sediment in the soul – 19.17

Content Warnings

Blood, bleeding

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Self-implementing hyperdimensional mathematics.

That was Evelyn’s terminology; I had learned it from her lips. Human terminology, in English, a beautifully flawed and messy and often imprecise language, for something so far beyond human experience that no words could do it justice. Would German have done any better? Chinese? Dutch? I doubt that very much.

Evelyn had picked up the phrase from a pamphlet five decades old: Notes Toward a Unified Cosmology, by Professor Wilson Stout. The pamphlet was tucked away with my belongings, on the desk in my bedroom, of little use now that I’d come so far. According to Evelyn, Professor Stout had eventually gone missing under strange circumstances: vanished from inside a locked office. I suppose he thought about numbers too hard and decohered out of reality. Sometimes, in my lonelier and darker moments, when I thought back to how life might have been had I never met Raine in that greasy Sharrowford cafe, I wondered if that would have been my eventual fate. Vanished in a puff of smoke from inside a padded cell, after scrawling equations on the walls in my own blood.

Where was Professor Stout now? Languishing in Wonderland, rendered down into flayed nerves and stripped neurons under the Eye’s gaze? Maisie had never mentioned anybody else alongside her, locked in neighbouring cells, shut away in the Eye’s oubliette. But the sum total of our communication to date was: a single one-way message, written on a decade-old pajama top; one conversation carried out in the language of the abyss, in starlight and photons and magnetism and metaphor; a lighthouse pulse of awareness, a call to Lozzie to whisk me away from the Eye a second time; and now, finally, the contents of Mister Squiddy’s mind, a labyrinth of metal and meaning which I was incapable of understanding.

Was Maisie one of many, one among a vast house full of prison cells? Or was she a reverse chosen one, a sacrificial child, the only one alone in the echoing dark?

Self-implementing hyperdimensional mathematics: technical terminology for technical minds. Sanitised, sanitary, sane. It did sound like the kind of terminology a professor would invent. Words you could put on a research proposal. Words you could speak to an academic colleague. Words you could publish. Perhaps that’s why I’d never really liked the phrase. It didn’t even try to capture reality.

‘Brain-math’ wasn’t much better; I’d settled on that out of sheer convenience, not because I thought it was accurate. What did that even mean? Maths which one performs with one’s brain. Brain math. Maths, in the brain.

One plus one equals two. Two plus two is four. Four and four is eight. Three and five are prime numbers separated by a non-prime number. So are five and seven. And so on and so on, out to infinity.

Mathematics is true, in the brain or out of it. But adding one and one with greasy grey meat does not make two of anything — only of thoughts.

But it was not with my brain that I performed hyperdimensional mathematics. ‘Brain-math’ was not correct. Neither was ‘magic’, ‘magecraft’, ‘wizardry’, or any other human terminology one cared to use. Sometimes I groped for words as best I could — screaming hell-math, bloody-minded burning corrosion, toxic waste in my soul.

Terminology did not matter. No words could define and limit the universe, because none of this was meant for human minds and human hands and human eyes.

But I knew a secret.

It wasn’t really a secret, it just wasn’t spelled out in human words; it had taken me a long time to figure it out, to see what was right in front of me.

Hyperdimensional mathematics wasn’t meant for the Eye, either.

The Eye didn’t create any of this. It — he, she, they, who knows, not me, not yet — was merely a little bit more suited to the manipulation of reality than I was.

A little? Yes, that’s correct. Only a little. The distance between myself and the Eye was an infinitesimal blink compared to the distance between the Eye and the whole truth of hyperdimensional mathematics — the underlying principles of the universe itself.

We were like a canary and a vulture; both soaring, the canary infinitely lower than the vulture, but both of us dwarfed by the void of space beyond the false blue ceiling of the wide carnivorous sky.

If the Eye had truly mastered hyperdimensional mathematics, it would have been able to do anything. It could have reached across dimensions and plucked me from Number 12 Barnslow Drive without so much as a breath. It could have compacted all my friends into a single metaphorical entity and crammed them down my throat. It could have swallowed our world, observed every single piece, every person, every blade of grass, every atom, judged and weighed and regurgitated us in its own image. It could have unmade and remade all reality, all spheres, every dimension of Outside. It could have drained the abyss and left it an echoing infinite void, empty of life. It could have unmade everything, observed everything, known everything.

But it couldn’t. Because then it would be God, rather than merely a god.

Lucky for us, no?

The human mind was not designed for what I had been taught to do — and neither was the Eye. It had passed down to me its own set of tricks and techniques, bespoke and custom machinery for manipulating the substrate upon which reality was built. Why? Well, I didn’t know, not for sure. I didn’t seriously believe the Eye intended to torture me with otherworldly knowledge. Was I a chosen protege, a surrogate child, a beloved cuckoo, or a god-seed planted in fertile soil? It didn’t matter. Whatever purpose, the Eye had given me what it thought I needed. But the Eye wasn’t perfect. Neither was the machinery it had built.

Did the Eye feel pain when it performed hyperdimensional mathematics? I’d never considered that before.

Whenever I plunged my hands into the ocean of black oil pooled in the bottom of my soul, when I dredged up those lessons and pulled on those greasy, dripping, burning levers, I was not touching reality itself. I was using the tools I had been handed.

And the Eye had taught me to use both hands, two hands.

But now we had eight.

My bioreactor, still sitting hard and knotted and bruised in my gut, could not draw on truly infinite power, even when pink and healthy and thrumming away in perfect harmony. Eight hands were not a thousand, whatever poetic miracles the dream had summoned to aid me. But the power of the abyss pulled through a plastic straw of acids and enzymes was better than the unmodified furnace of the human body.

And eight was six more than two. How’s that for some mathematics?

In that frozen split-second of brain-math operation, in the wake of the dream and meeting myself face-to-face — or face to tentacle-tip, as it were — sitting on my bed surrounded by my friends, my found family, and at least two of my lovers, with the room bathed in rain-ripped sunset orange, I wrestled and struggled and pulled and hauled and got myself coated in stinking toxic black ooze, burning my eyes and face and eating through the flesh of my fingers and—

And I dredged up a fragment of the Eye’s vast machine, up and out of the black swamp of my soul.

My teacher’s greatest folly was giving me a machine meant for a million manipulators when I had only two. Eight hands were not enough either, not to control the whole thing, not even to keep it surfaced for more than a few seconds, before it sunk back down into the oily black depths, bubbling and hissing, burbling with the whirring secrets of all the hidden, drowned, lower parts of the god-machine.

But eight hands was enough to re-orient some cogs, to rip out old cables and string a few of my own, to clean the levers and dials and knobs — and coat them in a protective sheathe of biological grease.

Eight hands made light work of an impossible burden on two.

This is all metaphor, of course. There was no machine, no black swamp, no levers, no hands, no grease, no toxins. The Eye’s lessons were pure mathematics, interacting with a deeper level of mathematics which neither myself nor the Eye could touch directly, not without burning our souls to a cinder of charred consciousness.

Like a programming language and a compiler, to interact with binary.

That’s what Felicity said to me later, when I tried to explain what the experience had felt like. I had no idea what that meant. She’d been absolutely fascinated, made lots of notes, then had to apologise to a very angry Evelyn. Evee had snapped something about how the universe is not a computer program, that reality is not code. I’d agreed with her, as best I could; all of this was a metaphor. The map is not the territory.

This was merely the closest I could approach with human language, the best words I could find — later — to explain myself to Evelyn and Raine, to splutter through a mouth full of bile and a nose full of blood, to tell them why it didn’t hurt as much anymore! It burned my mind and rocked my stomach and made my tentacles coil and ache like they’d hauled me on a marathon, but it hurt so much less than before! The pain was bearable! And if the pain was bearable — then watch what I could do. Watch me.

The first thing I did with that modified and corrected machinery — modified for eight hands, by seven of us, with six little helpers — was reach down into my abdomen and fix my bioreactor.

That was the point of all this in the first place, wasn’t it?

Out in reality, less than a second had passed. Evelyn was finishing her sentence: “—until we understand what happened—”

Expressed in the language of hyperdimensional mathematics, the trilobe bioreactor in my abdomen was a thing of terrifying beauty. An interlocking machine in its own right, abusing biology and chemistry to achieve an effect that had no place inside a human body, using friction and fluids and muscles and metals and timing and tension to synthesize a pinprick connection to the energies of the abyss.

Messing with that was like opening up the containment torus of a fusion reactor, hoping not to get blown apart in the process. That was beyond me, even then, even with my rapidly increasing competence. That was for abyssal biology alone, not conscious tinkering. That would have turned our victorious little bedside gathering from an orange sunlight-wash to a blood red explosion of my guts all over the walls.

But the flesh. The flesh! The flesh was mutable, and I had eaten a lot of lemons, a lot of fish, a lot of soy sauce, a lot of proteins and grease and tight-packed lipids. I had everything I needed.

Muscle and membrane and tendon and tissue peeled back under the gaze of hyperdimensional mathematics – my gaze, my eyes, my observation seeing through cell wall and mitochondria and DNA. I crammed the fibres with protein and shored up the structures with stem cells and wrapped the whole lot with protective layers of fat and ablative meat and capillary-dense mats of throbbing flesh.

Out in reality, my right flank flared like a fragment of star embedded in my flesh.

Apparently I screamed — according to literally everybody else in the room, and several people in other rooms. So, I must have done. Only the action of the bioreactor itself saved me from burning a hole in my side or cooking my mundane organs or just denaturing half the enzymes I required for homoeostasis; it roared to life, booting up, control rods jerking free as it pumped our body full of things that had no place in a human circulatory system. But then again, we weren’t really human any more.

Homo-stasis, don’t wanna break that, Raine quipped later, mirroring the way I smiled at her, manic and panting through a mask of blood all over my face. I think she smiled half from panic — but half from the living proof that I had broken the mathematical ceiling.

I may not have heard myself scream; but I did hear myself choke.

With the first equation complete, we surfaced from the mathematics with a wheezing gurgle. Snorting and spluttering, blood running down my face from a terrible nosebleed, clothes glued to my skin by a sudden flash-sweat, tentacles coiled and aching each in their own way, head throbbing, gut churning.

But so much less pain.


“Whoa, whoa, nobody touch her—”


“Holy shit, is that glowing!?”


“She’s always glowed, this is nothing new. I mean, not exactly—”


“Yellow! Sevens! Get in there and stop her, before she does herself an injury—”

“She knows what she’s doing, Evee. Let the girl cook.”

“How can you trust that?! Raine, she’s sweating blood! She looks like she has fucking ebola!”


“Tenns no! Evee-wevee, she’s fine! I think!”

“I can’t do anything. It’s up to her.”


“Big H’s never fucked up bad before. She won’t hurt herself. Right? Right?”

“Wrong! Somebody stop her, stop her doing this, this is mad—”


I breathed, ripping my own windpipe back open with an audible slurrrp of meat. We — my tentacles and I — had briefly become a conduit for pure mathematics, forgetting our shared reality as a thing of meat and muscle, forgetting how to breathe. But Praem knew what we were doing. Praem had come up from the abyss too, hadn’t she?

“Heather, Heather. Heather!”

Brain-math always hurt, always burned, was always like handling molten pucks and rods of glowing-hot steel with my grey matter, turning me into a bubbling mass of melted flesh. All the way back to the very first time I did this on purpose, the first intentional calculation I ever performed, brain-math had drawn vomit from my throat and forced icepicks through my skull. I hated it.

And oh, it hurt still, it did hurt. The human body was not meant for this — but neither was the Eye. It didn’t matter how far I wandered from my human origins, how many extra tentacles we became, how many parts we added or modified or adjusted, how far we changed into an instrument of what we had been in the abyss, it would still always hurt.

But now we could all pull in the same direction. Now, the pain was distributed. Now, I had help.

My tentacles ached like they’d been run through a clothes press, twitching and throbbing, muscles complaining. My head pounded like I’d been brained with a frying pain, by Zheng. My eyes stung and burned and filled with pink froth. But I didn’t vomit. I didn’t double over and struggle to stay conscious. I rode the pain upward, pulling my tentacles with me, teaching them all the little tricks I’d learned to soothe the burning in their own distributed neurons, to salve the pain in our shared nervous system and get ready to—


Raine’s voice was like a whipcrack. That familiar tone sent a jerk through all seven of us, more important than any level of pain. I could have been gut-shot and bleeding to death and I would have responded like a puppy to that voice, that tone, that firm hand on the back of my brain.

We turned to her: an outline of bronze and chestnut brown glowing in the dying sunset, blurred by bloody tears and my own panting breath. Somehow, despite my obstructed vision, I could still see Raine, see too much of her, the angles of her body reflecting upward upon the surfaces of my mind.

“Raine!” I said, elated.

For just a moment, Raine could not respond. At the time I didn’t understand why; only later on did I discover that I was sweating blood into my own clothes and grinning like a maniac.

Everyone was shouting suggestions, telling everybody else to stop me, whatever I was doing, or calling out to me like I was a distant swimmer racing away from shore.

But Raine just took a breath, steadied herself in a way I’d never seen before, and said: “Heather, do you know what you’re doing?”

It wasn’t a rhetorical question. She was just checking if I needed help.

I nodded. I did! I knew exactly what I was supposed to be doing. I had help, I had so much help, all right there alongside me.

“Second part!” I croaked through a throat glazed with my own blood. “Here I go!”

Me and six other Heathers hauled ourselves to the lip of the marine trench that was the abyss, and stuck all our hands into the Eye’s machinery, and pulled one more time.

I had to find Edward’s house.

And I had to do it then, right then, because a tiny voice in the back of my head was speaking low and level sense, barely concealing her panic and worry; was that one of my tentacles or just an aspect of me I didn’t listen to enough these days — or just a metaphor becoming reality as I slipped between the waves of starlight and photons and subjective meaning?

That tiny voice in the back of my head, Cautious Heather, Sensible Heather, Good-Girl Heather, she knew that once this ride was over, I was going to be out. Pain was distributed and my bioreactor was running hot as a steam engine, but none of us — not me, not Lozzie, not the Eye — were truly built for hyperdimensional mathematics.

We could do more now, more easily than before, but we were screaming toward our limit like a ballistic missile without any guidance.

Edward Lilburne’s house, then; what was the easiest method?

Normally such a question would have taken minutes of thinking out in reality. Probably a bit of pacing up and down or wiggling one leg until I hit upon a good method. I’d had lots of good methods in the past, hadn’t I? Trying to define the entire space between Manchester and Sharrowford, sectioning and separating it until we found what we were looking for. But what personal connection did I have to that landscape? What questions could I ask it, in the language of mathematics, which would make any sense? I could barely speak with the house we lived in, let alone the open countryside. The map was not the territory.

But I could use an anchor, a reference point.

And Zheng was still out in the woods.

I knew Zheng, every little part of her body, her glistening red-brown skin and muscles like steel cables, her thatch of dark hair and sharp-cornered eyes, her maw of shark-teeth and the shape of her smile, the spiced scent of her sweat, the rumble of her voice inside her chest. I span her up in effigy, in miniature, described in heaven’s language of three-five-seven.

I didn’t know it at the time, but when I described it to Evelyn later, she said I was doing magic.

No, I told her, very sore and very tired and not sure if I was concussed. I was doing maths. It was just brain-math.

That’s what I said.


Zheng in effigy, tiny but precise, sent spinning across the landscape with me at her heels, to join the real thing, the definite article, miles and miles distant from the house.

Defined in the infinite limitations of hyperdimensional mathematics, Zheng was beautiful: grey-scaled and sharp all over, a shark of the deepest waters, built for tearing apart little squid like me.

Zheng, seven feet tall and wrapped in her long coat, boots cushioned by the springy loam of the woods. Sunset hid beyond the treetops, light a ghostlike memory between the trunks. My shark, hidden in shadows, radiating cold thoughts, slow thoughts, hunter’s thoughts which ebbed low to match her prey.

She looked over her shoulder when I passed, as if she’d heard something in the woods behind: a snapping twig, an unwary footfall. I tried to tell her that it was just me, but that would have terrified even Zheng.

Then I catalogued everywhere she had stepped and everywhere she had not stepped. I unravelled the history of her boots in mathematical perfection. Spinning out across the countryside, across the rolling hills and little dales, up to Stockport and down to Sharrowford, over to Brinkwood and the Pennines and—

Losing blood.

Out in reality I was bleeding through my skin. Bleeding too much.

According to Raine’s detailed explanation later on, I was sweating blood from my armpits, the insides of my elbows, all down my chest and back, my groin, the rears of my knees, and around my fingernails and toenails — not to mention my scalp, my nosebleed, and the frothy pinkish tears in my eyes. Good thing I’d stripped off my t-shirt and my beloved hoodie. The butcher’s bill, by the time this was all over — twenty one seconds of real time — I had ruined one bra, one pair of underwear, my pajama bottoms, and one bed sheet. Could have been worse. In the reified astral projection of active hyperdimensional mathematics, I had no idea that was happening.

But my body knew I was losing blood. Growing weaker. I was yet to take the most important, final step, and I could not afford to flounder.

My trilobe bioreactor presented a novel solution, the kind of solution only a living miracle would think of.

Make more blood!

Re-purposing enzymes and shifting membranes and flooding fluid sacs, in an instant the bioreactor gave over a portion of itself to imitate bone marrow, speed-growing and nurturing and ejecting red blood cells, platelets, and macrophages, flooding me with fresh claret, replacing what I was losing.

Hotter and hotter the reactor ran, flushing my flank with heat; I was sweating buckets, dumping more fluid, more heat — more blood. I didn’t know it, poised as I was over a mathematical map of the landscape Zheng had trodden, but out in reality my body had entered a positive feedback loop. A fever with no upper limit.

Upon reflection, I don’t think I would actually have hurt myself; my reactor, my tentacles, my abyssal side, they would have all worked together to realise what was going wrong. I would have been okay. I wouldn’t have given myself brain damage or organ damage. But I probably would have crashed out of the brain-math. It would have taken days to recover — days we might not have. And I had promised no self-sacrifice; I was riding higher than I ever had, unaware of the potential damage, but if I crashed out, aching and bleeding and in need of a week’s recovery? I could not have pushed on. I would have to keep my promise.

Lozzie came to the rescue. She, of all people present in that room, understood bodies better than anyone.

She leapt up from where she’d been crouched on the bed, next to me. She ignored everybody else shouting and panicking. She grabbed Praem by the wrist and said, “Water!”

A few seconds later they had us off the bed and in the bathtub, tentacles lashing under the cold spray of the shower head. That’s how Praem’s nice blue jumper got blood all down the front, and why Raine had to throw away one of her tank tops. Lozzie helped too, apparently, but her poncho was spotless the next time we saw it.

I witnessed none of this, of course. Myself and all six of my tentacles were wrist-and-eyeball deep in hyperdimensional mathematics.

In the end, the logic was very simple: take all the ground between Sharrowford and Stockport; trace where Zheng had been and where she had not been; then, find the gap. Find the missing piece. Stare down into the void where a house hides.

But I wasn’t looking at an image on Google Maps, or the cross-hatching illustration of a ordnance survey, or a glossy estate agent photograph of a mansion in the woods. I was looking at slices of the mathematical substrate which defines reality itself.

What does a house look like, mathematically speaking? I had no idea.

At that exact non-second of realisation, that moment where I came up against an obstacle for which I was unprepared, I felt a presence at my back. Peering over my shoulder. Offering a suggestion.

It wasn’t a tentacle; they were at my front, helping me, distributing the effort.

It was like nothing I had ever experienced. Slow, solid, still, with its own mathematical rules and systems and interior reflections.

We knew what a house looked like. Yes we did.

And there it was, tucked away in a gap that Zheng had passed on all sixteen sides. Sixteen sides? We didn’t have time to think about that. Wedged deep in a scrap of long woodland, far from the main roads, down a rotting ribbon of water-damaged, fifty-year-old asphalt, was a house.

Red bricks and brown bricks and thick, weather-proofed beams; tiny latticed windows with glass older than the trees; the roof a slate slope, leading to ancient gutters and draping the building in shadow; a squat and crooked construct from another age, another place, another form of life, sprouted from the ground like a mushroom amid rot, but without any of the healthy terrestrial identity of a humble fungal cup. The presence peering over my shoulder did not like it; the presence left, retreating in the way only a thing that never moves can leave a busy, whirring biological lady to her scrying business.

Woods all around, tall and dark and leafless until the canopy itself. Sunset a ghosting memory between thick, summer-fat leaves. A perimeter wall which was not a wall, but the memory of a wall, full of holes and fallen sections. A gravel driveway, so badly in need of replenishment that it was halfway to a dirt road. A back garden, rambling and wild and turning to forest at the edges. In the front stood a dry fountain, all dust and fallen leaves about the feet of a grey stone statue of a naked woman. Two cars in the gravel front: one expensive range rover, dirty with mud and hand prints, stinking of corpses and pain and confinement; the other was a low and anonymous black machine, many-seated, clean, spotless both inside and out, with spaces where weapons once lay. This second car was not a permanent resident. Somehow I knew, somehow I could see the tracery of its history in mathematical precision.

The range rover hadn’t moved in three years. It belonged to Edward Lilburne.

The house, the location, the positive identification — I took a split-second of thought to place them properly, to fix them in place, to place them to place, so that I would not be confused upon completion of the work.

We withdrew, sliding back past Zheng. She was a mere five miles from the house, now striding through the dark of the woods — towards the secret I had finally uncovered.

“No! Zheng! Come back! Wait for the rest of us!”

I tried to speak words, but words are not maths, or if they are then they are the mathematics of the human mind. In the deep woodland gloom I saw Zheng pause and glance over her shoulder. Her sharp-edged face pinched into a frown.

But then she turned and strode on, and I could not stop her.

Unwinding, unravelling, surfacing from the ocean between realities like a beaching whale — I opened my eyes, gasping and spluttering and flailing in the bathtub, back in Number 12 Barnslow Drive.

Water was running down us, soaking bloodstained clothes, shockingly cold; the bioreactor spooled down instantly, killing the heat, leaving me a suddenly shivering, tooth-chattering mess. Raine was cradling my head in her lap, cross-legged in the tub beneath us. We gripped the bathtub sides with six tentacles, ourselves soaked in blood-sweat. Lozzie was hugging one to her chest, smears of me all down her poncho. The others crowded behind, peering at me in the tub, rushing about in panic. Evelyn was shouting orders, something about fetching ice, calling Jan back, arguing magical biology with Felicity in tones of rising panic.

“Heather!” Raine said. She looked up. “She’s awake! She’s back!”

“She’s back!” Twil shouted.

“She’s what!?”



Everyone was so worried. I was covered in a sticky film of my own blood and frozen to the bone. But we smiled. Oh, we smiled. We all smiled in panting, ecstatic victory.

“Call—” I gurgled, then coughed out a mouthful of blood. “Call Zheng. Call back.”


“Found house. Call Zheng. Call off.”

Evelyn pushed past Lozzie and Praem, walking stick banging against the side of the bathtub. Her eyes were blazing with anger and fear, golden blonde hair in disarray.

“You promised, Heather!” she thundered down at me. “You promised not—”

“I found the house!”

“You promised no more bloody self-sacrifice!”

“It barely hurts,” I said. I couldn’t keep the grin off my face, wide and joyous and with my own blood smeared on my teeth. “I can do it! We can do! Brain-math doesn’t hurt so much anymore!”

All tentacles rose up, as if to show how little we ached. We were trying to show Evelyn that we were okay, that we had conquered this tiny portion of the Eye’s lessons, at long last.

She just sighed. “Bleeding through your skin is not much of an improvement. Are you done?”

I just smiled to myself, to her, up at Raine — upside down above my face, right-ways from the sides, straight-on from tentacle tip pointed at her face. This was the greatest piece of hyperdimensional mathematics I had ever performed. And it barely hurt at all.

“Call Zheng!” I croaked. “Now. Promise. Raine.”

Raine nodded. “I’ll call her back. I promise. Heather, breathe, come on, just breath—”


“Now.” Raine looked away, up at somebody beyond the bathtub, beyond my line of sight. She said something about getting her phone, asked somebody to fetch it.

We sighed in relief. Tentacles relaxed. I relaxed.

But I was still me. Six more of me, yes, but we were still us. And sometimes that meant we were seven little fools, instead of just one.

With my task complete, and Zheng being called back from a potentially disastrous solo assault, my bioreactor fell into post-crisis dormancy, sliding control rods back into their biochemical channels, closing valves and ducts, flushing out imitation bone-marrow.

And I — we, all seven of us — passed all the way out.


“I do want to make one thing very clear: this isn’t what I normally do, returning to the scene of the crime like this. Though, ah, I wasn’t responsible for any of that mess, I hope you know that. Frankly I don’t even understand what I witnessed back there. And I suppose this isn’t where it happened, either. Goodness, that’s a lousy turn of phrase I decided to use, wasn’t it? Ah, never mind. Point is, I don’t generally make a habit of sitting down for tea with large and dangerous beings who I’ve met inside unknown dreams. I hope this isn’t the start of a new trend; I suspect I wouldn’t last very long if I make this a regular thing.”

V.B. let out a big sigh — a real old woman sigh, heavy with the weight of age and experience.

She leaned back in her chair — which was made of strange white metal sculpted into a delicate filigree that couldn’t possibly have held her weight in the waking world. She lifted her dainty little teacup to her lips, took a sip, and gazed out across the sparkling marble city below our teatime terrace.

We blinked several times as the dream settled on us, fighting for lucidity and focus. Tentacles gripped our own chair, the edge of the matching white-metal table, and reached down to touch the cool marble flagstones beneath our feet; tactile sensation anchored the dream, kept us here, kept us real.

“I’m not dangerous,” we said, automatically following the conversation, still groping for presence.

Miss V.B. lowered her teacup and raised her eyebrows at us. “Oh, I think you are. What you mean to say is you’re not hostile. You don’t wish me any harm. That goes without saying. I wouldn’t have invited you for a quick cup of tea otherwise. I would have run off, or set some Zoogs on you, though no doubt you would have skinned and eaten the poor things regardless.” She smiled, a crinkle in her crows-feet eyes and around that kind mouth. “No, I understand what you mean, ‘Heather’.”

“Heather’s our name. Stop putting quotes around it.”

V.B. nodded graciously. “My apologies. It is … difficult. Heather is such a human name.”

“I am human,” we said.

VeeBee nodded slowly. “Yes. Yes, you do look a little different now. Though … human is a stretch, but I won’t argue. Your accent is unmistakable though, that much is impossible to fake. I know you British are very exacting about your tea. I hope it meets with your approval? I was a little confused about adding the drops of lemon juice, but there you are.”

She gestured toward a second little teacup, sitting on the table in front of me, cradled in a saucer with golden trim around the edge.

“More of a coffee drinker,” we said. I screwed my eyes up tight, trying to hold onto my senses.

“Really, now? Things have changed since I last waked, I suppose.” V.B. sighed again. “So, Heather, as I was saying, I don’t make a habit of this, but I—”

“Stop it,” we hissed. “Stop. Let me … let me … ”

Keeping my eyes screwed up tight was not helping; I flung them wide instead, filtering the dream through seven different sets of neurons.

Miss V.B. and I were sat at a little metal table with matching metal chairs, spun from sugar glass and cobwebs. The table and chairs stood in the middle of a wide marble-floored terrace, which was set on a hillside draped with deep, dripping, rainforest greenery, thick and verdant, buzzing with hidden insect life under the beating sun. White-fluted columns stood at seemingly random intervals around the edge of the terrace, as if this had once been some kind of temple, now ruined amid the jungle. Marble pathways led off both up and down the hillside, meeting other terraces and walkways and long flights of sweeping stairs, half buried by overgrowth here and there, sometimes clean and clear, obscured here, shining there, a great jumble of fallen beauty.

At the foot of the hills was a city built from the same white marble, filling a wide estuary until the land met the sea. Nothing moved in the empty sun-baked streets but a few stray dogs, the occasional bird, and the salt from the ocean. The sea was flat and still. A dark lump moved on the horizon.

“This isn’t … this isn’t the Squiddy dream,” I said. “Where is this?”

“Oh,” said V.B. “An old place, that’s all. A nice quiet place for a friendly chat. Doesn’t mean much to anybody still around. Nobody to bother us, at least for five minutes.” She cleared her throat, awkwardly. “It had a name, once, but I’d rather not share.”

V.B. herself looked no different to how she had appeared in Mister Squiddy’s dream — old and lined but full of vigour and energy, eyes like smirking storm clouds, dressed in sensible trousers and a padded vest, for hiking. Her loose bun of grey hair, streaked through with red, seemed much brighter in the dream-sunlight, rather than stuck in the false brass illumination of the dome of perfect mathematics.

Her backpack sat on the marble floor, comfortably beyond arm’s reach. Her hiking stick lay against it.

“You’re doing what Lozzie does,” we said. All my tentacles raised slowly in a posture of subconscious menace. “This is a dream. Your dream. Or Outside. You’ve hijacked my natural dreams and brought me here. You—”

“Excuse me!” V.B. set down her teacup and raised a hand. I noticed her fingers were shaking. “Hijacking? I extended you a private invitation and you accepted it. Yes? Yes? Please, you’re free to leave, if you’ve changed your mind.” She gestured up the hillside, along the rambling pathways and terraces.

My tentacles dipped again. This old woman, this experienced dreamer, she was terrified of me. We nodded slowly, swallowed, and looked down at our own cup of tea. Milky, warm brown, steaming gently.

“I don’t think I can drink this,” we said.

“You’re under no obligation to do so.” V.B. sighed, glancing along the hillside. “A pity, but it doesn’t look like we have more than five minutes to talk, anyway. You’ve got some very dedicated and powerful friends, Heather.” She nodded past me. “And I’d rather not meet them, I’m afraid to say. I wouldn’t want to wake up, after all.”

I twisted in my chair, or perhaps the dream twisted around us, or perhaps I merely pointed some of my tentacles behind me, or perhaps they did that themselves.

A glint of deep yellow and a pentacolour pastel bloom were flittering and fluttering amid the marble maze along the hillside.

“Oh,” I said. “Lozzie, and Sevens. They won’t—”

“Ah-ah-ah,” V.B. tutted. “Heather, you really must learn to stop sharing real names in dreams. It’s frightfully dangerous. You’re lucky that I’m just a passing rambler instead of a queen or a god. Or worse. Conceal your friends’ names, please.”

We turned back to her with a huff. “My friends won’t hurt you.”

V.B. shrugged, shoulders thin and old beneath her padded vest. “Be that as it may, we only have a few minutes.” Her eyes roved us, up and down each tentacle. “And you are very … complicated.”

“There’s seven of us.”

“Yes, well. That answers … nothing, really.” V.B sat up straighter. “Heather, as I was saying, I don’t make a habit of this, but I’m making an exception for you.”

“Why? What do you want to talk about?”

Vee sighed and pulled a sad smile. Her lined old face was inherently trustworthy, but something curdled inside my chest. “Honestly?” she said. “You looked like you needed help. And, damn me for an old fool, you remind me of myself at your age. Oh, well, no, that’s a lie. You remind me of one of my granddaughters, when she was your age. When I was your age I was chasing some fool poet, my head full of academia and romance, my first dream still twenty years distant. You deserve better than fumbling in the dark, that’s why I returned.”

“We’re okay now,” we said. “Well, mostly. In the dream — the other dream, with the metal and the dome and the giants — we were having a bit of a crisis.”

Vee’s smile turned indulgent. “Yes, I could see that much. And you’re feeling better now? All better, hm?”

I could detect the hint of sarcasm in her voice, like a surprise chilli pepper in the middle of a doughnut. I frowned and said, “We’ve found ourselves.”

Vee’s eyebrows shot up. “Really now? Have you?”

“Really. What are you insinuating?” I tutted. “I don’t have time for this. I was in the middle of … being … hosed down with cold water?”

V.B. politely ignored the implications of that. “I thought I found myself five times before I really did. The first time was about your age, Heather. But the real discoveries didn’t come until my forties. And that was only a beginning, though it looked a bit like an end at first. We never stop growing, even at my age.” She nodded across the table, toward me. “You seem to have done a lot of growing, very rapidly. That can be very dangerous. Especially in dreams.”

“We can’t slow down,” we told her.

“You’ll have to, sooner or later, or you’ll burn out.” V.B.’s eyes crinkled with sudden sympathy; she knew that pain. “Whatever changes you’ve been going through — and I won’t pretend to know them — you have to stop and think, sooner or later. You need to sit, with yourself, alone, or perhaps with a loved one, and … have a think. Several thinks, probably.”

“There’s no time for thinking. I’m on a rescue mission. My twin sister.” I sighed sharply. “She’s on a time limit. This all has to happen.”

V.B. pulled a pained smile of mingled sympathy and concern. “Perhaps it does have to happen, then. But still—”

“Why are you telling me this?” we demanded. “It’s one thing for my friends to tell me to look after myself, but you, I don’t know you. You’re acting like it’s your place to give me … grandmotherly advice?”

V.B. sighed and glanced over my shoulder. Lozzie and Sevens were closer now, two shades filtering through the overgrown marble. “Well, yes,” V.B. said. “I’m trying. Heather, somebody like you, blundering around in dreams — or in the waking world? gosh — you could do an awful lot of damage. To yourself, to others, to places. And we’ve met. You recall me now. That can’t be taken back. So it’s in my best interests, entirely selfish and all that — to do what I can to tell you it’s going to be alright, to get you to slow down just a little. So maybe if you get any bigger, you’ll remember that kindness. Remember that some old woman you passed in dream, she was a person too.” V.B. smiled, but I could see the terror of duty behind her crinkled old eyes.

“Oh,” I said, suddenly embarrassed, blushing. All my tentacles flushed pink. “I’m not trying to become a god. I’m not. I only care about rescuing my sister, I’m not trying to … I don’t know, ‘ascend’, or anything like that. I’m not dangerous.”

V.B. nodded in a way I hated, acknowledgement without belief. “Very well, Heather. But, will you grant an old lady a single indulgence before she has to leave?”

“I’m not a god!”

“Yes, you’re not. But I’m curious. What are you going to do next, when you wake up?”

“Kill a mage.”

V.B. froze, swallowed her surprise, and nodded. “Ah. Well then. Really?”

“Yes. Well, first I’ll have to get used to the tentacles, and probably we’ll make a plan, and—”

“Well! This has been very nice, but I really should get going. Best of luck, Heather. Try to remember what I said; take a break, eventually.” V.B. tapped the table top, scooted her chair back, and stood up.

Which revealed what she’d been hiding this whole time.

Behind her on the marble floor of the terrace, lying in an untidy pile, glinting in the beating, unreal sunlight, was Jan’s suit of armour. The goat-head helmet was unmistakable. The tabard with the trio of broken crowns and the winding dragon was laid out across the jumble of metal, as if somebody had been inspecting the design.

I shot to my feet, which made V.B. stumble as she stood up. We didn’t want to actually hurt an old lady, certainly not by shocking her into falling over, so we reached out with three tentacles to steady her.

V.B. swallowed a scream. We withdrew once she was standing safely. Sweating, wide-eyed, pale, she nodded a thanks and forced a smile, then stepped quickly toward her hiking stick and backpack.

“Wait!” I said. “That armour, that was from the dream — the other dream, I mean! You took it off Jan? You said you don’t know her, but—”

V.B. hauled her pack on her back with all the strength of a woman fifty years younger, without the slightest hint of a stumble in her step. Her hiking stick jumped into both hands. She turned to face me, a twinkle in her eyes.

“I didn’t,” she said. “But I suspect ‘Jan Martense’ is not a real name, at least not in a dream. I suppose I’ll find out in good time, if she’s got any courage in her—”

“You leave her alone,” we said. “She’s one of us. Sort of.”

“I doubt that very much.”

We reached toward V.B. more out of instinct than intent, but she tilted her hiking stick with full knowledge that she could repel us with ease. She took a step back, toward the opposite exit from the marbled terrace.

“Good luck with your twin sister, Heather,” she said — and she meant it too. “I best be gone before your friends arrive. Put in a good word for me, will you?”

“How do you know Jan?” I said.

But V.B. turned and stepped off the terrace, down a flight of white steps, descending out of sight. With the kind of logic that only makes sense in a dream, I knew we couldn’t follow her.

Lozzie and Sevens burst onto the terrace a moment later. But we caught them both in our many hands, giving them both a hug. There was no sense following one who had already left.

And we had more pressing concerns to attend than an old dreamer, back in the waking world, back together at last.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Edward’s house: located. Tentacle-neuron coils: online. Evelyn: very worried. Dreams: still wacky. VB: ?????

Heather’s been through a lot here. And you know what? So has the story! I’m very glad this extended dream sequence and associated consequences worked out well, it was a big narrative and stylistic gamble and I’m so happy with where it went. I probably could have split arc 19 into two though, things were getting a little unwieldy for a while there. Still! Now the spookycule has everything they need, to murder a wizard. Zheng will be happy about that.

And we’re back! My apologies for the 1-week break in chapters, everyone. I’m much better now and back to writing!

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 18k words at the moment. The more support I get through Patreon, the more time I can dedicate to writing, and the less chance of having to slow down the story. The generous and kind support of Patrons and readers is what makes all this possible in the first place, I would literally not be able to do this without you; thank you all so very much, more than I can express! You can also:

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Thank you so much for reading my story! It is you, the readers, who this is all for, who keep me going and keep me writing every week. Without you, there would be no Katalepsis. Thank you!

Next week, it’s onto arc 20! Mage war preparations are underway. But Heather’s got a lot to deal with too, a lot to get used to. Perhaps she’ll have five minutes to breathe before events catch up with her.

sediment in the soul – 19.16

There will be no Katalepsis chapter on the 11th of March! My apologies! Please see this public patreon post for more information (but you don’t have to read it, you won’t miss anything important). Katalepsis will resume as normal on the 18th of March!

Content Warnings

Mental health/medical trauma
Discussion of institutionalisation
‘Dissociative Identity Disorder’/plurality medicalisation

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

The waking world pounced upon us, bright and sharp and loud.

Consciousness was like a hook snagged behind half a dozen ribs, dragging us up and out of the dream-waters until we breached the surface into the freezing void of the air. Then a flinch, a snap-crack full-body jerk from crown to toes — and down to fingertips and the ends of six tentacles. Eyes were flung wide open, real light pouring through lenses and filling photoreceptor cells. Lungs inflated, sucking real air down a fleshy windpipe. Throat muscles swallowed a small amount of saliva, to the taste of sleep and oral bacteria and unbrushed teeth.

Sensory data piled up: bedroom, ceiling, lying on back; covers pulled up over feet and legs to keep me — me? my body? my self? — warm. Lights blazed from the usual lamps, throwing soft fuzzy shadows across the corners of the familiar space. Curtains stood open on the glory of a summer sunset blurred by the decay of drizzle from the skies, turning the horizon a rotten orange. It was late evening in Sharrowford and reality could not be denied.

Sheets lay against bare hands and exposed tentacles, warm and soft. Clothes wrapped the rest, familiar t-shirt and pink hoodie and pajama bottoms. The bed smelled of Raine and Zheng and—

“Heather! Hey, hey, Heather, hey there cloud pilot, you back down on earth? You with us? Say something, yeah? Heather?”

That was Raine, sitting in a chair next to the bed, a chair she had dragged over from the desk. She was leaning over the body I inhabited, smiling with relief, holding up one hand as if to draw my eyes to her parted fingers, to test if I was present.

Raine was a sight for sore eyes — raw physicality, instant and large and undeniable, an antidote to all dreaming, though she herself was a dream; she was stripped down to a black tank-top and some shorts, the curves of her muscles on display, and obviously not wearing a bra. Perhaps she’d been trying to call me back from the dream with raw sex appeal. I appreciated the gesture. Warm brown eyes and fluffy brown hair, brown like bark, like chestnuts, filled my vision as she leaned closer to frown into my eyes. She was like sun-heated wood left out to dry and harden and grow more real with every piece of light and degree of heat it absorbed. The real sun — drowning in thin rain — painted her face sidelong with planes of orange light. She was beautiful. The waking world was beautiful. I had forgotten.

But then I blinked hard, to clear my sleep-addled vision, because I felt like I was seeing too much of Raine — too much of her sides, from angles other than my own eyeballs.

Was I still dreaming?

A hand reached upward — my left hand — and squeezed Raine’s upper arm, her biceps. Smooth muscle gave way beneath my fingers, thick and plush. No dream could fake that. No illusion could match my Raine, my beloved, my saviour. My own imagination was a pale shadow of her reality. I let my eyelids flutter half-shut, then forced them open again, fighting against the drag of regular sleep. Raine’s eyebrows climbed and her lips curled in a grin.

“Heather?” she said.

“One ticket please,” my mouth said.


“Gun show,” I croaked. “Ahhh. Dry mouth.”

A sharp sigh came from beyond Raine, toward the front of the room. Evelyn said, “Is she back with us, or not? Is she sleep-talking?”

Twil said, laughing, “Sounds like her alright! Get that girl-beef, big H.”

“Heather?” Raine was repeating my name. I held on to her arm. “Heather? Hey, Heather, you gotta do more than flirt with me and squeeze my muscles, ‘cos you’d do that even high as a kite. Are you here? You with us? Talk to me.”

“I’m not sure I am here,” I said. “Sorry.”

A cough came from the other side of the room, followed by the distinctive sound of Evelyn’s walking stick swishing through the air as she failed to connect with somebody’s leg. “Go get everyone, then!” she snapped.

Twil said, “But we’ve already—”

“Get! Everyone!”

“Alright, alright, fine, fine.” Twil’s voice vanished beyond my range, chased by the sounds of her feet on the floorboards.

Raine was peering into my eyes, not quite frowning but not quite happy either. Still worried for me. I said, croaking out the words, “I’m fine. I think. But things got weird, went funny, and—”

“It’s alright,” Raine told me — and she was correct; her voice made it alright, honey over steel. She put her hand over mine. “We’ve already heard most of it from Lozzie and Jan. You’re at home, lying in bed. Everyone’s safe. Nobody got hurt — not physically, anyway.” Raine cracked a grin. “Though Jan’s acting like she just lost her V-card or something.”

“Got Lozzie to handle her sword,” I croaked.

Raine snorted with laughter. That was beautiful. On the other side of the room, Evelyn huffed so hard I could feel her rolling her eyes. That was beautiful too.

“What?” Raine said, trying not to laugh. “No, never mind, they didn’t explain that part. Seriously, nobody’s hurt. You’ve been out for just over six hours, not like knocked out but just sleeping, real hard to wake. You must be really disoriented, but it’s okay, you aren’t displaying anything like a fugue state. You’re fully awake, you’re really here, this isn’t more dream. I promise.”

“S’something a dream would say.”

Beyond my line of sight, Evelyn huffed. “I’m quite certain I would not be showing up in one of your dreams, Heather. No, sadly, this is all very real.”

Raine turned away from the bed to pick up a little flash-light from the bedside table. “Here, let me check your pupils, just in case. I’ve got a lemon here too, if you’re still craving them. Just hold still a sec.”

But I was already pushing myself up into a sitting position, struggling against mattress and sheets and a heavy dose of sleep.

My tentacles lifted me; I did not lift myself.

I was lifted — yet, I lifted.

We all lift together.

My tentacles took my weight and helped me sit, six additional limbs doing half the work of moving my body around, still a little bruised and sore. Strobing in slow, deep rainbow phosphorescence, with mushroom-pale skin and subcutaneous muscle and buried nerve bundles. They finished the simple task of raising me up, then drifted outward to hang in a loose ring, their tips level with my eyes, pointing upward, like seaweed in a secret shallow current. I counted them: one, two, three, four, five — and six, the one had I used to communicate with Mister Squiddy; that final tentacle was still a little swollen and puffy, her colours tinted neon-purple, skin still thicker than the rest, numb and tingling with the aftermath of the modifications and the dream and—

“And what we did,” I breathed the rest of the thought. “What we did — together?”

Raine was saying my name with increasing concern. Evelyn was asking what was wrong with me — and what was wrong with me? I hadn’t even looked at her yet, checked if she was okay, and here I was entranced by a piece of my own body. My own body? My own body. My own — body? Evelyn said something about how I was still miles away and suggested splashing water in my face. Footsteps were hurrying up the stairs, accompanied by other familiar voices — Lozzie, Jan, Twil, a trilling flutter, the silken drag of a yellow robe,

All of it may as well have been a dream.

I was sitting on the bed and looking at my tentacles — and I was sitting on the bed and looking at myself.

I wish I could compare it to something mundane, like a split-screen effect in a video game or on television, or some kind of trick optic lens. Something fun and silly which would make sense, something Raine or Evelyn could imagine, something that did not belong in a dream. It was not actual sight — I had not built additional eyeballs into my tentacles and then forgotten about doing so; that would have been simple to fix. But when I screwed my eyes shut I still saw myself, reflected back at me.

One of my tentacles — top row, left flank — dipped toward my face, laying herself across my cheek and lips and eyes. Soft, smooth, pale pneuma-somatic flesh was warm and silken against my skin. Part of me felt like a little girl nuzzling a plushie. But the rest of me was panicking inside. My heart was racing and my head was spinning; I had not moved the tentacle to touch my own face, I had not sent the impulse or made the decision — but also I had. We had. Together.

Top Left pulled back slightly — ‘Top Left’? I couldn’t call her that, that was terrible — leaving me blinking and panting, confused and disoriented; reality swirled around my senses, threatening to collapse back into a dream once again.

I started to hyperventilate. I couldn’t stop.

“How did I do that?” I said, staring at the tentacle. “How did I— wasn’t me— but you’re just a—”

Raine clutched for my arms, worried that I was having some kind of panic attack. She wasn’t wrong, but I shoved her away; I couldn’t deal with the additional sensory input of another person touching my skin right then. I wanted to plunge into dark water, alone, in silence, to still the whole world beyond myself, lest I lose my mind from the overload.

Dream-knowledge was crashing back onto my mind like a tsunami; my mind itself was crashing back together, two halves left bifurcated for too long, tectonic plates smashing into each other and squeezing me between them like so much grey-matter meat-paste.

I had felt something akin to this once before; back when we had rescued Lozzie from Alexander’s castle, when I’d first laid eyes on Lozzie herself and realised who she was. Until that moment the dreams we had shared had been inaccessible to my waking mind, consigned to a dream-self to whom I had little access. But when the proof of Lozzie herself had stood before my waking eyes, the dream-self and the waking-self had crashed together with the weight of knowledge and experience.

Now, something similar happened, but multiplied by six — or by seven, depending on how one chooses to count.

Memories of the Reading-dream sharpened into undeniable clarity, rasping like sandpaper across my brain — the house, Lozzie, Tenny the size of a Godzilla monster, Jan in her armour, the city where I’d grown up, the zombie, the race through the streets, the dome, the aching, painful, pinching, burning journey through those mechanical guts, the sense of futility and failure, the mysterious Miss V.B.

But all those memories were seen from over my own shoulder, over the shoulder of myself reflected back at me in a mirror, through a pair of thick rubber gloves, squinting through a slit-visor. The sensations were muffled, the control distant, as if all I had been able to do was suggest and encourage — and supply limitless energy, pumping outward from me to — me?

What had happened in the dream was more than just a metaphor. I had seen through the eyes and senses and thoughts of my own limb. But how could a limb have thoughts?

Eyes wide, mouth agape, tears running down my cheeks, I turned to stare in awe at the purple-tinted tentacle.

Bottom Right. She coiled toward me. A bow? A curtsey? I wouldn’t have thought to curtsey; neither did she.

“That was you?” I breathed. “Did I … did I make you? Were you … are you me? Was I you?”

She was me. I was it. We were us. Hello, Heather.

I already knew the answers to an endless array of rhetorical questions; we’d learned those answers together, inside that brass dome which was a representation of the inside of Mister Squiddy’s mind. But in the waking world it seemed—


Crazy little Heather, talking to herself in her padded cell.

A scream threatened to build, down in my gut.

Another tentacle — middle right — was wrapping herself around my stomach and torso in a comforting hug. Middle left was doing the same with my left arm, coiling up and winding around until she was resting in my palm. I was doing this to myself, holding myself like a confused child in need of an embrace — but I wasn’t thinking about it. Not consciously.

I reached out with my other hand and stroked the numb, tingling surface of the firewall-tentacle. She curled into my touch. I curled into my touch. I was touching myself, curling into my own touch, touching me, and being touched.

“Heather? Heather?”

“What’s wrong with her? For fu— Raine, what’s wrong with her? Lozzie! What is this? What happened to her inside that bloody dream?!”


“She’s just hugging herself, it’s fine! Evee-wevee, it’s fine!”

“She’s crying! That isn’t fine!”


“Tenns, that’s a swear word, hey? Cool it before ya’ mum tells you off.”


“Oh, oh no, oh, look, I really shouldn’t be witnessing this, I swear—”

“Janny, it’s fine! You’re one of us!”

I spoke — to myself, to my tentacle. “I’m here. I’m all here. I don’t … how can this … are you … real?”

Part of me was waiting to hear a voice in my head. A little voice, tinny and squeaky, like something from a cartoon. Something like, “Hello Heather, it’s me, top left tentacle! I bet you’re surprised that I’m an independent entity, right? Haha, had you going all this time by not saying anything, didn’t we?

Everything would have been so much easier if that had happened, if it was clean and clear and straightforward as voices in my head. Then I could file this away with all the other absurd things I’d witnessed and experienced in the last year of my life. Just another piece of supernatural silliness — oh yes, and by the way, my tentacles can talk, and they all think they’re little versions of me. Isn’t that funny? Isn’t that amusing? How goofy, what a novelty, what a laugh.

But there was no voice in my head, let alone six different ones. There was only touch, my fingers and palm running down the front of the firewall tentacle, another tentacle wrapping around my torso, another up my arms, the others in a ring around me, as they always had been. I was touching myself, and being touched, and touching another part of myself, and—

“Is this just masturbation?” I said out loud, then hiccuped, then felt that scream building higher.


Raine’s voice, cracking like a whip; Raine’s hand on my shoulder, firm and hard; Raine’s attention dragging me out of my inner space to stand naked and shivering in the light of reality, a bucket of cold water over my head.

My tentacles responded as well. Two of them dipped toward Raine with affection, with familiarity, with a desire to touch, to touch, to touch.

I was crying, and panting, and I wanted to scream.

Raine said, “Heather, whoa, it’s okay, it’s okay. Who are you talking to?”

The scream gathered at the back of my throat.

My tentacles retracted, tucked in tight, mirroring my own shock, my discomfort, my self-disgust.

Our bedroom was full of people now. Evelyn was hunched on a chair at the far end of the room, with dark rings around her eyes and many strands of hair escaped from a rough ponytail gathered at the back of her head; she looked wiped out, emotionally exhausted, back bent and half her weight on her walking stick despite the fact she was already sitting down. Praem was nowhere to be seen, but Twil was hovering by her shoulder, wearing an expression which said ‘I am very out of my depth and would like to go home and/or punch something’. Lozzie was leaning on the foot of the bed and peering at me, her usual self, wrapped in flopping pastel poncho and with her wispy blonde hair going absolutely everywhere. A shell-shocked Jan stood by the doorway, dressed not in a suit of mysterious armour but wearing a comfortable pink tracksuit; she was wringing her hands together in either guilt or awkward discomfort. Two little faces peered around the door frame — Sevens and Aym, in yellow and black respectively.

Tenny was up on tiptoes behind Lozzie, big black eyes watching me in concerned surprise. Her own silken black tentacles wiggled and waved in the air, as if she knew how to help but did not wish to impose or cause offense.

I stared at her tentacles and felt such envy, sudden and sharp and shocking. Hers were not hidden. Hers were not a secret. Hers were plain for all to see.

“I told you!” Lozzie chirped. She bounced on the end of the bed, waving at me with a corner of her poncho. “She was filtering! Heathy was filtering! We were in there with the tentacle, not just Heather! It wasn’t just her! I told you!”

