a very great mischief – 13.14

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Ankle-deep in filthy water, besieged by cloying greasy darkness, trapped in a rotting mockery of Sharrowford that was about to swallow us alive, with Zheng bleeding from bites the size of my hands and wounded in a way even she could not shrug off, I had taken the only option left.

I screeched and leapt at Ooran juh, with no idea what I was doing.

No amount of pneuma-somatic body modification or magical prostheses gave me the faintest notion of what to do in a fight, however perfect and beautiful my new form, however euphoric I would have felt under any other circumstances. The trilobe reactor organ in my abdomen supplied limitless biochemical energy, but the muscles in my arms and legs were still those of a twenty year old woman who generally did not exercise. Perfected abyssal instinct joined in chorus with savannah ape tribal loyalty, screaming at me to protect my pack, my mate, my partners, but I still had no idea how to actually win a physical fight.

I slammed into the headless giant as a flailing mass of barbed tentacles, toxic spines, and snapping teeth, no more coordinated than a little girl in a playground slap-fight. But this little girl was armed with all the fruits of the abyss.

Ooran juh stood his ground before my inexpert charge. Why not? He probably weighed ten times what I did. A plate-sized hand smacked away one of my tentacles with wrecking-ball force, bruising and tenderising the rainbow-strobing flesh.

But there was no bone inside the tentacle to break, only springy pneuma-somatic muscle. No shock, no transmitted impact, and no way to stop me.

He didn’t have enough hands. My five other tentacles hit him all over like a squid fighting a whale, lashing at his soft, wormy, rotten-oat flesh, digging in with thousands of hooks and barbs. Tiny muscles in my tentacles all twisted in a wave, rotating each hook to tear every wound wider, before whipping back, ripping great tracks out of his hide. He bled slow sickly off-white pus from hundreds of lacerations, the broken flesh covered in necrotizing mucus I’d left behind.

Ooran juh struck back, trying to catch the strobing rainbow beauty in the teeth of his hand-mouths as I lashed at him a second time.

He did, twice, biting chunks of quivering, bleeding pneuma-somatic flesh from my tentacles.

I screeched and yowled, but the trilobe reactor organ was already compensating, flooding my veins with new kinds of white blood cells — and things that were not really mammalian leukocytes at all, flushing the inflamed skin around the bites with eosinophils and lymphocytes that had no proper place in a human body, fighting off the Big Man’s claim. My wounds closed with rapid-growth scabs of pastel florescence; each tentacle blossomed with chitin plates for armour.

The Big Man’s hand-mouths retched out gobbets of my flesh, their lips swollen, gagging on mouthfuls of tetrodotoxin and conotoxin and approximations of compounds that should not have been possible in our reality.

He compensated too, ignored the third strike from my whipping tentacles, and reached for my head and mantle instead.

Head and body instead, insisted a still-ape part of my mind.

Even in a life-or-death fight, running on pure instinct, I knew that to let him bite my core of true flesh would be too much for me to combat. Pneuma-somatic matter was renewable, plastic, malleable, but a bite from one of those mouths could rip out my entire flank, snip off three of my tentacles in one chomp, and snap my spine with ease.

He bore down on me, taking giant crashing steps through the filthy water which was now up to my calves, spraying the rank sewage everywhere as he tried to grab me in a bear hug. Animal fear flashed sirens in the back of my head at his sheer size and weight, this towering mountain of pale meat about to crash into me. I hissed in warning and panic, trying to scramble back. Without the clean moonlight, our fight took place by the disorienting flicker and dying glow of the street lights, casting the Big Man’s bulk in roiling shadows, confusing human eyesight. Pneuma-somatic additions rewired my eyeballs and optic nerve, racing for an advantage as my sight flickered through infra-red and ultra-violet, and other colour spectra which we have no vocabulary to describe.

Abyssal memory provided theory, pneuma-somatic flesh executed praxis; new ligament strong as steel cables sprouted along my ankle tendons, articulated exoskeleton wrapped my knees in springy cages, and the surface of my skin rose in warning spines of red and yellow.

My new legs bounced and I dodged below his grasp, stepping sideways to circle him, hitting his arm and flank with my tentacles again, ripping off great strips of his flesh even as his mouth-hands caught the spines along my shoulders and snapped them off.

But I was too ungainly to make full use of what I was. Too new. Too unfamiliar.

I couldn’t stay steady on my new legs, overcompensating for the muscle difference and the fluid resistance in the rising flood. As I tried to dodge I tripped, sprawled, and splashed down into the road. Water closed over my face.

Membranes slid across my eyes to protect them from the slopping, roiling filth. Valves slammed shut in my nose and throat to keep out infection as I surfaced and spluttered, spitting out the taste of sewage.

Ooran juh turned and stomped and reached toward me.

I attempted to right myself with organs I didn’t yet possess, syphon-jets and internal gyroscopes and gas bladders, organs too complex to grow from idea-seeds in the time it took the headless giant to reach me.

I hissed and spat and screeched and sprouted new spines and armour plates, but he grabbed me and bit through them even as I wrapped tentacles tight around his wrists to hold him back. The rotten pudding flesh on his arms and torso was blackening around the thousands of tiny wounds I’d inflicted, but still his monstrous strength pressed me down. Even pumped full of paralytic toxin, he was a hundred times stronger than I.

The water around us was bucking and chopping, and the great red wall was convulsing, drawing tighter and tighter. Ooran juh — the greater entity of which this obese headless giant was only a projection – was still in the process of swallowing. He was only fighting to keep us occupied.

My reactor was running hotter and hotter as I squirmed to my feet, locked in a death-grip with the Big Man, caked in sweat, heart pounding like a piston. The trilobe organ raced through and discarded entire new classes of reaction, as my body demanded more with each new pneuma-somatic germination, each addition wove at speed, each physical reinforcement and enhancement.

The Big Man forced one hand against my faltering strength, right toward my unprotected face.

“Stop fighting him, shaman!” Zheng roared from somewhere nearby. “Stop fighting and get rid of him!”

A ball of teeth and claw and grey-russet fur shot out of the gathering dark and slammed into Ooran juh’s legs from behind, scything for his hamstrings and the backs of his knees, snapping teeth closed on the classic canine crippling targets.

He let go of me and hit Twil with an almighty backhand, sending her flying. She crashed into the garden wall of Number 12 Barnslow Drive, but hopped to her feet again in a split second, spitting blood and grinning through a wolf’s snout.

“Can’t fucking dodge me now, you rancid cunt!” she screamed at him. “Come at me, bitch-tits!”

Behind her, Badger had picked up the Saye Fox, cradling the animal in his arms like a pet, to shield her from the rising water, even as he cringed at the re-opened wound in his hand, squeezing it tight to stop the blood flow. She was screaming at the Big Man too, those long open-mouthed fox screams of warning and panic, as the water rose and the whale’s mouth pressed in all around us.

Zheng couldn’t even get to her feet. She was sagging, still bleeding, her side coated in her own blood.

“Get rid of him, shaman!”

I’m trying, I thought, I’m trying but I’m not strong enough, even when I’m perfect and beautiful and—

And I could be such an idiot sometimes. That’s the downside of entering a fight without any training. You get tunnel vision.

As Twil picked up her paws and charged the Big Man again, I lashed out at the exposed flesh of his back with all six tentacles, and connected in a great slapping rip of rending flesh.

Then I dredged up that familiar old equation.

This headless giant was only one part of the entity, a projection into our three dimensions of something so much greater and more alien, a human who had journeyed into the abyss and returned as something more, like me. Unlike me, he had pursued a transformation that had left his body and humanity behind, transcended the mere physical, become so other that he was truly untouchable to us.

Also unlike me, he couldn’t do hyperdimensional mathematics.

Best I could achieve was to send this part of him Outside, but it would be like sending a person’s arm or hand Outside, without the rest of him. The impact would rip him apart on the dimensional membrane itself, like throwing a person against an electric wood saw.

Bleeding and quivering with white-hot fire across the surface of my consciousness, I raced through the equation, and put into practice lessons from an adoptive parent far more dangerous than this predator.


But to my incredible surprise, Ooran juh fought back.

He was clumsy and blunt, the struggling of a crab turning the curve of its shell against a cephalopod’s crushing beak. He did not know brainmath, but he had once visited those impossible depths of mathematical principle and starlight and dancing photons. He understood just enough to turn away my beak for a fraction of a second.

That fraction of a second was all he needed. As the equation snapped shut, he took one giant, striding step forward to leave my tentacles behind, ripping wormy flesh off his back. He batted Twil away again so she crashed into the roiling water. Then he turned and backed away from me, palms out and grinning wide with their wet, red mouths.

He only had to wait, stall a few more seconds, until his vast whale-mouth was ready to swallow.

Unconsciously, on the level of autonomic reaction, below true flesh and pneuma-somatic addition alike, down in my soul, I prepared to dive.

If he was going to drag us down into the abyss, I would be ready to swim.

I would eat him from the inside.

Perhaps he retained enough human intellect to read the change in my expression, or perhaps some other less physical sense allowed him to understand what I was about to do, the lengths to which I would go. Perhaps in that moment he realised that I was like him, I had been in the abyss too, and I would not die on the first swallow. My friends would die, but I would linger in his gut, chew through his intestines, sear his innards with acid, and worm my way to his heart like a killing parasite.

I made myself indigestible.

And he let go.

The greasy headless giant stopped moving, frozen on the spot. The life seemed to go out of it for a split second before the entire thing collapsed into jelly, melting down in a mass of yellow-white pus and liquefied flesh. Ooran juh could not rotate this part of himself out of the dimensions accessible to us, I had him pinned here with a cage of hyperdimensional mathematics, so he was forced to gnaw the limb off like an animal in a trap. He abandoned this part, this projection, the fight lost to the threat of real damage in the abyss if he dared swallow me.

Clean silver light crashed down into the dark.

Above our heads, the great red wall opened, puckered around the full moon and rapidly widening, pulling away and down toward us, sinking into the ground only twenty feet away where it bisected the road. The water began to drain as well, slopping and sloshing down hidden sluices as Ooran juh’s jaws receded back into the abyss, without us.

“Holy shit,” Twil breathed, staring up at the wall, before she splashed through the draining water toward the huge mound of rotten white goo. “Where’d he go?! What— what’s happening? Heather?”

“Spitting us out,” I croaked — a scratchy, twisted sound from an inhuman throat.

“You’re sure?” She stared at me, eyes roving nervously along my body, my tentacles, my spines, my toxic colouration. Here, she could see it all, and I looked barely human.

“Mmhmm,” I grunted.

Badger was staring up as well, still hugging the fox. “Never thought I’d be so glad to be regurgitated,” he said.

The fog rushed back in, flowing over the lip of the great red wall as it descended, plunging us into thick soupy mist as the last of the filthy water drained away from the road surface. For a moment the fog was so thick I couldn’t see any of the others, only the disgusting greasy mound of white mess that had been Ooran juh.

“Z-Zheng?” I called out.

“Here, shaman.”

She was right by my shoulder in the fog, bent over with pain, heaving ragged breaths between her teeth, blood caked all down her hip and one leg of her jeans and dripping from the bite wound in her forearm. She put her other hand on my shoulder, and I realised with stomach-lurching horror that she was using me to stay standing.

The fog thinned but didn’t clear — normal fog, not greasy and thick, the ordinary weather of spring fog in Sharrowford — and revealed everybody else still standing. Twil gaped around us, wide-eyed and panting and dripping wet, same as myself. Badger closed his eyes, shaking with relief. The Saye Fox wriggled out of his arms and trotted over to me.

We were next to the bus stop where we’d caught up with Badger. Right where we’d first plunged into the beast’s maw.

Relief was sweet, but I didn’t have the luxury of collapsing or passing out. My bioreactor was still burning hot, still fuelling pneuma-somatic flesh.

“Are we—” Twil panted. “Are we out? We won?”

I was too busy gaping at Zheng’s wounds to answer.

“Shaman,” Zheng said, her throat thick with blood and pain. Zheng wasn’t meant to be in pain, not real pain, she wasn’t meant to feel this way, she was meant to shrug it off, to leap and howl and laugh. “Shaman, you must get home. Ooran juh is still waiting for us. Go.”

She shoved me away and I stumbled a few steps as she crashed down to one knee again, heaving for breath, drooling blood.

“Zheng, no!” I said, and rushed back, falling to my knees by her side.

“Oh shit,” said Twil, and hurried over to us. She jabbed a finger back at Badger. “Don’t you fuckin’ move.”

He shook his head. “I’m not going anywhere without you lot.”

“Shaman, go,” Zheng grunted. Her eyes were heavy and unfocused. I ignored her plea and wormed underneath her arm, got close to her side, then pulled up the shredded fabric of her jumper to expose the wound in her flank. I gasped and had to blink back tears, a hand to my mouth.

Her wound looked very, very bad. The flesh was chewed and mashed, hanging in strips and dangling shreds. Grey and black patches were already blooming with necrotic infection on fast forward, leeching Zheng’s strength with a claim beyond mere biological damage. I grabbed her forearm too. The second bite there was much the same, ruining her on a level deeper than the physical.

“We’re not leaving you behind, you dumb-arse,” Twil said, but her voice shook at the sight of those wounds. “Fuck knows how we’re gonna get you back if you can’t walk. I can maybe toss you over my shoulder, I dunno, you’re too tall.” Her eyes flickered to me. “Heather’s lost all her like … extra limbs, or she could have carried you.”

Had I? I could still see and feel my tentacles, my toxic colouration, my webbing and my spines, all the miracle of what I really was, Homo abyssus in the flesh.

But we were back in our reality now, and my additions were confined to pneuma-somatic invisibility once more.

“I cannot be saved, shaman,” Zheng croaked. “Ooran juh has me. Go, before—”

I bared my teeth and hissed, to shut her up and establish who gave the orders here, enough to make Twil jump and Badger flinch and the Saye Fox hop back. I hissed in defiance of anything and anyone that would attempt to take what was mine. I was willing to violate reality itself to rescue my sister from the Eye, and I was not about to allow some jumped-up mage who’d spent too long in the abyss to take away any other members of my family.

Abyssal instinct provided the methods.

I opened my mouth wide, shoved my face right into the wound in Zheng’s side, and started biting.

“Unnn!” she grunted in sudden, surprised pain. “Shaman—”

“Holy shit what is she—”

Somebody vomited. I think that was Badger.

I bit away the infected flesh around and inside Zheng’s wound, sheering it off with the clean razor-sharp edges of pneuma-somatic teeth that only she and I could see. I nuzzled in deep, didn’t care about her blood smeared all over my face, gripping Zheng with all my tentacles to keep her in place, barbs safely retracted. I drooled great looping ropes of pneuma-somatic antiseptic mucus into the wound as I worked, forming new glands in my throat for the task, sharing white blood cells with Zheng’s immune system, even as scraps of her actual blood slid down my throat to be sampled and re-purposed by the trilobe reactor organ in my gut. I spat out chunks of grey and black infection to sizzle on the asphalt road surface, melted by bootstrapped enzymes in my saliva.

The physical act of biting away her infection was more than mere biology. Whatever I was doing, I did not understand it on a conscious level, but I knew in my gut that it had a spiritual mirror. I dug out the Big Man’s claim on her, made her safe, made her mine, cleaned away any trace of him with my own abyssal biology.

By the time I finished on the first wound, Zheng didn’t need to be held still anymore. She offered her arm for me to do the same to the second bite, breathing clearer and easier, staring at me with wonder.

“Alright,” Twil was saying, her werewolf transformation dismissed to leave a wet and bedraggled teenage girl standing there. “Alright, this takes the award for weirdest shit I’ve ever seen.”

“She can do it,” Badger whispered. “She can.”

Eventually I was done, and stood up, wobbling on my knees despite the sheer power of the bioreactor in my abdomen. Even backed up by near-infinite energy, cleansing the Big Man’s infection was taking a toll. My immune system — or whatever abyssal processes were analogous to an immune system — were working overtime, producing white blood cells and flushing me out, detoxifying the infection.

“Shaman,” Zheng breathed in awe, and got to her feet. She was shaking too, weak from the effort, but much stronger than before, no longer being actively drained. She caught me under one arm before I stumbled. I wrapped a tentacle around her in return. “You are a beautiful thing, shaman.”

“Mm,” I grunted.

My pneuma-somatic mucus had formed a sticky layer over her raw flesh, stopped the bleeding, and was encouraging and supporting her own rapid healing processes. I stared at it, unwilling to split my attention until I was certain the wounds were beginning to knit closed, however slowly.

“Shaman, we must go. This is not over.”

“Bloody right,” Twil agreed, bouncing on the balls of her feet. “You okay now, Zheng?”

“Not yet. I will be.”

I nodded along. The Saye Fox rubbed herself against my ankles. “Home,” I muttered.

My pneuma-somatic additions were blurring against the fog and the backdrop of real terraced houses, in a trick of the light. They didn’t start falling apart into ash and nothingness, I wasn’t running out of energy. As the last of the Big Man’s infection was cleansed away, the trilobe reactor did not ratchet down, did not cease production. If anything, I was getting hotter inside as my reserves filled to the brim.

“You better not run,” Twil growled at Badger.

“Not a chance,” Badger replied. He’d wrapped his bleeding hand in his sleeve again. His eyes wandered over to where the great greasy mound of liquid flesh still lay in the middle of the road, the remains of the Big Man’s physical form.

Twil noticed it too. “Gross. It’s dead, right? Looks like a fatberg. What do we do with it?”

“Leave it here,” Zheng purred. “Let the monkeys hose it into the drains. Now move, the shaman is burning up.”


We staggered back through quiet midnight streets, comforted by the normality of good old English fog, and the sounds of the occasional car passing along distant roads. The Saye Fox trotted ahead of us as if she knew the way, nosing at the overflowing rubbish bins and sniffing the walls, just like an ordinary fox, but with far more self-assurance than any natural vulpine visitor.

Zheng supported me with one arm, but she couldn’t have picked me up even if I’d needed it.

Unlike Badger and Twil, she could still see the truth of Homo abyssus, my six rainbow-strobing tentacles, the snapped spines on my shoulders, the chitin plates on my legs and sides, the strange shape of my pupils and the toxic colouration in my skin. Carrying me with all that might have presented some difficulty. She was careful to avoid my various spikes and sharp edges.

“Concentrate, shaman,” she purred. “Do not leave me.”

I blinked up at her, blinked four different sets of eyelids, and tried to deny that I knew what she meant. “Zheng? Of course I won’t. I won’t, I’m … fine … ”

I tried to soften my pointy bits, to round them off, to retract my spines and re-metabolise the toxins, to fold away the slashing claws studding my tentacles — but as we crept toward home, my sense of my own body grew harder to hold onto, the plastic metamorphic process running away with abyssal memory and euphoric longing. My tentacles grew blurry, hazy and indistinct, with both hooked and non-hooked configurations laid on top of each other, occupying the same space. I blinked, and the tentacles appeared to be doubled, tripled, quadrupled. I was coated with sweat; my belly burned with fire like I’d swallowed the sun and become its master.

Laangren, call ahead,” Zheng rumbled to Twil up in front. “The shaman is collapsing.”

“I’m not,” I said. “I’m fine. I can … I’m still here, I’m not … going … ”

“Eh?” Twil glanced back. “Uh, yeah, she looks fine? Better than ever. What are you—”

“Call ahead,” Zheng repeated. “Tell the wizard. Now.”

I didn’t argue.

Twil dug out her mobile phone, mercifully undamaged by her various trips into the water, and called ahead. By the time we reached the real Number 12 Barnslow Drive, a welcoming committee was waiting for us in the front garden, lit from behind by a little warm light spilling from the windows of the house.

Raine, Evelyn, and Lozzie all lit up with relief in their own separate ways as we came into view, but Praem merely stared at me in expressionless recognition. Raine called my name and Evelyn puffed out a huge sigh — and quickly blocked Raine with her walking stick, stopping her from scrambling out of the garden gate to meet me.

“Stay inside the property boundary!” Evelyn snapped. “How many times must I say it?!”

“Ohmygoshohmygosh—” Lozzie was breathless, mouth agape, hands flapping wildly. “Heathy Heathy Heathy oh my goodness! Oh my goodness!”

“Loz, what?” Raine’s relief faltered.

“She’s so beautiful!”

“The shaman is unstable,” Zheng called out. “Mooncalf, wizard, I do not know what she needs. And Ooran juh may still be after us.”

“Unstable?” Raine asked, deadly serious. “What does that mean? Hey, big girl, talk to me here.”

“Wait, wait,” Evelyn snapped. She took in our state, Badger walking in front of Twil, sweating with nerves, and the way I was hanging off Zheng’s arm, burning with fire-hot fever sweat. “Actually, no, don’t wait, get inside the wall, for fuck’s sake.” She pointed at Badger. “What about him?”

“He’s volunteered for Heather’s … thing,” Twil said, then growled at Badger to encourage him into the garden.

Badger swallowed as he stepped over the threshold, sweating and afraid. “Right, yes. I … yeah.”

“Then get him indoors,” Evelyn snapped. “Into the cellar, there’s a circle waiting, I want him inside it five minutes ago.”

Then the Saye Fox hopped up onto the garden wall, bushy and russet and proud. Evelyn froze and stared at her, dumb-stuck and going white in the face. Praem stepped closer, as if ready to shoo the animal into the road. The fox flashed firelight eyes at the doll-demon, perhaps in memory of how she’d been captured the first time we’d met.

“It’s okay. She’s okay,” I croaked. “She helped us escape. Sevens sent her.”

Evelyn blinked at the weird, scratchy sound of my voice, but then just stared at the fox as it watched her in return. Zheng led me over the garden threshold too, which Lozzie took as her cue to bounce over and wrap me in a sudden hug, somehow avoiding all of my spines and spikes. Raine was stuck between Evelyn’s distress and my unknown state. Twil set about prodding Badger into the house, but she was distracted too, fascinated by the connection between Evelyn and the fox.

“I don’t need your help,” Evelyn hissed at it.

The Saye Fox turned in a circle on the wall, lowered her head, and let out a chitter-chatter yip-yap unmistakably both friendly and amused. Quickly she hopped down into the street and scampered away into the Sharrowford night.

“No!” Evelyn reached out one hand. “Wait—”

But the Saye Fox was already gone.

“That’s some serious helicopter parenting,” said Raine.

“Oh, shut up!” Evelyn exploded at her, whirling on the rest of us. “We’re still in a crisis. Now what is wrong with Heather?”

“She went full squid-girl,” Twil explained. “I could see it and all. Kinda cool, I guess, but she’s back to normal now. I don’t really get it.”

I’d fallen quiet as we’d entered the garden, growing less conscious, less connected, less here. Lozzie disentangled herself from the hug and leaned back, said something sweet, something positive, something affirming about what I’d done to myself — but the words no longer made any sense. Human-shaped shadows moved in the orange street lighting which bathed the garden, but my new body parts were so much brighter, fluorescing and strobing and glowing with energy from the star in my belly.

Praem spoke, a bell-clear sound I would recognise anywhere, even on the other side of the abyss, and hurried voices followed. Lozzie’s face fell as she grabbed and squeezed one of my tentacles, as if trying to hold it steady. Raine appeared by Lozzie’s side, peering at me in concern, lips flapping sounds that might have been my name. In my blurring vision the tentacles seemed to multiply either side of them a dozen times, spinning out into an infinity of ruffles and tendrils and beautiful variations that I could iterate on forever.

I felt myself flowing between one form and the next. Endlessly mutable. But that was impossible here, there was only one place I could be so incandescent.

A snatch of Lozzie’s voice filtered through, thick and muffled, like I was underwater. “Heathy, you have to turn it off you have to turn it off. You don’t have to get rid of it because it’s beautiful but you need to turn it—”

I knew what she meant. She wanted me to shut down the trilobe bioreactor.

“Everyone’s home?” I said. Or, I thought I said. I had to repeat it twice before ape heads nodded in response. “Safe?”

“—safe, yeah,” Raine’s voice glugged above me as I sank deeper. “—did good, you did good, you can stop now. Rest—”

But I didn’t want to rest. The threshold of the house was only a few paces away now, my body dragged there unresisting, but I didn’t want to smother the reaction inside me. This euphoria of being was too delicious. My body told me I could run and leap, burrow into the earth and swim the skies, leap into the abyss and back again — though a tiny, screaming part of me knew that particular urge was neither sane nor sensible.

My new state of being did not have to end.

I’d just encountered an example of where that path led; if I didn’t stop here, would I become something like the Big Man? Unanchored in my physical body, without definition or concrete self-image? How long had it taken him to build his abyssal-crossing multi-dimensional self? Could I do that?

I sensed that I could, that I was already slipping down that slope, toward the same old destination.

The abyss was calling. I loved the way it felt.

And I had still not forged my anchor.

But on the sandy lip of that submarine shore, that drop into the infinite sunless depths, I found a new principle. I dug my heels in and raked my hands into the silt, turned fingernails to claws and hung on, rammed tentacles into every crack of stone that was not stone at all but maths and physics and starlight and thought. I anchored myself with the meaning of the very thing I had finally summoned into reality; I’d lit that reactor and built my new form to save Zheng, because I loved her.

Homo abyssus — me — had been made whole and complete by that act of purpose. I was both abyssal and human, and would not be taken by one or the other.

An act of love, practised as an abyssal thing, served as the most sturdy anchor in all reality.

I ripped myself up and out, back to full consciousness, gasping and spluttering through a waterfall of nosebleed in the front room of Number 12 Barnslow Drive. Voices were shouting my name, somebody was propping me up, a ring of faces surrounded my sight. I held my hands up — and half a dozen tentacles with them — to make some space.

“Stop, stop, I’m fine, I’m here, I’m not going anywhere, I’m—”

“Heathy you have to stop!” Lozzie said, tears making tracks down her cheeks.

“Ease down, shaman,” Zheng purred. “You must slow the fire.”

“For fuck’s sake,” Evelyn snapped. “I don’t know what you’re doing, but stop it.”

“Hey, Heather,” a familiar voice crooned my name, brimming with confidence. Raine took my hand. “Hey, you can relax now. I’m here.”

Raine cracked a beaming smile, just for me. Not a shred of doubt in her.

“You gotta chill out, though,” she added.

“Oh, right, yes, okay,” I croaked. “One second. I think I can—”

And with a flicker of thought, before I knew what I was doing, I slammed home an array of biochemical control rods inside the trilobe organ. They snuffed the reactions out to a decimal-point percentage of their previous runaway heat. It was like plunging every cell of my body into ice water. A gasp ripped from my throat, my pneuma-somatic additions folded up and shrivelled away, and the pain-debt I’d incurred hit me all at once in a wave of bruises and muscle spasms and torn tissues.

I was unconscious before I hit the floor.


I slept for sixteen hours.

There was no fugue state, no dissociation, no out of body experience; I was very much inhabiting my own flesh — much to my discomfort. I was exhausted as if I’d run a dozen back-to-back marathons, and bruised all over in various new and interesting ways, several of which I hadn’t even realised were possible. After I passed out in the front room, I spluttered back to consciousness a few seconds later and found myself in Raine’s arms, but I had no recollection of who carried me upstairs.

I was present but mute with dragging exhaustion as caring, tender hands cleaned the blood off my face, and dunked me gently in the bath to wash off the rancid sewer water. A swirl of voices and busy commotion filled the house, and more than once I snapped to awareness, panicking that we needed to defend ourselves. But every time, Raine’s face or Lozzie’s words would enter my senses and I would sink back below the surface. I think Praem saw me naked, but I was beyond caring, head lolling with sleep on a warm shoulder as somebody else picked me up and took me to bed.

Sleep was deep and dreamless, the sleep of bodily healing, newborn sleep. I woke up three times and support was always there, to help me hobble to the bathroom on legs that lacked the necessary extra parts, to press a glass of water into my hands when I tried to reach for it with tentacles that made my sides ache, to briefly feed my wordless moans for calories with a microwave pastry and a cheese sandwich.

True awakening came slowly, in a chorus of bruises, to the backdrop of the next day’s sunset glow filtering through my bedroom curtain.

I lay on my back for a long, long time, wrapped in bedsheets like a mummy, staring at the ceiling with eyes that slowly learnt how to focus again. My body wanted to stay very still, but my brain had taken its fill of sleep. Five minutes passed, then perhaps ten, and I wasn’t falling back asleep.

Then I tried to scratch my leg.

“ … uhhhhhh,” I groaned. “Oh, I am so sore.”



A pair of familiar voices greeted me. Brain said safe, safe and home. Body complained.

“Mm,” I grunted.

“Think she’s awake for real this time?” Raine asked.

“No,” Zheng said. “Let her sleep.”

“I wish I wasn’t awake,” I grumbled.

Furtive sounds moved beyond the limit of my vision, and a face appeared above me — Raine, peering down with mild concern. I met her eyes, made contact, and puffed out a tiny breath.

“Oh!” Raine lit up. “Hey, no, she is awake. Hey there, Heather. How you feeling?”

She put a gentle hand on my shoulder through the covers, but even that was too much. I winced and groaned. “No, no touch, no touch.”

“Ah, sorry. Sorry.” She withdrew her hand. “That bad, huh?”

I made a noise like a very grumpy pig. Even my throat felt bruised. My eyeballs ached. The tiny muscles between my fingers were strained and every inch of my skin felt vaguely red and raw. It was like waking up from a whole-body transplant.

“I cannot believe how sore I am,” I murmured.

“You wanna sit up? Want some help? I can try to be as gentle as possible.”

“I think I’ll die if I try that.”

“You will heal, shaman,” Zheng purred. “Your body is strong. They are only bruises.”

“Yeah, no joke,” Raine said, grinning that confident grin down at me. “Lozzie’s been over you inch by inch, there’s nothing broken, no permanent damage, you’re just super inflamed and very bruised. Hey, but you know what? You already look better than when you got home.”

“Sit up. Mm. Okay,” I croaked. If I didn’t sit up now, I’d lie here for the next twenty years.

“You want help?” Raine asked.


Sitting up in bed was not the most difficult physical adjustment I’d ever made — I’d been slower, weaker, hungrier, and more tired on occasion before — but it was by far the most painful. A million tiny bruises leave the human body with no comfortable position to adopt, no hiding place from the irritating aches and pains and undignified fleshiness of being mortal.

But as I winced and cringed at the pressure of Raine’s hands on my oversensitive, raw skin, I didn’t feel undignified. I felt whole. As she helped me sit up, my phantom limbs tried to help too, tentacles reaching out to brace against the bed and push the covers back. But those pneuma-somatic additions had already folded back into incorporeality when I’d switched off the bioreactor. Their efforts served only to pull on the already abused muscles in my flanks, drawing a hiss of deeper pain from my throat.

I liked that pain. I valued it. For the first time ever, it was not a reminder of what I yearned for, not a source of abyssal dysphoria. The pain was proof of what I was, no matter that most of Homo abyssus was currently tucked away for safety.

Only most.

As I finally reached a sitting position and Raine held me gently, I placed both my hands over my own abdomen, and felt the residual heat banked inside.

The trilobe reactor organ was still in there. Not a ghost of abyssal body image and phantom pain, not a pneuma-somatic blueprint waiting to be re-summoned like my tentacles, not a hypothetical piece of impossible biology. When I’d slammed the biochemical control rods into their metabolic channels, the reactor had switched over into a self-sustaining mode. It was part of my body now, an internal organ, and I could not truly switch it off, any more than I could quieten the beating of my own heart.

“Hey, Heather?” Raine murmured very gently. I blinked — ow, even my eyelids ached, how was that possible? — and came around from my self-directed awe.

“It feels good to be … to be,” I croaked. “I’m … I … um … ”

Raine was standing next to the bed, ready to catch me if I collapsed, back-lit by the sunset on the other side of the window. Zheng was sat on the floor with her legs stretched out in front of her, leaning against the wall. She was half-naked from the waist up, one arm and her flank wrapped in bandages and gauze, over the wounds the Big Man had left on her. Clearly her own supernatural healing factor wasn’t quite enough, and needed a tiny bit of helping along by modern medicine. But even the sight of her almost topless wasn’t what stopped my words.

A dog was sitting on the foot of the bed.

Small and round, brown-furred, with stubby little legs. It had its tongue out, panting softly, looking at me with friendly curiosity.

“I am hallucinating a Corgi,” I croaked.

“Oh, this is Whistle,” Raine said. “He’s Badger’s dog. You would have missed him if you’d slept five minutes longer, he keeps doing circuits of the house and nosing in on everybody.” Raine reached over and rubbed Whistle behind the ears. The dog certainly didn’t seem to mind.

I blinked three times, very slowly. “Badger’s dog.”

“A last request,” Zheng purred.

My heart juddered. “He’s not dead, is he? Not after all that?”

Raine laughed. “Nah, Badger’s alive and well, so far. We stuck him in the cellar, but he’s on real good behaviour. Whatever you did, Heather, you really convinced him. He keeps asking if you’re awake, if you’re going to be okay. Made me mighty suspicious at first, but he means it.”

“That doesn’t explain the Corgi.”

The dog in question — rotund little Whistle — tilted his head as I spoke, ears flopping about.

“Badger’s two requests,” Raine said. “He didn’t want his dog to get left locked indoors if he never makes it home. So, if he … well, you know.” Raine sketched me a smile. “We’ll take responsibility for Whistle. The second request is he’d like to see Sarika before you go to town on his head. We can do that. I think he’s sweet on her.”

I sighed — my throat hurt, but never mind. “Raine, what I’m going to do to Badger might kill him. Or leave him as a vegetable. Meeting his dog does not make that any easier.”

As if he understood my tone, Whistle let out a curious whine.

“Yeeeeah,” said Raine, with an exaggerated grimace. “Sorry about that. Can’t leave the poor bugger to starve though.”

Raine was right, but I was too distracted by pain to focus on abstract ethical issues right then. I slowly gathered the sheets in my lap, closed my eyes, and started to drift off while sitting up.

Then memory crashed back in. I gasped, blinked back awake, groping for Raine’s hand. Whistle flinched. “Where’s— is everybody—”

“Everyone is just fine,” Raine purred, one hand gently on the back of my head. The slight pain was worth her touch. “Everybody’s safe.”

“He’s not come back? The Big Man, he’s gone?”

“No, shaman,” Zheng purred.

Raine sighed softly and rolled her eyes, but she told the truth. “There was a knock on the door, round about dawn. There wasn’t anybody actually there, kinda spooky, and then Badger started screaming because he saw something outdoors. But it seems our big fat friend can’t actually get in here, can’t violate Evee’s boundary. We’re safe.” She gave me a slightly strained smile. “Twil’s gone home. She wanted to stay, but she and Evee had a bit of a set-to, ‘cos Twil’s got classes this morning. But no worries, she’s been texting Evee all day to let us know she’s safe. Lozzie’s somewhere, doing … ”

“Cooking,” Zheng purred.

“Ha. Yeah. Tenny wanted to snuggle with you, but we thought it maybe best to leave you untouched for a bit, so she’s downstairs with Lozzie. Evelyn’s been wondering about that fox all day, but she’s doing fine. Kim’s still at work, almost none the wiser, but we’ve had her checking in. Seems like Mister Blobby only cares about Badger.”

“We made a phone call,” I croaked. “Evelyn said … things, I was worried.”

“Yeah, we heard the whole story from Twil, it’s cool. You said some strange stuff down the phone at us, too, but it can’t have been you.”

“Oh. Good. Good.” I blinked, trailing off, then remembered. “Have you seen Sevens?”

“Nah, not yet,” Raine admitted. “Heard all that from Twil too, how she helped. Almost enough to get Sevens back in my good books. Twil and Zheng both told me you went full-on squid-girl transformation too.”

“The shaman was glorious,” Zheng purred from the floor.

“Which is the coolest thing I’ve ever heard.” Raine flashed me a grin. “Wish I could’a seen it. Lozzie couldn’t stop singing your praises. Bet you looked a right stunner.”

“Oh.” I felt myself blushing faintly and pressed my hands to my abdomen again. “There’s a … I made a … a reactor. In my gut. Pneuma-somatic.”

Raine nodded slowly. “Lozzie explained it, yeah. Well, kind of. You know how Lozzie is. Evelyn took a look too, but I don’t think she understood it.”

“None will,” Zheng purred. “None who have not dived in the dark.”

I glanced down at myself. “I might have shaved years off my life with this. I don’t even know how it works. But I had to. Had to.”

“How do you feel though?” Raine asked.

“ … healthy. Hungry.”

My mind crept back to the events of last night.

I’d fought that thing, for real, that towering mountain of greasy, pallid meat, amid the flooding darkness. A dribble of adrenaline leaked into my bloodstream, and I found my breath hitching, my gut clenching up, my senses opening.

“He’s still out there,” I croaked.

“He still has a claim on the worm,” Zheng rumbled, and raised her arm with the bloody bandage. “But not on me.”

“Good,” I croaked.

The memory of biting into Zheng’s wound was almost unreal. Had I really done that? A strange blush rose inside me. Little Heather Morell, acting like a cannibal horror from some shock movie.

I hadn’t really killed Ooran juh. To kill such a thing was a feat beyond me. But I had won, in a very real way. I had come out victorious, in a contest between two vastly inhuman entities, and protected my family and friends.

I was not insensible to the parallels, though I doubted the Eye could be defeated in a fistfight, no matter how many tentacles I grew.

“You did it once, shaman, you can do it again,” said Zheng, and for a moment I thought she was reading my mind, but then she continued. “With no contract, Ooran juh will leave.”

“Yes, yes. Though it might be a little more difficult with Badger,” I murmured, but Zheng’s faith helped. “There’s a lot of work to do. I need to … get up. If I even can.” I sighed. On the foot of the bed, Whistle rose to his little doggy feet and hopped down to the floor, then slowly trotted out into the hallway.

“Heather,” Raine said, bringing her face to eye-level with mine. “I am so proud of you.”

I averted my eyes. “I did what anybody would do. I wasn’t going to let Zheng go.”

She straightened up, and didn’t press the point, but she and Zheng shared a private, knowing look.

“Are you here, shaman?” Zheng purred a moment later, soft and tender.

She levered herself up off the floor and stood over me, dark hair sticking up in every direction, clean from a bath earlier. She gazed down on me with tender awe and fascinated devotion, a look that still had the power to make me deeply uncomfortable. I did not deserve to be looked at like that. I was no messiah, no miracle worker, not somebody to be worshipped.

But that wasn’t what that expression meant, was it?

It was the same way Raine looked at me, just filtered through a different set of needs and desires. It was love.

“Of course she’s here,” Raine answered for me. But Zheng blinked slowly, waiting.

I pressed my sore hands to my aching abdomen again, felt the residual heat of the reactor organ. My tentacles, my spines, my toxic defenses, my webbing and fins, exoskeleton plates and springy joint reinforcement, it all lay just on the other side of perception, folded away for now as an echo, but undeniably real. Homo abyssus had completed her metamorphosis, anchored herself with one foot in the real and the other foot in the deep.

“I’m here,” I said, more to myself than my pack. “For good.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

a very great mischief – 13.13

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The Saye Fox — if she was indeed the very same preternatural animal we had met skulking around the grounds of Evelyn’s childhood home months ago — ran along the garden walls and fences down Barnslow Drive, hopping from corner-post to crumbling brick on silent paws, skirting patches of slimy black mold, her russet tail flicking as she stayed out of the rising water in the street below.

She led us back out into the city, this false and twisted Sharrowford, as it closed up around us and filled with filth at our feet. We followed as best we could.

The fox turned left at the end of Barnslow Drive, but not before stopping and glancing back again. Those lamplight orange eyes found mine as her paws danced in place with restless urgency, her ears swivelling to catch the distant meaty slapping sounds of the great red wall, and the closer slopping noises of the water in the roadway, as dark shapes disturbed the deeps below.

Vulpine eyes asked me a silent question, but I didn’t speak fox.

“What?” I spluttered out loud over Zheng’s shoulder, my voice still a croaking, weakened mess, dragged down by exhaustion, hunger, and pain. The spiking, prickling sensation in my abdomen was a constant presence now. “Don’t stop! Go!”

“Save your strength, shaman,” Zheng purred.

“B-but she’s— she needs me to … ”

I had no idea what she needed.

But the fox was already away again, as if the hounds of hell had her scent. She had to hop down to the pavement, to round the corner to the next set of walls, darting between the slowly forming puddles of rank, stinking water, before leaping up again and leading us onward. My voice was lost in the splash of three pairs of feet, as Twil and Zheng and Badger all raced to keep up, plunging around the corner through the rising flood.

In the seven months since I’d met Raine and Evelyn and discovered I was not crazy after all, I had fled or been carried out of more than one nasty situation — looping stairwell traps, fake shopping centre fires, defeated cults with collapsing ambitions, actual for-real deadly house fires, the Library of Carcosa — but with the exception of Wonderland itself, this place took the award for most bowel-clenching terror, because it was very obviously trying to swallow and digest us before we could escape.

As we ran after the fox, the great red wall in the impossibly unreachable distance kept up a disgusting shuddering and shaking, undulating like a layer of flesh, or a mucus membrane inching slowly shut. I realised with detached recognition, as I kept my head tight to Zheng’s shoulder and my arms firmly clinging to her neck with all the strength I could muster, that perhaps this explained the deep red colour of the wall: it was slow-twitch muscle, on a scale my mind refused to comprehend.

Whenever I risked a glance upward, I could see the circle of dark sky around the moon was shrinking, as the mouth of this well of flesh tightened around our only source of clean light.

I tried not to dwell on what might happen if it closed.

The mock-city around us was rapidly degenerating now, and filling with what I could only think of as digestive fluid.

We raced past houses straight out of an Edgar Allen Poe story, the rotting bones of buildings long abandoned, terraced houses collapsed in on themselves, Victorian redbricks devoured by waves of dark ivy and left open to the elements. The trees had reduced to skeletons too; not the hardy gnarled stereotype of a Gothic horror uberwald, but brittle grey things flaking apart like burnt logs, coated with parasitic fungi and greasy biofilm. The pavement itself turned crumbly, rent from beneath by cracks as if undermined by tree roots and weeds. Fewer and fewer streetlights shone with any warmth, many of them had shattered bulbs, and the ones that did still function were flickering or dim, leaving us to rely on the narrowing moonlight.

Everything was covered in grease, cook-fire grease, fatty grease, soft and yellow where it had built up in the corners of windows and walls, the sort of grease one might find in the gut of a drowned corpse.

The filthy water was worse. By the time the Saye Fox turned again — left a second time, a double-back? — the vile sewer water had crested the kerbs and spread beyond mere pavement puddles. Oily with grime, full of floating black rot and tiny white wiggling worms lifted from the drain entrances and gutters. It stank too, like sulphur, rotten cabbage, and bad eggs. Zheng and Twil and Badger were forced to splash through a thin layer of the rancid water, and the Saye Fox spent as little time down on the pavement as possible, darting through as quickly as she could and shaking her paws off once she leapt onto a garden wall again.

Twil was in trainers, her feet must have been soaked through when the water inched up above her soles, but at least Zheng and Badger were both wearing proper boots, and I was safe and dry on Zheng’s back for now. I was most worried about Badger. He was the only true human here. Neither he nor Twil complained — not that they had time to, with the running and the huffing and the puffing — so at least the water wasn’t actually corrosive acid. But there was no telling what it might do to unprotected flesh.

Vast dark shapes moved beneath the murky water in the middle of the road, as if we looked down into an actual oceanic gulf.

They weren’t illusions. Their weight and displacement disturbed the water, forming swells and humps and slopping waves against the kerb. As we splashed along the pavement, limbs and feelers began to break the surface out in the road.

“Oh fuck off with that!” Twil shouted as she ran, shooting wide-eyed glances into the street.

Grey tentacles like a parody of a giant octopus rose slowly to wave in the air, accompanied by multi-hinged insectoid arms clad in dark exoskeleton, along with strange thin feelers like marine plants, and thick muscular tongues like a clam’s pseudopod.

“Ignore it, laangren,” Zheng rumbled.

Badger, huffing and puffing and splashing along behind us, was repeating ‘oh shit oh shit oh shit’ in every gap between his heaving breath.

“How am I meant to ignore this?!” Twil skidded to a halt, throwing up a shower of filthy water, and turned to face the road.

One of the insectoid arms had ventured close to the kerb, plated like a knight and tipped with a hook to rival any butcher’s gutting tool. Zheng slammed to a halt as well, and I clung to her back with muffled squeal, but the arm was already dipping for Twil, darting down to snare her and drag her below the surface of the water. Her ghostly werewolf form whirled together like a second skin. I swallowed a tiny scream as she dodged sideways — the thin stinger missed her — but to catch her balance she put one foot over the edge of the kerb, down into the road itself, into the deep water.

But Twil didn’t go tumbling and splashing into the darkness. Her foot found the asphalt of the road surface, not a thousand fathoms of cold water.

She turned so fast I could barely follow the motion, ripping through the insectoid arm’s exoskeleton with both sets of her claws.

Black blood erupted from the flailing stump. The severed portion flopped to the ground, falling into a nearby garden. The owner of the arm darted beneath the surface of the water and vanished back into the general murk.

“Yeah!” Twil roared. “How’d you like that?!”

Several other marine appendages which had been circling closer suddenly decided we presented too much difficulty to pick off, and drifted back out into the middle of the road, or slipped beneath the waves.

“Not so good at dodging me now, are you, you big bitch?” Twil went on, fired up and grinning with her wolf’s snout.

“It’s not him,” I croaked. “Just parasites. Keep going. Keep moving.”

The Saye Fox had stopped to wait for us almost twenty feet ahead, restless and fidgeting on a garden wall. Her eyes kept darting out into the road too, keeping watch on the circling scavengers below, but then she looked directly at me again. Abyssal instinct stirred at the question behind those fire-lit eyes, but I didn’t understand. I looked past the fox, at the route she was taking through the darkening streets, and felt a tugging from the black pit at the bottom of my soul, from the hyperdimensional mathematics always lurking in my subconscious. The Eye’s lessons presented some solution to this place, an answer to why it existed. A wave of nausea and vertigo passed through me and I clung to Zheng’s back even harder.

