“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.
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 … 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.”
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.
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!”
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.”
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, 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.”
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?
None, I think.
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?”
“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.”
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:
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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 …
None this chapter, I think.
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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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?”
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?
Dead animals/animal death/animal abuse.
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.
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.
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.
“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 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.
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.
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.
All Patrons get access to two chapters ahead! Subscribing at any level gets you 2 chapters ahead of the public ones, which is almost 20k words at the moment! 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 it otherwise, so thank you so all so very much. Coming soon for patrons: a second writing project, and maybe even a third advance chapter for Katalepsis in the future!
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!
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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?
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.”
“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.
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 …
All Patrons get access to two chapters ahead! Subscribing at any level gets you 2 chapters ahead of the public ones, which is almost 20k words at the moment! 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 it otherwise, so thank you so all so very much. Coming soon for patrons: a second writing project, and maybe even a third advance chapter for Katalepsis in the future!
Next week, time for a fight, right? Or is it just an incoming hug?
Discussion of dysphoria.
“Does literally everybody know?! First Twil, then you! Sevens is probably aware of it too, even if she really has stopped reading our minds, or whatever it is she does. Not to mention Raine trying to lend me out that one time, like I’m a plush toy or something. Who else knows? Praem? Zheng? Has Tenny noticed? Oh, that would be a disaster, she’s too young to understand the complications involved, she’d say it out loud. At least tell me you don’t all sit around discussing it behind our backs? Tell me Evelyn and I aren’t the only ones who haven’t discussed our own bloody relationship.”
Lozzie couldn’t stop giggling.
The more I ranted, the worse she got. She’d started with a delicate little giggle-snort, but my impotent outrage drove her into a flapping frenzy of pastel poncho and laughing fit. One hand clamped over her mouth in a futile gesture at tact, heaving for breath through her nose, eyes watering with laughter. She capered from foot to foot in a little circle next to Jan’s hotel bed, overflowing with vicarious energy.
I could hardly blame her. I was being absurd. Ranting and raving meant I didn’t have to stop and think.
But I couldn’t go forever. Lozzie laughed and giggled and guffawed, so eventually I shut my mouth.
“Heathyyyyyy,” Lozzie squeaked like a steam train. She hadn’t expected such a bounty.
For a split second I almost went Outside. It’s what Lozzie would have done, cornered inside her own emotional thicket of thorns and barbs. She would have escaped via Outside. Why not? I didn’t have to sit here and have this conversation. I didn’t have to face these things. I could not be forced.
Lozzie would follow me though. There was no escape, not even Outside.
I shut up and sat there in that increasingly uncomfortable hotel room chair, arms crossed, tentacles folded, fuming silently, blushing like a beetroot, and scowling at the sea-green carpet. Maybe the floor would open up and swallow me if I gave it a rude enough look.
Jan cleared her throat with a delicate little ahem-ahem, still sitting on the foot of her incredibly messy bed. She was trying to sound diplomatic and detached, but she couldn’t keep the amusement out of her voice. Lozzie’s giggle fit was infectious.
“I am so very sorry,” Jan said, trying for formal but sounding like a schoolgirl gossip caught in the act. “Once again, I appear to have misinterpreted the relationship between mage and octopus-girl. I have embarrassed you. My apologies for misspeaking.”
I scowled at her too. “You said that on purpose. I do possess a working memory, thank you.”
“Ah?” Jan’s eyebrows rose. Innocent, or mock-innocent, it was hard to tell. She was too good at this. Lozzie bobbed from side to side, fanning her face with both hands, trying to hold her laughter.
“In Camelot,” I snapped. “When we were waiting for Zheng and July to start their duel. You asked Evee and I if we were dating. You already knew we’re not.”
“Oh, that.” Jan’s expression scrunched up with mingled distaste and embarrassment. “You can’t seriously expect me to remember that? You took me into the wild beyond outside the spheres, and you expect me to remember every last little bit of conversation? Excuse me, squid-britches, I was struggling just to keep from having a dozen different kinds of panic attack. I barely remember half that afternoon. I touched a nerve, and I’m sorry, but this wasn’t intentional. Tch.” She tutted. “It’s not as if I’ve caused some great problem, or outed you, or messed up your plans. Have I? You and Miss Saye, you’re not star-crossed lovers of some kind, are you? Fated to certain doom if you brush hands over the last muffin in the box? Is she allergic to seafood?”
Jan struggled not to smirk at her own terrible joke, biting her lips together to stop from bursting out laughing. Lozzie howled with the giggles again and threw herself at the messy bed covers to contain the laughter, rolling around in the sheets. Pastel poncho flapped and flopped behind Jan.
I stared at Jan, unamused. “No.”
“Well.” Jan shrugged. She squeezed her pink stress ball. “Oops.”
I scowled at Jan, at her pastel-butterfly dressing gown and her exposed doll-joints. I scowled at Lozzie, still rolling on the bed. I scowled at the video game console over on the floor. I scowled at the curtains, the bags, the magic circle on the inside of the door — oh, to escape down the lift shaft, if only — and I scowled at Jan again.
She had known that Evelyn and I were not together, romantically speaking. That I was certain.
Had Lozzie put her up to this? Lozzie knew that Evee and I were stuck at an unspoken impasse. Despite my indignant ranting, I knew it was obvious. Lozzie wasn’t one for casual subterfuge, but she was also unusually close with Jan. If they’d planned this in advance, Jan could simply have been waiting for the right moment to ambush me with that line, or some variation of it.
Jan sighed. “You can hardly blame me for assuming you and the mage are romantically entangled. It seemed obvious enough.”
I sighed too. I was still shaken by the Slip spitting me out alone in the corridor, without Lozzie. I was still worried over Lozzie’s safety and Jan’s reliability. Paranoia can be a useful tool; I’d learnt that much from Evelyn. But paranoia shaped the mind that dared to wield it. Paranoia became a habit, then a way of life. My paranoia had shifted from serious matters to nonsense.
What did it matter if Lozzie had put Jan up to this? What difference did it make to me and Evelyn?
“Evee and I, we’re not romantically entangled,” I said, stiff and careful — and I wondered if that was true. “We are very close, yes. A pair of lesbians can be close friends without being romantic with each other. Obviously.”
Lozzie sat up behind Jan, trailing bits of sheet like a pastel-rainbow orca bursting from the ocean surface. “Yeah!” she chirped. “But you and Evee aren’t! She loves you!”
“I … I … I know.”
“And you love her!”
“ … yes, but as a … a fr—”
“Pfffffffffffffffffffffffft,” went Lozzie. “You keep avoiding it!”
And you didn’t even hear what Evee shouted to me, I thought, down in Hringewindla’s shell, when she thought I was walking into ego-death.
“We’re complicated, all right?” I huffed and hunched in my chair, tentacles drawn in tight like I was battling a tummy ache. I even laid one across my own front so I could hug it for comfort. I wanted to run away. “Lozzie, Jan and I have really serious, important matters to discuss. Matters that don’t involve my romantic problems. Okay?”
“Hmm-hmmm-hmmmmm-hmmmmm?” Lozzie tapped her chin with a finger, all mock-innocent.
Jan shrugged with her hands, looking oh so very reasonable. “We could have a proper girls’ talk first, if you like. After all, I’m not part of your bizarre extended polycule, all crammed into that one house together. I’m outside your system, and sometimes what you need is an outside perspective.”
I glared at her, aware that my face was burning up. She rotated her hands so she was surrendering instead of shrugging, then squeezed the stress ball.
“No, thank you,” I said.
“Won’t even charge. Agony aunt Jan. A free session.”
“Heathyyyyy,” Lozzie cooed. “Why not just talk to Evee-weevey?”
I hiccuped, loud enough to make Jan jump, hard enough to hurt my throat and chest. I was shaking, gripping myself with all my tentacles, as if to armour my flesh against the teeth and claws of some unseen predator. I was right on the verge of fight-or-flight, stuck to the inside of my own clothes with sweat, overheated and constricted.
I had to stand up. I got to my feet and sucked down a deep breath, then flapped the hem of my hoodie to get some fresh air against my skin. The air-conditioning made the room taste dry and sterile.
Lozzie leaned close to Jan, to whisper something in her ear. I felt anxiety transmute to irritation, and decided I needed a distraction.
Perhaps it was the way I’d been conversationally ambushed, or perhaps it was the result of coming down from the adrenaline high and paranoid-defensive mental posture, but I was liking this hotel room less and less by the minute. It was clean and airy, simple and modern, without decoration or ostentation, but the longer I spent here the more it reminded me of the kind of anonymous box I’d left behind when I’d moved in with Raine and Evelyn. Human beings were not meant to live alone inside air-conditioned cages, no matter how convenient.
I was well aware that was horribly unfair. Jan wasn’t living alone, she had July. For all I knew she spent most of her time on that laptop, talking with hundreds of online friends. Or maybe she went out clubbing every night. I really knew very little about Jan. One woman’s alienation is another’s paradise.
Trying to clear my thoughts, I walked over to the heavy curtains which covered the hotel room’s large window.
Thin strips of sunlight like white fire showed around the edges, the burning day held at bay behind thick fabric. With my tentacles, I peeled back the edge to look outdoors. What I got was a full face of direct sunlight, enough to make me blink and squint.
Sharrowford, sun-cracked by the strange June. For a moment I wasn’t sure where we were located, other than several stories up. Heat-haze rose from a tangle of black tarmac roads, the kind of meaningless intersection that you might find in any city, hemmed in by glass and brick and metal all around, punctuated by traffic islands as isolated as undiscovered Pacific atolls. Plants wilted and turned brown. A few hardy trees along the pavements sucked sustenance from unseen sewer lines or buried stream-beds — or from piles of corpses, for all I knew. Few pedestrians braved the heat. Even the pneuma-somatic life seemed sluggish, sticking to the shadows of tall buildings or congregating beneath trees — though I did notice more plant-like ones up on the tall rooftops, petals of ice or metal or flesh wide open to drink in the heat. Plenty of cars navigated the tangle of back roads. As I watched, a couple of city buses passed by. A pneuma-somatic dog-thing the size of a horse was riding on the roof of one bus. It looked at me as it went past, then threw its head back in a silent howl.
I raised my eyes and recognised the spires of Sharrowford Cathedral on a distant hill. An ape-like thing was wrapped around one of the spires, fast asleep. It must have been huge.
I spoke without looking back at Jan and Lozzie. “We’re near the station, aren’t we?”
“Mm, a five minute walk,” Jan replied. I heard Lozzie whispering again. Plotting how to get me and Evee to kiss, I guessed. Was this how it felt? I still ached with guilt for banging Evee and Twil together like they were toy dolls, pairing them up for my amusement. I sighed inside and told myself I would need to explain to Lozzie why this was a bad idea.
“Kimberly must be close, then,” I said, just for distraction. “She works at a florist near the station. Not sure exactly where, though.”
“A florist?” Jan laughed softly as Lozzie’s whispering broke off. “The girl I bought weed from, she works at a florist?”
“I gather that’s some kind of stereotype?” I asked, still squinting out of the window, into the sunlight.
My phone buzzed in my hoodie’s front pocket before Jan could answer. I tutted at myself, highly conscious that I still hadn’t called home. I fished out the phone and found a text message from Raine.
Having fun with Lozzie?
I hurried to compose a reply, just to reassure her that I was safe — talking to Jan, Lozzie’s fine, going to discuss some sensitive subjects, please don’t worry about us, and so on.
Don’t worry about us? What about Slipping home? But Lozzie had tested it. We were safe.
“Heathyyyy,” Lozzie said, bouncing on her knees on the bed. “You didn’t answer the question!”
“Hmm?” I blinked up at her as I sent the text message to Raine. Lozzie looked like a melted jellyfish in blue and pink.
“Why don’t you just talk to Evee?” she chirped.
Jan cleared her throat and nodded very intently, catching my eye with a silent, pre-emptive apology. I wasn’t sure about earlier, but this time? Yes, Lozzie had absolutely put her up to whatever was about to happen next, that’s what all the whispering had been about, and she was very sorry to do this to me.
“Yes, quite,” Jan said. “Now, I don’t have the widest range of romantic experience, to put it lightly, but I have discovered that generally these things go better if you communicate. Why not speak with her?”
Under duress or not, that question grated on me. I gave her a bit of a look. “Yes, I’m well aware.”
Lozzie giggled. “Heathy! You even sound like her sometimes! Like Evee!”
I sighed and rubbed my face with one hand. “She’s rubbed off on me. Her way of speaking is very … courageous.”
Jan pulled a grimace and muttered, “I was thinking ‘bitchy’.” Lozzie poked her gently in the shoulder, a very obvious signal. Jan raised her voice. “But the question stands, Heather. Why not speak with her? Are you afraid of rejection? That’s very normal, very rational, everybody faces it, everybody has to deal with those feelings, but there’s no sense in letting those fears dictate your actions.”
I answered without hesitation. “No, I’m afraid of the opposite.”
Jan snorted a very inelegant laugh, then flapped her hands and pulled a grimace. She finally lost her grip on the stress ball, which fell and vanished among the bed covers. “Sorry. I was a bit overcome with your sheer confidence.”