Evelyn let out a long-suffering sigh. “Yes, you did tell us. Reflection theory, indeed,” she said, in a tone which left no doubt as to how comprehensible Lozzie had been. I made eye contact with Evelyn and she frowned at me, as if trying to see through my flesh. “Heather, it’s good that you’re awake. Welcome back, yes. But what’s wrong? Talk to us, for pity’s sake.”

If I spoke, I would scream. I just shook my head.

Raine got Lozzie’s attention, and asked, “She was talking to her tentacles?”

“No, not reflection!” Lozzie said, looking over her shoulder to wink at Evee. “Refraction! She was refracted! It’s different but it’s the same. She didn’t go anywhere else, she was always with us in the dream! I promise she didn’t go anywhere else!”

Evelyn sighed again. “Lozzie, nobody has blamed you, nobody is going to blame you. Whatever happened, it wasn’t your fault.”

“Yeah, Loz,” Twil added. “It’s alright. Heather’s … fine.”

No, I wasn’t.

Jan cleared her throat, eyes a little too wide, hands laced together like a child who had been caught doing something she knew was very naughty. “I’m afraid it was all my fault. I can only offer my apologies. I had no idea any of that would happen.”

Evelyn snapped at her: “Oh, will you bloody well stop with that? It had nothing to do with you, either.”

“I insist, it—”

“Did not!” Evelyn snapped.

“Did too!” Jan insisted, right back at her.

Neither of them knew, neither of them understood. I was in a room full of people and also very alone.

Praem appeared, gliding in through the doorway, carrying a tray laden with mugs and glasses — drinks all round. Evelyn opened her mouth to shout something at Jan, to escalate the argument. But Praem stopped just short, heels clicking on the floorboards. She said, clear as a bell: “Inside voices.”

Evelyn bit back her words, hissing with frustration. Jan ducked her head, a performance of apology.

“Morons,” cackled Aym from the doorway, in a voice like a handful of rusty spoons being dropped into a tin can full of rats.

Praem turned her entire body, tray of drinks still in her hands, without letting one drop spill from a single mug or glass. She turned toward Aym and just looked at her. Aym whipped back around the door frame like a naughty cat, just a flash of black lace. Sevens stayed in place, puffing out her cheeks at Praem in a silent laugh. Sevens glanced at me and nodded ever so slightly; I understood all at once, even through the building scream and the whirling panic, that Seven-Shades-of-Silent-Sympathy was the only one who understood that I wanted to be alone right then, that I did not need more people, more reassurance, more noise. I needed to look inward.

Evelyn made a visible effort to straighten her spine and take her weight off her walking stick. She said, “We can debrief and analyse later — without apportioning blame.” Her eyes slid to me, hard and irritated, but also wet with relief. I had no doubt who Evelyn blamed, whatever words she said: herself and me. “I hope we at least got something useful out of that. Heather — Heather, what’s wrong? Lozzie and Jan have already told us everything they experienced. Tenny as well, though—”

“Biiiig!” Tenny fluttered, all excited and smiling suddenly.

Praem echoed the sentiment, “Large.”

Lozzie said, “You were amazing, Tenns!”

“Largesona,” said Praem.

“Big!” Tenny repeated. She gave both Praem and Lozzie tentacle-hugs; Praem set her tray of drinks down on the desk.

“Yes, quite,” Evelyn grunted as Praem forced a glass of water in her hands. “We have a rough picture of what happened, Heather, but not what happened to you inside the — what did you call it, Lozzie?”

“Big brass button,” said Lozzie. “Brass brain!”

“Yes. The brass brain,” Evelyn echoed with a little sigh. “Heather — are you paying attention? Was it worth it? Did it work?”

“Did it … work?” I echoed.

My eyes slid off Evelyn, back to my own tentacles.

Raine held up a hand to forestall Evelyn’s next question, Jan’s awkward apology, and Praem trying to hand me a drink. “Evee, wait, hold on. Something isn’t right here. Heather? Heather?”

Lozzie whined, “She’s fiiiiine! Heathy’s fine! Heathy!”

Praem said, “Heathers.” I hiccuped; did she know?

“Heather,” Raine said my name so very gently. She could tell that something was terribly wrong, she could see that I was knocked sideways, that I wasn’t reacting right — but for the first time ever, I didn’t want her to know. “Heather, look at me, please.”

I did as she asked. Raine washed over me, warm and brown-eyed and so very gentle as she touched my face. She peered into my eyes, shined a light into my pupils to make them react, had me say how many fingers she was holding up. She tried not to frown, but she couldn’t help the worry on her face; she could see it, see that I wasn’t myself anymore, see that I was the kind of freak I’d always been worried about turning into. My tentacles didn’t know what to do either — looping toward Raine but then shying away from reach touch. She would feel them on her shoulders and I wouldn’t be able to explain what they were doing and she would ask questions I couldn’t answer and the room was full of too many people and half of them could see the tentacles moving and they knew, they knew, they knew—

“Heather?” Raine said eventually. She pressed her hands around mine. “Heather, you’re shaking, but there’s nothing physically wrong with you. What happened in there? Heather? What are you looking at?”

“Herself!” said Lozzie.

I had slipped up. My eyes were following the tentacles, not Raine’s face. I flinched and blinked and focused on her as hard as I could. I lifted my own metaphorical mask to my face, desperate to hide my growing shame.

Lozzie was sitting next to me on the bed now, dimpling the sheets, poncho brushing my knees. She had followed my gaze too, tilting her head back and forth. For once, she didn’t understand. Even Lozzie, my sweet dreamer, did not understand. She had seen it all first-hand, but did not know what it meant.

Nobody understood. How could they? I was crazy, I’d always been crazy. It didn’t matter that I’d been right — that my world had always been demon-haunted, full of gods from elsewhere, inexplicable monsters, and evil magicians. It didn’t matter that I was not schizophrenic, not really. I was still crazy little Heather, screaming in the back of my parents’ car on the way to Cygnet Children’s Hospital.

“Stop it!” I hissed — at myself, at my tentacles, as they kept reaching toward Raine, like they wanted to hug her. They wanted to be felt, to be acknowledged, to love her too. They all reared back, hurt and confused. My hurt. My confusion. I sobbed, horrified at my words, reaching out to apologise. “S-sorry, sorry, no, no, I love you, sorry, n-no—”

“Oh,” said Jan, in a very small voice. “Oh no.”

“Heather?” Raine asked. “What’s wrong? Heather, come on, talk to me. Look at me.”

“I’m not talking to anybody!” I snapped at Raine. “I’m not … talking to … ”

To my tentacles?

To myself?

How could I deny what was right there, attached to my own body? Half the people in the room could see my tentacles; a good thing, too, because they were the most beautiful part of me, better than any other piece of my body. The urge to shut my mouth fought a losing battle against six other tongues, pressing up my throat in a low hiss, crying out to be heard. The hiss came out slow and quiet and broken. I sobbed and hiccuped, desperate to burrow into my sheets and be ignored.

“They’re me and I’m them,” I sobbed. “We’re all here. Me and myself. I can’t … did I do this to myself? Was it always like this? I can’t— I can’t— I can’t— everybody needs to— go— let me— let me think—”

I couldn’t get the words out. I couldn’t get my head around this concept — not because it was alien and other, supernatural and weird — but because it was all too familiar, too real, too mundane. I’d been here before.

Raine tried to take me by the shoulders and administer an emergency hug; Lozzie tried to help too, hands catching one of my tentacles and cuddling it to her chest. Even Praem attempted some assistance, reaching in to catch my failing hands. But I pushed them all away, heaving and sobbing and mortified by the show I was putting on for everybody who had crammed into my bedroom. Voices swirled around me, prodding and poking and probing for meaning that I could not express.

“Heather, whoa, it’s okay, it’s okay, slow down, slow—”

“What’s wrong with Big H? She was fine a sec ago, I thought the dream went right, it—”

“Praem! Praem, get her some water, please, right now. Heather! Heather!”

“We should give her some space, this is private. I-I don’t think I have any place witnessing this, I don’t—”

“Heath! Heath touch! Heath safe! Heath-er, Heath-er!”

I wrapped my arms — my human arms, two of them — around my head, and blocked out all my friends.

The revelation inside the dream was undeniable: there were six other versions of myself, six little versions of me, sub-brains or sub-selves or budded spiritual masses. My tentacles, all six of them. I had no idea how this worked on a technical level. I’m sure Evelyn could tell me, given time and investigative tools.

By using one tentacle as an informational and sensory buffer between myself and Mister Squiddy’s dream, I had spent subjective hours peering down the tunnel-vision perspective of my own alternative self-hood, created by information being passed back up the tentacle to my main body. The process had made me aware for the first time, like pulling a muscle one couldn’t name, deep inside an obscure portion of one’s own thigh. And now it ached and ached and ached.

How long had I been this way?

My tentacles had always moved semi-independently, hadn’t they? Even before I had fleshed them in pneuma-somatic beauty, when they had been merely an impulse, a desire, the constant presence of phantom limbs, they had always moved ahead of my conscious decision making. Propping me up when I couldn’t stand, levering me out of bed or up to my feet, reaching for things before I knew I needed them; my six little helpers, my subconscious body with a mind of it’s own. But that wasn’t a metaphor. They were me, and I was them — but they were not me.

A person with less experience of psychologists and psychiatrists may have freaked out at that realisation; somebody without my very specific history might have considered the tentacles as abyssal parasites, alien things that had ridden back with me from the abyss. Not of me. Pretenders. Fake. I didn’t think any of those things. It would have been easier if I had.

Not that I wasn’t freaking out. I was. Very much so. I was teetering on the edge of a full-blown traumatic response.

Because I knew better; because I’d been here before; because I was not meant to talk to myself.

In the early days after Wonderland, after the Eye took Maisie, when I had no idea what was happening to me, when I’d been a scared little girl of nine, then ten, then eleven years old, the doctors had tested all sorts of different explanations for what was wrong with me. First at Royal Berkshire in Reading, then Cygnet Children’s in London, with a half-dozen other specialists in between, both NHS and the occasional expensive private doctor, and even one short-lived visit to a Catholic priest to discuss exorcism. My parents thought I didn’t recall that last one; they hadn’t gone through with it in the end, mostly because the priest in question had been a decent man, unwilling to exploit the fears of parents terrified for their very sick daughter. My parents loved me very much, that I did not doubt; they had tried everything, been willing to entertain almost any avenue of therapy or treatment.

The doctors took years to settle on an official diagnosis. My parents never said it out loud, but they knew the doctors had given up; they knew that ‘schizoaffective disorder’ was not accurate, did not account for my experiences. But we were all exhausted, and I was able to pretend that the drugs were working. I had my coping mechanisms, I pretended not to see the spirits, and I’d just about come to terms with the lie that Maisie had never existed.

But back at ten years old, during some of my earliest sessions at Cygnet, a trio of doctors had experimented with the notion that I was suffering dissociative identity disorder. What they used to call multiple personalities, split personalities, things like that. Wrong things.

Eventually they ruled that out almost a year later, but by then the damage was done.

‘Maisie’ may have been a separate identity, in your daughter’s imagination. She may have been this way since very young, displaying one or other personality, or a mixture of both. What she is experiencing now could be the ‘death’ of this alternate personality, and she has no other way of processing it except this wild and inexplicable grief, for a twin who you’ve never met. To her, this is very real. But the first step of any therapeutic program must be to show her that ‘Maisie’ did not exist in the way she believed.

My mother had asked, in perhaps more words than this: “What if the second personality is still in there?

I hadn’t seen the doctor’s smile. They had talked about me as if I was not sitting right there. “In my professional opinion, it is better to suppress such delusions, not encourage them. I suggest we begin with sessions of therapy and also a light pharmaceutical option. Here, we have a few different pathways to discuss, if you’ll look at this informational sheet.

Even then, I’d understood. Barbarians and cannibals and murderers, all of them. And my parents went along with it.

You mustn’t talk to yourself, Heather! You mustn’t talk to the girl in the mirror, it’s just you! Don’t you dare cry for your twin in the middle of the night, because that’s just more proof that she was never real. ‘Maisie’ is a banned word, a banned name, a fake name, a name for you reflected in your own mind and nothing more!

A full year of watching myself for ‘Maisie’, wondering if she really was a product of my imagination — only to be told, sorry, we got it wrong. We don’t think your daughter is suffering DID. We think she’s just crazy in some other way. Generally crazy, non-specific crazy. Sorry, Heather. Maisie wasn’t an alternate self. You’re just bonkers.

You can’t do that to a little girl’s head. You can’t do that.

So I sat there on my bed, surrounded by friends who knew that there was more in heaven and earth than dreamed of in any clinical psychologist’s philosophy, and I sobbed in confusion and shame.

Had I made six more of myself? Was this abyssal biology and pneuma-somatic flesh married in self-generation? Or was I just insane all along, just as crazy as the doctors had always suggested; had these six other Heathers always been here, waiting for a space to inhabit? Where was the line between the supernatural and insanity?

For one horrible moment, held for eternity in between one sob and the next, I longed and feared in equal amounts that I was about to hear Maisie’s voice in my head.

But I didn’t.

I didn’t hear any voices. No Maisie, no six little versions of me dancing around in a circle, no muffled half-drugged mumble from what had been my firewall tentacle. All I heard was the subtle creak and gentle tug of pneuma-somatic muscle anchored inside my flanks. That was real. That was undeniable. I had made that.

My tentacles gave me a hug; I almost screamed.

Everybody was still talking at me, over me, around me. Lozzie was chirping my name like I was a baby bird who’d fallen out of the nest. Evelyn was snapping commands about painkillers, bottles in the kitchen cupboards, get her chocolate, get her chocolate, like all I needed was a good dose of serotonin. Raine was up on her feet, trying to add her arms to my own tentacles. Sevens kept her distance but I felt a sun-kiss pressure on my shoulders. Tenny was trilling and fluttering in terrible panic, with no idea what was happening to me.

They put together a team effort, in the end, because I couldn’t do this alone — how ironic, when there were seven of me now.

Evelyn kept everyone moving, a voice of command amid the chaos. Raine grounded me in physical contact, hands on my head and shoulders and upper arms. Lozzie kept talking at my ears, absolute nonsense but very engaging. Tenny — bless her, I don’t know if she understood, I doubt it — she engaged my tentacles directly, one at a time, using her own to draw each little Heather up and off me, wrapping pieces of me in silken black comfort. Twil ran up and down from the kitchen with water and food and medication. Praem forced me to drink, and to swallow, and to drink more. Raine handed me a lemon; two tentacles peeled it for me, and I ate the whole thing in tiny, nibbly little bites.

Twenty minutes later I was almost myself — my-selves? — once again, sitting on the bed, exhausted, but no longer sobbing.

“That’s it,” Raine said as she rubbed my back. “Just take little sips. Little sips. Breathe in, breathe out. It’s alright, Heather, you’re safe now. It’s alright.”

“Heathy’s just fine,” Lozzie said from right next to me. She peered at my face by dipping her head, but I didn’t even meet her eyes. I had so little left to give. “It’s okay, Heathy.”

Evelyn was slumped heavily in her chair, Praem at her shoulder, Twil hovering awkwardly, way out of her depth. Evee let out a big, heavy sigh, leaning on her walking stick again, eyes like she wanted desperately to go to sleep. “I thought we understood what happened in that dream. I thought we understood. Heather, I’m so sorry. What happened to you in there?”

“ … nothing,” I croaked. I couldn’t begin to put it into words.

Half my tentacles were still playing handsies with Tenny’s silken black limbs, but the other half were wrapped around me at various angles. I was both feeling myself touch, and touching myself, and being touched. I was half-hugging one of them with an arm. Hugging me. Being hugged.

I couldn’t even sort it out inside my own head. All of the tentacles twitched and throbbed and adjusted in different ways. I was in each of them; each of them was in me. How could I begin to explain this?

Evelyn sighed sharply. “What the f—” She bit off the swear word and glanced at Tenny; but Tenny looked none the wiser. “What does that mean, Heather? You don’t have an experience like that and come out crying and not—”

Jan cleared her throat. She was hovering by the door, not having participated much in the process of dragging me out of my mortified self-horror, but unwilling to seem heartless by leaving. Part of me wondered where July was. She said, “We didn’t see what happened to Heather after she went into the dome. I’m sorry, I—”

“Again,” Evelyn almost snapped. “It’s not your fault, Miss January.”

“Just Jan,” Jan crunched out.

Evelyn went on, “You didn’t sign up for it. We did — Heather most of all. We thought we took all the necessary precautions, we—”

“We did,” I croaked, raising my eyes to Evelyn. “Nothing went wrong. We did it right. I found the … Squiddy. Brain-math. I did. I … solved it.”

“Right on,” said Raine.

“Then for pity’s sake, Heather,” Evelyn huffed. “What happened in there?”

I shook my head; there was simply too much to process right now — the way the house itself had appeared and followed me, Jan’s suit of armour and zombie doppelgänger, the mysterious Miss Vee, among many others. The most immediate thing was the most difficult to explain. How could I tell anybody I was seven?

“They’re me and I’m them,” I muttered, then took another sip of water; one of my tentacles, middle left, wiped my lips. Middle Left. I couldn’t call her that. “We’re all … one? I don’t … s-sorry, I can’t … ”

Evelyn frowned at me with increasing worry.

“Heather, hey,” Raine said, purring softly as her hand drew little circles on the tense and tight muscles of my upper back. “Why don’t you start at the beginning, tell us what happened when you went into that dome? We’ve heard the rest from Lozzie and Jan. Just start at the start. Go as slow as you like, focus on what you saw, what you felt, where you went. As slow as you like. We’ve got all night. Nobody’s going anywhere.”

Evelyn pursed her lips. Twil sighed, big and floppy; she very much wanted to be elsewhere. Jan looked like she was stuck in the middle of somebody else’s domestic argument.

I took a deep breath, and said, “Is Mister Squiddy okay?”

“Yeah,” Raine said. “No change. Whatever you did, it didn’t hurt him. Fliss and Kim are downstairs with the bucket still. Hope they’re not necking in front of him.” She cracked a grin.

“Don’t be vile,” Evelyn grumbled.

“Big crack!” Tenny said. “Eggshell crack.”

I nodded, “Yes, Tenns. Hope it didn’t hurt him.”

“Made you biiiig,” Tenny trilled. I almost smiled.

“Yes, he did. Made me big too.”

Raine shook her head, grinning wider. “Can’t believe you got to have a kaiju fight. Wish I could have seen it.”

“Zheng?” I croaked.

“Still out,” Evelyn snapped. “She missed every bit of this. No contact all day. Thought she was going to come running as soon as you slumped out of consciousness.” She snorted, unimpressed.

I looked at Jan. “Where’s July? She’s here too?”

Jan nodded, giving me a real winner of an awkward smile. “Reading a book. In the kitchen. We came straight over, after the … well. I could … ” She cleared her throat, pointing awkwardly at the door.

“We’ll talk later,” I mumbled — which prompted Jan to pull an extremely worried look; then I looked up at the ceiling and said: “Thank you.”

Evelyn sighed again. “Heather, what happened in there? Did it work? Did it work? And … ” She tutted. “Are you okay?”

“Not really,” I croaked.

“Alright. We can talk about that — right, Raine?”

“Absolutely,” Raine said, so gentle and soft, just for me.

“And,” Evelyn added, “Heather, you solved the brain-math problem? How? What’s different now?”

I let out a sad little laugh and looked down at my tentacles; my tentacles looked back at me, framing me in the mind’s eye of six different ways of thinking. I felt a moment of vertigo-like dissociation, like I was looking up at myself from beyond my body. I raised one tentacle — upper left — and allowed her to spiral around my left arm, supporting and lifting my flesh-bound muscles.

Where could I even begin?

“I can … ” I started. “I think the brain-math can … distributed. Um … ” My voice cracked.

Raine’s hand tightened on my shoulder. I looked up and found her beautiful in the dying sunlight. She smiled just for me, that endless beaming confidence she kept so close to hand, telling me she knew, she understood, she accepted whatever was going on — and she didn’t even know. She didn’t have to know, in order to accept.

She said, “Heather, if you’re having trouble, you don’t have to explain anything. Not right away. You can take as long as you need, you—”

“But they’re all right here,” I said — before I remembered that Raine and Evee couldn’t see, not without the magically modified glasses.

“It’s her tentacles!” Lozzie chirped.

“Wiggly!” said Tenny. She wiggled too.

“The tentacles?” Evelyn grunted. “Praem, where are my glasses? Thank you, yes. What do the tentacles have to do with—”

“No!” I snapped, overcome with emotion. I waved an angry hand at Evee to stop her from donning her own pneuma-somatic glasses. She blinked at me, stalled by the sudden fire in my voice.

“Heather?” Raine said. “I can’t see them right now either, but—”

“No,” I said again, just as forceful. “You— they’re right here, they’ve always been right here, they— there’s always been seven of me, or maybe I made them all! But it doesn’t matter which, but you can’t see them. You can’t see me. You can see me!”

It was suddenly vitally important that Evelyn and Raine — and Twil, and anybody else who lacked the pneuma-somatic sight — could no longer deny what lay just beyond their awareness, even if they had never denied me at all.

Before I knew what I was doing, I was tugging at my hoodie to pull it off over my head. I tossed it onto the bed, panting with nervous excitement, with fear, with worries about pain and mistakes and all the ways this could go wrong; but I had no choice, I could no longer accept this bitterness. Then I did the same with my t-shirt, wriggling it off and over my head. My flanks and ribs and stomach were exposed in the rotten sunset light, shivering despite the lingering summer heat.

Raine took a step back, giving me room but keeping her hands ready, though she had no idea what I was planning. Evelyn was frowning at me like I’d gone mad — perhaps I had. Twil wasn’t sure if she should be averting her eyes or not. Lozzie nodded along; perhaps she got it. Tenny hovered for a moment, uncertain what was happening. Praem just stood, placid and calm, hands folded, back straight; somehow, that helped me relocate the shreds of my courage.

“Oh, okay,” said Jan, delicate but embarrassed, turning for the door. “It’s naked time, I see. I’ll be, um, taking my leave. Downstairs. Ahem.”

“I’m leaving my bra on,” I panted. “It’s fine. And it won’t take more than a second. A split second. A-a thought. Oh, oh I’m shaking.”

Jan had already left. I didn’t blame her. She’d seen enough of me already.

“Heather,” Raine said. “Whatever it is, I’m right here. I’m right by your side. Right here.”

“Whatever it is,” Evelyn echoed. “I would prefer to be in the loop! What is happening? Heather, what are you—”

I answered by showing, not telling.

There wasn’t much to it in the end — no blood and guts, no forging new tendons and muscles and nerve-connections. I’d done all the hard parts months ago. The tentacles were already real, already a part of my body, anchored deep inside my flanks with pneuma-somatic flesh married to human form. All I had to do was flick that final value, not from unreal to real, but from spirit-flesh to flesh — to make my tentacles like Praem’s body, or Twil’s wolf-form. They would never be like Tenny, true flesh born from a natural process, but they would be undeniable all the same.

My bioreactor spooled up by just a single notch of a single control rod, sending an awful stab of pain through my gut. But we would fix that soon enough. In a second, new ways of thinking would open to us.

There was no need for the great dripping black machinery of the Eye’s lessons for this, though the needle I held still burned my mind like the sliver of a star. But I made it quick. I reached into the space where I was described, the mathematics that wrought me upon the substrate of reality, and I flicked one value, one figure, upward, by one increment.

“Uuuunnnnhh,” I grunted — not from the tentacles, from which I felt no difference, but from the sheer difficulty of the last piece of brain-math I would ever have to perform alone.

Panting, shaking, bleeding a little from my nose — and instantly helped by Praem handing me a tissue — the first I knew that the brain-math had actually worked were the looks on everyone’s face.

Evelyn was gaping at me, wide-eyed. She lifted the pneuma-somatic glasses to her face, then dropped them again, falling from limp fingers into her lap. Twil just cracked a stupid grin and started laughing, “Squid girl, looking good!” Raine laughed too, genuine delight in her voice.

Of course, for the others, for the non-humans, for Praem, Lozzie, Sevens at the door, for Tenny bouncing and clapping, there was no difference.

I lifted my tentacles, as real and solid as Praem’s pneuma-somatic body. Anchored in my flanks, buried in my flesh, visible to all.

“They’re real,” I croaked. “They’re all me.”

Raine sat down gently. “Of course they are, Heather. They’re part of your body.”

“No,” I said, shaking my head. “They are me and I am them. Say hi.”

One tentacle — top left — rose in front of Raine. She — Raine, not the tentacle — eyed me, without suspicion, without reluctance, without the least bit of confusion, just curious. Then she looked at the tentacle.

“Hello, tentacle?”

“Call her Heather,” I said. “They’re all … they’re all Heather.” I was blushing, burning in the face, still stemming a nosebleed. But I was so happy.

“Heather, then.” Raine nodded to my tentacle.

“This is weird,” I said. “I know this is really weird and I’m sorry, but—”

“Pfffft,” Raine said. “What’s weird about it?”

I could have kissed her right there, in front of everybody else. I didn’t, because Tenny was watching. I would have been a little embarrassed.

“Heather,” Evelyn said, “What— what does this have to do with— I mean … what are you going to do about going out in public? The mental censor effect only goes so far, you can’t hide those down your top all the time, you—”

“I can reverse it, make them pneuma-somatic. I mean, they are pneuma-somatic, but like Praem, for now. It goes in reverse, too, it’s … yes.”

“Pretty,” said Praem.

“Yaah!” Tenny agreed.

“Pretty,” Praem repeated.

“Yes, yes!” Evee said, waving us all down. “The tentacles are very impressive, and yes, Praem, you’re very pretty, well done. Heather, I—”

Lozzie suddenly sat up, delighted and amazed in a way I’d never seen on her face before. “You refracted yourself! You refracted and you kept it! Heathy! Wow! There’s seven of you!” She grabbed a tentacle and hugged her. I almost sobbed again.

“What?” said Twil. “I mean the squid thing is cool, fuckin’ rad, but seven of what? Am I missing something?”

“I-I can explain,” I said. “Just, give me a—”

“Heather,” Evelyn snapped. She stamped with her walking stick. “How does this help you? You said this will help with brain-math, but I am lost, I’m sorry. How does this help? How is this the lesson from all we’ve done here? Explain. What did you learn from the Eye-thing, the squid-thing — was it from your sister, or not? How does this help you?”

I looked at Evelyn, full in the face, smiling in a way I did not expect.

“Cognitive load balancing. Additional neural tissue. A distributed brain — or … or soul, one I can regrow.”

Evelyn frowned as if I was talking nonsense. Lozzie went wide-eyed. Well, as wide-eyed as she could with her sleepy lids. Raine just nodded, as if this made perfect sense. Twil tilted her head and said, “Uh, cool.”

But Tenny, of all people, Tenny looked right at me, smiled, and nodded. “Like me!” she trilled.

Evelyn sighed. “Heather—”

“Let me show you,” I said. “It’s still going to hurt, and I don’t know my limits, but let me show you.”

“Heather, wait—”

And before anybody could stop us, we plunged our hands — all eight hands, many more hands than the number accounted for in the Eye’s lessons — into the black sump at the base of my soul. And this time, we had more than enough hands to pull at what lay beneath.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Heather! And Heather, and Heather, and Heather, and Heather, and Heather! And Heather, of course. Oh dear. Was she always like this, or did she make herself this way by accident? Does it even matter? Well, all these extra Heathers, stored in extra neuron-flesh, are about to help her do something she’s never done before. That can only be good, right? If the waking world can take it.

Since this chapter touches on the very real world issue of DID (“Dissociative Identity Disorder”/plurality), one of my long time readers suggested I link one of the better informational websites on the subject, since it’s very poorly understood and readers might want to know more: Of course, what’s happening to Heather here is a supernatural, fictional version, but heavily drawn from real experiences.

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Next chapter, it’s down, down, down, into the oily dark where the secrets brood, where Heather’s tools lie preserved in toxic grease. She’s got a task to do, and eight hands to do it. Next week is also the last chapter of arc 19! After that, it’s finally onto arc 20. Onward!

sediment in the soul – 19.15

Content Warnings


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Mathematics was never our strong suit.

Not in the half-remembered prelapsarian years before Wonderland, nor during the decade of half-dead unlife after Maisie had been taken away from us. We didn’t hate maths. We were not innumerate. We didn’t dread school lessons or have trouble with homework or counting out coins. We never spilled tears over mathematical frustration; our tears were already spent on more terrifying and intimate matters, the reservoir always dry. Oh, we could do percentages and algebra, we achieved a C grade during our GCSEs, we never had trouble figuring out simple daily tasks with numbers — well, no more than we had trouble with every daily task, in those days. But mathematics held little interest for us, and not only because so many nightmares were already crammed with mathematical lessons, which one could not escape by simply looking out of the classroom window. Perhaps that was the Eye’s ultimate mistake; perhaps it should have selected a pair of little girls destined to grow up to become mathematicians or physicists, instead of twins who liked to read fairy tales and imagine friendly monsters lurking at the end of the road. Perhaps none of this would have happened if the Eye had chosen a pupil more suited to learning the syllabus it wanted to teach.

Perhaps it had done; perhaps that’s why we escaped, and Maisie didn’t. Perhaps our suffering was simply a by-product of her perfect education.

But, when Largest And Most Wise Heather squeezed me through the entrance to that ever-shifting dome of brass and gold and chrome — as lips of feathered silver and frond-like steel closed over me from behind, as fractal branching passageways opened up in lace-like clockwork — we agreed in private and breathless awe that mathematics could be quite beautiful.

This was still a dream, though; perhaps all the sums were made up.

First: a hallway, a corridor, a smooth and irregular organic cavity through ever-shifting machinery, winding through clockwork delicacy and sliding plates and interlocking teeth of gold and titanium and solid mercury. We took a step, one pace forward; the pressure on the plates beneath our feet changed, and so the hallway reoriented itself in response to these new variables, these me-variables: parts unlatched and adjusted, clockwork slowed down here and sped up there, the hallway pointed in a different direction — and the way was blocked by plate and rotation-shape and cogwheel.

Another step changed the orientation again. A third reverted. A fourth ruined.

Terrible symmetry, beautiful equation, perfectly expressed; but this was no place for an unprotected human form.

Larger Heather made us stop. The danger was obvious; this place would mangle us, rip us to pieces, dream or not. She — me and me — reached out with five fists and touched a corner of gold leaf, and the edge of a giant cog, and a sprig of chrome, and a specific spot on the floor; the hallway folded back by one step, admitting us a single pace deeper into the briar of metal thorns and snagging teeth and crushing plates.

Within five steps we all agreed this was bloody impossible.

Large Heather Who Was In Control said, This wasn’t what I expected. She sounded very worried. That made me worried too.

“What had we expected?” I asked.

I didn’t receive an answer for several minutes as we navigated three more steps down the hallway, using tentacles to touch pressure points, to add values here and subtract them there, completing equations with the span and weight of our own body. We inserted ourselves into the guts of the dome, into the equation, modifying it with our very presence. Every errant twitch, every adjustment of finger, every flexing muscle changed some value, corrupted some perfect meaning, introduced something the machine did not have a place for and did not wish to permit.

I don’t know, said Large Heather. Part of me thought — or maybe hoped — that the dome might be hollow inside, that it might open up to reveal some special equation etched on the inside surface. Or maybe we’d find Mister Squiddy in the middle, at the core, on a throne or in a bucket or something, like this is his thought-shell around a real self. Or maybe that the dome would sweep me up and teach me … something.

Like the Eye?

Yes, she said. Like the Eye. Only now I’m almost certain that this didn’t come from the Eye at all. I think Maisie sent this. I think the Eye set up a trap, but she hijacked it.

How can you be sure? Evelyn wouldn’t like that, Evelyn would tell us off, Evelyn would say it’s a dangerous assumption.

She probably would, I’m right about that. But we’re already inside and this is … well, I won’t lie to myself, this is not safe. I feel like if I let go with even one tentacle, I’m going to get crushed. Like an industrial accident. But no, I think this is from Maisie. It’s the only thing which makes sense. It has to be from her. It has to be.


Because it doesn’t hurt.

That made me feel much better. Larger Heather was probably right. This didn’t hurt, not like the Eye’s lessons did — but it was exquisitely difficult, exhausting, taxing on body and mind and muscle and tendon and skin. Each step through the dome-maze took us minutes of experimentation, adjusting a cog here, pulling on a piece of clockwork there, so delicate and fiddly so that I itched and jerked and wanted to run my hands all over my skin and peel it off, wanted to roll around on the ground and bite and thrash and shake off this feeling.

But I didn’t. I was a good girl. Large And Clever Heather reached over my shoulder with five other hands and braced us against the inside of the mathematical lesson, pulling us along step by step, solving the new equations with every hard-won inch. I didn’t complain — though I made suggestions, lots of suggestions, reaching out to touch things on my own along with my other sisters as we all tried to help. We all pulled together, all in the same direction.

All for one and one for all, Large Heather tried to laugh, but she was starting to hyperventilate. Noble sentiment. Hard to apply to myself, but, yes. Yes, that’s right. That’s the only way. All pulling in the same direction, all in our way. Raine would probably say something like ‘from each according to their strength’, or something.

“She would,” I said. “We love Raine.”

Oh, Raine. Oh, I can’t do this alone. I can’t think so sharply in a dream. I can’t. I needed this to stay unreal, abstract, freaky. Horror movie silliness was fine. This isn’t. Oh, oh, I’m going to develop claustrophobia from this. Oh, fuck. Fuck. Largest Of All Heathers whined in her throat. Pardon my language. Oh, but there’s nobody here to apologise to. Ahhh, God. She swallowed, too hard, hurting her throat. This feels like it’s going on forever. Please, it’s just a dream, just a dream, just a dream. Keep pulling, keep pulling.

The route took us upward, worming through cramped tunnels of golden joints, locking and interlocking and unlocking from each other, squeezing through chrome perfection barely wide enough for shoulders or hips; Largest Heather had to pop pieces of herself free, screaming as she did, banging them on surfaces to pop them back in. Then we slid down through blind dark voids, surrounded by sliding pistons and whirling blades and a million cutting, puncturing, searing, burning, bruising hazards. Biggest Heather kept stopping and waiting, shaking and panting; we wrapped her tight and held on for her. At the bottom of these voids, we burrowed into the floor once more and plunged through clockwork majesty which forced constant motion, lest we all get trapped between the teeth.

More than once I got pinched between plates, or snagged on cogs, or dragged into the guts of the machinery; I was a good girl, I didn’t panic, I had been trained not to panic, to accept that I might have to be detached and lost, or torn off, or left for dead. But Bigger Heather and her five other hands had changed their mind about that detail; I was not to be discarded to fortune or wounding or risk or damage. Bigger Heather braced herself and dragged me back out of clinging chrome and grinding gold and bold brass pincers, as she did for any sister who might be lost to the lesson.

This isn’t worth it. This isn’t worth it, she had started to hiss. This doesn’t mean anything! This doesn’t lead anywhere! It’s torture for the sake of torture. This … this has to be from Maisie. It has to be! But I made a promise. No more self-sacrifice. That means every part of me.

“We’re going to be okay,” I said. “We’ve got your back. We’ve always got your back.”

I can’t go on like this. I’ve been in here for hours. Hours. Time … I can’t keep track of time. Lozzie and Jan, what happened to them? What’s happening to my body, out in reality? Has it been seconds? Minutes? Hours? She was talking to herself, not to us. How long is it taking me to say these words? I feel like I started speaking an hour ago. I can’t do this.

We had no idea what was happening with Lozzie and Jan, with the Jan-Zombie and the sword; the rest of the dream had been sealed off instantly when we’d entered. All I remembered was a whoop and a crunch.

Don’t worry about them, Bigger Heather said, trying to reassure herself. Lozzie is an expert dreamer. She knows what she’s doing. She knows what she’s doing. You just concentrate on yourself, Heather. You have to find the meaning in this. Keep going. One step at a time.

But there was no centre, no core, no meaning that we could find.

We went around and around and around, burrowing through an equation which exhausted us and ground us down; every step was a struggle to move plates of metal aside, to coax the clockwork to open, to integrate our body with the mathematics so that it did not pinch or tear or rip or burn. But it did. We were not a creature of perfect mathematics. We were flesh and thought. Such things did not conform.

Every angle and junction and confluence held at least some meaning — but it was all jumbled together, all pure data without context, numbers without purpose. It was like wading through a library built from the books themselves, with aisles and walkways filled with tomes; the only way to progress was to lift each volume from the stacks and read it cover-to-cover before re-inserting it somewhere else.

I like that metaphor, said Large And Exhausted Heather. But we’re getting nowhere. None of this means anything. My concentration is … we’ve been going in circles … there’s nothing in here but density. There is nothing here. Nothing! What is all this?!

Are we inside Mister Squiddy?

When I asked that question, Large Heather stopped us in the middle of a kinking corridor made of polished steel and smooth brass; the surfaces were jerking and flickering with every step we took. When we stopped, the equation stopped too, like a room full of fun-house mirrors pausing along with their fleshy original. The dome-mathematics froze with us.

We reached out, all tentacles to the walls, all tips touching. Bigger Heather opened us out for a moment.

“Mister Squiddy?” I said. We waited.

The dome did not move.

It did not move because we did not move. It did not reply because it could not reply because it could not move. Expression was impossible without motion.

What does that mean?! Largest Heather spat. I can’t go on like this, I can’t! I’ve been in here for days. Days and days. I’m going mad in here. I don’t care anymore. Inside Mister Squiddy, inside a lesson — what does it matter?! It’s pure mathematics and there’s nothing here and— and— and it hurts. She sobbed once. It wasn’t supposed to hurt, it was supposed to be from Maisie, it was supposed to be right, and human, and—

“What if we all work together?” I said.


“What if we all work together?”

We … are? We already are, we’ve been pulling together! I’m using every piece of brainpower I have. I’m utilizing you to your absolute limit. You don’t feel it because I’m cramming you full of lemons, but you’re so bruised, you’re so damaged. I promised not to self-sacrifice. And I won’t. There’s no further to push. There’s no deeper meaning here except dashing us against the rocks over and over. This was a waste. It means nothing.

“No, I mean—”

I was never meant for this, she said, and sounded so very sad as she started to sob. I think this is from Maisie, I think it is, and … and I can’t understand it. I can’t even begin to comprehend this. It’s too beautiful, too complex. And not for me. I was always terrible at maths! But this? This is impossible! All I can do is beat myself black and blue on the inside of this thing, looking for meaning that I’m not smart enough to grasp! And she … my sister … my twin, she made this. She made this. Not the Eye. I’m certain she made this. What has she become? I can’t follow. I can’t follow. Why did I do this? Why did I come in here? I can’t follow her. Maisie, I can’t follow you. I can’t.

Biggest Heather Who Mistook Herself For Being Alone hugged me to her chest — but her five other hands peeled us free and stood apart.

Oh, she said, tears drying on her cheeks. But I’m already using my tentacles. You’re not independent, you’re—

“Let me take some of the weight,” I said. We all agreed.

And I reached out with my tentacles — with Heather’s hands, myself and my sisters, and our core and our purpose — and pulled at the perfect metal equation of the dome. We took over from Large Heather At The Rear, we interpreted her wishes, we translated and tingled and burned and itched so that she had to do less.

We all pulled in the same direction; this time, she didn’t need to direct. She joined in.

Gold leaf and chrome machinery blossomed outward; clockwork hurried out of the way; shifting plates pushed at our feet rather than block our path; the dome-equation, the perfect mathematics, the complexity only dreamable in the spaces of the abyss — parted like water. With the effort distributed, the effort became bearable.

And we swam.

Bloody and bruised and battered, torn and tortured, exhausted — but swimming free at last.

Bigger Heather was sobbing again, with something akin to relief. There’s seven of me? she kept repeating. Seven of me? What is it with the number seven? Oh, I need to ask Evee about numerology. This can’t be a coincidence. Sevens will be besides herself. Seven of me?

We still didn’t know what we were looking for; brass and gold and steel and chrome slid aside with all the softness of rose petal or cherry blossom. Thorns still lurked, stabbing into vulnerable flesh, but they were only thorns, a fraction of the size of the equation itself. We all pulled together, effort distributed, working in concert, looking for a place where the thorns thickened or the water darkened or the machinery opened out. We looked for meaning, we swam for a core, a centre, a message in the bottle.

But it was all just more mathematics. Machine all the way down.

This can’t be right, Heather whispered. There’s nothing here. I’m doing it right and there’s nothing here, there’s—

Just when we were about to jackknife and turn and do another circuit of the inside of the dome, there was very much something here.

Bigger Heather went away in a snap-flash instant, gone like a ripped-out cable.

And I was just me again, falling through a pocket of open air.

I landed painfully on my backside in a long, egg-shaped chamber, lined with brass clockwork and dense circuitry on the walls. I caught myself at the last moment with my tentacles, bouncing slightly so I didn’t break my tail bone. But the landing was ungainly with surprise, with pain, and exhaustion. I hit the floor hard with a resonant clang of metal.

“Ahhhh,” I groaned, curling up in pain, eyes screwed shut with sudden tears. “Ow. Oh. Ow. Oh no. Ahhh.”

The dream was once again razor-sharp real, hard and physical and undeniable. I was not floating in memories or flying through mathematical machinery or confused about how many of me inhabited the inside of my head; I was Heather Morell, twenty years old, dressed in a hoodie and pajama bottoms and Seven’s yellow robes, rolling on the floor of a weird machine-room and clutching at my aching body.

“Ow, ow, ow, ow,” I hissed. “Oh, oh, why— ah—”

I hurt all over — and not with the slow healing process of small bruises or the pain-pleasure muscle-satisfaction of a day’s walk. Knees, elbows, shoulders, knuckles, hips: all were badly grazed, as if I’d come off a mountain bike and skidded across gravel. I was bleeding into the fabric of my clothes from a dozen of those shallow surface-wounds. My shoes were missing, along with one sock; the other sock was bloodstained from several wounds on the sole of my foot. The other ankle felt twisted and wrong. One wrist was stiff and throbbing. My right eye socket was bruised as if I’d been punched in the face, my jaw clicked when I moved it, and my head was ringing with a pounding headache.

I felt like I’d gone a round in a boxing ring with Zheng, with knuckle dusters and a knife. A distant part of my mind screamed that I needed medical attention, I needed help, right now.

But this was a dream.

“It’s not real,” I hissed through clenched teeth. “It’s not real. Ah … ow. It’s a metaphor. It’s a construct. It’s not real. Not real. Ahhh, but it does hurt. It hurts, it hurts. Ahhhh. Not real.”

I pulled myself up into a sitting position and wanted to swear very badly. I wanted to say words that only Raine said. I think I muttered one of them. Perhaps twice. I wrapped my arms around my bleeding, bruised body and said many bad words.

Then, quite distinctly, somebody else said, “Oh. Oh my.”

With my vision lurching and my heart racing, I jerked my head up, tentacles flaring outward to make myself look big.

The egg-shaped chamber was not large, perhaps twenty feet across, made from the same interlocking clockwork and sliding metal plates as the rest of the interior of the dome, laced with circuit patterns and strange tiny machines crawling inside the walls. The floor was at least solid, composed of a few large sheets of humming brass. Large spikes covered the walls of the far end of the chamber, big enough to impale a human being. The spikes were pointing inward, toward another figure, but not toward me.

A woman stood at that end of the cavity-chamber. I’d never seen her before in my life.

She was old, but impossible to place, anywhere between fifty and ninety, somehow both extremes at once, as if unanchored from the true weight of the ageing process. Her face was soft and lined, but without any loss of acuity or expressive power. Her eyes were deep grey, arrestingly bright sparks like lightning behind storm clouds. Yet somehow all this electricity and intelligence translated the whole effect into warmth and kindness. She had long grey hair streaked through with swoops of bright red, tied up in a loose bun. Straight-backed, steel-spined, fit and healthy. She was dressed for hiking, in sensible trousers, big boots, and a padded vest with lots of pockets. She carried a long hiking stick in one hand, of unadorned dark wood, and had a large backpack strapped over her shoulders. She looked like I’d just interrupted her in the middle of a woodland stroll.

She also looked like I was a lost nightmare from the depths of the forest, slipped out from around a tree in the deepening dusk. She stared at me with a strange mixture of awe, caution, fascination, and fear; she was so out of place that all I thought to do was stare back.

Almost on automatic I peeled back my left sleeve, slowly and carefully so as not to startle her. My grazed flesh stung and blood clung to my skin, but I held up the Fractal to her, just in case.

She didn’t recoil or run away or scream, so I assumed she wasn’t anything from the Eye.

“Hello?” I said — croaked, really. My throat was raw and parched. How long had I been crawling through this structure?

The woman averted her eyes, quickly and carefully, keeping me in her peripheral vision. She stayed very still, as if I was a wild animal she’d encountered on the trail. She said nothing.

Deeply confused, I picked myself up. I winced hard and struggled to straighten my back. My stomach muscles were all bruised and strained. Blood was seeping into the front of my hoodie. My joints screamed. A dozen sources of bleeding pain complained at me from all sides every time I moved.

Once again, I reminded myself this was a dream. “Pain’s not real pain’s not real pain’s not real,” I whispered to myself.

The older woman at the other end of the chamber swallowed quite hard, unable to hide her mounting fear.

I croaked again, “Are you … Mister Squiddy? Miss Squiddy? Sorry if we got you … wrong?”

Without looking directly at me, the older woman raised her eyebrows, and said, very carefully and very precisely, as if I might not speak her language very well: “I’ve never heard that name before. My apologies.”

Her accent was American, which threw me off instantly; it also seemed somehow antiquated, an old-school Mid-Atlantic anachronism. Out of date. Out of time. Her outfit gave the same impression: sensible hiking clothes, but from another era. Trousers, not jeans. A button-down shirt beneath her vest. Her backpack was canvas, not modern materials. Then again, this was a dream.

I said, “Why are you avoiding looking at me?”

The woman’s glance flicked to me, then past me, above me, then down to me again. She averted her eyes once more and swallowed too hard. “My apologies,” she said. “I assumed you would consider it polite for me to avert my gaze. Your culture practices the opposite, then? You consider it more polite to look directly at one’s conversational partner, even to make eye contact?”

“ … yes? You can look at me,” I said, deeply confused. “Unless it hurts you or something.”

The older woman finally lifted her eyes and met mine; her expression twinkled with cautious curiosity. Suddenly I knew exactly what it felt like to be a large and dangerous animal before the adoring yet fearful gaze of a naturalist discovering you for the first time. She was equally fascinated and terrified of me.

Then she looked past me again.

She bobbed her head and lowered one knee by about an inch: the merest sketch of a curtsey. “I do apologise,” she repeated. “I’m not quite sure where to look. Please forgive me if I offend. I do not believe I have ever met one of your kind before, nor one of your station. I am unaware as to the proper terms of address I must use for you. Please, enlighten me.”

I just stared, blinking, and blurted out, “Heather.”

The woman raised her eyebrows. “Heather?”

“Heather. That’s me. Uh, my name. Um, there are no terms of address for me. Miss, I suppose?”

The older woman put up a very stirring effort of trying not to look sceptical. “Miss Heather.”

I glanced around the chamber again. The metal perfection was almost throbbing toward the strange woman, menacing her with spikes of gleaming steel, as if the structure itself ached to crush her and spit her out, but was held back by some invisible forcefield. She didn’t give the spikes a second look, as if she was standing on a loamy woodland pathway, not in the middle of some god-machine mathematics puzzle that had left me bloody and exhausted after hours of effort.

“Look,” I said. “I’m looking for … um. I’m sorry, who are you? Or, what are you? What are you doing here?”

The older woman wet her lips with a flicker of her tongue, watching me with great care.

She was trying to decide if she needed to run.

I huffed and said, “I’m not going to hurt you or anything. Sorry, I know I entered in kind of a … weird way. I fell through the ceiling. We’re in a dream. This is all deeply confusing and I’m just trying to find the squid-thing which made this place. I’m not dangerous or anything, I’m just … confused. Are you real?”

The warm older woman smiled a warm older smile. “Would it make any difference if I wasn’t? I would still answer in the same fashion.”

“I suppose so … ”

I didn’t like that.

Largest And Most In-Chargest Heather peered over my shoulder, flexing five hands, and dropping a lemon into my open mouth to occupy my teeth. She said, Well, I am dangerous, and I would like to know who or what you are. Quickly, please. You interrupted an important search.

The old lady shivered like a cat confronted by a lobster, eyes going wide and face flushing white, knuckles tightening on her long stick. But she stood her ground and bowed her head.

“I apologise, o’ great one, though I know not your name or your station or your manner of—”

Stop it, please. Stop that. Don’t call me silly names. I’m kind of in the middle of something and I had to pause the process in order to figure out what you’re doing here, or what you are, or if you pose any danger to me. You don’t belong, you’re not like the rest of this. And I’m so very tired.

The old lady straightened up again — with a twinkle in her eye. “You’ve caught me. Again, I apologise. I’m … shall we say … a passing dreamer?”

Bigger Heather Who Needed A Target For Her Frustration clenched and unclenched her fists. I gnawed on my lemon. The old lady in the hiking gear swallowed again, but said nothing more, standing by her answer.

A dreamer?

“An old and very experienced one,” said the lady. She hesitated, then stuck out her left hand. “Veebee,” she said.


“Vee. Bee. My initials. Though I do like the sound of turning them into a word. Feel free, of course. “Pleased to make your acquaintance … ” She hesitated again. “Miss Heather.”

I appreciate the gesture, said Large And Scary Heather. But you wouldn’t enjoy the experience of a handshake with me. Not like this.

“Oh, you’d be surprised.” Veebee withdrew her hand, unoffended. “I’ve shaken hands with all manner of Outsider and dream-god. I would be honoured, but thank you for your consideration of my comfort.”

I’m neither of those things. I’m just a human being.

Vee’s eyebrows shot up her forehead in polite interest. She didn’t believe that. “Indeed?”

“I’m just me,” I said around a mouthful of lemon-flesh. Juice was dripping down my chin and leaving acidic stains on the floor around my feet, the chemical composition of the juice slowly etching the brass plating. Vee kept glancing at my mouth and teeth, then back to Largest And Most Eloquent Heather.

It’s a long story, said Biggest Heather. And we don’t have time for it right now. You’re sure that you’re nothing to do with Mister Squiddy?

Vee smiled with genuine warmth, yet slightly confused. The corners of her eyes crinkled up with a lifetime of quiet amusement. “Quite sure,” she said. “Again, my apologies, this is not my dream. I have intruded where I have no business. Just a passing dreamer.”


Vee sighed gently and leaned a little on her long hiking stick. She suddenly looked a little older, but we knew she was putting it on.

“I was drawn in by an old flame. Or the illusory glimmer of an old flame, perhaps, one I never expected to see in a dream, even from a great distance. But it probably wasn’t real.” Her smile turned a little sad.

Old flame? Does the name ‘Lilburne’ mean anything to you?

Vee shook her head. “No, I’m sorry.”

How about ‘Jan Martense’?

Vee wrinkled her nose. “No, certainly not. That’s a name in poor taste. But, no, I’ve never known anybody by that name. And I’m sorry to say that I doubt it was yourself stirring my memories, I’ve certainly never met you before. I will admit, I did have to fiddle with a few locks and maybe force a few doors to get in here. I expected to find a familiar old face, but all I see now is … this.” She raised her eyes to the spiked walls which so desperately wanted to crush her. “I’m obviously not wanted here.” She dipped her head to me. “I apologise for interrupting your dream quest, ‘Heather’. I’ll take my leave, if you—”

No, wait.

Vee raised her eyebrows.

You’re standing inside the dome, inside the message, the … the lesson. Maisie’s lesson. Squiddy’s … brain, mind? I don’t know. And you’re …

Biggest And Most Thoughtful Heather raised my eyes to the long wicked spikes all pointed inward at the mysterious Miss Vee.

