loyal to the nightmare of my choice – 18.8

Content Warnings

Drug use
Discussion of gaslighting
Mention of suicide as a metaphor

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Kimberly — fragile, underfed, vulnerable Kimberly Kemp, a woman more than five years my senior who I couldn’t help but think of as younger than me, with a permanent shiver in her heart and a haunted look etched into the lenses of her eyes — descended into the house to join the other mages.

She was right to ask for support: Kim spent the entire journey leaning on my arm. I even wrapped a tentacle around her waist to help hold her steady. I asked permission and warned her first, made absolutely certain she understood what I was offering, and indicated the exact spot where my invisible appendage would make contact with her garish purple hoodie. She had extracted the garment from a pile of half-clean laundry, revealing a wrap-around illustration of an elegant, gauzy, glamorous lady elf inhaling a huge lungful of green smoke from a ‘bong’ shaped like a tree. Not exactly a suitable aesthetic for a real-life magician, but I respected Kimberly’s desire to armour herself with her personal tastes, no matter how fanciful those tastes may be. She still flinched when I touched a tentacle to her waist.

Emotional time dilation stretched out that journey to the point of impossibility. I was too much in sync with Kimberly.

From the upstairs hallway to the door of the magical workshop, a distance I walked multiple times every day, the same route I shuffled and stumbled every morning on my way to breakfast, seemed to expand into a fifteen or twenty minute trudge. It was as if we picked our way through a jumbled maze of corridors and empty rooms, swaddled by the warm enclosing darkness of the house, made quiet and secret by the drizzle of rain on the roof tiles. Kimberly took the stairs down with shaking legs and trembling feet. Adrenaline, the cannabis in her bloodstream, or the impending submersion in something she’d spent months running away from — or all three of those at once. I was not going to rush her.

She paused at the foot of the stairs to look at the stout wood of the front door for a very long moment. Maybe she was thinking of leaving. I didn’t say anything. It wasn’t my place to convince her otherwise. But then Kimberly forced down a deep, shuddering breath, and pulled me onward to the kitchen, and the magical workshop beyond.

Sevens had trailed in our wake for a while, dragging her yellow robes along the floor and whispering down the steps, but I wasn’t surprised to find her gone when I looked back. Aym had vanished somewhere too; I didn’t really care where, as long as she wasn’t setting up an ambush for Evelyn.

Raised voices floated from the workshop, filling the grey light in the kitchen.

“We’re cutting,” Evelyn snapped. “Not building. Don’t make me repeat the principle a third time. Do I need to have Praem fetch a pair of scissors to illustrate?”

“Scissors, exactly,” Felicity said in her natural mumble, half her voice trapped behind the fused corner of her lips. “Scissors, that’s perfect.”

Evelyn’s reply oozed sarcasm. “Oh, yes, use a metaphor. I instantly understand what you’re talking about.”

Felicity’s voice shook; she still couldn’t stand up to Evelyn’s anger. “Scissors are a device with which to cut. But they have to be built.”

A sharp huff of breath. Raine, laughing to defuse the situation. A liquid acid giggle — Aym, enjoying the pre-fireworks show.

“Oh no,” I hissed to myself as I helped Kimberly toward the magical workshop door. “They’re already arguing. Kim, I’m sorry, I don’t think you want to step into that. Wait at the table, I’ll see what I can do.”

But Kimberly dragged me onward with a surprising burst of energy. She paused on the threshold of the magical workshop, leaning on my arm, the toes of her fluffy socks not quite touching the junction between kitchen flagstones and ex-drawing room floorboards. The argument on the other side of the threshold died, like a small animal shocked by the arrival of monsoon rains. Three pairs of eyes turned toward Kimberly in surprise — Evelyn, Felicity, and Raine. Praem stared at nothing. Raine met my eyes with a silent question. I shook my head ever so slightly, willing her not to intervene. Aym deliquesced into a glob of darkness which swallowed itself, leaving nothing behind.

Kimberly stood there, hanging on me, breathing unsteadily, eyes roving over the magical workshop, over the notes and sketched circles and open tomes on the table, down to the gateway mandala at the far end of the room, the vast and unique wonderwork of membrane-breaching that she had helped create. She hadn’t been in the workshop since then.

Evelyn spoke with a gentleness which surprised me. “Kimberly? Are you lost?”

Felicity cleared her throat. “Er, yeah. Kim? I thought you—”

Evelyn shot Felicity a dark stab of the eyes, but for once Felicity didn’t seem to care. Kimberly mattered more.

Kim swallowed so hard I thought she would choke on her own saliva. Her arm tightened on mine, a woman wrapping herself around a piece of driftwood in a storm. She murmured so softly that I suspected even I wasn’t meant to hear: “Oh, I need another hit. I need to be baked out of my mind for this.”

I whispered back. “I can go fetch your ‘spliff’ for you, if you want?”

Kimberly couldn’t have looked more embarrassed if I’d offered to wipe her bottom for her. I blushed too, in empathetic horror. She shook her head. “No, not you, Heather. Please don’t.”

“Oh … kay. Okay.”

Kim finally let go of my arm and shuffled sideways, bumbling into the door frame before righting herself: treading water over the yawning void of a dark ocean. She drew herself up, not so very tall, but for a moment she seemed as tall as Raine.

“I’m sure … ” she tried once, then faltered. Felicity caught her eye and nodded. Kimberly rebooted, though she couldn’t look directly at anybody as she spoke on. “I’m sure both of you are very knowledgeable and capable magicians. Well, no, I know that for a fact. Sorry. But you’re like professors without any graduate students to do all the actual work.”

“Oooooooh,” went Raine with a big silly wince. “Burn.”

“What would you know about graduate students?” Evelyn asked.

I tutted. “Evee.”

Kimberly balked. “M-maybe that wasn’t the best metaphor. Um, I mean, you’re not great at … at … ”

“That was wrong of me to say,” Evelyn snapped, colouring in the cheeks a little. “I apologise. Explain, please.”

Kimberly screwed up her eyes, like she had a headache. “Neither of you are very good at all this grunt work. Experimenting, yes. Genius, yes. Not the slow stuff. Procedural stuff.”

“You want to help,” Felicity said. She made it sound like You want to ascend the scaffold and tie the noose.

Want is maybe a strong word.”

“But earlier … ”

Kim and Felicity both looked so terribly morbid. But then Kim smiled. It was bruised and pale, but it transformed her face from strung-out victim to Wiccan weed pixie. She almost laughed. “I meant everything I said. I just changed my mind. I can do that, I think.”

“Kimberly,” Evelyn said with a sharp sigh. “You don’t have to martyr yourself. You don’t owe us anything, I keep telling you this, and you didn’t have a debt in the first place. Even if you did, you’ve already done more than enough. I owe you, you do not owe me shit. Go back upstairs. Actually, better idea, wait for Twil and then have her take you out for dinner or something. Go out, forget about us for a few hours.”

Kimberly took a step over the threshold of the magical workshop. I let my tentacle slither out from around her waist. She stood free.

“It’s not for you, Evelyn,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

“Welcome,” said Praem. Kimberly flinched at that, then nodded awkwardly at the demon maid.

Evelyn pinched the bridge of her nose. “Heather, is this your doing?”

I shook my head. “Not at all. I’m just respecting Kim’s wishes.”

“Big respect,” said Raine, raising a fist as if for a bump. “Yo.” Kimberly mimicked the motion, awkward and uncertain, looking as if she’d never made a fist in her life, let alone raised it to anybody.

“Look,” Evelyn went on, working herself up into a lather. “Kim, I understand you want to assist, but what could you possibly do here? You don’t even comprehend what we’re working on. I doubt Heather could have explained it to you — no offense — and there’s already two mages working on this. It’s already utterly unprecedented. I don’t think we need more. This is only going to hurt you.”

Kimberly nodded at the table. “That draft for a circle, the one by your elbow, I can tell it’s wrong from here.”

“What?” Evelyn frowned in disbelief, then glanced at the sketched magic circle on an open notebook page, then back at Kimberly.

“The inner ring is too busy, you’re putting all the weight of action on one part of the design. You should be using something other than Latin for the ignition. And I don’t know what you’re doing with the outer ring, all the proportions are wrong. The letters are too far apart. If you’re trying to ‘cut’ another spell, like you said, then you’re cutting with a blunt spoon.” Kimberly let out a weird little laugh. “Makes a poor knife.”

I had no idea what Kimberly was talking about. The magic circle at Evee’s elbow meant less than nothing to me — I could barely look at any of the designs scattered across the table without a spike of pain going through my optic nerve and into the back of my skull. But Kimberly spoke with the most confidence I’d heard from her in months. She didn’t waver or stutter. She just rattled it off.

Evelyn frowned at the circle. Felicity turned her head to judge too, and said, “She’s right. I think. I don’t know enough about the construction principles, only the underlyings, but, well, she’s got a point.”

“That,” Evelyn said, somewhat tense, “is why we’re refining.”

“It’s why you’re stuck,” Kim said. Then she seemed to remember who she was and who she was speaking to. “S-sorry, I don’t mean to criticise.”

“Critique is growth,” said Praem. Raine nodded sagely. Felicity sighed and nodded too.

Evelyn cleared her throat and looked horribly embarrassed for a moment. She still wouldn’t meet my eyes, and now she couldn’t look at Kimberly either. “You don’t even know what this spell is for, Kim. You don’t want to be involved in this, trust me. You can hardly help refine it if you don’t know the purpose.”

“We could tell her?” Raine suggested.

“Do I want to know?” Kimberly asked, resigned and beaten down. I longed to step forward and give the poor woman a hug, but this was her choice and her courage. I dared not undermine that.

Evelyn turned cold and hard. “This spell is intended to break the concealment on the hidden home of Edward Lilburne. Once that is achieved we’re going to either kill him, or drive him off, then steal back the book we need, to complete the magic to hide us from the Eye.”

Kimberly froze, then swallowed dry. I reached out for her hand, but held off, embarrassed, uncertain — ultimately it was my sake that all this was happening, even if Kim was taking this step for her own motivations.

“See?” Evelyn said, gone gentle again. “You don’t want to know. Go back upstairs and—”

“I only needed to know the first part.” Kimberly walked over to the table, legs wobbling only a little bit. She fell down into a chair and looked like she wanted to pass out, then dragged the unfinished circles toward her. “I’d rather not think about the rest. All I need is the mechanical purpose.”

Raine chuckled, then said in a sing-song voice, “Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?”

Evelyn turned her head like a stone statue come to life and gave Raine a look that could have frozen a lava flow. Raine actually paused mid-grin.

“Raine,” Evelyn said, teeth iced over with cold intent, “I do not care how long you and I have known each other, if you compare Kimberly helping us to a fucking Nazi rocket scientist, I will have Praem tie you to a rocket and fire you into the sun.”

Raine laughed in embarrassment and put her hands up. “Didn’t mean it like that, hey.”

“You of all people should know better. Moron.”

Raine pulled a goofy grimace and bowed to Kimberly. “My apologies, o’ glorious and gossamer magical one. Instead I shall compare thee to a fairy mistress, gracing us from the forest realm. Such a visitation! Such ephemeral delights! How may we serve?”

Kimberly went terribly red in the face. Felicity stayed carefully composed, because like me she could follow what Raine was really doing. Evelyn huffed and swiped at Raine’s shins with her walking stick, a blow that was easily dodged.

Raine had made a stupid, vaguely offensive comparison on purpose. Now the mages had a mutual foe, Evelyn’s ire had been redirected, and Kimberly was more focused on being compared with a fairy than on the magic she was about to subject herself to. As Raine laughed and hopped out of the room, I grabbed her in a quick hug. She was too good at this. Even in a room full of mages and magic, working on a problem that neither of us could even begin to grasp, she knew exactly the right thing to say.

“Well done,” I whispered in her ear.

She winked, kissed me on the forehead, and went to make more tea.

The mages got down to work.

I’d seen Evelyn working on magic before, plenty of times, from improvised blood horrors to the gruelling process of research, the mental strain of grappling with principles smuggled from Outside, cutting oneself on the sharp hidden edges of reality-denying knowledge, exhausted in ways the human mind was not meant to approach. I’d even seen her and Kimberly briefly work together once, to finish the first iteration of the gateway to Outside; they had shared the burden, spread the load, made it easier on both of them.

But this triumvirate of magecraft was a transformation, more than simply three being a bigger number than two. It was obvious even as little as twenty minutes later. Evelyn, Felicity, and Kimberly became greater than the sum of their parts.

One might not have noticed it if one wasn’t intimately familiar with at least one of the participants. A casual observer might have assumed that these three had known each other for years, a well-oiled intellectual machine, swapping hypotheses and designs and additions at high speed, discarding ideas that didn’t work, re-using each others’ suggestions without a second thought. The three mages were not identical in their functions, obviously — Evelyn supplied the focus, the dive for specificity, the edge of the blade; Felicity had her head in the clouds, on concepts and generalisations and pure thought; Kimberly consolidated their work and turned it into concrete function, checking that everything actually joined up and fitted together and wasn’t about to fly apart as soon as they hit the metaphorical on-switch.

A couple of times in that first hour they did actual magic. Felicity and Kimberly had to stand up and back away as Evelyn put some minor part of the spell into practice, running some tiny sub-circle of the ultimate design, making sure it didn’t short-circuit or explode in her hands, figuratively speaking, I hope. Spitting Latin, feeling the room go flash-cold, thanking Praem for wiping the spittle from her lips, Evee was in her element.

I’d never seen her like this before. I’d never seen her doing magic and it just flowing.

To be fair, I’d never seen Kimberly like this before either. Or Felicity. The research and application was taking a toll, but the toll was so much less than any one of them would have suffered alone. Praem wafted in and out on silent skirts, bringing tea, supplying biscuits, ensuring adequate hydration. Evelyn muttered to herself, producing designs and sub-designs and variations and corrections at high speed. Kimberly once held Felicity’s hand under the table, surprising the older mage; they thought nobody else noticed, but I did. Raine and I were totally surplus to requirements. Twil was going to be bored out of her mind once she arrived at last, unless she wanted to go play video games with Lozzie and Tenny.

And there was nothing magical about this. It wasn’t about the magic, it was about the mages.

Aym threatened to ruin the whole thing.

The abrasive little madam had been gone for nearly an hour, nowhere to be found. I even popped upstairs to check on Lozzie and Tenny and Marmite — Tenny was playing the same farming game that Kimberly had, but on her console instead of a PC, with the tarantula-squid-friend half in her lap, watching the screen. I briefly went looking for Zheng too, only to find her huge and asleep in our bed, lying on her back with her hands on her chest, the room unlit beneath the rain pattering on the roof and the window. She rumbled in acknowledgement when I stroked her hair.

“Are you feeling okay?” I asked.

“I am lying in ambush,” she rumbled without opening her eyes.

“For Aym?”

“For the shape-shifting coward, yes.”

“Well. Good luck, I suppose. Love you.”


Aym returned like a blotch of black mould growing on the fabric of reality, secret and hidden until it was too wet and deep-rooted to scrub out.

Kimberly was in the middle of offering an opinion on a diagram of a circle: “Too slender. The connections are all too slender. You’re putting too much strain on the mind of the mage casting this — yourself, Evelyn, I’m sorry. You’ll lose a pint of blood, for what? Double it, strengthen the core.”

“I suppose,” Evelyn grumbled, sour and quiet. “I could take it if I had to, I could deal with that. We should really try not to draw this out too mu—”

“Alllllllllways with the self-sacrifice,” purred a voice like boiling tar poured over dry ice. It was the first thing Aym had said since she’d vanished. “Anybody would think you’re a masochist, sweet bun. Get it out of your system, have Heather tie you up and tickle you unconscious or something. Don’t let it ruin your craft.”

Aym oozed out of nowhere, right onto the chair at the far end of the magical workshop table, grinning like a skull.

I flinched, because I was quite close to the unsettling visual effect; it was only when she spoke that I realised she’d been slowly materialising there for several long minutes, starting as a point of dripping shadow in one’s peripheral vision, then expanding like damp-fed spores, until she was large enough to sluice away from the air and slap down into the chair.

The poor spider-servitor behind the chair skittered backward, spike-tipped stingers raised and quivering. The poor things were terrified of Aym, like she was a rarely encountered natural predator. Why they didn’t fling themselves at her and tear her to pieces, I had no idea.

“Hey, yo,” said Raine, who had contrived to appear in the kitchen doorway at the sound of Aym’s voice. “Don’t make me go get Zheng. You keep that mouth shut around these three, they’re working hard.”

Aym flapped the lace ends of her sleeves and pulled a dubious smile at Raine. “As if you or that giant lumbering fool could make me do anything. Besides!” She slapped the table lightly with her fingertips. “I’m helping. I’m offering a useful suggestion.”

“You’re interrupting,” Evelyn grunted. She pointedly did not look at Aym. “That’s what you’re doing.”

“I’m checking on my investment,” Aym said, feigning seriousness. She met my eyes and winked. I stared her down, still angry about earlier, angry about how she’d hurt Kimberly, but unwilling to disrupt and derail everything by having it out with her right then.

“This isn’t the time, Aym,” I said. “You’re lucky these three are busy. Go away.”

“Tch! It’s always the time. And where else can I go? I’m here, I’m near, and you better get used to it.”

Felicity swallowed hard and raised her eyes to meet Aym. “Actually I agree with Heather,” she said in her usual half-mumble. “We’re trying to get this finished. The longer we take, the … longer … ”

Her words died under Aym’s light and breezy stare. Not for the first time, I wondered what terrible hold Aym’s amusement had over Felicity.

“Fuck off.”

It took me a moment of dull shock to realise who had sworn with such a blunt and bland tone: Kimberly. She was staring at Aym with all the mildly frustrated ire with which one held for the local disruptive stray cat, stealing things off windowsills and defecating in flower-boxes.

“Go Kim,” Raine laughed. “Yeah, fuck off with you, Aym. Go play with Sevens or something.”

Aym stared back at Kimberly, a little surprised, ignoring Raine — then slowly grinned. “Hoping for an in, are we?” she purred like rotten wood writhing with maggots.

Kimberly hesitated. “I told you to fu—”

“A shared session of dark secrets and self-torture, something horrible in common, and you’ll bat your eyelashes and flex your brain-meats,” Aym laughed. She trailed a corner of lace across the tabletop, then hopped to her feet, taking slow steps toward the mages. “And then she’ll fall for you, sweep you off your feet and all that. As if she hasn’t already. As if she wouldn’t tongue-fuck a disease-ridden horse if it showed her the slightest bit of affection.”

Kimberly had gone dark red up to her ears. She clattered to unsteady feet. “That’s not why I’m doing this!” she cried. Felicity had gone white in the face, staring down at the open tome in front of her, not breathing.

“Aym,” I snapped. “That is … is … terribly rude and uncalled for.”

“Bad girl,” Praem said, taking a step forward — but unlike previously, Aym only flinched a little, without slowing down.

“You’re both vile,” Aym said. “And you’re sick in the head if you think I’m going to let it happen.”

Aym took another step. Evelyn was glaring at her in the same way she might look at Twil trailing mud in across the kitchen floor. I saw her reach for her scrimshawed bone wand on the table. Praem moved forward too; for a dizzying moment I thought she was going to scoop Aym up in her arms like a naughty child being carried off to get locked in her bedroom. But Aym ignored the motion, grinning at Kimberly’s quivering denial, and in that moment I knew Aym would simply vanish into a puff of black smoke the moment Praem touched her.

“Sick, sick, sick,” Aym said, enjoying this way too much — and then stopped.

A tiny, long-nailed hand crawled out from under the table to tangle itself in the lace of Aym’s little black dress. Aym flinched and spluttered, blinking and recoiling as our own terrible little gremlin emerged from hiding.

Sevens stood up from beneath the workshop table. She was still in the blood-goblin mask but she’d shed her — my — yellow robes. In greasy black tank-top and loose black shorts, claw-like bare feet and bony exposed shoulders, she was about the same height as Aym, and sort of the same build, if more like a hungry hound than a pampered aristocrat.

Black-red eyes bored into Aym. The coal-sprite stared back, frowning in confusion. She looked past Seven-Shades-of-Suddenly-Showing-Up, as if she might find a hidden trapdoor under the table.

Ruuuuurrrrgggg,” went Sevens. “Dish it out good enough, but you can’t take it.”

Aym squinted at her. “Unhand me, leech-thing. I don’t know how you … how you … ”

Sevens waited, fingers tangled in a fistful of lace, nails snagging loose threads. Aym’s eyes went wide, then her whole outline shuddered and shivered, as if she was trying to blur herself out of reality, but couldn’t take a step. Outdoors the storm suddenly intensified in a burst of rain slamming down on the roof, a single gust spent in a moment.

“Yeah?” Sevens rasped. “Did you really think I was just some little bloodsucker they keep around like a pet?”

Raine laughed from her belly. “Ah, yes. Meet Sevens. Or have you two met before?”

“Nah, not before,” said Sevens. Aym was too busy looking like an animal which had just discovered it was not the top of its local food chain.

I sighed, “You probably shouldn’t have mocked the prospect of a budding lesbian relationship. Or threatened to block it from happening. Sevens, is that why you’re here? Are you okay?”

“Mmmmmmmm. Maybe?” Sevens sounded genuinely conflicted. She looked away from Aym to meet my eyes and Aym shivered and shuddered again, a weasel in a trap, trying to wriggle free.

“As long as you’re not straining yourself in the wrong direction,” I said. “We can deal with Aym, if you’re … getting risky.”

“Nah I think this is the right direction,” said Sevens, then turned back to Aym. “Good use of talents. You reckon so too?”

Aym turned only her eyes, as if any movement might get her eaten alive, and looked right at Felicity. “Help,” she whispered.

Until that moment, Felicity had looked vaguely amused, if a little confused. At Aym’s plaintive, genuine fear, she sat up straight. Her hands came together, left threatening to remove the glove on the right. I recalled with the dim memories formed by a very stressful set of events that Felicity had extensive magical tattoos beneath that glove, a sheathe of them crawling up the skin of her unburnt arm. Last time she’d visited our house she’d used the spell etched into her flesh to diagnose what was wrong with Evelyn. She’d called the arm-tattoos a kind of magical sixth sense, but she had also explained that wasn’t quite accurate. She’d said we wouldn’t understand. The way she reached for her own hand now was more like reaching for a weapon.

But she paused and said, “Is Aym actually in danger? Please don’t. Please don’t hurt her. I know, but don’t hurt her.”

I said, “No,” at the exact same moment Evelyn said, “Yes.” We looked at each other. Evelyn blinked, embarrassed; she still struggled to hold my gaze since the unfair trick with the fade stone. I smiled, but it felt like cringing.

Sevens clacked her needle-teeth together. Raine laughed. Praem stepped back, yielding the capture to Sevens.

“I’m serious,” Felicity said.

“Help meeeeee,” Aym whined. She was crying now, slow tears running down her cheeks and making little wet patches in the dark lace around her throat.

“M’not gonna hurt your friend,” Sevens rasped for Felicity. She even glanced back with a blood-eyed smile. “She can sit quiet. Or we can play a game. Her choice.”

“Game? W-what game?” Aym asked.

Sevens clacked her teeth again. “Chess. With wagers.”

“ … I’ll … I’ll sit quiet,” Aym said. “I promise.”

“Yaaaaaay,” Sevens deadpanned. She led Aym over to the sofa. The diminutive lace-and-mould demon followed her like a girl caught on a fishing hook, drawn along by Sevens’ fist in the multi-layered fabric of her dress. Seven-Shades-of-Unsought-Escort pulled her prey down onto the sofa. Aym was forced to sit, straight-backed and very proper, as Sevens the greasy-looking blood-goblin curled up beside her, placed her head in Aym’s lap, closed her eyes, and fell instantly asleep — or at least pretended to. But for Sevens, pretending was doing.

Aym sat there, frozen, deliciously uncomfortable, with an expression like a chicken which found itself adopted by a fox. I had to bite my lips to stop from laughing.

“What,” said Aym.

“Reaping,” Praem intoned. Evelyn snorted and shook her head, turning away.

“Well,” Raine said, dusting off her hands. “Guess that settles that.”

Aym spoke in a tiny voice. “This … I … Fliss. Fliss, help me.”

Sevens let out a little snore: “Gurrrrk.” Aym flinched so hard her toes pattered on the floor.

Felicity was frowning in academic interest now, seemingly insensible to Aym’s plea. She turned her head to address me without actually taking her eyes off the scene. “What is she?”

“Bigger than me!” Aym hissed, unamused.

“You called her ‘Sevens’?” Felicity pressed.

I sighed. “You really don’t want to know.”

Evelyn said, “Wouldn’t believe it, anyway. She’s an Outsider.”

Felicity did a double-take, but not out of fear. She clearly didn’t believe Evelyn. “If you say so.”

“Felicity,” Aym said, voice high and scratchy, like metal points tentative and gentle on flakes of rust. “Fliss. Fliss. Fliss.”

Felicity looked vaguely uncomfortable, trapped between two sides.

“Ooooh,” went Raine, affecting a fake frown and tutting in that professional way that said something was broken and would require expensive parts and a team of four to fix it. “I wouldn’t mess with Sevens while she’s sleeping, not if I were you. Big, scary Outsider. She’ll take both your hands off and curse you so you can’t ever take a shit again.”

I frowned at Raine, mouthing, “That’s disgusting.” But the colourful nonsense gave Felicity a boost of confidence.

“Well, if our hosts say so,” she said, not quite meeting Aym’s eyes. “I’m hardly going to tangle with an … Outsider for the sake of your dignity, Aym. She’s not … actually hurting you?”

“This thing has me pinned,” Aym said, voice a thin quiver. But she wasn’t crying anymore.

“Are you being hurt?”



Aym pressed her lips together.

Felicity said, “If she actually hurts you, I’ll give every last drop of blood in my body. If she’s just playing, then play along.”

“Play along!?” Aym squeaked. Sevens snored again and Aym flinched as if hit with a cattle prod.

“Play nice,” said Praem.


The rest of that long, dreary, work-filled afternoon played out without further demonic incident. Or abyssal incident, to give Aym the benefit of her real dignity: her ambiguity.

Seven-Shades-of-Softly-Snoring kept Aym safely contained on the sofa while the mages worked, much to everybody’s amusement, though the novelty wore off quite quickly. Evelyn, Felicity, and Kimberly returned to drafting and revising magic circles, discussing “correct resonance with the existing waveforms”, “expected countermeasures already woven into the spell”, and “what if he’s posted zombies — or worse? — to quash any source of interference?”

That last question was answered by Raine: “Hi. Thanks. I’ll be here all week.”

“We have Zheng,” Evelyn grunted. “And Twil. She’s the equal of any zombie.” She looked up after that one. “Do not repeat that to her. Do not tell her I said that. I don’t want her being any more reckless than she already is. Where is she, anyway? I thought she was meant to be here by now.”

“Buying us all dinner,” I said. “Taking her time about it.”

Twil quashed our worries for her safety shortly later by turning up carrying a truly staggering amount of food. She’d walked the entire width of Sharrowford to purchase a very specific kind of apple pie which one could apparently only acquire at Marks and Spencer, but then stopped on the way to load up with several frozen pizzas, ingredients for a vegetarian curry, cake, crisps, dips, and enough biscuits to feed an army. She’d even bought some steaming, fresh, crumbly pastries. She was carrying so many bags that if she’d been anybody else I would have worried for her muscles.

“We’re not having a bloody party here,” Evelyn called from the magical workshop as Twil bounced in and dumped the whole lot on the kitchen table, a huge grin on her face.

“We are now!” Twil laughed in return.

I peered through the bags, bug-eyed. “Didn’t this … cost you a lot?” She’d even brought a bag of coffee grounds; I suspected that would be much more relevant to the coming night. “Twil, we owe you for this, I’m serious. How much was all this?”

“Naaaaaah,” said Twil, hands on her hips. She even tossed her head back, springy dark curls going anywhere. She looked exactly like a wolf trapped in human skin, brimming with energy, despite the rainy drizzle all over the hood and back of her lime-and-blue coat. “Mum gave me the cash for it. I said you lot were starting on the magic to fuck up that Edward bastard. She wanted to chip in.”

Evelyn drawled from the workshop, to nobody in particular, “Check it for poison.”

Twil bristled. “Hey!”

“I was joking, you dog-brained fool. Praem, please remind me later to send a thank you to the High Priestess of Hringewindla.”

It didn’t take long for Twil to hand out the pastries, making sure everybody got one, even Lozzie and Tenny upstairs, even Zheng. She’d purchased extra, just in case. Praem let her do that part herself. We could all tell she wanted to help.

“Bloody hell,” she said in the magical workshop, when she first spied the trio of mages working together. “You weren’t kidding. Full party, hey?”

“Three DPS, no healer,” said Raine.

“Bloody right,” Twil laughed. “Who’s in charge?”

I got the joke this time, clearing my throat after a mouthful of pastry. “I can be the healer. Or Lozzie can.”

“Felicity, right?” Twil said, offering Fliss a pastry too. “I remember you, yeah. Bacon or veggie?”

“ … vegetable, please. I recall you, also.”

Twil actually jumped when she saw Aym — not because Aym was doing anything other than sitting there, slightly pained, with a cup of tea and book next to her. I’d provided the book, but Aym had read two pages and then looked slightly ill. Twil jumped because Aym was so quiet.

“Er, who’s the little goth?” Twil asked, suddenly serious. “Is she … actually thirteen years old, or … ?”

“God no,” Evelyn snapped. “You think I would do magic with an actual thirteen year old in the room? She’s not human. Don’t touch her. Don’t talk to her. Pretend she does not exist and never think about her again.”

“Oh,” Aym said, voice small and measured, as if normal volume would risk waking the sleeping yellow tiger in her lap. “I am to be denied even conversation, now?”

“Demon?” Twil asked Aym. “Outsider? Something else?” Aym just shook her head. “What are you, then?”


Despite Twil’s best efforts and the generous donation from the Church of Hringewindla, we didn’t quite manage to cultivate a party atmosphere. The mages spurned a proper dinner and ate while they worked. Crafting the spell to open Edward’s fortress for a siege drew on into the late afternoon and claimed the evening too. Outdoors, the storm finally dribbled away to nothing more than a chill wind and a clinging damp, perhaps as pinned as Aym’s physical body was, but the magical workshop remained soaked in deep, lamp-lit shadow, filled by the scratching of pencils and the muttering of magicians. It was as if the shadow over Sharrowford had contracted, compressed, and concentrated itself on the work, on the spell, on the mages themselves.

Perhaps it had, perhaps that was Aym’s doing, though I wasn’t sure if Aym was capable of doing much of anything while Sevens dozed in her lap. She spent the entire time glued to the old sofa, looking like a very nasty girl subjected to a very unpleasant punishment. The spider-servitors crawled back to their usual spots in the corner, though they watched her with great caution, stingers held ready. Marmite stayed sensibly upstairs.

We didn’t totally neglect Aym, of course. Irritating and irascible and borderline abusive she may be, but Aym was still a person and we didn’t know enough to condemn her totally. Praem brought her tea like everybody else — peppermint, strong and dark. She was included in the sharing out of food, though she ate like a bird and left most of her portions untouched, except for the pizza with pineapple on it. She ate both slices of that and politely requested more.

“As expected,” Raine commented.

“There is nothing wrong,” said Aym, in a voice like acid going through meat, “with pineapple on pizza.”

“I agree with that part,” said Kimberly. “Um, sorry.”

Sevens woke up for food but never broke contact with the coal-sprite demon. She swung her legs over Aym’s lap, ate, then returned to her cat-like nap without conversing. By the time true darkness fell outdoors, Aym seemed a touch less like an animal attempting to avoid being eaten and more like a bored teenager forced to endure a tiresome family friend.

The mages didn’t work that whole time without a break, just not a properly organised one. Kimberly grew less and less focused as the hours wore on, until she was visibly twitchy and nervous, until Felicity reached across the table and touched her hand. That seemed to act as some kind of permission, because Kim then went upstairs to smoke more cannabis, returning calm enough to carry on. I wasn’t sure what to think of that. At least Felicity didn’t follow her to join in. Felicity barely left the table, but she did fall asleep in her chair once, sitting up with her arms crossed. She looked no more relaxed asleep than she did awake, the burned half of her face twitching with some unpleasant dream. Evelyn took a break as well, a short lie down, enforced by Praem; she took her bone wand with her but left the fade stone behind on the table, which was a strange experience because I kept losing track of the thing, certain it had moved or forgetting that Evelyn had not carried it upstairs in her hand.

While she was out of the room and nobody else was looking, I scooped the thing up with the end of one tentacle, pressing pale pneuma-somatic flesh against warm quartz. Nothing happened. The world did not flash grey-and-black as I stepped into some negative space behind reality. The others in the room didn’t look up as I vanished. The stone wasn’t a machine, after all. One had to be a mage to make it work, one had to think the right thoughts; one probably had to be Evelyn Saye.

When I put the stone back down, I realised Aym was watching me, sulky and bored and curious. I held her gaze, but she said nothing.

Twil discovered that mages making spells was actually quite boring to watch. Eventually she ended up playing video games with Tenny. Praem hovered at Evee’s shoulder, tireless and devoted. Raine and I stuck close to the ‘action’ — a word I use under duress — just in case Evee should need us, but there really was almost nothing for us to actually do.

“Don’t give yourself a migraine by looking at the circles,” Evee said to me when I decided to peer over her shoulder at the half-finished designs laid out across the table. She didn’t meet my eyes when she said it, casting half-back toward me but not quite getting there.

“I thought I might be able to help,” I said to the back of her head, past a surprising lump in my throat. “This is going to take more than just today, isn’t it? Maybe if I could use brain-math … ”

That made Evelyn meet my eyes at last. She sighed, irritation and exasperation covering a deep affection. I almost blushed. “Heather, this is magic, not brain-math. You’re not built for the former. It’ll hurt you. Stop trying.”

“I thought I might speed things up.”

Evelyn stared at me, fake-impassive. “If you start hurting yourself I won’t be able to concentrate. It’s not like I’m doing this alone.” She gestured at Kimberly and Felicity. Kim looked up with a painfully awkward smile, the kind of smile one wears when the hosts of a dinner party start a domestic argument in front of their guests. “Go play video games with Twil and Tenny. Go read a book to Aym. Go have sex with Raine.”


“Woo,” Raine deadpanned.

Evee carried on, not even blushing. “I’ll need you later, I’m sure. Let me concentrate.”

I didn’t try again. After that particular exchange I retreated to the kitchen with Raine, to chew on cold pizza dipped in HP sauce and gaze out of the window at the gloaming over the garden. The big old tree out there was heavy with rain, the wooden fences soaked through, the ground sodden and mushy. Both of us pretended that we weren’t monitoring the mages in the workshop, just beyond earshot. Once or twice, Praem appeared in the doorway, a blank-eyed look silently reassuring us that all was going well.

“This isn’t something mages do, is it?” I asked Raine as we sat side by side at the kitchen table. She had coaxed me to put my legs up over her lap and was busy rubbing the tension out of my calf muscles, one hand up the left leg of my pajama bottoms.

“Yeah,” Raine said with a twinkle in her eyes. “It’s like small children.”

I blinked. That wasn’t what I’d meant at all. “I’m sorry?”

“It’s not when they’re being noisy that you gotta worry. It’s when they go quiet. Means that something’s up.” Raine flashed me a wink and a beaming grin, enjoying her own joke a little too much. I rolled my eyes, but I was smiling.

“I mean working together,” I said. “Evee has always implied this doesn’t happen. Like it’s not meant to happen. Like they should all be turning each other to frogs or setting their demons on each other, like Pokemon trainers but more violent.”

Raine’s turn to laugh. “Wouldn’t that make you the champion, by default?”

“Excuse me?”

“You’ve got Zheng.”

“Tch! Raine. Zheng is her own person. And she’s not my demon, I didn’t create her.”

Raine shrugged with a grin on her lips. Praem chose that moment to appear in the doorway again, maid dress swishing in her wake. She gave Raine one very long and pointed stare. Raine raised one hand in surrender. Praem moved on.

“And yes,” I added, “Praem beats Zheng. We’ve tested that. At least when arm wrestling.”

“I wouldn’t mind seeing a real test,” Raine muttered, but then she snapped back to the subject at hand. I was a tiny bit disappointed; she always looked so dashing and exciting when she started talking about that kind of thing, her passion for measured violence. She leaned closer to me, as if worried about being overheard, a cheeky smile playing on her lips. “Our mages are behaving because they’ve got a pecking order. That’s my theory, anyway. Evee is in charge. Kim’s under her wing. Felicity is grudgingly tolerated. There’s no territorial bullshit, no risk of betrayal, no hidden motives. Well, maybe Fliss on that last point, but her hidden motive isn’t steal all the books and kill everybody before leaving, so everything stays nice and calm.”

I chewed this over while chewing another mouthful of pizza. Raine rubbed my leg, working the knots out. “Is that really it? Pecking order? Hierarchy? That can’t be the whole story here. That can’t be the solution. You of all people can’t believe that, Raine.”

“It’s not hierarchy, it’s just lack of ambiguity. They all know exactly where they stand and exactly what each other wants.”

I chewed my lip and frowned into the open door of the magical workshop, then out into the gathering twilight over Sharrowford. I wasn’t sure if I liked the notion. “Evee deserves better than that.”

“Believe it or not,” Raine said, “when it comes to magic, this is the best I’ve seen her in years.”

I blinked at her, but Raine wasn’t joking. She wore a rare and sober look on her face, nodding along to her own words.

“She’s incredibly stressed by this,” I said. “And I don’t blame her. They’re going up against another mage. Raine, how is that the best of anything?”

Raine took a deep breath, leaning back in her chair and running her hand downward until she was rubbing my foot, the ball of her thumb slowly working at the muscles of my arch. I struggled to concentrate and not to make little noises of relaxation. She was very good at that. She sighed in thought and ran a hand through her thick chestnut-coloured hair, making it stand up in little waves. Eventually she spoke again.

“Reminds me of how she was after her mother died. Right after. Long before we left Sussex for university.” Raine lapsed into a moment of silence, but I was frozen in attention. “There was just so much for her to get done. Too much for a kid. Her dad handled all the legal stuff, did the cover-up, all that. But the magic, that was all Evee. That house was floor-to-ceiling with grade-A mage dung.” Raine caught my eye, grinning. “And I don’t just mean her mother’s old zombies. When you visited the place, it was quiet. But it wasn’t always like that.”

“I can only imagine,” I said. I couldn’t.

“Wards to crack, constructs to put down, circles to destroy. There was even a booby-trapped book. A taxidermied stag’s head we had to burn. The whole thing with the hidden wall — ask me about that sometime, but not right now, long story, that took us weeks and I nearly got stabbed. And the dog in the cellars.”

“The dog in the cellars? I haven’t heard that one.”

“Oh, right.” Raine grinned, but even I could see the beaming confidence plastered over something vile. “Well, there was a dog, in the cellars.”

“Raine,” I sighed.

“It was a German Shepard. Possessed. Evee’s mum’d used it for something messy. The demon inside that dog wanted out, but it couldn’t get out. It was … ” Raine paused. “It was strapped to a wall in the cellar. Gruesome shit. And hey, that’s coming from me.” She brightened again, by force of will. “Point is, Evee had to go deal with it, and a dozen other magical projects that needed unravelling. Picking through her mother’s notes. And she just did it. Pushed through it all.”

An image of a younger, barely-teenage Evelyn floated out of the formless deep of my imagination, probably very incorrect. Scrawny and exhausted and terrified, not used to her prosthetic leg, suppressing the guilt and pain of murdering her own mother, so she could focus on defusing a dozen magical bombs, unpicking her mother’s work like trying to guess the right wire to cut.

“Evee … ” I murmured.

“I did help hold her up,” Raine said. “And she paid me back a dozen times over. Got me back into education, got me into Sharrowford uni. She was dealing with physical rehab at the time, too. Spinning so many plates. It’s no wonder she stumbled once we were here. You know?”

I nodded, then leaned over and hugged Raine. She put her arms around me and fell silent for a few moments.

“But hey, look at her now.” Raine winked down at me. “Collaborating. In her element. Magic fucked her up — it still fucks her up. But she’s bested it yet again.”

I pulled back and nodded. “This is what she needed. Other mages. Community.” I sighed. “Even if it is just Fliss and Kim.”

Raine cracked a terrible grin. “Should we call Jan over too? Make it a foursome?”

“I haven’t had much time to get to know Jan, but I’m pretty sure if we invited her, she’d stop returning our calls and move to the other side of the planet. So, no.” Then I added, “Not yet, anyway.”


It was past eleven at night by the time the clockwork began to run down.

Kimberly bowed out on the grounds that she had work tomorrow, she didn’t want to call in sick, and she wanted to unwind before bed; nobody likes to dream about magic. She cast a nervous glance at Aym before leaving, but the black-lace monster was still firmly in Sevens’ soft grip. Felicity followed a while later, saying she wanted to speak with Kimberly about a few things. Raine cleverly and covertly made sure they weren’t going to be totally alone, courtesy of Lozzie, but I doubted that precaution was entirely necessary anymore. Still, better safe than sorry.

Sevens and Aym vanished together while nobody was looking. Tenny had been tucked up in bed, sound asleep. Praem went upstairs without Evelyn, either to check on Kim or poke Zheng in the eyes, I wasn’t quite sure which.

My own concentration hung by a thread; I hadn’t helped directly, but I was exhausted for some reason, drained by the awkwardness, by the effort of watching, as if the mages had sucked willpower right out of the air. Eventually, unaware of how exactly I’d drifted there, I found myself back in the magical workshop, peering through the tiniest crack in the curtains at the darkness of the back garden.

Two petite figures stood beneath the dripping behemoth of the old tree, both of them dressed in shadows, one in lace and the other tinted yellow, talking softly in the muffled night air.

“I wonder what they’re discussing,” I murmured to myself.

Behind me, the others didn’t hear. Evelyn was still sitting at the table, eyes dull in a brittle face. Twil was a few seats further down, feet up in Praem’s absence, munching her way through the final — and very cold — pastry. Raine blew out a big theatrical sigh at something I had heard but not processed; I was too engrossed in the hidden show between Aym and Sevens, out in the private dark beneath the open black skies.

“If Praem’s not here to put you to bed,” Raine was saying, “then I will.”

“Oh, don’t get your knickers in a twist,” Evelyn grumbled, out of energy. “I’m done for the night. This can’t be finished in one day, even with three of us working on it. However much I’d like to. However much I want Felicity out of this house.”

“She not staying the night?” Twil asked around a mouthful of food. The spluttering sound that followed made me turn away from the crack in the curtains, if only to examine the sheer withering displeasure on Evee’s face. Twil put her hands up. “Hey, hey, I just meant like, where’s she laying her head, that’s all.”

Raine pulled a serious frown. “I think we can trust her not to burn the house down or anything.”

“Trust has nothing to do with it,” Evelyn spat. “She’s welcome to talk to Kimberly all she wants, but she’s not sleeping in this building.”

“I’ll make sure of that, then,” Raine said slowly. “We’ll see her out.”

Evelyn waved one hand, as if a little embarrassed. “Praem already said she was on it. I trust her tact.”

I spoke up without thinking, my mind lost in a whimsical wander, still outdoors with Sevens and Aym. “Night Praem would remove Felicity, if she tried to stay.”

The other three all looked at me, Twil with a frown, Raine with a wink, and Evee with a sigh.

“I still don’t understand this ‘Night Praem’ business,” Evelyn said.

“You’re better off that way,” Raine said with a grin and another wink. “Some things humans were simply not meant to know.”

Twil chewed on her tongue and said, “It’s just Praem in her goth gear, right?”

Raine clicked her tongue and changed the subject, covering for my embarrassment at saying something silly. “Fliss is gonna have to come back tomorrow, yeah? Can she rock up whenever, or do we need to do the thing with the phones again, verify it’s her and all that?”

“Verify, yes,” Evelyn said. “Full procedure. Don’t let her in unannounced.”

“Is she going to be safe?” I asked. “Staying in some hotel or something, by herself?”

Evelyn frowned, but she didn’t meet my eyes. Raine pulled a thinking face and said, “Ah.”

“She can come stay with me,” Twil offered.

“No,” Evelyn and I both said in unison. We looked at each other and shared an awkward smile. Evee explained: “Aym follows her everywhere, she’ll torment a member of your family.”

“Ask Jan to look after her?” Raine suggested, but the look on her face said she knew that was a non-starter.

“Jan would run,” I added, then wandered over to the table, trying to look at the sketches of magic circles without my eyeballs rebelling and trying to crawl back into my skull. “Is this magic really that complex?”

Evelyn rolled her neck from side to side before she answered, popping vertebrae and sighing with release. She placed a hand on the table — inches from the white quartz lump of the fade stone. “Well, no,” she said, then made a grumbling sound. “It’s not the most complex. That is the most complex.” She gestured toward the gateway at the far end of the room. “But this spell would take … months, maybe years, to construct by oneself. And you’d have no way of telling if it works or not. You’d have to go out there, do the spell, then try to find the house again. With three of us we can prop parts of it up, keep them running, confirm the breach.” She frowned harder and harder as she spoke. “If Edward Lilburne built this containment by himself … ”

“Met your match, hey?” Raine said, not unkindly.

Evelyn snorted. “Not yet.”

“Errrr,” went Twil. “Is this gonna be like, some seriously spooky nonsense? When this thing goes off?”

Evelyn roused herself and shook her head. “Not unless your Church is hiding something in the same way — which, no, they’re not. We’re essentially going to be breaking a barrier, but we won’t see anything, won’t know about the effect. Not unless Edward has rigged countermeasures. Which he probably has.”

“Zombies?” Twil lit up.

“Probs,” said Raine.

“Yeeeeeeeah.” Twil grinned, swung her feet to the floor, and licked pastry grease off her fingers with an explosive pop. “Let me at ‘em! Better than sitting around like this!”

Evelyn was staring at the circles, and then at the fade stone, unmoved by Twil’s lust for something to punch. She muttered under her breath. “Felicity will want to help.”

“Maybe we should let her,” I said quietly. “Evee, maybe we should let her help.”

Evelyn glanced up at me, a pinched frown on her brow, a biting retort on her lips. But then she hesitated. Perhaps my expression gave it away. I didn’t really care one way or the other if we let Felicity help or not. Some inner impish irritability had provoked me to say something to inflame Evee’s ire, to make her look at me and focus on me, to make her face me properly.

She stared at me for a second, lips parted, then glanced at the fade stone on the table again, inches from her fingertips.

When she reached for that lump of quartz I almost knocked her out of her chair.

I didn’t touch her, of course; if I’d pushed Evee’s chair over or blundered into her I would never have forgiven myself. Even my tentacles acting independently and my worst moments of pure abyssal instinct could never willingly harm Evelyn Saye. All the other three saw was me flinch toward Evee and then stumble to catch myself. They didn’t see the whirling mass of tentacles, the pair of lashing limbs reaching for the stone, or me grabbing the table and floor to halt myself mid-lunge.

The pair of spider-servitors flinched. Raine froze, eyebrows raised at me. Twil cocked her head. Evee blinked up at me, the stone cupped in one hand.

“Heather? Hey?” Raine said.

“I’m fine,” I lied.

“Here,” Evelyn said — and held the stone out to me. My eyes went wide. I shook my head, blushing like crazy.

“Evee, no, no, I don’t—”

“Hold it for me, Heather. Hold it for me or I’ll throw it through the window and break the glass. And then we’ll have to get the window repaired, and that’ll slow everything down even further.”

I accepted the stone, still warm with Evelyn’s body heat. Evelyn let out a huge sigh and leaned back in her chair, visibly uncomfortable, shoulders tense, mouth a pressed line.

Twil was showing her teeth in a pained grimace. “Ohhhhhh-kay then. Did I miss something? Are you two fighting?”

Raine put her hand on Twil’s shoulder. “Give ‘em a sec.”

This didn’t help. Twil looked how I felt. “Do we like, need to leave the room?”

“No,” Evelyn snapped. “I’m not hiding from this.”

“Evee,” I sighed. “You … you kind of betrayed my trust, but you don’t have to make a show of it.”

“I had to use the stone, Heather,” she said, talking to the far wall instead of to my face. “I was not leaving you alone with Aym. I don’t care that you turned out to be right and I was wrong.”