“Eh? What?” Twil frowned.

“Parasites, laangren,” Zheng answered for me, already striding past Twil and hurrying after the fox. “Ooran juh’s tapeworms and lice, picking over the scraps of his meal. We are beyond them.”

“Speak for yourself,” Badger muttered, voice shaking with terror as he slipped past too, sticking close to Zheng and I.

“Watch your feet, Twil,” I croaked back, loud as I could.

“What? Oh, shit!” She only just realised she’d stepped into the road, soaking the cuff of her jeans and filling her trainer with water. She pulled her foot up and shook herself off, then frowned at the visible asphalt beneath the water. “How … but— it’s deep, but— what?”

“Don’t think about it!” I called.

Impossible space, broken causality, not meant for the unprotected human mind. I could comprehend it, of course, if only I was willing to dredge up the Eye’s relevant lessons.

“Hurry up, laangren!” Zheng roared, taking off after the fox as it scampered away again, leading us deeper into this roiling, rotting Sharrowford. Twil did not need telling twice. She picked up her feet and passed us seconds later, hot on the fox’s tail.


A minute later, the Saye Fox turned left a third time.

“The hell?!” Twil called out as we rounded the corner. “Is it confused or something? We’re heading back toward the house!”

The fox stopped on a low garden wall, waiting for us to catch up, but she offered no explanation. Orange eyes like clean fire burned into mine, pleading now, begging me to see. Twil slowed to a jog as we reached the fox, casting a wary look at the tentacles and pseudopods and tongues which were keeping level with us out in the water. Zheng and I were not far behind, but my mind was spinning, my stomach rebelling at the thoughts darting through my head.

“Keep going!” Twil shouted encouragement at the fox, even as it was leaping up and racing away down the garden walls and fences, lean vulpine body stretched out in that distinctive loping sprint. “Keep going, we can keep up, we can!”

“The worm is struggling,” Zheng rumbled.

She wasn’t wrong. Badger was having a hard time keeping up. A few paces behind us, his face was red with effort and coated in sweat. He was heaving for breath, legs pumping, the slowest by far when compared to Zheng and Twil, either of whom could easily have outpaced the fox in a foot race.

“I can— can— don’t leave me—” he panted, almost drooling from the strain.

“You will not be left behind, worm,” Zheng rumbled. “The shaman needs your brain, even if I must rip it out with your spinal column still attached.”

Badger swallowed hard, and redoubled his efforts.

“Shit, I’ll carry him!” Twil skidded to a halt and doubled back, ready to grab Badger and sling him over her shoulder. “And don’t complain, you arse, this is for Heather, not you.”

“She’s not waiting for Badger,” I croaked out with considerable effort. Up ahead, the fox halted again, staring back at me, proving my point.

“Eh?” went Twil.

“Shaman?” Zheng purred.

“It’s waiting for me,” I went on, my eyes aching and burning, my skin itching from the aftermath of the screech, my abdomen clenching and spasming inside. I had to see, had to pull aside the veil, figure out what hyperdimensional principle I was meant to apply. I was too exhausted and spent to risk getting it wrong. I would only have one shot. “Running doesn’t matter, running won’t get us out. It needs me to … to … ” My stomach roiled. Out in the road, the water roiled too, slopping as the parasite predators sensed weakness. “Twil, keep moving!” I snapped. “We have to keep going, I can’t— can’t think—”

Twil nodded and turned around, after the fox again. Badger did his best to keep up.

“Focus, shaman,” Zheng whispered.

“Trying,” I croaked.

Miss Fox turned left again. We followed, past rotten trees and collapsed houses, and I realised we’d entered the far end of Barnslow Drive. The insulting parody of home rose into view once more, covered in soot and grease, ruined and empty. The rising water was flooding the front garden now, sluicing through the gate and soaking into the soil, turning the overgrown grass into a reeking, fecal swamp.

“It’s taken us in a bloody circle!” Twil shouted. The fox didn’t slow down, sprinting at top speed along the garden walls.

“Can’t you—” Badger panted. “Talk to it? You’re a— canine too?”

Twil answered with an insulted snap of her teeth.

The Saye Fox slammed to a halt at Number 12 Barnslow Drive, skipping and hopping across the brickwork of the wall and then doubling back, pacing as if in a cage, as she waited the few seconds for us to catch up. Twil looked like she wanted to pick up the animal and throttle her.

“What now?!” she asked the fox. “We’re back where we bloody well started!”

“No we’re not,” I croaked, then had to pause and wince and gasp as a fresh spike of pain raked through my abdomen. I pressed myself tight to the warmth of Zheng’s back. “It only looks that way.”

The fox stopped pacing and locked eyes with me again. Then she looked at the house, the garden, and out at the road with the marine parasites and the slopping water, now up to our ankles on the pavement. I followed her gaze, over the disgusting details of this hostile parody. Then up, up at the great red wall, shuddering and flexing.

The moon was now separated from the mouth of the wall by only a thin margin of sky. Moonlight cast a clean silver circle on us, but only us. All else was plunged into the shadow beneath the ring-wall.

“Talk, shaman,” Zheng whispered.

“Running didn’t matter,” I squeezed out, my mind beginning to detach. “Running was just ritual.”

“Oh,” Badger panted. “Great. Right. Yeah. Some ritual.”

“This isn’t the same spot,” I went on. “Because this isn’t space, not really. We have to reach the wall, but we can’t because we’re not oriented correctly, because … a … a tongue keeps food pushed back?”

“Ahhhh, don’t say it like that!” Twil whined.

“And she’s trying to get me to … rotate us?”

As I voiced the idea, the logic fell into place with a searing lance of familiar old headache pain. I drew a sharp wince between my teeth as the true meaning and structure of this place was outlined in hyperdimensional mathematics, too hot to touch, the abyssal truth beneath the human sense-data. We stood in the mouth of a whale, risen from the abyssal depths, hanging open in our reality. Crusted with barnacles and filled with parasites, all the life of a miniature ecosystem that grew in the centuries between gargantuan swallows. And now it was about to hinge shut and vanish back below the waves, with us inside.

It all seemed so unfair, so absurd, so without meaning or purpose. This ancient mage, Ooran juh, the Big Man, we hadn’t even been aware of him three hours ago. For all we knew, he hadn’t been aware of us either, totally uninterested in anything except collecting his due from Badger. But this was the inevitable result of being involved in this world of magecraft and secret monsters, of brushing up against Outside, wasn’t it?

I’d never truly agreed with Evelyn’s paranoia. I’d proved it wrong enough times, proved that the people we encountered were in the end just people, even some of those who weren’t human, and that we could deal with them as people, not cognitive hazards or insane berserkers or unreachable mysteries to be killed and burned.

But here was the truth and justification. We’d simply bumped into this thing, going about its own grisly, incomprehensible business, absolutely lethal and totally beyond our ability to counter.

A mage, more dangerous than any God.

In the end it was just another threat to my pack, and another obstacle on the path back to my sister. There was only one thing for it.

I was running on fumes, but we had to get out. It didn’t matter if I fell unconscious or vomited up my entire digestive system the second we were out, as long as we got out.

With a scream and a shudder and a stab of white-hot pain inside my head, I drew the relevant equation from the dark rooms in my subconscious, gripped the dripping levers of reality, and pulled.

Zheng leaned forward so I could vomit over her shoulder without getting it all down her front. Very considerate.

Long hard heartbeats passed as my vision throbbed dark and my nose bled all over Zheng’s jumper. Muffled voices shouted in panic — Twil? Badger? — and then the world came trickling back to my senses, my ears clearing with conscious effort as I wiped my mouth on Zheng’s shoulder and lifted my head.

“We’re still here!” Twil shouted up at me. “What did you do? We’re still here!” She was ankle deep in the filthy water. The ruined version of our home still haunted my peripheral vision. I was so weak I couldn’t even nod past her.

“Look, laangren,” Zheng breathed. Badger was already staring, breathless and wide-eyed. When Twil turned and saw, she ducked her head and cowered.

The great red wall now stood a mere twenty feet away. I had brought us here, we had travelled without moving.

The wall looked as if it had erupted from the ground in the manner of a giant tooth from dying gum tissue, displacing pavement and asphalt and overgrown grass, blocking off the road and bisecting one corner of the house. The vast length stretched off to the left and right either side of us. Up close the surface of the wall was gnarled and pitted, covered in bumps and ridges like the inside of a diseased throat. Each red block was so large that we could only spot one seam, sixty or seventy feet up in the air.

Water slapped against the base of the wall, but the parasites in the deep were retreating in haste. Their questing limbs slipped beneath the surface as they fled down the road and away from the edge of their world.

The Saye Fox opened her russet muzzle and let out a laughing chitter-chatter vulpine yip-yap.

“Yes, shaman!” Zheng roared in triumph. “You have brought us here, now we break through. No wall will keep me in.”

“What happened to ‘don’t touch the wall’?” Twil boggled at the vast edifice, then at Zheng. “Evee said don’t touch it, right? And that part was really her?”

“Wizards are often wrong,” Zheng purred. “Shaman, I must set you down if I am to rend this giant’s flesh.”

“No,” I whined as Zheng began to crouch. “Zheng, no. I have to do it.”

Zheng paused.

“Don’t touch it,” I said, sniffing back my nosebleed. “Can’t touch it. Evee was right, don’t touch. You’d get infected. Have to use brainmath. Punch a hole, with math. Not fists.”

Twil and Zheng shared a glance. Badger swallowed so loud I could hear it over the slopping water.

“She’s nearly spent,” Twil said through gritted teeth.

“The shaman knows well enough,” Zheng purred.

“She’ll pass out,” Twil went on. “She’ll pass out, she’s gone. Look at her!”

“I get one shot,” I croaked. “I know. One shot. I can do—”

But the end of my sentence was drowned out by an earth shattering schlooooop-pop as the great red wall shuddered again, a vast ripple of slow motion passing up through the muscle in a wave of contraction. We all followed the motion upward, to the opening far above our heads.

Like a puckered sphincter squeezing shut, the circular opening of the great red wall closed in on itself, and blotted out the moon.

We were plunged into rancid darkness, left with only the weak orange light from stuttering street lamps.

The Saye Fox went frantic, hopping and bouncing from paw to paw. Twil bristled all over and muttered curses under her breath. The water in the road started to slop and slosh, as if disturbed far below.

“It’s okay,” I croaked. “I can still do it.”

“Oh God, oh fuck, oh God.” Badger closed his eyes and put his hands together, wincing at the pain in his wounded palm. “Please God I’ve never asked you for anything these last few years and I’m sorry I’m sorry, please please let this work, I won’t resist, I’ll let her v-vivisect me, please don’t let this be—”

“Shut up, worm,” Zheng growled. “Let the shaman concentrate.”

Badger bit his own knuckles, tears running down his cheeks.

Ooran juh is preparing to swallow,” Zheng said. “Work fast, shaman.”

I didn’t waste breath on reassurances. I concentrated.

If we were in the mouth of a true whale, then no amount of bone and hide could have resisted the atomic fire I knew my mind could put out, no cartilage and tendon would stand up to pure force. But this was not mere flesh I was preparing to punch through — it was self-expression, a construct of abyssal truth and genius creativity and human cruelty, which had taken centuries to grow in the mind and body of a mage so far beyond me that they almost rivalled the Eye in sheer power. But I was an abyssal thing too, and I already understood what I was looking at.

With a hiss of pain I laid out the beginning equations of comprehension and definition, the framework that would allow me to define what lay in front of me. Once I had that ready, pulling the cell walls apart would not be too difficult in theory, though it would take everything I had. I would pass out in a welter of my own vomit and blood once I was done. But we would be out, and the others could take it from there. I trusted Zheng to carry me home through anything.

I moved my mind to slot the first figure of the equation into place.

But then the front door of the dark mockery of Number 12 Barnslow Drive flew open, sheering off rusted hinges and slapping down into the water in the overgrown garden. The door frame bulged and cracked, then exploded outward in chunks of brick and a shower of wood splinters. Ten feet of obese worm-eaten pale meat strode out of the house and straight toward us.

Ooran juh, the Big Man, ‘Mister Blobby’ — he’d figured out what I was doing.

He’d rotated himself down to our level to stop me.

Badger screamed. Twil turned and growled through too many teeth, hunched and ready to pounce. The Saye Fox froze in place, ears back, tail bristling. Zheng backed up into the deeper water with me still clinging to her back, but I was insensible with sudden explosive pain in my head and a streaming nosebleed, as the equation fell apart in pure shock.

How could we be in his mouth, yet fight him like this at the same time? I sensed that the answer that question would drive me irrevocably insane.

“Yeah!” Twil was shouting. “Come at me, dickhead! You wanna fuckin’ fight?! I got you a fight right—”

“It is after the shaman!” Zheng roared over her.

But that was all she had time to say.

Ooran juh moved fast and sure for such an impossibly fat figure, slapping down those slab feet and kicking up huge sprays of filth, rather than troubling himself with water resistance by striding through the muck. Headless and towering, both hands held out in front like a cheap zombie, each palm split by a curled red grin filled with dripping saliva and sharp teeth. It bore down on us at full speed, like a man power-walking, taking the garden wall in one stride, coming straight for Zheng and I.

It was like being charged by a hippopotamus.

Even with no energy left, my body instinctively tried to recoil, to make myself small, curl up to protect my vital organs. My phantom limbs joined in, trying to make a ball like a threatened octopus, around both myself and Zheng.

Twil — oh Twil, so full of stupid bravery — launched herself at the Big Man’s side, all teeth and claw at an angle impossible for him to dodge without breaking his stride. But he simply stepped onward and she sailed through the open air behind to crash down into the water, spluttering and confused. She should have hit him, the angle was impossible for her to miss, but he’d simply not been there.

Zheng feinted one way, then darted the other. I hiccuped into her shoulder and clung on for dear life as she moved fast enough to wrench my guts out of place.

For a split-second, I saw Ooran juh in two places at once; the headless giant was bearing down on us from his former angle, but also at the same time intercepting Zheng from another direction. Abyssal senses or pure luck, I had no idea how I saw that, but the trick made my head ache and my eyes sting.

Then he was very much in front of us. Zheng slammed to a halt as he reached out one plate-sized hand to rip me away from her.

“Hey, you,” came an angry, shaking voice.

It was Badger. He’d walked right up to the Big Man’s side, holding his head high, eyes raised, gripping his wounded hand tight in his other. Fresh blood dripped between his knuckles.

The Big Man stopped, as if bothered by a fly. If he had possessed a neck and head, it would have turned slowly to regard the tiny human form of Badger. Zheng took the opportunity to back up, splashing through the water as I wheezed and spat bile and tried to gather myself enough to try again.

“Shaman, we cannot run,” she hissed quickly. “There is nowhere to go. Get us out.”

“Try—” I gurgled. Had to restart the equation, but I had nothing left. Not even fumes. I would have to dip into the abyss. “Trying, to—”

In a display of some of the most idiotic courage I had ever seen in a human being, Badger quickly opened his wounded hand and raised it high, to strike the Big Man’s side or leg. In that frozen moment, I saw the disgusting mouth had re-opened in Badger’s palm – and the blood, his own blood, in his own teeth in his real mouth — and realised what he had done. Weaponless and helpless, Badger had bitten open his own wound and summoned the mouth-hand again, to turn Ooran juh’s teeth against itself.

Badger slapped his palm down onto the Big Mans’s tree-trunk thigh. The mouth bit deep into wormy, greasy flesh, and came away spitting out pale off-white fluid more akin to pus than blood.

The Big Man shook Badger off like a puppy clinging to his trouser leg, and used the back of one his massive hands to move Badger out of way, forcing him to stumble and trip through the water. It wasn’t even a violent gesture. It was the act of an uncaring adult toward a small and stupid child. And he could have simply avoided the whole thing, we were all familiar by now with how he could step past any physical attack. He had chosen to get bitten, to show how little our weapons mattered.

All Badger’s courage drained away into nothing. He went white with horror as the Big Man turned back to Zheng and I.

Twil went for him again, but she just skidded into the empty water where he should have been standing, growling and snapping and shouting in frustration. Over on the wall, the Saye Fox was yipping and yowling, doing what little she could.

And then he was on me.

I saw it again — Ooran juh at every possible angle all around Zheng and I, a dozen mouth-hands all reaching to pluck me off her back, to bite my soul out. Every escape was accounted for.

Zheng chose the unseen option.

In a flash of motion she let go of my thighs, pulled my arms from around her neck, and turned fast enough to fling me off her back.

She shook me off and threw me clear. I screamed in surprise, phantom limbs frantically trying to anchor myself to her, like a squid shooting out feeding tentacles to hook prey — but my tentacles were not real, not right now. I landed with a splash in the filthy water six feet away, the impact knocking the wind out of me, soaked and freezing in an instant.

“Shaman, get out!” Zheng roared, and turned to face the momentarily confused Big Man.

She’d bought me a few seconds.

Zheng struck like lightning wrapped in molten honey. Her fists moved as pounding pistons, aiming a dozen punches in the blink of an eye at the vulnerable bones of the Big Man’s sternum and upper ribs. A single one of those blows could shatter concrete and bend steel, I’d seen it before, and I had no doubt that even the Big Man’s substantial physical form would be hard pressed to withstand that.

Zheng’s fists passed through empty air, as if the headless giant was just to one side of her reach, trapped by an optical illusion of perspective.

Ooran juh reached out to bite her.

One drooling mouth in a fat-fingered hand moved toward Zheng’s face, slow and easy, like he was going to pet a cat, with no need to exert himself. Zheng stood her ground, because if she dodged, the Big Man would go for me instead. I was lurching to my feet, a horrified scream in my throat, my face smeared with nosebleed, barely able to stand on quivering knees and weighed down by my soaking clothes.

But to my incredible surprise, Zheng caught the flabby pale meat of the giant’s wrist with both her hands, bracing her feet and digging her fingers into the greasy skin. A savage grin of blood-lust joy ripped across her face, showing all her teeth as she held the snapping mouth at bay inches from her own.

“Shaman!” she roared.

“Heather get us the fuck out!” Twil shouted too.

“I can’t—” I panted in horror. I had nothing left. My vision was throbbing black at the edges.

Then Ooran juh slapped his other palm onto Zheng’s side, and bit deep.

She didn’t scream, barely grunted. Razor-sharp teeth pieced her flank just beneath her ribcage, ripping straight through her clothes and tearing off a huge chunk of quivering, bleeding flesh. The hand pulled back, swallowing and then darting out a thick red tongue to lick the blood from those smiling lips.

Zheng sagged all along one side as blood streamed down her hip and thigh, soaking into her trousers and streaming into the water. She stumbled as if the strength had gone out of her, and lost her grip on Ooran juh’s wrist as he pulled his hand away. He moved to bite her a second time. She got an arm in front of her face as she staggered backward, and he ripped a chunk of raw meat out of Zheng’s forearm.

That time, she screamed. An angry roar of frustration and pain, open-mouthed like a lion.

I cannot adequately describe the horror of watching somebody you love being hurt in that way. Not just shot or stabbed. No wound could kill Zheng. She’d shrugged off far worse, and she’d revelled in the damage. She’d leapt from a building for me, back when we’d barely known each other. But Ooran juh’s bites were far more than mere wounds. They were an infection, a violation, a claim. Like watching a loved one step on a rusty nail, or drowning in sewage, or taking a poison arrow to the gut.

Zheng sagged backward, one leg going out from under her. She splashed down in the filthy water, barely managing to stay upright, balanced on one knee. Her blood flowed in twin rivers from the pair of massive bite wounds.

The headless giant reached down toward her with both hands.

A hiss rose in my throat, a counter-claim, because Zheng was mine and nobody hurts any of my pack mates and she was mine, my claim, don’t you touch her — but I was spent. Empty. I didn’t even have the energy to wheeze a challenge, let alone transmute my throat again and screech defiance. I could barely stay on my feet, my legs were quivering with the effort. In my blurring vision I saw Twil drop into a crouch behind the Big Man, ready to pounce, but that was a hopeless gesture. I could not get us out, my brain was too full of fog, I was ready to collapse, and Ooran juh would murder my friends and my lovers, eat my pack, and then turn to me regardless.

I lacked the energy.

But I did not lack the means to produce it.

By the split-second that idea shot through my exhausted mind, it was already too late to stop myself. I was already reaching down into the black tar pooled at the base of my soul, to flick a single mathematical value from a zero to a one. It was a minor miracle I didn’t kill myself by accident. I had studied nothing, made no plans, had no idea how this even worked, but there was no time for experimenting. Everything was screaming at me to to help Zheng, to fight off her attacker, to get us out, to protect. And if I had been thinking clearly, if I had been wide awake? I would have made the exact same decision. Consequences did not matter.

With one change in the hyperdimensional equation that defined myself, I spun imagination and phantom pain and abyssal memory together, into pneuma-somatic reality; I forged new flesh and simulated muscle and artificial tendon, tied into a knot so complex that evolution itself could never have woven something so beautiful.

I built the trilobe reactor organ in my abdomen, with pneuma-somatic flesh, made it real — and lit it with a spark of metabolic fire.

Heat, real heat, body heat running hot, flushed up my side and through my gut and pumped strength into my legs like a shot of adrenaline. My heart rate climbed to maximum and stayed there, sustained and supported by processes that would have killed an unaltered human being. My head cleared with a single shake, senses so wide that they hurt, and I gasped as my lungs filled and every inch of my skin broke out with sweat. Glucose pounding through my veins, every muscle overproducing ATP, and the hungry void at my core filling up like an empty fuel tank for which I’d finally found the input nozzle. The trilobe organ inside me was not a mere physical reactor. Other processes were already running away, approximations of chemistry and biology that should only have been possible down in the abyss.

The rest came a split-second later, as naturally as taking a breath — my tentacles sprouted from my sides, six rainbow-strobing pneuma-somatic limbs lashing the air, ready for war, reinforced with ropes of muscle, tipped with razor-sharp claws, and lined with hundreds of tiny hooks.

But the pneuma-somatic changes did not stop there. I was too deep now.

I blinked nictitating membranes over my eyes; the surface of my skin flushed with tetrodotoxin and warning colouration; my shoulders sprouted defensive spines like a sea urchin; my teeth ached and elongated and sharpened; webbing formed between my fingers, thick and leathery; a tail tipped by a venom-packed stinger grew from the base of my spine; my throat twisted into an impossible configuration and my jaw hinged open in a screech of challenge. All pneuma-somatic modifications, none planned, all drawing power from my new reactor, a furnace wedged deep in the left side of my abdomen.

I suspected I would never be able to sleep on my left side again. Never sleep again, full stop. I had more energy than I could ever use, drawn from a source that would never run dry, and I had completed the first stage of true alchemical transition, the great work. I was perfect.

And I had no idea if I could ever go back.

Didn’t matter right then.

The whole process had taken the blink of an eye, and Ooran juh was still reaching down toward Zheng’s face with his drooling mouth-hands — but he had paused. Despite the lack of a head or face, I had the distinct impression he was looking at me.

“Holy shit,” Twil breathed. “Heather?”

Badger was staring at me too, mouth open in awe. The Saye Fox had gone quiet and still, ready to flee.

“Shaman,” Zheng grunted, voice bubbling with blood and pain. “Do not—”

I was barely even there. Words registered, but I didn’t care about the meaning of the hooting ape sounds. Those were for later. With a screech and a hiss and a warning display of tentacles to put a colossal squid to shame, I lashed out at the Big Man.

But of course he simply wasn’t where my tentacles struck the air. He was to one side, as if I was mistaken and had missed.

Whatever I had just become, I was still physical and pneuma-somatic, I couldn’t just reach out with my tentacles and stop him.

But I’d thought of that. Or at least, abyssal instinct and ape brain and whatever Heather they had constructed between them, had thought of that. In the illusory split-second where the Big Man was not where he should be, I plunged my mind back into the Eye’s lessons, screeching at the pain in my head, and threw a cage around him. A cage of mathematical redefinition, a cage of here and now. Through effort that would have knocked me unconscious without the reactor thrumming and throbbing in my belly, I defined this part of him, this projection, this slice of his true form, and forced it to stay on our level. Like a giant squid hooking a shark and dragging it down into the black ocean depths.

The equation was still not gentle or easy on my body and mind, no matter how changed or how much I’d added to myself. Lances of pain rammed through my skull like molten-hot railway spikes, and my stomach clenched into a ball as I spat up bile. My nosebleed restarted and I smeared the mess across my face, gagging and panting and whining with pain.

But I didn’t pass out. I couldn’t have passed out if I’d wanted to.

Ooran juh was suddenly in only one place. Straightening up, turning toward me. Even if the full, real entity could not be fought, this slice of him could bleed and die.

“Six or seven or eight dimensions!” I screeched and spat, my voice a trilling abyssal mess of knotted muscle. “Fight in this one or let us go! Take it back! Take back the bites! She’s not yours!”

The headless giant raised both hands toward me, split by leering grins, licking their lips in mocking obscenity.

So I screeched, cast my tentacles wide, and threw myself at this rival predator.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

a very great mischief – 13.12

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Panic set in quicker than I had expected.

The warped goldfish bowl perspective, the rows of impossibly curved terraced houses leering down at us, this twisted version of Sharrowford; the lurking threat of the Big Man, ‘Mister Blobby’, Badger’s contract-holder, my rival predator, ten feet of pallid wormy meat that had spooked even Zheng; the layer of greasy moisture left on every inch of brick and asphalt by the retreating fog; the moon above, seen as if from the bottom of a well, with the great red brick wall forming a barrier vaster than the world; and the strange blood-soaked words in Evelyn’s voice before the call had cut out. All of it combined into a cocktail of total incomprehension.

The sheer still silence was intolerable. In a way it would have been easier if we’d been surrounded by grisly monsters.

Badger was quivering with adrenaline and fear, his breath shaking, arms wrapped around himself. Twil was whirling every which way, trying to look down all three roads at the same time. Zheng stood statue still with the deceptively relaxed readiness of a big cat. I clung to her for support, still staring at the phone in my hand. My mind raced to replay the bizarre things Evelyn had said, or been forced to say, trying desperately to divine if we’d just been taunted – or if something worse had happened, back at the house.

Twil turned to me, panting and wide-eyed. “D-do you think we can call Evee back?”

I’d never heard her stammer like that before.

“No,” I said, swallowing down my own panic and lingering pain. My abdomen was sending deep stabbing pains up into my guts, hopefully just an aftereffect of stress. “No, I don’t think that would be a good idea. Not if that wasn’t really her and- Twil!” I snapped as Twil fumbled out her own mobile phone, already thumbing through the screens to Evelyn’s number. “Please don’t risk it. Twil, please, we don’t know if our phones have been compromised somehow.”

“The shaman is right,” Zheng purred. “Ooran juh will take any opening, and force it wide.”

“Shit,” said Twil. “You don’t think it got to the house somehow, right? Right?”

“No, I believe that was some kind of illusion.” I sounded much more confident than I felt. I was guessing, at best, but we had to stay calm and collected. “Or it hijacked the call. Imitated Evelyn’s voice, to taunt us, to make us afraid.”

“So was that her or not?!” Twil asked.

I hesitated.

“Heather!” she growled.

“I don’t know!” I snapped, then had to pause and cough. My throat felt twisted inside, delicate muscles burning with unfamiliar effort, like walking on a dislocated hip. “I think that was the real Raine and Evee, at first. She sounded completely like herself, right up until the subject became … well. And Barnslow Drive is like a magical fortress. People can knock on the door, but that thing wasn’t a person, not at all. Even if it went for the house, it couldn’t just walk in. It couldn’t.”

“He can go anywhere,” Badger muttered, voice thin and reedy. “No door, no lock, no bolt may deny him entrance. No key is complex enough to escape his genius.” He swallowed and glanced up at us. “That was a quote from the pages we had. I’m sorry.”

“You don’t know if that’s true,” I said, and failed to sound either calm or collected.

“Sod it,” Twil spat, and pressed her phone to the side of her head. “What’s it gonna do, reach through the speaker and bite my ear off?” She turned to the empty, silent streets and stuck two fingers up at nothing. “Fuck you! You hear me, bitch?! Fuck you, I’m invincible!”

“Oh my goodness.” I had to suck down a deep breath, chest constricting inside. “Twil, don’t, please-”

Laangren,” Zheng rumbled. “I will not save you from your own stupidity.”

“Shhhhh-shh-shh, it’s- it’s-” Twil waved a hand at us, then frowned at whatever she was hearing on the phone. “What do you mean, out of range or switched off? Evee’s got voicemail, I know she has.” Twil lowered the phone again, frowning at the screen. “I’ve got signal, but there’s no connection. Like she’s taken her sim card out. What the hell?”

“It’s an illusion,” I said again, trying to make myself believe. “The call was hijacked. Our phones have been cut off.”

“Nothing like this ever happened before,” Badger said, voice far away and hollow. He was staring up at the leering houses, face slowly going slack.

Zheng reached out, grabbed a fistful of his hair, wrenched his head down.

“Wha-” Badger flailed in panic.

“Zheng, don’t hurt-”

“Eyes on the ground, worm,” Zheng rumbled at Badger as he blinked rapidly, panting his lungs out in animal panic, his attention ripped from the impossible amphitheatre back down to street level. Zheng let go with a tiny shove. “The shaman needs your mind intact.”

“R-right, right, right you are,” he babbled. “Right, Z-Zheng, yes, yes, good idea. Focus. Focus.”

“You arsehole,” Twil growled, suddenly stepping toward him, scraps of ghostly flesh flowing together into more wolf than human. Badger recoiled. “This is your fault, you stupid little shit.”

Down,” I snapped, as hard as I could, as Evelyn as I could. The effort made the spiking pain in my abdomen worse, clenching and shuddering.

Twil stopped and bared her teeth at me instead.

“Evee is fine,” I said. “She’s behind the walls of a house strong enough to keep out any other magical influence. She has Praem and Raine and Lozzie all with her. Not to mention Tenny. I’m sure Tenny could beat up our disgusting stalker. It would be no contest.”

The intentional absurdity of my statement drew a tiny humourless huff from Twil, but the accuracy of my reading her concerns doused the worst of her anger. She looked away, still steaming, but no longer about to tear Badger’s face off.

“And we need to focus on getting ourselves out of here first,” I said. “We can help Evee once we’re clear.”

“Yeah … yeah, alright, fine. I get it.” Twil ran a hand through her dark curls, looking out at the deserted streets again, shooting a quick glance at the way they climbed the impossible sides of this curved plane. “What do we do then, walk back to the house? I know you said it won’t work, but we could at least try, yeah?”

I took a deep breath and steeled myself.

“Shaman?” Zheng must have felt my accelerating heartbeat.

“I want to try to use brainmath to slip us all Outside,” I said.

“Oh no,” Badger breathed.

“What?” Twil frowned.

“If this space, whatever this is, is located in our reality but cut off somehow, then maybe the dead hands phenomenon is cut off as well. If so, I may be able to relocate us Outside, and then back again, free of this … this.” I gestured around without looking up. “And if we’re not in reality, then maybe I can take us back there manually.”

Twil grimaced. “You sure you wanna do that, Heather?”

“The shaman is always sure,” Zheng purred.

I tutted. “I am not.”

“Sure you’re up to it?” Twil asked. “You look like shit already.” Her eyes widened and she blushed before she even finished the sentence. “Uh- I mean, uh- I mean you’re exhausted! I mean, you don’t look like shit. Fuck, sorry.”

Her flustered clumsiness would have been heart-fluttering under any other circumstances.

“It’s okay,” I said. “I feel just as excremental as I look. I’m falling apart here, Zheng’s going to have to carry me regardless. I may as well try. I might pass out, but this an emergency.”

Twil nodded, then glanced up at Zheng. “You got her, yeah? Don’t drop her if she falls.”

Zheng grunted an affirmative.

“Everyone needs to touch. Hold hands or something,” I said. “Like we did with Lozzie on the way back from Carcosa. Don’t let go. And keep your eyes firmly closed. You too,” I added to Badger. “I don’t want you losing your mind in the transition.” He nodded, and squeezed his eyes shut, gone white in the face.

Twil grabbed Badger by the shoulder. Zheng held me tight in one arm, and after a moment’s hesitation, Twil offered her a hand. My stomach was churning with the anticipation of pain, but there was no sense in delaying.

“Okay, here goes nothing,” I said.

I plunged my mind into the black sump at the bottom of my soul, thrust into the boiling tar up to my elbows, burning away skin and lighting my brain on fire. I dredged up that familiar old equation, the one I’d used so many times now, the most fundamental of the Eye’s lessons, the mathematical formula to rotate matter from reality to Outside and back again. It rose like a dripping hulk from the depths, the machine parts awakening as I touched them one by once. Molten metal slammed into place across the surface of my brain, scraping away slivers of who and what I was, shooting splinters of impossible knowledge deep into my subconscious to burrow and fester. Each figure of the equation clicked down in sequence, the hyperdimensional mathematics completing itself in the span of a hummingbird’s wing beat.

And then a pair of cold vices closed around my ankles.

Dead hands, anchored in deep soil, and holding fast.

The equation fell apart in a cry of pain and a sudden welter of nosebleed. My vision blurred, throbbing black around the edges as I hung in Zheng’s grip like a rag doll with my strings cut. Zheng cradled my head and chest and let me lean forward as I clenched up every muscle in my body to stop from vomiting. I let out a gurgling cry as my stomach muscles tried to convulse, but I held on. I had bested this formula before. I would not surrender now.

Panting, wiping nosebleed on my coat sleeve, shaking all over with pain like the aftermath of an electric shock, I straightened up and let Zheng take my weight. Could barely work my legs.

“Shaman,” she purred.

“Didn’t work?” Twil grimaced. She let go of Zheng’s hand and let go of Badger, who was looking at me somewhat awestruck.

“No hitchhiking for us,” I muttered, a little bit out of my head.

Twil squinted. “Eh?”

“We walk, laangren,” Zheng purred.


For lack of any other option, we did indeed try to walk home.

“ … oh that is too weird,” Twil said, staring back the way we’d come after about a hundred meters. “I really really really don’t like that. Really mega total do not like. Uh uh. No way. Screw this place.”

“Then do not look, laangren,” Zheng purred.

The goldfish bowl effect, the leering houses, and the great red brick wall all moved with us, as if the whole world rotated relative to the awful sights above us. We seemed unable to reach the point where the road curved impossibly upward into the space between those dark houses, walking through a silent Sharrowford as normal instead – or as close to normal as it could be, covered in a sheen of shiny grease and darkened by soot and grime. Behind us, once we walked far enough, the junction with the bus stop had risen up into the ring of houses and jumbled streets, all details rapidly lost to sight. Where we’d stood only minutes before was pulled up onto the side of the goldfish bowl plane.

The effect was dizzying to watch. We all tried to keep our gazes less than a hundred meters ahead, on the relatively normal road as it descended from the illusion above.

I did wonder what would happen if we split into two groups and walked in different directions, but decided not to risk any experiments.

I didn’t even speculate out loud; we may have had a hidden eavesdropper.

Twil went in front – ‘taking point’ as Raine liked to call it – and stayed in full-on werewolf mode. Why not, we reasoned, there was nobody here to see. We made our way down the middle of the road, slow and cautious, no leaping walls or sprinting at speed, all the better to spot an ambush if our corpulent stalker decided to have another go.

Badger stayed in the middle, partly so Zheng could keep an eye on him, and Zheng herself brought up the rear, but never too far away.

I rode on Zheng’s back again, exhausted beyond words, my eyelids like lead.

Attempted brainmath had drained me down to fumes. Combined with the stabbing pains in my abdomen and the aftermath of the screech and the lingering ravenous hunger, I felt barely present, a numb sack of meat clinging to my packmate’s back. Even my phantom limbs were limp, wrapped around Zheng in an embrace she couldn’t feel, like an injured squid with a friendly shark.

“I’m- sorry Zheng, there’s still nosebleed, I can’t-”

“Bleed on me, shaman,” she’d purred.

I knew she’d never drop me. I could have slept like this, if only we were elsewhere.

Sharrowford degenerated as we walked. Hastings Road could have been mistaken for normal, on a rough night, in the dark, after a storm, but by the time we reached Sparrow Street, the city at ground level had transformed into a dark parody.

The houses were coated with grime, coal-dust and soot and pollution, their windowpanes darkened from the inside by layers of dirt, brickwork eaten away by lichen and pale moss. The garden walls were coated in disgusting grease that made my skin crawl, and the gardens themselves were thin with dead grass, littered with old kitchen appliances or piles of rubbish. Streetlights seemed dimmer as we passed, parked cars had faded paint-jobs, and the gutters were clogged with rotting organic matter like leaf mulch or mud, with tiny white worms writhing within.

“Come on, what the hell?” Twil growled through her snout from up ahead. She was flexing her claws, wolf ears swivelling to catch the slightest sound, jumping at shadows. “Sharrowford doesn’t look half this bad, this is bullshit. Come out and fight us, fucko!”

Her challenge echoed away between the houses.

“Calm, laangren,” Zheng purred.

“How am I meant to calm down if this motherfucker won’t come out and fight me? Shit-eating coward bitch-tits … ” She trailed off into muttered insults. I noticed Badger trying not to flinch every time Twil opened her mouth.

Ooran juh wants you tormented,” said Zheng.

“I’ll show it bloody torment.” Twil gestured at the dark and filthy houses. “What about all the people? Come on, there was people sleeping in these houses, right? It’s the middle of the night. They can’t all have vanished.”

Not a single light shone in any window. Not a whisper moved behind any curtain.

“We’re not in Sharrowford,” I croaked.

We crept on a few more steps in tense silence. Zheng turned her head very slightly, meeting my eyes sidelong across her own shoulder.

“What is your plan, shaman?” she whispered.

“ … get home. Maybe … maybe there … ”

“I will fight anything for you,” she whispered on, “even Ooran juh, though I cannot win. But I do not know how to get you out of this gullet.”

Zheng’s warmth down my front made me feel so safe, but here it was a false hope. I tried to nod.

“I love you too, Zheng. I’ll get us out. Get us out,” I whispered back. “I’ll think of something.”

Up ahead, Twil stopped by a low garden wall, gritting her teeth at one of the worm-eaten wooden doors.

“I could go ring a doorbell,” she said. “See if anybody’s home.”

Laangren,” Zheng rumbled a warning.

“Twil, no-” I croaked, but it was too late. Twil was already vaulting the low wall, onto the patch of scraggy grass that passed for a lawn. She trotted up onto the front step and pressed the doorbell twice, bouncing on her wolf-pad paws and rolling her furred shoulders, ready to spring away or throw a punch.

Zheng stopped with me on her back, a good safe distance away. Badger scurried behind us.

“Bad plan, hey,” he was muttering to himself. “Bad plan, bad baaaaad plan. What is with this werewolf stuff, man?”

“Hey hey!” Twil called up at the house. “Anybody home?”

“Twil, leave it, please,” I said.

“Quiet, shaman,” Zheng purred. I shut my mouth.

Twil jabbed the doorbell twice more. Seconds ticked by, maybe a whole minute, but nothing happened. My phantom limbs tried to ready themselves, sluggish and tugging on my bruises. Eventually Twil let out a huge grumbling huff and shrugged her shoulders.

“Guess that answers that,” she sighed. Twil looked back at us over one shoulder and pulled a self-deprecating smirk with her wolf’s snout, a very strange sight. “Made myself look like a right arse, didn’t-”

“Twil!” I screamed.

At the moment she’d turned to look over her shoulder, the door had begun to open, a dark crack widening with silent glacial slowness.

When I screamed, a fat pale arm squirmed out through the gap like a great albino worm forcing itself through corpse-flesh.

Twil whirled just in time, leaping back with a yelp, stumbling on the house’s front step. The slavering mouth in the Big Man’s palm snapped razor teeth shut on empty air, an inch from Twil’s head. She scrambled back, panting and wild. The door and frame bulged outward, creaking and warping as a giant bulk pressed against them from behind.

“Back up, laangren,” Zheng rumbled.

The mouth in the palm opened wide, and curled red lips into a toothy smile, flickering out a wet red tongue as a whispering filled the air, soft and serpentine and full of secrets.

I tried to hiss again, but only croaked. I wanted to clamber off Zheng’s back and – what? I ached all over, my whirling phantom limbs were no help, all they did was send shooting pains up my bruised flanks. Zheng held tight around my thighs, ignoring my squirming to get down.

“Fuck you!” Twil roared at the arm and the hidden giant behind it. “I’ll bite your fucking hand off you coward!”

“You cannot fight it-” Zheng raised her voice, but Twil was already hurling herself at the arm.

And in a motion that made my eyes water, she failed to connect.

It was like watching an optical illusion in real time. Twil’s claws seemed to sail through the place where her target should be, her motion itself revealing that the Big Man’s arm was actually at a totally different angle. It was impossible, a trick of the light that made my eyes water and forced a pained groan from Badger.

Twil sailed past and hit the wall with a surprised thump, and the mouth-hand went for her again, opening wide to take a chunk out of her scalp.

But Twil was fast. And the Big Man was trapped behind a door.

She dropped to her belly, rolled beneath his reach, and came up level with his giant hinge of an elbow, ready to rip into greasy flesh, claws angled to disarticulate and debone his joint with the first strike – but then his arm slithered back as quick as it had thrust forward, folds of loose skin gathering and bunching against the door and frame for a split second, before the whole mass vanished back into the gap.

The door slammed shut.

“Coward!” Twil growled, and threw herself at the door. She kicked at the wood, sending splinters flying and awful cracking sounds echoing down the deserted street. “Get out here and fight, bitch!”

Laangren, stop,” Zheng rumbled. I was still squirming, instinct desperate to get down and drag Twil back.

Twil’s forth kick knocked the front door clean off its hinges. The worm-eaten wood crashed into the darkness of an unlit corridor.

Empty. No Big Man. Nothing to sink her claws into.

Twil made an incoherent sound of animal rage through her gritted teeth. She kicked at the door frame and whirled, looking for something to fight, making fists with her claws.

“Twil!” I tried to snap – but the word came out as a cough. “Twil, for pity’s sake, stop,” I wheezed. “Please. It’s trying to trap us, to lure us into getting bitten, to give us the creeps. Stop.”

“Well it’s working!” Twil snapped.

But she did rapidly simmer down, heaving for breath and hanging her head as she stepped back over the wall to rejoin us in the street. She shot dark looks up and down the road, and back over her shoulder at the empty toothless mouth of the broken doorway. She wouldn’t meet anybody’s eyes, flexing her claws and hunching her shoulders.

“I hate this,” she hissed.

“Twil,” I tried again, more gentle this time, looking down at her from over Zheng’s shoulder. “I know you do, but we need you to stay alert and not get distracted. If we do get attacked, you need to be on your toes.”

“‘Stay frosty,’” she said, almost mockingly, but then grimaced and shrugged. “Sorry I’m like this. I know it’s no good.”

“There is no shame in courage, laangren,” Zheng said.

“Yeah but it’s supposed to bloody well work, innit?” Twil huffed, and then turned to lead the way again. “I’ll try to keep a lid on myself. Sorry, Heather.”

“Wait, Twil,” I croaked. “If this thing is trying to get to us, you need to speak your mind. Don’t let it needle you.”

She shrugged. Wouldn’t meet my eyes. “Already have.”

I struggled to marshal my thoughts. I ached all over, with pain and exhaustion, but Twil needed help or she wouldn’t get through this. I knew this landscape, this nature of landscape, this barren waste, far better than she did. On some level I felt like I understood the Big Man. A rival predator. I knew all the tricks, because I’d learned them in the abyss. Twil would be baited by a flickering among the rocks, a stray tendril in the shadows, a piece of odd-looking coral, diverted away from us and hunted down.

“Twil, what did you mean earlier, when you said this is what you were made for?” I tried.

Twil finally looked up and blinked at me. “ … my granddad, right?”

“I’m sorry?”

“S’why he made me a werewolf,” she said, and her voice brimmed with sudden pride. “I mean screw whatever Evee says, the old man is dead. He made me a werewolf so I could deal with stuff like this, when it gets sent against my family, against the Church. That’s why I’m like this, s’what I’m meant to be good at. Fighting monsters, yeah? But it’s not working, is it? Not this time.”

“I think this is beyond any of us,” I told her. “There’s no shame in that either.”

Twil shrugged and gave me an awkward wave. “I just don’t get what the hell’s going on. Look, I’ll be alright, let’s just keep moving, yeah?”

“Good idea,” Badger added from behind us. Twil shot him a nasty look.

“One foot in front of the other, laangren,” Zheng purred. “I have your back.”

Twil and Zheng shared a very different sort of look. After a moment, Twil swallowed and nodded.

We carried on, down dark streets clogged with filth and grease and oily sheens on every surface. A stench was rising on the night air, like old cabbage and rotten eggs and fish left in the sun. Twil began to breathe through her mouth to drown out the worst of the smell, wolf’s jaw hanging open. Once or twice I raised my eyes and risked a look at the vast ring-wall above us, and the the moon in the sky. At least the moon seemed unblemished.

“Zheng,” I mumbled from Zheng’s shoulder, trying to raise my croaking voice as much as I could so Twil could hear too. I had to keep us together, keep our spirits up, keep our thoughts focused on what we could understand.


“Why are you sc-” I caught myself. “Why are you so cautious of this big fat man? Mister Blobby, if that’s what we’re calling him? Not to put too finer point on this, but I have seen you gleefully fight a building once before.”

Ooran juh cannot be fought.”

“And a tower block can?” Twil shot over her shoulder. “I’ve heard the story, you doing your Kool-Aid Man impression.”

“You are not listening,” Zheng purred. “I fear no physical contest, no God of this world or the shaman’s dark sea. But Ooran juh does not fight with muscle and fist. It is no Outsider. It is no God. It was a monkey once, a wizard. Much worse.”

I blinked several times in surprise, trying to process this fact.

“A person?” I asked. “That was a human being?”

“Mm. Once.”