The mathematical structure of the dome was vibrating with a desire to collapse the equation, to complete the circuit, to fill this anomalous gap with interlocking metal. The logic of the structure itself longed to crush this intrusive variable out of self-definition. The machine-solution was aching and quivering to expand itself into the space occupied by flesh and thought.

And here I was also, bruised and bloody, panting with pain, my shoes gone, as if I’d been rung through the machine against my will; Big Heather turned my eyes to the floor at my own feet. Cold metal cupped me from below, held me in a grip which could turn hostile and dangerous at any instant. The machine could cut my soles open with jagged metal edges and squeeze my blood between pressure plates and leave me to bleed out, lost inside a maze of perfect angles. I could swim in this medium now — but it was swim or drown.

If this had been a regular dream, I would be pinching myself in an effort to awaken, before the nightmare could devour me.

My feet curled up, tucking in my toes; my wounded foot ached and throbbed and I knew there would be no walking on that foot for a while. My heart rate climbed. Blood stuck my clothes to all my angles. Largest Heather coaxed me to accept another lemon, but I could only nibble at the skin. Fruits were not enough. We needed to leave.

“Yes?” Vee said.

You’re interacting with the mathematics of this place. You’re holding it back, rejecting it. Which means you’re like me, you’re doing hyperdimensional mathematics. Right?

Vee raised her eyebrows and blinked several times, an old schoolteacher confronted with a genius yet naive child. “Hyperdimensional mathematics? My dear, I’ve never heard that term before.”

Then you’re a mage? You must be a mage.

Vee’s surprise turned to incredulity, spiced with polite distaste. “Goodness me, no. Horrid creatures. Well.” Her expression softened just a touch. “Horrid for the most part. Some aren’t so bad, some of the time, when they’re on their best behaviour. But no, I am neither mage nor monster nor mathematician. Just a dreamer who took a wrong turn. This I swear to you, Miss Heather.”

Biggest Heather shook my head. That can’t be right. You must be doing something. You— you’re lying. Or holding back. Or—

“Just a dreamer,” said Vee, a touch harder than before. Her grip on her walking stick slid downward, to the middle of the shaft of wood. “A pleasure to have made your acquaintance, Heather. I will be taking my leave now.”

Vee started to turn away, toward the eggshell-curve of the metal wall. The spikes curled away, as if they dare not touch her flesh. The surface of the wall blurred and fuzzed, like static overlaying reality as the dream peeled apart.

No! Large And Desperate Heather cried out. Please! Please!

She reached forward with all five of her other hands, leaving me alone cradled in her tender grasp, licking at my wounds. Five fists raced to restrain Vee by shoulders and knees and even neck if need be — but the old woman turned and lashed out with her hiking stick.

Bonk—bonk—bonk—bonk—bonk went five raps of the stick against five unwary hands. Bigger Heather hissed and yelped and recoiled in surprise. We had not expected an old woman to move so fast.

Vee gave Biggest Heather a pinched frown, very disapproving. But she couldn’t quite hide her fear, breathing too hard, knuckles white on her hiking stick as she held it ready to strike again.

“That was exceptionally rude. As I said, I will be taking my leave—”

Please!” we all cried. Bigger Heather whipped us all back and cradled us tight. I’m sorry, I just … I have to understand how you’re doing that! This dream, it’s a message. The structure is a message, and a lesson, a mathematical lesson, for me. I think my sister sent it, but I can’t understand what she was trying to say. And I have to. I have to! I have to understand, or me, my friends, my sister, we’re all going to die. I have to get better at … at this. She waved at the walls, at the hostile perfection of heavenly mathematics. Please. Ms V.B. Please. How are you resisting the sphere? The maths? Anything, anything you can tell me. Please.

Vee looked like she was about to turn away again, but as she studied us for a long moment, her frown creased with deep concern. She placed one end of her stick back against the metal floor of this abscess-like chamber.

“Are you truly a human being?” she asked. “Because if you are … ” She tutted softly.

I don’t know if I count, but yes. Or at least I started as one. Out in reality I look perfectly human, unless you have the pneuma-somatic sight, and then I have a bunch of tentacles.

Vee looked us all up and down. “In that case, you are quite wounded, though not fatally or lethally. You should really be awakening from this.”

I can’t afford that.

She tutted again, as if about to scold us — but then paused, wrinkled eyes squinting at us. “Heather,” she said, gently but firmly. “How old are you?”


Vee’s eyebrows climbed. “Twenty? Is that years? Years on Earth?”

We nodded. Up and down.

“Oh. Twenty. Oh my gosh. Oh, you poor thing. I have a great-great-great granddaughter who’s twenty, and I wouldn’t trust her to navigate five minutes in a dream like this. I wouldn’t trust her to dream at all. Poor thing works two jobs and spends all her free time looking at cartoons of dashing young men. Twenty! You shouldn’t be here, not in a dream like this. Oh, you poor little thing. What do you think you’re doing? In this?”

I don’t have a choice.

Vee sighed, breath full of pity. “You really must awaken. You’re experienced enough for this..”


“I can’t give you the experience of a century’s dreaming, Heather, however sympathetic I am to a young woman in trouble. I’m sorry.” She pulled a sad smile. “But … ” She cleared her throat and glanced up at the metal ceiling. “If you want an old woman’s advice, sometimes the lessons we intend to learn are not the lessons we end up internalising.”

What do you mean?

Vee looked at me, then past me. She swallowed, containing an obvious distaste behind a polite exterior. “I can see you’re going through a lot. Whatever this lesson is intended to teach, perhaps it’s not the one you require right now.”

But if I don’t learn—

Vee raised her free hand, soft and pale and liver-spotted on the back. “That’s not to say you won’t reach your goal. But sometimes you have to take a different route to get there, not the one you expected. And sometimes you don’t even know the goal until you walk the road.” Vee’s face brightened at that. “That’s how I dream. That’s how I’m doing this.” She pointed at the metal spikes and lances, held back with seemingly no effort. “This place, it’s simply not for me. I choose not to walk this way. Sometimes one cannot find meaning in a dream. Sometimes they only mean anything to other people. This one, your dream, or your sister’s, whichever, it means nothing to me.”

You’re as cryptic as Lozzie. Are all dreamers like this?

Vee laughed, a rich tinkling sound. “Usually, yes. Heather, I can see by the look of … you, that you’ve been walking a hard road in here. You’re bleeding. Rather a lot. I wasn’t exaggerating when I said you’re injured.”


“And you said this place was a lesson, for you? Well, perhaps that’s the lesson. You’ll get injured if you walk this road.”

How does that help me? How does that help me understand even a fraction of this? I can’t comprehend any of this and you do it with barely any effort. ‘Walk this road’? Going even a few feet left me bloody and bruised, did so much damage that I couldn’t carry on — but I can’t stop!

“You didn’t walk into here. You fell. I believe you were swimming. Or perhaps flying.”

That didn’t help! I need an answer! I need to know what this means! I need to reach the centre, the core, the meaning, the—

Vee cleared her throat, and said, “Heather, I am sorry, but sometimes there’s no meaning in dreams except that we make ourselves.”

I don’t know what this means! Biggest Heather was screaming, raving, her temper lost, beyond frustration, past desperation. I don’t know what this means! I don’t know!

“We do,” we said.

I spat out scraps of lemon peel, scrubbed my mouth clean, and turned with all the others to look Biggest Heather in the face.

She was crying, and lost, and very alone. No you don’t, she said. You’re just an illusion. You’re just something I’m dreaming up. You’re a metaphor for a tentacle.

I tutted and huffed and gave her a look, a telling-Evee-off-for-not-eating-anything-today look. Bigger Heather blinked all her eyes in surprise. Behind us, I heard Vee flinch and swallow a whimper.

“No,” I told Heather. “I am a tentacle. Hello, Heather. It’s Heather here. Time to start listening to us, okay?”

Sniffling, snuffling, tears of acid and soot running down her face, Biggest Heather said: This doesn’t make any sense. I haven’t learned anything in this dream. What was this all meant to mean? We’ve failed. We didn’t find a thing.

“We found each other,” I said. “Even though we’ve always been here.”

Biggest And Not So Clever Heather stopped crying, staring at us in wonder. But you’re just a … you’re not … real.

“What if there was no centre of the dome? What if walking the road was the point in the first place? And now we’re all bloody and bruised, but we learned how to do it, didn’t we?”

But I was supposed to learn more hyperdimensional mathematics, how to do it myself, without the Eye’s lessons, without … without …

“You can’t do it yourself,” we told her. “Don’t be silly. We all have to work together. On the maths.”

Biggest Heather just stared, tears drying in her eyes, her stare going right through me — through us, through herself.

Behind us, Vee cleared her throat softly. “If I may make a suggestion, I suspect it’s your time to wake. Once a revelation has been attained, dreams rarely retain their coherency long, unless you’re willing to step from one dream to another. If you like, I could assist with—”


The machine-dome of perfect mathematics shook as if struck by an earthquake.

We whipped around, all of us and Bigger Heather too, all acting in perfect concert to steady ourselves against the shaking dome. Vee looked up in shock and horror. The noise was incredible, like a giant wind-chime in a hurricane; the dome was struggling to correct the million interrupted variables all at once.

“What—” I started to say.

Krrrrrr-uuuuuuun — krun — krun.

“Are those footsteps?” we asked. “Is that Tenny? Did she wake up?” We raised our voice, shouting up through the dome, through the deafening din. “Tenny! Tenny! Tenn—”

Krun—krun-krun came the footsteps — and the dome began to split.

The vibrations were too much for the mathematics, introducing too many wild and uncontrolled variables. Plates parted and cogs unlatched and entire strata of machine ripped free above us and around us, splitting the dome like the shell of a nut.

Slivers of blue sky appeared far overhead, the top openings in a series of vast canyons, with us at the bottom. A squid wedged into a crack of rock. Suddenly we felt so very tiny.

Dark fronds hove into view, blotting out that sky like an airship draped in black and streaked with red. A pair of huge glassy orbs stared down into the crack, down at us. Rotten eyelids blinked over a pair of empty moons. A pus-encrusted fingernail scraped at the canyon mouth so far above. A giant, trying to drag us out of our refuge.

It was the Jan Zombie, but very big.

“You’re ruining the sphere! Stop!” we screamed up at her, but she was so large, so far away; our tiny voice did not even carry. “Stop it! Stop!”

We knew the truth: Vee was correct, the dream must be losing coherency, turning into nonsense around us. But still we shouted.

The Jan Zombie leaned back, seen only as a series of slivers sliding across the punctured sky of a distantly recalled Reading. She pulled back a fist to strike the sphere, to crack it open for the meat inside.

A single black tentacle as thick as a bus and as long as a river whipped out from the opposite corner of the cross-cut sky and caught the Jan Zombie’s wrist.

“Tenny!” we cheered.

Tenny replied with a fluttery trill — loud enough to break worlds. Our eardrums burst, the jelly in our eyeballs vibrated, and our lungs quivered. The inside of the ruined sphere rang like a bell.

A mass of fluffy black velvet slammed across the glimpse of sky and swept the Jan Zombie away beyond my line of sight.

The crash of impact shook the ground far worse than a footstep. We only avoided picking up even more bruises because we all worked together, bracing against the metal as one, with Bigger Heather in the middle, no longer constrained by the need to direct us.

“Vee—” we said — but the old dreamer was gone.

She’d probably run off as soon as she’d seen that the dream had become a nightmare about a giant monster fight. We didn’t blame her. This was rapidly getting very silly.

The dream was clearly ruined. All around us the dome was coming apart in a series of ear-splitting cracks and landslide roars. Bigger Heather said something about how she really hoped this wasn’t hurting Mister Squiddy. We all agreed; but there wasn’t time to check that or get our bearings or do anything except cling on to any nearby handholds, because the kaiju battle outdoors was apocalyptically noisy.

Crashing and smashing and rolling and roaring, shouts like wind-storms and trilling like a solar flare; the Jan Zombie and Big Tenny were going at each other with fist and tentacle and maybe worse.

We had to end this dream, we had to end it now.

“Lozzie!” We shouted. We needed her to pull us out, to put a stop to this. Clearly this had all gone far past Evelyn’s stipulation of avoiding danger. The purpose of the dream was a lost cause. “Lozzie! Lozz—”


Tenny cried out in pain, a high-pitched panic noise of taking a punch to the nose, translated through giant-moth lungs and fluttering vocal chords, loud enough to wake sleeping gods.

“Nobody punches Tenny!” we all shouted.

The logic of the dream fell away, like a sandcastle crumbling into the surf; our previous goals simply did not matter; prior constraints, sustained and endured and upheld for the sake of meaning, did not matter. Nobody punched Tenny in the face.

Bigger Heather Who Was As Big As She Pleased burst us from the sphere of perfect mathematics, standing up, unfurling limbs, shaking off this brass eggshell. Fragments of steel and brass and chrome flaked away, pushed free by lashing tentacles, to crash down into the blurred remains of dream-Reading.

We burst forth in a cloud of tentacles, towering over this dream-remembered patch of where we’d grown up, free and clear and working together.

“Heath!” Tenny trilled.

Reading unrolled beneath us, a tiny toy-town spread out across the canvas of the dream. Buildings had been crushed to rubble, knocked over, squashed flat by errant footfalls and rolling bodies and ungainly stumbles; we were suddenly very glad this dream did not contain simulated people.

The Jan Zombie stood with her feet planted in two different roads, fists raised like an overconfident amateur boxer. She was still naked, still covered in dried blood and black corpse bile and wounds as big as houses. She was panting with effort.

Somebody — I suspected I knew who — had cut open her chest and carved out her heart, leaving behind a mess of broken ribs.

Tenny — or rather, a giant moth which was probably Tenny’s dream-projected self — stood on twelve legs, her own mass of black tentacles whirling in the air above her. Her snout-like nose was bleeding. But she was so very happy to see me.

Oh this is absurd said Biggest Heather. This really is nothing more than a silly dream now. This has ceased to have meaning. Can we wake up?

“I think this is waking up,” I said.


But we were already surging forward, the dream turning to a blur of ruined memory and absurdist giants. Meaning dropped away as pure subconscious took over.

We hit the Jan Zombie in the face with a hundred arms. Tenny let out a vreeeee! and joined me, grabbing flailing zombie limbs with her silken black tentacles.

“Heath! Heath! Heath!” she trilled

I don’t get it, Heather was saying. I don’t get what we learned. I mean, I think I do, but what does this have to do with—

“That’s why we have to wake up. Dreams never make sense until you wake up. At least, that’s how it always seems. Until you wake up.”

Moth-Tenny, standing next to me and grappling with Zombie Jan, opened her blunt-snout mouth to reveal row after row of dripping black teeth, pointed inward as if to stop prey escaping her gullet. We really needed to talk to Tenny about her self-image, sometime. Then again, if she was having fun, maybe this was fine. Maybe.

The Jan-Zombie struggled to free her wrists, kicking at Tenny until I held her legs in place.

Oh, this is grotesque, said Heather.

Lozzie said: “Sometimes dreams are like that. Hi, Heathy!”

Giant Moth Tenny closed her jaws around the zombie’s head. We closed our eyes and looked away. Meat sounds filled the air.

“Oh yes,” said Actual Jan, muffled by the weight of her helmet. “Because that’s really not traumatic to witness. That’s going to haunt my dreams. Thank you so much.”

Sorry, said Heather.

“Not your fault.” Jan sighed. “Can we end this now? Is this done?”

Lozzie giggled, and said, “Done!”

And then we all woke up.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Dreams sure are strange places, especially when they belong to things not even remotely human. Who was VB? A mystery for later, perhaps. At least Heather finally figured something out; perhaps this was the lesson she was meant to learn all along, though how exactly is she going to put it to good use? The waking world will have answers. Well, answers better than “have a kaiju fight”, at least. Hey, Tenny was enjoying that!

No patreon link this week, because it’s almost the end of the month! If you want to subscribe for more chapters, feel free to wait until the 1st. Meanwhile, I’d like to show you all one of the best pieces of Katalepsis fanfiction written so far: Steamed Praems. Ahem. Enjoy!

In the meantime, you can still:

Vote for Katalepsis on TopWebFiction!

This helps so much! A lot of readers still find the story through TWF! Only takes a couple of clicks to vote!

Thank you so much for reading my story! It’s all you readers out there who keep me going and remind me why I do this. Thank you!

Next week, it’s back to the waking world, the aftermath, the consequences; maybe Heather really has figured out something about brain-math, amid all this dream logic.

sediment in the soul – 19.14

Content Warnings

Rotting flesh

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

The Jan-Zombie — kink-jawed and dead-eyed, shoulders slouching like a moody teenager, naked from head to toe and covered in corpse-detritus, framed by a grilled chicken shop I barely remembered — stood still for a single clotted heartbeat, like an actress who had forgotten her lines, shoved on stage to the tender attentions of a rabid and restive audience. Vacant eyes stared into the middle of the road, clouded by decay. Stringy bile dripped onto the pavement. On the glass behind her, a brightly coloured cartoon chicken suggested we try the new four-piece family meal.

Then the Jan-Zombie swung round, muscles limp, arms swaying, a puppet held up on too few strings. She pointed herself vaguely in our direction, and took a lurching step forward.

“Um,” I said, stepping back from the approaching undead dream-phantom — though she was still a good distance away. “Jan?”

Lozzie was distraught, hand to her mouth, staring at the zombie like it was Jan herself. “Oh! Oh, Jan!” She glanced at Jan — Our Jan, Knight Jan, Alive and Rosy-Cheeked Jan. “Janny, is that you?”

Jan sighed and rolled her eyes. She did not look like a woman who had been confronted with an image of herself dead and rotting, but more like she’d discovered a bad yet curable case of gut worms. “Of course not,” she huffed — though she kept one eye on the zombie as she backed away. “I’m me. I’m here. Me. The real deal.” She tapped her armoured chest with an armoured fingertip, cushioned by the crown-and-dragon tabard. “This isn’t some piece of myself I’m denying, okay? You haven’t got to reconcile me with my own rotting corpse, alright? Lozzie, please, don’t look at me like that, this isn’t an emotional crisis, it’s a metaphysical one. And I hate metaphysics.”

Lozzie was biting her lower lip, looking at Jan like she wanted to cry. “But it looks like you. I don’t want to think of you like that.”

The Jan Zombie took another lurching step, hands hanging down, wobbling toward us along the pavement.

“Jan,” I repeated. “What is this?”

But Jan was too busy replying to Lozzie: “Then don’t! Please, make fun of it, Lozzie. I need you to make fun of it. I would love for you to make fun of it.” She raised an armoured finger. “But don’t touch it, probably.”

The Jan-Zombie’s rotting jaw rolled open; a black tongue flopped forward onto purple lips.

Lozzie was still on the verge of tears. “Was that your body?”

“No!” Jan huffed again. “No, for goodness sake. I did not look like that when— well. I just didn’t look like that, okay? This is a metaphor.” She pointed at the zombie version of herself, gauntlet knuckles curling, as if telling off a bad dog. “And a bloody unsubtle one at that. God, I hate dreams. Dreams should be fun. We should be in a pleasure pit or something. Not getting chased by prophecies.” She wrinkled her nose at the zombie and hooked one thumb into the rope which secured the sword to her back. “What do you want, hmm? You want me to cut you down? Is that it?”

The zombie shuffled forward another step. It was exceptionally slow; we could have escaped the ghoul at a meandering walk, let alone a run, even with the real Jan laden down with armour and sword.

But the Jan-Zombie was sharp — sharper than the dream had been only moments earlier. The outline of her putrid and corrupted limbs, the dried blood speckled across her skin, the delicately crafted little nose and pouty lips, each black strand of gore-matted hair: all of it was stark and clear and nothing like the rest of the dream, like a word in an unknown language dropped into the middle of a familiar sentence, like a sudden image in static, a metronome from a dead channel. For a moment I thought perhaps it was the sense of violation; we were seeing Jan naked and wounded, after all, even if it was an illusion. The zombie had no doll-joints, but it was undoubtedly her in every way which mattered. Perhaps it was sharp because it was an insult.

But the sharpness radiated out into the rest of the dream, like a single note clearing a jumble of meaningless sound. The pavement, the shop fronts, the sunless sky, the towering dome and the dark bulk of giant Tenny — they all tightened into focus. The dream rang like a bell, singing with clarity.

That strange sense of a larger self behind me had vanished; I risked a backward glance to check, but there was nobody there, myself or otherwise. My hands were empty of lemons, though I craved one like my lungs craved air.

“Jan,” I said firmly and clearly, enough to make her jump slightly and clink in her perfectly fitted armour. But my own questions felt clouded and garbled; if only I could speak through a mouthful of lemon juice, everything would make sense. “Is this something that happens often?” I said. “What do we do?”

“Often?” She laughed without humour. “No. No, this has never happened before. This metaphor has never been dragged into a fucking dream!”

“But do you know what this means?” I asked. Then I winced and shook my head — the dream was too sharp, cutting at my eyelids and ear drums. “No, wait, I mean—”

“Of course I know what it means!” Jan snapped. “But I’m not going to bloody well talk about it, alright? This is private.”

“That’s not what I— mean—” I panted. “I mean what do we need to know?”

“Nothing, thank you very much,” Jan said. “What we need to do is leave. Now. Please!”

The zombie lurched another step toward us. Actual Jan took Lozzie by the hand and backed up a step, dragging Lozzie after her.

Lozzie puffed up her cheeks and said: “Janbie. Zom-Jan. Zomuary.” She didn’t sound very amused, try as she might.

“Just Jan,” said Jan, gently. “It’s not January.”

“I know,” said Lozzie. “Janbie’s kinda slow.”

“Thankfully,” Jan huffed. “Can we really, truly not exit this dream?”

“Jan,” I repeated, feeling like I had a bolus of food lodged inside my throat. “I mean— if this zombie-you was destroyed, would it—”

“Ha!” she barked. “I wish. It’s a metaphor, not a literal ghost or the spirit of my first corpse or my embodied guilt, or any other bullshit like that. A metaphor. If we can’t leave this dream — no? Lozzie? — ahhhh,” she sighed at Lozzie’s apologetic grimace. “Then we’re just going to have to run from the thing. I refuse to touch it, I refuse to wait for this thing to catch up with me. I am not dealing with it.”

The Jan-Zombie went snort, like a child imitating a pig — not the sort of sound one expected from a zombie at all. But Jan jumped and grabbed at the sword-rope around her armour. I took a step back too. My tentacles raised as if to ward off the undead apparition, but what was I going to do? This was a dream. If Jan was right, and this was a metaphor, what would it mean to pull the zombie to pieces? I hesitated, clutching at the yellow robes around my torso, wishing I was not so alone.

Lozzie chanted in a sing-song voice: “Janbie, Janbie — go ay-way.”

“Yes, quite right,” Jan agreed, making an effort to pull herself up in her suit of armour, the weight of her sword dragging at her back. “Fuck off!”

“No,” I struggled to get the word out as I backed up another step too. The city whirled around my senses. The brass-gold dome and the giant version of Tenny towered over opposite ends of my mind. “I mean, if it was destroyed, hypothetically, would that hurt you? Would that be a bad thing?”

Jan finally glanced at me. The pale round moon of her face was all pinched and mortified inside the open visor of her medieval goat-helmet; she was doing a very bad job of pretending this was not a crisis for her.

“Hurt me?” she asked, incredulously. “No. Heather, this has nothing to do with you, this is my problem. Frankly, this is none of your business.”

Too sharp, too clear, the world was pressing too hard on my senses; I couldn’t think, I couldn’t form the right questions, I couldn’t even focus on the next step, on what we should do. It was like my brain was running on a fraction of its usual power.

Whatever this Zombie-Metaphor was, it was highly personal and intimate to Jan; some secret of her past getting aired in semi-public. Lozzie was one thing, considering the developing nature of their relationship, how close they’d become. But me? She didn’t want me to see this, and not because it was dangerous. She was embarrassed and humiliated. Her dirty knickers were up on a flagpole. That was the only thing I could get through my head, as if the rest of my thoughts had withdrawn.

The Jan-Zombie was still a good twelve paces away from us, shuffling forward on broken foot bones, squelching with pus and pooled blood inside her tissues.

Not a danger. Not going to touch us.

A nugget of thought was allowed to solidify in my brains.

“It’s not very fast,” I said, then glanced over my shoulder, up at the shining bronze-gold dome of the perfect equation, rotating and adjusting as it towered over this remembered slice of childhood Reading. I needed to get there. That made sense. “We can probably just run for the dome. Speed-walk for the dome. Walk, saunter, it’s not fast at all.”

“Oh yes,” Jan said, dripping sarcasm. “It’s so slow you forget about it, that’s the point. You forget it’s there, creeping up on you all the time, every day, every moment you exist. And then when you least expect it, the thing shuffles around a corner or bumps into a door and suddenly you have to deal with it, again!” She took another step back from the zombie, pulling Lozzie along after her — and almost tripped up on her own sword, the oilcloth-wrapped tip banging against her armour-clad thighs. Jan huffed in frustration and yanked at the rope. “And this bloody thing! Can we really not send the sword back by itself?”

Lozzie shook her head, face filled with apology and worry.

“Jan,” I said. “We should go. Just go. Get the dream over with.”

Jan rounded on me, lips pursed, one eye on the zombie version of herself. “All right. We reach your big spinning metal ball, what happens next? Does the dream end?”

“Maybe. I don’t know.” I glanced at the zombie too, backing away another step along Oxford Street. “If this is the only one, we could just run for it and see what happens at the dome. Is this the only one?”

Jan looked at me like we were in a classic spooky cartoon and I’d just suggested we split up to search for clues. “Don’t jinx us. Don’t. Heather, I like you, I respect you. So, don’t.”

Lozzie made a pouty face. “Multiple Jans would be nice. Both ends.”

Jan managed to look embarrassed, mortified, and slightly interested all at once. She huffed and pulled Lozzie back another step from the advancing undead parody. “Please, Lozzie,” she said. “Please do not touch it. I don’t know what happens if you touch it.”

“What happens if you touch it?” Lozzie chirped.

“Stupid things,” Jan answered without hesitation. “I’ll disappear in a flash of light and return to my home planet.”

Lozzie pulled a face of open-mouthed awe.

“Jan,” I hissed.

Jan rolled her eyes. “Okay, serious answer: I have no idea, because this is a dream and that is a metaphor. Considering what it’s a metaphor about, I suspect I would have to literally sit still for the long minutes the thing would take to devour me. It would just … drool all over me and make a big mess. God, I could probably just wrestle the thing to the ground at this point, but I’d rather not.” I heard her swallow though I couldn’t see her throat bob inside that armour. The armoured fingers of her free hand worried at the frayed blue rope around her chest, the rope keeping the sword strapped to her back.

Lozzie chirped, “Then you’re safe, Jans! You’re in armour!”

“Mm, yes,” Jan replied, staring at the zombie as it lurched forward again. She didn’t sound very reassured. “That’s an interesting metaphor too. And by ‘interesting’ I mean ‘get me out of this fucking stupid monkey suit’.”

Lozzie giggled. “It’s very cute!”

Jan glanced at her quickly, as if it was risky to take her eyes off the zombie. “It— it is?”

“Mmhmm!” Lozzie nodded with great enthusiasm.

Jan looked back at the zombie again. “Great. Alright. Fine.”

I cleared my throat gently. “Having your girlfriend be into your metaphorical cursed destiny or whatever this is, that’s a pretty good perk, Jan.”

“Oh, shut up,” Jan snapped. Lozzie giggled again; now that the zombie appeared to be merely a shuffling inconvenience, she had calmed down considerably.

I repeated myself: “Is this the only one?”

“I don’t know!” Jan replied, shrill and irritated. “I’m not in the habit of having metaphorical magical dreams!”

“Because if it is,” I replied, trying to keep my thoughts coherent. “Then we can just out-walk the thing, very easily. Come on, we’ll make for the dome. If the dream doesn’t end there, if I have to … do things, then we can rethink.”

Jan huffed. “I’m going to be hunted down and eaten by my own metaphorical rotting self. I don’t even know where to begin. Fuck this. Fuck everything about this. I hate this.”

“Janny,” Lozzie squeaked. “It’s fine! We can just walk! Walk away! Hit ‘da bricks!”

“Yes, yes,” Jan sighed. She frowned at the zombie, beginning to turn away. “Same thing I’ve been doing my whole bloody life. Lozzie, I hope you know what you’re signing up for with me. I really do.”

Lozzie pulled on her hand. I kept pace, watching the zombie out of the corner of my eye as well.

“Janny!” Lozzie crooned encouragement.

Jan finally looked away from the zombie, ready to turn and hurry down Oxford Street. “Fine, I—”

Zombie-Jan straightened up; jerk-snap with neck, twitch-crack with shoulders, her spine going pop-pop-pop. Cloudy, vacant eyes closed their bloodstained lids, orbs rolling behind crimson shutters. Our Jan flinched, grabbing for Lozzie, staring in horror. Zombie-Jan stood stock still for a heartbeat of sluggish lead through empty veins. Then the eyes opened again, still dead and empty as smoked glass, but pointing forward.

She wore an expression so alien to Jan’s features that it was almost worse than the old wounds and dried blood and rotting decay: serene acceptance of her own doom.

“Stop running,” said Zombie-Jan, in a gurgling, black-mucus parody of Jan’s own exasperated tone.

Then it took a step. Solid, confident, without the lurching sway of the brainless dead.

“Oh, fuck that!” Our Jan said.

Jan’s free hand let go of the sword-rope and flicked into the air, digging at an invisible pocket next to her side — and found nothing. Her fingers did not vanish into thin air, into her secret pocket dimensions full of tricks, but just swiped at nothingness. Jan waggled her armoured hand as if trying to grip a zipper which was covered in grease and Vaseline, eyes wide with panic, a woman trying to draw her gun and finding the holster missing.

“It’s a dream!” Lozzie cried out. “It won’t work in a dream!”

Jan held out her hand. “Then dream me up a firearm!”

The zombie strode toward her.

“I caaaan’t!” Lozzie cried, face twisted with horrified apology. “Let’s run! Heathy!”

Dream-logic haze flowered behind my eyes, blooming purple and black and rose-petal red. I was dying for a lemon, desperate to bite into the stinging flesh and feel the juices filling my stomach. Instead I felt a full-body flush of pins and needles.

Zombie-Jan stepped right past me, ignoring me completely, going for her mirror image in tarnished steel.

Lozzie and Knight-Jan turned to flee down Oxford street, Jan struggling with her sword, her free hand pulling at the rope around her chest. Lozzie flapped and flopped like a jellyfish in a jet stream, a pastel flag on the wind.

Zombie-limbs and Zombie-head carried on past me. I watched her go.

“Heathy! Follow us!” Lozzie shouted.

Big Heather Who Was Still Behind Me gently took me by the shoulders and elbows and hips and knees and ankles, pointed me past the zombie and after my beloved Lozzie and the strange metal-clad figure of Jan, and pumped my limbs until I caught up with them.

“Run toward the dome!” my mouth said. “We can’t be that far, we can’t, I think it’s … ” My head looked up toward the great brass-and-gold dome towering over the east end of the city, but I couldn’t tell how far away it stood. Over the Kennet river? Slightly to the south, past Queen’s Road and London Road? Yes. Right about where—

“Oh,” said my mouth.

“Oh?!” Jan snapped at me. Her helmet visor kept clacking shut as she ran. She struggled with it and shoved it upward to reveal her face again, stained with cold sweat. “Oh, what? Don’t ‘oh’ us like that!”

My throat felt tight. Butterfly wings fluttered inside my chest. My tentacles wrapped close to my body. “It’s over the hospital. Royal Berkshire Hospital. I’ve … been there, before. Um. That way!”

We crossed the bridge over the motorway in a clatter of metal and slapping trainers and the sunlight rustle of Sevens’ yellow robes around my legs, plunging into a dream-summoned version of Reading city centre. The buildings grew taller. The familiar old red brick of Broad Street unfolded beneath my feet; I hadn’t been here in years. The buried logic of my childhood memories half-expected my mother to be at my side. Large Heather peered over my shoulder, staying out of the way for now.

“Where—” Jan panted, clacking her helmet visor up again, “are we? This isn’t—”

Lozzie chirped. “It’s not Sharrowford!”

“It’s Reading,” said my mouth. “It’s where I grew up.”

“Oh, wonderful,” said Jan. She slowed to a stop just beneath one of the sad, skeletal-looking trees planted along the middle of Broad Street’s pedestrian area. Lozzie stopped with her, dutifully holding on tight to Jan’s hand. I bounced to a halt as well, my tentacles springing forward as if catching me on the substances of the dream itself. I whirled around like I was underwater. “Reading,” Jan was saying. “Never been. Right.” She turned to glance back over her shoulder as she spoke: “That should buy us a few minutes, it wasn’t running too. Now, please, help me get this fucking arsehole of a sword off my back … maybe … cut the … ”

“I don’t see it either,” my mouth said, as my eyes followed the direction of Jan’s gaze. Lozzie went up on tiptoes, free hand shading her eyes despite the lack of blazing sunlight.

Broad Street was clear of both cars and pedestrians. We were the only ones here. We could see all the way back to the bridge. Giant Tenny towered over the western end of town, huge eyes closed in peaceful repose. Nothing walked the dream but us three dreamers.

Jan hissed, “Where the hell did it go? Where the hell did you just go, you little shit?”

Lozzie made a sad whine. “Janny, don’t call yourself thaaaaat.”

“It’s not me!” Jan snapped. Lozzie flinched — though she didn’t let go of Jan’s hand. Jan huffed at herself and flushed in the cheeks. “Lozzie, I’m sorry. It’s not me. Please don’t call it me.”

Lozzie nodded, bobbing up and down. “Okay!”

“Thank you. Thank you, Lozzie. I appreciate it.”

My throat cleared itself. Five tentacles levered me up to get a better view of the street, yellow robes hanging down like jellyfish membranes. But there was nothing moving, nothing hiding behind cars. “Maybe it went onto another road?” a suggestion presented itself through my lips. “Or a shop? Would it know we’re going for the dome?”

Jan huffed and gave me a pinched look. “How many times? It’s a metaphor! I don’t know what it— ahhh!”

Jan screamed, flinched, and almost pulled Lozzie over onto their collective backsides, stopped only by a sudden flutter from Lozzie’s poncho, as if the pastel clothing had caught a fully armoured woman and pushed her back to her feet.

Zombie-Jan strode right out of a bookshop to our left, power-walking toward Jan.

“Stop stalling,” said Zombie-Jan. She even sighed a little sigh.

“Never!” Jan spat back. Then she picked up her armoured feet, dragged on Lozzie’s hand, and scarpered off down Broad Street.

Zombie-Jan ignored me completely, turning toward her target as she strode on.

“Um,” I said. “Would you maybe … stop?”

She ignored that.

She won’t, Large Rearward Heather informed me.

I sighed. Biggest And Most In Charge Heather took hold of my limbs and ran me onward.

The chase turned into a farce, ruled by the logic of the dream; we fled down Broad Street, then right onto Duke, then over the river and onward toward the looming giant of the brass-and-gold dome, where the hospital should have stood. At every corner, around every turn, from every darkened doorway, the Jan-Zombie strode forth to follow us. Chin high, feet naked and bloody, trailing pus and plasma, wearing a wounded dignity and solemn pride which Jan herself would never have shown, she walked toward us from unexpected angles, appearing whenever we slowed or stopped for even a second.

“You can’t run forever,” she said, with a very Jan-like huff and little tut. “You have to deal with me eventually.” “Don’t tell yourself you’ve escaped.” “Give up and stop.” “Convincing yourself I don’t exist is is a dead end.” Jan’s voice rose from her decaying throat, wet and thick with clotted blood and dried bile, never angry or accusing, but calm and inexorable — just like her inevitable reappearance no matter how far we fled.

“This doesn’t make any sense!” Lozzie squeaked as we ran down the row of railing-fronted terraces along Queen’s Road. “Why doesn’t she just teleport right in front of you?!”

“Don’t give it ideas!” Jan yelled back, muffled by her goat-headed helmet as it clacked down again, getting in the way.

A half-remembered Reading flashed past in dream snippets, with one solid landmark bobbing up out of the waves again and again: Number 12 Barnslow Drive was keeping pace with us.

The house appeared in the place of a Chemist’s, then a corner store, then embedded in the front of an office block, then wedged into a gap between other buildings, and twice just sitting in the middle of the road, dominating the space turned alien and pointless by lack of cars. And once or twice — then three times and four — I noticed the house was blocking the Jan-Zombie.

It was neither very effective nor much of an impediment to the zombie’s power-walking progress every time she appeared, but I noticed that when the house was present and nearby, she was forced to select an imperfect entry-point to the dream-stage — a street further from her target, a corner which forced her to cross the road to reach us, a door which was not yet standing open. The house got in her way.

“Thank you!” I cried out to the house as we passed it again. Lozzie giggled and Jan looked at me like I was mad. I just shook my head. “It’s helping! The house is helping!”

Jan’s wide eyes flicked back to glance at Number 12 Barnslow Drive as we left it behind again. “Do you think we could shelter inside it?”

I shrugged. “You could. I have to reach the dome! I have to!”

Jan gritted her teeth. “Lozzie—”

“We’ll follow Heathy,” Lozzie said. “Then dive into the house!”

Jan and Lozzie were both running for real. Jan’s armour was fitted perfectly for her size and musculature, joints oiled and smooth, moving with barely a whisper of metal-on-metal, but the suit also weighed a ton and she had a sword strapped to her back, slapping against her thighs and throwing her off balance. Jan was not exactly the fittest of ladies and her lungs were pumping and gasping for air by the time we’d crossed the river. Lozzie was slightly better, running on dream-juice and wishes and her inherent suitability for this half-real environment, but even she was panting and flushed, though mostly unafraid of the ever-pursuing Janbie.

But I wasn’t fit and high-stamina either — not in the waking world. Yet as we fled down the streets of my childhood city, my limbs seemed to lift as if buoyed upward by invisible currents, my lungs pumped with perfect clarity, my bruises and aches melted away, my five — five? — tentacles galloped for me, lending me speed and athletic precision. The dream-logic seemed to shift to one side, not clouding my thoughts but directing my body along the pavement like a marathon runner with extra legs. I even considered scooping up Jan in my arms and carrying her myself; but Large Heather Behind Me vetoed that decision. We were not capable of carrying that weight.

Halfway down Watlington Street, Jan ran out of steam.

“Ahhh— ahhh—” she panted, metal boots clonking to a halt along the pavement. She almost doubled-up with effort, visor clacking shut, drooling with overexertion. Her absurd goat-headed helmet fell forward. She panted through the metal visor.

“Jan! Janny!” Lozzie pulled on her hand. “Jan-Jans we have to go!”

“Fuck— it—” Jan panted.

I skidded to a stop as well, tentacles out like a cartoon character as I turned and rejoined my friends. Jan was just straightening up and Lozzie was helping her, as the Zombie-Jan stepped out from behind a house and into the middle of the pavement, two dozen paces behind us.

“Running never works,” said the Janbie. She seemed quite sad. “I’m glad you’ve decided to stop.”

Our Armoured Lady of Jandom turned to face her pursuer — almost toppling over with the weight of the sword on her back. I glanced over my shoulder: the brass dome of perfect mathematics was close now. It filled the sky like a giant wall of clockwork complexity. One more street, one more corner, and we’d be there. Why stop now?

Jan clacked her visor back up. “Running away is my greatest skill! I am very good at it!”

My lips moved, “We’re almost there! Maybe when we reach the dome—”

“How do I make you stop following me, huh?!” Jan shouted. She was losing her temper, laser-focused on the zombie. Lozzie was pulling on her arm, trying to get her to run again, hissing her name. But Jan wouldn’t move.

Zombie-Jan was striding forward, closing the distance. “You can’t,” she said.

“Fine!” Jan spat back. “I’ve had enough of this edging, anyway. You want magic? You want me to do magic at you? Is that it?”

“Yes,” said the Janbie.

All the fire went out of Jan’s face. She took a clonking step backward. “Oh.”

The Jan-Zombie closed to seven paces, six, five. Jan still wasn’t moving. Four. Lozzie was repeating her name, physically pulling on her arm like she was a reluctant hound. Three. But some quality of her zombie mirror-image had Jan locked in place, hypnotized like a rodent in front of a python. Two paces. Zombie-Jan reached forward with one hand. Jan’s visor fell to cover her face with a clack, one final layer of turtle-shell rejection. The Zombie’s blood-stained fingers reached for her chin. Lozzie was screaming.

Bigger Heather Who Was Still Behind Me And Paying Lots Of Attention reached over my shoulder with a thousand fists.

One of them contained a lemon, for me to snatch out of the air and gnaw on like a frenzied ferret. The other nine-hundred-and-ninety-nine hands of god descended on Zombie-Jan and hit her like the spring-loaded impact of a mantis shrimp claw, multiplied to a perfect number.

The zombie exploded backward in an instant flowering of flesh and bone and viscera, a fountain of deep red, a cloud of expanding intestine like party streamers, a popped cork of brain matter and nerves and powdered organs. The sound was deafening, a meat-world noise, a thousand years of butcher back rooms compressed into one second. One moment, Jan’s mirror — the next, a bloody smear on the pavement fifty feet long, like a meat-truck overturned in the middle of Reading.

All that remained of her was a pair of feet torn off at the ankles, standing a few paces away from Jan.

If I had not been plunged beneath the abstraction of the dream-logic once more, it would have been quite a shocking sight. But with my mind stirred and sucked upward, I simply bit into my delicious lemon, spitting bits of yellow peel onto the pavement.

Jan shrieked and stumbled backward. Lozzie caught her, though they almost fell over together. Jan shoved her visor back up and stared at me — past me, above me, over me, to my roots and my supply — jaw working and eyes wide with terror.

“It’s okay!” Lozzie said, grabbing her and gently slapping her cheeks with her fingertips. “Janny, it’s okay, it’s—”

“What am I looking at?” Jan whispered. Her voice was hoarse.

“It’s not Heather! It’s fine! I know, I was shocked at first too, but it’s fine! Hiii, Heathy!” Lozzie waved at me, for Jan, like showing a small child that it was safe to wave at a large yet gentle animal.

Larger And Wiser Heather withdrew her incredible violence from the smear that had been a zombie only moments before. She wiped her thousand fists and revealed they were actually just five hands, opening and closing the fingers in a friendly gesture.

“See?” Lozzie chirped.

Jan boggled in my direction. Then she stared at Lozzie. Then Big Heather With Lots Of Food offered her a lemon as well. Jan took it, hand shaking. She dropped it on the pavement.

“Lozzie,” Jan said, voice quivering. “What— what is going on here?”

“I don’t know! But it’s okay! Heathy helped, right?”

I said, “No more Zom-Jan.”

Jan stared at me like I was a talking door.

Lozzie bit her lip. “Juuuuuuust go with it, Janny. It’s a dream, okay? And look, no more zombie!”

“Yes,” Jan said, forcing several deep breaths down her throat. She had to make a conscious effort to look away from me. Was it the lemon-eating? I was getting kind of messy, especially when Largest And Smartest Heather handed me three more. Three! I was eating well now, much better. I took one in each hand and took bites from them in order, then mixed the order up for fun, then reversed the order to see if it made any difference. It did! Jan eventually turned to look at the smear of blood and guts on the ground, but she kept glancing back at me. “Wow,” she said, slowly and carefully. “Okay. Well, I don’t know how that plays into the whole metaphor thing, but thank you.” She glanced at Lozzie but pointed at me. “Should I be thanking this? Her? What am I talking to here?”

Lozzie nodded. “Heather can still hear you!”

You’re welcome said Large But Weak Heather.

“Heathy!” Lozzie chirped. “Are you okay?”

“Mmmhmm!” I said back.

“Yes, thank you,” Jan repeated. “This likely solves the problem for now, though I still don’t want this bloody sword on my back. Oh, I’m going to have such a hangover when I wake up. I can help you with your dome-thing, I suppose, as long as that’s not also—”


Like a great wave crashing against the shore, the Jan-Zombie sucked herself back together.

Reforming from the ankles upward, dragging her viscera across the pavement as if by magnetic force, skin wrapping rotten muscle but still split by pus-weeping wounds and covered in grave-dirt and corpse-bile. Rebuilding herself cell by cell in fast-forward, a sickening process of cramming dead blood back into shrivelled veins and sealing them inside rotten meat and wrapping the whole ugly concoction in the mirror-image of the woman who stood next to Lozzie.

The Jan-Zombie opened her eyes. Not a scrap of blood was left on the floor.

She said, “You can’t pretend—”

Biggest Heather reached out again and smeared her sideways, splashing organs and claret up the front of the nearest house, speckling a hedgerow with spots of blood and draping ropes of intestine over a wall.

Sluuuurp-pop — the Zombie Jan pulled herself back together again.


Third time lucky, this time across the road, a shower of red over the parked cars and the black asphalt, staining the road markings.

Squelch, she snapped back, even faster.

Big Heather With The Many Strong Arms reached out a forth time — and Zombie-Jan turned to her.

“Stop that,” she said.

Jan was panting and backing away. Poor thing, must have been rather taxing, watching her mirror image pulverised so many times over.

Bigger Heather Who Knew Best kept reaching, but this time Zombie-Jan reached out to meet her hands.

Dream-Logic juddered and jerked, like I was trying to hold my breath, or my body was about to shut down, like two different instincts pulled me in different directions. We should be running! We could reach the dome in one more street, even if we didn’t know what might happen when we arrived! But then I had another lemon in my hands again, exploding with citrus inside my mouth, and it was okay because the dream was only a dream, and—

“Heathy, stop!” Lozzie screamed. “No touchy!”

Big Heather turned me and ran me after Lozzie and Jan. Going with plan A — reach the dome. Biggest Heather said as much, talking over my shoulder and past my head and up through my spine. My own mouth was too full of lemon.

“We don’t know what will be there, we don’t know what will be there!” Lozzie was babbling. That display had upset her more deeply than I’d realised. I wanted to apologise, but Large Heather With Many Thoughts was cramming lemons into my mouth, opening my throat with her hands, shoving them into my gullet, into the fire burning in my belly.

Jan was staring at me again, wide-eyed with terror, like she was swimming next to some unknown be-tentacled marine creature, which might snatch her up and eat her at any moment. “You can tell what she’s saying?!” she asked Lozzie.

“Mmhmm!” Lozzie nodded. “Heathy, what do we do?”

Go into the house said Large Heather Who Stood To My Rear. We’ll deal with the dome, whatever that means. You go into the house, with Jan, and lock the door. But get the sword off her back first, leave it outdoors. Nothing is stronger than the house. The projection won’t follow. I think.

“Love you!” said Lozzie.

I love you too, we told Lozzie.

Lozzie related the plan to Jan. Jan was not happy. She wanted to leave the dream. I spat out pieces of lemon peel and tried to say it was very important that we all stay in the dream, that I would look after my friends, that Biggest Heather had everyone’s best interests at heart — but then we rounded the corner of Watlington Street and burst out into the space where Reading ended.

Brass and gold and chrome and steel and a half-dozen other metals of unearthly provenance, rising into the air as a wall of clockwork perfection, right where Royal Berkshire Hospital should have stood. The dream-remembered city simply ended there, cut off by a structure no human minds could ever build, a mechanism of such precision that one would have to observe and understand every single part at the same time in order to comprehend what it did or what it meant.

That I understood instantly, as my numb feet stumbled to a halt, as my eyes were dragged across the ever-shifting surface of many-sided shapes, their interlocking beauty spelling out words that fell on senses not designed for their message.

I understood, instantly: one would have to grasp all the parts, at the same instant.

The dome stood about a hand’s breadth off the ground, floating as if held there by its own internal logic, hundreds of feet high and miles wide, an Outsider equation towering into the sky.

Outsider equation? I asked.

Must be said Large And Clever Heather.

It was not a true dome, but a swarm of parts, brass plates gliding across each other, joining and parting again, chrome clockwork locking and unlocking, cogs of golden perfection catching their teeth on wheels of silver. From a distance it had been beautiful, but up close it made my stomach churn and my head spin with vertigo. How could anybody have created such a thing? Only a mind like the Eye could dream it. Was this message truly from my twin sister? If so, what did that say about her?

Bigger Heather Who Moved Me kept moving me, pulling my limbs forward to follow Lozzie and Jan over the open ground toward the dome.

Just where Royal Berkshire Hospital’s buildings should have been there was an opening in the many layers of the dome structure, like the peeled-back tissues of a shell, mollusc flesh and fluffy fronds in brass and gold. A way inside the mathematics of perfect expression. Waiting for me.

About twenty feet from that flower-like entrance, in the middle of a truncated road, was Number 12 Barnslow Drive, again.

We all clattered and skidded and hopped to a halt, just shy of our own front door. The house waited patiently for us. The dome loomed giant behind us. The Jan-Zombie stepped out from the road we’d just exited, striding toward us; the distance gave us a few moments to plan.

“We’re here!” chirped Lozzie, vibrating like an excited child. “We’re here!”

Armoured Jan glanced between the house and the dome, jaw hanging open inside the helmet around her head. “I … you’re going there? Alone? Inside that thing?”

Too many lemons filled my mouth. Large And Talkative Heather answered for us: We’re not alone. See? She splayed her five hands — and me, too.

Jan recoiled, blinking, free hand up as if to ward off a monster. “Okay, okay! Christ alive. Fuck me. Don’t do that!”

“It’s pretty!” Lozzie chirped.

“Yes, fine, it is, but also very, very weird!” Jan snapped back. She looked at the front door of Number 12 Barnslow Drive. “Are we hiding in there, or what?”

Drop the sword, said Me Who Was Also Me. Then hide in the house. She won’t be able to follow. I’m certain of that. And this will be over soon. When I get inside the payload … 

“You have no idea what’s going to happen in there, do you?” asked Jan In Steel. “Not a clue.”

Comprehension. Insight. Hurry up. Large Heather pointed at Zombie-Jan, closing fast.

“Fine! Lozzie, help me get this—”

Zombie-Jan raised her voice to carry the distance, bubbling wet and darkly clotted: “If you flee into that home, I will pursue her instead.” She pointed a blood-soaked rotting hand — at me.

I tried to hiss, but Biggest And Wisest Heather clamped my mouth shut.

Jan froze, watching undead parody self striding toward us. Lozzie started panting with worry, tugging on Jan’s arm. “Inside!” she whined.

I can deal with her, said My Core And Purpose. Go inside the house. It loves you too.

Jan chewed on her bottom lip so hard that her teeth drew blood, crimson threads running down to meet the metal of her helmet.

“Janny!” Lozzie squeaked.

“Lozzie,” Jan said, voice shaking. “Help me get this sword off my back.”

I could only watch, reassured by Me Myself that this was fundamentally not our fight, as Lozzie tugged at the blue rope which held Jan’s sword in place. She got it off Jan’s head and held it across her arms like an injured pet, a length of metal wrapped in oilcloth, struggling a little with the weight. Jan glanced back and forth between the Zombie and the concealed sword in Lozzie’s arms.

“Janny,” Lozzie whined. “We can run, Heathy can deal with it! She said she can!” She looked up — past me, way past me. “Or we could wake up big Tenny! She’s really big! Big helps!”

Jan shook her head. “This is my problem, not Heather’s, not Tenny’s.”

“Don’t do what it’s telling you to do!”

Yeah, said Six Other Kinds Of Me. I’d rather have an extra complication to contend with than force you to accept whatever this is.

Jan looked deeply embarrassed — but then she locked eyes with Lozzie. “I’m not going to do magic at it—”

“You will,” burbled the Jan-Zombie, closing with us.

Jan ignored it. “But I can’t swing that sword by myself. I’ve never had the muscles. Lozzie, will you lift it with me?”

Lozzie lit up, crying openly, but nodding with relief. None of it made any sense to me, but Largest Heather cried a little too. Five Other Heathers helped hold her up. I did my part.

