providence or atoms – 2.2

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Between her prosthetic leg and her walking stick, Evelyn put me to shame. Our route took us along Bluebell Road, a twisty humpbacked residential street on the edge of the student quarter, which led up to the university drive. The name was deceptive, not a single bluebell in sight. Defeated looking trees lined the pavement, a half-finished attempting at re-greening.

The blustery day plucked at my hair and the hem of Evelyn’s skirt. This was the first time I’d seen her walk any real distance and I was ashamed by my own assumptions, that she’d be slow or awkward or have to stop to rest on the way to campus. Her limp was only apparent if you watched for it, and I was too busy keeping up.

And rubbing the base of my ribs.

The urge to rub a bruise is almost universal; pressure and compression feel good. But I couldn’t reach the supernatural bruise inside. Walking and breathing harder made it worse, a throb at a deeper level than mere muscle and bone.

“I’m fine, really, I’m fine,” I said as Evelyn gave me the third questioning look in as many minutes. I forced myself put my hands in my coat pockets.

“You don’t sound fine.”

“It’s just this ache, since that night, since the … brain math.”

“Mm.”

We had to wait at the zebra crossing opposite university drive. I took the opportunity to lean against the guardrail, taking deep steady breaths for a few moments, doing my best to will the ache away.

“Look around you,” Evelyn said. She was staring at the pigeons perched on an overhead power line.

“At what? What are we looking at?”

“Anything, everything. It’s good practice. Who’s watching us? Look around.”

I did as she asked, feeling silly and sceptical as I glanced up and down the street, like we were little girls playing spies. Cars passed in ones and twos. A six-limbed beast of bristles and spines lumbered along the end of of a side-street. A couple of other students plodded up the opposite pavement. A pack of things half-wolf and half-ape picked their way across the suburban rooftops. Pigeons cooed.

I shrugged. “Nobody suspicious around here.”

“What about the pneuma-somatic fauna?”

“Quite normal, for a given value of normal. Evelyn, this feels absurd.”

“What about them?” She nodded at the pigeons.

I stared at her for a moment and hoped I’d misheard.

“The pigeons,” I said.

“Yes, the pigeons.”

“ … they’re watching us. Right. Pigeons.”

Evelyn spoke softly. “We’re perfectly safe right now, yes, but this is part of being safe without always relying on Raine. Watchfulness, care, attention. Any of those animals could be carrying a little demonic passenger, birdbrain scooped out and replaced, relaying information back to the mage who put it there. I can’t tell just by looking at them, any more than you can. You can’t, right? No? There you go then. We must be aware of the ever-present possibility of being watched. Like with the Servitor following Raine the morning she found you. We’ve no way of telling who or what sent that. Pay attention. The habit will help.”

I sighed, a big heavy puff, and Evelyn hiked an eyebrow at me as if expecting a challenge.

“You’re as bad as Raine,” I muttered.

She frowned, perplexed. “What? What does that mean?”

“You don’t get it. You can’t. I’m trying to unlearn a decade of behaviour based on the incorrect assumption I had schizophrenia. The last thing I need right now is to suspect I’m being watched by birds.”

She stared at me for longer than was comfortable, but I stared back until she grunted. “Mm. Fair point.”


==


Sharrowford university library was a hybrid monster, a chimera of brutalist block-tower welded to an aborted neoclassical facade, wrapped around a spun glass kernel of abused Gothic revival, all built on ancient stone foundations. It had begun life as a fortified manor house in 1456, pounded into gravel two centuries later by Parliamentarian cannon, gifted to the university and rebuilt, ‘restored’ by arrogant Victorians, wounded by stray Luftwaffe bombs on their way to Manchester, and at long last shored up with 1960s concrete. Birds strutted and preened across the rooftops, their nests wedged between air conditioning units, blissfully unaware of the insectoid leviathans which only I could see, clinging to the library’s spires.

Inside was a sprawling labyrinth of modern racks rubbing shoulders with carved wooden shelves, vomit brown carpet rubber-stripped to worn oak floorboards, creaking century old staircases and concrete stairwells that reeked of industrial cleaner. The Dewey Decimal System fought an endless siege against the privations of Resource Description and Access standards, one that I suspect would degenerate into an insurgency to make any Vietcong commander proud. With a catalogue of nearly 10 million books, it certainly didn’t rival the British Library for size, but more than made up for that with the number of small-print run, rare books, and strange subject areas tucked away in it hidden bowels.

Of course I’d fallen in love with the library. This was the primary reason I’d picked Sharrowford university in the first place.

I refused to tolerate the idea I’d been influenced by The Eye in this respect. This love was mine.

Thankfully the library was quiet this time of morning, at least once Evelyn and I passed the front desks. Few spirits stalked the tangle of the library stacks themselves, a mere handful of lurking multi-armed grazers. At last now they’d keep their distance entirely.

“Down?” I asked once we were alone in the stairwell.

“Where else?”

Evelyn led the way, her gait more awkward on the wide steps.

We descended together into the basement levels, concrete shelters for the rolling stacks stuffed with decades of obscure PhD theses. The long corridor was stapled to a much older hallway panelled in dark polished wood, and we passed over the threshold into the buried strata of previous eras. Our footsteps returned strange echoes.

I’d been down here twice before by myself, just to bask in the glow of the all those books and the enclosed silence – despite the modern no-smoking signs and air vents.

“I’m going to take a guess,” I said. “You hide an occult library in plain sight, in the rolling stacks?”

Evelyn frowned sidelong at me. “If I wanted to invite disaster. Don’t be ridiculous.”

I flushed with embarrassment, but Evelyn didn’t seem to notice. We turned a corner and found the corridor terminated by a very solid wooden door, strong enough to withstand a battering ram. A small brass plaque was bolted to the front.

‘Rare and Restricted books – no student admittance without staff permission.’

Evelyn produced a keyring and unlocked the door.

“Are we breaking the rules? Is that key legitimate?”

She gave me the thinnest of satisfied smiles. “Oh, I’m allowed to be here. The wonders of nepotism.”