“Makes sense, trying to scare us like this,” Twil growled. “If it was some alien from beyond, it wouldn’t be trying to freak us out on purpose. Bastard.”

“That’s not what it says in the book,” Badger spoke up quietly, without raising his eyes. “In the photocopies from the book, I mean.”

“It wrote the book,” Zheng purred.

“How do you know that?” I asked.

Zheng said nothing for several paces, brooding in silence as we rounded the corner of another street. The road surface itself was caked with gunk, oil runoff and grime, and the drains were clogged with black rotting filth, forming puddles of stagnant water.

“A wizard had a theory, about a book,” Zheng eventually rumbled as we crept down the middle of the street. The low, soft purr of her voice soothed my anxiety a little, even if she was talking about horrible subjects.

“A Song wizard,” she said. “His name was Liu Bai. I knew him twenty nine years, with the Khans. Used me as a sounding board when he couldn’t get his fellows to listen, and my bindings were such that I was not permitted to rip his tongue out and gut him, so I heard most of it. The book was an unnamed rotting thing he had picked up in Samarkand, but when he tried to lead the rest of us back to the bookseller, the place was gone. He swore blind that the bookseller had not been truly human, but something else wearing the skin of one of you monkeys, a man so obese he should not have been alive.”

“Sounds like our friend,” Twil grunted.

“Perhaps,” Zheng continued. “Liu Bai swore the book contained instructions for a contract of power, for the shaping of flesh. A contract with a much older wizard who had been beyond, to a place of endless cold water, where the reshaping of flesh was achievable at but a thought.”

I shivered with recognition, no longer soothed.

“The abyss?” I whispered. “That thing is a person who returned from the abyss? Like me?”

Zheng shrugged gently, not wanting to jostle me too hard on her shoulders. “That is what Liu Bai believed. None of the other wizards could see this in the rotting book. They saw only diseased ramblings.”

The road curved to the right, past houses fallen into deep disrepair, their windows blackened and their roofs threadbare. The garden walls were covered in a tiny black filigree of creeping fungus. We weren’t too far from home now.

“I do not know when he made the deal. In a dream, perhaps,” Zheng purred. “But over several weeks he grew fat. Weeping sores opened in both his palms, and the edges of the wounds seemed to twitch like lips. He drooled, soiled himself, stumbled about in a daze. The others shunned him. He was confined to his tent. He was going to be left behind when the army next moved. None had seen him for days when he finally emerged, but he was not Liu Bai anymore. Ooran juh had found a new host.”

Badger kept glancing back over his shoulder, eyes growing more horrified with every turn of Zheng’s account. He was squeezing his wounded hand tight inside the end of his bloodied sleeve.

“What, the fat guy like, possessed him?” Twil asked.

“Or used him as a gateway, or a lighthouse,” Zheng purred. “Or ate him for sport. I do not know. Half the camp burned that night. The warriors could not stop him, though none lacked courage. He was always where their weapons were not. He declined every fight, and bit every arm turned against him. I can move in the blink of an eye, but even I cannot be in two places at once. We lacked the means to bring Ooran juh to battle. He left when he grew bored, simply ceased to be. Not because we drove him off.”

I was having trouble concentrating on Zheng’s story. That greasy pale fat man, that obscene headless thing, that was something like me? A human being who had journeyed into the abyss between spheres, like I had?

That grotesque mountain of pale meat, was that his Homo abyssus?

“The warriors who were bitten did not heal,” Zheng was saying. “Their wounds turned infected, would not be cleaned with either fire or steel, or even amputation. The sickness was in the blood. They suffered dreams and waking visions of Ooran juh offering them a contract, to end the pain. Many slew themselves, many others turned up dead, many walked off into the steppe alone.”

“Alright, don’t get bit,” Twil said. “Evee already told us that part.”

“I met it once again, hundreds of years later,” Zheng purred. “It took a wizard who owned me at the time. She had been dabbling in dubious books, but she could not possibly have had the very same tome as Liu Bai. That time Ooran juh simply strode out of a locked room. He took her to wherever he takes his prey, but I just stood and watched. I was below his notice.”

“I-I think what we see of him is a projection,” Badger spoke up, voice unsteady. He glanced back over his shoulder at Zheng and I, then hurried to face forward again, keeping his eyes carefully on the ground.

“Speak up, worm,” Zheng rumbled.

“ … it’s like a, uh … ” He struggled for a moment, then wet his lips and took a deep breath. “Imagine if we were all two-dimensional shapes, right? Bear with me here a sec, okay? Like if people were all circles, squares, triangles, whatever. Then imagine a three-dimensional shape comes to visit us. We’d only see one projection of it where it intersects with our world on a two-dee plane, not the whole thing. Right?

“Like Flatland,” I croaked.

“Yeah, yeah,” Badger nodded. He looked back, the brightest and most alert I’d seen him so far. “So like, the Big Man, and things like him, they’re like a five or six or seven dimensional shape, visiting us shapes that only move and see in three dimensions. Four dimensions if you count time, I guess. Get it?”

“Wizard filth,” Zheng rumbled. Badger flinched and stumbled, like he wanted to run from her.

“I get it,” I spoke up. “Let him speak, Zheng. I think this might be valuable.”

Or at least it would keep our minds focused on something other than the grease and filth and decay all around.

“S-so that’s why the Big Man can be in multiple different places, and why we can’t touch him, but he can touch us if he wants to,” Badger stammered on. “He’s just one projection of a larger entity, and he can rotate away from us whenever he wants.”

“Like the messenger,” Twil piped up from in front. “Remember that, Heather? Back in the Medieval Metaphysics room? I jumped straight at it, but it didn’t even have to dodge.”

“I do remember,” I croaked softly.

“Where’d you get all this from anyway?” Twil growled at Badger.

“Learned it from Sarry, mostly,” he said. “I’m not as stupid as I look. And I know I look really stupid, right.”

“Could’a fooled me.”

“I did go to uni, you know?”

“What?” Twil squinted back at him. “What’d you study there?”

“Maths,” Badger said. “S’kinda how I got into the cult … ”

He sighed and fell silent, as we crept along the final stretch of filth-streaked road before the turning into Barnslow Drive. This corner, this street, had become so familiar to me over the last half a year. My Cape of Good Hope before warm sanctuary and real family. But this place was not really Sharrowford, not right now.

The nearby houses were coated with dirt and grime, the pavements smeared with unspeakable black slime, the drain gratings submerged beneath a scum of oily dark water. The overhanging trees on the opposite side of the road were leafless and dead, dotted with black fungal infection and patches of rot. Defamiliarisation crept over me, a sense of spiritual vertigo, and I had to resist the urge to bury my face in Zheng’s shoulder and screw my eyes shut.

We reached the stretch of pavement opposite home.

“Great,” Twil growled.

I don’t know what I’d expected to find at Number 12 Barnslow Drive. A signpost to the exit? A secret door back into the real world? Evelyn and Raine, waiting to rescue us? An idea, inspiration, a clue at least.

The house was an even worse wreck than the other mockeries in this ruined place. All the lifetimes of effort which had gone into holding the building together in reality were absent here; missing tiles left the buckled roof open to the elements in several places, the walls were covered in dark creeping ivy thick as blankets, and the brickwork was loose and crumbling. The windows were streaked with black filth from the inside, and the front garden was overgrown with waist-high weeds, thick grasses and twisted thorns. As we stared in crushed hope, I saw small scuttling insects dart from under the eaves and vanish into cracks in the walls. Nobody lived here.

“What now, shaman?” Zheng rumbled.

I stared at the house, feeling violated. My home, even as an illusion, reduced to this? Was this meant to be a vision of the future, or a stab at my heart?

“Hey,” Twil suddenly barked. “Hey, hey, is that Evee? Guys, guys, there’s a face in the window! Don’t you see that?” Twil pointed, whirling to us and then back again. “That’s Evee! It must have got her, it must have!”

All I saw was a white smudge on the other side of a second-floor window. Fungus on the glass.

“Twil,” I said, slowly and carefully. “That’s not Evee. That’s nothing.”

“I don’t- I-” Twil frowned up at the window, squinting and blinking her eyes. “But … but what if she’s inside-”

“She isn’t,” I said, hard as I could. “Twil, don’t look at it. Look at me instead. Twil, please. If a regular house was a trap, this is a definitely a trap. Don’t be stupid. Stop looking at it.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know!” Twil snapped – but she did look away from the house, down at the ground, then at me, gritting her teeth. “It’s a stupid trap. I mean, come on, who would walk in there, right? It’s obviously not your bloody house. Try harder, bitch-tits,” she spat at the empty road.

“We need a way out, shaman,” Zheng murmured.

“I know,” I whispered back. “I just can’t think of anything. I could try brainmath again, try to … comprehend this place. It’ll be difficult-”

“No, shaman. We need a way out, quickly.”

“I know, I-”

“Uhhhhhh, guys,” Twil said. She was looking directly up. “Is it just me, or does the big red wall look … taller?”

I followed her gaze, craning my neck up past the rows of dark terraced houses, toward the very top of that impossibly giant ring-wall of scabby red.

Twil was right. As if reaching toward the moon in the centre, the wall seemed taller. Almost like we were sinking deeper. Or the opening was getting narrower.

“It … does,” I admitted.

“Oh no,” Badger murmured. “The way out is closing up. It’s closing up. It’s over.”

“We are in his mouth,” Zheng rumbled. “Behind his teeth. We must climb out, before he finishes chewing, but I cannot grasp the walls to pull us up.”

“What?” Twil stared at her, wide-eyed with panic. “Oh fuck that, come on, that was just a metaphor, right?”

Zheng blinked at her, once, slowly. “Shaman.”

“I-I’m trying to think of something,” I stammered. “Maybe if I try brainmath again, try something different, try-”


We all jumped out of our collective skin when my phone went off, buzzing in my coat pocket. Twil bristled all over and Badger gasped and I felt like I was going to have a heart attack, but Zheng held fast. With one shaking hand I fumbled my phone out as it kept ringing.

“It’s Evee, right?” Twil asked.

I shook my head. “I don’t recognise the number.”

“It’s him,” Badger said. “Taunting us. It must be. Don’t answer it, don’t answer it!”

“Shut up, you prat,” Twil growled at him. “It might be Evee, giving us a way out.”

“Shaman,” Zheng purred, and nodded out into the street. “Decide quickly.”

I followed her gaze, and saw that the blocked drains along the kerb were overflowing more than before, flooding the entire road with a thin layer of backed-up sewer water, with disgusting oily patches and dark substances floating in the liquid. Bubbles of rank gas rose from the depths of the drain entrances, popping softly in the silence.

The phone kept buzzing in my hand.

“Okay,” I said, phantom limbs rising to defend me from an unseen threat. “Everyone brace yourselves.”

I pressed the answer call button, and held the phone out at arm’s length, heart racing as I waited for the trap to spring shut, ready to counter it at the speed of thought.

“ … Morell?” asked a voice from the phone’s speaker.

Dead flat, utterly cold, the voice of a predatory lizard. I’d recognise that voice anywhere. I was so surprised I forgot to be afraid for a moment, and jammed the phone against my ear in shock.

“Stack?” I said. “Amy?”

“Morell,” she repeated. Her voice was a little distorted by poor connection, but it was absolutely Amy Stack.

“W-what … what are you- is this really you?” I asked.

A beat of silence. I swore I could feel the exasperated sigh.

“You asked me to call you,” she said.

I boggled at that. Zheng narrowed her eyes, Twil shrugged wide, both of them able to overhear the conversation and just as confused as I was.

“I … Stack, we’re in the middle of a crisis right now,” I said quickly. “Did you call by chance, or did Evelyn contact you, or-”

“You told me to call you, Morell,” Stack said, level and calm. “You’re standing in front of me right now, and I don’t know how you got in here. But I’m talking to you as well, on the phone. I don’t want to know. Here.”

The phone changed hands with a rustle.

“Heather? Can you hear me?”

It was my own voice.

“Sevens?!” I asked.

“Unless there’s another identical copy of you running around Sharrowford, yes, it’s me,” said Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight, in an irritatingly accurate copy of my own voice, complete with that touch of patronising intellectualism in her tone. “And at the moment it’s also my exact words reaching you. We have a few moments before that boorish gentleman interrupts us.”

“Are you coming to help?” I asked.

“Oh, fuck, please,” Twil said.

“Help?” Sevens echoed. “Oh dear, oh no, I absolutely cannot come in there. That philistine would run rings around me and bite both my hands off. We’re simply not evenly matched, I’m not capable of that.”

I suppressed an urge to slap her. “I know this doesn’t fit your delicate theatrical sensibility, but I can hardly conclude a sweeping lesbian romance for your enjoyment if we all get drowned in rising sewer water.”

I glanced at the road. The blackened, scum-filled water was an inch deep now, and still rising. Twil shuffled away from the kerb, baring her teeth at the water.

“Sewer water?” Sevens asked. “Ugh. Oh dear, that means he already knows. He’s panicking though, which is probably a good sign.”

“Knows what? Sevens, are you helping or not? What is this phone call even for?”

“To open another connection, of course,” Sevens said with that infuriating hint of smugness – me at my absolute worst, when I thought I was being clever. “I’ve sent a … well, an acquaintance, to help guide you out. I can’t vouch for her quality or her intentions, because I’ve known her for all of about fifteen minutes, but she was very insistent, and I don’t know why anybody would willingly throw themselves down that particular gullet for anything less than deepest love.”

“Why- why-” I tried to gather my thoughts. “Why not call from Raine or Evelyn’s phone? What does Stack have to-”

Sevens-Shades-of-Heather sighed, losing her patience. “Because he’s already found and closed those connections. You needed a fresh one, and if I showed myself to Lozzie, you’d all be dead by the time she finishes hugging me. Not that I mind her, of course.”

“Oh shit, oh shit, look at that,” Twil said.

I followed her wide-eyed gaze.

The great red wall was shuddering.

Vast ripples and pulses flowed up the scabby red bricks, more like a twitching biological sphincter than stone and rock under the influence of an earthquake, trying to inch closer to the clean light of the moon in the middle of the sky. A moment later, as if it had taken seconds to cross a vast distance, a sound like slapping meat reached us, distant and distorted, the first sound to break the silence of this mock-city.

“He’s knows you’ve almost figured out how to escape,” Sevens was saying down the phone, in my own voice. “So he’s going to do his best to force you down his throat now.”

“How!?” I croaked into the phone. “I haven’t figured out anything!”

The water in the road was lapping at the kerb. Dark shapes were moving in it now, giant shadows beneath the surface, as if the water were miles deep rather than an inch or two of muck over dirty asphalt.

“Oh don’t be stupid, of course you have. You’re the only one who can perceive matter in the relevant way. The help I’ve sent will only be able to signpost you, it’s up to you to do the rest,” Sevens explained. “But it’s dead help, a dead friend, a friend who has tasted worms once before. I’ve never tasted worms,” Sevens’ voice – my voice – carried on, and it took me a moment of shock to realise it wasn’t really her anymore.

“My flesh is forever, held between here and there, between decay and life. Are you forever, Heather Morell? You could be, but you are small and weak, you refuse to grow strong, to eat good meat, to grow fat with good food and good-”

Twil flinched at a sudden flicker of dark motion in the front garden of Number 12 Barnslow Drive. Zheng whirled and growled. Badger tripped back in surprise.

But I lowered the phone, and ignored the rattling voice of what was no longer Sevens imitating me.

A fox stood on the garden wall.

Toned and sleek from a good diet and plenty of exercise, russet fur fluffy and healthy, black-tipped ears swivelling. Bright orange eyes met mine, then the fox quickly looked behind herself, as if she’d recently escaped a hunter and could hear it following on her trail. Then she bounded forward along the wall, and turned back to look at me again.

The fox was not part of this place. She was too clean. Too familiar.

“What the hell?” Twil said.

“It’s- it’s okay,” I said, struggling to gather my thoughts as I ended the call and put my phone away. “I think I know this fox. Is it you? … Saye?”

“You what?” Twil boggled at me.

The fox tilted her head, quickly looked forward along the road, then back at us again. Filthy water was beginning to overlip the kerb beside us, millimetre by millimetre.

“It’s a long story,” I said, shaking my head. “I think this is Evelyn’s … well, it’s part of her family. Maybe. Sort of. What are you doing here?” I asked the fox. “How did you get to- oh, well, I suppose we aren’t actually in Sharrowford, are we?”

The fox replied by hurrying along to the next garden wall, hopping the gap with a spring of her back legs. She looked up at the sky and the great red wall closing in on the moon. We didn’t have long, the gap was getting smaller and smaller, tightening around that one source of clean natural light.

“Foxes are good allies, if they will have you,” Zheng purred. “Both predators and eaters of the dead. They know the secret ways. Do we follow her, shaman?”

“She’ll do her best to lead us out. I think.”

If only I could figure out what Sevens had meant.

“Oh bloody great,” Badger said. “Now we’re following an animal.”

“Stay here with the shit water if you want, numb-nuts,” Twil said. “Looks like a chance to me.”

She was already picking up her feet and trotting after the fox, trying to skirt the rapidly forming puddles on the pavement. Zheng settled me more comfortably on her back, and set off as well, at a rapid ground-eating lope. Badger let out a groan, but jogged after us, boots splashing through the muck.

The fox raced ahead along the low garden walls, hopping from brick to brick, staying clear of the rising water in the street. We tried to ignore the vast shadows moving below, and the way the great red wall shuddered and flexed above our heads.

Pinned in the mouth of a predator, we fled between its teeth.

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Hello dear readers! Yes, it’s me, the author, not Heather. I don’t normally like to add anything after chapters, but I have a little announcement for everybody who follows and enjoys the story, but isn’t either subscribed to the Patreon or in the discord channel.

Katalepsis is going to get an official, professionally produced audiobook version, from Podium Audio!

For any readers who want more information, here’s a link to the public post all about it on the Katalepsis Patreon page!

a very great mischief – 13.11

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There are times in life when one acts without thinking. No matter how rational and cool headed we tell ourselves we are, we’re all animals beneath the thin shelter of ego and prefrontal cortex. In moments of great stress we can commit mistakes of self destruction and casual cruelty, or shining examples of heroism and selflessness – or simply reveal the amoral truth.

When this pale obese giant bore down on us through the greasy fog, striding across the asphalt on feet like slabs of frozen meat, as it raised a hand the size of a dinner plate, rent by a mouth full of fangs and drool, as Zheng yanked me to my feet and braced to pull me away, as Badger screamed in white-faced terror, as Twil’s growl stuttered out into a whine, I did not think.

Zheng was panicked. That should have gotten through to me.

We were not cornered, we were not at bay; we could run, off into the thick fog clogging Sharrowford’s streets.

Badger’s skull contained invaluable information, but he was also my enemy. He’d tried to kidnap Lozzie. Leaving him to his fate would ruin my plan, but it would also spare us a horrible decision.

None of those things mattered. I was not making a decision, I was obeying a biological imperative. I pulled myself free from Zheng’s grip, barely aware of what I was doing, only succeeding because my reaction surprised her.

I rounded on the pale obscenity, and I screeched.

No mere imitation hiss from a human throat, and nothing like a human scream, I screeched my lungs out. A warning display, on reflex, a complete surrender to gut impulse and bodily logic. I’d been high on hunting instinct the whole way here, this reaction was no great leap. A part of me had recognised the pale headless giant, not for what it was, but for the role it currently filled in our ecosystem. Zheng had even put it into words, perhaps seeded the concept in my mind: we were ‘late to the kill’.

The headless giant was a competing predator.

My screech meant mine.

In truth I sounded awful, like a cross between a goat and a fox and a gibbon. I do hope the fog soaked up the worst of the racket I made, that I didn’t accidentally terrify some small child tucked up in their bed or some poor old lady sitting up late at night. Another strange occurrence to add to the list of paranormal happenings in Sharrowford, the case of the mystery night-time screech.

My body wanted to back up the claim to my prey, flashing irrelevant nerve impulses and trying to dilate organs I didn’t possess. My phantom tentacles lashed the air in a warning display, lined with bone hooks, tipped by venomous stingers, laced with paralytic mucus. My jaw ached, trying to fulfil the biological impossibility of sprouting a double-row of razor sharp teeth. My skin itched with the need to flush my exterior with toxic colouration. And deep inside my abdomen, tissues and muscles tried to adjust themselves, to cradle and support and supply a bio-reactor that was not yet real.

If I hadn’t been acting on instinct, I might have gone over the edge and made it real. Fortunately for me, even the most simple operation of hyperdimensional mathematics required a great deal of brainpower, rather than screeching one’s lungs out like an animal.

Halfway into the screech, the pain in my bruised flanks hit me like a wave of fire.

I didn’t ‘snap out of it’, I was in too deep for that, and the circumstances were too dire, but I came back to conscious thought with a shuddering hiss of tight-clenched burning pain down my sides, playing across the bruises I’d given myself that morning. New kinds of pain blossomed across my body as well. My jaw ached like I’d been punched, my legs felt as if they were on backwards, my eyes itched, red and raw. My skin was flushed all over like I’d been dunked in a hot bath. Worst of all was the sharp stabbing inside my abdomen, making the muscles shudder and seize up, like particularly bad period pain.

But the pain was almost worth it. The most bizarre combination of agony and euphoria stirred in every cell, as if I was on the verge of orgasm.

Under any other conditions I would have curled up on the ground with a whine in my throat, but there was no time for that.

The headless giant had stopped about twelve paces away in the middle of the road, a wobbling tower of pale, wormy, grease-streaked meat. He had both hands stuck out in front of himself, past the huge mass of his gut, with the pair of slavering red-lipped mouths pointed at us.

“Holy fucking shit, big H,” Twil hissed through a snout which contained far too many teeth. She’d gone full wolf transformation. “It stopped! What do we do now?!”

“Shaman?” Zheng growled, her entire body curled around a hair-trigger motion, ready to sweep me off my feet and bundle me away from the bench and Badger.

“I know what I’m-” I tried to croak, but my throat didn’t work right. The words came out as a hissing gurgle, barely even human, and painful like a pulled muscle. Twil flinched from me in horrified amazement.

I swallowed, hard and dry and difficult, like I was unknotting my own trachea and vocal cords. I coughed, which turned into a convulsive choking sound, but then I drew clear breath once more.

“I know what I’m doing,” I wheezed, and sounded almost human this time.

Something whimpered.

It was only then that I realised I was using one hand to grip Badger by the side of his head, like a bird of prey with a rabbit’s skull caged in its claws – though my hand was much too small to complete the impression. He was paralysed with terror, eyes flicking back and forth between me and the pale giant, not sure which one of us was more threatening. When I met his eyes he whimpered again, slow tears tracking down his cheeks.

Mine, instinct hissed. My prey.

I elected not to let go of Badger’s head. Yet.

Perhaps I felt he deserved it.

The obese headless man was moving his mouth-hands back and forth like an obscene interpretive dance, slowly turning them to look at each of us, his flesh wobbling and sagging. A thick wet whispering began to fill the air as the lips of those mouths slapped together, slurping and rolling their tongues.

“Oh this is fucked up, this is so fucked up, this is fuuuuucked,” Twil babbled, her words mangled into a low growl by the shape of her wolf muzzle. She was shivering all over, fur bristling, panting hard, not her usual overconfident self.

“Stay still, laangren,” Zheng growled – but she was not faring much better, tense down to the last muscle. I’d never seen her afraid like this before.

Judged objectively, the headless giant was not half as weird or alien as most pneuma-somatic life. True, he was incredibly big, two or three feet taller than Zheng, and his flesh was unhealthy and pale in a way that made my stomach turn. But in the end this thing was just a very large man with no head or neck, and mouths in each hand. Hardly scary compared to some of what I’d seen on a regular basis since I was ten years old.

But there was something very wrong about this. About the rotten oats and old cheese texture of his grimy skin. About the nudity, which seemed intentional, an affront, a statement of power. About the sheer weight of cold flesh, as if he was a super-dense object, a black hole warping the space around him. About the meaning of those mouths. I felt as if I would understand everything if I only listened to that whispering, if I only leaned in close, if I only allowed him to bring his hand to my ear.

And he was absolutely not a spirit.

“This is mine,” I raised my voice over the whispers. “Mine. Understand?”

The headless giant turned both hand-mouths toward me. A tongue slopped forth, waggling up and down.

“I am quite sure that you are not supposed to be here,” I croaked. “And you are made of matter. Which means I can send you elsewhere. Whatever you are, I am certain I can find a place Outside that even you can’t endure. Leave, before I escort you out.”

The mouths in the pale hands curled into an answering pair of lascivious grins, drooling great thick loops of saliva onto the road. He raised one calloused leathery foot – and took a step backward. Step by lumbering step, he backed away into the wall of fog, his vast bulk turning hazy as the mist swallowed him up. The last we saw of him were the grinning red lips in his palms, until they too vanished beyond the greasy fog.

Silence returned. Several heartbeats passed. The dark rows of terraced houses pressed close.

“You think its buggered off? For real?” Twil hissed eventually.

“It waits,” Zheng growled, watching the fog.

“It’s gone for now,” I managed to squeeze out. “It didn’t like me. That’s what matters.”

My skin was coated with cold sweat, clothes sticking to me. I was quivering with adrenaline, but mostly with pain, dozens of small aches and spikes and prickling all over, to join the chorus of screaming muscles in my flanks.

I let go of Badger’s head at last, and he let out a shuddering whine, squeezing his eyes up tight and cradling his wounded hand.

“Yeah, no kidding,” Twil said, still all wolf and not the easiest thing to look at, crouched tight in a defensive posture, ready to bite and snap. “I’d shit myself and run too, if a girl made a noise at me like that.”

“You’re one to talk,” I croaked. “You growl.”

I scrubbed at my itching eyes and cleared my throat, but couldn’t seem to shift whatever was in there. I turned and shielded my mouth with a hand as I spat a wad of thick, glue-like mucus onto the pavement. There was blood in it. Straightening up again proved almost too difficult, triggering another round of deep-tissue jabbing inside my abdomen, like a fist clenched so long that the muscles had started to seize up. I clutched at myself and staggered, tripping over my feet.

Zheng caught me with one arm.

“I-I can’t- can’t stand up-” I clung to her.

“I have you, shaman.”

She did, but she didn’t spare even a second to look down at me. Zheng watched the fog, quietly alert.

“No complaints here though. It worked, right? Yeah.” Twil was already babbling, breathing too hard, her words mangled into a series of throaty growls. “Fuck, no way I wanted to fight that thing, like it was … wrong. I dunno, shit. I’m not meant to be scared by this sorta crap, this is what I was made for, this is why I’m, you know, a werewolf. I’m meant to stand up to this stuff. What the hell? What the hell was that!?”

Ooran juh,” Zheng purred.

“It wasn’t a spirit, not pneuma-somatic,” I said.

“Yeah, no shit. I could smell him,” Twil spat. “Like rotting cheese and stanky feet. How is it even in Sharrowford, just walking around?”

“I don’t think we’re technically in Sharrowford right now,” I said, trying to stay calm as I stared into the fog.

Twil squinted at me like I was mad. She gestured at the road, the houses, and finally at the glass and metal of the bus shelter.

“It’s just a feeling,” I sighed.

A broken voice interrupted us.

“He hasn’t gone away,” Badger said.

Badger was still sitting on the bus stop bench, hunched forward and cradling his wounded hand, curly hair matted with sweat, hood thrown back. He looked like a man at the gallows, utterly defeated and spent as he stared at the ground between his boots. He’d also wet himself, and under the circumstances I was not surprised. None of us mentioned it, though Twil did wrinkle her nose.

“Zheng is right,” he went on, thin and weak. “He’s out there, waiting. Always waiting. It’s started now, I can’t escape.”

“Then we’ll take you back to the house,” I said, firm as I could. I tried to draw myself up and ignore the dozen sources of pain stabbing at me. Twil shot me a frown. “Under guard,” I added. “We’ll tie him up.”

“We’re not leading Mister Blobby out there back to the house,” Twil said. “Not for this shit head. Heather, what are you on?”

“It’s the most magically defensible position in Sharrowford. I can hardly … question him,” I cleared my throat, “if that thing gets to him first.”

“There’s no point,” Badger said, regaining a little self-control, no longer mumbling with fear. He raised his head with what little pride he could muster. “I’m good as dead now. The Big Man can take me from inside a closed and locked room, you’ll see. Look, Morell, I’ll tell you anything you want to know, just promise to snap my neck after, pull my head off, shoot me, anything you want, just kill me, don’t leave me for him.”

“Yeah, sure,” Twil said. “But what the hell is he?”

Badger shrugged. “The real name hurts to say, makes your mouth bleed and your ears hurt. We just called him the Big Man, for short like.”

Twil huffed a snort, not really laughing, then nodded to me. “Ask him then. Let’s get it over with and get the hell out.”

“I can’t,” I hissed. “I need to … you know what I need to do. And I can’t do that here.”

Twil pulled a grimace.

“The shaman is right,” Zheng rumbled. “We cannot stay here. Look.”

Zheng extended a finger and pointed at the fog off to our left. Twil growled. Badger bit his lips to strangle a whimper. I stared for a second before I saw it, and then my stomach lurched.

A red-lipped grin in a pale hand, barely visible at the extreme limit of the fog.

As we watched, it retreated and vanished.

The Big Man – ‘Mister Blobby’ – had retreated only to circle around us, perhaps to find a weakness, or stage a better ambush, or simply to wait for us to get cold and tired. I doubted our human logic applied to the thing anyway. But I wasn’t leaving Badger here. Badger was my prey. I would have what I needed from him, but I couldn’t risk doing it here with that creature still stalking us.

“Alright.” Twil whirled back toward us. “I’ll sling Badger over my shoulder, and we make a run for it, back to the house.”

“Too late, laangren,” Zheng purred – and pointed the other way.

Another hand-mouth greeted us with a drooling grin, way back in the fog, from the opposite end of the road.

Twil’s eyes went wide. She mouthed ‘what the fuck’, as the Big Man’s mouth receded back into the mist once again.

He had every escape covered. Either there was more than one of him, or running past him wasn’t an option. Almost as if he’d heard us making plans.

“Badger,” I said. “This thing that’s after you, how does it work?”

Badger tore his eyes from the fog and stared at me, then swallowed in an effort to gather himself. He looked down at the wound in his hand where the mouth had been. The long shallow cut still oozed a thin trickle of blood, slowly pooling in the lines on his palm.

“You get three bites, and you have to land them all,” he said, wincing as he tried to flex his hand. “Three times, and then you’ve fulfilled your end of the contract, the deal, the agreement. We got it from a book. Well, from photocopies that Sammy made when she wasn’t meant to. You sign the contract in a dream, but it’s real. If you miss a bite though, if you don’t go through with it, then he owns you. That’s the terms. He comes to take you instead. Gets his pound of flesh in the end.”

“Okay,” I said. “And?”

“None of this tells us anything,” Twil hissed. Her werewolf form was rapidly unweaving itself, dropping away in shreds of translucent matter, leaving her mostly human once more. She kept the claws out though.

“But it might give Evee something to go on,” I murmured, and Twil shut up.

“First time, I bit myself.” Badger shook his head, grimacing, as he pointed at his opposite shoulder. I couldn’t tell through the shapeless lumpy hoodie, but he could have a dressing wrapped around his arm under there, bleeding into a pad of gauze and cotton wool. “That was the idea, see? Bite yourself, replace one God with another, then fill the contract anyway, and you’re free. Smart idiots we were. Thought we had it all figured out. But it didn’t work. He couldn’t take us from the … the … ” Badger’s head twitched in suppressed disgust. “The Eye.”

“I’m not surprised,” I said. “There’s more than one of you doing this?”

Badger’s face contorted, holding back tears. “Not any more, no. There was three of us what signed the contact. Me and the guys, Stibby and Dingle. I’d known Stibby since school, he was my friend, we … but no, it’s just me now. I had to bite Dingle, that was my second bite. He wanted to go back on the plan, so … he didn’t live through it. I didn’t mean to.”

“You mean you murdered a man,” I said.

Badger raised his eyes and gave me the worst glare he could muster, full of bitterness and anger. “I would murder this whole city to get the Eye out of my head.”

“Why’d you come to the house, hey?” Twil asked. “What the hell were you trying after this morning?”

Badger shook his head. “Last ditch attempt. Never seen your place before, Morell. Thought maybe I could … I dunno, shimmy up a drainpipe and sling Lauren over my shoulder? Stupid bloody idea. Even her brother could never control her. She’d have scratched my eyes out.”

“Very stupid,” I said, struggling not to give vent to cold fury. Nobody touches my friends.

“Then why pull the hand mouth thing if it’ll kill you?” Twil squinted at him.

“Didn’t wanna die,” he said. “Just wanted to get away. Figured maybe I’d bite myself again.”

“How do we get past the Big Man? How do we make him go away?” I asked.

Badger shrugged, utterly defeated.

“Shit, Heather,” Twil said. “Maybe we do gotta leave him here.” She held out a hand to stall my objections. “Hey, Badger. Edward sent you, right? Lilburne? How do we find him? Where’s the hell’s he hiding? Tell us that and maybe … yeah. Yeah.”

She glanced at me for approval I could not give. She couldn’t say the words either. Twil was good at fighting and brawling, but she wasn’t like Raine. She couldn’t kill an unarmed person in cold blood.

“I don’t know where he lives or anything,” Badger said, cringing with apology. “He says we’re contaminated. Deals with us through a fence, a middleman, a fixer.”

“Oh, come on!” Twil spat.

“We did get to see him in person once,” Badger added quickly. “So we knew it was really him, back from when the cult was together for real. The fence he uses is this guy, Adam Gore, a small time drug dealer, guy’s no big deal at all. We always met him in the Ostler’s Arms, off Station Road. You know the one? Anyway, second time we met him, when we were figuring out terms for the job, Adam says Edward wants to see us himself, to judge if he can actually help us. That was the deal, he was offering to help with the … ” Badger broke off and tapped his own forehead. “If we could snatch his niece for him. That was the price.”

“Interesting,” I said, colder even than I intended.

Badger swallowed. “Edward was in a back room in the pub, and we had to go back there one by one. And I know it was really him, I’d recognise him anywhere. Look for Adam, you could maybe get something out of him, I guess. Or the pub landlord must’ve been on it, with the back room and all.”

“That’s hardly any use,” Twil huffed.

“How many of you are left now?” I asked softly, trying to bargain with my darker impulses. We could kill Badger now, leave him here, if only I could snatch another opportunity, another one of these ex-cultists with the Eye’s tendrils lodged in their head. Nicole hadn’t rejected my request, yet.

But Badger looked at me with an ember of defiance. “I’m not telling you that. You’ll kill everyone.”

I blinked in shock, at the conviction in his eyes, at the vehemence in his voice.

“What?” Twil pulled a full-face squint at him.

“What- what- what do you mean?” I asked.

“Like you did the rest,” he went on. “Look, I get it, I made a choice to live to like this, but most of the others don’t deserve to be die. They’ve still got a chance. Maybe Edward really will help them, or maybe they’ll find another way. But if I lead you to them, that’ll be it. No, I won’t.”

“What ‘rest’?” I boggled at him. “What are you talking about?”

“He means the house,” Zheng purred. “The idiot wizards who thought they could bargain. The fire.”

“That was you people,” he said. “I’m not stupid.”

“Oh for fuck’s sake.” Twil rolled her eyes and huffed like the teenager she was.

“That wasn’t us,” I said, slowly and clearly. “They defied the Eye, tried to negotiate with it, and it killed them all. They killed each other. Went mad. We walked into a slaughterhouse, and yes we burned it, as a precaution. I’m sorry they had such horrible deaths, but it wasn’t us.”

“Sure, sure,” Badger said. “‘It was like that when I got here.’ Heard that one before.”

“If you don’t believe us, you can ask the only survivor. You can ask Sarika yourself.”

Badger froze. The faintest spark of hope kindled a frown across his forehead. “Sarry’s alive?”

“You dumb-arse,” Twil said.

I looked at him like he was an idiot. “It was all over the newspapers. Some other survivors from the cult even contacted her. How can you possibly have missed that she lived?”

“I … I thought … I dunno.” A strange transformation came over him. He took several deep breaths, tried to sit up straighter, pushed his hair back. Like an alcoholic after coming clean, his eyes seemed clearer. “I assumed you’d faked it somehow. Or done something to her. Please, please don’t lie about this. Sarry’s alive? Really?”

“She’s crippled,” I said. “But yes, she’s alive.”

Badger let out a strangled breath and had to blink away tears. He looked down at his wounded hand, then out at the fog.

“What am I doing?” he asked, voice gone tiny.

“Shaman,” Zheng rumbled. “Ooran juh will not wait forever. The net tightens.”

The greasy cold fog was beginning to creep beneath my coat, leeching away my body heat, and I could feel a shiver starting in my limbs. The hunt and the terrifying confrontation had gotten my blood up, but now we’d been standing still and talking for several minutes, and hunger still gnawed at the roots of my belly. The fog seemed to be thickening as well, obscuring even the nearest terraced houses. When I glanced past Zheng, we appeared to stand on a island of damp asphalt, surrounded by murky seas of infinity. The battered old bus stop was our only landmark.

“ … this isn’t natural,” Twil said.

At least the moon still hung untouched in the sky.

“Shaman, we were late to the kill,” Zheng purred. “You may have to accept that.”

“He has to come with us,” I said.

“Then we run for it,” Twil said. “Come on, what else can we do? You’ll get another chance, Heather, these idiots are out there still gunning for you, right? You and Lozzie?”

“I don’t want to die,” Badger said, softly, as if surprised. He wasn’t talking to us at all. But then he snapped together, blinking at our faces with a new and mounting panic. “I don’t want to die, but I can’t live like this. The Magnus Vigilator, Alexander’s fucking patron God, the Eye, it’s in my head, all the time. In every gap in my thoughts, any time I lose focus, between every word, it’s there. I can’t sleep without drinking half a bottle of vodka every night to drown it out. Every chance, every stray thought, it’s there, injecting the worst-” He paused and shivered all over. “The worst feelings ever. Always prodding me, prodding me, driving me forward like a slave, to find you.”

He jabbed a finger at me.

“Oi, off,” Twil snapped at him.

“I don’t even know how to send her back to it!” He shouted, voice swallowed by the fog. “None of us know anything. Maybe the cult did, when it was still together, but we literally cannot give it what it wants now! I’m fucking harmless to you.”

“Not to Lozzie you weren’t,” I said.

The flame of his anger guttered out in shame and guilt. He looked down, and winced again as he tried to curl up his wounded hand. “Kill me then. Don’t leave me for the Big Man. Zheng’s right, you should get out of here.”

“No,” I said. “You and I are going to make a deal.”

“I’ve told you everything I know.”

“I can remove the Eye from your head.”

When he looked up, there was no hope in his eyes. Badger did not believe me.

“I’m not doing this out of the goodness of my heart,” I said, and tried not to shiver in the gathering cold, leaning close into Zheng’s side for heat and comfort. I did my best to ignore the pain in my abdomen, and put strength into into voice. “I have very little sympathy for you, Badger. You were part of the Sharrowford Cult, and I don’t know the depth of your personal involvement, but you were one of the leaders after I killed Alexander. I should let Zheng pull your head off, but I need to operate on you to understand the Eye, to understand how it affects human minds, how it works. That’s what I get out of this. The Eye has held my twin sister for ten years. Understand? I need every scrap of insight I can get, and I will vivisect you for that knowledge, one way or the other.”

A glint of fear flashed back into Badger’s eyes. I swallowed and tried to dial down, taking a deep breath of the cold air.

“But I can try to minimise the damage,” I said. “Try to put you back together afterward. I can’t guarantee it will work. I might be able to sever the Eye’s connection, but it might kill you. Or it might leave you brain dead, or crippled, or give you any number of debilitating neurological conditions. Think of it as volunteering for a clinical trial.”

Badger shook his head in disbelief.

“She totally can,” Twil said. “She did it for Sarika once already, and she was way more screwed up than you, mate. At least you’re not flickering all over the place and stabbing yourself in the head.”

“Sarika’s situation was very different,” I said with a sigh and a sideways look at Twil. I was starting to understand why Evelyn looked at her that way sometimes. “The Eye had her held more tightly.”

“How?” Badger stared at me. “How can you stand up to something like that? I don’t believe it, it’s not possible. Look what happened to Alexander, and he was on his ubermensch power trip. He could shrug off bullets, and tell the Godlings what to do. Even he couldn’t control it, not one bit. What makes you special?”

“She is the shaman,” Zheng purred from above me.

I blinked at Badger’s incomprehension, and then I realised.

“You people never understood why the Eye wants me, did you?” I asked.

He shrugged. “Figured you pissed it off somehow. A ritual. Failed summoning. Or you belong to it, like us.”

I sighed. “No. No, you silly little thing.”

Goodness, I sounded like Evelyn.

“Wha-” His mouth hung open.

“Heather?” Twil went tense at my tone. Zheng let out a low chuckle.

“Did you never think to ask why I can send people Outside, why I can go there myself? Why I can stop bullets with my mind? How I killed Alexander? Or do any of the things I can do? Did you never ask yourself?”

“W-well you’re like Lauren is, back when-”

I shook my head. “Lozzie’s powers are not the same as mine. Do you know why?”

Badger looked at me now with the same dawning terror as when I’d screeched at the Big Man and held his head like a bird of prey.

“The Magnus Vigilator took me and my twin sister ten years ago, to the place it lives, and taught us to be a little bit like itself,” I told him. “I am its adopted daughter. If you could see me for what I really am, beneath this.” I pinched my own cheek. “You would go mad from the revelation.”

It was a miracle that I didn’t cringe as I said all that. Big scary Heather, ready to peel your scalp back and crack your skull and root around in your grey matter, but you can trust me because I’m like the other terrifying thing that’s in there already, and I haven’t yet forgotten how to be human. Not entirely.

Also the last part was a lie. Homo abyssus was not terrifying, it was beautiful. I hoped Raine would one day call me cute like that, tentacles and membranes and webbed fingers and feathery feelers and all.

Badger stared, wide-eyed. He must have thought me off my rocker.

“I’m your best hope,” I said. “And the best hope for all the others. Now, are you going to be my test subject, or do I have to put somebody else through it?”

Badger took a deep, shuddering breath, looked to Twil and Zheng for help – found none in Twil, and Zheng was watching the fog – and then nodded, slow at first, then very emphatically indeed. I had made him believe.

“Alright. Alright, but you have to promise me one thing,” he said.

“You’re not in a position to demand shit,” Twil growled at him. Badger flinched.

“Wait,” I said gently to Twil. “Promise what?”

“If it doesn’t work, I don’t wanna be a vegetable and still have this thing in my head. If you mess up and you put me in a coma or whatever, and you haven’t pushed it out, you have to kill me. Don’t leave me like that. Just make sure I’m dead. Cremate me. That’s what I want, if it doesn’t work. Okay? I don’t wanna go on like this, I can’t do it anymore. And I’m dead anyway, really.”

He raised his eyes past us, to the wall of fog. To my relief, the mist had rolled back a little in the last minute or two, revealing the dark windows and low garden walls of the terraced houses once more, though the combination of moonlight and orange street lamps served to create a strange optical illusion. The houses seemed to bend toward us, as if the buildings themselves were eavesdropping.

“The Big Man’ll get me,” Badger said. “Finish me off before he takes me behind the wall. Okay?”

“Behind the wall?” Twil asked

But Badger blinked at her, as if his words had made perfect sense.

“If I can remove the Eye’s umbilical, I’m certain I can tear up whatever contract you made with Mister Blobby out there,” I sighed. “You don’t get the easy way out. If I fix you, you’re going to make up for being part of the cult.”

Badger swallowed, nervous and still broken, but with a resigned hope in his face now.

Twil sighed. “Fuck me, Heather, you’ve got more mercy in your little finger than I have in my whole body.”

“It’s not mercy,” I said. “Killing him would be mercy. What I’m going to do could be much worse, and don’t remind me.” I pressed a hand to my abdomen, beneath my coat, trying to ease the spiking, prickling pain that suddenly worsened as I straightened up and looked out into the fog. “But I’m not going to perform complex brainmath out here, not with that thing waiting for us. Plus I’m freezing. I’m in bloody pajama bottoms because of this … this … ” I gestured at Badger. “Very stupid and rude person.”

Badger averted his eyes. Really, I thought? You came at us with intent to harm, to kidnap, and that makes you look down in shame? I felt like shouting at him.

“Let’s get you back to the house.” was all I said. “Under lock and key. Stand up.”

“Right, right you are,” Badger muttered as he awkwardly got to his feet, trying to wring out the wet patch from the front of his jeans.

“We’re really gonna do it?” Twil said, bouncing on the balls of her feet and limbering up.

“Maybe,” I said. “I think we should call Evee first, see if there’s anything she can do or recommend. She recognised the trick Badger pulled, she might know something useful, about how to avoid this creature.”

“Evee’s gonna go thermonuclear over this,” Twil muttered

“Then I’ll explain to her,” I said. “That bringing Badger back is … my … decision … ”

Like the tide rolling out, the fog began to peel away.

No breath of wind stirred the wall of mist. The air was still and silent, even as the fog flowed away over brick and asphalt, leaving behind a faint shiny layer of cold greasy moisture on every surface. As the road junction opened up and the terraced houses emerged in a ring around us, I began to breathe a sigh of relief, despite the unnatural weather phenomenon. Twil muttered a ‘thank God for that’.

But as the fog receded, the houses kept rising, and we discovered we had nothing to be thankful for.

Behind the first row of terraced houses was another row, higher up and arranged in a true circle, impossibly bent toward us like a scrum of listening giants leaning over the shoulders of their fellows below. And behind them, another row, further away and bending forward too. And another, and another, and another, climbing away from us as if we stood in the bottom of a giant amphitheatre the size of a city.

Twil’s mouth dropped open and she cowered like a terrified hound. Badger whimpered. Zheng growled in frustration.