Lozzie and Jan worked together to pull the old sword from the tightly wrapped oilcloth. I half-expected it to glow as it emerged, but it really wasn’t anything special — just a long piece of polished steel with a leather-wrapped hilt. Jan held the blade itself, her hands protected by her gauntlets. Lozzie took the hilt.

“Most awkward half-swording I’ve ever heard of,” Jan hissed to herself as they turned to face the zombie.

Lozzie looked elated — like they were about to hit a jackpot in an arcade, not stab a metaphor through the neck. She giggled.

Good luck, said Me Several Times Repeated.

Jan glanced back. “And you hurry the fuck up! This might not work, so be quick about it! Go on! Go! God alone knows what’s going to happen in that bloody great dome. I do not envy you, going in there.”

Lozzie giggled again. “It’s alright, Janny! We can get dome together another time.”

Jan flushed a deep, scarlet, spluttering red. None of Me or Me or Me knew why.

Jan reached up and clacked her visor down again, then turned to the approaching zombie, now only a few feet away. She and Lozzie hefted the sword between them, tip aimed toward the ghoulish mirror like a spear-point.

Larger Heather To My Rear pulled herself together, turned me around, and ran us toward the opening in the dome of perfect mathematics.

Behind me came a shout, a Lozzie-whoop, and a crunch of bones — and I plunged on inside, swallowed up by metal lips.

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Knights vs Zombies, the addictive new mobile game, coming this February from Jansoft. No, okay, Jan doesn’t run a game studio and we should be thankful for that, because it would be the worst kind. Never-finished early access asset rips full of microtransactions. She’d probably prefer that to this though. Hey, at least she got Lozzie to help with her sword. Heather is … well. She’s doing something. Hopefully all the pieces are starting to make this a little more clear. Listen to Big Heather. She knows best.

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Next week, Heather has a fight, with maths. A maths fight, if you will. And maybe with herself. And the dome. And herself!

sediment in the soul – 19.13

Content Warnings

Body horror

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Discordance — dislocation — dissonance.

A jarring screech tearing across the trembling membranes of consciousness, shattered into shards and splinters and slivers on the brick wall of the waking world, then re-forming with a sickening lurch and backward-time squelch of reversal as it sucks itself coherent again; rearing up with a herky-jerky stab-split into the crown of my s k u l l.

My eyes snapped open; so did my head.

Bone plates of my skull splayed wide like the petals of a flower, the dream blossoming upward from within my grey meat, climbing the air like ivy on a petrified tree; the whorls of my brain uncoiling and reaching toward a ceiling a million miles up, stretching my self-hood to breaking point, until I was a quivering note held at maximum extension on the air-gap between here and there, between awake and dreaming, between real and image, between me and me.

My eyes snapped open.

Naked and sweating, crouched in my chair before the table like a lake of wood with knots as continents, my body a tangle of coiled pain singing tight songs of nerve and damage and chronic endlessness; doubling up and vomiting a stream of steaming green acid onto the floorboards, watching my upchucked rejection eat through the varnish and grain and nails and glue and foundation stones and earth and rock; the dream billowing upward in smoky by-product, sucked into my lungs and melting my eyeballs and bonding with the cells of my alveoli to choke me in blind suffocation and nightmare isolation.

Eyes snapped open.

Wrapped in my own tentacles like a human-shaped caterpillar, wings sprouting in bloody ribbons as they displace my ribs, hard chitinous plates pushing outward from bone and joint and tearing my skin to flaps and shreds upon my bare muscles; the afterbirth by-product splashing down the steps of lighter slumber and spreading outward to form a deep and stinking pool; the dream shimmering in reflection as I cannot get my new wings to unfurl and I trip and I fall into the liquid of my own transformation, incomplete.

Eyes, open.


I opened my eyes.

Panting, quivering, caked in cold sweat, frozen in shock, I waited for the next barrage of dream-nonsense.

But nothing happened. My mind did not slide down my body and spool out on the floor. The walls did not fall away like cheap set dressing. My skull did not splay itself open like a flower — I actually reached up with one shaking hand and pressed against my hair, making sure that my bones were all there, shut tight, encasing my brain like proper bones should do, instead of imitating a plant.

“I-it was just … the dream,” I panted. “Just dream-logic. Lozzie?”

But there was no Lozzie; there was no anybody.

I found myself right back in the magical workshop — or at least a very accurate dreamlike representation of it — sitting in the exact same position as back in the waking world. Exact same chair, exact same angle, exact same clothes. Lozzie’s chair was right next to me, but Lozzie herself was absent. Everyone else was missing too: no peanut gallery of Raine and Evee, no sprite-like presences of Sevens and Aym, no reassuring Praem and dour Felicity. All of Evelyn’s usual clutter was present and correct, books and notepads littering the table, magic circles on canvas and tarpaulin lining the walls, strange magical bric-a-brac all over the place. Even the gateway stood sensible and upright, carved into the far wall and surrounded by the eye-bending mandala. The CRT television and the bucket were on the table too, right in front of me, a mirror-image of waking reality.

The bucket was full of clay — inert, wet, gloopy. Mister Squiddy was not in residence.

I raised my voice: “Lozzie?”

The recreation of waking reality was so perfect that for a moment I wasn’t sure if I was in a dream or not; had I passed out for hours and been left here to recover? No, that made no sense. Raine would have put me to bed. Raine would be by my side. We would be in full emergency mode, especially if Mister Squiddy had left his carefully contained clay vessel and gone walkabouts.

“Slipped out for a sneaky snack,” I murmured. “Nope.”

Such concerns seemed abstract and airy, mere whims which floated upward and out of my brain, motes leaving my thoughts, captured and interrogated by something very large which stood just behind me, that I could neither see nor hear.

That particular notion was so strong that I spent perhaps thirty seconds trying to catch sight of this hypothetical thought-investigator who stood behind me. Twisting in my chair, closing my eyes slowly and then opening them quickly, trying to look over my shoulder without being seen — none of those techniques yielded any results. Dream or waking world, I could not catch my own attentive shadow.

Then I giggled.

“Oh, Heather,” I told myself. “That’s a metaphor. Or it’s yourself? Myself? It’s a metaphor for yourself. You’re trying to catch yourself. An eye cannot examine herself without a mirror. And you do not have a mirror. Metaphorically speaking.” I let out a heavy sigh and stood up so I could peer into the bucket where Mister Squiddy should have been. The presence behind me politely looked over my shoulder, too, agreeing that Mister Squiddy was not present. “This is absolutely a dream. I giggled.”

Mister Squiddy, missing. Lozzie, gone AWOL. Everybody else — awake? I chewed my bottom lip and tried to focus, but an invisible hand kept reaching through the bones of my skull and stirring up my thoughts, like playing with bubble-bath.

I screwed up my eyes and looked down at my body; then I realised that was impossible, so I opened my eyes again.

“Tentacles, check,” I said out loud. “One, two, three, four, fix … five,” I huffed and corrected myself. “Six. All six, present and correct.”

One of the tentacles was swollen and slow and glowing neon purple. The dream had replicated my physical changes down to the last detail. I didn’t know if that was a good sign or not.

“Yellow robes, check,” I said, running a hand over my chest, over the silken yellow layer of Sevens’ affection and trust. Then I poked and prodded at myself, wincing softly at the landscape of bruises across the canvas of my flesh, the delightful array of pain and ache shooting up my nerves. “Bruises, check. Why, though? Why take these into a dream?”

The large presence behind me purred sympathy.

“Lozzie,” I said. “Lozzie, check? Lozzie? No Lozzie.” I sighed. “Well. Onward we go.”

I left the magical workshop and went into the kitchen and went to the fridge and found a lemon and put it in my mouth. The sharp taste exploded across my tongue; my bioreactor gurgled in response, hungry for citrus, processing dream-matter into dream-energy.

“Oh, Lozzie,” I sighed again, spitting a chunk of inedible lemon peel into my hand; even in a dream I wouldn’t dare drop it on the floor. Praem would be very disappointed. “This isn’t going to work without you here. I can’t think thoughts in a dream unless there’s a reason to panic. Or if you’re around to make me sharper. You are a whetstone to my mind. Lozzie, Loz-Loz, where did you goooo-”

That was an understatement. The Big Thinky Heather who stood just behind me agreed; the dream was all well and good for specific purposes, but it was hard to think real thoughts in here. When Lozzie had pulled me into the dream to rescue Badger from the Eye, I had been instantly baptised in a state of screaming mad panic, more than enough to pull me into buttoned-up lucidity.

But this? Lozzie had made a promise to Evelyn that she would pull me out at the first sign of trouble. Lozzie had intentionally pulled me into the dream. So there couldn’t be any trouble. So there was no reason to think clear thoughts. Whatever was going on, it must be safe. So I dreamed on.

“This doesn’t work without you here, Loz. Loz-Loz. I love you Lozzie but I need your help. Where did you go? I assume this was meant to happen, but … ”

Big Heather To My Rear suggested that we go over to the window and take a look. I wanted to eat more lemons, so I did that instead.


When we eventually got to the kitchen window — which felt like it took about three days — I stood there staring at regimented rows of colour-coded flowers, a polished wooden bench framed by a trio of young saplings, and a little pond edged with dark slate.

“That’s not our garden,” I said.

It’s your mum and dad’s garden, said Large Heather Who Was Behind Me.

“Oh. So it is … ”

I swallowed. A nagging feeling itched in the back of my skull. That was dream-logic, undeniable; the garden of my childhood home stood just beyond the back wall of Number 12 Barnslow Drive, completely out of place and time. My dad had since filled in the pond and replaced it with a rock garden. What was it doing here, inside a dream?

My thoughts felt more dense than before, like the collapsing matter of a dwarf star compacting tighter and tighter in a futile, dying effort to reignite nuclear fusion.

Where was Mister Squiddy? And where was Lozzie? What was the point of pulling me into the dream and then leaving me to my own devices?

“Unless she’s gotten into trouble herself,” I murmured. “Lozzie does do that, sometimes.”

Rear Heather Behind Me handed me another lemon, neatly skinned and oozing thin juices.

“Thank you,” I murmured. I bit into the lemon, sharp citrus flavour coating my tongue and—

Lozzie might be in trouble.

Lucidity snapped tight like a rubber band against the inside of my skull.

I turned around so quickly that I almost lost my balance. Tentacles splayed in a protective cage, warning hiss clawing up my throat, skin bristling with the silent threat of toxins and paralytics and spikes and armour.

Nobody was there.

No Tall Heather Behind Me. Just a dream recreation of the kitchen, the wooden table and the old chairs, the battered counter-tops and the big fridge, the door to the front room wedged open. It was perfect, completely flawless. It even included the plates we’d left on the table at lunchtime, and Evelyn’s unlabelled bottle of painkillers.

“What … who?” I stammered out, lips numb, tentacles quivering. Then I stared at the lemon in my hand, freshly skinned, with one bite taken out of the flesh. The juice was sliding down my hand and dripping onto the floor. “What was I speaking to?”

Nobody and nothing replied.

“Oh. Oh no,” I whispered. “Something has gone terribly wrong here.”

I poked my head into the utility room behind the kitchen and looked down the cellar stairs too, in case they had been replaced with anything else, like the garden outdoors. But they were perfectly normal, every detail of the waking world replicated with perfect accuracy, even the scuffing on the skirting board and the precise way the old sofa sagged in the middle with its broken back and ancient cushions. I kept my tentacles up and my eyes wide, expecting a nightmare to jump out at me from every corner.

“Lozzie?” I hissed. “Lozzie?”

No Lozzie. I stepped into the front room, but it was more of the same — a perfect mirror of the waking world, absent any people. The old grandfather clock ticked away to itself. Boxes of junk sat against the wall in neglected piles. Several pairs of shoes stood next to the door in their usual jumble. The door itself was shut and bolted and locked.

The air felt slow and thick and dark. I crept over to the stairs and peered upward, heart pounding.

I sighed at that, feeling absurd and a little angry. This was home, the house, Number 12 Barnslow Drive, or at least a version of it, reflected in a dream. Part of me felt deeply offended that the house could ever be made to feel creepy or spooky or unwelcoming; it was a disservice to all of us who lived within, to the physical building itself, and to something deeper as well, some essential essence of place.

“Sorry,” I whispered, patting the wall with one tentacle. “I know you’re not real, this is just a dream, but it’s not fair on you. Where has Lozzie gotten to, really? This is completely absurd. And unsafe. If Evee knew, she’d be going bananas.” I raised my voice, calling out to the empty spaces. “Lozzie!”

The echoes died away, receding into the depths of the dream-house.

Then: “Heather?

The voice came from upstairs — far, far upstairs, far and away, buried behind walls and doors and plaster and brick and wood and steel.

And it wasn’t Lozzie.

I stood frozen, dumbfounded for a moment by the high, querulous tone, so familiar and yet so different. I’d heard that voice before, in the mouth of an imitator, full of life and expression and emotion, but this version was flat and empty, mere air pushed over vocal chords and muscles pulling at lips.

It was my own voice. It was me.

“ … Sevens?” I called out. “Is that you, wearing my face? Sevens? Are you in here, in the dream?”

No reply. Shadows sat smooth and silken at the top of the stairs, flowing with invisible currents.

I put my hands on my hips and sighed sharply, but I did a poor job of covering up my sudden nameless fear; my tentacles betrayed my true reaction, drifting upward as if ready to defend myself from whatever awaited upstairs. I was breathing too hard, cold sweat prickling on my skin; something had invaded our home — in a dream, yes, but it was still home.

“Mister Squiddy?” I said, but nothing replied to that either. “Oh, for pity’s sake. I won’t have this. I will not! I shall … wake myself up! As soon as I find Lozzie.”

Heather,” said the me-voice from far away upstairs. That time it wasn’t a question. It sounded more like somebody who had never heard my name before, rolling it in their mouth.

A hiss tried to claw up my throat. I pursed my lips and swallowed. “Stop it!” I snapped. “Oh, fine. I am coming up there, you … you … ”

I glanced down at the shoes next to the door; Evelyn’s walking stick was right there, propped against the wall. I reached for it, desiring a weapon to brandish, something I could threaten to rap over an offending head; yes, I had six working tentacles, but I blame the dream-logic for making me want a nice heavy object in my fist. Dream-logic or ape instinct, one or the other. I wanted to hit something with a club.

But then I noticed: among all the shoes, one pair was missing.

Lozzie’s trainers were gone.

Heather,” said the voice upstairs. But I could see nothing up there except familiar old shadows and the shape of the upstairs corridor.

I wet my lips, swallowed, and said, “Whatever you are, I don’t feel threatened by you. But I think Lozzie is outdoors, so I’m going to go, okay? I’m not leaving you behind, if you’re … part of me, or Mister Squiddy, or … or … I don’t know. This is just a dream, so maybe you’re not even real, but … I’ll see you shortly. Okay?”

No reply. I stamped into my own shoes — dream-shoes — unlocked the door, opened it wide, and stepped out.

As it shut behind me, just as the latch caught, I heard my own voice say: “Be safe.”

I would have turned back and wrenched the door open again, but the sight in front of me was far more bizarre than an unexplained voice.

Barnslow Drive — the road on which the house stood — was gone. No cracked pavement and crumbly asphalt invaded by tree roots and water damage, no houses spaced far apart in memorial of some 19th-century nightmare which never came to be, no old gnarled trees hanging over the opposite side of the road in their ancient grandeur, dusting the gutters with their fallen leaves.

Instead, the road was tightly lined with semi-detached houses in pale brick, with modern plastic windows. The road itself was newly resurfaced, shiny and slick and black, inviting the stickiness of unfelt fingers. Young trees were planted in front gardens. Cars stood parked in stubby driveways. Down the street, more leafy suburbia unrolled toward a neat little roundabout with yellow signposts and a zebra crossing.

“This isn’t Sharrowford,” I breathed, eyes wide, tentacles pulled in tight as if to protect myself. I clutched Sevens’ yellow robes to my chest. “This is Reading.”

It was the street on which I’d grown up — on which Maisie and I had grown up.

“Except that,” I said, as my eyes were pulled inexorably upward, over the rooftops, past the buildings, into the metal-tinted sky. “Pretty sure that’s not from Reading.

Towering over the leafy suburb of where I’d grown up was an edifice of shining metal: a great dome in brass, gold, and chrome, like a clockwork meteor which had fallen into this dream of my childhood. Pieces of the dome floated free in the air, unconnected to the rest of the structure, as if suspended by magnetic force. Bands of shining metal rotated like pieces of cloud formation. Many-sided shapes shifted and rotated and clicked and joined and parted and locked and sank and rose and stilled and translated and—

I gasped as if coming up for air from a terrible depth, from lightless caverns of the mind.

“Is that— you?” I breathed. “I— I don’t— I—”

My eyes were dragged along the clockwork perfection, moved as if I was a piece of the machine; after only a second of following the mechanical perfection, I could predict where the pieces would go, how they would fit together, which next steps they must follow — and what they meant.

A scratching scraped against the inside of my skull. I winced and screwed my eyes up.

“That’s you, isn’t it?” I breathed. “Mister Squiddy? Or … whatever you are. That’s you. It’s okay, I’m … I understand, I can see. I’m on my way, I … yes.”

I stumbled down the short garden pathway on numb feet, then turned in panic as if I might see my childhood home behind me, filling the space where Number 12 Barnslow Drive should be standing. But no; my home, my real home, was right there, the Victorian red brick and brooding windows and climbing ivy and patched roof of Number 12 Barnslow Drive. The house had wedged itself in between several modern semis, like a piece of history air-dropped into a dream.

“That’s exactly what has happened,” I said. “The house came with us. With me. Um … thank you?”

The house did not reply.

I trotted out into the street, assailed by a million memories of Maisie and I walking down that pavement on our way to school. My throat closed up, my heart swelled, and tears threatened to prickle in my eyes. A numbness inside me woke up, filled with pins and needles and aching in a way I needed to avoid thinking about. I ripped my eyes away from my own ghost and looked up and down the road instead, trying to avoid the beating rhythm of the brass-gold dome of perfect mathematics.

“Lozzie!” I shouted. “Lozzie!”

“Here!” a faint cry echoed over the false rooftops of dream-Reading. “Heather! Heather!”


I picked up my feet and ran down the street, trainers slapping on the asphalt, bruises singing and joints screaming, but the adrenaline and fear and confusion blanketed the worst of the pain. And after all, this was only a dream.

Lozzie was just around the corner next to the roundabout, wild-eyed with a mirror of my own panic, fluttering in her pastel poncho like a lost jellyfish in an unfamiliar current, in the alien dream-waters of a remembered Reading.

“Heathy!” she cried out. We caught each other in a sudden rough embrace, mutual reassurance that we were both real, both really here.

“Lozzie—” I panted. “What—”

“I’m sorry!” she said, pulling back but holding onto my arms. Her face was distraught and confused, her breath coming in jerky little gasps. “I don’t understand how we got separated. That doesn’t happen! That’s not a thing! I’m sorry, I’m really sorry, I didn’t mean to overstep without asking, I promised Evee I would help and we can stop right now we can go back we can—”

“Lozzie, Lozzie, slow down, slow down.” I nodded gently until she nodded along with me. “Slow down.”

“I’m sorry,” she squeaked. She bit her lip and sniffed hard, eyes brimming with tears. “You told me not to do this again. You told me. I’m sorry.”

“Lozzie, I’m not angry with you.” I smiled for her — and found it wasn’t forced or fake; the implications of our surroundings were filling me with a heady cocktail of hope. “I wish you’d asked before dunking us into the dream, yes. But we’re not in any danger. I don’t see the Eye rising over any mountain ranges, nothing like that.”

“I-I hope not,” she said.

“You didn’t interfere in a process. You helped it along.” I glanced left and right, at the roundabout and the terraced houses, at suburban Reading marching off in all directions — or at least, a memory of suburban Reading — with that vast dome of distant bronze and gold towering over the town, shifting and adjusting like a clockwork god. I had to tear my eyes away from that promise of meaning. “In fact, Lozzie, this is an incredibly good sign.” The smile jerked wider on my face. “Incredibly good. If I’m right, I don’t think we’re in any danger at all. This is great. Lozzie, yes, you should have asked first, or warned me, and please do so in the future. But — thank you. This is good news. We’re on the right track. You see that giant dome? I think that’s Mister Squiddy. Or his message. It has to be.”

Lozzie bit her bottom lip, smiling through the anxiety — but also staring at me like she had to break some bad news.

Dream-Lozzie looked ever so slightly different to the real Lozzie back in the waking world; I’d experienced that shift before, back when we’d first met for real, in the bowels of the cult’s castle.

This was no emergency spiritual rescue operation in the no-man’s land of the Eye’s obsessive observation, so Lozzie’s physical form was subtly different, perhaps a reflection of her idealised dream-self. Her pastel poncho glowed even under the direct light of the sun, like a bioluminescent bottom-dweller adapted for life on the surface; the hem seemed to shift and twitch independently of the motion of her body. The tips of her long wispy blonde hair floated upward slightly, like inquisitive tentacles rising from slumber. A pink-on-pink plaid skirt poked out from under her poncho, over eye-watering neon-green leggings, both items of clothing which I was pretty sure she didn’t own in the waking world. Her sleepy-eyed look was full of energy, even if currently turned inward with worry.

“ … Lozzie?”

“We might be in a little danger,” she said — and pointed past my shoulder. “Didn’t you see?”

“See what?” I turned to look. “The big brass … ”

Opposite the giant brass-and-gold segmented sphere of divine mathematics, towering over the other end of this dream-slice of Reading, was a gargantuan black moth.

A living hillside of dream-flesh, furred in luxurious silken obsidian, velvet and smooth and soft as night. Wings folded back atop the giant, covered in whirls and spirals of white-tinted fur amid the black, like cream on tar. A mass of tentacles, each the diameter of a house, reached upward from beneath the wings, waving their mouth-like tips in the air, like seaweed in a shallow ocean pool. Fluffy white antennae twitched and shivered above a massive head. The body was in repose like a cat with the paws tucked beneath, resting peacefully. But the face held more than a hint of familiar human shape, despite the black fur, the wedge of insect-snout, and the eyelids lowered over giant orbs. The mouth was kinked with sleepy amusement, as if lost in a silly dream.

I stared up in shock, breath stilled in my throat.

Lozzie whispered: “I don’t know why she’s here.”

“Is that … ” I choked out. “That’s Tenny. Lozzie, is that Tenny?”

“Mmhmm!” Lozzie chirped.

“What … ” I just shook my head, unable to form a question. “Is she … sleeping?”

“Luckily for us!” Lozzie said. She pulled an awkward smile when I looked at her. “Tenns wouldn’t be dangerous to us though, not really!” she added quickly. “She’ll just be really confused if she wakes up. In the dream. Not for real! If she wakes up for real, that would be very good! Very good. Yes. Wakey-wakey, Tenn-Tenns. Pleaaaaase.”

“Lozzie, Lozzie, wait a second. How did she get here? How did she get into the dream with us?”

Lozzie pulled an embarrassed grimace. “She must have been napping! Whoopsie.”

“That can happen?”

Lozzie’s grimace collapsed back into real worry. “It just did! Heathy, I don’t know what’s going on. It was just meant to be you and me, inside Mister Squiddy’s dream. But the dream brought Tenny too, and split us up, and I don’t even know where this is! This isn’t Sharrowford, is it?”

I shook my head. “No. No, it’s Reading, the place where I grew up.”

Lozzie blinked, then burst into a smile. “Oh!”

“Yes!” I smiled too. “That means—”


“In theory,” I said. “In theory, if this was inside Mister Squiddy’s head, then Maisie might have put it here. This is a good sign. But, wait, back to Tenny.”

“Big Tenns.” Lozzie almost giggled, her anxiety lifting. She was delighted that this might be a message from Maisie after all.

“Yes, big Tenns. Why? Why is she the size of a Godzilla monster? I mean, I recognise her. But that’s also not her.”

Lozzie shrugged. “Maybe she wants to be big.”

I opened my mouth to say something like ‘that’s absurd’, but then I reconsidered. If Tenny wanted to be the size of a hill in her dreams, then who was I to tell her no? It wasn’t even the first time she’d been technically massive — her cocoon had reached across Sharrowford and out into the countryside with a single tentacle, for the purpose of devouring random sheep to fuel her fleshy transformation. Tenny had experience in being large. She was more than justified.

“Well,” I said awkwardly, “good for her. But this isn’t the time.”

Lozzie muffled a giggle. I sighed and glanced up at the giant sleeping Tenny-moth-blob again.

“Lozzie, what happens if she wakes up? In the dream itself, here, with us? She’ll recognise us, right? I mean, it’s Tenny, she’d never hurt us. I’m not worried about that, I’m just … well. She is very, very large.”

Lozzie shook her head and flapped the hem of her poncho — it fluttered slowly down as if underwater. “Tenns loves us both very much. Buuuuut … ” Lozzie looked up at Tenny, then pointedly turned her head to look at the giant brass sphere of mathematics. She raised both hands, made fists, and then knocked her knuckles together. “Fight-o.”

“Ah. Yes. Giant monsters having a rubber-suit fight. I can see the logic.”

“Mmm.” Lozzie bit her lip.

“Did you let her watch a giant monster movie recently? Something like that?”

Lozzie rolled her eyes left and right as she considered the question, then said: “I think she was reading a wikipedia page about Mothra … ”

“Mothra.” I sighed. “I don’t even know what that is, but I probably don’t have to ask.” I stared up again at Large Tenny. “Can you wake her up?”

Lozzie blinked at me three times. “You want her to have the giant monster fight?”

“No! No, I mean, wake her up for real. End the dream, for her.”

Lozzie chewed on her bottom lip. “I’d have to go with her. I’m sorry, Heathy, I don’t know what’s happened here. This isn’t normal!”

I squeezed her hand and smiled awkwardly. “It’s all right, Lozzie. It’ll be all right. I think I need to reach that big brass sphere thing, it’s … mathematically sound. If I can get up close, maybe I can comprehend it better without wanting to claw at the inside of my own skull. If this is Mister Squiddy’s dream, like you said, then that’s probably what he’s trying to communicate.” I looked left and right again. “I recognise this road, and the sphere is to the east. If this space works on realistic logic, it should only be a twenty minute walk. I think. I hope.” I glanced at Lozzie again, trying to judge if she was worried about more than just Big Tenny. “Do you know if there’s anything else in here with us?”

Lozzie shrugged. “It’s a dream! Could be. Sorry, Heathy. Sorry-sorry.”

I took a deep breath and straightened my shoulders, pulled Sevens’ yellow robes snug around myself, and made sure I had Lozzie’s hand tight and secure in mine. “How much time is passing in the waking world?”

Lozzie bobbed her head from side to side, as if consulting some kind of inner motion-based clock. “Three seconds. Maybe five?”

“Good enough. We have time. Let’s get going.”

“Okidoki! You can show me the sights!”

“Of Reading?” I managed a weak laugh. “I wish I could. But we’re here for business.”

“Serious business,” Lozzie chirped. “For serious faces.”

Leading Lozzie along the pavements of my childhood memories was a supremely surreal experience — not just because this was happening in a dream, nor because these were not technically my memories, nor because of the geologic-formation-sized Tenny towering over one end of the town and the giant rotating brass sphere humming in mega-calculation over the other end.

No, it felt strange because Lozzie did not belong to this period of my life.

We walked all the way up the narrow terraced row of Beecham and ended up on the wide thoroughfare of Oxford Road, with its little shops and brick garden walls and rubbish in the gutters. We passed the TA centre and a beautiful little library and at least two Churches that I barely remembered. In some ways, Reading wasn’t too dissimilar to Sharrowford — less post-industrial, more alive, more Southern — but Lozzie seemed so out of place among the cracked pavements and terraced houses and parked cars. She was out of place in this part of my memories, bright and shining and free, when I’d been lonely and half-dead and sick with loss. Walking along with her, hand in hand, made me wonder how different life might have been if I’d met Lozzie at thirteen years old instead.

But this wasn’t Reading. It was a dream.

Cars were parked in driveways and along the pavement, but nothing moved on the street; no sounds of distant traffic hummed from between the buildings, no other pedestrians shared the pavement with us. Lights showed in houses and buildings, behind closed curtains or shining bright from shop-front windows, but nobody moved behind the glass. Reading, remembered as a ghost town.

The brass-gold dome loomed over it all, plates floating through open air, clicking in rotation, their angles and sides referencing each other with mathematical perfection.

Physical pain seemed to ebb away here, too. Which made sense, because it was a dream and all. My bruises ached less and less, until I forgot all about them. My throbbing neon-purple tentacle sat heavy over one of my shoulders, beneath my yellow robes, but it didn’t hurt like a numb and ice-dipped arm anymore. My joints clicked and clacked, but eventually flowed smooth and easy as we hurried down the pavement.

And beneath it all, a delicate and fragile elation fluttered in my chest: the mathematics of the sphere must be a message from Maisie. Mister Squiddy was her creature all along.

Nothing to worry about. Big Tenny was a sleepy girl. Mister Squiddy’s math-sphere would teach me how to add five and three. Lozzie was safe.

And just like that, lucidity slipped away.

The dream closed back in, heavy on my eyelids and cool in my hand. Lozzie’s shoes tapped the pavement, spelling out a word as we walked. Click-clack, click-clack went the sphere overhead, telling me secrets that I couldn’t understand yet. I saw Number 12 Barnslow Drive on the corner of a street, and then again two streets on. Hello, house. Are you following us too? Don’t worry, you’re quite welcome.

Bigger Heather Who Was Behind Me struggled to keep pace with us. She wasn’t used to moving around, after all.

“Lemon,” I said.

A lemon was offered and placed in my hand. I bit into it, letting the juice run down my fingers and stain the grey pavements of my childhood. A few stray tears joined the citrus.


“I wish I’d known to eat lemons when I was nine,” I said.

“ … Heathy? Where did you get that?” Lozzie giggled.

“We’re in a dream, aren’t we?” I said. “Want some? I wish you’d been there, Lozzie. I wish you’d been there before we thought to go through the hole to Wonderland. You would have said not to.”

Lozzie’s eyes went very big in her face, wide with terror-wonder, directed right at me. Was I really so scary? I wiggled my tentacles but Lozzie didn’t giggle. I took another bite from the lemon, chewing with bone-deep satisfaction.


“Do you want a lemon too? They taste of growth and … and … time? Do you want a lemon?”

“Mmmmmmmm, okay?” said Lozzie.

Larger Heather At The Rear reached over my shoulder and offered Lozzie a lemon.

Lozzie opened her mouth and screamed.

Lucidity snapped back, hard as a metal ruler slapped against my forehead. Lozzie stopped screaming, eyes wide, staring at me and the space behind me, tugging on my hand, her poncho all fluffed up and quivering like a spooked cat.

“Lozzie, what—” I looked over my shoulder, but there was nobody behind me. “What was that? What—”

“It wasn’t you! It wasn’t you!” she squeaked. “That wasn’t you!”

“Wait, wait, something like that happened back in the house, at the start of the dream.”

“In the house?”

“Yes. Home. Our house. Number 12 Barnslow Drive, it’s where I started the dream, sitting in the same chair. And it’s … it’s right there.” I nodded. Lozzie followed my look, over to where Number 12 Barnslow Drive currently stood, wedged between a chippie and a row of terraced houses. “Lozzie, what did you just see over my shoulder? What—” I glanced down and found I had a lemon in one hand. Another lemon lay on the pavement, bruised from the fall from a mystery hand.

“I don’t know who that was,” Lozzie said. “We’re not alone.”

As if on cue, echoing down the roads and across the streets of this dreamlike Reading, came a dull metal clank clank clank.

Lozzie and I whirled on the spot, holding on tight to each other’s hands, her hair flying outward in a wispy cloud as we tried to locate the source of the sound.

“I think you’re right,” I said. “Somebody else is—”

“Coming this way!” Lozzie chirped.

Clank clank clank stomped the metal footsteps, short of stride and frustrated of footing. Clank clank clank. I raised all my tentacles and edged forward, giving Lozzie somewhere to shelter.

“This is a dream,” I whispered to her, my head on a swivel, trying to figure out where the steps were coming from. “How bad can a fight get in a dream?”

“Bad,” Lozzie whispered. “Another dreamer would be bad.”

“Okay. If it’s something really, really bad, we have to leave,” I hissed.

“But we might not be able to get back!”

“I don’t care. We both promised to Evelyn. We promised. If a walking nightmare comes around a corner, we leave, we’re not staying to fight off Mister Squiddy’s immune system, or whatever this is, or—”


A suit of armour stepped around the corner of Zinzan Street, framed for a moment by the ghostly frontage of a grilled chicken shop.

The knight paused, metal helmet pointed toward Lozzie and me.

It was most definitely not one of Lozzie’s Knights, somehow transported here from Camelot; the suit of armour was a real suit, cut for a human, with intricate metal joints and overlapping sheaths, clad from head to toe, complete with gauntlets and hand protection, and a coat of arms on a sort of tabard hanging down over the breastplate: a red dragon wrapped around a trio of tarnished, broken crowns. The helmet was shaped like the head of a goat, complete with metal horns and wide-set eyes above the actual visor-slit, a dark opening on a glint of pale flesh within.

A long sword was slung over the figure’s back, wrapped in oil-cloth and greasy tarpaulin, strapped around the knight’s chest with bits of mangy looking modern rope, blue and frayed. The weight was too much for the knight; they were hunched with the mass of the weapon.

Whoever was inside, they were also shorter than me.

“Hello?” I called out. “Who—”

“Oh!” Lozzie chirped in apparent delight. “You were napping! You must have been napping!”

The diminutive knight marched up to us, every step bubbling with frustration even through the mute steel plate. Lozzie was beaming, but I didn’t lower my tentacles. A hiss rose in my throat, muscles ready to spring forward or back away or screech or run or—

The little knight stopped with an angry stomp, fumbled with one gauntlet, and clacked the visor up.

“What the fuck am I doing here!?” demanded Jan.

Wide-eyed with terror and confusion, flushed in the cheeks, and completely out of her depth — but Jan was undoubtedly real.

Lozzie went all a-giggle. She pulled away from me and threw her arms briefly around Jan’s armoured shoulders. Jan had no idea what to do with her hands and just stood there huffing and puffing until Lozzie pulled back again.

“You must have been napping!” Lozzie said, like Jan was a late arrival to a nature walk, not an unexpected inclusion in an already complex equation of dreaming and mathematics.

Jan stared at her like that made absolutely no sense at all — which, to be fair, it didn’t.

The petite mage-slash-con-woman who we knew as Jan Martense managed to somehow make a suit of armour look ruffled and hassled, even though all we could see of her flesh was the oval of her pale little face. A few locks of her dark hair were mashed against her forehead by the metal helmet. She was red in the cheeks, her eyes were wide and bloodshot with panic, and she was coated in cold sweat. Despite a lifelong fascination with castles, I knew almost nothing about medieval armour, but even I could tell that the suit of plate mail fitted her to perfection, each piece of metal cut and curved exactly to the fit of her muscles. It looked impregnable.

Jan looked at me instead, shaking a question with her head.

“Hello Jan,” I said with a sigh.

“Where the hell is this?” She threw up one gauntleted hand. It barely even clinked. “How did I get here? Why am I wearing—” she tapped her chest with a knuckle; it went clonk “—this?”

“You were napping!” Lozzie repeated, beaming. “Janny, you’re here! I wanted to see you today but everything is so busy and there’s so much to do but you’re here anyway and—”

Jan held up a polite hand. I saw great patience struggle across her face. “Lozzie. Please.”

Lozzie bit her lips and nodded.

Jan took a deep breath. “Yes, I was napping. I was having a little sleep. And what is that!?” She pointed at the gargantuan Tenny-Mothra fusion dominating one horizon. “And that!” she added, pointing at the other horizon filled by the brass-gold dome.

“Tenny!” Lozzie pointed. “Isn’t she impressive!?”

Jan gaped at her. “Well … I … yes? Did you make her large?”

I cleared my throat. “We’re in a dream. This is not real.”

Lozzie went, “Pfffft. It’s a dream, but it’s real!”

“Lozzie, I appreciate the importance, but please don’t confuse her,” I said. “It’s a dream. Jan, you’re in a dream.”

Jan peered at me, still wide-eyed. “I’ve had lucid dreams before. This is not a lucid dream. I’m really here. Are you really here?”

“Yes!” Lozzie chirped. “Woooow! I really wanted to do this with you, but—”

“Lozzie,” I said softly. “Jan is about to panic. May I explain, please? I’m sorry to talk over you, but this is important and—”

Lozzie nodded with great enthusiasm. “Mmhmm mmhmm! Is fine! Talk talk!” She clamped a hand over her mouth, a silly performance, but it worked.

Jan boggled at me.

“Jan, um,” I searched for the words.

“Short version,” said Jan, snappish and running out of patience. “Bottom line. Least words possible.”

“Lozzie can pull people into dreams. This dream belongs to a demon, or possibly some kind of messenger sent by my sister, I’m not clear. I’m really here, Lozzie is really here. Tenny is really here too, but we don’t know why she’s so big. The big brass sphere is a mathematical teaching tool — I think — which is going to … well, it’s probably going to help me.” I pointed at the house over on the other corner, the familiar facade of Number 12 Barnslow Drive. “The house is here too. I think it’s trying to help.”

Jan just stared; I saw the cogs working inside her head, suppressing a very specific kind of temper. Then she reached up to her cheek and pinched her own flesh, hard, with the metal gauntlet fingers. “Ow!” she hissed. “Okay, a dream. Fine. Whatever. I don’t want to be here! Can you wake me up?” The gauntlet went up again, palm out. “Wait! First, why were you screaming?”

“Large Heather,” I said.

“Oh!” Lozzie unclamped her mouth. “I think that was nothing.”

“Nothing?” I asked. “You screamed.”

Jan huffed. “You did! Normally I run away from screams, thank you very much!”

Lozzie lit up. “You came running because it was me?”

Jan huffed. “Lozzie, Heather, are you in trouble? Can we all leave together? I am not cut out for dream shenanigans, and I am very put out at being clad in a suit of armour with the sword strapped to my back. It’s followed me into this, I’m not … I can’t … can we leave?”

Lozzie pulled an awkward smile. “One out, all out! I think!”

“We’re not a miner’s union,” Jan sighed. “Look, if you’re not in danger, if this is safe … ” She trailed off, staring back at Lozzie’s pained smile. “Oh, I’m here for the duration, aren’t I? You mean you can’t get me out, alone?”

“I’m sorry, Jan,” I said. “I … don’t understand how you’ve gotten pulled in.”

Lozzie chewed her lip. “Me neither. S’weird.”

Jan screwed her eyes up. “Weird magic dreams, with this sword on my back. Wonderful. This is my least favourite thing. I should sit down and refuse to move until I wake up, but that would probably be worse. Much worse. Oh fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck!”

“Lozzie,” I said slowly. “Jan is miles and miles away, back in the waking world, isn’t she? Tenny makes sense, she’s just upstairs, but Jan?”

Jan sighed. “I promise I’m not secretly sleeping in Lozzie’s bedroom.”

“She’s not!” Lozzie chirped.

Jan said, “It’s probably the sword.” She opened her eyes again and gave me a very exhausted stare. “Look, Heather. This — as in, me, here, inside a magical dream, with the sword, with the sword, this needs to not happen.” She chopped her hands back and forth, gauntlets glinting. She pointed at us both. “This is putting you in danger.”

“Janny?” Lozzie tilted her head.

I said, “I don’t think this dream is dangerous, Jan. Not between the house and giant Tenny, if anything goes wrong.” I took a deep breath. “What’s happening here is seriously important, if a little … unclear. We can help look after you, and when this is over, you’ll just wake up like normal. Please. Please, Jan, that brass dome up there is some kind of message or tool from my sister, and I need it.”

Jan swallowed. “No. The sword on my back. Me being here. Those things are putting you in danger.”

Lozzie tilted her head the other way. “Janny? What is it?”

Jan screwed up her face. “This has nothing — nothing! — to do with you. It’s none of your business, you don’t need to know. Lozzie … maybe I’ll tell you one day, if we get married or something, but not now. Not now! Not in a dream! Not with the sword! Not when you’re trying to accomplish something important!” Jan went to rub at her own eyes, then huffed when she found the gauntlet in the way. “And why armour!?” She shook her hand as if trying to dislodge a cobweb. “Fuck off! Oh, God. Okay. Look, I’m sure whatever is going on here is safe — without me here! Without the—” She slammed to a halt, then looked at Lozzie. “Can you send the sword back, by itself?”

Lozzie blinked at her. “Does it dream?”


Lozzie bit her lip. “If it dreams and I make it leave, that could disrupt whatever’s happening. That would be bad!”

“Look,” Jan huffed, struggling with the scraps of blue rope around her middle, trying to get the sword off her back. “Just try, okay? I cannot be here with the sword. I cannot! And not because it’s my problem, but it makes all this … this,” she gestured around at the dream. “Dangerous to you! Okay. Don’t ask why, just— just try? Please?”

“Mmmmmmmmmmmm,” Lozzie made a grumbly sound. “I can try, I guess, but—”

Bigger Heather Who Was Still Behind Me But Hiding Very Effectively came out of hiding and pointed over my shoulder, toward the corner from which Jan had emerged.

A petite figure shuffled around that corner, framed by dream-remembered grilled chicken shop.

Oozing black blood and dark brown pus, marked with old wounds and weeping sores, naked from bloody soles to matted crown, eyes rolling and glassy-dead, purple lips slack and drooling thin bile, every inch of skin dirty and stained — was Jan, again.

Lozzie froze and put a hand to her mouth, eyes brimming with sympathy and worry. I raised my tentacles, ready to — to what? To fight off a zombie?

Our Jan, clad in not-so-shining armour, turned, saw herself shuffling toward us in gory reanimation — and let out a very tired sigh.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” she said. “Too late.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Welcome to the Dreamlands! We have: childhood trauma expressed in the body of the city, extremely confused Heather, a second Heather behind regular Heather, dome, B I G T E N N Y, and Jan wearing a suit of armour which may or may not be some kind of metaphor for her past/destiny/fate/obligations/self-doubt/cool suit of armour. And a zombie?! A zombie. Right. Hope you’re enjoying this weird little trip into the dream, because it’s going to get so much more weird (but I promise it’ll make sense in the end!)

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Next week, it’s a zombie! Aaaa! Aaa! Zombie! Or is it really? This is a dream, right? This must be something Jan dragged in. All Heather needs to do is reach the weird spinning dome thing and … do some maths. Right.

sediment in the soul – 19.12

Content Warnings

Body horror

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

And so, in the morning, with a little help from my friends, I grew a new tentacle.

Well, actually I modified an existing tentacle; fresh pneuma-somatic generation would not only require the use of brain-math, but would probably also draw on the spongy and tender vulnerabilities of my healing bioreactor. Nonetheless, by the time the work was done, the tentacle in question felt like an entirely new organ.

Compared to the previous morning, I practically bounced out of bed like an over-active child with a digestive system full of sugary cereal. I woke before true dawn and then lay there, filled with dull bruise-pain, omnidirectional anxiety, and a kind of nervous excitement I had not felt in a very long time. Dawn broke behind the curtains, washing my bedroom and the rest of the house with slow grey light, so I squirmed out of the covers before anybody else could wake up. I still ached from head to toe, but my body felt flexible, refreshed, hungry for motion and use and life; if I hadn’t been so excited over the tentacle-work ahead, I would probably have dived back into bed and snuggled up against Raine and whined for sex. My dozens of tiny bruises were turning a fascinating and colourful array of weird hues, my joints hurt but no longer felt like they were stuffed with gravel, and my skin had relaxed so it wasn’t a size too small for what it contained. I’d spent the night dozing and dreaming, my subconscious mind chewing over the proposal I’d made last night, already brimming over with half-formed concepts to write upon my mutable flesh.

I started the pneuma-somatic modifications alone, downstairs in the kitchen, before anybody else appeared for breakfast, outrunning even Raine as she washed her mouth out in the bathroom and followed me down. I couldn’t control myself, couldn’t have stopped or slowed even if I had wanted to; the end result was tantalising, yes — the prospect of real communication with Mister Squiddy — but the journey was almost more important.

Changing my body at will was a kind of euphoria all its own, whatever the purpose.

Breakfast was a non-negotiable requirement, however. I laid my chosen tentacle over the kitchen table, then had to get up again as my stomach rumbled loudly enough to hurt; my body knew what I was about to do, so it demanded building materials. I returned with two lemons, one clutched in each fist.

“Dual-wielding for breakfast, heeeeey,” Raine mumbled sleepily from the doorway.

“Mm!” was all I could manage. “Mm, need them. Mm.”

Raine helped. She cooked me a bowl of rice and a plate of fish fingers, ready as soon as I had finished skinning and devouring those lemons. I surely looked like a starving rodent, juice all down my chin, sucking fragments of lemon flesh off my fingers. But my body demanded more. And Raine looked at me like the most beautiful girl in the world, even when she slipped on the modified glasses so she could see the parts of me made of spirit-flesh and desire and hope. I sat there cutting fish fingers into tiny pieces and dipping them in soy sauce, chewing with relish as I lay a tentacle back across the table and began the work.

Others drifted in and out as the house woke up around me. Kimberly appeared bright and early, ready to go off to work like we were all normal people; she bid us good morning and made herself some toast, none the wiser to the pneuma-somatic biology experiment, churning and roiling only a few feet away on the table. Felicity turned up too, then vanished with Kimberly again, on escort duty so Kim’s normalcy and safety could remain assured. I barely paid attention to either of them.

Zheng crept in like a cat, in comfortable stealth. I paid plenty of attention to her.

“Shaman,” she purred. She cupped the back of my head with one massive, warm hand, watching the process for long seconds. I could feel her satisfied grin, dark and shark-like. “You grow.”

“Trying to,” I said. “Would you like a fish finger? I have too many.”

“Mm, no. Fish meat. Huh.”

Zheng did not stay long; I would have liked if she had, but the hunt called her more strongly than the desire to watch me prod my own flesh.

“Shaman, you are in safe hands — your own. I trust no others better.”

“I know, I know,” I sighed. “It’s just … be safe, Zheng. I love you.”

Raine caught her at the back door. I overheard Raine’s voice drifting into the kitchen: “You’re the only one who can cover all that ground safely, on foot, and fast as well. I get it, I’m not trying to stop you. Just don’t try to face down anything alone, okay? I’ve got your back. Call us if you spot anything. Especially if you find the house. Good hunting.”

“You have my back, little wolf.”

I could have squealed in delight at that exchange, but I was too focused on the work. The work was all that mattered, writing on my own cells and tissues and membranes. By then I had started to drift into an almost trance-like state, consciousness totally focused on the process of visualisation, my body demanding water like a thirsty chain reaction. Shafts of morning sunlight glowed across the sink and the kitchen counters, a throbbing aurora in my peripheral vision.

Evelyn stomped into the kitchen a little while later, with Praem trailing behind. She stopped and stared — at my food.

“Fish fingers and rice. For breakfast.” She sounded vaguely disgusted. “Heather.”

“I’m fine!” I chirped, feeling like Lozzie. I even giggled. Evee’s golden hair caught the sunlight. Her hunched pose and kinked shoulders invited a hug, beneath layers of comfy clothing, her dressing gown, and a shawl.

“I know you have unique dietary requirements now, but that has to be too much salt.”

Raine said, “As far as I can tell, she’s doing alright with it.”

“Still,” Evelyn sighed. “Fish fingers in soy sauce? Bloody hell.”

Praem said: “English sushi.” Evelyn let out a sigh like a dying tractor and looked like she wanted to return to bed.

“Sooooo,” Raine said, idly making a round of tea as Praem helped Evelyn sit down at the kitchen table. She didn’t look at Evelyn. “How’s Twil?”

“Sleeping,” Evelyn grunted.

“Where’d she sleep last night?” Raine asked, brimming with faux-innocence. “Didn’t know she was staying over, is all.”

Evelyn didn’t answer. Neither did Praem. Raine made an expression of private amusement. Part of me wanted to ask — part of me was dying to ask. But the work came first.

I had decided not to use the same tentacle which had served as the injector — the one I’d used on the Forest Knight, the one which had spontaneously re-formed a bio-steel needle and liquid delivery system when I’d thought Nicole’s life was in danger, the one which maybe, possibly, perhaps some part of me wanted to sink into Evee, sexually or otherwise. Medical equipment or quasi-genitalia, whatever I had turned that tentacle into, I didn’t want to risk cross-contaminating purposes; that tentacle was normal again now, the needle merely a memory of hard tissue inside soft flesh, but I didn’t want to compromise my maximum-security contact device by building it around a bespoke sexual organ.

The obvious modifications came first, arising from the smooth, pale, supple surface of my chosen tentacle with barely a conscious prompt: thicker skin, leathery and resistant; protective sheaths for the nerves; armour-plates in chitin and bone, laced through with iron and crystalline structures and tiny veins of conductive material — I silently thanked a Youtube video about deep-sea snails for that one. Marine life was such a wealth of ideas.

My bioreactor glugged and pulsed in my gut as I worked, responding in sympathy as my pneuma-somatic flesh readjusted itself into new forms. Since the previous day and my gorging on lemons and salt and proteins, the bioreactor had woken up just enough to contribute a token effort. It ached and throbbed like a sore muscle, unfolding like a bruised flower, making audible liquid noises like an exotic new stomach. But I made no effort to interfere, to coax it back down into silence, or bring it out of semi-torpor.

Technically I didn’t need the bioreactor for any of this. The process of crafting existing pneuma-somatic flesh into new forms was mostly about proper visualisation, something Kimberly had taught me how to do, in great detail and with a wealth of knowledge. I had no doubt she was much better at this than what little skill I had managed to practice. But even a little was enough. By thought and imagination and a little popular science about marine life, I could summon the forms of the abyss into human flesh — or at least their pale shadow, slowly and painfully. Pneuma-somatic matter did the rest, reshaping itself under the influence of my trembling will as I slipped over the edge of a trance.

If I had wanted to forge a new appendage, or grow myself a fresh pair of knees, or turn my head bioluminescent, I would have required brain-math, if only to flick the single value from a zero to a one, from non-existence to pneuma-somatic reality.

But my bioreactor was warming up and glugging away all the same. I relished the chance to stretch the muscle. Though I had to keep stopping whenever it sent twitches and stitches up my right flank.

“Take it slow, Heather,” Evelyn grumbled, watching me from the other side of the kitchen table, her arms folded and her jaw set. Her own breakfast lay abandoned in front of her, in the shadow of a pill bottle. She wore her own pair of modified pneuma-somatic glasses, watching my tentacle with a growing frown. “There’s no point rushing. You’re going to have to test all this before using it anyway, so don’t get your heart set on anything.”

“Heart set,” said Praem. “On pretty tentacle.”

“Yes, yes,” Evelyn sighed. “It’s very impressive.”

After that the work required more experimentation. I needed active protection as well as simple bulwarks, in case Mister Squiddy turned out to be worse than we expected.

Inside the thickened layer of mushroom-pale skin I added pockets of acid and enzyme, of paralytic toxins, and strange offerings from my bioreactor that I didn’t understand: layers of semi-liquid material that would flash freeze a physical intruder, or colonise hostile flesh, or repel attacks in mediums that could only be expressed in hyperdimensional mathematics, not the conscious human mind. The tentacle ached and throbbed, heavy with potential, swollen with structures beneath the flesh. My vision swam and blurred. Time seemed to drip and slide and crawl. At some point, Lozzie and Tenny wandered into the kitchen, but they must have left again, because when I blinked clear and alert, Twil was standing there in a long t-shirt and borrowed pajama bottoms.

“Doing alright, Big H?” she asked me.

“She’s doing just fine,” Raine said. “Let her work. Heather, you’re doing great.”

“Cool, cool.” Twil shot me a grin and an awkward thumbs-up, then turned to Evee. “We still on for—”

I slipped back into the trance of bio-adjustment for maybe twenty minutes. I couldn’t be sure.

