for the sake of a few sheep – 15.19

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Raine laid her challenge at Zheng’s feet like a bloodied rabbit, awaiting an answer.

She held her matte black combat knife in a backhand grip, like a venomous fang so rarely slid from its fleshy sheathe. I sensed her intent on the edge of my conscious mind, in the placement of her feet, the tilt of her hips, the slow unfolding of tension in her shoulders and upper arms. Raine, standing beneath the slowly shifting purple of Camelot’s void-sky, stripped down to a skin-tight black t-shirt and blue jeans, all subtle toned muscle and wound-tight tendon. Her body language spoke straight to my instincts, the promise of violence flowing up her musculature and out through the kinetic energy of her raw physicality. This aspect of her personality, her ability and propensity for violence, had aroused me since the very first time I’d witnessed her fight. I was familiar with this, I accepted this part of her, and I thought I knew everything about it.

But out in Camelot, throwing down the metaphorical gauntlet, the sight of her stole a beat from my heart.

Raine never ceased to surprise me.

I had made a choice to love Raine, consciously or otherwise, to build something concrete with each comforting embrace, each casual touch and wordless back-rub, every time we woke up tangled together in the morning, each time I asked her how she was feeling, each kiss and cuddle and tiny act of care.

So I am not proud to admit this, but on occasion — whenever I was wrapped up in my own issues, pursuing my own white whales of emotional tangle-knots down hidden rabbit holes to a very different type of Wonderland — sometimes, I took this side of Raine for granted.

She was always there, always my Raine, always beaming with confidence or ready to spring to my defence, always with a hidden trick up her sleeve, or a concealed weapon in her clothes. Even after the bullet wound in Carcosa and the emotional crisis in the hospital, after she’d unfolded to me the secret valves and byways of her heart, she had not wavered for even a second. She had never strayed and never lost faith, though I was teased and courted and cared for by ancient zombies, Outsider princesses, and her own oldest and best friend. She had told me she would never lose interest and never move on, even if I became some star-spawn squid-thing. She meant that; from any other it might be only hollow reassurance, but I had faith in Raine. Perhaps taking her for granted was a form of self-harm, an incoherent complaint from the part of me that still didn’t believe I deserved her. Why did she stay, when she had no reason except me?

She was only human, compared with all those others — compared with me. So sometimes I forgot what she was.

As she raised her knife in that backhand grip, an animal shiver shot up my spine, raced down into my belly, and grabbed me by the crotch. And I wasn’t even the target of Raine’s violent delight, she was staring at Zheng. If she’d turned that look on me, I would have fainted, trilobe reactor or not.

Raine never ceased to surprise me, yes; Evelyn had said the same thing once, back when we’d first met, but she had meant it negatively. In retrospect, neither of us really understood Raine, neither of us got what she was, no matter how much she put into words. There was something about her in that moment, for me at least, that outstripped all Zheng’s aggression and brooding dark intensity. The sight of her plunged a fist into my belly, grabbed my guts, and held me firm.

The promise of Raine’s violence, the tension in her musculature, was laced with desire.

Which was probably why I went completely tongue-tied, long enough for Zheng to reply first.

“Little wolf?” Zheng asked. “Or nothing more than a hyena?”

Raine beamed with cheeky confidence. “Hey, don’t knock hyenas. They steal kills off lions, you know? And I don’t mean once or twice. They do it all the time. Great big cat-dog things, they’re kinda sweet. You wanna call me a hyena, go ahead, I’d be honoured. But it’s my turn with you now.”

“Hyenas are cute … ” Lozzie murmured, then bit her lip.

Twil rediscovered her voice too. “Your turn?” she said. “She’s not a fucking water slide! Plus she’s just gotten beaten up once, you really are stealing a kill. Well okay, not kill, but yeah. Hyena is right!”

“How you feeling, left hand?” Raine asked Zheng. “All healed up?”

Zheng was not amused. She rolled her head without taking her eyes off Raine, drawing in a deep breath as if testing her ribcage for lingering fractures. She flexed both fists, searching for pain.

“Don’t answer that,” I blurted out when I realised what Raine was doing. I tightened the grip of the three tentacles I had wrapped around Zheng’s arms and shoulders. “Zheng, don’t—”

“I am healed, hyena. It makes no difference.”

“Quite,” Evelyn snapped. She tried to stamp with her walking stick, but the velvety yellow grass absorbed the impact, turning it into a dull thump. “Raine, don’t you dare. I know that look, I’ve seen it on your face a dozen times. Control yourself! Heather, say something to her.”

“I … um … ”

I also knew that look on Raine’s face, but I doubted that Evee understood what she was witnessing.

Raine never ceased to surprise me, but I should have seen this one coming. I had known this might happen, ever since that rain-drenched night in our bedroom, when Raine had stripped down half-naked in the grey light, holding her knife like a holy relic, her body taut with hidden potential and unspeakable excitement. I had assumed she wanted to beat Zheng for the glory of proving herself, to take her place equal to my ‘left hand’.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. The truth was written in her eyes and her musculature, plain to me, because I’d seen both elements of this alloy so many times before, but never combined into one.

She wanted Zheng.

“Heather understands,” Raine said, though she spoke to Zheng. “Your shaman understands this, big girl. She knows we need to do it. So how about it? You and me. Right now.”

“I refuse,” Zheng purred, still deeply unimpressed.

“Playing hard to get?” Raine laughed softly and shook her head. “Look, lefty, I’m not gonna insult you by taunting you as a coward or something, ‘cos we both know that isn’t true. Look at me. Look at me real careful.”

Zheng rumbled a wordless sound as she breathed out. Her eyes narrowed at Raine.

“You don’t have to do this,” I whispered.

“You want this too,” Raine said, voice low and husky, honey over rock.

“What the fuck is going on here?” Twil hissed. “God-damn shit, every time I think I have a handle on you lot, you do something like this!”

“You’re telling me,” Jan murmured. While Raine and Zheng had been facing off, Jan had slowly slid behind Lozzie and Evelyn. Apparently her massive puffy coat was not protection enough from the coming storm.

“We made a vow,” Zheng rumbled. “Not to fight. For the shaman it would be as if her left hand and right hand went to war.”

Raine relaxed by a tiny fraction. For a moment I thought we had gotten through to her, but then she sighed and spun her knife over her palm, like a spider cleaning her fangs.

“We made a vow not to fight for real,” she said. “This is different, it’s a contest. Isn’t it? I’m not gonna try to kill you or anything. And I sure do hope you’ll extend the same courtesy to me.” Raine smirked. “After all, hey, I’m a lot more fragile than you, big girl.”

“Raine!” I tried to sound stern, to channel Evelyn, but my voice came out as a squeak — because part of me didn’t really want her to stop, part of me did understand why she was doing this. “Raine, listen to yourself! How can you expect to win? I love you and believe in you, but this is Zheng!”

“Yeah,” said Twil. “She’s gonna wipe the floor with you. Maybe literally. Mop Raine.”

Raine finally looked away from Zheng and met my eyes. She was glowing, almost vibrating, but not with her usual boundless confidence. She was tight and flushed with a cocktail of sexuality and violence, hard-edged and razor-sharp. My three unoccupied tentacles coiled in tight to my body, wrapping around my torso, the cephalopod version of putting my fists beneath my chin and clutching my arms to my chest. I hugged my squid-skull helmet like a plushie, like it might protect me.

Raine had a demon’s look in her eyes.

“Why, little wolf?” Zheng purred.

Raine’s gaze left me and I sighed with relief.

“Because we ain’t a proper triangle yet,” Raine answered, shaking her head. “You, me, and Heather. We’re flawed, we’re missing a beam, we gotta bridge that gap. And I’ve tried, you know? I’ve really tried to be attracted to you, lefty.”

Jan huffed from behind her bulwark. “Not a polycule,” she hissed under her breath. “What absolute bullshit.”

Lozzie, face buried in her poncho, let out a muffled squeal. Evelyn shot a glare at her like she wanted to thwap Lozzie over the head, but thankfully she didn’t. Even poised on the cusp of a psychopathic death-match, I would have shouted at Evelyn if she’d given in to that particular urge.

“But I just ain’t into you,” Raine carried on. “You ain’t my type, no matter how I think about you, not on that kind of level, not in the kinda way that Heather is. I’ve tried to understand, but I just don’t. I don’t get you, and I don’t think you get me either.” She spun her knife in her hand again, rotating the grip in her palm, letting the black blade drink the strange purple light. “And you know why? Because we haven’t tried talking in the one language we share.”

I actually whined, deep down in my throat. Evelyn rolled her eyes and threw her hands up, exasperated beyond words. Over by the gate, I noticed Sevens staring with all the interest of a rubbernecking motorist passing the site of a gruesome pile-up. Praem and July had stopped next to her, perhaps not expecting us to linger long.

Zheng let out a slow, rumbly purr, tilting her head with cautious interest. “We are a right hand and a left hand. We need not join.”

Raine laughed without humour. “Need ain’t the same as want.”

“Why now?”

“Why not now?” Raine spread her arms, knife flashing out at the end of one hand. “We might never get another chance, you and I. Once we get that book, once we go where we’re going, maybe there won’t be an after. Maybe this time nobody comes back from Wonderland.”

Zheng bared her teeth in a silent snarl. “The shaman will—”

“I asked Heather to marry me. Did she tell you that?”

“Raineeeee!” I squealed.

“What?!” Lozzie exploded about two feet off the ground, flapping her hands.

“Holy shit,” said Twil. “Figures.”

Jan just started laughing. Evelyn shook her head.

Zheng grunted. “Monkey fictions do not interest me. You and the shaman are already joined, as are she and I.”

Raine shrugged. “I happen to agree, but hey, the point stands. We might not come back, we might not make it. We might not ever have another chance.” She let out a long, deep breath, shuddering with anticipation. “I don’t know why I feel this. I’ve never felt like this before, not even with Heather. It’s different, somehow. There was a shade of it with Amy Stack, but only a shade, and hey, she’s married and has a kid, and she’s straight, too. Pity. Plus she wasn’t on my side.” Raine pointed at Zheng with the end of her knife, a black claw extended. “You’re on my side, Zheng. And I want you. This ain’t a crush.”

Slowly, horribly, matching the sinking feeling in my stomach, a curious smile spread across Zheng’s face. “You cannot keep up with me.”

“Oh, I think I can.”

“Yo, yo,” Twil said, clicking her fingers as if to break them out of a trance, boggling at Raine like she’d gone mad — which, in a way, she had. “What do you think you’re gonna do, hey? She’s gonna take that knife — like, literally, just pull it out of your hand — and then pin you to the floor, dumb arse!”

“Oh?” Raine tilted a smirk at Twil. “Maybe Zheng should worry more about touching this knife.”

“Raine,” Evelyn grunted. “Raine, what have you done?”

A chill settled into my belly, a hand of ice inside my guts. “Um, yes, Raine, what do you mean by that?”

“Uh ooooooh,” went Lozzie.

All around us, the loose ring of Lozzie’s knights suddenly shifted, a glinting of chrome surfaces as weapons were adjusted and shields raised by an inch or two.

“Whoa, whoa,” Raine said, defusing worry with an easy laugh. She raised the knife and held it level so I could see. “Nothing supernatural! It’s a knife, that’s all. I swear. Hey, I said it’s a contest. If I win by trickery that doesn’t prove a thing, right? This isn’t a gutter fight, it’s a real duel.”

“You promise?” I asked.

“Promise.” Raine winked at me.

“Hoooooo,” Lozzie let out a high-pitched sigh. Her knights relaxed again. “Raine, no scary words!”

“Sorry, Loz,” said Raine.

Zheng tilted her head. “Stop riddling, hyena. Make your proposal.”

Raine laughed. “How can you tell I’ve got one? Nah, don’t answer that, rhetorical question. You can tell because we’re finally talking in a language we both speak. Do I even need to say it out loud?

“Mmmmm,” Zheng rumbled. She glanced down at me and around at everyone else. “For the rest.”

Raine nodded. She spun her knife in her hand again, flipping it over the back of her palm like she was doing a trick. It required her to completely let go of the handle, so for a moment I thought she’d flubbed the technique and was about to drop the blade — but she snatched it out of the air, firm and confident. She angled it down toward the ground like a fencer with a sword. Chin up. Back straight. Eyes forward.

“First blood,” she said.

“Ha!” Zheng barked. “Yours or mine?”

“Yours, naturally.”

“Ugh,” went Twil, rolling her eyes like a grumpy teenager. “Cut the drama, will you? Raine, she’s gonna break your nose with one punch.”

“I must admit,” Jan piped up again from behind Lozzie and Evelyn, “that sounds quite likely. I’d pay to see it though. You should sell tickets for this.”

Evelyn caught my eyes and interrogated me with a silent frown, pinched and urgent. But I couldn’t do a single thing here. I couldn’t even step between Raine and Zheng — I’d never seen Raine so attractive, so glowing with violent magnetism. If I stepped between them I would faint, or turn to jelly, or have an orgasm on the spot just from being looked at like that.

Part of me wanted to see this fight, wanted to see the two most attractive women I’d ever known locked in a grapple with each other. I tried to force that part of me down, but I was still clinging to Zheng with three tentacles, practically right in the firing line. I was useless at stopping this. Besides, I wasn’t sure that I had any right to do so.

“No, I’m serious,” Raine carried on, low and gentle. “Unless you’re really that confident. Unless you think my knife is just for show.”

“You’ve hit me before,” Zheng said, “but I was not trying to avoid you.”

“See, I watched how you fought July. You stood there and you took it. That’s all well and good, but what if she’d had a knife and you hadn’t? What if she’d cut your tendons and left you on the ground?” Raine raised an eyebrow, letting the question stand against the gentle wind for just a moment. “So that’s my challenge. First blood — your first blood. If I cut you even once, I win. If you can disarm and immobilize me, you win.”

Zheng stared for a second, then bared her teeth in a slow grin, razor-sharp and ready to bite down. “A challenge.”

“Exactly,” Raine purred back.

“Zheng,” I whined. “Please.”

“Oh, come on,” Jan said, up on tip-toes to peer over Lozzie’s shoulder. “That’s hardly fair. Even I can see that.”

“Sounds pretty fair to me, actually,” Twil said. “As long as like, Zheng isn’t allowed to break both of Raine’s legs or something.”

Zheng rumbled deep in her throat. “That would bring the shaman no pleasure and no gain.” Her eyes crept down to me again. I swallowed and felt like tripping backward away from her. “No permanent damage. My hands are tied.”

“It’s the only way we can fight without sending one of us to the hospital,” Raine said.

“Unfair,” a hard and unimpressed voice suddenly cut across our little group. “Unfair. You do Zheng a disrespect.”

July stood a few paces behind Jan, staring at Raine. She and Praem had wandered back over, trailed distantly by the diminutive yellow-wrapped figure of Sevens. July had three strawberries balanced awkwardly in one hand, but Praem still held the box.

I shot a frown at July, surprised at the heat of my own irritation. “July, I have partially forgiven you because you’re a … teenager with a crush, but what you did was brimming with disrespect. You can hardly talk about that.”

“Bird of prey—” Zheng rumbled.

July spoke over her. “It is not fitting—”

“Fair representation of atrocity,” Praem intoned. Everyone looked at her in confusion, all except Zheng and Raine.

“Yeah,” Raine sighed with implicit apology in her voice, nodding to Praem. “You know what I’m talking about. Sorry, Praem. I was trying to leave it unsaid, not put it into words.”

“This is only a game,” Praem said. Raine nodded to her again in acceptance and apology.

“I’m sorry too,” Jan said, brimming with sarcasm, “because you’ve all completely lost me here. What are you talking about?”

“Oh,” I breathed, finally putting two and two together. My eyes went wide. “Raine’s knife. A one-hit fight. She means it to stand in for one of the cult’s demon-sealing tubes.”

Raine bowed her head, pained by this explanation. Zheng cupped the back of my skull like the proud owner of a clever puppy. Evelyn frowned with distaste. Lozzie’s eyes went all scrunchy and she covered her mouth with the lifted hem of her poncho — I think she was genuinely disgusted by this notion. Praem didn’t react, but I swore I could see a faint tightness around her milk-white eyes.

Jan waited a beat, then cleared her throat. “That explains nothing, thank you very much.”

Evelyn sighed. “The Sharrowford Cult, The Brotherhood of the New Sun, the people you were going to do your secondary job for, the murderous kidnapping vermin we shattered last year—”

“Oh, don’t be too modest,” Jan murmured.

“They had a technique,” Evelyn spoke over her. “We never got to see it in action, but we know it worked because they used it on Praem, once. They pulled her out of her body and trapped her soul — for want of a better word — in a glass jar.”

Jan’s sharp mockery drained away, along with the colour in her face. She took off her dark shades and stared at Evelyn with her naked, gem-blue eyes.

“No, I’m not exaggerating,” Evelyn went on. “They achieved it by means of a small cylinder device, quite a bit smaller than Raine’s knife, actually. But the principle is sound, if vile. Apparently Zheng was threatened with it, once, according to Heather.”

“Yes,” I said, trying to talk past the lump in my throat. “When … well, yes, Alexander did. Before, well, you know.”

“Vile is right,” Jan breathed. “None of the, um, ‘survivors’ mentioned this to me.”

Evelyn waved a dismissive hand. “The ringleaders are all dead, gone, or … well, not relevant anymore. I doubt any of the remnants even know about it.”

“‘Cept Eddy boy,” Twil said.

Lozzie puffed out her cheeks and let her shoulders slump, looking momentarily sad and cowed.

“Yes,” Evelyn said, “Edward Lilburne, the mage we are in conflict with, may retain the technique. Maybe. We don’t know.”

Jan took a deep breath and let it out very slowly. “July, be good and remember that, will you? Kind of important.”

“Quite,” Evelyn said, staring right back at Jan. “And I assure you, we have no idea how it worked. I can’t do it. And I wouldn’t, either.”

Jan nodded, but her hands fiddled with her shades and she bit her lower lip.

“So you see,” Raine said, finally raising her knife once more and pointing it at Zheng, “in a way, this is fair, because it’s something that could really happen to you. One scratch and you’re out, lefty. Or bottled, rather.”

“Ugh,” Evelyn grimaced.

“That is—” Jan cleared her throat. “I’m sorry, that is downright offensive.”

“It’s real though,” I said, still entranced by the electrified air between Raine and Zheng. “And … and this is just a game.”

“Better a game between us,” Raine said, “rather than the real thing with an enemy.”

“Huuuuuuh,” Zheng rumbled at Raine, watching her through heavily lidded eyes, a tiger pretending repose. “It would not have worked on me. I am too well embedded in my flesh. I have been here a long time.”

“For the sake of a duel,” Raine said, “can’t we assume it might work?” Then she grinned and lowered her blade. “Unless you’re afraid of losing.”

Zheng curled her back and tilted her head at the same time, hunched her shoulders like a big cat about to pounce, and showed all her teeth in a rictus grin of animalistic challenge. Then she rumbled like a sleeping volcano, a deep and resonant sound that reached into my bones and drew the breath from my lungs — not least because I was still holding on to her.

Jan squeaked and grabbed Lozzie’s poncho, though Lozzie just giggled. Evelyn went quite green around the gills, but Praem appeared by her side. Twil instinctively growled as well, but even she could not match that sound. I hiccuped, embarrassingly enough.

Raine didn’t even flinch. She just rolled her neck and dropped into a fighting stance, knife held backhand, loose and ready and close to her body.

“If you two do this with Heather standing between you,” Evelyn snapped suddenly, “so help me God, I will have both of you drowned!”

I squeaked like a vole dug out of a hidey-hole as Zheng gently peeled my tentacles off her arms. She took me by one shoulder and steered me away from herself.

“Clear the way, shaman.”


To my surprise, a small and clammy hand wormed into my own. A sudden shivery heat pressed against my side. Sevens bumped her head off my ribs like a cat, still draped in her yellow robes.

“Mm-mm,” she gurgled, shaking her head. “Can’t stop now. Come come, come. Come.”

She pulled at my hand. I wrapped a tentacle around her shoulders and dug my feet in — little blood-goblin Sevens did not tell me what to do, instinct was very clear on that despite how I felt a little guilty.

“Raine,” I said, voice all a-quiver, one last confused attempt to explain to myself why they shouldn’t do this. “Raine, you said you wouldn’t, you made a vow, and … and she’s going to beat you! And you don’t need to do this, you don’t have anything to prove. You don’t have to prove anything to me.”

To my surprise and shock, Raine looked at me with a frown. It was the first time I’d ever seen her unimpressed with me.

“Heather,” she breathed my name with open affection, the affection of ‘I love you, but shut up’. “Heather, this isn’t about you.”

I blinked at her. “ … oh. I … um … ”

“It’s about me and Zheng. And if you really don’t want me to do it, if you really don’t want us to fight … ”

Raine trailed off. Zheng rumbled low in her chest. Sevens gurgled like a malfunctioning radiator, tugging on my hand. Subconsciously, I wrapped a tentacle around her arm, then felt her gently bite the pale, pneuma-somatic flesh, though without breaking the skin. I nodded along with Raine, half of me praying for this final hope of de-escalation, the other half vibrating with anticipation.

“Then I’m sorry,” Raine carried on, drawing herself up and staring me down. “Because I’m doing it anyway.”


“My responsibility, my choice. I won’t let you shoulder the guilt of stopping me. It’s all mine. And hey.” She grinned, beaming wide and confident, just like usual, all for me. “It’s not like I’m gonna get hurt.”

“Ha!” Zheng barked.

“Well,” Raine added, “not too badly.”

“Don’t you dare!” I pleaded with Zheng. “Don’t you—”

Evelyn cleared her throat and tapped her walking stick against her own prosthetic leg, making a ratta-tat-tat sound. “If we have to make a hospital trip because you two are horny for each other and can’t talk about it like adults, then I will personally see to it that you eat nothing but oats for three weeks. Do I make myself clear?”

“No punctures,” Zheng purred. “No bleeding. No broken bones.”

“And no concussions!” I added. “Raine is fragile, she’s not like you. Zheng, you be gentle, please. Please.”

Zheng looked down at me, dark and brooding, but deeply amused. “I cradled you, shaman. I will do the same with our hyena.” Then she reared back up to her full height and bared all her teeth to Raine. “But even with these fetters on my limbs, I will still have you.”

“Says you,” Raine purred back.

“Are we actually letting this crazy shit go ahead?” Twil asked, arms wide. She gestured at Lozzie. “Hey, hey Loz, make the booper go boop again. Make them stop. Raine’s gonna get hurt, seriously.”

Lozzie bit her bottom lip and did a full-body wiggle, like a worm, from feet to head, ending by turning her eyes to me. “Heathy?”

My breath caught in my throat. “I … I mean … if there’s rules, it’s more like a wrestling match. I think.”

“Look at you lot,” Jan said with a tut. She bustled out from behind Lozzie like an ambulatory marshmallow and tried to put her hands on her hips, which was a little difficult still wrapped in the confines of her giant coat. Lozzie mirrored her pose for effect, hands on hips, which threw off Jan’s poise for a moment as she flustered. “Ahem. I mean, I don’t even know you people very well, but I can tell these two have been chomping at the bit for this. Let them get it out of their systems, yes? Is there any rational reason why not? Do you not trust Zheng to withhold her full strength?”

“I trust her,” Raine said, speaking directly to Zheng. “I trust her completely.”

“Hyena.” Zheng nodded to Raine.

“They already fought!” Twil yelled. “I thought that was getting it out of their systems!”

“Yeah, while I was recovering from a bullet wound,” Raine said. “Video games were all well and good. But now?”

Raine planted her right foot, twisted her hips, and lifted her left knee into the air. Slowly, like a ballerina on the stage, showing off to everybody present, she extended her leg out sideways, rotating at the waist.

“Yes, very impressive,” Jan sighed. Evelyn nodded in exasperated agreement. “Bullet wound? You know what, don’t bother explaining that. Look, I’m with grumpy here,” she gestured at Evelyn. “This has been a mite bit stressful coming out here, so either fight and get it over with, or come back indoors — tch, indoors, what am I saying? — come back indoors where you can flex at each other in peace.”

Evelyn balanced her walking stick with her elbow, so she could slow clap, though only twice. “Well said.”

“I’m glad you and I agree on some matters,” said Jan.

“Ah shit,” Twil said. “Alright. Okay. We’re all down with watching Raine get her arse beat.”

“If you don’t want to watch, then don’t,” Evelyn grumbled.

“You’re kidding!” Twil said. “I wouldn’t miss this one! Shit, my money’s on the zombie. No offence, Raine.”

“None taken.”

“We are not making wagers,” I squeaked. “Absolutely not.”

“Tenner on Zheng,” Jan announced. “Count me in.”

“Who’s banker?” Twil asked.

Evelyn sighed. “Me, I suppose.”

“We are not betting on them!” I repeated, outraged, curling my tentacles around my torso like I was crossing my arms. I only realised I was making the gesture after I’d completed it and added a frown. Sevens pulled me by the arm, dragging me clear of the imaginary ring of combat as the others backed away too. “That’s perverse!”

“Hey, it’s all a game, right?” Twil asked.

Gaoooouk,” Sevens rasped. “Ten on Zheng too.”

“You don’t even have any money!” I squeaked at her. She ducked her head, shying away from me, so I wrapped a tentacle tighter around her shoulders in exasperated apology. “I’m sorry, I just … I can’t believe this. Tenny and Whistle are back indoors, at least, yes?”

Sevens nodded. “Inside, yeah. Mmm, money … ”

“I’ll spot her the ten,” Jan said. “Why not? This day can’t possibly get any more stupid.”

“Don’t jinx us, please,” Evelyn huffed. “And you do all realise this doesn’t work if nobody bets on Raine, yes? And matches all your wagers. I’m certainly not paying out, only keeping track. Somebody has to believe in Raine, yes?” Her eyes found me as we drew to a halt in a little cluster, much closer to Zheng and Raine than we had been to the previous fight. “Heather?”

“ … I … I … um … I can’t.”

Twil grinned. “No confidence in her, hey?”

“Twenty on Zhengy!” Lozzie chirped, arms in the air. “Am I doing the countdown again?”

“We shouldn’t need a count,” Raine called back. “First blood from Zheng, and that’s her loss. If I lose my knife and I’m pinned, my loss.”


“I have confidence in both of them!” I snapped at Twil. “I love both of them. I can’t pick a favourite, that’s the point.”

“Fifty pence, on Zheng,” Praem intoned.

I boggled at her. “You too?”

Praem met my eyes and bowed her head. An apology.

“Are we ready?” Lozzie called out, flapping the sides of her poncho up and down like the wings of a flying squirrel. “Ready ready?”

A satisfied, animal grin ripped across Zheng’s face as she stared back at Raine. She rolled her head from side to side, flexed her back and her toned, powerful arms. She was so much taller than Raine, an Olympian goddess carved from brown marble. Raine bounced on the balls of her feet suddenly, swapping from left foot forward to right, then back again. She tossed her knife in the air and caught it, then shook herself all over, almost like a hound. Muscles like rubber and springs.

“Twenty paces, hyena?” Zheng purred.

Raine shook her head. “Nah, I think we’re good like this.”

Zheng seemed amused. “Not much space to charge. No room to build speed. Is that not your only hope?”

Back here in the spectators’ box, Twil imitated Raine’s bouncing footwork, consciously or otherwise. But where Raine held her knife still and steady, Twil swung a couple of shadow-boxing punches. “Evee, you gonna wager?” she asked. “Thought you loved that kinda thing?”

Evelyn snorted. “I’d out-wager all of you. On Raine.”

Twil stopped and stared at her. Jan cocked an eyebrow. Lozzie made a curious little o-shape with her mouth. Sevens let out a low sound like a confused rat. I opened my mouth to say thank you, though I could barely take my eyes off Raine and Zheng.

“Two hundred pounds on Raine,” said July.

I looked over my shoulder toward the back of our little group, and found July staring her owl-like stare, directed at Raine. I wouldn’t have recognised that look an hour ago, not past whatever demon host mannerisms made her so deeply and unsettlingly intense. It was like standing near a komodo dragon. But by now I saw it plain. Admiration, adoration, ardour.

Everyone else glanced at her too, with varying degrees of surprise. Even Raine shot her a finger-gun and a wink.

“What happened to the crush on Zheng, hey?” Twil asked with a laugh.

“July’s being bitter,” Jan stage-whispered.

“Aww, no!” Lozzie said. “Don’t let it turn sour!”

Sevens was practically vibrating against my side, barely able to contain her fan-girl energy at all this talk of crushes and bitter rejection.

“Don’t you develop a crush on Raine as well,” I said to July.

She finally turned her gaze away from Raine and met my eyes, hard enough to make me flinch. “I admire her purity of self-belief. It is beautiful.”

“It … it is, yes,” I admitted with a sigh. “Sometimes I worry about her getting hurt, though.”

July nodded. “I understand. I feel the same way about Jan.”

“H-hey!” Jan spluttered. “Purity of self-belief?! Me? Tch.” She settled her coat around her shoulders, which was a bit like a ferret burrowing into a bucket full of cotton wool. “Don’t you go all soppy on me, Jule.”

July returned her attention to the impending fight, but for one moment I noticed her linger on Jan’s back with undeniable affection.

Perhaps I had misjudged her. Maybe I’d been too harsh, even after her defeat.

“Quiet in the stands, quiet in the stands, please!” Raine called, laughing. “You’re all supposed to be holding your collective breath over there.”

Twil cupped her mouth with both hands. “Get on with it!”

“Yes,” I tutted under my breath. “Get on with it.”

“Right you are, boss!” Raine called back with a mock salute — then turned to Zheng with a finality that left no doubt.

She twisted her feet against the velvet yellow grass, finding her footing. I watched all the jolly teasing drain from her frame, replaced with a wave of muscle tension as her pose flowed with the frozen promise of violence. She raised her knife, held loose and close.

“I am ready for you, hyena,” Zheng rumbled, yet she made no effort to look ready. She pulled herself up to her full height and raised her chin, waiting.

Lozzie raised the corner of her poncho, just as she had done for July and Zheng before.

But in the moment before Lozzie lowered the makeshift pastel flag, Sevens purred and nuzzled into the side of my ribs, at the base of my tentacles, to get my attention.

“Mm?” I could barely blink down at her.

“S’not a real fight,” she rasped under her breath, so only I could hear. “Not like I saw might happen.”

“Not real?” I hissed.

“Ready, set!” Lozzie yelled.

Sevens rubbed her head back and forth, like a prophetic cat in my armpit. She slurped excess saliva back through her needle-teeth as she spoke. “Won’t be enough. Joined, but not consummated. No knock-out, no end to them. Have to hurt, join in pain. Not enough.”

“Go!” Lozzie shouted, her poncho fluttering as she sliced the air with her makeshift flag.

Sevens’ words whirled inside my head, but I couldn’t spare the attention to think about them. The Eye itself could have opened in Camelot’s purple whorled skies and I would not have paid it the slightest mind right then. Evelyn could have grabbed my face and tried to kiss me and I wouldn’t even have made eye contact with her.

At the word ‘go’, Raine bounced up on the balls of her feet, swaying from side to side like a boxer looking for an opening. She held her black combat knife close to her body, an arachnid fang tucked in tight. I could practically see the adrenaline pumping through her veins and the beat of her pulse in her throat. She was breathing hard but steady, focused on Zheng with every cell of her being, staring and listening for the slightest twitch, ready for the bull’s charge.

But Zheng declined the attack. Instead she stood there, tall and still, a statue of silent muscle.

“Aw come on,” Twil hissed. “Sandbagging again?”

“It is not the same,” July said, voice shaking with awe. “It is different.”

“It’s a bloody waste of time, that’s what it is,” Evelyn grumbled.

Zheng lifted her arms to her sides, outstretched and open palmed, as if crucified. A mocking smile crept across her face. “Go ahead, hyena. Take your shot.”

Raine tilted her head and replied with a grin of her own — then she charged.

Raine is only human, in the end. She was not as fast as July, as strong as Praem, and possessed none of Twil’s rapid healing. She had no fangs, no claws, no clutch of tentacles on her back. The rules of this duel were intended to give her a chance and provide Zheng with an interesting challenge. In a fair fight with no holds barred, she would lose to Zheng — or something like Zheng — very quickly indeed. She was my Raine and she was beautiful; her violence was beautiful to me, a tendency of mine that still worried me more than a little. But there was no way she was good enough to beat Zheng without trickery or clever plays. I was half expecting her to pull out a second knife, or throw sand in Zheng’s eyes, or cheat in some equally creative fashion.

Raine never ceases to surprise me, especially when I think I’ve spotted the surprise.

She charged straight at Zheng, like a living lance with a spring-loaded barb in one hand. For a second I thought Zheng was going to take the knife in her chest, just to make a point even if she would technically lose — but at the very last possible second, Zheng dropped into a fighting crouch, a wrestler’s crouch, a tackle-crouch with one hand out to catch Raine’s knife-arm.

I winced, as did Evelyn. Lozzie clapped and yipped, swept away in the energy of the moment as Jan scurried behind her. Sevens went ‘guuurrrrk’. July kept the faith.

And Raine switched hands.

The motion was so quick I almost missed it; when I realised what she’d done, while running flat-out in a headlong charge, I cringed with worry that she might slip or stumble and stab herself by accident. But Raine was nothing if not both skilled and graceful. With her knife in a backhand grip in her right fist, between the space of one sprinting step and the next, just about to slam head-first into Zheng’s catch, Raine slid her hands together.

Black talon flashing backward through the air, rearing up like a scorpion stinger. A simple downward strike that Zheng should have been able to dodge with her eyes closed — but in Raine’s left hand, not her right.

Zheng jinked to the side. She avoided the descending blade with ease, dodging with demonic reaction speed, but the change of footing ruined her attempt to grab what had been Raine’s knife-hand. Raine didn’t even have to adjust as Zheng’s grip closed on empty air.

But Raine had overextended. Even I could see that, with my total beginner’s understanding of knife fighting. She was within Zheng’s guard, but that meant she was in grabbing range, grappling range, immobilizing range. Even as the thought crawled across my neurons, I saw Zheng’s other hand swiping outward, to catch Raine’s left wrist at the termination of the feint-strike Zheng had just avoided.

Raine had her one chance. She’d tried a good trick, but Zheng was just too fast, and that settled the question. I started to wince in anticipation of her loss.

But Raine never completed that downward stab, that move Zheng was angling to catch.

Instead she opened her fingers, dropped her knife through two feet of air, and caught it in her right hand.

The blade shot upward as Raine ducked, her single wicked-sharp talon already inside Zheng’s guard, aimed at the vulnerable flesh of her forearm.

Zheng could have easily caught Raine by her now empty left hand, or by the head, or throat, but she was angled all wrong to stop Raine’s blade itself. One scratch would be her loss. Zheng whipped her arm away and hopped back three paces, out of Raine’s range, hands raised to catch any trickery in retreat. Breathing hard and grinning wide. A fire burned in Zheng’s eyes, gone wide with sheer joy.

“Hyena!” she roared. “As cunning as a real bone-eater!”

Raine paused as well, breathing deep and steady, sweat already beading on her forehead from the sheer concentration and effort. She flexed both her hands and shook herself from head to toe like a wet dog. Totally in her element in a way I hadn’t seen in months and months.

She was glowing. She was made for this. Self-made, perhaps.

I fell in love with her all over again.

The whole exchange had lasted only a couple of seconds, so quick and skilled that we could only unravel the details in retrospect, still reeling in the moment, unable to believe our eyes.

Twil grabbed her own head in amazement. “Holy shit.”

“That’s our Raine,” Evelyn said.

“Scary scary,” said Lozzie.

Raine raised her knife and pointed it at Zheng. “You’re not trying,” she said, and I realised I’d never heard that tone from her before — frustrated anger, even through her grin. “Make me work. It’s real, or it doesn’t happen at all, Zheng. Make me work for it, or there is no triangle, there can’t be any you and I otherwise.”

Zheng’s joyous grin froze. She opened her mouth to reply, showing a maw of shark’s teeth. But Raine didn’t need her answer in words. She picked up her feet and darted at Zheng like a hurled javelin.

I cried out in dismay when Raine tried the same trick a second time.

Her hands slipped across each other, knife going from right to left, black talon switching sides in the second before she hit Zheng.

Zheng saw the same trick too. We all did. She threw her weight toward Raine’s left hand, ready to catch her wrist and end this farce.

But the knife came up in Raine’s right. Backhand. A rising strike with all her body weight twisted behind it.

She had only mimed the switch.

Zheng had to rock backward and throw herself out of the path of Raine’s hidden surprise, roaring with sheer delight at the misdirection. Raine bounced upward like a spider from a trapdoor, her single black fang almost making contact with Zheng’s chin, less than an inch of Camelot’s sky visible between knife-point and red-chocolate skin.

I caught a glimpse of Raine’s eyes, brimming with pleasure and purpose.

This time Raine and Zheng stayed locked at point-blank range for maybe twenty to thirty seconds, trading missed blow and counter-dodge. Raine’s knife was always one step ahead of where Zheng expected it to be, never using the same trick twice, never backing down or yielding the initiative, never allowing Zheng a single opening to exploit — because any opening was a trap, baited with an overbalance or overextension, the blade-point always ready to punish.

Raine could not match Zheng’s speed. That’s why we’d all assumed this would be over so quickly, or that she’d had something up her sleeve. But instead of trying to match or overcome that which she could not, Raine had devised the perfect counter: prediction. I’d never seen anything like it before. I hadn’t even known Raine was capable of something like this. She must have been practising in secret, for weeks. She’d been watching Zheng for so long, measuring her, learning about her. This kind of estimation could only come from a place of deep fascination.

Against an opponent willing to catch the knife or sustain a small wound, Raine would have lost. If Zheng had been a fraction less quick, if she had lacked her demonic speed, she would have lost instead, because she kept taking Raine’s traps, kept testing to see if one of them was real, an exploitable opening to finally grab her wrist and slam her to the ground.

Raine had predicted that too, I realised. She knew Zheng would not be able to resist the bait.

Then, just when I started to wonder if Raine would run out of different techniques, Zheng went on the offensive.

She stopped trying to catch Raine’s wrists, stopped trying to immobilize her knife-arm or grab her head or throat, and simply aimed a punch at Raine’s gut. In between one knife-feint and the next. Brutal and quick, a piston-blow through the air.

I yelped and put a hand to my mouth when Raine took the punch below her ribs. She doubled-up and jerked back, her knife hand looping a wild slash through the air to put some distance between her and Zheng.

“Hey! Hey!” Evelyn shouted with sudden anger. “No broken bones and no damaged organs!”

“Raine!” I called out. “Are you okay?”

But Raine straightened up, grinning and panting, her free hand on her stomach.

Zheng raised a fist. “I know my own strength, wizard,” she rumbled. “No real damage. No hospital. No injuries.”

“Pulled punches,” July said. “Sad.”

“But necessary!” I blurted out.

“That’s more like it, big girl,” Raine said to Zheng, voice quivering with excitement. “Show me how much you care.”

Raine flew at Zheng again — but Zheng replied in kind.

I yelped in sympathetic terror. Anybody would break, having Zheng charge at them. It was like a wall of muscle smashing into the air itself. But Raine met her in the middle.

Raine’s knife flashed, met with fist and claw. Zheng jinked and ducked, howling like a prehistoric wolf. Raine went to circle, bobbing on the balls of her feet, laughing back at Zheng in a way I’d never heard before — but Zheng was already there, smashing Raine’s knife-arm aside with a blunt backhand. Raine took a glancing blow to the ribs and used her reaction to hide a switch of her knife from right to left. Zheng ignored the incoming blow, went for Raine’s head and shoulder, to grapple and pin her arm. Raine was forced to duck, twist at the hips, put all her weight on her left leg.

And she crumpled.

I saw the exact moment her thigh muscle failed. She expected it to support her full body weight just so, at the precise angle to take her bouncing up and around Zheng’s right flank, beneath the hand ready to grab her by the head. But that thigh muscle was where Raine had taken a bullet for me, where Stack’s last round had gouged a chunk out of Raine’s flesh. And when she relied on her body to do precisely what she needed, right at the edge of the possible, it failed her.

Raine fell to one knee, stumbling as her thigh muscle gave out. Zheng was on her in the blink of an eye, grabbing her upturned wrist, Raine’s last attempt to drive the knife into Zheng’s gut and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. But it wasn’t to be.

Zheng squeezed hard and slammed Raine’s arm into the ground — her knife dropped from her fingers. Disarmed. Zheng’s knee found Raine’s stomach, her other hand scrabbling for a hold on Raine’s shoulder to pin her properly. Raine tried to twist out of the way, as if she had any hope at all of dislodging Zheng’s superior strength.

Zheng slammed her hand into Raine’s shoulder. Her legs pressed on Raine’s thighs. Pinned. Their faces inches apart, both of them flushed and caked in sweat.

“Stay, hyena!” Zheng roared laughter in Raine’s face — and then cut off instantly.

Raine was grinning up at her, panting with victory.

She hadn’t been trying to twist away at all — she’d been catching her knife in her opposite hand. The point pressed against Zheng’s stomach through her loose t-shirt, like an umbilical joining their bodies together, belly to belly.

Red, dark red, crimson and rich, began to trickle down the blade. It spread out from a narrow line across Zheng’s stomach, soaking into the fabric of her t-shirt.

The rest of us were all frozen in awe. Lozzie had her mouth hanging open, poncho raised as if to declare a winner, but even she couldn’t speak.

“I win,” Raine croaked.

“You are pinned, hyena,” Zheng purred back.

“And you’re bottled. One touch is all it takes.”

I’d never seen Raine so proud, so flushed, so excited. Zheng’s blood trickled over the short guard of her knife and between her knuckles.

Zheng rumbled. For a moment I thought she was going to lose her temper — but then she grinned back down at Raine, bringing their faces even closer together. “What are you, little thing?”

Raine laughed through clenched teeth, answering with a wiggle of her eyebrows. “You’re bloody good, and you know it, too. Had to fake you out. Almost ran me down. You’re so good.”

“Did I?” Zheng purred into her face, barely a whisper on the cinnamon wind.

“Maybe,” Raine panted.

“Maybe … mmmmmm.” Zheng let go of Raine’s shoulder but kept her opposite wrist pinned, then reached down between them to touch her own belly, where she’d been cut.

Raine let go of the knife and let it fall — and her hand brushed against Zheng’s, both of them bloodied. Their hands moved against each other for a moment across the surface of Zheng’s stomach. No doubt the wound was already closing with demon host healing speed, but their hands, Raine’s right and Zheng’s left, not quite joined, turned slick and coated with Zheng’s crimson blood.

They stared into each others’ eyes as it happened, Raine certain in victory, Zheng a little confused.

“Oh my goodness,” Jan whispered under her breath, hand to her mouth. “Should we really be watching this?”

“Uh,” Twil cleared her throat gently. “Maybe not?”

“Yessssss,” Sevens rasped, sounding like she’d just snorted a line of cocaine.

Raine raised her hand, covered in Zheng’s blood, and lifted it toward Zheng’s mouth. Zheng stared in a state of frozen shock I’d rarely seen on her before, confused, cautious, wary — but interested.

In an act I never would have imagined possible, Zheng parted her teeth, long tongue flickering behind the razor-points, and allowed two of Raine’s fingers past her lips.

Tongue-touch, lips brushing bloodied flesh, teeth gentle as a mate. Raine fed Zheng a taste of her own blood.

Zheng copied the gesture. Her own blood-soaked hand found Raine’s face, smeared crimson across Raine’s jaw and cheeks, and allowed Raine to suck on the side of her palm, for just a heartbeat.

“Ghastly,” Evelyn grunted.

“ … I don’t know,” I murmured, mesmerised. My tongue flickered out to wet my lips. “It’s … different.”

Zheng lifted her bloody hand from Raine’s face. Raine slipped her fingers out of Zheng’s mouth and wiped them on her own t-shirt. Zheng finally let her go, sitting up on her haunches and taking her weight off Raine. The spell between them did not quite break, though the intensity thinned as Zheng stood up and offered Raine a hand. The zombie pulled the psychopath to her feet.

“Fuck me,” Twil said. “Raine, what the hell? Where did you learn to do any of that shit?”

Raine cracked a grin and shrugged. “Youtube. Practice. Probably wouldn’t work the same on anybody ‘cept Zheng.”

Praem began a polite round of applause. Jan blew out a long breath, shaking her head and turning away. Sevens gurgled against my side, eyes wide as saucers, practically vibrating.

“That was,” Evelyn said, “without a doubt, one of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen you do, Raine. And I’ve seen you do a lot.”

Raine shot her a wink, bending over to pick up her knife from the floor, wandering to where her fallen jacket lay so she could put the knife safely away. Then she caught my eye, beaming with pride through her bloody half-mask. I could see crimson on her lips. “Hey Heather, I think we’re finally poly for real, yeah?”

“Was that … ” I tried to form words. “Was that sex?”

“No,” Zheng rumbled. “It was more.”

“Kinda.” Raine shrugged. “You mind?”

I shook my head, feeling more than a little numb. Their fight kept replaying in my head. Part of me wanted to run over to both of them and jump into their combined arms, but they were both smeared with blood; my good-girl habits and upbringing told me that would make such a terrible mess.

“I do hope that’s safe … ” I trailed off. “All the … fluids.”

“Ha!” Twil snorted.

“No blood borne plague can live in me, shaman,” Zheng rumbled. “The hyena is safe. I would not have … shared, otherwise.”

Raine licked her lips with a thoughtful look.

“But who won?” July asked. She sounded a little put out.

“Everybody wins!” Lozzie finally cheered, throwing her hands into the air. “Zhengy, you did it! You did the thing! The thing with the blood pact!”

Zheng stared at her own blood-soaked hand, then at Raine’s face. “A pact. I was not thinking of that.”

“Yes, yes,” Jan sighed. “Your incredibly weird polycule of literal blood-drinking sex-fights, that’s one thing, but the wager was the other.” She wormed a free hand out from inside her coat, wearing it like a cloak now, and rubbed her thumb and forefinger together. “Who wins?”

“Does it matter?” Raine asked, laughing.

“Sort of,” Jan tutted. “Thought I was going to get a payout.”

“Stop bellyaching,” Evelyn sighed. “Can we go home now, please? Are we done here? Unless you two need to stay out here to rut in the grass or something.”

I blushed like crazy at that. Raine laughed. Zheng lifted her shirt to examine her stomach, the wound already closed, a four-inch slash low on her belly, across old tattoos and red-chocolate skin.

“Shower time,” Praem announced.

“Yeah, shower time,” Raine agreed. “No arguments there.”

“You as well,” Praem said to Zheng.

“Mm,” Zheng grunted. She looked Raine up and down. Raine winked back at her. It was like a spark passing between them.

Slowly, as if picking up the pieces after the world’s most violent lunchtime picnic, we made our way back over to the gate, toward the waiting warmth and light and normality of Sharrowford and home. Lozzie bounced between her knights, hugging several of them goodbye for now; I gave a somewhat shell-shocked wave to the Forest Knight, who was standing distant from us with a clutch of his fellows. He nodded back and I promised myself I would come see him properly sometime soon.

But as we wandered home, with Raine and Zheng walking beside each other, with Sevens hanging off my arm, and Evelyn casting a curious frown at the way I looked so numb, I wondered if anything could ever be normal again.

“That was bonkers,” Twil was saying. “Look, I do some crazy shit, but you two were off the hook.”

“You want to go as well, laangren?” Zheng purred.

Twil put her hands up. “No thank you. No thanks. I’m good. Just fine, thanks.”

“I can’t believe we spent so long on all this nonsense,” Evelyn grumbled. Lozzie skipped past her, toward the gate, poncho fluttering as she hugged the caterpillar again, like trying to embrace a barn.

“Well,” Jan sighed. “Sometimes you have to spend energy and effort on maintaining and strengthening relationships. You can’t get anywhere alone, after all.” She glanced at July, but July was watching Raine and Zheng with fascination, barely able to concentrate as she stopped by the carapace bench to pick up the guitar case which contained the magic sword. “Oh well,” Jan said. “What about lunch? I’d kill for some lunch. This has left me all shaky.”

“You ate all that chicken!” Twil said.

“You ate some of it, which means I’m hungry,” Jan tutted, holding her head high as she waddled along in her massive coat.

Despite my reeling mind, I decided that Jan was correct. We still had so many things to do; Edward still had our book, the cult was still at large; I hadn’t even begun to talk with Jan about making a body for Maisie, and I had little hope of finding the courage to confront Evelyn about her feelings any time soon.

But Zheng and Raine had finally bridged the other angle of our triangle, without my help.

I felt stronger than ever.

As we approached the gateway, Twil suddenly jumped in surprise. She rummaged in her hoodie and pulled out her mobile phone, then laughed and shook her head, blinking at the screen. The phone was vibrating in her hand.

“Signals actually get through the gate?” Raine said. “Weird, huh?”

“It’s my mum.” Twil tutted. “Told her we were gonna be, like, you know, beyond contact? Weird is right.”

“Oh that is very bizarre,” Jan said. “I do not like that one bit. No no no.”

“I wouldn’t answer it here,” Evelyn said. “But not for any magical reasons. Might get weird interference out here.”

“Right ‘ho,” Twil sighed. She stepped through the gate first, pausing to pat the caterpillar on the flank as she did. “Good lad, cheers for your help.”

The rest of us shuffled through after her, leaving Camelot and knights and purple whorls behind. Raine caught my hand before I went, then leaned in to kiss my cheek, leaving a smear of Zheng’s blood on me.

“R-Raine!?” I squeaked, moving to wipe my face. But then I caught the look in Zheng’s eyes.

“The shaman is in the pact too,” she purred.

I blushed hard, alongside my lovers, and then went home.

But on the other side of the gate, back in the oddly narrow confines of Evelyn’s magical workshop, everyone had drawn to an awkward halt. Twil was holding her phone to her ear, frowning like she’d been confronted with a dead rat on her bed.

“What do you mean, delirious?!” she said into the phone. The rest of us all shared a glance at the edge in her voice as she stepped away from the gate. “Delirious, what does that mean? Mum, slow down, what—”

Twil paused, listening to her mother’s voice on the other end of the phone. Evelyn had gone very still and silent, listening carefully. Raine shrugged. Praem marched past us all, heading for the kitchen.

“What’s happening?” Jan whispered.

“No idea,” I muttered. “Sorry.”

“No, no,” Twil suddenly exploded at the phone again. “Mum, she doesn’t know where we live. You’ve just dragged this woman out of the woods. Why are you lying to me?”

“Twil?” I asked.

“Never a dull moment,” Raine said.

Evelyn stepped forward, walking stick clacking on the floorboards, and took Twil by one shoulder. Twil stared at her, still listening to her mother over the phone.

“Twil, it’s me,” Evelyn said. “Share.”

Twil rolled her eyes and said “Just a sec,” into the phone, then covered the speaker with one hand.

“Twil,” Evelyn repeated, voice hard and firm. “Whatever is going on, I am on your side. What has your family—”

“Nah, it’s not them,” Twil sighed. “My mum’s talking nonsense. She says detective Webb— one sec.” Twil put the phone back to her ear. “By the way, mum, she’s not a police detective anymore, she’s a private eye.” A pause. “Yeah, that fucking changes everything! No, I’ll fucking swear if I want, you’ve gone out looking for somebody to kidnap, you’ve snatched this woman and now you’re—” Twil paused, growing even more confused. “What do you mean, she found you?”

Police?” Jan hissed, making the word sound like nuclear weapons.

“Twil!” Evelyn snapped.

“Nicole?” I asked. “You’re talking about Nicole. Twil, what’s going on?”

Twil came up from the phone again, sighed, and pulled a painful smile. “Yeah, according to my mum, anyway. Nicky Webb, our friendly private eye, has just wandered out of the trees on the edge of Brinkwood, out of her fucking mind and babbling, and made a beeline straight for my family home. How the fuck, hey? She doesn’t even know where I live, right?”

Raine, Evelyn, and I all shared a glance. A sinking feeling dragged at the base of my stomach.

“The documents she stole,” Evelyn said, going pale. “The search for the house.”

“Oh no,” I hissed.

Raine puffed out a breath. “No spooky bullshit for little miss detective. No spooky bullshit my arse.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Perhaps winning was less important to Raine than finally bridging the gap between her and Zheng, and not only for Heather’s sake. A blood pact, forged anew, the third crossbeam of their elegant triangle. Though the others seem a little overwhelmed by witnessing it, Heather certainly enjoyed the show. And I sure hope you all did too, because I sure do love writing fight scenes!

It’s almost the end of the month, so I’m not going to plug the patreon for once. If you want to support Katalepsis and read about 8-10k words ahead, you know where to find it!

But still, you can always:

Vote for Katalepsis on TopWebFiction!

So many readers still find the story through TWF, it’s incredible, and it only takes a couple of seconds to vote!

And as always, thank you all so much, dear readers. Your comments and pageviews and reviews helps me so much, knowing there’s people out there enjoying the story every week. That’s why I do this, so thank you for reading!

Next week, it’s on to a new arc, of strange places and befuddled private eyes and the darkest part of the woods …

for the sake of a few sheep – 15.18

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Zheng’s tackle hit July in the stomach and hips. She used her whole body as a spring, from her ankles on upward, turning herself into a battering ram of muscle and bone, putting all her strength and weight behind the shoulder that rammed into July’s guts. Even over the sound of my own wild shout, Twil’s premature victory cheer, Evelyn’s hiss, and Jan’s sharp wince, I heard a wet crack-crunch of bone — July’s pelvis fracturing in two.

Her head snapped forward with whiplash pressure as Zheng’s momentum knocked her clean off her feet and bore her to the ground.

For a split second the pair of demons were suspended in the air, a freeze-frame of perfect technique, captured forever against the yellow horizon and void-purple skies of Camelot. July’s perpetual wide-eyed look was supplemented by her jaw hanging open in shock. Zheng grinned with sheer savage glee, showing her maw of shark’s teeth.

Then they slammed into the yellow velvet grass, so hard I thought I could feel the vibration in the soles of my trainers.

July’s skull bounced off the ground and Zheng drove her into the earth. Another uncontrolled shout tore from my throat, like I couldn’t help myself. I’d never felt this way before, in the grip of a physical need to celebrate and leap and yell and wave my arms — or my tentacles — at somebody else’s success. In that moment I finally understood those cheering crowds of football fans, roaring like one gestalt animal whenever their team scored a goal. I would never again look down on such exultation.

“She’s got her!” Twil yelled, pumping both fists in the air, much more used to this sort of thing.

“Looks that way,” Jan said through clenched teeth.

Evelyn surged to her feet next to me, craning her neck as if to get a better view of the fight, though she had a perfectly clear view just sitting on the makeshift carapace-bench. Even she wasn’t immune to this rush of shared sensation. But her body couldn’t quite keep up, she almost stumbled in an effort to steady her weight on her walking stick. She flinched when I caught her with one hand and one tentacle, but then she clung to my side as she found her feet.

Praem had paused in lifting a strawberry to her own mouth, blank white eyes staring ahead. Lozzie hopped from foot to foot like an overexcited rabbit, poncho fluttering. Behind us I heard a gurrrrrrr-ruuuk gurgle of shock from the direction of the gateway. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the fight to check the source, but that was unmistakably Sevens, snuck back over here to watch.

Only one of us didn’t react. Raine neither cheered nor winced. Hands on her hips, her expression a mask of focus and concentration, she watched the demons hit the dirt with a squint in her eyes and a frown on her brow.

“That’s gotta be it!” Twil said. “She’s fucked!”

“Don’t be so sure,” Raine murmured.

Everything I knew about fighting I had learnt from listening to Raine, though I had internalised scant little. I did possess a touch of abyssal cunning, that much was true, but instinctive gut-feeling about how to fling oneself across a room with a set of a tentacles, or how to flush one’s skin with tetrodotoxin and hiss one’s throat raw at a bigger predator, none of that helped with the technical knowledge of a one-on-one fistfight, let alone a competition with formal rules. I’d never so much as watched a boxing match or a martial arts video, at least not before I’d met Raine. But when she’d gushed to me about the intricacies of knife fighting and self-defence, she had made one thing abundantly clear: most real fights went to the ground, went there quickly, and did not come back up again until one combatant had lost.

My gut said surely this was over — July was fast, but Zheng had her now.

Doubt crept into my heart, because my heart trusted Raine. What did she see that the rest of us missed?

For half a second after the impact, the demons just lay there in a heap of bruises and broken bones, entwined together with Zheng’s arms around the small of July’s back and her head buried in the side of July’s chest, bare skin against bare skin, sweat mixing, both of them winded so hard they had to pause.

Later I would look back on that half-second and realise my earlier jealousy was deeply misplaced. Zheng, my Zheng, my beautiful rumbling giant of muscle and red-chocolate skin and body heat like a furnace, was snuggled up tight against another woman, a woman she had been physically pursuing for weeks, who she had lusted after, and was about to claim. This was not sex, but it was what Zheng wanted, a moment of meaning written with the joining of their own bodies — and all I cared about was that grin of joyous triumph on her face, her satisfaction and violent pleasure.

She was having fun and I was loving it.

A lifeless seed-stone finally germinated into a clean and healthy green sprout, deep inside my chest and gut, soaking up toxic swamp-filth and beginning to purify the waters. But only beginning. Right then was hardly the moment for fully processing that feeling. Now was the time for more violence.

Both combatants whirled back to life before the rest of us had time to take another breath. July bucked beneath Zheng, twisting to get away like a rattlesnake caught by a fox, all sinew and steel-cable muscle. But her legs were pinned beneath Zheng’s weight and her pelvis was still broken. Demon hosts could ignore pain — I knew that from the terrifying experience of riding along with Zheng’s leap from Glasswick tower, when she’d broken both her legs in multiple places to protect me from any damage — but a snapped pelvis was a structural failure. There was only so much the body could do with miss-anchored muscles and mulched nerve bundles, at least until demon host healing speed kicked in. But that could take minutes. July had only ten seconds to get off the floor before she lost the fight.

On cue, Lozzie raised one arm straight up into the air, a single finger extended to point at the heavens. All around the edge of the unmarked ring of combat, her knights raised swords and lances and axes and shields, then clashed them together in a great metallic stamp, ringing out over the hillsides.

“One!” Lozzie shouted.

“Why’s she not moving?!” Twil was yelling. “Zheng, push it!”

Zheng was clinging to July like a limpet, as if she thought she’d already won. July made a fist and swung a roundhouse at the back of Zheng’s head. The punch was clumsy and slow compared with her earlier grace and speed, but still with incredible strength behind the blow.

But then Zheng reared up, exploding from the ground like a sprinter from a standing start, using her leg muscles as springs again. July was caught mid-punch, unable to take the opening to wriggle away.

