to her that is the technical name for the bit your put against your shoulder – against her good thigh as she gripped the ‘barrel shroud’ – another technical term I could happily have never learnt – and gazed upon the collection of black lines and shaped metal like it was an object of transcendent beauty. She sighed and shook her head, almost sadly.

“Bet you weren’t shot with a gun like this though,” she said. “I am not in good company on the business end of this thing, am I?”

Her admiration for the killing machine made me vaguely uncomfortable.

“It’s just a gun, Raine,” I said.

Raine twisted to look at me over her shoulder, a rakish grin bursting through the chronic ache around her eyes. “Just a gun? Just a gun? Heather, I’ve been shot with a genuine antique, let me have this.”

“Oh great, here we go,” Evelyn muttered.

“What?” I blinked down at the twinkle in Raine’s eyes. “Do I … do I want to know?”

“Unless I am very much mistaken, this here is a Sten submachine gun,” said Raine. “A mark two maybe, though more likely three, considering we heard her fire off, what? Two whole mags on full auto without a jam? Which means it’s sixty years old, at least. Maybe older! This little gun may have started life being pointed at actual card-carrying Nazis. How cool is that?”

I blinked at the gun, then at the pleasure in Raine’s face, and did my best to share her strange glee. “Um … well, that’s something to brag about, at least?”

“This machine kills fascists!” Raine laughed. “Maybe that’s why it couldn’t get me, huh?”

“Fetishism saves no warrior,” Zheng rumbled.

“Ahhhh, come off it big girl.” Raine grinned at her. “Let me have my fun.” She turned back to Stack. “Where the hell did you get this anyway, rob a museum?”

Stack stared back, unmoved.

“Seriously,” Raine carried on. “I’m not looking to rumble your criminal contacts or whatever, I’m just dying to know. Does the Imperial War Museum have some inventory missing or what?”

As if she couldn’t be bothered, Stack looked at the firearm. She opened her mouth with a tiny sigh. “The weapon is ex-IRA. Decommissioned.”

Somehow she managed to make the word sound sarcastic without changing the tone of her voice. A good trick, if you can manage it.

“ … fuck me,” muttered Raine, and glanced at the gun again, much more sober now.

“Great. Doubly illegal,” said Evelyn. “The gun shouldn’t even exist.”

“What?” Raine looked up, a little manic around the eyes. “No, Evee, you don’t get it. This is the coolest thing I have ever gotten my hands on. With the exception of Heather, ‘course.”

“Raine,” I tutted. Evelyn rolled her eyes.

Raine laughed again, laid the gun back across her lap, and shook her head at Stack. “Ex-IRA weapons and mercenary for a monster. Does your little boy know what mummy does for work? Can’t believe you’ve got a kid, Stack. You must make a terrible mother.”

“That’s why he lives with his father,” Stack said.

Raine, Evelyn, and I all shared a surprised look. Zheng let out a thoughtful, rumbling purr from where she lounged against the wall behind us, a sleepy tiger in the dark. Only Praem didn’t react, standing guard a few paces to Stack’s side.

That was the most Amy had opened up again since last night.

After she’d confessed to me that Edward Lilburne ‘had’ her little boy, her son, her child – whatever that actually meant – Amy Stack had clammed up again. As if compensating for a mistake, she’d closed down dropped back into her impassive, stony, affectless exterior, no matter what I’d said to her. And I had said some rather extreme things – mostly promises of help, half-formed questions, bewildered pleas, exhausted sighs.

But she’d responded to nothing, except to say, “Go to bed, Morell.”

So I had. I’d checked with Zheng that she didn’t need to sleep – “Pleasure, but not need, shaman. My muscles and memory are fuelled differently to you monkeys.” Then I’d crept out of the cellar, back into the light, to find Praem and Lozzie waiting for me in the kitchen, Lozzie half-asleep and Praem ready to carry her to bed.

We’d gone to sleep. I’d snatched a few hours.

Raine had woken early. The dull pain in her thigh had kept her from further rest, despite her valiantly stupid protests to the contrary. I’d helped her downstairs in the wee hours of the morning, helped her swallow painkillers and carefully noted down the time and the dose and when she was allowed more.

But sleep had not returned. My lover had a bullet wound closed by eleven stitches, and tramadol was not morphine.

I’d seen those stitches up close, earlier that morning. Raine had put up a token resistance as I’d examined the How to care for your surgical wound pamphlet and begun cutting dressing and gauze to the length specified in the doctors’ instructions, but I’d shushed her with a frown and a tut. She’d obediently sat on the bed and allowed me to peel off the bandage, pull back the cotton wool and gauze, soaked with a patch of slow-oozing blood, and reveal the wound.

Two ugly, jagged, red lines of damaged flesh, puffy and irritated, surprisingly close together, closed with thick dark thread through Raine’s soft skin. She hadn’t been exaggerating when she’d called it a flesh wound. The bullet had barely grazed her, passing through her thigh at an angle – but even these little things were messier than I was expecting, these little holes that had made her bleed so much.

I had to very carefully stop thinking about Raine’s physical fragility, and concentrate on applying the prescribed antibiotic ointment. Raine gritted her teeth against the sudden sting, and waited patiently for me to cushion her in gauze and bandage once more. She’d leaned heavily on her unfamiliar crutch when moving around, kept unconsciously reaching for her thigh, and grinned through the grinding pain of a slow-healing wound.

I’d told her about Stack. We’d gone downstairs, found Evelyn eating breakfast with Praem sitting on the other side of the table, and told her too.

And now, very early in the morning on a dreary Sharrowford Sunday, with dozing streets and low sky like a leaded ceiling, with thickly cold air rustling the branches of the tree in the back garden, with the old iron radiators putting up a final last stand against the straggling ladders of spring, we had all descended into the cellar to question Amy Stack.

All but those of us still sleeping. I’d checked on Lozzie, snuggled up beneath her bed covers like a beaver in a dam, sleeping off the lasagna. Tenny had joined her after Raine had woken up. Evelyn assured us Twil was a late riser. I didn’t ask which bed the werewolf was in.

The cellar was no more welcoming by day. Even with the door wide open, precious little sunlight reached down into the deep.

Stack saw our reaction and shut her mouth again, as if she realised she’d said too much.

“Lives with his father? Your baby-daddy’s still alive?” Raine asked with wide-eyed mock-shock. “Well blow me down with a feather, I didn’t expect that. Woman like you should have eaten him after, like a spider does. Lemme guess, he had to tie you up during the act, while you were turned on, so you didn’t cannibalise him in the afterglow? Was he into that? Bit of a freak? Takes all sorts, I guess.”

“He is a good man,” said Stack, level and affectless.

I had to suppress a cough of surprise.

“Oh yeah?” Raine shot back, still grinning. “What counts as ‘good’ in your books, Amy? Deft hands with a executioner’s axe? Body count in the low triple-digits? Blind and limbless?”

“He knows nothing about what I do,” Stack replied. “He is not involved in our world. He is of no interest to you. If you take his location from my mind, do not harass him or hurt him.”

“Or what?” Raine asked.

Stack had no reply to that.

“Amy?” I spoke up from over Raine’s shoulder. “What’s your little boy’s name?”

Stack looked at me, stone-cold empty.

“Ahhh come on,” Raine joined in. “If we’re gonna go in swinging and rescue your kid, we need to know what name to call.”

Stack flexed beneath her clothes and the ropes binding her to the chair, and I realised that she’d bristled, the closest I’d seen to her expressing honest, open anger.

“I am not afraid of you or your polycule-” she said.

“Polycule?” I blurted out, bewildered.

“-and neither is mister Lilburne,” she finished.

Raine was laughing and I didn’t understand why.

“We are not a ‘polycule’,” Evelyn grumbled.

“Are we not?” Praem sang, and Evelyn turned a frown on her – though more delicately than I had ever seen her do so before.

“You people have a tendency to collect others,” Stack said. “You will not add me.”

“We don’t want you,” Evelyn said, quick and nasty.

“Yeah, hey, don’t flatter yourself,” Raine agreed, tamping down her laughter. “We haven’t yet ruled out putting you in a shallow grave.”

“Raine,” I hissed under my breath, though there was no hope of Stack not hearing. “I told you, we are not carrying out a cold-blooded execution here. Absolutely not.”

“She’d do it to us, Heather,” Raine countered. “She will, if we give her the chance.”

“Mm,” Evelyn grunted.

“We might have to,” Raine said, no longer laughing at all.

I ran a hand over my face and tried to regain control of the situation. “But … but not yet. Alright. Okay. Amy, we- you know we-”

“William,” said Stack.

“ … William?” I echoed, blinking at her – but she was staring back at Raine, focused and intense. “That’s his name? That’s very … traditional. A very noble sort of name?”

“After the fuckin’ prince?” Raine scoffed at her. “Didn’t take you for the type, Stack. Royalist and psycho? You got any redeeming features at all?”

“William Stack, then?” I asked, gently.

“William Selani Yousafzai,” said Amy.

Not a trace of gentleness in her voice, like she was reading off a target list.

Raine whistled, raising her eyebrows. “Hell of a name. Bit difficult to believe you’d-”

“English first name,” said Stack – with a touch of actual defiance in her voice, a hidden blade. “Father’s family name. Easier that way.”

Raine put her hands up. “Hey, I didn’t mean to imply-”

“William Yousafzai,” I echoed. “Unique, wow, yes, um-”

“There are very few ways to make me angry, Haynes,” Stack spoke calmly, over both of us. “Keep going and find out.”

“Why you?”

Evelyn’s question cut across all of us, with the tone of an adult tired of listening to children argue over the rules of a made up game.

Stack did Evelyn the courtesy of making eye contact, though didn’t answer. A cold, lizard-stare, locked in place, unblinking.

“I have looked into the eyes of a demon living inside my own body,” Evelyn told her. “You are not intimidating. Answer the question. Why you?”

“Why me what?”

“There’s plenty of thugs out there willing to do violence for money,” said Evelyn. “And stupid enough to walk through a gateway to Outside. It doesn’t take child kidnapping to convince a warm body to point a gun at something they don’t understand. What’s so special about you?”

“Oh, right,” Raine said under her breath. “Yeah Stack, why you?”

“Experience,” Zheng purred.

Stack looked at Zheng, then at the rest of us one by one, then settled back on Raine. Her natural foe, something like herself.

“There are very few people in this country capable of putting together a team of skilled operators, on short notice,” Stack said.

“Operators?” Raine echoed, laughing. “Listen to you, with this Call of Duty bollocks.”

“I have the contacts to do that,” Stack went on. “Certain people I used to work with trust me to be honest.”

“And were you?” I asked, suddenly and darkly fascinated. “Who was the man we saw die, back in Carcosa?”

“Not a cultist. He knew the risks, signed up for the pay.” Stack made eye contact with me and I shuddered inside. “Mister Lilburne wanted a team to go out there and collect certain books. I told them all the truth, about what we were walking into. I … ” her voice faltered, as if confused. “Tried to. They did not handle exposure well. But everyone with me in the … library,” her voice stalled again, “was a competent professional who understood what they were getting into.”

“No they didn’t,” I said.

“ … no, they didn’t,” she said quietly, after a moment.

“You’ll get no forgiveness from me,” I told her. “Not for that.”

Incredibly, Stack lowered her gaze from mine, and looked at the floor.

“Who on earth are you, Stack?” Raine asked, fascination shining in her voice. “Where’d you come from? Ex-military? Organised crime? Professional mercenaries with back channels to continuity IRA groups aren’t exactly common-and-garden critters, not in these here green and pleasant isles, if you know what I mean?”

Stack stared at her, stone-cold again. “Do you have a mobile phone on you?”

“Sure. Not gonna let you make a call though. We’re not playing by those rules.”

“Do a google search for ‘TCAS International Advisory Group.’”

Raine pulled a sceptical, amused frown, but I was curious, and squeezed her shoulder in silent encouragement. She pulled her phone out of her pocket and thumbed the screen open, doing as Stack had asked.

“Ignore the first two results,” Stack said as Raine typed. “Third should be a newspaper article. Morning Star.”

“Morning Star it is, good taste,” Raine murmured, frowning down at the screen as she scrolled, as we both realised what we were looking at. “Fifth result though, not third.”

“Mm,” Stack grunted. “World forgets us quickly.”

Raine opened the article – with that distinctive red banner along the top I’d seen on her phone before – and read the title out loud. “‘Westminster concealing funds to private military companies in Helmand Province.’ August third, two-thousand ten.”

“There’s a picture,” Stack said. “Scroll down.”

Raine scrolled down.

In the middle of the article, as an eyecatch for the inattentive reader, was a photograph of a place on the other side of the world.

Soaked in baking sunlight from a sky of iron-hammered blue, shrouded in that mantle of wind-teased dust which I remembered on television news from when I was a child, a group of about a dozen people stood facing the camera. They looked half like ramshackle robots, half like an amateur football team, and all terrifying. Gathered around some kind of dun-brown armoured transport, some pulled cocky show-off smiles, some were grim behind mirrored shades, some sported helmets, some wore bushy beards. All of them were white, all of them carried webbing and over-complex black-and-dun rifles, nothing like the ancient lump of metal on Raine’s lap, modern things with sights and plastic stocks like over-designed kitchenware. Between body armour and camo-print and makeshift head-scarves and the way they were festooned with guns, none of them wore anything that could be mistaken as a uniform.

A caption below read: ‘Private contractors caught celebrating in a candid moment, somewhere in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Passed anonymously to our sources by one of the men pictured.’

The group contained two women. One stood at the back. She was looking off to the left as if she’d just seen something, through wraparound shades beneath the shallow peak of a camo-print helmet. In her arms was some kind of long-barrelled rifle with a funny wide bit at the end. She wore a flinty, affectless expression, unmistakable even at the grainy resolution of a phone camera circa two thousand and ten.

“Oh,” I breathed.

“Let me guess,” Evelyn drawled, not bothering to lean over to look at Raine’s phone. “She’s in the picture?”