When I surfaced a second time, Twil was gone, but Lozzie was by my side, in her poncho as usual, sporting a halo of wispy blonde. I demanded water and Raine pressed a cold glass into my hands. Heaven slid down my throat and elicited a garbled explanation from my own lips that even I couldn’t understand. I hiccuped and babbled and tried to explain what I had done, my words overlapping, my new tentacle twitching.

“It’s better safe than sorry!” Lozzie chirped.

“That—” I croaked. “That made sense to you?”

“Mmhmm!” Lozzie nodded.

Evelyn said, “Better safe than explicable, more like. Lozzie’s here because you were … drifting.”

“I was,” I said, blinking hard and grounding myself in the kitchen. My lungs expanded, sharing air with the house. “Sorry. This is complicated.”

Lozzie nodded as if this made perfect sense. “Gotta listen to your body, even if it’s not using words. Very important! Mmhmm!”

“I’m trying,” I murmured — but by then I was mostly trying not to let the pain show on my face.

The quasi-trance of biological focus had numbed my conscious mind for a while, but the tentacle hurt.

Not since building the tentacles themselves had I performed such detailed, slow-going, intentional modifications. The full-body changes I’d undergone in order to fight Ooran Juh, or the berserk state I’d entered two days ago, those had been mostly instinctive responses, running on pure gut feeling, a lack of inhibition, the need to protect my friends, my family, my pack. But to grow new kinds of nerve-endings or plate my tentacle with iron-laced chitin, that required a constant push against all my anxieties about my body, about the limits of what I could achieve; every tiny change brought a twinned pang of longing and euphoria — and also a deep-muscle ache in the tentacle itself, stinging and burning all the way down to the roots inside my flank, anchored in my mortal flesh. The result lay fat and limp across the table. And it hurt.

Lozzie must have noticed. As early morning light retreated across the sky, replaced by dull-soft summer blues, Lozzie reached over and held my hand. I nodded a weak thank you to her. She smiled back, sleepy and delighted. If Lozzie approved of the biological work, then I knew I must be on the right track.

Raine noticed as well, but she was less subtle, slipping on her own pair of modified glasses so she could inspect my handiwork. She let out a low whistle. “Very flash, Heather. Very flash. Looking sharp.”

I sighed. “Flashy or not doesn’t really matter. The function is what matters, and it’s not finished yet. I know it looks … rough.”

Raine laughed. “Naah, that’s nonsense. Form always matters! It’s part of you, right? So of course it’s going to be mega flash. You’ve blinged out your tentacle, Heather. Shiny plates and cool go-faster stripes, and gold lace too!” She winked and shot me a grin. “Love it.”

I blushed slightly. “Raine. T-thank you. I think.”

Lozzie giggled. “Bedazzle that tentacle!”

Raine shot a finger-gun at Lozzie. “Eyyyy, Loz. Great minds think alike. Heather, can you make it glitter? Sparkle in the sunlight? Disco-ball style, right? Do the gold veins light up?”

I rolled my eyes. At least she was helping me ignore the pain; I knew what Raine was doing and Raine knew that I knew, but we both went along with it, like we always did. Amid all these changes, amid any changes, Raine was always my rock. Raine’s affection would never falter. I blushed and flustered and tried to sharpen my mind to concentrate on the next step.

Laying across the table, twitching and flexing as changes roiled and rolled beneath the surface, I forced the flesh of my special tentacle through one last process, the most difficult to define, the one I couldn’t put into human words. And as I completed that process, the tentacle took on a further aesthetic change, one I had neither expected nor intended.

“Neon purple glow?” Raine asked. She raised her eyebrows with a wicked grin. “Nice choice.”

“It’s pretty!” Lozzie chirped.

“Party tentacle,” said Praem.

Raine was not exaggerating; the usual slow-strobing soft-rainbow effect had been replaced with a dark and heavy neon purple, like a colour one might see through cephalopod eyes at the bottom of the ocean, or in a particularly seedy nightclub, or in a dream about explosive headaches. The colour had arisen all at once, as I’d shunted nerves around and created artificial bundles, to hold signals where they could be examined before continuing upward toward my mortal flesh.

I croaked, hoarse with effort: “I-I didn’t mean to do that. I … aha, ah—” The tentacle both ached and tickled at the same time. I gasped and winced and blinked away the kind of tears that usually accompanied the plucking of a hair. “I don’t know why it’s done that. All I did was gate the nerves.”

Evelyn sighed sharply. “Yes, that’s the important part. Forget the light show. Heather, is it complete?”

“I think so.” I raised my aching, throbbing, tender flesh from the table, lifting and supporting the experimental tentacle with two others. The skin itself was both dull and over-sensitive at the same time. The feeling was like nails down a chalkboard, making me shiver and wince.

Raine said, “Heather, you alright? You with us?”

“She’s fiiiiine!” Lozzie chirped.

“Um, yes,” I said. “I think. All the safety procedures are in place, Evee, yes. A-ah. That’s … weird. Gosh that feels weird. W-weird.”

Lozzie reached out with one hand, half-tucked inside her poncho. She met my eyes with a silent question, delighted and curious.

“It aches,” I said. “You can touch, but be gentle.”

“Mmhmm,” Lozzie breathed. Gentle as a feather, she cupped the curve of my experimental limb. The flesh shuddered, then relaxed. I winced slowly. “Good Heathy,” Lozzie whispered.

“Trying my best,” I croaked. “I think this is it, I think this is the right tool.”

I half-expected Raine to make a dirty joke, something about Lozzie hogging all my tentacles for herself. But Raine simply looked on, happy to leave this one as entirely innocent. I liked that. It was a good choice.

Evelyn shifted forward in her chair. She still looked dead-eyed with exhaustion, even two days after the spell at Geerswin Farm. Late-morning sunlight fell across her back. “Heather. Explain. No need to get technical, just plain language.”

Her bluntness knocked me down a peg. “R-right. Um. Ahh.” I flexed my modified limb, moving slowly and carefully; I reached down toward the table and picked up the edge of a plate, but I almost fumbled. The nerve connections were so slow and different now. “The entire length of the tentacle, barring maybe a foot’s worth at the base, is now gated off from the rest of my nervous system. Not completely, or I wouldn’t be able to move it at all. But there’s now … security checkpoints? I’m sorry, it’s hard to put this in simple terms.”

“Keep trying,” Evelyn grunted.

“Okay. The nerve signals go into special bundles, filled with … abyssal … stuff, from my reactor. They get checked, approved, then translated into nerve signals the rest of my body can understand.” I pulled an awkward smile for Evee. “If Mister Squiddy tries to do anything unexpected, he won’t get very far.”

“Damn right,” said Raine. “No possessing my girlfriend. Only I’m allowed to get up inside her.”

I huffed. “Raine, please.”

Evelyn ignored the dirty joke. “Yes, that’s the idea,” she said. “Good. You’ve turned a limb into a giant security checkpoint. And you better hope it works.”

“It will,” I said. “It feels right. Numb and slow, but right, and—”

Evelyn snapped, talking over me. “Because we’re going to test it first. Heather, you’re not going anywhere near that demon blob in the corner of my workshop until I am one hundred percent satisfied by that tentacle of yours.”

Praem opened her lips with a prim click, and intoned: “That’s what she said.”

Lozzie and Raine both found this hilarious; Raine snorted and Lozzie giggled so hard I thought she might pull a muscle. I blushed beetroot red and hid behind one hand. Evelyn shot a dark glare up at Praem, but the doll-demon returned the look with her usual placid stare.

“Take care with words,” said Praem.

Evelyn replied through her teeth. “I will. Thank you, Praem.”

“You are welcome,” said Praem.

Raine cleared her throat and stopped laughing. “Seriously though, you’ve given yourself artificial nerve damage. Sort of. And it’s reversible, hey! Amazing work, Heather. You are incredible, you know that?”

“I don’t feel incredible, but thank you. I think.” I laughed weakly. My new tentacle twitched in the cradle of two others, sending strange sensations into my flank, muted and dull like quiet echoes. “I’m sure it’s going to work, whatever we throw at it. Like I said, it feels right. It feels correct. Might need time to settle, I suppose.”

Evelyn snorted. “I’ll be the judge of that. On your feet.”


Evelyn’s testing process was far less enjoyable than the embarrassing novelty of Praem making a dirty joke; I had vaguely imagined the ‘tests’ might involve Evelyn tapping the tip of the tentacle with a little hammer, like a doctor checking my reflexes. Or perhaps it would be some kind of dexterity challenge, like that time I’d played chess against Tenny several months previously, to flex and exercise the tentacles before I learned to fully control them. My new experimental contact tentacle would have failed such a test a hundred times over: it was slow-moving, heavy, numb, and highly imprecise. The modified nerve system made it difficult to manipulate, like an arm suffering pins and needles, wrapped in electrical tape, and dunked in freezing water.

Evee dragged us all into the magical workshop — myself, Raine, Praem, and Lozzie — but not before I could grab another lemon and start eating it. Mister Squiddy was still quietly slopping away to himself in the corner, confined to his bucket, either biding his time until he had a chance for mischief, or none the wiser about our plans, or simply looking forward to a chance to communicate. I had no idea which, none of us did, not until I actually went through with the plan. Evelyn ignored him completely, left his flap of tarpaulin up, and had me sit at the workshop table. She fussed around for a bit, sorting through old pieces of canvas and magic circles on bits of stiff card, fussing and huffing and displaying signs that she was feeling even more short-tempered than usual. Eventually she had Praem drag out a specific ancient design and unroll it across the tabletop.

“Oooooh,” went Lozzie, leaning forward for a look

“Breaking out the classics, hey?” said Raine. Evee didn’t respond to that.

The magic circle was so old that Evelyn had to refresh it with a marker pen, the muscles of her hand tense and tight as she went over the lines. It wasn’t special, not compared with the complex monstrosities and mind-bending designs I’d seen over the last year: just a single ring with a jagged star around the edge, frilled with a few accents of looping Latin and a single word in Arabic. However it functioned or whatever it did, the circle didn’t make my eyes water or prod my stomach with nausea. If I’d seen it adorning the cover of one of Kimberly’s new-agey magick tomes I wouldn’t have given it a second glance.

“Evee?” I asked, tilting my head. “What does this do?”

Evelyn added the final touches to the edge of the circle, careful not to smudge or touch the canvas. Then she sat back in her chair with a pained grunt, grasping for her walking stick. Praem caught the pen and clicked the cap back on.

Evee said, “It hurts you when you touch it.”

I blinked, cradling my tentacle in my lap. Raine blew out a sigh as if she’d expected better. Lozzie said, “Ouchies.”

“That’s it?” I said. “It … it doesn’t look like much.”

Evelyn held my gaze, grey around the eyes, and for some reason deeply unimpressed. “It doesn’t have to be ‘much’, Heather. A little sting, that’s all. No real damage. Just direct stimulation of the nerve endings. It’s a hell of a lot safer than a taser.”

Raine laughed, once, but there was no humour in her voice. “Evee, Evee, Evee, it better not be at the level of a taser.”

Evelyn huffed and rolled her eyes. “Do you think I would want to hurt Heather? Really? No, it’s more like a wasp sting. I can crank it up for you, though, if you want to slap your hand in the middle and discover your own pain threshold.”

Raine gave her a wry smile. Evelyn glared back, as if daring her to say more.

I looked at the circle and gulped, half-expecting it to be shimmering with invisible heat or crackling with electricity. But it just sat there, seemingly inert, waiting to inflict pain.

“Evee—” I said.

She sighed sharply. “Just touch it, Heather. It’s perfectly safe. I wouldn’t make you do something dangerous.”

I hiccuped. “O-of course you wouldn’t. I trust you. But—”

Praem reached past Evelyn’s shoulder and toward the magic circle. Evelyn flinched as if to stop her, but Praem was too quick. One pale, soft fingertip pressed against the surface of the blank core of the pain-infliction device.

Nothing happened.

“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Evelyn sighed. “Don’t tell me it’s not working. I am not digging up the notes on this. I am just fucking not.”

“Ow,” said Praem. She withdrew her hand. “Functioning.”

Evelyn scowled at her. Praem stared back. Evelyn’s scowl died and she looked away, as if Praem had a better point than she did, or as if Evelyn was being petulant and difficult and Praem had just called her out.

Lozzie had a quick go with the circle too, poking the middle with her index finger. She let out a little “Yaaah!” and whipped her hand back, giggling and shaking her finger, then peering at the unblemished tip. “Ouch, yes!”

Evelyn sighed at Lozzie too, though far less sharply. “Yes, we can all stop testing now. Heather, please, let’s get on with this.”

“Evee,” I repeated, “I don’t understand what we’re doing here.”

Evelyn closed her eyes slowly, as if she was counting to ten before opening them again. “You are not touching ‘Mister Squiddy’ until you can touch that circle and feel no pain. Understand? Your control needs to be perfect. No mistakes. You are not going into this with an untested method of protecting yourself. We do this right or we don’t do it at all. I insist.”

“You insist, okay. And I’m hearing you, but … ” I stared at the circle. “Couldn’t you just poke me with a fork or something?”

“Forky friends,” said Lozzie. But she sounded uncomfortable and distant. I doubt she had expected this situation to get so serious so quickly.

“Yeeeeah,” Raine added slowly, stepping forward and putting her hands on my shoulders. “Look, Evee, normally I’m all for directly stimulating Heather’s nerves—”

“Raine!” I squeaked. Lozzie giggled like a little teapot reaching boil. We both needed that.

Raine continued, “—but I know enough about magic — your magic — to—”

“Bullshit!” Evee scoffed.

“—to recognise what you’ve got sitting on the table there. Don’t pretend like I don’t know.”

Evelyn held Raine’s gaze for one long, uncomfortable moment, lips pursed, breathing a little too hard through her nose. Then she looked away, angry but muted.

“Evee,” Raine said, gentle and goading. “Come on, hey?”

I sighed at both of them. “I’m feeling a little out of the loop here. Please don’t slip back into bad habits, you two. What are you talking about?”

“Yeah!” Lozzie chirped. “I have no idea what that means either! Booo!”

Raine cleared her throat and gave Evelyn a meaningful look. “Better if Evee says it herself. Not my place.”

Evelyn gritted her teeth, grumbled something under her breath, and glared daggers at Raine. She spat: “I don’t care what tools I use, Raine. There is no such thing as the tool of the enemy when it comes to keeping Heather safe — when it comes to keeping any of us safe. I thought you would agree on that point of philosophy. I thought you had no limits.”

“Hey, I do agree!” Raine said. “But at least be honest with yourself. And with Heather. Kinda unhealthy not to, yeah, in this particular case? ‘Cos from where I’m standing this is like seven different kinds of fucked up.” Raine glanced around the room. “Apologies to Sevens, if she’s listening in. Random number, I swear.”

“Evee,” I said, trying to suppress a sigh. “What is Raine talking about?”

Evelyn finally lowered her gaze to meet my eyes. It took a visible effort of will from her, like she felt terribly guilty and couldn’t bear to see her own reflection in me. She swallowed, ran a hand over her face, and gestured at the magic circle on the piece of canvas. “It’s a component from my mother’s work. Because of course it is! Because so much of what I do is built on what she left me. Happy now, Raine?”

“Nope,” said Raine. “This is hurting you badly, Evee. I don’t even know why you’re doing this.”

“Oh,” I said as realisation dawned. A cold feeling settled in my belly. “It’s part of a torture device. Isn’t it?”

Uncomfortable silence settled over the magical workshop. Lozzie shifted in her chair next to me, staring at the thing on the table with an unreadable, heavy-eyed look, pulling her pastel poncho tighter. Raine just rubbed my shoulders gently, kneading the tension deeper into my flesh. Evelyn couldn’t meet my eyes.

I took a deep breath — and reached toward the centre of the circle with my modified tentacle.

Evelyn snapped, “No!”

She almost exploded out of her chair, which was deeply uncomfortable to watch, because that mostly meant she scrabbled at her walking stick and lurched forward. Praem had to catch her and stop her from banging her head on the table. “No!” she repeated. “Fine, we won’t use it! Praem, get rid of it, please. Just burn the thing, forget I—”

“Evee,” I said. “It’s fine, I understand—”

Evelyn slapped the table so hard that I jumped and jerked backward. My modified tentacle flopped against the wood. Lozzie yelped and then fluttered back down into place, like a jellyfish in a column of warm water. Raine clicked her tongue in sympathy.

For a long moment, Evee just stared at the table. Then she lifted her hand and said, “Ow. Well, there. Now I’ve hurt myself too.”

“Please don’t, Evee,” I said.

“Mmhmm,” Lozzie added in a sad little voice. “No ouchies.”

“No ouchies,” echoed Praem.

“Evee, you can just poke me with a fork. It’s fine. We can stop this.”

Evelyn sighed. She wouldn’t look me in the eyes. “Fork-poking is not reliable,” she muttered. “We need a baseline.”

I glanced up at Raine, then over at Lozzie, but both of them looked deeply uncomfortable in their own separate ways. Lozzie was biting her lip, with a look like she desperately wanted to retreat from the room and pretend none of this was happening. Raine squeezed my shoulder and gave me a grin, but had nothing for Evelyn.

“Evee,” I tried again. “I know you don’t fully approve of this.”

“Bloody right I don’t.” Her eyes finally snapped up to my face. “Heather, why are you doing this?”

“Excuse me?”

“Why now? Why today? Why like this?”

I stared at her puppy-blue eyes and her set, hard face and her bone-deep worry. “I don’t … I don’t understand. I … well, because we don’t have anything else to do but wait. Because we need to find Edward’s house, so I need to do better brain-math. I explained, I—”

“No, Heather,” Evelyn sighed. “That’s not what I mean, and you know it. Raine? Raine, for once, back me up on this, please.”

Raine sighed softly. “Not sure I follow either, sorry. But you know I’ve always got your back.”

“Evee,” I repeated. “If you’re worried about me getting hurt, I’m not going to put myself in harm’s way. I promised, I made a really serious promise: no more self-sacrifice, no more—”

“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Evelyn sighed. “Heather, I’m not worried about you self-sacrificing. I’m worried about you biting off more than you can chew.” She gestured with one hand as if wiping cobwebs out of her own thoughts. “Felicity was right. Don’t repeat that to her — that includes you, Lozzie, please — but she was right. About that thing we’ve been keeping.” Evelyn jabbed the head of her walking stick toward Mister Squiddy in his bucket, tucked away in the corner beneath a piece of tarpaulin. “We don’t know if that came from the Eye. Maybe it did. Maybe it didn’t. Maybe, maybe, it was sent by your sister. Maybe!” Evelyn raised a hand before I could protest. “But we don’t know. And Heather, for fuck’s sake, the last time you risked contact with the Eye, when you helped Badger, you almost died. It set off a chain of events which we are still dealing with.”

“Extra girlfriend,” said Praem.

Evelyn laughed, actually laughed, with a worrying enthusiasm.

“Evee?” I said.

“Sevens is the least of my worries!” Evelyn said. “No, if this goes ahead and the worst consequence is Heather coming back with a clay-based slime-girl concubine, fuck it, fine. I’ll throw a party. But no, that’s not what worries me.”

Raine said, gently but firmly: “What worries you, Evee?”

“What do you think? We are exhausted. We are locked in combat with a mage. We have no idea what might be on the way here, right now. I’m betting on Zheng finding that house for us. It’s the safest way. Heather is option number two.” She looked at me again. “So, yes, I don’t understand why you’re doing this.”

“Because I can’t keep looking away,” I said. “Because sooner or later I have to stare back.”

Evelyn’s face crumpled into an avalanche of worry. “Oh bloody hell, don’t put it like that.”

I almost laughed. “Sorry, Evee. But it’s true. I could end this conflict with Edward, right now, If only I was better at brain-math. And I think that proper communication with Mister Squiddy is the only chance I’ve got.”

Or scrub the Fractal off my arm. But I didn’t say that out loud.

Evelyn sighed. She glanced up at Raine. “And you’re on board with this, really?”

Raine shrugged. “If Heather thinks it’s best. And I agree. The quicker we can end the mage punch-up, the better. She’s got a point there.”

I spoke up as well: “But I agree with you that it’s worth doing right, if it’s worth doing at all. Evee, I will go through any tests you think are necessary. Magic or otherwise. Poke me with a fork, chase me around with a branding iron. Whatever you think is needed.”

To my surprise, Lozzie rose from her chair and tiptoed forward, fluttering the hem of her poncho and creeping over to Evee. Evelyn watched her approach, unconsciously bracing as if to get shouted at. But Lozzie just smiled.

“Evee-weevey,” she said. “I’m here too. I’ll watch Heathy. I promise. I’ll go in with her. I’ll be right there!”

Evelyn looked up at Lozzie with a strange and pinched frown, like she couldn’t quite believe her ears. “You will? You, well, of course you know what you’re doing, but—”

“Sometimes you have to do dumb things!” Lozzie chipped, nodding along.

Evelyn sighed. “Sometimes we do, yes.”

“Evee,” I said. “I’m going to go ahead and touch the circle. Unless we want to do this another way.”

Lozzie and Evelyn stared at each other for a long moment, Lozzie letting that strange little smile trip and bounce across her lips, Evelyn stony and dark and very unhappy with all this, but clinging to something in Lozzie’s expression. Lozzie bobbed on the balls of her feet. Evelyn grumbled something under her breath. But finally an understanding passed between them, something that was not for me, which I did recognise.

Lozzie touched Evee’s shoulder with the lightest brush of her fingertips, so feather-soft that I doubted Evee could even feel it through her clothes. Evelyn sighed and turned to me — and reached out for my hand. I took it without reservation.

“Alright then, Heather,” she said, blinking a little too hard. “Not like we have anything else to do all morning. You may begin when ready.”


“You have complete and total permission to interrupt this,” Evelyn said three hours later. “Veto power. Once this begins, you say stop, and it stops.”

Lozzie nodded, bouncing on her chair in time with the motion of her head. “Mmhmm! I have the big no! Power!”

Raine added, lounging by the doorway, “Should think we all have veto power.”

“You do,” I said, a little tighter than I’d intended.

A new kind of exhaustion hung heavy on my shoulders; the last three hours of testing had been unpleasant, but not torturous, but the constant readjustments had dragged me back and forth between normal consciousness and the trance-like visualisation, over and over again. The skin of reality felt thin around my senses.

Evelyn hissed, “Of course we do. But none of us is going to understand what’s happening once it begins. Lozzie, I am asking you, not as a mage or as Evelyn Saye, but … ” Evelyn trailed off, chewing on her lower lip.

“Evee,” Lozzie chirped, after waiting to see if Evelyn would resume by herself.

“Yes.” Evelyn sighed. “Lozzie, I’m asking you, between the two of us. If this starts to go wrong in some fashion, you pull her back out.” Evelyn jabbed the head of her walking stick toward me. “Don’t hesitate, don’t second-guess yourself, don’t worry about justifying it to me, or Raine, or least of all to Heather herself. Just do it. Pull her back out. Promise me. Please.”

Lozzie nodded. “Promise!” Then she leaned sideways in her chair and put her head against my shoulder, blonde hair spilling down my arm. “I’ll look after Heathy!”

I felt like a very naughty puppy who’d made a mess on the carpet: the topic of discussion but not part of it, distant and floaty. I sat there and endured the sensation, secretly savouring the time to rest and recover, cradling my newly aching tentacle with two others, coiled in my lap. The morning had already been an exhausting ordeal — not the kind with adrenaline and fear and running about, but the kind with painstakingly slow adjustments and fiddly delicate problems, like threading dozens of tiny needles over and over until one’s fingers are cramped and one’s eyesight is askew, while wearing a sensory deprivation helmet and a muzzle.

“Thank you,” Evelyn said to Lozzie — then to me: “And you, Heather—”

“Evee,” I sighed. “I know, we’ve been over it.”

“No, you listen.” She thumped the edge of the workshop table with the head of her walking stick; Mister Squiddy’s big bucket of clay sloshed ever so slightly up on the table top.

We had spent the last three hours testing the tentacle into oblivion. If it had been my hand, my fingers would be stripped to the bone and the bones would be spider-webbed with fractures, like I’d been fed into a meat grinder. Blocking pain signals was one thing — I could simply close off the nerves and thicken the skin and plate the flesh and that was that. But knowing the pain was there, gating it away while having my newly minted nerve-trick examine and pass it as safe? That had taken hours to refine, to make perfect. Because Evelyn would not accept anything less than perfect.

Nor should she, I was forced to admit. She loved me very much. She wouldn’t let me hurt myself. And if that meant hounding me until I got this right, so be it.

Eventually we’d finished, cleared away the pain-circle, and broken for lunch: normal food for everybody else, more ‘English sushi’ for me. But that was merely a brief reprieve before the main event.

Mister Squiddy now sat on the workshop table, safely contained inside his bucket and a magic circle. The operation to put him there had taken another hour, mostly done by Praem and Felicity, who was back from escorting Kim to work. Mister Squiddy flapped and slopped, a bucket full of rotting squid, happy and senseless and wet. Praem had dug out the copper cable we’d used last time, along with the old CRT television, and hooked him up to it all over again. The logic was simple: if he showed us anything out of the ordinary, anything suspicious, or angry, or uncertain, then the experiment would be called off.

So far he’d been showing nothing but abstract shapes, with many dozens of sides, rotating slowly against a background of flickering static. It was quite beautiful, like shadows moving across water at twilight. But it was also utterly meaningless, even to Lozzie.

I sighed and rubbed my eyes. “Evee, you’ve said it over and over. It’s not like I don’t enjoy listening to your voice, but—”

“Don’t distract me with flattery,” Evelyn snapped. “You’re lucky we’re doing this at all.” She huffed, averted her eyes, and waved a sort of apology gesture in my general direction. “No, no, I didn’t mean that, of course we’d still be doing it. But listen all the same, please. Even if just for the sake of my frayed nerves.”

I nodded, numbed by guilt; even after our brief and difficult heart-to-heart earlier, Evelyn seemed more on edge than when we’d started. Me experimenting with brain-math was apparently more terrifying than going up against an ancient and experienced mage.

Evelyn leaned closer. Her eyes blazed into mine. “If Lozzie says ‘out’, then you get the fuck out.”

“Yes. No question. Understood.”

“If you two come out of this and she tells me you resisted the request to stop — even if it works, even if you’re safe — if you refuse to stop when asked, then … then … ”

Praem finished the sentence for her: “Very disappointed.”

Evelyn sat back, eyes heavy-lidded, deflating slowly with one huge sigh. “Yes. That. And I’ll force you to watch the worst anime show I can think of. And I can think of some really shitty anime shows, you better believe it.”

Raine snorted. “Everyone else gets threats of violence, Heather gets threatened with harems. Seems fair.”

“Shut up,” Evelyn said.

I smiled one of the most awkward smiles I’d ever achieved. “I understand. If it starts to go wrong, then we end it. I promise.”

Felicity cleared her throat from down the other end of the table, where she was sitting with her hands together and her head bowed. She seemed almost as exhausted by all this as Evelyn was. “End him, more like.” She nodded at Mister Squiddy, quietly rolling in his dirty bucket of clay.

“That,” Evelyn grunted, “is a worse-case scenario option. Do not. Unless I say so.”

Twil hissed through her bared teeth. She was sitting on the sofa up against the wall, looking mightily uncomfortable, and still wearing clothes not-so-subtly borrowed from Evelyn. I wished I had the energy and spare mental bandwidth to ask about that.

She said, “I thought the worse case scenario option is the … you know. Amputation thing.” Her grimace worsened. She fiddled with the modified 3D glasses in her hands. “Right?”

Felicity mumbled, “That’s not actually a plan. It’s madness.”

“Yes,” Evelyn said. “For once, Felicity is correct. Twil, I specified that amputation is a distant, distant possibility. If we’re all screaming and vomiting up live toads while bleeding from our eyes, then yes, go ahead and rip Heather’s tentacle off. But I only mentioned it as a precaution. I want it in your head, in case. That’s all.”

Twil pulled an expression like a very distressed basset hound, which was quite a feat on such an angelic face. Her dark curly hair hung down and framed her eyes, giving her a haunted look. “Yeah, well. I wish it wasn’t in my head.” She glanced at me. “Fuck, Big H, I can’t think about that. I can’t pull your fucking arm off.”

I smiled back as best I could. “Just think of me as a big lobster.”

Twil’s expression changed in the exact way to make me feel like I’d just shouted at a small dog.

“I mean,” I added quickly, “it’ll grow back. You won’t be doing me any permanent damage. I am ninety nine point ninety nine percent sure that I can speed-regrow a tentacle if I have to. And, well … ” I looked down at the tentacle coiled in my lap, glowing neon purple, plated and gnarled and ridged in toxic gold. “With everything I’ve done to this one, regrowth might be necessary anyway.”

Twil didn’t look the least bit reassured. She put the 3D glasses on the sofa cushion next to her, then picked them up again, put them down on the other side, then locked her fingers together.

“Twil,” Evelyn sighed, “you’re not going to have to do it. Relax.”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Twil. She tapped her feet on the floorboards, shifting uncomfortably. “Wish you’d asked Zheng to stay this morning. She’s a lot more qualified for pulling off limbs than I am. It’s kind of one of her things, you know? Pulling bits off people? I’m under-qualified for this.”

I kept that awkward smile plastered across my face; truth be told I hated the emergency amputation fall-back option too. It took all my self-control not to raise my tentacles in a protective cage when Evee had first mentioned the concept. Part of me wanted to hiss at Twil, screech and kick and threaten to bite, even if the plan was for my own good.

Also, I doubted even Twil’s strength could get through the tentacle, but I kept that bit to myself.

Evelyn said to Twil, “Your qualification is physical strength.”

“Hello,” said Praem.

“You too,” Evelyn sighed. “But you already know that. We need multiple back-ups, in case something does go wrong.”

“Greeeeeat,” said Twil. I’d never heard her so sarcastic. “Me and Praem, fuckin’ ripper squad. Great role. Thanks for this.”

Evelyn shot back, “This is for Heather’s safety. You know that.”

Twil blew out a long breath, unconvinced.

“Settle down, puppy,” said a voice like rusty plates dragged across gravel; Aym was standing a few feet behind Felicity, head-to-toe in black lace, all except her pale face and long black hair, lurking like an evil sprite in her victim’s shadow. The effect was somewhat spoiled by Seven-Shades-of-Sanguine-Goblin standing right next to her, holding her hand, wrapped in voluminous and glowing golden-yellow robes — the physical manifestation of the promise we shared.

Evelyn snapped, instantly: “Do not address her. Twil, do not respond.”

“Alright, alright,” said Twil, hands up. Aym cackled like steam escaping a pipe. Sevens went glurrrk and yanked on her hand. Aym hissed softly and they both snapped at the air in front of each other’s faces for a moment.

I cleared my throat and began to uncoil the special tentacle which lay in my lap. “None of that is going to be necessary. This is going to work. It is. And if it doesn’t, Lozzie will be with me.”

“Right on,” said Raine. “You can do this, Heather. You can. I know you can. I believe in you.”

Lozzie giggled, head on my shoulder. “It’ll be fiiiiiine.”

Twil said, “Hope so.”

“Best of luck,” Felicity murmured.

“Luck and love,” gurgled Sevens. Aym said nothing.

But Evelyn snorted a single humourless laugh. “Heather, I appreciate your attempt to reassure me, it’s very sweet. But don’t lie to yourself. You don’t even know what this is going to do. This is a shot in the dark.”

I did my best to summon up a mote of Raine-style beaming confidence. But Evelyn wasn’t staring back at me with clinical, cold disapproval; she wasn’t being Evelyn Saye, Her Mother’s Daughter, The Mage. She was wracked with worry and concern and making very little effort to hide it. Dark bags ringed her eyes from lack of sleep and bad dreams and terrible fears. She’d been downing coffee and painkillers all morning, and only Praem’s unrelenting insistence had seen her eat anything except paracetamol and caffeine for lunch.

I’d done this to her, though I hadn’t intended to. My attempted smile dribbled off my face. My bioreactor grumbled in my guts, gently flaring with a painful throb of energy, unasked for and unanswered in kind. I winced at that, but then took a deep breath and nodded to Evee.

“It is,” I said. “But I’ve taken a lot of shots in the dark. Some of them have paid off pretty well.”

“Huh,” Evelyn said. “I suppose they have.”

“And I promise I won’t hesitate if Lozzie says stop. I promise, Evee. Even if this is dangerous, we’re going to be careful.” I finished uncoiling my special tentacle, stretching it out across the table; pneuma-somatic muscles ached and complained, inflamed and stiff with change. “After all, isn’t that what this is about? Oh, um,” I flapped my hands. “Sorry, I mean, my tentacle. That’s what all the tentacle-work was about.”

Evelyn sighed and slipped her own magically modified glasses back on. She looked up at the tentacle, then squinted. “I suppose it is impressive, yes. Well done. But does it have to glow like that?”

Lozzie giggled. “Blinged out Heathy!”

“It’s a side-effect,” I said, then cleared my throat awkwardly. “I said before, I didn’t do the neon on purpose.”

“Suits you,” said Raine. “Maybe after this is done we could swing by the shopping centre, get you some classic raver gear. Hair dye, glow-in-the-dark wristbands, light-up shoes.”

“Party Heathy!” Lozzie giggled.

I sighed and rolled my eyes, but my smile felt an inch less forced and fake. I knew what Raine was trying to do. It worked.

“Party tentacle,” I muttered, staring up at my handiwork. “No, I think it’s rather the opposite.”

“Party time,” said Praem.

The final preparations took only a few minutes. Praem fetched a pair of magic circles; one went beneath my chair, ringing me with protection, and the other went beneath Lozzie, as a second passenger, only semi-connected to this unwise spelunking experiment. Everyone else backed away, beyond range of any accidentally flailing tentacles. Lozzie settled in next to me, a subtle smile on her lips. I wrapped myself tight with all my pneuma-somatic limbs, a ball of physical comfort and security.

Just before I turned to Mister Squiddy up on the table, Sevens trotted forward, dragging Aym by the hand. Aym hissed and grumbled, but Sevens removed the shining yellow robes from her own shoulders, and settled them about mine instead.

“Thank you, Sevens,” I said, deeply touched. “I love you too.”

The words came out without even thinking; I was too exhausted and excited, and in too much euphoric pain to self-edit. Sevens bobbed her scrawny shoulders and nuzzled my arm. Aym looked on with a strange expression. Then the pair retreated as well, slipping away with everybody else.

Raine gave me a thumbs up. “Want a countdown?”

“T-minus 5,” Twil said, with a token laugh. She cleared her throat when Evelyn glared at her.

“In her own time,” Evelyn said. Then she repeated, to me: “In your own time, Heather. And you can back out whenever you like.”

I nodded, throat dry, pulse thumping, and turned to look at Mister Squiddy in his bucket.

Discard the cutesy name. Discard the bucket, the circle, the copper wire, the old television, the geometric images on the screen. Discard the clay, the squid-tentacles, the rotten sheet layer of false flesh. All of this was illusion over the truth. I wanted to speak to the truth.

I raised my numb, aching, special tentacle, reached past the circle and the bucket-rim, and touched the tip to the roiling clay mess, possessed by we knew not what.

At first nothing happened, just the sensation of wet, cold clay on my thickly armoured tentacle-skin. Mister Squiddy reached up to engulf several inches of tentacle, but he was neither aggressive nor cautious, more like magnetic putty enfolding a metal tube. I shuddered slightly. Seconds passed. My bioreactor gurgled in anticipation.

“He’s not trying anything,” I murmured. “Nothing’s trying to invade me.”

“Good,” Evelyn whispered from the back of the room.

“Shouldn’t he be sending signals? Like with the copper wire?”

Lozzie whispered: “Bodies are different.”

“Do you think I should say hello?” I asked. “Or ask a question? I thought there would be—”


A hot sizzle of electric-meat, flesh burning on a grill over a dead sun; a billion writhing flies in the rotten aftermath, rising in a cloud from the echoes of thought; a shape with six thousand six hundred sixty six point six sides; wet; and wet; and wet; rotating past the point of no return into a void of light where the seeker cannot see; a mote of motion in a sea of stillness; wet.

Nerve gates passed me information, not invasion, not dangerous. But it was nonsense. Overwhelming nonsense, flooding my mind with image-sensation. Not even hyperdimensional mathematics.

I gasped, tears jumping to my eyes, my brain juddering back and forth in my skull with a rattle-rattle-rattle of information poured into the gullet of my mind. I twitched my tentacle upward, about to disconnect.

“Oh!” came a familiar chirp. “No, that’s silly, we can’t hear you like that!”

Lozzie’s hand closed around my arm — and my consciousness closed up with a snap.

The last thing I felt was my head lolling forward

as I simply



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Mmmm, bio-hacking! Delicious! Evee’s not a fan of the neon purple glow, but Lozzie sure is. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that amputation plan. Icky.

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Next week, it’s time for The Dream Quest of Unknown Lozzie.

sediment in the soul – 19.11

Content Warnings

Allusions to suicidal ideation.

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I left Raine safely behind in our bedroom, with her bouncy video game girls and a kiss on the cheek — plus one on the forehead for me — and departed from the realms of relative normalcy to go talk to a mage about magic and madness.

A pang of guilt needled my heart as I stepped out into the upstairs corridor; not for leaving Raine behind, but for what I was about to do to Kimberly.

Or perhaps that was just the aching bruises of my intercostal muscles.

Number 12 Barnslow Drive felt very much like a cocoon that day, even more so than usual. A safe outer wrapping of brick and mortar and plaster and roof tile and clinging ivy and glass and paint, coiled around my spongy, tender, vulnerable flesh, as if I was a tiny mutualist creature — not a parasite — buried deep within the body of some unknowable leviathan, with armour plates and hard tusks and an appetite for plankton, with big slow thoughts concerned with forces far beyond my scale of comprehension. That impression was only heightened as I crept down the corridor; the long dim artery was lit by overspill from several different bedrooms, and by the dying red sunlight on the distant horizon beyond the city. Perhaps we would be blessed with rain that night, to wash away the thinning clouds and let the house drink deep. I paused at the window and stared out at the gathering dark, then opened the latch and cracked the window by a couple of inches, following some animal impulse to smell the wind. The sun-warmed concrete and city-heat hydrocarbons of Sharrowford were not quite able to blot out the scent of bark and leaf and earth and insect.

Then I sighed, closed the window again, and told myself off: “Stop stalling, Heather,” I whispered.

Nobody was around to hear my confused guilt. Everybody else was doing their own thing that evening, in various poses of recovery. Evelyn and Twil were together in Evee’s bedroom, which surprised me as I passed by the almost-closed door: they were watching cartoons on Evee’s laptop, just as she and I had done previously, though I don’t think Twil was allowed to snuggle quite so close. Evelyn was exhausted, she deserved whatever comfort she wanted. I had no idea where Praem was, but I suspected she was downstairs with Lozzie and Tenny, doing some inscrutable art project that Tenny had taken an interest in, something to do with play-doh and food dye. Zheng was out hunting, north of Sharrowford again, with or without my semi-reluctant blessing. Sevens and Aym were hiding somewhere beyond human concern.

And Kimberly was in her bedroom, talking with Felicity.

I heard the soft murmur of their voices on the edge of my senses as I crept down the corridor, toward the little T-junction in the rear of the house, plunging deeper into the gloom; and then I forced myself to stop creeping and walk normally. I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I wasn’t trying to sneak up on them and I wasn’t trying to eavesdrop. I raised my chin — ow, my aching neck and shoulder muscles complained — took a deep breath, and smartened my stride. Let her know I was coming, there was no shame in this.

But then, just as I rounded the corner:

“—light of the sun and flower of the air, how can I dare presume to possess thee?” said Kimberly. Her voice was oddly formal — confident? More confident than I had ever heard before.

Then came a click of parting lips, followed by the gentle motion of a tongue on dry flesh, and a slow intake of breath. Felicity gave a reply, careful and measured: “But I have already given myself to you, you gardener of my heart, you—”

If only I had kept creeping.

I could have clamped my hands over my ears and backed away. But I had committed; in my stupid guilt I was almost stomping. There was no turning back now.

Kimberly’s bedroom door wasn’t even closed — it was open by just a crack, an inch or two, showing the twinned glow from bedside lamp and computer screen, a heady cocktail of soft orange and artificial sky-blue. If the door had been sensibly shut then maybe this moment could have been salvaged, maybe I still could have turned away, maybe I could have left them to it and gone to Evee or Lozzie instead, though neither of them could understand what I needed as much as I suspected Kimberly would.

Unspoken guilt already gnawed at my chest; I knew what I needed to do, but I couldn’t approach it directly, not by myself. I needed help, from somebody who might understand what it felt like. I was going to use Kimberly to help bring me around, from whatever angle she could present.

She’d been at work all day, she’d done so much for us yesterday; didn’t she deserve whatever romance she was playing with Felicity? Yes, she did, but in my stupid guilt I was stomping up to her door to interrupt. It wasn’t even closed!

So stomp stomp stomp I went, blushing and burning and praying that they would hear me coming, because I did not want to surprise them in the middle of an act I had no desire to witness.

I reached the door.

“—sower of my seed—”

Cleared my throat.

“—owner of my fertile earth—”

And knocked. Three times. Hand shaking. Teeth gritted. Tentacles coiled like springs and aching like pulled muscles.

Felicity’s voice cut out with a little clearing of the throat. Something metallic squeaked — a chair? There was no rustle of clothes or bedsheets, no hurried departure of one body from atop another, no parting of hands or whisper of lips. Just a squeak.

“ … y-yes?” Kimberly called a moment later. “Hello?”

“Um, yes, hello.” I spoke to the door, in the dark. “It’s me. Hello. I don’t want to interrupt, um … ”

“Heather? You can come in. The door isn’t even closed.”

I whispered to myself, burning hot with second-hand embarrassment. “Maybe it should be! Oh God, okay, fine.”

I pushed the door open, rooted to the spot, every muscle tight with a kind of fear that is sometimes even worse than the worst of magical monsters and supernatural terrors. My tentacles bunched up as if to protect my core of flesh from sudden attack.

Two very confused faces peered back at me.

“Oh,” I said.

Kimberly was sitting at her computer, headphones around her neck, distinctively unrumpled, not looking at all like a woman who had just been delivering or receiving some of the cheesiest romantic lines I’d ever heard. The computer screen showed a video game of some sort: a box of text at the bottom, with an illustration of a melancholic anime girl in the middle — an anime girl who looked a little bit like an anthropomorphic sunflower, backlit by blazing sunshine amid a cartoon countryside. Felicity was sitting well beyond arm’s reach, all the way over on Kimberly’s pastel bed, feet planted on the floor, bent forward so she could see the screen as well. Both of them were fully dressed — and not in each other’s clothes. Kimberly was in her usual post-work comfy pajamas, complete with a picture of a yodelling dwarf on her t-shirt; Felicity looked positively fluffy in a big grey ribbed sweater, having shed her coat and boots. She still looked utterly exhausted, with deep dark eye-bags and a painful lethargy to her bent musculature. Without her coat she seemed a bit like a hermit crab caught without a shell.

“ … oh?” Kimberly echoed.

Felicity blinked. “Ah,” she said in her habitual mumble. “I think Heather overheard us.”

Kimberly looked baffled. “Over … heard? O-oh!” She suddenly blushed, going beetroot red up to her ears, hurrying to hit the escape button on her keyboard. A pause menu jumped onto the screen, hiding the sad-looking sunflower-girl. Kimberly gestured toward Felicity with both hands, then toward me, lips moving but no sound coming out.

Felicity said, “Kim, it’s okay. It’s nothing.” She said to me: “We were reading a visual novel together. Doing the voices, the dialogue.” She gestured at the pause menu on the screen. “It’s a very romantic scene.”

Kimberly looked like she wanted to crawl into a hole and die. She stared at a point down by the skirting board.

I stood there frozen for a second, utterly bewildered. What was a visual novel? What did it have to do with sunflower girls? I didn’t need to know that, but I didn’t want to make Kimberly any more uncomfortable than I already had.

“Oh!” I said, forcing a smile. “Oh. Well. I mean, if it hadn’t been, that would be okay too. I mean, it’s none of my business. I-I wasn’t knocking because I overheard. Not that I did— not that I meant to, I mean. I mean— it sounded. Nice dialogue. Yes. What’s it … called?”

Well done, Heather. Great save. Raine would be in stitches.

Felicity said, “I can’t pronounce it. Kim?”

Kimberly’s eyes found mine. She just stared for a moment, mortified and trapped. Then her lips moved while the rest of her face stayed paralysed. “Megami no niwa no shokubutsu musume.”

“Yeah, that,” Felicity said. She was watching Kimberly’s embarrassment without pleasure, but with a kind of intense focus, hoping Kimberly would look at her to seek refuge. She went on suddenly, “It’s really good stuff. I’m not really one for this kind of literature, but it’s really really good, especially when somebody who really loves it is introducing me to it. We’re halfway through the second route already.”

Kimberly looked like she was going to pass out.

“That’s lovely,” I said, with no idea what I was complimenting exactly. “Is this a favourite of yours, Kim?”

She squeezed her eyes shut. “Please stop.”

Felicity said, with more force than I expected, “There’s nothing wrong with enjoying literature.”

“Quite!” I agreed. That much I did understand. I cleared my throat. “I am really sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt. I genuinely just wanted to come and ask you about something — something totally unrelated to reciting dialogue from video games about plant ladies.”

Kim let out a tiny whine. Felicity shuffled closer on the bed and reached out to rub Kim’s upper back.

“Don’t be embarrassed,” Felicity murmured. “It’s fine. Who cares? Kim, Heather is in a polycule with at least two different types of actual supernatural creature. She’s in a romantic relationship with a zombie. She’s not gonna judge you for some light furry and monster-girl stuff—”

I actually laughed, in pure shock. Both of them looked up at me, equally surprised.

“Yes,” I said. “I’m not going to judge anybody for anything. I mean, yes, Felicity, my, um … proclivities are a little … extreme. I suppose. So um … plant girls?”

“It’s just the romance!” Kim whined. “I like the story! It’s really tragic and sad. There’s not even any sex scenes in it.”

“I dunno about that,” Felicity mumbled. “The bit with the watering can and the oak tree, she was enjoying—”

Kimberly turned on her, displaying a ferocity I’d not witnessed before. “It doesn’t count!”

Felicity put her hands up. “It doesn’t count.”

“Doesn’t count.”


I cleared my throat again; the romantic dialogue was one thing, but seeing these two bounce their reducing echoes back and forth felt like I was witnessing actual intimacy, something far more real and private. I gestured back into the corridor and said, “I’m sorry, I can go ask Evee instead, I really didn’t want to interrupt. I’m sorry, Kim, you have a good evening now, you … ”

But Kimberly’s embarrassment crammed itself behind a mote of curiosity, like a six-foot-wide cartoon character trying to hide behind a lamppost. She blinked at me, suddenly more interested. “Evee? You’re going to ask something about magic?”

“Well, sort of. But I can ask Evee. Again, sorry, I’ll go.” I even started to reach for the door handle, cringing my apology.

But Kimberly said, “Is she busy? Evee, I mean.”

“Not really. It’s okay, I can—”

Kimberly interrupted. I wasn’t sure if she’d ever interrupted me before, other than in panic and fear. “You came to me first?”

I paused, hand on the doorknob. Was this a good thing? Kimberly deserved the confidence, but I also didn’t want to lie to her.

“Yes,” I said. “Your experiences are more relevant. Evee’s aren’t, not really.”

Moving somewhat slow and robotic, Kimberly reached over and turned off her computer screen. She unhooked her headphones from around her neck and turned her swivel-chair to face me, then adjusted her backside in the chair, self-consciously attentive and alert. “Please come in. Please do. I’m happy to help. I really am. Please.”

I swallowed and nodded and finally stepped over the threshold, into Kimberly’s grotto-like room of comfortable pastels and silly unicorn posters. Last time I’d been in here the air had held a faint scent of cannabis, but now it was clear and clean; Kimberly’s personal stash was put away somewhere. The light seemed to welcome and envelop me. The curtain was drawn over the single window, shutting out the Sharrowford dusk. Tucked away in the rear of the house, the room felt especially private and secluded. I glanced over my shoulder and couldn’t see the T-junction in the gloomy corridor, as if the rest of Number 12 Barnslow Drive lay far away, down a long and kinking hallway to another place.

“Heather?” Kimberly said.

I turned back and straightened up as best I could, in my pink hoodie and with my six aching tentacles. My eyeballs itched and my teeth hurt and my belly was still full of lead weight in the form of a dormant bioreactor. Kimberly was so eager, like a puppy who wanted to be useful. Pale lips parted, auburn hair swept back over her ears, so slight and snug inside her shapeless pajamas. Mousy face, open and vulnerable. I should have left her well alone, not come here to pester her with this.

Felicity was very, very still, watching us both.

“I … I’m trying to do something,” I said. “Thinking about doing something. Trying something.” I sighed and slumped. “Oh, just listen to me, I can’t even say it in plain language. I need your help, Kimberly, because your own experiences might be able to inform me. Or perhaps you’re just the best person to bounce this off before I go ahead and do it anyway.”

Kimberly nodded. “Okay. I think that’s okay. What do you want to ask?”

“It’s a personal question,” I said. “If you’re okay with that.”

I flicked a glance at Felicity. She didn’t even nod or look down, she just started to get up. “I’ll make myself scarce,” she muttered.

Kimberly put out one hand and touched Felicity on the leg to stall her departure. “No, Fliss, stay, it’s okay. You’re a mage too. Maybe you can help as well!”

I wanted to say something like I doubt that, but I held that rude thought behind my tongue. Felicity sat back down, visibly uncomfortable. We shared a glance of mutual apology.

I said, “Kimberly, you might actually want Felicity to leave, for this.”

“It’s okay,” she said. “Go ahead, Heather. Please.”

“Well … Kim. You were traumatised by magic. Is that fair to say?”

Kimberly’s puppy-dog enthusiasm drained away behind the mask of her face, to leave behind a frozen wasteland with only the appearance of life.

I quickly added: “This isn’t about you. This is about me. You haven’t done anything wrong, and I don’t want to dig up painful memories. I just want your perspective.” I glanced at Felicity again and found she was staring at Kimberly. “Do you want Fliss to … ?”

Kimberly swallowed and didn’t know where to look. All her discomfort had returned, all her mousy skittish caution and wordless fear. “Um … I don’t … I … ”

“I should go,” said Felicity. She pushed to her feet. This time Kimberly didn’t attempt to stop her — but she did look up with a concerned frown.

“Fliss, no. You’ll be out in your car again. Waiting. I-I don’t want you to—”

“It’s fine,” said Felicity. “I don’t mind. Evee’s house, Evee’s rules. It’s fine.”

I cleared my throat. “Felicity, go join Raine. She’s in our bedroom, playing some game about bouncy alchemist girls. Go knock on the door and tell her I sent you. I’ll come get you when I’m done with Kim. Don’t go out to your car. Be clear with Raine, tell her I sent you.”

Felicity smiled a very awkward smile, using only the un-scarred part of her lips. We all knew the rules which Evelyn had laid down for Felicity while she was here: she was allowed indoors only if accompanied, and not to sleep. If Kimberly wanted her discussion with me to happen in private, Felicity would have to leave for a bit.

“Not sure Raine will like that,” Felicity said.

“Tell her I sent you. I mean it. She’ll do as I ask. Unless you offend her or do something stupid, so … don’t do that.”

Another awkward Felicity smile. She nodded and padded out of the room, past me. Kimberly started to reach for her as she left, but Felicity didn’t look back. She vanished into the dark maw of the house, footsteps swallowed up by the angles of the walls.

“Sorry,” I said to Kimberly. “I’m sorry to spoil your evening.”

“No, it’s … it’s not your fault. I just wish she … I wish … ” Kimberly looked down at her hands. Her auburn hair fell in front of her face.