“You could have told me,” I said, chest aching all of a sudden. “How many other times have you done it? Used the stone around me — or any of us — without saying?”

“Never before.”



Raine cleared her throat. “Not even for a sneaky naked trip to the bathroom? You ain’t lived until you’ve sat on the throne in the nude.”

Evelyn gave Raine a look to crack granite. Twil looked like she wanted to shrivel up and die. I shot Raine a frown too, but apparently she was immune to criticism right then.

“Not even for shoplifting?” she carried on. “Missing a trick there, Evee.”

“Raine, I love you,” I said, voice quivering, “but do be quiet.”

Raine shrugged and cracked a grin. I knew exactly what she was doing and it was working perfectly, but I still resented it a little bit.

Evelyn turned back to me, eyes blazing, finally looking at my face. She was like a banked fire. “I get to protect you too, Heather. I disagreed with your decision to speak with Aym alone. In this case, the ends justify the means. Even if I was wrong.”

“Don’t say that. The ends never justify the means, Evee.”

“It does when your safety is involved.”

“Bloody right,” Raine added, sotto voce.

“You could have insisted!” I squeaked to Evee. “You could have said ‘I insist’ but you didn’t, you wouldn’t, I was waiting for it!”

“Would you have listened to me?” Evelyn demanded.


Evelyn paused. Something inside her turned soggy and then disintegrated. She swallowed and turned away. “Oh hell. I still don’t understand you. Your honesty puts me to shame, Heather. I’m … I’m sorry. I didn’t intend to gaslight you.”

“And I forgive you,” I said.

“Maybe you shouldn’t.”

“It’s my choice, not yours.”

Evelyn sighed. She still couldn’t look at me, like my face was a fire burning too hot and she might catch alight if she came too close. “Keep the stone, Heather. Hold onto it for me. You don’t deserve to wonder and worry if I’m pulling the wool over your eyes. Keep it until—”

“Evee, I’m giving the stone back to you.”

I said it simply, politely, and quickly, but it was a lot harder than I made it sound. My tentacles wanted to wrap the stone up tight, embed the thing in my flesh, swallow it and have it live in my guts, so it could never again slip out of my sight, never again remove Evelyn from my world. But that wouldn’t heal this sudden and shocking rift.

I held the fade stone out to Evee. She stabbed it with her eyes, huffed a great sigh, and looked me in the face. “Heather, for fuck’s sake, I’m trying to—”

“Take the stone.”

“No, I—”

“I trust you with it.”

“Maybe I’m not to be trusted!” she snapped, throwing her hands in the air.

“I trust you regardless. Take it before I change my mind, please.”

“No, you—”

“I insist,” I said.

Evelyn rammed to a stop. She clenched her jaw so hard that her teeth creaked. Then she scooped the stone out of my hands and clacked it back on the table in front of her. Slightly red, exasperated beyond words, she glared at me — but not without affection.

“I trust you with it,” I repeated. “Please don’t do that again.”

“I won’t make that promise, Heather. I can’t. If you do something I think is dangerous—”

“Insist, and I shall stop.”

“She really will,” Raine added. “Believe it.”

Evelyn looked like she wanted to curl up into a ball and shut us all out. I eased the situation back down out of the heights of awkwardness by giving her a very gentle, very careful, very well-signposted hug. She accepted it even more awkwardly, huffing through her nose and patting me on the shoulder like I was a very muddy dog. “Love you,” I murmured as we disengaged. She nodded, but didn’t repeat it back to me.

Instead, Evelyn said to all of us: “Well, you better get ready for us all to do some very dangerous and stupid things. Because this—” she gestured at the magic on the table, gathering itself like a coiled spring of paper and pencil. “This is one of the most stupid and dangerous things we’re ever going to do.”

“High bar to clear,” said Twil. “We’ve been Outside. How is this worse?”

“This spell,” Evelyn said, “is the first shot in an open war against a mage. And I don’t think it’ll be a long war.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Mage war! Well, at least they have three mages now, that has to count for something, right? It’s just a little war. A skirmish. A border situation. And hey, Heather really hates that lump of rock. Weird, huh? Maybe there’s a reason she’s barely recalled it since almost the beginning of story. At least Evelyn and her made up, sort of, mostly.

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Next week, new arc! It’s time for spooky mages to do dangerous things, mostly trying to murder each other. Fun!

loyal to the nightmare of my choice – 18.7

Content Warnings

Drug use
Brief discussion of abuse
Mental health institutionalisation

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Aym did not stay physically manifested all the time, which made the logistics of the next few hours much more convoluted and confusing than was necessary. Knowing Aym, that was probably the whole point, and a likely source of great amusement as well. Aym may have agreed to help us, but she was still elementally herself. We couldn’t trust her not to take an opportunity to jump on somebody’s back in a dark hallway, or creep over the edge of an unattended bed, or heaven forbid, surprise one of us while sitting on the toilet.

It was like having a cartoon bogeyman — bogeygirl? — as a house guest.

She started by vanishing from the sofa in the magical workshop, right in front of us, during a momentary lapse in concentration. I had been looking down at Evee, struggling with lingering shock and numb betrayal after her trickery with the fade stone; Evelyn’s eyes were glued to a point on the floor, burning with embarrassment at her own transgression; Praem must have turned her head just enough for Aym to slide into her peripheral vision. The coal-sprite of black lace and pinched face on the sofa blurred into a shadow on the edge of three sets of consciousness, human and demon and abyssal, and then she went up in puff of black mist.

“H-hey!” I said to the empty air. “Aym!”

Praem turned, snap-sharp. “Back. Here. Now.”

Evelyn huffed explosively. “Calm down, this is just what she does. Unless you want to pin her to the wall with iron spikes.”

“Hahaha!” Aym chortled. Her voice came from behind the sofa, her laugh like a rusty awl dragged through a bucket of decayed bolts. “Don’t worry, silly magey-wageys and anime demon maids, I’m not running away. Go get Flissy! Then we’ll talk magic. Real magic. I pinky-swear double-special promise, swear on my best little black dress. Which is every little black dress.”

Evelyn snapped, “You’re trying to get her to occupy the same room as me. I can see right through that. Just give her the information.”

“Uh-uh,” Aym croaked like a broken frog. “She won’t be able to do this one alone. This spell’s going to need more than one mage. Time to put your heads together, naughty kittens.”

“Ah,” I murmured. That was close to a worst-case scenario.

Evelyn stared at the sofa cushions as if her gaze might burn holes through them and smoke out Aym. I hesitated to touch her shoulder, she seemed on the verge of losing her temper again, and I felt a stinging, dull resentment that I didn’t like, didn’t want to acknowledge. But I gathered my courage and touched her with my fingertips.

“Evee?” I said. “You won’t be … ”

Alone, I meant to say, but the declaration died on my lips. She had ensured I wasn’t alone, either.

Evelyn shot a single glance up at me, furtive and guilty. She couldn’t hold it for long. “Fine,” she grunted.


“I said fine,” she snapped. “Go get her. Let’s get this farce over with.”

So, with much too-ing and fro-ing and making certain that nobody went anywhere unaccompanied, we fetched Felicity down from upstairs, prying her out of whatever dubious heart-to-heart she was having with Kimberly, though thankfully chaperoned by Sevens-Shades-of-Serious-Scrutiny.

This process meant leaving Praem and Evelyn alone together in the magical workshop, while Raine and I went upstairs to Kimberly’s bedroom, with strict instructions to Lozzie and Tenny that they were to stay together, and a suggestion that Zheng not wander around too much, at least not yet. It felt like a magical version of that old puzzle about getting a cabbage, a goat, and a wolf across a river, in a boat that can only hold two at a time, without somebody or something getting eaten.

Upstairs, Raine and I found a curious tableau: Kimberly was sat cross-legged on her bed, tucked inside a nest of blankets pulled up around her shoulders and neck, with Sevens perched not too far away, knees drawn up to her chest beneath the yellow robes. They looked very comfy and cosy. I yearned to join them, especially with the rain drumming on the roof and windows, the room a shadowy grotto of resumed safety in the depths of the house. Felicity was sitting on Kim’s swivel chair by her desk, leaning forward with her elbows on her knees, hands together, sober-faced, as if she’d been listening intently to a grim tale. They’d heard us coming down the corridor, so the conversation had trailed off, but Kimberly seemed dry-eyed and calm, despite looking puffy-faced and a little strung-out. Felicity managed to look guilty, ashamed, defiant, and somewhat worried all at once. I caught Sevens’ eyes quickly, but she was unreadably heavy-lidded, like a lizard caught in the cold. I assumed that meant there was nothing to worry about — or that Sevens needed a mug of human blood. I made a mental note that somebody we trusted needed to talk to Kim, and soon.

“It’s go time,” Raine said to Felicity. “Your little shit of a friend says you’re needed. Let’s bounce.”

Felicity stared for a second as if she couldn’t believe her ears. Her good eye, her right eye, went wide with surprise, the burned-out left eye hanging dull in its socket of scar tissue. Then she nodded stiffly, picking up her sports bag and pulling herself to her feet like an elderly lady with terrible arthritis. She nodded once to Kimberly too, pulling the awkward smile of somebody who knew no words could suffice. I think I was the only one who noticed Kimberly raise her fingers as if to catch Felicity’s hand; the gesture was so truncated, aborted before it could begin, but there was no mistaking the way her red, puffy eyes followed the older mage out of the room.

As Felicity and Raine ducked out into the corridor, I lingered for just long enough to say, “Sevens, Kim, you two stay together for a while longer, please. Aym is still being difficult, to put it politely. Are you okay together, or do you want to swap with somebody else?”

Kimberly stared at me, then stared at Sevens as if only just remembering that the blood-goblin was right next to her on the bed.

Guuurk,” went Sevens. “S’okay. We’ll talk about video games for a bit.”

Kimberly stammered, “V-video games?”

“Video. Games.” Sevens wriggled a hand free from her nest of yellow robes and pointed one pale finger at Kimberly’s computer. “Show me the one where you farm crops but also date girls. I saw you play it before. Want to see more.”

I left Kimberly to get distracted by Seven-Shades-of-Agricultural-Dating-Sim, and followed Raine and Felicity downstairs. The rest of the house was resuming around us, now unbound from temporary restriction in the disused sitting room; Lozzie bounced past in the front room, pausing to inform me that “Twil’s on her way!” When I asked who called, she only giggled. Tenny followed Lozzie upstairs; curiously enough she was leading Marmite by a tentacle, black silken appendage wrapped around one of his own segmented bone-tentacles. Marmite trotted along quite happily. Perhaps Tenny wasn’t going to require a new pet of her own after all. But then again, poor Whistle could hardly make friends with a giant invisible spider-squid-thing. Could he?

“Stick together, please!” I called after them as I hurried along in Felicity’s wake.

Zheng, of course, was impossible to truly control, but at least I didn’t have to worry about her going off alone and getting ambushed by Aym. I suspect that Aym would have regretted such an ambush very much. What we did have to worry about, apparently, was Zheng going feral with the desire to hunt. By the time Felicity, Raine, and I stepped through the workshop door, Evee was yelling at her.

“You’re going to damage the bloody sofa! Stop that!”

Zheng had hoisted one end of the sofa up into the air with a hand, tipping it almost onto its end. She was peering at the dusty wall behind it, shark-teeth bared and lips peeled back, a resonant rumbling noise in her chest, searching for Aym.

“Aym is not there,” said Praem, in a voice like a silver bell.

Rrrrrrrrrrrr,” Zheng growled.

“Oh!” I said. “Oh dear, Zheng, please, no.”

“Zheng yes! Haha!” Raine laughed.

“Put it down!” Evelyn snapped. “This isn’t funny.”

“Come out, coward-thing,” Zheng rumbled. “Both formless and spineless.”

A voice cackled from under the table, “Ooooh, she’s got me dead to rights there.”

Zheng dropped the sofa with a spine-jerking clunk; I was surprised it didn’t just break in two. Me and Felicity both flinched. Evelyn huffed and tried to whack Zheng on the shins with her walking stick. I never got to find out if Zheng would have endured the abuse without retribution, because Zheng moved like greased lightning. She was across the room in a flash and down on her haunches to reach under the table. But her swiping hand and wide eyes found nothing. She growled in frustration and shot upright again, rumbling through her teeth as she turned in a slow circle.

From somewhere impossible to determine — perhaps beneath Evee’s chair, perhaps behind the open door, or perhaps inside the cavity of the walls themselves — Aym let out a snorty giggle.

Zheng showed her teeth in challenge. Felicity’s hand lingered over the opening of her sports bag, too near to her shotgun. Perhaps whatever it was loaded with would work handily on Zheng. The spider-servitors looked very nonplussed by all this. The one crouched on the table hadn’t moved an inch. I think they’d figured out how much of this was for show.

I tutted. “It’s like a pair of cats who don’t know each other’s scent. Zheng, stop it, please. I know she’s extremely annoying, but Aym has agreed to help us. At least wait until we’re done.”

Aym giggled. “But then I’m fair game? Sooooo scary!”

Zheng’s eyes tracked something invisible, something moving behind a wall, a signal only she could hear.

“Hey,” Raine said to Zheng, voice easy and soft in a way I hadn’t expected. “I don’t blame you, but ease down, yeah?”

“Aym,” I said, “stop winding her up. Maybe then she won’t want to eat you.”

Zheng huffed, grunted, and stalked for the door — but then she stopped at the last second. One muscled reddish-brown arm whirled outward, a hook of fingers aimed straight for Felicity’s face.

I think I yelped; somebody did, anyway. Somebody else gasped in horror. Raine moved to grab Zheng’s arm, but not quite fast enough. My tentacles whipped out too, about to drag Zheng off balance. We were all too slow, too off-guard, too relaxed.

But Zheng’s killing blow slammed to a halt, half an inch from shattering the delicate bones of Felicity’s jaw and skull. Arm held rock-solid still, paused in the moment before murder, Zheng froze. She wasn’t even looking at Felicity. She was watching a point on the far wall, waiting for her bluff to pay off.

Evee was panting in shock, gone grey in the face. Praem placed a hand on her shoulder.

“Hey!” Raine said, voice like a whip. She clapped her hands together twice. I jerked upright in obedience, Raine’s voice was so full of command. “Hey, both of you, down, right now!”

It was only then that I realised Felicity had drawn her sawn-off shotgun.

If Zheng’s strike had been for real, from that close, Felicity wouldn’t have had time to drag the weapon out of the sports bag slung over her shoulder. But the quivering bluff had given her the moment she needed to wrench the gun free of its concealing towels, flick the safety off, and press the double muzzles of the shotgun right against Zheng’s ribs, just below her armpit. Free of its improvised wrappings, the sawn-off was a dark viper of black metal and polished wood, well-oiled and properly cared for, a pure expression of mechanical violence.

Felicity herself was grey with terror, eyes gone wide as saucers, taking shallow, panicked breaths through her nose. But her grip on the gun was rock solid, her index finger touching the trigger.

“Felicity, no!” I snapped. I reached toward the shotgun with a tentacle, but I dared not risk jerking the weapon. Felicity’s trigger finger was so very tight.

“I’m not moving until this demon-host backs down,” she said in a near-incomprehensible half-mumble from her damaged mouth. Adrenaline and fear rendered her much harder to make out. “Call her off. Call her off. Heather, call her off.”

“Zheng, please,” I said. But Zheng didn’t move. She was like a hunting hound, utterly focused on Aym’s potential appearance.

“Fuck’s sake,” Evelyn huffed. She stamped with her walking stick. “This is the absolute last thing I want to be dealing with on top of everything else! Is Tenny in the kitchen, is she seeing this? Is a child witnessing this bullshit?”

I cleared my throat very gently. “Tenny and Lozzie went upstairs.”

“Good!” Evelyn spat. “At least vulnerable minds are spared this nonsense. Zheng, you great big brainless fuck, get off her, now! And you — you lower that fucking shotgun in my house or I will have Praem flog you.” Evelyn fumed silently for the space of two heartbeats. “You think I’m joking, try me. She’ll have to glue your skin back on.”

Praem agreed, “It is no jest.”

Slowly, the mutual stand-off disengaged. Zheng moved her hand forward, then dropped it away from Felicity’s face, muscles rippling. Felicity removed her finger from the trigger and lowered the weapon. Zheng stepped away, still not bothering to even look at Felicity, or anybody else. Fliss clicked the safety on her gun.

“Coward,” Zheng snorted.

Aym giggled, apparently from inside the ceiling. “I knew you weren’t really going to punch Flissy’s brains out through her neck. I can smell a bluff a mile away, even through all that muscle. You reek.”

Zheng pulled a face of utter disgust, then finally turned on her heel and stalked out of the magical workshop.

A collective creak of tension passed through the rest of us. Felicity stowed her sawn-off shotgun back in her bag with shaking hands, a terrible tremor coming over her. Then she staggered over to the sofa and sat down without asking. Evelyn was taking several deep breaths, rubbing the bridge of her nose. Praem managed to look unruffled and perfect, but she stayed in physical contact with Evee, hands on shoulders. Raine clapped me on the back and asked me if I was alright. It took a moment for me to gather my wits and answer, nodding along, mouth bone dry, heart still racing.

“Fucking zombie,” Evelyn muttered.

Zheng’s aggressive stunt had served as a reminder of what we were dealing with here: monsters and mages, all of them very dangerous, regardless of pleasant words or amusing asides. This was still a very delicate situation, complete with armed self-defence and malignant demons.

I wasn’t the only one who had been reminded. Even as we all took a collective breath and gathered ourselves, Felicity and Evelyn found each other.

Evelyn did not look angry. Felicity did not warrant a glare or a scowl or a sneer. Evee looked at the other mage as if she was an unidentified brown stain on a pair of underwear. Felicity couldn’t return that look, not even with her burned-out eye. She placed her bag on the sofa, then stared at the floor, a woman quietly enduring exposure to deathly cold.

“Okay, alright then,” Raine said, stepping forward. She was braver than I, to step into atmosphere chillier than the interstellar void. She clapped her hands together. “We’re all here now, no need to get off-topic again. Aym, if you would take it away, please? Let’s get this sorted out so we move on and get out of each other’s hair, sooner rather than later.” She shot a look at Felicity, dense with meaning, but Felicity was staring at the bare floorboards, a withered and dying plant before Evee’s blank-faced hatred.

To my surprise, Felicity said, “Yeah. Let’s get this over with. I’ll get out as soon as I can.” She wet her lips and started to add, “I’m sorry—”

“Ohhhhhhh,” Aym purred from behind the table, somewhere on the other side of the spider-servitor, which scuttled back out of the way as if catching scent of a terrible predator. “Oh oh oh, I am afraid this is going to take so much longer than that.”

Aym’s pinched and pale little face rose on the other side of the table, framed by her long black hair, as if she had hidden by ducking down in the seat of a chair. Like a black and dripping mushroom, a skeletal stick festooned with sheets of lace, she popped up into one of the chairs on the other side of the table, planted her boney elbows on the wood, and decided to ignore us in favour of winking at the spider-servitor. The spider was firmly unimpressed, standing stock-still and pointing its cluster of spike-tipped stingers at Aym’s face.

“Well well well,” said Raine. “There she is. You aren’t quite what I was expecting.”

Aym made a kissy-face at the spider. When she still didn’t get a response, she sighed and shrugged and turned her attention toward Raine, answering with nothing but a little smile.

“Be nice,” said Praem. Aym winced, blinking as if she had received a face full of cold air.

Felicity was frowning at Aym, mystified by something. She started to shake her head. “Aym?”

“What’s wrong, Flissy?” Aym purred.

“Well … you’re here. You don’t usually … not in front of other people. What are you doing?”

Aym smiled, toothy and girlish, and spoke in a voice made of hydrochloric acid. “Don’t ask questions to which you don’t want to know the answer. How many times, Flissy?” Aym giggled, wiggling her fingers and toying with the loose black lace around her wrists.

Felicity swallowed hard, holding Aym’s gaze for a moment before dropping her eyes back to the floor.

“Be nice,” Praem repeated, “includes Miss Hackett.”

Aym flinched and stiffened, as if Praem’s words had dropped an ice cube down the back of her dress. She hissed through her teeth, a sound like an angry komodo dragon, then smiled an increasingly sour smile.

“Enough with the comedy act,” Evelyn snapped. “What do you mean this is going to take longer? What are you trying to pull now, Aym?”

“Yes,” I agreed. “That is a rather worrying statement.”

Aym made a faux-innocent face, batting dark eyelashes and touching the fingertips of one hand to the middle of her chest. “Me? Play a trick? Never! I’m only supplying a personal estimate, based on prior experience. Why, if you and Felicity were to outstrip my expectations, I would be delighted!”

I cleared my throat and let my tentacles drift outward. Of all the people in the magical workshop only Praem and Aym could see them unaided. The meaning could not be mistaken.

“Aym,” I said. “The longer this takes, the harder my ultimate task.”

“Quite,” Evelyn added. “The longer we take to break the spell which hides Edward’s home, the less time to overcome him — or steal his books — and the less time to prepare the Invisus Oculus. Do not fuck us around.”

Aym rolled her eyes so hard I swore it was beyond human norms. “Flissy, what did I tell you about this before?”

Felicity took a moment to answer — she’d been staring at Evelyn, lost in a moment of undisguised fascination, the first time I’d ever seen her look directly at Evee without shame or pain or an apology on her lips. For a moment my skin crawled and my spine threatened to peel itself right out of my body; I assumed Felicity was taking the opportunity to stare because everybody’s attention was glued to Aym. Perhaps Evelyn had been right about her all along. Perhaps we really should have ensured Felicity not ever step foot in this house again.

But then I realised Felicity had only looked up at the words Invisus Oculus.

“Uh,” Felicity murmured, gathering herself before anybody but me could notice her staring. She took a deep breath and spoke with more confidence, back in her element. “Aym told me the original magic to conceal Tannerbaum house wasn’t actually that complicated. Basic geometrical principles — the pentagram and the circle — applied via the occlusion principles in Manus Cruenta.

“Yes, I recall that much,” said Evelyn. “That principle isn’t possible to scale up. We’d need hundreds of dead peacocks. Thousands. It’s ridiculous.”

Felicity’s left hand strayed to her sports bag. I saw Raine stiffen, but she relaxed again when Felicity just patted the canvas. “I brought the book with me, in case we need to … ” She trailed off and shrugged. “Well. You know.”

Evelyn sneered and said without looking at Felicity, “You stole that from my mother’s old collection.”

Felicity froze, open mouthed. “Wha … I didn’t! I didn’t. I-I swear! I never stole from Loretta. I never.”

“Not when she was alive,” Evelyn muttered.

Felicity rummaged in the sports bag with both hands, then pulled out a thick leatherbound book, brown and cracked with age, but not quite old enough to crumble from regular handling. With desperate eyes and a greying complexion, she held it out toward Evee in both hands.

“I-it’s yours then!” she said. “Take it!”

Praem reached out and gently refused the book on Evee’s behalf, pressing it back toward Felicity. Evelyn didn’t even look.

Raine pulled a mighty grimace and caught my eye. I felt just as trapped as she did; this was no place for non-mages right now. I felt like a wildlife documentary maker in the middle of a group of posturing predators. If it wasn’t for Evelyn’s need for support, I would have scuttled away. The fade stone still sat heavy in her lap, the lump of white quartz mocking me silently. I stared down at that instead.

Evelyn sucked on her teeth and watched Aym. The coal-dust demon stared back, a little smile playing across her lips. They had made an agreement earlier, even if only in spirit: Evelyn was to stop tormenting Felicity every time they spoke. That was half the price for the spell.

Aym opened her lips with a wet click and a devious smile. For one horrible moment I thought she was going to demand Evelyn apologise to Felicity, right there in front of everybody. My tentacles twitched with protective affection, despite the sour feeling in my gut as I stared at the fade stone.

“That stupid little book,” Aym said in a voice of acid melting through silver, “is incomplete. And it lies. Sort of like me.” She rolled her eyes upward in thought, then giggled. “When Tannerbaum house was placed in its labyrinth, the grand old bastard used that book. I know, because I watched the whole thing happen. He couldn’t conceal anything from me. Just like you, Flissy. Just like you.”

Felicity swallowed hard, suddenly very focused on Aym. “But?” she prompted.

“But! The first time, it didn’t take. The labyrinth was born, but the house was not in it. He had to do the whole thing again, with a lot of blood, most of it his own but lots of it from elsewhere, all painted inside the house to make it correspond with the twisty turns of the place it was supposed to be hidden.”

Simadia,” Evelyn murmured, her eyes alight with that familiar old magician look — cold and hungry fascination. Then, unexpectedly, she laughed, a single hard bark.

“Don’t think I get that one,” said Raine, a wry grin on her lips.

“Me neither,” I said awkwardly. I was feeling increasingly out of my depth.

Simadia,” Felicity echoed, frowning to herself. “It’s a Greek grimoire — Byzantine, actually, not ancient — on the magic of making places into signs and symbols, which then correspond to other places.”

“And it’s nonsense,” Evelyn grunted at Aym, though she seemed oddly amused. “Monk bullshit. Folk magic. Not real.”

Aym just shrugged, tiny shoulders beneath too many black layers.

Evelyn drummed her fingers on the handle of her walking stick. Felicity clenched her hands together, lost somewhere inside her own head.

“Soooooooooooooo,” Raine said after a moment. “What now? We need to find a different book? Complete one fetch quest to unlock another fetch quest? I never liked that kind of thing.”

“I’m thinking,” Evelyn said.

“Mm,” went Felicity.

“Time for tea,” said Praem. She didn’t wait for acknowledgement, turning on her heel and marching into the kitchen, maid uniform swaying around her legs as she went. A moment later we could hear the gentle clink of mugs and the watery slosh of the kettle being filled. Neither Evee nor Felicity responded to that. Aym made a show of checking her flawless nails.

Evelyn murmured, “If Edward used the same method … ”

“Which is an assumption,” Felicity said. Evelyn hissed softly and tossed her head sideways. Felicity added, “But one we have to make.”

“Question is how to reverse it.”

Felicity sighed. “You’d need a magic circle that covers the entire countryside, the whole area where this house might be. I assume that’s defined?”

“Mm.” Evelyn grunted. She still didn’t look at Felicity. “Made a map. It’s on the table. Quite large, from here to Stockport.”

“Tch,” Felicity tutted. “Do we even have the resources for that?”

Evelyn finally looked up at Felicity, as if coming out of a trance. Her eyes blazed with such disgust that for a second I thought she was going to reach over and hit the other mage with her walking stick. Raine actually stepped forward, to put her own body in the path of any violence. I crept one tentacle around Evee’s side too, not quite touching. I had a sudden and vindictive urge to covertly snatch the fade stone out of her lap.

But then Evelyn said, “We … do not have the resources. Correct.”

Felicity nodded, lowering her eyes again. “Right. Right. Yes.”

“But,” Evelyn said, “there may be another way. I have a copy of Simadia upstairs, in my study. We can work from that. Are you going to try to steal that, too?”

Felicity looked up, moving only her eyes. “No.”

The two mages stared at each other for a long and uncomfortable moment. On the far side of the room, on the other side of the table, Aym sank into a black cloud of her own lace and hair, a Cheshire Cat grin in the threatening gloom from beyond the walls. Raindrops on the roof filled the room with static, broken with difficulty by the boiling of the kettle in the kitchen. I felt an urge to speak, but kept my mouth firmly shut. One of my tentacles touched a tip to the white quartz of the fade stone, then retreated.

This was a mage thing. I had no place in this particular conversation, other than at Evee’s side.

Evelyn huffed and seemed to expand into her chair. “Then let’s get this over with before the end of the day. I hope you’re still sharp, Felicity, because I have no use for you otherwise.”


Magic talk made me feel like a third wheel. Perhaps ‘fifth wheel’ or ‘seventh wheel’ would be more accurate, with the number of people who spent that afternoon in the warm cocoon of the magical workshop, poring over ancient tomes, sketching magical designs, debating how best to perform a large-scale, long-distance, low-signal magical work which nobody had ever attempted before — or just listening to Felicity and Evelyn doing all that, to the background of the storm drizzling on outdoors.

At first there was simply no question of leaving them alone. Even with Praem in the room to support and protect her mother, I couldn’t dream of wandering off and leaving Evelyn with Felicity, let alone Aym as well. So I settled in with fresh coffee and a sandwich for lunch, listening to things I didn’t understand. Praem bustled about making sure Evelyn ate something. Raine set up camp too, with a hand-held game console and her headphones.

Felicity and Evelyn planned real magic on that table, the kind which made my eyes ache to look at. They debated how to proceed, how to crack an existing spell. Evelyn filled page after page with rough magic circles, suggestions of designs to “unravel the knot” and “break the field at a pre-determined weak point, because it must have one.”

Felicity made notes on the Ordnance Survey map, the same one we’d used to figure out Nicole’s route during her magical fugue state, when she may have visited Edward’s house.

When they spoke, they stuck to the problem, which was a relief.

“Closer to Stockport would be better, require a smaller circle,” Felicity said.

“Nonsense,” Evelyn snapped. “It makes no difference. We may as well do it in the woods. Besides, how would we conceal it? We’re going to be using a lot of blood.”

Felicity frowned at the map. “Where are we going to get that?”

“A butcher’s. We’re not carting a live bull out there.”

“It has to be male. A bull, not a cow. Not mixed blood.”

“As I said. A butcher’s.”

“Or Zheng,” I offered, but neither of them were really listening.

The spider-servitor who had been crouched on the table had to scoot all the way to the end, then clamber down onto the floor. Maps and notes and half-scribbled designs proliferated across the tabletop, spiralling outward. Despite the massive size of the old oaken table, Felicity and Evee sat very far apart, with plenty of room between them, well beyond arm’s reach. Evelyn kept her bone-wand right in her lap, like a loaded gun ready to threaten with. Felicity left her concealed shotgun in the bag on the sofa. Praem often took up station on a chair equidistant between the two of them.

Twil called us twice, to let us know she was on her way over; then to let us know she was going to be late because she was buying us all dinner. She didn’t seem to understand the gravity of the situation, but nobody had the heart to tell her.

Aym came and went seemingly at random, which kept spooking me, putting my abyssal instincts on edge, making my tentacles twitch and flinch at every errant shadow. She didn’t seem to have much left to add after her cryptic reveal of how to hide a house. Sometimes she sat on the opposite side of the table, sharp chin in delicate hands, swinging her legs back and forth as she watched the mages work, like a child watching her mother at the stove. Other times she appeared on the sofa, dozing and bored, or lying on her stomach and waving her feet in the air inside thick black socks. Once or twice she materialised in front of the gateway at the far end of the room, going up on tiptoes to examine Evelyn’s handiwork, the huge mandala design which cupped and surrounded the doorway of blank plaster cut into the wall. Evelyn gave her a sour, dark look, but didn’t complain. It wasn’t as if Aym was a rival mage, stealing her secrets.

Felicity tried not to look at her, suppressing tension in her shoulders whenever Aym was too close.

Occasionally Aym vanished altogether. Once I thought I heard low voices from over in the utility room; Zheng and Aym speaking to each other, but that couldn’t be right. Later on, when we were approaching an entire hour of endurance, Aym sat across from me at the table, staring and smiling with the manner of an irritating child who knows she is technically not breaking any rules by watching an adult, but is nonetheless being an intentional irritant.

“What do you normally do for fun, Aym?” I asked eventually. I’d meant it mockingly, but I couldn’t quite manage the tone.

“I like to read poems,” she answered with an innocent little moue, a dimple in her cheeks, and a voice like a rusty nail in salt, “paint watercolours, and take long walks on the beach. What about you, squid-brains?”

I couldn’t stand it — Aym, that answer, this whole situation.

I was terrible at waiting. I always had been ever since Cygnet Children’s Hospital, since the long and lonely hours in that blank grey place, coupled with the unspoken pressure to not acknowledge that one could not in fact get up and leave. It wasn’t polite to draw attention to one’s confinement. Good girls waited to be dismissed, for the proper times to go to the common area, to go to one’s room, to see the doctors. Good girls waited and did not ask.

This was hardly the same, sitting in a familiar and safe place, deep in the heart of the truest home I’d ever known. But I was antsy and uncomfortable, and the situation was degenerating.

At first, Felicity and Evelyn had swapped theories and suggestions at speed, but as the hour wore on, they slowed down, retreating more and more to their own ends of the table. It wasn’t a resumption of hostilities; that we could have dealt with. It was something far worse, something I couldn’t help — they were running up against a brick wall, running out of ideas, running on empty. Two mages with their heads together, if only in metaphor, were not enough for this spell. Evelyn grew grumpy and monosyllabic. Felicity went quiet and timid. I felt trapped.

The fade stone didn’t help. The lump of white quartz sat at Evee’s elbow while she worked. I kept looking at the thing to check it hadn’t moved. Every now and again I replayed my memory of the last few moments, trying to locate Evee and see if I could recall exactly where she’d been. Deep down, I was a little sore at her earlier deception. I ached to talk with her about that, but now wasn’t the time. Now was the time for mages to do magic, no matter how much I wanted to bend her ear about tricking me.

After an hour, I decided it was probably safe to excuse myself; the strange truce between Evelyn and Felicity had developed into a professional understanding, but now it was dormant, hibernating. They were clearly getting nowhere and it didn’t take a mage to see that.

“I’m just going to head upstairs and check on … people,” I said, clearing my throat as I stood.

Raine tipped her headphones off her ears. “You okay by yourself?”

I glanced at Aym. She was sitting on the sofa with a comic book spread out across her black-clad knees, watching me in return.

“Yes,” I said. “Aym can follow me if she wants.”

And if you do, I thought, we can have another little chat — without Evee.

Raine nodded and shot me a wink. “I’ll stick around with this lot for now, then. Call if you need me.”

“Safe travels,” said Praem.

“I’m only going upstairs for a bit,” I said. “It’s not like I’m going Outside.”

Aym said nothing. She watched me leave.

As soon as I was out of sight and beyond earshot, a wave of cringing relief crept over me. Standing in the front room, before the stairs, I blew out a big sigh and flexed all my tentacles, rolled my shoulders, and wiggled my arms as if I’d been confined in a straight jacket for several hours. The magical workshop was currently the single most socially awkward situation I’d ever experienced. And it wasn’t going to end any time soon, certainly not by nightfall, not by the way the technical conversation had slowed to a crawl. Evelyn and Felicity were both grinding their minds down to stubs. There was only one thing for it: I needed a social butterfly of infinite grace and lubrication.

I mounted the stairs and made for Kimberly’s bedroom.

The raindrops on the roof tiles had scaled down their pounding fury, the static haze which drowned out thought now reduced to a background plinking on the windows. Wind had returned, churning the clouds over Sharrowford so they no longer dumped weeks worth of rain directly onto the city. I paused by the window to watch. The unnatural quality in the storm had moved on, withdrawn back inside Aym, leaving merely a grey and gloomy day outdoors.

Tenny and Lozzie were busy in their bedroom. Low voices floated into the corridor, voices like one might use to speak to a dog. I think they were fussing over Marmite.

Kimberly’s bedroom door was still wide open near the end of the upstairs corridor, opposite the left-hand L-shaped turn to the empty rooms full of ancient crumbling furniture and boxes of bric-a-brac. As I padded closer I heard the click-click of a computer mouse and the occasional clackety-clack of fingers on a keyboard.

Muuurrrrr.” That was Sevens. “No, the other one, the artist. You have to give her a present before the event will fire.”

“How do you know that?” Kimberly asked. Click-click went her mouse. “Aren’t you … ”

“She’s cute.”

“Yes, she is. I like the cottage-core aesthetic. But that doesn’t answer the question.”

“Game eff-ayy-kuus.”

“Still not an answer.” Kimberly sighed. “But don’t. Please. I don’t actually want to know. Sure, we’ll date the artist lady, then. But I do prefer the goth.”

“You would.”

Kimberly laughed with astonishing awkwardness.

I announced myself with heavier footsteps, a cough, and a little knock on the door frame, but I still managed to make Kimberly jump in her computer chair. Her hands flew up from the keyboard like I’d caught her looking at questionable websites, though the screen was filled with a pixelated farm. She jerked her head around to stare at me, blinking and flushed all of a sudden.


“Hello, hi, yes. It’s only me. Sorry, Kim.”

Seven-Shades-of-Suitably-Supportive was draped over the side of Kim’s chair, long yellow robes trailing down the arm and pooling across the floor like liquid sunlight on melted gold. Kimberly’s elbow actually rested on a fold of those robes. Sevens peered at me around Kim, little black-and-red eyes watching me with knowing intensity.

“It’s alright,” said Kim. “I’m just a bit tense. Um.”

I nodded and then proceeded to stand there like an utter lemon, feeling guilty for interrupting the video game session, but not certain how to proceed. Kimberly swallowed, paralysed by proxy. She was still wearing the clothes she’d slept in, pajama bottoms and all. She looked terribly vulnerable, her auburn hair in need of a wash, her face pale and greasy, something shivering about her frame. Sevens blinked like a large cat, slowly and luxuriously. She was probably fully aware of my sudden dilemma.

“So … ” Kimberly ventured, breathing too hard, speaking stiffer than a wet t-shirt left outdoors in Arctic cold. “So … how’s it going so far? Downstairs, I mean. How is it coming along?”

“Oh,” I said, almost as awkward. “Well. It’s … going.”

Kimberly nodded. “Good. Good to know. That’s … that’s good.”

Kim and I stared at each other for a long moment. Kimberly’s expression told me that she was trying very hard but if this went on much longer then she was going to crawl back into bed and start crying.

“Oh Kim, I am sorry,” I sighed all at once, bulldozing the small talk aside and stepping into the room. “That was a lie. It’s not going great down there. We’ve managed to avoid a thermonuclear exchange, but they’re not getting anywhere with this spell. And I suspect that has nothing to do with a failure to work together, nothing so absurd as that. I think it really is that difficult.”

“Ah,” Kim said. She even managed a tiny smile, though with some difficulty. The authentic Kimberly peered through the awkward shell.

“But you don’t want to hear about magic, I know, I’m sorry.” I stepped a few more paces into the room and peered at the computer screen, then at Sevens. “I really came up here to fetch Sevens. Somebody’s going to have to break that stalemate down there.”

“I’m watching,” Sevens rasped. “Busy.”

“We-we’re not busy,” Kimberly hurried to add. “I can pause the game.” She swivelled back and hit the escape key. A menu obscured the pixel-art farm. “See? Paused. If you need … Sevens.” She glanced at Seven-Shades-of-Petite-Vampire, still a little perturbed.

Sevens clacked her teeth twice. Oddly enough, that did make Kimberly jump. “Aym might come back to bully you again. I’m not going anywhere.”

Kimberly pulled a terribly self-conscious smile, looking anywhere but at me or Sevens.

“That’s very kind of you, Sevens,” I said.

“Kind shmind,” she gurgled. “It’s purpose.”

I raised my eyebrows at that, but Sevens examined something on the computer screen instead, an icon that I think was meant to be a potato. Maybe such things were not for discussion in front of others. I blew out a sigh and surrendered to circumstances. After all, I had other responsibilities too, other things I had promised myself that I would do.

“Kim,” I said — and something in my tone made her flinch. I held up a hand, trying to smile. “It’s okay, you’ve done nothing wrong. I just wanted to ask how you’re feeling, after all that mess earlier.”

Kimberly looked surprised. “Oh. Um.” She shrugged, boney shoulders moving beneath her pajama top. “Normal, I suppose. Talking with Felicity helped.”

“Ah,” I said before I could stop myself.

Kimberly went stiff. “Ah?”

I spread my hands in helpless exasperation. “Felicity is … of unknown quality.”

Kim frowned at me and I deserved it; that was one of the most tortured pieces of phraseological evasion I’d ever uttered. I sighed and rubbed the bridge of my nose.

“I’m sorry to say this,” Kimberly ventured, roused in defence for once, “but that seems hardly fair. Quite judgemental? Don’t you think so?”

“Mmmhmmm!” Sevens agreed.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s just hard to know what to believe about her, considering the things Evelyn has said in the past. And then she uses the whole mess earlier to get in here, and then when you’re in a crisis she manages to get you to talk to her, and her alone. It’s a bit worrying, Kim. That’s all. I didn’t mean she’s low-quality, or some equally weird judgement.”

Sevens said, “You’re so bad at this.”

“Oh, thank you.” I laughed without humour.

Kimberly looked incredibly awkward, like she wanted to curl up inside her pajamas and pretend she wasn’t there. I didn’t blame her. Her eyes strayed back to the computer screen as if longing to dive into the video game again.

“Look, Kim,” I said, “you don’t have to tell anybody else what Aym said to you, or what you and Felicity spoke about. But it’s only right that I let you know about Felicity, in case she—”

“She’s a mage.” Kimberly didn’t look at me. Her voice was thin and tired. “I really don’t need the details.”

Raindrops on the window filled a moment of silence. Sevens bumped her head against Kim’s shoulder, like a cat, then disengaged from the chair and clambered onto the bed, curling up amid the sheets and her yellow robes. I noticed the three hand-rolled cigarettes on Kimberly’s desk.

“No, I suppose you don’t,” I said.

Kimberly smiled without joy. “She understood, though. Between Evelyn and Felicity … maybe mages aren’t … I don’t know.”

“Understood what?” I asked softly.

Kimberly looked up at me at last, eyes sad and exhausted, still ringed with red from crying earlier. She looked very small and frail in her computer chair, something unwell and diseased in her complexion. An episode triggered by Aym. I suddenly wanted to throttle the coal-sprite demon with a tentacle. She’d played the fool and the trickster downstairs, but up here she’d tormented a woman who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. She had no excuse.

“You don’t have to tell me,” I said quickly. “But you should talk to somebody other than Felicity, as well. Maybe one of your friends from the Coven. Or maybe Sevens here.” I winced at that. What a suggestion. “Or Tenny? No, Tenny’s a child, I’m sorry. I’m talking nonsense.”

Kimberly gestured at the bed. “Do you want to sit down?”

Surprised, I nodded, then perched on the end of the bed. Sevens shuffled over and put her head in my lap, suddenly warm as sun-heated fabric. I raked my fingers through her black hair. Kimberly just watched.

“Felicity didn’t say anything bad,” she said after a moment, in a very small voice. “I know you don’t think I’m very good at looking after myself, but I know an abuser when I smell one.”

I winced. “That’s exactly what I’m worried about. You’re easily exploited, Kim.”

“Am I?”

It wasn’t a real question. Kimberly looked so defeated. I said, “We just don’t know if Felicity is what she appears to be.”

“She understood. She knows what it feels like. That’s all we talked about. I wouldn’t mind talking with her more. I’m sorry, Heather, I just can’t bring myself to care what she might have done. I know the sort of things she might have done, she’s a mage. I know, okay? But she made me feel less alone, in a single half-hour conversation.” Kimberly’s voice grew thick with emotion. She had to turn away and pluck a tissue from the box next to the computer. She blew her nose. Sevens reached out and touched her knee with a fold of yellow robe.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “None of us are very good friends to you.”

“Not true,” Kim said from behind the tissue. “Tenny is lovely. But you said it too, she’s a child.”

“You’re not ‘freaked out’ by Tenny?”

Kim shook her head. “No?”

“I just assumed you would be. You want to get away from all this, don’t you?”

Kim blinked at me. “Tenny’s great. She’s healthy and happy. She’s curious and clever and all that other stuff that clever kids are. She’s not … a … a dead body. A magical symbol. A … zombie. A bloody surprise wake-up call from a demon looming over my bed.” Kimberly swallowed hard again, hunching up in her chair.

“I’m sorry that we forgot to warn you, there’s really no excuse. Everybody just forgot this was your morning off.”

Kimberly shrugged. “It’s okay.”

“No, it’s not okay,” I said.

“Whatever you say.”

I straightened up and stopped stroking Sevens’ head. I was only making this worse for Kimberly. “Well, Kim, like I said, you should talk to at least one other person about what Aym said to you, about whatever you talked to Felicity about, just in case—”

“She told me there’s no escape.”

I froze. Kimberly looked at the crumpled tissue in her hands. Sevens went very still in my lap.

Kimberly carried on after a moment’s silence. “Aym, when she appeared over my bed she said, ‘there’s no escape once you’re in’. And I knew exactly what she meant. I was half-asleep and I knew exactly what those words meant. And they went through me.”

“Magic?” I murmured. Kimberly nodded. “Once you’re in the know … ”

“There’s no going back,” Kimberly finished. She said it very matter-of-fact, with a tinge of ironic humour in her tone. “When she perched on my shoulders in front of everybody else, she whispered the same thing, pretty much. Just in more detail. No matter how long I last, the knowledge will always be there. I could make it five years, ten years, twenty years, and it’ll be there, always waiting. You can’t un-know things.”

“You don’t have to be involved,” I said. “Today was my fault, a mistake, nothing more.”

“I’m already involved, just by being alive. There’s always the chance I rationalise something, I take another step forward, because I’m in so deep that I may as well keep going. Because I can never go back.”

“I am in blood stepped in so far, that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go over.”

Kimberly smiled, thin and unhappy, without looking up. “Shakespeare, right?”

Macbeth, yes,” I said.

“Sad play.”

“That’s one way of putting it.”

Kimberly shook her head, still staring at that tissue in her hands, as if the crumpled lines might hide a revelation. “I work in a flower shop, I smoke too much cannabis, and I play video games. That’s my life now. Enduring the knowledge.” She sighed. “I’m greasy and ugly and broken.”

In desperation, I said. “You know Nicole likes you, yes?”

Kimberly looked up in shock, as if I’d just told her that Zheng wanted to kiss her. “The police officer?”

“She’s a private detective now. She quit the police.”

“Still,” Kimberly squeaked.

“Well. Sorry. I was trying to illustrate a point. You’re not a goblin or something, Kim. And it would be okay if you were.”

“Hey,” Sevens gurgled.

“Figure of speech,” I said. “Sorry. My point is that Kim isn’t broken or wrong somehow. Or ugly. Certainly not.”

“Still,” Kimberly repeated. “But thanks, I think?”

“You deserve better,” I said.

Kimberly laughed a very sad laugh. “Better? Better what? What am I even good for, Heather?”

“You don’t have to be good for anything except yourself, Kim. I mean it.”

“I’ve got talent,” she said. Those words were so barren and desolate. “Did you know that? I’ve got magical talent. It’s why the cult used me. Back when you got me out, when I was first free, I avoided thinking about it at all. But recently I’ve been able to understand a little better.”

“Talent? In what way? They had you raising corpses, putting demons in corpses.”

“Procedural talent.” Kimberly sighed sadly. “I think that’s the best way to put it. Most mages are self-taught renaissance types, genius inventors. Everybody wants to be Doctor Frankenstein. The mad scientist making new discoveries. Nobody wants to spend hours fixing a magic circle, figuring out how to fit goal to result, unpicking sigils and welding them back together. Practical results. That’s my talent.”

“And you used that talent to save Praem,” I said. “You put her back in her body that one time.”

“I did.” Kimberly didn’t seem proud or happy about that.

“Did Praem ever thank you?” I asked.

“Mm. She did. Made me dinner.”

“Oh. Was it good?”

“Vegetable curry. Praem’s cooking is always good.”

Raindrops spattered against the window. Kimberly’s computer hummed away below her desk, casting rainbow light up the wall. Sevens purred in my lap, eyes closed as I slowly scratched the back of her neck. And I had no idea what to say, no idea how to help, except to listen. Kimberly was in a position unlike anybody else I knew, lost in trauma and dislocated from her own sense of self, of purpose, of meaning. Maybe Sevens was the right person to speak with her.

“You didn’t make a choice to get involved,” I said eventually. “You can make a choice to not be involved anymore.”

“None of us choose to be born.”

My turn to smile awkwardly. My goodness, Kimberly could be morbid sometimes. I even felt Sevens grimace in my lap. What possible answer could anybody have to that?

“Ow,” said a voice like rusty spoons dragged across bathtub mould. “Ow, ow, ow.”

A twist of black lace rose up from within the cold abandoned nest of blankets on the bed. Aym unfolded as if she’d been hiding under the covers, throwing both stick-like legs over the edge of the bed, grimacing at Kimberly, who was staring back in frozen shock.