Zheng’s right arm flew up, then crashed down to pin July’s head against the ground. Zheng roared a laugh like a jungle cat, laughing at the hubris of her prey as July’s fist glanced off Zheng’s ribs. Her other hand slammed against July’s own ribcage, pinning her like an exotic butterfly.

“Oh come on, Jule, stay down,” Jan sighed.

“Okay that’s gotta be it!” Twil yelled.

The knights clashed weapons against shields a second time. “Two!” Lozzie called out, flicking up a second finger.

July writhed and bucked on the ground, staring up at Zheng with wide owlish eyes between Zheng’s own fingers, as if her gaze alone could throw her opponent clear. Zheng laughed right in her face, roaring a taunt that echoed out over the quiet plains of Camelot.

“Three!” Lozzie counted with the knights.

“Watch the feet,” Raine said a split second before it happened.

Zheng wasn’t the only one who could feint.

July’s struggling and bucking was not enough to overcome Zheng’s raw strength, backed up by all the power of her abyssal origins, whatever alien fibres and supernatural enhancements laced her muscles and bones. But then, quick as a lizard in the sun, one of July’s helpless attempts to throw Zheng off turned into something else. She jerked her legs up into the gap that Zheng had left between their bodies. A wince — an actual wince — passed over her staring, intense face, a wince of pain at what she was forcing her broken pelvis to support. Perhaps not all demon hosts could suppress their human nerves as expertly as Zheng.

July jackknifed her body, got her feet below Zheng, and kicked her double-barrel in the stomach.

“No!” I cried out, carried along that same stream of wild passion as before, but falling into a ravine of dismay.

Zheng took the kick with a great ooof of breath — but she stayed put, to everyone’s shock, especially July’s. The smaller demon host tried to take the opening to whip her body out from beneath Zheng. She managed to jerk her head to slip out from under Zheng’s crushing grip. But she’d expected Zheng to be thrown off her, so her moves were made with that in mind, muscles already locked into the correct response for the wrong result.

Zheng caught July’s head again like a mongoose pinning a snake, sideways this time, with July’s cheek crushed into the grass, facing us.

“Four!” Lozzie called as the knights counted.

July tried to kick Zheng again, legs jackknifing up into a firing position a second time — but Zheng sat on her knees, grinding her broken pelvis into the grass.


Zheng lowered her face toward July’s, pinned helpless against the earth. A slow, wicked grin parted Zheng’s lips, which peeled back upon row after row of razor sharp teeth.

Lozzie’s other arm shot into the air. “Six!”

July’s breath heaved in hard little spurts; I hadn’t known a demon host could visibly panic. Her eyes rolled sideways at Zheng, unable to look her in the face from the angle at which she was trapped, like an animal in a neck-snare. If July had not been a demon, I would have sworn she was terrified, but it was impossible to tell with her wide-eyed, staring look.

Zheng brought her clenched teeth to within inches of July’s cheek.


Out rolled Zheng’s tongue, inch after inch of thick, wet, red meat, almost a foot of flickering tentacle that lapped the air just shy of July’s quivering eyeballs.

“Serves you right, Jule,” Jan muttered. “See what happens when you bite off more than you can chew?”

“Er,” Twil said, suddenly alarmed. “She’s not gonna … like … she’s not gonna eat her, right?”

“She’s won!” I cheered. “Zheng!”

“Ummmm,” went Twil, increasingly worried.

“Eight!” Lozzie counted in time with the knights clashing their shields.

“If she tries any cannibalism,” Evelyn drawled — though even she could not hide the racing of her heart at this spectacle of violent intimidation, her voice quivering slightly, “then she’ll get knocked off by what is basically a sonic weapon. Relax.”

“She’s making herself clear,” Raine said. Her voice rang with open admiration. “But also, you know, softening the rejection.”

“She is!” I said, surprised to find a smile on my own face. Where had my jealousy gone? Zheng had her opponent pinned and was practically licking her face, a sign that even if she rejected her style, she approved of something. She accepted the connection, on her terms alone. But all I felt was an internal heat to match Zheng’s own, a restless urge to jump and shout and grab something — somebody, anybody — with my tentacles, and spin them around.

I took extra care not to squeeze Evelyn too hard with hand or tentacle alike, though I couldn’t help the way I cradled her shoulders. I wanted to pick her up and hug her.

Lozzie’s final finger flicked up, leaving only one thumb curled into her palm. “Nine!”

Zheng’s writhing tongue whipped back into her mouth. She clicked her teeth shut, millimetres away from July’s ear. Then I saw her lips moving as she purred some secret to her dancing partner.

The loose ring of knights raised their weapons to clash against their shields a final time. Beneath Zheng’s grip, July finally relaxed. The fight went out of her, eyes wide and staring ahead as if she’d already resumed her habitual owlish poise, despite being pinned to the ground.

Zheng — to my shock and horror — relaxed with her.

“Zheng—!” The cry tore up my throat.

July moved so fast she was almost a blur; she pulled her arms upward so her palms were flat on the ground either side of her chest, then twisted her hips and legs like a rubber band wound tight around a pencil, putting every ounce of muscular strength and surprise into throwing Zheng off her body.

Zheng was hurled into the air like a pebble from a sling, a tangle of flailing limbs going up and over July’s head. My chest constricted — victory, stolen!

“Holy shit,” Raine breathed, awe in her trapped words. She saw the result a moment before the rest of us realised.

Zheng’s arc was not uncontrolled at all.

Though thrown off July’s legs and into the air, Zheng’s right hand never left July’s skull. For one gravity-defying moment of acrobatic brilliance, she was balanced upside-down on her own joint-locked arm, planted on July’s head, her legs in the air, other hand whirling to catch herself. She was grinning wide, eyes blazing with joy, deep in her element.

July twisted again, taking advantage of the split second in which Zheng’s weight was in motion. She jackknifed her body, screamed in pain at her shattered pelvis, and attempted to leap to her feet.

But Zheng landed in a folded squat, one hand still cradling July’s skull like an eagle with an egg.

“Down!” Zheng roared.

She slammed July’s skull back into the ground. July’s whole body cracked like the length of a whip, the impact running through her and drumming her heels on the grass.

The knights clashed their weapons upon their shields. “Ten!” Lozzie shouted. She did a little up-down sweep with the fluttery hem of her pastel poncho, like she was waving the finish flag at a race. “Ding ding ding!”

Behind us, the gigantic bulk of her caterpillar emitted a low-pitched boop — tiny compared to the warning siren from earlier, a single touch of engine-plates that echoed out across Camelot, rolling away over the hills and off into the sky.

Final bell. Fight was done. Competitors, lay down your arms.

Just as with the opening of the fight, nobody moved for a long moment. Was it really over? After all, what set of rules could possibly constrain the beings we’d just witnessed? In reality it was only the space of two heartbeats, but it felt like minutes.

Zheng stayed hunched in a squat like an overgrown gargoyle, looming over July’s head, one massive hand still pinning her to the ground. The dark pools of her eyes bored down into July. Heaving for breath in victory, running hot with visibly gleaming flash-sweat beneath the shifting purple light of Camelot, she was a thing of rough and muscular beauty. July lay supine below her, staring back up, her own chest rising and falling in a slow, steady pant. Her right hand lifted toward Zheng’s face, stopped and wavered, then fluttered back down when Zheng did not react. A final rejected gesture.

Then Raine started clapping.

“Bloody well done!” she called out. “Well done, Zheng! Tough luck, July!”

“Yeah!” Twil joined in, clapping her hands over her head. “Woo!”

“Wheeeee!” went Lozzie.

Zheng finally lifted her claw-grip off July’s skull. She paused in mid-air for a moment. The position brought to mind a bird of prey toying with a rabbit, though July was no longer the soaring raptor in the skies. Zheng flexed her fingers, rolled her neck to work out the kinks after the failed killing blow earlier, and rocked back on her heels to give July room to rise. But July just lay there, sighed heavily, and closed her eyes.

Zheng let out a low rumble. A slow, sardonic grin crept across her face,

“You almost had me, bird of prey,” she said, loud enough for us all to hear.

“That’s going to sting,” Jan said with a little sigh. “Her neck or her pride, I’m not sure which will hurt more. She’ll sulk for weeks over this one. She did ask for it, though.”

“She will be cared for,” said Praem.

“Oh, of course.” Jan nodded. “Absolutely. I wouldn’t dream of otherwise. No hard feelings, not from me.”

I barely heard them talking — I had eyes for only Zheng.

She looked up from July, from her vanquished opponent, her friendly playmate, with her dominance firmly established, and turned to me. Our eyes met across the battlefield as she rose to her feet, skin steaming with sweat, her grin growing with pure satisfaction and showmanship. She beamed with pride, rolling her neck and flexing the aching muscles of her back, watching me with a glow in her face and a smoulder in the pits of her eyes.

And I finally realised that though the fight was for July, the show had been for me.

I let out a trapped breath I hadn’t known I’d been holding, shaking and flushed with adrenaline, but for once I was not afraid. A stupid grin kept pulling at the corners of my mouth and I had to blink tears out of my eyes. I felt hot all over, like my skin was flushed and my belly was warm, my tentacles itching to flex and uncoil and pull me across the grass toward her. My hands were cold and quivering and I had to tuck them into my armpits — well, the one that Evelyn wasn’t clinging to.

“You were beautiful!” I called out, a choking shout through a dry throat. Zheng ran her tongue along her razor-sharp teeth and bobbed her head. But that couldn’t possibly be a bow. Zheng bowed to nobody, not even me.

“Heather?” Evelyn asked, none too steady herself. “Are you alright?”

“Just … just excited!” My voice came out in a squeak. I puffed out a long breath, trying to gather myself. “That was … that was … ”

I couldn’t find the words, I just shook my head, still staring as Zheng curled her back and arms in a huge stretch, healing after the fight. She stuck one hand under her shirt, prodding at the purple bruises blossoming across her skin. For a moment I thought she was about to strip her t-shirt off over her head, but at least she refrained from that excess.

“Quicker than I thought,” Evelyn said.

I blinked at her. “Ah?”

“That was quicker than I thought it would be,” she explained, letting out a sigh to rival July, though hers was a sign of relief. She rolled one shoulder in a half-hearted attempt to dislodge my tentacle, then seemed to think better of it and aborted the motion halfway through. “I assumed we’d be stuck here all afternoon while they beat each other black and blue.”

“Evee, Evee, Evee,” Raine said. She turned to us with a big cheeky grin on her face, back to normal after the passing of her fixated awe. I noticed that she still thrummed with hidden excitement, something that perhaps only I was picking up on. Or maybe it was just this intoxicating shared joy. “I know you need zero further evidence that you ain’t your mother, but you really do know bugger all about demon hosts, don’t you?”

Evelyn glowered at her. “I will leave you out here.”

Raine laughed and spread her hands. “Hey, I’m the only one here who’s kicked a demon’s arse before.”

Jan paused halfway through the process of standing up, balancing her fast-food box of chicken in one hand as she clambered to her feet. Her massive, puffy white coat apparently weighed her down slightly, so she had to use Praem’s arm as a handhold. But then she stopped dead and stared at Raine over the top of her sunglasses.

“E-excuse me?” she stammered. “What— demon— you’ve had?” Jan squeezed her eyes shut, huffed, and finished getting to her feet. “I’m sorry, excuse me, you appear to have short-circuited my language centre by talking utter bull. Did I hear that correctly?”

Raine shot a finger gun and a wink at Jan. Evelyn sighed and squeezed her eyes shut.

“Oh, nonsense,” Jan hissed.

“Errrr,” Twil said, “technically not nonsense?”

“It is true,” Praem said, standing up and smoothing her skirt over her hips. Jan boggled at her.

“No shit,” Raine said. “And that was back when I was only a teenager, too. This isn’t my first waltz, I know more than I look—”

“We are not divulging our entire bloody life stories right now,” Evelyn grumbled. “Or I really will leave you here. Yes, Jan, technically Raine has beaten a few demon hosts before, though under very different circumstances. But don’t let her ego fool you. The things my mother once made were nothing like Zheng or July, and certainly nothing like Praem. I’m not even sure they should be classified the same.” She glanced at Praem. “Raine certainly wouldn’t beat any of ours in a fight.”

“Oh, oh!” Raine raised her hands in a big performative gesture of modesty. “Praem could wipe the floor with me. No question. Praem, I wouldn’t even insult you by asking.”

Praem nodded, once.

“Praem, strong!” Lozzie chirped.

“Good,” Evelyn sighed. “Now you’ve stopped waving your dick around, we can—”

“But Zheng?” Rained carried on, allowing herself a sharp and dangerous smirk. “Hey, you never know ‘till you try.”

Evelyn rolled her eyes. I swallowed down a secret lump in my throat. I think I knew very well why Raine had been so fascinated by every blow and counter-blow of the duel.

“Aw come on,” Twil said, “did you see any of that shit?” She gestured at Zheng and July with both hands. “You’re good, Raine, I’ll give you that, but you’d get your arse handed to you. Raw. Uncooked. Come off it. Heather? Tell her she’s not gonna fight Zheng.”

I couldn’t speak, not without hypocrisy. Deep down in my guts and in the hot, dark, lizard-brain place in the back of my own skull, the grotto of ancient instincts that my abyssal side had identified with, I lusted after the very same experience. My skin itched all over, I had to keep my tentacles close to stop them twitching with wild energy, and my mouth was dry with adrenaline and tension.

I just shook my head.

Guuurrrk,” Sevens went from over by the gateway. “Don’t know the winner. Maybe, maybe … ” She trailed off into an uncomfortable grumble.

“Don’t you start as well!” Evelyn craned round so she could tell Sevens off. “Don’t encourage her!”

“Hey, don’t worry,” Raine said, radiating a worrying level of pure confidence. “I’m not gonna fight Zheng next.”

“Bloody right,” Evelyn huffed.

Jan watched this entire exchange with blank-faced alarm, obvious even through her dark glasses. When a moment of silence finally fell, she pulled a pained smile.

“Right,” she said, bright and sarcastic. “Right then. Good to know. Great.”

“It really was quicker than I expected,” Evelyn said. “Which is a blessing because now we can get out of here before we all start going funny. No offence, Lozzie.”

“Mm-mm!” Lozzie did a wiggly shrug. I think she understood we all couldn’t take this as easily as her.

Evelyn caught my eye and nodded toward Zheng and July. “Heather, do you want to … ?”

“Oh, yes!” I nodded.

“Quite, quite,” Jan said. “Less time spent out here the better.” She gestured awkwardly with her little tray of chicken skewers. “Didn’t even have time to finish my snack.”

“You don’t want the rest?” Twil perked up, eyes like saucers. “I’ll finish it for you. Don’t waste it.”

“Are you actually a dog?” Jan asked her, peering around the side of her coat and Praem’s hip. “I mean, I know you’ve got this whole werewolf thing going on, and the less I know about that, the better. But this is just what you do? You smell food, or hear about food, and you go oooh, food! I’ve got to be really annoying about food! Is this you?”

“Fuzzy likes her chicken,” Lozzie said.

“Hey,” Twil said, “if you give me some of that chicken, you can call me a mangy bitch, for all I care. What is that sauce on it?”

“Garlic.” Jan sighed. “You’re not a vampire, too, are you?”

“Not that I know. Might wanna be careful about her though.” Twil pointed at Sevens, still lurking just this side of the gateway. At least there was no sign of Tenny and Whistle, safely back in the house.

Jan stared at Sevens for a moment too long, then looked back to Twil. I could almost physically see her decision not to confront this fact.

“You can have one piece of chicken, and that’s all,” she said.

Lozzie did a little twirl on the spot and skipped past us. “Can I have some toooooo?” she asked.

Jan suddenly went quite tongue-tied, um-ing and ahh-ing as Lozzie bobbed in front of her.

“Farcical,” Evelyn hissed under her breath. “I need a cup of tea, sod all this.”

Evelyn and I left the chicken negotiations behind as we walked arm in arm to go see the victor and the vanquished. Raine joined us too, on my opposite side.

The three of us walked up to Zheng and July, one standing tall and the other lying defeated on the ground. July still had her eyes closed, breathing softly, almost as if asleep. Her tank-top and jeans were scuffed with the dry earth, twisted and askew. A few strands of her silky black hair had escaped from the tight bun on the back of her head. Zheng watched me approach, face split with that beaming grin of pride, rumbling with each breath like a tiger in repose. She was covered in a sheen of sweat, steaming gently in the soft wind. I could smell her on the air, rich and spiced, sweat and heat and furnace-fires, iron and blood.

“What is this?” Evelyn grumbled, leaving heavily on her walking stick when we stopped. She nodded to encompass both demons. “A bloody renaissance painting?”

“Well done, lefty, well done, hey?” Raine gave Zheng a little personal round of applause. “And well done to the loser, too,” she added for July, voice absolutely free of even a hint of mockery. She really meant what she said. “You put up one hell of a fight, July. You’re fast as greased lightning, girl. I’m impressed.”

“Gotta go fast,” July said from down on the ground. She sounded deeply, thoroughly defeated, almost depressed.

I didn’t understand why Raine laughed, or why Evelyn put her face in her hand and groaned. “Don’t tell me you’re as bad as your sister back there,” Evelyn hissed.

“We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey,” said July. “And I am in pain.”

Zheng ignored all of it.

“Did you see me, shaman?” she purred.

I nodded, found my throat was dry, and had to exert extra effort to keep my tentacles close to my body, tightly wound like compressed springs. The one tentacle holding my squid-skull mask felt paralysed with indecision. My ankles tensed, twitching to spring toward Zheng. Only Evelyn’s arm around mine kept me anchored.

“You were … very impressive. Very. I was very … impressed.” I huffed out a sigh at my own inarticulate nonsense. “Oh, for pity’s sake. Yes, Zheng, that was incredible. I’ve never seen anything like it before. And I feel better too, now.”

“Mmmm?” Zheng tilted her head at me, blinking slowly.

“Uh … ” I came up short.

“Yeah, no kidding,” Twil added from behind us, though a mouthful of chicken. “I’ve watched some MMA before, but that was off the hook.”

She sauntered up, chewing on her own prize, one garlic-glazed drumstick. Lozzie, Jan, and Praem wandered over as well, though Sevens stayed by the gateway, perhaps kept tethered by the proximity to Tenny. Jan was delicately holding up another garlic slathered chicken drumstick for Lozzie to nibble on, her sunglasses pushed up on her forehead, a faint blush in her soft and delicate cheeks.

Zheng ignored all of that, too.

“Better, shaman?” Zheng purred, showing a thin sliver of her many teeth through parted lips.

“She means,” July added from the floor, “that she has resolved her internal contradictions. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis.” July finally cracked open her eyes, from shut to owl-wide in one flicker of dark lashes. She looked at me, slightly pathetic at that angle, like a bird with bound wings. “Or not quite synthesis, not yet.”

She sounded deeply sad.

“Heeeeey,” Raine said. “I like how you think.”

Zheng blinked slowly at me one more time, then turned away and held out a huge, meaty hand toward July, to help her up. July just stared at the hand.

Jan sighed. “Oh, don’t be a sore loser, Jule.”

“I’m not sore,” July said. “I am … ” She paused, frowning. Her expression reminded me of a confused child. “Pained.”

“Get up, bird of prey,” Zheng rumbled.

“My hips—”

“Are healed. Good enough to stand. So stand.”

July accepted Zheng’s hand at last, but surprised me by averting her eyes as Zheng helped pull her to her feet. She quickly let go again, standing there with her arms awkward and limp, her feet close together, her eyes fixed on the floor. Dejected, humiliated, she would rather have stayed lying down. In that moment, I finally realised what I was looking at. July, demon host, speed machine, tall and elegant and pretty, athletic and strong, far closer to being Zheng’s equal than I ever could, with the mannerisms of a hungry predator and the talons to match, had the heart of a teenage girl.

Raine must have picked up on that impression too, because her instincts kicked in. “Hey,” she said, warm and soft, “sometimes you just lose. It’s not so bad, yeah? If it’s not life or death, then you learn from it. And hey, maybe you learn from it even when it is life or death.”

“Bird of prey, you are not rendered flightless,” Zheng rumbled.

“I … ” July spoke to the ground, frowning. “Had hoped to … impress you?”

“You did, bird of prey,” Zheng purred through a low smile. “You are fast and you are skilled. And I enjoyed you. But I have been doing this for a long time. I have traded blows with mage-creations, Outsiders, true warriors, real vampires. I have eaten the flesh of man-killer bear, crowned monkey, and ghul alike. I have stood on more battlefields than I remember. And now my blood itself runs with the shaman’s own blessing, her holy flesh inside me.” Zheng’s hands went to her arm and her flank — the locations of the wounds that Ooran Juh had left on her, which I had healed with my own bootstrapped abyssal white blood cells and pneuma-somatic shearing teeth.

Holy? I almost whined in my throat at that. I wanted to bundle Zheng to the ground and bite her or something. The urge was nonsense, but it was making my eyes water and my guts clench.

“Bird of prey, how old are you?” Zheng continued.

“I wanted to … I wanted you to … ”

“She’s twenty five,” Jan spoke up with a sigh. “But the first fifteen years of that were not exactly fruitful. So maybe she’s ten. Or, well.” She eyed Praem, whose arm she was still holding. “Perhaps regular ages don’t apply to demons.”

“Twenty five years!” Zheng laughed, a good-natured belly laugh. “You are a sapling. And you were good.”

“It isn’t enough,” July said, frowning down at the grass. “I wanted you to come with me. And then I wanted to show you that I could be enough.”

“Thank you,” I blurted out before I could stop myself. “July, thank you for playing with Zheng. I’m sorry I was such a bitch. Thank you. She enjoyed it. That’s what matters. Didn’t you enjoy it too?”

July finally looked up, but not at Zheng. She stared at me, still wide-eyed but somehow lost.

“I don’t understand why I feel like this,” she said to me, accusing, hurt, confused.

“Girl,” Raine said with a sigh and grin, putting her hands on her hips. “You’ve got a crush.”

July turned to stare at Raine instead, head flicking around like an owl hearing the rustle of a vole beneath a pile of leaves. Behind us, Twil spluttered, almost choking on a mouthful of chicken. Lozzie let out a muffled squeal.

“Yes,” I sighed. “I was trying to avoid saying that. Trying to be polite, Raine.”

Evelyn frowned sidelong at me. “I thought you disliked this demon now?”

“Well, that’s before I realised that she’s struggling with … feelings.”

“I have not got a crush,” July said.

“You so have,” Jan added, waving her final chicken drumstick in the air. “This isn’t her first, but it’s certainly the most messy. Come on, Jule, you’ve been turned down but it’s been very complimentary. Take the L’ on this one.”

“Wait, wait!” Twil said. “You’re telling me we’ve done all this because of a teenager with a crush?”

“That seems to be the case,” I said, clearing my throat as delicately as I could.

Twil started laughing. “Come on! Really?!”

July stared into mid-air, uncomfortable in a way none of us could help with. Her frown concentrated around her eyes, pinched and narrowing, turned inward on herself.

Just when I thought we were going to witness a demon host bursting into tears and ugly crying in front of a bunch of people she probably felt humiliated by, Praem whirled into action. She gently removed Jan’s hand from her arm, lifted her little plastic box of strawberries, and walked right up to July with a neat and strict economy of motion.

“You,” July said to her by way of greeting, staring with more confusion than accusation.

“Me,” Praem agreed.

“Um,” I murmured, alarmed by the sudden confrontation. But Evelyn held tight to my arm and leaned close to my ear.

“Trust her,” she hissed.

“You are not like me,” July said to Praem. “I respect you but I am not interested in fighting—”

“Would you like a strawberry?” Praem asked.

July stared at the box of fruit; July stared back into Praem’s blank, milk-white eyes; July stared at Praem’s hand as it found July’s elbow and gently guided her away from Zheng, away from us, and drew her off far enough that we couldn’t hear what they might say to each other. Praem opened the box of strawberries and held one up. July shook her head. Praem ate the strawberry, but July did not storm off or lose interest.

“Oh, I didn’t expect that,” Jan said after a moment, looking a bit abandoned in her puffy coat and flashy tracksuit. “Gosh, your Praem is quite the polymath, isn’t she? Diplomacy and hostage-negotiation too.”

“Hostage negotiation?” I blinked at Jan. “I didn’t think it was getting that tense.”

Jan shrugged, her empty fast food tray in one hand. “Figure of speech. Sounds cooler than ‘social worker’ or ‘therapist for troubled teens’.”

“I dunno,” Raine said. “I think social workers are pretty cool.”

Evelyn let out an almighty huff. “Why are we having this conversation Outside?”

Jan actually perked up at that. “Human beings can get used to almost anything, you know? In fact, I feel better than I did when we stepped in here. It’s still, well, weird, but not so bad.”

“Trust me,” Twil said, “there’s worse places than this.”

“Indeed,” I sighed.

“Are we done here?” Evelyn asked, growing peevish. “Anybody would think we’re in a public park, not standing around beyond the boundaries of reality and wondering if we’re being irradiated by the sky.” Evelyn glanced up, frowning at the whorls of shifting purple in the black firmament above, like the spiral arms of disrupted galaxies spreading as ink in oil.

“It’s … it’s not, right?” Jan stammered all of a sudden. She glanced up at the sky too, then pushed her sunglasses back over her eyes. “We’re not all being cooked, are we?”

“Noooooo!” said Lozzie, but she made it sound more like Noouuuuuh!

Laughing, she tried to envelop Jan’s shoulders with her poncho. The coat rather got in the way. If Jan hadn’t been armoured deep inside her puffy bulwark, I’m certain the Lozzie jellyfish attack would have engulfed her totally. Instead, Lozzie rather ineffectually draped herself over Jan, which caused Jan to blush and blink and make a one-woman massive fuss.

“It’s perfectly safe,” Evelyn explained. “Lozzie is trustworthy. Besides, Heather spent a lot of time out here before and she’s fine. Now, are we going home? Please?”

“We are not done yet, wizard,” Zheng purred, bottled excitement deep in her gravelly tone. “Are we, shaman?”

A shiver went through me, hard and unexpected, a hot flush from inside my core which was more than just emotional reaction. The bioreactor inside my abdomen responded to Zheng’s purr by ramping up power production, making me suddenly run hot, breaking out in a layer of cold sweat. Her voice was like a lash and a leash, yanking my attention back up to her hypnotic eyes. Zheng’s lips peeled back from her teeth in a dangerous smile, all razor-sharp edges, face glowing like a furnace.

Suddenly I felt the same way as when we’d first met, back in that ugly concrete room in Glasswick tower, when I’d thought she was going to eat me alive. I was a field-mouse frozen by a serpent’s gaze.

For a moment I could barely breathe. Then I hiccuped. “ … we’re not,” I managed to murmur.

“We’re not?” Zheng purred, grinning with deep satisfaction.

“Don’t get— get rhetorical with me,” I said, my mouth bone dry and my hands shaking. “Stop teasing.”

“Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh,” went Twil, the universal sound of muted alarm. “Uh, Heather, you want me to take Evee off you, there?”

“Oh for—” Evelyn huffed. She was still clamped to my arm, using me as support and anchor. “You’re joking? Heather, you’re joking.”

“The shaman needs what the shaman needs,” Zheng purred, eyes boring into me like hot coals through shivering ice. But I stood my ground.

“Eveey-weevy puddin’ and pie,” Lozzie sing-songed, wrapping herself around Evelyn’s opposite arm with gentle care, then peeling her off me. “Back away, away away.”

“Yeah yeah clear some space!” Twil said, much more relaxed with Evelyn out of the way. “Zheng, you be gentle now!”

“No worries on that front,” Raine said.

“Are you people serious?” Jan asked. “Do you all do this? Just beat each other up on a whim?”

“Nah,” Raine hissed in a stage-whisper. “This is a Zheng thing. And a Heather thing, maybe.”

But I barely heard their words. The chatter of night insects at the edge of the blazing bonfire that was Zheng. Freed from the responsibility of cradling Evelyn’s shoulders, my tentacles subconsciously drifted outward, like a squid suspended in still waters at the ocean floor; half threat display, half subconscious mating ritual, I didn’t even know what I was doing. My throat ached as if a bone was out of place and needed to be popped back in. My skin itched to flush itself with strobing colouration. My eyes stung and my gums ached and the tendons in my ankles creaked as if ready to turn to bio-steel and launch me forward like coiled springs.

“Say it, shaman. I’ve seen it on your face all week.”

“ … fight me too!” I tried to say — but I just hissed at her, then blushed bright red.

“But you will lose,” she purred. “Unless you fight for real.”

“It—” I gurgled, then swallowed hard and forced real words up my twisting throat. “It doesn’t matter! I don’t care! Fight me and win then, quickly!”

“As you will it, little bird,” Zheng purred, grinning like a great white shark.

I was not actually conscious or aware of the moment I threw myself at Zheng. Memory struggles to encode itself on moments of such high stress, such relief and release, such physical overload. Raine later testified that I bounced off the ground with my tentacles, like an octopus pouncing on a crab, though Twil added I did land and stumble as if I’d fallen off a pogo-stick, not exactly the picture of abyssal grace and beauty. Lozzie assured me that I was very cool and “very wriggly!” Evelyn just sighed and shrugged when I asked her, not one for all this performative violence and play-fighting.

The next thing I knew, I slammed into Zheng. I recall her face, her roaring grin, her sheer pleasure that I’d finally joined in. I hit her as a ball of lashing tentacles, my extra limbs flailing to catch her wrists or her elbows, trying to constrict and bind and pin. But there was no toxin in my flesh, no barbed hooks to rip at her skin, no stingers or spikes or spines. Just strobing rainbow glow-light, latching onto her body and wrapping round tight.

She caught me in mid-air, of course. I offered absolutely no challenge to her speed or her strength, not without brain-math or delving deep into the pits of abyssal biology.

Zheng caught me by the shoulder and chest. She made a good effort to cushion my wild leap, but it still knocked the wind out of me. My attempts to wrestle her arms with my tentacles were equally fruitless.

She caught me like a rugby ball, swung me through the air so hard my head spun, and slammed me to the ground.

Well, for a given value of slammed. It felt like a slam, at my size and general fragility. For Zheng, I’m sure it was very gentle. She even cradled my head.

I hissed in her face with manic, animalistic joy, with fighting joy, something I’d never felt before. I flailed my feet against her hips as she pinned me to the grass. I wrapped my tentacles around her arms and shoulders, half constricting attack, half romantic embrace. But even with two tentacles wound about her right arm like a pair of boa constrictors, she held me pinned with ease. I could not pry her off me.

At some point during the leap, I must have rammed the squid-skull mask on over my head, because Zheng gently slipped it free, exposing me to the open air and the spiced scent of her skin.

“Haha!” she roared with laughter, sweat gleaming on her skin. “Shaman, I have you beaten!”

“Not— yet!” I heaved against her, panting and laughing, flushed all over.

Subconsciously at first, then with increasing intention, one of my tentacles drifted upward to hover next to Zheng’s flank. The tip narrowed, sharpened, and I felt the alchemical process beginning inside the pneuma-somatic flesh. A bio-steel needle coalesced inside tentacle-tip. The desire I’d been so ashamed of blossomed into reality, inches from Zheng’s rib cage.

She noticed, turning the dark razors of her eyes upon my sin.

I stopped laughing, suddenly self-conscious and mortified. I ached like I was on the edge of sexual climax — but this wasn’t sex. It was something else. Something just as carnal, but not sexual. I had no frame of reference for this.

“I’m … ” I tried to speak, to explain myself. “I don’t … ”

“Little bird,” Zheng purred, turning back to me and lowering her head toward my face. Her teeth parted, the length of her tongue flickering behind sharp points. “Did you really think I would leave you for another?”

“You didn’t come home!” I blurted out, my voice a scratchy mess through a throat barely human right then. “For days! You were out fighting and having fun and I thought you might have been hurt again where I couldn’t get to you! And I wanted to see you having fun! I want to be included!”

Zheng purred deep in her throat, lowering her parted teeth toward me. Her tongue — inch after inch of dripping, steaming tentacle — slid out between her lips and hovered in front of my face, sliding past my eyes to rasp across my left cheek. She licked me, rough as a cat’s tongue, leaving a sticky wet slick across my face.

Then her tongue retreated again, teeth snapping shut. I was quivering all over.

“You need only ask, shaman,” she purred. “I apologise for making you worry. But for nothing else.”

“And I … I’m sorry for being jealous.”

The grin ripped back across Zheng’s face. “Haha! Foolish monkey!”

And with that, she picked me up and whirled me into the air again. I shrieked and hiccuped and grabbed on tight with my tentacles, half-convinced she was about to toss me like a caber. But she spun me round and placed me back down on my feet. Head spinning, heart hammering, I clung to her and her familiar heat, panting and spent.

“You may wrestle me at your leisure, shaman,” Zheng purred, placing a hand on my head, cupping my skull like an egg. “Whenever you wish.”

The one tentacle which had started the transformation into alchemical delivery device now retreated, joining my others and ceasing the process. I hugged Zheng around the middle, carelessly mashing my face into the bruises beneath her t-shirt.

“It’s more than that,” I murmured. “I won’t be able to do this without you. All of it. The Eye, Maisie … ”

Zheng’s hand stroked the back of my head. “If my fists could break Laoyeh, shaman, I would shatter every bone.”

I rubbed my face back and forth, shaking my head. “I don’t need you to do that. I just need you by me. Like this. We don’t even have to ever have sex, not if that’s not what we are. Or … we could?”

Zheng answered with a purr. We didn’t need more words.

“Ah-hem,” came an uncomfortable throat-clearing from behind me. “I understand you two are having a … moment,” Evelyn said. “But we really should go home.”

“Oh!” I jerked like I’d touched an electric fence, suddenly realising that everyone was watching.

I stepped away from Zheng, though half my tentacles stayed attached to her. I scooped my squid-skull mask off the ground and fluttered about trying not to look anybody else in the eyes, mortified by the way I’d been acting, but also oddly proud. Lozzie was silently squealing into her hands next to Evelyn. Jan watched me with a wary frown. Twil shot me a wink when she caught my eyes, congratulations for a job well done. Praem and July had wandered back almost to the gateway, where Sevens was saying something to them.

“Ha!” Zheng barked. “Shaman, be proud!”

“I am, I am!”

“Yes,” Evelyn sighed. “And we can all be more proud somewhere that is not Outside.”

But Raine was staring at Zheng, so intense and focused that Zheng’s attention was drawn to her like steel to a magnet. The look on Raine’s face sent my heart fluttering, and not in the good way. Evelyn froze and went pale when she noticed.

“Raine!” Evelyn snapped. “Raine!”

“Nah,” Raine murmured, shaking her head.

“Oh shit, what now?” Twil said. “Not you too, for fuck’s sake.”

“I was right!” Jan threw her hands in the air, or at least wiggled the overstuffed sleeves of her coat. “You lot are all just gagging to beat each other up! I was wrong, you’re not a polycule or a cult, you’re a masochist club! Count me out, thank you very much indeed.”

“Little wolf?” Zheng purred.

Raine smiled, sharp and confident. Slowly, she peeled her leather jacket off her shoulders and slipped her arms out of the sleeves, revealing the tight black t-shirt beneath; I don’t know if it was the adrenaline in my blood or the aftershock of what I’d just done with Zheng, but the sight of Raine unwrapping her body like that sent a shiver of alarm and excitement through me.

“Raine,” I squeaked. “Raine, you know you can’t.”

“You just did,” she answered. She was so focused on Zheng that she couldn’t even look at me.

“B-but … I’m … ”

“Different?” Raine asked. She stuck her hand inside her jacket before she dropped it, letting the leather fall to reveal the single black talon of her combat knife. The blade seemed to drink up the purple light of Camelot, reflecting nothing. She spun it into a backhand grip. “I’m different too.”

“Oh my goodness,” Jan said, taking several steps back.

“Different in the fucking head!” Twil said. “That’s a fucking knife, you loon!”

“Yeah, a knife,” Raine said, smirking at Zheng.

“For what purpose, little wolf?” Zheng asked, low and unimpressed, not smiling anymore. “We swore a vow.”

“Because you and I don’t understand each other yet,” said Raine. “Not really. So I’m next up.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Zheng is a master grappler, July turns out to be a teenager with a crush, Heather finally begins to understand sympathetic pleasure, Evee is being almost sweet (by her standards, anyway), Jan and Lozzie are … doing something, but uh oh, Raine is determined to claim her own place next to Zheng.

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Next week, it’s a knife fight, kniiiife fight! But Zheng doesn’t have a knife. Only Raine has the knife. A little unfair, don’t you think?

for the sake of a few sheep – 15.17

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Framed by rolling hills of soft yellow velvet and the meandering line of the distant horizon, beneath a sky of blooming purple whorls like royal ink in dark oil, brushed by warm cinnamon wind, watched by an audience of Outside things, a round table of armoured knights — and a handful of mortals — Zheng swung for July.

She was so fast it took my breath away.

Even sixty feet distant, just witnessing the motion was enough to make me flinch. Zheng’s punch was a flicker-blur against the background of purple and yellow, her clenched fist a scorpion-sting lashing out with all her weight behind the blow.

Evelyn flinched as well, her arm still wrapped around mine to anchor herself firmly to the ground in this Outside place, tightening as if Zheng’s pre-emptive strike would upend the world. Jan drew a gasp between clenched teeth. Tenny let out a sound like a hundred panicked moths. In her arms, Whistle whined and flattened his ears against his head.

Only a few paces ahead of us, Raine paused, not shocked but suddenly still. Twil kept going, picking up her feet into a sprint as Lozzie ran to meet her.

I’d rarely seen Zheng fight. Months and months ago, she’d fought Raine inside the stairwell trap set up by the Sharrowford Cult; Raine had hit her a few times with a stolen baseball bat, but Zheng had replied with a blurring barrage of fists and sent Raine reeling. Since then, I’d grown to suspect that Zheng had held back on purpose, out of disgust for the people who had held her in slavery. I’d witnessed how fast she could move, a handful of times since then, with the kind of speed born of marriage between animalistic purpose and demonic body-modification, a blur of motion to rip out a mage’s tongue.

And now she’d lost her temper, discarded the rules, and started early. This was not within the bounds of the duel and there was no way any of us could stop her.

But she missed.

Before Jan had time to complete her gasp, before my flinch had finished, before Twil had sprinted another two steps, Zheng’s punch sailed through open air.

July had ducked.

Zheng’s face contorted with rage, showing her shark-toothed maw in an open-mouthed roar. She aimed four more blows at July in quick succession, jack-hammer punches which blurred through the air, trying to catch jawbone, sternum, or rib cage with alternating fists. Zheng was like a Greek Goddess, her muscles flowing beneath red-chocolate skin, her loose and baggy white t-shirt doing little to conceal her raw strength. Shock and adrenaline mixed with something headier inside me, a potent cocktail of awe, admiration, and abyssal desire. My reactor organ twitched inside my abdomen.

July bobbed and weaved, avoiding Zheng’s fists by mere inches. The feat was all the more impressive with that unwieldy guitar case strapped to her back, but we barely had time to appreciate the spectacle, it went so quick, pure reaction, no time for either combatant to think about each move.

But July didn’t raise her own fists. She made no effort to counter-attack. She moved like a snake, sinuous and rubbery.

The half-dozen knights nearest to the fight were stomping toward the demon hosts, shields raised, weapons levelled. I had no doubt that Zheng would respect the lives of Lozzie’s creations, but they simply wouldn’t be fast enough to make any difference. None of us were fast enough, none of us could even reach them before this spiralled out of control; what would happen when Zheng finally landed a blow, or July struck back?

Abyssal instinct prodded me forward all the same, but not for noble reasons, not for the sake of de-escalation. My legs itched like I’d dunked them in salt, aching to move, to run toward the fight, following some mad notion that I should join in. My tentacles bunched behind me like springs, ready to fling me forward, strengthening themselves inside with ropes of muscle to — to what? To pull the combatants apart? To bludgeon them both into submission? To just let loose with the joy of what Twil would call a ‘good scrap’?

My more rational side knew that covering sixty feet at a sprint would just wind me, trilobe bioreactor or no.

I started to shake with internal pressure, like a kettle with no steam spout.

“Go! Go on!” Evelyn suddenly yelled, shoving me forward.

Half my tentacles flailed in confusion, reaching back for Evelyn, my spring-start aborted by shock. To my incredible surprise Evelyn reacted as if she could see my extra limbs — she batted them away with the head of her walking stick, then wildly gestured me forward. But of course she could see my pneuma-somatic additions. We were Outside.

“Go on, Heather, you fool!” she snapped at me, wild-eyed. “Tell her to stop, she’ll listen to you!”

“I-I can’t, I—”

Sixty feet away, Zheng wound up for a lunge. July ducked back, spun on one heel, and Zheng skidded past her. Twil was just catching up with Lozzie, grabbing her to halt her panicked flight. Raine was frozen to the spot, staring at the fight with such intensity as I’d never seen on her face before. Tenny was practically screaming, a long trilling noise of alarm.

Zheng reared up, drew in a great breath, and roared at the top of her lungs. “Fight me, cowa—”


A foghorn noise exploded around us, a tidal wave so deep and so loud that it rattled my teeth and vibrated the jelly inside my eyeballs. It was not actually sound — such a spike of decibels would have blown out the eardrums of every human being present in Camelot, but when it faded we were not rendered deaf. Sound was simply the only way our senses could process this information, this Outside effect, meant for Outside places and Outsider beings.

Everyone — without exception — jumped, flinched, jerked, reacted by hunching shoulders and going quiet, wide-eyed in animal recognition.

There could be no mistake what that noise meant: I am here, I am bigger than you, and I am telling you to stop what you are doing.

Even Praem blinked three times, hard and slow, as if her eyes were watering. Ahead of us, Zheng halted her assault, turning to gaze back toward us, upon the source of the noise. The pause gave the knights enough time to catch up and interpose themselves between the two combatants. July turned and bowed her head.

“Thank you!” Lozzie called to the caterpillar.

Twil, clinging to Lozzie like she was the one in need of a big strong rescuer, was staring back our way like a puppy confronted by a lobster.

Behind us, the giant machine-creature of bone-carapace was humming from inside, the volume level falling through successive layers, as if some great engine was spooling down behind the armour plating. Nobody else spoke or moved until the sound finally drained away to nothing. Warning delivered, the caterpillar fell silent once more.

Mmmmrrrrrr,” went Tenny, uncertain and soft. In her arms, poor Whistle looked absolutely terrified, silent and wide-eyed, very much wanting to get out of here. Sevens had her hands clamped over her ears, still wincing. Praem had not let go of Jan’s hand, but Jan stuck one of her fingers in her own ear, blinking as if to clear watering eyes. Evelyn had gone pale with shock.

I was not exempt from the caterpillar’s message; all my abyssal desire for animal union with Zheng had vanished as if dashed beneath a bucket of cold water. I’d wrapped my tentacles tight around myself, the last refuge of a scared cephalopod.

“That was some ref’s whistle, alright,” Raine said. She started laughing. How she could laugh after that, I had no idea.

“Well,” Evelyn said, clearing her throat. “Well. Quite.”

One of Tenny’s tentacles reached out and gently touched her elbow. She flinched, but then awkwardly patted the silken smooth black appendage.

“Ow,” said Jan, blinking too hard. “Perhaps warn us, next time?”

For a moment I thought she was talking to us. Then I realised Jan was addressing the caterpillar.

“Thank you for your help,” Praem added, looking up at the wall of off-white bone.

Burrrrrrr,” Tenny did not sound like she agreed with that one.

“Are they quite finished?” Jan asked, turning back to peer at Zheng and July. The huge white coat made her look like a rotating marshmallow, which went a long way to helping me unclench all my muscles.

“I … I think so?” I found my voice again. The knights were firmly between the pair of demon hosts now, a wall of shining chrome ready to block any further attempts at breaking the rules. Zheng turned a smouldering look of pure murder on July, but July just gazed at the caterpillar in mute acknowledgement. “Should we … ?” I ventured, lost for words. “Jan, do you want to … ?”

“Excuse me?” Jan squinted sidelong. “Absolutely not. I’m not getting anywhere near that. Jule!” she yelled. “Jule, what are you doing, you huge dingbat? Come back here, I’m going to dock you a hundred quid for wasting our time!”

July did not reply, outlined against the rolling hillsides.

“What are you waiting for?” Evelyn hissed at me, gesturing with her walking stick, shooing me onward. “Zheng will listen to you. Go on. Take Raine with you.”

“What?” I stammered, still trying to recover from my own whirling desires. “I— but you’re—”

“I’m not going to fall over without you, Heather. I’m fine. Tenny’s right here.” Evelyn cleared her throat, somewhat awkwardly. “Isn’t that right, Tenny?”

Brrrrt!” went Tenny. She wrapped a single, polite, gentle tentacle around Evelyn’s elbow. “Auntie Evee safe.”

“ … right, right.” I nodded, trying to gather myself, feeling like I’d been spread out in a gooey puddle across the ground.

I took a couple of wobbly steps away from the group which still lingered by the open gateway, but my head was spinning. My heart pounded in my chest and cold sweat had broken out all across my torso, just from witnessing two transcendent predators locked in a moment of combat. My mouth was dry, my hands had gone cold and numb with tension, hugging my squid-skull mask to my belly like a hard, metallic pillow. I could barely unclench my tentacles. More importantly, I didn’t know if I wanted to risk doing so.

The prospect of walking right up to Zheng sent a dangerous thrill through my guts, another deep injection of adrenaline, another pulse of energy from my bioreactor.

Grab her, part of me screamed.

It helped that Raine was waiting for me only a dozen paces ahead. She held out a hand as I approached. I forced myself to let go of the squid-skull mask and tuck it under one arm, so I could take Raine’s hand.

“Hey, hey it’s okay,” she murmured, but she was grinning. Fascination danced behind her eyes. “You could have put one of your tentacles in my hand instead, if you preferred.”

“Oh, right. You can see them,” I managed to say, robotic and inarticulate. “We’re Outside. Yes.”

I tried to take a step, to carry on toward Twil and Lozzie, who were waiting for us. But Raine held on tight and bobbed her head so I couldn’t avoid her eyes.

“It’s alright, Heather. It’s gonna be fine,” she said. “The catty boy stopped them. I’m sure it’s nothing life or death, right?”

“Right,” I breathed, tense as a wound spring.

That grin got worse. She glanced over at Zheng and July was with naked appreciation. “But did you see that?”

I pulled on her hand, dragging us onward. “A little hard to miss, yes,” I whispered.

Lozzie and Twil were only marginally better. They were holding hands too, though for rather different reasons. Lozzie had her poncho tugged tight around her torso, like a protective membrane. Twil was still watching the caterpillar, as if it might start booming again.

“Fuckin’ ‘ell,” Twil said as we joined them. “Big lad goes boop, hey?”

“Big boops,” Lozzie said.

“Lozzie,” I asked. “What happened over there? What was July saying?”

Lozzie met my eyes, awkward and upturned, biting her bottom lip. Her free hand clutched the inside of her poncho, not quite afraid — she had nothing to be afraid of, out here among her creations — but embarrassed and self-conscious.

“Um … you should ask Zheng,” she said.

“Ah,” Raine said. “I’m guessing that means it was about you, Heather.”


“Mmmhmmmm!” Lozzie confirmed, lips pressed together, averting her eyes.

“Come on, let’s go sort this out,” Raine said, gently pulling me onward, our roles swapped yet again. “Maybe we can salvage a proper duel out of this yet. I wanna see them finish what they started.”

“Don’t really think that matters anymore,” Twil muttered.

“Sure it does!” Lozzie chirped.

As we approached July and Zheng — impassive and sulky, respectively — and their loose scrum of knightly chaperones, my week-old jealousy finally began to curdle and boil away under the release of pressure, revealing it had been rotten all along, hiding a layer of plain ugliness beneath. Zheng was staring at the side of July’s head like she wanted to drive her fist through the other demon’s skull. Her clean and clear lust for joyous combat was nowhere to be found, not even a scrap of it deep inside the glowering dark pools of her eye sockets, no aura of pleasure in the set of her shoulders or the poise of her muscles, exposed by her t-shirt. July couldn’t care less, watching the caterpillar instead, then watching us approach without a single care written upon her staring, owlish expression.

Part of me liked that Zheng’s attitude had changed. What was there to be jealous of now?

But another part of me felt such terrible guilt for being happy about that. All she’d wanted was a friendly contest with a physical equal. She’d even wanted me to watch. And now some rude remark — about me — had robbed her of that. She’d been happy, now she was sad. And I was almost satisfied by that.

My moment of clarity of abyssal need to grapple with Zheng had washed my mind clean. I didn’t like what I found there.

You disgusting thing, I hissed at myself inside the privacy of my own mind. You’re happy that somebody you love is disappointed? You’re foul.

I wanted to slip the squid-skull mask on over my head, hide my face, become something else, some other being that didn’t have to feel guilt over irrational and ugly jealousy. With the mask on, I could launch myself at Zheng and have her catch me mid air, pin me to the ground, and hold me there in victory, pinned and squealing and batting at her with my tentacles. Clean and simple and swimming in cold water, my heart ached for that clarity of purpose.

But I was still Heather, whatever else I was.

Raine, Twil, Lozzie, and I all drew to a halt, just short of the little clutch of various very tall beings. I felt even shorter than usual, compared with demons and knights. At least I knew the knights were friendly. That helped as they towered there, silent and still, their chrome armour reflecting the yellow hillsides and purple sky.

“Alright, you two,” Raine spoke up first, bright and jovial, one big joke. She thumbed back over her shoulder. “The chonk lord back there — or is it chonk lady? Lozzie?”

“Chonk lord!” Lozzie cheered.

“Chonk lord back there says no fighting without the rules, okay?” Raine waited a beat, but neither demon said anything. “Hey, Zheng, left hand. What’s up? Talk to me, dumb arse, I’m right here and I’m on your side, in case you’ve forgotten.”

Zheng drew in a deep breath and let out a slow rumble, a tiger held at bay with a wall of spears.

“The wager still stands,” July said, smooth and calm. She finally looked away from us and focused on Zheng again.

Zheng growled. “There. Is. No. Wager.”

“Then there will be no duel.”

“Excuse me?” I tried to say. What I actually did was squeak, an embarrassing warble that ended in a hiccup and a huff. Raine squeezed my hand and I tried again. “There was no discussion of a wager. What is this about? July, excuse me, I’m sorry, but what did you say to Zheng? I don’t mind you two … ” I trailed off with a lump in my throat. “Well, this was supposed to be a friendly duel. Safe. A bit of fun. What did you say?”

“That is between her and I,” July said, without turning to me.

“Ha!” Zheng barked. She thumped one fist against her own chest. “There is nothing beyond the shaman’s sight, you pigeon. You do not comprehend what you see, because you are not even looking. Look at her.”

“You are fond of your octopus,” July replied, cool and level, delicate yet sharp. “That much you have established. At length. The wager remains the same.”

“O-octopus?” I ventured. “ … me?”

“Duh,” Twil said.

Zheng opened her mouth wide and roared at July, past the jagged barrier of knights between them.

“I will rip your head from your shoulders and stop your throat with dung! There will be no wager because I will eat your marrow and cast your guts out for the vultures!”

I had never seen Zheng so angry, at least not without following it up by ripping somebody apart. It was like standing next to a bottled hurricane — she was holding back, her anger kept in check, pressurised by the lack of outlet. Just like me.

I flinched very hard and barely resisted an urge to scramble behind Raine, my tentacles bunching and tightening to protect my core. Twil was suddenly half-werewolf, spirit scraps floating around her body. Lozzie sort of vibrated on the spot, hands up by her chin, pattering from foot to foot. At least she wasn’t afraid.

Just when I thought the caterpillar would have to boom for peace again, Raine raised her voice.

“Whoa, whoa! Hey!” Raine yelled. Zheng snapped her teeth shut. I could practically see the steam coming off her hide.

“Zheng pleeeeease,” Lozzie whined. Zheng dipped her head, almost ashamed, but still glowered at July

“What wager?” I managed to squeeze the words out.

Zheng’s attention finally left her opponent — and found me instead. Darkly smouldering eyes like pits of fire fixed on mine. The sudden attention sent a pulse of adrenaline and hormones and worse slamming through my veins, confusing my instincts with overlapping desires I couldn’t handle. I wanted to leap at her and run away at the same time, scream in her face and fall to my knees in apology.

She held out one hand toward me, a pose of both request and offering in the same gesture, the double intent and the care on display in the slow motion of her muscles, the curl of her fingers, and the way her expression finally softened into quasi-religious reverence.

Zheng hadn’t looked at me that way in weeks.

“Shaman,” she purred.

“Zheng,” I breathed. “I’m here.”

Raine gently pushed me toward Zheng’s outstretched hand. I took it, subconsciously coiling tentacles around her wrist and forearm. She pulled me in close and turned me around by the shoulders, to face July. With my back pressed against Zheng, the heat pouring off her soaked into my tense muscles, unknotted week-old tension and turned me pliant as butter.

Then, without warning, Zheng scooped me up like a handbag puppy.

“Wah!” I let out a yelp of surprise, spluttering and flailing. “Zheng!”

She hoisted me into the air, one arm cradling my buttocks for support, the other around my belly, lifting me until my head was level with hers, displaying me to July like a trophy. Instinctively I lashed myself to her with my tentacles, holding on like a squid to a rock in a strong current. Raine struggled not to laugh and Twil openly snorted. Lozzie went red in the face, covering her mouth with her poncho, flapping around with her other hand like she was watching a romance scene in a soap opera.

“Look at the shaman,” Zheng rumbled at July, “if you would have me think you a bird of prey and not some brain-addled pigeon.”

“I see an octopus,” said July. “Big deal. You’re in the wrong place and doing the wrong thing. You know it too.”

“Zheng, oh my goodness,” I spluttered, blushing bright red in the face, feeling like a tiny dog waggling my legs in the air. Whatever pride she had in me was rather overwhelmed by sheer embarrassment. “Put me down!”

“Maybe you should listen to her,” July suggested.

“Ah come on,” Twil said. “This is getting silly.”

“Heathy go up!” Lozzie cheered.

But Zheng’s next words emerged with none of the humour the rest of us were trying to inject into this tense situation. She purred deep and low, rich with the promise of bloody violence, right next to my head. I froze at her tone, the anger and the love.

“If the shaman so wished it,” Zheng told July, “she could dismantle you piece by piece and send each piece to a different void. There would be no defence against her. No counter move. Nothing.”

July opened her mouth to reply, but Zheng carried on.

“As barely a tadpole of what she is now, she lashed out at me, unskilled and clumsy — and she took off my left arm, at the shoulder.”

July paused. Finally, her eyes flickered to me. She stared, fixed and wide-eyed. It was indeed like being stared down by a giant owl.

“She did,” said July. “I see.”

“You are fun, bird of prey,” Zheng purred. “You are a good opponent. You are a skilled hunter. You are good enough to land blows on me and avoid my reply in kind. But you could never take a limb from me.”

“Perhaps. Perhaps not.” July’s attention returned to Zheng — but then flicked back over to me. It was the first time I’d seen her hesitate.

“The shaman broke my chains,” Zheng rumbled. “Compared to her, you are nothing.”

My heart strained in my chest like it was going to burst. I almost couldn’t bear to hear these words, not after I’d been stewing in my rancid jealousy all week long, struggling to communicate with Zheng, silently accusing her of emotional infidelity without giving her a chance to defend herself. Her love for me was strange and fierce, not fully sexual, tinged with religious awe and reverence, built on a foundation of worship and animal recognition — but how could I ever have doubted it, for even a moment?

“Zheng,” I managed to say, blushing tomato-red up in the air, my feet dangling, “I appreciate your feelings on the matter, but I would also appreciate if you could put me down, please.”

Zheng relented, finally plonking me back down on my wobbly feet. She kept her hands on my hips, holding me steady until I unwrapped my tentacles from around her arms and shoulders. My extra limbs had gone stiff from gripping her so hard, from fear of falling; I wondered if I’d left marks on her skin, beneath her clothes. A strange, animal part of me wondered if she would enjoy that. Another part of me started to lean back against her, luxuriating in the heat her skin gave off, hoping she would wrap her arms around me and I could push back with my tentacles and—

I snapped to, standing up straight. Not now, maybe not ever. We were still right in the middle of a very tense situation.

“Chains are of the mind,” July said to Zheng.

“You were born free, fledgling,” Zheng said. “You do not understand.”

“I, um, I feel like I’m still missing something here?” I cleared my throat and felt extremely awkward, surrounded by the towering chrome knights and the muscular prowess of both Zheng and July. “What wager are you demanding, July? What is going on here?”

“I think I’m following,” Raine said quietly. Something unpleasant and sharp edged into her voice.

“The duel is off,” Zheng said to July.

“Awwww, come on!” Twil huffed. “After all this mucking about?”

Raine sighed and smiled a disappointed smile. Lozzie puffed her cheeks out and whined in her throat.

“Then you are a coward,” July replied. “You do not believe in your own prowess.”

“I have nothing to prove to you, pigeon,” Zheng spat back. “I would not reforge my own chains or depart from the shaman’s side for the chance to urinate on your twitching corpse.”

“Whoa,” Twil muttered. Lozzie bit her lip and edged behind the werewolf. Raine just laughed.

I stepped to the side so I was able to look at Zheng’s face without craning back over my shoulder, then put my hands on my hips and did my best to channel a fraction of Evelyn’s habitual irritation, that grumpy look that I admired so much. But when I spoke I sounded more like a huffy schoolmarm. “This is getting silly. Twil is right, we’ve gone to all this trouble to set up this duel. July, you won’t fight without this wager? What is it? And Zheng, what did she say about me? Why are you both being so cagey?”

July just stared at Zheng. Zheng bared her teeth.

“Ummmmmmmmmmmmm,” Lozzie drew the sound out — and out, and out, and out, until finally everyone was looking at her. Even July had to relent. Lozzie peeked over Twil’s shoulder, sleepy-eyed and impish, like she knew exactly the impact her words would have. “July wants to wager ownership of Zheng, like a contract or a prize or winning her heart, that sort of thing, so if July wins Zheng has to follow her from now on. Sorry, sorry!” Lozzie ducked her head beneath her arms, expecting retribution.

“Yuuuup,” Raine murmured. “Thought as much.”

“Well that’s fucked up,” Twil said. “This isn’t a fucking meat market.”

A cold feeling settled in my stomach. My brain couldn’t quite catch up with that information. “And … what if Zheng wins?”

“I named no wager,” Zheng rumbled. “Because I will not fight under that condition. The duel is off.”

“Coward,” July repeated.

Her voice was casual and relaxed, like an older girl in a playground fight goading a shorter and weaker opponent, but with no expectation of real retribution.

I stared at July, at this strange demon host — her intense, wide eyes, her birdlike precision in every movement, her presence like a living razor blade. Her facial features were a grand echo of Jan’s more delicate looks, as if they were sisters born from different fathers but the same mother. She looked so much more human, almost at baseline normal, compared to Zheng’s muscular power and huge stature, or Praem’s controlled poise and blank eyes, but I realised in that silent moment, trapped between an unreasonable wager and over a week of anticipation, that I had no idea what I was looking at. July was a far greater unknown. I did not know July, did not know how she had been raised, had no idea of her value system.

