providence or atoms – 2.12

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First, we retraced our steps.

More accurately, Raine retraced our steps and led me in her wake. She left no question as to who was going first, back through the double-doors to the corridor of Not-Willow-House.

A familiar transformation came over her – watchful, alert, tense. My hand felt clammy in hers, my heart in my throat. In the fake corridors she eased each set of doors open with the tip of her boot, waited for any nasty surprises to jump out us at before proceeding.

The Medieval Metaphysics room was gone. As was the back staircase and all the windows; each set of internal double-doors led to another identical stretch of whitewashed corridor, with four classroom doors on each wall and a noticeboard full of philosophy department flyers. Raine tried the door handles, but they didn’t even turn.

After seven identical corridors, the doorway to the main stairwell appeared on the left again. We checked, same endless abyss up and down.

“ … is this the same set of stairs?” I asked. “We went in a straight line, how can we be back here?”

“Time for an experiment, I think.” Raine pulled a Swiss Army Knife and a pen from her jacket.

“We don’t have time to muck about, Raine, we need to get out of here.”

She held up a finger and smiled, beamed that endless confidence directly into my brain. “When lost in the woods, the most important thing is … ?”

I shrugged. “Shout for help? Oh, no, pick a direction and stick to it?”

“Good guess, but not quite enough for the biscuit. Most important thing is: don’t panic. Take a drink, eat a cereal bar, calm down, get your bearings.”

“We don’t have any of those things. Also this isn’t the woods.”

“Yeah, but it’s basically the same principle. Thank Ray Mears for that one. I’m dead serious, the most important thing is don’t panic.”

“I’m … actually not panicking now.” I frowned at myself, took a deep breath. “I’ve done this too many times before, it may as well be routine. At least I’m not alone this time.”

Raine reached over and squeezed my shoulder. “Like a Slip?”

“I guess. This doesn’t feel like one though.”

“Here, time for science.”

Raine cut a big X on the inside of the stairwell door with her knife. I grimaced, because it still looked exactly like Willow House. Vandalism irked all my well raised sensibilities.

Back in the looping corridor, Raine tugged one of the flyers off the noticeboard.

“Ah, weird.”

“What? What is it?”

Raine showed me the flyer. “Guess they can’t copy fine detail.”

“What are you talking about … ”

I blinked at the flyer. Total gobbledygook. Backward letters, jumbled words, sentences on top of each other. A photocopy error from hell, as if an alien had seen human writing upside down and from a distance, then recreated it with no understanding of form or purpose. Every flyer showed the same manic mash of text.

Somehow that disturbed me far more than being trapped.

“Put- p-put it away.”

Raine tore down the rest of the flyers. In the next stretch of identical corridor they were pinned back on the noticeboard, but in the seventh – next to the stairwell entrance again – they lay scattered on the ground. Raine’s minor vandalism had not been magically repaired.

We checked the stairwell; X still marked the spot.

“We’re inside a loop?”

“Right, don’t worry.” Raine squeezed my hand. “Evee’s working on this. If I can’t find a way out, she’ll have it solved in no time. Like being stuck in an lift together, just with far less opportunity for necking in secret, eh?”

Raine flashed me a cheeky grin. I tried to smile back and enjoy the joke, but my damnable curiosity had lighted on a point of principle, perhaps to distract myself and keep the panic tamped down.

How does a physical loop work?

“Like a … mobius strip,” I murmured.

My imagination summoned an image of the structure, ruminated on how a corridor could follow a straight line yet also loop around to the same point. The implications of a closed spacial loop teased at dangling threads in the back of my mind. A physical impossibility, but one I could just about picture, if I dug hard enough.

Raine was saying something, as the answer bubbled up from the oily depths of my subconscious.

“Oh,” I said. “I think I know how they made this-”

A blinding spike of pain rammed into my head, right behind my eyes. I let go of Raine’s hand and doubled up, chucked the contents of my guts onto the carpet. Lucky I’d barely eaten anything this morning.

Of course I knew how this loop worked – the Eye had taught me.

Stupid, stupid Heather. Those concepts are radioactive waste, poison, death.

“Heather? Heather, what’s wrong? Heather?”

I sucked in air and clutched my aching stomach as I forced the thought back down. Raine’s helping hands pulled me upright and held on hard as I clutched at her for support.

“Are you Slipping?”

“No, no.” I shook my head and wiped my mouth on the back of my sleeve. Disgusting, but I had no other choice right now. Hardly the best time to need a bathroom, while stuck in a pocket dimensional loop set up by dangerous people. “I- ugh, my head.”

“Take a moment. Breathe.”

“I know how this place works. I think. The math- the principles underlying it. The Eye’s lessons, it’s in there somewhere.” I tapped my head and groaned again.

“Hey, it’ll be okay, I’m gonna get you out of here.”

“I think-” I swallowed. “I-I think I can get us out, but-”

Another wave of nausea slammed into my gut. I leaned forward and struggled to force the thoughts down, don’t touch, don’t touch them. Buried deep in the layers upon layers of the Eye’s lessons lurked the exact mathematical operation required to translate Raine and I out of this space, but it was white-hot to the touch.

I cringed, terrified of pain, of my own suggestion.

When I’d saved Evelyn, dragged her back from Outside, that had been life or death. This? We were just lost.

“Heather, no, don’t try it.”

“But I can,” I whined. “You said you wouldn’t stop me from being strong. Y-you-”

“And you will be.” She rubbed my back, helped ease the nausea out. “But right now you’re untrained or unpractised or un-whatever-you’re-going-to-be, and this is a trap. If you try the mind-magic and it doesn’t work, I’ll have to carry you. Even if it does work, we don’t know what it’ll do to you. Start small, remember?”

“What if we can’t get out?”

“Keep it as an emergency back-up option. In the meantime, you can rely on me, okay? It’s okay to rely on me.”

I nodded, and felt such secret relief and secret shame both together.

“Think about all the things we’re gonna do later today,” Raine said. “When we get out of here, yeah?”

“How about bathe and sleep? And wash my mouth out.”

Raine laughed. “Sure thing.”

She waited until I was steady on my feet, then set about phase two of her experiment to get us out. She flicked open the screwdriver head on her Swiss Army Knife and set to work unscrewing the hinges from one of the locked classroom doors in the fake corridor. I watched her wiggle the screws out as I tried to clean the taste of vomit from my mouth, occupying my mind with anything except how this place worked.

“Raine? Do you think this is about me?”

“Can’t speak for anybody else, but most things I do lately are about you.” She cracked a grin and I warmed inside, even if I didn’t have the energy to blush.

“Oh don’t, not right now.” I tutted. “I mean this place. This trap. Is this for me?”

Raine frowned, took my question very seriously. My thoughts were already racing.

“I mean, those people yesterday, the cultists,” I said. “They did this, right? They lured the Demon Messenger for some reason. Is this revenge for interrupting them or … or what?”

Raine shook her head slowly. “Smart money says the Sharrowford Cult has no idea who you are, and I aim to keep it that way. Last night, my guess is they knew precisely zip until we were already in deep.”

“What makes you so confident?”

“This kinda thing?” She gestured at the corridor, the loop, the trap. “This is why I’m here. My guess is this is was meant for Evee.”

“ … if you say so.” I mulled over the idea as Raine finished dismantling the door’s lower hinge. She dusted off her hands and stood up.

“Job’s a good’un. Let’s find out what’s behind door number one.” Raine grinned at her own dumb joke and waggled the door hinges free. She wedged her fingertips into the thin gap around the frame.

I had a sudden terrifying vision of a howling void on the other side, of Raine sucked through by decompression, of a hand reaching for us from the darkness revealed.

None of those things happened.

Behind the door was a blank brick wall.

“Goddamn.” Raine grunted and let the door fall with a clatter. The noise set my teeth on edge. “Guess we’re in a cartoon now. Huh.”

“Great.”

Raine tapped the bricks with her knife, but for all we knew the wall was a mile deep. She shrugged and shot me an ironic smile, then unfolded the blunt bottle-opener attachment on her knife and dug it into part of the door-frame. She ran it up and down, wiggled it back and forth, until she yanked part of the frame away – a length of steel rod. She weighed it in one hand, swished it through the air, and nodded approval.

My chest tightened. “Do you really think you’re going to need that?”

“Never know. Better safe than sorry.”

Raine had an idea. She took my hand and we walked back out to the endless stairwell. I averted my eyes from the sight as she stared into the abyss.

“Up or down?” she asked.

“ … you’re asking me to choose? What’s to choose?”

“Serious answer? On one hand, your guess is as good as mine, but on the other, you’ve been outside reality on the regular, I haven’t. So, considering everything you know – up, or down?”

I sighed at Raine and held her gaze for a moment, but she seemed completely serious. “Um … down gets dark, and that’s not good. Obviously not fit for human habitation. Up is at least slightly less unsettling.”

“Up it is then. Just focus on your feet, or on mine, don’t look over the side. We’re gonna be fine.”

She led the way up the flight of stairs to the next floor, my clammy little hand tight in hers. I was fairly certain that Raine had no idea how to escape this place, and I was also fairly certain all this activity was just to keep me occupied, stop me from panicking while Evelyn did the real work to get us out. I appreciated it all the same.

“How are you not scared?” I asked.

“Ahhh, I’ve been in far worse places than this. Like Evelyn’s house, the one she grew up in. At least this place isn’t full of monsters.”

“Don’t tempt fate, please.”

“Fate can taste my boot leather. We’ll be fine.”

The next floor was identical to the previous, the same entrance to the same repeating corridors, the same flickering strip lights, the same X Raine had marked on the door with her knife. A perfect loop.

Except for one rather significant addition.

No monsters.

Worse: people.

Five young men waited with their backs to us as we emerged into the fake corridor. Alerted by the sound of the door swinging open, they all jumped and turned and stared. One put his fists up, then shook himself and lowered them again. They looked almost as confused as I felt.

“Stay behind me,” Raine whispered.

As if I would have done anything else. Groups of strange men were not at the top of my list of approachables even in normal situations. What did she think I was going to do, ask for directions?

They didn’t seem anything like the sort of people one might encounter inside a dimensional pocket trap; they’d have been more at home standing around on a street corner in one of the rougher parts of Sharrowford, admiring a blinged-out car, all baseball caps and pints of hair gel and too much gold jewelry.

Each one wore a high-vis vest, stretched over a puffer jacket or shrugged on around a hoodie. One of them had draped it over his shoulders like a cape, and another had wrapped his around his arm.

On every vest, the Fractal.

Evee’s cavalry?

No, I quickly corrected myself. The symbol only looked like the Fractal. Different design. I’d memorised every last angle of the Fractal by now, refreshing it on my left arm every light. The symbols on the vests had been scrawled in a hurry, with marker pen, a different arrangement of lines from a branch shaped the wrong way.

One of the men turned to the others and thumbed over his shoulder. “I thought she was meant to come from that way?”

“Definitely not her.”

“Yeah, there’s two of them for a start.”

“Shitshow already, this job.”

“Everyone shut up,” one shouted over the rest. He stepped toward us. A habitual leader, I guessed. Chunky fellow, overweight but not sagging, stubble on his chin and big blunt fingers raised in an open-handed gesture. He turned an easy, friendly smile on us. “Alright, you two? Lost like we are, yeah? Funny old bloody place, innit? You uh … just you two, yeah? Seen anybody else around here?”

“Yeah,” Raine said. “There’s a girl passed out downstairs, actually.”

The fat guy’s forehead creased into a frown. One of his friends in the back piped up. “She’s having you on, Mark.”

“Fuck’s sake, no names. No fucking names,” the fat guy snapped over his shoulder.

“Where’s the way out?” Raine asked, low and soft.

The fat guy shot a glance back at his posse. One of them shrugged, another suggested telling us, a third one had a disgusting glint in his eye. Even with Raine holding my hand, with her by my side, with my knowledge of what she could do, I felt an animal need to be elsewhere, not stuck in a confined space with several large, threatening people. My heartbeat pulsed in my throat and cold sweat broke out down my back.

“Raine,” I whispered, barely able to raise my voice above a trickle. She ignored me as the men conferred. My throat tightened. “Raine.”

“Who’s gonna miss two kids, Mark?” the wise guy in back said.

He pulled his weapon first. That broke whatever inhibition had held them back. They were all armed – three big knives, a baseball bat, and an optimistic pair of knuckle dusters.

Raine grinned and idly raised the steel rod she’d pulled off the broken door.

“Alright love, come on,” fat guy said, same easy smile as he opened his arms wide, despite holding a knife. “Put that down now, don’t be silly, we just need to make sure you’re not hiding anything. Then you can be on your way, yeah?”

He didn’t wait for an answer. He lunged at Raine.

I think I screamed.

Five seconds, maybe ten, and it was all over. Too fast for me to think about. This was nothing like killing the monster in Evelyn’s house two weeks ago, or the scuffles with Twil yesterday, or even Raine’s brave attempts to do violence on the Messenger. This was a real fight, nothing like in books or films, no flourishes or heroics.

Blood, the sound of impacted meat, the strangely soft crack of broken bones.

I think Raine killed two of them. She didn’t seem to care. We didn’t hang around long enough to find out.

She was very, very good at it.

They barely touched her, a glancing blow to her upper shoulder and a brief handful of her jacket, which she punished with broken fingers and a shattered collarbone. When it was done, four of the men lay on the floor, two of them not moving. The fat man, the leader, was slumped face down with the back of his skull caved in like an egg. Blood soaked into the thin carpet. The last man standing backed away and dropped his knife, knuckles bleeding and split from where Raine had smashed his hand.

“Alright, alright, okay, yeah, okay, alright,” he was repeating, over and over.

Raine grinned.

She was flushed and breathing hard, bobbing from foot to foot like a boxer, weighing the metal rod in her hand again. She stooped down and pulled the baseball bat out of one of the men’s hands, kicking away his limp attempt to stop her. She hefted the bat and let out a long, shuddering breath.

I was shaking all over, hand to my mouth. I’d unconsciously backed away until I’d hit the door, adrenaline and panic clawing at my stomach and chest.

“Raine?” I squeaked. At least one corpse blocked my route to her.

“I’ll be right there. Promise. Gotta finish this,” she said.

“No, no you don’t have to,” the last survivor said, his hands out to ward her off. He backed away toward the rear double-doors. “It’s cool, we’re done. They’re not paying us enough for this, you’re not even the kid we’re meant to find. Alright? Alright?”

“Who are you meant to find?” Raine snapped off.

He frowned and thought it over for a second, so Raine raised the metal rod and grinned all the wider.

“Okay, okay! Fuck! Fucking hell, you- okay, shit. A blonde girl, uni student, uh, one leg, missing hand, uh, I-I-” He kept backing up as he spoke, one hand groping for the doors behind him.

“Who sent you?”

“Ugh, Adam Gore. He’s just a fixer though. I don’t know who this job is for, okay? I swear, I don’t know. Don’t fucking hit me.”

“How do we get out?” Raine said.

He pointed at his high-vis vest. “They gave us these, right-”

The double-doors behind him burst open and a hand swatted him aside with the power of a wrecking ball. His head bounced off the wall with a sickening crack and he collapsed to the floor

I realised in a rush of horror that these men had been a mere layer of ablative meat, to slow Evelyn down, until the real killers could arrive.

The tall woman in the full-body trench coat, from last night, stepped through the doors and lowered the hand she’d used to murder our would-be attacker. She moved with robotic slowness. She was even taller up close. I revised my estimate, perhaps almost seven feet from tip to toe. Only her eyes showed, between a scarf around her face and a hood pulled low over her head. She fixed on us with cold empty precision.

“Uh, Heather.” Raine took took a step back. “Back up, through the door, now.”

I couldn’t move, not without Raine.

The tall woman was not alone.

Nightmare hounds nosed through the door behind her, gathered at her ankles, amalgamations from the worst depths of my pneuma-somatic visions, built along canine principles but from parts of the wrong creatures; some showed metal rivets and stitching between grey lizard-flesh and shaggy hide, plastic hinges at komodo-dragon jawlines, steel-reinforced legs and eyeballs of incorrect size rolling loose in their sockets. Dripping stingers whipped through the air and drool looped from muzzles unable to close properly.

The tall woman jabbed a gloved finger at Raine and then at the floor.

“You want me to drop these?” Raine hefted the metal rod and her stolen baseball bat.

A nod.

“Think I’ll hold onto little slugger here, but you can have the other one, sure.”

Raine span and hurled the metal rod at the tall woman’s face, a full-body javelin throw with every ounce of her strength. She overbalanced and caught herself at the last moment.

The tall woman jerked her head aside in a sudden flicker of speed. The metal rod clattered against the door. The hounds surged forward.

Raine span on her heels, leapt the corpse or two between her and I, and bundled me through the door so hard I almost went sprawling in the stairwell.

“Heather, up, up the stairs!”

“Where- where do we even go?!” I cried.

“Just up!”

Raine pushed me and I went, but we didn’t get more than three paces before the first hound burst through the doors and went for Raine, snapping and growling. She turned and dashed its brains out with a swing of the baseball bat. The hound yelped, a pitiful, terrible sound, and went down in a heap of limp meat and muscle.

I tripped on the stairs, shaking with fear and adrenaline. The next couple of minutes descended into a blur of terror.

I could barely keep my head on straight, let alone form a coherent plan. If you’ve never been in the middle of a genuine melee then you can’t imagine what it feels like. Everything happens too fast, no time to think and react. I scrambled up the stairs, banging my knee and scuffing my hands.

Raine held the hounds off, setting about herself with the bat and her boots, kicking heads and breaking legs and smashing rib cages. She caught one hound by the throat with her free hand and shoved it bodily over the railing, sending it tumbling into the abyssal stairwell. Another one she hit so hard it bowled down two of its fellows. The stairwell filled with the sound of wood hitting meat and twisted canine yelping.

Raine didn’t come away unscathed this time – the nightmare hounds took a couple of chunks out of her, a bite in the leg and another in her forearm, leather jacket turning away the worst of the teeth.

In the heat of the moment I thought her brave.

No, it wasn’t bravery. It was joy.

She was grinning and covered with sweat and one hundred percent in her element. Totally focused, a state of perfect flow, like this was what she was made for. After six hounds dead or wounded, they backed off, slinking away and growling from the corridor.

Raine swept a hand through her hair and let out a long breath.

“Y-your leg.” I pointed. She was bleeding badly from the bite wound, the thigh of her jeans soaked through with crimson.

“Just a scratch,” she said with an ear-to-ear grin. “Heather, I’m loving this, but even I can’t keep it up forever. We uh, we gotta leave.”

I knew what she was asking me to do.

Inside, I cringed away from the Eye’s lessons, but we had no choice. The wound in her leg made it real, raw, life-threatening. We had to leave, right now.

I can do this, I told myself. I’d done it before, in equally as dangerous circumstances, twice in a row, while brain-numb and bleeding. This time I was much more in control, right? Right. Breathe, focus, get us out.

My stomach clenched with anxiety as I summoned a mental image of the loop, pictured in my mind the mathematics to punch an exit back to reality. Nausea rolled through me and a spike of headache pain tingled on the edge of my scalp. I reached out to touch Raine.

A metallic click from above us interrupted my thoughts. It interrupted everything. I looked up.

Several floors above us, a woman aimed a rifle down at Raine.

Whipcord-tight, shaved head, dressed in outdoor hiking gear. The rifle was an old bolt-action thing, her eye to the scope, stock tucked tight against her shoulder. I’d never seen a gun in person before. It didn’t seem real.

Raine began to turn, to follow my gaze. Too slow, much too slow.

The woman pulled the trigger.

From a standing start, I’d have been useless. But I was already knee-deep into the Eye’s impossible equations, my mind on the verge of plunging in. If I’d had time to think, I wouldn’t have been able to do it. The Eye’s lessons offered me a hundred ways, a million ways, and choice would paralyse me with fear of pain, fear of failure, fear of loss.

The very urgency of a bullet in motion allowed me to act at the speed of thought.

I ran through a dozen equations in a split-second, principles I’d never dared touched before, concepts which burned my mind with white-hot searing fire even as I put them into action. I broke physics and gravity and a dozen laws human science had no names for, and paid for it with a bleeding, quivering of my own mind. Momentum, velocity, mass, speed, all deformed like putty. It was clumsy, brute force, inelegant and wasteful and incredibly painful.

So much for starting small.

I turned the bullet away from Raine.

It hit the stairwell wall with a puff of pulverised concrete.

My vision fogged black and I doubled up, vomited onto the stairs, my head pounding like I’d driven a railroad spike into my forehead. My nose streamed with blood and a sticky feeling gummed at my eyes. My knees gave out a second later. Urgent hands caught me, held me up and dragged me. I twitched and kicked, almost insensible.

My chest throbbed inside like my lungs had burst. I fought for breath, gasping and spluttering and vomiting a second time. I tried to say Raine’s name. We had to get away from here, because the woman with the rifle was going to shoot at us again I had nothing left, I was spent, on the verge of unconscious oblivion.

Raine – I knew it was her, somehow – propped me against a wall on my backside. I forced my eyes open as she spoke, as she tried to speak comforting words, but then she broke off and span, baseball bat raised for a swing.

The Tall Woman stepped past the reluctant hounds and came for us herself.

Raine did not fare well.

The Tall Woman moved like quicksilver, ducked and weaved and jabbed so too fast to follow. Even if I hadn’t been mind-screwed from emergency hyperdimensional mathematics, her motions would have left me dizzy. Raine’s baseball bat bounced off her like she was made of granite, though Raine hit her enough times to extract a deep grunt of acknowledgement. She landed a glancing punch to Raine’s stomach, made her hunch and wheeze and slow down.

I heard the metal click of the bolt-action rifle again, echoing in the endless stairwell.

Half-conscious, propped up against a wall next to the corpses of terrifying monster dogs, with Raine bleeding and hurt, there was no decision to make. I did not think, I merely acted.

If we left, at least Raine would live.

I summoned everything I had left, hurled myself at Raine and tackled her from behind. Too weak to do more than unbalance her, but all I only had to make contact.

“Close your eyes!” I shouted.

“Heather, no!”

The Eye’s impossible equations jabbed molten fingers into my brain. Neurons burnt out. My chest wrenched like my ribs were shattering.

Reality folded up.

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providence or atoms – 2.11

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For the first couple of years after Wonderland, after my trip down the rabbit-hole, after losing my twin, after the doctors and the hospitals and the drugs and the dislocation, I did speak to spirits.

Mostly I screamed at them to go away. Twelve-foot figures of dripping neon had stalked the nighttime hallways of Cygnet Children’s Hospital. Often they’d wander into my room, ghosting through the door and crawling up the walls and watching me in bed, too terrified to sleep. I’d scream and rave and the night duty nurse would ask what was wrong, then I’d get sedated and wake up to the same monsters in the hospital’s dark corners the next day.

By the time I returned to school, I’d learnt to believe the monsters weren’t real. Difficult, to listen to a doctor tell you the hallucinations aren’t real, as they leer at you over his shoulder.

I trained myself not to look, not to pay them the slightest shred of attention, to keep my distance. They weren’t real. Don’t address them. They’re not real. Don’t look. Not real.

But once, one time, I held my nerve.

So many years ago, I’d almost forgotten.

It happened at home, on the day after discharge from hospital following a period of ‘improved mental cohesion’, encouraged by my parents’ desire to have me in a familiar environment, to have me with them, to let me be normal.

I was drugged up to the gills on anti-psychotics, and trying very hard to hide that I still saw monsters in the street outside, in the family sitting room, lurking in the kitchen, lurching past my bed as I slept. They hovered around me and clutched at my clothes and I could not make them go away, not so much as squeak, because I’d get told off for being insane.

I held myself together all day long, desperate not to get sent back to hospital. Maisie had never been real – so I thought, back then – but at least if I was at home then I could pretend, I could remember, I could have something to hold onto.

My parents had put me to bed that night, I’d faked sleep, then cried under the covers in silence the way only a lonely, sick child can.

Of course, I had to get up to use the toilet. In the dark. A universal childhood trial by fire.

Except my monsters weren’t only under the bed – they were everywhere.

The spirit in question lounged across the corridor outside my bedroom door, more mouth than body or head, a maw large enough to swallow a cow, stuffed with a dozen different sizes and shapes of teeth. It breathed out fire-fed wind, hot and fetid. Tiny beady eyes had turned to regard me as I’d crept out in front of it, pillow held across my body in the only way I knew how to protect myself.

“Go away. You’re not real,” I’d whispered.

It had.

It had humped and slithered and slid like sandpaper on rock, along the corridor and down the stairs, thump, thump, wack, wack – and gone.

I’d never repeated the feat.

Until now.


==


“Correct me if I’m wrong here, but I’m pretty sure this isn’t the way to your place,” Raine said.

“Not going home.”

“Okay, where we off to then?”

“ … ”

“Heather?”

“I’m not talking to you right now.”

I was more angry at myself than Raine, but I didn’t know how to reverse gear.

Between the fear and my crippling teenage under-socialisation, I had no idea what to do except put one foot in front of the other, until I reached a place I could think clearly. Raine tagging along like a determined hound dog made me feel awful, guilty, but also so relieved, and then guilty again for feeling the relief.

A vicious circle. Bad, under-socialised, self-contradictory Heather. I told myself off, told myself I had to stop and talk to her.

Pneuma-somatic attention did not help matters.

Since the moment I’d shouted at the spirits outside Evelyn’s house, it seemed every twisted monstrosity in Sharrowford had decided to come pay me a visit. Giant slack faces peered over the rooftops at us, packs of wolf-hogs and lizard-foxes raced past as if trying to spook me, malformed limbs unfolded from manhole covers and drain gates to wave in the wind like branches of flesh.

Without the Fractal on my arm, I suspect they would have mobbed me.

“Ahhh, the old silent treatment.” I heard the grin in Raine’s voice. “Say no more, I respect the urge, I know the deal. Been here a few times before.”

I shot her a side-eye glare. “Upset a lot of girls, do you?”

“Oho, silent treatment didn’t last long.” She grinned over at me.

I huffed and folded my arms tighter. My feet led me along the northern length of the student quarter, slow and steady, still achy and wobbly from yesterday’s city-crossing trek. Raine started to whistle, utterly tuneless. No handholding on this trip.

Indigo and cerulean spirit-wisps whipped overhead, the tail-feathers and trailing tentacles of house-sized floaters. Charred, blackened heads of gristle and grit paused in their scurrying to watch me pass. A monster gestured to me from across the street, a combination of sloth and lizard, speaking alien sign-language with paws the size of dinner plates.

“The ghosts and ghoulies are givin’ you lip, aren’t they?” Raine said.

“Ghosts and ghoulies?”

She shrugged, then very gently tried to take my hand again. This time, I let her.

“They are,” I admitted. “It’s … really bad. I think I stirred them up.”

Raine cracked a grin, not at me, but at the dozens of monsters she couldn’t see. “I’ll chase them off with a baseball bat if I have to. Go on, bugger off, the lot of you! She’s mine, you can’t have her!”

The spirit life paid no attention, but an old man looked up from his garden down the street. I flushed with embarrassment.

“Raine!” I hissed, jerked my hand out of hers. “I don’t need your- I don’t-”

Raine raised her eyebrows, genuine curiosity, not a shred of hurt or offence. I swallowed, put my head down, and forged on.


==


Raine followed me all the way between the library stacks before she made her move.

To be fair, surrounding me with books is one of the more reliable ways to calm me down, which is why I’d walked to the library in the first place. Despite Evelyn’s Spider-servitor lurking in the basement, Sharrowford University Library was still a source of instant comfort and reassurance for me. Most of the spirit life stayed firmly outside, though a few multi-limbed climbers nosed at us in the third floor stacks, bodies like elongated wingless dragonflies as they clambered and peered. I glared at them in turn and they retreated, slunk back to their hidey-holes.

“Even in here?” Raine asked.

“ … what in here?”

“Spirits. Right? They bothering you right now?”

I paused and half-turned to Raine, not sure what to do with her. She’d followed me into a sort of nook at the back of the third floor, at the end of a pathway between two long sets of book racking. The library’s architecture pinched tight before opening out again into a reading area full of low tables and book-return trolleys. Almost empty this time of day, only a few students sitting there, reading and studying. None faced us. Brutalist concrete wall-support blocked the view in the other direction.

“No,” I said. “They … I think I got them to leave. Peace and quiet, except for you.”

Raine stood with her hands on her hips, her head tilted slightly to one side. A strange ghost of a smile played across her lips, as if she knew a secret I didn’t.

“Feeling any better?” she asked.

I shrugged, then stopped and realised what that look on her face meant. My chest tightened.

“Ah, don’t-” I managed to get out. Raine took a step forward, so close I edged back, mouth suddenly dry and heart hammering. She looked left and right as if for eavesdroppers before turning a knowing, teasing smile on me.

“Raine, not here!” I hissed.

“Where else, then?” she murmured. “I can follow you around all day. Unless you straight up tell me to leave, and mean it. Say it if you want, I’ll go. I promise.”

“You’re violating the sanctity of the library!” I whispered. Raine struggled not to giggle. “Don’t laugh!”

She cleared her throat – softly, at least. “Heather, I didn’t mean to hurt you. I’d never, ever call you useless. Never even think it.”

I dropped my gaze to her boots. “But that’s what you like, isn’t it?”

Silence.

I glanced back up and got a face full of extremely confused Raine. She blinked at me, all her smooth words derailed.

“Uh, what?” she said, far too loud.

One of the students in the reading area looked over at us with a frown. I grabbed Raine’s sleeve and pulled her deeper into the private nook, out of sight of irritated library users. Raine apparently found all this extremely amusing, couldn’t keep a grin off her face. I put a finger to my lips.

“Shh!”

“Heather, please, please explain, where did that come from? I promise I’m not going to be mad, when- how- how did I ever give you that impression?”

I averted my eyes and bit down on the guilt. “Evelyn, uh, Evee, visited me yesterday morning before we went to the library. We talked. About you. A bit.”

Raine raised her eyebrows and waited. I felt like a terrible friend and a far worse lover.

“She said, and I quote.” I swallowed, needed real effort to squeeze the words out. “That you need a damsel in distress so can play at being a knight errant.”

“ … ow.”

Raine puffed out a breath and put a hand over her heart. A flicker of genuine hurt passed across her face, the power of her usual grin showing through but battered out of shape.

“Raine? I-I’m sorry, I-”

“Ow, geeze, Evee. That smarts. Damn.” Raine mock-winced between her teeth. “Maybe don’t take everything Evelyn says at face value, yeah?”

I was mortified by the power of my own words.

Apology wouldn’t cut it now. Radical measures were required.

“Oh for pity’s sake, we can’t do this in the library.” I grabbed Raine’s hand and set about dragging her off somewhere I could actually speak my mind.


==


“Hey, Heather, just breathe, just take a moment, okay? We have all the time in the world.”

I was terribly out of breath. I’d pulled Raine all the way from the library, blushing and flustered at my own decision, and led us up every one of the hundred and seventy six steps of the back staircase in Willow House, to the pokey concrete landing outside the Medieval Metaphysics room. I’d intended to head inside, but had to stop and let go of Raine to put my hands on my knees and concentrate on getting my breath back.

Raine rubbed my back until I could stand straight, but I made a conscious effort to step away from her. She deserved my unencumbered honesty. I did my best to push my hair out of my face and into an approximation of decent order. Raine watched me patiently, thumbs hooked into the pockets of her leather jacket, a curious look on her face.

“I … I don’t even know how to phrase this.” I sighed and rubbed at my eyes. “I’ve never had a conversation like this before.”

“Start wherever you like. I’ll keep up.”

“Why do you like me?” I blurted out. A grin fought to surface on Raine’s face as I raced to cover my tracks. I held up a hand. “Don’t- don’t answer that yet.”

“Okay. I could write an essay on it if you want though.”

“What Evee said – is it just because I’m vulnerable? I don’t want to think that, but I don’t understand what you see in me, Raine. I’m not pretty, or particularly well turned-out. I’m small and scrawny. I’m a coward-”

“You’re not.”

“Let me finish. I’m not a very interesting person, either. I suppose I’m not a complete idiot but that’s about all I have going for me. I’m no fun to be around. I’m hard work. Look what I’ve done this morning. I don’t get you, Raine.”