“No,” I snapped. “Go away. Aym, leave. Right now!”

“Ow!” Aym said to Kim. “Oh you are just absolutely down there. What is this emo trash?”

Sevens had gone very stiff and very still in my lap, like a cat preparing to pounce. I could feel that her eyes were wide open, fixed on Aym.

“Emo … ?” Kimberly echoed, barely able to form the word.

Aym let out a sigh, which sounded like a broken machine trying to gutter back to life. She gestured with one little hand held flat. “You’re right, nobody gets out of this. Look what happened to your old cultist friends when they tried: minds eaten by a giant eyeball in the sky. You’re still walking about and breathing and pining after women you’re too scared to talk to, so that’s one up for you. But this whining! Really!”

“Aym!” I snapped. My tentacles unfurled behind me, ready to pluck her off the sheets and throw her out of the window. But Sevens grabbed my thigh and squeezed hard. I flinched, confused.

Kimberly was looking Aym up and down, eyes wide, mouth hanging open slightly, as if a live dodo had just appeared in her bedroom.

“You’re … ” she managed.

Aym cupped one of her own ears. “Yeees?”

“You’re just a weird little goth kid.”

Aym blinked once, pole-axed. She paused, cleared her throat, and sat up straight. “And what if I’m a demon?”

“Your voice is horrible,” Kimberly said. “What happened?”

“Excuse me!” Aym whined, a noise like a grinding engine. “Sorry I’m not ASMR-quality! Huh!”

Slowly and deliberately, Kimberly turned away from the lace-and-tar demon on her bed. She picked up one of the hand-rolled cigarettes from her desk, fumbled around for a lighter with a shaking hand, and stuck the roll-up in her mouth while she held the flame to the other end.

“Aym,” I repeated myself. “This is deeply offensive. You—”

Guuurrrrriiieeek,” went Sevens. Aym turned to stare at her. For a moment the two creatures had a tiny stand-off, Sevens intent as a wild cat, Aym curious and slightly confused.

Then Kimberly got her reefer properly lit. She filled her lungs with a deep intake of breath, lowered the smouldering cannabis cigarette — and blew a plume of smoke right into Aym’s face.

“What— I— pfffft—” Aym flapped her hands in front of her face, screwing up her delicate nose and eyes, recoiling in shock.

It was, with the exception of stabbing Twil in the hand, the bravest thing I’d ever seen Kimberly do. And the weirdest.

She didn’t even seem to register what she’d done. After the single plume of — admittedly strong-smelling — smoke, she stubbed out her reefer in the ashtray on her desk, and stood up, looking somewhat shaky but resolved.


“Evelyn and Felicity don’t need peeling apart, or encouraging closer,” she said. “They need a third head. They need a procedural mage.”

“ … are you sure?” I asked. As I spoke, I saw Aym melting back into the nest of blankets in the corner of my eye, muttering about smoke and stench.

Kimberly nodded, then swallowed very hard, then blinked several times, eyes watering. “I’m going to need a hand downstairs though, please, or I’m going to get light-headed and fall over.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Kim Kim Kim Kim! Kim! I love Kimberly. She’s been in the background for so long, but you know what, she’s got a spine too! She’s a mage, or was, under terrible duress, but she’s more than just a target for spooky bullshit. Aym, meanwhile, is a little shit and probably going to get herself in trouble sooner or later. At least Fliss and Evee are working well, for now.

If you want to support Katalepsis and also read a couple of chapters ahead of the public ones, there’s always the patreon! But I’m not linking the patreon this week because it’s almost the end of the month and it’s very unfair to people to pay twice. So, you know, wait ’till the 1st of November if you want to! But in the meantime, thank you all so very much for reading. Couldn’t do this without you readers. I mean it.

You can still:

Vote for Katalepsis on TopWebFiction!

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

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

Next week, more mage nonsense, this time with extra mage. Triple mage threat. Or maybe Kim will just get really high and fall asleep.

loyal to the nightmare of my choice – 18.6

Content Warnings


Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Aym — demonic dissembler, shadow silhouette, ineffable imp — sat in frozen promise across the imitation abyss of the magical workshop, deep in the dregs of storm-light, drenched in the drumming of the rain, and pressed close by the squeezing of an unseen revulsion, as if the house itself was eager to expel this foreign object lodged in our collective flesh.

She had made an implicit offer, if only I would consent to talk alone, about myself.

“Forget me,” I said, staring into that formless darkness. “I’m not interesting.”

“I beg to differ,” Aym purred in a voice like knives dipped in boiling acid. A voice that made my spine shudder. A voice that made Evelyn go stiff, sitting next to me in the dark with my tentacle still wrapped securely around her shoulder and arm and hand. I squeezed that hand; I’m still here, Evee, you’re not by yourself in front of this demon.

I cleared my throat. “But you just mentioned the Eye. I know you did that on purpose, to bait me. I’m not completely naive, not totally inexperienced at this kind of thing. I have bargained with far worse things than you, Aym.” Then, because her hook was firmly through the flesh of my cheek: “What do you know about the Eye?”

“Heather!” Evee hissed through clenched teeth. “She doesn’t know shit!”

Writhing like seaweed in a dead current, oozing darkness like silty mud, Aym smiled.

Almost invisible, a suggestion of widening shadow. Girlish, teasing, full of taboo knowledge and things she shouldn’t know. I blinked twice and suddenly understood, abyssal instinct feeding me hidden layers of reality. Aym wasn’t really smiling; that was only my brain doing its best to process the nonsense data my human senses were picking up. Aym was like a radio broadcast more noise than signal. Part of me wondered what I might see if I dipped my senses down into the abyssal range — but I’d not done that in months. The last time I’d attempted that trick I’d been left insensate for several minutes afterwards. I couldn’t risk that in front of Aym, not when I had to protect Evelyn.

I felt a pull toward her, an urge to get closer, to get a better look at what lay beneath the shadow. But I was anchored to Evee.

“I know a secret,” Aym cooed.

“About the Eye?” The words slipped from between my lips before I could stop myself blundering into her game.

“Mmmmmmhmmmmmm,” she purred, an oversized house cat full of flaky iron rust and carcinogenic gravel. Dark tendrils rose from the shadows on the sofa, their tips kissing in the still, cold air above her head, like she was touching her fingertips together.

“You’re going to tell me that secret.”

I did my best not to phrase it as a question. I even considered slipping my squid-skull mask on before I spoke. But here in the dark, Aym and I were already equals. I needed no true face.

Aym’s smile became a grin, toothy and deep, like a leatherback sea turtle with spikes running down the oesophagus to stop prey escaping the final swallow. “Evee-pie leaves,” she said. “Then we can talk about you, or the Eye, or about Raine making you scream an orgasm into your pillow, or whatever else you want. I’m easy.”

“And then you’ll honour the deal?” I asked. “You’ll give Felicity the rest of the spell?”

“Sure.” A shrug rolled in the shadows. Too many elbows. “Why not?”

“Heather, for fuck’s sake,” Evelyn hissed up at me from the darkness closer at hand, her face a pale white oval in the grey gloom, lit only by the residual bioluminescence from my tentacles — which she couldn’t even see. “This is bait! This is a trap! How can you not see that?! I cannot believe you are entertaining this bullshit!”

“I … I have to try,” I said, listening to that tug in my chest. I ached to get closer to Aym.

Evelyn sighed with explosive frustration. She fumbled with her walking stick for a second, got a proper grip on the bone-wand in her lap, then lifted it to point in the direction of the shadowy mass on the sofa.

Instantly, poor Marmite scrambled backward, out of the firing line. His pneuma-somatic mind may not have understood the subtle nuances of tension and negotiation, but he understood well enough the business end of a weapon. The spider-servitor on the table backed up a few paces too, in a more controlled and practised manner, giving its mistress room to wield terrible violence.

I whipped out a tentacle. Instinct rode me.

A hiss tore up my throat and stopped only because I bit my lips hard enough to draw blood. Sharp pain and the taste of hot iron brought my mind around like I’d been slapped.

“ … Heather?” Evelyn hissed in shock, frozen in my grip.

The moment she had raised her bone-wand toward Aym, I had lashed out with a spare tentacle and caught the wand in coils of smooth, pale muscle, wrapped it around and around to immobilize the wand and Evee’s hand, and then pointed it down at the ground. Despite the useful metaphor, the wand was not a gun; pointing it away from Aym wouldn’t make a lick of difference to Evelyn’s ability to use the thing. But holding her hand tight in the tip of my tentacle stilled her fingers from the necessary movements.

Aym was not the target of my aborted hiss. Evee was.

Horrified and confused, I let go of her arm and hand as gently as I could. “I-I’m sorry, Evee! I didn’t hurt you, did I? I’m sorry … I … I don’t know what came over me.”

Evelyn stared up at me in the gloom, brow furrowed hard, the soft puppy-blue of her eyes swallowed by the static grey. The bone-wand was like a floating skeletal apparition against the darker patch of her skirt and the floor beyond. “No,” she said eventually, hard and cold. “I’m fine, thank you.”

“I’m sorry,” I murmured. “I don’t know why I did that.”

Aym cackled in the dark. She rocked on the sofa, a child having a giggle fit. Pseudopods slapped against each other, making no sound, black mist passing through black mist. “Some ally and friend she is! What did you think you were going to achieve anyway, butter-roll? Were you going to dispel me? John Dee himself couldn’t have come close. Then again, you are so much more than your mother’s daughter. If anybody has to put me in a box, I wouldn’t mind so much if it was you!”

Evelyn snorted derision, gritted her teeth, and pulled her composure tight around her shoulders once more with nothing but a lift of her chin. Even half-blind in the dark, unintentionally undermined by my instincts, and taunted by a demon, Evee was glorious in her imperious posture.

“Heather has counselled me in mercy,” she said. “You should thank her.”

“Oooooh,” Aym cooed, a horrible sound like a crocodile trying to be cutesy. “Good save.”

“Believe what you want,” Evelyn spat. “Heather, don’t speak with Aym alone.”

“I think Heathy-smoots can do whatever she wants,” Aym warbled.

I waited for an extra word from Evee, watching her eyes, begging her to say it; she could collapse all my uncertainty with one little phrase. But it never came. And I didn’t prompt her.

A sensible response stuck in my throat. My hands would have quivered if I’d unclenched my fists or unhooked my arm from around my squid-skull mask. My tentacles itched to reach across the room and peel back that darkness from around Aym. I had told a lie; I knew exactly why I had tried to restrain Evelyn, and why I’d almost hissed in her face when she’d threatened Aym.

Abyssal instinct recognised Aym as something not unlike myself. A kinship across the cold water.

I simply had to look her in the face.

“Evee,” I said, watching Aym. “I’ve debated my own guilt for murder over coffee with the King in Yellow. I don’t think Aym is going to present much challenge to my self-worth or self-doubt.”

At the name of the Yellow King, Aym’s smile died. I felt it go out like a black hole swallowing itself, leaving behind a field of clean stars. A head twisted and kinked in the darkness, peering at me from one angle, then another, drooling black saliva onto the floor. I watched her in return, my eyes moving from point to point on sheer gut feeling.

You want to call my bluff, I thought, but you can’t tell if I’m making that up.

A high-pitched whine eased in on the very edge of my hearing, like a massive television set left on mute in another room. Focused Aym, pressing down on her. Like the house itself was trying to force her out.

Evelyn yanked on the tentacle which I had wrapped around her arm, dragging me downward so she could hiss in my ear. “I am not leaving you alone in here with her. You’ll have to throw me out of the door, Heather! Go on, pick me up and hurl me out there, I’m sure Praem will catch me!”

“I’m serious,” I whispered back. “I don’t think she can hurt me.”

“Why not just rip the information out of her?” Evee demanded in a whisper. Across the room, Aym was still swaying from side to side like a piece of greasy seaweed snagged on a nail. “She’s right there, she’s already hurt Kim, and now she’s trying to mess with our heads. You said you can do it, were you bluffing?”

I didn’t answer. I just watched Aym.

Truth was, I probably could do what Evee suggested, but I simply didn’t want to. A very important part of my soul did not want to hurt Aym, at least not in that way. I would restrain her from assaulting my friends if need be, but the idea of doing permanent damage, of vivisecting her with brain-math to pull out the wet and dripping morsels from her mind, that was now unthinkable.

What I wanted to do was reach across the room and peel back her camouflage. The urge was a physical thing, a twitching in my gut. Not quite hunger, and certainly nothing sexual. A new form of need. A burning need to know, to observe truth, unimpeded by appearance.

“Thaaaaaat,” Aym purred at last, “wasn’t true. Was it? Coffee with the king. A king. A yellow monarch. No, just a book.”

Silently I dared her to push deeper. Technically I had lied: I had never sipped from the coffee the King had offered me. But Aym didn’t know that.

Evelyn, however, snorted in grim amusement. “That’s what I thought. Just a book.”

“What,” Aym deadpanned.

Evelyn’s own exasperation at the mere existence of Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight, and indeed the entire Yellow Court, was about to give the game away and ruin my advantage. I jumped in with both feet, in panic, with the first thing that came to mind.

“If we say that we have no sin,” I recited off the top of my head, straightening my back, certain I was going to get the words wrong, “we deceive ourselves, and there is no truth in us. Why then, belike, we must sin, and consequently die. Ay, we must die an everlasting death.”

Aym and Evee both went silent for a heartbeat. Raindrops drummed on the roof and the windows. Somewhere in the distance, thunder rumbled.

“Well,” Evelyn sighed, “I don’t recognise that one.”

Aym lit up like a Christmas Tree made of frozen asphalt. “Ahhhhhhhhhhh! She knows her roots!”

“I have read Doctor Faustus, yes,” I said. “And Aym, really, you’re no Mephistopheles.”

“Confident you’re free of sin?” she asked.

“Confident I’m not.”

Aym cackled. She seemed to get the point. Evelyn was shaking her head, exasperated beyond words. Probably feeling left out.

I pressed the advantage, following that abyssal urge down in my gut. “Tell me what you are, Aym. What you really are. Then Evee will leave the room, and we’ll talk about whatever you want.”

Evelyn exploded. She actually slapped my tentacle, though not hard enough to hurt. “I bloody well will not! You’ll have to crowbar me out of this chair, I—”


Aym made a sound of such utter disgust, more lizard than human. Evelyn flinched and I whirled all my tentacles up in a protective cage around her.

The shadow on the sofa had gone still, all except for a ragged, rough, shallow breathing.

“ … Aym?”

“You people,” she purred, dark and wet and full of scorn. “You love your definitions so much. You love them more than the world. Your limits. Your carefully demarcated edges. Your words and numbers and things on pages. It’s what mages and wizards and the like have been doing for thousands of years. Writing things down in dusty books. Cataloguing, describing, defining. Everything has to have a name, a type, a label. And when it exceeds those labels, you all go ‘oh, this can’t possibly be true, this can’t be right, wah wah wahhhhhh’.” Aym huffed, a petulant teenage girl turning down a gift that wasn’t quite expensive enough. “And then you write new definitions, new limits, new types. All of them just as wrong as before.”

Silence reigned for a moment, filled by the storm outdoors. The shadow on the sofa had turned dense and sulky. Evelyn’s palm had gone sweaty and cold on my tentacle. I squeezed gently. She didn’t squeeze back.

Eventually I asked, “Where are you going with this, Aym?”

“Huh. Your ancestors were smarter. They understood that a saint’s finger bone could be in more than one place at the same time. Do you? No, of course you don’t. The scientific method is only a method. Maybe you need a different method for something like me.”

“Well,” I said, “what are you, then?”

Aym reared up, all dark suggestion lost in the grey gloom. I had the distinct impression she was standing on the sofa cushions. “There you go again! With the same thing!”

“It’s not the same thing at all,” I said, doing my best to hold my ground and keep my voice steady before this screeching apparition. “I’m asking you for self-definition. I’m not going to test it, or debate it, or write it down. I want to know what you consider yourself to be.”

The smile crept back at last, a slash in the dark. A forked tongue flickered out to taste the air. “I prefer not to say.”

“She’s just a demon,” Evelyn grunted. “She likes to put on a show, that’s all. Why does this even matter?”

“It doesn’t,” Aym purred. “Listen to her, Heather. My sweet little raspberry crumble gets it.”

I couldn’t answer either of them. Aym writhed in delighted irritation. Evelyn stared up at me from her chair, fuming in the grey gloom.

“Aym,” I said after a moment, trying to relocate my footing. “You want a private conversation, about the Eye.”

Evelyn spoke through gritted teeth. “I am not leaving this room.”

“Then there’s no deal,” Aym cooed. “I’ll just take my leave, shall I? Be off then, toodle-pip!”

I leaned down toward Evee, speaking for her ears only, though I suspected Aym would hear every word even if I only thought them. “Evee, please,” I whispered. “I will be completely safe. There’s nothing she can touch me with, not after everything lately. What’s she going to do, taunt me about having power? About how I might fail? About what? She can’t touch me.”

Evelyn’s face was a grey mask, lips thinned, eyes boring through my skull.

“If you want me to leave,” she said through her teeth, “you will have to remove me yourself. And we both know you won’t do that.”

Aym let out a dark giggle. “It’s for your own good, butterscotch biscuit. Some things about gods aren’t meant for human ears.”

Those words only acted as more bait. My skin itched, my feet wouldn’t stay still; I had to know. I wet my lips, trying to bring these two together in some agreement, something that would let me square this circle. “What if Evee stays?”

“Then I,” said Aym, “go.”

And so she did.

The shadow on the sofa stopped moving, becoming one with the grey background of cushions and curtains. In a moment of optical illusion it was possible to convince oneself that Aym was still sitting there, inhabiting the angles of shadow on cloth, the disturbed fabric of the furniture, the imaginary ghost-shapes of shadows upon waking. But then I moved my head and realised there was nothing there.

The high-pitched whine had vanished as well. The pressure in the room seemed lighter. My gut and my tentacles both relaxed.

“Oh,” I sighed. “There goes our chance.”

“Bugger it all!” Evelyn spat, stamping her walking stick against the floor. She slapped at her mobile phone on the table, cancelling the twenty minute timer and jamming the phone back into her pocket. “Heather, she was trying to entrap you! You saw that, you heard every word of it!”

“Evee, please.” I squeezed her arm gently with my tentacle. “I think that was the whole point. You were the one falling into her trap, not me.”

Evelyn opened her mouth to snap at me again, but then she paused, scowling. “Explain.”

“She knew full well you wouldn’t leave me alone with her. So she engineered a situation where you had to override my wishes. She’s laying the groundwork for tormenting you later, I suspect, by making you take responsibility for me failing to get what we need from her. Does that make sense? Maybe I’m just projecting, but I think that’s what she’s doing. And … well … I was trying not to give away that I suspected.” I sighed heavily. “I probably should have just said it out loud. I’m sorry. I’m not actually very good at this, am I?”

Evelyn stared up at me, brow knitting harder and harder. The rain drummed on the roof and the windows, turning Number 12 Barnslow Drive into a resonant cave. The grey gloom seemed now to swaddle us in safety. I wanted to melt down onto the floor next to Evee and put my head in her lap.

“I don’t agree,” she said eventually. “But you may be right. Fair enough.”

I let out a weak laugh. “You trust me but you don’t trust my judgement.”

“Don’t be a fool, Heather. I trust you with my life.” She said it so matter-of-fact that I couldn’t possibly remain angry with her, but she looked away quickly, back into the comforting darkness of the magical workshop with the lights off. With Aym here the room had felt abyssal and strange, a piece of fairie-magic transported to the heart of Sharrowford. But now it was just our home, in the dark. “Besides, she’s probably still here.”

“Maybe she’s a fairy,” I murmured.

“What?” Evelyn squinted up at me.

“Nothing. Forget I said that. Just a silly thought.” I blushed faintly in the dark. “If she really is still here, then she’s probably overheard every word I’ve just said.” I cast my eyes around the room too, looking for a tell-tale patch of darker shadow, a dripping blackness out of place, a slasher’s smile in the night. “By speaking her plan out loud, I’ve already disarmed it. I hope.”

Evelyn snorted and shook her head, but her heart wasn’t in the gesture. “Better at this than you think, Heather. No wonder everybody believes in you. You’re always so right and—”

Bleeeergh,” came a voice of razorblades and acid, imitating being sick, from the far end of the workshop table.

I whipped around, tentacles whirling in surprise, then shooting outward to protect Evee. Evelyn flinched hard, despite doing her best to hide her reaction, then turned in her seat so she wasn’t showing her back toward Aym. The spider-servitor on the table scuttled around in a little circle, bringing its stinging spikes to bear, each glistening point quivering in readiness to strike. The other spider-servitor, clinging to the wall over the gate, looked ready to unfold like a toxin-tipped spring, only a few feet away from where Aym now sat.

A writhing shadow of grey and black, indistinct and hazy, perched on the very end of the table. A number of what might have been legs dangled over the side, melting into shadow as they swung back and forth, like a child whose feet didn’t reach the floor. The shadow curved, curled, cracked and coiled, then lowered a hand from the suggestion of a mouth.

“Bleh,” Aym repeated. “You two are disgusting. Old people in love are disgusting. Don’t start making out in front of me, I’ll be sick all over your floor.”

I blessed the darkness, for it hid my rising blush. I opened my mouth on a reflexive denial. “W-what? Lo—”

“Old?” Evelyn spat. “I am twenty one years old, you rotten cow. You are infinitely older than me.”

“You were born at forty,” Aym purred. “Face it, strawberry tart.”

“Aym!” I snapped on reflex. “All this negotiating and playing games with us and vanishing in a puff of shadow like you’re a pixie, that’s one thing. But do not insult Evelyn. It’s extremely rude.”

Aym laughed, a bubbly, wet, rotten sound, like her throat was stuffed with decaying cardboard.

The shadows seemed to be pressing around her, tight and grasping. That high-pitched whine had returned to the edge of my senses, focused on the figure of the demon sitting at the end of the table, but not originating from her. I felt myself involuntarily inch forward, as if I might grab her and pluck her from her seat. My tentacles itched, drifting outward like a muscular, living net in the darkness, their faint rainbow strobing soaked up by the gloom and returned as mere shades of black. I felt like a hand was on my back, urging me forward.

The house itself wanted her gone, and I wanted to catch her like a spider under a glass — not to hurt her, but just to look. Once I was done, we could throw her outdoors, back into her natural environment.

“You know,” said Aym — and then went still, grey, an empty space of shadows.

Then her voice came from behind me again, from where she’d sat originally, back on the sofa, hissing with sudden irritation: “Tch! Do not make me repeat myself, it’s so boorish. Shooing Evee out is for her own good. I won’t talk to you otherwise, Heather. And stop trying to catch me! Don’t assume that because it’s dark I can’t see you trying.”

Evelyn and I both turned back to the sofa again. The spider-servitor whirled as well, looking quite harried by this absurd back-and-forth. Aym was back on the sofa, a shadow-shape of suggestion and suspicion. I had the distinct impression she was sitting up very straight-backed, almost formal. A forked tongue flicked at the air, licked things that were not lips, and then darted back behind far too many teeth.

Evelyn snapped, “Stay still or I’ll have Praem tie you to a chair.”

“Oooooh,” Aym mocked. “Scary scary!”

But I was shaking my head in wonder, refusing to be misdirected by her words. “You’re more like Sevens than a demon. You’re a spirit-thing, but there is a physical body under there. I can sense it, I can feel it. How did you know I was going to grab you?”

Evelyn sighed. “Heather, for fucks’ sake, it doesn’t matter. This is over. She won’t talk and I won’t leave. We can do this some other way. Either you pluck it from her mind, or I … ” I felt Evelyn swallow and stiffen, felt the cold sweat break out beneath her clothes. “Or I work with Felicity to solve the problem the old-fashioned way, research and experimentation. Fuck Aym. We’ll do it ourselves.”

I waited a heartbeat, but Evelyn did not add the words I expected. So I leaned down close, close enough for my breath to touch her ear.

“I don’t know if Maisie has the time to spare. And I think I can take Aym. But if you … if you insist?”

I let the word sink in the gloom. Evelyn opened her mouth, closed it again, opened it a second time, then gritted her teeth and said nothing.

Slowly, reluctantly, Evelyn stood up from her chair. She used me for support and I gave it freely, taking half her weight as she stared daggers at Aym across the room. Shadow-fingers undulated in a mocking wave.

“Bu-bye for now, blackberry jam,” Aym giggled.

“If you hurt Heather, I will hunt you down, kill you, and then re-summon you to posses a septic tank on a pig farm.”

Aym grinned in the dark. I helped Evelyn over to the door. She whispered in my ear.

“You be fucking careful, Heather.”

“I promise. I will.”

When I opened the door to the kitchen the magical workshop was flooded with lighter grey, storm-born illumination chasing back the darkness. I couldn’t resist a glance back over my shoulder, but the shadow was gone, Aym melted away into nothing in the clarity of sunlight, no matter how weak. Only lumpy sofa cushions remained.

Evelyn called for Praem. We weren’t going to let her walk alone from here to the old sitting room. Even that was too much risk with Aym lurking about. Praem appeared a few moments later, clicking across the kitchen tiles, with Raine dogging her heels.

“Hey hey,” said Raine, tense and ready, but trying to smile. “We done already? Quicker than I thought you’d be. Everybody in one piece?”

Evelyn snorted derision, letting Praem take her arm as I handed her off. “Far from it. Heather is going to talk to Aym, alone.”

Raine’s eyebrows shot upward. She found my eyes and asked, “You gonna be okay?”

Just like that. No assumption that I wasn’t. No horrified warning. No fear. A genuine question, simply asking if I needed help. I wanted to melt into her arms and kiss her. Raine was perfect.

“I think so,” I said.

Raine nodded, once. “Shout and I’ll be there in a flash.”

I smiled back. “I know you will. Love you, Raine.”

“Love you too, Miss Morell.”

Just before I started to close the door to the magical workshop, Marmite scuttled out around my legs, eager to be away from Aym. His spider-friends did not follow, but Praem greeted him with gentle hand on a passing tentacle. He made for the front room, moving fast.

Praem turned her head to me. Blank, milky eyes locked with mine, fixing me in place. “Say hello from me,” she said.

“Of course,” I replied, as if we were discussing a pleasant social visit to a friend, with tea and scones, rather than a negotiation with something dark and horrible, coiled in on itself like a giant snake, that I couldn’t even identify.

I closed the door on my friends — on Raine’s jaunty thumbs-up, Praem’s blank and elegant stare, and Evelyn’s pinched scowl — and plunged myself back into the sucking pit of static gloom. Footsteps clicked and shuffled and stomped away from the other side of the door, across the kitchen, and into the front room. A moment later I could hear nothing over the incessant drumming of the storm. I pressed a hand to the cool, smooth wood of the door, readying myself, then let go, casting off into the abyss.

Aym was waiting for me on the sofa.

She made no pretence of humanoid form now. A gelatinous mass of shadow squatted on the sofa, impossible to render into details even if I squinted. Octopus-bodied, frog-fleshed, seaweed and salt and sinuous motion, she seemed more abyssal than terrestrial now. More recognisable. More like me. My instincts sang with kinship.

Just us now, no human beings to worry about protecting. I felt less human myself. I even forgot to relate Praem’s greeting.

“Aym,” I murmured, stepping into the middle of the room, my tentacles floating after me. “Aym, what are you? No, no don’t answer, I know you won’t. But I already know. You’re like me, aren’t you? You’ve seen the abyss. That’s what I call it, the deep dark place between the spheres. I can feel—”

“You’re going to die.”

Aym said it with a sound like ramming a serrated sword through a suit of rusty chain-mail. I think that meant she was angry.

“I’m sorry for undercutting the drama,” I said, “but is that meant to be a threat?”

Aym sighed like a terminal tuberculosis patient in her final moments. “Why don’t we level with each other, Heather? Now it’s just you and I, can’t we drop all the pretences?”

“We already have, haven’t we? You are what you are, I am what I am. Here we are.” I swallowed, heart racing with anticipation, legs itching to move.

Aym sat up straighter, or at least higher. “The Eye.”

“Yes, the Eye, indeed, what do you know?” Then I laughed softly. “Does it even matter?”

“Less than you.”

“So you were lying after all. You don’t know any secrets about it.”

“Neither do you, squid-brains. And you haven’t been paying attention. You’ve been trying to apply the scientific method to the Eye. Like a moron. Building all these models with metaphors — a lost chick, a cuckoo, a protege. An angel!” She laughed at that one, a hissing sound. “That one might have something to it, I admit. But you’re going too slowly. You’re going to visit Wonderland — what a shitty, stupid name for a place like that — with a head full of theories and figures, and the Eye is going to kill you.”

“I’ve accepted that danger. I know what we’re going to be facing. It’s still worth the risk.”

“It’s not a risk!” she hissed. Aym rose even higher, an octopus rearing up, ready to crack the shell of a crab with her beak. “This isn’t hyperbole, or a prediction. It’s a fact! You’re going to die. All your friends are going to die. Your sister will wither away and fade into nothing.”

“It’s still worth a shot,” I said. “Is this meant to make me sad, Aym? I’ve felt these things my whole life.”

“What are you going to do, huh?” Aym leaned forward and suddenly she seemed like a giant, pressing down on me. A teacher, demanding a real answer, not just a bluff and a shrug. A parent demanding an explanation. Reality itself, material and undeniable, demanding an answer with steel upon flesh. “I mean what are you actually, physically, practically going to do? Shout at it? Reach up and stab it with the universe’s largest broken bottle? Raine’s idea, that one, by the way; at least she had something! None of that makes sense, and you know it. But you’ve spent months avoiding this, because it’s the only method you’ve got!”

A lump grew in my throat. “That’s not true.”

“Then what is your plan?”

“I’m going to reach out to it with brain-math. I’m going to try to pull Maisie out. That’s what I’m going to do.”

“Tch!” Aym hissed. “So, fight it. A tug of war for a soul. That’s your answer. Waste of thought.”

“Why do you care?”

“Evee will die.”

No shame, no hesitation, no secret blushing embarrassment. With her and I, alone in the dark, Aym did not balk from the truth.

“You care about Evelyn?” I asked.

Aym sank back into the sofa cushions, lolling, spreading out, glaring at me from shadows within shadows. “If you come back from your stupid quest and everybody except Evee dies, fine. Who gives a fuck? Magicians, demons, idiots. But if you make it back and she’s the only one lost, I will eat you piece by piece. And I will keep you alive while I do it.”

My tentacles flared outward in silent warning. Faint rainbow glow threatened to reveal Aym’s truth, but the shadows refused to take form. “I don’t think you could achieve that, Aym. I don’t think you understand what I am.”

“You don’t understand what I am,” purred a thing in the dark.

I nodded and sighed, then nodded again. “Fair enough. I don’t understand why you care, either. If it helps, if it matters … I would protect Evee from anything, under any circumstances. To be honest, I don’t even think she should be coming to Wonderland. Nobody but me should be going.”

Aym coiled and writhed on the sofa for a moment, then said, “If I give Felicity this key, you’re going to get Evee killed. As soon as I give you this spell, you’ll go get that book, and then you’re there. And all dead.”

“I won’t let Evee get hurt.”

“You mages will go fight other mages, because you’re like that. Like animals. Territorial and violent. And then you’ll get your special little book and sweet Evee will finish her spell, and then you’ll open a gateway to Wonderland, where you will all — fucking — die.”

“I would sacrifice myself first.”

As I said the words, I realised they were true.

“Would you?” Aym laughed. “I’m talking with Heather Morell right now. But down there in the dark, you don’t have a name.”

“You do know the abyss!” I said. “You’ve been there, you understand.”

“And you understand nothing.”

As I stared across the static grey gloom of the magical workshop, locking eyes with something that had only dark pits where sockets should have been, I accepted that this was not really a negotiation at all. Aym had indeed dropped the pretences she’d used in front of Evelyn.

Her entire reason for coming down here was this private conversation. This confrontation, with me. Perhaps she had planned it from the beginning, but more likely her goals had changed once she’d gotten here. Perhaps the attack on Kimberly had been part of that, to provoke me into reaction, to see if I would leap to the defence of somebody who wasn’t even particularly close to me.

Aym was judging me. She wanted to know if I was leading Evee to her death. And she didn’t like what she saw so far.

“You’re right,” I said. “When I dived into the abyss, I forgot my own name. But I didn’t forget Evee’s.”

Aym said nothing, just floating in a gentle current of cold rain.

“Evee, Raine, Twil, Lozzie, Zheng,” I said their names. “Tenny was only a spirit back then. I didn’t know Sevens yet. But everyone I knew, I sealed their names inside a pressurised bubble of … well, it couldn’t be flesh. But I kept them in my core. It’s what drew me back, buoyed me back to the surface. I will always remember the names of my friends, my family, those I’ve chosen to be with. I don’t care what I’m reduced to. Even the version of myself which returned from the abyss, it knows — I know — that Evelyn Saye is part of my pack. Sorry Aym, you’re wrong.”

Aym sighed, dry rubber down a cheese grater. “Lucky you.”

“Luck has nothing to do with it.”

I felt myself edging forwards, toward Aym, creeping across the wooden floorboards on the silent pads of my socks and the supporting curves of a pair of tentacles. Achingly slow, like a cephalopod drifting in dead water, easing myself closer and closer to my target. Tentacles uncoiled from my core, inch by slow inch. An unconscious predatory advance.

“She was fine,” Aym drawled, her rusty-razor voice tinged with bitter melancholy. Teeth moved in several places on her blob-like body. “She was safe with Raine. She was safe, and alive, and away from her rotten cradle. She was safe, Heather. Maybe not loved, but close enough. You’ve ruined that.”

“It’s not enough to be safe,” I murmured into the dark, watching the tendrils of Aym’s black form coalesce and melt against the cushions of the sofa. “One has to live.”

Aym hissed, sinking lower, as if she knew I was about to spring. Her attention was turning inward, away from me. I crept closer, sliding my sock-clad feet along the floor.

“I forgot somebody once,” she said, voice reduced to a cold stub. “We went down together. He forgot my name, and I forgot his. I came back alone.”

“Me too,” I said.

I lifted one tentacle in silent, quivering anticipation, a perfect curve of serpentine muscle, poised to strike. Within leaping distance now, and then I would have her. My heart climbed into my mouth, the tentacles supporting my legs went tense. I wet my lips and—

“Ha!” Aym spat — from the other side of the room.

The shape left on the sofa in front of me was mere shadow, wrought by imagination. I whirled on the spot, tentacles whipping after me, to find Aym standing at the far end of the magical workshop, a dainty little figure of black and grey haze, framed by the outline of the gateway to Camelot, blank plaster and old paint.

The spider-servitor on self-appointed gate-guard duty did not approve of this trick, this travelling without moving. A pair of spike-tipped stingers lanced downward to spear through the top of Aym’s head.

“No!” I snapped, flinching forward, about to hurl myself to knock Aym out of the way.

But the spider-servitor’s chitin weapons passed through smoke and shadow and gouged chips of wood out of the floorboards. Recoiling in confusion, the poor servitor almost lost its grip on the wall, head whirring around for the new location of its original target.

“Hoooooo,” went Aym, now tucked neatly into the far corner like a cobweb. “Spicy, spicy doggy!”

“It almost had you,” I said, panting with mixed relief and shock. Had she moved again fast enough to avoid the attack, or had the spider’s weapons passed through her body and found it no more substantial than a cloud of oil? “Aym, what are you? How do you move like that?”

“Hell hath no limits,” Aym purred, clicking her syllables with a wet tongue, “nor is cicumscrib’d in one self place.”

I finished the quote for her: “But where we are is hell, and where hell is, there must we ever be.” I shook my head. “More Faustus. You do enjoy your literary metaphors.”

A grin spread in the dark. “So do you. Now you’re getting it.”

“Getting what?”

Aym waited in that corner, still and silent, too thin to be a person, too hazy to be real. Bait.

I stepped away from the sofa, trying to pay attention to how my weight was balanced. There was no way I could round the corner of the table without her seeing what I was doing. I could leap, I supposed, springing with the power of my tentacles — but this was becoming embarrassing. Instinct thrummed hot and huge in the back of my head, urging me to catch her and peer through the shadows up close, so I could identify her.

I pushed it down. I forced a deep breath into my lungs. I drew my tentacles back in. I could not catch her over there, not without making a fool of myself.

It wasn’t as if I would be able to catch her when she was hiding from all this light, either.

I sighed and crossed over to the door which led out to the kitchen. Why had I left it open earlier, when Evee had gone? It was ajar just enough for a person to pass through, flooding the magical workshop with the lighter grey storm-washed sunlight from the kitchen windows. Aym was reduced to little more than a memory in the corner.

I shut the door and placed my hand against it for a moment, once more sealed in the abyssal darkness, alone together with Aym.

Then I frowned.

“Wait,” I murmured out loud. “Wait, I did close—”

“Feeling ill, squid-brains?” Aym cooed.

Slowly I turned and looked at the corner again, at Aym gathered there like oil-soaked rags floating in a marine trench.

Had she done something to me just now? Everything felt dislocated, like I’d just jumped back a minute. Or forward? Time didn’t add up. But abyssal instinct was silent, unbothered, completely focused on the desire to pluck Aym from her protective shadows.

No, that made no sense. I was just confused.

I had seen nothing.

“Aym,” I said, trying not to sound like my heart was going at high speed. “I never got to thank you for your help against the Eye. You went into the cult’s safe-house for us. You got hurt, for us. I gathered from Felicity that you were injured somehow. I saw you, in fact, if only for a moment. Thank you.”

I took a step forward, openly.

Aym snorted and tossed something that might have been a head, or might have been a pair of crocodile jaws, wrought in shadow. “If I had known, maybe I wouldn’t have gone in. Your big friend really sees everything. I don’t like that, not at all.”

“The Eye?” I nodded — and took another step, making for the corner of the table, making for Aym. “I suppose you wouldn’t.”

“You’re the same.”

“You mean I’m becoming like the Eye?” A shiver went up my spine; I already knew that. Out in the dream-landscape where Lozzie and I had freed badger, I’d stared back at the Eye with what little observation I could muster. A raindrop against the ocean, but both were water.

I took another step.

“And just as trammelled,” Aym said.

I froze. “ … pardon me?”

“You heard me, squid-bones.”

I turned that over in my mind. Aym was being cryptic. This was like Sevens, but without any affection or showmanship behind the display. Aym was just being difficult for the sheer fun of it. I stepped past the chair which Evee had been sitting in earlier, reached the table, and placed my squid-skull mask gently on the wood.

“What do you suggest, then?” I said.

“Eh?” The shadow-shape in the corner twisted something long and dripping at me.

I slid another step closer, along the length of the table.

“Against the Eye. You’re worried that I’m going to get Evee killed because I don’t know what I’m doing. So what do you suggest?”

A moment of silence and shadow.

Then Aym screeched. “I don’t fucking know! I don’t know! I’m not its adopted daughter! Think like a giant eyeball in the sky, Heather! Stop trying to figure it out, or it’s going to kill all of you by looking back!”

I pushed into the face of Aym’s ire, walking right toward her.

The shadows folded away to nothing.

I caught myself on the edge of the table, tentacles hooking, grasping, bunching as my feet kicked for purchase and I turned on the spot, spinning and scrambling in the other direction, shooting back toward the sofa before the shadows had a moment to wrap themselves around Aym’s materialising form.

But materialise she did, right there on the sofa, already snapping with irritation.

“Stop thinking like one of them, Heather! Think like one of us!” And then, “Eeeeeep!” as I landed on top of her.

I plunged two tentacles deep into the shadows where Aym was hiding, gripping whatever I could. My flesh tightened around cold slime and ridged scales, around bulging sacs of fluid and dripping orifices. I gritted my teeth and forced myself not to flinch. Rainbow bioluminescence glinted off chitin and scale, slime and salt. Aym kicked and hissed and writhed and bit the air and flailed against the cushions, but all was insubstantial, nothingness on grey gloom.

And when my grip was secure, when Aym was held not with terrestrial flesh but by the pneuma-somatic truth of my body, I reached back behind me with a third tentacle, and hit the lights.

Dull electric illumination guttered back to life, as if smothered by the gloom and drowned out by the storm. Shadows rolled up and scurried behind the furniture. I blinked against the sudden light, a deep-ocean creature dredged to the surface. The shape in front of me snapped into focus, grey haze blown away like mist in the morning sun.

I recoiled, gaping, mortified at what I was holding. I had one tentacle wrapped around a throat, another looped around a belly, both very human.

She was just a girl.

Aym was tiny. Dainty and delicate. A sprite dipped in coal dust.

Dressed from toes to chin in black, she wore thick black socks, shapeless woollen black leggings, a black dress of overlapping layers and intricate lace that reached down past her knees and right to her wrists and up past her throat, cupping her chin with a soft curl. She had long black hair, clean but messy, framing a face of pinched sharpness, all angles and planes. Her eyes were human, with pupils and irises and whites with little veins, but tilted at a fey and inhuman angle. Eyes just a touch too wide. Nose a fraction too sharp. Ears a notch too high. Neck a few inches too long. Something imitating a human being but revelling in the small differences, impossible to ignore. She was maybe thirteen years old, but I didn’t believe what I saw.

I still felt terrible. I felt so bad I hiccuped.

“I’m … I-I’m sorry,” I blurted out, loosening my grip on her throat. “I didn’t know … I thought you were … like … you convinced me that you weren’t remotely human!”

Aym swallowed as her throat was given space. She looked up at me with heavy-lidded eyes, then smiled with a mouth full of blunt, normal human teeth. Smugging for all she was worth.

“Couldn’t resist, could you?” she purred — her voice was still a nightmare, a jarring scratch of knives down a blackboard. “It’s in your nature. You want to look, to see, to know.”

I sighed sharply, blushing hard, then hiccuped again. “I’m sorry for grabbing you. I … I’m sorry for invading your personal space. I thought you were … I don’t know. Like me.”

“But you did it anyway,” she said. “And then you blame me for being the wrong thing. The thing you didn’t expect. Too mundane. Too boring. Oh no! Oh dear!” She raised her hands and cupped her face, a mocking pantomime of innocence. “I’ll have to play it up so you don’t strangle me to death!”

Shorn of her shadows, Aym had the most annoying expressions I’d ever seen. She managed to remain smug while also oozing with fake simpering. Her voice pitched higher, whining, then dissolved into a wet and rotting giggle.

I made to withdraw my tentacles, ashamed of myself, confused by the lack of something I recognised. Abyssal instinct had gone quiet as soon as the lights had come up. The ‘real’ Aym was just a girl. Demon or not, Outsider or not, this was her true form, and it was just what I saw. I was certain of that.

“Nooooo!” she whined, suddenly grabbing the tentacle I had looped around her belly. “I said I’ll play it up for you. I can be whatever you want, after all.”

“Aym, stop.” I huffed and pulled on my tentacle, but she dug her fingertips in, grinning wider. “I’m sorry I invaded your personal space. I was wrong. I thought you were like me, like—”

“But you found the wrong thing when you looked too closely?”

“Yes! I’m sorry! Let me—”

Aym reared up in my grip — and up, and up, and up.

Black hair thickening and whipping into dark and ropey tentacles. Face dissolving into a mass of teeth, a circular maw, with eyes the size of tennis balls. Her dress became ridged scales and the rasp of shark-skin. Shadows pulsed out from her like membranes in sluggish current. Feelers and roots grasped the sofa and more of them grasped my tentacles. She drooled black, sticky, hissing venom right before my face.

Are you sure about that?” Aym giggled. “I’m only small, after all!

Abyssal instinct lit up in triumph; she was like me.

And then she was a girl again, sitting on the sofa, grinning at me like a mad little pixie who had lured me into a ring of mushrooms.

I stood there for a long moment, panting and shaking, covered in sudden flash-sweat.

“ … was that … ” I cleared my throat and tried again. “Was that the real you? You must be from the abyss, you weren’t even surprised by my tentacles when you first saw them. You must be.”

Aym tilted her head sideways and gave me a look like I was being exceptionally slow. “Stop asking.”

I shook my head and pulled my tentacles away. This time, Aym let me go.

“You just couldn’t resist a look,” she said. “But did it help? Do you understand more, now?”

“ … no, I suppose it didn’t, b-but—”

Aym smiled, showing neat little white teeth. “And I’m only very small. The Eye is so much bigger.”

I took another step back and realised I was smiling like a moron, trying to get my head around what I was looking at. Aym had been to the abyss, she was like me; I was dying to ask her so many questions, but my mind finally pulled together and started to process her actual words.

Logically, I could deduce what Aym was. She had begun as mortal, or perhaps Outsider, and then swum the abyss, like me. Had she been a mage, like Ooran Juh, or something else? I almost asked out loud — but that would just set her off again. I might be able to define what she was, technically, but that told me nothing about her.

On reflex, abyssal instinct stirred my senses, preparing to see with new eyes.

“Ah!” Aym shot up straight on the sofa, suddenly angry, little face pinched and blazing. “No!”

“N-no?” I blinked, shocked out of the process of dipping into abyssal senses.

“No! You do that, and I’m gone, I’m out, no bluffing. Turning the lights on, that’s all part of the game. But looking like your big Eye does? No way. Stop.”

I took a deep breath, quite deflated by that. “You mean … wait, Aym, then how am I supposed to understand the Eye, if not by looking at it?” I sighed and shook my head. “This is getting too lost in metaphor.”

“I told you,” Aym purred. “I don’t know. But looking is what the Eye does.”

I opened my mouth to sigh again, then froze, and said slowly, “And looking isn’t understanding.”

Aym smiled, a nasty little pixie all in black. “Stand still, you ever-moving spheres of Heaven.”

“Huh!” I laughed without humour. “Another quote, wonderful. Irritating me with my own techniques. How am I meant to approach an ever-moving sphere of Heaven, then, if I can’t make it stand still?”

Aym shrugged. “That’s your problem.”

“Raine was right about you,” I muttered.

Aym lit up. “Rainey? Really? What did she have to say about me? Something violent, I hope!”

“That you’re a little shit.” I cleared my throat. “Pardon my language. Lots of people have tried to give me advice on how to handle the Eye. Magic, brain-math, lesbian threesomes.” I huffed at that one. “Blind faith, dreams, ‘you’ll know what to do when you get there.’ You’re just the latest in a long chain. And you’re not helping, either.”

“You need to stop thinking like a mage.”

“I’m trying!” I huffed, feeling peevish, and stalked away from Aym. The fun was over, abyssal instinct gone sullen, the game ruined by the harsh lesson. Aym was right, I just didn’t know what to do in response. “I don’t know what I’m going to do about the Eye, all right? Is that what you want to hear? That I know I’m doomed? That I don’t know what to do once I get there? I don’t even know where to start! You’re right, I’m going to look up at it with brain-math and probably die right there on the spot. Thanks, Aym.”

Aym the coal-sprite grinned. “You’re welcome.”

“Evee was right,” I said. “I shouldn’t have been alone with you.” I felt myself buckling inside. Was this Aym’s plot all along, to ruin my resolve, to protect Evelyn by stopping me from going to Wonderland? Because it was working. “Maybe we shouldn’t go,” I said past a growing lump in my throat. “Is anybody’s life worth Maisie’s return? I need to believe it can be done … ”

“Uuuurrrrghhh,” Aym grumbled. She rolled her eyes so hard that a real human would have detached both retinas. “You liked me better when you couldn’t see me, right?”

“ … right?”

“You could deal with me then! You don’t need to understand something to deal with it. You just need a shared medium.” She pulled one corner of her lips up in a sneer, as if this was obvious. “Shadows. Or words. Or maths, in your case, but don’t try that, you’ll get shouted down. It’s better at maths than you.”

I frowned at her, not quite following. “A shared medium with the Eye? What?”

“I don’t fucking know!” Aym screeched. She threw her arm up, all lace and gauze. “Don’t ask me!”

I blew out a long, deep breath, and said nothing for a moment. We stared at each other, two things alike in kind but completely different in every way that actually mattered. Aym sneered at me, tiny and delicate and wrapped in shapeless black. I felt stupid and lost.

“So, communicate with the Eye?” I said eventually. “In some … shared medium, whatever that means.”

