None this 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?”
“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.
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.
If you want to support Katalepsis and also read a couple of chapters ahead of the public ones, please consider:
All Patrons get access to two chapters ahead! No matter what level you subscribe at! That’s almost 20k words at the moment. The more support I get through Patreon, the more time I can dedicate to writing, and the less chance of having to slow down the story. The generous and kind support of Patrons and readers is what makes all this possible in the first place, I would literally not be able to do this without you, so thank you all so very much! You can also:
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!
And thirdly, leave a review! Or a like, a thumbs up, a comment on a chapter, it’s all great, and it helps me so so much to know there’s people out there reading and enjoying the story; that’s the whole reason I do this in the first place, to bring a fun story to those who read it. And thank you for reading!
Next week, Heather asks Kimberly a difficult question. About magic? What’s she planning here, a magical uplift for her reactor? Hmm.
Nothing this 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?”
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?”
“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.
“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.”
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.
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?”
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.
If you want to support Katalepsis and also read a couple of chapters ahead of the public ones, please consider:
All Patrons get access to two chapters ahead! No matter what level you subscribe at! That’s almost 20k words at the moment. The more support I get through Patreon, the more time I can dedicate to writing, and the less chance of having to slow down the story. The generous and kind support of Patrons and readers is what makes all this possible in the first place, I would literally not be able to do this without you, so thank you all so very much! You can also:
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!
And thirdly, leave a review! Or a like, a thumbs up, a comment on a chapter, it’s all great, and it helps me so so much to know there’s people out there reading and enjoying the story; that’s the whole reason I do this in the first place, to bring a fun story to those who read it. And thank you for reading!
Next week, it’s time 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.
Medical danger/internal organs/internal wounds
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—”
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?”
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?”
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.
If you want to support Katalepsis and also read a couple of chapters ahead of the public ones, please consider:
All Patrons get access to two chapters ahead! No matter what level you subscribe at! That’s almost 20k words at the moment. The more support I get through Patreon, the more time I can dedicate to writing, and the less chance of having to slow down the story. The generous and kind support of Patrons and readers is what makes all this possible in the first place, I would literally not be able to do this without you, so thank you all so very much! You can also:
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!
And thirdly, leave a review! Or a like, a thumbs up, a comment on a chapter, it’s all great, and it helps me so so much to know there’s people out there reading and enjoying the story; that’s the whole reason I do this in the first place, to bring a fun story to those who read it. And thank you for reading!
Next week, 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.
Biting, bite marks, bite wounds
Seven-Shades-of-Sanguivore possessed the most wonderfully sharp little teeth I’d ever seen on any creature, Outsider or otherwise. Each tooth was a smooth white pointed needle; they looked as if they had evolved specifically to punch through a steel gorget and penetrate the living meat inside, to cut channels in flesh for blood to flow free. She was tiny and twisted and weird, but also beautiful in her own way — but when she opened her mouth she was beautiful like a blade was beautiful, sharp and dangerous and elegant all at once. Sevens wore her blood-goblin mask as a habitual lounging form, when at home and comfortable and safe, but the sight of those teeth always reminded me that the mask was based on a real person — a ‘vampire’, who had once been called Julija, and had used those teeth to drink blood from human throats.
Seven-Shades-of-Stunning-Snap slammed those razor-tipped teeth tight around my forearm, right at the climax of a brain-math equation.
She sliced straight through the fabric of my pink hoodie and the cloth of two different t-shirts, cut into my flesh like a handful of scalpels, and clamped down hard around my ulna and radius.
I felt enamel scrape my bones.
My edifice of brain-math collapsed like an aborted sneeze — or like an orgasm interrupted by muscle cramp.
I crashed out of the hyperdimensional mathematics harder than ever before; it was like being ripped away from a cliff-edge by a none-too-gentle rottweiler. All the carefully balanced infernal machinery and heavenly mathematics of the Eye came crashing down around me, unstable scaffolding smashing into my mind and sending me reeling, crushing me to the floor, breaking bones, pulping flesh.
My eyes shot open; I was back on the sofa in the Hopton’s ruined sitting room, heaving for breath, coughing and hacking and retching, my vision blurred with black and red. I groped for Raine and clung on tight with two tentacles, a drowning woman clutching a piece of driftwood. My nose filled with blood and dripped onto the front of my hoodie; I made no effort to hold that back. Why bother? I was already filthy with blood and worse from the fight with the Outsiders. I whined and spat and shook as the equation rolled back onto me. Waves of pain lanced up through my eyeballs and set my brain on fire.
But my bioreactor stayed cold. My mind, my soul, my self, all of it flinched and jerked away from the fire of hyperdimensional mathematics — but my body was spared the damage.
Meanwhile, three other tentacles were trying to peel Sevens off my arm.
Abyssal instinct was screaming. So was regular, normal, terrestrial instinct. The clever ape part of me was very concerned that a jaw was latched around my flesh and was willing to do almost anything to unlatch it. A paradoxical balance held me back: the ape wanted to punch Sevens in the face, but abyssal instinct would not allow me to harm a member of my pack, my group, mine.
My memory of the next few seconds was a jumble of yowling — my yowling, mostly — drowning out Raine’s voice. She spoke as if trying to calm a skittish horse. Aym was giggling like crazy.
Eventually I came back to myself, my senses bleeding through the haze of pain and confusion. I turned my head and looked at Sevens, through the sheet of tears in my eyes and the black throbbing in my peripheral vision.
I laughed. I didn’t mean to. All my emotions and responses were so jumbled up. She just looked so silly.
Sevens was clamped to my arm like a tiny, irritated dog, her face all smooshed up by the position. Her own eyes were a pair of black-red lamps staring at me over her distended jaw — and she was burning with anger.
I hissed right in her face, interrupting my own hiccuping laugh, which I’m certain was an absolutely awful sound. Three of my tentacles were wrapped around her head and throat and shoulders, trying to pry her off. But I wasn’t willing to exert enough strength to hurt her, no matter how much damage she’d done to my arm.
Raine was speaking slowly and calmly: “Sevens, hey, hey, let go, hey? You’re distressing Heather. Come on, girl, that’s it, let go, come on.”
How could Raine stay so collected? My arm — her girlfriend’s arm — was practically bitten off, streaming with blood, stabbed by two dozen tiny knives. My sense of reality slipped sideways, smothered by pain and confusion.
Another voice appeared in the doorway. Kimberly, soft and wary. “I-is everything okay?”
Raine answered with an awkward smile. “We’re just having a moment. No worries.”
I reared up like a cornered serpent, gritting my teeth, about to spit: No worries!? My voice probably would have sent poor Kimberly scurrying to hide under the nearest bed.
But Aym was waiting for me.
She was a black hood peering over Sevens’ shoulder. No face within, just a blank emptiness where a person should have been, the outline of a being, the suggestion of form beneath endless layers of black lace. A dead-leaf whisper scraped inside my ear canals.
“Say you won’t do it again, you half-wit bitch,” Aym whispered. “No more maths.”
“Okay,” I squeezed out through gritted teeth — to Sevens, not to Aym. “Stop, stop. Sevens, let go, I won’t do it again, I won’t do it again, I’ll stop … ”
With all the reluctance of a wild animal, Seven-Shades-of-Snapping-Turtle opened her jaw. I felt needle-points scrape my bones, knives slide out through my flesh, and teeth pop free from bleeding wounds. Sevens ruined the dramatic moment when she had to use one hand to awkwardly free her teeth from the fabric of my hoodie.
I snatched my arm back and instinctively cradled it to my chest, my free hand wrapping around —
“ … uh … uhhh?” I made a noise that made me sound very stupid. Yanking my sleeve up did not reveal bone-deep gashes and rivers of blood amid ribboned skin, but just bruises and some light grazing. Sevens had punctured my clothes, which was bad enough, but she hadn’t even bitten down hard enough to draw blood. “Wha … ”
Aym giggled again, a sound to curdle milk. “She had a little help from a friend.”
I boggled at the pair of them. Sevens ducked her eyes and wriggled back into the sofa cushions as if trying to burrow between them and vanish into the ground. She rubbed at her jaw with one hand. Aym, a stick of black lace with no visible features, just sat there looking inherently smug. How could lace be smug? I bled from the nose and tried not to think too hard about that.
Raine raised her voice slightly and backed it with steel: “Alright then, ladies, girls, ghouls, and others. One of you is going to explain to me what I just witnessed.” She turned her head briefly. “Kim, would you be a dear and fetch a glass of water and some tissues for Heather? Looks like we had a little accident. Maybe some painkillers, too? Dunno if those are in high demand at the moment. Ask Evee for some of hers. Please?”
Sevens rasped: “Her fault.”
Speaking through a glugging nosebleed, a post-math headache, and a lake of burning embarrassment, I said, “I was trying to do brain-math. I was trying to help. Sevens!”
Seven-Shades-of-Sad-Eyed-Sulking wouldn’t look at me. She even pouted.
Aym agreed with her. “Your fault, little Miss messiah complex. Know when to stay down.”
“Hey,” Raine said, suddenly sharp. “Only I get to tell her that.”
But a classic touch of Raine had no effect on Aym. The lace-and-shadow creature just giggled, a noise like metal branches rustling in a winter wind. “Not this time, turbo-butch. She’s done fucked up and somebody needed to tell her. What, you were going to let her pop herself like a balloon? You into that? Never guessed you as the type. Go back to deviantart.”
Sevens gurgled. “Shut up.”
Aym shut up. But she also draped herself over Sevens’ shoulders, wrapping the blood goblin in a close embrace, cheek-to-cheek. Sevens looked at her own lap and grumbled.
Kimberly returned with a glass of water, a box of tissues, and one Evelyn-issued pill. We didn’t seem to have attracted any further attention — I could still hear Evelyn talking in the kitchen and Felicity replying to her, punctuated by the occasional comment from Twil or her father. So I couldn’t have been hissing or yowling that loud; I was too exhausted to make much noise.
Raine made me drink the water — which helped flush out the taste of bile and blood — and take the painkiller, which wouldn’t help much for several minutes yet. Then she wiped the blood off my face; the nosebleed was trailing off now, my senses clearing, my embarrassment rearing up to defend itself.
“Sevens,” I spluttered again as Raine tried to wipe my lips. “Why did you do that? I was trying to help!”
Seven-Shades-of-Sulking went, “Guuuuurk.”
“Don’t ‘gurk’ at me!” I snapped.
Raine gently took my face in one hand, turning me back to her. “Hey, Heather, slow down,” she said. But I wasn’t listening. I pulled free and frowned at Sevens again.
“Sevens! I’m serious!”
She rasped low in her throat. “Mmm, you were going to hurt yourself.”
“And you had already hurt yourself! How am I supposed to sit by and let you—”
Raine’s voice hit me like a whip across the buttocks: “Heather.”
I flinched. A full-body jerk, tentacles included, flailing about like a surprised octopus. Raine had gone past command and straight to angry — angry with me, in a way she’d never been before. Abyssal instinct went soft and floppy, urging me to roll onto my back and expose my belly. The steel in her eyes, the set of her shoulders, the implied impending punishment, all of it made me want to curl up and submit. I looked right back at her and let out a completely unintentional, unbidden, unthinkable little whine.
Then I blushed, mortified at myself. “R-Raine, I’m s-sorry, I—”
“It’s okay, Heather,” she purred, switching gears in an instant. She reached forward to brush my hair away from my eyes. “Just stop shouting at Sevens, hey? Don’t make me carry you to the car and put you in time-out. Look, you’ve even spooked poor Kim over there.” Raine nodded sideways, but Kimberly was very pointedly staring at her, not me. I suspected she’d suffered some spillover from the vocal whipcrack. Maybe she wanted Raine to tell her off just like that.
“Um,” said Kim, eyes wide and visibly sweating. “I should— should— maybe go back in the kitchen. Yes. Kitchen. Spells. Yes.”
Kim excused herself, leaving me alone again with Raine, Sevens, and Aym.
“I’m sorry,” I murmured, though I wasn’t sure who I was apologising to — Raine, or Sevens.
Raine pulled a beaming smile, the kind of encouragement and love she kept on tap just for me. She nodded slowly, the sort of nod that said nothing but let me know she understood everything. She leaned back and blew out a long breath, ran one hand through her rich chestnut hair, and rolled her shoulders inside her leather jacket. Part of me couldn’t help but admire how good she looked, sitting there in a chair with one leg thrown over the other; if I was to be interrogated, I would want Raine to be handling me.
She said, “How about nobody hurts themselves for anybody else, okay?”
The ghost of a strange anger lurked still inside the curves and planes of her face, a secret geography I’d rarely witnessed.
I nodded. “Okay. Um, Raine, why are you … oh,” I sighed. “Oh, I’m being a fool, aren’t I? I don’t need to ask why you’re angry.”
Raine shrugged. “I don’t like it when my girls hurt themselves.”
I spluttered: “Your girls?! Raine!”
Sevens made a snorty noise. “Means me too.”
“Well, yes!” I said. “I assumed that was the meaning!”
Raine shot us a broad wink. “Nobody hurts my girls, not even themselves. So come on, Heather, what was that all about? And Sevens, what was the bite for?”
I sighed, mostly at myself, “The bite was because I was being a fool.” I told the truth: “I overheard what Sevens was saying, about … twisting herself into a new shape, to bait that man for us. And I … I didn’t want her to hurt herself for that.” I turned to Sevens, to the scrap of huddled pale flesh and black fabric snuggled down on the sofa next to me. “Sevens, nobody asked you to do that, please don’t!”
“Mm,” Sevens just grunted.
Raine cleared her throat. “And then you … ?”
“I began the brain-math to find Edward’s house.” I turned and held her gaze, feeling oddly defiant. “Don’t tell me that I shouldn’t have done it. We have to find him, Raine, we can’t let this go on any longer.”
Raine’s turn to sigh, through her grin. “Heather, we don’t have a lot of choices. We’re tapped out.”
“Sevens hurt herself just to deal with some stupid red-herring thing! We can’t let up now, Raine, we can’t! We have to keep the pressure on, we have to go find him and … and … ”
Raine kinked an amused frown at me. “You’re sounding like Evee. And I don’t think you really believe that.”
“I … ”
“Heather, even if you find his house right now, we aren’t gonna be able to do shit. I just went through all this with Evee, and I know you were listening and paying attention. You pay attention to almost everything. We’re tapped out and we need to rest, even if just for a day. Do you agree with me, or not?”
“Raine … ”
She repeated, soft and calm, “Do you agree with me, or not?”
“I do. But … I just … I feel so … guilty. I had to try. I can’t just sit by and let everybody else … I have to be … ”
An angel? I didn’t say the words. It sounded too silly. But what good was a dead angel?
Sevens rasped, “You were going to burn a hole in your gut.”
I turned, ready to snap at Sevens again — part of me was still deeply confused by the bite, angry yet excited. Part of me wanted her to do it again. Another part of me wanted to wrap her up in cotton wool and take her home and feed her soup. Another part of me wanted to shove my throat between her fangs. Part of me wanted to shout at her. It was too much.
But Sevens was finally looking up at me, with those red-on-black eyes in that mushroom pale face, framed by dark, lank hair.
My residual anger fizzled out to nothing. I followed my better instincts and wrapped her in a hug, though I was weak and bruised and couldn’t exert much strength. Everything ached. She pressed herself into my front. Tiny hands found my shoulders and held on tight.
“You were gonna hurt yourself,” she mumbled into my shoulder.
“I … felt like I had to. Please, Sevens, don’t damage yourself for my sake.”
“I’m sorry. For shouting at you. For getting angry with you. You were right, but … why a bite? You could have just said something to me.”
“Everyone else has said it to you and you still won’t stop.”
My heart ached.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“I’m not,” said Sevens. “Not for biting.”
“Well, I suppose I deserved it … ”
“Fools, the lot of you,” Aym whispered. I shot her a tiny glare, but I couldn’t tell if she was even looking.
Raine cleared her throat. “I think we need some new ground rules for you two.”
Sevens and I both looked round, huddled against each other. “Raine? What do you mean?”
“Nobody asked for any self-sacrifice. Same thing I was saying to Sevens before. Hurting yourself never makes you whole.”
I huffed a little laugh. “Raine, I am not trying to start a fresh argument, but that’s a bit rich coming from you, isn’t it?”
Raine’s grin blossomed wide. “I’ve never self-sacrificed.”
I gave her a frown. But Sevens said: “She hasn’t.”
Raine shrugged. “Not in the way either of you just tried to. And the way I was doing it, Heather taught me to stop doing that. I love you, and I don’t want you to hurt yourself, and you just tried to push yourself way too far. So it’s time for a new rule: no self-sacrifice. You love Sevens, right?”
The question hit me like a brick to the gut, especially after the rest of what Raine said. I sat there like a fish for at least five seconds, just staring at her with my mouth open.
“Raine … is this … really the best time for this conversation?”
Aym clucked her tongue; I wasn’t sure what that meant.
I glanced around at what was left of the Hopton’s sitting room: the blood-soaked carpets, the missing door filled with bubble-servitors, the table splintered in half, several destroyed chairs, and the huge twin stains on the floor and up one wall, where the Outsiders had died and slowly turned to biological mush. Bubble-servitors were everywhere, soaking up and digesting biomatter, turning red inside as they processed the gore. This was not exactly the location one imagined for this kind of difficult little chat.
I glanced at Aym too, unreadable inside her black lace refuge — but somehow I knew she was looking at me like something she’d discovered on the bottom of her shoe.
Raine laughed gently. “It’s exactly the time for this conversation, because you just tried to go all Chernobyl with your super-appendix, and Yellow Brat here squeezed into a disguise several sizes too small. You’re both at fault and neither of you are allowed to do that again.”
Aym spoke up, a dry and metallic sound like a steel comb rasping over rocks. “Says who?”
Raine sat forward, aiming her whole body toward the little demon. Her grin turned into a challenge. “Says me. Heather has to look after herself, see, because if she doesn’t, then I’ll punish her.”
I felt my face flush. “Raine, really.”
“Ha,” said Aym. “And Sevens? Does she have to follow your orders too?”
Raine stared at that blob of black lace, as if she was looking at a clear and unveiled face. “She does what Heather says. Isn’t that right, Heather?”
Did I have the right to tell Sevens to do anything?
A barb of sharp and acid guilt twisted inside my chest. I thought I’d known what Sevens needed — I thought I was giving her space and time to re-define herself, giving her the quiet and unconditional support she needed to go through whatever process she was going through. But Sevens was not a human being struggling with her sense of self-worth or direction in life or sexuality. She was an Outsider, the Yellow Princess, a thing of gossamer butter-scotch beauty stretched across the currents and ebbs of the abyss. She had fallen in love with me, given me a piece of herself, and then stayed by my side. What did love mean to a being like her? I thought I was doing the right thing; but she’d just hurt herself for my sake, thrown herself on a spike that nobody else could perceive, let alone understand.
The idea of Sevens hurting herself for my sake was offensive to me.
Snuggled against my side, Sevens was watching my face. Could she read my thoughts as I decided what to do about her?
Did I love Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight? Perhaps. I cared about her well-being. I didn’t want her to hurt herself. But she had done exactly that, after I had shown her the barest hint of real physical affection and offered her a few words of comfort.
Sevens bumped her head against my shoulder, exactly like a cat.
What is love if not the sum of care?
I could not tell Sevens I loved her — maybe I did, but if that later turned out to be a lie, I could never forgive myself. But there was something I could do, a truth I could tell. A strange impulse overtook me, a piece of abyssal instinct rising inside my gut like a wave of hormones I so rarely acknowledged.
She flinched. Something in my tone forced that flinch out of her, as water is forced from a sponge with a hard squeeze. The instinct in my abdomen squirmed in pleasure at that.
Before I could second-guess my gut feelings, I grasped Sevens-Shades-of-Naughty-Puppy with three tentacles: one around each arm, and a third around her throat. I gripped lightly, gentle and soft, and peeled her away from Aym. She squeaked and froze as I leaned down until we were face to face. I have no idea how I wasn’t blushing. Raine froze too, just watching. Sevens went silent and still, a mouse before a snake.
“You do not have my permission to hurt yourself,” I said to Sevens. My voice was cool and level, but inside I was squeaking and flailing about, trying to piece this together as I went. “I care about you very much. You made yourself mine. So you need my permission to hurt yourself. No. Bad Sevens.”
Bug-eyed, red-eyed, black orbs stared back at me. Sevens opened her mouth and let out a breathy little hiss between two rows of needle-teeth. I hissed back without even thinking about it, soft and low. Then I leaned in and planted a little kiss on the corner of her thin lips. There was nothing erotic about the gesture or the brush of contact between our mouths; we were more like a pair of animals, one licking the other’s face to establish a pecking order. Sevens shivered and shook and then curled up against my side, coiling within my tentacles.
“Good … good girl … um,” I murmured, the hormones and the bravado passing together. Now I was blushing like a beetroot. Had I really said all that?
Raine was grinning wide. She shot me a thumbs up. I rolled my eyes and huffed and tried to drain the blood back out of my cheeks. But alas, abyssal biochemical control did not extend to manually switching off my own blush.
“Ew,” said Aym. “Bleh. Sick. Vile. Peh.”
I almost reared up and snapped at her for ruining the moment, but then from within my arms, nestled against my bruises, Sevens said, “Jealous.”
“A little,” said Aym.
“Snug as a bug in a rug.”
Aym turned her faceless hood upward. “I’m always snug.”
“More like smug.”
“We’re rhyming now?”
Sevens went all singsong. “I never rhyme without a rime.”
“A rime of salt on sailor’s beards. Where is this going, Princess?”
Sevens shrugged. “You can be a princess too. Just have to ask.”
“Princess-in-law is not the same.”
“Law is all there is to any princess.”
“Ha!” Aym barked like the slap of a rusty drum. The abyssal goblins fell silent. I just held Sevens, rather confused but unwilling to take the risk of asking.
Raine was braver than I. She said, “You two sound pretty esoteric sometimes.”
Sevens blinked at her, genuinely surprised. Aym just tilted her head as if Raine was a moron.
I cleared my throat, hoping to return the conversation to ground level. “Sevens, can I ask you a question?” She nodded into my side. “You deserve self-definition, not … whatever it was you did to yourself out there. But I still don’t understand what you actually did. I couldn’t even see you, you were invisible. What happened?”
“Mmmm … ” Sevens grumbled, then set about wriggling free from my grip. She slipped out of my tentacles and stepped off the sofa. She tripped forward three paces, walking on bare feet with dirty soles, then stopped and did a little spin.
The blood-goblin vampire-mask vanished, replaced by the Yellow Princess in all her starched and pressed glory, with perfect creases in her blouse and a ruler-straight line in her skirt. The tip of her umbrella pressed into the carpet.
Aym made a noise like “blurp.” Abyssal instinct recognised this as either submission, or attraction, or maybe relief. I wasn’t sure which. It wasn’t a fully human emotion.
Seven-Shades-of-Icy-Superiority settled herself in place. “I wore no mask,” she said. “I wove a face from muscle memory, a mask of skin and bone. I made our brief guest a visitation from a friend long dead, plucked from his life in the manner my father might remake an old rival, or a lost brother, or a dead child.”
I put one hand to my mouth. “Oh. Oh, Sevens. Oh no.”
Sevens bowed her perfect haircut toward me. “It was an act of torture and cruelty; Mister Preston Woods will weep alone, in the dark, lost. He will suffer dreams and nightmares of a meeting which did not really happen, with a dear friend who was shot in a faraway place, a decade ago. He is unmoored in time. I have done this thing, to himself and me.”
“Sevens,” I sighed. I reached toward her, but I was too exhausted to rise.
“And I apologise to you,” she said. “Because I have no right.”
“Apology accepted,” I said softly. “Unconditionally.”
Sevens merely nodded. “Thank you, my angel.”
I blushed again. “Maybe don’t call me that.”
Aym snorted, a very unpleasant sound. I shot a glance at her. “Did you have anything to do with encouraging this?”
A blind black hood turned toward me. “Encouraging? Sweetest of butter-baked fools. She should have used it for herself, not for you.”
“Aym,” said Sevens, cold as metal in winter and just as painful to the touch. Aym flinched hard, jerking in place and then withdrawing slightly. “No,” added Sevens.
“Gaaaah!” Aym hissed at her. “Okay, okay! But only for you!”
“Only for me is more than enough,” said Sevens.
“You’re lucky you’re so hot,” Aym burbled.
Raine was biting her lip in a failed attempt to suppress a grin, an expression like she was watching a soap opera up-close. My eyes were wide and my imagination was on fire. I cleared my throat.
“Um,” I said. “Not that it’s any of my business if you don’t want to share, but you two have been very close and I was wondering—”
Aym giggled. “You’re right! It is none of your business, squid-stink.”
Sevens said, crisp and clear: “Aym and I enjoy one another’s company.”
“Uh-huh, uh-huh,” Aym agreed.
“Aym is more than she appears.”
“Well yes,” I said, blushing. “I realise that, but what I’m asking is—”
Raine broke in, speaking with all the beaming confidence of a lorry barrelling straight into a stop sign. “Heather is trying to ask if you’ve got a side-piece, Princess. Gotta fess up if you have. Poly rules and all.”
“Not telling,” said Aym — at the exact same moment Sevens said: “Technically yes.”
They looked at each other.
“Technically?!” Aym screeched.
Sevens was unmoved. “Would you prefer no?”
Aym melted into the sofa, vanishing like a scrubbed-out stain — and reappearing at Sevens’ side like a mushroom growing in fast forward, holding her free hand.
“It’s not romantic,” she gurgled like a clogged drain. “Fuck off with that.”
Sevens tilted her head sideways and blinked, the most she ever came to giving ground. “It is different for beings like us.”
“Fucking right it is!” Aym warbled.
“Hey,” Raine said. “As long as you’re having fun.”
I nodded at that and then leaned back into the sofa, closing my eyes with bone-crushing exhaustion. “As long as you’re still here,” I murmured, struggling not to drift away, one hand on my right flank, just over the cold lump of my bioreactor.
Seven-Shades-of-Questionable-Definitions purred for me, “We’re not going anywhere, kitten.”
At Raine’s behest and with Evelyn’s grudging acceptance, we held a strategy meeting.
We had to wait until Evelyn had finished sending her letter-bomb, of course; I overheard only part of that grisly process, sitting on the sofa with Sevens at my side and Aym clinging to her opposite arm. Raine ventured back into the kitchen briefly, to see how the bomb-making was moving along, but she was shooed out along with the rest of the non-mages when the time came to connect the wiring and plug in the metaphorical alarm clock — with the exception of Praem and Mister Preston Woods, of course.
Felicity did the talking. We all heard that, even with the kitchen door firmly closed. Zheng probably heard it too, off at the far end of the field. Even Hringewindla may have heard it, miles underground.
Preston Woods made the beginning of his report: a muffled voice talking about “all clear, nobody left alive,” among other such bland horrors. But then Felicity cut into the middle of his sentence, with words not meant for a human throat.
Evelyn had explained that the spell was keyed to Edward Lilburne’s recognition of his own name, but it made me feel sick and wrong. It made Raine sway in her chair and Amanda Hopton sit down heavily as she entered the room. It made Twil burp, loudly, twice. It made Zheng reappear at the doorway, baring her teeth. It made Mister George place an unlit cigarette in his mouth and start chewing it to pieces.