I tucked the curtain back into place, shutting out the sun once more. I turned and leaned against the wall, head against the plaster, tentacles stretching out wide. I closed my eyes in emotional exhaustion.
“My love life is already complicated beyond reason,” I said. “You think going Outside is bad? Try juggling my three — yes, count them — three girlfriends.”
I heard nothing for a moment, saw nothing but the inside of my own eyelids, the play of coloured darkness across the underside of my own flesh.
Then Lozzie said, “Mmhmm! It’s true.”
“Heather, please,” Jan sighed, a bit tighter than before. She was running out of patience, but I wasn’t sure who with. “Enumerate for me? You’ve already proven that your polycule is beyond my comprehension.”
“Raine is my girlfriend. We’re a couple. We fuck.”
“Oooooh,” went Lozzie. “Heathy!”
I opened my eyes and pulled an apologetic smile. Lozzie had both hands on her cheeks in a mock-scandalised look.
Jan seemed puzzled. “Ah?”
“Heathy never swears,” said Lozzie.
“I can swear if I wish to,” I said. “It’s not like I’ll burst into flames. I just don’t, not very much. Sorry, Lozzie, it’s just this is a difficult topic.”
“And I’m not part of your polycule,” said Jan. “Go on, if you’re comfortable.”
More than a hint of teenage girl crept into Jan’s tone when she said that. The mask of the con-woman, non-threatening and safe to speak with, just a young girl without a care. Was that intentional, or was it her way of trying to reassure? She wasn’t that dissimilar to Sevens, in some ways. The mask was a mask, but also real.
“Zheng,” I went on. “She’s … well, I think we have an asexual partnership. She worships me, in a quasi-religious sense, partly because I freed her from slavery, partly because I remind her of somebody from her past. I think I love her too.” I shook my head. “I thought it was going to turn sexual between her and I, but … it just didn’t. And I don’t mind that.” I sighed heavily. “And you saw how things have turned out between her and Raine.”
Jan nodded. “Most interesting, yes.”
“And then there’s Sevens.”
Jan winced. “The … I really hesitate to say the word, but … the vampire?”
I laughed. “You wish she was just a vampire.”
“Never mind. She’s not a vampire. Apparently there’s no such thing, not really. She’s … from elsewhere, let’s put it like that. Sevens proposed marriage to me.”
Jan whistled low. “And you said … ?”
The laugh went away. “It’s complicated.”
Jan winced. “Poor girl.”
“She’s got a lot to make up for. And she’s changing, a lot. I don’t know if we’re meant to be together, but I’m happy to have her by my side, whatever she wants to be.”
Lozzie poked Jan in the shoulder again, in some kind of pre-arranged code. Jan gave her a doubtful look, so Lozzie leaned down and whispered in her ear for a moment, before bouncing back up and grinning at me. Jan shot me another apologetic look.
What was the point of this? I knew these were Lozzie’s words, via Jan. Was this supposed to convince me of something?
“Well,” Jan said, without much conviction. “Why not add Evee to all this?”
I stared at her and Lozzie for a moment. Lozzie shot me a broad, obvious wink — which Jan couldn’t see.
“Evelyn Saye’s sexuality is none of your business,” I told Jan.
“Of course, of course—”
“The short version is I’m not sure she’d be comfortable. The slightly longer version is I’m not even sure she knows what kind of relationship she would want. I think we’re fine where we are now. She and I are very, very close. And maybe that’s how we’re meant to be. And that’s okay. We hug, we touch, we care for each other, we talk a lot, we’re always around each other, every day. We don’t make out or have sex, but I don’t really think we need to.”
I spoke the words, but I only half-believed them myself.
For a moment, in the silence and peace of my mind’s eye, I tried to picture Evee snuggled up to me under her bed covers. That wasn’t too hard, it came naturally; we’d done that before, or at least something close enough. Then I tried to imagine her without any clothes on. If I did the same thing with Raine, I felt that familiar hitch of lust in my chest, the feeling like I was going to buckle at the knees.
But with Evee, that was absent. Naked Evelyn was just naked Evelyn. Not that I’d ever seen.
Lozzie was right though, I did love her. But how?
Why was I finally comfortable facing up to this? Perhaps because I was away from home, in the naturally liminal space of a hotel, held in a brief artificial bubble. Or perhaps because I was away from Evelyn, beyond her contact, for a moment.
Lozzie dipped her head to whisper in Jan’s ear again, but I spoke up first.
“Don’t raise this with her,” I said, a little harder than I intended. Protective instinct growled in my chest. My tentacles twitched, they wanted to wrap Evee up tight, look after her. Lozzie looked up in surprise. “That goes for you too, Lozzie. I’m serious. Evelyn is safe, and … and somewhat happy. Happier than I’ve seen her before. She and I might not be perfect, our situation might not be perfect, but she’s safe and happy. She has purpose. Don’t bring this up with her, please. It could hurt her.”
Because hurting Evelyn is my job, part of my mind whispered. Hurting her by refusing to acknowledge what she feels.
“Oh my goodness,” Jan sighed. “We’re past useless lesbian and into oppositional defiant disorder lesbian.”
“I’m serious,” I snapped.
Lozzie bit her bottom lip and nodded. “Okaaaaaay,” she whined, pouting like a fussy child.
“Look, Lozzie, I do love Evee, but it’s not like that. Not every relationship has to be—”
My phone buzzed in my hand.
Raine had sent me one of those creative text messages she sometimes composed, a picture made out of text symbols. She’d crafted an image of two figures sitting on a magic carpet, flying through the air, complete with little wisps of cloud and passing birds. The girl in front had long hair and a striped poncho, though the text couldn’t manage colours. The girl in the rear had a hoodie and tentacles. My heart felt like it was growing too large for the inside of my chest.
“I … I’m sorry, Lozzie,” I said to the phone screen, unable to make eye contact. “I know you just want us to be happy.” I sniffed, felt tears. “But I can’t … Evee doesn’t … she doesn’t even know what she wants either. And it would be asking her to share, I can’t. I can’t.”
“Do you two want some food?” Jan asked. Her changing of the subject was so obvious that even Twil would have picked up the hint. “I’m starving, I could go for a mid-afternoon snack. Goodness, actually, it’s almost dinner time. This place doesn’t really have room service, but they have a bar.”
“Oooooh!” went Lozzie.
“I hardly think it’s the time for alcohol,” I said, scrubbing my face, sniffing back tears that had not quite started.
“Maybe not for you,” Jan said with a little wink. “But if we’re going to sit down and talk shop, I want some fortification. If we want something more substantial, I could call July, send her out to get us a proper meal from one of the places around here. What do you say, Heather?”
“Um … ”
She scooted off the bed and hopped to her feet, little black socks sinking into the carpet, then crossed to the desk. Her pentacolour dressing gown billowed out behind her like an exotic species of jellyfish. She found her phone in her pink tote bag, neat and pink like so many other things she owned, but it was old — a flip-phone. She flipped it open.
“We’re going to talk magic and bodies, aren’t we? I think we both need some calories in us for that. I’m going to call July.” She cracked a subtle, cheeky smile. “It’s so good having a personal delivery service. What else are demons good for, hm?”
We got Chinese food in the end, after very little debate. Real Chinese food, from a place which was apparently called The Chonky Little Dragon, a name so atrocious that I never would have imagined it was anything except a terrible gimmick. But Jan’s experience proved her right. I never saw the place, because she sent July to fetch the food with a phone call, straight from her dip in the pool, without us. Jan paid.
I called Raine while we waited for July to return, just to reassure her that everything was fine and there was no emergency unfolding.
“Hey, Heather, relax,” Raine laughed down the phone. I couldn’t tell if she was genuinely comfortable with this, or if she’d grown more skilled at hiding her worries. “You’ve gone out with Lozzie for the afternoon, that’s all. It’s cool, I get it. Hell, there’s no better safety line than Lozzie, right? Can’t promise Zheng won’t come to join you though, I can’t do anything about that.”
“Oh, please do try to stop her,” I said. “I don’t think I could deal with that right now.”
Raine laughed again. “No promises. Say hi to Jan for me. And Heather.” Her voice dropped, suddenly serious. “Good luck. Love you.”
“Love you too.”
Raine probably had a pretty good idea what we were going to discuss.
But not before food.
July took long enough that I had ample time to recover from thinking about kissing Evee, but not so long that things grew awkward in the hotel room. She let herself in, unlocking the door and looming inside like a knife-thrust from a blind angle.
She was carrying a pair of thin plastic bags full of food, and made a stalking bee-line to dump them on the little table as Jan hurried to scoop the fancy laptop out of the way. The bags clinked.
I had to struggle to suppress a flinch, away from July. The demon host was much as I remembered her, tall and built like a runner, with the wide-eyed look of a predatory bird. Her every motion was a knife-slash, so sharp I swear she didn’t displace the air as she moved. July was dressed for the heat outdoors, in a grey tank top which showed off the toned muscles of her arms and shoulders, and a pair of loose dark shorts below, with converse shoes and no socks. Her long black hair was loose, stretching almost to her backside, thick and dark and still damp from the pool. She carried a faint chemical smell of chlorine.
“Juls-Juls-Juls!” Lozzie greeted her, darting forward to look at the food around her side, like July was a piece of wall blocking her way.
Jan rummaged through the bags and started distributing polystyrene boxes, then reached into one of her invisible magic pockets and produced a pair of chopsticks.
July didn’t greet Lozzie or Jan, but she stared at me for several long seconds, until Jan bumped her in the ribs with a box of food. “Yours. Take it. You want a fork, or chopsticks? You too, Heather, you want a fork?”
The demon host must have decided I wasn’t there to pull Jan to pieces like a squid with a shellfish. She nodded at me with muted respect, then accepted her food.
“Uh, please,” I said. “Fork for me too.”
It was a strange time of day to be eating a heavy meal, far past lunchtime but not yet late enough for a proper dinner. I’d opted for rice and vegetables in some kind of plum sauce, and ended up pleasantly surprised. Lozzie had a big plate of sweet and sour chicken, while Jan had a gingery version of something similar. The two of them swapped choice bits the whole time, though Jan seemed a little embarrassed by the process. July had a box full of what looked like charred twists of leftover meat, but she seemed to enjoy it well enough.
Lozzie, July, and I all had tap water, but Jan had two bottles of beer.
“Both for me, don’t worry,” she said, with a wink.
We sat around eating. Lozzie occupied the desk chair, while Jan and I took the two chairs around the little table. July sat straight as a rod at the head of her perfectly made bed, watching everything with wide eyes. Lozzie got up and went over to her several times, offering her random bits of meat, which she accepted mechanically, like a very large and patient bird of prey. I tried not to watch her eat.
As we ate, Jan wanted to ‘nerd out’ over my tentacles, as Raine might put it.
“May I touch?” she asked, hand paused politely in the air over the table.
She’d had me lay one of the gently strobing pale limbs across the plywood between us, so she could peer at the colours. The others I kept tightly tucked in toward my body, feeling a little self-conscious in a room with three other people who needed no magical aids to see what I really was. I didn’t mind Jan’s professional attention, but it did feel a little strange, like I was being examined by a very polite mad scientist.
When I didn’t answer for a moment, Jan cleared her throat and pulled a delicate grimace. She placed her chopsticks down for a moment. “Pardon me, they’re not erogenous or anything, are they? I’m not asking to touch a sex organ here, am I?”
Lozzie giggled, but Jan shot her a tiny frown. She was being genuinely respectful, or trying to.
“No,” I said with a sigh, poking at my own food, all self-conscious now. “Well, I mean, I could probably modify them to be, but no, I’ve never tried that. You can touch if you like. It should be safe at the moment.”
Jan paused again. “Safe?”
“I can put contact toxins in the skin,” I explained across our pair of half-empty fast-food boxes. “Paralytics, neurotoxins, the kinds of things you might find in a puffer-fish or a poison dart frog.” Jan’s eyes widened. I blushed and felt horribly awkward. “It’s something I can do when I’m in trouble, the toxins aren’t always there, they’re re-metabolised into other compounds. I think. It’s perfectly safe at the moment.”
“And how did you learn to do that?” she asked.
I’d misread Jan’s expression. She wasn’t afraid. She was fascinated.
She was watching me with naked fascination, though it was nothing like the hunger for knowledge that used to creep onto Evelyn’s face, back in the early days of my brain-math experiments. It wasn’t religious awe either, which was such a relief that I could have hugged her. It was admiration.
“Instinct, mostly,” I said. “I did some reading up on biology, only a little, just textbooks from the university library. That may have helped, but it’s mostly just innate gut feeling.”
Jan couldn’t help but laugh softly, amazed. She fortified herself with a swig of beer, then finally touched my tentacle. She blinked in surprise as she ran her hand down the length that lay across the table. Her doll-like joints showed faintly at her knuckles and wrist, as almost invisible artificial lines in her own crafted flesh. Neither of us was fully human. Part of me liked that. Part of me liked sharing this with her, specifically.