“That’s up to you.” Aym bounced slightly on the sofa cushions, tilting her tiny chin up, rolling her eyes. “All I can see right now is you people driving toward the edge of a cliff. And I’m not going to pay for your petrol. I can easily stop Flissy from working together with Evee, you know. Hell’s bells, Heather, I could go find this Edward fuck-face and cut a deal with him.” She spat a little ‘pfff’ of disgust. “Though I’d rather not. Probably make me puke.”

I shook my head and wandered over to the table, touching my squid-skull mask. Cool bone-metal soothed my heart. “You go to the abyss, come back, and spend your days keeping Felicity on the straight and narrow. What’s the story behind that one?”

“None of your business, nosy nelly,” Aym sneered in a voice like cats destroying a rusty toy mouse.

I felt myself sagging inside. “Are you going to give us the magic we need then, or not?”

Aym paused, tilting her little face one way, then the other, black hair hanging down in a messy wave. “I don’t like you, Heather. But I like this angel thing you’re doing,” she mused in a lighter voice. “Stick with that and maybe we can make a deal.”

“A deal. Ah.” I walked over to Evee’s chair and wondered if I should tuck it back under the table. “I could just take the magic from you. The knowledge. Do it myself.”

Aym showed me her teeth again, a big toothy smile. “Are you sure about that? You don’t even know what I am.”

“You’re like me.”

“Wrong! Ehh-uuuuhh!” She made a noise like an old fashioned computer error, grating and metallic.

I nodded in exhausted surrender. “Praem says hello, by the way.”

“Tch.” Aym flicked one bony, delicate hand. “She really ought to get your roof fixed. I was up there waiting. Great big holes in the tiles! Tarpaulin doesn’t last, you know?”

“You really care about that?”

“Evee could catch cold,” she said, then grinned a mocking little grin.

“Fair enough.” I moved to sit down on the chair, this negotiation wasn’t over yet — and then bumped into something soft and unexpected.

My brain short-circuited, like in a dream.

I had bumped into something which wasn’t there. Something invisible. I had bumped into nothing. I blinked several times. I had bumped into nothing.

I had bumped into nothing.

Nothing was there.

Maybe don’t sit down in the chair? But nothing was there.

I stood there blinking several times, stuck in a small loop, until an explosive sigh split the air.

And suddenly there was Evelyn, my soft and well-wrapped Evee, sitting in the chair where she’d been sitting all along. A piece of familiar white quartz fell from her hand and into her lap, where it dimpled the fabric of her skirt. She looked slightly bashful, blushing, unable to look me in the eyes.

I gaped at her. “ … Evee?”

Aym had a hand over her mouth, eyes wide with amused shock.

“Evee,” I said. “That’s … the … the … the stone you used when we first met, to hide in plain sight. What’s it’s called?”

“The fade stone,” Evelyn replied with a grunt.

“You lied to me. You came back in! That’s why the door was open! Evee!”

Evelyn looked up at me with blazing eyes. “You didn’t seriously think I would really leave you alone with her? Heather, I am not letting you hurt yourself.”

“You could have insisted!” I squeaked.

Aym, horrible little goblin thing that she was, burst out in peals of sharp laughter, rocking back on the sofa and clutching her stomach. “I haven’t seen that trick in years! Evee, you little bitch!”

Evelyn looked at Aym like she was a zombie made of dog turds. “And I haven’t seen your face in years. What are you still doing here, you little monster?”

“Well—” Aym began, wiggling her eyebrows.

She never finished the rest of the sentence, because the door of the magical workshop flew open with a bang. Praem filled the doorway, staring at Evee.

“Ah,” Evelyn cleared her throat. “Praem. Yes. Well. I’m fine. I’m safe. Sorry.”

“Yes,” said Praem, sounding none too pleased.

“Wait,” I said. “Praem, she didn’t even tell you she was doing this? She didn’t tell me!”

“Yes,” said Praem.

“Evee,” I admonished.

“Yes!” Aym joined in. “Naughty Evee! You—”

Praem silenced Aym with a single look. The coal-sprite demon-thing flinched like she’d had a bucket of water dumped over her head, cringing back on the sofa.

Evelyn was blushing with embarrassed fury. I didn’t know what to say, lost for words. Praem looked like she was about to fetch a rolling pin and beat Aym into mince. Aym came back down from her flinch, inch by slow inch, eyes locked with Praem. Behind Praem, in the kitchen, Raine appeared, peering over her shoulder at me. She shot me a questioning thumbs up. I shrugged, grimacing.

“Yes or no?” Praem said.

Aym pointed at herself with a faux-innocent me? gesture.

“You,” said Praem.

Aym hesitated, then smiled, a nasty little thing dipped in black mud and cobwebs. “Alright then,” she said. “Go get Flissy. Let’s do some magic, ghoulies and girlies.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Do not try to define Aym, for she resists labels, she refuses to tell what she is. Heather could just open her eyes and look right at the truth, but Aym asked her not to and Heather is sometimes too polite for her own good. Also Heather, wow, getting rather predatory there. That was unexpected. Wants to make contact with a fellow abyssal creature? That probably answers the Aym question. But what about Evee? Heather couldn’t see that one coming at all.

No Patreon link this week! Why? Because I want to shout out somebody else for once! There are so many delightful and fun stories out there which all deserve attention. You might like one!

Cosmosis (by the very talented Pel-Mel) is one of the most wonderfully creative and bizarre concepts I’ve come across in web serials: alien abductee science fiction de-facto isekai. Give it a look! Especially if you like in media res openings. It jumps right in, both feet first.

And go vote for somebody else on TopWebFiction for once! Go vote for another favourite! You can always vote for Katalepsis next week, if you like.

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

Next week, cute dangerous mages doing cute horrifying mage things.

Meanwhile, my other project has now begun!

loyal to the nightmare of my choice – 18.5

Content Warnings

Suicidal ideation
Drug use
Emotional abuse
Mention of abusive relationship

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

A scream in the storm.

Lost inside the enclosing shadows of the upper floor with its labyrinth of rooms, muffled behind the thick plaster and stout brick of the exterior walls, soaked up by the cloud ceiling like an inverted grey ocean pressing down on the city, almost drowned out by the aural static of the rain pounding against roof tiles and pavement and asphalt and mud, Kimberly was screaming in terrified panic — and there could be only one possible cause.

Kimberly wasn’t much for screaming. A scream is a call for help, after all; Kimberly had spent too much of her life learning that nobody was coming to help. A scream — even a metaphorical one — would only attract more attention, and attention could only ever come from predators, exploiters, and abusers.

It would take a lot longer than a few months of safety and security for Kimberly to unlearn any of that, no matter how good our intentions or how well we treated her. Sometimes I wished she could seek therapy, but what would she say? She would have to craft an elaborate lie, or else speak in such general terms that any competent psychologist would smell a rat. I’d seen how she reacted in her very worst moments, pushed right to the edge of her thin and ragged sanity. One of those times had come after days of silent torment, hiding alone in her old apartment, wondering if the Eye-sent Lozzie-thing would return, intimidated by Amy Stack, waiting for death, or worse than death. On that occasion she had been driven to violence in the end. She’d stabbed Twil in the hand after we broke into her flat, but as soon as the violence was done she had crumpled in submission and begged for mercy.

Weeks later Zheng had almost killed her right there in our front room, or at least came within a muscle-twitch of ripping out her tongue. That time Kimberly had offered almost no resistance, crying softly in the aftermath.

She tended to hide and retreat, preferred to make herself small and unseen, to minimize her exposed contact surfaces, like a tiny rodent living in a land of blood-mawed carnivores. She’d been living with us for months but she still stuck mostly to herself. She went to work, exchanged hellos and good mornings whenever somebody bumped into her in the kitchen, and chipped in a little for the usual grocery shopping and electricity bills — but she lived in her bedroom, playing video games, smoking cannabis, and talking incessantly with a very large number of online friends. According to Raine she was also spending a lot of time with her Wiccan coven. Good for her, I thought.

I ventured into her bedroom now and again, if only to make sure she was getting on okay. She steadfastly pretended that Zheng didn’t exist, and seemed embarrassed by Lozzie’s very presence. She was on good terms with Praem somehow, though I’d never seen them talking. We all knew that Tenny sometimes crept into her bedroom to peer at strange and exciting video games. I did hope they would maybe become friends, in time.

For Kimberly, screaming like that was a big deal. Fear and shock had overpowered her desire not to be seen or known.

Evelyn and I rarely discussed this out loud, but we both knew why we kept Kimberly close, why we gave her a comfortable and safe place to live, rent-free. It was our way of trying to help one of the victims of the Sharrowford Cult, to take some of the vast responsibility demanded by our power. Kimberly wanted nothing to do with magic anymore, so we sheltered her from it, paradoxically enough, by keeping her close to the centre of our own magically-derived safety.

Kimberly Kemp was a survivor of a very specific kind of abuse and exploitation; she was reclusive and shy, sweet and funny; she probably had post-traumatic stress disorder; the last thing she needed was an unscheduled wake-up call by a horrible apparition in the dark of an unnatural storm.

Aym was up there, whispering unknown nightmares in Kimberly’s ear.

Abyssal instinct, ape-pack imperative, and simple decency all agreed on one thing — that scream would not go unanswered. Kimberly was one of us.

Standing by the passenger-side door of Felicity’s range rover, Raine and I wasted all of half a second staring back toward the house through the pounding raindrops.

Then Raine shot me a look. She didn’t need to ask with words.

“Yes!” I said. “Go!”

Raine snapped her umbrella shut and sprinted for the front door, wellington boots splashing through the churning water on the garden path, raindrops bouncing and spattering off her shoulders, soaking her jeans, and slicking her hair to her skull in an instant.

Strictly speaking that was totally unnecessary. The house currently contained several people far scarier than Raine, more than capable of dealing with Aym, who would be up those stairs just as quick. But my instincts demanded that I send my own best protector to save Kimberly.

Instinct demanded I go too. Prudence kept me rooted.

Felicity was still fumbling to raise the passenger side window, winding the hand-crank at speed. She had gone white in the face, shakily jamming her towel-wrapped shotgun into the bag on the back seat. The sensible part of my mind was calmly explaining to me that Felicity was our best bet at peeling Aym away from her new toy. Whatever I’d said a few moments ago about not allowing her inside the house, that no longer mattered. I should wait the few seconds for her to scramble out of the car, and then take her inside; she had claimed she couldn’t control Aym, but she must be able to do something to help. Raine was at the front door, yanking it open, kicking off her wellington boots.

Then Kimberly stopped screaming. The silence filled with the pounding of the storm.

Abyssal instinct and savannah ape pack imperative rocketed through me like an electric shock.

I barely knew what I was doing when I picked up my feet up and shot after Raine, my own wellington boots splashing halfway down the path before I veered off into front lawn and around the side of the house, squelching in the sodden grass, water swirling over the toes of the boots.

I must have lost my umbrella, because I was soaked instantly, hair plastered to my skull as I looked up at the second floor of the house, searching for Kimberly’s bedroom window.

“Kim!” I shouted up into the rain. My voice was a whisper in the storm. “Open your window!”

The rain slammed down in sheets of water, turning the air to static grey, pouring out of the overflowing gutters along the roof. I couldn’t see the house properly, let alone tell one window from the other. One window was lit and lacked curtains, that must have been the one in the upstairs hallway. The dark and curtained one next to it, that must have been my bedroom. But in the other direction there were four windows. Surely Kimberly’s was the one right on the end but that made no sense. The bathroom should have been on the end. Or was it Lozzie’s bedroom?

For a moment the second floor of Number 12 Barnslow Drive made no sense. It was like looking at a house I’d never seen before.

My tentacles gathered behind me, coiling up and bracing against the water-saturated ground, like six great muscular springs. Deep in my belly, my trilobe bioreactor squeezed out a control rod, flushing my skin with heat to counteract the chill of the rain. My legs itched to kick and bounce. My stomach lurched with anticipation.

This was one of the most ill-advised impulses I had ever followed, but I couldn’t stop. Raine would be up there in seconds, she was already inside. Zheng might already be up there, tearing Aym to pieces. Why was I preparing to fling myself into the air?

Because abyssal instinct had finally found an ideology around which it fitted like a glove.

Angel-squid Heather had no choice but to protect.

Only confusion held me back. I had no idea which window to target. I wasn’t so far gone as to hurl myself at the house and burrow through the brickwork.

Then, just at the moment I might have come to my senses and thought better of trying to imitate a flying squirrel, the lights flicked on behind the last window in the row. The curtains twitched, then swept aside. A terrified pale face peered down at me, framed by messy auburn hair.

“Kim!” I shouted again, bouncing on the spot like my legs were going to explode. “Open the window!”

Kim fumbled with the latch. The window swung outward, banging on its hinges. A few stray raindrops fell on the back of Kimberly’s shivering arm before she pulled herself back inside.

And I let go with all those muscular springs.

At the time, I felt like a squid shooting through the oceanic deep on a plume of water-powered jet-propulsion, sleek and athletic. A momentary shadow of abyssal grace touched me inside, like a point of glowing warmth inside my chest, a feeling of rightness in my own skin. Perhaps it was the pounding rain, the water running down my face and neck. In reality I probably resembled one of those children’s toys that you can stick to a hard surface with a sucker cup, then wait a few seconds for it to bounce upward under its own vacuum pressure.

My stomach lurched as I left the ground behind. For one dizzying heartbeat I felt like I was the one who should have been screaming, as I slammed right into the aperture of Kimberly’s open window. But my tentacles did the thinking for me, whipping around to catch the frame like I was a spider clinging to my own self-made web.

A few paces inside the room, Kimberly gaped at me, wide-eyed with shock.

I didn’t blame her. It wasn’t every day a squid-girl climbed in your window. I certainly hoped none of the neighbours had seen, or we were about to appear in some very outlandish news-of-the-weird style articles on the internet.

I tumbled into the room and landed in a wet heap on the floorboards, like an octopus dumped on the deck of a fishing boat, tentacles and limbs lashing and flapping, coat drenched on the inside, hair stuck to my skull. I had the presence of mind to kick my wellington boots off where I’d landed, so I didn’t create an even bigger muddy mess on the lovely soft rugs Kimberly had further in.

As soon as I was clear I leapt to my feet, a warning hiss in my throat, head whipping left and right.

Kimberly stood shaking in the centre of her bedroom, arms clasped across her chest and belly, staring at me with more than a touch of awe. Small and mousy and twitchy as ever, she was panting, tear-tracks down her face, her auburn hair in a post-sleep mess. She was still in her pajama bottoms and an old t-shirt, with a picture of a pretty-boy elf on the front. There was a big crease down the side of her face from where she’d been sleeping.

Her bedsheets were all askew, pastel blankets yanked to one side as if she’d just lurched out of bed and gotten tangled halfway. Her pillow was on the other side of the room, presumably hurled there moments earlier. Her computer, a proper desktop tower, was happily humming away to itself beneath her desk; I politely pretended not to notice the two boxes of tissues next to the monitor, along with the open comic book of dubious content on the desk.

Her bookshelf had suffered a casualty from the commotion. A couple of books had fallen off, presumably when she had blundered into it, and knocked one of her little statues over. A porcelain unicorn statue, wild and noble and suspiciously muscular, lay on the floor, neatly shattered into two pieces.

The room smelled faintly of cannabis, of course. I spotted several little baggies full of green stuff on her bedside table, next to rolling papers and other detritus.

Aym was nowhere to be seen — but then again, I didn’t know what to look for.

At least the lights were on, blazing and bright.

The door was closed, but I could hear half a dozen footsteps hurling themselves up the stairs and then along the hallway. Somebody called out Kimberly’s name.

Kimberly found her voice, robotic and stunned. “ … tentacles working well, then?”

I blinked at her. “Kim, are you alright?”

She swallowed, blinking several times, like a waking sleepwalker. Her eyes flickered around the room, dazed and confused. She was caught between sleep and adrenaline, more animal than human right then, confused about where she was, what she was, how to respond.

Then she cringed and hunched, the terror coming back in a sudden panting hyperventilation. “There was … a … a thing—”

Raine chose that exact moment to burst in through Kimberly’s bedroom door. Zheng was right on top of her like her shadow, filling her blind spot. The pair of them looked ready to wrestle a monster, Zheng moving with that flowing predatory muscularity that made my bowels quiver with the echo of old fear, Raine with a naked combat knife in one hand. Kimberly whirled and squeaked, backing up and bumping into her desk again. But Raine and Zheng both stopped in surprise when they saw me already standing there, dripping wet by the open window.

“Heather?” Raine broke into a grin, then started laughing. “How did you get up here? Did you climb through the window? You’re soaked!”

“Um, sort of,” I said, coming to my senses. I had to swallow down a hiss and wipe the dripping water out of my eyes. My hair was soaked, my clothes were stuck to my skin. My reactor was ramping up, my skin feeling like it should be glowing with heat. Any further and I might start steaming.

“Neither wall nor ditch can bar the shaman,” Zheng purred, then whipped her attention around the room, dark eyes narrowed, teeth exposed. “Where is the goblin?”

“Gone already,” I said.

Kim’s eyes flicked between faces and corners, badly shaken. “I-I don’t even know what that was, what was … what was … ”

Raine quickly crossed the room, putting away her knife so she could squeeze Kimberly’s shoulder. She was a little wet too, but nowhere near as bad as me. “Hey, Kim, ease down, you got nothing to worry about, nothing to be afraid of. We’re all here now, nothing else is gonna happen. Me and Zheng, we’re your bodyguards right now. How’s that feel? Safe, right? See, you’ve even got Heather up here to look out for you. Take a deep breath with me, okay? Nice deep breath, in and out. That’s it, that’s good. And another.”

Kimberly stared up at Raine with eyes just as intimidated and terrified as before. But she obeyed, she did as she was told, sucking down a great shuddering breath and then letting it in unison with Raine.

“There, that’s better,” Raine purred for her, blasting her with a full dose of Raine confidence. “Good girl.”

“Kim,” I said gently. “What happened? If you can tell us.”

Kimberly looked caught between a rock and a hard place. I think Raine’s “good girl” encouragement had done more harm than good. But she found her voice and stumbled over the words. “It— it was— I was in bed. I heard a scratching sound so I rolled over onto my back and … and there was a shadow on the headboard. It was … drooling this black stuff—” Kimberly’s hands went to her chin and neck and chest, but she was clean of any mysterious black ichor. “And then it … it leaned down and … whispered … I … I can’t … ”

“So she appeared and then vanished again?” I asked.

“That is her style,” said a familiar half-mumble.

Felicity joined us in the room, which surprised me.

Out of her car and up on her feet, Felicity was tall, more than six foot, willowy and brittle, moving with the caution of a long-term osteoporosis sufferer. A sports bag was slung over one shoulder, her shotgun presumably contained within. The hood and shoulders of her coat were wet from the rain. Her hands were free, black gloves plainly visible, so at least I could be certain she wasn’t pointing any weapons at anybody.

She seemed to have located her spine, both literally and metaphorically; straight-backed and clear-eyed, she was still pale and shaken, still pouchy-eyed and fragile, but there was unmistakable confidence in her musculature and unhesitating stare. It was like she’d flicked a switch in her own head. She kept a careful distance between herself and Zheng, fingers flicking once in some covert gesture when the hulking demon-host looked at her and growled, but apparently Kimberly was more important.

“This is her?” she asked, staring at Kim, then answered her own question quickly, speed-mumbling as if talking more to herself than anybody in the room. “Kimberly, yes, I remember you from last time. You saw Aym, what did she say to you? I-it could be important. What did she say?”

Kimberly blinked at her, unable to process the sudden arrival. “N-nothing important … what … who … ”

“Heeeey Flissy,” Raine said. “Back off a step or two, hey?”

Felicity grimaced and gritted her teeth; confidence had not changed her erratic agitation. “It could be important, alright?”

Behind her, three little faces peered around the door frame — Lozzie, Tenny, and Sevens, all lingering at the threshold. It was already getting quite cramped in the room with five of us in here already. Tenny looked especially distressed, trying openly to catch Kimberly’s eye, waving with her black tentacles.

“Kim!” she fluttered. “Kim-Kim! Kim!”

To my surprise, Kimberly called softly past Raine. “I-I’m okay, Tenny!”

Lozzie petted Tenny on the head. “She’s okay, Tenns. Everybody’s here to help!”

But Tenny still seemed very worried, shifting from foot to foot, but seemingly unwilling to push past Zheng.

“Where’s Evee?” I said. “Lozzie, where is Evee? Nobody should be alone right now, especially not—”

Evelyn herself answered from much further down the upstairs corridor, yelling at the top of her lungs.

“I want her out! Out of this house, right fucking now! You— Praem, get off! Go throw her out of the fucking window or something!”

“Don’t do that, Praem!” I called back. “Don’t leave Evee by herself!”

Praem replied in a voice like the chime of a bell. “Evelyn is accompanied.”

Raine cleared her throat with forced politeness and shot Felicity a meaningful look, as if over a pair of imaginary glasses. “Evee’s got a point, you ain’t supposed to be in here. Aym’s already gone again, so we’re cool now, okay? Crisis averted, everybody’s alright, not gonna happen again. Time to head back out to your car.”

Felicity stared for a second, her one good eye frozen on Raine in a moment of indecision. She no longer appeared like the woman we’d seen out in her car, consumed by apology and self-hatred. For one strange moment I was certain she was about to challenge Raine. My own tentacles twitched as if to reach out and restrain her. Zheng’s gaze slid round to the lurking mage, teeth peeling back on an implicit threat. Above our heads, raindrops drummed on the roof, turning the house into a great echoing cave. Behind me, the window still stood open, admitting the static haze of grey noise and the creeping cold of the ever-present storm.

Then Felicity’s new-found confidence ebbed away. She swallowed and nodded and looked down. “Yes. Yes, you’re right, I shouldn’t be in here. Just … Kimberly, are you okay? I-is she okay?”

“Not really,” said Kim. She kept her arms pressed to her front. Her eyes seemed unable to stay still. She looked like a mouse amid a group of well-fed snakes, hoping that none of us were hungry.

Raine squeezed her shoulder again and caught her eye. “You’ll be fine, you can spend the rest of the day with Lozzie and Tenny, that’ll keep Aym away from you. You can all go play Mario Kart, cool?”

Kim let out a nervous, weird laugh, a forced hiccup of confusion. “I didn’t even know anything was happening today … ”

I winced. “I’m sorry, Kim. I should have kept you in the loop. It’s my fault.”

Kimberly shot me a wide-eyed, confused look. She didn’t even understand what was going on, but that wasn’t her fault.

“And hey, Heather,” Raine said with a smirk, “you need to get dry. You’re soaked all the way through.”

“Ah. Yes.” I sighed a little sigh, suddenly embarrassed, and flopped my dripping coat sleeves against my sides. I hardly felt cold at all, the heat from my reactor already burning off the worst of the water. “Yes. Well. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time.”

Felicity suddenly tensed up and frowned at me. “Wait, how did you get up here?”

“Through the window,” I sighed.

Tenny trilled with deep amusement, from just beyond the doorway. “Wet Heath goes boing!”

Lozzie snorted. Zheng grinned a grin that showed all her teeth, proud of her shaman. Sevens made a gurgly little noise. Felicity just stared at the window, then back at me. Even her blank, burned-out eye looked concerned.

“I’ve changed quite a bit since you met me,” I said with another little sigh, my face going hot with embarrassment. “Suffice to say, I don’t usually make a habit of jumping through second-floor windows. It was probably a bad idea.”

Lozzie leaned further into the room, hanging from the door frame, long blonde hair hanging down, pastel poncho flopping sideways. She was biting her lower lip, either feeling mischievous or doing a great deal of thinking. “Fliiiiiis, how are you surprised at Heathy going boing but not by everything about Tenn-Tenns?”

Felicity frowned more. “Tenn … tenns?”

“Tenny!” said Tenny. “Is me. Hi!”

When Felicity looked at Tenny, I realised that Lozzie was correct; Felicity wasn’t the least bit surprised by the obviously inhuman sight of Tenny, with her swirling patches of white fur over coal-black skin, her obviously non-human wings hanging down either side of her body, her mass of tentacles waving above her shoulders, the pair of twitching, fluffy antennae on her head, or the simple fact of her huge black eyes.

Felicity didn’t return Tenny’s greeting, but just glanced at Lozzie and shrugged, as if confused why any response was required from her at all.

Sometimes it was easy to forget this woman was a mage.

I cleared my throat. “Tenny is a child,” I said. “Tenny, it’s good to greet people. Felicity, what do you say when a child greets you?”

Felicity looked at me in a moment of unsettled confusion, as if she wasn’t certain whether I was being serious, but was utterly sure about my tone of voice. I gave her a look. She glanced back at Tenny.

“Hello,” she said, stiff and uncomfortable, then looked away again.

I kept my pained sigh to myself. I suppose Tenny would have to learn sooner or later that not all adults were capable of returning a pleasant greeting.

“Tenny!” Evee called from far down the upstairs hallway. “Don’t speak with her! She’s dangerous! Lozzie, you keep Tenny away from her!”

Lozzie made a pouty face and took one of Tenny’s tentacles in hand. Tenny let out a fluttering, trilling noise of confusion, glancing over her shoulder, presumably at Evee. Head tilting side-to-side, Tenny didn’t quite follow.

Raine cleared her throat. “Fliss, back to your car, please. We’ll take care of Kim, she’ll be fine.”

“Right,” Felicity said. She nodded, eyes finding the floor easier than anybody’s face.

“Lozz,” Raine said, “would you please run down the corridor and make sure Praem takes Evee down the stairs first? We don’t want these two bumping into each other like a pair of cats in the hallway.”

“Clawing and biting and merrrow!” went Lozzie, making a little paw with one hand. She sketched a joking salute and then tugged on Tenny. “Let’s go help auntie Evee, Tenns!”

“Auntie Evee!” Tenny agreed.

And that was when the lights went out.

There was no dramatic pop of a bursting fuse or the electric crackle of a failing bulb, just the fall of sudden gloom as the lights in Kimberly’s bedroom died. The faint happy hum of her desktop computer shut off as well. The lights must have failed out in the hallway too, because we were plunged into a deep, sucking, rain-washed gloom of grey shadows and thickened darkness. The storm outdoors had already swallowed the sun; the only illumination was the thin and sickly light creeping in through the windows.

I flinched in surprise. Kimberly let out a pitiful whimper. Tenny made a surprised trill, like a tree-dwelling rodent discovering the floor had disappeared. Lozzie went ‘burrrr!’ and Sevens gurgled. Down the corridor, I heard Evelyn huff in sheer disbelief and exasperation.

Zheng seemed unaffected, of course. Raine, by contrast, went into action instantly, stepping away from Kimberly so she could peer around me and out of the open window.

I think I was the only one who noticed how Felicity reacted — she went wide-eyed and tense, holding her breath, one hand on her sport bag. She was staring right at Kimberly.

“A bloody power cut!” Evelyn yelled. “Now? Really? Very original, Aym!”

“I hunt better in the dark,” Zheng rumbled. “The goblin will have nowhere to hide.”

Raine craned her head to see out of the window. I realised she was looking at the house opposite.

“Nah!” she called back to Evelyn. “It’s just us, lights are on up the street. Praem, you wanna check the fusebox? Take Evee with you! Nobody moves around alone, okay?”

“Safety trio,” Praem said from out in the corridor. “Lozzie, Tenny.”

“Yah!” Lozzie chirped.

Raine turned to me. “Heather, you wanna get out of those wet clothes. If we can’t get the power back on quick, we’ll lose heat fast. Get dry, take Sevens with you, I’ll stick with Kimberly and—”

Kiiiiiiim-beeeeer-leeeeee,” scratched a voice from the fever dreams of a medieval diabolist.

A shadow was clinging to Kimberly’s back. It had not been there a moment earlier.

The thick grey gloom of the storm-light concealed all details beneath a veil of hanging darkness; the shadow was indistinct, peering over Kimberly’s left shoulder from behind, like a small child or a koala bear or the top half of a bisected corpse lashed to her back. Talons or claws or sharp fingers dug into the shoulders and sides of her t-shirt, visible only by the indentations they made in cloth and flesh. The grey, dead light washed out any facial features, leaving behind only pits for eyes and the suggestion of a slash for a mouth.

“What an interesting naaaaaame,” Aym purred like a voice-box filled with rusty iron filings. Black drool fell in sticky ropes onto Kim’s shoulder.

Kimberly was frozen in terror, eyes wide, tears falling silently down her face.

Out in the corridor, Tenny let out a noise of trilling alarm. Lozzie said something indistinct, some muttered reassurance. Closer at hand, Raine turned, ready to tackle something she could barely see. Zheng pulled an arm back, fingers wide, limb blurring with sudden motion as the rest of her body rocked forward, the opening split-second of a move to rip the demon off Kimberly’s back.

“No!” Felicity yelled, one hand up. “Don’t touch her! It’s dangerous!”

To my surprise, Zheng actually paused, dark eyes swivelling to look at Felicity. “To me, wizard?”

“To anybody,” Felicity said in an urgent mumble, eyes locked on Aym. “Do not touch her.”

“Oh,” Kimberly whimpered, so soft and small. “P-please, please, somebody … ”

I couldn’t not respond to that. My tentacles were whirling upward into a star of threat posture, growing sharp at their tips. I felt a hiss crawling up my throat. This violation would not go unanswered.

“Hey!” Raine said, taking a step to one side, as if trying to flank Aym. “You get off Kim right now, you little shit.”

“Aym,” I said, struggling to keep my voice sounding at least a little human. “I will hurt you. I warned you. I will.”

But Aym didn’t seem to care about what anybody said. She wasn’t even interested in my tentacles, let alone surprised. She giggled, an awful noise like gravel being pulverised. Kimberly closed her eyes and started to hyperventilate.

Felicity dropped her sports bag, spread her arms, and took a step toward the demon.

“You get off that girl’s back, Aym,” she said.

“Hnnnnnh?” went Aym. A row of claws seemed to ascend up Kimberly’s sides. The shadow rose higher, pushing itself upward so it was level with the top of Kimberly’s head. “Standing up for somebody, now? Where’s that spine when you’re all alone, Flissy-poos?”

“Get off that girl right now, Aym,” Felicity said. “I won’t repeat myself a third time.”

“What do you care?” Aym spat. “She’s so delicious, I can taste her in the air, raw. A little heat and pressure and she’ll go from quiet self-pity to tearing her hair out and—”

Felicity did the absolute last thing I expected, especially for a woman who moved around like she was recovering from a dozen broken bones.

She lunged at Aym.

Apparently Aym hadn’t expected that either.

The shadowy wisp of irritating demon let out a yelp, a sound like a pair of rusty knives getting snapped beneath the wheels of a tractor. She detached herself from Kimberly’s back and seemed to melt into the shadows, like a swimmer pushing off from an underwater ledge. But Felicity was faster. One gloved hand shot past Kimberly’s shoulder and grabbed a fistful of darkness, gloved fingers sinking into nothingness made solid.

Aym squealed — an awful sound, half-animal, half-metal, all teeth-grating. Kimberly cried out and ducked down into a crouch, arms wrapped around her head. Felicity held Aym aloft by what might have been her throat. The actual shape was impossible to make out.

Aym kicked and hissed and squealed. I saw hints of what looked like claws, stingers, and rolling eyeballs deep in the shadowy mass. All of it could have been an illusion, a mind-ghost one sees in the shapes of familiar furniture and discarded clothing in the corner of one’s room upon awakening. Tendrils lashed at Felicity’s face. Black drool fell on the arm of her coat, hissing and burning. Feet like bird talons raked at the front of her coat. But she stood and took it all, unflinching and untouched.

Then, with a flicker, the lights came back on.

Blink blink went the bulbs in Kimberly’s bedroom. Chunk-whirr went her reanimated computer. Artificial light pushed back the edges of the storm, forcing it outdoors again, into the rain.

And Aym vanished like a shadow in the light.

Felicity held the pose for another second, staring at nothing, arm outstretched, fingers making a claw. She was truly untouched — all of Aym’s tantrum was apparently immaterial, shadow-play and fakery. Then she swallowed hard and lowered her arm, panting and sweating. Tenny and Lozzie peered in at the door, both wide-eyed, Tenny looking mightily alarmed. Raine blew out a breath. I wasn’t sure where Sevens had gone.

I raised my voice, fearing the worst. “Evee! Are you okay?”

“I’m fine!” Evelyn called back from down the corridor. “That was astoundingly stupid, even for Aym.”

Zheng bared her teeth. “I will rip you from the air, shadow!” she rumbled. “There is no hiding in this place, shapeless thing.”

“Apparently there is,” Raine said. She moved toward Kimberly, to help her up.

But Felicity got there first. Before Raine could reach Kim, Felicity crouched down and took Kimberly’s hands in her own. Kimberly’s head shot up, surprised and blinking and still terrified, panting and crying and losing control. She looked like she wanted to crawl back into bed and curl up and sleep through the rest of the day.

“You need to share what she said to you,” Felicity said, right to Kimberly’s face.

Kimberly tried to pull away, but she was weakened by her own shock. “N-no, please, s-stop—”

“Hey now Fliss,” said Raine, stepping closer, smiling but oh so very dangerous. “Let her up. Let her up and step back, yeah? This is none of your business.”

But even Raine’s implicit threat wasn’t enough to get Felicity moving. She kept talking to Kimberly, eyes never once leaving that terrified, crying face. “Don’t let her use it against you, don’t let her twist it up inside you. I don’t know what she said, but I know it was bad. Whatever it is, however shameful, however horrible, don’t let her. Don’t. Tell somebody. Anybody. You can tell me right now, I’ve been listening to her for years. I know!”

Kimberly was in so much shock I thought she might keel over and pass out right there. Raine was almost on top of them, I could see her moving to grab Felicity by the shoulder and pull her off Kim. Poor Kim’s personal space had already been violated by one intrusion today, this was the last thing she needed.

But then, Kimberly leaned forward. She was so stunned, so used to obeying authority, that she just went along with it.

And deep down I knew it was probably better than the alternative.

So I darted out with one tentacle and grabbed Raine’s arm. Raine flinched, then blinked back at me. I put a finger to my lips and shook my head.

Down on the floor, one woman on her knees and the other crouching, Kimberly put her lips close to Felicity’s ear, cupped her mouth with one hand, and whispered a single sentence. She choked back a sob in the middle, but managed to finish. She whispered so softly that even I couldn’t hear. I had no right to.

Then she rocked back, shell shocked and drained.

“That’s not true,” Felicity said, instantly.

Kimberly’s face scrunched up. She was trying desperately not to cry. “It is.”

“It’s not!” Felicity snapped in her painful half-mumble; difficult with those lips, it drew a wince from her. Outrage was a strange emotion on her half-burned face. The half covered by burn scars twisted uncomfortably, pulling at the junction between scarring and healthy skin. “She tells you lies to hurt you. That’s what she does.”

“But it’s true … ” Kimberly whimpered. Her resolve crumpled. She started crying, ugly crying, the kind of crying that one has to either turn away from, or respond to with instant, empathetic comfort.

I had to turn away. Not because I didn’t want to help, but because Kim was already in another’s hands. Raine stepped forward to rub Kim’s back. Tenny crept into the room, tentacles reaching for her friend, though unwilling to get close to Zheng. To our combined surprise, Kimberly clung, child-like, to the front of Felicity’s coat.

Raine and I shared an awkward look. Was this safe? We had no idea who Felicity really was, or if it was emotionally safe to allow Kimberly to reach out to her like this. Felicity herself at least seemed aware of the difficulty; she pulled one of those intensely awkward un-smiles, made even more awkward by the fact she couldn’t use her whole mouth. Zheng snorted and turned to look back into the upstairs hallway. Lozzie had vanished somewhere, probably to help Praem with Evee.

I cleared my throat. “This situation is rapidly spiralling out of control, and I would rather that descent be halted right now. Felicity, do you believe our deal with Aym is still going ahead?”

Felicity nodded at me, deadly serious. “I believe she’ll honour it. Be careful though. I don’t know why she did this.”

“Because she is an awful little shit,” Raine said with a snort.

“I don’t need to be told that twice,” I said. “What should we do about … ” I nodded down at Kimberly, who was still sobbing softly, not quite all down Felicity’s shoulder, but not far off.

“We should all stay in one place, right?” Raine asked.

Felicity nodded. “Nobody should be alone. Until I leave, at least. Groups of three, maybe?”

I sighed and tried not to look as exasperated as I felt. “You told us that Aym only shows herself to people by themselves. So what was that just now?”

Felicity blinked at me several times with her good eye, looking increasingly uncomfortable, her sudden unexplained confidence finally draining away to nothing as the crisis passed. “She’s never done this before.”

Zheng grunted. “The mewling, failed wizard is too tempting for her appetite.”

Felicity stared at Zheng, then at Kimberly. “Failed wizard?”

I cleared my throat. “Thank you, Zheng. Felicity, I think it’s best if you drop that subject.”

“Kim,” Raine was saying, rubbing Kimberly’s back. “Hey, Kim, come on, I’ll take you downstairs. Fliss has to head out.”

“N-no,” Kimberly murmured. “No.”

A high-pitched, throaty gurgle came from down by my left side, familiar but surprising; Sevens had somehow slunk around the edge of the room without anybody noticing. She poked her face around my hip, black-and-red eyes staring at Felicity, shoulders wrapped in yellow cloak which pooled around her feet. “Guuuurrr-uuuuk,” she went. “I’ll stay up here with these two. In here. Rule of three. ‘Kay?”

Raine and I shared another look. Raine pulled a slightly pained grin. I shrugged and said, “It’s better than having Evelyn and Felicity in the same room for any length of time.”

Felicity was frowning at Sevens with the tiniest touch of a look I’d seen on Evee so many times before — cold, calculating mage-thoughts of judgement and appraisal.

Gaaaaao,” went Sevens. “You don’t know what I am, and it’s none of your business. I’m just here to watch.”

Raine clicked her fingers, suddenly serious and calm again. “Hey, Fliss.”


“Hurt Kim and I’ll kill you.” Then she smirked. “We cool?”

Buuuurrt!” went Tenny, mildly alarmed.

Felicity stared back. She blew out a long slow breath, shaking only a little bit. “I’m not going to hurt anybody. She just needs … an ear. That’s all.”

“Good,” said Raine. “Sevens, call us if anything changes. Okay?”

I rolled my eyes, but secretly I thanked Raine for making absolutely certain. “Right, everybody else to the kitchen,” I said. “We’ll let you know when this is all over.”

Felicity looked straight at me, and said, “Good luck. For Evelyn, too.”

I answered with a thin smile. There was little more to say.


Twenty minutes later Evee and I waited alone together in the magical workshop, the old drawing room, the location of our much-changed gateway to Outside, the seat of power for Evelyn Saye the mage, the secret at the heart of the house, and the location I kept habitually leaving my squid-skull mask.

Evee was already in an absolutely foul mood. She had stomped all the way downstairs, barely accepting Praem’s help and certainly not anybody else’s, looking always on the verge of hitting somebody with her walking stick. I hadn’t been able to calm her myself — Raine had insisted that I take the time to shed my wet clothes and change into something dry, which I had done, accompanied by herself and Zheng, leaving Evee to get more and more angry.

Now Evelyn sat in one of the chairs pulled away from the large workshop table, half-hunched and glowering at nothing, scrimshawed thigh-bone placed across her lap, both hands planted on the handle of her walking stick, balanced in front of her.

“Try not to think about it,” I murmured out loud.

“Huh,” Evee grunted.

I didn’t have to define what ‘it’ was. The mere presence of Felicity inside the house gave Evee an expression as if she could taste vomit on her tongue.

Perhaps this was Aym’s strategy all along, to unbalance Evelyn before the conversation even began. Perhaps all that stuff with Kimberly was just a red herring.

We weren’t taking any chances on either front. Kimberly was upstairs in her bedroom with Felicity and Sevens, safe as could be. Everybody else was waiting in the old disused sitting room, so as to satisfy Aym’s condition of no eavesdropping — though I suspected that at least one person was going to try to sneak into the kitchen and press their ear to the workshop door. My private, unspoken bet was on Zheng.

I stood a couple of paces away from Evee, at her flank, occupying the position usually taken by Praem, or the position Raine sometimes occupied in relation to myself. Bodyguard, attendant, and naked blade. Odd to think of myself that way, but this was about Evee, not me. I kept my tentacles spread wide, all except one that was wrapped around Evee’s right arm, down to her wrist, to anchor her in case the worst should happen. I cradled my squid-skull mask with my own right arm. My left sleeve was pulled back to expose the blocky black lines of the Fractal against my sunless skin.

All my weapons on full display. I even did my best to stand up straight and look intimidating. I doubted Aym cared about the can of pepper spray in the front pocket of my hoodie, but it never hurt to be prepared.

We were not truly, technically alone, not by the strictest definition. Two spider-servitors hung in their usual spot in the corner, frozen like statues of black chitin. Marmite was crouched below them, his bony, segmented tentacles drawn in close. He could feel something was approaching, or perhaps he sensed our tension. A little further away from the spider-corner, a piece of blue tarpaulin pinned to the wall hid the bucket of possessed clay, which still contained the undefinable demon that Felicity herself had extracted from Evee, months ago now.

But this would have to do. Aym would have to accept this. We weren’t doing it anywhere else.

“Aym?” I said out loud, into the empty room, after we’d been waiting for perhaps twenty seconds. “We’re ready. Are you here?”

Storm rain drummed on the roof and windows. The house seemed to press close with protective warmth, as if something was trying to break through from the storm above.

Evelyn sighed and looked very unimpressed. I heard her teeth creak as she clenched her jaw.

“Feels like a seance,” I said. “Are the spirits listening, wooooo, is anybody there … ” I trailed off and cleared my throat. “We’re here, Aym, as we agreed. If you keep messing us around, I shall … get quite angry.”

“She’s probably waiting for us to turn the lights off,” Evelyn said. “She doesn’t like being seen.”

Heeeeeeeheeeeeee,” came a hissing, grinding fake laugh, like the sound of liquid sulphur boiling away from broken glass, apparently from behind the sofa. “Some of us like to do it in the dark, that’s true,” said Aym. “I’m soooo shy!”

Both spider-servitors reacted like they’d just caught wind of an arachnid-hunting jungle wasp; two banks of crystalline eyes swivelled to stare directly at the gap between the sofa and the wall; a dozen spike-tipped stingers whirled up into a defensive formation, quivering and pointing; a split-second later, both spiders shot across the ceiling, scuttling at high speed. One of them slammed into the far wall, just above the gateway, poised as if to pounce. The other dropped onto the table and assumed a similar pose, just ahead of Evee, pointed back toward the source of the demonic voice.

I flinched hard, my tentacles twitching — not at Aym, but at the spiders’ reaction. At least they knew what their job was, senile or not: protect the gate, protect Evee.

My flinch made Evee flinch. I sighed and huffed. “The spiders reacted, that’s all,” I said. “Marmite … less so.”

Marmite didn’t seem bothered by Aym at all, which was quite strange. Instead of retreating, he peered around the side of the sofa with his swivelling cone-eyes.

Evee slipped her modified 3D glasses on over her face briefly, saw the spiders, and grunted in approval. Then she took them off again and nodded to me. “Lights, Heather, please.”

“Are you sure? Upstairs, she … ”

“Do it.”

“Do iiiiiit,” Aym hissed, then giggled.

I sighed, reached over toward the light switch with one tentacle, and plunged us into the deep gloom of the storm beyond the walls.

Thick as tar and dark as oil, these shadows were so much more dense than the ones upstairs, with the curtains pulled tight over the windows. Suddenly I felt my lungs expand, my senses awaken, the pressure lessen on my feet as two tentacles took some of my body’s weight.

Before our eyes could adjust to the gloom, something terrible crawled out and over the back of the sofa.

Shadowy frills, dark scythes of blade or bone, light-drinking scales, eyes burning like black holes in a starlit void. Too many limbs, the suggestion of more than one tongue in a twelve-inch mouth, and a light, airy little puff of cushions as she landed on the sofa, straightened up, and crossed what couldn’t possibly have been a pair of legs.

Petite, compact, frilled, delicate — all shadow and indistinct. A grey mass of suggestion that the eyes filled out and the brain turned to monstrous ghost. Anything could have been sitting there in the dark.

“Hiiiiiiii,” purred Aym. The sound sent a shiver of physical revulsion up my spine. “Evee-Eve. Been a while, crocodile!”

Evelyn calmly reached over to the edge of the table, where her phone was waiting, and pressed the start button on the timer.

“Your twenty minutes has started,” she grunted, staring back at Aym. “Talk.”

Evee was doing so well — steel in her voice and steel in her spine — but through her jumper and her t-shirt beneath I could feel the slam of her pulse. I could smell the cold sweat on her back. I could hear her muscles creaking. I tightened my tentacle-grip on her arm, reminding her that she was not alone before this shade from her past. I bit my own tongue; however angry I was about Aym’s assault on Kimberly, to talk over her now would jeopardise the deal.

Aym — whatever she was — said nothing.

Ten seconds, fifteen seconds, twenty seconds. I tried to keep my nerve and not glance at the timer counting down on the screen of Evelyn’s phone, but the pressure was too much. Thirty seconds had passed and we were just sitting in the dark. Was this part of Aym’s strategy too?

Then the shadow on the sofa rolled her head from side to side, with a sinuous motion more snake than human.

“Oh God,” Aym moaned. “I don’t believe it. You’re so boring now! The deal is off.”

“ … what?” Evelyn said, dark and angry.

“Yes, Aym, I’m sorry, what?” I added, just to say something to release this awful tension.

Aym laughed, a sound like a thing from the darkest pit of hell trying to imitate a girl. “I’m not interested in Evee anymore. My butter roll has turned to boiled oats. She’s boring now. The deal is off. You may as well turn off your silly timer. What are you timing? How long it takes for you to bore me to death?”

Evelyn replied, slowly and carefully, with very precise wording. I understood instantly what she was trying to do. Aym was a demon, after all, wasn’t she? “The deal was for twenty minutes of private conversation in return for completing Felicity’s understanding of the necessary magic. You are receiving your twenty minutes right now. This is it.”

“Ha!” Aym honked like a goose. “We didn’t shake on it. Or sign a contract in blood. You want to go small-print with me?” A clap in the dark, like two hands slapping together. “A lady’s agreement was all we had, and you are not what I was promised.”

Evelyn was speechless, staring at the shadow.

“The agreement was with me,” I reminded her.

“Wait,” Evelyn grunted. “What do you mean, boring?”

Aym flopped backward onto the sofa, exactly like a petulant little aristocrat girl. She let out a huge, fussy sigh. “Look at you, Evee! You’ve actually grown up, you’re not fun anymore. You’ve got purpose, you know what you want, and you’re honest about how much you love what you love. Where’s the fun in any of that?” She sat up again, like a roiling darkness boiling upward on the sofa. A chin went into a pair of shadowy hands, shifting and adjusting in the dark. The pose was rather undercut by Marmite peering over the armrest. Aym ignored him. “You’ve got a little lingering guilt about mummy dearest, and jealousy over Raine, and you’re horrified about that time you tried to kill yourself—”

I felt Evee go stiff. I squeezed her shoulder and arm, hard. Aym just kept on talking.

“—but those are all scabs. If I pick them, what’s beneath? Healthy flesh! What am I going to do, wind you up about your missing leg? What would be the point? You really have come so far.” Aym sighed, as if suddenly nostalgic. A grin of dark-on-dark spread inch by creeping inch. “Your mother had no idea what she’d spawned when she gave birth to you. You’re worth ten of her, my sweet chocolate roll.”

Evelyn swallowed and raised her chin. “Talking about my mother is hardly a poorly-defended angle of attack. You’ll have to do better.”

“Always with the drama!” Aym hissed. “Always with the touchy-touchy nerves. Or … maybe you’re worried because you’re a mummy now too? Mummy Evee with her speed-grown adult daughter. How does it feel to bring a demon into the world?” Aym hissed and giggled, a wet and rusty sound. “Good, right? A surrogate you can command and control, but you never know what she’s really thinking about—”

“I love my daughter,” Evee replied, absolutely stone-cold. “I suspect she is immune to your brand of torture, but if you try, I will do everything I can to murder your body and send you back wherever you came from, deal or not.”