Each syllable made reality blink and shudder like a tortured animal backed into a corner.
When the mages were finished, Felicity joined us in the sitting room. Her nose was bleeding, her skin was grey, and her eyes were unfocused. She sat down in a bloodstained chair and stared at the floor, dead-eyed and so motionless that I thought she might stop breathing. Kimberly wobbled out after her, significantly less ruined, then stood behind the chair and gently rubbed Felicity’s back, wordlessly affectionate.
Evelyn came out last, grumpy and exhausted as ever. She would have collapsed if not for Praem’s arm.
“Evee,” I breathed with muted affection. She looked how I felt. “Oh, Evee, you have to rest. We all do.”
“Yeah,” Raine agreed slowly, drawing the word out. “We gotta talk about that, I think. Discuss our next move, yeah?”
Christine Hopton cleared her throat; she had drifted in along with Amanda. “I agree wholeheartedly.”
“Our guest needs water,” Evelyn croaked. “And plug his ears, if we’re going to talk.”
Twil perked up at that, eyebrows climbing her forehead. “Does that mean we’re going to let him go?”
Evelyn sighed. “Unless you can find a justification for murdering him. I suppose we should talk about that too. Get to it. Praem, set me down … somewhere.”
“Here,” I said, patting the sofa next to me, on the opposite side to Sevens. “With me, please, Praem. Put her with me.”
Evelyn offered no complaint. She settled down against my side like a shipwreck victim in a tiny boat, lashed by storm-winds and the cruelty of salt water. Her head on my shoulder was shelter from the elements. She almost fell asleep, held awake only by an iron force of will that I admired so very much.
There simply wasn’t anywhere left in the house untouched by blood and combat and bits of broken door. The bubble-servitors were doing an admirable job of cleaning up — already there were great streaks and patches of clean carpet and scoured wall where they had passed, like massive semi-translucent slugs leaving behind reverse slime-trails. But their progress was slow and no other room was any better, so we naturally gathered in the sitting room, all of us, everybody who was left.
As fortune would have it, Benjamin called from Sharrowford General Hospital as we were dragging ourselves together. Michael took the call on his mobile phone.
“Detective Webb’s in the A&E right now,” he informed us afterward. “Ben and Katey are gonna stick around there for her. Doctors don’t seem too worried. Bad break, but fixable.”
“Sucks for her,” Twil said. “Mean it. No sarky, yeah?”
Raine said, “She was incredibly brave. We owe her a thank you. What do you think she drinks?”
“Bottle ‘o whiskey?” Twil suggested.
Christine cleared her throat. “I think we owe Miss Webb unlimited and unconditional taxi rides for the next few months, until her leg is healed.”
“Hear hear,” muttered Evelyn, eyes half-closed.
After the phone call, Raine stood up and took charge. It was a strange sight, as all eyes turned toward her in that shattered sitting room, great slug-masses of bubble-servitor moving over every wall, half of us exhausted beyond words and the other half still shell-shocked. Amanda Hopton was sitting in a hastily recovered chair, eyes and nose gone red as if suffering flu symptoms. Out beyond the cling-film bubble-servitor door-plug, more of the angels were gathering in the field. I watched them with idle curiosity — were they digesting the dog corpses, or burying them?
Raine clapped her hands together. “Ladies and gentlemen, enbies and others, humans and demons and mages alike. And Hringewindla, if he’s listening: I think we’re done for the day.”
I braced myself for Evelyn to sit up and start arguing; in fact, I may have joined in with her. I wasn’t sure which way I was leaning on this question. Sevens was right, I was spent, but could we really afford to slow down now?
But Evelyn just sighed and grumbled. She did sit up straighter, just enough to glare at Raine, but without any of her usual fire.
“Evee?” I said.
Another sigh, then: “I’m forced to agree. Raine is right. We’re not in good condition. I hate this, but we need to regroup, for now.”
A dark rumble interrupted us — Zheng, leaning against the wall with her arms folded and her eyes narrowed to slits. She rumbled like a volcano god denied her offerings.
Several people flinched: Christine and Michael Hopton, Twil, Mister George, and Kimberly. When Kim flinched, Felicity struggled upright and put a hand on her arm. Aym hissed, as if rolling her eyes. Praem stared at Zheng.
“Left hand?” Raine said. “You got a problem? Complaint? Suggestion? Come on, we’re all being open here, don’t just sound angry and then stop.”
“Wizards,” Zheng rumbled. “Like mould. Leave the hunt half-finished and they will regrow. We have not even begun, little wolf. Expected better from you.”
Christine Hopton cleared her throat. “That’s hardly fair—”
Another growl cut her off.
“Hey,” Raine said, spreading her arms. “Zheng. Look at us. Evee and Heather can’t walk. Felicity looks like she just recovered from a wasting disease. I’ve been over this once already. You and me and Twil, we’re fighting fit, sure, but we need the DPS to go with the tanks. If we found Edward right now, what would we even do?”
Zheng looked like she was carved from a block of stone. “Rip off his head and devour his guts. I will eat his flesh, little wolf. No scrap of wizard goes into the ground, nothing escapes.”
“I feel you there,” said Raine. “Very poetic. Very emphatic. But we’re talking practical stuff, not fitting ends. What are you gonna do by yourself?”
“I can carry the shaman—”
“Not right now you don’t.”
Zheng levered herself up off the wall, towering over everyone else in the room, baring her teeth. Was that her body heat I felt, radiating from several feet away? No, just my imagination.
“You are smart and strong and swift, little wolf, but you are thinking too much like a mage. I will carry the shaman into anything, she need only ask—”
I said, out loud, “I can’t do this.”
Everyone looked at me. I sighed softly and drew an exhausted hand over my face, then repeated myself, eyes squeezed shut. “I can’t do this.”
Zheng paused. Her anger ebbed away. “Shaman?”
Raine gestured to give me the floor, but I didn’t bother to get up. Evelyn squeezed my hand. I found my throat closing up, my tongue growing thick in my mouth, my eyes burning.
“The bruises and the aches and pains don’t matter,” I managed to say. “But I’ve burnt out something inside me. My bioreactor is … damaged. I’ve pushed too far. I’ve damaged myself. I don’t know how or why, but I am out of action, Zheng. I could do brain-math—”
“Not right now,” said Sevens.
“In theory,” I added quickly. Then I sniffed. “In theory I could do brain-math, but I have no idea what it might do to me right now. Like … running on a broken ankle.”
“Mm,” Zheng grunted.
“The quickest way to find Edward’s house is for me to use brain-math,” I said. I felt Evelyn go stiff next to me as I said it out loud, but I plunged on ahead before I could start crying. “We have other methods: searching manually, for example. But brain-math is by far the quickest way, the cleanest way, the least risky way. For everybody else, at least. If we wanted to get this finished today, then I would have to push, on broken legs. And … I’ve been … I’ve … ” I swallowed, surrounded by people who loved me and who wanted me to stop acting like this.
My bioreactor, the greatest gift the abyss had ever given me, the engine and fuel for the body I needed to inhabit, was hurt. I had taken myself for granted. I’d taken my body for granted. I’d pushed and pushed, listening to instinct which didn’t know when to stop. I had risked wearing myself down to nothing. I had disrespected my body.
“I have been convinced to rest,” I said, then had to wipe my eyes on my sleeve.
Zheng stared. Raine nodded as if listening to a sage rather than a fool. Evelyn was stiff and still at my side. Sevens sat like a pillar of ice.
“Shaman,” Zheng said. Acceptance and acknowledgement; I began to breathe a sigh of relief. But then she finished: “I will hunt alone.”
“Zheng!” I whined. “No!”
“I do not need your permission,” she said.
But oh, she wanted it. I saw it in the way she stared at me, through my skin and into my guts. I saw it in the way she angled her body toward Raine, in the way she tilted her eyes, in the way she flexed one hand, then the other. Zheng opened like a book, her musculature the poetry of a big cat at unwilling rest.
“Don’t fight alone,” I said. “Please, Zheng. Not alone.”
“Woah, woah,” said Raine. “Hold up a sec, Left Hand. What do you mean, hunt? What’s your plan? Don’t make plans alone and not share, hey? The lone wolf dies while the pack survives, right?”
Zheng turned heavy-lidded eyes toward Raine. Her entire frame was hard and tight with aggression.
But before I could get a word in, Raine said, “Don’t look at me like that, you giant cunt. I asked because I care about you. You’re not dying out there in the woods all by yourself. Heather would hate that.”
Zheng said nothing. Christine Hopton bit her own lower lip — probably restraining herself from telling Raine off for the particularly nasty swear word. Raine spread her hands, wide open, a come-and-get-me pose.
Aym cackled and spoke up for the first time in several minutes: “She’s got you there, bitch-brains.”
Zheng turned away from everybody, as if petitioning a god for us all to shut up for five seconds.
“Zheng,” I said, my voice still wet and thick. “If you have to go hunt for the house, don’t fight alone. You have my permission even if you don’t need it. But don’t get in a fight. If you find the house, come home. Please.”
I shot a glance at Raine. She shrugged and said, “I can live with those conditions. As long as she comes home.”
Zheng turned dark eyes on me. “I will always return to you, shaman.”
“Call,” I said. “You have a mobile phone now. Use it. If you don’t call by midnight I’ll assume we need to come rescue you.”
“Call. Promise me.”
“I will call, shaman.”
And she stalked off without another word, out of the room and down the corridor and out of the hole where the front door once stood.
“I guess that settles that then,” Raine said. “Thanks Heather, nice save.”
I smiled and shrugged and felt rather useless. I had done nothing. I wanted to curl up in a ball and go to sleep.
After that, the decision was already made; Zheng would scout and report back — I hoped and prayed — but the rest of us were done, spent, the ‘operation was over’, as Raine phrased it. But the analysis was not quite yet complete. I sat there on the edge of unconscious exhaustion while the mages and the Church discussed practicalities.
Christine Hopton asked, at length, “Can we establish what the purpose of this attack was? Miss Saye, earlier you were talking about multiple possibilities, you were quite clear about that. Have you changed your mind?”
Twil snorted. “Purpose? To kill us, duh.”
Everyone ignored that — except Felicity, who, bizarrely enough, offered Twil the most limp and tired fist-bump I’d ever seen.
Evelyn gave a serious but very slow answer, croaky and raw. “The use of Outsiders, physical entities, implies this was a response to what Edward Lilburne likely considers an existential threat. The illusion—”
“Spider,” said Praem. “Cruel trick.”
“Yes, the spider,” Evelyn agreed. “It was an attempt to draw us out, flush us out, whatever. Put us in the firing line of his real attack. Which we resisted and fought off. It’s been … what, two hours since then?”
Michael confirmed. “And counting.”
Evelyn nodded. “I think that was all he had. His best shot.”
Twil squinted at her. “You mean we’ve won? That’s it?”
Felicity snorted, and it was one of the saddest sounds I’d ever heard. She raked her hair back, uncaring of how the gesture exposed the burned side of her face. “Contests between mages always get weird.”
“Yes,” Evelyn said. “Quite. No, this isn’t over. I meant that was probably all he had on hand to throw at us. He’ll be working on something else already, but we shouldn’t expect anything so simple as a physical assault.” Then she frowned and added: “But we should expect that too.”
“Race against time,” Felicity said. Evelyn nodded.
I spoke without thinking. “As soon as I’m healed … ”
Nobody said anything to that. Raine took a deep breath. Evelyn screwed her eyes up and muttered on: “We rest. One night at least. Then back to the task of the house. Quicker we find him, the better. Remove him or kill him, or … whatever. He has knocked us out for a day or two. That’s everybody’s job now. Rest. Except Zheng, I suppose.”
Twil asked, “What about Lozzie and Tenny?”
Raine answered. “Loz said they’ll swing back home as soon as Tenns is feeling better.”
My heart ached for Tenny; another wound I needed to mend.
Evelyn sighed a grumbly sigh. “And there we come to the most thorny matter. Mr and Mrs Hopton. Amanda. Twil too, I suppose. And … Hringewindla.” Evelyn said that final name with a little cough. “If we withdraw home, we leave you without support or protection, even if just for a single night of sleep. We have ruined your house. We need to plan some kind of protection for you while we—”
“Hringewindla,” Amanda interrupted.
Her voice was thick with sleep or trance. She was sitting on one of the recovered chairs, wobbling slightly from side to side, sniffing and snuffling, eyes red-rimmed, staring out of the door-hole and into the field beyond. She looked barely present.
“ … Mandy?” said Christine. “What is it? What does Hringewindla say?”
“Protection is … forthcoming,” Amanda mumbled. “Hringewindla is very unhappy. He grows a hand.”
She pointed out of the door-hole, through the cling-film cover of bubble-servitors.
None of us had been paying attention to what the spare bubble-servitors were doing on the edge of the field, but now we all turned to look. Modified 3D glasses went on over human eyes. Evelyn craned her neck. Felicity turned in her chair. I frowned in confusion — then stared with awe.
“Snail,” said Praem.
On the edge of the field, several dozen bubble-servitors had combined their sphere-mass bodies. Their surfaces had run together, melting and melding, turning smooth and glassy as they lost their individuality. Half-complete, growing angel by angel, a vague snail-form was taking shape, tall and fluted, with coils at angles which hurt the eyes.
It was nowhere near as large as the tentacled shell-core down beneath the earth, where we’d met the old man face-to-face, but the thing out in the field was only half-complete and it was already halfway up to the roof of the house.
“He appoints a guardian and grows us a shell,” Amanda said. “We are loved and protected. His anger is not light. He thanks all of you. He will watch us. He will … banish?” She struggled, then swallowed and looked like she was going to be sick. “Refute. Refuse? He wants to … this Edward Lilburne … ” She screwed her eyes up and groaned.
Christine went to her, hands gently rubbing her sister’s head. “It’s okay, Mandy. It’s okay. Don’t try to translate. We understand.”
Evelyn nodded. “We do indeed. Protection enough?”
“I believe so,” said Christine.
“But we will stay in touch. Until tomorrow. I’ll call when we get home.”
“Uhhhhh,” said Twil. “Sorry to like, make this weird. But what about the guy? In the kitchen. You know, the guy?”
Evelyn shrugged. “Take his phone number and address, then let him go. We’re not warlords or mafia.”
Michael Hopton laughed. “Could’ve fooled me.”
“Mm,” Felicity agreed with a grunt. “That is exactly what we are, Evelyn. You know that.”
Evee’s gaze flicked out and pinned Felicity to her chair. The older mage withered, retreated, and looked down. An old argument, perhaps? Curiosity almost overcame my exhaustion, but Evelyn concluded before I could ask.
“Are we?” she said. “Then my word is law. We’re letting him live. That’s final. Get him cleaned up, point him at the road, and remind him this was a drug operation. Nothing more.”
I nodded agreement, too tired to say anything. My free hand lingered at my flank, on the cold sleep of my bioreactor.
Heal thyself, o’ abyssal squid; I prayed I wasn’t broken.
New Heather challenge: no more self-sacrifice! Sevens and Evee are also taking the challenge! Failing the challenge will be punished by the weight of their friends’ concern for their wellbeing. How about them teethies, huh? Meanwhile, Heather needs to exercise a body part she doesn’t yet understand. She’s in for a grand old time.
No patreon link again this week! Why? Because it’s literally the last day of the month, and the year! Happy New Year, readers! Hooray! Woo! I hope your 2023 is a good year; I will try my best to make it so, here in my own little corner of the internet.
You can still:
And/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, time for healing and rest. Right? Riiiiiight? Right.
Discussion of torture
Gaslighting/mental fog/reality disconnect
But no Sevens, not that I could see.
I hurled myself off the sofa.
Fear for Seven-Shades-of-Uncertain-Safety; lingering guilt over the state of Geerswin farmhouse; self-directed horror at almost injecting Nicole Webb with unfiltered Heather-juice; exhaustion and pain; the bloodstains on my clothes; the ache in my flank where my bioreactor lay beneath my bruised and spongy flesh. A heady cocktail too strong for little old me; it yanked me to my feet and sent me lurching toward the shadow-wrapped bundle in the corner of the Hopton’s ruined and smashed dining room.
I reached for Aym with half my tentacles. The other half retained a sliver of sense, slapping desperately at the floor in a futile effort to keep me on my feet.
A poor decision, but I plead panic born of love. In my mind’s eye I was meant to stagger toward Aym, grab her by those thin, lace-drowned shoulders, and shake her. I was meant to shout: “Where is Sevens?!” This was a bad plan, not only because I couldn’t stand, nor because the only sound I could make was a hissing squeak, but mostly because Aym wasn’t properly manifested. There was nothing to grab and shake. She did not currently possess shoulders, thin and lace-clad or otherwise. ‘Aym’ was an amorphous veil of darkness. She was probably feeling shy. Or playing silly games.
Praem had to step in and catch me before I could fall flat on my face. The only injury was to my dignity, but it was a nasty wound.
To my credit I didn’t instinctively attack her with my tentacles or hiss in her face, which would have been deeply mortifying and require hours of penance later. Instead I blushed and fussed and clung to her in gratitude, embarrassed by my outburst and quite off-balance. I muttered various species of ‘thank you’ and ‘sorry’ and ‘I’m so clumsy’, but Praem ignored it all with her usual affectless acceptance. She deposited me back on the sofa as gently as she could; Evee instantly clung to my arm, as if to stop me from attempting another escape.
Everyone was talking at once — including me.
“Aym! Aym!” I was saying, trying to get a look around Praem’s hip. “Sevens, where’s Sevens?!”
Twil was saying, “What do you mean, hunting rabbits? Who’s that guy, hey?” She pointed at the gap where the back doors had once stood, now filled with semi-transparent bubble-servitors. “You mean you’re on him? You’re after him?”
Evelyn snapped her voice like a whip, “Explain yourself, you vile thing! Heather, stay put! Stay!”
Christine and Amanda both looked rather shocked by all this; Christine was trying to ask a question, but her words were lost in the noise. Raine darted back into the room, probably drawn by the sound of my panicked voice. Felicity was hot on her heels but she stopped dead when she saw Aym’s shadow-mass in the corner; despite the cacophonous near-panic, I clearly saw the tension drain away from her shoulders and depart the muscles of her face, the moment she saw Aym. Kimberly didn’t stop in time. She bounced off Felicity’s back, which almost sent Felicity sprawling, because the mage was still exhausted and spent. They caught each other, awkwardly close. I wished them luck. ‘Mister’ George and Michael Hopton blundered in too, late to the show.
“What’s going on now?” Michael thundered. “Is it kicking off again? Ben and Katey aren’t even here, we don’t have the fire-power for another—”
“Aym, hey,” Twil was saying, voice sharp and clear for once, cutting across the others. “If you’re hunting, I gotta know! And somebody find Zheng.”
“Found,” Zheng rumbled from the doorway. A few people jumped; Zheng had appeared almost as quietly as Aym had.
“Sevens!” I was almost screeching. “Where’s—”
Aym — or the pool of black mist that contained the concept of Aym — went: “Shhhhh! Shhh! Shh!”
It was like being hushed by a throat full of flaking rust mixed with the sound of nails down a chalkboard, but inside one’s own head. Several people winced. Twil sneezed and swore. Zheng growled. I swore I saw a tentacle or two drifting inside that cloud of black nothing, like a hand concealing a naughty smile.
Aym continued in a less ear-punishing voice. “We’ve almost hooked him over the line, sweeties and swooties. I’ve only nipped back to make sure wolf-brain here doesn’t rush out there and ruin the whole trick. Don’t spook him! He’s so close to the jaws.”
A slick slap of tongue and a clack of teeth came from within the black mist, as if slavering over a delicious morsel.
Twil spoke quickly, with more confidence than she usually showed, heading off any further confusion. She stretched out both hands in an ‘everybody stop’ gesture. “Whoa whoa, okay,” she hissed under her breath, as if we were trying to stay quiet and stealthy inside a deer blind. “Nobody move, nobody look at the window— uh, door— bubbles … you know what I mean. She’s got a point. If they’ve been reeling that guy in then we don’t want to disturb the hunt.”
Raine looked suddenly alert. Her pistol was in her hands. “What guy?”
Twil pointed at the hole in the back of the house, covered with a makeshift skin of stretched bubble-servitor, like oil suspended in water between two layers of cling-film. “There’s a guy, at the edge of the woods. Don’t look! Pretend we haven’t seen. Right?”
Aym giggled, a raspy noise like pine cones crushed beneath steel boots. “Good wolfie! You get it, yes you do. How about some scritches later, mmmhmm?”
Twil froze, deeply confused.
Evelyn snapped, “You leave Twil alone or I will remove both your hands. Twil, don’t respond to that.”
“Uh, yeah, yeah,” Twil said, then cleared her throat. “Look, just, chill, okay? Everybody chill, don’t look at the woods. Let Aym do her thing.”
Amanda said, slurring her words, “Made it so he can’t see through the angels. We can see out. Can’t see in.”
“Clever, clever!” Aym purred in approval.
The logistics of that statement made me frown inside; unaltered human beings couldn’t see the bubble-servitors in the first place. But I didn’t have the spare mental bandwidth to question it just then. I trusted Hringewindla on this.
Raine said quickly, “It’s not Edward himself, is it?”
“Confirm that!” Evelyn hissed. “He wouldn’t be that stupid, but … ”
Twil shook her head. “Nah. Too young. It’s not him.”
Evelyn tutted. “Pity.”
“Sevens!” I hissed. “Aym, where is Sevens?”
From within that black mist I felt an awareness turn toward me, an observer deep in the darkness looking back, as if Aym was only just now paying proper attention.
The darkness thickened and shrank. For a second I thought Aym was leaving again, tormenting me with doubt and uncertainty over Sevens’ safety. I almost lurched out of the sofa all over again, anchored only by Evelyn’s iron-hard grip on my arm. But the darkness sucked itself into a solid form, like vacuum packed plastic wrap. Mist became black lace, head to toe, without a scrap of skin showing, Aym’s face hidden deep inside a hood.
Diminutive and concealed, the slight little figure trotted over to the sofa as if escaping a darkened cellar. Before I could yelp in surprise or ward her off, Aym wriggled down next to me as if retreating from the rest of the room, from all the other curious gazes turned her way. She even hid from Felicity, burrowed down by my burning right flank.
“Aym?” I croaked, spiritually uncomfortable. Her hip against mine felt just like a regular human being. She squirmed into the embrace of my tentacles, like a tiny fish seeking cover in the seaweed. “You— ah, what are you—”
A tiny voice whispered forth: “Your fiancée is fine, stop whining. She’s hunting. I’m yours for the moment so don’t betray her trust, squid-for-brains. Let me shelter.”
Twil said, “Heather, she say something?”
“Sevens is fine,” I replied with a shuddering sigh. “I guess she’s conducting the hunt.”
Aym whispered with her hidden face pressed into my shoulder. “Tell them it’s time to move. Wolfie, the murder-dyke, and your muscle zombie. Get them together. Here’s the plan. Don’t screw it up!”
Sevens’ plan — for it was her plan, Aym was only the messenger — was hardly complex enough to justify all this cloak-and-dagger skulduggery, especially when several of us were so exhausted. But Aym assured me in her hissing, warbling, broken little voice that it was essential, it was the only way to catch this “skip-hop skitter-beast of a man.”
“Eh?” said Twil when I repeated that particular description. “What’s that meant to mean, is he really good at running away?”
Aym giggled in my ear: “A professional runner-away, yes!”
I relayed the plan. Evelyn critiqued it a bit, though she was basically on board from the start. Twil and Zheng both approved — though Zheng insisted she be responsible for the tackle, rather than Twil. Raine was doubtful, but Zheng said: “We watch each other, little wolf. None will get at our backs.” That seemed to do the trick.
Getting into place was a little bit awkward. The clock was ticking: by the time Aym had explained the plan and I’d relayed it and the others had agreed, the man at the edge of the woods had begun to creep into the fields.
Aym had not exaggerated; he did look professional, even at a distance, across the farm, seen through a wall of bubble-servitors. Perhaps it was the way he moved, or the way he held himself, or the simple hiking clothes he wore. He walked with slow and exaggerated care, eyes up, awareness spread wide. He stopped every few paces to look over his shoulder, crane his neck to see around the corners of the house, take pictures with his phone, stare through his binoculars, and write in a little notebook he kept pulling out of his coat.
He couldn’t see the bubble-servitors shadowing his every move. They had him boxed in, covered from behind, even from the sky, bobbing and writhing with invisible glory. But they couldn’t do the deed.
“If we’re wrong and he’s a mage, he could go right through them,” Evelyn had said. “No, it has to be real flesh to do the job.”
Abyssal instinct stirred as I watched. Instinct knew. He was no predator; this man acted like prey.
We observed him from the back door — or rather, the hole where the back door used to be. Everybody who was not directly involved in trapping this poor man like a skittish rabbit clustered around to watch. Amanda assured us again that the bubble-servitors would make it impossible for him to see us. I didn’t question the pneuma-somatic mechanics of that; I’d had enough headaches for one day.
However, I could barely stand up. My right flank burned like a chunk of star lodged inside my flesh. Kimberly helped me, arm beneath mine. But so did Aym. She stuck uncomfortably close, propped me up, her tiny black-lace form wedged into my side and aggravating my bruises. I returned the favour and wrapped her in tentacles for support, but she didn’t complain. Praem helped Evelyn to stand; she was lucky.
We watched the suspicious man make his way across the field, as the others got into position. He didn’t look like much, just a stray hiker with a sturdy walking stick, a camo-print coat, and a big sensible backpack.
Christine Hopton cleared her throat gently. “We’re not about to traumatize some uninvolved gentleman, are we?”
Evelyn sighed sharply. “With all due respect, High Priestess, that man is taking notes.”
“Watch how he moves,” I croaked. “He’s up to something. He’s skulking.”
He was also speaking to somebody who wasn’t there.
Every few seconds he turned his head to the left and spoke a little. The actual words were lost to distance and muffled by the walls of the house. But he was speaking to somebody, pausing, responding, answering questions.
I whispered under my breath, “Good job, Sevens. Good, good, keep it up. Good girl. I love you, you can do it.”
Aym whispered into my hot, aching flank: “She’s brilliant.”
“Hmm?” I glanced down at Aym, but her face was still hidden deep inside her hood. She clung to me like an animal in the shelter of a cliff. I knew Felicity was watching with great curiosity, but the older mage didn’t seem bothered by this new-found and unexpected clingy Aym. Which was a relief. If she’d shown jealousy I think I would have been disgusted.
Executing the plan went lightning fast. There wasn’t really much to it.
Raine stepped around the side of the house, raised her handgun and shouted: “Police, freeze!”
Aym had been very specific that Raine needed to shout ‘police’. It made me wish Nicole wasn’t currently halfway to Sharrowford General Hospital; she would have been either delighted or outraged, I’m not sure which. None of us actually saw Raine, not from the angle of the doorway, but we heard her shout. She was wonderfully authoritative.
The hiking man froze for a split-second — then turned to run, ducking and weaving, both hands hooked into the straps of his backpack. Not the response of somebody who’d never had a gun pointed at him before, but the last resort of a desperate professional.