The effect was dizzying, like an optical illusion to induce vertigo. The houses furthest away must have been impossibly large to be visible at that distance. If I tried to focus on any one detail I felt like a speck of dust, surrounded by millions of dark misshapen windows like empty eye sockets.

“What the fuck, what the fuck-”

“Oh no, no no no no-”

The fog raced away, sucking back through streets that ran at impossible curves up among the leering houses, the roads themselves twisted into a maze-like mess of switchbacks and loops upon the inside of a rising plane. As if the city had been transformed by a magic trick while we weren’t looking.

At the very limit of the city, miles and miles and miles away but visible as if looming over us down here at the bottom of this pit, the fog stopped, bunching and thickening against an unseen barrier – and then it flowed up and over and vanished at last, to reveal the wall.

Red bricks piled like dried scabs, drystone without mortar, hundreds of miles high in a ring that rose in every direction behind the houses.

Even Zheng had to lower her eyes with a pained grunt.

“I told you we weren’t in Sharrowford anymore,” I whispered.


“But you’re not Outside,” Evelyn said thirty seconds later.

“Great, yeah,” Twil hissed at the phone in my hand, keeping her voice low as if something might overhear us. “That’s a real consolation here, thank you very much. You don’t have to see this place every time you look up!”

Evelyn cleared her throat, distorted by interference on the line. “Calm down, look at your feet if you have to.”

“Look at my goddamn feet, she says,” Twil muttered. “I’ll look at your bloody feet.”

“You’re not Outside,” Evelyn repeated – and I wondered if only I could detect the hint of a tremor in her voice, as she struggled to cover her emotions with deadpan analysis. “Or we wouldn’t be speaking. If your phones work, you’re still in range of a cell service tower, which means you’re technically still in Sharrowford.” She paused. “Or still on Earth, I suppose.”

“Thank God for small mercies?” I asked

“Exactly,” Evelyn said.

I sighed heavily, clinging to Evelyn’s measured words to stop myself from panicking, and to Zheng’s arm to stop myself from sitting down on the ground with physical exhaustion and hunger shakes.

“So how do we get the hell out of here, huh?” Twil demanded, shooting glances down every twisted road and sneaking her eyes up at the looming, bent houses above us.

“I’m working on it,” Evelyn grumbled.

She was thumping about on the other end of the phone, rapidly leafing through books, twice breaking off from our conversation to shout orders or requests to Praem for specific objects from her workshop. In the background, I could hear a hurrying pair of feet, and I feared I knew exactly who that was.

“Heather,” Evelyn added quickly. “Is Twil going to hold herself together?”

Twil pulled the most exasperated, irritated shrug I’d ever seen from her, and shook herself like a wet dog, baring her teeth. Her face and hands kept flowing back and forth between human and wolf, betraying the level of terror she felt.

“We’re all going to hold it together,” I said, staring directly at Twil. “Isn’t that right? Twil, isn’t that right?”

“Sure,” Twil said. She did not sound sure.

“The laangren will be fine, wizard,” Zheng rumbled. “Concentrate.”

“Mm,” Evelyn grunted, whispering something under her breath, speed-reading in what sounded like Latin.

“Could this be some kind of illusion?” I asked.

“Doubtful,” said Evelyn. “There’s four of you, and you’re all seeing the same thing, yes?”

“Yes, of course, as I said.” We’d already compared impressions when describing the problem to Evelyn.

My eyes crept upward, to the rows upon rows of giant houses and the vast, heaven-scraping ring-wall in the distance. Each red brick must have been the size of a mountain. My head swam, dizzy at the scale and distances involved. The perspective was impossible, as if the whole world had been turned into a curved goldfish bowl, with us at the bottom.

This place did not look much like the real Sharrowford either. Except for the street corner where we stood, with the bus shelter and the old terraced houses, the vast buildings that marched away from us were too dark, too uniform in their grotesquery, greasy with soot and coal-dust that this city hadn’t seen for forty years or more. When we looked along the streets nearby, they seemed familiar, but as one’s eyes travelled upward, the perspective became impossible to endure without nausea.

It was also dead silent. No sounds of cars passing in the distance, no voices snatched on the night air. And no spirits. Not a single crumb of pneuma-somatic life. Utterly sterile.

At least there was still a familiar moon above us.

I’d seen worse Outside, in my nightmares and my Slips. This warped version of Sharrowford had nothing on the Library of Carcosa, and certainly not on Wonderland.

But the very fact it was somehow still Sharrowford was intolerable. We were lost in a place that should not be.

“Shaman,” Zheng purred, and her free hand cupped the back of my head, suffusing me with heat. I managed to pull my gaze back down to street level, shaking slightly.

“The city looks normal to us too,” Evelyn was saying. “Raine, look out the window again,” she called over her shoulder.

“Already done!” Raine’s voice floated back from deeper in the house. “Just good old Sharrowford out there!”

“Wait,” Evelyn said, bringing her voice closer to the phone. “Heather, you used the word ‘amphitheatre’ earlier, when you were describing the perspective.”

“ … so?”

“Are you absolutely certain this isn’t the doing of your theatrical friend?”

“Sevens? No. No, this doesn’t seem her style. And I only meant that as a metaphor. We’re not on a stage. Besides, abducting Badger for brainmath medical experiments isn’t an event she’d be interested in.”

Badger was not taking this at all well, though surprisingly his panic was more controlled than Twil’s. Maybe he was resigned to this as his punishment. He stood as close to us as he dared, keeping his eyes firmly on the ground and trying not to hyperventilate or shake too badly. He’d wrapped his wounded palm in the end of his own sleeve, wincing and hissing now and again whenever he tried to flex the fingers.

“Can you ask her for help?” Raine’s voice suddenly came across the phone, as if she was leaning over Evelyn’s shoulder.

“ … I’m sorry?”

“Sevens!” Raine said, breathless. “Ask her for help! Drama queen has to be useful for something, maybe she can chase off Mister Blobby.”

Evelyn hissed a wordless complaint.

I glanced about the road junction, careful not to raise my eyes to the wide carnivorous sky.

“Uh … Sevens?” I called out softly. “Are you here? Feel like offering some help?”

The silent city told no secrets. No shred of teasing gold edged out from around a window frame, no welcoming sunlight glow, no yellow ribbons.

“Nothing,” I said into the phone for Raine and Evelyn’s benefit. “Either she’s not here or she doesn’t feel like helping.”

“Where the flying fuck is here anyway?” Twil spat. “Can’t we just walk back to the house? I can see Notte Street from here. It’s right there! What if all the rest is just messing with our heads?”

“You stay exactly where you are,” Evelyn said. “Not a step further, not until I figure this out. I have the relevant passages right here, let me bloody well read them.”

“Twil,” I said gently. “There’s no spirits. We can’t hear any cars. I don’t think we can walk back to the house.”

“We are watched,” Zheng purred, blinking her eyes slowly at the end of each road like big cat. “That is where we are.”

“You know how this works?” Evelyn’s voice floated up from the phone.

“No, wizard.” Zheng sounded quite regretful. “I do not.”

“He wants me,” Badger said. The first thing he’d said in minutes. He pulled a horribly pained smile. “That’s how it works. This is all because I’m his, by right of contract. It’ll stop when … ”

“Should let the bastard thing take you then,” Twil growled.

“Do. Not,” Evelyn snapped down the phone, exasperated beyond proper sentences. “Do not let the-” She sighed sharply. “‘Mister Blobby’ abduct or eat or throw a bloody surprise party for that fool. Do not introduce more variables. We have no idea what that will do.”

“Hey, Heather, hey,” Raine’s voice shot back on the other side of the phone. “I’m coming to get you, I’m gonna walk-”

“Raine, no,” I pleaded. “Stop. Please. I don’t think you’ll be able to find us.”

“But hey, if I can-”

“Shut up, you oaf,” Evelyn snapped at her. “What are you going to do, stomp out there and twat the thing with your crutch? Sit down. I have the relevant passages right here now, let me translate.” Evelyn huffed a great sigh. “Heather, are you listening?”

“I am on the edge of my seat,” and said, struggling to stay calm. “Evee, please. We would all very much like to get out of here.”

“Right. First. Absolutely do not under any circumstances touch the wall. The big wall, that is. You said it was red?”

“I don’t think there’s much risk of us touching it, looks like it’s miles away.”


“No touchy wall, got it,” Twil said, nodding along. Clear instructions seemed to blow away the worst of her panic.

“Second,” Evelyn went on. “I suggest you all stay close together, but I hope that much goes without saying.”

“Duh,” Twil almost laughed.

“Of course,” I confirmed.

“Third,” Evelyn continued. “You’re going to have to cut each other’s eyeballs and tongues out.”

“ … what.” Twil blinked at the phone.

I went cold all over. “Evee?”

“Preferably with a rusty spoon. Make sure to get the entire optic nerve, and don’t stem the bleeding. Fingers must go as well, and you need to devour those, you disgusting sacks of rotting meat, but that’ll make it difficult to hang the apostate upside down by his feet and drain his blood into a bucket, so best do that first.”

Evelyn’s voice rattled on. Twil and I stared at each other. She’d gone white. Zheng started to growl deep in her chest. Badger just stared.

“Organs will come out last, but start with the lower ones, the kidneys and liver, don’t go straight for the heart because that will end things early. You thought you could get out by calling a friend, but you can’t, because I’m here now. I’m here. I’m right here, and so are you. Hello.”

The line went dead. My phone screen popped up a cheery little query about call quality.

“That … that wasn’t really Evee, right?” Twil asked.

“The wizard is irritating,” Zheng rumbled. “But those were not her words.”

I sighed, and tried to stop shaking. “I think that’s a safe assumption.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

a very great mischief – 13.10

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Abyssal instinct came roaring back.

I’d spotted Badger through the kitchen window, caught him in the act of sneaking through our back garden, unmistakable even beneath the ghostly moon and the distant backwash of orange light pollution, in his lumpy shapeless hoodie with curls of springy hair escaping from under the hood, frozen in shock about six feet from the gnarled old tree where Tenny’s cocoon had once grown. A fleeting glimpse, a quarter of a second – and a tidal wave crashed through my endocrine system.

Human adrenaline and oceanic hunting drive, the affront of territorial intrusion, the implicit threat to my friends, my pack, to Lozzie sleeping upstairs unaware, the sudden vibration in my arms and legs, the dilation of blood vessels, tunnel vision, hunger; all of it hit me before the others had time to react to my gasp.

A single aching heartbeat of predatory urge wracked me, body and soul.

I wanted to sprout tentacles, to fling myself headfirst through the glass and metal of the kitchen window, like a squid ejecting herself from a crack in the rock in ambush. Instinct provided a plan, a trajectory straight to Badger’s cranium, a crystal clear mental image.

Luckily, I was still me, and therefore still an exhausted wreck. If I’d been well-rested, less bruised, and perhaps if I hadn’t already attempted to mutilate and murder a person that very morning, perhaps I would have discovered that smashing through windows with one’s own body does not work like it does in the movies. I’d likely have bounced off and made a complete prat of myself. Even if I had managed to shatter the glass, I’d have covered myself in wounds and landed in the garden like a sack of wet meat. Abyssal instinct cannot make up for multiple lacerations from broken glass.

Guilt or willpower or weakness, all or one held me back for a crucial second, no matter how I drooled and shivered with desire.

And then my phantom limbs were whipping through the air, trying to grasp the edge of the table to hold me steady, lunging for the doorway to the utility room to follow Zheng. Even as psychological constructs, mental ghosts, their motion demanded support and response in the tension and flex of real muscles in my flanks – real muscles which I had abused to breaking point that morning, and which were currently a mass of bruises.

Incredible pain flared through my sides as the muscles seized up.

“Ahhhhh!” I cried out and almost fell over, losing sight of Badger.

For a few moments everything was chaos. I was clutching myself, panting and sweating with pain. Somebody caught me and held me up. My own name shot right past my ears. A growl, scrambling feet, shouting, the back door slamming open followed by a tiger’s rumble through a throat of granite.

That got through. Zheng was outdoors, going for Badger.

“N-no!” I ripped myself back up, eyes watering, and nearly pulled myself right out of Raine’s arms. “She can’t, she-”

“Heather, woah-”

“She can’t!”

The kitchen was bedlam. Twil span away from the window and raced for the back door as well. Evelyn was white-faced and stuck in a silent stammer, half-retreated toward her magical workshop. Praem was opening one of the kitchen cupboards for God alone knows what reason. I’d tipped over two chairs somehow and managed to knock an empty plate onto the floor, which had shattered across the flagstones in a dangerous mess of sharp fragments. Raine had her pistol in one hand, me in the other, crutch abandoned. She was putting her weight on the wrong leg.

And through the kitchen window, out in the dimly lit garden amid the overgrown grass and untended flowerbeds choked with weeds, I glimpsed the shadowy figure of Badger again.

The idiot hadn’t run.

This time he’d managed to open his folding knife without injuring himself. In a whirl of confusion as I was already turning for the back door, I saw him holding the tiny blade out in front, with his other hand curled in a defensive posture.

He knew what Zheng could do. He must have known she’d go through that like wet paper. He had seconds.

Which meant so did I.

“Heath-” Raine started to say my name, to hold me back. To be fair, between the pain in my sides and general exhaustion, I could barely walk, and Badger might not be alone.

“Help me!” I screamed in her face.

To her infinite credit, Raine understood me before I even understood myself. She didn’t argue. She jammed her shoulder beneath mine, which sent a ricochet of pain shooting down through my bruises and playing discordant notes across my nerve endings. I cried out through my teeth, but it was worth it, as she dragged me quickly along in Twil’s wake, into the darkness of the utility room and through the now open back door, beneath the massive hanging bulk of the spider-servitor which could not or would not go beyond the boundaries of the house. We burst out into the sudden chill and silvery moonlight in the back garden.

Badger was about fifteen or twenty feet away, just in front of the gnarled old tree. The grass at his ankles, green and verdant in the warming spring weather, was a blanket of sliver threads beneath the moonlight.

Twil was only a pace or two ahead of us on the little patio, teeth bared, head swivelling left and right to track for other threats in the thick shadows of the overgrown garden.

Zheng was about to pounce.

A savage grin ripped across her face at the prospect of a fight, her massive frame lowered and rocked back on one leg, tensing and ready to spring.

“Zheng, no!” I choked out.

She juddered to a halt like a stalled train, a frustrated growl between her teeth. One eye flicked back over her shoulder at me.

Badger, wide eyed and panting with terror, clearly could not believe this reprieve. Beneath his hood I could make out the whites of his eyes, his shuddering mouth as he heaved for breath, the cold sweat rolling down his face. Both his hands shook, knife held out before him.

Hunting instinct stirred in my chest once again, told me to rush at him, bring him down, hold him in place. Eat his brain.

I said no.

“Shaman,” Zheng rumbled, deeply displeased.

“Yo, Heather, what?” Twil said.

“I have to do it right this time,” I wheezed, as Raine raised her pistol to cover Badger all the same. “I have to do it right, to-”

Badger’s eyes flickered from Zheng to me. He wet his lips, and found the shreds of his courage again.

“Sod it!” he spat.

He brought his knife and his free hand together, screwed up his eyes in a grimace – and slit open his own palm.

None of us had expected that. Not even Zheng knew how to react.

“What the shit?” Twil said.

“Uh oh,” Raine murmured.

Badger drew rapid shuddering breaths through his teeth, holding his wounded hand low and clenched into a tight fist. A thick trickle of blood dripped between his knuckles, the crimson made black by moonlight, staining the grass beneath.

“Ahhhhhh, ahhhhh,” he hissed in pain. “Alright, yeeeeeeeah, ah fuck. Fuck me. There we go, there we go.”

He raised the fist, toward us, and began to uncurl his fingers.

We were all familiar enough with magic and paranoid enough to predict what this might mean. Twil tensed to leap out of the way. Raine twisted her body to shield me. I gasped as I scrambled for some kind of hyperdimensional equation to protect us, though I had no idea exactly what Badger had just done to himself. Zheng bared her teeth and was about to leap in front of his aim, when a sudden snap wave of cold washed over us all, sucking the breath from my lungs and the heat from beneath my clothes.

Evelyn stepped out onto the patio beside us, walking stick clicking on the stones, her scrimshawed thighbone held tight in one fist, breathing hard as her own magic took effect. Praem followed beside her, carrying a carving knife.

“Whatever you are trying to do, I have us all protected.” Evelyn snapped at Badger. “And you are doing it practically in public. There are neighbouring houses barely … across … ”

Badger finished opening his hand. Evelyn trailed off in shock. Zheng retreated a couple of paces, which made the little hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, and set abyssal instinct screaming warnings into my lizard brain. Zheng, retreating? Very bad sign.

“Siiiiiick,” said Twil.

A mouth had opened in Badger’s palm, where he’d cut himself. Thick red lips framed a set of discoloured teeth filed down to needle-sharp points. A tongue rolled out, lapping at the air, making slick wet noises as it rolled. Behind that tongue the interior of the hand-mouth was dark as the void, and seemed to extend back further than Badger’s flesh could possibly accommodate.

The mouth began to whisper, on the edge of hearing.

Badger grimaced at us, in obvious pain. His eyes flickered around, a cornered animal still looking for escape as he warded us off with this strange grotesque magic. Quickly, reluctant to take his eyes off us, he glanced over his shoulder at the garden fence, about another twenty feet behind him.

Abyssal instinct did not care about the strange hand-mouth. Did not recognise it. Abyssal instinct screamed at me to pounce.

“Bet that comes in handy,” Raine said with a laugh.

“What the hell have you done to yourself?” Evelyn snapped. To my surprise she sounded both offended and outraged.

Ooran juh,” Zheng growled with naked disgust.

“You know it too?” Evelyn shot at her.

“I heal any wound, any bite,” Zheng growled at Badger. “I am faster than you, idiot wizard, for that thing will devour you before it can touch my flesh.”

“Then why don’t you fuckin’ leap at me, hey?” Badger spat back at her, panting and glancing about, licking his lips. His eyes met mine. “Let me pass. Let me go. Come on, you tell them let me go, or I’ll-”

“No,” I told him. “You’re my chance to do this right. And you came here for Lozzie, I’m not letting you walk away.”

His grimace got worse, face screwing up in panic.

The whispering from the hand-mouth teased at my ears, the words impossible to make out, but somehow promising secrets if only I would listen closer.

“I don’t think we have an option, Heather,” Evelyn said. She lowered the thighbone and the cold snap collapsed like a bubble. Spring night wind whipped back in, ruffling my hair with invisible fingers. Evelyn sagged slightly and Praem supported her side. “Plus, he’ll be dead within hours anyway.”

“What?” I blinked at her.

“Yeah, thanks,” Badger said, dripping sarcasm. “Just let me go then.”

“How long have you been doing that, hm?” she asked him, almost pityingly. “Days, weeks? That thing will kill you. Never thought I’d see it in reality. What on earth kind of deals have you been making, you little fool?”

“Anything that might get the Eye out of my head,” Badger raged. “Screw you all!”

“No,” I muttered, trying to raise my voice. Raine understood, and helped me stagger forward a pace or two. “No, no, I can- I can help, I can-”

“And it doesn’t work anyway,” Badger went on. “Now let me past, at the door round to the front.” He nodded past the side of the house. “I’ll go, we can forgot I was here. Just let me go.”

But Zheng was already moving, sliding sideways to cover his one obvious retreat. Twil bared her teeth and raised her hands as ghostly wolf-flesh began to wrap around her forearms, turning nails into claws.

“Stop that,” Evelyn snapped at Twil, and the werewolf transformation halted, Twil blinking at Evelyn in surprise. “Don’t you go anywhere near him! And what are you thinking, transforming out here in public?”

“But- I- Evee, he-”

Badger took a step back.

“Don’t,” I whined at him. “I can help, I can, I know I can, I-”

Badger turned and fled. Stumbling, sprinting, he threw himself at the back fence, dropping his knife in the process. Feet kicking at the boards, hands hauling himself up, he scrambled for the top of fence as Zheng broke for him like a loosed hound. She covered the gap in the blink of an eye, moving fast as any cheetah, but he waved the hand-mouth in her general direction and she skidded to a halt, growling in frustration. He finally managed to get one leg over the fence, then fell with an undignified thump on the other side. A moment later we could all hear him running across the broken scrub ground, making for the nearest road on that side – Brickbridge Lane – or perhaps for one of the other nearby gardens.

Zheng crouched, tensed to spring, to leap the fence.

“Zheng, no!” I cried out.

I pulled myself free from Raine’s supporting embrace and almost fell over in the grass as I staggered forward, desperate in the grip of so many conflicting desires, clamping my arms around my middle as my bruises flared with pain. The damp grass soaked through my bare socks, chilling my toes. Zheng stalked back toward me with wild eyes and a growl in her teeth.

“He’s getting away!” Twil said. “What the hell?!”

“Yes, shaman,” Zheng rumbled, eyes boring holes through me. “What use mercy in the face of death? He stands as nothing before me, not even with the mark of the defiler in his hand, he-”

“It has to be me!” I blurted out at her, panting for breath. “It has to be me. You don’t get it, it has to be me.”

Raine caught up, limping slightly, and put her arm around my shoulders. “Heather, hey, hey, slow down. Let Zheng go after him. Zheng, you ready?”

“The shaman desires me not to go, little wolf,” Zheng growled, staring at me for a real explanation.

“Yo, dumb-asses, he’s getting the fuck away.” Twil backpedaled past, going for the fence, looking at us like we were all mad. “He gets to the bridge or back onto Bluebell, we’ll never catch him.”

But Praem strode right up to Twil and grabbed her wrist, held her firm.


“Stay,” Praem intoned.

“You are not going anywhere near that man,” Evelyn snapped at her.

“Oi, off!” Twil shook Praem free. In retrospect I’m certain the doll-demon let her go to forestall a fight, which was the last thing we needed right now. Twil turned back to Evelyn. “We’ve gotta track him, Evee, while these two figure what the hell they’re doing.” She thumbed at me and Zheng.

“If that mouth bites you, the wound will never heal,” Evelyn said. “Werewolf or not. In the worst case you will bleed to death. Understand?”

“Look, I won’t go near him, promise.” Twil held both hands up as she skipped backward toward the fence.

“And do not listen to the whispering!” Evelyn shouted. “Not a word of it!”

“I’ll track him only, keep my distance. I’ve got his scent, it’s easy. I’ve got my phone. Heather, yo?” She caught my eye and waggled her hand. “I’ve got my phone. Call me, I’ll be on his tail.”

And with that, Twil went up and over the fence in a flash, still dressed only in tshirt and jeans, vaulting like an Olympic athlete. She hit the other side at a dead sprint.

“Full moon’s gone to her idiot head,” Evelyn hissed.

Praem stepped back toward Evelyn, eyes up and alert for other cultists hiding in the corners, but the night around us was empty as Twil’s footsteps raced off into the city.

“I want you to catch him, yes, but you have to take me with you,” I was babbling to Zheng. “You have to take me too, it has to be me, I have to try, I have to.”

“Heather,” Raine said with a touch of steel in her voice. “You can hardly walk upright.”

“Then Zheng can carry me,” I said, colder than I intended as I shrugged off Raine’s arm. She staggered slightly without her crutch. “S-sorry, Raine, sorry! Oh, it has to be me.”

“You need to atone, don’t you?” Evelyn asked.

Raine’s eyes lit up. “Ah.”

I shook my head. I couldn’t lie, not to myself here, not with this. “I need to hunt.”

Evelyn frowned with exasperation. Raine laughed. Zheng grinned in sudden savage approval. I blushed hard and confused, the urge pulling at my chest and my tentacles, driving my legs into motion, a tingling at the back of my skull. Abyssal instinct was like a full-body itch I could not scratch. I needed to run, to propel myself through the night after fleeing prey, to sink barbed hooks into-

“Nature is red in tooth and claw,” Praem sung.

Evelyn side-eyed at her. “Yes, thank you.”

“I have to do it right this time,” I said. “I can do it. I can hunt without the intent to kill him, t-to vivisect him. This is part of me. But the violence this morning was not. That was a choice, it doesn’t have to be nature. I can offer him help, a way out. If he’ll take it.”

“Is this really the time for your personal redemption?” Evelyn deadpanned at me.

“It’s an opportunity to study how the Eye interacts with a human mind,” I stammered out quickly. “And if he’s going to die, if he’s so difficult to get near, Zheng can hardly disable him and bring him back to house. I have to go. It has to be me. It has to be. Nobody deserves the Eye.”

A huge hand descended onto my shoulder. Zheng’s grin split the night and my heart leapt like fire.

“Shaman, I will take you into any hell you care to conquer. The hunt is in you, we must move fast to catch this prey, but you cannot run. I will carry you.”

She started to turn and crouch, to let me climb onto her back, but Raine put out a hand and gave us a doubtful twist of her head.

“I won’t be able to keep up with this one.” Raine gestured at her left leg, at the way she was struggling to keep her weight on her thigh. To my incredible surprise she made no effort to hide her doubt and discomfort. There was no joke in her expression, no dawn of confidence. Only truth. “Heather, you’re wiped out already. You go brainmath, you’re liable to collapse, and I won’t be there to catch you.”

I had no answer to that. Not because Zheng could protect me, but because Raine wouldn’t be there.

“I will be,” Zheng purred. “I will keep the shaman safe.” Soft as velvet. I’d never heard her speak like that before.

Raine locked eyes with her. “She’s exhausted. Worn out. Hungry. You better not slip up, Zheng.”

“I will never.”

I grit my teeth in humiliated frustration, face burning as they spoke about me. Raine was right, but her words hurt me on a level she couldn’t possibly have known.

My flanks, my oblique muscles, my abdominal wall, all of it was bruised black and blue from using my tentacles for too long this morning, and the tissue damage ran deep. I was already dreading a whole week of recovery, of those bruises stiffening and turning green and yellow as they healed. My head was still thick with sleep despite the adrenaline and the cold night air, and I was hardly dressed for a nighttime jaunt, still in the tshirt and pajama bottoms I’d dragged on to join Lozzie in bed, with nothing but thick socks on my feet. My teeth were already threatening to chatter.

But bruises and muscle damage were only the tip of the iceberg. I was drained. Running on fumes. Despite a belly full of food, my body felt like it had been burning fat reserves for hours, to fill the void inside.

Manifesting my tentacles required so much energy, let alone maintaining them. I needed to pick myself up and go, Zheng piggyback or not. I needed energy, right now, but all I had was biochemistry, lugged around in this sloshing chemical factory of a body. Instinct said be a predator, but I didn’t have the physical form to achieve that.

I needed a power plant. A nuclear core in place of my heart, a fusion reaction in my gut.

And with that thought, I almost made one.

On my journey home through the deepest, darkest parts of the abyss, I’d clung to geothermal vents for heat and scraped pale slime off rocks for protein. I’d harvested every scrap of nutrition I could, and run it through metabolic pathways which weren’t even possible in our reality. In the absolute black of crushing pressure at the bottom of the oceanic wasteland, I’d often had to turn those pathways in on themselves, twisting like a mobius strip. None of that was possible here.

But if tentacles and webbed fingers and a hiss in my throat could approximate the perfect form I’d possessed out there, then a pneuma-somatic reactor inside my torso could approximate abyssal biochemistry.

In the same way my phantom limbs had first appeared, I simply became aware of it, as if it had been there all along. A trilobe knot of gritty muscle and thick tissue nestled deep in the left side of my abdomen, filled with honeycomb structures for glucose production, riven by crypts for enzyme transport, laced with sacks for lipid synthesis – and other structures for unspeakable processes, ones that had no proper home in a human body.

Heat, glorious heat like a banked fire, flooded up my side. And just for a second, that heat almost filled the merest fraction of the hungry void.

I gasped and shuddered and placed both hands against my abdomen.

“Heather?” Raine’s eyes went wide and she grabbed me by the arm. Zheng was up as well, ready to catch me as I stumbled back, blinking down at myself.

The trilobe organ wasn’t real, of course. It wasn’t even pneuma-somatic. Not yet. It was an image-ghost, a memory of abyssal perception imprinted on my human biology. A phantom limb. The heat wasn’t real, it was all in my head; pressing my hands beneath my tshirt proved my skin was just as cold as before. But the tentacles had started as phantom limbs too, and they were very much real when I made them so.

I didn’t actually make the organ real, bring it into pneuma-somatic life, let alone light the thing with the spark of metabolic fire. I had no idea how it would work. Making mistakes with additional external limbs was one thing; screwing up an internal power plant was a very different kettle of fish. For all I knew, I’d explode on the spot like a bomb going off. I’d be a headline item in ‘strange but true’ news by the following morning. ‘University student detonates in back garden, are drugs to blame?’

I stood there, staring down at myself and taking shuddering breaths as I realised the implications.

“The shaman is right, little wolf,” Zheng purred. “But she is also in crisis. Perhaps I should go alone.”

“No!” I blurted out. “No, no, I can do it. Raine, I can do it, I just … ”

Was it my imagination, or did I feel more energetic? It wasn’t possible. The organ was not real.

“I-I just thought of a way to … to solve the energy problem,” I finished, shaking my head. “But not right now. Raine, please, it has to be me to confront Badger. I have to do this, for myself, for the knowledge I might gain, the edge it might give me. Please, trust me, trust Zheng to take care of me. She won’t let me hurt myself.” I whirled to Zheng, still unsteady on my feet. “Promise?”

“Always,” Zheng purred.

Raine locked eyes with me for a heartbeat too long, and then laughed. She broke into one of those beaming grins, the ones she’d used one me when we’d first met, and leaned forward to kiss me on the forehead, both hands on my shoulders.

“Come back safe,” she said. “Good hunting.”

Her gaze flicked to Zheng, and some unspoken exchange passed between them as Zheng crouched down to offer me a piggyback.

“Wait,” Praem intoned, surprising us all. She turned her milk-white eyes on me. “Coat. Shoes. Phone.”

“O-oh,” I stammered, having forgotten the basic essentials in my rush to solve abstract problems. “I-”

Praem turned and marched toward the open back door, vanishing inside with a swish of her skirt. Evelyn glanced left and right. She looked so small and vulnerable with her walking stick as she stood suddenly alone in the moonlight, but then Raine stepped back to stand by her side.

“We’ll watch the house, and Lozzie,” Raine went on, “and check to see if Badger had any friends nearby. Right Evee?”

“Right,” Evelyn deadpanned. “Zheng. Zombie. Whatever the hell you you want to be called. Unlike Raine I do not place infinite trust in your handling of the most important-” She bit down. “You bring Heather back safe or I will empty your soul from your vessel like a carton of apple juice, I don’t care how ancient you are.”

“You will have no need to try, wizard,” Zheng purred.

“Keep away from the mouth in his hand. Do not get bitten. And don’t listen to the whispers.”

“I know, wizard.”

“That’s mostly for Heather,” Evelyn snapped. “Do. Not. Listen.”

I nodded vigorously. “I understand.”

Praem returned a moment later and I submitted to coat and shoes, suddenly aware of how I was beginning to shiver. No amount of phantom bio-reactor could actually keep my flesh warm. Praem also slapped my phone into my hand, the screen already unlocked and open on Twil’s number.

“Thank you, Praem, thank you,” I whispered, and made a mental note to hug her later.

“You are welcome,” she intoned.

As I climbed onto Zheng’s back and she looped her arms beneath my thighs, I looked over at Evelyn and asked the question which had almost slipped my mind.

“Evee, what was that mouth in Badger’s hand anyway? What was he doing?”

“Old magic,” Zheng rumbled before Evelyn could answer. “Blood-rot and corruption.”

“It’s a technique mentioned in several old tomes,” Evelyn said, tight and unimpressed. “Well documented, widely known, especially if Zheng is familiar with it too. But very stupid. He’s made a deal with … well, I shan’t pronounce the name out loud, it might hurt your ears.”

“You said it’ll kill him within a few hours?” I asked.

Evelyn shrugged. “Or days. Hours is more likely if he’s been doing it for a while already. This might be his last hit.”

Zheng straightened up and I suddenly felt very tall indeed, pressing myself tight to the heat pouring off her muscled back, looping my arms around her neck to hold myself in place. She turned toward the fence, and my stomach lurched with anticipation of the leap. But I twisted my head to catch Evelyn and Raine and Praem one last time. Raine shot me a broad wink and a cheesy grin.

“How will it kill him? Evee?” I asked.

“The owner of the mouth will come to collect the debt,” she deadpanned. “Let’s hope you find him first.”


Catching Badger was not difficult in the end.

As soon as Zheng leapt the back fence – a rocket-ship journey for both my heart and the pit of my stomach – and once I’d recovered and located my lungs again, I raised my mobile phone to my ear and called Twil, clinging hard around Zheng’s neck with my other arm.

Zheng set off at a loping pace, eating up the scrub ground and empty lots and darting past the few dark houses on this side of the road, heading for Brickbridge Lane. I struggled not to squeak; I was not used to moving so fast.

Twil answered the call in a rush. “Heather?”

“Yes, it’s me. Where-”

“I’m right behind him!” She was panting, still on the move. “Down Brickbridge, then left onto uh … the one with the big trees! We’re coming up on the roundabout now. He slowed a bit but then he spotted me, maybe, and he picked up again. I’m gonna try to corner him-” Her voice cut out as a vehicle passed by on her end of the call, and my other ear pricked up, hoping maybe I could hear the distant car, but it was impossible to pick out one sound from Sharrowford at night. “- but not until the bus stop, yeah?” Twil finished, then quickly went on. “Shit, he’s gone right, onto Sparrow Street, I’ll never find a spot out of view here. Hurry up! You with Zheng?”

“In a manner of speaking,” I said, then started relaying the directions to Zheng. But she didn’t need them. She’d heard every word.

“As the crow flies, shaman.”

And fly she did. Like the wind.

She’d been pacing herself while I was on the phone call, to allow me a moment to communicate, but as soon as she knew where we were headed, Zheng moved so fast it scared me. She took a direct route too, straight across the quiet road and plunging through the patch of scraggly woods, then up and over a brick wall without so much as a ‘hup’ of effort, flitting through the pools of street-lighting like a dragonfly. Down the embankment, then darting along the rows of terraced houses on Windsor Road, ghosting through Sharrowford at night like ball lightning. Spirits scattered before us, running into alleyways or vanishing over the rooftops, retracting tentacles and scuttling into drains.

For the first few seconds I kept my mouth shut and my head pressed to her shoulder, seeking solace in Zheng’s baking body heat down my front, with my guts lurching and my head spinning, scared that at any second I was going to slam face first into the pavement. What was I doing? How had I gotten myself to this point? Riding a demon through the night at speeds enough to break my neck.

But Zheng would never drop me. She’d sooner break every bone in her own body. She’d fallen much further with me, once.

As my mind was reassured I wasn’t going to end as a smear on the ground, something else woke up inside me.

It may not have been my feet eating up the distance, or my lungs pumping with effort, or my senses tracking our prey – but I was hunting. Finally, for real. And it felt so very good.

An electric tingle buzzed through all my senses, my brain on controlled fast-forward, the cocktail of adrenaline in my veins taking on a subtly different flavour. As I raised my eyes from Zheng’s shoulder, everything seemed sharper, the details stood out with greater clarity – the lichen on the walls, the marks on the pavement, the discarded food wrappers in the gutter. I felt the most bizarre urge to peel my lips back from my teeth, to hiss under my breath as if flushing out prey. I had to scrunch my aching eyelids up again when I tried to blink with membranes I didn’t possess, and I felt my phantom tentacles flex and ready themselves as if they they were tipped with bone hooks once more.

Zheng hurled herself around the corner into Sparrow Street, a huge shadow flitting along the rows of parked cars, and I hissed with glee.

I spotted the answering grin across her face, and mumbled ‘I love you’ into her shoulder.

It was impossible for our chase to go completely unnoticed, even on a Monday night in a residential area with nobody around. Perhaps Twil was an expert at silent stalking with her wolf senses and hunting instinct, but Zheng was seven feet of muscle moving at high speed. However she normally kept herself concealed was hampered by carrying me. No leaping on rooftops for her with me clinging to her back.

We didn’t confirm anything until two months later, when Raine found a post on one of the supernatural and paranormal internet forums she kept an eye on. Zheng’s run had been spotted that night, by a middle-aged man who’d been looking out of his kitchen window, at the exact moment we’d passed by. A huge blur in the dark, a glimpse of nightmare creature racing through the streets of sleepy Sharrowford, a monster here in England. Who’d believe it? Certainly not his wife, according to the forlorn forum post.

Who knows how many others spotted us but dismissed it, or never spoke about it, or couldn’t process what they glimpsed in the corner of their eye, out in the dark?

To be fair, it got harder to spot us once the fog rolled in.

Thick, soupy, grey fog, which sprung up out of nowhere once we hit the end of Sparrow Street. I assumed it had rolled in off the countryside, creeping through the gaps between the houses, just bad luck. The local pneuma-somatic life didn’t seem to like the fog either, and we saw fewer and fewer spirits, glimpsed vanishing into the haze. The mist turned Sharrowford into a ghostly vision around us as Zheng raced on.

Twil’s voice came from the phone in my hand. We’d kept the line open.

“Heather! I’ve got him boxed in!” she hissed rapidly when I pressed it to my ear. “By the old bus stop between Noreen and Hastings. Hurry! If you’re gonna do anything, this is the place, you can’t see shit from here, there’s loads of fog!”

We reached Twil seconds later.

She whirled toward us as Zheng loomed out of the fog at the corner of Hastings Road, half-werewolf with claws and fuzzy muscled legs and a snout, eyes wide and dilated in hunting mode. The sight made my heart hitch into my throat.

“It’s us!” I hissed over Zheng’s shoulder.

Twil blinked once at Zheng, and once at me. “Alright there, Master Blaster?”

“What?” I squinted at her, but Twil was already turning back the way she’d been looking, tense from tip to toe as she peeked around a corner of brick wall, at the junction between Hastings and Noreen. She was still panting for breath.

“Later,” she hissed. “Can’t take my eyes off him.”

Zheng leaned out too, and even with my own abyssal hunting instincts activated like aching salivary glands, it took a moment to appreciate what Twil had achieved.

“He’s stopped now that I’ve looped around twice to cut him off,” she whispered. “But he might break for it again. If you’re gonna nab him, do it now.”

Badger didn’t look boxed in at all, except by the tightly packed terraced houses in this more run-down area, some of them with boarded up lower windows. The three-way road was open in all directions, clogged only by the thickening greasy fog. But he’d stopped by a bus shelter, a shell of green metal with a few panes of glass left, the empty advertising panels caked with graffiti. Head up, eyes wide and swivelling all about, he didn’t seem to know which way to turn, chest rising and falling as he heaved to get his breath back.

He thought Twil was everywhere.

“Good technique, laangren,” Zheng purred with obvious appreciation.

“We gonna jump him together?” Twil hissed. “We can take him, both of us, beat him-” she glanced up at me. “I mean-”

“Put me down,” I said. “And we’re not going to jump him. I’m going to talk to him. Offer him help.”

“What?!” Twil boggled at me.

Zheng crouched until my feet touched the ground. I let go of her and almost fell over, my legs wobbly with adrenaline and twitchy anticipation. This was all so new, so fresh, a biological urge I’d never embraced before. My phantom limbs bunched and gathered, ready to spring forward, to pounce. I was almost panting too, but for a totally different reason.

“Heather, he was one of them!” Twil hissed. “Experimenting on kids and shit. And he just tried to kidnap Lozzie again, and you wanna help him?!”

“I’m not saying we let him go,” I whispered back. “I’m saying I’m not going to torture and dismantle him. Nobody deserves the Eye. We can both get something out of this.”

Twil blew out a breath, grimacing at me in painful doubt.

“But I’m going to try to help this time,” I hurried to add. “Not kill him. And I need you two to back me up. Flank me. Look scary.”

“Easy, shaman,” Zheng purred.

“Ahh fuck it,” Twil grunted. “Just don’t torture anybody in front of me, alright?”

“I promise,” I whispered.

We must have made quite a sight, stepping out around the corner into the middle of the road, wading through the fog. I went first, with Twil on my right and Zheng on my left, a pace behind me. Twil unwound her transformation, just in case, but I don’t think it made her any less intimidating under the circumstances.

Badger froze to the spot, eyes locked on me.

“It’s time to stop running,” I called out softly.

“Shit, Heather,” Twil whispered out of the corner of her mouth. “Maybe be less intimidating?”

I’d tried my best to make myself sound confident, to speak level and even and calm, as if to a skittish animal, but it was impossible. My voice shook. My entire body was gripped with an overwhelming urge to pounce, to grasp with my tentacles, to inject paralytic toxins and spin constricting webs and begin a process I could not even name.

Badger’s eyes darted left and right in panic – and he raised the hand-mouth toward us.

Needle-teeth clicked together twice but the fog soaked up the whispering. For a second I thought he was about to turn and run into the mist, and the urge to spring became almost overwhelming. I twitched, biting my bottom lip, on the verge of losing control. Twil started to growl.

But then Badger gave a huge sigh and dropped his arm. All the fight went out of him. My abyssal hunting urge guttered out, like a flame without oxygen.

Shoulders slumped, expression slack, Badger staggered the few paces to the bus shelter bench and sat down in a dejected heap.

“Uh,” said Twil. She and I shared a glance. Zheng shrugged.

Badger stared at the gruesome mouth he’d cut into his palm, with such defeat on his face, but then frowned up at us and waved his other hand at the rest of the bench like a grumpy teenager.

Without the guide of instinct, it took a few moments to organise my thoughts. Twil leaned close and whispered, “We’re right next to you. If he tries anything like.”

I nodded, steeled myself for the task, and walked up to Badger.

The moment seemed somehow surreal, the air and angles and silence all wrong, as if we’d stepped Outside directly from the streets of Sharrowford. No spirits lingered here, not a single watching eyestalk or lurking ghoul in sight. Moonlight filtered through the fog and mixed with the overhead glow from the street lamps. One would assume that silver and orange would wreathe the street in ethereal phantasm – but the fog felt heavy, pale, and greasy. The rows of terraced houses seemed too tall for this part of the city, and I had the sudden irrational impression of a wall of ancient houses closing up as the fog swallowed the roads.

Badger eyed the three of us, still panting to get his breath back.

He was a mess. Big, wet eyes more suited to a puppy than a cultist, and a hangdog face once built for smiling, but which didn’t smile much anymore. His curly dark hair and scraggly beard clearly hadn’t been washed in days, he’d put on a little bit of weight. He looked like he hadn’t managed a good night’s sleep in many weeks. He held the disgusting mouth-hand away from his own body, pointed at the ground. It seemed to have stopped whispering.

“I don’t care if you kill me,” he said as I stopped a few feet clear of him. “Just make it quick, alright? And if you’re gonna send me … Out make sure I’m dead first. Snap my neck. Zheng? You can do that, right? Come on, I never treated you badly, I never did anything to you.”

Zheng answered with a tilt of her head.

“Just don’t … don’t send me to Him,” Badger added, his eyes pleading with me.

“Him?” Twil asked.

Badger frowned and groaned. “Magnus Vigilator. Him. It. The Eye. Just fucking kill me already.”

“We’re not here to kill you,” I said. “Well, I’m not, at least.”

Badger managed to slump even further, like a building collapse. He rolled his eyes. “Well fuckin’ sit down then if you’re not gonna kill me, so I don’t have to keep looking up at you.”

I nodded. “Very well then.”

“Shaman,” Zheng purred in warning.

“Uhhh you sure that’s a good idea?” Twil asked.

But I stepped forward. I was not afraid of this broken man, or the teeth in his palm. I was a hundred times more frightening. I sat down on the cold plastic bench, smoothing my coat beneath my backside as I sat. Zheng and Twil hovered close, ready to leap in, but I shot them both a look to make my intentions clear.

Though I did keep a nice safe few feet between Badger and I. Beyond arm’s reach.

Badger stared at his hand, the mouth still turned toward the ground. I couldn’t see the lips moving anymore.

“Badger,” I said. “Or … ” I rummaged through my memory. “ … Nate?”

“How the hell do you remember that?” He frowned sidelong at me. I shrugged. “Just call me Badger. Only my parents call me Nathan.”

“Badger then. Badger, I need information.”

“Edward Lilburne sent us,” he said without hesitation. I struggled to contain my surprise at his instant surrender. “That’s what you wanted, right? The old goat had a job for us, another task before … ” His eyes went wide. “Oh … oh no.”

Badger straightened up, visible terror creeping through him like slow rot through dead flesh.

“What? What is it?!” Twil spat.

Zheng was suddenly turning every which way, staring out into the fog. “Shaman,” she rumbled. “We are too late.”

Badger had eyes only for his own hand. He turned it over slowly, shaking all over, his breath coming in short little gasps.

The grotesque mouth was gone, replaced by a shallow slash across his palm, still bleeding a thin trickle of crimson.

Badger squeezed his eyes shut in a grimace of such intense sorrow that I almost sympathised with him, with this man who had promised to cut Raine’s fingers off, twice tried to kidnap Lozzie, and was previously determined to send me back to the Eye. He hissed between his teeth in rising panic, tears running down his cheeks.

“Time to pay the piper?” I asked – though my own heart was pounding too.

“You want information?” he managed to squeeze out. “You best be bloody quick. Oh fuck, not like this, not like this!” He scrabbled for his knife – before recalling he’d dropped it back at the house. “Kill me!” he shouted at us. “Come on, fuck, don’t let me go like this, it’s not human, it’s not right. Please!”

“The hell is that smell?” Twil said, wrinkling her nose as she turned outward toward the fog. Bulges and eddies were forming in the swirling mist, around a dark spot which seemed to be getting bigger.

Shi zai chung wai de ren,” Zheng growled in Chinese. “Get up, shaman. We run.”

“Run?” I blinked at her in shock. Zheng, run? “No, we can’t, not now. Badger, Edward sent you, but where is he? Where did-”

But Badger was insensible, arms wrapped around himself, staring out at the fog, hyperventilating. His legs were vibrating against the plastic bench, as if he was desperate to move but fixed in place.