“Uuurrghhh,” went Aym. She made a finger-down-throat motion in the dark, then mimed being sick. Strings of black, hissing drool pooled on the floor in front of the sofa. Marmite backed away from that. “Mages. Disgusting. Sick.” Aym put up several limbs in surrender. “Fine, I’ll leave your doll-child out of this.”

I spoke up. “Praem scared you before and that was only over the phone. She could catch you in person. I don’t think you should insult her.”

Aym looked at me — or at least I think she did, it was hard to figure out what was really going on in that mass of half-hidden shadow — and blew a raspberry at me.


I blinked in surprise. “Well.”

Evelyn sighed. “I was not expecting you to act so childish. This is still your twenty minutes, Aym. You are sticking to this deal, or Heather will hurt you.”

Aym giggled again. “You can threaten me all you want, Evee my little sweet butter roll. My rumbly-pumbly. My sleepy girl.” Aym suddenly straightened up, going still in the darkness. “But I want to settle accounts between us.”

Evelyn went still too. Her tension was contagious; I found myself holding my breath.

“What trick are you trying to pull now?” Evelyn asked.

“Haaaaaaaaa, Evee-Eve. We both know you can never forgive Felicity for what she did. Being a willing, eager, wet little tool for Loretta Saye, for mummy dearest. Did you know they fucked several times? Ugly, ugly stuff. Felicity cried afterwards, every time, but she kept going back. Loretta wasn’t even into it, she just needed the power trip and the—”

“My mother was a vile woman, yes,” Evelyn said between clenched teeth. “We all know that. Get to the point.”

Aym grinned, a splash of oil on black paint. Then the grin flickered off again. “Felicity was deep in the drink at the time, did you know that?”

“Yes,” Evelyn hissed. “I know full well she was drunk when she cut my leg off.”

“No, I mean even when she wasn’t doing that.” Aym did not sound amused.

A light bulb went on inside my head. “She’s an alcoholic?” I asked.

“Mmmmmhmmmm,” Aym purred. “Not like she can get any booze up in Tannerbaum House. Last time she tried, the forest floor drank it for her. That wasn’t a pretty sight. She lay on the ground screaming and weeping for an hour, in a puddle of vodka soaking into the mud. Can’t get anything up there. No smack, either.”

A shiver went down my spine — a response to the change in Evelyn’s tension. She was frowning into the dark.

“Heroin?” Evee asked.

A dark nod from Aym, a wisp of shadow and claw waving in the gloom.

“Oh,” I murmured. “Oh, goodness.”

“But she’s clean now?” Evee asked.

Another two nods.

“Is that … ” I ventured, then cleared my throat. Was it safe to ask this? Was this some kind of conversational trap? “Is that why it’s so hard for Felicity to leave her house? It keeps her safe?”

Aym did not reply, but carried on speaking to Evelyn — a cold little rumble like gravel in a pool of frozen rocks. “You don’t have to forgive her. You won’t, after all. Not in your heart and not to her face. But stop threatening to kill her, please. Stop making it worse.”

Evelyn paused, considering. “This is what you wanted to talk about?”

“No!” Aym burst into a giggle. “I already told you, you’re boring now! So I may as well tidy you away. I put my toys away when I’m done with them. I’m a good girl.”

“And if I promise to do that, then you’ll give her the rest of the spell we need?”

“Mmmmmmmmmmmmmm-maybe,” purred Aym. “Half of it.”

Evelyn sighed, sharp and angry. “You were always like this, you insufferable creature. Stop playing games and name what you want.”

“Dangerous words,” Aym said.

“No blood contracts,” Evee shot back.

Aym snorted in the dark, an awful sound more insect than mammal. To my surprise, I felt Evee smile. There was an understanding between her and Aym, something very old and very dark.

I couldn’t help myself, the curiosity was too much. “Aym, how does this line up with what you are? Why do you care about Evee threatening Felicity? You exist to torment Felicity, as far as I can tell.”

The shadow-shape turned toward me again, shifting on the sofa. Dead cold, she said, “Is that what it looks like to you?”

“We all heard what you did to her on the phone. You abuse her emotionally.”

A twist of gloom, a tendril or a hand. “And you don’t like that?”

“It’s disgusting,” I said.

“I keep her alive,” Aym rasped, voice fading into the dark.

Evelyn tilted her head up at me, giving me the floor, letting me take the lead, but I didn’t know how to continue. Was Aym misleading us, or being serious? Did she care about Felicity in some twisted, co-dependent way? Did she tell lies to hurt people, to torment the weak and damaged? Or was she the only thing standing between a friendless, depressed, isolated mage and a slow, pitiful, unmourned death by drug addiction and alcoholism?

“Why did you assault Kimberly?” I asked. “That was rude of you. Oh, what am I saying, rude? It was criminal. We should be chasing you out of here. Why did you do it?”

Aym didn’t answer, but I felt the rolling of too many eyes, somewhere over there in the dark. Wrong track. She wasn’t going to answer that.

I took a deep breath and did something I didn’t want to do, especially after she had attacked Kimberly.

“Aym,” I said, forcing myself through the words. “When you came here last time, you helped us. You went into that house, the cult’s safe house. You put yourself in danger. Thank you.”

I had half-hoped that would send Aym into an embarrassed paralysis of refusal; perhaps thanking such an elementally nasty entity was the weak point in her psyche, human or not. But I was sorely disappointed. Aym shifted on the sofa and seemed to grow half a dozen extra limbs, all wiggling in excitement and burrowing between the sofa cushions. Marmite backed up another few paces, withdrawing his eyes into his head. On the table, the spider guarding Evee stood up higher, making itself look bigger. Aym had shifted modes, somehow becoming more threatening.

“Evee might be boring now,” she said. “But I am sooooo much more interested in you, Heather.”

My blood went cold.

“No!” Evee snapped. “The deal was for twenty minutes with me, you—”

Aym ignored her. “I’ve been thinking all about you the last couple of days, Heatherrrrrrr.” She drew my name out in wet, bubbly purr. “The last time Flissy-poos came down here it was all too much of a panic for me to get ready. But now I’ve had lots and lots of prep. I’ve been learning all about you.”

“The storm!” I said, breathless with awe. “The storm, it was you, I was right!”

“Heather?” Evee hissed. “What the fuck?”

“No, it’s true,” I said, unable to tear my eyes away from Aym, the roiling grey shadow on the sofa. “She made the storm, it’s … I don’t know. I don’t know what she is.”

Something strange and soft was stirring in my chest, a writhing familiarity, a recognition that I could not put into words. Abyssal instinct screamed caution — but also curiosity, like I’d caught scent of something moving in the deep. Perhaps it was the artificial darkness, the pressing storm, the shapeless presence of Aym, but I felt for a strange and weightless moment like I was floating in the abyss.

“Let’s talk about you, Heather,” bubbled Aym. A tongue flickered forth and licked at her chops, black and dripping. “Let’s talk about you and your Eye.”

“No,” Evee snapped, hard and unyielding. “Never. Heather, don’t listen to her, she’s trying to mess with you.”

“What are you?” I asked, softly, but somehow louder than Evee’s anger. “You’re clearly not a demon, not like Praem or Zheng. Or are you? Are you what happens when demons develop far enough? But you can’t be as old as Zheng, you’d be ancient. What are you?”

Aym’s amusement vanished. She went very still. The shadows stopped moving.

“Aym?” I asked.

“What a boring question,” Aym drawled. “How about no? How about Evee leaves, and we talk about you, Heather? Doesn’t that sound like fun?”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

A demon in the dark, formless and mysterious, spinning lies and misdirection … or just an annoying little shit running her mouth and about to get tentacle-slapped by Heather? Or is there a third option? Is Aym telling the truth, that she somehow keeps Felicity alive and well? Heather sure does want to know what she is, maybe just to know what they’re dealing with, but that way lies only darker confusion.

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Next week, more Aym. Too much Aym. Infinite Aym. But what kind? Not that kind that Heather likes. This is going to be deliciously irritating.

And, next week, something else lurches up from the grave.

loyal to the nightmare of my choice – 18.4

Content Warnings

Drug use

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Felicity and Aym — mage and demon, master and servant, prisoner and jailer — stood us up. Twice.

In truth, the two false starts in Felicity’s journey down to Sharrowford obviously had everything to do with Aym and very little to do with Felicity. Whatever else one might say about Felicity, whatever sins and horrors she had committed in earlier life, whatever dark alliances and deals she’d made, it was plain to me that she would never willingly leave Evelyn waiting for help. This was all Aym’s doing, I had little doubt of that.

It was a very effective tactic, the last thing we’d been worrying about, and it drove Evelyn up the wall.

The drive from Felicity’s manor house up in Cumbria was meant to take a little under three hours, accounting for traffic, a stop on the M6 motorway, the need to skirt around Manchester, the changeable mood of Felicity’s battered old range rover, and some kind of unpredictable complexity involved in actually leaving the surroundings of her home. She had tried to explain that last point, but had rapidly dissolved into a string of half-understood esoteric terminology, which would probably have made sense only to Evelyn. Felicity hadn’t been in much of a state to go into detail at the end of our previous phone call, sitting on the floor and recovering from her horrible, tortured weeping. But she had promised to call Raine’s phone early the following morning, to give us advance warning of when she was leaving, and when we might expect her.

“The four minute warning,” Evelyn snorted that morning. “Fantastic. We’ll all huddle together in the cellar and wait for the blast wave, shall we?”

“Evee,” I sighed, though gently and indulgently. “I’m sure it’ll be a lot longer than four minutes. Felicity is taking this seriously. We’ll have hours to prepare.”

Evelyn cleared her throat and blushed faintly. “It’s … it’s a joke, Heather.”

“Duck and cover,” said Praem.

Felicity had made the same journey in a similar window once before, back when I’d called her for help during our crisis with the Sharrowford Cult, when Raine had been kidnapped and Evee had lain helpless in a coma. She’d had far less prep time for that drive, but also the extra motivation of a real emergency. Evelyn’s life had been at stake. Perhaps that had encouraged her to quite literally ‘step on the gas’ — or perhaps, more worryingly, it had motivated Aym to not muck about and get in the way.

But on that first morning after the phone call, Evelyn’s fears appeared to be crystallising into reality.

Nine o’clock came and went without any word from Felicity, not even a text message; her mobile phone would apparently work once she was on the road, after all. Then ten o’clock passed as well, then eleven, the hour-hand creeping round on the old grandfather clock which stood in our front room. Time slowed to an awful, torturous plod. Raine sent Felicity a text message, then called her twice, both the land-line phone and the mobile phone number she’d given us. Both times, nothing. The calls rang and rang, answered by nothing but the void.

Evelyn had already struggled to eat breakfast that morning, wracked by anxiety gnawing at her guts. Praem had pulled out all the stops, made bacon and scrambled eggs and fried mushrooms. Raine had wolfed her portion down, Sevens had happily chomped away, Tenny and Lozzie had briefly appeared and joined in too; even Zheng had complimented the bacon, which was rare. She preferred her meat raw and bloody. But Evee herself had managed only a few bites before complaining of nausea and retreating to the safety of cold porridge. I ended up finishing her portion for her.

As the hours wore on she found it harder and harder to hide her nerves. She sat in the kitchen, pretending to read but actually doing nothing, rubbing and worrying at the old scarring on her maimed hand. I’d never seen her do that before. She usually didn’t fiddle with her maimed fingers and palm, or draw any attention to it at all.

She got up eventually, stomped around the house in wordless irritation, left mugs of tea to grow cold, and spoke in monosyllabic grunts. She barely even heard what was said to her.

I couldn’t watch her like that. It hurt. She’d been so happy and fulfilled last night.

The previous evening, Evee and I had sat up until long past midnight, watching her pony cartoon together. It had been absolutely delightful, even if some of the context of the show was a little lost on me; Evee sometimes laughed at things that I didn’t understand, or gestured at the screen for moments that seemed quite mundane, but I felt like I started to get it after a while.

At first she’d acted quite embarrassed when I’d asked which character was her favourite. She had refused to answer for another three episodes, then ventured the truth while awkwardly looking away from my face.

“ … you mean, the one that does magic?” I’d said, trying not to sound too shocked. “I … well, I assumed with all the … you know, being a mage in real life, I assumed you wouldn’t—”

“Yes, yes! I know! Don’t you dare repeat this to Raine, I’ll never hear the end of it. I’ve always had to be quite clear to her that I do not identify with the magical cartoon unicorn, so do not tell her I’ve been lying about that, Heather. Do not.”

I’d sworn myself to secrecy.

Evelyn had finally relaxed after that, and began to share all sorts of details about this this obscure and esoteric passion — though according to Evee it was anything but obscure.

“It’s a big deal on the internet,” she said. “People draw art. They write fanfiction. There’s a whole subculture.”

“Oh. Well. I wouldn’t know, not really. Have you ever done that?”

Evelyn had cleared her throat, staring at me in a frozen state. “You mean … write … fanfiction?”

“Or draw art! Either or. It sounds really exciting.”

“No,” she said, too quickly. “No, I don’t. Never done that.”

Praem had stuck around for a few episodes of magical ponies and the occasional sparkling unicorn, but then she’d left me and Evee alone together. Raine had stuck her head in briefly, then left in wordless glee, shooting us a thumbs up and going off to play video games about girls with improbably large bosoms beating each other up. Kimberly had ambled past on her way to the kitchen at almost eleven at night, overheard some very distinctive bits of dialogue, and knocked on the door, much to our surprise. Kimberly, timid Kim who so often scurried about the place like she wanted us to forget she existed, had stood in the doorway with bloodshot eyes and a dazed smile, and nodded her heartfelt and touched approval that we were, “getting into the ponies at last.”

“Yes, well,” Evelyn had said, guarded and short and snapping, mostly from embarrassment, though perhaps also a little worried about being interrupted yet again. “Heather’s never seen it before. That’s all.”

Normally, Kim would have jumped out of her skin at being spoken to like that, then scurried off in terror, but right then she was high enough to start a new career as a cosmonaut.

She’d blinked at me in delighted surprise. “No shiiiiit, Heather? Awwww, that’s great. You’re one of us now. Have fun, yeah, have fun.” She’d clapped her hands twice, then bowed her way backwards out of the door, like she was giving thanks at a shrine. Maybe she had known that Evee was irritated, after all.

After that, it had been just me and Evee for the rest of the night, leaning on each other, watching cartoon ponies having adventures. She’d seemed so happy. Eventually I’d tucked her into bed.

But this following morning, waiting for a woman she hated, who might arrive at any moment, Evelyn was chewing herself to pieces.

She couldn’t stand the waiting and the not knowing. I couldn’t stand what it was doing to her, to her state of mind, her nerves, her well-being. Raine kept her own spirits up with that beaming grin, cracking jokes about how we were going to make Felicity sleep in a dog house in the garden, or how maybe we should all pretend to be out when she arrived. Praem stayed close to Evee, making sure she stayed hydrated, never leaving her alone. Sevens lurked in the shadows and around the door frames, but she couldn’t do anything. I got the sense she wanted to help, but maybe couldn’t find the right mask, the right role to play.

I turned into a curtain-twitching maniac. I couldn’t do anything to help Evee either; I’d tried to distract her but she was barely answering. So instead I lurked at the windows, trying to watch the road. I sent Zheng out to stand covert sentry near the end of the street, but that was pointless, and boring for her, so it didn’t last long. At one point I even opened the front door and stood there in my pajama bottoms and one of Raine’s old black hoodies, staring down the street. I probably looked like a total madwoman, silently rehearsing the indignant rant I was going to deliver to Felicity as soon as she dared show her face.

The weather was foul as foul could be. Summer had fled like a startled deer. Heavy rain-clouds battered the city, drizzling and spitting and whipping with cold, but refusing to break into the clean rain of a proper storm. My teeth ached. My fingernails itched. My eyes hurt.

Eventually, I asked out loud, “Is she causing this?”

I’d been staring out of the kitchen window. My eyes must have looked like dark pits of frustration. My tone brought Evelyn around for a few minutes, dragging her out of the stupor of anxiety.

“ … Heather?”

“The weather,” I explained.

“What? What are you talking about?”

“The weather! It’s cold, it’s dark, it’s so oppressive. Normally I’m more of an autumn sort of person anyway, but this feels wrong. Is this Aym, doing this at a distance?”

“Don’t be absurd,” Evelyn grumbled, but her heart wasn’t in it. “Demons can’t control the weather.”

“Says you,” Praem chimed from behind her. Evelyn snorted a single not-laugh at that, a token effort of forced disbelief.

“What about mages?” I asked.

When I turned away from the window to gauge Evee’s response, she’d seemed so small and sad and shrunken, sitting there on the other side of the kitchen table, thick shawl over her shoulders, with a book in front of her, pretending to read. A hardback copy of Frankenstein which looked about as old as the house. That wasn’t a good book for her right now, she needed something light and fluffy, or at least something funny. A bit of Pratchett, maybe, but I wasn’t sure if we had any in the house. I had a sudden urge to suggest I do a one-woman dramatic reading of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for her, but then I dismissed the idea as absurd.

“The weather?” Evelyn echoed, then sighed and drew a hand over her face. “Why not? What do I know? Sure, maybe they’re sending rain to irritate us. Maybe they’re trying to ruin our harvest or make our bowstrings damp. Maybe we’ve been cursed by a rain god. Bugger it and let it rain.”

“Evee,” I sighed, feeling awkward all of a sudden.

“No, Heather, they’re not controlling the bloody weather. You sound worse than I get. Stop being paranoid. Hypocritical of me to say, I know.” She shrugged, eyes dropping back to the book. At least she wasn’t actually reading it.

At three minutes to midday, Felicity finally called.

Unfortunately, Raine had stepped into the bathroom for a few minutes, leaving her phone on the table like a ticking bomb. When it went off I jumped out of my skin and almost slapped the thing to pieces with my tentacles. Evelyn flinched and scooted her chair back.

Praem had enough presence of mind to scoop the phone up and press it to her shoulder. Raine skidded into the room ten seconds later, sliding on her socks, stopping just short of Praem before accepting the phone.

The rest of us could only hear one side of the rushed, chaotic conversation which ensued. Raine actually frowned in confusion, a rare look on her face.

“Heeeeeey Flissy, where the hell you at, girl, you— hey, hey, slow down. Slooooow down, you’re talking too fast. Okay. Okaaaaay.” Raine listened for a long moment, giving Evelyn and me a bemused look across the kitchen, eyebrows knotting together. Evelyn mouthed ‘is she here yet?’ and Raine shook her head, which provoked Evelyn to throw up her arms in frustration. “So, you’re leaving now, right?” Raine said into the phone. “Well, sure thing then, just let us know as soon as you’re ready. No sweat, no blame, just let us know. Cool? We okay? Okay, we’re cool. No worries, Fliss, just stay in contact. Like we said.”

“What do you mean, no fucking worries?!” Evelyn spat before Raine could end the call. “She hasn’t even fucking left yet?” Evee’s eyes found the phone itself. “What are you playing at, you—”

Raine held the phone up. She’d already cut the call. “She’s gonna phone back. Once she’s in the car and on the road. Evee, hey, come on, take a deep breath. Just breathe for me, yeah? Just breathe.”

“Oh this a fucking farce!” Evelyn spat. “What is she doing?”

“Crying, by the sounds of it,” Raine said with a sigh. “Held up by somebody having a little tantrum.”

“A bad girl,” Praem said.

“Oh I can’t believe this shit,” Evelyn said. “I bet she’s loving this. She’s found a way to torment me by not being present.”

We received five more phone calls from Felicity over the course of that afternoon, and not one of them was made from a moving car. She called us in a state of distress, apologetic and mortified, shocked, weeping with frustration, and then finally just broken with emotional exhaustion. Raine fielded all the calls but it wasn’t hard to overhear snatches of Felicity’s distraught voice on the other end. I could imagine her scurrying through the half-empty, echoing hallways of that dark and void-like manor house, below the dripping boughs of an evil forest, the walls whipped by cold winds and menaced by dark, creeping ivy, her own footsteps swallowed up by rotten wood and crumbling furniture, in pursuit of a tormentor that would not let her leave.

But that was only my imagination. Maybe Aym had just hidden her car keys.

Whatever was truly happening up in Cumbria, the final phone call at six forty-five in the evening was the last straw for Evelyn.

“Don’t fucking bother!” she shouted at the phone. She lurched up from her seat in the kitchen so fast that Praem almost didn’t round the table to catch her in time. Evee didn’t even care, stomping toward the phone and looking for something to hit with her walking stick. Raine tried to turn away, to shield the phone from Evelyn’s rage, but it was no use. One could probably have heard her three streets away. “If you leave now, you’ll get here at ten, or past ten, and you are not using that to worm your way into staying the night, you rancid fucking monster! You can try again tomorrow! First thing in the morning, you useless shit!”

I heard a pitiful whimper from the other end of the phone, before Raine managed to step out of the room to make real alternative arrangements.

In a way, I didn’t blame Evelyn, though I like to think I would have phrased my irritation with a little bit more tact — I also probably wouldn’t have muttered the absolutely unspeakable insults she strung together under her breath afterward, as Praem helped her sit back down. We’d done nothing all day except wait, but I felt utterly exhausted, yet without the clean ache of overexerted muscles and the dull thrum of a humming cardiovascular system. My trilobe bio-reactor could do nothing to soothe this particular kind of drawn-out weariness.

Raine reappeared a couple of minutes later and cleared her throat awkwardly before relating the new plan.

“Flissy is gonna try again tomorrow morning. No promises, though. We should probably prep for the worst. Maybe buy a deck of cards and settle in.”

The joke did not go down well. Evelyn looked about ready to bite the head off a live chicken, or crumble to dust.

With an unspoken agreement of shared glances and covert gestures, Praem, Raine, and I all set about making sure Evelyn didn’t slip further into a deep pit of depression and loathing. When Aym arrived, she was going to need all her wits about her, even if I was going to be glued to her side like a bodyguard for her soul.

Praem supplied tea, turned up the heating, and somehow made the kitchen smell faintly of warm butter for about half an hour. She also applied shoulder rubs, which first met with an angry hiss and a, “Get off, for fuck’s sake, can’t you see I’m trying to think?” but then finally earned her a, “Sorry, Praem. I shouldn’t have snapped. Thank you.”

I don’t know how Praem did it. Demon hands were apparently dexterous enough to avoid hurting Evelyn’s warped shoulders and kinked spine. Sevens reappeared from somewhere too, taking up her seat close to Evee, though she didn’t have anything much to say; I think I was the only one who noticed how focused she was, as if watching Evelyn for a sign of something. Zheng went out hunting. Perhaps that was her way of helping, returning with a brace of dead squirrels for the unlucky pack-member.

Raine went out too, to fetch a takeaway curry for dinner. We hadn’t actually had one in a while. Evee needed treats, even if she wouldn’t admit so.

Lozzie and Tenny ventured down from upstairs at long last. They’d spent most of the day staying out of the way, though I had noticed Lozzie eavesdropping from behind door frames at least twice, her face peering out just above Sevens. Apparently she could be very quiet and sneaky when she wanted to be.

Tenny instantly picked up that “auntie Evee” needed help.

I don’t know if it was some extra-sensory knowledge, some product of her non-human biology, or merely the intuition of a child. Tenny crept across the kitchen exactly like a nervous child approaching a grumpy parent, po-faced and serious, tentacles reeled in close, until Evee did a double-take at her and then just stared, grumpy and exhausted. Tenny stared back with her big shiny black pelagic eyes. Lozzie peered around from behind her.

Tenny hadn’t gained any additional height since her hatching several months earlier, but her straight-backed, oh-so-serious pose made her seem more mature than Lozzie, at least more mature than she’d ever looked before. All of her poses and gestures still held that strange, alien note to them, despite her basic humanoid body-plan, her two arms and two legs, her eyes and jaw and lips and chin and facial muscles, and her healthy upright torso — though I wasn’t certain she possessed a spine, not exactly. It was often hard to tell with Tenny where human influence ended and pneuma-somatic heritage began. She was plainly not homo sapiens, with her silken, coal-black skin, her wings hanging down her back like a cloak, her mass of tentacles that crept up and out from their hidden origin points in her shoulders, but at the same time her gestures and mannerisms were so very human, so very us.

As she stood opposite Evee’s exhausted anger, she obviously empathised.

“Tenny,” I whispered gently. “Auntie Evee isn’t feeling so good right now. Please … please don’t … ” I tried to say please don’t bother her, but I couldn’t get the words out. Tenny wouldn’t understand. She might be hurt.

“Auntie,” Tenny said in her fluttery trill-voice. It was not a question.

Lozzie whispered from behind her too, gently tugging on a tentacle. “Tenny!”

Evelyn sighed, squeezed her eyes shut, and grunted an affirmative. “Yes, that would be me. Auntie Evee. Hello, Tenny. I’m not mad at you, it’s okay.”

“Mad because bad?” said Tenny.

Evelyn froze, as if she couldn’t believe her ears. Lozzie’s eyes went wide and she clamped a hand over her mouth, trying to smother a laugh. Praem turned her head to stare at Tenny. Whatever those words meant, it went completely over my head.

“Excuse me?” Evelyn asked.

“Or … sad because mad?” Tenny tried again, tilting her head to the side and doing a wobbly gesture with one tentacle, like somebody waving a hand. “Bad things make me mad too. Mad and sad!” Tenny’s flutter-voice grew louder, agitated, desperate to help. “Auntie Evee sad. Makes me mad. Bad. Bad sad.” Tenny blinked several times, her eyes finally wandering away from Evee and off to one side. “Bad mad sad,” she muttered to herself. “Glad?”

Lozzie snorted and winced. “Tenn-Tenns has just discovered rhyming!”

Tenny puffed her cheeks out. “Already knew!”

Evelyn sighed and shook her head. “I thought she was mocking me at first, it’s fine.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, “but I followed absolutely none of that. Is everything all right? Tenny?”

Tenny’s attention snapped back to the room, as if she had been using all of her mental processing power to compose a new poem. Even her tentacles had all frozen for a second — I hadn’t realised until they’d resumed moving again. She seemed to remember what she’d been trying to do in the first place.

“Auntie Evee!” Tenny spread her tentacles out. “Hug for sad?”

Evelyn cleared her throat, frowning and flushing a little. “Uh, well. It’s not that I don’t … ”

“Air hug, Tenny,” I said. “Remember that auntie Evee has delicate bones? Air hug.”

“Mm-mm!” Tenny nodded. “No touch! I know! I know that, silly Heath!”

Evelyn looked intensely awkward and quite embarrassed as she and Tenny shared an air-hug, with a wide cage of Tenny’s silken black tentacles thrown around her, though without actually touching her directly. Tenny didn’t seem embarrassed in the slightest, tilting her head and pretending to lay it on Evee’s shoulder at a distance of about two feet away. Evee blushed and looked down at the floor tiles. As Tenny withdrew, Evee’s free hand brushed against the final tentacle to leave, which then paused and waited. Tenny didn’t look, already turning away to say something to Lozzie and I, but perhaps that was intentional. Perhaps Tenny understood that auntie Evee needed the excuse of not being seen.

Evee patted the tentacle and muttered something under her breath, something I almost didn’t catch.

“You deserve better.”

By the time Raine got back with the curry, Evelyn wasn’t so angry anymore, even if she was still exhausted.


The second day of waiting for Felicity was less irritating than the first, because I turned out to be correct. But it was also infinitely more worrying — also because I turned out to be correct.

When I woke up in the morning the first thing I did — after disentangling myself from Raine’s arms and clambering over Zheng and planting a kiss on Seven’s forehead — was to creep out into the upstairs hallway and check the weather through the window, to make my prediction. The heavy storm clouds that had spent the previous day bullying Sharrowford had now receded from the city, but not actually left. They waited on the northern horizon, like a dark wall of roiling smoke and oil, waiting to descend and drown the land below. Above the city the light was clearer, the sun poking through in weak shafts of diluted gold, but the threat of a deluge still lay close.

“She’s not coming today,” I whispered to myself in the quiet of the morning, staring out of the window across the smothered dawn. “But she’s still planning on a visit. She’s not bluffing.”

“Edging,” Praem said from halfway down the corridor.

I jumped out of my skin, lashing myself to the walls and ceiling with my tentacles, my human feet tapping on the floor several times before I crammed my heart back down my throat.

“Praem!” I hissed. “How do you always do that?”

A pair of milk-white eyes met me from the shadows, reflecting the dull grey beyond the window. “Stealth.”

I stared for a second, then laughed and smiled and shook my head. “Yes, I suppose, that’s technically accurate. Be careful not to do that when you’re standing too close to me though, I don’t want to accidentally slap you with a tentacle.”

Praem’s head went up and down in a very precise and graceful nod. “I will avoid such an outcome.”

“Of course,” I sighed. “Of course.” Then I looked out of the window again. “So, you agree with me? She’s not coming today? What did you say, ‘edging’? What do you mean?”

Praem stared at me, declining to answer.

I blinked at her in the gloomy hallway. Praem could be so esoteric at times. “You agree that she’s … somehow … oh,” I sighed, “this sounds so silly, Evee was right, it’s absurd, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but … do you agree that she’s controlling the weather, somehow? This is Aym’s doing?”

Praem clicked softly down the floorboards to join me at the window. She emerged from the shadows, a great mass of maid uniform and the soft, cuddly Praem beneath, solid and real, hands clasped before her, prim and proper.

As she stared at the distant horizon, the gravid storm roiled in her eyes.

“If the mountain won’t come to Muhammad,” she said.

“Then Muhammad must go to the mountain,” I finished the saying, sighed, and shook my head. “Praem, what does that mean, in this context?”

Praem turned her head from the window to stare at me. All-white eyes in a pale face, her complexion like milk with a hint of rose, hair pinned up behind her head in a loose, messy bun, all blonde loops and loose locks. She stared, waiting for me. I sighed again and smiled with long-suffering indulgence.

“It means … ” I chewed on my tongue, thinking. “Aym is still intending to visit, as promised, she’s just irritating us in the meantime. We don’t need to make alternative plans. We just need to shore up this one.”

“Mountain climbing is difficult,” said Praem.

I nodded. “Evee can’t climb a mountain. At least not by herself.”

“She can be carried.”

“Then we’ll carry her,” I said. “Praem, of all the things to worry about. I love her too, you know that.” I glanced at Evee’s bedroom door on the other side of the hallway, currently closed, no light showing from the crack at the bottom. “The last thing I’m going to do is let Aym anywhere near her alone.”

“She has to reach the mountain first.”

I frowned at Praem. “Now you’re mixing your metaphors.”

“Now you’re mixing your motivations.”

I blinked several times. “Praem?”

Praem the demon-doll, Praem Saye, Evelyn’s daughter, stared at me in the private gloom of the upstairs hallway, lit only by the storm-tossed horizon beyond the city. She declined to explain.

I sighed, intentionally, blowing out a long breath and pulling my tentacles in close, halting their habitual random drift. I even pulled my back straight; odd, but I wasn’t the slightest bit nervous in front of Praem, saying this. “Praem, whatever confusion or difficulties I might be suffering regarding the exact nature of my personal relationship with Evee, you and I both know that I would lay siege to hell itself to stop her from getting hurt. We saved her together once before. Let’s make sure it never gets to that point again.” I blew out a second breath and discovered I was shaking slightly. “My motivations might be mixed, but they’re also very clear. Like mixing water and … and … vodka. I guess. Wow, I’m sorry, that was bad.”

Praem smiled.

It was the third such smile I had ever seen on Praem’s face, a mechanical pulling at her soft, plush cheeks and the bow of her lips. Lack of practice had not improved her form. The smile was deeply unnatural, a forced pantomime of emotion; her face simply wasn’t made for it.

“ … are you smiling at my joke, or … ?” I cleared my throat and trailed off.

Praem stopped smiling. She stared at me instead, without saying anything. How very Praem.

“Praem, you don’t have to pretend a smile,” I said. “You don’t have to do that if it doesn’t feel right.”


I bit my lip, unsure if she was just humouring me. “And what about you? Are you okay with all this? I know this Aym thing is a lot to deal with.”

Praem stared.

“Where is this coming from?” I asked. “Are you just worried about Evee?”

Stare. Silent. I sighed.

“Are you … worried Aym is going to get out of control? Are you worried she’ll be beyond my powers to contain? Beyond your powers?”

“No,” said Praem, sudden and sharp.

“Okay, okay, no offense meant. I’m sure you can make her cower with nothing but a sharp word. Praem, this is obviously bothering you. I … I think. I’m still not that great at reading your emotions.”

“I will not be present to carry her for the final stretch.”

I blinked, then realised. “Oh. Oh … ”

“Oh,” echoed Praem.

“Oh, Praem, I’m so sorry. When I was making that deal with Aym, I didn’t even think. I didn’t think! You’re not going to be in the room. It’s going to be me and Evee. I should have included you. I should have. I’m so sorry.”

I reached out a hand toward Praem, subconsciously pleading for forgiveness. She was right — I had made the deal with Aym to protect Evee, but I hadn’t included Praem. Who was better at protecting Evelyn Saye than her own beloved daughter?

To my surprise, Praem took my hand in hers. My eyes went wide.

“Is that … ?” I said. “Is that ‘apology accepted’?”

“Apology is not necessary.”

“I’ll look after Evee, I promise. It’ll only be twenty minutes.”

Praem let go of my hand again. She turned back to the window, a punctuation mark on the entire conversation. I turned to stare outdoors too, at the looming storm clouds. But it was difficult to adjust. This was the most I’d heard in Praem’s own words in a while.

“We should talk more often,” I said after a moment. “You and I don’t get many chances to chat.”

“Yes,” said Praem.

“I suppose the storm clouds will stay at least until tomorrow.”


“Do you really think Aym is controlling the weather?”


“ … do you think it’s just to irritate us?” Praem turned her head to stare at me. I sighed and shrugged. “Ask a stupid question,” I muttered.

I didn’t like being correct when it came to weird things that shouldn’t be happening.


The rest of that second day was an exercise in imposing my will by subterfuge, which I was exceptionally bad at. Luckily for me, Evee mostly went along with it. I had help, too.

We knew Aym was going to delay Felicity again. Praem knew it, Raine trusted my judgement, Zheng picked it up without needing to be told, Sevens heard it through a door, Lozzie probably learned it in a dream, and Tenny didn’t really care. But Evee was determined to get very angry and shout at the phone again — so I spent the entire day luring her away with small horses.

Ponies, I mean ponies, of course.

Rather than allow her to spend the day in the kitchen again, sinking deeper and deeper into a fugue state of anxiety and worry, I put into action every trick I’d learned from Raine, called on every bit of theatrical interruption owed to me by Seven-Shades-of-Surreptitiously-Sly, and had Praem stare at Evee from about three inches away, all for the aim of getting her upstairs and in front of those cartoons again.

“She might turn up any bloody minute, Heather! We can’t sit here, indulging ourselves all day. We have to be ready.”

“One more episode.”

“This is the end of the season! Heather, that was the end!”

“Then … next season?”

Evee huffed and crossed her arms. “I would have to download it.”

“We have good internet though, don’t we?”

“Yes, but you should let it sit. Digest what you just watched. Really.”

“What about that show you mentioned two days ago, the … the one with the … ” I wracked my brain. “The sad magical girls?”

Evelyn put her face in her hand. “We are not watching more anime, not while I’m waiting for a demon to show up on my doorstep. Certainly not that one.”

“Suffering,” said Praem.

“Then how about … ” I poked at the track pad on Evee’s laptop, which was sitting on a book on her bed again. “How about this one? These two on the cover, are they a couple? They’re cute. I like the style.”

“One of them is a vampire,” Evelyn grunted. “It’s silly.”

I swear I heard a gurgle from under the bed, but I chose to ignore it. “Even better!” I said. “But they’re a couple?”

Evelyn stared at the ceiling, looking like she couldn’t decide if she wanted to shout at me or go to sleep. “Yes. Well, canonically no. But yes. It’s complicated, one of of them finds the vampire in the woods and goes back to her house and there’s … ”

Evelyn trailed off when she realised what I’d baited her into. She shot me a hard-eyed, blushing look. I just stared back, smiling and waiting. Innocent face! I told myself, keep an innocent face, you’re just super interested in Evee’s very sapphic cartoons, not distracting her from the frustration of waiting another day.

“Heather, we need to be ready.”

“We are ready,” I said. “I’m ready for anything, including hearing about this vampire couple.”

“Only one of them is a vampire,” she sighed — and then surrendered to my pestering.

In a very real way, Evelyn was correct. Aym’s attempt to wind her up and ratchet her anxiety to new heights really was getting in the way of important things. Or at least things I needed to get done. I still had no replacement for my broken mobile phone and we couldn’t risk going out to buy one, in case Felicity did in fact begin her journey to Sharrowford that day. And there was no way I could mount the short but vital expedition to the Shamble-swamp, to check on the Dimensional Shamblers, as I had promised. Not until this task was safely over.

But I took plenty of solace in spending the day with Evee regardless. We watched two different anime shows on that slow, strange, dreary day — the one about the vampire girl and her mortal totally-not-girlfriend, and another one about a group of lady assassins who all seemed to be in love with each other in a dizzying web of romantic nonsense. It was very distracting, which was exactly what Evee needed, especially when Raine started fielding the inevitable calls from Felicity about how she was still stuck.

That evening, when Felicity’s attempt to get herself moving had once again ended in abject failure, I made sure that Evelyn spent a nice long time soaking in the bath. Sanctuary for the mind, solace for the body. It took quite some convincing — plus Praem’s insistent stare — but eventually we got her in there.

Raine found me standing half-in half-out of the doorway to Evelyn’s bedroom, staring down the corridor and listening to the distant, muffled splash of water behind the closed door of the bathroom.

“How’s she holding up?” Raine asked.

“ … mm? Sorry?”

Raine came up beside me, put one hand on the back of my neck, and started rubbing my muscles. I let out a low moan, almost a purr, and let my eyes flutter shut. Raine laughed softly.

“You seem kinda shell shocked, Heather. Take some time for yourself too, okay?”

“I’ve been relaxing with Evee all day, I’m fine.” I opened my eyes again and looked up at Raine, at her warm brown eyes brimming with confidence, her hair raked back like she’d just run a hand through it. “You’re the one who’s been dealing with all the phone calls. Thank you, Raine. I mean it. I wouldn’t be able to do that and look after Evee at the same time.”

Raine smirked and shrugged. “S’nothing. Phone’s easy for me.”

“Still, thank you. I think today was the last of it. I think they’ll set off for real tomorrow.”

Raine raised an eyebrow. “Oh yeah? You got a theory?”

I nodded toward the dark panes of the window. Evening darkness had fallen far too early for a summer’s night. On the horizon, lit from below by the glow of light pollution, the storm-wall loomed over Sharrowford like the face of a nightmare god. “That storm’s going to break in the morning. She’ll arrive at the same time.”

Raine raised both eyebrows at me in surprise. Not disbelief or scepticism, not even a little bit. “For serious?” she asked.

I suddenly felt very silly. “I … I think. It’s only a theory. Evee says it’s just weather, but it feels wrong to me. Maybe I’m wrong. I don’t know.”

“Hey, Heather, there’s no shame in being wrong about something,” Raine murmured, soft and intimate, for my ears only. She leaned over and kissed me on the forehead. “It’s better to have a theory and get proved wrong, rather than not bother thinking at all, right?”

“Right,” I sighed. “I just mean … magic. Even after all this time, it feels so silly. Magical weather because of a demon, really?”

Raine laughed and ruffled my hair. “You’re real tired. I can tell. You’ve done real good today, looking after Evee. Better than I ever could. Well done, Heather.”

I shrugged and pulled an awkward smile, looking down the corridor again, toward the bathroom.

“I really love her, do you know that?”

Why did you say that!? part of my mind screamed — but the rest of me was totally at ease, even as I looked up at Raine, seeking approval or understanding.

Raine ruffled my hair again. “‘Course you do. So do I.”

“No, I mean I … I love her.”

Raine grinned. “Wanna go join her in the bathroom?”

“Tch!” I tutted. “Raine. No. I’m serious.”

“So am I! Go join her in the bathtub, that’ll keep her spirits up.”

I gave Raine a withering look, but she just snorted. What was I trying to do here, confess something important, or express something she already knew? My heart rate was steady, my palms were dry, I was utterly at ease. Raine already knew all this, or thought she knew.

“Praem’s already in the room with her, in case she has trouble getting out of the tub,” I said as a compromise, falling back on the practical dimension. “As always.”

Raine laughed, pulled me into a rough and sudden hug, and kissed the top of my head. “Between you and Praem, Evee’s gonna be just fine.”

I melted into Raine’s arms, leaning my head against her shoulder and closing my eyes. Only then did I realise just how tense I was.

The storm boiled away on the horizon of my mind’s eye, to reveal a dripping grin beneath the clouds.


Distant thunder woke me the next morning, slow waves of mercury and molten silver crashing against a shore of broken glass, rolling across the sky. Raindrops tapped and danced on the roof tiles, hesitant for now, testing us. The sun was dead and buried.

Less than twenty minutes later, I was proven correct; into the gloom of our bedroom sprang the sickly light of Raine’s phone screen, flashing with an incoming call. Felicity, and it wasn’t even seven o’clock in the morning yet. Zheng growled from the other side of me, a shifting bulk moving to protect me from an unseen threat. Raine sat up in bed, sneezed into her elbow, and scooped up the phone.

She answered the call by saying, “You better be on your bloody way this time, Fliss.”

She was. The reclusive mage and her difficult demon were finally on their way to Sharrowford, just as the storm was breaking.

The rain steadily worsened over the next three hours as the storm moved over the city. Then the clouds seemed to stop overhead, hanging low and thick and dark, turning Sharrowford damp and chilly with the unbroken drizzle. Felicity called us twice more, once from the road and once from a service station on the M6, to let us know that all was well and she was making good time. We prepared for her arrival, but there was little left to do, except keep a close eye on Evelyn’s mood. She sat in the kitchen, reading, waiting, seemingly calm and ready. I had given her all I could.

By the time Felicity reached the outskirts of Sharrowford the storm’s drizzle had turned into a torrential downpour. Raindrops slammed against the roof and pounded through the leaves on the old tree out in the garden. Muddy wallows were forming around the back patio where short-lived streams cut through the unkempt grass. The garden path was under half an inch of water and the road itself was swirling with little eddies and puddles as the drains backed up. No wind, so the rain fell straight down from the unmoving clouds.

We even checked the news and found the newsreaders in serious mode, frowning and nodding, the weather lady gesticulating over a map of the north west of England, with Sharrowford picked out beneath a cross-hatching of alarming red. This storm was a big deal, flooding low-lying parts of the city centre and dumping months worth of rain into the river. Downstream would be even worse.

Amid this veil of storm, a dark chariot drew to a stop outside the house.

“She’s here,” Raine announced, peering out of the window in the old disused sitting room. “Places, ladies, places please.”

Nobody had to be told twice.

Felicity had been given very specific instructions about what to do when she arrived. Much to my relief, she followed them to the letter. She was probably terrified that I might set Zheng on her. Raine received two text messages from Felicity, confirming that she was here and that she was ready. Raine and I got into our shoes, following our part of the plan, though we hadn’t planned on the need to wear coats and grab umbrellas, but we did so anyway. No sense in getting soaked.

Evee waited in the kitchen, heavily guarded. There was no chance of Aym ambushing her before we were ready. She had Praem, Zheng, Sevens, Lozzie, and Tenny all in there with her. If Aym wanted to appear to her without warning, she was going to get “choke-slammed by two demons and a playwright”, as Raine so delicately put it.

That failed to get a laugh out of Evee. “Get on with it,” she said. “Go make sure she’s alive, or whatever. Or not.”

“Stay dry,” said Praem.

That was easier said than done. Raine and I stepped out of the front door and into the pounding rain, huddling close together. Water streamed off the pair of umbrellas we’d brought for protection, but even they couldn’t keep the storm entirely at bay. I kept my tentacles wound in close, wrapped around my limbs and anchored to Raine’s waist too, as if we were venturing into an Arctic night. We started off down the path, wellington boots splashing in the rushing stream of water.

“That’s the car, right?” Raine asked, speaking over the static of the raindrops.

“The same one from the last time she visited, yes.”

Felicity’s car was partially obscured by the sheer density of the rain pounding against the bodywork and tinted windows, but there was no mistaking it for any other vehicle. A battered old range rover, dark green, eaten away at the edges by slow rust. Even washed clean by the rain, the thing looked about ready to lie down and die of exhaustion. I knew very little about cars, but Raine had informed me that when new, such a car would have cost a very large amount of money.

The engine was silent, no lights showed inside the cabin, and the windscreen wipers lay still. But I could see a vague outline through the windscreen as we approached, a figure sitting in the driver’s seat, watching us draw close.

Felicity — for it must have been her — raised a hand in limp greeting.

Raine and I stopped on the pavement next to the passenger-side door, our wellington boots squeaking against the wet ground. Raine tilted her umbrella so Felicity could lower the window without getting a torrent of water inside her car. I huddled close to Raine, bracing for anything, one tentacle raised to — to what? To punch through the glass and grab Felicity by the face? To intercept Aym if she darted out like a missile?

Through the tinted glass, the figure inside leaned over and found the handle to manually crank the window down. With aching slowness, the dark glass lowered, revealing the unmistakable face of Felicity Amber Hackett.

Felicity was a very strange looking woman indeed, a certain kind of face one never forgets. Whatever she had been responsible for, whatever she had once inflicted upon Evee, however much she was a mage, it was difficult to look at the facts of her flesh and not feel at least some sympathy.

The entire left side of Felicity’s face was a burn scar. Old, reddish, rough scarring stretched from her scalp, blurred her brow and cheek and jaw, and vanished down inside her neckline. She had no left ear. Her left eye was blind, milky-white, sight burned away. The left corner of her lips was missing, wiped away by flame, the source of her permanent mumble.

The healthy side — her right — was unguarded, skittish, and soft. She didn’t look like a mage at all. In fact, she reminded me in an uncomfortable way of some of the older girls I’d briefly known at Cygnet children’s hospital. Gentle, afraid, haunted, forced into constant hyper-vigilance.

Felicity wasn’t intimidating at all. She was a very pitiful thing, brittle and willowy, moving as if always suppressing internal pain or hiding an injury.

Her reddish-brown hair fell to the middle of her back. She was wearing a dark cardigan and a battered blue coat, big boots on her feet and black leather gloves on both hands.

“Heeeeeey Flissy,” said Raine, grinning without guile. “Here at last, hey? Didn’t get to see you in the flesh last time you came down.”

Felicity froze, then straightened up very, very slowly indeed, back into the driver’s seat, as if Raine was a rattlesnake she had disturbed by turning over a rock. Her good eye stayed locked on Raine with all the focus of a gunfighter preparing to draw. She took great care to keep both hands in view as she moved, then carefully placed them back on the steering wheel, at two-and-ten.

Which was smart, in front of Raine, because Felicity had a gun lying in her lap.

I sighed sharply when I realised, shaking my head. A towel-wrapped bundle lay across Felicity’s thighs, about the right size and shape for the sawn-off shotgun she’d brought with her on her previous visit. One end was pointed off at an angle, not quite at us. The other end was open, the towel partially unwrapped, probably so she could access the grip and trigger.

“What is it with mages and paranoia?” I snapped. “You could have at least kept the thing in a bag. What is it even for? Were you planning a drive-by?”

Felicity blinked at me, suddenly self-conscious and mortified. “I’m— I— I— I’m sorry,” she said in her distinct half-mumble from her restricted mouth. “Precautions. You have to understand, there’s— there’s always precautions to take, when I’m away from home.”

“Hey, it’s all cool,” Raine said, still smiling. She leaned forward, one elbow on the lip of the car window. “Nothing to worry about, no danger to us.”

“Y-yes,” Felicity agreed. “It’s not for you, not aimed at you. I never know who I might see on the road. Have to be careful.”

“Besides,” said Raine. “Even with your gun in your lap and mine in my coat, I’d still draw faster than you.”

Felicity went white with fear.

“Oh Raine, for pity’s sake,” I hissed. “This isn’t Amy Stack. You don’t need to have a surrogate penis-measuring contest with Felicity. Really!”

Raine had the good grace to look a little sheepish, clearing her throat and looking away, out into the pouring rain, but she still grinned like this was all a big joke. “Well, you know. She started it.”

“It’s a gun, Raine. Take this seriously.”

