conditions of absolute reality – 3.13

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I’d won the first real physical fight of my life – against a cultist thug in a dirty Sharrowford back alley – kicking and biting, spitting and hissing. He’d been unsure of himself, unsure of violence, and much stronger than me. In the end I had powers he didn’t understand, and an animal willingness to use them, but up until that moment we’d been the same; unevenly matched, but both human.

Zheng did not play by human rules.

She didn’t need to muffle my scream. One huge gloved hand gripped my head, another whipped out like a snake around my forearm. I hadn’t even finished recoiling in horror when she simply yanked me off my feet, so fast my stomach lurched and my shoulder popped.

I tumbled forward through the gateway, into the corridor beyond, into Zheng’s grasp.

She caught me against her front, knocked the wind out of me with the impact, held me by neck and one wrist with irresistible strength. Her dead eyes stared down at a point to the left of my head.

Reason fled. I screamed my lungs out, kicked and spat and pulled and clawed. The only rational part of my mind – a cloistered core of self-preservation – was painfully aware this was nothing like the dirty little back alley fight. No Tenny to save me, nobody to hear me screaming, Zheng’s sheer size and strength more than enough to immobilise me and hold me down or just snap my spine and leave me dead.

A pair of men stood a little way behind her in the corridor, both in long cream-coloured robes, heads exposed, middle aged and portly. One of them held a coil of rope.

“Turn her around,” one of them said.

Zheng obeyed, attempted to turn me over. I kicked and struggled, wrenched my own joints and almost choked myself on her hand around my throat. I clawed at her eyes, but missed and grabbed the scarf over her face, pulling and yanking and screaming and kicking.

She didn’t even blink. Like fighting a wall. Despair filled me, an unspeakable feeling of inevitable violation. Trapped.

One of the robed men raised his voice. “Hold her still, for God’s sake. We need to be out of here.”

Zheng got me turned around, facing away from her, looking at the dark rectangle of the gateway. Moonlight bathed the ex-drawing room on the other side; the house was right there, so close.

“Raine!” I shouted. “Raine!” Zheng pinned one arm behind my back. I winced and gasped as she twisted my shoulder. She reached over to grab my other wrist.

No rescue. Nobody was coming for me. I went limp.

Zheng’s hand closed around my wrist in the time it took me to complete the equation.

Hyperdimensional mathematics slotted into place, each principle hissing and burning on the surface of my consciousness, molten metal in my brain, so much sharper and hotter to cut through the terror and panic. My stomach clenched up and my head split with razor-sharp pain. Impossible physics blossomed open inside me, dark and dripping and muddying my soul as I gripped the levers of reality and pulled.

Out.

Nothing happened.

Well, nothing happened to Zheng.

I vomited onto the floor and almost passed out. My vision throbbed black, ice-pick pain stabbing at my head, chest seizing up. My knees gave out and I sagged in the giant zombie’s grip, gagging and coughing, nose streaming with blood.

Death-panic gripped me even through the pain as my body tried to shut down. Why hadn’t it worked? Why was Zheng still here?

“Get her tied up before she tries that again,” one of the men said, his voice dim and distant.

“You’re joking, I’m not touching her. Zheng can do it.”

“Just get it done. Toss her the rope.”

“No, not here. If the Saye girl turns up now, we’re dead. We’ll close the gate first, get clear.” He raised his voice. “Zheng, pick her up. Quickly now.”

Nothing left to give, nothing left to resist with. The gateway back to the house was a mere six feet away. Raine and Evee were both upstairs, sound asleep. Twil lay sleeping just in the next room. So close. Right there. My throat constricted, my face dripping with blood and snot and tears. I tried to scream again, but managed only to cough and snort out blood.

Zheng began to pick me up, to hoist me by the waist, to throw me over her shoulder. To take me away, down into the underworld. I could barely flop an arm against her, managed to half-twist in her grip, get a good look at her face and the two ruddy-faced men hesitating behind her.

In the pit of panic and despair, I did the only thing I could think of.

As if she was a ping-pong ball, but a thousand times larger.

I lashed out, a fumbled mess of impossible physics, so fast and so violent, so disorganised and unplanned I thought my head would explode and my eyeballs would pop from the vice of pain. I aimed vaguely at Zheng – as much as such a thing could be aimed – to push her back, to force her away. No plan. Just wanted her off me.

It hit Zheng like a wrecking ball and tore off her left arm at the shoulder.

She dropped me and crashed backward into the cultists, her severed arm flying through the air in a welter of blood. It bounced off the wall and slopped to the floor.

I hit the ground too, winded and clenching up to vomit again, white-hot stabbing headache filling my consciousness; no energy to marvel at what I’d just done. Shattered bone and torn fabric hung in a ragged mess from Zheng’s wound, crimson stain spreading down the side of her trench coat. She sagged and hunched, silent, face lowered. The pair of cultists scrambled to their feet. One of them gaped at Zheng, eyes wide. The other took off running down the corridor.

My whole body shook as I gathered the last scraps of adrenaline to push myself to my feet. My eyes felt sticky, gummed with red. The world span.

Had to get up, had to get out of here. Zheng wasn’t dead, I hadn’t stopped her. I heaved for breath and snorted back blood and saw her move again. She stood up straight, chin level, staring ahead at nothing. Then she looked down at her severed arm. The remaining cultist swallowed and tried to speak to her, but his words were drowned out by the pounding inside my head.

“Up, up,” I tried to hiss to myself, but managed only a whine in my throat.

I failed to stand up. Failed to even get to my knees. One hand slipped.

I passed out before I hit the floor.

==

Pain stabbed me awake, sharp and throbbing, with a gasp from my closing throat.

A black shape bent low over me, indistinct and featureless, blurred through my sticky eyes and swimming vision.

No energy to scream, let alone crawl away. I was lying on my side in a pool of my own sick. My breath came in ragged gasps and hiccups, sucking down air filled with the scent of blood and stomach acid. My body was freezing through my pajamas, shaking all over, face smeared with still-wet blood and stringy bile.

Nothing happened.

Nothing moved except my racing heart.

I blinked and screwed up my eyes, managed to lift one arm to rub the sockets and scrub away the blood. I opened them again, squinting at the dark shape above me: chitin, ridged and bumped. Too many legs.

One of Evelyn’s spider-Servitors was crouched over me, a terrifying hound protecting an unconscious master. Its crystalline eyes pointed down the corridor, stingers raised in perfect stillness.

Zheng was gone, along with her severed arm. One of the robed cultists lay smeared against the wall, crumpled and ruined in a pool of his own blood, recognisable only by the cream robe and one exposed hand. I stared for a moment and felt sick somewhere deeper inside than my stomach, had to look away. A trail of blood led down the corridor, staining the brown floor, into the depths of this non-place.

I dragged myself out from under the spider, lay on a clean patch of floor, and passed out again; seconds or minutes, I couldn’t tell. I came around spluttering with adrenaline, hauled myself to my knees and fell against the wall, sat there shaking for a very long time, breathing in ragged gasps and muttering under my breath. The spider hadn’t budged an inch.

“Get up, get up,” I hissed. Stared at the gateway, at Evelyn’s workshop, the moonlight, five or six feet away. “Everyone’s just over there, okay? Get up, get up. You have to get up.” I hiccuped and sniffed and felt sick again, then pulled myself up against the wall with one hand, the other wrapped around my aching stomach. My limbs felt filled with lead.

Step by painful step, I went home.

Stumbling into the ex-drawing room on shaking knees, I crashed into a chair and almost fell over, desperate to get away from the open gate and the crawling sensation between my shoulder blades. I caught myself on the table, straightened up as best I could – not much – took a deep breath and hacked and coughed and snorted back blood before trying again.

I screamed Raine’s name at the top of my lungs.

She wasn’t first on the scene – that achievement went to Twil, who skidded into the ex-drawing room on clawed feet, full-wolf and half-awake and wide-eyed at the sight of me shaking and bloodied and the open gateway behind me – but I’d never been so glad to see Raine, fresh from sleep with her hair stuck up in all directions, switched on and alert, shiny black metal truncheon in one hand.

My energy gave out; I gave up, only dimly aware of the next couple of minutes after I collapsed into Raine’s arms. She sat me down on something but I couldn’t unclench my body, curled up around the pain in my chest, every muscle wire-tight. Cool hand on my forehead, interrupted by bewildered, snapping voices. Shaking, shivering all over. Raine murmured nearby, couldn’t make out the words. Hands on my stomach, probing, are you hurt? Who did this? Raine’s hands on my head, feeling for lumps. Who did this? Hands on my arms, hands on my hands.

“You did this?” Evelyn’s voice cut through the haze. I blinked up at her, still in her pajamas, looming over the sofa, as she held my right hand and frowned at the paint and ink all over my fingers.

“Evee, hey,” Raine said. “Let her-”

“Heather, you opened the gate? You completed it? How?” Evelyn demanded. She looked pale, green with nausea.

“I-I don’t- it was the zombie- I don’t-”

How?” Evelyn snapped.

“I don’t know,” I whined, flinching back.

“Evee-”

“You must know,” Evelyn said, casting a hand behind her toward the open gateway and the dozens of adjustments and additions to her magic mandala. Praem stood nearby now, on guard, as Twil peered through into the corridor beyond. “That’s your work, Heather, it’s on your hands, how did-”

“A dream!” I screamed in her face, hysteria ripping from my raw throat.  “I did it in a dream! I sleepwalked and woke up and it was done and- and-” I hiccuped and felt myself begin to hyperventilate. Raine was on me again, murmuring words that didn’t matter. Evelyn turned to the gate, ordered Praem inside, and began shouting Latin at the spider-Servitor.

Raine pulled me to my feet and half-carried half-dragged me into the kitchen. She slapped the lights on and I blinked sensitive stinging eyes. She lowered me into a chair and made sure I wasn’t going to slide to the floor. I sniffed and clung to her with one hand.

“Don’t-” I hiccuped. “Don’t go.”

A hand on my filthy hair. “Heather, I’m going to get you a glass of water and clean you up. Okay? I’m not even going five feet from you. Promise.”

I nodded weakly.

Raine had this down to an art by now. Warm water and a sacrificial kitchen towel to wipe the blood and bile from my face and hair, a glass of water pressed into my shaking grip – which I drank with much spluttering and coughing – and the constant presence and pressure of her hands, reassuring, stroking, telling me it was going to be okay. I stared at her through slack vision.

Shouted Latin echoed from the drawing room for a while, then trailed off. My mind kept replaying Zheng over and over again, the unspeakable feeling of being grabbed and immobilised, of struggling against unbreakable strength. I blinked and gritted my teeth, looking down at my hands smeared with ink and paint. I’d woken up from a sleepwalker’s dream, just before the gate had opened, just at the right moment, because in the dream-

I’d had help.

“Heather? Heather?” Raine was saying. I blinked up at her. “Who did this to you?”

I shook my head and swallowed. My voice came out thick and clotted. “Need to think.”

“You said it was the zombie. Zheng?”

“She was there on the other side, when it opened. She didn’t … ” I sighed and squeezed my eyes shut. “I can’t remember. It was in a dream.”

Evelyn bustled into the kitchen, followed by a bewildered looking Twil. She stared at me, frowning and confused, carrying the scrimshawed thighbone under one arm.

“Hey,” Raine said, straightening up. She kept one hand on my shoulder. “Is it closed?”

Evelyn frowned at her. “No, of course not. Don’t be absurd.”

Raine cracked a grin. “Evee, you go back in there and you close that fucking gate or I swear I’ll spank you ‘till your arse glows in the dark.”

“Absolutely not. This is our chance. I seriously doubt I’ll be able to get it open again. I don’t even understand half of the … modifications. Heather, how did you do that?”

I shook my head, still staring at my hands.

“More like why did she do that?” Twil asked. “It’s the middle of the bloody night. Is this what she does?”

“Evee, there is a direct line to cultist fun-land in the middle of the house,” Raine said. “Heather just got attacked by a giant zombie.”

“Praem One and the Spider are both guarding it,” Evelyn grumbled. “Two’s on her way home right now. I’m not throwing this opportunity away, Raine. Don’t be such a dullard.”

“I’m about ten seconds away from grabbing a mop and a bottle of bleach to scrub that wall clean myself.”

“Fuckin’ ‘ey,” Twil said.

“No,” I almost spat, jerking upright in my seat. “No, you can’t. You can’t close it.” Everyone looked at me. I shook my head, struggling for words, breathing too hard. “We have to go in there. I have to go in there. I-I have to help … I-” I frowned, confused at these half-memories, broken impressions.

I had to help? Who? Who did I have to help? Where had that come from?

“Heather, it’s okay, it’s over now.” Raine ran her hand across my sweat-soaked back.

“No! I have to- Raine, I woke up and it was already happening, already opening. Sleepwalking, something, I don’t know.” I held out my hands, ink and paint still visible despite Raine’s ministrations. The Fractal stood out bold and stark on my left arm, my protection, my shield, unblemished and complete. “But it wasn’t me. I had help. Somebody helped me.”

Raine stiffened. “Inside the house?”

“No, no, inside my dream, inside the sleepwalking. Guiding my hands.”

“Who?”

“I don’t know!” I felt a hysterical scream catch in my throat. My heart ached for this lost memory, this piece of myself.

“Okay, okay, it’s okay, I believe you,” Raine murmured. Evelyn was staring at me, brows knitted.

“Somebody told me to wake up, before the gate opened, before Zheng got me. They saved me. And they asked for help too. Whoever it is needs- needs us to- me to-” I squeezed my eyes shut and forced a deep breath. “I can’t recall properly, but this was a trap, and somebody sabotaged it so I could escape. And now they need help too.” I looked up at Raine. “Please?”

Raine hesitated, then sighed and grinned. “Guess you know better than anybody that dreams can be real, huh?”

“Oh yeah, just bite down on this huge bait worm, right, cool.” Twil threw her arms up. “What’s if it’s just the cult messing with Heather’s head?”

“No,” Evelyn murmured. “This house is a fortress. That applies to our minds too. Something like the Eye could certainly brute force its way in, but not the Sharrowford Cult, no matter what they’ve got into. They’d need something like … well, like you, Heather.”

“Good point,” Raine said. “If they could break in here, why not, you know, just murder us all?”

“The sister,” I said, blinking up at my friends as a light went on in my head. “The sister!”

“The what?” Raine frowned.

“Ah,” Evelyn said.

“When he tried to kidnap me, Alexander Lilburne, he mentioned a sister like me, remember? What if … ” I trailed off and shrugged, still shaking all over.

Rained sighed and nodded, a resigned smile on her face. Evelyn scraped a chair back with her walking stick and sat down, placing the scrimshawed thighbone in front of her. “Start from the beginning,” she said. “You woke up in front of the gate. Step by step. This is important.”

I nodded, did my best to gather myself, and told everyone what happened.

==

“You were terrified,” Raine said. “You’re only human.”

“No, that’s not what I meant.” I coughed and winced, pain shooting up inside my chest. “I did the brain-math perfectly, it made me sick, it almost made me pass out, but it didn’t work on her. That’s why I had to do the ping-pong trick, but a hundred times bigger. Thousand times bigger.” I trailed off, feeling vaguely sick as I recalled the moment of violence. “And like I said, it cut her arm off. She dropped me, one of the men ran away, and then I passed out. You know the rest.”

Raine nodded as she rubbed my back through the borrowed hoodie. She’d managed to coax me into a warmer change of clothes, distraught and worried by my shivering. “You’re only human,” she repeated.

Evelyn watched me with her chin in her hand. Twil glanced between all of us in turn with a look like she wanted to be far away from here. I couldn’t blame her. I curled up tighter in my chair.

“Ping-pong trick,” Twil echoed quietly. “So you uh, knocked the big bitch’s arm off and um … pulped … that guy in there?”

“Wait, hold up,” Raine said. “There’s a dead guy?”

“You didn’t see?” Twil grimaced. “Past the gate. Totally minced.”

Evelyn swallowed and looked rather green. “Can you please refrain from being disgusting?”

“Was kinda busy with more important things.” Raine nodded sideways at me.

“No, no, that wasn’t me,” I shook my head and sniffed, trying not to picture the gruesome state of the corpse. “He was still standing when I passed out.”

“So like, the zombie killed him?” Twil frowned.

“The Cult may control her through a full-body binding of some kind,” Evelyn said in a quiet murmur. “Tattoo perhaps, like yours.”

“Ugh.” Twil pulled a face. She rolled her shoulders and leaned back, self-conscious of the way her tattoo showed through the thin white tshirt, now she looked fully human again.

“Remove an arm and part of the binding is broken,” Evelyn continued, nodding to herself. “They may have lost control of her. Lost control of their trump card. Well done, Heather.”

I gave her such a glare, born of pain and exhaustion. She cleared her throat, inclined her head to me, and stood up, clutching her walking stick in one hand.

“Nevertheless, the gate is open,” Evelyn said. “Finally. If I’m right about the changes you made to my work, it should indeed lead us into the heart of their stronghold in the south of the city. I do believe it’s time to get rid of the Sharrowford Cult.”

“Why stalk me and then just try to kidnap me like that?” I murmured. “What was the point?”

“Smart money says internal power struggle,” Raine said. She shrugged. “Right hand not talking to the left, all that.”

“They appear to have no plan B,” Evelyn said. Her lips kinked with the beginning of a devious smile. “They haven’t sent anything through the gate, it’s a clear shot. I’m clearing them out, tonight. Or,” she glanced at the kitchen clock, “this morning, I suppose. Before sunrise, in any case.”

Twil snorted. “It’s a stonking great trap, anybody could see that. Come on, Saye. What are you going to do, walk in there by yourself and challenge them to a punch up?”

Evelyn gave Twil a dark smile of growing certainty. “I have a bound demon in two bodies, robust and obedient, either of them capable of outfighting anything the cult have left to throw at me. They’ve run out of monsters, they don’t have anything. I have a dozen hidden trump cards. I have my magic, I have my mother’s goddamn legacy at my fingertips,” she reached forward and tapped the scrimshawed thighbone. “I have … ” she paused, glanced at me. “You want to help this mysterious benefactor of yours, Heather?”

I nodded. “Yes, absolutely.”

Evelyn turned back to Twil. “I have my friends. I have Raine. Heather’s already disabled their greatest weapon, and very likely set it among them like a fox in a hen-house. Do we have you, Twil? Are you in or out?”

“In,” I said, then coughed and wheezed at the pain in my chest. Twil stared at Evelyn, lost for words.

“Relax, Heather, come on, relax,” Raine murmured.

“Are you in or are you out?” Evelyn repeated. “Are you with your family, or us?”

Twil blinked in surprise, then scowled, dark and hurt. “That’s not a fair choice, Saye. Fuck you.”

“It is, however, a practical question, and we are now on a time limit, before they regroup or discover what’s happened. Us, or not?”

“You, then,” Twil grunted and folded her arms. Evelyn smiled that smug, devious smile again.

Raine looked at all of us in turn, a resigned look on her face as she finally turned to me. “I don’t even need to say it, do I? I really don’t like this. We’re talking about walking straight in there.”

“I have to go, I have to.”

“I believe you. But, Heather, love, you can barely stand right now.”

“I can stand just fine,” I lied, and forced myself to my feet, hands gripping the edge of the table. Deep breaths, in and out. Raine caught me by the elbow and helped me stand straight. My knees shook, weak and unsteady. My chest ached as if every single muscle had been pulled, from collarbone to abdomen.

“No you bloody well can’t,” Twil said.

“I feel a lot better than I have in the past,” I said, and held my head high. “I’m getting better at this.”

Raine couldn’t keep the dubious look off her face; I knew her too well by now, saw right through to the deep concern and worry underneath, the fear that fragile little Heather would get hurt, that she’d lose me. It was entirely justified; but if I acknowledged it, I’d give in to the fear.

“Then carry me,” I blurted out. My calm veneer slipped and I screwed up my eyes, banging my own skull with one fist. “It’s right there, Raine. I can feel it, I just can’t remember the details. I have to help, and I have to know, there’s a piece of my mind missing and I can’t stand it. I’m serious, Raine. Carry me if you must. You want me to stay here you’ll have to tie me up.”

Raine took a deep breath. No grin. She met my eyes head-on and nodded once. “Alright. I’m with you.”

I opened my mouth to thank her, to tell her I knew, I understood, to tell her I’d follow all her instructions, that this mattered and thank you, but she put a finger to my lips.

“If we’re gonna do this, we do it properly,” she said. “My way.”

==

We suited up.

I stayed in Raine’s hoodie, wrapped in big comfortable protection. She made me prove I could walk upstairs, then helped me tug on a pair of jeans. She held my hand for support on the way back down, loaded me up with co-codamol and ibuprofen and a couple of little tablets from Evelyn’s unlabelled collection, which seemed to settle my shakes. She dug out one of Evelyn’s spare walking sticks for me, not a lovely warm piece of polished oak, but a metal and plastic NHS-issue crutch, with a pad for under the shoulder. I found a window and tried to catch a glimpse of Tenny wandering in the garden, but it was too dark and rain-soaked to see her.

“We’ll be back later,” I muttered to the cold glass.

Twil dragged her clothes out of the dryer and shrugged them on. She rolled her sleeves up, exposed hands making and unmaking those ghostly wolf-claws, as if limbering up a spiritual muscle.

Raine found her jacket and filled it with death.

She checked the handgun, made sure the safety was on, and slipped it into an inside pocket. She found her truncheon and laid it on the table, sized up a few kitchen knives, then hopped upstairs and returned with the most terrifying blade I’d ever seen – a combat knife. Eight or nine inches of matte-black metal, slid into a clean leather sheath. She tucked it away and shot me a sheepish grin as she pulled on a pair of black leather gloves.

“Insurance,” she said.

“Sure you got enough pointy things there?” Twil asked.

“I’d prefer a shotgun and a riot shield, but hey, you make do with the tools you’ve got.”

Praem Two returned via the back door, somewhere during our preparations, and silently took up station in the ex-drawing room next to her body double.

Evelyn finally reappeared from upstairs, fully dressed, in boots and a coat for once instead of a comfy sweater, her pockets laden down with a trio of notebooks, a collection of little bottles sealed with wax, and that awful carved thighbone.

She had another notebook tucked under one arm – mine. She handed it to me with a nod. I tucked the notebook into the hoodie’s front pocket.

“You going to be all right?” she murmured, while the other two were occupied.

“I think so. Thank you, Evee.”

She nodded. “I hope we find your mystery helper.”

We gathered in the ex-drawing room, among the magical detritus of Evelyn’s workshop. Raine hovered by my side as I hobbled along on the crutch, taking deep breaths as I went. I did keep up; it wasn’t that difficult. I really was handling the aftermath of the Eye’s impossible equations better than ever before.

In that moment, I didn’t have time to stop and consider what that meant about me.

I’d expected the open gateway to glow, or give off some kind of inner light. A magical gateway through space, to a place that shouldn’t exist. Surely the surface should wobble or shine or pulse? Instead it showed that brown institutional corridor, as if through a perfectly normal open door.

Praem One and Two stood nearby, along with the spider-Servitor, now backed up from the inexplicable intrusion into its years-long routine. Evelyn took a deep breath and muttered something to one of the Praems. Twil flexed her hands into wolf-claws. Raine glanced at me.

“You do exactly as I say, okay?”

I nodded.

“We’ll be fine,” Evelyn announced. “This is a simple mopping up. They couldn’t even muster a few people to come through this gate. Most likely we won’t have to do a thing except chase off a few sad old men. Let Praem take the lead, find out what they were doing, and bring the place down on our way back. Don’t show any fear.”

“That means you too,” Raine stage-whispered and elbowed Twil in the ribs.

“Oi!”

I suppressed the smallest laugh, winced at the pain in my chest, then smiled at Raine.

My heart could not decide between paralysed terror and shaky confidence. On one hand, who on earth did we think we were, doing this? Four young students, all girls, on half a night’s sleep, with a old handgun and a knife between us, Evelyn and I both barely able to keep up if we had to run. And we were going to put down an organised supernatural mafia group.

On the other hand, who were we really? A mage, a virtuous psychopath, an indestructible werewolf, and whatever the hell I was becoming. We a demon at our disposal, in two bodies strong enough to break limbs and bend steel. We had magic and monsters of our very own. We had each other.

We were pretty damn scary ourselves.

“Right,” Evelyn started. “Praem, if you please, go first. Bring the-”

“Wait,” I said. “Wait, do we have string. A ball of string?”

Evelyn frowned at me. Raine blinked, curious and bright.

“ … you didn’t think to bring string?” I asked.

“What are you going on about?” said Evelyn.

“Theseus? The Minotaur?” I sighed and rolled my eyes. “Nobody reads anymore. Where would you lot be without me?”

Raine nodded slowly, a grin spreading across her face. “A maze. Evee, what if we get turned around in there, or can’t find our way back out? Heather’s got a point.”

Evelyn shrugged. “Then we’ll come out somewhere else in Sharrowford. A walk home.”

“You’ll get a sore hip again,” I said, then turned back to the kitchen. “String, or a ball of yarn, surely you have something around here.”

She did. Raine found an old ball of string after a little digging in the cupboards, and put it in my hand. My responsibility. I hobbled out into the front room and tied it to the sturdiest thing we had – the house itself. I looped the string around the banister on the stairs and tied a tight little knot, then unwound the ball behind me as I walked back to the ex-drawing room.