“Shaman!” Zheng reached back for me without taking her eyes off the fog. “This is beyond me. We are too late to the kill. Leave him.”

“Oh no,” Badger murmured.

A figure lumbered out of the fog.

Perhaps it had been human, once. Or perhaps it was simply failing to imitate a human.

Greasy pale flesh the colour and texture of rotten oats, hugely obese, with massive slab-like feet, hands as big as dinner plates, and shoulders wide as a car. Impossibly tall, nine or ten feet in height, a tower of pallid meat. Naked, completely naked and hairless, and there was something obscene about that, something intentional.

It had no head or neck. No facial features anywhere – except a drooling mouth in the palm it raised in silent greeting.

“Shaman, up!” Zheng roared, and pulled me to my feet.

The pale giant took a lumbering step toward us, and Badger screamed.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

a very great mischief – 13.9

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Everybody should experience being tackled to the ground, at least once. Preferably with a soft landing.

Perhaps not ‘being tackled to the ground by your werewolf friend only seconds before you maim or kill a person who (probably) does not deserve to die’. That part was all on me.

It is quite the humbling experience. Twil hit me from behind, shoulder ramming into the base of my ribs, arms looping around my middle, head tucked against my side. The impact knocked the wind out of me and scrambled the inside of my head before we even hit the ground. All one’s plans and thoughts get shaken apart like a snow globe. A hundred pounds of meat and muscle has slammed into you, so the brain drops back to basic survival instinct. Doesn’t matter if it’s your friend hitting you, doesn’t matter if you have a rugby ball in your hands, or six additional limbs tipped with pads of rotating bone hooks, everything stops and restarts from cold. It’s like being switched off and on again.

Which was exactly what I needed.

I went down face first in a tangle of limbs. The ground wasn’t too hard this time of year, not yet baked solid by summer sun, so the worst I got was a bruise on my chin and grass stains down my hoodie. My pneuma-somatic limbs and human arms alike lay stunned. Felt like minutes but it was only a second or two, as I lay there panting for breath and blinking at the grass suddenly so close to my face.

Twil knew what she was doing, and didn’t take any chances. She quickly let go of my midsection, sat up, planted her weight firmly on my backside, and pinned my shoulders to the ground.

“Er … Heather, right. Stay down, yeah?” she said.

My tentacles twitched and slapped at the ground. One of them followed a still-stuttering half-thought and reached forward for the boots of the ex-cultist woman in my peripheral vision.

“I can still-” I panted.

“Heather, fuck,” Twil grunted through her teeth. “Stay down.”

“ … okay.”

Predatory instinct and abyssal euphoria guttered out to almost nothing. I was in shock, at myself. If Twil hadn’t hit me that hard, would I have turned on her? Would I have tried to fight her too? Had I really been about to do the unthinkable?

Twil hadn’t actually hit me that hard, which probably saved me an injury. She hadn’t needed to run particularly fast to catch up, still well within normal human limits. No amount of abyssal instinct nor any number of additional limbs could overcome the fact that I was five foot nothing with a stride to match, and possessed the leg muscles of a medieval scribe. Raine could have caught me instead, if she hadn’t been slowed by her crutch; Lozzie could easily have matched me too, though she might have struggled to keep me pinned to the ground as Twil so easily did. By any reasonable standard I had taken a relatively long time to cross those fifty feet which had separated me from my cowering, wide-eyed, ex-cultist prey.

Which raised the question – why hadn’t she run?

I was too winded and too horrified at myself to realise the implication. Twil was too busy keeping me pinned to think of asking. Raine and Lozzie were two pairs of footsteps still hurrying across the grass to join us.

“Oh sh-shit,” I heard the ex-cultist stammer. She stumbled back, almost tripping over her own feet.

“You stay right fuckin’ there,” Twil growled at her – really growled, deep and low and dangerous, reverberating in her chest. To hear that so close, while pinned to the ground, was not a fun experience. Ancient ape instincts screamed warnings about predators. My bowels clenched up and my heart threatened to burst from my chest.

The Eye Loyalist was panting almost as hard as me. Sideways in my peripheral vision, framed by towering clouds in the void of blue sky above, I saw her shake her head.

Then, suddenly, Lozzie filled my vision, all pastel colours and floating strands of wispy blonde hair. She was on her knees in an instant, face right up to mine. A few remaining diminutive spirits clung to her poncho and shoulders, but they fled and scattered rather than stay close to me.

“Heathy, Heathy, it’s okay, no, no-no, it’s okay,” she whispered.

One of her hands went to my cheek, but the other went to one of my restless tentacles, quickly sliding up and along on a collision course with the pads of razor-sharp rotating hooks. Lozzie’s soft skin versus pneuma-somatic bone. There could be no contest; I retracted the hooks completely before she reached them. I folded them back below the pale luminescent flesh, put them away, and unmade them.

“Good girl,” Lozzie whispered for my ears alone. She was smiling, but it did not look easy.

“Oh God, oh fuck, oh fuck,” the ex-cultist was saying.

“Run and I’ll shoot you in the back,” Raine said.

I would have rolled my eyes at that, but I was too busy freaking out.

Raine spoke not a single decibel louder than normal, but somehow her voice cut through all indecision. I couldn’t see her from on the ground, but I knew she was a pace or two behind us.

Twil twisted round on top of me. “In public?! You fucking mad?!”

“Heather,” Raine said, “you okay? Lozzie said you have your tentacles out.”

“She’s an Eye cultist,” I panted, trying to twist my head to see Raine. “She is. I- I know it. She is!”

“Okay, I believe you. Are you okay?”

“I did it as gentle as I could,” Twil said.

“I’m … I’m … ” I managed, throat closing up, face burning. “I-I won’t … I won’t- I won’t hurt … I-”

“Let her up,” said Raine.

“You sure?” Twil asked.

“Yeah. And thanks, Twil. I mean it. Let her up.”

“Sorry Heather,” Twil mumbled as she let go and stood. She reached down to help me up.

But the second her weight was off me, I was already lurching to my feet, pneuma-somatic tentacles pushing me up, one hand in Twil’s, the rest of me wobbling into Lozzie’s arms. I was still panting, half with panic, half from the sprint, my face burning. The Eye Loyalist gasped and flinched back, as if afraid I was going to touch her.

Sensible woman.

Horror and guilt mingled into a sickening cocktail, spiced with abyssal euphoria. With my tentacles still manifested, I still felt inherently, elementally right, despite what I’d almost just done. I could not reconcile myself. I felt like I was about to fly apart. I hiccuped and panted, with nowhere to turn.

But none of us had time to think, let alone wallow in guilt.

“Want me to take her now?” Twil growled between her teeth, locked onto the ex-cultist lady.

“Wouldn’t risk it,” Raine said, low and soft, nodding at the little metal cylinder the woman was still holding out toward us in one shaking hand. “What’s that you got there, a pipe bomb?”

Now I was more than a guided missile of tooth and claw, I saw it clearly – a steel cylinder about the size of a commercial glow-stick, with a cap on either end. The middle was decorated with a trio of pronged symbols that made my eyes itch.

The ex-cultist, the Eye Loyalist, the lady who’d been watching us, the human being I’d been about to vivisect and devour, she was right on the edge of her own sanity, holding herself from the precipice by sheer willpower. She looked as if she’d been awake for a week straight and hadn’t eaten in a month, eyes bloodshot and ringed with dark bags, gaze darting between the four of us at high speed. Her complexion was almost grey beneath her dark skin, face gaunt with short term malnutrition. Her hair was pulled back in a long, unwashed, greasy ponytail, though her clothes were clean. Her breathing shook with adrenaline. She had no idea how to hold the penknife in her other hand.

“Heathy,” Lozzie whispered, and I blinked in surprise as a small hand squeezed the base of one of my pneuma-somatic tentacles. “Heathy you have to put them away put them away before you get tired and fall over, you have to put them away-away. Please please please. For me.”

Lozzie was right. I was burning through my energy reserves. A minute or two left, at most, before I crashed out.

“This wasn’t meant to happen, wasn’t meant to happen,” the Eye Loyalist babbled.

“Fuckin’ ‘ey,” Twil grunted. “How about you drop your shit and I won’t break you in half?”

“A lot wasn’t meant to happen,” Raine said. “Lower whatever that is and we’ll have a nice little chat, okay? We just wanna know why you’re watching us. Maybe this is all a big misunderstanding. Maybe you were just here by chance. Come on, we’re all in public. Somebody’s gonna walk by any second, or somebody’s gonna spot us doing this. Lower the weapon. We ain’t gonna hurt you.”

“How does that jive with ‘run and I’ll shoot you in the back’?” Twil grunted.

“S’just how I roll,” Raine said.

The cultist swallowed hard and wet her lips, like she was about to say something. But then her eyes flickered past us, to the left and the right.

She made no attempt to hide the glance, no effort to be subtle. She wasn’t trained, or experienced, or the least bit capable of what she’d set out to do today, and it was that glance which convinced me. She’d held her ground before me not with courage, but with exhaustion and lack of options. Abyssal instinct dismissed her in that moment, read her as a liability to her own cause, a floundering pup. She was a normal person, who had once led a normal life, and no idea what she was doing.

Neither did the other two.

They closed on us from behind, at diagonal angles, forming a rough triangle with the young woman. That was the only competent thing they’d done, watching us from three equidistant spots.

Lozzie clamped herself to my side and clung onto my arm. She was shaking like a leaf. My tentacles hugged her close on pure instinct, while the others threw up a warning display. Of course, nobody but her and I could see that.

The second Eye Loyalist was already quite close. He drew to a stop about twenty paces away. He’d probably been waiting back among the trees that lined this side of the park. A black gentleman, perhaps in his fifties or even sixties, with greying hair but built solidly the way a lifetime of casual exercise does to a person – but he was drained inside, eyes exhausted and face sagging with incredible stress. He wore a dark green raincoat and had one hand in a pocket, pointing something at us without revealing it, but his expression did not communicate threat. Wide-eyed, cold sweat rolling down his forehead, his other hand raised in a placating gesture. He was absolutely terrified, even more than the young woman, and it did not take a rocket scientist to figure out why. They shared an obvious family resemblance, in the eyes and mouth and jawline.

A third ex-cultist jogged across the grass from the other side, and skidded to a halt.

He looked like a slightly aged-up version of a stereotypical teenage drug dealer, with little twists of dark hair escaping from under a beanie hat. Shaking inside a lumpy hoodie, a closed folding knife held in both hands in front of him, he clearly had no idea what to do – except lock eyes with me in exasperated mutual recognition.

Even with his face covered in scraggly self-neglect beard growth, the animal impression was as strong as it had been at the top of Glasswick Tower.

“Badger?” I blurted out.

Badger just sighed.

“Fuck!” Twil spat.

“Woah, woah,” Raine said, holding up her free hand, addressing everyone as she stood tall even with her crutch. “Let’s not get too close, yeah? Let’s all keep this nice and cool.”

The older gentleman began to nod.

“Screw cool, man,” Badger said to him, voice shaking, manic and almost spitting his words. “We gotta get this done, right now, man, we gotta get this done.”

“Hey, you, badger-face,” Raine said, sudden and sharp. “I remember you, from that house, with the rest of the cult. You made it out, right? Smart man. You wanna be smart here too, this isn’t worth your life.”

“My life’s in the shitter,” he hissed back, then glanced to the older guy. “What do we do now, dude? Richie, come on, what do we do?”

“Nothing,” the older gentleman – Richie – said, voice strained to absolute breaking point. Cold sweat rolled down his face and he almost seemed to be struggling to breathe. “We do nothing. Okay?” His eyes flicked to the young woman – his daughter, his niece, granddaughter? “Why aren’t you running?”

She just shook her head, wide-eyed. “I-I … ”

“If she runs, I’ll shoot her in the back,” Raine repeated, casual as talking about the weather. She slipped her free hand inside her jacket and pointed something at the woman – her fingers or her handgun, I couldn’t tell.

Richie gritted his teeth and glanced left and right – checking to see if other people were too close to us – and then showed the edge of what he was gripping inside his raincoat pocket. A revolver. The sliver of revealed metal almost looked rusty. He shoved it back in his pocket and pointed it at Raine again.

“You do that,” he told her, voice shaking. “And I’ll shoot you too. Swear to God, I will do it.”

“Any of you try anything, I’ll rip your fucking heads off!” Twil growled.

“Who the fuck is she?” Badger nodded at Twil.

“I have no idea,” Richie said between clenched teeth.

“You can’t shoot Raine,” I spoke up, then hiccuped once, “because I can stop bullets.”

Badger and Richie shared a glance. Badger nodded. Richie drew a hand across his face.

“That is true,” Richie said. “We- we know that’s true. She can. She’s done it before. Look,” he said to us. “Look, we’ve made a mistake-”

“Mistake?” I hissed, anger mounting, outrage barely kept in check, abyssal instinct beginning to scream at me to pull these people apart where they stood. “You’re still doing the Eye’s bidding, like Saturday morning cartoon villains. You came here to kidnap me and send me back to it and you don’t even know what you’re doing.”

Richie and Badger shared another glance. Something was wrong. Raine shifted her footing, and I could feel the violence approaching.

“There’s no need for anybody to die here today,” Richie said, making a placating gesture with one hand. “Let’s just-”

“Bugger this,” Badger spat. He fumbled to open his folding knife, but only managed to cut himself in the process, yelping and shaking his hand. He sucked on the tiny wound, grimacing.

“You gotta press the little release catch,” Raine pointed out. “Then the blade is free to move. And don’t pull it open toward your body.”

Badger scowled at her, then down at his knife, then shoved it in his pocket. “Richie, we can do this right now. Come on, man,” he said.

Richie shook his head.

“We could!” the young woman piped up. Too close. I rounded on her, a hiss in my throat.

“Don’t let her touch you!” Richie called out.

The ex-cultist lady tripped back and almost went sprawling in the grass, stumbling and righting herself like a woman before a rabid dog, biting down on a scream. She waved her tiny pen-knife in front of herself to ward me off.

“Hey, hey,” Raine raised her voice. “We’re in public, in the middle of Yare park, in broad daylight. The university’s right there,” she pointed, “and there’s plenty of people within shouting distance. One of us starts screaming, this is done. And if you still wanna rumble while there’s people watching, we can make bodies vanish with no fuss. Heather’ll just send you Outside.” She nodded at me. “Who’s going to believe a witness claiming three people just vanished into thin air?”

“Yes,” I hissed – and realised I was almost at the end of my reserves. A hollow space was forming inside my chest, a spiritual abscess, even as adrenaline pulsed through my arteries.

“She can’t get us all,” Badger said. “Right? Right? All we need is to grab her and reach the car.”

“You’ll never get there, dickwad,” Twil growled at him. He flinched.

Raine made eye contact with Richie, who had spoken the most sense so far. “I’m gonna let you leave. Back away, right now.”

“Dad,” the young woman whined. “We can’t. We can’t! I can’t do this anymore.”

“You promise you won’t come after us?” Richie’s throat bobbed. His eyes flicked to the young woman.

Raine took a beat to answer – a beat too long, because Twil got there first.

“Fat chance,” Twil growled.

“Come on then, dude, we do this, right now, right now,” Badger said, trying to work himself up.

“We’ve fucked up, mate,” Richie said. “Just run!”

Badger, sweating and shaking at the end of his rope, did just that. He broke and ran – straight at me.

Richie swore and drew the revolver from his pocket.

I got halfway into the dripping molten fragments of a physics-breaking hyperdimensional equation at the speed of thought, before I realised the gun was a bluff. The weapon was a rusted shell, didn’t even have a cylinder. Richie levelled it just long enough – the blink of an eye – to give cover for his daughter to pick up her feet and run. Raine was still in the process of half-drawing her own weapon when Richie broke and ran too, sprinting back toward the tree-line and the edge of the park.

Twil jerked one way – after her fleeing prey – and then the other, in the split-second that Badger bore down on us.

Reeling from aborted brainmath, with sudden nosebleed running down my face, energy almost spent, I whirled my tentacles to face him. I thrust Lozzie away too, clear of whatever he was going to attempt.

Madness, sheer madness that he’d even try to grab me. The moment he made contact I would send him Outside.

But then he veered, almost tripped, corrected his course. He wasn’t aiming for me at all.

He was going for Lozzie.

I think Lozzie tried to Slip, on instinct, like a bird trying to take flight and discovering the stubs of its own wings. Her eyes unfocused and this horrible shiver passed through her, a spasm that started in her head and shot down her spine, as if she was about to suffer a epileptic fit. But of course, she couldn’t go. Instead she screamed and scrambled back toward me and I felt like such an idiot for pushing her away. Abyssal instinct responded with new hooks of bone and a hiss to shatter glass and was I fully prepared to rip Badger’s arms off and pop his head like a grape and-

And Twil’s fist caught him in the jaw. Span him over like rag doll. He went down very undramatically, and somehow lost his beanie hat in the process.

Lozzie slammed into my side and stayed there, clinging on tight.

“That’s what you get, shitface!” Twil swung at Badger again as he scrambled to his feet, knocking him in the ribs as he scrabbled for the knife in his pocket. He managed to draw it, but Twil knocked it from his hands and he staggered back, blinked at her twice, then turned and ran.

Twil let out a growl and sprinted after him – but she got less than three paces.

“Twil!” Raine snapped – hard and angry, not like her usual self. “Stop.”

Twil obliged, skidding to a stop like a cartoon.

“But he’s-”

“Raine, no!” I blurted out in panic, burbling through nosebleed and the urge to vomit. “We need one of them. Twil, get him!”

“We need to move, right now, people are going to start asking questions,” Raine said quickly, nodding at distant figures in the park. Richie and his daughter were already gone, but a jogger on one of the pathways had stopped running, and was looking our way with his hands on his hips. The day-drinking student picnic were all looking in our direction as well.

“We have to go home, and we have to walk there,” said Raine. She crossed the few paces to me as I wobbled and blinked and felt my tentacles beginning to collapse, my energy running out.

“Then go!” Twil said. “They’re getting away!”

“They are!” I said. “They- ahhh, oh, aahhhh.”

The pain started in my sides, tentacles collapsing into pneuma-somatic ash from the tips downward. Lozzie shivered and whimpered, clinging to me, and that was the only thing which kept me on my feet. Raine grabbed me under the arm, lent me her support.

“I’m on a crutch,” she said to Twil. “Heather’s about to collapse. That might not have been the last of them. I need you to help.”

Twil glanced after Badger, who was almost at the little turn where the pathway vanished around a copse of trees. Another twenty seconds and he’d be at the park gates, and then out into Sharrowford’s streets. Twil grit her teeth and made a huffing noise, a hound straining on her leash.

Lances of pain stabbed into my sides, muscles seizing up as the tentacles’ support structures pulled themselves free from my flesh and fell away into nothingness.

“No … ” I whined through my teeth.

“What are you gonna do if you catch him?” Raine said quickly. “Beat answers out of him in broad daylight? Don’t run off, Twil.”

Twil finally sighed and nodded, the tension flowing out of her as she shook herself, standing down. “Shit, yeah, okay. Let’s get you all home first. Shit.”

With the last of my energy, with the ghost of a tentacle, merely phantom limb once more, with tenderised muscle and shredded cell walls and bruised ribs, I reached out toward the distant fleeing figure of Badger. He ducked around the trees and put himself beyond our power to catch.

Then the edges of my vision throbbed dark. I keened between my teeth at the pain in my torso, and almost passed out.


Lozzie cried for hours.

She held it together until we got back to the house, sniffing and wiping at her red-rimmed eyes, doing her best to add her attention to Raine’s and Twil’s as we hurried home. I was no good, Twil practically had to carry me, and it was minor miracle that nobody paid us too much attention, what with my nosebleed and the fact I could barely work my legs and the one time I had to stop along Bluebell Road to vomit into the gutter.

But as soon as we got home, as soon as the door was locked and Raine was calling Evelyn at campus to tell her what had happened, as soon as Zheng appeared at the merest hint of my pain on the air, as soon as Twil zipped about the house checking the locks, Lozzie broke down crying.

She retreated to her bedroom, with Tenny, and buried herself under the covers, crying into her pillow. Even exhausted and bruised and aching inside, I insisted on seeing her as soon as Raine had helped clean my face and forced me to drink a pint of water.

Perhaps Lozzie’s distress kept me together. Perhaps it was easier to think about her than myself.

I stroked her hair as she sobbed into her pillow, at the end of my own energy too, tender and aching and with the ghost of bile in my throat, Raine half propping me up. Tenny sat on the end of the bed, po-faced and lost and not quite understanding. After an hour Lozzie finally calmed down and slipped off into an uneasy sleep, the only escape still open to her. I went down too, dragged under by exhaustion and a helping from Evelyn’s stash of painkillers.

“You keep her company,” Raine murmured, kissing me on the forehead as she tucked a blanket around my shoulders. “You need rest too. Don’t worry about anything, we’ll keep watch.”

“But … ” I mumbled back through sleep and pain. “But Twil’s … if she finds … ”

“If Twil drags anything back with her, I’ll wake you. Promise.”

The next eight hours descended into a blur of animal instinct and shared body heat and stiffening bruises that denied me any true sleep. I’d kept my tentacles active far too long, drained myself right to empty, and painkillers could not fight every twinge and ache as the bruises set in. I curled around Lozzie as her big spoon, and tried not to move too much, drifting in and out of consciousness.

But some hours later Lozzie got up to go to the toilet, and I woke to find myself wrapped in Zheng’s arms instead, soaking in her ambient body heat. Her hunt must have come up cold. Tenny was nowhere to be seen either. When Lozzie didn’t return, I pulled my aching carcass from between Zheng’s arms and out of bed, hissing pain between my teeth.

“Rest, shaman,” Zheng rumbled. “You are spread thin.”

“Lozzie’s been too long,” I slurred.

Zheng did not argue further. After a sleep-addled stumble through the unlit upstairs hallway while the house brooded in shadows, we found Lozzie huddled on the bathroom floor. The moment we saw her she did that little shake again, the unfocused eyes and the shiver in the head that told me she was trying to Slip.

But she couldn’t. Still restrained by the ghostly dead hands around her ankles, the grasping of a hyperdimensional phantom across the membrane between here and Outside. She started crying all over again, burying her head between her knees.

Zheng scooped her up like she weighed nothing, and carried her back to bed.

She cried for another hour, perhaps, until we lulled her back to sleep.

I didn’t blame her, and if anyone had I would have slapped them. Our trip to the park was meant for her, a brief sally of freedom to punctuate the long unspoken siege, and it had ended with a kidnapping attempt. A clumsy failure of an attempt, but it had reminded her of just how trapped she was, and what was waiting for her if we ever let down our guard.

And now she couldn’t rely on me either. I had pushed her away – that it was mistaken didn’t matter – and when she’d tried to escape, she’d found her wings clipped.

And she’d had to help control me.

I tried not to think about that part, but snatches of nightmare broke through the pain and exhaustion. Sleep came and went in fits and starts, and I dreamed of my own hands covered greasy grey brain matter as I rooted around inside a shattered skull.

Energy dripped back, filling the cold void in my chest with something except my own pulped flesh.

Hunger woke me eventually. Deep, gnawing, hollow-belly hunger that set my hands shaking before I’d even finished sitting up in Lozzie’s bed.

“Lozzie?” I croaked into the dark, but she slept on, breathing slow and even.

Zheng was gone, but somebody had tucked me in snug and warm, and Tenny had appeared on the opposite side of the bed, silken black tentacles wrapped around Lozzie’s hands and hips. She was asleep too. Past the foot of the bed, the television cast jagged blue light over the low table and Tenny’s toys, with a video game paused on the screen.

The hunger was overwhelming. I simply had to eat. There was no way I was leaving Lozzie to wake up by herself, so I don’t know what I would have done if we’d been alone – stuck my head out of the bedroom door and squawked for food like a baby bird? But with Tenny curled up by her side, I didn’t feel too much guilt when I wriggled out of bed, leaving Lozzie to stir and murmur against my sudden absence. Though I did have to pause and stay very still for several long moments, as I swallowed a gasp of pain at the stiff bruises blossoming across my flanks, the slow rolling deep aches stabbing into my sides, while simultaneously trying not to quiver too hard with hunger shakes.

I felt like an ancient shrivelled vampire rising from a tomb, as I cracked the door open and shuffled out into the upstairs hallway, my sides creaking like old leather.

The hallway was dark, but cold clear moonlight spilled in through the open curtains, turning the wooden surfaces of Number 12 Barnslow Drive into ephemeral silver. I’d slept the day away. Missed class.

Such a bad girl, Heather. What would your mother say? Skipping classes, trying to commit murder, and torture, and worse. Bad girl.


Abyssal instinct drew me to the window. I stared down at the street, silvered by moonlight between hazy orange puddles beneath the street lamps. I scanned for tell-tale shadows cast by waiting predators, or the stealthy lumps of hidden bottom-feeders, or anything out of place. The muscles around my eyes twitched oddly, and I had to screw them up when I realised I’d attempted to blink nictitating membranes I did not possess.

Food smells made my stomach rumble like a tar pit, and drew me downstairs. I had to take the steps carefully, one at a time, descending into the cavernous space of the front room where spars of moonlight broke the inky darkness, and the far end was flooded with warmth spilling out from the kitchen doorway.

Deja vu struck me, for the second time today.

I’d done this before, months and months ago, when Raine had first brought me to this house. Crept downstairs in the dark, aching and bruised, drawn by the smell of food.

Was I still the same person? Had I become a monster yet?

Too hungry to think about that right then. The soft machine demanded fuel, ape and abyss and Heather all agreed on that.

I shuffled into the warmth and light of the kitchen, following my nose and the sounds of soft conversation. Five pairs of eyes rose to greet me.

“Heather! Hey, you’re up!” Raine was up too and out of her seat, almost forgoing her crutch in her haste to reach me.

“Yo,” Twil said, raising a hand. She was sat on the far side of the kitchen table and looking extremely awkward, like a teenager forced to endure a dinnertime argument between her parents.

“Shaman,” Zheng rumbled, leaning against the wall like she was propping up the whole house. She reached over and placed one hand on the top of my head, and I felt my muscles relax in sympathetic pleasure.

Praem said nothing, just standing off to one side of Evelyn with her hands clasped before her. Evelyn raised an eyebrow at me, waiting while Raine pressed a hand to my forehead and gave me a hug and peered into my eyes to make sure I was truly awake and truly here.

“You with us, yeah?” Raine asked. “Heather?”

“Mmm,” I grunted. “I’m … here, I’m just … sides hurt. Bruises.”

Post-meal debris was scattered across the kitchen table – a crock pot still half-full of chicken stew, thick with gravy, alongside some leftover rice at the bottom of a pan, and four dirty plates. Four? Had Zheng joined the others for dinner? That or Praem, I don’t know which seemed more unlikely.

“How are you feeling?” Evelyn asked eventually.

“Hungry,” I croaked.

Raine laughed. Twil laughed too, but it sounded forced. Evelyn huffed a snort, but that was enough for me.

I let Raine guide me to a chair while Praem reheated a very generous portion of rice and stew, and Twil found an excuse to hop up and hover about and get in Praem’s way. That first helping of rice and chicken and thick chunky vegetables barely registered on my palate, I ate so fast, and didn’t fill me up in the slightest. I sat there blinking and half-awake while Praem fetched another.

As hunger started to abate, my mind came back. That’s when I realised everyone was both quiet and tense. Twil was sneaking awkward glances at me. Evelyn was staring at her phone on the table. Zheng was brooding – which was normal, so that didn’t count. Raine was quiet too, which spooked me. She noticed my pause after the first bite of my second bowl of food.

“It’s okay to slow down a bit,” she said with a warm smile.

“ … what’s happened?” I croaked.

That roused Evelyn. She took a deep breath, sighed, and gestured at her phone, her other hand rubbing at her aching hip in an unconscious gesture.

“We’re all on the edge of our seats,” she said, with faux-sarcasm. “Nicole Webb called fifteen minutes ago, to let us know she was about to begin. If everything is going to plan, she’s already elbow-deep in Harold Yuleson’s files. If not, well … ” She gestured at the phone again.

“Then we’re ready to move,” Raine said, quiet and confident, with a wink for me. “But my bet is we won’t have to. Nicky knows what she’s about.”

“Oh,” I managed. “Oh, it’s really that late?”

“Mm, past ten.” Evelyn eyed me oddly, as if waiting for something else, a cold curiosity in her eyes.

A lump grew in my throat. I opened my mouth to say something – to beg forgiveness, to apologise, to sob, I don’t know. I never got there.

“Hey, uh,” Twil piped up, having obvious difficulty in the way of a teenager trying to ask their crush on a date. “Heather, are you … like … are you alright?”

I blinked at her, my guilt briefly short-circuited. “ … mostly. I think. Thank you for asking though.”

Twil’s throat bobbed. In the corner of my eye, I saw Zheng’s face crack into a truly shit-eating grin, showing all her teeth. Twil shot her a scowl, but that only served to make the grin pull wider.

“Shut up, zombie,” Twil growled.

“I did not speak a word,” said Zheng.

“Oh for pity’s sake, Twil,” Evelyn huffed. “Just say it. You’re not a coward.”

“Everyone just shut the fuck up, okay?” Twil said, then cleared her throat. She wet her lips and grimaced at me. “I mean, like, I did have to tackle you. Are you … are we … I’m sorry. Sorry, yeah!” She lit up. “I’m trying to apologise, right. Sorry.”

“Oh. Um … that’s the last thing I was thinking about,” I admitted. “There’s no hard feelings. We’re okay.”

“I did it textbook like,” Twil went on, grimacing. “Best I could. Tried not to bounce your skull or anything or-”

“Twil, there’s no need to apologise,” I said.

She opened her mouth to carry on, but then stopped and nodded. “Just didn’t wanna actually hurt you. You’re kinda small and fragile, you know?”

I actually laughed a little, a tiny giggle. “Twil, you’re barely taller than me.”

“The shaman is not fragile,” Zheng purred.

“Yeah yeah.” Twil waved us off, blushing. “You know what I mean. Heather’s like, petite. Felt weird hurting her.”

“Besides,” I sighed, looking down at my second bowl of stew, feeling as if I did not deserve food. “I did more damage to myself than you ever could.”

Raine squeezed my shoulder.

“Quite,” said Evelyn, very unimpressed.

Zheng made a low growling sound in her throat – at Evelyn.

“Down,” Praem intoned. I shook my head too, I would not have them fight over this principle. Zheng trailed off with a grudging snort. Awkward silence fell, and I wanted to curl up and go back to sleep.

“What happened this morning, Heather?” Evelyn asked eventually.

Raine opened her mouth with a soft click, but Evelyn’s hand chopped the air to cut her off.

“Shush,” Praem intoned for her.

“In your own words,” Evelyn added. “Raine and Twil have both told me what they saw already. What happened?”

I looked up into those big blue eyes with their stress lines. Evelyn was impossible to lie to. I respected her too much, liked her too much. And in that moment, that moment in which Raine and Zheng would make any excuse for me and Twil was too accepting to push back, I realised how much I needed Evelyn to like me too.

“I was going to take that woman apart,” I said. I expected my voice to shake, but it came out plain and even. “I was going to use a tentacle, stick it into her head and hollow out her thoughts, I suppose. Dig out the Eye’s secrets. Core her like an apple.”

‘Shit,’ Twil mouthed silently. Raine rubbed my back. Evelyn stared at me, unreadable.

“I don’t have an excuse,” I went on. “Instinct told me what to do, but … I wanted to do it. I made a promise, and then I tried to break it. Because I’m turning into … ”

“You are not becoming a monster,” Raine said, and I flinched slightly at the whip-crack in her voice.

“Yeah, I mean, shit,” Twil added with an awkward smile. “Humans do horrible things to each other all the same. Er, I mean, not that … horrible, uh … ”

“Why the tentacle in the head?” Evelyn asked, eyes hungry with curiosity.

I shrugged. “I don’t know. It just came over me. The logic of it made sense.” I laughed once, a humourless sound which threatened to turn into a sob. “Maybe that’s what the Eye does. Maybe that was another one of its lessons.”

Evelyn sighed heavily. “I would say that you and I need to have a talk, but I suspect you’re beating yourself up worse than I ever could.”

I nodded, hanging my head.

“Look,” Evelyn said. “None of us disapprove of trying to kill these people-”

“Hey, hey,” Raine piped up with a smirk. “Badger’s made it this far. Dude’s a survivor, big respect. If I catch him I’ll beat him black and blue, but I won’t kill the guy.” She cleared her throat, and added under her breath, “‘less I have to.”

Evelyn rolled her eyes.

“I don’t want to kill them either,” I said. “Not after what we saw. They were just regular people, Evee. They were so scared of me. Of us.”

Evelyn wet her lips and huffed. “Well, good. Fine. I suppose. My point is, you-”

“Almost crossed a line, yes. I know.” I bit down on my lower lip.

“The predator does what it must,” Zheng purred. I tried to give her a scowl, but she met my eyes with such placid calm I couldn’t keep it up. “Do you blame the wolf or the bear, for eating, shaman? You are real, you cannot live forever on tinned meat without facing the truth.”

Evelyn thumped an elbow on the table and put her forehead in her hand. “Yes, thank you for keeping the message coherent, Zheng.”

Zheng shrugged, unconcerned. “The shaman will not bring herself harm by following her nature.”

“I almost did,” I hissed.

“But hey, Heather,” Raine said. “You didn’t. That’s what we’re all here for, right? Help each other keep promises.”

My anger boiled over in a sudden flash. “I wouldn’t even be in this position if Edward Lilburne didn’t have our fucking book!”

Everyone stared at me. I blinked several times, red in the face, not knowing where to turn my eyes. Then I hiccuped twice in quick succession.

“Holy shit,” Twil whispered. “She swore.”

“Well, it’s true!” I snapped again. “He probably doesn’t even know why we need it, doesn’t understand that he’s delaying everything, that he’s holding up-” I huffed through my nose. “So I’m scratching for any advantage, anything at all, and I’m willing to hurt people and commit horrible acts, yes. Because we don’t have the book so we can’t safely face the Eye so I have to grow claws. And he must have sent those people. He must have! For Lozzie. I won’t have it! I won’t!”

I felt like punching the table, but that would only have earned me another bruise. Instead I sat there taking deep breaths while Raine rubbed my back. Zheng stepped over and put a huge hand on my head as well, and I slipped out of anger and into sheer exhaustion.

“That part I agree with,” Evelyn said softly.

“Snap,” said Twil.

“These two have both been hunting,” Raine said with a nod at Twil and Zheng. “But they didn’t turn anything up, not near the park, and not near the house. Those three clowns who came at us, I think we terrified ‘em. I doubt they’re gonna try again. Don’t worry about Lozzie, okay?”

“You don’t know that,” Twil said, then shut her mouth at Raine’s warning smirk.

“I appreciate the effort,” I said. “But it’s hard to feel reassured right now. I’m sorry.”

“There is a very serious question here, which none of us have asked yet,” Evelyn said, slowly and carefully.

“What’s that, general?” Raine asked. Evelyn rolled her eyes, but went on nonetheless.

“How could anybody know you were going to be at the park this morning?” she asked.

Evelyn’s mobile phone chose that exact moment to light up with an incoming call, vibrating against the table and playing an anime theme song as the ring tone. She jumped, I jumped, Twil jerked round. Evelyn slapped the ‘answer call’ button.

“Speak,” she said.

“In, out, in, out, shake it all about,” Nicole’s voice came from the phone’s speaker, made tinny and electronic, but singing with pure exuberance. “You do the hokey-cokey and you turn around, and that’s what it’s all about! Wheeeey!”

We all looked at each other, except Evelyn who frowned at the phone as if it had turned into a live frog. Raine burst out laughing.

“Miss Saye? Hello?” Nicole tried again, a little breathless.

“What the fuck was that?” Evelyn spat. “Where are you? What’s happened?”

“I’m sitting in my car,” came Nicole’s voice again. She did not sound like herself. She sounded like Nicole Webb processed through a kilo of cocaine. “Safe and sound, with one cloned computer hard drive and a stack of photocopies of everything and anything I could grab, and a gut absolutely saturated with adrenaline. Yeah!”

A slap resounded down the phone, Nicole hitting her car’s steering wheel with the palm of her hand.

“Well done Nicky!” Raine cheered. “Hell yeah, girl.”

I sighed with relief too. At least we were getting somewhere.

“Thank you so much, Nicky,” I added.

“Thank you, thank you. I’ll be here all week. Actually no, I’ll be reading these documents, but first I need to go pick up a lot – and I do mean a lot – of weed, and get very fucking stoned, thank you very much, ladies.” She let out a long breath, suddenly slowing down. “Actually sod that, I’m gonna sit on the toilet for an hour. This is not glamorous. I am getting too old to start a new career as a burglar.”

“Have you made it look like a break in?” Evelyn asked.

“Yeah, like we said. Cleared out their petty cash, just a couple of hundred. I don’t think we’ll fool somebody like Yuleson, but whatever.”

“Send me another message when you’re home safe,” Evelyn said. “And Nicole, thank you. I appreciate a job well done.”

“Haha!” Nicole laughed. “And thank you for paying me, because fuck doing this for free. Signing off for now.”

Evelyn ended the phone call and we all breathed a collective sigh of relief. Zheng purred like a huge, satisfied cat.

“That’s more than enough excitement for one day,” Evelyn said, leaning back in her chair. She rotated her neck, which made her spine click three times. “Heather, do you think we could do anything for Lozzie? To make her feel any more safe-”

But Evelyn never got to finish that sentence. She cut off in surprise as three of us – me, Praem, and Zheng – all turned to look at the top of the open doorway to the magical workshop.

One of the spider-servitors, all black chitin and waving stingers and crystalline eyes flickering in the light, came scuttling out of the doorway upside down, shooting across the ceiling with surprising speed. I flinched and almost yelped, I’d forgotten how fast the things could move when they needed to. The armoured servitor crossed the ceiling as Zheng showed all her teeth, but it wasn’t going for her.

It vanished through the opposite doorway, into the little utility room.

“Heather? What was that?” Evelyn demanded.

“Woah, yeah, hey-” Twil was saying. Raine was already tense all over, ready to move. She knew.

“Spiders,” Praem intoned, and pointed very accurately so Evelyn would know where it went.

“On the move,” Zheng purred, as the second one shot from the workshop doorway as well, sideways along the wall and into the front room. Praem pointed again.

Evelyn stared for a moment, eyes wide at nothing. Our gazes met.

“Something’s here,” I said.

“Yes,” she agreed, gone quite pale in the face, swallowing hard. “Something has crossed the boundary of the house, at the front wall or the back garden.”

Raine was already on her feet, grabbing something from inside her jacket on the back of her chair. Zheng was three paces away in an instant, loping toward the back door. Twil bared her teeth in a growl. Praem stepped closer to Evelyn. My eyes went to the ceiling, up to where Lozzie was still sleeping.

I pushed the chair back and stood up, wobbly but mobile, intending to go her – and that’s when I saw him.

In the back garden, visible through the small kitchen window, picked out by the moonlight like an idiot standing on a ridge in the middle of a battlefield; crouched in the grass, as if that would make any difference.

Badger saw me looking, and froze.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

a very great mischief – 13.8

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On Monday morning I kept the easiest of the many promises I had made; I took Lozzie to the park.

And while we were there, I came within a hair’s breadth of breaking a different promise – and almost broke myself in the process.

Strictly speaking, Raine and Twil took Lozzie and I to the park. We could hardly go wandering around Sharrowford unaccompanied. Though I was technically capable of supernatural self-defense up to and including cold-blooded murder without a trace, such feats of hyperdimensional mathematics always came at a cost. We couldn’t discount the idea of Edward Lilburne sending a sacrificial pawn to draw my attention, before trying to kidnap Lozzie once I was busy regurgitating my breakfast. With Lozzie unable to slip Outside at will, her natural escape route was cut off. Like a bird with clipped wings.

Neither of us could risk going anywhere alone, but we weren’t going to let that stop us living. We had Raine’s handgun and Twil’s claws for protection.

Raine was happy to get out of the house too. She relished the opportunity to stretch her muscles, to prove to herself she hadn’t become a long-term invalid, despite still needing the crutch.

She hadn’t been to the gym since the bullet wound, denied her usual routine of exercise – one I’d watched a couple of times, when she’d dragged me to the gym in the very early stages of our relationship. Back then she’d baited me with the implicit promise of her own body, the sight of her getting sweaty, a temptation I fully and proudly admit as one of my many weaknesses. These last couple of weeks, she’d attempted some limited routines at home, push ups and crunches and such, and somehow dragged me into participating again.

Not that I had any complaints.

“Gotta keep the core muscles conditioned. That goes fast if you’re not careful,” she’d told me, before discovering that each push up sent a jagged spike of pain down her injured thigh.

She still beat my precisely three reps.

In the end she’d settled for lifting her small set of hand weights, sitting on the edge of the bed and working her upper body with methodical, meditative precision. I’d never had the opportunity to watch that up close before, and I found the motion of her back muscles quite hypnotic.

Twil proved a little more difficult. Lozzie had made the request, but I delegated the ‘call Twil’ part to myself. Then I discovered, on Sunday morning with phone in hand, that I had no idea what to say. I’d never invited a friend to ‘hang out’ before. I’d never had friends in that way. If I wanted to talk to Evelyn, she was in the same building most of the time, I could knock on her bedroom door. If I needed to see Lozzie, she was always right there. How was this supposed to work?

In the end I sent her a text message.

Hello Twil. It’s me, Heather. Lozzie and Raine and I are going to the park tomorrow. Would you like to come with us? Only if you are free, of course.

I read the message over three times, changed the wording twice, and it still felt awfully stuffy when I hit send. Less than thirty seconds later I received a reply which consisted of a string of emotes and three acronyms.

“Um,” I’d said out loud, blinking at my phone as it lay on the kitchen table.

Evelyn, halfway through the process of supervising Praem’s construction of a sandwich large enough to use for a doorstop, frowned sharply over at the phone and let out a sigh. “I assume that’s Twil?”

“ … there’s no actual words in this.” I stared at the message like a magic-eye picture, but it still didn’t make sense.

“Give it here.” Evelyn marched over and all but snatched the phone out of my hands, tucking her walking stick into the crook of her arm as her fingers flew across the touchscreen. Behind her, Praem paused with a slab of cheese in one hand.

“Don’t tell her off, Evee, please,” I said.

“I’m used to this. Sometimes she needs a kick in the backside. There.” Evelyn slapped the phone back into my waiting hands.

She had sent a message.

Heather doesn’t speak your live-laugh-love-poisoned deep fried. Use real words.

“I don’t understand what that means either,” I told Evelyn.

“Good,” she said. “Best keep it that way.”

“Do you want to come to the park too, Evee?” I asked. “The last thing I’d want to do is leave you out, especially if you’d like to hang out with Twil.”

“Ehhhh.” Evelyn frowned and waved the suggestion away like a bad smell. “I’m not really the park-going type. Besides, I have a lecture at eleven tomorrow.”

“Do you want Twil to hang out afterward? Back here? I’m sure she’d be happy to.”

“She needs to get back to studying,” Evelyn grunted.

I caught Praem’s milk-white eyes over Evelyn’s shoulder. The doll-demon was not going to say it, so I did.

“Is that the only reason?” I asked, making my voice as innocent as I could.

Evelyn sighed. “ … no, but I’d rather not go into detail right now. Even with you. It’s just, I don’t know what to do with her. But thank you, Heather. You’re too sweet and none of us deserve you.”

“Sweet,” Praem echoed.

I blushed and frowned down at the phone. “That’s not … well, I … Evee, you-”

Twil saved me. The phone buzzed in my hands, and the first message was filled with herky-jerky panic, obvious even via text.

Evee is that you???? Sorry! Sorry, you know it’s just how I am! What are you doing on Heather’s phone? Something up?

I concentrated on a measured reply-slash-apology, and eventually made myself clear.

It’s nothing special or important,’ I messaged her. ‘We’re just going to hang out in the park together for an hour or so. It’s okay if you don’t want to come or if you don’t have the time to spare. Evelyn wants me to remind you that you are very busy in the run-up to exam season and it’s okay to say no. Lozzie specifically wanted to see you, but I’m sure she can wait.

And all I got back was a ‘Loz? Sure! What time?


We left the house around nine thirty on Monday morning, just after Twil turned up, but not before she bounded upstairs to see Evelyn. Raine and I exchanged a knowing glance as Twil called Evelyn’s name at the top of the stairs, and was answered by a distant grumble.

“Don’t make out for too long!” Raine called.

I nudged her gently in the side. “Don’t.”

“What?” Raine shot me a grin and gestured at Lozzie. “Somebody’s liable to pop if we wait much longer. Twil doesn’t have time for a snuggle.”

She wasn’t wrong. We’d visited the castle yesterday to sit at the windows for half an hour and watch the strange alien life in the streets below, to recharge Lozzie’s metaphysical batteries. It showed.

Lozzie was practically vibrating, hopping from foot to foot by the front door, her pastel poncho flapping out like the frilled skirts of a jellyfish. I half expected the cat-ears on her pink beanie to start twitching. She’d found a tennis ball somewhere, perfectly clean and brand new – which was a mystery in itself – and she was currently bouncing it off the floorboards, catching it again in one hand with surprisingly perfect dexterity.

“I’m fine! I’m fine!” she chirped at our attention. “Fuzzy and grumpy can kiss for hours, we can go alone!”

“We’ll wait for Twil,” I said gently.

Raine cupped her hands around her mouth and called up the stairs again. “Stop necking and get down here!”

“Raine!” I hissed. “They’re probably not.”

“Oh yeah? You underestimate our Evee.”

“I don’t even think they’re properly together,” I whispered. “It’s more complex than that.”

Raine hiked an eyebrow at me. “You were so sure about them. What changed?”

“Well, maybe I was wrong.”

But Twil bounded back down the stairs a minute later, with a cheeky grin for me and a friendly “Fuck off, hey?” for Raine.

Raine raised her hands in mock-surrender. “Don’t shoot the messenger for speaking truth.”