“Uh huh,” Raine grunted, and raised her eyes to Amy, cold in a way I had not often seen Raine cold before. “You were an actual PMC soldier. A real-life merc’. The real thing. Fucking Afghanistan?”

“I never fired on civilians,” said Stack. “Never murdered anybody who wasn’t already trying to kill us.”

“Yeah, that’s what they all say,” Raine shot back, not laughing. “Wasn’t me, guv’, just a few bad apples, please don’t convict me of war crimes your honour sir. Shit, Stack, I think I will shoot you.”

“Raine,” I hissed, but my heart was going too fast. We’d lost control somewhere.

“It was not a few bad apples,” Stack said, slow and level and unconcerned. “I was in an operational unit.”

“Cut the clean speak,” Raine said, the confrontation sharp in her voice. “What does that mean? Tip of the spear?”

Stack nodded. “The company – TCAS, Tactical Command and Security – was mostly hot air. They brought in under trained staff from sub-Saharan Africa, paid them ten pounds a day to guard stuff for civilian contractors, stuff the army didn’t have the manpower for. But we were the real thing. Most of the men were ex-military, enjoyed it too much, should never have been allowed to hold a gun again. South Africans, some Russians, couple of Americans. We babysat local politicians, dug out agitators, sometimes went into situations the army did not wish to be seen in. They kept the official MOD photographers away from us. Yes, I saw war crimes. I am under no illusions.”

“How long were you there?” Raine asked.

“Two thousand eight, for most of the year. Went back in twenty ten, stayed three years without leaving. I learnt to be what I am. Made a lot of contacts. Which is why mister Lilburne needed me specifically.”

Raine was shaking her head. “Why not just join the army, hey? You really wanted to go shoot-”

“The army treats women like shit,” said Stack. “The army doesn’t put women in combat roles. Fighting was the only thing I was ever good at. The only thing which gave me purpose. And I wasn’t going to rot on a council estate for the rest of my life.”

It sounded like a justification, an excuse – or a reason. But Stack’s low, affectless voice gave us nothing to work with, nothing at all.

Raine tilted her head as if considering Stack from a different angle.

“Shoot me and get rid of me, Haynes,” Stack was saying, calm and easy. “I am exactly what you assume I am. Shoot me. Get it over with.”

Raine laughed again and shook her head. “And your son’s got an Afghani surname? What, you bring back a piece of exotic man-meat as a souvenir?”

Before that last word had even exited Raine’s mouth, Stack jerked forward in her seat, face a mask of burning stone, and strained against the ropes in a sudden spasm of undeniable anger.

I flinched and yelped as she almost got to her feet. Praem was on her in a split-second, hand on Stack’s head, pushing her back down so the chair-legs clacked against the cellar flagstones.

“Stay,” Praem intoned.

“Oh my goodness,” I heaved out a panting breath and hiccuped, loudly.

“Shaman,” Zheng rumbled – at my shoulder, making me jump a second time. She’d moved forward too, as if to sweep me up at the first sign of danger.

“I’m fine, I’m fine-” I lied.

“Still feel like dying, Stack?” Raine asked, very quietly. “Or have I finally pissed you off too much?”

Amy Stack did not answer. Her affectless look burned inside with naked flame. Raine had succeeded in making her exceptionally angry.

“Raine, there’s no need to be insensitive,” I managed, tutting. “Not … racially, not like that. I thought better of you, really.”

Raine had the good grace to flash a sheepish wince back at me. “Ahh, I didn’t really mean it. Wanted to see if she cares about anything except money and her own genetic offspring. Didn’t expect to hit the mark.”

“His name is Shuja.” Stack spoke unprompted, voice tight with something akin to anger. “He was a combat interpreter. And they were going to leave him behind to die.”

“Who?” Raine asked.

“All of them. The company. The army. The government. He was there when I needed somebody to watch my back, to shoot one of my own men. And I got him out, got him here, got him proper citizenship. I paid my debt. Do not make it sound perverse. Do not look down on him.”

Raine let out a sigh, shaking her head in amazement.

I felt totally out of my depth. Amy Stack came from a world I couldn’t even calibrate my thoughts to process, let alone coherently judge.

Suddenly, Zheng purred a soft question from behind me.

Kawal ta muhabbat yee, kakay geedarha?

Stack stared at her, unsurprised. “Your grammar is terrible. He would correct you.”

“Did you, little fox?”

Stack almost shrugged. I saw her shoulders twitch. “No.”

“Alright, Amy,” Raine said with a sigh. “You’ll never catch me saying this again, but I apologise. For that and that only, mind you. Just trying to press your buttons, see if you had any.”

Stack stared back at Raine. “Shoot me.”

The cellar descended into uncomfortable silence. I looked over at Evelyn, standing there leaning on her walking stick, lost in deep thought behind a craggy frown. She caught me looking and caught my eye, and pulled a resigned smile.

“We need that book, Heather,” she said.

“Do we?” I asked. “Isn’t there some way we can do without it?”

Evelyn shook her head, sighed, and shifted her weight on her walking stick. “I’ve looked over the other two. We have a treasure trove there, indeed. But to make a true Invisus Oculus, according to what little I do know, will require certain formulae which other books reference as being in The Testament of Heliopolis. And we’re not walking in through Wonderland’s front door with a half-baked approximation. We’re not even sneaking in through the back without the full thing, tested and certain. I can make us invisible to the Eye, I think. But only if I have the resources.”

I nodded, a lump in my throat, and glanced back at Amy Stack, who was locked in a intense, silent staring match with Raine. Both of them ignored us. Like cats.

“I’m exhausted, Heather,” Evelyn went on before I could gather my thoughts. “We all are. Frankly, we all need a good rest. A few weeks with no bullshit, where nothing much happens. This last week, not to mention yesterday … ” She shook her head and cleared her throat with a grumble. “Raine’s wounded, I’m … well, me. The last thing I want to be doing right now is organising a mage’s war against Edward Lilburne. I’d much rather spend the next three days taking Praem shopping for clothes.”

“Please,” Praem intoned.

Evelyn cleared her throat and nodded vaguely, but then gestured at Stack. “But we cannot keep her in our cellar for long.”

“I am a problem for you,” Stack said out loud, as if talking to Raine. “Shoot me. Take what I know, and shoot me.”

“What if we solve the problem with her little boy and-” I tried.

“We need that book,” Evelyn repeated, staring holes through Stack.

“ … I can take what she knows from her mind,” I said around the lump in my throat.

“Do it,” Stack said.

“No,” Evelyn mused. “No, Heather, I don’t think you can.”

“Evee?”

“She doesn’t know where Edward Lilburne is,” Evelyn said.

With the slow reluctance of a predator dismissing a rival only to discover its territory had been breached by something so much worse than another creature like itself, Stack broke eye contact with Raine and looked up at Evelyn.

“Oho?” went Raine. “Evee, what’s this?”

Evelyn sucked her teeth in thought as she stepped forward toward Stack. Past Raine’s chair, past minimum safe distance, into what would have been Stack’s personal space if she wasn’t tied down. Praem moved to stand at her shoulder but Evelyn gently waved the doll-demon back with her free hand, totally focused on Amy.

“Saye,” said Stack.

“You know as well as we do,” Evelyn began, slow and measured and unruffled, but tired in every syllable. “The only way to make certain your little boy is safe is killing Edward. If you knew where Edward was, you would have told us, as soon as possible. Your best hope is for us to get rid of him, quickly, before he has time to think about where you might be.” Evelyn sighed. “But you didn’t. You want us to do it, but you can’t throw in with us, because that means committing to finding him, and he has leverage over you, so if that goes wrong then a decision you made gets your boy hurt. If we let you go, you’ll have to slink back to him, and explain why we’re all still alive, which might get your boy hurt. If you’re dead, you have no responsibility. You’re trying to take the only way out that doesn’t make it your fault if your kid dies.”

Stack stared back, face a stone-cold mask. “ … I do know where-”

“You’re a soldier, not a strategist,” Evelyn snapped. “Don’t try to keep up with me.”

To my amazement, Stack visibly swallowed, throat bobbing. “Shoot me.”

“No,” Evelyn said, unimpressed. “Come out of your stupid corner and take responsibility.”

“ … I don’t know where mister Lilburne is,” Stack said. “Everything was done by intermediaries, and over the phone. The doorway to that library dimension was in a suburban house out in Coltmere village, but we had to bring all the equipment on-site ourselves. There was a man there I’d never met before, an older gentleman who opened the gate for us. Had instructions to destroy it afterward and move all the equipment. The books were to be passed to his lawyer. I don’t know where Lilburne’s been operating from. I have a phone number memorised by which I contact a middleman. Mister Lilburne would then leave messages for me, on my phone, from a protected number. Now I’m here. I’m out of the loop.”

“Thank you,” Evelyn said, dripping sarcasm.

“I know nothing. I am useless. Shoot me.”

“How do we know any of that’s the truth?” I asked. “Not that I wish to disbelieve you, Amy, but … well … you are … um-”

“She’s not lying,” Raine said softly.

“Shoot me. Have Zheng eat me. Send me … send me Beyond. Get rid of me,” Stack said again, and the chill in her voice hurt to hear.

Evelyn gave her a look, and I could see she was seriously considering the option.

“No,” I spoke up. “We’re not killing anybody if we can avoid it. Cold-blooded execution is a step we can’t come back from, and I cannot believe I am having to say that out loud. Evee, no.”

“She is a liability,” Evelyn murmured. “Until Edward is dead, she is a liability. And what do we do with her in the meantime, hm? She’s a human being. She needs to eat and drink and take a shit now and again. Are we going to have Zheng brush her teeth for her while we keep her tied up down here? What if it takes weeks for us to find Edward?”

“Then weeks is what it takes,” I said, groping for justification.

Evelyn shot me a sidelong frown. “Have you forgotten what this woman is, Heather? Who she helped? Who she worked for?”

“Not for a second,” I said, and managed to keep the quiver out of my voice. “She is a monster, yes. She deserves trial and conviction, for … for everything with Alexander, at the very least. For whatever part she had in all those dead people. But she’s harmless to us like this, and I refuse to kill a person in cold blood. And I won’t have either of you do it.” I glanced back at Zheng. “And don’t even offer. We are not for this, we can’t be judges and executioners like that. The cost to ourselves is too high.”

Evelyn tutted. “As you’ve said before.”

“This is the same problem as with Sarika.”

“Sarika isn’t dangerous anymore,” Evelyn drawled.

“I will do as you need, shaman,” Zheng rumbled. “But this fox will not lie still in the trap. Quicker to snap her neck.”

Raine laughed a single, humourless laugh and shook her head.

“I think-” I spoke up and hiccuped. “I think I am about to be outvoted. Aren’t I?”

Stack closed her eyes in acceptance. She’d come to the same conclusion.

“We’re not killing her,” Raine said, very quietly.

“What?” Evelyn frowned back at her in surprise.

Raine shrugged and flashed a strange grin. “Executive decision. I’m with Heather on this. Plus, hey, if we can find her kid, that solves it, right?”

“Have you taken leave of your senses, Raine? No, it must be the painkillers, of course, I never thought you were a … ” Evelyn trailed off, eyes distant. I could practically see the light bulb going on in her head. “Yes,” she whispered. “That’s how we’re going to play this.”

“Save the kid, win her over?” Raine asked. “Evee, I’m tending toward mercy for Heather’s sake-”

“Well, thank you,” I tutted.

“-but Stack here is still a psycho, that’s not gonna work.”

Evelyn tutted and shook her head. “There’s been no kidnapping. Rescue is not how we solve this.”

“Eh?” Raine frowned at her.

“Do keep up, Raine,” Evelyn huffed.

“I … Evee? Excuse me?” I blinked at Evelyn. “No kidnapping? She’s lying?”

“Kidnapping a child is a high-risk move, to put it extremely lightly,” Evelyn said, apparently willing to explain for me what earned Raine a condescending huff. “Too many parts of mundane society begin to notice when a child goes missing. Well, as long as that child isn’t already homeless or vulnerable or fallen through the cracks. School, police, social services. Slow machinery, but it does move, eventually. That’s why my mother kept me strictly off the books.” Evelyn pulled a grimace. “If Edward is not stupid – and I don’t think he is – he wouldn’t even outsource something like this. A smart strategist is not going to legally implicate himself with a kidnapping case, even at arm’s length, not with anybody who might roll on him if the police catch up.”

“What if Eddy’s actually a twat?” Raine asked.

Evelyn completely ignored her. “And I can find a mundane missing person, if they’re within about a hundred miles. I have the necessary spells, it’s not hard, assuming we can get a sample of hair, maybe from a pillow, or a nail clipping, or any other cast-off piece of body.”

She looked back down at Stack.

“It would be an extraordinarily stupid move,” she went on. “It would lead us right to him, or whatever legal or extra-legal appendage he’s using. So, Stack, if I offer to find your son, what do you tell me?”

“He has my little boy,” Stack repeated, with a note of horror and defeat creeping into her voice, a hollow sound that made my heart ache, even for this monster. “But it’s not a kidnapping.”

“Bingo. Do share, that’s a good girl,” Evelyn drawled.

Stack stared back, silence.

Evelyn rolled her eyes. “Fine. If I offer to protect your son, under my auspices, me, Evelyn fucking Saye,” she said with relish, “with every piece of power I have at my disposal, what do you say, little thing?”

“Take the offer,” Praem intoned, softly.

“My boy and his father have an unwanted house guest,” Stack said. “I couldn’t get rid of it. Neither can you. The day after I tried, I got the first call from him, the request to come back in. The threat was obvious. Shoot me, and Edward might call it off.”

Evelyn turned to me with a smile of grim triumph. “And there’s the thread we pull to find the puppet master.”

“Shoot me.” Stack swallowed. “Please.”

==

Twenty-Seven Meadowfields Road was a squat and grimy two-story terraced house, in a row of similarly squat and grimy two-story terraced houses, set back from the potholed road itself behind a tiny bricked-in garden which had seen neither grass nor flower for many a year. Covered in awful 1960s flat cladding which looked like diseased sand peeled from a beach, punctuated by white plastic windowsills and black drain-piping and the alien spacecraft of a satellite television dish, it did not look like a very nice place to live.