“There. Our way back.”

Praem went first, her twin identical bodies stepping through the gate one after the other. Twil followed behind them, shoulders hunched, eyes probing. Evelyn stomped ahead, radiating stubborn confidence.

My feet hesitated regardless of my heart. I felt a catch of breath in my throat and the crutch digging into my shoulder, as I leaned on it with all my weight. What if Zheng wasn’t the worst threat waiting for us? What if I wasn’t strong enough, what if I weakened and collapsed and slowed everyone down? What if there hadn’t been a mysterious helper in my dream, and this was all trap?

What if I was wrong?

A hand slipped into mine and squeezed. I looked up to find Raine – not grinning, for once.

“I’m with you, Heather. I promise.”

I nodded. Squeezed back.

We stepped through the gate together, as the others waited for us, just across the threshold to the underworld.

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conditions of absolute reality – 3.12

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Deception set my head spinning; when Evelyn stomped back into the kitchen with me scurrying behind her, to be met by polite but confused looks from our guests, I couldn’t tell how much of her ire was real and how much was acting.

Gone was her conspiratorial amusement from our private moment, replaced once more with a hunched, scowling, lash-tongued performance. Lots of “against my better judgement” and “do not mistake this for weakness”, ending on a warning not to even dream about stealing any books, an injunction which drew a snapped complaint from Twil, and earned Twil a sharp rebuke from her mother.

I was cast in the role of the bowing and scraping adviser, the voice of cool-headed diplomacy, the one to thank for this chance, and I played along as best I could, trying to look harried and put-upon and twitchy. Not exactly difficult.

Evelyn unlocked the door to the ex-drawing room and showed Christine Hopton – High Priestess of the Brinkwood Cult – what she’d been up to these past weeks.

The rest of us mere mortals – plus Twil – hovered around the doorway as the mages conferred.

“Not you, I don’t think.” Raine put out a hand. Ben stopped. He’d been about to step through the doorway after Praem, to where Evelyn was pointing at the map and muttering to Christine.

“I thought we were all friends here now,” he said.

Twil elbowed him in the ribs. “Ben you stupid cunt, give it a rest. Mum’s fine.”

Ben winced. He frowned at Twil, at Raine, over Raine’s head at Evelyn, and then lastly at me, before drawing a hand over the cropped stubble on his head. “I don’t trust any of this.”

“Likewise,” Raine said, then flashed a grin and stepped aside. “On second thought, you wanna waltz in there flexing your muscles, be my guest.”

Ben smelled a rat. He stayed right where he was. I sighed.

“Don’t,” I said. “Raine is trying to get you to aggravate the um … security.”

“Aww, don’t tell him!” Raine slapped me on the back, laughing. “Spoiling my fun.”

“Wait,” Twil said. “The invisible spider is in there, isn’t it? Don’t go in there, seriously don’t.”

“All right, all right.” Ben shook his head and wandered away from the door, back to the dregs of his tea. He took a deep breath and seemed to relax, leaning against the table. “Anything happens, you’re up, Twil.”

“I’m always up.” She rolled her eyes.

None of us risked disturbing the uneasy peace, or the slow movements of the meeting in the workshop. Snippets of hushed conversation reached us, as Evelyn explained the impenetrable tangle in the south end of Sharrowford, the city’s shadowy double on the other side of nowhere. Her map was covered with much more red than when I’d first seen it.

They puzzled together over the mandala of the inert gateway, the doorway outline cut into the wall plaster. Christine kept touching the symbols, nodding a lot as Evelyn explained long-winded concepts under her breath, answered a number of pointed questions, and tapped the blank doorway with her walking stick.

Raine leaned over to Twil, a smirk hidden beneath her face, and whispered, “Your mum’s kinda hot.”

Twil did a double-take at her. So did I.

“Raine,” I hissed under my breath, and smiled despite myself.

“You know, if you’re into the whole mommy thing. Older women. All that.”

Twil bared her teeth. “I will … fucking … end you.”

Ben snorted laughter.

The conference in the workshop came to an abrupt end. Christine gestured toward the kitchen and spoke up. “Shall we? I feel quite overwhelmed by all this. I do believe I need a little air.” Evelyn grunted and clacked her walking stick across the floorboards and back into the kitchen. We made space, Ben hauling his massive frame over to lurk by the door again. Raine slid a hand across my back and stayed close.

“I am certainly impressed,” Christine began as she lowered herself back into one of the kitchen chairs. “I had no idea of the extent of … the size … how much they’ve … ” She swallowed. “That map is accurate, of course?”

“What do you think?” Evelyn asked. She waited for Praem to pull a chair out, then sat down, as straight-backed and high-headed as she could force her spine.

“I think you are a remarkable young woman. I didn’t understand even a fraction of your working in there, that ‘gate’ you’re constructing in the wall.”

“Neither do I. That’s the problem.”

“Yes, yes, I quite understand.” Christine inclined her head. “Which is why I believe we may be able to provide the missing pieces of the puzzle.”

Evelyn’s gaze flickered to me and away again; here it comes. “Oh?” she said to Christine, and waited.

“The angular principles, the gate and the key, the ways between the spheres. This we know, or some of it, though in a different form to the one expressed in that magic on your wall. We know it, because Hringewindla knows it.”

A sinking feeling settled in my belly. The threat of dressing up as a cat for a day served to distract only very slightly from the fear this meeting was about to erupt into violence.

“I believe if you were to commune with Hringewindla, and ask honest, intelligent questions, he may be able to provide the missing pieces for your working.”

Evelyn sighed, a sardonic smile on her lips, and turned to me. I shrugged and swallowed. Raine raised an eyebrow at me and I whispered to her. “We made a bet, I just lost. Tell you about it later.”

“If you need to discuss this amongst yourselves, I completely understand,” Christine said, eyes halting uncertainly across our private exchange. “I realise it may seem daunting, but-”

“What’s to discuss?” Evelyn asked, leaning back with sneer on her face. “How long it took you to bait your hook?”

“I … I’m sorry, I don’t follow?”

“I see you, and I see your plan, you vile little thing,” Evelyn said.

“Hey!” Twil barked. Evelyn ignored her, staring at Christine. I felt myself shrink back as Raine flexed her hands and rolled her shoulders, the musculature of impending violence flowing into position. Ben had gone very still.

“I’m not talking to you, Christine,” Evelyn said. “I’m talking to the passenger riding along inside your mind, to Hingle-cringle-whatsit, even if you don’t know it’s there. I see you, and I’m no fool. If you try something like this again, I will find a way to put you down.”

Christine stared in shock, mouth hanging open. Twil wasn’t far off, more bewildered than angry. Ben was the only one ready to burst.

“How dare you?” He shouted. I flinched so hard I almost fell over. Raine steadied me. Goodness, but I was not used to people shouting. My heart rate shot through the roof. “You don’t know anything about us, you little bitch, you-”

Benjamin,” Christine snapped at him. She pointed at the door. “Outside, outside right now, you take that language outside.”

“But she-”

“I don’t care. I do not care. Go outside and have a cigarette if you must.”

Ben glowered at Evelyn but obeyed his aunt, stomped off toward the front door and banged it shut on the way out.

“Wise,” Evelyn purred.

Christine took a deep breath in an effort to centre herself. Twil seemed unsure what to do, caught between anger and confusion, one hand briefly on her mother’s shoulder, before looking away with a snarl caught between her teeth.

“I realise you don’t trust us,” Christine said. “What you must think of us, what you must assume we are. From your family, or your mother, what you think of people like us. Yes, a piece of our god enters us and we carry it with us always. That I will not deny, but my mind is my own, and this is not a ploy, not some trick to ensnare you and-”

“Okay,” Evelyn said.

Christine blinked at her. I stared. Raine burst out laughing.

“Okay, sure, I’ll come talk to your Outsider. How’s, I don’t know, ten in the morning on Monday? Too early? Is he a late riser? Does one of you do a alarm call for it, breakfast in bread and all that?”

Christine pursed her lips. “You are mocking us.”

“No, I’m deadly serious. But I have one condition. Heather comes with me.”

“What?” I blurted out.

“Yeah, what?” Raine said.

“I … don’t … see why that would present a problem?” Christine raised a polite eyebrow at me.

Evelyn let that low, lazy, sharp smile fill her face, a nasty glint beneath as she allowed the moment to stretch out, savouring her victory. That’s the only reason I didn’t raise further protest; I could tell this was an elaborate bluff, partially at my expense.

“Heather is a blinzelnzauberin,” Evelyn said.

“I’m a what now?” I felt laughter threaten in my throat, the tension of the last few minutes begging for release.

“It’s German. You probably don’t even know what the word means,” Evelyn said to Christine. “But your passenger certainly will. Do I need to say it in Latin, or Old English? I might need to fetch a dictionary for that last one, I doubt they had a word for the concept.”

“I’m not sure what you’re getting at, miss Saye.” Christine attempted an apologetic smile. “Your friends are as welcome as you are.”

“You think I’m bluffing? Ask Heather. Not you, Christine. I’m talking to the Outsider in your head.”

“I-I’m pretty sure she is bluffing,” I said. “I have no idea what that word means either.”

Christine studied Evelyn’s expression, then looked at me, down the length of my body and back up – the sort of look which made me feel like a piece of meat on a slab – a reducing, searching, probing look, the last thing I’d expected from such a soft-spoken, agreeable middle-aged woman. I opened my mouth on a hesitant protest, and froze as our eyes met.

A shadow moved behind her iris and sclera, there and gone again, vast and distant, like a planet hiding itself behind a cloud.

The little hairs on the back of my neck and my forearms all stood on end.

Until that moment I’d thought perhaps Evelyn really was over-reacting, maybe this was all an outpouring of her paranoia, of a worldview inculcated by her mother’s methods; I’d decided to let her play it out, that getting her to let me and Raine inside – both the workshop and her heart – was far more important than any help Mrs Hopton might offer.

“You can do magic with your mind, my dear?” Christine asked.

“Oh, t-that? I-I can.” I found my mouth dry, my hands clammy. “S-sort of. It’s complicated.”

Christine frowned at me, sceptical and a little alarmed. She turned the frown on Evelyn, who shrugged and kept smiling that sharp smile.

“So,” Evelyn said. “Monday at ten? We’d best take the train down from Sharrowford station, Raine’s car wouldn’t survive those backwood roads, certainly not this time of year with all the mud, so we’ll need picking up, of course.”

“We- we have paved roads, you idiot,” Twil said. “It’s not darkest Africa.”

For once, her mother did not scold her. Christine merely watched Evelyn, wary and silent, outmanoeuvred.

“I think, perhaps,” she said, slowly. “We’d all do better to respect your initial decision. Meeting a god can be an overwhelming experience, after all. Perhaps I can speak to Hringewindla in your place.”

“Mum?” Twil said, voice filled with confusion.

Evelyn snorted derision. “I’m talking to it right now, aren’t I? Come on, old fellow, can you solve the gate problem or not? Got the missing pieces to my equations, or was this all so much bullshit? Go on, Raine, fetch her a piece of paper an a pencil, I want to see this.”

“Right you are, boss.” Raine rummaged around in the kitchen drawers.

“I see no reason to continue this further in the face of your beliefs about us.” Christine rose to her feet. “Thank you for the tea, and thank for the tour of your work. I wish you all the best, miss Saye, and I do hope you win.”

Evelyn stayed sitting, but Praem stepped forward to usher our guests out.

“Mum? Mum, what- what-”

“Not now, dear,”

Evelyn’s smile sharpened. “Get out of my city.”

Twil scurried after her mother. I twitched a hand out to her, unwilling to abandon the trust she’d earned from me. She’d rescued me from the Cult, she’d fought a giant zombie off me, she’d dragged me home, with no benefit to herself except a job well done.

“Let them go, don’t show any weakness,” Evelyn said out loud.

“But-” I cut off at the sound of the front door slamming, winced at Twil’s raised voice outside on the garden path. “But it’s Twil. I don’t care about the other two, but she’s … that’s her mother? I saw … in her eyes, I saw … ” I swallowed.

“She’ll be alright, she’s bloody invincible,” Raine said, patting my arm as she passed. She ducked into the front room and rattled the locks on the door.

The big car started up outside, engine coughing and rumbling. I was still shaking my head.

“I don’t know what I saw,” I muttered to myself.

Hringewindla,” Evelyn grunted. “Bastard fucking thing. At least I have a name for it now.”

“And that’s Twil’s mum.”

Evelyn’s grimaced and shrugged. “It’s her problem.”

“Evee, how can you say that? When … I mean, when you-”

“It’s her problem,” Evelyn said, harder. “She doesn’t want to be helped.”

==

“What was that word you used, earlier? About me?” I asked without looking away from the sigils and inscriptions which covered the wall. “Blinzen- blin-”

Blinzelnzauberin,” Evelyn supplied, then sighed and shook her head. She stomped over to the table in the ex-dining room and sat down heavily in a chair, massaging her thigh where flesh met prosthetic. “It’s not a real thing and you’re not one. It’s German, comes from a very old book which nobody has an intact copy of, only parts, called Das Wissen um Gott. My German is a little rusty. Blinzelnzauberin means uh, I suppose, speed of thought … ” She waved a hand.

“Blink witch,” Raine said. She looked up from the map spread out on the table. “Right?”

I turned to stare at her. “Am I the only one around here who doesn’t speak eight languages?”

Raine laughed. “I know a tiny, tiny bit of German. I have to, I’m supposed to be a philosophy student.”

I sighed. “I suppose. It’s a very effective way of making me feel inadequate.”

Evelyn pulled a grimace. “Mm, ‘blink witch’ would be the literal translation. It’s used to mean a sort of prodigal child who can perform magic at the speed of will, without difficulty, usually refers … to … ” she slowed down and trailed off, staring at me. “To twins. Ah.”

“Oh,” I said, very softly.

“Well, it’s still not you. Medieval nonsense. Point is, Higgly-wiggly inside her head knew what I meant, probably terrified you might pose it a real threat, so no dice. Meeting cancelled. Verboten.”

“As long as it doesn’t get any bright ideas about Heather,” Raine murmured.

“It won’t,” Evelyn said. “It’s been stuck in a hole in the ground for several thousand years, at least. Old English, really,” she snorted. “All it wants is willing hosts and no enemies. I hate to admit it, but these bastards are far more difficult.” She gestured at the map. Raine looked back down at the web of red highlighter and nodded slowly.

The ex-drawing room drummed with the sound of pounding rain, pattering on the curtained windows and hissing soft static against the roof. The gathering storm had finally broken a little while after Twil and the Brinkwood cultists had left. Fat raindrops had speckled the cracked flagstones of the garden path when I’d stepped outside, with Praem in tow and Raine on point, on a circle of the house, to make sure their disgusting bubble-Servitor had left along with them.

Raine had brushed water droplets from my hair after she’d shut and locked the front door, then turned all questions, burning with curiosity about how I’d changed Evelyn’s mind during our few short moments in private – but Evelyn herself had answered for me, with a grunt, and said, “Three heads are better than one.” She’d pointed at Raine and then over her shoulder. “You’re going to look at my map. In.”

Raine had boggled at Evelyn, then me, back and forth until her puzzled expression teased a giggle from my lips. “Don’t look so surprised, Raine. I’m learning I’m sort of good at this.” I blushed a little, worrying I was inflating the size of my own head.

“You’re good at lots of things,” she’d said. “But, what exactly … ?”

“At changing minds.”

“Flirt later,” Evelyn had grunted, and led the way into her magical workshop.

The air in the ex-drawing room had thickened, turned stuffy and dusty after weeks with the door almost always shut; cracking a window was out of the question, so I fetched an electric fan from upstairs and pointed it out of the doorway. I dug out a dust-cloth as well, to do some cleaning, treat this room like any other, but the contents made that exceedingly difficult. Most of it I had very little desire to touch.

The human femur bone I’d seen weeks ago now held pride of place, propped up on one end with a chair all to itself. Every inch of the yellow-white surface was covered with scrimshaw markings, hundreds of tiny magical symbols carved into the ridged bone.

A large stoppered bottle of dark red syrupy liquid sat on the table. Not blood; that would have coagulated. Next to the bottle lay a series a series of feathers underneath an upturned glass bowl, too broad and flat for any earthly bird, their colours iridescent and shifting, difficult to focus on.

Several more magic circles lay on the floor and propped against the walls, inked or painted onto wide sheets of stiff card or expanses of dirty canvas. One in particular drew my attention, the largest, a ring of interlocking circles like a venn diagram, scorch mark in the middle, surrounded with writing that seemed different when caught in my peripheral vision.

“Hmm? Oh, that.” Evelyn waved the question away. “A long chat with something that would have preferred not to speak.”

Maps now covered most of one wall as well as the table, hand-drawn additions and notations everywhere, in red and green and black. Evelyn had attempted to map out isolated pieces of the Cult’s shadow city, lined them with estimates of distances and sizes, surrounded them by notes about pits and open spaces, danger marks where Praem One or Two had encountered resistance, all pinned up with thumbtacks and tape.

More of the bulbs in the overhead light had given up, plunging the room into dim shadows with the rain outside.

Only the identifiable signature in the disorder kept me from backing out in disquiet. To the uninitiated it would seem a madhouse, a schizophrenic scrawling, and to me it was further proof I’d well and truly left behind the world I’d been born into. But it had Evelyn written all over it. And she was my friend.

We’d been in here almost an hour now. I didn’t want to turn back to the designs on the wall; they made my head swim. I squeezed my eyes shut and rubbed my arms.

“What you’ve got here, Evee, is a classic stalemate,” Raine said into the moment of shared silence. She straightened up from the maps and stretched, hooking her arms behind her head and pulling on her wrists. A much nicer sight than all those magical symbols.

“We know that.” Evelyn shot her an unimpressed look. “Anybody could tell me that. My dad could tell me that.”

“Yeah, yeah, but hey, let me armchair this out for a moment. Take off your generalissima hat and let me try it on for size, yeah?” Evelyn puffed out a humourless laugh and made a hat-doffing motion. Raine shot her a wink and tapped the map, on the impenetrable tangle of the south of the city. “So what do you think this is?”

“It’s a thicket,” Evelyn replied. “The loops and extra-dimensional pockets are either impossible to break through, or turn back on themselves, go nowhere. I think they’ve run out of monsters, mostly chaff, but there’s no route through. I could spend months searching.”

Raine kinked an eyebrow. “But what do you think it is?”

“Drop the good teacher act. What answer are you fishing for here?”

“It’s a fortress, right?” Raine said, she glanced at me too. “Like a Japanese castle, layers and traps and choke-points and crossfire zones, instead of big walls and a moat, you get me?”

“Oh!” I lit up, sort of liking the idea, then remembered these people were our enemies. “Oh.”

“All right, and where does that lead?” Evelyn asked.

“Castles are strong-points,” I said. Raine nodded. “For protecting things, basically. Leaders or garrisons or wealth. Or for controlling territory.”

“The territory in question being Sharrowford, okay, go on,” Evelyn said, nodding in agreement.

“Ahh, but it’s a done a piss-poor job of that,” Raine said. “You’ve driven their weird pocket-dimension tricks out of everywhere else. So what are they protecting? And from what?”

“Themselves,” Evelyn grunted. “From me.”

“No,” I said, hesitant at first, then louder. “No. When I spoke with Alexander … when he spoke at me, he seemed unconcerned with you, like you were a side-issue.”

“A bluff.”

“Nah, I think Heather’s right,” Raine said. “If our crazy cultist friends can dig magical caves behind reality, then they can probably make a place like this.” She pointed up with both hands. “Any isolated house’ll do, proper wards, bing bang bong, got yourself a nice little fortress. Somewhere you or I have to walk up to the front door and kick it in to get anywhere. That’s probably why we can’t find them. And they’ve got muscle, zombie muscle, so what are they afraid of? Why build a fortress outside reality?”

Evelyn stared at Raine with a tight frown, then at the map.

We all fell silent for a long time. I listened to the sound of raindrops against the windows. Eventually Evelyn nodded and took a deep breath, then turned to me. “Any insights yet?”

“Maybe.” I glanced over my shoulder, at the wall. “It makes my head hurt. I think I’ll have to come at it with an empty stomach and a bucket. Sorry.”

Evelyn nodded, her eyes roving over her work behind me.

“You’ll crack it,” Raine said with a grin. I suspected her good humour was entirely for my benefit. “You’re a bloody miracle-worker.”

I shook my head. “Shush you. Don’t call me that.”

Raine just grinned.

The doorway mandala – Evelyn’s wall of symbols and equations and magical workings, radiating out from the blank doorway scored in the plaster – left me disgusted and frightened.

The doorway outline was intended to be a gate. The magic described how it would open, and also define the destination. A wormhole. A portal. Simple enough, Evelyn assured me, but the difficulty was connecting to the Cult’s fortress of unreality, a point that did not exist here or Outside, but in some impossible, liminal, between space. She’d had to examine how their dimensional pockets worked just to begin the definitions.

She’d spent ages trying to explain it in plain language, mostly lost on me. I’d concentrated and stared at the magic circles instead, the overlapping esoteric symbols, and felt the stirrings of the Eye’s decade of lessons, the principles behind this work floating unbidden to the surface of my mind, swallowed back down on a wave of nausea.

That wasn’t what scared me, not anymore. The mandala itself disgusted me, like looking at a dead animal sewn together from spare parts.

“There is another way, to learn any magical secret,” Evelyn said quietly.

Raine’s good humour froze, then slid off her face as she read Evelyn’s expression.

“What?” I said, loud enough to snap them both out of it. “Don’t get all cryptic on me, either of you.”

“Evee’s suggesting massive self-harm as a way of solving her problems.” Raine raised her eyebrows at me. “We might have to stage an intervention, hog-tie her in her bed, feed her wine until she forgets the idea.” She tried to crack a grin, but then looked back at Evelyn and faltered. “Damn, Evee, I actually will do that.”

“Why are you surprised?” Evelyn swallowed. “They shot at you, they threatened Heather. Fuck them. I’ll lose the other leg if I have to.”

“No you absolutely will not,” I said, almost offended at the idea. “What on earth are you suggesting?”

Evelyn turned to me, oddly guilty as she swallowed and looked away. “When I was a child, my mother … used me, for a very specific magical operation. She used it to learn certain secrets. I could … do it to myself … ” She trailed off and swallowed, a old, haunted look in her eyes.

“I can fix the gate, Evee,” I said. “Even if I can’t, you’re worth more than that. Please don’t think that way. This is … ” I gestured at the mandala and felt sick, deep down inside, but did my absolute best not to let it show on my face. “This is nothing, it’s fine. I’ll try. I promise.”

Evelyn met my eyes, hesitated, then sighed and nodded. She opened her mouth to speak.

A dull hammering on the front door interrupted us, and made me jump.

“Again?” Raine almost laughed.

Evelyn scowled up a storm and got to her feet. “I swear, if that’s them come back for another go, I’m going to have Praem walk out to Brinkwood and slash their car tires.”

It was not the cultists.

It was Twil, alone, soaked to the bone.

When Raine opened the door – backed by Praem, with me and Evelyn hanging behind – Twil stood there dripping water all over the doorstep, hair plastered to her face, clothes sodden. The storm lashed about in the wind behind her, blowing little eddies of rain across the floorboards. She didn’t speak, just stared at her feet. Evelyn opened her mouth on an angry remark, but even she faltered at the sight of Twil looking so utterly pathetic.

Twil sniffed, and blinked raindrops out of her eyes. “Can I, like, crash here tonight?”

The answer was an unequivocal yes, between Raine’s effortlessly cheery invitation, Evelyn’s grunted acknowledgement, and my efforts to fetch a towel. I’d half expected her to shake herself dry like a dog, but she slouched in a puddle on the doormat. She draped the towel uselessly over her hair as she shucked off her coat and scarf in a wet heap, followed rapidly by her white hoodie, which she struggled to pull off her head, arms stuck in the wet fabric.

We managed to herd Twil into the little downstairs bathroom before she started stripping off the rest of her clothes, then Raine hurried about fetching a spare tshirt and pajama bottoms. Twil accepted with one pale naked arm stuck around the bathroom door. I bustled about making her a cup of tea and a toasted pop tart, trying to make myself useful, to repay her help. Evelyn stared silently at the bathroom door, frowning in thought.

When Twil emerged again she slumped quietly in a chair, face half-hidden behind a towel and her damp hair.

“Here, I made you some tea, and something to eat. You must be frozen through after all that rain,” I said.

She nodded a weak thanks. “Invincible, remember?” she muttered.

“It’s kinda sweet,” Raine said, leaning on the table. “That you’d come back here, you know? Thanks, despite everything.”

Twil’s slump deepened. She didn’t touch the tea.

“So, why were you all wet?” Raine asked.

“Raining, isn’t it?” Twil shrugged.

“No, I mean-”

“I walked. For a laugh.”

“All the way from Brinkwood?”

“No.”

“You argued with your mother, didn’t you?” Evelyn asked, voice oddly soft.

Twil dragged the towel down over her face and curled up in the chair, hiding from the world.

She looked so different from her usual head-up shoulders-back swagger, in a borrowed short-sleeve tshirt and old pajama bottoms. Small like me, though a little better filled out; I could tell she’d left her bra behind in the downstairs bathroom, soaked through with the rest of her clothes, and had to avert my eyes.