Twil and Zheng burst from the tree-line behind him, corralled him in about half a second, and then Zheng hit him like a wrecking ball. She delivered a rugby tackle to fell an elephant — though she’d been given strict instructions not to actually kill or main him, so she did cradle his head in one hand before they hit the ground.
After all, we did want to have a word with him.
Ten minutes later we had Edward Lilburne’s after-action scout tied up in the Hopton’s kitchen. Raine taught me that phrase — ‘after-action scout’. I didn’t like it very much; too clean and bland, something worryingly sanitised about the words.
“Isn’t he more of a … rear-guard?” I suggested.
“Nah, wrong term,” Raine said, ruffling my hair.
The others were less kind.
“Vulture,” Zheng purred.
“Quite,” Christine agreed, arms folded. She regarded our captive with pursed lips and a tight frown. “I’m not very well predisposed to this attempt on my home and family, but I’ve not yet had anybody at which to vent.”
“Dumb-arse,” said Twil.
“Twil!” her mother scolded.
“I mean him! Not you, mum! Fuck!”
“Nobody,” Felicity said in her heavy, tired mumble, leaning on Kimberly’s support. “He’s a nobody. He doesn’t even have any weapons on him?”
“Everybody shut the fuck up,” Evelyn croaked from the kitchen doorway, still using Praem to keep herself upright. “If we’re going to terrify this bastard, I’d prefer we do it in a more systematic fashion. Allow me, please.”
The mysterious man looked terrified enough as it was — and anything but mysterious. Part of me wondered if Christine’s initial fear was correct: if we had accidentally assaulted and kidnapped a random woodland rambler who’d stumbled upon what he could only have assumed was a crime scene. But then I recalled how he’d moved.
He did look rather like the sort of man who might be out for a solo hike in the deepest woods.
In his late forties or perhaps early fifties, with close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair and a freshly shaved chin, he had the sort of face one only gets from a lifetime spent outdoors, weathered and craggy, but lean and tight, with an athletic build. His eyes were soft deep blue, his skin tanned, and his fingernails very dirty. He reminded me a tiny bit of my own father, if my dad had been about a six stone lighter.
Dressed in a camo-print coat, sensible trousers, and sturdy boots, he passed muster for a long journey. His pockets and the bag on his back contained nothing out of the ordinary: no weapons, no magical sigils, no hidden compartments, not even after Praem and Raine had rifled through all the contents, and Felicity had done something esoteric with her right hand over his midsection.
She said, “Skin’s clean too, nothing on him.”
Evelyn had grunted: “I hate that you do that with no circle. It’s obscene.”
“Mm, me too.”
Raine found his car keys and wallet; the latter contained a driver’s licence, with his face, and the name, ‘Preston Owl Woods.’
“Think it’s real?” Raine asked.
Twil pulled a grimace. “Pee-oh-double-you? Is this guy bait or what? Must think we’re all stupid.”
“Can’t we ask him?” Michael said. “We’ve got him covered in about six different ways. He tries anything, his head’s gonna burst, right?”
“Ew. Dad,” said Twil.
“Well, it’s true. And I’m not speaking a word against caution, not after the last couple of hours. You hear me, Mister Woods? If that’s even your real name. We take that gag off your mouth and you better not try anything, because you’ll be dead in seconds.”
‘Mister’ George cleared his throat with great discomfort. “Are we going to have to … make this guy … talk? Because I don’t want to be present for that. Sorry. Just don’t.”
Raine shot him a wink. “It’s cool, we’re dab hands at that by now. No help needed.”
Not the right thing to say — ‘Mister’ George went quite pale, staring at Raine. But I knew the talk was for show, to intimidate our captive. I just wish Raine was a little more delicate about it.
Twil was sucking on her teeth. “You don’t think he’s that guy, do you?”
“What guy?” Raine asked.
“You know. The guy. Joking.”
“Joe King,” I croaked. “No. He was … built different. Wrong face too.”
Evelyn said, “Let me speak to him first, before we try anything rash.”
‘Preston Woods’ watched all this with steadily increasing terror in his wide eyes. Out in the field, Zheng had pinned him to the ground with his face in the mud and knelt on his hands: anti-mage precaution, no words, no gestures. Raine had gagged him, bound his hands and wrapped his fingers in rope, to stop him trying any sneaky magic. After being hauled inside he’d been tied to a chair by his chest and ankles, and now sat, alone, at the centre of a ring of strange people, in the gore-streaked ruins of the Hopton’s kitchen.
His eyes were wide and wild, his chest pumping beneath his coat and grey jumper. But he was aware, trying to listen to and take in everything we said.
I tried to see this all from his perspective; he probably thought he was about to die.
Evelyn stepped forward, walking stick in one hand, her other arm wrapped around Praem. She stared at our captive and he stared back, eyes watering.
Evelyn spoke slowly and carefully. “We’re going to take the gag off your mouth. One of my associates is going to point a gun at your head, but that will be a back-up option, hardly necessary.” She tapped the floor with her walking stick. “Look at this.”
Preston looked down, at the hastily scrawled magic circle on the patch of clean floor tiles amid the bloodstains.
“If you try anything,” Evelyn continued, “this will set your brain on fire and turn your organs to pulp. There is also a monster hanging from the ceiling above your head. It is invisible, you can’t see it, but it will murder and digest you at the first sign of trouble. Nod if you understand.”
Preston Woods nodded. He couldn’t see the bubble-servitor hanging from the ceiling above his head, a raindrop ready to fall.
Twil hissed, “Bloody hell, Evee.”
I whispered back in a broken croak, “She’s just tired. Makes her blunt.”
“She’s fucking terrifying sometimes,” Twil hissed in reply.
Evelyn’s tone was colder and more precise than usual, I couldn’t disagree with that assessment. I ached to step forward and take her hand, but that would undermine her gravitas and intimidation. Also, I had a pair of gremlins attached to my sides — Aym on one, and Sevens on the other.
Seven-Shades-of-Silent-Resumption was in her blood-goblin form, heavy-eyed and unsmiling. She’d appeared out of thin air while the others had been busy tying Preston to a chair; she had announced herself by clamping to my side all of a sudden, opposite Aym, as if she’d just stepped out from around a corner. I hadn’t got a chance to speak with her yet, but she and Aym kept exchanging covert little touches across my back and belly. The pressure of her embrace made my bruises ache, but I wrapped my tentacles tight around her shoulders and clung on.
I just accepted the pair of them, and they helped me stand.
Evelyn continued, “We have just fended off an attempt on our lives. I hope you appreciate the seriousness with which we are treating you.” She nodded to Raine. “Point the gun at his head. Somebody remove the gag.”
Twil did the honours, pulling the makeshift gag out of Mister Woods’ mouth. The man just sat there, panting, eyes flicking around at all the staring faces. He swallowed, hard and dry, opened his lips, then thought better of it, and said nothing.
Raine laughed softly. “You’d do better to speak, mate. And fast.”
“M-m-may I?” he said, stammering hard.
Not a local accent, something Southern perhaps, maybe London. Deep voice, speaking from his chest, level and controlled despite the terror-born stammer.
Evelyn snapped, “Do you speak English as a first language? Answer that question and only that question, or my friend will pull the trigger. Yes or no; either answer will not get you killed.”
I could see a ‘What?” forming on his lips and in the crease of his brow, but Preston was fast enough and smart enough to catch himself. “Yes,” he said.
“Then speak only English. A single word in another language and we have to kill you, as a precaution.”
Preston nodded — but I could see in his eyes, he didn’t understand.
“He’s not in the know,” I murmured.
A few of the others looked at me. Evelyn frowned. Raine raised her eyebrows. Kimberly looked away, more focused on helping Felicity than the unfolding interrogation.
I cleared my throat and repeated myself. “He’s not in the know. He doesn’t know what’s going on. He’s not properly aware.”
Felicity sighed in agreement. “He’s practically dissociating,” she mumbled. “Look at his eyes.”
Preston’s pupils were massively dilated. The whites of his eyes were bloodshot with stress. He couldn’t focus properly, eyes skipping about the room, over our faces — and flinching away from several people: Aym, Sevens, and Zheng.
“Shiiiiit,” said Twil. “You think?”
Amanda muttered, “Little lost lamb. Seen it before.”
Evelyn clenched her jaw and said, “Fuck. You’re right. We don’t have time for this. Mister Woods. Mister Woods, focus on me.”
Raine chuckled softly. “Little Yellow’s got his brain fried. He thought he was talking to somebody, out there with him in the field.” Raine glanced at Sevens, who was still clamped to my side, my little blood-limpet with her hands under my hoodie. “That was your handiwork, right?”
“Guuurrruk, yeah,” rasped Seven-Shades-of-Psychic-Damage.
“Can you bring him back around?”
“Rrrrrrrk.” Sevens managed to make that gurgle sound very apologetic, and then bury her face in my flank. Aym reached out and touched her shoulder.
“Mister Woods.” Evelyn stamped once with her walking stick — bad idea, seeing as she could barely stand. Praem kept her steady. “Mister Woods, whoever you were talking to was not real. Focus on me. Your life depends on focusing on my words. Listen.”
Michael Hopton muttered from the doorway. “Poor bastard.” ‘Mister’ George murmured in agreement.
Twil leaned against the wall and puffed out a sigh. “Have we gotta break him in?”
“No,” I said quickly. “No, that would leave him confused for hours, at the very least. And it’s not … right. It’s not right.”
“Yes,” Evelyn grunted. “We don’t have the time. And we have no idea how he would respond.”
A chest-rattling rasp vibrated against my other flank, like lungs choked with blood-flecked saliva; Aym drew a breath, and said: “Needs the expert touch.”
Aym let go of me and stepped forward, a miniature ghost all in black lace. She was half my current support, so Christine Hopton had to quickly step in to hold me up. Aym swept between the gathered people like a scrap of fabric on an errant wind. Before anybody could reach out to stop her, she was right next to Preston and the chair he was tied to.
She leaned forward, the side of her hood cupped by one sleeve-drowned hand, and whispered something inaudible into his ear.
Preston Woods went completely stiff, then relaxed, blinking rapidly, like a waking sleepwalker; he was still terrified, but now he was concentrating.
“I’ll— I’ll co-operate,” he babbled, lips thick with effort. “I’ll tell you anything. Everything you want. Please don’t— don’t shoot me. I’m not important. I’m just doing a job I was paid for. Do you want me to talk, or answer questions, or … please.” He wet his lips and swallowed.
Evelyn frowned at Aym — but then Aym was gone, vanished like a wisp of smoke in damp air. She reappeared attached to Sevens, clinging to her back. The pair of goblins leaned against my side together.
Twil said, “Woah, hey, did you just fucking brainwash him!?”
“Unclogged,” said Aym. “He’ll be ga-ga in an hour or two. Work fast, sillies.”
“Please,” Preston repeated.
Raine said, “You’re doing great, fella. Just relax.”
Evelyn snorted. “No, how about don’t relax? Who are you working for?”
“I don’t know who this job is for,” Preston said. He focused on Evelyn alone; something obviously told him that she was the leader, she was the one he needed to convince. “It’s all via anonymous contacts. All I have is a text message telling me to start and a phone number I’m meant to report back to. It’s completely hands off. You’ll find the text message on my phone, it says ‘go, four’. That’s the code to start. I don’t have the report number written down, I have it memorised. I destroyed the piece of paper with it on, this morning. Which I was instructed to do.”
He spoke crisply and clearly, enunciating his words as best he could, despite the fear for his life. I had the impression he was barely holding back his terror, but he knew his chances were better if he gave us what we wanted.
Evelyn and Raine shared a look. Twil sighed. Christine tutted. Michael said, “Typical.”
“That is his style,” Raine said. “No-contact, no liability, all that.”
“Typical, yes,” Evelyn grunted.
Twil said, “What are you, some kind of cut-rate merc?”
Preston nodded. “Basically, yes.”
Evelyn sighed. “Alright. What were you doing here?”
Preston wet his lips. “The job is strictly recon. It was set up a long time ago. I was meant to come to a specific location in the woods and then proceed toward this … farm. I didn’t know it was a farm. I didn’t know what was here. The instructions were to proceed to this point and then report back if anybody was left alive. That’s all.”
“Left alive?” Michael Hopton said.
“Yes.” Preston took a breath but he couldn’t get it all the way down. “Nobody’s … nobody’s dead. I’ve seen no bodies. And I’ve seen no gear, no drugs, no product. So, I’m not aware of anything that’s happened here. I don’t … have to report back. I can pretend I never got the activation message.”
Twil squinted at him. “Drugs?”
Present blinked rapidly. “This … this is … about drugs, right? I know the job must be for a big-scale dealer, but I don’t know who. I’m sorry. I know this is a hit on a rival, but I don’t know anything else. I’m sorry, I can’t give details, it’s a no-contact job. I swear.”
Raine started laughing first. Twil rolled her eyes and flapped her hands. Evelyn looked like she was made of stone. Felicity put her face in her hand.
“It’s not funny!” I protested. “He’s genuinely confused.”
“Funny,” said Praem.
“Come on Heather,” Raine said, “it’s pretty absurd.”
Michael Hopton said, slowly, “He thinks we’re — what? A hidden growing operation? Drug dealers?”
“You’re not then,” Preston said. “You’re not. I saw nothing. I still see nothing. You’re not dealers, I never saw any of you.”
Twil snorted. “That ain’t the problem here, buddy-guy pal!”
Evelyn sounded like death. “This idiot doesn’t know a thing.”
“I can give you the number!” Preston said, desperate. Poor man thought we were going to shoot him for not knowing anything. “I can give you that.”
Felicity murmured, “I want nothing to do with this. Nothing at all. I’m not torturing this man.”
Evelyn sighed. “What’s to torture? He knows nothing.”
“Wait a sec,” Raine said, stifling her laughter. “Mate, listen. Do you know a woman by the name of Amy Stack?”
Preston Woods froze, mouth on the cusp of an answer.
“Oh,” I breathed.
Raine continued, before he could lie to us. “Tell us the truth here, friend. It’s gonna increase your chances of getting out of here alive.”
Preston nodded, slowly. His eyes stayed glued to Raine; any port in a storm, even one made of razor-sharp rocks. “Yeah. Haven’t seen her in two years, but Amy’s the one who gave me the job, back then. She gave me a phone number where I got the initial instructions, and also gave me the pay. Ten thousand up front. I’m supposed to get ten more on completion, after I report, but it’s one of those jobs I never expected to call.”
Raine cracked a grin, and said, “Small bloody world, isn’t it?” Preston didn’t know how to respond.
“Ten grand!” Twil said, aghast. “Fuck me, that’s a lot, just to wait around for a call and then take some pictures?”
“I’m reliable. Amy knew that. It’s why she got me the contact.”
“You better be reliable, fucking hell. Expensive!”
“Two years ago?” Evelyn asked Preston nodded. “And you haven’t seen her since?” He nodded again. “I think that confirms who the job is really for.”
Twil said, “We trust Stack?”
Zheng purred, “I trust the fox.”
“Yeah,” Raine agreed. “She’s with us. Kind of.”
“Oh, right,” said Preston. This fact did not seem to reassure him.
“Hey, mate,” Raine went on quickly, speaking fast. “Were you at the library?”
He stared at her, blind-sided. “The … library?”
Raine waited. But Preston only swallowed, utterly confused.
Evelyn huffed. “Yes, he’s one of Stack’s mercenary contacts, but not the ones Edward used directly. This guy was not taken to Carcosa, or used for anything more. He’s a nobody.”
“Sooooo,” Twil said, “what do we do with him?” She pulled a grimace. “Have we gotta … you know?”
Michael Hopton shook his head, big beefy arms folded over his chest. “We can’t just let him go. Not after this.”
Raine winced. “Yeah, intel is too valuable to share.”
Amanda Hopton spoke up as well, but she spoke for her god: “This has been too much of a transgression to risk a repeat.”
“He does seem pretty scared … ” said Twil. She was right, Preston Woods looked terrified. He knew we were debating his death. Felicity said nothing, too busy putting her arms around Kimberly. Kim had her hands over her ears; she didn’t want to know anything about this.
“Please,” Preston said. “I can give you the number. Talk to Amy, ask Amy, I’m solid. I am! Please don’t— don’t—”
“Shut up,” Evelyn snapped. “Everybody shut up.” She looked round at the rest of us. “I know this has been a rather traumatic day, but please, you all have higher IQs than this.”
“‘Scuse me?” said Twil.
“This guy is pointless,” Felicity murmured.
“Felicity is correct.” To my great surprise, Evelyn grudgingly nodded at her. “Edward Lilburne is an extremely mature mage. He doesn’t need some hoodwinked courier to confirm if his plan worked or not. This man is nothing worse than independent confirmation, a fail-safe. A red herring, perhaps. We could let him go and it wouldn’t make any difference.”
I saw Preston exhale with controlled relief.
“But we’re not going to let him go,” Evelyn finished.
Twil winced. Raine went still, readying herself. Zheng cocked her head.
“Evee?” I murmured.
Evelyn’s face blossomed with one of those subtle smiles, knife-thin and devious. Evelyn Saye the strategist, my strategist, making a move nobody else had thought of. Praem stood tall at her side. She turned back to Mr Woods, who had gone grey, like rotten oats.
“You are going to call the number you were given — and I am going to make your report.”
“ … okay,” he said, nodding. “Alright. I can do that. I will co-operate.”
“Evee,” Raine said. “What are you thinking? Share with the class, hey?”
Zheng grunted. “Wizard filth.”
“Yes, Evee?” I echoed. But I was vibrating. Evelyn’s satisfaction was contagious. “Evee, what are you planning?”
Evelyn’s smile grew sharp and beautiful.
“Edward Lilburne was always so afraid of hearing my voice over the phone, remember? Well. I’m going to send him a letter bomb.”
For the second time in one day, Evelyn, Felicity, and Kimberly worked together — but mostly because Evelyn was too exhausted to stand up without leaning on Praem, let alone rip a metaphorical hole in her own metaphysical throat.
“I am perfectly capable of doing this by myself, for pity’s sake,” she complained when help was not so much offered as imposed upon her. “The theory is simple and sound, it’s only going to require a small circle, it’s hardly any work. Praem, let me— go— for—”
“You’ve never done it before,” Felicity said.
“Neither have you, you cretin!”
“You said it yourself. The theory is simple and sound. I can do it, with Kim’s help.”
“Don’t act all bloody self-sacrificing! And I want it to be my voice Edward hears before his brain cooks! Praem, let me—”
“Bad Evee,” said Praem. “Sit down.”
That settled it, for now.
Evelyn was allowed to stay in the kitchen and supervise, though she was placed firmly in a chair while Praem and Felicity drew the magic circle directly onto the floor tiles. Kimberly stood by, mostly to help Felicity get up and down. The room already needed a very serious scrub-down; all the nooks and crannies were stained with blood. Nobody would be using that kitchen to cook for a while, not until the bubble-servitors had gone over every surface and removed all the biological matter.
We all watched the circle take shape, in scraps of filthy blood and swoops of clean chalk. Amanda and Christine drifted away, to aid the bubble-servitors in plugging the holes in the building. Michael stayed, arms folded, standing behind our chair-bound captive, presumably in case he tried to gnaw through his bonds. ‘Mister’ George excused himself to chain smoke out front. Somebody — I think it was Raine, but I was fuzzy-headed by that point — suggested to Zheng that she should keep watch, play lookout, make sure that Edward Lilburne wasn’t going to try for a hat trick. Zheng didn’t need much encouragement; she didn’t like to linger during magecraft.
She ruffled my hair on the way out, purring “Shaman” under her breath. And to my surprise, she ruffled Seven’s hair as well, in a strangely affectionate gesture. The little blood goblin didn’t even try to bite her. Sevens was too busy pressing her face into my flank and clinging to my side. My support, my limpet.
Part of me was desperately aware that Sevens needed me. She’d not said more than a dozen words since returning from her unscheduled and unplanned sneaking session. She was clasped around me as if clinging to a piece of driftwood in the open ocean. Aym was attached to her back as well, but that seemed less urgent.
I needed to get Sevens alone, but now was not a good time.
While the circle was taking shape, Twil asked, “Uhh, Evee, is this actually going to cook his brain? ‘Cos like, yeah, that’s pretty gnarly and he deserves it and all. But is this like, responsible?”
Raine laughed softly. “Since when are you worried about being responsible?”
Twil shot her a scowl. “Hey!”
Michael Hopton cleared his throat. “Our Twil can be very responsible. I’m proud of her.”
Twil winced as if hit with a brick. “Daaaad,” she whined.
“It’s the truth,” he said, unashamed.
Evelyn sighed heavily from her chair. “It was a figure of speech. If mages could kill with a word, the world would be a much more simple place.” She added in a quieter voice: “If I could kill with a word, it would be a much better place.”
“Evee,” I mumbled after trying and failing to tut. “Stop being scary.”
I couldn’t help but notice our captive was having trouble following this conversation. Mages and magic were not penetrating the veil of normality around his psyche. He kept blinking too hard.
Evelyn cleared her throat and waved me off. “Anyway, no. It won’t actually kill him. It’ll cause him a lot of pain, perhaps a migraine, maybe explosive diarrhoea if I’m lucky.”
“What if somebody else hears it first?” Twil asked. “We’re not gonna mess up some random merc, right?”
“The spell will key off Edward’s recognition of his own full name,” Evelyn explained. “It shouldn’t hurt anybody else. And it will sound like a real report, mostly, to increase the chances he might listen to it himself.”
Raine sucked on her teeth. “And what if he doesn’t?”
Evelyn smiled again, sharp and dangerous. “He is expecting a reply to the question ‘are my enemies still alive?’ The answer will be a bomb. Do you see the power in that? I want him paranoid. I want him jumping at shadows. I want him so riled up he risks missing the real hit.”
Twil nodded along, enjoying this. “Rustle them jimmies. I dig it.”
Michael Hopton squinted. “Wait a moment. Sorry, Miss Saye, but all this is to give our enemy a headache?”
Raine laughed again. “Evee can be amazingly petty. It’s one of her best qualities.”
“Mm,” I agreed with a soft grunt, the best I could muster right then. All my consciousness felt dragged down to the ache in my flank, like a lead weight tugging at my thoughts.
Evelyn snapped, “If he’s dealing with a blinding headache, he’s not making clear plans. We want him off-balance for as long as possible. Need I remind everyone that we still don’t know where his home is? We have to buy time, for … ”
Her eyes flickered to me, to hunched and pained little Heather Morell, propped up by a fake vampire and a black-lace demon.
She wouldn’t say it out loud, but I knew the truth: Evee needed to buy time for me.
The fastest method of locating Edward Lilburne, now that the veil was lifted, was always going to be hyperdimensional mathematics. In theory I could walk out the front door right now, step over to the pile of dead canine corpses, and use one of them to trace the web of interaction and creation and meaning all the way back to the mage himself. Assuming he was responsible for them, of course. But it was a solid bet that we could tug on that thread and eventually find him at the other end of it.
But my body wasn’t working right. My bioreactor had overheated, self-shutdown, or just plain broken. I had no idea what brain-math would do to me right now. Evelyn knew that, but she wouldn’t say it out loud.
We had other methods, of course. Zheng could go hunting, maybe with Twil at her side. Hringewindla’s angels were already fanning out into the woods, but they could hardly cover all the countryside between here and Stockport. Given enough time we could search for the house the old-fashioned way, on foot.
But brain-math would be fast, brain-math would solve the problem, brain-math would do in minutes what would otherwise take days.
And brain-math might burn through my abdomen.
Evelyn never finished that sentence. As her eyes lingered on me, Raine stepped in for her: “Yeah, we gotta buy time. We’re in no shape for another fight, not like this.”
Evelyn squinted at her. “That’s not like you.”
Twil chuckled. “Yeah, speak for yourself, Raine. I could go another round.”
“Sure you could,” Raine said with a grin. “Meanwhile, I think we should negotiate.”
“Negotiate?” said Michael Hopton.
“Raine?” I said, actively horrified.
She shrugged. “You’re exhausted, Heather. Evee, Fliss, Kim, all spent. Nicky’s got a broken leg, she’s out. I’m almost out of bullets. What are we gonna do if we find the house now, go running in for a frontal assault?”
“Swarm it with bubble-lads,” said Twil. “Come on, Raine! What are you talking about?”
“Agreed,” Evelyn grunted through gritted teeth. “Raine, we’re not negotiating anything except an unconditional surrender. He gives us the book and fucks off forever, preferably into the ground, or no deal. I’ll make that part of my letter bomb, shall I?” Her voice dripped with sarcasm.
But Raine was serious. “Yeah, please do. But then we’re heading home.”
Evee stamped with her walking stick, a gesture which almost toppled her out of her chair. Praem leapt up from working on the circle and caught her.
Evelyn snapped out, “We are not having a strategy meeting right now, Raine!”
“Yeah,” Raine said, perfectly level and perfectly calm. “We’re not. Decision is already made. We gotta rest, Evee, even if just to recover for a day or two. How are we gonna press this? What’s the plan?”
Evelyn pursed her lips. She shot a look at Preston, tied to his chair, but he looked lost.
“We are not talking about this now,” Evelyn snapped.
Raine cracked a grin. “We’re overextended.”
“We haven’t even left this house!”
“It’s a metaphor.”
Evelyn snapped, “Well it’s a shit one!”
Twil spoke up, intensely awkward. “Hey, uh, calm down, yeah?”
“Evee,” I murmured. “I can’t … I’m sorry. But I can’t. And you told me to rest.”
Evelyn froze in a way she so rarely did, catching herself on the edge of a precipice, horror behind her eyes as she stared at me. She swallowed, then had to cling to Praem’s arm for several long seconds, despite the fact she was already sitting down quite comfortably.
“That’s true,” she murmured, looking away from me. “True. We can … we’ll finish this spell, then … then talk. Make a new plan. Yes.”
Raine shot me a wink. A victory, but not one I enjoyed.
Eventually that magic circle drove me out of the kitchen, with Sevens in tow. The circle burned my eyes like a magnesium flare. At first it was fine, just marks on the floor, a little uncanny but no worse than any other magic circle which had ever made me feel vaguely unwell. But when Felicity and Praem were just over halfway done, the symbols seemed to spark and burn inside my brain. Nobody else suffered that effect; this wasn’t errant magic or an unintended side-effect. I was seeing the purpose beneath the symbolism. The Eye’s gift.
“Go sit down!” Evelyn snapped at me, when I covered my eyes and groaned. “You’re going to give yourself a migraine by watching.”
“But you— you’re so tired—”
“And so are you.” Evelyn sighed sharply. “Somebody make Heather sit down, please, because I can’t even stand up. Raine? Raine, take her into the sitting room and make sure she doesn’t wander back in here and burn out her retinas. Heather, rest, for pity’s sake, or I will do this magic myself.”
I obeyed — with a little helping hand from Raine. She led me back into the shattered sitting room. Sevens clung to me the whole way. Aym clung to her back. We made a very silly conga-train from the kitchen to the sofa in the dining room, but I was too wiped out to care, too exhausted for self-consciousness.
Raine got me settled on the sofa. Seven burrowed into my flank, hard and tight. Aym sat on her opposite side, one hand resting against Seven’s narrow thigh.
