pale student of unhallowed arts – 17.15

Content Warnings

Discussion of torture

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I’ve been a very bad girl, my queen.

To any other young woman of my particular orientation, set of predilections, tastes, desires, and curiosities, hearing that specific set of words, spoken in a tone of ice-cold sobriety by one’s questionably dominant fiancée, secluded together in a room full of occult mysteries, beneath the brooding skies of a cloud-drenched day, would probably result in a state of pole-axed paralysis, feral trance, or just plain animalistic heat. I might even have enjoyed it too, if such words had been delivered under any other circumstances, by anybody except the same person who had attempted to goad me into false godhood and-slash-or messianic cult leader status.

Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight, masked with the face of the Yellow Princess, the rightful daughter of the King in Yellow, stared back at me across the otherwise deserted magical workshop.

I was struck speechless for a long moment, half in disbelief, half with distaste.

Between her ramrod-straight posture, her wide unsmiling turquoise eyes, her perfectly straight-cut blonde hair, her crisp white blouse, and ankle-length yellow skirt, the Princess Mask was often too much for me to handle, even when she wasn’t trying to overawe me. She held herself forever poised on the knife edge of aristocratic arrogance. It would take only one errant twist in the direction of her gaze, one haughty tilt of her chin, one dismissive flick of her fingertips, for her to radiate a sunburst of disdain and superiority. But she chose not to, and instead remained positioned in the liminal space of effortless potential. It was somehow more unnerving. And certainly more attractive.

But not right now, not with those specific words.

I tried to laugh it off, but I managed only a single, hollow chuckle. “Sevens, if you’re trying to flirt, then that’s in very poor taste. Maybe if you said that while wearing your vampire mask … ”

I trailed off, finding no handhold on her unreadable and icy regard.

Seven-Shades-of-Seditious-Supplicant tilted her head to the side by a few degrees. “Do you really believe I’m flirting, Your Grace?”

“Tch!” I tutted reflexively, scowling at her. “Sevens, don’t call me that.”

“My apologies. What style would my Ladyship prefer?”

“Style?” I was so flustered and taken aback as she galloped ahead of me, I walked right into the trap. “Ladyship?”

“Of address. It’s only proper, isn’t it? I am foreign royalty still, until we are properly wed, and then I may take all the liberties of personal intimacy. Will you copy the forebears of your homeland? Will you adopt ‘Your Majesty’ and ‘Your Royal Highness’?”

I still had the damp towel in my hands from drying my hair; I almost threw it at her in embarrassed outrage. “Sevens, stop! It’s not funny!”

“Of course not, no. You are not queen of England, that would be immensely confusing. We should create a proper title for you. Regina Externus?” She rolled the words around her mouth like a draught of exotic wine, eyes going up and to the side, followed by a dainty shake of her head. As if I wasn’t standing there going red in the face, watching this nonsense. “No, that sounds like an obscure disease of the lower parts. How about Domina Polypus? That would include all your other, non-queenly roles in one title, for all your realms and responsibilities. Simplicity is a sound advantage in rulership.”

I spat a laugh of offended disbelief; it was that or stare in speechless shock. “You’re being serious, aren’t you? Sometimes I forget you’re technically an aristocrat. What is this? Where is this coming from all of a sudden?”

“Why, from me, Your Grace.”

A hint of mockery in her tone set me off, like frozen acid. I couldn’t tell how much of this was a joke, or at who’s expense. I was already mortified by how close I’d come to giving in, back in the Shamble-swamp, to that unspeakable impulse to present myself as a false god.

“Stop calling me that!” I snapped. I didn’t know what to do with the damp towel in my hands, standing there with my hair all messy and my skin flushed from the shower, so I twisted the towel in my fists, feeling impotent. “I’m not a queen, or a messiah. I am not going to set myself up as the leader of a cult, and certainly not play some kind of god gambit on a pair of terrified people and a race of Outsider swamp creatures!”

Sevens didn’t even blink. As if she’d expected my every word. “I sense my Lady of the Squidly Crown is somewhat vexed.”

I rolled my eyes at that one. Who wouldn’t? “Now you’re just taking the mickey. Thanks for that. And yes, for your information, I am quite angry about what you tried to do. What you tried to encourage me to do, back in that swamp. Is this about that? This is your second attempt? Trying to bully me into doing something I shouldn’t?”

To my great surprise, Sevens raised a single eyebrow in a sceptical arch. “Angry?”

“Yes! Of course I’m angry! I—”

My impending rant was interrupted by the patter of footsteps through the ceiling overhead.

Somebody was up on their feet and moving around upstairs, probably Tenny or Evelyn. The tread was too heavy for Lozzie and too imprecise for Praem. But I was suddenly hyper-aware of being overheard, deeply uncomfortable with the notion of anybody else stumbling across this growing argument, especially Evelyn or Lozzie. Even Zheng would be barely tolerable, though I didn’t know where she was right that moment. Probably either sleeping or out hunting. More importantly, I didn’t understand exactly why I was so uncomfortable. What did I have to hide? But still, I cut off my snapping anger and swallowed hard, eyes glued to the ceiling, tentacles curling tight as if to protect my core from an unseen attack.

Seven-Shades-of-Sarcastic-Vassalage cleared her throat in a perfect little ahem-ahem sound. “Perhaps we should retire to a location where Your Grace can vent her mind without fear of interruption? The new castle, perhaps?”

I rolled my eyes and hissed. “Please stop talking about me in the third person, Sevens. You’ve made your point.”

“I don’t believe I have, actually.”

Her tone was still ice-cold. I felt myself shiver, my tentacles curling tighter, sweat breaking out down my back. And I’d just showered, too. Sevens loved me dearly, she had put her very nature on the line for me, had thrown herself into my defence during the incident with Hringewindla, and had literally gifted me with a piece of her self-hood. But here she was, staring me down, not flirting at all, but expressing a combination of distaste and concern.

I sighed. “Sevens, if you’re trying to make a point, then just make it. There’s no need for this … this game-playing.”

“Do you not wish to express your irritation, my Lady?”

I couldn’t help but give her a very unimpressed look. “Just say what you mean. Please.”

“Then I rest my case,” said Seven-Shades-of-Smug-Little-Brat. “Shall we retire to Camelot for a few moments, so we may speak frankly?”

I slapped the damp towel over my shoulder and raked my fingertips through my wet hair, trying to look casual but probably just coming off as deeply artificial. “No, thank you. I’ve had quite enough of Slipping for a bit. Two days ago I slipped eight times. Nine times? I can’t even count. I still feel slightly abstracted, loose inside my own body, like I’m going to wander off in an astral journey if I’m not careful. So, no, thank you.”

That was a lie. It was true that all those Slips had left me feeling drained and weird, like I’d run a marathon on the phantom limbs of my own soul, muscles sore and strained in places that I didn’t have muscles. But the feeling had faded by the end of yesterday, my bioreactor doing its job in keeping me topped up. I still had limits, undoubtedly, and I was afraid to approach them lest something go horribly wrong, but I was currently more than capable of Slipping with relative ease. I just didn’t want to, though I didn’t know why. Because Sevens was being irritating? Because I was afraid of what she might say, Outside and unfettered? Because I was afraid of what I might say? Like a coward, I shrank from the true confrontation which was brewing here.

Sevens waited a beat, for me to say more, as if she knew I was making it all up.

I turned away and started using a corner of the towel to dry the back of my neck, unable to meet Sevens’ eyes. “Besides,” I said, trying to sound casual; I was fooling nobody, I sounded like a twelve year old attempting to hide a tantrum. “Don’t you have your own method of Slipping? Couldn’t you offer to make it easier on me, for once?”

“When you take a step, it does not force others to walk with you. They must take a step themselves. You forget what I am, kitten.”

I looked round at Sevens, half shocked, half relieved to be called something that wasn’t a royal title. She was deadly serious, or at least unreadable enough that I couldn’t see through the mask. But she’d dropped the nonsense, at last.

“I … I’m sorry, Sevens.” I sighed, mostly at myself. “Do you really want to go talk in Camelot? Right now? I’m willing to try, if it’s that important. Especially if it’s about what you said in the swamp. We do need to talk about that. Do you want to go?”

Seven-Shades-of-Plots-and-Plans tilted her head the other way. “Do you?”

I huffed softly, then stomped over to the door of the workshop and leaned out into the kitchen. I angled my voice toward the front room and the stairs beyond, then called out, “Sevens and I are going to Camelot for a few minutes!”

A reply floated down the stairs a few moments later, in Praem’s bell-like voice.

“Take shoes,” she intoned.

I blushed in embarrassment. Yes, of course, it wouldn’t do to forget shoes a second time in three days, even if I was planning firmly against getting whisked off into another Outside escapade for hours on end, shoeless and stranded and carrying nothing but a damp bath towel. I stomped into the front room, muttering things like, “This is going to be a quick trip, it is,” and, “Sevens, you best not be planning any nonsense, or I am going to be very upset indeed.”

After stamping into my shoes, I spotted Praem at the top of the stairs. She was looking down at me, hands folded before her.

“We won’t be long,” I said, and made it sound like an apology. I took the damp towel off my shoulder and moved to drape it over the bannister. “And I’ll put that away when we’re back, sorry. Let Lozzie know, please?”

“Keep the towel,” said Praem.

“Um. Why?”

“Great practical value,” she said, then turned on her heel and clicked back into the upstairs corridor on some unknown errand.

I huffed and grumbled. Why was everybody being so cryptic today? Was Raine going to come home and make me guess how Badger was doing? If Evee woke up now, would she ask me to solve a riddle? Perhaps Zheng might encourage me to divine her mood from the splayed guts of a half-eaten pigeon.

When I rejoined Sevens in the magical workshop, she had summoned her own shoes directly onto her feet, a pair of sensible black flats. Her umbrella was in her hand too, poised at a jaunty angle, like a young princess prepared for her mid-afternoon stroll in the gardens of her father’s estate. Suddenly I had a terrible, paranoid thought that she was actually about to whisk me off to meet her father again, for some reason I didn’t quite comprehend. But the impression faded as quickly as it had struck me. This was still Sevens. I still trusted her.

She extended her free hand toward me. “Ready, Your Grace?”

“I thought you’d dropped that,” I snapped. I tutted and scowled at her, while scooping my squid-skull mask off the table; I wasn’t going Outside again without the mask, ever.

“Dropped what, Your Grace?”

I didn’t deign to reply. I took Sevens’ hand in mine, then wrapped the tip of a tentacle around her wrist for good measure, glaring at her the whole time.

“I suppose I don’t have to tell you to hold on tight?” I said. “Are you actually coming with me, or going your own way?”

“I walk beside you, my queen.”

I rolled my eyes hard enough to hurt a little, clenched my stomach muscles, and plunged my mind into the black depths of my own soul.

To think that such a thing would ever become simple routine.

Out we went, the princess and I.


Camelot was still as beautiful as the very first time I’d seen it, in that first ever dream I’d shared with Lozzie.

Sometimes I wondered if Lozzie had chosen Camelot on purpose, or if it really was just a coincidence. A non-threatening, safe, quiet place, where things had happened once but were now long past. At the time, she’d just intercepted the message from Maisie, intended for me, but even with that she couldn’t possibly have known my primordial terror of Outside, of these unknown and alien places which had haunted me in dreams, across the membrane between worlds, dragging me back again and again for lost hours in dripping black jungles and windowless metal hallways and vast places that made teenage Heather curl up in a ball and sob herself into unconsciousness. In contrast, Lozzie had picked somewhere lovely. It was the right choice, the first taste I’d ever had of Outside as somewhere not to fear.

Even now, with a castle building site all around us, it was beautiful. The Knights worked without any of the modern blights of such processes — jackhammers, drills, the clank of machinery, the stink of hydrocarbons, all were absent. The loudest noise was the click-clack cutting of bricks from the huge blocks of stone. There was no pollution here, not unless the slow-crawling Caterpillars on the horizon put out some hidden, invisible, odourless waste product. I doubted that, somehow. Lozzie would not have made them that way.

The castle didn’t look very different compared with two days earlier. The keep walls were a little higher — perhaps there was a second internal floor in place now — but the exterior curtain wall was still all but a mere outline. On the far side of the keep I spotted a section where the Knights had started putting those massive stone blocks on top of each other, beginning the real wall. Three Caterpillars were gathered around that spot, perhaps just having delivered the dun, sandy blocks to the seed of a wall, but they were currently just hanging out there, not doing anything. Two of them had long tendrils of strange sticky black tar extending from their ‘faces’, wrapped around the stone blocks as if helping to settle them in place, or perhaps glue them together in lieu of mortar.

Sevens waited politely while I recovered from the aftermath of the Slip, panting and squeezing my eyes shut as I forced myself not to vomit. She even kept her arm out for me, a support for my tentacles to cling to, like a squid attached to a piece of elegant, shapely driftwood. Eventually I straightened up and gazed out across the castle building site. Knights moved about their tasks, setting bricks in place, mixing mortar, cutting blocks. Some were currently carving out a pathway between the castle and one of the future gatehouses, pulling up the turf so others could start laying brickwork directly into the ground.

I’d landed us on that same hillside where we always arrived, the taller hill that would eventually be encircled and protected inside the future line of the curtain walls. In a real medieval castle, it would have been the perfect place to site some kind of watchtower, or perhaps a siege engine.

For now it was still home to the desiccated corpse of the unnamed young man who had died out in the swamp. Two Knights still stood vigil, by his head and his feet, but the Forest Knight was nowhere to be seen. I’d landed us at a respectful distance from the hilltop itself, just beyond human earshot.

All was bathed in the purple light of Camelot’s alien sky. I felt it on my skin, a soothing darkness from the glittering firmament.

“Well, here we are,” I said, sniffing back a nosebleed from the brain-math.

I fumbled with the damp towel, about to ruin it by wiping my bloody nose all over the fabric. Praem was right, towels were very useful things. But then Sevens produced a linen handkerchief seemingly out of nowhere and offered it to me. It was white, not yellow.

“Use this, Your Grace,” she said.

I tutted at her calling me that yet again, but I accepted the handkerchief all the same, and used it to wipe the blood off my face. The nosebleed didn’t last very long, just long enough for me to sniff and splutter a bit before it stopped. I folded the handkerchief and gestured awkwardly.

“Thank you,” I said. “I’ll … wash this and return it? Is this a real object or … ? You know what, don’t answer that. The less I understand about how Outside works, the better.”

But Sevens held out her hand for the handkerchief. “Please, Your Grace. You wouldn’t deprive your wife-to-be of a holy relic, would you?”

My guts froze. “Holy relic?”

“Stained with Her blood,” said Sevens. I could hear the capital H in ‘Her’. She meant me.

I sighed with enough force to light a fire, then stepped back in mingled disgust and embarrassed irritation. “Sevens, really?” I held the handkerchief awkwardly in one hand for a moment, then stuffed it in the pocket of my pajama bottoms and crossed my arms. “Well, now I’m absolutely not giving it back to you. This isn’t funny any more. Stop it.”

“Do you find something funny about this?”

Turquoise eyes bored back into mine. Ice-cold, unreadable, and not happy with me. A lump grew in my throat, but I had no idea what was going on. More importantly, I was the one who should have been irritated. I was irritated. I was angry and still upset and I didn’t understand why she was trying so hard to derail this conversation.

“What game are you playing now, Sevens? Hm? What’s next? Are you going to turn into three of my friends in sequence and use their voices to convince me to do something I shouldn’t?”

Sevens blinked. “A low blow, kitten.”

I flushed with sudden shame, mortified, mouth hanging open. Then I hiccuped, hard and painful in my throat. “I … I, no, Sevens, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that. You didn’t deserve that. That was deeply uncalled for. I apologise.”

“Apology accepted.”

I sighed and squeezed my eyes shut for a moment. I could feel a stress headache threatening at the sides of my skull. “Sevens, whatever you’re doing, it’s hurting me. I don’t understand what this is about, if it’s a joke or something else, calling me a queen, or a messiah, or worse. It’s like you’re slipping back into old habits, trying to make me understand something through demonstration rather than bloody well talking to me!” I hiccuped again. “I’m sorry, pardon my bad language.”

Sevens just stared. For the first time ever, I felt a distinct sense that the Yellow Princess was being forced to think something over before replying.

Then, eventually, she said, “You are not the only one who is angry right now.”

I blinked in surprise. My damp hair suddenly felt very cold. “You’re … angry with me? Sevens?”

Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight produced another object in her free hand, apparently from nowhere — a Japanese-style folding fan, dyed in the thick, treacly yellow of melting butter on fresh bread. She flicked it open and hid the bottom half of her face, leaving only her eyes visible.

“Yes,” was all she said. Then she left me waiting.

“I … Sevens … I … is this about how we’ve been using you? No, how I’ve been using you?” I felt an awful churn in my stomach. “I’m so sorry. I mean … when you tagged along to Hringewindla, I just treated you like a helper, despite what you’re going through yourself. I know, I know you’re trying to find a new way to define yourself, and I … I thought I was giving you time, and space. And … and when you helped with Natalie, I … thank you, for that, thank you, but I don’t mean to take you for granted. And about our engagement, I’m not going to leave you hanging forever and … and … ”

Seven-Shades-of-Silent-Study did exactly that. She spooled out rope for me to hang myself. I trailed off.

“I am searching for purpose,” she said eventually, mouth muffled behind the fan. “For a new shape in which to fit. Your family — and family they are — is giving me spaces in which to fit myself. You give me purposes alongside you. The process is ongoing. Do not apologise for the greatest gift you have given me.”

“Oh, um.”

“You do not understand why I am angry.”

I shook my head. “No. Because you keep putting it in riddles.”

“And you keep rejecting the role you filled with such relish. Queen, messiah, avatar, goddess.”

I sighed a great sigh and barely resisted the urge to roll my eyes. “Is this because I turned you down in the swamp? Is that what you’re mad about? Sevens, you were trying to make me act like an actual god in front of two terrified people, not to even mention a whole bunch of very impressionable Shamblers. I wasn’t about to deceive them in that kind of way, I’m not going to act like a cult leader or a monarch and take advantage of people or—”

The folding fan snapped shut. Sevens was revealed once again. “You were not acting. You were being. And then you lied to yourself.”

“E-excuse me?”

“You are continuing to lie to yourself.” Sevens blinked, slowly and almost difficult. “I am not made for this. Understand that much, please. I am still not made for intervention, this very conversation is an act of self-redefinition, but if I do not have this conversation, then I will turn into something I will not like, which will end poorly for both of us.”

“Sevens? It’s … it’s okay, you don’t have to force yourself.”

“You reject the role of leader, of queen, of monarch, of idol, of goddess — yet two days ago you used the prerogative of that role all the same. You took the power and applied it, yet rejected the responsibilities. I didn’t whisper temptation in your ear to make you cruel mistress of the fate of others. I did it to make you see what act you were committing.”

I squinted at Sevens, having trouble keeping up. “I’m really sorry, but I don’t follow. What act?”


My mouth opened on a reflex I had never examined, let alone anticipated. Even as the words fell from my lips, they tasted like rot. “I had to. Sevens, I had to. I had no choice.”

“Did you now?”

“Of course I had to! We had no time, Natalie’s parents had to be made to understand, to be broken, quickly. You know that.”

Something horrible and barbed and sick stirred in my chest.

“There were always other options.”

“Bad ones!” I said. Panic shook my limbs. The thing in my chest sprouted spikes, burrowed into my heart and lungs, but I was feeding it, flash-growing the thing with every word I spoke. “Bad for Natalie. Sevens, you didn’t complain at the time. You didn’t protest! Nobody did! Well, I suppose Evelyn did, a little bit, but everybody saw the necessity. We had to do it. We had to. Are you trying to tell me I was wrong?”

With a flicker like the iris of an antique camera shutter, the Yellow Princess vanished.

Evelyn Saye stood before me. Shoulders wrapped in a shawl over pajamas, leaning on her walking stick, scowling with deep yellow eyes the colour of boiled butter. I flinched in surprise, though I knew it was just Sevens, wearing Evee’s face.

“S-Sevens! Don’t do that, don’t wear my friends, it’s—”

“Torture,” said Seven-Shades-of-Saye, through gritted teeth, a grim expression on her face. Evelyn’s voice, a voice I would know anywhere. “Sometimes necessary, especially in our world, yes. I would do it for you, Heather. I told you as such. I would put Edward Lilburne on an actual fucking rack, and break his bones with my own hands, to make him tell me what he was trying to do to you, so I can find every note he’s ever made on the process, and burn every last scrap.”

“ … Sevens, I know Evee would do that, yes.” My stomach was turning over. The black mass in my chest was trying to crawl up my throat, like a physical thing I’d gestated inside my flesh. “You don’t have to remind me.”

“But I would choose to do it,” said the Yellow Mage. “Make no mistake about that. My hands are never forced.”

But my hands quivered. In an effort to stop shaking, I hugged two of my tentacles to my chest, holding on tight. “Sevens, stop speaking with her voice, stop it! Stop it!”

Sevens obeyed my snapped order without complaint. Seven-Shades-of-Saye vanished with a blink — only to be replaced by Raine.

A cocky grin splitting her lips, her head rolled back, dressed in leather jacket and comfy jeans. She even raked a hand through her gloriously thick chestnut hair, then sighed. The only element out of place was her eyes, yellow-on-yellow instead of soft brown, like I was talking to a mass of beaten gold wearing my lover as a skin.

“Sevens!” I squealed.

“I’m better than I used to be, you know?” Sevens said with Raine’s voice, easy and relaxed, almost laughing. “At saying no to you, at being me, for myself. I got you to thank for that, Heather. No question about it.”

I swallowed and tried to control myself, feeling like I was going to be sick. “Sevens, where is this going?” I demanded. “Is this supposed to be you, speaking with Raine’s voice, or Raine herself? Or your idea of Raine? You can’t know what everybody was thinking!”

Yellow-Eyed Raine grinned wider and rolled a shrug with her toned shoulders. “I don’t even know. But you know what I do know? I’d never argue with you about your own trauma, Heather. I love you too much for that. You put that little girl in front of me, Natalie, and you tell me that she’s you, in your own mind? Fuck it, I’d do anything you ask. You know I’d do anything you ask. Hey, but if I stopped and thought about it? Holy shit. We didn’t need to torture those two. But hey.” The grin flickered back on. “I’m just not gonna think on that.”

All I could do was stare, open mouthed. I felt like a slug was trying to crawl up my throat.

Raine shot a finger-gun and a wink at me. “Love you.”

“ … no,” I murmured, my voice breaking. “No, Raine would have said something, Raine would have spoken up, Raine would have stopped me, if she thought it was wrong.”

“Would she, really?”

I shook my head. “Stop. Stop, please.”

But it wasn’t over yet. Sevens wasn’t finished with me.

Raine flickered out like a snuffed candle. In her place stood Lozzie, with the usual pink and blue and white of her flag-poncho replaced by three different shades of yellow. Perhaps Sevens was trying to soften the blow by making it clear that these were masks, not people.

Seven-Shades-of-Silly-Pixie giggled, exactly like Lozzie.

“Outside isn’t scary!” she chirped, flapping her poncho like an excited squirrel. “I didn’t even see it that way. And they understood in the end, right? You were nice to them in the end, right? So it’s alllllll okay!”

“Lozzie, no … no, Lozzie wouldn’t do something so cruel. She wouldn’t.”

“Aaaaaand I don’t wanna think about it.” Lozzie’s bouncy energy trailed off into an awkward, somber-faced little smile. “People should stop being afraid of it out here. I don’t care what they think.”

“Oh, Lozzie.” I bit my lip and felt the threat of tears fill my eyes. I almost reached out to her, though I knew it was just Sevens.

But then she was gone, a wisp on the wind, blowing away like golden wheat chaff across the hillsides. My hand closed on somebody else.

Zheng, a mountain of muscle towering over me, my hand holding her wrist. Yellow eyes filled what should have been a sharp and predatory gaze. A maw of shark teeth opened wide in a razor-sharp grin of savage joy. A tiger in the jungle deeps, leering at her prey. Seven-Shades-of-Far-Too-Large-And-Far-Too-Close leaned over me, leaned in close, rumbling like a furnace.

“S-Sevens, I know it’s just you, it’s not … ”

The Yellow Demon leaned in so close that I could feel the heat of her skin beating against my face.

“Torture, shaman?” she purred. “If you had asked me to, I would have eaten those monkeys alive for you. In front of their pup.”

I felt tears rolling down my cheeks. “Zheng, no, if I asked that, you— you would have to tell me I was wrong.”

“You are right, shaman. You see further. You see everything. You freed me, you gave me new life. So I believe, in you.”

And then she was gone.

I was left standing there in shock, on a Camelot hillside beneath the purple whorled skies, with Seven-Shades-of-Seven-Faces standing at a polite distance from me, her umbrella tip-down against the ground, held at a jaunty angle.

“No,” I murmured.

“You made a choice to inflict pain, to get your way. Nobody forced you to do that. None really tried to argue with you.”

I shook my head. My throat was closing up, trying to keep the vile thing trapped in my chest. My words came out in a quiver. I hugged myself with three more tentacles, wrapping them around myself. “But I had to.”

Sevens tilted her head, cold and unreadable as ever. She offered me no solace. “Stop lying to yourself.”

“What other choice did I have?!”

“Plenty of choices. There were other ways, Your Grace. Other methods you could have attempted, before torture. You could have exposed Natalie’s parents to Tenny, first. You could have shown them Twil, in full wolfish mantle. You could have taken them to Camelot first, reunited them with their daughter first, rather than putting them through the unknown ordeal. You could have done those things, but you chose not to.”

“It might not have worked. Sevens, you know that, you know it might not have worked. They might have rejected it, not believed, their minds might not have broken properly.”


I shook my head, harder and harder, like a nervous tic I couldn’t control. My breath came out in little pants and hiccups. “What— what are you saying, Sevens? What is this?”

“Natalie is not you. She does not share the curses and blessings of your situation. She will never see spirits. She did not lose a sister or a twin. She will not be haunted by the Eye. You could have left her with a story for her parents. She would still have grown up safe.”

My temper suddenly snapped, hot and red.

“She might not have!” I yelled in Sevens’ face. The rotten, twisted thing inside my chest finally exploded onto the surface, a thing that had festered in a wound for a long, long decade. I let it out, I gave it free reign, I listened to that impulse, wallowing in my own self-pity. My voice rose into a barely-human hiss-scratch of self-disgust and justified rage, echoing out across the quiet plain of Camelot. Down in the building site at the foot of the shallow incline, the Knights paused in their work, tools going still and bricks suspended mid-placement, to gaze up at their queen’s anger. “Insult me, fine. Call me a monster, whatever. I don’t care! But don’t insinuate I should have left that girl behind!”

Seven-Shades-of-Stoic-and-Stolid didn’t even blink. My tantrum did not impress.

“You could have left her with a story for her parents,” she repeated. “What part of that implies leaving her behind?”

“Leaving her to face the gas-lighting and uncertainty, alone! Against the whole world, alone! I won’t do that, Sevens. Fu— fuck that! Nobody gets that, ever again. She’s a child. No. Never again.”

Sevens nodded, as if conceding a point. But I didn’t feel like I was winning; I felt filthy.

“And you judged that was worth the torture of two human beings.”

“You don’t agree? Then you should have said something, shouldn’t you?”

“My agreement doesn’t matter. Maybe I also believe it was the right thing. But you are avoiding the point, Your Grace. You made a choice, and then you denied those people the relief they needed, by refusing to accept your role.”

“I’m not going to pretend to be a god.” I huffed, shaking my head, but I was barely convincing myself. Exposed to the purple light of Camelot, the dripping black rotten thing from inside my chest was cracking and withering.

“Then accept you made a choice. You made a choice to inflict pain. It’s that, or the royal prerogative. The will of the queen, inscribed on flesh and nerve and in the blood of the subject, as would be your right, if you reach out and grasp it.”

“I don’t want that! Stop calling me that!”

“Then accept you made a choice to torture.”

I opened my mouth to protest again, but I realised we’d gone in a circle. Tears filled my eyes. I felt a sob tugging at my throat. I bit my lip, tried to force that down. I was right, I knew I’d done the right thing.

“But … but if it wasn’t necessary, then I … I … ”

Sevens waited politely, offering not the merest shred of comfort. I blinked furiously, trying not to cry. She was right. It had been so hard to see during the heat of the moment, the burning need to avoid another child going through what I did.

“I was … trying to be aware,” I said, struggling over each word. My voice was so much more human again, but I couldn’t meet Sevens’ eyes. I stared at the grass, panting softly, trying to hold onto that justification. “I know, I know I was projecting my own parents onto them, Stephen and Isabella. I knew I had to resist vindictive pleasure, a-and I did! I did!” I looked up at Sevens, embarrassed by my own desperate need for forgiveness and validation, but she just stared back at me. “I didn’t enjoy hurting them. I didn’t make it about me. Or at least I tried not to.”

“Ah,” said Sevens. “I see. So, you didn’t enjoy it. That makes it all better then. Perhaps it even hurt you more than it hurt them?”

“No!” I cried out. “No, no that’s not what I mean! I don’t mean— I— I didn’t mean to—”

The final collapse of my excuses came quick and cold, stealing over me like morning frost over dead grass. The rotten thing from within me froze and died. All my anger and embarrassment turned to slurry in my hands.

“Oh,” I murmured. “I … oh, no. No, I didn’t think about … I made a choice. There were other options, they wouldn’t have been as certain, but … oh no.” I sniffed back the threat of tears, then put my face in one hand and tried not to sit down in a heap. Hugging myself with my tentacles, shaking with each breath, struggling to resist the urge to hide inside my squid-skull mask. “I chose to hurt them. I chose to do that. You’re right, there were other ways. There were.”

Sevens didn’t speak. I screwed my eyes shut and gritted my teeth.

“I’m becoming a monster, aren’t I?” I whined through my teeth. “I am. This isn’t even the first time I’ve tortured a person. Just the first innocent ones. You’re right. I chose this, I chose to do it, I … ”

“My father understands the uses of cruelty,” said the Yellow Princess. “He is intimately familiar with the application and purposes of pain.”

As I cried quiet, bitter tears into my own hand, scrubbing them away with my sleeve, Sevens’ voice held less of its former ice. She spoke as what she was — a storyteller, making a didactic point, but without the barbs of ironic satire.

“In my father’s case,” Sevens continued, beyond the wall of my self-indulgent tears, “he applies pain and cruelty with the right of a king. He never asks himself if it is right or wrong to do so — it is merely his nature, the nature of a king, expressed upon the flesh of his subjects. In the case of a human being, cruelty is the product of domination, exploitation, or hate. But you straddle the line between human and divine. If you were to grasp that side of your nature, I could not argue with your intent. Your methods would be cruel, but they would be in accordance with what you are. But you refused that, so you are hurting yourself with lies.”

I nodded to myself, crying quietly. What was I becoming?

Sevens let out a small sigh, a very controlled sound. “But I am glad you did not choose that. I do not know if I could continue to love an engine of divine intent. Too much like my father. Too much like what I was trying to imitate, born into the application of cruelty as my prerogative. I am glad you chose otherwise, Heather.”

“But I still did it,” I whined. “I still chose.”

Sevens crossed the gap between us with three neat steps, and drew me into a sudden embrace. She hugged me tight and wrapped something warm and soft about my shoulders, tucking it close around my neck and lifting a corner to help dry my eyes. It was her yellow mantle, the engagement gift, the piece of her which was now mine.

I let out a hopeless little laugh-sob and gently pushed her away, though without any real strength in my arm. “No,” I murmured. “No, I don’t deserve to be comforted over this.” I sniffed hard and wiped my eyes, forcing myself upright. “I don’t deserve to be feeling sorry for myself. Not me. I wasn’t the victim, I was the torturer. Even if it was worth it. Was it worth it?”

Sevens shrugged minutely. “I cannot say. That is up to you to decide.”

“Thought so,” I grunted.

To my great surprise, Sevens suddenly smiled. Her smile was a sharp and shrewd thing, unlike any expression I’d ever seen before. The Yellow Princess smiled like a cross between a weasel and a fox, subtle and cunning.

“I do love you, kitten. I’m glad to have you back.”

“We’re not done yet,” I said.

Sevens cocked an eyebrow, no longer smiling. “Ah? You have accepted responsibility for the decision. There is no going back, no undoing the pain. You could apologise to Natalie’s parents, but that would not change the past.”

I shook my head, hard and curt. “No, that’s not what I mean. How do I stop this happening again?”

Sevens blinked.

I went on. “Obviously I have a propensity for this. The potential is in me. I don’t like it, but pretending it’s not there, that would run the risk of something like this happening again. Maybe I wouldn’t do anything differently, maybe with Natalie it really was the right choice, but it was a choice. What do I do?”

“Acknowledge it?” suggested Sevens, tilting her head slightly to one side. She actually sounded uncertain. I’d never heard this mask talk this way before. She obviously hadn’t gotten this far, hadn’t made that final leap. Her script ran out here. “Talk about it. Figure out why you did it. Commit to not doing it again.”

“I know exactly why I did it.” My voice shook with hot shame, but I drew myself up and pulled Sevens’ yellow gift close around my shivering body. I wasn’t cold, in fact I was sweating, but I was still shivering. I drew my tentacles inside it too, but kept my squid-skull mask in both hands now, staring into the black and empty eye sockets. “I did it because I was projecting my own parents onto them. I … I’ve been ignoring that.”

“No longer, though.”

“There was a voice, in my head.” I pulled a face and sighed. “Not a literal voice, I’m not having auditory hallucinations. Maybe it was in my chest, not my head.” I rubbed at my sternum with one of my own tentacles. “A bitter voice, a vindictive version of me. I wanted to hurt them. I wanted to really, really hurt them.”


“I didn’t, though. I didn’t do the things it wanted me to do. But, maybe I was being cruel anyway. Maybe I was hurting my own mum and dad, by proxy.”

“Must I ask why?”

I let out a tiny, sad laugh, and raised my eyes from the unseeing sockets of my real face, to look up at the purple, crystalline whorls which filled the sky, like tattered royal cloaks brushing the atmosphere with strands of transcendent fabric. “Going to university here in Sharrowford, the entire decision to go in the first place, I think it was about getting away from my parents. I could have gotten into the University of Reading, it’s got a perfectly fine literature department. But I … I’ve never told anybody this. I lied to my parents. I told them I applied to Reading, that I was thinking of going to university close to home, so I could stay at home while studying. But I never applied, not really. I lied to them. To get away.”

“You don’t hate them.”

A statement, not a question. I shook my head.

“I don’t, no.” My voice broke, went quiet and soft. “I can’t hate them or blame them, it wasn’t their fault, not really. It was the Eye. My parents didn’t know any of this was real. They didn’t know Maisie was real. They didn’t know or understand what they did to me. When I left home for university in Sharrowford, I didn’t think it was real either, but I had to get away from them. I had to get away from that house. From them, from … from the threat of hospital again.”

I swallowed hard, thick with mucus and tears, but I didn’t start crying.

“Quite,” Sevens said, as if I might stop there.

“Not that they would actually have ever sent me back,” I said. “But the memories were there, wrapped up in that house. And now I know, all of it was real, they forced me to try to forget her, to forget Maisie, pretend she wasn’t real. None of it ever happened, Heather. You’re imagining things again, Heather. Focus on the physical things in front of you, Heather.” I found I was gritting my teeth, doing a terrible imitation of my mother’s voice. I had to force myself to relax, taking several deep breaths. “Maybe I do hate them. It’s not their fault. But I still do. I admit it. And so maybe I wanted to hurt them.”

I took a great shuddering breath and lowered my eyes from the sky, ripping myself out of my memories and back down to Camelot. I felt like I’d just stepped out of a cold shower, shivering and freezing, naked and vulnerable, but scoured clean, wounds opened and sluiced with fresh water, dead flesh cut away, pathogens killed, bleeding freely from an old, old injury, but bleeding clean, fresh, red blood at long last.

“It’s why I never really miss them,” I murmured. I wiped my eyes on my sleeve again. “The rescue operation for Maisie, that’s not why I don’t talk to my parents. I never really miss that house. I don’t call much, I don’t like to talk to them. It’s not their fault, no, but I do hate them a bit.”

Sevens nodded gently, a golden smudge in my peripheral vision, glowing like sunset on seawater.

“I’ve been off balance since the moment I saw Natalie,” I said. “I saw myself in her, and that was that. And I made a choice to torture two people. Maybe it was right, maybe it was wrong. But you’re correct, Sevens, it was a choice. I made it.” I sighed and looked back down at the squid-skull mask. “I need to be so very careful.”

“This is one of the reasons I love you.”

I looked up at Sevens and her ice-cold face, unreadable expression, and turquoise eyes. “Ah?”

“Your capacity for stepping off the path.”

I gave a sad little laugh. “If you say so. I wouldn’t have realised a thing without you prodding me. How are you so good at this, Sevens?”

Seven-Shades-of-Modest-Triumph shrugged. “I’ve helped a lot of young women. But never one I was in love with myself. This was messy, dirty, quick, and risky. And I was angry with you.”

“Still,” I said. “Thank you for confronting me.”

Sevens tilted her head slightly, neither a shake nor a nod. “May I have my handkerchief back now?”

“Oh, um.” I pulled the blood-soiled handkerchief out of my pocket and pulled a face. “I suppose so. As long as you aren’t going to treat it as an actual holy relic. Even if my blood does have unique properties.”

“It would only be fair turnabout for you collecting pieces of me.”

“Excuse me?”

“Don’t think I’ve forgotten the scrap of yellow you kept, from our first meeting. The scrap of fabric.”

I blushed and grimaced. “Oh, uh, I mean, that was a mistake. It wasn’t meant to be weird. I think.”

Sevens held out one hand. “Then return the favour.”

I rolled my eyes, but at least she wasn’t trying to call me by a royal title anymore. I handed her the scrap of fabric and blood. Sevens made it vanish somehow, into a pocket on her pocket-free skirt. “Thank you, kitten.”

I shook my head, exasperated but relieved. I looked away from Sevens, out across Camelot, across the castle still taking shape. “Is that why you wanted to talk to me out here? To show me physical proof of what I was pretending to be? Or not pretending to be, rather.”

Guuuuur-ruuuck,” went Sevens the Blood Goblin.

I turned back to her in surprise. The Yellow Princess was gone, replaced with the scrawny, pale, lank-haired figure of the vampire, Seven-Shades-of-Sanguine-Pretender, dressed in black tank top, matching shorts, and a pair of black trainers on the end of spindly legs. She rolled a bony shrug and gurgled at me. “Guess so?”

“Sevens!” I said with delight. “Are you better? I mean, does this mean you’re not angry now?”

“Mmmmmmmm-yeah?” Sevens closed the gap between us and bumped her head against my side, like a huge cat. She smelled faintly of grass cuttings, for some odd reason. I wrapped a tentacle around her shoulders and she leaned on me, hot and wriggly against my side.

“Well, thank you,” I said.

“Wanna go look at your castle?” she asked, blinking those huge black-and-red eyes down at the building site.

“Not yet. It would be unfair of me to interrupt their first draft, as it were. I should show them some respect, wait until they’re done, not go waltzing about like I own the place. Even if I do own the place, it’s not polite.”

“Good queen Morell,” Sevens croaked, then cackled like a broken engine.

“Don’t start that up again.” I tutted, then gently grabbed the back of her head with another tentacle. Sevens let out a little squeak of surprise. “It really does make me uncomfortable.”

“Sorryyyyy,” went Sevens, with a face that was anything but sorry. “But how can I resist? You have a castle, in a place called Camelot. It’s perrrrrrfect!”

“It’s absurd,” I sighed. “That’s what it is.”

“Heather Pendragon Morell.”

“Tch! Really, you—”

“Don’t like ‘Lavinia’ much, right?”

“ … well, only because people have misused the name. I don’t mind it on its own.”




“Also no! Sevens!” I ruffled her hair with one hand, messing it up and making her squeak and whine, but I quickly relented.

She writhed and grumbled and settled against my side again, black hair all messed up, then eventually looked over her shoulder, back up the hill.

Guuulurk. What about him?” she asked. “Gonna take a looky-look inside?”

I twisted to look over my own shoulder, following Sevens’ gaze, though I didn’t really need to. I knew exactly who and what she was looking at.

“Inside?” I asked.

“Not literally.”

“Oh, come on then.”

With Sevens wrapped around a tentacle, and a tentacle wrapped around Sevens, we plodded up to the top of the hill, to have another gander at the mystery corpse who had carried an Outsider coin in his pockets.

The Knights were still standing their vigil, out of respect or tradition or some other meaning that I’d accidentally gifted to them via my own mind. I nodded to them in greeting, or as a gesture of mutual respect, but both of them just stared straight ahead at the horizon. Sevens stared down at the corpse, making soft thinky noises as she turned her head to the left and right. I joined her, but there was nothing new to see.

“Soooooo, gonna look inside him?” she asked eventually.

“You mean with brain-math.”

“Well yeah.”

“ … I don’t want to,” I said. Then I sighed and rubbed a hand over my face. I felt like I needed another shower already. I wiped my face on the still-damp towel instead. “That’s another thing I’ve been ignoring on purpose. I don’t really want to use brain-math to define somebody who’s already dead. I don’t want to look at a corpse through the lens of hyperdimensional mathematics.”

Sevens twisted her head at me. “Why? It’s a corpse. You might find out how he got the coin, riiiiight?”

“Maybe. Maybe not.” I had to push past a very specific reluctance, in the back of my mind. “Back when I defined Sarika, to pull her from the Eye, I learned all these weird little details about her, about her past, all the things she’d ever done or thought or felt. Those details didn’t stay clear in my mind, once it was over. Like I saw all of her at once, but then I forgot most of it again. Sort of like a dream.”

“Mmmm,” Sevens croaked.

“But … this dead man, he’s just meat.”

“Dry meat.”

“If I define the corpse, what if it’s no different to a living person?”

“Ehhhh? Eh?”

“What if it’s just meat? What if I can see a whole personal history, in meat? What if I can see the value, or set of values, or piece of mathematics which defines dead or alive? What if I could bring him back, just by switching a few numbers?”

Sevens bit her lip, and didn’t answer.

I said it for the both of us. “Because that really would be a godlike act. So, I would rather not look. Not yet.”

“Mm-mm,” Sevens grunted. I could hear her chewing on her lip, but she didn’t say anything more.

I took a deep breath and let out a long sigh, then looked up from the corpse. “Besides, there’s got to be other ways to find out why he had that coin. I could look at the coin itself, or I could try—”

With a flutter-puff of poncho-flounce, Lozzie materialised about five feet to our left, standing with arms wide and one foot raised, as if in the middle of a ballet move.


“Lozzie?” My heart climbed into my mouth. “What’s going on? Nothing’s … okay, no, you’re smiling. Sorry, I just … right. Is everything okay?”

“And Sevvy!” Lozzie chirped.

Mmmmruk?” went Sevens, peering around my side.

“Lozzie, nothing is going on, yes?”

“Raine called!” Lozzie said. She lowered her arms and one leg, then pointed with a poncho-flourish, at the dead man lying on the ground. “Remember I took a picture, on my cell-you-lar phone? Guess who recognised him? Go on, guess guess!”

A sinking feeling dragged at the pit of my stomach.

“Badger,” I said. “Badger recognised the dead man.”

“Badger! Cor-rect!”

Rrruurk,” Sevens gurgled. “Badger. Hrrmm.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Flustered flirting in yellow? No. Unironically very mad. Heather doesn’t want to be a little Outsider godling, but she’s certainly not just a mortal anymore; maybe there’s another way? There’s no easy answer to that here, but at least she avoided the path of cruelty, with a little help from a real princess. But what else could possibly stand up to the Eye, in either war or diplomacy, except something big enough to stare back without burning? Hmm.

Rather than a link to my Patreon this week, I want to shout out a story by a long-time fan of Katalepsis! It’s been a while since I’ve done this!

Quill & Still, by the very talented Pastafarian, is a queer slice-of-life crafting litRPG. Very relaxing! Very chill! Lots of alchemy! Go check it out!

In the meantime, you can always:

Vote for Katalepsis on TopWebFiction!

This really helps. A lot of readers find the story through TWF! It only takes a couple of clicks to vote, and it keeps the story visible!

And thirdly, leave a review! Or a like, a thumbs up, a comment on a chapter, it’s all great, and it helps me so so much to know there’s people out there reading and enjoying the story; that’s the whole reason I do this in the first place, to bring a fun story to those who read it. And thank you for reading!

Next week, it’s time to check in on Badger! Been a while since we’ve seen him, brain injuries and all. Might he have some insight to share? Might this coin somehow lead us to Edward?

pale student of unhallowed arts – 17.14

Content Warnings

Religious terror
Reference to domestic violence

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

With electric lights blazing against a sluggish northern dawn beyond the thin floral curtains, the Skeates’ family home felt welcoming and cosy — much better than when Zheng and I had stepped from thin air only a couple of hours earlier, to intrude on the ghostly flicker-glow of terrified grief. Now the television was firmly switched off, hands were sensibly washed, faces splashed with cold water, shoes politely placed on the mat by the front door, and cups of strong tea suggested and administered all round.

The physical rituals of mutual trust were important, of course, but it was the house itself which unexpectedly grabbed my attention.

The house in Prestwich concealed its own age beneath several layers of interior renovation. Isabella and Stephen had filled their home with clean, modern furniture: self-assembled Ikea bookshelves; a tastefully plain dining table with matching chairs of unadorned wood; gauzy curtains with subtle rose designs on the fabric; a sturdy wooden-framed bunk-bed for Natalie, despite the fact she was an only child; sensible, solid, soft armchairs and a long sofa, all pointed at the television in the sitting room. None of it was untouched or unused, this was no display home of normality enforced over human need. The table was scuffed from hundreds of dinners, the chair-legs showed evidence of Turmy’s claw marks, and the sofa was worn-in, cushions collapsed, probably in need of replacing soon. Natalie’s wooden bed frame was covered in stickers of dinosaurs, cute-faced cartoon characters, girl superheroes, and at least one little figure I recognised from a video game which Tenny had been playing recently.

Natalie’s bedroom was full of pastel chaos, occupied by a large collection of plush toys, with a very well-used set of art supplies scattered about on a small desk. One wall was covered with her own taped-up drawings, mostly cartoon characters. Apparently Natalie was currently going through a phase of drawing superheroes who were also pieces of cheese, or perhaps dinosaurs, or maybe birds. I didn’t have time to stop and figure them out, though I did spot one image that was almost certainly meant to be a dinosaur in a trench coat and a pirate hat, but with a lemon in place of the more traditional skull-and-crossbones symbol. Maybe Natalie could tell me all about detective-pirate-lemon-rex another day.

A good place for a little girl to grow up. A real place, warm and lived-in. After a good look at their home, I decided I liked Natalie’s parents.

But the house itself was older than the family. Not as venerable as Number 12 Barnslow Drive, and it had surrendered to the advances of the modern world more readily, but I could feel it in the bones of the place. Between the oddly large kitchen, the rather cramped dining room, and the kinking snake of the stairs, I spied more than a few hints of history beneath the surface — the dark skirting boards from an earlier time, the open space in the kitchen where a large gas oven had probably once stood, the side of the stairs where a railing should have been, and the odd step-down from the kitchen to the dining room. I would place the red brick exterior no later than the 1930s. Maybe it was the layout, or the height of the ceilings, or maybe my imagination was running away with me, under the stress and exhaustion of this wearying day.

Or maybe I was trying to distract myself from the cool, smooth weight of the soapstone coin in my sweaty palm.

Better a mystery I understood than one I couldn’t fathom.

I had plenty of opportunity to ponder the specifics of the house once we arrived. The very first thing we did, before we’d even finished recovering from the return Slip, was to comb the place from top to bottom. While Isabella cradled a nauseated and shivering Natalie, and Stephen was getting his breath back, and Tenny hugged poor confused Turmy, and Sevens kept an eye on them all, Zheng and Lozzie and I checked every single room, cupboard, and dark corner we could find. We even looked under the beds, stared into the plug holes in the bathroom, and opened the fridge. We weren’t taking any chances with Edward’s propensity for clever traps. It was overwhelmingly likely that Natalie had been selected by random chance, simply a little girl in the wrong place at the wrong time, so there was no reason for Edward to booby-trap her family home, like he’d done with Amy Stack’s son. But it didn’t hurt to check. I made sure to peer into the shadows this time, lest another creature like Marmite use my own assumptions against me.

We found nothing except the usual background level of pneuma-somatic life. A dwarf-thing made of crumbly coal was nested in the back of a kitchen cupboard, a pair of spirits like praying mantises were visible cavorting in the small garden, and a flat, sad, limp mushroom creature was plastered over one of the windows. Nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing intentional. Nothing watching us back.

Once we pronounced the house was safe, we had much to discuss with Isabella and Stephen. We weren’t out of the woods just yet. But they were understandably reluctant to part from their daughter for more than a few moments. Not all of the things I had to say were going to be suitable for her ears.

Eventually we reached an acceptable compromise. Natalie was to show Tenny her bedroom and her toys, chaperoned by Seven-Shades-of-Reluctant-Babysitter, while myself and Lozzie would speak to the parents, with Zheng hovering close at hand in case of an emergency on either end. I would have preferred Sevens with me and Lozzie upstairs, just so I could fall back on the eloquence of the Yellow Princess, but we all understood that Natalie needed a proper bodyguard right now, at least until I made it clear that she was in no further danger.

So Lozzie and I settled ourselves on the rather spartan wooden chairs in the cramped sitting room, opposite a strained and exhausted looking couple of parents. The mugs of steaming tea helped everybody’s mood. The seven feet of looming demon-host by the doorway was probably less reassuring. In other circumstances I would have made Zheng sit down with us, but part of me clung to the authority, the threat of violence, the intimidation.

Amid all of this, Turmy had decided that the best place for a cat was in Lozzie’s lap. As soon as we were sat down, he burrowed into her pastel poncho, curled up, and closed his eyes.

“Well,” Isabella said in a tone of awkward politeness. “If Turmy has taken a liking to you, young Miss, then I’m certain we can trust you too.”

“Cat good,” Lozzie said with a mischievous little smile. She scratched Turmy behind the ears, which earned her a sonorous purr from the old marmalade gentleman. “Good cat. Goooooood cat, yes good boy good cat, best boy, yes it’s you. It’s you. It’s you!”

“He’s always been good with Nat, even when she was a newborn. I think that’s rare, for cats?”

“Rare drop cat,” Lozzie whispered to Turmy. “S-rank cat.”

Behind the thin curtains dawn was threatening the horizon with a line of dull fire; but this morning was going to be grey and dreary. English summer had forgotten itself, as it so regularly did, leaving us with imitation-autumn in the middle of June. It was as if the grey world of the Shamble-swamp had followed us back. Electric lights and hot tea held it at bay for now, but soon there would be rain drumming on the roof. I could taste it in the air.

Small footsteps bumped and pattered above our heads, joined by the occasional fluttery trill of Tenny’s voice. We’d barely been sat down long enough to take a single sip of tea, but Stephen couldn’t keep his eyes from flicking to the ceiling again and again. He looked desperate to stand up and dart to the door, unwilling to leave his daughter alone. Isabella was equally antsy, but she hid it better, behind a polite, calm smile and the tension in her shoulders and neck.

Stephen finally muttered a complaint. “Don’t you think we should at least be nearby?”

I drew in a deep breath, sat up straight, and tried to stop fiddling with the stone coin in my hoodie’s front pocket. My thoughts were consumed by the small stone disc, but my role was not over yet. I had to stick to the script.

“Natalie is untouchable right now,” I said. I tried to sound like Evelyn, like the confident, grizzled, terrifying mage, but without her barbed tongue. “Sevens — that’s the woman in the yellow skirt — she wasn’t lying when she called herself a ‘god’. Technically, anyway. She is very powerful, in her own way. She is the best bodyguard your daughter could have under these circumstances.”

Stephen finally unstuck his eyes from the ceiling, but he looked doubtful.

Isabella’s smile tightened. “And what about when you leave?” she asked. “Will Natalie be safe, then? Will we be safe? Or are you leaving us to our own devices?”

“Natty’s not important,” Lozzie chirped with a smile.

Stephen visibly bristled. “Excuse me?”

I winced. The conversation was already getting away from the script in my head, slipping through my fingers. There was supposed to be an order to all this. I’d worked it out, planned what to say, but we were already spiralling off.

“What Lozzie means,” I said, “is that none of you actually matter to the man who did this — Edward Lilburne, the wizard who kidnapped Natalie. There’s no reason for him to come after Natalie again. She was in the wrong place at the wrong time, that’s all. There was nothing particularly special about her, she’s not connected to anybody who matters, not responsible for anything. There’s no reason for him to kidnap her or attack her, or anything like that, not least because it would draw an awful lot of attention from the police. He doesn’t want that, any more than I would.”

Stephen wrapped one hand around his mug of tea and leaned forward over the table, shoulders squared, frowning, unsatisfied.

Since we’d gotten back, he’d changed out of his sweat-stained shirt, washed the caked sweat off his face, eaten some kind of energy bar, and downed about two whole pints of water and a bottle of some kind of fancy cold brew coffee. The transformation was striking, from a shivering, screaming ape on the edge of the impossible, to a concerned middle-class father at a school parent’s evening. I’d broken him Outside, forced him to accept reality, but he was putting himself back together with the new information included.

I was no longer a terrifying and inexplicable monster to him, I was merely the closest thing he had to an authority. And he wished to file a complaint.

“What about that coin you found on the dead man?” he demanded. “You said that meant he was involved. How do you know Natalie isn’t involved? How can you be sure there’s not some other reason for all this?”

I must have given him an exasperated look worthy of Evelyn, because Stephen frowned harder. Lozzie giggle-snorted. Isabella sighed softly and murmured her husband’s name with gentle irritation.

“It’s a reasonable bloody question,” Stephen said, glancing at his wife.

“She’s ten,” I deadpanned.


I resisted the urge to throttle him with a tentacle. “ … so, unless she’s been sneaking out at night to join a cult — and I think we can rule that out — then I don’t think it’s possible for her to be involved.”

Stephen shook his head. “Look, with all due respect, I still don’t entirely follow. How can you be sure that—”

I pulled the coin of greenish soapstone out of my hoodie’s front and slapped it down on the table with a loud clack of stone on wood.

Then I hiccuped — the noise was half-inhuman, twisted by irritation and the shape of my throat. I hadn’t expected that.

Stephen flinched. Isabella blinked. Lozzie made a little murring sound of discomfort. Zheng stayed silent, because she probably approved.

I’d lost my temper. It was stupid, unnecessary, and unbecoming of the figure I was supposed to be to these people — authority and knowledge, reassurance in the face of the supernatural truth, a source of safety in the new reality I’d forced them to accept. I would have winced in apology if I wasn’t so exhausted, if they hadn’t already dragged me off-script, and if my mind wasn’t whirling with dark possibilities regarding this inexplicable coin.

“This coin,” I said, then cleared my throat and started over, softer, gentler, though a tickle in my throat made me sound raw. “This coin means that man was probably involved with the supernatural in some fashion. The only way he would find such a thing is by either being a mage, or being involved with a mage, or maybe journeying Outside. Maybe he picked it up there, right where he died. I don’t know. I do not know. Natalie is ten. The only way she could possibly have been involved prior to being kidnapped is through a family member. If, for example, Edward Lilburne was trying to punish or put pressure on her parents.”

My tone turned icy cold. I’d wanted to leave this part unsaid, but I couldn’t stop myself. They didn’t need to know what I’d been preparing to do, if I’d confirmed my worst fears about them, but now they’d asked.