“Do you like her?” I asked.

Kimberly looked up and tucked her hair back, then sighed and squeezed her eyelids shut. “I don’t know. It’s complicated. She makes me feel safe. But she’s so … closed off. Like she’s afraid I’ll see something bad.”

It was not my place to say anything about that. “I’m always willing if you want to talk about it. Or if not me, then somebody else. Raine is kind of a master at this.”

Kimberly gave me one hell of a befuddled frown.

“Well,” I added, “she seems that way to me.”

The frown got worse. “Raine?”

“She’s … you know. Good at romance things.”

Kimberly clearly did not believe a word of that. She looked at me like I was mad. Maybe I was; maybe Raine was only any good at romancing me.

“The point stands,” I said. “If you need help, ask one of us. If you need help deciding what to do, or how you feel, or anything really.”

Kimberly’s frown softened into a confused and self-deprecating smile. “I suppose you’re all much more experienced than me. Which is weird, because I’m older. I’ve … um … I’ve never actually been with a woman before. Only guys.”

I blinked at her, mildly surprised. She blushed and fluttered with both hands.

She continued, getting squeaky and red-faced. “It’s not like I have to google how do two women do it, or something. I’m not a child. I just— I feel— I’m uncertain, and— and— ah—” In a fit of terrible embarrassment, Kimberly reared her head back and sneezed into the crook of her elbow. “Achoo! Ahh … ”

“It’s okay, Kim. None of us really know what’s going on. None of us know what we’re doing.”

She smiled awkwardly, sniffling and snuffling. “Well, I suppose so. If you say so. Anyway, you came to ask about magic, not my problems.”

“Your problems are important too. You’re one of us.”

Kimberly nodded in the way that told me she was thankful but clearly didn’t fully believe this, and then waved me toward the bed. I sat down gingerly in the dimple left behind by Felicity; it was still warm. My tentacles ached as I spread them out over the bed, trying to relax my nerves and prepare myself for what I was about to do. Kimberly blew her nose, still snuffling.

“S-so,” she said. “Trauma.”

“You don’t actually have to talk about your own trauma,” I hurried to say. “I … I want your perspective, on how you’ve adjusted to … returning to magic.”

“Oh. Um.” Kimberly bit her lip. I waited, but she didn’t seem ready. This was all so new to her, of course. We had only completed the ritual yesterday, the ritual she had helped to build. The last few days of Kimberly’s life must have been an emotional whirlwind. She asked, “Why?”

I stared back at this small and mousy woman, and thought about the trust I was putting in her. Why hadn’t I gone to Evelyn, or just talked to Raine?

“Because I think you’re the only person I know who might understand,” I said slowly — and I realised I wasn’t really talking to Kimberly; I was talking to myself, beginning a long, long chain of justification which only led to one place. “I need to be better at brain-math. Hyperdimensional mathematics.” I sighed. “The last twenty-four hours, I’ve been basically ‘out of action’. That’s how Raine phrased it earlier. My bioreactor is damaged, healing, repairing, whatever — and I can’t do brain-math. I probably can’t even Slip Outside. Not because the reactor is necessary for brain-math, but because it stops me from passing out, from going to pieces. It helps me endure the pain and the dissociation, the inhumanity of brain-math. The energy it puts out anchors me here. Keeps me conscious. Keeps me … myself.”

Kimberly listened, gone still and silent, like a small prey animal caught by a boa constrictor who just wanted to talk. She had no idea how to respond. I was already spooking her, the poor thing; I crushed the guilt down and kept going.

“Technically I could do brain-math right now,” I corrected myself. “I don’t need the reactor, but it makes everything exponentially easier. But it also doesn’t make the pain go away. And I … I need to make the pain go away. Or find a better way to manage it, or … or … ” I looked down at Kimberly’s bedsheets and sighed so sharply that it made her flinch. “I’m sorry, Kim. I’m circling around something I can’t approach directly. I-I’m using you, to do this. I’m just using you. I can’t look directly at this thing. I can’t. I need help.”

Kimberly said, with such incredible gentleness, “I know how that feels.”

I looked up. She nodded, her nerve-pinched and skittish face full of desperate understanding, like she was trying to reach me across a bottomless chasm.

“Thank you,” I said.

She wet her lips, breathing a little too hard. “Eventually you just have to say it. You can’t keep it inside anymore, and you have to say it. Have to get it out. Have to manifest it, make it real. Even if it changes everything about you.” She swallowed hard, sniffing loudly, and wiped her nose again. “Sorry, that’s probably not relevant to your situation.”

“No. No, Kim. It is relevant.” I braced myself against the bed and wrapped my torso with my tentacles, squeezing myself to make my bruises throb and my ribcage ache. “I need to get better at brain-math. I have to. I have no choice. Everybody else keeps dancing around the truth: the only way we are going to meaningfully interact with the Eye — fight it, communicate with it, browbeat it, serve it a court summons, whatever — is with brain-math. With me.”

Kim bit her lip. There was that fear again. “Okay,” she said.

“You don’t really know what the Eye is. I’m sorry. We’ve never really, truly included you in that — but that’s for your own safety, Kim. You don’t have to know. You don’t have to understand. Just, listen. Please, just … just … ”

“I can listen,” she said, nodding. “Go on”.

I took a deep breath, and went on. “Getting to Wonderland is simple. Evee is building her special magic to allow us to stand there unobserved. Lozzie has given birth to the Caterpillars and the Knights — they’ll allow us to operate physically, to deal with the Eye’s, um, ‘minions’, if it decides to attack us or something. And I have personal protection, I have Raine and Zheng and Sevens, and … well.” I trailed off for a moment as my courage faltered. “But the Eye itself? Talking to it, or just pulling Maisie from it? That’s all on me. Evee’s magic, Sevens’ Outsider nature, those things are both powerful, but the Eye is beyond all of that. I should know. It spoke to me in dreams for ten years. Brain-math is the only way. So I have to improve.” I kept thumping my own thigh for emphasis, hard enough to make the bruises sing.

Kim took a shuddering breath, and then said, “Okay. But why are you telling me?” She flapped her hands in a moment of mortified horror. “N-not that I mind, just, you have Raine, and she might—”

“No,” I sighed. Kim flinched, so I reached out and patted her shoulder awkwardly. “No. Raine would tell me it’s not necessary. Raine would tell me we can find some other way, that there must be something we can do. Raine loves me, she doesn’t like when I get hurt. And Evee … Evee doesn’t want to acknowledge this either. Sevens thought she knew the solution, but then she admitted she doesn’t.” I smiled awkwardly. “I’m sure Zheng would suggest punching it really hard.”

Kim let out a tiny, awkward, token laugh at that. “You don’t have to do this alone. Heather, that’s what you taught me. Kind of. A little. The same goes for you. Doesn’t it?”

I shook my head. “I’m not doing it alone. In Wonderland, I won’t be alone. Everyone will be at my side. And I’m not trying to do this alone right now.” My smile turned real. “I’m asking you for help, Kim. I’m explaining this to you because you’re one of the people who won’t be going. You won’t be there. You won’t be coming with us; I wouldn’t let you even if you wanted to, because I don’t want you to risk yourself. And you have no agenda.”


I let out a little sighing laugh. “You’re not … into me.”

“Oh. Oh. Yes. No, I mean. I’m not.” Kim shook her head. “Not that you’re not a lovely person, you’re just … I’m not. Yes.”

“It’s okay, Kim. I’m not expecting you to be. But that means I can tell you all this without freaking you out. Thank you for listening. I do suppose I could have gone to Praem, or maybe Lozzie, or … I don’t know. But I wanted to talk to you, because you’ve come to terms with magic. I need to come to terms with brain-math.”

Kimberly bit her lip and frowned delicately. She watched my eyes, then stared at my left shoulder, then at the foot of the bed. I’d not seen her look this exact way before, with this subconscious wandering of the eyes. She was really thinking. Chewing the problem.

Eventually, she said at length: “I’m not sure it’s comparable.”

“Why not?”

“Well. Your hyperdimensional mathematics, it primarily hurts you, doesn’t it?”

“It does.”

“So this is about enduring pain.” She spoke slowly, carefully, precisely. I was now in the presence of Kimberly Kemp, mage. In a way, that was a delightful honour. “Magic doesn’t hurt me — well, I suppose sometimes it does. But that’s not where my problems come from. My problem is … ” She trailed off, seeing the inner conflict revealed on my face. “Heather?”

“I’m trying to psych myself up,” I admitted. “To do something similar to what you’ve done. Embrace something that has hurt me. Make it mine.”

“ … H-Heather, I really think you should talk to Raine about—”

I put out a hand — and a tentacle too, though Kimberly could not see the latter. “I’m not going to hurt myself. I’ve made some very serious promises that I’m not going to hurt myself.” I took a deep breath and realised that my hand was shaking slightly, that my heart was pounding; I was scared. I was scared of what it meant to confront this without pain. “I’m looking for a way to do it without pain. I need to get better at brain-math, but it’s not a linear process. It’s not like I can study it or use it, practice it like a skill or something. I’ve done that, I’ve read things, I’ve made my own notes, I’ve investigated and pushed and gotten creative and done as many things as I can. But the pain is still there.”

Kimberly nodded, listening closely. She was still in mage-mode.

I carried on: “I need to do it in a way that doesn’t hurt. But even that isn’t right. Controlling the pain isn’t enough. The pain is a product of brain-math being wrong for the human body. For the human mind. The physical pain is a by-product of a ‘spiritual’ process.” I huffed. “I don’t know if that’s an accurate way of putting it, but that’s what it feels like.”

Kimberly was frowning in thought. “So … you want a new way of doing it?”

“Sort of. Kim, when I rescued Sarika from the Eye, I had to leave my body. That particular equation, pulling her from the Eye’s grip, was too complex for the human brain. The pain was too great. I could avoid it by leaving, by diving into the abyss. But I never want to do that again. It was a kind of heaven.” I swallowed, my throat thickening with the memory of abyssal bliss, of how right it felt to slip between the waves, my body infinitely mutable, elegant, strong, and swift. “But I belong here. I know that now. My tentacles, the reactor, all the little changes, they feel right. I’m not going anywhere again. I won’t!”

“Okay!” Kim raised both hands, as if I was shouting at her.

“Sorry,” I said quickly, then hiccuped. “Sorry, Kim, I didn’t mean to … ”

“It’s … it’s alright. It’s okay.” She nodded, a little jerky and shaken. I took a deep breath and tried again.

“You see my problem?” I said, my voice breaking softly. Another hiccup jerked my body, stabbing at all my bruises. “I know how to solve this. If I leave my body behind, I can do anything with brain-math. There is a way, and it’s staring me in the face. But I have fought for months to make myself this again.” I spread my arms. “Me.” I took a shuddering breath. “And the tentacles and my bioreactor, and any other modifications I can make, they’re good, they’re right. But they’re not the solution. And I’ve been ignoring this problem. But now my bioreactor is off-line and I can’t look away from the result.”

Kimberly nodded along. I had no doubt this meant almost nothing to her, but she was listening. I lowered my arms and took several deep breaths, interrupted by only one hiccup.

“I need a way to do difficult brain-math without damaging my body, or leaving it,” I said. “And treating brain-math as this distant, painful, alien thing, is not working.” My voice got quieter, quivering in my throat. “I have to bring it down to my level. To flesh, and meat, and … and … ” I trailed off, with unexpected tears in the corners of my eyes. I sniffed, and wiped my face on my sleeve, and felt very small and very scared.

Kimberly swallowed. Perhaps she suspected where this was going. “This isn’t a technical problem, is it?”

“No. I suspect not.”

Kimberly held her breath as I rolled up my left sleeve to expose the Fractal.

It was so familiar to me now, practically a part of my own body, no different to the tentacles anchored inside my flanks or the bioreactor creaking and flexing inside my abdomen. The blunt angles and branch-like structure drew my eyes downward along the repeating pattern, sucking my attention to a zero-point which swallowed all knowledge. Black pen marks. But more than the sum of its parts.

Then I held it out so Kimberly could see. “Kim, I’m not sure if anybody has ever explained this to you. Do you know what it does?”

Kimberly swallowed, glancing between my arm and my face. “Vaguely. No.”

“We call it the Fractal. Raine drew it on my arm the day we first met. It acts like a kind of no entry sign for the Eye. I spent ten years having nightmares — lessons, channelled from the Eye — and Slipping uncontrollably, back and forth, most of the time not truly with my own body, but my mind. I think, anyway. That whole period of my life is a blur. In a way I’m still only just recovering from it. This stops any of that happening.” I turned the Fractal over, inspecting Raine’s most recent pen-work: we had not yet refreshed the pattern today, so the body-art pen marks were almost twenty-four hours old. I’d dozed half-awake on top of the covers last night, while Raine had traced the lines to refresh my protection. “And for the last few hours I’ve been thinking about what would happen if I rubbed it off.”

A cold hand crept up my back. A lump in my throat. Ice in my gut. I had to tense all my muscles so as not to shake. The words didn’t seem real.

“It’s not a tattoo?”

“Oh, no.” I gave an awkward laugh; the spell of horror broke on Kim’s irrelevant question. Just what I needed. “Though maybe it should be. Gosh, my mother would be quite upset if she saw me with a tattoo, though. Raine redraws it on me every evening. It’s the closest thing we have to a wedding ring. A promise. My safety, her promise. The first gift she ever gave me.” I sighed. “Well, no. The first gift she ever gave me was listening and believing, but practical safety is more important.” I shot Kim an awkward smile, already retreating from the unthinkable.

“And you want to wash it off?”

My smile felt like a mask. “No. I mean, that would be very difficult, for a start. I’d probably have to use white spirit. And everyone would panic. And the consequences could be terrible. So … no. Ultimately, no.”

Kimberly breathed a little sigh of relief. “Too dangerous for you.”

“That too, yes. The Eye might resume teaching me things I don’t want to know — or it might just kidnap me somehow. Or read my thoughts and figure out what we’re trying to do, and retaliate somehow. I don’t know. It’s alien, I can’t understand what it really wants. My best working theory so far is that it thinks of Maisie and I as its surrogate children, but I don’t know what it would do with access to my mind again. Or access to my soul, I suppose.”

“Yes,” Kimberly said, a little nervous. “So, you’re not going to rub it off. P-please, Heather, don’t make me hide something from Raine or the others or—”

“No,” I confirmed. “Don’t worry, Kim. I’m not going to put you in that position. I’m not going to do anything dangerous. Well, not without telling Raine and Evee. I promise.”

Kim nodded. “Good. That’s … good.”

“But the danger is not why I’m avoiding it.”


I rolled my sleeve back down and hid the Fractal, to smother the call of the void. I couldn’t even think about that possibility without edging toward a panic attack. I swallowed a hiccup, burped instead, and said, “The only entity which could possibly teach me more is the Eye. But I don’t think I need more lessons. I have to go beyond the Eye’s lessons. I have to accept this, somehow, and build something new.”

“Something new,” Kimberly echoed. Eyes wide. Terrified of what I was saying.

I let out a huge sigh; the last shreds of my confidence fell away. I slumped forward on her bed, going all shrimp-backed. “Oh, I don’t know, Kim. I don’t know how to do this. I just know I have to!”

“I-It’s alright, I didn’t mean to— Heather— sorry—”

“No, no, it’s not your fault, Kim. It’s not your fault.” I patted her arm again, feeling drained and terrible. “I don’t know what I’m doing. All I know is I have to go beyond what the Eye taught me. Body modification is good, it’s helped me, but … I’m still falling short. I’ve gone beyond the Eye’s lessons before — I made that ‘alarm clock’ for Hringewindla. Oh, but you didn’t see that happen.” I laughed awkwardly. “But I’m still doing it like the Eye. Not in a way designed for my body. It’s not right for my body. I need to make it right.”

Kim nodded, nervous and desperate to placate me. I felt terrible for pressuring her like this. She didn’t deserve this burden. “Okay,” she said. “Okay. So … ?”

“I have the bio-reactor. That’s a foundation. But I don’t have the … ” I grasped at the air. “The theory.”

“Theory. Right.”

“But I think there might be a way,” I said slowly, oh so very slowly. Kimberly stared at me like I was about to suggest we go rob a bank. “And I’ve been trying to convince myself to try it, this whole conversation. Thank you, Kim. Thank you for listening. I think I’m ready. I can do this.”

Kim whispered, as if she couldn’t quite get the words out. “What are you going to do?”

“I think it’s time I had a talk with Mister Squiddy. Squid to squid.”

Kimberly swallowed. “Um. Heather. Heather, I h-have to go get Raine. I can’t not—”

“It’s okay,” I said, finally standing up and taking a deep breath. I flexed all my tentacles and winced at their bruised roots. “I’ll tell her myself. And Evee too. Don’t worry, Kim. None of us is doing anything alone.”


“Heather, for fuck’s sake.” A top-grade Evelyn sigh followed the sound of her collapsing into a chair. She grunted, rubbing at her hip, half-clinging to Praem. I dared not look around at her face, lest I lose my nerve. “The thing is contained inside a magic circle for a reason.”

“We broke the circle before,” I said over my shoulder, without looking away from what I had revealed in the corner of the magical workshop.

“With wires. In a controlled fashion. Heather!”

“Uh yeah,” added Twil. “Don’t stick your hand in there, hey?”

I sighed. “I’m not going to stick my hand in there.”

“You’re thinking about it!” Evelyn snapped. “I can see you thinking about sticking your hand in there. It’s in your body language. You have no idea what could happen. It could melt your flesh from your bones! Somebody— Praem! Raine! Somebody pull her away from that.”

“Squiddy,” said Praem.

Raine laughed, also from behind me. “No can do, Evee. But hey, Heather, maybe she’s got a point?” Raine stepped closer, socked feet padding gently over the workshop floor, but not too close, as if I was a skittish animal who might bolt forward at any moment to shove my head through the jaws of the trap. “Slow down, yeah? I’m not saying don’t do this, I’m just saying let’s think about the safest way. Alright? Heather, come on, stand up, look at me. Heather. Heeeey. Heather.”

I sighed and rolled my eyes. “Raine, it’s not a landmine.”

Evelyn almost shouted: “May as well be!”

Mister Squiddy sat in the corner of the magical workshop, in the same place he’d sat for months and months. I’d peeled back the tarpaulin which had been hiding his bucket and the magic circle which surrounded it on a piece of canvas. He didn’t look any worse for wear — but then again, with him, it was hard to tell.

Mister Squiddy really was a terrible name for the mess of clay writhing in the bucket, and rather undercut the truth of what he — or it — was. An entity left behind in a trap by the dead Alexander Lilburne, via some kind of posthumous conduit from the Eye, via the skull of Alexander’s corpse back in Glasswick tower, so many months ago now. The entity — ‘demon’ was not technically correct for this thing — had ended up briefly possessing Evelyn’s comatose body, before Felicity had done her magic to dump it into a vessel of clay. Weeks and weeks later, Evelyn and I had hooked it up to a television set; it had fed me what had seemed like hints of hyperdimensional mathematics, strange geometries, nonsense images. I’d noted a few things down, gained a little breadth of understanding, but nothing more, nothing revolutionary.

We had neither the knowledge nor the techniques to get anything more out of the creature, so we’d kept it watered and contained, and hidden it away in a corner, for the future.

Were we torturing this thing with confinement? I didn’t know. I didn’t like that thought.

It didn’t have eyes or sensory organs, not that I could figure out. It looked like a mass of rotting tentacles beneath a filthy, moth-eaten sheet. Writhing inside a bucket. Slopping over itself again and again. Always moving, going nowhere.

An emissary of the Eye — or from Maisie?

“Heather. Hey, come on,” Raine was saying. “Sharrowford control to low orbit, this is dyke-one calling space station Morell.”

I finally looked up and around at Raine, from where I was squatting down on the floor, supported by my tentacles. I gave her a pinched look. “Raine, I am not going to shove my hand in there. I just wanted to look at him first.”

Raine pulled a rakish grin, brimming with both love and concern. “Can never tell with you, Heather. You’ve got enough guts for both of us.”

“Yeah, big H,” Twil said from next to Evelyn. “You kinda do leap first. Sometimes.”

Evelyn was staring at me, deeply unimpressed, her eyes heavy-lidded, shoulders kinked and slumped with exhaustion. That look wracked me with terrible guilt, but not half as much as the next words out of her mouth.

“Heather,” she grumbled, voice a cracking croak. “Do we really have to do this now? We’re all fucking exhausted after yesterday, and after the bastard lawyer. If I have to deal with another emergency I swear I’m going to have an actual nervous breakdown. Please. I insist.”

Praem added: “Rest time is now.”

That went through me like a hot knife. My heart ached. I looked down, then over at Mister Squiddy again, then stood up — ow, my knees — and dusted off my hands as if I’d been rummaging through a compost heap.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m not going to do anything with it right now. I just wanted to check. But I do think this is necessary for me. I want to speak to it. Him.”

Evelyn sighed. I felt rather than saw her put her face in her hand. Twil pulled a grimace. Raine reached out and squeezed my shoulder.

“Mmmmmmmmm,” went Lozzie, from over by the doorway back to the kitchen. “I think it’s okaaaay. Probably.”

Evelyn huffed. “Lozzie, if she does this, you sit by her. You do it with her. Whatever it is.”

I said, trying to hold my patience: “I don’t know what it’s going to entail.”

“All the more reason to not fucking do it!” Evelyn snapped.

“Evee,” I said, soft and measured as I could be. “You insisted I not do it, at least not yet. So I’m not going to.” Evelyn looked so hunched and reduced, sitting in that chair and glaring at me. “You insist. So I won’t.”

Evelyn’s turn to feel guilty, though that wasn’t what I wanted. She sighed and pursed her lips, then looked down and nodded slowly. “Alright. Alright.”

“I didn’t mean to panic anybody,” I said. “I just wanted to check.” I gestured at Mister Squiddy, in his corner-bucket.

Felicity cleared her throat. She was standing in the doorway to the kitchen, with Kimberly’s mousy face peering around her side, as if sheltering behind the older mage. Felicity said, “Excuse me for interrupting the uh, actual argument. But for my own understanding of this situation, that thing in the bucket — that’s the same thing I pulled out of Evelyn, earlier this year? That’s the demon? You kept it?”

“We kept it,” Evelyn grunted.

“It was teaching me some brain-math,” I said. “He. He was teaching me brain-math.”

“Mister Squiddy,” said Praem.

Felicity stared at me, then at Evelyn, then at the mess of clay and bucket and magic circle in the corner. “You kept it. In a bucket. In the corner of your workshop.”

Evelyn turned a dark stab of her eyes on Felicity. “Don’t you dare criticise my practices in my own home.”

To my incredible surprise, Felicity stared right back; she blinked a few times, her good eye watering as if facing down a storm. “And it’s been in here the whole time. We’ve been working a dozen feet away from a demon bound to a lump of clay.”

Evelyn reared up, finding reserves of energy in offended anger. “You’re the one who fucking put it there!”

“As a temporary measure,” Felicity shot back, though she started to lower her eyes from Evelyn, unable to face her rage. “I assumed you would have disposed of the thing by now. It’s in your house. You sleep above it. Kimberly sleeps above it.”

Kimberly squeaked in embarrassment.

Evelyn looked like she was ready for a fight, but she just sat there clutching the head of her walking stick. “Oh don’t you dare you use this new-found concern for Kimberly for the sake of your little—”

Raine cleared her throat and spoke up, loud and bright: “Mister Squiddy’s a lot quieter than he used to be. We kind of forget he’s there. Used to slop and slurp a lot, ‘cos he kept using up all the water we added. Now he’s kinda stabilised, doesn’t seem to metabolise it anymore. Doesn’t go anywhere. Isn’t that right, Evee? We tend to forget. That’s all.”

Evelyn and Felicity both simmered down. Evelyn huffed. Felicity looked away. They both seemed vaguely embarrassed.

If Mister Squiddy cared, he didn’t show it, roiling away to himself in his bucket.

I cleared my throat, and said, “The truth is, we don’t know exactly what it is, or who truly sent it. And I think this plan is worthwhile. I need to communicate with it, properly, more so than just the images it fed me that one time.”

Twil crossed her arms and nodded across the room, at the clay mess in the bucket. “Can we give it a mouth?”

I blinked at her. “Pardon?”

Evelyn sighed. “No.”

Twil went on, “Or like, a better form? A better body? Give it a head, a mouth, ears, stuff like that? Can’t we talk to it that way?”

Felicity shook her head and waved one hand. “It has clay. It could build any structures it wants. I’ve seen demons do that before in similar mediums. No.” She frowned over at the mass of squid tentacles in the bucket. “If it’s still in that form, then that’s what it wants to be. For whatever reason.”

“I really don’t think it’s dangerous,” I said. “It’s never tried to escape. It’s never done anything.”

Lozzie chirped, “Exactly! He’s just a little guy!”

Evelyn hissed a sharp breath between her teeth. “What is your plan, Heather? Because I know you’re just going to stick a hand in there.”

“I am not.”

“Then what?”

“I’m going to stick a tentacle in there.” I sighed. “What else?”

Evelyn blinked at me several times, then snorted a laugh and shook her head. Raine grinned at me, laughing softly too. Twil said, “whoa, sick.” Lozzie giggled. Felicity looked vaguely uncomfortable. Kimberly put a hand over her mouth.

“Tentacle,” said Praem.

“Just, like, ram it in there?” Twil asked.

“No,” I sighed again. “I would have to select a tentacle, and then armour plate it, probably isolate the nerves somehow. Gate them, in one direction, so it can’t access my brain in return. Creating the limb for communication would be a project in itself, but I could probably do it in a few minutes.”

Evelyn grunted. “And none of this would require brain-math? You’re already strained to hell and back, Heather.”

I shrugged. “No, just abyssal body modification. I should be able to do it without actually using brain-math. I think.”

The tone in the room had changed completely, from a simmering argument about my safety to a cautious curiosity. Why did everyone else forget my tentacles so often? Probably because they were invisible without special glasses. I always forgot that people couldn’t see them, just hanging there or touching the walls or helping me stand.

Evelyn sighed a long, long sigh. “Alright, Heather. But you’re going to test the tentacle first. I’ll come up with something.”

I nodded. “Of course.”

“In the morning.”

“In the morning,” I echoed.

She jabbed a finger at me. “And that means sleep. Not staying up late to iterate tentacle tools. Rest, recover. Eat another lemon if you have to. In the morning, we’ll make a tentacle. Together. In the morning.”

“Together,” echoed Praem.

I was nodding along. “As long as I can actually try it, I—”

“Make sure she sleeps,” Evelyn grunted.

“On it,” said Raine. “Trust me, I’ll have her out. Big dinner first, right? Everyone wanna eat? ‘Cos I sure do.”

“In the morning,” I repeated. “Evee? In the morning, yes?”

“Yes, Heather.” She sighed heavily and rubbed the bridge of her nose. “We’ll make it work. I promise.”

“Tentacle time,” said Praem.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Heather’s got plans, tentacle plans, mathematical plans! Seems like Kimberly and Felicity were having an … intimate time. For anybody curious, no, the name of that visual novel is not actually real. It roughly translates as “plant girls in the garden of the goddess”; I came up with it off the top of my head and then checked it with a fluent speaker of Japanese. Anyway, Heather might try to talk to the Eye soon, somehow. Oh no!

No Patreon link this week! Why? Because it’s the end of the month! If you want to subscribe, wait until the 1st so you don’t get double-charged. Meanwhile, the Acatalepsis Podcast has resumed their reread of the story. They’re back in Arc 3 and having a great time with it! Go check it out, read along if you like.

Meanwhile, you can always:

Vote for Katalepsis on TopWebFiction!

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

Or 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 does weird things with her tentacles and talks to a piece of clay, in the hopes that it will teach her some mathematical shortcuts. Anything to avoid that end-of-term exam.

sediment in the soul – 19.10

Content Warnings

None this chapter.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter


Evelyn made that word sound like frozen granite struck by lead shot, echoing down the length of the kitchen table.

In the brief silence which followed one could have heard the whisper of a mouse. The air was filled with milky grey morning light, flooding in through the kitchen window, picking out the thin steam rising from the milky brown tea which sat before Harold Yuleson. I could hear the bob of his throat, the distant creaks and tiny pops of the house settling and adjusting around us, and the slow furnace-crackle of my own bioreactor deep in my abdomen.

Raine broke the silence with a click of her tongue. I followed by resuming the process of noisily tearing into a lemon-rind in mid-air with my tentacles. Zheng let out a low, dangerous, feline rumble.

Harold Yuleson cleared his throat softly and took a polite sip of his tea before he continued speaking. The tea shook as he placed it back down on the tabletop.

“Yes,” he repeated with an oily, pained, apologetic smile. The sunlight picked through the tufty grey hair on either side of his head as he nodded. “Cease fire or surrender. Those are the exact terms my client used.” He glanced at all our faces as he spoke, at the very crowded kitchen of Number 12 Barnslow Drive — but his eyes started and finished their circuit with Evee, opposite him at the far end of the table, in all her early-morning grumpy glory. He continued, “The wording is only a means to an end. In a broader sense, he simply wishes to bring recent hostilities to a close, as soon as possible, whatever the—”

Raine snorted, lounging against the wall in her leather jacket, arms folded, looking like some random tough in a 1950s movie. “Yeah, I’ll bet. Old fart really wants this to be over, huh? We really kicked his arse the other day, didn’t we?” Raine waited half a beat, as if she was done talking, just long enough for Yuleson to smile and open his mouth again — then she quickly unfolded her arms and slapped the wall behind her — slam! — and laughed. Yuleson flinched like a hamster before a wolf. “Fucking slapped his shit!”

“Raine,” I tutted. I knew she was filling in for Twil’s aggression, but it was hardly necessary.

Yuleson carried on as smoothly as he could, raising his hands in a delicate little shrug. “I am not privy to the details of the encounter which happened yesterday, but from the attitude of my client—”

“We saw through his bluff,” Evelyn growled, inexorable as a grinding tectonic plate. “We killed his creatures. We captured his scout. And we sent him a bomb.”

Yuleson smiled — I had not known it was possible to express such pain in a smile. “While of course I will not relate any of this to any mundane authorities — please, Miss Saye, you do not have to divulge anything to me. If you do, I am bound by professionalism and, well, by my fees, to relate information back to my client and—”

“We beat him,” Felicity added, tired-eyed and hunched forward in her own chair, slowly sipping from her awful chocolate drink. “Where the hell does a mage get off on having a lawyer, anyway? I never had a lawyer.”

Yuleson nodded politely to Felicity. “There are times in any life when one may require legal services. Even a supernatural life. Especially, I would argue.”

Felicity stared, dead-eyed and dead tired. Yuleson withered like a wrinkly balloon. “You’re not what you appear to be,” she said. “This is a trick. It’s bullshit.”

Yuleson said, “I assure you. I am exactly what I appear to be. I am here on behalf of my client, I am—”

Kimberly spoke over him. “Fliss, Evee, we’ve tested him, haven’t we? We did test him, didn’t we?”

Even mousey little Kim felt safe and secure enough to speak over the lawyer, when surrounded and backed up by the rest of us. Part of me liked that. Part of me wanted to reach over and pat her on the shoulder with a tentacle — but that would make her jump. I settled for tearing lemon rind more loudly.

Felicity patted her on the shoulder instead. “More than one type of trick, Kim.”

“Of course it’s bullshit,” Evelyn grumbled. “Surrender? We won. We’re on the front foot. We are twenty-four to forty-eight hours away from finding where he hides and putting his head on a spike. And no, that’s not a metaphor. I’m going to let Zheng there pull his head off. Maybe I’ll let her pull yours off, too.”

Zheng rumbled like a distant landslide. She was standing not three feet from Yuleson’s left, looming over him, a final safeguard in case we’d missed anything. She watched him with a strange, detached amusement, like a cat with bleeding prey. He wasn’t even a threat, he was nothing.

“You do not let me do anything, wizard,” Zheng said. But she was grinning at that suggestion.

Yuleson smiled through his teeth, addressing Evelyn. “Again, please, extraneous details may make me accessory to—”

“Surrender?” Evelyn spat. “This is an insult. You are an insult. He’s insulting us.”

Yuleson swallowed. He looked like he needed the toilet. “I am a solicitor. I am here because I am paid to be here. I intend no insult and—”

“Why the hell would he expect us to surrender?” Evelyn hissed.

Yuleson froze. He blinked twice, nodded, then laughed softly — the laugh of a man who had just realised he’s forgotten the punchline of his own joke. “Ahhh, um. Oh. Ahem-ahem.” He actually said the ‘ahems’ out loud, then took another deep sip of rapidly cooling tea. He placed the tea back down and nodded politely toward Praem, who was standing a couple of feet from Evelyn’s right arm, in her habitual place. “Very good tea, thank you, Miss Saye. Oh, my, that is a little confusing, isn’t it? We have two Miss Sayes in the room: the elder and the younger. May I ask what brand of tea this is? I assumed I would be served some good old PG Tips pyramid bags. My favourite. But I can taste the quality here. Have you gotten something shipped up from Harrods?”

“PG Tips,” said Praem. “You are welcome.”

“A joke. Surely?”

“PG Tips.”

“Well!” Yuleson declared. “You have worked miracles with it. I am stunned, I—”

“Hey, buddy,” Raine said. “Get on with it. Stop stalling, hey? We’ve got orgies to have and mages to kill. You know how it is, being young.”

Yuleson cleared his throat again and favoured Raine with an even more pained smile than before, as if embarrassed by his own tomfoolery.

“I do apologise,” he said. “As you young ladies can all probably tell, I am more than a little frightened to be sitting here.” His eyes flickered nervously to the semi-skinned lemon I was peeling with my tentacles; to his sight the fruit was hovering in mid-air, with the skin slowly tearing from the flesh. Then he glanced at Zheng, glowering down at him like a pyroclastic flow. “I did not assume I would actually be invited indoors. The gauntlet of … curious examinations has me a little rattled. This is a very fraught situation and a very delicate matter and I appear to have … ” He paused, took a deep breath, and fanned himself with one wrinkled, soft-fingered hand. No rings, I noted. He wore a wristwatch, a traditional one with an analogue dial and a leather strap. “I appear to have gravely misspoken. My client, Edward Lilburne, is not demanding or expecting your surrender. He is offering his own — if that is what it takes.”

Nobody said anything for a second. Then Raine let out a low chuckle. Evelyn sighed and ran one hand over her face. Felicity frowned as if over a game of chess gone wrong. Kimberly looked blank and out of her depth. Zheng rumbled a throaty noise which sounded like, “Coward.” I tutted and finished peeling my lemon, then flung the empty rind down on the plate on the table; part of me wanted to throw it at Yuleson, but that would have been childish, and also gotten fragments of lemon pith all over the floor. Praem would not have approved.

Yuleson still flinched though. He stared at me for a second as I bit into the lemon. I stared back.

I desperately wanted to sit down; I still ached all over with dozens of tiny bruises, my joints felt raw and rough, and my gums hurt. But I stood next to Raine and stared at the lawyer, eating my lemon raw.

“No,” said Lozzie. She shook her head. “No. No. Triple no. Quad no.”

I had a tentacle wrapped around her front, a sort of semi-remote hug. I squeezed and she squeezed back.


Harold Yuleson — Edward Lilburne’s personal solicitor and diplomatic negotiator — must have felt very overdressed compared to the rest of us, crammed into the kitchen for this ridiculous meeting. Except for myself, Praem, and Felicity, everybody else was still in various states of bleary-eyed, pajama-wearing, post-sleep grumpiness. Evelyn had been roused straight from bed, wrapped in a dressing gown and a pair of slippers. Raine looked like an extra from a movie about a lesbian gym, in tank-top and shorts and bristling with well-toned muscle, leather jacket draped over her shoulders for effect. Zheng wasn’t much better — long ragged t-shirt and nothing else; to Yuleson’s credit he hadn’t boggled, commented, or stared at Zheng’s semi-nudity, only at her bared teeth and tendency to loom. Kimberly was thick-eyed and covered in unicorns. Sevens and Aym were nowhere to be found, but I trusted they were observing.

Lozzie was wearing pajamas too, with her poncho over the top. She sat between Evelyn and where I was standing, flanked and protected. We couldn’t have made our statement clearer if we’d tried.

Lozzie had insisted on being present for this conversation. I didn’t blame her, but I knew she was hurting.

Getting Harold Yuleson indoors had been quite the operation; it had involved no less than three magic circles, a carefully deployed spider-servitor, Felicity’s tattooed right arm, and a full-on physical pat-down and search by Raine. She had turned out his pockets, gone through his wallet, and even taken the battery out of his mobile phone. Zheng had sniffed him; Evelyn had peered at him through the modified 3D glasses while he’d been forced to stand in the middle of a magic circle, then another, then another. Raine had held a gun to his head through the whole process. Felicity had grabbed his throat for twenty seconds. Yuleson had endured the process looking like a pig who knew he was inches from the butcher’s blade, occasionally mopping his brow with a handkerchief — though only after the handkerchief had also passed inspection.

“No tricks, no traps, no treachery,” he had said — though his mouth had stayed very shut until the gun was lowered. “I swear on my professional honour, on my good name, and by the little card in my wallet — yes, that’s the one! That’s my partner. I am married, yes. Yes, I am also hoping to manipulate you into not killing me. People do know where I am, where I have gone today; mundane people, ordinary people at my offices, at my little firm, who know nothing of magic and will ask questions if I happen to go missing. I haven’t even brought my briefcase, lest it be assumed I was hiding anything distasteful inside. I am not carrying a bomb into your lovely house, I am doing my job and—”

“He’s clean,” Evelyn had spat. “Shut him up. Put him in the kitchen. Edward should have sent you with a bomb, it would make more fucking sense.”

Raine had been tasked with calling Nicole in the hospital and Twil at home, just in case this was a distraction to tie us up while Edward hit us elsewhere. But nothing was happening, everywhere was quiet.

“Twil wants in,” Raine had reported to Evee.

“Tell her to fucking stay put!” Evee had spat. “Nobody moves, nobody goes down to the fucking corner shop until I say!”

“Yes,” Praem added. “Strawberry?”

“I don’t mean you. Poor example. Yes, sorry. Fine. You had a perfect right to go for a walk — but not now.”


Evelyn had sighed. “Fine. Yes. Thank you.”

During all the fuss and rushing about, I had concerned myself with making sure Tenny understood what was going on. Poor thing was still shaken after yesterday, huddled down in bed with tired eyes, wrapped in her own tentacles, like I might do when feeling awful. But I had explained what was happening; it was important she knew.

“Peace talks,” she trilled at me. “Good?”

“Sort of. Maybe. We’ve already won, I think, but peace talks are good too. You don’t have to be there though, Tenns. You stay up here and go back to sleep. Or play a game with Lozzie? Or pet Marmite for now? He’s sleeping too, I guess.”

“I’m coming down,” Lozzie said, kicking off the covers and diving into her poncho. Then she planted a big kiss on Tenny’s forehead. “Love you, Tenns. Stay-stay! Back soon, okay?”

“Kaaaaay,” Tenny trilled. She’d gone over to Marmite and linked tentacles with his sleepy-spider limbs.

Lozzie hadn’t given me time to argue, not in front of Tenny. And she had just as much right to be there as any of us. More, in fact.

She had sat and listened to Yuleson’s pitch, in silence, as had we all.


“No,” Lozzie repeated, biting her lower lip.

“Yeah, mate,” Raine agreed. “Eddy’s gonna surrender? My arse. You tried this same song and dance with us before. Almost to the letter. Come on.”

Yuleson lit up. “Last time we met, my client was a reluctant bystander to a conflict he had no part in. This time is different. He is in open conflict with your group here. We all acknowledge that reality. A ceasefire or surrender is entirely appropriate.”

“No,” said Lozzie — more forceful, with a little frown creasing her forehead.

Yuleson smiled his oily little smile again, the one that didn’t reach his eyes but did communicate great pain, like a small rodent attempting to bargain with a big lizard. He put his hands together as if praying and looked directly at Lozzie.

“I do not believe I have had the pleasure of meeting several of the young ladies in this room, but I do believe that I am speaking with Miss Lauren Lilburne. Is that correct? Very pleased to finally meet you, Miss.”

“Lozzie!” chirped Lozzie.

“Oh! Do forgive me. I’ve met several Laurens who go by ‘Loz’ informally, but never a ‘Lozzie’. Delightful.” He made several awkward little clearing motions with his throat, ‘mmmhmm’, ‘mm’, and even an ‘mmm?’ “Now, if I may—”

Evelyn said, low and dark, “You are talking to me. Not her.”

Yuleson reacted as if stung. Both hands went up, index fingers extended, pleading for his moment. Evelyn sighed. I wrapped another tentacle around Lozzie’s shoulders and chewed my lemon flesh with increasing agitation. Zheng growled — which made Yuleson flinch again.

“May I?” Yuleson said, dry mouthed and quivering. “May I continue, please? I would like to remind everybody that I am not my client. I am not Mister Edward Lilburne. I am trying to open and continue negotiations. Aggression towards me is very understandable, but it really serves no purpose. Please, everyone, if we could just talk?”

Raine said, “You took his money, didn’t you? You’re his little creature.”

Yuleson turned a rather odd look on her, politely peeved. “Of course I accepted his money. I’m not made of stone. I can see the way the cookie crumbles.”

“How much?” Felicity asked in her usual mumble. “How much this mage pay you to come do this meeting?”

Yuleson wet his lips and coughed into one hand, his smile turning amused, as if Felicity was a rookie player at a game he knew inside out. “I am very sorry, Miss, but I only divulge my financial transactions to Inland Revenue. And I do divulge all my financial transactions to Inland Revenue. I dot my I’s and cross my T’s. The Tax Man is far more frightening than any, ahem, magician.” He coughed again and said very quickly, “One hundred thousand pounds.”

Raine let out a low whistle. Kimberly gaped. Felicity just tutted. I blinked several times; that was a staggering amount of money. Lozzie looked oddly sad. Evelyn just stared, unimpressed and unmoved.

“My brief,” Yuleson went on, “as I have explained twice now, is to negotiate a ceasefire or surrender.”

Stony looks all round.

“But!” Yuleson added with a raised finger. “While I am here, in the interests of a … durable ceasefire, perhaps it would be best to clear up certain matters of … interest, to my client. Matters which may avoid further conflict if properly and fully resolved.” He smiled and gestured as he spoke, struggling to find the right words. But he didn’t seem to be making it up as he went along. Sweat was beading on his brow again. He dabbed at himself with his handkerchief.

Evelyn started to say, “You’ve been sent to distract and—”

But Lozzie interrupted with a curious little chirp, po-faced and blinking. “Mister lawyer maaaaaan, what were you going to ask me?”

Yuleson put his hands together as if pleading. He smiled, plump and healthy and wrinkly. “Lozzie. May I call you that, or is that only for friends?”

“Lozzie’s Lozzie,” said Lozzie.

“Very well. Lozzie. I need you to tell me the truth. To the best of your recollection, are you over eighteen? Are you an adult?”

“Mmmhmm!” Lozzie nodded.

Yuleson glanced around at our faces, seeking confirmation. “She is,” I said, licking lemon juice off my lips. Zheng rumbled in some kind of disapproval. Raine shrugged and added, “Far as anybody knows.” Kim said, “I don’t think that’s anybody’s business but Lozzie’s.”

Yuleson sighed and smiled with relief. “Good, good, that is good news. Now, Lozzie, do you have a birth certificate, or a driver’s license, or a passport? Even a young person’s rail-card, or any other kind of official identification … no?” Yuleson winced as Lozzie shook her head.

“Off the grid!” Lozzie chirped.

Felicity said, “Smart move. Smart girl.”

Evelyn glared sideways at her, but Felicity must have missed the look, because she didn’t wilt.

“Ah,” said Yuleson, his relief turning to polite fear. “You think I am trying to pull a fast one, or trick you, or hand off identification to my client. I am not, I am—”

Evelyn grumbled, “What the hell does Lozzie’s age have to do with anything? Explain.”

Yuleson looked genuinely pained. He sighed and grimaced, a particularly horrible kind of smile. “My client is … has been for quite some time … he wishes for—”

“He wants Lozzie,” I said, tightening my tentacle around her shoulders. “We know.”

“Yes,” Yuleson sighed, as if this was a shameful admission. “He is obsessed with taking legal custody of his niece.” He put up both hands. “I know, I know, I am his lawyer, I am on retainer, but I have done everything in my power to discourage the man from this course of action. If I could present him with proof — legal, official proof — that Lozzie here is a legal adult, I do believe it would go a long way to diverting this particular obsession. If a passport or birth certificate does happen to ‘turn up’” — he actually did the air-quotes with his fingers — “please contact me. Please.”

A long moment of silence filled the kitchen. I bit into my lemon again, juice messy on one hand. Yuleson winced at the sound.

“Nice try,” said Raine.

Yuleson flapped both hands, making no effort to hide his deep personal discomfort.

“He won’t surrender,” said Lozzie. “S’not what he does! He keeps going and going and going. No.”

Yuleson pulled a helpless smile. “I see you are familiar with him, yes.”

“I agree,” Evelyn grunted. “What is he offering, exactly? Surrender, really? He must think we’re all blithering idiots to believe that for one second.”

Zheng grunted, “Wizards make difficult prey.”

“Quite,” Evelyn said. “Go on then, what is he offering? Unconditional surrender? Give up the book, fuck off away from Sharrowford forever, give up any claim to Lozzie?”

“Yeeeeah,” went Raine, slowly. “How much authority has he actually delegated to you, mate?”

Yuleson wet his lips. “He will hand over the book, yes. I am not personally familiar with the title, but ‘the book’ was a matter of discussion and he is willing to hand it over. He will forfeit any rights over his niece — though privately I believe he will continue to pursue her via extra-legal means.”

“Ha!” Evelyn spat. “Extra-legal means.”

Raine purred, “Talk dirty to me more.”

Lozzie was shaking softly in her chair. I stepped forward and used my free hand to smooth her hair back from her forehead. “I’m here,” I whispered. “We’re all here.”

Yuleson continued. “He does not wish to leave the Sharrowford area or give up his home. He wishes to remain in his house, unmolested, and return to a quiet life.”

“You know,” Raine said, tilting her head up to frown at the ceiling. “I seem to recall that Eddy really likes to send letters. Why are you not a letter?”

Yuleson laughed awkwardly. “A letter cannot negotiate terms.”

Felicity said, “What’s to stop Evelyn accepting the book, but then going after him anyway? That’s what I’d do.”

“He spoke about a magical solution to that problem,” Yuleson said. “But as I am not a mage personally, I am not privy to the details. We would need to initiate contact, get a dialogue going, figure out the methodology. I can always draw up a legally binding contract, of course, but—”

“Bullshit,” Evelyn spat. “He’s stalling. Buying time to get his walls back up.”

Raine nodded slowly. “It’s his only move after getting fucked.”

Felicity was shaking her head. “This is weird.”

“This entire meeting is stalling,” Evelyn spat. She jabbed her maimed hand toward him, missing fingers on full display. “You are a stalling tactic.”

“Oh, yes,” Yuleson said, bright and open. “Probably.”

We all boggled at him. Even Zheng frowned in a way that was more curious than aggressive. Evelyn squinted as if the lawyer had gone mad.

Yuleson spread his hands and glanced around at us with an expression which was extremely polite but managed to imply we were all very stupid. “I did say, I’m not made of stone, I’m not insensible to what’s happening here. My client is not in the room with us, so I think I can speak frankly. I’m a solicitor, not a moron. I’m well aware that I’ve been sent to open negotiations as a stalling tactic. I don’t wish to pretend otherwise. I thought that was obvious. Without saying. I assumed … well, perhaps I have assumed too much.”

Eventually, Raine blew out a long breath. “How many layers of dissembling are you on, mate?”

“Several,” Yuleson answered without missing a beat. “But that is the truth. I’m not lying to you people about anything. You terrify me far too much to do that.”

“Then why did you accept Eddy’s money?”

Yuleson frowned at her again, peeved. “Because you people are probably going to kill him.”

“Huh,” Zheng grunted. “The worm talks sense.”

“Good,” Lozzie whispered.

“Ladies, please,” Yuleson said. “Allow me to place all my cards on the table, face up, so we understand each other. I took the frankly absurd fee for this job because — well, partly because I desperately need the business. But more importantly, because you people are probably going to kill my client. Mister Lilburne is a long-term client of my little firm, he pays me a lot of money and has done so for years. That pays salaries, keeps people in their jobs. You are about to take that away — perhaps justifiably, yes.” He raised a placating hand. “I wouldn’t know. I prefer not to know. I realise, yes, this is all stalling, we all know this is stalling. If you would prefer, then I can sit here and drink your delicious tea for an hour, we could discuss any other subject you like, and then I could leave, job done. You could even rough me up a bit to make it seem authentic.” He laughed awkwardly. “Though I would request no injuries, please. I am not a young man. However, it is my private belief that my client genuinely does want a cessation of hostilities.”

Raine was laughing. “Why risk it, hey? Why risk coming to meet us, if you think we’re all that murderous?”

“Ahhh. Hmmm. Mmm. Professionalism?” Yuleson grimaced again, that particular pained look which reached his eyes. “I don’t genuinely think you fine young people are going to summarily murder me. In the end, I am only a messenger.”

Evelyn spoke, low and serious. “Why do you believe he wants this to end?”

“Honestly? Frank and open answer, and strictly off the record? I’ve never heard him like this before. Ah!” Yuleson raised his hands. “To be clear, I did not have a personal, face-to-face meeting with my client. We had a phone conversation. And he goes through this rather lengthy process of calling a mobile number, and then I have to call back, get a temporary number, call that number, talk to one of his people, and only then do I get to speak with Edward himself.” He laughed, but nobody else did. “He’s very careful. So I can’t give you any phone numbers. And using me to trace him somehow, that won’t work either.” Yuleson flashed that nervous smile again, oily and too-friendly, then glanced directly at me and quickly away again.

“He told you I can do that?” I said, shocked. “He said that?”

Yuleson adjusted the front of his suit jacket. “Yes. He said that if the subject comes up, I should explain that I am useless. Ha ha!” He said the laugh out loud. “Useless as a magical crowbar, as it were. Not as a solicitor. One hopes.” He clapped his soft and clammy hands together, gently, twice. “As I was saying, my client was … terrified. He seemed that way to me. He spoke specifically about an attempt to find his house, last night. He is aware that you sent somebody to go looking, after the altercation—”

“Eddy boy tried to murder us all,” Raine said, cracking a dangerous little grin. She nodded to Zheng. “My large and beautiful friend there just couldn’t hold herself back, wanted to finish the job and find the man. You wanna tell her to stop?”

Yuleson looked up at Zheng. Zheng looked down at Yuleson, then grinned wide, like a shark showing all her teeth.

I sighed, rolled my eyes, and said, “You do know that intimidating the lawyer is vastly unnecessary?”

“T-that is well within your rights, Miss,” Yuleson stammered to Zheng. Sweat broke out on his forehead, but he did maintain eye contact, which was an impressive feat. “I am not telling you to stop anything. I have no power or recourse over you, legal or otherwise. In fact, I’m not even certain who you are. Why, I don’t recall you being present at this meeting. Not at all.”

“Clever worm,” Zheng purred.

Felicity sat up straighter in her chair and placed her empty bottle of chocolate gloop on the table. “What’s it like, being a lawyer in the know?”

Yuleson seemed deeply relieved to be asked a question that required him to transfer his attention away from Zheng. “I simply try not to involve myself in the details. It is much like being a criminal lawyer without being a criminal oneself.”

Raine snorted. “To hear Nicole tell it, you are a criminal.”

Yuleson only smiled at that.

Zheng said, “This worm is no mage.”

“Quite!” Yuleson agreed with gusto.

Felicity pressed on, eyes harder than I’d ever seen before. “Is Edward Lilburne your only client in the know?”

“I would prefer not to divulge that information. That would be a gross breach of client privacy.”