I recalled putting my head back and closing my eyes, but only once I made sure Sevens was anchored with three tentacles and she wasn’t going anywhere. Consciousness drifted back and forth, a veil parting and closing over my face. Part of me assumed Raine had stood up and gone back into the kitchen, but then I felt a cool, soft, dry hand on my forehead, brushing my hair back. Only a handful of seconds had passed.
Raine’s hand withdrew. She whispered, “She asleep?”
I was about to answer, dredging my voice from drowsiness. But Sevens spoke first.
“Dunno,” came the rasping voice from somewhere down near the base of my ribcage, nuzzled against the roots of my tentacles. “Maybe.”
“Heather?” Raine whispered.
A rare and impish impulse bade me stay quiet. I allowed myself to drift instead of answer.
“Guess that’s a yes,” Raine whispered.
Sevens replied with a gurgling, “Mmmm.”
“How about you, Yellow? How you holding up?”
Silence. Sevens shifted against my side. My bruises sang a bitter chorus. I felt a gentle prick of sharp teeth, muzzled by the fabric of my hoodie. Somehow that made the bruises fade. The teeth withdrew.
“Need a rusk?” Raine whispered with a grin in her voice.
Sevens did not answer; Aym did, in a voice like iron filings sprinkled on a snowdrift. “She’s tired, bitch-tits.”
I’d never heard her speak so gently, despite her choice of terminology.
Silence returned for several moments. I almost drifted deeper, beyond sound. I could hear Evelyn’s voice in the kitchen, muffled by the wall and the door, and then a reply, perhaps from Felicity. Raine must have pulled up a chair, because I heard a creak of damaged wood, followed by a gentle sigh. I could smell the iron tang coming off Sevens — and something else below that, like sweat or pheromones.
“You wanna talk about it?” Raine whispered. “In front of Aym?”
“ … hurt … inside,” Sevens rasped softly.
I almost broke cover, almost opened my eyes and sat up and hugged her around the shoulders and pulled her into my lap and kissed her on the forehead. She sounded so spent and tired. Seven-Shades-of-Sad-and-Slow.
“Because you helped us?” Raine whispered. “Because hey, thank you. You kept that guy distracted, right? Led him forward for us? Who were you being?”
“Nobody,” came the mumbled reply. “Never done that before.”
Aym said, “She bent herself a way she’s not meant to bend. All for you people.”
My heart ached so terribly. I wanted to cry — but I was too tired.
Raine reached forward: I could feel her hand displacing the air. Sevens let out a tiny squeak, then a noise of breathy surprise, then a purr, high and soft and vibrating against my side.
“Don’t hurt yourself for us,” Raine whispered. “Don’t hurt yourself for anybody, yeah?”
“Had to … for Heather.”
“Nope. Wrong. Not true. Anybody who asks you to hurt yourself for them, they’re not worth being hurt for. If Heather was awake — and I suspect she might be — she’s going to feel pretty bad about that.”
“Trying to be … whole.”
That drew another little sigh from Raine. But I could feel the comforting grin in her words; I could see it in my mind’s eye, the warmth and acceptance. “Sevens, you’re trying to be a person. But you don’t make yourself whole by hurting yourself. That’s how people make less of themselves, not more.”
“Mmmmmmmmm … mmmm.” Sevens’ purring turned heavy. She burrowed back against my side, escaping Raine’s petting.
Aym spoke through a bundle of whispering knives. “Be just peachy if Heather would tell her that.”
Raine said, “I don’t think this is Heather’s fault.”
But Raine was wrong. This was my fault.
Sevens had gone out there and broken all the rules about the masks she could wear, and why, and when, and what they could be related to. She had turned herself into something original — a fresh creation, a void, a mind-trick — to distract Edward’s cheap little mercenary, because she thought it was necessary to help protect me, to look after me, to further my cause. She had bent herself into a shape she did not want to occupy, an act of self-redefinition which hurt her soul.
She’d gotten it all wrong, because of me.
Was this because I’d kissed her earlier, before the fight started? Because I showed her a scrap of real affection?
I did not want her self-sacrifice. I would not allow it. I was having none of this.
Without even thinking about my actions, I started the brain-math. I plunged my hands into the black tar and the boiling mud and the soupy mass of toxic waste, and I pulled out machines of such precision and complexity that to look upon them would burn out the eyeballs of an unaltered human being. I began to cast the net, to define everything between here and Stockport, to turn the countryside into an equation which I could unravel in my hands. I would pluck out the grit of Edward Lilburne’s house.
I’d seen maps of the area, I could imagine it; that would have to do. Imprecise and power-hungry as a method, but it would work, now Edward’s walls were down. Damn the consequences, because the consequence right now was Sevens in pain.
My flank started to burn; my bioreactor was still recovering, still in emergency shut-down, still not ready to fire. But I tried anyway, running the maths red-hot without any cooling, without any source of energy but my own glucose and calories and body fat. I would knock myself out for a week to spare Sevens another hour of dislocation and dissociation and dysphoria.
Poised on the edge of the cliff, I made ready to dive.
And then Seven-Shades-of-Sharp-Little-Slicers opened her mouth and bit into my forearm.
C h o m p
Merry Christmas! Happy Hanukkah! Whatever you celebrate (or if you don’t), I hope you’re having a great weekend, taking it easy, and staying warm. I hope you’re doing better than Heather is right now. Don’t get bitten. Or you know, do, if you’re into that. Maybe Heather is. We’re probably about to find out. Hey, at least she’s doing better than the very confused man they have tied up in the kitchen.
No patreon link this week! Why? I don’t know, because it’s Christmas! Go give somebody a hug instead. Glad you’re all enjoying the story though! Thank you so much for reading.
You can still;
And/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, chomp chomp chOMP.
Suicide bombing as a concept
The aftermath is always worse than the maelstrom.
I had experienced my fair share of physical fights by that point in my life, most of them crammed into the previous eight to nine months; my mother would be horrified if she knew. Her goody-two-shoes Heather, getting in scuffles and scrapes. I still wasn’t capable of throwing a punch or squeezing a trigger, but the wave of adrenaline and fear no longer drowned me, insensate and flailing. I could go with the flow, now; I knew a little about how to keep myself safe, and my abyssal instincts knew even more. I could put my tentacles to some use. I could try to protect my friends. I could try not to get in the way. But nobody really remembers a fight; short-term memory fails to encode, the body takes over, whether one is human or part-human or imitation-human or having a grand old time cavorting about in a human mask. Details must be reconstructed after the event, pieced back together from sense impressions and fragmentary images and consequences.
I had a lot of fragments and a lot of blood and none of it made much sense.
There’s nothing glamorous about a fight, no matter the scale. Raine makes it look sexy, but I’m not stupid enough to believe that’s anything other than my own deeply biased perspective. Movies and television show armies clashing and melding into each other, all one-on-one choreography and balletic stunt-work, clean punches and counters and the sort of thing Raine goes fangirl for. But reality is brutal and banal. Raine once told me a fact about how most knife fights go to the floor in the first few seconds. Nothing poignant or graceful happens while grappling on the floor.
And this fight, this Outsider confrontation at Geerswin farm, this genuine supernatural nightmare? Raine called it a “bare-knuckle fuckfest.”
I wouldn’t have used that exact word. I’d probably have blushed to even say it. But I didn’t disagree.
Evelyn snapped at Raine for that one. Tenny was too absorbed in crying to pick up the swear word, too busy clinging to Lozzie, but she was still within earshot.
Raine didn’t much care; she was too focused on getting me to stop.
“Heather, Heather, hey, just sit down for a sec. You’re shaking all over, you can barely stand. And you’re bruised, you’re gonna pull a muscle. Just slow down, slow down. Heather, hey. Heather!”
Sit down and rest? Impossible.
Geerswin farmhouse was a wreck. Several doors were shattered, smashed from their hinges, splinters everywhere. Windows were broken, frames buckled, glass shards all over the floor. Hringewindla’s bubble-servitors were drifting over to the house, joining together and stretching themselves like oily transparent putty to plug the doors and windows. But out on the grass and the edge of the field and the crumbly tarmac, great masses of bubble-servitor material lay inert, shredded, ruined, and dead, heaped about the bloody mangled hulks of the Outsiders they’d brought down. Hringewindla had paid dearly. Even in my pain-and-panic-addled state, a hyper-polite version of me worked away silently in the back of my mind, filing a note to thank the old man Outsider cone-snail for his help. Without the bubble-servitors, we’d probably not have won.
“Heather,” Raine said. “You keep walking and I’m gonna pick you up and wrap you in a blanket so you can’t move. Zheng! Hey, left hand, can you maybe help me here?”
“The shaman smells a rat. Lift her up, little wolf. Do not stop her.”
A stiff breeze could have stopped me. A particularly determined row of ants could have felled me dead. Raine was right: I was covered in bruises, shaking all over, my vision was swimming, and my right flank was burning inside, like the bio-reactor had suffered a meltdown.
My clothes were bloodied. Everyone’s clothes were bloodied. The house had it the worst.
Six of the writhing blob-like Outsiders had died inside the house, leaving a truly unspeakable mess. Blood and bile soaked the carpets, ichor and effluence lay in puddles; loops of strange alien intestine, scraps of jellied flesh, strips of torn skin. A significant quantity of the blood in the kitchen actually belonged to Twil. She’d won by just out-healing the thing, spilling buckets of herself all over the tiles and the cooker and the ceiling, in great splatters and splashes. It was like something out of a cartoon.
Twil was usually unstoppable, always the first to bounce back. But in that aftermath she looked how I felt. As I staggered to the door into the corridor, I saw her slide down the wall, nodding in victory, but utterly drained. Even werewolves don’t like to lose so much blood.
“Mrs Hopton,” Evelyn was saying. Her throat was thick around the words. She couldn’t stand either, leaning on Praem. “Mrs Hopton. Christine. Michael. I will pay for all these damages. I brought this to your home. This is our responsibility. I— Heather? What’s she doing?”
I hadn’t felt this drained and broken inside, this bruised and tenderised, since before I materialised the bioreactor for the first time. But I forced my feet underneath my aching carcass and dragged myself toward the corridor.
Because Sevens and Aym were missing.
Raine and Zheng must have helped me. I recall nothing about leaving the room or staggering down the corridor. Perhaps I passed out and they carried me, but the next thing I knew I was standing before the pulped and mangled corpse of one of the Outsiders, slumped in a meaty heap against the corridor wall. Raine was holding me upright, shoulder under my armpit. Zheng lurked on my opposite side. I had half my tentacles around each of them.
The Outsider corpse was one of the most hateful things I’d ever seen — and not because it looked like a pile of mashed tripe and splintered bone. Steaming softly in the shafts of sunlight, the steam rising and vanishing in gentle waves, the sodden mass itself slowly shrinking and dwindling away as we watched.
Here was a dead slave, ripped from Outside and turned inside-out by the crushing pressure — or lack thereof — of our reality.
“Suicide bomber,” I croaked.
Raine raised her eyebrows but said nothing. I hadn’t had time to explain the impression yet, to explain to my friends what these pitiful creatures really were.
But worse than that was the memory. Flashes and fragments of standing here and ripping the thing to pieces, hissing and screeching at it. The ghost of homo abyssus crawled across my skin in a hundred tiny bruises, in the ache of my gums and the itch in my eyes and my urge to embrace the moment I’d spent killing something that had not truly wanted to fight.
“Sevens was right here,” I said eventually. “Behind me, or at my side. In her — war form? She was here. She was. She can’t have gone far. She cradled me while I … when I … did this?”
“Uh huh,” Raine said, nodding gently. “Impressive stuff. All Humboldt squid on this thing’s arse. Well done, would have gotten us in the rear otherwise.”
A screaming flash of blood and violence across my memories, making me flinch inside. When I glanced at my tentacles I found them smooth and unblemished, no sign of the hooked barbs and jagged spikes. Zheng caught my eye and broke into a grin of savage joy. She was covered in blood too, and unbothered by the mess.
“Sevens,” I repeated. “She was right here. I felt her at my back. She can’t just be gone.”
“Hey,” Raine said, soft and gentle. “I’m sure she’s fine. All these blob dudes were accounted for. None of them could hurt Sevens, especially not if she was doing her big-and-scary thing.”
“You don’t know that,” I said, swallowing hard, feeling my mouth go dry. My head was spinning with worry and pain. I wanted to sit down and then lie down and then probably go to sleep. I wanted to eat an entire horse, bones and all. I wanted to touch Sevens and make sure she was there. “Raine, Raine you’re just saying that.” I looked up and called at the ceiling and walls. “Sevens! Sevens!”
Kimberly was there at the far end of the corridor, clutching herself in Twil’s borrowed clothes. I wasn’t sure how much she had heard. I caught her eye and another flash of memory crackled across my mind.
“Kim!” I heaved. “Kim you were there, you said you saw!”
I must have looked horrible, because poor mousy Kimberly flinched away from me.
“Hey, Kim,” Raine said quickly. “It’s alright, she’s just worried. You saw this all go down, out here in the corridor?”
Kimberly nodded awkwardly and spoke in halting stutters. “I-I saw. You … well, I suppose you saved me. Again. Heather. Thank you.”
I couldn’t stop. “But Sevens was there? Right!?”
Kimberly bit her lip and shook her head. She glanced back into the sitting room as if looking for help, but everyone in there was busy, mostly sorting out to move Nicole Webb to Benjamin’s car with her broken leg. We couldn’t call an ambulance to the farm, not with the place looking like a supernatural bomb crater, not unless we wanted to break the minds of several paramedics and get the police down here to turn this into a major incident.
But then Felicity stepped out of the sitting room and joined us in the corridor. She put a gentle hand on Kimberly’s shoulder and Kim looked up at her with unmistakable admiration and security. But Felicity looked right at me.
“Aym is safe,” she said in a broken croak, worse than her usual half-mumble through burn-scarred lips. I almost couldn’t make out her words. “I would know if she wasn’t.”
Felicity didn’t look healthy at the best of times. Between her extensive burn scars, her blind left eye, and her twitchy, hangdog, head-down mannerisms, she usually looked like she wanted to slink away to a dark corner and conserve what little life remained to her. But after the ritual and the fight, she seemed to stand a little straighter. I wondered how long it had been since she’d done real magic, for a purpose she believed in, to help somebody. The magic to stop the pair of Outsiders in the dining room had taken a terrible toll on her; I’d seen her vomiting blood earlier. She looked like a woman who’d just recovered from a months-long haemorrhagic fever. Thin-faced, drawn and pale, eyes carved out like coal-dust hollows. Her voice was sandpaper on broken skin.
But she wasn’t worried. Not a bit.
“W-what?” I stammered. “How— how can you tell? What about Sevens? Are they together?”
“I understand what it’s like. If Aym was hurt, I would know. I’d, well, I’d just know. She’s anchored to me. Sort of. It’s an inheritance thing. If she was dead I wouldn’t be … I’d just know. And she can’t have gone far.”
Raine asked, “She tethered to you?”
Felicity nodded. “Is it like that with ‘Sevens’?”
I shook my head. “No, she goes as far as she likes. You’re sure about Aym?”
“M’sure.” She paused to cough blood into her hand, then stared at it and blinked very slowly. Kimberly slipped one arm around Felicity’s waist, as if the older, taller, more experienced mage might be about to topple over. But Felicity blinked three times, hard and tight, forcing herself to stay present. “Aym can’t go more than about two hundred feet from me, in the physical world. If she’s submerged for some reason, she’ll pop back up soon.”
Zheng purred. “The shape-shifter is not mocking us?”
Felicity shook her head. “Not over this. Your ‘Sevens’, she can submerge too?”
“You mean go to the abyss,” I said with a sigh. “Sort of. But why now? What would Aym be doing?”
Felicity held my gaze with absolute certainty and unshakeable belief. “If Aym thought it was important enough to leave without telling us, then it was important enough to leave without telling us.”
Raine laughed once, an approving chuckle. “Covering an angle we didn’t see? Shitty gremlin doing a special operation?”
Felicity sighed too. “One way of putting it.”
Raine asked, “You trust her not to have fucked around with Sevens?”
I stared at Raine in shock. “Raine?”
Raine held a grin, calm and collected. “If we have a traitor in our midst, Aym is pretty high up my list. How could she be bought, Fliss? Serious question.”
“Raine,” I hissed, outraged on Felicity’s behalf. “I’m worried about Sevens, I’m not accusing Aym of sabotage!”
But to my surprise, Felicity thought quietly for a moment, then answered. “Aym’s only price would be one of my blood relatives, and none of them have anything to do with this. Also mostly long gone.” She shook her head, then winced as if suffering a headache.
Kimberly said, soft and gentle, “Felicity?”
“I’m okay. That … de-coherency spell was … not something to rush. Me and Saye will both be pissing blood for a week. Somebody needs to look after her too, please.”
“Praem will,” I said. “And me. Felicity, please, do you think Sevens is safe?”
“If she’s with Aym, probably,” Felicity said, rubbing her aching forehead. “Whatever they’re doing, it’s not over yet.”
Raine nodded. “Operational security, radio silence. They must be doing that. This ain’t over until everybody is back and accounted for.”
I could have kissed her. Well, if I could find the energy to reach upward. Instead I just bumped my head against Raine’s shoulder.
From my other side Zheng let out a deep purr. “Yellow and black, brass and lace. We keep an eye out for their return. Keep the drawbridge down.”
Raine laughed. “Getting all poetic on us, left hand?”
“I respect the Yellow, if not the princess. She belongs to the shaman. We hold the ground.”
Zheng had the luxury of waiting — or at least of standing around and looking intimidating, because she was very good at that and didn’t play well with others — but the rest of us slipped into the slow ache of clean-up and recovery, that dull haze of non-lethal pain and too much work, the aftermath of any real confrontation.
This was, however, the largest and messiest fight I’d ever personally been part of, in a place somebody would have to clean up. The only point of comparison I had was the two corpses we’d had to get rid of once, back in the kitchen in Number 12 Barnslow Drive. Every other time we had ‘thrown hands’ as Raine put it, we’d managed to keep the mess contained somewhere that mundane authorities and normal people would never see.
But Geerswin farmhouse was Twil’s family home, and now it was covered in blood and mess.
The poor thing was so wounded, so bruised and battered. Even after I calmed down about Sevens, I dragged Raine back into the dining room, staggering and lurching, trying to pat the walls with my tentacles. I kept saying, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” Raine was getting desperate; I wouldn’t sit down, wouldn’t stop.
All around me, the real clean-up was beginning.
“I can pay for the windows and doors, professional cleaning for the carpets too,” Evelyn was saying. “Though … the blood … ”
Christine was horribly pained by the offer. “Miss Saye, Evelyn, please—”
“My father can chip in for once. I won’t hear a word against it.”
“Sit,” said Praem.
Amanda gently corrected them both. “Hringewindla’s angels will handle the biological matter. The doors and windows are … mm.”
“Sit down,” said Praem. Apparently I wasn’t the only one refusing to rest.
“Hey,” said Twil, “at least those big ugly corpses are melting away. Screw tryin’ lug them outdoors. Or into a pile. Or whatever.” She sighed heavily, still slumped against the wall. “Oh, my bedroom is fucked. One of them died in there, right?”
“The angels can clean that too,” Amanda said.
“Eww,” went Twil.
Raine had once shown me a computer game about cleaning up after a stereotypical horror-movie climax, blood and guts all up the walls, bits of monster everywhere, that sort of thing; it was all very cartoony and silly, with lots of mops and buckets and wet wipes. The real thing was a lot less easily solved. Bubble-servitors started bobbing all about the place, flattening themselves against the walls and carpets like giant semi-translucent slugs, sucking up the blood and digesting the viscera. Everyone else had to wear those magically modified glasses all the time to avoid bumping into the things, or stepping on them, or worse. Amanda Hopton stood in the middle of the sitting room, swaying with her eyes closed, presumably conducting the creatures, a conduit for the will of her god. ‘Mister’ George tried to help for a little while, scrubbing at the kitchen, but then ended up standing out on the patio, chain-smoking with shaking hands.
Michael Hopton and Katey helped put Nicole Webb in the back of Benjamin’s land rover, her arms clutching their shoulders, their strength keeping her broken right leg off the floor. The detective was panting, coated in cold sweat, gritting her teeth as they carried her down the corridor and out onto the crumbling tarmac.
I followed, dragging Raine behind me again, lurching down the corridor; I wouldn’t take no for an answer, didn’t give her a choice.
“Heather,” Raine said, gentle but firm, as if holding back the whipcrack which would make me obey. “Heather, you really need to sit down. They’ve got Nicky now, she’s gonna be fine. Heather? Don’t make me get Evee to shout at you, hey?”
“I have to … check on her … Raine, she’s hurt. We got her hurt.”
Raine helped me out the front door and down the brick steps. The crisp sunlight hurt my eyes and made my head pound like a leather drum. I had to squint and blink until my vision stopped swirling. A dead Outsider lay against the nearest fence, steaming gently as it melted away under the conditions of our reality. A ring of bubble-servitors hung over the mangled corpse, as if worried it might spring back to life again. A greater ring of bubbles circled the house, on guard. Many more angels had fanned out across the fields, hovering at the treetops, watching for an opportunistic second assault.
“Really got to thank Hringy,” I murmured.
Raine laughed softly as I dragged her closer to the Land Rover. “‘Hringy’?”
“Hringy.” I was making it cute — but really I was too exhausted to pronounce his name properly. Terrible of me, I know.
“Hringy it is then.”
Zheng followed us outdoors too, stealthy and close; she was worried for my physical condition, whatever she said.
A small argument was unfolding by the open back door of Benjamin’s beefy green Land Rover. Katey had wandered off somewhere, Nicole was inside the car, but Ben and Michael were frowning at each other.
“Manchester, not Sharrowford,” Michael was saying.
Nicole’s voice panted from inside the back seat of the Land Rover. “Sharrowford’s— fine— fine—”
Michael said, “It’s a clean break, there’s no visible bone. Manchester will be safer. Ben, Manchester. Okay?”
Nicole said, “Sharrowford. For fuck’s sake.”
“Why Manchester?” I asked. Everyone paused and looked at me in a funny way, like I was liable to pull their faces off.
Nicole said from inside the Land Rover, “‘Cos they think we’re gonna get in trouble.”
“Yeah,” Ben said in a grunt. He was standing there with the front of the car already open, one hand filled with his keys. “Come on, Mike, she’s an ex-cop and a PI. If they wanna know shit she’s got the connections to tell them no. I’m just some lug she hired to watch a job. Nobody’s gonna care. It’s a break, not a bullet wound.”
“Sharrowford,” Nicole spat.
“Take her to Sharrowford General,” Raine said. “Nicky knows her stuff. Real hard-boiled type, her.”
“Right you are,” said Ben.
Michael Hopton sighed and crossed his arms. “At least take Katey too. Don’t do it alone, Ben. You’re not a superhero.”
Ben guffawed. “Yeah, that’s Twil’s department.” He paused then nodded at me, awkwardly. “Or hers. Alright, go get Katey then. Where’d she get to?”
“Checking on the sheep,” Michael said. Ben shook his head and turned toward the little stables, stepping away to fetch Katey.
I dragged myself over to the open back door of the car, pulling Raine with me. My flanks were burning, especially on the right side, like my appendix had burst or a muscle had torn away from a bone. But I slumped against the open door, half my tentacles clinging to the roof, and peered inside. Nicole was laid out on the back seat, her right shin at a sickening angle. She frowned at me, plastered with sweat, pale-faced, and panting softly.
“Heather?” she croaked.
“I can’t stop her,” Raine said. “She won’t sit still.”
“Nicky,” I said. “Are you going to be all right?”
A stupid question — how would she know? But my heart demanded I ask, demanded an answer, demanded that I care.
Nicole Webb grimaced, a horrible attempt at a smile. She was so brave. “S’nothing. Just a break. Need a cast. And morphine. Oh yeah, looking forward to that.”
I sagged, tentacles slackening. Of course she was going to be okay. “Good, good. That’s good.”
A twitch in my side. One tentacle peeled off the roof of the car and hovered in the air. I wasn’t thinking, just following instinct.
Raine asked, “You ever broken a bone before, gumshoe?”
“Once. When I was — teenager. Ribs. Fistfight.”
Raine let out a low whistle. “Teenage tearaway, huh? Wouldn’t have counted you as a bad girl. Nicky.”
“Detective. To you.” Nicole grunted. “Haynes.”
She was lying.
Nicole Webb was lying. She wasn’t going to be okay. Her leg was broken in too many places, she was going to get an infection, she was bleeding through her clothes and she wouldn’t get to the hospital in time. I stared at her in the pounding sunlight, too much brightness lancing through the backs of my eyeballs and into my brain. How could I look at her writhe on the back seat of that Land Rover? She was going to die and it would be our fault. My fault, my brain was screaming. Why was she lying? My breath was coming in fits and starts. One tentacle-tip quivered and softened.
“Heather?” Raine said my name. It was drowned out by static inside my head. “Hey, Heather, take a step back, come on. Nicky’s fine.”
“What’s wrong with her?”
I wanted to scream. What was wrong with me? What about Nicole, what about her broken leg, the way she was fading, the pain on her face? How could Raine not see it? Why wasn’t anybody calling an ambulance? Why was Raine trying to peel me off the car?
This whole mess was my fault. My responsibility. Nicole’s pain was my responsibility. The broken leg was my responsibility. I had to put it right, I had to make it right; I had the tools to make it right.
“I know! I’ve got the glasses on, I can see—”
An angel heals her flock.
One of my tentacles darted into the back of the Land Rover, the tip already softening on the exterior, hardening inside with a needle of dripping bio-steel. Instinct took over, pumped the limb full of unspeakable fluids and abyssal-derived enzymes. Somebody took me by the shoulders but I hissed and bucked and almost fell over, banging one knee against the car, bruises screaming. The tentacle-tip blossomed open to reveal a shining needle twelve inches long; Nicole couldn’t see it but she would feel it in a moment. I would fix her, I would fix this mistake, I would make everything right. Then I would fix Geerswin farmhouse, and Felicity’s pain, and Kimberly’s fear and Tenny’s crying and Lozzie’s horror and I would find Sevens and—
My bio-reactor sputtered to life, to provide the payload for the needle, to replenish what I was about to extract from myself.
Heat blossomed in my flank — then flared out like an explosion, turning to ball of acid burning through my guts.
My vision flicked black, then red, then went out.
I remembered falling away from the Land Rover. I didn’t remember Raine catching me, but I was assured later that she did. Raine always caught me, even when I was being a self-destructive fool.
That time I really did pass out.
Consciousness slammed back about fifteen minutes later, the world just suddenly there in front of me, alive and moving. I was sitting bolt upright on the sofa at the back of the Hoptons’ dining room, with Raine clicking her fingers in front of my eyes.
“Heather, Heather,” she was saying, “Heather, come on, come back. Heather, Heather.”
Evelyn said, from right next to me, “Try splashing her with water.”
“Lozzie,” said Praem.
“I trust her too,” Raine said “but I’d be more comfortable if Heather was conscious and responding. Hey, maybe we should splash her—”
“Ahhhh,” I winced, blinking several times and screwing my eyes shut as I came around. “Raine, stop, please, I’m fine, I’m fine. Don’t splash me with water, please.”
Raine let out a huge sigh of relief and leaned back on her haunches; she was kneeling in front of me. Evelyn sighed too, strangled and tight. Through my blurred vision I realised she was sitting next to me, on the sofa. Praem was standing a few feet away, watching us both.