Ceiling strip lights flickered to life, rolled back the shadows on doorways to reading rooms and secure stacks. The air felt dry and cool on my face, conditioned for long term book storage.

Evelyn turned the latch to lock the door behind us, then led the way past a treasure trove of crumbling texts and vacuum-packed manuscripts. Nothing occult about any of this. My head was on a swivel. I wanted to ask her to stop, pause a while so I could dip into each of these rooms and read for five minutes, a minute, just one glance. An undergrad never got into places like this. We turned a corner and I opened my mouth to ask if she would let me down here again.

And I slammed to a halt, breath caught in my throat.

Evelyn raised an eyebrow at me. “Oh, I guess you can see it, right?”

I thought I’d be used to this by now.

A monster barred our way.

A glossy black arachnid nightmare hung from the ceiling ahead, big as a horse. Arm-thick glistening spider-silk webbed the upper half of the corridor, leaving just enough space for a tall person to pass beneath.

Far too many legs, body segmented and armoured and wrapped with bio-mechanical tubes and pipes, vent stacks rising from its back like a miniature nuclear reactor. The head was a solid mass of unblinking crystal eyes. Several giant stingers waved lazily in the air, tipped with points the size of railway spikes.

I felt it stare at me, a probing searchlight.

Very slowly, as if the slightest twitch would set it scuttling toward me, I turned my eyes away and looked at Evelyn. My voice came out in a strangled whisper.

“What do you mean, I can see it? You can see it too?”

“Well, no, of course not, but I know it’s there.” She waved an arm down the corridor. “You think the most dangerous occult collection outside of the British Library would be unguarded? Hide them among the stacks, really.” She rolled her eyes.

“You could have warned me,” I hissed. “What on earth is it?”

“I don’t know, you tell me. All I know is it’s some kind of spider. I’d be fascinated, actually, if you could describe it?”

Terrifying.”

Evelyn blinked several times and cleared her throat. “It’s a Servitor, like the thing that was following Raine. A sort of artificial pneuma-somatic robot, not a summoned demon or a bound spirit. Though that thing spying on Raine was about as complex and robust as a roomba compared to this.”

“Artificial? You made this thing?”

“No. No, of course not.” Evelyn looked oddly embarrassed. “It’s practically a family heirloom. My great grandmother made it and left it here. Look, it’s perfectly safe, it can only do what it was programmed to. It triggers off recognition and intent, I think. I’m inherently trusted and so is anybody in my bloodline, as well as those I bring with me. It leaves the library staff alone because they only enter as part of their normal routine, though I don’t think anything down here gets cleaned or checked very often. Unless you’re planning on knocking me out and stealing the books, it won’t pay you the slightest bit of attention.”

“It is definitely paying me attention.”

Evelyn sighed and strode forward. I fought down an embarrassing urge to grab her by the arm; I didn’t want to be alone in front of this monster. She passed under the spider web, stopped by the last door leading off the corridor, and looked back at me as if I was being a fool.

“Oh, for pity’s sake,” I said, and forced myself to walk, concentrating on my feet.

I almost made it.

On the step which would place me directly under the spider, it moved. A sudden spasm of motion, ratcheting limbs and whirring eyes. It dropped on the webbing and unfurled all those legs, poised like a bear trap. The stingers whip-cracked out to full extension and curved back toward me. I choked down a scream and froze on the spot.

“Heather? What is it doing?” Evelyn said, her voice suddenly serious and urgent.

“I don’t know,” I whispered. I swallowed, throat like sandpaper. “It doesn’t like me. I think it’s angry.”

“It can’t get angry. It’s triggering off something. What is it doing? Describe it.”

I could barely make myself form words, let alone follow instructions. Instead, I took a half-step back.

Wrong choice.

The spider followed, inching forward with muscles tensed and stingers quivering. I halted again and stood very, very still indeed. My throat clenched tight and cold sweat ran down my back and I was almost on the verge of tears. Light glinted off the clustered crystalline eyes. This close up I could see tiny imperfections in the black chitin carapace, bumps and abrasions and rough patches, old scars and deep gouges.

“Evelyn, call it off,” I whispered.

“I shouldn’t need to. It’s not going to attack you-”

“Call. It. Off.”

The terror on my face finally got through to her. Evelyn raised her chin and spoke quickly and confidently. “Discedant et agnoscis, ex auctoritate dei Evelyn Saye.”

Nothing happened.

I stayed very still.

“Well?” Evelyn prompted.

“I don’t think it’s listening.”

“What? There’s no reason it shouldn’t.” She huffed in exasperation. “Per quodterminus … dammit, no, that’s not it. Uh … desine plura et reditus ad formam tenens, ex auctoritate dei Evelyn Saye.”

The spider-servitor remained exceedingly ready to murder me. I said this to Evelyn, in not so many words. She grit her teeth and looked frustrated enough to belt the spider over the head with her walking stick.

Finis, terminus, exitus. Nova anima agnoscis, God dammit!”

Latin finally worked as actual magic words, or perhaps Evelyn’s swearing did the trick; the spider surged back into its original position with a flickering of limbs, and I felt that cold, mechanical attention switch away from me at last. I scurried under it as fast as I could, shoulder blades itching, until I stood safely next to Evelyn again. I let out a long shaking breath and tried to force my muscles to unclench, heart hammering in my chest.

“I take it that worked?” Evelyn asked.

I nodded and leaned against the wall, hands on my knees to keep myself on my feet.

“Well, what did it do then? I assume it stood down?”

I turned a very unimpressed look on her. “Yes. Eventually.”

She rolled her eyes. Though I could tell it was mostly to cover her own embarrassment, the gesture still made me bristle with anger.

“It’s a good thing you and Raine never went into the attic in my house, when you were looking for me,” she said.

“ … there’s more of these things?”

“Of course. My family’s historical paranoia has to be worth something. God alone knows what triggered it to treat you as a threat though.”

“The fractal?” I gestured with my forearm. “Maybe?”

“No, it’s far too robust to be bothered by that. Regardless, it should be calibrated to recognise you now. I had to make it register you as trusted, it didn’t want you inside otherwise.”