Stephen’s frown darkened, from polite confusion to a hostile scowl. “Hey. Hey, we don’t—”

Zheng growled, low in her chest, a sound that filled the room and vibrated in one’s guts. “Watch your tone, monkey.”

Stephen balked, going pale and breaking out in cold sweat, staring at Zheng and raising both hands.

“Zheng,” I said, “don’t, please.”

Stephen raised a weak protest. “There’s— we’re not— there’s no—”

Isabella spoke clearly, though she was suddenly sweating as well. “We’re not involved with anything. We’re not. We never knew about any of this until you. Please, miss … ” She struggled for a moment, then wet her lips and took a deep breath. “Your—”

“It’s alright,” I said quickly, horrified by the prospect of her calling me Your Majesty or Your Highness. After all, I owned a castle full of knights, who could blame her? “I don’t suspect you of anything, but it’s important you understand. Do you know why we checked all the rooms in your house just now?”

Stephen swallowed hard. “In case we were lying to you this whole time.”

I nodded. “The only way Natalie could have prior involvement with the supernatural is via a member of her family. When I found that coin, suddenly I had to decide if one or both of you had been acting for the last couple of hours.”

The Skeates looked like they were being marched to the gallows. I sighed heavily. I hadn’t wanted to scare them all over again.

“Well,” Stephen said, with a level tone that took more courage than it sounded. “We weren’t lying.”

“I know you weren’t acting,” I said. “It’s probably impossible to fake what I just put you through. And we found no sign of anything in your house, no hidden sigils or wards or magic circles. You’re in the clear, I believe you. But I had to be sure.”

The way they both looked at me made me feel like the worst kind of filth. Like peasants who’d been gifted a reprieve by their lord, sinners absolved by the grace of a god, like a shadow had passed over their souls and left them untouched, but might return again if they said the wrong words. I suddenly wanted to curl up in a ball and put my head in Lozzie’s lap.

“What would you have done?” Isabella asked quietly. “If you’d found anything?”

I stared back at her for a moment. My eyes ached. “Do you really want to know?”

Zheng rumbled the answer for me. “The shaman would have killed you both.”

I winced and closed my eyes. Lozzie made a soft whining noise and concentrated hard on petting Turmy. Purring filled the air.

“I would have had to figure out if the ‘kidnapping’ was actually you offering her up willingly,” I said. “And if it was, then I would have killed you both, yes.” I smiled one of the most awkward smiles of my entire life. Those were not words you followed with a smile. “But … but that’s not the case. We’re okay. You’re okay. Everything is fine. Natalie was in the wrong place at the wrong time. That’s all. It’s important you understand that.”

“Right,” Stephen said. Poor man was sweating bullets. All he’d done was ask a reasonable question and here I was admitting I’d been planning to kill him. Lozzie had curled up tighter in her chair too; she didn’t like talk about killing and violence, unless it was about her own family.

Isabella smiled back as best she could, maintaining eye contact with me. I didn’t like what that meant.

“More specifically,” I went on, trying to reassure them, “Edward Lilburne was feeding stray pets to a sort of monster. I think he happened to be passing by when Turmy got out of your back door. Natalie followed the cat and scooped him up, but Edward was already in the process of sending the cat Outside. Wrong place, wrong time, like I keep saying.”

“Turmy got lucky,” Lozzie said, nodding seriously. “Nat saved him.” She looked down at the cat and went all baby-voice. “Lucky-lucky cat, do you know that, Turmster? Do you know? You dooooo?”

Murrrt,” went Turmy.

Stephen was still frowning at me, but now with a kind of distant, echoed horror behind his eyes. When he reached for his mug of tea, his hand shook slightly. Not for the first time, I worried about the long-term effects of what I’d done to these two. I needed to be reassuring them, not threatening them. Why was this coming so easily to me?

Because you’re still treating them like your own parents, said that bitter voice in my chest. Because you want to punish them.

I took a deep breath and rejected that entire concept. I had to be better.

“I’m sorry about all this,” I said, going even further off-script myself. “I’m sorry you have to deal with this. You seem like decent people, you shouldn’t have to, it’s not fair, it’s never fair when this happens, when mages and magic and bull— bullshit gets—”

“Why did you have to do that to us?” Stephen asked softly, his voice breaking. He cleared his throat and tried again. “I mean taking us Outside. Showing us like that.”

He may not have known it, but Stephen had just thrown me a life-line; I was determined to loop it around him and his wife and haul them to shore.

“Because you had to be broken,” I said. “And I’m sorry I had to do that, but it was the only way. You had to be exposed directly if you were ever going to believe a word of this.”

“Gotta see for yourself!” Lozzie chimed in. “You don’t believe, otherwise!”

“Couldn’t you have just … told us?”

I shook my head. “That’s not how reality works. At least to the best of our knowledge.” I drew myself up and tried to think of myself as Evelyn again, tried to adopt the tone she’d used back when she’d first explained this all to me. “The human mind naturally rejects the supernatural, the products of Outside introduced to our reality. Our minds filter things out and come up with alternative explanations, unless we’re pushed past the point where exposure breaks us, so we can put ourselves back together with the new information properly reincorporated.”

I sighed inside. My improvisation was terrible compared with Evelyn’s metaphor of the castle, but it was close enough for now.

“But,” Stephen insisted. “You could have shown us something, tried something first, anything.”

“When you felt the invisible force of my tentacles, did you believe right away? Or were you trying to explain it somehow, inside your own head?”

Stephen frowned harder, thinking carefully. But Isabella blinked in surprise.

“I was thinking of magnets,” she said.

Lozzie hid a giggle behind one hand.

“Magnets?” I echoed.

“My goodness,” Isabella went on, almost awestruck. “My Lady, you’re correct. When you grabbed me — I’m sorry, when you restrained me, on the sofa, I thought you were somehow using magnets. Steve, she’s right. My mind did exactly what she just described.”

“Yeah … ” Stephen said, staring at me with fresh horror. “Yeah, Izzy, yeah, you’re right. And out in the swamp, I was sure it was all a projection. Like in a white room or something. Shit.”

I cleared my throat and failed to contain my irritated tone. “Isabella, why did you just call me ‘my Lady’?”

Isabella blinked those big brown eyes at me, innocently wary. “Sevens,” she said. “When we were waiting, I asked her how to address you. She said that would be proper. Should I be more … ?” She glanced at Zheng, but got no reply. She was trying to be respectful. A difficult needle to thread.

I failed to contain an exasperated sigh. At least Sevens had the good sense not to give them my family name, but that was scant comfort.

Lozzie snorted a laugh. “Heathy is Heathy!”

“It’s not funny,” I snapped at her.

“The shaman is the shaman,” Zheng said.

Isabella looked uncomfortable. “But—”

“Heather,” I snapped my own name. “That’s what you call me. Heather.”

Isabella bobbed her head in deference, with more than a touch of fear. Made me feel sick at myself. “Heather,” she repeated. “I’m sorry.”

I took a moment to gather myself before speaking again. Had I always been this cruel?

“The reason I had to break you,” I said. “Natalie’s mind was already reconditioned by spending a night alone in that swamp. We call it being ‘in the know’. She didn’t have a choice in the matter. And that means in the future she might see supernatural things for what they are. It’s not likely she’ll run into anything, it’s actually quite rare, but it’s possible. Without her parents similarly reconditioned, she would have nobody to turn to.”

Stephen gestured at me. Isabella cleared her throat as if to tell him off for the gesture.

“What about you?” he asked. “Can she turn to you?”

“Always,” I said on reflex. “But wouldn’t you want to know why your daughter is friends with a woman twice her age? And now you do.”

“Ah. Well.” Stephen cleared his throat. “When you put it like that.”

I nodded. “We’ll leave it a few weeks, maybe a month or two, just because of the police and the news media, but I would like to maintain some kind of contact with Natalie, yes. Even if just to let her know that we’re here for her if she needs it.” I smiled and tried to look warm again. “Plus, she has taken a liking to Tenny. Tenny doesn’t have any friends her own age. This might be good for her, too. Well. I understand if you’re wary about that.”

“Tenny is a good girl,” said Lozzie, in a sort of sad voice. “Good baby.”

I pulled my smile tighter. I was leaving out one essential detail, of course: in a few months’ time, I might be dead. We might all be dead, just a collection of bones covered in black ash in Wonderland. I tried not to think about that. But Natalie and her parents had to be prepared, even without anybody left to guide them.

“I’m sorry, but you still haven’t really answered my question,” said Isabella. “What happens when you leave?”

Perhaps she saw right through me. Or perhaps she was just asking a sensible question. It wouldn’t be a good use of time to cry on these shoulders, though.

“When Edward sees the news that Natalie turned up home safe and sound, he’ll know it was us who got her back. She’s under our protection — my protection. We’ll make this explicit when we next communicate with him. We’ve sent letters and stuff through a lawyer, we have a line of communication. Natalie is off limits.”

“Or else what?” Stephen asked. Then he did a little sigh and a grumble. “You already said you’re planning to kill this man. What leverage have you got?”

I stared back at him for a heartbeat, then dropped the act, the serious act, the I-know-what-I’m-doing act.

“Letting him live,” I said.

Lozzie hissed through her teeth. She didn’t like that idea at all. Zheng rumbled in disgust.

“All right,” I sighed. “Pretending that we’ll let him live. More importantly, we can set up your house — and Natalie herself — with magical protection, the kind of tripwire that he won’t dare risk coming into contact with. We’ve done it once before, for somebody else.”

Stephen and Isabella shared a look. This didn’t seem to be reassuring them.

“I’m sorry,” I said, then hiccuped. “I’m not very good at doing this. I know I’m not very reassuring, but it’s the best I can think of. The best I can muster. I’m sorry I can’t do more. Once he’s dead, you’ll have no more worries about this.”

Stephen cleared his throat gently. “Why does she matter to you? Why do you care?”

“I already told you that. I went through something similar. I won’t let it happen to another child.” Beneath the table, Lozzie’s small, warm hand wormed into mine. She squeezed hard. I kept talking. “I don’t want your girl to turn out like me, misdiagnosed with schizophrenia, gaslit by the entire world. My parents denied what happened to me; it’s not their fault, but the damage it did was … is … ”

I stared across that bare wooden table and tried very hard not to see my own parents sitting on the other side.

How absurd. Isabella was practically my mother’s polar opposite, willowy and elfin and graceful, soft spoken and poised and careful. Stephen had all the underlying assertive nature my own father lacked, not to mention he didn’t have a beard. Also they were a lot younger, closer to my age than to my parents.

Yet for a moment my words stuck in my throat. In my head I was back in Cygnet children’s hospital, protesting to mummy that I was seeing monsters, crying out because nobody would stop lying to me, nobody would stop saying that Maisie wasn’t real.

People needed to stop treating me like a leader, or a messiah, or a god, because no matter how much I denied it, no matter how many layers of safety I wrapped around my core, how many understanding friends I made, how much I wrought my truth with the flesh of my own body, part of me would always be that scared little girl for whom reality had stopped making sense. Natalie’s plight had thrust it all to the forefront of my mind. All my casual aggression and calculated cruelty, was it all just to avoid this frank conversation with avatars from my own past? Surrogate parents were asking me why I cared about my surrogate self, and the answers I had were no different to when I was nine years old: because the world had stopped making sense.

I grabbed the stone coin off the table with a sweating, shaking hand. A terrifying mystery, but better than talking to mum and dad about the truth. I stared at it, opened my mouth to say something stupid, like “It’s time we left, then, we’re done here, goodbye.”

Zheng came to my rescue with a dark purr from the deeper shadows.

“The shaman sees further than you monkeys. She sees truth. Your pup will not.”

Both Skeates stared at Zheng in the manner one looks toward a bear appearing around a copse of trees.

She was right though. Natalie would not suffer like me. That brought me back, too. I blinked and took a deep breath and hit the ground running, speaking too fast, uncaring that it probably made minimal sense to Isabella and Stephen.

“Yes, Natalie won’t have to deal with even a fraction of what I do. She can’t see spirits, she won’t have the nightmares. But she’s still been exposed to the supernatural, and I don’t want another child to go through what I did, that’s why I care, that’s what matters. So I’ll do my best to protect her. That’s why I care. You understand? Is that enough? Can we move onto practical matters now? The sun is rising, and you two need to have your story ready for the police.”

Stephen raised one hand. “Wait, wait. All this talk about protection. What about the police?”

Lozzie perked up. Turmy did too, he must have felt it through her lap. Lozzie tilted her head to one side and waited.

A cold hand reached into my gut as I realised: the Skeates believed, but they didn’t understand.

I hadn’t prepared for this. It wasn’t in my script.

“What about them?” I echoed, buying time.

“They’ll never help you,” Lozzie whispered.

“Well … ” Stephen looked between the pair of us. “Isn’t there … any kind of … ”

“Can they really do nothing?” Isabella asked.

I almost wanted to put my squid-skull mask back on. Hide behind the inhuman face that was closer to the real me. Instead, inside my mind, I spoke with Evee’s voice. My words came out with surprising clarity.

“There is no ministry for magic,” I said. “No men in black, no secret Q-division in a government office somewhere. There’s no council of mages, or local werewolf clan, or a nightclub full of vampires. There’s nothing. There’s no supernatural government or institutions or laws. There’s just madmen, monsters, and mages — and very, very rarely, there’s people like me and my friends. And we’re monsters too, yes, but we’re not monstrous. Don’t investigate the supernatural, don’t start buying occult books, don’t go to the newspapers or paranormal websites or anything like that, because all you’ll do is risk unwanted attention. Do you understand?”

Stephen stared at me in wordless shock, mouth hanging open. “I … I assumed … well, I don’t know what I assumed, but … that’s … ”

“We’re on our own,” Isabella said.

“Not completely,” I corrected her gently. “It’s basically warlordism, yes. But we’re the local power bloc, and we don’t let mages kill children.”

Stephen started laughing, dark and a little overwhelmed. “So, which is it? Adopted daughter of an alien god — don’t think I forgot that one — or queen of Camelot, or warlord — warlady? — of Manchester?”

“We’re not actually based in Manchester,” I said with a sigh, taking extra care with my words — I was pretty certain the Skeates were not going to approach the police, but I still didn’t want to tell them we were from Sharrowford. “But for these purposes, our jurisdiction extends here, yes.”

Zheng chuckled from the shadows in the corner, a low rumble between sharp teeth. “Warlord, shaman?”

I froze, blushing, realising I’d basically just agreed to that without a second thought. “I mean, I … I’m … we … ” I let out a sharp huff at Stephen, then grabbed my mug of tea in a tentacle and took a deep drink of the lukewarm brew, before clacking it down in open irritation. Turmy peered over the lip of the table at that. A hiccup further undermined my unasked-for authority. “Fine. Yes, I’m all of those things and more. Is that what you want? You want a local ruler to worship? All right, you’ve got it. But not just me alone — I’m not a warlord. Warlady, really.” I tutted and shook my head, knowing that Raine would have loved that word. I was glad she wasn’t present to hear it. “Though you’re not going to meet the rest of us, for safety.”

Zheng purred curiously. “It would be a good title, shaman. War-lady. Mm.”

I could tell she was teasing me. Something about the amused hitch in her voice. I steadfastly ignored Zheng’s suggestion and focused on Natalie’s parents. “Now, if you are quite done, we need to discuss practical matters, preferably before any of your family contacts you, or a police officer knocks on your door. Now.”

But both Stephen and Isabella were having a very hard time looking away from the mug I’d just drunk from. I rolled my eyes, out of patience.

“No, I don’t possess powers of telekinesis,” I said. “I was lifting it with a tentacle. You saw them already!”

Isabella smiled and nodded, polite but on the edge of losing something important. Stephen cleared his throat with obvious concern, then said, carefully, “May I ask why we could see them when we were … ‘Outside’, but not here?”

“My tentacles are made from a special type of matter. Generally you have to be non-human, or extra-human, in order to see them, or anything else made from that matter. All three of us here—” I indicated myself, Lozzie, and Zheng with a sideways nod “—can see them clearly. You can’t. We have some special glasses which can allow for a human to see, but giving you a pair might be a bad idea for your mental health. Try not to think about that, please.”

Stephen shared an unreadable look with his wife, then a covert, polite glance at Lozzie. But nobody could sneak around the master sneaker; Lozzie flashed back a big smile and a broad wink, giggling in her seat as she petted Turmy. Isabella and Stephen may have finally managed to make sense of me, and Zheng was visibly not a human being, but Lozzie looked like an ordinary girl, at least on the surface. They didn’t seem to know how to process that.

I watched them both very carefully; these two were only freshly broken in, their minds still adapting to this new reality. Lozzie looked ordinary, yet she was not. I needed them to accept this, for their daughter’s sake, but I suspected it was possible to push them too far.

“Natalie will not turn out like us,” I said out loud. “She’s a human being, and will remain so. She can’t see my tentacles either.”

Stephen sighed with unconcealed relief, then had the good grace to wince with apology. Isabella managed to remain neutral, trying not to anger the god-queen-warlord-squid across the table from her.

We are what we pretend to be, I thought. So what am I being right now?

“Practical matters,” I said, somewhat sharper than I intended.

“Practically problems!” Lozzie chirped.

“Listen to the shaman,” Zheng rumbled. “Closely.”

Stephen nodded and pulled himself up in his chair, nodding seriously. “Right, of course. What do you want us to tell the police?”

Isabella spoke up before I could stick to the script. “We tell them she came home, of course. She wandered off. She had an adventure.”

I nodded along. “As far as the rest of the world is concerned, your daughter spent the last twenty-four hours on the adventure of a lifetime for a ten year old, wandering around Manchester with her cat. Lozzie’s already coached her, and we’ll do some more before we leave, because the police will undoubtedly want to hear it from Natalie herself. She knocked on the back door in the middle of the night and woke you up, and you found her there. That’s all.”

“With the cat,” Lozzie added. In her lap, Turmy opened sleepy, bleary eyes again and added a soft-throated ‘mmmmrrrr’ to the proceedings.

“With Turmy,” I added. “That’s the important part. The newspapers will love that. A feel-good story about a girl and her cat, a silly puff-piece that people won’t really read. They’ll move on within a day or two. With any luck it won’t even hit the BBC as anything other than a ten-second piece.”

I was echoing Raine’s words, but I only half-believed them myself. It would take some serious effort for the police to accept this without question, at least privately. In public they would express relief and close the case. But one or two canny detectives might start to ask questions behind closed doors. We’d have to wait that out.

Stephen nodded, but I could see that Isabella was harbouring some similar doubts to myself. I caught her eyes and nodded gently, letting her know that I understood. We were taking a gamble here.

“Secondly,” I went on, “is the issue of Natalie’s health.”

That certainly took their attention away from the issue of what to tell the police. Stephen froze, but Isabella didn’t waste a beat.

“The mud,” she said, mouth hanging open. “Oh my God. In that swamp, the mud. It was filthy.”

“The mud, yes,” I said.

“It’s safe!” Lozzie chirped. “She’s cleeeeeean, there’s no infections or nasties or anything like that. I triple-checked! Turmy too!” She petted Turmy on the head when the cat looked up at the sound of his own name.

“Lozzie knows what she’s doing when it comes to bodies and medical issues,” I said. “And I trust her judgement about this. But … ”

“She’s clean!” Lozzie chirped at me with mounting irritation. “Heathy!”

“We can’t be one hundred percent certain.”

“Mmmm!” Lozzie grumbled. She curled up and gave Turmy a hug.

“The same goes for Turmy.” I addressed Natalie’s parents again. They did not look reassured by this exchange. “We can’t be one hundred percent certain that neither of them ingested anything from the swamp, or that they’re completely free of infection. You need to watch both of them very, very carefully over the next few days and weeks.”

“But … ” Stephen swallowed. “But a doctor isn’t going to … ?”

“Exactly. If Natalie gets some Outsider illness or infection, don’t take her to a doctor or the hospital. Contact us. We have other ways of solving that kind of problem, if it happens. It probably won’t. But if it does.”

Isabella frowned delicately and spoke with exacting precision. “You seem uncomfortable, Heather.” She said my name with obvious reluctance. Probably wanted to call me, ‘your grace’.

My turn to freeze with self-conscious fear. I stared at my mug. “Um. Well. It’s complicated.”

“I understand that we can’t possibly comprehend everything about your world. I accept that, on your word. But you need to share everything about my daughter’s health. Everything.”

When I glanced back up, that burning dedication had returned to Isabella’s eyes, the same look I’d seen on her when I’d arrived in her sitting room and pinned her to the sofa, the look which said she would do anything for her child. She would reach across this table and slap a god if she had to. And she did think I was some kind of god.

Zheng purred from the dark, “The shaman speaks of sharing flesh with flesh.”

I sighed and allowed my shoulders to slump. “Zheng, please don’t.”

“I am touched by the shaman’s blessing. It kept my blood free of vermin, twice. She would do the same for your pup, if only asked.”

I wanted to get out of my chair and throttle Zheng. One of my tentacles pointed toward her in silent threat, but she stared it down. The Skeates looked even more confused than before. Lozzie grabbed another one of my tentacles, wound it about her arm, then hugged it to her chest, as if to comfort me — or restrain me.

“All right, fine,” I said. “My body produces certain unique … well, anti-bodies, I suppose. I’ve shared them with people before and it’s helped fight off supernatural or extra-dimensional infections. If Natalie was to develop some kind of problem, then it might be worth the risk.”

“What risk?” Isabella demanded.

“I have no idea,” I deadpanned, out of patience. “This isn’t a tested medical procedure. I’m not talking about something clean and modern here, I’m talking about probably feeding her a spoon-full of my blood.”

Isabella’s mouth made a little O-shape of unspoken shock. Stephen put one hand to his own mouth.

“I have no idea what it’s done to other people in the long run,” I went on, thinking of Raine, who had shared my blood by proxy, from Zheng. “But it would be better than the alternative, but only if Natalie gets sick.”

“Like communion,” Stephen murmured in awe.

The look in his eyes made my stomach turn over and my blood curdle.

“It’s not communion!” I snapped suddenly, surprising even myself. Stephen flinched hard. But Isabella stared at me with that look I hated more than all others — growing religious adoration. Her husband’s feeling had been sharp and quick, but hers had deeper roots that I could not seem to dislodge. Perhaps she’d been waiting all her life for a god to step into it. “It’s not communion,” I repeated. “I’m not literally a god. My blood doesn’t have magical properties. Well, okay, I suppose it does. But I’m not a god, stop looking at me like that.”

Stephen shook his head. “You said you’re the daughter of an alien god. What does that mean?”

Adopted daughter.”

“And that’s why you have tentacles? And … and all the rest of it? The teleporting thing?”

I glared at him, but that had the opposite of my intended effect. The poor man began to bow his head. “Stop that!” I snapped. “No. Well, yes. Sort of. I’m not … I’m not a god, that’s all. Or a messiah. I’m just a young woman in a very difficult situation. I realise that you’re thankful I saved your daughter, but stop thinking of me like that.”

This was so much worse than with the Brinkwood Cult, the Hoptons, Twil’s family. At least they were already worshipping an Outsider; sliding me into their rather thin pantheon had felt offensive and horrifying, but at least it made some kind of sense. But this? This was all my fault, this was because I’d presented myself as the Eye’s daughter in order to overawe them, to break their minds. And then I’d revealed myself as human, or at least looking like a human, and I thought that had settled the matter.

But here they were, clinging to driftwood pieces of their new cosmology whenever I gave them an opening.

Was this why cults happened? Was this why Outsiders could seem like gods? Because people needed an explanation to cling to, once they were in the know. And Natalie’s parents were using me as the new guidepost to their world. I had saved their child, delivered them from evil, and now they couldn’t help themselves.

Stephen nodded along politely, looking suitably ashamed. But the look in his wife’s eyes told me she would not accept my own denial. She’d believed it on the shores of the great swamp, in her moment of need, and she believed it now, with her child returned, salvation delivered, and the offer of a blood-bond with the messenger from beyond. She was ready to argue with the divine about the status of its own divinity.

But then she lowered her eyes to her own folded hands. “I have half a mind to ask you to do it right now. For Nat’s sake.”

“Bloody hell, Izzy,” said Stephen. “No, not unless we need to. Come on now.”

“This is what magic is like, this is what the supernatural is like,” I said. “There’s no waving wands and chanting some magic words to make something go back to the way it was before. If Natalie sickens as a result of her exposure, then sharing my anti-bodies with her may be a sensible choice. But that choice isn’t mine to make, so I didn’t.”

A very awkward few moments of silence fell over the cramped dining room. Isabella sat staring down at her own clasped hands. I hoped she wasn’t praying, at least not to me. Stephen drained the rest of his tea and nodded a thanks across the table, not just to me, either, but to Lozzie and Zheng too. That was a better sign. Lozzie picked Turmy up out of her lap and placed him on the table, which prompted him to go over to Isabella and nuzzle her hands, which finally snapped her out of her own thoughts. She idly petted the cat, smiling with distant relief.

“Zheng,” I said, “do you have the piece of paper?”

Zheng grunted an affirmative. She detached herself from the shadows like a great pillar in motion, strode to the table, and produced a piece of folded paper from inside her trench coat. She slid it across the tabletop, toward Natalie’s parents.

“There’s an email address written there,” I said as Isabella picked up the piece of paper and unfolded it. “We’ll be in contact with you soon enough, as I said, but if anything happens to Natalie, if she gets unwell with seemingly no cause, send an email to that address and we’ll know.”

“And you’ll appear in the middle of our living room?” Stephen asked. He was only half-joking.

I shrugged and sighed. “Probably.” I pushed my chair back. “It’s almost dawn, time for us to get moving. I’d like to say bye to Nat though.”

Isabella nodded. “Of course. You’ve a right to.”

What right? I thought, but I kept that doubt to myself. I didn’t want to get into a theological debate about myself.

At least the final problem of the morning was a relatively sweet one; Natalie and Tenny did not wish to be parted so soon. On Natalie’s end, Tenny was a fascinating new friend with lots of hands, so she could hold eight or ten of Natalie’s plush toys and plastic robots all at once, facilitating a very elaborate game of make-believe. That’s what we discovered them doing, upstairs in Natalie’s bedroom, with Sevens looking on and quietly providing dramatic prompts.

On Tenny’s end, Natalie was the only friend she’d ever made who was close to her own age. This was the first time she’d played with another child. She didn’t even look sheepish or embarrassed about playing make-believe with toys. Still a little girl, then, even if she was growing up fast.

“Can Nat visit? Visit for playtime?” Tenny trilled, asking me and Lozzie alternately. She looked quite sad. “Pleaseeeee?”

“In the future,” I told her, not wanting to actually lie. “But it’ll have to be a while until then. Remember? Things have to be secret.”

“Secret thiiiiiiings,” Tenny trilled in irritation, then puffed her cheeks out. So much like her mother.

“Octopus lady knows best!” Natalie assured Tenny, patting her on the head, both hands in the fine white fur that covered Tenny’s skull. Tenny had three tentacles attached to Natalie in return, the Tenny version of holding hands and refusing to let go.

Apparently I did know best. Tenny was sad and grumpy, Isabella stood by in great discomfort, and Stephen awkwardly shook Tenny’s ‘hand’ — the end of one of her tentacles — but amongst all this, Natalie was serious and beaming, as if she knew better than her parents. She hugged Tenny goodbye, accepted the returned Turmy, then went back to hug Lozzie. She even hugged Sevens, which Sevens returned with all the grace of a real princess.

I hugged Natalie goodbye too, which almost made me tear up, though I didn’t understand why until I pulled back and started talking.

“Don’t be afraid of anything, Nat,” I told her, doing my best to control my own emotions, for her sake. “You might see things, but you’re safe. You’re safe because I brought you back, okay?”

“Mmm! Tenny told me too!”

“You remember all the things you need to tell the police?”

Natalie nodded. “I went for a long long walk about Manchester. All the ghosty stuff didn’t happen. Secret. But Turmy was there!”

“Secret,” trilled Tenny. She was petting Turmy goodbye for now. The cat rubbed himself against her tentacles in return.

“Smart girl,” said Sevens.

“You’re going to be safe,” I told her. “Nothing’s going to take you away, okay? Your parents both love you very much, and they understand. And so do I, and you can see Tenny again sometime soon. Nothing is going to take you away from home. I promise.”

Little Natalie nodded up at me as I stood back up, with one gentle hand on her head. She trusted me, because I’d saved her, from Outside and from the disbelief of return.

It took an effort of will to remove my hand and let go, because in a very real way I was letting go of my past self.

But Natalie wasn’t me. She was going to fare much better than I ever had. She had her parents on her side, and a guardian to watch over her for now — even if I rejected any notion that I was a guardian ‘angel’. She understood what had happened, she would not grow up confused and lost, and she would never have nightmares of the Eye.

The me who had returned from Wonderland, the scared little girl, the Heather who had sobbed herself to sleep for years because nothing made sense, she would always carry those scars. But I could find better ways to cradle her in my heart. I could acknowledge those wounds and tend them better, and she would have no reason to feel such bitterness.

Natalie would never have to deal with that.

Here, at least, I’d done some good. Even if I died in Wonderland in a couple of months time, this child would not grow up in pain.


Two soapstone coins sat side by side on the table in Evelyn’s magical workshop. Greenish like copper oxide, smooth as if passed through thousands of hands, their five points now rounded and soft, if they had ever been sharp in the first place. Like a slightly more jagged version of a fifty-pence piece. Veins and layers in the stone seemed to catch the light, as if always on the edge of sparking into something greater, as if about to reveal crystalline depths to their material structure.

They weren’t really soapstone, of course. They were from Outside.

I’d been staring at the coins for almost ten minutes while towelling off my wet hair after a morning shower, wondering if I should bother doing anything but going straight back to bed that day, when I was interrupted.

“Have they divulged any secrets, kitten?”

“Ah?” I jumped, but only a little. After all, I knew the voice of the Yellow Princess all too well. Sevens had ghosted into the room while I’d been staring at the coins. Her umbrella was absent, her hands folded in front of her yellow skirt, almost like Praem. “Sevens,” I tutted. “Don’t surprise me like that, I might belt you with my tentacles.”

She shrugged delicate shoulders beneath a crisp white blouse. “So be it. Belt me if you must.”

I scowled at her, suddenly quite serious. “Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight, we are engaged. If I ever hit you, turn me over to your father, please.” I tutted. “Don’t even joke about that.”

Sevens tilted her head upward, sharp cold eyes somehow bright even in the artificial glow. With the gloomy day outdoors, the light streaming through the kitchen window and reflecting into the magical workshop was providing only a slow, grey trickle, so I had all the lights on. It did rather demystify the space.

“As you will, kitten,” she said.

I tutted and flushed, then pulled the towel off my head and nodded at the coins on the table. “To answer your question, no. I still haven’t the foggiest. Evee has theories, of course, but nothing new. Unless she’s found the answers in a dream. Is she awake yet?”

“Haven’t the foggiest.”

It was two days since we’d returned Natalie to her parents, safe and sound. We’d all spent most of yesterday recovering, sleeping off an exhausting night and waiting to see if our gambles had worked. Yesterday evening we had been rewarded with almost exactly what Raine had predicted.

The evening news had run a very absurd puff-piece about the missing girl who had wandered the back roads of Manchester with her orange tomcat as her only companion. The BBC had a much more flattering picture of Turmy than the grainy photograph from the newspaper. He was looking almost regal, if a bit battered by age. Natalie herself was kept firmly out of the view of any cameras. Her father, poor old Stephen, was interviewed by somebody outside his own front door, for all of one single-line sound-bite about his brave and adventurous daughter. The brave part was genuine, I could tell by his voice. An official police statement followed, wrapping everything up. Then, last and most certainly least, some talking head from Manchester bemoaned how no member of the public had alerted the police to a small girl wandering around the city unaccompanied.

But Turmy had been with her, so that was okay. A girl and her cat, alone against the world.

The police sirens we half-expected never materialised. We weren’t raided on suspicion of kidnapping or worse. And Edward, if he was planning a move, was lying low for now.

However, there was no rest for the wicked. I had a dozen things on my exhausted mind, making me feel numb and stretched thin.

Raine was currently out, picking up Sarika and then driving her to the hospital, where Badger was getting discharged that afternoon. On the far side of the magical workshop, Edward’s bizarre contraption of metal and glass sat safely contained inside a precautionary magic circle, waiting for Evelyn’s attention. The thing was probably inert — the spider-servitors didn’t care about it, and even Marmite hadn’t given it a second glance. We were expecting a phone call from Felicity later that day. She’d sent a text message last night asking if we were willing to discuss a plan. We were, provisionally, but I didn’t like the idea. Tenny was sulky and grumpy and I was consumed with worry about her long-term well-being; she couldn’t go on being cooped up in this house forever, but what options did we have?

And Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight had spent every minute since our return in her Yellow Princess form. I hadn’t seen a peep out of the blood-goblin mask. As far as I knew, she hadn’t even slept.

And now she was here, alone with me. Well, alone except for Marmite, but spiders tell no tales. At least, pneuma-somatic ones don’t.

I pretended to focus on drying my hair again as I watched Sevens watching me back. She watched me watching her. I watched her, watching.

“Sevens?” I said with a sigh. “You know we need to talk, don’t you?”

“I know a great many things.” She sounded both cold and amused at once. “Are you going to visit your new holding today?”

I blinked several times. “My … my what? I’m sorry?”

“The castle, at Camelot.”

“Oh. Um. No, not right now. There’s too many things to do. Too many things to think about. We need to ask Hringewindla about these coins, for a start, somehow. Probably through Amanda. But you and I do need to talk.”

“That’s a pity. Camelot is a very pretty place, even if it is a bit silly. If we’re going to talk, perhaps we should talk in a place where your rule is without question, no?”

“My … rule?” I squinted at her. “Oh, Sevens, no. Really?”

“Oh yes.” Sevens’ voice lost most of its amusement. “Isn’t it time to lay down the law on me, for my misbehaviour? I’ve been a very bad girl, my queen.”

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Why do people keep treating Heather like a chosen one or a messiah? She sure doesn’t like it! It keeps happening and it seems to be getting worse each time. I wonder if she bears any responsibility for this one, though; she did kind of play those cards on purpose. Whoops! Sevens isn’t helping either. Or maybe she’s just flirting?

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Next week, Seven-Shades-of-Cheeky-and-Smug gets a spanking. Or not.

pale student of unhallowed arts – 17.13

Content Warnings

Contemplation of death

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Camelot served for the stage of reunion, between parents freshly baptised in the eldritch truth, with their lost and miraculous child — plus one venerable marmalade tomcat, of course, playing the fool around everybody’s ankles to keep us sober and sensible.

But the whole process turned out more awkward than tearful. It was nothing like in the movies, where everybody would cry out each other’s names and fly into each other’s arms, weeping buckets of tears and declaring they’ll never let go again and so on and so forth. The reality of such defining moments is always less cinematic than in our imaginations, always more messy, less clean-cut, never really final, lacking any of that sweeping conclusion that real stories so often possess. In reality — or in this case Outside — the dramatic moment passes, life goes on, and one simply has to live with the consequences.

Don’t get me wrong, Stephen and Isabella were obviously and openly overwhelmed with emotion. They did love their daughter. Her return and safety was a blessing. They were thankful in a way they couldn’t fully express. But watching them go through the relief and vulnerability made me feel like a voyeur on a private moment, a predator on their emotions, an intruder on their most tender and unstable feelings. Like I shouldn’t be witnessing it. Even if I had saved Natalie and opened her parents’ eyes, I was truly an outsider to this trio.

And a hissing, bitter voice in my chest insisted that they didn’t deserve this relief.

Luckily — for a given value of ‘luck’ — I was also rather distracted by the important yet unrelated discovery that Lozzie’s Knights had embarked on a construction project.

Our arrival in Camelot was considerably less graceful and controlled than my Slip to the Shamble-swamp. With no further need to maintain the illusion that I was some kind of terrifying Outsider godling-avatar, here to strike the fear of hell into Natalie’s parents, I didn’t have to maintain my footing when we touched down. Which was nice, because I was absolutely exhausted by then. Back in England it must have been past three o’clock in the morning, or close to that, and I’d had one of the busiest days of my life, not to mention that I’d performed half a dozen Slips since mid-afternoon. Or was it more? Had I done seven Slips that day? I couldn’t recall exactly, which was testimony to how tired I felt. In theory my abdominal bioreactor could keep me on my feet indefinitely, such was the fruit of abyssal bio-hacking, but it couldn’t keep me from feeling like a zombie. My brain was mush, my muscles were cracked leather, and my eyes were dry sockets filled with salt.

So, when Camelot blossomed around us in soft yellow grass on rolling hillsides, the omnipresent purple glow of the whorled skies, and the glint of light on the star-steel armour of Lozzie’s Knights, I let go of my charges with arm and tentacle, and sat down very heavily on my backside.

Zheng kept her feet of course, only swaying a little, grunting deep down in her chest like a tiger with an upset tummy. Sevens was totally unaffected by the Slip, cheating as usual. I suspected Sevens never actually went along with the Slip process, neither with me or with Lozzie, but only pretended to while she used her own far less traumatic way of sliding through the membrane between worlds.

Stephen and Isabella were afforded no such mercies, however. While I groaned and hunched up and held on tight to the contents of my stomach, fighting off a stabbing headache like a hot poker through both my eyeballs, Natalie’s parents went sprawling again.

At least Camelot’s grassy hillsides made a better cushion than a rocky outcrop in the Shamble-swamp. No skinned hands this time.

My fifth and final passenger didn’t care about headaches or vomiting, or the soul-violence of the Slip, or the subtle, creeping wrongness of Outside, even here in safe, familiar Camelot. But neither could he enjoy the warm, cinnamon-scented wind which trickled through the air from parts unknown, or the transcendent spectacle of the sky filled with those purple whorls like shreds of quartz galaxy lying in low orbit, or the fairytale figures of Lozzie’s Knights in their impossibly perfect armour.

The corpse of the young man who the Shambler had refused to eat, he couldn’t care about anything anymore.

Camelot was going to be his resting place. Another concession to Evelyn’s paranoia, but even I had to admit this was a sensible precaution. We couldn’t risk bringing the unidentified corpse back to our reality and burying him in secret, no matter how much he deserved the basic dignity and respect of repatriation. He might be found, wherever we buried him. Police might launch an investigation, might trace the body back to us.

So he would be buried here, in a beautiful and peaceful place he had never and would never see.

As I recovered from the pain of brain-math, curled up and groaning like I had indigestion, I gratefully let go of the withered, dried-out corpse with the one tentacle I’d had wrapped around the dead man’s shoulders. But I cradled the skull with care, making sure he was lying flat on the grassy hilltop, not dropped like a sack of potatoes.

Stephen and Isabella took a long time to pull themselves together. Two Slips in close succession was a lot to ask from uninitiated human beings. Stephen spat bile into the grass, then collapsed, then managed to roll onto his back, gazing up in awe at the purple whorled sky.

“Is this … Outside … too?” he asked in a croaking voice.

“Mm, yes,” I grunted into my own knees, still fighting off the stabbing headache. “Different dimension. Safe place. We call it Camelot.”

Stephen spluttered a very weak laugh. “Camelot?”

“Don’t ask.”

“Fair enough.”

Isabella tried very hard not to sob at the pain and disorientation as she shivered on her hands and knees. She almost found victory, but then Stephen gently took her wrist, and she lost herself to a wave of nausea and tears.

The bitter whisperer deep in my chest didn’t approve of that; it wanted me to growl and hiss at this pair of entitled apes, tell them they were lucky they hadn’t ended up like the dead man we were going to bury here. It wanted to remind them that without me and my powers and experience, their daughter would be rotting in the swamp as well.

Why does your little girl get to live while this man died of exposure and thirst? Your relief comes at the price of an innocent life. We don’t even know his name!

That twisted, bitter part of me, coiled in my chest like a rotten grub, it had so little sympathy or trust for Natalie’s parents — but infinite empathy and care for this nameless dead man. As they lay there, panting and quivering on the grass of Camelot, I felt a vindictive urge to ask them a hypothetical question.

Would one of you swap places with this man? Would you give yourself up for the sake of your daughter?

In a way, I’d already asked them that, just before we’d left the swamp. And they’d both answered in the positive.

Yes, they were in. They were on their daughter’s side.

They’ll drift away as soon as you leave.

But I had to believe they would keep faith — even if I was going to have to keep an eye on them for a while.

“Shaman,” Zheng purred. She reached down to cup the back of my head with one hand. Her voice contained an oddly worried note.

“M’fine,” I grunted, my eyes still squeezed shut against the pain. Sevens’ yellow cloak was doing a good job of providing warmth and comfort, even through my hoodie. I tugged it tighter around myself. “S’just brain-math stuff. You’ve seen this a million times. Sevens, are you here too? Sevens?”

Sevens took a moment to answer. “ … yes?”

“S’Lozzie here?” I finally raised my head and rubbed at my eyes with a tentacle, feeling bleary and bloodshot. “We need to make sure Nat doesn’t see the corpse again. Or see her parents hurting, or … or … ”

I trailed off in shock, eyes going wide, overwhelmed by a kind of awe I had not felt myself in many months.

Stephen was sitting up, staring as well, though he wasn’t shocked in the same kind of way. After all, this was the first time he and Isabella had seen Camelot. All of this was out of the ordinary to them, from the purple sky to the Knights and the gargantuan semi-machine presence of Lozzie’s Caterpillars, and—

“Do you call it Camelot because of the castle?” he asked.

I answered with a hiccup.

In our absence, The Knights of the Perhaps-Not-So-Metaphorical-Anymore Round Table had apparently been very busy indeed.

We had materialised in the middle of a construction site, albeit a very quiet one, which enclosed the nearby rolling hillsides. My usual arrival spot in Camelot happened to be situated on a slightly higher hillside; by chance or luck — or more likely, by the unspoken, hidden, theatrical flare of the Knights themselves — that hilltop just so happened to form the perfect vantage point to look out across their handiwork. I shook my head in awe, eyes wide, twisting where I sat to take it all in.

To be fair to poor Stephen, he was exaggerating, but only because the structure was clearly unfinished. If this was to be a castle, then it had a long way to go yet — and I should know, because I know castles. At least, from books.

The Knights, along with their larger group-mind allies in the Caterpillars, had begun building two distinct structures.

The outline of a future curtain wall ran along the nearby hillsides, claiming the highest points and joining them together with what I assumed would eventually be tall stretches of stonework. For now, the curtain wall was only a dream, carved into the landscape with a ditch ready for the foundation blocks — but some of those blocks were in place, monolithic slabs of sandstone-coloured rock laid level and flat in the ground, waiting for mortar and stone to be placed atop them. Along that ring of future wall, I spied three low areas without any ditch cut into the soil, obviously intended to become gatehouses. They were wide enough for two Caterpillars abreast.

“Completely indefensible,” I murmured to myself, but I was just talking nonsense, too numb to think. This wasn’t medieval Europe, they weren’t going to be defending their fortress against cannons and scaling ladders.

What were they planning to defend against?

Off to our left lay the area of relatively flat ground where the friendly Caterpillar had once stood to provide us with a stable, upright surface for the gateway exit point, along with the piece of shed carapace that he had so graciously gifted us as a bench, on which to sit and watch Zheng and Raine having a duel out on the grassy steppe. The Caterpillar had since moved on, leaving behind a large area of dead grass, gone brown without the sustenance of the strange purple light from the sunless sky. But the bench remained, as did the gateway exit. The Caterpillar had obviously shed another plate of organic carapace armour, the plate on which the gateway had stood.

The Knights had mounted that plate upright, braced either side with more of that strange, dusky stone, and created a square of stone tiles around the gateway. A welcome mat, for visitors from Earth.

All of that area was well within the intended protection of the curtain walls — inside the bailey, I should say. In the middle of the area circumscribed by the ditch, the Knights and the Caterpillars had begun construction of a keep.

It was only in the very early stages of the process, with foundation stones laid down in a massive rectangular shape, made of that same odd, dusky sandstone-like rock. But where the curtain wall was only a suggestion waiting to be filled in, the keep was well under way, with low walls taking shape and sweeping arches for the entrances and a wide area of paved ground marking out the surroundings. The massive blocks of stone had been cut into more manageable bricks, held together with a faintly pinkish mortar. Almost one entire floor looked ready, and a second was creeping upward. I even spied what looked like narrow windows, arrow-slit style.

Not all of it was made from that odd stone. Some parts — the arches, the windows, anything that required complex shapes — were formed from pieces of Caterpillar carapace, cut or bent or moulded into the right forms. A castle taking form, in stone and bone.

They even had a crane and pulley system, also built from pieces of Caterpillar carapace, though I had no idea what they were using for rope.

“No wood, of course,” I murmured. “What are the internal floors made from?”

The whole structure was swarming with Knights, all of them working in silence except for the occasional clack of stone on stone. Many of them were carrying small sandstone blocks in carriers made from pieces of Caterpillar carapace; others were mixing what looked like some kind of mortar in a great white cauldron, drooling long strands of organic material from within intentional openings in their amour into the mixture; many Knights were working on cutting massive stone blocks into smaller bricks, using tools that looked re-purposed from their weapons; further Knights were sitting and standing around as if observing or overseeing the building work. Some of them still carried their weapons in their gauntlets, but most of them had their hands free for spades or poles or mixing tools.

Several Caterpillars were lined up inside the walls as well — three of them, massive whale-sized things that dwarfed the Knights. One of them was dotted with little growing structures, strange twists and turns of carapace, growing the pieces needed for the castle. The other two were carrying massive blocks of that dusky sandstone on their backs, roped to them with thick strands of sticky-looking black tar that were probably as wide around as a human being. The Knights scurried about them, helping to lower the stone next to the masonry workshop area.

In the distance to our right, I could see several more Caterpillars on the horizon, tiny white lozenge shapes either moving toward the castle or away from it. Some of them also had stone secured to their backs, visible even at such great distance if one squinted a bit.

“Hmm,” went Sevens.

“Or is it because of the blokes in armour?” Stephen asked when I didn’t answer.

I tried to gather my thoughts. “It’s … um … because of the Knights, yes.”

Stephen and Isabella must have heard the worry and confusion in my voice, because they shared a sudden, twitchy, nervous glance. Isabella had managed to get to her feet, but her husband was still sitting on the grass like me. Even if I was no longer a prospective god in their minds, I was still the person in charge, I was the one who knew what was going on, so hearing me awestruck was probably not a good sign for their own survival — or for the safety of their daughter.

“Huh,” Zheng grunted. Performatively unimpressed, but she wasn’t fooling me.

“It’s fine, it’s fine,” I said, then couldn’t resist a deep sigh. I could feel a headache coming on. My squid-skull mask called to me, promising to soothe the pain if I slipped it on over my head. But I needed a human face right then. We were still treading delicate ground. “I’m just surprised, they … um … this is new, it’s … ”

Sevens cleared her throat delicately. “The knightly order of Camelot did not obtain planning permission for this new build.”

Stephen blinked hard, once, then nodded seriously. “Oh, right. Right then.”

Sevens had successfully summed up the problem in terms he could understand all too well.

Isabella looked less convinced, frowning to herself as she stared at the castle. Her long-fingered hands wrung together in barely contained anxiety. She looked like a stripped willow tree, lost Outside on some forgotten hill. “Who do you ask for planning permission, out here? Is there a … county council?” She winced. “No, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, that’s absurd, obviously, sorry.”

“Me,” I grunted, pinching the bridge of my nose. “Or Lozzie? I don’t know.”

Sevens stepped forward, using her umbrella as a casual walking stick. “There is nothing to fear. This castle belongs to Heather, undoubtedly.”

“I don’t want another castle,” I grumbled. “What are they doing?”

“Another?” Isabella blinked at me, eyes wide.

Stephen was frowning up at Sevens now. “If you don’t mind me asking, miss, who are you? You kind of appeared out of … nowhere … um.” He eyed Zheng as well, realising that he had no idea who or what she was either. He was still very lost, desperate to get his little girl back, navigating mysterious waters.

“I’m an actual god,” said Sevens, cold and completely straight-faced. “But not the kind you worship. Don’t think about it too hard.”

I gave Sevens such a look. She politely tilted her head at me, the picture of innocence.

“You and I are going to have a talk later,” I said.

“Are we?”

I sighed and stuck out one hand to Zheng. “Help me up, please. I’m too tired to expend effort. Please.”

Zheng hauled me to my feet, though she probably didn’t need to. I could have climbed her side with my tentacles all by myself, though I still clung to her arm for support once I was standing, huddling inside the skin-warmth of the yellow cloak. For a moment I just gazed out across the castle-works, at the knights all busy building, at the Caterpillars serving as heavy lifting gear and extruding pieces of castle-structure, wondering what on earth was going on.

“How have they done this in a single week?” I asked nobody in particular. “I was last here a week ago. Okay, well, maybe a bit more than a week, but still. How large is this going to be?”

Sevens ventured a suggestion. “Arundel sized? The bailey is easily large enough. No Norman motte in the middle, of course. The keep will be very different, square and more modern.”

I scoffed with humourless laughter. “I’ve been to Arundel Castle, it’s huge, it’s … wait.” I frowned at her, though Seven-Shades-of-Suspiciously-Specific-Experience was gazing out at the castle too, seemingly very interested. “Sevens, how do you know Arundel Castle?”

“I visited for a siege. Only for one day, though. The rest of it wasn’t relevant to me.”

By then, Stephen had gotten to his feet as well, with his wife’s assistance. Even in my increasingly exasperated state, I couldn’t help but notice they remained holding hands with each other, unwilling to let go as they stared out in awe at the seed of a castle framed against the whorled purple sky of Camelot. For a moment they didn’t seem like older adults at all, but more like a pair of teenagers who’d been playing at maturity, suddenly confronted by the vast and inhuman depths of the cosmos.

Not so different to me, see? I told that bitter snake coiled in my chest, but the voice responded with only a derisive snort.

Zheng rumbled, like a cat’s trill but on a tiger’s scale. “Shaman, I do not see the mooncalf.”

“Well, yes,” I huffed. “She’s probably behind the bloody great castle, or capering about on the far side of one of the Caterpillars, or I don’t know … supervising engravings of cat-girls on the inside of a great hall while it’s still under construction.”

“Very suitable,” said Sevens.

My final burst of irritation was half a hasty performance. I swallowed hard but tried to conceal the sudden draining of blood from my head and limbs, the plummeting feeling in my gut, and the cold sweat breaking out down my back. If Lozzie wasn’t here, something must have gone badly wrong. Her part of the plan had involved at least one more Slip, with Natalie and Turmy and Tenny in tow. But she should have been here over an hour ago. She should have been waiting for us.

A terrible possibility blossomed in my imagination — what if Edward had a second machine all along? What if we were still standing waist deep in his trap?

“Shaman?” Zheng rumbled. Hiding my sudden anxiety from her was impossible. She could probably smell my fear.

“It’s … um … we should look for Lozzie. She’s … probably in the castle?”

Seven-Shades-of-Sauntering-to-the-Rescue raised her umbrella and pointed with the metal tip. “I spy Turmy right there. Lozzie must be close.”


I must have squeaked like a surprised fox, because Stephen and Isabella both flinched and stared at me, before they also looked toward their lost cat.

Sevens was right. There was Turmy, a marmalade blob-smudge visible against the velvety yellow grass. He was about halfway across the enclosure of the prospective curtain walls, just by the edge of the keep, nosing and sniffing at the metal gauntlet a Knight had extended toward him. Three Knights in total had assumed a crouched position around the cat, each with one hand out, waiting for Turmy to sniff, or perhaps submit to petting. I hadn’t noticed him there between the trio of crouching Knights, because I’d assumed they were working on something at the base of the wall. Turmy didn’t seem to have noticed us either, especially once he started rubbing himself on one of the Knights’ hands.

The relief was overwhelming, and not just for Natalie’s parents. Isabella put a hand to her chest. Stephen let out a shuddering sigh. But I felt all my fears crawl back up into my brain stem and leave only irritation in their wake. If Turmy was here, then Lozzie was here too, and she really was messing around in a half-finished castle, a construction site, with a small child. Two children, if one counted Tenny.

“Such a popular fellow, isn’t he?” Sevens was saying. I heard a tiny sigh in her voice. Her free hand unconsciously brushed at her skirt, trying to brush away the memory of Turmy’s shed fur.

“Oh,” I hissed. “I can’t believe how irresponsible Lozzie can be! Really!” I huffed harder, gathering myself. “I don’t have the energy to worry right now, about this … this … unlicensed crenellation! I simply do not!”

My angry snap finally drew the attention of some of the nearby Knights. Visor-less sealed faceplates turned toward us. Working Knights stopped in their ceaseless motion and looked up from carrying bricks or mixing mortar or cutting stone. The Knights working the crane paused their limbs like automatons and turned only their heads. The attention went through them like a wave, until every single Knight was stock still and staring in our direction.

“Uh,” went Stephen. Isabella’s lips were shaking, too, eyes gone wide.

Sometimes it was all too easy for me to forget how eerie the Knights could be. I’d grown too used to them.

“Yes, hello!” I called out. “Yes, it’s me, hi! Don’t blame me for being a bit surprised, now, you’re all—”




We all flinched together — well, Sevens didn’t, though even Zheng stiffened briefly, head snapping around — at the trio of sudden booming noises that echoed out across the quiet plain. None of the Knights reacted, of course, but over by the keep I saw Turmy jump and hiss, arching his back and fluffing up his tail at this unseen sonic assault.

“It’s fine!” I called out, heart racing, one hand pressed to my chest, tentacles instinctively flared outward. “It’s just the Caterpillars, the giant white things over there. They were just saying hello.”

The Caterpillars’ giant engine-booms were of course only miniature versions of the deafening alarm-roar any of them could make if they so chose to. Even now, as we recovered our breath and nursed racing pulses, I could hear a trio of great engines dialling down, a chorus of bass machinery inside the Caterpillars’ pitted white carapaces, returning to standby.

However, I did raise one tentacle to wave a greeting. The last thing I wanted was the great machine-creatures to think we hadn’t heard, and express themselves again but louder. Zheng followed suit, oddly enough, raising a single closed fist in salute.

Isabella and Stephen looked more than a bit shell-shocked at all this. Their baptism of fire in the Shamble-swamp had been up-close and personal, something I hadn’t let them look away from, but at least it had all been mostly on the human scale. The Caterpillars speaking, things on that scale communicating, was still a bit too much for them.

But I didn’t tell them to look away. The more they saw, the more they were forced to integrate into their world-view.

That’s why Camelot had come second. Safe, secure, peaceful Camelot. I just hadn’t expected the castle.

As we waved to our gigantic machine-grub friends, a tiny blonde head popped up over the lip of the incomplete walls of the castle keep. A puff of blonde hair, a flap of pentacolour pastel poncho, and Lozzie vanished again into the bowels of the construction site. All over the rest of the castle grounds, the Knights turned their heads away from us, resumed working on their various tasks, and got back on with the business of building.

I shook my head and put my hands on my hips, tutting softly.

A moment later, three small figures appeared around the far side of the castle, flanked by a pair of Knights on guard duty. Lozzie diligently took the lead as Tenny herded little Natalie along, holding both of Natalie’s hands with her silken black tentacles.

“Nat!” Isabella almost sobbed. Stephen looked about ready to cry too.

“Come along,” I said, stepping forward and dragging Zheng after me. “Let’s go meet them. I’d rather Natalie not have to see the corpse all over again.”

We set off across the yellow grass, across what would one day be a castle courtyard. I glanced back only once, at the sad and lonely body of the nameless young man.

Natalie was reunited with her parents beneath the shelter of the walls of Camelot’s keep. We met her and Lozzie and Tenny just shy of the border of paved ground the Knights had laid out. The pair of Knights accompanying them stopped a little way behind.