We were seated in the clearest, cleanest part of the dining room, furthest away from the slowly melting corpses of the dead Outsiders. They were little more than puddles of steaming goo now, almost gone. Bubble-servitors lay against most surfaces, metabolising the blood and guts. Other people moved in the kitchen and out on the patio, turned to ghosts by my blurred vision.
I felt like I’d spent a night vomiting. My stomach muscles ached as if I’d been punched in the gut. The right side of my abdomen burned, hot and hard and stiff inside. Without thinking, I gathered my tentacles in my arms, hugging them to my front, making sure they were still manifested and attached to me. Some instinctive part of my mind was afraid they might have turned to ash and faded away to nothing, like in the early days before my bio-reactor, when bodily euphoria was hard-won and often abandoned in pain. But I was whole, I was here.
“She’s back,” Raine sighed. “Heather, Heather, open your eyes and tell me how many fingers I’m holding up.”
“I never left,” I murmured, trying to piece together the last few minutes. I blinked and squinted. “Three fingers.”
“Two. And now four. Raine, stop, I— ahhh.”
“Keep your eyes open.” Raine flicked on her mobile phone’s flash-light function, then half-blinded me with it while she watched my pupils react. “Good, you’re not concussed.”
“Small mercies,” Evelyn grumbled.
“Mercy,” said Praem.
I cleared my throat, croaking and dry. Somebody — Praem — pressed a glass of water into my hands. I had to let go of my tentacles to accept it, but it went down sweet and rough, scouring blood and mucus out of my throat. I coughed for a moment, Raine’s hand on my back.
“Was I unconscious, was—” I almost lurched out of the chair in horror when my memories clicked back into place. “Nicky! Did I stab Nicky?!”
Raine caught me, firmly and insistently, and pressed me back down into the sofa. Praem caught the glass which had tumbled from my hands.
“You passed out before you could stab anybody,” Raine said. “Nicky’s fine, on her way to the hospital. Heather, slow down, take a deep breath. Breathe with me, okay? In and out, there you go, that’s it. Just sit. Sit right there. Relax.”
I tried my best to do as I was told, but my tentacles pushed against the sofa. “Raine, I … I don’t know what came over me. I was going to … do to her what I did to the Knight. Fix her. I … I’m sorry.”
“Hey,” Raine said, flashing a grin. “No pumping other ladies with your ovipositor, okay?”
“Raine!” I squeaked in horror. She laughed — but the joke had distracted me long enough to short-circuit my desire to stand up and keep moving.
“Just breathe, Heather. Don’t think about anything for a bit.”
“Head empty,” said Praem. “No thoughts.”
Evelyn sighed like this was the most stupid thing she’d ever heard.
“You too,” said Praem. “Head empty.”
“Yes, yes,” Evelyn grumbled.
Raine spent a couple of minutes kneeling in front of me, rubbing my hands, making sure I really was present and not leaving again. I could tell she was worried by the way she watched my eyes and my face, by the tension in her shoulders, the expectant waiting in her musculature. Eventually, when I felt I’d been a good girl and taken enough slow, calming breaths, I explained.
“I didn’t go anywhere, Raine. I was just unconscious.”
Raine winced. Evelyn grumbled, “No you bloody weren’t.”
Raine sighed. Her pained expression hurt me in a way I couldn’t really deal with. She said, “For the first few minutes, sure you were. You were out cold. But then you sat up and opened your eyes and just … sat there.” She pulled a grin, but it was fractured inside. “Thought you’d gone diving again.”
I shook my head. “I won’t go back to the abyss. I think I just ran too hot. Ow.” I pressed a hand to my right flank, where the flesh was stiff and sore. My skin there did feel hot, as if I was running a localised fever, or had an infection.
“Maintenance cycle required,” said Praem.
Raine laughed gently. “How do you feel, Heather?”
“My reactor hurts,” I said, ashamed to admit it. “I feel like I’ve pulled a muscle or strained something. That’s what knocked me out. I tried to fire it back up, and … well, now it kind of burns.”
“Maybe give it a rest then, yeah?” Raine said, then reached out and squeezed my knees. Her tone was silk over iron: I would rest whether I wanted to or not.
“But I have to help!” A lump grew in my throat. “Raine, this is all my fault, I have to help, I have to—”
A hand grabbed my arm so hard the grip hurt my bones; Evelyn’s fingers dug into my flesh. I winced and turned, an automatic complaint on my lips — but Evelyn wore an expression like a pagan goddess who had discovered her temple surrounded by an invading army. She was half-collapsed into the sofa, her eyes pits of exhaustion, looking more like a crumpled old woman than ever before. Skin waxy with effort, lips a tight line, her expression burned me right through. White phosphorus in a human shell.
My words died in my throat. “E-Evee?”
She sat up, leaning toward me. Under other circumstances I would have assumed I was about to get kissed. Praem reached down with one hand to support her. It was like having a banshee in one’s face — albeit a banshee I loved dearly.
“We. Cannot. Take. You. To. Hospital,” she crunched out.
“ … o-okay.”
“If you fuck up your exotic organ, we can’t do anything about it. I don’t know what it is or how it works. If you burn yourself out and injure yourself, I cannot fix you. Stop.”
I swallowed, and nodded, and eased myself back into the sofa cushions. “Okay, Evee.”
I obey. Had I really said that earlier? I had. And here I was, doing it again.
“Good,” Evelyn said with a huge sigh. The energy seemed to go out of her, and she leaned back right next to me, shoulder to shoulder. Her long blonde hair was escaping her ponytail. “Rest or I’ll have Praem tie you up.”
“You too,” said Praem. Evee huffed and waved that comment away.
Twil stuck her head around the kitchen door. “Hey, Raine, we need another pair of hands. Heather good? Heather good, yeeeah. Hey, Big H.”
“Hello Twil,” I said. “Is everyone else … ” I meant to say ‘okay’, but that seemed grossly inadequate for the circumstances, so I just trailed off, feeling lame and useless.
“Everyone’s cool. Well, auntie Amanda’s kinda whacked, but she’s always like that. Raine?”
“Sure, sure,” Raine said, straightening up. She stroked my hair back from my forehead. “Stay here, okay, just rest, just relax.”
I nodded. “I’ll be good. Where is Zheng?”
“Checking on the bubbles, making sure there’s nothing coming through the woods. Just rest. Promise me.”
She turned to Praem. “Keep an eye on these two, yeah? Make sure they don’t run with scissors or play with fire.”
“Both eyes,” said Praem.
Raine went off to help Twil, into the kitchen, probably to carry a body, or swab blood, or oversee the angels doing something disgusting. I just sat there, shoulder to shoulder with Evelyn, staring at the wreck of the room and the shattered back door covered with a film of stretched-out bubble-servitors. It was a very strange place to take a little break, but to be fair I had sat down and rested in far more alien locales.
“Lozzie?” I croaked after a moment.
“Went to Camelot with Tenny,” Evelyn said, dry and scratchy. “Lozzie took one look at you and said you were fine. Only reason I didn’t panic. Tenny was inconsolable. Needed to get her away from all this.”
A long pause stretched between us, comfortable and companionable. Eventually I said, “We should buy her something.”
“As an apology. Or a treat. Or a reminder that we all love her.”
“Mm. But what?”
“Moth plushie?” I suggested.
“Poor taste,” Evelyn grumbled.
“Why? It’s just like a doll, but … more like her.”
“Heather, she’s got the mind of a fourteen year-old. A doll would be an insult.”
“Maybe a very large moth plushie. Deluxe size.”
We slipped into silence again. My right flank and my head were competing to produce the most worrying throbbing sensations. My eyes itched, my teeth felt too sharp, and Evelyn felt lovely and warm against my shoulder. Without thinking about the implications, I snuggled a little closer to her. But I kept one tentacle at full extension, draped over the opposite arm of the sofa: the tentacle I’d almost used on Nicole. The tip still felt spongy.
Evelyn’s shoulder was both bony and soft at the same time. Something inside me could tell how exhausted she was, how drained and brittle and dry. My needle-tentacle twitched and quivered.
Part of me wanted to inject her, too.
“Bloody hell,” Evelyn said, apropos of nothing.
“You can say that again,” I mumbled. I blinked hard and tried to concentrate on anything except the desire to penetrate Evelyn with my tentacle; I was certainly not going to mention it. I glanced up at Praem instead.
Our faithful doll-demon was wearing the rags of her maid uniform, bloody and shredded but untouched beneath. Chin high, spine straight, no amount of disrobing or damage could touch her dignity and poise. She stared back at me with clear blank-white eyes.
“Thank you for protecting Evee,” I said.
“Thank you for protecting Evee,” she echoed back at me.
I pulled an awkward smile and said, “Are we in the naughty corner right now? Are you meant to make sure we don’t get up and cause more trouble?”
Evelyn rolled her eyes. “Heather, rest, for pity’s sake.”
Praem said in her bell-clear voice, “Bad girls sit in the time-out seat. Together.”
Evelyn and I shared an awkward look, faces only inches apart. Evelyn cleared her throat and I turned away, suddenly self-conscious. This was getting silly. We shared a moment of burning awkwardness amid the rubble.
“Heather,” Evelyn said eventually — and I knew by her tone of voice that this was going to be a significant change of subject. “What happened earlier?”
When I looked back at Evee, she’d shed the awkward embarrassment, probably on purpose, dragging us back to a practical topic to save us both. Her eyes burned with a mage’s curiosity, but I mostly felt awkward and guilty.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I know, I know. Don’t inject anybody with the magical life juice, I know. I didn’t mean to, I wasn’t even thinking about it, not consciously. I just saw Nicole in the back of the car, injured and in pain and … and my fault. And I’m so worried about Sevens. I had to do something, I had to … ”
Evelyn watched me trail off, frowning harder and harder. For a moment I was certain she was going to snap at me.
She said, very slowly and carefully, “Heather, I’m not talking about your concerning desire to spread your seed or whatever—”
“Evee!” I squeaked, blushing even through the exhaustion and pain.
“—I’m talking about earlier. You went full rip and tear.”
I blinked at her, coming down from my blush. “You mean when the Outsiders got indoors?”
“Yes.” Evelyn wet her lips and swallowed, staring at me the whole time. “You went feral. For a second I was worried you were out of control or something, when I saw you walk into this room.”
A cold feeling settled into my belly. “Oh. Um. I don’t … don’t recall it very well. I think I spooked Kimberly.”
Evelyn just stared at me, waiting for an explanation, or to see if I would erupt into a ball of tentacles. Praem stared too. I couldn’t take that; I couldn’t deal with being looked at in that way by Evelyn, of all people.
“I—I just,” I stammered. “I wanted to— I felt like— I couldn’t help—”
Evelyn snorted, which surprised me. I blinked up at her again. “Yes, Heather, you never can help being heroic. You’ve made that point plenty of times. Stop being so bashful.”
I blinked rapidly. “ … heroic?”
Evelyn huffed and rolled her eyes. “If you hadn’t dealt with that Outsider at our rear, it would have burst into the room while Felicity and I were trying to complete the spell. Probably would have gone right through us. God knows I didn’t have the energy left to hit it with my walking stick. Well done, Heather, you saved us again. So stop acting all modest. Give yourself more credit.”
I stared, dumbstruck. “I thought you were looking at me in disgust.”
“Eh?” Evelyn squinted.
“I was ‘full squid’, wasn’t I? I’m covered in bruises now, I’m going to be paying for this tomorrow, which means I must have instinctively covered myself in plates and spines. I remember bits of it. I must have been a sight.”
“I didn’t have my glasses on,” said Evee. She frowned as if this made no sense at all. “I’m sure you looked glorious, stop beating yourself up.”
Such a final dismissal, such a casual side-swipe; Evelyn’s tone left no doubt that she simply did not care what I looked like, even covered in spikes and armour plating and spitting venom. And she wasn’t putting it on for my sake, she wasn’t being polite or kind or accepting. She just didn’t care.
I love this woman too much.
“Oh, Evee.” I put one arm around her front in an awkward hug, so very gently, more of a hover-hand than an embrace. She went stiff, but patted my arm in return.
“We’re already splattered with blood, Heather. Don’t make it worse.” She cleared her throat. “But thank you. Yes. I think.”
I let go and leaned back into the sofa, beaming at her.
Praem said, staring right at me, “Very elegant. Such fast. Much squid.”
“Oh!” I beamed at her too — at the exact moment Evelyn sighed like a bellows and looked like she wanted to reach up and flick Praem in the forehead.
“You’re very lucky you are my daughter,” Evelyn said to Praem. “If Twil said that I’d put her in a kennel for a week.”
“Concern,” said Praem.
Evelyn’s jaw went tight.
I wasn’t following any of this, I was just delighted to get called elegant. Nobody had ever called me ‘elegant’ before. “Thank you, Praem. Are you okay? How are you feeling? Your maid dress is all shredded, we’re going to need to get you a replacement.”
Praem said nothing, just stared.
“Ahem ahem, ladies,” came Twil’s voice as she wandered in from the main corridor. “What’s this about putting me in a kennel? Like to see you try, Saye. Like to see you try.”
Twil shot us both a wink, thrumming with energy, fully recovered from her ordeal. She was an even bigger mess than Praem, covered in gore and missing bits of her clothes, though she’d made a token effort to wipe her face and hands.
“More like an ice bath,” Evelyn grumbled. “Aren’t you gonna wash that off?”
“Actually yeah,” Twil said. “Feel kinda vile. Figured there’s no point until we’ve slung all the hounds in a hole first though.” She nodded at me. “Hey, uh, Big H, I couldn’t help overhearing some of that. Some of what you were saying.”
“Eavesdropping?” I asked, then tutted. “Oh, Twil.”
“It’s my house! And I was helping haul one of those freak corpses out of the little sitting room, before it melts into the carpet. Look, I was just wondering, how come you reacted so differently to the hound going for Kim earlier?”
I blinked at her, not quite following. “I’m sorry?”
“You know.” Twil grinned wide, all teeth, and I realised she was trying to help me. Bless her, she was trying to help me with Evee. “For Kim you did a big leap, but with those things getting in here you lost your rag and went berserk. Which was way cool, by the way. Caught a snatch of it myself.”
I sighed and narrowly resisted the urge to pinch the bridge of my nose. “Twil, I lost control because all my friends and family were being threatened. And because those Outsiders are an obscenity.”
“Twil,” I sighed.
For once, Evelyn was the one not following the hidden subtext of this conversation. Twil wanted me to say ‘I did it to protect Evee!’ But that wasn’t true. I did it to protect everybody.
Twil’s grin turned awkward. She nodded along. “Yeah, ‘course. But you know, it was—”
“I did it because this is all my fault, Twil. I lost control because I was angry, because we were going to get hurt — did get hurt! Because of me! This was all for me, in the end. Don’t tell me it wasn’t. If it wasn’t for me, and the Eye, and— and Maisie, then nobody would have gotten hurt here today. You all did this for me. This house is wrecked, Nicole has a broken shin, and we may have traumatised Tenny. I made Lozzie kill something. All because of me. And I can’t do anything to thank you enough. You and everybody else. I owe you too much.”
I couldn’t stop the words once I started speaking them. Twil went quite still; she hadn’t expected an outburst of emotion in response to her terrible attempt at being my wing-woman. I took a shuddering breath and turned my eyes down to the stained and bloody carpet.
Evelyn’s lips parted with a wet click. “Heather—”
“This was for all of us,” said Christine Hopton.
I looked up as she stepped into the room behind Twil. Wearing sensible shoes and a multicoloured shawl over her shoulders, she looked smaller than ever, shrunken and hardened, showing every single one of her years. But Twil’s mother, so much like Twil herself, gave me a warm smile.
“Mum,” Twil huffed. “You were eavesdropping.”
“Pot kettle black, dear,” said Christine. “Pick your battles.”
Twil huffed and let her shoulders slump. I had the feeling she’d heard that particular line many times before.
“I’m sorry for doing so much damage to your home,” I said.
“Sorry?” she echoed, acting surprised. I knew it was acting, but she was so good at it; her gentle tone of voice invited one to simply go along with the play. “You’re apologising to me, and to my husband, and to Twil, and Amanda too — for something done by Edward Lilburne?”
“But if I wasn’t—”
“If you weren’t here, then my daughter would never have made so many friends in the city. If you weren’t here, then I doubt the Church would have been able to reconcile with Miss Saye. If you weren’t here to warn us all those months ago, then the Sharrowford Cult may have gotten the better of us. If you weren’t here, we wouldn’t have witnessed so many miracles.”
“But your doors and windows would be intact,” I said. I almost sobbed. Evelyn reached down and squeezed my hand.
Christine Hopton laughed. “Doors and windows can be replaced. Blood can be washed out of carpets. Even bones can be set. All of these things are worth the long-term security we are buying by working together. You did not do any of this, Heather. Edward Lilburne did. And our god wants him gone too.”
I started crying softly. Had to wipe my tears away on my sleeve.
“Jeeze, mum,” said Twil.
“Truth,” said Praem. And it was.
Evelyn cleared her throat. “Mrs Hopton—”
“Christine, please. I know we’ve had our differences, but please.”
“Christine,” Evelyn sighed. I was too busy wiping my face to watch the exchange. “Windows and doors can be repaired, but that does require money. I was not joking about my willingness to fund repairs to your home. Especially since insurance is going to have — issues, if they decide to properly investigate and audit this.”
I felt rather than saw the smile on Christine Hopton’s face. And I felt Amanda step into the room behind her. I felt their god shifting inside both their minds, a sliver of a giant seen through a keyhole.
“That’s very kind of you to offer,” Christine said. “But we’ve dealt with insurance assessors before. Hringewindla can be very persuasive to uninitiated minds.”
“Ewwww,” went Twil. “Seriously?”
“After your grandfather passed away, we had to improvise.”
A moment of creeping silence. I cleared my eyes and found Evelyn regarding our hosts with a tightness in her jaw. Twil was cringing away from her mother and her aunt. A bubble-servitor was sitting on Amanda Hopton’s shoulders like a cross between a parrot and a portable pillow.
“Quite,” said Evelyn.
“No lasting damage,” said Amanda, eyes hazy and lids drooping, speaking for her god.
“Less said the better,” Evelyn grunted. “My offer stands.”
Christine nodded. “We can talk about that later, Evelyn. For now I think we all need a cup of tea and a sit down.”
“Tea,” said Praem.
Christine continued, “I think the worst of the clean-up is done. I’ll call the others back. Should we strategise? I take it that’s your next move?”
“Our next move is finding Sevens,” I said. “We have to wait, or … ”
Twil was staring out of the shattered back doors, through the film of bubble-servitors, across the patio, toward the edge of the forest, frowning and squinting. I trailed off. The others followed my gaze.
“Twil?” Christine said. “Dear?”
“Hold up a sec … there’s … naaaaah, what?”
Evelyn sighed explosively. “If there’s a second giant spider I’m calling Jan so she can nuke us from orbit.”
“Ha ha, yeah.” Twil stepped closer to the window. “There’s a guy. A dude. At the edge of the woods.”
I craned to see, but Twil’s eyes were better than mine, better than any human. I couldn’t see anything except clean sunlight and the darkness beneath the trees.
Evelyn had gone stiff. “A stray walker?”
“Nah, he’s looking this way. Binoculars? Shiiiiiit.” A grin ripped across Twil’s lips. She flexed her fingers like unsheathing a weapon. “This is Eddy’s follow-up, to check if we’re dead, right? Somebody find Zheng, and Raine. We can get him and—”
A voice like rusty nails down a rotten blackboard scratched across the inside of my skull, making my teeth judder and my eyes water.
“Hush hasty wolfie,” said Aym, nestled in the corner of the room, a pool of a shadow in the junction between two walls. “We’re hunting rabbits. And we’ve almost got him.”
Heather is right, violence is never like in the movies. And the aftermath is always so much worse. Most people don’t want to tentacle-inject their allies though, that’s Heather’s problem (and maybe not a problem??? Who knows!) But Twil, oh Twil, this is 500% not the time. Hope you’re all enjoying this arc, because there’s a lot more to come! Thanks for reading!
All Patrons get access to two chapters ahead! No matter what level you subscribe at! That’s almost 20k words. The more support I get through Patreon, the more time I can dedicate to writing, and the less chance of having to slow down the story. The generous and kind support of Patrons and readers is what makes all this possible in the first place, I would literally not be able to do this without you, so thank you all so very much! You can also:
Next week, shhhhhh, be very quiet. We’re huntin’ wabbits.
I used to have fantasies about being trapped in a siege.
In the early days after the Eye took Maisie away — but not so early that I was screaming at every unnatural shadow and twisted spirit-creature, not so early that I was a sobbing, inconsolable wreck, not so early that every fantasy was a dark warm place and my sister returned to me. An imaginary siege was one of the fantasies which I retreated to for comfort, for safety, for security inside the soot-marked, crater-pocked palace of my own mind. A decent psychologist could probably get a thesis or two out of that, if their training and world-view survived the transition to being in the know: a young girl retreats inside a mental fortress and imagines everything outside herself as a besieging army. That’s how it felt in the early days. Except the enemy was already inside the castle, leaning over my shoulder and screaming mathematics into my ear.
It was always on the worst nights at Cygnet Children’s Hospital, the ones when spirits had wandered into my bedroom and wouldn’t leave, when I couldn’t tell if the night-time noises were coming from the other children or from things I couldn’t see, when I missed home and my parents, when I rejected the judgement that I was mentally unwell, when I missed Maisie enough to sob her name into the pillow. On those nights I would snuggle down in bed — the sheets and pillows at Cygnet really were very high quality — and I would conjure up a castle.
Never a fanciful fairytale castle, never the sort of sugar-spun spires-and-banners that Maisie and I together might have enjoyed; I required a fortress, a bastion, or at least my childhood concept of one. Thick walls, blunt corners, great big bolt throwers on blocky towers; gates made of adamantium — I’d read that word somewhere and I rather liked it — barred and barricaded. Layers and layers of walls, each one overlooking the last. I’d read about that somewhere too, but I couldn’t recall where. I couldn’t clearly recall much in those days. My fantasies were vague about the defenders — knights of some kind, it didn’t matter — and about the besiegers. Sometimes I would imagine the besieging army was all the bizarre and horrible monsters I saw everywhere, my ‘hallucinations’, but that often made me more upset, made it harder to sleep, ended with me working myself into a panic even huddled under the covers with my eyes closed.
Maisie was always there. Of course she was, that was half the point. Tucked away alongside me in some secret inner keep, looking out of a window together, with a big roaring fire and lots of food and books and a nice big bed and guards right outside the doors — our guards, our safety.
When I grew up a bit and understood myself a little better, I would sometimes add other girls too. Nobody specific; I didn’t have an imaginary girlfriend, I just liked the idea of being cosy and safe alongside nice girls who I could cuddle up to.
With everything I’d learned since then? If I’d ever had an imaginary girlfriend, I’d probably confess it to Evee, so she could put me in a magic circle to check I hadn’t been compromised somehow. Imaginary girls were likely vectors for the Eye.
Sieges were comfort food for my young imagination — but now I was in the middle of the genuine article.
No Maisie, no thick walls, no nice safe room with a roaring fire and books and a bed. But I did have the girlfriends, no less than three of them, of varying kinds from Raine through Zheng and all the way to Sevens. And Evee, of course, though this was hardly the time for that, even if she did fit the type from my old childhood fantasies.
But this was not the kind of siege during which one could snuggle down in bed and fall asleep.
Down on the ground floor of Geerswin farmhouse, everyone was talking at once, peering out of the windows, rushing between doors, shouting and gesticulating and losing their heads.
“Fuck me, fuck me, that is massive, what the fuck—”
“Glasses on! You can’t see it without the glasses!”
“You’ve summoned a kaiju! That’s a kaiju out there! Twil you arse, you’ve jinxed us with horror movie bullshit.”
“I knew you lot would be the death of me.”
“Gave you the chance to leave, detective.”
“We’re perfectly safe indoors. Hey, hey, breathe, okay? Look, there’s a wall of Cringe-dog’s soap-bubble friends between us and that bloody great spider. They could bury it, no problem. We’re safe. Right, Amanda?”
“Hey, it’s a pet name. I mean it with affection. Heather says he’s sweet — so he’s sweet. Any friend of hers and all that. I trust the blob-monsters.”
“I don’t! Fuck them! We should leave, now!”
“Yeah good luck running. You saw how fast the hounds were.”
“That’s what guns are for!”
“A servitor that size is not a one-mage undertaking. I should know. My own attempts never get that far. This is impossible.”
“Hringewindla doesn’t … like … approve? Agree? He does not like this spider. This is … he won’t … I don’t understand, I don’t—”
“Amanda, breathe, close your eyes, focus. You know how it gets when he thinks too fast. Sit down, let him direct his angels. Let him take us in his hands. He will protect us. He always does. Sit, now. That’s it, sit down.”
Zheng rumbled a greeting as I joined her at the glass doors at the front of the sitting room, the ones which led out onto the patio, with a wide view of the fields beyond, the fences, the magic circle we’d carved into the dirt, and the sun-shivered tree line which ringed the farm. I shielded my eyes against the bright and glinting sunlight. I peered out and up — and up, and up, at Edward Lilburne’s response to our assault.
Behind us the chaos was only getting worse.
“What does this mean? What does it mean, hey? Does this mean we can get to Eddy’s house now?”
“It means it is no longer concealed. The way is clear.”
“That’s a kaiju! I don’t know if you’ve seen many giant monster movies, but this is not exactly a defensible position, you twat!”
“We’re safe. Trust Evee’s judgement. And hey, trust your god, right?”
“He’s not infallible!”
“I trust Hringewindla. I trust him absolutely.”
“The hell? Ben, you never say that shit. Don’t freak out on me, come on.”
“I am terrified. I’m not ashamed. You get terrified in combat. It’s okay. It’s okay.”
“It’s too big!”
“Fuck big, I’ll climb it and rip it’s head off!”
“Miss Saye, please, I would like to put forward a serious evacuation plan. This is far more than we expected. Hringewindla is powerful and he can defend this house, but I would rather that … spider not put a leg through our roof.”
“Tiles need replacing anyway, dad.”
“Why is the maid just saying ‘spider’?! This isn’t helping! We can all see it’s a fucking spider!”
“Spider. Itsy bitsy.”
“I can take the dogs out from the window. Or I could, if we had an actual rifle, scoped. Even small calibre. They drop with one in the brain, like anything else alive.”
“The dogs aren’t the problem!”
“Are those sloths in the trees? I can see them without the glasses. Big ‘ol lumpy weirdos.”
“Take her back upstairs, Lozzie, please.”
“Come with me, Tenns. Everything is going to be safe. I promise I will look after you. Lozzie too, take my other hand.”
“Everything is not going to be safe after this. Miss Saye, you are basically in charge—”
“It’s taking a step forward!”
Evelyn’s voice suddenly cut through the cacophonous madness: “It’s a bluff.”
Her stony confidence stopped everybody panicking and talking over each other for a moment, which was a nice change. I even turned away from the window to look back at her, and found her blazing like a lit torch. Up on her feet despite the draining difficulty of the earlier spell, all her weight on her prosthetic and her walking stick, flinty blue eyes staring past me and past the fields and up at the spider-servitor towering over the woodland canopy. She was so certain, so absolutely unbowed. It was beautiful.