“Evelyn.” I tried to keep my voice steady and quiet, to overcome a lifetime of conflict-avoidance. “I really do want to be your friend, but you have to warn me in advance when you are going to surprise me with a spring-loaded monster. I am very serious.”

She avoided my eyes. “It’s never done that before. I … I only know a fraction of the command interface language for it. I can’t even make it move to a new post. Trust me, I’ve tried.”

An awkward moment of silence passed over us.

“I … I apologise,” Evelyn said softly.

I straightened up and gave her the best smile I could muster. She was trying, she really was, and that meant a lot. “Apology accepted.”

“Mm.”

Evelyn busied herself unlocking the door. It bore another understated brass plaque.

‘Special collection and sensitive storage room K-11.’

“Why do you need such a lethal guard dog?” I asked.

Evelyn snorted a humourless laugh. “At least two cults operate in Sharrowford, that I know of. They’d love to get their hands on my books.”

“Cults?”

“Small-time idiots, worshipping things they don’t understand.” She waved a dismissive hand. “But they’re still dangerous. Not to mention my mother’s and grandmother’s old rivals elsewhere, and any other mages who know about this collection.”

Not for the first time, I wondered if I’d be happier and safer in ignorance.

Evelyn led me over the threshold.

What had I been expecting, if only subconsciously? Books bound in human skin and chained to lecterns? Flickering torches, stone walls, leering gargoyles? A little, I confess.

It was a small dusty room, with no windows and two strip lights in the ceiling. Sickly light illuminated a pair of battered reading desks and a row of plain, functional bookcases.

Empty bookcases.

Evelyn closed the door behind us and dumped her tote bag on one of the desks. I looked closer.

Not quite empty, I corrected myself.

Only two of the shelves held anything – one was lined with sixteen books. Sixteen exactly, I counted them. Most of them were aged and leather bound, though a few looked at least twentieth century, in modern hardback covers. Three much older volumes were packed inside transparent protective plastic bags, lying flat on the shelf below, next to a stack of bound photocopies. A cardboard storage box sat at the foot of the one occupied bookcase.

“Is this it?”

Evelyn raised an eyebrow at me in silent question. I shrugged, unsure what to say, painfully conscious of my silly assumptions. She crossed to the books and gently eased one of the modern looking volumes off the shelf.

“In the right hands, every one of these is more lethal than an atomic bomb,” she said. “Personally, I’m glad there’s so few of them. And that they’re mine.”

“Are you being serious?”

Evelyn cleared her throat. “Sort of. Sit down, if you like. I need to look up some details.”


==


“What is magic?”

I didn’t want to distract Evelyn, but I couldn’t hold the question back anymore. She’d been making notes and muttering to herself as she read from one of the grimoires propped open on the desk. Her pen paused as she looked at me and raised an eyebrow.

“I’ve been thinking about it all week, but I couldn’t articulate it until this.” I gestured at the books, the tiny occult library, the incomplete magic circle Evelyn had drawn on a notebook page. “I took it on trust. Magic is magic, but that’s a tautology. You did magic with esoteric symbols and circles and books, but I did the same thing by … ” I swallowed and fought down a stab of nausea. Recalling impossible equations was still dangerous. “By thinking maths. I thought the books might give me some answers, some context, but I suppose it’s not going to work that way.”

I offered Evelyn an apologetic smile. She sucked on her teeth in thought.

We’d been in the reading room – Special Collection and Sensitive Storage room K-11 – for about twenty minutes. I’d parked myself in a chair and tried to sit still, but nearly bounced from foot to foot in excitement at all these wonderful old books, even if there were only nineteen of them.

Evelyn had noticed and directed me toward one of the less fragile volumes, a huge blank-faced hardback entitled The Diaries of Richard Barker and his great working, reprinted with commentary, by one James Oston. Despite the relatively modern binding the inside pages informed me of only the printing date – 1932. No publisher’s mark, location, nothing.

“Just don’t read any Latin or Greek out loud,” Evelyn had said. “Even under your breath.”

Whoever mister Barker was, he was very 17th century, and his ‘diaries’ consisted of a lot of magical experiments, summoning demons, communing with ‘angels’, and when I read between the lines, several brutal murders.

The symbols he included made my head hurt. They looked wrong.

My fascination had curdled, returned to the cold reality of academic rigour as I’d flicked past pages of regurgitated medieval mythology. The commentary was worse, an unreadable jumble of concepts – somatic-transfer membranes, cellular resonance, the dangers of astral voyaging, whatever all that meant.

I flipped the book shut to illustrate my point. “None of this means anything to me. None of it seems real. What is magic? How does it work?”

Evelyn nodded slowly. She put her pen down and folded her hands together.

“I don’t know,” she said.

“ … you don’t know?”

“Is there an echo in here?”

I goggled at her, unsure of her sincerity. “You’re the magician, Evelyn. What do you mean, you don’t know?”

Evelyn raised her chin and stared at me in silence, like a professor waiting for a bright but slow student to comprehend the point under their own intellectual steam. I felt like I was the butt of a joke I didn’t get.

I shook my head at her, lost for words.

“I’m not much of a teacher, you understand?” she said. “I’m not going to be good at this, and this is not going to make sense to you.”

A note in Evelyn’s voice rang false. She was putting on a role, the wizened master of occult secrets. I never would have noticed the artifice if I’d been my usual sleep-deprived self. I couldn’t fathom why she was acting like this.

“And I’m not an idiot, Evelyn. Please don’t treat me as one.”

She inclined her head. “I’m not. Here, let’s say you’re a metalsmith in 2500BC.”

“ … okay?”

“You know how to make iron weapons and armour. You know how to smelt the metal, how to get it from the ore, where the deposits are underground. Every part of the smelting and smithing process is done by eye, by feel. You know how hot the fire should feel at every stage, what colour the metal should be, and that’s how you judge when to hammer it and when to quench it. Do you know the temperatures involved? Can you put specific numbers to those temperatures? Can you measure them, with iron-age tools?”

I nodded, following in an instant. “Right. Of course you can’t.”