“It’s smooth,” she said with a soft little laugh. “I didn’t expect that either. Like you’d be akin to a shark, or something, all rough and rasping.”
“I can make it non-smooth. Barbs, spikes, even those little rotating hooks that colossal squids have. Though I don’t know if I got those right, I was mostly working off knowledge from youtube videos and wikipedia.”
Jan stared at my face again. She blinked once, hard, then drained more of her beer.
“Heather, don’t take this the wrong way, but I’ve never seen anything quite like you before. You’re clearly human, there’s just … more of you.”
The unspoken question was a thorn in my throat.
But Jan didn’t inhabit her original body, either. Maybe she would understand.
“It’s very hard to explain exactly what happened to me,” I said. “I went somewhere else. Not Outside, but the … oh, I can’t explain it, even now. Human language can’t do it. I went to the place that all the bubbles of reality are floating in. Somewhere more real than reality. My physical body stayed here. And out there I was different. I was a different kind of being altogether. I was more perfect, faster, elegant. Unburdened. I was more … just more.”
I closed my eyes. Had to swallow hard.
The abyss always lurked at the edge of my consciousness, a constant flavour to my thoughts and memories, a lost perfection and beauty that haunted me every waking hour, every day, forever. Sometimes I would wake in the night from a dream of slipping through ice-cold waters in the endless dark, sharp and quick and clever. Baths were risky, always a temptation to float beneath the surface, submerged in water and memory alike. Sometimes I would cry, afterward.
I was anchored now, by Raine and Zheng and all my other worldly attachments. In an emergency I did not doubt that I could swim to the edge of the abyss, the lip of that metaphorical marine trench where I could perform hyperdimensional mathematics on the substrate of reality itself, rather than my own brain. Such a feat would be doable now, without the risk of sinking.
But the abyss in my blood and marrow called to the space between the spheres. Always, I would want to return.
On the canvas of my own eyelids, I tried to feel that perfection, but I couldn’t.
The others seemed to sense I was having a moment. Jan awkwardly patted my tentacle. A foot snuck up out of nowhere — Lozzie’s — and rubbed against my own.
I opened my eyes, blinking as if thrust into the light, back into the world of solid objects and warm flesh and strong smells. For just a second I felt horrible, rotten inside, a sloshing bag of meat and fluid. I shivered, but I forced myself to take a big mouthful of rice and vegetables, chewing and swallowing. Taste anchored me back in my body, firmly here again.
Jan cleared her throat. “If you need to stop … ”
I shook my head. “When I came back, my own body seemed completely wrong. Disgusting. Like I was never meant to be a bipedal ape at all, and certainly not … here.” I blew out a shuddering breath. “So I started to modify myself. That helped a lot, over time. I still feel it, this lingering wrongness in the back of my head, in the shape of my own body, but only sometimes, and nowhere near as bad as it used to be. The tentacles, they’re not an alien affectation or a solution to a physical problem or a cool experiment, or anything like that. They’re part of my body, they feel right to have. And I risked a lot to make them, too. I bruised myself very badly when I first started making them. I did internal damage to myself, tore muscles, risked internal bleeding. And all of it was worth doing. I would risk it again.”
My voice had grown thick with emotion. Jan nodded, genuinely fascinated.
“Thank you,” she said. “For sharing.”
Lozzie leaned over so she could pat my head. Jan took a thoughtful drag from her beer. I sniffed hard, then laughed without much humour.
“If you think the tentacles are impressive,” I said, “then you should see me when I’m ready for a fight, though I have no idea what to do. I can modify practically my whole body, though it’s very risky to do so in normal reality, I think.”
Jan blinked at me several times. Lozzie nodded enthusiastically and said, “Mmhmm! It’s true! I’ve seen it! Spiky spooky armoured Heather!”
“Well,” Jan said. “Well well well.” She gently squeezed my tentacle, just enough to gauge the weight of muscle. “How did you solve the energy problem?”
“The energy problem? I’m sorry?”
“Mm. Not to mention the processing power to control it all.” Jan smiled, took a bite of her food, and chewed thoughtfully. I could tell she was trying to find solid ground, to make a personal connection to what I’d just told her. Perhaps it was genuine, or perhaps it was the instincts of the con artist in her. She lifted her right hand and showed me the back of her palm. “Back when I first designed this body, I tried to do something analogous. Well, a little bit. I didn’t try for tentacles, but I wanted to do something with more arms. Two hearts. Thicker skin. A beak. I had a plan for larger joints, to give my own muscles more leverage. But as you can see.” She gestured wider with both hands, spreading out her fancy dressing gown too, showing off her petite form beneath lilac t-shirt and pink shorts. “I went for something more compact. Comfy and easy to wear. Something more me, which is really the most important consideration in the end.”
“And cute!” Lozzie chirped.
“And that.” Jan laughed, a little awkward, and blushed faintly before she caught herself again. “The notion that I would have been remotely comfortable in some improved-model human body was just absurd. Youthful idiocy. Too much science fiction as a kid. But, even discounting issues of physical dysphoria, it’s surprisingly difficult to add extra limbs or such, as a human being. You need the neurological set-up.” She gestured at July, who was sitting on the bed, watching us intently as she chewed her toasted meat. “Demons solve it via other methods. Their soul is closer to the surface, if that makes sense?”
“It doesn’t,” I admitted. “But never mind.”
Jan waved in apology. “Whereas you, you must have returned with the right set-up, from … wherever you went.”
“The abyss,” I said. “That’s what I call it.”
Jan winced in slow motion. “Lovely.”
I mirrored her wince. “Truth be told, there’s a strong possibility that the abyss was just a catalyst. I may have been this way from much earlier, though it’s very hard to explain why. My time in the abyss may have simply woken me up to my own nature, so to speak.”
I pulled an awkward smile. I didn’t feel like going into detail about my theory right then — my theory that the Eye had changed me, a decade before I’d plunged into the abyss. Jan didn’t need to know that part, it would scare her even worse, and it only raised further questions.
“Oh, absolutely,” she said. “I understand that, totally. Still, my question stands. You must be ravenous all the time, unless you’ve got a … power plant … ” She trailed off, staring at me. “Ah. Reactor, yes. You said it earlier.”
I forced an awkward little laugh and patted my lower abdomen. “Bioreactor. I don’t really understand how I made it. It runs on abyssal logic, abyssal physics and biology, but translated into human flesh. You’re right though, I had appetite problems before I made the reactor, to put it lightly.”
Jan blew out a long breath, then tried another smile, then took another hearty bite of rice and meat from her takeaway meal. I could practically see the slow transition from fascination and terror to ‘oh-well-none-of-my-business’. Where Evelyn would have stared and probed with professional awe, compiling a catalogue of supernatural facts, Jan wadded up the information about my miracle body and crammed it into the mental equivalent of an overflowing backpack.
“I think Heathy’s really really really really pretty,” Lozzie said. She tilted her head up and let her sleepy-lidded eyes fall even heavier than usual. “And she glows in the dark!”
Jan swallowed her food and blinked in polite interest. “I’m sure she does. And yes, Heather, your body is magnificently impressive. I hope you don’t take my questions as anything except admiration.”
“Um, thank you, yes, I … I suppose it probably is. Though it doesn’t feel that way.”
“It’s also bloody scary,” Jan’s smile turned stiff and forced, on purpose. “I hope you understand why I’m being so forward about this. About needing to understand your body?”
“Because of my twin sister,” I said.
Jan nodded, slow and serious. “Because of your twin sister.”
I took a deep breath and steadied myself. Jan watched me across the table and the two half-eaten boxes of food. In that moment she seemed both old and young at the same time, delicate in two different directions. She was serious in the way only a serious young girl can be, but overflowing with the experience of age. She watched, and waited, for me to make the first move. Was she being polite, or shrewd? Lozzie and July both declined the opportunity to interrupt. I could feel July’s gaze on me from over on the bed.
This was what I wanted, wasn’t it? I swallowed a hiccup.
“Will you do it?” I asked. “Will you make a body for her?”
Jan’s composure broke down instantly, without even a token attempt to hold out. Her entire self-image just slumped and sloughed off. She puffed out a huge sigh and almost rolled her eyes, sagging a little in her chair. “Payment has been agreed on, so I suppose I’m duty-bound to attempt it, at least. But I really, really do not like the idea.”
“Why?” I asked. “Not that I’m trying to make things better — I mean, I will, if I can. But mostly I need to understand. I need to understand the challenge here. Please. I need to know.”
Jan held my gaze for a moment with a sort of tilted non-smile on her face, then sighed and nodded. She took another big bite of greasy chicken and leaned back, adjusting the folds of her pink-and-blue dressing gown and crossing one delicate leg over the other. The doll-joint of her knee was fully exposed, as if she was intentionally showing it off.
“On one hand there is a technical problem,” she said, slipping into the practised tones of a used car salesman. I refrained from frowning. She was probably trying her best to take this seriously. “Or rather, several intertwined technical problems. On the other hand there is a philosophical problem.”
“Let’s start with the technical problem?”
Jan snorted a tiny laugh — that wasn’t part of the sales pitch. “I should charge a consultation fee.”
“I’ll pay it. I’m serious.”
Jan winced and raised a hand. “No, no, please. Don’t. That was a joke.” She took a moment, then slowly looked me up and down. “Your twin’s body would be based on you, correct? Identical twins? I think I asked you that before, but remind me.”
“We were identical, yes. Are identical.”
“Were?” Jan asked, sharper than I expected. “When?”
“Ten … eleven years ago, almost.” A lump grew in my throat. “That’s when she was kidnapped.”
“So she didn’t go through puberty?”
“Oh.” I blinked. “Um. I … uh, I suppose not. Unless she kept her body, out in—”
“Would she have squid tentacles by now as well?” Jan asked. “Or something else?”
“Um, probably not. It’s not the same situation. Well … it might be, but that’s complicated.”
“Complicated?” Jan prompted. When I looked at her blankly, she sighed and smiled, dropping the sharp edges and the sharp tongue. “Making a body like mine is not simply a matter of buying a life-sized doll from Amazon and then hopping over to it. I’m aware that’s how Evelyn made Praem — which is a fascinating subject, by the way, genuine achievement — but demons and humans don’t work the same. Demons can anchor themselves in almost anything, because they’re coming into this world without any pre-existing structures of the soul. For a human being, the process of crafting a body is also the process of inhabitation.”
I pulled a sceptical pout. “I don’t think it was too different for Praem.”
Jan waved a hand. “The end result is a person, yes, I’m not disputing that. But the route is different. Look, Heather, I can’t just craft a copy of you in the same way I made myself, and then expect your long-lost sister to just happily inhabit it. If she still has a physical body, what if she’s modified it, like you have, adapted her physical body to her internal circumstances? You can’t just rip her out of it and put her in a humanoid doll, that would be torture. I know, I know, I said this before, but the more I think about it, the less I like it.”
“Where she is now, that’s torture,” I said. I stared into Jan’s crystal-blue eyes. She was deadly serious, but so was I. “I’ve spoken to her, down in the abyss. I found a … a crack in the wall. That’s a metaphor, but it’s the only words I have for it. And she’s suffering. She wants out. If she stays there much longer, if I don’t rescue her, and soon, then she’ll cease to exist. There will be nothing left of her.”
Jan frowned harder and harder, uncomfortable with all of this.
“She begged me,” I said. “And I will bring her back here, with or without a body ready for her. So if you don’t help me, then I’ll do it myself.”
Jan held my gaze for a moment, then puffed out a big sigh and nodded. “All right. Fair enough.”
Lozzie set her food down on the desk and bounced out of her seat, so she could skip over and give me a hug. I was shaking, and Lozzie stayed there until I stopped. Then she let go and fluttered away to hug Jan as well. Jan cleared her throat with incredible awkwardness and returned the hug with one arm.
“If you do make a body for her,” I said, “it would be a back up option, or perhaps a kind of foundation for what I’m going to try to do.”
Jan had to poke her head around Lozzie’s poncho. “Explain?”
I bit my lip, wondering how much I should tell her. Too much about the Eye might send poor Jan screaming for the hills. “My sister, Maisie, she’s trapped by a … an entity. We call it the Eye.”
“Wonderful,” Jan muttered.
“Several months ago, I freed somebody else from the Eye.”
Jan’s eyebrows shot up. “Oh. Oh, well, that’s good. And here I was sort of taking you as a heroic type. No scouting, no prototypes. So you’ve actually done this once before, you’ve made it work?”
“Sort of. The person I saved, she’d only been in the Eye’s grip for a few hours. I brought her back and re-wove her body, but I think I could only do that because she still existed, sort of. I was just following the lines already imprinted on reality. Like a colouring book, but a human being.”
Jan looked more and more concerned as I explained. Lozzie patted her head, slowly floofing up her already messy black hair.
“And she didn’t come back healthy,” I said. “She was a mage, before. She’ll never do magic again. She suffers from terrible post-traumatic stress disorder and a laundry list of physical issues, some of which I’ve been trying to fix. But Maisie’s been gone much, much longer. I don’t think there’s going to be a body to re-create. But if I have a vessel to put her in, maybe that will give me something to work with. If we can make it her. Somehow.”