Everybody else — all except for myself and Zheng — were caught in a frozen tableau. Praem was supporting Evee’s other arm. Michael Hopton had been in the process of appealing for retreat, directly to Evee. His wife, Christine Hopton, was tending to a flushed and dazed Amanda, struggling with the demands and fears of her god, Hringewindla. Katey, the spare bodyguard, looked terrified, though she was clutching her revolver. Benjamin Hopton was drawn and grey, like a soldier listening to an incoming shell. Mister George, who I’d figured out was Katey’s father, was chewing the end of an unlit cigarette.
Twil was grinning but the grin didn’t reach her eyes, craning to see the spider and the escorts at the far end of the field. Raine was a rock, unmoved by any of this, not a single hint of doubt in her face; but I could tell from the way she stood and the way she angled her body that she was vibrating to scoop me up and haul me to the car and drive away.
Nicole Webb was taking slow, deep breaths, arms folded, watching the tree-line past the spider. Felicity looked grim, set, like she’d seen all this before and knew it was going to end in disaster; she’d also slid closer to Evelyn, which surprised me. Down in the spinal corridor, Sevens and Aym were leading Lozzie and Tenny back to the stairs. Kimberly was peering around the door. I longed to tell her to go away, forget all this, because her task was done. She’d given enough.
Every baseline human had a pair of modified glasses on their face, some with the silly 3D blue-and-red, some just plain black frames. Nicole was looking over the rims of hers, checking reality against pneuma-somatic truth.
“Evee?” I said.
Our eyes met and she nodded. “A bluff, I’m certain. Heather, look at the legs. Look closely. Even I can see it from here and I’ve not exactly got the best eyesight in the world.”
I turned back to the doors and pressed my face to the glass. Behind me, voices rose again, the chaos resuming as uncertainty returned — but then Zheng rumbled like an angry volcano.
“The shaman must concentrate. Quiet.”
“Thanks, Zheng,” I murmured.
Twil tutted. “Didn’t have to say it like that,” she muttered.
“Shh,” went Praem. “Spider.”
The spider-servitor towered over the farm, the house, and treetops alike; the underbelly of its main body cleared the canopy by maybe a dozen feet. If it had been real flesh rather than pneuma-somatic matter, one could have seen the thing all the way over in Brinkwood. We were exceptionally lucky that everybody in that house was in the know. I suspected that this introduction to the supernatural might go poorly for anybody who’d ever seen a Godzilla movie.
But it wasn’t quite like one of Evee’s spiders.
It was very tall and very large, like a walking oil rig, much larger even than the ancient, exhausted, battle-scarred spider-servitor that we’d seen down on the Saye estate in Sussex, the last and greatest survivor of Evelyn’s grandmother’s generation. It was plated in the same black chitin, but smooth and unblemished, reflecting the sunlight in a glinting sheen of beetle-black. Yet it lacked the crystalline head of the smaller servitors, instead sporting just a black and featureless face plate. It had no bank of swaying stingers, no heat-exchanger vents on its back, nothing but the body and the head and the legs. And the legs were thin and spindly, angular and steep, as if based more on a crane fly than a wolf spider.
The spider took another step forward as I watched, edging into the field and out of the woods.
“No stingers, no eyes?” I said. “It’s not the same as the ones your family made in the past, I can see that, I—”
“The legs, Heather. Look. Confirm for me, please. Somebody else, too. Twil, you have good eyes. Look.”
“Oh!” I lit up with sudden realisation. “One of the back legs is sticking right through a tree! Like a spirit, going through a wall!”
Evelyn blew out a sigh of relief. “Then you see it too. It’s not a servitor. Not a true one.”
“Yuuuup,” said Twil. “It’s moving that leg now, but — yeah, there it goes, right through the tree. Without touching it. It’s not real!”
Evelyn raised her chin and declared: “It can’t touch this house. That thing is a bluff.”
Felicity made a sound like sucking her teeth. “Doesn’t look right. Not to me.”
“Miss Saye, Evelyn,” said Christine Hopton, polite but with an undercurrent of terrible urgency. “Not all of us here are used to the spirit world and its denizens. What do you mean by ‘it can’t touch this house’? Forgive us our ignorance, but we are all a little scared by that … ”
“Kaiju,” Katey supplied. “Also yeah, we don’t get this. How exactly are we safe from that?”
For all her energetic angry terror, Katey couldn’t help but notice that several of us had calmed down significantly — myself, Twil, Raine, Evelyn, even Nicole Webb. Mister George put a tobacco-stained hand on his daughter’s shoulder, which helped further.
Twil laughed at her. “It’s like a ghost. Can’t touch us. Spirit, not servitor! Don’t ask me though, Evee’s the expert.”
I half-expected Evelyn to huff and grumble and refuse to explain, but she nodded curtly to the Hoptons and the other members of the Church before rattling it off in the most concise way I could have imagined. “There are three kinds of pneuma-somatic flesh — spirit flesh. The first is naturally occurring. Pneuma-somatic life, spirits, they’re made of that stuff. It can’t touch us or do anything to us, passes through matter most of the time. Don’t ask me how they touch the ground. The second type is artificial, made by mages or … or gods, I suppose. Servitors, your bubble-angels, they can touch things, but they can’t be seen with normal methods. That spider out there just walked through a tree. It’s not a true servitor. If it was it would have shook the forest as it had moved. Would have seismographs shaking all over the North. It’s just a spirit.”
Michael Hopton asked with a gentle frown: “You said three kinds. What’s the third?”
“Hello,” said Praem.
“The type you can both touch and see with normal eyes, yes,” Evelyn said. “Rare, impossible. Demon-only. Never mind about that right now.” She gestured at the spider with her walking stick. “The spider is a bluff. It can’t do anything to us.”
Raine cleared her throat. “Sorry to burst the bubble, but what if it’s like Marmite?”
“What?” Evelyn snapped.
“Marmite?” said Mister George. I think he’d just decided we were all mad.
“Marmite,” Raine explained to Evee. “The spirit which Edward hijacked to mess with Stack’s kid. He’s a spirit, but Edward made him more, right? And he phased through the roof to get away, ignored regular matter when it suited him, but could touch it at other times.” Raine nodded out the window. The spider was taking another step into the field. “What if that thing out there is the same?”
Several nervous glances criss-crossed the room.
“Miss Saye,” said Michael Hopton. “You have to be certain.”
“It’s not a servitor,” she repeated.
“But can it touch us?” he pressed.
“Yeah!” Katey added. “That’s the important bit.”
I spoke up, staring out of the window, my arms folded and my tentacles tight against a sudden inner chill. “It’s not like Marmite. Edward wouldn’t risk that again. I could … I could just walk up and touch that spider. If he’s piloting it like he did with Marmite … well, I’m more experienced now. He wouldn’t get away from me.” I shook my head. “He wouldn’t risk it.”
“He’s an arrogant fuck!” said Twil. “Sure he’d try it again.”
Felicity said gently, softly, as if she didn’t expect anybody to hear, “Mages are more cautious than that. Old ones especially.”
Evelyn snapped. “And therein lies the bait. It’s a bluff, a trick to draw us out.”
Katey spoke up too. “Ain’t that what the hounds are for? Keep us away from its legs so we can’t … ” Her eyes slid to me, nervous and uncertain. “Do something … unnatural to it?”
Evelyn snorted. “Heather riding Zheng’s back could be past them in seconds. No, the hounds don’t matter.” Then she pointed at me with her walking stick. “Do not actually do that, Heather. I forbid it. This is a trap.”
Zheng purred. “The shaman rides where she wants, when she wants, how she wants.”
Twil huffed. “Thought you were a tiger, not a horse.”
Nicole was still squinting out into the sunlight. “What about the big sloth things in the trees? They’ve giving me the creeps. They’re not moving.”
None of us could quite make out the details of the lurkers in the trees. They were furred and rough, grey-brown lumps, hanging like sloths but each as large as a cow. Michael Hopton produced an ancient pair of binoculars from somewhere, squinted through them, then passed them around so we could all try. I shook my head, couldn’t make them out properly. Trying made my eyes water.
Twil tutted. “They’re real flesh, that’s for sure. Can see ‘em even without the glasses. Fat bastards too.”
“Do not be rude,” said Praem.
Evelyn said, “They’re the real threat. Hundred pounds says so. The spider is bait, to flush us out or scatter us. The hounds are chaff.” She huffed. “But he would know I’d figure all this out. He would know. It’s a double-bluff. Something I’m not seeing here. Something I’m not seeing.” She trailed off, talking between gritted teeth.
“It’s not a spirit,” I murmured.
Katey sighed. “Here we go again.”
“It’s not a spirit,” I repeated. “The spider, I mean. It’s not.”
Nobody said anything so I glanced back and found a room full of bewildered faces staring at me, at my tone of voice. The Hoptons were doubly confused, tugged back and forth between reassurance and fresh panic. Twil was squinting at me in confusion. Kimberly, at the rear of the room, looked oddly calm compared to her usual panic, just nodding at me. Only Felicity seemed to understand what I meant, grim-faced and ready to die.
Lozzie and Tenny had reappeared in the doorway, escorted by Sevens and Aym. I bit my lip at them.
Sevens said, “I could not stop them.”
“Tenns is scared,” Lozzie said. “She has a right to know, like everybody else. Heathy!”
“Brrrt,” went Tenny, eyes so huge and black, staring at me for reassurance. Half her tentacles were wrapped around Lozzie, the other half hugging herself. Her wing-cloak obscured the front of her body, pulled tight, beginning to shift and flutter like oil dancing on water. Her instincts were telling her to hide. She blinked at me, then past me at the giant spider which was taking another striding step across the field, heading for the house. “Heath? Heath-er!”
My bioreactor slid a control rod out, smooth and sharp, then a second, with a quick little pain in my side; I couldn’t stop that from happening, not if I’d shoved a tentacle inside my flank and grown pneuma-somatic flesh over the organs. I felt my skin flush and my thoughts clear. Something hardened inside my chest. Tenny did not deserve to be afraid like this.
“Hey, Tenns,” said Raine. “We’re gonna be perfectly safe. I promise you, I’ll make us safe. Me and everybody else. You hear that, Tenns?”
“Yaaaah,” went Tenny.
“Lozzie,” I spoke up quickly. “If the worst starts to happen—”
Lozzie finished before I could: “Grab as many people as I can and off to Camelot to visit the castle!”
“Yes. Thank you.”
Evelyn hissed. “Heather, what do you mean it’s not a spirit? Don’t just say that and then move on.”
“Sorry.” I snapped my attention to Evee and she blinked as if surprised by something in my eyes. “It doesn’t look like a spirit. I can’t explain it very well, but it’s the same reason that I could tell Marmite wasn’t a true servitor. Spirits look organic. Their logic is organic. Or there’s no logic at all.” I shrugged, thinking of hundreds of bizarre shapes and amalgams and warped creatures I’d seen over the years, stumbling and loping and hopping and drooling. My shoulders felt like electricity and rubber and oil. “Servitors look artificial. Made. Crafted. It’s subtle, but it’s there.” I looked up at the spider. “That’s not organic. Somebody made that.”
“It’s still bait,” Evee said.
“Uhhhhh,” said Twil, tugging the glasses down her face. “What if it’s like, an illusion? Can mages do that? Can we do that?”
Her mother gave a little sigh, “No, dear.”
Raine said, “Illusion would make sense, but it’s a big risk for us to assume. Evee?”
“Somebody needs to check,” said Katey. “Somebody’s gonna have to go out there and check, before it hits the house.”
“And step into this trap?” Evelyn snapped at her. “No. It’s either a spirit or—”
“Evee, it’s not a spirit,” I repeated.
“—or an illusion,” Evelyn finished, eyes blazing at me. “Heather, talk to me, what is happening?”
I blinked at her. “I’m sorry?”
Evee huffed. Twil laughed. Benjamin Hopton nodded at something he saw in my face, nodded with approval. Nicole just sighed and said, “Seen her like this before. Great. Just what we need.”
“W-what?” I stammered, wrong-footed. “I mean, pardon me?”
Raine said, “Heather, you look like you’re ready to fight God. Also like you might win.”
Bewildered, I rubbed a hand over my face and felt it come away sweaty and cold. My eyes were wide, my heart was pounding, and I was vibrating all over — but I wasn’t afraid. Just a little anxious, a seed of anxiety in my chest getting ground to paste by teeth inside my heart. I was ready to do something, Raine was right about that; my tentacles were twitching and aching, inching toward the door handle and the bar over the glass. My body was dying to move. I kept scrunching my toes.
“Stay put,” Evelyn snapped at me. “It’s an illusion or a trick.”
“What about the bubbles?” Nicole asked. “Can’t they deal with it? Check if it’s real, or smother it? There’s enough of them.”
It took me a moment to realise that Nicole was referring to the circular wall of bubble-servitors, Hringewindla’s angels arrayed in a ring around the house and clustered on the roof. Semi-transparent, oily and greasy and sliding over each other in a slow standing wave, they had barely reacted to the spider-servitor or the hounds so far. I could still see the few of them which were stationed on the corrugated metal roof of the animal stables, low and waiting, not engaging either spider or dogs or the lumpy masses waiting in the trees.
Twil must have followed my eyes, because she said, “Hope the alpacas are alright. Poor buggers.”
“Language,” Evelyn snapped. “Tenny is here with us.”
“Plllllllbbbttt,” went Tenny.
All of a sudden, Amanda Hopton opened her eyes and stood up. She’d been settled in a chair for a while now, hugging herself, taking slow and steady breaths, eyes closed tight, as if trying to fight down a panic attack. But now she stood, groped for Christine’s arm, and spoke in a broken rush.
“Hringewindla does not like this, he will not send his angels— his— his parts, his buds. This is a trap, Evelyn Saye is correct, Hringewindla agrees. There is a trap here that none of us can see and he cannot see either. He will not move for this, he will protect this house. He will protect this house and seal us in flesh if he must, but he will not move.”
Several worried expressions graced several frowny faces.
“‘Seal us in flesh’?” Twil asked. “Yo, what.”
“Yuck,” said Katey.
Benjamin swallowed hard. “Don’t insult him.”
“I’m not, it sounds fucking yuck—”
Felicity spoke up. “I don’t like the sound of being swallowed by an Outsider, even a … friendly one. We should move. I’m … ” She couldn’t meet Evee’s eyes. “I’m … sorry … Evee, but we have to. We can’t know what that spider really is. I don’t know what it is. And I agree with the Outsider. Something isn’t right here.”
“We stay put!” Evelyn snapped. “It’s a bluff. It will pass through us. If we move now we open ourselves up to being scattered and picked off. If something attacks the house now, we’re all together, we support each other. Nobody runs.”
Her eyes flicked to the back of the room — to Sevens.
Sevens took a breath and sighed, ice cold. Evee didn’t even need to ask the question. “I can do nothing here, Evelyn,” said Seven-Shades-of-Self-Selection. “It is far outside my definition. I am as you.”
“Then we stay put,” Evelyn repeated.
Zheng rumbled long and low and loud, the sound vibrating in her chest, deep and resonant as she turned away from the window and strode for the corridor. “Mages and gods alike, both cowards. I spit on your divinity and your fear.”
“Zheng?” I said her name, but onward she strode. Tenny and Lozzie ducked out of the way for her as she stepped into the corridor.
The room erupted in chaos once again.
“What? What’s her plan? What’s the big zombie doing now?”
“Trust her! I trust her!” That was Raine, bless her heart.
“Hringewindla won’t go, we shouldn’t either!”
“Zheng! Somebody stop her! Zheng!” Evee, shouting.
But who could stop Zheng except me?
For a moment I thought Raine was going to try — she hurried away from the general mayhem and into the mouth of the corridor just as Zheng was stepping through. She touched Zheng’s arm with her fingertips. Zheng paused and dipped her head in silent question.
“Plan?” I heard Raine say, underneath the shouting and the demands and the argument.
“Punch a leg,” Zheng rumbled.
Zheng shrugged. “If I cannot, it is not real. If I can, I pull it apart and eat it.”
“Spider,” said Praem.
Raine grinned like an absolute madwoman. She nodded, once. “I’m in.”
Zheng grinned back. “You stay here, little wolf. Watch them.”
“Got it. Good hunting.”
Zheng strode on into the corridor. Evelyn was shouting about how Zheng shouldn’t go out there, about how demons were not invincible, about how she was being a moron and trying to get herself killed. I noticed that Evee’s free hand was wrapped tight around one of Praem’s arms, perhaps to stop her joining this doomed sally forth from our castle gates.
Abyssal instinct agreed with Zheng. Abyssal instinct picked up my feet and trotted me after her to catch up before she reached the front door.
Evelyn screamed my name.
“Heather! For fuck’s sake! Praem, grab her, stop her!”
I turned, my face blazing, my mind already leaping ahead. Before I answered Evee, I met Raine’s eyes. Raine nodded once, my rock, my confidence, the source of everything I could do.
“Raine, I’m going to—”
“I get it, Heather,” Raine said quickly. “I get the plan.”
“Well I don’t!” Evelyn snapped. “Heather, stay here. Stay put—”
Words spilled from my lips. The plan was already fully-formed, as if abyssal instinct could see it clearer than my monkey-brain could dare. The plan was all speed and timing and muscle, predation and quick escape, the very currency that abyssal instinct understood the best of all.
“Evee, Evee, it’s fine! Listen, please. It’s safer this way. If it’s a trap, then I can just slip myself and Zheng Outside in the blink of an eye — um, bad metaphor, but you see what I mean. Zheng wants to punch that spider in the leg, but I can do better! All I have to do is touch it with my tentacles and I can send it Outside. I can send it anywhere, dump it somewhere horrible, or in Camelot so the Knights and Caterpillars can dismantle it—” I glanced over my shoulder at Lozzie as I said that part. She nodded with great enthusiasm, still wrapped in Tenny’s silken black tentacles. “And if Edward really is stupid enough to be remote piloting it, then we’ve got him! I can chase him down, easily and quickly. I did it before and I know what I’m doing. I’m not losing myself to anger. This is — this is clear. It makes the most sense. And I’ll ride on Zheng’s back. Like before.”
Evelyn stared at me with an expression like she had eaten an entire lemon.
Raine cleared her throat. “It does make sense, Evee.”
“Yeah I vote for this,” Katey added.
Felicity met my eyes. “Be safe. Be back quick. We don’t know what those are in the trees. Could be … about a dozen different things, and I don’t like any of them.”
“Could it be something that would punch through Hringewindla’s angels?” I asked.
Felicity considered for a moment, then shook her head. Amanda looked vaguely sick at this suggestion.
Evee crunched out her words at me, clipped and short. “If one of those things in the trees even twitches in your direction, you leave, you slip, Outside. I insist, Heather. I trust you, but I insist.”
“I promise I will,” I said. “Just the spider. You insist and I obey. We’ll be right back.”
It was a strange combination of words which spilled from my lips; I had not planned to say that. I obey. But it felt right and it made my insides sing, it made the bioreactor run smooth and sharp and clean, deep down in my belly. It made Raine’s eyebrows shoot up and Twil splutter and Felicity stare at me with something oddly akin to affection. But most importantly it made Evee nod.
“Hey, Heather,” Raine said quickly. “Turn on Zheng’s phone and call mine. Keep the call connected, so we can hear.”
Evelyn hissed. “Alright. Go. And quick!”
I turned and ran down the shadowy spinal corridor of Geerswin farmhouse, right past Sevens and Aym — Sevens reached out to me and I ducked my head unthinkingly, to kiss her fingers in a fleeting touch. I never could have done that on anything less than a full dose of adrenaline and abyssal chemicals and hormones racing through my veins; I would have blushed myself to death.
Through the falling sunbeams and onto Zheng’s heels as she opened the front door.
Zheng didn’t sound very surprised. She paused as I scrambled up her back, climbing her with hands and tentacles and then clinging on tight around her shoulders and neck. She was so warm, warmer than the sun-kissed brick steps that she stepped out onto. She didn’t question me mounting her back, just kept her head half-turned to listen.
“Better plan,” I hissed. “Get me close enough to touch the spider’s leg. If Edward is in there I’ll chase him down and … and eat him alive. Eat his mind. If he’s not in there then I’ll zap the whole spider Outside, though I might pass out if I do that so maybe we’ll go with it, to Camelot. And if it’s an illusion, we’ll know.”
Zheng broke into a grin. “I like this plan, shaman. I like any plan where we are together.”
“I love you too, Zheng,” I whispered, and held on tight. “Give me your phone. I need to keep us connected.”
Zheng jumped down the steps and onto the crumbly, broken tarmac in one long bound. My heart soared already, to move with such speed. She fished out her phone and pressed it into one of my tentacles. I dialled Raine, heard her on the other end, and then let the call sit.
The ring of bubble-servitors was all around us, an oily, jellied wall of Outsider angels, reaching upward in hope of becoming a dome. Zheng turned toward the field and they parted for her. I couldn’t help but think they knew she would just rip through them anyway, if they refused to move.
The spider-servitor towered over the house and the field and the treetops, black and shiny and glinting in the clear crisp sunlight. The leaves shivered and shook in a gentle breeze. All around the spider’s feet a dozen hounds surged forward as protection, shadowing the legs as it strode toward the house.
I tightened my grip on Zheng. The plan was perfect. Only she and I could have pulled this off — Zheng’s speed and strength and power, with my hyperdimensional mathematics as a payload. If it really was a trap, we didn’t have to turn and run, we could simply be gone, elsewhere, Outside. If there was a secret magic circle in the underbelly of the spider, waiting to trap me and drain my blood, I would be ready for that too, diving into it all tooth and claw and spiked tentacle; Edward wouldn’t know what hit him. We were ready for anything. Edward could have a team of men stationed inside the tree-line with rifles and I would simply flick the bullets away, I was so switched on, so ready.
Twil and Praem both appeared in the doorway of the house. Twil hung out and stared up at the spider, then met my curious look.
“Just here as backup, ‘case you gotta run,” she said. “Go, go, bloody hell!”
“Zheng,” I whispered.
The Heather of six months ago would have been a vibrating mess of jellied nerves and a heart like a panicked dove. The Heather of a year ago would be struck catatonic with fear. The Heather of my childhood could barely have imagined this. But the Heather right then and there was flush with abyssal instinct and purpose and a burning need to protect my friends.
“I love this so much,” I managed to say in the split-second of thought I had left before Zheng broke from a standing start.
And she was off, flying like the wind.
Zheng moved so fast that I had no time to think, no time to compose or plan or change course; all I could do was cling on hard and keep one tentacle free and ready for the final task. She vaulted the fence into the field in one smooth bound, landed on the balls of her feet in the packed mud, and then shot straight toward the giant spider-servitor, aiming for the nearest of the legs. She darted around the piles of day-old grass clippings, leapt the remnants of the mud-cut magic circle, and refused to veer away from the onrushing hounds.
“Zheng! Dogs!” I screamed — though it was totally unnecessary.
The hounds surged forward before Zheng and I could reach the leg. Evelyn was right, the hounds were meant to keep us away from the siege machinery. Raine would explain the principle to me later, but most of it went in one ear and out the other, something about how armour and infantry had to work together. Zheng liked it, because in that metaphor she was a missile.
Evelyn was right about something else too: the hounds were chaff. All dozen of them came for Zheng at once, snapping steel-toothed jaws in blind faces, wired joints racing, leaping for her belly and throat, darting for hamstrings and ankles.
Zheng kicked one of them so hard the hound burst on the spot. She turned and punched another, ripped out a throat with her teeth, roaring through a closed mouth. She pulled off a leg and speared it through the belly of a different hound, thin dry blood going everywhere. And I was in the middle of the carnage, face buried in her back, trying not to scream.
One hound got behind her, slinking low and quick into her blind spot — she would have turned and killed it the moment it leapt for her, but I lashed out with my spare tentacle before I had time to think, jabbing it in the eyes and throat and knocking it off balance. Zheng spun and brought a fist down, breaking the hound’s spine.
The remaining dogs fled beyond reach, whining and panting and bleeding, to growl at us from the edge of the field.
Zheng did not stay to gloat or laugh. As soon as the pack disengaged she whirled around and sprinted for the nearest spider-leg.
That massive black-armoured leg was in motion again. The spider had taken several minutes just to edge into the field, creeping slowly despite its huge size. I decided in that last split-second that Evee was probably correct: this was a trap. It made too much sense not to be. The spider moved too slowly, the hounds were too few in number, and the hanging shapes in the trees were too obviously not yet committed to the assault.
But we were ready, Zheng and I. We were perfect. Her speed and strength and limitless violence, my brain-math and abyssal instinct. We would confirm the spider for what it was and call Edward’s bluff; let him spring his trap, we would be gone before the blow could land. And then the mages — my friends, my family, my pack — would take his answer apart.
The brain-math prep was going to my head like alcohol; as we raced those last few steps toward the spider, I plunged my thoughts into the black and sucking tar down in the base of my soul. I grasped three different sets of equations at once, preparing to use all of them — or none of them. I braced my tentacles against Zheng, coiling up the one spare.
We were under the body of the spider, feet away from a black and chitinous leg. Zheng skidded to a halt in the mud, kicking up clods of grass and dirt; she didn’t want the impact to whip me off her back.
I uncoiled my free tentacle like a frog’s tongue, a dart of pneuma-somatic flesh. As it flashed through the air the tip hardened into bio-steel and sharpened to a blade: a harpoon with enough force to crack the armour and sink into the meat beneath, to make the connection, one from which Edward Lilburne could not run.
And the dart passed through the leg as if through air. Not even pneuma-somatic flesh.
“Illusion!” I cried out, loud enough so both Zheng and the phone could hear me. “It’s not real!”
Voices whooped on the other end of the phone, still tucked against my chest. I think I heard a sigh. Somebody said, voice tinny and distorted: “Heather, leave, now. Go! We agreed!”
“Yes! Yes of course of—”
Zheng went still. She was staring at the trees, at the bulbous sloth-shapes within. Even this close they were impossible to truly make out: odd lumpy fur and too many limbs clinging to the trees. No visible eyes, but thin stalks rising from headless shoulders like the current-feelers of some undersea organism. Claws, but poking out at all the wrong angles, in the wrong directions. Each one was huge, the size of a horse, but I had the sudden and distinct impression that size was a lie. A glance made my eyes water.
As one, they dropped.
I had called Edward Lilburne’s bluff. He had sprung his trap on something that could slip away with supernatural ease. I did not stay to watch, I did not stay to see if Zheng could outfight one of these things. I kept my promise to Evee; I spun up those old familiar equations, that burning acid on the surface of my mind, that well-mapped pain of going Out.
But at the last second I slammed the equation to a halt, choking and spluttering on Zheng’s back, snorting nosebleed all down her shoulder.
The sloth-shapes had dropped — then shot upward, out of the tree-line, blossoming and scudding through the air above the field on an arc like a barrage of artillery shells.
Unfolding their flesh, peeling open the disguise of fur and claw, revealing the lie coiled inside; each of the creatures that had hung in the trees was a blob of writhing, wet-red flesh, punctuated with mouths, spines, and muscular tentacles, all joined together by bizarre five-pointed biological structures. Tendrils ended in black eyeballs. Trumpet-shapes pointed backward, like underwater jet propulsion. Spines bristled and mandibles clacked and claws jangled.