Raine nodded, sagely and understanding, taking me very, very seriously. That look on her face was enough to start me on the road to feeling better. I managed a shaky smile, was about to admit I knew I was being unfair on myself, unfair on her, I knew there must be things in me that I couldn’t see. I began to compose an apology.

“Evee’s right,” Raine said.

“ … what?”

She met my eyes without a hint of shame. “I know what I’m into, I know what I find attractive. I can’t help that. I guess it’s a little bit messed up, but likely not in the way you’re thinking. I’d never force a role onto you, Heather.”

My mouth hung open. Couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

“You mean you … ” I gulped. A bitter, borderline hysterical smile twitched onto my lips. I hiccuped. “I knew it. You don’t want me to be brave, or-”

Raine shook her head. “Uh-uh. My turn.”

“Wha-”

“I’m scared for you,” she said, and put up both hands in surrender. “Regardless of whether or not we make out after this, or never touch each other again, I’m scared for you. I know what the message from Maisie means to you. I mean, hell, Heather, if I was in your shoes I’d do the same. I’d probably already be throwing myself at the Eye. Elbow-deep in it. Probably be dead. I get it – and I don’t want you to get hurt.”

She cut through every extraneous detail, right to the heart. Raine was a miracle, and I was not worthy.

“I’m scared too,” I admitted, sniffed, and realised I was almost tearing up. Raine reached forward but I put a hand out. I had to say this stuff. “But I can’t- I don’t want to be weak anymore, hide anymore. That’s worse than fear of pain. Much worse.”

“It nearly killed you the first time. The brain-math stuff.”

“Maybe it doesn’t have to! Maybe it can be mine, instead of inflicted on me. This isn’t all about Maisie. It’s about me, too.”

A change came over Raine. She raised her eyebrows and nodded. “Ah. Ahhhh. There it is. Thereeee it is. You know what, Heather?”

I was trash, I was awful, a coward and a traitor, I left Maisie behind, I didn’t deserve Raine, I didn’t have it in me to hold any of this together.

“W-what?”

Raine cracked a grin. “You’ve convinced me. I’m in. I’m on board.”

I shook my head at her, lost.

“Count me in. I’m still scared for you, I don’t want you to bleed from your eyes or chuck your guts up, or worse. But, if I tried to stop you? I think that would hurt you more. So, I’m in.” She shrugged. “After all, protection is what I do. If you’ll have me.”

“That … thank you … ” I sniffed and wiped away the transient tears. “I do, Raine, I want … I like us. I really, really like you, but I still don’t understand what you see in me.”

Raine wet her lips, slowly, and took a step toward me. An aspect of her posture cut me off, the set of her shoulders, the way she moved, a new angle to her I’d never seen before.

“Slow it down, Heather. Lemme explain.”

“O-okay?”

“Yes, your vulnerability is part of the reason I like you. Not the only part. Not in the sense I want to exercise power over you or dominate your life. That would just make me a scumbag, and pretty unremarkable.” She cracked a grin, leaned in closer, her voice softer and softer. “And hey, I know I’m nothing if not remarkable.”

“R-Raine, what-”

Raine put her hand against the wall next to my shoulder, boxed me in, emphasised the height advantage she had over me.

“Look at you.” She smiled, bit her lower lip, really looked at me in a way that made me blush hard and bright red. “You’re small and mousy, you’re so careful with what you say, you’re so nervous about almost everything around you. It’s so cute I could eat you. I think I will.”

I spluttered. Very elegant.

“But I won’t stop you from being strong,” Raine said, quieter and softer. She leaned in, dangerously close now. “No matter how much you change, you’re always going to be Heather. Yeah, so maybe you learn to cut through solid steel with your mind, or command demons, or a fight a god, but at the end of the day you’re still gonna need a hug. You’re still going to be shorter than me, and I’m still going to be able to pick you up and princess carry you, and you can’t do a thing about it.”

Raine winked – and swept me off my feet.

Literally, she ducked and grabbed me behind the knees too fast for me to react, tipped me back and lifted me up. I yelped in surprise, caught between a put-me-down wriggle and clinging to her for support. Raine laughed and held me up easily, grinning like a mad woman.

“And I would be honoured, lady Morell,” she said. “If even after you have ascended to Time Lord status, you still look to me for that hug.”

I’d never blushed so hard or felt so flustered. One arm around Raine’s neck, the other flailing for outside support, I goggled at her, barely able to catch my breath.

“Oh my God, put me down!”

She laughed again but did exactly as I said, tipping and then depositing me straight onto my feet. I shook all over, but not with fear or adrenaline. A bizarre species of arousal gripped me even when Raine took half a step back, gave me space.

I didn’t know what to do with my hands. One of them had fluttered to my chest, over my heart, but the other seemed this useless blob of meat, fingertips tingling as I gaped at Raine.

“Don’t do that again without warning me,” I managed.

“Can’t make any promises there.” She cracked a grin and I gave her a death-glare. “You loved it, come on.”

No response there. I had, despite my better judgement. She’d made her point incredibly well. She could see it in the way I averted my eyes, the way I swallowed down my growing arousal, the way she made me feel when she handled me like that.

“So, Heather, are we together or not?”

“ … can we be?”

“Why not?”

“Because our relationship is off to such a great start, isn’t it? First kiss to first blazing row in under three hours. That’s gotta be some kind of record.”

“You’d have to do a lot worse than that to put me off.”

Raine waited, apparently nothing left to say. I hesitated, still terribly flushed, one moment forcing myself to look at her, the next unable to even contemplate the smug, in-control expression on her face. Was this how relationships worked?

“I … well, I do want to … ”

“Say it. Tell me what you’re thinking. Put it into words, Heather. As clumsy as you like.”

I looked at her. Really looked at her, let out all the stuff I’d barely been able to express even in the privacy of my own mind.

Raine was a masterpiece of athletic femininity. I hadn’t been able to keep my eyes off her these last two weeks. How could she possibly feel the same way about me? From her collarbone to the way she flexed her calf muscles, from the subtle curve of her hips to the feathery chestnut of her hair, she was like something out of one of my teenage fantasies.

She could have anybody she wanted – it was terrible and wrong to think, but a weird, jealous, bitter part of me was convinced she could have any straight girl she wanted, let alone the eager partners she’d find in any lesbian bar. The city did have those, right? I had no idea, I was so isolated and behind and cast adrift.

Anybody she wanted. Big boobs, big laugh, big heart, any quality she desired. But instead, Raine had picked me, a scrawny weird little disaster lesbian with a supernatural sword of Damocles hanging over my head and a growing desire to dedicate myself to a lost cause.

“I’m not exactly a low maintenance girlfriend,” I said.

Raine shrugged. “I don’t give a shit.”

“And you deserve better. I’m not fun, I’m not attractive-”

“You are! Hey, don’t put yourself down like that.” Raine pointed a finger-gun at me. “If we’re going to be together, I’m making an executive decision. Every time you say something bad about yourself, I’ll tickle you for sixty seconds.”

I frowned at her. “Absolutely not.”

She broke into a grin. “Are you ticklish? I haven’t had a chance to test yet.”

“Don’t you dare,” I said, feeling that odd aroused pull in the pit of my stomach again. “Look, Raine, I’m ugly and I’m scrawny, there’s nothing of me, at least not compared to you.”

Raine cocked an eyebrow and looked down at herself, grinned and puffed her chest out. “What, you jealous of my bomb-ass rack? S’yours if you want.”

I gaped at her, blushing terribly, totally overwhelmed. After what felt like an eternity I managed to look away. “I … Raine, take this seriously. I want you, I really do, but I-”

Raine touched my chin. I looked up at her. “If I’ve been taking things too slow for you, too slow to show you what I think of you, we can go as fast as you like.”

She kissed me.

It wasn’t gentle this time.

She all but pushed me against the wall. Raine wasn’t crude enough to shove her tongue down my throat, it wasn’t like that. It was the way she handled me, moved me into position, took charge.

Nobody was around to see, but I was mortified anyway. Mortified and powerfully turned on. When she let me go, I put a hand to my chest and hiccuped twice.

“T-that wasn’t like this morning,” I squeaked. Raine smiled, warm and confident, back to normal.

“Different kind of kiss,” she said.

“I gathered.”

She gave me a moment to recover. Rubbed my back. Tucked my hair behind my ears for me, gentle fingers against my cheeks.

“Wanna go back to your place?” Raine asked. “Breakfast can wait, Evee can entertain herself for an hour. Or three.”

“Raine, neither of us has showered since yesterday. We’re both disgusting. I need to go home and shower, not … not do anything sexy.”

Raine’s smile turned smug and teasing. “You’re saying we both need to shower?”

“Yes, yes we do.” I almost huffed.

“I can think of a way to save time doing that.”

My heart stopped. I swear, my heart stopped. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to slap her or let her pick me up again.

“ … my-” I squeaked, took a deep breath, and put up as much token resistance as I could muster. “M-my flat’s shower is too small for two people.”

“Showering together?” Raine mimed mock-shock. “Heather, so bold!”

“You-”

“You said it, not me.” Raine raised both hands.

“You were heavily implying it. You insufferable wind-up.”

Raine laughed, a big good-natured belly laugh. “Well, the shower at my place isn’t the best, but it’s one hundred percent big enough. Fancy a walk?”

My hands shook like doves and and my heart was gearing up to fly out of my chest. My face must have been bright tomato red. I’d never done this as a teenager, never fumbled through the first few steps of physical romance, had no idea what the proper etiquette was or how I was supposed to act toward Raine. Weren’t we supposed to, I don’t know, go on a date first?

My body said no. No wait. Now. Now.

I nodded. That was all I could manage. Raine slipped her hand around mine and squeezed.

“Hey, relax. It’s just a shower,” she said.

“Oh, shut up.”

We didn’t even make it out of Willow House before last night caught up with us.

I was far too busy imagining a million embarrassing things involving Raine in the shower, to notice how many steps we took and how many sets of double-doors we passed through. Too preoccupied with the feeling of her hand in mine, my own palms sweating, my heart ready to leap out of my chest, to notice the lack of other students or the eerie quiet in the top floor corridor of Willow House.

Raine stopped before the doors to the main stairwell. I looked up, expecting a flirtatious joke or a teasing wink.

She was staring back the way we’d walked, a frown on her face.

“Uh?” was all I could manage.

“That’s odd,” she muttered.

“What, what’s odd?”

“Corridor seemed longer. Stairwell should have been back there, one set of fire doors back.”

“Oh, Raine,” I sighed. “What are you talking about, it’s right here.” I let out a nervous, breathy laugh. She was as excited as me, losing track of space and time.

She didn’t laugh.

In the stairwell, I stopped laughing too.

“Where are the windows?” I murmured.

Willow House’s main stairwell should have been walled with a bank of windows on every floor, grubby brown glass set in concrete surroundings, gazing down across the main square on campus. At this time of day the stairwell should be flooded with at least weak sunlight and echoing with the distant sounds of other students shuffling or hurrying up and down the building.

Blank white breeze-block wall. No windows. Strip lights hummed.

“Did we get turned around?” I said. A veil of dislocation floated down over my brain.

Raine let go of my hand and stepped forward to peer over the railing. My heart almost missed a beat, and not in a good way. I scurried along after her.

“Huh,” Raine grunted. “Ain’t that unique.”

I looked down, over the railing.

Big mistake.

A wave of vertigo rocked me on my feet and swirled through my head. I clutched Raine’s hand and held on tight.

The stairwell extended forever in an endless spiral, down and down and down, until the flickering strip lights gave out and darkness swallowed an impossible depth. Mile after mile of identical repeating steps and banisters. I looked up – the same, a dizzying height repeating into infinity. I closed my eyes and my breath came out in sudden ragged gasps.

“Hey, Heather.” Raine squeezed my hand. She was so clam, so collected, so together. Held me back from the brink. I opened my eyes and saw her perfect confidence. How was she not shaking in panic, how did she deal with that abyss above and below? “Ease down.”

“I-I can’t-”

“You can. Hundred percent. When weird shit happens, the best thing to do is stay calm.”

I nodded. I knew that, in theory. “I’ll try.”

She gestured at the alien stairwell around us. “Did you uh, dimension hop us by accident? Got a little too excited?”

“ … do you see blood coming out of my eyes? This wasn’t me.”

“Right.” Raine pulled her mobile phone out of her pocket and looked at the screen. “Okay, good news, we’re still in Sharrowford.”

“We are?”

She showed me the phone screen: full signal.

I fumbled out my own phone and opened Google maps. It showed us located in Willow House, exactly where we should be.

“The other best thing to do when weird shit happens is call Evee.” Raine held her phone to her ear. I shuffled on my feet and tried not to look at the yawning, impossible abyss as we waited for Evelyn to answer.

“Evee, it- yeah, yeah, it’s fine, I- listen, listen, Heather and I have stumbled into some kind of … loop, in Willow House. Closed space, I dunno, like- yeah. Is this the surprise you left last night, for our cult friends?”

A flush of relief washed over me. This was Evelyn’s magic. Just a mistake. We’d stumbled into a trick meant for other people. She’d wave her hands and mutter some Latin and everything would be back to normal.

I heard some very exasperated noises from the phone. Raine winced.

“Yeah, okay. No, no don’t come here, no.” A long pause. “Yeah. Don’t keep us waiting. Bye for now.”

“What did she say?” I asked. Raine stared at the phone, and I realised she was psyching herself up. She shot me a grin, overlaid on tension.

“This isn’t Evee’s doing. She rigged the door of the Medieval Metaphysics room to give any intruders instant explosive gut pain. Not uh … not this.”

“ … where are we then? Raine, where are we? What is this?”

Raine’s smiled died. She fixed me with a serious expression. She didn’t let go of my hand. “You know how I said I’d probably over-reacted last night? That those weirdos probably didn’t even know who we were?”

“Yes?”

“Think I may have been wrong. We’re in a trap.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

providence or atoms – 2.10

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

If a team of expert psychologists drew up a list of the worst people from whom to seek stable emotional support, then after the obvious abusers and narcissists and sociopaths, I would rank pretty high on that list.

Evelyn did not have anybody else in that study with her. She had me. I did what I could.

My first instinct – were I capable of such courage – was to throw myself at her, hug her, tell her it was okay, whatever it was; Evelyn was my friend and she was in pain, and I felt it too. But I had a distinct impression she would lash out like a wounded animal.

“ … I … I’m not here to yell at you, Evee.”

She narrowed her eyes, confused, lost. A half-shake of her head.

“I came up here to look at the books, actually,” I said. “I thought you were still asleep.”

“I don’t deserve sleep.” She jerked a hand at the notes on the desk, gritting her teeth and grimacing. “At least this way I’m not a complete waste of skin.”

“Evee, no, you … ” I groped for the right words. I had only Raine to imitate. “J-just take a deep breath. Breathe slowly. It’ll be okay. Start at the beginning, tell me what’s wrong? D-did something happen?”

“Did something happen?” she echoed, voice dripping with bitter mockery. She didn’t take that deep breath. “You saw it all. Where am I supposed to begin? You want an itemised list of my failures? Want to rub it in?”

“Evelyn,” I snapped her name, scared by her distress. “Stop talking like that about yourself. Stop it. Right now.”

She blinked at me as if slapped, eyes red-rimmed and bloodshot. “Why?”

“Because … ” I swallowed. “Because it’s not healthy.”

“Why should that matter? I’m a useless waste of effort, and I know it. I can’t get a single thing right. I messed up everything, I always do.”

“Evee, no-”

“I’m just a leftover shell. I should have been there last night with you and Raine, I could have prevented- but I couldn’t, could I? I couldn’t even follow, because I’m a cripple with a stump.” She thumped at her own thigh, and only then did I realise she wasn’t wearing her prosthetic.

The right leg of her pajama bottoms flapped lose and flat. She’d hobbled here from her bedroom on her stick and withered left leg.

Self-harm.

She’d probably been hurting herself all night.

“I screwed up, okay?” she snapped. “I know it, I know I screwed up. I always screw up. Can’t get anything right, can’t do a single thing correct. You warned me about the Eye, oh yes, I but thought I knew better, smart little Evelyn Saye with her twisted education and her need prove herself right and her fucking mother issues.”

She shouted the last three words and slammed one hand across the desk, scattering papers into the air, sending a notebook flying, almost toppling the lamp. I flinched. Stray pencils clattered to the floor.

Evelyn began to sob. She hid her eyes behind a hand, sagging, defeated, spent. “Go away, for fuck’s sake. Leave me alone.”

“ … no. Evee, no, I won’t. I- I can’t leave you like this.”

“Go away,” she whined out between sobs. She threw a balled-up sheet of note paper at me. It bounced off the floor and rolled to a stop against my foot.

I’d never dealt with a crying person. A crying friend. I’d listened to a fair share of weeping and wailing in psychiatric hospitals, often much worse than this, but I’d never had to comfort somebody. I’d never wanted to before, never wanted to make a friend’s pain stop.

My mouth worked silently through a double-dozen empty platitudes, words Raine would have made brilliant and meaningful, but in my head they all rang hollow.

“Y-you know, this house is really amazing,” I said. “It’s- it’s not like anywhere else I’ve ever been.”

Evelyn peered out from behind her hand, eyes red and full of tears. “What?”

“I mean, it’s so old and it’s not been renovated. It’s full of these cosy little corners and decades of stuff. I-it’s amazing, I love it. I’m sort of jealous, in a way. You’ve seen my flat, it sucks, it’s horrible, a concrete box. I grew up in this awful modern semi-detached, freezing in the winter and boiling in the summer. Tiny, tiny square-footage compared to this place. You could fit five, six people in this house and it’d never feel cramped. There’s a basement and an attic too, isn’t there?”

“ … uh, yes, yes there is.” Evelyn sniffed and wiped her eyes on the back of her sleeve.

I kept rambling.

“Take this room. A study! You have an actual study. A personal library. I’d kill for a study, a room just for reading. It’s the sort of thing I used to fantasise about having one day, my own study. Professor Morell and all that nonsense, it’ll likely never happen.” I shrugged and forced a little laugh. “It’s incredible. You could probably do with a more comfortable chair than that though.” I nodded at the ancient wooden swivel-chair, no wheels on the feet. “And … um … do you have blueprints, floor plans of the house? I’d love to see them sometime, if you do. Often those get kept, for older buildings like this, if you’re lucky.”

Evelyn blinked at me. I thought I’d lost her, gone too far, but then she waved a limp hand. “Top shelf, one of the box files, I think.”

“That’s great. I’ll take a look later. Thank you.”

Evelyn’s tears had stopped. She wiped her nose on her sleeve. Score one for distraction Heather.

I looked away as she blew her nose and dried her eyes, then I patted her shoulder, careful, gentle. Besides her circa-1950s desk chair, only a tiny stepladder and a rickety old wooden chair offered anywhere to sit. I pulled up the chair – cast adrift from a kitchen table, probably – and sat down, my knees weak from tension.

“I’m sorry you had to see me like that,” Evelyn said. She stared at the floorboards, voice low and dull. “Years since I cried in front of anybody. Pathetic.”

“No, Evee, please. It’s so bad to keep it bottled up. I know I’m hardly one to talk, but it’s fine to cry. You’re only human.”

Evelyn shrugged. “I barely count as human.”

“Evee-”

Evelyn continued before I could tell her off. She looked up into my eyes with a sad, defeated expression. “That makes three times. Twice you’ve rescued me from my own idiotic mistakes, and now you’ve dealt with me having a tantrum.”

“Don’t call it that, that’s not fair on yourself.”

“I couldn’t even call the Noctis Macer back. Couldn’t keep up. Evelyn Saye, her mother the best in a generation, having a tantrum. You keep helping me, Heather, and I can’t repay you because I can’t get anything right. Because I keep failing. I am a failure.”

“You shouldn’t say those things about yourself.”

Evelyn sighed. “Why not? It’s true.”

“Well … well, I don’t actually know, but I’m pretty sure you shouldn’t.”

She puffed out the faintest imitation of a laugh. “At least you’re honest. I know it’s unhealthy. Everything I do is unhealthy.”

At least she’d calmed down. I’d snapped her out of the emotional crisis, but I had no idea how to help. I wasn’t Raine, I didn’t possess the right words.

We were, however, in a library.

Bookcases lined the walls of the study, full to bursting, with space left for only the door, the desk, and a small high window which admitted a shaft of grey dawn light across the ceiling. The study was a shade closer to my imaginary picture of an occult library, except ninety-nine percent of the literature here was completely mundane.

I glanced up and saw textbooks of natural history wedged next to modern novels, collections of plays stacked with back issues of mid-century magazines and comic books. Leatherbound, hardbound, floppy dog-eared paperbacks. Some shelves had been left to gather dust for years, but cleaner patches showed through where Evelyn had cleared space, re-organised, re-colonised.

An emotional handhold presented itself with the clarity of a light bulb illuminating above my head: a three-volume complete works of Shakespeare. I stood up and eased one of the books out from between its siblings, blew the film of dust off the top, and cracked it open.

“What are you doing?” Evelyn asked.

“One … one second. Ah, here … ” I wet my lips and raised my chin, muttered the first few words of the passage I’d located, then warmed as I went, into full, flowing speech as I quoted: “But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks, nor made to court an amorous looking-glass; I, that am rudely stamped, and want love’s majesty, to strut before a wanton ambling nymph; I, that am curtailed of this fair proportion, cheated of feature by dissembling nature, deformed, unfinished, sent before my time into this breathing world, scarce half made up …”

I trailed off, looked up, and bottled it completely at Evelyn’s puzzled frown. At least my antics had banished her surface depression.

“Was that meant to be a comment on me?” she asked.

“No. On myself, actually.” I shook my head and closed the book. “That’s Richard the third, talking about his deformity. I used to … I still do, sort of, identify with that. It’s comforting. Sorry, that probably made zero sense to you.”

Evelyn shook her head. “No, I get it. I do.”

I smiled at her. “Evelyn, Evee, I was actually ready to be a little angry with you. But not for the reasons you think. Mistakes don’t matter, we’re friends. I was angry when you sprung Wonderland on me without warning.”

Evelyn stared at me for a long moment, mouth half-open, then looked down at her hands and let out a huge sigh. “I’m just like my mother.”

Oh dear. No, reverse course, wrong direction, back up, back up.

“I very much doubt that,” I said quickly. “And you can make it right, by apologising. I would like an apology, for that, specifically.”

She jerked her head up, blinking, frowning, only halfway there, as if I’d presented some radical, alien concept. For a moment I thought I’d lost her, that she’d shuffle back into her pit and never come out. But then she swallowed and nodded slowly. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Heather. I know, it was … disrespectful. I don’t want to treat you like my mother treated me. I’m sorry.”

“Then I forgive you.”

She looked at me as if I’d slapped her, vulnerable and blinking.

We shared one of the most awkward hugs humanly possible. I don’t think Evelyn was made for comforting embraces. I put my arms around her shoulders and she hesitated to do the same, stiff and cold, but it seemed to do the trick. When we let go of each other, she took a deep breath and nodded slowly.

“Would you do me a very big favour, Heather?”

“What is it?”

She cleared her throat and gestured at the door. “Would you please fetch my leg? It’s on the floor in my bedroom.”

“Of course I will. Don’t, um, don’t self-harm while I’m gone.”

“I won’t.”

Evelyn’s prosthetic wasn’t difficult to find. It lay just inside her bedroom door, below a small dent in the wall, the source of the loud thump I’d heard last night, the final word in Raine and Evelyn’s argument.

Heavier than I’d expected, six or seven pounds of matte-black carbon fiber and shiny articulated knee. White rubber thigh-socket stuck out from the open end. I tried not to stare, equal parts embarrassed for Evelyn and overcome with delicate care as I cradled her leg. This was one of the most intimate things I’d ever held. This was, in a way, part of her body.

Evelyn’s bedroom spoke of a very different side to her; I’d not gotten a good look the first time I was here, half conscious as I’d been.

Pastel sheets and blankets turned the bed into a den of pink and lilac. Plush animals conferred together on the chest of drawers, some of them old and tatty, childhood memories perhaps, but several of them new and expensive-looking, along with a handful of stylised anime figurines, all girl superheroes with candy-coloured hair and outfits. Not something I’d expect Evelyn to enjoy.

Back in the study, Evelyn accepted her prosthetic with both hands, murmured a thank you, and began to roll up her loose pajama leg.

I gestured to the door. “I’ll just … ”

“Watch if you want.” She shrugged. “Raine’s seen it often enough. I don’t care.”

Leaving felt ruder than staying, so I watched with mounting fascination as Evelyn reattached her leg. It was quite a process.

Her stump was an ugly gnarled knot of old scar tissue, crisscrossed by angry red stitch-marks and indents from surgical staples. Not a clean amputation. She rolled her pajama leg up to the middle of her thigh, then reached into the socket on the prosthetic and extracted a sort of thick truncated sock. She pulled the sock onto her stump.

“Did-” I started, then stopped. “Sorry. I’m curious, but I don’t want to intrude.”

“You’re going to ask how I lost it.”

“Oh, no, not at all. I assume that wasn’t … normal. Actually I was surprised by the scarring. Did they try to save it and make it worse?”

A smile tugged at the corners of Evelyn’s mouth – that’s when I knew she was going to be okay. “Could put it like that. The doctor was drunk.”

“ … I’m sorry, what?”

Evelyn leaned back, the unattached prosthetic held across her lap. She tapped her stump. “This wasn’t done in a hospital. No NHS guidelines for me. I was nine, and the last thing my mother wanted to do was present me for treatment. She’d have been arrested in a heartbeat, I’d have been taken into care. But the leg had to come off. Gangrene, mostly. The doctor was an old associate of my grandmother, good at keeping his mouth shut, willing to take payment under the table. They pumped me full of morphine, got me to hold a pillow up so I wouldn’t see the bone-saw going back and forth.”

“Oh Evee, I can’t even imagine … ”

She waved me down. “I don’t need pity. I took my revenge, for that and worse. It’s just the way it was.” She rapped a knuckle against the carbon fiber prosthetic. “I’m lucky, in fact. My father paid for this, for previous versions of it, for physical rehab. Not everyone who loses a limb gets to be a cyborg, you know? Some make do.”

“Your dad? Is … I mean, I don’t want to pry again.”

Evelyn considered, then sighed and shrugged. “A weak fool who couldn’t stand up to my mother. It’s mostly his way of dealing with the guilt, but at least he tries to do right. I don’t talk to him very much.”

She set the prosthetic on the floor and wriggled the rubber socket up around her stump, making a dozen minor adjustments as she pulled the contraption snug.

“Do you want me ask?” I said. “Why you lost the leg?”

“Why do you think?” She set her artificial foot down with a clack. “Same reason I can’t straighten my spine. Same reason the muscles are withered in my other leg. Same reason I’m short a few fingers and hooked on painkillers. My mother did not merely teach me magic, she used me for it. I … I don’t want to talk about it. Ask Raine if you must, she knows.”

I smiled a little. “She told me to ask you. Said it wasn’t her place to divulge.”

Evelyn’s eyebrows attempted to leave her face. “Really? Well, fancy that. What have you been doing to her, Heather?”

“I-I think it was because I told her off.” I almost blushed. “Nothing else.”

“And she listened to you?”

“Yes. I think. Maybe. It’s hard to tell with Raine.”

“Mm. I’m sorry I left you two to your own devices last night. I take it she put you up in her old room?”

“Her … old … room?”

“Ah, that didn’t come up? Never mind, forget I said anything.”

“Oh, not on your life, Evee.” I almost laughed. “Raine used to live with you, here? Are you absolutely sure you and her didn’t have a thing together?”

“Absolutely.” Evelyn made it sound very final. “Living together was only sensible, when we first came to Sharrowford. She had the room on the other side of the hall, out there. Then we had a … ” She struggled, grimaced. “A disagreement, about six months back. She moved out. I thought she’d told you all this.”

“Not a word, no.”

“Typical.”

“Typical Raine.” I smiled involuntarily. “What was the disagreement about?”

“ … I didn’t want her around.” Evelyn paused and rubbed the bridge of her nose. “Possibly a mistake. Maybe I should have people in my life more, not less. It goes against every instinct I have, but here you are.”

I smiled, felt blessed, flattered. “I have it on pretty good authority that’s what friends are meant to be for.”

Evelyn huffed a minimalist laugh and we shared a glance. We weren’t so different.

“Maybe yesterday didn’t go exactly to plan,” I said, before she could shore up her self-loathing again. “But one way or the other it delivered to me the first proof in tens years that my sister might be alive. You did that. Thank you, Evee.”

Evelyn’s expression frosted over. “The tshirt.”

“Yes, the tshirt.”

“It-”

“Wait,” I held up one hand. “I found more words inside it this morning. The rest of her message. I think I should show you, you need to see.”

Evelyn squinted, then sighed heavily and nodded.

“It’s downstairs, I’ll go fetch it.” I rose from my chair.

“No, I’ll come down with you,” Evelyn said. “I can’t fester in here forever. Besides, I have something to show you as well.” She reached over and slid a bookmark into one of the crumbling leatherbound tomes on the desk, then folded it shut. “Help me up, will you? My hips are sore as hell.”


==


Maisie’s tshirt caused a huge argument. I hadn’t prepared myself for that.

Downstairs, we found Raine had just woken up. She was stretching in the kitchen, halfway through a routine, yawning as she pressed both hands against the kitchen table, muscles tensed and one leg braced out behind her. She carried on while we talked and it was exquisitely distracting, but I wasn’t about to complain.

“Hey!” She straightened up and flashed a smile as we appeared, rolling her neck and shoulders. “I was just coming to find you. Surprised you’d gotten up, everything okay?”

“Sorry I left you there on the sofa,” I said. “I had a thought. I had to do … a thing.”

Evelyn stomped past me, the big leatherbound book clutched to her chest with one hand. She grunted.

“S’fine, I needed the sleep,” Raine said. She pantomimed a duck-and-cover as Evelyn passed her. “So uh, Evee, am I still in the firing line?”

Evelyn avoided her gaze, filled a glass of water and muttered a barely audible apology.

“Don’t gimme the grumbly face.” Raine grinned. “I can tell you’re in a better mood.”

“Oh, I suppose I am,” Evelyn said. “Look, Raine, I’m sorry I blew up at you last night.”

Raine blinked as if Evelyn had grown an extra head. Her mouth fell open. I almost giggled.

“We had a bit of a heart to heart,” I said.

Evelyn winced. “Don’t call it that.”

Raine grinned from ear to ear. She carried on through her stretching routine, hooked one arm and then the other behind her head, pulling on alternate wrists to stretch her deltoids. I stared.

“And wipe that stupid grin off your face,” Evelyn told her.

“No chance!” Raine laughed as she stretched both arms over her head, side to side. “How’d both of you fancy going out for some breakfast? My treat.”

“Wouldn’t say no,” I muttered, far more concerned with the way that pose showed off Raine’s hips and waist.

Our kiss earlier seemed to have knocked a screw loose in my head. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t looked at Raine before, admired the way she moved, appreciated her toned athleticism and clean-limbed flexibility, but I hadn’t felt exactly like … this. Whatever this was. She stretched her quad muscles, by lifting each ankle in turn and grabbing it behind her backside with one hand, balancing herself against the kitchen table with her other. I felt the most unaccountable urge to reach out and goose her hipbone.

Clarifying the nature of our relationship had awakened an aspect of myself I wasn’t very familiar with. I turned away to hide a rising blush.

We had bigger things to deal with right now than my libido.

“I thought we needed to play at being hermits for a day or two?” Evelyn said.

Raine shrugged and pulled a self-mocking face. “I think I jumped the gun. My fault, my bad. Nothing’s happened. Odds are they had no idea who we were. Might not even have been the Cult. Also, I could eat a horse. What do you say?”

“I assume dog-brain made it out alright?” Evelyn asked.

“Twil? Yeah, she’s fine. Sore head’s about the worst of her problems.”

“I have something I need to show you, Raine,” I said. “Both of you.”


==


We gathered around the table in the ex-drawing room. The big overhead light was missing a few bulbs, lost to the ages, casting fuzzy illumination up the walls and across the floor. Evelyn munched her way through a cereal bar, but Raine was too focused on me to eat anything. She’d picked up on my tension.