Jan nodded, lips pursed, brow furrowed. “That might actually work. That might actually solve the technical problem.”
Jan waved a hand. Lozzie leaned over her chair from behind, draped over Jan’s shoulders.
“I got rather off-track earlier,” Jan said. “The process of creation is the process of inhabitation, that’s the important part. That’s why it’s so difficult to create a body for another person.” She hunched in her chair, looking mightily uncomfortable for a moment, and looked over her shoulder at Lozzie, self-conscious but steeling herself for some vital task. Lozzie booped her on the nose with a fingertip, which made Jan blush and clear her throat and look back to me. She finally carried on. “When I made this body for myself, I didn’t craft it and get it all nice and finished, and then leap into it once it was ready — well, actually I did, but I wasn’t supposed to.” She huffed. “The process of creating it was supposed to be the process of transference. There was meant to a long, slow period where I would have slid from my old form and into this new one, achieved via the act of creating this.” She poked herself in the chest. “Creation is inhabitation. You understand?”
“Ah,” I said. “I think I’m beginning to see the problem.”
“Only beginning to, trust me.” Jan pulled a sardonic look. Lozzie rested her head on Jan’s shoulder. “As things happened, my old body, um, died. Unexpectedly.”
“You were murdered,” said July.
Jan winced and rolled her eyes. “And whose fault was that?”
“You were careless. I was a child.”
Jan’s wince turned to a grimace. “Yes, well. I was murdered. Before this body was ready. Do you know what it was like?”
I felt vastly out of my depth. “Being murdered?”
“No, being in an unfinished body.” Jan tapped the table with an impatient fingertip, glanced at Lozzie on her shoulder again, as if for reassurance, then sighed and rolled her neck back. “Alright, you shared your physical secrets with me. It’s only fair turnabout that I do the same for you.”
“Oh,” I said. “No, please, you don’t have to.”
“Jannyyyyyyy,” Lozzie cooed, stroking Jan’s hair again. “You don’t have to if you don’t want to! Even to me!”
But Jan focused entirely on me, trying to look very serious, which was challenging with Lozzie’s fingers buried in her thick, dark, fluffy hair, slowly massaging her scalp, and Lozzie’s sleepy head resting on her shoulder.
Jan spread her own hands, as if presenting herself for my inspection.
“My body is mostly made of CFRP,” she said. “That’s carbon-fibre-reinforced polymers. Hand crafted by yours truly. Very expensive, but it keeps me light and durable and will last a long time. I’ve got some metal parts too, mostly platinum and gold. Inside me, in my core, there’s a bulletproof box, welded shut, which contains a sort of soul-trap, attuned to me personally. That’s how I got in here.” She frowned. “Though that makes it sound a lot more straightforward than it turned out to be.”
I frowned as well. My mind snagged on a detail.
“Ahhhh,” said Jan. “Questions, already?”
“Yes. I’m sorry, excuse me for being rude, but Jan, you’re a very … um, cautious person.”
“I am a self-confessed coward. You can say it. I don’t mind.”
Lozzie giggled. I winced. July said, “Correct.”
“But why?” I asked. “If your soul is contained in a bulletproof box, then … ?”
“I bleed,” Jan answered. “I bleed, I bruise, my bones will break. I breathe, I eat, I sleep, I shit. And if you shoot me in the head, the bullet will pulp my brains, and I will die.”
Lozzie made a pouty noise.
I frowned harder. “ … but you’re made of carbon fibre.”
“No, this body started as carbon fibre. Big difference. I’ve quite settled in by now. You’ve literally worked with spirit-flesh, you’ve got six limbs of it attached to your sides. You don’t understand this principle?”
A light bulb went on inside my head. “Like Praem … ”
The core of Praem’s body was made of wood, while her exterior was formed from a kind of pneuma-somatic flesh, similar to my tentacles and other abyssal additions, except hers was both solid and visible to normal sight, kind of like Twil’s werewolf transformation. But once, months ago now, I’d seen Praem’s wooden core itself, stripped naked of her flesh. Back when the Eye cult had kidnapped Raine, they’d managed to pull Praem out of her body. They had trapped her soul inside a jar. I didn’t have the best memories of that day; I’d been rather preoccupied with saving lives. But I did recall the sight of Praem’s wooden-doll core, covered in anchor-spikes and the web-like structures of a nervous system, her wooden joints augmented with sheaths of strange sinew-like material. The head of the doll — Praem’s skull — was covered in warped wood-grain, the underlying structure of her face. Or her brain.
“Excuse me?” Jan asked.
“Just something I saw once,” I said. “But I think I understand. Being present in a body, even if that body isn’t flesh, modifies it over time, yes?”
Jan nodded. “Exactly. The soul knows its own shape.”
I nodded with growing enthusiasm. I almost laughed. “That’s how it feels!”
“Old-school mind-body duality is nonsense. We’re taught that the mind — or soul — is the self, and the body is merely a vessel. But this is not true. People like you and I are proof of that.” Jan pointed at my tentacles. I felt a rush of warm fuzzy feeling in my chest, and hugged one of my extra limbs to myself. Jan carried on. “The soul remembers its own shape. And it will go to great lengths to reshape the body.” Jan raised her fingers and wiggled them in the air. I wasn’t sure if she was showing off her semi-visible doll-joints, or the sheer fact that she was. “My core is carbon fibre and metal, but I’m wrapped in pneuma-somatic flesh, manifested by sheer force of will and self-image and the engine of my soul. For somebody like me, the soul shapes the body. That’s how this works.”
“So you have a functioning digestive system, circulation, a heart, and so on?”
“Mostly.” Jan sighed. “It’s not a one-for-one for a ‘normal’ human body, but it does all the things I need it to do — the things my mind says it should do. I can’t go to the doctor, obviously. I’d look like a nightmare under an x-ray machine and an MRI would pull me to pieces. And I probably can’t get pregnant, though I’ve never tested that.”
Lozzie lit up, wide-eyed, biting her lips to stop a giggle. Jan cleared her throat.
“Then, Maisie could have a real body.”
I don’t recall the taste of food very well, but I think I want to eat.
Maisie’s words echoed in my memory. I had to blink hard, several times, so as to stop the tears before they had a chance to begin.
I didn’t need to cry anymore. This was what I needed. I was taking a concrete step to prepare for our success, to be ready for the moment we won my sister back from the Eye. It was going to work. Doing this, planning with Jan, this was far more convincing than any amount of reassurance.
“Eventually,” Jan said — hard and sharp, unexpected.
“When I was … cut down,” Jan said, shooting a sideways glance at July, “I had to enter this new body prematurely. The soul works, yes, but my goodness does it work slowly. I spent two weeks on my back before I could move. A month with no senses, blind and deaf and mute. Even touch didn’t work properly. Have you ever been in a sensory deprivation tank? No? Well, after a while you start to go a little bit crazy. I didn’t have a face for six months.”
I put a hand to my mouth, mortified. “Oh. Oh, I’ve been so flippant. I’m so sorry, Jan.”
“Jannyyyy,” Lozzie buzzed, resting her cheek in Jan’s hair. Jan went a little stiff, but smiled all the same.
“Do you see why I’m reluctant to design a body for somebody else?”
“I do, yes. But—”
“But it’s going to be a foundation, a base, a platform for you to wrap in flesh, yes.” Jan nodded. “That’s why I think this might actually work. Depending on what’s become of your sister. She may have changed, out there, changed to survive.”
“Evee always says that nothing human can survive out there, not for long.”
Lozzie stood up straight and wiggled her eyebrows. “Hello!”
“Except Lozzie,” I said with a small laugh.
Jan pulled a comedy grimace and shrugged. “Humans can get used to anything, you know? Given enough time. I wonder if there’s people, I mean human people, living out there somewhere. Not in that dimension where you kept all your giant caterpillars and knights of the round table.”
“Camelot!” Lozzie announced.
July agreed. “Camelot,” she said. “Good name.”
Jan cringed at that. She didn’t approve. “Camelot, yes. Not in that dimension, but elsewhere, further out. There must be human beings out there, if people have been visiting it before you lot.”
I half-shrugged. “I met one human, Outside.”
Jan’s eye’s lit up. “Oh?”
“Well, a mage. I think that still counts. She lives in a giant ball, I’m not sure she can leave it, kind of like a snail. Actually, I’m pretty sure the giant ball prints her body every time she opens the shell to interact with people.”
“Oh,” Jan said, a mask of sudden frozen politeness. “Well then.”
I smiled awkwardly. She probably would have been happier not knowing about Saldis.
“She had magical pet rats, though. But I don’t think they were really rats. Long story. Sorry.”
Jan’s mask of polite rejection got more and more stony with every word I said. “Indeed,” was all she added.
“That’s the technical problem answered, then,” I said, feeling extra awkward. “You mentioned a philosophical problem, too?”
Jan blinked at me several times, lost. Lozzie giggled and kissed the top of Jan’s head, which made the petite mage jump slightly and struggle with a sudden blush.
“You did!” Lozzie chirped.
“I did? I … oh, that.” Jan relaxed in her chair, a visible unclasping of fasteners and slackening of mental springs. She sighed and let her professional exterior drop away. She reached for her beer bottle, shook it, and drained the last few mouthfuls in one deep swig. Big sigh, small belch. Lozzie giggled. Jan spoke. “I’ll be blunt, Heather: I shouldn’t really be associating with you people at all. I’m breaking all my own rules. If it wasn’t for Lozzie, and Tenny — who is just the most miraculous being I’ve ever seen — and maybe Praem, too, then I’d have left you all in the dust, with no forwarding address. Screw the money. I’d probably have left some choice booby-traps in my wake, as well, just to dissuade you from trying to find me.”
I tried to see the humour in all that. “We’re not that scary,” I said.
Jan frowned, delicate and sceptical. “I make it a policy never to associate with anybody who is suffering from an abundance of destiny and-slash-or fate.”
I actually laughed. “I’m not a chosen one. This isn’t destiny. I’m nobody remarkable, or at least I wasn’t, once upon a time. I was kidnapped by a giant alien god! It’s not my fault.”
“Kidnapped. Chosen.” Jan shrugged apologetically, then searched for another mouthful of beer, but came up short.
“I’m not a chosen one, that’s ridiculous.” My voice turned sharp. “You can’t say that to somebody like me.”
I didn’t explain why. Jan didn’t need to know about the long, painful decade of illusory schizophrenia diagnosis.
“Really?” Jan shot me a look like a bitchy schoolgirl about to land a conversational coup de grace. “You’re looking to save a twin sister who might not have a body of her own, and you happen to run into the one mage in England — hell, maybe the one mage in the entire world — who just so happens to possess the right experience and skills to make a body for her?” Jan lifted a hand again and showed off the joints of her fingers. “And you tell me you’re no chosen one. Excuse me if I have trouble believing your own self-assessment.”
“That … that’s just … coincidence. Luck. There’s not many mages, after all.”
“Yes, yes,” Jan sighed. “We’re drawn to each other, inevitably. Regardless, it doesn’t matter if this is the work of divine providence or the action of random atoms, you are still a very dangerous person to know, Heather Morell.”
I opened my mouth to argue, but found that I couldn’t. “Um … ”
“You’re planning to raid a god’s dungeon for the life of your twin sister. That is the stuff legends are made of, and I have had enough of that, thank you very much.”
I almost missed it, but Jan glanced sidelong at the guitar case leaning against the wall, the one that contained the magic sword which she and July had declined to explain further. July, on the other hand, looked almost unimpressed by this statement.
“Legends are cool!” Lozzie chirped.
Jan raised her empty beer bottle in a lonely toast. “To witness titanic events is always dangerous, usually painful, and often fatal.” The words had an air of recitation about them.
“That sounded like a quote,” I said. “Who was that from?”
“A very cautious being indeed,” Jan answered. “I should be running for the hills. I should be getting as far away from Sharrowford as possible. I should be on a flight to Tibet, days ago. But I’m here, agreeing to help you.”
Behind Jan, Lozzie stuck her tongue out between her teeth, mischievous and elfin. Over on the bed, July folded her arms, closed her eyes, and nodded. It seemed as if everybody in Jan’s life was glad she wasn’t running away.
“And I can’t thank you enough,” I said. “Thank you, for agreeing to try, to make a body for Maisie. I mean it, Jan, thank you.”
Jan fixed me with a sceptical look. “Yes, well. I’ll have to negotiate an actual price for making the body. Materials, work hours. Like I said, I’m top-of-the-line expensive. Carbon fibre is not cheap. I’ll need tools, and my workshop, my real one, at home. Which means I can’t start until we’ve wrapped up this nonsense with your cult friends in Sharrowford.”
“We’ll get that fixed. I’m sure they’ll listen to me.”
“And I’m not going with you on this heist nonsense, to this big eye, or whatever it is. You couldn’t pay me enough to even watch from a distance.”
“I’m going!” Lozzie said, grabbing Jan’s shoulders and leaning forward, so they could make eye contact. “I’m going to help! With all my catties!”
Jan pulled the most awkward of smiles, but she couldn’t break eye contact with Lozzie, held in place like a rodent before a snake.