“S’none o’ your business, yeah?” Twil bit back, a touch less friendly. She clacked her teeth together, an unconscious gesture that showed the contours of the wolf beneath the woman, lurking just below the surface of her angelically pretty face and artfully messy long dark curls.

“Fuzzy fuzzy fuzzy!” Lozzie came out of nowhere and slammed into Twil, a head-butt-hug hard enough to knock the wind from even an invincible werewolf. She’d been too busy tripping into her shoes when Twil had knocked on the front door, so now she buried her face in Twil’s oversize white hoodie, and wormed her hands beneath Twil’s blue-and-lime coat.

“Oof- okay, alright,” Twil puffed to get her breath back. “Uh, hey Lozzie.”

Lozzie smiled up at her. “Go fuzzy?”


“Fuzzy-fuzzy?” Lozzie bounced on the spot like a released spring.

“Uh. N-not right now?”

“Awwww. Okay then!” And Lozzie bounced away as quickly as she’d begun. She threw the locks on the front door and skipped out onto the garden path, and we three had no choice but to follow.

It was good to see her like this, even if she’d had to leave Tenny behind today. No amount of imitative camouflage would convince sober eyes under daylight that Tenny was a human being. Zheng had stayed behind too, half to babysit Tenny, half because she would draw so much attention out there on the streets, even if she could just about pass for human.

I was already planning a repeat outing, at night, for them.

The walk to the park wasn’t too long, just up to the university campus and then a little further along Bluebell Road, though we planned a small detour near the end for the sake of ice cream or chocolate or whatever took our fancy. The sky was ringed with clouds built up like ramparts, and the sun gave a thin trickle of warmth to the waking world, enough to keep the chill off one’s face, but not enough to chase away coats and jackets. The threat of rain stood on the horizon, the ever-changeable weather of the North.

Raine and I had to be on campus later, but not until three in the afternoon, so for this morning we had all the time in the world, and we took it slow. Not just because of Raine’s crutch.

Taking it easy was the point.

I hadn’t yet worked up the courage for tri-layered skirts and rainbow tights in public, but I wore my new pink-scaled hoodie. An ankylosaurus, armoured and secure, emerged from the depths of abyssal time onto the streets of Sharrowford. Raine wore her leather jacket, and Twil always looked ready to call somebody questionable names and throw down for a fight, despite her porcelain beauty.

I’d half-entertained the notion of asking Lozzie to wear something less conspicuous than her pastel hoodie and the pink hat with the cat ears. She stood out. But I didn’t have the heart. She loved herself, and I wasn’t going to step on that.

Her uncle knew where she was already, knew where we lived. If he was going to move on us, he’d do it regardless. A few passers-by with strong impressions of the girl in the bright poncho wouldn’t make a blind bit of difference.

If the Heather of four or five years ago had seen us walking down the street, she would have thought we were the coolest people ever. She would have assumed we were on our way to somewhere very mature and exciting – a literature class with a famous professor, a notorious lesbian club, a subversive political meeting – rather than what we were actually doing, which was going to the park to eat ice cream and play on the swings.

“Hey, I see that little smile,” Raine murmured, walking beside me with her crutch under the opposite armpit.

“Just feeling presentable. For once.”

“Looking gorgeous, more like,” she purred back.

My cool did not last long. We were barely five minutes out from the invisible protective bubble of the Saye house, when Lozzie began to gather an entourage.

The streets of Sharrowford always teemed with pneuma-somatic life in all its dizzying alien variety. I’d simply grown used to it, and grown used to the quiet refuge of Number 12 Barnslow Drive. More recently I’d grown used to the way the spirits kept a respectful distance from me, well clear of the scent of the abyss clinging to my soul.

I spotted a dozen different strange amalgamations and alien impossibilities before we even reached the end of the road. A creature like a polar bear but with tentacles in place of a head was snuffling along the opposite pavement, following the sticky slime trail left by a humanoid figure with a tail like a slug. A bat-like giant glided overhead with wings of jagged obsidian, slow as a blimp on unseen air currents. Ghouls – crosses between dogs and people and apes – lurked in alleyways and scattered in polite deference before my passing. A flower made of glowing flesh and shining steel had attached itself to a stop sign, brown roots running down the metal and penetrating the asphalt, but when I approached, it withdrew its anchors and shuffled off along a nearby wall.

Lozzie smiled and waved at eyestalks which rose above the nearby houses, and blew brief kisses at hulking, slumping creatures at the ends of the roads we passed. She trailed her fingertips across the tops of floating flesh-masses and made ‘fffttt fttt’ come-hither noises at skittish deer-creatures with claws instead of hooves and eyes of molten silver.

In the past I would have been mortified with embarrassment, but now it didn’t seem to matter. So what if random people thought she was mentally unwell? She wasn’t, and I knew that. If anybody had a problem with her then they could answer to me, and that was all that mattered.

Until the hound.

It was loitering in one of those thin alleyways between two sets of terraced houses, with overflowing bins and lichen-covered walls. Lozzie was skipping a few steps ahead of us when it padded out onto the pavement and nosed against her leg.

“Awww, hello there.” She instantly stopped and squatted down to pet the scaly head. “Aren’t you a friendly one? Yes you are, yes you are!”

Raine laughed softly and Twil pulled an uncertain grimace. They couldn’t see the hound, only Lozzie talking to thin air.

It was a cross between canine and deep-sea predator, as if a dog had evolved around an oceanic geothermal vent. The size of a golden retriever, but plated with thick overlapping scales instead of fur, showing patches of wrinkled grey skin beneath. Huge black eyes stared up at Lozzie, surrounded by wiry black bristles. A mouth of needle-teeth hung open as a long thin grey tongue lolled out. Slender tentacles rose from the creature’s back, waving like seaweed in an invisible current.

Deja vu and disquiet stopped me in my tracks.

“Heather?” Raine stopped too. “Is it not safe?”

“Good boy,” Lozzie was whispering to it. Ears like armoured flaps twitched at her words. “Good boy good boy, wanna come with us, good boy?”

“Um, Lozzie,” I managed, and my voice came out far too tight. “Lozzie, is that … is that one of the … dogs, that was following you around before you first left for Outside?”

“Mmm?” Lozzie looked up at me, puffed a cheek out as her eyes rolled up in thought, then shrugged. “Maybe! Dunno! Sometimes they don’t let me know but that’s okay because they’re all good and one is just as good as the others, if they’ve gone somewhere else that’s okay too, they don’t have to come back to me. I took some of them Outside to help but some of them stayed here so maybe!” She stood up and slapped the side of her thigh several times as she took a step forward. “Good boy, come with us!”

“Heather, hey?” Raine got my attention, voice sharp and focused. “Is this not safe?”

“Yeah, yo,” Twil piped up, hands deep in her pockets, trying to look nonchalant. “I got no problem with friendly invisible monsters, I think, but I can’t see what we’re dealing with here? Clue me in?”

“It’s fiiiiiine,” Lozzie said.

“It’s … I … it’s technically safe, yes.” I sighed, mostly at myself. “Lozzie used to have a whole … group of spirits following her. I just don’t … don’t like-”

I made eye contact with the hound, and found it looking back at me. The wrong sort of intelligence lived behind those oily eyes. Neither canine nor squid, but something truly alien to our order of being. Abyssal instinct and savanna ape answered with one voice – a shiver down my spine and a flex of phantom limbs and a hiss clawing up my throat.

The hound dipped its head, flattened armoured ears against its skull, and hid behind Lozzie’s legs.

“Oh no!” Lozzie chirped, squatting down again. “Heathy’s nothing to be scared of! It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay,” she chanted to the poor spirit, arms going around its scaly midsection.

The hiss died in my throat, replaced by a mortified flush.

“You scaring dogs now?” Twil laughed at me.

“I’m sorry,” I blurted out. “I just- Lozzie, you know how I feel about pneuma-somatic life. I can’t just get over it. I’m sorry.”

“It doesn’t feel the same way about you,” she told me, looking back over her shoulder. “See? See? He’s just scared. It’s okay, good boy, you’re a good boy, Heathy’s not scary, see? She’ll give you a pet too, okay? Yes! Yes!”

“Um.” I froze.

“You don’t have to have to,” Lozzie said. “But it’s not scary and it doesn’t feel slimy or cold and you can just do it once and then stop again.”

I swallowed and looked around for help. Twil was still mostly bewildered. Raine shrugged and said, “It’s up to you. No pressure, we can just walk on if you like.”

“No pressure!” Lozzie agreed.

“No, I’ll- I’ll do it,” I said.

And I did, though I got it over quickly so I didn’t have to think about it too much. I made a conscious, deliberate effort to fold back my phantom limbs, took three steps forward, and bent down to briefly pat the head of the nightmare aquatic dog. It was barely even there, a faint impression of pneuma-somatic scales and warm flesh. Lozzie held it still and whispered to it about how I wasn’t scary, and before I knew it I’d straightened up and stepped back again, shaking slightly.

The real hurdle was doing that out in public. An empty residential street, but still. Crazy Heather, petting things that didn’t exist.

“Hey, Heather, you okay?” Raine asked me softly, as Lozzie stood up and gave me a big beaming smile. Raine took my hand.

“I … I think so,” I said.

“You didn’t have to do that, you know?” Raine murmured even softer. “You don’t have to let Lozzie pressure you into stuff.”

“She didn’t,” I said firmly. “They’re not scary. That’s all. It’s me, not them.”

“Hey, yo, invisible monsters are pretty scary,” Twil put in. “Like ghosts.”

Lozzie was already skipping ahead again. The oceanic hound trotted along at her heels, and other spirits were already taking an interest. A thing like a cluster of seedpods and tiny wings landed on her shoulder, and a lizard the size of my hand, made of spun glass, climbed up her poncho.

“They’re not monsters,” I said.


By the time we reached the park, Lozzie had accumulated almost a dozen pneuma-somatic friends. Another hound had appeared along Bluebell Road, almost identical to the first, along with a sort of goat-like creature with horns of brass and human arms instead of legs. Weird little collections of flesh and teeth and lizard-skin sat on her shoulders or rode on her poncho, along with a faceless owl sitting in the hood and a lime-green jellyfish thing trailing in her wake.

They all kept a respectful distance from me, which I very much appreciated, but for the first time in a long time I didn’t mind them so much. Their presence made Lozzie happy. That was enough.

We stopped at a newsagent’s on Bluebell Road, before doubling back to the park. Lozzie and I got ice cream cones with flakes. Raine bought a grape popsicle. Twil made an unconventional choice.

“It’s ice cream time,” Raine laughed. “Not fried chicken time. You’ll be sick if you run around too much after that.”

“Shut up, no I won’t,” Twil whined back through a mouthful of meat. “I’m hungry, alright? I can eat chicken if I want.”

“Don’t food shame,” I teased Raine.

“Yeah, listen to your better half,” Twil shot back. “‘Sides, I’ll be finished by the time we reach the swings. Iron stomach, that’s me.”

Lozzie led us the rest of the way, past the car-barriers and beneath the shadow of the university buildings and through the park gates.

Yare Broad park is not broader than it is long, and I have no idea what a ‘yare’ is meant to be, but it’s very good at being a park.

Sprawling out from the far edge of the university campus, sloping down before collapsing into several miles of open wetland crisscrossed by raised wooden walkways and filled with wild ducks, Yare Broad is by far Sharrowford’s largest park. Sequestered from the busiest parts of the city by the bulk of the university campus, the views are marred only slightly by one of the huge modern off-white student residential blocks. Quiet on weekdays, except for an occasional thin trickle of university students, which kept it always more than totally empty, it was the perfect public place to feel neither crowded in nor completely alone.

We wandered past little copses of trees, down snaking pathways, toward a children’s playground area on the far left of the park, shaded by several very old oak trees. Almost nobody else was about this time of day, late Monday morning. We spotted a couple of joggers, a few people sitting on distant benches – probably university staff getting some fresh air and sunlight on a break – and one group of students having a picnic which seemed to consist of a lot of alcohol and not much food.

Lozzie was first on the swings. She scoffed down the rest of her ice cream and leapt up onto one of the old metal-chain swings, planting her feet on the broad rubber seat and standing tall. Her spirit friends scattered across the area, doing the sort of inexplicable things that spirits do. The hounds started sniffing for something along the ground. Several of the smaller creatures still clung to Lozzie as she began to rock back and forth.

“Er,” said Twil, stopping at the edge of the playground asphalt, frowning at the ancient metal slide and slightly rusty swing frame. “How is this place still standing?”

“I’m sorry?” I asked, focused on the last few bites of my ice cream cone.

“Because it’s cool!” Lozzie said.

She produced her mystery tennis ball from inside her poncho again, and started bouncing it off the ground as she swung backward, catching it each time on the return, a feat of dexterity that even Raine would struggle with.

“It’s a fuckin’ death trap,” Twil started laughing. “This is the sort of shit they tear down, you know? Replace it all with modern plastic and a nice soft landing of wood chips.” She tapped the asphalt with a heel.

“We’re hardly going to be doing somersaults,” I said with a little sigh, and wandered over to join Lozzie. I brushed a few stray leaves off the seat of the swing next to her, and sat down. “We’re just here to hang out for a bit. For fresh air and sunlight.”

“Could’a done that in the back garden,” Twil muttered. She went over to a bin nearby and tossed the wrapper from her chicken, licking the remaining grease from her fingertips. “I know, I know why I’m along. Bodyguard duty, right? I don’t mind, it’s cool.”

“Noooo!” Went Lozzie. The old metal chains made a rhythmic creaking as she rocked back and forth, adjusting her body weight to swing further each time. “I wanted you to come, fuzzy! And we’re gonna do handstands.”

Twil blinked at her.

“Yes, Lozzie’s going to teach me how to do a handstand,” I said. “We are going to enjoy ourselves. We are. We’re just sitting in the park. ‘Hanging out.’ That’s all.”

We were going to enjoy ourselves for half an hour, eat these ice creams, and relax, and most certainly not think about the fact that PI Nicole Webb would be breaking into the office of Edward Lilburne’s lawyer that very night. In less than twelve hours we would all be gathered around the kitchen table with butterflies in our collective metaphorical stomach, waiting for the phone call.

The Heather of just six months ago would have felt awfully self-conscious sitting on a swing in a park, childish and silly.

That all mattered so little now.

“Yeah, lassie,” Raine said with a grin, clacking forward with her crutch. She very gently pushed against my back, rocking the swing by a couple of inches. “Don’t be a stick in the mud. Scared you’re gonna skin your knees?”

Lozzie was really going for it now, rocking her whole body back and forth on the swing, the seat almost vertical on both ends of the arc, the chains creaking like a ship at sea.

“Pfffft,” went Twil. “Me? I’m alright. I’m invincible. Just hope you lot are up to date on your tetanus jabs.”

With a sudden lump in my throat, I looked up at Lozzie, swinging back and forth further and further, her pastel poncho streaming out behind her as she bent her knees. My guess was she hadn’t seen the inside of a GP’s surgery since her parents had died, let alone been scheduled for booster jabs. She caught my look and giggled, face whizzing past at high speed now.

“I don’t need it!” she yelled.

“But what if you fall and cut yourself?” I asked.

Lozzie answered by forcing her momentum to the absolute limit, arcing the swing as far forward as it could go under her body weight – and then she jumped.

My heart leapt into my mouth as she sailed through the air, poncho streaming out behind her, small spirits clinging to her shoulders or tumbling onto the grass as she cleared the edge of the asphalt. The stunt lasted less than two seconds, and she was probably less than four feet off the ground at the apex of her jump, but my phantom limbs whirled to life as I jerked out of my own seat in a futile effort to catch her.

Lozzie landed on the balls of her feet with all the grace of a ballerina, bending knees and spinning on the spot to face us with arms thrown wide.

“Also I never fall!” she announced.

“Fuckin’ ‘ell,” Twil sighed.

I had a hand to my heart. “Lozzie.”

But Lozzie just stuck out a hand toward me, the other one already busy bunching up her poncho and tucking it into her trousers. “Come over onto the grass! I’m gonna teach you to do handstands, like we said. You too, fuzzy-wuzzy.”

“I can do handstands, easy,” said Twil.

“Then show us how because Heather wants to learn. It’s easy, I promise-promise. It’s easy you just have to balance right upside-down and not let all the blood to go to your head too.”

I let out a huge sigh, but Raine took that moment to squeeze my shoulder, cutting off whatever complaint was brewing in my heart. She caught my eye.

“We won’t let her hurt herself,” she whispered.

“ … it’s not that,” I managed.

I wasn’t afraid of Lozzie falling and scraping herself, not really. Bruises and grazes were part of life. On a level I didn’t understand, I knew she was safe from that. Whatever Lozzie was, she was above such concerns.

But at the apex of her leap, I’d been terrified she was going to vanish before she hit the ground.

“I know,” Raine whispered back. “All the better reason to spend time together now, yeah?”

I forced myself to eat the last bite of my ice cream cone, then got up and joined Lozzie and Twil as they wandered out onto the grass. Lozzie stuck her hand out again, and this time I took it in my own.

At first I was quite incapable of imitating Lozzie’s demonstration of a handstand. She bent forward, put her hands on the ground, and just flipped her legs into the air, waving her shoes about as her poncho flapped down into her face despite her efforts to tuck it in. Twil made it look even easier, but she was cheating, with her werewolf strength and regenerating muscle.

I tried three times, couldn’t get myself up, and then when I finally did I just wobbled and fell over sideways, to the sound of Raine’s affectionate laughter. I felt faintly embarrassed, but I’d made this request, I’d suggested this little outing, and I was going to stick with it even if I looked like the biggest idiot in the world.

I had more success when Lozzie became my training wheels. She held my ankles as I huffed and puffed to keep strength in my arms.

But it was worth the effort. When I finally managed to balance by myself and Lozzie took her hands away, she clapped and laughed, and I laughed too when I finally fell over and rolled onto my back. Lozzie helped me up and hugged me and I hugged her too. Then Twil showed up both of us by doing a cartwheel.

“Show off,” Raine laughed.

“Flaunt it if you got it,” Twil shot back.

Lozzie produced her tennis ball again, out of nowhere. With a manic giggle on her lips and a flick of her wrist, she said, “Fetch!”

Twil almost fell for it. She jerked one way on sheer instinct, before catching herself and blushing incandescent red. Lozzie broke down in giggles.

“Lozzie!” I scolded, hand to my own mouth, but I was laughing too.

“You- you didn’t even throw the ball! It’s still in your hand!” Twil spluttered.

“That’s your complaint?” Raine asked.

“It’s cheating!” Twil snapped.

“It’s- it-” I struggled to control myself. “Lozzie, that was quite rude.”

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” Lozzie said through a bout of terrible giggles. “I just had to! And it’s cute and it’s sweet and I didn’t mean it in a bad way and I’m really sorry I didn’t throw the ball for real and you’re lovely fuzzy and I shouldn’t joke about it and-”

“You know if you throw that ball I can catch it before it hits the ground, right?” Twil said.

Lozzie stopped dead and bit her bottom lip at Twil, eyes shining beneath her heavy lids.

“Out here?” Raine asked. “At full speed, in public?”

“Nah, like, half speed,” Twil said. “Normal person speed. Just, you know, good.”

“Can I?” Lozzie whispered, face lit up like a star.

“Do it,” Twil said.

So Lozzie threw the ball.

She didn’t throw it far, more vertical than horizontal, but Twil’s confidence proved well founded. Our werewolf friend had more energy than any actual dog, and it was always impressive to watch her run, though she kept her promise and stuck well within human limits. We were in public, after all.

Handstands, playing catch, relaxing on the swings. This was all so normal, but it touched me in a way I was having trouble processing. Lozzie and Twil went on like that for a few minutes, but then we all retreated to the swings again, talking about everything and nothing while we swung back and forth. Even Raine put her crutch down and sat on the swing next to me, as Lozzie and Twil debated how fast they could both run. By the time I’d gathered my thoughts, they were up again, and this time Twil was trying to show Lozzie how to do a cartwheel. The spirits had followed her out there, the oceanic hounds circling like sharks, other creatures sitting in the grass, or following at Lozzie’s ankles.

I watched, and wasn’t even aware of my own smile.

“Hey,” Raine murmured, rocking back and forth gently on the swing next to me. “You needed this as much as Lozzie, didn’t you?”

“I suppose so,” I said, and caught my smile, guilty and confused.

“Hey, it’s okay, it’s good to see you happy.”

“I feel like I’m Outside,” I said.

Raine stopped swinging, eyebrows raised.

“Not in a bad way,” I hastened to add. “This is how it felt in the dreams, the Outside dreams with Lozzie. I’ve told you about them before, but I can’t explain how they felt. Her enthusiasm, her energy, it’s infectious. As long as I didn’t wake up too far, I was never scared, no matter the weird places she took me. She’s so unconstrained, so free. I like it. I like that she shares it. It’s how we became friends.” I sighed. “There’s just a touch of that here, right now. Just a touch.”

Raine said nothing, but reached over and ruffled my hair. I let her, and closed my eyes, feeling like a cat being petted.

“Only a shame that Zheng couldn’t come,” I said.

“I dunno,” Raine said. “Put her in a big coat, she’ll be alright. Nobody’s going to freak out about a tall lady, which, you know, if she doesn’t show off her teeth, that’s all she is.”

“Maybe,” I murmured.

We lapsed into companionable silence. I used the toe of one shoe against the asphalt to rock myself back and forth on the swing. Raine’s gaze wandered past me, over my shoulder, along the pathway that led away from the little playground area.

“Also, I’m not sure if I should say this, considering my track record,” I built up my courage with every word. “But it’s good to see Lozzie and Twil getting on.”

“Oh?” Raine snapped back to me, a smirk on her lips. She glanced at Lozzie trying to do a cartwheel on the grass, before Twil caught her again, Lozzie’s slender form crashing into the werewolf’s front with a tangle of limbs before Twil righted her. “You think Lozzie’s … ?”

“No,” I said, quick and sharp.

“She did ask for Twil to be here,” Raine said. “You can’t rule it out. I think this calls for a ‘puppy love’ joke.”

I shot Raine a look. She cleared her throat in surprise.

“Don’t,” I said. “I mean it. Lozzie’s not given any indication, and I would prefer to respect that. Plus, I’m not making any more assumptions about this sort of thing. I made assumptions about Evelyn and Twil, and I don’t think that was good for Evee. I think I helped the pair of them into a mistake.”

“Ahhhhh,” went Raine. “Evee’s not talked to me about it.”

“She has to me. A little. And I think maybe I shouldn’t have encouraged them into it. Even if it works out. I was … pushing too hard.” I sighed, and shut my mouth as Lozzie wandered back toward us. Spirits padded after her, and a particular creature – a sort of long-tailed lizard made of translucent greasy crystals – stuck so close to her it seemed almost protective.

Twil stood out there on the grass for a moment longer, hands on her hips, frowning at something off to our left. When she finally turned to follow Lozzie, she kept looking at – I followed her gaze – a lady on a bench?

A young lady, in coat and jeans with dark hair in a ponytail, sat on a bench about fifty feet away down one of the snaking pathways, eating a sandwich out of a plastic wrapper. The trees sheltered her from the rest of the park, but did not obstruct the view between us, like a natural cubby in the park’s topography.

Twil’s pose, the set of her musculature, everything about how she held herself, set me on sudden edge.

Like a hound with a scent.

“Twil?” I asked when she got close, my stomach suddenly churning. “What’s wrong?”

“I saw her too,” Raine said softly, rising from the swing and putting her weight on her crutch. “What do you think?”

“I don’t think it’s anything!” Lozzie stage-whispered, eyes wide as she could make them. “I don’t recognise her, it’s just a person. Just a person. Nothing-nothing.”

Suddenly her hand was in mine, and I was on my feet, trying not to stare too openly at the woman on the nearby bench. Something tingled in the back of my skull.

“She keeps looking over at us, and she’s crap at being subtle about it,” Twil growled between clenched teeth, doing a far better job of not giving us away. She kept sneaking sideways glances. “Was watching Lozzie. I could feel it, yeah? You know my senses are good at things like this, she was, sure as sure.”

Raine nodded. “I believe you. Thought so too. Getting the creeps, you know?”

“Maybe she just liked the look of my poncho,” Lozzie murmured. She pressed in close to me and I wound a protective arm around her.

“I’m sure it’s nothing,” I spoke up. “We’re being … ”

I glanced at the woman on the bench.

She can’t have been much older than me, perhaps in her mid-twenties. She’d glanced up briefly and met my eyes by pure chance. Twil was right, she was doing a terrible job of pretending not to watch us. She made a show of looking one way, then the other, eyes oh-so-innocently wandering over to check on us, then quickly darting away again.

Eye contact at fifty feet distance, for less than a second. I couldn’t even see her pupils, let alone read what lay behind them.

But abyssal instinct just knew.

She must have realised we’d seen her watching, because she started to get up.

“Want me to go get her?” Twil grunted. “Could question her, quiet like. There’s hardly anybody around.”

“Nah,” Raine said. “Too much risk. We should leave, and call Evee, let her know, if she’s-

“Heather? Heathy-Heathy? Heathy?” Lozzie was tugging on my arm, going panicked and breathless. “Raine, Heather’s not here.”

Lozzie was right. I was not there, and I was not listening.

Abyssal instinct knew.

And this time, that side of me was not afraid. There was no conscious decision. One half of me simply acted, took control, and damn the consequences.

“It’s one of them,” I murmured through numb lips.

I took three paces forward before I even knew what was happening. I let go of Lozzie’s hand before the mental transformation completed, before the hiss rose up my throat and abyssal instinct overwhelmed my rational mind. Somebody said my name – probably Raine – and somebody else said “woah, what the fuck” as I picked up my feet and took off at a dead run, straight at the woman getting up from the bench.

She looked up, saw me coming, and swallowed a scream.

I just went for her. Full on, no restraint, running across fifty feet of grass, pure instinct. One foot in front of the other, as fast as I could make them go.

Now, I will be the first to admit that I am not the most athletic person in the world. In fact, I hadn’t sprinted in a very long time. If anybody in the park saw me in that moment, all they’d have seen was a rather scrawny young woman doing a very poor job at covering ground. I stumbled, I planted my feet wrong, it’s a miracle I didn’t twist an ankle or pull a muscle, and I was panting my lungs out before I’d covered even half the distance.

The cold survivalist logic of the abyss did not care. This prize was worth the damage.

She stank of the Eye.

Staring at me in blind terror, she fumbled with her bag, dropped it, had to pick it up again and managed to draw a pen-knife in one hand and a small metal cylinder in the other. Hands shaking, eyes wide, she backed up a few paces as if resisting the urge to run. She had only seconds to make the decision.

Instinct demanded the tools for the job, and hyperdimensional mathematics happily provided. I was maybe twenty paces from her when a tiny pop of pain burst inside in my head as I flicked the essential value from a zero to a one, and my phantom limbs exploded into writhing, strobing, perfect life from my sides, tugging and pulling on flesh deep inside my torso.

But this time they had some additions – barbed hooks of bone set in rotating sockets.

I hadn’t needed to consciously build those. Too much time watching squid videos on youtube.

In the abyss I’d been prey. I’d hidden in the dark and lived off algae and slime. But for this task, I needed to be a predator, and my body knew how.

Instinct screamed at me to shove a tentacle into the woman’s head. Pin her down and eat her thoughts, pluck apart the electro-chemistry of her brain, find the Eye’s subtle control just like I had with Edward’s servitor. A human being was so much more complex than a servitor, and there was no chance I could go blundering about in there without doing incredible, irreversible damage. I’d leave this woman a gibbering wreck, or in a coma, at best.

Abyssal instinct did not care. It cared about my friends, my mate, my pack, and it cared about Maisie. But it did not care about random apes.

And it was me. I cannot pass responsibility off onto a part of me by externalising it. I made that decision, I gave in to the urge, I wanted to do it.

When I was almost upon her, the ex-cultist, the Eye-ridden woman, lifted the little metal cylinder, pointing it at me, hoping to catch me with the end before I could touch her. But she couldn’t see the strobing pneuma-somatic tentacles. Her other hand held the little pen-knife in a white-knuckle grip. Up close, she was obviously a wreck. Eyes ringed with dark bags, a twitching tic in her face, her body bony beneath her clothes in the manner of somebody who had not eaten enough for weeks on end. She clamped down on a scream, teeth together, feet scuffing in panic as she forced herself to stand her ground.

I was almost on her, ready to grab her at wrists and ankles and hold her in place while I unpicked her brain.

And then Twil slammed into my back and brought me down.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

a very great mischief – 13.7

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

“Or deal with him,” Nicole echoed me.

It was not a question.

She did not need to add a single word. Her stare contained a precisely calibrated dose of scepticism, a micro-expression from a person who knew how to speak truth to power, without even speaking.

“ … if I have to,” I managed, but I had to look away, down at the kitchen table, down at my hands splayed flat just so I wouldn’t drive my fingernails into my own palms.

I did not want to be power. Not for this.

Nicole let out a huge sigh and drew a hand over her face. “Oh, fuck me. For fuck’s sake, you lot.”

“Hey, Nicky, we were gonna tell you. Today, after this,” Raine said. “We weren’t gonna keep this a secret. If there’s any more survivors from the cult, it’s kinda important you know, you were involved and all. There might just be this guy, or there might be a few, we don’t-”

“I wish you hadn’t bloody well told me!” Nicole snapped. Behind me, Lozzie buried her face in the back of my shoulder and made a soft whine. “Look, if I find Edward Lilburne, it’s up to you what you do with him. You’re all wizards or whatever, he’s killed kids, I don’t give a fuck if you use his skin to make a book or something. I don’t wanna know. But those people, in that … ” Nicole had to pause, wet her lips, take a breath. “In that house, not all of them were … I mean, fuck! It was a cult, plenty of them were exploited, conned into it, right? Fucking, Kimberly, where is she?” Nicole gestured around. “She was a member, she was bullied into it, she was a victim, right? Right?”

“Technically correct,” Evelyn deadpanned.

“That is true,” I murmured.

“So you’ve got some victims of that … that insane shit we saw, who avoided it,” a tremor almost took Nicole’s voice, but she sucked down a deep breath. “And you might need to ‘deal with them’?”

I couldn’t look her in the eye. Not because I’d suggested inflicting violence upon those who may not deserve it, but because I was keeping silent about the truth. Lozzie was shaking and shivering against my back, against the back of the chair. I needed to turn around and hug her, but right now I did not deserve that comfort.

“Not-” I stopped. Lies. Tried again, voice shaking. “Not necessarily. I might … might be able to help. Nobody deserves the Eye.”

“But if you can’t help,” Nicole went on. “Then you deal with them?”

“I … I don’t … ”

I didn’t know. I couldn’t say. I genuinely had no idea what I would do what with a cult survivor, a human being with the Eye still lodged inside their head. Would I try to help, would I extend what aid I could, or would I pull them apart in the quest for an advantage? Heal and save, or vivisect for information?

“Sometimes you gotta do these things,” Raine said, quiet and serious. “To keep people safe.”

“Fuck you, Haynes,” Nicole spat. “Ahhh fuck. We can’t have another incident like at that house, not here, not in Sharrowford, not my hometown. Imagine if a random member of the public had gotten in there before we did. Or if somebody had called an ambulance. Imagine it! Yeah, sure, they might not remember it properly afterward or whatever, but I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t have come out of there in one piece.” She shook her head. “Not again. I am not doing that again. Can’t let it happen again.”

“Can’t,” Praem echoed. Nicole blinked at her.

“You feel responsible for this,” Evelyn said. “But you’re not.”

“I’m responsible because I know about it. What am I supposed to do, forget this all exists? That any of it happened?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Raine said, nodding slowly. “You get that too, huh? Sometimes you just gotta jump in. Can’t let it go. Like an itch. Same as me.”

Nicole gave Raine such a frown.

“I have said it before,” Evelyn deadpanned slowly, into the awkward silence that followed. “And I will say it again, this time for your benefit too, miss Webb. It is highly unlikely that anything more than tiny handful of Eye-affected cultists – loyalists, if you will – left that house before the ritual. They likely have no resources, no books. The larger faction retained those, and then I recovered them. Do you remember?”

Nicole stared back at Evelyn, her mind taking a moment to catch up. “ … I don’t want to remember, but yeah. So?”

“They have no books to learn from. And I very much doubt they count amongst their number any mages, not on the scale of Alexander or Edward, or even Sarika. Remember the ones who were working with Edward? The ones who contacted Sarika? The ones with … ” Evelyn sighed. “Mister Joking?”


“If they counted any serious power amongst themselves,” Evelyn explained, “they would not have thrown themselves on Edward’s mercy. I believe that anyone with serious power stayed with Sarika’s group for the final ritual, in hubris and overconfidence. Those who fled were the ones with nothing. Cowards and the powerless. And they made the right choice.”

“What if that was a different group?” Nicole asked. “You ever think of that?”

“Extensively,” Evelyn grunted. “Yes, I have run over every possible combination of factors a dozen times. If there’s a second remnant of the Eye cult out there, then they’re nothing. The man we saw, I suspect he was as surprised as we were. The fact they haven’t contacted Sarika suggests they’re lying as low as possible.”

“Sarika, yeah, right.” Nicole rolled her eyes. “Bastion of honesty and truth, that one. When did you get so trusting?”

“She can’t lie to me,” I said, and I was not proud of it.

Nicole glanced at me. From the look on my face, she must have known what I meant, and she didn’t argue. She leaned back in the silence that followed, gathering her thoughts as I wallowed in self-disgust.

“You’ve changed your tune, miss Saye,” Nicole said eventually. “I didn’t exactly have a lot of time to get to know you, but I got the impression you think of Sharrowford as your territory. You don’t think these people are worth pursuing?”

“Make up your mind,” Raine said with a smirk. “You want us to kill them or not?”

“Raine,” I whined, shivering with my arms around myself. Lozzie had gone very still against my shoulder.

“I don’t know! Alright?” Nicole said.

“My priorities have changed,” said Evelyn, hard and uncompromising. “But do not think I have gone soft. If an ex-cultist turns up on our doorstep with anything but flowers and cake, then I will have them killed, no questions, no-”

To my utter desolation, Lozzie peeled herself off my shoulder and fled the kitchen, poncho flapping out behind her. I almost lurched out of my seat to follow her, but guilt kept me pinned. I’d started this, I had a responsibility to stay here. A moment later, we heard the soft patter of her feet ascending the stairs.

“Praem,” Evelyn said, with a sideways nod of her head. “Make sure she’s okay. Please.”

Praem marched out of the kitchen. I knew she wouldn’t be coming back anytime soon.

Evelyn sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose.

“Oops?” Nicole offered.

“Oops. Quite,” Evelyn grunted. “My point stands. I will not put my friends and f- … family at risk over nothing, over a group of people who are unlikely to be a threat any greater than ambient background noise. I will not march somebody I love into another trap. It is as simple as that.” She rounded on me, scowling like a breaking thunderstorm, jabbing a finger at me. “That goes for you most of all. I know exactly what you’re doing and exactly why you want to make contact with an Eye cultist.”

I stared at her and flushed deep, embarrassed red, mortified and horrified and seen, in the worst possible way, still reeling and mortified at Lozzie’s departure.

“I- n-no, Evee-”

“And I don’t blame you,” she snapped. “But no. You are not to expose yourself to even more unnecessary danger than you do all the bloody time. We have a way of getting to Wonderland and standing safely before the Eye, if only we can get that book. We are not mucking about with a bunch of cultists so you can peel open their skulls and root around inside their brains.”

I cringed, inside and out, and prayed for the floor to swallow me up. My face burned. My friends knew what I was. Evelyn could predict the lengths I might go to. They knew me.

“Oh shit,” Nicole breathed. “I get it now. You’re not asking me to help with self-defence. You’re asking for help obtaining a test subject.”

“It’s for Maisie,” I squeezed out around the lump in my throat. “It is. It is.”

“Hey,” Raine spoke up, sharp and warning. She grabbed her crutch from where it leaned on the counter and limped over toward me. “Nicky, stop. Hey, Evee, back off-”

“I will not let you do that to yourself, Heather,” Evelyn went on. “God knows you’ve stopped me doing worse to myself.”

Evee,” Raine said.

Flushed with the anger of care, breathing a little too hard, Evelyn stopped. “You know I’m right,” she muttered.

“Evee, drop-” Raine said.

“She’s right,” I squeaked.

Awkward silence descended on the kitchen. Raine rubbed my shoulders through my jumper, but I wanted to curl up and vanish. Nicole blew out a long sigh and cleared her throat and offered an apology, but I barely heard it. Evelyn offered none, and I did not expect her to.

“Hoooooo,” Raine said eventually. “Evee, Evee, Evee. Where’d that come from?”

“From too many years of getting it wrong,” Evelyn grunted. “I am living for more than myself now. That’s all.”

“Well, hey,” Raine said, quietly affectionate. “That’s a good thing.”

“Don’t get me wrong,” Evelyn went on. “These people still represent a threat, however small. If I could press a button to kill them all, I would, but I’m not sending Praem out there to walk into a trap, I’m not going to intentionally put us in another situation where we get split up and picked off. A few stragglers with no knowledge and no books and no magic are not worth the risk.”

“I hope you’re right,” Nicole said. “I really do hope you’re right.”

From the depths of my pit, I spoke up.

“I still don’t know how to deal with the Eye,” I said.

“You will, Heather,” Raine said, squeezing my shoulder. “You can do it, I believe in you. We all do.”

“Fight?” I went on, struggled to sit up straight, forcing myself to raise my eyes, no matter how guilty I felt. “Or communicate? Or bargain with, or cajole, or educate, or … anything? Even looking at the edge of it with hyperdimensional mathematics was almost too much, when I pulled Sarika free, and she was on the very edge. If I stick my mind in there, unprepared, to look for Maisie, I won’t come back out. Not as I am now.” I turned to Evelyn, made myself meet her storm-clouded eyes. “I can’t just get to Wonderland and look up at it – even protected, yes, I know – and pull Maisie out of the sky. I need information, intelligence. I need to know it, more than I do right now. I need to understand how to talk to it. The clay thing in the workshop,” I nodded at the closed door to Evelyn’s magical workshop. “It’s not enough. It’s not a direct connection, it may not even have been sent by the Eye. It’s taught me breadth, but not depth. Not specifics. Sarika, I already freed her, and from her all I had was the Eye’s fingerprints.” I swallowed hard. What I was suggesting, I had no idea if I was even capable of following through. “I need one of them, Evee. I need to look inside one of their heads, yes, you’re right. But I have to do it.”

Evelyn held my gaze. Her jaw tightened. She hissed a wordless sound of frustration through her teeth.

“What if the Eye is feeding them brainmath? Or other things? Transforming them?” I asked, throwing out anything I could to convince myself, but none of it was enough. I screwed up my eyes. “What if I promise to go into this to help them?”

“I don’t care about that,” Evelyn hissed.

“I do,” Nicole said.

Evelyn shook her head slowly, but it was not a gesture of refusal. “I know trying to stop you will just backfire.”

“Can’t stop our Heather,” Raine said.

“Very well. But promise you won’t do anything alone. Anything,” Evelyn said.

“I promise.” I nodded. And I intended to keep it.

“And promise no vivisection,” she went on. “To yourself.”

“Yeah,” Nicole grunted.

“I promise,” I repeated.

But I wasn’t so sure about that one.


“I really do need to talk to her, if possible.”

Nicole eyed the top of the stairs, where they vanished into the upstairs hallway.

“You mean Lozzie?” I asked.

Nicole nodded. “Anything she has on her uncle could turn out to be useful.” She sighed and took a sip from her second mug of tea, then shot me a sidelong smile, which could not quite conceal the wary glint behind her eyes. “You’d be surprised how often some tiny half-remembered detail ends up being the loose thread. If she knows anything about him, I need it. An ex-wife, a house he used to live in, any children of his own, anywhere he used to work. Anything at all.”

I nodded slowly. “I see. I see, um, well … yes.”

Nicole smiled in the awkward manner of somebody trying to ignore a previously uncomfortable exchange, and took another sip of tea to cover the fact that neither of us had anything to say. I’d made that cup of tea, a second one for everybody, just to have some excuse to get up from the table and move my hands, as she and Evelyn had wrapped up another twenty minutes of complex strategy talk.

They’d eventually agreed on a day for the plan to break into Harold Yuleson’s office, this coming Monday, along with procedures for contact, checking in, what to do if it all went terribly wrong, and how Nicole should proceed with his copied files or raided snack drawer, or whatever exactly the process would entail. I’d barely been able to listen.

But when Evelyn had gotten up to use the toilet and Raine had decided that now was the perfect time to microwave some hot dogs for lunch, Nicky had picked up her tea and walked into the front room to stretch her legs. I’d gone after her, sheepish and mortified and not wanting her to see me as some inhuman monster.

Heather Morell, willing to perform human experimentation, in my old pajama bottoms and pink jumper.

I’d lingered by the doorway, with nothing to say, when she’d spoken up about Lozzie.

“Do you think she ran off because of me?” Nicole asked after the long sip of tea, finding her voice again.

“Oh, Lozzie? No, no, not at all,” I said, stepping closer, trying to feel normal. “She doesn’t like you much, I think, but she wouldn’t run off because of you. She just doesn’t like it when people talk about violence.”

“Ahhhh,” Nicole went, as if she understood perfectly. Perhaps she did. “I don’t blame her, then. She is pretty young. She’s very sweet, she doesn’t deserve to have to deal with all … this.”

“I believe Lozzie is only a year or two younger than me.”

Nicole blinked at me. “For serious?”

“As far we know. It’s complicated.”

Nicole blew out a puff. “Still.”

“And it’s not violence itself that bothers her, it’s the talking about it part. I did watch her stab a man to death with a scalpel once.”

Nicole boggled at me.

“Admittedly, we were in rather extreme circumstances,” I added.

“Lozzie did that?” One corner of Nicole’s mouth curled up in a worryingly approving smile. “Lozzie? The girl who makes weird noises and acts like she’s a thirteen year old on a sugar high?”

I raised my chin, lightly offended on Lozzie’s behalf. “She chooses to act the way she does because it makes her feel right. I respect that.”

“Oh, sure, yeah, absolutely, more power to her. Cheers.” Nicole mimed a toast with her mug. “Just surprised is all. She doesn’t look like she has it in her.”

“There’s more to Lozzie than meets the eye.”

“You’re telling me. Is she … ” Nicole struggled for a moment, silently chewing her words. Back in the kitchen, the microwave made a ding sound and Raine started bustling about with plates and the fridge door. “Does she have … PTSD? Or … ”

I sighed and shrugged. “Maybe she does. Maybe I do. But I doubt we’d get much from professional help, except a very confused and lightly traumatised psychotherapist.”

“Hey, don’t knock therapy,” Nicole said, suddenly serious. “I’ve been seeing somebody for the last couple of months. Helped with the decision to quit the force. Helped work through some complex guilt. Nasty shit.”

“But you can’t talk to them about us, can you?” I said, then added, with a little thorn of spite, “or about the house?”

Nicole shrugged. “Not exactly, but … ”

“My sister was kidnapped by a giant Eyeball, and Lozzie was used as a metaphysical life-raft, by something not unlike that giant Eyeball. Although luckily for her, it was a lot less malign.”

“Point.” Nicole cleared her throat.

“It’s okay, Nicky. May I … may I still call you Nicky?” My breath caught in my throat.

“Eh? Yeah, sure, ‘course you can.”

I nodded, and directed my gaze at a random point on the floor.

“You feel awkward because of earlier,” Nicole said. It wasn’t a question.

“I feel like I crossed a line,” I muttered. “Yes. I’m horrified at myself sometimes. At what I might do, for Maisie.”

She sighed. “Look, Heather, don’t worry about it. I’m not sure if I’m gonna actually do it for you, let me think about it some more, but you lot live so far beyond the moral and ethical event horizon. I got no right to judge you.”

“Yes you do,” I said, quiet but firm. “I promised myself many months ago that Maisie would not come back only to find me turned into a monster. Growing tentacles, dragging around shards of the abyss, hissing at people, none of that makes me a monster. Vivisecting innocent people, that would make me a monster. Evelyn is correct about that.” I sighed too now, screwing up my eyes and cursing myself. “But I need to look inside one of these people’s heads. Maybe I can do it carefully. I don’t know. Maybe you shouldn’t take my request.”

I trailed off, still unable to meet her eyes. Nicole cleared her throat and sipped her tea and looked at the top of the stairs.

“So, Lozzie,” she said eventually.

“Lozzie, yes,” I sighed with guilty relief. “Do you want me to convince her to talk to you?”

“No, no,” Nicole said quickly. “No, it’s not my business. I don’t have the right to interrogate anybody. I’d just appreciate if you asked her.”

“Hey hey!” came Raine’s happy shout from the kitchen. “Food’s almost up! Gonna butter some rolls too, you two want in?”

“Maybe in a minute,” I called back – then took a deep breath and straightened my spine as much as I could, tried to feel normal again, just Heather, little old me. Lozzie would help with that.

“On the contrary, Nicky,” I said. “I’d appreciate if you came upstairs with me to talk to Lozzie yourself. She needs more contact beyond just this house. Plus, you might think of questions I wouldn’t. After all, you are the professional.”

“Fair enough,” Nicky said, and we went upstairs together.

I led the way, with the floorboards creaking softly beneath our feet. But when we reached the top of the stairs and I started ahead for the closed door of Lozzie’s bedroom, Nicole paused behind me. Her eyes roved over the upstairs hallway, showing a little white at the edges.


“Uh … yeah, yeah. I haven’t actually been up here before.” Her eyes found me again, amused and frowning at the same time. “You do realise how creepy this place is, don’t you? Or is this normal for you?”

I blinked at her, then back the corridor, a space I passed through multiple times every single day, and after a moment I came to understand what Nicole meant. It wasn’t too gloomy up here this Saturday morning; some bright spark had opened all the curtains to flood the usually dim passageway with watery spring sunlight, but this served only to deepen the pools of darkness beneath the door frames and the shadows at the further reaches where the corridor slunk off to the left. The sunlight showed all the warping in the old floorboards, the discoloured patches of wall through the paint, the strange unexplained scuffs on the skirting boards which I never thought about too much.