“You don’t know what iron atoms are, or how they reform and bond during the smelting process. You don’t know the chemical composition of metal. You just know how to get the results.” She rummaged in her tote bag and produced the white quartz invisibility stone, the one she’d used on me. “A result. I don’t know how it works. I don’t know how magic works. I suspect nobody does.”

“Nobody at all?”

Evelyn shook her head.

“Surely somebody has tried. You say there’s more mages out there, there’s a whole magical ecosystem, cults, people, right?”

“Yes, but it’s not straightforward.”

“Then someone must have tried to apply modern science, done systematic experiments, come up with some first principles. This isn’t the Dark Ages, this is the twenty first century.” I glanced over at the books, frowning now, my mind chewing on issues I’d ignored. “Why is this stuff hidden down here in the first place? How could an entire branch of reality, physics, whatever you want to call it, go hidden for centuries? This is making less sense the more I think about it.”

Evelyn levelled a very cold gaze at me and stared to speak.

“Imagine a field of study in which too much progress, too fast, results in one’s madness or death; in which any attempt to contact one’s peers risks them murdering you to steal what secrets and power you’ve amassed; in which the best way to experiment is to commit unimaginable atrocities; in which, for hundreds of years, any public attention would have you burned at the stake, and in modern times will see you locked in a mental asylum. There is no pipeline of talent. No safe harbour. No peer review. No civilian applications.”

“That speech sounded very well-rehearsed.”

Evelyn’s whole act fell apart.

She shrugged and hunched her shoulders. Her air of superiority dropped away. Suddenly she seemed very small and weak, curled up to protect herself from the world. I felt so mortified by the impact of my words I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to reach over and take her hand, cross the table and hug her.

“I-I’m sorry, I didn’t-”

Evelyn waved a hand. “You’re right, completely right. It’s just a version of what I got drummed into me as a child. Except I had it less as a warning, more a justification.”

“That’s okay, I didn’t mean to knock you off your flow. You just seemed so … ”

“Fake. Pretending to be somebody I’m not. Forget it. Better to call me out on it than let it fester.”

“Well, okay, if you say so.”

I sketched a smile and hoped it looked reassuring, accepting, kind – instead of shaken and insecure. Was I supposed to reassure her here? I’d touched a nerve of personal history and wasn’t sure I should dig any further.

Evelyn didn’t seem bothered. She tapped a finger against the tabletop, lost in real thought, no longer playing the role.

“I meant everything I said, even if my delivery was bloody awful. I really don’t know how magic works.” Evelyn sighed and waved a hand, as if trying to summon an idea she’d shooed away. “What I do have is various working theories, things I learnt as a child, the scraps my mother left in her notebooks.”

“Your mother?”

“Yes,” Evelyn said, and shifted uncomfortably. “She never put anything in print herself. No reason to. But I have most of her notebooks. I can share what little I know.”

“Please. Please do. I can’t express how hungry I am to understand, Evelyn. Please, anything you have.”

“Don’t beg.” Evelyn shot a strange frown at me. “You’re better than that.”

I blinked at her in surprise, but she continued before I could say anything.

“Magic,” Evelyn began. “Magic is manipulation of the underlying structure of reality, via the directed application of human willpower. That willpower requires shaping, it needs conduits to flow through, tools to access the controls – magic circles, symbols, bits of Latin and Ancient Greek. You can break the laws of thermodynamics, for example, in limited, local ways, but they always reassert themselves. Physical effects are more difficult the larger they are. Mental effects are damn near impossible, hypnosis or mind control or implanting ideas. The human mind is largely tamper-proof to direct magic. Summon things from Outside, though, and all bets are off. They break all the rules. That’s the basic 101, best I can do.”

“That’s … surprisingly straightforward, but it doesn’t really explain anything. Somebody would know about magic. There would be a … I don’t know, a secret government department. Ministry for mages?”

Evelyn half-smiled, a minimalist laugh. “That would make life easier.” She spread her hands, hesitated, then seemed to withdraw into her her thoughts, resigned to something she didn’t want to face.

“Evelyn? Evelyn? … Evee?”

That made her look up. Our eyes met and I flushed with embarrassment at using the diminutive version of her name.

“I’m sorry, you looked like you needing snapping out of that.”

She nodded and half-shrugged. “Call me Evee if you want. It’s fine.”

“I will then. Thank you.”

“Our reality is auto-correcting and self-enforcing.” Evelyn paused and sighed. “My mother’s words, for what they’re worth. I don’t have a better way to phrase it. Think of reality like a big rubber sheet. You can deform it for a second by throwing a bowling ball against it, but it springs back right away. You can break the laws of thermodynamics, to a point, or bend light, or do a million other things, but reality snaps back.” She clicked her fingers. The sound echoed off the empty reading room shelves. “Sometimes right in your face.”

“What goes up must come down?”

“To a point, yes. Self-enforcement applies up here, too.” She tapped her temple.

“ … meaning what, exactly?”

“Meaning I need an example. Let’s say I draw a magic circle on the floor right here, do a lot of things I shouldn’t do, and summon a monster from Outside. Let’s say it goes upstairs into the library and kills a couple of people. What do you think happens afterward?”

“Uh, mass panic? It would be on the evening news. Everywhere.”

“Exactly. Except that doesn’t happen, does it? Instead of an unimaginable demon, witnesses will remember a madman with a axe, or a crazed homeless person, or whatever else their prejudices and assumptions provide. Unless you’re already broken in by exposure to magic, or Outside, or worse, then your mind self-edits, reality cushions the blow.”

“People would film it on their mobile phones, there’d be evidence.”

Evelyn gave me a knowing smile. “Would you believe it was real? Or CGI?”

“ … I … I can’t … Evelyn, I don’t like this idea about the ‘self-editing’ mind.” I swallowed, struggling to find a way to say this, to make her understand why that concept made my guts churn. “I can’t go from ten years of distrusting my senses, to being told I’m not crazy to … to back again. How can I trust my own memories, if that’s accurate?”

Evelyn shook her head. “Once you’re in, you’re in. You’ve been exposed, and you didn’t deny it or go mad.”