“Before we do any of that, we’re going to fight a mage,” I said, coming to Jan’s rescue. “Or at least outsmart him and steal his property.”
“Yes!” Jan turned to me, with both horror and relief. Lozzie bounced back up and giggled again. “Yes you are. I don’t like the sound of that, either.”
“You’ve seen this kind of conflict before, correct?” I pulled a pained and apologetic face. “I don’t suppose you happen to have any advice?”
“I certainly do,” Jan said. “You want my advice for conflict between mages? Don’t. That’s my advice.”
“We don’t have a choice,” I said. “It’s that, or hand Lozzie over to him. So, not a choice at all.”
“We’re going to kill him,” said a small voice — barely a whisper. “Kill him.”
It took both of us a moment to absorb the shock; Lozzie had said that.
For a moment she stood there, still half-attached to Jan, but staring at me with sleepy-lidded eyes, deadly serious, only half-there, as if half her mind lay across the membrane. Dream-Lozzie stood in the room with us, whispering of murder.
July nodded. “A sensible course of action, with any enemy. We should approve.”
Jan stood up without hesitation and grabbed Lozzie in a hug, awkward but insistent. Her pastel dressing gown flowed after her. “Lozzie, I’m sorry we’re talking about this. Sorry, we shouldn’t do this in front of you.”
Lozzie blinked several times, like a sleep walker waking up. She let out a giggle and cuddled Jan in return.
“It’s okay,” she purred, nuzzling Jan’s shoulder. “It’s okaaaaaaay.”
Things rather trailed off after that. Jan and I silently agreed it was best not to discuss Edward around Lozzie; if Jan had any further suggestions for dealing with mages, she could always call us. I hoped she would, we needed all the help we could get. We’d already discussed the most important subjects, the reasons I came to see her in the first place, so I was content to allow us to relax a bit. She and I could figure out details later, over the phone. I promised to relate the relevant bits to Evelyn.
July seemed like she wanted to make some pointed suggestions to Lozzie, about Edward and murder, but Jan headed her off with some sharp looks.
We finished up our food. Jan and Lozzie ended up on the video game console, playing some kind of racing game against each other. Lozzie wasn’t very good, but Jan was teaching her. I settled in to watch for a while, half-interested. On the other side of the heavy curtains, the sun burned late. True evening was still a while off.
I felt better than I had in several weeks. We were going to build a body for Maisie. I could do this.
Eventually, it was time to go home. Lozzie and Jan conducted some half-whispered, semi-embarrassed negotiations about Lozzie possibly staying the night, but Jan eventually convinced her that would have to wait. I pretended not to overhear any of it. July watched openly, staring at the pair of them.
As Lozzie hugged Jan goodbye for now — and skipped over to July to do the same, despite the demon host being stiff and awkward as a board — I sent Raine a quick text message. I let her know we were on our way home. Just in case.
“Janny Janny, come see you again tomorrow, yah-yah?” Lozzie chirped. She bounced over to me and hit me with a hug too, as I was slipping my phone back into my pocket.
Jan laughed softly, then cleared her throat. “Certainly. Any time. You don’t always have to bring Heather, though. Um, no offense, Heather.”
“None taken,” I said. And I meant it.
Lozzie and I stepped back from the table together, to ensure a safe Slipping distance. She linked her arm through mine, warm and wiggly all up my side. I wrapped my tentacles around her in return. She snuggled in close.
“One more piece of advice though, Heather,” Jan said, pulling her dressing gown closed around herself. “Go talk to your Evee. You clearly need to.”
I opened my mouth to argue, then closed it again, then sighed through my nose. “No comment.”
Lozzie giggled. “I’ll pester Heathy reeeeeal hard!”
“Lozzie!” I squeaked.
“Bye-bye for now, Janny!”
Jan waved with one hand. July nodded politely. Lozzie did a funny little hop in place, and reality folded shut.
Like being clipped by a lorry at ninety miles an hour as we came out of the Slip. My feet found carpet but I couldn’t stay standing, not this time. Pneuma-somatic whiplash jarred my soul inside my flesh, slamming me up against the interior of my own body, compressing me into a winded, wheezing animal.
Fell over, crumpled onto my side. Tentacles whipping out to fight off an imaginary foe, knocking over chairs, pulling at sofa cushions, toppling an end-table, then clenching in tight when they found nobody to rip apart. I heaved and squeezed and held in the contents of my stomach with force of will alone. Jan’s words gave me strength; I was the absolute master of my own body.
Bioreactor running hot — even hotter than the first time. Skin coated with cold sweat, shivering with a flash-fever, fighting off infection, invasion, violation.
“Lozzie?” I croaked from the floor. “Again?”
No reply. No Lozzie. Again.
It was the smell that clued me in, before I opened my eyes. The room smelled of dust, old fabric, and unfamiliar cleaning agents.
This was not home.
I opened my eyes and scrubbed away the pain-tears on my sleeve. This was no time for curling up in agony. I pushed with my tentacles, forced myself to my feet, legs shaking.
Lozzie’s Slip had deposited me in a place I’d never seen before.
A cramped sitting room, with a low ceiling, and white plaster walls. Faint cobwebs in the corners. Two sofas, one chair, all upholstered in ghastly floral patterns. A massive television in one corner, old and unplugged from the wall. Wooden mantelpiece covered in horrible little porcelain figures of cherub-faced children. Unused brick fireplace. Glass coffee table.
On the table was a folded sheet of paper, a note. Three words.
To Heather Morell.
Heather can’t avoid the question of Evelyn’s feelings any longer, even if those feelings are quasi-romantic, or platonic but close, or something else??? Or can she? She’s done great at avoiding the subject so far. Meanwhile, Jan’s body sure is unique, seems like there’s more to her than meets the eye; but she might be right, between her and Heather they might just be able to lay the groundwork for a body for Maisie. But what’s this? A letter, for Heather?
As of last week, all Patrons get access to two chapters ahead! Yup, that’s right, I finally got there and put out an extra chapter! I’m not splitting patrons up by tier or anything either. Subscribing at any level gets you 2 chapters ahead of the public ones, which is almost 20k words at the moment! 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 Patreon support is what’s made all this possible in the first place, so thank you, if you do! Now that extra chapter is done, watch this space for an additional writing project, very soon (I hope!)
Next week, where the hell is Heather now? Let’s be honest, it’s probably Edward, right? But why a note with her name on it? Does Heather need to tentacle-slap a motherfucker? Probably.
This was not the first time Lozzie and I had been separated by a Slip gone wrong.
When Lozzie had rescued me from Wonderland, months earlier, she’d snatched me from right beneath the Eye’s gaze, albeit briefly blocked by the daring and dutiful sacrifice of one of her shining Knights. I had never forgotten the courage that must have required — courage, or madness, or a bit of both. But as we’d punched back through the membrane to our own reality, the pressure of that singular, vast attention from the Eye had ripped Lozzie and I away from each other. Perhaps her late brother’s lingering shade had helped knock us off course.
Whatever the true cause or catalyst on that fateful day, Lozzie had successfully transported herself to Number 12 Barnslow Drive, while I’d been left adrift, unconscious, spat out somewhere not of our intention or design, dredged from Outside by barbed hooks and caught by bold poachers. I’d woken up in the clutches of the nascent Eye cult; or the shattered, ragged remains of the Sharrowford cult, depending on how one saw their situation.
And here I was again. A Slip had gone wrong. No Lozzie. Alone, by myself, in a strange and unknown place.
Well, alone in a nice-looking hotel corridor. Rich green carpet and tasteful cream-coloured wallpaper, all modern and clean and tidy, welcoming and non-threatening. It was really quite nice. Even managed to overpower my usual distaste for modern interiors.
I wasn’t handcuffed to a radiator in a bare concrete room, crusted with my own blood and vomit. I wasn’t under the watchful, dead eyes of seven feet of enslaved zombie muscle. I wasn’t dazed and confused and shaking with horror at one of the worst experiences of my life, re-exposure to the Eye. I wasn’t sobbing for my lost twin.
Trauma didn’t care about any of that.
I tried to whisper, but I could barely get air through my throat. “Lozzie … ”
For a heartbeat I was back there in Glasswick tower, helpless and confined and lost. I thought I’d processed that experience. I’d won, I’d escaped and saved my friends and all that was in the past. But the echo of fresh terror clawed up my throat and roiled in the pit of my stomach. My teeth chattered. My knees threatened to give out. I started to cringe, to curl up, to listen to that urge to cram myself into a corner and strangle my sobbing, lest something out there might hear, and come looking for the prey I was always destined to be.
But only for a heartbeat.
Fight-or-flight settled firmly on an answer.
I was not the terrified, quivering girl I’d been this time last year, or even a few months back. That Heather, the older me, she rested deep in my heart, safe and sound, swaddled in cotton wool and care. She didn’t have to be afraid anymore, not of this. I had swum through the abyss, I had duelled with post-human magicians, and I had taken tea in Carcosa with the King in Yellow. I was sharp and quick and I was loved.
Abyssal instinct reared up inside me, a many-headed hydra making ready for instant violence. Adrenaline poured into my veins. Cold sweat broke out across my skin, sticking my t-shirt to my back. My bioreactor hummed hot in my belly. All six pneuma-somatic tentacles fanned out to fill the corridor from wall to wall, reaching wide and strobing bright, ready to grab the first figure to emerge from one of the hotel room doors, ready to pop limbs out and rip heads off.
This time there would be no hostage situation, no cold threats in a concrete box, no negotiation.
A hiss tore up my throat, low and threatening.
Fuck off and die! Come get me! Here I am!
I’m not usually a violent person, believe it or not, considering some of the things I’ve done. But in that moment I fully believe that I was ready to kill the next person I saw, human being or demon-host or anything else. They — whoever they were in this context, my irrational displaced fear-rage wasn’t quite sure — they had taken Lozzie, or tried to take me, they were going to burst through the very nice cream-coloured wallpaper or step out from the lift at the end of the corridor with a gun, or maybe appear behind me and call me Lavinia. My skin itched with the threat of warning colouration and bio-toxin, bubbling with pneuma-somatic potential. Another few seconds and I would have sprouted spines, plated myself with chitin armour, and probably howled like a deep-sea leviathan.
One of the cream-yellow doors halfway down the corridor swung open. Twenty feet away, perhaps. I readied myself to spring and scratch and sting.
Lucky the door wasn’t closer, in retrospect.
A young man stepped out of the hotel room. Mid-twenties perhaps, only a few years older than me, slim and tallish in an awkward sort of way. He had a scraggly little goatee on his chin, and long dark hair pulled into an absolutely awful looking ‘man-bun’ on the back of his head, as Raine later informed me was the proper name for such a hairstyle. He was in a clean shirt and pressed trousers, nothing out of the ordinary, carrying a tote bag over one shoulder. He started fussing with his key card, to lock the hotel room door behind him.
He glanced down the corridor and did a double-take in my direction. We made eye contact. Just a second, a fleeting moment.
The young man averted his eyes, swallowed with no small difficulty, and concentrated very hard on checking his door was locked.
I didn’t pounce, or hiss, or even call out to him. Instead, I felt very embarrassed indeed. Realisation was a bucket of cold water dumped on my anger and adrenaline.
He’d looked away like that because he was worried he’d just made eye contact with a crazy person.
Regular human beings couldn’t see my tentacles all flared-out and ready to fight, but you didn’t need to be a supernatural creature to see that I was caked in cold sweat, shaking with adrenaline, and bug-eyed with murderous intent. I’d just terrified some random hotel patron leaving his room. We were both very lucky his door wasn’t any closer to me, or I would have picked him up with my tentacles and slammed him against the wall the moment he’d emerged.
Mister Man-bun, bless his terrible hairstyle, patted his tote bag and hurried down the corridor toward the lift. He was very careful not to look back at the gorgon behind him. He pressed the lift call button, stood there awkwardly for about two seconds, then pressed it twice more. I saw his head twitch as he barely resisted the urge to check I wasn’t creeping toward him. Then he thought better of waiting, and hurried down the stairs instead.
I let out a long, shuddering breath as reason dripped back, pressing a hand to my chest. I even pulled my tentacles in, though only halfway.
This was a hotel corridor. Almost a public place. I was surrounded by entirely ordinary daily noises of human habitation, soft voices and the hum of a television and even the distant rumble of traffic outdoors. Anybody might step out of one of these rooms, and none of them had anything to do with me. That random man I’d just scared might be about to tell the front desk there was some crazy girl upstairs, having a panic attack in the corridor, wearing no shoes.
The Slip had gone wrong, but I wasn’t the one who’d been snatched.
With shaking hands, I fumbled my mobile phone out of my pocket, praying as I jabbed at the contact list.
I called Lozzie and held the phone to my ear. “Please please—” hic— “please—”
“Lozzie?!” I fought to keep my voice down. “Lozzie, are you—”
Lozzie. Bright and bouncy, not terrified. The relief was too much. I almost sat down on the floor right there.
“Lozzie, what just happened? Where are you? Are you safe? Right now, where are you?”