Venerable, lived in, thick with history.

“Oh,” I tutted. “Oh, Nicky, it’s just a house. It’s a beautiful house, too. Much better than some awful suburban box made of particle board and plastic.”

“A house full of wizards and demons, right.” She cleared her throat, a little embarrassed and suitably chastised. “Excuse me if I see far too many doors up here. This place isn’t bigger on the inside than it is outside, right? I open the wrong door, I’m not gonna find a drop down a thousand feet of cliff?”

“Not that I’m aware of. I admit, it might not be a perfectly normal house, but it doesn’t do that.”

“As long as the walls don’t start bleeding.”

Nicole reached out and touched the nearest patch of wall with her fingertips, as if to assure herself it would neither bleed nor scream.

“They’re nice walls. It’s a nice house. It looks after us.” On a rather silly impulse, I reached out and patted the wall too. “Good house.”

“You talking to it like it’s alive does not help, by the way.”

“I’m anthropomorphising an inanimate object.” I huffed. “That’s normal. Natural. We’ve been doing it for tens of thousand of years.”

“Yeah, yeah. Okay. Cool. There’s still way too many doors.” She nodded at the corridor, then lit up. She tried to hide the reaction, but her eyebrows gave her away, as she stepped forward to join me in the patch of sunlight spilling from one of the small, square windows. She made a very studied show of looking out of that window, at the other houses and the street visible out there in Sharrowford. “Kimberly still lives here with you lot, right? She around today?”

I kept my expression carefully neutral. “Did you ever approach her at work?”

Nicole cleared her throat and avoided my eyes. “No, no I didn’t in the end. When I was a copper, well, I had, you know. Authority. Didn’t want her to see me like that, if I was trying it on. I’m like a useless teenager sometimes. Uh, no offense.”

“I’m twenty.”

“Wouldn’t mind scoring some weed off her. Maybe, you know, see how she reacts to me. She in?”

“She knows you’re here,” I said gently, “but she chose to hide from the scary police detective. I think that speaks volumes.”

Nicole gave a huge deflating sigh.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Nah, it’s not your fault that my type are also the type to not like police officers,” Nicole grumbled with a rueful smile. “Maybe give it a few months. Let the stink wash off.”

“Excuse me for asking,” I said. “But are you only focused on her because she’s ‘close to hand’?”

“No, I’m focused on her because she’s cute,” Nicole deadpanned at me. “And I’m not focused, either. I had a little fling a couple of weeks ago. It was alright, not very satisfying. Not really my type in the end.”

“And Kimberly’s your type.”

“Yeah. No joke.”

“Maybe I’ll talk to her sometime, and see how she reacts to the idea?” I offered. “But no promises. I don’t think she’s into you. I don’t think you’re even on her radar.”

Nicole studied me for a second, practical and solid in her sensible clothes and tired eyes. “I’d appreciate that. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours?” She cracked a long-suffering grin. “Can hardly turn down your job if you do that for me.”

“Oh!” My carefully constructed front crumbled into a blinking mess. “Oh, no, no, Nicky, I didn’t mean it that way. I just mean I’ll talk to her, I’m not trying to trade favours, a-and you don’t have to do it, you don’t have to, I-”

Nicole laughed softly, and reminded me I was in the presence of a very experienced manipulator, even if she was no longer using her powers for the state. I blushed and frowned at her, and almost puffed my cheeks out like Lozzie. She cleared her throat with apologetic shrug.

“I’ll think about it,” she said. “And hey, I shouldn’t be leaning on you as a romance therapist. Let’s go talk to Lozzie.”

“Mmm, let’s.”

I led Nicole down the hallway, past sensibly closed doors and lurking pools of shadow. I paused at my own bedroom to crack the door and check on Zheng. Her massive sleeping bulk was stretched out beneath the bedsheets in the gloom, breathing softly.

“Shaman,” she rumbled without opening her eyes.

“Just checking on you,” I whispered.

“Need me?”

“Go back to sleep.”

And she did. I closed the door again and found Nicole regarding me with a raised eyebrow.

“Zheng’s sleeping, like I said.”

“Is that your bedroom?” she asked.

“We have a thing going on. A complicated thing.”

Nicole raised her hands. “Say no more. None of my business.”

When we reached the door to Lozzie’s bedroom, I knocked softly and called even softer. “Lozzie? It’s me. Nicky is with me. Can we come in?”

A heavy mumble, a fluttery trill of surprise – which made Nicole flinch and frown – and a sing-song silver-bell of “You may enter” all replied to my inquiry. I opened the door and peered inside.

There was never very much to see in Lozzie’s bedroom. She hadn’t put a lot of effort into making it her own, into expressing herself with posters or plush toys or treasured mementos, because she didn’t have any of those things. Apart from her pastel poncho and the other clothes she’d arrived in upon her return from Outside – and her pink beanie with the cat ears that she’d picked up on our shopping trip – everything in the room came from the house itself, or from us. Most of the clothes she wore were borrowed from me. The books that littered the floor and the low table in the middle of the room had come from my collection, or Evelyn’s study, or the library. Lozzie’s mobile phone was a hand-me-down from Evelyn too; we’d thought it important she have one of her own, that she feel connected, even if she didn’t go outdoors by herself.

Before Tenny had hatched and joined her in here, the room had seemed oddly empty. It was the same size as mine and Raine’s. The expanse of the double bed with its old iron frame and the vast empty space of the floor had always dwarfed Lozzie’s slender form. But now the low table was scattered with mess – dinosaur books and books full of illustrated animals, puzzle books and three Rubik’s cubes and two chess sets, and an incredibly complicated three-dimensional metal puzzle which Raine had ordered off the internet. It had come with special sealed instructions, and an invitation to some obscure organisation, addressed to anybody capable of solving the puzzle without recourse to the instructions.

Tenny had dismantled it in about fifteen minutes and promptly lost interest. Raine had spent an hour trying to figure out how to express Tenny’s critique in an email to the designers.

Since Tenny’s arrival, we’d added more to the room as well – a pair of comfy bean-bag chairs around the low table, one of the old televisions which was lying around the house, and most recently, Raine’s ‘gamecube’.

Tenny was currently sprawled on her belly across one of the beanbag chairs, video game controller in both hands in front of her. Two of her tentacles were busy playing a game of chess against each other – against herself?

“Heath!” she trilled at my appearance. “Ahhh! Ghost.”

“Ghosts, yes.” I smiled and politely glanced at the screen. She was playing more of the spooky game in the cartoon mansion.

“Spooky,” she fluttered, then blinked her huge all-black eyes past me.

Praem was perched on the edge of the bed, prim and proper and straight-backed, one lace-gloved hand stroking Lozzie’s blonde head. That scalp was the only part of Lozzie visible. She’d pulled up the sheets from the edges of the bed and wrapped herself in a messy cocoon of blankets. Another two of Tenny’s tentacles were stuck down the front of the blanket-cocoon, presumably for hugging purposes.

“Ah,” I said. “Lozzie?”

No reply came from inside the cocoon, only a caterpillar-like shuffle.

“Praem, is she okay?” I asked.

Praem looked up at me, empty milk-white eyes meeting my own, and said nothing.

“Ah, well.” I stepped over the threshold and considered sitting down on the bed. Perhaps this wasn’t the best time for Nicole to question Lozzie after all. Something about our conversation had really upset her, worse than her usual aversion to violent topics and raised voices. “Perhaps it would be best if you wait … ”

I turned back to Nicole, and trailed off.

Our friendly local Private Eye was staring at Tenny as if she had seen an alien. She glanced at me, then back at Tenny – at the unexplained moth-puppy-tentacle person with coal black skin and white fur and twitching antenna.

“Am I hallucinating?” Nicole asked, slowly and carefully.

“No!” I said. “No, uh- I’m sorry, I-”

“’lo?” Tenny trilled at her. “Heeeellooo?”

“Heather,” Nicole said, tight and a little unimpressed, still staring at Tenny. “I would appreciate an explanation. Please.”

“It’s okay, it’s okay!” I blurted out, hands up. “This is Tenny, it’s fine, she’s fine.”

“’lo?” Tenny tried again. Two tentacles snaked out from beneath her flesh-cloak and began moving toward Nicole. The detective took a step back, eyes going wide.

“Tenny!” I tried not to sound panicked, I didn’t want to upset her. “This- please- Tenny, this is Nicky. Please don’t touch her, okay? Please, please no touching without warning.”

Tenny blinked at me several times, deeply confused. I took the extra precaution of stepping forward and gently taking her pair of exploratory tentacles in my own hands, smiling at her as I did.

“Heather, what am I looking at here?” Nicole asked.

“Not what,” I said, firm but gentle. “Who. Her name is Tenny.”

“Okaaaaaay,” Nicole said, very much not okay.

“Tenny, this is Nicky,” I repeated. “Nicky, this is Tenny. She’s Lozzie’s … creation. Child. Sort of.”

“Nick-eeee,” Tenny echoed, wiggling her legs and rolling on the beanbag. “Nick-eeeeee.”

Nicole was still frozen in the doorway, her stare flicking back and forth between me and Tenny. I sighed at her. “She’s trying to say hello to you,” I said. “Come say hello back?”

“She can say hello from over there, thank you very much,” Nicole said. “And what is with the fucking tentacles?”

“Don’t swear!” I snapped, and felt Tenny’s tentacles flinch in my grip. “Tenny, I’m sorry, I’m not angry with you, it’s okay.”

Brrrrrrr,” she trilled.

I turned back to Nicole. “Please don’t swear in front of Tenny, she’s basically a child. And you’re acting as if you are afraid of her,” I put special, gentle emphasis on each word. “Please come say hello.”

Nicole got the message, but she tilted her head with a ‘I-cannot-believe-you-are-asking-me-to-do-this’ look.

“She is absolutely harmless,” I whispered.

Which was true enough.

With a sigh and a sucking of her teeth, Nicole stepped up to my shoulder and peered at Tenny.

“Nick-eeee,” Tenny said.

Nicole raised an awkward hand and pulled the best smile she could muster under the circumstances, the product of work with much more difficult people than Tenny. “Good afternoon, Tenny,” she said, strained and fake, but polite. “Nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you,” Tenny replied in her fluttering, trilling voice. She wiggled her tentacles out of my hands, and hovered them in front of Nicole for a heart-stopping second, before looking sort of sad as she withdrew them.

Nicole cleared her throat and gave me a look. “May I … ask … ?” She opened a hand, at a complete loss.

I sighed. “We don’t really know what Tenny is. She was a spirit, pneuma-somatic life, and then Lozzie put her in a cocoon and she hatched into a real girl.”

“Real girl!” Tenny trilled, then laughed – a strange hissing, fluttering noise deep inside her chest. She glanced back at the screen and resumed pressing the buttons on her controller.

“The important part is that she’s family now,” I said.

Nicole shook her head in disbelief, then pointed quizzically at one of the chess boards on the low table. I couldn’t help but notice as well. The whole time we’d been talking and Tenny’s attention had been on us, she’d continued playing chess against herself with two of her tentacles, finished one match, reset the pieces, and started over.

“In some ways she’s a child,” I explained. “But in other ways she’s more intelligent than us. She’s developing very quickly. A few weeks ago she was more like a baby, mentally. Now she’s … ”

“A twelve year-old playing xbox?” Nicole offered.

“Not xbox!” Tenny trilled. “Cuuuube.”

“Important distinction,” Praem intoned from the bed.

“Oh, for sure,” Nicole said, suppressing an absurd laugh. She nodded to Tenny. “Excuse my mistake, Tenny.”

“’scused,” Tenny trilled, and turned back to her game. “Pbbbbbbt.”

“Alright,” Nicole said, a little shaky around the edges, but doing her best hard-boiled detective impression. She kept her voice very soft. “Alright, I can deal with this. I can deal. Please don’t spring something like this on me again, Heather.”

I grimaced in apology.

“It’s alright,” Nicole repeated, still soft and gentle. “I’m dealing with it.”

“Tenny,” I asked. “Is Lozzie feeling okay?”

Tenny rotated her head to glance at the bed, then imitated Lozzie’s puffed-cheeks gesture and slowly blew the air out. “Lozzie grump.”

“M’not grumpy,” came a muffled voice from inside the covers.

Nicole and I shared a glance. She nodded to the door with a silent question in her eyes, but I shook my head. It was worth trying, at least. Nicole nodded once and stepped back to a polite distance, and tried not to stare at Tenny too much.

“Lozzie?” I ventured as I sat down next to Praem on the edge of the bed, next to Lozzie’s cocoon. “Nicky had some questions for you, but we can do that another time if you’re feeling bad. Do you want to come out, or do you want me to get in with you? I can ask Nicky to leave, if you like. She’s not police anymore, so she has to do what I tell her. I’m scarier than she is.”

The blanket-lump curled up tighter, but a small pale hand crept out of a gap to find me, flopping against my knee, like a huge deep-sea mollusk extending a tongue from inside a protective shell. I touched it and Lozzie held on. I glanced at Praem, but she was watching Lozzie too.

“Lozzie?” I tried again. “Are you okay?”

“Mmmhmmm,” Lozzie murmured.

“What’s wrong?”

“The world is full of horrible people,” she said from inside the covers, her voice uncharacteristically slow and limp. “Horrible people doing horrible things to each other all the time. And family is great, you’re great, I love you, but there’s so many bad things and bad people and it’s all so complicated and confusing and I don’t want to think about it but I have to think about it and I don’t want to.”

“Oh, Lozzie.” I squeezed her hand.

“I tried to go Outside.”

My heart juddered. A flash of cold blossomed in my chest, a spike of panic.

Lozzie must have felt that.

“Only for a few minutes!” she chirped. Blanket-Lozzie wiggled and wriggled and out popped her head from inside the covers, flushed from enclosure and pouting faintly, eyes even heavier-lidded than usual. Tenny’s pair of tentacles emerged with her, cradling her back in a half-hug. She wasn’t crying, just incredibly down. “Just for a bit! I just want to step away sometimes and go Outside but I can’t and I can’t go and I’m stuck because the stupid hands keep hanging onto my ankles. And I want to show Tenny, she’s stuck here too and she can’t even go outdoors because she’ll be seen and people will hurt her but I know places she can fly for real and not worry but we can’t!”

Bbbbpppptt,” went Tenny.

“Lozzie, I’m sorry.” I reached forward to brush her hair away from her forehead, where flyaway strands of fine blonde had stuck to her skin. “We’ll find a way to get rid of the dead hands. We will. I might be able to brainmath them away, maybe, they’re only … ”

Lozzie gave me a sad look from beneath heavy lids. She didn’t even need me to say it. We’d talked about it before.

The hands were probably her brother. Or what was left of him. We couldn’t even find Edward Lilburne, and he was very much alive and kicking. If we couldn’t find a live man, what chance did we have with a ghost?

But that wasn’t the source of the razor thorn of guilt pricking at my heart.

“A-and in the meantime,” I added, trying to cover for myself. “We can always go to the castle, whenever you’re feeling tired. I promise we’ll always do that, together.”

“It’s not enough,” she murmured. “I want to go Outside. To the real places.”

Deep down, in a locked vault of the heart I would never admit to owning, part of me whispered the truth.

You haven’t unmade the hands, because you don’t want Lozzie to leave again.

“Heather?” Lozzie said my name, her sad tone completely gone as she sat up, the motion dragging her cocoon apart. “Heather?”

“It’s … I … uh … ”

“Trust,” Praem intoned, and I almost jumped out of my skin. How had she known?

She was right. Trust. I had no choice but to trust Lozzie. She’d gone Outside for an extended period before. Then, when I’d been helpless before the Eye, she’d responded to Maisie’s call and come to my rescue. Trust was the only option, because the other path would keep her miserable and make me responsible, and that would make me into another kind of monster.

“Heatherrrrrrr?” Lozzie dipped her head to look at me from below, her elfin face curious and confused.

“I’ll use brainmath to remove the dead hands,” I said, looking her in the eye. “I’ll try. Not now, not today, not … not until I solve the anchor problem.” I cleared my throat. “Not that you know what that means, but when I’m ready. I’ll fight them. And you can go Outside again, I promise. I won’t be afraid. Well, no, I might be afraid, but I’ll deal with that.”

A little smile crept onto Lozzie’s face. She sniffed and wiped her eyes on a corner of her blanket cocoon, and then threw her arms around my shoulders, squeezing tight. I hugged her back, and dipped a hand to pat one of Tenny’s tentacles too.

“We can go Outside together right now, you know?” she chirped. “Like we used to. We can go through the gateway and then anywhere! Anywhere at all! There’s this place with the biggest trees ever, as big as mountains, and the leaves are all clever and thinky, but you have to think around them or they get grumpy and then they say a lot of confusing things but it’s always nice things and we could go right now!”

I went stiff. “Um … ”

Lozzie pulled back, smile bouncing across her face. “I know. I knoooow. You don’t wanna go unless it’s dreams.”

“I … I think I find Outside scarier than you do, Lozzie. I’m … I’m sorry.”

The pout inched back. “I knooooow.”

A light bulb went on in my head. “Lozzie, can you do a handstand?”

Lozzie blinked at me.

“Handstand,” Praem echoed.

“Yes?” Lozzie said, tilting her head back and forth like a curious bird.

“Could you teach me how?” I asked.

The head-tilting became almost terminal. I was worried she’d rotate her head right off the top of her spine.

“Do you want to go to the park together?” I carried on quickly. “The big one near the university campus, with the oak trees and the children’s playground. We can go on a weekday, in the middle of the day, so there’s not many kids around. We’ll get ice creams, and play on the swings, and you can teach me how to do a handstand. It’s spring, the weather’s been getting warmer. And you’re right, you could do with getting out of the house some more. Even if only for half an hour. Even if it’s only here, not Outside. It’ll be nice. We can take Raine too, for … well, you understand.”

Lozzie did a very comical eye-narrowing and puffed one cheek out. “I’m not actually a child.”

“Neither am I,” I said, “and I would very much like to go to the park.”

Lozzie broke into giggles and snorting and paffed at my lap with her hands. “Okay then! Okay! Okay-okay-okaaaaaay. On Monday? As soon as we can?”

“On Monday.”

“Caaaaaan we invite fuzzy too? I haven’t seen her in a while and I wanna give her a hug.”

I blinked at her. “Fuzzy?”


“Oh. Certainly. If she’s not busy.”

“Twil will be available,” Praem intoned. I blinked at her.

“How do you know that?” I asked.

“I know,” Praem said.

Lozzie gave me another hug, and Praem finally got up from the edge of the bed, carefully brushing off her skirt and standing up ramrod-straight, hands clasped in front of her. She very pointedly stared at Nicole.

“Yeah?” Nicole said.

“Questions,” Praem intoned.

“Questions, yeah, sure. For a start, where’s your maid outfit? Not going in for that anymore?”

“On the way.”

“Excuse me?” I looked up from the hug.

“On the way,” Praem repeated.

“Getting a new one, eh?” Nicole asked. “Not every day you see somebody pull off a genuine full-on maid outfit. Suited you. Looking forward to version two-point-oh.”

“Questions,” Praem repeated.

“Yes, yes,” I filled in for Nicole, disentangling myself from Lozzie and clearing my throat. “Lozzie, Nicky wanted to ask-”

“I know, I know!” Lozzie puffed out both cheeks. She looked past me, up at Nicole. “I was thinking about it while I was wrapped up and I don’t know anything useful-useful because my parents never saw much of Edward when I was small, because he was my dad’s brother and they didn’t like each other for reasons I never knew because my parents were gone before I was old enough and Alexander never told me things.”

Nicole nodded, taking this all very seriously. If she struggled at all with Lozzie’s super-rapid-fire mode, she didn’t let on. “Any small details might-”

“My dad was Richard Lilburne but that probably doesn’t narrow it down or help with anything and my mum was Merle and if that helps then good but I don’t want to think about them anymore.”

“I’m sorry,” Nicole said, and years of interrogation rooms helped her mean it. “I don’t mean to-”

“But there was this house.” Lozzie screwed up her eyes. “It was his house and I only ever went there twice and it was only when my parents were around, and Alexander never ever ever ever went there and when he had to send people there they didn’t come back, and Edward pretended they never got there but you could tell they did and something happened but my brother pretended it was all okay.”

Nicole and I shared a glance.

“Lozzie?” I pressed gently. “What house? You didn’t mention this before.”

“Because I can’t remember where it is!” she burst out at me. “I was only small! It was made of brown and red bricks and had beams and it was pretty big but not really big, and there were woods but not too many woods and it had a gravel driveway and a stupid statue of a naked woman in the garden, and I can’t remember!”

I nodded all the same. “Thank you, Lozzie, thank you for trying. I mean it, really.”

“Mmm, I can’t help.” Lozzie pouted.

“Hey, no,” Nicole said, with a voice like the cat that got the cream. “That is help. Oh, trust me, that’s something. That sure is something alright.”

“ … you know the place?” I asked.

Nicole shook her head. “Not yet. But when I find it, then I’ll know it.”

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a very great mischief – 13.6

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Raine and Zheng fought with everything they had, right down to the last sliver of crimson, and I couldn’t do a single thing to stop them.

They loved it. Body and soul, they both loved a good fight.

And to my complete lack of surprise, I loved watching them.

“You gotta learn to block air,” Raine said, grinning like mad. “You gotta start blocking air, ‘cos I’m gonna keep jumping in. Gonna keep jumping. In. On. You. Ha!”

Rrrrrrr.” Zheng bared her teeth in a low growl. “Little wolf, I am going to be the one jumping on you.”

“Don’t announce your intentions, blockhead,” Raine shot back. “Then I can prep- oh! Yeah! Haha!” Raine got hit, hard. She rolled with the blows and came up laughing. “That’s more like it!”

“I learnt to feint in combat before your first recognisable ancestors dribbled down your great-great-great-grandmother’s thigh,” Zheng growled as she pressed the attack.

“Not like this you didn’t.”

Raine went quiet and focused. She dodged all of Zheng’s follow-up attacks, and used a technique I hadn’t witnessed yet, a ridiculous spinning jump which misdirected the target away from the arc of her knife.

Zheng went down, snapped her teeth in frustration, and hopped back up – only to lose the round to a tiny toe-jab.

“Unnhnnn,” she grunted, the closest she could get to graceful acknowledgement.

Raine raised both thumbs, and blew across them in the manner of an old west gunslinger blowing across the barrel of a six-shooter after a duel.

“Next time, little wolf,” Zheng rumbled, “I will pin you in the corner and tear your guts out. And I will use a different fighter.”

I sighed from below the action. “Is all the rudeness really necessary?”

Raine glanced down at me – spread across both their laps – with a smirk and a raised eyebrow. She was glowing with enjoyment, completely in her element, and my minor complaint felt like a reed before a hurricane, unworthy of being voiced. I was the luckiest girl in the entire world, to get to witness this up close and personal.

Then she reached down and goosed my side through my pink jumper.

“R-Raine!” I squeaked, trying to squirm away.

“Sorry, couldn’t help myself,” she laughed “And yes. Trash talk is an integral part of fighting game culture. Zheng and I, right now? We’re bonding. Ain’t we?”

Raine moved her elbow – her actual, physical elbow, in the real world of flesh and blood – about eight inches, to gently nudge Zheng in the side. Zheng allowed this liberty to pass without comment, which was true testimony to how far they’d come today.

“We are,” Zheng grunted, but sounded vaguely angry about it.

I sighed again and turned my eyes back to the television. With Raine’s victory, their temporary virtual battlefield was dissolving back into the character select screen, full of tiny cartoon portraits of various anime girls and boys and monsters and several combinations of all three.

“I suppose I wouldn’t know about that,” I said.

But then, that was the point; this was for them. Not me.

They’d been going at it now for half an hour, and unlike akarakish, this contest was not even remotely fair. Zheng had never so much as touched a video game before, let alone gone head-to-head against an experienced opponent. I’d breathed an actual audible sigh of relief when Raine had suggested video games, but Zheng had watched in cautious curiosity. Raine had turned on her laptop, hooked it up to the back of the television, and spooled out cables for a pair of controllers.

“Wouldn’t it be easier to use the console thingy?” I’d asked.

“Ah? Oh, this one isn’t on the console,” Raine answered.

“Can’t we play the alchemist game?” I’d blinked in confusion. This was a lot of material setup for a single video game. “The one with the … substantial bosom?”

“That’s not even two-player. Plus, this is special. Zheng’ll like it.”

She’d placed one of the two black controllers in Zheng’s waiting hands – the ‘better one’, she’d called it. “Without the sticky triangle button, but I can compensate for that.”

“You are disadvantaging yourself?” Zheng had rumbled, her narrowed eyes flicking across the controller buttons with intense interest.

“S’only fair. Least at first.”

Raine booted the game up and output the visuals from her laptop to the television, an apparently elementary trick that had me wide-eyed with surprise. I hadn’t known that was possible. I suppose she’d done it before for other things, but I probably hadn’t been paying attention to the specifics. She explained the basic notion of a fighting game, the concepts, terminology, button presses and moves – and not just to Zheng, though I was much slower on the uptake than Zheng.

“Let’s not muck about in practice mode. You can learn by whaling on me for real,” Raine said.

Within about thirty seconds they’d left me far behind with “invincibility frames” and “quarter circle forward”, “she’s a grappler” and “press three face buttons at once when you have heat.” Zheng only needed to see something once, hear an explanation once, and she was away. She was surprisingly dexterous with the controller too, far better than I’d expected, and she stopped needing to glance down at her hands within about five seconds. Better than my record at least, and I’d been playing much easier games too.

Learning by doing only lasted a couple of rounds, until Zheng stopped responding to Raine’s suggestions, and went for her unprompted.

“Wanna go for real? Got a choice?” Raine nodded at the character select screen. “I main Shiki here, but you might like that one, or her. They’re both up close and personal. Like you.”

“Who is this big man?” Zheng rumbled, as her selection hovered over the ‘big man’ in question.

“Shoots animals out of his body.”

“Mmmmm. Good,” Zheng purred, and they began.

They fought the first round without settling in for the long haul. Raine stood by the bed and Zheng still sat in the armchair, but by the third round Raine had sat down on the edge of the bed, and by the forth she’d scooted over next to me, legs crossed, intent and focused on the screen even when I thoughtlessly leaned against her back.

When Zheng lost for the fifth time, she stood up all at once with a growl between her teeth, huge and threatening in the confined space of our bedroom.

“Hey, don’t be a sore loser,” Raine told her with a warning tone in her voice. “You’re learning, you landed that combo on me, you-”

“You have gained a morale advantage, little wolf.” Zheng jerked her chin at me.

“O-oh!” I pulled away from Raine, blushing and surprised. “I didn’t mean to favour one of you over the other. I was just- it was- I was-”

Raine just laughed and ruffled my hair. “You need some motivational Heather too, hey? Climb aboard then.” Raine glanced at me. “If you don’t mind, of course?”

“N-not at all!” I squeaked, self-conscious at the attention all over again.

But my self-consciousness melted away like spring frost in gentle sunlight. Zheng joined us on the bed, and I silently thanked the Saye family tastes in bed frame sizes, because while she did have to scoot back a bit further, she fit quite comfortably alongside Raine, both of them cross-legged and focused as they started another round. I leaned on both their backs and watched over their shoulders for a while, the recipient of unexpected casual skinship between rounds or after another victory – Raine ruffling my hair, Zheng reaching back to rub me like a cat – but I slowly found myself drawn to the obvious conclusion, the one place I was supposed to be. With the possibility of sex banished for now, with Raine and Zheng truly invested and focused on the game, everything made so much more sense. I could do this, and it wasn’t embarrassing.

Well, it was a little bit embarrassing.

Unspoken, almost unthinking, entirely natural, I shed my pink-scaled hoodie like a protective skin no longer needed, and crawled around the front and into both of their laps.

Head nestled on Zheng’s thigh, legs draped over Raine’s lap, I watched them fight.

My inviolate realm had finally welcomed two others.

I understood vanishingly little of what either of them was actually doing, what any of the button presses meant, but I could follow the action on the screen readily enough, and the action on screen was very pretty – little animated two-dimensional characters beating each other up, sprouting claws, throwing knives, punching fire, baring fangs – even if I had no idea how any of it was being achieved.

I felt a little like a background bystander during a climactic fight scene in an anime show.

Lots of flashy moves and very impressive anime ladies, and not an overinflated bust-line in sight, but it all seemed a bit over the top to me, nothing like a real fight. Everybody involved should have been dead a dozen times over; one did not hit a concrete pavement and get one’s skull crushed by a pretty vampire lady and then bounce back to one’s feet as if nothing had happened. I sighed inside at the implication: I knew what a real fight looked like. Little Heather, terminal mess, can’t even dress herself without freaking out, knows intimately the reality of a life-or-death fight. What would my mother say?

Raine stuck with the one character she knew how to play at a high level of competence – a woman in a kimono, slashing a knife about, whose design I rather liked. She went easy as Zheng tried out different options, different play-styles, but she never gave Zheng the win for free. Raine always let her get a few hits in or try out all her moves, before making it clear who was still on top.

But somewhere between rounds ten and eleven, while I lay in both their laps and felt like a very lucky kitten with my skirt across Raine’s legs and my head in the gap between Zheng’s thigh and the warm flexing hardness of her abdominal muscles, Zheng surprised Raine.

She’d tried a few different characters by then – the ‘big man’, a teenage Japanese girl vampire, a sort of tiny comedic cat, and a mischievous maid who couldn’t possibly be further from Praem-like – but she settled on a madly grinning, evil-looking vampire lady, who was perhaps the entire reason Raine had selected the game in the first place. Her moves seemed very aggressive to me, big and wide and confident. Not unlike Zheng herself, perhaps.

Zheng used her to take a round off Raine, aggressive, unrelenting, and with a sliver of red left in her health bar.

“Woo!” But it was Raine who whooped at the end, and held up a hand.

“Victory, little wolf,” Zheng growled. “At last.”

Raine waggled her hand. “Don’t leave me hanging!”

“Mmmmm?” Zheng purred, tilting her head.

“Come on, up top,” Raine said.

Zheng blinked, once, slowly, like a lizard.

Raine narrowed her eyes and cracked a sharp grin. “Don’t pretend you don’t know what a high-five is. You’ve been hanging around wizards, not preserved in ice since the Mongols. You’re not Captain Caveman.”

Zheng maintained her quiet curiosity for a moment longer, pretending incomprehension. Had a win made her aggressive? Or was she toying with Raine as one cat might with another? Being so close to the minor confrontation but seeing it from below, down in her lap, made it almost comedic. My phantom limbs tried to poke her in the cheeks and forehead, more amused than concerned.

“No fighting,” I said – and my words emerged almost Lozzie-like, a tiny sing-song that made me blush and wiggle and hide behind a hand.

“Yeah, what she said.” Raine nodded down at me and squeezed one of my knees, stroking my leg through my white tights.

Zheng broke into an all-tooth grin at Raine, a dragon about to ask a difficult riddle of its lunch, and finally slapped her own massive palm against Raine’s hand.

“Ha!” She barked at Raine’s answering grin. “Another!”

“Sure thing,” Raine said. “You won’t win again though. I got you dialled in now.”

Zheng had been turning back to the screen, with one hand lowered toward my head to stroke my hair, but the confident bite in Raine’s tone made her freeze. I felt the sudden flow of tension in her muscles, the tightening of instinct, the sharpening of senses. Heavy dark eyes shot back to Raine, and a shiver of animal fear went through me.

It wasn’t a joke anymore.

“Little wolf,” she purred.

“Z-Zheng-” I murmured, but she ignored me.

Raine went tense too, still grinning, a dangerous twinkle in her eyes. “Now you take offence? That’s what it takes? A little bit of shit-talking?”

“Overconfidence does not suit you,” Zheng purred. She placed her controller down on the bed and leaned towards Raine, slowly easing closer and closer. She pulled her lips back to show all her teeth, a maw filled with daggers that made my stomach turn over with both excitement and fear. I twisted and fidgeted in her lap, instinct telling me to clear out of the way, love demanding I stay where I was.

Raine, incredibly, stood her ground, and withstood Zheng’s predatory attention with nought but a raised eyebrow.

“Dunno if you’ve checked recently,” she said. “But I don’t scare easy. Now, you wanna put some cash down, make this a money match, then I’ll be shitting myself.”

“N-no fighting, please … ” I squeaked.

“I don’t think we’re fighting,” Raine murmured, eyes locked on Zheng’s gaze. “Are we?”

Zheng leaned in even closer, until their faces were barely six inches apart. Her teeth parted and out rolled twelve inches of wet pink tongue, slicing into the air with lizard-like slowness, tasting Raine’s breath in front of her face.

Raine’s eyebrows almost achieved escape velocity. She let out a low whistle. “Okay, now I see why Heather wants to sleep with you. Dang.”

“R-Raine!” I squealed in mortified embarrassment. She laughed, but Zheng didn’t so much as flicker.

Slowly, inch by inch, Zheng reeled her tongue back into her mouth, and clicked her teeth together. She let out a sound halfway between a tiger’s purr and the distant murmur of a lost jungle leviathan. Raine stared back with manic joy. I could barely draw breath, I was so overexcited, panged with a tiny spike of guilt over how much I was enjoying the moment of strange animal frisson between them. Zheng’s behaviour was reminiscent of how she’d first approached me.

Was this her way of flirting? Was she trying to decide if she liked Raine? Or was it challenge, confrontation, jostling for dominance?

Abyssal instinct knew it was both.

Finally, Raine’s eyes flickered down to me for a split-second. “Heather looks like she’s about to blow a gasket, watching us do this.”

“Can you blame me?!” I burst out, then slammed my mouth shut and hid behind both hands, blushing and vibrating and making a sound like a distressed seal.

Zheng’s laugh was a low rumbly chuckle. She pulled back from Raine and let out a long sigh, like a mountain trying to decide if it was going to become a volcano. I peeked out from between my hands just in time to see her raking her fingers back through the mess of her dark hair, regarding Raine from behind inscrutable eyes.

“A start, little wolf.”

Raine narrowed one eye in a sceptical look. “But only a start.”

“Then let us continue.” Zheng plucked the controller off the bed, and stroked my overheated head with her other hand. I whined and hid and felt exceptionally silly.

“Yeah, continue kicking your arse more like,” Raine laughed, and turned back to the character select screen.

Zheng took another two rounds off her before Raine could adapt. But then Raine came back with misdirection, finally pulled out her full range of experience, and that’s when the trash talking started.

However much I might complain, it amused me to my core. The way Raine and Zheng sniped back and forth, skirting the fuzzy line between playful and insulting, the way Raine jeered and whooped, the way she stuck her tongue out of the corner of her mouth, the way Zheng focused, eyes widening with predatory intensity, baring her teeth at critical moments – all of it was delightful.

Raine never treated me like that, never insulted me like that, even as a joke. I wasn’t a rival. I was not a challenger. I couldn’t be that to her. This was something she couldn’t get from me.

Cuddled up in both their laps at once, half-drowsing in Zheng’s body heat and both their scents, I turned that idea over in my mind, staring up at Raine as she bit out another smiling jibe.

Was I jealous?

No, not in the slightest. I was enjoying this side of her.

Zheng was similar. To her I was The Shaman, a person of transcendent respect. She would never call me a ‘dung-eater’ like she did when Raine won a round without taking a single piece of damage. Her aggression shone through, but directed, almost friendly and warm.

And this was so much better than real fighting, than letting them hurt each other for real. This risked nothing except one’s ego. With delight came relief, that we’d found a way.

I drifted on the edge of drowsiness, and asked myself the questions that mattered.

Was this what I needed?

Is this my anchor?

And as soon as that thought took conscious form in my mind, something changed about the video game which Raine and Zheng were playing.

The character Raine was controlling did a move I hadn’t seen before, a sort of stab-stop pullback with her knife, and when she resumed her neutral pose it was subtly different. She was standing differently, holding her knife differently, with an oddly familiar smirk animated in miniature.

Zheng’s character, the crazed violent vampire, suffered a similar ‘glitch’. She landed a few blows which Raine blocked, and then when the little animated figure jumped back, she rolled her neck and flexed muscles in a way she had not done before. A very familiar way, as a huge toothy grin ripped across the tiny cartoon face.

The two figures jumped at each other again, and their movements looked nothing like previously. Raine’s character stabbed and span, sticking and moving, bouncing on the balls of her feet. Zheng’s character grabbed and ripped, bearing mighty teeth, leaping like a hungry lion. Both of them on screen grinned like maniacs. They were loving this.

Very alert and very awake now, I stared at the screen in disbelief. Neither Raine nor Zheng appeared to notice anything was wrong.

And then I spied, in the background of the stage – a children’s playground at night, beneath a crescent moon – that a figure had appeared. Part of the scenery. Pixelated yellow robes and a mask for a face, observing the fight.

I do hope Sevens saw my scowl from the far side of the television screen.

And what, pray tell, is this little play supposed to teach me?’ I thought at her in frustration, angry at her for intruding on our private bonding session. ‘That Raine and Zheng look hot when they fight?

She gave me an answer, a practical one.

For the first time in all the rounds they’d fought, Raine and Zheng drew. In a moment which I understand is quite rare in fighting games, their ‘hitboxes’ – I word I later learnt from Raine – overlapped in such a fashion that Raine’s knife-strike took out Zheng in the exact same moment that Zheng put her fist through Raine’s chest.

They both fell down, thrown across the cartoon stage in slow-motion double-defeat.

“Awww, come on!” Raine called out.

“Disappointing,” Zheng rumbled.

Maybe they couldn’t see what happened next. Perhaps it was for my eyes only. Perhaps Seven-Shades-of-Software-Issues intended it that way.

The two little figures on the screen – one battered and bloody knife-woman and one limping superhuman vampire – got up and staggered toward each other in a shared animation, then slumped together, each standing only with the other’s support. Arms linked, heads together, grinning wild.

Yare sasenakereba naranai,” said the yellow-robed figure in the background. “Aitsura no seishitsu desu.”

Subtitles scrolled at the base of the screen, in blocky yellow.

‘You have to let them. It’s what they are.’

I sighed through my nose.

Let them what? Fight, for real?

“Heather?” Raine said my name with obvious concern, and I looked up from the screen, caught red-handed. “You’ve gone tense. You okay?”

“Something is wrong, shaman?” Zheng purred as well. Her hand found my head, cradling my skull like I was a small nervous animal.

“Nothing I could possibly explain,” I said with another sigh, and forced myself to relax. “It’s just really good to see you two having fun together. Fun. Yes.”

When I looked back at the screen, the yellow figure was walking away, vanishing into the pixelated background.


“Lemme lay this one out flat then, for my own benefit,” said Nicole Webb. She wrapped her hands around the fresh mug of tea which Praem had placed on the kitchen table in front of her. “You want me to locate an extraordinarily dangerous man, who we know from experience can wear other people’s faces, who lives outside the law, can throw fireballs or turn people into frogs or whatever, possibly commands a cult of dedicated acolytes, and has committed actual honest to God kidnapping, torture, and probably human experimentation?”

“W-well … ” I stammered, but Nicole held up a hand. She wasn’t done yet.

Evelyn tried to sit up straight, frowning at old pain in her twisted spine. One hand left the table to rub at the socket of her prosthetic leg, through her comfortable skirt. “That would be the long and short of it, yes,” she said.

“And you can’t find him with magic,” Nicole went on. “Because he’s too well hidden. With magic.”

“Correct. We assume.”

“And you think I’m the woman for this job?” Nicole’s faux-serious front broke into a laugh as she leaned back in her chair. “Look, all of you, I appreciate the vote of confidence, but what the fuck?”

Evelyn sighed.

Over by the counter, standing in defiance of her very real need to sit down as much as possible to help her healing leg, Raine shot a finger-gun at Nicole.

“Nicky, come on,” she said. “You’re the expert.”

Nicole laughed at her too. “You’re more expert at killing wizards than I am, Haynes. No offense, but fuck off.”

“You are the expert,” Evelyn said, her voice thin with fraying patience. “Mages still have to eat and sleep, and occasionally take a shit. Somebody buys food for him. He’s an old man, he must see a doctor on occasion. He lives somewhere, I’d guess no further out than Manchester. We’re not asking you to kill him, we’re asking you to find him. And none of us are experts at finding people who don’t want to be found.”

Nicole shrugged with feigned helplessness “Alright, what if he’s gone off to one of your weird dimensions outside reality?” She gestured at me. “Ever think of that?”

“Constantly,” I muttered.

“Yeah,” Lozzie hissed, hovering at my shoulders. “Hope he has.”

“If he’s hiding Outside,” Evelyn deadpanned, “then the problem solves itself. No human being lasts long out there. But Edward Lilburne is far too clever for that.”

“You’ve got the skills, Nicky,” Raine said. “And we’ve got the need. Need a manhunt here. Tracking a fugitive. Come on.”

Nicole blew out a long breath, making a pbbbbbt sound as she did, and cast her eyes around the kitchen. “What about the great hunter, hey? Isn’t she supposed to be good at this?”

Evelyn stiffened. “If you are referring to Twil, she is both busy with school, and I don’t want her-”

“Nah, not miss teenage werewolf.” Nicole waved a hand. “The big lady with all the muscles. The-” She tutted. “Demon.”

“Zheng’s asleep,” I informed her – though I left out the detail of exactly who’s bed she was sleeping in. “She’s been hunting every night for the last week, trying to pick up any trace of him, and she’s having no luck either. Please, Nicky.” I pleaded. “Even if you’re not comfortable taking the job for us, could you … suggest anything? Anything at all? Please.”

Nicole looked at me, and all her dismissive humour melted away.

After all, I was the one who’d pulled her into this world.

It was Saturday morning, almost a full week since Raine and Zheng and I had spent the afternoon playing video games together. We – myself, Evelyn, Raine, Praem, and Lozzie – were all gathered in the kitchen, to ask PI Nicole Webb to achieve the impossible.

The last four days had been quiet, uneventful, and saturated with deep unspoken emotional confusion which left me barely able to concentrate on anything more complicated than losing myself in a book, let alone the strategic necessity of enlisting Nicole Webb’s detective skills to find Edward Lilburne. Evelyn had informed me back on Tuesday – or was it Wednesday? – that Nicole was now an exceptionally busy woman, but she would make time for us first thing Saturday morning. I’d likely forgotten all about the agreed meeting five minutes later.

Bothering Nicole shouldn’t have been necessary; I should have been able to solve this days ago. I should have been able to do this with brainmath.

I should have forged my anchor by now.

Nicole didn’t seem to mind popping round to the house though, and in a way it was good to see her.

“You seem different, detective,” Raine had said when we’d greeted her at the front door, as Praem had closed and locked it again behind her. Nicole had wiped her boots on the doormat and glanced around the front room, nodding to each of us in polite, professional greeting even as Raine needled her. “Get a haircut? Buy a new car?” Raine cracked a grin. “Get laid at last?”

“Raine,” I tutted under my breath. Lozzie, draped over my shoulders like a plush toy, stifled a snort behind one hand.

“Ha ha,” Nicole had deadpanned back. “Nice crutch, Haynes. What’d you do, twist your ankle doing a spin-kick?”

Raine grinned back, brimming with smug satisfaction. “Took a bullet.”

Nicole hesitated on a laugh, then looked around at the rest of us. Evelyn sighed and nodded. I nodded too, feeling oddly sheepish, as I was the one Raine had taken the bullet for. Lozzie directed a tiny scowl at Nicole.

“Uh … alright then,” Nicole said, suitably serious now but a bit floored. “From a gun?” She held up a hand. “Okay, no, stupid question. From a gun that I need to worry about?”

“Nah,” Raine said. “Got it upstairs, actually, s’mine now. And the shooter’s come over to our side.”

“Conditionally,” Evelyn grunted. “Miss Webb, welcome, and thank you for coming. Please do ignore Raine being an insufferable bore, and-”

“Got a scar too,” Raine spoke over Evelyn. “In an interesting place. Wanna see my proof, officer? Wanna interrogate me?”

“You and me alone in an interrogation room won’t go well for either of us, Haynes,” Nicole shot back – with a tight, nasty grin.

Evelyn boggled at them. I blinked in surprise too.

“Down,” Praem intoned.

That made Nicole jump. The doll-demon had stepped back from the door after locking it, to lurk at the edge of Nicole’s vision.

She held out one hand. “Coat.”

Nicole stared at her, taking in the hints of Night Praem showing through in her choice of clothing. Her new maid uniform was yet to arrive, after being painstakingly selected one night as she had poured over options via Evelyn’s laptop, so in the meantime Praem had taken to combining some of her new clothes – long skirt and tight sweater – with deep dark eyeshadow and a pair of black lace gloves she’d picked up during our shopping trip.

“ … you going goth there?” Nicole asked.

“Coat,” Praem repeated.

“Coat,” Nicole echoed, empty and blinking. “Oh, right, yeah, cool. Coat.” She patted her coat down for mobile phone and a notebook, extracted them, then shucked off the coat and handed it to Praem. “Thank you.”

Evelyn finally recovered with a huff. “Stop flirting, you pair of wild dogs,” she said. “Raine, I expect it from you, but miss Webb, don’t join in with her, for God’s sake.”

“Yes, Raine,” I tutted softly. “Be nice.”

“Hey, I am being extra nice,” said Raine.

Nicole shot us all a sheepish grin, and reserved an apologetic nod for me. “Sorry, I don’t mean to spar with your girlfriend, Heather. I’m just feeling a lot less constrained these days. You know?”

Raine wasn’t wrong though. Nicole did seem different.

Between the casual grey jumper and the unremarkable jeans, the big boots on her feet and the many and varied bulges in the pockets of her long coat, the simple ponytail and the relaxed awareness on her face, there was very little left of Detective Sargent Webb. She looked more like an investigative reporter, unassuming, camouflaged by normality, and easy to talk to.