And in a way, she wished to re-enslave Zheng.

July must have felt me staring, because she finally turned, unprompted, to look at me, to fix me with that wide-eyed, burning gaze. There were none of Lozzie’s knights between us at this angle, nothing blocking us from each other.

The Heather of six months ago would have shrank and fled. The Heather of yesterday would have cast her eyes down, ashamed of her thoughts, guilty and twisted up inside. But that Heather was wrong.

I slipped my squid-skull mask on over my head, sliding into the comfort of darkness and metallic bone, staring out through the eye-holes. I felt my spine straighten and my tentacles quieten, spreading out from my body with instinctive threat display. Somebody hissed my name, possibly Raine, but then Zheng purred with approval. A dozen processes stirred inside me — toxin production in my skin, the itch of desire to plate myself with chitin and bio-steel, the ache of sprouting spines.

All too easy to perform those modifications, Outside. All too easy to slip over.

I resisted the urges, for now.

“Zheng is mine,” I told July, speaking against the inside of the mask, but somehow my voice still carried. “But only because she chooses to be. If you make such a suggestion again, if you try to make her a slave, then you will fight me, not her. And not in a duel.”

The words were meant to be cold and calm, but my heart fluttered with anger.

“Holy shit, big H,” Twil hissed.

A gentle hand closed on my upper arm. I allowed it to stay. I wasn’t actually going to fight July, I only wanted to make this clear.

July stared me down for a long moment. I felt my tentacles begin to tingle, ceasing their rainbow strobing and turning darker as the skin flushed with neurotoxin, preparing to pucker into stingers and barbs.

Then July bowed her head to me. “I apologise. I have misunderstood the situation.”

I almost panted inside the mask. “That’s all you have to say?”

“That’s all I have to say. You have an apology.”

“Apology accepted,” I said. Then I let out a huge sigh, pulled the helmet off my head again, and almost fell over with my hair going everywhere. But Raine was there at my side, to steady me.

“Thank fuck for that,” Twil hissed.

“Mm,” Zheng grunted in disapproval. “You should grovel, bird of prey.”

“One grovels for offence, not mistakes,” July replied, raising her head again.

“I should put you on a spit and cook you, slowly.”

“I have been forgiven. You heard the words of your octopus.”

“Ha!” Zheng barked. “You have not been listening. I am not hers to command. She has forgiven you. I will not.”

“A pity. I would still like to fight.”

“Huh,” Zheng sneered.

“Excuse me,” I piped up, taking deep breaths to work the adrenaline out of my bloodstream, trying to clamp down on the eager beginnings of too many processes of abyssal biology. “But I need to know, July. Did Jan have any idea you were going to do something like this? I have a rather poor opinion of you now and I would prefer it not extend to Jan, if possible. She’s been very sweet so far.”

I couldn’t tell if July held me in contempt or not, her searchlight stare was so difficult to read, like looking back at an owl caught in the twilight.

“Jan cannot reliably tell her arse from her elbow,” July said. “Zheng terrifies her. If she knew of my wager, she would have fled Sharrowford.”

“Smart girl,” Twil said.

“Awwww!” went Lozzie. “But she’s so tiny!”

Zheng snorted a dark laugh. “The wizardling has more sense than her creation. A low bar to clear.”

“I am sorry you think that.”

Raine let out a big sigh, shaking her head. “I guess this means the duel is off, hey? Real shame. And we went to all this work, too.”

“I would still have our contest,” July said. “No wager.”

Zheng rumbled deep in her chest like a goaded tiger, curling both her hands into fists before flexing her fingers. She repeated the motion several times, visibly restless.

“Zheng,” I spoke up, reaching toward her with one tentacle and gently touching her flank. “I would like you to enjoy yourself. It is important to me.” I swallowed and forced myself to keep going. “If you want to fight July, for fun, then please do so.”

“What is the point?” Zheng asked, speaking to July. “I expected so much more.”

“I may not be able to pin you to the mat,” July said, “but I will knock you down time and again. You are strong, but you are slow.”

“And you will pay for the insult,” Zheng rumbled.

“Zheng,” I repeated her name, my voice a reedy tremor. Zheng’s dark, flashing eyes turned sidelong to catch mine.


“Do it if you wish. It’s up to you. But you aren’t ever going anywhere, not if you don’t wish to.”

Zheng took a deep breath. A savage grin ripped across her face. “Very well, shaman. For you.”


“The rules are simple enough,” Evelyn explained. “Now both of you listen, or I’ll have Praem twist your ears off.”

She stood with her back as straight as she could, walking stick planted at an angle, her scrimshawed thigh-bone tucked under one elbow. Between her pose and her disciplinary glower, she looked more like she was delivering battle plans than adjudicating the demonic equivalent of a boxing match.

And I stood right next to her, trying not to openly admire her poise. I had other things to think about right then.

Zheng and July stood a few paces away, having trudged back over to the gateway, the caterpillar, and the dubious carapace-bench. A small cluster of knights had trailed us as well, just in case Zheng and July decided to break their ceasefire early. But the demons had shown every sign of listening patiently, so Lozzie had gestured by flapping her poncho, and the knights had fanned out to take up positions around the edge of the imaginary boxing ring.

Lozzie and I flanked Evelyn, the metaphorical power behind the throne. That was a strange feeling, as I stood there and listened — realising that I, little old me, with my scrawny muscles and lank hair, I was the big stick. Well, Lozzie was too, but that was even stranger.

The others were all by the bench — all except Sevens and Tenny, who had stepped back through the gateway, back to Sharrowford and home, carrying Whistle. We had wordlessly agreed that the coming level of violence was not for children or dogs, even if it was going to be strictly non-lethal.

Raine stood at the end of the bench, hands on her hips, watching July and Zheng with a curious look on her face, faintly amused. Jan and Praem sat side by side, a stark contrast in height even when sat down, made worse by Jan’s massive white coat that swamped her like castle walls around her slender body. She wiggled pink-clad legs over the side of the bench. Praem had the tub of strawberries open in her lap, chewing slowly. Jan had performed her magical pocket trick again, producing a polystyrene fast-food box of fried chicken from thin air. The smell had drawn Twil over like a pet dog hearing the food cupboard open in a distant kitchen, but Jan had frowned over her dark sunglasses, making a show of refusing to share. July had divested herself of the guitar case with the magic sword inside, laying it at Jan’s feet with a strangely ceremonial gesture, though Jan had pointedly paid no attention. As far as I could tell, she’d refused to touch the thing at all.

But Jan couldn’t hide the true direction of her interest — she kept casting sidelong, covert glances over at Lozzie. But she had to lean forward around the collar of her own coat every time, which ruined her attempt at subtlety.

“One round,” Evelyn continued. I turned my attention back to her, away from Lozzie giving Jan a little wave with the corner of her poncho. “No time limit. Though if it goes on for hours, we will call a draw. Some of us have better things to do than watch a glorified mud wrestling match.”

“Wizard,” Zheng rumbled a warning.

“And you can shut your mouth for once, you giant lug,” Evelyn snapped back. Zheng blinked slowly, like a big cat refusing to admit it was cowed, but accepting that further complaints would only cause more delays. “Now, after some basic consultation with Jan and with Lozzie, we have decided on some limits. These apply to both of you, understand?” Evelyn didn’t wait for an answer. “No ripping and tearing, no removing each other’s body parts, no biting, gouging, stabbing, etcetera. Blows and grapples only.”

“Understood,” July said.

“Mm,” Zheng grunted. “Acceptable.”

Evelyn gave Zheng a look like she wanted to spray her with a garden hose. “If you break the rules, the caterpillar will sound off again. Don’t, because none of us want that. If either of you are knocked down and can’t rise after ten seconds, you lose. Same for being pinned, if you can’t break the hold and rise after ten seconds. This is very simple and straightforward. Have I made myself clear?”

“Who counts?” July asked.

“The knights!” Lozzie chirped. “They’re more accurate and impartial and they can see a lot lot lot more anyway!”

“Done,” Zheng grunted. She rolled her neck and shoulders, a show of limbering up, slabs of thick muscle shifting and bunching beneath her plain white t-shirt. “Ready, bird of prey?”

July did something I’d not seen from her yet — she bounced twice on the balls of her feet, arms loose, as if flexing the whole length of her body. Her wide and staring eyes closed for a full second, then snapped back open again. “I am now.”

“You will wait for the signal,” Evelyn grunted. “Walk out about ten meters, in the middle of the knights there. Keep your distance from each other until the signal. And you better bloody well stay clear of this bench, because so help me God I will spank both of you if we have to get up and scramble out of your way for this nonsense.”

“Word,” Raine called. “No crashing into the stands, you hear?”

“Do not worry, little wolf,” Zheng raised her voice in reply.

“Good luck,” I said. Zheng’s gaze lingered on me for a moment. She grinned wide, showing all her shark’s teeth, then she turned and stalked away, keeping more than one arm’s length between her and July.

Evelyn let out a shaking sigh. I carefully took her free hand. “Are you okay, Evee?”

“Yes, yes, I’m fine,” she grunted, turning a sharp frown on me as the demons departed for the field. “Are you?”


“Yes, you, Heather. You look like you’re ready to have some kind of breakdown.”

“ … I’m just twitchy,” I said, only half a lie. I had no idea how Evelyn would react if I confessed that I sort of wanted to wrestle with Zheng myself. “I want to … my tentacles feel … I feel restless.”

“Mm,” Evelyn grunted, already swinging her walking stick around and heading for the bench, dragging me along. “I’m sorry for poking you with my stick earlier, you looked like you needed it. But I am going to sit the hell down and not move for a while, my hip is killing me and I’ve had enough of this bloody place already. Fuck Outside. Fuck zombies. Fuck all this … this … playground nonsense. Less time spent out here the better, for you as well.”

“It’s okay, Evee-weevey,” Lozzie piped up too, skipping ahead on Evelyn’s other side, flapping her poncho like a flying squirrel catching the air. “I don’t think it’s gonna take long!”

“Ehhhhh,” Evelyn grunted. “It better not.”

I helped Evelyn get settled on the bench, then took my place next to her while Zheng and July stalked off into the middle of their imaginary ring, framed by the yellow hillsides and the towering knights. Raine watched them go as well, a subtle frown on her brow. Twil puffed out a sigh, staring wistfully at the box of fried chicken in Jan’s lap.

Jan cleared her throat delicately, one hand to her mouth. “I really feel like I should apologise,” she ventured, putting on a show of hesitancy. “I didn’t know Jule was going to do any of that. Perhaps this place is getting to her. It does feel odd out here, like I’m half in a dream, or as if I’ve just come round from being groggy or … ” She trailed off, shaking her head slowly.

“It’s not your fault,” I said. “And yes, being Outside does that to people.”

“I’ve almost lost my appetite,” she said.

“Wish you would,” Twil whispered.

“Still, it’s a pretty raw impression,” Jan said directly to me, across Evelyn’s lap. She had to lean forward to make her face seen around the bulk of her huge puffy white coat, sitting on the bench like a splayed marshmallow. “For the record, there’s no way I would have somehow taken on your Zheng friend. Absolutely not.”

“Zheng is not scary,” Praem said. She selected another strawberry and held it up to the sky, as if the purple light of Camelot was shining through the red flesh of the fruit.

“Perhaps not to you,” Jan sighed. “But I beg to differ.”

“Well,” I said, a little embarrassed. “Friend, yes, but more … um … er … ”

Lozzie chose that exact moment to flounce past, flapping the hem of her pastel poncho like a jellyfish membrane. She stopped in front of Jan, bit her lip, and looked down sidelong at the tiny, delicate mage in her pink and white tracksuit.

I’d never seen Lozzie act shy before. She played it off by putting on a little show, but it was plain to see.

Jan, on the other hand, had no hope of hiding her emotions. She looked up at Lozzie, eager and interested, but then wet her lips and had nothing to say, stuck with her mouth open.

“Hi!” Lozzie chirped eventually, doing a little jump-turn toward Jan, poncho and hair going everywhere.

“Hello! Yes! You and I, we must talk!” Jan said. “You’re Lozzie, yes? May I call you that? I’m Jan, we should … um … well. You know.”

Lozzie tilted her head one way, then the other. “Later? Are you staying to hang out or have you gotta go go go after back home real quick? Fight time is now and fight time is kind of stressful so I have to pay attention and watch in case of bad things, but bad things probably won’t happen but you know how it is. Or maybe you don’t? Which is fine too!”

Jan just stared, slightly stunned, hanging off every word. “Uh … I can … may I?”

“You’re quite welcome to ‘hang out’,” I said. “But maybe not July. She has to, I don’t know, wait in the cellar or something.”

Jan winced and sighed. “We do come as a set. Again, I’m very sorry.”

“I’m only being sore,” I said.

“Don’t apologise for other people!” Lozzie chirped. She giggled and pulled the hem of her poncho up to cover her mouth.

“That is a very fetching outfit, by the way,” Jan said. “Very nice. I do like it.”

“Wanna borrow?” Lozzie waved a corner of pastel fabric at her, a cephalopod communication gesture.

Jan laughed softly. “I appreciate the offer, but I’m quite comfortable here like this. Thank you.”

“Flirt later,” Evelyn grunted. “Are they ready yet?”

“I think sooooo!” Lozzie said, bouncing forward a few steps and peering out at the combatants.

Jan cleared her throat and busied herself chewing on a piece of chicken. “It’s not flirting, really. Absolutely not.” She tutted, frowning at Evelyn.

“You know what I think?” Raine spoke up, full-throated and confident. She was peering out at Zheng and July with a shrewd frown. “I think July was just trying to psyche Zheng out.”

“I’m sorry?” I asked.

“Oh,” Jan said. “Oh, well, maybe. That’s not her style though.”

“You’re kidding, right?” Twil said. “She’s all about unsettling. Have you ever looked at her? Shit!”

“Unsettle her before the fight,” Raine explained for my benefit. “Put her off balance with an emotional attack. Make her lose her temper, think more was on the line than really was. Smart move. Not what I would do with Zheng, but smart move all the same.”

“You mean … you think it was all a lie?” I asked.

“It’s not impossible.” Raine shot me a wink. “You’re not so good at subterfuge, Heather.”

Twil suddenly laughed. “You can say that again.”

“Oh shush,” I struggled not to blush. “I just never thought of that.”

“It is a good point,” Jan added, chewing on a mouthful of fried chicken, then licking her fingertips. “It’s not as if she or I could magically compel Zheng, anyway. How was she going to enforce the result?”

“Violence?” suggested Raine.

“Hardly,” Jan said, pulling a distasteful grimace. “Don’t, you’ll put me off my lunch.”

I was shaking my head. “I can’t believe this.”

“You’re all stupid,” Evelyn grumbled. “Lozzie, are we ready?”

“Maybe!” Lozzie chirped, bouncing from foot to foot. In the middle of the loose ring of knights, Zheng and July faced each other; Zheng rolled her shoulders like a prizefighter limbering up her weapons, but July just stared, relaxed and placid. Lozzie raised and waved both hands. “Woooo! Ready?” she called.

“Jan,” I said with a sigh, “before this kicks off, finally, I really must put this in perspective. What is July, to you? Are you sisters, or … more? Or less, that’s a thing too.” I cleared my throat, feeling awkward. “If you don’t mind answering, of course.”

Jan peered around the edge of her massive coat again, one eyebrow raised in a slightly peevish look. “You’re asking if she and I fuck.”

“I-I’m not asking for that level of detail!” I squeaked out. Next to me, Evelyn sighed and put her face in her hand. Twil snorted a laugh.

“No,” Jan said, polite but unimpressed. “She’s a sister, at best. A difficult one, too. We’re not like you and your Zheng, we’re not screwing each other.”

I blushed again, hard. “Zheng and I don’t— I mean, that isn’t what we we— we don’t have sex. It’s not like that. It’s just … I’m trying to figure her out. As a demon. I thought you might have something to share. I’m sorry. I got the wrong impression. Sorry.”

Jan opened her mouth to answer, but Evelyn got there first, turning a deep, piercing frown on me.

“You don’t?” she demanded. “You and Zheng? You don’t … do it?”

“ … Evee?” My blush deepened. I could almost feel the steam coming off my face.

“Just answer the question!” she hissed.

“Well, no. We don’t.”

Evelyn blinked once. “Huh.”

Jan let out a long-suffering sigh and leaned back into the sanctuary of her coat again. “Your polycule is a nightmare.”

“You can tell we’re a polycule?” I asked. “I mean, we’re not!”

“We’re not a polycule,” Evelyn grumbled.

“You are very obviously a polycule,” Jan said, unimpressed in the extreme. Her brilliant blue eyes peered around her coat again, over the rims of her dark glasses. “You’re telling me you two aren’t dating? Queen bitch and miss octopus?”

Evelyn and I glanced at each other. I froze and swallowed, tentacles squirming in horrible discomfort either side of me. Evelyn cleared her throat and looked away. Twil was struggling to contain her laughter so badly that I thought she might fall off the bench.

“Oh,” Jan said, sinking back behind the wall of her coat. “My apologies, indeed.”

“Hey, hey,” Raine said, waving a hand behind herself to catch our attention, while hers stayed locked on the pair of demons. “They’re gonna start.”

Lozzie had the hem of her poncho raised in one hand, held high like a flag ready to descend. We fell quiet, all eyes on the combatants. My heart climbed into my mouth. Evelyn’s hand squirmed into mine.

“Ready!” Lozzie cheered. “Set! Ding ding ding!”

She sliced through the air with a handful of fluttering pastel and finished with a celebratory twirl.

For the first second, neither fighter moved. Zheng waited, tall and poised like jungle cat, her fists raised, one low, one high in a rough fighting stance, every muscle straining with a deceptive economy of tension. July held herself perfectly still, in the way of a waiting dagger.

Then, almost faster than the human eye could follow, July struck first.

Now she had approval, now it was official, there was no holding back.

Zheng had named her well; it was like watching a bird of prey scream through the air to descend on a mountain goat. A Roc, falling from the heavens, a thunderbolt of speed and power from the roiling clouds. Zheng dug her heels into the soft earth at the last split second, trying to pivot like a bullfighter before the charge — but she got it wrong. Weight and impact were not July’s intent.

Instead of sailing past Zheng, she checked her rush by counterbalancing her body, giving up on throwing her weight behind a punch. She ducked directly inside Zheng’s guard, her arms flashing out — one, two, three, knuckles landing hits on Zheng’s unprotected stomach.

I don’t know why I was shocked when Zheng reeled from the blows. I’d seen the bruises on her flesh. I knew this might happen.

But I still winced and flinched. Evelyn squeezed my hand.

Zheng grunted like a winded horse and swiped downward to slam July’s skull into the ground, but July was already past her, dancing away on the balls of her feet, her bare arms loose like rubber as she slipped away. Zheng swung wide and July bobbed out of the arc of the strike. She back-pedalled, putting space between herself and Zheng’s fists.

“You can’t catch me,” July said, loud enough for us all to hear. “You’re not fast enough.”

“Ooooh,” Jan winced. “I am sorry. July hasn’t been this bitchy in years. I don’t know what’s gotten into her.”

“Infatuation,” Raine murmured — so fixated on the fight that she was distracted in a way I’d never seen before.

But Zheng did not answer July’s goad. She put her fists up again and twisted her body into a different stance, arms held wider to block July’s next attempt.

July rose to the challenge a second time. She fell like a raptor and repeated the feat again, coming in like a whip-snap on the air, ducking inside Zheng’s guard and landing hammer-blow strikes on her belly, her hips, the sides of her ribcage. I heard a pair of cracking noises, loud and awful, the unmistakable sound of Zheng’s ribs breaking under the punches. She heaved a grunt of pain.

July slipped away again, weaving and ducking and twisting like a winged snake. Zheng roared with her final missed counter-attack, fists finding empty air instead of flesh. She turned and spat a mouthful of blood onto the grass — but then she grinned.

“Come at me, pigeon! I almost have you!”

Twil grimaced. “Why’s she letting July set the pace? What the fuck is she doing?”

This time there was no pause. July came in a third time, then a fourth, her body whipping around like a length of steel cable. She stuck Zheng in the face, a slamming impact that made Zheng’s head snap to the side. Then, finally, Zheng managed to block a blow with her forearm — but July saw it coming and followed up with a strike from another angle. I heard another awful crack, the sound of a breaking bone in Zheng’s arm.

“Go down,” July said, hopping back. “Or I’ll keep hitting you until a concussion.”

“Soon, pigeon,” Zheng grunted. She was bleeding from her lips, face blossoming with dark bruises, shoulders hunched in pain.

“What’s she doing?!” Twil was up on her feet, arms out, eyes wide. “This is bullshit! Zheng, for fuck’s sake!”

“Oh my goodness,” Jan murmured. “Raine, I do believe you’re right.”

“And Zheng’s rejecting her,” Raine said. “Her whole way of fighting. Shitting on the technique. But I don’t get this, what’s her plan?”

“She’s already won,” I muttered. A feeling filled me like nothing I’d ever felt before, a recognition, an instinctive knowing, though I couldn’t put it into words. I’d never so much as watched a boxing match before, I had no idea how any of this worked, how could I be remotely certain? My tentacles ached to imitate Zheng’s fists, every inch of my skin itched all over with a wordless urge to sprout and bloom; if Evelyn hadn’t been holding my hand, I would have leapt to my feet with the sheer energy of the moment. I was sweating like crazy, almost panting, my head flushed like my brain was bathed in honeyed fire.

“Heather?” Somebody said my name. I wasn’t sure who.

“Zheng’s already won. She’s already won!” I repeated.

July lunged for Zheng a sixth time. I was so sure of Zheng, so certain deep down in my abyssal guts, that I was not prepared at all.

Zheng twisted as if to catch July, to snatch her fists from the air and pin her — but July saw it coming. Zheng went left, because July had always gone left up until now. I only realised that when I saw the mistake.

But this time July went right, ducking around Zheng, taking it wide as if she’d been warned off. But then she stepped in close and actually stopped, full stop, for just a split second.

Just long enough to wind up a hammer-blow to the back of Zheng’s neck.

Crunch, crack. Zheng’s head snapped forward.

I saw the strength go out of her limbs. Connections cut. Nerves interrupted. She was a demon host, she’d heal in minutes — I had no real fear for her safety or health — but she’d lost. A band tightened inside my chest, around my heart.

Her rejection had failed.

But as Zheng started to crumple forward, July allowed herself a split second of relaxation, a single moment of appreciation for a job well done. Muscles stilled, pose slackened, breath left her parted lips.

Zheng’s right leg shot out and caught the ground like a spring; she twisted around, turning the crumple into a pounce, a tiger coming out of a feint and into a rugby tackle. It would take more than one sucker-punch to break Zheng’s spine.

I was up on my feet and yelling my lungs out when Zheng slammed into July’s midsection and rode her to the ground.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Well, there you go. Zheng’s been doing this for a long time, there was no way she was going to get outplayed by some fancy footwork. But hey, the fight ain’t over just yet.

Gosh, I do love writing fight scenes. Perhaps a certain upcoming second project will contain a lot more of them …

Meanwhile, more wonderful pictures by talented readers have been added to the Katalepsis fanart page since I last mentioned it, including a personal favourite of Lozzie and Praem together, and a collection of absolutely lovely emotes at the bottom of the page! Go check it out!

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Next week, July’s down on the mat, but is she out for the count? And Heather seems to be having a gut reaction to all this, not to mention Raine’s intense interest.

for the sake of a few sheep – 15.16

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Zheng’s opponent arrived precisely on time, thirty-seven minutes after Evelyn called Jan to let her know we were ready to terrify her.

I still wanted Zheng to win; that wasn’t a lie. But part of me did wish that Jan hadn’t picked up the phone.

We didn’t take the same paranoid security precautions as the last time we’d invited an informed visitor to the house. We’d already done the uncomfortable hostility dance with these two, making us look like a bunch of hair-trigger murderous loons at best. There were no hidden traps this time, no spider-servitor waiting above the front door to scan whoever and whatever stepped through. Besides, between one demon host and Jan’s enchanting eyes, they would see quite clearly if we had strung a net of magical tripwires to snare their ankles. If it did turn out they intended to annihilate us in return for payment from Edward Lilburne, or the ineffable whim of some Outsider wibbly-wobbly, or just for the sheer fun of violence, then they were placing themselves in the worst position from which to do harm, on our home territory, within my arms’ reach.

However, we did go through the laborious process of having Jan call Evelyn once they were standing at the garden gate. Praem then opened the front door so we could see Jan and July standing there. Raine waved them over. We were on.

“Just to avoid any misunderstandings,” Evelyn muttered, frowning at the pair as they walked up the garden path. “What on earth is she wearing?”

“That coat, I think,” I whispered back.

Twil smothered a laugh. “Are we gonna need to like, lift her up the steps?”

“Play nice,” said Raine.

“Be polite to guests,” Praem reminded us all. Twil cleared her throat and pretended to look sensible.

July was dressed ready to step straight into the ring. Despite the chill in the late spring air and the thin sunlight pouring down from the iron-hard firmament, she wore only a grey tank top and a pair of black jogging bottoms, leaving her long arms and elegantly muscled shoulders exposed and covered with goosebumps. Her long black braid was tidied away into a bun on the back of her head, to deny her opponent the extra handhold during combat. Though I was not well predisposed to this particular demon host, I could at least appreciate her sense of practicality — though not her imposing presence. She stalked up the garden path like a raptor, her intense stare boring into each of us. When she stepped over the threshold she stopped on the spot with an instant economy of motion, more akin to a bird or a lizard than anything mammalian. It made my skin crawl and my tentacles bunch up, ready to counter an attack. Next to me, Twil struggled not to respond by sprouting claws. I saw her flexing her hands.

July also carried that hardshell guitar case over her shoulder, the one which contained a magic sword.

“I do not see Zheng,” she said by way of greeting. Such a normal voice should not have come from such an imposing presence.

“Maybe you shouldn’t,” I whispered, so quietly that only I could hear.

“Hold your horses, yeah?” Twil said. “She’s waiting out where you’re gonna fight.”

July stared at Twil. The werewolf visibly bristled.

“I sure hope you’re not gonna be swinging that thing around in here, yeah?” Raine asked with a nod at the guitar case, softening her inquiry with a laugh.

“It will not be used today,” July informed us. “It is for killing. We’re not here for killing.”

Raine shot her a wink. “As long as we’re both on the same page.”

“Yes, yes,” Jan’s voice huffed and puffed from behind July. “We have to carry the bloody thing around everywhere, in case it gets stolen, because nobody wants that. Big drama, big mess, maybe we both die again! Yes, hello, hi, we’re here for this nonsense, let’s get it over with.”

Jan, on the other hand, was dressed for a visit to the South Pole, or perhaps to be tipped on her side and rolled down a hill, or maybe to repel boarders. She was swamped from throat to ankles by that gigantic white puffer coat she’d unravelled back in her bedsit. Her delicate features and fluffy black hair poked up from the fur-lined collar, deep blue eyes flashing with barely contained irritation, like a lightning bolt striking the sea. She looked like a cross between an ambulatory marshmallow and a penguin as she waddled up the garden path, puffing a huge sigh as she stepped inside — the coat was evidently quite heavy.

The effect was lessened only slightly when she unzipped the front of the coat, perhaps in an effort to show us she wasn’t concealing a shotgun under there; rather superfluous, considering her magical pockets, but the gesture was nice. Her hands were so buried in the white, worm-like sleeves that she struggled to pop one out to reach the zipper, which had Twil struggling not to snort and me politely covering my mouth.

Beneath the coat, Jan was absolutely tiny. She was wearing a well fitted pink-and-white athletic tracksuit, as if ready to shed the coat and run for her life.

She reminded me of a slender yet colourful insect, frozen in the moment of exploding from her massive white cocoon. It was a lot showier than her casual clothes.

“Yes, I know, I’m not exactly dressed for a social call,” she said. She clucked her tongue at Evelyn, mistaking a curious frown for disapproval. “I really do struggle to care right now. Don’t, please.”

“No criticism intended,” Evelyn said. “You look fine.”

“Oh, fine. Fine, she says.”

“I think the tracksuit looks great,” Raine said, nodding appreciatively. I shot her a glance and she winked at me. I struggled not to roll my eyes. Not the time, Raine — though I knew she was doing it to soothe my nerves.

“As if I care how you think I look,” Jan huffed. “Let’s get this over with. So where’s this door to hell?”


Upon finally being ushered into the presence of the open gateway like a princess presented with a fancy thoroughbred horse — albeit a horse with scales and bulging eyes and a stinger-tipped tail — Jan ceased being huffy and fussy in the manner of a pampered cat denied her favourite food; instead she turned quiet and standoffish like a cat introduced to a grizzly bear.

She went wide-eyed with terror, froze to the spot, and turned grey in the face.

We all waited by the table in an awkward little line — myself, Raine, Evelyn, Twil, and Praem — as Jan stood there one step inside the magical workshop, with her towering demon host at her side. She stayed very silent and very still, staring at the gateway with an expression like it might reach out and eat her if she dared so much as squeak. Not even her eyes moved, those beautiful deep-blue eyes like firelit sapphires, ignoring the ugly rubbish-bag tarpaulin concealing the mandala, fixed on Camelot itself. The rolling yellow hillsides, the impossible purple light spilling forth, the knights dotted across the landscape, and Lozzie still flittering around out there like a pastel butterfly amid her creations.

It was a strange feeling to have visitors set foot in the magical workshop, inside the old drawing room, among the secrets of Evelyn’s magical development, and the few results of our furtive explorations of Outside. If we had been a true cult, rather than a bunch of university girls who barely knew what we were doing, that room would have been our inner sanctum. We would have had the gateway framed like an altar, my squid-skull and Saldis’ golden medallion up on pedestals, and the demon-haunted clay-squid displayed inside a cage, being fed live mice or something equally as gruesome.

Instead, we’d cleaned the room. Well, Praem and Raine had cleaned, while Evelyn had made useful suggestions and I’d gotten in the way. The table was cleared of magical notes and mouldy tomes, leaving behind only Japanese comic books and perfectly ordinary novels, bathed in the backwash of impossible purple light from the open gateway. The clay squid-demon thing was covered with an actual tarpaulin pinned to the wall, because none of us felt like explaining that little secret. Evelyn had coaxed a second spider-servitor down from the attic with lots of rambling in Latin, so now two of the huge black pneuma-somatic guardians crouched upside-down in the corner over the sofa.

Every last scrap of useful knowledge was hidden upstairs or packed away — all except Evelyn’s scrimshawed thigh-bone, which she held tucked under one arm. I had retained my squid-skull mask, which I cradled against my belly, through the comforting, enclosing warmth of my hoodie.

We were all dressed as if ready to step out into the back garden, hoodies and coats at the ready, shoes on our feet. Raine was wearing her padded motorcycle jacket, but I didn’t think we’d be needing that. I’d half expected Praem to put on some of her casual clothes, but she was prim and starched in her full maid uniform. Perhaps a trip Outside required that certain formalities be properly observed.

Eventually, Evelyn cleared her throat. “It’s quite safe,” she said.

“It’s not safe that bloody well concerns me,” Jan hissed in her delicate little voice, strangled with fear and wonder. She finally found the courage to move her eyes and tilt her head, so she could confirm the gateway was more than just an illusion on the wall. “What … what am I looking at?”

“We call it Camelot,” I said, feeling terribly lame. “Or the quiet plain.”

“That. Explains. Nothing.”

July, all six and a half feet of her, seemed relatively unconcerned by comparison with her diminutive wizard. She stared at the gate with the same owlish intensity and predatory intent that turned on every other object of her regard. Chin high, arms crossed, eyes wide like a pair of searchlights which shone through flesh itself.

Though I was certain she wasn’t really staring at the gate at all.

She only cared about the figure sitting on the yellow hillsides beyond. Zheng, with her eyes closed and her legs crossed, small at this distance but facing the gateway in blind greeting. After our little talk, Zheng had sat down Outside, out there among the Knights, to wait in silent and solitary meditation.

After nearly a full minute of Jan staring at the gateway like it was a live dragon, July went to take a step forward. Jan’s hand shot out and practically punched July in the ribs in desperation to grab a fistful of tank top, clutching even through the puffy fabric of her own sleeve. Jan pulled an incoherent grimace and made a wordless hissing sound. July turned to look at her with all the malice of a bird of prey interrupted in the middle of a meal, but Jan had eyes only for the gateway.

“We don’t have all day,” Evelyn sighed. “Oh, who am I kidding, we do have all day. But I would like to sit down some time this century, please?”

“This is real,” Jan muttered, then swallowed with visible difficulty.

“Welcome to the real world, hey?” Raine said.

“Welcome,” Praem echoed.

“Either this is real,” Jan continued, her voice quivering, “or you’re the greatest illusionist who ever lived, and I’m about to walk into a wall like we’re in a cartoon. Which, you know, would actually be preferable to this being real. Is this an illusion?” She managed to sneak a glance at Evelyn. “Tell me it’s an illusion. Please. I’ll walk right into it for you. I’ll even bounce off the wall. I’ll make a cartoon sound effect and do a pratfall, just tell me this isn’t real.”

“It’s all real,” I sighed. “Every last bit of it.”

Jan fell silent again, staring at the gate. I could see her struggling to catch her breath; did dolls need to breathe? Praem didn’t. Maybe it was different, if one started out as a human. Or maybe it just felt right for her. Would it feel right for Maisie, if I put her in a doll?

“Surely you’ve seen … comparable phenomena?” Evelyn muttered.

Jan shook her head slowly. “I’d half expected you were all lying. That we were going to have them fight in your basement or something. But it’s real.”

“Hey, yo, Evee needs to sit down,” Twil said. “Get over it, yeah?”

Get over it?” Jan echoed, scrunching up her eyes with utter disgust, though still not looking away from the open gate. “Get over it? Get over it. Just like that. Excuse me, miss fursuit exhibitionist, but I am having a bit of a moment here.”

“I agree,” July said, speaking at Jan like her voice was a cattle goad. “Get over it.”

“You can bloody well wait another five minutes!” Jan hissed.

“It is pretty shocking, the first time,” I said, clearing my throat. “We’re all too used to this, I think.”

“Did they ask the people at the Trinity test to ‘get over it’?” Jan continued, infusing the words ‘get over it’ with all the teenage scorn she could summon. But then she huffed and wet her lips with a little dart of pink tongue, still frowning at the gateway like it was a mad suggestion in a badly planned war. “Well, yes, that’s the point, they probably did. And here I am, with a group of mad people who might set the atmosphere on fire.”

“Please don’t make that comparison,” Evelyn groaned.

Jan laughed, a hollow little sound in her throat, followed by a falling auugh of dismay. “What, Oppenheimer, ‘destroyer of worlds’, all that? With this, you bloody well could be the destroyer of worlds, if you use it wrong. Or if it falls into the wrong hands.”

Evelyn smothered a cough. Raine and I shared a glance. Twil grimaced.

That finally got Jan to look away from the gate, in order to turn a more deeply horrified look on our reactions.

“What did that mean? Hey, hey, excuse me.” She let go of July’s tank-top and clicked her fingers as if we were naughty children pretending we hadn’t broken mother’s favourite vase. July took the opportunity to turn away and continue watching Zheng once more, like a falcon released from the glove. “Miss Saye, big scary mage queen of Sharrowford, what was that? What was that look? All of you, what was that?”

Twil winced in slow motion. “S’uh, it’s maybe been … uh … you’re kinda … right.”

Jan boggled at her. “Right? About what? Use sentences, please!”

Evelyn cleared her throat. “The technique has already been stolen from us once,” she said. “Which is why the gateway spell is covered up with tape and rubbish bags. I don’t want this to propagate any further than it already has.”

Jan did a slow double take away from Evelyn, looked at the gate, then back to Evelyn again. I felt an oily, awkward smile creeping onto my own face. Raine shrugged with her arms wide. Evelyn tried to keep her chin up.

“Oh,” Jan said in a shell-shocked voice. “Oh, right. I assumed you were going for some sort of Stig of the Dump aesthetic, seeing as this gateway to hell is embedded in the wall of your house, just … right there.” Then she snapped, letting out a sigh like a gun going off. “Oh. Oh I can’t believe this. It’s finally happened. I knew it would come to this eventually.”

“Nothing has not come to anything,” July said. Despite her carefully clipped tones, I could hear the exasperation in her voice.

Evelyn stiffened. I saw her eyes flick to Raine and Praem, a signal to be ready. “What are you talking about?”

“I’ve finally stepped right into a giant pile of dung, haven’t I?” Jan went on, seemingly off inside her own head. “Steaming doo-doo all over my boots. I’ve run into a bunch of arr-pee-gee protagonists who’ve started the quest chain that ends the world. We really should have fled when we could, Jule. At least then we’d outrun the blast wave for a few more months. Maybe I could die in Paris, wouldn’t that have been poetic?”

“The world is not going to end,” July said. This time she actually sighed, though she was still fixed on Zheng. “Stop bellyaching.”

“They have a gateway to the beyond and it’s been stolen by some bloody psychopath!” Jan snapped, then pointedly stared at Evelyn, flapping one tube-like sleeve in an attempt to point at her. “Am I right? I’m making an educated guess here, more than half of the people like us are complete monsters. Yes?”

Evelyn sighed and gestured with her bone wand. “Edward Lilburne is his name. We’re in a sort of cold war with him. He’s … ”

“Slaver, murderer, child kidnapper,” I said, nodding. “So, yes. A monster.”

“Great. Great! Wonderful!” Jan threw her arms in the air. Her exasperation was somewhat undercut by the giant puffy sleeves of her coat swallowing both her hands. I couldn’t help myself — I snorted out a laugh at the absurdity. She whirled on me. “And you can stop laughing, octopus girl! It’s alright for you, you’re already halfway equipped to thrive in whatever mad revelation crashes across the Earth after some idiot with a god complex invites the wrong giant floating brain over here!”

“I don’t think that part is possible,” Evelyn said slowly. “And I am an extremely paranoid person.”

“Not paranoid enough to refrain from tearing a hole in reality!”

“It’s quite a safe place,” I said. “Camelot, I mean.”

“Uuuunnnnnngggghhh.” Jan put her face in her hands and groaned — at least I assume it was her hands, because she actually just buried her face in the ends of her sleeves. “I can’t deal with this. I just can’t. I am done. Totally done. We’ll be dead by this time next year. Or worse.”

“You’re catastrophising again,” said July.

“Of course I’m catastrophising!” Jan snapped. “I think this warrants a bit of catastrophising! Am I allowed a pinch of freaking out? No?”

“It’s not that bad,” Twil interjected with a laugh. “I mean come on, there’s plenty of nasty stuff over here on Earth already, right? Didn’t mages already used to make gates like this, way back? World’s not over as far as I can see.”

“It is entirely possible for the world to end more than once,” Jan huffed.

“I’m not capable of triggering the apocalypse,” Evelyn said with a grumpy twist to her mouth, “but thank you for the implicit compliment. What you are looking at is not a true two-way door. Nothing on that side can cross over to here, not unless it originated here in the first place. And that’s not a property of the gateway; as far as I can tell, it is a property of reality itself. There are other ways of circumventing that law, but they’re not achievable with magecraft.” She glanced at me, perhaps subconsciously — my hyperdimensional mathematics could bring anything back from Outside, but we chose not to mention that. It was kinder on Jan’s mental health.

“See?” July said. “The world is not ending.”

Jan let out a long-suffering sigh. A strangely familiar tiredness settled like coal dust around her beautiful, blue-crystal eyes. “Fine. Fine. So be it. Don’t blame me if it does end right on top of us.”

“If it is ending,” July said, “I still insist on this duel.”

“Ugh, such a one track mind.” Jan sounded very much like the petulant teenager she appeared to be. She nodded at Praem. “Why can’t you be more like Praem — it was Praem, yes? Lovely name, by the way.” Praem nodded once. “Why can’t you be more like Praem there? I don’t see her challenging me to a thumb war just because we’re both made of the same stuff.”

“A thumb war can be arranged,” Praem intoned. Jan let out a high-pitched laugh, a little too close to the edge for my liking.

“Maybe that’s the distraction we need?” I suggested, then wished I hadn’t spoken. I felt like an idiot.

“We’ll save that for some other time, shall we?” Jan said, shaking her head. She waved at the gateway with one huge puffy white sleeve, presumably pointing with a finger inside. “So, if I step through that, can one of you personally guarantee it’s not going to flay all my skin off, or replace my organs with blocks of dirt, or, I don’t know, auto-catheterise my arse hole or something? There’s no nasty side-effects I need to know about?” She squinted at the gateway. “Are those actual knights? Like, blokes in metal suits? I thought you lot were exaggerating. What have you people been doing out there?”

“There are no side-effects,” Evelyn sighed. “Other than how bizarre it feels to stand Outside.”

“Several of us are over there already,” I added. “It really is about as safe as somewhere can get, out there. Um, we don’t want you to panic when you step over there or anything. Zheng you’ve already met, but there’s Lozzie too, you can see her from here. And Sevens is there, and there’s also Tenny, and our dog — well, Badger’s dog, Whistle—”

“You took a dog out there?” Jan almost shouted at me. I flinched, tentacles jerking in surprise. “Oh, you people are even more wildly irresponsible than I thought. You get that poor animal back in here, right now! I’m not going anywhere until—”

Before Jan could finish having at go at us for presumed animal cruelty, July strode forward, straight for the gateway. This time she was fast enough — and Jan was distracted enough — that Jan’s desperate attempt to grab her resulted only in Jan’s sleeve baffing against her back.

“There’s also a giant caterpillar!” I said quickly, as July reached the gate, ducking so the guitar case wouldn’t catch on the rim. “Don’t be scared, it’s perfectly safe!”

Jan gave me an extremely alarmed look.

July stepped through the gate and straightened up slowly, beneath the purple glow. She stared at Zheng for a long moment, then turned on the spot, gazing about at the knights and the yellow hillsides, showing all the reverence of a pilgrim in a great temple. She did pause briefly when she looked over her shoulder at the caterpillar, but her eyes were already so wide and penetrating that I couldn’t tell if she was shocked or afraid or just accepting what she saw. Lozzie waved to her and called something, but we couldn’t hear the words. July ignored the greeting anyway. She did stare off to her left for a long moment, as if curious or confused by something beyond our line of sight.

“July? July?” Jan was saying, in the sort of tone that usually accompanies the stamping of a petulant foot. “You haven’t burst into flame, so I assume you can hear me?”

“She can’t, actually,” Evelyn explained. “Sound cannot cross the barrier.”

July stepped back through the gate, back to our side, back to Earth.

“It’s safe enough,” she said.

“For a demon host!” Jan huffed. “That’s one thing, but a human being is much more—”

“You are not human fragile anymore.” July strode toward her.

“I am, I break all too easily,” Jan said, frowning as July marched right up to her and bent as if to pick her up. “No, stop! Stop that, not here!” Jan slapped at her with the floppy ends of her padded sleeves, like a pair of clumsy elephant trunks. “I can walk just fine, thank you!”

“But you are complaining so very much,” July told her. Unlike Praem’s expressionless tones, this demon host did not conceal her mockery.

Raine snorted a laugh behind one hand. Evelyn rolled her eyes. My smile grew very fixed. Twil actually said “ha!” out loud.

“And I will keep complaining,” Jan said. She tried to put her hands on her hips but it didn’t really work in the massive coat.

July stared at her for a moment longer. I was about to open my mouth and hurry this along, it was bordering on absurd now, but then for a split second I didn’t see them as siblings, one older and one younger — if that was what the Martense pair really were. Instead I saw a mother and child — an old lady, petulant and tired, but having a lot more fun with this exchange than she was letting on, opposite a daughter who just wanted to go outside and play, but would indulge any of her dear mother’s whims.

Projection, I told myself. I was projecting Praem and Evelyn onto these two. But I still reached out covertly and gave Evelyn’s elbow a squeeze. She flinched slightly and frowned at me, but more in confusion than anger.

“Fine,” July said. “Stay here.”

The demon turned on her heel, marched back up to the gateway, and stepped across. Her long black braid swished through after her.

This time she didn’t pause once over the threshold, but carried on walking toward Zheng. A flutter of pastel poncho detached from a cluster of knights and flounced over toward her, to greet or question or tease. Amid all the confusion and confrontation and even after the emotional turmoil of the last few hours — not to mention the way I kept glancing at Evelyn’s profile, wanting to speak to her in private — I still felt a flicker of an urge to launch myself Outside just to protect Lozzie. My tentacles twitched as one, aching to reach out and make sure July did not touch so much as one hair on Lozzie’s head. But Outside was her domain. She was surrounded by her knights and more. Lozzie was safer out there than she was here.

“Jule … ? Ju-July?” Jan reached after her in confusion and dismay, then seemed to catch herself and remembered we were all watching. She cleared her throat and lowered her arm, then tugged her coat tight around herself and shook her head. She suddenly seemed very small and vulnerable. “I, er, um … suppose we better follow, or we’ll miss the show.”

“It’s okay,” I piped up in a misguided effort to reassure her. “Zheng has strict instructions not to start until we’ve discussed the rules.”

“Oh,” Jan said. She didn’t meet my eyes, too self-conscious. “Rules. Right. There’s going to be rules. Very sensible, yes.”

“We really don’t have to step through,” I said, trying not to cringe with second-hand embarrassment. “You could watch from here, if you want. If you don’t want to go. That’s okay, I totally understand.”

“Scared?” Twil snorted. “Huh. Some mage, right.”

“Of course I’m scared!” Jan said. “You should all be terrified, this is terrifying. The fact you’re not scared in the slightest is even worse!” She gestured at the gate. “Anything could be out there!”

“We know exactly what’s out there,” I said, cringing with apology. “For that dimension, at least. Mostly. Well, I’m trusting Lozzie on this, she’s the expert.”

Raine winced at my phrasing. I blushed, feeling like an idiot. My head was not in the right place for this conversation.

Half of me wanted to be alone with Evelyn, right now; the other half was relieved I couldn’t be.

“Oh, right,” Jan said, lashing on the sarcasm with her delicate tones. “An expert in the beyond. That’s great. And what does she do, exactly? No doubt something nightmarish that I would be happier not knowing.”

Unfortunately, our efforts to convince Jan to step outside the boundaries of reality were undermined at that exact moment by a bundle of black tentacles emerging through the gateway.

Tenny appeared around the side of the gate and stepped backward across the threshold, back to Earth, creeping like a child retreating from a dark room, unwilling to turn away and look where she was going, lest the ghosts snagged her ankles. Her shoulders were hunched, her head ducked, her wing-cloak wrapped tightly around herself in a protective layer of black silken flesh and fuzzy white fur. Her antennae lay very still, flush against her head. Her tentacles were retracted close to her body, reaching behind herself like she was groping for a handhold or a familiar support. Her humanoid arms held Whistle, equally quiet and pensive, little doggy ears standing straight up.

Of course, all Jan saw was a monster, crossing to our side. She went pale, mouth wide open, recoiling like she was ready to bolt.

“It’s okay, it’s okay!” I blurted out, hands up. “It’s just Tenny!”

“Awww shit,” went Twil. Evelyn sighed and put her face in one hand.

Buuuuuurrrrrrrt?” went Tenny, turning on the spot.

Jan boggled at me and Evelyn. “So much for nothing crossing from that side! What is that?!”

“It’s Tenny!” I repeated, even as I knew she needed more explanation than that. “She’s from here! She’s supposed to be here.”

“Hey, Tenns, you okay?” Raine was saying, quickly crossing the room and accepting Tenny’s oddly desperate clutching tentacles on her shoulders. She scratched Whistle’s head. “Not so good out there, yeah?”

“Not good,” Tenny trilled. Her big black pelagic eyes roved across us as she copied a very Lozzie gesture, puffing her cheeks out. She wrapped a secure tentacle around Raine’s arm, holding on tight. Then she spotted Jan. “Lo?”

“Tenny, this is Jan,” I said, trying to repair the mess. “Jan, this is Tenny. We did verbally warn you we had a non-human here. Remember? Evee, you did do that on the phone, didn’t you?”

“I did,” Evelyn sighed. “Apparently it didn’t take.”

Jan just stared, jaw slack.

“Lo?” Tenny repeated. She puffed out a buuuuurrrrr. “Not a shark?”

I cleared my throat. “Tenny is technically a child, so please don’t scare her. And yes, Tenny. Jan here is not a shark.”

Blllllrrrrrtttt, no shark.” Tenny pouted.

“She’s … she’s from here?” Jan murmured. “How?”

“Lozzie made her,” I said. “Sort of. She’s Lozzie’s daughter, technically. She started as a spirit.”

“As pneuma-somatic life,” Evelyn supplied with a sigh.

“Yes, then Lozzie made her a cocoon and she came out … well, real, for want of a better word.”

“Tenny is a real girl,” Praem intoned.

“I … I’m sorry … I didn’t … process that,” Jan said slowly, her horror turning not to confusion, but to awe, as her deep blue eyes travelled up and down Tenny’s body. “My goodness,” she breathed, barely more than a whisper. “Hello. Hello there. Oh, oh you are a wonder. Tenny, was it? I’m so sorry, I called you a what … ” Her voice trailed off as she looked at the rest of us, awestruck. “You people … you … you made her? Did I hear that right?” Jan flicked back to Tenny suddenly, who was watching Jan as if the small woman was quite crazy. “I am so sorry for talking about you in third person, by the way. Hello dear.”

“Lozzie did,” I repeated. “Yes.”

Jan just stared at Tenny in awe. She even stepped forward, fingers out to receive the greeting touch of one of Tenny’s silken black tentacles. Tenny touched tentacle to trembling finger tips, then pulled a very dubious expression at Jan.

“Not a shaaaark,” Tenny trilled. “’Lo Jan?”

“Yes, yes, hello. My goodness, you are a wonder. You are one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.” Jan started laughing, looking over at the rest of us. She spread her arms. “What do you need me for? You want me to make a doll for your twin sister, out of dead matter, when this … this … Lozzie?” She gestured through the gate. “I assume that’s the one with the fetching poncho talking to Jule. When she can craft true flesh?” Jan shook her head. “You’re wasting your time with me.”

“It’s more complex than that,” Evelyn said, in an unimpressed tone that brooked no argument.

“Yes,” I agreed. “I’m not sure Lozzie can just grow an empty person or something. In fact, I doubt that very much.”

“Oh, I must speak with her,” Jan said. “May I speak with her? This Lozzie, that’s her, right? Correct? I can speak with her? Is she— does she have— is there anything I should—”

“You’re quite welcome to speak with Lozzie,” I said gently. “But she can be difficult to communicate with, sometimes.”

“Yeah,” Twil added. “Bit of an understatement, that, but she’s real sweet. Be nice, okay?”

“I would never be anything but nice,” Jan said, her confidence apparently all returned. She even straightened up.

“You cool to go back through the gate, Tenns?” Raine asked Tenny.

Mmmmmuuurrrrrrr,” Tenny trilled. “Pretty. But also scary. No flying today.”

Raine patted her on the shoulder. My heart went out to how sweet she was with Tenny. “Ahhhh, you don’t have to,” she said. “We can just sit and watch with Whistle. Isn’t that right, Whistle?”

Whistle went huff. Perhaps he recognised his own name.

“Ah,” Jan said, bright blue eyes flicking through the gate again. Her throat bobbed. “I don’t suppose you could ask Lozzie to come over here for a chat?”

I was about to open my mouth and say certainly, why not, I’ll ask her. I wasn’t about to force an innocent to step Outside, though I did wonder if Jan counted as innocent.

But Evelyn spoke up quickly, before I could get a word out. “No, not right now,” she said. “Lozzie is needed out there. You’ll have to come with us.”

“Ah. Well.” Jan took a deep breath. I got the sudden impression she wanted to cross herself. “Well. Well, well, perhaps another time then, I do really want to speak with—”

Jan did not get to finish her sentence, because Praem stepped up. With three short clicks of her sensible heels, Praem approached Jan, stopped at a distance calculated precisely between professional courtesy and personal intimacy, and held out one pale hand.

“Be not afraid,” Praem said.

Jan blinked at Praem, down at her hand, and then at us, raising her eyebrows in mild alarm and mute question.

“Don’t look at me,” Evelyn said. “I have no idea what she’s doing. Praem, what are you doing?”

“Escorting,” Praem intoned. “If desired.”

“She’s being very sweet,” I said out loud. “She’s not mocking you or anything, she’s being serious.”

Evelyn nodded along with a sort of grudging sigh.

“Oh, why not?” Jan said, her tone suddenly much more like that of the old woman I’d glimpsed for a moment as she’d argued with July. She wriggled one hand out of the end of her voluminous sleeve and placed it graciously in Praem’s palm. “Thank you, you’ve very kind. Maybe leave out the ‘be not afraid’ line next time though. You are angelic, but it’s a bit much.”

“I am angelic,” Praem agreed.

“Hey, if it makes you feel safer,” Raine added. She spread her hands and patted her heavily padded motorcycle jacket. “I know how it feels.”

“All safe!” Tenny trilled, apparently much happier now she was back with the rest of us, rather than watching her mother tend to the knights.

“Quite,” Evelyn said, frowning at Praem and Jan as if not sure what to make of this development.

“Can somebody hold my hand too?” Twil asked, laughing.

“No teasing,” Praem intoned. She gave us all a blank-faced, white-eyed look — Twil especially, who at least had the good sense to look sheepish.

Praem lingered on me for a moment longer than the others, which I could only tell because of the way she moved her head.

It was impossible to be certain, but a moment of communication passed between us, though I couldn’t figure out how I understood her intention. Perhaps I was merely projecting, perhaps it was nothing, or perhaps it was the emotional backwash of my rather intense conversation with Twil, and my newly exposed thoughts about the woman standing next to me.

Praem would escort Jan — and therefore I was to look after Evelyn.

I nodded back, just a tiny tilt of my head. Praem’s pointed gaze moved on.

“Oh, wait a moment,” said Jan. “I actually have something for you. I’d forgotten in all this flappery and failure to warn.”

“Failure to warn?” Evelyn echoed under her breath. “I did tell you, it’s not my fault you didn’t listen.”

Jan moved as if to rummage inside her coat. Her free hand popped out of her sleeve, like a furtive, hairless rodent bursting from a hole in the sand. She touched the air about six inches in front of her chest and her hand completely vanished from view again. We may have seen this trick before but the visual impact was no less dizzying, no less impossible, no less inherently threatening — she could have anything hidden inside that invisible gap.

Jan’s hand reappeared a split second later, holding a compact box of fresh strawberries.

“For you.” She held them out to Praem. “A thank you for being so sweet the first time we met. Just don’t share them with anybody else.”

“Staaaawberry!” Tenny trilled, suddenly lighting up.

“Except Tenny,” Jan added. “She can have some. I gather this is the correct gesture, from what your mother told me? Though I should most certainly not feed them to you myself, that’s some dangerous symbolism, I think?” She raised an eyebrow at Evelyn.

“Praem’s not bound,” Evelyn said, but she was frowning. “She can accept strawberries from anybody she wishes.”

Praem accepted the box and bowed her head to Jan. “Thank you.”

Twil was still bamboozled by the whole exchange, frowning like she didn’t quite get it. “Why not just put the strawberries in your pockets? Like, your normal pockets? Why do you need to magically hide strawberries?”

“Force of habit,” Jan said, turning smug and batting thick dark lashes over her twinkling eyes. “Once you’ve gotten used to wearing dresses with pockets, you can never truly go back.”

Twil’s confusion got worse. “But you’re wearing a tracksuit.”

Jan sighed and rolled her eyes, point entirely missed. Without warning, she repeated her magical-pockets trick as if reaching out and plucking an insect from the air, about a foot to the left of her head. Her fingers returned holding a pair of pink-framed sunglasses.

“No accounting for poor taste,” she said.

“Don’t tell me you’re gonna wear those indoors?” Twil asked.

“That is a bit edgy,” Raine said. “Even for us.”

“Nice colour though,” I added.

“Does that look like indoors to you?” Jan gestured at the gateway. “I’m not taking any chances with that weird purple light, no matter what you lot say. I am not getting sunburnt or snow-blinded out there.” She snapped the shades open with a flick of her wrist and lowered them over her shining blue eyes. “Consider this well and truly dealt with.”

Evelyn snorted without humour. “You really are internet poisoned, you little—”

“Evee!” I almost slapped her arm, but I could never truly strike Evelyn, not even in jest. “I think they look really good! Cool, even.”

“They are, heeeey,” Raine added with a wink for Jan. “Looking smooth.”

“Heather,” Evelyn tutted. “She’s memeing at us.”

I blinked. “She’s what?”

Jan pointed a finger at Evelyn, a smug little smile on her suddenly cheeky face, below the dark pools of her sunglasses. Blue fire burned behind the tinted lenses; no glasses could truly hide that kind of otherworldly beauty. “You may be an absolutely terrifying mage, and I may have been led into the lion’s den by July being horny for getting her head kicked in, but girl, my power level exceeds yours by a significant margin.”

Evelyn let out a huff like she’d just been subjected to a truly awful pun. She put her face in one hand. Twil started laughing. Only Tenny looked as baffled as I felt, twitching her fluffy white antennae and blinking her huge black eyes.

“I’m sorry, I’m completely lost,” I said. “‘Power level’? Is this a mage thing?”

“Heather, just … just don’t,” Evelyn said into her hand.

“I love you,” said Raine. “Don’t worry about it, trust me.”

“Well, okay,” I said, feeling a little put out.

Jan very gently gestured with the hand that Praem was holding. “Are we quite ready? Your big slab of muscle must be getting impatient by now.”

“Alright, alright,” Evelyn grumbled. “Let’s get this over with. Hopefully at least in time for dinner.”

Raine led the way with Tenny in tow, coaxing our nervous moth-child back over to Camelot with Whistle still snuggled in her arms; I was confident that if things got too much for Tenny, Raine would bring her back home. Yet as Raine’s shoulders and Tenny’s silken black tentacles passed through the membrane into Camelot’s purple light, I suppressed an urge to dart across the room and drag them both back. It was only the Quiet Plain, full of Lozzie’s knights. I had to repeat that to myself, just to let them go.

Twil paused with an after-you gesture for the rest of us. Jan glanced back over her shoulder as we moved toward the gateway.

“Are they not coming with us?” she asked, peering over the top of her sunglasses.

“Ah? What?” Twil glanced back too, at what for her was just the empty corners of the room. Evelyn pulled a frown, but then she realised.

“She means the spider-servitors,” I explained for Twil’s benefit. “You can see them too, Jan?”

“Of course I can.” Jan raised an eyebrow at me and then ran her eyes along my tentacles, her sudden attention enough to make me feel a little shy. I pulled my extra limbs in toward myself. “I can see your additions, after all. Don’t be shy now, they’re very impressive.”