A battered old compact car lurked half-up on the pavement. It was, after all, Sunday lunchtime.

Praem pulled Raine’s car to a stop on the opposite side of the road, and killed the engine with deft, efficient motions of her hands. Evelyn sat up and squinted through the passenger-side window, and the three of us in the back craned to see as well.

“His neighbours are probably at home,” Twil grunted, frowning and huffing and almost growling with how much she disliked this. “Gotta do this quiet like.”

“If anything requires making a lot of noise,” Evelyn said, “then we are not up to it. Not right now.”

“Speak for yourself, I’m ready to fight a bull,” Twil hissed.

“I don’t need my legs to pull a trigger,” Raine said.

“No gunfire,” Evelyn said through her teeth. “This is social work. If we have to remove something by force, best Heather does it.” Evelyn glanced at me, sandwiched between Raine and Twil in the back seat, and I shot her a nervous smile of acknowledgement.

“Good deeds,” Praem intoned.

Twil shook her head. “Can’t believe we left her alive when she didn’t know shit.”

In the end, Stack had given up the address without torture or hyperdimensional mind-rip. I suspected she knew this task was inevitable either way, and she’d rather we go into it with all the energy we could muster. I wasn’t certain if Evelyn had made her see sense, or if she had other plans once we were gone, but Zheng was still watching her, and I had complete faith in my giant beautiful zombie to keep Amy Stack firmly in that chair until we returned home. Then, well, we’d see.

Praem had driven us, a slightly risky decision considering she neither had a licence nor officially existed, but there was no way Raine was going to drive across Sharrowford with one functional leg. I was not privy to the details of clutch and brake and accelerator, but I was assured by Evelyn’s snippy comments that this would have been a bad idea. So Praem took the helm, and we went along for the short ride. She was careful, precise, and drove at a perfectly safe speed.

“She is an asset,” Evelyn said, still watching the house.

“She’s a fuckin’ psycho.” Twil elbowed the back of Evelyn’s seat and got a glare in return. “You can’t be serious, shut up.”

“We are going to ward this house to the gills. We’re going to ward the boy. This is my city, my territory, I am not having this happening to a child, not here. And it binds Stack to us. If I get rid of the ‘unwanted guest’ and then ward the house, then a threat to me is a threat to her child. She does care about more than money, and we can protect it better than she can.”

“Why bother?” Twil grumbled.

“Because if these strings don’t lead us back to Edward, then she will do, if properly motivated.” Evelyn glanced into the back seat, at me. “Anything, Heather?”

“I hate this idea as much as Twil,” I said. “Evee, when I said we shouldn’t kill her-”

“I mean, do you see anything?” Evelyn said, with infinite patience. “Let’s just get this part done. Then we can debate.”

I sighed and looked through the car windows again, to show willing. “Just regular spirit life. There’s … ”

A cross between a squid and a komodo dragon, scales reflecting grey sky like tiny mirrors, was basking on a nearby rooftop. At the far end of the street, a pack of things like jackals with faces like melted masks were playing some kind of physical game which involved rushing back and forth from each other. A twenty-foot figure of shadow and wings stood a few gardens down, staring up at the sky. Overhead, a whirligig spinning top of rippling flesh bobbed along on invisible currents, trailing thousand-foot tentacles behind it.

“Nothing important,” I finished.

“Right. Raine, make the call.”

Raine produced her mobile phone and brought up the personal number which Amy Stack had divulged. We hadn’t called ahead, in case other parties were listening in and decided to get here before us. She pressed the call button. Four rings, then the line connected.

“Hello?” I heard from the other end – a man’s voice with the faintest hint of a Pashto accent.

“Hello, good afternoon good sir,” Raine launched into her full-blown customer-service good-girl voice and shot a thumbs up at the rest of us. In any other situation I would have burst out laughing, it was so bizarre. I wondered where she’d learnt how to speak like that. “Am I speaking to mister Shuja Yousafzai?”

“Speaking,” the man replied, curious but wary. Even down the phone his voice was worn out and stretched thin. In one of the windows of number Twenty-Seven, a curtain twitched. “Who is this?”

“We’ve come about your pest problem,” Raine said, bright and happy, grinning wide.

“I’m sorry? I didn’t call anybody from any pest control company, I don’t understand. You must have a wrong-”

“Yeah, you don’t understand,” Raine spoke right over him. “An old comrade of yours sent us, to solve your pest control problem.”

Silence. A long, horrible moment of silence, during which I shared the cold shiver that must have come over the poor man inside that house, peering out of a crack in his curtains at a world that had sent a monster to haunt his son.

“Ah,” he breathed eventually. “The … pest. Yes. The pest problem. I will … I will come to the front door. I have a … I am armed, if you are … if you are not what you say you are. Show yourself, I will come to the door.”

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water of the womb – 12.1

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We went home.

Bruised, bandaged, and bullet-holed; aching, exhausted, and adrenaline-crashing; laden down with replacement dressing and gauze and cotton wool, a prescription for antibiotic ointment and a very impressive bottle of painkillers; carrying a hospital-issue crutch and a glossy instructional pamphlet with the inviting title How to care for your surgical wound – not to mention smuggling a stack of stolen lasagna – we finally left Sharrowford General Hospital, six hours after we’d arrived.

No police questioned us. No mysterious figures in yellow approached us. No spirits dared irritate me.

We took a taxi, which Evelyn quietly paid for over the phone. A real one, like a tiny bus, with more than enough space in the back for the four of us. Sharrowford’s public buses were perfectly serviceable, but the stop nearest to home would still have left Raine limping and hobbling for half a mile to reach our front door, zonked out on morphine.

“God bless the NHS,” was the last thing Raine muttered, before she fell asleep on the way home.

Nobody stopped the car. No pallid mask smiled back from my reflection in the taxi’s window. Lozzie did not disappear.

It was just us and the slowly passing lights amid the darkness of Sharrowford at night, seen through the back windows of a very ordinary taxi, driven by a very ordinary middle aged man, with a very ordinary radio station playing softly in the front of the car. Raine’s sleepy head lolled on my shoulder. Twil chewed her tongue and watched for threats that did not appear. Lozzie protected her haul of stomach-threatening food in her lap, now and again raising her fingers to wave at some roadside pneuma-somatic life, making eyes at giant insects which clung to the sides of buildings, smiling at stalking abominations lurking in alleyways, winking at tree-like tentacles which rose above distant houses.

Number 12 Barnslow Drive rose into view like a dark hillock growing from a forgotten gap in the orange street-lighting, all shuttered and closed and thorny, camouflaged by ivy and crumbling brick and cracked roof tiles backed by grimy tarpaulin. In a more popular neighbourhood, our home would be the subject of childhood urban legends, the house full of witches and ghosts.

We woke Raine up and helped her out of the car and up the garden path, as she hobbled along and laughed at her own clumsy inexperience with the crutch tucked under her left shoulder.

Home.

Through all my teenage years, my family home was never a true refuge. Home meant punctuation between stays at Cygnet children’s hospital, or the long stagnation between the few opportunities to go to school. Home meant taking my medication on time, pretending I didn’t see monsters, and trying to make my parents happy. Home meant denying Maisie ever existed. Home was not unsafe, but neither was it mine.

Number 12 Barnslow Drive was a fortress.

A Saye fortress, perhaps an outpost of that greater, older, semi-abandoned fortress down in Sussex, that estate full of magical secrets and rotten memories that Evelyn would one day inherit. And we’d cross that bridge when we reached it, I would help her clean out that old manor house and banish her mother’s ghost, if that was what she wanted. But this fortress here in Sharrowford was, for the moment, ours. Warm, full of the people I love, protected from the nightmares that had plagued half my life, and quite possibly the safest place in the world from which to sally forth and rescue my sister.

Praem opened the door and spilled light across us as Raine limped up the steps. We got her over the threshold and into the warm soft-lit familiarity of the front room, and once that door was closed stout and sensible against the night outside, locked and bolted and double-checked, once we were in and home and safe, I felt so much better.

I’d lived there for only six months, but this beautiful, tumbledown, creaking old house felt more like home than anywhere else I’d ever known.

We had little spare energy for decompression or sentimentality, busy dropping bags and handing off medical supplies, Lozzie trotting off to stash her lasagnas, us bumbling about to help Raine get her shoes off, Praem holding her under the arms to keep her steady.

But Evelyn had been waiting too.

She greeted us by walking up so close to Raine, with such a conflicted expression on her face, that I thought she was going to give her old friend a hug.

But then Raine roared “Evee!” with a bouncing grin, and Evelyn stopped short.

“Yes, Raine, hello,” Evelyn sighed. “Glad to see you’re in one piece again.”

“Evee, Evee, Evee, you know a bullet’s not gonna stop me. I eat lead for breakfast. I defecate lead.”

“She is on a lot of painkillers,” I said.

“Evidently,” said Evelyn.

“And what about you, yeah?” Raine asked. She attempted to gesture with the crutch, but she wasn’t anywhere near as experienced as Evelyn, and if Praem hadn’t been holding her, I suspect she would have fallen over and dragged us all down in a tangle and probably popped her stitches open. “Feeling better? You better not go walkies again. Next time we’ll set Twil on you, and she’ll sniff you out right quick, ‘cos she’s got your scent, she’s got it goooooood.”

“You’re so lucky you’re on drugs,” Twil muttered, blushing.

“Raine,” I coaxed from down below, still trying to get her shoes off. “Lift your right foot now, come on.”

Evelyn was giving Raine a slow look up and down. Her gaze settled on the ugly grey NHS-issue crutch wedged under Raine’s left armpit.

“In some ways, I am better now than I have ever been,” Evelyn said. She nodded at the crutch. “Those things are terrible. If you’re planning on using it for more than a day or two, you’re going to want to wrap a hand towel around the armpit cradle, and keep it in place with tape, or eventually it’ll chafe when you walk. And the handle gets slippery, you’ll want something on that too, but I don’t know if we have anything.” Evelyn flicked a question at me. “How long is she supposed to go without immersing the stitches in water?”

“Uh, at least three weeks,” I answered, finally pulling off a shoe. Raine wiggled her freshly un-shod toes against the floorboards. “Then she’s got a check up, they told us not until then, at the earliest.”

“Three weeks, not too bad,” Evelyn grumbled. “I assume they’ve given her tramadol and a dosing schedule? You’ll have to track that, Heather, because Raine’s terrible at it. Make sure she takes them on time, or the pain’ll creep up on her and she’ll pretend it’s not happening.” Then she added, without missing a beat, unimpressed and droll: “Don’t ever get shot again, Raine.”

“Thas’ tha’ plan,” Raine said, and pointed double-finger guns at Evelyn, almost dropping her crutch.

“You are too important to get shot, you idiot.”

“Hey, woah, Evee-” Twil started.

“And you’re too important to walk off into the infinity library, little miss Saye,” said Raine, a manic light sparking in her eyes. “I love you, you dingbat. You super-massive giant arse-fool. You shit-goblin. Evelyn Saye, without you, I’d be dead in a ditch. I’d have eaten my own legs. I’d have bitten a policeman to death and be doing forty years in plastic cell with a muzzle on my face. Don’t walk off into the dark, Evee!”

Evelyn’s face flickered with the spark of a blazing frown, but the conflagration collapsed into a mortified blush as Raine went on, so Evelyn just huffed and looked away. “Yes, we’ve established some rather convincing reasons for that.”

“Hello,” Praem intoned.

“Get her upstairs and into bed,” Evelyn snapped. “Before the painkillers wear off. She looks liable to fall down.”

“Hey, I only fall down precisely when I damn well mean to fall down,” Raine returned with a grin, even as I tried to steer her toward the stairs. “And what about baldie in the basement? We gonna rake her over the coals or what?”

“She’ll keep a night,” said Evelyn. “Go to sleep, Raine.”

“You’ve got Zheng watching her, right?” The smile dropped out of Raine’s voice, her eyebrows drawing together in concentration, pushing past the morphine and exhaustion. “Don’t leave her alone, not for a second. I don’t care if you break both her ankles and glue her hands together, somebody needs to watch her.”

“It’s cool, Zheng won’t budge,” said Twil. “I’ve tried.”

“Yes, yes,” Evelyn grumbled. “She’s not going anywhere, not … yes, Lauren?” Evelyn cleared her throat. “What is it?”

Lozzie had spent the last two minutes emerging from the kitchen again and slowly creeping up alongside Evelyn, in plain view, as if approaching a particularly skittish cat, one prone to clawing and hissing. An impish little smile graced her face, and she held one of her hard-won pasta treats in her arms.

“Evee-weavy, want some lasagna?” she asked.

“ … what?”

“Hospital lasagna,” I sighed.

“Many lasaganaaaa!” went Lozzie, grinning like the wonderful little loon she was.

Evelyn was totally lost, staring at Lozzie as if the younger girl had just grown a second head. “Hospital lasagna?” she managed eventually.

“Yeah!”

She turned to me for help. “Heather?”

I shrugged. “You can say what you want. Lozzie won’t be offended.”

“I can share,” Lozzie stage-whispered to Evelyn. “But don’t tell anybody else.”

Evelyn stared at her a moment longer, then let out a grumbly noise like a old steam engine breaking down. “Let’s just say I have the stomach of a forty year old. No thank you, Lauren-”

“Lozzie!” chirped Lozzie.

“ … no thank you, Lozzie. I will allow you to reap the … benefits of hospital lasagna by yourself. Heather, are you certain you should be letting her eat all this?”

“It’s her choice.”

Lozzie bounced a miniature curtsy and scurried off into the kitchen, followed moments later by the clunk of the microwave door popping open.

We had slunk back behind our castle walls, to sleep and snuggle and play, to lick our wounds and make fresh plans.

The Saye house felt like a castle indeed.

We even had a dungeon.

==

“Tenny? Tenny, it’s very sweet of you,” I murmured, “but we have to let auntie Raine sleep now.”