When little Natalie realised that the ‘octopus lady’ had brought her back to her parents at last, she pulled free of Tenny’s embrace and ran across the gap which separated them, babbling for mummy and daddy.

Her parents did something not too dissimilar. I did my best to look away.

The actual moment of reunion between parents and child was deeply embarrassing to witness, but also a potential minefield. We couldn’t simply turn away and allow it to play out until the moment of emotional exhaustion. We couldn’t give this family their privacy, not yet — because Tenny was right there and Nat had taken a liking to her. She’d made friends with a humanoid moth-puppy. Mum and Dad were going to have questions. Which was, of course, at least partly intentional.

It didn’t take too long for the tears to subside, though Natalie didn’t cry at all. She had that far-past-exhaustion look that very tired small children sometimes get, wired with manic energy from hidden reserves, dressed in borrowed pajamas and a pair of crocs from Evee which were far too large for her small feet. She kicked them off as her mother lifted her up for a hug, and didn’t bother to slip them back on after she was placed back down again. She scrunched bare feet against the grass of Camelot, uncaring of how it felt, as her parents fussed over her.

That was the first sign which worried me.

“—and then the Octopus lady made it go away but it’s not bad it’s just like a big confused dog, a bad dog, but not because it’s a bad dog but—”

Natalie babbled on with a small child’s explanation of what had happened, even as her mother would barely let go of her, and her father cried quiet tears of relief.

“—but Tenns is really nice and Tenns made it go away again by getting really big and—”

Eventually, once they’d reassured their brain-stems that their daughter was safe and sound — and interrupted her several times to ask if she was hurt anywhere — Isabella and Stephen managed to spare a sliver of attention to realise what exactly their daughter was gesturing toward so happily.

Isabella kept a firm grip on one of Natalie’s hands. Stephen straightened up and stared.

“Burrrrrrt?” went Tenny, tilting her head at the parents. Two of her black tentacles were idly reaching toward her new friend. Another two were edging toward each of the parents, as if curious about them but not quite sure. “Naaaaat?”

Isabella and Stephen were freshly terrified all over again.

What did they see when they looked at Tenny? Fluffy white fur on coal-black skin, a pair of twitching antennae on her head, and eyes like something dredged from the deep. Tenny’s musculature was almost human, but not quite, like her muscles and joints were linked incorrectly to be a truly human frame. Wings hanging down like a cloak, part of her body, and a great mass of tentacles writhing out from the hidden space between wings and shoulders.

To me and to Lozzie, Tenny was beautiful. But to people who had not encountered her before?

This thing had just said their child’s name. Their body language was defensive, ready to flee or fight. Tenny must have seen it too, because all her tentacles paused, a worried look on her face, a touch of caution in those wide black eyes.

“Tenny!” Natalie reached out a hand, inviting the tentacle to hold again. “Mmm!”

Lozzie waved the corner of her poncho at the parents. “Hi!”

I cleared my throat and stepped forward. The time for polite distance was over. “Allow me, please.” I gestured at Lozzie first, trying to ease them into yet more supernatural truths. “This is Lozzie, my … sister.” I settled on that word without really thinking about it, but it somehow felt right. Lozzie flashed a cheeky, delighted look at me. “Without her, your daughter would have been taken away again.” Then I gestured at Tenny. “This is Tenny, Lozzie’s daughter. Subjectively, she’s about the same age as Natalie—”

An irritated trill interrupted me. “Older!” said Tenny. “I’m older, Heath.”

To my great and lasting relief, Natalie let out a giggle.

That probably did more work than anything I could say. With the doubtful caution of a pair of apes letting a serpent into their den, Natalie’s parents watched as one of Tenny’s tentacles returned to hold Natalie’s hand.

I sighed and forced a smile. “Yes, well, Tenny is also a child, just a bit older, subjectively speaking. She’s been helping to look after Natalie since we found her in the swamp.”

“Tenny’s a friend!” Natalie said, full of sudden bursting enthusiasm, looking up at her mother and father. “And she’s really really clever! She does clever things with all her octopus parts, lots of different things at once!”

Stephen and Isabella did not look quite convinced just yet. The undeniable physical reality of Tenny had pushed both of them back up to the border of their own sanity. Isabella had gone white in the face, in shock or horror, while Stephen looked like he wanted to spit with disgust. I hoped he wouldn’t, for Tenny’s sake.

The idea that their child had been kidnapped by an evil wizard and spirited away beyond the walls of reality, that was one thing, they could maybe deal with that concept — because she was now being saved, returned to normality by the powers of things beyond their comprehension.

But the prospect of Natalie making friends with something visibly alien and other? That was a different hurdle. But they had to leap it. I wouldn’t let them refuse the change.

How could they not reject this? whispered the doubtful voice. Belief doesn’t equal acceptance. You’re all monsters to them, these so-called ‘normal’ people.

To my horror, I agreed with the doubts, even if they did sound a little edgy when put into words.

Lozzie and I both waited with bated breath, to see what was going to happen.

Despite appearances, we weren’t actually putting Tenny on the spot without any support. Tenny, bless her speed of comprehension, had been given a set of very clear and explicit instructions, plus reassurances, by both myself and Lozzie, before we’d put the beginning of the plan into action. The situation was not about to spiral out of control. Even if something unexpected happened, Tenny was still anchored, both physically and emotionally; nobody had remarked on the single black tentacle that had crept out from beneath her wings and slid up inside Lozzie’s poncho. Tenny was holding her mother’s hand. She knew we were here.

“Helloooooo? Hello?” Tenny trilled, like some kind of exotic jungle parrot repeating the first word she’d heard.

But it didn’t earn her a reply from Natalie’s parents.

I cleared my throat and stuck to the script. “Tenny, Stephen and Isabella are Natalie’s parents. What do you say to a friend’s parents?”

“Ohhhh!” Tenny trilled at me, big black eyes going wide. She didn’t actually need reminding, the ‘surprise’ was part of the act. She turned back to Natalie’s parents and nodded her head in a little bow. “Thank you,” she trilled in her fluttering voice, from a vocal system that we couldn’t even picture. “Thank you for … letting me play with Nat, Mister and Misses … brrrrt … ” Tenny trailed off and glanced to me for help. She was, after all, a nervous young teenager talking to a pair of unfamiliar adults.

“Mister and Misses Skeates,” I supplied in a stage whisper.

“Skeates!” Tenny announced like she’d flipped over a rock and found a fascinating bug. Half a dozen black, silken tentacles wiggled in a halo around her body, bobbing and weaving with the release of nervous energy. Tenny beamed.

Stephen Skeates swallowed hard — and glanced at me for guidance or reassurance.

The moment you’re gone, they’ll revert to disgust, whispered the horrible hissing in my chest.

“Tenny is not a human being,” I said out loud, struggling not to hiccup. I’d practised these lines, but they still came hard. “But she is a person, sapient like us. She’s from Earth, not Outside, whatever she looks like. And she’s also a little girl.”

Brrrrrt! went Tenny, fluttering with irritation. She flapped her arms. Several tentacles waggled and wobbled at me. “Not little! Heath!”

Natalie giggled in delight. Tenny wasn’t frightening to her, not at all.

Lozzie spread her arms beneath her poncho, catching everyone’s attention for a moment with the display of pentacolour pastel, like a songbird flaring her crest.

“She’s my precious babby!” said Lozzie. “So be kind, please?”

For just a second, Lozzie held Isabella’s wary gaze, those little elfin eyes sparkling with mischief and knowledge. Then she did this sort of bend from the waist, flopping forward and letting her poncho flap with her, all relaxed and loose, before whirling back up and fixing Stephen with the same look.

I had no idea if Lozzie was performing covert magic based on interpretive dance, or if she was just being her usual silly self, but whatever it was, it worked. Isabella and Stephen both visibly relaxed, if only by a very small fraction, and the eyes they turned toward Tenny were now consciously restrained and polite. Parenthood bridged the gap; I still struggled to think of Lozzie as Tenny’s mum, but she was, in a very real way.

“Tenny, was it?” Isabella managed to say. “You’re very welcome.”


“And thank you too, for keeping Nat company.” Isabella looked to me again for confirmation. I nodded, while Tenny happily wiggled her tentacles.

“Mum! Mum!” Natalie was saying, tugging on her mother’s hand. “Tenny can tie knots with her tentacles, it’s really funny! And we found a really huge round table inside the castle! And one of the Caterpillars said hello to me! And—”

Natalie was not acting much like a child who had just returned from a traumatic experience; she was rattling on at her parents like she’d just gotten home from a school trip. On one hand, that was a good sign. She wasn’t clinging to mummy and daddy in wild-eyed terror, which would present well for the story that the Skeates would have to tell the police. But she was almost too normal, too excited, too stable.

I didn’t mention that out loud, of course. I stepped back, politely giving the little family the space they needed. Stephen made eye contact with me as I withdrew a few paces, so I said, “We’ll take you straight back home in a few minutes, when you’re ready. We’ll need to talk about practical matters, but it might be better to do that around a kitchen table, rather than out here. Let Nat stretch her legs for a few minutes?”

Stephen nodded. Natalie bobbed on her bare feet and said, “Thank you, octopus lady!”

Isabella looked at me too. “Thank you,” she said, deadly serious.

The awkward moment collapsed in two mutually acceptable directions. Natalie, chattering with childlike excitement, started to lead her parents off around the side of the castle, to show them “the part of the wall where it gets really tall!”, the “knight with the funny helmet”, and presumably to find Turmy before we left. Tenny trailed along with them, still holding Natalie’s other hand in one curled end of a tentacle. Sevens stepped past me to provide a safe chaperone, flourishing her umbrella like a fancy walking stick, just in case of a blow-up or something unexpected happening. We hadn’t planned this part, but she sauntered on without asking for guidance. Which was a relief.

Perhaps she was trying to make up for earlier.

“I will watch the puppy, too,” Zheng rumbled, but she only detached herself from my side after I acknowledged with a nod. I had regained enough strength to stand on my own two feet without wavering — well, two feet and two tentacles as extra bracing against the ground.

I had also mustered enough strength of mind to reach out with one tentacle and snag the hem of Lozzie’s poncho, just as she was about to skip off to join the rear of the impromptu tour group.

“Hey,” I croaked.

Lozzie did a little flutter-flounce turn, dipping her head to one side. “Heathy?”

“Let them walk around for a few minutes,” I said. Lozzie bit her bottom lip, openly doubtful and casting a look at the backs of the others as they neared the corner of the unfinished castle keep. I added, “Tenny has a princess of Carcosa and Zheng to look after her, she’ll be fine.”

Lozzie leaned toward me, wiggled her eyebrows, and put one hand next to her mouth in a comedic stage-whisper pose. “I was thinking more about mister and misses gloomy-face!”

“I think they need a breather too. And they’ve got Sevens, if things go off the rails. Please, Lozzie. Come with me instead? I need to take a look at the … at the body, and I’d rather not do it alone. And I want your opinion on something.”

Lozzie blinked several times as if surprised, went through a very brief show of resistance, pursing her lips and putting her hands on her hips, then broke into a sunburst of a smile, flapped the sides of her poncho, and skipped over to my side to take me by the hand.

While Natalie and her parents wandered the grounds of Camelot-under-construction, Lozzie and I retraced our earlier steps, heading up the gentle slope to where I’d left the corpse of the unknown traveller.

He wasn’t alone anymore; three Knights had appeared around the corpse.

One stood at his head and another by his feet, both holding halberd-like weapons, facing outward toward the castle keep. A third stood opposite us, on the far side of the corpse, with a familiar long-hafted axe held in both hands, as if at parade attention. I would recognise my friend anywhere. It was the Forest Knight. Taken together, framed against the purple whorls in Camelot’s sky, the three of them looked like the protagonists of an Arthurian legend, gazing off into their destiny. Or a very cheap fantasy novel cover by an artist who disliked drawing faces.

Lozzie and I took it slow as we climbed the hill, to give us time to talk.

“Lozzie,” I murmured, peering ahead at the Knights around the corpse. “What are they doing?”

“Standing vigil,” she replied instantly, her voice a sad trickle of its usual self.

“Lozzie? I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you. I know you don’t like this kind of thing, I just needed a friend with me, I need to drop the act.”

Lozzie sniffed and wiped her eyes on a corner of her poncho, then turned a bright smile on me again. “It’s okay! They’re just so sweet is all, they’re such good sweeties and boys and girls and all other sorts, did you know that too? They’ve invented all these ones that they have terms for but no words yet. They don’t do words often. We should teach them that too. More words.”

I sighed, but with a smile on my face. “I think we’ve taught them plenty, already. Lozzie, what are they doing here?” I glanced over my shoulder at the medieval construction site sprawled out behind us. “I mean, not just up on this hill. The whole thing. Why are they building a castle? More importantly, who are they hoping to defend against? I thought you said this world was empty, nothing here, all long extinct.”

Lozzie shrugged, tilting her head at me, rather po-faced. “I think they just think it’s cool.”

“It’s … I’m sorry, it’s cool?”

“You love castles too, don’t you?”

“Well, yes, I do, but—”

Lozzie giggle-snorted and waved me down as if I was being silly. “Where do you think they got the idea?” She extended one arm out and pointed at the Forest Knight. “You gave him all sorts of stuff from inside you, didn’t you?”

I blinked in realisation. Of course, when the Forest Knight had almost died from spiritual decompression, and I’d had to inject him with the product of my own distilled and purified abyssal energies; I’d shared something with him that was never meant to be a physical substance, let alone leave my own flesh, and I had briefly joined the very edge of the Round Table, though the communication had all happened in a medium I hadn’t the faintest notion of how to understand.

And now the Knights were building a castle, because it was cool.

“I hope they’re not going to adopt any other tastes and interests from my subconscious,” I said, pulling a little grimace. Lozzie giggled and flapped her poncho. “Well, I’m glad you find it amusing, but we can’t have them all developing a crush on Zheng.”

Lozzie snorted again. “Heathy!”

“What? You’re telling me that’s not possible? They picked up a love of castles, so why not that?”

“Because they’re Knights! It makes sense for them to build a castle!”

I tutted and shook my head, blushing faintly and frowning in utter perplexity. All this activity, this building, this industry, this was my fault all along. I couldn’t adjust to that idea.

“Where are they even getting those huge stone blocks?” I asked. “Are the Cattys okay, hauling them all that distance?”

“Mmhmm! They’re fine!”

“And where are they getting it from?”

Lozzie pointed toward the distant horizon, where several tiny white specks were visible, the Caterpillars on their long trek to whatever makeshift quarry they’d carved out of some rocky ground, untouched and unseen by mortal eyes for thousands of years. There was a vague shape on the horizon when one squinted in that direction, the faintest suggestion of naked stone, dun and dusty.

“There’s an abandoned city that way! They’re taking from there.”

I stopped dead and turned my head to stare at Lozzie. She tilted her own head back and forth, like a confused puppy.





“You’re telling me that this castle is being built with pieces of monolithic stone stolen from a dead, ancient city, on a dead world?”


I blinked several times, rubbed the bridge of my nose, and decided it didn’t matter. “I suppose the knights didn’t adopt a healthy fear of curses, then.”

Lozzie mock-gasped and flapped one hand beneath her poncho. “Heathy, you believe in curses?!”

I gave her a scathing look. “Can you blame me, really?”

Lozzie found that irresistibly funny. She giggled all the way up the rest of the hill, all the way to the feet of the Knights, wind-milling one arm and tugging on my hand, calling me the ‘cutest silly-button’. She only trailed off when we came face-to-face with the corpse and the Knights standing over him in their honour guard, for a dead man they didn’t even know.

“Hello you,” I said to the Forest Knight. His helmet dipped by a fraction of an inch. “No, no, I understand, you can’t move right now. You’re standing vigil. Thank you for doing this. You really didn’t have to, any of you three.” I looked at the other two knights, but they stayed stock still.

The Forest Knight resumed his position, helmet up, gazing out across the landscape.

Lozzie was biting her lower lip, staring down at the corpse, at the mummified, greyish skin on the man’s face and forearms.

“Hey,” I said softly, squeezing her hand and tugging gently so she would turn away. “Don’t look just yet. Let’s think about something else.”

So we did. For a long, quiet, peaceful moment, Lozzie and I stood hand in hand on the hilltop, gazing out across the castle construction site. Lozzie wriggled inside her poncho. I watched the little figures trailing around the edge of the keep — Natalie leading her parents and Tenny, followed by Zheng and Sevens. A familiar orange blob was now trying to rub itself on Sevens’ ankles.

“I’m worried that Natalie has adapted to Outside,” I said eventually.

Lozzie peered sideways at me. “Ahhhh? Ah? Ah-ah?”

“She’s not acting like this place feels wrong to her. She doesn’t seem affected by Camelot. I’m worried that could be a bad sign, in the long run.”

Lozzie pursed her lips and pulled a very serious thinky face. “Mmmmm. I think that happens to everyone?”

“Maybe.” Lozzie was somewhat biased, but I didn’t say that out loud.

“She’s gonna be fine, Heathy! You did the right thing. We’re doing the right thing! Fine-fine all fine. And if she needs help, we’re gonna be there, right?”

Lozzie’s turn to squeeze my hand. I nodded, lost in thought and worry.

Warm cinnamon wind tickled my face and ran gentle fingers over my scalp. This place, this Outside realm, Camelot, it was almost like a part of home. A castle on the far side of Evelyn’s gate, garrisoned by Lozzie’s knights, that would be one impressive stronghold. Perhaps Evee could even ward it, make it a fortress in a magical sense too.

But what was a castle except an outpost of control?

But control by what?

By me and mine. The Knights, the Shamblers, the dregs of the Sharrowford cult back home; even Zheng and Sevens; Evelyn, my strategist; Raine, my bodyguard. Where was all this going? What was I becoming?

I had promised myself that I would not become a monster, that when Maisie saw me again, she would see the sister she remembered, her own face reflected. She would not find a monster wearing my skin. I would not shed everything that makes me who or what I am, just to get her back. I would rescue her and I would stay true to myself. And so far I was doing pretty well at that, I thought.

But I was becoming something else. The embryo of a god? No, that had been a delusion in a moment of weakness, encouraged by Sevens for some reason I didn’t yet understand.

I sighed and turned away from the castle. We had practical matters to solve before I could spend time on the philosophy of power.

The corpse of the unknown man stared at the purple sky with blank, dead eyes.

“Mmmm,” Lozzie made a sad little sound again. I held her hand tightly.

I had never met this man. I had no idea who he was. In life he may have been a horrible person, he may have committed acts or crimes that would make me hate him, he may have held beliefs that I would have found reprehensible. Or maybe not, maybe he had been a saint. More likely he’d been like the rest of us, somewhere between extremes.

Whatever he’d been in life, I wished he could have gone home.

“I wish we could figure out who he was,” I said.


Lozzie finally let go of my hand. She spent a few minutes circling the corpse, looking at him from different angles, peering at his dried out eyeballs and the skin on his hands. I’d half hoped she might be able to work out something that I’d missed, but we had no such luck. I was considering the possibility of using brain-math to define him, maybe to trace his history somehow. Even if we couldn’t take him home, perhaps we could let his family know what had happened to him.

But he was a corpse. What would I find, if I peered into a dead thing?

I felt such guilt at not wanting to try. And I didn’t understand why.

To my surprise, we were joined a couple of minutes later by an unexpected addition to our little group — Stephen Skeates.

Down below us, the tour had completed a circuit of the castle. Natalie was busy chattering something to her mother. I think I heard Sevens replying too, and then they vanished inside the keep, perhaps to see the ‘big table’. But Stephen detached from the group, nodding some reassurances, and trudged up the hill to join us instead. As he approached he nodded to me with one of those awkward non-smiles and head-lifts that older men sometimes use to acknowledge each other. He didn’t say anything, but just stood there a few paces away from us, frowning down at the corpse.

Stephen Skeates was a very solidly built man, perhaps only half a foot taller than me. In rumpled clothes and sweat-stained shirt, he could have passed for an ageing football player after a rough night on the town, if it wasn’t for the genuine haunted look in his eyes.

Eventually he cleared his throat and wet his lips, but didn’t look up from the corpse. “I um, I wanted to ask … ”

Here it comes, whispered the bitter voice in my belly.

Stephen nodded at the corpse. “What happens to him now?”

The bitter hiss was silent. Hadn’t expected that.

I drew in a big sigh before replying. “We’re going to bury him here, I think. I was planning on just a coffin and a hole in the ground. But maybe we can have the Knights rustle up a stone sarcophagus or something.”

Stephen glanced at the Knights, then looked away quickly. Still couldn’t quite figure them out, could he? He stared at Lozzie for a second, then nodded to her too, then back to the corpse. “Who was he?” he asked.

“Not a clue,” I said, sounding more prickly than I intended. “Somebody else kidnapped by Edward Lilburne. Sorry, you don’t know who that is. That’s the name of the wizard who kidnapped your daughter.”

“My uncle,” said Lozzie, colder and sadder than usual. She pulled a frowny face when Stephen blinked at her in surprise. “We’re gonna kill him, no worries!” she chirped.

He nodded along to that too, smiling awkwardly at Lozzie before glancing at me.

“Can’t you … take him home? Back to his parents? He looks like he must have been pretty young.”

I pulled a sad smile. “Too risky. The police might find the body, trace it back to us. We can’t return him, not safely. Though I would like to find his family, let them know, somehow. We have ways, but … ”

I trailed off in vague guilt. What would it mean, to touch death with brain-math?

The bitter voice in my chest curled in resentment, like a parasite in my heart. Stephen was just trying to soothe his own guilt, after all. He didn’t really care about this man he’d never met. This was simply something he understood, something he could hold onto, make sense of.

Using the dead man for his own ends, whispered a part of me I hated to acknowledge. Using the dead for absolution, for—

“Some corner of a forgotten field that is forever England,” Stephen said. His voice threatened to break. His eyes were full of tears. He sniffed hard and wiped them on his arm. “Is that how it goes? I was never good with poetry in school.”

Foreign field,” I corrected him gently. “But otherwise, yes.”

“He might not be English,” Lozzie said. “Could be from aaaaaanywhere. Anywhere at all.”

Stephen shook his head. “This could have been Nat. This could have been my daughter. This poor bloke, he didn’t deserve it, he didn’t. Out there, in that swamp. That’s no place to die.”

“I’m glad you agree,” I said out loud.

The bitter, hissing voice in my chest had finally run out of things to say.

Stephen looked up at the trio of Knights. “Can I stand with you for a few minutes?”

They didn’t answer, of course.

I cleared my throat gently. “They don’t communicate like us, but I think you’re welcome to join them. We won’t be staying much longer, though. We can’t risk dawn rising back in England while we’re all here. People might wonder where you’ve gone, and we need to get your story straight, for the police.”

Stephen nodded, taking it all very seriously. “Of course, of course.” He went to step around the body, to join the Forest Knight in vigil, but then he paused, staring down at the dead man. “I’m not sure I should say this, but have you checked his pockets? For an ID or a wallet or anything?”

Lozzie and I shared a look. Lozzie snorted and covered her mouth with a corner of poncho. I sighed and rubbed my face with one hand.

“No,” I admitted, somewhat embarrassed. “No, we haven’t. I’m a little bit squeamish about corpses. I was going to ask Zheng, but reuniting you with Natalie was more important. Here, let me, um … ”

I used a tentacle, not my hands, but even then it made me cringe with disgust. I should have left this task for Zheng, but I was embarrassed by having missed the obvious solution to the problem. With one tentacle-tip I patted down the young man’s pockets, found nothing obvious, then steeled myself to poke the tentacle inside, to make sure he wasn’t carrying his driving license loose in his baggy jeans.

In the left, nothing but lint.

But in the right, I found a piece of smooth stone.

In shock, I pulled it out of the dead man’s pocket, almost fumbling as I transferred it into my hands. Lozzie put a hand over her mouth when she saw. The little greenish stone meant nothing to Stephen, but he froze as well, the shock on my face was too obvious.

A piece of flat, greenish soapstone, carved into a five-pointed star. A stone coin.

Exactly like the one Hringewindla had gifted to me.

“What does that mean?” Stephen asked. “What is it?”

I took a long moment to gather myself, thoughts whirling inside my head. This wasn’t my coin, it was slightly different, cut from a different piece of stone. But it was an example of the same currency, from a place Outside that used things like currency.

“Heathy?” Lozzie prompted.

I wet my lips and closed my fist around the soapstone coin, staring down at the corpse. “It means our dead man here might not be as uninvolved as I first thought.”

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On second thought, let’s not go to Camelot. ‘Tis a silly place. Full of corpses, coins, and castles that shouldn’t be.

I have some news! The short version is this: the first Katalepsis audiobook and ebook now have a confirmed release date, October 4th! When preorders are up, I’ll let you all know! The long version can be found here, in a public Patreon post I made a couple of days ago, along with the beautiful front cover, a big thank you to every reader and patron, and a teaser for something I’ve been working on alongside Katalepsis. Be warned, that is a seriously long post, so if all you want is the release date, no need to go read or anything!

If you want to support Katalepsis and also read a couple of chapters ahead of the public ones, please consider:

Subscribing to the Patreon!

All Patrons get access to two chapters ahead! No matter what level you subscribe at! That’s almost 20k words right now. The more support I get through Patreon, the more time I can dedicate to writing, and the less chance of having to slow down the story. The generous and kind support of Patrons and readers is what makes all this possible in the first place, I would literally not be able to do this without you, so thank you all so very much!

Vote for Katalepsis on TopWebFiction!

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And thirdly, leave a review! Or a like, a thumbs up, a comment on a chapter, it’s all great, and it helps me so so much to know there’s people out there reading and enjoying the story; that’s the whole reason I do this in the first place, to bring a fun story to those who read it. And thank you for reading!

Next week, what is the meaning of a coin? And Heather isn’t finished with Natalie’s parents, not quite yet. There’s still one last hurdle to clear.

pale student of unhallowed arts – 17.12

Content Warnings

Self harm
Psychological breakdown
Religious torture

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On a low island of jagged grey rock, amid an endless swamp of soupy, sucking, stinking grey mud, ringed by tall grey trees with swirls of grey branches reaching up toward a leaden grey sky, I broke the minds of two innocent human beings.

I wasn’t going to enjoy this. I didn’t relish the banal mechanics of what I was about to inflict. Initiation into the eldritch truth was a kind of torture. I knew that better than anybody.

At least that’s what I kept telling myself.

But from the moment the four of us arrived Outside, on that outcrop of dry rock in the middle of a vast, otherworldly, inhuman wilderness, something deep down inside me began to purr with bitter satisfaction. Something made nasty and vindictive by a very different kind of long torture, warped by old scar tissue and kept suspended in pain by unhealed wounds. It had been kept in peaceful sleep for a long time recently, soothed by the love and care of friends and more, compensated by the shining abyssal truth of bodily euphoria, comforted by a place to call home that was neither hospital nor filled with hidden minefields and tripwires. But in sleep it had grown in both size and sharpness — and Natalie’s plight had stirred it from dreamless slumber.

I had not expected it. I had denied it for so long, I’d never thought myself capable.

So when we arrived Outside, and I kept my feet while Stephen and Isabella Skeates went sprawling on the rock, skinning their hands and knees, heaving for breath, eyes rolling, limbs malfunctioning in the post-Slip after-effects, unable to process where they were or how they had gotten here, that long-buried part of me purred a darkly satisfied laugh.

Believe me now?! Need to see more? No? Too bad, because there’s an infinity more to see, but you are sadly finite.

Those thoughts didn’t reach my face, let alone creep into my words; I was horrified at myself. The sudden impulse to gloat, to mock their pain and confusion, was one of the ugliest and most nonsensical urges I’d ever felt. And it wasn’t abyssal instinct trying to lord it over these clumsy apes; abyssal instinct didn’t care about this at all. I had no idea where this feeling had bubbled up from, hot and acid in my throat. To mock Edward Lilburne or another mage, somebody in the know, somebody who had chosen to do evil, that was one thing, even if it was inelegant and self-serving. But to mock these lost wretches as their souls and minds struggled with initial exposure to Outside? What was wrong with me?

I crammed that impulse into a bottle, rammed a cork into the neck, and sealed it away for later; if I was going to make Natalie’s parents useful to her, then I could not afford the luxury of satisfying displaced personal grudges.

I could not afford to project my own parents onto these two.

Focus, I told myself. You must stick to the script!

At least my aim was good. I managed to land us on the same outcrop of low rock that Natalie and Turmy had used to hide themselves, where the Shambler had laid out the corpse of the poor young man, in what I assumed was her territory. Much better than dumping all four of us into the waist-high muddy water. I didn’t want to risk the parents falling over in the muck, swallowing mouthfuls of Outsider swamp-mud, and contracting some bizarre infection or exotic disease. I didn’t want them sick — or worse, dead — I wanted them to believe, to adapt, to accept.

Stephen and Isabella did not react well upon arrival Outside, amid the grey mud and grey vegetation and grey skies of the Shambler’s home dimension. But who would blame them, except somebody without empathy?

When the Slip spat us back out, I managed to brace myself, lock my knees, and cling to Zheng, to stop myself from falling over or vomiting, which would risk ruining the fragile dignity and intimidating act that was such an important part of this whole performance. Zheng grunted and groaned like a gut-punched mountain with the impact of the Slip, but other than a brief sagging in her muscles and an audible roiling of her stomach, she managed to stay upright and together. My rock in the storm.

Natalie’s parents both went sprawling, gasping for air, struggling to even stay on their hands and knees rather than collapse face-first onto the filthy ground. They both vomited, unfortunately enough, all stringy bile from stomachs kept empty by stress, though Stephen seemed to resist the urge for a few seconds longer than his wife.

Shaking and quivering, covered in cold flash-sweat, wracked with the inexplicable pain of the Slip, they both tried to gather themselves and get to their feet, or at least to their knees.

Neither of them got very far.

Zheng and I stayed silent at first, watching and waiting to see what might happen. That was also part of the plan. When Evelyn had voiced her many doubts about the safety and practicality of this entire process, she’d made a good point: we didn’t know these people. We didn’t know how they might react, or what kind of psychological mechanisms they might employ to justify or excuse what they were seeing. There was no reason for us to talk over the evidence of their own senses. I allowed Outside to do the talking for us.

Stephen, Natalie’s father, exerted raw stubborn muscle power and managed to struggle halfway to his feet, scuffing the knees of his trousers on the rough surface of the rock. But halfway there he must have located his wits, because he froze, staring out at the endless mud flats beyond the thinning trees to our left. He stayed like that for several long seconds, unblinking and gaping, as if trapped in a vision. Then he turned, slowly, taking in the things that weren’t quite trees, the leaden sky like a ceiling of grey weight, and the vast towering vegetation far away to the right, where the trees grew taller than earthly redwoods. His eyes fixed on the faint hint past even the trees themselves, the vague outline of a tower made from grey blocks. The thing must have been taller than a skyscraper. I could just about make out a dark opening near the tip of the structure.

As if struck in the middle of his chest, Stephen sat down heavily on his backside, mouth agape, staring, lost.

One hand groped for his wife’s side, seeking support. I wasn’t sure if that was good or bad. Should I have isolated them from each other?

Isabella got marginally further than her husband. She spat the taste of vomit from her mouth, wiped her face on the back of her sleeve, and hauled herself to her feet as if pulled on a set of puppeteer’s strings. Only when she gained her feet did she peer about at the impossible swamp, the grey mud, and the imitations of trees, draped with their swirls of vegetation that seemed to suck one’s attention inward. Shivering, hunching, wringing her hands together so hard that it must have hurt her finger bones, Natalie’s mother visibly struggled against onrushing hyperventilation.

Stephen tried to speak, but it came out as little more than half-formed un-thoughts, animal reaction to confusion. “Where … wha— wha—”

Isabella placed one hand on her husband’s shoulder, She squeezed, hard enough to hurt him. He winced and stopped trying to talk.

“I don’t … don’t know,” Isabella said. Her voice had gone high and reedy, on the edge of a personal abyss.

The contact seemed to help them both, grounded them in each other. Isabella swallowed so hard I thought she was going to do herself an injury in her own throat, baring her teeth and shaking with the muscular difficulty of the motion. Stephen groped for her arm again, found it, and she helped him to his feet.

Neither of them moved for a long moment, just staring out at the swamp, clinging together, listening to the distant sounds floating through the trees. The strange hooting I’d heard before — the language of the Dimensional Shamblers, I assumed — was audible from far away, a back-and-forth chorus of calls and responses, soaked up by the trees and the mud, muffled by miles of swamp. They were more active than when I’d first visited, as if they were having some kind of debate out there among the muddy wallows and brackish flows.

That was a very good sign. If I was right, then Sevens was already out there, wearing my face, buying good will with meat and bone.

Stephen and Isabella didn’t appreciate the music of the swamp, however. They flinched at the loudest of the hooting, clutching each other in terror. A pair of hairless apes, stranded beyond their wildest nightmares.

That bitter part of me whispered a question: What would happen to them if I just left them here? That would be quite a lesson, wouldn’t it?

That part of me, the part of myself I was trying desperately not to acknowledge, the tinny voice whispering from inside the corked bottle, it judged Stephen and Isabella. It judged these stupid monkeys and found them wanting. It judged them as pathetic.

My conscious mind had to admit that bitter-Heather had a point there, even if it was too harsh and unyielding. The Shambler’s swamp was hardly the worst place Outside had to offer. It had nothing on some of the inhuman nightmare realms that I could have exposed them to, let alone the kinds of places that Lozzie would happily spend time for fun. In the end it was just a grey, weird swamp, filled with ambush predators — dangerous, perhaps, not a nice place to spend a sunny afternoon or attempt to read a book, but hardly a vista to threaten one’s sanity. Part of me wanted to say something like “Yes, you teleported here, get over it.”

But intellectually I knew that was not the whole truth.

It wasn’t the grey mud or the alien horizon plaguing their minds, or the effluvial stench of sulphur and brine that was getting to them. It wasn’t the weird trees or the distant redwood-sized versions far away, or the massive impossible tower at the limit of vision, or the hooting in the swamp, or even the fact they’d arrived here via an inexplicable teleport. It was none of those things, and it wasn’t the sum of those parts either.

Right then, as they gaped out at the grey swamp, Natalie’s parents were feeling the true effect of standing Outside — the soul-wracking sense of wrongness, of displacement, of every cell in one’s body screaming you are not supposed to be here. Human beings were not bred for this, not evolved to deal with that sensation. I’d spent so much time Outside, between my nightmares and the Slips and the journey through Carcosa, that it was all too easy for me to forget what that felt like. To even stand here was a kind of torture, for those who did not belong.

On a level I did not wish to fully acknowledge, I was meant to be out there. They were not. They were feeling that now.

Zheng had never been here either, but she didn’t care. Despite her magnificent clothing of skin and muscle, she was a thing of the abyss burrowed down deep inside that flesh. Different rules applied to her. She stood tall beside me, wrapped in her trench coat like an extra from a noir movie, waiting for the next move.

Through the eye sockets of my squid-skull mask, I scanned the nearby trees for any sign of the Shambler — our Shambler. But she didn’t seem to be watching or lurking, unless she was hiding too well for me to discover. I didn’t know if that meant Sevens’ part of the plan had succeeded, or failed. I wouldn’t know until I called out to her, but it was still too early to play that card.

Finally, Stephen found his voice.

“This can’t be … ” he started, then trailed off, shaking his head. A stocky, well-built man, he was starting to bristle, muscles flexing beneath his clothes, choosing fight instead of flight. His sweat-stained, rumpled shirt was sticking to his back with sudden sweat. “It can’t … can’t … ”

“Then where are we, dear?” Isabella said in a tiny voice, still clinging to her husband’s hand.

“Can’t be real,” Stephen managed to say.

“It’s real,” I said.

My squid-skull mask warped and amplified my voice into an almost inhuman warble. The mask was playing along, giving me the extra edge of intimidation I might need, that last little piece of implied inhumanity. But I needed them to hear and believe, not scream in terror. Not yet, anyway. So I cleared my throat and dragged my voice back upward into a human register.

“It’s real,” I repeated, somewhat more normal.

To his great credit, Stephen found an ounce of courage. He turned toward Zheng and me, shaking his hands free from his wife’s grip so he could ball up his fists. He half-raised them like a boxer getting ready for a fight, ready to lash out in fear and confusion. Grief and horror were boiling away to leave behind powdered rage. His eyes bulged in his face, fists getting ready to swing — and then he sputtered out as he saw me. Isabella turned as well.

They came face to face with the daughter of an alien god.

Well, an adopted one.

I was doing my best to look as intimidating as I possibly could, short of actually going full homo abyssus, sprouting toxic spines and armour plating all over my body. If I’d done that, we would have been on a strict — and short — time limit, before I burnt out.

I was holding all six of my tentacles fanned out wide, a sunburst of slow-strobing rainbow bioluminesence, a marine star in this realm of grey mud. Standing tall — well, as tall as I could at five foot nothing — with my squid-skull helmet hiding my sweating, worried face, my arms folded over my chest, and my tentacles spread, I must have looked like quite the weird little mutant monster.

Stephen was not about to rush me, not when he saw that. But Zheng growled low in her throat regardless, a warning not to approach the Outsider goddess.

“Know your place, monkey,” she rumbled at Stephen.

He flinched, badly, barely resisting the urge to fling himself away from this towering threat. But he kept his fists raised, which was sort of impressive. Courage or madness, which was it? I had no idea, not yet.

“Zheng,” I said softly. “There’s no need for that.”

All an act. We’d agreed on that, too. Though I suspected Zheng’s offence was quite real. She didn’t like even the suggestion of violence directed toward me.

“We’re very sorry,” Isabella said, dipping her head, voice robotic and tight. “We’re very sorry, very. I apologise for my husband.”

“What’s to apologise … ” Stephen tried to say — but he was staring at Zheng, finally taking in the seven feet of demon-host muscle that had pinned him to his own sitting room wall only minutes earlier. I could almost see the awe struggling against the need to ask the relevant questions.

Then he saw the corpse, lying a few feet away on the rocks. His eyes went even wider, his teeth bared in horror.

“Yes, that is a dead man,” I said, as gently as I could. “He’s no concern of yours. I’m going to give him a proper burial shortly.”

Isabella saw the corpse too, but looked away from it quickly. Her eyes stared at Zheng for a second, but then settled on me, on the dark, unknowable eye holes of my squid-skull mask, and whatever lay behind them. She knew I was in charge. She was also a lot more coherent than her husband. Her eyes were wide with desperation, her shoulders were hunched as if beneath the eye of some great beast, and her skin had gone grey with stress and fear, but as she stared at me she seemed to pull herself together inside, draw upright just a couple of inches, and focus her mind. She blinked hard, staring at me through the pressure of madness.

That was a very bad sign.

“Oh no,” I whispered to myself inside my mask.

I knew what was keeping her together — love for her daughter, the desperate need to get her back. That’s how she was clinging to sanity, to normality, how she was avoiding truly looking at her surroundings. If only she could endure this nightmare, her daughter lay at the end of it. She was telling herself that, using it like cement or like armour, hiding inside love to avoid the truth.

But I had to break her. I didn’t want to have to drag these two further out, to worse places. I had to break them here, to avoid worse torture.

Why avoid it? whispered that bitter voice, bottled up but not yet back asleep. They will never believe, not without pain. Would you, if you had not endured it? She’s not even looking! None of them ever will!

Isabella opened her mouth.

“Where’s my daughter?” she asked. “Where’s Natalie?”

Her voice was high and light, a singer’s voice, used to laughter and bedtime fairy tales and soft words in well-lit rooms. She stared at me with such burning intensity, such need, such desperation. If this situation devolved into violence, she would be the one to watch out for, not Natalie’s father. She would do anything to get her child back. I knew the look all too well.

Stick to the plan, I told myself. Stick to the plan, keep going.

“In order to save your daughter,” I said, “first you must absorb where we are standing. Stop looking away. Both of you.”

“How can this be real?” Stephen demanded — pleaded, voice shaking. That’s it, he was going quickly now. Maybe he’d drag his wife with him. Eyes watering, lower lip quivering, shoulders hunched and shaking. “How did we even get here? This is some kind of trick!”

“Dear, please,” Isabella said, on the edge of a very different kind of panic. “The lady— the— she’s trying to help. To help. Please—”

Stephen pointed a stubby finger at me. “You’re doing something to us. Drugged us, or … or a projection or—”

“Then step into the swamp waters,” I said. “Wade as far as you like. I can protect you from the local wildlife, I think, if you need that proof.”

Inside the privacy of my squid-skull mask, I silently prayed that he wasn’t going to take me up on that offer, because wading through the swamp could quickly devolve into a farce. He might fall over. Or something might take an interest in us.

Instead, Stephen tore his eyes away from me and stared out at the swamp again, then down at the corpse. He poked the dead man with one toe, felt the yielding of soft, rotting flesh, and cringed as if sick inside. Then he cast about the surface of the rocky outcrop, as if looking for something. For a moment I didn’t understand what he was doing, but then he picked up a few loose pieces of stone, weighing them in his hands, before nodding in satisfaction.

“Dear,” Isabella said, “now is not the time for—”

“It is!” he hissed, staring at the stones in his hands. “It is. You can’t make this up. Can’t make it up. Can’t fool me with this. Cheap crap can’t fake it. Nonsense! Nonsense.”

Stephen selected a stone and threw it into the swamp. It landed out in the mud with a wet plop. He threw a second little stone, further this time, to splash down in a patch of thinner water.

Then he took the third stone, relatively flat and smooth, and flicked out his hand in a practised motion.

The flat stone hit the surface of the swamp and skipped back up into the air, spinning as it went, once, twice, three — four times total, before it hit a tree with a loud thwock sound and fell into the swamp at last, to be swallowed by the mud.

Stephen stood there, breathing hard, staring at the path of his skipping stone. His hands were shaking uncontrollably.

Isabella sobbed once, into her hand.

“Where are we?” Stephen said eventually. “Where is this?”

Something was wrong with his voice. Struggling, tight, starting to collapse. He sounded more like a little boy than a grown man.

“We are currently in a parallel dimension,” I said. “It’s one of many. Collectively we call them ‘Outside’, because they are outside our own reality. Not very creative, I know, but that’s what we call them. I haven’t given this particular place a name, not yet. I brought you here with magic.”

Stephen, to my great surprise, hiccuped. Almost exactly like I tended to in moments of great stress. He hiccuped, then made a sort of gasping, laughing noise, like he was struggling not to giggle. It was not a reassuring sound.

“Who gets to name it?” he asked.

Isabella turned away, as if resigning herself to doing this alone, without her husband’s madness.

“Where’s my daughter?” she repeated to me. “Please, how is this going to save her?”

“Your daughter was kidnapped by an evil wizard,” I said — then I sighed. The sound must have carried through my squid-skull mask as some barely human hiss, because Isabella flinched, one hand flying to her throat as if to protect herself from a monster. I felt a strong urge to reach up inside my mask and rub the bridge of my nose. “Yes,” I said, struggling not to sound utterly exasperated. “Yes, I know how that sounds, which is why I am trying to show you some proof. She was kidnapped by an evil wizard.”

“But … ” Stephen said, still staring out at the swamp. “But Nat’s just a … we’re just … ”

I froze, then went off-script. That sounded important to dig. “You’re just what?” I asked.

“Nobodies. Nobody,” he said, half-mumbled.

Falling fast. Good. Keep pushing.

“Natalie is just a normal little girl, yes,” I said. “She was taken purely by chance, just bad luck, in the wrong place at the wrong time. She’s not a chosen one. This isn’t a young adult novel. She doesn’t have special powers or a unique fate or destiny to fulfil. An evil wizard kidnapped her to feed her to a monster. That’s all.”

Stephen finally turned away from the swamp and looked at the metallic visage of my squid-skull mask.

He was all the way out.

All the colour had drained from his face. Waxen, pale, as grey as the swamp around us. Covered in cold sweat, eyes wide, pupils dilated, lips quivering with the frozen effort of trying to form words but finding none adequate to the task. The armpits of his shirt were soaked with sweat. His hands were shaking as if in the grip of some palsy. He looked like he was on the verge of a heart attack.

“Evil wizard?” he echoed with a hysterical laugh in his voice. When he grinned, it was one of the worst expressions I’d ever seen on a human face, lips pulled back by pure mechanical action, spittle and drool leaking from between his teeth, a man pleading from behind a clown’s mask, tears carving tracks into his cheeks. “Evil wizard. My daughter was kidnapped by an evil wizard? What am I supposed to do with that information?”

Zheng took a half-step forward, to shield me. Stephen Skeates looked about ready to fight God.

“Steve,” Isabella said, without even looking at her husband, “sit down. You’re losing your temper.”

He was doing a darn-sight more than losing his temper. And Isabella was too calm, way too calm, as if petrifying inside. Their reactions could not have been more divergent.

“What good—” Stephen managed to say. “What possible good— what— no, no no no no—” He started shaking his head back and forth, gritting his teeth, squinting his eyes shut. A final line of resistance, thrown up in haste, trying to deny the truth.

Isabella wasn’t breaking anywhere near as fast as her husband. Or maybe she was already broken. She was still staring at me.

“And what are you?” she asked, her voice full of rapture and awe.

Was that good? Or bad? I stuck to the script, played the next card.

“I’m the adopted daughter of an alien god,” I said. “I happened to be passing by, that was all.”

Stephen bunched his fists and pressed them against his own forehead, as if suffering a terrible migraine. “No— no— this can’t— unnh!” He hit himself in the head, once, then twice, hard enough to hurt, grunting and panting. “This isn’t real! All of this, it’s a nightmare, it’s a nightmare! It’s not real!”

Zheng rumbled under her breath, speaking out of the corner of her mouth, so only I could hear. “Shaman.”

“It’s working,” I whispered back.

“This monkey will shake his own brain apart. Saye warned us of this.”

I almost broke character in front of Natalie’s parents in order to stare up at Zheng in surprise — I couldn’t recall her using Evelyn’s name ever before. To Zheng, Evee was always just ‘wizard’ or ‘mage’. But there was no time to consider the implications of Zheng’s sudden softening of the heart.

Isabella was already speaking again, with quivering desperation in her voice. One hand reached out toward me, imploring, fingers shaking. Zheng raised a hand to ward her off before she could grab the front of my hoodie.

“And what did you do with Natalie?” Isabella was saying. “Where is she?”

Behind her, Stephen screamed.

An open-mouthed howl of incoherent rage, down at the ground as if imploring it to open up and swallow him alive. Every muscle in his arms and neck and face was pulled tight with tension that had nowhere to go, clenched so hard he was shaking all over. He punched himself in the skull again, heaving for breath through clenched teeth, his eyes bulging out of their sockets, his face turning red.

Zheng was right, Evee had warned us that one possible response to the eldrich truth was self-harm. The ultimate rejection of reality, a retreat to the one place the sufferer still had agency, control over causing damage to one’s own body. Even if it wasn’t conscious or intentional, there was always the risk of harm during some kind of breakdown. And Stephen Skeates was breaking fast.

His rage had nowhere to go, directed inward, shoring up the crumbling walls of his reality.

This was hardly ideal, but it wasn’t a worst-case scenario, not yet. One parent was losing his mind in the anger of rejection. The other was clinging so hard to the promise of her daughter that she’d rendered herself capable of ignoring what lay in front of her own eyes.

But I couldn’t afford mercy. These two had to break before I could help reconstruct them.

I filled my lungs and raised my voice. “Your daughter is … is … ”

But I trailed off in fresh horror.

Isabella, stately and fey, perhaps tall and proud in better times, with the willowy body of a dancer and her long dark hair flowing down her back, lowered herself to her knees before me. She put her hands together and bowed her head in prayer.

“Please,” she sobbed. Tears ran down her cheeks, dripping onto the rock. “Please. I’ll do anything. Anything. Please. What— what do you ask of me? Please, please, please.”

I stared down at her in horror, then had to swallow a hiccup.

My act had been too good, too convincing, perhaps too real. She was begging me, imploring me, treating me as the Outsider godling daughter that I had been unwittingly presenting myself as. We hadn’t planned for this, Evee hadn’t predicted this, I had no contingency in place for being worshipped.

Stephen fell to his knees too, but not in supplication. He screamed at the ground, strings of drool leaking from between clenched teeth, so red in the face that he must have been close to bursting a blood vessel. His screaming must have carried for miles through the grey swamp around us.

“No … ” I whispered. “I didn’t mean … I’m not … ”

That bitter slice of my heart laughed with spiteful hate.

How does it feel, casting yourself on the mercy of something inhuman? How does it feel to be lost?

This was a worst-case scenario beyond anything I had prepared for.

What had I expected? That this was going to unfold like Nicole’s initiation into the occult truth? Nicky had already been primed, though none of us had known it at the time, back when we’d ended up with her bound and gagged in our old sitting room. A police detective who had already begun the long, slow, torturous process of turning against the illusions of her own profession, disgraced and discarded by a bureaucracy that cared nothing for her very real ideals of justice, she was already part-way there, a seeker after the truth behind the veil, even if that truth was worse than she’d ever imagined. And Shuja, the father of Amy Stack’s little boy, Evelyn had been right about him too; he’d seen his society pulled apart by unimaginable violence and destruction, he’d seen all comfortable realities fall away in the face of another kind of truth. He’d been primed for this, too.

To accept the truth without going mad, one had to already be a little bit broken.

But Natalie’s parents were ‘ordinary’ people. Maybe they’d never questioned their beliefs before. Never doubted. Never wondered. Never looked up.

And I had just unmoored them from reality.

“Shaman,” Zheng purred.

“I— I know—” I hissed back. “I don’t know what to do, I—”

“Call for your yellow godling, shaman. Pull the ripcord. Now.”

I turned to look up at Zheng, turned away from Isabella. Who cared about the illusion of power anymore? But the poor woman went on babbling out her prayer to me, clutching her hands together so hard that she was tearing her own flesh with her nails. “Please, please, whatever you are, whatever you want me to call you, please, return my daughter, I’ll do anything, I’ll give anything! I believe, I never did before but I do now, please, please, anything, anything—”

Stephen rocked back and forth on the ground, screaming, spittle drooling from his chin, heaving for each breath between his incoherent animal noises. He started speaking too, but it was nothing but wordless rage at the world collapsing around him.

“I can’t!” I said to Zheng. “Sevens was meant to wait until … until it was right, until it was time to show them the Shambler, but— but—”

Zheng grunted, taking a step forward. “It is too late, shaman. We have failed.”

“Wait! Wait!” I reached for Zheng’s arm, to hold her back from drastic action. I had no idea what she was about to do — shake the parents apart, throw them into the swamp, kill them as a failed experiment?

And then a voice whispered in my ear.

Like sunlight through golden honey, like the trickle of warm wind through ears of wheat beneath the baking summer sky, like butter melted by body heat.

“Embrace it,” said Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight.

I froze. Luckily for Natalie’s parents, so did Zheng, rather than continuing forward to throw Stephen into the swamp, or whatever other violence she’d been about to inflict.

“W-what?” I whispered back. I half-turned to look over my shoulder.

Sevens wasn’t actually there, not as a physical presence, a human mask like usual. Nothing stood on the rock behind me. But I felt a warmth press against my back, like the gentle pressure of sunlight on cloth and skin. A breath tickled my ear, as if inside the private confines of my squid-skull mask. Gentle hands, immaterial and soft and firm, took my wrists and held me up.

“Embrace what they think you are,” whispered Seven-Shades-of-Not-Really-There.

“But I’m not!”

“You are the daughter of a god,” she whispered like gold over hidden thunder. “You are betrothed to a god. You walk the long path to apotheosis, and we are your disciples. Embrace it. These people need it, or they will not return from the pit.”

Inside my mask, I gritted my teeth. “I’m not a god! Sevens, stop!”

“No, but to them, right now, you need to be one.”

“I-I can’t! I don’t want to be worshipped! Sevens, I’m not a god, or a messiah, or a—”

“Not to me, not to us,” she whispered. “Not to those close to your heart. But to those beyond, you could be. This is your role, my beloved. These people need a god, a merciful one, to deliver them from evil. Little Natalie needs a god to save her parents from themselves, to mend the break in reality. Embrace it, and they will pull through.”

I almost sobbed. “I can’t. I’m just me.”

“Here,” whispered golden truth. “I will guide you.”

A familiar soft embrace flowed up and over my shoulders, wrapping me in liquid sunlight and silk — Sevens’ cloak, the mantle of her love, the piece of herself that she’d given to me as protection from the Eye, and which I’d asked her to hold for me since we’d returned together from her father’s house. The yellow robe, the marriage promise, proof of divinity.

Ah yes, just what I needed to prove I wasn’t an Outsider god, a full-body halo of glowing light that Natalie’s parents had no explanation for.

Isabella must have seen the glowing cloak, because she raised her head at last. She looked up at me in awestruck rapture. Stephen stopped screaming, his wild eyes rolling until they found me. Zheng stepped back, gave me room. And Sevens raised my arms, spreading them wide, her invisible touch gifting me the poise and pose of something I was not.

She whispered to me again, “Embrace it. Tell them the truth.”

“What truth?” I hissed through clenched teeth.

“That you have already saved their daughter. Pull them from the pit, they will never climb out by themselves.”

Behind my squid-skull mask, I opened my mouth.

I was not an Outsider godling, no matter how certain people kept looking at me. I was not a daughter in waiting, held in reserve for the mantle of the Eye to fall across my shoulders. I was not a saviour or a messiah or something to be worshipped, no matter how Badger or Zheng looked at me. I was just me, Heather Morell, born in Reading, a weird scrawny English girl who read too many books and wanted to kiss ladies.

But here I was, standing on the lip of an alien swamp, with two people desperately in need of salvation. And I’d put them there, I had brought them to this. They were now my responsibility.

I realised, in that brief pause, that we had attracted quite an audience.

The Shambler had returned, perhaps drawn by Stephen’s screaming, or by the departure of Sevens from her original task. She was standing about forty feet away from the little rock outcrop, waist-deep in the swamp waters, beneath one of the strange, twisted trees. In both massive knobbly hands she held half a cow carcass, dragging it through the waters behind her like a child with an oversize pillow. She was gnawing on one end of the thing, chewing through meat and cracking bones with her angler-fish teeth. Lozzie’s gift, lifted from the back of a Sharrowford butcher’s shop via the untraceable magic of the Slip, and then delivered via Sevens wearing my face, the highest-class delivery girl in all Outside.

But she wasn’t alone.

Dimensional Shamblers were everywhere. They lurked behind the thick boughs of the twisted trees, or eye-deep in the muck, or crouched on low rises of drier ground further out. Most were partially submerged, showing only the black discs of their massive eyes and the tops of their leathery heads, or crouched so one could see their shoulders humped like grey mud amid the grey waters, well camouflaged in the depths of the swamp. A few larger specimens stood tall and unmoving, impossible to see if you didn’t know what you were looking for.

Dozens of them. I hadn’t sensed them arriving, either appearing out of nowhere or wading through the waters. Some were clustered within arms’ length of each other, family groups or rough alliances. Some were small, shorter than myself — children? Many of them were scarred in minor ways, with old claw-rakes down their hides or on their forearms. A few were missing digits or even a limb here and there.

Two particularly massive Shamblers stood very close to each other, actually touching, and they were terribly scarred with old battle wounds. One of them was even missing an eye. The other carried something in a fist — a length of steel pipe. Stainless steel, not rusted by the swamp waters. Now where had he gotten that from?

Almost every Shambler had a hunk of raw beef off the dead cow Sevens had brought here. They had shared.

Despite that, each group kept their distance from the others, like rival predators gathering at a watering hole, in witness to a brief truce.

Or to witness a revelation.

What might one do with an army of these creatures?