“The spiders stay here,” Evelyn said, her voice too tight for the subject. “Come on, let’s get on with this.”

“What? Why?” Jan peered around Praem’s flank, blinking with surprise over the rim of her sunglasses, absolutely flummoxed. “They’re perfect. I mean, jolly good job on them, they’re fantastic, well done. I’ve rarely seen a servitor as cleanly built, let alone that complex. We really should have them along, real combat machines, just in case, no? You say this is safe, but you never know.”

I pulled a pained smile. “They don’t really like to move far. Not unless it’s an emergency.”

“They … don’t … like to?” Jan’s delicate brow furrowed in confusion. “They’re servitors. Aren’t they?”

Evelyn sighed. “They stay here,” she repeated, then turned her head so Jan couldn’t see her mouth the words ‘operational security’ at me.

Jan didn’t know that Evelyn could barely command the servitors. It was probably best we kept it that way.

“Ah, yes,” I joined in, somewhat late to the game. “They stay here. There’s important reasons to do with the house. Security. All that.”

“Still … ” Jan sighed at the spiders. “They’re beautiful specimens. I’d feel much safer with some real muscle along, you know? Muscle that doesn’t wander off to fight other muscle, that is.”

“I will not wander off,” Praem said, sing-song and lilting. She lifted Jan’s hand slightly. “Shall we go?”

“Certainly. Thank you, miss Praem.”

“Miss Saye,” Praem corrected.

“Ah! My mistake. Of course. Please do lead on, miss Saye.”

In an awkward shuffle more befitting a group of young teenagers edging onto a dance floor, the rest of us stepped through the gate to Camelot.

Jan and Praem went first, greeting Raine and Tenny on the other side. I hovered close to Evelyn before she took the plunge; she tried to conceal the way she drew in a deep breath, steadying herself and leaning heavily on her walking stick, but I caught and cradled every moment of her trepidation, wishing I could shoulder it in her place. I had to stop myself from wrapping a tentacle around her shoulders. That would probably just make her jump.

“It’s not dangerous,” I murmured. “Well. Not really.”

“Yeah,” Twil piped up from behind us. “We’re both right here with you, Evee. You know?”

Evelyn gave me the sort of sour, sidelong look that would have made me shiver with anxiety six months ago. Then she rolled her eyes, forcefully linked her arm with mine, and used me as a guide-rail to step through to Outside, dragging me along. Twil laughed behind us, cut off suddenly by the dimensional transition, then resuming as she stepped through in our wake.

Camelot opened around us like a flower of purple and yellow, blooming through the sky with whorls like the inside of a human brain, showering us with a shifting aurora more beautiful than any earthly light. Cinnamon wind brushed our faces and tugged at loose strands of hair, a distant sea-breeze bringing us the scent of far-off petrified forests and dead cities, the merest hint of the caterpillars’ wanderings. Hillsides unrolled around us, covered with the silent sentinels of chrome, Lozzie’s round table.

Sometimes these places were wasted on me. But together with my friends, my family, it was almost worth coming here.

We all stood in a little cluster around the gateway exit for a moment, just soaking in the strangeness of being.

Jan was blinking rapidly, head turning left and right with jerky intensity, not frozen in fear but doing a poor job of concealing her breathless awe. The rest of us had all been here before — Evelyn had insisted that Raine and Twil and Praem all duck through for at least a minute or two before Jan and July arrived, just to acclimatise themselves, in case the worst should happen. But the sense of strangeness still hit everyone like a wave of vertigo and nausea, necessitating a pause to catch breath that had never been stolen. Even Tenny, with her inhuman senses and totally different physiological set-up, was affected enough that she focused on petting Whistle with a trio of tentacles. I considered asking Raine to just take her back through. Only Praem was totally unaffected.

Well, Praem and myself.

Praem took the liberty of tapping Jan on the shoulder and saying, “Do not be afraid. Look behind us.”

“Oh, oh my.” Jan still jumped when she followed the instruction, coming face-to-hide with the vast bulk of the caterpillar. She put a hand to her heart — did dolls have hearts? Did Praem have a heart inside her wooden chest? Metaphorically, very much so. “Oh that is … that is very big indeed. Too big.”

“That’s what she said,” Twil muttered from the corner of her mouth. Evelyn almost whacked her in the shins with her walking stick, but Twil managed to skip away, forcing a laugh.

“Thank you, Twil,” I said — and I meant it. Anything for a bit of normality when Outside.

“You people have built seating out here?” Jan asked, eyebrows scrunching above her shades. “What’s next, are you going to put up a gazebo? Plant some roses?”

“Strawberry bushes,” Praem intoned.

“Oh, lovely,” Jan said. I got the impression her sarcasm was blunted for Praem’s benefit.

“We didn’t build this,” Evelyn said, vaguely uncomfortable as she gestured at the caterpillar — and the ‘seating’. “This is all Lozzie’s work. Look again, it’s part of the … creature. Or, was.”

Jan paused, staring up at the caterpillar again. “She made this too?”

“Oh yes,” Evelyn said, sounding none too happy about it.

“I really must speak with her,” Jan murmured.

Lozzie’s whale-sized caterpillar of off-white carapace and shaped armour had extruded seating for us. Earlier, after the gate was open but before Jan had arrived, when we’d all stepped over here for a moment, we’d discovered the caterpillar had performed some kind of rapid self-modification. It seemed to have shed one of the bulging armour sections between the thinner vertical ribs, to reveal a fresh, clean white section only a few inches beneath, like a turtle or tortoise shedding sections of old shell, replacing them with new protection grown beneath the old.

The discarded piece of off-white armour now lay on the yellow grass alongside the caterpillar, where it had fallen, a slab of curved armour several feet high. It formed a very sizeable if rather rough and uncomfortable bench. There was more than enough room for all of us, twice over.

“Front row seats,” Twil chuckled.

Halfway along the bench, huddled like a sad blob of melting butter, was Sevens, wrapped in yellow robes like a small child amid stolen blankets. Upon our arrival she slipped to her feet and slunk over, peering at Jan with red-on-black eyes.

Guuurrrkk,” she went at Jan, slinking straight past the bewildered stare and right up to Tenny and Raine. “Tenns, you okay?”

Mmmmmrrrrrr,” Tenny replied with an uncertain flutter.

“I think she might need to go back home, actually,” I said. “She’s not doing well out here. Could you … ?”

“Mm-mmmmm.” Sevens nodded, wordlessly accepting the affections of Tenny’s tentacles wrapping around her shoulders and arms, like a nervous octopus. Tenny let go of Raine and clung to Sevens instead. “Tenns, wanna go?”

“M’okay,” Tenny said, raising her chin. “For now.”

“ … do I even want to know who this is?” Jan asked, gesturing at Sevens.

“You do not want to know,” Praem intoned.

“Apparently I don’t want to know,” Jan said to Sevens. “My apologies.”

Raine was standing with her hands on her hips, looking outward across the plains. I was struck by the uncanny similarity to how Zheng had stood on that same spot, only an hour earlier.

“You think they’re about to start without us?” she asked, loud enough to project her voice.

About sixty feet directly ahead of us, July and Zheng were facing off, staring each other down like a pair of apex predators who had stumbled across one another in a jungle clearing. Zheng had risen from her cross-legged repose and July had walked to almost within arms’ reach. I couldn’t see July’s expression with her back to us, but I could read the fascination and hunger on Zheng’s face, the silent desire, the undeniable lust.

My stomach turned over with lingering jealousy, sick and tight. Suddenly nothing mattered, certainly not my wish for Zheng to win. I had to bite my lower lip and turn away.

Tentacles bunched and coiled with instinctive urgency. My skin tingled, aching to flush with warning colouration and deadly toxins. Part of me wanted to spring across the sixty feet as quick as I could and plant myself in front of July.

A hiss crawled up my throat.

“Wouldn’t put it past them,” Jan said with total dismissal. She wasn’t even paying attention. “Are we going to sit down, then? I’m not keen on standing here while these two beat each other to a pulp.”

“They absolutely will not be starting without us,” Evelyn snapped, right next to me. “There are going to be rules to this. And for once we have a judge capable of enforcing rules.”

Evelyn’s tone contained a note I rarely heard from her, shocking me out of my jealous simmer — secret smug victory. I blinked at her, followed her gaze back to Zheng, then I realised what I’d missed.

“Oh,” Jan said. “Oh, I see. Very clever.”

Lozzie was standing between July and Zheng, bobbing her head and chattering up at July.

It was too far away to make out the words, but the meaning was undeniable. My tentacles relaxed and the abyssal itch ebbed away. I felt Evelyn’s arm looped through mine again.

“Security and concealment weren’t the only reasons for doing this out here,” Evelyn croaked softly. “You made a good call for more reasons than you thought, Heather. Completely mad. But good.”

I boggled at her, my mind whirling to catch up. My throat still felt thick with the need to hiss at July. “Evee … you … you mean Lozzie agreed to this because … ?”

To my wordless delight — and more than a little bit of unexpected blush — Evelyn smiled for real, in a way I’d never seen her smile before, narrow-eyed and devious, but not at all dark. The strategist’s smile, for me. “Over a hundred penuma-somatically engineered knights and one caterpillar-machine the size of an airliner. That’s more than enough show of strength to keep this as a duel, to keep it under control.”

“Oh goodness,” Jan said. “How smart. I only wish it wasn’t happening here.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. Evelyn could barely contain her smile, though she kept her lips together. Mischief danced in her eyes.

“Evee, you … you didn’t tell me,” I said.

She snorted. “You would have told Zheng. And it wasn’t like I was concealing anything from you, this was obvious.”

“I … I suppose so … ”

“I still don’t approve of any of this. We should not even be here,” Evelyn said.

“Much agreed,” Jan added.

Burrrrrrrrt!” went Tenny.

“But if it has to be done,” Evelyn continued, holding her head higher, “then it’s going to be done without putting either of these incredible idiots at real risk.”

Twil let out a low whistle. “You’re bloody devious, you know that? Good thing you’re on our side.”

“We’d get nowhere without you, Evee,” Raine shot back over her shoulder.

Evelyn straightened her spine as best she could. “I’m not on your side, Twil. You’re on mine.”

Twil snorted and rolled her eyes, but she didn’t deny it.

“You lot are all completely mad,” Jan said, shaking her head. “If it wasn’t for Lozzie — that’s her name, right, I’m getting that correct? If it wasn’t for her, I’d have hit the ejector seat already. Are we going to sit down or not? I would like to get my snacks out.”

“Yes, yes,” Evelyn grumbled, tugging on my arm. “Let’s get moving, I suppose. Come on, Heather, the sooner we sit down the sooner we … Heather?”

“Something’s going wrong,” I murmured, heart in my throat.

While the others bantered about seating arrangements, I had been watching Zheng and July.

I saw the warning signs in their shared body language before it happened — or at least my abyssal instincts did, picking up on the secret meanings of pose and musculature and the invisible tension in the air between two dangerous predators. I couldn’t have put it into words, or said exactly why my own body suddenly dumped a bucket of adrenaline into my veins. I just knew.

Up until that moment, Zheng had been smiling a predator’s smile, darkly delighted that the fight was about to begin, that her opponent was finally here, glowing with all the anticipation of new consummation. Neither of them were even looking at Lozzie, as she flapped her pastel poncho and chattered back and forth between them, her voice high and light, lost on the cinnamon air.

But then July must have said something, though the words were too far away to hear, even as a murmur on the wind.

Whatever she said, it killed Zheng’s smile.

Lozzie had enough time to visibly laugh at July’s words, lifting the hem of her poncho to cover her mouth — but then Zheng clenched her teeth and growled, deep down in her throat and chest. That sound carried all too well, a deep bass rumble like the disapproval of a mountain.

“Oh shit,” Twil hissed from next to me.

“Lozzie!” Raine called. “Lozzie, what are they doing?”

“She’s losing control,” I said. “Zheng!”

“What is she saying?” Evelyn demanded of Jan.

“Don’t look at me!” Jan squeaked. “I have no idea! I’m not in charge of her or anything!”

July tilted her chin up. Spoke again. Zheng’s eyes blazed with anger.

Lozzie said something to the demons, flapping her poncho. But then she stepped back out of the firing line as Zheng inched forward. Lozzie cast a terrified look at us. Raine started forward, as did Twil, but there was no time to cover the distance. Around the trio, several of Lozzie’s knights turned as one, weapons lifted in readiness, shields raised by chrome hands.

July spoke a third and final time. Lozzie turned and ran toward us.

Zheng rocked back on her heels, spat at July’s feet, and threw herself behind a punch like a lightning bolt.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Jan doesn’t like anything about this situation, all of it is terrifying and dangerous in a way she seems to have been trying to avoid her whole life! Except Praem. And maybe Tenny. And probably Lozzie! Seems like they might have some things to discuss. About building life, perhaps? About creating bodies and putting spirits inside them? About giant machine-life caterpillar creatures? At least everyone is Outside now and nothing is going wrong … oops, spoke too soon, I wonder what got Zheng riled up?

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Next week, is the duel going ahead or has Zheng lost control? What did July say to her? And perhaps seeing the zombies let loose for real is going to make Heather feel dangerous things!

for the sake of a few sheep – 15.15

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Twil — our clueless werewolf girl who always looked so confused, dog-brained and headstrong and easily pleased, always getting the wrong end of the stick, always up for a fight but barking up the wrong tree, always on the edge of every situation, one step behind every conversation — was looking at me like I was the idiot.

Because she was right. I was the idiot. I was the big stupid idiot.

She wasn’t merely three steps ahead of me. Twil was running an entirely different race, on a track I hadn’t even been aware of until five seconds ago. She’d lapped me so many times I didn’t know whether I was coming or going. She’d sprinted past me and spun me around like a roadrunner past a certain unfortunate coyote, leaving me to stagger in a cartoonish daze.

“‘Cos, you know,” Twil was still talking, somewhere far away, “I was real bad, I didn’t figure out me and Evee could even try for it ‘till you said so. Er, Heather?”

She raised a hand from where she sprawled, comfortable and loose in the old swivel chair, with a leg hooked over one of the arms. She was utterly relaxed and natural, even in the unfamiliar surroundings of Evelyn’s study, flanked and hemmed in by bookcases and shadows and the heavy desk. She waved her fingers back and forth in front of my eyes.

“Heather? You okay?”

“You … you mean it’s obvious?” I heard myself ask.

“That Evee’s got feelings for you?” Twil laughed, then trailed off. “Uh, yeah?”

A terrifying vista of reality and truth opened up before me, a vast gulf of how little I really knew; I felt like a Polar explorer, testing the snow before each step with a hiking pole, only to dislodge a fall of ice and discover the toes of my boots were already hanging over the edge of a bottomless chasm. Forget the alien spheres of Outside and the infinite dark sea of the Abyss; relationships were so much more difficult to navigate.

“Er, Heather? Yo? Um … do you need … like … Raine? Should I get Raine?”

“No, no I’m … no.”

For the second time in this conversation, I sat down on the floor. I slid down a bookcase, the shelves bumping painfully against my spine until I landed on my backside. My tentacles were coiled around me too tightly to cushion the landing, in a futile attempt at self-comfort. I sat in a heap for a long moment, staring at nothing in particular.

Twil cleared her throat with a very intentional ‘ahem’ sound. “Need a permit to open a hole like that in Sharrowford.”

I finally blinked up at her, coming back to my senses, discovering that I was still in the semi-gloom of the study, surrounded by books and bare floorboards and one vastly uncomfortable werewolf. I half expected reality to fold up and deposit me Outside.

“I’m sorry?” I asked.

“Your … your mouth, is like, hanging open. It was a joke, like.”

“Oh.” I shook my head as a humourless laugh forced its way up my throat. I leaned my head back against the hard, cool surface of a wooden shelf, then forward to bump my forehead against my raised knees, then back again so my skull went clonk against the shelf.

Twil scrambled into a proper sitting position in the chair, about to leap to her feet. “Heather? Yo, big H, hey, don’t start hurting yourself, ‘cos then I really will have to go get Raine because I don’t know what to do about that. Yeah? Okay? Are you alright?”

“Oh, don’t worry, Twil. I’m not going to hurt myself.” I groped for a book from the shelves, any book, filling my hands with a random hardback. I put the book against my knees and laid my forehead against the cover, the world’s most uncomfortable pillow. “It’s just me. It’s all me.”

“It … it’s you.” Twil sounded increasingly worried. “Right. Yeah. It is.”

“It’s me,” I repeated, face squished against the hardback. “I’m the useless lesbian.” I let out a huge sigh and raised my head from the cool, firm sanctuary of a book cover. “What even is this?” I murmured, turning the book over. “Oh, The Fellowship of the Ring, huh.”

“Heather, seriously,” Twil said, sounding like she was about to call the fire brigade. “You alright? Because this is giving me the spooks.”

“I’m fine, Twil. I’m sorry. I’m just reeling a bit.”

Twil pulled a toothy grimace, very much like a dog unsure of an unfamiliar scent. She was jiggling one leg up and down with nervous energy. “Wow. Shit. I thought this was like, obvious. Evee, I mean.”

Wow shit indeed,” I echoed.

“I thought that was kind of why you were apologising and all.”

“No!” I tutted. That forced me to pull myself back together. I couldn’t have Twil misunderstanding this, it was too important for her own well being, for the future of our friendship, for her emotional peace of mind. I drew in a deep breath and slapped my cheek with the book, which made her blink in alarm. “No, Twil, no. I apologised because what I did was wrong. What I did with you and Evee, pushing you together when you weren’t ready, it was like a smaller version of what Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight tried to do with me. Moving people around like cute little playing pieces on some board, satisfied in pairing you off, not treating you as fully autonomous people. It was wrong of me. It’s a genuine apology. I would apologise to you even if Evelyn had gotten together with … I don’t know. Somebody else entirely.”

Twil’s grimace collapsed into a relieved sigh. “Hey, look, it’s cool. You don’t have to keep saying sorry.”

“But I am—”

“Apology accepted!” Twil laughed, one hand out to ward me off. “Apology accepted, yeah? You and me, we’re cool, we’re cool now.”

“ … okay,” I said, slumping back against the bookcase. I narrowly resisted an urge to apologise for apologising.

Twil puffed out a big sigh of relief and leaned back in the chair as well. She rolled her shoulders inside her white hoodie, working out the tension, then pulled both her feet up onto the seat, getting extra comfy. She brushed her dark curls away from her face. “So er, why did you wanna talk to me about this? I get why not Sevens, but hey, anyone would listen.”

I shrugged, still at a bit of a loss. “Who else am I going to talk to? Zheng, right now? Praem, Evee’s daughter? Lozzie is sweet and lovely, but she’s not exactly a fountain of good advice.”

“What about Raine? She is your girlfriend.” Twil laughed.

“A while back, Evee wanted to borrow me for a cuddle,” I said, talking to the ceiling. “It was the night before we went to Carcosa. It was a ruse by Evee, to give me some time away from Raine being difficult, but Raine thought it was genuine. She referenced a ‘deal’ they made in the past and then offered to lend me to Evee. As a partner.” I slid my eyes back down to Twil. She was pulling quite the grimace.

“Oh. Oh dang. What the fuck?”

“Mmhmm. If I told Raine about all this, or if she figured it out on her own, she might lock me and Evee in a room until we kiss. Which I’m not willing to risk.”

Twil puffed out the opposite of a laugh. “Right. Shit.”

“So I’m talking to you. And it turns out you actually understand much better than I do. I’m sorry for underestimating you, Twil.”

To my surprise, Twil flashed a cheeky smile. “That’s just how I roll. Under the radar. Lone wolf in the forest, yeeeeeah.” She struck a pose with both hands, like she was on the cover of a trendy musical album.

I snorted a tiny laugh. “I don’t understand anything do I? Evee has feelings for me?”

“Yeah?” Twil boggled at me. “She obviously fucking adores you, big H. I mean, I knew that before she and I had our thing together, it’s just right out there in the open. She’s always different with you, treats you different to everyone else. Well, ‘cept maybe Praem, but Praem’s her kid. She’s gentle with you. Likes it when you’re close. Didn’t expect you to be all surprised and shit.”

I shook my head and sighed, feeling like I’d been up all night. “But why?”

“You rescued her.”

“I know, several times, but so has Raine, and she doesn’t—”

“No, no no no,” Twil spoke over me, waving both hands. “No, like … you rescued her. Think about it for a sec. ‘Cos like, this is something she and I did talk about. Like, a lot. And I think she’s not said diddly squat to you.”

“‘Diddly squat’?” I echoed. “Twil, your dialect is slipping.”

Twil refused my bait.

“She’d made Raine move out. She was in this house all by herself, long before Praem. Just the spiders for company, and it’s not like they’re up for a chat. Not like she’s got any friends at the uni, either. She was pushing everyone away.” Twil’s voice grew heavy with melancholy. “Think about it. This house was just empty. Then you drop in on her and here she is now, nine months later, she’s got a family. You were the start of it.”

An image of Evelyn floated up from my subconscious, of the first time I’d met her, wrapped in her protective layers of clothing, tucked away in the Medieval Metaphysics room. Evelyn Saye, a ghost of the real person who’d revealed herself seconds later, all hissing spite and bitter anger. She’d lashed out at me with verbal barbs, dripping toxicity she would never level at me these days, saying the most hurtful and rude things. She’d turned even worse on Raine, naked contempt, almost hatred. She’d denied me and driven me off. But then she’d thrown herself Outside, alone, on a wild experiment.

I’d rarely thought about that dangerous experiment she’d done, in the months since I’d rescued her from the consequences. I’d reached out and dragged her back from Outside, with my first intentional Slip; I had broken with ten years of self-abuse and lies, for Evee.

That experiment, that trip Outside, that flawed spell she’d used, the one with no way back — she’d never, ever think of doing such a thing now.

I put my hand to my mouth and felt tears prickle in my eyes.

“She … she was … experiencing suicidal ideation,” I murmured. The cold, clinical words were not enough. Evee, my Evee, she’d almost done it. In loneliness and pain. “Maybe only subconsciously, maybe she didn’t intend to, but … ”

“Yeah,” Twil added. She leaned down out of the chair, grabbed my shoulder, and squeezed me far too hard. The contact brought me back from a dark place. “But she didn’t. That’s the important bit, right? She didn’t. And she didn’t that other time in the library, either. ‘Cos you were there.”

I nodded, a bit numb. I glanced at the study door, vaguely tempted to run all the way downstairs and hug Evelyn. “Best decision I ever made,” I murmured.

“Couldn’t agree more.” Twil let out a huge sigh and leaned back again. “So, hey, you see why she might, like, feel things about you?”

“Well, yes! But she’s never given any indication that she—”

“Oh, come on!” Twil laughed, a mad sound, banishing the heavy atmosphere with a bark. “She does it all the time!”

“But … but … like that?”

Twil paused, raised an eyebrow, and got this tortured faux-shrewd look on her face; I could practically see the gears turning between her ears. She nodded slowly, cracking her knuckles one by one “Ahhhh, yeah, right. I can see where you’re getting some crossed wires here, maybe. Like, yeah, Evee obviously has feelings for you, right. But that doesn’t necessarily mean she wants to do the sideways shuffle with you.”

I blinked like she’d slapped me. “Twil!”

“No, I’m serious,” Twil went on, totally unfazed by my offended tut. “Evee’s got feelings for me too, legit, she hasn’t fallen out of those or something, but that doesn’t mean she wanted to shag me either. I think all that confused her so much that she pushed me away.” Twil shrugged. “I think she might be ace or something. Ace but not realise it herself. And that’s a bloody hard subject to bring up, I dunno if I can do it.”

I shook my head, confused. “Yes, Evee is pretty ‘ace’. At least, I think she is.”

Twil blinked at me, deadpan unimpressed. “‘Ace’ as in ‘asexual’, Heather.”

“Oh!” I blushed like a rotten tomato, flapping my hands and thumping the book down on my knees.

“You do know what that means, right?”

“Yes! Oh my goodness. How are you so far ahead of me all the time?!” I huffed at myself, mortified. “Evee might be asexual, yes, fine. Oh, goodness, how can we be talking about her like this without her present?”

“Because I’m tryin’ give you advice, you big dumbo.”

I sighed and sagged against the shelves. “Yes. Yes, hit me again. I am the big dumbo.”

“And hey, it’s not like we’re bad-mouthing her. We both care about her.”

“That is true,” I murmured, nodding along. “You think Evee is asexual, but she doesn’t understand it herself?”

Twil shrugged. “I dunno, I’m not saying for certain. All I’m saying is that she likes you, but maybe she doesn’t want your fingers all up inside her.” I wrinkled my nose at the crude expression, but Twil kept going. “Maybe she doesn’t even want to make out with you or anything. You get what I mean? I mean, hell, you’re doing this whole poly thing, you probably get this, right?”

“Sort of. Well, actually no, maybe not.”

Twil did a very Evelyn thing all of a sudden — she sucked on her teeth, considering me through narrowed eyes. I’d never seen her make that expression before. On Twil, it was akin to walking through a silent forest at night, then spotting a wolf lurking between the trees, holding itself perfectly still as it watched you in return, uncertain if it was afraid of your unexpected meeting, or about to dismantle you as prey.

“ … T-Twil?” I stammered.

“Wow. You actually don’t get this, do you?” she asked.

“Ummmm. Maybe?”

She suddenly sprang into action. I actually flinched. She didn’t see, but two of my tentacles uncoiled like springs, as if to catch her and throw her back. But all she did was sit forward in the chair, suddenly all animated hand gestures as she tried to make her point.

“Alright,” she said. “Think about it like this. When people get together, especially when they’re really inexperienced, sometimes they kinda try to be the person they think their partner wants them to be, or maybe they try to do stuff that fits in with the role of girlfriend or boyfriend, like, uh … ” Twil wet her lips and looked around, eyes darting about in animated thought. “Like say a guy gets his first girlfriend, right? And she’s not putting any expectations on him, but he’s absorbed all this crazy shit about how you’re meant to be manly, but that’s not him, it’s not how he is.”

“Internalised gender roles. Yes, Twil, I’m well aware of the concept. Where is this going? How is this relevant to Evee?”

Twil spread her hands. “This is just an example, right? So maybe this guy starts acting different — not better, not worse, just different — ‘cos he thinks that’s how he’s supposed to. And he’s not enjoying it, she’s not enjoying it, and they don’t understand why, ‘cos they’re doing all the ‘right things’ that they’re ‘meant’ to do. It’s kinda like the opposite version of putting somebody else on a pedestal. People put themselves in boxes, you know?” Twil pulled a face. “I think, er, to be real polite, you kinda missed out on this sort of mistake, ‘cos you’re with Raine.”

I blinked. “What does Raine have to do with this?”

“Ahhh, come on,” Twil said. “Raine’s so sweet on you and she doesn’t demand shit, right? If you try to put yourself in a box like that, she’ll like, dismantle the box. Ha!” Twil forced a laugh, trying to keep things light.

Putting myself in a box? I turned the idea over, with a sensation like deja vu. “I … suppose so … ” I said out loud.

I trailed off, half in thought and half because Twil’s awkward laugh heralded a sneaky visitor. 

From behind the side of Evelyn’s slab-like desk and behind Twil’s back, a crescent of butter-soft yellow rose with the stately silence of a hot air balloon. A tuft of black hair and a pale, narrow little face followed, wearing familiar yellow robes like a headscarf. Seven-Shades-of-Skulking-and-Skullduggery had apparently been hiding behind the desk this entire time. She peered at me with those gems of red firelight set in black voids, over Twil’s shoulder.

Sevens gave me a pained, awkward, self-conscious smile, all needle teeth and cringing. I frowned at her for interrupting — but Twil was already talking again.

“So like, the point,” Twil was saying, oblivious to the blood-gremlin leering over her shoulder, “is that Evee tried to be the good lesbian girlfriend. And her model for that is just you and Raine, I think. So that meant she had to want sex, right? Even if she really doesn’t.”

I blinked away from Sevens and replayed Twil’s words in my mind.

“Right,” I said. “I think I see. She thought certain things had to happen. For it to count. To be real.”

Twil nodded — Sevens nodded along behind her. I frowned again and Sevens cringed even harder, ducking her head.

“And yeah, Evee’s got feelings for you, sure,” Twil continued. “But this is the real important bit. Maybe she expresses it because you’re with Raine. So you’re claimed already. Your sex stuff happens elsewhere. So you’re … you’re like, safe.”

My eyes went wide. A light bulb flickered on, somewhere down in the archives that I rarely visited.


“Yeah! You get it now? I’m not saying don’t. I ain’t saying never ever do it. But I am saying that if you try to kiss her or shove a hand down her knickers, maybe she’d get the same way with you as she did with me, ‘cos then she thinks it’s all official and has to happen a certain way.”

“All official … has to happen a certain way … ” I echoed. My mind whirled.

“Maybe she just wants to cuddle with you.” Twil shrugged. “Hell, maybe she actually just wants to cuddle with me. She might not want to ever have sex at all. Or maybe she’d be comfy as like a service top, I dunno. She does all the work but doesn’t like it in return? Hell, that’s valid too. You get this now?”

I nodded slowly. I felt like a kettle that had just come to the boil and was now cooling down, my thoughts cleared, my substance clarified, my medium cleansed.

“I think you may be right,” I murmured.

Seven-Shades-of-Shrinking-Sincerity sank downward, dropping below Twil’s shoulder and vanishing behind the corner of the desk again. That time, Twil must have seen the direction of my disapproving frown, because she turned to glance behind herself. I winced, ready for a yelp and a scream and Sevens scrambling out in a flurry of limbs and misunderstandings, just when I felt like Twil and I had finally struck the gold I’d been mining toward for so long. But Twil turned back to me as if nothing was there, though I did notice her sniff the air and frown slightly.

“Thank you, Twil,” I said, trying to bring her back.

“Ahhh it’s nothing.” She pulled a slow wince. “Evelyn Saye is a complicated woman. And I gotta be honest, maybe too complicated for me.”

“Ah? You mean that you would have ended up breaking up anyway?”

“Weeeeeell. If she wanted me to be her cuddle slut, sure, you know? She’s cute, I respect her, it would be nice and all. But that’s not what I really want. And it does take two to tango.”

I laughed gently and stretched against the already uncomfortable bookshelves. “And what do you want, Twil?”

“Er. It’ll gross you out again.”

“Say it anyway. I do owe you that much.”

“Um, alright then.” Twil cleared her throat. “I want a girlfriend I can pin to the bed with one hand while I make her squeal with the other. The good kind of squealing.”

“Oh, goodness.” I cleared my throat and tried not to blush, but I put a hand to my mouth. “I see. Yes. Right.”

“You did ask.”

“Yes! Sorry. Indeed, yes. I did ask, I did, yes. And thank you for sharing. I think.”

“So, maybe not Evee,” Twil said. “However much I do like her.”

“Of course.” I shook my head with a big sigh, feeling a little like I’d surfaced from the deep ocean, from the abyss, or as if I’d just returned from Outside. “Twil, how are you so knowledgeable about this? How are you so … wise?”

Twil laughed with genuine amusement. “I’m not fuckin’ wise, big H. I’m just good at, like, love stuff. I kinda assumed you were too, like you’re in this whole crazy poly thing, I sort of guessed you knew what you were doing.”

“Evidently not.” I watched Twil for a moment, compact and graceful Twil with her big-dog energy and the subtle, hidden mind of a creature that instinctively understood pack dynamics. She rocked a little in the chair, apparently very comfortable with all this. “How do you know all this stuff?”

She shrugged. “Not my first time around the block.”

“You mean you’ve had other girlfriends? Before Evee?”

She nodded. “Yeah, couple of times. Don’t look so surprised. I mean, like, you lot aren’t my entire world or anything. I’ve got mates at school back in Brinkwood, though uh, only one person knows what I am. I went with this one girl for about eight months and she’s still into the werewolf thing, but she doesn’t know about anything else.”

I blinked in surprise. “You … you mean … other people know? You showed people your … wolf?” I cringed at my own terrible phrasing. “You know what I mean.”

Twil grimaced. “Like I said, just one person. And she’s kind of a problem ‘cos of it. Not that she can tell anybody, it’s not like anybody would believe it.”

“What’s her name?”

Twil slumped in the chair. “You really wanna talk about my exes?”

My turn to laugh, blushing but not so mortified any more. I waved a hand in apology. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to pry, I’m just surprised. Don’t go all grumpy teenager on me.”

“Pfffft,” Twil snorted, but she was smiling. “I’m not grumpy.”

“May I ask you a personal question?” I said.

“You’ve already asked me plenty.”

“Do you like Lozzie?”

A knowing smile crept across Twil’s face. “Ahhhhh, I’ve thought about it. You’ve spotted that, hey? How can you spot that, but not Evee?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know, because I’m blind. Are you serious, you like her?”

Twil shrugged, still smiling. “Maybe, I dunno. She’s cute. But like, hey, I’m in rebound here. You don’t get with somebody you respect while you’re in rebound, and I do respect Lozzers. Plus she’s … you know. I mean, she’s lovely and all. But she lives Outside half the time. I dunno if I’ve got the chops for that. So it’s just a crush. Don’t say anything to her, yeah?”

I nodded, very serious. “I won’t breathe a word. And I’ll assume it’s not going anywhere. As I said, Twil, I’m sorry, and I’ve learnt my lesson. I shan’t meddle unless asked to.”

“Cheers, big H. But hey, let’s stick to the subject, yeah?” She nodded at the closed door to the study. “‘Cos we’re gonna get missed sooner or later. You gonna do anything about your little revelation over Evee? Gonna move, or stay put, or what?”

I sighed, coming back down to earth. I finally uncoiled on the floor, stretching my legs out and curling my toes. Every muscle felt tight with unexpressed tension, though my tentacles did relax at least. They gripped the bookcase and ran along the spines of the books, obsessed with my own sources of distraction and comfort.

“The thing is,” I said, “I think Evelyn and I both already knew all this. I just wasn’t looking at it. And she knows that I know. And I know that she knows I … ” I cleared my throat. “You understand. Sorry, Raine’s rubbing off on me. What I mean is that we practically spoke about it already, we just … didn’t actually say the words.”

Twil gave me a disbelieving look, the ultimate teenage expression of exasperation, slack jawed and heavy lidded. “Then you didn’t talk about it. Holy shit, big H, you’re meant to be smart.”

“Oh, I know!” I huffed. “I know! Maybe you’re right, maybe all she wants is cuddles with commitment. But I’m worried that things might change between us. Might go wrong.”

Twil bobbed her head from side-to-side, pulling a dubious thinking face. “Can I make a suggestion? Like, offer you a piece of maybe kinda sorta rude advice?”

“Rude?” I blinked at her. “Twil, you’ve already proven I’m a bit of an idiot, be as rude as you like.”

Twil cleared her throat, visibly uncomfortable. “Far be it from me to tell you how to live your life and all, but haven’t you got enough on your plate without adding Evee too?”

I sighed a very big sigh and squeezed my eyes shut, then pinched the bridge of my nose, hung my head, and let out a groan. “I know.”

“I mean, you’ve got three girlfriends!”

“Three girlfriends,” I groaned into my own hand.

“Maybe focus on Zheng and stuff, until all this shit is over? Dunno ‘bout everyone else, but I could see you were real jealous back there last week with Zheng and July and everything. And I thought you had it under control. But it turns out you don’t.”

“Bloody right I don’t!” I snapped, more at myself than Twil, raising my head again. I couldn’t hide from this any longer. “And yes, I am terribly, horribly jealous.”

“You have every right to be!” Twil nodded along with me. “Damn right, girl! You’re doing this poly shit and she didn’t even ask, right?”

“Right!” I slapped the floor with an open palm. My tentacles bristled.

“Doesn’t matter if it’s three or four or five people,” Twil said, holding up her fingers in sequence, then making a fist. “Unless you talk about it first, then it’s cheating. Plain and simple.”

“Yes! Yes, I … ” I slammed to a halt. “No, no it’s not sex, it’s … it’s fighting. She has a right to fight whoever she wants. I can’t stop that.”

Twil pulled a deeply sceptical look again, a teeth-gritting un-smile, recoiling from my naivety. She raised her hands in a don’t-shoot-the-messenger gesture. “Whatever you gotta tell yourself.”

“It’s not sex!”

“Sure, sure. Whateeeeeever you say.”

“It’s not.”

“Then why are you acting like it is? You’re acting like she’s gone and slept around. Like your girlfriend is being the town bike. She’s meant to be your girl, right? Or like, one of your girls. You can say no. But you gotta say it!”

“I … I shouldn’t … I … ”

“Why not fight her yourself?”

What? I mean, pardon me?”

A wicked grin flickered across Twil’s face, accompanied by a ghostly suggestion of a wolf’s muzzle in the air, a half-glimpsed phantom of a violent promise. She raised a hand and flexed fingers that were suddenly wrapped in fur and claw, showing off her weapons. “Either before or after she does the smack-down with July. Stake your claim. Show her she’s yours.”

For a second I stared at Twil, at the hovering promise of joyous violence in her face and her fist, offering a temptation I dared not name. My mouth went dry. My stomach clenched up. My trilobe bioreactor tried to shunt power production up a notch. My tentacles flexed and flared. I felt a tingle in my skin, abyssal instinct making suggestions about chitin armour, toxin production, and jagged spikes. My head felt suddenly hot.

Then a flicker passed over my senses, like a distant discharge of static electricity, or the lifting of air pressure after a thunderstorm. I blinked, reeled my wild instincts back in, and glanced over at the floor. Fight or flight hovered at the edge of my consciousness, a body-memory that surprised me at a deeper level than any desire to wrestle Zheng.

“ … Heather?” Twil said my name.

“I think Evee just opened the gateway to Camelot,” I said slowly. A ball of snakes writhed in the pit of my stomach. The hour was at hand — or at least only a phone call away.

Twil boggled at me. “You can tell?”

“Yes, didn’t you feel that?”

“Nah, nothing. Not surprised though.” She shrugged. “You’ve got a lot going on already, makes sense you can feel the wibbly-wobblies or whatever. Guess they don’t need us after all.” She tilted her head to peer at me when I kept staring at the floor. “Soooo, you gonna fight Zheng or what?”

I sighed. “I can’t.”

“Sure you can. What’s stopping you?”

“You can’t be serious. You’ve seen Zheng fight. She could pin me down and tickle me into submission, with one hand. Blindfolded. With her feet tied together. And food poisoning.”

“No, come on!” Twil complained at me like a football fan shouting at a bad penalty shot, leaning forward in her chair, face lit up with equal measures of excitement and exasperation. “You totally could! Heather, yo, I saw you fight that big ugly bastard, Orangey-whatever. The guy, with the mouths! I was there, remember?”

Ooran Juh, yes.”

“And you kicked his arse! You went big-time squid-girl mode and went toe-to-toe with him!”

“Twil, don’t exaggerate. I hardly ‘kicked’ anything. In fact, I seem to remember falling over into the water after a few moments. And going ‘squid-girl’ mode almost burnt out my brain, not to mention the bruises. That was an emergency. I didn’t even know what I was doing.”

“Yeah but you didn’t see yourself. You were fucking ‘rad! And you won!”

“Yes, by threatening him with brain-math. I couldn’t have won otherwise, I’m not built for that kind of thing.” I shivered inside for a moment; my tentacles flexed and quivered with the physical memory of being bitten and torn, chunks of them ripped out by ravenous teeth. “I’m hardly going to use the threat of mutually assured destruction in a ‘play-fight’ with Zheng.”

Twil shook her head. “You really don’t get it, do you?”

I frowned and crossed my arms. “And we have to be downstairs, soon.”

“You don’t have to go all-out all the time, duh. I don’t even think you’d win! But you’d show her you’re willing to put a few bruises on the line. That’s speaking her language. Try for real, get on her level, slap her with a tentacle.” Twil mimed a melodramatic slap, like something from a soap opera.

I shook my head, guilt bubbling back up my throat like acid reflux. “Claiming her would be wrong. Putting a mark on her like that. No.”

Twill rolled her eyes. “Then make her reject you!”

“I … I’m sorry, what?”

“You’ve got a right to do this. Do it out there, while we’re all watching. Mark your territory, girl. It’s what I’d do.”

Twil flashed a wolfish grin; for a split second she had too many teeth, too sharp, too canine, set in a grinning muzzle of grey-russet fur. I’d never thought about it before, but Twil probably understood animalistic dominance play better than any of us, save perhaps for Zheng. She was giving me useful suggestions, whether she understood so or not. And not just about Zheng and Evelyn.

I swallowed, about to formulate an answer — perhaps another denial, though I felt a dam straining inside me, undermined and about to break. But then a neat, sharp knock sounded on the study door, a quick and gentle ratta-tat-tat. I jumped. Twil laughed and her face was suddenly back to normal.

“Yes?” I called out, feeling like I’d been caught doing something naughty. “We’re in here! Hello!”

The study door cracked open and Praem stepped inside. Milk-white eyes found the pair of us. In the moment before she spoke, I saw a flutter of yellow vanish behind her skirt, as if somebody invisible had fled the room, but fumbled the last moment of an unseen escape.

“The door is open,” Praem intoned. “Your presence is requested.”

“Sure thing, little Saye!” Twil jumped up from her seat and rolled her shoulders. “Time to uh, not punch a knight, I guess.”

“‘Little Saye’?” I echoed as I picked myself up off the floor and dusted off my backside. I returned The Fellowship of the Ring to its proper place on the bookshelf.

“I am the younger of the two extant Saye women within this household,” said Praem. She directed a stare at Twil. “Not little.”

Twil shot her a cheeky smile and a wink.

“So it’s all going ahead, downstairs?” I asked.

Praem turned to me. “I hope you had a good talk. Your presence is requested.”

“Sure did!” Twil said, heading over to the door and miming punches at an imaginary foe.

I frowned at Praem. Did she somehow know what Twil and I had been discussing? Lozzie had whispered in her ear several times earlier, while we’d all been twiddling our thumbs and waiting for Evelyn to finish the final touches on the gate. Neither of them had thrown knowing glances in my direction — not that Praem ever would — but it wasn’t impossible. I felt a lead weight in the pit of my stomach, a mortified flush trying to bloom in my cheeks. But Praem just stood there in the gloom of the study, barely lit from one side by the late morning illumination which struggled in through the single high window. She gave nothing away.

I cleared my throat. “Praem, um, where’s Lozzie right now?”

“Outside,” said Praem.


It would not be accurate to say that Lozzie had ‘jumped the starting gun’ on our bizarre trip to Camelot, because Lozzie recognised no starting signal, let alone the starting line or even the track. She was off and away, playing to her own tune.

By the time Twil and I followed Praem back downstairs and into the magical workshop, the gateway was finished, open, and waiting.

A door to Outside stood in the far wall of the old drawing room, a gap in the plaster and paint which opened out on some other place, exactly as it had for Carcosa before, and the Castle before that, and the Sharrowford Cult’s hideous jumbled un-space too, back when it had opened for the first time. All of those were terrifying and alien places, even the Cult’s Castle, despite the fact we had it secured and locked down now, ours for the foreseeable future. On each of those occasions, the gateway had seemed like a yawning mouth, leading down into dark and unknown dungeons.

But with the Quiet Plain, Camelot, whatever we wanted to call it, the gate seemed more like a doorway onto the world’s largest back garden. At least we knew this destination was safe. If one hundred and forty eight of Lozzie’s knights were not enough to protect our little beachhead, then nothing was.

I could see the knights as I stepped into the workshop, their stately armoured forms dotted across the slice of gently rolling yellow hillsides visible through the doorway. Lozzie was already over there, flittering between them, her pentacolour pastel poncho fluttering and flouncing as she darted from one knight to the next, sharing a hug here, a few unheard words there, her wispy blonde hair trailing behind her. The knights were unmoving, but I knew they cared, inside.

Lozzie turned and waved at us. She must have seen the motion of Twil and I re-entering the workshop. She flapped the sides of her poncho and moved her mouth, calling to us, though no sound transmitted through the gateway.

Deep purple spilled into our reality, flooding one end of the room with a slowly shifting illumination which seemed to absorb and swallow all other light.

And there was Zheng, already standing on the yellow grass of Camelot. She had her back to us, her hands on her hips, stripped down to jeans and short-sleeved white t-shirt, head raised to take in the whorled purple of the alien sky. That strange light played across the dark tangle of her hair, the ramparts of her shoulders, and the muscles of her back.

I let out a deep and involuntary sigh, the first to break a silence I had not recognised.

“It’s not so bad once you get over there,” Evelyn spoke out loud, staring at the doorway, struggling to put strength and confidence into her voice. “Not like Carcosa, at least.” She glanced at Twil and me. “Good of you to join us at last.”

“Holy shit,” said Twil, craning her neck and then ducking as she peered through the gateway from a safe distance. “Look at that sky, what the fuck is that?”

Language,” Evelyn hissed, nodding sideways at Tenny.

“Skyyyyy? Sky pretty? Sky?” Tenny trilled, making deep fluttering sounds inside her chest, her antenna twitching atop her head. She was far too entranced with the view through the gateway to get curious about Twil’s colourful language. She was also very brave, standing right next to the open doorway to Outside and peering through as Lozzie waved back to her. But her fleshy wing-cloak was wrapped tightly around her torso and her mass of silken black tentacles was reeled all the way in, close to her body. A puppy, unsure of its surroundings but encouraged by the fact that mother was safely over on the other side and clearly unharmed.

Everyone else was standing far back, at a nice safe distance. Evelyn frowned at the gateway like it was a rival in a staring contest, even when Praem moved to her side and made herself known by touching Evelyn’s elbow. Sevens was curled up on the sofa, making little burrrrrrrr sounds, wrapped in the yellow robes she’d been wearing upstairs. I spared her a look and she pulled a toothy grimace.

We’ll talk later, I mouthed silently. Sevens cringed and averted her red-black eyes.

One of Evelyn’s spider-servitors was in attendance, as always, clinging to the ceiling in the corner. To an unfamiliar observer it would not have appeared to care about the gateway at all, but I had come to recognise the tiny changes and tells in servitor body language — if these things could be said to have body language in the first place. The head of crystalline eyes was fixed on the gateway, staring, waiting, listening for a signal to move.

The only one of us even remotely relaxed was Raine. She was wearing the heavy padded motorcycle jacket she’d worn to Carcosa. Her home-made riot shield — a piece of sheet metal duct-taped to a rubber backing board — lay forgotten against the table, as did her handgun and her knife on the tabletop. Her arms were full of very alarmed and very curious Corgi.

“Just trying to stop him from running out there,” she said to me with a wink. Whistle kept turning his head from side to side, staring at the doorway like something alien had appeared in the heart of his kingdom.

The gateway mandala — the spiralling mass of overlapping magic circles, esoteric symbols, fragments of obscure and alien languages, all sewn together like a cryptid made from spare parts — was blissfully concealed, for the first time since I had completed it under Lozzie’s coerced guidance. White bin bags had been taped together like makeshift tarpaulin, then taped to the walls to cover the mandala. A few fragments still peeked around the edges of the horseshoe-shaped trash-portal, but they were not enough to hurt my eyes by themselves.

“Does it work?” I asked. “Evee, does the anchoring work? Did you remove part of the spell?”

Evelyn let out a deep sigh, almost as if she was disappointed. She gestured toward the table, where a large piece of stiff card lay, detached from the new version of the mandala that she and Lozzie had been building all week. “It’s still open, yes. And short of knocking the wall down, it will stay open. Actually, I’m not certain what would happen if we knocked down the wall, so probably avoid doing that, please and thank you.”

“Evee,” Twil said suddenly, an amused and gentle lilt in her voice as she shook her head. “Evee, Evee, Evee.”

Evelyn adopted an alarmed frown. “Yes, that is my name, last time I checked. Why do you sound like you’re high?”

Twil opened her arms. “Can I give you a hug?”

I narrowly resisted an urge to roll my eyes and put my face in my hands. Raine went “Eyyyyyy.” Sevens hissed like a disturbed rattlesnake. But instead of reacting, I stepped past Evelyn and Twil, briefly allowing the fingers of one hand to brush Evelyn’s shoulder. I caught her eye and smiled a thank you at her, mixed with apology and adoration and a dozen other emotions that I didn’t have names for, not yet. At least a fraction of my feelings must have reached her, because Evelyn did a double take at my expression, as if I’d just blown her a kiss. Then I let go and turned to the gateway.

“Can I? Seriously?” Twil repeated.

Behind me, Evelyn spluttered. “Have you gone mad? Did you hit your head on the way down the stairs? This is hardly the bloody time, what are you playing at?”

“‘Cos I like and respect you,” Twil said, with a grin in her voice. “And I wanna show you I care. And hey, it’s just a hug. I’ll be gentle.”

Evelyn spluttered again. I glanced back and Twil winked at me. I didn’t know exactly what she was playing at either, but after our conversation upstairs, I suppose she had some lingering issues of her own to work through.

“Oh, fine!” Evelyn huffed. “For fuck’s sake, come here you blithering idiot. And don’t squeeze!”

As Twil and Evelyn finally made up — or at least gestured toward a new steady-state for something not quite friendship — I stepped toward the gateway. One of my tentacles subconsciously snagged my squid-skull mask from the workshop table as I passed by, depositing it into my suddenly clammy hands. I stared into the dark eye-holes in surprise, then looked up into the deep purple light spilling from the gate and flooding across the floor. Tenny watched as I approached, trilling a soft and gentle “Heath!” which I acknowledged with a smile and a nod, but I could summon nothing else past the lump in my throat and the tremor in my belly.

Some clever soul had brought our shoes into the workshop, as if this was a new back door. I stepped into my trainers, barely feeling the motions.

Zheng’s back loomed before me, coffee-brown skin and the mass of her dark tattoos visible through her thin white t-shirt. She stood only a dozen or so paces beyond the gateway, bathed in a waterfall of strange purple light.

Nobody called out to me; perhaps they all understood what I was doing.

I took a deep breath as if I was plunging into the ocean, then stepped through the gateway and over to Camelot.

Cinnamon wind, warm and gentle, teased my sense of smell and filled my lungs with clean air. Yellow grass like rubbery velvet cushioned the soles of my trainers. Purple light reached through the backs of my eyes, slid down my optic nerve, and adjusted my visual cortex. All the tiny noises of Number 12 Barnslow Drive vanished, replaced with the soft wind and faint rustle of the Quiet Plain.

Ahead of me, Lozzie flitted and bounced between the knights. The shining chrome giants were still arranged in their rough circle across the hillsides, communing in their silent, invisible shared mind-space. The Forest-Knight was nearby too; I recognised him by the axe over his shoulder. He neither turned his head nor nodded, but I reminded myself to go greet him later.

And a dozen paces away, looking up at the sky, was Zheng.

I opened my mouth to say Zheng’s name, but she must have heard the scuff of my feet against the grass, or caught the scent of my nervous sweat on the wind, because she turned to look back over her shoulder. Dark, brooding eyes like razorblades dipped in oil; the rolling of her shoulder muscles like knotted ropes; her hands flexed with the promise of strength.

“Shaman,” she purred approval — but approval of what?

“Zheng.” I swallowed, resisting with an effort of will the desire to slip my squid-skull mask down over my head. “Zheng, I need to apologise. I want you to know that I don’t like any of this, but I won’t try to … stop … you?”

But Zheng’s eyes narrowed and her smile grew. She looked up and over my shoulder, nodding once.

I turned and almost jumped out of my skin. My tentacles whirled into a defensive cage, ready for a fight — before I relaxed as I realised what I was looking at.

It was one of Lozzie’s caterpillars, up close.

The caterpillar was a curving wall of off-white, the size of a barn and the colour of fresh bone or old Bakelite, pitted and gnarled like ceramic armour that had been subjected to a decade of wear and tear. The main body was separated into sections by vertical ribs of the same  material, each section bulging outward as if shaped to deflect armour-piercing blows. The bottom of the carapace curled inward, exactly like a real caterpillar’s body, to ensure ground clearance — except Lozzie’s Outsider colony-organism sat directly on the ground itself. This one wasn’t moving, so Lozzie alone knew how the things achieved locomotion. The bottom two feet or so of the caterpillar’s carapace was smeared with dry, dark red mud, a totally different colour to the soft soil beneath the yellow grass around us. It had clearly voyaged far, out here in Camelot.

“My goodness,” I breathed, a little stunned at the sheer size of the thing. It was bigger than an elephant, like a whale had re-evolved back onto land. Something primitive and instinctive in my mind told me to steer well clear of the creature’s path, even as personal experience and my brief glimpse into the Knights’ collective mind told me the caterpillar was very much on our side — no, on my side, personally.

One end of the caterpillar’s body tapered off into a rounded dome, but the other end was clearly the head, raised off the ground so it could look out across the yellow grasslands, recessed into the body slightly, almost like a mollusc ready to pull sensitive and vulnerable parts back inside the protective shell. 

It possessed nothing so obvious as eyes or a mouth, nothing so animal or earthly as a nose or a jaw; the caterpillar’s face was a mass of machine-like antennae, black and shiny, some of them longer than a person was tall, pointing in every direction. Between the antennae I could see shining disks of metal inset into a darker core, like sensors or camera lenses. Several flexible, flat-tipped tentacles also extended from that core of black material, though ridged and lined as if they were more machine than biology. They ran up and down the antenna in an unceasing cycle, stroking or tending or oiling them, it wasn’t clear from this distance. The behaviour reminded me of some marine creature, perhaps a crab, cleaning its mouth-parts.

One tentacle turned to point at me, more than twenty feet up in the air. Inside the flat tip, something moved, something that was not quite an eyeball.

“Um … hi,” I said, feeling exceedingly small. I raised a hand and tried to wave, though I could barely move my arm. My tentacles had bunched up in a protective ball around my torso.

From somewhere deep inside the caterpillar came a rumble, a purr that was not quite biology but not quite machine either. It lasted only one second, deep and powerful, then cut off instantly. The tentacle which had been pointed at me then returned to the strange cleaning or preening process.

I just stared, lost for words next to this vast creature. Was this only the exterior, the equivalent of the Knights’ suits of chrome metal?

And Lozzie had made this — just to explore an Outside dimension?

I had a feeling I was looking at so much more than a simple exploration machine. 

The other side of the gateway was located on the caterpillar’s hide, using one of the bulging sections of off-white armour as a piece of wall. Everyone else was staring at me through that gateway opening, vaguely alarmed or confused, so I smiled and waved to them as well. I said “It’s okay,” out loud, before sighing as I remembered sound did not transmit through the door.

Lozzie came bounding past me in a ball of pastel and blonde. She waved to everyone with both hands — which may have done more to reassure them than I could — and then slammed right into the side of the caterpillar, which made me jump. She spread both arms wide, pressed herself against the off-white surface, and emitted a high-pitched “Mmmmm!”

It took me a very confused moment to realise she was giving it a hug.

“Glorious, is it not, shaman?” Zheng purred.

I finally turned back to Zheng. She was gazing up at the caterpillar with open admiration, hands on her hips, clearly impressed.

“That’s rare for you,” I said, trying to get my tentacles to stand down.

“Ha!” Zheng rumbled. She spread her arms to indicate the caterpillar. “It is so big! I would fight it just to give the mooncalf proof of her prowess.” She nodded to Lozzie. “But I would lose.”

“Catty’s big!” Lozzie agreed, finally giving up on her attempt to hug a wall. “But no fighting them! Too much danger. It’s not what they’re for, okay Zhengy?”

“You would lose?” I echoed. Lozzie wormed her way past my tentacles somehow and hugged me from behind, putting her chin on my shoulder and her hands around my belly. I patted her wrists.

“Mm.” Zheng grunted. Her gaze returned to me. “It is the price of combat. Sometimes you lose.”

“Are you going to lose today?” I asked before I could stop myself.

Zheng tilted her head at me, slow and dark, with eyes like coal pits. Over my shoulder, Lozzie stuck her tongue out. Zheng heaved a great breath like a tiger’s purr. She rolled her shoulders and her neck.

“Do you wish to see me win?” she asked.

“I’m not sure I want to see it at all,” I said, feeling myself sinking into toxic mud once again. But I struggled to stay above the surface, to speak truth to my lover. I groped for an emotional handhold and found something unfamiliar as I spoke. “But if you must fight, then I would much prefer you win.”

Where did that come from? I asked myself. What do you care if she wins or loses a play fight?

Lozzie wiggled with pure excitement, making a little eeeee! sound in her throat.

Zheng levelled her dark gaze at me. “Then I will win for you, shaman.”

“I’m not sure how I feel about that, but okay.”

Zheng broke into a grin, wide and sharp and full of joy. My stomach did a flip. “Then call the little wizard. Have her bring my opponent. We are ready.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Twil spitting facts! Turns out the werewolf from the cult-family is actually the most well-adjusted and romantically sensible person in the entire cast. (Well, possibly with the exception of Kimberly, who seems to have decided all this magical polycule nonsense is not for her, thank you very much, and is just quietly enjoying the rent-free housing.) Heather seems to have realised a few things about herself, but can she put them into action? Can she figure out what she wants from Zheng? And what on earth to do about Evelyn in the long run?

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Next week, it’s ringside seats for a demon host boxing match. And maybe more than just the title fight. And how about that great big caterpillar lad?!

for the sake of a few sheep – 15.14

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Crafting the gateway to ‘Camelot’ — as Evelyn also started calling it, after surrendering to Raine’s incessant use of the term — did not take one or two days. It took ten.

Evelyn’s original estimate was wildly optimistic, which was rare for her. But adjusting the gateway mandala turned out to be a lot more difficult than expected. We couldn’t just rip down the parts which referred to Carcosa and replace them with new symbols, to politely inform the membrane between worlds that we would like to visit this place named after Arthurian Legend. Reality cared nothing for our definitions, Quiet Plain or Camelot or Round Table or “This fucking bastard shit hole that I can’t fucking well find,” as Evelyn described it after four days of trying.

“It’s not a shit hole,” Lozzie protested with a pout. “It’s pretty. Real pretty! You’ve been there too, Eveey-weevey, you saw the skies!”

Evelyn sighed at that, dragging a hand over her face as they’d sat at the table in the magical workshop. The table was littered with sheets of paper covered in fragments of new gateway mandala, dozens upon dozens of fresh attempts at adjusting the output destination.

That pile of paper grew all week long, like a snow bank in a storm. Evelyn huddled in the centre as if she was extruding an igloo about herself. Lozzie flitted in and out whenever Evelyn hit a snag, rotating or transposing or correcting some piece of magic that looked wrong to her quasi-Outsider instincts.

“Hey, Evee,” Raine said on day four, when Evelyn had thumped into the kitchen looking ready to bite the head off a live chicken. “We knew it was never gonna be as simple as punching in a bunch of hieroglyphs and watching a big wibbly-wobbly ring open a wormhole for us, right? Take a break, go soak in the bath. Watch some cartoons with Heather or something. Take tomorrow off. Or take a nap?”