Dark spirals wound across her shoulders and back, outlines just visible through the white fabric of the tshirt – her complex of tattoos which Evelyn had once mentioned and Raine had seen before. No words, no symbols, nothing which hurt my eyes. One long line spiralled and whorled and wound in on itself over and over again, a snake eating its own tail forever. The edge of the tshirt rode up, the bottom end of the tattoo peeking out from below, dark green. Jade trapped inside her skin.

Would have been vaguely erotic, if she wasn’t so distraught.

“Twil?” Raine said, almost giggling.

“Don’t laugh at her,” I said.

“I wasn’t. It’s fine. We-”

“Is there really something in my mum’s head?” Twil said, small and muffled.

Raine and I shared a glance.

“I’m sorry,” said Evelyn. “You didn’t deserve to find out like that.”

Twil shrugged beneath the towel, the fluffy fabric rising and falling. “I always knew, really. Some … sometimes … ” A hard gulp, a sniff.

Evelyn looked at Raine and me, then sighed. She got up and ushered us toward the door with her walking stick, lowering her voice. “Let me talk to her.”

“Ah. Ahhh,” said Raine.

“Are you sure?” I hissed. “Don’t you two … you know … not get along?”

Evelyn shrugged with her eyebrows. “We have certain things in common.”

“Oh! Oh, yes. Yes, I see.” I nodded. “If you need help, please.”

“Ahh, aha,” Raine continued, barely suppressing a grin. Evelyn tapped her on the leg with her stick.

“And you can shut up. Go upstairs and neck or something.”

==

Lucidity seeped into the dream in layers, across inch by slow inch of brain matter, as I wriggled out of bed and left Raine’s sleeping form behind.

I ventured into the dark corridor on bare feet, and felt my way along the wall to the stairs. Distant and floaty, my body still knew the location of each creaky floorboard, how to tread to avoid waking either my lover or my best friend, as I wound my way downstairs in the darkness.

Halfway down, my addled mind asked why I was dreaming about the house.

The question wasn’t urgent, filtered through layers of dream-logic and emotional detachment. My body felt both lead heavy and light as a feather at the same time, moving like some abstract extension of my mind; like seeing one’s own disembodied tongue wiggling in a mirror, back and forth, back and forth.

Why the detachment?

Perhaps because Lozzie was absent for this dream. Where’d she gotten to? I hadn’t seen her in a while, had I?

Had I?

My hand on the banister, my toes curling up against the cold of the front room, goosebumps on my exposed forearms and the back of my neck.

I stepped into the kitchen. The dream details were impressive, I had to admit, from the weak moonlight outside. through the dripping remains of the storm, to the the dirty plates and utensils from the late meal we’d all eaten together. Twil hadn’t been too happy, but she’d been recovering, managed a couple of jokes, a little light ribbing with Raine.

Twil and Evelyn had spoken, for over an hour, without any raised voices. Twil had seemed better afterward, if only by a very small degree.

I wondered if the dream had replicated her too. I wandered over to the utility room to check.

Yes, there was Twil, curled up on the old brokebacked sofa beneath a heaping of blankets, which Evelyn had insisted on bringing downstairs. Evee had offered her a spare room, but our little werewolf, she liked the look of the sofa, the way it sagged in the middle.

Her curly dark mane spilled from under the sheets. Idly, pretending disinterest, I did something I’d never be able to do awake, if this was real; I stroked her head and felt the luxuriant softness of that hair. Poor little werewolf. Came to us almost crying. It’s okay, I’ll be your friend, and so will Evelyn, but I won’t let you sleep with Raine. She’s mine.

I picked up a lock of her hair and sniffed it; rainwater, sweat, Twil-scent.

Not like a wet dog at all.

I giggled in the moon-touched darkness, then covered my mouth, not wanting to wake her. A good girl, yes, even in a dream, my mind reminded me. Reminded me, my mind. Minded me, it did. I giggled again and quickly tiptoed out of the room.

Raine was in this dream, she was upstairs, I’d just left her behind. How silly was that? If I was going to dream about Raine, I may as well have some fun with her, right? Maybe I could bring dream-Raine down here and-

A sniffle. A gasp. Choked sobs, somewhere out in the dark.

Layers of detachment and distance peeled off me as if flayed. I stopped giggling.

Why was I dreaming about the house?

I followed the crying sounds into Evelyn’s magical workshop, the ex-drawing room. Silhouetted against the far wall and the unfinished gateway by the backwash of moonlight, a small, slight, elfin figure glanced over her shoulder at me, eyes filled with fear.

“Lozzie!” I hissed. “What are you doing … here … ”

Her hands were covered with ink and paint, as was the wall around the gateway, a hundred corrections and additions made to Evelyn’s work in finger-paint scrawl.

Lozzie turned back to the wall. She swallowed, reached up, and drew another symbol.

“Lozzie? Hey, Lozzie?” I crept closer. She mumbled, hunching tighter, shrinking away from me, her long blonde hair limp and greasy. “Lozzie, what’s wrong?”

“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m sorry, Heather, I’m sorry. I’m really, really sorry. I’m sorry!” Her voice rose to a whine, shoulders shaking with silent sobs.

“For what?” I said, then glanced up at the wall, at the doorway outline scratched into the plaster.

In the dream, I could tell; almost finished. Ready to open.

“They … he … ” Lozzie swallowed again, looked at me sidelong and cringing, as if she expected me to hit her. That look wrenched at my heart. I wanted to hug her. “They made me do it. They said- he said he’d kill you, otherwise. I had to do it, Heather, I had to. I had to.” Tears welled up in her eyes, big sad tears as her bottom lip wobbled and she sniffed, shaking all over. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. Please don’t- please don’t hate me.”

I shook my head, breathing faster as wave upon wave of lucidity crashed into my mind. “But this is a dream, right?”

Lozzie nodded. She finally faced me, looked me in the eyes, nodding urgently. She grabbed my arms and I held her too. “Yes! It is! You’ve got it! You have to wake up! You have to get the others, your friends. I-I don’t know their names, I can’t- the- you have to- Please, Heather, please come help me! I’ve messed it up on purpose, see? I’ve put a back door in, for you! Please, please come get me!”

“S-slow down,” I managed.

I wanted to step away from the outline scratched in the plaster, as if it was the mouth of a creature we might inadvertently wake. It seemed to loom larger next to us.

Lozzie nodded and sniffed and squeezed her eyes shut before answering.

“You need to wake up,” she said. “Before you finish.”

“Before I finish … ?”

“Wake up!” she yelped. “Wake up, Heather!”

=

I woke up.

Standing, barefoot in the dark, my shadow cast upon the wall of Evelyn’s workshop by moonlight backwash.

Blinking sleep from my eyes, my hands covered with ink and paint, sticky between my fingers.

Took a step back and bumped into the table, groping for a chair. Looked up and felt my stomach twist at the hundreds of additions and corrections I’d made, to Evelyn’s work on the mural around the gateway, the doorway, the portal, in finger-painted equations and magic circles. Breath caught in my throat. Could barely breathe.

How had I gotten here?

Too stunned to run, I watched in numb fascination as the gateway opened.

It was a beautiful thing, a subtle ripple of matter, as if the plaster of the wall had been transmuted into water, then plasma, then air, and then pierced with the smallest pebble, so the shock wave passed outward in slow concentric rings.

The first ripple removed the plaster, replaced it with smooth, featureless black, a true void. The second ripple, moving an inch slower, produced shape, colour, light. The third ripple sharpened the image from a mere blur into crystal-clear reality.

A corridor stretched out beyond the doorway, brown and vaguely institutional. High ceiling. Pipes along one wall. Shiny floor.

The Tall Woman, the zombie, Zheng, in her trench coat and hood and scarf, stood just across the threshold.

I filled my lungs to scream.

She reached through the gateway and grabbed me by the head.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

conditions of absolute reality – 3.11

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Evelyn possesses, even at the best of times, a short and bitter temper. I believed I was familiar with her anger by now, directed at myself, at Raine, at her missing leg and crippled body, at the memory of her mother, at every trespass against her; she wielded anger as a cudgel against the indignities of life, and I had begun to find it charming in an obscure and difficult way.

I had never seen her this angry before.

She stared at Twil like she wanted to commit murder.

Perhaps the stress of making those phone calls had gotten to her, or perhaps she still felt guilt for lying to us about the experiment on Tenny, or perhaps – I wondered as my chest tightened – Twil turning up on our doorstep with her mother in tow really was a terrible transgression.

Twil cringed away from the look on Evelyn’s face. She half-raised her hands as if to ward off a blow.

“Evee,” Raine said in a soft voice. “Dial it back, yeah? Let’s be rational.”

I didn’t make a sound, silence born from a deep-rooted desire to avoid Evelyn’s blinding rage.

“Look,” Twil started. “Saye-”

“Well, Raine?” Evelyn hissed through her teeth without looking away from Twil. “Be rational. Shut the door.”

“Aaaaand what if those lovely, lovely people waiting in the garden decide to not go away?”

Twil slapped a hand on the door to hold it open. “Just hear my mum out, okay? She wants to talk to you because she wants to help, and-”

“I should never have let you in here, you idiot mongrel,” Evelyn hissed.

“Hey! Knock off the pissy attitude for five minutes, okay? I’m trying to keep this all calm, right? She wants to help.”

“You don’t have the slightest comprehension of what your mother is. Raine, shut the door.”

Twil growled low. “What the fuck is that supposed to mean, huh?”

Raine did not shut the door; she tensed up. She was still in post-bath clothes, tshirt and jogging bottoms, unarmed – until she unhooked her leather jacket from beside the door.

I stepped back, mind racing, seconds to defuse this. The last thing we wanted was a scrap in front of Twil’s mother, who may or may not be some kind of terrifying magician, or worse. Evelyn’s voice rose into a shouted insult and Twil growled louder.

“She can take her help,” Evelyn snapped, “and shove it up her rotten cu-”

I scooped my shoes off the floor, one in each hand, swung them wide and slapped the soles together as hard as I could.

Bang!

The first bang served only to raise the noise level; the second drew a flicker of attention from Twil; the third made Evelyn jerk and glare at me, and the fourth finally got Raine to look away from Twil’s centre of mass. She smiled at me in confusion. I stared at the ceiling and kept going well past the point at which this had ceased to be a good idea. When I stopped, they would expect an explanation. Nine, ten, my arms were getting tired. Eleven, twelve, my hands hurt. Thirteen, fourteen – stop.

“What the hell-”

“Not the time for this-”

Twil and Evelyn rattled on, so I gave them more shoe. Bang bang bang bang bang. Raine shot me a thumbs-up and shouted “Encore!”

I stopped again, they’d gotten the message. Evelyn’s glare had simmered down from murderous blinding rage to mere smoldering irritation, whereas Twil had lost the worst of her cornered-dog expression, puzzled by my antics.

“Right, well,” I said, sniffed, and took a deep breath. “Is there any rational, sensible reason we can’t go talk to Twil’s mum? Act like the adults we are supposed to be?”

“These are dangerous people,” Raine said. She shrugged and gave me an awkward grin. “For real.”

“But they’ve come to parley. To talk, yes? They’ve even waited at the edge of the garden, where we could do, well, anything to them. I think they know they’re threatening.”

“Of course they know it,” Evelyn almost growled through her teeth. She glared at Twil. “This is intimidation. Amateurs. I could have them where they stand.”

“Oi!” Twil barked. I talked right over her, trying to control the tremor in my voice.

“Then they don’t pose a credible threat to you? To us? Is this some weird territorial thing? Or are you mad because it’s Twil?”

Evelyn hesitated, shoulders sagging. Twil spread her arms in a what-did-I-do gesture.

“Do they pose a credible threat to us?” I repeated.

“ … no. Not here. Not on home ground. Unless the car is a bomb, or something equally stupid.”

“Twil,” I said, turning as politely as I could to her. “Is the car a bomb?”

“ … what are you on-”

“Yes or no. Please, Twil.”

“No.” Twil grimaced, offended and outraged. “It’s not a sodding trap.”

“I’d say I have pretty good reason to trust Twil’s word,” I said. “It can’t hurt to find out what her mother wants.”

“Twil wouldn’t be in on it,” Evelyn grumbled.

“No,” Raine mused. “No, she would have to be.”

“Yes, exactly,” I said. “Twil is almost definitely the most dangerous thing they’ve brought with them, and I don’t think she’s capable of faking being our friend. She’d have to be in on any plan they have.”

“Yeah, just talk about me like I’m not here, sure.” Twil rolled her eyes.

“You’ve sort of earned it this time,” I said to her. “I’m going outside to meet to your mum. Raine, will you come with me?”

“Yes ma’am. Right away, ma’am.”

“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Evelyn grumbled. She looked ready to spit. Instead she called into the depths of the house as she struggled into her shoes. “Praem! Here! Now!”

Praem took only seconds to appear, gliding on light footsteps. One or Two, I couldn’t tell. She was still in the same clothes as when she’d rescued me. Evelyn tapped Praem’s leg with her walking stick.

“Stay by me.”

Evelyn did not wait. She drew herself up to her full height, stood as straight as she could force her spine, and strode right out the front door. Twil scrambled aside then hurried to follow. Evelyn’s walking stick slammed down before her with each step.

Raine raised her eyebrows at me and mouthed a silent ‘well done’ as she shrugged her jacket on and patted the pockets. I shrugged, brief burst of confidence dissipating now Evee had taken charge. I felt embarrassed and silly with my shoes in my hands. I quickly slipped them on, light-headed and unsteady.

“Are you … ” I looked Raine up and down quickly. She was the only one of us three in a fit state to receive visitors right now. Evelyn and I were both members of the daytime pajama club today. “Are you armed?” I whispered.

She answered with a noncommittal turn of her head, halfway out the door.

“Really,” I said. “Maybe … leave it behind?”

“Not on your life, Heather. Literally.”

No time left to argue for caution and diplomacy; Twil and Evee were already halfway down the garden path. Raine offered me her hand, I took it, and she pulled the door ajar behind us as we stepped outside. Tenny brought up the rear, padding along in silence to find out what all the fuss was about.

I whispered to Raine from the corner of my mouth. “We need to have a word with Evee about her thing for Twil.”

“ … you’re joking?”

“Just a hunch.”

Evelyn halted at a careful distance from our two visitors, head held high, eyes unreadable, walking stick jutted forward a few inches like a weapon on display. Praem stood ready by her side, staring at a point in the far distance, hands folded as if demure and gentle. Twil looked ready to vibrate to pieces, opened her mouth but then thought better of speaking. Raine and I hurried to catch up before any of them put spark to tinder.

Twil’s cousin and mother did seem threatening, to my sensibilities, but I was biased after my experience with Alexander and the Cult.

The cousin was rather imposing, I’ll admit. Six feet of badly dressed muscle shown off in short sleeves, hairy forearms crossed over his chest. He must have been freezing without a jacket or jumper on. The rest of us were all wearing layers against the cold seeping down from the dark clouds. Performative macho stuff, I suppose. He had one of those soft doughy faces that couldn’t quite grow a beard, but the fuzz on his chin put up a good fight all the same.

Twil’s mother, on the other hand, was positively inviting. She wore a long patterned skirt and a shawl draped over her shoulders. Family resemblance shone through; she and Twil shared the same short, compact stature, the same sharp features and dark hair – shot through with long streaks of grey. That surprised me. So rare to see an older woman with undyed hair, age on display. Heavy crow’s feet crinkled the corners of her eyes from too much smiling.

She used one on us, a warm smile.

“Oh, four of you?” she said. “That’s more than I was expecting. I suppose I don’t need to guess which of you is miss Saye. I’m Christine Hopton, Twil’s mother, though I don’t doubt she’s already told you that. Shall we shake hands?”

Christine’s voice was soft and resonant; nothing like her daughter’s. She offered Evelyn her hand.

Evelyn stared at her, then down at the proffered hand. In the corner of my eye I noticed Raine reach inside her jacket – the cousin noticed too, watching her. He unfolded his arms. My heart clambered into my mouth, pulse hard in my throat.

“She’s not gonna trick you with a handshake,” Twil said through gritted teeth. “Come on, Saye, this is my mum.”

“Twil, dear, please?” Christine said.

Surely they all knew we couldn’t have a fight here, in the street outside a suburban house, no matter how run-down and empty the road was.

Why had I encouraged this? A stubborn belief in non-violent solutions? That hadn’t survived the coffee shop encounter. If Alexander had turned up in Evelyn’s garden I would have happily sicced Praem on him.

No, we were out here because almost a week after I had been nearly snatched off the street in broad daylight, we had done nothing. We had gotten nowhere. We hadn’t retaliated, we hadn’t made ourselves safer except by caution, we hadn’t even found the people responsible. I was being stalked and harassed and we were hiding away, stuck, waiting for the Cult to make their move. We’d ceded the initiative.

We needed help.

“I’m sorry I didn’t call ahead, or send a message with my daughter,” Christine was saying. “I assumed I would be rebuffed, for all the wrong reasons, so I thought it better to simply turn up, to show good faith. Please, miss Saye, may I call you Evelyn?”

“What are you doing in my city?” Evelyn hissed. She barely moved her lips.

“Your city?” Twil’s cousin rumbled.

“Ben,” Christine warned, ice running underneath her gentle voice. He shrugged.

“Leave,” Evelyn said. “Get out of-”

I jumped in, forced a smile I didn’t feel, and grabbed Christine Hopton’s hand. My body seemed to have forgotten how to do a handshake. “Hello! I’m Heather, and yes, you’re right, this is Evelyn. That’s Raine, she’s my girlfriend, and uh, that is a demon bound inside a wooden mannequin. We call her Praem. Also Tenny is wandering around over there, but none of you can see her.”

Christine stared for a heartbeat, then caught up and followed my lead, her smile very warm indeed. “Hello, Heather, a delight to meet you. Always nice to meet Twil’s friends.”

“Heather,” Evelyn hissed.

“What? What? I am being polite. It’s normal.”

“You are giving away every advantage we have.”

I stood up to Evelyn’s withering look, and reminded myself she was my friend. “Evee, I think if these people were here to assassinate you, they wouldn’t do it in full view from the front garden.”

Ben snorted a laugh and rubbed his chin. Raine made a thinking face. “Probably right,” she muttered.

“Indeed, we are at quite a disadvantage here,” Christine said. She raised her eyes to the front door we’d left ajar. “It is much like being before the maw of an unknown beast, deep in the jungle.”

“Right,” Ben grunted. “Said we shouldn’t be here.”

“Ben,” Christine warned. “I will make you wait in the car. I will. I will go in there alone.”

Ben cleared his throat and turned away,

“Better. So, Heather, and Raine, was it? I’ve heard about you from Twil. And this is … Praem?” Christine pursed her lips. “Yes, I can see now. She’s not really here, is she? She’s blue, as well. How strange I didn’t notice. And, Tenny?” She cast about a little and then looked to me for guidance. “Should I greet her too or is she … ?”

“I don’t think she pays much attention.”

“That’s quite alright, dear.” Christine smiled at us and gestured at Twil’s cousin. “This is Ben, my nephew, he’s just here to look after me. I’m sorry about his behaviour. And in the interests of full disclosure, we have a manifestation with us too, for safety, considering the state of Sharrowford right now. Though I do not know where it is exactly. I don’t share your gift, Heather.”

We all looked around, but of course I was the only one who could see the thing. Nothing on the street or behind the car; I thought she was bluffing – then I looked up.

Almost invisible against the background of dark grey cloud, size difficult to gauge, it bobbed in the air about twenty feet up, a mass of translucent spheres like soap bubbles, constantly sliding over each other in an endless process of rearrangement. As I watched, I realised that’s how it moved – it tracked itself through the air by moving each individual part over the other bubbles.

The motion was remarkably disgusting; watching made me feel queasy.

“Heather, what does it look like?” Evelyn asked

I told her, best I could make sense of the creature. “Nothing like any other spirits or Servitors.”

“Oh, it’s not a construct. None of us know how to do that.” Christine’s smile widened. “It’s a bud, or an angel, if you like, sent from our god.”

Evelyn narrowed her eyes, then looked slowly up and down the street.

“They’re alone,” Raine said. “I already checked.”

“Where’s your father, then?” Evelyn said to Twil. “You don’t expect me to believe this is it? Your mum and one dumb slab of muscle?”

Twil squinted a frown at her. “At work, duh. It’s the middle of the afternoon. We can’t all live like students.”

“Mm.”

“Now we’ve all been introduced,” Christine said, “please, miss Saye, hear me out?”

“What do you want?” Evelyn grunted.

Christine’s expression softened into a look I could only think of as motherly. “My daughter has informed me you are fighting a war. Alone.”

“None of your business. I don’t need charity.”

“Nevertheless, what happens in Sharrowford affects us in the Church of Hringewindla too. I’ve come to offer help, yes, but think of it as self-interest on our part, if you prefer.”

Church of what? I frowned, wanted to interrupt, ask her to repeat that word. I’d read Beowulf, swore that word sounded like Old English.

Evelyn stared at her for a long moment. I glanced at Raine but she just shrugged with her eyebrows, deferring to our mage, still unwilling to remove her hand from inside her jacket – on her gun? I swallowed, forced myself to reach out and take Evelyn’s free hand, and earned a sidelong glare for my trouble.

“We do need help,” I said.

“We-”

“Are you any closer to a solution?”

Evelyn said nothing and turned back to Christine. She let her eyes rove over the pair of them, over the car, down the street. “What does your tentacled friend think of them?”

“You mean Tenny?”

“Mm, good judge of danger, at least to you, isn’t she?”

Tenny was prowling along the edge of the garden wall, looking up at the floating bubble-monster as her tentacles stroked the grass and bricks and stray leaves. She seemed entirely unconcerned by Christine and Ben, these members of the Brinkwood Cult.

“I think she’s okay with them.”

Evelyn grunted, stared at Christine. “You touch nothing. You leave your phones in your pockets. You step out of line for even a second and my security will eat you alive.”

She extracted her hand from mine, turned on her heel, and marched back up the garden path with Praem in tow. I gaped after her.

“Well. Quite a young lady,” Christine said.

“I’m so sorry,” I said. “Please, um, do come inside.”

Twil grumbled in the back of her throat. “Total bitch, more like.”

“Twil. Language,” her mother said.

“Ahhhh, it’s fine.” Raine ruffled Twil’s hair. Twil squeaked and jerked away in surprise. “She’s not wrong, sometimes.”

Ben gestured for Christine to go first. She nodded a thank you and got a few paces down the garden path before he moved to follow. Raine stepped in front of him and held out a hand.

“Sorry mate, I think you’re staying in the car.”

“’Scuse me?” he said, unlimbering his hands. He towered over her, over all of us.

“What, you wanna square up?” Raine began to grin. My heart leapt into my throat.

“Raine!”

“Ben,” Christine said, measured and gentle. “There’s no need for that.”

Ben shook his head and let out a disbelieving laugh. “And what, you’re gonna go in there alone? No way.” He turned back to Raine. “Saye said-”

“I have a veto,” Raine said. “You ain’t coming in, mate.”

“And you’re going to stop me?”

Raine just grinned wider.

“Don’t-” I squeaked. “Please don’t give her an excuse. She’s not joking. She will, she really will.”

Ben frowned at me, then visibly relaxed and backed off, somehow without stepping away.

“Raine, stop playing guard dog,” Evelyn called from the doorway. “He comes in too.”

“But-”

“I want him where I can see him. Hurry up, before I change my mind.”

==

“This is such a lovely house, not at all what I was led to believe. And you three girls are living here together?”

“Trust me, mum, it gets plenty weird if you set a foot wrong.”

Twil’s judgement earned her a reproachful frown.

“Twil’s right,” Evelyn snapped.

The ex-drawing room was strictly off-limits, not only as Evelyn’s workshop but also due to the massive killer spider currently locked inside. The abandoned sitting room was full of dust and chicken-blood paint and probably esoteric trade secrets right now, so we all gathered in the kitchen, with the lights on full and mugs of tea all round, supplied by Raine’s quick thinking.

Evelyn and Christine sat opposite each other. I took a third chair, but scooted it back clear of the firing line. Ben stayed standing by the door, so Raine did the same, sipping her tea by the counter. Twil hovered near her mum. Praem took up station to one side of Evelyn, the very picture of a right-hand-woman. Tenny had floated back in, but she quickly lost interest.

Thankfully, the disgusting bubble-Servitor had stayed outside, contenting itself with floating over the house.

Evelyn stared across the table with all the stubborn, sullen power of a feudal ruler in the heart of her realm. She was, if nothing else, exceptionally well-protected in here.

I listened with rapt fascination, teetering on the edge of a world I still knew so little about.

“Led to believe?” Evelyn said. “By who?”

“By my late father-in-law, mostly,” Christine answered. “I think he had some contact with your grandmother, several decades ago?” Evelyn grunted, noncommittal. “This house – the Saye house – it’s been somewhat of a bogey man for us in the Church, for a long time. Bigger on the inside than outside, full of gates to other places, under the eye of monstrous guards, that sort of silly thing.”

“The last one is true.”

“Oh, yes, I suppose it is.” Christine glanced at Praem.