I understood what she was getting at, and I suspected my ‘exposure’ – to the Eye – was more than enough to acclimatise my soul to all this. But it still sat heavy in my stomach.

“There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” I muttered to myself.

Evelyn frowned at me. “What?”

“Misquoting Shakespeare.” I gave her a little embarrassed smile. “Just a line I’ve always liked, from Hamlet. The concept helps.”

“Mm. If that’s what you need.”

“I still don’t get it, how do you deform reality in the first place? If the laws of thermodynamics are breakable then nothing around us should work.”

Evelyn nodded slowly. “Yes, you’re a child of the post-Enlightenment age. The scientific method, causality, the heliocentric model, they’re all still correct. I’m not going to ask you to believe in magical particles or spirit energy or that the earth is flat.”

What Evelyn did ask me to believe in was the parable of The Castle.

It didn’t resonate with me, over that long slow hour under the one dull strip lights in that secret reading room.

Evelyn wove a complex metaphor, one I suspected she’d been fed as a little girl, a child’s fairy tale to make sense of an impossible universe for an impressionable, frightened mind. I didn’t mention that feeling, it seemed too cruel to point out how she slipped into a child’s cadence and rote repetition as she related the tale. I just let her run through it, for whatever comfort it gave her.

Over time, I built my own version of Evelyn’s metaphor, one much less charitable than what her family had left her.


==


Imagine you live in a castle.

You were born enclosed by walls so thick and so high that they seem the limit of the world. No gate or drawbridge or window leads out. Nobody has ever been outside, and those who suggest such a feat is even possible are dismissed as madmen or charlatans or dangerous zealots.

Inside the castle, life makes sense. Rooms connect to each other at proper ninety-degree angles. The grass and trees of the inner courtyards are neat and orderly, regularly cut and trimmed. If you throw a ball up, it will come down. If you do not eat, you will starve. Human behaviour is sane, if not always kind. If you observe a physical law, and test it, you can create a theory to accurately describe how it works.

Then, one day, you find a way up onto the walls. A secret way, hidden in a place nobody goes. You are curious, so you step inside, and the door slams shut behind you. It will not open, no matter how much you pound on it, how long or loud you scream, how afraid your tears. There is no way out.

Except up.

You climb the stairs. They are dark and cramped and you hear horrible sounds from above. For the first time in your life, perhaps for the first time in any life, you emerge into the daylight on the battlements.

What you see ruins you.

The castle is not all. The walls do not demarcate the edge of the world. Your castle is merely a tiny keep, set in the middle of a much larger curtain wall. In the space between the keep and the curtain wall live such inhuman things. They do not obey the laws that govern inside the castle, they bend them into impossible shapes. They caper and dance and go about their bizarre alien business and sometimes look up at you and make eye contact, or hoot strange sounds to you, watch you and follow you and surround you.

Perhaps you do your best to ignore them.

But they – the pneuma-somatic life outside our comfortable castle of reality – are not the worst thing you see from atop the battlements. Oh no. Because next your sight is dragged up, beyond the outer curtain wall, to outside the castle entirely.

To Outside.

Out there the laws of the castle are nought but a whispered suggestion. Giant shapes move on the horizon, in their own domains, with different laws, other rules, rules that produce only screaming insanity for a human being, rules that will break you if you try to comprehend them, rules which once understood, cannot be forgotten, and will worm their way inside your soul and wreck you for knowing them.

Let’s say you manage to get back down, inside the castle. Maybe you try to forget what you saw. Maybe you pretend to be normal.

But then you discover you’re not the only one. Others have been up on the battlements.

Some have found cracks in the walls.

Been Outside.

Brought things back.

And those things they bring back – magic – can break the laws inside the castle, make it more like Outside, if only for brief moments before the laws of reality reassert themselves, before the human mind rebels against what it witnesses, before the mob tears them apart in sheer outrage.

To do this they need tools, protection from the searing truth of the Outside, a framework through which the fragile human mind can operate: magic circles and symbols, dead languages, rituals, bloody knives and stained altars. And these things do not always work, do not always protect so well.

And then, last and most terrible of all, you realise that you are unique. That you alone can bring things back from Outside merely by thinking them.

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providence or atoms – 2.1

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Two weeks and a day after the night which altered my life forever, I did a new and brave thing: answered my front door at eleven in the morning.

Might not seem like much, unless you’re used to monsters around every corner.

A month ago I wouldn’t even have acknowledged the knock. I might open the door to a leering skeletal face or six hundred pounds of fur and blubber covered in mouths. I risked inviting a nightmare to spend days gibbering and whispering in the corner of my bedroom. Better not to answer, pretend I wasn’t home, hide.

But now I was safe. Now things made sense, in a limited fashion. I was still adjusting to the fact I wasn’t mentally ill, at least in the way I’d believed; the world really was demon-haunted. So I left my book and carried my mug of coffee to the door. A unbidden smile tugged at my lips.

The smile froze when I opened the door and found Evelyn waiting there, by herself.

My mouth stalled in a greeting for the wrong person. I was suddenly conscious of my messy hair and my slept-in pajama bottoms and the unmade bed behind me.

“Good morning, Heather?”

“Good … “ I took a deep breath and gathered my composure. “I’m sorry, yes. Good morning, Evelyn. You- you surprised me. Being here. On my doorstep. I mean.”

Evelyn nodded, as if my loss for words explained anything. “Expecting Raine, were you?”

“Actually yes, I was. It’s okay, I’m sorry. Come in, please.”

I stepped aside and closed the door as Evelyn made her way across my tiny flat, her walking stick tapping on the floorboards. My face flushed as I felt Evelyn’s eyes rove across the detritus of my disorganised life. Stacked books, unwashed dishes piled the sink, the mound of laundry at the foot of my bed, class notes spread out across my desk.

“Please, do try to overlook the mess. If I’d known you were planning on visiting, then I’d have cleaned a bit. Or a lot.”

Evelyn eased herself onto her good leg. “A little mess is nothing. Don’t bother yourself over it.”