And they weren’t the only things watching. Further off through the tangle of grey trees, I could just about make out the vast outline of some grey leviathan, some wallowing swamp-dweller with a neck that could stretch higher than the trees, currently surfaced from a life of mud-burrowing, paused to listen to this godling seed who had appeared in its swamp.

Further out, past the tall trees to the right, I could feel the attention of something up in that stone tower.

I had such an audience.

Temptation seized my guts and my throat, trying to squeeze words out of me. I wouldn’t even have to think very carefully about what exactly to say, because my audiences were primed and ready. Out in the swamp, I had brought a bounty of fresh meat, and asked nothing in return. I had fed a multitude so used to long starvation and stringy meat. Closer at hand, Isabella and Stephen were begging for the deliverance of their child, and I was about to answer their prayers. At my side, Zheng already had faith, even if she didn’t call it that out loud. At my back, Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight lifted me up with true Outsider divinity.

My tentacles strained and strobed. My trilobe reactor ran hot in my gut. So much potential. All I had to do was speak.

Standing on a fulcrum that I might move with the lightest touch. For a moment, I almost believed it myself. After all, the Eye had taught me the language of the gods, the keys to shape reality, hyperdimensional mathematics. I had dived into the abyss and returned as more than human. I had faced down the worst that Outside had to offer. I was clad in royal Yellow, on the cusp of something greater.

Here was the beginning of a real cult, trans-dimensional, ready to worship what they did not understand.

And I would be a gentle deity, a kind godling. I would never push my flock to self-destruction. I knew I could never do that, it wasn’t in me. How much better could I protect my friends, if I had a real cult at my back? How many willing souls to throw themselves into the task of recovering my sister? How much security could I buy, for the price of this one lie?

That spiteful, bitter part of me reared up in triumph, smashing the bottle inside my chest, a serpent in my heart.

I will make them see! I will make them believe! They lied to me and locked me in a mental hospital and told me she wasn’t real, for years! I’m right! I know I’m right!

And who would object? Raine? Raine’s words echoed in my memory, total acceptance of whatever I might become, back when we’d first gotten together.

“So maybe you learn to cut through solid steel with your mind, or command demons, or fight a god, but at the end of the day you’re still gonna need a hug. You’re still going to be shorter than me, and I’m still going to be able to pick you up and princess carry you, and you can’t do a thing about it.”

Lozzie? Lozzie was already halfway to godlike herself, barely human, and I accepted her fully, totally, anything she decided to become. Surely she would do the same for me?

Homo abyssus was the truth. I was the truth.

Nobody could complain if I just pretended, and then over time pretend might become real; no, it was already real, I was—

I was inviting Evelyn’s disappointment.

That was like a bucket of cold water over my head. All the quivering potential collapsed into ugly ashes, and suddenly I was just Heather Morell again, sweaty and sticky inside a mask of bone, terrified of failure.

What was I thinking? Set myself up as a god? That was the path taken by so many mages before, the path that led to people like Alexander Lilburne, or to entities like Ooran Juh. I was not a thing to be worshipped, I was not an object, I was just Heather Morell, no matter how good I could be for my friends. Evelyn would take one look at me acting like that, and slap me across the face. And I would deserve it.

These two were not my parents. This wasn’t my fight. It wasn’t for me.

That shut the bitter voice up, for now.

But I still had to speak.

If I wasn’t very, very careful, I was about to found a religion out here. No matter how much these two needed it, I had to tread carefully, or I was going to hand an entire race of Outsider sapients a god powered by exhaustion, caffeine, and painkillers.

“No!” I snapped, and shook my arms free of Sevens’ embrace.

Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight stumbled on the rock surface behind me, an audible clack-clack of smart shoes on stone. A quick glance back showed the Yellow Princess, now physical and fully embodied. She sighed gently and gave me a slightly ruffled look, like a tropical parrot who’d been picked up unexpectedly.

“Kitten,” she warned me softly.

“Stop!” I hissed back. “Stop, right now.”

“The shaman says stop,” Zheng purred. Sevens shot her a sharp look. For a moment the two otherworldly ladies locked eyes with each other, but then Sevens looked away first, with a tiny huff. Zheng cracked her neck from side to side, thrumming with hidden tension.

I turned back to Natalie’s parents. They were looking rather confused at this exchange, not to mention Sevens suddenly appearing out of nowhere. She probably looked like she’d just stepped out of thin air behind me. More proof of strange miracles, the last thing I needed right now.

I faced Isabella and Stephen, lowered my tentacles from their sunburst spread, and killed the yellow glow of the Princesses’ mantle, smoothing it over my shoulders, just yellow fabric now.

“I have already rescued your daughter,” I said, clearing my throat to make my voice more normal. “Natalie is in a safe place. I can take you there in a moment. And Turmy, he’s okay too. Yes, I saved the cat as well. Or, well, he sort of saved himself.”

Isabella lit up with the internal glow of true rapture, crying openly now, babbling. “Thank you! Thank you, yes, thank you!”

Stephen shook his head in shock, consciousness rising from the depths of animal rage. But he turned toward me too, lowering his head in mute submission.

“No!” I snapped again, hard and angry.

Isabella fell silent, stumbling over a bitten-off word, waiting for my instructions. Stephen flinched and half-raised his head.

“I need you to believe,” I said. “But not in me. Stop that! I need you to believe in where you’re standing, in the evidence of your own eyes. I need you to stop looking at me. Look around.”

Isabella swallowed, hard and difficult, suddenly struggling to breathe. There it was, the buried horror which her spontaneous faith had been concealing. Stephen sighed like all the strength went out of him, sagging with denial, hanging his head.

Back to square one. I swore quietly, inside the privacy of my squid-skull mask.

“Keep going,” said Sevens, quiet and soft, a voice at my back.

“This is real,” I said. “And I need you to accept that. Your little girl needs you to accept that. Try.”

Isabella drew in a sobbing breath. “No, I—”

“Why?” said Stephen.

“Good question,” Zheng purred. “Shaman?”

I only had one tactic left.

With both hands and one tentacle, I reached up and hooked my squid-skull mask off my head, exposing my face. Dank swamp air stuck to my skin, the stench of sulphur and salt filled my nostrils, and my exhausted eyes suddenly stung with the sheer weight of this long, long day. I wiped my hair back out of my face and clung to Zheng’s side with two tentacles, just for the extra support.

Then I hiccuped, loudly and painfully. “Ow,” I sighed.

Natalie’s parents stared at me like they were seeing a space alien stepping down the ramp of a starship. Their brief vision of god had a human face.

“Why?” I echoed. I tried to address them directly, but I couldn’t stick to it. My eyes wandered off, looking at the loose ring of Shamblers, at the distant horizon of the swamp, at the vast trees off to our right, and up at the tower. Something was watching from up there, no doubt, and it had not turned away when I’d revealed my humanity, or what was left of it.

“You’re … ” Stephen gathered himself. “You’re just a girl. A young woman, I mean.”

Sevens clicked her tongue. “Smart, this one, isn’t he?”

“Mm,” Zheng grunted. “The shaman is the shaman.”

“Why?” I echoed again. “Because once upon a time, something similar happened to me, when I was nine years old. A little younger than Natalie right now, yes?” They nodded. I continued. “I was kidnapped, taken Outside, by … well, something from out here. Not this dimension, but another one, a much worse place. My parents didn’t believe me, and why should they? You two can barely believe, and you’re seeing it with your own eyes.”

“I … I’m trying,” Isabella whispered. Her husband nodded, but he was still frowning, still needed more.

“Try harder, monkey,” said Zheng.

I carried on. “I spent years in and out of mental hospitals. The doctors diagnosed me with schizophrenia, but they were wrong. All because of something that really did happen. Do these look like a hallucination to you?” I pointed at my own tentacles.

“I felt them … ” Isabella said. “I felt them, when you touched … ”

“So, when I saved your daughter from death by exposure or starvation out here, I saw myself reflected in her. You want her to grow up healthy, don’t you? You want her to have a chance at a peaceful, fulfilling life? You don’t want her to doubt her every thought, her every experience?” They were nodding along now, I had them, somehow, even though this wasn’t what I’d expected or wanted — I needed them to acknowledge the swamp, Outside, not me. I wasn’t important here. But I spoke on. “Then you need to see and believe. Don’t look at me. Certainly don’t bloody well worship me. Look at where you are. Look, and stop denying the evidence of your own eyes. Stop trying to rationalise it away or mythologise it into something palatable.”

Stephen screwed up his eyes and gritted his teeth. For a moment I thought I’d failed, I’d lost him to that final denial.

“Look up,” I said. “For Natalie.”

In the end, Isabella went first. Hesitating, confused by her own internal reactions, she finally stopped pressing her hands together in prayer, and looked away from me. After a moment, Stephen did the same, raising his eyes from the rock to the sky.

It took them a long time to get to their feet, but they got there in the end. They held hands and sobbed quietly for a while, but they did their best to look, even if they struggled, even if it hurt. Sevens and Zheng and I watched them adjust, staying out of the way of something which, in the end, was none of our business. As long as they accepted it, that was all that mattered.

Eventually, Isabella pointed at one of the Shamblers. She could probably only see the eyes, floating in the swamp muck. “What is … I can see something, what is that?”

“Just some friends,” I said. “I think they came to watch the show.”

“Is it over now?” Stephen asked.

“It’s never over,” I sighed, staring up at that distant tower, wondering who was also watching. “Once you’re in, you’re in for good. And your daughter is in, whether anybody likes it or not. She adjusted, she survived out here alone for nearly twenty-four hours, and she kept her mind together, and kept her little cat from getting hurt, too. Though, maybe Turmy kept her from getting hurt, I don’t know for sure.”

“That does sound like Turmy,” Isabella said. “He’s a good boy.”

They still won’t fight for her, said that bitter voice in my chest. The moment you leave their world, they’ll revert.

I looked back down at the pair of them, these two cowering apes who I had exposed to the inhuman truth with such cruelty. They were barely holding together, their sense of reality in tatters. I had them in the palm of my hand. I could shape them any way I wanted. That bitter voice demanded revenge.

But none of this was about me.

“So, are you in?” I asked. “Are you on your daughter’s side, or not?”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Breaking minds for fun and profit! Unfortunately this is neither. At least Heather avoided explicitly becoming a cult leader, though she’s doing less well at implicitly avoiding that. No thanks to Sevens. At least the Dimensional Shamblers got a nice beefy snack, though some poor Sharrowford butcher is gonna be one cow carcass short come sunrise.

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Next week, time for a reunion, perhaps in a slightly less terrifying locale? And what was Tenny’s part in this plan?

pale student of unhallowed arts – 17.11

Content Warnings

Psychological torture

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

“Police are launching an urgent appeal to help locate a little girl who went missing this weekend. Natalie Skeates, 10, of Prestwich, Greater Manchester, vanished only meters from the back door of her parents’ house, at around 8.15pm on Sunday night. Natalie is white, about 4 foot 2 inches tall, with long dark brown hair. She was last seen wearing grey jogging bottoms and a lilac pajama top, but may also be wearing a yellow plastic raincoat and a pair of purple wellington boots. Police currently believe she followed a family pet out into the back street behind her house.”

Raine paused to pull a theatrically painful wince. She didn’t look up from the newspaper she had spread out across the table in the magical workshop. She was leaning over it, hands braced on the edge of the tabletop. She hadn’t bothered to sit down since she’d returned with the paper and cast it onto the table like evidence in a dramatic criminal trial.

“Sounds like our girl,” Evelyn said between clenched teeth. “Is there more?”

“Oh, you bet there’s more.” Raine cleared her throat and put on her best serious-young-woman newsreader voice. “Police believe this may be a rare case of ‘stranger kidnapping’, as Natalie has no history of wandering off and no members of her extended family are being treated as suspects. The family cat is also missing, a ginger tomcat of advanced age who answers to ‘Turmy’. Members of the public are asked to report any sightings of deceased or stray ginger cats.” Raine winced again. “Daaaaamn, they’re desperate. Dead cats? Seriously?”

“It makes a certain kind of logical sense,” Evelyn said. She sounded dead inside; maybe that was just the exhaustion. She didn’t look happy either, especially when she turned and glared at me. “Listening closely, Heather?”

I did my best not to hiccup or flinch when Evelyn drawled venom. The pint of caffeine in my veins was making me twitchy already, and the painkillers had put me on edge. The strong stuff, from Evee’s private, secret, semi-legal stash. At least Evee and Raine couldn’t see that I was hugging myself with all my tentacles, desperate to keep a firm grip on my nerves. I tried to sit up straight in my chair. Tried to look like I knew what I was doing.

This was going to work. I had to believe it was going to work.

“Of course,” I said to Evee. I didn’t quite manage to keep my voice level. My smile must have been a grimace. “Evee, of course I’m listen—”

“Where is that bloody cat right now, anyway?” Evelyn spoke over me. She glanced at Raine, then at Zheng looming by the doorway, then over her own shoulder at Praem, who was still waiting placid and calm for orders or requests. “If we lose track of that cat and Lozzie has to pull off this stupid fail-safe, we’re fucked. We’ll have police all over the house and a piece of living direct evidence wandering around between their legs. Where is it?”

Praem answered before I had a chance to lose my temper, which I would have regretted dearly.

“Turmy is upstairs,” Praem intoned. “Safe cat. With Lozzie.”

Evelyn gritted her teeth and made an irritated grumble.

“Still,” Raine said. “Police are hoping to a find a dead cat? They really have got bugger all, huh?”

“Well,” I said, “Natalie did literally vanish. We can’t blame them for being stumped.”

Evelyn snorted. “Can blame the police for a lot of shit. Is that all, Raine?”

Raine resumed reading from the article. “Extensive enquiries are underway, but attempts to find Natalie are as yet unsuccessful. Greater Manchester Police are urging anybody with information on Natalie or her whereabouts to contact them on 101, blah blah blah.” Raine pulled an ironic grin. “Just the usual boilerplate for any missing kid. Plus there’s a picture of her here.”

Raine half-turned the newspaper so we could see, but there was no need. The grainy picture showed a gap-toothed little girl in a school uniform polo-shirt, smiling a big toothy smile. It was unmistakably the same girl who was currently curled up fast asleep on Lozzie’s bed. A little insert picture in the corner showed what was probably meant to be Turmy, but the marmalade gentleman was barely recognisable from the grainy cat-shaped smudge.

“At least this confirms she isn’t some homunculus made by Edward or something,” Raine said. “Right?”

“Right,” Evelyn agreed. She didn’t sound happy about that either.

“Small mercies,” I said, trying not to sigh.

It was almost one o’clock in the morning. We were all shattered and exhausted, full of coffee and painkillers, and we still had a kidnapped little girl in the house.

And we couldn’t agree what to do about her.

We had returned from the cottage in rural Devon about an hour and a half earlier, carrying the remains of Edward’s bizarre machine, a faint regret at not starting a huge wildfire, and the seeds of a blazing row. Practical realities had doused the heat of the potential argument, however; if we got too carried away debating the finer points of what to do next, we might not hear the police pulling up outside the house.

Provisionally, I did actually agree with Evee. She was correct, we needed to resolve this quickly, both for our own safety and for little Natalie’s mental and emotional health. If it was up to me, I would have let the girl sleep through the night, fed her a large breakfast in the morning, and only then set about the delicate process of returning her to her parents without getting us all arrested. Everything would be much easier after a good night’s sleep, we’d be less irritable, far less tired, and far more able to think clearly. Less likely to bite each other’s heads off, too.

But we might not have that long. Evee was right about that, too. If Edward figured out — or simply guessed, or took a gamble — that Natalie was alive, then he might call the police with an anonymous tip.

Just imagine the newspaper the following morning: Kidnapped girl found in occult student squat! Local neo-pagans outraged! University scandalised! Several young women arrested on suspicion of a myriad of bizarre crimes!

Of course it wouldn’t come to that, whatever happened, but I would rather avoid having to send a dozen police officers on a one-way trip Outside.

So while Natalie was still blissfully asleep and unaware, Lozzie and Tenny were most certainly not. Our first move upon returning home had been to make sure they were both awake and ready. Lozzie had strict instructions. At the first sign we were getting raided by a Tactical Firearms Unit, she was to Slip to Camelot, taking Natalie, Tenny, and Turmy with her. If she heard a knock on the front door, or the screech of tires in the road, or even a friendly “‘Ello ‘ello ‘ello, what’s all this then?”, she was to go, no questions, don’t wait for the rest of us.

Raine had quite liked this plan. “The plod won’t find anything except a bunch of students into the occult. Wiccan lesbian squat. It’s perfect, elegant, can’t go wrong. If Ed-boy goes through with it, the plan gets turned around on him, see? Making false reports, wasting police time, suddenly he’s a suspect.”

Evelyn had given her a death-glare. “It’s a far bloody cry from perfect.”

“What if they see Zheng?” I asked.

Raine answered without missing a beat. “Woman’s rugby captain, Sharrowford uni team.”

Twil had rolled her eyes and snorted at that one. “Rebecca Sappington is like five foot two, and blonde. Zheng ain’t gonna pass muster.”

We’d all looked at Twil, utterly bamboozled for a moment. Even Evelyn’s anger had shut off in confusion.

“‘Scuse me, Twil,” Raine said, “but who the hell are you talking about?”

Twil looked around at the three of us like we were idiots. “Sappington? Sharrowford uni women’s rugby team captain?”

Evelyn blinked hard, as if trying to wake up from a dream. “Since when do you follow women’s rugby?”

“Since always?” Twil said. “You three are the students at Sharrowford, don’t you know this stuff?”

Evelyn sighed. “Not particularly.”

“I wouldn’t mind, I suppose … ” I said.

Raine laughed. “Figures. Alright, not the captain then.”

But Lozzie’s emergency hiding place, while admittedly the best possible hiding place one could ever imagine, was only a stop-gap. We had to return Natalie to her parents, preferably before we were placed under any kind of suspicion, without getting ourselves in serious legal or criminal trouble, and – as I insisted, over and over — in a way that would make her parents understand, acknowledge, and believe what she had experienced.

I surprised myself with the rapid coherence of my own plan. I wasn’t quite certain where it had come from; I was exhausted, both physically and mentally, the caffeine and painkillers hadn’t fully kicked in as the plan had taken shape, and I wasn’t exactly good at thinking these kinds of thoughts. The power output from my trilobe reactor could keep me up and moving for days if need be, albeit at great cost to be paid by future Heather — but no amount of raw energy could bootstrap the cognition required for detailed, sensible, careful planning. Perhaps I’d been subconsciously working over the ideas for hours already. Perhaps the plan had taken shape when I’d been sitting on that cold stone bench, watching Evelyn work, in the garden of that little cottage.

But Evelyn did not approve of my plan. Oh no, not at all. I didn’t blame her though.

That had been a bad moment. Evelyn and I had ended up alone in the magical workshop together, with her anger reignited in a new and unstable form, like a product of controlled nuclear decay that I was trying to guide into place for a useful purpose. She was exhausted too, but unwilling to back down. Zheng was still upstairs with Lozzie. Twil had conked out on the kitchen table. Praem was content to watch us argue, but then she bustled around in the kitchen, making even more coffee. Raine had left only moments earlier, on a hurried trip to the nearest all-night corner shop, to pick up a copy of the Manchester Evening News.

“Heather, how many times?” Evelyn had almost been slapping the table, banging the floor with her walking stick. “The only sensible option — no, fuck it, the only remotely workable option — is to drop the girl off outside a police station, somewhere without CCTV, and then vanish. Keep us out of the equation. Look, I understand how you feel—”

“No, Evee, I don’t think you do. I’m sorry, but I don’t think you do.”

I’d said it quietly, but I’d meant it.

Evelyn had looked ready to surrender to a migraine. She’d curled up so hard that I almost broke cover and went over to hug her. But then she sat up again, raging. “I could maybe, maybe understand if you were talking about something like dropping her off in her own bed, and leaving a letter for the parents. Maybe! That would still be too much risk!”

“And it wouldn’t be enough. Evee, please. It wouldn’t be enough. They won’t believe her. She’ll grow up being told it didn’t happen, that none of it was real, that it was all just a bad dream.”

Evelyn bit her tongue, literally. I could see her teeth chewing on the inside of her mouth as she stared at me. We were both sitting at the table in the magical workshop, on the same side. I’d chosen that very purposefully, when we’d sat down, rather than sitting across from her.

I didn’t need Evelyn Saye the magician for this, and I could make do without Evelyn the strategist, though I would always welcome her input. I had the plan all worked out. I knew what to do.

What I needed was Evee, my friend, because I was terrified of failure.

Praem re-joined us and re-filled my coffee, which I drained as quickly as the drink cooled off. Zheng drifted down from upstairs to linger on the edge of the doorway, like an animal uncertain of interrupting a pair of smaller predators, lest they turn on her and join forces. In the kitchen, Twil was snoring.

“Then maybe it was a dream,” Evelyn said eventually.

Something cold bristled inside my chest. “ … excuse me?”

“Heather, this girl, Natalie, she is not like you.” Evelyn’s voice came cold and cruel. For just a second, I hated her — but I grabbed that feeling before it could wriggle down into my gut. I dissected it and ate the parts. This wasn’t Evee’s fault. She was trying to look after all of us.

“She is like me,” I said. “Evee, please.”

“She was not taken by the Eye, or anything even remotely like it. She’s not going to grow up with hyperdimensional mathematics in her head, or nightmares from Outside, or even seeing spirits everywhere. She hasn’t come back with pneuma-somatic sight. She’s had a terrible, traumatic experience, yes, I acknowledge that, for fuck’s sake. But she’s not like you.”

I drained the rest of my coffee to conceal the wound. I had to make Evelyn understand. I needed her approval.

“Evee,” I said, far softer than her. “She’s one of us now.”

“How?! Heather, she’s ten, she barely even understands what she’s been through, she—”

“She’s been exposed to magic. She’s been Outside. That will have changed her. Isn’t that how it works?”

Evelyn opened her mouth to snap at me again, but then stopped dead, almost panting. She drew a hand over her face and grimaced. She hated everything about this situation.

“We don’t know what she might see as she grows up,” I went on, trying to stay calm. “What she might stumble onto, five years, ten years, twenty years from now. She needs to be prepared. Her parents need to understand. She’s in the know. She’s one of us. I won’t treat her otherwise.”

“God fucking dammit, Heather,” Evelyn hissed between her teeth. “Fuck you for being so right all the time.”

Raine saved us the embarrassment of tears — which we were both on the verge of bursting into, for slightly different reasons — by returning at that exact moment. She announced herself by throwing the front door wide open and shouting, “Only me, not the police!”, which made Twil emit a sleeping snort from the kitchen.

Then she’d slapped the newspaper down on the table to show us the article about Natalie’s disappearance.

“Small mercies,” I repeated again, trying to smile.

One o’clock in the morning, and we still couldn’t agree.

Finally done, Raine flapped the newspaper shut to the front page. She straightened up and rolled her neck from side to side, then flexed her shoulders and stretched her arms. She was just as tired as the rest of us, but taking pains not to show it too much. Evelyn stared at the newspaper, then directly at me, a silent accusation in her dark-rimmed eyes, waiting for my response to the fact that Natalie was already in the news. Praem waited at her shoulder. Zheng brooded, tall and dark and silent, arms folded as she leaned against the wall next to the door. She was watching me too, waiting for my decision. Twil was still asleep face-down on the kitchen table, head buried in her arms. I envied her.

Everybody was waiting for me. I was the one with the plan, after all.

Raine blew out a big sigh and gestured at the paper. “They were on it quick, yeah? It’s only the Manchester Evening News, but what’s that, less than twenty four hours between her going missing and this going to print?”

“Good parents,” said Praem.

Raine pointed a finger gun at Praem, but the gesture wasn’t backed with a smile. Just a blank, for once. “Smart parents, yeah. They didn’t wait to report her missing. On it right quick.”

Evelyn snorted. “Newspapers wouldn’t give a toss if it was a kid from some sink estate. Or ten years older.”

Raine pulled a slow wince. “True. Still, if it was me, I wouldn’t hesitate to exploit missing white girl syndrome. Every tiny advantage means more chance of her being found, right?”

Evelyn frowned at Raine. “So?”

“Um, yes, Raine,” I added. “Where are you going with this?”

Raine gave us a wry smile. “One article in the Manchester Evening News now, that’s gonna be a BBC television item by the morning, tomorrow evening at latest. Most missing kids are found pretty quick, because they’ve just wandered off or been snatched by a family member or something. But this? This is a genuine vanishing. Girl just went like that.” Raine clicked her fingers. “The parents are middle class, they’ve got resources, they’ll be playing the media as much as they can, and I can’t blame them for trying. And the media is gonna love it.”

Evelyn nodded slowly, then stared at me.

“Yes, I know, it has to be tonight,” I said. “I understand that.”

Raine shrugged. “Right now, if she turns up in her own family home, they can probably bullshit something to the police. I doubt they’re watching the place that carefully, not yet. But if this gets any bigger before she turns back up, they might be suspected of having hidden her, for publicity or money or whatever. And that’s not gonna make your plan go smooth, Heather. I’d guess we’ve got until the morning, that’s when it’ll hit national news. If you’re gonna do this, you gotta do it now. Can’t let Nat sleep.”

“I know!” I snapped. “I know, okay? I’m ready to do it, I’m ready to go. The plan will work. Or at least I’m pretty sure it will. I have to try.”

Evelyn snorted with derision and disbelief, shaking her head.

Raine winced and averted her eyes with theatrical display. Zheng stared at Evee, darkly unreadable; I couldn’t tell if she had faith or not. This may be a step too far, even for her shaman. Praem stared not at Evelyn, but at me.

I swallowed my irritation and summoned all the love I held for Evee.

“Evee, do you really think there’s no chance of her parents adapting quickly enough?”

Evelyn sighed, closed her eyes, and rubbed the bridge of her nose. When she answered, it was through gritted teeth, in a tone of fake politeness dripping with sarcasm. “I doubt very much that they will respond well, no. Most people don’t handle the occult truth without either going mad, becoming obsessed, or spending the rest of their life denying it. What do you think will happen, hm? What do you think is likely?”

“But Natalie herself—”

“Yes, children are pliable. Adults are not. Basic neuroplasticity. Nothing supernatural about it.”

“What about with the father of Amy Stack’s boy? Shuja. He believed. He adapted.”

“Because he’d already been broken down!” Evelyn spat, rounding on me, losing her temper. “If I understood the man’s personal history correctly, then Shuja Yousafzai spent a significant portion of his life in a war zone, seeing his culture and society bombed and shot and bathed in blood. And then he had a child with an ex-mercenary and professional assassin. The man knows how to compartmentalise, how to keep his mouth shut. But you know what’s most important?” Evelyn didn’t wait for an answer, eyes blazing at me. “He knows a tiny bit about the fragility of consensus reality. So when he was exposed to the supernatural truth, he could just about deal with it. Just about.” Evelyn huffed out a great irritated sigh. “Though I bet he spends an awful lot of time trying not to think about it very much.”

I gathered all my courage. I already knew where this was going. “So I have to break them.”

Evelyn made a fist and looked like she wanted to punch herself in the forehead. “A random middle-class couple from suburban Manchester? What did the girl say, her father is a teacher?”

“Mm,” Raine confirmed.

“A teacher, great, yes. The salt of English soil will not break cleanly, Heather. They’ll shatter into a million pieces. You have no idea who her parents are! They could be fundamentalist Christians, or hardcore ideological atheists, and neither of those positions is going to take well to having their entire world-view torn apart when you shove a tentacle into their faces.”

“There’s not going to be any tentacle shoving … ”

“These are settled people! People who believe ‘it can’t happen here’, who have probably lived their entire lives inside a comfortable box of thought and perception. And you’re not talking about slowly breaking them down over months or years, which might work, maybe, if you were very, very lucky indeed. You’re talking about breaking them in minutes.”

“Evee, their daughter vanished without a trace. I think they might be open to alternate explanations right about now.”

Evelyn hissed frustration between her teeth. “And what if one of them is mentally ill, huh? What if one of them suffers from schizophrenia, for real? You introduce the real truth, you have no idea what kind of damage you could do.”

“I have to believe that they would be willing to risk that for their child,” I said. “Evee, we’re talking about a little girl who doesn’t have her parents right now. They’re not on her side. But they could be. It’s worth the risk, to them and to myself.”

The room fell silent for a moment, but the gravity of my words was rather undercut by Twil snoring softly from the kitchen. Which was lucky, because I hadn’t intended to say anything of such great import. I was merely explaining why this mattered. I hadn’t put it in words before. I looked down into my lap, sinking into myself. Evelyn sighed and turned away, rubbing her forehead. Praem clicked out of the room, bustled around in the kitchen for a few moments, and returned with a freshly re-filled pot of coffee. She topped up my mug. I sipped from it right away. She topped up Evee’s mug too, but Evelyn left it untouched.

Raine said my name softly. “Hey, Heather?”

“Mm?” I looked up.

Raine was smiling, soft and warm, radiating that absolutely unconditional acceptance, the bedrock of her boundless confidence. “You’re trying to do the right thing. I admire you for that. I really do, truly.”

“ … but?”

Raine considered for a moment, sighed, then shook her head. “There’s no but. If you gotta try it, then you gotta try it. I’d be a hypocrite to tell you otherwise.”

Evelyn snorted through her nose, shaking her head.

A great yawn echoed from the kitchen, followed by a smacking of lips and a clattering of chair legs on flagstones. Twil appeared in the magical workshop doorway a moment later, squinting bleary eyes and scratching her scalp through her thick dark hair.

“Uhhhh, we still on this?” she asked. “I don’t see any coppers about, so I guess we haven’t been swatted yet. What’s the plan, yo?”

Praem addressed her. “Go back to sleep.”

“Nah, I’m good. Ready to … yeah. One-two, woo.” Twil sketched a couple of limp punches into the air.

“Coffee,” said Praem.

“Nah thanks.”

But it was not a question. Moments later, Twil had a steaming mug of coffee in her hands, whether she liked it or not. Praem watched her from almost point blank range. Twil grimaced back, then sipped her coffee. Praem continued watching. I had no idea what was going on there and neither did Raine, by the equally confused amusement on her face, but I was too exhausted and spread too thinly to ask Praem what on earth she was doing.

Eventually, Evelyn sighed. “Heather, you don’t have an obligation to save everybody. You can’t. You said it yourself, you’re not a superhero. You don’t have to right every single wrong in the world, it’s not your responsibility. You already rescued this girl. We can keep an eye on her from a distance if we have to.”

Zheng purred like a half-awake tiger, which made Twil jump and almost spill her coffee. Praem refilled it.

“The shaman cannot deny her nature,” Zheng said.

“I have a responsibility here, Evee,” I said.

“Tch,” Evelyn tutted. “Your responsibility is to us. All of us. And … and to … ” Evee gritted her teeth, like the words stuck in her throat, like she didn’t want to use this, didn’t want to stoop to this level. “And to Maisie. How does this bring you any closer to your goal? How does this get us closer to your sister?”

“I’ve already said, Natalie is one of us now.”

“That doesn’t answer my question!” she snapped. “You’re not atoning for anything here, Heather. You were not responsible for leaving your sister behind. You were a child, you couldn’t have known!” Evelyn jabbed the tabletop with a finger. “You. Were. Not. Responsible.”

That rendered me speechless. All my carefully constructed armour of level temper and rational planning fell away. I just gaped at Evee.

“Awwww shit,” Twil said. “Evee, fuckin’ hell, you—”

“Coffee. Drink,” said Praem, right next to Twil’s face.

Raine and Zheng were both sensible enough not to interrupt. They understood.

Evelyn braced, a subtle shifting of muscles and posture, as if I was about to strike her.

I think Evelyn expected me to snap back at her. I think she was trying one last tactic, the one that might make me hate her, to stop me from accepting yet another dangerous task. She hadn’t said those words as a cynical and hurtful blow against my ego. She truly meant it. She didn’t want me to torture myself with guilt and responsibility.

Instead I clambered out of my chair, crossed the few paces between us, and gave her a hug.

It was an awkward hug, like every embrace between Evelyn and I, snagged and complicated by the difficulties of avoiding too much pressure on her back and spine, but also more awkward than usual, not just because I had to bend down, but because she flinched. She expected me to be angry. At first she just sat there, half-frozen, but then finally reached up and awkwardly patted me on the shoulder, clearing her throat and blushing.

After a good long while I let go and straightened up again, stepping back and smiling down at Evee.

She sighed up at me, exasperated, anger all burnt out. “Heather, why are you like this?”

“Like what?”

“Like … oh, never mind.”

“Evee, I’m not trying to atone for anything. Natalie isn’t like Maisie, I’m not treating her as a surrogate for my sister. She’s like me. I’m saving myself, in miniature. The me I could never save. And I’m not ashamed to say so. I wish I could reach back through time, with everything I know now, and save myself. I wish I could introduce my younger self to you, to Raine, to everybody I know now. I wish you’d been there, when I was little. When I’d returned from Wonderland. I wish I’d had any of you as a friend. But I can’t do that, so all I’m trying to do is make sure that little girl doesn’t suffer even a hundredth of what I did.”

Evelyn made a grumbling sound, blushing quietly and staring at her coffee mug. Then she scooped it up and took a deep drag on the beverage.

“If you must, Heather. Who am I to resist, after all?”

“You’re my best friend,” I said, then glanced around at everybody else. “Well, one of them.”

Twil raised a toast with her coffee. “It’s cool, hey.”

I dragged my chair closer to Evee before sitting down again. “Evee, I’ll ask you once more. Do you think my plan has any chance of working?”

Evelyn studied me for a moment, then glanced over at Zheng, then back at me. She sucked on her teeth.

Out in the road, a car passed by the house. We all froze for a long, long moment as the sound of the engine receded into the city. Everybody held their breath, but no follow-up came. The road fell silent again.

“Clear,” Raine said. I nodded. Evelyn sighed. Twil pulled a nasty face.

“Your plan isn’t completely impossible,” Evelyn conceded, returning to the subject. “But that’s about the limit of my optimism.” Her gaze turned hard and sharp and cold, Evelyn the strategist “You do understand that you’re going to have to be violent for this to work, yes?”

I nodded. I did understand, all too well. “Yes, I know. I’m not going to enjoy it or anything, but I know.”

“You’re going to have to terrify those people out of their minds, and I mean that literally. You can’t risk half-measures with this. You need to aim for that clean break, even if I don’t think it’s achievable. You need to prove me wrong.”

“Camelot won’t be enough. I know.”

Evelyn froze for a second. Her eyes widened by a fraction, caught on sudden fear. “You’re not going to take them to Wonderland?”

“Gods, Evee, no!” I actually laughed, the idea was so absurd. I needed that release of tension. Evelyn huffed and went red in the face. Raine blew out a theatrical sigh of relief, as if she would possibly have believed that too. Twil pulled an uncomfortable face and tried to share a glance with Praem, but the doll-demon was staring at the coffee in her hands again. “Absolutely not,” I repeated. “If I ever start planning that, feel free to tie me up.”

Evelyn shot me an odd frown. Raine snorted. “Right. Well. I’ll remember that. At least you seem to understand. Though I’m not sure I agree with your choice of squad for this, either.”

Zheng rumbled from the other side of the room, a danger sound from the depths of the rainforest. “Huuuuh?”

“Not you, you bloody great oaf.” Evelyn huffed. “You’re the one I actually approve of. Stop taking offense at everything.”

Twil guffawed. “Yeah, you heard the lady. Grow some thicker skin.”

Zheng blinked slowly, apparently not offended.

“My ‘squad’?” I echoed, cringing. “Evee, you’re all my ‘squad’. We’re all each other’s ‘squad’. Goodness, that’s a very imprecise word.”

“Are you certain Tenny is up to this?” Evelyn asked.

“Oh.” I nodded, putting Evelyn’s questionable choice of words out of my mind for now. “Tenny is a lot more mature than she seems. And I think she understands this, she understands what’s going on. Lozzie will be there too, and, well, not to put too fine a point on it, Lozzie needs the support as well. Tenny’s presence will keep her grounded.”

Raine cleared her throat. “Tenns does also happen to be the most obviously supernatural looking person we’ve got.”

I sighed. “That too. If we have to rely on that … ”

“Plus,” Raine added, bright and confident. I thanked her silently for that. “Nat was literally cuddled up with her. If we’re gonna have any chance of convincing the parents, that’s a pretty good shot. I’d take it.”

“Heather will be taking the shot,” Evelyn said, staring right at me. “Alone.”

I gave Evelyn the most irritated look I could muster, which probably just made me seem constipated and on the verge of crying. But it must have worked, because she blinked.

“Evee, please,” I said — then hiccuped, finally losing control. “I’m already struggling to stay calm, thinking about doing this. Please don’t make it worse.”

My hands were knotted tight in my lap. I had to make a conscious effort to relax my fingers, raise one hand, and straighten it out.

I was shaking, quite badly.

Evelyn sighed, shook her head, then reached out and took my hand, squeezing gently. Raine crossed around the table and joined us too. Her hands found my shoulders and started kneading my muscles.

Evee said, “You really shouldn’t be drinking enough coffee to fell an elephant.”

I laughed, weakly. “It’s not the coffee. And I’m not going to be alone.”

“Mmhmm,” Raine agreed with sudden gusto. “Damn right.”

Zheng purred like a sleeping tiger. “The shaman will be protected.”

She knew how important she was to this. I couldn’t pull it off truly by myself.

Evelyn narrowed her eyes and pursed her lips. She started to say something, then stopped and looked away. “Yes, but … neither I or Raine … you’re not … ”

“The fewer of us involved, the safer it will be,” I said, trying to sound confident.

Evelyn clenched her teeth, but she nodded in grudging acceptance. “None of you can take your mobile phones along, understand? Nothing identifying. So don’t screw up, don’t get separated, and for God’s sake make sure Lozzie knows her part.”

“She’ll do as I ask,” I said. “I trust Lozzie. She understands the stakes.”

“Yeah,” Raine agreed. “We all saw how she reacted to Nat.”

Evee seemed doubtful, but she didn’t voice it. “You don’t even show yourselves until it’s worked. I mean it. Total anonymity.”

I nodded. “I’ve planned for that.”

“And what about the logistics?” she demanded. Her frown was different now, thoughtful and probing. She might not approve, but she was involved now. My strategist was on board, asking questions that mattered. “How are you going to make such a pinpoint Slip?”

“Lozzie can do the recon stage,” I said, then sighed and almost rolled my eyes. “‘Recon stage’, listen to me, I sound like Raine.”

Raine cleared her throat, mock-bashful. “Well, that was what I called it. It’s the right technical term.”

I carried on. “We already have the address, we’ve—”

Evelyn snorted. “Assuming the girl remembered her address correctly. She’s only ten.” Raine laughed at that for some reason. Evelyn frowned up at her. “What? What is it?”

“Evee, think about yourself at ten.” Raine shook her head. “And hey, the house is gonna be pretty obvious, it’ll be the one with a copper or two standing outside.”

“Quite,” Evelyn said through her teeth.

I tried again. “We have the address. And we’ve located the house on Google Maps. I’ve already proved I can sling-shot from that information alone.”

“Yes, outdoors, on a clear hilltop that was visible in the satellite picture. You’re talking about inside a house.”

“Hence Lozzie. She’s pretty confident that she can set up the rest. All I need is a picture of the inside, I think I can make it work from there.”

Evelyn sighed heavily. “You’ve really thought this through, haven’t you? You’ve covered everything.”

I shrugged. “I barely needed to think. It was already there.”

Zheng spoke up again. “The shaman knows more than she thinks she knows, always.”

“Pffft,” went Twil. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“There’s no need to mystify it, Zheng,” I said. “It’s just old trauma. How many hours do you think I’ve spent fantasizing about how different my life would have been, if only my parents had understood and believed?”

Zheng stared back at me for several heartbeats, then dipped her head in acknowledgement.

“Well,” said Evelyn, finally letting go of my hand and placing it back in my lap. “The sooner, the better. What do you need, Heather?”

I shook my head. “Not much. Sevens is ready for her role, she’ll be in place before everything else. Lozzie can start as soon as I take over on emergency Slip duty, just in case the police do turn up after all.”

“Turmy,” said Praem.

“Yes.” I nodded. “I won’t forget Turmy. That’s another reason we need Tenny, somebody will have to carry him. Somebody not Natalie.”

“And don’t forget you made a deal with the Shambler,” Evelyn said, watching me closely, as if she suspected I might go back on that unspoken agreement. “She can wait until after this is done, but not much longer. You made that creature a promise, sort of.”

That was my cue to smile. I thought it was bright and happy, but it must have looked as sharp and devious as Evee herself, because she blinked at me in surprise.

“Two birds with one stone,” I said. “Or at least one and a half.”


Isabella and Stephen Skeates — Natalie’s mother and father — were not sleeping soundly in their bed that night, not even by two o’clock in the morning, the dead hour when we put my plan into action.

One could hardly blame them for insomnia. Their daughter, their little girl, their only child, Natalie, was missing, presumed kidnapped. They probably blamed themselves for the momentary lapse of attention during which she had chased Turmy out the back door. They blamed themselves for not watching her carefully enough, for not impressing upon her the danger of the world beyond her home, for not arming her against the threat of unknown strangers in dark alleyways.

They were wrong, of course.

But their guilt and horror played into our hands. If they’d been sleeping in their bedroom on the second floor of their modest detached house in suburban Manchester, with its red brick exterior, its tiny garden, and its solid walls, we would have been unable to pinpoint their location, unable to ensure the element of surprise.

But they were downstairs, in their poky little sitting room with its floral curtains and brown carpet, bathed in the electric blue glow of a muted television.

They were also alone. Raine’s warnings turned out to be an exaggeration; there was no police constable standing outside their front door, only a single patrol car waiting several houses away, containing a single officer, who was mercifully fast asleep. By tomorrow night, with the toxic hydra of national news bearing down on them, that might change quite quickly. In the morning undoubtedly they would be joined by visiting family, to offer help and support. But not yet. For now, our window was clear.

Zheng and I landed almost exactly on target — right in the middle of the Skeates’ sitting room.

Accuracy surprised me. I was getting better at this. Despite my assurances to Evelyn, all I had to calibrate the slingshot-Slip was a blurry phone camera photo taken by Lozzie, about three minutes earlier, through a crack in the sitting room curtains. She’d Slipped into the Skeates’ back garden before us, crept up to the police car to confirm she wasn’t about to be caught, and then crept around the exterior of the house to see what she could see. In another life, Lozzie could have been a super-spy. She could get in and out of anywhere, unseen, untraced. I’d never really thought about that before.

We’d gotten lucky with the crack in the curtains; that meant we didn’t have to break into the place. Less evidence, less noise, less chance of something going wrong — and more impact for our arrival.

Once it was all over and done with, I spent a lot of time thinking about what Natalie’s parents must have seen in that moment.

Two shadowy figures stepped out of thin air right before their eyes, as if disgorged by a hidden fold in reality that they’d been unable to see their entire lives. Backlit by the mute, dead light of their television set, a sudden intrusion into what remained of their domestic security. The last tatters of the veil ripped away in an instant. One figure was a towering giant on the very border of the humanly possible, seven feet of rippling meat, predatory animal intent, drooling and hissing through a maw of razor-sharp teeth. The other figure was somehow no less inhuman, but subtly so, head and face hidden inside a mask of bone that couldn’t possibly be real, the curves a haunting hint of otherworldly meaning.

What they didn’t see was the difficulty that went into not falling over.

Zheng and I had to control the situation instantly, which was a very polite way of saying we needed to stay coherent enough to do sudden and terrible violence. That was part of why I’d selected Zheng alone for this. I had plenty of experience Slipping, keeping myself conscious and coherent — well, mostly — and I was confident that by redlining my reactor I could keep myself on my feet for the crucial few seconds, though I would pay for it later on, perhaps steeply. Zheng had once fallen from a building and shrugged off broken legs, shortly after fighting the building from the inside. She knew what was at stake here. She could find the reserves for this.

We had made a plan before we’d left home. Zheng would go for the father, Stephen. I would go for the mother, Isabella. There would be no need to communicate upon arrival.

The plan was simple. It almost worked.

The split-second we arrived — nauseated, swallowing a tidal wave of vomit, my reactor going full blast inside my belly, trying to orient myself in an unfamiliar space while a deep lance of pain rammed itself through my eye sockets and into my brain, in the half-shadowed, flickering cave of this cramped sitting room — I had the briefest impression of Natalie’s parents.

Stephen, her father, was sitting in an armchair to the right. He had been on the verge of dozing off in the moment we had appeared, caught on the edge of fitful nightmares, his eyelids not quite open. Short and stocky, fit and neat and well-groomed, built like a football player who had aged out of the sport, with close-cropped dark hair on his head and a day’s worth of dark stubble on his chin. One did not have to look very closely to see the sudden and terrible strain in a face that had been quite used to laughter, or the fact he hadn’t changed his shirt and trousers in two days, or that he was barely there inside his own head.

His eyes snapped wide, his head snapped up, bewildered and drawing breath to scream.

Zheng was on him instantly, of course, even though her muscles were jellied and her senses were slowed by the aftermath of the Slip.

She crossed the room in one bound, ripped him out of his chair, and slammed him against the wall hard enough to knock the wind from his lungs. He wheezed with the impact before Zheng clamped a hand over his mouth. She shoved her face close to his, showing all her teeth and the whites of her eyes, a universal symbol for shut-up-and-don’t-make-a-sound.

Zheng growled, low and loud. Stephen whimpered, staring right back into the depths of Zheng’s eyes, crying in terror. He kicked weakly, but then gave up before he even connected with Zheng.

Isabella, Natalie’s mother, did not react so quickly.

And neither did I.

It wasn’t the aftermath of the Slip that held me back, or the way my head was pounding, or the roiling rebellion in my gut. I had three tentacles braced against the floor, three more coiled and ready to whip out at the woman, to hold her still and smother any screaming. I had rehearsed this step by step, I knew exactly what to do, and I’d put myself into the pose before making the Slip. But I couldn’t follow through.

Isabella was sitting on a little brown sofa, quite distant from her husband. She wasn’t dozing off. She was sitting quite upright, alert and aware, staring directly at me. A tall and willowy woman in a green cardigan, a shawl, and a long skirt, with very long, very dark hair, just like her daughter. She had been crying, an awful lot, her eyes ringed by raw, red skin. Many tissues were balled up on the sofa cushion next to her, with no attempt made to clear them away. Perhaps in normal times she was beautiful, in an ethereal sort of way, elfin and impish, with playful crows’ feet in the corners of her eyes.

But right then she was haunted and harrowed, and horribly aware.

I knew that look.

That emptiness which comes when a missing piece of oneself has been ripped away by the unknown, that wracking guilt of failure and loss and not even knowing what had truly happened. No oblivion of nightmares for Isabella, no soporific tears to carry her off into a fantasy where she hadn’t lost her daughter. She was wide awake and wide eyed and dying inside.

She looked like me, before I’d had any hope. She looked like me in the mirror.

And for a split second, I couldn’t do it. This woman didn’t deserve to be pinned to the wall by some horrifying abyssal monster that had invaded her home. She didn’t deserve to get shouted at and browbeaten and broken. She didn’t deserve violence and horror, no matter how much it might help her daughter in the long run. I saw myself sitting there, grieving for Maisie, and I was about to do to her the opposite of everything I had needed when I’d been in her place, everything I had needed and gotten and cherished.

The plan crumbled to nothing.

Behind my squid-skull mask, I opened my mouth to offer salvation, to give the game away before it had even started.

Natalie’s alive, it’s okay, we’re here to return her! I’ve saved your daughter! It’s okay, don’t be afraid!

The words were on my lips and they would ruin everything. Evee’s “clean break” would be rendered truly impossible. They would never believe their daughter without exposure to the truth.

Then, Isabella went for her mobile phone.

The phone was sitting on an end-table next to the sofa, just beyond her reach, so she twisted and dived for it, as if she could somehow dial 999 and shout about monsters invading her home before I got to her. That was an act of true courage, because it was both pointless and mattered more than she could possibly understand. If she thought we were connected with her daughter’s kidnapping, then to dive for her phone was an act of rebellion against loss. And it worked. With that futile, clumsy leap for the phone, she killed the words in my throat and saved her daughter’s future.

I used three tentacles like a spring, launched myself across the space that divided us, hissing like a rattlesnake, and slammed into the poor woman with my other three tentacles.

Several seconds of messy, awkward struggle ensued, neither photogenic nor dramatic, just banal and violent. Isabella was not a physically strong woman, but she was driven by a burning need. My tentacles were stronger than my human arms would ever be, but I was off-balance, confused, blind-sided by my own momentary inaction and the woman’s courage. Isabella’s strength only gave out when she realised she was struggling against invisible forces. In a few seconds I had her pinned against the sofa by wrists and throat, with one tentacle over her mouth.

Panting, shaking, covered in cold sweat, I straightened up in front of Isabella Skeates and stared down into a pair of eyes full of terror and hate. What did she see when she looked at me? A monster wearing the skull of a squid, something impossible and profane.

“I’m sorry,” I croaked.

“Shaman?” Zheng purred over her shoulder.

“Got her,” I panted back. “I got her.”

“Mm.” Zheng grunted. “Ready?”

“Yes. Bring him over here.”

Zheng hauled Natalie’s father round by his throat and the front of his shirt, then slammed him down on the sofa next to his wife.

“Stay,” she rumbled between razor-sharp teeth, but she kept her grip on him tight, one hand clamped over his mouth, just in case. Isabella stared at Zheng too, intimidated by the sheer size of her, the thrumming animal presence, the threat of rapid violence. Zheng also wasn’t wearing a mask, but she managed to look even more inhuman than I, a grinning demon in the flickering light from the television set.

Behind my squid-skull mask, I swallowed hard and cleared my throat.

I could not afford to hiccup during this. That would ruin everything. It would make me seem more human in their eyes.

“Look at me,” I said, loud and clear. The Skeates hesitated for a moment, their attention stuck on Zheng, on her threatening promise. A small miscalculation. “Ignore her,” I snapped. “Look at me. Look at me!”

The snap in my voice worked; I was imitating Raine, after all. Stephen and Isabella both flinched, though with slightly different timings. Stephen was slower, confused, terrified. Isabella was slightly more present. They both stared in terror at my mask, at the twisted voice coming from inside. I made no effort to straighten out my throat after the hiss earlier. On the contrary, I allowed it to worsen, to pull tighter, turning my voice into a scratching, croaking nightmare. The squid-skull mask helped too, warping my voice in a way it never had before, as if some hidden quality inside the metallic bone had risen to the occasion, responding to the need to intimidate and terrify.

“We just materialised in the middle of your sitting room,” I said. I reached out with another tentacle and wrapped it around Zheng’s arm — then another, around Stephen’s head. His eyes went wide, rolling in a futile effort to see what was touching him, panting through his nose with panic. “I am holding you bound with invisible power. You can feel it, but you can’t see it. This is real.”

They both stared at me, eyes bloodshot with terror and grief. I didn’t expect this part to get through to them, but we had to use everything, step by step. No mercy, sadly enough. I could always apologise later.

“What you are experiencing is real,” I carried on, trying desperately to keep the steel in my voice. Inside I was shaking. I pictured myself as Evelyn, as Raine, as all the qualities in both of them which I admired so much. Courage, steadfast, unwavering. I had to be unwavering now. I had to inflict pain. But I was no torturer, and I was torturing these two. We hadn’t even started yet.

I went for the low blow, the set up, just to get it over with.

“You have to concentrate on what you are experiencing. If you want to save your daughter, Natalie, then you have to concentrate.”

Stephen blinked rapidly, sweat and tears in his eyes, but he was paying attention now. Oh yes, he was here now, he was on board. Isabella stared right at me, her gaze going through my mask and meeting the flesh inside. She knew I was in charge here. She knew what I was offering, if only on an instinctive level, and she would do anything, listen to anything, believe anything.

I didn’t like that feeling, the feeling of being in absolute command, of holding their lives in my hand. But I could use it for good, here and now.

“I am a monster from a place beyond your worst nightmares,” I said. Technically true, sort of. Adopted daughter of the Eye and all that. “And I do understand that your nightmares must be pretty bad at the moment.”

Stephen whined. Isabella tried to nod.

“I am trying to return your daughter to you. I am trying to save her. But for her sake, there is something you must do. You must see where she went, for yourselves, with your own senses. Do you understand?”

I didn’t give them time to answer. They couldn’t possibly understand, not until they saw. I wasn’t giving them a choice.

I began the equation, whether they wanted it or not.

“I suggest you close your eyes,” I said. “Or you might break faster than you can bear. Now, hold on tight.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Heather can be a little bit terrifying, as a treat. Actually she’s kind of frighteningly good at this. My notes and outlines for this chapter did not say “Heather should be scaring the shit out of Natalie’s parents”, but um, there she is. Better than the opposite though, right? This is real stuff, the mundane world stirring from slumber to pay attention to a supernatural detail it shouldn’t know about. The sleeping tiger. So Heather has to treat this very, very seriously, and be ruthless.

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Next week, it’s time to break a pair of minds. Outside should do the trick, right? Just gotta pick up the pieces afterward.

pale student of unhallowed arts – 17.10

Content Warnings

Human sacrifice
House fires

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

A balmy summer evening in an isolated rural garden, so deep in the countryside that one could no longer hear any trace of distant traffic, nor see any tell-tale scar of light pollution on the horizon. Poised on the cusp of true night as if frozen in time; the setting sun reduced to a faint suggestion on the far side of the darkening hills; the silence of the shadows broken only by the chirping of hidden insects. Sitting on a weathered stone bench outside a lovely little thatched cottage, lit from behind by soft electric glow, beside a woman whom I loved very deeply — even if I wasn’t exactly certain as to the exact and proper form of that love.

A year ago I would have given my left hand to be blessed by such a dreamlike scene.

Romantic fantasy had failed, however, to account for the more earthy realities — such as the piles of half-collapsed scaffolding and burst chicken wire which surrounded the otherwise picturesque cottage. And Praem the demon maid, methodically digging up most of the garden to ruin the magical design scored into the lawn. And of course not to forget Zheng, eight feet of rippling muscle looming behind us in the darkness, our implicit bodyguard, an ever-present reminder of our need to command and wield terrible violence at a moment’s notice.

So, all in all, it was not actually a very romantic situation whatsoever.

The sheer weight of Evelyn’s cold anger also didn’t help.

I’d grown used to Evee’s anger by then. I thought I understood it, that I understood her, at least better than I had back when we’d first met. Before we’d become real friends — and then perhaps more — I’d found Evelyn’s anger intimidating at best, actively frightening at worst. Short-tempered, bitter, acerbic, often directly insulting, sometimes accompanied by threats of physical violence, omni-directional, not even sparing herself from her own ire, it was easy to see Evelyn Saye as the ‘nasty bitch’ she so often tried to project. But I’d come to understand that Evee wore her temper like a suit of armour.

She used anger to fortify herself against the reality of the supernatural truth, but also against her own fears and vulnerability and worry for her friends, and against the humiliations of constant pain; Evelyn’s body was a litany of long-term problems with no good solutions, not only her prosthetic leg and the chronic pain it caused in her hips and her stump, but also the less obvious disabilities of her missing fingers and her kinked spine, not to mention the hidden damage she so rarely spoke about, or the painkiller addiction we so delicately avoided acknowledging most of the time.

Those of us close to her, we understood that when Evelyn went off on one, she didn’t really mean it. Not really. Not like that.

It meant that she cared too much, or hurt too much, or was too scared, and couldn’t express herself in any other way.

Sitting on that stone bench in that garden in Devon, Evelyn’s cold fury bored into my flesh, hollowed me out, and wrapped a shaking, terrified grip around my soul. I’d been an idiot and nearly walked into a trap; Evelyn was so afraid that she was ready to hurt me — at least emotionally — in order to stop me from ever doing that again.