It wasn’t the shape of the things that was awful; in isolation they looked almost like rubber monsters from a terrible old horror movie. Attack of the flying blobs. I’d seen a hundred things far worse, things that made my skin crawl and my hair stand on end.
The awful part was the way their flesh tore through the air, as if at odds with this plane of reality. Even watching them move made my eyes hurt and my stomach clench. I realised they’d been folded up like that not to act as bait, nor to hide the sting of the trap, but to conserve energy. They were dying as they moved, because they were not meant to be here. They had been summoned in an act of sacrificial violence. They would not survive more than a few minutes, but neither would anything they were pointed at. Living missiles. These horrible, twisted forms were probably mockeries of how they usually looked.
Later on, in the aftermath, Raine used the word “Shoggoth” — and Evelyn told her off for spouting fictional nonsense.
The nightmare amalgams were not servitor or spirit or demon. They were from Outside, summoned directly, in the flesh, and they were dying as they screamed.
And they weren’t reacting to Zheng and I. They were going for the house.
“Zheng!” I screamed — but she was already turning and sprinting back the way we came. Not fast enough. The Outsiders had gotten a head start of a few seconds. As they passed through the illusionary spider-servitor, the oil-rig sized projection wavered and vanished, the trick having served its purpose.
The wall of Hringewindla’s angels rose to meet them in a mass of oil-slick bubbles.
There were a dozen of those pitiful, obscene Outsiders. They hit the bubble-servitors like ingots of red-hot iron dropped on a block of ice: great gouts of blood and flesh and oily bubble-mass went up like clouds of superheated steam. Whirring, slicing, sucking, pulling. Limbs and teeth and claws flew aside and flopped to the ground, severed and twitching. Bubble-servitors were turned into shredded goo and fell apart, then reformed and sealed the gaps. One of the Outsiders went down covered in angels, like a wasp overheated by bees. Another was pulled into pieces, right down to red mist. A third had a hole through the middle, a bubble-servitor burrowing through its flesh.
A dozen Outsiders hit Hringewindla’s angels. Six survived long enough to hit the farmhouse. They smashed through the windows in a shower of brick and wood and shards of glass.
By the time Zheng’s feet touched the crumbly tarmac, we were only a split-second behind the dying Outsiders, and I wasn’t properly conscious.
My bio-reactor had shunted all the control rods free, my tentacles had covered themselves in hooked claws and plated their flesh with chitin armour, my blood was a cocktail of exotic abyssal compounds that had no place in a human body; my eyesight was incomprehensible, my throat was hissing, and the moment we were close enough to the door I threw myself off Zheng like a badly aimed flying squirrel.
I think I broke the Hoptons’ front door. If I didn’t, then Zheng finished the job, hot on my heels.
I don’t remember much about the next sixty seconds; I was there, I was present, I did everything intentionally, but the images blur together into a rush of nonsense which only makes any sense in retrospect. Panic and adrenaline are radioactive to coherent memory.
Gunshots, screaming, a cacophony of voices and roaring and tearing flesh.
One of the Outsiders, pinned against the wall, lashed to pieces, to mince, taken apart by tentacle-hook and razor-sharp blade. Yellow fur at my side, yellow scent and yellow embrace.
Somebody — I think Raine, or maybe Nicole — screaming “Where’s Lozzie!? Where’s Lozzie?!”
Lozzie, with Tenny sheltering under one arm, reaching out to touch one of the Outsiders, so it just dropped dead at her feet — and Lozzie collapsing into the most awful weeping.
Gunshots, a lot of gunshots.
My own face caught in the mirror. Bleeding from the gums. Eyes with two sets of nictitating membranes flickering across my enlarged pupils. Bruised all over. A corona of sharp flesh and hooked claws.
Zheng howling with laughter in victory. Kimberly behind her, screaming.
Praem saying, quite clearly: “Ambulance.”
Evee’s hand on my neck. Then sleep.
I didn’t pass out for long. A few seconds at most. I came round lying on the floor of the Hoptons’ dining room, feeling like I’d been worked over with a rolling pin and Zheng’s fists.
“She’s fine,” Raine called from next to me as my eyes creaked open. “She’s fine. She’s just spent. Pulse is normal, everything is good.”
“Raine?” I croaked.
Raine turned back to me quickly, wiping the sweat and the blood off my forehead. “Heather, hey. Look at me, look at my eyes. You’re with us, right? You’re right here, yeah? Focus on me.”
Lozzie’s face peered over her shoulder, tear-streaked and snotty. “Heathy’s right here.”
My throat felt like sandpaper. My eyes ached. My teeth hurt. My neck felt like a vice was clamped to the sides. A dozen bruises complained when I moved. “What … Raine, is everybody … ”
Raine wet her lips and hesitated — which made my heart shudder with fear. Then she very gently helped me sit up, in the ruins of Hoptons’ beautiful dining room.
“Mostly,” she said, in one of the most leaden tones I’d ever heard from Raine.
“Mostly!” Nicole grunted from somewhere behind me. “Mostly doesn’t include my fucking leg! Ahhhh!” She screamed as Praem said: “Hold still.”
Evelyn piped up from somewhere behind me too. “You’re lucky it was only a leg, detective.” Her voice was shaking. “Somebody needs to put her in a car, right now. We can’t deal with broken bones ourselves.”
“On it,” said Benjamin Hopton.
“Oh,” I murmured, looking around, saying stupid things because I was dazed and bruised and had spent a full sixty seconds wearing the abyss like a suit of armour. “Oh. Oh no. We hurt the house.”
Somebody laughed, but it was very weak and not very amused.
In truth, ‘we’ had done very little damage to Geerswin farmhouse. Most of the real hurt had been inflicted by the Outsiders shattering windows and ploughing their way through doors. The dining room table was in three ragged pieces and two of the sad flesh abominations were splayed out across it, bleeding into the carpet, full of bullet holes and claw-marks and even a few bites — Twil’s contribution. The lovely patio doors were completely broken, glass everywhere, the beam buckled and bent from the impact.
We pieced it all together later. In the actual seconds and minutes of aftermath, nobody cared exactly how it had gone down in that single minute of terrible violence, just that everybody was accounted for, not lethally wounded, and not eaten by an Outsider blob monster.
Of the six Outsiders which had reached the house, one had gone straight in through the window to Twil’s bedroom. Lozzie had killed it with a touch.
“It’s not mercy and I’m never doing it again. Never! I hate him! I hate my brother and I hate my uncle! He doesn’t have the right to do this!”
She couldn’t stop crying.
A second had crashed into the kitchen. Twil had duelled that one alone, assisted by random pot-shots from Katey. ‘Duel’ is perhaps too polite, because Twil had lost a lot of clothes and was covered literally head-to-toe in blood, even when she shivered out of werewolf form. She looked worse than Kimberly had after the spell. She’d fought the thing by just hacking and biting at it, out-healing the monster ripping at her flesh. She’d shaken it to pieces and made the worst mess one could ever imagine in the Hoptons’ kitchen.
A third had circled the building at speed and came in through the side-door in the little sitting room, late to the party. Zheng had caught that one as she’d followed me inside, then taken it apart with great and savage joy.
A fourth had ended up in the corridor somehow. We weren’t quite sure where it had come from — maybe from the kitchen when Twil had been fighting number two. It had been trying to get at the rear of the action in the dining room, to surprise the mages.
“You landed on it,” was all Kimberly could say, staring at me shell-shocked and shivering. “You landed on it and … um … there was a lot of … you had hooks in your … tentacles … ”
I wasn’t surprised she couldn’t describe the encounter in detail. There wasn’t much left of number four, just minced meat. I remembered very little of that — mostly blood, and yellow fur at my back.
The fifth and sixth Outsiders had formed the main event. They’d come in through the patio doors, right at the largest concentration of prey, of human beings and others.
Evelyn and Felicity had done some rough and raw magic, broken something inside both creatures. They’d paid for it with bleeding throats. Evelyn couldn’t stand properly; Praem was all but carrying her. Felicity was in a corner, vomiting bloody bile, wiping her lips, insisting she was okay.
The others had bought the pair of mages time to work that magic, and some had paid for it.
Nicole’s left leg was broken in two places — “Clean breaks,” said Praem. “Fuck!” said Nicole.
Praem’s maid dress, her lovely new one that she’d picked out herself, was ruined. She was thankfully untouched.
Katey had a very minor head wound: “Scrape on the scalp, it’s nothing, just a lot of blood.”
Benjamin Hopton had broken the shotgun; literally, the stock was splintered, his hands were bloody, his forearms covered in scratches like he’d dragged himself through a bramble patch. “I’ll live.”
Amanda Hopton was curled in a ball, whimpering. A bubble-servitor was pressed to her back. The cone-snail god under the woods had not approved of this vile trick.
I was bruised all over, felt like I’d pulled something important inside my abdomen, like my bioreactor had overheated and shut down in emergency mode; my side was tight and hot and my head swam when I tried to stand up; my eyesight kept swirling sideways, thick with black at the edges. I needed rest, but that didn’t matter.
Tenny was crying, which was a war crime as far as I was concerned.
“That was his real shot,” Evelyn kept saying. “That was his real shot. That was the real thing. Outsiders, actual creatures. Physical presence. The real thing. That was his real shot, he’s spent it. We stuck together and we won.”
None of that mattered.
Because nobody could find Sevens and Aym.
Outsiders! A big fight! Heather goes whee! Apparently some readers have been taking my little notes here as like actual official meta-textual content for the chapters, but anything I say down here is just for fun, really. Please don’t take this too seriously. Hope you enjoyed the chapter! I don’t often get to write big fight scenes, and this one was a bit unique, so … maybe another one sometime soon! And oh, hey, if you haven’t checked out the Katalepsis fanart page in a while, there’s quite a few new additions! Including a special Lozzie. Go see!
All Patrons get access to two chapters ahead! No matter what level you subscribe at! That’s almost 20k words. The more support I get through Patreon, the more time I can dedicate to writing, and the less chance of having to slow down the story. The generous and kind support of Patrons and readers is what makes all this possible in the first place, I would literally not be able to do this without you, so thank you all so very much! You can also:
Next week, the aftermath, the clean-up, the injuries and the mess. And where’d Sevens get to?
The spell was cast, the impossible hole in the ground had closed, and reality had reasserted itself; the damage to Edward Lilburne’s defences had already been done. Even if we had been able to watch the metaphorical trebuchet payload-boulder batter down the equally metaphorical wall, it was too late: Evelyn had assured us that any effect would be instant, magic did not respect the human perception of time. There simply was no firework explosion for us to appreciate, no matter that we might have enjoyed a bit of pyrotechnic release after the unbearable tension of the last few hours and days. Stopping us now would make no difference. Edward’s only rational move was to limit our ability to exploit the opening we had created — or run away. Hence Evelyn’s plan to get back inside and await his inevitable answer, or the lack of one.
Whatever instructions animated the blur of canine muscle and slavering teeth did not care about that. The hound-shape shot directly at Kimberly, flying across the fresh-cut grass and the bare-mud grooves of the magic circle, a dark and glinting shadow in the clean sunlight.
Or maybe it was a terror weapon. Maybe cruelty was the point.
The hound-thing was swift and sharp. Zheng was faster, but the intruder had already broken through the outer cordon, the line meant to defend the mages in the centre; it had bounded from the tree line, ducked the fence, zipped past Twil, and zigzagged the pursuing bubble-servitors.
Everybody was moving but nobody was close enough. It all happened so quickly, only a second or two from sighting to impact.
I clung to Zheng’s back as she sprinted toward the mages, wrapped in tentacles and vibrating with the need to act; Twil was up on all fours, all wolf, hot on the heels of the unidentifiable nightmare-hound; on the opposite side of the circle Sevens had dropped Aym and seemed to stride forward several meters for every measured step; bubble-servitors peeled off Amanda Hopton, their protective role fulfilled, streaming toward the centre of the circle like soap suds swirling down a drain; over by the farmhouse a knot of armed humans was spilling into the field — Raine, Benjamin with his hunting shotgun, the young Church member Katey pulling out a revolver.
The bubble-servitors swirled toward the mages, moving to cut them off from the hound. Canine muscle pumped and kicked, outpacing them by inches. As if designed specifically for this one task.
Kim stood in the dead centre of the field, a red exclamation mark of success; stark naked, shivering, clutching herself, coated in a rapidly drying layer of sticky crimson animal blood, hair plastered to her neck with gore, eyes a shocking round wide in that bloody smear. The hound-thing was so fast that she didn’t have time to scream before it was all over, caught in the intake of breath and the widening of blood-rimmed eyes. Felicity was next to her, already turning, wrenching down her own sleeve to expose her tattoos in magical desperation. Evelyn was still stunned, reacting too slowly, her withered leg buckling with effort even as her prosthetic held firm.
Zheng veered, going for the hound instead of Kim.
Her whiplash motion clacked my teeth together inside my skull and pulled my body weight against the harness of my tentacles. She had realised she wasn’t going to reach Kim in time — fast enough to pull the hound off her, but not fast enough to prevent it bowling her over and ripping her throat out.
I had a split-second to act, maybe less. Pushing myself up on Zheng’s shoulders, bunching my tentacles like an octopus in a strong current, hissing incoherent noise at the top of my lungs: I had no idea what I was doing, but I used Zheng’s momentum and my pneuma-somatic muscle mass to turn myself into a kinetic sabot — a term that Raine had to explain to me later. Ready to spring, to leap, to knock the unknown creature sideways, hopefully into the unkind embrace of a waiting bubble-servitor.
It was stupid, dangerous, and probably wasn’t going to work. But I could have done nothing else. We had failed in a way I could not countenance. Failed to protect Kimberly, the one person who wanted nothing more than to stop putting herself in harm’s way, stop involving herself with magic, stop living with the threat of supernatural death hanging over her.
Even as I readied the spring, coiled up my tentacles, and opened the valves of my bioreactor, I could see my leap would not land quickly enough. The hound was too fast. We were one step too slow.
Kimberly’s mouth opened in a scream. The hound-shape lunged for her throat.
Evelyn had accounted for this possibility. She had accounted for every possibility, every mistake, every vulnerability. My general, my genius.
Praem stepped away from Evee’s side and in front of Kimberly in one fluid motion, the black edges of her maid dress cutting the air like a bouquet of knives. Straight-backed, prim and proper, she didn’t even bother to brace her feet. Praem had been included in the centre of the circle, but not for Evelyn’s comfort and convenience; she had been included because she was the best bodyguard a mage could ever ask for.
Praem caught the hound’s jaws on her forearm. Canine teeth cut through three layers of maid uniform fabric, sliced open one layer of pneuma-somatic flesh, and stopped hard in wooden bones.
The creature slammed to a sudden scrambling halt, fur-less muscles twitching, metal braces glinting, lean paws lashing.
Maybe it had been a dog once, but nobody had time to think about that just then.
Praem grabbed the creature’s snout so hard that I heard bones fracture, a snap-crack-crackle of gut-wrenching breaks. It whined and squealed and tried to loosen its bite to let go of her arm, but she had it now.
Everything around Praem and the hound was chaos: Kimberly was screaming as Felicity dragged her away; Evelyn was up on her feet and shouting directions to somebody; Sevens appeared and bizarrely enough decided to open her lilac umbrella in front of Evee. Raine was sprinting across the field. Twil was skidding to a halt just shy of Praem.
The doll-demon leaned in close to the hound, staring at the two patches of smooth flesh where the hound’s eyes should have been.
“Bad dog,” she said.
Then I slammed into the dog in a squirming mass of tentacles, ruining Praem’s graceful victory and her one-liner. I’d been so panicked and so pumped full of adrenaline that I hadn’t been able to abort my springing motion, not without kicking Zheng in the face and probably eating a mouthful of field.
I dragged the dog-thing to the ground in a tangle of strobing tentacles, gnashing teeth, scraping claws, and clods of mud going everywhere. Praem let go the moment I made contact, which is how she managed to stay perfectly on her feet.
There was nothing heroic or even sensible about my late intervention. I was actually far less capable of dealing with a spooky mutant dog than Praem was. But between the initial tussle with the Shambler in Edward’s cottage, and springing up to Kimberly’s bedroom window when Aym first arrived at our home, I had gotten far too familiar with using my tentacles to hurl myself at things. It was a terrible habit and was going to get me in trouble sooner or later.
I needed to take lessons from Raine — when to leap and when to look.
The hound and I rolled, but it ended up on top; I had neither the body weight nor the experience for this kind of grappling on the ground. I twisted one knee in a groove of the circle, banged my head on the thankfully soft dirt, and ended up eating that mouthful of field which I’d been trying to avoid in the first place. The hound-thing then attempted to eat a mouthful of Heather, which I would not recommend unless one’s name is Raine.
Snapping jaws like an animatronic big bad wolf, inches from my face. Eyeless and noseless and smooth, robbed of all mundane senses. Slavering and dripping and hurling itself at my nest of tentacles. I pushed and slapped and slammed it in the head with tentacle-tips, hissing and kicking. I was too far off my head on instinct and adrenaline to take the sensible option and just brain-math the beast over to Camelot, so a Knight could run it through with a lance.
Twil and Zheng pulled the thing off me in the end. It did not get a free sample of raw squid. Zheng broke its spine over her knee, then held it down while Raine put a bullet through the skull. It was not a pretty end.
“Defence in depth, bitch!” was Twil’s idea of a victory cry.
Panting, filthy, shocked beyond words; Kim was still naked though Felicity had whipped off her own coat and draped it over Kim’s blood-soaked shoulders; Praem’s sleeve was delicately shredded, but she didn’t bleed; Raine had her gun out, sticking close to my side, saying nothing and watching the tree line; the bubble-servitors, Hringewindla’s angels, had come down in a triple-layered wall around us, as if embarrassed by their failure to stop the speeding intrusion.
“Stop standing around!” Evelyn shouted, her voice raw and croaky, blood on her lips. “This changes nothing! Inside, now!” She jabbed her walking stick at the bleeding, twitching corpse of the unnatural hound-construct. “And bring that inside. Tarpaulin, sheets, old t-shirts, I don’t care what, get it indoors and on the kitchen tiles. Now! Move!”
“What the hell are we even looking at?” asked Katey. “It doesn’t look real.”
The stocky Church bodyguard had untied and retied her dirty blonde ponytail five times in the last ten minutes, pulling a face like she was examining a sculpture made of poo. She had also shed her baggy hoodie and dumped several weapons on the kitchen sideboard — two knives, a massive shiny revolver that was probably one of the most illegal things I’d ever seen, and an actual sword. The sword looked more like a prop piece from a movie about ancient Rome, but I wasn’t about to go over and pull the stubby thing out of its black leather scabbard to find out. I wasn’t that curious.
“Halloween dog?” suggested Nicole Webb. The detective was squatting down on her haunches, examining the corpse with incautious curiosity. She used a pen to poke and lever at various parts of the anatomy. “Whatever this is, it’s not biologically possible. Poor thing should have been stumbling around, blind and deaf.”
“‘Poor thing’,” Katey said with a tut. “It nearly took poor Heather’s face off. We’d never live that down.”
I cleared my throat, feeling awkward. “I could have just sent it elsewhere. I really should have. I wasn’t thinking.”
Apparently that was the wrong thing to say. The Church bodyguard, Katey, a woman who looked like she could eat nails for breakfast and then me for afters, looked at me with an expression of barely concealed awestruck terror.
“You mean you really do that? Twil said, but … ”
“She reeeeeally can,” Twil said, shooting us both a wink. “Scary, huh?”
I pulled an awkward smile.
“This isn’t a dog,” Nicole repeated. “I refuse to believe this is a dog.”
Evelyn sighed for the fiftieth time in the last hour — she was in the dining room, with the nice big fireplace and the sun streaming through the back windows, but we could hear her all the way over in the kitchen.
She called out. “Stop trying to classify it by mundane standards, detective. You’re only going to hurt your brain.”
Nicole snorted a little huff and shook her head. She muttered under her breath, “Impossible bullshit. I hate everything about this. It’s not a dog.”
“Maybe it started as a dog,” Katey said. She glanced at me again, near the rear of the kitchen, as if I would know. I smiled awkwardly and shrugged back. “Dog but modded. Mod dog. Yeah.” She swallowed, nodding to herself, then glanced out of the kitchen window, craning her neck. “Yeah, that makes more sense. I can live with that. Cool.”
Twil said, “That’s not dog. It’s imitation.”
Twil wore a barely suppressed grin, a bulging of the lips that told me she was desperately trying not to laugh. She was lounging by the fridge, eating scraps of meat from a packet of jerky. I didn’t know how she could stand to eat in the same room as something freshly dead and horribly wrinkled, too much like her own snack food.
Katey turned around slowly and gave Twil a look of deep, blaze-eyed disbelief. “Don’t fucking quote a line from The Thing. Don’t go all Thing on me, Twil. Not when we’re locked in a fucking building together with … with that.” She pointed at the corpse on the kitchen floor. “Fuck you. Fuck you sideways for that one. Fuck.”
Twil, absolutely straight faced, said, “I think we can safely assume it’s not a zombie.”
Katey looked like she wanted to hold Twil’s face down in a toilet bowl. I assumed that line was another quote from a spooky movie that Katey didn’t want to think about right now, locked in with a gruesome corpse and expecting a siege.
“If I stab you,” she said to Twil, “it doesn’t kill you. It just hurts like a bitch. Remember that.”
Twil grinned and threw another piece of jerky into her own mouth, chewing loudly. “Try that and I’ll give you an atomic wedgie.”
“Girls,” came Christine Hopton’s voice, also from the dining room, edged with strict warning. “Stop, please.”
Twil chewed through her grin. Katey shook her head, then returned to staring out of the window.
“Pay attention,” Evelyn called from the dining room. “Watch the windows. Stop getting distracted. Detective, if you want to be useful, stop poking at the body and watch the tree line.”
Nicole Webb blew out a big sigh, stood up from her crouch, and then frowned at the end of the pen she’d been using to interfere with the corpse. “Don’t really want to put this back in my pocket.” She turned with a half-hearted grin and offered it to me, Twil, and Katey. “Anyone fancy a pen. Lightly soiled. Never used.”
“Burn it,” Katey said.
The corpse of the hound-thing lay spread out on the Hoptons’ kitchen floor. Michael and Mister George had located some old blue tarpaulin, then some slightly newer green tarpaulin, then put down a couple of animal blankets for good measure. Only then had Zheng been allowed to dump the steaming body onto the makeshift containment. They needn’t have bothered: despite the gaping head-shot and fist-sized exit wound from Raine’s bullet, the dog-construct had barely bled at all, as if its veins were filled with dust and scabs. A little watery red fluid had leaked onto the grass in the field and the tarmac out front, but there was only a tiny puddle of pale plasma and brain matter sitting on the tarpaulin.
It also had no smell, which was creepy in a way I couldn’t put my finger on.
The nightmare hound was all too familiar — an amalgamation of disparate parts pressed into a canine shape. In a way, Twil was correct, it was not really dog at all. Parts of it were lizard, grey-green and shedding old skin. Other parts were thick hide, like a herd animal, a buffalo or a bison. The legs looked bird-like, spindly, but wrapped with metal braces and supporting struts, all well-oiled and greased. It had no eyes, no nostrils, and no ears, just a smooth expanse of hairless skull. The jaw looked as if it had come from a miniature crocodile. It was attached with metal hinges. The teeth were stainless steel.
Raine and I had taken one look at the thing and both agreed we’d seen one before.
“What? Where?” Evelyn had demanded, during those first few frantic minutes back indoors. “I need to know, right now. Where did it come from?”
“The looping corridor trap,” Raine said. “In Willow House. Remember that? When the Sharrowford Cult set a trap for you, but Heather and I blundered into it?” Raine patted her thigh. “I’ve still got a little scar from the bite. Praem, we’re scar buddies now.”
“I do not scar,” said Praem. She had already rolled up her ruined sleeve and washed out the odd, bloodless wounds.
Evelyn blinked, eyes far away for a moment. “That was last year. We’ve not seen anything like this since then. Not even in the Cult’s castle.”
“Edward special, then,” Michael Hopton suggested. “His own private style?”
“Right on, dad,” said Twil. I realised how alike she and her father really were.
Raine nodded down at the hound-thing. “They had a couple o’ dozen like that. Along with Zheng.” Raine raised her voice, calling out of the kitchen to Zheng, who was lurking by the front door, watching the bubble-servitors surround the house in protective layers. “Hey, left hand? Come look, yeah?”
Zheng stalked in a moment later. Raine pointed at the corpse. “Remember these, right?”
“Mm. When we duelled.”
“Hardly a duel. You had a lot of help. You know where they came from, back then?”
“Puppets for a mage,” Zheng rumbled. She didn’t even look at the corpse; her eyes were glued on any window she could find, watching the tree line beyond. I found it deeply reassuring, especially since I was still buzzing with adrenaline and covered in smears of mud.
“Eddy makes them?” Raine asked.
Zheng shrugged. “He brought them to the plan. They are his. That one is dead.”
“You don’t fuckin’ say,” added Twil, with a big, fake laugh — she was on edge. I had the sense she was faintly embarrassed that the hound had slipped past her earlier. Now she was covering for that with big laughs, back-slapping, and wind-up jokes.
“Like I said,” her father added. “An Edward special.”
Evelyn had spent a little while considering and investigating the dead hound. She had even forced herself to crouch down and look closer so she could sketch the thing, though the position put pressure on her hips and made her wince. I didn’t like that. Casting the spell had taken a lot out of her and she wasn’t even trying to pretend otherwise, or slow down; Praem had to help her with every step, help her stand up straight. She kept coughing blood, but thankfully that trailed off.
“At first I thought it might be an organic response to what we did with that spell,” she said. “Nothing to do with Edward at all. But it’s not; it does belong to him. Which is better, actually, much better.”
“How’d it get here so fast?” Michael asked.
“It didn’t, it must have already been on the way. Perhaps he already knew about us casting the spell,” Evelyn mused, a dark frown on her brow. “But that should be impossible.”
“Traitor in our midst?” Raine asked with a laugh, but nobody took that seriously.
“Is this it then?” Twil asked. Everyone in earshot had gone quiet at that, to hear Evelyn’s response. “Is this his return fire? We done?”
“Far from it,” Evelyn replied. “This is a scout, at best. Stick to the plan. We bunker down. Everybody to your places. Eyes on the windows.”
We’d been bunkered down inside Geerswin farmhouse for nearly an hour, behind locked and bolted and barred doors — literally, in one case. Michael Hopton had broken out an antiquated-looking steel bar, taller than Zheng, which fitted into a pair of covertly placed brackets either side of the mostly-glass back doors onto the patio.
“Bit much, innit dad?” Twil had said.
“No chances, love,” was his answer. “We all saw how fast that dog moved. No sense in being sorry later.”
Evelyn had instructed us that nobody was to set foot outside, no window was to be opened by even a crack, and no door left untended. The first few minutes of our retreat indoors had been a mayhem of to-ing and fro-ing as we’d all piled in with Zheng carrying the corpse. Praem helped Evelyn, who was still coughing up clots of blood. Felicity too, staggering along under her own power and spitting into a handkerchief, even as she helped Kimberly and herded her in through the front door. The bubble-servitors had followed us to the walls of the house, contracting in a fortified ring and leaving the rest of the farm bare — though I was relieved to see three angels squatting on top of the brick-and-sheet-metal stables, to look out for the sheep and alpaca.