“You’re right to be afraid of me,” Evelyn said, level and emotionless. “Afraid of this house. Afraid of my family. Why take the risk to come here?”

Christine put down her tea and folded her hands together on the tabletop. “Because we took a vote, after Twil told us about what was happening, and I volunteered for the task of contacting you.”

Evelyn laughed softly. “Vote? Your cult votes?”

Cult?” Ben spoke up.

Christine closed her eyes briefly. “It’s just a word, Ben. Be quiet.”

“What does that mean though,” he rumbled. “Cult?”

Christine shot him a stern look; he shrugged and went back to his tea.

“We vote, yes, on certain matters. There are less than thirty of us, it’s more of an extended family than an open organisation. In this case, the vote was held between me, my sister, and my husband – our leading triumvirate. This isn’t the bad old days anymore, miss Saye. We’re not blood-soaked witches dancing in the woods and kidnapping children at the behest of an abusive old man.”

“Mum,” Twil hissed. “Don’t.”

“You were not there, dear. Hush now.”

“Why volunteer?” Evelyn asked. “Wanted to see the freak show for yourself?”

“No, not at all. Not only because this had to be done, but for personal reasons as well. The vote carried two to one. The one against was my husband. He thought it too dangerous, any contact with the Saye family too dangerous. I know a little of your family history, I know your mother is gone, you have no guidance, no gods, no outside help, and now you are fighting a war by yourself, against some very dangerous people.”

“Which I will win,” Evelyn said.

“Good. We in the Church would very much prefer you do win.”

She paused – a bait pause, for Evelyn to ask the follow up question, to begin a real dialogue. Damn, she was good at this. I could learn a thing or two.

It even worked. Evelyn raised a silent eyebrow.

“What happens in Sharrowford affects us too,” Christine continued. “Affects all of us in the Church. All who have been touched by Hringewindla. We cannot decamp to another place, flee to another part of the country if Sharrowford ends up under control of a hostile power. Hringewindla cannot be moved. We will be forced to defend ourselves, and will we likely lose.”

“Who-” I started, so excited and jittery I didn’t catch myself in time. Both women turned to look at me and I felt my cheeks flush. “May I ask a question?”

“ … you never have to ask me for permission,” Evelyn said.

“Right, well. Mrs Hopton-”

“Call me Christine, please. We’re not in school, dear.”

“Christine, then. That word you keep using, that’s Old English, right?”

She blinked at me several times in delighted surprise. “Why yes, it is. A very attentive mind on you, dear. Hringewindla is a self-chosen name, in simply the first human language our god encountered. Its own language is … difficult, for the human soul to bear.”

“It’s their name for their crippled Outsider,” Evelyn said.

“Hringewindla is not a cripple,” Christine said, in tone of gentle warning.

“It’s also not a god,” Evelyn snapped back.

Ben visibly bristled. I suppressed a flinch. He seemed far too big in this kitchen. He directed a dark frown at Evelyn, and failed to notice the way Raine’s body language had shifted into a threat response, her eyes flicking between his hands, the centre of his chest, and a point between his eyes. She flexed her fingers.

“If you have been touched by Hringewindla, as we have,” Christine said, “you cannot for a moment doubt the plain divinity of intent and form. It is a transcendent experience. If you choose not to respect that, well, I ask merely that you respect our religion, as you would any other.”

“Ha!” Evelyn barked. Christine took a deep, calming breath, and to my surprise Twil looked terribly embarrassed, grimacing and studying the view through the kitchen window. I suppose anybody would, hearing their own mother talk like that.

“Be that as it may, let’s not get too far into the weeds just yet. We too had a run in with the Sharrowford ‘Cult’.” Christine pronounced the word with great and exaggerated care. “Brotherhood of the New Sun, they called themselves. Quite an inventive name.”

“That’s right,” I said, nodding. “I remember that- that’s what … yes.”

“Twil told me what happened to you, dear. I’m so sorry for you.”

I shrugged. “I’m … fine now.”

She graced me with a smile, then turned back to Evelyn. “My sister, Twil’s aunt, is our most advanced … practitioner. Of all our family, she has spent the most time learning from our god. She visited Sharrowford by herself about three weeks ago. She was approached, aggressively so, and drawn into a similar situation as Heather here was. She escaped, but since then we have seen at least two suspect people in Brinkwood itself. We are being watched.”

I frowned. “Um, if you had trouble, why was Twil in the city?”

Christine sighed and adopted that unique mixture of disappointment, exasperation, and helpless acceptance that only the parent of a teenager could express. She glanced at her daughter. Twil shrugged, utterly mystified.

“Twil did not inform me where she was going. Twil believed herself immune to harm.”

“But I am,” said Twil.

“All teenagers think they’re invincible, dear.”

“I am though.”

“She did save me,” I said.

“Yes, and I’m very proud of her for that. She has a wonderful heart, especially for her age.”

“Mum!” Twil blushed terribly, then turned away and busied herself drinking her as-yet-untouched mug of tea.

“My daughter also informed me that what progress you are making against the ‘Cult’ is either slow, or running into troubles. That is why we wish to offer help. Why I want to offer help. It is much, much better for us, our Church, our god, if Sharrowford is held by friendly hands, or at least neutral hands, rather than the kind of people who openly engage in kidnapping, murder, and worse.”

Evelyn stared at her for a long time, with a perfect poker face.

“I don’t trust you, and I don’t like you,” she said eventually.

Christine smiled and frowned at the same time. “You don’t even know me, miss Saye. But we don’t have to be strangers.”

“You gave up your own daughter to a mage’s experiment. That’s everything I need to know about you.”

Oh.

Oh.

I winced, inside and out.

“That was a long time ago,” Christine said, measured and tight. “And Twil was unharmed.”

“Fuck you, Saye!” Twil barked.

“Twil!” Her mother barked much louder at her. “Language.”

“I think I’ve heard enough,” Evelyn grunted. She began to gesture a command at Praem.

I grabbed her hand, and hopped up onto shaking feet.

“Evee! Evee, I must talk to you outside in the corridor. Um, front room, I mean. In private. Sorry, sorry everybody,” I stammered and flustered, dragging Evelyn to her feet by sheer force of bluster and bluff. “Raine, entertain our guests for a moment. Won’t be a minute! Promise, right back! Yes!”

I didn’t wait for a response, pulling Evelyn along into the front room, past where Tenny lurked. Evelyn offered no complaint when I finally drew us to a halt, just inside the abandoned sitting room, well beyond of earshot. I wet my lips and found I was shaking; did I have the courage to say this?

“You could have been more forceful. Don’t show these people any fear,” Evelyn said, then sighed and smiled. “You could also have just whispered your council to me. Go on, out with it.”

“First off, she’s not your mother.”

We both froze, Evelyn with shock, I with fear.

“What-” she almost spat, then lowered her voice and squinted at me. “Heather, what?”

I took a deep breath and tried to keep my cool. “It doesn’t take a psychology degree to figure out what you’re projecting here. Whatever Twil’s mother did to her is not the same as how your mother treated you.”

“I’m … I’m not … I … ” Evelyn frowned hard.

“She’s not your mother. Don’t take that out on her.”

Evelyn huffed and gritted her teeth. “All right, okay, maybe I was … I don’t know. But that doesn’t make a lick of difference. I don’t want those people in this house a moment longer than necessary. That woman in there is barely human, Heather. She’s a walking agent for an Outsider.”

“And she’s offering to help us. The enemy of my enemy is my friend?”

Evelyn made a derisive snort. “We’re being baited.”

“What about Twil? Has she just been a ploy all along? I don’t think she’s capable of that. She’s sweet, but not the smartest.”

“Twil is sane and her soul is her own because she’s a werewolf, not in spite of it – it’s kept her out of the worst, because she’s dangerous. They probably keep her well away from their god. I may have to rethink her grandfather’s motives.”

“She’s … still offering us help, Evee.”

“We don’t need help.”

“You do need help!” I snapped, and finally all the pieces came tumbling into place in my mind. “Fine. Screw those people in there. Screw Twil.” Evelyn blinked at me in surprise. I put a hand to my mouth. “Goodness, I can’t believe I said that. Look, you do need help, from me and Raine. Between now and this morning, I’ve realised what you’re doing – you’re trying to do it all yourself. You said it this morning, you’re making no progress, you’re stuck, you can’t break the Cult’s extra-dimensional thingy. Forgive my lack of my proper terminology.”

“You … you don’t even know how to help.” Evelyn said, a little softer. “And Raine couldn’t do magic to save her life.”

“That’s not the only kind of help,” I hissed, and risked a glance back into the front room. Nobody had come looking for us yet. “Three heads are better than one. Let us in, Evee. Literally, let us in the drawing room, let us at the plan. Let Raine at the map, let me at the door-gate-portal thing, maybe I can do maths at it, I don’t know. It’s better than this. Let me help you.”

Evelyn swallowed, looked away and back again, struggling with words. “This isn’t your fight.”

“It so is,” I said. “I was kidnapped in the street. They tried to snatch me, in broad daylight. They’re stalking me everywhere I go. I killed a person, Evee. It is my fight now.”

“You- you shouldn’t-”

“And even if none of that had happened, you’re my friend. That means something. I’m still trying to figure that out, but I’m pretty sure that means this is my fight too.”

Evelyn really struggled. She pushed hard on all those psychological stumbling blocks her mother’s abuse had baked into her, the fight plain on her face. She managed a small, tight nod, then a deeper one, and then it all came out at once in a huge release of held breath.

“All right. Dammit, you’re completely right. I’ve been an idiot. Okay. Okay, Heather, okay. I get it. I get it.”

I smiled, and we shared an awkward hug. A very Evelyn hug, as I was coming to think of these, odd-angled and hampered by her twisted spine, but no less real.

She covertly wiped her eyes after we let go, and said, “So, what do we do about bright-eyed and enthusiastic in the kitchen?”

“Honestly, she doesn’t seem too bad? Apart from the weird god stuff.”

“Mm, exactly. You’ve really no idea what she’s trying to pull, do you? You can’t even guess?”

I shrugged. “Convert us?”

“In a manner of speaking.” Evelyn smiled a thin smile. “I can guarantee what this is all leading up to – she’s going to suggest I come talk to their Outsider, to solve my magical problem, and hope I’m stupid enough to do it.”

“So it can … ?” I frowned.

“It just wants more human minds to ride along with. You probably have to open up to it willingly, that’s why their cult is so small and stable. Subverting me would be quite the coup.”

I bit my bottom lip. “Okay, maybe you’re right, but also maybe you’re wrong.”

“It’s not worth the risk.”

“I’m not suggesting we risk going to their … thing.” I waved a hand. “I’m suggesting we hear them out. She might not be trying to bait you at all. Between Raine, Praem, your spiders, and, well, me, you’re incredibly well protected in here. Just listening to them isn’t putting you at risk, right? Correct me if I’m wrong. Can she do some weird mind-magic at you?”

Evelyn frowned and sighed. “No. No, she wouldn’t be able to do that. Keep a watch for their Servitor though, that might be dangerous.”

I nodded. “It didn’t come inside with them.”

“Mm. Hear them out?”

“If you let Christine into the drawing room, show her the map and the door, would any of that be dangerous?”

“No. Worst thing they could do is finish my own work.” Evelyn shrugged. “Get into the shadowside themselves. Which would help me, regardless if they get killed or not. If I show her the map, eh, I guess they could avoid them most dangerous parts of the city.”

“No harm in that, is there? Helping them avoid dangerous places?”

Evelyn frowned. “I suppose not. How about we make a bet, Heather?” Evelyn leaned toward me with a funny little smile on her lips, hunched over her walking stick. “She brings up talking to their god, I win. She doesn’t, you win.”

I smiled back, despite the gravity of the diplomacy. “You like gambling, don’t you?”

“A little, I admit. My father bets on horse racing. Doesn’t do very well.”

“We’ll have to make it fair though. Promise not to lead Christine into the idea of talking to her Outsider.”

“Promise. Fair and square.” Evelyn nodded seriously. “If you win, I’ll give you … five hundred pounds.”

My eyes popped out of my head. “What?!” I caught myself and glanced into the front room, then lowered my voice. “Evee, no, that’s so much money.”

“I can afford it.”

“I can’t. I-I’m sorry.”

“I’m not expecting you to. If I win, I’ll buy you an animal onesie, a … cat, I think, and you have to wear it for a whole day, on a weekday, to class and everything.”

I boggled at her, not sure if I was hearing this right. “E-Evee?”

“I’m deadly serious, Heather. I will hold you to it.”

“I-I’m not sure I can-”

“Put your money where your mouth is.” Her lips quirked with a concealed, dark amusement. “If you don’t want to, I can just shoo Christine and her muscle out the door.”

I sighed and frowned at her. “You have unexpected depths, Evelyn Saye.”

“This is what you have to deal with if you want to be my friend.” She shrugged, then broke into a smile – a real, big smile, one of the first and most genuine I’d seen on her.

“Oh all right. I’ll dress up as a cat for you, if that’s what you want. You’re not trying to make Raine jealous or something, are you?”

She laughed. “No, I suspect she’ll enjoy it much more than I will.”

I blushed. “Evee.”

“Right then, if we’re agreed, it’s time to go save Raine from having to play host.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

conditions of absolute reality – 3.10

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Spared a morning hangover by the thin mercies of biology, and with the worst of my mood lifted, Evelyn and I coaxed Tenny into the house.

We shared a strong pot of coffee, tucked away in the utility room as we waited for Tenny’s erratic circuit of the property to bring her into the overgrown back garden. Raine was still upstairs, soaking in a long bath and subjecting herself to a gruesome hangover cure by eating a pair of lemons.

When Tenny appeared, slinking along the perimeter of the sagging wooden fence, I walked out to speak with her. The sky glowered at all Sharrowford that morning, dark and gravid with the threat of rain. Heavy clouds were the only thing keeping the temperature up.

I was finally wearing my new pink hoodie again, feeling warm and much more like myself. It had been clean for a week, but only felt right again after the release of last night.

“Tenny, Tenny, over here. Here … here girl.”

I still felt ridiculous raising my voice to a creature only I could see, even in the seclusion of the back garden. Tenny stopped, turned, and came toward me. Good doggy. I think she liked the sound of my voice.

Her wounds showed as jagged rents in her tarry black flesh, holes and chunks bitten and ripped out of her. They’d been inching shut over the last few days, the edges trying to knit together. Her tentacles bobbed and waved like seaweed, but the severed ones were not regrowing, mere waggling stumps.

I almost choked up; she’d suffered those wounds to protect me.

I wasn’t afraid of her anymore, or disgusted.

Good doggy.

Parts of the house had to be systematically de-warded to allow her passage, a task which involved lots of paper sigils slapped on the door frames and Evelyn muttering entire pages of Latin at the junctions between walls. She’d locked the ex-drawing room to keep the downstairs Spider-servitor inside, like a big dog which might scare off a skittish stay.

Even with my vocal reassurances, and one jarring moment of unexpected hand-to-tentacle contact, Tenny still took almost an hour to approach the back door. She crept across the garden by my side, beneath the huge old tree swaying in the tortured wind. Evelyn watched from the back doorway. Raine reappeared with a damp towel draped over her shoulders, swigging from a sports drink. She couldn’t offer any help, except to stand around and look pretty, though she supplied plenty of peanut gallery commentary with her customary gusto.

“Safe? Safe? Safe?” Tenny repeated in that wet-mud voice, touching one tentacle-tip to my shoulder as we walked together across the uneven matted grass.

“Safe, yes.”

“She thinks it’s not safe?” Evelyn huffed. “It’s the safest place in the city.”

Once inside, Tenny seemed to relax – if a creature made of ectoplasm and soul-flesh could relax. She investigated corners, peered around doors, and turned her eyes on Raine and Evelyn as I directed them around her. I felt uncomfortable at the thought of them simply stepping right through her. She studiously avoided the ex-drawing room door; perhaps she could sense the Servitor inside.

The old sitting room, our intended destination, was located on the opposite side of the ground floor from the ex-drawing room. It lay abandoned and empty in a much sorrier state than most of the house.

No lovely piles of books here, no beautiful aged oak table, no eighties holdover appliances, just a trio of dusty armchairs, and a huge sofa which probably weighed as much as a dead elephant. About as comfortable to sit on, too. The carpet was a century old, worn down almost to the lattice-layer in places. The front end of the room was occupied by a pile of wooden storage crates and three dismantled vacuum cleaners, abandoned partway through some bizarre process of recombination.

“Meaningless,” Evelyn had said. “Probably something my mother was doing twenty years ago.”

Evelyn had spent all morning and some of last night prepping the old sitting room. She’d unrolled a huge piece of canvas across the floor, then painted a massive double-layered magic circle. This circle was twenty feet across and contained a miniature copy of itself in the very middle. For paint she’d used chicken blood cut with coal dust, applied with a brush taped to the end of a broom-handle, so she could do it herself without bending over or kneeling, both postures very difficult for her. I’d offered to work under her directions to save her the effort, but she’d insisted.

Evelyn hurried ahead of us to take up her station in the outer layer of the circle. I followed her into the old sitting room and Tenny drifted after me. Her tentacles explored the door frame, the storage crates, the feel of the carpet and the texture of the curtains. She padded around the edge of the room, satisfied this was indeed a safe place.

“I assume she’s in here now?” Evelyn asked.

“Yes, she’s right there.” I pointed. “Tenny, Tenny?”

Tenny waggled a clutch of tentacles at me. Evelyn stared at a point several feet to Tenny’s left, frowned, and sighed at the interlocking symbols and whorled designs of the magic circle.

“A swing and a miss?” Raine asked from the doorway. She started stretching her back muscles, hands reaching up against the top of the doorframe. “Got your wires crossed?”

Evelyn rolled her eyes. “No, it hasn’t worked, but that’s only the first stage.”

“How come I could see the big nasty gribbly Spider that one time? With a much smaller circle, less voodoo and all that?”

Evelyn shot her a bored, unimpressed look. “Don’t ask questions when the answer would hurt your brain.”

“Evee,” I scolded, gently as I could. “It’s a fair question. I’d like to understand as well, actually.”

Evelyn cleared her throat and frowned down at the circle. “Oh, I’m just winding her up. The Spider is a Servitor. Some theories say that means it’s made of different stuff. It’s embodied intention, whereas pneuma-somatic life is just life. I thought … oh, damn and blast, never mind what I thought, it was wrong.” She tapped the smaller magic circle with the tip of her walking stick and pulled an awkward smile to herself, forced and half-frozen. “She needs to stand here. Right here.”

“Evee, are you okay?” I asked.

“What?” She blinked at me. “Of course, of course I’m okay. I’m just tired, Heather. I’m very tired. I … here, right here.” She tapped the smaller circle again. “Then we can all see her.”

“You wanna make bet on that?” Raine asked, a carefully innocent look on her face.

“You’re on. Ten pounds.”

Raine blinked. “Oh. You’re, uh, confident.”

“You can’t back out on a bet,” I said, a smile on my face. “That one was your fault, Raine.”

Raine crossed her middle and index fingers on both hands and struck an action pose. I almost giggled.

“In the circle, if you please,” Evelyn said. “Just lead her right through it.”

“Um … Evee?”

“The circle is perfectly safe for you,” she said. “It’s not connected to anywhere, it’s not summoning anything, it’s entirely local. You can step over the lines, you can step on the lines, nothing will happen.”

“Okay. I’m sorry. My last experience with one of these wasn’t exactly positive.”

Manoeuvring Tenny to cross the two-foot wide inner circle became quite the task. Holding my hand out or calling to her didn’t work; she much preferred to cross the room by stalking around the edge, tentacles exploring the furniture and walls as she went, like a blind groping squid. I tried to explain to her what we needed, first out loud and then while holding the tip of one tentacle for mind-to-mind contact, speaking slowly and carefully so she might understand.

“Please, Tenny? Please?”

“Take your time, no need to spook her,” said Evelyn. “We have all day.”

“She’s not spooked, she doesn’t comprehend. I don’t even know if she understands me.”

In the end I led her by a tentacle, pulling ever so gently, the rubbery flesh uncoiling and stretching, my skin crawling at the gooey feeling under my hand. She stared with those huge glossy all-black eyes, dumb and blank, but she followed me onto the canvas step by slow step as I walked backward over the inner circle. Tenny placed one foot inside, then the other, tentacles trailing after her.

Evelyn gasped, sharp and short. Raine let out a low whistle.

“You can see her now?” I asked.

“That is one gnarly wee beastie,” Raine muttered.

“Yes, yes, it’s worked perfectly … perfectly.” Evelyn swallowed, visibly shaken, and stared at Tenny. “Well … well. I’d um … I’d thought you were exaggerating. About the tentacles, I mean.”

“I try not to exaggerate.”

“Still.” Evelyn gathered herself and took a deep breath. “Still. The possibilities this offers … ”

Tenny began to take another step forward, to leave the circle again. “Oh, she’s-” I let go of the tentacle. “Tenny, stay, stay girl. You-”

Suddenly her humanoid body halted at an awkward angle. Her tentacles bunched and flattened, right at the line of the inner circle, as if against a curved invisible wall.

The tentacles spread out, sliding and tapping across the surface of an invisible cylinder. She turned, tried to head back the other way, but her probing tentacles quickly found the limits of her prison, two feet wide.

“Evee!” I squeaked. “You didn’t say you were going to trap her in there.”

“Did I not? I explained this, all of this. And it’s not a trap, it’s like a cat carry box. You have to restrain the animal if you’re going to do surgery.”

“This thing helped save Heather,” Raine said. “You make a good mad doctor, sure, but don’t you play guinea pig with this thing.”

“She has a name, Raine. Please use it?” I asked.

“Sorry.” Raine raised both hands. “S’cute, you know, you giving cute names to gribbly monsters.”

“She’s not a monster. At least, I don’t think she is.”

Evelyn sighed and rolled her eyes, utterly exasperated with both of us. “I’m not Josef bloody Mengele. I told you, this for her own good. That’s why you need to stay here, Heather, keep her nice and calm.”

“You promise?” I asked – and instantly regretted the word, the lack of trust. “I mean-”

Evelyn frowned at me. Not the expected glare, the prologue of a snapped comment or a withering insult, but a flicker of uncertainty, almost guilt.

“I am trying to help,” she said, slowly.

“I’m sorry. I just … I’m paranoid. Sorry.”

“Don’t be,” she said, almost pained. “It’s fine. Let’s get on.”

Tenny didn’t seem to need a lot of calming down. I reached into the circle – no barrier to real flesh – and took hold of a stray tentacle-tip. She curled it happily around my hand and wrist, holding on gently.

“Safe? Safe?” she asked in her sucking mud-voice.

“Very safe,” I said, hoping it was the truth. “My friends are going to help you, okay? Just stay still for now, don’t worry, you’ll be out of there soon.”

“She spoke?” Evelyn frowned. “I didn’t hear a thing. Raine?”

“Nope, nothing here either.”

I explained. Evelyn then spent several awkward minutes attempting to hold the end of a tentacle, as Tenny flopped them about and explored the inner dimensions of the circle-pen. Evelyn’s fingers passed right through her, like trying to grasp thin air. I couldn’t quite express the trick.

“I’ve never had to think about it before,” I said. “You have to focus on believing it’s there, more than on touching it. It’s just … natural, to me.”

Evelyn grumbled and kept trying. She eventually established a brief hold with thumb and forefinger only, but apparently Tenny didn’t want to speak to her. Or perhaps had nothing to say.

“So much for communication.” Evelyn dropped the tentacle. She couldn’t see the pneuma-somatic tar-goo dripping from her own fingers. “I’ll get started, get a better look at those wounds. Keep her calm and relatively still, best you can. Must she touch every last surface like that?”

“I think she’s just curious. Seems to be in her nature.”

“As am I!” Raine announced. “When do I get a turn to play with her? She looks like she needs a good belly rub and some treats. You never were good with animals, Evee, no wonder she won’t warm up to you.”

Evelyn sighed and directed a withering stare at Raine. “When I am done. This is an important piece of research, and potentially medical care, not playtime with a pet.”

“That’s where you’re wrong, Evee. S’always playtime where I come from.”

Evelyn got down to work, pad of paper over one arm, chewing at her lower lip in concentration. Tenny seemed to understand what was required of her. She tried to cooperate at first, turning face-on as Evelyn sketched. Details of Tenny’s wounds filled the pad in pencil drawing, their positions, estimated size, shape, all noted down in neat handwriting. Counting her tentacles proved a strange obstacle; Evelyn listed six of them severed down to stumps and another two damaged or cut further up, but each count of the healthy tentacles resulted in a different number – fourteen, seven, twenty three, sixty five. We gave up after a dozen goes.

Raine stifled a laugh at the result on Evelyn’s pad, and even I had to smile. Evelyn wasn’t much of an artist.

“It’s not meant to look aesthetically pleasing,” she said. “It’s a reference.”

“A reference to your terrible skills, maybe,” said Raine.

Evelyn glared and pointed with her pencil. “Go. Kitchen. Fetch me a drink. And get Heather some coffee.”

“I’m fine,” I said.

“Get her some anyway.”

Raine returned with coffee, juice, and hastily assembled bacon sandwiches – two for her. She seemed to need it this morning, along with downing prodigious quantities of water and energy drink. I didn’t blame her after last night’s vodka consumption. At least she wasn’t clutching her head or calling for silence. She held a plate next to me while I ate, so I could hang onto Tenny’s tentacle as Evelyn worked around us.