“She’s fiiiiine,” Raine slurred. Her head was sunk deep in the pillow, bleary eyes barely open. “She’s purring. S’nice. Good puppy.”

“Pup-pay,” Tenny imitated in her fluttery trilling.

Raine wiggled a hand out from under the covers and stroked Tenny’s fluffy head, in mirror of how I was stroking Raine’s hair back from her sleep-addled face.

“Yes, Tenny is a good puppy.” I cleared my throat softly. “But you do need to sleep.”

“Purring has healing properties,” Raine said. “She knows what she’s doing. Good girl, goooood girl.”

Tenny’s purring had taken us by surprise. The deep sonorous vibration originated from within her chest, a long back-and-forth trill in sync with her breathing, not unlike that of a puma or a cheetah, more felidae than lepidoptera. She’d purred a few times before in fluttery fits and starts, back when we’d encouraged her into the bath shortly after her rebirth into physical flesh, but this purring was the real deal. It made her whole body vibrate in soft, slow, soporific waves. Though I was sat on the opposite side of the bed, and above the covers, I could still feel the purr through the mattress.

When I’d finally helped Raine up the stairs, with Twil trailing behind in case we needed extra lifting power, Tenny had emerged from Lozzie’s room like an animal summoned by tasty food smells. Perhaps that was the real reason, perhaps she could smell Lozzie’s lasagna in the microwave downstairs. She’d stared at us for a moment, big black eyes blinking, fluffy white fur bristling, feathery feelers twitching in thought. Some of her tentacles had still been rapidly solving a double-sized Rubik’s cube and some others were holding a children’s picture book about dinosaurs. She’d dropped both of those, tentacles extending back behind her to dump them in the bedroom, and then she’d gone straight for Raine.

Bless her, she’d sensed something was wrong.

Animal instinct or sentient intellect, I don’t know which she was following, but she decided that her top priority was to accompany us to bed, and that her proper place was snuggled up alongside Raine like a living water bottle equipped with a massage attachment. She’d even wrapped several of her silken black tentacles around Raine under the bed covers – gently, of course, laying them across her chest and belly and pressing either side of her wounded thigh. More of her tentacles lay across the sheets, twitching occasionally.

“Goo’ girl?” Tenny trilled, blinking big black eyes at me.

I sighed inside, but smiled all the same. “Yes, Tenny, you’re a good girl. But if you’re going to stay there, you have to be quiet and still, so Raine can sleep.”

“Nap,” Tenny said, and had a little trouble with the ‘p’ sound. She snuggled down tighter, wiggling her bottom, and very purposefully closed her eyes.

How could I say no to that?

“Don’t leave the house, okay?” Raine murmured, eyes closed, right on the cusp of sleep. “Don’t go outdoors while I’m sleeping.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” I whispered.

I kept stroking Raine’s hair until her breathing softened and deepened, and I was certain beyond a shadow of a doubt that she was asleep. Then I waited for a long time, sitting cross-legged on the bed right next to her, surrounded by the fuzzy edges of the shadows cast by the one lamp we’d left on. Her body seemed so indistinct bundled beneath the covers, curves and lines blurred by the thick duvet. Beyond the warm cocoon of our bedroom, the little sounds of the house at night creaked and ticked, and in the middle distance I could hear cars passing, far away on one of Sharrowford’s main roads.

The ghost of a stress headache nipped at me. My stomach was a numb hole in my midsection. My eyes were full of sand.

My head should have been nodding with exhaustion, after the day we’d had, but I’d passed beyond tired and out the other side.

I made no conscious decision to stay awake when all others were sleeping, but obeyed a dual directive from endocrine system and abyssal instinct, combined together into a lizard brain far more capable than the slow executive decision maker in my frontal lobe. Lizard brain said my mate was hurt, and I needed to guard. Lizard brain said walk the castle walls, look out for saber-toothed tigers and leviathan predators and shadowy infiltrators. Lizard brain said no sleep.

Conscious brain watched for a scrap of yellow in my peripheral vision, but none came. Yet.

“Tenny?” I eventually whispered, and got no response. I sighed and stretched my back, feeling vertebrae pop.

If Tenny hadn’t been here, I would have stood – or at least sat – vigil the whole night, which would have justified quite a telling off in the morning. Instead I eased myself off the bed, so as not to wake Raine or disturb her living water bottle, and curled my cold toes inside my socks as I considered going downstairs, to at least put some nutrients into the hole in my face.

At least, that’s what I told myself I was going to do, that’s what I focused on, to keep my pulse rate down and my stomach from churning.

I tugged on a second pair of socks to keep off the worst of the cold – the rain had weakened earlier as the clouds had broken, but that had served only to deepen the night’s chill – and found I really did not want to leave Raine alone, even with Tenny here. I stared back at her on the bed, buried in covers, snuggled up with Tenny, a big black and white purring lump.

“She’s not alone, don’t be silly,” I whispered to myself. “We’re all here. We’re all home.”

I ran my eyes over the single window, the enclosure of the walls, over our discarded clothes and Raine’s desk and the little piles of my books like rock sculptures. In my mind I saw past them, to the beams underfoot, the plaster and brick, the pipes and wires, the secret wards laid down by Evelyn’s ancestors and reinforced by her grandmother, the bones of the house unchanged for a century or more.

“Keep her safe,” I murmured.

Tenny didn’t respond, but I wasn’t speaking to her.

==

At least one other resident of number 12 Barnslow Drive was still awake.

After I crept downstairs in the dark and picked way through the detritus in the front room – and checked that yes, Twil’s battered old trainers were still by our front door – I discovered the kitchen lights burning bright, and ventured inside to find Lozzie sitting at the kitchen table, working on a second helping of lasagna.

It appeared to have defeated her.

One empty sauce-stained container lay on the table, scoured of its contents, but the second one in front of her was only a third gone. She seemed to have given up, eyes heavier than usual, a spoon loose in one hand. She had a book open on the table too, a dog-eared paperback which must have come from the small library in Evelyn’s study upstairs. Her braid was half undone, lose hair dangling toward the floor, and she was crouched on the chair like a little pixie gargoyle, her pastel-tricolour poncho over her knees like a tiny tent. Sleepy eyes rose to meet me.

“Heathyyyyyy,” she said.

Stack’s gun still sat in the middle of the table, like the centrepiece of an altar to industrial death. I tried not to look at it.

“Lozzie?” I said softly. “What are you doing still up? It’s almost eleven. You’ve had as long a day as the rest of us.”

“Eatinnnnnnn-guh.” Lozzie elongated the word and tilted her head back in childish defiance.

“Finished eating, by the looks of it,” I said. “Eyes bigger than your stomach?”

“Mmmmm,” Lozzie made a grumpy sound and pouted at the unfinished lasagna. I couldn’t help but smile.

“Really, Lozzie, don’t you want to sleep?”

“Night Praem says it’s fine.”

“Night Praem?” I echoed.

“Night Praem,” said Night Praem.

I jumped in surprise at the silver-bell sing-song from over my shoulder. All my phantom tentacles whipped around in protective impulse, one hand clutching my heart and all the breath going out of me before my conscious mind caught up and I wheezed. It was just Praem. She’d been standing next to the doorway and I’d missed her, too focused on Lozzie as I’d walked in.

“Oh, goodness, Praem. I didn’t see you there.”

She stared back at me, milk white eyes in her expressionless face.

With her habitual maid uniform ruined back in Carcosa, Praem was wearing clothes borrowed from Evelyn, a form-fitting grey ribbed sweater and a long purple skirt that I’d never seen Evelyn actually wear before. She had at least managed to dig up replacement black tights, but lacked any footwear, and her blonde hair was still a singed mess, curled up at the ends here and there, burned patches elsewhere. Her neatly folded hands sported a few plasters to cover some scratches, and I very much hoped – and suspected – that Evelyn had taken care of her other grazes and bumps.

“Mmm, well,” I had to take a couple of deep breaths. “When you say ‘Night Praem’, I imagine you dressed up in black lace and heavy eyeshadow, like a ‘goth’, is that the right word? Would you like that sort of look, Praem?”

“Black eyeliner,” Praem intoned.

“We can get you some, if you like?”

“To try.”

I nodded. “It’s good to see that you’re all cleaned up. I mean … are you … ” I struggled for the right words. “It’s a been a big day for you too, hasn’t it? How are you holding up, Praem?”

“I am loved,” she intoned.

“Praem’s been telling me all about it!” Lozzie added.

“That’s … great! Yes, Praem, yes you are.” I smiled at her, happy for whatever she’d decided but somewhat at a loss to answer that. “Where is Evee, anyway? And everyone else?”

“Evee-weavy and and fluffy went upstairs,” Lozzie supplied.

I assumed ‘fluffy’ was Twil. Who else would it be?

“Oh. Oh, that explains … um … ” I glanced at Praem and Lozzie giggled. I’d seen a light burning under Evelyn’s bedroom door upstairs, but hadn’t lingered to eavesdrop. Perhaps her and Twil were working things out, or perhaps working things out. Perhaps I should have knocked gently and stepped in to mediate. Now I was glad I hadn’t.

“Sleeping,” Praem corrected my blush-inducing assumption.

“Together?” I asked.

“No.”

“Ah. Well.”

“Well,” Praem intoned, and she could not have put it better.

“Kim came home too,” Lozzie said. “Doesn’t like to talk to me though. And Zheng’s down in the coal chute with scaryhead.”

“Scaryhead,” I echoed. “Indeed.”

I felt my gaze drawn sidelong, through the open door to the little utility room in the rear of the house. The cellar door still stood open. Nobody had thought to switch the light on back there, so all was shrouded in thick shadows tainted by the distant orange glow of Sharrowford’s street-lightning. A tiny light glowed deep down in the cellar, beckoning me to my task.

“Heathy?” Lozzie chirped. I cleared my throat and rubbed my clammy palms on Raine’s big hoodie. I was still wearing it, and very glad for it right then. Armoured in her.

“I’m fine,” I said. “Just … ” I looked at the door again.

Pbbbbt”, Lozzie blew a raspberry noise. I blinked at her in surprise and she shrugged, smiling like a little imp.

“I suppose that’s as good a summation as any. Pbbbbt indeed,” I added. Lozzie giggled and bobbed side to side on the chair. “Does … does Amy Stack scare you, Lozzie? It can’t be good having her in the house.”

Lozzie shook her head, most emphatically, hair going everywhere. “Stack is poop.”

“Poop?” I echoed delicately.

“Poop.” Lozzie lit up with a sneaky smile beneath heavy eyes. “I don’t really know her! She never came to the castle. My brother knew her from somewhere, I dunno how, and she did stuff for money and that’s bad, yeah, but she never hurt me or anything, so I dunno, but she’s working for my uncle now and that’s really bad, a really bad thing to do, he was always worse than Alex. Alex kinda loved me in his own way even if he was bad, and he’s gone now but uncle Ed is different. So Stack is poop.”

“Breakable arms,” Praem intoned – softly.

“We can’t keep her here for long,” I murmured, and turned to stare at the cellar door again. This problem would not go away by itself, this captive in our dungeon.

Lozzie slid the unfinished lasagna toward me. “Bite?”

I puffed out a big sigh. “Oh, why not? I could do with some fortifying.”

“Spoon!” Lozzie held out the spoon as I finally approached her side. “Have it all if you- oh!”

Lozzie chirped in giggly surprise as I bent down and gave her a hug. I buried my face in the shoulder of her poncho, soft and faintly fluffy, and linked my hands across her lower back as she wiggled to return the embrace. She smelled of spicy pasta, strawberry shampoo, and the undeniable lingering scent of dust and old books. Carcosa, brought back with us.

“That’s better,” I sighed.

“Mmm,” Lozzie purred into my chest.

After I had my fill of Lozzie-derived oxytocin, I let go and straightened up, and fully intended to accept the spoon and fill my belly with at least a bite or two. But my eyes met the awful lump of black metal resting in the middle of the table. Our profane trophy.

“I don’t like it either,” Lozzie stage-whispered.

“It doesn’t have to stay there,” I said, as firm as I could.

“Didn’t want to touch it.”

Time to banish the firearm. With a tea towel wrapped around my hands – I didn’t want to touch the gun either, feeling vaguely superstitious – I lifted it off the table by the weird metal shoulder bit and the thick cylinder around the barrel, and found it surprisingly heavy. Pointing it at the floor in case it somehow went off by accident, I kept my fingers well away from anything that looked like a mechanism, and held my breath until I deposited it safely onto the kitchen worktop, with the barrel pointed at the exterior wall.

“I’d put it straight in the bin,” I said to nobody in particular, “but that would be one awful surprise for the bin men. And I suppose we might need it. Maybe Raine can take it apart.”

“As revenge!” said Lozzie.

I returned to the table and accepted Lozzie’s spoon, and sat down next to her as I chewed a mouthful of faintly spicy lasagna. The hospital didn’t skimp too badly on the canteen food, it was filling and meaty and felt like concrete bricks in my belly as I went for a second and third spoonful. Lozzie rubbed my back, but I stopped eating when I realised the battered old paperback she’d been reading was a copy of Alice in Wonderland.

She followed my numb gaze to the book and flipped it shut to show me the cover – an old illustration of a tiny blonde girl talking to the disembodied grin of the Cheshire Cat. At least the grin wasn’t yellow.

“I like it,” said Lozzie.

“I … don’t,” I admitted.

“It’s nothing like your Wonderland. It’s fun! I wish I could meet Alice. She’s smart.”

I gave Lozzie a smile and handed the spoon back. She giggled and took another – very small – bite for herself.

“You were very smart today, Lozzie,” I told her, “to keep away from the police in the hospital. Maybe you’re more like Alice than I am.”

“Mmhmm!” she mumbled through a mouthful of lasagna, then swallowed and added: “Don’t wanna be found! Can’t do anything about me, I’m an adult now, but I can’t prove it and uncle Eddy could forge stuff and … mmmm … ”

She pulled a frowny thinking face, tongue working over her teeth inside her mouth.