I didn’t know what was worse: Evelyn’s anger itself, or her theory that Edward’s trap had been aimed at me personally.

At least with Edward, I could just kill him when I found him.

“Heather?” Evelyn prompted when I didn’t respond. Her voice was still tight, sharp, acidic. “Heather, for fuck’s sake, don’t sit there staring at me like a fart in a trance. I need you to acknowledge what I’m saying. Edward Lilburne set this trap for you, do you understand? Or is that going in one ear and out the other? You can’t play at being a hero anymore, you can’t be that irresponsible, you hear me? This changes everything, we have to adjust our entire strategy. But strategy is useless if you … you … ” She trailed off, acid draining away, replaced with confused discomfort. “Heather? Are you … ?”

I blinked the gathering tears out of my eyes, sniffing loudly and trying to hold myself together in front of Evee. My pink hoodie, my favourite, my beloved gift from Raine, was currently hundreds of miles away back in Sharrowford, and also still sopping wet with Outsider swamp water. So, in rather poetic fashion, I was currently wearing the hoodie that Evelyn had bought me — dark pink, with diamond-shaped scale patterns on the shoulders and upper arms, hood and zipper trimmed in white. I always tried to avoid getting this one dirty, but I had nowhere else to scrub my eyes, so I wiped my face on my sleeve.

“Crying?” I croaked, sniffing back more tears. “A little bit.”

“Ah,” Evelyn said. I’d rarely heard her sound so awkward.

“I’m sorry, Evee. I’m so sorry.” I spoke to the night, to the distant hills, to the shadowy outline of Praem still digging in the garden. My tentacles reeled in tight and wrapped around my core, like pneuma-somatic armour, trying to quash the shaking in my chest. Not as if Evelyn had accepted my touch earlier, anyway. “You’re right, I got overwhelmed by the situation. I— when I found Natalie Outside— everything— Edward has to die, has to, but— I’m sorry. I should have waited. I should have been sensible.” A small hiccup climbed up my throat. “I’m supposed to be sensible. Sensible good girl Heather.” Another small hiccup. “So much for that. Lost control of myself.”

Evelyn sighed a deep sigh. For a moment I heard her grinding her teeth. “No, I’m … I should be … I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Heather. I lost my temper with you.”

“You’ve a right to.”

Another sigh, sharp this time. Evelyn tapped the ground with the tip of her walking stick. “I’m taking my frustration out on you and you don’t deserve it. Edward got away. Our quarry escaped. Which pisses me off. He tried to, well, not murder you, but do something else, I don’t know what, not yet. If I had him here right now, I do believe I would be torturing him.”

Zheng purred with grim approval from behind us.

I turned and blinked at Evelyn, a cold feeling creeping through my veins and up my throat. I caught her in profile against the night, outlined in shadow by the harsh lights from the exterior of the cottage, strands of loose blonde hair against the star-strewn sky above. Her puppy-fat cheeks, her little nose, the hard stare in her eyes. Evelyn Saye the mage, ready to commit atrocity in my name.

“E-Evee? No, I didn’t mean … ”

She tutted and rolled her eyes. “Oh, not for the sheer sadism of it, don’t worry about that. I’m not quite that far gone, not yet.” She gestured with her walking stick at the magic circle cut into the lawn, the piles of ripped-up copper wire, the now-ruined design that Praem was still destroying. “I’d be torturing him to learn the purpose and function of this.” She shook her head with equal parts disgust and confusion. “He wanted to lure you specifically into this, but I don’t know why. He got away, so I’m taking it out on you, because I’m a terrible bitch who doesn’t know when to stop.”

“That’s not true, Evee.” I took a deep breath and started to unravel my tentacles. Evelyn wasn’t so scary any more.

She sighed and shrugged, still staring at the garden. “Sometimes it is. Sometimes I’m a right bitch, and I know it. Don’t deny that, Heather.”

I smiled an awkward smile, then reached over with one hand and gently placed it atop her own, both of which were curled tight around the handle of her walking stick. Her hands were cold, with focus or adrenaline or anger. She almost flinched, but then swallowed and accepted my touch.

“All right, I won’t deny it,” I said, trying to sound gentle and soft and accepting. “But if you’re a bitch, Evee, then you can be my bitch.”

It took me a good few seconds to realise what I’d said. Evelyn gave me a look of alarmed scepticism. Praem paused in her digging work, straightened up, and stared at us across the garden. Zheng hissed a long sound between her teeth, like the noise a tiger might make if it could laugh.

Eventually Evelyn found her voice again. “Heather, that doesn’t mean what you think it does.”

But I was already blushing, raising both hands in apologetic surrender, spluttering like a broken steam engine. “I-I’m sorry! I didn’t mean it like that! I don’t— I don’t usually use language like that, so I didn’t think. I didn’t think!”

“Evidently not.”

Evelyn was blushing too, and frowning at Praem. The doll demon was finally lifting her spade with both hands and crossing the broken lawn to join us. Probably to tease me mercilessly for my Freudian slip.

I hurried to explain. “What I meant is that no matter how grumpy you get, or combative you are, or— or—”

“Yes, Heather, it— I— I get it. I get it.” Evelyn spoke to the ground, staring very hard at the grass, as if it might reveal my secrets to her.

“No matter what, I always accept you, Evee. Always. Even when you’re being, um, ‘bitchy’.”

Evelyn cleared her throat. “Yes, Heather. I get it. I understand what you intended to say, even if you used questionable terminology with which to say it.”

I pulled a very awkward smile. “Again, um, sorry.”

“No, it’s all right. And … thank you.” Evelyn sighed heavily and rubbed the bridge of her nose. “But we are very lucky Raine didn’t hear you say that, we’d never live it down.”

Praem finally joined us. She drew to a halt a few paces from Evelyn’s other side and clinked the blade of the shovel against the stones of the overgrown pathway. Her black-and-white maid outfit was still perfectly starched, the lace clean and smooth, hem unblemished by the work of turning over all that dirt. How she did it, I have no idea.

“Bitches,” she said, in a perfect lilting sing-song tone.

Evelyn glared a very cold glare at her. “Praem, you know that I love you unconditionally, but if you repeat this incident to Raine I will … I’ll … ”

Praem stared back. We all knew there was nothing Evelyn could credibly threaten her with.

Evee settled on something. “I shall invite you to a marathon watch party of the worst anime I can think of. Something truly diabolical. And not one of those ‘so bad it’s funny’ ones, either. Something painful. It’ll hurt me more than it hurts you.”

“Very scary,” said Praem. Evelyn huffed, but the matter was settled.

Silence descended for a moment. I was so exhausted by the events of the day that I just wanted to lean on Evee’s shoulder and close my eyes, beneath this quiet sky between the shadowed hills. I was still frazzled from the Shambler, from Edward, from saving little Natalie. But delayed-action fear gnawed in the pit of my guts, not to mention guilt.

I reached over with a tentacle and gently wrapped it around Evelyn’s forearm. She flinched from the invisible touch, but then realised it was me and tutted.

“Sorry,” I murmured. “Just wanted to hug … ”

“It’s alright, go on,” she grumbled.

Slowly and gently, I slid a second tentacle across her shoulders and a third around her waist. That was a riskier gamble; Evelyn always had problems with people touching her back. Her spine was so sensitive, it was so easy to squeeze her in the wrong way, so difficult to get it right. But she sighed and leaned into my touch, allowing me to take her weight on the bench.

Zheng finally left her post behind us, stalking off to examine the ruins of the magic circle on the lawn. Perhaps she considered Praem an effective enough bodyguard by herself. Eight feet of zombie muscle ghosted through the deepening dark.

“Besides,” I said with a little sigh, “I think you were justified in getting angry with me, Evee. I totally lost control of myself back inside that kitchen. I’m sorry, really. And don’t tell me to not be sorry.”

Evelyn gave me an odd look, then nodded. “Please, just practice better self-preservation.”

“I would say ‘I don’t know what came over me’, but that would be a lie. I was just so angry with Edward. Building a cage for Lozzie, tricking us, kidnapping a little girl like that, leaving her to die Outside … ”

Anger flared up inside my chest, like embers revealed in the heart of a burned-out bonfire, but lacking the hot urgency of action. Edward wasn’t nearby, my prey had escaped, so the anger was all intellectual and emotional now, unmixed with the instinctive hunting drive I’d brought back from the abyss.

“Yes,” Evelyn said slowly. “I suspect that was intentional.”

“I’m sorry?”

Evelyn gestured at the ruined circle, the overturned dirt, the severed copper wire. “Making you angry, to lure you into this.”

“Why would he need to make me angry? You don’t think he chose Natalie on purpose, to get to me somehow? That idea did occur to me, but it seems absurd, too specific.” Evelyn shook her head, but I kept going, because her suggestion didn’t make sense. “He plucked me right out of a Slip, why not just have me step directly into this? He could have dumped me right on top of it.”

“I don’t have all the answers,” Evelyn said. “However much it pains me to admit that.”

“Well, do you have a theory?”

Evelyn glanced at me sidelong, a twinkle in her eyes, a subtle smile on her lips, smug and knowing. There was my beautiful strategist.

Praem answered for her, “A theory is had.”

Evelyn cleared her throat. “Before we get to that, how is the girl? Lozzie is messaging you, right? Somebody’s staying in contact with her?”

“My phone’s broken,” I sighed. “But Raine gave me hers for the moment. Here.”

I hadn’t mentioned it earlier in all the commotion, certainly not in the face of Evee’s anger, but Lozzie had sent a text message and a photograph, while I’d been sitting on the bench and zoned out of my own mind. I fumbled Raine’s mobile phone out of my pocket and pulled up the message to reassure Evelyn.

The picture showed Natalie fast asleep on Lozzie’s bed, clean of Outsider swamp mud, dressed in oversized clothes borrowed from Lozzie — and curled up with an equally sleeping Tenny. The girl was wrapped in about half a dozen of Tenny’s black tentacles. That boded very well for her state of mind; I could think of no better way to disarm supernatural terror than to be introduced to Tenny. With a bit of luck she would remember the strange tentacle-friend who made happy trilling noises, and remember less about the hours lost and alone, Outside.

Lozzie’s face was visible in the corner of the picture, peering into the frame, horribly out of focus. She was making a v-sign with her fingers.

“Wish I’d had a Tenny,” I said with a sad little smile.

But Evelyn went almost white in the face. “Heather, delete that picture. Right now.”


Evelyn almost grabbed the phone from me. “And tell Lozzie to do the same! Fucking hell! Praem?”

Praem obeyed as if she’d read Evelyn’s mind. She deftly plucked the phone from my hands, her own fingers already flying across the screen to delete the picture and send a message to Lozzie.

“E-Evee? I don’t—”

“Heather, that is a photograph of a currently missing and kidnapped child. Do I have to spell this out to you? No pictures! Fuck! Praem?”

“Done,” Praem intoned. “Lozzie: informed. Images: deleted.”

I blinked several times. “But we’re gonna return her to her parents … ”

“Yes,” Evelyn sighed. “And I’m sure that excuse will hold up in court. No pictures of the kidnapped girl, at all. Can’t believe I have to explain this. Until she’s off our hands, she is radioactive. Tch.”

I felt very silly for several moments. Evelyn sighed and patted my arm awkwardly. Praem hung on to the phone, briefly tapping out a follow-up message to Lozzie.

“So, um,” I ventured. “Evee, your theory? About the circle?”

Evelyn settled herself more comfortably on the stone bench, though she did wince, even with the support of my tentacles. A cold stone slab was no proper place for her delicate backside, and I reminded myself not to let us linger here longer than needed. When she spoke again, it was Evelyn the teacher, comfortable and practised. I could tell she had briefly rehearsed some of these thoughts, probably while sketching and photographing Edward’s mysterious magic circle.

“Of course I have a theory, though it is only a theory,” she said. “I am making an educated guess based on the structure of the circle and the rough position of the contents.” She glanced over our shoulders at the cottage, wrapped in layers of ruined chicken wire, all bent and burst. “And also from Edward Lilburne’s behaviour.”

I nodded along, my mouth going dry, but my mind waking up. This was Evelyn at her best, her sharpest, her most impressive. “Go on.”

Evee wet her lips with a flicker of pink tongue. “I suspect that your emotional state may have formed an important part of this spell, whatever it was.” She nodded at the churned dirt of the lawn. “Possibly it required you to charge into the circle without noticing it first. The circle back in the kitchen, the one where he was sitting, that may also have been a component. It was bait, you were meant to appear on top of it. All of us being present, that may have interrupted whatever process the smaller component was meant to catalyse.”

“But what was it catalysing?”

Evelyn frowned at me for a moment, darkly concerned. “The circle itself is a kind of cage, an enclosure.” She gestured left and right along the wall of the cottage and the edge of the ruined Faraday cage. The corners were barely visible beyond the arc of the outdoor lights. “There’s no way to leave the building without entering the circle. The back door, the front door, either would lead you into the area of effect. And the circle is very carefully hidden in the grass, as we found. You’d be several feet into it before you noticed, charging out of either door.”

“What about if I had—”

“Climbed through a window, or smashed a hole in the wall?” Evelyn finished for me, then shook her head. “You’d still step right into it.” She sighed and glanced up at the thatched roof behind us. “I think going straight up might have worked as an escape route, going high enough to avoid the circle’s area of effect, but you wouldn’t have known that.”

“I also can’t fly,” I said with a little laugh. “I’m not a superhero.”

Evelyn gave me the briefest of doubtful glances. My heart skipped a beat, but she carried on before I could say anything. “Slipping wouldn’t have worked either, of course. Not inside that Faraday cage. That was part of the trap.”

“Right, of course. Oh!” I frowned in deeper confusion. “Wait, no, the Shambler Slipped me out the first time. My Slip didn’t work, but hers did.”

“Exactly,” Evelyn grumbled.


Evelyn closed her eyes and rubbed the bridge of her nose. “Slow down, Heather, let me explain the theory. Edward summons you here, correct? Then he makes impossible demands, obstinate demands, ones that will obviously make you angry. He demands Lozzie, and he gives you no proper explanation. Doesn’t it seem like his intent was to make you angry, on purpose?”

“I … I suppose so. Do you mean he doesn’t really want Lozzie, after everything he’s said and done?”

“His intentions for Lozzie are beside the point. You spoke to him, I’m just working from what you’ve told me. Think back, and think carefully. Does it seem possible he was trying to make you angry?”

I stared out at the hills around the cottage, now blanketed with soft night, beneath a sky thick with stars. The suggestion of sunset was gone, swallowed by the darkness. Zheng had vanished too, somewhere behind the trees or the overgrown weed-choked flowerbeds. I cast my mind back to the conversation with Edward, an old man perched in a little wooden chair. He hadn’t acted smug or domineering or as if he had something to prove or convince me of, just bluntly confident in his superiority. He had made me angry, unspeakably so — but not as angry as I’d been after discovering Natalie, lost and alone in that Outsider swamp.

“ … maybe,” I said eventually. “I don’t know.”

“Then”, Evelyn continued, “he has the Shambler take you away to her muddy wallow, where you find human corpses.”

“And Natalie.”

“And Natalie, yes, I’m getting to that. Listen, Heather, he may have even known that the Shambler wouldn’t actually eat either of them. You said she hadn’t, correct?”

I nodded. “Yes. The body of the young man, he was almost completely intact.” I blinked and swallowed. “Sorry, Evee, thinking about it is kind of … vile. He needs a proper burial, whoever he was. His family, they’ll be missing him. Nobody knows. I … ”

“Just bear with me,” Evelyn said. To my surprise, she patted the tentacle that I had currently wrapped around her arm, even though she couldn’t see it. Locating me by touch alone. “So, either you were going to find a dead young man and a dead little girl — or a live little girl, terrified and alone, Outside. From Edward’s perspective the details didn’t matter. You get enraged, angry, you lose control. He’s pressing your buttons. Then you come back here, full of very justified anger, and try to ambush him in that kitchen.”

“But he’d moved.” I nodded along. “He figured out we’d do that.”

“No,” Evelyn said, in the exact tone of a very patient professor with a student who was missing an obvious point. “No. Heather, think about it. He wanted you run out into the garden, to complete the next step of the spell. I would wager he left that chair the moment the Shambler took you away. He knew you would think of the ambush, he set himself up — or his vessel — as bait, for you.”

“Ah, yes.” I cleared my throat awkwardly. “Right, I see.”

“So, you Slip back, right into his magic circle in the kitchen. Now, whatever that was meant to do, it didn’t work. It was inert the moment we arrived, and I think I know why.”


Evelyn allowed herself a thin smile. “You brought all of us with you.”

“Oh. Yes, I suppose I did, didn’t I?”

“I think he expected you to find two corpses in that swamp, then get angry, maybe kill the Shambler, and then Slip back right on top of his chair, to kill him. I don’t think he expected the little girl to survive. If he had, he would have accounted for the possibility you would have dropped her off at home first, and then returned with reinforcements. That circle, whatever it was, it was attuned to you, personally. But you brought us along, and our presence broke it. ”

I squeezed her arm. “Good.”

“In theory, anyway. I think his plan was to get you angry, get you into that smaller circle, and then have you run out into the garden into the larger circle, this … monstrosity here, whatever exit you took, since you wouldn’t be able to Slip.” Evelyn frowned. “Though he got that wrong too. He underestimated you.”

“Well, he underestimated hyperdimensional mathematics.” I sighed. “I tend to do that too, I don’t know my own limits.”


I took a deep breath and did my best to stop thinking for a moment, to absorb what this all meant. I turned my eyes from Evelyn and stared into the thickening darkness of this summer night. A shadow moved by the rear garden wall, too tall to be a human being, avoiding the lights from the house — Zheng, carrying out one final check for any clues we might have missed. I didn’t have much hope for that.

“Evee,” I asked, “what do you think he was trying to do to me? What was this huge magic circle actually for?”

Evelyn shifted uncomfortably, rubbing at her thigh where socket met flesh. She spoke slowly, as if her own thoughts left a sour taste in her mouth. “I don’t know for certain. I don’t think he was trying to kill you, or the rest of us either. Like I said, a simple bomb would have done the trick for that. No, no I don’t think he was trying to kill you.”

Evelyn was frowning at the ruined circle upon the lawn, her eyes ringed with dark stress lines, her jaw clenched hard, her brow furrowed deep. On the far side of her, a few paces from the bench, Praem stared down at both of us.

“But that’s not the end of the theory,” I said. It wasn’t a question.

For a moment Evelyn didn’t answer, couldn’t answer. She looked like a stone carving of vengeance itself.

“I don’t know,” she said. “This circle, it’s … the traditions he’s used for it, I’m not familiar with them. Some parts of it are very complex, yes, very much beyond my knowledge, that part is obvious. But the overall structure is like … like a … ”

A familiar purr interrupted us from the darkness.

“A blood funnel.”

Zheng stalked out of the shadows behind Praem, which was quite a feat considering the wide coverage of the outdoor lights. She seemed to step out of nowhere, unfolding like a panther dropping from a hidden branch and landing on the jungle floor with silent paws. The heat of the summer night and the drone of insects did nothing to dispel the gut impression of being ambushed by some massive predatory feline. I flinched, all my tentacles flexing outward, except the three wrapped around Evelyn. Evee jerked as well, but then huffed in exasperation, glaring at Zheng. Praem merely turned and stared.

“For fuck’s sake,” Evelyn grunted. “You do that again, somebody’s liable to shoot you by accident, you giant idiot.”

“Zheng.” I forced a deep breath down my throat, trying to slow my racing heart. “Blood funnel? What do you mean?”

Zheng blinked slowly, exactly like a giant cat in some steaming jungle. “A funnel, with grooves cut to channel blood.”

Evelyn’s frown turned sharp as Zheng’s teeth. “How do you know that?”

Zheng gestured with one slow hand at the remains of the circle across the lawn, the piles of ruined copper wire cut into pieces by Praem’s spade, the strange design that Edward Lilburne had tried to get me to step inside.

“Rope and steel, gutting knives, channels for blood, a bucket for collection. The shape is clear.”

“How do you know the first thing about magic?” Evelyn demanded.

Zheng rolled her neck. “I know how to kill and drain a pig, wizard.”

“Huh,” Evelyn grunted.

“Wait, pardon?” I squinted in confusion. “You’re saying he was going to drain my blood?”

Evelyn sighed. “Not literally, no. But … metaphorically. Spiritually? I don’t know. All I know is that, yes, Zheng is right, at least that’s what it looks like to my knowledge. A magical version of a funnel for collecting blood from a victim, pooling it at a central point.” She shot Zheng a dubious look, openly suspicious.

Zheng rumbled in return, showing all her teeth but without any hint of a smile. “Wizard, if I knew the littlest thing about this insult to the shaman, I would not keep it to myself.”

But to my incredible surprise, Evelyn neither flinched nor shied away. She stared back into Zheng’s sharp-edged eyes, right at that naked maw of shark-teeth. Praem stood between them, but for once she seemed to form no barrier at all. I wet my lips and found I was quivering slightly. I tried to speak Zheng’s name, to tell her to back down, but my throat was closing up.

Edward had wanted to drain my blood? What did that mean, even as a metaphor?

“All right,” Evelyn said softly. Her voice snapped me back to myself. “All right, Zheng. Sometimes I forget we’re on the same side. My apologies.”

“Mm,” Zheng grunted. Didn’t sound like she was going to reciprocate the apology.

I swallowed hard and tried to gather my thoughts. “I don’t get it … drain my blood? I … I know he wanted to learn how to Slip, I told you. At least I think that’s what he meant. But … he was going to do what? Take it from me?”

“You have a theory,” Praem said — but she was talking to Zheng.

Zheng blinked slowly again, as if considering whether she should speak at all. But she broke when I looked up at her.

“Old magic,” Zheng purred.

“Excuse me?” said Evelyn.

“Old magic. Older than your scribbling and whining, your wizard tricks and word traps and over-thinking the world. Old magic. Drink the blood, steal the soul.”

I just shook my head, feeling horribly numb as I stared out at the ruined magic circle beneath the lawn of the cottage. This was the sort of dark madness I’d imagined when I’d first learned of magic, the only thing missing was a bloody stone altar. I almost laughed, but hiccuped instead.

“I don’t understand,” I said. “What does he want? Hyperdimensional mathematics? It would kill him. My abyssal … self? He was obsessed with purity, that wasn’t a lie, so why would he want that?”

Evelyn opened her mouth to speak, to suggest some theory, some rationalisation.

But Zheng crossed the few paces which separated us, resuming her place at my back, and placed one warm hand on the top of my head.

“Do not waste energy on understanding wizards, shaman,” she purred. “Better to tear out their tongues before they speak.”

I sighed and tried to find the comfort in those words, reaching up with a tentacle and wrapping it around Zheng’s arm. But the sentiment left me cold. I already understood this wizard. There was only one possible conclusion. Edward Lilburne had attempted to steal something from me, either my abyssal nature, or dubious bond with the lessons with the Eye, or something more fundamental, something I’d failed to understand all these years since the Eye had kidnapped Maisie and myself. He wanted to render me down for my blood.

He didn’t want me, he wanted what I was. To drain me, like a pig in a slaughterhouse. Meat.

“Can’t have it,” I whispered.

Something horrible and dark turned inside my stomach. For the first time in my life, I considered going vegetarian.

But nobody had heard my whisper. Evelyn was scoffing with exaggerated offense.

“Oh, thank you very much,” she said to Zheng.

“No tongues,” Praem added.

Zheng looked down at them, dark eyes against the star-strewn sky. “Mm,” she grunted.

“Present company excepted,” I said for her. “I’m sure.”

Evelyn rolled her eyes, but then turned her attention to me. “Heather, whatever Edward was doing, we won’t let him do it. Not to you or to Lozzie. This circle is ruined, we’ve destroyed it, and we have his machine. I’ll study it and find out how it works. We’re not going to let him do this. I will not let him do this. That’s what I meant about changing our strategy.”

I nodded, squeezed her arm, and tried to look at the overturned dirt of the lawn without feeling like a lamb before a bombed-out slaughterhouse.

We fell silent for a long moment. Zheng kept her hand on top of my head for a few seconds, then withdrew it and stalked away a little distance, peering around the side of the house, looking for any hidden watchers. Praem stepped over to the house and laid the spade against the wall of the cottage. Evelyn sighed and glanced up at the dark windows. Lights shone deeper inside, probably in one of the front bedrooms. As we watched, one light went out and another went on. Somebody crossed one of the windows — Twil, in the middle of saying something, as she and Raine finished their double-check inside the cottage.

“Wish those two would hurry up and be done with this,” Evelyn hissed. “We need to be away from here.”

Words bubbled up before I could stop myself. Zheng and Praem were both well within earshot, but somehow that didn’t matter. I rode a wave of exhaustion, fear, and salvation too, knowing that this strange moment would end very soon. If I didn’t stand up and shout now, I never would.

“Evee,” I said, looking right at her, “I love you too.”

Evelyn frowned at me. “Eh? Heather, what?”

“I … I-I mean, back in the cottage, when I was losing control, you said ‘I love you, but—’ and then you got mad at me. Which is what I needed, I needed somebody to get me under control. But, Evee, I love you too. I love you.”

Why were those words so easy to say? Why had I been agonising all this time? Was I really so exhausted and out of my mind that I could simply admit it out loud? My heart wasn’t racing, my hands weren’t shaking; no pounding of nervous adrenaline wracked my head and chest. I was perfectly calm.

Evelyn Saye, my best friend, the woman I’d saved from Outside before I’d even understood what Outside was, a woman I perhaps knew better than I knew my own lover, stared back at me with those soft blue eyes set in that puppy-fat face, arched an eyebrow, and said, “Yeeees?”

I blinked three times. “ … y-yes?”

“As in, yes, Heather, I love you too.” Evelyn sighed, rolled her eyes, and patted the tentacle I had wrapped around her forearm. Like I was drunk and running my mouth, stating the obvious, a self-evident truth we both already knew.

Then she looked back up at the cottage and sighed with impatience.

I stared at Evee, dumbfounded. I must have looked totally gormless.

My mouth half-worked, trying to form extra words, to add a clarification, perhaps something like ‘I mean I love you’, or ‘no you don’t get it’, or ‘Evee, I’m confessing that I have confused quasi-romantic feelings for you and they’re coming out in the wake of a near-death experience and reliving my own childhood trauma by projecting it onto a small child whom I saved from certain death by exposure and-slash-or starvation, please acknowledge the depth of my affection and regard for you.’

I had absolutely zero idea what was going on. Heather Morell, captain of an emotional ghost ship, lost at sea, amid miles of fog bank, with no crew and a worrying gnawing sound echoing up from the hold.

Was Evelyn hiding her real emotions, concealing them with a banal acknowledgement of our deep friendship? No, I couldn’t believe that. Evelyn was nothing if not calculating; despite her failures in the past, despite the way she insulted herself, she was a master of over-thinking — but not when it came to me. I was the only one allowed all the way inside, past her defences, to the secret room where she drew up her plots. Wasn’t I?

Or maybe she hadn’t understood what I’d said, maybe she had the wrong end of the stick — maybe by saying those words, I was forcing her into an uncomfortable situation, and she was simply taking the easiest way out. But no, that made even less sense. Evelyn had trouble admitting her affection for her friends at the best of times. To simply say, so casually, the words ‘I love you’ meant a lot to her.

She’d screamed those words to me, once before.

We hadn’t discussed it, half because I’d pretended I hadn’t heard them, and half because we’d had an entire crisis to deal with at the time.

Down in the depths of Hringewindla’s shell, when I’d been about to cross over the line of safety to accept his invasive parasite into my brain, into my soul, when Evelyn had briefly thought that ‘Heather Morell’ would cease to exist, replaced by some Outsider-ridden parasite-thing, she’d screamed those words to my back.

“I love you too much, Heather!”

She’d only been able to say that because she’d thought I was about to die. To my back. Almost drowned out by the booming air-displacement of Hringewindla’s tentacles. How could I not have heard those words? I’d just been trying not to acknowledge them this whole time.

And she had just repeated it as the most casual thing in the world.

Had Evee found the emotional time and space to think about those words? Had her screamed confession forced her into confronting what she felt — or didn’t feel? Had she already processed and accepted what we were to each other? She seemed so comfortable.

Well, good for her.

I, on the other hand, had a significantly less comprehensive understanding of the situation, to put it lightly.

What I did have was three tentacles wrapped around Evelyn’s body, one clutching her arm, one over her shoulders, and a third tentacle looped around her waist. She was practically in my embrace, comfortable and casual in a way she was with nobody else, except maybe Praem. She was in my arms and had declared she loved me, and somehow this had made everything even less clear than before.

For one mad, desperate moment, as she looked up at the lights in the cottage windows, I was gripped by a desire to kiss her on the cheek.

But then I felt Praem’s stare.

A few paces from us, standing at an angle where Evelyn couldn’t quite see, Praem was giving me the most intense stare I’d ever seen from the doll-demon.

She wasn’t frowning, of course. Praem never did anything so overt as frown, except for that one time I’d asked her to smile, shortly after Evelyn had first created her. But her milk-white eyes were locked right on me; I could somehow tell, despite the lack of pupils and sclera and the heavy shadows of the summer night. Praem was staring at me with something akin to a warning.

I stared back, trying to ask a silent question with my eyebrows.

What am I doing wrong? Praem, help!

To my incredible surprise, Praem nodded, then put a finger to her lips.

For one dizzying moment I thought I’d developed telepathic powers. I don’t blame myself for that, not after werewolves and spirits and parallel dimensions and moth-girls and growing my own set of tentacles. But then Praem failed to respond to any of my follow-up thoughts, including the increasingly wild and outlandish ones which were intended solely to test if she could see what I was thinking. Some of those were so far beyond acceptability that even Praem would have needed to react, maybe even blush. I certainly did.

But she didn’t. She had been reacting to the look in my eyes, and perhaps to the way I was gazing at Evelyn.

The moment passed. Evee sighed again and turned away from the cottage, then did a frowning double-take at me and shot a dubious glance at Praem over her shoulder.

“What are the pair of you doing behind my back?” She tutted. “This isn’t the time for playing stupid games.”

“Win stupid prizes,” said Praem.

“Sorry!” I blurted out. “Sorry, I was just … thinking about some … stuff. And things. Nothing important.”

Evelyn gave me a doubtful look, then gestured at Praem with the head of her walking stick. “Be a dear and fetch those two idiots inside, would you please? I doubt they’re going to find anything by slitting open all the mattresses and pulling up the carpets. And we should get back to the house. There’s no telling if Edward is trying to regroup right now, maybe to hit us here, or to follow up on some other plan. We need to be secure, and soon, and there’s more work to do.”

Praem turned and marched into the cottage. A couple of minutes later all the lights inside went out. Raine and Twil emerged through the back door, with Praem right behind them. Zheng appeared from the dark corners of the garden once again.

“Gang’s all here, huh?” said Raine, a grin in her voice. She walked up behind us and squeezed my shoulder. “Nothing doing in there, sadly. Not a trace. Might be a secret door somewhere, like an episode of Scooby-Doo, but I doubt it. You holding up okay, Heather?”

No! In various ways!

“Um, mostly,” I lied.

“Shit’s heavy, yo,” said Twil. “We goin’?”

Twil had Edward’s Slip-trap contraption in her arms. Werewolf strength rendered the weirdly shaped mass of steel and glass easy to carry. Praem had the LCD screens in a carrier bag and the broken laptop under one arm.

“Yes,” Evelyn grunted. “One moment.”

With some difficulty — and some help from my tentacles — Evelyn climbed to her feet and dusted off her backside. For a moment I felt terribly embarrassed at having her wrapped in my tentacles while everyone else was right here, but I told myself it was no different to give her some support after a long day. After all, Raine and Twil couldn’t even see. This was just what friends did. Tentacle hugs. Friendly ones. Right.

Twil peered out at the ruined garden. “What we gonna’ do with the rest of the place? We’re just leaving it like this? What was all this shit about, anyway?”

Evelyn sighed, planted her walking stick firmly on the cracked pathway, and narrowed her eyes at the cottage. “We should really burn it down.”

“Eyyyyyy,” went Raine. The big grin suited her. “Sometimes, Evee, you and I are working from the same page.”

“W-what?” Twil gaped. “We can’t do that!”

“We can and we should,” Evelyn grunted. “Won’t be the first time we’ve burned down a building.”

I cleared my throat softly. “Yes, but that was a haunted house, haunted by the Eye,” I said. “This is a beautiful old cottage. Evee, this might be some kind of listed building. It doesn’t deserve that.”

“Petrol,” Praem intoned. “Matches.”

“Should be enough to get the job done.” Evelyn regarded the cottage with heavy-lidded eyes and a painful, haunted hunch to her shoulders. “When it comes to eradicating the work of mages, Heather, you never, ever leave anything to chance. Understand?” She glanced at me, then back at the garden behind us, at the remains of the ruined magic circle. “The garden too, it needs to be destroyed, completely.”

“Heeeey,” said Raine, a bright smile on her face. “Can’t help but notice that you’re being totally serious here, Evee.”

“Of course I’m serious. Have you changed your mind suddenly?”

Raine shook her head, laughed softly, and raised a hand, a gentle brake on Evelyn’s pyromania. “When we torched the cult’s house in Sharrowford, that was in the middle of a city, right? Plenty of neighbours around to raise the alarm when they saw smoke. Fire brigade right there, close at hand. Plus it was winter, in the North.”

Evelyn frowned at her. “So?”

“Sooooooo, we’re in rural Devon. Middle o’ nowhere. Height o’ summer. Ground’s dry, grass is dry, hedgerows are dry. Think they’ve got a hosepipe ban on right now, yeah?” Raine smiled all the wider, faux-awkward as she made her case, but utterly confident beneath the act. “If we set fire to this cottage, it could spread, fast, and there’s not a lotta people to spot it. A fire like that could eat whole hillsides, other cottages, maybe threaten a village. A small fire, probably not, but we’re talking about dumping enough petrol on this place to turn it to ash. Nuh-uh. Sorry, Evee. Not doing it.”

Evelyn frowned at Raine, frowned at the cottage, then frowned back at Raine again. Then she frowned at Twil, then at me, then even at Zheng looming at the edge of the darkness, then finally at Praem.

“Praem?” she said.

“No fires,” said Praem.

“Tch.” Evelyn tutted. “Great.”

“Raine’s got a bloody good point, right?” Twil said. “Burning up cult shit, that’s one thing, but we’ve scoped the house, there’s bugger all in there. It’s just a holiday home. It’s not as if anybody’s gonna know we were here, but yeah, I don’t wanna like, cause a wildfire. You know?”

“The garden has to be destroyed,” Evelyn said, loud and clear, glancing at me. “I insist.” She planted her stick firmly again, leaning forward like a general over a map table. “This was a trap, for Heather.”

Quickly and with more than a touch of anger, Evelyn re-outlined her theory about the purpose of Edward’s trap, for the benefit of Raine and Twil.

They listened without interruption. Raine came to my side and put an arm around my shoulders. Twil grimaced deeper and deeper, as if listening to a story that got worse with every detail. Raine asked a couple of questions, but nothing I hadn’t already asked before

“The garden must be destroyed,” Evelyn repeated.

Raine blew out a long sigh and glanced over the upturned earth. She was holding onto me pretty tightly. “Maybe if we dig a fire-break. Maybe. I dunno.”

Twil looked increasingly worried. “I mean that’s all pretty fucking bad, yo. That’s some sick shit. You okay, Heather?”

“Mm,” I went.

“But you know, garden’s wrecked already?” Twil gestured at the ruined lawn.

“Job’s a good’un,” said Praem.

Evelyn gritted her teeth. “I don’t want to leave a single trace, not one—”

“Evee,” Raine said softly. “You don’t seriously believe Eddy boy didn’t keep notes on this? That this was his only attempt, a prototype with no backups? We’re not talking about experimental giant robots here. He’s a mage. He’ll have design documents. Destroy this all you like, but it won’t help.”

Evelyn ground her teeth again. She met my eyes, searching, questioning.

“We’ve destroyed the garden, Evee,” I said. “Let’s not risk a fire.” Then, in a smaller voice, I added, “He won’t get to me again.”

Evelyn sucked on her teeth, let her shoulders slump, and let out a big sigh. “Fine. You’re right. He’ll have design notes. There’s nothing stopping him from making another one of these. Besides, we already have enough left to get done tonight.”

“We do?” Twil puffed out a sigh. “Serious?”

“We have a kidnapped little girl in our house,” Evelyn said, glancing around at the rest of us. “Edward may not be aware she survived, but if he’s smart, he’ll be setting up a plan to call the police on us.”

“Ah,” went Raine. “Smart man would do that, yeah.”

Twil blinked like she was trying to wake up from a dream. “What.”

“Um, yes, Evee,” I said. “What do you mean?”

“I already said it loud and clear. We have a kidnapped little girl in our house. We need to get that girl back to her parents. Not tomorrow, not in the morning. Tonight. Now. ASAP. We need to make a plan to drop her off at a police station and—”


It took me a second to realise that I’d snapped. Evelyn blinked at me in shock, taken aback.

Raine rubbed my shoulder. “Hey, Heather, it’s alright, we’re gonna help her, yeah?”

Evelyn gathered herself and sighed. “ … Heather, you rescued that girl, yes, but our responsibility is to—”

“No, I didn’t rescue her, not yet,” I said. “I haven’t finished the rescue yet. It’s not over until her family believes her.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Heather said the words and Evee said them back! But … bwuh??? Looks like not all love is eros, indeed. Heather is very confused, but Evee seems to know exactly what’s going on, and not just emotionally, either. A trap for Heather, personally, specifically, to drive her into a blind rage and rip something important out of her soul. Maybe Edward didn’t expect any of this to work? Maybe he didn’t think Natalie would be alive? Or maybe Evee pulled Heather back from the brink of losing control.

This was the chapter written when I had covid, so it’s actually a tiny bit shorter than usual! Hopefully it’s still up to my usual standard, and I hope you all enjoy as much as usual!

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Next week, Heather’s gotta finish that rescue, for real this time. Almost like a test-run for Maisie, isn’t it?

pale student of unhallowed arts – 17.9

Content Warnings

None, I think.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

I would love to say that my friends and I rushed out of that cottage kitchen, tumbled through the corridor toward the back door, and shot out into an overgrown garden in some forgotten corner of rural Devon, bathed in the bronze sunlight of early evening. Like the righteous avenging heroes in a puerile fantasy story, arriving at the moment of maximum atmospheric drama, to confront an evil wizard for all his cruel misdeeds inflicted on the innocent and the helpless.

We didn’t do that, of course. If we were the sort of people who went gallivanting around like that, we would have all died long ago, and Edward wouldn’t have had anything to worry about.

Alas, if one’s response to the hidden supernatural truth of the world is to dress in Lycra, strap on a utility belt, and charge into every situation crying ‘yield, villain!’, then one doesn’t tend to last very long. Those who survive their baptism of the otherworldly tend to learn a habit of paranoia, or at least a dose of healthy caution. However much we might gently jibe Nicole for her aversion to involvement in the supernatural, or pity Kimberly for her crippling fear of magic, or even look down on Jan for her self-admitted avoidance and cowardice, theirs was by far the more rational response. The sensible thing to do when one discovered that magic was real and the world was filled with hidden monsters was to run far away and never look back, or somehow acquire a small arsenal of illegal weaponry and live in a bunker. Even Raine, with her leap-first philosophy and boundless confidence, was far more cautious and careful than I sometimes gave her credit for. She might easily “start blastin’” as she so delicately put it once, but she would always check her corners first, either literally or metaphorically.

So, when Edward’s voice floated through the high windows on one side of that rustic cottage kitchen, we all knew it was probably bait.

Well, all except Twil. After all, she was invincible.

We were still standing inside the magic circle from within which Edward had addressed me earlier, next to the rickety wooden chair I’d knocked over in my frustration at discovering that he’d escaped our ambush.

I was disentangling my tentacles from the others, to free them up for independent action, getting ready to move to the doorway or repel an attack, still trying to fight off the after-effects of the sling-shot Slip. Raine was caught in the moment of turning, looking away from the Dimensional Shambler and up at the window, the source of Edward’s voice. Her home-made riot shield was heavy in one arm as she drew her pistol with her free hand. The Shambler had stepped over the edge of the circle and was pressing herself against the back wall, a slab of grey muscle suddenly wary of us, like an animal not quite yet cornered. Praem held Evelyn steady, while Evelyn rapidly adjusted her grip on her bone-wand, frowning like a gathering storm, ready to deal with whatever Edward was about to throw at us.

But silly old Twil dropped to all fours, more wolf than human, and shot for the kitchen doorway in a clatter of claws on tile.

Luckily for us, Evelyn knew how to use her voice as a whip.


Twil jarred to a halt like a certain cartoon coyote slamming head first into a cliff-face painted to look like a road tunnel. Her whole body juddered and slammed backward, lurching up onto her hind legs, a pillar of bristling fur, sharp claws, and far too many teeth. It would have been the height of comedy under any other circumstances, but in that mystery cottage in the seconds before a confrontation between mages, it terrified me enough to provoke a loud hiccup.

Twil found her voice, holding her hands up as if poised before an electric fence. “What?! What?! Shit, what is it?! What?!”

“Shut up!” Evelyn yelled. “Nobody move unless I say, not an inch!”

“Don’t have to tell us twice,” Raine murmured.

We braced for the inevitable.

A moment of silence fell on the cottage kitchen, broken only by the low drone of summer insects out in the garden, the panting of our own laboured breathing, and the pounding of my blood in my ears. Evening sunlight licked across the floor in tongues of invisible fire. I felt sticky sweat down my back and under my arms, mingling with the damp remnants of Outsider swamp water. I held my tentacles poised, fanned out, trying to resist the urge to hiss and screech, or just follow Twil’s example and launch myself at the doorway into the corridor. A deep itch entered my muscles, a tingling at the base of my skull, the need to move.

Raine was like a spring aching to uncoil. Twil looked ready to bite through a steel plate. But the greatest burden fell on Evelyn, even as she leaned on Praem for support. Her knuckles were white on the bone-wand, her eyes locked on the single open window where Edward’s voice had come from. Visible sweat beaded on her forehead. We all knew that if some kind of magical attack came, she would be our only real protection.

But nothing happened. Silence turned to seconds. Edward did not speak again. The walls didn’t start bleeding or extruding tentacles or closing in to crush us. Nothing leapt out of thin air to rend us to shreds. The Shambler stayed where she cowered.

My shoulder blades ached. I realised I was gritting my teeth.

“Alright,” Evelyn hissed. She sounded doubtful. “Alright. Alright, okay. Nobody move until I say so.”

“Gotcha, boss,” Raine replied. No hint of sarcasm. Twil nodded too. But I couldn’t answer, not with my muscles singing for action.

Evelyn flicked a glance at the Shambler, still pressed against the back wall, watching us with those plate-sized oil-black eyes. “Heather, does that thing understand us? Heather? Heather!”

I had to swallow hard before I looked back as well, blinking sweat out of my eyes. I realised I’d wrapped two tentacles around Edward’s wooden chair, and was in the process of pulling it apart.

“I … yes, sort of,” I hissed. “I think she does. A little.”

“The hell are we doing!?” Twil hissed over her shoulder too, through a mouth made mostly of teeth. “He’s right out there! Come on!”

Evelyn shot her a look sharp enough to cut glass. “Did you lose a chunk of your brain while I wasn’t looking? Take a head wound? Get an elective lobotomy?” Evelyn looked like she wanted to beat Twil to death with her walking stick, then strangle the rest of us, then lie down and sleep for a year. I couldn’t tell how much of that was exasperation and how much was the after effects of the sling-shot Slip. “Do not go running head-first into a trap set by an expert mage. Not even you, Twil. Not even you.”

“But I’m invincible! And he’s right there, right out there! He’s gonna do for us any sec, we’ve gotta hit him first!”

“Yes, I am well aware!” Evelyn spat. “And he’s … he’s not doing anything. Which means he’s extremely unlikely to be right there, or anywhere here. We have missed him. That was bait, at best.”

“Then what the hell did we just hear?”

Evelyn clenched her jaw. “I don’t know. We should be under attack by now. Our ambush failed. We need to leave, right now.”

“He might still be here … ” said a hissing, shaking, dripping voice.

That voice was mine.

It took me a moment to realise I had spoken. My voice was quivering with a terrible, unspeakable need, my mouth full of so much saliva I was almost drooling down my chin. My muscles itched and ached, my head was pounding with adrenaline and aggression. Two of my tentacles were pulling and tearing at the wooden chair, ripping off splinters and shards of wood. Raine had produced her modified pneuma-somatic seeing-glasses and was watching me through them with open concern. Praem was staring at the chair.

Abyssal instinct was screaming with the need to hunt. Edward Lilburne had escaped me once. He was prey, slippery and clever, but he was so close. Pull off his head, rip out his guts, crack his bones, find his soul. It was like electric current up my spine.

Evelyn shook her head, sharp and grim, too preoccupied to notice that I was losing my mind. “His presence makes no difference either way. This is a trap, and we are not walking into it. He would be an idiot not to attack us now, an idiot! Wait a moment, wait a moment, everybody just wait, for pity’s sake, while I figure this out.”

Twil gritted her teeth, but she did as she was told. Raine covered the door with her handgun. I watched the Shambler, trying to get a hold on myself.

Evelyn adjusted her grip on the bone-wand, as if preparing a different counter-spell. Praem let go of her waist and supported her by the arm instead, also openly watching the Shambler, in case the Outsider creature was about to betray us or respond to some hidden command from Edward.

Evelyn’s eyes dropped to the triple-layered magic circle that surrounded us. The design was scuffed where the Shambler had crossed, ruined by swamp water. Twil’s claws had also scratched flaws into the reams of Latin and Greek and Arabic notation.

“This is inert now,” Evelyn said after a moment, “whatever it was doing before.”

Twil hissed under her breath, “Yeah I coulda’ told you that part myself, seeing as I’m not on fire or nothing.”

Evelyn shot Twil a murderous look, then focused on the smaller magic circle, the one which had contained the Shambler earlier. “That one is textbook invocation, an invitation. That’s where the swamp monster was?”

“Yes … ” I croaked. It felt like my brain was creaking with the pressure of holding back.

Evelyn stared for several long seconds at the strange mirrors-and-glass contraption beneath the windows, standing there like a cat tower made of steel. The little LCD screens and the crashed laptop were lying exactly where I’d seen them previously. Twil flexed her claws with shuddering physical impatience, grinding her teeth. Even Raine looked twitchy, as if she expected the Shambler to charge us at any moment. Only Praem was placid and calm, and we all knew that was an illusion. Her unwavering gaze had the Shambler pinned to the back wall.

“Heather?” Evelyn hissed.

“Y-yes. Yes, that’s the machine he used to interrupt the Slip. Or so he claimed.”

Evelyn shook her head. “Just leaving it here like this, it’s nonsense. This is bullshit. No mage would leave their secrets on display. What the hell is he doing? What’s he waiting for?”

Raine cleared her throat softly. “Something don’t add up, right?”

“Yeah!” Twil hissed. “And why’s he stopped talking?” She raised her voice, shouting up at the windows. “Hey, arse hole! Come back in here and fight me, you rancid cunt!”

Evelyn’s attention snapped to me. “Heather, when you were here before, what did you see?” She jabbed with her bone-wand, out at the double-doorway which led into the corridor. “Anything around that door frame? Anything in the corridor? Anything at all?”

I shook my head, trying to focus. “Nothing. No circles, no traps, not that I saw. The door to the garden is on the left.” I pointed upward, at the bank of small, high windows in the wall. “And there’s the Faraday cage beyond that.”

Raine hissed between her teeth. “Doubting very much that’s just a Faraday cage.”

“Quite,” Evelyn huffed a humourless laugh. “This is making less and less sense. He should be attacking us right now, he should be trying to murder us. He should have wired this room with explosives or chlorine gas, even though I can defend against those things, maybe.” Her hands tightened further on her bone-wand. “That’s what I would have done. This doesn’t add up.”

“Retreat or advance?” Raine prompted. “Come on, Evee, don’t get snagged up. Don’t force me into executive decision mode.”

“I’m not getting bloody well snagged up,” she snapped back. “I don’t understand this!”

Twil growled. “Retreat? Fuck that! Maybe he wants like, an honourable duel?”

“Ha,” Evelyn barked. “As if.” She spoke like she was chewing bricks. “He’s not attacking us, but he knows that would make us paranoid, knows that I would read that as a false sense of security. Does he expect us to step out there? Or … or to Slip into the garden, to avoid it? Or … tch!” She tutted, staring at the open doorway, then the window. She looked like she was going to burst a blood vessel. I’d never seen her so paralysed by indecision before. She bit her bottom lip so hard I fear she might draw blood.

Raine repeated herself. “Retreat or advance? Now, Evee.”

“Retreat,” Evelyn snapped, suddenly no hesitation. “We had an opportunity to get the drop on him. We failed. We retreat, right now. We do not go deeper into a thicket of traps laid by an expert mage specifically to fuck with us.” She turned to me and nodded. “Heather, you need Slip us back out. We’ve failed here.”

“Awwww shit!” Twil hissed. “Seriously?”

Raine exhaled with obvious relief. “Discretion is the better part of valour and all that.”

“Come again another day,” said Praem.

Abyssal hunting instinct screeched and writhed inside my chest, like a monster struggling to be born.

“But … ” I croaked. “What if he is out there? What if … Twil is … right?”

My mind was chewing on this idea, turning it over and over and trying to worry through meat and crack bone to reach the core, the marrow, the truth of the matter. I felt like the idea was on the tip of my tongue, but I couldn’t think straight, the need to hunt was blotting out everything else. The ends of my tentacles were coiling and uncoiling, as if trying to lend independent processing power to my brain. I barely noticed when I finally wrenched that wooden chair apart.

Evelyn snapped my name. “Heather, for fuck’s sake. An ancient mage does not seek a fucking honourable duel. What is wrong with you?”

“Down, girl,” said Praem. But it didn’t work.

“Hey, hey, Heather,” Raine purred. “Hey, look at me. Look at me.”

But I didn’t. I couldn’t. I was staring up at the single open window. Before I could stop myself, I raised my voice and called out.

“Are you still there? Edward, I’m talking to you. Are you still there?”

My voice came out as a hissing rasp, more animal trill than human words. I swallowed so hard it unknotted something deep inside my throat.

A moment of silence, then:


Edward’s voice did not come from beyond the window, but from the air itself, or from inside the walls, or perhaps from out in the corridor, or from the room above the kitchen. For a moment he was everywhere and nowhere, a ghost on the wind.

Evelyn bared her teeth and looked ready to summon hell itself with her wand. Twil twisted on the spot, back and forth, a dog responding to a sound beyond the human range of hearing. Raine froze. I almost lost control, thrumming with killing need, barely holding onto the urge to attack the walls and floor and ceiling like a flailing squid. I’m sure that wouldn’t have gone well. I’d probably have just hurt myself.

Then Edward whistled.

A haunting high-low-high piping, the unearthly language of the Dimensional Shambler, not quite structured like words, but not quite animal call either. That sound came from out in the garden, no doubt about it. Something was standing out there and waiting for us, Edward or otherwise.

In the corner of my vision, the Shambler twitched, as if she was fighting her own response to that piping whistle. A wall of grey muscle rose up, ready to move.

Running on pure instinct, I whirled toward her and fanned out my tentacles.

“No!” I screeched, barely aware of what I was saying. “No! Mine! I feed you now! I feed you! Me, not him!”

The Shambler stared at me, frozen in animal intimidation. Edward whistled again, high-low-high — but I screeched at the sound and slapped the wall with my tentacles. The Shambler flinched, but she didn’t vanish, didn’t step Outside. Panting, dripping with sweat, I forced my words to make more sense.

“Go home,” I said to her. “I’ll bring you food. But you don’t listen to him any more, you don’t—”

Edward whistled a third time. Was that my imagination, or did I sense irritation in his tone, in the subtle stumble over the notes? The Shambler cringed, but she did not obey.

“You don’t listen to him anymore,” I said. “You listen to me. I’ll bring you fresh meat. But no more people. Now go home.”

The Shambler stared at me, blinked her twin pools of oily black, and then vanished.

“Holy shit, Heather,” Twil hissed.

Raine let out a low whistle. “Well done, well done!”

“Great, yes, great,” Evelyn grunted. I’d never seen her so wide-eyed and focused, but also so conflicted. “That’s one problem out of the way, certainly. Now it’s our turn to leave, right now. Heather?”

“Evee … ” I whined — and felt the hunting instinct rising up through my body like a flush of hot alcohol in my gut.

I couldn’t deny the need any longer. More than mere psychological notion, it was a physical ache, burning in every muscle. My legs itched with the desire to move. My tentacles felt like fists kept clenched for too long, and my human hands were curled into real fists. Abyssal hunting instinct knew that if I could touch Edward, I would win. I could reach down through his vessel and along the connection back to his real self. Whatever it was made of would not resist analysis and deconstruction performed by brain-math. With one tentacle I could reach all the way back to the real Edward Lilburne and turn his brain into cooked meat. With one touch, there would be no need to find his stronghold, no further threats to my pack. One touch was all I needed.

Twil must have recognised the look on my face or the meaning of the tension in my musculature, because she stared at me and froze. Perhaps she knew it all too well, in herself. “Uh, Heather, chill out, yeah? You’re getting kinda freaky there.”

Raine’s hands were full of firearm and shield, so she bumped me with her elbow. “Yeah, whoa, ease down, okay? Heather? Heather?”

A physical need twitched up my back muscles and out through my tentacles and down to their tips. A mad part of me briefly considered climbing the wall and squeezing out through the window. Abyssal instinct screamed incoherent demands about hunting, about moving fast, about ambushes and surprises and the rending of vulnerable flesh.

“Heather,” Evelyn said, hard and unyielding, “we need to leave, now.”

“I … I don’t think he’s lying,” I said. I was panting, quivering all over, about to break. I was going to sprint for the door any moment, damn Edward’s traps, they didn’t matter. I would push through it all and bring him down and rip his head from his shoulders. Only Evee’s voice held me back, and only by a thread. “I think he’s out there. We have to … Evee, we have to try … to … ”

Evelyn gave me one of the worst looks she had ever directed toward me — fearful disdain, disbelief in my stupidity, and deep concern.

“I do love you, Heather, but—”

Hunting instinct screeched to a halt, not unlike Twil slamming into Evelyn’s whipcrack voice earlier. Apparently Twil wasn’t the only one who Evelyn had on a leash. I blinked several times, turning toward Evelyn and gaping like a fish.

But Evelyn didn’t seem to realise what she’d just said out loud. She was too afraid and too exasperated to care.

“—but you can be such a fucking moron sometimes. That isn’t even the real him out there, you understand? He wouldn’t expose himself to risk, especially not to you. This is a trap. We are leaving. Read my lips, Heather, we’re leaving. Right now.”

Hunting instinct had run aground, mostly on the force of Evelyn’s emotional outburst and her unintentional admission of love, rather than the appeal to my intellect. I blinked hard, hesitating, feeling like I’d slammed head first into a brick wall.

“This is not a boss fight, Heather,” she raged on when I didn’t answer right away. “You don’t kill mages by running at them and screaming a war cry, not one as old as Edward. Not unless you’re Zheng, and probably not even then.”

Raine cleared her throat softly. “S’kinda what we did, once.”

Evelyn didn’t even have the spare capacity to shoot a deadly glance at Raine. Her attention bored through me, angry and outraged that I would risk us like this — that I would risk myself. “We are in a trap. We are leaving, right now. How many more times must I say it?” Her voice did not rise into a shout, but grew sharp and dark. “Am I your strategist, or not?”