A third magic circle began to take shape under Evelyn’s slow and meticulous brushwork, in that revolting combination of chicken blood and coal dust. She propped her notebook open on the nearby sofa, glancing at it and mumbling under her breath as she added the jagged lines of a interlocking double pentagram, the angles cupped by Latin commands.

“This is all so riveting,” Raine said after a mouthful of bacon and brown sauce. “Can’t we play hide and seek with her, or at least fetch?”

“Nobody is making you stay,” Evelyn drawled.

“I am,” I said. They both looked at me. “What?”

Evelyn smirked and went back to her painting. Raine turned away to hide a similar look.

“What?” I demanded.

“She’s got you wrapped around her little finger, Raine.”

Excuse me?”

Raine laughed. “I know, right? I love it.”

“I have not!” I whined. “Our relationship is completely not like that. Evee!”

“I’m only calling a spade a spade.”

I fumed silently, unwilling to let myself get peevish while trying to keep Tenny calm.

Evelyn straighted up and propped the broom-handle brush against the wall, then nudged the low dish of blood-mix-paint away from the canvas. “Right. Both of you step away, I don’t want to burn your eyebrows off.”

“Burn? Is this safe for Tenny?”

“I have complete control and understanding of everything here.” Evelyn swept one hand to indicate the magic circles. She made very pointed eye contact with me. “I am neither going to invoke an unexpected effect, not allow a runaway process. I can promise you that.”

I nodded. “Okay. I-I’m sorry, Evee. I don’t mean to doubt you.”

She swallowed, broke eye contact, and turned away with obvious discomfort. “I understand. Please step out of the circle, let me work.”

I turned to Tenny, for all that she seemed to understand me. “I’ll be right back. Be good now.”

Her tentacle slipped out of my hand. At first she tried to follow, bumping her head off the barrier, but then she returned to her never-ending process of exploring the inner dimensions of the invisible cylinder. The sight tugged at my heart. I’d never had a pet, but I think I understood now. Evelyn stepped up to the edge of the outer circle and cleared her throat.

Icito alacritas.”

Nothing happened.

“Wish I’d bet on that one instead,” Raine said.

“Wait for it,” Evelyn murmured.

“Eh?”

“Wait for it.”

One glance at her told me everything was not as it seemed; this was suddenly all very wrong. Evelyn was holding her breath, jaw clenched, knuckles white on her walking stick. Cold realisation settled in my gut.

“Wait for what?” I asked. “Evee? Wait for what? What’s going to happen? Evee!”

Evelyn swallowed hard. She refused to look at me. “ … I’m sorry, Heather.”

Tenny’s flesh began to smolder, steaming and smoking, as if her pneuma-somatic body burned with unseen internal fire. She went still and stiff, tentacles suddenly all straining at the invisible barrier. Panic shot through me. I took one step toward Tenny before Raine threw her arms around my waist to hold me back.

“No! Let me- no!”

“Evee!” Raine yelled. “Turn it off!”

Evelyn wouldn’t look at either of us. She shook her head.

Tenny exploded into motion, tentacles whipping and slapping against the invisible wall, body thrashing, human hands scraping at the circle’s barrier. She twisted and kicked and went down in a heap on the canvas, jerking and flopping, huge clouds of thick black steam rising from her body and vanishing as they touched the ceiling. She was being boiled away.

I went limp in Raine’s arms, staring with horror at my faithful spirit. “Wha- what … I … ”

“Evelyn, you call this shit off right now,” Raine said. “I swear I’ll pick you up and-”

“Shut up!” Evelyn snapped, stamping her walking stick on the floor. “Shut up and watch.”

I did not have to be told; I couldn’t tear my eyes away.

The great billowing clouds of black steam ran thin and finally guttered out. Relief filled my chest as Tenny curled back into a standing position, nothing like a human being getting up. She flowed to her feet and stared at Evelyn, then at me, and then her tentacles fanned out to resume tapping at her prison walls once more, as if nothing had happened.

Evelyn let out a huge shuddering breath. She almost laughed, a low, hesitant, half-hysterical sound as she cast about. She didn’t seem to know what to do with herself. She wiped her mouth on the back of one hand, and sat down quickly on the huge uncomfortable sofa. Her eyes flicked to Tenny.

“You pass, little ghost,” she said.

“I think that means she’s alright,” Raine offered. “She is alright, isn’t she, Evee?”

Evelyn nodded. She stared at the floor, taking deep breaths and rubbing at her hips. I watched Tenny for a moment until I was satisfied she wasn’t going to keel over and expire.

“I … I thought you said this was safe,” I managed.

Evelyn puffed out an utterly humourless laugh and shook her head. “I think you will find I never said it was safe for her.”

“You mean you lied, on a technicality, by omission. Evelyn, I can’t believe this.” I found I was almost shouting, a lump in my throat. I forced my voice down. “Are you absolutely sure you haven’t hurt her? She’s-”

“Completely fine,” Evelyn said. She reached forward with her walking stick to bunch up part of the canvas and rub away some of the pentagram. “Look closely. Should be some fresh regenerative growth in her tentacles.”

She was right; Tenny’s stubs showed knobbly regrowth at the tips, glistening and shiny. Less than an inch, but it was a start. Tenny waggled them at me when I approached.

“Can we at least let her out now?”

“Of course, of course, yes. Just scrunch up part of the canvas to break the circle, it’ll collapse the field. Raine and I won’t be able to see her anymore, but I might have a permanent solution to that soon enough.”

“Um … break the circle, right.”

“I’ll do it,” Raine said. “Anything jumps out at me, I’ll put it in a headlock.”

Raine folded part of the canvas over on itself. Tenny didn’t pounce at anybody but she did leave the inner circle very sharpish. She touched my shoulders and the back of one hand with her tentacles, then returned to her prowling route around the walls, a curious animal stuck on some long-forgotten routine.

I turned on Evelyn.

“What if you’d lost control? Evee, what if you’d made a mistake? That- that looked like it could have killed her, you … ”

Evelyn met my eyes, somehow sad and defeated. She spoke very softly. “I would not have lost control.”

“But what if you had?”

“It took very little control. That was incredibly easy, pretty much out of my hands once I spoke the words.”

“It … it didn’t look … ”

“I intended it to be lethal.”

I gaped at her, lost for words.

“Trojan horse?” Raine murmured.

“Exactly,” Evelyn admitted. She flexed her back, popping compacted vertebrae and wincing. “That spell was potentially lethal – if our mysterious tentacled friend was anything other than what she appeared to be. Trojan Horse, walking time bomb, demon in disguise, whatever, it would have boiled her like a lobster in a pot. I didn’t tell you because you wouldn’t have agreed. Measures had to be taken. As she is what she appears, she is unharmed.”

I cast about for help and shrugged uselessly, betrayal burning in my chest. “Why can’t you simply tell me these things? You’re still treating me like I’m … an idiot. A child.”

“She’s got a point there, Evee,” Raine said. “I feel a bit sore too.”

“You’d been in direct mind-to-mind communication with the thing, exposed, in contact, possibly subverted without knowing it. She began speaking to you on the very same day, the very same hour that the Cult tried to kidnap you.” Evelyn’s voice rose in sour certainty, snapping and biting off her words. “I have not been exactly well predisposed toward her. She has, in fact, been at the top of my list of potential vectors for the Cult stalking you.”

“Why couldn’t you just tell me?” I spread my arms. “Because you’re the big bad scary magician? You have to do everything alone? You don’t have to! You-”

“If I’d told you,” Evelyn barked over me. “And she was something else, then she might have gotten it out of you. Or detonated. Or done God alone knows what. Put you in danger. I’m not going to apologise, dammit, I’m not. It was a necessary deception. I will not allow some Outsider to hollow out your head because I dropped my guard.”

I swallowed and half-turned away, hurt – but not confused. I hated to admit it, burning with indignation and insult, but Evelyn was right. I would never have agreed to this, and if my good little spirit had been a demon or a Trojan Horse, she would have gotten it out of me, very easily.

“I will not apologise,” Evelyn repeated. “But I will-”

“Hey, Evee, maybe drop it for now,” Raine said softly. “I think we’re all a bit-”

“I don’t want an apology!” I snapped out at nothing, at the world. “I get it, okay? I get it. I just feel … small and vulnerable and useless again. Kept in the dark.”

“We’re all in the fucking dark,” Evelyn said. To my surprise, I heard her breath catch in her throat. “All right, fuck it, I’m sorry.” She swallowed hard, sniffed, and controlled herself with a visible act of pure willpower. “The whole reason I did this is because I’ve been getting nowhere, absolutely nowhere. No progress, no ideas, no leads – I can’t crack the Cult’s extra-dimensional bullshit, I can’t finish building that door, I can’t even find the bloody people who tried to snatch you. It’s like none of them exist. Grasping at straws. I thought Tenny, maybe, she might be the vector for the Cult stalking you, at least I could figure that out, trace her back to them. I can’t even stop these vermin from harassing my friend.”

She ended in a shouting rant, a long intake of breath, and her face in her hands.

“It was necessary,” she said to the floor.

Raine held my shoulder with a gently restraining hand. Perhaps she believed she was holding me back from more anger, from snapping at Evelyn, from digging us all deeper. Nothing could have been further from the truth. I frowned at Raine and shrugged her hand off, then went to sit down on the sofa next to Evelyn.

“Evee. Evee, look at me.”

“Mm,” Evelyn grunted.

“Evee, for pity’s sake.” The aftermath of anger lent me a little brash courage; I awkwardly peeled one of her hands away from her face, to expose her guilty, battered expression.

“You can say whatever you want, I know, I’m-”

“I don’t want necessity to make monsters out of us,” I said.

“That’s what magic does.”

“No. This is going to sound crazy and probably technically wrong, but I think you should have told me. You’re not in this alone. You’re not under siege alone. If Tenny had been a … Trojan Horse, we could have dealt with it together, because I trust you. Or, at least, I want to.”

Evelyn sniffed and looked at Raine for help.

“She’s got you dead to rights there,” Raine said.

“Look.” I sighed. “You’re so afraid of becoming like your mother – and no, I don’t know all the details – but I can add up the pieces. I’m not going to let you be something you don’t want to be. Next time something like this happens, you tell me. We’ll deal with the consequences together.”

Evelyn nodded slowly. “I’m … I’m sorry, Heather.”

“Good. I forgive you.”

She grimaced and looked away sidelong, at nothing. “You shouldn’t say that.”

“Accept my forgiveness or I shall … bloody well slap you one,” I said. Evelyn quirked a frown at me. Raine laughed. I huffed. “Well, it’s not like I have much else in my toolbox of persuasion.”

“Your ultraviolence is rubbing off on her, Raine,” Evelyn muttered.

“Oh, no.” Raine mock-frowned. “Don’t say that, she’d be lethal.”

Evelyn accepted my forgiveness with an awkward nod and a mumbled word. She sighed and leaned back, the worst of her self-loathing dropping away in layers of stress and tension. “I’m surprised,” she said. “Lying made me feel awful. I’m quite good at that, you know, when I want to be. Had to be. But it’s never made me feel so … ” She trailed off and shrugged. “I need a bath.”

“I hate to stir the pot again, but none of that explained why you didn’t tell me,” Raine said.

“You expect me to believe you’d have kept that from Heather? You two share bodily fluids without provocation, let alone secret plans.”

They both fell quiet, and after a moment I realised they were watching me watch Tenny. I blushed in a moment of intense self-consciousness, and almost gave in to the urge to shelter my face with one hand. “Don’t. That feels weird.”

“I like making you feel weird.” Raine grinned.

“Shut up.” Evelyn tapped her on the back of the knee with her walking stick, which drew a mock-yelp from Raine as she hopped out of range. “We’ve done all we can for … ‘Tenny’, I think. Those wounds don’t seem to be causing her any distress.”

“I don’t know if she can show distress,” I said.

“Mm, quite. Unfortunately, I’ve still no idea what she is.” Evelyn frowned. “You’re quite sure she called you master?”

“Yes, absolutely. She used that exact word, twice, definitely in reference to me.”

“Maybe she just took a liking to you,” Raine said. “I can get behind that.”

“That’s very flattering, but not everybody thinks like you, especially not about girls like me. If they did, the world would be a slightly odd place.”

“A better place. Except for all the competition I’d have.”

“It’s as good a guess as any, at this point,” Evelyn muttered.

“But you never know about the tastes of a tentacle monster, right?” Raine looked around as if she could still see Tenny, who was now nosing along the far wall. “Absolutely disgusting, but mega cool. And she … slorp, with the tentacles, right?” Raine mimed the moment I’d told about her, Tenny defending me. “Wish I could have seen that.”

“I hope you never have to.”

“Well yeah, she won’t need to do it again, because I’ll be there.”

“And she’s not disgusting,” I said. “She’s kind of cute.”

Cute?”

Even Evelyn gave me a doubtful side-eye.

“Yes, cute. Maybe I’m just imprinting favourably because she saved me.”

“Am I cute?” Raine asked.

“ … do you even have to ask that? Let’s not talk about that right now.”

“Hmmmm.” Raine squinted one eye and pulled a thoughtful face, then performed a theatrical turn toward an imagined adversary – Tenny was nowhere near the target of Raine’s exaggerated look. “Seems like you and I need to have a serious talk, Tentacle Lady.”

“Tch, Raine.”

“No, I’m serious. I need to thank her, for rescuing you, then make it crystal clear you’re mine.”

I rolled my eyes. “Raine, I’m not going to get seduced by a blob monster.”

“Just gotta make clear who’s boss here. Establish dominance. As long as we understand each other, right Tenny?”

Tenny actually reacted to that last one, staring at Raine. She pulled a double-loop with a bunch of tentacles and wiggled them up and down, then turned back to examining cracks in the wall.

“What?” Raine saw the look on my face. “What did she do?”

“I … I’m not sure. I think she may have laughed. Maybe.”

Raine threw her arms in the air and whooped. “Universal language!”

Evelyn paid no attention to our antics. She sat forward with her chin in her hands, back badly bent, focused on the Latin inscriptions and repeating whorls of her magic circles, eyes far away.

“Evee.”

“Mm?” She looked up.

“Could the Cult have sent her, somehow?”

Evelyn studied me for a long moment, half bent-up like some sluggish, unblinking bear fresh from hibernation. She sighed and shook her head with a grimace. “That’s what I thought, but no. She’s not a Servitor, she’s far too complex for that. She appears to be a completely ordinary spirit, which means she either is – or she’s so advanced I can’t tell the difference. It’s almost as if … as if she’d been trained. Or raised? Domesticated.”

A lost memory snagged in the back of my mind.

“She said a name.”

“What, just now?”

“No, no, when I was in the alleyway, or … in the bookshop?” I frowned down at my hands, digging for memory. “I must have forgotten about it in all the panic afterward. She said a name. She said somebody had sent her … no, told her? Told her to get me out, get me out of there. Lozzie. That was the name.” I looked up at Raine and Evelyn’s mystified faces. “Lozzie.”

“Lozzie?” Raine repeated.

“Short for Lauren,” said Evelyn, shaking her head. “I don’t know any Laurens.”

“I’ve known a few, but none of them relevant. Secret admirer?” Raine cracked a grin.

“I know of no mages by that name. Doesn’t mean a thing, of course. Could be false, a fake, throw us off a scent. A red herring.” Evelyn’s eyes went down to her maimed hand, frowning hard.

“Mean anything to you, Heather?” Raine asked. “Somebody you used to know?”

“I feel as if I’ve heard it in passing, but … no.”

Lauren. Lozzie? The memory of a dream teased on the tip of my tongue, a ghost lurking in the depths of my memory.

We asked Tenny. All three of us, while I held a tentacle for the answer – but she didn’t want to tell us anything. At the sound of that name – Lozzie – she pulled her tentacle out of my hand and resumed her unfathomable routine. We attempted another two times, my only answers blank stares and mind-silence.

“Not exactly a rare name, Lauren,” said Raine. “Real popular about thirty years ago, if I remember right. A cover, maybe?”

Evelyn stood up suddenly, teeth locked together, brow furrowed. She marched halfway to the door, then turned back and got halfway to the sofa again before halting. Her expression was exactly the one she might adopt if forced to eat excrement.

“God, I really do not want to do this,” she hissed.

“Evee? Oh.” Raine smiled a grim smile.

“What? What is it?” I asked.

“She’s gotta make some phone calls.”

“Oh, don’t make it worse than it already is,” Evelyn snapped, then focused on me. She waved a hand vaguely at the rest of the room. “A trained, raised spirit, like a hound? Somebody sent her. To Sharrowford, to me, to you, I’ve no idea. No idea at all.” She almost spat, furious.

“I can do it,” Raine said. “Gimme your phone. Lemme help.”

“Don’t be absurd.” Evelyn stomped toward the door. “We’ll do it together. In the kitchen. At least we can get out of this dust hole and have some tea.”


==


Evelyn’s mobile phone lay on the kitchen table before her, next to a second steaming mug of tea. She’d drained the first so quickly I’d feared for her throat, but she didn’t seem to feel the scalding heat. She stared at phone’s dimmed screen, open on a sparse contacts list.

“I can do this for you, just say the word.” Raine leaned against the fridge. I sat at the table, slowly nursing my own cup of tea. Tenny lurked in the doorway, more interested in the front room.

“I assume these people you’re going to speak to are other mages,” I said. “You’re not calling your dad or something?”

Evelyn’s eyes flicked to me. I felt a trickle of guilt, smothered beneath a tsunami of fascinated curiosity.

“Other mages. Yes.”

A wider world, beyond Sharrowford’s sordid little conflicts and bizarre happenings. Other mages. Other people like Evelyn?

People like her mother?

I didn’t need to wonder why she felt uncomfortable.

I reached over and took her hand, her maimed hand, the one she’d grabbed me with when she was sucked Outside. She blinked, surprised at the sudden intimate finger-locked contact, and nodded a silent thanks. We didn’t need words.

“The two people I’m about to call both tried to kill me, in the aftermath of my mother’s death,” she said.

Raine opened her mouth; she didn’t get past the intake of breath; Evelyn silenced her with a raised finger and a glare.

“They did,” Evelyn said. “I know what you’re about to say, and they did try. You scared Aaron off just by being you, that’s why you think he’s harmless. Fliss, I said some things to her you never heard, things I will not repeat. Either of them would have put me in a shallow grave.”

Raine smiled in defeat and raised her hands. “Aaron wouldn’t hurt a fly. Last I checked he’s a pacifist vegan, works for a charity. Fliss, yeah, I’ll give you that, she’s … odd.”

“She’s a sociopathic pederast demonophile.”

Raine shrugged. “Just trying to be diplomatic.”

“These sound like reasonably scary people.” I sighed in exasperation. “Why can’t you have a nice friendly mage who wants to, I don’t know, magic ice cream out of thin air? Are they always like this?”

“Mostly,” Evelyn grunted. “All right, I’ve had enough tea, my back teeth are floating.”

She switched the phone to speaker and placed the first call. Soft ringing filled the overcast dark of the kitchen, the phone a patch of brightness on the shadowed table. Clouds sat fat and grey in the sky beyond the window.

A click and a buzz – call answered. Background noise, chatter, a busy place. A lively male voice piped up, full of amusement, open and friendly even over the artificiality of the phone connection.

“Hello hello, who’s this calling me then, hey?”

“You know who it is,” Evelyn said, staring at the wall with her arms folded. “Hello, Aaron.”

“And a very good afternoon to you as well, young lady. Caught me on my lunch break, you did, but I’d have made time anyway. Haven’t heard from you in well over a year, Evelyn. How’s-”

“One question. That’s the only reason I’m calling. Answer it truthfully or I’ll send an Outsider to kill you in your sleep.”

Aaron started laughing, a real laugh, a little derisive, exactly as a normal person might react to such a threat delivered via phone call. “Evelyn, Evelyn, you always were over dramatic. What’s the matter, hey? Do you need-”

“I think she’s serious, Aaron,” said Raine. “Hi, by the way.”

Aaron went quiet. Background noise filled the call. Raine raised her eyebrows and spread her arms, surprised at the power of her own voice. I nodded, had to admit, that was pretty obvious.

“Oh, uh, hi, Raine. Hi. Glad to know you two are still close,” Aaron said.

“Did you or did you not send something to Sharrowford?” Evelyn asked.

“Send something? No, no, I’ve not sent anything your way, nothing at all. Swear it, serious, I wouldn’t wind you up on this.”

“Goodbye, Aaron.”

“Hey, you do believe me, right? I wouldn’t-”

Evelyn killed the call.

“He was telling the truth,” Raine said instantly. “Also, wow, he really is scared of me, isn’t he?”

“Told you so.”

“And here I thought he was actually sort of a nice bloke.” She shook her head, mystified.

The second call went unanswered. Twenty seconds, thirty seconds, a full minute of ringing. Evelyn hung up and tried again. And again. And again.

“Who doesn’t have voice mail these days?” I wondered out loud.

“Felicity uses a landline. No reception out in her rotting manor house.”

“Manor house?”

“Long story, never go there,” Raine said. “For serious.”

“Pick up, you evil bitch,” Evelyn muttered.

Click. Line connected. Dead silence on the other end.

“Felicity? It’s Saye.”

Silence crept from the phone, like black waves, filling the room.

“Is that you or your pet?” Evelyn asked.

“Pet? Is that what you think I am?”

The voice from the phone was not remotely human. A nightmare approximation of young girl, squeezed through sulphur and darkness, high and giggling. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up.

“I’d take offence if you weren’t so easy to tease,” it rattled on. “My little beurre sucré. Bet you thought I’d forgotten all about you, didn’t you? You-”

Evelyn slapped a hand over the phone’s speaker. She rolled her eyes and waited for the sound to stop, then removed her hand.

“Evelyn? Evee? Evee?” A different voice was asking, low and soft, a hushed half-mumble. “Are you still there? Evee? Please-”

“Yes,” Evelyn hissed

“It’s me, I’m sorry about that. I was napping, she got to the phone first.”

“I have a problem,” Evelyn snapped. “Are you the cause?”

“Never. For you, never. Can I help?”

“No.”

A long, long pause.

“Goodbye, Felicity.”

“Be safe, Evee.” A small choke entered Felicity’s voice. “Can I see you-”

Evelyn killed the call with a jab. Her shoulders shook ever so slightly. More history lurked here than I’d imagined, dark things or tender things, things I didn’t know how to touch.

“You holding up okay?” Raine asked.

“I’m fine.” Evelyn huffed. “That’s the worst of them. I suppose I could call Gabrielle too, she’ll probably offer to post us a cake, or something equally as stupid.”

Raine’s phone went off and made us all jump. She laughed at herself and fished it out of one pocket, then frowned at the screen.

“It’s not her calling back, is it?” Evelyn’s voice dripped with contempt. “I just blocked her again. She doesn’t even have your number.”

“Nope. It’s our friendly neighbourhood shape-shifter.” Raine answered the call and tried to say hello, cut off instantly by agitated werewolf. “What? Twil, slow- what do you mean, you’re outside? Yeah, we’re all here. What are you up to? Oh.” Raine lowered the phone. “She hung up.”

A loud, polite knock sounded at Evelyn’s front door.

We all shared a look. Evelyn rolled her eyes and muttered something about Twil’s irredeemable idiocy.

“I’ll get it.” I stood up, wanted to stretch my legs anyway, get out of the gloom and claustrophobia in this kitchen, with these dark words and dark thoughts. A dose of Twil might be exactly what we all needed right now.

“Tell her to go away,” Evelyn called, not entirely sincere.

Raine followed me into the front room, of course. In the back of my mind I was dimly aware this might be serious, another chapter of panic and madness to add to the last few weeks. I hung back and quashed my frustration as Raine stepped forward to unlock the door. Twil was standing on the doorstep, with an awkward smile on her face.

“All right, you two?” Twil said by way of greeting. “Uh, can I have a word with Saye?”

Twil was utterly incapable of concealing even the mildest of emotions, let alone the deep discomfort and social anxiety written all over her body language. She looked like a dog about to be put through a degrading training session. In addition to her usual big coat and white hoodie, she wore warm fingerless gloves and a scarf, with her great mass of dark hair tucked down the back of the coat.

“Hi Twil!” I said, bright as I could manage. I’d come to rather enjoy the sight of her. More positive imprinting after she’d rescued me, I guessed.

“All right, yeah.” Raine frowned past her, missing nothing.

Twil had not come alone.

A great big four wheel drive was parked in the road, sides splashed with mud. Two figures stood at the end of the garden path, this side of the wall, inside the property boundary – the supernatural boundary too, if spirit behaviour was anything to go by.

One was a tall man with close-cropped hair and muscles like he knew his way around a gym. The other was a short tidy older woman who shared an unmistakable family resemblance with Twil. She had her hands folded demurely before her, waiting patiently as she watched Twil on our doorstep.

“I see you’ve ignored my request.” Evelyn thumped across the front room to glare daggers at Twil.

Twil grimaced like a beaten dog. “I’m sorry, Saye- Evelyn, I mean. I told them you wouldn’t like this. That’s why I came too, please don’t go out there and get violent. Please.”