“A nap,” Evelyn echoed. She made the word ‘nap’ sound like an insult. “If it ever becomes that easy to open a gate, I will open one to the far side of the moon and have Praem throw you through.”

“A … a nap would be … be good for you,” I ventured as well, from the other side of the kitchen, swallowing a hiccup. “Please, Evee. I could even, um … I could … ”

I could nap with you, I hadn’t the courage to say.

Evelyn stared at me, blank and exhausted, only reacting when Praem pressed a mug of hot chocolate into her hands.

“Drink,” Praem said.

“Oh, I don’t want this,” Evelyn grumbled, gesturing as if to hand the mug back to Praem. “I didn’t ask for this.”


“I didn’t ask—”

“You will drink,” Praem repeated herself for a third time.

Evelyn drank her hot chocolate like a good girl. And she took that nap, thank the gods.

Raine was more right than she knew. The nature of Outside was nothing so simple as parallel dimensions, lined up side by side or stacked atop each other, so one could neatly step through from one dimension to the next. It was hardly the proverbial turtles all the way down. The sea of dark infinity that lay beyond our earthly sphere was so difficult to capture in human terms that even the simplest possible mapping — the map hidden away in the dank cellars of the Saye Estate down in Sussex — was a hazard to human senses and sanity all by itself. We were not simply entering a new address into a cosmic GPS tracker, we were charting a course through a maze not meant for human minds; I may have been able to achieve the former with raw hyperdimensional mathematics, but the gateway was plain old magic, the stable and safe kind.

“Safe magic is an oxymoron,” Evelyn spat at her own explanation. “But it’s safer than the alternative.”

As two days dragged into three and five dragged into six, Evelyn blamed herself. She didn’t work herself into a frenzy or fall into dark rages, but she got quiet and intense and deeply tired. That prompted me to begin sharing Praem’s duties of making sure she actually got to bed each night, even tucking her in and turning out her light. I hadn’t seen her like this since last year, since the early days of her shadow war against the Sharrowford Cult, back when she’d locked herself in her magical workshop to direct Praem’s hunting trips.

She was pushing herself too hard. But this was no matter of life and death, no malicious intruder in her city, no siege upon our house. It was a play date for zombies.

I wasn’t an idiot, I knew why she was driving herself. Because of me. By day four I wished I’d never suggested we take the duel Outside.

At least she didn’t lock herself away this time, physically or metaphorically. The door to the workshop stood open all day, every day. I doubt I would have been able to take the guilt otherwise; I would have swallowed my jealousy, my pride, my whole self. I would have staged an intervention. I would have had Zheng and July fight in a public swimming pool for all I cared, wearing swimsuits and rubber armbands. Nothing was worth that kind of damage to Evelyn.

But she never fell quite that far. No matter how monosyllabic and grumpy she could be at times, she was making progress.

Though she hadn’t stopped frowning at me with that dark and unspeakable jealousy.


“Half the reason this is taking so long is the anchoring,” she told me on day seven.

I’d stepped into the workshop with a plate of peeled and sliced apple for her — peeled and sliced myself, not by Praem, in some wordless act of physical penance. I possessed none of Praem’s accuracy and speed with peeler or knife, these were not pretty apple slices, and I had almost cut myself once or twice. But Praem had not stepped in, oddly enough. Evelyn grunted a thank you, then launched into an explanation.

Anchoring?” I asked, half polite, half genuinely interested, all happy she was talking.

“Mm, technical term,” Evelyn said. She took up the fork and crunched through a piece of apple, watching me with those big blue eyes, dispassionate and thoughtful.

It was the first of June, still a few weeks out from true summer. Half the bulbs were dead in the drawing room’s light fixture and weak sunlight filtered through the heavy curtains over the bay windows; Evelyn had rarely looked so close to my first impression of her, almost nine months ago then, back in the Medieval Metaphysics room. The hazy illumination caught stray dust motes around her golden-blonde hair and the thick, enclosing warmth of her cream-coloured ribbed jumper. Despite the improving weather, she still wore a long skirt over her comfortable pajama bottoms. Cuddly, warm, tucked away with her books. Sometimes, if only for a moment here and there, she seemed like a fairytale witch one might find in a hidden woodland cottage.

Except, I knew the truth; I knew the prosthetic leg lurked beneath her skirt, I was familiar with the sharp tongue and sharper mind beneath the plush exterior, and I knew that she was crafting real magic. But Evelyn Saye was part of my family, warts and all. I preferred that to any cottage fantasy.

So why couldn’t I talk to her about that?

“Technical term?” I said instead.

“Is there an echo in here?” she grunted, then smiled with thin, sardonic amusement as I tutted and rolled my eyes. “Yes, a technical term, though I just made it up a couple of days ago.” She crunched through another slice of apple and gestured at the gateway mandala. It lay spread out across the back wall of the former drawing room. A few stray shafts of late sunlight played over the bare plaster and the pieces of stiff cardboard that she and Lozzie had been propping up there all week, the components of the new formula. I could only glance at it for a few moments — the thing still turned my stomach, like I was looking at a dozen dismembered animals in the process of being sewn back together into some new and impossible configuration. “It’s basically solved, we could probably open the gateway to Camelot—”

I couldn’t quite suppress a sigh. Evelyn frowned at me. “Sorry,” I said. “I just think that name is a bit silly.”

“It is silly,” Evelyn snapped. There was that jealous pinch in her eyebrows again, that dark frown shot sidelong at me for a fleeting second. “Everything about this is silly. No, scratch that, it’s all downright fucking stupid, the whole lot of it. Zheng, you, Jan and July, Raine, that blasted fox. All of it.”

“Sorry,” I repeated, in a whisper so quiet she couldn’t possibly have heard.

“Like I said, the new gateway is basically solved already, but this one is going to be anchored.” She frowned at the doorway of bare plaster scored into the wall. “Almost all of us are going to be over there watching these two zombies slap each other stupid. Even if that takes only thirty seconds, I want this end secure.”

“Isn’t the house already secure?”

Evelyn sighed, but her voice took on a tiny touch of pride. “Paranoia has its upsides, Heather. This version of the gateway formula is going to be semi-permanent, for safety. For example, if some lunatic was to break in here while we’re all watching Camelot’s greatest pay-per-view match, it would be extremely bad if said lunatic was to get past my spider-servitors and rub off even a small portion of the mandala. Very bad. And the spiders are not exactly reliable.”

I glanced up into the far corner of the workshop, where one spider-servitor clung upside down on the ceiling, resting or thinking or just vegetating. It was hard to tell what they thought about all day. The head of crystalline eyes showed no reaction, just watching the room as always. I pulled an apologetic expression anyway, hoping it understood. I’d always felt quite fond of the senile creatures, ever since one of them had scurried after me to squat over my unconscious form, back when the cult had tried their kidnapping trick with our first gateway.

“That’s a bit harsh,” I sighed.

“Eh,” Evelyn grunted, waving one hand in dismissal. “They’re not reliable. They’re helpful, but they’re not reliable.”

“Besides, Lozzie and I could always bring us back home.”

Evelyn rounded on me again in her chair, wielding a piece of apple on the end of her fork. I flinched slightly in the face of her genuine anger. “And what if you were both incapacitated? Or absent? Or worse? Hm? Because that’s what happened before. You were gone. Both of you. I want something that works without your input, in case we ever have to come and bloody well fetch you.”

“That’s a … that’s a good point, Evee. Fair enough. And thank you, I know you’re only looking out for me.”

Evelyn turned away with a wordless grumble. I reached out to awkwardly pat her on the shoulder. To my delight and surprise she absent-mindedly held my fingertips in return, though she must have barely felt my touch through her thick jumper. Then, she seemed to lean her head as if she was about to touch her face to my hand, but caught herself, apparently just as subconsciously, because she let go of my hand and went on talking as if nothing had happened. Three of my tentacles inched out toward her, but withdrew without contact, because I was only indulging my own guilt. My heart felt like a rotting worm inside my chest.

“So this version stays open. No matter what happens to the physical spell written all over the goddamn walls.” She sighed. “Or at least that’s the theory. I still have to test it.”

“I assume it’s not fully permanent?” I asked.

Evelyn snorted, though her sarcasm was at least amused rather than bitter and sharp. “Oh yes, that would be a great idea, just fill this room with physical doorways to elsewhere. The crossroads of the universe, right here in Sharrowford. I’ll put up a signpost, we’ll turn it into somebody’s hub level.”

“Hub what? Pardon?”

“Never mind.”

“So, how do we close it again?”

We don’t. I do. Kimberly should be able to do it as well, I’m going to share the details with her, in case I’m … ” She trailed off and waved a hand with an uncomfortable murmur. “It requires a specific counter-rotational gesture and the correct incantation sequence. Or, it will do, in theory, if the damn thing works like it’s meant to. I’m still not certain it will, this entire thing might be a wash. You might have to put a leash on Zheng after all.” Evelyn let true scorn leech into those last few words.

I cringed inside, feeling doubly awful. Guilt over Zheng and guilt over Evelyn. She hated this.

“I’m sure it will work,” I said. “Evee, you’re really good at this, when you let yourself be.”

She sighed heavily. “Heather, I know you’re not trying to lie on purpose, but you’re too sweet for your own good.”

I blinked, mortified, as Evelyn turned heavily lidded eyes up toward me. “I’m … sorry?”

“I am terrible at magic,” she said. “But even if I wasn’t, this would still be highly experimental, far beyond the boundaries of what any of my contemporaries or peers have attempted to do.” She gestured at the blank doorway and the unfinished mandala again. “I’m taking principles I barely comprehend and tying them together with duct tape and hope. You don’t understand, Raine doesn’t understand, Lozzie certainly doesn’t understand, at least not in the way I need. Praem, I don’t even want her to understand. Kimberly might, but she doesn’t deserve any more of this shit. She’s half out and I bloody well intend to allow her to stay that way. Your weird little yellow friend, maybe, but she’s not telling.”

“What about Jan?” I asked.

Evelyn’s expression darkened like a flash storm moving across her face. “Perhaps,” she hissed through clenched teeth.

“Oh, Evee, I didn’t mean to say we should show her any of it. Of course not. Of course.”

“This shouldn’t even exist,” Evelyn said, watching me carefully, intent and alert for the first time in several days. The jealousy had gone away, replaced with my strategist once again. “This gateway. What we’ve done. You do understand that, yes?”

“But you did it anyway,” I said. “It’s an achievement.”

Evelyn hissed and waved both hands. “I didn’t do this, Heather. I copied the work the cult did, however they tunnelled through to their wounded Outsider thing. Their doorways couldn’t have taken them truly Outside, just over to their pocket dimension. And then Lozzie had to finish the formula for us, you remember?”

“How could I forget,” I murmured.

“Without her, I’m not sure we could have done it at all. You understand that? You understand that none of what we’re doing here should even exist? Jan, the way she was reacting last week — she was right. We’ve built a physical doorway to Outside. I’m not entirely certain that anybody else is currently capable of this.” She snorted. “With the exception of one mister Edward Lilburne. We are playing with fire.”

“To rescue my sister.”

Evelyn’s expression did not change, no shock of realisation, no backing down, no sudden retreat. She just nodded. “Yes, exactly.”

It was all worth it, she agreed. Even if we got burned.

“You really think this has never been done before?” I asked. “There’s nothing in any of your dusty tomes or creepy books?”

Evelyn frowned at me, a touch less serious. She pulled a face. “They’re not ‘creepy’. That’s like calling fresh lava ‘a bit spicy’. And, well, maybe. Here and there. There’s plenty of accounts of journeys Outside, but scant little on technique. Everybody’s always so evasive about specifics. Nobody wants to share.”

“Mages, quite,” I sighed.


“You’re doing the same thing, though,” I said. Evelyn frowned at me. “I mean, perhaps with good justification,” I hurried to add.

“Edward Lilburne has already stolen this technique,” she said. “Though I’m pretty certain he can only go to the Library of Carcosa. He can only use what that bloody joker memorised when he saw our gateway. He hasn’t got Lozzie to do the corrections for him to make it all actually work. We wouldn’t even be able to place this gateway on an upright surface out there, in Camelot, without Lozzie directing her creations around to give us one.” She sighed. “But Edward does keep exceeding my estimations. Which is why this gate will be anchored. Just in case.”

“Just in case,” I echoed. All my fault.

“I can’t emphasize this enough, Heather, I would not be able to do this without Lozzie. You’re sure she’s on board with all this? She doesn’t seem to be reacting like there’s going to be … well, violence.”

I swallowed, another hooked barb slicing through my heart. “I think she’s kind of excited about everyone going to visit her knights. And I did explain it’s all going to be conducted in the spirit of good sportsmanship … ” I trailed off, struggling to convince even myself.

Evelyn snorted. “Right. Good sportsmanship. Not to the death.”

“I think that makes it okay for her, if it’s Zheng. And … and I think she wants Tenny to try flying again, out there, where it’s safe.”

Evelyn didn’t respond to that, growing quiet and intense as she stared at me.


“Tenny. A child. Right. I do hope that place is safe, Heather. I really do.”

“Evee, are you on board with all this?”

Evelyn stared at me for another few heartbeats. I felt like looking away, shrinking back, retreating into the kitchen, but I held my ground, I gave her the respect I owed. The jealousy crept back into the creases of her frown, dark and brooding.

“You all need to get this out of your collective systems,” she said eventually. “You and Zheng, mostly. Get it over with.”

I broke. “Evee, I’m really sorry,” I blurted out.

But she was already turning away, back to the apple slices. She waved a hand and snorted a laugh. “You have nothing to apologise for, Heather. Don’t worry about it. Don’t even think about it.”


I was surprised that Jan didn’t simply flee Sharrowford and block Evelyn’s phone number; that’s what I would have done in her situation. She had every reason to place herself as far away from us as possible. Except for July. The demon host’s need kept them both in the city, kept them waiting for Evelyn to finish the gate, kept Jan answering the daily phone calls.

“What’s she even doing this whole week?” Raine asked. “She’s a con artist, so she’s gotta keep moving forward, finding new marks, generating new work. Right?”

“She’s not a shark,” Evelyn huffed.

“Does she look like a shark?” Lozzie asked. “I hope she looks like a shark! Girl shark!”

“Shark! Shark!” Tenny joined in, briefly deafening us with very excited trilling. She’d recently discovered my youtube playlist of marine animal videos.

“Jan is small and sweet and cute,” Praem informed Lozzie. “Not a shark.”

“No shark?” Tenny sounded sad. I reached over to stroke her head, ruffling her tuft of white fur. She went pbbbbbt into my hand.

Lozzie puffed her cheeks out. “Sharks are cute.”

“My mistake,” Praem intoned. “Sharks are cute.”

“If you must know,” Evelyn drawled, “I get the impression she is mostly shopping for clothes and eating copious amounts of fast food. I don’t think she’s hurting for money.”

“She needs to eat?” I asked.

Evelyn shrugged. “Needs, wants, who cares.”

“I care,” Praem told us.

Jan wasn’t the only one making best use of the lull between unexpected crises. Twil’s exam season may have come slightly earlier, but at Sharrowford University it was ‘assessment period’, a brutally sanitised way of saying it was time to turn in essays and sit end-of-term exams, for the next three weeks. The whiplash between the two halves of my life felt unreal sometimes — supernatural impossibilities on one hand, the intellectual familiarity of literature on the other.

But amid the chaos of abyssal biology, murderous magicians, and my fumbling attempts to love those who loved me, I’d managed to attend enough lectures and participate in enough seminars so that I was not left with a pile of disconnected notions from which to conjure three last-minute essays. In fact, I’d been taking diligent notes all term, in between horrors and trips Outside and emotional snake pits. I had most of the scaffolding in place for the three coursework essays I had to submit — one on a close reading of Gulliver’s Travels, which unfortunately turned my stomach with unintended comparisons to real life, but the other two were safer, long-form meditations on interpretive strategies for Jane Eyre and a very personally interesting exploration of travelling upriver in Heart of Darkness. I kept thinking about those essays at night, lying in bed, trying to distract myself from the other half of my life — and from Zheng’s absence.

Raine and Evelyn were both second year students, which meant they suffered rather a bit more pressure. Evelyn’s work was always done far in advance, one of the benefits of being a fluent speaker in the matters she was supposedly ‘studying’. Raine, however, had none of the all-coursework mercies of the literature department to spare her, nor Evelyn’s hidden reserve of diligent hard work behind the scenes. For Raine, it was a season of all-nighter scrambles to write up philosophy papers, and get her mind around a trio of exams. Though she never showed the slightest bit of concern.

Being normal felt so fake; how could I care about my future career when we had so little time left in which to reach Maisie? How could I concentrate on correct footnote formatting when the Eye waited just beyond a membrane thinner than my soul, holding my lost twin?

But life turned, and so did my pen. Or at least, my fingers pressed keys on the laptop keyboard.

And it kept my mind away from what I wanted to say to Twil.

I’d tried calling her once, that very same evening on which I’d expressed the notion out loud. That turned out to be a mistake — both the call and sharing the half-formed notion with Raine. As soon as Twil had answered her mobile phone, I’d realised that I needed to say these things to her face, things about her and Evelyn, and about myself. Courage may have come easier at the distance between Sharrowford and Brinkwood, but this subject required respect and care. I had to be gentle. I had to see her face. I had to offer her a hug. So I’d ended the call with a bad excuse about wanting to check that she was home safe.

All week my head swirled with possibilities, with horrible images of how Twil might react — anger, bitterness, spite, even hatred. I couldn’t bear to consider the other end of the range, that she might be hurt, might cry. But I had to do it. To her face.

Which meant waiting for Evelyn to call her back to the house, to help us with Jan and July during the visit to Camelot. There was no way I could call her over to the house myself, not without driving Raine’s curiosity past its already wild peak, not without everyone wondering what I was doing, talking to our friendly werewolf in private.

Raine had accepted my lame explanation that this was something about Evelyn and Twil, about their relationship — which was technically true. I hated the idea of lying to Raine, of concealing things from her; but I had to keep these cards close to my heart, because they weren’t just about me. If I let her in on the truth, she wouldn’t be able to keep it to herself. She would catalyse the whole situation, set hearts in motion, and I didn’t have the emotional bandwidth for even a fraction of this, not with Zheng too, not with the burning jealousy.

We had to get to the other side of this duel, and whatever lay in wait for me and Zheng. Then, maybe, I could start to deal with it.

Zheng herself stayed out of my way, mostly out of my sight, and barely spoke to me. She vanished from the house to hunt each evening. Every night I wondered if this was the night she wouldn’t come back.

“Meat, shaman,” she purred to me one night, when we’d found each other in the darkness of the kitchen, illuminated only by the distant street lamp glow.

Her natural environment, the freedom of the night. I’d ached to ask her to take me out with her, to ride on her back again like when we’d pursued Badger together. I wanted to feel the wind on our faces together, our hearts beating side-by-side. But I couldn’t say the words, because I wanted to claim her.

“Meat?” I’d echoed.

“I hunt for meat. Sheep, squirrel, other secrets in the woods. Not for my opponent. Not until the hour you appointed, shaman.”

“That … that’s good to know,” I’d managed, then focused on drinking from my glass of water, for far too long, drawing out the seconds. By the time I’d finished, she was out the back door, gone again.

I missed her like a missing arm.

I couldn’t talk to anybody about this, not my lovers, not Lozzie, not even Sevens. She of all people may have been able to untangle it, but something about her felt embryonic now, the way she cuddled up to me in bed and purred into my chest, the way she spent more and more time with Lozzie and Tenny, the way she reacted with big blinking eyes the one time I tried to share it with her, when we were alone in bed one morning, while Raine was downstairs making breakfast.

She got the part about Zheng, of course. She knew that all too well. She hugged me around the middle and purred into my chest over that. She understood. But when it came to the subject of Twil, she shied away, hands peeling off my sides and boney body sinking into the sheets like a manta ray hiding beneath shallow sand.

“I can’t help,” Seven-Shades-of-Squeamish-Subordinate had rasped.

“Can’t? Or won’t?”

She raised a hand and wobbled it back and forth, showing all her sharp little needle-teeth in a pained grimace. “Bit of both? Can’t intervene. Can’t move you around on the stage. You’re in deeeeeeeep. You gotta dig up.”

“Oh, Sevens.” I reached out and wormed a tentacle around her shoulders beneath the sheets. “I’m not asking you to direct. I’m asking you to help as you are now. As you. Or just … just listen? Just listen.”

Sevens had let out an uncomfortable guuurr-rrruk. But she’d reached over and cuddled my middle again. “Here for you. If you need it. Want a wing-woman with the werewolf?”

I’d actually laughed at that, stroking Sevens’ lank hair back from her forehead. “Maybe. You are so lovely, Sevens. I won’t force you, but maybe … when I do it, stay near? Okay?”

“Will lurk,” she gurgled. “In ceiling.”

“Um, maybe not that. Praem will be quite put out if you get into the wall cavity. It would make a terrible mess.”

Sevens had laughed at that, a lovely rasping noise that made me want to pick her up and nuzzle her. Nobody else could treat this with the respect it needed, nobody but the reforming meddler herself.

As the days ground on, my tension grew, like a great worm coiled in my gut, feeding on my bio-reactor. I began to keep multiple tentacles manifested all day long, sometimes even through the night. More than once I woke up with them wrapped around my torso in a constricting ball, after dreams of crushing and choking.

Everyone must have thought I was consumed by jealousy. They were right, but that was only half of it. Evelyn sunk deeper into her work. Zheng avoided us all, hunting and eating. Lozzie tiptoed around, giving me stealthy hugs when she thought nobody else was looking. And Raine had sex with me twice a day, helping me burn off the tension.

That didn’t quite work, because it wasn’t about my jealousy anymore.

It was about the sense of an impending change in the air. Several of them, all bearing down like thunderclouds.


Private Eye Nicole Webb, super-spy according to Raine — detective for hire according to everybody else — checked in with Evelyn twice every day, still chewing through a mountain of stolen paperwork between other jobs, hunting for any clues about the location of a most cautious and private client.

On day nine, when the gateway really was ready and all we had left was the test, Evelyn called Raine and me into the kitchen, and put Nicole on speaker phone.

“Repeat what you just said, please, detective,” Evelyn requested of the phone on the table. “I don’t want to repeat it myself, I might get it wrong. From the top, please.”

Nicole cleared her throat on the other end of the phone. “Alright then, for the peanut gallery out there,” her smooth, relaxed tones purred in between the shuffling of papers. “There’s basically two ways of concealing information when you have to keep these kinds of records. Either you keep everything squeaky-clean, you keep all the grisly details off the books completely, never write down any phone numbers of people you aren’t supposed to know, that sort of thing. Or, you make everything so dense and complex that it’s impossible to unravel. Make it too difficult to piece together the kind of clear picture you need to build a case against a crooked lawyer, and that’s actually quite easy to do. Follow me so far?”

“Absence versus concealed, sure,” Raine said. “Go on, Nicky.”

“That’s detective Webb to you, Haynes,” Nicole shot back, then continued without missing a beat. “So, the lawyer, Yuleson, he deals with a lot of dodgy people, right? Not just your Edward guy. People who have actually been committing major crimes. I mean, there’s some shit in here I would have loved to get my hands on while I was police. Not that any of it is actionable, mind you.”

“Especially ‘cos it’s stolen, little miss criminal,” Raine said.

“Raine, shut the fuck up,” Evelyn growled. “Not now. Listen.”

Raine blinked in surprise. Evelyn was not joking around.

“Yes, shush,” I added gently. Raine grinned and goosed my flank, which made me wriggle.

“Thanks, Heather,” Nicole said with a laugh. At least she was enjoying this a little. “Look, my point is, Yuleson’s done legal counsel and defence for people linked with major drug dealing operations. And when you’re dealing with that, you want to keep everything — and I do mean everything — cleaner than a brothel toilet seat before a royal visit, you get me?”

I wrinkled my nose. “Ew.”

“Money from clean sources, nothing shady that’s gonna bring external attention, that kind of thing. Yuleson’s records are technically clean. Very clean. He uses the first strategy. But … ” Nicole paused. I could hear her wetting her lips, hear the creep of discomfort in her voice.

“Detective,” Evelyn prompted. “Continue, please. The same way you told me.”

“So I’m looking for this house, right?” Nicole’s voice came back strong. “For a stray invoice that lists an address, a copy of a purchase order, something legal to do with the house, property, taxes. Anything at all. And yeah, there’s lots of stuff in here, fake names or fall guys on half of it, any one of these could be connected with Edward Lilburne. I keep following them up, looking up people, confirming who they are, checking if addresses are real, but … uh … fuck me, miss Saye, do I need to—”

“Say it again,” Evelyn repeated. She shared a glance with us. I could see the tension around her eyes.

“It’s nothing supernatural,” Nicole said, laughing it off. “It’s just … well. I feel like I’m being led around in a circle.”

Raine raised her eyebrows. Evelyn nodded. I bit my lip.

“Led around?” Raine prompted. “By a pile of documents?”

“Ahhhhh, that’s why it sounds so silly,” Nicole sighed. “Look, it’s a sense you get. Not a real sixth sense or anything, I’m not talking about any of your supernatural guff, I’m talking about detective work. You do this for long enough, police or private or whatever, and when you’re working one of those cases where some element has been concealed, hidden for real, on purpose, then sometimes you get this sense like you’re going around in a circle, right? Covering the same ground over and over, looking for that crack, that break in the armour, that way in. But it’s nothing literal, you get me? It’s not like you can point to something, it’s just a feeling.”

“But you said ‘led’,” Raine repeated.

“Yeah … yeah.” Nicole puffed out a big sigh. I could hear her scratching her head. “‘Cos this shouldn’t be happening. This isn’t like a murder investigation or something, it’s just trying to find an address. A hint of an address, even. A forwarded tax document. Anything. But it feels like I’m chasing a person. A person who’s covering their tracks.”

Nicole stopped. Silence fell over the kitchen. I hugged myself with hands and tentacles alike, feeling like a cold hand was creeping up my spine. Somebody flicked the kitchen lights on, banishing the gloom — Praem, listening in alongside us. She met my eyes and stared, blank white, as unreadable as the phone on the table.

“I think she should stop,” I said out loud.

“I’ve already instructed her to do so,” Evelyn said.

“I mean it’s probably nothing,” Nicole’s voice floated up from the lonely phone on the table, suddenly seeming very far away, on the other side of a wall. I wish we’d had this meeting face-to-face. “But I realised it this afternoon, so here I am. Checking in, getting the all stop.”

“I’m not exaggerating, by the way,” Evelyn said, leaning toward the phone. “You will be paid for today, but nothing else past this point, you understand? You are to stop this investigation.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Nicole laughed. “I’m not gonna work for free or anything.”

“You box up and seal everything you took from those offices,” Evelyn went on. “You don’t touch it, you don’t look at it, you stop thinking about it. Completely.”

“It’s cool, hey. I’ve got another job to be on this afternoon, just bread-and-butter stuff. I won’t touch your job again until you give me the go-ahead.” She sighed, a big puff down the phone. “You really think this is some supernatural effect? Something messing with my head? It doesn’t feel like that, it feels normal. There’s no ghosts floating through my flat, I’m not losing time or blacking out. It all makes sense, you know?”

“It can’t be ruled out,” Evelyn said, tight and frowning.

“Yes, quite,” I added. “Nicky, just stop, don’t touch it again. We’ll … we will … ”

I trailed off, wetting my lips. We would what? The gateway to Camelot was almost ready; tomorrow was the day, Evelyn was all prepared for the test. But none of that mattered at all compared to finding Edward Lilburne, taking that book from him, and completing the Invisus Oculus, our way to go unseen even in sight of the Eye. Nothing mattered next to rescuing Maisie. Part of me wanted to call everything off, give Zheng an ultimatum, forget any notion of talking to Twil.

But who would be left to rescue my sister, if I abandoned everything I believed in? If I left my friends behind? Certainly not me.

“We’ll be over there at your apartment the day after tomorrow,” Evelyn spoke up, making me jump. “Do not touch any of it in the meantime, detective. Understand? Don’t touch a thing. We’re dealing with something at current. Then we’ll come take a look at the effect for ourselves.”

“Oh, believe me, I ain’t gonna touch it until you’re paying me again,” Nicole said with a laugh.

“Nicky,” I spoke up one last time. “Nicky, if anything strange happens, call us, okay? Any hour of the day or night. Call us.”

“You bet, little ghost-busters. Have no fear, I’m about to spend the next forty-eight hours tailing a client’s cheating wife. All very boring, all very routine. No spooky bullshit for me. Fingers crossed, swear on me mum, so on and all that.”

After Evelyn ended the call, I couldn’t help but chew on my lower lip.

“What if we can’t find the house at all?” I asked. “What if we can’t catch Edward? What if we can’t get hold of the book?”

Raine pulled me into a gentle hug. “Hey, Heather, if that happens, then we’ll find some other way.”

“We will,” Evelyn grunted. She shot me a frown from down in her chair. “After we get this nonsense over with.”


‘This nonsense’ — the final preparation for Zheng and July’s duel — began the following morning, the tenth and hopefully last day of the process. Evelyn’s magical workshop was all set up for the outing to Camelot, ready to go ahead once her test proved successful. Everything was in place, from Raine’s emergency kit of makeshift riot shield and protective helmet, through Zheng’s lurking presence in the utility room and kitchen, to Lozzie’s repeated assurances that it would be perfectly safe over there.

“And the … ‘caterpillar’?” Evelyn asked yet again, as Lozzie scarfed down a bowl of sugary cereal at sunrise. “You’re sure it’s staying in place? We’re not going to open this gate and find ourselves a hundred miles away from your knights? And it needs to stay there the whole day, it can’t go shuffling off after we call Jan over.”

“I’ll go check again!” Lozzie chirped, hopped up from the table with her spoon still in hand, and vanished into thin air.

She came back twenty minutes later, of course, all smiles and nods.

Everyone was present and correct, waiting for Evelyn’s total satisfaction with the gateway mandala, twiddling our thumbs and eating junk food and fretting over jealousy. Lozzie and Praem were thick as thieves for some mysterious reason; more than once I saw Lozzie go up on tiptoes and whisper into Praem’s ear, to be answered by Praem nodding along. Tenny flitted about, mostly petting Whistle, pretending she didn’t feel our tension. As it was a Saturday, Kimberly was home too, but she stayed firmly shut away in her bedroom, watching My Little Pony and doing something that Raine called ‘hot boxing.’

“Good taste,” Evelyn grunted. “As long as she’s on hand, in case the worst happens.”

Zheng mostly just lurked, arms folded over her chest, stripped down to t-shirt and jeans, standing like a statue with infinite patience. I should have spoken to her, should have addressed what I felt. But I still had no right to stop the duel. I was going to let this go ahead and deal with whatever I felt, no matter how badly it burnt my throat going down.

And Twil was here too, called over as muscle, just in case; she played around with Tenny and Whistle, laughed at Lozzie flapping her sleeves, and made dubious grumbles about going Outside.

“S’not that I mind helping,” she said. “Not like I’m busy, hey, summer holiday. Just … it got kinda fucky last time we were out there.”

“This is much safer, no fucky-wucky,” Lozzie told her. “Even Eveey-weevey came out there before!”

“Ehhh, if Evee thinks it’s safe … ” Twil shrugged.

I bided my time, trying to screw up my courage and pick my moment. But all I managed to do was give myself awful gut pain and a blinding headache, fuelled by anxiety. I wanted to don Sevens’ yellow robe and hide my face inside my squid-skull mask, but I knew I couldn’t. Not only would that serve as a red flag a mile high, on fire and screaming, it would place a barrier between myself and Twil. I had to say this as me, little Heather, not through the suit of abyssal armour I was constructing about myself.

Eventually I cornered Twil away from the others, after Lozzie had skipped off to fetch something, Evelyn was bustling around in the magical workshop, and Raine was brewing another cup of tea. Tenny might have overheard. So might have Zheng. But they kept quiet.

I’d rehearsed the opener in my head: “Twil, do you have a moment for a word in private? It won’t take long, but I’d prefer to say it alone. Perhaps upstairs in Evee’s study?”

What I actually did was grab Twil and squeak like a dolphin having a fit.

Against all odds I must have made myself understood, because a few moments later I was leading her up the stairs, feeling like my head was full of wasps. I had to use half my tentacles to hug myself, the other half to hold onto the walls and the banister to keep from collapsing in a nervous heap. By the time I reached the study and ushered Twil inside, I was ready to scream. Sevens must have been lurking somewhere nearby, I did trust her to keep her promise, but I was such a ball of compacted anxiety that I didn’t even think to look.

The study door muffled the sound of voices from below — Lozzie’s giggle and Evelyn’s grumble, Raine’s questions and the clipped tones of Praem trying to keep everyone fed and watered. I shut Twil and myself away together in the cloistered gloom, among the bookcases and the dusty tomes.

When I turned to her, Twil looked like a deer in headlights, frozen and wide-eyed beneath the single high window on the back wall.

She looked like how I felt.

“Twil … ” I managed. Then I hiccuped so hard it hurt, forced to put a hand over my racing heart. “I’m sorry to call you up here like this.”

“Uh, wha— what— I mean, um, big H— no,” Twil stammered worse than I ever could. “Heather— uh, what’s this … what’s happened, what’s going on? What’s the— what— I mean—”

Twil was beautiful, even when I’d accidentally inflicted my own jitters on her. Long curly black hair framed her porcelain-perfect face, falling on the shoulders of her soft white hoodie. She’d kicked her shoes off at the front door earlier, leaving her in a pair of surprisingly cutesy pink socks beneath her jeans. Between the plush of the hoodie, her paradoxically non-threatening expression, and the way she was framed by the towering bookcases of Evelyn’s study, I had the most bizarre urge to seek comfort in a hug, which was wildly unfair because I was about to hurt her.

“Nothing is going on, Twil,” I forced myself to say. I swallowed another hiccup. “I’m sorry for spooking you. Everything downstairs is exactly as it seems. This is about a personal matter.”

Twil’s wide amber eyes went even wider, bug-eyed with alarm. “H-Heather? Oh, oh shit, no, I’m … I can’t … I—”

Her genuine fear cut right through my anxiety. “Twil?”

“Look, Heather, big H.” She forced a terribly awkward, toothy smile as she raised her hands, as if to ward me off. “I respect you, alright? I think you’re cool, I think you’re good for like everyone you know, and I’m on board with you and Saye and Raine and everyone else. But I’m … not … into you like that?”

Her smile turned into a skull’s grimace. Twil looked like she wanted to either bolt for the window or hide under the desk. Wisps of spirit matter began to float around her in a half-glimpsed halo. She was so uncomfortable she was summoning her wolf-form in sheer panic.

I burst out laughing.

All the knotted-up, twisted, condensed tension of the last ten days came undone, like a black hole entering some new and impossible process of reverse gravitational expulsion, unloading more than a week’s worth of stress at once, pouring it out into the void. I laughed and laughed and kept laughing until I felt tears running down my cheeks. I clutched my belly and waved my tentacles in the air and sat down suddenly on the floor, rocking and moaning as the laughter finally drained away. It was a wonder nobody came upstairs to check on what was making a noise like a dying squid.

Twil watched me in confused fear. “Heather? You … alright?”

I wiped my cheeks and raised my face, looking up at Twil from my new spot on the floor. But her expression of slack-jawed horror was so funny that I snorted and lost control again, going into a second laughing fit that went on and on until my diaphragm hurt and my cheeks ached. I had to wave her down, make her wait until I was truly and finally done.

“Twil,” I said eventually. “I did not call you up here to deliver a secret confession of illicit love.”

“ … oh. Oh. Um. Okay.” Twil started to blush. “Er … sorry? Sorry.”

“I can’t believe this, this is so silly.” I sighed, feeling like I’d finally come up for air after a week underwater.

Twil spread her arms. “You do have a tendency to like, collect people! What was I meant to think!? And like, we never talk in private! I thought something real bad was up, and then you said it wasn’t so I thought it was about, you know! Shit!”

I leaned back with my hands against the floorboards, too spent to stand even with the aid of my tentacles. “Twil, you are a very beautiful woman. I mean that, I’ve thought it since the first time we met, when I slapped you in the face — for which I am still very sorry, by the way. But you can rest easy. I’m not into you in that way. We have zero chemistry. You are a good friend. Plus, my love life is already enough of a headache without adding an additional werewolf.” I looked around at the floorboards. “Goodness, Evee needs to put down some rugs in here, this floor is quite uncomfortable.”

Twil puffed out a very long sigh, making an almost horse-like noise with her lips. “Same. Uh, same to you, I mean. You’re real pretty, like. Promise. Just not, you know.” She cleared her throat. “Not like that. Not for me.”

“It’s okay, you don’t have to flatter me.”

“I’m not! I’m just not down for any horizontal shuffling, you know?”

“‘Shuffling’?” I wrinkled my nose. “Twil.”

She blushed harder and scratched the back of her neck. “You know what I mean. The old one-two punch. Throat-boxing. Carpet cleaning.”

“Stop, please, please.”

“Alright, alright! Just burning off some tension here, yeah? You can hardly blame me, after that.” Twil pulled another grimace, still looking deeply uncomfortable, just in a different way to before. “So er, what is this about, then? What’s up? Like I said, we almost never talk alone, you and me. You need like, somebody to talk to?” Her expression darkened into a particularly difficult frown. “Wait a sec, Raine’s treating you right, isn’t she?”

“Oh of course she is,” I tutted as I picked myself up, dusting my backside off and taking a deep breath. The flutter in my stomach returned, but nowhere near as bad as before. Twil’s density had quite dispelled the worst of my nerves. I folded my hands in front of myself, trying to adopt a little Praem-like poise. “It’s not about me. Well, it is. But mostly not. Not at first. Sort of.”

Twil boggled at me. “Uh, okay?”

“I’ll start from the top. Twil, I want to apologise to you.”

“ … to me?” She blinked in confusion.

“Yes, to you. I’m sorry for the way I pushed you and Evelyn together. I’m not arrogant enough to believe I was solely responsible, but I share some fault, for encouraging both of you into a relationship that I’m pretty sure she wasn’t ready for. I don’t know about you, though. From how little time you two have spent together over the last month or so, I’m guessing it hasn’t gone well. I’m sorry.”

Once I was speaking, the words flowed. Twil might be hurt, might start crying, might need help and support, and I had to be that for her right now, because I’d done this to them. I had to deliver my speech, that was my purpose right then.

To my surprise and no little measure of relief, Twil did another big floppy sigh, followed by a shrug and a rueful smile.

“Ha,” she said. “Er, yeah. Thanks, I guess.”

“I take it I’m correct, then? About the state of the relationship?”

“Relationship, huh? Yeah, I don’t think we have one anymore.” Twil pulled another awkward smile; I couldn’t tell if she was putting on a brave face for my sake or not.

“You can talk about it if you need to,” I said. “She hasn’t mentioned much either, and I don’t know what’s happened. And you don’t have to talk about it either, if you don’t want to. But I would like to take responsibility. And I do care about you, Twil, I want to help make this right for you, and … yes.”

Twil spread her arms in a big shrug. “Hey, easy come, easy go. We tried it, but it didn’t really work out.”

I shook my head, at a loss, almost stunned. This was the last thing I’d expected. I’d been prepared for tears. “You mean you’re okay with this?”

“Well, nah, ‘course not. But hey, I’m just glad it didn’t, like, drive us apart? Wow, what a fucking thing to be saying. A year ago I thought Evee was a right bitch. Not only that, I thought she was a mad wizard type for real. Though, I guess she kind of is.” Twil looked diagonally upward, visibly thinking for a moment.

“I’m … I just … I’m surprised you’re so casual about it.”

Twil shrugged again. “Not everyone treats hooking up like you do. I’m cool with it.” 

“But she’s been practically ignoring you for weeks, using the excuse of your exams to keep you at arm’s length. She never told you all sorts of things — I know that, for a fact. I’ve been thinking about it all week, how she didn’t tell you about … her mother. And other stuff.”

Twil laughed softly and waved a hand at me. “Ahhhhh, that’s just how things are. And like, it’s nice, you know? She really did want me to do well in the exams, I don’t think it was just an excuse. She does care, just, like … not like that.”


Twil did another big sigh then cast around the room, suddenly restless. She reminded me very much of a hound in that moment, as she bounced over to the desk chair and plonked herself down there. She gave it a spin, one way, then the other, then stopped it with her toes as I went over to join her.

“See, like,” Twil started, groping toward the idea even as she put it into words, “I always got the impression that Evee was forcing herself a bit, with me. You know what I mean?”

I shook my head. “I’m not sure? I don’t need you to share intimate details, of course I’m not asking that.”

Twil shrugged. “She likes me, I get that, that’s real and all. But it’s not enough to do … you know?” Twil pulled a smirk. “Like she’s confusing friendship with romance. Or like she’s got a crush but thinks it all has to fall out a certain way. We did some stuff together, but I kinda backed off after a while. Got the sense she wasn’t really liking it, not really.”

“Ah,” I said, nodding. “Yes. I think that’s part of what I’m apologising for.”

“Too much time around all us fucking dykes. Like uh, what do they call it? Compulsory whatever. Like she thought she had to. Not that I forced her or anything!” Twil hastened to add. “She always took initiative. She just didn’t really seem to enjoy, like, making out and stuff. A bit, yeah, but not like … you know.”

I sighed. “I think I know. And that’s why I wanted to apologise.”

“It’s cool,” Twil said, cracking a grin. “It wasn’t your fault. Takes two to tango. Or … three? Haha, yeah, in your case.”

“Or four or five,” I muttered.

“Haha!” Twil laughed, her tension finally melting away. She hiked one leg up over an arm of the chair. “For you, yeah. Serious, no hard feelings, big H. It didn’t drive shit between me and Evee as friends. Which is weird as fuck, you know? Like, you can’t usually sleep with somebody and then break up without even really talking about it and then still stay friends! But we kinda are. I respect her, you know?”

“Even after she kept important things from you?”

Twil shrugged. “It’s her life. Her business. I mean like, I care, you know? I wanna help. But I ain’t got a right to it or some shit. I knew her dead mum was bad news, but I didn’t know it was that bad.” Twil’s amusement drained away. “Poor fuckin’ Evee.”

“She’s very … fragile, in some ways,” I said.

“Fuck that,” Twil countered. “She’s strong! Just in different ways, like. Don’t tell her I said that though, ha!”

“And you’re really okay, just … carrying on afterward, like this?”

“Sure. Why not?” Twil sighed and gave me a bit of a look. “Big H, you’re smart and good with people, but sometimes you don’t get it.”

My turn to boggle at her. “I’m sorry, Twil?”

“I like you lot. I like this house. I like being one of you.” She smiled, and this time there was no hangdog self-deprecation or wolfish fear. I could practically see her wagging tail. “I get to hang out with a bunch of cool older girls, you’re all gay as shit, and I don’t have to hide what I am.”

“ … a lesbian?”

Twil laughed. “No, a fucking werewolf!”

“Oh, right. Of course. Tch.” I huffed. “Yes, yes, the werewolf thing.”

“Plus, hey, seriously,” Twil went on. “You’re a refuge from my family.” Something caught in her face as soon as those words were out of her mouth. I’d accidentally peeled away all her defences. Her amusement zeroed to nothing. She swallowed, suddenly pale and awkward. “Don’t, uh … if you ever meet my mum again, don’t tell her I said that. Please. For real.”

I stepped closer and took Twil’s hand, surprising myself. “I won’t. I promise. Are you okay at home? Have things been bad?”

She shook her head. “Nah. I mean, no more than usual. They’re still my family, even if they’re … touched.” She tapped her head. “I’m the only one that doesn’t talk to god,” she snorted. “You lot gave me a new perspective, you know? Made me see what was going on. I mean, they’re fine. They really are. They seriously don’t do like, sacrifices in the woods or whatever. But ever since that thing with my mum … I dunno. I can’t look at them the same way.” Twil trailed off to nothing, not really looking at me. “I miss my granddad.”

“He’s the one who made you into a werewolf, is that right?”

“Yeah,” Twil muttered. “He was different.”

I squeezed Twil’s hand again. “Twil, you really do always have a place here. If you get into Sharrowford university, do you want to come stay with us?”

Twil grinned, suddenly cheeky. “Ehhhh, maybe. Maybe I’ll take a room on campus.”

“It’s free if you stay here. No rent.”

She laughed. “Okay then! You drive a hard bargain, big H.”

“I’m sure I do.” I pulled myself up straight, playing the part for a moment. I gave her hand a final squeeze and then let go. “When is A-level results day? When will you know?”

“Not till August.” She pulled a face. “The waiting is killing me already. Think I might try to get a summer job or something, kill time, save some cash. But uh, kinda hard to do manual labour and not give away that I can throw breeze blocks around one-handed.”

“Ah, yes. That would be a concern.”

We trailed off into silence for a moment. Anxiety built inside me again like steam pressure.

“Well,” Twil said. “I’m cool with all this. You should say sorry to Evee too, I mean if you haven’t already. Are you alright, though? I mean, all this shit with Zheng is whack, and I don’t just mean this bonkers trip Outside. I can tell you’re kinda eaten up by it, you—”

“There’s something else.”

“Yeah?” Twil looked totally innocent, blinking up at me.

“I can’t talk to anybody else about this. I wasn’t sure I could even talk to you about it, not until I knew how you felt about Evelyn and yourself.” I took a step back, to a distance that felt more formal, trying to keep the words flowing. My hands were shaking. “But I need somebody to listen, somebody other than Sevens, because she was part of it. When I was in Carcosa, something happened. She showed me something. I’ve been trying to ignore it, pretend I didn’t see it. Pretend maybe it wasn’t real.”

“Some Outsider shit?” Twil murmured.

“Sort of. No, not really. That’s part of the problem. It was all jumbled up with other stuff, with Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight, with how she felt. She was using other people’s faces to explain how she feels about me. First Raine, then Zheng, then … then Evee.”

My throat almost closed up. Twil just shook her head, not quite following. “Okay?”

“Oh, for pity’s sake, Twil,” I huffed, flushed in the face and losing control. “Don’t make me say it. Don’t make me say … I … I think that Evee … ”

“You think Evee has feelings for you?” Twil asked, first frowning in confusion, then with a growing smile of amused disbelief.

“I know it sounds absurd!” I blurted out. “It’s not—”

“Do bears shit in the woods?” Twil asked, still amused, yet now deeply unimpressed at the same time. “Is the sky blue? Is the pope a Catholic?”

I stared at her, stunned and numb. “I … I’m sorry?”

“Evee has feelings for you? No shit, Sherlock.” Twil knocked her knuckles against her own skull. “Duh! And here I thought I was bad.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

It turns out Heather is the biggest disaster lesbian of them all; but she knew this all along, right? At least she’s done the right thing now by apologising to Twil, though perhaps she’s missing the silver lining here, perhaps she’s assuming everything is simple couples-or-breakup, romantic bliss or nothing at all. She hasn’t done so well herself, wrapped up in all this jealousy and fear. It’s gonna explode sooner or later. She can’t be the center of everybody else’s life …

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Next week, Twil might have some useful advice to share. But she better hurry, because that gateway is about to come online, and then, finally, it’s fight night. (Or fight afternoon, but that doesn’t sound as dramatic!) Time to invite Jan and July over to the house!

for the sake of a few sheep – 15.13

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

It was one thing to wallow chin-deep in the dank and toxic swamps of my own poorly examined jealousy, to declare that I would force Zheng and July to stage their sexually charged ritual combat out on the Quiet Plain, where I could play the role of elevated voyeur and exert some kind of control over my rapidly crumbling relationship. But it was another matter entirely to actually organise a group trip Outside.

As Raine would put it, my mouth had written a cheque that my posterior was incapable of backing with hard currency.

Self-indulgence was easy; logistics took the better part of three days.

But in the precise moment I’d spoken those words, a twisted, ugly, grasping part of myself had entertained the madcap notion of just grabbing Zheng and July right there, in that cramped and filthy bedsit room. I wanted to slam the relevant equation through my mind like an unlubricated engine piston, to rip the three of us through the membrane without warning, consequences be damned. A poisonous cocktail of spiteful revenge, sadistic control, and a need to get this over with, to cut my humiliation and guilt short, to take this sordid mess somewhere private where only I could go.

And I almost did it.

A second of stunned silence and sceptical stares followed my corrosive demand; in that second, I felt all my muscles tense with a desire to spring across the room, before a more sensible soul could argue me down or present a less dangerous option. My six tentacles bunched and curled, two of them swinging around to brace against the floorboards behind me like a pair of springs, the others coiling with the constrictive promise of jellyfish stingers, ready to entangle July and slap into Zheng, uncaring of who else got caught in the crossfire. Instinctively, I knew I was probably about to bruise myself by bouncing off the wall like the bag of bones I was, but the drive was too strong to ignore. I had no idea about July’s strength, but there was no way I could keep myself wrapped around Zheng for more than a few seconds. Tentacles or no, Zheng was fully capable of peeling me off herself like an overeager octopus. She could dump me on the floor, squealing and lashing, helpless.

But Zheng loved me. She was very reluctant to hurt me. In that moment, driven by the twisted-up knot of abyssal territorialism and confused guilt, I was ready to exploit that love. All I needed was her split-second of hesitation in which to work the familiar old brain-math, and send us all spiralling Outside.

I was being an idiot, but a very specific kind of idiot.

“Outside?” somebody hissed, incredulous. I think that was Evelyn.

I must have been vibrating with anticipation, visibly about to spring like a coiled squid, because two things happened at the same time — an iron vice closed around my upper arm, and a voice cut through my jealous haze.

Heather,” Evelyn was suddenly snapping in my face. “Heather!”

“ … y-yes?” I croaked, more animal than person.

I took a moment to blink, to draw a deep breath down my constricted throat, to remember where and who and what I was — I was not a squid about to pounce on hard-shelled prey and crack it open with my beak. I had to swallow quite hard, forcing my throat back into the right shape, fighting down the urge to hiss. My tentacles relaxed, though rather grudgingly, their support-structure muscles tense and tight inside my torso. I winced with referred pain running up and down my flanks.

“Is she alright?” somebody asked, their voice still hazy and distant. I think that was Jan. “What’s wrong with her?”

“Evee?” I tried again, then realised who was holding my arm. “Um … hi … Praem?”

“Hello,” said Praem, still holding my upper left arm in one hand, as if I was about to run away. She must have crossed the small room in two or three strides to grab me. Her blank, milk-white eyes bored into mine.

Evelyn was frowning up a thunderstorm, equal parts concern, alarm, and disapproval. The rest of the room wasn’t much better: Jan’s eyes had gone terribly wide at my tentacles; Raine was watching Zheng with her hands on her hips; Zheng herself was peering at me in curious quasi-arousal, lips parted, eyes alert, as if she liked what she’d just seen — me about to tackle her. At least Twil was oblivious to the whole thing, looking like she’d stepped into a soap opera episode halfway through the plot, without her lines memorised.

“Evee? I’m … I’m fine,” I said.

“Your idea makes sense,” Evelyn said to me, slow and careful with each syllable, watching me as if the wrong word might make me explode into tentacles and gibbering. “It makes sense. Yes? Outside is the best place for them to fight, if we have to go along with this nonsense at all. But I insist we do this properly. Heather?”

“Properly … ” I echoed. Had to swallow again. My whole body felt like a knot of muscle. “Yes. Right. Properly.”

“I insist, do you understand?”

“Yes, yes, of course, I’m … yes.”

My face was burning with mortified embarrassment. I could barely look Evelyn in the eye, let alone round on Zheng or check on Raine. Part of me still toyed with the equation to send myself Out, just to escape this moment.

“Any trip Outside requires we take contingencies and precautions,” Evelyn went on, staring at me like I’d just sleepwalked onto a motorway, voice sharp as a barbed whip. I wanted to cringe and shrink. “And this is my responsibility, I’m not letting you swan off again without a gateway prepared and ready to use, even if it is just over to Lozzie’s tin-man storage. And even if you have Zheng there to look after you.” She huffed like a steam engine and fussed at Praem’s hand on my arm. “Go on, let go of her, she’s fine. Here, let me.”

Praem allowed herself to be disengaged from my arm like a well-oiled wheel clamp. Evelyn took her place, very awkwardly patting my hand and then taking it in hers, still frowning at me like she’d eaten an entire lemon, skin and all.

“Yes … yes,” I forced myself to say out loud. “Yes, safety first. Safety first. A gateway, you did say that, didn’t you? I suppose I can hardly go alone … ”

“Alone?” Zheng purred, then chuckled, a dark rumble from a dark place. “Shaman, you want a private show, these gladiators all your own?”

The Saye Fox, still in her arms, joined in the chuckle with a yiiiiirp sound.

“Not exactly,” I whispered, my throat too thick for more words. I couldn’t look up, couldn’t meet Zheng’s eyes. Evelyn squeezed my hand so hard it ground my finger bones together. “Ah,” I winced, but she didn’t let up until I looked at her. She frowned at me, hard and searching, not liking what she found. “Evee?” I whispered to her alone, but she didn’t respond.

“I am content with any audience,” July said. Zheng nodded to her and I hated that.

“Excuse me,” Jan piped up from next to July. Her head of fluffy black hair peered around July’s hip as if she’d been hiding behind the demon host. “I need a tiny, tiny bit of clarification here, just a teensy-weensy word of unpacking the issue. You’re talking about taking this duel … ‘Outside’?” She pronounced the word like it was from an unfamiliar language, raising her thumb and forefinger pinched together, squinting in an effort to control her reaction. “That’s your word for the spheres beyond, isn’t it? The beyond, the spirit realms, the cradle of gods?”

Evelyn sighed. “Outside is an infinitely less chuunibyou term.”

Twil pulled a baffled squint. “A less what term?”

“Nothing,” Evelyn grunted. “Even you aren’t internet poisoned enough for that one. An edgy term, let’s put it that way.”

“That’s hardly the issue here,” Jan said, in the tone of somebody who had just discovered their car had been compacted into a neat metal cube. “The spheres beyond—”

Outside is the shaman’s preference,” Zheng rumbled, “so Outside it is.”

Jan sighed, wet her lips, and cleared her throat with the effort of somebody being conned out of a lot of money. “Outside then. That’s somewhere that you people can just … go? Just like that? To have a fight? Like wandering down to an empty park or something?”

“The shaman knows the way,” Zheng said.

“Bloody right she does,” Twil sighed. “S’not easy though.”

Jan slowly went pale. “You’re joking. This is a sick joke. This isn’t funny.”

“It is deadly serious,” Evelyn said, frowning a pinched frown right back at Jan. “We have ways and means of getting there. They will not be revealed to you. Do not try to steal them.”

“Oh, oh, oh.” Jan put her hands up. “Excuse me, I thought I was dealing with rational people here, not lunatics who assume that I’m interested in stealing the secrets of how to step into the fucking Chernobyl exclusion zone in nothing but my underwear! No, I’m mostly interested in not having my soul plucked out through my arse hole by some god-thing that happens to pass by! We are not going beyond so our demon hosts can get all hot and heavy in private! We can hire a fucking tennis court for the day or something!”

“It won’t be in private,” July said, back to staring at Zheng.

“Ha!” Zheng barked right back at her. “The glory for all to see.”

“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” I said, finding my conversational feet once again. At least this was a topic I understood well. “We have access to a couple of different Outside dimensions which we know are safe. One of them has a lot of open space. That’s the place I was talking about.”

“How can you possibly know it’s safe!?” Jan spread her arms at me in a very frustrated little shrug.

“We’ve partly colonised it,” I said. “I mean, one of us has. She’s not here right now. And it’s not really colonising, she’s built a metaphorical round table there. You know, King Arthur’s round table, I mean. But out of thoughts. Kind of. There’s knights.”

Jan looked at me like I was completely off my rocker.

“Sorry,” I said.

“I’ve been there,” Evelyn grumbled. “Heather is doing a particularly terrible job of communicating right now, please do forgive her. It’s perfectly safe. Trust me, I didn’t want to go either. If we’re going to do this nonsense, we might as well do it right, where there’s no chance of us being seen. This is already an utter waste of time and energy, the last thing I want is for it to spiral off into an unrelated crisis. Understand?”

“Plus there’s plenty of security,” I said, trying to convince myself. “The knights.”

Jan looked at each of our faces, eyes wide with horrified awe. Raine gave her a thumbs up. Zheng rumbled with satisfaction. Twil muttered something about “hoping there’s a horizon this time.”

“There is,” I reassured her. “It’s kind of normal. Except the sky.”

“Oh, except the sky!” Jan burst out. “That’s alright then, perfectly fine. We are not doing this.”

“Yes we are,” July said without missing a beat.

Jan threw her hands up, stomped over to the open sports bag on the floor, and awkwardly went down on her knees to rummage around in the clothes. “Right, then I want danger pay. And not from you lot.” She looked up at myself and the others, to make her point clear, then pointed at July. “From you! This is your fault. If we get eaten by a mountain of flesh, or turned into seedbeds for some extra-dimensional worms, or zombified by brain-eating plants, you are to blame!”

“I am always to blame for your pains,” said July.

“And your half of these Sharrowford jobs is going towards the new dresses,” Jan added with a huff.

“I will starve for your fashion.”

Jan finally found what she was looking for in the bag, struggling to pull out a huge white coat that looked about three sizes too large for her, complete with massive hood, fur-trimmed rim, and lots of very thick padding. It unravelled other clothes as it came, apparently heavier than it looked. She straightened up and shook it out with some effort.

“And I am bloody well going armoured,” she said, then turned to Evelyn. “Let’s get this over with. This is madness!”

“Yes,” I whispered, mostly to myself. “It is.”

“Actually,” Evelyn said, clearing her throat and frowning at the coat, “this is going to take a day or two to prepare. We have to build the gate from scratch, I’m not having us do this the quick and dirty way. That’s unsafe.”

“Oh!” Jan’s expression brightened with saccharine sweet fake relief. “Oh, I see, that would be unsafe. Yes, silly me. The unsafe way to expose oneself to the fucking vacuum of space.”

Evelyn sighed. “You can put your suit of armour away for now.”

“A day or two?” Zheng rumbled. “Wizard?”

“I’m not exaggerating.” Evelyn shot Zheng a very unimpressed look. “Why, is that too long for you? Going to elope with your new friend when you have to wait a bit? Deal with it.”

Zheng rumbled deep in her throat.

“You will … ” I forced myself to say. “You will come home with us, right, Zheng?”

“For you, shaman,” she replied.

Raine laughed, a good natured belly chuckle, trying to throw the tension off like a heavy blanket. “I think it’s time we exchanged numbers, instead of threats, hey?”

Jan made a noise of pure, wordless frustration, stamping her foot and throwing the coat down. Something inside it audibly clanked against the floorboards.

“Just what I need,” she tutted. “Delays!”


“So, hey,” Raine said. “What was that all about, Heather? Fancy talking?”