“I’m in Jan’s room!” Lozzie chirped, like nothing was wrong. “Heathy, where are you?”
I blinked up and down the corridor, at the rows of cream-yellow doors. My head felt numb. “In a … a hotel hallway. Um.”
With a familiar squeak, a delicate thump, and a loud clack, one of the doors at the rear end of the corridor flew open, bouncing off its doorstop with a rubbery boink. I flinched and turned, tentacles flaring out wide, a hiss in my throat. I was still on edge and ready to fight, if I was wrong.
Lozzie bounced out into the corridor, sideways on one foot, carried by her own momentum, pastel poncho flapping along with her.
She lowered the phone from her ear and spread her arms. The poncho flapped upward. “There you are!”
Numb all over and shaking with an adrenaline crash, I tripped down the corridor toward her, shaking my head in confusion. She gave me a quick little hug when we met, squeezing me hard. She took one of my tentacles in hand, to gently but firmly lower it from the lingering threat-display position. She didn’t need to bother; I lashed two tentacles around her, as if she might vanish without an anchor.
“Lozzie.” I squeezed her arms as she peeled back from me. “Lozzie, what … what happened, I … I don’t … ”
“Come come!” Lozzie pulled me by the hands. “Come in, come in, Heathy. Inside Heathy, inside time, talk inside — inside!”
I allowed Lozzie to half-steer half-drag me into the hotel room, my fears and adrenaline soothed by the fact she was not lost to the tides and time of Outside, or to the devious plans of her uncle, or random chance imposed by a cold and uncaring universe. She stayed hand-in-hand with me as she scurried inside as well, past the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign hanging on the room’s door handle. She got the door properly locked and closed behind us, throwing the latch and hooking the safety chain in place.
Jan was sitting on the nearest of a pair of twin beds, staring at me with wide-eyed alarm. Of course, she could see my tentacles perfectly well.
“ … hi,” I croaked.
“Heather. Hello,” she said, her delicate voice formal and tight. “My goodness, you look like you’ve just seen an entire chorus of ghosts.”
I didn’t know much about hotel rooms — all my home-away-from-home experiences were with children’s mental hospitals, and no matter how welcoming those tried to appear, they could never be home. But even I could tell that this hotel room was on the nicer side. To be fair, even the worst dump of a hotel would have been a step up from the rotten, ancient bedsit that Jan and July had been using as a temporary safe-house when we’d found them.
All cream and soft yellows on the walls and curtains, accented with cheap ply-board wood dressed up in dark colours to make it look like oak. A pair of single twin beds occupied pride of place, complete with a headboard built into the wall. The sheets on the furthest bed were smooth and tight with military precision, every wrinkle removed, the pillows gone as well. The nearest bed, where Jan currently sat cross-legged, looked like it hadn’t been made in over a week, and seemed to boast all the pillows from the other bed as well, piled up as if to seat a very fussy princess.
The room boasted a desk with a mirror, a tiny little table with a pair of functional but comfortable chairs, a miniature fridge that worried me for a moment — was it full of alcohol? — and a tiny kitchenette with two burner rings, a built-in microwave, and a toaster bolted to the worktop. Jan and July had evidently made themselves at home there, because the little bin was overflowing with food wrappers, takeaway cartons, and empty coffee cups.
The entrance had a little rectangular area of polished wooden floorboard, so you could remove your shoes without dirtying the carpet. It was currently occupied by a pair of massive boots — July’s, I assumed — and Jan’s neat little pink trainers. Very civilized, I thought. Pity Lozzie and I weren’t wearing any shoes.
An open door led off to the left, showing clean white bathroom tiles beyond. I could see the corner of one fluffy towel. A single window dominated the far wall, currently covered by heavy curtains. Bright, blazing sunlight crept around the edges. Air conditioning hummed from two overhead vents, keeping the room soft and cool while the world baked outdoors. I wasn’t used to that, not at all.
How very mage-appropriate, shutting out the sun.
Our mage friend and her athletic demon had made themselves at home in other ways too. I spotted the sword-carrying guitar case propped up by the window. Jan’s massive white coat was draped over a chair, swallowing it whole, though I could see various other practical garments on the seat of that chair, with straps and holsters and what I later realised was the corner of a military-style flak jacket. Jan’s pink tote bag lay on the desk, spilling out books and odds and ends of clothing and a small make-up pouch. A large rucksack and a massive sports bag sat on the floor near the end of the beds, doing the luggage impression of a dead animal in the process of being gutted; clothes lay about as if dragged from the bags by smaller scavengers. A laptop stood open on the little table, showing a youtube video of a cartoon horse. Other detritus lay all over the place: a phone charger cable, a couple of notebooks, an abandoned bra. They’d hooked some kind of game console up to the hotel television; I think I recognised it as one of the kind Evelyn kept saying we should get for Tenny.
On the inside of the front door was a magic circle.
Plain black, drawn in pen, on a piece of white A3 paper, held up with sticky tape. Three circles of descending size, like ripple-rings, connected by jagged lines and surrounded by snippets of a language that I recognised after a moment, though I couldn’t read a word of it — Vietnamese. The magic didn’t stir any nausea in my gut, but the triple-circle design made me feel like I was staring into a tunnel, a tube that reached into a white void of infinite space. A whine started on the edge of my hearing.
Jan cleared her throat. The whine cut out. “Wouldn’t stare at that for too long, if I were you.” I could hear the wince in her voice. “Not that it’s dangerous. Not exactly. Just uncomfortable. You know.” She cleared her throat again. “I’m just being polite, of course, you can do whatever you want.”
Lozzie pulled me away from the door and pulled my attention away from the magic circle. I allowed her to guide me out onto the thick sea-green carpet, our socks sinking into the fabric. I held on to her hand, unwilling to let go, and kept two of my tentacles wrapped around her like a squid in a strong current, lashed to a rock. One wrapped around her shoulders, the other about her waist.
She cooed to me. “Heathy, Heathy it’s okay, it’s okaaaay.”
I shook my head, still trying to gather myself. “Lozzie, stop. Stop, please. What just happened? What was that? How did we get … separated?”
From the nearest of the two beds, Jan cleared her throat delicately, a third time. “I feel as if I should be the one asking that, seeing as this is currently my temporary home. Well, sort of. In a way. A bit.”
Jan cast her eyes up and around, at the meagre surroundings of her hotel room. She hooked her hands under her folded legs and rocked backward. She still looked extremely worried. Her eyes quickly returned to me and the threat-posture halo of my tentacles, strobing bright and screaming with warning colouration in a rainbow of toxic potential.
She was dressed as if she’d been lounging around in bed all day, or perhaps transferring herself between bed and desk, between working and napping, or watching youtube videos and napping. She had little black socks on her feet and pink shorts on her hips, leaving her slender legs bare to the conditioned air, and bare to the gaze of anybody who cared to pay attention to the just-visible tell-tale lines of doll-joints on her knees. She wore a loose lilac t-shirt beneath the most fancy dressing gown I’d ever seen — gauze-thin, probably not silk but something approximate, tie-dyed in spirals of pastel blue and pink on a background of white. It floated out whenever she moved, giving the impression of a particularly delicate butterfly thinking about taking to the air. I doubted very much that it had come from the hotel bathroom.
I could just about see the doll-joints of her wrists and elbows through the thin fabric, fully on display. Warm, soft, human-looking flesh terminated in sudden artificial joints. So much like Praem. I did my best not to stare.
Jan looked so very petite and compact, wrapped in that big dressing gown. Her messy bob of thick black hair was even messier than usual. And her pneuma-somatic eyes of storm-blue crystal were ringed with anxiety as she stared at me. She was pale all through.
I cleared my throat and did what I could to reel my tentacles in. Terrifying somebody my own size made me feel bad. I wasn’t a monster.
“Thank you,” she added quickly. “So, what was that all about? What’s going on? Do I need to prepare for men with guns to burst through the door? Because I can do that, in a pinch, but I’d rather not ruin my new clothes, and also it’ll piss off the hotel management.”
I let out a big sigh. “No, it’s not that kind of problem. Lozzie, what just happened?”
“Nothing!” Lozzie chirped, dancing forward a few steps on the carpet and patting my tentacles around her waist. She shook her head, confused but not distressed, biting her bottom lip. “Nothing happened! I got here and you were already out!”
Jan snorted delicately behind one hand. “I think we’re all out, here.”
Lozzie giggled. I shot Jan a look. “This is no time for gay jokes.”
“If there’s no emergency, then it’s always time for gay jokes. Is this seriously not an emergency? Lozzie seemed very distressed and now you seem very distressed. When powerful people get distressed, I get distressed. Please, what is happening?”
“We got … separated. During the Slip. The teleport thing we can do. That shouldn’t happen. Lozzie, what was that? Did you feel anything? Something pull us apart? Anything at all?”
Lozzie didn’t answer right away. She bit her lip and furrowed her brow, small and intense. At least she was taking this seriously rather than brushing it off. I took some basic relief from that.
“Normal,” she said eventually. “Regular. No push, no pull, no evil spooky hands. I promise, nothing touched us! It felt normal.”
I glanced around the hotel room, then back at the magic circle on the inside of the door.
Could this be Jan’s doing?
Perhaps the Slip hiccup was the result of a trap she’d laid for Lozzie and me. Maybe she’d intended to peel me off, then entrap Lozzie while she was alone and beyond my help. But her plan had failed, so Jan was acting scared to cover for her mistake. The failure would already have her terrified. I knew she was frightened of me, of us, so acting alarmed and worried wouldn’t be too much of a leap. She could draw on her real emotions to make it believable.
“Um,” Jan said when I stared at her. She raised her eyebrows. “Yes?”
“Heathyyyyyy,” Lozzie whined.
“Where’s July?” I asked.
Jan didn’t answer for a second. I didn’t blame her; I was standing there with my tentacles ready to whip her off the bed and slam her to the floor, though I didn’t know it myself at the time. I was bristling like a cornered animal. I’d just asked her Where’s your back-up? while looming over her, ready to inflict terrible violence.
She glanced at Lozzie. “A little help, please?”
Lozzie did a side-to-side flap with her head and her poncho, like a jolly little jellyfish adjusting her position in a column of seawater. Then she flounced across the last few steps separating her from Jan. She crawled onto the bed beside Jan and leaned into her, so that her pastel poncho and Jan’s matching dressing gown were momentarily one and the same.
I kept a tentacle wrapped firmly around Lozzie’s waist, like a life-line. Jan eyed it with open anxiety.
“It’s okay, it’s okay!” Lozzie purred to her. “Mmhmm, mmhmm!”
“If you say so.” Jan swallowed hard. “If you must know, July is currently in the hotel pool. Downstairs. She likes to swim. Doesn’t get much opportunity, so she’s been doing it every day we’re here.” She wet her lips with a delicate flicker of pink tongue. “Excuse me, Heather, but you are scaring the shit out of me. Please stop.”
I turned my head to look back at the little wooden entrance area. I stared at July’s boots for a couple of seconds, then back to Jan again.
Then I hiccuped, loudly and painfully, because I could barely keep this up. I wasn’t good at intimidation.
Jan disagreed. She hurried to explain. “July owns more than one pair of shoes. You’ve seen her in different shoes, I’m almost certain of that. Don’t beat me up over misplaced shoes.”
“Heathy,” Lozzie added in a whine. “It’s okay! It’s Jan!”
But I couldn’t let it go, not yet. “What about your pockets?”
Jan tilted her head very slightly, giving me a you-can’t-be-serious sort of look. “I can’t prove a negative. July is downstairs. She’s not in one of my pockets.”
As if to demonstrate her point, Jan reached out with her left hand and dragged her fingertips through the air. They vanished for a split second, swallowed by the invisible curtain of exotic matter, and returned holding a pink ball, just smaller than Jan’s fist. I almost flinched, because I assumed she was going to throw it at me. But then she squeezed the ball, compressing it in one hand as she blew out a long breath.
“A stress ball?” I asked.
Jan smiled, sweet and curdled. I got the impression she very much wanted to throw the ball at me.
Adrenaline and anxiety and abyssal instinct were making me paranoid. Jan was terrified of us, terrified of me. She wouldn’t have tried something like this. I blew out a deep breath as well, finally letting go of Lozzie and forcing my tentacles in. I flexed both my hands, trying to fight down the adrenaline.
“Sorry,” I said. “I’m sorry, Jan. I … I don’t know what just happened, that’s all. It’s upsetting me.” I gestured back at the magic circle on the inside of the door. “What is that magic circle? Or, no, don’t answer that, I’m sorry. I’m not a mage, I wouldn’t understand. What does it do, in simple terms?”
Jan put her hands up. “It’s a basic ward to keep out servitors and the like. Look, I had nothing to do with this.”
“Jan can’t stop me!” Lozzie chirped from her side, nodding so hard she bounced on the bed. Jan looked mildly jarred by this. “Or you!”
“Too right,” Jan added. “And I wouldn’t seek to, either. You lot can come and go as you please, that’s your business. I certainly couldn’t stand in your way.” She gave a nervous little laugh. “I don’t even really understand how Lozzie comes and goes.”