“Nobody is going to get violent,” I said. A gut reaction. Twil nodded at me.

“Yeah, thanks. Listen to big H, yeah?”

“‘Big H’?” Raine grinned. “What?”

“Uh, Heather.”

“Who are they?” Evelyn asked, voice flat and hard. She stared past Twil at the pair waiting at the end of the path.

“Uhhhh.” Twil looked like a deer in headlights. She pointed vaguely over shoulder. “That’s my cousin, Ben, and um, my mum.”

“Your mother.”

“Yeah, my mother. Yeah.”

Evelyn’s gaze swivelled back to Twil.

“High Priestess of the Brinkwood Cult, your mother?”

Twil winced. “Please don’t get violent. She’s my mum.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

conditions of absolute reality – 3.9

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

The very next morning I moved in for real.

Raine wouldn’t let me go anywhere alone. I didn’t want to, anyway. I’d barely slept that night, ragged with adrenaline, chased by aftershocks of paranoia, plagued by incessant throbbing pain in my diaphragm. I finally conked out from sheer exhaustion after midnight, snuggled up to Raine to keep the dark at bay.

We used her rickety car to empty my flat. Truly empty it, as per Evelyn’s emphatic instructions. Clothes and books shoved into plastic carrier bags, university notes and course paperwork jammed into my little-used backpack, my laptop wrapped with jumpers and hidden in a sports bag alongside my few valuables. Toiletries, kitchen utensils, mugs, everything of mine. Raine even pulled the sheets and sad flat pillow off my mattress.

“A strand of hair for a voodoo doll is not quite accurate, that little won’t matter. Shouldn’t matter,” Evelyn had said, earlier that morning, when we’d gathered around the kitchen table. “But we don’t want them getting anything that belongs to you. Anything with a strong emotional connection.”

“Why? What could they do?”

She’d shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“Better safe than sorry,” Raine had added. “And better now than later. Let’s get it done.”

The sum physical total of my life seemed small and pathetic in the back of Raine’s car. A few bags, not enough to fill the boot. I didn’t even have that many books, not ones I really owned. At least this way I’d finally be adding myself to the house, with Raine and Evelyn, a true accepted part, but as I stood by Raine’s car and glanced back at the impassive grey block of flats, I wished this had happened in any other way.

“Don’t tell me you’re actually going to miss this place?” Raine asked. She was leaning on the roof of her car with the door open, ready to leave.

I shook my head. “Not in the slightest. Horrible impersonal box. We’re not meant to live alone in concrete cells.”

“I’m sorry, Heather.” She swallowed, a tiny catch in her voice. “I’m sorry I made you stay here longer than you had to. I should have had you at the house from the word go. I should have been there-”

“Don’t,” I said, a little too hard. “We’ve already been over this. It was my fault.”

Raine opened her mouth again but thought better of arguing. Her confidence and her smile flowed back by easy degrees. “Ready to go, then?”

“Suppose we shouldn’t stay out in the open for too long, hmm?”

“Heather, I’m right here with you. You are always safe.”

“I know, I know. I’m sorry I said that, I … I feel normal, I guess. I’m just being bitter.” I shrugged. The shock had worn off, normality had reasserted itself. Wasn’t I supposed to be a flinching sobbing mess? I’d almost been kidnapped. How was this meant to feel?

“You can always tell me if you-”

“Let’s go. Let’s go home and cuddle. Please?”

Raine cracked a grin. “You’re the boss.”

Evee is the closest we have to a boss. Don’t flatter me. However much it works.”

“Whatever you say, boss.”


==


Last night, after the failed kidnapping attempt, Twil had been furious.

Absorbed in my own pain and desperate need to rest, I’d failed to notice at first. Raine had half-carried me upstairs and ran a bath, while I dozed off sitting on the floor. She’d pulled me back to my feet, to much of my own grumbling and groaning, but I hadn’t thought to question why she seemed tense. She helped me undress – a decidedly unsexy encounter, believe me – and made me get in the bath. The water revived me somewhat, especially after I dunked my face and head to scrub off the remaining flecks of blood and wash away the taste of sick. Raine stroked my wet hair.

“I can’t tell you how glad I am that you’re safe.”

“Mm.”

“How do you feel?”

“ … numb? Numb. I’m sorry I caused all that, Raine.”

She shook her head. “Don’t be. You survived. Self-defence, whatever it was. You called and we came. God alone knows how you kept those bastards talking as long as you did. You’re good at that, you know?”

“I am?”

“We saw everything from the moment Praem turned up, through the scrying pool, but Evee’ll want you to fill her about on the rest. Don’t think about it for now, okay? You concentrate on soaking yourself. Will you be okay here on your own for a few minutes? I need to go downstairs, just a couple of minutes.”

“I’m not going fall unconscious and drown.”

She watched me carefully, the same way she had when she’d thought I might have been concussed. I raised my eyebrows in silent question, all I could manage at the moment.

“That’s not what I meant. Are you going to be okay being alone?”

“Oh, uh … I … I think so. I’m in the house. We’re all here. The door’s locked. I’m fine, I’m fine, go do what you need to do.”

“Shout if you change your mind.”

I very nearly did.

Raine’s footsteps creaked down the stairs. I was alone with the steam and the silence and the drip of water from the bath tap. The heat had unknotted my muscles and begun to make inroads on the exhaustion, blunt the sharpest edges of the day. I should have been relaxed and warm, felt safe and cared for, surrounded by friends.

So why was I shaking?

My hands shook. I squeezed them into fists, felt my breath catch in my throat, shivering all over. My mind replayed disconnected snippets of memory – the feeling of being grabbed and pushed to the ground, the bowel-loosening terror of Zheng advancing on me, the oily sound of Alexander’s voice. I gulped and sniffed and drew my knees up to my chest, then dipped my head into the bath until I was chin-deep, squeezed my eyes shut and made myself small, a tiny scrap of flesh hanging in warm water, trying to be still.

A shout and a crash from downstairs jarred me so badly I whacked my elbow against the bathtub, wincing through my teeth. My heart leapt from zero to sixty.

“Raine!” I shouted. “Raine?”

She shot up the stairs in record time and slipped back into the bathroom, almost out of breath, one hand out. “Nothing’s happening, it’s fine, I promise.”

“What was that? What’s going on?”

“Evee and Twil are having a … ” She hesitated, then sighed and shrugged. “Jurisdictional disagreement.”

I shook my head.

“They’re biting each other’s heads off,” she said.

My eyes went wide. “Raine, last time they had an argument, they almost killed each other.”

“Exactly!” Her smile turned sheepish. “Which is why I-”

“Go, go!” I shooed her back out the door with one hand. “I’m fine, I’m-”

“You sure?”

“I’m sure! Go stop our friends from knocking the walls down!”

There was a lot more shouting, punctuated by one or two loud thumps – hands slapped on tables, perhaps – but no more crashing and banging. The bathwater had begun to cool by the time Raine returned again.

“An unexpected peace has broken out,” she said.

“Thank God for that.”

I needed a hand out of the bath to avoid slipping and landing on my face, and appreciated the company as I tugged on pajama bottoms and a nice big fluffy sweater, the minimal requirements to stave off further shaking and shivering.

Downstairs, our resident mage and teenage werewolf stewed on opposite sides of the kitchen table, a peace offering of tea half finished on Twil’s side and barely touched on Evelyn’s. At least they hadn’t thrown fireballs or claws this time, and weren’t so self-absorbed as to ignore me when I shuffled in. They both spoke at once.

“Heather, how are-”

“There you are, Raine got you up-”

“I said we’d need you here-”

“Can’t believe this bullshit-”

“Have you two quite finished?” I mumbled. Didn’t have the energy to raise my voice. They both stammered to a halt. Evelyn shot a sidelong glare at Twil, who shrugged and flopped her hands.

“Told you she’d be pissed,” Raine added. I fell into the chair she pulled out for me.

“Actually I’m not angry. I think you two making all that racket staved off a panic attack.”

“What?” Raine said, a gentle hand on the back of my head. “Panic attack? Heather, are you okay?”

I shrugged. “I’m fine. I think I started to have a panic attack in the bath. I don’t know.”

“Not exactly a surprise,” Evelyn said. “Perfectly normal, considering the circumstances.”

“Yeah! You almost got snatched in the street. Anyone’d piss themselves.” Twil eyed Evelyn. “Snatched by something I should have known about though.”

“Stop your whining.”

With the invaluable assistance of microwave Chinese food, and the tribute of two offerings from Raine’s secret stash of chocolate bars, I told them everything, from the top, starting with Tenny’s warning and ending with as much of Alexander Lilburne’s disgusting monologuing as I could remember. Details eluded me, memory fuzzy and heavy. The physical confrontation in that tangled back alley was the hardest part to recount.

Raine picked up on my mood, stood behind me and rubbed my back, but Twil didn’t understand what I was getting at. How could she? She’d been invincible and untouchable for years.

“What do you mean, you made him vanish? Just like, poof, into thin air?” She raised an eyebrow at Evelyn. “Is that even a thing?”

I looked away, a lump in my throat; didn’t want to think about that right now.

“For Heather, yes,” said Evelyn. “So it does work on living things.”

“I don’t … oh.” Twil’s eyes widened and her voice dropped to a hushed whisper. “Wait a moment, you mean you can send people to like, the other side?”

“Outside,” I muttered.

“Yeah, that’s what I said. Holy shit. You’re not kidding, right?”

“Could you please not?”

Twil didn’t press any further, but she frowned at me like I was either crazy or a walking neutron bomb. Maybe she was right. Evelyn asked endless questions about the Cultists. She got me to describe Alexander Lilburne in as much detail as I could.

“Didn’t you see him, through Praem?” I asked. Evelyn shook her head.

“Not a good look, no.”

She wrote down what I said, dismissed their names as probably fake, and descended into dark brooding. She stared at the tabletop, chin in her hand, consumed with thought. “Call me useless, call my work useless? Must be a bluff. They know I’m close. Knew my mother? Nonsense. Who is he? God dammit all, I may even have met him once, when I was a child, or seen him at a distance.”

“Are you going to kill him?” I asked.

“Heather?” Raine said, surprised at my tone. I didn’t meet her eyes.

“I think that’s a fine suggestion,” said Evelyn. “Yes, threaten my friends, in my city? I’m going to feed him to a creature he couldn’t even imagine.”

“That’s cool and all,” Twil said, kicking back in her chair, rocking it onto two legs with her hands on the table for balance. “But still I’ve gotta tell my parents about this.”

“No,” Evelyn snapped, hard and blunt. “You don’t. Twil, how many times-”

“Don’t start up again,” I said. “Or I shall be angry.”

Twil smirked and mock-cowered from me. “You’re real scary when you’re angry, you know?”

“As if I could scare you.”

“You can make people vanish. That’s pretty scary.”

I curled up a little tighter in my chair. Evelyn was glancing back and forth between us, her discomfort visibly mounting.

“Must you-” she cut off and shot an apologetic look at me before resuming with Twil. “Must you run to your family with your tail between your legs over every little thing?”

“Oh, yeah.” Twil’s voice dripped sarcasm. “I’ll go ahead and forget Sharrowford might be a fucking supernatural warzone, that these weirdos might take over-”

“I am not in the habit of losing. I beat my own mother, a mage ten times, a hundred times more powerful than these petty amateurs. This is pest control, at best.”

“Then why haven’t you won yet?”

Evelyn’s glare could have frozen the sun.

Twil rolled her eyes. “I came into town to buy a video game today. Any of my family could wander in here by accident. I didn’t even know this was going on. I’ve gotta warn my parents, Saye, don’t be bonkers. I’ve gotta tell the Church. You’d do the same, come off it.”

“Then you can tell them to stay out of it too. Make that clear.”

“You sure? I dunno, Saye, maybe we could … you know.” Twil shrugged, the very picture of a sulky teenager.

“I know what?”

“Maybe we could pitch in?”

“Your lot? Don’t make me laugh. I’d like to see you try.”


==


The Sharrowford Cult waited less than forty eight hours before they began to stalk me.

Raine was a saint, she really was, I don’t know how she put up with my grim mood; I started that week in a downward spiral of grumpy and jittery, and only got worse with every passing day. Finally moving in together was what I’d wanted all along, true togetherness, a new measure of safety, for Raine’s bedroom to be our bedroom — but I felt restless, irritable, not entirely like myself. I gave myself a break from the pamphlet and my brain-math training, a much needed period of recovery for my aching diaphragm. I pretended to be normal, worked on my end of term essays, tried to impose some order and cleanliness on the house’s ancient rambling kitchen.

The first goat statue greeted me in the university library. Raine was only ten feet away, at the end of the row of shelves. I’d stepped away from her to replace a book I didn’t strictly need, and there it was, standing in the gap I’d pulled the book from only minutes before.

An ugly little thing made of pewter or thick discoloured porcelain, only an inch tall from wide base to horn tips, it stared at me with holes for eyes. A cheap gewgaw, poor approximation of the real animal. Real goats were sort of cute – this thing was horrible. I didn’t want to touch it, as much from physical disgust as the odd sense it had appeared from nowhere.

A student prank, I told myself. Somebody had walked past and slipped it in here. Perhaps it had some obscure political meaning. I was hypersensitive, hyper-vigilant, still in shock. The goat figurine meant nothing.

I used the book to shove it into the depths of the shelf and said nothing about it to Raine, forgot it by the time we left the library.

The second one turned up the next day, in the ladies toilet, on the edge of the sink when I went to wash my hands.

It hadn’t been there when I walked in. Nobody had followed me. Raine was right outside the door.

I almost screamed.

Raine balled that one up in her jumper and took it home for Evee to investigate, a trip which had me walking on needles the entire way, Raine’s head on a swivel for unseen watchers. It was a trap, I knew it, a contact drug or a magical trick or a disguised monster or-

“It’s inert. Nothing. Just a bloody china figurine,” Evelyn said two hours later, as she scooped the goat statue up with bare hands from the centre of a magic circle.

“But it wasn’t there when I went in. It wasn’t, I swear.”

“I believe you. But it’s also inert.”

“We should get rid of it anyway. Please?”

“We should,” Evelyn agreed.

“On it,” said Raine. She took the bus into town and dropped the goat in the river.

Another one appeared the next day, in the library again. This time none of us bothered to touch the thing.

Why stalk me, I thought, why not Evelyn? Because I’m an easier target, because she’s the big scary mage, because she’ll notice the sleight of hand and catch the culprit. I just have to cower and run.

The goat brought friends – odd scraps of paper with a single eye design on them, staring and watching. I saw one pinned on a university noticeboard, another one on a telephone pole on the route home. Raine ripped them both down, but it made no difference. I felt like I was being watched, in the library, in the campus canteen, everywhere but at home. The worst was in lectures and seminars, when I wasn’t with Raine.

Neither Evelyn or I went anywhere alone. Raine became my shadow, the need for coordination that much sharper. I did a lot of waiting around – less in the library and more in the Medieval Metaphysics room, a safe bolt-hole where I didn’t feel that creeping sensation, reading books and writing paragraphs about Hamlet and Joyce, immersing myself in literature to forget what was happening to us.

Evelyn had Praem escort her most of the time, and once she sent the demon-host to the library to collect me without warning. I’d jumped and swallowed a shriek when I’d noticed her waiting in silence behind my chair.

Twice I caught half-hidden glimpses of a figure watching the house at night, down at the end of the road.

The first time I’d been getting up to use the toilet, and my sleep-addled mind passed by the sight through a window, a half-remembered impression, forgotten in the light of the morning. The second time I’d been unable to sleep, reading in Evelyn’s study, pacing up and down to tire myself out, when I’d looked up through the window and seen the figure motionless at the end of the street. I’d watched for a minute, two minutes, not a twitch, frozen in paranoid fear. The first time had come rushing back to me, and I’d gone rushing to Raine, to wake her up.

She’d gone out into the night with silent feet and a kitchen knife in her jacket, but by the time she reached the end of the road the figure had vanished.

Evelyn sunk into a deep, dark, brooding sulk, more and more time spent in the ex-drawing room, just staring at the doorway mural and swapping sigils and bits of design back and forth, trying to crack some incomprehensible code.

I kept putting off calling my parents, debating what to say. They’d need to know I’d moved, cancelled the rent, either be delighted or terrified if I told them I was ‘living with friends’ in a ‘shared house’, all that nice clean sanitised language of young people at university.

The truth was impossible to share. They felt distant, unreal, part of an old life.

Hi mum, hi dad, I’m learning how to rescue my lost twin sister from an alien god. What’s that? No, it’ll probably kill me before I’m done, if I don’t end up as collateral damage in a war between a mage and a bunch of cultists. The mage, oh no, she’s my friend, we’re all friends here, except the one I make out with every day.

That was one truth I could tell them, almost as scary as letting them think I’d gone off the deep end: I’m living with my girlfriend. Lines of interrogation ran over and over in my mind. Yes, mum, girlfriend. Yes, I’m a lesbian. Yes, I’m sure, because she’s beautiful and amazing and she makes me orgasm like a bomb going off every night.

Things I could not say to my parents. Concepts I didn’t want them to think about. Ever.

On the eighth morning after the failed kidnapping attempt, I woke from an awful nightmare.

Not an Eye nightmare; we kept the Fractal fresh, made it into a nice little shared ritual before sleep every night, my left arm laid across Raine’s lap as she traced over the lines with the body art pen. No, it was a normal nightmare, one that had me kicking and thrashing myself awake in bed, elbowing Raine in the stomach and choking on a mouthful of my own saliva. A nightmare about being grabbed and held down, about towering, indistinct figures, stronger than me, about being trapped, taken away to dark places, about horrible goat faces and the feeling of being watched and followed.

I was monosyllabic, foul-tempered, and cold, all day; Raine deserved me better than that. Deserved better than me using her for a hug and struggling to express myself.

That evening, when Evelyn had vanished into the ex-drawing room and I was about to drag myself up from a finished plate of chips, Raine thumped a bottle of vodka down on the kitchen table. I looked up at at her, framed by the shadows and the early sunset through the kitchen window.

“Raine?”

“You and I are going to drink together.”

“What?” I blinked at her, then at the bottle.

“Cossack vodka,” she said with a proud smile. “Genuinely not that easy to get hold of. No idea why, not like it’s expensive or anything. Goes down a bit smoother than the supermarket crap, thought you might find it a bit easier.”

I started to shake my head, a lump growing in my throat. “Oh, Raine, no. I’m sorry, I know I’ve been awful all day, but I can’t solve that with alcohol.”

“You’re not going to. We’re gonna drink, together.”

She left the bottle in front of me and fetched glasses from the kitchen cupboard. I ran a finger over the condensation on the bottle, crisp and cold.

“I haven’t drunk any alcohol since you gave me that one shot of vodka. I don’t know if can, if I should risk it.”

“Well, you don’t have to think about that, because I ain’t giving you a choice.”

Raine clacked the glasses down on the table. I huffed and frowned at her.

“That’s hardly healthy. My lover forcing me to drink. You don’t have to get me drunk to have fun with me.”

“It’s not about that,” she said softly. “You know it’s not about that.”

I cleared my throat, felt sheepish, looked away. “ … fine.”

“You don’t have to drink much.” She poured a finger or two of vodka into each glass. “Just sip it. Don’t try to keep up with me, seriously, you’ll end up under the table.”

The vodka in my glass caught the light as the sharp ethanol scent tickled my nose. I picked it up and felt my saliva glands tingle in anticipation. “I suppose-”

Raine slammed back her shot and poured another. I goggled at her but she just laughed and shrugged.

We discovered that even in small smooth sips I still couldn’t drink the stuff. The taste made me cough, made my eyes water, a lava-flow of heat crawling down my throat. Raine relented and we came up with a compromise. I made a pot of strong tea and she added a slug of vodka to my mug. That was much easier, along with the can of nuts Raine produced for the occasion.

One mug of vodka-laced tea later my head began to feel both heavier and lighter, my eyelids like wet paper and my chest warm inside. Raine didn’t look the slightest bit worse for wear.

“You had an utter screamer of a nightmare last night, didn’t you?” she asked.

I sighed a huge sigh and drained the dregs of my drink, then stared into the bottom of the empty mug.

“Did I cry out in my sleep?”

“Nah, but I could tell. You were so shaky this morning, I wanted to make you stay home, but … ” She smiled, indulgent and a little sad.

The alcohol cut through all my inhibitions, my paranoia, my fear.

“I feel violated,” I admitted.

Something hard unknotted in my chest, a deep-rooted tension beginning to unwind. Raine raised her eyebrows and nodded for me to go on.

“The rest of it – the coffee shop, the brain-math, the giant zombie-woman whatever – that was scary, yes, that was all terrifying. But the worst part was the bit in the back alleyway, with that … that … b-bastard who grabbed me. I keep replaying it in my head. Keeps coming back to me. I hate it.”

“Hate is okay.”

“It’s not, it’s unhealthy,” I said. “I feel vulnerable. I’ve always felt vulnerable, but this is new. It’s not … it’s not that I don’t like you coming everywhere with me, Raine. I love it when you hold my hand. I love you being there and being around. For the first time since Maisie I’m not lonely all the time, but I wish … I wish it wasn’t a necessity. I wish I didn’t have to feel paranoid. Why are they stalking me? What do they want with me? Bastards. Fuckers.” I sniffed and frowned. “What else can I call them? Help me with this.”

Raine had some colourful suggestions. She poured me a second mug of tea and vodka. I sipped at it, unsure what helped more, the booze or the talking. I felt more relaxed than I’d been in days, even as I aired these dirty bits of my psyche. She got up and hugged me while I sat.

“I thought I was supposed to feel scared. Jump at loud noises. That sort of thing, but I’m mostly just … angry.”

“That’s normal, I think,” Raine offered.

“What am I supposed to do about this?”

“This.” Raine grinned and raised her empty glass. “I don’t have a magic bullet for trauma-”

“It’s hardly trauma.”

“It is. It totally is.” Raine frowned. “Some dickless wonder assaulted you and scary people tried to kidnap you, and if I could get my hands on them I’d kill them all. It’s trauma. And there’s no magic solution, but talking helps. I learnt that together with Evelyn, and you’re easily as tough as she is.”

“If you say so.” I grumbled and sipped more tea.

“I do say so. And you know what else I say?” Raine sat back down with a smile and knocked back another shot of vodka – and slammed her glass on the table. “I fucked up!” she shouted.

“R-Raine?”

“I failed, you know that? I messed up, big time. I wasn’t fucking there.” Her voice caught. “I failed to protect you. What good’s a bodyguard if she’s not there to help you when you need it. That’s what I’m good at, that’s what I do, and I wasn’t there when you needed me.” She sniffed, and I finally realised that the alcohol was affecting her as much as I. Tears brimmed in Raine’s eyes. She downed another shot of vodka and grinned at me. “So this little shared drinking session is for me too.”

Now it was my turn to get up and hug her, put my arms around her. The alcohol made me slow and floppy. She clung to me and we both started crying together, not the big wracking sobs of true despair or pain, but an odd weepy emotional release, sniffing and smiling and laughing at each other as we tried to stop crying.

“You don’t have to protect me all the time!”

“I want to! Because you’re you! Don’t get kidnapped, you’re too important to get kidnapped. I can’t go back to cruising for girls now, Heather, I’m hooked on you, I want you, I want you safe and on my lap and-”

“I want that too!” I declared at the ceiling.

Evelyn thumped on the connecting wall three times. We both burst out laughing, wiping away our tears. I did a huge ‘shush’ motion, and Raine mouthed a ‘thank you’ as I slowly sat back down. Raine wavered slightly, slow to blink and flushed in the face as she rolled her empty glass across the table.

“You did kill that guy, though,” she said.

“That doesn’t help.” I put my head on the table, emotionally wiped out but no longer so twisted up inside. “Actually I think maybe it makes it worse. He’s dead, I killed him. I didn’t even really mean to, I wasn’t trying to kill him, just wanted him to stop.”

Raine puffed out a long sigh. “I don’t know if I can help with that one. I wish I could. It’s never bothered me before, the few times I’ve had to do it.”

“No.” I grumbled and rubbed my cheek on the table. “That’s the problem. I don’t care either.”

“Ah?” Raine blinked at me.

“I don’t care that I killed a person. But I care that I don’t care, if that makes sense.” I paused and frowned. “Is this what being drunk is like?”

Raine laughed. “No, you’re barely buzzed. You’re such a lightweight, it’s cute as hell.”

“Lightweight. Yes. I weigh a hundred and five pounds fully dressed. I am drunk.”

We drank more – or rather, Raine did, cranking back the booze until she sat loose and lounging in her chair. I stared at her from the table as she sniffed and seemed to rouse herself toward some difficult topic.

“You know, Heather, I think I’m falling in love with you.”

“Don’t!” I whined. “Don’t say that while drunk.”

“Ah ah.” Raine tapped the table. “I didn’t say ‘I love you’, I’ll say that bit sober. I said I think I am falling. That’s different.”

“Mmmmm,” I grumbled, pouting.

“I’ve never been in love before. Been in lust a lot, but this is way different.”

“What, you don’t lust for me?” I smiled a little, felt oddly cheeky. She grinned back.

“What do you think?”