She had her hands propped behind her head as she leaned on the backboard of our bed, bare legs stretched out in front of her over the rumpled sheets, crossed at the ankles, caressed by the milky-grey light filtering in through the window. A cartoonish exaggeration of her own unstudied relaxation. 

I stared at the open book on my crossed legs, not really seeing the words. Could barely make out the print anyway, not in the dying light of a rainy evening. That would require me to get up, cross the room, switch on the lamp, then cross back to the bed and sit down again, all of which seemed like far too much to bother with. I opened my mouth, about to say something utterly inane, something like What was what all about, Raine? I haven’t the faintest clue what you’re talking about. I’m just hunky-dory with the third point of our barely stable triangle deciding to have a de-facto romantic fling with somebody she’s only just met.

But I didn’t say that, because it was the opposite of true. I frowned at the book.


“I may as well ask you the same thing,” I said, sounding out every inch of my grumpy pout. “What was that all about?”

“You really have to ask?” Raine chuckled.

I sighed and surrendered. “This book is upside down.” I tutted and turned the book right way up. “What even is this?” I flapped the cover over. “Oh, this is yours. Who is Ocalan? What am I even reading here?”

“Philosophy,” Raine said.

I tutted again, closed the book, and reached over to deposit it on Raine’s thighs, which managed to capture my eyes for longer than I would have wanted under the circumstances, even in this grey haze. I still looked though, my eyes travelling up to the dark stain of the bullet scar on her upper left thigh, sunk deep in the shadows of her body. Raine ostentatiously stretched her legs and cracked her toes. I blushed and rolled my eyes.

“You can’t ask me a serious emotional question when you’re not wearing anything,” I said.

“I’m wearing a t-shirt, and underwear. And hey, socks!” Raine wiggled her toes. I turned away, though I didn’t actually want to. “And hey, right back at you.”

“I’m fully clothed!”

“You can’t return from a serious emotional crucible and instantly pick up a book and start reading it,” Raine shot back, though with a smile in her voice. “Literally, you can’t. Not only was it one of my philosophy books, it was upside down. You have been defeated. Soundly!”

“It wasn’t instant,” I said, my voice a touch too high. I crossed my arms and frowned at the bedroom door, which was currently closed to keep the rest of the house firmly out for a while. “I checked on Sevens. We made sure Evee had her stuff. We saw Twil off.”

Silence descended, to match the rainy dusk.

It was almost evening, on the same day as our rash yet ultimately superfluous attempt at gunboat diplomacy with Jan and July. Sunset was cloistered behind thick, dark rain clouds. The day dribbled away beneath a leaden sky as drizzle blanketed Sharrowford with cold and damp. Spring was no respite from this kind of weather, especially in the North. Light like static turned every surface and angle into an indistinct mockery. Number 12 Barnslow Drive felt as subdued as we were after the stress and tension of the day, quiet and recovering, though I could hear the muffled sounds of Praem in the kitchen and the occasional deep rumble of Zheng’s voice somewhere far below — talking to Evelyn, I supposed.

We’d been home for just over an hour, and now Raine and I were alone in our bedroom together; not an uncommon situation, but one I was uniquely unprepared for right then. I hadn’t unpacked any of my knotted-up feelings.

It felt strange to simply return home after all that impending violence, but what else was there to do? Sometimes a thing happens and then you just go home afterwards. That’s life.

Jan and Evelyn had swapped mobile phone numbers and promised to begin coordinating the ‘play date’ as soon as practicable, though Evelyn had heavily implied that any attempted magical trickery over the phone would earn Jan a sharp rebuke. We’d bid our new and reluctant acquaintances an awkward goodbye, and then headed home. Zheng had donned her hat and pulled up her scarf and vanished into an alleyway, with the fox still in her arms; she would stand out rather badly if she took the bus with the rest of us.

By the time we got home, she was already there, and she’d lost the fox.

“The eaters of the dead have their own paths, shaman,” she’d explained. “A fox will not be caged and remain a fox. She wanted to go. She went.”

Evelyn had sighed heavily at that. “Blasted thing. Can’t even communicate properly.”

The following hour had been awkward in the extreme. We’d all needed to peel off the sigil paper stuck to our bellies and backs, the glue residue itching like nettle-stings until properly washed off. Twil had opted to head home herself, giving us all funny looks before she’d slipped out of the front door. But I couldn’t think straight, I could barely look Zheng in the eye, I walked around like I was a zombie myself, pulled on automatic strings to change my clothes and wash the glue off and check if Evelyn needed any help setting up the gateway to the Quiet Plain.

She’d stared at me in the magical workshop, still frowning with a shade of how she had back in Jan’s bedsit, sucking on her teeth.

“I’m serious,” I’d said. “Evee? I want to help, if there’s anything I can do.”

“You want to help,” she echoed in a grumble, then sighed. “Yes and no.”

She’d stomped over to the table in the workshop and picked up a tiny plastic food bag, which had been lying near my squid-skull mask. I stared at the mask with instinctive longing to wedge it on over my head, to hide from the world, from Zheng especially. My beautiful giant demon was lurking in the utility room, like she’d been banished there.

“I had Lozzie bring me these, a couple of days ago,” Evelyn was saying, waving the plastic bag between thumb and forefinger. I pulled my attention away from my guarded retreat. The bag contained a few blades of rubbery yellow grass. “I did suspect we might end up needing to do this at some point. Though not for such a stupid and wasteful reason.”

“Is that grass from the Quiet Plain?”

“Quite,” Evelyn said with a sigh. “The dimension needs a better name than that. You’re not much for creative names.”

“Sorry … ”

Evelyn blinked, then frowned harder. “That was a gentle joke. You don’t need to apologise for it. Not to me.”

I shrugged. “Sorry, Evee, I’m just a bit … frazzled. By the day.”

“Evidently,” she said, tight and low.

“So, how does the grass work? What’s it for?”

“It’s a focus,” Evelyn went on, though her easy words did not match the way she looked at me, her brow knitted with dark concern. That frown made me feel like I should apologise again, shrink away, curl up and never return, but I stood my ground. “The same way we were eventually able to rebuild the gateway equations to connect with Carcosa, using that book you brought back from the library. Same principle, different Outside plane. It’s probably a good idea regardless, to set up a permanent gateway there. A staging ground, perhaps, for going deeper. I’ll probably still need Lozzie’s help though, like before.” She huffed and slapped the bag back down on the table, shaking her head. “Listen to me, permanent gateways to Outside, a good idea! I would have dunked my own head in the sink for suggesting such a thing a few months ago. Look what you’ve done to me, Heather, hm? Look what you’ve done to me.”

Her stare cut right through my flesh. I managed a weak smile. One of my tentacles tried to reach for her, but then stopped halfway.

“We’ll be safe,” I said, though part of me knew that wasn’t what we were really discussing. “I know we will.”

“Mm,” Evelyn grunted, and turned away.

I found no refuge in the advice of my resident expert on lesbian relationship drama; we’d left Sevens at home during the expedition to confront Jan, partly because she wasn’t so much gunboat as potential atomic bomb, and partly because forcing her to use that bomb would risk the stability of her new and tender self-hood. So she’d stayed with Lozzie and Tenny. I found them all in Lozzie’s room, taking a nap together, tucked under the covers and lined up like matryoshka dolls — Tenny spooning Lozzie who was in turn spooning Sevens, limbs everywhere, sheets tangled, lots of snoring going on.

And Zheng wouldn’t come upstairs, wouldn’t come to our bedroom. She was lurking in the utility room and kitchen, watching Praem cook alongside Whistle. She had more fellow-feeling with the Corgi than with me right then.

So now it was just me, Raine with her trousers off, and the rainstorm drumming on the roof.

Silence dragged on for long enough to become suspicious. I felt an itch between my shoulder blades, a premonition that Raine had silently gone up on her knees and crawled toward me on the bed. Perhaps she was about to apply a very physical solution to my emotional constipation. I wouldn’t have said no, only I knew I was incapable of enjoying sex right then.

“Raine, please don’t.”

I looked back over my shoulder, but Raine was still leaning against the headboard. She hadn’t moved an inch. The silence had not heralded an attempt to solve my problems with aggressive, overwhelming, toe-curling sex, but had instead concealed an increasingly wide and shit-eating grin on Raine’s face.

“Don’t what?” she asked.

“Oh, fine!” I exploded at last, uncrossing my arms and flinging them wide. My one currently manifested tentacle did the same, flying out and coiling like a fist in wordless frustration. “I’m jealous, okay?”

Saying the word felt like dislodging a bolus of rotten meat from inside my throat, foul juices running down my gullet even as the pressure finally released. I hiccuped, loud and angry, like the warning cry of some marine bottom-feeder.

“I admit it,” I went on, at the edge of shouting. “I’m really, really jealous of all this, of Zheng, of what she’s doing with this … July … person!

To my everlasting relief, Raine did not laugh; she didn’t even keep grinning. The grin folded up and vanished before I’d even gotten the first word out, replaced with a subtle and reassuring smile. She nodded along until I finished.

“You can say ‘bitch’, you know?” she said. “I’m not gonna ding you for that.”

“That wasn’t what I meant,” I huffed, turning sulky as my anger flared out. “Besides, it’s hardly fair. It’s not July’s fault. It’s Zheng’s.”

“Hey, Heather,” Raine cooed softly, radiating all the warmth I’d ever needed. “It’s okay to admit you feel jealous, yeah? Better than letting it eat you up inside. You should go tell Zheng about it too, clear the air. She’ll understand. Well, she probably will, in her own way. Probably say something about wolves and trees. Right?”

I shrugged, shaking my head, feeling like I had a lump of burning coal in the centre of my chest. Then I looked up at Raine with a raised eyebrow. She laughed and shrugged too, but far more casual and relaxed.

“Hey,” she said, “you don’t even have to say it. I know, I know, that’s kinda rich coming from me, preaching to you about jealousy.”

“I-I was not thinking that!” I blurted out.

“Yeah you were. Even if it was only subconscious. But hey, it’s cool.” Raine spread her hands. “You told me, yourself, you said it — it’s okay to be jealous.”

“But that was you, this is me, this is—”

“Heather.” Raine’s voice held just a touch of a whipcrack, enough to make me sit up and pay attention, to stop me wallowing in useless guilt. “You showed me that jealousy is just something you have to work through sometimes. I believed in you then, and I believe in you now. Stop beating yourself up. You don’t get to do that, not on my watch.”

I forced myself to hold Raine’s gaze for a few more seconds, then sniffed loudly and scrubbed at my eyes. She scooted over on the bed and her hand found my side, stroking and patting until I could look up again. I stared out of the window for a moment, into the haze of clouds, then back down at Raine’s soft brown eyes, so much the opposite to her body, muscles like bunched cable beneath her skin.

“I love you, Raine,” I said. “But I don’t deserve your faith in this. I feel like I shouldn’t be jealous of Zheng. Like it’s not justified, somehow.”

“Why not?” Raine asked — a genuine question, like always, no pre-judgement in her words. Her casual tone unlocked my heart.

“Because it’s a fight!” I sighed. “It’s not as if she slept with July or something. They spent several days doing their level best to murder each other. And I get the feeling this … this ‘play fight’ is going to be extremely bloody. It’s hardly something I should feel jealous of. I certainly wouldn’t want to participate in it.”

Wouldn’t I? A tiny whisper of abyssal instinct crawled up my spine. My single tentacle bunched and coiled.

Raine waited a beat. “But?”

“But for Zheng, fighting is like a three-course meal at a fancy restaurant,” I said, turning bitter with sarcasm. “Wining and dining before sweeping her partner home for a night of athletic sex.”

“Because of her vampire, right? The one from the story she told?”

I nodded. “Because of her vampire friend. I can’t be that for her, I can’t … ”

Can’t? a tiny voice whispered. You have six strong tentacles. You can plate yourself in armour. You could bring Zheng down.

I huffed at myself — no, I couldn’t, not in a straight fight, no matter what nonsense my brain was feeding me.

“Hey, there’s stuff you can’t be to me,” Raine said, “that doesn’t mean you gotta be jealous.”

“That’s different.” I frowned. “I think.”

“Are you seriously afraid you’re going to lose Zheng?” Raine asked.

“Oh, no,” I said, suddenly coming up short and feeling very silly indeed. “Not lose her. Not like that. I’m just uncomfortable with all this. With her … doing this with somebody … somebody else. Somebody I don’t know. It’s not fair.”

“Yeah,” Raine said slowly, letting out a deep sigh. “Me too.”

I looked down at Raine on the bed; she’d rolled over almost onto her front, one bare leg waving half-raised in the air, her hand still lingering at my side, her hips cupped between the mattress and the milky light filtering through the window. My Raine, deceptively cuddly when she wanted to be, but she couldn’t hide the buttery-smooth flexibility of her muscles, the alert listening of her face, the way she saw right through me.

“You’re not just mirroring my jealousy, are you?” I asked.

The wrong question — or the right question, if one happens to be a fan of watching one’s very athletic girlfriend curl off the bed like a wolf rising from repose. Which, obviously, I was. Raine stopped waving one leg in the air, paused for a moment as she watched me with sudden curiosity, then rolled the other way, hit the edge of the bed, and sprang to her feet all in one fluid motion. Muscles uncoiled like springs. Her arms fanned through the haze of dim grey light, as if in slow motion, dappled by the haze of drizzling rain outdoors. As she turned, the static gloom picked out the uneven rut of the scar on her upper left thigh.

The bullet wound was mostly healed now, at least to the point that she didn’t need a dressing and gauze anymore. No more weeping plasma and thin blood into a pad of cotton wool. But when backlit by the grey halo of the rainstorm outside, the fresh scar looked like a jagged fingertip of razor blades had been drawn across her flesh, punctuated around the edges by the marks where the stitches had pierced her skin.

A mass of angry red scar tissue puckered around the shallow wound of Stack’s bullet. It took an expert in Raine’s personal musculature to see the way it upset her balance ever so slightly, the way she still favoured the opposite leg. I happen to be such an expert.

Raine reached her arms above her head, rolled her neck from side to side, and started stretching her leg muscles in a practised sequence.

With the grey light behind her, she was like a shade, a shadow in the gloom. From my angle on the bed I could barely make out her expression.

“No,” she said after a moment, a contemplative purr, weak light playing over her goose-pimpled thighs. “No. I’m not mirroring you, Heather. I don’t like the idea of Zheng fighting somebody for pleasure.”

“Me neither,” I said.

“Unless it’s me,” Raine added.

I swallowed a hiccup. “Ah. Oh. Right.”

Raine paused, her hands on her hips, head sideways as if listening for something beyond my range of hearing, a fellow ghost lurking out in the drizzle. The light framed her profile, unsmiling, knife-edge sharp. “Didn’t expect to feel that,” she said. “Hadn’t thought about it before. Hell, Zheng just ain’t my type. But if it was a fight … yeah. Yeah, that’s mine. I want that from her. She owes me that.”

“Oh no,” I breathed, an excited yet terrified tremor in my chest. They were both beyond me. “Raine, no. You can’t!”

Raine turned back to me, plunging her expression into backlit gloom. The light glowed through the individual strands of her hair, turning chestnut to grey.

“You think I was joking, earlier?” she asked.

“No, no, not exactly. Raine, we’ve been over this, you and she promised not to fight. I thought you got this out of your systems with the fighting games. And she’s a demon, Raine. You’ve seen her fight.”

“You don’t think I would win?”

Her question was barely above a whisper, a predatory purr that froze me to the spot. I could not answer. I was not supposed to answer.

Raine took a deep breath, a cleansing breath, filling her lungs and closing her eyes. Then, to my aesthetic delight but emotional dismay, she grabbed the hem of her t-shirt and pulled it off over her head, unwrapping herself like a sword from a sheath, letting the t-shirt fall to the floor. Abdominal muscles flexed, hipbones jutted, shoulders rolled. But there was no moment of gloating grin, no pause in which she savoured the way her nearly nude form overpowered me like a choke hold, no subtle flicker of her tongue across her lips as she watched my reaction. She didn’t even look at me. For once, there was nothing sexual in her sudden disrobing.

Instead of reaching for me, she reached for her knife.

Raine picked up her matte black combat knife from where it lay on her bedside table, safely tucked away in its own sheath. But she drew the blade in the same way she had drawn herself, dropping the sheath like an afterthought. Naked metal soaked up the milky light from the window behind her.

My breath stuck in my throat, a thrill of dangerous excitement pounding through my head. Two more of my tentacles had manifested as well, curling close to my body like armour. I knew that Raine would never hurt me; she would never even joke with the knife, she was always so careful, so responsible, but I’d never seen her like this before. There was something unfamiliar about the way she moved now, something new, something not meant for me.

She stood very still, haloed by the gloom, knife held in one hand, her other hand with fingers splayed by her side, head raised and eyes closed, breathing slightly too hard. Slowly she raised the knife and touched the flat of the blade to her own chest, over her heart. 

“I would win,” she murmured. “I could do it. I can see how to do it.”

“Raine,” I said, and found my voice quivering. “You’re talking about killing somebody I love.”

Her lips curled into a familiar smile. That was more like my Raine. But she still didn’t open her eyes. The knife lowered, slicing through rain-dappled air. She spun the blade in her hand, a flourish that I couldn’t quite follow, ending with the knife held reversed, ready for a strike from an unexpected angle.

“Not killing. Beating. In a duel. First blood, first pin to the mat, something like that. Not to the death.”

“You don’t have to fight her because I’m hurt,” I said, barely able to squeeze the words out.

“I love you, Heather,” Raine said, still low and soft. “But it’s not for you.”

I drew in a shuddering breath. “This is all very … very edgy, Raine. Could you at least put the knife away? Please?”

Raine chuckled and the spell broke. She opened her eyes, retrieved the sheath from the floor, and slid the knife safely away. I breathed a sigh of relief.

“Don’t sound so worried, hey?” she said, tossing the knife back onto the bedside table. “I think this is just how Zheng and I work. So yeah, I’m jealous too. I’ve half a mind to go slap her one right now.”

“Don’t! Oh, Raine, don’t, please, that isn’t going to make anything better!”

“Might provoke a fight,” Raine said. “Then I get to claim it.”

“Don’t. Oh, I don’t think I can deal with that on top of everything else. What if … what if it was Twil, or Praem fighting her? Would you feel the same then? Do you have to follow this line of thought?”

Raine cocked her head at me. “Right back at you.”

“I’m sorry?”

She cracked a grin. She was still beautiful, framed from behind by the storm-light through the window, half-naked and curved like a dream, a fallen angel risen from the damp concrete and abandoned corners of Sharrowford, to bless me with a vision I still did not deserve. My beautiful,  wounded, guardian angel, who had taken a bullet for me, unfolded herself, and kept unfolding at the merest touch.

Now who’s being edgy? I scolded myself.

“I’m not comfortable with what Zheng is doing either, but I get it,” Raine said. “I get my own reactions to all this, and you know why? Because you’ve made me own up to them before. You made me take them head on, like watching a film of an oncoming train without flinching. But you, Heather? Damn, girl, you are lost.” She shook her head and sat down, her darkly angelic halo melting away into the air, just Raine again as she planted her backside on the bed and shot me a smirk. “Here, let’s do a thought experiment. I love thought experiments.”

“Okay?” I said, bewildered but smiling, taken along by Raine’s confidence and bluster — and her semi-nudity, of course. I struggled not to stare at her body instead of her face. “Maybe … maybe put your t-shirt back on though? I’m going to have trouble concentrating otherwise. Sorry.”

Raine paused, blinked at me, then broke into a grin. “Feeling a little hot under the collar?”

“Yes!” I scolded. “Of course! You’re practically naked! What do you think?”

“It’s not like you don’t see this every day.”

“That doesn’t make any difference!”

Raine cracked a grin, so different to just a few moments earlier, radiating cheeky confidence. She flexed one arm. “I think you’re sweating at the sight of these lethal weapons.”

“Raine!” I batted at her. She laughed, sprang up from the bed, and scooped her t-shirt off the floor. I watched her wriggle back into it, a tiny bit sad to see her covered up again, though painfully aware we had more important matters to discuss.

Though I did wonder, in the back of my mind, if that little show had been intentional, to help guide me through the sucking swamps and stinging thorns of my own jealousy.

“Right, thought experiment,” Raine repeated. She held up a finger. “Imagine me.” She tapped her chest. “Imagine me, making out with another girl.”

I blinked. My smile tugged wider. “ … okay?”

“No, I’m serious. Really try to picture it, as realistically as you can. Me, all hot and bothered, with my tongue down some other girl’s throat, really into it.”

I cleared my own throat, starting to blush. “Um … I … I can’t? I can’t really imagine that. Who? Who are you kissing in this imaginary scenario?”

“Anybody!” She threw her hands up, grinning. “Pick the prettiest girl from one of your uni classes and imagine I’ve got my hand down her knickers.”

I frowned with effort, but felt nothing in particular. “This is silly.”

“Why?” Raine asked, as if this was the point.

“Because you wouldn’t do it. You just wouldn’t. Or if you did, I’d be watching. I think.”

Outside nightmare dimensions and alien god-kings and unspeakable geometries were all well and good, but I couldn’t imagine Raine cheating on me. That was far more unthinkable.

“Okay, how about … ” Raine cast around, then scooped up one of the video game boxes from by the telly. She flopped back down on the bed and turned the box to me. “How about her?”

It was the game she’d been playing on and off for the last couple of months, the one with the anime girls doing alchemy, with lots of timers and silly battles against cartoonish slime monsters and goblins and such. The front cover of the box was graced with art of the game’s protagonist, an overly bubbly and implausibly endowed young woman wearing a white waistcoat, a jacket falling off her bare shoulders, and a pair of miniature shorts which barely contained her hips.

“Her?” I echoed, frowning and laughing at the same time. “The one you’ve been making … jiggle every time she jumps?”

“Yeah!” Raine nodded. “Imagine I’m making out with her. Because, hey, I would! Look at her.” She tapped the box art. “Wouldn’t say no to getting suffocated by either end of her, if you know what I mean.”

“Raine,” I tutted. “This is just silly, she’s not real.”

Raine put the box down and narrowed her eyes. “Okay, time for live ammo.”

I blinked. “Pardon?”

“What if I said I wanted to make out with Kimberly?”

My eyes went wide. “Do you?”

“Thought experiment, remember?”

“ … I … um … I mean, but you don’t.”

“I dunno.” Raine shrugged, pulling a thoughtful face. “She’s mousy and kinda skittish, I can get down with that. Hasn’t got your spine, but she’s real cute all the same. I could see myself pinning her against a wall and making her squirm. Do you think she squeaks when she—”

“Raine,” I snapped, no longer amused. “Raine, this is Kimberly you’re talking about. Have a little respect.”

Raine laughed. “Thought experiment!”


“Thought experiment,” Raine repeated like a mantra, trying to sound sober and serious, though I could tell she was having far too much fun with this. “Imagine, right now, that I get up, go into Kimberly’s room, and offer her a hundred quid to spend an hour in bed with me.”

“Raine!” I squeaked, outraged. “That is completely—”

“Thought experiment.”

“—unacceptable. Kim doesn’t have a lot of money, she was practically in poverty before moving—”

“Heather, I’m trying to make a—”

“—in with us, it’s not even funny as a joke, I don’t want to hear—”

Heather,” Raine spoke my name with a touch of command. I flinched and stopped, but kept frowning at her. “Hey, Heather, you’re running away from the point I’m trying to make. You’re doing real good at it, too, sprinting away from me here.”

I blushed and crossed my arms. “Well, it’s just absurd. I know you wouldn’t do something like that, so it’s hard to picture.”

“From live ammo to hollow-point,” Raine murmured.

“I’m sorry?”

“I’d really love to fuck Jan,” she said, straight-faced.

My jaw dropped. I stared at her, trying to figure out how much of this was more hypothetical act than reality. “You’re teasing me. Aren’t you?”

“Nuh uh.” Raine shook her head, wiggling her eyebrows and allowing herself a dirty smirk. “Come on, did you see her? Absolutely my type.”

“You … I mean … what?

“Real short, kinda like you, very easy to pick her up and princess carry her. Sweet and fluffy and cute as a button,” Raine explained, her grin growing. “Didn’t you notice? She’s about your height, though even through that cardigan I could tell she’s got quite a bit more titty—”

“Raine!” I practically shrieked.

“But what’s really important is that hidden layer of thorns. A con artist with a mousy streak! Oh, come on, Heather, can’t you see it? Can you imagine how she would react if I came onto her, strong? Like I do with you? She’d be quivering and blushing, but she’d be trying to put on a brave face too.” Raine bit her lip. “Mmm. And did you see how she hid behind July at one point? Oh my goodness.” Raine laughed, patting her ribs over her own heart. “I could eat her up.”

I stared, speechless, taking a moment to process and recover. “You’re … you’re saying all this to get me to react.”

Raine laughed. “Yeah, but it’s also a little bit true.”

“But you wouldn’t.”

“Course I wouldn’t! It would be a bloody nightmare. For all I know, she’s got a thing with July, and I ain’t butting in on that. And even if she was into it, she might require a bit more emotional commitment than I’d be willing to give. But, I do kinda want to. And that’s the point. How does it make you feel, Heather? Jealous?”

“Oh,” I breathed, catching up at last as the shock receded. Thought experiment, indeed. “Well … well, no, actually. You’re telling me about it right now. It’s a bit … a bit much. But how can I be jealous if you’re telling me about it?”

“Exactly,” Raine said. I boggled at her, so she went on. “Think about it for a sec, Heather.”

I chewed on my bottom lip, looking at Raine, then staring out of the window at the drizzle against the glass. I truly did not feel jealous at this idea she found Jan attractive. I tried to imagine her sweeping the diminutive mage off her feet and making out with her, but the mental image just made me grimace with how silly it all seemed. She wouldn’t — not without permission.

“I don’t feel jealous,” I said. “Because I know that you aren’t going anywhere. And you’re asking first. Even if it is hypothetical.”

“And Zheng is going somewhere?” Raine prompted.

“No. But … ” I sighed. “She’s not mine. I don’t have a right to exert control.”

Abyssal instinct screamed the lie in every cell of my body.

I may not have had sex with Zheng, but I had claimed her body and soul in a very real sense, back when I had healed her wounds after our fight with the greasy, fleshy giant, Ooran Juh. I had sliced the necrotic flesh from around her bite wounds with my own pneuma-somatic teeth, and drooled antiseptic mucus into her bloodstream, gifting her flesh with the extra-normal white blood cells manufactured in my trilobe reactor organ, my biological approximations of abyssal principles, wrought from impossible energies in our reality. I had entered her, saturated her; part of me was in her.

Zheng was mine, instinct said.

Sex did not give one any claim on another person. Even I knew that, with my extremely limited, all-Raine experience.

A dull ache was throbbing inside the tip of one of my tentacles, the beginning of the alchemical process of pneuma-somatic transformation, separating and multiplying the stem-cell analogues that would become a bio-steel needle and turgid fluid sacs. I winced and squinted, concentrating for a moment to halt and reverse the process. A horrible, sick guilt grew like a toxic bubble in my gut as I realised what was happening.

My body wanted to inject Zheng with the same regenerative ichor that I had used to heal the Forest Knight.

My body wanted to claim her, again.

“Heather?” Raine asked, suddenly sharp, following my gaze to the tentacle, where she couldn’t see anything. Evelyn still had the modified 3D-glasses downstairs. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” I blurted out, feeling like I was trying to dunk myself under a cold shower. I reeled the tentacle in, forced it down, and had half a mind to fold them all away until the feeling passed, wracked with shame. “Uh … I felt guilty for being jealous. For not wanting Zheng to do this. I feel like I’m trying to claim her.”

Raine nodded. “Then you need to talk to her about it.”

“I’m not sure I can!” I said, despairing at what I might do if Zheng figured out what I really wanted, what I needed. She would probably say yes. “I wish she’d just … ”

“You wish she’d called you in the first place?”

“When she’d run into July, yes! If she liked her so much, she should have just let me know!”

“Yeah,” Raine sighed. “Exactly. When it comes to this poly thing, begging for forgiveness is definitely not easier than asking permission. You think you’d feel different if she’d come home and checked first?”

“Maybe.” I shook my head, even deeper in guilt than when we’d started this conversation. I wanted to violate Zheng. I was a horrible little toxic thing, I needed to be flung back into the ocean abyss with the rest of the predators. “It’s too late for that now.”

“Hey, hey, Heather,” Raine purred. She leaned in close and pulled me into a hug. She must have recognised how distraught and torn up I felt. But for a moment I couldn’t hug her in return, consumed by guilt. Would I treat her like this, if she strayed? But she wouldn’t. But what if she did? The aching tip of my tentacle twitched. I felt like squeezing it until it went numb.

Then I gripped Raine back so hard it must have hurt.

She held on until I finally relaxed, until the sound of the rain and the hazy grey light lulled me down, drowsy and heavy-lidded.

“Hey,” Raine murmured as we parted, my hands lingering on her body. “Maybe we can make things better by watching her fight. Maybe you can be part of it that way. She wanted to show off, after all. Maybe she wants to show off to you. Maybe it’s for you. You should ask her about that.”

I shrugged. “Maybe.”

“And hey, even if it’s not for you, she wants to share. She wants you to see her having fun, at least. That matters. She does love you, don’t forget that.”

“And I’ve chosen to love her in return,” I murmured. “Sometimes I feel like I don’t understand where Zheng and I stand.”

“But she’s broken your trust?”

“It’s only a fight, not sex.” I sighed, running my hands over each other. “I … I should try to … enjoy watching it, I suppose.” I huffed. “Oh, what am I saying? Enjoy watching a bloody fight between a pair of demons? Raine, it’s going to be a nightmare.”

Raine laughed. “Actually I’m kind of looking forward to it. And to seeing this ‘quiet plain’ and all the other knights. The Round Table dimension. Camelot! Can we call it that?”

“We are not calling it Camelot.”

“Is there like a Lancelot and a Percival and so on?” Raine asked, grinning with the absurd nature of the question. “Who’s Arthur, is that Lozzie?”

“I think there’s a Gawain,” I said. “Maybe. You met him.”

Raine blinked. “No shit?”

I shrugged, not quite certain about that. “I don’t think Lozzie knows Arthurian legend very well. I doubt it’s exact.” I frowned at Raine, distracting myself from my own guilt. “I’m not sure anybody else should be there in the first place though.”

“What, at Camelot, to watch the fight? I’m not missing this, Heather!”

“Last time I took you Outside … ” I trailed off, my eyes moving down her body to the scar on her upper left thigh.

Raine laughed. “Unless Stack is there with a gun and new grudge, I don’t think we have to worry about that. Evee’s gonna have a gate up, and there’s over a hundred knights out there, right? We’re gonna be totally safe. This is Lozzie’s special secret base, right? You said yourself, it’s safe.”

“ … mm. I suppose.”

“Hey, look on the bright side, it might not even go ahead,” Raine said, leaning back on the bed again.


“I’d put fifty quid on Jan skipping town. Tonight. When’s Evee supposed to call her?”

“Soon, maybe. I think she might already have done so?” I looked around for my phone, to check the time, but the deepening storm and the gathering dusk had slowly plunged the room into heavier shadows. I hadn’t even noticed the cocoon of darkness gathering around us. It invited me to close my eyes and curl up, go to sleep, forget about all this. The house itself was trying to soothe me. “What an absolutely stupid day this has been,” I sighed. “I don’t think you’re right, though. I don’t think Jan can overrule July. The fight will go ahead.”

Raine pulled a smirk. “Ahhhhh, but that was in front of us. Maybe in private, Jan’s the one in charge, no questions, no nonsense. Maybe she cracks the whip behind closed doors.”

I tutted softly, but my heart wasn’t in it. I could not summon any hope.

“You should really talk to Zheng, you know?” Raine went on, soft and serious again. “She’ll understand.”

“Maybe,” I muttered. But I couldn’t.

Jealousy was a horrible thing, the way it twisted me inside and out. I was disgusted with myself and gripped by the fear that Zheng would see my true need on my face. I wanted to claim her, own her, make her mine. She, who had spent most of her life enslaved. I couldn’t do that.

Plain as day, right on my face.

Right on my face.

“Raine,” I said hesitantly, speaking into the static. “Did … did Evee seem okay to you?”

“What do you mean? She seemed like Evee, that much is sure.”

“Well … ” I pictured Evelyn’s face against the shadows, the way she’d been frowning at me since I’d almost gone full abyssal hellion to drag Zheng Outside. My mouth went dry. “She’s got a lot of work ahead of her, to make this gate. And she didn’t seem very impressed with all this. I think.”

“Yeah, our Evee is gonna be a touch grumpy, alright.”

“A touch grumpy,” I echoed. My blood was going cold with realisation.

I wasn’t the only one feeling jealous, was I?

“We should probably do something for her,” Raine was saying while my mind was racing ahead, about to slam into a mountainside guardrail and go off a cliff. “She was really looking forward to watching cartoons with you, you know? She didn’t say anything to me, but I could tell. She gets real intense and a little defensive when she’s excited about something. It’s kinda sweet, really, you get used to it and how to recognise—”

“Do you think Twil has gotten home yet?” I asked, trying to keep the quiver from my voice. Raine stopped and raised her eyebrows at me. “It’s just that I should maybe have a word with her. Perhaps. I’m not sure.”

Raine laughed. “Got enough qualifiers there?”

“Tch,” I tutted. “I’m serious. I need to have a word with her.”

“With Twil?”

“Yes.” I nodded, holding fast to a fragile reed of courage. “Before we let this fight go ahead. About Evee.”

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Whoops! Heather tried to jump the gun! Evelyn has been very clear, since Heather returned from her unplanned adventure in Carcosa, that any more trips Outside must be properly planned, with a gateway for backup, and proper precautions. But that means Heather is left with too much time on her hands, to think and fret and have terrifyingly sexual moments in gloomy rooms with Raine being half naked and intense … uh oh.

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Next week, what exactly does Heather want to say about to Twil, about Evee? Perhaps it’s about what happened between Evee and Twil, or perhaps Heather is going digging in places best left untouched. But she’s going to run out of time; as soon as that gateway is ready, Zheng is going to be spoiling for her duel.

for the sake of a few sheep – 15.12

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July did not share Jan’s impossibly beautiful eyes, neither their subtle light like gemstones dropped in embers, nor their blue like the shimmer of a baking summer sky. She did possess Jan’s delicate facial features and her thick black hair, though braided instead of short and fluffy, but July’s eyes were grey, mundane, human — the irony was not lost on me, considering she was a demon, a thing of the abyss wrenched from the limitless dark sea and placed in a new home of human flesh, just like Zheng. And just like Zheng, her stare was predatory and dangerous, though in a very different way; her eyelids were permanently held wide, so one could see the white of her sclerae. Her stare was like an owl listening for the scurry of a rodent, wide and still and silent, where Zheng would have narrowed her gaze, razor-sharp. July held herself so still that she didn’t appear to breathe; Zheng would have rumbled and purred.

This demon host waited like a bird of prey or a trapdoor spider, unmoving until I tried to break one way or the other, promising pursuit in the outline of her muscles. She stared at me with eyes the colour of a looming storm, awaiting my answer to her price.

But I was not the prey for which she lay in wait.

She wanted Zheng so very badly, and she knew I was the one to negotiate with, perhaps intimidate, or simply needle and provoke. Abyssal instinct simmered with territorial warnings, marked her as a rival, and whispered inappropriate urges up the trunk of my hind-brain. My tentacles crept outward to make myself look bigger, to display a warning, to prepare for a fight.

July’s predatory intensity and my wordless response had stilled the others too. Though they couldn’t see my tentacles, they must have felt the change in the air, because Evelyn was turning pale and Raine looked ready to start slitting throats. Twil flexed her hands into wolf-claws. Jan’s eyes went wide at the sight of my tentacles reaching outward. Even the Saye Fox was uncomfortable, head ducked low to the floorboards, trying to go unnoticed. Only Praem didn’t react.

Fight? a very sensible part of my mind butted in, almost screaming. You’re going to fight a demon host over Zheng? In this cramped and dirty room, surrounded by people who might get hurt? You don’t even have sex with Zheng! You don’t own her!

Stupid, stupid Heather, I cursed, getting hold of myself and forcing a deep breath into my lungs. If I truly wanted July gone, I could just send her Outside. She’d be as good as dead.

But I couldn’t do that, could I?

I found my mouth had gone very dry indeed, my pulse a hydraulic piston in my throat, head going light, hands cold and shaking. I may have dragged a portion of my abyssal truth into the air and light of reality, and grafted it to my flesh; I may have taken three steps towards the unalloyed glory of Homo abyssus; I may be supported by brain-math and pneuma-somatic organs and a family of capable monsters and true companions; but I was still entirely capable of making poor decisions over a pretty girl.

“A meeting with Zheng is not mine to grant,” I managed to say, and wasn’t sure if I was lying or not.

“Oooooh.” Raine pulled a big, silly, theatrical wince, gurning like a clown. “Good answer, Heather. Outplayed, outplayed. Come on, bug-eyes,” she addressed July, “you’re barking up the wrong tree. You think we can tell Zheng to do shit?”

Raine’s absurd reaction popped the tension like a knife in a gas-bladder. I could have flung my arms around her neck and kissed her for that. Maybe I’d save that for later.

I reeled my tentacles back in with an effort of will. Evelyn drew a shaky breath, Twil shook herself, and the fox padded in a little circle by the door, claws clicking on the wood. She even let out a tiny yip.

But July was still staring at me. Grey eyes like cold stone.

“You can,” she said.

“You don’t set terms!” Jan squeaked up at her from the bottom bunk of the bed frame.

July turned to Jan in the most unnerving fashion. She moved her head while keeping her eyes locked on me, then flicked those cold grey orbs round to Jan at the last second. Jan tutted and rolled her eyes to the heavens, as if she was dealing with a sulky child, rather than six and a half feet of demon host powerful enough to leave bruises on Zheng.

“I mean you never do set terms, not that you’re not allowed to or something,” Jan said. “And don’t you pull that face at me. You’re haggling with your new octopus friend, you can leave me out of it. That way, if we both end up dead, it’s your fault.”

“Trouble in paradise, hey?” Raine asked.

“Yeah, great,” Twil added. “Just what we need, more clowns.”

“Clowns are funny,” Praem said. Twil gave her a sceptical look.

July stared Jan down for a moment longer, but the mage didn’t so much as shiver. I had no idea how Jan could talk to a demon like that, but then I reflected on how I sometimes spoke to Zheng. Eventually you get numb to any level of intimidation. And I couldn’t help but wonder about the nature of their relationship.

They’re just people, in the end, I reminded myself. Even if they’re not human.

Finally the demon host returned her gaze back to me, but this time I clamped down on the instinct which kept urging me to unscrew her head. Instead I took a deep breath and spent a moment to study her.

July — if that was her real name — possessed both Jan’s delicate beauty and an obvious inhuman nature, which was really nothing like Zheng upon closer examination. Her wide, staring, owl-like look was deeply artificial, as if she’d broken something in her facial muscles long ago, not akin to Zheng’s expressive joy. Between her neatly braided black hair and her unremarkable clothes, there was something austere about her. She lacked Zheng’s flair for grand gestures, the poetry of muscle in motion, delight in being physical and embodied. In her practical grey coat and athletic top and jeans, she almost reminded me of Amy Stack.

I sighed. “How on earth do you walk around in public without scaring people? Zheng can’t do that.”

“Normies see what they expect to see,” Jan said.

“You have internet poisoning,” said Evelyn. “‘Normies’, really?”

“It’s a useful word! Actually,” Jan rattled on, “I take back what I said before. If we’re going to do a job, can somebody pay me anyway? July’s predilection for your extremely large friend won’t put food on my table.”

Evelyn sighed. “Do we really need this?” she asked me. “You want to finish dealing with the cult’s dregs?”

“I … well … ”

Words stuck in my throat, stilled by July’s stare.

And I couldn’t lie to Evelyn.

“Sounds like you should be the ones paying us,” Raine said with a laugh.

She rolled her neck and her shoulders to work out the tension, which also functioned as a non-verbal signal that the threat of violent confrontation was well and truly over. Flicking the safety on her handgun and tucking it away inside her jacket was an afterthought. She chuckled to herself again, shaking her head; I think I was the only one who picked up the false note, the performance, the way she forced herself. For a moment I thought it was some kind of ruse, that she was about to draw her knife instead and peel July’s face off for insinuating things about Zheng. A tiny, twisted, ugly part of me cheered for exactly that outcome. But then I realised: Raine knew violence, inside and out, far better than any of the rest of us did. She was the only one of us who could truly de-escalate this moment, because she appreciated the nature of our position.

Forget the gunboat, Raine should have been the diplomacy.

“Pay you?” Jan wrinkled her nose in disgust, as if a dog had just taken a huge dump in front of her. “For what? Are you going to demand a fine for trespassing?”

Twil lit up with a laugh too, following Raine’s lead, unconsciously or not. “Yeah, that’s right! You gotta pay the Sharrowford Troll Toll!”

“For Zheng’s time, duh,” Raine said. She cast about with a dirty smirk. “What do we think her rates should be, hundred pounds an hour?”

“Ha!” Twil barked. “Nah, she’s rare, she’s high class, she’s picky, so more like two, no, three hundred an hour?”

“Three hundred pounds?!” Jan squeaked. “No! No way, absolutely not, stop this. July, don’t say a word.”

“Done,” July said, hard and harsh and heavy, like we were concluding a deal to sell a black market nuclear warhead.

“No sale,” Praem intoned.

“We are not pimping out Zheng!” I said, going quite shrill. A terrible, angry blush shot up my neck and cheeks. My tentacles clenched and shook with an urge to run wild, but I kept them in check. The Saye Fox went yuuuurrrp.

Raine shot me a wink. “I’m only joking, you know that.”

I huffed and folded my arms across my chest. “You’re very lucky she’s not in here with us. She wouldn’t stand for it.”

“All I want is to meet her again,” July said, staring at me with those owl-eyes. “I am not demanding sexual favours.”

“I-I know that,” I stammered, “I just … you fought each other.”

“Maybe we will do so again,” July said — with a touch of rough, raw relish in her voice. “That is up to Zheng.”

“What is it with demons and fighting?” Twil asked. “Praem doesn’t do this. Why can’t you be more like her, hey?”

“You can talk,” Raine laughed.

“None dare,” Praem intoned.

“I suspect,” Jan supplied from the bed with an exasperated tone, “that Praem here was made under more … sedate circumstances?”

“You could say that,” Evelyn answered slowly. She was frowning at July with what was rapidly looking like professional interest. “But that’s not what matters. What matters is upbringing. Is she … yours?”

“Mine?” Jan said. “In a manner of speaking. I suppose.”

“Deny all you want,” July said.

“I don’t deny a thing!” Jan tutted.

I was shaking my head through all of this nonsense. “I can’t agree to this. You and Zheng … you hurt her, I saw the bruises!”

“Were they permanent?” July asked.

“Well, no, but—”

“Is Zheng yours to command?”

“Oh, here we go,” Jan sighed. She crossed her arms, wiggled her feet over the side of the bed, and stared up at the ceiling, as if she’d heard this a million times before. She rolled her lollipop back and forth in her mouth, loudly clacking it against her teeth.

“I’m sorry?” I asked.

“Is Zheng yours?” said July. “Do you own her? Do you direct her?”

“ … she does what I ask, but only because I ask,” I said, and I knew that was a lie too. When Zheng had returned home with the trophies of her fight still fresh on her skin, she had been glowing with savage glee. I had not forgotten her tale about the vampire she had once met in the past of Eastern Europe, the strange love that had blossomed from the alchemy of combat, something I could never share, which no human could ever reach.

I couldn’t hold Zheng back from this. I wasn’t sure if I had the right to try.

“But she’s no slave,” I added, my throat closing up. “I don’t own her. She’s her own person.”

Raine raised both hands. She didn’t actually step between us, but she may as well have done so. “How about we get the lady herself in question up here, and ask her what she wants, if she’ll be willing to do this deal?”

“No,” I blurted out, then regretted it, because Raine hitched an eyebrow at me in surprise. She didn’t get it, not completely. Not in the way I did. I hurried to cover my embarrassment. “I mean … July, please, why do you want her? What do you expect to happen?”

July did not smile, but I swear the corners of her mouth twitched.

“I would like to resume our contest,” she said.

“Contest,” I echoed. My worst fears, coming true.

But then my mobile phone buzzed in my pocket to alert me to a text message. I dug it out, horribly self-conscious because I knew exactly who it was going to be.

Shaman. Answer, was all it said.

I fumbled at the keys, sending a reply to let Zheng know that I was okay and safe and everything was fine and no she didn’t need to come crashing in through the window to save us.

“It’s her,” July said. “Isn’t it?”

I glanced up as I composed the message, but chose not to reply.

Evelyn tapped her walking stick on the floor to get everyone’s attention. “I think we need to discuss exactly what this job is going to entail. And what exact payment is being demanded here … and … um … ”

She trailed off, her carefully constructed thoughts interrupted by the Saye Fox. The animal had been waiting close to the door, but finally decided to pad back into the room, drawing closer to Evelyn. It looked up at her hip, then toward her face, as if trying to communicate. She shuffled away from it, bumping against my side as I tried to send the text message to Zheng.

“Wait wait wait,” Jan spoke into the opening, as if remembering something. She patted July’s hip. “Ah-ah, wait, July. We’re not agreeing to anything until I know why exactly you want me to be your ‘bridge’ back to all those sad people with the head problems. I do have professional standards to keep.”

“What do you care?” Twil grunted. “You were conning their money out of them.”

“I may be a con artist,” Jan almost snapped at her, in the way a Chihuahua might snap at a Doberman. “But I will not aid in committing mass murder. And forgive me for presuming but you do seem like a bunch of very dangerous people. And I know for fact you’re rude and invasive.”

“I’m not going to hurt them,” I sighed, feeling a headache coming on. “I want to help them.”

Zheng’s reply buzzed into my hand. Long time. Is she there?

July craned her neck to see, so I tilted my phone screen away from her. I chewed my bottom lip so hard I was about to draw blood.

“Tie up the loose ends,” Evelyn grunted. “Mm. I approve of that part. They do need to be dealt with, one way or another.”

“That could be just as bad!” Jan squeaked. “You’re going to trepan all ten of them? That’s going to get you on the radar of local authorities, and I mean mundane authorities — police, probably important police. I imagine a spate of mystery holes-in-heads is going to make a big splash in the newspapers. And if there’s one thing that sorts like us need to avoid, it’s big splashes in newspapers.” She caught Evelyn’s eye as she spoke and Evelyn nodded along, making a grumbly thinking sound in her throat.

“She has a point there, Heather,” Evelyn added. “It’s an incredibly risky move.”

“Be quieter to kill ‘em all,” Twil said with a grimace. “Not that I’m saying we should, ‘course. I wouldn’t. Nah.”

“That’s … ” I stammered and stumbled. “Yes, I know, but … we can’t leave them like … I was hoping maybe Jan here … ”

I was trying to do too many things at once. Controlling six tentacles was child’s play compared to lying to Jan to get her to stay in Sharrowford, while also manoeuvring July so she wouldn’t meet Zheng again, and wrestling with my internal guilt and jealousy, as well as thinking up the right response to get Zheng to stay safely tucked away without outright lying to her. Because I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t just lie to Zheng.

This was giving me a headache.

“Hey, Heather,” Raine said, trying to help, sounding so confident, but missing the mark by a mile. “If this isn’t gonna work, we can always just wait for Badger to get out of hospital. He’s living proof we’re not gonna feed them all to the Eye or whatever. We can do it that way. We can make it work.”

“I know that,” I hissed, sounding like an irritated donkey.

Raine’s eyebrows went up. I saw the silent ‘ah’ of realisation behind her eyes, and busied myself trying to compose another reply to Zheng.

“Yeah,” Twil said. “What do we need these two clowns for?”

“Rude,” Praem intoned.

“Rude,” July agreed, somewhat harder. Twil bared her teeth at July, but it was more playful than aggressive. The demon didn’t rise to the challenge.

Evelyn frowned at me. She may not have worked out the truth, but she could see the discrepancy. “Heather?” she hissed my name.

I was rapidly losing control of the situation and I hadn’t even tried to reel in the bait yet.

“Excuse me,” Jan’s voice suddenly cut through everyone else, delicate and light, with a promise of hidden playfulness. My head was drawn up to her as if by strings. She caught my eyes with her burning blue, a girlish smile on her lips. “I can see you need something, Heather. I’m right, aren’t I?”

“H-how … ”

“Oh fuck right off with that!” Twil snorted.

Jan’s sweet act collapsed into a slouching shrug and a deadpan glare at Twil. The magic broke — and it wasn’t real magic, just sheer charisma. I felt a terrible blush rising up my cheeks.

“I am only trying to help,” Jan said.

“You’re trying your shit on with her!”

“It was kind of obvious,” Raine sighed.

“It’s just me, being me,” Jan protested. “I’m not on the job all the time. Besides, Heather has already agreed to pay me. Sort of. Maybe.”

“Zheng,” July said to me. “Message her. Tell her I am here. Tell her to come.”

“Ah-ah, July, one moment, please,” Jan said. “I’m very serious, Heather. If there’s something you need from me, from a mage, that you perhaps can’t express in front of your friends, then we can always ask the others to step out and—”

“Doll,” Praem intoned.

Jan blinked at her quite suddenly, as if slapped, as if offended. I think it was real.

I sighed, all my carefully laid plans collapsing into a pile of rubble. “She’s not talking about you,” I said to Jan. “She’s figured out what I’m after.”

“O-oh?” Jan glanced between me and Praem, suddenly alarmed.

I drew myself up as best I could. “Jan. We could use assistance with the cult, that much is true. There is something in their heads, and they need help, whatever they did in the past. They don’t deserve this. Nobody does. There’s ten of them, apart from Badger. That’s a lot of people, and you’re correct, I can’t put them all in hospital with suspiciously similar wounds, that would be a nightmare. The police already looked into Badger when we put him there, they think Raine is his ‘friend’. We don’t want more attention than we’ve already drawn, I don’t know what would happen. So we need ideas, experience, help, anything you can do, really.”

“Well … ” Jan swallowed and pulled a car-salesman smile. “As I’ve already said, that’s a real magical problem, and I’m not exactly inclined to get involved in real magical problems.”


“But!” Jan echoed me quickly. “But if all I’m doing is making introductions and acting in an advisory capacity … I could be convinced. For the right price.”

“The price is a meeting with Zheng,” July said, utterly unwavering.

Jan sighed and rolled her eyes, a very ‘see-what-I-have-to-deal-with’ gesture. “I bet yours doesn’t act like this,” she said to Evelyn.

“Quite,” Evelyn said, watching me sidelong. She could tell more was coming.

“But there’s something else I want,” I said, a lump in my throat. “And I need you to take this request very seriously. Please.”

Jan raised her chin, beautiful eyes blinking several times, girlish and poised once again. Her sales face. Raine, Evelyn, and Twil weren’t quite following yet — I was so far off the plan that I was leading us in the jungle. Even I didn’t really know my true destination, but if I couldn’t guarantee Jan and July staying in Sharrowford, if I couldn’t engineer another meeting under less strained circumstances, then I had to ask right away.

“Go ahead,” Jan said, soft and pleasant.

“If it is possible, I would like to commission from you another body like your own. An artificial body, for a different inhabitant.”

Jan’s sales face froze as if dashed with wet concrete.

“Ah,” Evelyn sighed.

“Oh,” went Twil. “Oh, shit!”

Raine winced — I wasn’t sure what that meant, but I wrote it off for now, kept it in the back of my mind.

Jan unfroze her expression via application of some emergency emotional hair dryer, her smile stretching to maximum artificial sweetness. “If you want to put a demon inside some wood or plastic, well, you already have a far better example than I could achieve.” She gestured at Praem, who nodded her head in acknowledgement. “I don’t know what you could possibly want me for.”

“It’s not for a demon,” I said. “It’s for a human. Homo sapiens. You said you built your own body. Could you do that for somebody else? I assume it’s not just … off the shelf?” I winced. “Terrible phrasing, I’m sorry.”

“It’s not off the shelf, no,” Jan said, her smile so hard it was cracking.

“Will you do it?” I asked.

Jan’s eyes, the colour of blue flame inside spun glass, maintained their careful sales-pitch temperature for about another half-second, then her expression melted into cold ash. She wasn’t smiling anymore, face pinched with cautious pity. She bit her lower lip — which somehow made her look older, not younger — and looked me up and down. Her eyes travelled along my tentacles with confused pity; I curled them close to my body, suddenly self-conscious.

“You don’t want this,” she said. “Unless you’ve got inoperable cancer, or something worse? You’re a marvel, look at yourself, you’re beautiful, you don’t need this.”

“It’s not for me,” I blurted out, blushing.

“Whoever it’s for, the point stands. You don’t want this. There are better ways to attain one’s own ideal body. Hell, there are much better mundane ways to transition from one form to another than when I was your age.” Jan stopped cold, then blinked several times and cleared her throat. “Forget I said that, please. Look, you don’t want this.”

“It’s better than no body at all,” I said. “Please.”

“Heather,” Evelyn said through her teeth, “we don’t need her for this. What was the point of fixing Sarika? I thought that was your plan.”

“It won’t hurt to have a back up option,” I replied. “Ripping Sarika from the Eye, remaking her, I still don’t really understand what I did. And Maisie … you’ve said it yourself. We don’t know what might be left of her. She needs a body, in case I can’t perform a second miracle. I hadn’t even thought of it before now.”

Jan was frowning at us, trying to follow along. “Somebody without a body? Somebody … dead? Look, I’m good, but I’m no necromancer. I don’t think I can help you.”

“Wait, hold on,” Twil said. “Are necromancers real? Walking skeletons and stuff?”

“No,” July answered for Jan, voice hard and sudden, like a bird’s cry over lonely mountain peaks.

“She’s not dead,” I said to Jan. “She’s Outside. She may not have a body anymore, or she may not be human anymore. We don’t know. If we … when we rescue her, I may need somewhere to put her.”

Jan started shaking her head, and not in the way of a master haggler trying to appear reluctant, to drive the bargain higher. She crossed her arms, frowning delicately but sternly.

“How much to make it work?” I pressed.

“However much it takes, I suspect,” Evelyn grumbled.

I turned to Evee, face burning, and struggled to look her in the eye. “I couldn’t do this without your money. I’m sorry, I’m sorry I have to ask for—”

“Don’t be,” Evelyn said, almost as hard as July’s voice. To my incredible surprise she reached over and awkwardly patted my side, as if she wanted to touch me but didn’t know how, though her hand quickly retreated again, like a nervous rodent testing a new friend. Then she turned to Jan. “And don’t tell us it can’t be done.”

Jan did a very teenager gesture, a combination sigh, slouch, and roll of her eyes. It was most impressive. Twil even snorted. The fox, still lingering by the edge of Evelyn’s skirt, let out a little yip and did a hop, which made Evelyn flinch and frown down at the dubious creature.

“Demons have no internal logic to impose on a body,” Jan said, then gestured at Praem. “She’s your daughter, yes? I assume you made her, and she’s not grown horns and spikes, so you know what I’m talking about. It’s a myth, it’s nonsense.”

Evelyn grumbled, gesturing at Jan to get on with it. The fox circled around the back of her skirt, then nosed between her and I.

“You can put them in wood, plastic, bits of rubbish, whatever you want,” Jan went on. “And they adapt the vessel, given enough time, but the expectations of that adaptation are imposed externally. But a human being?” Jan shook her head. “In something that started as flesh, as one of us, there is a hunger, for flesh, to be flesh, to be the right kind of flesh your mind says you should be.” Her eyes found my tentacles again. “Humans can’t just inhabit anything you force them into — or which nature forces them into, for that matter. They need a specific environment, it’s individual, personal, not off the shelf, no. I expect you understand that, Heather.”

“I do,” I said. “I really do.”

“But something … Outside, you said? The Beyond? You take somebody who has been … changed, and you put them in the wrong body, it might be like torture. I don’t care how much you pay me, I have some limits.”

“She’s my twin sister,” I said. “The body would need to be based on mine, she would be familiar with that much. I can make additions from there, once she’s in it. Does that assuage your worries?”

Jan went wide-eyed and stared at me like I’d grown a second head. “Oh my goodness, you people really are in deep. Your twin?”

“But does it mean you’d do it?”

“Well … I guess!” She threw up her hands. “Holy shit. Oh, I don’t want to be any part of whatever madness you people are into. And this is a backup option? What’s plan A?”

“Straight back to the meat,” Twil said with a grimace.

“I’ve done plan A before,” I said. “It worked, I rebuilt a human from her thoughts alone. But it cost me … too much. Next time there won’t be anyone to send me back, if my anchors fail. I need a foundation to put her in.”

Jan raised one eyebrow. “Your metaphors are getting a little deep for me, dear.”

I sighed. “How much to make a body like yours?”

“Money cannot buy that.” She shook her head. “No deal.”

“I don’t believe you,” said Evelyn. “You’re just scared. Some mage you are, you pissy little coward.”

“Excuse me!” Jan squeaked. “I’m bloody right to be scared, by the sounds of it. You people are dealing with things far beyond what I get paid for. No, absolutely not. We’re out.”

“You don’t have to be involved,” I said, glancing at Evelyn. She nodded very slightly, letting me take the lead after her surprise attack on Jan’s pride. “You just need to make the vessel. Name a price.”

“Vessel,” Jan echoed, ostentatiously unimpressed. “It’s not as simple as that. Every part of my body had to be hand crafted. By myself.” She raised a hand and wiggled her fingers; the doll-joints were currently invisible, but one could almost see them if one squinted. “The process of creation was the process of inhabitation. Making a life-size model of somebody else … ” She looked me up and down and I saw in those eyes a hidden spark of professional curiosity, like the blossoming of a chemical fire.

“Is it possible, though?” I asked. “Can you do it?”

Jan caught herself, looked away, and cast around the room as if for help. She plucked her lollipop from her mouth and stared at it, then put it back again, then removed it a second time before reaching up with it and making it vanish back into whatever pocket dimension she’d pulled it from in the first place. The optical effect made my eyes twitch, as an object just ceased to occupy space.

July just kept staring at me with a silent promise of a poison pill in any deal, but I had to try.

“All right,” Jan said eventually. “Two million pounds.”

I blinked. My stomach felt like a block of ice. Raine chuckled softly. Twil went, “tch.”

But Evelyn stared in a way I’d never seen her stare before. Her jaw tightened to match the tension in her eyes. Slowly, like the pull of a powerful magnet, her irritated gaze drew Jan’s eyes away from me, until the mages were locked in a silent moment together. Evelyn was so unimpressed she could have been made of stone. Jan raised her eyebrows and cleared her throat, unwilling to let silence linger with whatever Evelyn was filling it with — but Evelyn did not break. She tilted her head forward, until her eyes were deep in the shadow of her brow, shadows cast by the single ceiling light bulb. Jan swallowed, shifting uncomfortably on the bed.