I unfolded the filthy tshirt on the table, hiked up the front, showed them Maisie’s hidden message.

I didn’t need to say a word.

Raine’s lips moved as she read the first line, then she trailed off and shook her head. Evelyn stared in silence, sucking on her teeth.

“Bloody hell,” Raine muttered. She put a hand on my shoulder. “Are you okay?”

“Surprisingly enough, yes. Maybe I’m just numb, or maybe nothing shocks me after yesterday.”

The truth was too hard to phrase: I felt a steel ball of resolve in my chest. Pain had been transmuted. Raine shook her head again and swore softly as she stared at Maisie’s message, at the crazed scrawl, the plea for my help.

“You’re absolutely certain it’s hers? ‘Maisie’?” Evelyn pronounced my twin’s name with exaggerated care.

I nodded. “Some things you never forget.”

“Bloody hell,” Raine repeated. She hooked her hands behind her head and started to pace up and down. Evelyn levelled a very steady gaze at me, and I knew what she was thinking. For a moment I thought she might not say it, might try to be gentle with me, hold back.

She came through, respected my intelligence.

“It’s bait,” Evelyn said.

“I know.”

“It- what?”

“I accept that possibility. It’s not hard for me. You forget, Evee, I’ve spent ten years intentionally crushing my own hopes on a semi-regular basis. I’m quite used to the psychological discipline.”

“Oh, well, good-”

“But I still want my sister back.” I took a deep breath as my veneer of stability cracked, as a lump formed in my throat. “You can’t know how it feels. Nobody else even remembers her. She’s not in any photos, it took her bed, her clothes, everything. My parents they- … they didn’t forget, but the Eye made it so they never knew. As far as the world is concerned, Maisie Morell never existed. Except for me. I’m the only link she’s got. I miss her so much. I miss my twin. I owe it to her, even if this is bait.”

Evelyn thumped the book she was carrying down on the table, almost glaring at me.

I tried to steady my voice. “And if it’s not bait-”

“The Eye knows your mind inside out, Heather. It knows your desires, your needs, your darkest secrets and fears, it knows the exact object with which to bait you into throwing yourself onto its hook.”

“Hear her out,” Raine said.

“What’s to hear?” Evelyn spread her hands in a dismissive shrug. “What I said yesterday still stands, we can’t fight this thing. My idiotic mistake should have proved that, at the very least, or have you already forgotten what it felt like to have that thing rooting around in your skull? It didn’t even need a stable gate to do that.”

Raine raised her hands. “But what if-”

Evelyn ignored Raine, turned to me. “I know it’s name.”

“… I’m sorry?”

“Your ‘Eye’. It has a name. The experiment yesterday was an abject failure, yes. I’d intended to find out how it was contacting you, find a way to close off those pipelines, identify and categorise and lock down. That fell apart when it saw us – God alone knows how it did that. But now I know what it is. I sat up all night trying to salvage something from my own failure, trying to figure out how it sent the Noctis Macer through, trying to find anything, anything at all. And I found it.” She tapped the huge leatherbound book. “It’s in Unbekannte Orte.”

She flipped the tome open and turned the page toward me, jabbing a finger at the relevant passage. “There’s your Eye.”

The book was a horrible thing.

I didn’t think it possible for a book to feel wrong; it seemed so lovely. Heavy yellowed parchment pages, many repaired and held together with special tape, between cracked leather covers so very old and strangely pale, with handwritten notes in the margins and beautiful illustrated initial letters. There was only one problem.

“I can’t read German,” I said.

“Oh, right, yes.”

Evelyn cleared her throat and began to translate.

“Of the seventh and final inhabitant of the outer rim I have little to tell,” she read, finger tracing the words. “For such a thing is terrible and awesome to behold and left me bedridden with shaking and sweating for weeks thereafter. Though Malthus carried me swiftly through that place, his wings beat upon such a thinness of air and could not find purchase to leave once more and the very Earl of Hell himself dared not look upward upon the countenance which fixed us with its gaze. Malthus-”

“Who’s Malthus?” I interrupted. “And who’s the speaker here?”

She shrugged. “Malthus is the name of a demon, probably not a true name though. This part of Unbekannte Orte is an account by a medieval monk, claimed to have bound a demon to show him the limits of creation. The book is generally pretty sound about most things, but I’m not just working on trust. Here.” She continued.

“Malthus put aside his usual attempts to tempt me from the safer path, and advised me not to look upon the lord of this realm, for he knew well as I that neither man nor damnation could escape this place alone. I made a mistake of such grave proportions that to this day of writing I often dream of a giant eye, not of the godly ordained form of man but rather akin to a vast beast of the sea, Leviathan itself in the waters before the word. I can only be thankful to God almighty that in my terror and haste, I failed to apprehend the form of a body behind the single eye. Like those I have summoned to teach my poor mind natural law, this eye whispers the secrets of mathematics to me and I must purge myself after any such visitations.”

“Oh,” I breathed. “Oh. Right. I-”

“There’s more,” Evelyn said. She wet her lips and spoke slowly. “Malthus informs me that the being is properly named-”

It was not a word.

It was an un-sound that made my eyes water and my ears pop. The temperature dropped by a perceptible few degrees and a crackle passed through the air at the edge of hearing. Raine flinched shook her head like a startled dog. Evelyn coughed and winced.

“A true name,” Evelyn said.

“Does that give us power over it?” I asked. “Somewhere to start?”

Evelyn shook her head slowly. “No. But I can use it for the next step of what I was planning in the first place. Sealing you off from the Eye. It won’t be as elegant as what I had in mind, but it will work.” She watched me, the implication plain.

“That’s not as important to me anymore,” I said very quietly.

Evelyn sighed and leaned heavily on her walking stick, fixing me with the sort of look one gave to a child who wanted to play in traffic.

“This isn’t the kind of monster you summon to do your bidding,” she said. “It’s the kind people build religions around, the kind that ends civilisations. I felt that stare on me yesterday, we all did. Across the membrane, from Outside, and it still almost scooped our minds out on a whim, in a second. I had the strongest, most complex magic circles I know, the fruits of my mother’s work and more. Magic is not enough, magic is pissing into the wind.” Evelyn punctuated her words by rapping her walking stick against the side of the table. “This. thing. cannot. be. fought.”

“What about by me?” I said.

Evelyn halted and narrowed her eyes.

“Self-implementing hyperdimensional mathematics,” I said. “What do you imagine I’ve been thinking about all morning?”

“What’s this?” Raine asked.

“My uh, brain-math.” I gave her an awkward, guilty look as I tapped the side of my head. “Apparently that’s the technical term.”

Evelyn frowned up a thunderstorm. I managed to hold her gaze, but then my eyes flickered over to where I’d left the pamphlet on the table. She followed my look.

“You’d need a lot more than that,” she said with a huge sigh.

“Probably.” My voice shook far worse than I’d hoped it would, gave away how frightened this line of thought made me. I touched my fingers to my forehead. “But it’s all up here, isn’t it? You say the Eye is like a god, that it can reach from one dimension to another? Well, so can I. It taught me everything, a million things I didn’t want to know. I can dimension-hop. Who knows what else it showed me how to do?”

Evelyn ran a hand over her face. “I shouldn’t have told you anything. Should have kept you at arm’s length.”

“I deserved to know.”

“You’re going to get yourself killed.”

“Not if you help me, Evee.”

Evelyn opened her mouth on harsher words, but stalled out, emotions fighting across her face. She looked away and scowled, then closed Unbekannte Orte and tugged at the bookmarks as she thought. Raine picked up the pamphlet, flicked it open and peered inside.

“I’m not talking about rushing into this,” I said. “Even if … even if there is a time limit.” I eyed the last line of Maisie’s secret message: her deadline, a year from now. “I mean … it seems absurd right now, but I have an essay due next week. The real world moves on without us, I can’t just abandon university for magic. Besides, I have you and Raine, don’t I?”

“I can hardly refuse you,” Evelyn said. “You saved me twice already.”

I felt a spike of terrible guilt. “That’s not-”

“Shut up. Let me think.”

I did. I looked to Raine for support, but she stared at Evelyn in equally deep thought, arms folded, the pamphlet in one hand. I was rapidly sinking beyond my depth, once again painfully aware of how much better these two knew each other than I ever could. I was on the verge of a minor outburst, of saying forget it, I’m sorry, I’ll drop it, I’ll do it myself, and a hundred other excuses.

“Assuming the tshirt is genuine, and therefore your twin is alive, we are presented with three problems,” Evelyn said. She stared at the tabletop as she talked, then paced to the head of the table, pushed a stack of books aside, and sat down with her chin in her hands. “One is the Eye itself. It can’t be defeated or killed, not in the way we define such concepts. I would need to find – or more likely, develop from scratch – a way to avoid the thing’s gaze, to hide, to be unseen.”

I nodded. “R-right.”

“Second.” She counted off on her fingers. “Is locating your sister. Which will either be incredibly easy or incredibly hard.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because of the third problem. Nothing human can survive out there for long.”

I blinked at her. “What … what do you mean?”

Evelyn sucked on her teeth. “It’s not impossible that Maisie sent the Noctis Macer herself. I’m not entirely sure what that would imply about the state of her humanity.”

I nodded, slowly. “Okay. I understand. I still want to try.”

Evelyn pulled a funny expression at me, half-smile, half resigned fatalism. “I don’t even know where to begin. This is beyond uncharted territory. Beyond anything … anything my mother ever did. I suppose I need to hit the books, do some experiments, but the heavy lifting will be on you, on self-implementing hyperdimensional mathematics.”

“I know.”

“And you’re not even in a state to begin.” She jerked a finger at Maisie’s shirt. “It’s lucky we have a year, because you’re going to have to do that part yourself, and I don’t really know how to help you.”

“I can start small, read that,” I pointed at the pamphlet – still in Raine’s hand – and forced a smile, forced myself to feel confidence I didn’t have. “And … and face some of the things in the back of my head, m-maybe.” I swallowed down a bubble of nausea. The Eye’s impossible equations reared their many-mawed heads inside my mind.

Back down, I told them, I’ll deal with you later.

“Hold up,” Raine said. “You’re suggesting Heather root around in more of this shit the Eye crammed into her head?”

“Hardly my suggestion,” Evelyn said. “Perhaps you should listen to her.”

Raine turned a concerned frown on me, all worry. I stumbled over my words, over my own forced enthusiasm.

“Yes, yes. Fight fire with fire,” I said. “It’s given me all the tools, even if they’re awful to use. I can try- I-I have to try, I can’t just leave Maisie out there. I can’t.”

Raine waited for me to finish, then smiled as gently as she could.

“Last time you did it, it nearly killed you,” she said. “You didn’t see yourself, you were dead on the floor. I’ve … well,” her smiled turned self-conscious. “I have been that worried before, about a certain other person.” She nodded toward Evelyn. “But it’s not an experience I wanna repeat, not with you, Heather, you get me?”

“M-maybe that doesn’t have to happen again,” I said. “I can start small, I can-”

Raine said the worst possible words. The last thing I ever wanted to hear from her. The culmination of all my paranoia and repressed self-loathing.

If I hadn’t spent the last 16 hours dealing with one of the worst shocks of my life, I probably would have been able to talk it through. But I was still emotionally exhausted, the ache throbbing through my diaphragm in the background, hungry and in need of real food, probably a little dehydrated as well. My legs were weak and I needed a shower, sticky and greasy and stressed and holding myself together with the power of my friends’ support, masking the most terrifying suggestion of my life with bland optimism that I didn’t really believe.

“Let Evee and I deal with this. Leave it to us,” Raine said.

“I-I can’t, Raine. She’s my sister, my twin. She needs me. I-I can’t just-”

“Oh dear,” Evelyn muttered under her breath.

“Evee, I thought you had my back on this one?” Raine said.

“Excuse me?” I said, horrified at Raine’s tone.

“I owe her, Raine,” Evelyn said. “She’s saved me twice so far, clearly her judgement’s sounder than mine.”

Raine sighed and turned back to me. “You heard what Evee said, we can cut this thing off, give you your life back. Leave it to us.” Raine smiled and reached out for my hands. Comforting Raine, safe Raine, all the support in the world I’d ever needed.

I pulled away from her.

“Is that what I am to you?” I swallowed hard, lump in my throat.

“Heather? Evee and I can handle this-”

Evelyn huffed a laugh. “No we bloody well can’t.”

“- there’s no need to hurt yourself for this.”

“Some things are worth it,” I said, drawing myself up straight, gathering my battered dignity. “Some things in life you try even if they might kill you.”

”I sure as hell know that,” Raine laughed. “But you’re hardly out of options. Your back isn’t up against the wall here. You don’t have to blow up your own head to get this done.”

“I’m sick of being useless! I’ve run away and hidden for ten years!” I snapped. “I’m sick of it, I’m sick of hiding! I left her behind, Raine! I’m scum. I can’t just let other people do this for me. It’s not- it’s not just about-”

It’s not just about Maisie.

I couldn’t say that, of course. I could barely face it myself.

I needed this.

For me.

Raine tried to smile, explain herself, but I didn’t give her time. In my own private hell of paranoia and pressure, I didn’t give her time.

“You called me brave,” I spoke over her. “Was that a lie?”

“No! Heather, no, not at all. I just don’t want you to get-”

“It doesn’t matter what you want me to do. I’m not your damsel in distress.”

I marched over to the sofa and grabbed my coat, but ruined my hasty retreat by my need to scoop up Maisie’s tshirt from the table. I crammed it into my coat pocket and turned to Evelyn, trying as hard as I could to control the lump in my throat and the heat in my face and my eyes.

“Evelyn, t-thank you, for-”

“Heather, hey-” Raine moved to take my arm, to put a comforting hand on me, but I jerked away from her.

“Oh bloody hell, the pair of you,” Evelyn snapped. “Don’t do this.”

I all but ran for the front door, mortified and humiliated. Raine followed me the whole way, only a few steps behind as I stamped into my shoes and burst out into the wan grey Sharrowford morning. Raine struggled into her boots and shut the door behind us, hurrying up the broken garden path to catch me.

Out in the street, spirit-life roiled in the thin morning fog, a mirror up to my heart. Wolf-things snapped and prowled and stretched snake-necks to the sky, gibbering tentacled slop lurked in the alleyways between the houses, packs of ghoulish creatures furred in burnt moss and topped with skull-faces danced and capered. They seemed reluctant to cross the wall of Evelyn’s overgrown front garden.

Raine reached for my shoulder. I folded my arms and turned away from her.

“Where are you going? I’ll come with.”

“Home,” I grunted. “Alone.”

She hadn’t meant half the things my own mind had supplied, I knew that.

Didn’t I like it when she treated me as vulnerable, in need of protection, saving, to be looked after and helped and supported? I did. I loved it. She cared. She was afraid I’d hurt myself – and she was right. Digging up the Eye’s lessons and playing with impossible physics did mean hurting myself. Badly. Perhaps irreversibly. Maybe I’d die choking on my own vomit, or pulled apart inside by the impossible black machinery of reality, or maybe my head would explode.

The kiss, the romance, had made it that much worse – had given me something to hold onto, filled me with a hundred new doubts.

I was scared, and I’d lashed out at the nearest target.

“I wish they’d all just move,” I said.

“Eh?”

“Not you,” I frowned at Raine, then looked back at the monsters, the ghouls, the faces of bone and flesh and staring eyes, the lizard-heads and dripping ichor. “Them. My hallucinations. I wish they’d just get out of the way,” I snapped, raised my voice on the last few words.

They did. Parted. Scattered. At my command.

For a long moment I just stared at the street, shocked out of everything by the effect of my own words. My anger. My will.

Raine took my hand. I shook her off.

“Leave me alone.”

“Do you really mean that?” she asked softly.

I shrugged, then shook my head.

I’m so easy.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

providence or atoms – 2.9

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Anticlimax is often far more challenging to accept than the release of action. All the best stories build up and up, then explode from sheer pressure. We expect our lives to work that way.

For years I believed in my own special susceptibility to that lure, the temptation to see one’s life as a story, with myself cast in the role of the hounded, persecuted protagonist; paranoid schizophrenics slide down that slippery slope with such ease. But we all do it, contort ourselves into narratives, each of us our own hero, expecting the dramatic climax which never comes.

Which was my theory for why Raine couldn’t sleep that night.

After the standoff in the underground car-park, Raine had route-marched me back to campus to pick up Evelyn. Her cheery exterior and borderline dirty jokes failed to cover up the backward glances, the firm grip on my hand, the wire-tightness in her every muscle. My adrenaline ran out, spent, dissipated by the regular pedestrians and streetlights and the sounds of early evening drinking on campus.

I was dead on my feet by the time we got back to the Medieval Metaphysics room. I’d half thought to sit down for five minutes, rest my legs and my mind together, but Evelyn was ready to leave and Raine made sure we didn’t linger. She hurried us out into the corridor, then paused before locking the door.

“You’ve booby trapped this, right Evee? In case-”

Evelyn turned a cold shoulder. “Of course I did,” she snapped.

Down the stairwell and back out into the night, my hand in Raine’s and my reserves sputtering on empty, eyelids heavy and feet like lead. We left campus and skirted the northern edge of the student quarter, past old redbrick Victorian houses and flickering streetlights. The second time I’d taken this route hand-in-hand with Raine. Exhausted notions flittered through my head. Didn’t I need clothes, a shower, my toothbrush? I felt unclean, sweat-soaked, stinking.

But I was too tired to care – physically, emotionally, spiritually. My other hand gripped Maisie’s tshirt, stuffed in my coat pocket.

Raine noticed, bless her. She squeezed my hand. “You holding up okay?”

I almost said ‘what do you think?’, but restrained my exhausted sarcasm. She’d asked a practical question. Raine was nothing if not practical that night.

“I’m fine,” I said.

“You’ve gone real quiet, that’s all.”

“I’m tired.”

It was the truth.

I had a companion in sullen silence. Evelyn had barely spoken since we’d picked her up. Stormy faced and shoulders hunched, she stomped on a few paces ahead of us, walking stick clacking against the pavement. Was she used to this panic and flight, this interruption of routine? Or was it my fault again, an imposition, a threat brought down on us by my stupid, needy naivety?

Spirit life ebbed and flowed through these rotten streets, wolf-faced monsters and ghoul-limbed apes and worse, lurking at the ends of the roads. They trailed us, closed ranks as we passed, watched and followed and stalked – but at a further distance. A respectful distance, I thought.

They still left me queasy. Ingrained habit and discipline made me avert my eyes. But the old fear bothered me less than ever.

Just exhaustion, I told myself. Too tired to care.

Evelyn’s house, at least, offered sanctuary. Number 12 Barnslow Drive loomed out of the night, as weed-choked and leering as I remembered, dark and brooding in grand disrepair.

She unlocked the front door, slapped the lights on, and almost slammed her walking stick down against the wall. Raine steered me inside and deposited me, wobbly legs and all, as she slipped back outdoors.

“Just to check,” she said.

Evelyn slipped off her shoes and stomped over toward the stairs, saying nothing as I struggled to unlace my trainers. Raine returned, locked the front door, checked the locks twice, then turned to both of us and clapped her hands together.

“Right, we- Evee? Where are you going?”

“My room.” She did not turn around.

“Evee, we need to prep the place.”

“This house looks after itself well enough.”

“Evee-”

“Leave me alone. Wake me if they drive a car bomb up the garden path.”

She waved a hand over her shoulder in dismissal, then mounted the stairs. Raine sighed and flashed an apologetic smile at me. She actually looked a bit lost, for once.

“I’m going to sit down before I fall down,” I said.

“Yeah, good, good, you do that. Drink some water, hydrate. I need to … go deal.” Raine nodded at Evelyn’s retreating back.

I had zero energy to act as peacemaker or indulge my immature curiosity about their relationship. Taking my shoes off presented challenge enough. Raine ruffled my hair and then hurried upstairs.

Rudderless and aching, I wandered across the junk-filled front room, past the stain on the floorboards from two weeks ago, through the darkness in the kitchen, and into the most comfortable place in the house besides Evelyn’s bedroom.

Once a drawing room or dining room, it had since gone to seed and fossilised, but remained warm and cosy. Two radiators worked hard against the encroaching evening cold. A huge, ancient CRT television lay dead in one corner, probably last switched off in the 1980s, joined in retro-junk aesthetic by the fossilised lava lamp on the mantelpiece, over the very empty and very bricked-up fireplace.

Two cramped bay windows peered out across the front garden, both heavily curtained, one wide windowsill filled with the disinterred contents of a nearby box, mostly wooden masks and weird little soapstone figurines.

A brave soul had mounted a half-finished attempt to re-colonise the room, sometime in the last year. She’d cleaned away the worst of the dust and piled some books on the wide slab of table, half-finished physical reading lists both academic and otherwise. Handwritten Latin translation projects lay next to stacks of Japanese manga. I swear the table was some kind of antique, probably worth thousands. And Evelyn used it as an overflow bookshelf.

Two battered sofas formed a shallow L-shape either side of the door, draped with blankets to hide their sorry state. I sank down into one, then used the last of my energy to peel my coat off and fling it over the sofa’s arm.

My feet ached like bruises. I sat cross-legged and rubbed my arches, wincing and grumbling to myself. Upstairs, Evelyn was shouting at Raine – at least, I assume she was; I couldn’t make out the words, just the tone. A shout, a slammed door, some knocking, another shout.

Raine came back downstairs and popped her head around the door-frame.

I remember that clearly. She asked if I was alright, if I needed anything. I said yes and no, and then she was off again, I think to check the windows were locked. The last thing I heard was her rattling about in the kitchen, through the fog of oncoming sleep.


==


I woke with a gasp, in darkness and silence.

For one very dehydrated moment, I could summon no memory of where I was or how I’d gotten there. Jagged alien shapes loomed out of the shadows, ghostly fingers brushed my throat, and my legs hurt like they’d been squeezed through a clothes press.

Tick, tick, tick.

The slow, regular echo of the grandfather clock in the front hall brought me back. I rubbed my eyes and sat up on the sofa, swallowing on a dry throat. All the lights were off, the room illuminated by ghostly streetlight glow leaking in around the edges of the curtains.

A mystery admirer – no prizes for a correct guess who – had tucked a blanket over me and propped a pillow behind my head. I rummaged in my coat for my mobile phone. The screen backlight almost blinded me.

5.47 in the morning. I’d slept all night.

Filthy and fuzzy-mouthed, I stood up and stretched – and discovered the unbelievable muscle ache in my legs, punishment for the trek across the city yesterday. I sat back down and gingerly probed my thighs, wincing and hissing. Wonderful. My stomach added a complaint too. Hadn’t eaten a bite since yesterday morning.

My mysterious benefactor had also left a tall glass of water on the table, along with a sandwich wrapped in cling-film. I downed the water and unwrapped the sandwich – peanut butter – and silently thanked Raine as I all but inhaled it in four bites.

Delicious quiet and calm enveloped the house, ordered by the regular ticking of the grandfather clock and the distant passing of cars deeper in the city. After the frantic rush of yesterday, I loved the comfortable darkness. No spirits to bother me. Space to think, decompress. I closed my eyes for a minute and just soaked in the feeling, as I flexed my aching calf muscles.

I wasn’t the only early riser, apparently. The other sofa cradled the remains of a second makeshift bed, a couple of cushions and a crumpled blanket. Cold and empty now.

“Raine?” I said out loud, but she was elsewhere.

The womb-like enclosing heat of the house had ebbed away, but I didn’t want to put my coat back on, didn’t want to banish this comfy feeling and start thinking practical thoughts just yet. I kept yesterday at mental arm’s length. Time enough later. I pulled the blanket off the sofa and wrapped it around my shoulders.

Number 12 Barnslow Drive was laid out in a big interconnected circle with a few rooms jutting off as dead ends. I wandered into the front room, poked my head into the disused sitting room, peered around in the kitchen. Was I alone? Had Raine and Evelyn been abducted by space aliens or werewolves or creatures from dimension X?

I raided the fridge. A couple of cheese sticks and a piece of bread kept me going, washed down with apple juice. I unearthed a bottle of mouthwash in the downstairs bathroom, did the best I could without a toothbrush.

At last, I found Raine, in the long back room behind the kitchen, a hiding place for a few modern appliances and exposed plumbing. A long window and a glass-filled door looked out on the jungle of the back garden and the huge tree rustling in the wind.

Raine was sat on an old brokenbacked sofa, staring outside.

“Morning,” I murmured.

Raine looked up in surprise, then brightened into a smile. “Morning yourself. Can’t sleep?”

My word, did she look good. Perhaps it was the low light, or my own state of mind; maybe for Raine it really was that effortless. She’d shed her jacket and left the black polo-neck on underneath, trim and athletic. She ran a hand through her chestnut hair, took a deep breath, stretched. I enjoyed the sight very much. Didn’t say that out loud though.

“Just woke up,” I said. “Quite well rested, actually, I think. Legs ache like crazy though.”

“You haven’t eaten since yesterday morning, have you?”

“I found the sandwich, thank you. What are you doing in here?”

Raine’s smile turned self-mocking with a sideways slide of the eyes. “Watching the back garden in case somebody climbs over the fence.”

“Are we really in danger?”

“No, no I don’t think so. I probably overreacted. But, hey.” She shrugged. “That’s what I’m for.”

“Do you mind if I sit down?”

Raine started to rise. “We should go back to the sitting room, it’s warmer in there.”

“No. I want to sit here, with you. In secret.”

Raine raised her eyebrows. “Sure thing.”

She scooted over to make room. I joined her on the sofa and screwed up my courage.

“Are you cold?” I asked.

“Mm? No, I’m fine. I’ve been up and walking about, and I did nap a couple of hours. Don’t you worry about me.”

“I mean, would you like some blanket?” I flapped a corner of my blanket-wrap at her, heart in my throat.

“Oh! Oh yeah, yeah of course.” Raine failed to suppress a cheeky grin.

I hid my rising blush as Raine shuffled in close, a token amount of blanket draped over her shoulders. She kept an inch or two of personal space between us. A bold, needy part of me wanted to ask her to cuddle, to hug me, but that wasn’t enough. I wanted physical comfort, but I needed something else, something I couldn’t put words to.

“Those people yesterday,” I said instead. “They weren’t dangerous then?”

“Oh, they totally were.” Raine leaned into the sofa and hooked an arm over the back, behind my head. “But they didn’t get a good look at us, and Evee and I have been flying under the radar for long enough they wouldn’t know where to start, whoever they are, Cultists or another mage or whatever. Our local knob-head altar-boys probably know about this house, but knowing doesn’t get you in.”

I shook my head. “So, what now? We all just go back to normal? Forget we saw that?”

“Pretty much, yeah. That’s the name of the game, don’t get involved. Bottom line: you see any of those people again, you don’t approach them. Leave, call me, whatever. Especially the thing in the trench coat, though the smart money says they never let that out in public.”

“What was she?”

Raine shrugged. “Some kinda monster. Bet Twil gave it something to think about. That’s the other reason I reckon we’re alright – Twil’s like the local rabid dog. They’ll be fixated on her, not us.”

“Oh! Twil, she-”

“She’s fine.” Raine fished her mobile phone out of her pocket, thumbed the screen and showed me the call log.

“‘Furry trash bait’?” I read the contact name out loud: the last call, several hours ago.

“That’s Twil. She bit my head off.” Raine grinned. “Guess I deserved it, but she’s fine. She’s back home already, walked the whole way down the motorway embankment and along the train tracks. Totally hardcore, gotta hand that to her.”

“I still can’t deal with the whole ‘werewolf’ thing. It’s so … unnecessary.”

“Don’t about it too hard. You’ll get used to it.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” I muttered. “How’s Evelyn?”

Raine turned her eyes to the ceiling, as if she could see through brick and wood and plaster into Evelyn’s bedroom. “Honest truth, I’m not really sure. I’ve known her long enough, seen her beat herself up over mistakes before, but this is different. She wouldn’t even talk to me. Threw her leg at me and all.”

“She … I’m sorry, what?”

“Yeah. She hasn’t done that since we first met.”

“ … excuse me? Did I hear that correctly? The first time you and Evelyn met, she threw her prosthetic leg at you?”

Raine turned a grin on me. “Yeah! Bit smaller back then of course, we were only fourteen.”

I looked away and back again, trying not to say anything rude.

“Heather?”

“What on earth did you do to her to warrant that?”

Raine laughed. “Why have I gotta be the baddie? Maybe she overreacted, you don’t know.”

I gave her a look.

“Okay, you got me. I broke into her house.”

“You did what? This house?”

“No, where she grew up, down in Sussex. To be fair, it wasn’t the first time we met, though it was the first time we spoke. Long story short, I saw her outside – one of the few times she was allowed outside, anyway – because I’d climbed the wall of the Saye estate for a peek. I was actually looking to nick stuff from the garden. It’s this great big old farmhouse, sort of thing you’d be into.”

“What were you doing in Sussex? I thought you grew up in East Anglia.”

“Running away from home. Story for another time.”

“I … ” Curiosity grabbed me. “O-okay?”

“So after I saw Evee outside, I had to know more, I had to know who she was. It’s not every day you see a girl with one leg missing. She wasn’t like she is now, either. She looked a lot more … well, messed up. I didn’t have anything better to do right then, and just the sight of her, made me want to help, you know?” Raine patted her own chest, over her heart. “Stirred my noble spirit and all that.”

“And you broke in?”

“I broke right in, yeah. Dodged her family and the uh, things they kept in that house, and found her. Bit of a crash course.”

“Let me guess. She screamed her head off and threw her leg at you?”

Raine laughed. “Yeah, spot on!”

“I think I would have done the same,” I lied. If Raine had appeared in my bedroom when I was fourteen I’d have thought she was a walking fantasy. “What happened after that?”

“That, well, that’s not really my tale to tell.”

“Oh, Raine, come on, you can’t leave me hanging there.”

“I’m serious.” She spread her hands. “You told me off once before, for breaking your trust, for spilling the beans about you in front of Evee. And you were totally correct, hundred percent, had me dead to rights. I’m trying not to be a hypocrite here. I don’t want to lose your respect.”

“Oh … yes, yes. That’s a good point.”

I was such an awful, intrusive gossip. Raine must have seen it on my face, because she hesitated and smiled. “Short version is I helped her with her family issues, and she helped me not, you know, end up on the streets.”

“I want to know more about you,” I blurted out, then blushed and rushed to correct myself. “I-I mean, about your past, you two. I feel like I don’t have a way into it.”

“You’re already in, Heather.”

I sighed. “Evee said some things about her mother yesterday, I made the mistake of asking a question.”

“Oho. She blew up at you?”

“Thought she was done with me for good. For a moment.”

“She hates her mum. Maybe start smaller than that?”

I eyed Raine, her bright look, her fluffy hair, the way she sat so comfortable and obviously not aching all over like I did. “Aren’t you exhausted? Yesterday afternoon was far too much for me. Is this what you and Evelyn get up to?”

Raine laughed with genuine amusement. “No. Totally not. That’s the sort of thing we try to avoid.” Her amusement faded quickly as she studied my face. “I’m so sorry we messed up, Heather. What I said yesterday, I meant it. I know what that all meant to you.”

I shook my head. “Feels difficult to process now. My sister might be alive, yes, but what does that mean? Grief was one thing. This is … uncharted territory.”

“Your first instinct was rescue,” Raine said. “I’d say that’s pretty damn well charted.”

“Survivor’s guilt. Panic. I don’t know. I left her behind. If … if there’s anything left to rescue … ”

“What’s she like?”

Present tense. Thank you, Raine. Thank you.

“Like me, I guess. We were-” I took a breath. “We are, twins. I was very different, before Wonderland. I guess she’ll be different too, now.”

“Can I see that tshirt again? The one with the writing on it?”

“Later. I don’t want to get up, this is too comfy.”

Raine held my hand under the blanket. She didn’t need to speak. Everything I’d ever wanted in a friend. A partner?

What was I to her?

I was useless, by any comparison I cared to make. Raine was the quintessential action girl, capable and practical, good in a crisis. She was violent, a fact which still sent a strange sexual thrill through me when I thought about it in private. And Evelyn? Evelyn could do magic. She was half-crippled and spiky and acid-tongued and took no nonsense from anybody.

What was I? Weak. I whined about pain and got scared of a little adversity.