I flopped my arms in defeat. “But there is mess. There’s always mess. Even sane and sleeping I’m-” I swallowed back the rest. Forced a smile. She didn’t want to hear me whine. “Sit down, please. Take my desk chair.”

Evelyn thanked me and sat down carefully. She put her tote bag on the floor between her feet and did her best to return my smile.

Neither of us was very good at the expression, but Evelyn’s case was due to a permanent tightness around the eyes. Stone cold sober came easily to her, natural and unguarded joy did not.

She looked an awful lot better than the last time I saw her. She’d twisted her great mass of hair up into a ponytail, the rest of her wrapped in a huge dark grey woollen sweater and an ankle-length thick skirt, warm ugg boots on her feet. She looked warm and comfortable, her oak walking stick ready for a hike down a leafy country lane or across some picturesque village green, instead of sitting in a dirty Sharrowford bedsit with the likes of me.

Evelyn frowned and tutted. “Stop that.”

“Stop what?”

“Being nervous of me. It might be a rational response, yes, but don’t. I would like it very much if you considered me as a … if we could be … ” She waved a hand in the air and grunted.

I blinked at her several times. “Evelyn, this isn’t nervousness. I feel like a disgusting grease troll right now. It’s not doing wonders for my dignity.”

“I … don’t understand?”

“This is the first time we’ve seen each other since our unscheduled dimension hopping accident. I wasn’t exactly in top form then, between the vomiting and the bleeding. And now I haven’t showered yet this morning, I’m still in the clothes I slept in, my hair is a rat’s nest. Not to mention the state of my flat. I can only imagine what you must think. You could have called me before visiting, given me warning. I’m wearing pajama bottoms, for crying out loud.”

“Oh … well I-I … so am I.” Evelyn tugged up the corner of her skirt to show the ankle of plaid pajama bottoms underneath.

“Yes, but you’re clean and well put-together. You can get away with that.”

Even as I spoke I realised that was hardly fair. Evelyn had heavy, dark bags under her eyes. Her hair was clean but it probably hadn’t seen a brush this morning and certainly no touch of the hairdresser’s scissors for many months. Her clothes were fresh but old and well-worn, the collar of her sweater darned and mended with different colour thread.

Evelyn started to respond, then sighed and rubbed at the bridge of her nose. She drew herself up as straight as she could with her crooked back, and I felt a sudden desire to shrink away, certain she was about to yell at me.

“You’re right,” she said. She swallowed and looked at the floorboards, shoulders tense, face stiff. “I should have called, I should have acted normal. I’ve gone and made you uncomfortable.”

It made me want to hug her.

I didn’t, of course. Sane and sleeping I may be, but bold was not in my nature.

“No, I’m sorry,” I said, and felt lame. “Forget it, I was rude to mention it. Do you want something to drink? If you don’t like coffee I have some tea as well.”

Evelyn kept her gaze fixed on the floor. “I am not very good at socialising. Not very good at maintaining friendships.”

“Oh, for goodness sake, neither am I.”

She finally looked up. A mote of understanding passed between us, and Evelyn nodded slowly.

I brewed a cup of peppermint tea for her and left her with the run of my books while I squeezed myself into my flat’s tiny bathroom with a clean change of clothes. Only once under the shower did I realise that I hadn’t asked her why she was here in the first place.

When I returned I was delighted to find Evelyn had made herself quite at home. She’d settled back in the chair with her cup of tea perched in a clear spot on my desk. A real smile crossed my face as I recognised my copy of Paradise Lost propped open in her lap.

“Have you had the pleasure of reading that before?” I asked.

I sat down on the bed to dry my hair and resisted the urge to rub my sternum – to massage the untouchable bruise inside my chest.

The bruise had pained me since that night, since Outside, wounded internally in some obscure manner I couldn’t pinpoint. Raine had plied me with good food, guilty food, fried chicken and supermarket sushi, fresh fruit and scrambled eggs, but all the protein in the world didn’t help the bruise heal.

Evelyn closed the book. “No. No, I haven’t had a lot of time in my life to read for fun.”

“Feel free to borrow it if you like. Milton’s one of my favourites. I know poetry isn’t for everybody, especially old poetry. It’s not a popular form anymore, but I love it.”

“Mm, perhaps.” Evelyn raised an eyebrow at me. “So, you wouldn’t have minded if it was Raine at your doorstep, seeing you unshowered and unclean?”

“That’s … different.”

“Is it? Really?”

“She’s already seen me at my absolute worst. There’s not much more for her imagination to fill in.”

“I’ve seen you at your worst,” she said. “Such states are badges of honour, not sources of shame.”

I couldn’t keep the incredulous frown off my face.

Evelyn sighed and gestured around the room. “This is hardly the worst condition to which a human being can sink. You should be proud of how quickly you’ve accepted reality. Most people who have to be introduced to magic spend the rest of their lives trying to refute or forget it, or go mad in the process. You’re not smearing your own excrement on the walls, are you?”

A lump formed in my throat. She didn’t get it. “Well … no, but-”

“You’re doing better than I did.”

I struggled with a moment of pain and frustration, then pulled a false smile to control myself. “Evelyn, my state has nothing to do with monsters and magic. It’s because of Maisie. I’m not struggling to accept reality, I’m grieving for my twin sister.”

“Ah, well, uh.” Evelyn cleared her throat. “That’s different, yes. Yes, of course. I … yes.”

“It’s fine,” I lied.

To grieve would be such a relief.

I’d dealt with Maisie’s absence for years by telling myself she was always with me; imaginary friend plus. Except she’d been real, so now she wasn’t here. I was incomplete.

Evelyn raised her chin, assumed an air of importance. “Regardless, I didn’t come here to lecture you, Heather. I came here to apologise.”

“Whatever for?”

“For the way I spoke to you when we first met. I was an uncharitable ratty bitch. Raine’s cried wolf so many times that when she finally brought home a real one I wasn’t ready.”

“You’re mixing your metaphors, there.” I almost giggled at the absurdity. “Me, a wolf?”

Evelyn waved a hand. “You get what I mean.”

“I do, and thank you. You were … ”

“I am a difficult person, I know. You can say it, I won’t be offended.”