“The price still includes a meeting with Zheng,” July said.

“No!” Jan decided suddenly. “No, we are not getting involved. That’s that.”

“You are losing,” July informed her. “The other mage has your weakness.”

Jan swallowed and risked a glance at Evelyn again. Evelyn looked ready to eat a mouthful of bees.

“Ten thousand pounds,” said Evelyn.

I gasped. Two million was just an absurd number, a meaningless figure. Jan may as well have demanded ten quintillion pounds and it would have meant the same thing: this is out of your reach. But ten thousand pounds? That was a number I could conceptualise, and it was very high indeed. Part of me reeled that Evelyn would make such an offer on my behalf. On Maisie’s behalf.

Jan puffed out a long breath. “I still don’t want to do this.”

“The price is Zheng,” July addressed me again. “A meeting with Zheng. She can decide from there.”

“Round and round we go,” Raine said out loud. She pulled a slow wince at me. “Should have kept quiet about the doll part, Heather.”

“ … I’m sorry?”

“Leverage,” Raine said. “You’ve given them leverage.”

I sighed. “I know. But there wasn’t any other way. I think.”

Evelyn snorted. “There probably was.”

“We’re still not doing it,” Jan said. “And that’s final.”

To everybody’s surprise, July responded to this by leaning down and getting in Jan’s face. It was like watching a bird of prey intimidate a rabbit. The demon host hung from the bunk bed frame by one hand, the other pressing into the mattress on Jan’s opposite side so as to box her in, their faces mere inches apart. The rest of us shared nervous glances; even Raine took a deep breath. The sheer physical intimidation rolling off July stirred instinctive ape fear in one’s gut, no matter the direction it was aimed. Twil bared her teeth and growled softly. The fox yipped from between Evelyn and me, which made Evelyn jump and grab my arm.

But Jan didn’t give a damn.

Jan, all five foot nothing of her — for she was probably an inch or two shorter than me — climbed to her feet on the bed.

Or at least she attempted to, before remembering she was sitting on a bunk bed; even her petite stature was too tall to straighten up all the way. Nevertheless, the motion achieved its aim. July was forced to half-straighten as well, in order to maintain the face-to-face stare-down, which left her hanging halfway.

Jan was stooped with head against the underside of the top bunk. She put her hands on her hips and pouted. July maintained a very awkward pose, all her menace dissipated by looking like she was crouched in desperate need of the toilet.

“Well,” Jan said, “this is a fine position you’ve gotten us into.”

“Take the job,” July replied.

“You’re meant to be on my side! This isn’t going to end well! This nonsense didn’t happen with the last demon you ran into, what’s so special about ‘Zheng’? God, nobody is even pronouncing that name right!” Jan raged, going red in the cheeks. She threw her hands up and stepped straight off the side of the bed, totally ignoring the knife-like demon host right in front of her.

She landed like she was made of cotton, the soles of her thick black socks whispering against the battered old floorboards. She put her hands on her hips scowled at the rest of us. She was indeed shorter than me, which was rare enough.

“I’m not doing it, I’m sorry—” she started.

“You are an absolute coward,” Evelyn said quickly.

Jan made a face of amazed offence.

July straightened up and took a step toward Jan — or toward me, it wasn’t clear, because Raine stepped in front of her and tilted her head in a very specific way which meant don’t start or I’ll start on you.

Twil looked like a deer in headlights, ghostly wolf-flesh swirling into coherency, preparing for a fight. The fox between Evelyn and I let out a sound like yiiiiroowwww. Praem turned her head to look right at me, as if she knew I could resolve all this in an instant.

And worst of all, my phone started ringing. Zheng was calling me. I stared at the phone screen amid the sudden chaos, paralysed.

Before I could drop the phone or hit the reject call button or perhaps just scream at the top of my lungs, a maimed hand with two fingers missing plucked the phone out of my grip and answered the call.

“Be quiet,” Praem said.

She didn’t shout, didn’t raise her voice, but her tone had all the inexorable force of a glacier grinding away the roots of a mountain range.

Everyone went quiet. Evelyn cleared her throat and raised my phone to her ear.

“Hello, Zheng,” she said, unimpressed, frowning at me as she spoke. “Yes, it’s me, Heather’s standing right in front of me like a fart in a trance.” A pause. “Yes, she’s here too, what did you expect? No, no don’t do that. I will have Praem beat you unconscious with a rolling pin if you do that.” Another pause. Evelyn sighed. “No, she will keep going until we achieve unconsciousness, trust me on that. I think you best come up here in any case. Use the stairs. Don’t be seen.”

“Evee,” I hissed. “No!”

“And Heather has something to add.”

Evelyn held the phone out toward my mouth. She whispered two words. I shrugged, did it even matter now?

“Shaman?” came Zheng’s voice, a tinny noise with the speaker so far from my ears.

I rolled my eyes and crossed my arms and forced down a mouthful of bile. My tentacles bunched up like a wounded squid. “No fighting,” I said.


“No fighting!” I snapped. Evelyn nodded along. “No fighting. If we’re going to organise this, we have to do it right. So no fighting. Not here, not now. And no tongue removing or finger breaking, either. We’re all friends up here. For now.”

“Mm,” Zheng grunted. The line went dead.

Evelyn gently placed the phone back in my shaking hands, frowning at me. I swallowed too hard, then managed to raise my eyes to meet her gaze.

She didn’t say a word, but I read the confusion on her face, the concern for me — and the fragility as well. That act had cost her; stepping into the role of Evelyn Saye, Mage and Monster, always cost her. My Evee stared back from behind eyes made hard with effort. She did not understand why I’d crumbled. Or she did, but she didn’t like what that meant.

I cast about for help — and found Raine.

For once, Raine wasn’t smiling, grinning, smirking, or anything like that. She had one hand raised to ward off July — brave but stupid — but she wasn’t looking at the tall and imposing demon host. She was looking at me. Our eyes met across the frozen chaos of the tiny bedsit room, with sudden sober understanding, hers pinched with something I so rarely saw on Raine’s face. Jealous disapproval too strong for her to hide.

But it wasn’t aimed at me; it was mine.

Raine nodded, almost imperceptibly. She got it. She understood. Raine and I were finally on the same page about Zheng.

I took a deep breath and turned back to Evelyn. “Thank you, Evee. I’m sorry.”

She nodded too, awkwardly, and looked away. Back to normal.

“Great,” Jan said. “Your gigantic friend is on the way? To do what, eat my spleen?”

Evelyn sighed and gestured at me, emotionally spent. I wet my lips and did my best.

“I think … I think we’re going to organize a play date for our respective giant murderous zombie ladies,” I said.

“And I,” Evelyn said, “am going to offer you ten thousand pounds to build a body for Heather’s twin sister.”

Jan looked away. “I still haven’t said I’ll do it.”

“You will do it,” July said. “Because I will stay here anyway.”

She showed no relish, nothing but her bug-eyed stare as she turned to watch the door for Zheng’s arrival.

Jan gritted her teeth, hands on her hips, most annoyed.

“They can be impossible creatures sometimes,” I said, feeling a little apologetic, like we were dog owners whose pets had become entangled in the park. “I know how you feel. Zheng is a handful at times.”

“I am a handful,” said Praem.

Waiting for Zheng to join us was almost as nail-biting as our own approach to the horrible little bedsit flat. I half-expected her to come crashing through the window all these floors up and cause a public incident, or at least to stomp her way up the stairs like a herd of elephants. Twil seemed to expect that too, flexing her claws and craning her neck to get a better look through the window, without getting too close. The low afternoon light hovered over Sharrowford outdoors, high above the window and the buildings beyond, as if we were in a deep, dark canyon.

Raine cleared her throat in obvious performance, while Jan stared at a point on the opposite wall, tongue running over her teeth as she considered ways to escape this unwanted offer of a job. July just stared at the door. Evelyn leaned on me, though I wasn’t sure if it was subconscious or not.

The Saye Fox broke the tension, and had us all watching her, when she padded out from between Evelyn and me, her claws clicking on the floorboards. She slinked off around the corner into the flat’s tiny little bathroom. A scraping sound reached us a second later — claws on old porcelain, followed by a wet slurp-slurp of canine tongue lapping up water.

“She’s not?” Twil said.

I wrinkled my nose. “Ew.”

“Well, she is a fox,” Raine laughed. “What’d you expect?”

“She’s not a fox,” Evelyn said, a touch too tense.

Praem took one for the team, walking over to the bathroom and peering around the door frame.

“Drinking from the toilet,” Praem announced. “Confirmed.”

The fox re-emerged a moment later, licking her chops, then looked up at the flat’s front door.

Knock-knock, came the announcement of Zheng’s arrival, two precise yet heavy clacks of knuckle on wood.

Praem looked to Evelyn. Evelyn looked to me. I took a deep breath and nodded. “No fighting,” I repeated, glancing at July. But she had eyes only for her new dancing partner, or at least the door behind which she waited.

Praem opened the door and Zheng swept inside like we’d admitted the spectre of death itself into the room, filling the doorway. She had to duck, straightening up once over the threshold, towering over everybody else. All her seven feet of height, her rippling layers of muscle, and her molten intensity were so much more imposing in the small, cramped space, especially with seven people already in here, plus the fox. She was wrapped from head to toe in a less restrictive version of the way the Sharrowford Cult used to keep her hidden, with a knitted hat on her head and a scarf wrapped around her lower face to hide her teeth, the rest of her concealed by her loose and baggy grey jumper, her jeans, and long coat.

Her sharp-edged, intelligent eyes found July instantly, like a pair of tigers sighting each other across a jungle clearing. She breathed out like a furnace, a rumble that shook my guts.

“I said no fighting,” I tried to say, but what emerged was a sound like a ball of mice rolling down a hill.

Jan had evidently not seen Zheng this close before, because her eyes had gone wide, her face had gone pale, and her fingers had curled shut around a handful of July’s jacket.

Before Praem even had time to shut the door, Zheng ripped the hat off her head and yanked down her scarf. A grin tore across her face, savage glee framing her rows of shark teeth, all of it directed at July, her counterpart, her mirror-image from another angle, her dancing partner I could never hope to match.

A lump stuck in my throat.

“Zheng,” July said. “That is your name.”

“Ahhhhhhh,” Zheng breathed out between her teeth. It was like dragon’s breath. “Bird of prey, now I see you clear!”

“Hey—” Raine started to say, but Zheng was already taking a step forward.

With a yip-yap and a blur of russet fur, the fox bounced about three feet into the air on her hind legs, a tiny bundle of muscle and claw slamming against Zheng’s front. Zheng stopped dead, not because of kinetic force but because of her own care for the strange animal; she didn’t wish to knock it aside. Her arms whipped out and caught the fox, then cradled it to her chest.

Fox stared up at demon host; Zheng stared back. The Saye Fox whined. Zheng tilted her head.

“Mm,” she grunted, then looked up at the rest of us. Her eyes alighted on me. “Shaman. I am here.”

“No fighting,” I managed to squeeze out.

Zheng blinked, slowly. She did not nod.

“My goodness,” Jan whispered, panting. “Did you … you made her? July, you didn’t tell me she was so large!”

“I did.”

“Well you didn’t put enough emphasis on it!”

“We didn’t make Zheng,” I said, finally swallowing the lump in my throat. “She’s a lot older than us.”

“Bird of prey,” Zheng rumbled — and I could hear the playful tease in her voice, the voice of a tiger playing with its food. “Here I am, bird of prey. Not distracted now.”

“Excuses,” July replied.

“Ha!” Zheng barked, eyes burning like hot coals. “You are a fine thing, you are unfettered, and … ” Her eyes slid down to Jan at last. The savage glee dropped from her face. “Mmmmmm … wizard, but small. Wizardling. Does she know her place?”

“Hi,” Jan squeaked. “Yes, hi, hello. Please don’t eat me.”

“You have no quarrel with my maker,” July said.

Zheng’s eyes lingered on Jan for a moment longer. Her gaze did not soften, but when she looked away it was with total dismissal and disinterest. The little mage was unimportant, then, except as a mage who knew not to practice slavery.

“Bird of prey—”

“My name is July.”

“You are my bird of prey for now.”

“All right,” Evelyn raised her voice. “Stop flirting. You got what you want. Here she is. Can we get on with the part of this where we wrap this up and get out of this tiny room, please? Are you going to do this job for us, or not?”

Jan let out a huge sigh of mixed defeat and exasperation. “July, we can’t stay—”

“I am staying,” July said, staring at Zheng. “I want a duel.”

Zheng bared all her teeth. “A duel!” she roared. The fox in her arms went yeeerrrr! in her face.

Thump-thump-thump came the dull sound of somebody banging on a nearby apartment wall. We all froze, even Zheng.

“I think we’re making too much goddamn noise!” Twil hissed.

“Yes,” I said. “Clearly the duel is not going to happen here. Or now. Or at all, actually.”

“Shaman,” Zheng rumbled — but she didn’t even look at me.

“Fine,” I hissed.

“Should we really be letting them do this?” Jan asked.

I shrugged. “I can’t control Zheng. I suppose it’s going to happen anyway, now, so we may as well make it safe for them, at least. Oh, goodness, what am I saying? Every step of this is absurd. Is July at least robust enough to be … damaged?”

“I am robust beyond her,” July said, meaning Zheng.

“She is,” Jan sighed. “Technically.”

“Then you’ll think about the job, at least?” I asked. “In exchange for … ”

I felt the most horrible twist of guilt, low in my stomach. I couldn’t stand the way July and Zheng were looking at each other. It was like the anticipation of meeting a new lover, mixed with the territorial urination of a pair of apex predators. The less charitable part of me, the twisted little gremlin who could put Sevens to shame, couldn’t help thinking of them like a pair of hounds in heat. I felt sick.

“Badger isn’t getting out of the hospital until next week,” Evelyn said, low and serious, her mind running through the implications on our plans. “And Nicole is still searching for the house. We have time for this, if we must, though not long. Your choice, Heather.”

“It’s not my choice any more,” I said, struggling not to stare at Zheng. She wouldn’t even look at me again. She had eyes only for her special new friend.

She’s going to fight her, not fuck her! I scolded myself silently, but it didn’t work. I felt tears prickle in the corners of my eyes.

For Zheng, fighting was transcendent. Fighting was love. I could not share this.

“Hey, left hand,” Raine’s voice cut through the mutual attraction, a pair of scissors through a live wire, unexpectedly hard and cold.

Zheng’s attention swivelled from July to Raine. Her brow creased in surprise. “Little wolf?”

“Why her?” Raine asked. “Why not me?”

My jaw fell open, I couldn’t believe my ears.

“Oh my fucking god, you’re both doing it,” Evelyn hissed, putting her face in her hand. “I don’t believe this.”

“Bad girls,” Praem intoned.

Zheng tilted her head at Raine in surprise, a tiger considering a rival. If she’d had ears to match, they would have perked up. “You are fragile, little wolf. You cannot match me.”

“What if I can?”

Zheng blinked. “You cannot. I respect your attempts. You know this. And we swore an oath.”

“Still hurts,” Raine said. “Some other bint should not be getting first dibs on you.”

“Little wolf—”

“You better not lose,” Raine said. “Because that’s mine. You don’t give that to anybody else.”

Zheng couldn’t tear her eyes away from this. To be fair, neither could anybody else. Nobody had expected this reaction. My mind was racing: was this real, or was Raine putting it on for my benefit? A few months ago, I knew it would have been the latter, but now I wasn’t so sure.

“ … do I even wanna know?” Twil pulled a face. “Shit, you guys are too complex for me.”

“Quite,” Evelyn said through her teeth. She glanced at me with vague accusation in her eyes, but I just shrugged. This was new to me too. Evelyn squinted with obvious scepticism.

Raine laughed and turned from Zheng, as if the whole thing had been a sick joke. But she turned to July, face to face.

“Hey there you,” she said. When July refused to look away from Zheng, Raine raised her hand and clicked her fingers, once, twice, three times. “Pay attention, bug-eyes. You’re dealing with me for a sec. Either you look at me or I’m gonna make you look at me, and you don’t want that.”

July did the same for Raine as she’d done for Jan, moving her head without her eyes, then finally flicking her gaze at the very last second. Something about it made me flinch, as if the motion dredged up some instinctive response. Evelyn flinched too, then huffed a swear word between her teeth. The fox went yerp in Zheng’s arms, bushy tail bristling.

But Raine didn’t flinch, not at all. July stared at her with those propped-wide eyes, but Raine just grinned right back.

“Hey there, freaky,” Raine said, soft and low and infinitely dangerous. A shiver went up my spine. How did she do it, how was she more intimidating than Zheng? If she’d spoken to me with that tone, I would have melted into a puddle of goo.

July raised an eyebrow. That was all.

“I’m gonna give you a warning,” Raine carried right on, still grinning.

“You do not need to warn me, dog—”

“Yeah I do,” Raine purred. “See, I’m cool with you and Zheng having your little play-fight. That’s your business, her business, whatever. I’ll deal. But if this is a ruse, a trick, a plan? If this is all just to get to her under false pretences? If you actually harm her, for real, with some below-the-belt shit that has nothing to do with your ‘honourable duel’? Then I will step in and gut you like a fish.”

The corners of July’s mouth twitched.

Raine raised one hand, horizontal, flat and level. “Look at that, hey? Look at my hand. Look into my eyes. Yeah? You see that?”

“Raine, what are you doing?” Evelyn cursed. “What kind of nonsense is this?”

“Shh,” I hissed. I’d seen Raine do this before. She knew what she was doing, even if it was a bit mad.

“Do I believe I can beat you?” Raine asked July, her voice barely above a whisper. “Not ‘can I’, but do I believe I can?”

July looked for a long, long time. Just when I thought she was making a point of not answering, she opened her mouth.

“Yes,” she said.

Raine winked, clicked her tongue, and stepped away from the demon. She dusted her hands off. “Think I’ve made my point.”

“Fuckin’ ‘ell, Raine,” Twil let out a breath we hadn’t known she was holding. She shook herself like a wet dog.

“What are you?” Jan asked, boggling at Raine.

Raine shot her a wink and a flash of teeth. “Homo motherfucking sapiens, baby, the best goddamn predator to ever walk the earth. And you best believe I can put your zombie down if push comes to shove. I don’t think you’re working for Eddy-boy, not really. But just in case.”

“Not with an unbound zombie,” Evelyn grumbled.

“Yeah,” Raine went on. “But I’m making our insurance policy clear. That’s me, by the way. Living insurance.” She pointed at herself with both thumbs.

Twil snorted. Evelyn shook her head. Zheng let out an unimpressed rumble. I sighed, but actually I could have leapt at Raine and kissed her for that. She’d made our shared position very clear. I still wasn’t comfortable, but I wasn’t the only one consumed by jealousy. At least Raine could attempt to exert some control.

Raine caught my eye and shot me a wink too. I felt myself blush. She was irrepressible.

“Location, location, location,” Praem intoned, prompting the rest of us.

“Yes, quite.” Jan cleared her throat. “Where is this going to happen? If it must.”

“Good question,” Evelyn grumbled, frowning at Jan. “I’d offer our back garden, but we do have neighbours. And it’s not happening indoors.”

“Yes, absolutely. I’m not paying for those sorts of damages.”

“There’s always the woods,” Twil said. “Way out, where nobody really goes?”

“Always the risk of a stray hiker,” Evelyn said. “No.”

A light bulb went on in my head. I did have a way to exert control. To make this legitimate. To make it — somewhat — mine. My tentacles wrapped around my torso like armour. I felt small and wretched and guilty, but I said the words regardless.

“I think I know somewhere private,” I said. “With a lot of space. Where we won’t do any damage, or be interrupted.”

Something in my tone made everyone look at me. Even Zheng finally looked. I stared back at her, my throat like acid.

“If we’re going to organise a duel,” I said. “We may as well have a proper audience. An audience of experts.”


“If you’re going to do this, do it right. Do it Outside, in front of the round table. Out on the quiet plain.”

Outside, in my domain.

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Turns out the true antagonist of this arc is not a powerful mage or inhuman Outsider, but the corrosive effects of jealousy. Oof. Heather’s attempts to control the situation are perhaps just making everything worse. At least she realised Jan might have something to offer her quest in the long run, maybe, if plan A for making Maisie a new body doesn’t work.

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Next week, it’s back Outiside, to the Quiet Plain?! (Or ‘Avalon’, as one very astute reader has started calling the Knights’ dimension, very clever.) Perhaps Heather’s attempts to exert some control over this ‘duel’ are going to backfire. And what’s Jan going to think of them going Outside? Nothing good, probably!

for the sake of a few sheep – 15.11

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Jan’s awkward grimace was a work of subtle art.

She kept it plastered across her delicate features as we took a moment to absorb her preposterous request. The slowly dying sunlight lowered through the single filthy window of her cramped bedsit room, brushed the corner of her soft cheekbone, and made twinkling highlights in the lustrous black of her fluffy hair. Her impossibly beautiful eyes pinched in a squint as if preparing to receive a punch on the arm. It was technically a smile — her bow-shaped, pale-pink lips were curved upward, after all — showing pearly-white clenched teeth. The sort of smile that told us she knew her request could not possibly be granted, but hoping against hope that we were either very stupid or very kind.

It was a very teenager smile, the smile one pulls when mum and dad are not impressed, and one cannot charm them like some pretty little pixie, but one is old enough that mutual respect is not completely impossible, if only they would listen.

If Jan was some kind of fake, then she was a perfect actress at playing her apparent age. But how could such a young woman be an accomplished mage?

The answer was standing right next to me, of course, with her bent spine and her maimed hand and her missing leg, gripping her scrimshawed bone wand — Evelyn.

But Jan didn’t look traumatised or damaged; she didn’t even act strange, not by our standards. She was eloquent and petite and displayed a proper fear response to a bunch of dangerous people pointing weapons at her.

Heather, you don’t look damaged on the surface, I reminded myself. Don’t be so quick to judge. Maybe she’s just a girl.

Her eyes, like sapphires burning with internal fire, suggested otherwise.

Just a girl, very interested in the contents of our heads. My head. And there was only one thing in my head besides myself.

Evelyn finally processed Jan’s request. She snorted. “You want to look inside our heads. Right. Nice try.”

Jan’s grimace deepened into a wince. “I’m not taking the mickey.”

“Hey, yo,” Twil said with a derisive laugh, “I dunno about like, me, or Raine, but you do not wanna look inside Heather’s head, yo.” She jerked a thumb in my direction. “The last bunch o’ jokers who tried that didn’t feel so good about what they found there. It’s bad, yeah? Like, big crazy death-fuck time bad. Don’t try.”

Jan’s grimace froze and her gemstone eyes flickered to me. She looked like a hunter who’d been caught by the tiger, on the latrine with her gun far away.

“Twil,” Raine said with resigned amusement, still pointing her handgun at Jan’s head, “not the best moment for that.”

Big crazy death-fuck time?” Evelyn echoed, most unimpressed. Twil just shrugged. “Need I remind you that you are not meant to be doing the talking here?”

Twil put her hands up. “Alright, alright. I was just being poetic. S’not like I wanna think about that stuff either.”

“The Sharrowford Cult never looked inside my head, Twil,” I said out loud — but I said it to Jan, speaking directly to the wary, waxen look coming over her expression. “All I did was give them the Fractal.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know, I know,” Twil whined. “I was being … I was tryin’ … you know. Intimidate. S’what I’m here for, right?”

“You’re here to tank,” Raine said. Twil rolled her eyes.

“Heather, is it?” Jan asked, having gone very still indeed. Her pale throat bobbed with a dry swallow. The ace of spades playing card in her hand — the one she’d pulled from some private pocket dimension — was quivering slightly between her fingers. She carefully placed it down on the bed, on the opposite side of her lap from her pink handgun.

Her fear was back, worse than before, and hard to conceal; she wasn’t that good an actress, she could only harness what she already had. I tried to watch her right hand in the corner of my eye, watch the gap between her fingers and her willingly discarded pistol, that scrap of polymer and plastic in girlish pink, such an absurd colour for a weapon.

If my worst suspicions were right, she might be willing to grab the gun and shoot me, even at the cost of her own life. My bioreactor was already spooling up more power inside my abdomen, shunting biochemical control rods out of their channels and flooding me with energy, making me want to bounce on the balls of my feet and plate my front with extruded steel. Three of my tentacles moved to cover me, to catch a literal bullet if need be — though Jan could see that, couldn’t she?

I opened my mouth and almost said something like grab her gun, please, or I think this young lady is about to try shooting me, but I knew she might dive for the weapon if I cried a warning. Or worse, she might produce more than a playing card from up her sleeves. I wet my lips, heart juddering, bowels going tight.

Raine must have noticed my tension, because she shifted her footing, as if ready to move. Praem stepped forward one pace, back within range of the girl on the bed.

In the back of my mind, I began to ready the first burning figures and aching principles of an equation I’d only used once before. Once, to save Raine’s life, I’d deflected a bullet.

Could I do so again, pre-emptively?

“That’s my name,” I said. I even smiled.

“And what lives in your head, Heather?” Jan asked. Those deep blue eyes seemed to draw me inward. I couldn’t look away, as if they were windows to an ocean.

“If I answer that, are you going to pick up your gun and try to shoot me?” My voice barely shook at all.

Jan blew out a long breath. “I don’t know, really. I guess I’m supposed to, but there’s not a lot of point now. As I said, this is just a job. If you’re … infested, well.” She shrugged. “Maybe we can come to an agreement. Maybe you can pay me to go away.”

“Pay you?” Twil snorted.

“I like the sound of that,” Evelyn said, though her tone did not agree.

“A token amount.” Jan lit up, eyes flicking away from me at last and roving across the others. I let out a breath I hadn’t known I was holding. “Buy out my contract. No, really, I’m serious. I’m not a hero, I’m just looking to get paid, and I can hardly spend money if you decide to encase me in concrete and throw me in a river. A hundred pounds?” She grimaced again, knowing she had no chance. “Fifty? Twenty? Seriously, one of you, just stuff a fiver in my bag there.”

“Remember,” Evelyn raised her voice, “we still don’t know where her demon host has gotten to. We are still before the jaws of a trap.”

“It’s not a trap,” Jan protested. “It’s a sensible precaution.”

“Then where is she?” Evelyn hissed.

“The thing in my mind is bigger than both of us,” I said slowly. “Bigger than all of us here. Bigger than this entire world. You do not want to meet it, you do not want to look inside my mind, because it will drive you mad. I barely keep it at bay, with magic I don’t even understand, and frankly I doubt you have much chance either. And it has taught me the most horrible things, the keys to reality, like toxic waste in my mind. You do not want that in your—”

Head!” Jan interrupted me, eyes wide with hope.

“ … I’m sorry?”

“Head. Head! You said mind. Did you mean mind, or did you mean head?” She looked between all of us, suddenly more animated, a smile peeking back onto her delicate lips. She brushed her fluffy black hair behind her ears. I saw Raine twitch, almost go for the kill shot, and Jan flinched so hard she threw her hands up in surrender. But she rattled on quickly. “Because I don’t care about what’s in your mind. I don’t care about your thoughts. You could be like her—” she nodded at Praem “—for all I care, you could have a whole legion of demons in your mind and I really would not be bothered one slightest bit. It would be terribly hypocritical of me, anyway.”

I blinked at her in confusion. Raine shrugged but kept her pistol trained. Twil puffed out a breath. Praem didn’t move.

“In your head, or in your mind?” Jan repeated, trying to maintain her smile. “Let’s clear this up.”

“The Eye,” I said out loud, tentacles twitching, fully expecting her to pull some impossible death-magic from thin air. “It’s in my mind, yes. Not my head, physically. Are you after the Eye? Don’t make us speak its true name, because the true name hurts to even hear, it … really sucks, it—”

“She’s not after the Eye,” Evelyn said softly, but with such conviction that we all looked at her.

“Uh, indeed!” Jan said. “That’s a bit of a coincidence, but I don’t know what the ‘Eye’, singular, is, but that doesn’t sound like what I’m here to find.”

“My mother had notes on you people,” Evelyn said. She took a deep breath, finally removed her hand from the designs on her bone wand, and rubbed the bridge of her nose. Her painfully grey expression was gone, colour coming back into her cheeks. She rolled her neck left and right, which produced a clicking and grinding of vertebrae. “Took me a moment to recall.”

“Ah,” Jan grimaced, more embarrassed than afraid. “I’m only working for them, I’m not one of them myself.”

“The Army of the Third Eye,” Evelyn sighed. She tapped her own forehead with a sigh. “Trepanation hole? Third eye? Get it?”

“Oh, come on,” Twil sighed. “You’re kidding?”

“You mean … this isn’t about the Eye?” I asked. “Our Eye, I mean? ‘Army of the Third Eye’? Goodness, that’s an awfully confusing name. Why does everything to do with magic have such stupid names?”

I found myself almost panting to get my breath back, talking just to feel normal. My tentacles slowly lowered as I realised Jan was no longer tense with the need to grab her gun and shoot me. I concentrated to force control rods back into my bioreactor, like struggling with occulted internal muscles. Jan pulled a very awkward smile indeed, quite embarrassed.

“They’re a cult,” Evelyn went on, frowning at Jan. “Quite an old one, too. Thirty years or so now, if they really are still around. My mother’s notes said they fizzled out about twenty five years back, too many of them dead, too much attention from the mundane authorities.” She glanced at the rest of us. “They let off a couple of car bombs in London in the early nineties and tried to assassinate an MP. According to my mother’s notes they … ” She redirected her attention back to Jan, still hard and uncompromising even if not ready to kill her anymore. “You need to prove you’re not lying. I know of the people you claim to work for. Explain what you’re here for. If your words don’t match my expectations, I will have Raine here shoot you.”

“Evee,” I hissed.

“She’ll do it, she totally will,” Raine said, pulling a resigned smile with her lips pressed together.

“She will not,” Praem intoned.

“I am trying to present a credible threat here,” Evelyn said, rolling her eyes.

“I already did that,” I said. “I think.” Then I undermined myself with a truly gargantuan hiccup, so bad it actually hurt my diaphragm. Jan flinched and I blushed slightly. “Sorry,” I said, trying to take a breath. “Too much … too much of all this.”

“Is she okay?” Jan asked.

“I’m fine,” I said, rubbing my sternum.

“Answer the question,” Evelyn grumbled, though her tone seemed utterly resigned to the growing absurdity of a true misunderstanding.

Jan puffed out a sigh and pulled that uniquely teenage grimace again, half embarrassment, half like a worm exposed under an overturned rock. “The Army of the Third Eye is hardly a ‘cult’,” she said in that delicate voice. “That’s a bit much. They don’t understand anything about magic, they’re basically a bunch of normies who got overexposed and couldn’t deal with it.”

“And what do they want,” Evelyn said — it wasn’t even a question, she was just utterly exhausted by this moment.

“They um … ” Jan cleared her throat and blushed. “They believe the British government and general establishment types are being mind-controlled by giant alien insects. From space.”

“What,” went Twil.

Raine raised her eyebrows.

“Um,” I said. “Giant?”

“Yes, yes, go on,” Evelyn sighed, making a get-on-with-it hand gesture.

“Well, giant in relative terms,” Jan said. She held her hands about a foot apart. “About the size of a pigeon. Sort of mottled grey-green. They look a bit like a giant fly but they’ve got many more limbs and lots of eyes, and they’re supposed to curl up and hide inside human skulls, entwined with the brain matter itself. Supposedly they can read memories and then pilot the host with suggestion and mental torture and … look,” she hurried to add, though Evelyn was already nodding along, “I don’t believe a word of this. The Army have a lot of sketches of these things but only one blurry photograph. You and I, if you are all what you claim to be, we both know that it could be a photograph of anything. Some demon, something from the Beyond, something a stupid and irresponsible mage cooked up once.”

“This all matches up,” Evelyn sighed, possibly the most exasperated I’d ever seen her.

“Giant alien space bugs?” Twil asked, in the tone one might say magical polka-dot clowns.

“My theory,” Jan said, quite apologetic, “is that these poor fellows encountered something, years and years ago, something magical that they couldn’t deal with, that they couldn’t process. So, cultural expectations took over, maybe one of them was into UFO stuff, so … giant mind-control space bugs.”

“Maladaptive coping strategy,” Evelyn said. “That happens, rarely, when somebody can’t process exposure to magic.” She finally let go of her bone wand and casually passed it to Praem, then flexed and massaged her stiff fingers.

Raine raised her eyebrows at that. “Evee, you sure that’s a good idea?”

“I don’t fucking care any more. Just keep the gun pointed at her,” Evelyn grumbled. “Finish, what else?” she spat at Jan.

“I’ve only ever met five members of the Army,” Jan said, “and I think that’s all that’s left. They’re all in their sixties now and they’re all absolutely deep in awful paranoia, it’s really quite sad. They’ve all performed trepanation on themselves in the past — they believe sunlight kills the bugs. So, when your … um … friend,” she cleared her throat, “turned up in Sharrowford General Hospital with a hole in his head, one of them read about it in his regular Google search for news with the word ‘trepanation’.” She pulled another grimace-smile. “They paid me a lot of money to soothe their paranoia, that’s really all there is to it. I’m supposed to check out this Nathan fellow and make sure it’s not relevant to them. But they are paranoid, and if it doesn’t involve trying to kill government ministers, I think they really will break out the improvised explosive devices.”

“Uh, ‘scuse me?” Twil said. “I’m not following a word of this?”

“Why am I not surprised?” Evelyn shot her a very tired look. “Normal people got exposed to magic and couldn’t deal with it. Maybe one of them got a demon in his head or something. That was my mother’s conjecture, anyway.”

“Right, right, okay,” Twil said, trying really hard. “So there’s not actually any giant alien space bugs?”

“No,” Evelyn said, very slowly and very carefully.

“But they explained it to themselves with giant alien space bugs?” I asked Jan directly.

“Mmhmm.” Jan nodded, smiling.

“They really believe this?”

“They really believe it, yes. They’re paying me a lot of money to confirm a giant alien space bug did not come out of Nathan’s head.”

“ … I’ve heard and seen a lot of absurd things since I stumbled into all this,” I said, “but that has to be some kind of record.”

Jan winced. “I do apologise.”

“No, wait, you were about to shoot me!” I said, pointing with both one hand and a tentacle at the pink gun on the bed. “You were about to reach for that thing. I’m not very experienced at reading people, but even I could see that.”

“Ohhhh yeah,” Raine said, soft and low. “Another couple of seconds there and I would’a made you a third eye of your own.”

Jan’s beautiful, impossible, gem-like eyes twitched — for a moment I thought she was about to finally reveal her true weapons and turn us all to stone with a charmed look. My tentacles jerked up to defend myself, defend my friends, block her gaze; but then I realised with an embarrassed flush that she’d barely resisted an urge to roll her eyes. She was, in fact, staying extra polite.

“The gun, really?” she muttered, faintly amused. “Of course I was about to defend myself, I thought I’d finally run into the real thing!”

“So you do believe in the alien space bugs?” I asked.

Jan’s resistance crumbled; she rolled her eyes. “No, of course not. What do you take me for? I’ve done this same job three times and I’ve never seen anything to suggest the Army aren’t just a bunch of well-armed lunatics, but … well, your man Nathan is clearly disturbed, and not only by the hole in his head.” She shrugged, just as delicately as she did everything else. “That fit the pattern described by my clients, but it’s the first time I’d seen it. I did hunt down something that had come out of him, but that seemed unrelated, so I was ready to dismiss it and get back to business.”

“The skin man that came out of Badger,” Raine said, nodding. “Your zombie ate it.”

“Of course she did,” Jan said. “It reeked of him, we needed to get rid of it. Also, excuse me — zombie?”

“Whatever she is,” Raine said.

“Did you make that thing? It was horribly unhygienic.”

“Nah.” Raine shook her head. “We were trying to get rid of it too.”

“And what is your business, exactly?” Evelyn grumbled. “Beyond this job.”

“Making money.” Jan raised one hand and rubbed her fingers together. “But then you hunt me down, I bring it up, and you get defensive. You start telling me there’s something in your head, so yes, of course I was getting ready for action! Goodness me.” She sighed, pursing her lips and shaking her head at me. “I thought I was about to be face to face with giant alien space bugs.”

“That’s what you signed up for, ain’t it?” Twil said.

Jan sighed and gave Twil a pinched look. She was about to open her mouth and carry on — she seemed to like the sound of her own voice. Either that or she was practised at long-form distraction. But I pushed in before we could get further off track.

“This doesn’t actually explain anything,” I said, my tentacles still up. “How did you track Praem? How did you know we were out in the street just now? How can you see my tentacles? What was the ‘second job’ you mentioned, from what group of people? And what about your … ”

Eyes, I was about to say, but those eyes flickered to me and seemed to hold me still by virtue of their sheer beauty.

“Yeah,” Raine added. She hadn’t moved, but suddenly her gun seemed to loom larger. “You’re good at the run around, I’ll give you that, but you’ve missed a detail.”

Jan blinked at Raine. “Yes?”

“Badger would have contacted us if you’d seen him in the hospital,” Raine said with an awful smirk, the smirk of a hound cornering prey. “You’re still lying. Checkmate.”

“Of course he wouldn’t have!” Jan tutted. “I threatened him. You’ve got him in there with no protection at all. He thinks I’ll come back and kill him if he breathes a word to you.”

“Ah,” said Raine.

“Shit,” went Twil. “She’s got us there. We’re kind of bad at this.”

“Oversight,” said Praem.

“Still doesn’t explain the second job, hey?” Raine pressed.

Evelyn suddenly snapped, “Of course it explains that. Am I the only one of us capable of extrapolating from available information?” She frowned around at all of us, an exacting schoolmarm with a clutch of particularly slow students. She stared at me. “I expected better of you, Heather.”

“I’m … sorry?”

“Never mind, it’s not your area. I suppose this is why I’m your strategist,” she grumbled, then ignored me in favour of Jan. “You were talking to the rest of the survivors from the Sharrowford Cult, weren’t you? Badger’s remaining friends and contacts. That’s all the places you were visiting two days ago. And they wanted you to do something about us.”

Jan sat up straight, settling her petite frame into a semi-formal pose, hands cradled in her tiny lap. “Guilty as charged — though it’s not a crime.”

“Do something about us?” Raine echoed, a dark smile in her voice.

Jan cleared her throat. “They offered to pay me, well, not very much money, to confirm if Nathan is alive and well or not, if his mind is intact, and so on. They gave me a promise of further pay if I could — and I quote — ‘pry him out of their clutches’. That being you, of course.”

“Dangerous job, you know?” Raine purred. “We’re dangerous people.”

“We are not,” I muttered, vastly uncomfortable.

“Absolutely,” Jan said with a swallow and an awkward smile. “Really, you have to understand, I only took the job because I was pretty sure that ‘Badger’ — goodness, he does look like a badger, doesn’t he? How apt. I only took the job because it was pretty obvious that he’s fine, except a tiny bit of brain damage, but that’s to be expected. He’s hardly under duress and seems to absolutely adore you.” She nodded at me and my stomach turned over. “My plan was to wait for him to get discharged, meet you through him, and then get paid twice; once for confirming the obvious absence of alien space bugs, the other for ‘freeing’ Badger.” She sighed and flopped her hands against her lap. “Didn’t expect you people to act like territorial cats. Considering what you did for Nathan, I assumed you were … ” She paused for a tiny laugh. “‘The good guys’, to some extent.”

“There are no good mages,” Evelyn hissed.

“We are the good guys,” Twil said, a bit shrill with offence, frowning. She glanced at the rest of us. “Good girls, whatever.”

“Good girls,” Praem intoned.

“Yeah,” Twil echoed, then caught our mixed expressions. “What?”

“Maybe we better leave those definitions to posterity,” I said.

Raine was shaking her head at Jan. “This might be convincing Evee, but I think you’re being a touch too talkative.”

“You’re pointing a gun at me!” Jan said, outraged in the exact way a teenage girl would be at something so obvious. “Look, I’m not here to be a hero, I’m here to get paid. I can’t exactly enjoy the bit that comes after getting paid if my brains are splattered all over the back wall of this total dump. What a place to die.” She gestured with her eyes at the horrible, cramped bedsit room all around us. “Want me to tell you anything else about the job? I will, because you’re pointing a gun at me, duh.”

“And you have one of your own,” Raine said, still level and cold.

“Oh for—” Jan huffed, started to reach for the pink handgun, then stopped with her fingers splayed. “Can I pick this up and hand it to you without being ventilated? It’ll prove a point.”

Raine glanced at Evelyn, who shrugged. She pulled the 3D-glasses from her pocket and peered through them at the gun. “She’s not trying to hoodwink us.”

“Rare for you, Evee,” Raine said.

“This is too stupid not to believe. Get on with it.”

“I don’t think there’s anything magical about it,” I said. “But that’s just me.”

“Don’t smell no silver,” Twil added.

Frowning but cautious, Raine nodded, took one hand off her own pistol, and held it out to accept Jan’s gun. Jan picked the weapon up by the barrel and held the grip out toward Raine. Frowning surprise flickered across Raine’s face the moment she took the absurdly pink firearm in her own hand.

“Raine?” I asked, suddenly alarmed.

“Oh, you’re kidding me,” Raine laughed, hefting the weight of the gun. Taking extra care where she pointed the barrel of her own pistol, she pressed a catch on the side of the pink gun, slid out the bit that held the bullets, glanced inside and snorted, then clicked it back into place. She pulled back the slide and looked into the chamber, shaking her head. She gave Jan a look I’d never seen before — actual exasperation, but tinged by professional interest, almost admiration. “You absolutely had me going.”

“It wouldn’t be any good otherwise,” Jan said with a musical, girlish giggle.

Then Raine aimed the pink gun at Jan’s stomach and pulled the trigger.

I almost screamed. Subconsciously I’d understood exactly what I’d seen, but my fore-brain had taken just long enough to catch up that for a split second I thought Raine was summarily shooting this girl in the belly. A gasp escaped me, panicked hands and tentacles whirling, half to catch the bullet, half to yank the gun out of Raine’s hands, one tentacle lingering to forestall Jan’s inevitable and probably deadly response.

But instead of a deafening bang and the awful sound of metal going through meat, the pink gun produced a dull pock.

A little white pellet bounced off Jan’s thick black sweater.

“Heeeey, ow!” Jan flinched. “That still hurts a bit!”

Twil started laughing. Evelyn sighed.

“Oh come on,” Raine sneered. “It’s sub-airsoft. This wouldn’t even hurt a mouse. Looks the part though.” She turned the pink gun over appreciatively. “Pink ain’t my style, but what is this supposed to be, some kinda sub-compact?”

“I have no idea,” Jan said. “I’m not into guns, personally.”

“It’s a fucking airsoft gun!” Twil was howling. She put both hands on her head and turned in a circle.

“Twil,” Evelyn grunted. “Stay on task. She’s still a mage.”

“It’s an airsoft gun! Fuck me!”

“Excuse me, Raine,” I managed to say, keeping my voice steady. “Can you maybe warn me next time you shoot somebody?”

“Heather?” Raine blinked at me, then lit up with concern. “Oh, shit, you thought it was real?”

“I thought you were shooting her! Yes!”

“I would never,” Raine said, dead serious. “I mean, I would, if she was a threat. But not in cold blood. Unless we had to.”

“Good to know,” Jan said in a stage-whisper.

“Just warn me next time, instead of pulling the theatrics, please?” I asked, trying to force my heart rate back down.

“You bet. Promise,” Raine said, all humour forgotten in the way she nodded to me. “Gotta admit it had style though. Bang bang.” She pointed the fake, girly-pink gun at Jan again, miming firing off rounds. Her own pistol was aimed carefully at the floor.

I gave her such a look.

“I think they really do make pink guns, you know?” Twil said. “Like, real ones.”

“If we are all quite finished playing with toy guns,” Evelyn said as Raine handed the utterly harmless airsoft pistol back to Jan. “I think this establishes where we all stand.”

“This really does have nothing to do with us,” I said. “Well, except the bit with the leftovers of the cult.”

“Yes, I’m pretty sure she’s telling the truth,” Evelyn grumbled. She was hunching up harder than before, leaning heavily on her walking stick, and unsuccessfully suppressing a grimace. Her free hand wandered down to rub at her thigh, then scratch at where the seal paper was irritating her stomach. My own seal was an itchy mass by now, I desperately wanted to peel it off. “And I need a sit down.”

“This means we did the right thing then, hey?” Twil said, gesturing around the room. “We came to talk it out, ‘stead of shooting first. Success!”

It didn’t feel like a success; our moment of unintended silence spoke volumes. We had barged into Jan’s rented hovel, pointing weapons and making threats, very much being ‘the bad guys’, until she’d explained herself. From one perspective we were blameless — we had no idea what she was, she could have been anything. Still could be anything.

But she was very small and looked so very vulnerable sitting on that bed, engulfed in her knitted jumper, with her slender legs stretched out over the side, pillow in her lap. Between her fluffy black hair and her delicate facial features, she looked like the sort of girl who should have been on the edge of a friend group in school right now, comfortably eating a pop tart or a cookie or some other nondescript sweet thing, not in this filthy room surrounded by a group of dangerous creatures.

Except for her eyes. And the way she’d pulled a fake gun and a playing card from pockets of nowhere.

It was very difficult to keep in mind that this girl was a mage.

“Sorry, there really is nowhere to sit,” Jan said with a sigh. “The chairs are terrible, they came with the room.”

“Mm,” Evelyn grunted, the tone of a woman who knew there would be no sitting for a while yet, but she still glanced behind her at the opposite bed frame, bare of sheets or even a mattress, just that guitar case sitting there. “I’m not sure it would be a good idea anyway. You’re not totally unarmed, we are still dealing with a real mage here. As you proved earlier. What else are you hiding up your sleeves?”

Jan smiled. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”

“I would, actually.”

“Oh, nothing special,” Jan said. She touched a spot diagonally upward from her own forehead and her fingertips appeared to vanish for the blink of an eye, as if passing behind an invisible curtain. Raine twitched her gun up and Twil was about to surge forward, which surprised me so hard that I flinched, but Jan’s hand was back in a blink, holding a Chupa Chups lollipop. She unwrapped it and popped it in the corner of her mouth, then spoke around the stick. “Defences, of course, yes, I won’t deny that. But I don’t need defences if you’re genuinely not going to point a gun at me anymore.”

Evelyn sighed and shook her head.

“Mages,” I hissed. “Bloody show-offs.”

“One more question,” Raine said. She tilted her head at the guitar case behind us. “What’s in the case?”

“Magic sword,” Jan said around her lollipop. “Long story.”

“ … magic sword?” Raine asked.

“Magic sword,” Evelyn sighed.

“Magic sword,” Praem echoed.

“Magic sword, yes, don’t sound so surprised. Go on, open it if you like, I can’t lift the thing. We never use it, anyway.”

Evelyn nodded to Praem, frowning hard. Praem stepped over to the opposite bed frame, undid the clasps on the hardshell case, and lifted the lid.

A sword, plain as day, lay nestled in a bed of old t-shirts and plastic carrier bags. It looked totally unremarkable, even a bit tarnished.

“Whoa,” Twil muttered.

“Alright, close it up,” said Evelyn. “That’s enough of that nonsense.”

Praem closed the lid while Jan swung her legs back and forth over the side of the bed, enjoying her lollipop. We all shared a confused glance. Evelyn was about to speak, but Twil got there first.

“Wait a fuckin’ minute,” Twil said slowly, squinting at Jan. “You’ve got a sword, but also a fake gun, right?”

“ … right?” Jan echoed.

“And you took a job, which you knew wasn’t a real job, because, you know, giant alien space bugs. And then you took another job, but you only took it because you knew it would mean almost no work. Like, you weren’t actually planning to fight Heather and Evee for Badger, you just knew it was already cool. You were gonna get paid for doing nothing. Twice.”

“Mmm … hmmm?” went Jan, increasingly like a deer in headlights.

“Dodgy dealer,” Praem intoned.

“You’re a con artist,” Twil said, mouth hanging open. “You’re like a mage con artist or some shit.”

Jan winced, drawing a sharp breath through clenched teeth. She waggled a slow finger at Twil. “That— that is— that’s— that’s a very harsh piece of terminology there. That’s very accusatory.”

Raine laughed. “Twil’s got your number. Hasn’t she?”

“I’m a magical problem solver!”

“Yeah, fake magical problems,” Twil said.

Jan sighed and surprised us all by flopping backward on the bed, arms outstretched. She lay still for a moment, staring at the ceiling through the slats of the top bunk. It was so very teenager that none of us knew how to react.

“Fake magical problems usually end with very grateful people paying me large sums of money,” she said to the dirty ceiling “You know how real magical problems tend to end?”

“Blood and terror,” Evelyn muttered.

“Yes!” Jan suddenly sat back up, looking at us like we were all idiots, despite the smile on her lips. “Real magical problems — the kind that you fine people seem to be suffering — end up with getting dead. And I don’t want to be dead! I should know, tried it once already. No thank you. I like getting paid, and I love getting paid twice for the same job. Money buys all sorts of lovely things like better living conditions than this, good food, a nice dress or two, the occasional book. Making sense, am I? So pack away the sanctimonious judgement of how I make a living. It’s not as if I have many other choices. And trust me, I’ve tried most of them.”

“You’re still a con artist,” Twil said.

“And you’re a terrible tracker. We knew you were there behind us the whole day!”

“Tch,” Twil tutted.

Jan’s little outburst was like watching the lenses realign in some piece of esoteric clockwork: it brought this whole situation into clear focus at last. She was no innocent child and we were not the nasty monsters leering over her — she was like a rat, a furtive thing beneath the floorboards, and here we were with torches and crowbars, prying our way into her particular underworld. And now she was frozen in fear, ready to bite perhaps, but mostly hoping she could convince us that she wasn’t getting into our grain.

“This still doesn’t explain how you can see my tentacles,” I said, a little more harsh than I had intended. “Or how you could tell what Praem is, or how you knew we were out in the street.”

Jan blinked at me in surprise, those incredible eyes trapped behind thick dark lashes. “I’m quite sure it doesn’t explain everything.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Look, I’m willing to tell you people whatever you want to know about me being here, because you’ve decided you’re all joint queens of Sharrowford or something. But I’m not spilling all my secrets to you. Some things are just not your business.”

“She is still a mage,” Evelyn grumbled. “Whatever else she is.”

“Quite right I am,” Jan agreed.

“Why the bloody hell were you wearing a school uniform?” Twil gestured at the neat, smart blazer and skirt hanging from the opposite bed frame.

Jan shrugged. “It’s wonderful camouflage. I’m the right size for it.”

“It’s your eyes, isn’t it?” I finally blurted it out, forcing the words up my throat like I was overcoming some terrible taboo. “Nobody else has mentioned them. Am I the only one seeing this?”

I glanced around at Evelyn, Raine, Twil, and Praem, and met blank, uncomprehending stares.

“No,” Praem intoned. “I see.”

“Oh,” I breathed.

“What about her eyes?” Evelyn went tense, then pulled out her modified 3D-glasses again, fumbling them onto her face as I spoke.

“They’re abnormal. It must be how she saw my—”

But the words died in my throat when I looked back at Jan. Those burning gemstone eyes had gone wide in shock, framed by a deep red blush blossoming in her cheeks. One pale, delicate, small-nailed hand was raised to cover her mouth.

“You can see … oh my goodness,” she gasped, then turned half away from me and shaded her eyes with one hand.


“That’s quite embarrassing!” she squeaked. “That’s … very private!”

“It’s only your eyes,” I said, dumbfounded.

“It’s me! It’s me! How can you see that?” she protested, glancing at me around the side of her hand. Then she realised Praem could see as well and unsuccessfully attempted to hide from both of us for a second, before giving up with a very haughty little huff. She crossed her arms and sat there, fuming and blushing like we’d walked in on her naked.

“Um … I’m sorry, but I don’t follow,” I said.

Evelyn gestured hurriedly at Praem, waving one hand for the return of her bone wand. She gripped the weapon tightly again, tucking one end of it under her armpit as she stared at Jan through the glasses.

“Evee?” Raine murmured, raising her pistol again.

“Hey, what?” Twil added. “We fighting now?”

“What are you?” Evelyn hissed at Jan, her jaw set with sudden tension, eyes hard, mouth a tight line.

“Excuse me?” Jan asked.

“I said, what are you?” Evelyn repeated, then whipped the glasses back off and looked Jan’s petite form up and down. Her knuckles were turning white on her walking stick. “What am I actually looking at here?”

Jan blinked. “I’m sorry, I don’t follow.”

“You said you’ve worked for the Army of the Third Eye multiple times, but you can’t be any older than nineteen, at most. Heather is seeing fucking spiritus expositae in your eyes, isn’t she? Which means you’re not fully settled in there, whatever you are.” Evelyn’s voice shook as she spoke and I saw her throat bob. “How old are you really?”

Jan’s jaw dropped and her brow creased with outrage. She took the lollipop out of her mouth. “Excuse me! You can’t just ask that.”

“Where did you get that body?” Evelyn said, throat thick with emotion, losing control.

“My body?” Jan gaped at her. “My body is none of your business!”

“It is if you fucking stole it,” Evelyn spat.

Two and two crashed together in my mind and added up to a gut-wrenching, blood-chilling five; Evelyn’s sudden blinding rage made perfect sense. Here was a mage who was very unlikely to be the age she appeared, claiming and demonstrating experience beyond her years, in the body of a young girl unblemished by the kind of exposure damage that Evelyn had endured. Eyes were a window on the soul, and Jan’s told of something very different inhabiting her body, but not a demon. Older, cleverer, perhaps not the original owner.

“Oh shit,” Raine hissed, levelling her gun at Jan’s head again. Praem took a half-step so she was almost in front of Evee, shielding her. Twil seemed confused, but her hands swirled into claws all the same. We were back on for a fight.

“Excuse me, but no it isn’t,” Jan snapped, outrage overcoming fear as she raged back at Evelyn. “Look, I’m willing to be open with you people but not—”

“Then I will have it out of you one way or another,” Evelyn hissed, her fingers shifting across the scrimshawed designs on her bone wand.

Then Evelyn yelped in surprise — at the feeling of one of my tentacles wrapped around her wrist. An invisible grip held Evelyn back from committing torture. She turned on me, eyes blazing. It was a miracle the room did not erupt into violence, as only Praem could see what had happened. Raine was staring Jan down while Twil didn’t know which way to turn.

“Heather,” Evelyn hissed in my face. “You let go—”

“Evee, she has an unbound demon host,” I said quickly, my own pulse like a drumbeat in my throat. “Like Praem. That she is not keeping a slave has to mean something.”

Evelyn actually bared her teeth at me. “She might be like—”

“But she might be nothing like your mother,” I rattled off as quickly as I could. “And I’m not going to let you get blood on your hands over a mistake. Please. Evee, please. She’s not even threatened us. Please. You did the same for me.”

Evelyn’s eyes blazed, her jaw set tight. She pulled at the grip of my tentacle around her wrist, but then relented, staring back at Jan, who was still sitting there with her arms folded, outraged almost beyond words.

“I still have to know,” Evelyn hissed.

“Yeeeeeeah,” Raine said, clicking her tongue. “That’s a red flag alright.”

“I’m not following a bloody word of this,” Twil muttered. “Are we doing a fight or what?”

“Jan,” I said, struggling to keep my voice level. “I’m sorry, but we do need an answer to that mystery. For personal reasons. Either we need a satisfactory answer to what you are, or Evelyn will very likely torture it out of you. And if she’s right, then I’d be inclined to let her. I don’t think she is right. Please.”

Jan stared at me, outraged and afraid in a way I’d never seen on a person before. Those beautiful eyes like the sky over a perfect sea were holding back a threat of tears. But she held her head high. “What are you going to ask next?” she said, cold and angry. “What I’ve got in my underwear?”

I winced. “No. Never. We just … Evelyn here … she’s very sensitive about the subject of … stolen bodies.”

“Joint,” Praem intoned, then added, “They will understand.”

Jan stared at Praem, then let out a shaking sigh. “Fine. At least one of you shows a modicum of respect.”

Praem bowed her head. It did not take an expert in body language to read that apology.

Jan reached out with both hands and began to roll up the right sleeve of her comfortable black jumper, revealing the crisp white fabric of her blouse underneath. She undid the tiny button at the cuff of the blouse, fingers fumbling a little with nerves, then rolled that up too. Smooth, pale, perfect skin slid out, a very slender and dainty forearm. Blushing hard with fury struggling not to show her tears, she pushed the fabric back up past her elbow, then held up her arm and flexed the joint so we could all see.

My jaw dropped. Evelyn stared for a second, then swallowed, letting go of her bone wand and averting her eyes. Raine let out a low whistle.

“Guess that explains why she doesn’t smell of anything,” Twil muttered.

Jan’s right elbow was a ball-and-socket doll-joint. Coloured like flesh, but not truly alive. She flexed the joint back and forth, then wiggled her fingers and rotated her wrist, and the trick became clear. Once one had seen the obvious fake of her elbow joint, the seams along her wrist and fingers were much harder to hide, as was the line where her neck joined to her skull. The illusion fell away as if it had never been there; she was using a technique very similar to Praem, clothing a doll’s skeleton in pneuma-somatic flesh — yet somehow visible and tangible.

“Whole body?” Raine asked, injecting her voice with that utterly judgement-free question she’d once used on me, to disarm all my fears.

“Whole body,” Jan hissed, barely able to speak from sheer humiliation. “Is that enough for you?”

“I think that explains everything,” I blurted out, then hiccuped in horror at what we’d done. “I’m so sorry we forced you to do that.”

“Yeah, hey,” Raine cleared her throat. “I think we kinda crossed a line there.”

“Yes,” Evelyn snapped. “Yes, of course … I … ”

“The answer to your question is no, by the way,” Jan said, shoving her sleeve back down to hide her arm again. As soon as the most egregiously obvious of her joints was hidden, the other seams became harder to detect. She blinked back tears of rage. “I didn’t steal my own body. I made it. It’s mine. It’s me. Also, fuck you.”

“No wonder you were so interested in Praem,” I said.

“It is beautiful,” Praem intoned.

Jan scrubbed her eyes on her sleeve, trying not to show her tears, but Praem’s words drew a tiny jerk from her. I wasn’t sure if it was a sob or a hiccup, but she got a grip on herself quickly and raised a sarcastic smile to me and Evelyn.

“I do hope you’re satisfied now,” she said.

“I’m— I— I apologise,” Evelyn stammered out. “I had to know, I—”

“We made a mistake, but we had to do it,” I said, then regretted that instantly “I mean we … we hurt … oh, dear.”

Jan gave me a look that said she didn’t care.

“Oof,” Twil said out loud.

Evelyn stopped trying to talk her way out of this. She straightened her spine as best she could, planted her walking stick firmly, and grabbed a fistful of her own skirt, then pulled upward until she revealed the matte black carbon fibre of her prosthetic shin and knee, showing off the artificial leg like a war-wound.