Lozzie had nowhere to be except Outside, or by my side. I’d freed her, killed her brother, dismantled the cult she’d spent her life bound to, and I was vaguely aware her parents had not been around for quite some time. Without us, she would be homeless, penniless, and alone, but for spirits and the Outside, and she was currently cut off from one of those. Did she even have a birth certificate? A national insurance number? Was anybody except us mages and monsters aware of her?

As far as mundane society knew, Lauren Lilburne might not even exist.

“You’re sort of unpersoned, aren’t you?” I murmured softly. Lozzie turned to me and made her eyes big in surprised incomprehension, spoon sticking out of her mouth. “Lozzie, I hope you don’t mind me asking. Did you ever go to school?”

“Yeah, primary school!” she chirped.

“Oh.”

“For like a year, mum and dad did try! And I remember kind of enjoying it, but then it was all homeschooling because of the things mum and dad had to do, and then I met the big friend under the castle and everything changed and there was no more mum and dad, just me and Alex.” Lozzie bit her lip as her bouncing tone faltered, tripping on the history behind the words. “He never forgave me for anything. He never sent me to school.”

To her brother, to Alexander Lilburne, had Lozzie at least been a person? Perhaps, perhaps less. But what was she to Edward, to her uncle?

I could bend the fabric of reality to my will, could grasp the slick-black controls behind the world, if I was willing to pay the price in blood and pain and flirt with the edge of the abyss, but even I couldn’t have completed Evelyn’s gateway. I lacked the technical knowledge, the comprehension, the insight.

But Lozzie didn’t lack anything. She’d given us the first pieces, back when Alexander had forced her to set up the kidnapping attempt, when I’d been snatched by Zheng so many months ago. Lozzie had finished Evelyn’s work in finger-paint scrawl, crying, reluctant, in panic. And when we’d needed to go to Carcosa, Kimberly could not have finished the gate, the true gate to Outside. The attempt had been breaking her, twisting her mind down pathways the human brain was not meant to comprehend – until Lozzie had stepped in, and just done it.

This was what Edward Lilburne wanted. This was why her own brother had imprisoned her in a castle like a captive princess. Lauren Lilburne was a treasure-trove of inhuman knowledge, inherited in desperate love and good faith from the Fallen Star Outsider, beneath the cult’s castle.

And right now she was biting her lip, looking back at me with nervous tension in her heavy-lidded eyes.

“Lozzie? What’s wrong?”

“Um … Heathy? W-well, I don’t have any other family, so-”

Lozzie,” I tutted, without even thinking. “Don’t be silly. You have me.”

She blinked those sleepy eyes and all the strange nervous tension flowed back out of her, leaving behind just Lozzie. She giggled and rocked in her chair and cast her arms around my shoulders.

“Heathyyyy,” she crooned.

“I don’t know what we are to each other, Lozzie, but you’re family if you want to be,” I went on, and realised I could only say this without thinking about it because I was so utterly exhausted. “And if you have me, you have Raine too. And Zheng. And … maybe Evelyn, though I know she can’t deal with you.”

“She can!” Lozzie giggled.

“She can not,” Praem joined in.

When Lozzie eventually pulled away and sat back in her chair, she had to wipe her eyes on the hem of her poncho, though she was smiling bright now.

“I didn’t thank you for the knight earlier, either,” I told her. “That was another good call, more smart thinking.”

“Yeah,” she said, then smiled a bit sadly. “He died too. They’re all so good to me, but they deserve better, but they want to help you, they’re for helping you. I can’t make them and give them purpose and then tell them no … but, I don’t like it when they die. I wish I could bring them all here.”

“The house would get a bit crowded,” I said, not unkindly.

“Yeah,” Lozzie giggled.

“I’d like to see them sometime. If you made them to help me, I owe it to them, to … ” To what was inside the armour, but I needed to stand before the things themselves and ask Lozzie questions, and I couldn’t do that yet. I sighed, my thoughts turning to other problems. “I haven’t attempted a Slip in a while. Have you? Are the hands still there?”

The dead grasping hands on our ankles, that kept us here when Lozzie or I tried to Slip.

Lozzie nodded, wrinkling her elfin little nose. “I wish we knew where my brother’s body went.”

“You really think it’s him?”

I’d suspected the same thing, but didn’t like to put it in words.

Lozzie stared at the tabletop and chewed on her bottom lip. “He used to catch me. After mum and dad were gone. When it was just him and me, and all his followers. I used to escape a lot, go Outside, go everywhere. But every time I came back he’d find me and make me come home. With words and promises and stuff. I was kind of bad at finding food sometimes.” She shook her head. “And then he got me to come to the castle and I couldn’t run away anymore. It feels like him.”

“Lozzie. Oh, Lozzie.” I reached out and put an arm around her shoulders. “We did see his body, Lozzie, in Glasswick tower,” I gently reminded her – then stumbled on the memory of that shattered corpse which I had made, that corpse of which not a single cell had rotted away. “He was, well, very dead. He was just a vector for the Eye. And, um, it’s really gruesome, but … well … we … ”

“Pulled his head off,” Praem supplied.

I cleared my throat. “Yes, thank you, Praem.”

“Thank you, Praem!” Lozzie said – and she was neither disgusted, nor giggling. She really, really meant it, earnest and grateful. “But where did it go? After the tower? Where did all his followers take it? I want to know!”

“Maybe to the house where they did their ritual,” I said. “Maybe it burned.”

“Maybe,” Lozzie said, small and doubtful.

“God grant he stay dead.”

Praem spoke the words in lilting sing-song cadence. I recognised them instantly, a small variation of the epigraph Evelyn had chosen for her mother’s gravestone. Mages, difficult to put down for good.

Lozzie didn’t say anything, but she lit up at Praem in a big smile of mixed gratitude and sadness, nodding emphatically.

“And I can always do it all over again,” I said. “A second time.”

“Heather,” she whined, and pulled me back into a hug and clung on tight. We stayed that way for long enough for her to calm down, to stop shaking and to roll her head on my shoulder with the lazy, full-belly sleepiness of having eaten too much after a long day.

Murder had not been easy, and had brought no sense of satisfaction. But it had kept Lozzie safe. That was worth some portion of my soul.

==

‘Basement’ was not the proper architectural term for the single underground room of number 12 Barnslow Drive. The correct word was cellar.

Steep flagstone steps led down into gloom and stale air, always the same temperature no matter the time of year, no matter the storms or squalls or baking sun that battered the house above. Bare redbrick walls, no windows, and only a pair of tiny ventilation slits high up near the ceiling, the other ends of which I suspected had been blocked up decades ago. Two bare light bulbs hung from the ceiling, and four thick beams of very old wood helped brace the rest of the building against its own foundations.

Considering the age of the house, the cellar’s original purpose had probably been coal storage. The remains of an ancient coal-fired boiler stood testament to this history, a grand old thing rambling across one dark corner, cold for a half-century at least. A few empty wine racks against one wall showed the other use to which the cellar had once been put.

Evelyn’s family had used this space for more disturbing things, and I did not like to come down here.

The remains of many magic circles showed through as faint lines on the flagstone floor. A pair of long wooden boxes lay toward the back – open and empty, thankfully, of anything but a few scraps of cloth – unmistakable as coffins. A crate in a corner lay abandoned, covered in strange stains and shattered long ago from the inside. A twisted metal sculpture sat on a workbench, all blades and points and razor-sharp edges that would make it a nightmare to move, and small rusty-red patches attested to previous unwise attempts to lift the thing. Our own addition had joined the mysteries: a warded and circled wire mesh cage where Evelyn had kept the now-dead possessed rabbit.

A modern electric boiler glugged and hummed happily away to itself, shining a handful of green LEDs across the absurd occult detritus.

Our dungeon.

I’d left Lozzie upstairs with Night Praem and ventured down alone, curling my toes against the chill in the flagstones, half in hope that Lozzie would go to bed and half wishing that they would wait for me to return. I didn’t fancy being alone after this, but neither would I subject Lozzie to what might have to be done. My stomach clenched up into a hard ball, and down into the dark I went, stepping out onto the cellar floor.

“Shaman,” came a purr.

“Zheng,” I breathed in relief. “Hi. Hello. Oh, it is good to hear you.”

The giant demon-host was propped up against the wall past the end of the stairs, a silent sentinel in the gloom, wrapped in her long coat, still in the clothes she’d worn to Carcosa, hands in her pockets. Sharp, slow, unsmiling eyes found mine, and she extended a hand, fingers splayed at my head-height.

“Here, shaman.”

I went to her, hopping and pattering my feet in vain to spare my toes from the cold. I went straight past her hand as she tried to lay it on my head, and in the way that only a small person can slip into the personal space of a very tall person, I slid my arms beneath her coat and hugged Zheng around the middle.

She was so warm, like a banked fire inside her clothes. I squeezed her and nuzzled her without thinking and laid my head against her chest and tucked the sides of my feet up against her, seeking heat. I didn’t care if she hadn’t changed since Carcosa, Zheng needed to belong as much as the rest of us. She smelled of dust and books too, but also of hot spiced sweat and warm skin.

I realised after a few moments that she was not hugging me back. I looked up.

“ … Zheng?”

“Shaman,” Zheng laughed a deep rumble, then finally placed a hand on my head and wrapped her other arm around my shoulders, pressing me to her. “Deft. Quick. You surprise me always.”

It was entirely platonic, entirely safe, but still my heart gave a little trill inside my chest.

“Don’t be silly,” I said as I started to blush, only just realising what I’d done. “I just wanted to hug you. It’s been an emotional day, and I haven’t seen you since we got back.”

“Our catch must be watched.” She pointed past me.

I let go of Zheng and took a half step away, fingers lingering on her heat, and finally turned to face what I’d descended down here to do.

Beneath the thin light cast by the pair of naked bulbs, tied to an old chair with thick ropes and skilled knots, with wrists bound behind her back and a faint bruise on her chin and an expression like a stone carving, Amy Stack stared back at me.

Eyes like chips of frozen flint, her grey athletic wear and thin raincoat scuffed and twisted beneath the ropes around her thighs and belly and chest, muscles like a web of steel cables. The stubble on her shaved scalp was a touch longer than when we’d last met, as if she’d given up on proper grooming or decided to grow it out. As I watched, she flexed a thigh muscle, then her stomach, then a shoulder. Searching for a weakness in the ropes. The tattoos on her throat shifted as she tested her bonds.

Restrained and rendered harmless, she still terrified me. My heart rate spiked and cold sweat broke out down my back and my mouth went dry. My head felt oddly light, my pulse heavy in my throat. My phantom tentacles hovered in hair-trigger readiness.

“Stack,” I managed. “Or … Amy?”

“Morell,” she answered, flat and affectless.

“Amy,” I repeated, making my decision.

“How’s your girl?” she asked.

Not the question I’d expected. I had to gather myself before I could answer. “Raine is going to be okay. It was a clean wound. She’ll walk with a crutch for a few weeks, but she’ll be fine.”

“ … pity,” said Stack.

It was the most fake word I’d ever heard come out of Stack’s mouth. I think she tried to make it sound bitter or full of venom, but it fell so flat one could almost hear it splat on the cold flagstone floor. I blinked at her.

“Okay, well, that was absurd. You clearly didn’t even mean that,” I sighed, deeply unimpressed. “What are you trying to do?”

Stack stared at me, and said nothing.

Apart from the rope and the chair, Stack was also contained by a fresh magic circle drawn directly on the floor, in chalk, a simple spell of only a single enclosure and a few symbols, with some Latin running around the edge. Looking at it made my eyes twinge, but it didn’t hurt. Further away lay the pouches and straps of her military-style webbing, torn off her before Zheng had tied her up.

“Do you really need to stay down her to watch her?” I asked Zheng. “She’s inside a circle.”

“The fox will gnaw off a paw to escape the trap,” Zheng purred. “And this fox has experience, shaman. She has been held by worse than us. She knows how to play dead, when to be still, when to hurry, when to go for the throat. Left to herself, she will be gone in the morning.”

I smiled back at Zheng. “I thought maybe I’d made you angry or something, and that’s why you wouldn’t come upstairs.”

Zheng raised an eyebrow at me. “Worry less, shaman.”

“I will.” I turned back to Stack. “What’s the circle for? Breaking whatever hold Edward has over her?”

“No,” Zheng purred. “The wizard came down and tested her. No strings, no tendrils, no hold. This fox is clean and healthy.”

“Ah. Right. Right then.”

The exact opposite of what I wanted to hear. The worst-case scenario. If Stack had been mind-controlled or hypnotised or puppeted, that would make all the decisions so much easier, free us of the burden of choice, of needing to talk to her.

I left Zheng and went to the a pair of battered old chairs in the near corner of the cellar, and dragged one over.

“Not too close, shaman,” Zheng rumbled. “She is not roped to the floor.”

“What’s she going to do, fall on me?”

“Perhaps.”

“Well, I’m not that brave anyway.” I situated the chair a good safe six feet back from our captive, and sat down facing her.

Amy Stack stared back at me.

I took a deep breath, wet my lips, looked away, looked back again and felt my stomach tighten up as I made contact with Stack’s eyes. I was not cut out for this, but I needed to start before tomorrow morning, before the inevitable discussion over what to do with her, before we had to make horrible choices. I tucked my feet up on the seat to keep them off the cold floor, and clutched my hands together inside the hoodie’s front pocket.

“Amy,” I started. “Amy, why did you keep trying to commit suicide?”

She blinked, slowly, and said nothing.

“You were going to shoot yourself rather than be caught by that … black lightning thing, and that I can understand, and that’s why I ran down there, back in the library. Or at least half of why. But then you turned your gun on me, to get Raine or Zheng to lose their temper and kill you. Then you tried to goad us, then you tried to do it yourself. Why? You know we’re not like Alexander Lilburne, or Edward. You know that. We’re not going to do unnatural things to you. You’re not in for a fate worse than death. Or even death, if I can find any way to avoid it.”

Still nothing. Stack just stared at me, hard and blank. I sighed heavily and cast about for some other way in.