Felicity and Christine had worked together to take Kimberly upstairs without getting blood all over the carpets. Poor Kim was shivering, teeth chattering, eyes wild with adrenaline and fear. We could all hear water splashing into a bathtub upstairs; Lozzie was on the case already. Nicole had politely watched them go, and not with the expression of a woman who was trying to catch a glance of the naked body of somebody she fancied.
After the initial confusion, the hurrying back and forth along the corridors, the triple-checking of windows, the stowing of weapons, and the sight of Praem forcing Evelyn to sit down and drink a glass of water, the house slowly settled into an expectant waiting.
There were a few tasks to take care of — double-checking the magic circle wards which Evee had placed before all of the doors into the house; getting myself cleaned up, the mud wiped off my face and my hoodie; making sure that everybody had their modified pneuma-somatic seeing glasses ready.
Of course we checked the corpse of the dog, but that was really the only distraction. Most of “this here motley crew” — as Raine put it — took up the process of wandering from window to window in a slow circuit of the house. All eyes stayed on the tree line, the driveway, the shadows at the edge of the forest. Glances were shared in passing. One or another person would stop before a window — Raine here, Michael Hopton there, Zheng looming large against the front door — outlined by the crisp, sharp sunlight, dark silhouettes, watching.
Once Evee was settled and no longer coughing up blood, Praem set about making tea and passing out mugs. A scrap of domestic comfort went a long way.
“It really does feel a bit like a castle under siege,” I murmured to Raine.
We were standing together in the little sitting room off the right side of the main spinal corridor. She was leaning against the corner of the bookcase and looking through the mostly-glass door in the side of the house, so she could watch the driveway and a sliver of road beyond.
“That’s exactly what it is,” she said, then flashed a grin without looking at me. “Enjoying it much?”
“Not really,” I sighed. “Castles should be more picturesque than this.”
Raine pulled a comedy wince. “Don’t let Twil’s mum hear you say that. She’s pretty house-proud, I think.” Her expression shifted as she pulled her attention away from the driveway and looked at me. A twinkle glinted in the depths of those rich brown eyes, warm and soft. “That was real brave of you out there, Heather.”
I sighed and blushed, dropping my voice. “Really stupid, more like. Please don’t flatter me, Raine. It wasn’t needed. I should have let Praem deal with it. I don’t have to be everybody’s angel all of time.”
“You’re my angel one hundred percent of the time.” She winked, then leaned forward quickly and planted a kiss on my forehead, running a hand through my hair.
“Raine!” I squeaked, blushing far too hard. “I’m still dirty from rolling around outdoors!” I sighed and tried to smooth my hair down; I needed a bath too. “I just … I felt such a sense of responsibility to Kim. We all have a responsibility to her. She didn’t have to volunteer for this. And she’s got work on Monday morning, just like usual. Going from this to back to normal, it’s hard. Maybe impossible.”
Raine’s smile turned deeply warm, as if she saw something in my eyes that I wasn’t aware of. “You’re right, Heather. We do have a responsibility to her. Good call.”
I sighed again and leaned my forehead against Raine’s arm for a moment. “I think I’ll go see her and say thank you.”
“Bet she’d love that. Kim trusts you a lot, you know?”
“Are you being serious?”
“Hundred percent. Always. You know me.”
“Do you think she’s out of the bathroom yet?” I glanced up at the ceiling, as if I could somehow see through brick and plaster and paint and tell if Kimberly was decent yet.
“Don’t hear anybody moving around again or refilling the tub, which means she’s either done, or she’s fallen asleep in the water. Fliss should be on hand to stop that though.”
I frowned at Raine as an unspeakable thought ghosted through my mind. “You don’t think Felicity was … well, because Kimberly was naked, in the bath, and … ”
Raine shook her head emphatically. “Nah. I went up to check. Fliss was on guard outside the bathroom door. We got enough shit to worry about without something like that happening. Fliss is weird as hell but she’s not that.”
I blew out a slightly embarrassed breath. “Okay, fair enough, I’m sorry.”
“Hey, no need to apologise. You’re looking out for everybody. It’s good.”
My initial question was a fair one: it had obviously taken quite a lot of effort for Kim to wash off all that blood. We’d heard the bathtub fill and empty three times over, interspersed with a lot of creaking floorboards, the sound of somebody moving about, and two long periods of water glugging through the pipes to feed the shower. Kimberly had been coated head to toe in bull’s blood; I was surprised she hadn’t asked to be scoured down with steel wool.
Despite seeing the Hopton’s home quite extensively once before, both in nightmarish parody and by the light of day, I had never actually mounted the narrow, carpeted stairs up to the second floor. So out I went, past the tasteful paintings of alpine views, past Katey watching another window and exchanging some quiet words with Amanda Hopton, past Zheng lurking just inside the front door — where I paused to touch her hand, and she responded by ruffling my hair — and up the stairs I went.
The upper floor of Geerswin farmhouse was much the same as the first floor: unreconstructed, untouched by the cruel hand of modern interior design, never remodelled. Bare beams, old plaster, even some exposed water pipes for the radiators fed by the massive exposed wood boiler downstairs. I approved deeply. The only downside was that the corridor was kinked, cramped, and a bit low; not a problem for somebody of my height, but I did wonder if Michael Hopton ever bumped his head on his own bedroom door frame.
My tentacles instantly attached themselves to the walls and ceiling, eager to pull me along like a squid in a tube. I resisted the urge, as I didn’t want poor Kimberly or perhaps Felicity to step out of a room and see me hurling down the corridor. They’d both had trials enough for one day.
The corridor formed a stubby little T-junction in the top of the house, cradling several bedrooms and one surprisingly large bathroom. I poked my head inside the open door of the bathroom and spent a moment admiring the absolutely gigantic claw-footed tub. It looked about eighty years old and could have easily contained Zheng, Raine, and me all at once. I banished that thought; now was not the time, Heather. Not the time, sadly.
The air in the bathroom still held a little steamy heat. The mirror was still fogged. A cluster of bathroom cleaning products sat at one end of the room, the kind of bottles which usually lived under a sink, like I had witnessed the rare emergence of a cave-dwelling species. Somebody had dutifully cleaned the bath itself, leaving behind no trace of blood.
Felicity’s coat sat in a bucket of cold water, to wash out the worst of the bloodstains, looking rather sad and wet.
To locate the others, I simply followed the sound of video games.
I found Sevens first, standing at the window at one end of the T-junction. It afforded her a perfect vantage point across the back fields, one of which was scarred and scored with the mud-runnels of the magic circle we had carved earlier. The canvas still lay in the middle, covered in blood, inert now.
Seven-Shades-of-Suitable-Sentry did not glance back over her shoulder as I approached. Low voices and the sounds of controller buttons came from the other end of the corridor, but I chose to go to her first.
“Sevens,” I said, stopping next to her.
The Princess Mask, so starched and straight-backed, umbrella rolled up and held like a prop walking stick in one hand, granted me a sideways shift of unreadable eyes. “Kitten.”
I sighed, but with a smile. “If I’m a kitten, what does that make you?”
“Hardly!” I laughed. “Where’s Aym gotten to? I must admit I’m slightly nervous about her running around unattended again.”
“She has gone to inspect the woods.”
“Oh.” I bit my lip. “Evee did say we should all stay indoors.”
“Aym’s unique nature allows her to inspect the woods while remaining indoors.” Sevens answered by talking to the window, not to me.
“So she’s not here, not right now, not really?”
Seven-Shades-of-Spiky-Standoff shot me another inching sideways look. For some reason my shoulder blades itched. I crept tentacles behind me and behind Sevens, like an early warning system, in case Aym was about to sneak up on us and go ‘boo!’
“Why do you ask that specific question, kitten?”
I made myself look like an absolute fool by glancing down the corridor behind us, as if worried about eavesdroppers. “Because I haven’t had any of you to myself for several days. Not that I’m claiming any right to you or something!” I blushed a little and pulled an increasingly awkward smile. “Just that a hug would be nice. You can wear the vampire mask if you’d rather not crease your nice smart blouse— o-oh!”
A tiny squeak of surprise escaped my lips as Sevens turned precisely ninety degrees and enveloped me in a sudden crushing hug. The Yellow Princess ruined the neat creases and crisp lines of her white blouse, and fatally disturbed the ruler-straight sheet of her blonde hair. She squeezed me as if trying to pull me into her chest, which was, I will admit, quite pleasant, though I was too surprised to fully enjoy it.
I hugged her back as best I could, suddenly very self-conscious of my hands and my tentacles messing up her aesthetic.
After what felt like minutes she finally let me go. She had not lifted me off my feet, but the way she set me back a pace or two made it feel that way regardless. I was suddenly breathless, flushed in the face, a little ruffled. The Yellow Princess betrayed no emotion, but her clothes were just that tiny bit out of place, blouse askew, hair less than perfect.
“Oh, Sevens, I’m sorry, you’re all mussed up.” I reached for her blouse. Why, I have no idea — I was not exactly good at this sort of thing. Any attempt to straighten things out would likely leave them worse than if I hadn’t tried at all.
Seven-Shades-of-Sudden-Snuggles caught my wrist in one hand.
She held me there for a heartbeat, staring at my eyes. Then: “Leave your mark on me, beloved.”
We stayed there like that for several long seconds. I waited for more, heart pounding in my chest. Sevens stared into my eyes as if expecting to find terrible sadness there. She was like a statue, rock solid, absolutely still. I wondered for a moment if she had vacated the mask, left it empty, an echoing vessel.
“Sevens?” I murmured eventually. “Are you … ? You want me to … ?”
No, I chided myself very gently. This wasn’t how Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight worked. I tried again.
“Sevens, are you wearing the wrong mask right now?”
“I wish to monopolise a fraction of your attention,” she said. “I wish to claim what is mine.”
“Okay,” I said, which was a terrible thing to say because it said nothing. Then I swallowed hard and tried to stop glowing like a light bulb. “Well, I’m here right now. I was going to check on Kim, but there’s no crisis, not yet, I’ve got time for you.” I added in a hurry: “I mean, I’ve always got time for you. You only have to ask. I … I think that’s how it works.”
“Time in the opening of a siege,” Sevens said. “Locked in together. What better moment to face inward?”
I sighed. “It’s hardly a siege. Might turn out that nothing happens. All a bit anti-climactic”
Sevens let go of my wrist. She caressed it as she let go, so I pulled it away very slowly. She said, “I am being unreasonable.”
“I don’t think you are. You’ve been stuck with Aym for several days and—”
“I have not been stuck with Aym,” said the Princess. “She is sweet on the inside. Soft. A little bitter. I wish I had been there, in my prior years, when she had needed guidance.”
“I’m glad you and her are getting along. I think. Gosh, this is very strange. It’s like you two come from the same place and have things in common that you and I don’t. Is that jealous of me?”
“Do you want to feel jealous?”
“I don’t really. I’m more interested in how you feel, Sevens.”
The Yellow Princess stared at me for several heartbeats, then turned away to stare out of the window again. The sunlight dusted the sharp lines of her face, her smooth cheeks, her clear eyes. “I feel unmoored, kitten. This is not your fault.”
“ … well, I’m going to … re-moor you,” I said. Then I reached up and tucked a lock of her already messed up hair behind one of her ears.
It didn’t suit the shape of her face or the look of her hair, not one bit. But she turned her head and blinked at me.
“If I’m an angel,” I said. “If I’m going to be an angel, if I’m going to define myself that way to help deal with all the nonsense that flows around me, then I have to be that to you, too. So if you feel unmoored, you can come to me.”
Sevens stared, then nodded, then returned to looking out of the window.
I touched her fingers, she touched mine. I stayed there for a minute or two, staring out at the dark tree line and hoping nothing showed up. Then we parted for now and I padded down the corridor in my socks, following the sounds of video games and the soft murmur and trill of familiar voices.
Twil’s bedroom was at the opposite end of the corridor, next to a matching window which looked out over the trees next to the driveway. I paused for a moment to peer down at the slip of visible road and up at the rustling treetops, thinking about zombified pigeons and magically-reanimated mosquitoes. But nothing moved except the grass in the wind and the vague oily blobs of the bubble-servitors. All was quiet. Perhaps we were waiting for nothing.
I poked my head gingerly around the door of Twil’s bedroom. “Hello, everyone. Just here to check. Hi. Hello.”
“Brrrrrrrr!” went Tenny, without looking around from the telly.
Twil waved me in. “Big H! Come join! We’re about to get totally mullered here, ‘cos Tenny doesn’t understand the first thing about football.”
“Brrrrrt!” Tenny trilled again. Tentacles were flickering, antennae were twitching; somebody was very frustrated.
I crept over the threshold and into exactly the kind of room I expected Twil to cultivate.
Despite the low ceilings and narrow corridors, the upstairs rooms of Geerswin farmhouse were large and airy. Twil’s room had the same exposed-beams-and-bare-plaster look as the rest of the house, but she’d painted the plaster a soft, cool blue and covered the beams in junk, video game cases, loose books, a primary school sports trophy, a rugby ball with a spike through it — I reminded myself to ask if there was a story behind that one — and a dozen other pieces of personal bric-a-brac. The walls in between were covered in posters of all kinds: bands, movie posters, pages ripped straight out of old video game magazines. I spotted weird movie monsters and spooky landscapes, footballers and rugby players I could not have named if somebody had threatened me, cartoon characters and anime characters and even a couple of Evelyn’s colourful ponies.
Above Twil’s narrow bed was a 3D poster of a werewolf, in pride of place. Laminated corners curling, printed in that green-and-red 3D style that hadn’t been in fashion since the 90s, I had the sudden flash of insight that it had been above her bed for a very long time indeed.
Two narrow windows at the far end provided woefully little light, but she had a pair of standing lamps casting a warm glow on the low ceiling and spilling back down onto the rest of the room.
On one side was a narrow bed, covers neatly made, tucked in, pillows forming a sensible bulge at one end. At its foot was a large and overflowing dresser, proving that Twil loved clothes but had little ability to organise them. The top was stacked with all sorts of junk — more clothes, more books, old mugs in need of being taken downstairs. Hand cream, a takeaway menu, a plush albatross as big as Aym, a tower of empty tissue boxes which made me wince, and what I’m quite certain was a dirty magazine, which should not have been left visible while Tenny was in the room.
The desk past the dresser surprised me. Beneath the window so it got the best light, absolutely piled with textbooks and school-work and well-thumbed notepads, it was organised to perfection. Twil had ring-binders and post-it notes, coloured separators and a mug of highlighters. She had three calculators and a reading lamp. A reading lamp.
Sometimes it was easy to forget that Twil was — academically speaking — incredibly driven and quite smart.
Twil herself was perched on the end of the bed so she could watch the action unfolding on the telly which dominated the opposite side of the room, currently wearing the grin of a blood-mad football hooligan.
Kimberly and Lozzie were sat on the bed behind her. I had expected Kimberly to look like hell, probably shell-shocked, maybe in need of a very big hit from one of her special hand-rolled cigarettes. I wouldn’t have blamed her; she’d stripped naked and been drenched in bull’s blood in front of everybody, then come within inches of being killed by a rip-off Hammer Horror mutant dog.
But Kim was glowing.
She was wearing clothes borrowed from Twil — a bright orange t-shirt and a pair of pajama bottoms — and wrapped in a large fluffy green dressing gown which I guessed belonged to Christine Hopton. She was scrubbed and pink from the bath, with huge bags under her eyes. And she was smiling like I’d never seen her smile before. It wasn’t a grin or a smirk, but something subtle and deep. The smile reached all the way up to her eyes and made their corners crinkle.
She wasn’t even smiling at anything in particular. Lozzie was just behind her and in the process of kneading the muscle knots out of Kim’s shoulders, but she didn’t seem lost in physical bliss. She was simply here, present, surrounded by others.
Felicity was sat more distant, on the cheap swivel chair in front of Twil’s desk. She looked shell-shocked and exhausted and drained, back bent, feet flat on the floor. Without her coat she was thinner, more unhealthy, wrapped in an old jumper and jeans. I felt a bizarre urge to make sure she ate something.
Sitting cross-legged on the floor next to the bed, video game controller in her hands, face pinched in a frown, tentacles wiggling and waggling with hard concentration, was Tenny.
I couldn’t make any sense of the rows of numbers and statistics on the screen.
“Well,” I said in reply to Twil. “I don’t know anything about football either. You’re not teasing Tenny, are you?”
“Footbaaaaall,” Tenny trilled. She pressed buttons and made some numbers switch around on the screen.
“Nah!” Twil laughed. “We’re playing Football Manager! Well, Tenny’s playing, and losing.”
“Buuuu,” went Tenny, pouting. Twil leaned forward and ruffled her fluffy white hair, careful to avoid jostling her antennae. Tenny made a frustrated noise and navigated through a series of menus, which included pitch diagrams, player positions, and a very authentic looking team shirt, in bright red.
“Are you meant to be watching a window?” I asked Twil.
“Nah. Mum said to take a break, watch Kim.” Twil shrugged.
Kimberly spoke up, much to my surprise. Her voice was light and airy, a smile in her words. “Oh, I don’t understand anything about football either. I’ve never even seen a real game. But Tenny is very enthusiastic.”
She blinked slowly, eyelids heavy, feet stretched out on the bed. She scrunched her toes and sighed.
I caught Lozzie’s eye and glanced at Felicity too, frowning a silent question at both of them in turn. Just behind Kim’s sight-line, Lozzie shook her head and mouthed ‘sober!’ Felicity shrugged, too tired to say anything.
Others had been up here to check on Kimberly, of course, I wasn’t the first or only. Praem and Christine had both made sure she was well; Praem had even reported back to Evee. Neither of them had mentioned that Kimberly looked like she’d downed a fistful of codeine.
“Kim?” I ventured softly, walking over to join them on the bed. “Kim, how are you feeling now?”
Tenny pressed a button and a football match started up on the telly, virtual crowd murmuring to itself as the simulated players got started. Kimberly’s eyes wandered from the screen and found me, lazy and slow.
“Not bad,” she said. “Considering.”
I eased myself down on the bed. “If you don’t mind me saying, you seem a little … abstracted.”
“High,” she said. “You mean I seem like I’m high.”
I glanced at the back of Tenny’s head. She didn’t seem to have noticed, too focused on the video game. “I’m not sure we should talk about that in front of certain people.”
Lozzie, leaning over Kimberly’s shoulders, did a funny little bounce on the bed, making everybody wobble. “Tenns knows what drugs are! I taught her all the things, Heathy.”
“Yeah,” Twil added without looking over her shoulder. She was glued to the fake football match too, which seemed to be just random highlights. “Knowledge is always better than ignorance. Better the devil you know, all that.”
Felicity spoke heavily from the rear of the room. She was watching the match too, vague and uninterested. “Better not to know the devil at all.”
I struggled not to pull a grimace, knowing what I knew about Felicity’s personal history with addictive pharmaceuticals. Perhaps she was trying to share a piece of wisdom, but between her tone and her scarred half-mumble it came off as especially grim and grisly.
“Well,” I said awkwardly, smiling back at Kim. “You do seem very happy.”
She shook her head. “I don’t know why.”
“Endorphins,” Felicity added, low and serious. “Survivor’s high. I’ve told her a dozen times already.” She looked over to me with a sort of sympathetic sigh on her half-burned face, then dropped her eyes, almost ashamed. “Sorry.”
“Nah you’ve got a point,” Twil said. She hadn’t seen the look. “Brush with death, makes you feel alive.”
“I do feel alive,” Kim said. “I feel like I want to … I want to … go on a bike ride, or something! Oh, oh that sounds so lame. I mean I want to do something exciting. Something I normally wouldn’t do.”
I nodded along. “You deserve it. If there’s anything we — me and Evee and the others, I mean — if there’s anything we can do, anywhere we can take you, let us know.”
Kimberly blinked. Her eyes were shining, but her smile dribbled off, replaced with a slow-struck awe. I didn’t like that look; it had too much in common with the way Badger looked at me.
“Kim,” I added quickly, trying to head that off before she said something to make me cringe. “Thank you. What you did today, nobody else was ready to do. You didn’t have to. Thank you. You’ve done a lot for me. And it is for me, I’m not going to pretend it isn’t.”
Twil snorted a laugh. “Getting rid of Eddy is gonna be good for everybody.”
“Well, yes,” I said. “That too.”
Kim reached out and brushed my elbow with her fingers. I almost wrapped a tentacle around her hand on instinct, but managed to stop at the last moment, mostly because Lozzie poked the tentacle in question.
“Oh, no,” Kim was saying now she had my attention. Her lower lip was wobbling slightly. “Thank you, Heather. So much. For leaping to my rescue. You’re too good to me. You’re all too good to me.”
I cringed through a smile. “I didn’t need to leap like that. The others had it all under control. Thank Praem instead.”
“I did!” Kimberly nodded. “Praem … I love Praem. She’s been so … kind. Nice. She’s just always there. You know when I can’t sleep, she knocks on my door sometimes? She’s so sweet.” Her eyes were growing wet and scrunched as she spoke. “I love Evee too. I’d be on the streets without her, I really would, I never would have gotten that job.” Kim sniffed hard. Lozzie patted her shoulder with flaps of her pastel poncho. “And it worked. The spell worked. I hope we find Edward, that old … old … guy. Thing. Get that book. Get your sister. I’d like to meet her.”
Kimberly was crying now, holding herself right on the verge of tears. Everyone else had gone awkwardly quiet, embarrassed by this slow and heartfelt outburst of raw emotion. Two of Tenny’s silken black tentacles had crept up to clutch Kim’s left leg, but that was all. Only Lozzie knew how to respond, scooting around and giving Kimberly somebody to hug. Kim responded without thinking, clinging to Lozzie.
“Flowsie, Flowsie,” Lozzie murmured, a little sing-song. “You were always such a dummy. Dumbo dummy doos.”
“I don’t deserve that name,” she murmured into Lozzie’s shoulder.
I hadn’t heard Lozzie call Kimberly ‘Flowsie’ in months — the private name from their time in the Sharrowford Cult. I was reminded, once again, that these two had known each other long before I’d known either of them. When we had first dragged Kimberly out of the cult’s castle alongside us, Lozzie had declared that she didn’t care if ‘Flowsie’ lived or died. Now she was giving her a shoulder to cry on.
Felicity managed to look most awkward of all. She caught my eye and pulled a grimace. “Survivor’s high,” she whispered again. “It’ll pass.”
“You were beautiful,” Kimberly was saying, one eye watching me over Lozzie’s shoulder. “You and Zheng. Zheng! I knew her for years, big frightening monster, and she was running, for me. And Praem.” Kimberly’s eyes fluttered shut. “There is a beauty in magic. There is. There can be.”
She trailed off to nothing, breathing softly into Lozzie’s shoulder. Maybe she’d fallen asleep.
Twil cleared her throat gently. The simulated football match on the television had gone to penalties. “Hope you’re not talking about that bloody great hole in the ground,” she said. “Wouldn’t call that beautiful myself.”
“Twil,” I said. “Language. Tenny’s here.”
“Oh shit!” Twil clapped a hand to her mouth. “I mean, sugar!”
“Bloody is a bad word,” Tenny trilled, sing-song style. Lozzie giggled, setting a very bad example.
“Please don’t tell Evee, okay?” Twil said. “And don’t repeat that word. It’s bad. Rude. A rude word, alright Tenns?”
“I’m not rude,” Tenny said, all a-flutter.
Felicity spoke as if she hadn’t heard the last few moments of conversation, untouched by levity. “That breach was unexpected,” she said. I didn’t have to ask for clarification to know she was talking about the gigantic void which had opened in the ground, out in the field, the impossible sucking hole in reality.
“Was that normal?” I asked.
Felicity looked up. The bags were heavy beneath her eyes. She always had such a haunted look, even below the exhaustion. “There’s nothing normal about what we’ve done here. We did real magic. Large scale. We changed something about the arrangement of reality. That’s not going to go unnoticed, and not just by this Edward guy.”
I froze, staring at her. “Are you saying we’ve opened ourselves up to additional danger?”
Felicity shrugged. “I don’t know. I try to keep my head down, most of the time. This is the first in a while I’ve broken that habit.”
She raised her gloved hands, either to check herself or to show them to me. Both of them were shaking with anxiety.
“I haven’t had a chance to talk to Evee about it, not yet,” I said. “Everything has been so hectic. But I doubt she would countenance something which would create even more danger, not these days. Even if she was reckless when you knew her, she’s not that way anymore. She’s got much more to live for.”
Felicity returned her hands to her lap, linking her fingers to hide the shaking. “That’s … that’s good to know. Good to hear. She has seemed … driven. She was always driven, I mean. I’m sorry. Forget I said anything, forget—”
“Sweeties and sweetums,” crooned a voice made of rusty knives and the smell of melted plastic. “Don’t look now, but somebody’s stolen our horizon.”
All eyes — including Kimberly’s, which snapped open — looked to the doorway. Aym stood there like the spooky little sprite she was, head to toe in black lace, hood up, voice coming from a dark oval of nothing.
“Aym?” Felicity said instantly, not missing a beat. “Explain. Right now.”
Aym giggled, a noise like nails pattering on a blackboard. Down the corridor, Sevens’ shoes went click-click-click until she joined Aym in the doorway. The Yellow Princess was a mask of self-control.
“Aym is not exaggerating,” she said. “You should see. Tenny, stay here. Lozzie, watch her.”
Shouts of surprise and alarm were coming from the bottom floor of the house. Evelyn was calling my name. Raine was shouting to “look at it through the glasses, use the glasses! It’s not just the dogs!”
I was out of the room and into the corridor as fast as my tentacles could carry me. Others followed. Sevens ushered me along, down to the window she’d been staring out of earlier. Aym capered and scurried, but I could see her nervous energy was a false amusement.
Across the field, beyond the farm, the tree line was full of hounds. Maybe a dozen creatures similar to the dead one downstairs, pacing back and forth, staring at the house with sightless eyes or mismatched orbs.
Dark shapes hung in the trees, avoiding the sunlight, heavy and hanging like lumpy and unnatural sloths.
And above it all, forming a new skyline, dwarfing farmhouse and trees and all, was a spider-servitor the size of an oil rig.
And we’re back! Thank you for waiting. The arc now resumes, right where we left off.
Don’t mess with Heather’s friends! Even if they’re people who tried to kill her once! She’ll leap at you and paff ineffectually at you with her tentacles until her other friends have to pull you off her and then you’ll both be embarrassed and muddy and nobody will be having a good time. Looks like Edward’s counter-attack is here. Something doesn’t seem right though. He sure has reverse-engineered those spiders fast.
All Patrons get access to two chapters ahead! No matter what level you subscribe at! That’s almost 20k words. The more support I get through Patreon, the more time I can dedicate to writing, and the less chance of having to slow down the story. The generous and kind support of Patrons and readers is what makes all this possible in the first place, I would literally not be able to do this without you, so thank you all so very much! You can also:
Next week, somebody better summon Godzilla, because we’ve just passed the threshold. Maybe Felicity can do that?