“I think, you are, a bit of a slut.” The words left my mouth before I could stop them, a bad dirty joke which made me blink, sit up, and cover my mouth in mortified horror. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean- I didn’t mean that. It was-”

Raine started laughing and couldn’t stop, slapped the table and pointed at me. “It’s the booze, Heather. It’s loosened you up.”

“I don’t think you’re a slut! I don’t think that! Oh my God.”

“But it’s a good joke. I have slept with a lot of girls, that part’s true.”

“But that doesn’t- there’s nothing wrong with- oh, blast it.”

“Does that bother you? That I’ve eaten a metric ton of pussy before?”

“No! No. It’s actually sort of hot.” I looked away, confused and reeling at myself.

Raine grinned. “Call me a slut again, see what happens.”

I stared at her, flushed and breathless. “You’re too drunk for sex.”

“Sure, but not too drunk to come over there and tickle you.”

“You wouldn’t dare.”

We didn’t drink any more, but we did get louder, the jokes getting weirder, until Raine had me laughing so badly I got a stitch in my side and she kept banging the table to punctuate her points. I’d never felt like this ever before. Days of tension slid off me, off us, and I could almost see it leaving, flowing down into the floor and away under the house.

The door to the ex-drawing room opened by a crack. Evelyn peered at us as she emerged. “Are you two making enough noise out … here … oh bloody hell, you’re drinking.”

“You are wrong. We have finished drinking,” Raine corrected her with a wave of one finger. “And we are now drunk.”

“I’m sorry, we were being so loud.” I pulled myself up and made an effort to sit straight, to look sensible and sober, but then snorted with laugher at my own act.

Evelyn stepped into the kitchen and raised an eyebrow, not exactly impressed but not scowling either. “Is this a mating ritual?”

“Nooo!” I whined.

“Yeah, I’m way too sloshed to take her upstairs now.” Raine yawned and stood up, poured herself a glass of water, then pressed a second one into my hands. “Drink up.”

“I don’t need-”

“Yes, you do,” Evelyn snapped. “I’m not having you two hung over tomorrow. We have work to do.”

“We do?” I asked, and almost spilled water down myself as I drank.

“Work? What’s this slave-driver stuff?” Raine grinned. “Tomorrow’s a Friday, Heather’s the only one with a lecture.”

Evelyn snorted. “While you two were stress-testing your livers, I’ve been working on a few little tricks. A portable viewing circle, some barrier pieces, even a potential permanent Invisus Oculus — something my mother never figured out, but which you’ve given me the pieces for, Heather.”

I shared a glance with Raine. She shrugged, downed another glass of water, and put what was left of the vodka safely away in the fridge.

“Which means what?” I asked, trying to sober up for real.

Evelyn smiled a smug little smile, that sharp edge appearing around her eyes. “We’re going to do some veterinary care.”

“ … on … on what?”

“Your little friend.”

“You mean Tenny?”

“Exactly.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

conditions of absolute reality – 3.8

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Zheng did not stay down.

No living thing should have moved again after that kick to the face. I was clutching at the pain inside my chest, struggling and slipping to get my feet underneath me – when her arm twitched. One hand jerked up from the pile of splinted furniture, and grabbed the back of a booth. Surely her face would be pulped, I thought, bones shattered inward and eye sockets pulverised, jaw broken and teeth lost. She was just a puppet, right? The only reason she still moved was her strings.

The zombie heaved herself to her knees and raised her head.

Not even bruised.

Twil’s kick had twisted her scarf, now scuffed with boot-print, and finally knocked down her hood, to reveal a mop of greasy dark hair. She stared past me, dead eyes boring into Twil.

“Come on, up, get up,” Twil grunted. She dragged my to my feet, hands under my armpits. I staggered and clung to her, gasping for breath as my head swirled.

Praem took a step in front of us, her pose still perfectly prim and proper. Tenny, dripping black tar from her wounds, scrambled up and over to my side, jabbing a few afterthought tentacles at both Zheng and Stack, touching neither.

“Ahhh.” Alexander smiled with the satisfaction of a man who knows he will always win in the end. He opened a hand to Twil. “The bestial provincial. Have you come for a rematch, perhaps? I think you will find us all amply prepared this time. Zheng, if you please, put this thing out of its misery at last.”

Zheng did not move.

Zheng.” Alexander clicked his fingers at her. She turned her head to him. Blinked once. “Pay attention when I speak to you.”

“Boss,” Stack raised her voice, sharp and quick. “That made a lot of noise. This isn’t the strip, we’re in public. We need to-”

Praem walked smartly over to the wall, raised one precise finger, and pressed the regulation mandated fire alarm button, set in its neat square of red plastic.

A deafening siren wail burst across the entire shopping centre for three seconds, deep and echoing and electronic, then cut out, replaced by a smart female voice booming over the mall’s public-address speakers: ‘Attention please. Attention please. This is a fire alert. Please make your way calmly to the ground floor exits.’ Sirens thundered for another three seconds, then the recorded message again, on a loop.

Twil stuck two fingers up at Alexander, howling laughter over the din of the fire alarm. He ignored her, barking words at Zheng, no response from her except that dead-eyed stare.

“Boss,” Stack said. “We need to leave.”

Alexander’s surface irritation dissolved into a bored shrug. He nodded at Stack and gestured vaguely toward us. She frowned at him, frowned at Twil and I, then frowned at Praem as the bound demon put herself directly in the way.

Stack nodded once, body language shifting.

She reached inside her raincoat and produced another cylinder, very much like the one she’d used to summon the Servitor, cold metal stamped with painful symbols. She feinted to Praem’s left, then ducked right, her arm arcing out to touch Praem with the cylinder.

Even flush with adrenaline and clinging to Twil and deafened by the alarm, I could make an educated guess what might happen to Praem if that device made contact. I tried to cry a warning, but choked on my own spit, spluttering and coughing.

I needn’t have bothered.

Praem caught Stack’s forearm as it came, one hand on wrist, one hand on elbow. Stack’s eyes wide went for a split-second as she began to pull away, to twist into some judo throw that would send Praem flying.

Without apparent effort, Praem snapped the woman’s arm.

Stack didn’t scream, but otherwise the transformation was instant. She gasped, her face drained of colour, waxy and ashen. The metal cylinder with the horrible symbols clattered to the floor. Praem let go and backed quickly away, toward us. Stack crumpled up around her broken forearm, half of it pointing the wrong way, the wrong angle. She tried to touch it, sinking to her knees, squeezing her eyes shut and gasping in tightly controlled pain.

Alexander watched us go, an unimpressed curl to his lips. Twil flipped him off again on the way out.

Zheng was still staring at her master. Dead eyes bored into his back.


==


Extracting me from Swanbrook Mall turned into a debacle all by itself, even without the Cultists and the giant zombie-woman and the random acts of grievous bodily harm. Despite being barely half-full, the shopping centre turned into a shoulder-to-shoulder scrum, people trying to get out. The fictional fire and the bleating alarm whipped the crowd into one heaving mass, a single panicked beast with thousands of limbs.

Staying on my feet took every ounce of effort I had left, let alone fighting the weakness in my knees or the throbbing pain in my head. Twil all but dragged me as I clung to her, and once we made it out of the food court the flow of people threatened to pull us apart, two shorter than average teenage girls crushed and buffeted by the press of bodies. Praem vanished somewhere in the melee, lost ahead or behind us, and we didn’t find her again until we tumbled out of the ground floor exit onto Sharrowford’s main high street.

Half the road had stopped to gawk, traffic at a crawl, blocked by a fire engine parked across the pavement. Shopping centre staff and a fire crew and a couple of uniformed policemen directed people out of the building, counting shop worker heads. People were crying, some lads were laughing it all off, several others filmed the spectacle on their phones.

I had to stop to be sick on the pavement.

Twil and I had no trouble slipping away in the general mayhem. Nobody missed two teenage girls, one obviously overstimulated by panic, in need of a proper sit down for her hysterics.

Occasionally, stereotypes can work in our favour.

Tenny caught up with us shortly after Praem, ghosting out of an alleyway as we turned the corner at the top of the high street. I flinched as she appeared, not exactly difficult to startle right now. She waved her tentacles at me in a back-and-forth fan pattern; laughter or relief, or a victory dance? I had no spare energy to think. I managed a nod of thanks at her, hoped she’d understand somewhere inside that alien mind.

None of us said anything until we cleared the cluster of roundabouts, passed the little redbrick industrial district, and found ourselves halfway down one of Sharrowford’s pitiful attempts at leafy suburb.

“Those utter fucking cunts,” said Twil.

“Language,” I squeezed out, then winced and curled up around my chest.

“What? Oh, yeah sorry. Swear like a sailor sometimes. My mum’s always telling me off for it too.” Twil smiled awkwardly and then drew us to a halt. “Bloody hell, you’re really messed up, aren’t you? They didn’t make you take something, did they?”

She adjusted her supporting arm under my shoulders. Praem stopped too, but turned her head to stare back the way we’d walked, at the few other pedestrians visible at the end of the road. We’d left the chaos of the high street far behind.

I shook my head. “This is just- ugh, it’s just me. I did this. Special head magic.” I felt a wave of nausea and bent forward to retch, stomach muscles clenching but bringing up nothing. I coughed and forced myself straight again. “Thank you, Twil, thank you. You came back. Thank you.”

“Ah, it’s nothing, I-”

“We must keep moving,” Praem said. She raised a hand and pointed.

Zheng stood in the shadow of the last house in the row, hands in pockets, hood up, staring at us. Tenny shrank back and sheltered behind me, as if I offered any protection whatsoever. Twil rumbled a growl deep in her throat, a sound to make me cringe and shy away. Twil was on my side, no doubt, but that did not disarm her unsettling nature.

“I’ll have her, I swear, I’ll have her right now.”

“Not in the open,” Praem said, her voice empty of inflection. “You carry Heather. Do not put her down.”

“Yeah, yeah, I got it. Stick to the plan, blah blah.” Twil grimaced, then snuck a wink at me. “Don’t worry, I won’t drop you. I’ll be good.”

We walked the entire way. I was ready to curl up and die, right there on the pavement; as soon as Twil let go, I was going to collapse and expire from exhaustion. I kept pulling her to a halt so I could catch my breath, close my eyes as the waves of nausea and muscle spasm passed through me. We stopped by a corner shop so I could spit bile into the nearby rubbish bin

Zheng followed us without moving. We never saw her walking, trailing us, stalking us down the suburban streets and through the connecting alleyways; she’d be already stood in the shade of a shuttered shop front on the other side of the road, or waiting in statue stillness at the far end of a street. She vanished for long minutes at a time, long enough to let us think she’d given up, when one of us – mostly Twil, with me so focused on my pain – would spot her.

Along the black wrought iron fence which marked the boundary of Osten Park, down the long hill which connected to Abbots Lane, clustered with its takeaway joints, past the Aardvark and into the student quarter. By then I could barely find the energy to lift my head, staring at the pavement, sagging against Twil as she pulled me along.

“Oh hey, heads up, your girlfriend’s here,” she said.

“What? Where?”

Raine had come to meet us.

She was still halfway down the street when our eyes met. The sweetest relief. Almost an injustice to my actual rescuers. Twil and Praem and Tenny had done the work, the violence, and in Tenny’s case the getting beaten up.

Raine sped up and jogged the final stretch to me, my own legs giving up from emotional overload. Twil let me go and I fell into Raine’s arms, utterly uncaring of the spectacle we presented for the few daytime pedestrians.

Neither of us spoke. She held me, held me up. I buried my face in her shoulder and whined.

“One tiny lesbian delivered,” Twil said, and flicked a mock-salute. “Safe and … uh, almost sound, I guess. Dunno what’s wrong with her.”

“Heather?” Raine spoke my name.

“Had to do brain-math,” I groaned. “Self-defence. Everything hurts.”

“You’re safe now, it’s okay, we’ll get you home.”

“I’m sorry, I ruined the new hoodie. Got … blood … sick … mmm.”

“It’ll wash right out, no worries.”

Raine rubbed my back and squeezed me, almost too hard. Despite the embrace – which I needed so badly – she was tense all the way through, staring over my head, down the length of the street. She’d augmented her leather jacket with black gloves and a tote-bag. I didn’t care to speculate as to the contents.

“I owe you one, Twil,” Raine said. “Big time.”

Twil pulled a goofy grin and actually blushed. “Ahh, it was a team effort, you know? Couldn’a done it without uh … ” She eyed Praem, frowning a little. “You know, I never did ask your name, did I?”

Praem stared at her with those blank white eyes.

“Tenny helped too,” I managed. “She’s hurt.”

“She is?” Raine asked, surprise in her voice. “It fought for you?”

“Mmhmm. Tenny friend.”

“Who?” Twil said. “What?”

“Twil,” said Raine. “Don’t jump out of your skin like a cartoon character when I say this, okay?”

“What?”

“That’s not a person.” She nodded at Praem. “It’s Evee’s bound demon.”

What?!” Twil almost did jump out of her skin, wide eyed and alert at Praem. She took a very deliberate step back.

“The blue skin didn’t give it away?” Raine asked.

“Her name is Praem. Call her Praem,” I mumbled.

Twil boggled at the pair of us, as if we were all insane. “Right, okay, teach me to ask too many questions. Look, we don’t have time for sodding tea and cake out here, we’ve got some lumbering jackass on our tail. Haven’t seen her for a few, but she keeps popping up, some real spooky nonsense.”

“Yeah, I know,” said Raine. “We can’t stay here.”

“You know?”

“Remote viewing.” Raine nodded at Praem again. “Evee’s been seeing through her eyes this whole time. How do you think I knew what route you were taking?”

“Oh, uh, I guess.” Twil squinted in a deeply confused frown, putting two and two together a little slowly.

Raine went very still. “There she is.”

For a confused moment I thought she meant Evelyn, and raised my head to look.

Zheng lurked at the end of Abbots Lane, standing in the mouth of an alleyway next to an Indian takeaway place. Hands in her pockets, eyes staring, unmoving. Raine raised one hand in a wide gesture, pointed two fingers at her own eyes, then jabbed one at Zheng.

For a moment, just a moment, Raine radiated menace. Murderous intent, the will to violence thrumming through every muscle. If I hadn’t been so utterly wiped out, I don’t know how that would have effected me – arousal or cold terror.

Zheng stared a moment longer, then turned and vanished down the alleyway.

Twil flexed her hands like claws, but she refrained from transformation out in public. “Oh I’m gonna go rip her spine out. Bitch. Still haven’t paid her back.”

“Wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Raine murmured. “Odds on that’s a trap. We’re all carrying seals against blundering into their closed-loop spaces, but you’re not.”

“ … what?” Twil looked like she’d been asked to comprehend a page of quantum mathematics. “What is even going on here? I mean yeah, the Cult’s bad business and all that, but like, stalking and kidnapping in broad daylight? Something’s up, isn’t it? Did Saye piss them off?”

Raine considered Twil very carefully, then raised an eyebrow at Praem. “You get all that, Evee? Can we let her in on this?”

Twil visibly bristled. “Hey, I just saved your girlfriend’s arse from-”

“Evelyn is unsure,” Praem informed us.

“Saye can shove it-”

I whined. “I just want to go home.”

Raine and Twil looked at each other over my head.

“What now then?” Twil grunted. “Am I coming or not?”

“You heard the lady,” said Raine.


==


“This … this is the Saye House? Look, I-I know was all ballsy about going in there before, but maybe I should just call it a day and go home.” Twil stared up at Number 12 Barnslow Drive and shook her head.

“What are you talking about?” I said. “It’s a lovely house.”

“Wait a sec, this is home for you? You’re living in there?”

“Yes? Well, mostly.”

“I get Raine and Saye, but … damn.”

“Whats’a matter? Too spoopy for you, Scooby-doo?” Raine said. She pushed the garden gate open, my hand tight in hers.

“S’not that.” Twil swallowed. She didn’t even rise to the dog joke. “It’s … this is the Saye House. Isn’t it full of like, ghosts?”

“Ghosts?” I said.

“Yeah, ghosts and monsters and stuff?”

“ … you’re a pretty scary monster in your own right, last time I checked.”

“Yeah, but I’m a nice one. Friendly neighbourhood werewolf. This place is a hell house.”

My physical condition had improved slightly over the final stretch home, perhaps due to the placebo of Raine’s presence. Now I could walk mostly unaided, at a pace faster than a shuffle, but I still very much needed a sit down, a large glass of water, a bath, and a sixteen hour nap.

Twil hesitated at the garden gate as Raine opened the front door. Praem did not stand on ceremony, she went straight inside. Tenny was still reluctant to cross the garden wall, but she ghosted around the side of the house, heading for the back garden.

“It’s not scary inside, at all. Either come in or go away,” I said to Twil. “Make up your mind, I must sit down.”

Twil gritted her teeth, plucked up her not inconsiderable courage, and stepped onto the garden path. She looked exactly like a wary hound, shoulders hunched, head down, each footstep carefully measured. Raine rolled her eyes and laughed. She ushered me indoors first, eager to get me out of the open.

The heat was on full blast inside, dousing me and my aching chest with a muscle-melting wave of warm air. I steadied myself against the wall.

“Get that door closed!” Evelyn snapped.

She scowled, looking almost as bad as I felt, eyes ringed with tension, knuckles tight on the grip of her walking stick, mouth a sour line. She hissed a command to Praem without turning. The demon-host stepped into the kitchen.

Twil stuck her head through the from door and peered around. “Is-”

“In or out,” Evelyn snapped. “You’re a dog, not a cat.”

Twil bared her teeth and growled, but then caught the smirk on Raine’s face and stepped inside with a sigh. Raine threw the locks and bolts and rattled the door handle, then closed her eyes, and let out a long sigh.

“That’s it. We’re all in,” Evelyn said. She let out a huge sigh too and drew one hand over her face.

A spike of guilt worked its way between my ribs, tender and raw even over the exhaustion and residual brain-math pain. Evelyn looked that way because of me. Raine had worried and feared because of me, because I made a stupid mistake and put myself in danger. Perhaps it was the delayed emotional impact of a failed kidnapping attempt – I started to choke up, bit my bottom lip and sniffed. Tears filled my eyes.

“I-I’m sorry,” I stammered, gulped down the lump in my throat. “I’m sorry Evee. I-”

She marched up to me, face set, walking stick clacking on the floorboards, and I was certain she was going to shout at me or slap me. Raine seemed to think so too, turning and putting out a hand to stall Evelyn, a gentle rebuke on her lips.

Evelyn threw her arms around me and hugged me tight.

Best as she could, with her bad posture and unstable legs and walking stick in one hand, she gave me a hug. It was awkward and difficult, and I stained her shoulder with my stalled tears, but she made it count.

“You absolute fool,” she said, face hidden over my shoulder. I think she was choked up too.

Even Twil had enough sense not to ruin the moment with dumb jokes. She and Raine busied themselves by taking their shoes off, and Raine even politely asked if Twil wanted to hang her coat up. By the time they were done pretending to be normal, Evelyn had pulled back, covertly wiped her eyes on her sleeve, and told me it was okay.

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t apologise,” said Evelyn.

“I don’t know what I was thinking.”

“I do. You were thinking you’re still living a normal life. You weren’t thinking like a mage. Raine isn’t bodyguard just for show.”

“Really?” Raine pulled a grin. “And here I thought you kept me around for my stunning good looks.”

Evelyn rolled her eyes. I sniffed and managed a small laugh. Raine winked at the both of us, a covert hand on my back.

“Is this it?” Twil’s voice echoed from the kitchen. She was poking her head around the door frame, then turned back to look at us. “This is the Saye House? This place is a dump.”

“Excuse me? It’s lovely. Don’t be so rude,” I said.

Twil shrugged and puffed out one cheek. She padded over to the disused sitting room and peered inside there as well. I nudged limply at one shoe with my other foot, well aware I’d fall over if I bent down to unlace them properly, doubly aware that I’d never muster the energy to stand up if I sat. Raine held my hand and supported me as I shoved my shoes off. Praem reappeared with a glass of water and a blister packet of co-codamol, and held them out to me. I muttered a thanks.

“What were you expecting then?” said Evelyn.

Twil shrugged. “I dunno … spooky stuff.”

“Indulge me. Use your imagination, if you have any. Think of it as the toll for entering.”

“I dunno! Bleeding walls? Echoing voices? Weird faces in the ceiling? This is just an old house.”

“I’m so terribly sorry to disappoint you.”

Twil rolled her eyes. “Why are you always so goddamn rude to me?”

“I’m not. Thank you for saving my friend.”

Twil gaped. “Woah. You-”

“And now you’re here, do I have to have you murdered, or are you going to keep your hands off my books?”

“Evee!” I squeaked on Twil’s behalf.

“I’m joking,” Evelyn said. “A little self-satire.”

“Ha ha.” Twil snorted.

“Touch my books and I will put a leash on you though.”

“Hey! I won’t, what do you think I-”

Twil cut off first, but we all felt the change in the air, the rising of the little hairs on the back of one’s neck, the chill from a hidden door – though I was the only one who could see the cause.

Two of Evelyn’s Spider-servitors scuttled into the front room.

They’d entered at the same moment from two different directions, one hanging upside down from over the stairs and the other creeping around the kitchen doorway. Segmented limbs blurred and paused and readjusted, bunched crystalline eyes swivelled and fixed, until they had Twil flanked from both sides.

“ … what the hell is that?” Twil whispered, eyes wide and flicking over everything, apparently too shaken to move more than her eyeballs. She spoke through gritted teeth. “This place is fucking haunted, it totally is. You lot feel that too, don’t you? There’s something watching me, I can feel it.”

“You know what, I think I do. Freaky.” Raine put her hands on her hips and glanced about.

“Um … Evee?” I said.

The spiders edged closer to Twil, stinger-tips quivering, as if they expected her to run.

“Ah, hmm.” Evelyn frowned at me. “Security system, yes?”

I nodded. “Two spiders.”

Spiders?” Twil jerked as if prodded with a cattle goad. “What spiders? Spider-ghosts? You’re kidding me.” She growled low in her throat and ceased to be entirely human, arms and hands overlaid with that flicker-wisp wolf flesh. Her face elongated into a snout.

“Stop that,” Evelyn snapped, then turned to me. “Point.”

I did. Both hands.

“Hmm,” she grunted. A nasty smirk crossed her face. “On second thought, perhaps it would be funnier to let Twil fight something she can’t see.”

“Saye!” Twil growled through her canine snout.“I swear I’ll-”

“I’m joking.”

Evelyn raised her chin and reeled off a long, complex sentence of Latin, followed by a pause and another sentence. She looked at me for confirmation.

“Um … that did not work. No change.”

Evelyn scowled, adjusted her grip on her walking stick, and banged it against the floor. She barked something in Latin which was almost certainly not a ritualised command or high-minded construction, but more of a colourful suggestion. I winced too and prayed I’d never give Evelyn cause to yell at me.

The Spider-servitors jerked back and reconsidered, scuttled away to the edges of the room and slowly retreated the way they came.

“Oh.” I blinked. “I guess they decided Twil is less scary than you.”

“As they well should,” Evelyn grumbled.

“Haunted bloody madhouse, I told you so.” Twil growled through too many sharp teeth, huffing and puffing behind a veil of hair.

“Put yourself away,” Evelyn said.

Twil did, straightening up and sweeping her hair back from her face, human again. She shook herself and puffed out a long breath. “What the hell, Saye? What the hell is going on? Fucking demons and monsters and Heather getting snatched off the street? What’s this all about?”

Raine began to help me toward the kitchen, but Evelyn stood stock still, staring at Twil.

“What? What?” Twil demanded.

“I’m deciding how much I can tell you.”

“About what?”


==


“I’m sorry, Heather. I’m really, really sorry. I mean it. I tried, I really tried to stop them, please don’t hate me. I don’t think I could stand it if you hated me.”

Dream-awareness blossomed in my mind.

Lozzie was hugging me tight. She was sniffing, crying with her head buried in my shoulder. She smelled of shampoo and strawberries, but then this was a dream, she could smell however she chose to – however my mind chose for her. We were both on our knees in a dark place, arms around each other. I blinked and found I was crying too, gripped by the alchemy of shared emotional release, whoever and whatever she was. I hugged her back, patting her shoulders, feeling awkward but touched.

“It- it’s okay,” I said.

“It’s not okay!” She pulled back and showed me a face that could move a heart of stone. That fey, elfin face, running with tears and red around the eyes, wisps of blonde hair in disarray. “They’re not allowed to do those things to you, they shouldn’t! I hate them all, especially my brother. I hate him so much, I wish he would die!” She kicked out in frustration. Her foot connected with a pile of books and sent them scattering across the wooden floor.

I looked over at them. Then up.

And up.

And up.

The bookcases stretched up forever, until they vanished into the dark far above. Crisscrossed with wooden stairways and ledges, balconies and rails, looped around each other, to offer access to any of the billions of volumes. A vast canyon, which Lozzie and I sat at the very bottom of, on a polished wooden floor at least a mile across, littered with thousands of stay texts.

Vertigo touched my head. I looked back to Lozzie.

“Where is this place?”

She sniffed and looked pitiful. “The library at Carcosa. I thought it might cheer you up. You love books and stuff, right?”

“I … I do love books. It’s … ” I risked another glance up. “In a way, it’s beautiful, yes.”

“So, you don’t hate me?”

“What? No.”