Jan shook her head, lips pressed together, not impressed. “It’s hardly the same, is it?”

“My mother attempted to cheat death by taking my body,” Evelyn said.

Jan stopped, actually listening. Evelyn’s chest rose and fell with emotional effort. Over her shoulder, I saw Twil’s eyes go wide with shock.

Oh Evee, I silently whined. You never told Twil?

“I was to be left in her rotting carcass,” Evelyn continued, though her words were forced, clipped, pushed out with great effort. “She did this damage to me, and more, prior to that attempt at possession. I have never considered the proper course of action to take if I encountered a mage who has successfully carried out her failed method of life-extension. I had to confirm … ” She trailed off. I covertly slid my arm through hers and placed my hand atop her fingers. She flinched, eyes flickering to me, but then steadied.

The worst of Jan’s outrage had subsided in the face of this confession. She half-nodded, a sideways tilt of her head, an acceptance, at least. She finally put her lollipop back in her mouth, though didn’t seem to be enjoying it very much.

“I would like to know who I am dealing with here,” Evelyn said, voice still tight. “Are you … human, or a demon in a doll, or—”

“I was born homo sapiens, yes,” Jan said, softly but still a little peeved.

“And how old are you?”

“Eighteen.” Jan shot Evelyn a look again, daring us to call her bluff.

“I am trying,” Evelyn said, “to afford you the respect we have violated.”

“Eighteen,” Jan repeated. “I have been eighteen for a very long time. Trust me, the body determines more about the mind than one expects. As you probably well know. Just treat me as what you perceive, please.”

“We can do that,” Raine said, stepping in so easy and confident before Evelyn could put her foot in her own mouth again.

“May I ask a question?” I said.

“You may as well,” Jan sighed.

“What am I seeing when I look at your eyes? They’re … I’ve never seen eyes like that before. They’re beautiful, just … ” I trailed off, lost for words.

“You are seeing me,” she said. “In here.”

A moment of silence passed. I think I understood.

“If you made your own body, why are you so small?” said Twil.

It was a genuine question. There was too much innocence in Twil’s tone for it to be otherwise, but I winced all the same. Evelyn put her face in her hand. Raine raised her eyes to the ceiling.

Jan pursed her lips and gave Twil a look. “Have you perhaps considered that I was also this same size previously?”

“Oh,” Twil said. “Right. Okay, cool.”

“ … is she simple?” Jan pointed at Twil and asked the rest of us.

“Sometimes,” Evelyn grunted.

“Oi!” said Twil.

“I am so sorry about all this,” I said, feeling both mortified and relieved. At least this was better than anything else that could have happened. Just.

Jan nodded awkwardly, but then crossed her arms, looked out of the window, and shoved the pillow off her lap — then pulled it back again and cuddled it to her chest.

“I think I’m ready to leave you people and your stupid, stupid city,” she said. “But right now I am feeling quite vulnerable, so I do apologise, but you’re going to have to deal with this.”

She reached out with the fingers of her right hand and stroked the air next to the bed. Those fingers had shown seamed joints along every knuckle only a minute or two ago, but now the illusion had firmly re-established itself. Fleshy digits briefly vanished from view, but for much longer and far deeper than her card-trick or hidden sweet pocket. She swiped her hand through the air like whisking back a curtain.

And Zheng’s mysterious zombie friend stepped out of thin air.

On the scale of a human being, the effect was dizzying, like watching a person appear around an invisible doorway. It stung my eyes and forced me to blink — though the particular qualities of the person joining us made my heart skip a beat and my tentacles fly up in a protective barrier. Twil growled in her throat and went halfway to wolf. Raine’s hands twitched to raise her gun, though she resisted the urge. Evelyn gasped and bumped against me. Praem just stared.

We’d all gotten used to living with Zheng, to some extent, to her big-cat rumbles and her tiger-like quickness, but not all demon hosts were alike, in frame or aspect.

The woman who stepped out of thin air could have walked down any Sharrowford street and been accepted as perfectly human; she was tall, perhaps six and a half feet, with long black hair the same as Jan’s, tied into a neat braid which reached all the way to the small of her back. She wore simple jeans and a practical grey coat full of pockets, over some kind of hooded athletic top, with trainers on her feet. The family resemblance Praem had mentioned was obvious — she and Jan were sisters, at the very least. They possessed the same delicate facial features, neat little nose, and compact mouth, all set in a heart-shaped face. The demon host lacked the impossibly beautiful eyes, stormy grey instead of electric-arc blue, but her stare was wide and emotionless, eyelids pulled so open that one saw a thick band of white around her irises.

Her stare reminded me of an owl, made me feel like a rodent, waiting for the claws.

But it was the way she moved which set the little hairs standing up on the back of one’s neck. She moved like she stared — focused grace in every muscle, twitchy and bird-like, ready to lash out at a moment’s notice. The tension in her frame reminded me more of Raine than Zheng, that strength and mobility like a set of steel cables beneath cloth and skin.

Was this what Zheng admired? An ember of jealousy smouldered in my chest. I thought about my mobile phone, currently muted for safety, and Zheng waiting on the other end. Should I call her, get her in here? Force the confrontation?

“These people are horrible. I need a hu—” Jan started to say, then yelped and put a hand to her mouth. She saw it the same moment we all did.

Her demon host friend was carrying a surprise visitor — a large, well-fed, sleek-furred fox, curled up in her arms like a cat.

“You again!” Evelyn snapped, entirely at the fox.

“Oh hey,” Twil lit up. “It’s back!”

Jan went quite shrill. “Where— what— I … I didn’t put that in there with you!”

The demon host turned to look at Jan; it must have been a spectacularly unpleasant feeling to have that attention spin around to you, like an owl hearing a rabbit a mile downwind.

“She was already present,” the woman said. To my surprise, her voice was perfectly ordinary, with the same delicate tones and precise pronunciation as Jan. She stroked the fox’s head and neck. “She is quite safe. Quite friendly. Very clean.”

“Very clean,” Praem intoned. I could have sworn the fox gave her a look.

The demon host turned to Praem. At this, the fox decided it was time to get put down again, and wriggled in the demon’s arms until she stooped and placed it on the floor. Claws clicked across the wooden boards, bushy tail swishing behind her. Evelyn shuffled back nervously as the fox padded past us and over to the door, as if asking to be let out. She looked up at me, then at Evelyn, amber eyes muted in the grim surroundings of this horrible little room.

“What are you?” Evelyn hissed.

The fox let out a warbling yip.

“What was it even doing here?” Jan asked, as perplexed as we were. “I don’t understand how it could possibly get in.”

“I think she was attempting to broker a peace,” I said haltingly, watching the fox for a reaction. The animal just stared up at Evelyn. “She led Zheng back to us, which broke up the fight. In theory. anyway.”

“You know this animal?” Jan asked. “This is yours?”

“She’s not ours,” Evelyn said. “But we know her.”

The fox nosed at the crack between door and frame, then glanced back up again.

“Can you stay a moment?” I asked her, unsure if she understood. “We’re not done here, not yet.”

Jan sighed and decided we were all mad and this was really none of her business. She turned back to her very tall demon host and stuck her arms out. “I need a hug. These people have violated me.”

“Again, sorry,” I said with a wince.

“Yeah, really,” Raine added. “Apologies.”

“She’s still a bloody mage,” Evelyn said. “And that is a demon.”

“I heard everything,” the demon host said. The way she spoke, the cadence and rhythm, had just a touch of Praem’s manner about her. The intonation, the precision. “We’re not using real names. Who am I right now?”

“Oh, that,” Jan sighed. “It hardly matters now. This is July.” She nodded to the demon.

“July and Jan,” Evelyn deadpanned. “Why do I not believe that?”

“Believe whatever you want,” Jan said. She waggled her arms up at the taller lady. “July, hug. Or I suppose you think I deserved all that?”

“You do not deserve cruelty,” July said. She bent down and wrapped her arms around Jan’s shoulders, giving her a reassuring yet politely brief hug. “But you should have expected this.”

“You smell like fox,” Jan said into her shoulder.

“You just let her take it, huh?” Raine asked the big demon.

July let go of Jan, straightened up, and turned her owl-like stare on Raine, a cold searchlight of predatory attention. Raine didn’t flinch, but she did stiffen, muscles subconsciously readying for action. She stared back, two predators sizing each other up.

“You wanna go?” Raine murmured.

“No. If you had pulled the trigger,” July said, unblinking, “I would have caught the bullet and spat it back at you.” Then she transferred her attention to the fox. “But I was assured that would not be necessary.”

“Yes,” Praem intoned.

July met Praem’s gaze. For a moment, the two demons stared at each other as well, almost equally blank.

“I’m sure you understand,” July said.

“Fucking hell,” Twil muttered, tilting her head from side to side while looking July up and down. “Why are they always so bloody tall? Is Praem gonna get really tall when she gets a bit older, or what?”

“I am the perfect height,” Praem said.

“Why is she unbound?” Evelyn asked, gesturing toward July with the head of her walking stick.

Jan gave Evelyn a look like she couldn’t believe her ears. “That is none of your business. Do you people just make a habit of barging into everyone’s life and demanding to know all their private business? Is this how you keep other mages out of your city, by being incredibly rude all the time?”

“You have an unbound demon.”

“And so do you!” Jan pointed at Praem. “You called her your daughter!”

“Exactly. So you know my reasons. What are yours?”

“It’s none of your business,” Jan said.

“Mages,” I huffed. “It’s like herding cats.”

“It is,” July agreed, staring at me; I struggled not to flinch from that look. Her eyes followed my tentacles bobbing up to defend me. “You are an octopus.”

“I … sort of, yes.”

“I’m not having you walking around my city with an unbound demon,” Evelyn said. “But I do need to understand your reasons.”

“Well, fine!” Jan huffed back. “Because I am leaving. I’m obviously not going to get paid for any of this—”

“Jan,” I spoke over the argument. “I would like to pay you for a job.”

Everyone stared at me. Even Praem didn’t know where I was going with this.

“Oh?” Jan said.

I cleared my throat and overcame two obstacles at once. Part of me was screaming to just hustle these two out of Sharrowford, out of our lives, to get July away from Zheng. But another part of me whispered with the true knowledge of what I had to do. I crammed that jealousy down deep; if I gave into it now I would never forgive myself, because others would pay the price.

The other obstacle was solved with great embarrassment.

I turned to Evelyn and said, “I need to borrow some money. I’m so sorry.”

She blinked at me, so surprised she was speechless for a second. “Anything,” she said.

“Thank you. Right, yes. Well. Jan. I want you to get all of the cultists together, all the survivors, everyone Badger knew. I want you to be a bridge for them, to us.”

“Oh dear,” Jan said, swallowing delicately. “Real magical problems. I really don’t think I can accept this one, I’m sorry, but we’re—”

“Not going anywhere,” said July.

“ … excuse me?” Jan squeaked up at her.

July locked eyes with me, wide and staring. Deep down inside, abyssal instinct screamed; she knew. She was taunting me.

“I would like to meet ‘Zheng’ again,” she said. “That is our price for the job.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Looks like nobody, not even Praem, predicted anything correctly about strange little Jan! Mages sure are weird, aren’t they? Every one of them is different. A bit like regular people. And just like a few regular people, this one is a con artist. With backup. Backup that Heather has accidentally made a deal with. Uh oh!

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Next week, a meeting of demons seems inevitable. Heather is going to have to deal with that, emotionally, and deal with this plan she’s cooking up regarding the remnants of the cult. Though that may be more of a practical matter. Or a brain matter. Pun intended.

for the sake of a few sheep – 15.10

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Across the dirty, dank, shadow-filled street, deep in one of Sharrowford’s most worm-riddled holes, from behind a pane of filthy glass, I met a pair of eyes like polished sapphires.

Blue as a fire-drenched sea.

That was the singular detail which struck me, even three stories up, obscured by the window and the angle of the lowering sun. The mystery girl — Smalls, in Twil’s inventive vernacular — was a pale oval sunk into the black background of her own hair and the indistinct room beyond. The late afternoon spring sun brushed her face like a timid wild-flower in a peat bog. But those eyes were oceanic, deeper than their surface, and watching us in return.

Perhaps it was merely a trick of the light, but between her unnaturally blue eyes and her perfect stillness, she seemed like a doll, propped in the window to provide shock or amusement to any passer-by who happened to look up.

But she was no doll. Despite her frozen expression, I felt her attention crawling over me.

An impression akin to deja vu passed through me in a cold shudder. I did not recognise this girl and I had never stood on this spot before, but I knew this sensation all too well: the recognition that sparked between two thinking beings across an inhospitable gulf.

I had forgotten, between my trial in Carcosa and the warm, welcoming, familiar cocoon of home, just how strange and alienating our own reality could be. 

Dark infinities lurked in so many corners of the Earth. This girl was peering out from inside one of them.

Then Raine lifted her hand and waved to the girl in the window.

Smalls blinked those impossible eyes, slipped down from the window, and vanished beyond our sight.

“Shit,” said Twil.

The spell broke and I could breathe again; I felt like I’d been locked inside those eyes. Reality reasserted itself in the sound of traffic passing nearby, the noise of distant voices, the hum and drum of Sharrowford on an ordinary afternoon.

“Would’a been nice if she’d waved back,” Raine said with a little sigh, as if we were discussing a flirting prospect rather than somebody we were about to threaten with our metaphorical naval guns.

“Shit is right!” Evelyn hissed. Her knuckles had gone white on the handle of her walking stick and her eyes darted from window to window, like she expected the girl to walk through the walls of the tiny bedsit flat and appear behind one of the equally filthy adjacent portals. “We have to leave, right now. We’ve fucked up, we’ve totally fucked this all up.” She spat the words, glancing up and down the street in terrible agitation. I hadn’t seen her this frightened in ages, her complexion going pale and waxy. She hunched her shoulders worse than usual and I could tell she was agitated by the corners of the seal stuck to her belly beneath her clothes. “We can’t walk up there now, we can’t, we can’t walk into that.”

Without thinking, I grabbed her free hand and held it tight. “Evee, it’s okay,” I whispered. “I think we’re okay. We’re okay. We’re okay.”

My own calm surprised me. The implications of our position were beginning to filter into my mind at last, tightening my throat and dumping a pint of adrenaline into my bloodstream, but my reaction had been delayed by that strange moment of bridging contact with the eyes of the girl in the window, a moment shared between me and the dark corners of the Earth. My tentacles — all six, ready and eager to flex and stretch — were uncoiling from my sides and creeping around Evelyn to form a protective barrier. She couldn’t see them, of course, and I couldn’t risk using them in public; some poor passer-by might have nightmares about poltergeists.

“Yeah, hey, keep your voice down,” Twil said, craning her head to glance up and down the street as well. “Somebody’s gonna look at us freaking out. Just keep it cool, keep it real cool, yeah?”

Evelyn glared at our joined hands, then over at me, her lips pressed into a tight, bloodless line. Her palm was sweating against mine. I squeezed. She swallowed but didn’t squeeze back.

“We’re okay,” I repeated, feeling a lump growing in my own throat. The adrenaline was hitting now: we’d been seen.

“Nah, this is fine,” Raine said, confident and serious, nodding to herself as she stared up at the window and put her hands on her hips. “Perfect, actually.”

Perfect!?” Evelyn hissed.

“Yeah, perfect. We’re not trying to ambush them to rough them up or anything, we’re just gonna say hello. This way they know we’re coming, less likely to surprise them.”

“They could be setting up to get the drop on us,” Evelyn snapped at her. “Right now!”

“In public? Naaah.” Raine shot her a wink. “Sure, yeah, they’ve got a moment to set up facing the door with a shotgun, metaphorically speaking. So us standing here and waving back is like shouting ‘Don’t shoot, we come in peace!’ If we just blunder there and surprise them, that actually makes it more likely they’ll pull the trigger. Again, metaphorically speaking.” Raine nodded to herself, talking as casually as about the weather. My head throbbed with nervous anxiety, but I held on to my jitters for Evelyn’s sake.

“I guess so … ” Twil mused, chewing on her tongue, one hand scratching absent-mindedly at her stomach — she wasn’t immune to the itchy glue on seals either. “We’re all still standing here and the street hasn’t exploded, soooooo yeah. I’m still in. And hey, if we back out now, I’m still gonna have to tell my family.”

“I can’t countenance this,” Evelyn said through a strangled throat.

“They know we’re coming,” Raine said to Evelyn and myself with an easy smile and a twinkle in her eyes. “And we know that they know, and they know that we know that they know. So we all know that everyone else knows. You know?”

Evelyn gave her such a look. I did too, though I knew she was trying to help by transmuting Evelyn’s fear into irritation.

“Shut up,” Praem told her.

Raine shot Praem a wink and a hip-fired finger-gun.

“I think … ” I started, then wet my lips and pulled my threadbare courage together with a squeeze of Evelyn’s hand. I swallowed a hiccup. “I don’t think that girl was normal. But if we retreat now, they might assume we were trying to ambush them. It would be very suspicious behaviour.”

Raine nodded, trying to look sagely and wise. She squeezed my shoulder. Twil puffed out a breath and said, “In for a penny, in for a pound.”

Evelyn couldn’t get a hold of herself. She’d gone from unable to squeeze my hand in return to holding on so tight it hurt my fingers. Her eyes, wide and a little bloodshot, darted between the window where Smalls had watched, the plain door that served as the entrance to the low rise block of flats, and the end of the street, the promise of retreat and safety.

“Evee,” I said, trying to get her attention. “Evee, look at me, please? Evee? If you insist, then we’ll leave. No arguments. Do you insist?”

“Eh?” Twil squinted at me. “Big H, come on, you were right first time. It’s mad to leave now. They’ll think we were trying to … you know!” She lowered her voice to a stage-whisper, like we were mafia footsoldiers, her classically pretty face twisted with a grimace. “Whack them!”

“Maybe we should,” Evelyn said, voice tight with effort.

“Leave?” I asked. My heart began to soar with relief. I knew it wasn’t the right choice, but I wanted to run too. Evelyn had fought hard against her own paranoia to reach this spot, this moment, this dirty pavement corner on a filthy, run-down Sharrowford street, but what if she was right? What if her paranoia was right?

Abyssal instinct crawled up my spine like a mass of sucking salty seaweed, screaming at me to run and hide from unknown potential predators.

But instinct also demanded that I protect the pack, protect family. Keep those tentacles around Evelyn.

And a tiny but insistent voice whispered What if that girl needs help?

“No,” Evelyn hissed. “Whack them.”

“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Twil groaned.

“Yeaaaah,” Raine said, clearing her throat. “We’re not set up for that. Unless you want to shout for Zheng.”

“I’m not being serious, you pair of morons,” Evelyn said. “I’m venting. No, we are not going to do that.”

“Phew,” Praem said out loud.

Evelyn shot her a filthy look, but then relented and drew herself up to her full height, struggling with her crooked spine. She met my eyes and finally managed to loosen her grip on my hand, but she didn’t let go.

“Heather is correct. Retreating now would give the impression we wanted to ambush them. We’re committed. We go in. We stick to the plan.”

She spoke to me — to me alone, it felt, her soft blue eyes so familiar, a contrast to the pair I’d seen up in the window. I swallowed, nodded, and kept my tentacles around her like a shark-cage as we headed for the front door.

Praem and Twil took the lead, as the most physically robust of our landing party, followed by Raine just behind them. Evelyn and myself stayed in the rear — “Tanks up front, healers in back,” as Raine had put it earlier. We had no need to discuss the plan from this point, we’d gone over it again and again, including the need to keep Evelyn at the rear. I’d never seen her stumble or fall because of her disability, but we all knew she couldn’t run on her prosthetic and her withered leg, not really.

The entrance to the block of flats was a pair of steel double-doors, inset with and flanked by smoked glass which was filled with anti-shatter wire mesh. Weeds grew in the gaps between the paving slabs, fertilized by discarded cigarette ends and fossilized chewing gum. A rather optimistic tarnished brass plaque next to the door informed the doomed reader that the building was called Summerway Apartments.

As we made our final approach, I kept glancing up at that third-story window to see if Smalls would reappear.

“Heather, Praem,” Evelyn said quietly but softly, just before we reached the door. “Any pneuma-somatics?”

A shape like a cross between a gorilla and a giant rat was snuffling along the edge of the building’s rooftop, as if searching for scraps, followed by some kind of living moss that oozed halfway down the building. In the street, keeping their distance from us, was a gaggle of creatures that could have passed for geese, if it wasn’t for all the tendrils and snapping teeth. A twelve foot tall humanoid figure stood stock still in one of the alleyway mouths, wrapped in white like a corpse in a shroud, a trio of eyeballs in its stomach rolling as if in a seizure. Back the way we’d came, a pair of ghoulish deer-things were creeping along the road, locked in some slow-motion game with each other.

“Well, yes,” I said, “plenty. But nothing out of the ordinary.”

“Nothing that could be a servitor?”

“I can’t be sure, but none of them look out of place. I mean, for spirits. They all look out of place.” I cleared my throat. “You know what I mean.”

“Only good boys and girls,” Praem intoned, sing-song, as she paused by the front door to the flats. Evelyn peered forward to ensure the door wasn’t booby-trapped.

Unlikely, she’d explained during our earlier planning, not with something so public, but we had to check. Working quickly, she drew the modified 3D-vision glasses out and squinted through them at the door frame, scanning quickly up and down. We all held our breath, praying that nobody who lived there would choose that exact moment to depart the building. It wasn’t as if we could be forced to explain what we were up to, but a group of university-age women all acting weird would stick in a person’s memory; that’s the last place we would want to stay, if the worst happened and we left any mess for the mundane authorities.

“I don’t see anything wrong,” Evelyn muttered, swallowing on a dry throat as she tucked the glasses away.

Praem nodded, grabbed the steel handle, and swung the door wide. She went in first, followed by Twil.

“Tanks up front,” Raine said, winking at me. “Hang back, yeah? Look after Evee.”

“I don’t need looking after,” Evelyn said.

“I will,” I replied, hiccuped softly, and held on tight.


We reached the door to number fifteen without stepping on any landmines or snagging any tripwires. Evelyn was so tense, squeezing my hand harder than she realised, thumping her walking stick down on every step. We may as well have been creeping through No Man’s Land, between rows of barbed wire.

The inside of the Summerway Apartments — a name I absolutely could not append to this building — was just as bad as Twil had claimed. It was old, perhaps 1950s or even earlier, the sort of construction thrown up in a hurry to capitalise on spare space, cramming lodgers and renters into every nook and cranny the city offered. I did love old buildings, but nobody should be forced to live in a place like that. The entranceway reeked of urine and the unmistakable musk of cannabis; the dark corners were indeed littered with used syringes and fresh stains, along with a few discarded condoms.

Bare wooden floorboards creaked beneath our feet as we climbed the narrow stairwell, flanked by equally bare wooden walls that some poor soul had once tried to wallpaper, but now only yellowed scraps remained. The bannister was wrought iron, probably weighed a ton, and was scarred and marked with ancient burns and scorches. Must have been scavenged from a house fire in a mansion. Naked bulbs on bare wires hung from the ceiling of each small landing, each of which led off in a corridor with a double-row of numbered front doors. The middle of each flight of constricted stairs and the dead end of each corridor was clotted with shadows. A few spirits lurked about, but not many wished to brave the tight confines.

It was very difficult to keep in mind this was an inhabited building, that normal people lived here, that this wasn’t some Outsider warren deep in the earth or a castle full of horrors. We were approaching a zombie who had gone toe-to-toe with Zheng, at the very least, and god alone knew what else. Walking into the lion’s den, yet again. One would have thought we’d learnt our lesson.

Despite the sounds we could hear through the building’s walls — a child laughing somewhere, a man calling out a muffled question, the low drone of a television, the whistle of an old-style kettle — and despite the presence of Raine and Twil and Praem close to hand, I wanted to armour up.

My body ached with the need to cover myself in plates and spines, to sprout toxic vanes and sharpen my teeth. I wished I’d brought my squid-skull mask, though I could hardly carry that around in public, let alone wear the thing on my head. My tentacles flexed and twitched as we climbed the stairs, occasionally reaching for the bannister with an urge to pull myself straight up the middle of the shaft and short-cut all this risky walking. In the face of danger, abyssal instinct burned bright with helpful suggestions — run fast, be sharp, strike first.

But Evelyn’s hand held me back, though she knew it not. Keeping my tentacles around her in a protective cage was more important than rocketing up the stairs and punching a tentacle through the skull of our quarry, like coring an apple.

Not that I could have done that anyway; I’d probably just have bounced off the bannister and winded myself.

Nobody said anything until we reached the third floor landing. Twil nodded down into the shadows of the corridor.

“Number fifteen, third on the right,” she whispered. Her voice seemed to carry too far in these bare confines, the wood a listening echo-chamber.

“Stick to the plan,” Evelyn hissed through her teeth, throat bobbing with a dry swallow. I nodded, my heart like a fluttering dove and my breath tight in my chest.

We crept up to the door. I felt equal parts absurd and terrified, like we were play-acting a cartoon break in, but there was no pretend about any of this. Raine’s hand crept to her pistol beneath her jacket; Twil’s arms were free and ready for transformation; Praem stayed straight-backed and prim as always. Barely able to breathe, I kept my tentacles close as Evelyn pulled out the glasses again and looked the door up and down. She was as pale and shaky as I felt, twitchy and full of adrenaline.

“Praem?” she said eventually, barely a whisper.

Praem dipped her head in a simple nod. She couldn’t see anything wrong either. Evelyn put the glasses away and glanced at me.

“Just a door,” I mouthed.

Twil was sniffing, nose in the air, brows knotted. Evelyn was so impatient and nervous that she actually tapped Twil’s leg with her walking stick. Twil frowned back, but then nodded. “They’re here,” she whispered, showing her teeth in an instinctive canine display.

We all shared a glance. This was it. Moment of truth.

Evelyn worked her scrimshawed thigh-bone wand out from beneath her coat, one hand wrapped around the designs on the surface. She nodded to Praem.

Praem raised a hand and knocked on the door, three medium-soft raps with her neat, pale knuckles. The sound was like a broken drum in this tight warren of old wood.

We all waited, holding our collective breath. Raine edged her pistol out of her jacket, glancing up and down the corridor to check that nobody else was emerging from the other flats.

Time stretched out. My back was sweating. The sticky seal paper itched terribly on my skin.

“Try again,” Evelyn hissed.

“They heard!” Twil protested. “They’re fucking with us.”

Praem knocked again, exactly the same.

A second passed, two seconds, three — and then a tiny mewl of sound reached us through the door; for a moment my brain couldn’t parse it as words, it was so timid and pitiful.

“It’s … it’s unlocked,” a small feminine voice called through the wood, quivering and hesitant.

“Fuck,” Evelyn hissed through her teeth.

“A trap?” Raine murmured, drawing her gun into the open. She held it pointed downward. Twil flexed her hands, aching to make claws.

“I don’t know!” Evelyn whispered back. “Nobody touch the door handle. Praem, do not touch the handle.”

“Tentacles,” I whispered to Evee, my heart hammering on the inside of my ribs. I hiccuped, but I wasn’t backing down now. “Evee, I can touch the handle. I can shed layers, I can shed and regrow a whole limb if I have to! Let me do it.”

“I can grow hands back too,” Twil muttered, a bit put out.

Evelyn’s eyes searched mine.

“I can do it!” I said. “Like a lizard losing a tail. I’ll be completely safe. And if there’s more, if there’s magic, you know I can … do my thing.”

“If Heather says she can do it, she can do it,” Raine whispered.

Evelyn swallowed hard, then nodded once. She let go of my hand and motioned nobody else to touch me. “When Heather opens the door, stick to the plan. No sudden movements. If anything unexpected happens, follow my directions. If I say run, we run.”

“We know, we know, damn,” Twil said, bouncing on the balls of her feet.

With my heart in my throat and my hands clenched into tight little fists, I uncoiled one tentacle and reached for the antiquated brass door handle. My pneuma-somatic flesh, pale and gently strobing in the gloom, thickened around the tip as I reached out, adding layers of callus-like skin and reinforcing itself with spurs of stiff cartilage. I felt my bioreactor spike with power flooding my bloodstream with things that had no place in a proper human body, anticipating the worst — an electric shock, a magical trap, an ambush.

My tentacle grabbed the door handle. Nothing happened.

I blew out a shaking breath.

“You’ve got it?” Twil hissed.

“Yes, I’m touching it,” I replied. “It’s safe so far.”

There was no need for words as I eased the door handle down. The others watched the ghostly spectacle with baited breath, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Only Praem could actually see my tentacle doing the work, until Evelyn quickly fumbled the modified 3D glasses back onto her face. If a passer-by had chanced on us in that moment, we’d have ended up on a paranormal website for certain; five college girls watching a poltergeist open a door.

Nothing happened when the door handle reached the nadir of its arc; nothing leapt out to claw off our faces when I cracked the door away from the frame; nothing detonated or screamed or pointed a gun at us as I swung the door wide to slowly reveal the cramped room beyond.

Everyone peered over my shoulders. Twil was visibly twitching to rush inside, but she managed to stick to the plan.

I did my best to ignore what I saw: the bare wooden floor and dirty walls, the pair of sparse metal bunk beds either side of the room, the backpack and sports bag and the low table, the fast-food detritus on a battered kitchen counter. Most of all, I tried for just a moment to ignore the girl sitting on the right-hand bed, her huge sapphire doll-eyes peering at us from over the rampart of her own knees drawn up to her chest, clutching a pillow. I had to try very hard to ignore the way she was shaking and shivering.

“Hey there,” Raine said to her, easy and light, radiating all that beaming confidence which she so often used on me. That was part of the plan too. “We’ll step inside in a sec, but we’ve just gotta check it’s safe first, yeah? And if it’s safe for us, it’s safe for you too. Promise.”

The girl on the bed just stared, eyes flicking between us. Next to me, Praem put a finger to her own lips, gesturing for quiet.

While all this was happening, I reached just over the threshold with a pair of tentacles. Nothing happened, so I ran then along the inside of the door frame, feeling for ridges or bumps, sigils carved into the wood, or even something as crude as a piece of misplaced tape. I felt nothing out of place, no trap, no mechanism.

“Doorway’s normal,” I said, surprised to find my voice squeaky with adrenaline.

“In,” Evelyn barked.

We piled through the doorway, in order, exactly as planned — well, almost exactly. Evelyn’s jitters were so bad she almost tripped over the threshold, whacking her walking stick against her own leg and swearing with surprisingly colourful creativity. I had to catch her with my hands and my tentacles, making her jump in alarm and draw breath to yelp, but she understood what was happening and managed to swallow the scream. She nodded her thanks as I helped her into the room.

My own legs were shaky, knees weak, but the plan went off without a hitch.

Praem and Twil were into the room first, with strict instructions to check the corners, ceiling included — and be ready to intercept and shove back the big zombie lady, in case she was waiting to jump us. The object was not to provoke a fight, but to buy a second or two to make ourselves clear. Keep the gunboat’s guns pointed without firing them, so to speak. Raine was through next, raising her pistol to exert some visible control of the situation. Then, when nobody exploded into a fountain of blood, Evelyn and I joined in the rear.

“Shut the door,” Evelyn hissed once we were inside. I obliged, pushing with one tentacle until I heard a click.

No traps, no tricks, no treachery.

We had only one problem: the zombie wasn’t there.

The bedsit room was one of the most horrible living spaces I’d ever seen with my own eyes. A floor of bare wooden boards showed a plethora of mysterious stains, matched in decrepitude by walls of crumbling plaster, scarred with the tell-tale flaking of internal water damage. The only furniture was a pair of metal bunk bed frames which looked like they belonged in a military barracks, a low table toward the rear of the room, and a single rickety, worm-eaten chair. A compact kitchen comprised the whole of one rear corner of the already cramped space, with a single chipped and battered counter top, once white but long turned brownish with age. The tiny oven probably didn’t work and the microwave looked like it was about forty years old. Empty plastic bags and polystyrene fast-food containers littered the counter top.

The room’s single window, filthy from years of grime, let in little light. The one bare bulb in the ceiling didn’t help much either.

A trio of bags lay on the floor between the bed frames — a compact and somewhat cutesy tote bag in dark pink, a modern rucksack suited for hiking, and a heavy-duty sports bag. The sports bag was open on a mess of rumpled clothes, assorted toiletries, a few charging cables, and a couple of paperback books. A school uniform — black blazer, white shirt, grey tie, with matching skirt and tights — hung on a clothes hanger hooked over the end of one of the bed frames.

Only one of the beds boasted an actual mattress on the bare metal crossbars, roughly made up with some very clean and soft-looking lilac sheets, totally out of place in this dank hole. The girl — Smalls, as Twil had called her — was sitting on that bed, frozen and terrified as we all glanced about the room like a pack of wolves.

A black hardshell guitar case lay on the bare metal frame of the opposite bottom bunk.

“ … where’s the other one?” Evelyn said.

The only other egress was the window, but it didn’t look like it had been opened in decades. A tiny bathroom jutted off in the right-hand corner, containing a very old toilet and an unhygienic looking shower. Raine took all of half a second to stick her gun and head in there.

“It’s clear,” she said. “She’s not in here.”

We all held our collective breath, eyes searching the room, as if Zheng’s special friend was about to leap out of thin air. But there was simply nowhere in the room to hide, not even a cupboard. Rather absurdly, Raine ducked down to glance under the bed frames; no zombies there either.

Praem was the only one of us not on the verge of panic. She was staring at the girl huddled on the bed.

“Twil,” Evelyn said, voice tight, “you said neither of them had left. They were both meant to be here.”

“I didn’t see anyone leave!” Twil protested, turning on the spot with her nose in the air, sniffing deeply. “I can still smell her.”

“Could still be in the building,” Raine said, soft and controlled. “On another floor. To avoid us. Could have moved as soon as we were spotted.”

Her eyes flickered to the girl on the bed, the scrunched up scrap of humanity staring back at us.

With a sickening cold in the base of my stomach, I realised Raine was covering the girl with her handgun — not pointing the barrel directly at her, but close enough to make her intent obvious. Evelyn had revealed the full length of her bone wand, tucked it into the crook of her elbow, and was watching the girl as well, hand poised over the scrimshawed designs. Praem was just staring.

I had to remind myself with an effort of will that we didn’t know what we were looking at.

“She’s right here, I can fucking smell her!” Twil said. She stepped deeper into the room and waved her arms around as if swiping at cobwebs, trying to catch invisible prey. “I bet you any money you like, she’s right here. Come on! You stink, I know you’re there!”

“Twil,” Evelyn said, hard and tight, then snapped when she didn’t get a response. “Twil. Twil!”

“What?” Twil rounded on her, shrugging with hands that were already halfway to claws.

“If she is standing there,” Evelyn said, slowly and carefully, barely containing her temper, “and currently invisible, then kindly do not start an incident by smacking her over the fucking head.”

“ … oh. Right. Sure.” Twil cleared her throat and shot a wary look at the empty air either side of herself. “Sorry.”

“We don’t even know if she’s there,” Raine said. “Evee, we need a decision.”

“Heather?” Evelyn looked at me. “Praem?”

“Um … there’s nothing in here but us,” I said. “Nothing pneuma-somatic.”

“Hello,” Praem said, sing-song soft, speaking to the girl huddled on the bed. “My name is Praem. What is yours?”

The girl stared back at Praem’s milk-white look, her own eyes like sapphires in moonlight. From the window I’d thought her expressionless, but up close nothing could be further from the truth. She was terrified of us, eyes wide and mouth a frozen line, heart-shaped face peering over the top of the pillow she had clutched to her chest. Her expression was that unique look of one who knows they must try very hard not to show fear in the face of dangerous predators.

She was also absolutely tiny and incredibly pretty, almost doll-like. Twil had been right about her estimated age — by her face she was clearly at least as old as Twil, but petite in the extreme, perhaps even a whole inch or two shorter than me, though her frame was legitimately compact, not scrawny like mine. She had small, neat facial features, with a pale little nose and thick, dark eyelashes, all set in perfect porcelain skin. A messy helmet of black hair, thick and luxurious, full of random cow-licks and bouncy twists, fell level with her chin. She was dressed in a black knitted jumper over a white blouse, with matching black leggings and a pair of thick socks on her feet.

Pale skin, black hair — and those impossible eyes.

Something wasn’t right here. I recalled Mister ‘Joe King’ and his perfect disguises, selves layered inside each other like skins to be ripped off.

The girl took a moment to gather herself before she could answer Praem’s question, swallowing with some difficulty, chest rising and falling with breaths that came too fast.

“Jan,” she said. Her voice was weak and uncertain.

“Short for Janice?” Raine asked her with a warm smile, despite the lingering threat of the gun. The girl shook her head, which made her hair bounce. “Hey,” Raine followed up. “Hey there, no worries, take it easy, okay? We ain’t here to hurt you, even if you aren’t what you appear to be. Even if you’re really really not what you appear to be. Right, Evee?”

“What?” Evelyn snapped, so Raine gave her a meaningful look. “Oh, yes. Yes! I’m a little thrown off here, Raine. This isn’t … isn’t what I expected. Where the hell is the other one?”

Raine winked at Evelyn, then turned back to the girl, improvising in real time as the plan disintegrated around us. “Short for January, then?” she asked.

“Just Jan,” said Jan.

“What’cha doing here, Jan?” Raine pressed, beaming with enough confidence to peel the most wretched heart out of the darkest hole.

Jan’s throat bobbed with another visible swallow, her eyes darting between us. I tried to imagine what she saw. She shook her head as if confused. “I … I … wasn’t … I’ve been here for … two weeks? Three? I don’t know you, I think. Are you here to take me back to my parents?”

Her voice was delicate and light, her accent posh and refined. Whoever she was, she probably didn’t belong in Sharrowford.

Raine raised her eyebrows and shared a look with the rest of us. I bit my lip.

“Maybe,” Raine said. “Depends if you want to go back or not?”

“We’re not here to hurt you,” Evelyn finally began, her wheels locking back onto the plan once more, into the practised lines I’d listened to her recite last night. “We’re here to talk. The excess of caution is for our safety, but you haven’t threatened us or laid any traps, and we are not going to hurt you. Understand? You followed my daughter a few days ago.” She indicated Praem with a little nod. “I want to know who you are and what you’re doing in my city.”

Evelyn took a deep breath, diplomacy successfully delivered.

Jan’s wide blue eyes stared back at her, framed by those messy dark locks. She blinked, swallowed, lips parted in frozen confusion. “I don’t understand,” she said.

Twil sighed and gestured at her. “Evee, she’s a fucking kid. What are you expecting? We need to talk to the zombie.”

“She’s not a kid,” I murmured, confused as to why I felt that way. “She’s our age … isn’t she?”

“Good afternoon, Jan,” Praem intoned, leaning down slightly so she was eye-level with the girl on the bed. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

“Nice to … meet you?” Jan swallowed hard again, throat audibly dry.

Praem did not attempt to smile. Probably for the best.

“Jan. Right,” Evelyn went on, struggling to find the right words. We were off-track again. “Right. Where’s your friend? We know there’s two of you. Or she was, what, your captor?”

“I don’t … I’m sorry … I don’t—” Jan started shaking her head, looking like she wanted to bury her face in the pillow clutched to her front. Her voice was shaking and quivering, tears gathering in those impossible eyes. “You mean the lady I was with? I don’t know who she is, I don’t even have her name. The others, the ones with the old man, they put me in her care. You’re not from him, are you?”

Evelyn frowned like she was turning to stone. “We’re not with any ‘old man’. Where’s the zombie?”

“She left the room before I saw you from the window.” Jan swallowed to suppress a growing stammer. “It was like she knew you were coming. I’m sorry.”

“Shit,” Raine hissed, glancing at the door.

“Who are you?” Evelyn demanded. “Who’s the lady you were with? What are you doing in my city? I need you to answer.”

“Hey, it’s okay,” Raine started to murmur, soft and reassuring, but we were losing ground. This was all going wrong.

“Maybe we should just get her out of here?” Twil suggested.

Why was nobody commenting on her eyes?

Those eyes were like nothing I’d ever seen before, a shifting blue like the underside of the sea, or gemstones in flame. People didn’t possess eyes like that. Set in Jan’s neat, pale, terrified face were the most beautiful eyes I’d ever seen, and I didn’t think that in some romantic or erotic sense. Her eyes were aesthetic marvels, a storm-tossed sky lit by the blink of a supernova. What was I looking at?

As Evelyn raised her voice and Jan squeaked — actually squeaked in fear — I forced myself to look away from those eyes. Something was wrong here. My mind automatically searched for clues among the contents of the room, the clothes in the bags, the two books visible poking from the mess. I turned my head to catch the titles on the pair of paperbacks, but one of them was in Chinese and the other in Russian. Without thinking, one of my tentacles uncurled towards the books, to pick one up and take a look.

Jan’s impossibly beautiful eyes flickered in my peripheral vision.

I looked back at her and caught the moment. Just a split second. Then she was looking elsewhere again.

“—we’re not here to hurt you or kidnap you or do anything to you, in fact,” Evelyn was saying, her voice rising with frustration. “We are trying to make contact without violence, for once. So call your friend or tell us where she is or—”

“Twil,” I said, loud and clear, the tone of my voice cutting across Evelyn losing control. “Twil, step away from her.”

“Eh?” Twil frowned at me, but she did as I said.

“Praem, you too,” I said. “Away from the bed. Please.”

“Heather?” Evelyn grunted at me, but Praem was already obeying my request. Raine went very still and ready.

Jan stared at me, seemingly uncomprehending, white as a sheet. Her lower lip trembled.

“You could see my tentacle just now,” I said. “Couldn’t you?”

“Oh daaaaaamn,” Twil hissed.

Jan blinked at me, then glanced at the others, doing a very good impression of a confused and scared young woman who had no idea what this crazy person was talking about. Her throat bobbed and her mouth hung open. A trapped little mouse, surrounded by big scary predators in a dirty and dark place. I had to steel myself for unkindness, because everything about her made me want to scoop her up and whisk her off to safety.

“I saw your eyes follow the tip,” I said. “You need to be honest and tell us what you are, because there’s only certain types of things that can see my tentacles. And we still won’t hurt you, not if you’re not trying to hurt us. What are you, Jan?”

But little Jan shook her head, bewildered and wide-eyed. “I … I-I don’t understand,” she squeezed out. “T-tentacles?”

Evelyn sighed.

“She’s lying?” Raine asked me. But I didn’t answer, I just stared at Jan, watching her eyes. Had I been mistaken?

“Uncertain,” Praem intoned. She hadn’t caught the look either.

“Only one thing for it,” I said.

Heart in my mouth, I uncoiled one of my tentacles again and reached across the empty gap between us. I inched the tentacle slowly towards Jan’s face, coming at her from the side, waiting for the flicker of her eyes. She watched us instead, seemingly oblivious to the tentacle extending towards her, seeking an explanation for what was going on, her chest rising and falling with rapid and increasing panic as the silence stretched out.

“I-I’m sorry,” she blurted out. “I don’t know what you’re—”

Four inches from the soft skin of her cheek.

“—talking about. I—”

An inch. No response.

“—was taken from my parents’ two— no, three weeks ago. They keep moving me, I don’t even know where I am. I—”

I touched her cheek with the tip of my tentacle. Cool and soft. I pressed gently, just hard enough to dimple the skin.

She froze — not in shock and horror at an unexpected touch, but with the mild surprise of a gambler who had wagered on the wrong horse.

Jan moved her face away from my tentacle with a sigh.

The transformation was not instant or unnatural — nothing magical about it — but it was no less shocking, seeing a master actor shed all the tricks of the trade like sweat-soaked vestments. Her pitiful pleading cut out with a clearing of her throat. The terror slid from her face, replaced with the faint amusement of resigned defeat, but not without retaining the pallor of residual fear. She wiped her eyes on her sleeve as I whipped my tentacle back in shock, blinking them clear of crocodile tears. Her neat little lips creased with a subtle sardonic smile, but now the faint tremor was true.

“Awwww shit,” said Twil, making wolf-claws of both hands with a flicker-wisp of spirit-matter. Raine raised her gun and pointed it directly at Jan’s head. Evelyn grit her teeth and went pale, unable to spare a hand to cling to me, but pressing against my side all the same. Praem didn’t move.

Jan sighed again and stretched out her legs so they hung over the side of the bed, flexing her feet. She let the pillow flop down into her lap. 

“You do have to admit,” she said, voice a delicate curl, no less girlish but without the lost-lamb bleat, “I almost had you with that stupid act.”

“Almost,” Raine said, with a grudging smirk of respect. “Not bad.”

“Who and what are you?” Evelyn demanded through her teeth.

“That’s fucking unfair, that’s what it is!” Twil snapped. “Shit, she had me!”

“You can see my tentacles,” I repeated. “Which mean’s you’re … what?”

Jan nodded politely to me in defeat, blinking thick dark eyelashes. “I assumed they were an illusion, so I stayed still when I should have flinched. That’s some very serious work you’ve had done there, miss.”

“Thank you,” I said. “I’ve tried very hard.”

Jan raised her eyebrows. “You did it to yourself? Interesting.”

“You need to answer our questions,” Evelyn said, tight and angry, “and call your friend out from hiding. Right now.”

“I don’t really like being threatened?” Jan said, pulling a face. “Are you in charge? Because I would really appreciate it if that one there—” she gestured at Raine “—would stop pointing a gun at me. Please? Like, bullets are a major weakness of mine.”

“Not a chance,” Raine murmured. “Sorry.”

We had to think quickly here, but I couldn’t figure out what to make of Jan, whatever she was. This was nothing like the previous times we’d seen mages disguise themselves as other people; there was an obvious contrast between Jan’s physical size, her apparent youth, and her attitude of cool confidence in the face of actual fear — because she was afraid, quite a bit. She did not read as some ancient thing curled up like a cancer in the body of a young girl, and possessed none of the animalistic strangeness or mechanical precision that I’d seen in demon hosts. What she seemed like was a very confident teenage girl with a serious talent for acting.

Abyssal instincts agreed. I felt no desire at all to launch myself across the room and pull her brain out before she could hurt my friends.

But what about those eyes?

“Oh well,” Jan sighed, pulling a pained smile. “I hope for my sake your trigger discipline is better than your ability to read liars.”

“Absolutely,” Raine replied, stock-still, finger most certainly not inside the trigger guard.

Jan reached up toward her own face to tuck a stray lock of hair behind one ear. Raine snapped out something about keeping her hands where we could see them, but it was already too late, her act had disarmed us so competently and we were yet to complete the gear-shift. In the split second Jan’s fingers were next to her own ear, they seemed to slip over each other, each finger vanishing and reappearing from sight in rapid succession, so quickly that one couldn’t be sure if the effect was a trick of the light.

Her fingers reappeared from nowhere — holding a tiny, compact handgun, pulled from thin air.

I hadn’t known guns came in such small sizes. It was also pink.

“Drop that right now,” Raine was saying all of a sudden, low and serious. Twil was already growling and stepping in front of the rest of us, ready to rip the gun straight from the girl’s hand. Praem had stepped neatly in front of Evelyn before we’d even registered the weapon.

“Ah-ah-ah-ahhhhh,” Jan went, smiling that subtle little smile even as sweat rolled down her forehead. She waved the gun, but not at us, wagging it like a finger. “You’re pointing your guns at me. I don’t get to do the same?”

“You’ve already concealed plenty,” Raine said.

“I can take that right off you, you little shit,” Twil growled. “Put it down.”

Jan sighed, nodding politely. Slowly and carefully she placed the gun down on the bed next to her.

“Don’t touch it,” Evelyn snapped before anybody could move to scoop up the firearm.

“What?” Jan asked. “You think I would booby-trap my own last resort? Is that the sort of people I’m dealing with here?”

“It’s hardly your last resort,” I piped up, mouth gone quite dry. “If you can pull a gun from the air, you can produce other things too.”

“Smart,” Jan said. She nodded with a sweet smile, though she had to steady herself with a deep breath, bluffing just as hard as us. “You have no idea what else I have up my sleeves. Literally.” She did a little flourish with her hands, like a magician about to produce a card — which was exactly what jumped into the gap between the first and middle fingers of her right hand. She turned the playing card over to show us.

“Huh,” Raine laughed. “Ace of spades. Nice trick.”

“Stop doing that,” Evelyn snapped.

“Trust me, all of you, you with the gun, and the werewolf, and whatever you are, squid girl, and that.” She nodded at Evelyn’s bone wand, eyes widening a fraction. “I am amply defended. We’re in a stand-off here, you haven’t got the upper hand. We can do a lot of damage to each other in a very short space of time, I’m certain of that, so let’s all take a deep breath?”

“We weren’t after an upper hand,” Evelyn said. “We want to talk. You followed my— Praem here. You followed one of us. I want to know what you’re doing. I want to know who and what you are.”

“And then we can all go our separate ways,” Raine added in a purr, though she still held her pistol levelled with both hands. “We just want to make sure you’re not a threat.”

Jan laughed, a real laugh, a teenage girl’s giggle. “You know what? This is so absurd that I actually believe you. Certainly, why not?” She leaned back on her hands and shrugged. A little pink tongue flickered out to wet her lips. “When I saw you in the street I assumed you were going to put something straight through the window, so I was prepared for worse. But here you are. Talking. My goodness.”

“Jan,” Evelyn said, gently motioning Praem aside a pace or two. “Jan what?”

“Dutch name, right?” Raine asked.

Jan shrugged. “Jan Martense.”

Evelyn frowned like she’d found excrement smeared all over the doormat. “I’m not an idiot, nor was I born yesterday.”

Jan cringed. “Worth a try, wasn’t it?”

“I’m sorry?” I asked.

“It’s a name from a story,” Evelyn grunted. “An obvious one. She’s lying to us.”

“Oh don’t be absurd,” Jan said. “I’m hardly going to give you my real name, certainly not under these circumstances.”

“My name is Evelyn Saye,” Evee said, loud and clear, straightening her spine as much as she could. “I am a mage, and these are my friends and companions. You and your zombie followed one of my household through the city centre. I want to know what you’re doing in my city and that you are not a threat to me and mine. I am trying, very hard, to create some fucking civility between mages for once, rather than tearing your head off before we even make contact. Which, trust me, we are more than capable of doing, no matter how many stupid tricks you pull from pocket dimensions. Now where’s your zombie friend?”

Jan gave a very good show of looking like an outraged teenage girl. Which, maybe she actually was.

“Your city?” she asked. “Excuse me, but I don’t see a crown on your head.”

Twil snorted, involuntarily.

“You know what I mean,” Evelyn hissed.

“And last I checked, the mayor of Sharrowford was a gentleman in his sixties. So, not you. What is this, are we working on right of conquest here? Do I have to formally challenge you to be allowed within city limits? Is this why that giant slab of meat has been harassing us for like two weeks?”

“Zheng,” I sighed. “She means Zheng. I’m sorry, Zheng does her own thing. She enjoyed fighting your … friend?”

Jan rolled her eyes. “Fair enough. I assume you sent this clown to follow us though?” she nodded at Twil.

“ … m-me?” Twil stammered.

“Yes. Had to find where you were living,” Evelyn said.

“You mean you knew I was there?” Twil asked in a small, offended voice. “Clown?

“Any unknown mage or associates in Sharrowford present an unacceptable risk to my friends and family,” Evelyn rattled off. “We’re already in a conflict with one mage and I need to be absolutely sure you aren’t working for him, whatever you are. Frankly, an unbound demon host turns up on the streets of Sharrowford, and I have to assume the worst. And you followed my daughter.” She stamped with her walking stick, snarling those last few words.

“She’s made of wood,” Jan said. “It’s not every day you spot a person made of wood. I was interested.” She nodded to Praem. “Cool, by the way. Well done.”

“I am fabulous,” Praem intoned. Jan smiled, apparently delighted at this.

“Jan,” I said. “Listen to me very carefully, please.”

“And you, what are you?” She gestured at me with her eyes. “I thought you were something very different for a moment, but—“

“I need you to listen,” I repeated, bringing the metaphorical cannon to bear. Jan blinked once. “This isn’t a stand-off. I can reach out with one tentacle and touch you again — unless you’re very acrobatic indeed?”

Jan shrugged. “What you see is mostly what you get.”

I nodded. “Well then. If I can touch you, I can get rid of you, instantly. I can shunt you Outside with a single thought. Do you know that term? Maybe you know it by a different name, but I think you know what I mean. And yes, in the confusion, you might get a shot off, you hurt one or two of us. Your zombie, whoever she is, might pop out of the wall and take one of us down. But you will be placed beyond recovery, the instant I touch you.”

Jan went quite still as I spoke. Her eyes searched the faces of my friends. She found no bluff. “Okay. Where is this going?”

“However,” I went on, “I am not a murderer by habit. We just want to make sure you’re not a danger to us.”

“Heather,” Evelyn hissed, “remember what I said about mages and overconfidence.”

“Mmhmm,” I grunted.

Jan stared back at me for a second, those huge beautiful eyes blinking in thought. “Alright,” she sighed. “I don’t want to fight either, I’m not generally in the habit of murder. I’m a mage too. I’m in Sharrowford to do a job, for which I am being paid, by people who have nothing to do with this city and hopefully nothing to do with you.”

“Tentacles,” Praem intoned, pointing out the lie. Jan wasn’t just a mage — she could see pneuma-somatic flesh. But Jan blinked, not following. She didn’t understand.

Raine blew out a pfffft sound. “All a mistake, hey?”

“A job?” Evelyn said, sceptical to the point of disgust. “What do you mean, a job?”

“What’s the job?” Twil asked.

“Well, that’s where you lot come in.” Jan pulled an anxious smile. “I came to Sharrowford to do a job, then discovered the job was unnecessary. But in the process of discovering, I found another group of people who would pay me to do a different job. Involving you, all of you. Which I was very much inclined to take, because you were already following me around — or, ‘Zheng’ was, my mistake. And if I could get you all in one place, that would make it possible to finish the first job too. And everybody likes to get paid twice.”

Tension tightened our little group, all but Praem. Evelyn’s frown turned stormy. Twil shook her head and growled.

“What job?” Evelyn hissed. “Who are you working for?”

“S’gotta be Eddy boy,” Raine said.

“Yeah, who else would give a shit?” Twil said. “Now he’s got this mercenary working for him.”

“Contractor!” Jan said, huffing with squinting disbelief, very much the put out little madam. “Mercenaries generally fight wars. Do I look like I’m remotely suitable to fight a war?”

“Looks can be deceiving,” I said softly, still struggling against a sudden urge to wrap a tentacle around her throat. Those eyes met mine with a private understanding.

“I have less than zero interest in your turf war,” Jan said. “And I’m not even that interested in any of you, not really. Except you, squiddy, perhaps. Wouldn’t mind swapping notes on … yourself. And — Praem, was it?”

“Praem,” said Praem.

“You’re quite a marvel.” Jan smiled at her with lip-biting, girlish approval. “And I think you know that, too.”

“I am all my mother’s love,” Praem said.

“Mother?” Jan hitched an eyebrow, then glanced at Evelyn. “Oh. Oh! When you said ‘daughter’, I thought that was cover. You really treat her as—”

“Shut up and answer the fucking question,” Evelyn snapped at her.

Jan considered for a moment, then nodded, something different about her attitude in the way she met Evelyn’s eyes. “I’m working for a group whose name I am not at liberty to divulge,” she said with all the delicacy of a lady turning down a dance at a ball.

“Oh for—” Evelyn hissed.

“You’re gonna have to do better than that,” Raine said.

“But!” Jan went on, huffing at our impatience, raising a finger. “I can tell you what I was sent to do. I’m to track down everyone and anyone who has been involved with one Nathan Sterling Hobbes—”

“Badger,” I blurted out. “That’s Badger’s real name.”

“—including whoever put him in the hospital,” she carried on with an extra smile in her voice, “and verify that they are free of certain … contaminants.”

“Contaminants,” Evelyn dead-panned.

“Don’t worry,” Jan said. “You lot are far too coherent and sane to be what I’m looking for. But I’m still going to have to check you.”

“Like hell you are,” Twil grunted.

“Yeah, what she said,” Raine agreed.

Jan shook her head. “You don’t understand. A person turns up in a hospital, anywhere in Britain, with a mysterious self-inflicted trepanation wound—”

“It wasn’t self-inflicted,” I said.

“Heather,” Evelyn hissed through her teeth.

“Yeah maybe don’t?” Twil suggested.

“It’s all right,” I said, staring at Jan. She was staring back with sudden and polite interest, eyes like jewels dropped into a fire. “Something isn’t right here. Wires have gotten crossed, somehow. We need to clear it up. I put that hole in Nathan’s head.”

“Oh dear,” Jan sighed. She wet her lips and swallowed, fear inching back. “And why did you do that?”

“To save his life from something that was in his head.”

“Those are not the words I need to hear,” Jan said. “Look, I was trying to say: a person turns up in any hospital, anywhere in Britain, with a mysterious self-inflicted trepanation wound — and a certain group of people sit up and take notice. They want to make sure they don’t have to break out the tinfoil hats and the car bombs.”

“The car bombs?” Twil spluttered.

“How do you know what happened to him?” I asked.

“It was in the newspapers,” Jan said. “The local ones. And I didn’t find out about it, my current employers did. But they’re mostly a bunch of cowards. So that’s why I’m here, to rule out a certain problem. And if I don’t get back to them eventually, they’ll come after you themselves. And not with magic.” Her eyes alighted on Raine’s handgun. “Though from the looks of it, you might be prepared for that, too.”

“We’d rather avoid that kinda thing, thanks all the same,” Raine said.

Jan pulled another one of those awkward teenage smiles, one that said she knew she was in a lot of trouble, and was not going to get out of it. “Well, that means I need to take a little peek inside all of your heads.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Who the hell is this tiny joker? A mage? Surely a lie; like Twil said, she doesn’t smell of anything. She’s pulling cards from thin air and spinning yarns that can’t possibly be true. Though she does seem afraid, and she’s making an outrageous request. But nobody should look into Heather’s mind unprepared. Unless they already expect to find the Eye waiting for them and staring back …

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Next week, it’s all heads and holes, right? But there’s no way any of the gang are going to agree to that. And where’s that bloody mysterious zombie? She’s lurking there somewhere. Maybe things aren’t quite what they seem. But if they are, what’s Jan looking for here?

Also! Starting next week, due to some non-writing work and scheduling reasons, the time of day I’m able to post the chapter is going to change. Until now I’ve always posted between 6am-8am GMT, but from next week onwards each new chapter will go up at 12-2pm GMT, so about 4-6 hours later. My apologies for this, but it cannot be avoided; don’t worry, nothing is wrong, I’m actually moving to a healthier schedule, and there will continue to be a new chapter every Saturday! I just want to make sure I let people know this, since there’s some readers in other time zones who stay up late to read the chapter. So, get some sleep instead! It’ll be there when you wake!