Raine laughed. “Come on, mate. You’ve been in breach of privacy this whole time. You’ve been feeding us Eddy’s shit. You think I don’t smell it?”

Yuleson’s oily smile dripped back. Bushy eyebrows came together in a peevish frown, as if the top and bottom halves of his face were in disagreement. “Miss, I am a consummate and skilled liar. If I was lying to you, you would not be aware of it. Please, do not insinuate or use innuendo. Say plainly what you are thinking. This is an open negotiation.”

Raine pushed off from the wall and sauntered over to the table. She pulled a chair out for herself, slowly, letting it scrape on the kitchen flagstones, eyes locked with Yuleson the entire time. She sat down, also slowly, and somehow managed to loom over the lawyer despite lowering herself to his level.

On one hand, seeing Raine pull out all the stops was unspeakably sexy. If she had approached me like that, like a snake hunting a mouse, I would have melted into a stammering puddle.

On the other hand, I sighed and said: “Raine, for pity’s sake. We don’t actually need to intimidate the lawyer.”

Evelyn grunted, “Yes, we do.”

Raine grinned at Yuleson, and said, “It’s fun to spook him.”

Yuleson swallowed. “Glad to be a punching bag, I suppose. As long as it gets the job done.”

Raine tapped the tabletop with one fingertip. “Two possibilities. Following me so far? Can you keep up with that? Cool? Good. So, maybe you’re turning on Edward, because you think we’re gonna win, or because you can’t live with what he does, or because he’s stiffing you on pay, or kidnapped your dog. I don’t know which. Don’t really care.”

Yuleson nodded, but didn’t make an attempt to reply. He knew when to shut up and listen.

“Or,” Raine went on in a low, dangerous purr. She tapped the table again. “Or he fed you lines, to feed to us, and you’re going to report back which ones we swallowed and which ones we chucked back up. Which is it, Harry-boy? Did he really pay you just to come offer us a bullshit deal?”

Raine in leaned closer, radiating menace, violence in the set of her shoulders.

Yuleson didn’t even blink.

My tentacles rose on instinct, as if to defend Raine; Harold Yuleson, squirming rat-like lawyer, was not intimidated by her bluster. Alarm bells rang in my head. For a second I thought he was going to explode into some Outsider trap or unfold like a puzzle box or spit venom into her face. We must have missed something, some tiny magic circle, undetectable and secret and about to detonate.

But then he opened his mouth, and spoke.

“Frankly,” Yuleson began his reply, smooth and easy. “Yes. I do believe you will win your contest against my client. I am a lawyer, not a mafia thug, and I do not wish to get involved in the physical altercation. I do what I am paid to do. And I would much rather count yourselves as future clients — not as my enemies, professional or otherwise. I understand no magic. I have no interest in knowing how to do magic. I am no threat to you.”

Of course he had been intimidated by Zheng. He’d been intimidated when we had threatened violence for real. But words?

This man dealt with far more threatening people than Raine.

“A rat,” Evelyn grumbled. “Fleeing a sinking ship.”

“Smart man,” said Felicity. “No shame in that.”

“Quite!” Yuleson agreed with a smile.

“Do you know where Edward’s house is?” Raine finished.

“No. I do not. And … ” Yuleson smiled and raised his hands. “I would prefer you not torture me in order to confirm my lack of knowledge. Torture is not worth a hundred thousand pounds.”

An awkward silence fell for a long moment. Raine leaned back, considering Yuleson with a tilt of her head. Felicity and Kimberly shared a look. Lozzie sat there, small and reduced, hugging one of my tentacles to her front. Zheng loomed, restless and quiet. Evelyn stared across the table with an expression like she’d been woken from sleep by the smell of excrement.

Yuleson spoke slowly and carefully: “If we could return to the main subject, then? Yes? A peace offer. Cease-fire, or surrender.”

Evelyn sighed heavily. Her expression darkened — and softened, brows unknitting, lips relaxing. She hunched lower, as if too exhausted to fight. Raine stared at her in subtle, unseen alarm. Praem placed a hand on her shoulder, but Evee shrugged it off. Zheng growled in recognition and disgust.

“Evelyn,” Felicity started to say. “I don’t think—”

“You shut up,” Evelyn grumbled. She never looked away from Yuleson. “Fine. Edward Lilburne can keep his life.”

Lozzie bit her lower lip and gently said, “No. Please.”

Praem agreed. “No,” her voice rang out like a little silver bell.

“Evee?” I said out loud. I could see the answer in her frame, in her exhausted eyes, in the slump of her shoulders. “Evee, we can’t make a deal. You can’t be serious, you—”

“Shhhhh,” Evelyn hissed. “Everybody shut up and let me fucking speak. Edward Lilburne can have his life.”

“Thank you,” Yuleson said, his oily smile spreading across plumped cheeks. “I am glad we can start on a positive note. We can see sense here, we can make—”

“‘Shut up’ includes you,” she said, dead tired and without energy. “Stop talking or I’ll have Praem strangle you with your own intestines.”

Yuleson shut his mouth. Praem looked at him.

Evelyn continued, slow and plodding. “Edward can have his life, but that’s all. I’ll let him live. But I get everything else — the house, the books, everything he has accumulated. The contents of his bank accounts. The clothes on his back. The fillings in his teeth. If he has a wife, I’ll fuck her too. He can live, but he gets nothing. Not after going for Heather. Not when he’ll keep coming for Lozzie. You crawl back to Edward Lilburne and you tell him to present himself at my front door, alone and naked and on his knees, and then I will decide what to do with him. You tell him that is Saye’s final offer.”

Harold Yuleson blew out a long breath and wiggled his eyebrows as if using them to shrug. “I don’t think my client will, uh, find those to be very favourable terms.”

Raine was laughing. “Fucking hell, Evee. Nice.”

“Harsh,” Felicity muttered.

Lozzie actually got out of her seat, pulling my tentacle along with her as she stepped over to Evee. She mimed an air-hug around Evelyn’s shoulders, eyes watering, sniffing softly. To my surprise, Evelyn reached up and patted Lozzie on the back in a sort of one-armed hug, staring at Yuleson the entire time. Felicity watched the exchange between Lozzie and Evee with what I first assumed was jealousy — but then I realised it was admiration.

“Now,” Evelyn continued. “Everything we say to you will get back to Edward, I’m certain. I want to converse with my ‘associates’, in private.”

“Oh!” said Yuleson. “Of course, of course. I can step into the front room, or out of your front door, or—”

“Somebody put him in the spare sitting room. And watch him. That does mean somebody will miss the discussion.” Evelyn’s eyes flickered to Zheng, almost apologetic, but she was the natural choice. Zheng stared back. I was about to open my mouth to back up the request when a double-curve of soft yellow clicked into the kitchen.

“I will accompany the lawyer,” said Seven-Shades-of-Butterscotch-Princess.

She was wearing her Princess Mask, though with some notable alterations: the yellow skirt had tightened against her thighs slightly, and she wore a matching yellow suit jacket over her crisp white blouse. She also had a yellow clipboard in her hands, along with a yellow fountain pen. But there was nothing servile about this version of Sevens. The tilt of her chin, the cool regard of her eyes, the sensible flat shoes; her body language screamed aristocrat, dressed for personal pleasure, not for looks.

A ragged mass of lace lurked behind her, black and mangled by blunt shadows.

Harold Yuleson reacted like a royalist who had walked in on the Queen.

“Yes!” he said, bowing and nodding like a servant himself. “Of course, of course, at once. I will be right out of your hair, right out!” He drained the dregs of his tea, shot to his feet, and gestured out of the kitchen door with a questioning look at Seven-Shades-of-Not-Your-Secretary. She nodded, cool and detached. Harold Yuleson bustled out as if his feet were the wrong size.

Seven-Shades-of-Smooth-Suggestion nodded to the rest of us with a cruel kink in the corner of her lips, then turned and clicked after her captive audience. Aym — sliding out of sight like a hidden patch of black mold — followed her seemingly without moving.

A moment later we heard the sitting room door shut.

Raine burst out laughing. “I love that woman.”

“You do?” I asked.

“Sure. Love you too, Heather.”

“I do not love the creature of masks,” Zheng rumbled. “But she is clever.”

I smiled, then popped the rest of my lemon into my mouth, chewing less noisily than before. Evelyn gave me a sidelong look and said, “You can stop doing that now, Heather.”

“Stop doing—” I swallowed the fruit. “Stop doing what? Sorry?”

“Being weird with the lemon. Good intimidation tactic, but very weird. Very you. Well done, but please stop now.”

I blinked. “I was only eating.”

Evelyn frowned at me, half-impressed but half-confused. Then she sighed and tapped the table for order and attention, rapping the head of her walking stick against the side. “Do we believe a single word out of that man’s mouth?”

Raine blew out a sigh and leaned back, hands behind her head. Felicity tapped one booted foot, chewing her lip. Lozzie hopped back, flapping the sides of her poncho. I licked lemon juice off my fingertips.

“Yes and no,” Raine said eventually, speaking to the ceiling. “Yuleson’s playing both sides. Doesn’t want Edward to kill him, doesn’t want us to kill him. Wants Eddy to keep paying him as long as possible. Wants us to trust him for the future.”

“Setting up the post-war order,” Evelyn grumbled. “Yes, I agree.”

“Mage with a lawyer,” Felicity mumbled. “Hard to believe.”

“Evee-weevey?” said Lozzie. “You meant what you said, yes?”


“No deal! No deal! You meant it, everything you said?”

“No,” Evelyn said.

Lozzie’s eyes widened and she stopped her habitual flapping. I blinked in surprise too. Evelyn sighed. “If Edward Lilburne follows my instructions and turns up at my door with nothing but the shirt on his back, ready to hand over everything he has, I will not let him live. I will give him to Zheng so she can dispose of a mage in a safer way than a lead-lined coffin.”

“Wizard!” Zheng rumbled approval. “Yes!”

Lozzie giggled and covered her mouth with one corner of her poncho, then gave Evee another awkward but polite air-hug. “Auntie Evee best Evee!”

Evelyn huffed and tutted and waved her away.

I spoke up: “Some of what he said was the truth, I think. Maybe.”

“Yeah,” Raine agreed. “But like I said, he’s playing both sides.”

“He knew Zheng went looking for the house,” Evelyn said. She nodded to Zheng. “You came back late. I expected you’d be gone for days. I assume you didn’t find anything?”

“Mm,” Zheng grunted. “I am large but the land is larger. I go back out, today.”

“Maybe,” Evelyn said.

Zheng narrowed her eyes and flexed her hands. “Wizard?”

“Edward Lilburne is stalling,” Evelyn said. “This is a stalling tactic, so he can scramble to get his walls back up. Which I suspect will take him weeks. Are we all agreed on that?”

“I think so,” I said, but I felt deeply uncertain — and I knew where Evelyn was going with this. I tried to stand up straighter, settle my tentacles, and still the racing of my heart.

“Mm,” Raine grunted in contemplation. “But does he expect us to take the deal?”

“I would,” said Felicity. “But I’d keep working against him.”

“Exactly,” said Evelyn. “He’s stalling, but we need to stall too. We’re in a stalemate until we can locate that house, one way or the other. I hate this, I hate it with a passion,” she spat. “But we have to buy time. A day or two.”

“Ahem,” Kimberly cleared her throat gently, then withered instantly when everybody looked at her, mousy and small in her chair next to Felicity. “Um … I’m sorry … I just … it is nearly eight o’clock and I need to get to work. I didn’t call in sick or anything. I need to … ” She wet her lips and smiled awkwardly.

“Of course,” Evelyn said. “Somebody is going to have to go with her, an escort there and back.”

“I will,” said Felicity, without hesitation. “I can drive her there and pick her up later.”

“O-oh!” Kim flapped her hands. “You really don’t have to! No, I don’t mean—”

“You take the escort,” Evelyn snapped. “Stop complaining. And check in with text messages as often as you can. And somebody call Twil again, and Nicole. Make sure they haven’t been attacked while Yuleson was distracting us. We need to stay on our toes. He will try something. He will.”

“Evee,” Raine said. “We’re stalling, then?”

“We are,” I replied instead.

Everyone looked at me. I took a deep breath and drew myself up. “I’m still injured. My reactor is, um, ‘off-line’. So I can’t use brain-math to locate Edward’s house. Not yet. It needs to heal. So, Evelyn is correct. We have to stall. I’m sorry.”

Evelyn swallowed awkwardly, but she nodded along; I had spared her the embarrassment of putting me on the spot. Raine started to say something about how Zheng might find the house the old-fashioned way, how it wasn’t my fault, how resting and recovering was the right thing to do. I smiled and nodded and tried to look like I was accepting all this. Felicity agreed with a mumble. Praem said, “Regroup,” which was a nice word even if it wasn’t accurate.

Buying time. Until I was healed.

“Maybe the letter bomb will get him,” Evelyn said.


We sent Harold Yuleson off with an itemised list of demands; Evelyn’s extreme version was the top of the list, but we worked together to concoct something less final as well: a second bargaining position stuffed with enough points to keep Edward busy for a day or two. We demanded the book – The Testament of Heliopolis — but also several more books, by name, books he may or may not have even owned. I suspected Evelyn threw in a few titles which did not actually exist; she had that twinkle of devious strategy in her eye as she rattled them off and forced Yuleson to write them down.

We demanded compensation for damage to the Hopton’s house, their fields, the stress inflicted on their animals and themselves, and the damage to the property of one “Mister Hring” — a stroke of creativity by Raine. That amounted to several million pounds.

We requested an official letter, signed by Edward, witnessed by his lawyer, attesting that Lauren Lilburne was over the age of majority and therefore he had no legal right to guardianship over her. Evelyn added some magical mumbo-jumbo to that part, something about how Edward would have to submit to a proper process to ensure he kept his word.

We stipulated a full accounting of all his property, his magical library, his experiments, his knowledge. By that point I was ready to eat another lemon and take a nap, but then Raine started listing damages to us: stress, injuries, Nicole’s broken leg. The list went on and on.

Raine and Felicity followed Yuleson to his car; he’d parked almost twenty minutes walk away.

But once he was gone, that was that. We’d taken our shot, or joined in with this facade of negotiation while both sides stalled and scrambled — Edward to rebuild his walls, us to get me back on my metaphysical feet.

There is a terrible paradox in the combination of recovery and pressure; I needed to rest, to eat, to sleep, to heal — but how could I not hurry myself?

For the rest of that day, the others treated me like a princess, or a dying swan, or a glass statue. While everybody else was watching for opportunistic attacks, I ate lemons and drowned a bowl of rice in soy sauce. I followed my cravings, stuffed my face, and felt my bioreactor throbbing deep down inside my gut, a pulled muscle slowly unfreezing itself — but far too slowly.

Lozzie needed a lot of attention. I didn’t blame her, nobody did. Her uncle’s attention terrified her. For the first time in quite a while, she and I napped together. We curled up in her bed, big spoon and little spoon, while Tenny played video games and solved puzzles on the other side of the room. I awoke, left her there, went downstairs to stuff another lemon down my maw, then went back and napped an hour more.

Raine doted on me, got me to sit and watch her playing one of those long-winded games with the alchemist girls and the over-large chests. Twil turned up sometime in the afternoon and spent a while talking with Evelyn, in private. I didn’t have the strength to take any interest. Zheng departed for the woods again, another attempt to find Edward’s house, but some instinct told me that she wouldn’t have much luck.

Nobody pressured me, nobody asked me when I would be ready; I could see the question in Evelyn’s eyes, but she didn’t give it voice. Raine didn’t allow herself even that minor slip, she was perfect, pretending it didn’t even matter if I never recovered, that we would find the house some other way.

But as the day wore on and the sky cleared and the late summer evening settled over the house, I knew I had to do something.

We had a day or two at most, before Edward would probe us for real. Fake negotiations could only go on so long. Paranoid watching — Evelyn setting up new magic circles at the doors, Raine twitching the curtains — would take a toll. We were in the middle of a war. We couldn’t stall forever. And Evelyn was almost as exhausted as me. She dragged herself around the house, helped by Praem, dark rings around her eyes.

As I lay on my bed, propped up on pillows and drinking extremely strong coffee despite the late hour, watching Raine make her anime lady jump around on the telly screen, I started to think clearly.

I had to get the reactor working. I had to perform the brain-math.

Raine’s bare foot hooked over my leg. I reached forward and rubbed her calf muscle, though my own elbow ached with yesterday’s pain.

“Three more of these slime lads and I should have the new outfit,” Raine said without looking back over her shoulder. “You’re gonna like that one. Comes with a hoodie.”

“Oh. That’s nice.”

What if I could use brain-math to repair the reactor? But that was a catch-22 situation. Using brain-math would draw on the reactor. But it hadn’t always been that way. Before the reactor, there was just me. But the reactor was me.

Brain-math needed something to run on — flesh or thought, or just on the air, the way I had performed it back when I’d ripped Sarika free from the Eye’s grip. The reactor gave the equations more flesh to work with, more spirit to draw on, more substrate on which to blossom across reality.

“Do you think the shorts are a good choice?” Raine asked.

“Mm. Mm, yes.”

I couldn’t self-sacrifice, just go all-out and hurt myself to get the task done. I was not allowed to hurt myself, not anymore. That had been made clear to me. That road was closed, wiped off the maps, and dynamited.

But maybe brain-math could repair the reactor, speed up my healing processes, improve my understanding of my own flesh.

Brain-math could do anything, if only I could endure the pain, the alien violation. If only I understood it better. If only I wasn’t groping around in the dark.

“Red shorts, or white shorts? Heather? Earth to space cadet Heather, woooo?”

But I had nobody from whom to learn. In the end, the only entity who understood brain-math was the Eye. And I couldn’t ask the Eye how to fix my reactor faster.

Or could I?


“White shorts,” I murmured, then stirred on the bed and started to get up. “You go unlock that outfit, Raine. Show me in a bit. I’m going to talk to Kimberly for a minute.”

“Oho.” Raine grinned. “Gonna interrupt her thing with Fliss? They’ve been alone since Kim got home from work.”

“Unintentional side-effect,” I said, forcing a smile. I didn’t want to make Raine worry; I was not going to flirt with self-sacrifice. “I had a thought about … magic. I need to ask her to clarify something. That’s all. I just want her perspective.”

Technically, that wasn’t a lie.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Never talk to the police without a lawyer present, and never talk to a lawyer without a mage present. (And never talk to a mage without Zheng present; hey, free meal!) Is Yuleson a bullshit artist? Yes. But does he smell which way the wind is blowing? Probably. Is this all a double-bluff? Maybe??? Evee playing it safe. Meanwhile, Heather is about to play fast and loose with magic, or biology, or something else she probably shouldn’t be sticking herself into while she’s so sore and tired.

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Next week, Heather asks Kimberly a difficult question. About magic? What’s she planning here, a magical uplift for her reactor? Hmm.

sediment in the soul – 19.9

Content Warnings

Nothing this chapter.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Felicity Amber Hackett — an older mage from a forest-wrapped manor house in darkest Cumbria, an ex heroin-addict, once-collaborator with Loretta Saye, burn-scarred and secretly tattooed, moving like her joints were made of rusted iron; the woman who had cut off Evelyn’s leg, host to Aym the abyssal mystery, with her one good eye and her twitchy mannerisms and her deeply suspicious intentions, who had spent the last few nights sleeping in her car in front of our house — lit up with a smile so fragile and surprised that I was shamed by my own duplicity.

Her smile was awkward and pained, lopsided due to the missing corner of her lips. The left side of her face lit up too, the ghost of delight moving beneath the scarred surface. She winced softly, tucked her reddish-brown hair behind her good ear, and answered in a rushed mumble.

“I-I’d love to, yes … to come on your walk, with you. Yes. Um, thank you.”

Framed by the open back door of her car and the mist-draped road beyond, with her crumpled makeshift bed lying on the seat, stoop-shouldered and hollow-cheeked and utterly without artifice, eyes shining with sudden skittish joy, wearing a thick cardigan beneath a long coat, Felicity looked more like the pitiful protagonist of a very sappy romance novel, rather than a mage who carried around a concealed shotgun.

My simple question — ‘do you want to come with us?’ — had cut right through all Felicity’s defences, if she even had any in the first place.

She was flattered to be invited. Her smile hid nothing. She hadn’t even figured out why I’d really asked. She thought I was being honest.

That delicate, fluttering response was the very last thing I’d expected. It almost felled me.

I cleared my throat — ouch, that was sore too, what a surprise — and hurried to cover up my mistake. I had so little experience with this kind of intrigue, but I’d assumed she would catch on right away. I felt like a Cold War spy who had sat down on a park bench to meet an undercover contact, whispered my silly code phrase, then turned to see some mystified young girl staring back at me with wide eyes. This was a very underhanded game and I was apparently the only one playing.

But Praem knew. Praem had turned her head to stare at me. Milk-white eyes bored into the side of my face, silently asking what I was up to and did I need any help and would I prefer to rethink this plan? My hand was turning clammy in hers. Praem probably considered me a bumbling amateur. Or worse: horribly rude.

“I mean, Felicity— F-F-Fliss? May I call you that? It’s a very nice nickname, um—” I didn’t wait for a response, barrelling on in my occluded embarrassment, fingernails digging into my palm in the darkness of my hoodie’s front pocket; gosh, my joints did ache. “We’re only walking down to the corner shop to buy lemons. I mean, lemons and other things. I’ve got cravings. Not that I’m pregnant. I-I mean I can’t get—” I slammed to a stop and puffed out a huge sigh. What on earth was I even saying? This was getting worse by the second. “You did just wake up and you must be incredibly tired after yesterday; I apologise, it’s very presumptuous of me to invite you for a walk before you’ve even had breakfast or stretched your legs or taken a drink of water.” Oh, good back-pedal, well done. I patted myself on the back. Praem stared through my skull. “But you are welcome to come with us, of course,” I added.

Back-pedalling from my own back-pedal. They’d have to invent a new sport for me. I was such a sucker for that fragile smile — and not in a romantic sense. A bizarre little part of me wanted to offer Felicity some kind of comfort, somehow. She’d fought alongside us. She didn’t deserve to sleep in her car.

Felicity and Praem were both staring at me now, Praem with her usual impassive intensity, Felicity with the just-awoken post-sleep befuddlement of somebody who has opened their front door to a stranger speaking too fast.

I forced a smile, feeling like an absolute moron.

My invitation had served one purpose: to see how Felicity might react. The only reason I asked was because she’d asked a question first: is Evelyn safe — and alone? A protective and secretive part of me did not want Felicity anywhere near Evee, not when everybody else was asleep, not when myself and Praem were out of the house, and not when the only person watching over Evee was Sevens-Shades-of-Side-Piece, who was currently smitten with Aym, who was, in the end, Felicity’s creature.

Or was it the other way around?

Would Felicity turn down the invitation, slink off indoors for ‘breakfast’, and then force an uncomfortable conversation on Evelyn? Would she see this as an opening to express her unwanted and unwelcome devotion? Or would she recognise my gambit? Would she pause to ‘think’, and then agree to come along?

She had done neither. She’d taken me seriously, for which I was completely unprepared.

Praem turned her head ninety degrees to look at Felicity instead. “You are welcome to join us,” she said.

I suppressed a wince and kept smiling. There was no getting out of this now. Felicity was being too vulnerable and real to reject.

“ … well,” Felicity said after a moment, pausing to glance down the misty length of Barnslow Drive; I had to remind myself that she couldn’t see the spirits at the end of the road, the dark humps and rangy shapes and glowing crystal beasts. “Walking to a little corner shop does count as stretching my legs. True, I haven’t brushed my teeth yet, so maybe stay upwind of me, I guess.” She tried to smile again, but she’d already re-donned her mantle of awkward self-consciousness. “I used to walk before breakfast every morning. Sometimes still do, if I can find the … door.”

Her smile turned rigid, fully aware of how bizarre that sounded. Her good eye scrunched with effort. Her blind eye tried to mirror the expression, but the skin crinkled in the wrong kind of way.

She lived all alone in an ancient manor house, with only Aym and God alone knew what else for company. How long had it been since she’d done something this normal?

But I was genuinely curious. Embarrassment turned to concern.

“Fliss, how are you doing, really? After yesterday, I mean. You and Evelyn both took a bit of a beating, metaphysically, or spiritually, or … ?”

Felicity put on a show of straightening up and easing her shoulders back, which made her wince and whine deep in her throat; my own aching carcass shivered in recognition. It was like watching an old ironing board get unfolded, flakes of rust falling from the joints, painted metal legs scraping together, the fabric cover hanging loose, elastic rotted away long ago. Felicity screwed her eyes shut and pushed her shoulder blades back. My own bruises throbbed with animalistic sympathy, my gums itching, my finger joints aching. I almost apologised.

She muttered, “I’m doing mostly okay, as much as I can expect. I’ve done that kind of thing plenty of times before. Well, mm, not the fighting part, but the magic part. I’m used to it. Kind of. Don’t worry, I won’t fall down or collapse or anything. I can walk. The fresh air might help.”

“Well, yes.” I cleared my throat, mirroring her awkwardness. “We were probably planning to sit down on a bench for a bit … anyway … yes.”

Praem stared at me again. I started to blush. We hadn’t planned that at all, I’d made it up on the spot.

Felicity nodded along. “That might be nice. So, a corner shop?”

“There’s one a few streets away. Not much, but we can pick up some basics. It’s not a Spar or a Tesco Express or anything, just local.”

Felicity smiled again, the echo of old delight under her skin. “Is it the sort of place we can get a bag of penny sweets?”

“Penny sweets?”

Felicity paused, then let out a puff of self-deprecating laughter, a single sad chuckle. “Oh, wow. Now I feel really old. Thanks.”

“I-I didn’t mean to—”

“Sorry, I’m sorry,” she said quickly. “It was a bad joke. I’m not that old. Just, I guess penny sweets aren’t a thing anymore.”

“They are,” said Praem. “You may have a strawberry.”

“Oh, uh, thank you.”

Felicity glanced down the street again. As she did, her body language shifted; those rolled-back shoulders stiffened with tension, her good eye flicked back and forth, and her throat bobbed. She took her sports bag from inside the car and put the strap over her shoulder. One gloved hand settled on the zip, ready to open it and draw her sawn-off shotgun. She closed the car door and looked at us in a very different way to before, frowning delicately, like an exhausted but wary animal.

She asked: “I’ll be under your protection, though, right?”

I’d almost forgotten. Felicity had problems of her own.

My heart ached, and not because of a bruise — it was the fragile smile, the skittish caution of long experience, the unguarded desire to do something normal with a nice polite young woman who had invited her for a walk. Felicity wasn’t only not trying to get Evelyn alone, she was trusting that Praem and I were on her side, just for the chance to go buy a can of coffee.

Was this how mages ended up, if they didn’t become monsters? Isolated and broken and jumping at shadows?

Was Felicity a vision of Evee’s future — or my future?

There was only one answer to that fear.

“You won’t need your shotgun,” I said. “Nobody would dare ‘mess with’ Praem and I.”

Praem intoned, “Hard girls. Scary girls.”

I cleared my throat. “Sorry, that was a very Raine way of putting it. Yes, we’re too scary to mess with. Don’t let our appearance fool you.”

“Good girls,” Praem added.

“Yes. I suppose.”

Felicity managed a weak laugh. “Thanks. If it’s all the same, I’ll still carry the gun. Just in case. You know?”

I managed an equally weak smile. “If we get stopped and searched by the police, I don’t know you.” Then I quickly added, “Sorry. Bad joke.”

“No, no, it’s fine.” Felicity shook her head. “That would actually be entirely fair. Do police do a lot of stops around here?”

“Oh, no. That was just hyperbole. Look at the place, it’s not exactly rough, not in that kind of way.” I gestured down the street with one hand and two tentacles, down the length of Barnslow Drive with its rotten old houses, the ragged edge of Sharrowford’s residential development, these forgotten buildings on the rim of a city that had forgotten itself a long time ago. The terraced houses in the distance were shrouded by thinning mist. Sharrowford burbled nonsense to herself, lost in dreams of history. For a moment I followed my own gesture, staring at the slice of city I could see from my human-level sight-line.

My bioreactor still felt thick and cold in my belly, but it resonated with the city like a note played on the edge of a wine glass. I held that note for a second, entranced by my own thoughts.

Felicity cleared her throat. I snapped back around, blinking, blushing in my own confusion. “Sorry, I—”

But she was already asking Praem a question, adjusting the sports bag on her shoulder, nodding toward the darkened house behind us.

“Before we go, though — is Evelyn safe by herself?” Felicity said. “You both look after her, so … ”

“She is never alone,” said Praem.

Felicity smiled again, with relief and acceptance. Good enough for me.

“Shall we, then?” I asked. “I am getting peckish, rather rapidly. And it will be … well, I don’t know. Five to ten minutes, perhaps?”

Felicity nodded, locked her car, and fell in beside us.

The route to the nearest corner shop was not very long, but longer than any pre-breakfast jaunt had right to be, especially for somebody covered in bruises, whose knees felt like ground glass with every step, and whose stomach complained and grumbled like an argumentative steam engine. I was not, strictly speaking, exhausted or incapable; I had slept well, my muscles functioned, my head was clear. Much like Felicity, I could walk, carry myself along, and not fall flat on my face. As we left Barnslow Drive and turned right down the main road, the walk started to do me some good, working those muscles to stretch out the knots, grinding my joints until the glass smoothed out. The air itself hurt my gums and the weak, milky sunlight made my eyes water, but one cannot win every minor battle, especially when one is generally turning the tide of the war.

The movement encouraged my body to wake up, to unlimber my sore tendons and push blood through thirsty veins. I needed this.

Praem and I walked hand in hand, which was a delightful experience. Her cream skirt swished around her ankles and her boots clicked with pleasing regularity along the pavement, squeaked on the aged tarmac of the crossings, and somehow never varied despite her need to keep pace with me and my stubby little legs, my clumsy walk, my fused knees. She was very elegant in motion, as always.

Felicity ambled along on my opposite side, occasionally tilting her head back and closing her eyes to take a deep breath. She had to force that gesture; I could see the conscious effort in her frame every time she held back her paranoia, every time she broke her vigilance.

She seemed as if she expected to get attacked at any moment.

Her alertness was very different to my own caution. I wasn’t a fool, I knew Edward Lilburne might be in the process of sending something after us, right then. I kept my head on a swivel, looking left and right, down each side-street, sometimes even checking behind us. Few human beings were out on the streets this early in the morning, just the occasional person walking to their own car or headed to work. Anybody who saw us didn’t bother to give us a second glance; to those not in the know we were completely unremarkable, despite the fact I often expected somebody to randomly stare at Praem’s stunning good looks. But I checked every face, watched every figure. I paid special attention to the spirit life which carried on its usual bizarre routine, on the rooftops and in the back alleys, dancing in the street, playing ineffable games in the middle of the road and atop the cars. Spindly stick creatures stopped to look at me when I stared back. Lumps of living moss on the sides of buildings froze when I watched them. Skitter-limbed ghoul-things raced down the road, slowing to a crawl when I fanned out my tentacles, then speeding up again when they were past our little group.

But Felicity walked with her hand on her sports bag, seeking comfort from the shotgun within. She shot a flicker-look at each human being we saw, a lingering question, then darted away again without dismissal. She stiffened at each new corner. I could see the tension in her neck muscles, in the tightness of her upper back, in a musculature of fear. She was making me ache in sympathy.

Still one street away from the nearest corner shop, I had to speak up.

“Felicity,” I said with exaggerated delicacy. “You can relax, really. If there’s anything wrong, Praem and I will notice.”

“All is right,” said Praem.

Felicity winced sidelong at us, with an apologetic crease in her scarred brow. “I know. I’m sorry.”

“We are in Sharrowford,” said Praem.

I said, “You don’t have to be sorry. I know habits like that are hard to break. I know that better than most.”

Felicity sighed — but her eyes still flickered to an alleyway as we approached a break in the line of houses. It was one of those antiquated rear access passages where people sometimes still stored their bins.

“Hyper-vigilance has served me well,” she mumbled. “I know it’s off-putting, but it keeps me alive. This is just who I am.”

“Are you seriously afraid that we’re going to get attacked?” I asked. “Or is it more of a habit? Just something subconscious? If you don’t mind me asking, of course.”

Praem said, “All is right in Sharrowford.”

Felicity swallowed as we stepped past the alleyway. I peered around her. There was nothing down there, just damp brickwork and scraps of rubbish, a few clumps of moss and weeds poking through broken tarmac. A spirit creature was sitting on the ground at the end of the alley, a rotund thing like a pig-person, but with a face in the middle of its distended belly. It raised a three-fingered paw in greeting, with glowing symbols rotating around the paw. Another, smaller pig was sitting by its side, trying to imitate the symbols. I awkwardly waved back. No reason to be rude.

“I don’t really think we’re going to be attacked,” Felicity admitted. “But … ”

Her voice cracked. I felt that drop in my stomach which told me I’d stepped into a puddle and found it was a sink-hole.

“But,” Praem echoed, click-sharp and bell-soft. Apparently that was what Felicity needed, because she carried on the thought, a soft murmur from damaged lips in the misty air, framed by Sharrowford red brick and Felicity’s lank hair.

“But I’ve been ambushed before, when I thought I was safe. When I was younger. When I was just … after the book and the … ” She trailed off and then looked around at me suddenly, as if only just recalling that Praem and I were present. Felicity’s throat bobbed. “Sorry, I don’t really talk about this kind of stuff.”

“You can if you want to,” I said.

Did I really want to hear, or was I just being polite? Felicity had fought alongside us. She had proven she cared. I wouldn’t leave her alone with Evee. But I’d hear her out.

She looked away again, steps eating up the pavement in a slow rhythm. Her one good eye fluttered half-closed. Her words came out flat. “The first time I ever let my guard down, a man tried to kill me in a petrol station. A service station. You know, one of those big places on the motorway where you can stop to eat fast food and stuff. I was so tired. I’d been awake for three days. I couldn’t find where I was supposed to be going. The … well, I was kind of lost. Long story. And it happened in broad daylight. Mundane people around. Outside a cookie shop.”

She stopped. Breathing steady. But seeing for a thousand miles.

“Did you have to kill him?” I asked.

“Yeah.” Barely a mumble. Not sad or guilty, just a blunt fact. “Stopped his heart through his chest. There was an article about it in a local paper a few days later. Healthy twenty-six-year-old man dies of a heart attack in a public toilet. Father of two. Big shame, big pity. Blah blah. ‘Course they didn’t know he was working for a magician. Aym dug that article up, a year or two later. I hadn’t seen it before then.” She let out a tiny, pained sigh. “Aym probably heard me say that just now. Knows it still gets to me.”

I drew to a stop in the middle of the pavement. Tongues of thin mist lapped at my ankles, chilling me from my feet upward. Praem stopped with me, so precisely that she didn’t even tug on my hand. She stared at me. Felicity halted awkwardly too, looking half-over her shoulder like a suspect in a goofy mystery.

“You can stop people’s hearts?” I asked.

All my tentacles were hovering, ready to form a shark-cage around my front, despite the terrible ache in their roots. I couldn’t stop the instinctive response. Felicity couldn’t even see it, but I burned with embarrassment even as abyssal instinct hissed for caution.

Felicity shrugged. “With the right motivation.” Then she blinked and straightened up. Perhaps she saw the look behind my face. “I mean, I probably couldn’t do it to you. Any of you. Even if I wanted to. It only worked because he was set on murdering me. Adaptive bio-feedback reflection, as self-defence. First trick I ever learned. And I don’t have a sacrificial anode anymore, so it would kill me too. Unless I wanted to hurt Aym. And I don’t. I wouldn’t.”

Felicity was so wretched while she explained herself with these snatches of a memory I did not want to share. I held up my free hand and said, “It’s okay, Fliss. It’s okay. I believe you. You don’t have to make excuses. I believe you, I just—”

“I know,” she said, in the softest mumble she could. “I know what I’ve done. I know how you look at me. It’s fair enough.”

Her words were self-pity but her voice held nothing but acceptance. She wasn’t asking for forgiveness. There was no absolution to give; or perhaps she didn’t believe herself deserving of redemption. Maybe I’d completely misunderstood her motivations. Or maybe I just wasn’t Evelyn.

We stared at each other across a few feet of cold Sharrowford pavement. She shuffled her boots and glanced back the way we’d come.

“Strawberries,” said Praem.

I combined a sigh and a laugh into a single awkward puff, which hurt my throat, again. “Yes, we should really get going to the corner shop. My tummy is still all rumbly. Did you want to pick up anything specific, Fliss?”

Felicity blinked with numb surprise, then with unspoken relief. She nodded slowly. “If I can’t get penny sweets, then maybe a packet of crisps.”

“Oh, we can do better than a packet of crisps,” I said, leading on. Praem fell in alongside me, perfectly in step. Felicity rejoined us too.

“Really? Do they carry those microwavable Cornish Pasties? Pork pies? Anything with some terrible processed meat in it. Before Aym stops me.”

“Aym stops you eating meat?”

Felicity shrugged as we waded through the shallow fog. “I promised to be a vegetarian once. I’m very bad at it. Aym likes to remind me.”

I glanced up at the quiet houses, down the foggy street, and over my shoulder, but there was no scrap of lace-wrapped black shadowing us from the alleyways and darkened windows. “Does she really follow you everywhere?”

“Uh huh.”

“Is she with us now?”

Felicity sighed. “If she wasn’t, I’d be dead.”

The little corner shop was a place called Bernando’s. It was run by a very jovial middle-aged Indian couple and their adult daughter; Raine had informed me that none of them was the titular ‘Bernando’. Nobody knew who Bernando was. The shop stood at the end of that road, at a junction of five different narrow streets which had probably once been a meeting place in this part of the city, a tiny crossroads from a time before the big supermarkets, kept on life-support by the local student population stumbling along in need of greasy post-boozer food, foot traffic stopping for morning cigarettes, and the unceasing demand for local newspapers. The windows shone like a lighthouse in the thick grey dawn, promising cheap chocolate bars, infinite lottery tickets, and the latest stack of glossy gossip magazines.

Praem and Felicity and I warranted the exact same “Good morning to you!” call from the young man behind the counter that I’m certain he repeated for every single customer. His tired smile would be the same for Praem in a maid dress, or Zheng with bloody teeth, or Ooran Juh in all his naked glory.

There was precisely one piece of pneuma-somatic life inside the corner shop: a bubblegum-pink bird-shape made of gossamer layers of gauze-like matter, perched on the top of the till. It watched us with little head-bobbing motions as we went to look for food.

Praem and I loaded up with a bag of fresh lemons, two tins of pineapple chunks — in juice, not water — and a bottle of soy sauce. Anything more from my list of cravings was too much to hope for. Certainly not raw fish, unless I wanted to eat frozen fish fingers straight from the box.

“I could try … ” I muttered, as we stood over the big freezer full of microwave meals. “But no, I’m not that desperate. My bioreactor can wait, I’m not crunching up iced fish.”

We picked up a packet of cookies to share back home and found a plastic carton of strawberries for Praem; in-season, but a little sad-looking all the same. The price made my eyes water.

“I only brought twenty pounds along. I’m so sorry, Praem, I should have thought.”

But Praem stepped in to save the day. She had a purse all of her own, tucked into some nearly invisible pocket in her long cream-coloured skirt. I’d never seen it before, a lovely soft fold of deep blue with an inlaid design of a rose in lighter blue. At first I thought it was leather, it looked so supple and new, but then Praem corrected me.

“Fake leather.”

“O-oh, it just looked—”


“Sometimes I forget, yes. I am sorry. Um, Praem, you really don’t have to pay for all this, I can put the soy sauce back. Or one of the tins of pineapple. I don’t need two of them, after all. I shouldn’t expect you to—”

“Buy the strawberries.”

I blinked at her milk-white eyes, beneath the too-harsh strip-lights buzzing in the water-stained ceiling of the corner shop. She and I stood framed between two rows of shelves, one full of newspapers and magazines, the other full of cheap bread and bagels and burger buns. Praem seemed so hilariously out of place.

“I’m sorry?” I said.

“I gift you lemons. You gift me strawberries. Equivalent exchange.”

I bit my lip and frowned. “Isn’t that something from one of Evee’s animes?”

“Not this kind. Give me a gift.”

I sighed and smiled at the same time, blushing under the gentle pressure of Praem’s affection. “Very well, Praem. If that’s what you want. You shall have as many strawberries as you like.”

“I will.”

Felicity vanished between the cramped aisles for a couple of minutes while Praem and I deliberated over the relative price of lemons and strawberries. She walked in silence like a wounded ghost, standing in front of a rack of biscuits in her long coat, looking like a misplaced extra from a classic noir film. She returned to join us at the counter, having secured herself a double-sized packet of chocolate digestives, a can of fancy cold-brew coffee, a bottle of truly vile-looking chocolate syrup drink with a very silly name — ‘yogoo’, or ‘yuugoo’ or something equally ridiculous — and a very large pork pie.

“Indulgent breakfast,” she muttered to me, vaguely embarrassed. “You know how it is.”

“It’s alright,” I told her. “I think you’ve done plenty to deserve it.”

The smiling young man behind the counter took our money and gave us bags, nodding and wishing us, “Good morning, thank you, see you again soon!”

His gaze glided off Praem’s empty eyes, his mind protected from the lack of pupil or iris by the fact he wasn’t in the know. Perhaps he thought she was wearing novelty cosmetic contact lenses. I never tired of seeing that spectacle — the minds of mundane people shutting out the supernatural truth, limiting and compacting their own sensory experiences.

But then, as I was salivating over the prospect of fresh lemons and wondering if Felicity really was going to drink that vile chocolate goo, the cashier’s eyes did the same thing with Felicity.

He looked at her face, unable to ignore her disfiguring burn scars, the single blind eye, the fused corner of her lips, the damaged skin made rough and red. He paused fractionally with that involuntary curiosity shown even by the most polite and understanding of people: a tightening of the smile, a spark of thought as he wondered how she had gotten those scars.

And then his eyes unfocused and slid away. Exactly as with Praem.

“Thank you very much,” Felicity said as she accepted her plastic bag. She followed Praem and I back out into the early morning streets.

I glanced back as we stepped out of the door; a scrap of black lace fluttered between the aisles, vanishing behind a pallet of milk bottles.

“Bench,” declared Praem once we were back out in the thin fog.

I stammered a little, still embarrassed at the consequences of my erroneous quick-thinking. “W-we don’t have to go sit down, we could go back to the house and—”


Felicity sighed heavily. “It is a nice morning. Despite the fog. Warm, dry. I wouldn’t mind a sit, if you want to.”


“All right, all right,” I said, mortified into acquiescence.

We didn’t want to walk all the way down Bluebell Road and past the university campus just to spend ten minutes sitting in Yare Broad Park; far too early in the morning for that, and I was far too desperate to get one of those lemons into my gullet. Instead we doubled back the way we came, past the mouth of Barnslow Drive once more — with a quick glance down the street to see that Felicity’s Range Rover was still right where we’d left it — and headed in the opposite direction, making for the nearest scrap of land which pretended to be a park.

The triangle of grass, scraggly trees, and badly tended flowerbeds didn’t even have a name; I’d only visited it once before, with Raine, for the sheer pleasure of finding bizarre little places tucked away in the ragged wounds of Sharrowford’s past. The triangle-park was an angle of ground forgotten between three housing developments, as if each had tried to fob it off on the others after finding out it was cursed, or destined to open up into a sink-hole, or technically owned by the King of the Moon. We had no idea who or what tended to the plants, but the pair of benches were kept in reasonable condition by fortuitous shelter from one of the tall, ugly, hundred-year-old brick walls which bracketed the space.

Six months ago I would never have stepped foot in there; the local spirit life loved this spot.

Spindly stick-insect things of spun glass clung to the tops of the walls, sunning their flat-eyed heads with the invisible beams of summer. One corner of the ‘park’ was nothing but a pulsating black mass of flesh, tendrils embedded in the brick, yet more tendrils held in front of it to play some ineffable finger-counting game. Humped shapes like coal-wrought polar bears slumbered along one of the flower beds. A half-dead tree was filled with upside-down severed heads, chattering to each other with silent mouths and no eyes. A furry S-shape writhed back and forth along the ground, a blind and insensate snake. Jellyfish shapes bobbed through the air. A bird made of razor-edged metal spikes spread its wings on one of the benches.

I walked in there, hand in hand with Praem, and I knew all those things meant me no harm.

“That bench is free,” I said, nodding toward the one furthest in the rear.

We settled down without further discussion. Praem and I took one end of the bench while Felicity sat a polite and respectful couple of spaces distant, but still alongside us. She placed her sports bag on the ground between her feet, put her bag of food on top of it, and then opened her can of cold coffee. She took a long sip, then sighed, sitting with her feet far apart, hanging forward slightly over her sports bag and the shotgun within.

“You really needed that, didn’t you?” I asked.

“Suppose so.”

Praem took her time smoothing her skirt over her thighs, very precise in how she sat; I didn’t rush her, whatever it was she was doing. I waited with the box of strawberries and then fed her one when she was ready. She parted her lips, accepted her gift, and chewed with dainty precision.


“Of course, of course.”



“Another. And one for Felicity.”

“Oh, yes,” said Fliss. “I did say thank you to that. Um, thank you.” She accepted a strawberry with one hand, rather awkwardly.


Five strawberries later, Praem closed her lips with a click — no ‘another’ forthcoming. She accepted the box while I finally pulled out a whole lemon from our bag. Fingers aching, eyelids sore, gums throbbing, I stared at it for a second and wondered if I should just pull it open, or use one of my tentacles to cut the skin off. I raised a tentacle to do exactly that, but then Praem gently took the lemon from my hands, twisted it between her own, and handed me back a pair of neatly parted lemon halves.

“Impressive,” Felicity muttered.

“Oh, Praem!” I lit up like a miniature sun. I was almost drooling. “Thank you!”

“You are welcome,” she intoned. “Eat.”

We sat there in companionable silence for a couple of minutes. I sucked on half a lemon, the juice sharp on my tongue, tingly on my fingertips, fresh and light and exactly what my body craved. Chewing on little twists of lemon flesh, watching the tendrils of low fog against the backdrop of the houses opposite, with Praem’s knee against mine, this morning seemed almost unreal. My bioreactor didn’t rumble or leap or jolt inside my abdomen at the taste of lemon juice, but I did feel the spark spread outward as my body got what I needed. I burst little pockets of lemon flesh between my teeth and tried not to get any down my chin. The taste made me pinch my lips together, wincing at the delicious sharpness.

After a minute or two, Felicity cleared her throat and said, “Strawberries. That was her material bond, wasn’t it? Very risky, but paid off, huh?”

I blinked at her. “I’m sorry?”

Praem stared too. And stared. And stared. She stared so hard that Felicity coughed and lowered her eyes.

“Yes,” Praem said eventually.

“Oh,” I said, as understanding dawned. “You can just ask Praem questions directly, if you want to.”

“Yes, I … I know. Sorry. Praem, then. Why strawberries?”

Praem answered like the tolling of a bell made of wafer-thin ice: “Strawberries are delicious.”

Felicity considered this for a moment, blinking her good eye twice. “I guess they are.”

I lowered my piece of lemon – a husk now, sucked dry by my thirst — and considered the other piece in my opposite hand. But then I said, “Felicity, do you mind if I ask you a question? In return, as it were.”

Felicity shrugged inside her long coat. “Ask away.”

“Well, several questions, really.” She shrugged again, so I carried right on. Praem was feeding herself a strawberry and looking away, over at one of the trees; I swear I caught a flicker of black lace in my peripheral vision, but I ignored it. If Aym wanted me to stop, she should show herself and say so. “The first one is about your scars. I don’t want to ask if you don’t want to answer. Is it okay to talk about that?”

Felicity’s good eye took on a suddenly haunted look, almost a thousand-yard stare.

“Strawberry?” Praem said, offering her the box.

Felicity blinked and snapped back to the present. “Uh, no, thank you. Um, Heather, I don’t want to talk about how I … about where … I don’t.”

“That’s quite all right,” I hurried to say. “It’s not about that, it’s about the cashier in the corner shop.”

Felicity frowned at me. “Eh?”

“He looked at your burn scars. And then he looked away.”

Felicity looked utterly mystified by that statement. Her half-scarred brow was furrowed in thought. Her left eye, blind and dull, seemed to roll in the socket. She said, slowly, “Most people are polite. Children stare, sometimes, but … ”

“No, I mean he looked away, against his will. Like you’re something supernatural and he couldn’t focus. Like people used to with Praem, when she was blue.”

Felicity’s eyebrows climbed in surprise. She looked at Praem. “You were blue?”

“Da ba dee da ba di,” said Praem.

We both stared at Praem’s bizarre non-sequitur. She stared back, utterly unfazed.

“Um, anyway,” I said slowly, “he looked away like you were something supernatural. Do you know why that is?”

Felicity sighed heavily and took a long drag from her cold coffee. She kept drinking, tilting the can all the way back to empty it down her throat. She closed her eyes, throat glugging — then finished with a huge huff, jerking her head back down and hurling the empty can across the park with a sudden spasm of anger.

The metal can sailed through the air and went clink off the brick wall opposite. It fell in the grass. Felicity huffed, hard and tight.

“Littering,” said Praem.

“Yeah. Fuck being tidy,” Felicity grunted. But then she stood up and walked all the way across the cramped, pitiful little park, stooped to pick up her can, and walked back. She placed it carefully on the edge of the bench. The spiky metal bird on the next bench over leaned closer to look, as if the empty can was now a tasty morsel. I expected Felicity to flinch away — and had to remind myself that she couldn’t see the spirit creature. She was only a mage, after all.

“Not for you,” said Praem, speaking to the bird. It jerked up and looked at her. “Down.”

Felicity stared at Praem. “What?”

“That wasn’t meant for you,” I hurried to explain. “She was speaking to a spirit.”

“Oh … right. Okay.” Felicity settled back down on the bench and sighed again, elbows on her knees, looking exhausted inside and out. “Sorry, I forget that some of you can do that trick.”

“It’s quite alright. I forget that other people can’t, sometimes.”

Felicity nodded slowly and wet her lips. The metal spirit-bird next to her tilted its head back and forth. I wondered if it was listening as well.

“That cashier back there,” Felicity said at length. “He was probably going to ask how I got the burns. Or maybe just thinking it. That’s all. Please don’t.”

I watched her for a second, staring out at nothing, until she reached down into her plastic bag and took out her pork pie. She slowly unwrapped it and bit into the thick brown pasty, then sighed again. “Oh, that’s good. That’s good stuff. Keep going, then,” she said around a mouthful of food.

“I … I’m sorry?”

“Said you had more questions. I don’t mind.” She looked down at her shoes, then up at the grey-milk sky. “You’re an alright sort of person, I think. Doing good things for Evelyn. You’ve got the right.”

I wanted to squirm out of my seat when she mentioned Evelyn’s name. What was Felicity, really? A mage, certainly. Dangerous? Maybe. But she wasn’t a monster. Or was she? I needed to check, I had to know, but not for myself. I was certain I could protect Evelyn. But there were other areas of life which were none of my business, unless somebody was making danger.

My heart rate increased as I rotated a pair of questions in my mind, examining them from different angles, making sure I had them correct before I began to speak. In a way, I only had one shot at this. My veins ached, the back of my neck was stiff and sore, and my tongue felt like cotton wool; the root was bruised. How does one bruise a tongue? I’m sure Raine would have plenty of creative answers.

Felicity must have felt me staring, because she looked at me and swallowed too hard. “Um … Heather?”

“Arms down,” said Praem.

I huffed a sigh and lowered my tentacles. They had been drifting higher, as if to repulse a sudden attack. “Sorry,” I said. “It’s just … Felicity, back before I met you in person the first time, Evelyn implied that you and Aym have a … romantic and … sexual relationship. She called you a ‘sociopathic pederast demonophile’.”

Felicity winced hard. She screwed her eyes up. “We already discussed this, on the phone. I know what she thinks of—”

“Look at me.”