I shook my head. “You don’t need to be so formal about this. We already made up, didn’t we?”

“Accounting for one’s mistakes, one’s debts, I find it important. It can be a matter of life and death. And I do not like to make mistakes.” Evelyn’s voice carried a razor edge I didn’t much like, but then she took a deep breath and the feeling passed. “Anyway, the other reason I’m here. I have the first steps of a possible solution to your unique problem.”

I perked up, everything else briefly forgotten. “Yes? Go on? I did wonder why you’d come all this way. A solution?”

“Yes. It’s taken a little bit of thought and some questionable research, but I believe I’ve come up with a place to start. An experiment, to figure out how this Eye-” She waved a hand. Total dismissal, as if the Eye didn’t even matter. I liked that. I liked that a lot. “How this thing is contacting your mind. We can go from there.”

“How soon can we begin?”

Evelyn inclined her head. “If you’re not busy? Today. We need to go to the library, there’s some details I need check before we begin. Then back to my house, to do some real magic.”

“The library? For books?”

Evelyn raised an eyebrow. “No, for video games and Chinese food,” she said, but not unkindly. “Of course for books.”

“Magical books, right, yes.” I nodded. “I admit, I’m fascinated. By the prospect, I mean.”

My words stalled and stuttered in time with my uncertain excitement. So many questions, no way to phrase them. But books, they would teach me everything.

Evelyn held me with a steady gaze, as if measuring me.

“Evelyn?”

“The books I have do not make easy reading. Real magical grimoires can be … demanding, on the mind. Try, please do, you deserve the chance, but temper your curiosity.”

“I will, I will. I’ll be careful.” I nodded.

“Mm, good. Remember that.”

“Thank you, Evelyn. Really, thank you.”

“Humph.” She grunted and looked away. I detected a hint of embarrassment, almost bashful. I was about to tell her it was okay, but Evelyn continued before I could speak. “Raine tells me the warding sign is on your left arm now. Show me.”

I rolled up my sleeve to show off one of the best presents I’d ever received. This version of the Fractal was much larger than the one Raine had drawn on my hand. Thick black lines wrapped around the pale curve of my forearm, a tree of folded angles spilling from a kinked central trunk, clean and precise.

Evelyn leaned forward with a professional frown. She grunted approval and I felt a flush of pride. Raine had dedicated half an hour of delicate work to the Fractal, so intimate with my arm lying across her lap, this little fragment of irrationality which kept my nightmares at bay and the terrors from my doorstep. She’d bought a body art marker pen for the task, and left it on my desk so I could refresh the design if it started to fade. The ink was supposed to last up to six weeks, but I checked the integrity every night.

Evelyn straightened up and shook her head. “Raine was an idiot to draw it on your hand the first time, out in the open like that. You are keeping it concealed, yes? She was clear about that much, at least?”

“It’s always under my sleeve. Nobody’s going to see it.”

“Get used to that. Doing everything we hoped it would?”

“Absolutely. No more nightmares. I’m sleeping. Real sleep. I even had a couple of actual dreams, normal regular dreams.”

“No lingering effects? Nothing at all?”

“Well, there’s a sort of pressure in my head after I wake up, like a distant ringing in my ears. It goes off after an hour or two.”

Evelyn stared at me and nodded slowly, as if this made perfect sense.

“Is that supposed to happen?” I asked.

Evelyn laughed, a humourless, dry sound.

“I have no idea. We’re miles beyond precedent here.” She looked down tapped her fingers on the closed cover of Paradise Lost in her lap. “An educated guess says your ‘Eye’” – she actually did little air-quotes with her good hand – “is probably still trying to get through. It’s not discouraged by a firewall. For our purposes, that’s a good thing.”

“It is?”

“Yes. For now. How about the … ” She sighed and gestured with one hand. “ … spirits?”

“Oh, no more haunted apartment!” I couldn’t keep the smile off my face. “They’re keeping their distance like never before. They don’t completely ignore me, but I don’t feel like a beacon for horrible weird monsters anymore. I can’t tell you how much that means to me, how much less messed up the world feels.”

“Good, good. I didn’t know exactly what it would do left on human skin for days on end.” Evelyn’s eyes took on a distant look. I rubbed the skin around the Fractal and asked one of the questions I’d been avoiding thinking about these last two weeks.

“What is it? The Fractal, I mean. You call it a warding sign, but what is it, how does it work?”

Evelyn’s eyes snapped back to the present and she stared with sudden cold precision.

“How much do you want to know, really?”

I couldn’t answer that. I took the low road.

“You’ve been practising that line, haven’t you?” I asked.

Evelyn huffed with irritation. “I may have done. I find unrehearsed interaction more difficult than most people, and I had considered you might ask that question.”

“It’s fine, it’s fine. It’s actually quite sweet. You have a flair for certain kinds of dramatic delivery, that’s all.”

Evelyn looked as if she was sucking a lemon. “Well, how much do you want to know?”

“I don’t know.” My shield of good humour crumpled, and I cast it aside. “I need answers.”

“To what?”

I shrugged, at a loss. “Everything. I know, I know, magic is real and unicorns exist and I’m not schizophrenic, but those are facts, not answers. Not the ones I need. Why me? Why Maisie? What happened to us? What now?”

Evelyn nodded, thought for a moment, and then spoke.

“The warding sign is part of something much larger, my family’s … inheritance. My inheritance. The warding sign’s particular set of angles generate a kind of repulsion or firewall effect, as far as I can tell. It’s one of the very few things I have which works consistently. Which is bloody useful, because otherwise it would be impossible to keep my home shielded, or keep you hidden, or really do much of anything without attracting unwanted attention.”

As she spoke, Evelyn stared at the exposed fractal on my arm. I rolled my sleeve back down, feeling protective and self-conscious.

“I think I understand,” I said.

“I suppose Raine did the actual penwork for you, yes?”

“Uh, yes. She did.”

“And she’s been visiting you every day, has she? Spending a lot of time together?”

“Not- not every day.” I shook my head and forced a laugh.