“Yes, okay! Right!” I put my hands up in surrender. Tentacles too. I felt like such an idiot, as if I’d been in the grip of lust and Evelyn had dumped a bucket of freezing water over my head to bring me round. “Okay, okay, but … but we can’t just leave this house here, and that.” I gestured at the steel-and-glass cat-tower thing beneath the windows, hooked up to the fried laptop. “And whatever else he’s doing here. Evee, there might be other victims like Natalie! We can’t just run away!”

Evelyn’s inner steel refused to bend. “We can too — but we’re not running away.”

“ … what?”

Twil sounded just as confused as I felt. “Yeah, hey, what?”

“Tactical retreat?” Raine asked.

“Come again another day,” Praem intoned.

“Tactical retreat and regroup, yes,” Evelyn said, still speaking to me and me alone. “We’ve lost the man himself, he’s already gone, but we can pick over whatever’s left. Heather, you said this house is in Devon, near Salcombe. That’s what Edward said, right?”

“I— yes, that’s right, but—”

“If he didn’t lie — ha, doubtful — and if we can identify the cottage from a map, can you drop us in on a nearby hill, a road, something like that? Near to the house but not in the garden itself, because I’m certain that’s where he’s laid his trap. Can you do that?”

I boggled at Evelyn with muted awe. She had a twinkle in her eyes, that gleam of genius that made her shine like no other. My strategist.

“ … I … I don’t know, but I can try. If I can’t, Lozzie might be able to. I think.”

Evelyn nodded once, curt and hard. “Good enough. Heather, do you trust me? Do you trust this plan?”

“Of course.”

“Then take us home. Get us out of here before something else goes wrong.”

“Hear hear,” said Raine.

Evelyn didn’t wait for acknowledgement. She crammed herself against my side, practically dragging Praem along with her, though I had no doubt that the doll-demon was still supporting her weight. I wasted no time on spluttering or planning, I just wrapped a tentacle around the pair of them, securely anchored. Raine stepped back toward me as well, though she kept her shield raised and her handgun pointed at the open door, just in case. I reached out and took her by the arm, adding a tentacle around her waist too. Twil rolled her eyes and huffed and made a great deal of fuss, but she hopped back across the boundary of the magic circle and submitted to the new plan of retreat and regroup, no matter how much it offended her hunter’s sensibilities. I looped two tentacles around her fuzzy shoulders, a double-harness, in case she decided to dart off at the last moment. That made her yelp in surprise, then she swallowed a growl. Keeping a werewolf restrained was a new experience indeed.

“Ready?” I asked out loud. My heart was hammering in my ears.

“Ready,” said Praem.

Raine nodded. “Whenever you are.”

“Yes! Go!” Evelyn snapped.

“Remember to close your eyes,” I said. I did the same, closing my eyes, taking a deep breath, trying to shut out the cottage kitchen and the glowing evening light and the high-pitched whine on the edge of my hearing and—

And Edward’s voice, a sudden reedy rasp crawling up a throat clogged with tar, as if just on the other side of the kitchen wall, out in the overgrown garden.

“There is no way out—”

But I was already plunging my mind downward, sinking into the depths of black oil and toxic waters, dredging out the infernal machinery of the Eye’s lessons. The equation to Slip, to send us Out, was as familiar as an old tool by now. My hand slid into the grip, the weight of it was a known quantity at the end of my arm, and I understood the function better than I had ever wanted to. The equation seared and hissed across the surface of my brain, white-hot fire shooting lances of pain down my neck and into my lungs and belly.

And nothing happened.

The frozen split second of hyperdimensional mathematics, the speed-of-thought moment where I performed the equation, collapsed back into regular time. A sledgehammer of pain crashed into my head, like a band of red-hot steel expanding inside my skull. My stomach clenched and spasmed, trying to reject the logic of the Eye. I cried out, a pitiful sound, as my friends caught me before I collapsed to my knees.

We were still standing in the cottage kitchen, my friends were still tight and secure in my grip, and sunlight like fire on bronze was still pouring through the kitchen windows.

And Edward was still talking.

“—through the Faraday cage. And it is so much more than that now. And it is almost complete. Thank you, Heather Morell.”

“Heather?!” Raine, in near-panic. “Hey, hey—”

Twil, shouting. “Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit—”

“He’s trapped us,” Evelyn, ice-cold. “The bastard has trapped us. Fuck.”

Everyone was talking at once. Strong hands held me up beneath my armpits and around my waist as I sagged and whined. I tightened my tentacle-anchors around my friends, and not a moment too soon; Twil tried to dart forward, panicking and heading for the door again, but my grip on her shoulders was too secure. She yanked all of us forward, hard enough to jar my suddenly tender head and stomach and make me cry out. But she came up short, like a dog on a choke-chain, yelping as she sprawled on the tiles.

“Wait!” Evelyn shouted. “For fuck’s sake, wait!”

“Evee,” Raine was saying. “Evee, we’re gonna have to shoot our way out. Get ready, okay? Time for some old fashioned violence. Praem, with me. Evee, stay behind us and—”

“No,” I wheezed. “Just a … just a second … I can … ”

This wasn’t the first time an attempted Slip had fizzled out into nothing. It wasn’t anything like Alexander’s Dead Hands, reaching up from beyond the grave. Every time the lingering soul of Alexander Lilburne had stopped me crossing the membrane, I had felt the Slip begin and then felt the hands on my ankles, the dragging weight of metaphysical fetters on my flesh. But this nothingness, as if the equation hadn’t functioned at all, this had happened only once before.

Back when the Sharrowford Cult had sent Zheng to kidnap me, when they’d bullied and abused and threatened Lozzie into opening our experimental gateway, and they’d dragged me through into their pocket dimension that linked to the castle, I’d tried to escape by going Outside. And it hadn’t worked. I had solved that situation with the bright idea of knocking Zheng’s arm off. But I had never forgotten that feeling of null action, of the equation being correct but simply doing nothing, as if it referred to a quality of reality that was missing in that space, that dimension, that pocket of re-defined unearthly substrate.

Edward Lilburne had replicated the trick with a magically modified Faraday cage.

He’d figured out how to imprison Lozzie.

I like to imagine that thought gave me the burst of determination and energy; more realistically it was my bioreactor spinning up, pumping my veins full of exotic abyssal compounds that shouldn’t exist inside the human body.

“Shoot our way out,” Evelyn was saying to one side of me. Her hands creaked as she tightened them around her bone-wand. “I hate this. I hate it. We can’t step out there. Everything about this is a trap.”

“We can race for the other door!” That was Twil.

Raine raised her voice. “Everyone stay behind me and—”

With a deep, lung-ripping gasp, I reared up in my friends’ grip, made a sound like an asthmatic chimpanzee, and slammed my mind back into the dripping black relics of the Eye’s lessons.

This cage should not exist — metaphysically or morally. It was an affront, an offense, an obscenity. A cage for Lozzie could not be allowed to exist. However the Dimensional Shambler stepped between worlds, it clearly wasn’t reliant on the same method as me, but I didn’t have time to reverse-engineer an entirely different way of moving. Instead, I ran the equation again, the brain-math to take us Outside, but this time I didn’t treat it like a familiar old tool or an automatic reflex. I ran it like a machine with a missing component. Part of the equation simply did nothing, couldn’t find purchase inside this bubble of artificial constricted reality.

I had to take it slowly, which was a special kind of torture. A second, perhaps two seconds, where I hung in my friends’ arms and screamed and bled from the eyes and nose. Piece by burning, hissing, toxic piece, I reconstructed our way out.

And there it was, one element of the equation, one set of figures in the language of creation itself which did not apply here, in this space, this affront, this heresy to reality itself that Edward Lilburne had constructed.

I constructed a tool of my own. A response, an answer — an enzyme, shaped using the knowledge of the piece of equation that didn’t work.

An enzyme-bomb, a compacted ball of potential compressed so tight it was ready to explode in a screeching wave of nullification and reversal. Metaphor breaks down at the bleeding edge of hyperdimensional mathematics, human language begins to fail. Enzyme was the best descriptor I had. At the speed of thought, I crafted the opposite of whatever Edward’s magical Faraday cage was doing to the surface of reality.

Then I detonated it.

The others later told me that there was an audible sound — quite a loud sound, in fact, and not from me. As I cried out in pain with the technical difficulty of the brain-math, a great creeeeeeeak-ping screeched all around us, just beyond the walls of the cottage. Metal stress, we later discovered, as the entire chicken-wire Faraday cage was subjected to pressures it was never designed to endure.

But I didn’t hear the sound. I was too busy grasping the levers of reality once again, burning the flesh from my hands, right down to dripping fat and blackened bone.

“Close your eyes!” I croaked.

Out we went, with no cage or prison to stop us.


Our return to Number 12 Barnslow Drive was more than a little anticlimactic. It felt a bit like going out on a specific errand, but returning without getting anything accomplished, because one had forgotten one’s purse on the top of the washing machine.

Well, that, and we were planning to head right back out as soon as we were ready.

We may have failed in ambushing Edward Lilburne himself — or perhaps we had put one foot into his trap before wrenching at the jaws to free ourselves — but that didn’t mean we couldn’t come at the situation from another angle. It didn’t mean there was nothing to be salvaged here and no further responsibility to fulfil.

We landed in the usual big mess of headaches and nausea, of course, right in the middle of the magical workshop. I was bleeding from my nose and eyes, getting it all down my face, and so I missed the first few minutes of safety checking and recovery, as I sat in a heap on the floor and clutched at my head and stomach, trying not to vomit. That was some extreme brain-math and I was still reeling inside, throbbing and aching, trying to feel human again.

Edward Lilburne had not sent men with guns to capture Lozzie; or if he had, they must have taken one look at the spiders guarding the front door and skedaddled sharpish. Everyone was exactly where they were supposed to be. Lozzie and Tenny were still guarding Natalie in the kitchen. They’d wiped her face clean, gotten her sat in a chair, and were busy helping her drink a very large glass of apple juice. They hadn’t gotten much further, but we’d only been gone for about five minutes. I felt a strange embarrassment at our jumbled explanation of what was going on.

In a way, I had failed to slay the evil wizard. I didn’t want to explain that to Natalie. She was too young to understand.

Sevens was there too, sitting in the opposite chair, with a very comfortable-looking Turmy in her lap. The marmalade gentleman was getting marmalade hairs all over Sevens’ skirt, but she somehow pretended it wasn’t happening, even while luxuriously stroking his fur with one hand.

“We’re in no rush,” Evelyn explained to everyone, as Raine helped me wash my face and Twil looked ready to claw at every errant shadow. Evee planted her walking stick firmly as she spoke, which was undermined only slightly by Praem forcing a glass of water into her free hand. “Yes— Praem— thank you— thank you, right, yes. As I was saying, we’re not aiming to catch him anymore. He’s likely long gone. We’re aiming to get to that house safely, from a direction that won’t trigger whatever he had waiting for us.”

“Safety first,” said Praem.

“Safety first,” I croaked — and then spat blood into the kitchen sink as Raine rubbed my back. “Good idea. Mmmhmm.”

Sevens cleared her throat with expert delicacy. “And what about mademoiselle Shambles?”

“Heather made friends with it,” Evelyn grunted. “With her. I think we can be sure she’s not listening to Edward’s commands anymore. She obeyed Heather, instead.” Evelyn sighed and glanced at Natalie. The little girl was watching the proceedings with shell-shocked eyes, wide and staring, like she wasn’t all there. No child should look like that. “Still, Lozzie? And Tenny, you … keep an eye on things, until we’ve confirmed. Yes?”

“Yaaaaaah,” Tenny trilled. Lozzie did a little mock-salute, making sure Natalie could see the comedy gesture. But the girl just stared at her glass of apple juice. The poor thing was exhausted, physically and mentally.

I was starting to feel the same. As the remnants of hunting instinct dribbled away, a great weariness came over me, not all physical. Failure dragged hard. I let my bioreactor spool down, slowly and carefully.

Locating likely candidates for the Faraday-caged cottage took about half an hour in the end. Evelyn had Praem fetch her laptop from upstairs, complete with the mouse so she didn’t have to fiddle with the track-pad. She set it up on the table in the magical workshop, with the rest of us peering over her shoulder now and again.

Evelyn opened Google Maps and got started. “Assuming Edward was telling the truth—”

Twil scoffed. “Big ask. Still think we’ve lost the place.”

“Assuming. Edward. Was. Telling. The. Truth.”

Twil put her hands up. “Alright, alright.”

“Then that cottage was near — where was it, Heather?”

“Salcombe,” I croaked, leaning heavily on Raine. She was practically carrying me. “Never heard of it before.”

“Seaside place,” Raine supplied. “Kinda famous?”

“A little,” Evelyn grunted. “I’ve heard of it, I think.” She panned the map down over the Westcountry, then Devon, then searched for Salcombe. The map zoomed in on an area that was all little seaside towns and picturesque villages clustered amid a patchwork of fields, all bracketed from below by the endless deep blue of the sea and a thick, sluggish estuary on the eastern side. “Assuming he wasn’t lying, it should be a few miles away from this town. Now, I think we can rule out anywhere within a village, and anywhere close enough that neighbours would see a giant chicken-wire cage around the house. Must be somewhere isolated.”

“Won’t we see the cage?” I croaked. “If we zoom in?”

Evelyn cleared her throat delicately and didn’t seem to know what to say. Twil snorted. Raine rubbed the back of my neck and said, “Heather, love, it’s not real-time images.”

“Oh. Well. That’s a bit disappointing. I just assumed it was.”

“Yes,” Evelyn confirmed, sounding a little uncomfortable. “At best these pictures will be a few months old. We won’t see the cage itself. As I was saying, it has to be an isolated house. You mentioned a thatched roof, Heather?”

“I only saw a tiny corner, but it was thatched, yes. There were two trees out in the garden as well, really big trees. They must have been really old.”

“So,” Evelyn said, already panning the map back along the main road which led out of Salcombe. “Isolated, thatched roof, large garden, at least two large trees. Let’s get looking.”

While Evelyn played geography detective, Raine helped me strip out of my damp clothes and get under a hot shower, to wash off the remnants of stinking swamp mud. More accurately, she forced me under the shower; I wanted to stay right there, ready for anything, raring to go right away. But Raine was correct — staying on the edge all the time was terrible for me. I’d be visiting the Shambler again soon enough, but I was confident that I could land on the rocky outcropping itself and avoid the mud. And when we returned to the cottage, I didn’t need the distraction of wet clothes and filthy hair.

Praem bustled about, cleaning up the mud I’d brought into the kitchen earlier. Lozzie and Tenny took little Natalie upstairs, to help her get clean as well. I sat in a heap on the sofa with Raine. Evelyn worked, with Twil peering over her shoulder.

After a while — I wasn’t sure how long, because exhaustion was fast laying a claim to me — Zheng stalked in through the back door like an avenging angel, roaring for attention, for her ‘little wolf’, for my approximate location. She calmed down as soon as she saw me.

“Shaman. You are returned.”

“Zheng … pick me up?”

I stuck my arms out, running mostly on instinct. Raine helped me up, Zheng accepted the burden, and I spent the next ten minutes clinging to her side like an octopus attached to a rock, using my tentacles to anchor myself on her. Raine filled her in on the details.

Zheng listened in silence, then rumbled down at Evelyn. “Wizard, what is your plan?”

Evelyn just frowned at the screen in concentration. “I’ve narrowed it down to three places. I think it’s this one here.” She jabbed a finger at the screen, at a smudge of green and brown satellite image. “The others are too visible from the roads. But this cottage, this is very isolated. Cleverly hidden by the hills. The only way to see it would be to hike over fields, ones without public footpaths. Not illegal, of course, but that still leaves it very well-hidden.”

“Plan, wizard?” Zheng repeated.

Twil answered for her, doing a sideways swoosh-motion with both hands. “We’re outflanking the bastard. Eyyyy.”

Evelyn tutted. “The ‘bastard’ is gone. I will guarantee you that. He didn’t expect us to escape.”

Zheng purred in approval. “None can hold the shaman against her will.” One of her hands cupped the back of my head as I clung to her. “Nor her disciples.”

I frowned at that word — disciples — but I was too drained to complain. Evelyn either didn’t get the meaning, or she ignored it. “But his works will remain.”

Zheng grunted her disappointment. “We raid his abandoned camp? Huh.”

“Think like a detective, not like a boxer,” Evelyn said. “He may have left something useful behind. Heather,” she said my name and finally turned away from the screen, twisting around in her chair, rubbing her hip and looking up at me clinging to Zheng’s side. She pointed back at the screen with one finger. “Can you drop us in on this hill, right here? Can you do that, from just a map?”

I frowned and squinted and tried to visualise the landscape in my head. I was exhausted, and though this feat of hyperdimensional logistics didn’t seem beyond my powers, it felt tangential to how I understood the subtle art of stepping back and forth through the membrane. Part of me wanted to curl up on the floor and sleep. Or better, snuggle down in Zheng’s arms, drifting off into the mercy of temporary oblivion. So many other responsibilities loomed — checking on the Shambler, possibly sending her some food; helping little Natalie understand what had happened to her, not to mention returning her to her parents; preparing for Felicity’s help, or maybe her arrival here; and perhaps, once I was brave enough, dealing with how I’d been blinded by my own lust for the hunt.

But Edward Lilburne had tried to trap us, in a cage built for Lozzie. A hard, cold stone settled in my stomach, gripped by muscle tension and etched with acid.

“I’ll try my best,” I said.


Twenty minutes later, standing on a lonely hilltop somewhere in rural Devon, side-lit by the dying firelight rays of the setting sun, Raine lowered a pair of binoculars from her eyes, and said, “Yup, that’s gotta be the place.”

Twil snorted with sarcasm. “Yeah, how can you tell?” She gestured at the binoculars. “Don’t even need those to see it.”

“Mm, no kidding.” Raine laughed softly. “How many other cottages round here do you reckon look like that? Well done Evee, good call, first try. And well done Heather, for getting us here.” Raine reached over with her free hand and squeezed my shoulder. I replied with a tired grumble, using most of my energy to cling to Zheng for support.

A few paces ahead on the hillside, Evelyn pulled her modified 3D glasses off her face. Fingers of gentle wind teased at loose strands of blonde hair, playing them out across the vista of rolling hills and hedgerows and little clumps of trees. For a moment she stood frozen, staring down at the cottage near the foot of the hill, lit from the west by the rays of the fainting sun, casting her in deep orange from boots to crown. Though she was leaning on Praem for support and her shoulders were visibly tense with concentration, I’d rarely seen her looking so strong.

She turned back over her shoulder and met my eyes.

“Heather, you see anything? Anything pneuma-somatic? Anything out of the ordinary?” She gestured with the glasses. “I’ve checked, but I trust your eyes better than I trust my work.”

Zheng purred in my stead. “Nothing lurks here, wizard. It is dead.”

“Very quiet,” Praem agreed.

I sighed and nodded, gathering the shreds of my ragged concentration. “Zheng and Praem are right. It’s like a dead zone in the ocean. There’s no spirit life here. I can see things further off, but nothing ventures close to the cottage.”

The lack of spirit life was the only thing marring an otherwise breathtaking view; I never thought I’d see the day when I would consider the absence of weird and spooky creatures to be a mark against a locale, but that was how it felt, like something was deeply unnatural about this spot, driving off the omnipresent pneuma-somatic wildlife, not unlike the approach to Hringewindla’s shell near Brinkwood.

We were standing on the rough peak of the hill which Evelyn had indicated on Google Maps. I’d managed to sling-shot Slip us here without too much confusion or difficulty, though we’d spent a few moments staggering about like drunkards upon arrival, whining and doubling up with the pain and disorientation. I’d even sat down on the grass for several minutes while the others had looked about, until Zheng had hauled me to my feet and acted as a scaffolding for my increasingly exhausted mind.

The view was beautiful — and I wasn’t just thinking about Evelyn looking determined and confident in the glowing sunset. All around us, patchwork fields rolled off into a tangle of strange countryside, little lanes winding between thick hedgerows, dark copses of trees on distant hills, and tiny cottages and houses visible far away, all lit by the darkening rays of a long summer sunset. The air buzzed with the drone of small insects, the purr of distant cars on unseen roads, and the skitter of small animals inside the hedges and the long grass. Far to the south, the horizon turned into a dark haze that seemed to fill half the world, becoming one with the sky as it darkened. The sea, I assumed.

At the foot of the hill was Edward’s cottage.

Raine was right, there was no doubt we’d found the correct place. A picturesque two-story cottage, with whitewashed walls and an archaic thatched roof, set very far back from the nearest road, accessed by its own long, unpaved driveway. There were no cars on the little patch of paved ground at the end of that drive, nor any sign of life in the massive, overgrown garden — though the trees and the hedges and the little brick walls could be hiding quite an ambush for the unwary.

The cottage was wrapped in a structure of scaffolding and chicken wire — scaffolding which had collapsed in places, and chicken wire that had exploded outward, bent and ruined and ripped by some unimaginable force. Hyperdimensional mathematics.

Spirit life wouldn’t come anywhere near the cottage. The closest spirits I could see were at least a mile away across the hills, dark little tree-like things rambling across the landscape in jolly little hops. Others lurked further out — a giant of crumbled rock stood stock-still over a faraway farm, and a sleeping bird made of fire inside glass was curled up on a distant hilltop.

Raine was shaking her head, staring down at the cottage as she tucked the binoculars away. “It’s the perfect hiding place, isn’t it?”

Twil frowned at her. “Eh? It’s right out in the open.”

Evelyn cleared her throat. “It’s not visible from any of the roads. Even if you go all the way up that drive, you’d have to step into the garden to actually see the cottage. I’d bet fifty pounds it doesn’t get any post. Nobody has any reason to come here, except to break in to a holiday home.”

“Yeah exactly,” Twil said. “It’s a holiday spot. Bad place to hide magic, right?”

Raine cracked a grin. “Naaah, think about it. Salcombe’s that way, yeah?” She pointed off to our right, turning so that the sunset fire caught her face in profile. “Kingsbridge is north east.” She pointed another direction. “Thurlstone’s the opposite way. And hey, I’ve never been to any of these towns, but they’re all beach holiday places, right? Sun, sea, sand, all that shit.”

Twil huffed. “I wouldn’t mind some of ‘that shit’ right now, sounds good after today.”

“Speak for yourself,” Evelyn grunted, still frowning down at the cottage. I struggled to imagine Evelyn at the beach. It wouldn’t suit her. Would her prosthetic be in danger from loose sand?

Praem said, “I do like to be beside the seaside,” which earned her a sidelong frown from Evelyn and an amused snort from Twil.

“Point is,” Raine went on, “this time of year, in the summer hols, every beach is gonna be full of middle aged couples turning into lobsters, and gaggles of screaming kids. But here, inland? No way. Only locals would use a little road like that. A few hikers, maybe. And there’s no natural path up here, no reason to come here. If you wanna build a weird magical cage around a house and have nobody see, yeah, I’d say this spot is a pretty good bet.”

Twil shrugged. “Yeah, sure, whatever, but why all the way down here in Devon?”

Evelyn made a low grumbling sound. “Whatever it is, he wanted it far away from where he lives.” She took firm hold of her walking stick and planted it on the earth, clinging tightly to Praem’s arm for support as she took the first step down. “So tread carefully. We still don’t know what we’ll find.”

“Or if he’s gone,” Raine said.

Evelyn sighed. “Yes, well, we’re prepared for that, this time.”

Zheng rumbled like a tiger, eager for fresh meat. She was very happy to be included in this second expedition. None of us had any illusions what would happen if we found Edward.

The short walk down to the cottage felt quite surreal. As Raine had explained, it was extremely unlikely that we risked being seen by anybody out here, not even a passing car, especially at this particular time of day. But we still had to conceal our true purpose. Raine had swapped motorcycle jacket for leather jacket, dumped her makeshift riot shield, and hidden her weapons away somewhere inside her clothes. Twil was under strict instructions not to ‘go wolf’ out in the open. Evelyn’s scrimshawed thigh-bone was tucked inside her coat. Praem still wore her habitual maid uniform, but we were relying on the tendency for observers’ eyes to slide off her, the effect of not being in the know, if we came across any lone evening hikers. From a distance we could pass for a group of young women on their way back to their holiday cottage, perhaps slightly drunk and out for an unwise ramble before dinner. But up close it would be difficult to ignore the seven feet of rippling muscle that was Zheng. Or how I was clinging to her side without using my hands.

We approached the cottage from the rear, from the garden, where we located a tall wooden door in the rough brickwork of the garden wall. A sign next to the door informed us of the name of the property: Grushans.

“What’s that, Welsh?” Twil asked.

“Cornish,” Evelyn said. “I think. It’s not important.”

Twil and Zheng wanted to smash the bolt and shatter the wood, and probably rush into the garden and punch anything that moved. Raine offered to leap the wall and unlock the door from inside, but that would leave her exposed for a moment. Evelyn demanded extreme caution, and my grumpy grumbling kept Zheng in line, for now. Evelyn checked everything — door, frame, handle, the grass — before we were allowed to even touch the wood. The door wasn’t even locked, and opened with creaking, rusty hinges.

The garden itself was overgrown, near-wild, neglected for at least many months, probably closer to several years. The grass was long and unkempt, the flower beds along the edge of the house and the inside of the garden walls had been overrun by weeds of all sorts, and the two massive trees I’d spotted from indoors were covered in creeping ivy and dry lichen. Stone pathways were marred by thick moss. Matching stone benches had cracked with the stresses of winter cold. A child’s play-set swing had turned mostly to rust.

We proceeded into the garden as if creeping through a minefield.

That strategy paid off moments later, when we discovered the outer rim of Edward’s magic circle by almost tripping over it.

The magic circle was cut into the earth, made from a series of shallow trenches perhaps two inches deep and three to four inches across, hidden by the overgrown grass. It was impossible to spot when looking at it from an angle, or from inside the house, and was difficult to see from more than a few feet away, even when we knew it was there. One would have to be directly above the cottage in order to glimpse more than a tiny fraction of the strange, winding magic symbols which covered most of the lawn.

At the bottom of each trench of fresh-cut earth lay a cable of copper wire, lining the entire design with conductive metal.

We quickly discovered that the circle extended around the entire cottage, filling the garden with looping swirls and esoteric symbols, snatches of strange non-human language, and a series of concentric rings that tightened around the building itself as one approached closer. It was the largest man-made magic circle I’d ever seen, and by far the most strange.

“I can’t believe he’s done this,” Evelyn said in a hushed voice as we cut our way through the circle. “Out in the open, I can’t believe it. What is all this for? What was he doing?”

Zheng disarmed the thing as we went, ripping clods of earth out of the overgrown garden to ruin any magical effect. She pulled up the wires and cast them aside, taking a savage glee in the destructive work. Evelyn documented the circle with her mobile phone, but her hands were shaking. Eventually I reached out and wrapped a tentacle around her wrists, which helped.

“You don’t know what this does?” Twil sounded more than a little uncomfortable that we didn’t know what all this was for.

“Not a fucking clue,” Evelyn spat.

And we weren’t about to find out any time soon, because Edward Lilburne was no longer in residence.

The scaffolding and chicken wire Faraday cage was in ruins. Some parts of it had simply collapsed against the walls of the house, but in places the wire had twisted and exploded outward, as if pushed from inside by sudden force. A few of the metal scaffolding poles were sheared and broken as well, looking like they’d been through a car crushing machine.

“Holy shit, Heather,” Twil murmured as we approached and negotiated our way around the wreckage. “You really did a number on this place.”

“Sorry,” I murmured, as Zheng lifted me over the mess.

“No!” Twil laughed. “It’s good! It’s cool!”

“No cage can hold the shaman,” Zheng agreed.

Once we got inside the cottage itself we quickly discovered that Edward was gone. We proceeded with almost military caution, with Zheng and Twil in front, Raine with her gun out, and Evelyn clutching her bone-wand. But there was nothing here to fight, nothing here to surprise us or jump out at us from around a spooky, shadowed corner.

We found the kitchen exactly as we’d left it, complete with the magic circles and Edward’s steel cat-tree machine hooked up to a broken laptop, the machine which had apparently interrupted Lozzie’s Slip and brought me here in the first place.

“We’ll want that,” Evelyn said. “I want to take it apart and understand how it works. It’s the best clue we have on Edward’s techniques.”

Zheng didn’t agree. “A poor trophy.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” Evelyn said with a sigh.

We found the rest of the introductory letters Edward had left for me in every room. We found the light switches to flood the house with proper illumination, pushing back the encroaching evening, including a few outdoor floodlights attached to the corners of the cottage, which did their best to make the garden more hospitable at night time.

We didn’t find any children in the basement. Indeed, the house had no basement at all. We found no secret summoning circles, no hidden library, no bloody altar or ritual knife, and no handy address book with Edward’s location waiting for us to discover it. We didn’t even find the remnants of the ‘vessel’ that Edward Lilburne had been remote-piloting, not even when Zheng and Twil combed the garden in the fading light, with demon eyes and werewolf sense of smell. I half expected us to find a cartoonish puddle of goo on one of the floors, like the thing would have melted once he’d withdrawn his control.

“You don’t think it was the real him, right?” Twil asked with a frown that made her look like she was constipated. Hands on her hips, standing on the overgrown garden path, the too-harsh outdoor floodlights ruining the majesty of the summer night around her. “Like, he was bluffing or some shit?”

“Then where’s he gone?” Raine asked.

“ … walked off?” I suggested. The others looked at me. I shrugged. “As soon as we left, he could just have … started walking.”

“Fuck,” Evelyn spat, without looking up from documenting the magic circle which surrounded the cottage.

Raine started laughing.

In fact, we found nothing new that one wouldn’t find in any holiday cottage in rural Devon. Except for the contents of the kitchen, which were now ours, and the letters in every room, which had undoubtedly never touched Edward Lilburne’s hands, there was nothing here for us to puzzle over except his absence.

And the magic circle, of course.

Evelyn insisted on documenting the entire magic circle — and on systematically destroying it afterward. None of us argued with that, even if Twil sighed a bit. I think she was missing something on the telly that evening.

Raine snorted at that. “What’s wrong, Twil? You don’t fancy staying the night here, going down the beach in the morning?”

“Screw that. S’too bloody spooky.”

Praem found a long-handled garden spade just inside the front door of the cottage, with dry dirt on the blade, just the right size for digging those little trenches. Evelyn set about taking photographs of every part of the design cut into the garden soil, sketching certain areas in her little notebook, and writing down the strange language of the added incantations. Praem followed, digging up lumps of earth, destroying the circle piece by piece, severing the copper wire as she went.

As they worked, the sun slowly dropped below the horizon, plunging the cottage and the garden into the shadows of a summer night. I sat on one of the little stone benches by the back door, the door which Edward had been trying to lure us into charging through. Watching them work lulled my mind into a strange semi-trance state of emotional and mental exhaustion. Zheng stayed close, stalking up and down, accepting the lazy touch of my tentacles whenever she passed. Raine and Twil were back inside the cottage, going through the upstairs bedrooms one more time.

Eventually, Evelyn’s circuit brought her back toward the door, toward me.

She looked up from her note book, staring at me across a few feet of humid night air. She watched me for a long, long moment, long enough that Zheng came near and loomed at my back, as if Evelyn was somehow dangerous. My mind surfaced from the exhaustion as I blinked at the look on Evee’s face — concern and worry, but also anger, poorly hidden beneath the cold, hard-edged analysis of Evelyn Saye the master strategist.

“Wizard?” Zheng rumbled.

“It’s all right, Zheng,” I said. My voice came out raspy and tired. “Evee, what’s wrong?”

Evelyn stared at me for a moment longer, then sighed and shrugged, gesturing around us with her notebook, at the magic circle hiding in the grass — or its remnants now, as Praem was kicking up one last clod of mud with her boot against the back of the spade.

“What else? This. This … extravagance. It’s obscene.”

“What does it do? Do you have a theory?” Evee loved her theories, maybe that would help.

Evelyn walked over and sat down on the bench next to me, lowering herself carefully with her walking stick. She winced when she sat, then sighed heavily and screwed her eyes up, sagging a little and kneading her thigh where flesh met prosthetic socket. All her earlier determination and confidence had turned to a kind of weary drag from within. Maybe she was reacting to the lack of danger as well. We’d combed the place inside and out, Edward was gone, there was nobody to fight. I gently nudged her arm with a tentacle, but she didn’t take me up on the offer of casual skin-ship.

“Evee?” I prompted, suddenly growing nervous.

“No, Heather,” she grunted. She straightened up and rolled her neck slowly, producing several loud pops, followed by a grunt. “No, I have no idea what any of it does. Whatever magical tradition this draws on, I am almost completely unfamiliar with it. I recognise only a few basic elements, and from that I can perhaps draw some educated guesses. Perhaps. And I don’t like the results.”

“That all sounds very, um, measured and cautious. And also not what you really think.”

Evelyn turned and glared at me. “This was a trap.”

“Well, yes, that much was obvious. He was trying to kill us, of course, he—”

“You are much smarter than that, Heather,” Evelyn snapped — angry, with me. I blinked in surprise. Zheng stirred behind us. “Or at least I would like to believe you are smarter than that. Think about it for five seconds. Please. Think.”

“E-Evee, I don’t follow, I don’t—”

“If Edward Lilburne wanted to kill you, you know what he would have done? You want to know how I would have done it?” Evelyn stamped with her walking stick. “I would have planted a bomb under that chair, that old wooden chair he was using to bait you, the one you couldn’t resist pulling to pieces. Remote detonation. We were right on top of it, because it was bait for you. A man like him could certainly lay his hands on the necessary resources for making a bomb. You’d probably have survived with hyperdimensional mathematics, but he wouldn’t know that you’d be capable of that.”

“ … Evee, what are you saying?”

“He wasn’t trying to kill us. He wasn’t trying to kill you. If he was, there were very simple ways to achieve that end, multiple things we blundered into like fools. No.” She gestured at the garden, at the ruined magic circle. Praem was highlighted against the tall garden wall by the glow of the exterior lights from the cottage. “He was trying to get you to step into this circle.”

A cold feeling settled in my guts. “Me, personally?”

Evelyn turned back to me, eyes blazing with cold anger. “This was a trap for you, specifically. Yes, that is my theory. And you almost walked right into it. Fucking hell, Heather, you were ready to throw yourself into it, you imbecilic, bloody-minded moron! You’re as bad as Raine, I swear to God. I should slap you, maybe that would knock your brains back into place.”

“E-Evee, I don’t— I’m—”

Zheng shifted again, a shadow against the light, but Evelyn raised a finger to stall her, before the demon host had a chance to get indignant and defensive on my behalf. The sheer force of Evelyn’s anger overrode any intimidation she felt.

“And don’t you get pissy with me either, Zheng, you weren’t here. Heather nearly fucking died — or probably worse — so don’t you complain, because it’s a miracle she’s even sitting here with us.”

“Mm.” Zheng grunted, like a cautious tiger.

Evelyn looked away from Zheng and back at me again. Her anger was something new, something cold and sustained. “This was a trap for you, Heather. So you better start acting like it.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

The party was not quite prepared for this boss fight, though luckily one of the DPS classes noticed and averted the encounter. Or was it a boss fight at all? Seems more like a trap that Heather almost stepped into, right? At least they rescued Natalie, and managed to find the cottage via other means – hurrah for modern technology and Google Maps, I guess. Rural Devon sure is peaceful, unless there’s mages about (or drunk tourists).

No Patreon link this week, as it’s the last day of the month tomorrow, and I don’t want anybody tricked into getting double-charged! The Patreon still stands at 2 chapters ahead, but if you want to subscribe then I recommend waiting until Tuesday! Instead, go check out the Katalepsis fanart page! There’s several new pieces, including Roofing Tenny, Cosmic Shrimp, and Animated Lozzie. Or! Go read Feast or Famine, still one of my favourite things currently running on Royal Road, by the wonderfully talented VoraVora. If you enjoy some of the darker psychological aspects of Katalepsis, you might like it!

And in the meantime, you can still:

Vote for Katalepsis on TopWebFiction!

This really helps. A lot of readers find the story through TWF! It only takes a couple of clicks to vote, and it keeps the story visible!

And also, leave a review! Or a like, a thumbs up, a comment on a chapter, it’s all great, and it helps me so so much to know there’s people out there reading and enjoying the story; that’s the whole reason I do this in the first place, to bring a fun story to those who read it. And thank you for reading!

Next week, Evee is angy. Very angy. Angry paranoid mage girl demands attention and caution, but also probably has a coherent theory about what Edward just tried to do here …

pale student of unhallowed arts – 17.8

Content Warnings

None this chapter, I think.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Reality snapped back like a rubber band stretched too far, slamming against the inside of my skull, the backs of my eyeballs, and the rear of my stomach. I dared not imagine what might happen if I ever stretched that rubber band far enough to break.

Number 12 Barnslow drive blossomed around my senses — home, safety, sanctuary.

I could think of no better shelter for a little girl who was being hunted by supernatural horror from beyond our sphere. Not because of Evelyn’s vaunted security, the wards and the spells woven into the walls and sunk into the very foundations of the building; nor because of the solid brick to keep out physical intruders, the stout doors and small windows and sturdy locks; not even because of the unspoken spirit of the house herself, brooding on her own mute protective intent, keeping her own counsel from us little apes and ape-imitators who nested between her four strong walls. Not because it was familiar, or well-mapped, or home. No matter how safe the house itself, I wasn’t counting on any of that to protect little Natalie.

Besides, the wards couldn’t keep me or Lozzie from Slipping back into the house. I wasn’t counting on them to stop the Shambler.

No, I was counting on what had saved me too, all those months ago when I’d been ready to give up on life.

We — Natalie holding Turmy tight in her arms, while I held her close in turn, with a tentacle wrapped about her shoulders — appeared almost exactly where I’d intended, right in the kitchen of Number 12 Barnslow Drive, standing on the cool flagstones in the orange light of the growing dusk outdoors, with my back as close to the table as possible. My aim was so good that I surprised even myself. We landed about two feet away from the table. Not perfect, but close enough for my plan to work without breaking my spine.

Well, ‘plan’ is perhaps putting it a bit too strongly. ‘Vague idea of how not to screw everything up’, that sounds closer.

We exited the Slip with an audible squelch of swamp water as my socks slopped on the kitchen floor. I hissed and winced through the sudden stabbing headache behind my eyes, the price of the three-being Slip. I clenched every muscle from abdomen to diaphragm, willing myself to retain control and hang onto the contents of my stomach. Couldn’t afford to crumple to the floor on my hands and knees, not now. We didn’t have time for pain. We might only have seconds to spare.

So I blundered backward with Natalie in my arms, crashed into the table hard enough to leave a bruise on the small of my back, and lashed myself to the wooden surface with my tentacles.

Heather Morell, the safety-harness squid. Better a bruise on my back than a bloodied split across Natalie’s forehead.

The poor girl didn’t take the Slip very well. I could cushion the physical impact, but there was little I could do about the spiritual decompression sickness. As I caught us against the kitchen table and hung on to keep myself on my feet, Natalie was already sagging in my grip like a sick animal. She went limp and weak, struggling to keep her wellington boots against the floor, letting out one of those awful child-whimpers, the kind that reaches into the back of the human brain stem and lights up a switchboard of protective instinct, no matter one’s age, no matter if one has children of one’s own or not. Children in pain have fewer expressive inhibitions than adults. Natalie made a sound I never wanted to hear again, panted out between wet, liquid sobbing.

She dropped Turmy — not entirely on purpose, I believe, she just lost her muscle tension and coordination. The grand old gentleman slid down her front and landed on the floor like a drunken horse, all knees and rolling eyes. The poor cat was almost as badly affected as his owner. He wobbled a few paces across the kitchen floor like he was full to the brim with anaesthetic or muscle relaxants, then flopped over in a most undignified and uncomfortable angle, eyes rolling, mouth hanging open.

Natalie sagged forward in my grip, bent over with only one tentacle to hold her up like a child harness, and vomited noisily onto the flagstones.

I couldn’t comfort her. I couldn’t even spare a tentacle to keep her hair out of her face. Not that she needed it, her hair was stiff with dried swamp mud.

With a conscious effort, like unclenching a muscle inside my guts, I slammed all the biochemical control rods out of my trilobe reactor. Full power, as Raine might say, chocks away, all caution to the wind. I pushed myself right up to the red line, the danger zone, the point at which self-hood and energy risked confusion and conflation if I held myself there for too long.

It was like a pint of caffeine, a syringe full of adrenaline, and a bucket of freezing cold water.

I reared up with a single deep breath that felt like it was ripping my lungs apart. Eyes wide, heart slamming, skin coated in hot-cold flash sweat. My tentacles detached from the table and shot outward into a fan-shape, a sunburst, a protective cage, all except the one still holding the limp, sobbing, vomiting girl. I must have looked like a demon from the pit.

We’d only been manifested for about two seconds. I jerked my head left and right, running on pure instinct, trying to take in the whole kitchen with one glance. Nothing on the table but a few cold, empty mugs, and the plate which Twil had used for her sausage rolls. A few crumbs remained. The lights were off, but evening sunlight poured in through the window, bathing everything in that peaceful orange glow. The door to the workshop stood open.

A frozen moment, the eye of the storm; instinct screamed through my heart and my veins, keeping me on the edge of readiness.

How long did we have until the Shambler appeared? I’d felt her on my heels, an unmistakable presence as we’d crossed the membrane. Did she have the power to delay her own arrival?

Or had she appeared somewhere else in the house? I hadn’t considered that. An oversight, a mistake, stupid, stupid Heather. Was this Edward’s plan all along? Get a Dimensional Shambler into our house and wreak havoc? It might grab Raine, or Tenny, or anybody. Evee! Panic rocketed up my spine, a dose of something headier and harder than adrenaline. What a perfect assassination method for a rival mage. The Shambler might take Evelyn Outside and I might not be able to track her and—

A scrape of chairs and scrambling feet interrupted my wide-eyed panic.

Twil shot out of the magical workshop and into the kitchen, skidding to a halt like a cartoon hound who’d smelled a side of roasting beef. She stared at me wide-eyed and open mouthed. I could hardly blame her, considering that I was soaking wet, covered in grey mud, and carrying a very sick little girl.

Raine was two paces behind, with a quick and decisive look on her face, like she was ready for anything. But she lit up at the sight of me, no matter how filthy I was or what I was carrying.

“Heather!” Twil said. Then she quickly wrinkled her nose and pulled a face, as if something stank like an open sewer. “Holy fucking shit what the—”

“Heather!” Raine roared my name in triumph. She crossed the kitchen quickly, hurrying to my side. She took in my filthy, dripping wet state, the girl hanging in one of my tentacles, and the cat on the floor, all with only a slightly bemused glance — and total acceptance. She didn’t even break her stride. That’s what Raine does; she deals with anything.

“Don’t—” I panted, waving one hand at her. “Don’t touch, I’m filthy, dangerous, it’s—”

“You’re back!” Raine got as close as she dared, but she respected my request, and didn’t try to touch me, not yet. “I knew you would be!”

“Where’s— Evee, she—”

Evelyn’s voice was a stinging whip, cracking through the air even before she stomped out of the magical workshop. “Heather, what the fuck do you think you’re … do … ”

She trailed off the moment she clapped eyes on me. She was leaning heavily on Praem’s arm in lieu of her walking stick, with her bone-wand tucked under one armpit, and a piece of paper covered in magical symbols crumpled up in one fist, knuckles white with tension. She was drawn and pale and sweating with naked worry. But my heart unlatched. The Shambler was not after her.

“Welcome home,” said Praem. “And guests.”

“Heather, hey,” Raine was saying, hands up and ready to help, hovering around me and Natalie, not sure what to do first. “I get it, emergency, right? Tell us what to do. You don’t have to explain, just go!”

Raine was right, there was no time to explain. I could always count on her to understand.

So I filled my lungs and howled at the top of my voice.

“Lozzie! Lozzie! Here, now! Lozzie!”

I came down panting, heaving, waving Raine away with one flopping hand. “Don’t touch me, dangerous!” I heaved the words out, then added in mounting panic, “Lozzie, is she here? She got home, right? She’s here, she’s—”

“Lozzie is in residence,” Praem answered over the shock of my other friends — though she needn’t have bothered.

The sound of Lozzie hurling herself down the stairs was music to my ears, the light tap-tap of her feet on the creaky steps the best relief I could have asked for.

She didn’t make it in time.

I heard her leap the last few steps to the floor of the front room, landing with a patter of feet, followed by some curiously alarmed trilling noises that could only have been Tenny peering down the stairs after her. But she didn’t reach the kitchen before the Shambler got to us first.

A wall of grey muscle wrapped in taut grey skin suddenly filled the space in front of the kitchen doorway, stretching from floor to ceiling, dripping with rank swamp water and thick grey mud. The Dimensional Shambler, head and shoulders towering above us like the craggy ramparts of a rotten castle. Twin pools of oil locked on with all the predatory instinct of a bottom-dwelling hunter. Jutting jaw hung open, row of hook-teeth ready to rend flesh and scrape bone. A pair of grey arms swept wide, threatening to fill the room from wall to wall, ready to slam shut around Natalie and myself.

Somebody screamed — Evelyn, I think, in retrospect. Twil gaped in surprise for half a second, then growled low in her throat, lips peeling back from her teeth as her werewolf transformation whirled into place around her true flesh. Raine moved quick, no hesitation. She turned so as to put herself between the Shambler and me. She reached into her jacket, drawing and pointing her handgun in one quick motion.

None of them would have been fast enough.

With one tentacle I grabbed Raine’s gun and forced it to point at the floor. With a second I slapped against Twil’s front to stop her rushing the Shambler. A third was still wrapped tight and secure around poor little Natalie, still sagging as if unconscious, stringy bile hanging from her lips, with no idea what was happening.

Three tentacles were left free, to pump full of paralytic toxin and lash out at the Shambler.

I filled my lungs with air and screeched.

The Shambler actually flinched. I like to think it was the volume and power of my screech, but I probably just sounded like an angry dolphin. In retrospect it was more likely the combined threat of me, a werewolf, a firearm, and Evelyn fumbling her bone-wand out from under her armpit.

The Outsider marine-ape vanished, leaving behind a puddle of swamp mud.

We all stood in shocked silence for a single heartbeat.

Twil wheezed as if punched in the chest — which, to be fair, was exactly what I’d just done to her. “Fuck!” she grunted.

Raine gently eased her handgun free from my tentacle. I let it go. She didn’t look at me or stop to ask what had happened, she just turned on the spot, keeping the gun pointed at the floor for safety, trying to stand guard in every direction at once. She understood, instantly, what we needed, even if she had no idea of the specifics. If I hadn’t been covered in mud and in the middle of a crisis, I could have kissed her for that.

Evelyn didn’t take this in her stride quite as easily. “What the fuck just invaded my house?!”

“She! It’s a she!” I panted, scratchy and raw through my twisted throat. “And she’s sapient, and don’t shoot her! But don’t touch her either, absolutely do not touch her!”

Before I could explain properly, Lozzie poked her head around the kitchen doorway, where the Shambler had stood moments before.

All Lozzie’s usual bounce and energy was missing. Her face was pale and twitchy, eyes skittish and moving too fast, hair stuck to her forehead with sweat. I hadn’t seen her look that way since I’d rescued her from her late brother, like a terrified animal ready to bite or flee. Her pastel pink-and-blue poncho was drawn in tight, like a jellyfish floating downward in the water, doing her best to remain unseen and unremarkable.

“Heathy!” She exploded into the room the moment our eyes met, splashing through the puddle of swamp water left by the Shambler, apparently uncaring about her socks getting soaked and filthy. “I didn’t know where you went and I thought you were back with Jan but you weren’t there either and I couldn’t feel you anywhere I couldn’t find you I’m sorry I—”

I shoved Natalie toward Lozzie, a package of shivering flesh wrapped in yellow plastic. Her wellington boots skidded across the flagstones. Lozzie flinched, not quite following, her poncho curled tight as if she wanted to dive into the waters and be away from here.

“Take her!” I yelled.

The girl was beginning to come round from the shock of the Slip at last, just enough to raise her head and stare with bleary, bloodshot, aching eyes, at all the strange people in the room with her. As she blinked and recovered, I could see the panic mounting on her pale, drawn, exhausted face once again.

“Where—” she panted in a tiny voice. “Turmy— where— I’m not— I—”

I squeezed her shoulders with the tentacle. “It’s okay, Natalie, it’s okay. These are the people I told you about, they’re all friends, they’re going to keep you safe.” I pushed her toward Lozzie again. “Take her, now!”

Twil put a hand over her own mouth. “Oh my god, you kidnapped a little girl.”

Raine snorted.

“Rescued, not kidnapped!” I snapped at Twil. “From Outside, and from Edward Lilburne!”

Evelyn hissed through clenched teeth. “Edward?”

“And we don’t have time to discuss it! Lozzie! You’re the only one here besides me who can protect her, take—”

I didn’t need to finish the sentence. I don’t know if it was my bare-bones explanation, or the mention of her uncle’s name, or the mounting terror in little Natalie’s eyes, but I saw something visibly shift in Lozzie’s posture. The twitchy, skittish anxiety flowed out of her, replaced in an instant as if she’d thrown a switch. Suddenly, Lozzie no longer looked ready to run. She flapped out her poncho, lit up with a big smile, and crouched down so she was level with Natalie.

“Hi! I’m Lozzie! I’m like Heather there but different! And fluffy!” She flapped the edges of her poncho, beckoning.

“Like … the octopus-lady?” Natalie croaked. Her throat sounded terribly raw. She glanced back at me for reassurance.

“Octopus lady!” Lozzie giggled. “Yup-yup, that’s Heathy alright!”

“Lozzie is a friend,” I said. “She’ll keep you safe, Nat, I promise. She does the same kinds of things I do, she can stop the gorilla monster from taking you away again.”

I urged Natalie toward Lozzie, but the girl didn’t need any further encouragement. She staggered the last few steps and then threw her arms around Lozzie’s neck, clinging on tight and whining into her shoulder with a cocktail of fear and sobbing relief. Lozzie wrapped the poncho around Natalie’s shivering body in return, uncaring of the mud and the residual swamp water on the girl’s clothes, enclosing her in the thick folds of pastel blue and pink.

I wondered, not for the first time, if there was more to that poncho than merely a piece of comfortable fabric in the colours of a trans flag.

“Lozzie,” I said quickly, trying to get her attention — and realised I didn’t even have to catch her eye. Lozzie was already listening, ready for my instructions, attentive and alert.

Well, as alert as she could look with her permanently heavy-lidded eyes.

“Lozzie, you hold onto her and you don’t let go,” I said all in a rush, trying not to stumble over my words. The adrenaline and the urgency made my lips feel like rubber. “The Shambler — the thing that was just here — I think she’ll follow me but she might come for Natalie instead. She takes people away, Slips them Outside, understand? You’re the only one except me who can stop that, or at least get back here if it happens. You don’t let go of Nat, understand? Don’t let go.”

Lozzie nodded.

She?” Twil muttered, still half werewolf, flexing her claws. “That thing was a she?”

Quickly as I could without hurting Natalie, I unwrapped my tentacle from around her shoulders, undoing the Slip-proof safety harness and sliding it out from inside Lozzie’s poncho. Lozzie held the girl tight in her arms, safe and secure. She was in good hands. I’d never seen Lozzie so serious and determined.

Natalie squirmed in Lozzie’s arms, twisting her head around, suddenly alarmed again. “Turmy? Where’s Turmy? I didn’t drop him, I promise I held on! Turmy!”

Twil pulled a grimace which contained far too many teeth. “What the hell is a Turmy?”

Raine nodded down at Turmy, still on the floor. “The cat, I assume?”

“Yah,” I panted. “He’s a good cat.”

The exhausted old marmalade gentleman was still recovering from the effects of the Slip. Turmy got to his paws like his joints were made of rusted steel, then made a beeline for Natalie as if the rest of us weren’t even present. He sniffed a corner of Lozzie’s poncho and apparently decided in a single instant that she was a friend to all cats.

Then he turned and hissed at Twil. One couldn’t blame him, she currently had more fur than he did. And bigger claws.

“Heather,” Evelyn said my name, tight and tense. Praem was helping her over to the table, pulling out a chair for her while she leaned on Praem’s other arm. She looked wild, frowning like she was about to have a migraine. “Heather, what was that creature? What was that? And what does Edward Lilburne have to do with it? And where were you?”

“Yeah, yo,” Twil piped up. “The fuck was that? More importantly, is it coming back?”

Evelyn hissed with irritation. She waved away the chair Praem was trying to get her to sit down in. “Twil, language. There is a child right there, you reprobate.”

“Dimensional Shambler,” I said. “That’s what Edward called it. They snatch people to Outside, they can Slip, kind of, a bit like me.” I tried to get steady on my own feet again and gather my thoughts. I had to go, go go go, don’t linger, move now, before she returned and snatched anybody. “And it’s a she, a female, and sapient! Don’t shoot her, please. I think Edward was training her with food, it’s not her fault, but I can’t stay here, she’ll follow me instead of taking Natalie again. I think!”

I pulled my broken mobile phone out of my pocket and tossed it on the table, then started to tug at my hoodie, struggling to roll the water-logged garment up and over my head. It was still soaked through with swamp water and mud, and now my skin was covered in sweat, so the fabric stuck to me and threatened to suffocate me if I got it only halfway up and over my head. I rammed two tentacles up inside and rolled my shoulders awkwardly, hissing with frustration, and trying not to think about the paradox of using my tentacles to remove a piece of clothing that they regularly passed through. Pneuma-somatic flesh is weird, to say the least.

Raine said my name. “Heather, whoa, slow down a sec.” She shot me only the briefest of glances, though she was right by my side. She was still holding her gun low and keeping her eyes up, waiting for the Shambler to re-appear. “Talk to us, fill us in, yeah?”

“There’s no time for that!” I growled with frustration as I got one arm stuck inside my soaking hoodie.


The whipcrack in Raine’s voice shot through me like an electric shock applied to my backside, a hot grasp reaching up inside my belly, a leash around my brain stem. I froze, all except my tentacles still struggling with my hoodie. Panting, staring at Raine, blinking several times. Brain rebooting.

Bless her, that was exactly what I needed.

“ … yes?” I said in barely a breath.

Raine’s eyes flickered to me, one second of full concentration.

“Tell us what you need,” she said.

I nodded with feeling, as if to placate the messenger of an angry goddess — and in a way, that was exactly who Raine served. I took a deep breath, trying to dial down the unfocused haste. I wouldn’t be any good to anybody if I couldn’t communicate.

Evelyn grumbled through her teeth, “Actually, I would prefer a bit more planning than that. What the hell is going—”

The Shambler appeared in the corner of the kitchen, as if she had stepped out from behind the wedged-open door, diagonally behind Lozzie.

Head ducked low, shoulders jutting high, arms held out in a semi-circle as if she was about to land a rugby tackle and slam Lozzie and Natalie to the floor.

I screeched like a banshee and whipped out with all my tentacles, flushing them with warning colouration in red and yellow, pumping the skin full of paralytic toxins. But the Shambler was already too close to her targets, the powerful muscles of her hind legs contracted and ready to spring. And I was at the wrong angle, constricted by the wet confines of my hoodie. I stumbled and lost my balance, clattering into a chair.

Raine’s handgun came up and around, but she hesitated, stalled by my heartfelt plea to spare the Shambler’s life. Evelyn stammered out a snatch of Latin, her hands hurrying across her bone-wand, but she couldn’t think fast enough. Twil roared like a prehistoric dire-wolf and leapt past us in a bundle of fur and claw, but too slow, and she knew she couldn’t risk touching the Shambler. Natalie screamed into Lozzie’s shoulder, grabbing at her as if trying to burrow deeper into the protection of her pastel poncho. Turmy, bless his gentleman’s heart, turned and hissed at the Shambler, arching his back and fluffing his tail to make himself as big as possible.