My voice came out as a strangled whipcrack. I hadn’t expected that. My raw throat ached and throbbed with the effort, but Felicity looked. Felicity obeyed the thing I was.

She was hurting inside, sagging with the wound of Evelyn’s hatred.

“Is it—” I started to say.

Peh! came a spitting sound of pure disgust, from somewhere nearby, from behind a tree or over a wall. I twitched around, headache probing at the sudden movement, but the sound of Aym’s voice did not have a source.

“Aym speaks for us both,” Felicity mumbled, in a voice half-dead. “Aym and I don’t have that kind of … thing. We never did. God, Evelyn really hates me. She really, really hates me. As she should do.”

Abyssal instinct watched Felicity very carefully for several long seconds: the musculature of her face, the angle of her eyes, the oils on her skin. Her eyes were full of regret and sorrow, and other, darker things.

She wasn’t lying.

“Well, good,” I said, my tone lightening in an instant. “I’m sorry to repeat the question — and the insult — but you’ve been in our house for days now, and I had to ask, I had to know, I had to be sure—”

“I know, I know. You look out for Evelyn, you don’t want me near her if—”

“It has nothing to do with Evee,” I said. “I’m looking out for Kim.”

A subtle fire burned in my chest, a flame that had nothing to do with the bioreactor down in my guts. If I was an angel — if I was going to find a place that made sense, as an angel of mathematics and tentacles and abyssal darkness — then the unseen protections were just as important as the berserker rages. In fact, if I could work on the former, maybe the latter wouldn’t need to happen.

Subconsciously, unaware of what I was doing, I slowly spread my tentacles outward, strobing rainbow-soft in the thin fog. The spirit life in that memory of a park turned to look, or stilled their play, or bowed appendages and tendrils and heads in acknowledgement. Praem did not tell me to put my arms down.

“Ahhhhh,” Felicity sighed. “Is this the … what do they call it, in America? The ‘shovel talk’?”

All my angelic thoughts collapsed in confused disarray. I climbed out of a pile of white feathers and numb tentacles. “E-excuse me? I’m sorry, what?”

“Sticks and stones,” Praem intoned, “will break your bones, but words will hurt your heart.”

Felicity put both hands out as if surrendering to us. One was still full of pork pie and wrapper. “I-I didn’t mean to—”

“Fliss,” I said with a huff, sharper than I expected. “I’m not threatening you. Really!”

She frowned back at me. “You probably should be. You know what I am.”

“Argh!” I gestured with my half-lemon, tempted by some devilish impulse to give it a squeeze to squirt lemon juice into her eyes; I didn’t, though, that would be so rude I would probably have collapsed into a blushing pile of apologies, not to mention the pain it might inflict on her burn scars. I had no idea how that would affect her. I settled for sticking the lemon back in my mouth and sucking angrily for a moment.


“Nnn!” I popped the lemon back out. “I’m not threatening you! Yes, I’m very protective of Kimberly, because we essentially rescued her from a cult. She’s traumatised by magic, by even existing in our world, but the last few days she’s seemed happier than ever before. She found purpose again. You heard her! And you helped with that, sometimes indirectly, sometimes on purpose. And now you and her seem … very close. So I want to … check. On you. This is me, running a background check. You already passed.”

“Beep boop,” said Praem. She put another strawberry in her mouth, then took one from the box and flicked it toward the nearest tree. A scrap of black flickered out and snatched it behind the trunk.

Felicity mumbled, “But if I hurt her, you’ll put me in the ground.”

She was deadly serious. Her usual mumble was hushed and full of caution. She eyed me like a fox looking at a wolf.

“No! No, for pity’s sake.” I huffed. “Not everything in this world is life or death. If you, I don’t know, kidnap her or get her possessed by a demon on purpose, then yes, certainly, it’s mage fighty time, I suppose, and you should expect me to murder you in the bath or whatever. But not every relationship in mage world ends up in somebody getting dead, or punished, or whatever. Really. Things might not work out between you two, whatever it is you’re doing, and that’s normal. That’s fine. As long as you’re not abusive.”

Felicity swallowed hard and shook her head. “W-we haven’t made any promises or done anything or things like that. I can discourage her if you’d rather. I’m sorry. It’s been a long time since I met somebody who needed to hear the things I had to say. I just—”

I almost wrapped a tentacle around her throat. “I’m not asking you to do that. I’m just saying that I’m looking out for her, as a friend. Not as a miniature squid monster, or whatever I am these days. Does that make sense?”

“I’m a murderer,” said Felicity. “I’m a mage. I’m worse things than that.”

“So was she. So am I.”

Felicity sighed, looked down at her shoes again, and took a big bite from her pork pie. Praem took another strawberry from her box and flicked it in the opposite direction. A tiny black tendril speared it from behind a different tree, yanking it back into Aym’s hiding place.

“Maybe that’s why we get along,” said Felicity. “Still. She could do better.”

“All right, Felicity,” I said, straightening up and smoothing my pink hoodie across my front. “I want you to imagine something for me. A hypothetical. A most extreme scenario. Imagine that Kimberly leaves our house and goes to live with you, up in — Cumbria? Was that it? Would she be in any danger? Any danger with you? Any danger from Aym?”

“What? I … uh … I mean … ” Felicity stared at me, utterly overwhelmed, her good eye wide with shock. “No. Not from Aym. At least not … physically. But I mean, it’s not fit for human beings, where I live. Where I have to live. It’s not.”

“You’re a human being,” I told her.

She laughed, a little sarcastic puff. “I’m not so sure about that anymore. I haven’t been sure about that since I was thirteen years old.”

My turn to sigh. Something about her self-pity rankled me wrong. “Why do all the most skilled mages always get into it so young? Oh, I’m sorry, my sample size isn’t enough to justify that statement. I’m being judgemental.”

“Neuroplasticity,” Felicity said.

“ … really?”

She nodded. “You get it young, you’re better at it. It’s why Evelyn is … well. You know her.”

“That I do,” I said.

But I was thinking of Natalie, the girl I’d saved from the Shambleswamp, the collateral damage in Edward’s plans, exposed to the eldritch truth so young and with no way back.

And I was thinking of myself. But I needed to focus on the problem at hand. Time to test the waters with a fishing line.

“You do know,” I said slowly, measuring my words, “that you’ve got a rival for Kimberly’s affections, yes?”

Felicity nodded. “The police woman.”

“Nicky’s not a police woman,” I said. “Not any more. She’s a private detective now.”

Felicity shrugged. “Once a pig, always a pig.”

I burst out laughing; completely inappropriate, but I couldn’t help myself. Half the spirit life in the pretend park turned to look at me. A lace-wrapped face peered out from around a tree-trunk, then whipped back again. Praem said, “Ha ha.”

“Perhaps you’d get on well with Lozzie,” I said. “But I’m serious. Nicole is very trustworthy and she’s helped us in the past. She wouldn’t be a danger for Kimberly, but Kimberly doesn’t seem that interested in her. I try not to pry, really.”

“Well,” Felicity said slowly. “She’s probably better off with somebody like that.”

“Tch!” I tutted. “Don’t make that decision for her! That’s her decision to make.”

Felicity just stared at her feet and shrugged. We lapsed into silence. I had no idea of what advice to give, if any. It wasn’t my place to do so and I had no right to interfere. Praem stood up from the bench, dusted off her skirt with three sharp motions of her hands, and then stepped over to stare at something behind the nearest tree.

“What’s it like being a mage?” I asked Felicity. She looked up, blinking at me. My turn to shrug. “I love Evee, very much. But the mages I know are her and Kimberly, or … people we’ve fought against. I don’t have a representative sample. What’s it like?”

Felicity blew out a long breath. “What’s it like to be a human being?”

I couldn’t help myself, I laughed a little, just a single inelegant snort. “I see.”

Felicity chewed some more pie, then eventually said: “I’ve spent my whole life running from things I can barely see. What you have going on here, you and the others, this little … coven?” She frowned. “What do you call it?”

“I’m sorry? What do you mean? We’re not a cult or a—”

“No,” Felicity said — actually sharp and grumpy, or as sharp as she could get. “I mean this arrangement. You and Evelyn and Raine. The big zombie. The werewolf. Praem here. Lozzie. The moth-puppy thing whose name I can’t recall—”


“Tenny, right. You’re a coven or a circle or a—”

Praem said: “Family.”

“Nah.” Felicity shook her head. “It’s not quite. Some of it is, yes, but not all of it. It’s just community.” She frowned at me, harder than before. “I’ve never had that. You hold onto it. I don’t want to take that away from Kim.”

“Do you want to be part of it?” I asked.

Felicity looked like I’d slapped her. She almost choked on residual pork pie. “W-wha—”

I carried on: “I don’t mean ‘do you want to come live in our house?’ You can’t do that and I wouldn’t let you, and I suspect Evelyn would examine my head for damage if I suggested it. But if you ever need help, if something bad happens to you and Aym, you can call us. You can be part of a community without … without … ”

“Joining the polycule,” said Praem.

Felicity laughed, a real laugh, a sort of dry chuckle down in her chest. It stretched the corner of her mouth too far and she went, “Ow,” and clutched her chin, but she was still amused. A second snort, like rusty spoons rubbing a dead tree, came from somewhere behind Praem.

“Yes,” I sighed. “Well put, Praem. I think. How does that sound, Felicity? Does that make sense?”

“It does, it does,” she said, clearing her throat as the laughter left her face. “And thank you. I’ll … let Kim make whatever decision she will.”

“Are you two going to keep in contact, once this is all over?”

She shrugged. “Hope so.”

A scratchy voice of barbed wire and splinters spoke from behind one of the nearby trees: “You better do, you dirty little coward, or I’ll dunk your head in the toilet.”

“Right,” said Felicity. “Suppose I don’t have a choice.”

Felicity finished off her pork pie while I sucked the other half of my lemon. Aym vanished wherever she did when she didn’t have a body. Praem stood and offered us more strawberries, but we were quite ready to head home again.

The ground fog was almost gone by the time we returned to Barnslow Drive, but the sunlight was struggling to make itself felt. The sky was like grey milk, the air barren, the day already turning into a formless, colourless mass. There would be so much to discuss once everybody else was awake: plans to make, roles to decide, and my own part looming large with recovery and brain-math.

But then we turned into Barnslow Drive and saw a little man.

He was peering into the driver’s window of Felicity’s Range Rover, curious but polite, as if making sure the owner had not accidentally left any valuables on display. He looked up and straightened at the sight of us walking down the road, utterly unashamed of his own nosy curiosity. He stepped forward into the middle of the pavement, hands politely folded in front of him, with a smile both polished and oily.

Late forties or early fifties, with a face like a happy little pet rat. Big blinking eyes, hair a mess of wispy tufts. Short and portly and very comfortable in his rumpled suit and sensible coat. Empty hands, no bag, just himself.

Felicity nearly shot him. Only my hand on her arm stopped her from drawing her sawn-off and blowing him off his feet.

“No, no, it’s okay,” I hissed as we approached. But my own eyes went wide, flicking back and forth to make sure he was alone. “I know who this is, but I don’t know why he’s here.”

“Who?” Felicity was hissing. “Who!?”

“Good morning!” the man called with terribly exaggerated politeness as we walked up to him. “Good morning, all.”

“Praem?” I snapped.

“Alone,” Praem said.

“Yes, I can’t see anybody. No servitors either.”

“Good morning,” the man repeated. “Miss Morell, the younger Miss Saye. And I’m afraid I don’t have the pleasure of knowing your name, Miss,” he added to Felicity, completely unfazed by her burn scars. “And yes, I am alone. By myself. Completely unaccompanied. I do have a mobile phone, so I am not without certain recourse, but, well, you could always take that from me.” He smiled, still oily but a little strained.

“What the hell are you doing here?” I asked him.

Praem suggested, “Skulking.”

“Ah, well.” He cleared his throat. “I didn’t want to step onto the property without permission. I understand these are very strained times and I am not a normal visitor. My intent was to wait out here until I was spotted, with some hope to be engaged in conversation by somebody from within. I was prepared to wait quite some time if necessary. But this is lucky, as you young ladies were just returning—”

“Stop talking,” Felicity muttered. “Heather, who is this?”

The portly be-suited man stuck out one dry and smooth hand; he did an admirable job of pretending he wasn’t quivering. His smile oozed with another pint of oil.

“Harold Yuleson, lawyer. Very pleased to make your acquaintance. I’m here to represent my client, Mister Edward Lilburne. He wishes to re-open negotiations. May I come in?”

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A morning walk, an unorthodox snack, and a difficult conversation. Felicity isn’t one of them, she’s never going to be fully trusted – but she’s not outside in the cold, alone and unsupported, if she ever needs help. Meanwhile, Heather sure has come far with the spirits, huh? Good for her. Maybe the lemons will help her recover too.

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Next week, it’s time for one of the most annoying kinds of conversation in the world: a chat with a lawyer who represents your enemy. If Zheng doesn’t eat him first, anyway.

sediment in the soul – 19.8

Content Warnings

Medical danger/internal organs/internal wounds

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I awoke on the following morning sore in ways I had not previously considered possible.

That was quite a feat for my body. By that point in my as-yet short life I had experienced many different and unique ways of being sore — in the head, in the muscles, in the bones, in the heart, in the soul — that I unconsciously assumed I’d collected them all, short of giving birth, kidney stones, or cluster headaches. It was hardly a subject to brag about; to compare aches and pains with, say, Evelyn’s missing fingers, her prosthetic leg, and her spinal problems, would be the height of rude and inconsiderate behaviour. I never thought of myself as the sort of person who said, out loud, “I feel terrible, please pet me and make me feel better.” I had never compared pain or discussed bodies with Evee, because I thought I was being polite. I thought I knew all about being tired and sore and achy. I was hopelessly naive.

Consciousness poked and prodded me out from merciful oblivion with a dozen cracking joints, six hundred strained muscle fibres, and a thousand tiny bruises. For a long time I just lay there on my back in my own bed, half-swaddled in sweat-stained sheets, staring up at the shadows on the ceiling through my own eyelashes. Those hurt too; my eyelashes, I mean, not the shadows on the ceiling, though as my imagination churned on, I began to assume that shadows did hurt, and that I should reach out to offer comfort to the absence of light.

Too exhausted to fully open my eyelids, but kept from sleep by the solid, steady throb-throb-throb of my own tender carcass.

I had never felt less divinely inspired, never more aware of being meat.

If abyssal senses had crept over me right then and alienated me from this sack of chemicals and spongy tissues, I would have welcomed it with open arms. I would have happily slipped down into dissociation and abyssal dysphoria, if only to escape into sleep, or just the inside of my own head. I would have gladly thumbed out my own eyes for the sweet embrace of unconsciousness. For a second or two I may have actually willed it, inviting that unique kind of oblivion; I was not proud of that later, when I was coherent enough to self-examine — but it didn’t take the invitation. I just lay there in the pre-dawn grey, my tentacles limp and dim, listening to Raine breathing on one side of me and Zheng purring on the other.

No escape, neither up nor down, nor sideways, nor to Outer reaches, nor to inner space. Feverish and delirious, I lay there, panting softly, wishing for the energy to whine, so Raine might wake up and roll me onto my side.

Eventually true consciousness ebbed back, leaking into my mind and making me less of an animal. I recalled my own name. This was not a merciful thing. My breathing slowed. My aches and pains sharpened. My bladder complained.

Still, I didn’t get up. It was a bit like that time I’d woken up in Raine’s bed, after my fugue state, back in the shared house she’d lived in. Back then, panic and curiosity had forced me to my feet. But now? Panic was a luxury. Curiosity was too much effort.

I lay in bed and listened to the secret heartbeat of the house.

Number 12 Barnslow Drive told all her tales to anybody who cared to listen; one simply had to know how, like tuning in to an unlisted radio station. On the edge of dissociation, my ego pared down by pain, I felt all the little shifts and creaks of floorboard, all the drafts of air around the sensibly closed doors, all the metal hinges in the windows secure and tight. I listened for the steady ticking of the old grandfather clock in the front room, the gurgle and glug of the boiler in the cellar, the tiny scurry and scuttle of rodents down under the foundations. I listened to the moss and lichen drinking up the grey scraps of morning light. I felt the dew tremble on the grass in the back garden. I listened to the dust falling onto the table in the magical workshop. I listened for Evelyn’s breathing, her mouth half-smushed against her pillow, soft and slow and steady, a dreamless sleep of animal comfort. I felt Praem, a moving spark somewhere in the dark, cradled and cared for by unseen hands. I heard Tenny whimper in her sleep, and Lozzie’s hand brush Tenny’s shoulder to hug her close. I politely forgot about Kimberly’s sleep-talking; her racy dreams were none of my business. I heard Aym and Sevens, tucked away in a hidden place that was not Outside, but still within the house, playing a game with too many pieces to be chess. I even heard Felicity out in her range rover, the sound of her jeans shifting against the back seat, her heartbeat heavy inside her chest, her nightmares a crackle of memory inside her damaged skull; the house counted her as inside, threw its mantle of protection and enclosure around her too, even if she wasn’t permitted within the physical walls. Very sweet, I thought; only right, came the agreement.

I knew deep down in my guts — which also currently ached — that the house was safe and secure; Edward Lilburne had not attacked us in the night. All was well.

Then I hissed and screwed up my eyes and told myself to stop imagining things on the edge of sleep.

Sitting up took three attempts; my abdomen and flanks were covered in tiny bruises, the consequences of my unplanned berserker rage yesterday. My ribs spiked and cut me with intercostal muscle pain. My neck felt like it was made of wet sand and old glue. Eventually I got there, panting and trying not to whine; I didn’t actually want to wake up Raine or Zheng, they both deserved sleep too. It wasn’t their fault I was awake earlier than I wanted, aching all over and feeling like I’d aged ninety years overnight.

At least, that’s what I told myself as I gingerly peeled the sheets off my body and raised my quivering tentacles free of the bed. In a truth I did not yet understand, I was gripped by a furtive desire to spend a little time alone.

Getting out of bed clarified the pain. Most of my torso was covered in tiny bruises, each about the size of a twenty-pence piece, rapidly turning yellow and green and other fascinating bruise-colours. My legs were worse, striped with long bruises like claw-marks; I could only assume that I’d modified my muscles yesterday, for speed or power or motion or some other mad abyssal notion, which had fallen apart as soon as I’d crashed out of the high. My gums ached when I inhaled, the roots of my tentacles hurt like six separate sprains, the soles of my feet were raw, and my joints were full of broken glass. When I flapped the hem of my t-shirt and the waistband of my pajama bottoms to dry the sweat on my skin, all these aches and pains joined together in a chorus of big ouch.

But the real pain was in my right flank.

My bioreactor felt hard and cold, seized up like a pulled muscle.

I wasn’t immobile or sick. This was not the kind of pain that fells one like a lightning-struck tree. It was just very, very, very shitty. Pardon my language.

Two conflicting urges simmering inside me. The part of me I understood wanted to climb back into bed between Raine and Zheng; I stared at them for a long time in the grey gloom of the early morning, a pair of shadowed mountain ranges beneath the summer bedsheets, Raine on the right and Zheng on the left. Raine had slept within inches of me, but carefully restrained herself from hugging me overnight. She knew how bruised and sore I would feel; she always knew what I would feel. She slept on with one pillow between her arms, eyelids closed in angelic rest. Zheng, on the other hand, slept flat on her back like a vampire in an old movie, hands over her chest, breathing like the dead. She radiated a subtle heat, palpable on my bare skin even from two feet away.

Climb back between them, go back to sleep, wait for Raine to wake up and make me breakfast. Empty my head, don’t think about the aches and pains. Don’t think about anything.

Another part of me, a part I did not understand, wanted to go elsewhere, alone, and think.

I decided to stall.

Before I spent any time on myself, I padded over to Raine’s bedside table and picked up her phone, then carefully angled it toward the grey light from the crack in the curtains, so it wouldn’t flood the room with blinding illumination.

Last night, before we’d all collapsed into bed, Evelyn had given us very specific instructions about phones. I’d been barely conscious, but I still recalled the important parts: everyone was to keep their phones on and turned up, ready for a call from Twil or anybody else over at Geerswin farm, to maximise the chances of one of us waking up. Uninterrupted sleep was a distant second priority, compared with the importance of prompt communication in the event that Edward Lilburne decided to unleash giant carnivorous slugs against the farm, or at us, or anywhere else.

Raine’s phone showed no messages, no missed calls, nothing. I wanted to breathe a sigh of relief, but it was only five thirty in the morning, too early for Twil to check in and confirm that yes, nobody had been eaten or kidnapped in the night. I dimly recalled that Nicky had called Evelyn sometime yesterday evening, to confirm she had a nice big cast on her leg. At least there was that. Maybe I should call her later.

Then I went to the toilet. Always a good option when I had no idea what to do.

The upstairs corridor was dark and full of shadows, but I felt right at home, stretching out my tentacles as I crossed to the bathroom door. Bad decision: even my tentacles ached. The instinctive gesture made me wince and whine. I sat down on the toilet, in the dark, winded and puffing.

When I returned to the bedroom, I fetched one of my university notebooks from the desk and quietly tore off a fresh page, then found a pencil.

The first note I wrote just said: I’ve gone to be alone. Please don’t worry!

I threw that one in the rubbish because it was absolutely awful. Raine would worry herself so hard that she’d probably run up and down the house with her gun until she found me. That would be the opposite of the intended outcome. I sighed and tried a second draft.

I wanted to sit alone in the dark for a while, but I’m still in the house, please don’t come find me.

“Even worse,” I whispered to myself as I crumpled that one up and threw it after the first. “Why do words fail me now?”

After two more attempts I finally settled on: Just gone for a wander around the house. Don’t worry if I don’t come back to bed soon. Love you both so much. Heather, XXX

Technically a lie — I wasn’t planning on wandering anywhere, I was actually going to find a spot and plant myself. But I didn’t want Raine worrying and coming to find me, or thinking I’d gone Outside, or gotten stuck in the toilet. The little ‘x’s were not very me, and I blushed when I read the note over again, eyes straining in the grey darkness, but they did communicate the truth.

I weighed the note down with Raine’s phone on her bedside table, then kissed her on the head so gently that she didn’t even stir. I did the same with Zheng, leaving a feathery kiss on her brow.

Then I wriggled into my hoodie — the clean one, with the darker pink scales across the shoulders, not the one covered in blood which Praem had peeled off me yesterday, currently sitting in the washer or the dryer. I slipped some socks onto my feet too; it wasn’t cold in the early summer morning, but I needed a layer between the house and my aching soles, no matter how gentle the floors. Both actions required quite a bit of bending and lifting and moving muscles, a high price in pain, but I dressed myself without too much huffing and puffing.

In the darkened doorway I paused and looked back at Raine and Zheng, sleeping soundly. What would they do if they woke together without me between them?

I blushed to myself in the dark. I hoped they would enjoy themselves.

Then I closed the door and padded down the gloom-filled corridor, heading for the rear of the house.

This early in the morning, Number 12 Barnslow Drive was sound asleep, wrapped in grey shadows, flanked by the first clean knives of morning light at the edges of the windows. Nobody was stirring, not even Praem; she was not standing outside Evelyn’s doorway, nor lurking down the corridor. We were far past the witching hours, when Night Praem might have appeared to gently but firmly return me to bed. She was probably in Evee’s bedroom, or downstairs, reading a book.

If I went to the kitchen I might bump into Praem. I didn’t want that, so I dipped into the bathroom to drink some water from the cold tap, from my own cupped hands, finger joints sore and aching.

I wanted to be alone for a while, but I didn’t yet fully understand why.

My body rejected the notion of just sitting in the bathroom, in the dark, on the closed toilet seat. That wasn’t truly alone; anybody could wake up and need to use the toilet, and then my whole carefully constructed illusion of solitude would be broken. Downstairs was no better either, and the garden was just silly. The basement would be cold and uncomfortable. Evee’s study was a strong contender, but Praem might be in there too. I could have gone Outside — teleported to Camelot and wandered away over a hillside, beyond sight of the half-finished castle, or to some other barren dimension where I could sit on the ground by myself and turn my thoughts inward. But brain-math was not an option right then; my bioreactor was like a chunk of raw gristle in my flank. I dare not touch any hyperdimensional mathematics.

But what I needed, the house provided.

I padded down the upstairs corridor, toward the little t-junction in the rear, where the light from the single hallway window grew dim and distant. On the right was Kimberly’s bedroom, but on the left the corridor carried on into the gloom. The top of the house cradled several empty rooms stuffed with old furniture, bric-a-brac from Evelyn’s mother, ancient dusty boxes full of junk, and other untouchable mysteries. I walked deep into the dark, picked a door at random, and turned the handle with one tentacle.

Grey sunlight crept over my socks and up my shins; the room inside was angled toward the struggling dawn, catching it in one square window on the far wall. No forgotten servitors lurked within. No magic circles on the walls. No ghosts interrupted in bed. Good enough. I slipped inside and gently closed the door behind me.

Forgotten, but not abandoned; unused, but not barren. The spare room boasted an old wooden bed frame which looked like it had once served as the bottom half of a bunk-bed, with an old but clean mattress resting on top. A stack of ancient cardboard boxes stood against one wall, labelled in thick black marker pen: “PLATES”, “REVERSE”, “CABLES FOR CAR”, “DO NOT OPEN 23/08/1989”. That last one was sealed with duct tape and staples. A battered old desk stood against another wall, rickety and thin and looking ready to collapse. The desktop was covered in ossified pens, empty folders, paper-clips, and a single fist-sized block of glass with a stone encased in the middle. A painting hung opposite, a landscape which looked out from the top of a mountain. The sunlight in the picture was the wrong colour, but I couldn’t put my finger on why.

When I crossed over to the square window I couldn’t quite tell what part of the garden I was looking down at. The left side of the house, I thought, but I couldn’t see the big tree in the back, even when I craned my neck.

I decided to ignore all of those things; the house would not have led me somewhere unsafe, after all. And the room didn’t contain too much dust, which implied Praem must be cleaning even the spare and empty spaces. She really deserved more thanks. A week off. A party. A hug.

“Thank you,” I muttered to the empty air, to the walls, to the house itself. Then I felt very silly and went over to the mattress.

My thighs and calves and knees all ached too much in too many new and interesting ways for me to comfortably sit cross-legged, so I flopped down on the mattress and sat with the soles of my feet together, using my tentacles to take my weight.

I took a deep breath, let my eyes unfocus, and allowed myself to just feel.

I had spent most of my life being alone all the time, in the most profound and painful ways. Maisie, my twin, my other half, my childhood, my lost secret and my guiltiest sin, had been taken away from me. I had spent ten years screaming in the wilderness. And then this last year, because of Raine, and Evelyn, and all the others, I rarely felt alone anymore. I was always surrounded by other people. I loved it, I valued every second of it, and in my darkest moments I worried about it all going away one day.

But sometimes one needs to be alone with one’s body.

If I’d said those words to Raine, she probably would have made a joke about masturbation, but I was about as un-libidinous as possible right then. Part of me wanted to strip naked for what I was about to do, but there was nothing sexual in that either. However, though summer it may have been, it was still summer in England, in the North, in Sharrowford, and far too chilly to be taking all my clothes off by myself.

Instead I slipped my arms inside my hoodie, leaving the sleeves empty, and pulled up the hem of my t-shirt so I could place both hands on my abdomen.

My trilobe bio-reactor felt cold and hard, a fist-sized lump in my side an inch or two below the skin.

I pressed and squeezed, wincing at the pain, trying to instinctively feel if anything was out of place, or damaged, or bleeding internally. I didn’t think anything was bleeding — I probably wouldn’t have been prodding at myself if I did — but I wanted to see how my body reacted, how it felt to touch and squeeze. I flipped the hem of my hoodie up briefly so I could take a look. A patch of skin on the side of my abdomen was blotchy and red, bruised below the surface, like a bubble of rot inside a peach.

“What’s wrong with you?” I murmured to the occulted organ.

Evee was right: if I damaged this organ, if I tore a membrane or clogged a valve or burst a vessel, there was no going to the hospital. Lozzie and I would have to fix it ourselves. And I didn’t know how it worked.

“Abyssal healthcare,” I whispered. “I wish I knew somebody who understood all this.”

Maybe somebody did, Outside. Maybe I needed to take Lozzie on a private trip to Camelot and ask her some very personal questions. Or maybe I needed to take a second journey to the Yellow Court and find the King’s physician. I couldn’t be the only human who had ever done this.

Wishful thinking. I might not be the only, but I might be the first.

I could only feel so much with my bare hands, through my own abdominal wall, and brain-math was risky in my damaged, low-power, empty-tank state. There was nothing else for it: I closed my eyes and attempted to consciously move the tiny muscles and miniature tendons inside the organ, testing the signals down the nerve uplinks which I had imposed on my human body. I needed to flex the new flesh in my core which powered me and kept me alive and made me what I was.

Bad idea: I didn’t know which muscle I tightened or what tendon I yanked, but as soon as I tried to twitch those unseen tissues, a blade of pain shot upward though my insides, swift and sharp.

“Ahhh!” I gasped, broke out in cold sweat, and grasped at my flesh as if I could squeeze it back together.

It is always shocking when the animal takes over in a moment of pain and fear, especially when one’s wound is internal. A part of me that had nothing to do with abyssal instinct was desperate to reach inside my belly and confirm that I was not broken, that I had not irreversibly damaged myself somehow.

I sat there for what felt like minutes, eyes wide open and staring at the bare mattress, hunched over the unexpected pain in my belly, panting and sweating and shaking.

But eventually the pain ebbed away, throbbing back down to mere muscle ache. I straightened back up, tender and afraid.

“Ow,” I croaked. “Oh, ow.”

I briefly considered going to fetch somebody else. I hadn’t realised until then the potential danger of this little indoor adventure. I might hurt myself and pass out, alone and isolated.

But then I brushed the wall behind me with a tentacle — not because I was reaching out for it, but because I was trying to steady myself amid fear for the flesh.

Number 12 Barnslow Drive was safe and warm; the wall was solid and sensible. The house would not lead me into danger.

In retrospect, that notion was completely irrational, perhaps even ‘crazy’ — a word I had avoided for months. But something deep in my gut told me that whatever I did, the house would keep me safe. If I was hurt, the house would not allow me to go unattended. Experimentation was safe inside these walls, as long as I respected my body.

I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and tried again — much, much, much slower.

That time the pain was bearable, blunt and prickly, like a pulled muscle rather than a razor across my intestines. I hissed through clenched teeth and moved with the care of a robotic surgical machine, slowing further when the pain told me to stop, pressing against minor aches until they unfolded into muscle soreness, or irritated surfaces, or the need for fresh blood to flow over thirsty tissues.

“Oh, this is weird,” I whispered to myself. “This is very weird. Mm … feels … ”

I didn’t say it out loud, even to myself, but it felt sort of good. And not because of the pain; I wasn’t discovering a hidden masochistic side.

It felt good to consciously move a part of myself that I had only ever used before on pure instinct.

I flexed tiny membranes against pressurised pockets of enzymes; I opened valves and pushed fluid through tiny tubes, feeling the sacs and chambers fill with potent juices and thin plasma; I slid sheaths up and down the control rods in their channels, cleaning out detritus, but I kept them in place, not wanting to fire anything up right then; I pressed flaps back and forth, squeezed muscle fibres together, and rocked tendons up and down.

And I felt warmth somewhere deep within the organ, at the point where all the structures converged.

A spark was still in there, burning away inside me, protected and harnessed.

“Not broken,” I whispered. “Just healing. Very slowly.”

I finally opened my eyes and looked down at myself, taking several deep breaths and feeling extremely weird. Examining the inside of one’s body was not something people did every day. It was akin to looking at my own genitalia in a mirror. I hugged my abdomen and leaned backward into my tentacles, thinking out loud.

“How did I burn this out so badly?” I asked the empty room. My attention wandered to the weird landscape painting with the strange light, then out of the window, across an angle of the road I’d never considered before. My mind wandered too, chewing on this problem. “Because I … I went berserk, because the others were in danger. Right. And … why was that different? Help me out here, body.”

My tummy didn’t answer, so I wiggled my arms back into my sleeves, stood up — very slowly and gently, wincing several times on the way there — and then walked over to the window again.

The grey light lay over Sharrowford like a veil.

“Because I wasn’t Outside,” I said to my reflection in the glass, ghostly and faint against the city and the sky. “I wasn’t in any kind of liminal space, not in Hringewindla’s shell, or trapped in Ooran Juh’s metaphorical-physical mouth-dimension, or in the pocket space with the castle. I was just here, fully in reality, wasn’t I? Geerswin farm, Twil’s house, it’s all here, in reality.”

Yesterday, in that moment of panic, I had transformed. I had manifested Homo abyssus in physical reality — even if it had been via pneuma-somatic flesh — and I had held it for as long as it took to make sure my friends were safe.

The sheer amount of power I’d used to transform — and sustain that transformation — must have been staggering. No wonder my bioreactor was in need of a rest. No wonder I was covered in bruises, my gums ached, my eyelids itched, and my knees felt like they were on backwards.

“I’m not invincible,” I said to my thin reflection. “I’m not immortal. Angels aren’t gods, Heather.”

Abyssal energy was infinite; hyperdimensional mathematics was omnipotent; the well was bottomless. But the interface through which I drew on the truth of reality was mere flesh, soft and spongy and susceptible, even if it was based on abyssal principles translated into human biology. That flesh required protection and care, no less than the rest of my body. I could not take it for granted.

I put my hand on my belly again. “I’m sorry,” I whispered, to myself, to the window, to Sharrowford, to the house, to my own body. “What do you need? Rest? Yes, I can do that. I can do rest. All day. Anything else? Food? Maybe … ”


The craving hit me as a physical sensation: my salivary glands filled my mouth with spit, my stomach rumbled, and my eyes began to water. I was so surprised that I burst out laughing, clutching my belly and wiping my eyes. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d eaten a piece of lemon on its own, but right at that moment I would have peeled the skin off one with my tentacles and crammed the whole thing into my mouth, juice running down my chin. Imagining that made me quiver all over. My body was demanding — what, vitamin C?

“Okay, okay! I suppose that answers that. Wow. Uh, time for breakfast? Just lemons, or … ?”

Lemons, tomatoes, pineapple chunks; raw fish, soy sauce, olives. My head swam with desire for foods I rarely or never ate. Posing the question to my own biology had prompted my body to start throwing out suggestions. I smiled at my reflection, oddly delighted.

“Oh, but I doubt we have any of that. And it’s only just past six in the morning.”

True, I could tell Raine that I was craving moon flowers, or fairy dust, or mermaid flesh, and she would leap out of bed and straight into her shoes, off on a quest to sate my every desire. But I didn’t want to wake her up and send her down to the nearest corner shop to buy me a bag of lemons. I wanted her to rest and sleep. I wanted her to be safe.

“May as well check the fridge,” I said out loud. “Thank you.” I reached out with one tentacle and patted the window frame, thanking the house itself.

Then I pulled my tentacle back and frowned at the tip.

Ah. I’d been avoiding thinking about this.

That specific tentacle was the same one I’d almost used to inject Nicole yesterday. I could feel the ghost of the bio-steel needle inside the tip, a flexible rigidity waiting to be summoned again with a flicker of thought. It ached in a different way to all my other bruises, with an insistent potential.

Sober and thoughtful, with my head on properly for the first time in a while, I stared at that tentacle. I took the tip in my hand and squeezed gently. I thought about how I’d wanted to jab Evelyn as well, when she’d looked so exhausted and spent and in so much ambient pain. I grimaced and blushed and chewed on my lips.

“Is this a … sex thing? Do I … do I want to … jab Evee with my big rainbow wing-wang?”

I blushed from the roots of my hair all the way down to my collarbone. I pressed my forehead against the cool glass, and saw a small squirrel hopping along the edge of the fence. For a moment the squirrel seemed to have too many legs, but that was just because I was so mortified. I hope the squirrel did not hear me being a massive freak.

“No,” I said slowly. “No, I don’t feel arousal at that idea. Do I? I don’t think so. It’s a healing thing, I just wanted to fix them both. I’m certainly not attracted to Nicky, anyway. And when I jabbed the Forest Knight, that certainly wasn’t sexual, that was emergency medical attention! Yes, there’s nothing … nothing sexual about the tentacle. Nothing. If I just wanted to have sex with Evee … mm. Do I?”

“I don’t know, do you?”

Aym’s voice was a crackle of rotten leaves on a parched forest floor.

I whipped around — bad reaction, as it left me wincing and clutching my abdomen, tentacles rearing up and then shuddering with muscular pain — but the room was empty. Not even a lurking shadow in the corner. Mattress, desk, stack of boxes. No Aym.

“Aym?” I said out loud, then sighed. “That was an unkind trick. I am in private.”

She didn’t speak again. I checked under the bed and behind the stack of boxes, but there wasn’t so much as a speck of mould clinging to the skirting board.

I spoke to the air. “I don’t appreciate you listening in on my private moments.”

The reply came like a whisper from inside the walls, a scrape of mouse-feet on plaster and insulation: “Calm your tits. I only heard the very end. Later, squid-brains. Use protection if you must.”

I frowned at nothing, my brain chewing over the meaning of that for a few seconds. Then I got it and spluttered, blushing again. “Aym!”

But she didn’t even giggle.


Sadly our fridge did not contain any lemons, whole tomatoes, sliced mango, raw fish, or olives. A small bottle of soy sauce was tucked into one of the door shelves, but it was almost empty and the lid was crusted with dried brown gunk. I couldn’t recall ever seeing anybody put any on their food. I sighed and closed the fridge door, leaving behind the chill artificial light and entombing myself once again in the grey dawn.

I sighed and grumbled and rubbed my tummy. Couldn’t help it, the gesture was instinctive. Then I blushed at how childish I must have looked, and shot a glance at Praem.

She was sitting at the far end of the kitchen table, with a small stack of books at her elbow, reading a copy of War of the Worlds, by the grey morning light spilling in through the window. She hadn’t looked up, which was a relief; but then again, Praem would never judge me or call me childish. I knew better than to assume that.

I’d found her already sitting there after I’d padded downstairs and across the chill floor of the front room, a warm little sprite tucked away in an unexpected place. I’d said, “Oh! Hello, Praem!” like a moron who thought I was the only person moving around in the house. Praem had said good morning, and then resumed reading.

Praem’s resemblance to Evee was particularly sharp that morning. I wasn’t sure if it was the fuzzy morning light, my current preoccupation, or the brain-haze caused by weird food cravings — but it certainly wasn’t helped by the absence of Praem’s habitual maid dress. Her outfit was ruined and bloodstained after the fight yesterday. Washable, certainly, but it would need so many repairs that I assumed she was just going to purchase a new one.

So, sitting in the dreary summer morning, reading books, Praem was dressed in a sea-blue ribbed jumper and a long cream skirt, with matching white tights on her legs. It was really very fetching. She had her hair pinned up behind her head in that usual messy bun. She was prim and elegant but also contained and neat, in that very specifically Praem-like way.

“Gosh, Praem,” I said, carried into bravado and stupidity by hunger and pain. “You really are Evelyn’s daughter.”

That comment drew her gaze up from her book. Milk-white eyes stared at me from the gloom. I blushed again and cleared my throat and hurried to explain.

“I-I mean you just really look like her right now. N-not in the face, I mean, just in dress, and … and … reading books. And … oh, I’m sorry, I just meant—”

“Thank you.”

Her voice rang out like a tiny silver bell coated with ice. I cleared my throat and nodded.

“Sorry to interrupt your reading,” I said. “Do you know that’s how I met Evee? I interrupted her reading. I mean, I interrupted a lot of things, but mostly the reading, at first.”


I paused and blinked at her in the dark. The kitchen sat heavy and grey around us. “ … yes?”


“She’s … told you?”


“Oh. All good things, I hope? I was a bit … well. I was more difficult then. So was she.”

Praem just stared. I curled my feet against the floor tiles and felt exceedingly awkward and extremely hungry and very, very silly. I shot a mournful glance at the cereal cupboard. Oats and milk did not seem very appetizing right then. Toast made me feel vaguely nauseated. I didn’t even want tea or coffee, which was even weirder. I sighed and flapped my arms, then hugged my hoodie to myself.

“How is Evee, anyway?” I asked. “I assumed you’d be up there with her, making sure she stays asleep. She was so exhausted after yesterday, I was really worried about her.”

“And she you.”

I grimaced. “Fair enough. Seriously though, Praem, how was she? Did she sleep okay?”

“Yes. No dreams.”

I laughed softly. “You can sense when she dreams?”

“Rapid eye movement.”

“Ah, yes. I suppose there’s that.” I frowned for a moment. “Does that mean … I mean, that implies you … do you watch her sleep?”

“I will not leave her in a nightmare.”

A fist gripped my heart all of a sudden, a constricting band inside my chest. I had meant that question semi-jokingly; of course Praem would never have watched Evee sleep without Evelyn’s permission. Either I had the wrong end of the stick or there was some good reason for it. I was just gently probing. But Praem had answered seriously. For a long desolate moment I stared back at her unreadable, placid expression.

“Evee has nightmares?” I asked. “I mean, everyone has nightmares, sometimes. But she has … a lot? Regularly?”

“When alone.”

I felt a sudden overwhelming urge to sprint up the stairs; my tentacles even twitched toward the door, which made their roots ache where I was still bruised. I winced and clutched myself. “Then why … why aren’t you up there right now? Praem?”

“I am more than my mother.”

I swallowed, skin prickling with heat. “Yes, yes of course you are! But—”


“ … pardon?”


I blinked three times, stunned by the clever name and by the implication. “You mean Sevens is watching her right now?”

“I wanted a break.”

“And you trust her not to let Aym—”


I almost flopped down in a chair. I only resisted because doing so would have made all my bruises flare up in a chorus of pain. This was a lot to suddenly take in. “I need to sleep with her sometimes,” I muttered before I realised the full meaning of my words. “I need to be with her sometimes, at night. Why hasn’t she said anything?”

“They are only nightmares.”


I was so agitated that I actually paced up and down the kitchen twice, stretching my legs and wringing my hands. Evee suffered nightmares. Praem wanted a break sometimes. Somebody needed to sleep with Evee, occasionally. I couldn’t deal with this all right then; I was so bloody hungry. I could have eaten a bag of lemons with the skins still on. I could have eaten the bag.

“Praem, we really must throw you some kind of birthday party.”

She just stared at me, as if that made no sense.

“I mean you deserve some celebration!” I went on. “You’re so … well, okay, not selfless, I shouldn’t put you on a pedestal. But you do so much for us. I know everybody treats you well, and thanks you, and stuff. But my goodness, you deserve a day just for you! Praem day!” I was getting worked up now. “We should throw you a birthday party, on … ”

I drew to a halt as I realised that I did not know on which day Evelyn had made Praem. I’d been unconscious in Raine’s bed, of course.

“I’m so sorry,” I said. “November … it would have to be between the eighteenth … no, the nineteenth, the day Raine and I were … then I came back here on … ”

“The twentieth of November,” said Praem.

“Yes!” I was so excited I actually pointed at her. “That’s your birthday! You’ll be a year old. Well, I mean, of course you’re much older than that, you were alive in the abyss for a lot longer, but your one-year anniversary of being here, with us. I-I don’t want to assume, I—”


“ … really?”


Praem wasn’t smiling. But I saw the twinkle in her eyes. “One year old it is then,” I said.

Only when I finished saying that did I realise what we were doing: we were making plans for something after Maisie’s deadline. We were both assuming we were going to live.

Gosh, I prayed that Praem was going to live.

I crushed that thought down and away. Worrying about that right then would not help my body recover. I was no use to Maisie if I was a mass of bruises writhing on the floor. A calcified and dead reactor organ would not help me withstand the attention of the Eye long enough to shout Give me back my sister! and spray it with lemon juice.

But, cold cereal? Soggy toast? An apple? My body was demanding so much more.

“Praem,” I said slowly — as she was still staring at me rather than at the open pages of her book. “I want to go for a walk.”

“The leash does not fit you.”

My eyes went wide. Praem stared back. We were frozen for a good five seconds.

“I … I mean … okay? Um.”


“Yes!” I squeaked. “It had better be! My goodness, where did that come from? Actually, no, don’t answer that question.” I sighed. Praem didn’t even open her lips. “I was being serious. I want to go for a walk. Just a few streets, down to the nearest corner shop and back. I’m craving … well, I’m craving a lot of foods we don’t have. And I don’t want to wake Raine, or Zheng, or Evee. Or anybody else. But I know I shouldn’t go alone. It’s not as if I can Slip away reliably, right now. If Edward Lilburne decides to send blokes in balaclavas to bundle me into the back of a van, I’m actually less capable of self-defence than usual. He has no way of knowing that, but … ” I shrugged. “Evee’s paranoia is wearing off on me, I suppose. That and she’d kill me if she knew I went for a walk all by myself, unprotected. Raine would be horrified. Zheng would probably call me ‘foolish shaman’, instead of just ‘shaman’.”

Praem still said nothing.

I pulled an awkward smile. “What I’m trying to say is: will you accompany me on a walk? You and I, down to the corner shop and back. Do you think that’s responsible of us? If you don’t, then I can wake Raine, but I thought it might be nice. Just you and I. I do value you, Praem. I love you too, like a niece or a step-daughter, or … or … I don’t know, maybe we don’t need labels like that.”


I blinked at her. “To which part?”


I did this simultaneous sigh and big smile both at once, then nodded. “Thank you, Praem. Shall we … ?”

Praem was already closing her book and rising to her feet.

We left fresh notes for the others; well, I did, anyway. I scurried back upstairs to change out of my pajama bottoms and into some trousers, slipping back into the darkened bedroom where Raine and Zheng were still fast asleep. I wrote a new note: “Gone for a walk with Praem! She will have her mobile phone, so please call if you’re worried. We shouldn’t be long, maybe fifteen to twenty minutes. Love you, love you, love you.”

I drew a little heart as well, and was glad for the darkness.

Before I left the room, I rummaged for two items on the desk, and slid them into my pockets: the personal attack alarm and the very illegal pepper spray which Raine had purchased for me, months ago. If I couldn’t Slip, I wanted a worse-case scenario option, even with Praem at my side.

Back down in the front room Praem was busy putting on her sensible boots, the ones with the thick soles which looked like they could be used to kick bricks apart. I didn’t bother with a coat; my two layers of t-shirt and comfy hoodie were more than enough on a summer morning, even a grey one like this. Praem opened the door and let the weak sunlight inside. The smell of leaves and mist hooked my senses.

“Money?” she asked.

“I have twenty pounds in my purse. More than enough.”

“I require strawberries.”

“Oh, of course! I think they have fresh fruit, this time of year. My treat, on me.”


I stepped outdoors. Praem locked up after us.

Sharrowford was dreary and limp that early in the morning; summer had remembered itself but without several key components, like the selective amnesia of a petulant princess. Perhaps it was still taking after Aym. The air was warm enough, with no creeping cold sliding up inside my hoodie, but the sky was milky with high clouds, the sun was playing hide-and-seek, and there was low mist visible at either end of the road.

I eyed that mist for a moment, simmering with suspicion. But spirit life moved within it as usual, and beyond it, up on the rooftops. The unpredictable menagerie of creatures did not seem spooked or skittish that morning. Something with lots of claws and a face like an axolotl skittered down the opposite side of the road, pausing to do a little dance and a spin. Several humped shapes on the corner were playing some bizarre imaginary version of hopscotch, which ended with them opening wide and swallowing each other, so only one of them was left at the end. A vast tree of soft blue light hung over a distant row of houses, flashing like bioluminescent coral.

“Quiet morning,” said Praem.

“Yes. Quite. Nothing going on, we can hope.”

To my great surprise, Praem’s fingertips brushed mine as we walked down the garden path. I flinched softly, then looked at her. Milk-white eyes stared back at me.

“Hold hands,” she said. It was not a question.

“Oh, Praem, I’d be delighted. Thank you.” I happily took her soft, cool palm in mine. But then I frowned again. “Wait, is this so I don’t run off? Is this like holding the hand of a small child?”

Praem did not reply. I sighed and rolled my eyes — but I couldn’t say no. This was too sweet.

Felicity’s battered old Range Rover stood in the road just beyond the garden gate, the wheels lapped by lazy tongues of morning mist. She hadn’t bothered — or wasn’t able — to pin up anything over the windows, so when Praem and I reached the car, we could see her curled up on the back seat, beneath a couple of rugged blankets and an extra coat.

Even through the window, I could tell she was exhausted. Half-buried by a blanket and obscured by a veil of hair, the skin of her face seemed thin and fragile, even the part that wasn’t burn-scar. She looked lumpy and awkward on her makeshift bed. She looked cold. Her sports bag with the shotgun inside sat on the floor in front of her, within easy reach.

“This isn’t right,” I sighed.

Praem and I had drawn to a stop, perhaps by instinct, perhaps on some humanitarian impulse. Praem didn’t say anything, she just held my hand while I peered in at Felicity’s sleeping form.

“But if she was inside … Evelyn wouldn’t feel comfortable,” I whispered on. “Understatement of the year.”

“Yes,” said Praem.

In a moment of incredible awkwardness, Felicity opened her eyes and looked up at us.

Bleary and bloodshot, heavy with sleep, I don’t think she had actually overheard me talking about her through all the metal and plastic of the car door. But it was still a mortifying experience. And then Praem and I were rooted to the spot by politeness as Felicity slowly sat up, stretched her arms, shivered with post-sleep metabolic lethargy, bundled up her blankets, and popped the car door.

“Um, Heather,” she mumbled with the good corner of her mouth. “Praem. Good morning.”

“I’m sorry if we woke you, Felicity,” I blurted out. “I didn’t mean to. I thought you were, well, fast asleep.”

“Good morning,” Praem intoned.

Felicity shrugged a non-response, then shuffled over the edge of the seat and clambered out of the car, looking even more awkward than usual. She had slept fully dressed, though in a different change of clothes to yesterday. She moved with incredible care and stiff slowness, reaching back into the car to make sure her weapon was still within reach. I sighed and felt awful for her.

“We were just going for a walk,” I babbled on, trying to cover for my own embarrassment. “Just down to the corner shop, I think. Just me and Praem. You’re welcome to breakfast, of course. Or we could pick you up something, or … ”

Felicity blinked hard at Praem. “Evelyn is safe by herself?”

A moment of frozen tension slid between the three of us — or was that just my imagination?

What did Felicity mean by that question? Goaded by pain and lack of clarity, my mind spun that statement out into a hundred hidden meanings. Felicity was out here because her presence made Evelyn uncomfortable; that was because of their shared history, which I did not fully understand. But I thought I had a good grasp of her by now. Did I? Hadn’t things changed the last few days? They had, yes?

Felicity was unhealthily obsessed with Evelyn — with her regard, with her forgiveness, with any opportunity to practice self-sacrifice for her. I didn’t believe for a second that leaving her alone with Evelyn was actually dangerous to Evee.

If I did, I’d pull your head off myself, whispered a dark part of me.

But what about emotionally? If Felicity got Evelyn alone, what questions might she ask? What memories might she dredge up in her quest to punish herself?

Did she care about Evelyn being safe without Praem around — or was she fishing to see if Evee was alone?

I had no idea. The thought itself was deeply uncharitable. This woman had helped save us. She’s fought alongside us. But that didn’t erase her personal history.

Before Praem could answer, or clarify that Evee was not technically alone, never alone, never again — I blurted out a question with a very hidden meaning indeed.

“Felicity!” I chirped, the fresh air hurting my gums. “Do you want to come with us, on our little walk?”

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Rest and recovery, and a little bit of bio-abyssal experimentation. Always good for any young squid girl to listen to her body. And eat lemons! But now there’s a grumpy mage and Heather is trying to figure out what she’s really up to.

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Next week, a squid, a maid, and a magician all walk into a corner shop. What’s the punchline? Better not be violence, Heather’s too sore for that.