“Yesterday, I was worried you might … think poorly of me.” I struggled to express myself. “I could barely keep up. Maisie – she reached out. Evelyn did the magic. You’re heroic-”

“Heroic?” Raine broke her silence. “I’m just an overconfident dyke with a Robin Hood complex. But thanks, that’s sweet.”

I cleared my throat and tried to focus, tried not to blush. “Compared to that, what do I have to offer?”

“Everything,” Raine said.

I looked up into her eyes. No guile there. No humouring me. I shrugged and felt lame, no answer to her sincerity.

“I’m gonna break my word now,” Raine said. “When I first met Evee, she was resigned to her own death. She was terrified of me, of course, but once I broke her shell, I realised there was very little left inside. She was absolutely convinced she was dead within a year, two at most, and she was probably right.”

“ … what? What was happening to her?”

“That’s the long story, the part I won’t go into. It’s her business to share or not. But the important part is that I didn’t save her. I’m just a catalyst. Sure, I might be a hero.” Raine cracked a grin. “It’s cool that you think so, but you’re just as heroic as me.”

“That’s nonsense,” I said. “You did actually save me. Maybe you don’t realise-”

“Heather. Read my lips: I think you’re cool.”

“ … don’t be silly.” I had to look away, blushing and confused. I wasn’t strong, or useful, or cool, or anything else Raine wanted to call me.

Raine was right about one thing: she was a catalyst, for a question I’d lacked courage to ask. I had no more guts this morning than over last two weeks, but now all my defences lay in ruins, frazzled by the last 24 hours and besieged by Raine’s attitude toward me.

With clarity came the risk of rejection. I glanced at her and away again, twice, before I managed the words.

“Raine … do you- do you like me?”

She blinked at me in mock-innocence. “Do I like you?”

I sighed and almost rolled my eyes. “I mean, a-are you into me? I can’t figure it out. Figure you out, I mean. I’m not used to it, used to other people in my life. I never had teenage years to figure any of this out, figure out other girls, navigate … you know. When you told me about Twil, when I thought she was your ex-girlfriend, I … I felt jealous. I-I don’t know what that means.”

A unstoppable, badly suppressed smile crept onto her face. “Do you want me to be into you?”

My heart tripped over itself. “Oh, don’t do that.”

“Do what?”

That. You know what. Don’t tease me.”

“I can’t help myself.”

Raine leaned in close and slid her arm across my shoulders, bringing her face inches from mine. I caught her scent, of leather and hand soap and the subtle spice of her body. My mouth went slack, my heart fluttering.

“R-raine-”

“Heather, I have spent almost every day for two weeks as close to you as I can get without freaking you out. We cuddled on your bed while watching movies. That didn’t give you a clue?”

I felt frozen, hypnotised, heart going a million miles an hour. I managed a strangled whisper. “I … I’m not sure.”

“Yes, you huge idiot, I like you a lot. I find you fascinating, from your face to your earnest, unguarded intellectualism, from the way you tuck one foot up under your lap when you’re concentrating, to the well of courage I don’t think you know you possess. Part of me … ” Raine looked off to one side and wet her lips with her tongue. I felt like a mouse before a snake. I had visions of us doing it – it – right here on this battered old sofa in the soft darkness. My chest tightened. I couldn’t breathe properly. “Part of me wants to show you how good I could be for you.”

She leaned back and straightened up, took a deep breath and smiled. Normal Raine again.

“But I’m not going to,” she said.

“W-what?” I spluttered at the anti-climax, slightly offended in a new and bizarre fashion. “Why? Why not?”

Raine laughed and held up her hands. “Heather, I’m not going to fingerbang you on this sofa, because of exactly what you just said. You never had teenage years. We can take it slow. Know your own heart first. I ain’t gonna take advantage of you.”

“Don’t be so absolutely ridiculous.”

There is no other point in my life, I believe, when I could have done what I did next. Exhaustion made me capable – not sleep deprivation like I was used to, that bone-shattering tiredness which robbed me of all decision making power, but an emotional exhaustion, a lack of any more will to care, a knife through my inhibition and trepidation.

I jerked forward and kissed Raine on the lips.

It was bad. Really bad. Clumsy and short, a fumbling moment of mashing my lips against hers, lucky we didn’t clack teeth. I ended the kiss as fast as I’d started, blushing beetroot red and unable to breathe. Raine stared at me in blinking surprise.

“Well.” My voice trembled. “There you go. Deal with that.”

Raine did. She leaned over me and cupped my cheek. My heart was ready to burst out of my chest. I thought I was going to have a panic attack right there.

“Like this, Heather,” she said.

She was much better at kissing.

When Raine pulled back I had to put a hand to my heart. My breath came out in a shudder. I blinked rapidly at her, then hiccuped. She laughed softly.

“Hey, take it easy, Heather, easy. Breathe, yeah?”

“I am breathing, dammit. Didn’t expect it to feel like that.”

“You sure do know how to inflate my ego.”

“Shut up. Shut up and do it again.”

Afterward, we cuddled on that sofa for a long time, talking about everything and nothing, my head on Raine’s shoulder. We talked about that old house, all of Evelyn’s bric-a-brac, and how Raine wanted to take me clothes shopping. She confessed she’d been up most of the night, prowling the house, checking the windows, waiting for the assault which never came. I told her how much I enjoyed the comfortable darkness, she told me how cute I looked while asleep.

And told me she thought I was brave.

“I don’t know about that,” I said.

“You managed to surprise me just now.”

“I keep surprising myself. I … I think I don’t know myself very well, in a way. I don’t feel very brave though. I don’t think that’s in me.”

By the time the first grey fingers of dawn reached across the sky, Raine had fallen asleep with her head tilted back on the sofa.

What had I done to deserve her?

If I’d believed in karma, I’d have rationalised this as payback for all those years of horror. I snuggled closer, but didn’t have the courage to reach up and run my fingers through that beautiful thick hair. She was warm and toned and strong. I recalled her body in motion: Raine with a nightstick in her hands; Raine slamming Twil up against the door; Raine creeping through the shadows last night.

I was attracted to the violence, on some level. Perhaps merely that she could.

Sleep did not return. I snuggled with Raine as dawn struggled to break, but caffeine dependency and my bladder conspired to keep me awake. Wriggling out of her embrace and the blanket was easy, but leaving her behind was not. I tucked the blanket over her legs and up around her chin. She would know, if she woke without me.

Raine hadn’t actually answered my question earlier. She’d kissed me, but were we an item? Did she really like me, or was she just humouring me? What on earth did she see in me? Compared to her I was scrawny and small, weird and pallid, permanent bags under my eyes and more baggage in my soul.

Her damsel in distress. In need of saving.

“You’re far too hot for me,” I whispered.

There would be time for snuggles later, and more if she pushed me. All the time in the world. Right now, I felt strong and empowered, lifted up by oxytocin and serotonin, warm and right and supported.

I could do this.

Raine had my back.

I found a jar of instant coffee in one of the kitchen cupboards, so old it had probably belonged to Evelyn’s dead mother. It sufficed for now, along with another cheese stick. Back in the ex-drawing room, I needed light, so I cracked one of the curtains on the grey morning. Spirit life churned all the way down the road, a hundred unnameable ghoulish forms, mouths full of teeth, ratchet-limbs and slavering jaws, canine packs and slippery lizards. Perhaps this was part of what made the house the most supernaturally defensible place in the city, a vortex of pneuma-somatic life.

The old fear had faded. A decade of terror, gone pale.

I knew why. I’d spoken to one of them, made demands, been obeyed.

Well, that spirit had been largely immobile, frightened of the Demon Messenger. Not some slinking, stalking thing which made my shoulderblades crawl.

I switched on one of the lamps on the drawing room mantelpiece and angled the bulb toward the table, where I shifted some books to clear a space. Evelyn owned some tempting titles between the comic books and old paperbacks: The Conquest of Gaul in Caesar’s original Latin, and a beautiful hardback copy of The Iliad. Time for those later, as well.

I extracted Maisie’s tshirt from my coat pocket. Cradling it in both hands, like the relic of a saint, I carried it to the table and carefully unfolded it, laid it out, tried to think clearly.

HELP

How, sister? How?

Maisie’s tshirt did not smell of her, or of me. I sniffed it again to confirm.

Neither did it seem like it had been subjected to ten years of washing machines and dresser drawers, which at least made sense. The strawberry design was not faded with wear, just utterly filthy. I rubbed the fabric between my fingers. It felt real enough, pills and thin patches and all. The washing instructions on the collar label were clear as day, in English. Tumble dry low, do not bleach, wash with like colours.

HELP, written in black.

Blood? No. It didn’t smell of iron. It had dried hard, more like tar than heart-blood. Were those Maisie’s fingerprints whorled in the substance? Couldn’t tell.

HELP

I lifted the hem of the tshirt and peered inside. A scrap of black caught my eye. I lifted further, turned it inside out.

Found the rest of the message.

Half-mangled in a child’s fingerprint scrawl, nowhere near as large and neat as the single stark word on the front. Horror grew in my chest as I read, tears brimming in my eyes.

‘I want come come out now. please come back and let me out. heather. heather I miss you. heather. where did you go? I want to see the sun again. I want to eat food. I want to stop thinking. stop thinking stop thinking. please heather. please reach. please I love you please. I miss you I miss life I want to leave please let me die stop thinking stop’

The message resumed in a different hand, as if picked up again in a period of stability. A more mature hand?

‘I don’t know how much time I have left. I can’t think clearly when I’m not using the numbers, but with the numbers I know there’s less and less of me every time I think. you probably killed yourself years ago. or maybe you’re in a nuthouse. if you’re not, you’re the last link I kept. no time left.’

Maisie had added a date below the message, 364 days from now, a year from yesterday. Was this her time limit?

It was. I knew. Deep inside, I knew.

I scrubbed at my tears and stopped crying.

HELP

“Okay,” I whispered.

How, I didn’t know yet.

But I knew where to start.

Stuffed in the same pocket as the tshirt was the pamphlet Evelyn had given me earlier yesterday, Notes Toward a Unified Cosmology. If I’d believed in fate, I’d have taken that as a sign, but I required no further encouragement.

That pamphlet was the water and sunlight to the seed of an idea planted in my mind two weeks ago, when I’d Slipped on purpose, when for just a moment I’d forced my spongy, delicate human mind to comprehend the levers of power behind reality’s surface, and yank them toward my own ends.

I couldn’t do that again, I knew. The bruise in my chest would split me in two. To even think it was to invite nausea and pain and icepick headache twinges behind my eyes.

But the pamphlet gave me somewhere to start.

Cracking the pamphlet open right there was a terrible idea. Even a glance at the equations inside stirred terrible nausea. I began to half-plan a strategy of empty stomach and sick bucket. A difficult and disgusting task, but the Fractal protected me from real danger. If I took it slowly, I knew I could do it, for Maisie.

But I was hungry for knowledge now, for a foothold now, and the first time I’d visited Evelyn’s house I’d gotten one short look at a lure designed exactly for somebody like me: the study upstairs, full of books.

Darkness still lay heavy in the upstairs hallway, some of the windows shuttered as well as curtained. Floorboards threatened to creak, and I dared not fumble for the light switch. I didn’t want to wake Evelyn. Not because I felt guilty, but because I figured she really needed the sleep.

I picked the wrong room at first, opened the door on a barren bedroom, just a frame with a mattress, quite sad and lonely. I crept further along the hallway and located the correct door, the one with a brass handle.

Light flooded out as I pushed it open.

Evelyn looked up from the desk. Furtive, blinking, flinching.

“Oh! I- sorry.”

I’d surprised her in our shared natural environment, surrounded by tightly packed bookshelves along every wall, the smell of print and paper in the air. The desk, a meaty slab of wood large enough to sleep on, was littered with notes and old tomes and Evelyn’s notebooks open on page after page of shorthand and diagrams. Two small reading lamps haloed her with light. She was wearing pajama bottoms and a huge shapeless jumper.

“Evee?” The pet name slipped out. She looked like absolute hell.

She sniffed. Her eyes were dry but rimmed with the raw red that only comes from a whole sleepless night of torment. I knew, I’d seen that look in the mirror often enough. She avoided my gaze, showed me a shoulder and shuffled notes around on the desk, just to occupy her hands. She glanced back at me, defeated and sagging.

“Do your worst,” she muttered.

I was completely lost. “ … excuse me?”

“You’re here to yell at me, I know. Get it over with. I don’t deserve any better.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

providence or atoms – 2.8

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

My stamina gave out long before we caught the Demon.

I’d never been very fit. Scrawny legs, no real strength. Hadn’t gotten any serious exercise since childhood.

Raine had insisted we not run. Hurrying along Sharrowford’s canted, hilly streets for over an hour was more than enough to drain what little reserves I had. I gave in on the corner of Harries Road, slowed and stumbled to a stop and doubled over with my hands on my thighs, sucking air through a raw throat. The ache in my diaphragm burned and throbbed like a punched bruise.

The promise of Maisie’s message had kept me going far beyond empty. My knees shook, I was ravenously hungry, and I knew I’d pay for this tomorrow.

Raine hooked an arm under my shoulders and helped me stand straight.

“You have to take a moment,” she said. “Stop and rest.”

“I- I- can’t-” I panted.

“You’re not gonna corral a big scary monster if I have to princess carry you the rest of the way, right?” She sneaked a sidelong grin at me. It almost worked, almost got me to sit down and take care of myself.

I couldn’t. I levered myself off Raine’s support and pointed ahead, to where the houses ran out before the bridge over Samter Street, Sharrowford’s abortive excuse for a ring road. A flopping amalgamation of white rubber flesh and wings made of broken light lay in distress across the bridge, downed by the Messenger’s passing. The spirit shredded its own feathers with talons made of glass and lightning, screeching at the sky. Cars passed through its pneuma-somatic flesh, drivers oblivious to the spirit world all around them.

I took a step forward and one knee gave out.

Raine caught me and held me up. “Heather, you’re tapped out. Sit.”

“Yup, looks about ready to drop,” Twil said. “That’s it then? You gonna take her home and put her to bed? We done?”

“No, no I have to- to carry on- have to-”

I put up a token struggle, but Raine was right; I was done. She helped me wobble over to one of the low garden walls which fronted the dilapidated semi-detached houses lining Harries Road.

We’d just turned off one of the tiny high streets in this end of Sharrowford, studded with Indian takeaways and shuttered storefronts. A few evening pedestrians glanced at us from across the road, one of them shouted something ugly. Twil stuck both middle fingers up at him. Nobody cared enough to pay attention to three strung-out college girls. The silver lining of England in the 21st century, I suppose.

Raine sat me down on the wall.

“Please, I have keep going. I have to catch it. I-”

“I know. And we can. We will. But you need to rest or you’re gonna do yourself an injury.”

Damn it all, I knew she was right. I was running on fumes, helpless and frustrated. Raine smiled and spoke soothing words, but I clenched my jaw, wringing my fingers together, nowhere to lash out but at her. I almost did.

“I can catch it,” Twil said.

We both looked at her. She was one hundred percent human now, had been since the moment we left Willow House, right down to the tips of her fingers and the ends of her curly black hair. She shrugged. “I can follow the scent a lot faster without you two in tow. You’re both slow as shit.”

“You’re serious?” I asked. “You can?”

“Sure can,” Twil drawled through a lazy, smug smile. “I could cross the whole city in half an hour and be back before you got time to worry. Nobody’ll see me either.”

“Yes.” I nodded. “Yes, do it, please, please. You’ll be straight back?”

Raine held up a hand and fixed Twil with that intense, uncompromising stare. “If this is a setup-”

“Raine!” I said, horrified.

“Oh fuck off. What, you think I rigged that bigass fuckboy to lead us out here? This lovebird drama is sad, that’s what it is. I’m not gonna steal your girl, okay? I’m not even interested.” Twil put her hands on her hips. “We’re chasing major bad mojo, right? I don’t get half of what’s going on but screw it, we’re on a hunt, right? It’s got my blood itching. You can’t set me to find prey and expect me to drop it.”

Raine and Twil stared each other down for a heartbeat.

“Raine,” I hissed.

“Alright, go.”

Twil sketched a mock-salute – to me, not Raine – and then she was gone, off at a dead run. When she got far enough ahead of the streetlights, beyond view of casual observers, she slipped into a long, loping, rolling gait. I caught a flash of clawed wolfish foot kicking off the paving slabs.

My goodness, she could move.

Raine watched her go. She puffed out a long sigh and rolled her shoulders.

“Anyone approaches us, says anything, pretend you’re drunk. Student hijinks, yeah?”

I nodded and rubbed at the burning ache in my chest, wishing I could massage my own diaphragm. Raine stood as if on guard over me, hands in the pockets of her leather jacket, glancing up and down the street.

A feeling of embattled, bitter defiance fought up from my heart, because I thought I knew what she was thinking.

Getting my breath back broke my single-minded focus, gave me the mental space to feel truly and fully awful, really ramp up the self-loathing. I’d never felt so pathetic and useless. Maisie was right there, on the other side of reality, alive and alone and cold, and I was too weak and broken to drag my sorry carcass halfway across a provincial English city. Pampered, atrophied, useless. I called myself far worse things in the privacy of my own mind. The ache in my chest was not entirely physical.

Was this what Raine wanted? A damsel in distress? Because I felt like living filth.

I was endlessly thankful to her, yes, for believing me, for following me, even for the little things like the borrowed scarf and the one remaining mitten. The first shades of night had fallen over the city streets, chill wind in the air leeching residual heat from the concrete and asphalt. If it wasn’t for the extra layers, I’d have been shivering after a few moments sitting still.

Maybe this was what Evelyn had warned me about.

Raine looked down at me with a thoughtful expression and a gentle smile. I was doing a fantastic job of hiding my turmoil behind the veil of exhaustion, but I just couldn’t bear that smile.

“Don’t say it. Not right now.”

Raine raised her eyebrows. “Say what?”

“I … I don’t know, exactly. Whatever you were thinking.” I had to look down at the pavement. “Maybe we can talk about it later. Right now I don’t care, I can’t deal with it. I have to … have to … ”

“Heather?”

“Just don’t. Don’t say it. Don’t treat me like this.”

A pause, one of those dreadful heartbeats where history could have gone either way; if Raine had been anybody else, we’d have derailed.

She crouched down so we were eye to eye. I tried to avert my gaze.

“Not even gonna ask what you meant by that. Totally doesn’t matter,” she said, and I felt myself shrink, ashamed and trapped. “But I am gonna take an executive decision.”

I looked up at her and saw the smile. Not the usual rakish flash but a more subtle quirk to her lips, the confidence of certain knowledge.

“W-what? Raine, what?”

“When I was looking at you, I was thinking how I can’t possibly imagine what’s going through your head right now.”

“ … I … okay?”

Raine hesitated so slightly, gave her words a little emotional push. “I’m an only child, no brothers, no sisters. You probably could have guessed that. My parents – I’ve not told you this, but my parents hate me. Haven’t spoken to either of them in two years. So this,” Raine touched the tshirt still clutched in my hands, Maisie’s pajama top, then folded her fingers over mine. “I can’t imagine.”

“Raine, there’s no need-”

“But I do get it, how much this matters to you, what it must be doing to you. If I’m not showing it, that’s only because we’re on the hunt. We can figure all the details out later, over a nice curry in a warm kitchen, with all of Evee’s expert headspace to help. But right now, right here, we’re after our big spiky boy. You can do this. I’ve got your back.”

“Thank you,” I whispered, and had to look down and wipe my eyes on my sleeve.

More shame, but such relief. I was such a fool. I carefully folded up Maisie’s tshirt and put it away in my coat pocket, just to move my hands for a moment, just to think. I put my arms out toward Raine, stiff and awkward.

“Give me a hug,” I demanded.

She did, and it was good.

Raine laughed softly. “Hey, hey, it’s okay. Come on, can you stand yet?”

“Yes, yes I think so.”

Twil – all human once more – came jogging back down the street as Raine helped me to my feet. She pulled a face and frowned at us. “Get a room, you two.”

I didn’t care about the implications right then. Raine was correct: we were on the hunt.

How exciting. How cliche. How very Raine to frame it that way.

Didn’t do us any good in the end.

“Did you find it or not?” I asked.

“You best believe I did.” Twil broke into a huge shit-eating grin. “Guess what? It’s gone to ground.”


==


Sharrowford dribbles out north of the Samter bridge. Not into fields or moorland, but into one of the worst unfinished developments in the whole country, two dozen rows of glass-fronted luxury flats, wreathed for years with industrial tarpaulin and temporary cladding, protected by twelve-foot chicken wire fence and decayed plyboard. Toward the west, these apartments had been finished, a few filled and lit up against the night sky, but down this end they towered in darkness, shabby monuments to the absurdity of the English housing market.

Twil led the way between the unfinished buildings. Streetlights thinned out and we walked through increasingly wider patches of shadow. Nobody else braved these half-made streets in the dark. Nothing to be here for.

I would never come to this sort of place at night. If I’d been on my own, I suspect I’d have been scared witless, though the most dangerous inhabitants were probably just rats. Raine held my hand and this time I didn’t let go.

Twil nodded toward one of the apartment blocks, one that had never sprouted more than a couple of floors. She kicked to a halt next to a locked and chained gate in the security fence, then pointed at the yawning dark mouth of an entrance ramp leading down, into an underground basement car-park.

“It’s down there, no doubt.”

“Are you certain?” I asked.

“Yeah. Circled the block twice, scent doesn’t lead anywhere else. Either it’s in there somewhere or it flew straight up and didn’t come back down.” She pointed at the sky and shrugged.

I tried sniffing the air like Twil, but all I could smell was damp concrete and mouldy wood.

“What do we do when we catch it then?” Twil asked. “Hog-tie it and ask it questions?”

“Heather touches it first,” Raine said.

“ … uh, you sure about that, skipper?” Twil said.

“Heather touches it first.”

“It’ll be fine,” I said.

I didn’t believe my own words. Now we were close, I realised how ad-hoc this was. I wished Evelyn was here, or that we had time to call her, to ask advice, but she was still back in the Medieval Metaphysics room. God alone knows what our mad dash across Sharrowford would have done to her legs. I tried to trust my instincts, and Maisie.

“It’s locked, how are we going to get in?”

“Fancy a little breaking and entering?” Raine asked, in the same tone one might ask if it was time for a cup of tea.

Twil grinned wide and toothy, grabbed the chain around the gate in both hands, and tore the links apart with a sound of wrenching metal. I flinched, then blinked at her as she rattled the chain free and swung the gate open. “After you, ladies and … uh, ladies.”

“Show off,” Raine said.

“Flaunt it if you got it.” Twil winked. “Not like I get many chances to do that.”

“Werewolf nonsense,” I muttered.

A shallow ramp of asphalt led down into the only finished, accessible part of the structure, an underground parking garage. As we approached, I realised it wasn’t as dark as it had seemed from the street; orange work-lights glowed down there, reflected off the pitted concrete and puddles of rainwater.

Twil stepped ahead to go first.

“Hold up,” Raine said.

I thought for a moment she was going to quibble about who got to lead us, some stupid chest-thumping conflict with Twil. I turned and opened my mouth to tell her off, to say Raine, we need to hurry, it’s right there, it might get away.

The complaint died on my lips. Raine was frowning hard. She looked left and right down the the length of the structure, then stared at the mouth of the parking garage.

“I smell a rat,” she said. “Why are the lights on?”

“ … I’m sorry?”

“Twil, you smell anything else round here except our big demon lad?”

Twil squinted in confusion, sniffed the air and shrugged.

“Raine, come on!” I said, lost for a moment, the reason for delay escaping me. “I have to-”

“It was heading for the city centre.” Raine spoke quickly and quietly. “Maybe for one of the old canals, maybe to hide, I don’t know. Then it turned, hell of a right angle, and made a bee-line for here, for this. Why change direction? No. Somebody called it. We need to leave.”

“Raine!” I couldn’t believe those last four words.

Comprehension crept over Twil’s face. She jerked a thumb down the dark ramp. “You think-”

“Maybe,” Raine murmured.

“I don’t believe this,” I said. “What? You think somebody else is down there, talking to it? You think somebody’s beaten us to the punch? You can’t be serious.”

Raine met my eyes, serious as a head wound. No joy in an upcoming confrontation. No Knight Errant play-acting.

“Yes,” she said.

“I-I still want to go down. This is so important, Raine.”

“It could be dangerous.”

“I know.”

“ … stay behind Twil and I. Don’t make a sound. Do exactly what I say.”

I nodded.

Twil walked back over to the gate and lifted the length of broken steel chain. She offered it to Raine, but Raine shook her head. Twil shrugged, held one end of the chain in her hand, and wrapped it around her forearm.

Oh great, I thought, we’re onto the improvised weapons already.

Hardly the worst cause for alarm I’d seen today.


==


We crept down the ramp in silence, enclosed by concrete. Twil led us over a pair of never-used speed bumps in the road. An arm-barrier loomed out of the shadows and we slipped around the side of an empty toll machine. The ramp seemed to go down and down and down, deeper underground than necessary.

I didn’t think anything of it at the time.

“Stop,” Raine hissed, just before we reached the end of the wall which separated the entrance ramp from the car park itself. I could see a little of the floor beyond: bare concrete, support pillars, breeze block walls. The builders had never gotten around to painting the parking spaces.

Raine was right – the lights shouldn’t have been here, or been on. Pools of stagnant rainwater, lichen colonies, rat droppings in the gutters. This place was all but abandoned except on some hedge fund balance sheet. The orange work-site lighting shone from an unseen source far across the floor, casting strange shadows up the walls, dancing across the sodden concrete.

Twil raised an eyebrow. Raine held up a hand for quiet.

Water dripped. I tried to control the thudding of my heart, one hand pressed to my chest. Rats scurried in the shadows.

Whispered voices echoed in the dark.

Not us.

Twil bared her teeth in a horrible predator’s grin as her wolf-muzzle formed out of thin air and snapped shut. I was suddenly very glad she was on our side.

“Wait here,” Raine mouthed.

I nodded. “Oka-”

“Screw that,” Twil hissed. “I can take them-”

Raine rounded on her, angry – genuine anger, the like of which I’d never seen from her before. Tightly controlled by the need for silence, spoken more in the language of muscle and posture, there was no question who was top dog. She grabbed Twil by the front of her hoodie and spoke through clenched teeth.

“Wait.”

“Okay, okay, shit.” Twil pulled herself free and straightened her clothes. “Bloody hell.”

“And stay quiet.”

Raine crept out of cover, keeping low through the deep shadows as she searched for an angle to see what was happening out there. She stopped about twenty feet away and peered around a pillar.

A distant, methodical part of my mind filed that mental image away in a folder marked ‘Raine’, and I told it to shut up. Now was not the time to admire her.

Twil leaned over my shoulder for a better look. A shiver went up my spine at that werewolf muzzle so close. Raine stared across the car park for a moment, then quickly crept back. She straightened up, stony faced and tense, every part of her wired to spring.

“Is it there?” I whispered.

“Yes, but no. I’m so sorry, Heather. We need to leave. This is a lost cause.”

“What?” My voice cracked. “No- no, the message, my-”

“Shhh.” Raine put a finger to her lips, then took my hand. “We can’t. We need to go.”

Twil straightened up, flexing her hands into claws. “It’s them, isn’t it?”

“Twil, be quiet,” Raine hissed.

“Them – who?” I asked. “Who?”

“I can’t be certain, but I think they might be from the Sharrowford Cult. We have to leave.”

“I … no, I have to see.”

I needed to know who was stealing Maisie’s message from me.

Raine started to say something sensible, something with my safety in mind, something realistic and sane and smart.

I jerked my hand out of hers and slipped forward into the shadows before Raine could stop me. I’d done this a thousand times before in far worse places, on the other side of a Slip, made myself silent and small and hidden, Outside, avoided the attention of far worse creatures than anything Sharrowford could hold. This was one thing I was good at – hiding. Raine hissed my name and followed. I crept to the pillar she’d peered around, braced myself, and looked.

We weren’t the only ones interested in a wayward specimen of Noctis Macer.

No time to process what I saw.

Twil bounded past me, all teeth and claws, full wolf-woman form. She slammed a foot into the concrete so hard it cracked, and roared “Hey bitches!” through a mouth full of fangs.

A flashlight swirled in our direction. Raine bundled into me and shoved me behind herself, then turned and reached one hand into her leather jacket.

“Nobody move!” she yelled.

Pretty sure she was bluffing. Could have convinced me.

I’d never been in a Mexican Standoff before.

That makes it sound an awful lot more glamorous than it was. Mostly it was just frightening, that moment of explosive meeting and tension, eye contact and hands reaching for concealed weapons. The dim work-site lights, the filthy concrete, the multiplying echoes. Four people caught in a tableau around the towering form of the Messenger Demon stretched to its full height, twelve feet of dark night-flesh and unfurled wings like a woodcut demon gleaming in the torchlight glow.

It stood in the centre of magic circle easily twenty feet across, drawn in red paint on the concrete floor.

Certainly made for an appropriate introduction to Sharrowford’s most dangerous people.

They didn’t look anything like my mental image of cultists, not the way Evelyn and Raine had used the word, and for a split-second my brain struggled to catch up. I’d expected robes, ceremonial knives, stone altars in the woods.

Four of them. Two men, two women.

The men could have passed for normal.

An older gentleman with stringy grey hair and wire-frame glasses held some kind of jury-rigged electronic device in one hand, all exposed circuit board and twisted wire and a tiny LCD screen. He blinked at us in naked surprise, a mole-rat blinded by searchlights, and patted at the pockets of his waxed coat.

The other man looked for all the world like a very misplaced librarian. Younger, maybe mid-twenties, with his shirt-sleeves rolled up and wearing a waistcoat and tie, wellington boots over immaculate trousers, a flashlight in one hand.

No shock from him. Little surprise. Cold regard.

The third figure – a woman – could not have walked down a Sharrowford street without comment. Tall, six and a half feet at least, wrapped from head to toe in a trench coat, hands in her pockets and a heavy hood pulled up to shadow her face. A scarf concealed her nose and mouth, left only her eyes exposed. Not an extra inch of skin showed. She turned to regard us with robotic slowness.

Then there was Lozzie.

Of course, I didn’t know her name then, but I’d learn it soon enough.

Stood in the centre of the group, inside the magic circle, we’d interrupted her in the act of reaching up to touch the Messenger Demon’s faceless head, to cradle it as one might a favourite pet.

Small and slight, she was dressed in a dark purple-and-grey striped hoodie with the ends of the sleeves pulled over her hands. Messy blonde hair reached all the way to the backs of her knees.

She wore a goat skull over her head, like a helmet, complete with horns. Except, goat skulls didn’t grow that large.

For a moment I couldn’t figure out what I was looking at – she was covered in motion, tentacles waving, obscene shapes attached to her body.

She writhed with spirit life.

It was all over her, actually touching her flesh and clothes. A tentacled squid-blob clung to one shoulder, a twisted lizard lay flush against an arm. A mass of slender plant-like roots had wrapped around her midsection and jellyfish feelers floated out behind her. A pair of hounds sat at her heels, fever-dream direwolves crossed with deep-sea fishes. Huge plate eyes, skin like old leather.

She turned and looked right at me, tilted her goat-skull mask.

I was so shocked I almost forgot to be outraged. How dare she take Maisie’s message?

The Standoff collapsed all at once.

“You will leave now,” the younger man called in crisp clear tones. “You saw nothing.”

Twil laughed, picked up her feet and rushed at them, unwrapping the chain from her arm.

The older man with the straggly hair and the wire-frame glasses clicked his fingers at the tall woman in the trench coat. She shrugged, but the younger man glanced at her and spoke a few words. Loud, blunt, cut-off words in no human language. The tall woman rolled her shoulders and strode toward Twil.

The girl in the goat-skull withdrew her hands from the Messenger and waved at me with the end of one sleeve.

“Bye bye!” she called.

The Messenger folded itself out of reality, as if sliding through an invisible doorway. It burned the eye to see.

“No!” I shouted.

Twil leapt.

I didn’t see what happened next, because Raine grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and almost picked me up off my feet, pushed me toward the ramp and made me run. We scrambled back toward the entrance as the most awful noises came from below, animal screeches and cracking concrete and the sound of meat hitting meat. I stumbled and flinched, terrified and hiccuping. Raine pulled me on and up, and didn’t stop moving when we burst out into the clean night air above.