Lozzie looked up at the Shambler, from behind a thin veil of wispy blonde hair. Unsurprised, unconcerned, and unsmiling.

“No,” she said — or rather, she sang, as a single note that seemed to blanket the air.

To my amazement, the Shambler hesitated.

It was like watching a cat or a puppy encounter a lobster for the first time. Total confusion, faced with something beyond experience. The Shambler paused, her musculature lost all the springy momentum of an impending pounce, uncertain what exactly Lozzie was. The creature’s face was unreadable, of course. I doubted very much that slack hanging jaw and nose-less flat expanse and pair of wide eyes like pools of oil could show anything even vaguely approximate to a human expression. She hadn’t evolved here, after all. But the physical response smashed through all boundaries to communication: Lozzie made the thing pause in shock and wonder.

But not for long. The heartbeat passed and the Shambler was already re-gathering herself, arms ratcheting outward for a bear hug, powerful thigh and calf muscles bunching like watermelons to throw her at her target.

Luckily, one heartbeat was all we needed.

Praem appeared, almost within arms’ reach of the Shambler. She’d marched around the table from the other side. Prim and proper and very straight-backed, Praem leaned in close as she dared.

“Bad girl,” Praem said — and the Shambler flinched.

She flinched again when Twil snapped in her face. Whirling canine jaws and two paws full of claws warded her off, though Twil was careful not to touch. While I was hissing and struggling against my wet hoodie, Evelyn must have gotten her spell in order, because a rising trio of shouted Latin words heralded a sudden drop in air temperature, as if somebody had opened a door to a winter morning and ushered in the freezing air.

But all that wasn’t quite enough. As I got my tentacles straight and prepared to join in, I could see the Shambler’s huge black eyes fixate on Natalie in Lozzie’s arms, see the muscles bunch and tendons tighten. She was going to push right past Twil and go for it, spell and claw and angry maid be damned.

But why? Why did she lead me to the lost girl Outside, in that grey and endless swamp, and then try to take her back again? Perhaps it was just instinct, or maybe Edward’s conditioning was just that strong. Or perhaps I was missing something vital.

I bunched my tentacles, ready to hurl myself across the gap and land on the Shambler like a stinging jellyfish. I would kill her, if she made me do it.

But then a mass of whirling black tentacles burst in through the kitchen door — Tenny.

Trilling like a lepidopteran version of a rattlesnake, her tentacles spread in a corona of snapping mouths, her wings fluttering and flickering with dizzying patterns of oil-on-water light, and patterned with swirling colours like the inside of a fairy mound on hallucinogens, Tenny reared up between the Shambler and Lozzie.

The display was enough to make even Twil flinch and recoil. Evelyn’s spell spluttered out and the cold snap shut off as Evelyn grunted with pain. Raine had to look away, wincing through her teeth. I even retracted my tentacles with an instinctive flinch.

I think it was the flickering light on Tenny’s wings, the swirling colours in oil-shimmer and purple-blossom and bile-green; the effect was both hypnotic and headache-inducing, painful to the eyes and ensnaring to the senses. To stare would to be transfixed, but to look away would render oneself vulnerable before this rattling, trilling threat. I’d never seen her do anything like that before. Her camouflage-cloak was one thing, but this was the same biological principle turned toward ends I’d never imagined.

Tenny’s flashing display was a very eloquent way of saying go away or I will dismantle you.

The Shambler took one look at her, then vanished again.

“Baaaah!” Tenny trilled at the space where the Shambler had stood. “Bah!”

Luckily for the rest of us, Tenny dialled down the display on her wings, returning them to their usual muted darkness, except for a lingering swirl of colour just beneath the surface. But her tentacles still stood outward, snapping with angry little slaps.

“Tenns!” Lozzie cheered.

“Good assist,” Praem intoned.

“Baah!” Tenny repeated, frowning a very serious little frown, turning on the spot as if she understood the Shambler might reappear at any moment. “Baaaaah!”

“Holy fucking shit, Tenny,” Twil heaved, one hand on her own chest.

Language,” Evelyn hissed — probably because she had nothing else more useful to say.


Little Natalie was still screaming, almost inconsolable with panic, staring up at the black-and-white apparition which had chased away the Shambler.

“No no, it’s okay!” Lozzie said to her, trying to hold her still. “That’s Tenny, she’s my little girl! Kinda like you! It’s okay-okay!”

“Bwwwweeeeeeh?” went Tenny, tilting her head at Natalie. “Hiiiiii?”

Lozzie’s reassurances fell on deaf ears — but Turmy did the trick. While Tenny was staring back at Natalie, one of Tenny’s tentacles dipped toward the floor and found Turmy. The grand old marmalade gentleman did not seem very cordial toward this strange interloper, and looked like he was about to hiss and scratch at Tenny’s subconscious peace offering. But then the tentacle bobbed forward and flopped down in the exact position for Turmy to give it a cautious sniff.

One sniff convinced the cat. The tentacle popped back up and Turmy rubbed his face on it, claiming Tenny for his cat territory. Natalie must have seen this, because her panicked scream trailed off, huge eyes watching as Turmy rubbed himself on the tentacle and Tenny petted him in return.

“Tenny’s a little girl too, just like you!” Lozzie repeated, trying to catch Natalie’s eyes. But the girl had eyes only for her cat.

Tenny puffed her cheeks out and trilled, “Not little. Bigger than her.”

Human child and pneuma-somatic moth-puppy looked at each other for a moment. Turmy padded back to Natalie, bringing the tentacle with him. Natalie awkwardly patted the tentacle. Tenny made a “buuurrrr” noise.

“Tenny, thank you,” I said. I finally got myself upright again, through with my hoodie still half-off. “Tenny, Tenny I need you to do something for me.”


“That little girl, her name is Natalie. I need you to protect her, please. If that thing comes back again, can you chase it away?”

“Yah!” Tenny trilled. She puffed herself up, tentacles wiggling, pulling back her coal-black lips in a big smile.

“But whatever you do, don’t touch it, okay? You mustn’t touch it. In fact, keep one tentacle wrapped around Lozzie’s arm. Can you do that for me?”

Tenny nodded and did exactly as I requested. In a moment, Natalie, Lozzie, and Tenny were all bound loosely together. Turmy seemed a bit nonplussed and reluctant to join in, but I doubted very much that the Shambler would try to spirit away the cat all by himself. He was peering at something in the front room. I craned my neck and spotted Whistle by the foot of the stairs.

Ah yes, that was exactly what we needed amid all this, a feline-to-canine standoff.

“Heather,” Raine reminded me, gently but firmly. “What do you need?”

I sighed and tugged at my incredibly wet hoodie, still hanging off me like a dead fish. “First I need to get out of this, so I can move. Help me, please, before the Shambler comes back.”

With some deft handiwork — though not before giving her pistol to Praem to hold — Raine managed to get my hoodie up and over my head. I felt several pounds lighter, and I probably was. She dumped it on the floor with an apologetic wince to Praem.

“Floor is better than table,” Praem said.

Twil clicked her tongue. “Washing machine is gonna struggle with that mess.”

“No,” said Praem.

“What next?” Raine asked me. “Talk to us, Heather.”

“I can lead the Shambler away!” I said, hopping and bouncing as I yanked my wet socks off my feet as well. “And I’ve got to go after Edward! I can catch him!”

“Wait!” Evelyn snapped. She was still gripping her bone-wand, though it didn’t quite conceal her shaking. “You know where he is? Heather, you found the bast—” Evelyn flickered a glance at Natalie, still shivering in Lozzie’s hug. “You found him?”

I shook my head. “Not the real him! A fake, like he was using before, but if I can touch it then I might be able to trace the control back to him, if he’s still there! But he might be gone, I don’t know, but I have to try.” I spoke too fast as I half-considered stripping out of my trousers too, but I decided against it. Didn’t want to get arrested for public indecency, if we ended up elsewhere. “I need shoes! Shoes!”

Twil darted into the front room. “On it!”

“Heather,” Evelyn said, visibly losing her temper with me, “in the name of God, please, explain!”

I took a deep breath and steadied myself, then locked eyes with Evelyn. She blinked, as if surprised by something she saw deep inside me.

“Edward interrupted our Slip home,” I said. “He did it with some kind of machine, I don’t understand. Lozzie, it wasn’t your fault that first time, you didn’t do anything wrong.”

Lozzie let out a tiny sigh and went, “puuuuuh.”

I hurried on. “He wanted to talk to me, but I think it was some kind of ploy, a cover for something else, but I can’t figure out what. He was in a magic circle as a protective tripwire and he claimed that it wasn’t really him, just a ‘vessel’.”

Raine nodded. “Like that time at the pub.”

“Yes! Exactly!”

“We couldn’t contact you,” Evelyn snapped. “And Lozzie couldn’t locate you either.”

I shook my head. “He had some kind of Faraday cage, around a cottage. That’s where the Slip took me. A cottage in Devon, or at least that’s what he was claiming. I never got out into the garden to check where we were.”

“Devon?” Evelyn pulled a disgusted face. “Bourgie fu—” She covered the rude word with a cough.

“And he had the Dimensional Shambler too,” I said. “And set her on me with some kind of command. She took me Outside, where he’s been feeding her stay animals, pets, stuff like that. And Natalie!” I pointed at the girl. “But the Shambler hadn’t eaten her. She led me to the girl, to rescue her! I’m certain the Shambler didn’t really want to kill and eat her at all! She’s from here — well, from Manchester. But I rescued her!”

Raine bit her lower lip in thought. Evelyn frowned hard. “Then what the hell is it doing now?”

“I don’t know! But if I drop in on Edward — right on his head — I might be able to catch him!”

Raine frowned at me in concern. “Heather, you’re steaming.”

At first I thought she was being poetic. But then Raine pressed a hand to my forehead and I felt such cool relief. She wasn’t exaggerating, I was burning up as if in the grip of a fever, my skin hot enough to begin drying my t-shirt and soaked trousers.

“I-It’s the reactor,” I said. “I need to dial down, ease down, I-I’ll be okay.”

Twil jumped back into the kitchen with her arms full of shoes, not just my trainers. She dumped them on the floor, kicked mine toward me, and slammed her feet into her own trainers with a one-two stomp.

“Let’s go then!” she cheered. “Come on, let’s kick his arse so hard he can taste his own—”

“Twil,” Evelyn grumbled. Twil cut herself off, but not without a huge grin plastered across her face. She shot me a big thumbs up.

“Well done, big H, well done! We’ve got him, right?!”

“Wait, no,” I stammered. “Like I said, it’s only a remote-controlled vessel, and … and it’s just … ”

I hadn’t expected this. Everything was moving too fast, spinning out of my already tenuous control. Raine scooped up her own shoes from the pile and tugged them onto her feet, then ducked into the magical workshop for a second. She returned tucking her big black combat knife into her waistband, shrugging on her armoured motorcycle jacket, and hauling her home-made riot shield. Praem was helping Evelyn on with her trainers, but the doll-demon was already wearing her smart black shoes.

“We all ready?” Raine said, catching Evelyn’s eye. “You need anything else?”

Evelyn sighed heavily, doing a poor job of covering her anxiety. She gestured vaguely with her bone-wand. “How about a commando unit of Royal Marines?”

Raine clicked her tongue and hissed through her teeth. “Can’t stretch that on short notice. We’ll have to do.”

Praem straightened up and gave Evelyn her arm for support. “Better than any marine.”

“Yeah!” Twil whooped.

Evelyn screwed her eyes up and grimaced. I could see the swear word trapped in her throat, but she didn’t say it out loud.

I took a single, hesitant step back from everybody, from my friends. “Raine, no,” I said, shaking my head. “I didn’t mean for this, I didn’t mean for everybody to come with me. There was nobody there except him.”

“We don’t know that,” Evelyn snapped. “Not for sure. Don’t be absurd.”

“No, no, I can’t—”

Raine shot me an indulgent smile, that beaming grin that she knew I couldn’t resist. “Heather, hey, as if we’d not come with.”

“No!” I hiccuped loudly, then had to clamp down on the rising panic in my voice. Natalie was safe now, but I’d been her anchor, the one telling her she was going to be okay. The last thing that little girl needed to hear was her saviour shaken and afraid and uncertain. I took a sharp breath and tried to rephrase my sudden irrational panic. “I mean, Raine, I need you to all stay here and keep Natalie safe. I-I can do this myself, all I have to do is drop on top of Edward, right where he’s waiting — or, was waiting, if he’s still there. It’s really simple, I can do it!”

I expected a look from Raine — an indulgent sigh or affectionate scepticism, a don’t-be-silly-Heather, a rejection of what I was feeling. But she just glanced at Lozzie instead, and said, “Loz, you and Tenns, you’ve got Natalie safe, right? The big ol’ Shamble-ramble isn’t gonna take her anywhere?”

Lozzie nodded once, hard and determined, such a serious look on her little face. “Got her!”

“Yaaaah!” Tenny trilled.

Natalie made a little whine, burrowing deeper into the protective folds of Lozzie’s poncho.

Raine turned back to me. “We’re coming with. Heather, hey, the girl is safe. You got her out, you did good. We’re coming with you.”

“What about the house?!” I blurted out. “What if Edward is sending something here right now? Somebody needs to stay and watch!”

Evelyn sighed. “Edward is not going to hit this house with mundane asset. If he was going to do that, he would have done so already, when you were gone and out of contact. Besides, look at the front door.”

I blinked in confusion, then craned my neck to see all the way into the front room.

Three spider servitors were clustered around the front door, one on either side and one hanging from the ceiling, all of them watching the door like ambush predators ready for the first sign of movement. Stingers like railway spikes quivered in the air, aching to plunge into vulnerable flesh. Marmite was clutching the wall too, further off to the left, by the stairs. His segmented bone-tentacles were spread out across the room like tripwires.

“Three … ?” I murmured.

“From the attic. Took me enough shouting and Latin to get them into position,” Evelyn grumbled. “They’ll do their job this time.”

“What about the back door?” I gestured wide, scrambling for an excuse — but an excuse for what? “What about the windows? Where’s Zheng?”

“On her way home,” Raine said. “I called her the moment you went missing, she’s already on her way back. Ten minutes, tops. Can we wait ten minutes?”

Evelyn scoffed. “She’ll want to come too.”

“Then we go, now.” Raine said. “Heather, you ready for this?”

“Yes, but— but I can do this myself, I—”

Evelyn snorted. “Oh yes, I’m absolutely going to let you drop yourself straight into the field effect area of an unknown magic circle. Don’t be totally absurd, Heather. This is a real mage you’re dealing with. You require my presence for this. I can counter anything that he’s set up for us.”

I stumbled back another step. Wordless panic gripped my guts. I hiccuped, loudly and painfully. “I … I … I need you to … I need Natalie to be safe. I need her to be safe. Raine, Evee, please, I need—”

I need you to protect me, ten years ago.

Natalie was not me. Her circumstances were not even close to mine. She had not been to Wonderland, or been subjected to the Eye, or had half her soul ripped out. But none of that mattered. As far as abyssal instinct and ancient trauma were concerned, she may as well have been me in miniature. That younger self I held swaddled and safe inside my core, wrapped in so many layers of protection, her long watch finally ended when I’d met Raine and Evelyn and realised I’d been right all along — Natalie was like her, extracted from my mind and made manifest in the flesh. I could not allow this girl to come to harm.

It was completely irrational, but it mattered more than I would ever be able to put into words. I didn’t just want Raine and Evelyn and Twil and Praem to stay here and make sure Natalie was safe, I wanted them to go back in time to save me and Maisie from Wonderland. I wanted to meet my friends ten years earlier than I had done, because then there would be so much less pain.

A seed of doubt germinated in the back of my mind: Edward Lilburne could not have chosen a more perfect victim to arouse my sympathy, my identification, my trauma — and my rage.

Had he engineered this on purpose? Had he chosen Natalie to find this crack in my armour? But why? To paralyse me with indecision and the memory of torment?

All it made me want to do was annihilate him.

I didn’t have time to phrase that suspicion, or chew and digest it properly. Help came in a new form and decided for me.

Click went the metal tip of an umbrella against the floor of the front room. We all looked round.

Sevens-Shades-of-Sunlight, the Yellow Princess in all her soft and sharp glory, starched and prim and icy-cold in her pressed blouse and smart skirt, had appeared behind Lozzie, in a similar manner to the Shambler herself. But Natalie didn’t scream. Perhaps Sevens had the presence of mind to step out from behind the corner first, so as not to scare the girl.

The Yellow Princess locked eyes with me. “I will stay. The house will be safe, Heather. The girl will be safe.”

“Sevens,” I sighed, then hiccuped again, then grunted in pain. “I … thank you.”

“Right on, yellow,” said Raine.

“It seems I am turning into a babysitter,” said the Yellow Princess. “But I make no argument with this.” She looked down at Natalie. “Hello, little one.”

Natalie didn’t say anything, just stared upward at this apparition of fallen royalty. I wondered if she understood what she was looking at.

“She’s also dehydrated and possibly starving,” I said quickly, before my resolve broke again. “She was stuck Outside, in that swamp, for god knows how long. And she needs cleaning, and soon. I don’t know what pathogens might be in the water, the mud, so be careful. Get her washed and hydrated and … and … be safe, okay? Please.”

Lozzie nodded. Tenny emitted a soft “burrrr”. Sevens stared down at Natalie in an act of unspoken communication. Turmy padded over to Sevens on silent paws and sniffed at the hem of her skirt. A sharp flicker from her eyes informed Turmy that this lady was not for rubbing himself against, so Turmy compromised by rubbing himself on her umbrella. Sevens looked very unimpressed for a heartbeat — and Natalie, held in Lozzie’s arms, let out a small, hesitant, but very real laugh.

She was going to be okay. Not like me.

“And she knows,” I spoke up again. “This little girl, she’s in the know, you understand? Lozzie, Sevens, don’t lie to her, don’t pretend it didn’t happen. She was lost Outside. That happened. It was real.”

Sevens lifted her eyes to mine and nodded, gently, softly. She got it.

All the chances I never had.

Evelyn hissed between her teeth, low enough that the girl couldn’t hear. “Making her parents understand is going to be a hell of a job, Heather.”

I shot a look at Evelyn. “We can do that. I can do that. I won’t let the opposite happen!”

“Didn’t say we can’t,” Evelyn grunted. “Just not looking forward to it.”

Raine raised her voice. “Alright, ladies! Make a chain! Hands and feet inside the ride, brace for impact, we’re goin’ in hot!”

I bit my bottom lip, thinking hard. “I’m going to have to slingshot us around Camelot. I-I think I can do this in one go … I think.”

Twil thumbed over her shoulder, back into the magical workshop. “What about the big spooky doorway?”

Evelyn shook her head sharply. “Gateway is too slow, too many other risks. No. We go with Heather. I trust her more than my own fail-safes.”

We got in position with the minimum amount of fuss, despite never having done this before. On one side, Raine linked her arm with mine, handgun and knife tucked safely away inside her clothes, her other arm holding onto her home-made riot shield, ready to cover me from the front. I wrapped two tentacles around her, for safety. On the other side, Praem linked her arm around my other elbow, then held Evelyn around the middle. A bit undignified, but very safe. Evee scowled and gritted her teeth and readied her bone-wand in both hands, walking stick tucked under her armpit, concentration etched on her brow. She relaxed a fraction when I put a tentacle around her shoulders and held on tight. Twil stepped in on Praem’s other side and hooked an arm around the doll-demon. I wrapped another tentacle around her waist, which made Twil go “oop!” in surprise.

“Hey, do we need a countdown?” Raine asked. “Countdown to launch?”

The grin on her face was not just for show. With her arm linked through mine, I could practically feel her vibrating with adrenaline, with the thrill of an upcoming fight. Her muscles sang a silent song of tension and violence. It was a heady cocktail, pressed up right next to me.

“If anybody is counting down, it’ll be me,” I said. “Just brace, this will only take a second once I do it.”

“Every combat drop needs a countdown. On my mark!”

Evelyn hissed. “Don’t call it that, Raine, for pity’s sake.”

“Combat drop,” Praem echoed.

“Not you too,” Evelyn grunted. “Don’t you dare jinx us.”

“On my mark,” said Praem.

Raine laughed. “Praem gets it!”

“Three,” Praem intoned, turning her head to look at me. I nodded, tightened my tentacles, and took a deep breath. Evelyn gripped her bone wand. Twil flexed claws of semi-sold pneuma-somatic flesh and bared all her teeth.

“Hey hey,” Raine said. “I’m supposed to be doing the countdown!”

“Stay safe!” Lozzie called out.


“We’re gonna be fine!” Twil called in return. “Be right back!”

“Everyone close your eyes,” I said.


From over by Sevens, Turmy let out a little “Murrr.


I reached down into the black heart of the Eye’s lessons and pulled out an equation that was fast becoming an old friend, a tool that fit into my hand with the ease of long use, no matter how much it hurt. To slingshot us around Camelot was easy enough, I just had to re-adapt the trick I’d used in the Library of Carcosa. Double the equation on top of itself, leave half of it unsaid, unthought, unused until we were riding the membrane. Teleportation could be achieved, at a high price in blood and pain.

The pieces slid into place, slamming across the surface of my mind in bloody-hot runnels through my neurons, leaving burned flesh and seared thoughts behind.

And in that last split second as reality folded up like a collapsing paper bag, as Twil whooped and Raine braced and Evelyn screwed her eyes up tight against a horror she knew all too well, as Lozzie hugged Natalie tight and Sevens raised her chin to watch us go — the Dimensional Shambler stepped out of the air right in front of my closing eyes.

Like a minnow in the wake of a shark, she stepped toward me, into the transition across the membrane, riding my Slip all the way down, alongside us.



A membrane-skipping slingshot was not an easy feat.

Human beings are not meant to pierce the membrane between reality and Outside. We’re not evolved for it, physically or spiritually. The experience is like whiplash for the soul, being slammed back and forth inside one’s own flesh, jarred out of place in relation to one’s physical self-hood.

A slingshot was more than twice as bad. I used Camelot as a reference point to swing us around before the Slip completed, skimming the surface of the membrane, just like Lozzie’s technique.

Like a skipping stone, bouncing across the water, refusing to sink, held aloft for that crucial moment by a trick of physics as the water itself generated lift. A paradox of motion, written in the mathematics of creation.

That was all a metaphor, of course. But it was the best one I had, and it got the job done.

My aim was improving, too. We crashed back into reality amid the bronze evening light of a Westcountry sunset, flooding through the high windows of a rural Devon cottage, in the middle of that wide open kitchen, right on top of Edward Lilburne’s rickety wooden chair.

It was to Raine’s great credit that she managed to keep her feet and ready her makeshift riot shield, despite letting out a sound like she wanted to be terribly sick all over the floor. Twil didn’t fare quite so well, reeling and stumbling and trying to catch herself on empty air with wind-milling arms, howling with disorientation and pain, dropping to all fours. Praem held fast, Evelyn’s harness and rock, as Evelyn herself slurred out Latin while wincing and hissing, her hands moving across her bone-wand to dispel whatever traps Edward Lilburne might have left for us.

The Dimensional Shambler landed too, right in front of us, a wall of grey muscle. But then she lurched backward as if finally afraid of me, a hopping motion more frog than ape, and knocked over Edward’s chair.

He wasn’t sitting in it.

A moment of chaos and confusion gripped us all. The Shambler did not vanish, but fled to the far wall. Twil turned on the spot, reeling and growling. Raine did the same, trying to stay on her feet but almost failing. Evelyn shouted Latin and then trailed off as silence fell.

I gritted my teeth against the headache pain and lashed at the empty chair with one tentacle, blood running freely from my nose. “He’s not here! No!”

“Gone,” Raine said.

“Maybe he’s still around!” Twil howled, grunting and gripping her own face with the pain and disorientation of the Slip. “And what the hell is that thing doing?!” She waved a hand at the Shambler.

A rough, reedy, raspy voice floated from the corridor beyond the kitchen, or perhaps from deeper in the house, or perhaps upstairs.

“She awaits her master’s voice,” said Edward Lilburne.

His words seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere, then from outdoors, as if floating through the high windows on one side of the kitchen. We all turned every which way, as if expecting attack from anywhere.

“Do you know what magic is good for?” Edward continued.

One of the windows was open just a crack — the voice narrowed, came from there, undoubtedly. He was out in the garden.

“Very little, in fact,” said Edward, as we picked up our feet and began to move. In all the confusion, the adrenaline, the need to hunt him down, I almost missed the sardonic melancholy, the resignation in his tone. “Very little indeed. But you are going to help me make use of it, whether I like it or not. Aren’t you?”

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Heather isn’t thinking clearly, too wrapped up in her own trauma, projecting it onto the girl she’s protecting. But! She did protect her! Mission accomplished. And she’s hardly alone, she doesn’t have to face this abomination by herself, she’s got mages and monsters of her own, a whole family of friendly aberrations at her back, even ones who can apparently talk to the Shambler (well done, Tenny). And she’s not going to let Natalie end up like she did, gaslit by reality and parents who can’t possibly believe. But first, she’s gotta go punch an old man.

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Next week, it’s a boss fight, right? Right?! Time to slap a mage upside the head?! Surely, there can’t be anything more going on here?

pale student of unhallowed arts – 17.7

Content Warnings

Dead animals/animal death/animal abuse.
Rotten corpses.
Child abuse.

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Despite my reluctant yet pivotal participation in more than a few episodes of physical combat, I did not possess the makings of a skilled fighter.

It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in violence as a tool; I was no pacifist, at least not any more. My experiences with Alexander had forever changed my mind about that, even if it had taken me some time, not to mention a bit of Outsider help, to reach my eventual conclusion. But there is a big difference between killing — which I could make myself do, when needed — and fighting. I simply didn’t have it in me to ‘throw down’, as Raine might so succinctly put it. I was never up for a scrap, a knocking of heads, a pub brawl. I doubted I could ever learn the proper way to throw a punch, let alone the subtle art of not getting punched as badly as one is punching one’s opponent. Not like Raine, or Zheng, with skill won by years of dedicated practice wedded to a natural propensity for easy violence, even if employed for good causes.

I was never going to win a boxing match or knock somebody out with an uppercut, not with my scrawny muscles and clumsy enthusiasm. I suspected that if Raine handed me her gun, I’d be absolutely terrified at pointing it all over the place and accidentally blowing a hole in the wall. A little hypocritical perhaps, considering what I could do with brain-math.

No matter how much abyssal biology I reverse-engineered from my memories of the sharp, quick, graceful thing who had swum in the abyss, no matter how much of that truth I manifested into reality with self-modification and bio-hacking, I was never going to learn how to handle myself in a punch up.

What I did have was instinct.

The Dimensional Shambler filled my vision, taut grey skin inches from my face, rolling over muscles bunched like steel cables, blocking my view of the cottage kitchen and Edward Lilburne beyond. Her vacant, angler-fish face gaped down at me, pelagic eyes wide and unblinking, toothy jutting jaw hanging open as if mouth-breathing in atmosphere too thin for her lungs. Arms longer than her body ratcheted out like the limbs of a praying mantis, then swept shut to slam me in a bear hug.

One did not need training to know it was a bad idea to get caught by that.

A normal human being could not have escaped, not from a standing start, but my body remembered this feeling. Abyssal instinct recalled the pattern, deep in muscle memory. This wasn’t the first time I’d had a slab of muscle appear out of thin air and try to grab me — and no matter how impressive and weird and alien, no matter how strong and predatory and threatening, the Shambler had nothing on Zheng.

I also had a set of built-in springs, which does help.

The Shambler swept her arms shut, but I was already grabbing the door frame with half my tentacles and slamming against the floor with the other half. Adrenaline pounded through my veins as I let the tentacles themselves do most of the thinking.

I flew backward like a squid on a plume of jet-propelled water.

The Shambler’s arms scythed through empty air, slamming into her own sides like she was trying to hug herself. She lost her balance and stumbled forward.

In the split second before I hit the wall, during the moment the Shambler overbalanced, I lashed out with one tentacle. My instincts were running faster than my conscious mind. Truth was, I had no idea what the creature was doing. Edward’s bizarre whistle had clearly acted as some kind of trigger, a magical signal to force the Shambler to attack me, or to slip the thing’s leash, like a hungry Rottweiler. Or had my communication worked? Was it hugging me, as a thank you? The idea seemed absurd. But I didn’t have time to think. Instinct had made me dodge, and instinct said touch.

Touch the Shambler on my own terms, make physical contact. Define her in hyperdimensional mathematics, locate Edward’s control. Then trace the control or the summoning back to Edward, back to the mage.

What I didn’t consider, in that moment of pure instinct, was why Edward would make such an obvious mistake.

Should have let the Shambler grab me. Would have saved us both a lot of time.

The tip of one of my tentacles lashed out toward the Shambler’s exposed flank. Inside my mind, at the speed of thought, I slid my ego down into that lightless filth where the Eye’s lessons lurked. Preparing for brain-math, at the moment of contact.

My tentacle tip was millimetres from the taut grey skin when the Shambler vanished.

Just gone. Empty air. She hadn’t even looked up, hadn’t finished overbalancing, hadn’t recovered.

I completed my arc through the air and crashed into the wall opposite the kitchen door. I was a tangle of lashing tentacles and sprawling limbs, clattering to the floor tiles with the wind knocked out of my lungs.

“W-what— how—”

Edward spoke from the kitchen. “They compete with each other, like most large predatory organisms do.”

I scrambled to my feet as quickly as I could, confused and panting and a little bit bruised from the impact. Adrenaline pounding through my veins made me shake and quiver, made me feel like my feet were going to slide out from under me, like my head was going to explode from pressure. I was panting through my nose. Tentacles helped, they steadied me against the wall and then fanned out into a ring of protection.

Not a moment too soon.

The Shambler reappeared on my left, filling the corridor from floor to ceiling with a wall of grey meat. She stood at her full height, stretched out like a gorilla on hind legs, but so much taller. Her head and shoulders bumped the ceiling. A three-fingered paw descended, straight-armed, in an attempt to slap the top of my head.

I scrambled sideways, hissing loudly, two tentacles whipping up to try to catch the creature’s wrist.

One tentacle almost made skin-to-skin contact. I braced again for brain-math, to plunge into the impression the Shambler left on the mathematical substrate of reality.

Again, with only millimetres to spare, the Shambler vanished.

I struck empty air, hissing in frustration, my tentacles whip-cracking against nothing. I whirled on the spot, anticipating the marine-ape thing was going to appear behind me again. I must have looked like an octopus in a whirlpool.

“They likely evolved somewhere analogous to Earth,” Edward carried on, his voice a smoky rasp. “Close enough that they were shaped by similar kinds of intra-specific competition.”

Edward was still sitting on his rickety wooden chair, safe inside his own magic circle. He still wore that subtle smile on his lips, that knowing look that said only he understood what was truly happening here, while I was merely subject to the process he had set in motion. Behind his wire-frame glasses, his wide, owlish eyes twinkled with the kind of glee that one only ever sees in terrible old men.

I tried to ignore him for a moment. I whipped my head left and right, up and down the corridor, braced for the Shambler to reappear. To my right was the door to the garden. Beyond that was a door through the chicken-wire Faraday cage, and then the overgrown garden itself, drenched in the slowly bronzing sunlight of late afternoon. To my left, the empty corridor, white floor tiles, and still-life paintings on the walls.

A faint organic stench hung in the air — brackish water and estuary mud.

“It thinks you are competition,” Edward was saying. “Or perhaps a mate, though I have no notion of how the things breed, and frankly I do not wish to discover the answer. You probably don’t smell right for a mate, but you’re putting out all the correct signals for a threat. Its flesh will be resonating with that.”

I whirled on him, struggling not to hiss like an angry snake. “What are you trying to do?”

“How did it avoid you so quickly?” he spoke as if in answer to a question I had not asked. “There is your answer. You are a competing predator of the same type. It thinks you are one of its own kind, and it is reacting appropriately, with the same measures it would take against another of its species, or perhaps a competitor of similar stature. I have encouraged it to do this.”

That subtle smile again. Paper-thin, mushroom-pale, perplexing.

I stared at Edward, trying to process his words, trying to bring the rational part of my mind to the fore. What was he trying to do here?

Did the Shambler understand I could Slip? Yes, that was the implication. She knew I could send her Outside, and she had evolved to compete in doing exactly this — combat via first touch, with the winner as whoever grabbed the other and dragged them elsewhere.

And Edward was going to do what? Watch us fight? I wasn’t a fighter. If the Shambler grabbed me and spirited me away, Outside, I’d just come right back. He must have known that. Besides, the moment one of us made contact with the other, I could use brain-math to locate the strings wrapped around the Shambler’s mind. I could follow them back to the puppeteer, the summoner, Edward himself. Even if he’d used an apprentice or underling, that would still be an opening, a chink in his armour, a lead on his real location. He must know that.

He wanted to watch me Slip. Back and forth? But why? He’d already refused instruction in the Eye’s lessons.

A puzzle piece was missing. I was lacking some vital insight. Edward was closing a trap around my thoughts and actions, but I couldn’t even see the jaws.

Abyssal instinct presented an elegant solution: scream and leap.

My tentacles whipped out and grabbed the frame of the kitchen door, a battery of muscular springs winding tight in an instant. For a split second I was suspended like the payload of a slingshot, pointed across the kitchen, aimed at Edward. I opened my mouth in an angry hiss, a warning hiss, a fighting noise. Edward must have realised what I was doing, because he flinched hard, like a man before a charging bull — but a man who knew he was safe behind bulletproof glass.

Time to pit our reflexes against each other. Could Edward vacate his vessel fast enough to avoid me reaching down the connection and into his brain?

My tentacles hurled me forward. I shot through the kitchen door in a scrambling, hissing, incoherent leap at the old man in the rickety chair.

He had less than half a second to react. Slow, too slow.

Then the Shambler stepped out of a sunbeam on my right, spread her arms wide, and caught my flying leap like a cat bringing down a crow.

Her grab knocked the wind out of me. My tentacles whiplashed, spiking my sides with a deep, dragging pain inside my torso. My feet kicked, held off the ground by sheer muscle power and the height of the Outsider marine-ape thing.

“There—” Edward had time to say. But he didn’t have time to finish the sentence.


At the speed of thought, I dredged the infernal machinery of the Eye from the deep places of my mind. My trilobe reactor slammed biochemical control rods all the way out, giving me the energy and stability I needed. This would be easier than every other time I’d had to perform this piece of hyperdimensional mathematics. Physical contact, limitless energy, and a clear, straightforward purpose. The equation burned and hissed across the surface of my mind, searing my thoughts and sealing the pain for the moment the split second passed.

The Shambler — all five hundred pounds of grey meat and Outsider muscle, of curving tooth and three-toed paw and jutting jaw and saucer-sized eyeballs — unrolled before me in the language of the gods. Her definition was instantly laid out figure by figure in hyperdimensional mathematics, her impression on the substrate of the universe revealed before me in all the infinite complex glory of any living, thinking being.

This was going to hurt so much when I was done.

But I didn’t have to unravel her, or pick apart the bits of her that had gone wrong, or even understand a single thing about her. I only had to find the strings, identify the parts of her equation that didn’t fit — Edward’s control.

I was deluged with an impression of her, regardless of my aims. The Shambler was a creature of slow muscle and thick mud. Her memories were of quiet waiting, long observation, silent stalking. I passed over faint impressions of lurking eye-deep in sluggish muck, gripped by starvation-hunger, punctuated by short bursts of hot, red violence, the crunching of bones, and the hurried filling of a multi-chambered stomach.

I didn’t linger. I looked for the alien touch, the foreign object, the external control.

And I found nothing.

The Shambler was the Shambler, unaltered and untouched. She was totally in control of herself, free from hidden magical strings or mental control or the force of summoning contract. There was nothing in here that wasn’t her own will.

Edward wasn’t controlling her at all.

Time resumed in a rush of panic and pain.

I crashed out of the brain-math in a splutter of nosebleed. Ice-pick headache lanced behind my eyes and stomach muscles slammed together like my body was trying to purge a sickness. The afternoon sunlight flooded the cottage kitchen all around us, blotted out by the wall of grey meat that had caught me in a pair of arms longer than I was tall.

The Shambler was pulling me into a bear hug, crushing me against her front. I was spluttering and heaving, reeling from failed brain-math, confused and unable to gather myself. My tentacles whipped out, arcing for her face, running on instinct as they flushed with paralytic toxins and contact poisons. A hiss tried to climb up my bloody throat. My skin tingled with the need to sprout defensive spines. I was trapped, caught, too close, get away get away get away!

Edward whistled again, a haunting unnatural piping.

My payload of deadly toxin and sprouting spines was inches from the Shambler’s vacant face, about to hit her, force her off me, drive her back.

Then the world shimmered as if seen through a veil of water, turned into dark grey fog, and blew away in the wind.


The Shambler’s method of cross-membrane translation felt nothing like a Slip, neither my own brute-force way of hyperdimensional mathematics, nor via Lozzie’s less well understood technique. One moment the world was there, in light and colour as the Shambler crushed me against her chest and my tentacles were about to slam into her face to inject a pint of neurotoxin — and then everything turned to fog, like reality was a dream, fading to nothing in the harsh dark sunrise of a dying star.

I didn’t even shut my eyes, because there was nothing to shut them against. The world, the Shambler, myself, all was mist inside the membrane.

We could have been held in that state for a second, or an hour, or a year. In the membrane there was no such thing as time. The abyss was close, just the other side of a thought, but in this non-place there was no such thing as thought.

Then, chaos.

Reality smashed back into my senses, like I was a swimmer surfacing from the ocean into the middle of a naval battle.

Grey sky tumbling overhead, seen through mottled grey tree trunks and hanging sheets of rotten vegetation. My own voice hissing, screeching, the taste of iron in my mouth and nose, wet sticky crimson all down my face. The Shambler dropping me and lurching away from me, like I was a red-hot fire poker searing her flesh. My tentacles whipping out at her, shedding poison and toxin into the air — then missing as she vanished.

I landed with a wet splash, still hissing and screeching, in about three feet of muddy water.

If I hadn’t been trying to hit the Shambler with my tentacles, I probably could have caught myself. Instead I splashed down straight onto my backside, feet slipping in the ooze. I yelped in shock as the water closed over my head, swallowing a disgusting mouthful of the stagnant gunk. I burst from the water again, lurching to my feet, spitting and retching and panting. I tried to scrub the muddy water out of my eyes on the sleeve of my hoodie, but my clothes were soaked through. All I managed to do was smear the nosebleed around. I staggered and almost slipped over again, socks and toes sinking into the mud. I had to anchor myself with my tentacles, then wiped at my eyes with both hands until my vision was clear.

The Dimensional Shambler was gone.

And I was standing in a swamp, soaked to the bone, Outside.

Grey. Grey everywhere. Grey muddy water stretched off in every direction, thick as pudding in some places, thinner in others, like the spot where I’d landed. The mud was broken occasionally by low banks of higher ground, barely dry, covered in wet grey moss and glistening grey slime. Grey trees were rooted in the mud, massive things with trunks as wide as a car — or at least, they looked like trees at first glance. Once I stared for a moment I began to doubt my judgement. Their ‘branches’ were arranged in a swirl pattern, almost akin to a bony hand, like some kind of morbid Halloween decoration reaching toward the sky. Grey vegetation hung from those branches, like sheets of ivy or kudzu, but in tiny repeating swirl patterns that drew one’s attention inward, as if down into a pattern deeper than mere surface. Here and there they touched the grey, muddy water, and had turned to wet rot.

The air stank of salt, sulphur, and soil, rich and dark and organic. I winced and wrinkled my nose.

Grey skies sat low overhead, a blanket of slow-moving lead, so thick it left this world plunged into a permanent grey dusk.

Grey horizon showed in snatched slivers between the trees. Far to my left, it looked like the trees dribbled out, giving way to an endless blank mud-flat. To my right, the trees got bigger and bigger, until the ones in the distance rivalled a Redwood back on Earth. Far, far away, far past the trees, I could see a hint of something like a tower, made of regular grey blocks.

Distant sounds floated through the swamp — a throaty hoot not unlike a chimpanzee, answered from far away by a similar voice, then silenced by a wet, lumbering slurch somewhere deeper off in the swamp.

I straightened up and sighed. “Oh well.”

This experience would have been very disorienting for somebody who didn’t know what was going on. An unsuspecting person, even a mage, would probably panic when whisked off to some unknown place, grey and dying, with no way home. But I’d been to far worse places than a muddy swamp. This was nothing. It wasn’t even that threatening.

Besides, I wasn’t trapped.

My bioreactor was dialling down a few notches, easing the control rods back into their channels, though I was starting to flash-sweat with a fever induced by my abyssal immune system. I’d swallowed at least one mouthful of this swamp mud. No telling what I’d ingested. But my reactor would purge that from my body given a minute or two. I was shivering, hot and cold at the same time as the reactor pumped me full of heat.

The worst part was my mobile phone. I fished it out of my pocket and found it was already dead. The screen was blank, the insides were full of water.

“Wonderful,” I hissed through chattering teeth, shivering with a fever. “You owe me a new phone, Edward. I’m not having Evelyn pay for it. We’ll take the money for it after we kill you, I suppose.” I ended with a tut.

Still no sign of the Shambler.

I turned in a slow circle to check my rear. The soupy swamp-mud dragged at my knees, slurping and sucking at my feet. I stared at the trunks of the dubious-looking trees, to see if she was observing me from cover.

“Pull prey Outside, then leave it alone,” I muttered. “Wait for it to weaken, from fear and exhaustion.” I looked up at the leaden sky. The air was still but quite cold. Without my bioreactor I would have been losing body heat fast. “Or from exposure,” I added.

I took a deep breath and braced myself for brain-math. Back to reality. Could I aim well enough to land right on top of Edward’s chair? That would circumvent his tripwire magic circle. Or should I go home, shouting for Lozzie? Should I grab Raine and Zheng and make a plan?

No, land right on Edward’s vessel. End this, fast.

I didn’t even get to start the equation when the Dimensional Shambler appeared right in front of me.

A wall of grey muscle displaced the muddy water in a wave against my front. Her arms ratcheted wide for another bear-hug. Vacant saucer-like eyes fixed on me, jaw hinging open.

I hissed and screeched and whipped out at her with neurotoxin in my tentacles.

She vanished.

“What the … ?” I stood there for a moment, panting and shaking with the sudden burst of adrenaline. Had she known I was about to Slip? Hands on my chest, I tried to still my racing heart. “No, no, don’t do this. No.”

I reached for the Eye’s lessons and tried again.

That time she appeared on my left, close enough to make me flinch and stumble and almost go sprawling in the mud a second time. I screeched in her face and tried to strike her with enough toxin to kill an elephant, but she was gone before I had time to blink.

The third time I was ready, expecting her to appear — but she waited the single split second it took for me to hesitate, then came in with her shoulder low, darting forward through the water, throwing me off balance with a slop of muddy ooze and stinking filth.

And then she vanished again, and the swamp returned to grey quiet.

Panting, wheezing, I turned in a circle in the swamp mud, eyes trying to see in every direction at once, tentacles fanned out and ready.

She was trying to exhaust me. This was how they worked, how they hunted, or perhaps how they fought amongst their own kind. She would disrupt every attempt at leaving. I had a sneaking suspicion that if I managed to Slip out, she would follow me. The Shambler didn’t seem to have taken any damage from the Slip, but I would have to expend energy and pay the price of pain with every time I went back to reality. She could follow me and grab me and bring me here, over and over again, until I was exhausted and spent and made into easy prey.

Of course, she didn’t know about my bioreactor. If pressed, I could do this longer than her.

If pressed, I could use other hyperdimensional mathematics.

I could simply kill her, pulverise her with pure energy, set her on fire, tear all her limbs off.

I raised my voice so it would carry through the grey jungle, but it quivered more than I’d wanted. “If you don’t let me go, I will kill you. Do you understand? I will kill you, and there’s nothing you can do to stop me. Nothing you can—”

And there she was.

I hiccuped in surprise.

Off to my left, perhaps thirty or forty feet away through the tangle of ashen branches and rotting swirl-leaves, the Shambler crouched in a muddy wallow. I was certain she hadn’t been there a second ago. She was barely visible, her taut grey hide blending in with the trees and the mud. A perfect ambush predator for this environment. I only saw her because of her huge black eyes, a pair of oily disks floating in the mottled grey.

We watched each other for a second or two. She made no effort to move.

“Is Edward commanding you somehow?” I called out. “Help me understand what you want! Are you treating me like prey? What are you doing?” I flared my tentacles wider. “I can kill you, if you keep trying to stop me! I don’t want to, but I will!”

The Shambler blinked. The twin pools of oily black vanished into the grey background, and did not return. She’d gone again.

“Clever trick,” I sighed. “From camouflage to … gone … ”

Then I saw the island.

The Shambler had been crouched right in front of it. ‘Island’ was perhaps too grandiose a word; it was little more than an outcropping of jagged grey rock which rose a few feet above the floor of the swamp, perhaps fifteen feet in diameter. I’d missed it earlier, hidden as it was among the trees and the muck, crumbling at the edges, with a few patches of weird bristly grey moss around the base.

Sticking out of a crack in the rocks was a strip of muddy, dirty, torn blue fabric.

“ … okaaaaay,” I whispered. “What am I looking at? Did you want me to see that?”

The Shambler declined the invitation to appear and answer my question, so I sighed heavily, rolled my eyes, and set about trudging toward the island.

Mud sucked at my feet and ankles. My wading motion stirred up an awful stench of organic rot from the depths of the water. I took each footstep with cringing care, feeling before myself with a pair of tentacles, using the others to ward off any unseen ambushers from behind the trees I passed. I was afraid of cutting my feet open on a sharp rock or a pointy stick beneath the water. My abyssal immune system would incinerate anything that got into a cut, but the pain could still debilitate me. The last thing I needed was a hole in my foot. And I was still feverish, my body fighting off the contents of the gunk I’d swallowed earlier.

I made an awful lot of noise wading through that muddy swamp. I exerted conscious effort to dull the rainbow-strobing of my tentacles. Didn’t want some curious predator seeing me through the trees, though there was nothing I could do about my pink hoodie, still standing out even if I was drenched with muddy water.

Something must have sensed me though — when I was halfway to the island I heard a distant whistle-piping sound, not unlike the weird whistles that Edward Lilburne had used to signal the Shambler. The ethereal sound carried through the still air between the trees, a phantom piping. A second whistle replied on my opposite side, far away, weird and haunting and not remotely human.

When I stopped to listen, a third whistle joined in and cut off the previous pair, as if they’d figured out I was listening to them. They fell silent again.

Perhaps that was their language. That would explain a lot. Had Edward learned to speak it?

I reached the edge of the island and slopped up onto the fringe of exposed mud, water streaming from my clothes. The rock was cracked and weathered into ridges and furrows, rising up out of the swamp like a tiny piece of seaside cliff. I stopped and stared at the scrap of blue.

It was a collar.

A dog’s collar, with a paw-print pattern and a little brass tag. Torn and chewed.

My hands were clenched hard inside my hoodie’s pocket, nails digging into my skin, so I reached down with a tentacle and wiped the grey mud off the metal disk. There was a name — I must have read it, but I couldn’t take it in, I couldn’t process what this meant. The name was followed by an address. A Manchester address.

I dropped the collar, then peered into the cracks among the rocks, and found exactly what I was looking for.


I’m not a biologist — well, technically I’m not, at least when it comes to anything except my own slow self-modification, and maybe a bit of pop-biology absorbed from too many youtube videos about marine life. But even I could tell the bones had probably come from Earth, not out here. Small, thin, yellow-white bones, scattered in the low places of the rock formation. Some of them retained traces of red, but all were stripped of every last scrap of meat, sucked clean. Some of the larger ones had been cracked for marrow. I spotted half a skull and couldn’t be sure what it was, but it looked vaguely canine. Another collar caught my eye — brown this time, with a length of leash still attached. It was gnawed and chewed as if something had tried to eat the leather.

“He’s been feeding it,” I murmured, just to hear the sound of my own voice amid this strange horror. “Feeding it stolen pets? Training it with rewards and food and … ”

A sharp scent caught in my nose, just a hint in the still and stagnant swamp air, beneath the salt and the mud. Stronger than vegetable rot, meaty and vile, that smell tickled some instinctive horror in the base of my brain-stem.

I managed to unclench my hands so I could pull myself up onto the rocks. My heart was thudding in my ribs, fearing the worst. Jagged bits of stone stabbed at my feet through my wet socks, my tentacles gripped and pulled, my soaked clothes weighed me down, but I pulled myself up to where the rocks flattened out, beyond the reach of the swamp.

“No,” I said, my voice breaking. “No, no.”

A human corpse was lying on the rocks.

A young man or teenage boy, though it was hard to tell, exactly. He must have been dead for days, perhaps several weeks. He was still fully dressed in baggy jeans and a black t-shirt, with a pair of trainers on his feet. His flesh had mummified, turned dry and taut and greyish on his exposed face and forearms, which made no sense at all; this was a swamp, the air was full of moisture, he should have rotted. No telling how anything worked out here, Outside. Perhaps that was why the smell of a rotting corpse wasn’t too overpowering — just enough to stir revulsion and horror, but not enough to make my stomach rebel.

His lips were peeled back from his teeth by the drying process. His eyelids stood open, shrunken eyes staring up at the grey sky overhead. His tuft of brown hair was turning grey as well, as if consumed by the colourless swamp. He was laid out flat on his back, as if placed there post-mortem. Two bite wounds showed in the mummified flesh of his left arm, neat and precise. Otherwise, he was untouched.

I shook my head in mounting horror. Had to wrap a tentacle around myself to steady my nerves.

Then I noticed the Shambler again. She was standing off to the right of the rocky outcrop, twenty or thirty feet away, stretched up to her full height and watching me openly. One of her paws was clinging to an overhead branch. I stared back, slowly spreading my tentacles, not sure if I should hiss and spit in threat-display, or turn and walk away.

Instead, I called out to her. “Edward tried to make you into a man-eater? Why show me this?” I gestured down at the dead man, cringing and feeling vile, wishing I could roll him into the swamp. This was no fit place for a burial. “Are you trying to apologise? Threaten me? Why did you want me to see this?” I raised my voice further, losing control. “What is this!? What are you—”

A blur of orange leapt up in my peripheral vision. I flinched, whirling around, a hiss rising up my throat.

A cat.

A live cat, absolutely unmistakable. A marmalade orange tomcat was crouched on the rocks on the opposite side of the corpse.

He was quite old indeed, his muscle gone to soft fat, his fur still thick but no longer uniform. A pair of raggedy stumps was all that was left of his ears. Rheumy eyes peered out from a permanently exhausted, sad-looking expression, the kind that some older cats grow into, like a tiny little orange old man scowling up at me.

He had a green kerchief around his neck instead of a collar, and mud in his fur and on his face, but he wasn’t soaking wet or coated in the grey muck. He stared up at me with all the defiant feline alarm such an old gentleman could muster, then let out a little hiss.

“What,” I croaked out loud. That was the last thing I’d expected.

I glanced back at the Shambler, but she was gone again.

A tiny, terrified, trembling voice cried out from down among the rocks, from where the cat had been hiding — a human voice, speaking English.

“Turmy, no!”

Flapping yellow plastic shot from a gap in the rocks, engulfed the cat, and scooped him up. He hissed at me again, unwilling to back down even as he was hoisted into the air. The sight was so strange that for a moment I didn’t know what I was looking at, like a magic eye picture that refused to resolve, because something like this should not be seen Outside.

A little girl, maybe nine or ten years old, had darted from her hiding place amid the rocks and swept the cat up into her arms. She was wearing a yellow plastic raincoat over a thin jumper, and jogging bottoms tucked into a pair of purple wellington boots.

She was filthy and terrified. Long dark hair was plastered against her skull with sweat and mud. She looked pale, exhausted, very hungry and very thirsty and very afraid. Dark rings had formed around desperate eyes. The look in her face was more animal than human, running on instinct and terror.

Children were never, ever meant to look like that. My heart almost folded up.

She hugged the cat tight to her chest and stared up at me in naked terror, eyes wide and filling with tears, trying to swallow a whimper.

It took me a second to realise. We were Outside, she could see my tentacles.

Between my six extra appendages held outward in a threat display, the blood smeared on my face, and my sopping wet clothes drenched with muddy water, I probably looked like some kind of swamp monster.

“It’s okay!” I croaked. I put both my hands out, palms open, and lowered my tentacles, angling them behind me to make myself less threatening. “It’s okay! I’m a person, I’m human!” Technically a lie, but that hardly mattered. “It’s okay! I’m not going to hurt you.”

I was terrible with children, but I don’t think I needed a degree in professional childcare techniques to know the right thing to say to a terrified little girl, lost Outside.

A terrified little girl, nine or ten years old, lost and alone beyond the walls of reality.

She’s me, the thought came clear as the sun amid all this grey. She’s like I was.

The girl stared up at me like I was a space alien, about to abduct her from her bed, or pull her head off her shoulders and eat her brains. She was doing a very admirable job of not crying, brave little thing, but it was a losing battle. The cat couldn’t decide if he should get comfortable in her arms, or stare me down to keep me away.

I stepped sideways so the corpse wasn’t between us, then crouched down so we were eye level with each other.

“It’s okay, it’s all right,” I said, trying to purge the shake from my voice. This girl needed an adult, confident and decisive, not me hiccuping and shying away from danger. Raine, I told myself, be like Raine, right now.

I tried to smile, but I suspect it was more of a blood-soaked rictus.

“My name’s Heather,” I said all in a rush, tripping over my words. “The tentacles on my sides, they’re part of me and they’re very strong, and sometimes I use them to fight bad people, but I’m not going to hurt you. Not with them, or any other way, I mean. I think I can get you out of here. Okay? I can! I can get you out! What’s your name?”

The girl lost her battle against her own tears. Her face crumpled with the pressure of long-resisted fear, eyes filling with water, lips wobbling as she tried to choke down a web sob. The cat in her arms nuzzled into her chest, doing his best.

“Nat,” she said through the crying. It took me a moment to realise it was a word.

“Nat!” I echoed. “Short for Natalie?”

She nodded, tears running down her face, making tracks in the dirt. I nodded too, smiling brightly, pretending we were anywhere except in the middle of an Outsider swamp, surrounded by alien life and sucking mud and a giant gorilla monster that was trying to keep us here.

“I had a friend in primary school named Natalie,” I lied. Didn’t matter. “It’s a really pretty name. It’s a good name. Natalie, I can get you out of here, I’m kind of like a sort of wizard, I can—”

Natalie had decided that I was worth trusting, or perhaps merely that I was preferable to the Shambler and the other denizens of the swamp. She crossed the rocky surface between us in four quick strides, loose wellington boots slapping against her legs, and slammed into me with all the desperation only a terrified child could muster. One arm flew around my neck and she buried her sobbing face in my shoulder, clinging on tight enough to choke. She didn’t drop the cat, to my amazement, but cradled him with her other arm, almost but not quite squishing him between us.

“It’s okay, it’s going to be okay, it’s okay,” I said, patting her back and feeling very awkward indeed.

The hug was smearing swamp water all down her front, getting her clothes wet. She was already filthy, but I wanted to avoid any further risk of this girl getting an infection. I was able to fight off whatever pathogens lurked in this swamp water, but she was a baseline human, and a child. And starving.

Same for the cat. While Natalie clung around my neck and cried herself hoarse, I quickly brought a tentacle close to the cat, so he could sniff me. Old-man eyes squinted and cat nose twitched. He didn’t seem quite convinced by my scent, but he refrained from hissing or clawing at me.