“I am taking it seriously.” She laughed. “That’s why I’m armed!”

“Tch,” I tutted and sighed, then turned my anger on Felicity too. She flinched before I even opened my mouth, but she kept her hands glued to the steering wheel. “And you, this is practically a replay of last time you visited! Pointing a concealed weapon at us again! Mages, I swear to good sense, all of you are impossible.” I huffed and peered into the back of the car, past the passenger seat, but there was nothing back there except a couple of large bags, some towels, and a bundle of wires. “Where’s Aym, anyway?”

“It’s not even loaded for people,” Felicity mumbled.

“I’m sorry?” I blinked back at her, not sure if I’d heard that right. Felicity was staring at me with a kind of hollow horror in her one good eye, exhausted and twitchy.

Raine laughed. “Silver shot or iron pellets still work just the same on human beings, Fliss.”

“Good thing it’s not loaded with those, then,” Felicity said to Raine. “I could point this at you and pull the trigger and it wouldn’t hurt you. It’s not for you. I have things of my own going on, okay?” Felicity’s voice threatened to break. She panted twice, to get her composure back, as little as it was. “I need to carry protection. It’s got nothing to do with you.”

Raine studied her for a moment, then nodded, no longer laughing or grinning. “Okay, Fliss. We’re cool. Does this mean you gotta carry that gun into our house?”

Felicity blinked twice. “I … I wasn’t expecting to … be allowed inside.”

I sighed, hunching a little against the rain, despite my umbrella. “Yes, I think it’s best if you don’t come in. Evelyn has agreed not to try to kill you, I want to make that clear. But it would make her very unhappy.”

Felicity looked down at her car’s dashboard, her eyes miles away. She nodded to herself. “Yeah. Yeah. I … I don’t get to see her. I don’t. Can you maybe … maybe tell her … from me—”

“After she’s spoken to Aym,” I said.

It took all my ruthlessness, all my hard-hearted love for Evee, to tell this broken woman no.

Felicity drew in a shuddering breath, then nodded. She didn’t look at us.

“Hey, Fliss,” Raine said. “Serious question, yeah?”

“Mm?” Felicity looked up at last.

“That gun, you out here on your own, once Aym comes inside with us and all. Are you safe?”

Felicity stared for a moment, then swallowed, then straightened up. She seemed to find some strength in the answer to that question. “Probably. If I was being followed, I would know by now. If something … arrives, well, that’s what the gun’s for. I’ll be alright.”

Raine nodded. A professional reassuring a rookie.

I peered into the back seat again. “Where’s Aym?”

“Yeah,” Raine said “You hiding her in the boot?”

Felicity sighed. “She’s always here, always with me. If you go inside and go into a room alone, she’ll be ready. Heather and Evee alone, I mean. She normally never shows herself to more than one person at a time, but she’ll cooperate for this. I guess.”

“Real spooky.” Raine shot Felicity a wink.

“And make sure,” Felicity added, “make sure nobody else is alone during this. She might … well … I don’t know what she might do. I don’t control her. I can’t. She might … ” Felicity trailed off and shrugged.

“We’ve made sure everybody is together,” I said. “All in one place.”

Raine opened her mouth — then stopped, eyebrows shooting up. She turned to me. I frowned at her, then my eyes went wide and I put my free hand over my mouth.

“Don’t say—” Felicity started.

“Kim’s not at work today,” Raine said, then snapped back to Felicity. “Oh. Shit. Did I just jinx us?”

“Kimberly!” I hissed. “You’re right. She was sleeping in late, she always sleeps in late on her days off.”

Felicity went grey, panting with panic. “You said it! You said it! Not me! She’s going to have heard that!”

Raine rapped her knuckles on the car door to get Felicity’s attention. “Hey. What do we do?”

“Interrupt her! Quickly!”

“Kimberly is tougher than she looks,” I said. “We have time to get back indoors and get her with the others before—”

A scream of mad panic suddenly cut through the storm, muffled by the pounding rain and the walls of the house and the complexity of the second floor bedrooms. I had not heard that scream in months and months, the sort of scream that went on and on as somebody scrambled out of bed and hurled objects and fell over and banged into things.

Kimberly, screaming her head off.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Aym isn’t even there and she’s causing problems. She is causing problems by doing the one specific thing that Evelyn would actually prefer: not turning up. It’s a talent and a skill, being a little shit without even being present. Still, it did give Evee and Heather another chance to watch pony cartoons together. Very important use of everybody’s time. And Praem! This is the most she’s spoken in a while. Storms, meanwhile, are very comfy!

Book is out now! Audiobook too!

Incredibly enough, there is now another podcast also talking about Katalepsis! Perhaps encouraged by the release of the Volume I ebook and audiobook, the podcast In Media Les have made an hour long discussion about arcs 1-4. I swear, I didn’t plan this! Go give it a listen, if you like!

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

Subscribing to the Patreon!

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

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

Next week, Heather is going to tell Aym off so much. Nobody frightens Heather’s found family, not even those on the very edge of the pack.

loyal to the nightmare of my choice – 18.3

Content Warnings

Small mention of dysphoria

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Raine’s phone lay on the kitchen table like a chunk of occult meteorite, radiating waves of suffocating dread into the unseasonal gloom which pressed against the walls and windows of our home. I would not have been surprised if the wooden surface of the table had begun to smoulder and blacken under the pressure of that aching void. Silence imposed itself on us after Felicity had delivered terms — Aym’s terms, her demand, her price for the spell that might unravel the secret of Edward’s hiding place.

Outdoors, the rain started up again, heavier than the drizzle earlier in the day. Fat raindrops drummed on the roof tiles, a growing static filling the dead air.

On the other end of the phone, Felicity didn’t even seem to be breathing.

I had to bite my tongue to hold back a hiss.

All she’d said was “twenty minutes’ private conversation with Evelyn Saye”, and then fallen silent. Nothing supernatural or unnatural had happened. Nobody had cast any spells or uttered any scraps of broken Latin. Nothing half-hidden had shifted in the corner of my vision. Nothing had climbed out of the screen of the phone. The brief shared silence was probably just shock, or exasperation, or anxiety.

But abyssal instinct whispered inappropriate and nonsensical warnings, down in my brain stem — that the object on the table was a lie in plastic and metal and toughened glass, not truly a mobile phone at all, despite the cheery purple background of the call screen and the mildly insulting name which Raine had given to Felicity’s contact number. My tentacles bunched and tightened, ready to spring forward and sweep the phone onto the floor, like it was a live bomb or a toxic slug, a vile intrusion that should be removed from the presence of my pack this instant. That gut feeling I’d brought back from the endless dark, it was screaming at me that something here was wrong.

In a handful of seconds I was shaking and sweating, flushed with adrenaline.

Raine must have noticed, because when she lifted her eyes from the silent phone, she tilted her head at me with a concerned frown. She mouthed my name. ‘Heather?’

I shook my head and screwed up my eyes and swallowed hard. My throat hurt from holding back the hiss.

Was Felicity really calling us from some rotting old manor house up in Cumbria? It felt like that phone call was a pinprick hole leading to a dark and dripping void, a place full of slavering maws and lurking predators and toxic fog, somewhere not unlike the abyss, or Wonderland. But as I concentrated on that thought, the sounds from the other end of the call seemed to filter slowly back. The patter of rain on windows, the creak of beams in the wind, the soft crackle and pop of wood burning in a fireplace. I heard Felicity’s lips part with a wet click, followed by a shaking, nervous intake of breath.

Abyssal instinct eased down, no longer aching to lash out and smash the phone to pieces. That would have been very rude to Raine, after all. I forced down my own deep breath, telling myself that I was just incensed by the threat to Evelyn’s emotional and psychological well-being.

The alternative was too bizarre to consider. For practical purposes we were talking to a human being, even if she was a mage, who really did physically exist, sitting in a house about a hundred and thirty miles north of Sharrowford.

I wasn’t the important factor here. Evelyn was.

She looked about ready to break Raine’s phone as well, though she showed it differently. She had gone completely still. Her hand had turned clammy in mine, her eyes looked like cut-out holes in wet paper, and her jaw was clenched hard with suppressed disgust, or anger, or worse.

“Evee?” I whispered.

I squeezed her hand too, but she didn’t look at me. She half-nodded sideways, an acknowledgement and a dismissal in one gesture. Still staring at the phone, at Felicity. I was about to step in, perhaps by taking her face in my hand to turn her away, when she drew a deep breath and resumed negotiations.

“Define ‘private conversation’,” said Evelyn.

It wasn’t a question. She delivered her demand with all the imperious power of a warlord on her throne, a lady who was used to be obeyed in every matter, in a tone that said Felicity had already failed her.

If Evelyn had turned that tone on me, I think I would have curled up and died on the spot, like an insect exposed to an open flame.

Felicity finally inhaled again, perhaps relieved she hadn’t been instantly condemned to a slow and painful traitor’s death. On the other end of the call, I heard her swallow with a very dry throat before she stammered out a reply in her habitual half-mumble, muffled by her own scarred lips.

“E-Evelyn and Aym, alone. No— nobody else is allowed to overhear. No eavesdropping. Private conversation. That’s all she means, I think. She didn’t specify anything else, just that it had to be private. I-I’m sorry, I’m really sorry, I—”

Evelyn snapped hard, drowning out the apology, lips twisting like she’d caught a foul scent. “And what does the vile shit-stain of a demon wish to discuss?”

“I … ” Felicity paused.

I blinked, a hiss trying to crawl up my throat again.

She was about to lie to us.

I couldn’t possibly have known that. The strange feeling passed as quickly as it had stolen over me. Abyssal instinct was making me paranoid; I did not possess a built-in pneuma-somatic lie detector, that was nonsense. All abyssal instinct really knew was that Felicity the mage was deeply uncomfortable at answering that specific question.

“I-I don’t know,” she said after a heartbeat, speaking too fast, her natural mumble blurring her words worse than before. “She didn’t tell me. She didn’t say. If she had said then I would let you know. You know that, don’t you? I-I would let you know, I would do— do anything to help, to—”

Raine laughed, fake-soft, a razor blade hidden in a blossom. “Quit while you’re ahead, Fliss.”

A hard swallow from the other end of the phone, followed by, “Right. Right. Of course, Raine.”

I glanced at Evee again. She was staring at the phone like it owed her an explanation.

“You don’t have to do this,” I murmured, trying to catch her eye. “Evee, you don’t have to. I can … find a way. Another way.”

But Evelyn ignored me. For Felicity, she snorted. “All right then, let’s get this nonsense over with. Put Aym on the phone.” Evee gestured to Praem with her free hand. “Praem, Heather, both of you help me up please. I’ll do it in the workshop, there’s no sense buggering about getting the kitchen door closed and having everybody else stand around in the front room.”

Praem left her post at Raine’s side and went to step around the end of the table, bustling along in her maid dress. I rose to my feet with Evee’s hand in mine, preparing to help her up by wrapping a tentacle around her shoulders and another one touching her waist. She didn’t even flinch, which worried me even more. Was she steeling herself for this? Gone numb inside?

I leaned in closer to Evee, about to whisper that she didn’t have to do this. As soon as we were beyond earshot of the phone, I would put a stop to this. I couldn’t live with the result if she put herself at psychological risk for my sake. Aym had been a weird thing when I’d once spoken to her alone — or rather, been spoken to by her. She had hit me with useless attempts to undermine my self-confidence, weak mockery that didn’t strike a nerve so much as just irritate. But she obviously had a ruinous and complex effect on Felicity. Every instinct in me rebelled against allowing her to be alone with Evelyn, even across the thin electromagnetic connection of a phone call.

“Um,” Felicity said, in the tone of a lowly wretch about to inform their monarch of a natural disaster. “N-no … ”

Evee froze halfway to her feet, glaring at the phone. “No?”

“Aym … Aym meant … means … in person. Face to face. Alone in a room, with you.”

Raine slumped back in her chair, a grin on her face, shaking her head. “You gotta be kidding me.”

“Unacceptable,” said Praem, crisp and clean and clear. I couldn’t have agreed more. Down by my side, Seven-Shades-of-Small-and-Shrill made a low gurgle of disapproval, showing all her teeth to the blank face of the phone.

Evelyn, on the other hand, just stared, wide eyed.

“Evee?” I murmured her name.

The colour drained from her face.

For a split-second I thought she was terrified. The tentacle around her shoulders tightened in support, while the one at her waist slipped around to hold her steady. My other tentacles twitched, aching to raise a protective cage around her. A bit redundant, as this assault was emotional rather than physical. I was halfway through turning back to the phone, about to hiss at Felicity, when Evelyn went off like a slow-fuse bomb.

“You. Fucking. Underhanded. Subhuman. Filth,” she spat at the phone, actually stepping forward and smacking her cane against the edge of the table, almost skinning her knuckles. “You think you’re going to worm your way into another visit to my home? You think I would let you within a hundred fucking meters of this building ever again?”

Felicity stammered. “I-I-I- n-no, i-it’s not me, n-not—”

“I would sooner have you flayed and gutted and stick your corpse on a stake in some Outside nightmare-dimension than spend twenty minutes alone in a room with you, you fucking waste of skin!”

“Evee, Evee!” I said, terrified at her sudden, shaking rage. She was cold and hot at the same time, utterly focused, suddenly covered in cold sweat. If Felicity had been in the room with us then, I had the distinct impression that Evelyn would have killed her — or more accurately, had her killed, without a second thought. “Evee, it’s okay, it’s okay. Evee? Evee?”

“Not me! Not me!” Felicity was saying, almost squealing like she was being tortured. I could hear tiny, hiccuping sobs and a sound like nails pulling at her own face.

“Oh, is that right?” Evelyn drooled toxic sarcasm. “You’re going to come down here and get me alone in a room with your fucking demon and then not involve yourself? Paragon of innocence, aren’t you? Always a victim, always just a tool in somebody else’s hand, never your fault! Or maybe you’re going to try to get me to visit you up there. I’m not a moron, and I’m not twelve years old anymore.”

Raine had risen to her feet as well, reaching out to Evelyn in alarm. Praem had her mother’s shoulder in one hand, but it was doing no good. Sevens peered around my side, but there was little she could do. Evelyn was ready to spit at god.

“Evee!” I said out loud. “Evee!”

Felicity was openly sobbing on the other end of the call. “I didn’t mean— I didn’t mean— mean to—”

Evelyn leaned down toward the phone. The pose was not easy for her, with her kinked spine and twisted shoulders. She grimaced in sudden pain, but forced herself through gritted teeth and bulging eyes, and said, “I will have you shot, Felicity.”

Have you?” giggled a voice from the pit.

Aym, with her mouth so close to the phone that she made the air crackle.

Evelyn flinched back so hard that she would have gone flying if it wasn’t for me and Praem already holding onto her. She lost her balance with her walking stick, gasping for air as if Aym’s voice had been suffocation itself. Raine back-pedalled too, whipping her hand away as if the phone was suddenly a red hot coal burning through the table. On the other side of me, Sevens bared all her teeth, snapping them twice in a snicker-snack motion of agitated disgust. From the utility room I heard a low rumble — Zheng, not even joining us, but still expressing her displeasure at this strange mockery of a demon.

I turned my head and opened my mouth wide and hisssssssed at the phone.

Aym giggled. It was a terrible sound, high-pitched and scratchy, setting one’s teeth on edge, like a collection of rusty knives trying to imitate human vocal chords. Felicity was still sobbing, but more distant now, as if she’d slid out of her chair and curled up on the floor, her place usurped by the lively awfulness of Aym.

“Have Felicity shot?” Aym repeated as we were all still reeling, her metal-and-acid voice dripping with mockery. “What’s the matter, are your own fingers too weak to pull the trigger? You’ve got one working hand, my little butter-sweet confectionery, you can hold a gun and press the muzzle to her forehead. Don’t you want to smell the iron-hot blood and cordite smoke and greasy chewy brains when they go splot-splot-splot!” She made a horrible slapping noise with something that did not sound entirely like a tongue. “Or are you too squeamish for that? Let’s make it fun! Let’s make it a game! Why not come up here for a hunt? I’ll drive her out into the woods, you can wear a flat cap and carry a shotgun over your arm—”

Praem pressed Evelyn into my arms, still blinking and trying to recover. The demon maid leaned down toward the phone.

“No,” she said, crisp and clear. “Bad girl.”

Same technique as last time we’d called. Go Praem, I thought, well done.

Aym yelped like a kicked puppy. I heard a noise like the scrambling of claws against bare stone, a scrape and a hiss and a skitter. The thing on the other end of the phone was obviously not fully human right then. The sound of small bare feet pattered away at speed, sprinting off into the echoing black void that seemed to surround the other end of the phone call, leaving only Felicity’s soft panting to fill the darkness.

Praem straightened up and smoothed her skirt over her hips. I allowed my hiss to die down, my heart still pounding like a caged bird; I tried to roll my eyes, play it all off as exasperation, but abyssal instinct was churning in my gut at that horrible voice from Aym. Sevens helped, going “Bleh,” and sticking her tongue out.

Raine breathed a big sigh and nodded a thanks to Praem. Evelyn clung to me with one hand, swallowing and gritting her teeth, looking deeply humiliated.

“Weirdo,” said Sevens. “Also, not actually gone.”

“What?” Raine’s attention snapped to Sevens, then back to the phone. “Seriously?”

“Excuse me, Sevens?” I said.

“Sneaky little bitch,” Sevens said. “Come out.”

“Bad girl,” Praem repeated — but this time it sounded like an afterthought.

“Heh heh heh,” said Aym, pronouncing the laugh like a response to a poor joke. Her voice was a softer scratch than before, still coming from the phone on the table. “How did you know I didn’t really leave? Who is that, there? I don’t know you, but you’ve got a lot of teeth and you smell like blood.”

Sevens responded by clacking her teeth together again. It reminded me of a cat chattering at a bird it couldn’t reach. Sevens’ hadn’t adjusted her posture at all, peering over the top of the table at the phone, but the set of her musculature seemed somehow different — predatory, tense, focused. I suddenly wondered what might unfold if we managed to get Aym and Sevens in the same room.

But we didn’t need to. We already had the dominant demon: Praem leaned toward the phone again.

As if she could somehow see Praem, Aym hissed like a bundle of blood-slick knives being dragged across a rusty metal plate. “Ahh-ahhh! No need for that, no need! Stop! Stop! I’ll stop for a moment, okay? Okay? I’ll be nice, I’ll be polite, I’ll be sweet. Promise! Let’s negotiate, please? I can’t well negotiate if you keep whipping me.”

Praem straightened up. “Very rude,” she said.

“She’s got your number there,” said Raine, low and serious. “You are a right little shit.”

“Puuuwwwaaahh!” Aym made a sound like an angry poodle made of industrial run-off. “Well I’ve got her number, too! Dressed up like a maid? You were a dancing star of chaos, now you serve a woman who can’t even admit she needs serving. What does it feel like to know that if she went down, you would follow her? Because you would. Down, down, down, and you couldn’t stop her! And you’d trot on after because you need her respect, you need her, you need mummy! Oh, what’s that? Too hard to think for yourself? Can’t wrap your tiny brain around making decisions?” Aym’s voice rose back into a scratchy giggle. “Oh, but you don’t have one, do you? It’s just wood between your ears, so mummy makes all the choices for you, there’s a good little maid, totter off and dust the fucking mantelpiece!” Aym shrieked a laugh.

Evelyn huffed and rolled her eyes. I was just frowning — that was hardly the barrage of sharp-tongued undermining that one might have expected from an expert in psychological torture. Raine just shook her head, grinning.

Praem leaned toward the phone. Aym didn’t make a sound, but I swear I could somehow feel her bracing on the other end of the call.

“You are going the right way for a spanking,” said Praem.

“You wouldn’t dare,” Aym purred in a voice like bending metal. She sounded quite confident.

Praem straightened up and said no more.

A moment of awkward silence fell over the kitchen. Nobody seemed to know what to say — what value was there in negotiating with Aym? Evelyn had recovered from both her anger and her shock, but she just clung to me, one hand gripping my sleeve. Raine spread her arms and glanced about, but nobody had anything to add. Raindrop static filled the air, drumming against the roof above our heads. The house itself seemed to be crouching, hunching up tight against the unnatural chill. On the other end of the phone, Felicity had stopped sobbing and whimpering, but I could hear Aym breathing in strange little rasps.

Raine nodded to Evelyn. Evelyn grimaced and hesitated. I spoke up in her place.

“Aym,” I said. “Remember me? Heather?”

“Nature’s ultimate bottom,” she said — but she didn’t sound very amused. Like the taunting was just automatic.

Still I sighed and felt a little blush creep into my cheeks. I knew exactly what she meant by ‘bottom’ in that context. I’d learned from Raine. “Aym, what is there to negotiate with you?”

“Why, twenty minutes’ access of course. I thought Flissy was very clear about that.” Aym seemed to get some of her confidence back as she spoke on, voice scratching at the inside of my ears. “Unless you’re trying to be a clever girl and talk around me? Lead me into a trap? Do you want to try? It’s been a while since somebody could. But if you lose, you might get sore! Haha!”

Evelyn pulled herself up as straight as she could stand and finally put her weight back on her walking stick. “You know I won’t allow Felicity in this house. What do you expect to gain by this?”

I whispered to her, “Evee, you don’t have to. I can deal with her, I can try!”

“Shhh,” Evelyn hissed back from the corner of her mouth.

“It’s no trick, sweet pea,” said Aym. “Let me in and let’s talk. Then I’ll give you your spell. We can even make a deal! A proper deal, like magicians and demons are meant to make, with signatures in blood and a circle for me to stand in—”

“Of course it’s a trick,” Evelyn said. “What do you really want?”

Aym burst into bubbly giggles, a sound like boiling tar. “Twenty minutes’ talk! Why is it so hard to believe me? Flissy can wait out in her car and then we’ll stay in a hotel or something. She’s not important here! She’s not even human. This is between me and you, my sweet butterscotch bread roll.”

Evelyn opened her mouth to reply — and hesitated.

In that moment I realised what was going on. Felicity made Evelyn angry, but Aym terrified her.

Aym’s bizarre voice and the constant barrage of her insults had distracted me long enough to miss the change at first. Perhaps that was intentional on Aym’s part, a distraction and deflection. Abyssal instinct whispered that I was watching a hunting strategy in action. Evelyn was hiding it well, probably riding out the previous high of indignant anger — but the prospect of being alone in a room with Aym for twenty minutes was leaving her terrified and shaken. I could feel it in the tensing of her muscles beneath the two tentacles I had around her shoulders and waist. I could see it in the grey doom slowly filling her complexion. But most of all I could see it in her determination, her dedication to overcome this obstacle. She was going to do this.

Evee was going to subject herself to Aym — whatever that meant — in order to find Edward Lilburne, to recover the book we needed, to go save my twin sister.

For Maisie’s sake — which really meant for my sake — Evelyn was willing to face a literal demon from her own past, whom she was utterly terrified of, for reasons I didn’t understand.

I knew who and what Felicity was to Evelyn, the role she had played in Evee’s past, to some extent. An old associate of Evelyn’s mother, Felicity was not quite a doctor, having never completed medical school. Or so she said. She was the illegal surgeon who had performed the amputation on Evelyn’s leg. From what she and Evelyn had admitted, she was obsessed with Evee, with the need for redemption and a forgiveness that Evelyn could not give. Evelyn hated her. And after all, she was a mage.

But I had no idea what Aym meant to Evee.

Evelyn wet her lips with a little flicker of her tongue, pulling all her courage together. I could feel it, flowing through her like the dregs from the bottom of a cup of tea.

Did I have the right to step in? I didn’t care. Abyssal instinct was screaming that Evee needed protection. I could no more let her do this than let her step in front of a train.

“Aym,” I said before Evee could speak. “What if I’m in the room when you and Evelyn have your private conversation?”

Aym snorted. “Then it’s not a private conversation, is it?”

“Heather,” Evelyn hissed between her teeth. “I can—”

“Answer the question, Aym. Yes, or no?”

“No,” Aym said. “Alone. Me and ickle Evees.”

“Then there’s no deal to make.”

Aym giggled. “Then you won’t get your spell, will you?”

“Yes I will,” I said.

I felt Aym freeze up. I stared at the phone, staring her down. Could she see me? Could she see the plan forming inside my head? I gently cleared my throat and continued.

“You get twenty minutes’ conversation with Evelyn, with me in the room. In return, we get the solution to the magical problem.”

Aym didn’t reply. Evelyn poked me in shoulder with a fingertip. “Heather!” she hissed. Raine held up a hand to stall her, nodding to me. She could sense that I was onto something.

“I know what I’m doing,” I whispered back.

“No! You don’t!” Evelyn whispered through clenched teeth. “Aym is … she … she will run rings around you, Heather!”

“Hhhhhnnnnnn … ” Aym purred from the phone’s speaker, an amused noise. “Interesting. Not what I want, though.”

“Additionally,” I said. “I would like to speak with you alone right now, over the phone.”

“We are speaking!” Aym laughed. “You want some privacy with me? Want to confess your feelings? That I’ve got into your head and you can’t stop thinking about me? Need to say something that you can’t say in front of your friends, you … little … ” Aym trailed off, as if she was trying to puzzle out bad handwriting. “Squid? What? Eh?”

“No,” I said. “I am trying to spare your dignity.”

I heard Aym shift, a noise like metal scales slithering across tidal rock pools. She sighed with throaty, bubbly, wet amusement. “Well, I can’t move from this spot. Our phone is so old it has a dial. So anything you want to say, Flissy will overhear it. She’s not in a state to move right now. Are you, Flissy-poos?”

“Mm,” Felicity grunted from somewhere beyond the phone.

“That’s fine with me,” I said. I gestured at Raine, one hand out for the phone, as I gently handed Evee back to Praem. “I’m going to take the phone and step into the other room now.”

“Take your time, you little freak,” Aym purred.

“Heather!” Evelyn was hissing, even as Raine was handing me the phone. “Heather, do not do this alone! At least have me with you, for fuck’s sake!”

“I’ve spoken with Aym before,” I whispered back. “She’s not so scary. I’ll be fine. Please, Evee. Let me try.”

In truth, I was shuddering inside. I swallowed hard, trying not to hiccup and give the game away. Evelyn opened her mouth to snap at me.

“Please, Evee,” I repeated. “We have to stop being reactive. I have to do this!”

Evelyn fumed in silence. Raine nodded her confidence in me. Sevens watched curiously, tilting her head from side to side. Praem stayed by Evelyn as I stepped away. I felt terribly guilty, but I needed to deploy things that I couldn’t do in front of Raine and Evelyn, things that maybe I couldn’t do in front of anybody.

Alone with a direct line to a dark place, I stepped away from the table and into the magical workshop, and then shut the door behind me.

I leaned my back against the cold wood of the door, closing my eyes and taking a deep breath. Then, on an instinct I didn’t quite comprehend, I reached out with a tentacle and flicked the lights off, plunging the room into a twilight gloom of thick shadows and static grey. With the cloudy, rainy, dark day outdoors, and the heavy curtains covering the workshop windows, the room became a cave-grotto at the bottom of an ocean trench, filled with the sound of raindrops against the roof and the windows.

My squid-skull mask was sitting on the table, staring at me with empty eye sockets across the dark. Had I left it there, pointed at the door like that?

I pushed off from the door with my tentacles, floating into the centre of the room. For a moment it seemed as if my feet weren’t touching the ground — and then they truly weren’t. I balanced on three tentacles instead, using the others to grip the table and a nearby chair.

Suspended in quiet darkness. A bubble of imitation abyss in the womb of Number 12 Barnslow Drive.

Going to need your help for this one, I told the house. Make me feel like I’m back there. Make me feel whole.

I chased away all the lingering abyssal dysphoria that had been lurking in the back of my mind since the conversation with Badger. I wasn’t truly alone; the spider-servitors were up in their usual corner, with Marmite hanging out below them, but they didn’t mind the darkness. I held my eyes open on shadow and static and made myself believe I was floating in the oceanic void.

I was sharp and quick and had many teeth.

I thumbed off the speaker function and raised the mobile phone to my ear.

“Aym,” I said. “It’s just me now. Let’s talk.”

“Hmmmmmmmm.” Aym purred like a cat made of burning sulphur. It made my skin crawl and my spine tingle, in the bad kind of way. As she spoke, her voice dropped more and more into the truly inhuman sound of gurgling and scraping. “Out-talking a demon, very bold. So very bold. But aren’t you just a little thing, Heather? You don’t know if you’re coming or going, even if big strong Raine decides for you. What are you going to achieve, threatening me?”

“You’re a bit out of date,” I said. “I have three girlfriends now.”


“You’ll get your twenty minutes with Evee, with me in the room. Then you give me the spell. You’re going to agree to this deal.”

Aym laughed. It was like tearing metal. “And what if I say no?”

I summoned all my darkest instincts, all the worst self-justifications I’d ever made. I scooped my squid-skull mask off the workshop table and slipped it on over my head. I puffed myself up and spread my tentacles wide. I gritted my teeth and felt my throat shift into an inhuman configuration. I started to sweat and pant and felt my eyes itching, my gums aching, my fingernails creaking inside my flesh. Power had not corrupted me — but refusal to face choice almost had. Power would not corrupt, as long as I kept foremost in mind why I was doing this, and chose to do so.

I thought of Maisie, lost and alone in Wonderland.

Sharp and quick and lethal. An angel from the deep.

“Then I will come to your house and rip the information out of your mind,” I said, in a voice that wasn’t remotely human. “I don’t care about the damage it does or if the procedure kills you, I will have what I need from you, Aym, either willingly or by force. You’re not the only one who can threaten and intimidate — but I’m not intimidating you. That’s a promise.”

I barely knew what I was saying. I mostly tried to think of what Raine might say.

To my amazement, it mostly worked.

“I don’t remember this,” said Aym, amused but fascinated. “What did I miss? You don’t sound like a little thing at all.”

“When we first met, that was before I took a trip elsewhere. I’m different now. Or I was always different but didn’t know it. I can rip whatever I want out of you, Aym. And I will eat your corpse once I’m done.”

Wow! I thought. Where did that come from? Down girl, down.

“Hmmmm-mmmmm, if you can catch me!” she cackled. “I can just choose not to be here when you arrive, you know?”

“I will level the house and the surroundings. I will teleport them Outside to somewhere you can’t survive. I will kill Felicity if I have to — and I suspect you don’t want that. Not really. Do you?”

Aym fell silent. I could feel her sulking, cornered, grumpy now. In the privacy of my own mind, I apologised to Felicity for threatening her; I could hear her panting softly somewhere further off from the phone. When I’d spoken, she’d paused and let out a shuddering whimper. I was only bluffing, but I didn’t want to admit that out loud or this entire plan would collapse.

Aym opened her mouth with a wet click.

“Twenty minutes with Evee and you?” she asked. So petulant. Like a stroppy child.

“Yes. And no threatening Evelyn. No twisting her around or mocking her like you did a few minutes ago. I will enforce that. I mean it. You will be polite and respectful.”

Aym made a fussy little huff. “That rather defeats the point, then, doesn’t it? Where’s the fun if I have to behave? Besides, why do you care, Heathy-poos? I thought you were with Raine and … ”

I felt Aym light up. If the expressions on her face were even a little bit human right then, she was grinning from ear to ear. Perhaps literally.

“Oh. My. God.” She said it like a stereotypical valley girl from some terrible American movie. “You’re in love with Evee! Evee, the little screwed-up scrap of self-hate and broken thoughts, can’t even look at her own body in a mirror, let alone be honest with herself! And you, you little weird moron, you want to shove your face into her cu—”

I hissed down the phone, angry and spitting. The squid-skull mask amplified and funnelled the noise into an otherworldly screech of rage.

On the other end of the call, Aym shrieked and fell off something with a loud thump. A clatter of wood followed — probably a chair falling over. She hissed back, but it was a half-hearted effort, more scared than defiant.

Like a pair of angry cats who’d blundered into each other. We probably sounded very silly. Or terrifying. I wasn’t sure which.

I think the spiders flinched and Marmite scuttled behind the sofa.

A knock — loud and insistent — hammered at the door to the magical workshop. I jumped out of my skin and whirled around on my tentacles, almost overbalancing and crashing into a chair.

“Heather?” Raine called from just the other side of the door. “Heather, you alright in there?”

I ripped the squid-skull mask off my face, panting and flushed, swallowing several times to squeeze my throat back into a human shape. “I’m fine!” I called back, hoarse and rough. “Just … just disciplining Aym. That’s all.”

Evelyn shouted from the kitchen. “This is absurd! She’s alone in there with that thing, for fuck’s sake!”

“And I’m winning!” I shouted. “It’s okay, Evee. I’m winning.”

“Shout if you need bailing out!” Raine called.

The static of the rain moved into the silence she left behind. The darkness pressed back on my senses, cool and soft against my eyes. I raised the phone to my ear again.

“Are you still there?” I asked.

A moment of sulky silence, then, “Maybe.”

“You’re right, Aym,” I said. “I do love Evelyn. I am in love with her. Whether it’s romantic or platonic or sisterly or anything else simply does not matter. You cannot make that into a secret, filthy thing, because it’s beautiful. If you try to hurt her, I’ll pull you apart and eat your organs. Do you understand? Do you understand that I can do that?”

Could I do that? I had no idea. Strictly speaking, I probably could, though I wouldn’t want to. But I still had no idea what Aym really was. She wasn’t a demon like Praem or Zheng, she was something altogether different. Still, I was angry enough to make the claim. Hopefully Aym bought it.

“Direct violence doesn’t really agree with me.” Aym sighed, making a big show of it, her voice dialling down toward something distinctly more human. She started to sound a bit less like a machine made of sharp objects and a bit more like a young girl. “Ahhhhhhhhh. Such a bore. Such a boring, silly way of thinking. But, fine. Never mind. Can’t be helped. If you really need it that badly, I’ll give Felicity the last parts for the spell. But I still want my twenty minutes.”

She sighed again, like a young woman in a romance novel, dying of boredom before a vanity mirror.

I’d made my point. She was trying to recover her dignity.

“With me present,” I said.

“Yes, yes,” Aym said in the exact tone one uses while rolling one’s eyes. “Anything you say, little miss scary pants. Listen though, I am tethered to Flissy, in a very real way. She is going to have to come as far as your front door, or something. She can probably wait in the car.” I heard her turn away from the phone. “You’re going to need safe passage so Evee doesn’t make her bull-dyke execute you. What would you do without me, dear?”

“A lot better, probably,” Felicity murmured. I hadn’t expected that — defiance. I thought she was terrified of Aym. I didn’t expect Aym to cackle either, a scratchy, awful laugh, ugly and smug.

“So, squid-girl,” Aym said to me. “Safe passage?”

“I guarantee safe passage for Felicity,” I said.

“Hmmm. Interesting! But is that yours to give?”

I froze.

There it was. This whole time, Aym hadn’t seemed to understand how to get to me, where my weakness lied, what buttons to push. I had underestimated this little demon, her mockery and her knowledge.

Was that safe passage mine to give? So imperious, so assuming of me, but as I kept telling myself, I was no queen, no messiah, no god. I was at best a flawed angel, fixing my own prior mistakes, and planning a raid on heaven itself. How perverse, to compare Wonderland with heaven.

“I guarantee safe passage for Felicity. And yes,” I lied, “that is mine to give.”


That evening I went to see Evee.

What a strange way to express such a commonplace event: ‘going to see’ somebody who I lived with, who I saw every single day — more now that the university term had ended for the summer holidays. Raine and Evelyn and myself, we practically lived in each others’ pockets. Raine was trying to pick up some more shifts at the student union bar, which didn’t close over the holidays, but Evelyn didn’t need summer work; I could see her all day, every day, without even trying. If I wanted to talk to her or see what she was up to, all I had to do was cross the upstairs corridor and poke my head around the corner of her bedroom door. Or knock, if it was closed.

But that’s how it felt in the aftermath of the phone call with Felicity and Aym. I had to make a formal approach.

After I’d exited the magical workshop and explained the nature of the deal, still riding high on abyssal instinct and a touch of my own power, Evelyn had gone from angry concern to emotional shut-down. She had retreated upstairs, stomping all the way, banging the steps with her walking stick on purpose. I would have gone after her that very instant — I wasn’t going to allow this to fester. I never again wanted to leave her to cry all by herself, like that time so many months ago when I’d discovered her after a sleepless night of self-inflicted pain and trauma, hunched over papers in her study, red-eyed and ready to scream at me.

But Praem went with her. She wasn’t alone. Raine needed somebody to help her make plans for tomorrow, for Felicity and Aym’s arrival. Zheng wanted to hug me. And just as Praem had followed Evelyn out of the kitchen and upstairs, she had turned and nodded to me.

Give her a little time to calm down, that’s what I’d thought Praem was trying to communicate.

Only several hours later did it strike me that she might have meant the opposite: follow us right away, Evee is going to need help.

But in truth, that was an excuse I fed myself to keep the gnawing guilt at bay. Unlike the me of several months ago — or even the me of a few days earlier — I couldn’t pretend I didn’t feel guilty. And I certainly couldn’t pretend this wasn’t my fault. By the time the rain finally trailed off and the clouds cleared, to reveal a dark, brooding night sky beyond the light pollution and the cold, dripping, unseasonal wet of Sharrowford, I was ready to claw through my own stomach with anxiety. I should have followed Evelyn hours ago.

Part of me wanted to curl up in bed, go to sleep early, and pretend nothing was wrong. But when Raine went to take a shower and Sevens was curled up and dozing in an armchair, I uncoiled from my seat at the desk where I’d been pretending to read, and padded out into the upstairs corridor on silent, sock-clad feet.

Evelyn’s bedroom was only a few paces away across the shadowed hallway, but I felt like I was crossing no-man’s land. Out of the window to my right the city was draped in dripping darkness, as if the storm hadn’t cleared, as if instead it had sunk into the concrete and brick and asphalt, staining Sharrowford with a promise of what we had invited to join us tomorrow.

Evelyn’s bedroom door was shut. A faint light came from beneath.

My six tentacles coiled tight around my core. One of them looped around the base of my chest, like a heart monitor, reading the racing of my pulse. My mouth was dry. My hands were clammy. I suddenly wished I’d changed into jeans and a nice blouse, instead of wearing my pajama bottoms with the strawberry print, beneath a shapeless black jumper borrowed from Raine.

I couldn’t bear the thought that I’d hurt Evee and then just left her to her own devices. That was not the act of an angel. It was the exact sort of thing I was trying to avoid.

I couldn’t move my hands, they were locked together, so I knocked with a tentacle, a little tap-tap-tap on the door.

“It’s me … ” I murmured, far too softly for anybody to hear.

Cowardly Heather, trying to go unnoticed. Did I want to apologise and explain myself, or not?

“Who goes there?”

I jumped like a startled cat, heart racing, a gasp in my throat. Praem had spoken from deep inside the room, but her tone was crisp and clear, a challenge.

“It— it’s only me,” I said out loud, suddenly feeling very awkward standing by myself in the darkened corridor. “Just Heather. Little old me … ”

“Speak the password,” said Praem.

“Um … the password?”

“Correct,” said Praem. “You may enter.”

I blinked several times before the joke filtered through my skull. “Oh. Oh, tch,” I tutted. “That is so silly. Praem, really?”

Evelyn called out. “Stop buggering about and come in already.”

Her voice made my heart leap and my voice catch in my throat. I took a deep breath and opened the door. “Hi, hello. Hi, Evee, it really is just me, I … oh.”

As I peered around the edge of the door frame and then tentatively stepped into the room, I discovered that since her grumpy, sulky, and justifiably angry exit earlier on, Evelyn had entered maximum comfy mode.

She was enthroned at the head of her bed, leaning back on several lilac pillows and surrounded by several more. She was even hugging one in her lap, like a plush toy or a teddy bear — something I’d never seen Evee do before. The sheets were tugged up around her waist and her legs were stretched out before her. Her right leg ended mid-thigh, of course. I spotted her prosthetic standing up next to the bed, neat and tidy, with the large stump-sock tucked into the end.

Evee’s laptop was perched halfway down the bed, standing on a large hardback book. I would have tutted at that — books were not meant to be used as trays — but right then I was hardly going to critique her choice of set-up. The laptop screen showed that one cartoon about pastel-coloured horses, currently paused.

Praem was sitting on the opposite side of the bed, on the chair dragged over from the desk, so she could watch the cartoon as well. She was still wearing her full maid outfit, hands folded in her lap. She stared right at me, unreadable milk-coloured eyes greeting me in silence.

Evee stared at me too, with eyes like battlements loaded with boiling oil.

“Heather,” she grunted. “Evening. What is it?”

Her hair was down in a loose mane of golden blonde, which she didn’t tend to do that often. The lamp next to the bed flooded her profile from behind, picking out her little nose and the puppy-fat in her cheeks. She was wrapped in a big cream-coloured sweater that invited one to just sink into the fabric. All of a sudden I wanted to do nothing more than cross the room and flop face-first onto her belly.

She was, however, far too sulky for that. It would be like approaching a growling dog. I had no right.

Instead, I lowered my eyes in shame and apology, swallowed so hard it hurt, and closed the door, shutting us alone together.

“Evee,” I said, my voice shaking a tiny bit, talking more to her prosthetic leg on the floor than to her face. “I’m sorry for interrupting your cartoon, but I have to say this. I’m sorry. I apologise.”

“Don’t be absurd.”

I looked up, blinking. “I-I’m sorry?”

Evelyn gestured at the screen, at her paused cartoon, at the pastel-coloured horses. “It’s not like I haven’t seen it before. You’re hardly interrupting.”

I stared for a moment, open-mouthed, then pulled myself back together. “No, no, I mean about earlier! About the phone call.”

Evelyn stared at me with dead fish eyes. “Ah.”

“I took control,” I said, blurting it all out at once. I needed Evee’s approval, her forgiveness, her acceptance. “I didn’t know if I should, but I did it anyway. If I don’t say this now then it’ll sit in my mind and go unsaid and turn sour and … I’m not … I don’t have the right to make decisions for you. I’m sorry, because that’s what I did, when I made that agreement with Aym.”

“Mmhmm.” Evee stared, unrelenting. Behind her, Praem stared too.

“When they arrive tomorrow,” I said, managing to stare back at Evelyn, “Felicity doesn’t have to come anywhere near this house. And … ”

Evelyn waited, eyebrows climbing slowly. “Yes?”

“And if you don’t want to speak with Aym, then you don’t have to.”

Evelyn blinked once. “Heather, stop being a moron. Of course I do.”

“No!” I almost snapped at her, then reeled myself back in and undermined all my words with a huge hiccup. “No, you don’t. I didn’t have the right to use you like a bargaining chip. If we need knowledge, then I can just take it from Aym.”

“From Aym?” Evelyn huffed one sad little puff of laughter. “As if I would let you try. You’d hurt yourself.”

“I made a choice,” I said. “It’s my responsibility. Evee, I made this decision. I’ve lured Aym here. If you don’t want to speak with her, then I will deal with the entire situation, the whole thing, myself. You can stay in here all day and I’ll sort it out, I’ll take it from Aym’s mind and—”

“Heather, do shut up,” Evelyn said. She sighed, looking deeply unimpressed. Then she wormed one hand out from hugging her pillow and patted the bed next to her. “Stop being a moron. Sit with me.”

I just stared, frozen, my apology dribbling off like a storm that never broke. “Uh … but I … Evee, I—”

“Sit,” said Praem. “Or you will be made to sit.”

Evelyn rolled her eyes. “Yes, thank you Praem, that’s just what we need, impromptu dog training. Please, Heather, just sit down. Stop standing there like you’ve been a naughty child or something. It’s weird and I can’t deal with it.”

Feeling exceptionally awkward and blushing like an idiot, I obeyed. I crossed to Evee’s overstuffed bed and crawled over to join her, easing myself back against the fortress of lilac pillows and turning to meet her level, unimpressed look. She was tucked up all cosy against the strange cold and here I was, joining her. For a long moment she said nothing, like she was judging me. I dared not touch her.

“Evee, I’m sorry,” I said again. I couldn’t help myself. “I took charge when I—”

To my everlasting and eternal surprise, Evelyn reached up and put her hand over my mouth, which shut me up completely. She didn’t have the strength to actually hold me still, but I was too shocked to complain.

“Mmmm!” I went, eyes gone wide.

“Heather, shut up.”

“Mmm-mmm.” I obeyed.

Evelyn sighed, squeezed her eyes shut, and then opened them again to glare at me, but not without affection. “Heather, I was all prepared to speak with Aym. I was already making that deal. If you apologise again I will slap you. Understand?”

I nodded. Evelyn removed her hand. I could taste her skin on my lips. Her palm was so soft and cool.

“But,” I said, then raised a hand when Evelyn’s frown grew sharp. “But you were terrified.”

“I’m still terrified,” she said.

“Oh, Evee.”

“I’ll get over it,” she grunted.

“I’ll be with you! She’s not going to speak with you alone.”

“Yes, well.” Evelyn looked away. “Point is, I was all prepared to do it anyway. You didn’t use me as a bargaining chip.” She turned back and shot me a look. “Don’t be weird about this.”

I pulled a very awkward smile. “Seems like I can’t help it sometimes, especially when it comes to you. I was worried I’d used you.”

Evelyn cleared her throat. Was she blushing slightly? I couldn’t tell. “Well. Well. Thank you for apologising then, even if it was completely unnecessary.” She reached down and awkwardly patted my hand.

“So … um … ” I took a deep breath and looked around the room, acknowledged Praem, then settled on the brightly-coloured cartoon horses, paused on the laptop screen. “Why did you stomp off earlier, then? If you weren’t offended by what I did?”

Evelyn stared at me like I was a very dull student. “Because I don’t like the idea of you speaking with that monster all by yourself.”

“Same to you!”

“I’ve had experience with her.”

“So have I. Sort of. For all of about five minutes. She wasn’t very effective.”

“The better she knows you the worse it gets,” Evelyn grunted. “I should know. You’re not to be alone with that thing either, understand?”

I nodded with great enthusiasm. “Okay. I promise. It’s only fair in return. Yes.”

Evelyn sighed. “Heather, please calm down. I can’t deal with you like this. Don’t be a bloody self-flagellating penitent. Just be you.”

“It’s kind of hard. I’m really afraid of hurting you.”

“Well, you haven’t. So stop worrying.”

“Thank you for doing this in the first place. Really.”

Evelyn slapped me on the arm, but not with much force. “Don’t bloody well thank me. As if I wouldn’t. We’re going to do this, Heather. You and the rest of us. We’re going to get that book from Edward and use it. We’re going to get your sister back. Even if I didn’t owe you my … ” Evelyn halted and took a deep breath. “I don’t care about the circumstances, I would still help you. That’s all. So stop apologising or thanking me.”

My smile felt a touch less awkward. I finally felt myself settle back into the pillows for real. I allowed my leg to touch Evee’s through the blankets. Snuggling up together against the chill outdoors.

“Evee … you don’t have to answer this, I mean that, but … what did Aym do to you?”

Evelyn grunted and looked to Praem. Praem stared back. I suddenly wondered if she knew as well, or if this would be news to her.

“Felicity, she knew my mother,” Evelyn said eventually, speaking slowly and carefully, with a hollow space in her voice. “You know that already. She didn’t spend a lot of time at the estate, but when she did, Aym came with her. Aym is bound, but … loosely. I don’t understand her exact parameters or her purpose, but she enjoys taunting people, especially those close to the edge of … well, change. Usually negative change.”

“I did get that impression.”

“When I was a child, long before I met Raine, I knew Aym as a sort of recurring nightmare.” Evelyn swallowed. “She never hurt me. Never touched me. Never attacked me. Understand? She would just appear and … talk. That’s all.”

Evelyn fell silent. Without asking, Praem reached over and touched her mother’s arm. I squeezed Evee’s hand. Evee sighed, looking deeply uncomfortable.

“It paled in comparison to everything else, anything else from that period of my life. Really. She’s nothing.”

“Nothing can still be scary,” I said.

“I will belt scary with my walking stick. I hope she’s ready for a bloody good hiding.” Evelyn snorted, and that was all she had to say on the subject.