“Look, maybe you think we’re-”

“Shoot me,” she said. I leapt on the opening.

“Why?”

“I’ve tried to talk to the others,” Stack went on, and the sheer affectless level tone in her voice made me shudder. “But you’re the smart one, Morell. You have three choices. You can keep me restrained here. You can let me go. Or you can kill me. If you keep me tied up, I will eventually escape unless I am watched around the clock-”

“True,” Zheng rumbled.

“If I escape, or you let me go, then I will come back and kill you,” Stack said.

“Okay, fine,” I sighed. “But why?”

“You cannot be protected everywhere. I will find you at university and shoot you in broad daylight. I will garrote you in a toilet stall. I know how to make bombs. I will drive a truck bomb into the front garden of this house and kill you and all your friends.”

“This isn’t very convincing when you don’t have a reason. Tell me why?”

“Or you can kill me now. Make it clean. I won’t suffer, if that matters to you.”

I sighed and sagged back in the chair, all the nervous tension going out of me in a wave of uncomprehending exasperation.

“Same thing she told the laangren,” Zheng purred. “And the wizard.”

“Yes, I can tell,” I huffed. “Stack, even if I was willing to just execute a human being in cold blood – which, I’m not, thank you, not even you, even if you did shoot my girlfriend – we still wouldn’t kill you. We need that book Edward took from the library, and right now you’re our only lead about where he might have taken it, where he might be. We do have three choices, but not the ones you’ve described. Either you can tell us where Edward is, where he took the book, or … or tomorrow morning, Evelyn will come down here with her magical bone and torture it out of you. Or- or- no.” I swallowed hard. “I’m not going to let her do that to herself. I’ll do it, I can just take it straight out of your mind. It’ll hurt me and … but I won’t let her do that to herself, I-”

“Then take it,” said Stack. “I won’t resist.”

I blinked at her in surprise. “Why not just tell me then?”

“I won’t resist – if you promise to shoot me afterward, take a photograph of my corpse, and send it to Edward’s lawyer.”

“Oh for-” I huffed, threw up my hands, and boggled at her. “No! No, Stack, I’m not going to kill you or take a photograph of your corpse, don’t be so ghoulish. Anybody else might do, but I’m not anybody else. While I am here, we maintain a standard of humanity-” I broke off and looked over my shoulder. “Sorry, Zheng, I mean that in an ethical sense, not a species sense, I’m sorry, she’s made me lose my temper.”

“Mmmm,” Zheng rumbled.

“You left, Stack, you got out,” I said. “Back in that pub garden, you left when you saw what I am. And I don’t think that was an act, I don’t think you were lying? Edward Lilburne can’t possibly be paying you enough money to kill yourself. What is this?”

Stack stared back at me, utterly unmoved.

I took a deep breath and frowned at her, trying to think past the nervous fluttering in my stomach, my clammy palms and itching eyeballs.

“You’re a mercenary,” I said slowly, thinking as I went. “You do things for money, not loyalty, or at least not loyalty to this. You were smart enough to avoid the disaster of the cult’s castle, and you picked the right side when Alexander sold them to the Eye. But then you go Outside, willingly? With guns?” I tutted. “Did you even know what you were walking into?”

Stack blinked, once.

“Yes,” she said. “And no.”

I laughed, once, and was not amused. “Well, now you do know. Now you know what it’s like out there. Would you still have gone?”

She didn’t answer, but I sensed an uncomfortable acknowledgement, a yes.

“What has he got on you, Amy?” I asked, shaking my head, trying as hard as I could to channel Nicole Webb, to think of myself as a hard-bitten interrogator who knew exactly what she was doing, not scared and flailing for a hit. “He found a way to make you stay, didn’t he? Something that stops mattering to him if you’re dead, and there’s only one thing I can think of which fits that definition. I do find it hard to believe, I really do. I know what you are, and I have trouble imagining you caring about anybody.”

A twitch. In one eye. A tightening in her jaw.

Amy Stack was not made of stone after all.

“Why not tell me?” I asked. “I can find out anyway.”

“If I-” Stack started, then cut herself off.

I could barely contain myself, heart juddering. “Oh my goodness, I’m right. I’m right? Amy, am I right?”

“You will make everything worse. I cannot be seen to throw in with you. Take what you need, then shoot me.”

“No, no.” I shook my head. “You know what he does to people. I saw it in the castle. Lozzie can attest to it as well. If you’re dead, then you can’t protect whoever it is. You’ll be relying on us to do the right thing with the information we take from you. And if you’re dead, then yes, Edward has no reason to threaten whoever this might be, but he also has no reason to refrain from hurting them. Tell me, and maybe we can do a trade. We’ll help, and then you’ll tell us how to find Edward, or how to get the book from him.”

Amy Stack stared through me. Not a single muscle in her face had changed, yet she was no longer affectless at all. Her breath came tighter, chest rising and falling against the ropes. Her eyes bored into me. Zheng’s caution of her lurching forward no longer seemed so silly.

Twenty seconds passed, and she finally broke.

“Edward Lilburne has my little boy,” said the psychopath tied up in our cellar.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

nothing more impotent – 11.14

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Raine was never fearless.

Perhaps back when we first met, her burning confidence in the face of the unnatural could have convinced me otherwise, in my falsely sheltered naivety. But we’d shared too much intimacy for me to elevate her to that particular pedestal. I had become all too familiar with the mechanics of self-risk, of sacrifice, and of deciding that certain things are more important than fear. To believe Raine’s bravery effortless would do her a grand injustice.

I have watched Raine face down monsters without flinching, and fight them without a second thought; I have cowered behind her while she stood between me and certain death and I listened her laugh without care; I have followed her stride into dark places without hesitation, seen her challenge ancient undead creatures and professional psychopaths alike to knife-fight duels, and heard the ring of unstoppable burning certainty in her voice.

And she did all of that without magic, or regenerative tissue, or pneuma-somatic tentacles. A soft, squishy, vulnerable human being. She knows fear, as truly as I do.

But that is not true courage.

A wiser person than I once said that courage is not a man with a gun in his hand. I admire Raine, for standing up to creatures and sights and places that any sensible human being should run screaming from. But that is not what is most remarkable about the woman I love.

Far more worthy of awe was her decision to invite me into her life in the first place.

She has trusted me with – almost – everything. Me, Heather, a traumatised mess, not pretty, and not much fun. Fussy, stuffy, weird little Heather, who brought into Raine’s life mostly just danger and problems, who might not even be human anymore, who wanted to grow alien limbs and swim the infinite dark and pit myself against a outer being I could never hope to best. I was quite possibly the most high-maintenance girlfriend imaginable, but she hadn’t hesitated. Not once. She had given freely of herself.

She had loved me, with only one final reservation. And now she was at her most vulnerable in the one way I believe truly counted for her – not because she’d been shot in the leg, not because she was in hospital, not because her back teeth were swimming in morphine, but because the foundations of her identity had been threatened. She did not know what to do, had no way out, and no route forward.

She thought she was beaten before she’d even started.

But she’d done it anyway. She had revealed herself as a sculpture of spun glass in my trembling grip, and trusted me to be very, very gentle.

That was bravery.

“There’s no Raine without a reference point?” I echoed back at her.

Raine, dressed in a pale green hospital gown that looked about as flattering as a mat of anaemic seaweed, her eyes bloodshot and ringed with the kind of dark internal exhaustion I usually only saw in the mirror, pupils dilated wide with opiate painkiller in her bloodstream, face drawn and pale, her hair a wild mess, a bullet hole in her leg closed with stitches and gauze and bandage, one arm hooked up to drips and machines, managed a nod.

She was shaking. All over. Tears brimmed in her eyes, her breath came in little jerks and starts. Even that nod had cost her.

I pulled her into a hug.

It was a little awkward, with her sitting on the edge of the hospital bed and me standing up, my knees bumping against the thick plastic railing that could be raised to stop a patient rolling out of the covers. It was odd feeling taller than her, with her chestnut-brown hair tickling my cheek, her arms going around my waist and gripping hard. It was weird the way my pneuma-somatic tentacles tried to help, to enclose her in a safe warm cocoon of me that she couldn’t feel. But it didn’t matter how awkward this was; we could both have been filthy and covered in blood, and I would never have let go. She shook in my grip, so I squeezed and squeezed and squeezed and felt her tears making a wet patch on my shoulder.

After what seemed like minutes, I said, “We can just stay like this, if you want?”

“And … ” Raine swallowed, and tried again with a quivering smile in her voice. “And crab-walk home? Local dykes vow to never let go, impossible to get anything done.”

“If that’s what you want.”

“I can’t,” she murmured.

Slowly, carefully, and very reluctantly, Raine pulled away. She did not want to leave the hug, but seemed almost pulled by some inexorable counter-force inside her own muscles – but then she gripped my forearms instead. Anchored herself on me.

She shuddered like a derailed train, or a clock shaking itself apart because some tiny gear had slipped out of position. The soft machine of Raine’s body did not know what to do, stuck between an impossible return and painful forward motion, and for once this was a problem she couldn’t solve by readying herself for violence.

Seeing her like this hurt. Seeing my dashing, heroic, rakish Raine crying and wounded. I wanted to take her home and feed her healthy foods and tuck her into bed. I wanted to tell her everything was going to be okay, she didn’t need to lift a finger, physically or mentally. She needed to rest, to close her eyes and not think too hard. I wanted to stroke her hair until she fell asleep and listen to her breathing to make sure she wasn’t having any bad dreams. I wanted to take responsibility for changing the dressing on her leg, preparing her meals, running her a bath – could she bathe, with her leg like that? I would do it for her then, sponge-bath style, and I wasn’t even remotely joking.

I wanted to lie, say I’d forget all of this, if only she would rest.

But that would be a betrayal of the trust she’d placed in me by speaking. I was so scared of hurting her.

“No Raine without a reference point,” I echoed a second time, gentle, trying to cushion her with my words. “I’d love to know what that means. Do you want to share?”

Raine took a great shuddering breath – and started crying in earnest. She didn’t sob, but tears began rolling down her cheeks. She swallowed hard and shrugged, as a half-laugh accompanied a terrible mockery of her usual confident grin, a twitching broken thing that flickered onto her face.

“Yes … and also no,” she managed. “Never have before.”

Then she picked up the morphine-dosing button attached to her drip-line again, and pressed the big red button to ask the machine for more not-caring juice.

“Raine, Raine, it’s okay, it’s going to be okay.”

“Ahhh, who am I kidding? I’m obvious. Evee’s probably got me all figured out anyway.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure about that. I don’t think Evee knows everything about you.”

Raine’s awful rictus grin flickered up again. “Lady of mystery, am I?”

“Sometimes.”

I said it as affectionately as I could, but that wasn’t enough. Guilt and pain deepened behind Raine’s eyes as she raised the morphine button again.

“It’s a trap, you know?” she said, crying and laughing and shaking all at the same time. “The button doesn’t actually give you more unless it’s time for the dose. S’just to stop you calling the nurses.”

She kept pressing it anyway.

“Raine, Raine, here, Raine.” I tried to take her face in my hands, to wipe away her tears, but she was flying apart in my embrace. “Raine, you’re not going to break us. You’re not going to break our relationship by opening up. I won’t let you. I love you, and … and you took a bullet for me, you idiot! I don’t care how complicated or confusing or weird or unique you are inside. I … I don’t care if you’re a … a,” I hiccuped. “A sociopath. Or if you’ve got really bad dissociative identity disorder and there’s a dozen of you in there, or if you’re … I don’t know, a lizard in a person-suit. Yay lizard people, in that case.” It sounded funny, but I wasn’t laughing. “I can probably extrapolate some of it myself, but I don’t want to get it wrong, I don’t want to get you wrong, you deserve better, and you’re not going to break us. I’m not going to reject you.”

Raine forced down three sharp breaths like she was drowning.

“No,” she said. “I’m not afraid o’ that. Come on Heather, we both know I’m far too hot for you to ever give me up.”

“Raine.” I tutted gently.

“Hey, I’m deadly serious. No, really. You think I’m joking?”

“I … ” I rolled the dice. “I think you’re trying to deflect with humour, maybe trying to get your defences back up so you can feel safe again. But you don’t need defences, not with me. I promise. Raine, I promise.”

Raine laughed through her tears, unstable and warbling. “Not deflection. It’s all just me. All me, all over, all the time. Twenty-four seven, three sixty five. Every second I draw breath, it’s me. That’s not what’s messing me up, Heather. I’m not scared of you rejecting me. I’m scared of breaking myself.”

I hiccuped. Loudly.

“Then I won’t let you do that either,” I said.

To my surprise, Raine blinked at me and nodded – and took a long, slow, steadying breath that filled her lungs but somehow seemed to deflate her at the same time.

She wiped her eyes on her arm and looked away from me, out of the darkening windows. The rain had picked up again, plunging the city beyond into true night an hour or two ahead of schedule, forming streaks down the glass against the backdrop of Sharrowford streetlights. Raine glanced at the closed door to the hospital room. She was orienting herself in space, trying to peel back the layers of opiate high and opiate fog and opiate cushion. The subtle sounds of the hospital reached us, beeping machines and shuffling feet and soft voices and television chatter, muffled by dozens of walls and miles of insulation and pipe and cable and wipe-clean wall and the living bodies of hundreds of people.

This should be happening at home. But important things rarely happen where they should. Raine needed help, right now, and if I spouted some weak platitude about how I was always there for her, then she might never reach for help again.

Still, a thorn of guilt lodged in my chest. Was this the only way to have this talk? While she was on morphine?

Her eyes lingered on the door.

“If Twil returns with Lozzie, I’ll make them wait in the corridor,” I said, trying to compensate for the guilt. “Out of earshot. If Lozzie eavesdrops I will get angry with her. I mean it, I’ll shout at her. I’ll be furious, and she’ll cry and I’ll tell her off anyway and-”

“S’alright,” Raine murmured.