“And don’t call me officer,” she added to Raine. “It’s just Nicky now. Nicole to you.”

Raine laughed. “Whatever you say, copper.”

Nicole frowned. Evelyn looked like she wanted to twat Raine over the head with her walking stick.

“Ayy-see-ayy-bee?” Lozzie asked slowly, from right next to my head, still draped over my shoulders from behind like an affectionate boa constrictor. I caught the edge of her narrowed eyes, her suspicious pout, her serious little frown.

“Lozzie,” I said gently. “Maybe it’s not the time for-”

“It’s always the time!” Lozzie chirped, squishing her cheek against mine.

“You know what?” Nicole said. “Sure, why not? ACAB. Shine on, you wonderful weird little person you.”

She held out a fist toward Lozzie and I, and for a moment I assumed this was some kind of passive-aggressive gesture, that I’d failed to forestall a confrontation. But then Lozzie reached out, slowly and distrustfully, like a wary cat, and bumped her own fist against Nicole’s.

Lozzie hadn’t stopped watching her like a small animal with an unfamiliar intruder, but she hadn’t raised any further objection to Nicole being allowed in the house. Praem had hung up Nicole’s coat, Nicole had taken her shoes off, and we’d decamped to the kitchen for tea and a briefing, which hadn’t gone well when Evelyn had gotten straight into what we needed, what we were asking for, and ended with Nicole staring at me, like a shipwrecked sailor regarding the remains of her ruined boat.

“You don’t have to be here,” I said to that face. “I’m sorry.”

Nicole blew out another long breath. “Look, this is for your long-lost sister, yeah? Not revenge. Not territorial pissing. Not self-defense. It’s for your twin. Tell me it is.”

“It is. We need the book he stole.”

Nicole nodded slowly, picked her pencil up off the table, and tapped her notebook with the point – currently open to a page she’d stopped scribbling on when Evelyn had gotten into the uncomfortable details. She wrote the word ‘leverage’, underlined it twice, then flipped the notebook shut and looked up at us again.

“Alright you lot, if I’m going to do this – and I don’t know that I will,” she held up a hand, “I’m gonna need every single scrap of information you have on Edward Lilburne and his possible associates. Everything, no matter how unimportant.” She glanced at Lozzie. “You’re his niece, right? You gotta spill some family beans. I’m sorry, but you gotta.”

Lozzie shrunk down against my shoulders, cheeks puffed out, making a soft whining noise in her throat.

“We have Amy Stack looking for him already,” Evelyn spoke up. “Inconclusively, so far.”

“Oh hey, fuck, what?” Nicole boggled at her. “Woah, no. I don’t know if I wanna deal with her again. I’ve seen some shit on the police force, but she was a real bona-fide psychopath. You could tell at a glance.”

“No kidding,” Raine murmured.

Did I detect a wistful hint in Raine’s voice? I glanced at her, but she was focused on Nicole.

“Also, wait,” Nicole carried on. “She’s on your side now?”

“We saved her little boy,” Evelyn said, curt and simple.

“She has a child?! That woman, that stone-cold killer, has a child?”

“Monsters have families too,” Raine said.

“It’s not important right now,” Evelyn grumbled. “The important thing is that I can put you in contact with her, if you wish.”

“Errrr, let me think about that one,” Nicole said, in a tone which meant ‘let me think of a reasonable excuse to turn it down.’ “Is that all you’ve got on him then, one lone psycho out there trying to find him? A physical description, and … well, his lawyer? That’s it?”

Evelyn cleared her throat. Raine shrugged.

“That is it,” Praem intoned from by the doorway.

Nicole sighed, and started to shake her head.

“What’s it like being a private eye?” I blurted out. She looked up at me, surprised. “I mean, now that you’ve been doing it for a little while. A … a month? Now that you’re … like you said, freer than you used to be.”

I cleared my throat and felt intensely awkward. Nicole was an experienced interrogator, she knew how to read and manipulate people, and she must have known exactly what I was trying to do. But she smiled and played along anyway. Perhaps she really did want to help, and all she needed was the right excuse.

“Mostly what I expected,” she said, leaning back in her chair.

She put her pencil down and finally took up her cup of tea. She took a long sip as she gathered her thoughts.

“All mysterious beautiful women wandering into your office on a dark and stormy evening?” Raine asked.

Nicole smirked back. “I wish. Nah. It’s slow stuff most of the time, which can be a bit of a drag, but I don’t have a boss to answer to anymore, and I don’t have to worry about departmental politics. There’s a lotta slow time, lots of talking people, which I’m good at, I guess. Lots of following cheating spouses, lots of industrial espionage.” She took another long sip of tea. “Loooots of industrial espionage.”

“What does that entail then?” Raine asked. I silently thanked her for helping this along.

“Well, for example,” Nicole said. “I spent two days this week waiting for a very specific dumpster to fill with some very specific unshredded documents. Then I bribed a dustman, and handed those documents to some people who are going to make a court case based on stuff in said documents, who then paid me money.” She winked at Raine. “Can’t get any more specific than that, or I’d have to kill you. I can do that now. Practically a secret agent, you know.”

Raine laughed. “You can try.”

Nicole waved her down. “I did end up joining that cooperate collective over in Manchester, bunch of other PIs from all over this part of the north. Some of them get into much more grey area shit. Dressing up as plumbers or electricians and blagging their way into places, or straight up sneaking into office blocks. I haven’t got the bottle for that. Yet.”

“Do crime,” Lozzie whispered.

“Grey areas!” Nicole protested, but with a grin.

“Be gay,” Lozzie whispered, even quieter.

“Sounds very … fulfilling,” Evelyn tried, a little half-hearted.

Nicole shrugged. “It’s not like I’m achieving any great good in the world, but then again I didn’t do that on the police force either. At least this way I might help somebody for real someday. And I’ve even got an office now, over in Manchester. Sort of. Only stood in it once. Not even a desk in there. Could’a pitched up there for the day and made you come to me.” She broke into a grin at Evelyn.

“I do hope the building in question has proper disabled access,” Evelyn deadpanned at her.

Nicole froze. “Uh … I-I think there’s a lift.”

Evelyn puffed out a single laugh. “Relax, I’m winding you up.”

“Oh. Oh, right, uh. Ahem. Well. You are paying my advertised rates for this job, right?” Nicole recovered with a cheeky grin. “Nah, I’m joking, for you lot, this is a freebie.”

“Oh,” I spoke up. “We wouldn’t dream of expecting you to-”

“No, seriously.” Nicole waved me down. “For you-”

“I’ll pay your normal rates,” Evelyn said.

Nicole blinked at her. “ … I mean … no offense, but you are a just university student in the end … oh.” Nicole brightened up. “Right. You’re rich, miss Saye, aren’t you?”

“For a given value of rich. And I’m not going to extract free labour from anybody. If you do the job, I’ll pay.”

Nicole cleared her throat. “Half normal rates.”

“Seventy five,” Evelyn said.

“Okay, done. Oh, but that reminds me. Meant to mention a little something to you next time I got the chance. Before I quit the force, somebody happened to misplace the relevant files about your father’s possible property tax issues. Some of those documents were pretty old. Thirty, forty years, and nobody made copies. Pity. Dunno what happened to them.”

“Heeeeeeeeeey, go Nicky,” Raine said with a grin.

“Nothing to do with me,” Nicole said. Picture of innocence, she withstood Evelyn’s level gaze with utter obliviousness.

“I don’t approve of police corruption,” Evelyn said eventually.

“Well, it’s a damn good thing I’m not a police officer anymore, then, isn’t it?” Nicole cracked a huge grin, and was answered with a chirp of agreement from Lozzie. “Let’s not get too far into the weeds right now, yeah? So, you lot have tried to locate mister Lilburne with magic already, right?”

Involuntary or not, Evelyn glanced at me.

“Yes,” she said. “My ways haven’t worked. Heather’s … ”

I hadn’t tried brainmath again, not yet.

Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight had made it clear that the next time I attempted to sip from the dark waters of the abyss, she could not be the one to pull me back to my feet if I slipped any deeper than intended. My anchor had to be complete, but I hadn’t the faintest clue how to define a polyamorous relationship as an anchor of hyperdimensional mathematics.

I might have tried, but I wasn’t even sure if I had an anchor.

Since Raine and Zheng had bonded over fighting games, I’d only grown more confused. I hadn’t known what to expect in the hours and days that had followed, but surprisingly little had changed. There had been no great transformation of my romantic or sexual life. No revelation of how polyamory was meant to work. The biggest difference was nothing to even do with Zheng; I’d grown ever so slightly more comfortable in my new clothes. Even now, sitting at the kitchen table, I was wearing my pink ribbed sweater with my pajama bottoms.

Zheng and I had most certainly not entered any kind of sexual relationship. We hadn’t even kissed. She’d taken to affectionately touching my head whenever nearby, and I’d cuddled in her lap several times, which was one of the most enjoyable experiences I had discovered in life, and I’d even fallen asleep like that one night, after which she had deposited me back in bed with Raine.

It was cuddly. And I liked that. But it confused me.

There was an odd distance between her and Raine, an undercurrent of combative looks and friendly jibes that convinced me Seven-Shades was right. They did need to fight. Zheng had moved partway into our shared life, even joined us in our bedroom the last two nights – when she wasn’t hunting – sleeping in the chair like a huge silent sentinel, making me chew my lip in anxiety as I struggled to find the words to invite her into bed. Raine and her had opened up to each other, but the next step was impossible without their own methods.

And that meant no true polyamory. No anchor. No brainmath to find Edward Lilburne.

Or did it?

Not all love is eros, Zheng had told me, twice now.

Did I love Zheng? And if so, how?

“The lawyer is the way in,” Nicole was saying, tapping her notebook as I resurfaced from confusing thoughts once more.

“The fat man with the rat face?” Raine asked.

Nicole laughed out loud. “Yeah. Harold Yuleson. Left an impression, didn’t he? I knew him a little from my time on the force, if you recall?”

“Indeed,” Evelyn said, tight and frowning.

“Not the other guy who was with him,” Nicole went on. “Julian, was that his name? I’m not dealing with one of you wizards. No way. But lawyers, eh. I can wrangle lawyers. I might lack certain kinds of authority now, but that gives me other edges.”

“Any approach to his lawyer will alert Lilburne to our intentions,” Evelyn said. “Anything other than agreeing to terms.”

Nicole spread her hands. “I’m not going to make an approach. I’m going to break into his office.”

“Yeeeeeeeah girl,” Raine said. “We’ll make a cat burglar out of you yet.”

“He’s gotta have an address in his files somewhere,” Nicole went on, leaning forward, getting more animated as she went. “Even if it’s just for a contact. A single phone number can be the first loose stitch to unravel the whole thing. Anything.”

“You done breaking and entering before?” Raine asked her.

“No, but I know how,” Nicole admitted. “As long as he doesn’t have magical locks or something.”

Evelyn was frowning, obviously not happy with this plan, but her hands were tied. We had asked for expert opinion, and we’d gotten it.

“Look,” Nicole said, obviously catching Evelyn’s silent meaning. “We’ll make a deal. If I see a floating ghost or hear a zombie’s moan or come across a spooky old book, I’ll turn around and walk away and call you. How’s that?”

Evelyn opened her mouth to reply.

“There’s somebody else I’d like you to look for as well,” I interrupted.

“Heather,” Evelyn said in low warning. “We said we don’t have the spare time or energy.”

“I think we need to try. It’s not like I’m useful for much else lately,” I told Evelyn, then turned back to Nicole. “It’s something we should inform you about too, since you were involved.”

“Oh dear,” Nicole said, all her enthusiasm draining away. “I think I know where this is going.”

“Oh dear,” Praem echoed, sing-song style. Lozzie made a sad whine and hid behind my shoulders.

“Not all of the Eye cultists are dead,” Raine said, when I couldn’t get the words out. Nicole blew out a long breath, and I saw her turn a touch pale in the face.

I nodded. “We saw one of them. A man. He recognised me somehow. And we got a picture of the number plate from his car. I’d like you to find him.”

“What for?” Nicole asked, slowly.

“So I can help him,” I said. “Or deal with him.”

Or vivisect him, whispered the cold abyssal logic that forever lived inside me, and would do anything to rescue Maisie.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

a very great mischief – 13.5

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

“But this isn’t about me!” I said.

Or rather, I attempted to say that. Vibrating like a caged butterfly, my heart pounding so hard I could feel it deep down in my belly, my head about to catch fire from my overheating brain, my hands quivering in front of me, and all I managed to do was squeak out an approximation of those words in a breathless rush.

Raine laughed, light and soft and oh so easy to fall in love with, and absolutely not what I needed right then.

“Heather, this is all about you,” she said. “Take it easy, yeah? We’re not gonna eat you.”

I gave her such a look, a grade-A frown through my incandescent blush. “Don’t.”

“I said we’re not!” She raised her hands in laughing surrender.

Zheng purred in agreement, long and low and loud, and that didn’t help either. Her purring was a siren’s lure, answered by a sympathetic response deep in my belly, a squirmy feeling that called me to step closer, stop worrying, curl up in her lap and purr back at her.

For a long moment I was stuck mute. Couldn’t finish my thought out loud, because my thoughts had been pounded into mush. Part of me wanted to kick off the slippers and shrug out of my pink-scaled hoodie and crawl back onto the bed and make unrepeatable noises. Abyssal instincts responded in kind, not with the aggression of flared tentacles and an urge to hiss, but with a soft-bodied, belly-showing vulnerability, a desire to puff my chest out and wiggle appendages I didn’t have. Perhaps luckily for the rest of me, that part didn’t possess veto powers in non-emergency situations.

Was this all it took to render my plans down into nothing? A little direct attention and light flirting?

I felt so seen in that moment, so exposed, with Raine and Zheng both looking at me, paying me attention, thinking about me. The beautiful new clothes made it worse – or better, depending on how much I listened to my body’s screaming instincts – because here I was, on display, presenting myself. No baggy hoodie to act as a shell, no blanket to curl up inside like a shy mollusk, no Tenny or Lozzie or Praem to hide behind.

My plumage was fluffed, my colouration bright; it was mating season, and I was in bloom.

I managed to heave down a shuddering breath – shuddering so hard I saw Raine’s expression twitch with actual concern – and pressed a hand to my chest, as if to hold myself back.

No, I snapped at myself. This is not about sex. You told both of them this is not about sex. To go back on my word would be indescribably fun; an awful part of me that was forever fourteen years old and flush with hormones knew that with one word I could have both of them with me on the bed, and I would be a gibbering mess within half a minute, and I had the power to do that, and nothing would stop me.

But it would be a betrayal of all three of us. It would solve nothing except my libido.

“I think we’ve broken her,” Raine stage-whispered to Zheng.

“The shaman is unbreakable,” Zheng said. “Have faith.”

“No, no,” I forced out. “You’ve come pretty close to … well. Yes. The less said the better. Better.”

“Heather,” Raine said my name with a sudden and unmistakable whip-crack of command. I flinched and stared at her, snared by the serious expression on her face.

“R-Raine?” I stammered.

“I can tell you’re turned on by this.”

A huge sigh escaped my lips. “I’m sorry, I’m really sorry, I-”

“Hey, nothing to be sorry for,” Raine went on, still hard and commanding, and I shut up instantly. “What you said earlier, in bed this morning, right there,” she pointed at our bed. “I took it seriously.”

This has to be about more than sex, my own words echoed in memory.

“I know, I know.” I cringed with guilt. Stupid horny Heather, I scolded myself for being an animal. “I’m sorry, I-”

“No, Heather, listen,” she almost snapped. “Don’t mistake flirting for going back on my word. Even if you give up, I won’t. I’ll refuse.”

I blinked at her.

“I’m saying no,” Raine finished.

“Mmmm,” Zheng rumbled in agreement. “Shaman, you threatened to leave rather than satisfy your own carnality. I too say no.”

Like an alley cat after the proverbial bucket of cold water, I came up blinking and sober from the depths of my own arousal. A chorus of non-consent from Raine and Zheng shut everything down. Fourteen-year-old-Heather gave up. Abyssal instinct receded into background noise. I looked away, terribly embarrassed and feeling very silly, trying not to hide behind my hands.

“She seriously said that to you?” Raine was asking Zheng.

“Mmmhmm. The shaman threatened to spend her day with the mooncalf, doing handstands in the park.”

“Well damn.” Raine said. “Don’t threaten yourself with a good time, Heather. Maybe you should do that anyway, have a day out with Lozzie sometime?”

“Yes, yes,” I sighed at myself, still shaking in the comedown from my own biological high, but much more in control now. “Look, this is meant to be about you two. You two becoming … well, if not friends, then at least … understanding? Talking. Trying to … ” I waved a hand as I searched for the right word.

“And we have. Loads’a talking.” Raine cracked a grin. “I think I get Zheng now. A bit. You get me, Zheng? Same for you?”

“The wolf had already won my respect,” Zheng purred. “Now she has my understanding.”

“That’s me?” Raine pointed at herself. “I’m ‘the wolf’? Come on, that’s gonna get confusing, with Twil and all. You are allowed to use my name, you know?”

“I don’t think Zheng goes much for names,” I said. “Listen, please, it’s not time to talk about me yet, it can’t be, you’re not … ready.”

“Heather,” Raine said my name with such indulgent affection. “What is the one thing Zheng and I have in common, more than anything else?” She pointed a finger-gun at me, then lowered her thumb in slow-motion, and mouthed ‘pow’, and I rolled my eyes and turned tomato-red again. “If we don’t talk about you, we ain’t ever gonna get anywhere.”

Robbed of the shield of my own sexuality, the embarrassment was worse. No escape into arousal, no fleeing out into the upstairs hallway either, though I was painfully aware of how many paces lay between me and the doorway. A couple of my phantom limbs even reached toward the door handle. My breath came in shallow little jerks as I fought down the most intense self-consciousness of my life.

“ … I … I don’t like being the centre of attention,” I said. My voice came out so very small, so pitiful and pathetic, that it broke the wave of my own embarrassment on a wall of pure exasperation. I huffed and screwed up my eyes and my fists. “Oh, for crying out loud, why am I like this?”

“Hey, Heather, you look amazing,” Raine said, confident and easy. “And it’ll be a hell of a lot harder to talk about you if you deprive of us the best eye candy in the city.”

Eye candy?” I wrinkled my nose at Raine, about to snap a retort.

But then I slammed to a stop at the victory grin on her face. She’d known exactly the effect those words would have on me, exactly how to snap me out of the embarrassment.

Raine reached forward and patted the edge of the bed between her and Zheng. “Come on, you know you wanna. Everybody likes hearing people say nice things about them.”

“Oh, alright,” I said. “Fine! We can talk about me, and I’ll stay to listen. Don’t say I didn’t warn you if I have to plug my ears.”

“Good enough, shaman,” Zheng purred.

The six or seven paces back to the bed felt like a mile, but I drew strength from my new clothes and what I was. I passed Raine and sat down on the edge of the bed, roughly equidistant from her and Zheng. As I sat, I smoothed my skirt over my backside, then slipped my feet out of the fuzzy slippers and drew them up on the bed.

“So then,” Raine began. “Heather, you don’t mind-”

“Wait, please,” I managed to say, injecting my tone with just a touch of Evelyn-like superiority.

I took my time getting comfortable, settling the pink-scaled hoodie about my shoulders, and even reached over to where I’d been sitting before, to grab the pretty coloured dice I’d been playing with. I rolled them in my hands and lined them up on the bed, one by one, then raised my chin high.

“Very well,” I said, sounding much more confident and in control than I truly felt. “I’m ready as I’ll ever be.”

Eyes left, Raine. Eyes right, Zheng.

“ … could you perhaps not watch me like a pair of foxes with a chicken?”

Zheng broke into a rumbling laugh. Raine turned her eyes away and suppressed a smile by biting the tip of her tongue.

“It’s not helping!” I huffed. “Oh, for pity’s sake, if I ever actually manage to have a threesome with you two, I’ll probably black out before we even begin. This is completely impossible, I’m clearly incapable of dealing with it.”

“Alright, alright!” Raine raised her hands in mock surrender. “I’m not even trying to tease you right now. You’re teasing yourself. Let’s make it easy on you, get to the point, yeah? What you say, Zheng?”

But Zheng was watching me with predatory interest. Her jaw hung open, teeth exposed, tongue roving over them. She clacked them shut and purred an agreement, turning her attention back to Raine. “We are here for the shaman. Yes.”

“That we are. That we are,” said Raine. “Want me to go first? Put my cards on the table?”

Zheng gestured expansively with one lazy hand, blinking as slow as a dozing tiger.

Raine nodded just as slowly, as if they were locked in a strange unspoken ritual dance. Body language, predator posturing, the natural communication of a pair of killers or monsters, those who had chosen their own path with no regard as to sensibility or survivability. As I sat there with the hem of my skirt pinched between thumb and forefinger just to have something to hold onto, I was struck with an incredible sense of gratitude; I was allowed to witness this, these two incredible people in such an intimate moment. I was a soft mollusk curled in my shell, and these two sharp creatures were here to show me what they could do.

Raine extended one hand, to point at me.

“I love this woman,” she said to Zheng. No humour. No joke. Heart naked. “And I’ve made a conscious decision, both eyes open, to follow her into hell.”

“W-what? Raine?” I blurted out.

“Before Heather and I got official with each other,” Raine went on. “Evee did a piece of magic to trace Heather’s nightmares. And that piece of string led all the way back to Wonderland. We saw the Eye. Laoyeh. Gazer. The big beholder. Eyeball fuck nugget. Whatever you call it. And it saw us back.”

“Mm,” Zheng grunted.

I stared at Raine, wide-eyed with realisation as she explained.

“Only for a few seconds, ‘course. Heather saved us.” Raine shrugged. “But it was in my head, Evee’s head too. Dunno if it touched Twil, maybe the dog smell drove it off.” She cracked a smile at her own weakly attempted joke. “But from that moment, I knew what Heather was up against. Giant alien eyeball that can rewrite reality and peel our world open like a circular saw on a tin can. Can you guess what I decided?”

It was not a rhetorical question. Raine waited for an answer.

“Devotion,” Zheng purred.

Raine nodded, and finally grinned again. “Yeah,” she said, barely above a whisper. “I decided, right then as it was rummaging in my head, right in that moment when it could see my thoughts. Might have been a defense mechanism maybe, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Twil’s a werewolf, she’s got special protection, and Evee’s got experience. But me? I’m just a regular ol’ ape. And when it was in here,” she put a fingertip to her forehead. “Rooting around, I thought at it, ‘you ever try to finish the job, you ever take Heather like you took her twin? Then I’m coming after your stupid giant eyeball with a broken bottle the size of the world, and there’s not a hospital big enough to stitch that for you.’”

Zheng broke into a savage grin. “Your courage is greater than your muscles, little wolf, but muscle is half courage at first.”

“Raine,” I whined, channeling deep embarrassment into mild exasperation. “Don’t be absurd, you can’t glass the Eye. You’re not going to get into a bar fight with it.”

“Oh yeah?” She finally looked away from Zheng and turned to me. “Watch me.”

And she was so angry.

Not with me, of course. Raine’s anger was cold and focused, the iron-hard certainty of conviction. If it had been anybody other than her, I would have flinched.

“ … why?” I asked.

Raine blew out a breath, expelling her anger and smiling for me. “Last I checked? ‘Cos I’m madly head over heels in love with you, duh.”

At any other time I might have blushed and rolled my eyes and muttered some brush-off comment. But after Raine’s speech, after her anger at my transcendent tormentor, such a joke would be in poor taste.

I held her gaze. “Thank you,” I whispered.

“Because I like making you feel good. I like making you warm, and happy, and I love those moments when you’re completely unselfconscious and you smile at something without thinking first. I love the way you get dressed. I love the way you roll your eyes, just like now, yeah, that too. I love the way you blush, I love teasing you. I love the way you look curled up with a book, and you can’t see yourself then, glued to the words. I love the way you-”

“R-Raine.” I wanted to curl up and hide behind my hands. “S-sto-”

To my surprise, Raine stopped. She cracked a grin that made my heart do back flips. She’d made her point.

“I want the shaman to thrive.” Zheng spoke up without preamble, her voice a low comfortable purr. “To be strong. To live as long as possible. To be what she is, unconstrained.”

“Yeah, me too.” Raine shrugged. “But that doesn’t tell me shit I don’t already know. How do you feel about her, zombie girl? Come on. Truth.”

Slowly, Zheng looked at me, and I felt like a mouse before an adder. It took every ounce of willpower not to squirm or squeak as her face split into the fierce joy of her shark-toothed grin.

“She is fire hidden in the heart of a stone. She is born to lead, but she sees it not. Those who invite devotion are never worthy of it, but those who know it not are worth every step.”

“That’s … very, very kind of you, Zheng,” I said, blushing. “I-”

“Hey, no,” Raine spoke over me. “Drop the prophet-and-messiah talk for a sec. Look at me, and tell me how you feel about Heather.”

I blushed like a steam engine, but managed to hold my tongue; I didn’t understand what exactly Raine was getting at, but it seemed important to her.

Zheng just raised a curious eyebrow. “I have told you how I feel about the shaman. I am no poet.”

Raine tilted her head to the side in suffering scepticism. Not good enough, her expression said.

“Speak plain, wolf,” Zheng rumbled.

“Do you love her?” Raine asked.

Zheng blinked, once, very slowly. “Why is that a question?”

“Because it’s the basic prerequisite.” Raine cracked a grin, and for a second she seemed almost as toothy as Zheng, almost as sharp. “If you just wanna fuck Heather, if this is just carnal, then respect and admiration and dedication is all well and good, but I need something more than that. I need to know-”

“Idiot monkey,” Zheng growled. “Yes. Yes, I love the shaman. How is this not plain?”

Raine’s grin shifted tone. “Good! That’s all I needed.”

Zheng growled in her throat like a goaded animal.

“So, come on,” Raine went on. “You and her, pair ‘o women, what you wanna do?”

“R-Raine!” I squeaked, mortified. “You said no-”

“No sex, yeah,” Raine agreed with gusto. “But we gotta talk about it, Heather. We gotta boil it down. If you can’t do this, I will. If you’re uncomfortable talking about it, say so, and I’ll drop it here, but we gotta come back to it eventually.”

“There is nothing wrong in the comfort of flesh,” Zheng purred, vaguely amused. “You monkeys rut. Sometimes it is funny, but it is good for you.”

“Well, um, I-” I stammered and blushed. “I mean, yes, in theory, b-but-”

“I would offer the shaman every comfort, every intimacy,” Zheng purred, soft as a distant waterfall heard through miles of jungle. She sighed a slow and heavy sigh, and looked at her own hands and arms. “And I would enjoy bringing her happiness.”

I couldn’t say anything to that, and it was a minor miracle I didn’t either run for the door or pass out from overheating.

“Straightforward,” Raine said. “I like it. ‘What is good in life?’, eh? Real Conan the Barbarian here.”

“Don’t call her that!” I squeaked.

“Hey, it’s a compliment,” Raine told me. “Conan was a rebel slave. Slaver-killer. Big respect.”

“I like this compliment,” Zheng rumbled.

“Only in that one terrible film,” I sighed.

“I know, I know, the books are different.” Raine shot me an indulgent grin. “The books are always different.”

“Still can’t believe you got me to watch that,” I muttered.

Raine clapped her hands together. “Right then. Peace treaty signed. Borders drawn. Common ground established.”

“This is no war,” Zheng rumbled.

“Exactly! It’s peace!” Raine grinned. I tutted and rolled my eyes again. Raine gestured toward me. “How’d you feel about sharing her?”

I had to bite my lips and make fists with both hands to stop myself from screaming.

“She is not mine to share,” Zheng growled. “Nor yours. She is her own.”

“Yes, thank you!” I blurted out, red in the face and whirling like a firework, feeling like a squid expelling itself from its hiding place and filling the water with shimming rainbow ink of convulsive panic. Even my phantom limbs joined in, waving like overexcited hands. “This isn’t my bloody harem! You’re not sharing me, we’re … trying to … oh, I don’t even know any more!”

Raine laughed. “Evee’s been showing you too much anime.”

I boggled at her. “What does that have to do with anything!?”

“I care not if she takes a hundred lovers,” Zheng continued. “I am not like you monkeys. I do not grasp.”

“Okay,” I sighed. “I think a hundred is a little out, but I do appreciate the principle, thank you. I think?”

Raine shot me a raised eyebrow. “Maybe you should talk about what you want here, Heather, how you feel about this situation?”

“I … I don’t … I can’t think-” Running on instinct, I glanced over my shoulder at the door to the upstairs hallway. Escape, escape! part of my brain screamed.

In one smooth motion, Raine turned in her chair and kicked her legs up onto the bed next to me, a harbour chain to block my scuttling retreat. I hadn’t even been about to move, but I squeaked in surprise all the same, flinching backward as a small hiss escaped from between my lips – but then Raine winced, making no effort to hide her mistake as she drew in a sharp breath between her teeth. One of her hands flew to grasp her left thigh.


“Ahhh, it’s okay, it’s okay.” She grinned through the pain, eyes watering. “Just pulled on the stitches. Easy to forget, you know? It’s okay, nothing’s popped, just-” She winced again. “ … burns.”

“Burns?” I echoed. “Oh no, Raine, you can’t just assume that. You have to check the wound.”

“It’s fine, it’s fine.” She wheezed and tried to return to normal, but I wasn’t having it. “And we’re in the middle of-”

“Raine,” I snapped. “Now.”

“I’d rather-”

I huffed and swivelled toward her on the bed, all my embarrassment forgotten. “Then let me check. Roll up your trouser leg.”

Raine gave an awkward grin and eyed the end of her trousers. She was wearing a pair of comfortable old jeans, loose and baggy. “Uhh, these don’t exactly roll up that far.”

“Then take them off!” I lost my temper.

Raine blinked involuntary tears out of her eyes and shrugged at Zheng. “Wants me to take off my clothes in front of you. What can I do, hey?”

“Oh, don’t be so perfectly ridiculous,” I huffed at her. “Zheng can leave the room if you’re uncomfortable. I’m sorry, Zheng, I guess this is over, but health comes first.”

Zheng shrugged in easy acceptance.

“Nah, I’m cool with it,” Raine said, lowering her feet from the bed with extreme care and standing up slowly, putting her weight on her good leg. “I just joke through the pain. You know that, Heather.”

And so, Raine got half-naked in front of Zheng for the first time, for one of the most unsexy reasons I could possibly imagine. I wasn’t even thinking about that though. Images of popped stitches and torn scar tissue chased all thoughts of rogue sexuality from my mind. Concern for Raine’s health came first.

With a little difficulty and a little help from me, she wiggled her jeans down off her hips and let them pool around her ankles, then stood still as I gently peeled back the dressing around her left thigh. I’d done this enough times by now, changed her dressings when she was exhausted or deep in painkiller haze, or simply when I wanted to express my care and affection.

I breathed a sigh of relief when all the stitches were still exactly where they were meant to be, holding closed the sides of her ragged wound, the angry red in the middle still oozing a tiny trickle of clear blood plasma.

“See, s’all good,” she said. “Back to the hospital again on Wednesday, right?”

“Yes, indeed. Are you having trouble standing?” I asked, looking up at her face.

“Nah. Not for you.”

I took the opportunity to change the dressing, swapping in fresh gauze and bandage from the medicine box which now lived on Raine’s bedside table. My by-now practised hands made quick work with scissors and antibiotic ointment. In the back of my mind I knew I was doing this to introduce Zheng to the part of our relationship which mattered infinitely more than any amount of sex.

Raine took my ministrations without complaint, one hand on my shoulder for support, and as I worked I felt more and more like some kind of remora or deep-sea mollusk tending to a shark. Abyssal instinct blossomed into an understanding I could not have put into words, an understanding that surprised me, so different to the cold logic of survival; as I tended Raine in front of Zheng, abyssal instinct acknowledged the mutualistic behaviour.

By the time I was almost done, abyssal instinct was prodding at me to secrete antiseptic mucus from glands I didn’t have, and rub it into Raine’s wound.

“She is sweet, isn’t she?” Raine said.

“Oh hush,” I whispered.

“The shaman is love,” Zheng agreed.

For once, I didn’t blush. Abyssal instinct did not blush. It wanted to mate – but that didn’t mean the same thing as having sex.

I stuck down the last edge of Raine’s dressing and looked up at her, into those rich brown eyes.

“If I talk about what I want,” I said. “Are you going to interpret those wants and bend yourself around them again? You’ve already been working harder at this than I have.”

“I won’t. Promise,” she said.

“Then what do you want?” I asked.

Raine opened her mouth, but then paused. She took a moment to study her dressing, then slowly tugged her jeans back up and sat down very carefully.

“I want you to be happy,” she said. “Don’t want you to get hurt. Want you to-”

“Wolf,” Zheng purred. “The shaman asked what you want. Not what you want for her.”

Raine blinked at her, then burst out laughing. “Fair point, fair point! What do I want? There’s barely enough of me to want, you understand that, yeah? But if I had to say something, I’d say I want to be Heather’s special person. I don’t want her to ever drift away from me. But she’s promised me that she won’t. So I already have what I want. I have true wealth.”

“And you’re not jealous anymore?” I asked.

She shrugged. “I was jealous because you needed me to be. You don’t anymore, so I’m not.” Raine spread her hands. “Honestly, I’m cool with this. Under these circumstances, anyway. With you specifically,” she nodded to Zheng. “My greatest fear is Heather getting hurt or taken away, and I got no fear of that with you.”

“Mm,” Zheng grunted.

“If she was going out clubbing, getting picked up by randoms, ehhhh.” Raine squinted one eye to the side. “I wouldn’t be so happy.”

“Raine?” I blushed faintly, mortified by the notion. “That’s not … not me. That’s not something I’d do. I wouldn’t have the courage, let alone the interest.”

“Exactly.” She cracked a grin. “But Zheng? Yeah! Or if say, you decided to get with Evee one night, and it wasn’t just a one-night thing? You know what, I’d be fine with that.”

I stared at her. “I-I- c-can we not complicate things, please? I’m not going to sleep with Evee.”

“Yeah but in principle!” Raine laughed. “And don’t rule it out. Anyway, what I’m trying to say is I’m cool with this because it’s serious. Wouldn’t be the same if it was casual sex. That’s my red line, Heather, the real one, from my heart. Zheng might be fine with you taking a hundred lovers, but I ain’t. Anyone who gets with you has to love you.”

“I … ” I struggled to control my blush. “Thank you, for being honest. Okay. I think I can deal with that.”

“Well, that’s my position staked out,” Raine said. “And we have Zheng’s too. What about you?”

I glanced between the two of them, and my heart climbed into my throat.

“Speak, shaman,” Zheng rumbled. “We listen.”

“Yeah,” Raine agreed. “What do you want from this situation?”

I opened my mouth, closed it again, swallowed much too hard, looked down into my lap and squeezed my eyes shut in an effort to get a hold of myself.

“Besides Zheng and I sandwiched either side of you?” Raine asked, coming to the rescue.

I exploded in a huge huff and rolled my eyes, but Raine’s innuendo gave me my voice back. “What I want is for both of you to be part of my life. To get along, to be with me, to … ” I turned to Zheng, swung round on the bed to face her fully, to stare into those slow, quiet eyes, razor-sharp and deceptively relaxed beneath her dark mop of hair. “Zheng, you’ve promised to stay by my side, until I die. You’ve found me and I-I-”

I had to wave down Raine’s concerned hand, as I dabbed sudden tears from my eyes with the loose sleeve of my scaled hoodie, but I kept talking.

“I seem to be your reason for going on,” I said, sniffing through the tears. “I can’t do justice to that oath. I acknowledge it. I value it. And I want to give something back to you. To respect your love. I’m not even a hundred percent sure I want a sexual relationship with you, it doesn’t have to be that way, I just don’t want you to have to sleep on the sofa. I want to be able to hug you in front of Raine without feeling guilty. I want to … k-kiss you?” I shot a glance at Raine, burning with embarrassment and guilt, but she just nodded along. “M-maybe. I don’t know. I want to be close to you, and have it not feel wrong.”

Zheng let out a long, slow purr. Simple acknowledgement and affection, wordless and perfect.

I stared down into my lap, burning with shame; why couldn’t I be normal, even if just in this?

“That is one of the most admirable things I’ve ever heard you say,” Raine said softly.

“ … doesn’t feel that way,” I sniffed, clearing my throat and wiping my eyes.

“Gonna apologise in advance for this one,” Raine said. “But I gotta ask a real difficult question. Heather, how much of this is Seven-Shades’ idea?”

“Oh, very little of it,” I said, sighing and puffing out a tiny laugh with strange release. “She wanted me to jump straight into a threesome, I think. This is all me.”

Zheng’s chin rose, her eyes narrowed, and she shifted in her chair as if sighting a rival.

“I wish to meet this godling that follows you,” she rumbled.

“Trust me, you don’t,” Raine said. “Kind of a bitch. Hope she heard that one, too.” Raine eyed the ceiling and the window, as if Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight was about to crash through one or the other.

“ … Sevens?” I raised my voice to the room in general. “Would you like to comment from the peanut gallery?”


“Dirty little voyeur, eh?” Raine said.

“Quite, I hope she’s not watching this,” I sighed. “Look, at the very least I want you both to get along with each other. At the very least. If we can have that, maybe we can find some … configuration.”

“I have told you before, shaman,” Zheng purred. “There are more loves than eros.”

“Yeah, but eros is cool.” Raine smirked.

I rolled my eyes. “ … could we maybe start with a … a cuddly relationship? It doesn’t have to be sex. Maybe not ever. That’s not important. What’s important is … ” I sighed. “Is there even a word for this? I don’t know what I’m trying to build here, us as a … a-”

A whisper of sun-baked bronze and finespun gold brushed past my ear.

Family, she whispered.

I flinched and turned, but the bed was empty. Nobody was in the room except us.

“Shaman?” Zheng rumbled. She was half out of her seat.

“Heather, what is it?” Raine asked, gone tense all over.

“ … just a thought,” I murmured, trying to process the notion. “Nothing, I’m sorry. Sit down, please. I’m fine. It’s nothing.”

Raine and Zheng shared a look – which was a good sign, in a way – and a silent agreement passed between them.

“You know,” Raine said at length while I was still gathering myself. “Any great project needs a pioneer.”

“I’m sorry?” I blinked at her.

“A practical experiment. Blueprints and ideas are all fine and good, but you gotta make a prototype. Prove the thing works. We’re not just dealing with emotions here, we’re dealing with a practical problem.”

“Mmmm,” Zheng purred. “You first, wolf.”

“As if I’m giving you a choice.” Raine shot a grin – a teasing one, which made my heart flip – at Zheng. “I call dibs.”

“Dibs on what?” I blinked at her in mounting confusion. “Raine, what are you talking about?”

Raine answered, but not with words. She stood up and I saw her answer in the uncoiling of her muscles, in the hand she ran through her hair, in the way she looked at me with a loving smirk.

“O-oh,” I squeaked as she took a step toward me, instinctively backing up as she drew closer, as she mounted the bed, straddling my thighs with a little grunt of effort. “B-but your leg, your-”

“Forget the leg for a sec,” she purred, leaning in close, cupping my cheek with one hand.

“You promised no sex,” I hissed, quivering at her touch, wide-eyed and barely holding myself up.

Raine grinned. “Kissing isn’t always about sex. This is not about sex. It’s about expression. And demonstration.”

My eyes flicked to Zheng, and found her watching with slow, sleepy-eyed interest, and I swear I felt steam coming out of my ears. “B-but, in front-”

“Heather, if you can’t endure a kiss in front of Zheng, I think that’s a sign to back down. Which is it?”

Wide-eyed, overheated, my heart about to clang and crash and judder to a stop, I managed a tiny nod up at her, and put my arms around Raine’s shoulders. She leaned in and kissed me.

She also kept her word. Long and lavish and loving, the sort of kiss that left me panting afterward, my eyelids heavy, my heart racing, but Raine kept her hands on my shoulders rather than roving anywhere else. She kissed me deep and hard and then pulled away with gentle slowness. She climbed off me and stood up, one hand taking mine to lead me off the bed. I followed, her and instinct both, numb and shaking and breathless, as she led me over to Zheng in the armchair.

Zheng was dark and warm, and the tiny part of my mind which was still able to catalogue experience noted that she seemed as breathless as I, in her own way. Almost bearing her teeth, the wet tentacle of her tongue playing about her lips, her breath rising and falling inside her heavy chest.

Raine raised my hand high and led me over as if presenting me. It felt almost like a ritual, a rite. Real magic, blood and bodies transforming via contact, alchemy in the joining of heat and touch.

And for a moment, in my wonderful new clothes, I felt almost beautiful.

Without a word, Raine allowed her fingertips to part from mine as I clambered into Zheng’s lap. Instinct took over and I felt like a kitten, purring in her grasp as her huge hands closed about me, cupping the back of my skull and the base of my belly. My phantom limbs joined in, squirming and writhing and trying to link with every part of her. Before I knew what I was doing, I’d stuck out one of my actual, fleshy hands, waving it and making frustrated noises in my throat.

“She wants you too,” Zheng purred. Raine laughed, and held my hand. I squeezed. She squeezed back.

We stayed like that for a surprisingly long time. Maybe two or three minutes. Raine held my hand. Zheng stroked my hair. She was so warm, like cuddling up to a radiator through several blankets. I closed my eyes for more than a few seconds, and Zheng started to scratch my scalp.

“Mind flexing for me?” Raine murmured.

“Mm,” Zheng grunted.

A few moments of silence passed, broken only by the sound of cloth moving, then, “Nice,” Raine said, admiringly. “We should work out together sometime. Doubt you need it though?”

“We should.”

“Didn’t notice when I shook your hand back in the woods,” Raine went on softly, voice soft as if I was sleeping and not to be woken. “But you run hot, don’t you?”

“Mmmmmm,” Zheng purred.

“Love you both,” I murmured into the pillow of Zheng’s chest.

“You kissed Heather before, right?” Raine asked. “I could smell you on her. Plus, well, she told me all about it.”

“Don’t have to kiss right now,” I mumbled

“This is what the shaman wants,” Zheng said. I felt her words vibrate inside her chest. “Thank you.”

“Hey, you’re welcome,” Raine replied. “But we ain’t out of the woods yet.”

A spike in Raine’s tone forced me to sit up and disentangle myself from Zheng’s embrace, blinking and flushed. “Raine?”

They were staring at each other now, over the top of my head. Zheng must have picked up on the tone as well, because I felt her shift beneath me, muscles bunching and tensing.

“Might wanna stand aside for this bit, Heather,” said Raine.

“Mm,” Zheng grunted – and lifted me up like cat, under the armpits, placing me down next to the chair and holding on for a moment until I got my surprised feet back under myself.

“H-hey!” I protested.

“One little problem,” Raine was saying to Zheng. “I just ain’t attracted to you, Zheng. Sorry, Heather,” she glanced at me. “But I’m just not. I like my partners cuddly, smaller than me, sweet and clever and easy to tease. You just don’t do anything for me, Zheng. Don’t get me wrong, you’re cool, I respect you. But we ain’t a triangle right now, we’re two lines connected to a point in the middle.” She thumbed toward me. “I’m not down for some top-for-top thing with you.”

“Does it matter, little wolf?” Zheng purred, unsmiling and focused. “I feel no desire for you either.”

“It does!” I squeaked before either of them could answer. “I said before, this is not my harem!”

Raine smiled and shrugged. “There you have it.”

“Mm,” Zheng grunted, but turned to me. “Shaman, you can demand comradeship, but not desire.”

“I … I’m not comfortable with the idea of being a … a-”

“You know, the triangle is one of the strongest shapes, for building. Roofs, houses, stuff,” Raine said. “But two points of the triangle can just be resting on the ground, they don’t have to be connected to each other, just the point at the top.”

I looked between them. “I … I’m being unfair, aren’t I? Oh, dear, oh no, I’m sorry, I-”

“There is one way,” Raine said, and flashed a sudden dangerous smile at Zheng. “We never had a proper fight, did we?”

Zheng growled low in her throat. “We made an oath, wolf. No fighting.”

“Then I’m gonna remain unattracted to you,” Raine said.

“Please do not fight!” I raised my voice. “Please, no, it’s not worth it. I accept it, I can’t have everything I want, it’s unfair, it’s-”

“I’d win though,” Raine said. She winked. “Easy.”

“Ha!” Zheng barked, and broke into the all-tooth grin of a hungry shark. “You are good, wolf, and I respect you too. But no.”

“Yeah, maybe not while my leg’s like this,” Raine tapped her left thigh. “But once I’m fit again, hoooo, you won’t know what’s hit you. I went a round with you before, remember? Got a few blows in back then. Might surprise you.”

“Wolves break as easily as monkeys.”

“Not this one,” Raine breathed, her face lighting up inside. “I can go toe to toe with you, Zheng. Maybe we’ll feel differently about each other then.”

“Raine!” I whined. “I asked you not to do this, I don’t want you two to fight.”

Raine shot me an unapologetic grin. “Heather, this isn’t about you.”

I blinked at her, surprised and taken aback.

“The wolf has a point, shaman. This is her and I now.”

“If Zheng and me are going to be anything to each other,” Raine went on, “anything except two points on your compass, we have to do it our own way.”

“You have a healing bullet wound!” I boggled at her. “No!”

Raine cleared her throat, finally brought down a notch.

Zheng chuckled in agreement. “I dare not hurt you, wolf. I will not hurt the shaman’s lover. It would be an unfair match, I would be shackled.”

“Oh, what’s that?” Raine cupped her ear, grinning. “Who said anything about hurting each other in a fight?”

“Combat presumes pain,” Zheng purred.

“Yes, exactly!” I huffed and folded my arms.

“Zhengy, Zhengy, Zhengy.” Raine sighed and shook her head with theatrical absurdity. “Can I call you that? We cool with that? Girl, we ain’t swinging maces and swords at each other, or even knives and bats. Even fists. It’s the twenty first century. We’ve got better ways to fight.”

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