“What- what-”

“Time for that later.” Raine hustled me through the gate and into the street. “Just walk, breathe. We’re in the open. They won’t do anything. They won’t follow.”

“What just happened? What-”

“Don’t think about it. We need to leave here, quick as we can. One foot in front of the other, keep moving.”

I was too frazzled to resist. Raine took me back up the street in the shadow of the unfinished luxury flats. The noises from the parking garage had long-since faded, muffled by concrete and asphalt. I turned to look, half-expecting to see Twil stumbling along behind us. The road was empty.

We crossed back over the Samter bridge. The normal streetlights and passing pedestrians of a Sharrowford evening didn’t feel real, not after what I’d witnessed back there, not after those sounds and that bizarre girl and-

“Is she- Twil, she’s-”

“She’ll be fine, she’s practically invincible. And they’ll be clearing out ASAP.” Raine turned and shot me a grin, a dose of that boundless confidence. “Don’t worry, we’ll be fine. Here, gotta mess with them.”

Raine halted next to a battered old pay phone by a bus stop, covered in graffiti and spotted with dried up chewing gum. I found I was shaking, partly from the cold and partly from a burst of adrenaline, too confused to process experience right now. Raine lifted the receiver and dialled 999, then held her nose and spoke in an old-lady voice.

“Yes, police please. Yes, yes, I saw these three young lads trying to set a fire. These young fellows, yes, yes, yes of course.” She gave the address of the building site. “They had boards for a bonfire and I swear I saw wires sticking out all over the place. Oh no, dear, I can’t stay on the line.”

Raine hung up without another word, cleared her throat, then grabbed my hand and walked on.

“Did you just spoof call the police?”

“Bailing Twil out. Probably doesn’t need it though. Sirens’ll light a fire under the crazies.”

“What if she’s hurt? Raine, you left her behind! We left her there!”

Raine caught the look on my face, the distress, the connections I was making, if only subconsciously. “Twil is literally unstoppable. Believe me, I’ve seen her shrug off a lot worse than anything those wannabees can throw at her. They could cut her head off and it wouldn’t make a lick of difference. She’ll be bruised and sore and angry, but she’ll crack some heads and get out. I promise.”

“Did you know those … people, back there?”

“Never seen them before, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to recognise it when you see it. Kinda like porn, I guess, know it when you see it.”

“W-what-”

She flashed me a grin. I realised she was trying to keep me from freezing up. I nodded and forced a tiny laugh, the best I could manage. As we walked, she fished out her mobile phone and called Evelyn. Under the circumstances I didn’t feel guilty for listening in.

“We need to go to the mattress,” Raine said down the phone. “Yeah, right now, luck of the draw. No, just bumped into them. Twil went off on one. Yeah it was dark, I doubt they got a good look at us, but does that matter? I think they’ve got one of those bastard zombies up again. You wanna take the risk?” She paused, then answered with a laugh in her voice. “Of course I’m bringing her, Evee, what do you take me for?”

She killed the call and glanced at me. “Do you have class tomorrow?”

“I … uh … no, I don’t think-”

“Good.” Raine squeezed my hand and grinned, that brilliant rakish flash she could have used to convince me to do anything. “Fancy a friendly little sleepover at Evee’s place? Lazy day in tomorrow, call it two nights maybe. All three of us.”

Any other time, any other place, I’d have thrown myself onto that baited hook.

“I-I mean I wouldn’t say no, but, Raine, what, all this-”

“Just to be on the safe side.”

My mind caught up.

Evelyn’s house, of course, was the most supernaturally defensible position in Sharrowford.

Raine called it a sleepover. I knew a better word.

Siege.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

providence or atoms – 2.7

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

The mitten saved me. Raine helped.

The Dark Hand gripped my wrist, but simple screaming terror wrapped around my heart. No need for paralysing supernatural force to immobilise me. Here was an unspoken fear from the darkest nights of my ruined childhood: Wonderland reaching out to snatch me away.

Bone-freezing cold soaked through the mitten and into my flesh.

The Dark Hand pulled.

Raine already had me, arms hooked under my shoulders from behind.

She’d reacted first, faster even than the Hand. Beating my reaction times isn’t exactly a challenge, but I’d thought we were all slow and sluggish after the soul-battering from the Eye.

She held on, planted her feet and tried to haul me back as the Dark Hand tightened its grip.

It was much, much stronger than Raine. For one heart-stopping moment I became the rope in a tug of war, shoulder wrenched near out of the socket. I snapped out of paralysis, kicking and screaming, trying to scramble away.

Then my hand slipped out of the borrowed purple mitten. I yanked my arm back, left the Dark Hand clutching nothing but the glove.

Raine and I won the tug of war and crashed into an armchair. I elbowed her in the stomach and our heads cracked together. She let out a winded oof of breath, but didn’t stop, quickly disentangled our legs and jumped to her feet. I stayed half-collapsed in the chair, too shaken to get up.

The Dark Hand snapped open and dropped the mitten.

“What the fuck is that? What the fuck is that?” Twil shouted from behind us. Evelyn backed away in panic, shaking her head.

A Dark Arm followed the Dark Hand, reaching across the table until it found a grip on the edge. A shoulder emerged, made of glistening black night.

The owner of the Dark Hand began to climb through into our reality.

Raine slid something slender and sharp out of her jacket pocket. I wasn’t paying much attention to her, or the yelp from Twil. I only figured out much later that Raine had palmed a silver letter opener. Didn’t matter much anymore.

“Evee,” Raine raised her voice. “Hope I don’t need to say this, you should probably close that gate.”

“I can’t!” Evelyn said. “There’s no gate, there’s nothing to close! I don’t … I don’t understand.”

Our uninvited guest slid out of the aqua vitae in the silver plate, inch by slow inch of dark oil-slicked flesh, contorting itself to fit through the eighteen-inch opening, like a rodent cramming itself through a crack in the wall.

A nightmare parody straight from the imagination of any medieval diabolist.

No face, no sense organs, no skin – just one flowing surface of pure darkness, without blemish or break. No claws, no hairs or rough patches, no knobbly joints or bunched muscle. Humanoid, but gangly and so tall it assumed a crouch atop the table as it emerged. Limbs as long as my entire body. Head a blank tapering ovoid big as an anvil, topped with a pair of curved horns. Huge wings stretched from its back and a long sinuous tail lashed behind it, thick as a mooring cable.

This was nothing like the Bone-thing Raine had killed in Evelyn’s house. That had originated Outside, belonged to some alien taxonomy, but it had been material. It had bones and skin and a mouth. It had bled and it had died.

The Dark Visitor wasn’t even remotely biological.

Not eyes, but I knew it was staring at me.

“Nuh-uh,” Raine said to it. “She’s not for you.”

She put herself between me and the nightmare, and slid into a knife-fighter’s stance. Until that moment, I couldn’t have told you what a knife-fighting pose was meant to look like, but Raine made it seem second nature. She raised the silver knife in one hand and thrust her other palm forward.

A grin played across her lips. Tension in every muscle. I couldn’t believe she wanted to fight this thing; it was simply too large, too other, too intimidating. Her knife looked so small.

In that moment, I loved her for it.

The Demon – I couldn’t think of it as anything but a classical demon – finished climbing through into our reality, planting both slab-like feet on the table and squatting in a gargoyle’s crouch. The wood creaked under its weight. It leaned forward and craned its head to look around Raine, to look at me.

“Back off,” Raine said, loud and clear.

An echo of alien thought brushed against my mind.

I swallowed a gasp, but the thought slipped off, like an oil-soaked hand trying to grip my consciousness.

Raine shifted her balance onto her back foot; I scrambled up and cringed away from the impending violence.

“No, no, don’t touch it, don’t touch it!” Evelyn cried. “I think I know what it is. Do not touch it.”

Raine froze. Didn’t take her eyes off the demon. It bobbed its head to stare at me over Raine’s other shoulder.

“It’s-” Evelyn swallowed hard. “Kerykeion nichta, uh … Noctis macer. I’ve seen one before. Once. I think.”

“Don’t care what it is,” Raine almost growled. “It needs to leave.”

“Yes, yes, I think it will! It’s a messenger, that’s what they do. Look, it’s not attacking us. Don’t touch it.”

Another phantom thought skimmed the surface of my brain, wordless impulse and sense-impression: crushing cold, bone-shattering, blood-freezing cold; entrapment and imprisonment, such a tiny, tiny space and no way out, no way out; the human mind turned inside out and put back together piece by piece. Loneliness, abandonment, darkness.

“I-it’s in my head,” I stammered. “It’s trying to get in my head.”

“A message, it’s trying to deliver a message,” Evelyn said. “Maybe we let it, maybe it-”

“Bugger that,” Raine said. “Take your message and shove it up your arse. Get out of my girl’s head.”

Evelyn swore under her breath. “From The Eye? There was no gate! I don’t understand!”

“Fuck this,” Twil said. “Just fucking kill it already.”

The Messenger made its move.

With one huge hand wrapped around the edge of the table, it leaned forward and reached out for me. I squealed and stumbled backward from the grasping fingers.

Raine lashed out so fast I don’t think even the Demon knew what happened.

She rammed the knife into the Messenger’s night-black arm and twisted the blade on the way back out. Three times in quick succession. She made it look effortless, a quick repeated motion, practised a thousand times, executed with perfect precision. On a human being she’d have opened arteries and veins, torn flesh and cracked off bone.

She may as well have stabbed a bucket of sand.

The night-flesh didn’t even need to suck back together, it closed seamlessly after the blade. No wounds, no response, no sound greater than a gentle hiss.

The Demon stopped reaching for me and paused for a moment, as if trying to work out what just happened. Raine yanked the knife out a final time, grinning in full flow. She rocked back in a sort of predictive feint and then went for the Demon’s throat.

It took the knife from her. Plucked it right out of her fingers and made it vanish. Raine was so surprised she almost baffed at it with her empty hand.

“Raine!” I yelled.

She snapped back, quickly hopped away from the creature, one arm out to shield me. She took a great shuddering breath, still grinning but now shaking her head in disbelief. Evelyn was reciting words in Latin, shouting commands, instructions, insults. Inviting it to afternoon tea for all I knew.

“Okay, back up, keep away from it-” Raine got out, before before Twil bounded past us.

Twil didn’t look very human, but I didn’t exactly have the presence of mind to catalogue her wolf-form. All I saw was a blur of fur and teeth, mid-leap.

The Demon Messenger travelled without moving, two feet to the left. The trick made my eyes hurt, drew a pained gasp from Evelyn and a wince from Raine. Twil flew right through the spot it had occupied a moment before. She crashed headfirst into the old bookcases on the other side with a horrible thwack of snapped bones.

Exitus. R-revertere, a-a quo f-factum est.” Evelyn’s voice shook and stumbled.

The Demon reached for me again. Raine, in one of the bravest and stupidest gestures I would ever witness from her, put her fists up.

It moved her aside.

The motion was impossible to comprehend, at least with human senses. One moment Raine was between me and it, then the Messenger reached out with a dark hand and adjusted her position. Suddenly she was fifteen feet away, on the other side of the room.

Raine reacted instantly, picked up her feet and ran for me.

That dark hand reached for my face.

The backs of my legs hit the chair and I very almost fell over in blind panic. Nowhere left to go, nobody left to stand behind, only a split-second to think. I’d never had to defend myself before. I was weak and slow and unarmed. Best I could manage was to bat ineffectually at the Demon’s hand, probably invite the awful freezing grip around my arm once more.

Oh.

My arm.

The mitten hadn’t saved me; Raine hadn’t broken the creature’s grip in a tug of war; my solitary resistance to the Eye had not come from prior experience or presence of mind.

The Noctis Macer’s hand closed around my face, inches from my skin. Alien thoughts found purchase on my mind, sick, freezing sense-impressions screamed the loneliness of the void into my heart.

I tugged my sleeve down with shaking fingers and held up my forearm.

Showed it the Fractal.

The Demon stopped, statue-still.

“Go away,” I hissed in a rush of panic and fear, more an animal sound than real words, but it did the trick.

The Demon, the Messenger, Noctis Macer, whatever it was and whatever it intended, retracted its hand and rocked back on its heels, as if considering a polite request. The probing thoughts withdrew. Evelyn’s stream of Latin and Greek and worse stuttered to a halt, and Twil hauled herself up against the bookcase, shaking herself like a dog.

Raine almost slammed into me, skidding to a halt and brandishing a heavy book she’d pulled off the shelves in lieu of a real weapon. She gaped at the Fractal on my arm, then broke into a huge grin at the creature.

“Yeah, that’s right, go on, off with you!” she shouted.

Raine put her free hand on my elbow, her other around my waist, held me and propped me up. I’d never been so glad for the support.

She gently eased me forward.

“Raine, no!” I hissed.

The Noctis Macer flexed like a cat rising from a nap, unlimbering gangly limbs and unfolding itself from the table, too tall to stretch to full height indoors. Its other hand uncurled and flicked a crumpled ball of fabric onto the floor at my feet.

We all watched in razor-sharp silence as the Demon stepped down from the table and backed away from me – from the Fractal.

“It’s okay, it’s shit-scared of you, see?” Raine muttered. I managed a terrified nod. I don’t think it was scared at all.

Raine and I backed it all the way to the windows. The creature’s tail probed behind, tapping at the floor and the heavy blankets over the windows, finding no egress. It paused and flexed its wings.

Twil growled through a mouth not all human. “Don’t corner it, for fucks sake.”

“It’s not animal, you idiot,” Evelyn said.

“Twil, pull the curtains down.” Raine said softly.

“What?”

“Just do it. Rip them if you have to.”

Twil grunted as she understood what Raine was getting at. She slid down the edge of the room, at the boundary of my peripheral vision, a hunched figure with far too many teeth in her snout. She reached out slowly with a fist made of claws, took a good handful of the blankets over the windows, then jerked it sideways with one swift tug. Thumbtacks and pins popped out of the thin plasterboard wall and the whole mass of makeshift curtain tore away.

The last dying rays of the day’s sunlight bathed the room in deep orange glow. The Messenger turned to look outside, across the deep concrete shadows of the campus and the city beyond. Its tail tapped and slid across the surface of the glass. Could it even sense light? A tiny, ever-curious part of me filed that question away for later.

Most of me, however, just wanted it gone.

“Twil, get the window latch,” Raine said.

“Are you mental?”

“Stop whining. You’re the most robust here.”

“Look,” I said.

The Demon Messenger fumbled with the window, as if it didn’t know how glass worked. Which, to be fair, it probably didn’t. Huge hands roved across the edges of the window, looking for a catch or mechanism. When it found the latch it paused, touched, paused again, those horrible long fingers cupping and pinching and probing the metal.

“It’s going to break the window,” Evelyn huffed, as if this was any concern at all.

“It can break the wall for all I care,” I said. “As long as it goes away.”

Finally, it figured out the latch, clacked it down and spent another moment sliding the window wide. Cold evening air flooded the room, blew past the Messenger and touched my face. The Demon mounted the windowsill with one huge toe-less foot and paused again, turned its head to look at me one last time.

“Shoo,” Raine shouted, and threw the book at it.

The Demon leapt into the air and fell like a brick. The book sailed out the window. A moment later a crack of leather sounded below – unfurling wings catching the air – and the Demon Messenger soared off between the spires of Sharrowford university, toward the heart of the city, an ungainly, heavy smudge of darker colour against the dimming sky.

I let out one long shaky breath, my whole body a lightning rod of tension and disbelief.

“Heather, hey, it’s gone, it’s gone,” Raine said.

“I know. I can see that.”

Raine eased my elbow back down. My arm ached terribly, despite her support. I’d clenched my fist so hard my nails had drawn blood from my palm.

“Are you okay?” Raine asked.

I was about to say no, obviously, I’m not okay, we just faced down a true monster, some unthinkable thing from Outside, sent by the Eye to kidnap me or wipe my brain or do God alone knows what. I was shaking and exhausted and far beyond fear. Twil slammed the window shut and Evelyn sagged as she examined the broken magic circle on the table.

Raine had thrown a book at it. For me.

I sketched a very shaky smile, the best I could manage under the circumstances. “Actually, yes. Yes. We won, yes?”

“That we did.” Raine grinned. “Sure you’re okay? You should sit down.”

“Well, no, but … ” I glanced around the room, unable to phrase it while so emotionally drained. Turned out facing down your darkest fears was a lot easier with a little help from your friends. Even if Twil wasn’t quite a friend. Yet.

“Where the hell is it going?” Twil asked. She peered out of the window after the dwindling dot. “I can’t believe you did this, Saye. Let something like that loose in the city. What were you thinking?”

“It wasn’t me.” Evelyn sounded as exhausted as I felt. She gestured at the silver plate, the aqua vitae, now inert. “There was no gate. The window was already closed. Somebody or something else opened that, sent it through.”

“Yeah, right.” Twil squinted at her in disbelief. “You lost control. Face it, you’re not the hot shit you think you are.”

Evelyn sighed and shook her head.

“What are you gonna do about it, huh? This is your fault. You can’t leave that thing out there, it-”

“It will leave reality by itself,” Evelyn raised her voice. “That’s what they do. Noctis Macer. Messenger of Darkness. Unbekante Orte has a dozen such names for them. Bigger, more powerful beings use them as messengers, errand-runners. I’ve seen one once before, I told you.”

Raine put a hand on my back, steadying, warm, here. “What if it doesn’t leave?” she asked. “What if it comes back for Heather again?”

“It won’t.” Evelyn almost spat. “It’s a messenger, not an assassin. It’s been refused. Quite comprehensively.”

Twil raised her voice again. Raine told her to shut up. Evelyn started in about ritual process and gates and magic, but I wasn’t following. Past the shaking exhaustion and the after-shocks of fear, I realised that Evelyn was right. If that demon – the Noctis Macer – had really wanted to hurt me or kidnap me, it probably could have, Fractal on my arm or no. If it needed skin contact, it could have snuck that tail up from behind and wrapped it around my throat.

I remembered, all of a sudden, that the Demon Messenger had delivered something after all: it had dropped a piece of fabric.

Amid the argument and the blame and the yelling, I looked down and found it. I stepped away from Raine and bent to pick it up.

Intellectually, I recognised the item of clothing before I touched it.

My mind fled from the implication.

I lifted the child-sized tshirt off the floor and stared at the faded strawberry design.

Maisie and I had this game we played as children. We had a lot of games. All kids who grow up close have private, secret games, but the games twins play with each other are built on a special understanding, that unique bond between two people who the world confuses with each other. Sometimes even mum and dad couldn’t tell us apart. Mum tried all sorts of techniques: different haircuts, dressing us differently, even clothes with our initials on the front or back. Nothing worked because we swapped everything, shared everything, became each other.

One day – I think when we were six or seven years old, I didn’t remember exactly because I’d spent so many years convinced those memories weren’t real – we decided to finger-paint our names on our tshirts. Mum was furious so we produced crocodile tears and giggled about it later. We kept the ruined tshirts and used them to have silent conversations across the room, writing more and more words in every blank space. We swapped them back and forth, so my words became Maisie’s and Maisie’s words became mine and in the end we couldn’t remember whose thoughts had belonged to who.

A child’s pajama top. Thin and faded. Collar and cuffs ragged.

A single word was written on the front, letters daubed with a fingertip dipped in a dark and tarry substance, still sticky-fresh.

HELP

“Heather?”

Her tshirt. The one she wore that night. Some details, you never forget. I brought it to my face and sniffed, but there was nothing of her – of me – left there, only the black ash and ruin stench of Wonderland.

“Heather?”

I blinked back slow tears, numb to my core.

“Heather? Hey, Heather?”

I jerked my head up, shaking all over. Raine stared at me with naked concern. Evelyn and Twil were still yelling at each other. How did the world continue to turn, how did we not all simply fly apart into atoms, if this thing in my hands was real? The most horrible promise, the worst kind of proof.

“Look.” I held the tshirt up, to her, to the room, to reality. My hands shook, my voice did worse. “Look. Look at this. What is this? How- how-”

Raine looked down at the thing in my hands, this obscene, beautiful living proof in my grasp. I imagined ugly thoughts in her head. I’d spent so long, so many years denying Maisie even existed that now I projected that outward, confused and lashing and incoherent.

It wasn’t real, it was a trick, you can’t be certain, Heather. You can’t be certain of anything, can you? You little damsel in distress, you let Raine deal with it for you. Keep your head down and stay safe. Forget what you saw. Coward. Coward. Coward. You left her behind, you left her behind and she’s not dead.

Raine met my eyes. She reached out and folded her fingers around my hand, held on hard. Nodded once.

“We will,” Raine said.

Her meaning failed to penetrate my survivor’s guilt. I blinked at her, shook my head. “I-I don’t-”

“Help.”

I let out a huge, choking breath and scrubbed my tears on one arm. I hadn’t realised how badly I’d needed Raine to believe, in that moment. She gave me so much more than bare belief.

“How- how- how can we possibly-”

“Don’t think about that part yet. We’ll figure it out.” Raine cracked a smile, a notch down from her usual rakish grin. “I doubt it’s something we can do in an afternoon.”

Evelyn and Twil had fallen quiet, my distress cut through their argument.

“Look.” I held the tshirt out to them as well, my hands shaking.

“ … ah,” Evelyn murmured.

“What?” Twil frowned. “What am I looking at? What the hell’s wrong with her now?”

“Long story. Shut up,” Raine said.

The full meaning of the Demon Messenger’s visit began to weigh on me, as I realised what had just happened.

“How do they deliver their messages?” I asked Evelyn.

She shook her head. “I don’t … there’s only speculation.”

“How? Just tell me, I don’t care if it’s speculation. How?”

“I don’t know,” Evelyn said, frowning at the proof in my hand. “Some kind of mind-to-mind contact, I assume. Communication means different things to different orders of being. It could-”

“It was trying to touch me,” I muttered. “It needed to touch, because of the Fractal, blocking. It had a message from her and we chased it away.”

That crushing cold, that endless isolation, that darkness. Was that Maisie?

“Heather?” Raine wrapped an arm around my shoulders and squeezed, to keep me here, keep me grounded. It didn’t work. “It doesn’t matter what-”

I pulled away from her and hurried over to the window, clutching the soiled old tshirt to my chest. Raine joined me, but I had no attention left for her, too busy peering out after the Messenger – Maisie’s Messenger. It had vanished into the light pollution and shadows of a Sharrowford evening. I scanned the sky with mounting frustration greater than I’d ever felt, gritting my teeth, the thread slipping through my fingers.

“Heather, hey, look at me for a second.”

“I can’t- I-I have to find it.”

“There are easier ways to track than with the naked eye.”

I turned to her and got a full-face blast of Raine at her most focused. No grin, no patronising I-know-better, no humouring the hysterical poorly-adjusted girl. Not even a please-calm-down. Here to solve problems. It was beautiful. I could have thrown my arms around her, kissed her, if I wasn’t so messed up.

She nodded sideways at Twil.

“Oh, tracker dog,” I said.

“Hey!” said Twil.

“Stuff your pride,” Raine said to her. “You’re so worried about Heather, well then, it’s time to help. You can track that thing by scent, right?”

“What?” Twil was still lost, way behind. “I guess so. Shit, I don’t want to, it reeked like a chemical factory.”

“Yes or no,” Raine barked. “Can you do it?”

“Why are we after it now? We only just got rid of the thing.”

I thrust the tshirt toward Twil, holding up Maisie’s message. “My sister isn’t dead! Maisie isn’t dead!”

Without a doubt, the most beautiful and terrible words I’d ever spoken. I wasn’t sure if I should laugh or cry. I made a compromise and hiccuped.

“Okay, yeah, sure, that explains everything,” Twil said.

Evelyn spoke up. Two words.

“It’s bait.”

My mind edited them out, unwilling to hear. I was too busy glancing out the window again, along the route the Messenger took toward the heart of Sharrowford.

The exact route.

I broke for the door without a second thought, pulled at the latch and stumbled out into the top floor corridor of Willow House before the others realised what I was doing. I wasn’t trying to leave them behind; the only thing I cared about was getting out there before the aftershocks passed, before the trail went cold. Raine called my name, right on my heels.

Lucky for us – and my dignity – that Willow house was almost empty this late in the day. Classroom doors yawned open onto the darkness outside. The stairwell lights flickered on as I plunged down the steps two and three at a time.

“Heather, slow down, you’ll trip.”

I didn’t stop until I hit the ground floor and pushed my way through the brown glass double-doors. Cold evening air ran whispering fingers through my hair as I craned up at the sky. I must have made quite a sight there in the middle of campus, wearing one purple mitten and a half-unravelled scarf, flushed in the face and out of breath, eyes red from crying. Raine and Twil bundled out of the building behind me.

“Want me to grab her?” Twil said.

“Heather, speak to me. Tell me what you’re doing. If you have plan, I need in.”

“There. Right there.” I pointed across campus.

The Messenger’s wake had driven the spirit world into a frenzy. Where it had passed, pneuma-somatic life writhed and twitched like bugs in wet earth under a lifted stone.

A blue-and-red lizard the size of a house lay curled around itself in a protective dome, huge swivel-eyes dilated in fear. Bone-faced figures hunched along the campus walkways, clutching their heads and wailing, tripping over each other and sprawling across the ground. One of the insectoid leviathans on the library roof kicked and jerked limbs in the air, as if fighting ghosts. In the sky, a Roc of fire and stone flapped and hissed and spat, hurling sparks and trailing loose feathers of flame.

Then I remembered nobody else could see them.

Falling prey to one of my lifelong fears; here was the crazy girl gesturing at invisible monsters in public, imbuing them with private meaning, following their secret ways.

I realised I didn’t care anymore. Maisie was more important.

“The spirits, they’re reacting to it. It went that way.”

Twil looked at me, then at Raine, as if we were both mad.

“Just trust her,” Raine said. “She knows what she’s doing.”

They couldn’t have held me back. I’d have hissed and spat and clawed just to be allowed to follow that spirit trail across the sky. A near-fugue state gripped my mind and heart, and we followed a track that would have been schizophrenic delusion a month prior.

We left campus quickly, heading west into Sharrowford proper.

Bluebell Road roiled with spirit life, howling at the sky and clawing at each other in overstimulated distress. A thousand scuttling shapes mobbed and packed in the shadows and dusk between the pools of orange streetlight.

I led us down into the student quarter, across suburban streets littered with spine-covered mollusk shells, their inhabitants retracted inside to shelter from the Messenger’s passing.

On Downtruff road, a giant form shifted uneasily against the sky overhead, adjusting pillar-legs and plates of chitin to carry it away from the Noctis Macer’s destination.

We climbed cobblestone streets up Mercy Hill where I spotted a nightmare of eyes and tentacles clutching the distant spires of Sharrowford Cathedral, against the backdrop of the city centre lights.

My knowledge of the city ran dry beyond the student quarter, but Raine knew Sharrowford inside out. Our leadership began to switch back and forth. I’d point, she’d forge the way, then I’d change direction and she’d know a shortcut, a better route. When the tortured spirit life gave out and the trail ran cold, Twil sniffed the air and bounded down the streets until she caught the scent on the night wind.

Raine did her best to hold my hand but I wasn’t the most affectionate partner right then, always pulling free to point in the next direction, my other hand too busy clutching Maisie’s soiled tshirt to my chest.

I only realised much later that Raine was trying to minimise our bizarre spectacle, to make sure my behaviour didn’t draw the attention of the curtain-twitchers or a passing police car. A crazy girl staring and gesticulating at the air, leading the way as two other college girls hustled after her, hanging on her every move.

It was a miracle nobody stopped us.

On the edge of the city centre the Demon Messenger had turned north, skirted the shopping district and the ring of roundabouts, brushed up against the fringe of industrial development walled off with red brick and razor wire. For a long moment I stood on the edge of a pedestrian crossing, next to one of the larger roundabouts, cars passing and lights changing from red to green, because I couldn’t work out where the Messenger had gone.

Raine laid a hand on my shoulder. “Heather? Take a moment, you’re out of breath. We’re going to catch it, one way or the other, I swear.”

She was right – I was out of breath. The ache in my chest, the soul-gap below my diaphragm, was on fire. I rubbed at my sternum, but the pain didn’t matter. I’d never felt so driven in my entire life.

“We look like a bunch of fucking nutters,” Twil said. “Bet this’ll do wonders for my rep.”

“Let Heather do her thing,” Raine warned.

We were about to look much worse.

A spirit squatted on the concrete island of the roundabout.

A gorilla crossed with slime mold, leaning on fists the size of wrecking balls. A mouth of slab teeth hung open, drooling black mist onto the ground. Long thin fleshy tendrils sprouted from its back and waved in the air. A few tendrils had gripped the roundabout’s signage, rooted there and begun to spread a kind of throbbing meat-moss across the metal.

It was disgusting, the exact sort of thing I’d spent ten years going out of my way to avoid. If it had stared at the sky, I could simply have followed the direction of its gaze, but its bull-shoulders were hunched tight at the Messenger’s passing, head down.

Any other day, any other cause, and my courage would have failed me.

I hurried over the road onto the roundabout; hardly green cross code compliant. Raine dashed along after me. Twil was a second too slow, got stuck waiting for traffic to pass.

“Heather, holy shit, slow down!” Raine called.

“It’s fine, I looked both ways.”

I walked right up to the hunched Gorilla-spirit.

Raine caught up, put one hand on my waist and looked around, waiting for the inevitable shout from a confused motorist. Two college girls standing in the middle of a roundabout, obviously drunk or playing some immature prank – or insane. She didn’t hurry me.

I opened my mouth, closed it again, hiccuped twice.

Let the world think what it wanted. I pushed away a decade’s worth of taboo. My sister was alive.

I spoke to the spirit.

“Where did it go? What direction?”

A shudder passed through the Gorilla-plant-thing, a reluctant quiver of muscle and tendon. Those giant shiny black eyes swivelled to look at me. It was a huge, hulking beast of intimidating power, ugly as sin, ridged and gnarled. An instinctive animal part of me screamed about running away and climbing trees. I shook very badly. Raine spoke my name and squeezed my shoulder.

It didn’t matter. It was immaterial, literally. I had flesh. It didn’t.

I stared back.

The me of a month ago would be mortified beyond thought. That other, younger Heather, she still clung to the safety blanket of insanity in the back of my mind, the little voice which still denied that all this was real. I think that moment finally ended her. Here I was, standing in the middle of a traffic roundabout under the streetlights, demanding answers from a monster that nobody else could see, clutching to my chest a message from my kidnapped twin.

Yes, sceptic Heather gave up on that concrete island. I told her it was all going to be okay.

“I demand you tell me where it went. Point.” I tried to sound commanding, to summon up a little of Evelyn’s tone of unquestionable contempt. My voice emerged in a squeak.

The spirit lifted one wrecking ball paw toward the north.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

providence or atoms – 2.6

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Thirty minutes.

That was Raine’s estimate.

Thirty minutes stuck in a room with two very angry people who hated each other for reasons I didn’t understand, waiting for Raine to return before either of them felt well enough for attempted murder. Thankfully, neither seemed inclined to get up yet. Twil had hunched tighter around her imaginary stomach wound, while Evelyn brooded, her eyes barely open and fixed on Twil with dark intensity.

I did as I’d promised, positioned myself behind one of the three armchairs, casually as I could, a nice safe distance from the firing line. Raine’s anti-werewolf punching glove still felt warm from her hand, but even with that enticement I couldn’t bring myself to put it on. I slipped it into my pocket.

Raine’s instructions gave me focus, though I didn’t believe they were necessary.

No, I was more concerned with Twil and Evelyn trying to pull each others’ faces off again.

Seconds ticked by, each one worse than the last, and neither of them made a sound. Couldn’t bear the tension. Made me want to rake at my scalp, scratch my back, crack my toes, anything. I chewed my lip and couldn’t hold back any longer.

“Can you walk?” I asked.

Two blank faces turned my way.

I’d tried to muster a gentle, conversational tone, as if we were all friends here, but I sounded like a school mistress about to lose control of her class.

“It’s not exactly an unexpected or untoward question.” I spoke too quickly. “You were hocus-pocused into a tomato,” I said to Twil. “And, well, you, Evelyn, I don’t know. Can you walk or not?”