Like a puppet with her strings tugged, she suddenly drew herself up and took a deep breath. She rolled her shoulders back and tilted her chin up and looked me right in the eye, and suddenly I was the one feeling a little touch of fear, as she woke her physicality, her muscles, her taut stomach and the tilt of her chin, the flex of her biceps and the power in her back as she puffed her chest out. She reached up and ran a hand through her hair, opened her mouth with the kink of a grin, started to say a word.

And fell apart all over again.

This mock-up of her usual self collapsed back into a single shivering sob. She lost it, groped for me again, clutching for support. Tears ran down her cheeks as the words stuck in her throat. She shook so hard I thought she was about to have a seizure.

“Raine, it’s okay, you don’t have to pretend to be-”

“I am a conscious and deliberate construction.”

She panted the words out hard and painful, like regurgitating a jagged rock.

“Always have been”, she carried on with superhuman effort. “Everything I do, everything I am, is something I choose. All the time.”

I waited, nodding, wide-eyed both inside and out. But that seemed to be all. “ … okay?”

“Ahhhhhhhh,” she let out a huge sigh and grinned – a real grin at last, not through the tears and the shaking but part of them, effortless, as if saying those words and drawn back all her confidence. “Oh wow, it’s real, what they say. Truth really does set you free. Never said these things out loud before.”

I blinked at her, but that seemed to be the long and short of it. Apparently that was meant to make full sense.

“Okay. Okay, that’s … that’s okay,” I tried. “Raine, I won’t think any less of you if you admit to feeling scared when you’re protecting confidence. That’s normal, I think. You can be a mess and scared and weak and I still love you. I don’t care if your … your ‘hero-thing’ is a front, and-”

“No,” she snapped – actually snapped. “No, I am not a fake.”

I almost jumped out of my skin, would have stumbled back if she hadn’t been gripping my forearms, her fingers digging into my flesh. Raine, angry, losing control, blinking at me through hot tears in suddenly clear eyes.

“O-okay, Raine, I-I’m sorry, I-”

“It’s not a front over some ‘real me’, it is me. I feel, I think, I am.” She almost struggled to say it, to believe it herself. “None of me is fake, nothing I’ve chosen to do is false, or a front, or an act. None of it. Choosing doesn’t make me any less real. I’m real. I am.”

I’m real.

She’d said that once before.

In the Medieval Metaphysics room. To a certain theatrical Outsider.

A ball of lead settled in my belly. Shock turned to a shiver of cold sweat down my back.

Raine must have seen the change on my face, because she let go of my arms and held her hands up, horrified, like she’d caught herself about to hit me. I stepped back from her and turned my head to look out of the window, at a memory of less than a reflection. At the shimmer of yellow I’d seen when we’d opened the door to this secluded hospital room.

If this was Raine filtered through morphine and stress, that was one thing. We could deal with that, together. But if she had been pressured into this emotional breakdown, I was about to write a very sharp theatre critique.

“H-hey, Heather, I’m … I’m sorry,” Raine was saying. “You didn’t deserve that. I know you didn’t mean that, it just set me off.”

“What?” I blinked back at her, my mind already moving seventeen steps ahead of where she’d fallen before I realised what she must have assumed. “No, Raine, no, you’re fine. You didn’t upset me. Listen, very carefully. Did anybody visit you here, in this hospital room, before I arrived?”

Raine blinked her tears away and all her shaking stopped. She focused on my words with an effort of will. Bless her she is incredible, I thought to myself. Even in the middle of what might be the worst emotional crisis of her life, my tone of practical concern, of dangerous mystery, of potential threat, sharpened her mind to a razor’s edge. Raine deals with stuff, that’s what she does. Even with a bullet wound in her leg and a hole through her heart.

“The doctors, a couple of nurses,” she said. “Lozzie was in here. That’s all.”

“Nobody said anything … odd, to you?”

She shook her head. Her eyes flickered to the door, alert and ready.

“No, no,” I sighed and stepped back to her and awkwardly touched her head to make her look away from the door. “Don’t … don’t do that. We’re not about to be in a fight. It’s not that.”

“ … oh.” She smiled an ironic, self-deprecating smile. “Pity. Would’a helped, probably. Not that I’ve got a knife on me. You didn’t bring my knife, did you?”

“No, I didn’t fancy getting arrested if the detective decided to search me.”

“Why would he frisk you?” she laughed, a little weak.

“Well, I am carrying that little can of pepper spray you gave me.” I sighed. “Which is illegal enough in the first place, so I may as well have brought the knife along too, I suppose.”

“Heather!” Raine smiled, impressed. “We’ll make an urban commando out of you yet.”

“Listen, Raine, I’ll just say it plainly. You are telling me all this of your own volition, yes?”

“Yeah,” she said. She wasn’t crying anymore, but the return to topic drew the smile from her face and put a quiver in her voice. “I want to. Even if this is the end for me. Even if it destroys me. Better to go out with a bang, hey?”

“I won’t let it.”

She pulled this pained smile, and I realised that Raine had finally encountered something she believed was beyond me.

“I thought Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight had gotten to you,” I said. “Gotten into your head, perhaps.”

Raine raised an eyebrow at me. “Oh. Nah. If she’d insulted me again, about this, I would’a done for her. Knife or no knife.”

“I can believe that.”

Raine nodded, and glanced down at her hands, making and unmaking her fists. She didn’t try to sit up and look cool this time, she just let the tension flow out of her shoulders. She relaxed, consciously, muscle by muscle, until she was throttled all the way down to the lowest possible ebb, idling to keep the engines ticking over.

I had the sudden terrible and certain knowledge that in that precise moment, Raine was just as dangerous as she was at full tension with a knife in her hand. It was like standing in front of a coiled cobra.

My mouth went very dry.

“I’ve never hidden anything from you, Heather,” she said. “I just haven’t told you … ” A big sigh, a sad smile. “Where the hell do I start?”

“I’m pretty sure you’ve been hiding some real emotions. Some. Poorly, I might add.”

Raine laughed softly, and hooked one bare foot around the back of my calf. Under the circumstances, it made me shiver – and not unpleasantly. She tugged me closer, and I obeyed.

“Emotions, no. You get me raw and unfiltered, believe it or not. Like I said, I’m no act. A constant ongoing process of self-creation. All the time. But no act.”

“Okay,” I allowed, and did my best to believe.

“But I’ve told you one lie. Told it to Evelyn too. Told it to everyone who’s ever asked.”

“ … and that lie is?” I hiccuped. “Raine, please.”

“Remember when I told you my parents kicked me out? That’s how I ended up homeless before I met Evee?”

“Yes?”

“Well, they didn’t.”

I blinked at her. “That’s your big dark secret?”

“Yeah. I mean, hey, they were probably about to. But I beat them to the punch, left before they could get around to it. ‘You can’t sack me, I quit’. Anyone asks about my family, that’s what I tell them – parents kicked me out because they found me necking with a girl. They hated me enough to do it, stuck-up little-Englander God-botherers with a butch dyke daughter, ‘course that was gonna end bad. Best of my knowledge they’ve never looked for me. An easy lie, because most of it’s true.”

“Whatever else you’re about to tell me,” I managed. “F-fu … fuck your parents.”

“Heeeeeey.” Raine grinned and laughed. “That means a lot, from you. What is that, your entire year’s swearing allowance?”

“I’m making an exception for them.”

“Thanks. Really. Even after like, wow, what, seven years now? Nearly. Even after all that time, that’s nice to hear.”

I squeezed Raine’s shoulder. She kissed my wrist and rested her head against the inside of my arm for a moment.

“But that’s not why I left,” she said.

“Then … why?”

“Because I had no purpose,” Raine said. “Without purpose, if I’d stayed, I’d probably have killed them both.”

Raine’s eyes bored into mine, and I realised she’d stopped smiling. My throat closed up, I couldn’t swallow. Was she watching me for the correct reaction? Part of me attempted to pull an ironic smile, puff out a little laugh, as if she’d cracked a bad joke. But I couldn’t even twitch my lips.

“I dunno, maybe I should have done.” Raine rekindled her smile and shrugged. “Maybe they deserved it. Maybe I’ve got a little brother or sister I don’t know about now, dealing with their shit all alone ‘cos I’m not there. Maybe I should’a killed my parents. But it wouldn’t have had any purpose, and that’s worse.”

“ … you’re not even remotely exaggerating, are you?”

Raine cocked an eyebrow at me. “I know what I am, Heather. You used the word earlier. Used it before too, I bet. Maybe even said it to Evee?”

“I-I don’t think you’re a-”

“A sociopath?” she finished for me. “Maybe not. Sociopaths aren’t supposed to have any impulse regulation, any empathy. But I got both of those. At least, I know I do. Because I choose to.”

I nodded, guilty in my own relief. “Yes, yes, you’ve never seemed like a real sociopath, not really. But you … I mean, you can … you’re able to … you know.”

An echo of Raine’s smug grin ghosted behind her bloodshot eyes.

“Violence,” she said. “Yeah. Comes easy for me, and I enjoy it. I do. I enjoy it because I’m good at it, because it’s what I was made for – but only when I have a purpose.”

Raine reached up to brush a lock of hair away from my cheek and tuck it behind my ear. Perhaps she was testing to see if I would shy away from her touch, perhaps she just wanted to let me know she was still mine, or perhaps the gesture had no meaning at all, merely an animal reaction to being face-to-face with her mate, her lover. I did not move away.

“Does that frighten you?” she asked, smile a little sad. “Do I frighten you?”

I let out a gigantic sigh I hadn’t know I was holding and gave her an eye-roll worthy of the grumpiest of teenage sulks, mostly to cover for the way she was making me quiver inside, how the spark of her words and her easy intensity had set a low fire burning deep down in my belly.

“Don’t be so perfectly absurd,” I said.

She blinked twice at me, genuinely clueless.

“It probably should frighten me,” I carried on. “It’s supposed to, any sensible girl would run a mile, but no. You know full well that I’m turned on by that sort of thing, that I’m … I don’t know!” Blushing furiously, I averted my eyes. “If you’re weird and unique and deviant, then congratulations, you found the one girl who fits you like a puzzle piece.”

Raine’s grin blossomed across her face. She didn’t say a word, she didn’t need to. I blushed and huffed.

“None of this explains ‘no Raine without a reference point,’” I said. “You said you don’t know where to start, why not try the beginning?”

“Ahhhh, the beginning, yeah.” Raine nodded and managed to keep a straight face as she said: “I was born at a very young age.”

“Raine,” I tutted. “That’s the second time you’ve made that joke.”

“And I didn’t speak a word until I was eight.”

That drew me up sharpish. I blinked at her, trying to work out if she was joking.

“Selective mutism,” she said, soft and calm and a little sad. “Technical term, s’what the doctors said. But they got that wrong, because, hey, they didn’t know what they were looking at. Kids with selective mutism, that’s from trauma, or an anxiety disorder, and I wasn’t anxious. There was no me to feel anxious.”

Slowly, feeling a desperate need to be closer to her, I sank down until I was sitting on the bed at Raine’s side, still touching. “Go on.”

She shrugged. “I dunno how to explain it. Don’t think you’ll find it in any diagnostic manual.”

I tutted. “That doesn’t mean anything. I should know.”

Raine smirked. “I guess it was like being dissociated, all the time. Maybe I did have some kind of rare identity disorder, I dunno. It was like I had no ego. I knew I was different to other kids, that bit was kind of obvious. Parents thought I might be autistic, but it’s not that either. It’s just … me. Over time I started mimicking things I read, and bits of other people, but it was all conscious, I had to do it deliberately. I had to build myself, and I chose every brick.”

“Then you chose some good bricks,” I said, because I wanted Raine to feel good about herself.

“You know it. Once I built enough to be a real person, that was about when I realised I’m real good at violence.”

“Oh.”

“Cut my teeth on school playground bullies. Never pulled the wings off flies or tortured cats or anything, so I thought hey, can’t be a psycho. But then there was this incident. I was ten, I think, and I broke another kid’s ribs. Bigger kid, actually. Some unimportant fight, he was bullying some other boy, just kids being kids. Didn’t even matter who. But I just thought ‘hey, if I keep hitting him, he can never do this again’, so I did.”

“You broke somebody’s ribs at ten?” I gaped at her.

“I mean, I had a rock.”

“ … okay.”

Raine laughed. “It’s no different than what I do for you.”

“I … I suppose so.”

I tried to imagine tyke-sized Raine, beating the snot out of some other kid, a rock in her hand, until the dry crack of shattering rib bones. It was all too easy. Made me shiver, and for once not in the good way.

“He lived. I didn’t kill him or anything. Two ribs broken. Things got kinda messy after that,” she said. “But the school dealt with it. When I got a little older, I realised I like girls, and that made things easier.”

“I can relate to that part.”

“Bet you were never like me though.” Her eyes flashed darkly amused even through her emotional exhaustion. “I was wild.”

I laughed softly. “I can imagine, Raine, I-”

“No, Heather, hey. I’m serious. If you’d met me back then, I would’a scared you off, and you’d have been right to run. The me here now would not want the old me anywhere near you, no way. Got borderline predatory, and I had no shame, didn’t give a fuck. I never forced anybody, nothing like that, never crossed that line, because that would be cross-purposes with the entire ‘me’ I was trying to build, but I am pretty sure I taught more than a few girls how to kiss. Pretty sure a lot of them weren’t even remotely lesbian.”

“Okay. I … I suppose that’s … I … hmm.” I felt myself blush.

“You’re thinking something like ‘I wouldn’t have turned that down’. Trust me, you absolutely would have done.”

“If you say so.”

“I needed violence, Heather. Violence or sex, or at least sexuality. Those were the only things holding me together. And neither was enough, neither was purpose. I couldn’t finish building me, and I was … spinning faster and faster.” Her voice got shaky again and she had to blink away the memories. “When my parents were gonna throw me out, I thought that might be what I needed. Get away from all these in-groups that weren’t really in-groups, get myself alone so I could figure out what was me and what was just adaptation, what I was supposed to do, what my purpose was. I wanted to know what I was for.”

“And you were for Evelyn?”