I finally relaxed fully, appreciating that once again I was lying in bed — or on bed, at least — next to Evelyn. We weren’t truly alone, of course, because Praem was right there. This was no time for clandestine kisses or final and lasting declarations of true love. Especially not if Evelyn was as emotionally vulnerable as I suspected she was right then. Now was time for comfort. I snuggled a little closer, worming a tentacle over her shoulders. She flinched a little before she realised it was only me.

“Sooooo,” I said, looking at the paused cartoon on the laptop screen. “This is the one with the horses, isn’t it? You wanted me to watch this one, didn’t you?”

“Ponies,” said Praem.

Evelyn sighed. “Ponies, yes. They’re ponies, not horses.”

“Is that an important distinction?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Praem. “Ponies.”

“Very well then.” I almost laughed. “We did keep getting interrupted last time we tried to watch cartoons together. Do you want to show me the rest of this one? I’m right here already, after all.”

Evelyn frowned, suddenly uncomfortable in a whole new way. “You won’t understand a thing if I just unpause this episode. We’ll have to start from the beginning. The characters won’t make any sense to you.”

“Okay then. I’m up for trying it, if you are. Please.”

Evelyn leaned forward to fiddle with the laptop, apparently blushing a bit. Was she really that self-conscious about her choice of cartoons?

“Where’s Raine, anyway?” she asked without looking round. “She going to interrupt us too?”

“She’s in the shower right now, but Raine can wait, for once,” I said, feeling a little smug. “She can play video games for a couple of hours. Or box Zheng or something. You and I are going to watch cartoon horses.”

“Ponies,” said Praem.

“Ponies,” I agreed. “Quite.”

Evelyn leaned back again, a new video file full-screen on the laptop. I took her hand in mine. She cleared her throat and looked very awkward.

What would change right now, if I said “I love you”? Probably nothing.

“I love you, Evee.”

Evelyn sighed and rolled her eyes and nodded. “Yes, Heather, I love you too.”

And it was true.

Praem, pointedly, said nothing, staring at me like she was willing me to grow wings and fly. I frowned back at her, trying not to let Evee see. Had I done something wrong? Clearly I needed to have a private word with Praem to figure out her opinion on all this. I made a mental note about that.

“Ready?” Evelyn asked. “Praem can unpause it for us, when you are.”

“Yes,” I said, settling back. “I just … you know, the last time I sat in your room like this, it was the night before we went to Carcosa.”

“Don’t jinx us,” Evelyn snapped. “It’s not going to be like that. I’ve got Praem and I’ve got you. We’ll be fine. And we’re not going anywhere. Just talking to a difficult bitch.”

I smiled and nodded, holding Evee’s hand as Praem leaned over to start the cartoon on the laptop.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about that knife-scratch voice from the phone, about Aym perched on Evee’s childhood bed, spinning nightmares of trauma and failure. And I couldn’t stop thinking about how we didn’t even really know what Aym was.

Or what she really wanted with Evee.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Is Aym biting off more than she can chew? She doesn’t seem to understand what Heather is now, or that Heather would gladly turn her into atomic dust if she tried to hurt Evelyn. But she seems to understand so much else, how can she possibly be missing this? Maybe she’s up to something else entirely. Well, at least Evee and Heather got to watch some pony cartoons at last. That’ll keep Evelyn’s spirits up.

No Patreon link this week! Partly because it’s the first of the month, but also …

Katalepsis Volume I is out on Tuesday! On the 4th! I think it comes out at midnight? I’m not actually sure! In addition to the Amazon ebook, there’s also a Smashwords release now, for people who would like the ebook but don’t want to give money to Amazon! Also, if you want the audiobook but don’t want to pay the full price, you can sign up for the Audible free trial and select Katalepsis as your free audiobook; very sneaky, but totally legit!

There’s also an official sample of the first five minutes of the audiobook! I’ve put it here. Give it a listen if you’re curious!

Normally I would put the TopWebFiction link here anyway, but, book! Book! I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m extremely nervous about this release, but I hope it all goes well! Go vote on TopWebFiction for some other deserving story, there are so many others which deserve all the attention and support you wonderful readers have given me too. Thank you all so very much.

Next week, Aym’s sneaky and underhanded plan continues to get worse … 

loyal to the nightmare of my choice – 18.2

Content Warnings

Surgical wounds

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

“Please,” Badger repeated, soft and sincere. “I want to help.”

He had taken my brief silence for doubt, in either his intentions or his limits. His expression pleaded with me across that dingy, cramped sitting room in his sad, desolate bedsit flat, with the strange and fragile dignity won by sacrifice and survival. Somehow I knew that Badger would not throw himself at my feet, or call me messiah. His actions had already proven his allegiance. Big, wet, puppy-dog eyes petitioned from behind his pair of comically thick and pitifully useless glasses, flanked on one side by the massive red crescent of his head wound, stapled shut. He looked back at me from inside a body still recovering from the damage I had inflicted during the effort to save his life — and, perhaps, recovering from the grace that I had imparted to his soul.

Back when Ooran Juh and I had fought over Badger, like a pair of apex predators hissing and clawing over a scrap of meat, those eyes had been full of terror and pain, a human being at the very end of his rope, who had done terrible things for a terrible cause, and knew that his debt was coming due. But now Badger’s eyes seemed clean and clear, almost innocent. I knew better than anybody that Badger was far from innocent.

With the right motivation, Nathan Hobbes could easily become a clear-eyed zealot for a pupating god.

But a god — or a goddess in my case — had to be perfect by definition, or else risk the capricious cruelty and spiteful egotism of a deity dedicated to the darkest corners of human nature. A messiah had to be right, correct, morally or ethically, or at least accurate in their powers of prognostication and foretelling, or otherwise wear the mask of the chosen one while enriching themselves from their followers’ souls and purses alike. A queen had to be strong, just, kind, and wise, all things I couldn’t live up to; either that or accept the reality of brutal warlordism and feudal domination.

I had already rejected that path, wide awake with both eyes open. I was to be a creature of choice, not mere role and nature.

But what about an angel?

Badger himself had said that word, not five minutes ago. Now the seed was sprouting.

“I want to help,” Badger said. “Not just you, Heather, but all of you.” He nodded to Raine. “Your friends, your group, your followers.”

“Family,” said Raine, with a wink and a nod.

Sitting on the sofa next to Badger’s chair, Sarika snorted, but without real conviction. In her lap, Whistle was listening carefully. He didn’t understand the words, but the tone must have reached him.

“Your family, yeah! Yeah!” Badger nodded along with that. He liked that a lot. “Especially Lauren. Lozzie? She goes by Lozzie now, right? We served her brother, and he … well, what can I say? We all knew. We had no excuse. She deserves an apology, at least. You’ve given me a second chance, a real second chance, out from under something I couldn’t imagine escaping.” Was he talking about the Eye, or Alexander? I decided not to ask, because my mind was already in motion. “So I want to help. I want to do something, something real. I know I’m not much, there’s not a lot I can do, especially in this state.” He gestured at the side of his head, at the stapled wound across a third of his scalp. “I was never in training to become a real mage, I just picked up dribs and drabs here and there, whatever I could. Lots of us did, dabblers. But I must be able to help, somehow. Please, make use of me.”

Nathan wanted a leader. Apparently Sarika wasn’t enough. But then again, she’d never been a leader either.

He needed that gap filled, or he would find some other way to fill it, some other content to supply meaning for his second chance at life. My mind flicked through alternatives — introduce him to Raine’s politics, or to disability activism, or tell him to lose himself in escapism, or return to the beloved mathematics he obviously still cherished, or string him along while hoping he found something right and good and just, all by himself. But I knew that wouldn’t work. He needed an angel, and he already had me in mind.

A conceptual space opened up around me, with room to stretch my wings. Pun intended.

What was an angel, really? A servant sent by a god, without free will of her own? That didn’t work. I was the adoptive daughter of Magnus Vigilator, but I wasn’t doing the Eye’s work here on Earth. Quite the opposite. If I was the Eye’s angel, then at best I was correcting the mistakes of an inhuman god, via the empathy and understanding of a human touch.

If I was an angel, then I had a duty to some higher concept. To Maisie? No. Maisie was a person, not an ideal, even if she’d almost become one to me, in private. To the Eye? Obviously not. I used the Eye’s powers, but I didn’t share ideology with it, if it even had such a thing. To what, then? I wasn’t divine, I was flawed and selfish and weird and often made bad decisions — but I wasn’t a god, so that was okay. It was okay to have faults, if one did not claim perfection. It was okay to think and choose, because I didn’t have a direct line to the truth.

But I was also a thing of the abyss. A self-made angel, with my will written on my flesh in divine change.

Choice. I wasn’t the Eye, because I was choosing. Badger had a right to choose as well. Which meant he had a right to know. Which meant I had a duty to tell him.

There, now you’ve gone and done it, you’ve redefined yourself as an angel, I told myself. At least your duty is clear now.

I would be the very first to admit this was not the cleanest or most solid foundation on which to build an identity. Understatement of the year. I wasn’t deluding myself into a belief that I was really, literally an angel. But Badger needed this. The Skeates had perhaps needed this — maybe things would have gone better if I’d tried this on them in the first place. Maybe all the other surviving cultists would respond better to a semi-divine messenger communicating her sacred geometry, rather than scrawny little Heather Morell insisting she wasn’t a goddess while scaring the wits out of them.

Not a neat and tidy identity at all, but down here in the world of flesh and mud, we have to make do with whatever we have to hand. The important thing now was to make it function. And not just for me.

I drew myself up on the uncomfortable wooden chair, raising my chin and spreading my tentacles out to both sides. I was going to have to make it up as I went along, including the poise and grace. Badger must have noticed the shift in my posture, because he shut his mouth and stopped talking. He’d been about to say something else, probably more pleading to be allowed to help. Raine shifted as well, scooting to the side ever so slightly, to yield the centre stage to my coming performance.

“Nathan,” I said, making a deliberate choice to use his real name. “Do you recall what I looked like when I fought Ooran Juh?”

Badger broke into a laughing smile again, like he couldn’t resist amusement. “How could I forget? It was like watching an angel take shape.” There was that word again; I tried not to grimace. “It was like the kind of thing Alexander promised us, back in the early days of the cult, before everything went to shit. Like the manifestations he used to show us in that castle place, the bits of something real, you know? I … I don’t wanna like, assume that I know what you are, but whatever it is, I’m behind it, it’s got my support. It’s everything that we were supposed to be, and more, better! It was glorious, I can’t—”

Sarika hissed, hard and sharp and very unimpressed. “Simp.”

But Badger just laughed. “It’s true! Sarry, you felt it too, didn’t you? It’s all true! She’s what we were promised, she’s the real thing!”

“Woah there, fella,” Raine said softly, purring with implicit warning. “Ease down with the worship a bit, yeah?”

But I whispered to Raine from the corner of my mouth, “It’s alright, let him do it.”

Raine cocked an eyebrow at me. “You sure?” she whispered back.

“I’m sure. Unless he starts praying to me or something. That would be weird.”

“What’s the plan?” Raine whispered.

“Give him something to cling to.”

Raine nodded once and shot me a wink. I was amazed she had so much faith that I could walk this tightrope without tumbling off.

Badger watched our whispered exchange with an innocent, open look on his face, though I was certain he couldn’t hear a thing. Sarika looked at us like we were icons of filth, but then again she looked at everybody that way. Except Whistle.

I cleared my throat and held out one hand toward Raine, then spoke at normal volume. “Raine, could I please borrow your pair of special glasses? I’d like Badger to look through them, for a minute or two.”

Raine’s eyebrows shot upward. “Ahhhh, I see where you’re going with this. Sure thing.” Raine dug around inside her leather jacket and produced her own pair of magically modified glasses. This was only one of the several pairs that Evelyn had created, made from cheap black frames filled with non-prescription plastic lenses. The magical symbols were impossible to completely conceal, but they were etched and scrawled onto the black frames themselves, making them hard to see unless one was inspecting closely. The best we could manage, as far as ‘operational security’ — which was a very fancy term for not looking like a bunch of cosplayers out in public.

Raine winked at Badger as she handed me the glasses. “You’re in for a treat, Badger, my man.”

I took the glasses and offered them to Badger, across the table. He accepted them and asked, “You want me to put these on?”

“Yes, but please brace yourself.”

Badger nodded, taking off his pair of magnification-only glasses and putting them in his own lap. His hands shook very slightly as he opened the arms of the special glasses, about to put them on. As he did, I stood up and spread my tentacles. He hardly needed to be overawed, he’d already seen me at my absolute limit, fighting Ooran Juh, but it wouldn’t hurt to remind him.

Sarika’s hand shot out and slapped at the glasses before he could put them on.

“Sarry?” Badger blinked at her. In Sarika’s lap, Whistle snuffled and sat up, suddenly alert. But Sarika herself glared at me. In her slack and exhausted face, her eyes burned like twin pits of spent coal in a dead fire, small and hard and dark.

“What is this?” she hissed.

I sighed and flapped my arms against my sides, all my quasi-angelic theatre derailed by her paranoia. “You still don’t trust me?”

“These are magical,” she spat. “I can still tell that much, I’m not fucking blind. What are you doing to Nathan?”

Next to me, Raine laughed. “Ho-hooooo, Sarika. You’ve got it bad for him. So territorial. Come on, we’re not gonna steal your man.”

“Fuck you too,” she spat.

“The glasses allow a human being to see pneuma-somatic matter,” I said. “Raine has worn that pair before. We’ve all worn them before. Well, okay, not me, because I don’t need to. This isn’t a trick, Sarika. Don’t be so silly.” Her glare did not abate. I sighed again, losing patience. Evelyn, Praem, Jan, and July were all waiting for us out by the car. We didn’t have all day.

“You tricked me once before,” she croaked. “In your kitchen. You … you went into me … without … warning.”

“For your own good.”

“Fuck you. You warn him now. Whatever you’re about to do.”

“Sarika,” I said — and managed to sound like a fussy schoolmarm, instead of a warlike angelic presence. “If I wanted to hurt Nathan, or yourself, I wouldn’t need to resort to underhanded trickery, I would just do it. I wouldn’t stand here talking to you. I’d just kill you. You know that.”

Sarika’s defiant glare faltered at last — but not with acceptance. A tiny mote of fear entered her expression. She blinked, twice, eyes turning wet.

“Oh for pity’s sake,” I hissed, putting my face in one hand and then hiccuping, loudly and painfully. I felt like a moron. “I’ve done it again. I’m threatening a disabled woman. I didn’t mean that to sound that way. I’m sorry, I’m really sorry. But it’s true, I don’t need to hoodwink anybody, I’m just trying to be honest!”

“Yeah,” Raine added in a light, breezy tone, like we were discussing favourite brands of tea. “We’re not the CIA trying to assassinate Castro with a pair of booby-trapped glasses here.”

I turned and blinked down at Raine, knocked out of my mortified embarrassment by utter confusion. “Excuse me?”

“Yes, what?” Sarika grunted.

Badger laughed, but I got the sense he didn’t understand the joke either.

“You know,” Raine said, leaning back in her chair and crossing her legs. Her grin turned very cheeky. “Secret explosives, poisoned swimsuits, needles in umbrella handles, all that spy stuff. Nah, we’re much more competent than that. Heather’s right, but she’s just not very good at saying it. Sometimes my girl needs to delegate more.” Raine patted my hip, which made me squeak in a very un-angelic manner. “If we wanted to do damage, it’d already be done. I’d have just shot you or something. But hey, you’re safe, you’re with us. Even if you should be in prison.”

Sarika huffed and stared at Raine, but her glower was mostly gone. “You love the sound of your own voice.”

Raine laughed, then winked and shot her a finger gun. “That I do, babe. So do you though, right?”

Badger was just staring at the glasses, but without looking through the lenses. “These allow you to see spirit flesh? For real?”

“Mmhmm.” Raine nodded. “Evee says we shouldn’t keep them on for very long. Don’t use ‘em too often. I tried wearing them for a whole morning this one time, and it did mess me up a bit. Screws with your head.”

I stared down at Raine, shocked. “You didn’t tell me about that. Raine, that’s not good for you!”

Raine shrugged. “I was cool by the time you got back from class.”

“Still!” I tutted.

Sarika spoke up, voice like a handful of gravel. “You’re seeing something that the human brain isn’t meant to. Isn’t wired for. It’s hardly surprising.”

“Well put.” Raine gave her a respectful nod. Sarika waved that away.

She had a point. Normally it was only non-humans who could see pneuma-somatic flesh. And what did that make me?

An angel, I reminded myself. Let’s stick with an angel.

“Badger,” I said. “Put the glasses on and look at me, please.”

Sarika removed her hand from the glasses, shaking slightly. Badger, though, turned and offered the glasses to her instead. “Sarry, do you wanna go first? Just to check that it’s—”

“Absolutely fucking not,” she spat. “You couldn’t pay me to look through those. Get them away from me.”

Raine laughed. “Smart woman. Stay uninvolved, yeah?”

Sarika snorted. “You’d probably kill me if I tried.”

“Badger,” I said, raising my voice slightly. “The glasses. Please?”

Badger nodded, finally slipped the glasses on over his eyes, and then just stared, awestruck, jaw hanging open.

I spread my tentacles in a six-pointed star-halo. For some reason I didn’t quite understand, I added my hands too, down by my sides, opening my palms and turning them forward. Homo abyssus on display, but still a work in progress.

Badger stared. Raine kept quiet, waiting for the reaction. Sarika gave Badger a sidelong look, unimpressed. Whistle decided none of this was important to his lordly concerns, so he laid his head back in Sarika’s lap and closed his little doggy eyes again.

“You’ve seen this before,” I said to Badger.

“Yes … but … it’s still beautiful.”

“Down,” Raine said in a tone of gentle warning.

“Yes,” Sarika hissed through her teeth. “She’s what, ten years younger than you, Nathan? Stop staring like a pervert.”

I sighed a little sigh. “Please don’t make this—”

But Badger got there first. It was the first time since seeing him again that he’d shown anything even approaching irritation or anger. He frowned at Raine and then at Sarika, his furrowed brow pulling on the taut flesh around his massive head wound.

“Don’t make this something it’s not,” he snapped at Sarika. “It’s beautiful, and not like that. Don’t sully this, don’t make it, you know, about that.” He gestured at me with one hand. “As if I would ever, Sarry. She saved both our fucking lives, and she didn’t have to. She could have put a bullet in my head and be done with me. She didn’t. I’m not going to disrespect her like that. So stop.”

Sarika held his gaze for a moment, then turned her face away without saying anything. She crossed her arms. Sulking.

Raine cleared her throat. “Sorry, mate. Making assumptions and all. Just kinda protective of my girl.”

Badger nodded to Raine. A moment of strange understanding passed between them. I tried not to think about that. Had I just gained another sworn bodyguard? I hoped not.

“As I was saying, you’ve seen this before.” I repeated myself through a strained smile, trying to get solid ground beneath my feet. “Actually, you saw me in a more advanced state than this, with more modifications, the sorts of things I can’t do without inflicting short term damage on myself. Do you understand what you’re looking at?”

Badger shook his head. “Not really. Please, though, I’m listening.”

I wet my lips. My plan hadn’t extended this far, so I swallowed a hiccup and just kept moving. “I’ve modified my body, with pneuma-somatic flesh and hyperdimensional mathematics, to better match what I am inside. I’ve been … out, not Outside, but beyond all the spheres of reality, in the sort of interstitial space between. I call it the abyss. It’s not somewhere you go with your body, but with your soul. It’s impossible to describe with language, it’s not like anything else, but it’s sort of like a dark, endless ocean. That’s the best metaphor. When I came back, I was different. Or maybe I’d always been different and that was just a catalyst. I don’t know, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that it feels right, it is right, when I use what I can do to bring my body closer to homo abyssus, the thing I was out there, the truth under my skin.” I took a deep breath. It felt so strange to tell a former enemy about what I really was, to reveal this vulnerable truth, so private and personal. But Badger deserved to understand, in case my worst suspicions were right. “Does that make sense to you?”

“I think so,” Badger murmured. He was looking at me with awe in his eyes.

Sarika snorted. She spoke without looking at us. “What does your personal dysphoria have to do with any of this?”

I lowered my arms and my tentacles. “Badger. Nathan. When I pulled you out of the clutches of … um … our ocular mutual acquaintance—”

“Niiiiice,” Raine whispered. I did my best to ignore her.

“—your lower brain functions were ruined. The pieces of equation which define them were all tangled up, smeared in a big mess. I guess because that’s where it was grasping you. Sort of.” I sighed. “This is all metaphor, too.”

Badger nodded along. “I’m following so far.”

Sarika looked uncomfortable, perhaps slightly nauseated, but she was listening closely as well.

“When I repaired you so we could restart your heart, I had to use myself as the template. I don’t know anything about how human lower brain functions work, so I couldn’t rewrite you on the fly, I could only copy what I already had.”

Badger stopped nodding and blinked several times, eyes made huge by the pneuma-somatic seeing glasses. I think it had finally hit him.

Sarika spoke up first. “What are you saying? Morell, explain.”

“I’m saying that I may have copied pieces of homo abyssus onto Badger. I don’t know, I can’t be sure. I had to use myself as the template for repairing his brain, but I’m not a human being anymore, not really, if I ever was in the first place.” I swallowed hard and found my mouth had gone dry, and forced myself to focus on Badger, on Nathan Hobbes. “When I first came back from the abyss, I couldn’t … it was right … didn’t feel right … I was … ”

I trailed off as my memory turned traitor.

I always tried so hard to never dwell too much on those first few moments when I’d returned from my journey down into the abyss: the disgust of finding myself entwined with throbbing, wet, warm meat; the glugging, slurping chemical factory sloshing away in my belly, full of acid and bile and excrement; the assault of blunt, alien senses like spiked sledgehammers pounding at the fragile thing of mutable gossamer which I’d brought back with me; the hooting ape noises and angles all wrong and flapping meat and the air itself searing the inside of my lungs.

Not to mention the long, slow, painful ascent back up, out of that dysphoria. The inexplicable urges to climb things that I didn’t have the body strength for. The sobbing failure of going swimming and finding myself clumsy, inelegant, apish. The sheer useless inadequacy of my own form, weak and soft and static. The yearning for body parts I didn’t have. The bruises and internal injuries I’d given myself with my first fumbling attempts to make tentacles. And the knowledge I so rarely expressed: that I would have gladly endured so much more pain just for the merest glimpse of the graceful perfection I’d been, out there in the endless dark. I would have accepted any level of pain, in return for the smallest sip.

The ghost of abyssal dysphoria reached up my spine with a shudder of self-disgust. It all came creeping back.

With no concern as to where I was or who was watching, I pulled all my tentacles in tight and wrapped them around my body, squeezing myself hard. I hugged two of them to my chest, holding on tight to what I was.

These were real, these were proof. Most people might not be able to see them, but I could. They were elegant and beautiful and dangerous. This was me.

“Heather?” Raine said my name with soft concern.

“She all right?” Sarika croaked.

Badger just watched in respectful quiet.

After a moment, the shudder passed. I took three deep breaths and focused on the mechanical act of speaking, not the meaning of the words. “When I came back from the abyss, my body felt wrong. Inhabiting an unaltered human body felt wrong. It still does, even now. That’s why I’ve given myself these extra parts. What you saw when I fought Ooran Juh, that’s closer to what I’m meant to be. But it’s never going to be enough. I can never be what I was out there.” I swallowed hard and tried not to hear myself. I had to say this, for Badger’s sake. “There is a slim chance that I may have inadvertently transplanted some of that abyssal dysphoria onto you.”

And in this absurdly serious, oh so sombre moment, Badger broke into a big smile of genuine happiness and gratitude.

“Better squid than dead,” he said.

“Nathan!” Sarika hissed, as if he’d just voiced a deeply offensive slur. She looked like she wanted to slap him.

“Hey, I mean it!” Badger protested. He quickly turned back to me. “What I saw was beautiful. And before Sarry says something else, I don’t mean in a sexual way, forget that. If you’ve given me even the smallest fraction of what I saw, by accident, I … I won’t reject it.”

I sighed, screwed my eyes up, and rubbed the bridge of my nose. “Badger, it’s not a blessing. I nearly pulled my own eyeballs out in disgust! Often I forgot to breathe. Being in the wrong body is not fun. You don’t deserve that, I don’t care what you did in the past, nobody deserves that … disconnection.”

“I’m still honoured,” he said. “I mean it.”

I flopped my hands against my sides in defeat. “I hope you still think that if you wake up with a desire to peel your own skin off. Sorry.”

Badger laughed softly, politely, and very awkwardly. The old Badger was still under there, no doubt about it. “I’ll keep that in mind. For real.”

“See you do,” I almost snapped at him, but then forced myself to take a deep breath. “Look, I might not be able to do anything about it, but if you do feel anything like that, if you look down at your body one day and start thinking that you should have tentacles, or you start dreaming about the ocean every night, then call me. Understand? You don’t have hyperdimensional mathematics, you won’t be able to solve it by yourself — oh, who am I kidding, I haven’t really solved it either! But at least we’ll be able to talk about it. Whatever you do, don’t you dare hurt yourself because you feel wrong, not when I’m here as an example.”

Badger nodded, very seriously, despite the blissful smile on his face.

“Huh,” Sarika grunted. “Wish I could have gotten tentacles, instead of this.” She flopped a weakened hand against her own half-functional leg. Whistle cracked open his eyes and licked at her fingers. Sarika tutted at that, but she didn’t stop the Corgi.

“No,” I muttered. “No you don’t.”

“Of course I fucking well do,” Sarika said in a soft grumble, not even looking at me.

I let that one drop. Maybe she was being honest, maybe she did understand; she’d been in the Eye’s grip, she knew the price, maybe she would prefer abyssal dysphoria to lifelong disability. It was not my place to judge that.

“Nathan,” I said. “I mean what I just said. If you need help, ask me for it. You can hardly be expected to redeem yourself if you’re floundering in that kind of pain.”

To my surprise, Badger gave me a thumbs up.

Did you give an angel a thumbs up? Maybe in Badger-world.

“And … don’t call me a divine being, or ‘my queen’, or anything else like that. I know what you must be thinking. It’s one thing to be called that by people who don’t understand, but you were a cultist, you’ve seen things from Outside, and I’m not like those things. So don’t you call me that or I’ll … stop talking to you and ignore you.”

“Right. Right,” said Badger. “Just Heather, then.”

“Just Heather,” I said.

I cleared my throat and started to feel very awkward now that we were trailing off, the subject spent at last. Raine gestured for the glasses back from Badger. He hesitated for a moment, until she gave him a look, then he relented and finally took them off. He did seem a little disappointed as he handed them back, no longer able to see my tentacles in all their glory. I sat down and tried to return his smile, as he fumbled to get his regular glasses back onto his face, blinking like a newborn owl.

“That’s all,” I said, feeling a bit lame. “That’s all I wanted to say.”

But Badger wasn’t done yet. “I want to help you.”

I sighed. “This again?”

Raine clucked her tongue. “I think he’s serious, Heather.”

“I am serious, completely serious,” Badger said. “I don’t know what I can do to help, but I want to. I can talk to my old companions from the cult, everybody who’s left, all the survivors, and tell them you can help them! I’ll make them see! But I’m sorry, that’s not enough.”

Sarika was frowning at him. “Not enough?”

Badger shook his head, pressing his lips together in a kind of irritation. “The cult and Alexander, Ooran Juh, Edward. All of them! I’ve lived my whole life as prey, running into predators. And I kept trying to be one myself, but it was wrong. I was wrong. I had a lot of time to think about all this, in the hospital. I don’t deserve any of this. I don’t deserve to be alive. I don’t deserve to be free. I should be in prison, you’re right about that.” He swallowed hard. The smile was gone now, but not behind a mask. I suspected that Nathan Hobbes would never again be capable of duplicity. “I was never a real mage, but I’m still … capable.”

I shifted in my chair, deeply uncomfortable. “Is this coming from you, or bits of me I’ve transplanted onto you?”

“Does it matter? I’m right here, all the same.”

I had to look away from him. Even Sarika had no answer to this new and honest-hearted zealotry.

“I don’t like to use people,” I said, lying. Abyssal ruthlessness would use him in a heartbeat — but for what?

Sarika snorted. I shot her a look. She stared me down.

“I’m alright with using people,” said Raine. “Something comes up, Badger me’ boy, and I’ll keep you in mind.”

“What are your plans now?” I blurted out. “Regardless of us, I mean. Once you’ve recovered a bit and figured out your limits, what are you going to do with yourself, Nathan?”

Badger stared at me in surprise, then let out a sad laugh and trailed off with a sigh. He was smiling when he spoke, but there was little joy in his tone.

“Well,” he said. “I lost my job weeks and weeks ago now. Lost almost everybody I used to know, from in the cult and out of it, too. Been estranged from my parents for years. I’m on disability now, did Raine tell you that? They sent one of those assessor blokes round to the hospital just before I got out. Sarika just showed him the newspaper article about me drilling a hole in my head.” He laughed again. “Great stuff. Raine had a word with him too, seemed to convince him I wasn’t swinging the lead. Still,” he sighed. “Dunno if that’ll pay the rent much longer. Probs not.”

“What’d you used to do?” Raine asked him. “You never mentioned that before.”

Badger blinked at her several times before answering, as if he was having trouble recalling. “Worked at the bottling plant, the big one just west of the ring road. Most stable job I’d had in years, but I was just a temp, and I don’t reckon I’d be able to stay on my feet for that long, not like this.” He gestured at his head, then at the single crutch leaning against the big armchair. At least he laughed softly, putting a brave face on it. “Have to find something else to do.”

And that mathematics doctorate, gathering dust next to his bed. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

“Hey,” Raine said, “maybe you can join Sarika with her budding Minecraft Youtuber career. Do a collab or something? Is that what they call it these days?”

“Like fuck he can,” Sarika grunted through her teeth. “This moron would drive off half my audience.”

“Awww, come on,” Raine said with a shit-eating grin. “You can’t have that many simps who’d get mad at you having your boyfriend on screen, surely?”

Sarika gave her a glower worthy of Evelyn herself, but filled with so much more bitterness.

“Raine,” I hissed, cringing with second-hand embarrassment. “Please, can you not?”

“What?” Raine laughed, spreading her hands in a faux-innocent shrug.

Sarika hissed from the other side of the room, like a coiled snake. “I may be a cripple who will never again perform magic, but I wager that I can train Whistle to bite through your ankles.”

Badger snorted. Whistle looked up at the sound of his name, little Corgi ears twisting about. I gaped in surprise — had Sarika just made an actual joke?

Raine seemed to think so. “Wheeeey!” she went. “There she is!” Raine put her hands up in mock-surrender. “I better back down, I don’t want to be savaged by such a highly-trained canine.”

“Huh,” Sarika grunted. She still didn’t smile, but at least she wasn’t blushing. She petted Whistle behind the ears in return for his service.

Badger cleared his throat and nodded to me, still on the verge of laughter. Perhaps he’d caught the impatient look on my face. “I’m serious though, Heather. I want to do something useful.”

I resisted the urge to sigh. Instead, I summoned up that image of myself as an angel. A be-tentacled angel from the deep , from dark places beyond human experience. I had a duty. It was the right thing to do.

“Badger, your job right now is to look after yourself,” I said. “You’re no use to me if you don’t rest, recover, and heal. We need you to speak to your former cultist companions, yes, but they will need to see you healthy, or as close to it as you can get. After that, I don’t know, but I certainly won’t be making any use of you at all if you hurt yourself by trying to run before you can walk.”

Badger nodded eagerly, grinning wide.

“And if you lie to me, if you pretend to be more healthy than you are, if you push yourself, then I will be disappointed. I will be unhappy. I will not approve. And I will know.”

It took an effort of will not to hiccup. I was blushing, too. I wasn’t cut out for this. It would have been easier if Badger wasn’t so eager and happy now.

Badger controlled his smile, taking me seriously again. “I’ll do my best.”

Sarika snorted. “Bloody right you will.”

“And … ” I hesitated, staring into Badger’s eyes. Did he need this, or would it hurt? “Maybe start thinking about maths. But not the kind that I was taught.”

Badger frowned at me, as if he didn’t get it. Maybe he didn’t. Maybe the thought would come back to him later, lying in bed next to his own past. I’d unlocked the door, but it was up to him to turn the handle.

It took a supreme effort of will to project myself as an angel, in command and wielding power on behalf of a higher principle. Was that even the right thing to say to Badger? Was it right to use my assumed position to force him to take care of himself? I hoped so. The last thing I wanted was for him to push himself too hard and get hurt in the process, using himself up for my sake. That wasn’t his purpose. I refused to use him for that. He would make good on his own sins. That was his purpose now.

“You know, Tenny’s really gonna miss Whistle,” Raine said, gazing at the dog in Sarika’s lap. He looked up at the sound of his name, over at Raine, turning his head from side to side in doggy curiosity. “Yeah, that’s right, I’m talking about you, you good boy. They really took a liking to each other, you know?”

“He might miss her, too,” Badger said. His smile turned oddly sad when he glanced at his dog.

Raine made a show of stroking her own chin in thought. “Maybe an arrangement can be made?”

Sarika grunted like an angry Corgi herself. “He’s not coming to fucking live with you lot.”

“Who?” Raine asked. “Badger, or Whistle?”

“Badger,” she said. “Obviously.”

Raine just spread her hands and smiled with smug surrender. Badger bit his lower lip in thought. The seed had been planted, now to let it grow by itself. Clever Raine. I admired her so much, she was so good at this, especially compared to me. She had the courage to just go ahead and say it out loud, then act like it was all a joke.

“We have already got Kim living with us,” Raine said. “Not sure that would work.”

“Ex-cultists anonymous,” said Sarika. If she meant it as a joke, it sounded like a very bitter one.

I cleared my throat gently. “I’m not certain that would be appropriate for Kimberly. She doesn’t want to see anybody from the cult, ever again.”

Sarika huffed. “Not like I ever knew the girl, anyway.”

Raine shrugged. “Maybe Tenny could get a pet of her own? Whistle could have a friend, too.”

“Perhaps that would be a good idea,” I said, forcing a smile. Tenny was really, really going to miss Whistle, that much was true. Or maybe this would be a good excuse for her to finally perfect her human disguise she’d attempted once, to come around to Badger’s flat to visit the dog. Or maybe that was too optimistic. Maybe we should buy her a dog.

“Kimberly Kemp,” Badger said suddenly, his voice hushed and serious. Something snagged in my chest, a hook inside my heart.

“Yes?” I said, suddenly wary. “That’s her name.”

“I remember her,” he said, nodding to me. No smile anymore. “I’d like to speak with her, if that’s possible?”

“What for?” Raine asked before I could say anything. Her casual tone carried a warning.

“To apologise,” Badger said. “To … to offer … I don’t know what! Something.” He shrugged, at a loss.

I cleared my throat gently. “I suspect the best apology you can give her is letting her live her life without ever having to think about this again.”

Badger blinked and swallowed, seemingly hurt by that. But he nodded. “Okay. Alright. Fair enough. Could you at least ask her though, maybe? If you think it would be alright? I want her to know … well, I never even knew her, not really. But there’s … there’s nobody left to apologise to.”

For a moment, all of Badger’s inner peace fell away, to show the core of self-critique and self-horror. He had to say sorry, to somebody.

I sighed heavily, letting my emotions show plainly on my face. I had a duty to protect Kimberly, too, didn’t I?

“I’ll ask her, but I’m not making any promises.”

“Thank you,” Badger said. He bowed his head in thanks.

I resisted the urge to tut, but I didn’t tell him off. Instead I got to my feet and filled my lungs and stretched out my tentacles. Raine followed suit, sensing my intentions.

“The others are waiting for us outdoors,” I said. “I really think it’s time we got going. Is there anything either of you need?”

There wasn’t, at least not right then. Sarika was going to stay with Badger for the rest of the day, though strictly speaking he didn’t require any company to help him out, to stop him from falling over or banging his head or hurting himself, but we left them to it. She had her crutches and Badger had his pills. Raine didn’t even make any jokes about what the two of them might get up to together; frankly it was none of our business, and I doubted that sort of relationship lay between them anyway. Raine made sure they knew to call us if anything happened, and offered to drive back over to take Sarika home later in the day. Sarika made some fussy noises about calling a taxi instead. Badger stood up and shook my hand — that was a good sign, I thought. One shakes hands with an equal, not an object of worship.

We both petted Whistle good bye for now, then took our leave of Badger’s cramped and depressing flat.

Once we stepped out into the shallow stairwell of bare concrete and metal railings, and got the door firmly shut behind us, I finally let go of a psychological breath I’d been holding the whole time. At last I could acknowledge the sheer tension in my shoulders and back, the tightness in my tentacles, and the throbbing headache at the sides of my skull, a headache that for once had nothing to do with self-implementing hyperdimensional mathematics.

A hand fell on my shoulder and squeezed hard, then travelled up the back of my neck to massage my scalp and mess up my hair. I almost purred.

“Hey, Heather,” Raine murmured. “You did real good in there.”

“Real well,” I corrected her grammar. “But thank you.”

“I know what I said, Heather.” Raine chuckled softly. “My little seraph, doing good.”

I winced and tutted, pulling away from Raine’s hand and nudging her with a tentacle. She laughed and grinned at me in the dim half-light of the concrete stairwell. The only illumination came from a single long window on the opposite wall, filled with frosted glass. I could see a couple of vague human shapes standing on the opposite side of the road, next to the red lump of Raine’s car. Jan and July, waiting for us.

“Don’t take the whole angel thing too seriously,” I said. “Please. It was just what they needed. I think.”

“But you are my little angel,” Raine purred, wrapping an arm around my shoulders. “A biblically accurate one, too, just how I like ‘em.”

“Tch, Raine.” I huffed as we stepped toward the stairs. “How did you know I was thinking of angels, anyway? Badger said it, not me.”

“I can read you like an open book,” she said. “Tends to happen when you love somebody. Well, not all the time, I guess. That would be unfair.”

“I love you too, Raine,” I murmured. “Let’s go be proactive, okay?”

“You got it, boss angel. You got it.”


Felicity called us later that day, on the border between afternoon and evening, right on time at five forty-five. At least the reclusive and elusive mage was keeping her promises, so far.

Outdoors, the drizzling rain had trickled off, but the clouds hadn’t cleared, growing thicker and heavier and darker in the sagging sky above the city. Sharrowford was damp and dripping, verdant with summer life, but somehow rotten all over, wrapped in a thin film of cold that refused to lift. I knew it was only the weather, only natural, but I couldn’t shift the feeling that Felicity’s phone call was reaching out from somewhere dark and forgotten, to wrap Number 12 Barnslow Drive in this unseasonal chill and oppressive gloom.

We switched on the lights in the kitchen, the front room, the little utility room, and the magic workshop. We had hot tea and cold cake. Praem even put Evelyn’s shawl in the dryer to warm it up, then wrapped it around her shoulders. None of that seemed to help.

Raine fielded the call, took point, did the talking at first.

“Heyyyy there Flissy girl,” she said, talking loudly with the phone itself sitting before her on the kitchen table, set to speaker mode. “Right on time! That’s what I like to see, I do like a punctual woman.”

The rest of us waited, holding our collective breath. We’d been through this process before, some of us twice. This time we’d had enough forewarning to prepare in advance. Evelyn and I were sitting next to each other, my hand already wormed into Evelyn’s to grasp her clammy palm and keep her steady. She’d insisted on being present for this, regardless of the personal cost. Raine was just across the table, in charge for now. Praem was standing by her, ready to lean down to the phone and leash whatever demons spoke from Felicity’s end of the call. Sevens was on her feet next to me, in her familiar blood-goblin mask, peering over the edge of the table. I had one tentacle wrapped around her waist, just for mutual comfort.

Zheng was lurking about, but she probably wouldn’t be needed, at least not right now. Lozzie was keeping well clear, upstairs with Tenny. Jan and July had gone home — this really was none of their concern.

Raine’s greeting floated off into the air, as if absorbed by the gloom, muffled by some invisible veil emanating from the phone.

A wet click of parting lips, an intake of breath.

For a dizzying moment neither of those sounds seemed remotely human, as if they were made by poor mimicry of human lips and human lungs, as if the thing on the other end of that phone call was reconstituting itself into human form, having forgotten that it needed to talk with our tongue. My tentacles curled inward and my body prepared to flinch, prepared not for Felicity’s voice, but Aym’s, that of Felicity’s weird little parasite-demon — or for something far worse. Who was to say that Felicity herself was human any more? Mages did seem to end up like that.

“Uh,” said Felicity. “Hello, Raine. Um, thank you. Yes, I didn’t want to … keep you waiting, of course.”

The words crackled from the phone’s speaker, distorted slightly by the low quality of the land-line connection to Felicity’s isolated, occulted home. Her voice was blurred into a permanent low mumble by the burn scarring across the left corner of her lips.

Felicity’s voice, normal and human, though surrounded by a black void.

Just my imagination, I told myself. You can’t hear a void.

“Wonderful!” Raine said. She was grinning and leaning back, playing the part physically to lend weight to her tone. “Now, let’s not beat around the bush, let’s get straight down to business, yeah? You’ve got something for us?”

“In a manner of speaking.”

Felicity’s low half-mumble was difficult to read at the best of times, even face to face. That wasn’t her fault. But there was such a shuddering, intimate horror behind those words, a feeling she couldn’t conceal. She followed up with a difficult, dry swallow, and said no more.

Raine shared a sceptical look across the table with myself and Evelyn. Evee rolled her eyes and gestured angrily into the air with one hand. I doubted it was accurate sign language, but her meaning was plain enough.

“Felicity, this is Heather,” I spoke up. “What’s wrong?”

Felicity panted once, twice, three times, but said nothing. In the silence around her I could hear rain on glass, the rattling of roof tiles, and the crackle of a distant fireplace. A lit fire, indoors, in the middle of summer? Maybe she really was exuding this sudden cold.

“Flissy, Flissy, Flissy,” Raine said, letting a laugh into her voice. “Come on, you wanted to call us, right? You’ve got something on how we might be able to find Edward’s house, yeah? You spoke to your demon friend?”

That was the entire purpose of this phone call. The last time we’d spoken with Felicity she had agreed to speak with her difficult parasite-demon, about the spells that kept her own manor house hidden from human eyes, spells she claimed not to fully understand, laid down before she had inherited the house. She had no idea how they really worked. But Aym did.

“Y-yes. Yes, yes I did.” Felicity’s voice returned, growing in strength and confidence again. “She— I’m sorry it took longer than I thought, she is … difficult, even when I’m being … uh … even when … ” Felicity took a deep breath and seemed to gather herself. “Yes, to cut a long story short, Aym gave me several details. She recalls when the spells were woven, or at least claims to. She said it was uh … a combination of basic geometrical principles along with the occlusion processes found in the Manus Cruenta. There is a copy of that book in the library here, so that much is probably true. But I can’t see how to scale any of those up to the necessary size. If I could, then I might be able to unravel them in return, and then find this house you’re looking for. Aym … Aym says … well, um … ”

Manus Cruenta,” Evelyn snapped. “How would that work? That specifically calls for peacock blood. You’d never get enough for a whole building. If it was human beings, fine, I could understand. Sounds like nonsense.”

“I— I know!” Felicity grew agitated suddenly — maybe at Evee’s voice. “Aym won’t— she won’t— and I can’t figure it out, I—”

Patter-patter-patter went bare feet on stone. Felicity’s voice froze, dead quiet, punctuated by the creak of a chair under a sudden load of extra weight.

A nightmare scraping joined us in the room, scratching from the speaker like knives on stone, a twisted scrap of noise pretending to be a little girl.

“That’s because you’re a failure of a human being, Flissy!” said Aym. She giggled, a sound like wet blades rubbing together. “No longer human. Disqualified.”

Aym left as quickly as she’d joined, a dark giggle vanishing into the stone-lined hallway that I could see in my mind’s eye behind Felicity. Unshod feet padded off into the dark once more. She was quick, quicker than Praem could react to snap a warning down the phone. Smart demon.

Evelyn was sweating, I could feel it on her palm, gone clammy and cold. She was staring at the phone.

For a long time, silence.

Then, eventually, Felicity swallowed hard, like a woman surfacing from a nightmare, sweating and shaking in the dark.

“Aym has named a price,” she said. “For the rest of the magical procedure. She claims to remember how to make it work. But she has a demand.”

“Ahhhhh shit,” said Raine.

“No,” Evelyn said through her teeth.

“Twenty minutes’ private conversation with Evelyn Saye,” said Felicity, in a voice like she was pronouncing her own death sentence.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

An angelic solution to an ocular problem. Badger needs to get well first, if he wants to help. But he does want to help, for real. You know, no joke, I consider Badger one of the most courageous characters in the entire story. Dude doesn’t have much going for him, but here he is, still going. Meanwhile, demonic trickery is afoot.

Katalepsis Volume 1 comes out on October 4th! Smashwords link is up too, now! Aaaaand there’s a second episode of the podcast!

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Next week, time to make a deal with a little devil.

loyal to the nightmare of my choice – 18.1

Content Warnings

Surgical wounds
Brain damage

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

“That’s Rally, yeah,” said Badger. “Like I told Raine earlier. I knew the guy. Well, a bit.”

“You’re sure you recognise him?” Raine asked. “Take your time, look all you want.”

Badger nodded again, at the picture of our mystery corpse on the screen of Raine’s phone as she held it out in front of him, currently zoomed in on the face of the dead man. “Absolutely, no doubt about it. Recognise him anywhere. Even dead like that, all dried out and stuff. He’s got that face like … a … um … ”

Badger trailed off. He squinted hard, then blinked twice, perhaps struggling against another headache. His right hand fluttered up from his lap, as if to rub at his eyes, but a sudden tremor was already claiming the right side of his body once more, a quiver of shuddering muscles and misfiring nerves in hand, arm, and shoulder. He stared at nothing, hand shaking uselessly, locked in a silent contest with his own damaged brain.

Sarika was sitting closest to him, on the end of the sofa next to the large, comfortable armchair which looked like it could easily swallow two of Badger. Whistle was in her lap, ears perked up at the sight of Badger suffering, even if the Corgi couldn’t quite understand why his best friend was in pain. Sarika sighed, rolled her eyes, and reached over to rub Badger’s back in slow circles.

“Stop pushing yourself,” she snapped at him.

Everybody averted their eyes as politely as they could, affording Badger what little dignity we could give, clustered around in the living space of his rather sad and cramped bedsit flat.

Except for me.

I couldn’t stop staring at the man, even when it got weird.

This was the first time I’d seen Badger — real name Nathan Hobbes, as we all knew by now — since the multi-staged brain-math I had performed on him, to break his contract with Ooran Juh, then free him from the grip of the Eye, and then fix his lower brain function so we could restart his failed heart. Easily the most complex and delicate sequence of brain-math I’d ever performed, in service of saving a man who had once been our mortal enemy. The last time I’d seen him he’d been lying on the floor of the magical workshop, bleeding from a head wound and recovering from having his heart jolted back to life. I’d rooted around inside his skull with a tentacle, and re-written a significant portion of the vast hyperdimensional equation that defined him as a person.

So I wasn’t quite sure what I was looking at — a man I’d saved, or a man I’d changed?

Nathan did look like hell, there was no avoiding that brutal reality, but it was a totally different kind of hell than before.

His thick curly dark hair was gone, shaved off for the operation on his skull; a few days of stubble had sprouted from his scalp and chin, scraggly and rough; he’d lost quite a bit of weight during his hospital stay. The way he moved seemed wrong, especially his hands and arms, as if the muscles couldn’t contract all the way without great focus and concentration. He blinked out of sync and squinted at everybody and did weird things with his eyes — Raine had explained that his sight was permanently damaged, blurry at the edges. He seemed wounded, weak, drained, like he’d crept right up to death’s threshold, peered inside, and then only backed away at the last moment. I felt a bizarre urge to make sure he was eating properly. I certainly hoped he was taking the vast quantities of pills he was prescribed — antibiotics, opiate painkillers, and anticonvulsants, among other esoteric drugs.

The stubble on his head couldn’t hide the massive surgical wound.

To insert the titanium fixation plate to cover the hole that I had drilled in Badger’s skull, the surgeons at Sharrowford General Hospital had cut open a semi-circular flap of scalp, about the size of my hand, peeled it back, done their mechanical work to bond metal with bone, and then re-secured the flap with a curving arc of surgical staples.