Twil rolled her shoulders and shot me a toothy smile. “I’ve walked off worse.”

“Of course I can walk,” Evelyn said. “That was nothing, hardly real magic at all.”

“Well. Well, yes, that’s good then, isn’t it? Good.” Had to stall. Must stall. Pleasantries, everyday things, small talk. “Why don’t you- why not stretch your … uh-” I stammered to a stop on the gaffe.

“Leg? Singular?” Twil finished for me. She showed Evelyn her teeth.

Evelyn stared at her, very blank and very cold. “Why, I don’t understand the joke. Care to explain?”

“So, Twil.” I spoke loud and bright, clapped my hands together. “You’re from this … this … group?”

Oh goodness, why didn’t I just shove my entire foot down my throat? Good job, Heather, keep digging. Maybe Raine will bring you a spade.

“Cult,” Evelyn corrected. Her voice was free of malice, just tired and certain.

“It’s a Church.” Twil glared at Evelyn. “Look, sorry Heather, I’m not going to talk about my religion with Saye here.”

Evelyn cocked an eyebrow. “Religion? Don’t try to legitimise yourself, it’s sad.”

“Oh go swivel. You talk about it like we’re baby-eating monsters, sacrificing people on altars in the woods and having orgies with the devil. It’s nothing like that, Saye, and you know it.”

“That describes your grandfather quite well.”

“You shut your mouth,” Twil said through clenched teeth. “My grandfather gave me the greatest gift a girl could ever want. This.”

Twil yanked her sleeve up and held out one toned forearm.

In the blink of an eye, she wore a werewolf.

Air and light solidified around her flesh, like coalescing mist. Twil’s pale forearm was encased in an overlaid ghostly image, of thick grey-white fur with a rich reddish brown under-layer, muscle and tendon flexing like steel cables beneath. Sharp claws of ghostly matter extended from her fingers, the palm of her hand shadowed by a padded canine paw. Human skin resumed just above her elbow.

She closed her fist and the ghostly layer vanished. “I won’t hear a single fucking word against my family. You get me?”

Evelyn huffed. “Your grandfather made you into a foot-solider. You’re lucky he died before you could be put to use.”

Twil growled and bared her teeth.

I didn’t have time for that.

I was fascinated.

“Do that again,” I said.

“What?”

“Your arm. Show me. Do that again.”

Twil frowned at me and started to jerk her sleeve back down.

“I’m serious,” I said. “You can’t flash that around and not expect attention. Do it again, show me, I insist. You were so proud of it a moment ago, too.”

“Bloody hell, I’m not a zoo animal.”

“No, you’re a werewolf.” I resisted a mean-spirited urge to roll my eyes. “Perhaps this is normal for you, but try to appreciate this a matter of some interest for me, to put it lightly. Please, Twil, may I see your … gift, once more? Perhaps for a moment or two longer than it took you to threaten Evelyn?”

Evelyn snorted, but luckily Twil was too busy frowning at me – a very normal, human frown. I’d irritated her on a perfectly safe level, by accident.

“Ugh, fine.”

Twil stuck her arm out again.

I didn’t realise until a moment later that I’d broken my promise to Raine. I half slid out from behind my covert chair barricade and leaned in close, for a good look, a lot closer to Twil than the recommended six feet minimum safe distance.

Twil’s werewolf arm was one of the most fascinating sights I’d ever laid eyes on.

I’d spent my whole life seeing and hearing and – heaven forbid, sometimes – feeling the unnatural, but Twil’s ghostly arm seemed clean and normal in a way that no spirit had ever quite managed. Or perhaps I’d never looked closely enough before.

It was corporeal too, solid and material enough to touch. The fur sprang back up after the slightest pressure, thick and glossy and velvet soft, as if she’d come straight from a doggy shampoo and blow-dry. Maybe she had.

A sleazy smirk crept across Twil’s face. “Didn’t say you could touch, you know?”

I started and jerked back, hand to my chest in mortified embarrassment. “I-I’m sorry, I don’t know what- I didn’t realise I was touching you. I’m sorry.”

“S’fine. Can’t blame you.” She turned her arm over a couple of times, smiling at the sight of herself

“I didn’t- I-” I took a surreptitious step back behind the armchair, curiously lightheaded and blushing badly. Evelyn watched me with an unimpressed look. “Sorry, I just- it looked very soft. I’m not used to animals. Never had any pets.”

“Is there some fetish we should know about here?” Evelyn drawled. “Are you a secret furry, Heather?”

“A-a what?”

“Hey, back off,” Twil snapped at her. Evelyn shrugged, radiating boredom.

“So- so-” I stammered, trying to regain control of the situation. “No full moon? You don’t need that, you just transform at will?”

Twil flicked her wolf-arm as if shaking off water. It blurred back to human again. She pulled her sleeve down and shrugged. “Yeah, sure. Why not, huh? Wouldn’t be very fun if I just wigged out at the moon, would it?”

A question caught in the back of my throat. Twil didn’t exactly seem like the damsel in distress type. My imagination, gorged on poor self esteem and affection-starved paranoia, fed itself an elaborate fiction about supernatural exoticism. I compared myself to Twil and found myself wanting, plain, boring, cowardly.

Pure projection.

“Is that why Raine went out with you?” I asked. “The whole werewolf thing?”

In the dark recesses of my mind I’d expected Twil to grin and toss her head back, like a temptress from some bad 50s noir film.

Instead, she spluttered.

“Eh? What? No. We never went out. What? What kinda bullshit has she been feeding you?”

“You had a remarkable interest in her,” Evelyn said. “Following her around like a puppy.”

Twil rolled her eyes and shrugged, but I could clearly see the kernel of old disappointment. She’d wanted. Not gotten. “Yeah, in your dreams, maybe. We never did anything, okay? I dunno where you even get the idea.”

I felt the most selfish, satisfying flush of relief, laced through with guilt. I was acting ridiculous.

“Well, that’s- yes, yes.” I stammered and flustered. “I see. I’m sorry. I mean, I apologise for bringing it up.”

Twil eyed me with an odd sort of frown.

“W-what? What is it?” I asked.

“Missing piece of the puzzle is what.” Another sleazy grin spread across her face. “I get it now, I get what you’re doing here. You’re Raine’s little femmy girlfriend.”

“I’m what? Excuse me?”

“Apparently not,” Evelyn added.

Twil turned to her. “Eh?”

“Mmhmm. Apparently.”

“Nah, no way.” Twil grinned and slapped her own thigh. “You’re having me on. The way Raine was all over her? Yeeeeah. Obvious, now I think about it. How did I not notice that?”

“I know, right?” Evelyn purred.

I’d gone bright red in the face. “We’re- she’s- we’re not! You’re completely wrong. We’re not together. I’ve already had this conversation once today, for goodness sake.”

Twil barked a laugh and Evelyn snorted. I fought down an urge to stamp my foot.

“Least you seem pretty straight up and down,” Twil said.

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“Means you’re better than the last few.” She turned to Evelyn. “Am I right?”

“Mmhmm. An insult to Heather to even compare.”

“Compare me to what? Who?”

By slow, wary degrees at first, then blooming into a full-on gossip session, Twil and Evelyn talked about Raine behind her back.

I hung on every word and learnt a lot more than I’d bargained for. The ‘pity project’ before me had been a girl in the history department, by the name of May. She’d started out very promising until Raine had discovered she’d believed in lizard people and UN mind-control satellites.

As they spoke, Evelyn dug around in her bag and produced a little packet of wet-wipes. She set about cleaning Twil’s blood off her fingers and the mirror.

That would have been too surreal for me, if I wasn’t dying to hear more.

The girl prior to May had been a classical goth called Christie, all dark makeup and heavy eyeshadow and emotionally needy, a snippet of history which made me bristle with brief jealousy, until conversation turned to how Christie had been utterly convinced she was a vampire, and made herself sick drinking cow’s blood she’d gotten from a Sharrowford butcher’s shop. Apparently she’d locked herself in Raine’s bathroom for most of a day and sobbed about ‘the dark pact’ until Evelyn driven her off by pretending to be Raine’s obsessive, spurned admirer.

The tension dialled down as Twil and Evelyn laughed over that last one, as if they weren’t a werewolf and a mage and … whatever I was.

I couldn’t take it. I loved every detail, but I couldn’t take it.

“Will you stop talking about her like that?” I said. “We really shouldn’t be bad-mouthing her.”

“It’s only the truth,” Evelyn muttered.

I frowned, painfully aware she knew Raine a lot better than I did.

“Ahh, don’t worry about it.” Twil leaned back and cracked her knuckles. “You’re sore ‘cos you think she’s gonna get bored of you, but Raine’s a hopeless romantic.”

“I already told you, we’re not even together.”

Twil shrugged. “Whatever you say.”

I did my best not to sulk. Evelyn had developed this smug little smile. Twil pulled an old, battered flip-phone out of her pocket and checked the screen.

“Fuck knows why I’m even here at this point,” she said. “It’s almost four, I’m supposed to be on the train home. I’m gonna miss Bake Off.”

“You watch that tripe?” Evelyn asked.

“Go suck a fart. You don’t even own a telly.”

“I do, actually, for your information.”

“I don’t,” I said, feeling peevish, a proxy defence for Raine. “I much prefer reading.”

Twil rolled her eyes.


==


Raine returned with all the drama and impact of a commando raid. And on time, thankfully. I didn’t know how much longer the truce would hold.

She all but burst in the door, carrying a big sports bag over one shoulder and waving a silver plate above her head. Twil scrambled to her feet and backed away. Raine froze and grinned.

“Yo, did I interrupt something?”

“You could say that,” I muttered, but internally sighed with relief. “Hey Raine.”

“Yeah, my fucking personal space.” Twil pointed at the silver plate. “The hell are you doing with that?”

“Uh, just, you know, if I was wrong. Like I said.” Raine shoved the silver plate back in the sports bag and closed the door behind her.

“You got everything?” Evelyn asked.

“Sure did, plus a few party favours.” Raine dumped the sports bag on the table and heaved out an armful of winter clothes. Evelyn raised an eyebrow. “For Heather. Figured you wouldn’t mind. It’s all there, when you’re ready.”

“Alright,” Evelyn grumbled. “Let’s get this over with. Help me up.”

Evelyn eased herself out of the chair with a hand from Raine, then set about extracting her ritual tools from the sports bag. She unfolded a big sheet of paper and spread it across the table, carefully centred the silver plate in the middle, and then shuffled around the edge with a marker pen.

First she drew a triple layer of circles, followed by flowing script of esoteric symbols and interlinked geometric designs. She referenced her notebook as she worked, turning it this way and that, double and triple checking. Toward the end, she pulled a big leatherbound book from the sports bag and carefully read several passages before adding more symbols to her work.

It took an awful lot longer than the blood-magic she’d used to hurt Twil.

As Evelyn worked, our werewolf visitor lounged against the wall, clearly enjoying a safe distance from the silver plate. Raine presented me with the armful of winter clothes.

“Glad I was wrong, Heather. Here, for you.”

“Presents are lovely, but is this really the moment?”

“You’ll wanna wear these, trust me.”

I spied comfy looking mittens in berry purple, a huge fluffy scarf, and a woollen hat with floppy rabbit ears. “Um, why?”

“Trust me.”

Evelyn tutted. “She’s not made of spun glass.” She glanced up from her work. “That- Raine, that’s my- my hat!”

“It was the closest one to hand, that’s all. Seriously, Evee, it’s Heather’s first time. Cut me some slack.”

“First time for what?” I picked up on of the mittens.

“Magic.”

“What about earlier? That wasn’t magic?”

“That was just a little thermodynamics,” Evelyn drawled, already concentrating on her sigil once more. “This may indeed be an experiment, but it’s the real thing.”

“It’ll probably get real cold, real fast. Please, Heather?” Raine held out the scarf.

After a moment’s hesitation, I allowed her to wrap me up. I felt like a small child about to venture outside to play in the snow. She looped the scarf around my neck as I pulled the mittens on. At least they were nice and soft inside.

If I hadn’t felt so terribly guilty for all the gossip about Raine earlier, then I probably would have resisted more, listened to that little voice in my head whispering that I enjoyed the damsel in distress role, enjoyed being treated like this.

How could I not? It was such a sweet gesture, it almost hurt.

I tugged the woollen hat down over my hair. Raine reached up and tweaked the floppy rabbit ears.

“Suits you.”

“Oh, shush,” I said.

“What did you three get up to, then? Feels lot less tense in here than when I left.”

I glanced at the other two, but they weren’t listening. I pitched my voice low. “They were talking about you, in fact.”

Raine’s eyebrows tried to leave the atmosphere. She grinned. “My reputation proceeds me. All good, I hope?”

My eyes answered for me, whether I wanted them to or not. I don’t know if she saw guilt or curiosity or jealousy or worse.

“Ah? Heather?”

“Stop flirting, you two,” Evelyn called. She tapped the table with the end of her pen. “It’s ready and it won’t wait for anybody. Get over here.”

Raine’s attentions had distracted me from the worst phase of Evelyn’s work.

My stomach tightened at the obscenity on the table.

Black ink crawled and writhed over every inch of paper, except for the area directly underneath the high-lipped silver plate. The three circles were clear and stark, untouched by any other lines, but between them and around them the symbols seemed to recur into each other over and over again, vanishing into an optical illusion of infinity on the flat surface.

The design looked a little like a funnel, with an opening on one side.

“You stand here.” Evelyn jerked her walking stick at the opening.

“What- ugh, sorry.” I had to avert my eyes and take a deep breath. “Makes me feel sick.”

Raine put a hand on my back. “You can sit down if you want.”

“No she can’t,” Evelyn said. “She doesn’t have to look at it. Just stand.”

“It’s okay, I’ll be okay,” I murmured, mostly for myself. “I can do this.”

I did as Evelyn asked. I kept my eyes open, but stared at the blankets pinned over the windows. The setting sun had dimmed the air to a murky orange. The lamp at the back now provided most of the light in the room.

“Raine, you stand clear over here,” Evelyn said. I felt Raine’s hand squeeze my shoulder, then leave. “Twil, don’t interrupt. Whatever happens, nobody is to touch the three circles. Anything else should be fair game in an emergency.”

“How safe is this?” I asked.

Evelyn shrugged. She took up the bottle of aqua vitae, the last unused ritual ingredient, and wiggled the cork out. “Should be safe. You’re only a reference point, carrying the scent for my bloodhound here. I’m not actually opening a gate, just a sort of window, I need a good look.”

My blood ran cold.

I knew the answer to my next question.

No, she couldn’t do this, this was insanity. She didn’t know what it meant, she’d never seen it, never felt it sifting through her mind. Evelyn was already pouring the clear alcohol into the silver plate, creating a transparent layer above the mirror-finish.

“Good look at what?” I hiccuped, voice caught with sudden terror. “Evelyn, good look at what?”

Twil levered herself off the wall. “Woah, what-”

“Heather?” Raine piped up. “Yeah, Evee, wait-”

Evelyn slapped the cork back into the bottle. “At your Eye, what else?”

I took a step back and started to form a denial, shake my head, tell her no, stop, don’t do this, not here, not to me.

Evelyn spoke a word that no human mouth was built to speak.

The aqua vitae shimmered like mercury.

Too late.

I screwed my eyes shut and clamped my hands over my ears.


==


Gasping in the dark.

Then I felt Raine’s hands on my arms and heard her muffled voice beyond the mittens I’d shoved against my ears.

“Heather? Heather, it’s okay. It’s okay, we’re safe. Heather, open your eyes, look at me.”

Raine was alive and standing and talking, so I assumed we hadn’t all been obliterated. I found myself blinking at her, shaking and struggling to breathe through a blast of adrenaline. She met my eyes and and nodded slow and held me by the shoulders. I blinked back panic tears.

“I-it’s okay,” I repeated after her. “It’s okay, I’m okay. I’m okay.”

She smiled, but tense and stiff.

“That was some fucking major-league bullshit right there, Saye. What the fuck?” Twil almost shouted. For once, I agreed with her.

She looked like she wanted to strangle Evelyn, but dared not approach the table. Evelyn was bent over the silver mirror, staring into the surface of the aqua vitae. The liquid had blackened into a rich, rolling darkness.

I pulled the stupid rabbit hat off my head.

“Why didn’t you tell me what you were going to do!?” I yelled.

“Because you wouldn’t have agreed to it,” Evelyn croaked.

About to shoot back with words I’d probably regret later, I realised Evelyn was literally spitting blood. She held a tissue wadded up in one hand, already speckled with crimson spit, then hawked up a gob of bloody mucus. She caught me staring and glanced up from the magical window.

“The activation word. Damages the throat.”

I cast about at a loss, then shoved the hat at Raine. “Were you in on this?”

“No. I wish I had been.”

“You wouldn’t have agreed either.” Evelyn croaked and coughed and spat again.

“Bloody right I wouldn’t have,” Raine said. “Between terrifying Heather and hurting yourself, are you kidding?”

Twil shook her head and tapped her temple. I was inclined to agree, but too angry to think straight. Evelyn didn’t even bother with a response. She was utterly intent on the dark window in the silver mirror.

With the hat off, cold air quickly soaked through my hair and pinched at my nose. The temperature had indeed dropped sharply, colder than outdoors. I exhaled a white plume and shivered, wrapped my arms around myself. “This cold can’t be good for the books.”

“What, those?” Raine nodded at the bookcases along wall of the Medieval Metaphysics room. “They’re just nonsense, remember? Here, put your hat back on.”

“They’re still books.”

“They’ll be fine,” Evelyn muttered. “This won’t take long.”

She was touching the surface of the liquid window with two fingers, sliding and twitching them ever so gently. The viewpoint swung across a landscape that had haunted me half my life.

Wonderland.

My breath stilled.

“Evee,” Raine warned.

“It’s perfectly safe. It’s one-way,” Evelyn said as she panned across the landscape. “Anything there can’t see us, can’t touch us. Don’t watch if you don’t want to. Step outside if you must. Just don’t interrupt me.”

The liquid rippled as Evelyn moved her fingers. Despite the barely eighteen inches diameter of the silver plate, the image was strikingly clear. If it was any other place, I would have marvelled at the magic. My complaint died on my lips. I couldn’t look away.

Wonderland, exactly as I recalled, except from half a mile up.

Rubble and ruin stretched away to a horizon of broken teeth, monoliths of masonry embedded in the ground and cracked apart by unthinkable forces. Dark mists scudded across the acres of wreckage, drifting with more than a hint of intention. Wherever a wall stood intact, every inch of brick and stone was scrawled with tiny devotional script. Even at such a distance, from outside reality, the words made my eyes water.

Bio-luminescent jellyfish creatures bobbed and weaved through the air, each as big as a bus, their disgusting inner organs pulsing and throbbing to some unheard beat, meaty and wet.

Malformed life picked through the ruins, not even remotely humanoid. None of us could look at them for long. Twil made a gagging sound. Raine was silent. Evelyn quickly panned away.

In the distance, watchers stared up at the sky in mute worship. Some were vaguely simian, hunched over on their knuckles. Others squatted or crouched, toad-like, but most were unidentifiable combinations or phylum with no earthly analogue. I knew from memory each of them was the size of a mountain. One did not risk their attention lightly.

Raine murmured my name. She gently tried to ease me away, hands on my back. I was shaking, shivering, on the verge of tears but not sad, not afraid. “Heather, you don’t have to look. Come on, let’s go out into the corridor. Hell, we can go down the campus canteen. Heather?”

“No,” I hissed. Couldn’t look away. “I want to see.”

“You don’t have-”

“I need to see,” I said, almost pushed her away with a jerk of my elbow.

“Okay, okay. I’m right here.”

Evelyn grunted. “Thought you might.”

She panned the view until she’d circled the horizon. Frozen grey static filled the edge of the sky, as if the sun had exploded and forced iron filings across the firmament.

Twil muttered about how messed up this was, but Raine shushed her.

This was futile, I knew. I had nothing to gain by subjecting myself to this.

But I felt such release.

“This is the place you went?” Evelyn asked.

“ … yes.”

“Hm.” Evelyn flicked her fingers, swung the viewpoint up toward the sky.

I realised a second too late why the perspective was half a mile up from the ground. My heart leapt into my throat as the window filled with dark ridges and folds, cleft by a horizontal line across the middle, like a mountain range of puckered flesh. Bigger than any mountain, like a planet hung in low orbit.

“No, turn it away! Turn it away!” I cried.

Evelyn frowned into the dish. “What is-”

The eyelid cracked open.

It was in the sky and it was the sky and it was everything and all and so large it filled all creation with itself and forced out all thought and reason and demanded one look back into it and acknowledge its gaze with one’s own and never think of anything else ever again.

Open by the slimmest crack. On a true abyss.

More than enough.

It saw us.

All of Evelyn’s assurances of safety and one-way glass meant nothing. The Eye could reach across dimensions and rewrite physics with a thought. Of course it could see us. I’d hidden from it for two weeks and now it had found me.

I felt it in my head. All of our heads.

Noxious light spilt from the mirror-window and underlit Evelyn’s face, casting nightmare shadows across the ceiling. She was paralysed, frozen horror in her eyes. Raine wrapped her arms around her own head, bent forward as if trying to walk into a gale. Somewhere, Twil was yowling.

The first feelers of alien thought stroked at the edges of my mind, a familiar old fumbling and probing, prelude to a lesson. I swallowed a scream.

I was shaking, tears streaming down my face. For ten years this had been confined to dreams. Now I was wide awake.

I was also the only one who’d been here before.

The only one to retain my wits.

I scrambled forward and crashed into the table, slid across the paper sigils and magic circles. The Eye’s tendrils tightened around my thoughts, pulled and teased them apart. My vision swam. My skin crawled and my mind cringed away from what I had to do.

I reached out skimmed my mittened hand across the surface of the window, spun the viewpoint away from the Eye.

The spell broke instantly with a crackling discharge of static.

The image in the dish flickered, greyed out, cleared as the liquid returned to normal.

Evelyn sat down on the floor with a loud thump, both hands to her chest. Raine gasped and straightened up, heaving in great gulps of air. Twil, not exactly human right now, shook herself all over and huffed through a snout of razor-sharp teeth.

“Fuck me sideways,” Raine said.

We all took a moment to enjoy the absence of alien thought-tentacles in our brains. My whole body felt numb. Raine swung her arms and bounced on the spot. Twil rose from a tight, canine crouch and looked mostly human again as she rubbed her face, but even she was out of insults and complaints.

“Heather?” Raine said.

“Mm?”

“Good. Good call.” She nodded at the dish. I was still touching it. I think she wanted to come over to me, hold me, but she looked as stunned and numb as I felt.

“I guess.”

“What in bloody arsefuck Jesus Christ was that?” Twil said.

“The thing that haunts me.”

Evelyn shook her head slowly, looked between Raine and I, then looked away and sighed a deep, heavy sigh of defeat and shame.

“Fucking idiot,” Twil grumbled.

“Now’s not the time.” Raine took a deep breath. “This is all safe now, right? Evee?”

“Yes, Heather broke the connection. I won’t make it again.” Evelyn glanced up from her spot on the floor. “I didn’t expect a-”

She froze and her eyes widened just a fraction, just enough for panic. She stared at me.

“What? Evee, what now?” Raine said.

“Heather, did you touch the circles? Did you break the circles?”

I was too numb for blood chills or dramatic pit-of-the-stomach feelings. I think we all were. But when I looked down at my arm, where I’d slid across the table, I knew on an instinctive level that I’d made a mistake. Raine hurried to my side.

My impact had scrunched and torn the paper, breaking all three of Evelyn’s clean, precise magic circles. My arm lay right across them.

Evelyn heaved herself to her feet, suppressed a wince of pain.

“Don’t move,” she was saying – as I pulled my arm back.

The surface of the aqua vitae rippled and parted.

A hand made of solid night shot out from the liquid. Dark and shiny as if covered in a sheen of oil, each many-jointed finger six inches long, tapering points with no nails or claws.

It snapped shut around my wrist.

This time I screamed.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

providence or atoms – 2.5

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Raine didn’t say a word. She didn’t need to.

She stood up, the change in attitude evident in every shift of muscle and posture, instant and electric. She flexed her right hand, the one in the modified glove, curling and uncurling a fist.

From anybody else it would have seemed empty showboating. A ridiculous, playground gesture. Except I’d seen Raine beat a monster to death once before, grinning and flushed and loving the violence. My mouth went dry and my heart hammered all the faster. A tiny, squirming part of me acknowledged how attractive I found her when she did this.

Another part of me laid down the law: that response was deeply unhealthy.

“Let me in, Saye!” a voice called through the door, unmistakably petulant. Twil jerked the handle. The lock held.

“You’re not talking to Evelyn, you’re talking to me,” Raine said, voice rock steady.

“Let her break it down,” Evelyn hissed.

“Yeah, I know. I know you’re all in there. Open the door, we need to talk, face to face, right now.”

“Like earlier?” Evelyn called out. “Go get knotted, Twil.”

Raine grimaced. “Evee, ugh. Sick.”

Twil growled, long and low. She rattled the handle again, then thumped the door. “Open up or I’ll pull the hinges out of the wall.”

“Be my guest, please. Huff and puff and blow the door in,” Evelyn said. “We’ll get you thrown off campus and the university will charge you with property damage. This is the real world, you addled mutt.”

“Quite right. Go away, you … you horrible person!” I said.

Raine shot me a suppressed grin. I shrugged, desperate to contribute.

“Yes, hear hear.” Evelyn said. “Go away, Twil, you’re not wanted. Sod off back to your kennel.”

Twil whacked the door again. The impact shook the frame, the floor, and my nerves.

Raine stuck out a hand and lowered a voice to a whisper. “Hey, Evee, hold up, hold up.” She tiptoed to the door and reached for the latch, every muscle wound tight and ready to spring. The tip of her tongue poked from the corner of her mouth.

“Are you mad!?” I hissed and scrambled to my feet. “You can’t be serious. Yes, go ahead and let the werewolf in here, great plan! Raine, stop!”

“You’re in the way,” Evelyn added.

Raine inched toward the handle. “Twil? Tell me what you want, maybe we can talk. Gimme an explanation, gimme something to work with here.”

A second of silence, then Twil spoke again, but her voice carried less confidence. “ … save a life, maybe. Saye, the girl with you earlier, what have you done to her head-”

Raine burst into motion.

She slapped the latch down and whipped the door open, jammed her arm through the gap and yanked Twil inside by a fistful of her collar. Twil yelped in surprise, all wide eyes and windmilling arms, and I thought she was about to sprawl onto the floor or crack her head off the edge of the table, but Raine wasn’t even remotely finished with her.

Raine kicked the door shut, pulled Twil around before she had time to recover her balance, and slammed her against the wood, almost lifting her off her feet. Twil grunted, a deep oof of air forced out of her lungs.

Raine shoved the exercise glove in Twil’s face, silver wire an inch from her eyes.

Twil yowled. The most awful noise I’d ever heard from a human throat, inside or outside of a psychiatric hospital. She flailed and thrashed, hands scraping at the door as if trying to dig through the wood and away from the silver.

“You think I don’t come loaded for bear?” Raine said.

Zero aggression. Blank and flat.

Then Twil twisted like a fish, jackknifed a leg up, and booted Raine in the chest.

Raine staggered back winded and wrong-footed, her grip dislodged. Twil sagged and shook herself from head to toe, then growled and flexed both hands, fingers open wide like claws.

Between her hanging curtain of hair and her hunched posture, Twil looked the picture of a comic-book savage, halfway to animal already – but the effect was more than mere acting; a second figure was overlaid on her, ghostly half-flesh enveloping her own like an afterimage, fingers too long, bared teeth too sharp and too numerous, the front of her face too snout-like. From a distance one might mistake Twil’s additions as figments of a stressed imagination, a half-glimpsed hallucination.

Up close there was no mistake.

Raine grinned, flushed and bouncing on the balls of her feet. She raised her hands in a classic boxing stance.

Violence is never easy to watch. One is pulled between a very sensible desire to hide, and a desperate need to help one’s friends. I’d mythologised Raine for two weeks straight. She was unstoppable, she was invincible; she’d killed a monster and she’d done it for me and here she was after a kick to the chest, her opponent easily as frightening as she was. Incensed, shaken, confused, I almost broke – which way, I never found out.

Absurdity saved me, as I pushed the last puzzle piece into place.

They both tensed, ready to bash each other senseless over a stupid misunderstanding.

“Stop!” I yelled. “Stop, both of you. Oh my goodness, stop fighting.”

I forced myself to step forward, shaking, palms sweaty, dismayed to find that I’d unconsciously slid behind the armchair.

Raine spared me a sidelong glance and Twil blinked at me, teeth bared. I had only seconds to de-escalate this. I focused on Twil.

“They haven’t done anything to me.” I spoke fast, concentrated on not tripping over my words. “You called me a zombie in the library, but I’m not being mind controlled or coerced or seduced or anything like that. You asked what Evelyn has on me? Absolutely nothing. I saved her life, not the other way around. I’m Evelyn’s friend, and I’m Raine’s … friend, too. My name’s Heather Morell and I know what you are and I can probably mind-zap you into another dimension if I try hard enough, and if I’m completely wrong about what you’re thinking and instead you’re determined to hurt my friends, then I will do exactly that.”

For a split-second I thought I’d got this all terribly wrong. Staring Twil down was like trying to intimidate an actual wolf. I shook so hard I was certain my knees would give way.

Twil lowered her hands; the fight went out of her. She straightened up and swept her hair out of her face. Human again, as if those bestial additions had been a trick of the light. She narrowed her eyes at me, an intense scrutiny that shifted in turn to Raine and then Evelyn – who had gone very quiet and pale.

“Yeah, what she said,” Raine added. She shook her arms out and rubbed her chest where she’d been kicked, then shot me a questioning look.

“It was pretty obvious once I thought about it,” I said. “She thinks I’m a victim here.”

“You’re sharp,” Twil said. “That is why I came up here. Look, I don’t … I don’t wanna fight, I just wanted to … ” She gestured at me, as if for help. “I thought … ”

“You ever threaten my friends again,” Raine said. “I’ve got a lot more silver with your name on it.”

“Oh fuck off. You started it.”

“Raine,” I said, gently as I could. “Less of that, please, for me? This is all a misunderstanding.”

Twil scowled at me. “It might not be. How do I know you’re not too scared to speak up? Heather, that’s your name, right?”

“Scared? Of what?” Raine asked.

Raine spoke with a smile, but she did a poor job of hiding her tension. She was ready to throw down at the slightest wrong move from Twil. I could tell she wanted to, she enjoyed it on a level I didn’t understand, and I had to keep talking unless I wanted to witness an actual fistfight.

“I think you should explain this in your own words, Twil.” I injected just enough scold into my voice to make it clear what I thought of all this. I put my hands on my hips and did my best to look stern and unimpressed despite the pounding adrenaline in my head and the painful ache in my chest and the fact I was standing in front of a bloody werewolf. The alternative was sit down in a hurry.

Twil grumbled and crossed her arms, looking for all the world like a moody teenager.

“I saw you and Saye go into the library together, down to her … stuff. What was I supposed to think?”

Evelyn and Raine both opened their mouths at the same moment.

“Ah!” I held up my hands. “Stop, stop, just listen. Listen, please. What did you think, Twil?”

She squinted at me, as if she thought I was an idiot. It wasn’t an easy look to take from such a stunningly beautiful face, but I was too shaken to care much right now.

“I’m new to all of this,” I said. “Humour me. What did you think?”

“ … that Saye had recruited a minion. An easy fool to … I don’t know, sacrifice, use for magic. Something worse.” She shrugged. “Wasn’t gonna let her get away with it. Still won’t.” She shot a dark look at Evelyn.

“There we go. That’s what I thought. Well, I’m not. I’m here of my own free will. Very happily, in fact.”

“Should have said that in the first place, shouldn’t you?”

“You made it quite difficult,” I said.

Raine grinned and shook her head. “You absolute spanner, Twil.”

Sacrifice?” Evelyn finally piped up, scowling like thunder. “That’s the sort of thing your lot do. This is all so much bullshit, Twil. Why on earth were you watching me in the first place?”