I put one hand on my abdomen, through the fabric of my pink hoodie, feeling the fading heat of my bioreactor.
“Lozzie, when I arrived out there in the corridor, my reactor was going crazy. Like I was fighting off an infection, or an attack, or something. I don’t know what, but something happened that wasn’t done by us.”
“Reactor?” Jan echoed, frowning like I’d said loose tarantula.
“Um, never mind. I have extra organs, it’s a long story.”
“Okaaaay then. Okay.”
Lozzie was biting her lower lip again. She looked sort of sheepish, like she wanted to duck behind Jan. “I think I did a whoopsie,” she said in a small voice. “Heathy Heathy, it must have been all me! I went too fast and I was too happy to get here so I didn’t pay attention and it must have been me. I’m sorry. Okay? Okay.”
Jan shrugged, adjusting her tie-dye pastel dressing gown around her shoulders. “Makes sense to me. People sometimes trip when walking, don’t they?”
I shook my head. “Lozzie, let’s not Slip home. We don’t know what that was.” I fumbled with my mobile phone, trying to navigate to Raine’s number with clammy fingers. “I’ll call Raine, she can drive over in the car, pick us up instead. Jan, where are we, where is this?”
“Heather!” Lozzie puffed her cheeks out.
“Jan?” I repeated.
Jan glanced uncomfortably between me and Lozzie. She kneaded the stress ball in both hands. “Please don’t put me in the middle.”
“Heathy, it’s fine!” Lozzie chirped, rocking on the bed. “We’re fine! All I did was make a mistake! Look, watch, I’ll do it right now and it’ll all be fiiiiine!”
Before I could gather my wits and my muscles to launch myself at her, Lozzie bounced to her feet on the bed, hopped back from Jan, and leaped into the air.
“Lozzie!” I almost screamed. Jan had to duck and cover to avoid my whirling tentacles, whipping through the air where Lozzie had vanished, as if I could pluck her from the membrane. “ … Lozzie? Lozzie, for pity’s sake.”
But of course, Lozzie wasn’t there to answer. Just me and Jan, alone in a hotel room.
Jan cleared her throat and pulled an incredibly awkward smile. I squeezed my own ribcage with both arms, terrified that Lozzie wasn’t going to come back.
After a long, uncomfortable moment, Jan said, “She is irrepressible, isn’t she?”
I heard the affection in her tone, but couldn’t process the meaning. I just stared at her, head going numb, then hiccuped loudly. “Sorry?”
“Lozzie, I mean. It’s quite endearing, but living with her must be a handful.”
I squeezed my eyes shut. “If she’s gotten lost or kidnapped again … ”
“That’s another long story. She hasn’t told you?”
Jan shook her head, trying to look casual, but I could tell she was burning up inside with curiosity. “She’s told me some things about herself, her life. Her brother and all that, I assume? She never used the word kidnapping, though.”
“It’s not my place to say.” I squeezed the words out through a closing throat. Lozzie had been gone for thirty seconds, longer than I expected, longer than I could stand. I looked down at my phone again, fumbling for Raine’s number. “Lozzie, Lozzie you idiot, you irresponsible—”
“Boo!” went Lozzie.
She jumped out from behind the bathroom door, flapping her poncho out wide like a bird doing a mating display.
“Ah!” Jan lit up. She did a little round of applause. “Well done!”
Lozzie took a bow, then did a curtsey, then performed a sort of wiggly tumble over toward the bed. I was so overpowered by relief that I had to sit down. I barely recalled Lozzie flapping over and pulling out one of the plastic chairs for me, or the feeling of thumping down into it, or her brief but heartfelt hug. She danced back again, smiling with pride, a little bit smug.
“See?! Slippery-slips all lickey-split, not a problem within sight! All I did was make a mistake, Heathy! Please don’t make a big deal about it! Even Lozzies mess up sometimes.”
She trailed off and bit her lip. I nodded along and muttered an apology. Lozzie had Slipped, gone there and back, and everything was fine. If somebody — Edward — was trying to kidnap her, then they would have taken her while she was alone, ricocheting off the membrane like a pink-and-blue pinball. Nobody was trying to snatch Lozzie during a Slip; nobody could except me, anyway. As far as I knew, there was nobody else like us. I took deep breaths and massaged my forehead, feeling the tension flow out of my muscles.
Edward wanted Lozzie, but he hadn’t tried to snatch her just now. My mistake. My paranoia.
But one hand strayed to my abdomen. I gnawed on the memory of that burning sensation, of my bioreactor running hot. What had caused that? It was quiet again now, back to normal. But I’d felt that. The reality of my body could not be denied.
Lozzie perched on the edge of the bed and flopped backward, lying down next to Jan, amid the jumble of covers. Jan gave me an awkward smile. “Well, this certainly wasn’t the afternoon I had planned. This makes the second time you’ve burst into my room and threatened me, you know that?”
“I’m sorry,” I sighed. “I’m … protective, of Lozzie. We all are.”
“Mm. No hard feelings, not for that. Um … yes.” Jan cleared her throat, awkward in a very different way.
When I looked up, I found that Lozzie had draped one lazy arm and part of her poncho over Jan’s hip and thigh. Her slender, pale hand rested on Jan’s bare knee, directly on the doll-joint. Jan met my eyes, blushing faintly, trying not to acknowledge her position. I studied Jan for a moment, her petite form beneath her gauzy dressing gown, the faintly visible doll-joints on her arms and legs, her fluffy hair and delicate facial features. Quite a form to choose, if one had the opportunity to engineer and design one’s own body. I watched the colour growing in her cheeks, and the shift of her eyes with their infinite blue depth, like watching a shining sea from orbit.
Jan wet her lips with a dart of pink tongue. “Oh dear,” she said. “Am I about to get scolded?”
I took a moment to gather my thoughts, but found I had misplaced several of them. “ … uh, scolded?”
Jan pulled that self-consciously oily smile she’d used a few times before, the look of the con-woman who’d been rumbled, and knew that her mark was onto her. “You never got to tell me off for pressuring your house-mate to share her weed with us. Kimberly, wasn’t it? I did pay, above market rate. And it was very good stuff.”
“Oh, that.” I shook my head. “Well, it didn’t do any harm in the end, but you were sort of the responsible adult.”
“We had fun!” Lozzie chirped from the far side of Jan’s hip. She looked like she was about to bite Jan’s flank. “It was giggly!”
Jan’s smile got more awkward and a lot more toothy. “Sorry.”
I sighed and waved the idea away. “We were in the middle of an emergency, but it wasn’t your fault. Check with us next time though, please?”
Jan bobbed her head. “I really didn’t know. And um … ”
She glanced down at Lozzie, just a flicker. I suppressed another sigh. She’d had a chance to get high and emotionally involved with somebody she was very interested in, and she’d taken the opening. I could hardly fault her for that part.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “Besides, I don’t know if I can really scold somebody so much older than me. You seem so much more … adult, compared to when we first met you.”
Jan’s smile relaxed. She spread her hands in a self-deprecating shrug. “Well, I’ve shed most of my camouflage. It’s why I’ve moved, too. Why stay in that awful dump when I’m on good terms with all the local players? You and Evelyn, the rest of the silly cultist people, the local whack-jobs out in the woods — there’s always a few of those in every place, you know?” Jan’s smile creaked. She was leaving somebody out, and we both knew it. She gestured at the room with a flick of her wrist, still holding the stress ball in one hand. “To answer your earlier question, we’re in the Sharrowford Metro. Metropolitan hotel, that is. Better than a travelodge, but not so much better that it breaks the bank. Also the staff are paid terribly, so they’re easy to bribe.”
Lozzie snorted a giggle. She scooted over further so she was curled around Jan’s hips and backside, like a living, pastel-coloured pillow for Jan’s lower back, head on one side of Jan, legs on the other. Jan stiffened, eyes widening slightly, trying to hide her reaction, like a cat who wasn’t certain about being petted. With a visible deep breath, she forced herself to relax.
“I need to ask you a question,” I said. Then I hiccuped and sighed.
“Ah,” said Jan.
“Ah?” went Lozzie, half sitting-up.
I didn’t want to do this, and I really didn’t want to do this in front of Lozzie, but there was no better opportunity.
“Jan,” I said, trying to play the words forward in my head before I spoke them. “I apologise in advance, but I have to ask this question. I realise the answer is probably no, and we … well, Evelyn, mostly, has already decided to trust you. But I have to ask you, if only as a warning.”
“Yeeeeees?” Jan looked very alarmed again. Lozzie had gone quiet.
“Edward Lilburne, the mage we’re in conflict with, he’s Lozzie’s uncle,” I said.
At the sound of his name, Lozzie buried her face in the covers.
Jan’s alarm faded, replaced with quiet caution. I half expected her to place a hand on Lozzie’s shoulder, but she didn’t touch her. She just said, “I am aware of that.”
“Has he approached you?”
Instant. No hesitation. Was that a good sign?
“We suspect that he might make an approach, if he’s aware of you. He may offer you money, in exchange for helping him to kidnap Lozzie.”
Lozzie whined into the covers. I wrapped my arms around my own belly, feeling awful, but I had to say this. She had to hear this too. I had to make her aware of the possibility.
Jan watched my face, searching me with those eyes like blue fire trapped behind glass. I stared back into those eyes, right into her pneuma-somatic core, trying to read her thoughts from the surface of her soul. A failure, unfortunately. Mind-reading is not within the scope of hyperdimensional mathematics, not without reducing a human being to their mathematical description, and even then I’d never tried to read surface thoughts or deep intent, only history, components, what made up a person.
Jan stared at me. I stared at Jan. Like a pair of small, fluffy, domestic cats, trying to judge if it was time for the claws to come out.
I struck first.
“If Edward Lilburne approaches you,” I said, “would you take the money? Yes or no?”
Lozzie reared up from the bed like a snake hidden behind a log, red in the face, wiping her wispy blonde hair away from her forehead, eyes blazing. She far outmatched us oversized house cats; Jan and I both flinched before Lozzie even opened her mouth.
“Heathy!” she yelled at me. “Why— why— why would you ask that it’s not fair it’s not fair to her or to me either why would you ask that she wouldn’t she won’t don’t make it sour and—”
I shrank from her, trying to get a word in edgeways. “L-Lozzie, I’m sorry, I have to—”
Lozzie actually stood up on the bed as she went on, flapping her poncho up and down. I thought she was about to leap at me.
Jan cleared her throat. “It’s a perfectly fair question,” she said.
Lozzie stopped mid-word, looking down at Jan, who was simply staring at me again.
“It’s not … ” Lozzie said.
Jan shrugged, watching me. “And the answer is most definitely no.”
I nodded, slowly. “I’m sorry. I did have to ask.”
Jan returned my nod. Lozzie glanced between the two of us, frowning like she was having trouble following the exchange. Jan reached up and patted her awkwardly on the hip, and then said to me, “Now, yes, I would say the exact same thing either way, wouldn’t I? If I was planning to help a terrible old man carry out a kidnapping, I would hardly let you know my intention ahead of time.”
“Um … I was trying to avoid that implication.”
Jan rolled her eyes. “Well, you’ve implied it regardless, well done. I am very mercenary, indeed I am. I make no secret of it, but even I have some limits. You think I’m just a con woman, that I have no values or beliefs, but I do. I’ve only been in Lozzie’s life for a couple of weeks—”
“Week and a half,” Lozzie corrected with a pout. “Almost.”
“Has it really been less than two weeks?” Jan smiled up at Lozzie. “Feels like longer.”
“Mm-mmmmm.” Lozzie bobbed from side to side on the bed, which momentarily made Jan look like she was on a ship in a storm, and slightly queasy. Lozzie eventually steadied herself by putting two hands on Jan’s head, buried in that fluffy black hair. Jan blushed faintly and blinked rapidly.
“Be gentle, Lozzie,” I said.
“As I was saying,” Jan continued. “I’ve known Lozzie for less than two weeks, but there are certain kinds of people you can betray, and certain others you can’t betray without betraying yourself.”
“Well said,” I muttered, feeling suitably ashamed of myself.
“You could pay me a small fortune to betray a favourable client, certainly. Another mage? Absolutely, no question. No honour amongst thieves and all that. And I understand perfectly well that basic solidarity can count for very little between beings like us.” A hint of deep melancholy passed behind those storm-tossed blue eyes. She leaned forward on the bed. “I know what you see when you look at me. You don’t have to pretend otherwise.”
“Janny … ” Lozzie murmured, slowly running her fingers through Jan’s hair.
I frowned, blinking, feeling like I’d wandered onto the court of an unfamiliar game. “What am I supposed to see when I look at you?”
Jan laughed, once, not really amused. “Well, that’s the question, isn’t it?” She gestured at her own body, one wave of her wrist from fluffy crown to her toes tucked away in her little black socks. “This is what I want you to see. But you already know better.”
“Jan, no no. Jan no,” Lozzie chirped. She tutted, then placed her hands on either side of Jan’s head, as if trying to squeeze the bad vibes out of her brain.