An angry red line across the side of Nathan’s head, not even scar tissue yet. Impossible to ignore, always there, no matter which way he turned.

It almost didn’t look real, like make-up, like he was an extra on the set of some low-budget horror movie. Looking at the wound stirred memories I’d rather not think about — of what felt like to root around inside human brains.

But, when one took a moment to really watch Badger, closely, to pay attention, he seemed almost like a different person.

Despite the dark rings of heavy exhaustion around his big, wet, puppy-dog eyes, Badger’s gaze was free and clear and bright, in a way it hadn’t been before. It reminded me of a before-and-after picture of a recovering alcoholic. He was all there, all present, in the moment. The wound on his left shoulder — the bite-mark where Ooran Juh’s mouth in Badger’s own palm had taken a chunk out of his flesh — had finally healed into a jagged, awful-looking scar, raw and tender, but no longer bleeding, no longer a forever open wound. His hangdog face no longer drooped, loose and tired around the ghost of a forgotten joy, but instead lit up all over whenever he smiled, as if the muscles had been rewired.

And he did smile, an awful lot.

He was like a mountain sage who’d just rejoined civilisation, after some soul-scouring meditation up in the wilds of the Lake District.

He also wasn’t greasy anymore. That had always struck me about Nathan, he was always slightly greasy, unwashed, even when it wasn’t his fault.

Nathan Hobbes, Badger, whatever he wanted to be now, was clean.

“S-s-sorry,” he croaked, still shaking.

Barely was the word squeezed from his lips when Sarika tutted at him. “Stop apologising, you fucking moron.”

Sarika and Badger made quite the pair. If anybody could match him for looking rough, Sarika still came close. A bitter bruise in human form, with bloodshot eyes, a half-slack face, pale and drawn beneath her light brown skin. She still twitched and shook constantly, her nerves shot through by the unkind grip of the Eye. But she’d gotten back a lot of the muscle tone in her legs and arms, she was slightly less unsteady on her crutches than when we’d last seen her, and she’d started taking better care of her hair again, no longer looking so dry and straw-like. Though she hadn’t dyed it to remove the streaks of premature grey. I didn’t question that choice.

Two ex-cultists, both of them saved from the Eye, by me. Both of them trial runs for Maisie. Was this the best I could do? How much damage had I done? Did they deserve this? I couldn’t answer any of those questions, roiling in my gut as I watched Badger struggle. Both of them had done unspeakable things. I didn’t know what they deserved, only that I’d pulled them both from the pit.

“Hey, don’t sweat it,” Raine said, beaming her limitless confidence for the benefit of a man who had once threatened to have her fingers cut off. “It’s alright. You take your time, dude. No pressure.”

“Mm,” Evelyn grunted from over on her own seat, an old wooden table chair. “No pressure. Right.” She looked about as uncomfortable as I felt, but at least she had Praem standing at her shoulder.

“Indeed,” agreed Jan, in a light, easy tone. “This isn’t an interrogation or a questioning or anything. We’re here as friends. Take it easy.”

Jan, cross-legged on a beanbag chair, had the innocent, clueless, beatific smile of a saintly young woman plastered across her face, to match the black leggings and plaid skirt and smart white blouse she’d turned up in. I didn’t know why she was bothering — everyone in this room knew what she was. Maybe it was her way of trying to be reassuring. I couldn’t tell if she was faking the sweetness-and-light thing to cover for the natural horror at the unfortunate state of Badger, but then again she’d seen him in hospital, more than once.

The effect was somewhat undercut by July looming at the edge of the flat’s little kitchen space, still and sharp like a giant owl, watching everybody with wide, staring eyes.

Sarika shot Jan the hundredth dirty look since the con-woman had walked through the door, but she kept her mouth shut. Jan just smiled back at her, pretending not to understand. In Sarika’s lap, Whistle folded his ears back and whined.

Slowly, painstakingly, Badger’s tremor passed. Sarika was careful to stop rubbing his back as he came around. He blinked several times, like a sleepwalker awakening to find himself in a strange place. Then his eyes landed on me and he smiled the smile of the truly happy.

“Sorry about that,” he said. “Sorry.”

“It’s not your fault,” I blurted out before anybody else could answer. “Sarika is correct, you shouldn’t apologise. Don’t apologise to me.”

Badger blinked several times, but he didn’t stop smiling. “Sure thing, okay. No problem. It’s what you get with a metal plate in your head, I guess.”

“Hard head,” said Praem. “Head, hard.”

Raine chuckled. “Iron noggin, the hardest head in Sharrowford. There you go, that could be your wrestling name.”

Badger laughed too. He mimed knocking his knuckles against his own head, though without actually touching.

He’d been in the middle of suffering an attack of headaches and shaking when we’d arrived at his tiny flat about half an hour earlier. We had found him barely vocal, sitting with the lights off, hunched up in the lumpy armchair, sweating and shaking. He hadn’t been coherent enough to stand up and walk the few feet to his kitchen counter, to take the painkillers which lay right there. He hadn’t even been able to acknowledge us beyond a weird sideways twitch of his head.

Technically, according to the hospital, the sagely advice from the doctors, and the glossy NHS pamphlet — laconically titled ‘Cranioplasty following traumatic brain injury: patient and carer information’ — Badger was perfectly fine to be discharged all by himself. That didn’t take into account the damage done by the self-inflicted brain injury, of course. Or rather, the damage done by the Eye. And by me.

Sarika had stomped about the tiny flat on her crutches, berating Badger about keeping his painkillers closer to hand, elbowing out anybody else’s attempts to help with pills and water. She claimed that responsibility for herself, and she was more than capable of it now. She still shook and twitched, but bloody-minded bitterness had fuelled her practice with her crutches, helped by my long-term brain-math sessions, and undoubtedly motivated in unspoken ways by Badger’s survival. Though none of us pointed that out.

“We were only gone for thirty fucking minutes, Nathan!” she’d snapped, even as she’d counted out his pills and doubled-checked the dosage. “Your own crutch is right there!”

The rest of us had awkwardly milled around, waiting for Jan and July to show up. Praem made tea and coffee, which we’d brought with us. Raine deposited the spoils of a food run into Badger’s fridge. Whistle snuffled about, making certain no other dogs had invaded during his long absence. Lozzie had not come with us, because she didn’t want to see either Badger or Sarika. We had no worries about the police, they weren’t interested in Badger at all anymore. But I stayed curled up tight on myself, tentacles wound inward.

Badger’s flat was a deeply sad place.

It was off Woldbroke Street, one of those low rise terraces that backed onto a row of shops, not a dirty or dingy or dangerous part of Sharrowford, but simply somewhere that had been hollowed out by poverty. The terrace had once been whole houses, each one probably quite spacious inside, but it had since been broken up into cramped individual flats and had concrete stairways installed inside. Badger’s flat itself was only three rooms: a bathroom too small to turn around in without opening the door; a bedroom barely large enough for a double bed; and a combined sitting room and kitchen, the latter of which was tucked behind a little corner of wall. All scratchy carpet and pockmarked lino. There was only one window in the whole place, in the sitting room; outdoors was a dreary grey drizzle right then, summer seemed to have forgotten itself, but I had a feeling the flat would remain dim and dingy even under the full grace of the sun.

It wasn’t anywhere near as dire as the safe house that Jan and July had been living in as camouflage, but this was Badger’s actual home.

The contents were more important than the building, of course. And that’s what hurt me as I wandered around, waiting for the man in question to recover.

I personally knew three ex-cultists by then. Sarika lived with her parents and was making some attempt at rebuilding a life, even if it was mostly making Minecraft videos on youtube. At least she’d found something that she valued and that brought joy to others. Kimberly was doing much better those days, living with us; her bedroom was a dense, miniature version of how she’d decorated her own flat back in Gleaston Tower, all posters of dragons looking noble, wolves howling at the moon, rainbow unicorns and healing crystals and little Buddha statues. I might find it a bit silly, but it was hers, she liked it, and I respected that.

But here, even in his own living space, there was very little of Badger — of Nathan Hobbes, the person.

He had no posters on the walls, no shelves stuffed with books and bric-a-brac, no favourite decorations or plush toys or framed photographs. His furniture was an eclectic mix of mismatched items, probably just things that other people had thrown out; not that there’s anything wrong with scavenging, but it seemed lopsided. He had a lot of spare chairs which looked like they’d come from dining tables — but no table to place them around, except the low one in the middle of the room. That looked like it had suffered water damage at some point. He owned a small television, at least, along with a video game console hooked up below it, though only two games. His laptop lay on the table, a beaten-up old thing. No headphones, no external mouse, nothing else. His kitchen was even worse. One saucepan, two bowls, and just enough cutlery for one person to use before washing it up again.

There was more of Whistle in the flat than Badger. Of the many flaws Nathan might have been accused of, none could deny the man loved his dog. He kept two massive bags of dry dog food under the sink — which Praem promptly found — along with a large supply of tinned wet food and a massive haul of dog treats. Everything was carefully labelled for nutritional value, in Badger’s own hand. Three leashes hung by the door, along with a Corgi-sized mini raincoat, a dog-fleece for cold days, and even a weird little set of tiny boots.

“For hot days,” Raine had explained when I frowned at the little booties. “You know, when tarmac gets hot. Protects his little paws.”

“Oh. Oh, well, that’s very clever.”

Whistle apparently agreed. Our investigation of the dog stuff had brought him over to watch. His dog stuff, I supposed.

“Sorry, Whistle lad,” Raine said to him, crouching down to scratch his head. “Not time for that right now. Later on, hey?”

He’d whined, then snuffled off again, wiggling his little tail.

I hadn’t meant to see any of this, but it was hard not to, with everybody bustling about while we waited for Badger’s initial headache to subside. Praem apparently made enough mugs appear for everybody to drink tea or coffee, which I’m still not quite sure how she managed. But we were the ones who’d brought the tea and coffee with us. Maybe she’d secretly purchased mugs. I wasn’t really paying attention.

I was too busy invading Badger’s privacy.

I hadn’t meant to. Sarika was rubbing his back, Praem was making tea, Raine and Evelyn were rattling on about what to do with Whistle, and I just wandered off, telling myself that I was seeking private solace. Actually, I was consumed with curiosity about Nathan.

There was so little of him here. Who was he, this man I’d saved?

So I stepped into his bedroom, without thinking.

On the squat double bed was one of those long-style pillows, for hugging while one sleeps. But it lacked a cover. I knew from certain conversations with Raine that those sorts of pillows were usually meant to have a cover with an anime girl printed on both sides, of varying levels of risqué illustration, for obvious purposes. Something about the bare pillow struck me as terribly sad; I’d almost have felt better if I’d ended up face-to-face with some improbably busty cartoon girl with her breasts out. At least that would have been something.

A little pile of books lay next to the bed, which drew my attention like a moth to a flame. This was better. Books! Everybody loves books, that’s how I could understand Badger.

They were all about mathematics. No novels, no fiction, nothing like that. At the bottom of the pile were four textbooks, well-thumbed, full of little yellow tags as bookmarks. On top of that lay a history of maths, a book about the number zero, three biographies of famous mathematicians, two books that looked like they were about the junction between maths and philosophy, and a couple of pop-science books to round it all off.

Leaning against the wall was a framed degree certificate.

I hadn’t touched the books, only leaned down so I could read the titles, but something about the diploma called to me. I picked it up with the end of one tentacle.

To my incredible surprise, it was hiding two more framed diplomas behind it, along with a pair of spiral-bound pamphlets. All three frames were cheap plastic, probably picked up from Tesco. They were dusty and didn’t look like they’d been touched in months. I scooped them all up with my tentacles, then stood there in stunned amazement as I read the words on the certificates.

“Sharrowford University, school of mathematics,” I muttered out loud as my eyes flicked from one to the other. “Nathan Hobbes, Bachelor of Mathematics, first class honours. Nathan Hobbes, Master of Mathematics. Nathan Hobbes, Doctorate of Mathematics.”

Nathan Hobbes had a PhD. Badger, greasy, weird Badger, a Doctor of Mathematics.

The spiral-bound pamphlets revealed more. Sure enough, Badger’s real name was on both of them, right there on the front page, protected by a cover of transparent green plastic. His own hard copies of his Masters and Doctoral theses. The Doctoral thesis had two letters tucked inside the cover, though they were both a decade old by now. One was from an academic publication I’d never heard of, a mathematics journal, asking him for further submissions. The second was an offer of a junior teaching post — at Oxford.

For some reason I didn’t fully understand, I took a moment to carefully wipe the dust from the cheap frames, before placing them back where I’d found them. That was another mistake — as I wiped the PhD diploma, I dislodged another slip of paper inside the frame, something hidden behind the diploma itself. A photograph poked out. I had already intruded enough, but I couldn’t help but identify the two figures in the photograph: Badger himself, looking healthy and whole and about ten years younger, alongside a young woman with her arms around his shoulders, absolutely beaming at the camera.

I had a vague memory of her face, as if I’d seen her in a dream. After all, I’d briefly known everything about Badger’s past, back when I’d defined him in hyperdimensional mathematics, in order to break Ooran Juh’s contact over his soul.

But I decided not to attempt to recall that memory. My hands were already shaking, I already felt horribly sick, I’d already intruded far enough on a man who didn’t deserve this, even if he deserved a lot. I pushed the photo back inside the frame and put the fruits of academia back where Badger had placed them, next to his bed, gathering dust.

The dregs of a life.

The Brotherhood of the New Sun, the Sharrowford Cult. They had pressed Kimberly into service raising zombies and doing magic, but they hadn’t cared much about her private life. Alexander Lilburne had warped Sarika’s morals, her ethics, her beliefs about the world, and made her complicit in terrible acts, but she was very much her own person, even now. But Badger? Badger lived alone in a tiny flat, sleeping next to a memory of what he could have been if Alexander Lilburne had never engaged him in philosophical debate.

Eventually, the painkillers had done their trick, aided by at least three other pills from intimidating-looking bottles with terrifying words on the labels. Badger had come around and accepted a cup of tea. Jan and July had shown up at last. And we’d shown Badger the picture again.

“Don’t apologise to me,” I repeated.

Badger nodded, still smiling for me.

“So,” Raine jumped back in before things could get even more awkward. She pointed at her mobile phone again, with the picture of the dead man on the screen. “Rally? That’s his name? Is that like, Raleigh?” She spelled the name quickly.

Badger seemed reluctant to look away from me, like he had something important to say, but then he swallowed and answered Raine. “Nah. Rally. Arr-ay-ell-ell-why.” He shrugged. “Dunno if it was a real name or a nickname, or something else even, but that was definitely what he called himself. A lot of the guys from that period of the cult went around with fake names.”

“How can you tell that’s him?” Evelyn grunted, leaning heavily on her walking stick as she hunched in her own chair. “That corpse is practically mummified. His own parents probably couldn’t identify him.”

Badger smiled again, that easy smile of the free and happy. “Seriously, it looks like him. It’s the hair. And the jawbone. And around the eyes, like? Yeah. He always had a face like a horse. It’s Rally. For sure.”

Jan let out a little laugh. “Very rich, coming from a man with the nickname ‘Badger’.”

“Huh,” Evelyn grunted. “Sarika, you knew this man as well?”

Sarika stared at the zoomed-in image on the mobile phone. Raine held it up for her, but she shook her head with twitching distaste. “Yes, fine. I knew Rally, briefly,” she said in her scratchy, croaky, half-broken voice. “But that’s just a corpse. I can’t identify it as anybody.”

“You think Badger is incorrect?” Raine asked.

“Huh!” Sarika snorted derision and turned her eyes away. “No, I’m sure Nathan is right. Bloody freak, staring at corpses. Don’t know how you can see anything there.”

“Huuuruf,” went Whistle, down in her lap, as if telling her off for being grumpy.

Badger laughed softly at that, as if the old blade of Sarika’s tongue was gone dull with affection.

“Sooooo,” Jan said, drawing the word out. “This unfortunate gentleman was indeed a member of the Brotherhood? You’re certain about that part?”

Badger nodded. “Yeah, def’. Um, but, uh … um … ”

He trailed off for a moment again, blinking hard but without any tremors, as if he had something in his eyes. Sarika huffed a long-suffering sigh and bapped him on the arm with one hand. “Nate, put your fucking glasses on.”

“I don’t need—”

“You can’t see, you obstinate prick. Put your glasses on.”

Badger cleared his throat with embarrassment, then accepted his glasses from the table, passed to him by Raine. He awkwardly settled them onto his face. I didn’t blame him for disliking them, they were large and cumbersome, some kind of medical frames, probably whatever the hospital had in stock for these rare circumstances. He squinted and blinked through the thick lenses.

The glasses made it worse; he barely looked like the man we’d known before.

“They don’t help,” he complained, though he was still smiling. “They just magnify. They’re not gonna fix my eyes.” He waved his hands at either side of his own head, as if trying to brush away cobwebs.

Sarika hissed through her teeth. “Wear. Them.”

“Better listen to your lady there,” Raine said with a smirk.

Sarika snapped around at her like an angry crocodile. “I am not his fu— fu—” She twitched and stammered in frustration.

I didn’t have the patience for this farce. “Nathan,” I said, loud and clear, cutting across the nonsense. Badger blinked at me, like a huge-eyed bird on the other side of his thick magnifying glasses. I suddenly worried that July might decide to eat him. “Nathan, did the doctors tell you to wear those?”

“Yes. Yes, they did. At least, when my vision goes blurry. Which is, you know, most of the time.” He laughed, then sighed. “They said it might stop my eyes trying to adjust when they can’t actually do anything.”

“Is your vision blurry right now?”


“Then wear them.”

I didn’t say please. I didn’t say ‘you should wear them’. I just told him what to do. And he did it.

Jan cleared her throat again, pulling an even more strained smile than before. She sat up straighter in the absurd beanbag chair, hands folded in her lap, fake-demure. “Rally. Let’s talk about this fellow. Please?”

“Right, yeah,” Badger said, visibly pulling himself together and sitting up. “Rally was in the cult, that’s right.”

“Was he one of the survivors?” Raine asked. “One of the ones who left, before you lot did that ritual to talk to … you know?” She gestured upward with a single finger, omitting the name of the Eye, out of respect for Sarika’s pain.

“Oh! No, no, not at all!” Badger, strangely, broke out in a big smile again, genuinely happy, though after a beat he seemed to realise it was a little bit odd, and dialled it down. “Uh, I mean, no. Thing is, Rally got out years ago.”

“Mm,” Sarika added a grunt. “That’s what Alex thought, too.”

“Explain,” Evelyn said.

Badger went on. “Rally was one of the guys from the old days, or like, what counted as the old days, for us.” He gestured between himself and Sarika. “Before we joined. I only knew him a tiny bit. He was really, really smart, ambitious, driven, serious kinda guy. One of the few guys Alex was grooming as an actual wizard. Well, maybe. That was what everyone thought. Maybe that or he wanted to fatten them all up like pigs for slaughter. Who knows, hey?”

There was that smile again, unstoppable relief even when talking about terrible subjects.

Sarika stared at nothing, at the junction between wall and floor. “Ambition was a problem. Always a bloody problem.”

“Yeeeeeah,” said Badger, nodding along with that. “He was super ambitious. Rumour was that’s why Alexander handed his training off to Edward, to get him forced out of the cult.”

“So he was one of Edward’s men?” Evelyn asked. “That’s what you mean? Get to the point here.”

Badger shrugged. “I dunno, sorry. He vanished. Left the cult. At least that’s what everybody said at the time.”

“Alex thought so too,” Sarika added, croaking through the words. The broken gravel of her voice couldn’t hide the hollow pain. “Unless he was lying to me about that as well.”

Badger looked toward his old friend with warm concern in his eyes. For a moment I thought we were going to see another replay of his incredibly awkward attitude toward Sarika, the painful, fractured dedication he’d shown when she’d visited our house, to see him one last time before he went under the dubious knife of my tentacles. I don’t know what he felt for her, if anything other than protective friendship and the shame of failing to keep her away from Alexander Lilburne. For one horrible second I thought he was going to lift his hand and reach out to her. I prepared to avert my eyes along with everybody else.

But he didn’t lift his hands. He just said, “Alex lied to all of us, about a lot of things. It’s alright, Sarry. None of that was your fault.”

Sarika went from a morose sulk to frowning a bouquet of knives in an instant. She snorted a single, derisive huff. “Nate, shut the fuck up.”

Evelyn murmured an agreement. “Mmhmm, I’m not quite sure about the ‘none of your fault’ part, either.”

“We were all at fault,” Sarika spat at Badger. “Don’t you fucking lie to yourself. Fuck this lot.” She gestured at us. “But don’t lie to me.”

“Oh, cheers,” said Jan.

But Badger just smiled, untouched by rejection or admonishment. His smile back at Sarika wasn’t a wide-mouthed grin or a showy smirk, but there was something undeniably pure about it. She must have thought so too, because she folded her arms over her chest and looked away with a huff.

“Well well well,” said Raine, finally flicking the photo of the dead man off her phone screen and tucking the phone back in her pocket. “That does kinda scupper our theory. I assumed that guy, Rally, was from the survivors. Working with Edward, you know? Back to square one. Oh well.”

Over toward the back of the room, beneath the dreary sky of thick clouds visible through the single window, Jan clambered to her feet with a little ‘hup!’ She smoothed down the back of her skirt, smiling ironically. “Indeed. Told you so. I’d never seen him before, either. None of the others mentioned him.”

Evelyn tutted. “Who says you’ve found all of them?”

“She has found all of them,” Badger said. “Everyone else who made it out of that house. Ten left, other than me.”

Jan did a little head-bob-curtsey-bow toward Badger. He beamed back at her. Evelyn rolled her eyes. Sarika looked like she wanted to kick Jan in the stomach.

“Well then!” Jan said with a tone of finality. “I don’t know why I’m still here. That corpse you found has absolutely nothing to do with me. Nada, zilch, zip. Nothing! I’ll be off then. Come on, July, we’re going to get something nice for dinner.”

July stared back at Jan. The demon of rope-like muscles and wide eyes just stood there, still as a statue.

I cleared my throat. “Now Badger is out of the hospital,” I said, “we can finally contact those ten survivors. Jan, that’s your job here. Today or tomorrow. Preferably today.”

Jan sighed and sagged with all the theatrical sulk of the teenager she often appeared to be. “Can you maybe not involve me until you’ve gotten rid of that corpse? Please? Give me this one little job stipulation. No extra corpses.”

Raine chuckled. “Afraid you’re gonna get pulled in by the police for questioning?”

“Yes!” Jan huffed. “Obviously. Corpses attract attention! I can’t believe you people just have a picture of that on your phones.”

Sarika snorted. “Coward.”

Jan gave her a rather sharp look, totally at odds with her prior performance. “Cowardice is survival. If you last as long as me, then you can lecture me about courage.”

Sarika frowned in confusion, derision stalled only by one of her usual tics of flinching and shuddering. Jan, after all, did look much younger than Sarika.

Badger spoke up instead. “Where did you find him? Rally, I mean.”

He was talking past everybody else, straight to me. Probably because I’d been staring at him, watching his every move, trying to read his mannerisms and his gestures, the turn of his head and the set of his muscles, looking for something I might recognise, something too familiar. To my surprise, I wasn’t embarrassed in the slightest that he’d caught me staring.

“Outside,” I said. “Which is where the corpse will stay. Unless you know about his parents, his family? Anything?”

Badger pulled an apologetic expression and shook his head. “Sorry. Poor bloke.”

Jan spread her hands in an exasperated shrug. “He’s Outside? Why didn’t you tell me that at first? That makes it just fine, then. What a place to hide a body, my goodness.”

“Didn’t Lozzie tell you that?” Raine asked.

“Well, sort of, yes. But, Lozzie.”

“Lozzie, indeed,” I sighed. Badger beamed back at me.

“Guess we’re back to square one, hey?” said Raine. She shot me a look.

“Almost,” I sighed, gathering myself. “One last thing.”

I pulled the pair of soapstone coins out of my hoodie and clacked them down on the low table.

The greenish, alien rock caught the dull light of the rainy day outside, as if both amplifying it and drinking it up. As I slid the coins toward Badger and Sarika I did my best to watch their faces. Sarika just frowned. Badger leaned forward.

“Do these mean anything to either of you?” I asked. “Anything at all?”

Badger took the question seriously, studying the coins with care, but then he shook his head. “Never seen them before. Wish I had. Is this something connected with Edward? I could ask the others, if you want, I could ask around, once we’ve reconnected.” He wet his lips and nodded at me with mounting eagerness. “Maybe somebody saw one of these, with Edward or Alexander. What do they do? Are they—”

“I’ve seen one of those before,” Sarika rasped.

We all looked up at her. She was frowning down at the coins, morose and long-faced again. Her head twitched, like a hypnic jerk, followed by a hard, tired blink.

“Where?” I asked.

“Edward,” she said without looking up. Her voice dropped to a murmur. “Years and years ago now. Bastard.”

“Sarry?” Badger said her name. Sarika blinked hard and looked up. One hand moved awkwardly toward Badger, but then she seemed to catch herself and frown at her own traitorous fingers.

“Back before the split really settled in,” she hurried on in her ruined, raspy voice. “The split inside the cult, I mean, with Edward on one side and Alex on the other. It was … mmm … twenty ten, I think? Twenty eleven? The last time Lauren tried to run away from home.”

“Lozzie,” I corrected, firmly but gently.

Sarika waved me off in frowning irritation. “Lozzie. Lozzie, alright. The split was over her, over what to do about her. None of us, none of the cult were actually privy to the details, but a bunch of us did witness Alex and Edward having a huge argument.”

“Who?” Badger asked, blinking with curiosity. “When was this? Where?”

Sarika shot him a grumpy frown. “You never saw it, you weren’t there. It was at Alex’s house.”

“Continue, please,” Evelyn said, with a tone that meant please pay attention and stop arguing.

Sarika sighed and grimaced, closing her eyes for a moment, struggling with a mote of her own private pain, whether physical or emotional. “Edward was angry. Quiet angry. That’s sort of what he was like. I didn’t really know the man, I’d only seen him a few times, despite how close I was with Alex. They argued about a lot of philosophical points, I don’t remember most of it. But I do remember one of those coins.” Sarika nodded at the stone coins on the little table. “Edward pulled it out of his pocket and said something like … ‘how can you ignore the potential of this?’”

“Exact words?” Evelyn asked.

Sarika gave her a withering look. Evelyn was immune, however. “No, of course not, it was ten years ago. Fucking joke.”

“Ha ha,” said Praem. Sarika glowered at her, but that was like frowning at a brick wall.

“Point taken,” said Evelyn.

Jan put both hands up, as if she was interrupting a loud argument. She’d gone suddenly quite pale in the face. “Um, excuse me. Heather, Evelyn, what are those coins? I was not told about any magical coins or other such things we were bringing to this little meeting. This was to be a magic free zone. Demilitarized.”

Raine snorted. “As if you’re not carrying heat.”

“Self-protection is different!” Jan said.

“I am right here,” said July.

Evelyn sighed. “The coins aren’t magical.”

“They’re from Outside,” I corrected.

Jan started at me like I’d admitted to keeping a live velociraptor as a pet. Her smile was very fixed and waxen.

“They’re inert.” Evelyn tutted. “I’ve tested them. They’re stone. That’s all. Calm down.”

Jan’s smile went sour. She screwed her eyes up and pinched the bridge of her nose, then muttered to herself in that specific way that was meant to be overheard by everybody within earshot. “Great, now they’re getting into Macguffins. Wonderful, yes. Perfect. This is not dispelling my fears that you lot are in fact a bunch of jay-arr-pee-gee protagonists.”

Raine started laughing.

What protagonists?” I asked. “Excuse me?”

“I cast magic missile,” said Praem.

“Not in here, you don’t,” Sarika croaked, frowning darkly. I couldn’t tell if she was in on the joke or not. Badger was laughing and smiling at everyone like he was on uppers.

“Wrong type of game,” Raine snorted.

Evelyn cracked her voice like a whip. “If we could return to the topic at hand, thank you. Sarika, the coin. You saw it once, that was it?”

Sarika nodded. “S’all I got.”

“Maybe we can ask Eddy,” Raine said, still smirking. “Maybe it’s like a token from an Outsider arcade. Trade in ten of them for a fancy mug.”

The joke fell a bit flat. The laughter was already trailing off. I muttered a thank you to Sarika for the information, then scooped up the coins and slid them back into my pocket. They sat heavy as a pair of petrified hearts.

“Alright, okay, for serious,” Raine was saying. “What if this Rally guy stole the coin off Edward, and that’s why he ended up dead?”

Jan sighed. “One would assume that Edward would have then recovered the coin, no?”

Raine clicked her fingers and shot Jan a finger gun, topped by a beaming grin. “Smart lady, right on the money. Why indeed? That’s the question.”

For just a split-second, Jan was rendered speechless in the spotlight of Raine’s molten confidence, mouth hanging open, cheeks starting to colour with blush. I almost rolled my eyes; I hadn’t forgotten Raine’s confession that she found Jan extremely attractive. Of course I trusted her completely, she’d never do anything there without my permission, but I suppose she couldn’t resist a tiny bit of flirting when the opportunity presented itself. It took me a moment to realise that I had wrapped a tentacle around Raine’s leg, as if to restrain her; Raine’s grin slid to me and I earned a wink as well, then blushed in shame and embarrassment.

But then Jan put her walls back up. She huffed and set her jaw and folded her arms, the very picture of the stuffy student. “Actually no,” she said. “Why am I even suggesting anything? You should be paying me a consultation fee. I agreed to facilitate a meeting with the surviving cultists, via Nathan here, not to consult on some magic coin Macguffin from the dimensions beyond time and space. Nope, not doing it. In fact, I’m going into the kitchen for more tea.”

And she did. Jan ducked under July’s arm and started rattling about in the little kitchen space of the bedsit flat, muttering about ‘dying for a packet of crisps.’

Raine chuckled and bit her lower lip. Evelyn rolled her eyes again. Badger just smiled at the whole thing. Sarika did not look impressed, but she seemed a tiny bit more relaxed now that Jan was out of her line of sight. I had no idea why she hated the little mage so much.

“All right then,” said Evelyn with a note of finality in her voice. She levered herself up and out of her own chair, half her weight on her walking stick. Praem helped her with a gentle hand on Evee’s hip. “If that’s all we’ve got, then that’s all we’ve got. It’s high time for the second reason we came here.”

Badger gulped hard, his smile finally waning. I could see the flutter in his hands, the tension in his face. He knew we needed to do this, but his nerves were getting the better of him. I couldn’t blame him, considering what had happened last time.

“It’s going to be perfectly safe,” Evelyn huffed. “All you have to do is stand there. Or sit there. Hell, if you scoot that chair out from the wall a bit, you might not even have to move.”

Badger’s eyes, of course, flickered back down to me, and stayed there.

A moment of odd, unspoken understanding passed between us. Somehow he saw the answer in my eyes before I even spoke. He started nodding before I said anything.

That spooked me, badly. A jolt of private terror shot through my bowels. I hurried to say the words out loud, just in case.

“Evee is telling the truth,” I said. “It’s perfectly safe. We need to get you a clean bill of health, Nathan. That’s all. She’s done this to me before, as well. It’s not like doing anything. You just stand there.”

“Okay. Okay, well, I’m ready then,” said Badger. “Thank you, Heather. Thank you, really.”

Badger said it like he was marching to his death all over again, but Evelyn wasn’t exaggerating; the process was harmless, painless, and more boring than dramatic. Raine and July helped move the table and chairs out of the way, and then Praem unrolled the piece of canvas we’d brought with us, which contained a portable magic circle, pre-drawn back at home. Badger did actually find the strength and coherence to stand up, waiting there in the circle for the twenty minutes or so that it took Evelyn to examine him.

The doctors, nurses, and surgeons at Sharrowford General Hospital had done their best to fix Badger’s body, but until Evelyn got him under the metaphorical microscope of her expertise, we couldn’t be one hundred percent sure that my procedures had worked. So Badger stood in the middle of a magic circle, sweating slowly and looking very nervous indeed, balancing on one NHS-issue metal crutch, while Evelyn peered at him with the modified pneuma-somatic seeing glasses. She made small adjustments to the magic circle via instructions to Praem, who stood ready with a water-soluble marker pen. After every adjustment, she would circle Badger again, thump-thumping with her walking stick, waiting for a reaction that never came.

The rest of us did our best to spare Badger any further embarrassment — except for Sarika, who sat hunched up and glowering on the sofa like an abandoned gargoyle, with Whistle sitting comfortably in her lap.

Raine and Jan and July retired to the kitchen area, behind its little corner of wall, for all the illusion it gave of a separate space. I tried to follow, but I kept shooting sidelong glances at Badger, watching the way he moved his neck muscles, the blink of his eyes, the sway and tilt of his musculature. I kept staring at the red, angry surgical wound on his scalp.

How much had I changed him? When I’d rebuilt his lower brain function, I’d used part of myself, abyssal nature and all.


“Ah?” I blinked away from poor Nathan in the circle, and found Raine offering me a Jammy Dodger from one of the packets we’d brought with us. “Oh, um. Yes, thank you.” I accepted the biscuit and chewed slowly, watching Badger out of the corner of my eye, around the corner of slender wall that half-enclosed the kitchen space.

“Heather, dear,” said Jan, giving me a little grimace. “Do you really want me to set up this meeting with the other survivors today? Nathan isn’t really … well … you know.”

“Entirely compos mentis?” Raine offered with an almost sad smile.

“He does seem a little loopy.” Jan pulled an even worse smile-grimace. “It does rather hinge on him proving that you never hurt him. That you helped him, even!” Jan went up on tiptoes and made a show of peering into the sitting room area, at Badger and Evelyn. She lowered her voice and added, from the corner of her mouth, “I don’t think I can properly emphasize how utterly terrified and strung-out those people are. All ten of them. Well, some seem to be faring better than others, but if I wasn’t a magician, I would assume serious drug addiction, or some kind of paranoid condition. Sharrowford’s local meth cooks, sampling their own wares too much.”

“Jan,” I tutted.

“I’m serious!” she hissed, making another show of looking to see if we’d been overheard. “They’re terrified of you. The only reason I got close to them in the first place was by lying. They want to meet Badger, under very controlled circumstances. Not with you present, at least not at first. Do you really want to go ahead and pull the trigger on this? I thought you lot had plenty on your plate right now as it is.”

Raine clucked her tongue. “We are waiting for that phone call from Fliss, that’s true.”

“Who’s Fliss?” Jan asked, but then she shook her head suddenly and held up a hand. “Actually, no, don’t tell me. I don’t wish to know. Forget I asked.”

“Another mage,” said July, looming behind her.

“I don’t want to know, Jule. Please, stop.”

Raine’s hand found my shoulder and squeezed gently. “Hey, Heather?”

“I’m thinking,” I said.

“I know you are. Let me take some of the load, yeah? Jan has a point, we could be really busy again, soon. On the other hand, if we deal with the cult, that’s one less way for Eddy-boy to screw with us.”

For once, Raine’s words slid off my mind like water off a duck’s back.

“None of that matters,” I murmured.


All I could think of was Sevens, out in Camelot, forcing me to recognise that I always had a choice. Practical concerns were all well and good, but I had power, and another choice to make.

“I have a responsibility to those people,” I said quietly. “I didn’t cause what’s happened to them, but I have a responsibility all the same. I’m the only one who might be able to give them relief from the Eye. Jan, please, if you really, genuinely believe that we should wait a few days for Badger to feel more coherent, because it would give us a better shot at being trusted, then please do that. But don’t stall more than necessary.”

Jan blew out a long breath. “Alright. You’re paying the bill, after all. Well, if you were paying for this.” She tutted.

To my surprise, July tilted her head up and caught my eye. The demon-host shifted her footing like a bird of prey, swaying in the tiny kitchen. Almost enough to make me flinch. “Once you catch them, what will you do with them?”

Jan winced. “I was trying not to think about that part.”

I almost said Me neither, which would have been a small disaster. Instead I sighed and squeezed my eyes shut. “I don’t quite know yet. I can’t trepan them all, I can’t send them all to hospital one after the other. But I can show them that it’s possible. Maybe give them solace. Hope? At least I’ll be able to talk to them.”

“Make them see that they’re better off betting on us than Eddy,” Raine said. “‘Cos you saved Badger, but Edward couldn’t.”

I nodded, but felt a lump growing in my throat. That’s what everything hinged on — I could wrest human beings from the Eye’s grasp. In theory.

In practice, the process had almost killed Badger, and maybe changed him forever.

“Frankly,” I said, talking to the floor, “we need to stop being so reactive. We need to act, take control. We need those people on our side. Right now. ASAP. We need to close that avenue before Edward uses it. We need to stop reacting and start … well. Acting? Oh, that sounds so stupid.”

Raine was staring at me in surprise, smiling in a way that made me want to melt. “Not stupid at all, Heather.”

“Oh great,” Jan muttered. “Proactive doom.”

“He’s clean,” Evelyn announced from the sitting area.

We all stepped back around the corner of the kitchen, rejoining the others. Badger was beaming with relief, shaking a little on the crutch wedged under his armpit. Praem was rolling up the piece of canvas, tidying the circle away. Whistle was panting in Sarika’s lap.

“Eyyyyyy!” went Raine. “Congrats. How’s it feel, man?”

“Good,” said Badger. “To know that it’s … it’s all over.”

I winced inside. If my suspicions were right, it would never be over for Nathan.

Evelyn cleared her throat and tapped the floor with her walking stick. “No party yet, please. Yes, he’s free of any influence that I can detect. There’s nothing left of Ooran Juh’s contamination. I can’t test for the Eye, of cou—”


Over on the sofa, Sarika visibly flinched, curling up on herself and letting out a painful, guttural noise of physical rejection. For one horrible moment she was a little girl in the middle of a nightmare, about to scream, trying to stop herself.

“Sorry!” Evelyn blurted out. “Sorry, fuck, sorry.”

Jan winced and looked away. Raine pulled a sad, sympathetic smile. Praem touched her mother’s elbow. Whistle stood up from Sarika’s lap and licked one of her hands, trying his best to help.

But Badger swung around on his crutch and hobbled the two paces to Sarika.

“Sarry? Sarry, it’s gone. It can’t hurt us anymore. It’s gone. It’s gone. It’s gone. It’s gone.” Badger’s voice got softer and softer as he repeated those words. He didn’t touch her, but his tone somehow reached through the veil of pain. Slowly, Sarika came back out of the shaking, panting terror — and shot a deeply bitter and embarrassed scowl up at Badger.

“I know it’s fucking well gone.” She spat. “That doesn’t help.” She huffed and looked away.

“It’s really gone?” I asked.

Badger turned on his crutch and looked at me. In all my life until that moment, I don’t think I’d ever witnessed the specific species of smile that graced his face. It was pure. No agenda, nothing held back, but also held no desire to communicate anything.

“It’s gone,” he said. “Yes.”

He smiled so deeply that his eyes filled with tears.

“That … ” I cleared my throat awkwardly. “Well, it’s good to know that it all worked.”

Badger nodded to me, trying to blink away the tears. He hobbled halfway across the room, but didn’t come close enough to threaten my personal space. My tentacles edged outward all the same, like he was some kind of threat recognised deep down in my instinctive memory.

“It’s not in my head anymore,” he said. “It hasn’t been, not since you did what you did. Heather, Miss Morell, whatever I … I did … I did … I did immoral things, I know. I hurt people. I was a … a bad person? I’m sorry, I don’t have the words.”

“Thank you,” prompted Praem.

“Yes!” Badger lit up with another elated, laughing smile. “Thank you. Yes. I can’t thank you with words. I can’t. I’m— I’m— I’m free. Free! I can’t tell you what it feels like, to be under the gaze of that … that. In your head, always there, always burning away at you. And then it’s gone. It’s gone.” He trailed off and blinked hard several times, trying not to cry.

“You’re welcome,” I said, feeling robotic and cold. This wasn’t the talk we needed to have.

“I spent a long time thinking about you,” he went on. When he smiled, the muscles in his face tugged at the wound on his scalp, ever so slightly. “I mean, about everything you did, while I was in the hospital. There— there— was so much, so much. A-and I know you can’t do this for everybody. I don’t have the right to ask for that, but it— thank you— I can’t— can’t—”

Badger shook his head, almost dislodging the glasses from his face. His free hand fluttered up to his head as another tremor took his neck and shoulders in a fit of quivering, gripping his muscles and nerves with the fruit of my work upon his brain stem.

“I’m alriiiight,” he slurred. “Alright. Fine.”

“You’re clearly not alright, you moron!” Sarika snapped. “Sit down!”

We all agreed that Badger needed a sit down. Praem and Raine helped. Once he was settled in his chair again, recovering from the mercifully short episode, Evelyn bumped her arm against mine.

“Heather, it’s high time we leave,” she said softly. “We’re done here, let’s get moving. You agree? I don’t think there’s any more we’ll get out of him.”

I wet my lips, staring at Badger. I couldn’t hide anything from Evee.

“Heather?” She sighed. “We’re not going to abandon him. I know how you feel, even if I might not share the same sentiments. Raine can come check up on him. He’s got Sarika for now. We’re not going to just leave him to his own devices. But we’re going to field a very awkward phone call this afternoon, and I would like time to … to prepare myself.”

I slipped my hand into Evee’s and squeezed. Felicity again, of course. She needed time, and my support. “It’s not that,” I muttered back — then raised my voice, pulling together all my courage. “Excuse me, everybody? Would you all mind if I could speak to Badger alone for a few minutes?”

Everybody looked at me in surprise, except for July, who always looked surprised in the way an owl can look surprised at the sight of fresh, living meat. Sarika frowned at me. Raine nodded without question. Jan looked curious but not curious enough to ask more. Evelyn harrumphed.

Badger just nodded, still holding his own head. “Any time,” he said.

I hurried to clarify. “I mean, um, Sarika, you’re more than welcome to stay.”

“Bloody right I am,” she rasped.

“And Raine, too. Raine can stay.” Raine understood this, she’d understood it with me. Plus, even now, even here, I needed my bodyguard close. “And leave Whistle here, of course. For now, at least. No need to make him get up.” He did look very comfy, settled once more in Sarika’s lap.

Jan and July were all too happy to go wait down by Raine’s car. Evelyn was a bit more suspicious, giving me quite a look, but I disarmed that with a hug and Raine’s car keys in Praem’s hand.

“We won’t be long,” I said.

“See you’re not. And fill me in later, yes?” She sounded none too impressed, but Evelyn trusted my judgement. I wasn’t certain her trust was well-placed.

“Sit in the car, please,” I said. “Don’t stand outdoors in the drizzle.”

“Huh. As if I would.”

Once the others were gone, I sat back down in the hard wooden chair that Evelyn had vacated. The seat was still warm from her body heat. Raine settled in next to me. She didn’t ask what this was about, she didn’t ask a single question, she just trusted that I knew what I was doing. But I could feel that she was ready for anything, ready to spring into action.

I slid a tentacle across her shoulders, invisible contact. She managed not to flinch, then laughed.

“It’s okay, Raine,” I said. “I’m not expecting this to go bad or anything. It’s just a delicate question.”

Sarika was scowling at me too, as if expecting trickery. Despite everything I’d done to her, or for her, she still looked at me like something she’d found on the bottom of her shoe. I don’t think it was her fault, just her default expression now. In her lap, Whistle’s ears were standing on end. He could feel the tension.

“What is this?” Sarika hissed.

“Well, I need to ask Nathan a question. A personal one.”

Badger blinked at me, coming out of his brief headache and sitting up straighter in his chair. “I want to help. Heather. Can I call you that, or should it be Morell? I want to help you, to help somehow, to … ”

He trailed off at the look in my eyes, the intense concentration — or, what looked like intense concentration. I was actually watching his eyes as I waved my tentacles back and forth, to check if he could see them, even as just a ghostly outline on the edge of his perception. But he couldn’t, he didn’t even react when I whipped one toward his face and back again.

“Did I do something wrong?” he asked.

I sighed. “You can help me by answering a question. We have several things we should probably talk about, but I want to ask you one important thing. I’m just not sure how.”

“Go ahead,” he said, beaming. “I’m an open book.”

Sarika tutted and rolled her eyes. “Stop fawning over her, Nate, she’s not an angel.”

“She may as well be,” Nathan said, staring right at me. “She’s the best we’ve got.”

My stomach curdled, but I pushed on; if I tried to address that statement right now, I would lose all my carefully guarded courage. “Badger. Earlier, when you were worried about Evelyn checking you for magical contamination, you looked at me to reassure you. And that’s fine, that’s all right, but you read my answer in my eyes before I even spoke. How did you do that?”

“Ah,” went Raine.

Badger smiled wider, as if confused, laughing awkwardly. “Uhhh, did I do that? It just seemed obvious. Your answer was obvious, I mean. It was on your face. Right there.”

Sarika was frowning at Badger, then frowning at me. Had she picked up on it too, the silent conversation between something on a more instinctive level than human words? Badger had picked up on my response, by instinct.

I tried a different angle. “How does your body feel, Badger?”

“Um, rough?” He laughed again. “Pretty rough, yeah.”

“No, I mean how do you feel about your body? When you woke up in the hospital, did it feel different?”

“Without the … ” He pointed upwards, out of respect for Sarika’s problem with the name of the Eye. “Yeah, of course it does! I feel better than I have in ages. Better than in years, even! Long before all that! Maybe that’s psychological though, you know? What with … like … everything.”

“Badger,” I tried again. “When I fixed you, after the … well, after the difficult parts, when I had to drill a hole in your head, I had to fix you with whatever I had to hand. You understand? I had to correct parts of your mind, your brain, with whatever made sense. I’m worried you might not feel … right.”

Badger shrugged, still smiling. He blinked at me through those huge, comedic glasses. “Other than hole in my head and the brain damage, there’s nothing wrong with me. You did good. Seriously. Thank you, again, I can’t say that enough times. I want to help. To help you. Whatever I can do, please.”

I chewed on my tongue, caught in a trap of my own making. Nathan was suffering, but his suffering appeared mundane.

I had replaced parts of him with parts of me; I’d had no choice, I’d had to fix his lower brain functions, or he would have died. And some of those parts had been abyssal, pieces of me brought back from the infinite dark.

If I had given him a craving for the abyss, but without the frame of reference to understand that craving — let alone the hyperdimensional mathematics to ever approach the kind of bodily changes I had wrought for myself — then I couldn’t even imagine how wrong he might feel. And he wouldn’t even know.

Maybe he felt it, maybe he didn’t; maybe he did, but was unaware.

We had bigger problems than one ex-cultist with brain damage, no matter what personal responsibility I felt here. We had to stop reacting, we had to corner Edward Lilburne — soon, very soon. Felicity’s knowledge might be the key to that. Badger, the surviving cultists, all of them, they were a side-show, no matter that I wanted to save them all.

Did I have any right to say it out loud, to make him aware? Did I have a right to leave it unsaid?

What would a merciful angel do? An angel with tentacles at her flanks and a bioreactor in her belly, an angel from the deep, selfish and flawed.

An angel was not a god, after all.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Some cultists die horribly, eaten by monsters or spirited away to places beyond human comprehension. But what happens to the ones who survive? This, I suppose. Decay or redemption, but all so very mundane and sometimes quite sad. Maybe Badger’s got more hope than most, though. He already committed himself to righting the wrongs of what he’d done. And maybe this angel can help him find new purpose.

No Patreon link this week. I have news instead!

One, there is now a Katalepsis discussion podcast, created by a couple of long-time fans of the story, analyzing and talking about the story chapter by chapter. I am amazed by this, just utterly stunned and flattered and delighted. Here’s a link to the first episode!

Secondly, preorders for the first Katalepsis ebook and audiobook are now live, on Amazon and Audible! Here’s a link to the patreon post I made about it, which contains more details and links to all the product pages and stuff! I’m super nervous about this because I’ve never done it before! Really looking forward to the release on October 4th. I’ve finally heard some of the audiobook and it’s blown me away.

In the meantime, if you want to support the story in other ways, you can:

Vote for Katalepsis on TopWebFiction!

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

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

Next week, is angel-Heather going to bestow her blessings on Badger? What would that even mean? And now they know the corpse belonged to somebody In The Know, what’s the next step in tracking down Edward’s bolt-hole and stealing all his books?