“I just happened to be in the library, alright? It’s a free country, last I checked.”

“No, I don’t believe a word of this. A very creative excuse, that’s what this is. You shouldn’t even be in the city.”

Twil bared her teeth and growled. Raine raised her fists. Evelyn flinched and almost squeaked. I felt an uncontrollable urge to duck behind the chair. All my hard work undone.

Then Twil jammed a hand into her blue-and-lime coat pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper. She shoved it toward Raine, a faint blush in her cheeks.

“That’s why I’m here, alright? My life doesn’t revolve around you lot all the time. Go on, open it. Fucking wasters.”

Raine took the paper, unfolded it, and snorted a suppressed laugh. I peered over her shoulder.

A Sharrowford University Open Day flyer.

Come all ye prospective undergrads; see the departments, talk to professors, wander around the campus. No exclusion for secret werewolves.

“Yeah go on, yuk it up,” Twil said. “You’ll see, I’ll get in and I’ll beat all your marks as well. I’m getting a fucking first. You think I’m just some idiot living in the woods.”

“I’m not laughing at you,” Raine said. She showed the flyer to Evelyn.

“You so are. Bitch.”

“What course are you applying to? And stop being so rude,” I said. Twil blinked at me in a frowny-squint. “It’s a serious question,” I added.

“ … bio-med science.”

“What were your A-level results?”

“Three As.” She jutted her chin high, then wavered and lowered her gaze. “Okay, one A, two Bs. Predicted.”

“Predicted? Wait a moment, how old are you?”

“What’s that supposed to mean? I’m eighteen. I’m an adult.”

“I had assumed you were a little older.” I spread my hands in a silent apology. “With those A-level grades, you’ll probably get accepted. Next year?”

“Yeah, keeping my hopes up. Here, maybe Manchester. You know, get a little further away from home.” She frowned at me. “Why the hell are we talking about this?”

I shrugged. “Because a little normality goes a long way. Because not everything needs to revolve around supernatural nonsense and … werewolves.” I struggled to keep my voice free of pique. Twil smirked, showing too many teeth.

“Told you all about me, did they? Good.”

“That we did,” Raine said. “Didn’t think you’d developed a white knight complex though. Impressive.”

“Oh fuck you, you saddo. You can talk.”

Raine laughed. “It was a compliment, dumbass.”

“From Raine, it probably was,” I muttered.

Twil snorted, barely a laugh at all.

“Sorry about the old rough and tumble, you know?” Raine mimed throwing punches. She didn’t sound sorry. “Got a little too carried away, I guess.”

“Got you good too, didn’t I?”

“Meant what I said though. Don’t hurt my friends.”

“If I wanted to hurt anybody – and I don’t – who’s gonna stop me? You and what army?”

Raine shrugged, expansive and theatrical, playing to the crowd. “Silver runs about fifteen quid an ounce these days, I think.”

I knew it was unhealthy, chest-thumping nonsense, but the way Raine stared her down, that casual look, as if the outcome would never be in doubt, was far too attractive for me to deal with right now. Raine could use that look for evil if she wanted, I knew she could, and if she ever turned it on me in private I doubt I’d last long.

Too bad Twil was staring right back.

I was jealous.

What on earth did I have to be jealous of? They were ready to knock each other black and blue, and on Raine’s side that was at least partly in my defence. But I didn’t like them looking at each other, butting heads with familiarity behind their words.

I knew it was petty and stupid but I couldn’t help myself. Raine wasn’t my lover or my partner and I’d known her for less than a whole month. I felt like a hormonal teenager, and I knew why: because I’d never been allowed to be one before.

I told myself off and resolved to be sensible, measured, and diplomatic.

And to remind Twil I’d already scored a point against her.

“I apologise for slapping you earlier,” I said.

Twil shrugged. “Hardly matters, does it? S’cool, whatever.”

I opened my mouth to request an apology for her attempted punch, but the words died on the way up.

There wasn’t a scratch on her.

No bruise, no slapped face, no broken nose.

The only evidence of our clumsy slapfight was the red stain down the front of her hoodie, diluted and smeared about. She must have scrubbed at it with a wet paper towel in one of the toilets.

Twil cocked an eyebrow at me. I realised I’d been staring.

“Werewolf, right.” I huffed a sigh. It just wasn’t fair. “Broken noses shouldn’t heal in thirty minutes.”

Twil barked a laugh.

Even sullen and rude, she was far, far too pretty.

How could I, frumpy shapeless pullovers and daytime pajamas and sallow stress-ruined complexion, compete with that?

Twil watched me watch her, slow and thoughtful. I shrugged at her in silent question, not trusting myself to speak in case I snapped out jealous teenage nonsense.

“So why are you here?” she asked.

“In general?” Too much mocking hostility in my voice. I tamped it down. “Or you mean Sharrowford, or here in this specific room?”

“I mean what the hell are you doing hanging out with these two? What’s your deal?”

“I don’t think that’s any of your business,” Raine said quietly.

I crossed my arms. “Quite right. Any answer to that is long and complex and very personal. I’m not comfortable talking about it, except with close friends.”

“Oh, uh, right.” Twil blinked and looked lost. I felt a little sorry for her. She did mean well, after all. My jealousy wasn’t her fault. “Can I like, talk to you alone for a minute?” she asked. “Out in the hallway?”

“Twil,” Raine said, a warning note in her voice.

“Whatever for?” I asked.

“Without these two listening in.” She indicated Raine and Evelyn with a jerk of her chin. “How can I be sure you’re not getting conned?”

I was about to say sure, why not? Twil’s only real desire here was to make sure a timid-looking college girl wasn’t being exploited by a pair of scary clued-up supernatural types. Well, that, and she probably wanted to irritate Evelyn. She was awkward and slightly intimidating, but I had a hard time imagining her actually wanting to hurt me. Also, that lost expression made her look even prettier. I wasn’t immune to that.

Raine spoke before I could open my mouth. “No way, no how, Twil. Absolutely not.”

“Raine.” I heard an unintentional whine in my voice. I killed it, not liking where that was going. “I can make my own decisions.”

“Yeah, maybe you should listen to her?” Twil narrowed her eyes at Raine.

“I’m not trying to control your decisions,” Raine said. She stepped over to my side. “My danger senses are still tingling, really.”

“Danger? Talking with her in the corridor for five minutes? Twil just wants to make sure I’m not being coerced.” I glanced past Raine. “Am I correct?”

“Right,” Twil said. “This ain’t convincing me, by the way.”

Raine leaned in close, cupped my ear, and whispered. Her warm breath tingled on my scalp.

“Heather, this could be a set up for a snatch job. Everything out of Twil’s mouth is suspect.”

“What?” I said out loud.

“It’s not impossible that the Brinkwood cult knows about you somehow. I didn’t mention it before, didn’t want to scare you. Do not let Twil get you alone. I was skating on thin ice earlier; without the silver, she could pull my head off if she wanted. Kidnapping you would be easy.”

Raine straightened up and squeezed my shoulder. I knew that look. I’d trusted it on a sick and lonely morning in a dirty Sharrowford cafe, and it had saved me.

“I-I think you’re wrong,” I said. “But I trust you. Okay.”

“Well?” Twil growled.

I shook my head.

“Fine, whatever. S’your funeral. Can’t say I didn’t try.”

“I appreciate the sentiment, it’s very sweet of you, but I’m fine, I’m safe. I don’t need saving. Probably for the first time in my life.”

“Yeah, I think we’re done here,” Raine said. “Time to go, hey Twil? You leave us alone, we’ll leave you alone. Non-aggression pact, all that good stuff?”

Twil grunted, then looked hard at me. “I don’t trust anything these two do. Like, I dunno what exactly they told you about me and mine, but Saye’s infinitely more fucked up than I am.”

I felt myself bristle at the implied insult. “That’s hardly a mark against her, even if true.”

“Whatever. Don’t let her do any magic to you, that’s for sure.”

Twil must have seen the silent question in my expression. She frowned and glanced between Evelyn and I.

“Woah, shit, that’s not why you went down to the books, was it?”

I cleared my throat. “Well-”

“Was it?” Raine asked. “Evee?”

“Oh no fucking way,” Twil said. She unfolded her arms and flexed her hands, glowering and baring her teeth. “Nuh uh, not letting you mindfuck this girl.”

“For pity’s sake,” I said, cursing my own open-book face. “It’s fine, it’s to help me.”

“I’ll believe that when I see it.”

Raine stepped forward, raising her gloved fist again. “Hold up, Twil.”

Evelyn cleared her throat.

“This is all very dramatic and edifying, I’m sure,” she said. “But you seem to have forgotten something, you dense mongrel.”

Twil frowned at her. “What?”

“Yeah, what?” Raine said.

“Your reasons are irrelevant,” Evelyn spat. “Apologise and leave. One chance.”

“What? Fuck you Saye, you-”

Twil’s eyes went wide. She lunged for Evelyn. Raine yelled and leapt for her. I jumped so badly that my heart achieved escape velocity.

“Oh,” I mouthed, before Evelyn cast the spell we’d all forgotten about.

She twisted her fingers against the blood-smeared mirror, completed her infernal circuit, and spoke a rush of words which sounded like they hurt to pronounce, all throaty consonants and hard inhalation. Her maimed left hand thrust forward and squeezed into a fist.

The air temperature plummeted several degrees in an instant, enough to draw a gasp and shiver from me.

Static electricity sparked off my fingers and crackled across my jumper.

And Twil slammed to a halt.

She froze mid-step, fists clenched, mouth half-open on an unfinished snarl. Her eyes bulged with blinding rage. The muscles on her face twitched. Sweat beaded on her forehead and she vibrated all over, as if fighting to fill her lungs. Her right arm jerked up, millimetre by painful millimetre.

Raine caught herself on the edge of the table to avoid touching Twil. Static jumped from her hands to the metal table legs and she swore under her breath.

Evelyn shook and panted, dripping with sudden cold sweat. She grinned at Twil, ugly and triumphant.

“You forgot what I can do,” she said, effort in every word.

Disgust and fascination fought in my heart. I stared at Twil and then at the blood-thing in Evelyn’s lap. This was impossible, my mind said, but there it was, evidence of my own eyes. And Evelyn was enjoying it far too much.

“Evee, you’ve made your point,” Raine said. “We don’t want a body on our hands. Let it go.”

“Body?” Evelyn choked out a laugh. “Oh, I think our doggy friend can take a lot more than this.”

Twil was gritting her teeth, hissing a sound halfway between a broken gas pipe and a dentist’s drill.

“Yeah, but maybe you can’t,” Raine said.

That snapped me back to the moment. “She can’t- Evelyn, she can’t breathe,” I said.

“That’s the point.”

She clenched her fist tighter, knuckles white. Twil was so red in the face she looked ready to burst. Evelyn shook and quivered, a flu patient with the chills, about to collapse, blinking rapidly just to stay conscious. Raine looked wary of touching either of them, as if they carried live current. For all I knew, they did.

“Evelyn, stop!” I cried. “I won’t let you do this to somebody over me. It’s not worth it! I won’t have it. Not even a rude, ridiculous person like Twil. Stop!”

“Not about you.” Evelyn had to force every word. “About respect.”

“I don’t care! I won’t have much respect left for you or myself if I stand by and let you commit torture. Stop!”

The tug of war collapsed.

Evelyn sagged and her fingers slipped on the bloody mirror. Twil crashed to the floor. Her chin bounced off the ground and she yelped like a kicked dog. I flinched, my own tension pulled piano-wire tight. Evelyn slumped and started to slide out of her chair, but Raine ducked forward and held her under the armpits, pushed her back into the seat. She was coated with sweat and shivering all over. Her eyes found mine, guilty and ashamed for a split-second before they fluttered shut.

“Raine, what- what do I-” I stammered, hands half-raised in a please-let-me-help gesture.

“It’s okay, I’ve got her, I’ve got her,” Raine said. She clicked her fingers in front of Evelyn’s face. “Evee. Evee, open you eyes. Don’t go to sleep. Evelyn, open your eyes.”

Evelyn coughed and grunted. “I’m fine. Stop clicking at me.”

“Dammit, Evee.”

Twil struggled to her knees, sucking in air like she’d run a marathon. “Oh yeah, nobody worry about me, just over here getting my guts fried. You shower of utter bitches.”

“Come off it, you’re basically invincible,” Raine said, but she stood up and offered Twil a hand.

“Yeah, but I can still feel pain. Fucking hate you, Saye.”

“Good,” Evelyn grumbled, eyes still closed. “Perhaps you’ll show some respect.”

“Evelyn, shush,” I said, an unfamiliar lash in my voice. She opened bleary, confused eyes on me.

“Bet you’re out of ammo now, you-” Twil started.

“And you,” I rounded on Twil. “Sit.”

“Yeah yeah, don’t have to tell me twice.” Twil winced as Raine helped her into one of our armchairs.

Even in the heat of the moment, it wasn’t an easy sight for my fragile self-esteem: Twil with her arm over Raine’s shoulders to help her stand, Raine frowning at her with at least a modicum of care and attention. I told myself it didn’t matter. We had bigger things to deal with now. I could be immature later. In private. Alone.

“Can’t believe I have to be the adult in the room,” I said, and took a deep breath. My hands were shaking, quite badly, and I clasped them together to get myself under control. It was over, I told myself. It was done. We could all pretend to be sensible adults now.

The room temperature had returned to normal, and none of us seemed charged with static anymore.

Twil was hunched up as if around a stomach wound, though there was no visible mark on her, and Evelyn looked like she was asleep, her frowning, conflicted expression the only evidence to the contrary.

“Right, I think we’ve all had enough for one day,” Raine said. “We are going the hell home, and you’re going to sleep, Evee.”

“Why did you do it?” I asked.

Evelyn’s frown darkened. She knew I was talking to her.

“Heather, maybe leave it for now?” Raine murmured.

“Standards have to be maintained,” Evelyn said. “Debts paid.”

Twil growled, either at Evelyn or just to get our attention. “You’re kidding if you think I’m going anywhere now. So desperate to stop me seeing what you’re gonna do to this poor girl, huh? No way, Saye. You’re doing magic, so I’m not going anywhere.”

“Neither of you are in any state to do anything right now,” Raine said.

Evelyn scoffed. “Watch me.”

“Sure thing, bitch,” Twil shot back.

Raine rubbed the bridge of her nose. I sighed and hugged myself, feeling like I was under siege.

“I’m haunted,” I said.

Twil blinked at me. “What?”

“Hey, you don’t have to do this, Heather,” Raine said. I shook my head, didn’t matter now.

“Haunted. By something much bigger and scarier than you, and Evelyn’s going to help me with it. Raine’s been helping me with it. You, I don’t know what you’re doing, but I suppose you’ve at least earned an answer, after Evelyn hit you with the magical version of live battery clamps to your sensitive parts.”

“S’this true?” Twil said.

I nodded.

Evelyn turned bleary eyes to stare level at our curious werewolf. “Quite. Heather’s got the attention of something much worse than the sad little god your cult worships.”

“Hey, don’t call it a cult.”

“I’ll call it whatever I bloody well like. I could take it apart if I wanted.”

Twil bared her teeth and growled.

“Girls, calm the hell down.” Raine raised her voice and rapped her knuckles on the table. Evelyn winced at the noise and Twil jerked her head back.

“Why can’t we just act like reasonable adults, instead of extras from a bad drama?” I asked. “Let’s compromise, so we don’t end up doing this all again? I assume, Twil, that if you’re not satisfied, then you’re going to start following me around? Or go after Evelyn again?”

Twil blinked at me as if I had mind reading powers.

“And Evelyn,” I continued. “If we’re still on for your magical experiment today, do you object to Twil watching?”

Evelyn sucked her teeth in thought. “We’d have to go back to my house.”

“Then I’m coming with you,” Twil said.

“Over my dead body.”

“I gotta agree. Though not the dead part,” Raine said. “You ain’t coming back there.”

“The security would eat you alive,” Evelyn said.

Twil flexed her back and arms, rolling muscles like a wrestler. “We can find out.”

“No,” Evelyn said.

“Why don’t we do the spell here?” I asked. Three pairs of eyes looked to me. “Well, why not? You two have manoeuvred yourselves into a stalemate, and I am deeply uncomfortable at being at the heart of it. I’m not thanking you for your concern, Twil, or you, Evelyn, for … whatever ego-trip nonsense that spell was.”

Evelyn held my gaze for a long moment. I was too wiped out to worry about looking away. Bitter damage lurked behind her eyes, and I promised myself that after this day was over and we all did go home again, I was going to give her a hug. I would be her friend. A real one.

“It’s possible. No reason why not,” she said. “But I need tools from home. Somebody will have to fetch them.”

“Ah,” Raine said.

The impasse was obvious: Twil was barred from Evelyn’s house; Evelyn couldn’t go alone; Raine didn’t want to leave us here with Twil.

“I’ll go,” I said. “It’s for my benefit anyway. And to be honest I need some fresh air after that.”

Raine shook her head. “No, not by yourself.”

“Oh for heaven’s sake, it’s fine. I’m hardly going to get snatched off the street.”

“You might,” Raine muttered.

She guided me a few steps toward the back of the room, out of earshot. I didn’t mind – it was a very reassuring way to be handled, but a tiny voice in the black pit of my self-esteem giggled those damnable words again: damsel in distress.

Raine dropped her voice to a whisper. “Heather, look, I don’t like this.”

“It’s fine.” I said, whispering back despite myself. “I trust you, but I think you’re wrong, Twil’s just concerned.”

“And if I’m right, she might have others waiting for you. I dunno. It’ll have to be me, I’ll have to go. Here.”

Raine tugged off the silver-wire exercise glove and held it out to me.

“Oh, I can’t. No, Raine.”

“All you gotta do is wave it in Twil’s general direction and she’ll get back right sharpish. She’s weak at the moment. I dunno how long it’ll take her to recover but I can get to Evee’s and back in under half an hour.”

“It’ll be fine, I don’t need-”

Raine pressed a finger to my lips. The intimate gesture made my heart skip. “No, I am only doing this if you promise to do what I say. The alternative is I knock Twil’s lights out, then carry Evee home, and you sleep at my place until we’re sure Twil’s gone.”

“ … Raine, really,” I hissed, unimpressed, trying to ignore the bait. Sleep at Raine’s? Yes please. She’d not taken me there yet.

She didn’t even blink.

“Hey, this is what I do.”

I sighed and took the glove. “Fine.”

“Promise.”

“To what?”

“Don’t get within six feet of Twil. Keep a chair between you and her. Don’t answer the door to anybody but me. And whatever you do, do not, absolutely do not go outside with her. Promise me.”

“If you think she’s so dangerous, why leave in the first place?”

“Hey, you took the wheel here, Heather. You’re in charge right now. This is your compromise. I’m just interpreting orders.”

“Alright, I promise.”

Raine smiled, relief obvious, and I took selfish comfort in her absolute trust in my promises. Then she pulled me into a hug, and I took comfort in that too.

Maybe I didn’t need Maisie. Maybe I had Raine now.

Or maybe I was just kidding myself.

Or dependent.

When Raine let go I wished we were anywhere but here, anywhere but in the Medieval Metaphysics room with an angry werewolf and Evelyn. Raine took a deep breath and crossed the room, whirling into action. All she needed was a long trench coat billowing out behind her to complete the look.

“Right, Evelyn, what do you need? List me.”

“Hmm. Paper. The silver plate underneath the stairs. The bottle of aqua vitae. That’s still in the kitchen cupboard, has a picture of unicorn on it, you can’t miss it. Inprencibilis Vermis from my library, third shelf up on the left hand wall, you know the one.”

“That’s it?”

Evelyn nodded.

“S’not much.”

“It’s an experiment. Probably won’t even work.”

“Got it, no probs. And you.” Raine turned to our grumpy werewolf visitor. Twil was still hunched up like a brooding teenager with her hair half down in front of her face.

She shot a dark look at Raine. “What?”

“Heather trusts you. I don’t. If she’s wrong and I’m right, I’ll kill you.”

Her voice sent a cold hand crawling up my spine. That wasn’t the Raine who hugged me a moment ago. That wasn’t my Raine.

Twil just grunted.

Raine turned to me one last time, winked, and then she was out of the door. The latch clicked shut behind her, followed by the sound of her footsteps receding down the corridor, walking fast.

I made a conscious effort to smile, but nobody was paying attention. Evelyn lay in her chair, watching Twil through half-open eyes. Twil stared back, the very picture of a wolf waiting for prey to slip up.

“Well then,” I said. “Won’t be long, I hope.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

providence or atoms – 2.4

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Ten minutes later, behind the locked door of the Medieval Metaphysics room, Evelyn provided a practical answer to ‘what is magic?’

Magic, in this quick and dirty example, started when she noticed the smear of Twil’s blood on her walking stick. She was still shaking, but her lips curled into that sharp, devious smile.

“Evee?”

She grunted in reply. That’s all I got.

I was too busy crashing out on adrenaline.

Raine would get here any minute. She’d had to skip straight out of a lecture. From the tone in her voice down the phone, she’d probably cross campus in record time. A twinge of guilt plucked at my gut.

Guilt, however, paled in comparison to the high still racing through my heart and pounding in my head.

I’d acted tough and won. Was this what Raine felt like all the time? Powerful but spent, shaky and winded? I suspected not. I leaned against the back of a chair and focused on my breathing, one hand wandering up to rub at the bruise inside my chest.

Evelyn slapped her walking stick onto the table and dug around in her tote bag, pulling out odds and ends – a box of cotton buds, a hand mirror, a tub of Vaseline and a black marker pen. She dumped it all on the table. Her hands still quivered as she found an unlabelled bottle of pills and popped two slender white tablets into her mouth, swallowed them dry.

“What are those?” I asked.

Evelyn stared at the detritus on the table, her lips moving in silent thought.

“Evelyn? What did you just take?”

“Nothing. Painkillers.”

She grabbed the mirror and the marker pen, sat down in her chair facing the door, and got to work.

A visible, focused calm settled over Evelyn as she drew curved symbols around the edge of the mirror, her hands steady and working fast after the first minute. The bottle of painkillers tempted me too, but the bruise inside was immune to ibuprofen and paracetamol and codeine. Not to mention the pills probably weren’t painkillers at all.

Evelyn finished drawing and grabbed her walking stick, then wiped at the sticky red patch with cotton buds.

With painstaking attention to detail, eyes tightly focused, fingers braced against the bare glass, she drew a spiral design in the centre of the mirror – in Twil’s blood.

A deep sense of unreality crept over me, in silence half born of sudden exhaustion, half fear of violating Evelyn’s unspoken ritual quiet, broken only by the scuff of the cotton buds and her constant stream of low muttering. The room was soaked in a deep twilight, with the lights off and blankets pinned over the back windows, the overstuffed bookshelves towering over us in the gloom.

I stepped over to the windows and the big desk along the back, flicked the switch on one of the lamps. Soft orange glow chased the shadows away, into the corners and under the bookcases.

Evelyn’s head snapped up. She stared at me.

“It was dark.” I hiccuped.

Expressionless, she bent to her work once more.

I sat down and rubbed my sternum. The ache and the adrenaline crash fogged the inside of my head.

“There,” Evelyn said. She straightened up, tugged the blanket off the back of the armchair to settle it over her knees, and placed the finished mirror-design on her lap. She braced her right hand against the surface, thumb and two fingers resting at what seemed like very specific points of the design. “Not my greatest working, but it’ll do. I hope Twil tries it on again, I really hope she does.”

“I assume that’s magic?”

“Just a slapdash job. Very little range, and it’s only good for one use, but it’ll give Twil a nasty little surprise.”

“Evelyn, what just happened?” I picked through my adrenaline-fuzzed memories. “What was that all about? Who is Twil, exactly?”

“An idiot and an irritation. Really, there wasn’t any need to muck about calling Raine. Twil is essentially harmless. That was all so much guff and drama.”

“You use magic on harmless people?”

“This is to remind her not to fuck with me.” Evelyn hesitated. “Us,” she added. “I mean us.”

I opened my mouth again but Evelyn whipped around to glare at the door. She waved me into expectant silence. My heart caught in my throat.

“Someone’s-”

Then the triple-knock, the key in the door, the breathless rush.

Raine barrelled into the room, flushed and wild eyed, thankfully faster than Evelyn could panic-cast the blood-mirror bear trap in her lap. Raine jerked to a halt, as if she’d expected to throw herself headfirst into the middle of a fight. I admit, the look rather suited her.

“You’re both alright?” she asked.

“Yes, we’re fine, we’re okay.” I smiled in relief. “Hey Raine.”

“Hey yourself.”

“Close the bloody door!” Evelyn snapped.

“Don’t look so happy to see me then.” Raine winked, but she did close the door and throw the latch. “It was Twil, right? On her own? What happened, where is she now?”

“Lurking, I suspect,” Evelyn said.

I nodded. “Yes, on her own. I’d never seen her before. We were in the library, I-”

Evelyn raised her voice. “I suggest you get out of the way of the door.”

Raine quirked an eyebrow at the mirror-and-blood construction in Evelyn’s lap. “Oooh, Evee, you got some voodoo brewing down there?”

“No, I thought I’d expend all the effort just for fun. What does it look like?”

“What are you gonna do, blast the door into Twil’s face?”

“Something along those lines.”

“Can she actually do that?” I asked. “Is that possible?”

“Of course I can’t,” Evelyn snapped, as Raine shrugged and said “Sure, why not?”

They shared a look. Raine cracked a grin and Evelyn scowled before she resumed staring daggers at the door. Raine glanced between the two of us, wiggled her eyebrows, and stepped out of the way of the firing line with a flourish of one arm.

“So, you two were having a girls’ morning out together, doing some bonding over library books, when Twil rocked up and ruined your day?”

Evelyn grunted.

“I’m sorry,” I said. The guilt twisted in my chest.

Raine pointed two finger-guns in my direction, struck a dramatic pose, and grinned. It worked. I almost giggled, despite everything.

Raine was wearing a thick black polo-neck underneath her leather jacket. Her boots – not the faded rose ones today – looked sturdy enough to see off any foe all on their own. She had her hair swept back, as if she’d just run a hand through it, an effortless artful disarray.

There’s a unique emotional spice, when you’ve met a person you like an awful lot, and they arrive in your day. You notice every detail, every little change, every minor adjustment of gesture.

Raine had a glove on her right hand. An exercise glove, old and tatty, with silvery wire wrapped around the plastic knuckle brace.

I’d never seen it before.

“It’s really good to see you,” I said, for more than one reason.

“Heather, I am not mad at you. You’ve done nothing wrong. Thank you, for calling me for help.” The finger-guns swivelled to Evelyn, who steadfastly ignored the show. “I’m not actually mad at you either, Evee, just totally mystified.”

“As usual, then,” Evelyn grunted.

“Like, hey, don’t we have this, you know, arrangement where you let me know where you’re at, ask me to come with you, organise things in advance, because otherwise spooky ghost lizards and super-zombies from dimension X might kidnap you and eat your brains. Ring a bell at all, Evee?”

Raine’s good humour seemed genuine. Simple relief, perhaps, but from anybody else I’d have expected shouting, anger, or passive aggression at the very least.

“Yes, yes, I haven’t suddenly gone senile,” Evelyn said. “Ever consider that perhaps I’ve grown out of it at last? Don’t you have other things to worry about now?”

“That’s not what you sounded like earlier,” I said.

I regretted speaking up; Evelyn turned the full force of her frown on me, silent reminder of the day I’d surprised her in this very same room. I resisted a gut-strong urge to curl up and vanish into the chair, forced myself to look her in the eye, get this nonsense under control.

“You were as scared as I was,” I said.

Evelyn opened her mouth to snap at me – but then blinked and swallowed, her expression softening. “I … yes, Heather. I … you helped me. Thank you. I needed … ” She glanced at Raine with obvious discomfort.

“Don’t mind me,” Raine said, barely suppressing a grin.

“And don’t you pull a silly face at this! It’s important. Heather and I shared a … moment. We came to an understanding.” She sighed heavily. “And yes, she’s right. You’re right, Heather. I was scared, but only because Twil caught us off guard. She won’t be doing that again.”

Raine clapped her hands together and beamed at us. “Look, you’re both safe, and that’s all that matters. Please, Evee, if you need to rush out somewhere, just call me, yeah? You know I don’t mind. Ever.”

Evelyn grunted and returned to watching the door.

I wished I understood their relationship. Maybe with Evelyn, in private, maybe I could get her to talk about it, if I approached the subject the right way? I cursed myself for such intrusive thoughts, but I felt a burning need to know. Why was Raine so devoted?

Raine leaned down to peer at my face, her hair hanging sideways and her grin at an angle.

“You are far from alright, Heather. I can tell, you know, especially with you.”

“I’m … shaken. We both were. The ache is really bad. I think it was all the adrenaline.”

Raine perched on the arm of the chair. She started rubbing my back in exactly the right way.

No idea how she’d learnt so fast. In the space of two weeks, she’d already figured out the precise way to melt my muscles. For a long few minutes she didn’t say a word, just kneaded the tension out of my shoulders. Adrenaline and panic drained away. Raine was here. Safe now.

A little voice in my mind whispered those damnable words; ‘damsel in distress’. I told it to shut up.

“So what did Twil do?” Raine said.

I told her.

The more I spoke, the further Raine sharpened into rapt attention, focused and listening, asking no questions. I recognised the change coming over her. Tense, quiet, ready. I found it deeply, astoundingly attractive.

Or rather, I would have, if the puzzle pieces weren’t slotting into place.

No longer buzzing with adrenaline and jumping at shadows, I hesitated at the clues in my own memory. I couldn’t be right, it was too absurd. If I was correct then the world was dumber and more annoying than I’d dared imagine. I let my explanation trail off as I stared at Raine. She raised her eyebrows.

“Heather? It’s okay, you-”

“What is Twil, exactly?”

Raine paused, split-second hesitation. Any other time, any other circumstances, I wouldn’t have noticed. “Okay so, Twil Hopton, that’s her name, here’s the 101. She’s not that hard to deal with, but she does represent some potentially dangerous people, depending-”

“No, that’s not what I meant.” My throat tightened. “What is she?”

Raine glanced at Evelyn for help. “Uh, Evee, this didn’t come up?”

My friends shared a look for just a moment too long. Evelyn shrugged and Raine bit her lower lip.

I felt myself bristle, left on the outside of some secret communication. Is that what they thought of me? The hesitation all but confirmed my worst suspicions, that the world was bonkers. I couldn’t believe this. Absurdity.

“I can put two and two together,” I said. Raine raised a placating hand but I forged on. “The growling noises Twil made. The dog jokes you were throwing at her, Evelyn, which seemed to strike such a nerve. And you,” I frowned at Raine. “Do you think I don’t notice things? You’ve got silver wire wrapped around a weightlifting glove.”

“Uh, that I have. Well spotted, yeah.” At least Raine had the sense to look guilty. She raised the makeshift knuckle-duster and gave me a sheepish smile.

“I’m not completely culturally ignorant.”

“I knew you’d get it, Heather, I just wanted to be gentle and-”

“She’s a werewolf.” I said. “Twil’s a werewolf.”

The word didn’t seem real. I huffed and crossed my arms over my chest.

“Werewolf is hardly the right term,” Evelyn said. “But you’re basically correct. Don’t be so surprised, I thought it was obvious.”

Werewolf.” I jammed as much scorn into my voice as I could muster, which at that exact moment was rather a lot. “I can’t believe this. This is nonsense.”

“She doesn’t actually turn into a wolf,” Raine said. “She just … summons it. Kind of.”

“Oh yes, because that makes all the difference, great.”

“You’ve dealt with far worse. It’s not that wacky.”

Memories of the confrontation in the library basement repeated in my mind, slotted into a new context, but one shone out above all the others. A cold hand crept up my spine.

“Evelyn,” I said. “What exactly did you mean when you told Twil she needs to ‘get over Raine’?”

“Ah.” Raine winced.

Evelyn snorted with dark amusement. “This is what you get, Raine, your chickens come home to roost. Or wolves. Whatever.”

“You have a werewolf ex-girlfriend.” I gaped at Raine.

“No, no!” Raine put her hands up. “No, it was like, a week, or maybe two. And it was all her.”

“You have a jealous werewolf ex-girlfriend and you thought this wasn’t relevant information that I needed to know?”