Jan had left me behind about three sentences ago. “I’m sorry,” I said, “but this is getting a bit esoteric for me. What do you think I see when I look at you?”
Jan frowned, delicate and sceptical, and said, “A mage.”
“My exterior often says ‘teenage girl’, and that’s intentional. Just a teenager, passing through, don’t pay me any attention — except a respectful glance because I’m so cute.” Jan allowed herself a little smile, but it didn’t last, not even with Lozzie making sad little whining noises above her. “And in a way that’s not a lie; in a very real way I’m stuck in a forever puberty. I don’t think I would survive the leap to another body, and I’ve come to terms with that, I’ve accepted it. I like this body, it’s me. But you and I both know that I am not a harmless teenager. I am an old and powerful thing. And you have enough experience to know that things like me are dangerous. So I don’t blame you for your caution. I would do the same, in your position.”
“Not a thing!” Lozzie chirped. Jan reached up and patted Lozzie’s hand, but she stayed staring at me.
“Lozzie’s right, you shouldn’t call yourself a thing,” I agreed.
Jan smiled. “You know what I mean.”
“Words have power,” I said. “We are what we pretend to be.”
We are what we pretend to be. The advice given to me by The King in Yellow. I said the words before I realised who I was echoing.
And Jan did the last thing I expected — she started crying.
She resisted it well, holding my gaze for several long, awkward seconds as her crystal-blue eyes scrunched up and filled with tears, as her mouth curled and she had to bite her lips, as she turned red in the cheeks, but then finally failed. She was a very delicate crier, sniffing and wiping her eyes on the thin sleeve of her dressing gown, swallowing through a thick and heavy throat. It wasn’t a full-on weeping session, just the threat of vulnerability nibbling at her emotions.
“Janny,” Lozzie whispered. She went down on her knees and hugged Jan around the shoulders.
“Oh, damn you, Heather,” Jan said, though not unkindly. “It’s been a long time since somebody made me cry my own tears.”
“I-I’m sorry,” I said, feeling terribly awkward. “I hadn’t intended that to be so cutting. Do you, um, want a tissue?”
“Please,” Jan croaked softly. I pulled two tissues from a box on the desk, then thought better of it and simply handed Jan the whole box. She wiped her eyes and blew her nose, flapping tissues about, her dressing gown sleeves billowing. “Oh, damn you. Here I was trying to be all appropriately spooky and you just … tch.”
Lozzie giggled. “Heathy’s good at that.”
“We are what we pretend to be,” Jan echoed me again. “So, what do you think I am pretending to be, Heather?”
“You’re a mage, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be Lozzie’s friend. Um. Or whatever you are to each other.”
She nodded, still dabbing at her eyes, and laughed softly. “What I was trying to get at in the first place is that you’re right to be suspicious of me. If you were any less protective of Lozzie then I’d be the one growing suspicious, with good reason. You know what I am, you have some idea of what I’m capable of.” She tugged at the pastel fabric of her dressing gown with one hand. “This could be so much protective colouration, for all you know, but it’s real. Solidarity is … ”
Jan trailed off as she recognised the confusion on my face.
“I don’t think I follow,” I said. “Protective colouration?”
Jan frowned at me, then frowned at her own shoulder — at Lozzie, still wrapped around her in a hug. “Am I getting the wrong end of the stick here? Heather is aware, yes?”
“Excuse me?” I said. “Aware of what?”
Lozzie tilted her head side-to-side, suddenly rather puppy-like. She didn’t follow either. Jan cleared her throat and glanced back and forth between Lozzie and me, suddenly deeply uncomfortable again, no longer crying but caught in the middle of something which wasn’t her business. I could almost see the cogs turning in her head, as she tried to think of a way to back out from what she’d been in the middle of saying.
“Oh!” I caught on all of a sudden, second-hand embarrassed for Jan’s sake. My mind had been on mages and magic and monsters, not something so mundane. “You mean Lozzie’s trans flag poncho, and you’re wearing … um … ” I gestured at Jan’s matching tie-dye dressing gown, in swirls of blue, pink, and white. “Of course I know about Lozzie. I thought that was just a given.”
Jan nodded, clearing her throat, silently thankful that I’d taken the leap in her place. “Well, what I meant to say is that as far as you’re concerned, this—” she straightened the dressing gown, “—could be just so much deception.”
“But it’s not. It actually quite suits you, though it does look a bit on the thin side.”
Jan brightened, almost preening as she sat up a bit straighter. “Then it’s perfect for the summer weather, isn’t it?”
Lozzie let out a giggle-snort. Jan blinked at her.
I sighed. “I can tell you’re not from the North. Don’t expect the heat to last. Or at least, that’s what I’ve been told. I’m not a local either.”
Jan nodded graciously. “I take great pride in never being a local.”
“Where are you from, anyway?”
Jan winked and tapped the side of her nose.
Lozzie giggled again. “I know! But I’m not telling!”
Jan looked momentarily discomforted, then cleared her throat and adopted an intentionally serious expression again. “We are what we pretend to be. I like that idea. As I said, there is precious little basic solidarity in our world. So I pretend, and I make it real.” She patted the corner of Lozzie’s poncho. “And furthermore, Heather, you’ve given this girl a family. A home. You, Tenny, Evelyn and Raine by the sounds of it too. Twil. Praem. All of you. You’ve given this girl a real family. I’ve heard about her biological relations—”
Lozzie made a soft, uncomfortable whine.
“—and they all ceased being real family to her, a long time ago. I’m not going to betray that. If I’d had something like that, maybe I would have had a better time of it. Besides,” she sighed, “you’re all absolutely terrifying, to be frank. Betraying something like you would be suicidal nonsense.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I think.”
“So, now,” Jan carried on, back in full flow, her half-mask of attitude firmly back in place. “If this mister Edward Lilburne approached me with a big sack of money—”
“I understand, I’m sorry, you don’t have to—”
“I would accept the money—”
A shock of sudden cold, deep in my belly. Only Lozzie’s giggle kept me in my chair. “What.”
Jan carried right on. “—and then inform you wonderful and trustworthy people exactly where he is, so you can throw him into the wild beyond, or have him shot in the back of the head, or whatever it is you have planned for him. Don’t tell me, by the way. Plausible deniability is so much more comfortable.”
I blew out a breath in unamused relief. Lozzie had disengaged her hug and briefly put her hands over her ears. I think Jan was a tiny bit relieved by that.
“I think I mentioned it earlier,” I said. “But Evelyn has chosen to trust you. Which means a lot, coming from her.”
“I’m sure it does,” Jan said. “We mages are a paranoid bunch. Usually.”
“I’ll choose to do the same.”
Jan bowed her head, formal and stiff, almost a little sarcastic, though I wasn’t sure that undertone was intentional. “I’ll do my best to be worthy of such regard.”
Lozzie giggled at that and hugged Jan from behind again, snaking her arms out of her pastel poncho. Jan cleared her throat and looked a bit embarrassed. I decided she wasn’t used to Lozzie’s normal level of platonic physical affection.
I needed to ask the obvious question, but my mind hit several speed-bumps of embarrassment too.
“So,” I said, glancing around the hotel room. “I take it you and July have decided to stay in Sharrowford for a bit? At least until the stuff with the cult is resolved?”
Jan shrugged eloquently. “It’s a delightful little city.”
I couldn’t help it, I frowned in disbelief. Lozzie wrinkled her nose.
“It’s … functional,” I said.
“Okay, alright,” Jan admitted with a laugh. “It’s rotting from the inside out, yes, and that’s just for the normals. It’s also absolutely lethal. The walls between reality and other places are very thin here, even I can feel that, and I’m not the most powerful mage going. No wonder so many different people are so eager to hang onto this place. I’ve got reasons to stay for now, though I usually make it a policy not to stop for long in places where mage-on-mage conflict is about to break out.”
I felt a tug of curiosity, though it was distracting me further from my real intent. “Mage-on-mage conflict,” I echoed. “Have you seen quite a bit of that?”
“From a distance. I’d rather not be involved when you deal with Edward. Or whatever happens afterward. Though I would happily give sanctuary to some.” She bit her lower lip and glanced at Lozzie. “Wait, what am I saying? You can teleport wherever you want, can’t you?”
“Mmhmm!” Lozzie chirped. “Aaaaanywhere!”
“Well. Why am I staying in Sharrowford?” Jan laughed softly. “July and I could head to more familiar climes. You could come visit down Tru—” Jan caught herself, cleared her throat, and glanced at me. “Is there a reason I need to stay in the city, if Lozzie can bring people along?”
“Lozzie’s Slips are very rough for passengers,” I said.
Something in my tone must have communicated the awful, jarring truth behind such a bland statement. Jan swallowed and nodded. She understood the look in my eyes. “Well then. I’m here for a little longer, at least. I suppose.”
“Reasons to stay,” I echoed, glancing between Lozzie and Jan.
Lozzie seemed so very comfortable, hugging Jan from behind. She and Jan could not possibly have been any more different, one so neat and delicate and devious, one so free and floaty and uninhibited. Lozzie met my eyes and winked.
“Jan, there is something else I want to ask you,” I said, and managed to sound casual enough not to cause a second panic.
“Here we goooooo,” went Lozzie. She giggled.
“Are you and Lozzie in a … romantic … situation?” I sighed, sudden and sharp. “Oh wow, I really made that sound precise, didn’t I?”
Jan blinked three times and blushed like a tomato. I hadn’t expected that.
Lozzie giggled like crazy. “Heathy!” she squeaked.
“I … um … we—” Jan struggled. “We haven’t … kissed. Or anything like that! I don’t—”
“We’ve snuggled!” Lozzie told me. “Jan’s a good snuggler!”
Jan was mortified.
I put my hands up, blushing too. This situation was obviously far, far from what I had worried about. “I’m sorry,” I said. “You don’t have to tell me everything. Or even anything. I just needed to check. For Lozzie. I mean, not that it’s any of my business!”
“Oh for … ” Jan huffed, fighting through her embarrassment. “Well maybe it’s a tiny bit romantic. Quasi-romantic? Is that a thing?”
“Mmhmm-mmhmm!” Lozzie nodded sagely. She was enjoying this far too much.
“But just because we’re both trans girls doesn’t mean we’re in a relationship,” Jan tutted at me.
Lozzie peered around her side and made eye contact. “Doesn’t it?”
Jan was rendered speechless. I had to turn away, deeply regretting that I’d ever asked. Whatever Jan and Lozzie were up to, I think I knew who was in charge. Apparently there wasn’t anything sexual about it either. And even if there was, it was none of my business. Lozzie was an adult. In some ways, Lozzie was a mother. She was her own person, and I didn’t need to wrap her in cotton wool.
And I decided to trust Jan.
I examined myself carefully, for jealous feelings. I found none. Lozzie was my friend, practically family, and if she was happy, then I was happy. That was a relief.
“Jan, um,” I said, trying to bring some normality back to the situation. I cleared my throat. “We do have a lot to talk about. Technical matters, magical matters, that sort of thing. Now seems like as good a time as any.”
Lozzie took the hint. She let go of Jan and bounced to her feet, skipping across the room to fiddle with the video game console plugged into the television. It was like she’d had her setting switched from ‘cuddle’ to ‘distracted’. Sometimes I forgot how astute Lozzie could be, beneath her playful exterior.
Jan looked like a steam boiler on a cooling cycle. She nodded along, trying to compose herself. “Yes. Um. Indeed.”
“And I should probably call home,” I said, gesturing with my mobile phone. “We did say where we were going, but we left in kind of a rush. Raine and the others might be worrying about me.”
“Look,” Jan said with a sigh. “Before we move on, thank you for understanding. I will admit, I wasn’t expecting this. Whatever … um … develops between myself and Lozzie, I don’t intend it to be romantic.”
“Awww!” went Lozzie, but she was giggling behind a sleeve. Teasing Jan like crazy.
Jan cleared her throat again. I caught her eye. We both understood how Lozzie tended to be. “Though,” she added, “if things go that way … well. Ahem. Yes.” Jan blew out a huff. “I did not expect tolerance as a mage. Though I suppose you can hardly talk, Heather. You’re far from normal yourself — and I mean that as a compliment, by the way.”
“I’m sure you do.”
“Your tentacles are extremely impressive. I must ask you more about them, some time.” Jan laughed. “Besides, you’re romantically entangled with a mage too.”
I blinked. “What.”
“What?” Jan echoed me.
Lozzie giggle-snorted, flapping out her poncho. “Oopsie! Heathy doesn’t like to acknowledge that she and Evee-weevey love each other very much.”
Imagine just being a regular guy, stepping out of your hotel room, and then you see a girl halfway down the corridor who looks ready to rip your eyeballs out of your head (and you can’t even see her tentacles). Heather really didn’t have anything to be scared of; she’s the scary one now. But did Lozzie really make a mistake? Who knows. Slipping seems fine now! And Jan is very talkative. And Lozzie is very sneaky indeed. Whoops, looks like she cornered Heather in a whole new way.
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Next week, Heather can’t avoid talking about Evelyn, not unless she makes like Lozzie and Slips on out. And she did need to discuss some serious things with Jan, anyway …