Just most days; an edge in Evelyn’s voice prompted me to edit the truth.

Raine had eased herself into my life with shameless familiarity. She turned up unannounced when she didn’t have class and learnt my schedule so she could find me on campus after lectures. She sent me text messages and silly pictures and told me good morning and good night and take care. At first I hadn’t known how to respond, but after so long without a friend it felt good to let her take control. She took me out to eat greasy burgers and chips, made food on my horrible pokey little bedsit oven, watched movies and cartoons with me on my ancient laptop. We talked about everything and anything – except magic and spirits and demons. I’d lent her a copy of Watership Down and she was trying to get me to read some Kant.

Evelyn saw straight through the fake laugh, stony-faced. “She slept with you yet?”

“What? Evelyn, excuse me?”

“Well, has she?”

“No! No, we haven’t- she hasn’t even- we- it’s not like that. I don’t think it is, anyway.”

“With Raine, it always is.”

“I wouldn’t know how to judge that.” An old frustration surfaced for the first time in a long time, fed by indignation and a yawning pit of uncertainty. “I don’t have any experience with romance. None whatsoever. Maybe you don’t appreciate that about me, Evelyn. I spent a significant chunk of my teenage years in psychiatric hospitals, and the rest of it as the weird mentally ill girl who might go catatonic or start screaming at any moment. Not to even mention the whole lesbian thing, that’s a minor blip compared to the rest, but it doesn’t help my odds. I’ve never even kissed anybody. Raine is nice. I don’t know what that means. We’ve hugged a few times.” I shrugged and looked down at the floorboards, embarrassed more by my loss of control than the intimate details.

“Well,” Evelyn said at length. “That makes two of us.”

I expected a cruel joke, but lowered my defensive hackles when I saw she was dead serious.

“Yes, Heather. I too am a kissless virgin. What did you expect? Look at me. Nothing wrong with that, especially under the circumstances.”

“’Kissless virgin’?” I echoed. “You shouldn’t put yourself down-”

“It’s a meme.” Evelyn waved the question away.

“ … ‘meme’?”

Evelyn cleared her throat. “An internet joke, never mind. Point is, we’re not so different, you and I, and that is fine. All the more reason not to let Raine take advantage of you.”

“I don’t feel taken advantage of. If anything, it feels like the opposite. She’s been … ”

‘Too kind’ died on the way to my lips, blotted out by the memory of Raine’s ecstatic grin as she beat a monster to death with a truncheon. She was kind to me. Beyond that, I didn’t really know, did I?

Evelyn did not look impressed. I took a deep breath and steeled myself; may as well get this out of the way.

“Okay, let me put all my cards on the table. Are you jealous, Evelyn? If I understand correctly, you’ve close with Raine for years. Have I intruded on something? I’d rather we be open about this.”

“Jealous?” Evelyn’s eyebrows climbed in surprise. “No, most certainly not. Whatever Raine has said about me, I’m not interested.”

“You’re not-”

“No.”

Final word. I nodded. Sure.

“Look, Heather, I’d advise you not to get to close to Raine. You’re setting yourself up for disappointment.”

My turn to raise my eyebrows.

Raine Philomena Haynes. She loved her middle name, and I liked it too, though I did wonder if she’d adopted it herself in an pretentious act of self-creation. It took me a long, winding evening to weasel out her surname, which she hated for reasons I didn’t understand. Twenty years to my nineteen, which seems a more significant gap at that age.

I knew her now – but not enough about her, and I told myself it was subconscious behaviour on her part. She’d happily spend hours extolling the finer points of any book I handed to her, and share her favourite foods – chicken korma and pomegranate – where she’d grown up in leafy Suffolk, what she thought of Dambusters and Shrek, and a growing litany of teenage japes and hijinks, but they were all oddly unconnected to concrete people, her family, or any personal history with Evelyn.

Evelyn put down her tea, steepled her fingers, and gave me a sober look.

“Raine requires a damsel in distress for whom she can play the Knight Errant. And let’s be honest, you do fit the bill. That’s why she shows so much interest in you. I used to fill that role, but I changed. If you fail to remain dependent, her attitude toward you will deteriorate.”

I struggled to keep a straight face. Maybe Evelyn was jealous, even if she didn’t know so.

“Did she treat you the same way she treats me now?”

“Not exactly. With us, the reality-shock was the other way around, or should have been. But she’s the same as always. Don’t get me wrong, Raine is … ” Evelyn gestured, searching for a word. “Once she’s made a decision she will fight your corner even if it kills her. She is loyal, and she means what she says, and one could not ask for a better- you get the picture. But she’ll hurt you in the long run, if you let her.”

I didn’t want to think about this. Was I just filling in a role? I didn’t feel that way. I chewed my bottom lip.

Then I realised what was wrong with this whole picture; what had been wrong since the moment I’d found Evelyn on my doorstep, alone.

“Wait a second, isn’t … isn’t Raine supposed to accompany you almost everywhere?”

Evelyn smiled. The first real smile I’d drawn from her, and it made me deeply uncomfortable. Sharp and devious and smug. “Indeed, indeed she is. I thought it was past time I engaged in some creative disobedience.”

“But- but- you keep implying that Sharrowford is dangerous, that-”

“Heather, I am more than capable of defending myself.”

“I saw how Raine reacted, when she couldn’t reach you by phone. Genuine fear for you! For your safety.” I cast about for my mobile phone. “I- I have to call her.”

“Oh, don’t be silly,” Evelyn snapped.

I spread my arms, intimidated by her tone but unwilling to bend. “What? You can’t seriously expect me to betray her trust.”

Evelyn huffed and hunched a little in the chair. “Some things have to be done without Raine hovering over our shoulders all the time. You saw how she reacted, that night. She wants to coddle you. I’d just simply prefer you retain a little independence – and I too, perhaps, dare I bloody well hope. She won’t like you getting into the books, the grimores, if that’s what you want. Go ahead, call her if you like, it’s your choice.”

I hesitated. Just enough.

That smile crept back onto Evelyn’s face. “Come on then, it’s past time we went and did some serious work, before she spoils our fun.”

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