“I didn’t even know she still came up to Sharrowford. I thought she was gone for good.”

“And she smelled you on me,” I said.

Raine frowned, hair-trigger switch to serious. “She said that?”

“She said I reeked of both of you. She probably thinks you and I are … you know.” I threw up my hands, too exasperated for embarrassment.

“A safe assumption,” Evelyn muttered.

I closed my eyes and put my head in my hands. I felt a headache coming on, and this time it had nothing to do with impossible math.

“Heather, I’m so sorry I didn’t tell you,” Raine said. Her hands found my shoulders again and squeezed. “I really didn’t think she was even around any more. If I thought you were in the slightest amount of danger, I would have warned you. I’d knock her lights out if she threatened you.”

I knew I didn’t have any right to be mad at Raine. After all, we weren’t lovers. Just friends. Right? This was her ex, her past, her business. None of my concern. I had no right to demand anything.

Her ex-girlfriend also happened to be an insupportable break with even my tenuous standards of acceptable reality.

“Magic and monsters and other dimensions I can just about deal with. Werewolves are a step too far. Let alone jealous werewolf ex-girlfriends. When did I end up in a bad supernatural romance novel?”

“Romance?” Raine’s voice kinked with amusement.

I blushed furiously, amazed she had the audacity right now.

She kept rubbing my shoulders and I kept my face hidden, trying to accept this incredibly stupid addition to my incomplete model of the world.

“Do you want the full lowdown on her?” Raine asked.

“Oh, why not? I suppose I should at least try to understand. Can hardly make less sense at this point.”

“You got it, Heather. Like I was saying, Twil represents some potentially dangerous people, depending on what they’re after right now.”

Evelyn snorted a derisive laugh. “Idiots and amateurs, begging to get their minds eaten by an Outsider.”

“A cult?” I asked, looking up again. “She’s in a cult as well? Oh, great, this gets better and better.”

“Not actually from Sharrowford,” Raine said. “There’s up a cult up in Brinkwood, two train stops north of the city. Pokey little village on the edge of the woods. You ever been past there?”

I recalled a rotting ex-mill town seen from dirty train windows, trees marching down to a valley in the mid-distance. “I think so.”

“It’s a run down place. They’ve got some fancy name for themselves, but we just call them them the Brinkwood cult. They’re a bit mad, but not screaming avocado batshit level like the Masonic-lodge wannabees in Sharrowford itself.”

“’Screaming avocado batshit’?”

“Let’s just say the Sharrowford cult is real bad news. The Brinkwood weirdos, eh, I’d rather we never have to deal with them again, but they’re not stab-happy.”

“Probably because they’re much older,” Evelyn supplied without looking away from the door. “A little stability goes a long way.”

That piqued my interest for real. These people had history, local history? “How old?”

“Approximately three hundred years, at an educated guess,” Evelyn said. “My grandmother had them well-documented, from a safe distance. They probably started as a group of Quakers, tried to rebuild the abandoned church out in the woods, where Lowdon village used to be. That’s about three miles north of Brinkwood. They found something there in the basement, hibernating, and they’ve been worshipping it ever since. At least, that’s what they tell themselves.”

“What did they find?”

Evelyn shrugged. “Something washed up from Outside. Stranded and crippled and half-dead, I suspect.”

“Well,” Raine said after Evelyn fell silent. “Cut a long story short, Twil’s the cult’s greatest success story. The reason I know all this is we were friends for a bit.”

“Friends,” I echoed.

“Yeah, friends, really. I mean, yes, she had a crush on me, I think?”

“You encouraged her enough,” Evelyn said.

“Ahem, well.” Raine spread her hands in an apologetic shrug. “I may have. Poor decision, I know, yeah. Fair cop, I admit that.”

“I don’t want to know,” I lied. I was dying to know.

“Twil wasn’t born a werewolf,” Evelyn said. “As far as I know, werewolves don’t even exist. She’s the product of a experiment a few years back, to bind a demon or a spirit or some other Godforsaken thing to human flesh, without displacing the human soul. Her back’s covered with a mural of binding tattoos. Keeps them carefully hidden, but Raine saw.”

Raine winced again.

“Right,” I said, voice tight.

“She showed me!” Raine said. “I wasn’t getting her naked, I swear.”

“Lucky for us, the Brinkwood cult had some kind of internal power struggle right after they made themselves a werewolf foot soldier. Since then – nothing. Twil’s basically been left to have a mostly normal life. Her grandfather died, which I suspect meant a change of cult leadership. They seem more concerned with tending to their crippled God these days. They took some interest in my library about a year ago, but I sent them packing. That’s how we met Twil, she’s developed a bee in her bonnet about us. Blame Raine.”

“She hasn’t been around in at least six months,” Raine said. “She’s probably here on actual cult business. They could be up to anything. Including spying on us. Wish I knew why. Maybe I should beat it out of her.”

“So what do we do? Break out the wolfsbane? Wait for a full moon?” I couldn’t quite keep the sarcasm out of my voice.

“I need to find her and shoo her back to the sticks, that’s all. Seriously Heather, I won’t let her hurt you, even if she did smell my scent on you. She can take it up with me.”

“Oh, I can’t sit here and listen to this nonsense,” Evelyn snapped. “Stop trying to scare her, Raine, it’s not going to help you get into her knickers any faster.”

“Evelyn, please!” I said. Raine laughed and ruffled my hair.

“Twil’s not going to bother Heather one bit,” Evelyn continued. “She’s going to come here, to finish up what she started, with me. Why in hell would she bother Heather? She doesn’t even know her. She was on the same old hobby horse as usual, pissing and moaning about the books. This time I’m going to teach her a lesson. This is the last time, last time she does this.”

“Evee, you’re my friend and I love you, but why didn’t you call me the moment you saw her?”

“Certainly, I should have taken out my mobile phone while trapped in a corridor with her. ‘Just a moment, Twil old dear, I’m going to call Raine to come punch you in the face for me.’ That would have diffused the situation very handily, wouldn’t it?”

“Better than breaking her nose with your stick. She might have hurt you. Or Heather. I wish I’d been there.”

“Oh, nonsense.” Evelyn pulled herself around to face the door again. “She wouldn’t have dared. It was all front and bluster. You know her, Raine. You know she’s not dangerous, not really.”

I raised my hand. “I do seem to recall her winding up a punch at me.”

“See, Evee?” Raine turned back to me. “Damn, she didn’t actually hit you, did she?”

“No. And to be fair, I did slap her first.”

“You … what? You slapped her?” A grin crept across Raine’s face. “You slapped her? You slapped Twil?”

“I know! I don’t know what came over me. It’s not a behaviour that should be encouraged, please.”

Raine raised her hand for a high-five. I blushed and hesitated.

“Come on, Heather, you earned it.”

“F-fine.” I touched my hand to Raine’s. Not much of a high-five. “It does complicate things though. She was provoked. I struck first. I slapped a werewolf. Oh, that’s such an intolerable word.”

“From the sound of things, she deserved it.”

“It makes absolutely zero difference,” Evelyn said, punctuating her words by jabbing the arm of her chair. “She wouldn’t bother with Heather, she’s waiting outside for me to leave. But I have more patience.”

Raine sighed and spread her hands in a wide shrug, a good-natured grin on her face. “Can’t leave you two alone for five minutes, can I?”

“Believe what you want. Perhaps you should listen to-”

A knock shook the door of the Medieval Metaphysics room. Three sharp raps. My heart jumped.

“Ha! I told you so,” Evelyn said.

She stared at the door with an evil glint in her eye and re-oriented her fingertips against the bloodied glass once more.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

providence or atoms – 2.3

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Evelyn wound up the parable of The Castle, watching me with faint hope in her eyes.

“That’s … very comforting,” I said. I hadn’t yet constructed my own far less optimistic version. She nodded and smiled a sad kind of smile.

“It does make some sense of things, even if it’s a bad metaphor. Map isn’t the territory and all that. The other way to think of it, which my mother was fond of, is that God was a poor workman who left a lot of holes in reality, but, eh.”

All my two-week-long suppressed curiosity was leading up to one unthinkable prospect, a concept so tender and fragile that I couldn’t approach it head-on. I needed every piece laid out, accounted for and examined, before I could form the question.

“So I can do magic with my mind,” I said.

“No.”

“No?”

“Self-implementing hyperdimensional mathematics. That’s what you did. I think.” Evelyn paused and looked at me with a funny frown. “Can we talk about this without making you vomit? These floorboards are no fun to clean.”

I blushed a little. “As long as you don’t expect me to write the maths down.”

“Mm. Well. Your ‘Eye’, I think it’s been you feeding hyperdimensional mathematics, an access method for the layer of reality which underpins everything, the stuff magic manipulates. When you transported yourself to that world of rock and stone, Outside, it took you minutes. Raine told me. No tools. No knowledge. No books. That spell took me over an hour. You skipped magic, went straight to the result.”

Her voice was low, serious. Admiring? It left me deeply uncomfortable.

“And lost a lot of blood. And my lunch.”

“Mm, I don’t recommend you make a habit of it. The human mind was never meant to jam itself into the gears of reality so unprotected.”

“You hardly have to tell me that.” I sighed. “Look, this contradicts everything you said before about it being impossible to apply the scientific method.”

Evelyn sighed and waved a hand in dismissal. “It’s a just a theory, one my mother dabbled in. She didn’t believe it though. There’s no way of testing it or proving it. The human mind can’t perform the necessary operations. Until you. I think this ‘Eye’ has tried to make you capable of direct access to the mathematical substrate.” A strange smile crept onto her lips. “You proved my mother wrong. Living evidence it’s possible. Though not desirable, I suppose.”

“No kidding,” I muttered.

Evelyn didn’t say anything further on the subject, but watched me with cold calculation in her eyes, one crooked finger to her lips.

This would have been the perfect moment to ask the question. We were on the subject, Evelyn was taking me seriously. Ask it, do it, I willed myself. But I circled away to safer waters.

Coward.

“Can Raine do any magic?” I asked, forcing down the lump in my throat.

Evelyn scoffed. “Nothing that I don’t hand her ready to point and pull the trigger. Even the most simple magic takes long study, mental discipline, attention to detail. And you have to be a little bit broken to even start, be exposed and survive, put your mind back together. There’s a reason most mages are insane, or worse. Raine just sees everything as a problem to be solved, usually by punching it.”

“I don’t mind that about her.” I smiled and shrugged and edged closer to the core of my curiosity, trying to stay calm. “Why study magic at all, if it messes you up so badly?”

“Who knows? I’m under no illusions about myself. I know I’d make a clinical psychologist’s career if you got me in front of one. For other mages, I can only guess.” Evelyn shrugged. “Power. Knowledge. Some people just want to know the mind of God. Cultists, people messed up by things from Outside, I suspect they have less human motives. Present company excluded.”

“Thank you, I think.”

“I meant it.”

“Why do you keep going with magic? Because of your family?”

“My reasons are deeply personal,” Evelyn said in the same tone one might deliver news of a terminal disease. I waited a beat, expecting her to add ‘so I’d rather not talk about it’, or ‘you wouldn’t understand’, but that was apparently her last word on the subject. The silence lingered.

I came to learn that between Evelyn and I, much could pass without discomfort that between others would be cause for awkward feelings. Those shared minutes in an alien world, lost Outside, bleeding from my eyes and plucking her from the pit of absolute terror, counted for quite a lot. Despite her rough edges and my own poorly managed responses, our shared silences defaulted to comfortable.

“Evelyn,” I said, much softer than I’d intended. I cleared my throat. “Evee, do you think I could learn magic?”

She raised a questioning eyebrow. I wish I could tell her how much that wasn’t what I needed right now.

I could no longer avoid the reason for all my curiosity, no longer hide behind what I dressed up as grief.

“I-I think I could try. If nothing else I know I’m at least a little intellectual, I can think clearly this last week, I can get some focus. Maybe if I read the books seriously. Or maybe if I could learn to c-control the … the math … ” I tapped my forehead and trailed off. What absurdity. What an unthinkable idea. Who was I kidding?

“Why?”

Oh, the question, the worst question.

“Third stage of grief,” I said. “I can’t accept she’s dead. If I learned … if I … I want to find my twin. I want to find Maisie.”

My voice died as I spoke, quieter and quieter, until I whispered her name.

“Oh,” Evelyn said. “Mm. That’s-“

“Stupid notion, I know.” I shook my head and looked up. Evelyn frowned at me.

“Not stupid, no. But- oh dammit all, Heather. If I was a less ethical person, I would say yes, seek out your sister, you can do it, let’s go rescue a lost child. Let’s all aspire to be bloody heroes. That would certainly further my own aims. Having another mage on my side. But no. Absolutely not.”

The spark of hope guttered into darkness. I sniffed, suddenly aware I was holding back tears. “Why- why not?”

“Because I won’t mislead you. I won’t do that. You’re talking about going up against an alien god. Something so powerful it can reach across dimensions to alter your mind. It can’t be fought, not by either of us, not by anybody. The best we can do is wall you off and hide you from it. This isn’t what you want to hear, and it’s not what Raine will tell you: your sister is dead. She’s been dead for ten years. There’s nothing to rescue. Nothing human can survive out there for long.”

“I know,” I murmured.

Evelyn was not like Raine. In fact, I don’t think she was wired for physical comfort at all. She got up and gave me a few moments privacy to pull myself back together, and I think that moment was when I began to grieve for real.

Maisie was gone, and I was no hero.

Evelyn returned with a slender paperback book held to her chest, more a pamphlet really, a few dozen pages bound with staples. Her eyes searched mine. I sniffed and wiped my nose in embarrassment, but she didn’t seem to care.

“I’m not sure I should give you this,” she said.

“What- what is it?” I did my best to sound normal again.

She turned the pamphlet to show me the title: Notes Toward a Unified Cosmology, by Professor Wilson Stout. It looked cheaply printed, faded and battered.

“This is by one of the men who was involved in the Sharrowford coven, here at the university, the secret group of academics responsible for the Medieval Metaphysics department. Stout must have been a young man when the department existed, because he wrote this in 1974. Very small print run, for sycophants and acolytes only. And my grandmother.”

“No relation?” I asked, half suspecting some juicy tale of romantic liaison.

“No. Ha.” Evelyn barked a laugh and actually smiled in amusement. I was glad her earlier fake gravitas was long forgotten. “She tried to have him killed, actually. Long story.”

She placed the pamphlet on the table, slowly and carefully, like live ordinance.

“He put forward the theory. Self-implementing hyperdimensional mathematics. It’s not an easy read, he was pretty far gone when he wrote it. Maybe he met your Eye too, who knows. Never made a lot of sense to me, but you might get something out of it. Also might make you chuck your guts up, but it might be worth the pain.”

In her eyes, I saw something much more complicated than pity or sympathy. I didn’t understand why she was doing this, but I didn’t care. I swallowed, about to thank her.

“He vanished,” she said. “Went missing in strange circumstances, from inside a locked office. Maybe dabbled with the maths a little too much. Understand?”

I nodded. “Thank you. I’ll-”

“Don’t. Don’t get yourself killed. Don’t try to fight a god. Just … learn, if you must.”

“Okay. I will.”

I reached out for the pamphlet, hesitated, then took it. Evelyn sighed as if she’d been holding her breath, and wandered back over to her chair, leaning heavily on her walking stick.

She could not have found better bait for me in all the world.

The pamphlet felt dry and brittle between my fingers. I peeked inside the front cover and found a line in faded, looping handwriting: ‘To Miss Laurissa Saye, I hope you will find this illuminating.’

History bled from the page, soaked into my fingers and stole into my heart. Here was proof, written down and printed and distributed, that I was not mad. I felt a strange kinship with this long-dead, vanished man. Professor Wilson, whoever he had been, had known a Saye as well, and maybe, just maybe, known the Eye.

I glanced from the pamphlet at the rest of the shelves, the row of twentieth-century hardbacks and the older volumes packed in their moisture-proof bags, and realised just how much temptation this room held.

“Is it safe to take this outside?” I asked. Evelyn sat back down with visible relief and sucked her teeth in thought.

“Probably. Nobody’ll know you have it and nobody else could ever understand the context.”

“Oh.” I frowned at myself as I realised what I was suggesting. “Oh, oh dear, no, I shouldn’t be trying to sneak rare books out of the library, that’s terrible of me.”

Evelyn laughed, a dry cough. “And here I thought you were worried about cultists trying to steal it.”

“Is that a real prospect? Could that happen?”

Evelyn shrugged. “My mother thought so. Only a small fraction of this collection is actively dangerous, and then you have to know where to look. Mostly the older stuff, the magic circles and techniques and whatnot. The most lethal stuff is all at my house.” She gestured at the book in my hands. “That’s pure theory, you couldn’t use anything in there to punch a hole in reality unless you already knew how. Which, well, I suppose you do.”

I tried to shrug off that last comment. “There’s another occult library at your house?”

“Hardly a library. Four books, to be precise, plus a few odds and ends, and unpublished notes.”

“Why not keep it all in one place, if you need a guard like Mister Spider out there in the corridor?”

The corner of Evelyn’s mouth turned up in the slightest smug satisfied smile. “My home is a damn-sight more secure than this blasted library.”

“ … magically speaking?”

“Mmhmm.”

It still felt bizarre to say ‘magic’ out loud, as if we were children playing make-believe.

“Also, I do have to consider the university,” Evelyn was saying. “Nepotism only gets me so far. I can’t up and steal all these rare books. Plus, splitting the dangerous stuff up helps me keep things under control if something goes wrong – this place is so well-known, at least in rumours, that the fact I have a small collection at my own house is unthinkable. Why would the Saye family risk it?” She smiled to herself.

Evelyn left me with the pamphlet. She busied herself with the reason we came down here in the first place, digging up the details she needed for her magical experiment.

I flicked through a few pages, scanned the long introduction and mentally filed away some of the technical terms for later consideration, then ran headfirst into three pages of densely packed mathematical notation. My stomach clenched and a wave of nausea passed through me. I averted my eyes. Yes, Evelyn was right, perhaps I needed to read this on an empty stomach, with a sick bucket nearby. I slipped the pamphlet into my coat pocket.

My gaze wandered over to where my new and difficult friend poked through the books.

I watched her for a long moment, openly, though she was unaware. It was innocent – I couldn’t have stared with anything less than honest thoughts.

Despite everything, I found Evelyn very endearing. Nothing remained of my initial impression, a cuddly girl tucked away with her books. She’d dispelled that in scant moments on that rainy morning in the Medieval Metaphysics room.

But watching her now, her serious expression, the way she gently handled the old, cracked books, every motion of her hands compensating for the missing fingers on her left, her posture bent around her kinked spine – I felt a connection I couldn’t define.

I liked that. A connection.

“Evee,” I said her name softly. She glanced at me across the room and I smiled. “I couldn’t help but notice earlier, you mentioned your mother several times. She’s a magician too? Did she teach you?”

Was.”

She turned back to the books.

Evelyn crammed a lifetime of bitterness into that one word. I stared in shock, until she huffed and shot a dark look at me.

“Your face was like an open book. Whatever ridiculous, faux-pastoral notions you have about my family, they’re wrong.”

“I-I was only-”

“My mother is dead, a fact for which I am thankful every day I live. I mentioned her only because I have to, because what little I have on magic is whatever I pulled from her grip.”

I realised she was shaking.

“Evelyn, I-I’m sorry, sorry, it was just a passing thought.” I raised my hands in surrender, shaking my head. “I’m sorry.”

She turned back to the books without another word. I let out a shuddering breath. My heart fluttered in mortified horror. Evelyn shoved a book back onto the shelf and stood staring at it for far too long. The silence hurt. Words stuck in my throat.

Our connection had curdled. I gathered myself to stand up, apologise, and let myself out, legs itching to run away, already planning a cold walk home, alone.

“I’m the one who should be sorry,” Evelyn muttered.

She couldn’t meet my eyes. She faced me but looked sidelong at the books, expression drawn and exhausted.

“Evelyn- I-I mean, Evee, it’s okay-”

“It’s not okay. You deserve better than Evelyn Saye the hair-trigger bitch. You saved my fucking life from my own idiot decisions and I can’t even control myself.” She swallowed, hard and dry. “I don’t want you to have to walk on eggshells around me. I know, I know, Raine’s told me, you’re tougher than you look, but … still.”

I smiled, a little sadly. “I’m not tough at all. Don’t know where Raine got that idea.”

Evelyn nodded, sighed, and went back to the books. “I won’t be much longer with this.”

“I forgive you,” I said.

I don’t know where it came from. I’d tried to think of something profound or comforting or friendly, something Raine might say. The words just popped out.

Evelyn blinked at me like a deer in headlights. For a moment she seemed lost, then turned away.


==


Trouble found us on the way out – scowling, angry, rabid trouble.

We left room K-11 and passed back underneath the Spider-servitor. It ignored us, much to my relief, but Evelyn had barely spoken since her outburst and apology.

I tried to imagine what Raine would say. She’d know what to do. A joke or a quip or a few murmured words of comfort, to pull Evelyn back out of this dark hole. But I wasn’t Raine, however much I admired her, and all I could do was sneak glances at Evelyn’s sunken expression and thank her again for the pamphlet. She grunted in reply, locked the Rare and Restricted books door behind us, and that was that. We plodded back through the library basement corridors.

A young woman, another student, was lounging against the wall just beyond the dividing line between age-worn wood and concrete breeze blocks.

For a split-second I felt a familiar old shock and guilt; the library basement levels were usually so unfrequented, too easy to forget they weren’t some cloistered private domain.

Evelyn grabbed my elbow. “Wait,” she hissed.

The girl at the end of the corridor was death-glaring at us.

She was small and slight, maybe even a little shorter than me, with a mane of dark curls spilling down over her shoulders. She wore a white hoodie underneath a clashing blue and lime green coat.

Her posture, arms crossed, leaning on the wall, was a masterpiece in studied boredom and eloquent silence.

One did not have to be an expert in body language to read that statement. I felt it in my gut, on an animal level; she blocked our way out.

She raised her voice and turned Evelyn’s name into a sneer.

“Saye,” she called down the corridor. “What the hell are you doing, Saye?” She pushed off the wall, unfolded her arms, and stalked toward us.

“What? What’s going on? Who is this?” I hissed back at Evelyn – and caught the look on her face. Gone was dark melancholy withdrawal, replaced with naked contempt, head high. But she’d shuffled closer to my side. Her hand had tightened into a white-knuckle grip on her walking stick. She shook slightly, her breathing not as steady as her voice.

I’d once been the target of that look from Evelyn, when I’d surprised her in the Medieval Metaphysics room.

When I could have been anybody.

When I was a possible threat.

A ball of cold lead settled in my stomach. “Is this- are we-”

That is Twil,” Evelyn muttered without taking her eyes off the girl. “And no, to your unspoken questions. She’s not dangerous, just an irritant. God alone knows what’s put sand up her arse this time.”

Twil made a show of cracking her knuckles as she advanced. I couldn’t believe my eyes at such a playground gesture.

“What do we do? This doesn’t look like nothing to me,” I hissed, then glanced over my shoulder toward the door we’d just locked. I itched to retreat, avoid, run away, but I was also painfully aware how Evelyn had closed the gap between us. She was relying on me. I could hardly flee while she stayed.

“Don’t give her an inch. Twil’s bark is much worse than her bite, but we should still get out of here before she gets any ideas. We need to reach the stairwell, that has CCTV coverage, she won’t risk anything there.”

“Risk? Risk what?” I whispered, but then Twil was upon us.

To my incredible surprise, I felt Evelyn’s maimed left hand slip into mine, palm clammy and fingers cold. I squeezed back.

Twil walked right up to us and got in Evelyn’s face, personal space be damned. She planted her feet wide, hands in the front pocket of her hoodie, chin tilted up. Her gaze flicked to me, probed and jabbed, made me want to shrink away, then slid back to Evelyn.

“Who the fuck is this?” Twil said, indicating me with a nod. “I thought we had a deal, Saye.”

Until that moment, for all of Raine’s protective gestures and Evelyn’s doom-mongering, the reality hadn’t hit home, of physical danger from cultists or mages or other semi-fictional people. Danger was monsters in the places I Slipped to, danger was the threat of choking on my own vomit, danger was my nightmares. People? People were white noise.

I’d never been in a fight. Not so much as a minor confrontation in all those long months of psychiatric hospitals, which was quite an achievement. I’d forgotten, during our little jaunt under the library, what it meant that Raine wasn’t with us.

It didn’t matter that Twil was barely as tall as me, or that there were two of us to one of her, or that she had her hands in her pockets.

Adrenaline hit me like a sledgehammer.

“I’d sooner drink piss than make a deal with you,” Evelyn snapped back. “What exactly did we agree on, Twil? Favourite flavour of dog food? Don’t flatter yourself, you know you can’t convince me of anything.”

“Oh yeah?” Twil drawled, voice slow and dripping venom. “Wanna bet?”

“Certainly, what’s the stake? Let’s put your money where your mouth is, shall we? Fifty pounds?”

Twil scowled harder. “Stop mocking me, this is serious. What are you doing taking other people back there? Who is this? What are you pulling?”

“Of course, fifty pounds wouldn’t be enough to shut your trap, would it? Can you even scrape that much together? Do a whip-round for it?”

Twil gritted her teeth.

And growled.

I flinched. The sound vibrated the air, guttural and barrel-chested, not at all like an edgy teenager imitating an animal.

Up close, the effect clashed, because Twil was shockingly beautiful. She was blessed with the sort of porcelain-skinned, angelic face that launched child actor careers or got married to royalty.

Or could bite your head off.

Under other circumstances I’d have spent a day or two weaving guilty daydreams about a girl like Twil. I’d have noticed details that only came back to me later – the slow tilt of her head as she spoke, her sharp amber eyes, the way she had her hood drawn up about her neck to keep warm.

But not after that sound from human vocal chords.

She spoke like a suburban middle class girl doing her best to sound dangerous, and looked the part too, athletic and well-fed and young. I was so used to years of my own haggard face in the mirror, exhaustion-wracked, eyebags and sallow skin, that I could tell Twil never stayed up past bedtime and always ate her vegetables. And was going to punch one of us.

I had no idea what to do. I was frozen, heart going a million miles an hour.

Evelyn glanced at me. ”You know how Yorkshire terriers or sausage dogs will bite your at heels, because they still think they’re 400-pound direwolves? That’s Twil.”

“Hey!”

“This is my friend,” Evelyn said to her. “And we are going home. Now shove off.”

Twil narrowed her eyes. “You don’t have friends.”

“She certainly does. Don’t be so rude.”

Twil scowled my way. A heartbeat passed before I realised I’d spoken.

She jerked her face toward me and I recoiled, not at all brave or confident but trying very hard not to show fear. Twil sniffed the air – sniffed me, such a bizarre gesture that I just blinked at her.

“You reek like both of them,” she said.

“Excuse me, what?”

“Yeah, ‘friend’, whatever. I wasn’t born yesterday. What’s Saye got on you? What’s she done to your head?”

“Um, I’m … Heather? Yes. Hello. Twil, is it? Why are you acting like we’re all twelve?”

Twil squinted at me in confusion. Not the response she’d expected.

“Are you going to let us past, then?” Evelyn barked. “Or are you just going to yap until you get bored?”

Twil grinned a nasty little smile and made a show of looking up and down the corridor. She shrugged. “I don’t see Raine anywhere. What is this then, a sneaky trip to show off your collection of obscenities back there?”

Evelyn sighed and rolled her eyes. “Yes, there it is. You really must get over Raine.”

“Hey! Fuck off! I don’t-”

“Let’s get to the point. What are you going to do, Twil? Beat me up on university property?”

Finally, Twil backed up a step and stared at Evelyn, as if thinking this over. I tried to breathe, feeling myself shake. Evelyn squeezed my hand.

Was she serious? I had visions of a stupid, messy slapfight down here. Or worse? My mind couldn’t keep up with the pounding of my heart. Twil knew about the books – ‘obscenities’? – which meant she was in the know. But Evelyn had said she wasn’t dangerous, right?

Twil looked like she wanted to spit. Instead she gave Evelyn a stinkeye stare and said, “You’re lucky you’re a cripple.”

“How dare you,” I heard myself say.

Twil blinked at me, cheeks flushing. She had almost enough sense to look ashamed. As she should do, I thought. I was as surprised as her. I’d never spoken to anybody like that before.

“S-shut up, you zombie. You-”

“You think you’re so intimidating,” I said, the floodgates open now. “Swaggering over here and acting like a playground bully. Well, it’s not working. I’ve seen scarier things than you every day of my life. I deal with them before breakfast. You are not scary.” I pointed over my shoulder, behind Evelyn and I. “The thing guarding Evelyn’s wonderful little collection of books – that, that is scary, and I faced that down not an hour ago. Now kindly move out of the way, or-” Or what? My tongue had outrun my brain. I was running out of steam. “Or I shall insult you some more, you nasty little goblin.”

Twil looked as if I’d slapped her with a fish. Her mouth staggered over a comeback.

For one of the first times in my life, I felt big and clever and strong. I knew it was adrenaline-fuelled bravado.

Evelyn laughed, dirty and mean. “You always were thin-skinned. Go on, shoo, run back home. Let the adults do the real work.”

Twil lost her temper in a flash and rounded on Evelyn, teeth bared. She grabbed a handful of Evelyn’s jumper, fingers snapping shut like claws, and all my quick easy confidence vanished in a dash of cold water.

“Hope I don’t have to burn the library down to stop your nonsense,” Twil all but spat in Evelyn’s face.

“You can’t burn books!” I said, flailing for anything to throw her off-kilter, get her to let go of Evelyn, to slow things down – but why? Who was going to save us? Raine wasn’t about to turn the corner and chase this foe away. It was just us. “Who on earth do you think you are? You utter barbarian.”

Twil blinked at me and said “What?” in a most befuddled tone of voice, scrunching up her eyes in a frown of disbelief.

I was out of verbal ammunition, on the edge of panic.

I slapped her.

It stung my hand. Didn’t work like in the movies. I think I got the angle wrong, too far back on her face, catching her jaw-bone rather than the full-on flat of her cheek. It made such a loud sound in the concrete corridor.

Twil jerked back and let go of Evelyn, blinking at me, face burning red with my hand print.

I had no follow up, too shocked at myself.

“I-I-” I raised my hands in surrender.

Twil bared her teeth, growled like an animal, and pulled her fist back.

Evelyn saved me from having to come up with a next step of the plan. Which was good, because the next step was ‘get punched in the face’.

She belted Twil across the head with her walking stick.

Not once, but twice. It was clumsy and poorly aimed and weak, but it did the trick. The first strike bounced off Twil’s skull with a loud thwack of wood on bone. She yelped and staggered back in swirl-eyed shock.

The second hit broke her nose.

At least, I think it did. A crunchy, gristly crack heralded a spurt of blood, down her face and spotting the front of that immaculate white hoodie. She doubled-up, hands over her nose and mouth, groaning in pain behind a veil of hair. I gaped at the sight, until Evelyn grabbed me and pulled me forward, forcing me to put one foot in front of the other. Evelyn couldn’t run, but she marched us toward the stairwell.

“You fucking bitch, Saye!” A muffled cry followed us.

“Keep your eyes forward, don’t look back, don’t give her anything,” Evelyn muttered.

“You broke her nose!” I hissed.

“Hey!” Twill shouted. “Don’t ignore me. We’re not done here!”

“She’ll be fine,” Evelyn murmured.

“I slapped her. I slapped her.”

“She’ll be fine.”

Evelyn, however, was not fine. We got up the stairwell and onto the library floor and then out under the open skies. Her expression gave nothing away but she couldn’t stop shaking. The wind plucked loose strands from her ponytail.

“Twil will follow us, it’s what she does. We should … should go … ”

“She’s got a broken nose and there’s blood on your walking stick. She’s going to go to campus security.” Visions of real-world consequences flooded my mind.

Evelyn shook her head in irritation. “Don’t be absurd. Can’t have her follow me home. We need, uh … ”

We made for the nearest safe place – the Medieval Metaphysics room. By the time we crossed campus and reached the stairs up to Willow House, Twil was following us, a small figure framed against the concrete walkways, lime green coat flapping in the wind. She held one hand over her nose.

I called Raine.

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