“Natalie, Natalie I have to stand up, okay?” I murmured to the girl. “I have to stand up and look out for the … the … ”

“The gorilla,” she sobbed into my shoulder. She sniffed hard, trying her best to stop crying. “I know.”

After some murmured reassurances, I managed to get Natalie disengaged from my front. I didn’t know what I was saying, just nonsense platitudes, but she was assured I wasn’t about to either eat her or abandon her here. For a moment she hung onto the sleeve of my hoodie with a white-knuckle grip, so I put my hand in hers and held on tight, then craned my neck to look around. I couldn’t see the Shambler anywhere nearby. She wasn’t watching us from the swamp floor or lurking behind us on the rocks or peering between the trees.

I turned back to Natalie, trying to figure out what to do, what this all meant.

Natalie was staring at me, wide-eyed and still terrified, dark hair plastered to her skull. I saw myself standing there, ten years ago. I wasn’t insensible to the comparison, it was too obvious. Protective need burned inside my chest like a slug of molten steel. Abyssal instinct agreed too, which surprised me; I’d never met this girl before, but I would fight the Shambler right down to tooth and claw before I let it keep her here.

But it wasn’t that simple. I glanced at the corpse lying on the rocks, uneaten and barely touched. The Shambler had not eaten that human being. And little Natalie would be no match for the Shambler’s muscle, if it wanted fresh meat.

I frowned in confusion. This was making less and less sense. I needed to get this girl home, but I couldn’t just Slip back to Edward with her in tow — if the Shambler would even let us go without me killing it first. The smart move would be to drop Natalie in front of a police station and then Slip back out, but the Shambler might follow her instead and then snatch her again, and then she might never be found.

Natalie whimpered, eyes flicking to my tentacles. The cat looked like he wanted to hiss at me again.

“Sorry!” I blurted out, trying to reel them back in. They’d been creeping outward, circling around Natalie from behind, building a protective cage without me even thinking about doing so. “They just … they do that, when I’m angry or thinking or … or trying to protect somebody. I’m trying to protect you right now. I’m trying to figure out how to … where to … ” I sighed hard and made an effort to pull myself together. “My tentacles are very strong. Let me put one around your shoulders. That way the big gorilla thing can’t pull us apart if it attacks. Okay?”

“Mm, mm!” Natalie made a desperate sound, worming her hand out of mine and gesturing for a tentacle. She wanted protection, she just didn’t want it lurking behind her.

I put a tentacle in her hand so she could understand what it felt like, that it was just flesh, just a normal appendage. Then I wound it up her arm and over her shoulders in a hug through the yellow raincoat — a Slip-proof safety harness. She looked uncomfortable for a moment, then wrapped both of her arms around the cat again, trying to bite back a whimper. The cat nuzzled her chin.

“Okay, I’ve got you safe,” I said.

Natalie nodded, trying to be brave. Her lips quivered. “Octopus lady?”

“Yes!” I smiled, trying to look bright and wholesome, like we were in a children’s after-school television show. “That’s right, octopus lady. Heather, that’s my name, but you can call me octopus lady if you want.”

Natalie nodded again, more enthusiastic. I hoped she liked octopuses.

I nodded at the cat in her arms. I needed time to think, to plan. “Your cat, he—”

“Turmy,” she told me.

“Turmy, yes,” I echoed. Turmy seemed to recognise his name, looking up at us and then out at the swamp beyond the outcropping of rocks. “Turmy’s a very brave cat, isn’t he? Has he been protecting you too, before I got here?”

Natalie nodded. I sensed she was just old enough to understand that an aged house cat was not capable of protecting her from the Shambler. I was coming off as patronising. I cleared my throat and went for what I needed.

“How long have you been here, Natalie? A few hours, or longer?”

“Don’t know,” she said, shaking her head. Her hair was stiff with dried mud.

“Has the sun gone up and down?” I asked. She shrugged. Maybe there wasn’t a sun here, beyond the clouds. Stupid question. “Have you slept?” A nod. “Are you hurt anywhere?” Shake shake. “Was … don’t look at the dead body, but was he here when you arrived?”

A nod, then she said, “There’s another, too. Down in the rocks. All … rotten and bones and … mm.”

I gave her another hug, gently. She seemed like she was holding on okay.

“Natalie, what’s your family name? Can you tell me that?”

With a few more moments of gentle questioning, I got the details we might need — Natalie Skeates, a Manchester phone number, and an address to match. Daddy was a teacher, Mummy worked in an office.

“One more thing, Natalie,” I said. “I need to know about the big gorilla monster. Did it bring you here?”

She nodded, sniffing hard to clear her nose and throat. “Grabbed me,” she said in a raw little voice.

“Where from? Was there anybody else there? Was there an old man?”

She blinked twice — then nodded. She panted between her words as she spoke. “Turmy got out. Bad Turmy. He was hissing and hissing at something. And I wasn’t supposed to go out into the back alley. But Turmy was there and he was scared. So I picked him up and I wasn’t supposed to and there was a monster.”

“It’s okay, it’s okay,” I murmured. “I’ll take you back home, I promise. But there was an old man, before the gorilla grabbed you?”

Natalie nodded. I opened my mouth again, but then bit off my words. Was she just telling me what I wanted to hear?

“The old man had a whistle,” she said. “He whistled. I didn’t like it.”

My heart leapt. This girl had seen the real Edward Lilburne, in the flesh, whistling to the Shambler, feeding it or training it.

I had to steel myself for something I didn’t want to do.

“Okay, Natalie, okay. I’m gonna get you home, but … I’m going to have to deal with the big gorilla monster first, and that might be ugly. I might have to kill it. So I want you to—”

Natalie’s eyes leapt up and over my head. She screamed the kind of horrible high-pitched scream that only little girls in terror could muster.

In the same moment, Turmy sprang out of her arms, hissing and spitting, his fur bristling, looking like he wanted to claw at the air.

I lurched to my feet and whirled around, the rest of my tentacles arching wide, flushing deep red and warning yellow, filling with paralytic toxins and preparing to sprout spikes and claws. I screeched at the top of my lungs, drowning out Natalie’s scream and Turmy’s hiss with a noise from the deepest places of the abyss.

The Shambler was looming over us, standing on the rocks.

She flinched. Perhaps she hadn’t expected my screech and display, or perhaps she sensed that I was now willing to murder her. Twin pools of oil blinked — and then she was gone again, vanished into thin air before my lashing whip of tentacles could slam into her side. They passed through empty air and I hissed with frustration.

Panting, heaving for breath, trying to get a hold of myself, I turned on the spot, looking for where the Shambler might appear next. Natalie was cowering and whimpering, with the cat cradled in her arms again. The marmalade moggy seemed to have decided that my hiss far outmatched his own volume. His stubby ears were rotated backward, as if trying to flatten them down against his skull.

The Shambler had reappeared about twenty feet away from the outcropping of rock, crouched in the mud up to her chest, dead ahead of us so Natalie couldn’t see. Was that intentional? Did she understand that she’d frightened the child? I stared the creature down.

Seconds ticked by, then half a minute, but the Shambler stayed put.

Natalie was staring around us too, big wide eyes showing absolute terror as she peered out across the rocks. She looked ready to curl into a ball and start sobbing. This child was not getting out of this experience without post-traumatic stress, no matter what I did now.

I crouched down again, swallowing hard to reset the internal shape of my throat. Thankfully my pneuma-somatic reflexes were sharp enough that the tentacle I had wound about Natalie’s shoulders had not flushed with toxins. My body recognised and acknowledged the need to protect, so I wasn’t about to hurt her by accident.

I kept the Shambler in the corner of my vision as I considered the terrified girl.

If I had understood what had happened to me when I was child, when I’d been snatched away to Wonderland and exposed to a supernatural truth my mind couldn’t handle, when the Eye had stolen my sister, then I never would have suffered the decade of misdiagnosis and madness. I would still have been traumatised, yes. What child wouldn’t? But at least I’d have known I wasn’t crazy.

“Natalie, Natalie, listen to me,” I said. “Look at me. Look at me.” She did, with quivering eyes in a pale face. “That creature isn’t going to touch you, I promise. I’m bigger and scarier than it is, understand? But I need you to listen to me. Are you listening?”

My tone, urgent and hard, must have reached her through the terror. She nodded.

“We’re in another dimension right now,” I said. “That’s where this is. An evil wizard kidnapped you and brought you here, because he was trying to get the monster to eat you. The gorilla monster, it’s not evil, I think. It’s kind of like a … like a dog that’s been trained by an evil person. I’m sort of like a wizard too, but not very much. And I’m also not evil. Okay?”

Natalie nodded along, jerky and serious, serious as only a small child could be.

There was so much more I needed to say: this is real but nobody will ever believe you, magic and monsters are real but not all of them are scary and dangerous, and you are not alone. You are not alone. But I didn’t have time to comfort my own ten-year-old self across the gulf of years. I almost reached out to wipe the girl’s cheek. But we had more important things to do.

“Natalie, this is very very important: were you the only child the gorilla brought here? You don’t have any brothers or sisters or cousins or friends with you?”

Natalie shook her head. “Just Turmy.” She buried her face in the cat’s fur.

“Turmy’s a brave boy,” I said. The cat blinked at me, as if to say Boy? I’m an old man. For an absurd moment I felt like I should apologise; this place was getting to me. “And you’re a very brave girl, Natalie.”

She didn’t look like she believed me.

I straightened up and held my hand out toward her, herding her inward with the tentacle around her shoulders, so I could hold her tight. She didn’t need much encouragement to stand closer to me, but then she started to unwind one arm from around Turmy so she could cling onto my hoodie.

“No, Natalie, you hold on to Turmy, okay?” I caught her eyes as she looked up at me in confusion. “I’m going to take us home now, I … ”

I had to look up to check on the Shambler. There was no way to avoid drawing Natalie’s attention. She twisted around in my grip and yelped like a small animal when she saw the creature squatting out there in the swamp.

The Dimensional Shambler hadn’t moved since I’d screeched at her.

Had she led me here on purpose, to this outcropping of rock, and the lost human girl hiding within the cracks? She hadn’t eaten the corpse of the dead young man, and she hadn’t killed Natalie either. Edward had trained this creature with live food, and then tried to make her into a man-eater, but maybe she wasn’t following his plan. She’d eaten the animals, yes, the dogs and cats and whatever else he’d fed her — but could I blame her for that?

When I’d briefly had the Shambler defined with hyperdimensional mathematics, one of the strongest impressions I’d gotten was starvation.

These creatures didn’t all prosper. So yes, she’d eaten the animals. But a human? A fellow sapient?

Maybe she hadn’t known how to return the little girl. Maybe Edward wouldn’t let her. Maybe she was confused or frightened, maybe even guilty.

The Shambler and I stared at each other across the rock and the water and the mud. Her huge oily black eyes did not blink. I couldn’t read her, not even a little bit.

Are you going to let us go? I thought, unwilling to shout across the swamp and scare Natalie further. Please don’t make me kill you.

“Octopus lady … ” Natalie said. She was still pressed close to my side.

I took a deep breath and wanted to hiccup, very badly, but I swallowed it. Had to pretend I knew what I was doing.

“Okay, Nat,” I said. “I’m going to try to take you home now. Actually, I’m going to take you to my home. I know a lot of other, um, wizards. If the Shambler— the gorilla monster, if it tries to come after us, then they’ll be able to protect you, okay? I want you to trust them for me. They’ll seem really scary, um, maybe, but they’re all good people.”

Natalie’s eyes widened with a child’s fear. “You’re not coming?”

“No, I’ll come with you, but then I’ll have to go again, really quickly, because I think the gorilla monster will chase me instead of you. And I have to go deal with the evil wizard who did this, because he won’t be expecting me.”

A weird smile flickered across my face, an evil little smile at the thought of surprising Edward and ripping his head off. A real smile, not the fake children’s television-program smile I’d been trying to maintain all this time.

Natalie tried a little smile back. Just a flicker, but there it was. Maybe she was going to be okay.

I tightened my tentacle around her shoulders. “Okay, Nat, I need you to hold onto Turmy really, really tight, okay? That’s your job, make sure he doesn’t escape. Hug him close.”

She nodded and squeezed the old cat to her chest. He seemed content to snuggle.

“And close your eyes,” I said. “Keep them closed. Whatever you do, keep them closed.” I put both hands on her shoulders. Natalie squeezed her eyes closed, shutting out the nightmares. “This will only take a second, but when we arrive, it’ll be like being carsick. We might fall over. It’s okay though, when we arrive, you can cry if you need to.”

Natalie nodded. She kept her eyes shut. The poor girl was shaking.

The Shambler watched us from the swamp. I stared back at the creature and let out a small hiccup at last.

Let us go. Don’t make me kill you.

I had saved a life, but if I was going to catch Edward as well, I had to move fast.

The familiar old equation spun into life like a perpetual motion machine, as I yanked it from the black oil in the secret room of my soul, pieces slotting into place and burning red-hot across the surface of my mind.


And as reality folded up, the Dimensional Shambler vanished.

In that last split second before we popped through the membrane, I felt her at my heels, coming after us.

I was going to have to be very fast indeed.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Swamps! Lost girls! Protective cats! Heather doing her best to make sure what happened to her never happens to anybody else! She may have blown her chance to catch Edward, but she’s made a real difference here. And why was the Shambler helping?

Full disclosure: ‘Turmy‘ actually exists! The tired-looking marmalade gentleman is a real cat, owned by a long-time reader and early Patron of Katalepsis (well, actually owned by their room mate). I once joked that I should give Turmy a cameo in the story; in the notes/outline for this chapter, his role was originally filled by a large dog, but then I realised this was the perfect moment. So, Turmy! I would like to thank his owners for their gracious permission to use his name and likeness in this perilous situation.

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Next week, it’s back home to gather friends and allies. Heather can’t protect Natalie all by herself, not if she needs to go bitch-slap Edward. Which she does.

But now, some bad news: there might not be a chapter next Saturday.

No, I’m not taking a week off; I’ve caught covid. As of the time of writing this post (Friday night) I’m actually fine, but I’m preparing for the possibility I might be completely knocked out with illness this week. Hopefully that won’t happen, so I can write as normal, but for once I can’t guarantee it. So we’ll see how things go this week, I guess! Stay safe, everybody!

pale student of unhallowed arts – 17.6

Content Warnings


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

A folded note, lying on a glass coffee table, in a cramped, ugly, dusty little sitting room. I’d never seen this place before. Another Slip gone wrong had spat me out, another sideways shunt from the intended path, another rebound off the membrane between reality and Outside.

My name was on the note. Not handwritten. Printed.

To Heather Morell.

Paranoia was correct all along. Lozzie hadn’t made a mistake with the Slip to the hotel, she hadn’t tripped up and let go of me before reaching Jan’s room, she hadn’t done a single thing incorrect. My name on the note proved that. Somebody had interfered with the Slip. Somebody had plucked us apart from each other, with misdirection or brute force or unknowable magic. And that somebody didn’t just want Lozzie.

I’d been so concerned about the possibility of Edward kidnapping Lozzie, that I hadn’t considered I might be the target.

I stared at the letter on the little glass coffee table, my mind racing like an overheating engine.

What was the purpose of that first interruption, when Lozzie and I had translocated to the hotel, and I’d appeared in the corridor? A test run? A proof-of-concept before the real thing? A mistake, an accidental tipping of my assailant’s hand? A warning shot? Or had it been a misfire, a dud, a failure?

Oh yes indeed, this was a failure, very much so.

Whoever or whatever had done this to me — plucked me away from my route home and deposited me in some unknown place, far from my friends, alone and off-balance — they’d blown their chance. I’d already withstood the fear and the anxiety once today. I hadn’t acknowledged it at the time, the lingering toxic beast of post-traumatic stress disorder, the flashback I’d suffered in that unassuming and tasteful hotel corridor. I’d re-lived a moment of that horrible experience of handcuffs and bare concrete and credible threats, exhausted and caked in blood and afraid for my friends.

I don’t know a lot about neurochemistry and trauma. Maybe it was like a refractory period. Maybe I was just angry. Maybe the note on the table gave me clarity.

This time, the trauma rolled off my back like a shower of lead weights, heavy but loose, crashing to the ground. I spread my tentacles out wide, vibrating with muscle tension, ready to grab and constrict and flush my flesh with toxins lethal to anything I might touch. I let my reactor run hot, dumping energy into my core, ready to power me through brain-math at a flicker of thought. I even yanked my left sleeve up, to expose the Fractal.

I took a deep breath, and allowed abyssal instinct to fill my throat with a long, loud, furious hiss.

That hiss must have carried through brick and plaster. If anybody was waiting to ambush me, I hoped that sound made them wet themselves.

Truth be told, there weren’t actually any good hiding places in the weird dusty little sitting room where I’d landed, but that’s where abyssal instinct went first — checking corners for lurking predators, looking behind the ugly floral sofas for crouching people, and peering beneath the coffee table, just in case. My tentacles flickered out, searching for hidden packages, wires, magic circles, anything and everything that might be used as a trap.

Nothing. Nobody there. Abyssal instinct retreated, gave me space to think.

My bioreactor was still running hot, but easing down. If I had needed antibodies to fight off some kind of infection, then they’d done their work and denatured back into other compounds. If I’d been under attack, it was over. I was safe, for now, for a given value of ‘safe’.

I ignored the letter for a moment. Where was I, really?

The sitting room was cramped and oddly-shaped, like it had been converted from something else. A long, low step ran across the middle of the floor, splitting the room into two levels. Beams in the ceiling, like a converted farm building. Was I at Twil’s house? No, the air didn’t smell right, not like Twil’s home at all. I sniffed deep. Cleaning fluids and dust, like a holiday home that had never truly been lived in. Fake, unreal, a hollow shell of a house.

The brick fireplace was conspicuously clean as well, scrubbed of any actual soot a long time ago, then left to gather dust. Every surface was covered in that dust, all except the note on the table.

No pneuma-somatic life. That could mean something, but I wasn’t sure what. Was the building warded?

A door stood in one corner of the room, thick naked wood with an absurd and ornate black iron handle, like it was cosplaying as a castle door. The light fixture in the ceiling lacked a bulb, leaving the room drenched in cave-like shadows. Two windows high up on one side provided almost no light, as small and cramped as everything else. My legs felt like jelly as I crept over to the windows. I had to go up on tiptoes to peer outdoors, with my tentacles pushing the ground to give me another two inches of height.

Chicken wire.

Beyond the window glass, maybe three or four feet away, was a bare metal chicken-wire fence. To the left and right I could see scaffolding poles, supporting the fence. The metal reached upward further than I could see, though I spotted a hint of thatched roof. The building was wrapped in a cage. How odd.

An overgrown garden rambled in summer glory on the other side of the wire, too deep and too thick to see a wall or a fence. I spotted a rusty old swing seat, a few cracked lines of moss-eaten grey which might have been pathways, and a hint of another building past the bushes and long grass. A couple of very tall trees stood silent and unmoving under the baking sun, old and gnarled and wreathed in all their green finery. I couldn’t see the sun itself from inside, but the light was hot and burning, and the shadows were long. Late afternoon.

Was I still in England? Why was the building wrapped in chicken-wire? Was I caged?

I wanted to hiss again, but I swallowed the impulse and managed to stay quiet. Maybe they — they being Edward’s cultists, I wasn’t kidding myself — didn’t know where I was.

The note suggested otherwise. I crept back toward the glass table and carefully picked up the piece of paper with one of my tentacles, braced for trickery. The paper did not explode or try to suck my soul out through my eyeballs or turn into a giant frog that sang curses to make me die of melancholy. I lifted it closer, unfolded the note, and found more printed text.

Please proceed to the kitchen. It is located on the first floor, at the rear of the house. If you arrive downstairs, simply follow the corridor. If you arrive upstairs, locate the stairs and proceed down. Watch your head on the beam at the foot of the stairs, I am told it is a bit low.

My apologies for the imprecision of this method. I do not know in which room you might arrive. I have placed an identical note in every room of this house.

You will not be stopped or challenged. I have laid no traps. You are free to leave if you so wish, nothing bars your way, but I beg a moment of your attention. Feel free to take your time.

Please proceed to the kitchen.

The note wasn’t signed.

I read it three times, but I only grew more puzzled. If this was an attempt to kidnap and capture me, why not dump me straight into a magic circle designed to contain me, or into an actual cage? Instead I was unbound and prepared, forewarned and ready for a fight.

Lozzie. Of course.

With shaking hands, I pulled out my mobile phone. If Lozzie had also been taken, then this was all just a distraction to slow me down.

My phone showed no signal. Out of range. No service.

A sudden horrible suspicion gnawed inside my gut, like a trapped rat in my entrails. Was I Outside? Or was this the home of Felicity, beyond mobile phone signal, as she’d explained to me only a few hours earlier? I hissed between my teeth, consciously channelling fear into irritation — the moment I stopped being angry, I would start shaking. Well, shaking worse than I already was. I swallowed a hiccup, jabbing at my phone screen, sliding through menus.

Wifi signal.

“Yes!” I panted with relief.

Two wifi networks were within range. The signals were weak, but there they were, proof. Both were the kind you needed passwords for — one was a BT wifi hotspot, and the other was a private network named ‘MisterMuscle6942080085’, which I seriously doubted belonged to Edward. The signal was too weak to be coming from inside the building, anyway. It must have been a nearby neighbour.

So, I was in reality, still in Britain somewhere, and not inside some kind of magical dead zone for hiding houses.

Was this Edward’s house?

I crumpled the note in a tentacle, trying to think.

Nobody knew where I was — including myself. Lozzie had proven several times over that she was capable of tracking me almost anywhere. She’d Slipped me out of Wonderland, though she’d had help from Maisie to find me there, but I was in our reality right now. So something was blocking her from finding me, or she was restrained or unconscious or worse. Good thing I’d messaged Raine before we’d left Jan’s hotel room; she and Evelyn would at least know something was wrong.

I swallowed hard, feeling a quiver inside my chest. My breath came out in a horrible shudder.

Abyssal instinct was pulling me in two directions at the same time; part of me was screaming to run away, get out of here, go. Don’t follow the instructions, don’t try to find the kitchen, like the letter oh-so-politely requested of me. If I couldn’t Slip, then pull out one of the window frames, climb through the hole, rip the chicken-wire. Run.

Maybe if I tried to Slip out, something would stop me. But I didn’t try, because I didn’t know if I could return again. The previous interrupted Slip had not placed Lozzie and I very far apart from each other. Maybe she was here, close by.

I could not abandon Lozzie. I’d sooner cut off my hands.

“Keep yourself together,” I hissed. “She might need you.”

I strained my ears. Distant birdsong, somewhere beyond the walls. No screaming or thumping coming from other rooms or through the ceiling. Dead quiet. I couldn’t even hear any cars. Not surprising if this place was totally beyond the range of any mobile towers.

“Move,” I whispered. “Come on, Heather. You’ve been in much worse places. Move, move. Move!”

I made for the big wooden door, padding softly across the carpet. The pretentious wrought-iron handle turned easily. The hinges creaked, but only a little.

Beyond the door was a short corridor, turning left and right at the end. Salmon-coloured wallpaper, white tiles for the floor. Several unimaginative still-life pictures hung on the walls. Recessed lights in the ceiling, currently switched off. The sunlight didn’t quite penetrate this far, leaving the corridor wreathed in gloom.

I crept out of the sitting room. My socks met cold tiles. I winced and curled up my toes.

Should have worn some shoes. Nothing to make one feel vulnerable like exposed soles in a strange place, with only a thin layer of sock between oneself and the cold.

I wished I’d brought my squid-skull helmet. I had no idea what to do with my hands, except to keep the Fractal exposed. I held it outward as I crept along.

“This house better not be absolute nonsense,” I whispered. “I am not dealing with another stupid maze.”

Either the house was suitably cowed by my simmering anger, or I’d gotten lucky. It was no maze, supernatural or otherwise. At the end of the corridor I found a front door to my left, and more corridor to my right. It snaked off into the house, but it didn’t loop back on itself or vanish into the ground or turn upside down.

Lozzie was not in the first room I passed — a laundry room of some kind, short and squat, smelling of sea and sand — nor in the second, a long formal dining room with a faux-fancy table and a bunch of ornate chairs which probably cost a lot more than they were worth. The mysterious note-writer was true to their word: identical notes lay waiting in each of the rooms, placed so as to catch the eye of even the most casual observer. I even found another note folded at the bottom of a flight of stairs. Carpeted stairs, leading up and around in a little spiral, cramped and awkward.

Somebody really wanted me in that kitchen.

Still no pneuma-somatic life anywhere, not even any diminutive spirits scuttling out of my way or nesting in the corners. I passed a few windows, but saw nothing except overgrown garden and a hint of a gravel driveway. That chicken-wire cage seemed to encase the whole house, three or four feet out from the walls. I spotted a couple of doors in the fence, also made of wire, leading outward. They weren’t padlocked or bolted, just closed.

This was far more spooky than the Scooby-Doo house which Hringewindla had summoned by accident. This was the real thing, empty and baffling. A possessed alpaca with bloody teeth would have been a relief. A lightning crash, a howling storm, anything. But there was only silence and that slow-burning, late-afternoon sunlight.

I couldn’t stand it.

At the bottom of those stairs, I filled my lungs and flared my tentacles wide.

“Lozzie!” I yelled at the top of my voice. “Lozzie!”

My shout didn’t even echo. The house was too small and twisty to catch my words and howl them back. I stayed very still for several seconds, waiting for a distant thump or muffled scream, or the slap of running feet, or the growl of an unseen watcher. But all I heard was distant birdsong under the pitiless sun.

“All right then,” I said out loud. I sounded so much more confident than I felt. My heart was fluttering, in the bad way. “Kitchen it is.”

I found the kitchen at the very end of the snaking corridor, next to a back door that led out into the garden, which was all peeling paint and half-glass, so I could see the overgrown lawn and wild flowerbeds as I approached. A pair of double doors stood wide open in the side of the corridor, inviting me into the kitchen of this strange and empty house.

Not so empty after all, as I quickly discovered.

The kitchen in this cramped old house was massive, by far the largest single room I’d discovered. Sunlight fell through a bank of high windows, flooding across a wide floor of slate-coloured tiles, sending questing fingers of afternoon glow up the stone counter tops and over the old-school wooden cabinets. Warm, bright, airy, with a high ceiling far above my head. No table, no chairs, no rubbish bin, no food, no cutlery, no evidence of people living here. Perhaps it had once been an entire dwelling; perhaps the rest of the building was added later, modern grafts to some core of ancient cottage.

Three things were waiting for me.

A machine: beneath the bank of windows, in the shadow of the wall, about as tall as a desk chair. It was like a cross between a cat-scratching post and a traffic light, made of stainless steel, a little tree of angled mirrors and coloured glass. Each mirror or circle of glass was mounted on an articulated arm, each one pointed in a different direction. The core of the machine was no thicker than my arm, but wires ran from a base of stainless steel to a set of compact LCD screens laid out on the floor, along with an open laptop. The screens were full of jumbled nonsense. The laptop had crashed; the screen was just a picture of frozen static. A faint smell of burnt circuitry hung in the air.

A monster: on the other side of the room, a nightmare creature squatted inside a magic circle. The circle was drawn with black pen, precise and without ornamentation, on a patch of whitewashed floor, to ensure no mistakes. The creature was like something dredged from the bottom of an alien sea. Built like a gorilla, muscled and heavy, it must have weighed easily five hundred pounds. Skin like grey meat, smooth and papery, dotted with curving spines like sensory hairs. Bare skull, bulging at the rear. A massive jaw jutted forward, showing a double-row of razor-sharp teeth, like an angler fish. Three blunt fingers on each paw, each ending in a long ragged grey claw. Eyes as big as saucers — and no, that’s not hyperbole, the thing had eyes about six inches across, and pure black, built for the ocean depths. It watched me as I stepped inside, expressionless and vacant as only something from a deep place can be.

And a man.

Edward Lilburne.

I’d never gotten a chance to see Edward Lilburne up close the previous two times I’d encountered him face-to-face. The first was in that deserted underground car park where we’d chased Maisie’s messenger demon — Edward had been little more than a lumpy figure half-glimpsed by torchlight, amid the dripping concrete and mad panic of our first meeting with the Sharrowford Cult. The second time had been during the ‘peace conference’ at the pub, where he’d sent his lawyer to negotiate with us, while he’d hidden inside some kind of artificial re-creation of one of his own magical underlings, remote-piloting an artificial shell. I’d seen his face only briefly as the mask had melted away, a moment of recognition, but the man himself had not been present for us to kill or capture.

But it was him. I had no doubt.

Old, in his seventies or eighties, and not at all well-preserved. His face was pale and bloodless, craggy and liver-spotted like a landscape worked over by too many frosts. He had thick, bushy grey eyebrows like dead caterpillars, a nose pocked like a moonscape, and very thin lips. Stringy grey hair hung down either side of a pair of wire-frame glasses, showing a huge bald area on top of his head. He wore a shapeless coat, a practical thing, a hiker’s coat, dark brown and full of pockets.

He was sitting in a rickety old wooden armchair on the far side of the wide kitchen floor. A plastic and metal walking stick hung from one of the arms. The huge owlish eyes behind his glasses were closed, peaceful and relaxed.

Edward Lilburne was fast asleep.

He was also protected inside a much larger magic circle than the one which contained the nightmare marine ape, easily twenty feet across, and much more complex. I saw three layers of circle, entire reams of Latin, Arabic, and Greek, and some snippets from a language I didn’t recognise.

I didn’t care about the magic circle; no barrier could stop me from crossing the room and pulling his head from his shoulders.

But I didn’t do that, because it was too obvious.

I stood there for what must have only been a few seconds, but it felt like minutes, poised just over the threshold of the kitchen door. My tentacles strained, my heart hammered against my ribs, my head pounded with adrenaline. The ape-thing watched me, but it didn’t move. The machine by the wall was dead or malfunctioned, quiet and empty. Edward dozed on, thin chest rising and falling beneath coat and shirt.

I spoke up. “What is this?”


Edward’s eyes blinked open, slowly and with some difficulty, fighting against the late afternoon sunlight pouring in through the windows. He raised a papery, liver-spotted hand to shade his face. Smacking his lips, taking a deep breath, he drew himself up in the chair. The rickety old wood creaked beneath him, as if he weighed much more than suggested by his lean and sinewy body.

Owlish eyes blinked. Boney hands adjusted wire glasses. He stared at me, unsurprised and unconcerned.

“ … were you … taking a nap?”

I couldn’t think of anything else to say, or do, except cross the circle and disembowel him. But I wasn’t an idiot. This was a trap.

“This body is not the real me,” he said, curt and quick but without great haste. “It’s a remote controlled vessel, similar to the one you saw previously.”

He had the voice of a ten-pack-a-day lifelong smoker, rough and reedy and raspy, all from his throat and nose. A Sharrowford accent, from back when England still had proper regional accents. A rich Northern roll, but fussy, indistinctly upper-class, with a cold certainty behind his words.

“Of course you wouldn’t risk yourself,” I muttered, not really speaking to him.

Edward — or the Edward-shaped vessel — unhooked his walking stick from the arm of the chair and pointed at the magic circle which surrounded him.

“If this circle is broken or crossed in any way, the vessel will disconnect,” he said. “And this conversation will come to an end. Physical disturbance, magical interference, even too much air pressure will trigger it. Do you understand?”

He waited for an answer, watching me. I waited too, trying to swallow my racing heart.

He didn’t speak, didn’t continue, didn’t repeat himself.

I nodded, slowly, and drew my tentacles back toward me. “You’re not really here. And you have a fail-safe.”

“Correct. I repeat, this is not the real me. If you try to harm me through the remote connection, I will be gone before you can reach the vessel. Yes, even you. I know you require touch to use your particular skills, as you did with my construct.”


“In the home of Amy Stack’s husband and son,” he said. “You required touch to reach me through the remote connection. Hence this.” He pointed at the circle again.

I bristled inside at the reminder. He was talking about Marmite.

I had dug Edward’s control out of Marmite’s pneuma-somatic brain, chasing Edward’s spirit-scent through flesh and metal, battering down his barricades and smashing his security measures, right at the cutting edge of my hyperdimensional mathematics. In the end he had disconnected and fled, leaving Marmite free to flee across the rooftops of Sharrowford, with Edward’s control broken.

He was right; if this wasn’t the real Edward, if he was remote controlling it, then in theory I could use brain-math to trace the connection back to the genuine article, wherever he was hiding.

But I’d have to touch him first.

He saw the recognition in my face, nodded his head of stringy grey hair, and continued. “Furthermore, you won’t be able to track me through any object in this house, nor the house itself. I’ve never visited this place. I purchased it through an agent. The equipment was installed by hired workmen, days ago. Nobody has been to this house since then. Nobody else is in this house, or in the garden, or anywhere nearby. Do you understand?”

Very carefully, I turned my head to look at the ape-monster in the other magic circle. It was staring at Edward with those massive all-black eyes, jaw hanging slack, no trace of human expression in the oddly flat face. I wasn’t certain how, but I could tell the thing wasn’t pneuma-somatic. It was true flesh, solid and meaty, very much on the same plane as us.

An Outsider.

I said, “Hired workmen summoned that?”

Edward did not answer. He stared at me. I swallowed, my mind racing.

Why leave that one chink in his armour? Why go to such lengths to ensure there was almost no chance of me being able to trace or hurt him, but then leave a creature he may have summoned right there, for me to see, and then refuse to answer my question? He wanted my mind to fill in the blank. He wanted me to assume he had summoned it himself, and that it may provide a method by which to trace him. But that was too obvious. Why try that ploy in the first place? Did mages leave a magical fingerprint on creatures they summoned from Outside? I had no idea. Evelyn might have known, but it was just me here, alone with a mage.

Edward Lilburne was more clever than we’d given him credit for.

I stared back at him, craggy-faced and pale, old and weathered. He didn’t look like a wealthy, powerful man. He looked like the total opposite of his arrogant nephew, Alexander Lilburne, a mage I’d put in the ground twice over. His shoes were battered and scuffed, his hair hadn’t been cut in a long time, and his glasses were hardly the height of fashion. He wore that shapeless lumpy coat like it was his life. Then again, this was just a vessel.

He hadn’t even introduced himself, or said my name, or threatened me. I don’t think he cared about any of those things.

“You’re telling me you want to talk,” I said. “Not fight.”

Edward nodded, then sighed and cracked his own neck, wincing.

“Why not just use a video call? Or send me a letter, like you did with Evelyn?”

He considered me for a second, unblinking and unmoving. I was reminded uncomfortably of a lizard, a big one, a komodo dragon held in motionless repose. The slanted sunlight added to the momentary illusion.

“A letter is not truly private,” he said eventually. A papery tongue darted out to wet his lips. “One cannot have a proper conversation via letters. It takes too much time to receive a reply. A video call is too dangerous, you could trace me. This was the best way I could think of to talk in private.” He leaned forward in his chair, gaze never once leaving me. The chair creaked. “You know who I am. I know who you are. I assume introductions are not necessary.”

It was not a question.

I was furious, far more than I’d expected. My tentacles quivered with barely suppressed violence, struggling with the urge to spring across the room and dash him out of his stupid chair. Intellectually I accepted that I was talking to a mere vessel, some kind of pneuma-somatic mask like he’d used for our previous meeting, but instinct didn’t care. Abyssal instinct and ape solidarity were in total agreement: this man threatened my pack, he had to die. He’d plucked me away from Lozzie. He might have Lozzie somewhere right now. Why talk? Kill him, reach in through his remote connection and shred him like mince. Pull him apart. Core his brain. Drain his blood. Eat him alive.

Unlike all those months ago with Alexander, nothing held me back here. I had no ethical conflict. I simply didn’t care.

But he might be right. He might be too quick for me.

I’d called Raine before Lozzie and I had left Jan’s hotel room. I was fifteen or twenty minutes overdue. Evelyn and Raine would call Jan. They’d know I was missing. Evelyn would be looking for me, somehow.

Instead of launching myself across the room in a whipping cloud of barbed tentacles, I clamped down with sheer force of will and lashed myself to the door frame, moving slowly. If Edward wanted to talk, perhaps I could stall him, while my friends tried to find me.

Not for rescue. Oh no, I didn’t need rescuing. This was nothing like when I’d spoken with Alexander. I wasn’t holding out for a saviour.

If Evelyn could find us, perhaps she could do more than just talk.

Meanwhile, I bent my entire mind to the task at hand. I tried to still my racing heart and unclench the nervous fist in my gut. Listen. Observe. Look for a gap in his protections.

Know your enemy. Evelyn would approve.

“Say my name out loud,” I hissed.

The smallest possible test. Edward passed with flying colours. He didn’t even frown.

“Heather Morell,” he said.

No Lavinia. He hadn’t used my middle name on the letter either, though he must know of it. Did he know that Alexander had used my middle name like a weapon against my temper? Was he omitting that intentionally, to be polite? Or to lull me into a false sense of security?

Well, not security. Never security, alone in a room with a mage. Except Evelyn.

“You’ve tried to kidnap me,” I said, barely keeping the anger from my voice. “And I felt something else, too. Some magical effect my body fought off. Why should I believe anything you say?”

“I am not a fool,” he continued after a moment, in that raspy, reedy voice, calm and focused. “I am not going to expose myself to danger without good cause. You are highly contaminated, a vector for a dangerous infection. You know of what I speak — the Eye inside your mind. It has already corrupted and ruined countless lives, though that was not your fault, but the work of my feckless nephew. Nevertheless, you are dangerous to confront and dangerous to contain. If my method had an adverse effect on you, that was unintentional. For that, I apologise. I would not do this if I did not believe you are worth talking with. Alone, in private.” He blinked, once, heavily and slowly, then stared at me again again, owlish and wide. “Though I will admit, I did want a good look at what you have become.”

His eyes went left and right, up and down, by the smallest fraction. He could see my tentacles.

A hiss crawled up my throat, soft and low and threatening. I didn’t try to stop it. Helped with the nerves, the thudding heart, the shaking hands which I shoved inside the front pocket of my hoodie.

Edward raised his eyebrows, faintly interested in that sound. But he didn’t even flinch.

“Where’s Lozzie?” I demanded.

“I have no idea,” he answered too quickly. My mind raced with my heart. He’d expected that question and prepared for it. “Presumably she reached whatever destination you and she were heading toward when I rerouted you. She will not find you here, I have taken steps to ensure that.”

“You expect me to believe you?” I spat. “Why wouldn’t you try to intercept her?”

“I cannot. She doesn’t work like you do. I had the better part of a decade to study Lauren—”

Lozzie,” I hissed, long and loud. I reared up on my tentacles, straining toward him from the door frame, tentacles and teeth aching to rip him apart.

The feeling was like a slug of hot alcohol down my throat. The killing urge was a heady rush pounding up through my body and into my head.

I think he saw that. Edward stayed very, very still for several long seconds, until I eased down, panting and shaking. We stared at each other across the sun-draped kitchen flagstones.

Scraaaaape-scrape, scraaaaape-scrape, went the claws of the huge marine-ape Outsider-thing trapped inside her own circle.

She was staring at me now instead of Edward. My hiss had attracted her attention. Her claws tapped and scraped at the flagstones, like a caged parrot.

Her? Why did I know that? Abyssal instinct supplied the answer: scent, pheromones. This one was a female, though it hardly mattered.

“Lozzie, then,” Edward said. I flicked my attention back to him, feeling like a snake in the grass. “I had the better part of a decade to study her. If I could pluck her from the transference stream, I would have no need to negotiate with you.” He lifted his walking stick and pointed at the machine by the wall, the short tower of glass and mirrors hooked up to screens and a laptop, all broken now. “My methods cannot be attuned to her, she avoids them by instinct. You interact with the interstitial space differently. You can be detected, like any other Outside being moving from one side to the other. You can be rerouted. No doubt if you were doing it yourself, you would have sensed me and fought back. I had to wait until she was the one moving you, then select you alone.”

“You missed the first time,” I said, almost growling with challenge.

“Indeed.” Edward finally glanced away, looking at his strange machine by the wall. “It is single use. Undoubtedly you have learned from this encounter. This method will not work again. We may talk like this only once, so do not end our conversation lightly.”

He was supplying so much information, giving so much away, letting me ask all the questions. How much of it was lies? Was Lozzie really back home? Or was she somewhere else, trapped and bound, and this was all a ploy to stall me? I couldn’t read his expression, his dead eyes and papery skin, his disinterest and detachment. I decided not to believe a word of it. But I had to figure out as much as I could.

“Where are we?” I asked. “Where is this?”

“Devon,” he answered instantly.

“Devon?” I couldn’t help my splutter of disbelief. Devon? I’d never been that far south. We must have been nearly three hundred miles from Sharrowford, on the other side of the country.

“Inland. Near a seaside town by the name of Salcombe. It’s not far, a few miles’ walk down the road. If you step outdoors and leave the Faraday cage that I have had constructed around this cottage, you may verify your location with your mobile phone.”

I stared at him in shock. Faraday cage? For blocking electricity, and signals. He’d thought of everything.

Perhaps he read the surprise on my face, because he hurried to add, “But not yet. I do not want you to call your companions. If you leave the room, I will assume this conversation is over, and I will cut the connection to this vessel.”

“What if I Slip away, hm?” I raised my chin, burning inside with anger and defiance. I wanted to knock him out of his chair and scream in his face. “Can you stop that? I’d like to see you try, because I don’t think you have any idea what you’re dealing with.”

Edward nodded once. “You are free to leave, whenever you wish. I will assume the conversation has been terminated, and I will leave too.”

He stared me down, daring me to go.

Was I being tested by this ancient, blood-soaked mage? He was being so very reasonable, probably on purpose. He wasn’t even attempting to argue with me. According to him, he hadn’t trapped me, he wasn’t keeping me here, he hadn’t touched Lozzie at all. Staying to talk was a decision made of my own free will. He didn’t even really sound like the letter he’d sent to Evelyn — where was the preening arrogance and linguistic meandering? Perhaps Edward Lilburne was simply not very eloquent in person. Or perhaps he was trying to lead me toward something else, something specific.

There was another layer here, one I was not aware of with human senses.

“I shouldn’t be talking with you,” I said slowly, unable to keep the scowl off my face.

I leaned into it instead. Why should I be polite with this man, this slaver and kidnapper? If Lozzie had told the truth, Edward Lilburne was the fixer and manipulator behind the homeless people that the cult had used as vessels for zombies. He was the man behind the dead children beneath the castle. Alexander had been the leader, but Edward was the engine.

I flared my tentacles out and allowed a hiss to fill my voice as I spoke, my throat twisting into an inhuman configuration. Didn’t matter that he seemed impossible to intimidate, it made me feel better.

“I should be reaching through that circle and pulling your ‘vessel’ apart, looking for the strings. Is your magic really faster than thought? You want to play out that bet? You said it yourself, I’m contaminated by the Eye, but you don’t understand the half of it — I’m its adopted daughter. It taught me everything it knows. I could put a tentacle through your chest and chase you all the way back to where the real you is waiting, and I don’t think you can move fast enough. You’re a threat to my friends, my family — mine!” I snapped like a beast dredged from the deep. “Should be trying to kill you.”

Shaking, quivering with rage, I forced myself to stay still. Very still. Draw him out, keep him talking. Come on, Evelyn, Lozzie, anybody. Find me.

Edward stared. Wrinkled lizard-lids blinked slowly. Papery tongue flickered out to wet lips thin as straw.

I had to swallow hard to return my throat to a mostly-human shape.

“I’ll stay and talk,” I hissed. “But I would rather not.”

“I will be frank. I will keep it short.”

Scraaaape-clink-clink-clink, went the claws of the marine-ape-Outsider, trapped inside her magic circle. I turned my whole head to look, making the gesture as obvious as possible.

Vacant eyes stared back into mine, black as the bottom of an ocean trench. Grey-fleshed muscles bunched and flexed, pulling the skin so taut it looked painful. Jutting jaw hung open, as if for filter feeding. But no plankton-eater would have teeth so sharp.

She looked from me to Edward, then back again.

“Is this thing supposed to threaten me?” I asked. Back to Edward. “I’ve fought far worse things from Outside. A fancy gorilla isn’t even frightening, I’ll just send it back where it came from.”

Edward shook his head. Lank grey hair barely moved. “It was necessary to bring you here. It is part of the machine.”

I frowned. “Explain. What is it?”

Edward took a deep breath. His thin chest rose. “We are wasting time.”

“I don’t care. Explain.”

Come on, Evelyn. Find me.

Edward gestured at the creature with a papery hand. “A fool who knew more than he wanted to once Christened the species as ‘dimensional shamblers’. They are incredibly rare, difficult to tempt from their hunting grounds. They almost never breach our reality without significant encouragement.”

“Breach our reality?”

“Yes. They possess a very limited and distant cousin of Lau— of my niece’s powers, naturally evolved, wherever they originated. They use it for hunting prey. The natural resonance of the thing’s flesh is necessary to set up the divine harmonics, which allowed my machine to function and bring you here. The creature is a kind of catalyst, nothing more.”

I stared at the ‘Dimensional Shambler’. It stared back at me.

“It is only an animal,” said Edward. “It is not here to harm you. Furthermore, it couldn’t. Its method of predation is to snatch things away, to elsewhere. That wouldn’t work on you. I lured it here and confined it for the machine, that is all.”

Abyssal instinct whispered up my spine and into my hind-brain, reading impulse from sources my human senses and human judgement could not, as I stared at the weird Outsider-ape-shark-thing. Outsider, yes. Animal, yes. But non-sapient?

Absolutely not.

Instinct whispered to me. This creature, this Shambler, this dimension-hopping predatory shark, it wanted out. It knew it was in a cage, yoked for some purpose it couldn’t comprehend. Anger, confusion, fear — such simple things did not cross the species boundary, but it felt analogues to those emotions. Cold marine-life predation, threat calculation, the simple equation of muscle and meat. She and I understood each other.

I let my tentacles drift wider, running on instinct. The Shambler watched them strobe in dull rainbow. Or at least, her eyes moved.

This thing walked the spheres, Outside. Edward had summoned her. She might know where the real Edward was hiding, right now.

“It cannot understand you,” he spoke without being asked. “If you wish to dismiss it right now, then break the circle. It will likely leave of its own accord.”

Bingo, I thought. He didn’t like me showing interest in the creature. Now, if only I could communicate with her.

I left one tentacle extended, strobing softly, as I turned back to Edward.

“I’m not stupid enough to fall for that kind of trap,” I said. “Don’t insult me, please.”

“I do not intend insult. I wish to talk.”

I shrugged, trying to look offended and unimpressed, buying more time. The tentacle I had extended toward the Shambler brightened slightly as I tried to figure out how to communicate.

“About what?” I said. “Why talk to me anyway? You already sent a letter to Evelyn, she got it this morning. Anything you have to say to me, you can say in front of her too. And everyone else. Zheng, try speaking to Zheng, how about that?”

“You and Evelyn Saye have different aims. I know why you want the books, The Testament of Heliopolis.”

He waited, expecting me to counter. Maybe he wasn’t so different from Alexander after all. I waited as well. I was so much better at this than I used to be, even with cold sweat all down my back and my hands shaking and twisting inside my front pocket. I stared him down, daring him to comment on the tentacle I had extended toward the Shambler. I slowed the rainbow pulsing, trying to see if she would react in any way.

The Shambler raised one paw and held it vertical, level with the tip of my tentacle.

Edward cleared his throat softly. It was like the sound of a steel brush. “I want to offer you a deal. The book, in full. In return, you hand my niece over to me. Use your skill set to bind her so she won’t escape.”

I actually laughed. Well, I snorted a puff of air through my nose and shook my head. “You can’t be serious.”

“I am.”

“You must know I’d never accept that, I’d never betray Lozzie. I’d never betray any of my friends. Not for anybody, but certainly not for you. Why even ask?”

Edward watched me from beneath his bushy grey eyebrows for a moment, then said, “Because I am attempting to avoid a conflict.”

“Avoid? You’re starting the conflict!”

“No, I am not.” His voice offered the first hint of real emotion — he was irritated, growing rougher and more reedy. “A war between mages is a terrible thing. I do not expect you to understand, but Evelyn Saye should know better. It is not worth the risk.”

I shrugged, shaking my head. “You’re starting this. I’m sorry, but are you an idiot?” I almost hiccuped, doing my best to channel Evelyn at her best. “There wouldn’t be any conflict in the first place if you left Lozzie alone and gave us the book. What happened to all your high-minded stuff about how dangerous Lozzie is, about how she needs special care or whatever?” I grimaced, even saying the words left a bad taste in my mouth. “I read the letter you sent to Evelyn. These don’t sound like the same justifications at all. You were lying then, or you’re lying now, which is it?” I huffed. “Actually, don’t bother answering. I’m pretty sure this is nonsense. You’re wasting my time.”

I turned to the Dimensional Shambler and pulled my tentacle back, then let go of the door frame and took a step toward the creature.

“Wait!” said Edward.

I stopped, rolled my eyes, and looked at him again. He was almost out of his rickety old chair, agitated and frowning.

Oh my gosh, I thought, trying to keep my emotions off my face. I can’t believe that worked.

I worked very hard to keep frowning back at him, smouldering with Evelyn-like irritation, while inside I was shaking and shivering with nerves. I had to swallow another hiccup. I’d been bluffing, and he’d taken the bait. Or was I playing into his hands? He was about to reveal the true reasons he wanted Lozzie, or something similar, wasn’t he? But this would be a lie too. I reminded myself in no uncertain terms, he was lying.

He wet his lips and settled back, breathing a bit too hard. “I wish to avoid conflict. That is true. I wish to avoid a war with another mage, while also achieving my own aims.”

I tried to look extra unimpressed. Edward carried on talking.

“The content of the letter, that was for Saye. It was not a lie, but it was economical with the truth.”

I shook my head. “Word games.”

“The reason I am speaking with you, more frankly, is because you and I may understand each other better, far better than Evelyn Saye and I would understand each other.”

“You and I have nothing in common. Nothing. You can’t seriously believe I would fall for that?”

Edward paused, wet his lips, and considered me as if from a different angle. “I want the secrets to travelling in the spheres Outside. That is why I want my niece.”

“Yes, I figured that part out. You already have our gateway magic.”

Edward sighed and rubbed his eyes beneath his glasses. “The gateway magic I stole from you—”

“How?” I snapped.

He ignored that. “—it leads only to the great Outside library. I lack the neurological structures to adjust the spell. I require my niece.”

An evil little impulse took me by the tongue. “Too difficult for you, yes? What if I teach you how to Slip?”

“No.” He answered instantly. “I have considered that possibility and what I would trade for the lessons. One, you are contaminated by the Eye. Teaching me how to ‘Slip’, as you say, would open me up to similar infection with Outsider thought-patterns. Two, even if you could teach me the necessary mental sigilisation, my brain is human. Yours is not. You are only able to execute the necessary magic because you have undergone certain changes. I am too old and too human to survive such a thing. No. Physical gateways are the only viable method. For those, I require my niece. I require her mind.”

“I wouldn’t teach you anyway,” I said. “You’re the worst kind of monster. And I have no reason to give you Lozzie for this, either. Why would I ever help you? We’re close to finding your hiding place, and then we win.”

I thought I was bluffing; finding him was only half the battle, we had no idea how well he was protected.

But then Edward said, “I have no doubt you will. You are skilled and determined.”

“Then … what?” I came up short. “You expect us to find you, and win?”


I frowned harder. Was he mocking me? Was this his idea of sarcasm? He didn’t sound sarcastic, but I had no idea where he was going with this.

“We’re bringing in other help as well,” I said. “Other mages.”

His left eye twitched. “Unwise.”

“You want to avoid conflict between mages? Give me the book. That’s my deal, my offer.” I spat the words, feeling sharp and quick. I wasn’t a scared little girl any more, cowering before authority, medical or otherwise. I could pull his head off seven different ways if I found him. “You give me the book, I let you live. Lozzie is not involved.” I laughed, a sad sound, hollow and unimpressed. I think I pulled that off, better than I expected. “What was the point of this conversation? Did you seriously think I would agree to any of that? Why do this? I can tell you’re trying to hoodwink me somehow, that this conversation isn’t what it seems to be. It’s too obvious. What are you doing?”

Edward stared at me through his thick, wire-rimmed spectacles. He sat up straighter and smoothed his coat over his chest.

“Do you know why?” he asked. “Do you know why I want the freedom of access to the spheres beyond, Outside?”

I opened my mouth to say ‘Lust for power’, but that was too obvious. I stopped and shook my head. Something in his tone was different — a baited hook. I backed up one pace, toward the kitchen door and the corridor beyond. The Shambler watched me, unblinking.

“You have been there,” Edward said. “You have travelled Outside, extensively, just like my niece has. You have seen the wonders beyond our cradle. You have witnessed first hand the depths which lie just beyond this veil.” He waved his hand slowly, back and forth, through the air. “You have seen a fraction of what I wish to see. And you’ve gone partway through the process.”

“ … process?”

“Do you know there are only three ways a mage ends up?” His voice focused again, sharp as gravel under the tongue. “Evelyn Saye is one such way. My late nephew, the arrogant fool, he is another. Dead end in the former case. Simply dead in the latter. Do you know why Alexander died?”

“Because I murdered him. I put down a threat,” I said, suddenly bristling. My tentacles flared with involuntary anger. “And I’ll do it again.”

Edward ignored that. “Alexander died because he believed in something. He had a cause. A stupid and pointless cause, true, but it was cause, beyond himself. The cause blinded him to the consequences of his actions—”

“And you’re not? Kidnapping, child murder. Children in cages!” I spat. “I haven’t forgotten that! As if I would ever hand Lozzie over to you, you—”

“I accept the consequences of my actions and work to block or mitigate them. I do not convince myself they will not happen. And I have but one interest.”

Edward’s voice hitched on those last few words. I stopped shouting at him. I sensed we were past posturing, nearing the truth.

He was right about one thing. He was a lot more clever than Alexander had been. If I was going to find him and put him down, then I needed to understand him.

“What interest?” I asked.

“And I have kept myself human,” he carried on, ignoring my question again, but staring right through me. “Very human, in order to see that interest through, as a human being. I will step beyond this cradle, this flesh, this matter. I will take the third option open to any mage who is not a fool. But I will do it as a full human being, untainted.” He spat that final word, hissing with disgust, overflowing with all the emotion he’d kept bottled up. “Now, give me my niece.”

“No,” I spat back. “Give me the book.”

A twinkle in his eyes, the faintest smile on his thin and papery lips, totally at odds with his anger and disgust a moment before; a perfect poker player, revealing his hand at last, revelling in his bluff.

“Show me how,” he said.

Edward Lilburne pursed his lips and burst into a flurry of whistles, high and low, piping and wheezing.

It sounded barely human. I braced, hissing, tentacles balling up to protect myself.

The Dimensional Shambler stood up in her magic circle, all five hundred pounds of grey meat-muscle rolling and shifting. Her giant deep-sea eyes locked on me.

And she vanished.

“A demonstration, then,” said Edward Lilburne.

The Shambler reappeared, a grey giant inches from my face, arms closing around me in a bear hug.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Mages and monsters and malicious machinations. Turns out Edward might be even more clever – and more cautious – than Heather and the others had suspected. After all, he’s an old mage, he’s been around a long time, he knows how to survive these kinds of challenges. A very special kind of monster, one that lives in human skin and insist on its own purity. Still, this doesn’t seem right, does it? At least it’s nothing like the time with Alexander, but Heather feels like she’s missing something vital here, something that Edward knows and she doesn’t …

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Next week, time for a fight, right? Or is it just an incoming hug?