“Not at first.” Raine’s voice had taken on that breathy quiver again, the weight of memory pressing on her chest. “I wasn’t just homeless, though that’s bad enough. Ask anybody who has been. I went … feral. I stopped thinking. It was like being a kid again, there was less and less of me to hold onto. Turns out without any reference points, without an anchor, I just slip away.”

“Raine.” I wanted to hug her, but she needed to keep going.

“And then I found Evee, yeah. And I knew this was the only way to function. The thing I’d been missing my entire life, the thing I should have been born with. Somebody to protect. Purpose.”

As she spoke, she brightened like a sword in the forge, hot enough to burn to the fingers, eyes like molten steel. My heart skipped a beat.

“I was almost gone when I first saw Evee,” she was saying. “I think that’s why I accepted all this magic shit so easy, when it was right in front of my eyes. I was already … vestigial. When I rebuilt myself alongside Evee, I was just re-incorporating that stuff. That’s why it doesn’t bother me much, I think. I still remember the moment. I was sitting on the wall of that estate, gonna break in, don’t recall why. She’d been allowed out into the garden to walk around, chaperoned by … well, by two somethings not unlike Zheng.” A smile, almost manic, flickered on Raine’s lips, an echo perhaps of how she used to be. “And then I saw her. Small, fragile, limping, hunched. And she didn’t like those zombies at her side, oh no, she didn’t want to be there at all. She was as close to destruction as I was. And I knew.” Raine leaned in close, eyes wide, and gripped my shoulder. I’d never seen her like this before, in the throes of an almost religious ecstasy. “I knew. My violence, everything I am, has a purpose, a purpose I could choose for myself. Protect this girl I didn’t even know. That’s what I’m for.”

Speechless, I just nodded.

“And I felt the same thing when I first saw you,” she told me.

Raine came back down with a full-body shudder, like the tail end of an orgasm. She let go of me, then patted my shoulder with a shaking hand, as if she didn’t know where to go after that.

“My knight errant,” I murmured without meaning to – then blushed tomato-red, stammering. “I-I, s-sorry, Raine, I don’t mean to make light-”

“No, exactly.” She lit up with a grin. “Exactly. Heather. It’s what my violence is for. It’s what all violence should be for.” She laughed with self-conscious irony. “Protecting those who cannot protect themselves. That thing back in Medieval Metaphysics room, remember that? The doll dressed like me? The thing Seven-Shades made?”

“Of course I do.”

“Well, it wasn’t wrong.”

I thought back to that cruel mockery of Raine, dressed in patchwork, wrapped in garden-wire.

“The wires … the two red wires wrapped around it,” I spelled out slowly, as much for myself as Raine. “They represented what, sex and violence?”

“No. Oh, Heather. No.” Raine shook her head and smiled with hot tears returning to her eyes, such pain I wanted to kiss it off her lips. “The wires holding me together are you and Evelyn.”

My heart did a little flip. “Oh. Yes. Of course.”

“Generalised sex and violence, sleeping around, getting in pub fights, none of that is enough. It’s like style without substance. Empty calories. It’ll kill me. I have to have a reference point, a foundation to build myself on. An in-group to protect. A … a family? I don’t know. There’s no me without being needed. I never expected you and I to turn out like this, but I fell for you, Heather, hard. And now I need you, I need to be what you need.”

Raine finished with a sigh like the world leaving her. She didn’t wait for me to reply, didn’t expect anything profound, but only laughed a sad little laugh as she wiped her eyes on the shoulder of her hospital gown. She groped for the morphine dosing button again and pressed it a couple of times, but the machine failed to deliver.

“Well,” she said eventually, into the growing silence which I could not fill. “Well, there I am. That’s all of me. Sorry, Heather, for having to show you behind the curtain and ruin your-”

“Raine, shut up.”

I grabbed her face in both hands and kissed her.

I kissed her in the kind of way that two people in a hospital room should not be kissing, lest an unfortunate nurse walk in on them and drop her tray of medical instruments like a cartoon. I kissed her in the kind of way one cannot fake, with a frantic need to communicate a concept that cannot be put into words, a desire to inhale her scent, taste her mouth, consume and imbibe and drink in everything that made her. Raine would have called it ‘necking’, if I’d let her come up for air. Later on, I called it emergency affection.

We parted, both panting, Raine flushed in the face and blinking at me. I touched a fingertip to my lips, her taste still in my mouth, shocked at my own response.

See how you like being taken by surprise for a change, I thought.

“Have you ever read Robinson Crusoe?” I asked.

Raine blinked at me again, and mercy of mercies, blessed be the contours of her face and the beating of her heart, she smiled in bemused incomprehension. “Um?”

“I promise it’ll make sense, just trust me to get there,” I flustered. “This is the only way I have to explain this. Have you, or not?”

Raine shrugged, still smiling. She wasn’t crying anymore. She was interested, excited to listen to me being a weird literary goblin who couldn’t explain half of what was in her own head without referencing a book.

“I know the story,” she said. “Kinda. Much as anybody does.”

Crusoe is a fantasy. A total fantasy.” I babbled at high speed, losing control in my desire to make her see what I saw. “He’s shipwrecked but he builds a shelter, a house, he creates this whole mini-version of European society alone, just exploiting the island and his surroundings and other life and it’s a lie, Raine. Do you know what happened to the kinds of real people the novel was based on? Real castaways on real islands? They mostly ended up very, very mentally ill from isolation. Living on lichen and rats, drinking seal blood, sleeping in caves – at best. It’s all a fantasy. Nobody is an island. Nobody stands alone. Not even you.”

Raine blinked at me, and I realised she was blinking back more tears, softer this time.

“ … ah.”

“You’ve had to do consciously what most people do without thinking about it,” I carried on. “We all have to make identity, and nobody can do that in isolation.” I felt like I was reaching into a well, to pull her up, like our fingers had just brushed and I had to strain a little further. “Nobody’s an island, Raine. Isolation drives anybody to insanity. And I mean that literally, that’s not colourful language. You’re just describing a more extreme version of what everybody does, and I don’t love you any less for it.”

“But will you still need me?” she asked, quiet and grim.

“Raine, even if you were an invalid, if you couldn’t walk, couldn’t hold a knife. If I had to wipe your bottom for you and spoon feed you, I wouldn’t stop needing you, because I’m in love with you. And maybe you’re the one not understanding this. Love is a choice too.”

“No, no, Heather, it’s not, not a choice like I have to make all the time, of what to be-”

“Yes it is! Raine, it is a choice. I made it. I can’t unmake it.” I looked down to the mass of bandage and gauze around her left thigh, and very gently touched the edge of the dressing, and realised my fingers were shaking. “This. This is my fault, Raine. You got hurt, Evelyn got hurt too. Taking Lozzie, or Zheng, or … or even Praem, Outside. That’s one thing. But you and Evee, you’re just human beings in the end. Not like me. You got hurt. You can protect me, yes, but sometimes I’m going to protect you.”

Raine opened her mouth, tears shining in her eyes, and for the first time I could remember, she closed it without knowing what to say. She bit her lip, struggling inside, the machine trying to shunt itself back onto its own tracks with emergency power and elbow grease. She needed one final shove.

When she said the words, they came out so tiny, so small, the truest of her fears.

“But that’s not what I’m for,” she said.

“But it’s what I need you to be.”

I had to wring my own hands together to stop them shaking as I waited for the shot to land. I’d taken the best option I could see, grabbed Raine as hard as I could, braced my legs to pull her up from the hole she’d fallen into, but she had to want it, and she was staring at me, wide-eyed and blank faced, bloodshot and the lowest she’d ever been and what if I’d misunderstood, what if I didn’t get her at all, what if I’d hurt her or failed or-

And suddenly she laughed and coughed at the same time, panting with a hysterical fragility. She smiled and shook her head and wiped the threat of tears away on her arm.

“Does that … ” I couldn’t help myself. I hiccuped. “Does that help? If you need, I could take that ba-”

“No!” Raine came up in a huge grin, shaking her head. “No, you never get to take that back. Never. Heather, you are too clever by half.”

A nervous little smile pulled onto my lips too. “And that’s why you love me.”

“One of many reasons, my dear. Shall I enumerate the stars in the sky?” Raine’s grin grew self-consciously theatrical and before I could stop her, she was getting to her feet, standing up and turning to face me with a ironic little bow like a courtier, absurd in her green hospital gown. Her eyes were shining, no longer with tears. “Thine beauty and wit are beyond counting, the strength of thy limbs and the spirit of thy brow … something something,” she collapsed into laughter, “I’ve lost my train of thought, Heather. Thank you.”

“Raine,” I tutted softly, blushing. “Improvised ‘ye olde’ poetry is not the way to win my heart.”

“I’ve already won it, haven’t I?” She winked.

“And you need to rest,” I tutted.

“I need to dance, more like. I could dance with you right now, you know? Spin you round the room and sweep your off your feet.”

“Don’t. But also, good. Are you feeling-”

“Never better.” She sighed and shot me a little salute. “Your psychopath construct girlfriend is ready to resume being herself.”

“Raine! Don’t say like that you’re going to … close up.”

“I’ve never been closed. And this ain’t no act.” She leaned forward, planted her hands either side of my thighs on the bed, and drew in close, suppressing a wince as she put weight through her wounded leg muscle. The position made my heart leap, even more inappropriate than the kiss earlier.

“It’s just me,” she said.

“ … we … we need to talk about us.” I went squeaky in front of her sudden aggression. “Sometime. And jealousy. And … Zheng. But not right now. You’ve had enough for one night.”

“Oh?” Raine’s lips kinked. “I don’t think I’ve had anywhere near enough of you.”

“Now that is the morphine talking,” I squeaked.

A knock on the door – three short raps – forced us apart like a pair of teenagers in a bad melodrama, or at least it would have if Raine had been able to straighten up fast enough, or cared enough to try. I was left to do all the work of making it seem like we hadn’t been about get intimate on a hospital bed, scooting back and sideways.

The door opened on cue and Twil stood there in the doorway, paused, and raised her eyebrows.

“ … Heather, you were supposed to put her to bed, not bed her,” she said.

“I’m not!” I blushed a deep red as Raine straightened up and laughed.

“Yeah, Twil,” Raine shot back. “Get it right. I’m the one doing the bedding here.”

“Raine!” I hissed, and swatted at her arm.

“Whatever. Save for it home,” Twil grunted. “No coppers coming back to talk to you two in a minute or something, right?”

“Nobody else has been in yet,” I told her. “Why? And where’s Lozzie? You did find her, didn’t you?”

Twil sighed and shrugged and looked back over her shoulder, down the length of the hospital corridor, and gestured with a nod.

A second later, Lozzie appeared in all her fluttery, flouncy glory of pastel poncho and bouncing braid, happy to see us from beneath her heavy eyelids. Both of her arms were hidden all the way inside her poncho, folded around her midsection as she hunched forward, as if nursing a stomach ache.

“Oh, Lozzie, there you are,” I sighed in relief. “Are you okay? Are you feeling sick or something?”

“Sneaking mission success!” Lozzie announced with a fey little giggle. She skipped into the room and Twil pulled the door shut behind her, closing the four of us in.

“Found her in the canteen,” Twil said. “But I had to hang around to uh, play lookout, like. I think hiding from the rozzers has got her kinda hyper?” She was trying to sound unimpressed, but couldn’t quite get there. I blinked, uncomprehending.

“Lasagna!” Lozzie announced.

She straightened up and used an elbow to flip up the hem of her poncho, like a stage magician revealing an animal beneath a cloak. Cradled in her arms lay a stack of four transparent plastic food containers, the kind one might obtain from a hospital canteen. Each one held a very sloppy and meaty looking lasagna.

“Lasagana. Lasaaagaaa,” went Lozzie.

“Did … did you steal those?” I asked.

“No! I charmed a lunch lady! She was very pretty!”

“ … you mean you sweet talked her, yes? You didn’t hypnotise canteen staff or something? Lozzie?”

“She was very convincing. And technically didn’t lie,” Twil told me, as Lozzie set about tucking the boxed lasagnas into a carrier bag she’d apparently lifted from elsewhere. I boggled, Twil shrugged, and Raine went: “Lasagna!”

“You seem more with it,” Twil said to Raine. “So, got shot, huh?”

Raine winked and pointed double finger-guns at Twil. “First tiiiiime!”

“Last time,” I said with an unintended whip-crack in my voice. Raine pretended to flinch and salute – then winced hard.

“Ow. Okay,” she said. “Still bruised from where I fell over after the bullet. Feels like I’ve been kicked in the arse with a steel boot. Morphine only does so much.” She waved off my useless gesture of comfort – what would I do, anyway? Rub her backside?

Twil rolled her eyes. “You need to be in bed, fucko. And not with Heather.”

“Do as she says, please, Raine,” I told her.

“Yes ma’am, right away ma’am, my pleasure ma’am,” said Raine – but she finally sat down, with a wince as she grasped her leg, and let out a long breath as she stretched out on the bed. I put my hand in hers.

“We still waiting for the doctors, right?” Twil asked. “To give Raine her marching orders and all that?”

I nodded. “I’m staying right here with Raine until she’s discharged,” I said. “And I suggest you both do as well. And then we’re all going home. We have a lot of pieces to pick up.”

“Where’s Stack?” Raine asked. “Under lock and key?”

“Under Zheng,” I said. “Don’t think about her yet, please.”

“I’m going to eat so much lasagna,” Lozzie stage-whispered.

Twil twisted her head sideways to look at the dressing on Raine’s leg, and let out a low whistle. “S’a big one alright.”

“Yeah, might have to borrow Evee’s stick for a few weeks,” said Raine.

They were looking at each other, Lozzie was looking at her pilfered food, and for a brief moment only I was looking at the wide windows out onto the night.

Our reflections stood in the darkness, broken up into static by rain and the distant lights of Sharrowford at night. Lozzie, Twil, Raine on the bed, and me, sitting, looking back at myself.

My reflection winked.

‘Good show,’ mouthed Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight as-me, in private silence.

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