“Oh, Heather!” Lozzie hugged me again, clung to me and buried her face in my shoulder. “I hate that they scared you. I hate him so much.”

“Him … him … ” Gears turned in my mind, realisation clicking into place.

“My brother. I hate him.”

“You told me about him … before, before it happened. In a dream. How is that possible?” I muttered.

“He thinks he can stop us, thinks he can stop us going places, stop us living, control us.” Lozzie pulled back and met my gaze, her eyes burning with conviction. A smile crested her face through the crying. “But you can go anywhere you want! We can go anywhere, Heather. Like here!”

She waved up at the titanic bookcases, and I made myself look again. Made myself see the tiny shuffling figures on the walkways, with robes and lanterns and faces made of tentacles and spines. I noticed the hanging cages filled with dessicated, inhuman corpses, saw the confluence of vast meter-thick chains which held an unspeakable monster, bound high in the air between the two rows of bookshelves.

“Like here,” I echoed.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

conditions of absolute reality – 3.7

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

My phone buzzed in the Skinhead’s hand. Raine calling back.

She took her eyes off me without much concern, rejected the call, and held down the off button. Perhaps she knew I couldn’t run; my knees shook, my guts roiled, my head throbbed with pain in rhythm with my heartbeat. If I moved too fast I’d double over and vomit again.

“ … g-give- give me that back,” I croaked.

She fixed me with a cold gaze again. Nothing behind her eyes. “Catch.”

I caught the phone, a miracle I didn’t fumble and drop it on the concrete. I gripped it to my chest and stared at the Skinhead.

She kept her hands free, by her sides, rather than tucked away in her raincoat pockets, or in the grey athletic top she wore underneath. Tacky tattoos peeked out from her neckline – Chinese dragons and bat-wings and tribal swirls. Older than me, maybe late twenties, or perhaps prematurely weathered by hard living and bad luck. Even through the pounding in my head and the aftertaste of bile in my throat, senses dulled in brain-math aftershock, she radiated danger.

I felt it in my gut, an animal response to the thousand subtleties of musculature and poise. A dark twin to the way Raine looked in the moments before violence.

“Don’t turn that back on,” she said softly.

“Why not?” I managed to sound a lot more brave than I felt.

She didn’t answer.

Tenny had been content to hover next to me, her tentacles waving lazily in the air, no help at all, but now she began to creep across the pitted asphalt, on a trajectory to circle around behind the Skinhead. My eyes flicked to her back.

She’d stabbed that man in the head, hadn’t she? No time to process what that feat implied, but I swallowed and prayed all the same. If she could land another distraction, maybe I could gather myself and …

And run? I needed time, to recover. I’d just fall flat on my face.

The Skinhead followed my gaze, peered around and saw nothing, then glanced back at me with a tight professional frown.

“Right,” she said, and took a step back.

Her body language blinked from passive threat to sudden motion. I flinched hard, coughed bile and blood in surprise. She reached into her raincoat and whipped out a small metal cylinder, shiny machined steel stamped with symbols that made my eyes hurt. A plug of black wax capped one end. She held it out at arm’s length, pointing into open space, and dug her thumb into the wax seal.

A gap in the air poured from the end of the cylinder, like uncorking a bottle under pressure. A scribble, a tear in paper over an abyss, expanding as it unfolded itself from inside the tiny metal prison. Twitching and shaking, it stood up. Nine feet tall, knot-faced, knife-point legs and arms waving like seaweed in an invisible current.

The Scribble-monster. The thing that had been stalking Raine on the morning we met.

No, this one was smaller, slightly.

And far more purposeful.

No orders needed, it folded itself in the middle like a length of intestine and jerked toward Tenny.

“No!” I shouted, fumbling with my left sleeve to expose the Fractal, to make the Scribble-thing go away.

I needn’t have bothered; Tenny burst open.

It was one of the most violent and disgusting things I’d ever seen a spirit do. Also incomprehensible. For a moment I thought she’d died, that the Scribble-monster had reached out with some invisible power and ruptured her like overripe fruit. But the process didn’t end, it grew and grew – and so did Tenny. Her tar-flesh boiled and bubbled over, iridescent globes growing on each other, popping and roiling, limbs and tentacles and eyes and mouths growing and dissolving at blinding speed in the protoplasmic mass. Thick chemical stench and a wave of biological heat washed over my face, made me squint and gag.

The transformation ended, quick-drying putty pulled to a new shape.

No longer a flat, lithe approximation of a human female, Tenny reared up as a chimera the size of a car, a dozen different animals melded together in tarry black imitation flesh, from snake-tail to lion-head, eagle-wings and goat-horns, a mantle of tentacles lashing above her.

Tenny and the Scribble-monster slammed into each other, slicing and biting, tentacles whipping and stabbing. It tore great slopping holes in her flesh, which closed with the slow, slick motion of cold tar. She ripped chunks from its limbs, sending them spinning and fading to ash in the air.

I shrank back and swallowed a scream, wincing and squeezing my eyes shut as they rolled together, two giant creatures tearing into each other feet away from me. Long-buried primal instincts made me want to hide, probably up a tree.

The Skinhead didn’t react – even when the pneuma-somatic fight rolled straight through her. She couldn’t see them.

Wide-eyed, hands over my mouth, I watched in sickening despair as the Scribble-monster drew Tenny away. She kept trying to circle back to me, but it threatened her at every turn, herded her down one of the alleyways leading out of this secluded tangle, until I lost sight of them. Rending and ripping sounds echoed down the pathways of the concrete jungle, the only evidence they were still hacking at each other.

“That’s taken care of your little helper, hasn’t it?” the Skinhead asked, her voice too soft for her face.

Hands numb, I groped for the personal attack alarm still in my pocket. I held it up, thumb on the button. “S-somebody will hear. We’re not in the wilderness, this is the middle of Sharrowford.”

She nodded slowly, utterly unmoved.

“Let me give you a piece of advice,” she said. “I’m the gentle touch. The good cop. The carrot.”

“W-what?”

“Your best option right now is to come with me, have a friendly little chat with the boss in a public place. Nothing else is gonna happen.” She inclined her head at the alarm in my shaking hand. “Or you press that button. You’ll get away today, sure. But he won’t be sending the gentle touch next time. You’ll get the bad cop. We know where you live, we know your daily routine. My boss will send the big stick to rip your front door off in the middle of the night, and the little chat won’t be in a nice public place. Or very friendly.”

A bluff? Even with all my faculties about me, I wouldn’t have been able to read her. I felt like hell, ready to vomit again more from fear than from the aftereffects of brain-math. I wanted to curl up around my chest and lie very still for several hours.

“I-I can zap you into another dimension,” I said. “You-”

“I know that. I’m not going to risk touching you. I’m not stupid.” She made a show of glancing about. “I see Jake’s missing. His fault for not following instructions. Shouldn’t have tried to rough you up. No hard feelings, yeah?”

“What … what happened to Twil?” I asked.

The Skinhead smiled, thin and dangerous. The expression failed to reach her eyes. “The Brinkwood werewolf? She’s not as good a hunter as she thinks. She’s not coming to help you.”

I swallowed and tried very hard not to believe her. “A … a public place?”

“Food court in the shopping centre. Public place, like I said, for a little talk.”

At the very least, I had to stall for time; Raine knew I was in trouble. She’d have a hell of a job finding me crammed in this back alley. The shopping centre was in full public view. And the more I moved around the better chance of Twil catching my scent.

I nodded and levered myself up off the wall. “O-okay. But if you try anything, I’ll grab you and-”

A wave of dizziness passed over me. I snorted back more nosebleed, coughing and spitting crimson bile onto the floor.

“Fucking hell.” The Skinhead extracted a packet of tissues from a pocket and tossed them at me. “Clean yourself up.”


==


She wasn’t a liar, at the very least.

The Skinhead led me back to the high street and down the road, to the glass-and-chrome entrance to Sharrowford’s only shopping centre, the unimaginatively named ‘Swanbrook Mall’. Fake marble floors and shiny open shop-fronts and – this time of day – clumps of teenagers hanging about, for want of anything else to do.

She maintained a safe distance from my side, beyond arm’s length, so I wouldn’t be able to lunge and grab her, send her spinning off into the horror of a trip Outside. Not that I could have lunged or leapt. Every scrap of my energy was consumed in putting one foot in front of the other. Adrenaline and willpower held my body upright, knees weak, head still pounding, the taste of vomit in my mouth. I’d wiped the worst of the blood from my face. Nobody gave me a second look, a depressive college girl with her arms crossed and her head down.

I knew I could have refused, stood still and not walked another step; public place, she couldn’t do anything. But then we’d lose her, lose her ‘boss’, and they’d come for us in the middle of the night and that time I might not be fast enough or well enough or in the right place at the right time.

I snuck glances over my shoulder, hoping and praying that Twil would find me again, or Raine would come around a corner and save me, or even that Tenny would roll up, disgusting tentacle-mass and all.

We took the escalators up through the shopping centre, past clothing shops and half-empty music stores, gaudy kiosk stands and glitzy displays. I’d always hated malls. Crass, consumptive, pointless modernity. Anonymous, bland, meaningless. I could think of no better place to meet such horrible people.

We emerged onto the top floor, the food court, strangely empty for this time of day. A few tables were semi-occupied near the most popular fast food places, but most of it lay empty and open, echoing and bright beneath the huge glass skylight roof, ceiling criss-crossed with metal supports, exterior covered in bird droppings and green scum.

The Skinhead stepped past me without a word, and made for the back of the food court, a dead-end with a trio of shuttered and failed food outlets. At first I didn’t follow, so she stopped and stared at me.

“We’re almost there,” she said. “No sense in turning back now.”

I nodded and followed, and told myself I could run whenever I wanted.

A lie, I could barely walk.

The last store in the dead-end row was a fancy coffee shop, named ‘Iluskov’, according to the shiny yet unlit sign above. It was closed, metal security shutter three-quarters down, the inside mothballed and emptied and left to gather dust, chairs stacked on tables, containers and racks empty behind the counter.

The lights were on, a lone table cleared and wiped clean, chairs laid out. A single steaming cup of coffee stood at the edge of the table.

Two people waited inside.

One was the Tall Woman in the trench coat, wrapped from head to toe like before. Only her eyes showed. She lounged in a empty booth, spread out and relaxed, feet up on the table, so tall she didn’t fit properly. She didn’t bother to look at us, lost in some private place behind those dead eyes, or perhaps incapable of independent thought.

The other person met my eyes and smiled.

“Please, do come in,” he said. “There’s plenty of free seating.”

The misplaced librarian. The young man from the standoff in the underground car-park. He sat at the clean table, hands folded before him.

My unwanted Skinhead companion lifted the metal security gate up by a couple of feet, then nodded to me. “Inside. Duck under.”

I hesitated; this was rapidly becoming very much not a public place.

“There is nothing be afraid of,” the man said, pleasant and reasonable, the voice of a junior professor or a good psychiatrist. “Miss Stack should have taken the time to explain that to you. Did you not do so, Amy?”

“I did,” the Skinhead said.

“Then there is no problem. You will come in. You will sit down.”

The Skinhead – Amy Stack, he’d called her – glanced back the way we’d walked. With a spark of hope in my chest, I followed her gaze, but nobody was there. No Twil. No Raine. No Tenny.

“Best not to keep him waiting,” she muttered, so only I could hear.

I blinked at her.

“Get inside,” she said out loud.

I did as I was told, ducked down and straighted up again inside the half-empty coffee shop. The motion and effort made my head throb and my vision swim. Stack followed me and pushed the security gate back down, almost to the floor. The Librarian gestured to a seat opposite his own.

“Please. You will sit.”

Heart in my throat, hands numb, almost unable to move my feet, I walked across the coffee shop and steadied myself on the back of the chair.

“Don’t move the chair,” said Stack. “Just sit down.”

The Librarian tutted. “Amy, Amy, your concern for me is most laudable, but I hardly think it’s warranted. This is no interrogation, or unpleasant confrontation. We are merely having a nice little afternoon chat.”

“You’re not immune, sir.”

I realised what she meant – the chair intended for me was placed at the limit of lunging range, grabbing range. A safe distance from my power to send him Outside.

A battered spark of confidence sputtered to life, and forced back the fear and violation.

They were cautious of me.

They knew what I could do to them.

But they didn’t know I was spent. One defensive brain-math use was about my limit, as I was rapidly discovering from how weak and shaky I felt, how ready to curl up and sleep. I could send him Outside, but I’d probably pass out or choke on my own sick afterwards. Or his minions would carry me off. Or just kill me.

“Please. You will sit,” said the Librarian.

I lowered myself into the chair, smoothed my coat over my knees, and tried to control my breathing, control the terror. I risked a side glance at the Tall Woman in the trench coat, her huge, powerful body at rest like a predatory big cat. She’d tried to kill Raine too, but right now I felt no pressing need to confront her. Stack took up station by the security shutter, hands behind her back.

“Amy,” the Librarian said. “Where has Jake gotten himself to?”

“He got handsy with her. Was gone by the time I got there.”

“Ahhh.” The Librarian turned to me. “I shall assume he is beyond punishment?”

I nodded once, tried to make myself seem cold and uncaring. I had zero time right now to think about how I’d probably killed that man.

“I hold you no ill-will for that,” he said. “Jake was merely a first stage initiate, of little importance. My subordinates should know better than to have manhandled you.” He turned back to Amy with an indulgent smile. “You took longer than expected.”

“Ran into the werewolf. Sent her off chasing her own tail. Had to pop the Geist as well.” Amy nodded toward me. “She was protected, up-close.”

“Really now? How fascinating,” the librarian said as he looked at me. “In time I absolutely must hear all about it, all the little details, but first – coffee? I have taken the liberty of selecting a brew for you. I believe I know your tastes.”

I eyed the steaming cup on the edge of the table and folded my arms across my chest. Sitting straight was very difficult, my chest hurt so badly, but I forced myself to stay upright. “No, thank you.”

“Oh, you think we’ve drugged it. Very smart. Very sensible.”

I just stared at him.

“You do not know my name,” he said. His expression burst into a smile of genuine delight and pleasure.

His face was shiny, young, chin perfectly shaved, his head of tousled blond hair thick and recently cut. Dressed in a suit with patched elbows, waistcoat and tie; a long coat lay over the back of a nearby booth. He fussed with one of his shirt cuffs as he smiled at me. He made me feel sick. I wondered if this was what Raine would call a ‘punchable face’.

I had the distinct impression I recognised him, but I couldn’t work out why.

“Heather Lavinia Morell. Nineteen years old, almost twenty,” he said. “Born on the seventeenth of January. Parents’ names are Samantha and Gregory. Your father is a minor engineer for Network Rail. Your mother is a bank clerk. You have no siblings and no other close family to speak of, though you briefly knew your maternal grandfather before he died of a heart attack when you were six. You spent three years in and out of Cygnet Children’s Hospital in London between the ages of ten and thirteen, but you did attend school, and went on to complete your A-levels – one A and two Bs – and are now a student of English Literature, at our fine university here in Sharrowford.”

He smiled as he went, satisfied and sickly-warm. A cold hand of violation crept up my back.

“How do you know all that?” I murmured.

“Knowledge is open to any who know how to ask. Was I correct? I was, wasn’t I? I do so love to be correct, I-”

He cut off and blinked once.

He was wrong about one thing; I was not only child. I clutched Maisie to my chest, to my secret heart, and loved her all the more.

“How can I be wrong?” he demanded. His good humour crumbled into confusion. “How can I wrong about even a shred of that? Which fact was incorrect? You will tell me.”

I shook my head. “No.”

“You will tell me.”

A tug in the forefront of my brain. My mouth opened. “I have a-” I bit down and winced, blinking at him in shock.

“Ah, you resist. You would be good at that, yes. Skilled, perhaps. I have misplayed my hand.” He sat back, jovial and warm once more. “Very well, you have scored a point, and it is to my shame. My name is Alexander Lilburne, and my business is the total liberation of the human mind.”

He paused, as if expecting a response. I gave him none.

“Now, if you would be so kind,” Alexander continued. “Please inform me as to which aspect of your life I have catalogued incorrectly? I am so maddened by inconsistency, you see. We cannot get down to business before such matters are cleared up and I have you placed firmly in your correct context.”

“Stuff your context,” I managed.

He smiled and laughed, a soft, blubbery sound. “Now now, there is no need for that. I am not going to do anything nefarious with your secrets. I have no need for blackmail, and you have nothing worth taking. I-”

“You don’t know anything about me,” I hissed. “I’m not an only child. I have a twin. And you can’t have her name.”

Alexander frowned, deeply puzzled. “You do not. A lie. Why lie to me?”

“It’s not a lie!” I almost shouted. I wanted to hit him. I’d never wanted to hit anybody before.

“ … no, no, I can see that, it is merely a truth you believe. But the records do not attest to a sister, let alone a twin.” He sighed and spread his hands. “I do so detest dealing with the mentally ill.”

“I’m not ill. Go to hell.”

“I probably shall, but not for many years yet. Let us agree that you believe you have a sister, and leave it at that.”

I glowered at him, my fear almost overrun with hate, almost able to forget how much danger I was in. He’d dredged up the one thing I’d protect above all others.

“Now, let us move to far more intriguing personal matters. Lavinia. Lavinia.” He rolled his tongue over my middle name, savoured the sound. My skin crawled. “Do you ever go by your middle name, Lavinia? You should consider doing so. It is a saint’s name, among what passes for the world of secret truths. The name of a saint and martyr, though ancient history now, and completely unrelated to you or us. I wonder if your parents knew. Doubtful, of course.”

I had to keep stalling, but every word he spoke deepened my detest. He liked the sound of his own voice. I swallowed and forced myself not to grit my teeth.

“What do you want?” My voice came out tighter and harder than I’d intended.

Alexander laughed again, that deep, rubbery sound. “Oh, but that is not the question, that is not the question at all, Lavinia. The question is, what do you want?”

He opened a hand toward me and waited, invited an answer.

A rhetorical trap.

I could take an educated guess at his thought process, and it made me angry. He sat there assured that he knew everything, in a secluded private place with a naive and terrified nineteen year old girl he was about to browbeat and talk over. My next line was obvious: ‘I want you to leave me alone, I want to go home’, so and and so on. I refused to snatch the bait.

“A million pounds,” I hissed.

Alexander blinked, then smiled that sickening smile an inch wider. “Is that your price, Lavinia? Do not undervalue yourself. On the other hand, if that is a serious answer, I believe we can come to an agreement of cash payment.”

“ … what do you mean?” I frowned at him, off-balance.

“You see, you are a unique thing.” He spread his hands. “Or at least very close to unique. I personally know of only one other person in the entire world capable of doing as you do, of operating reality with your mind, but she is unfortunately far beyond the event horizon of her own sanity. Quite apart from your potential value to my organisation, I wish to understand, in every part and every way, how do you what do you. We are willing to pay any price, fulfil any desire, to have you join us. Name it, please. Name your price, Lavinia.”

“Another … another person capable of … ” Another person who could do what I do? Another brain-math savant? Another victim of the Eye? I opened my mouth, but I would not speak Maisie’s name to this man.

“Please, Lavinia, don’t concern yourself with that. My younger sister is much like you, but not with your clarity of mind and-”

He went on talking. Not Maisie. Nothing to do with Maisie.

“- and I am serious when I say name your price. Let us open negotiations, see what we can do for you.”

He disgusted me.

“You people tried to kill Raine.” I glanced at Stack.

Alexander raised his eyebrows in polite interest. “Who?”

“My … ”

“Saye’s minion,” Stack supplied quietly.

“Ah, yes, the Saye family. You’ve been spending your time with the daughter, associating with her in public, visiting that sad old house. Learning from her too, no doubt. Evelyn is her name, I believe, but that is a fact not worth knowing. Now, her mother, I knew her mother very briefly. Brilliant woman. Her death was a terrible loss to our world.”

“Raine is not Evelyn’s minion,” I said. “She’s her friend. And my girlfriend.”

I glanced again at Amy Stack, let her see what was written beneath my face. If being scared was useless, I may as well hate. She frowned every so slightly, as if she’d begun to work out what I meant.

“You should hardly be wasting your incredible potential on the Saye girl,” Alexander continued. “However pitiful and sympathetic her condition has rendered her, she can do nothing for you. She is at best a dabbler, running a – what did my uncle call it, Amy? He used such a colourful phrase.”

“A Mickey Mouse operation, sir.”

“Yes!” Alexander slapped his knee in delight, as if this was a hilarious joke. “A Mickey Mouse operation, indeed. The old man has it in him yet, not quite all spent. Unlike Miss Evelyn Saye.”

“Stop-” I bit back, as much from the throbbing pain in my chest as from fear. Alexander waited for me to continue. I had to take a deep breath. “Stop insulting my friends.”

“Insulting?” He frowned gently, pursed his lips as if talking to a naughty child, and shook his head. “You misunderstand. I am merely offering objective critique of her situation – and by extension, yours. Saye can offer you what exactly? A bed under her dubious roof. Some musty old books. I, on the other hand, am here to offer you and your unique talent a place in an organisation with a future, with human liberation at its core. I, my uncle, and a few other like minded sages, have embarked on the greatest project in human history. I need brilliant minds and shining talents, and I am asking you to name your price, Lavinia.”

“Stop calling me that,” I snapped. He smiled and opened a hand toward me, so very reasonable.

“Everybody has a price, secret desires even I cannot divine. You must tell me. See what we can do for you. Money? We have money, more than you can imagine what to do with, I’d think. Enough to solve any lifelong problem. We can give you power, of various sorts. Knowledge of magic, magic itself. Sex? I take it you are some kind of … sexual deviant.” He smiled a horrible rubbery smile. “A willing, pliant partner, multiples of such, if-”

“The only thing I want is my sister back.”

Alexander sighed. His smile collapsed into dull unimpressed boredom. “An impossibility. You never had a sister-”

“I do.”

“Be reasonable now. Try to understand the magnitude of the offer I am making. We can do almost anything to satisfy your desires, and this is not an offer we extend to many. Ask Amy there. Amy, do tell Lavinia why you are with us, what we offered you?”

Stack – the ice-cold Skinhead – hesitated. “Sir, do you really-”

“You will tell her.”

She sighed. “Purpose. That’s all they gave me.”

“All we gave you,” Alexander echoed. Behind his amused smile lay power offended. “Indeed. So you see, Lavinia, we offer you so much more.”

A strong suspicion entered my mind: I was not getting out of here, he would not take no for an answer. I’d never before encountered a person so comfortable in the position and appearance of power, but I knew exactly what he was, because I’d encountered plenty of things like him that weren’t people.

This was exactly like being Outside, like a Slip. I had to stall and hide, wait with my breath held in perfect stillness, behind a outcropping of rock, for the gaze of some vast intelligence to grow bored and turn away from me.

I hid.

I drew myself up in my seat and raised my chin, put on all the airs and mannerisms of Evelyn at her most offended and self-righteous. The effort was staggering, to ignore the creaking aches and pains in my wracked body, the swimming vision, the throbbing head. I unfolded my arms, opened up that last line of physical defence. I tapped my knee with one hand as I let the other wander to my chin, an ostentatious display of thought.

How I pulled it off, I don’t know. Fear, adrenaline, the needs of the moment. Or perhaps my friends had rubbed off on me enough that I felt the tiniest sliver of what I pretended.

“Who is we?” I asked.

Alexander raised his eyebrows and opened his mouth, but I had to really sell this, put on a show.

“I’m being offered a job, basically?” I spoke before he could, and kept most of the quiver out of my voice, screaming inside. “I’d like to know who I’d be working for. You’re cultists, right? The Sharrowford Cult.”

“Cult? What a quaint word. I’m afraid Miss Evelyn Saye has been reading too much of Mister Lovecraft. The real world does not offer us such simple and neat definitions. Are we a cult, Amy?”

“Most certainly, sir.”

“Well, there you have it, we are a cult. From the horse’s mouth. I much prefer to think of us as an sort of practical research group, plumbing unseen depths.”

Stack cleared her throat gently. “Brotherhood of the New Sun.”

Alexander’s amusement vanished in a dash of cold water. He almost rolled his eyes, but appeared to catch himself at the last moment. “On second thought, perhaps we should refrain from using the old man’s terminology too much, yes? Lavinia, please, think of us as a brotherhood of like-minded explorers in secret matters.”

I committed his every word to memory, because I was going to help Evelyn kill this man.

Keep hiding, keep hiding.

“Hasn’t Evelyn been giving you a run for your money?” I said. “She’s been messing up your closed loop spaces and invading your shadowside city. She’s going to stamp you out soon enough. She’s set on killing you all. I think she will.”

Alexander chuckled ans waved a hand in dismissal. “Saye has been making her problems our problems, I will admit. It’s such a parasitic way to live. But no, her efforts have been totally useless. Nibbling away at the edges, really? She has no idea of the kind of work we’re doing and she’s not even close to disrupting us.”

“And what is it you’ve been doing in Sharrowford, with these … closed loop spaces?”

“Ah. Ahhhh.” Alex smiled broad and warm, waved a finger and tutted. I didn’t like the look of that at all. My stomach clenched up. “I see what you are up to, Lavinia. Very clever, very clever, but you are dealing with an adult here. You have to make a commitment before such details can be shared.”

“I-”

“And if you are that eager, perhaps a one-way tour of our work is in order. There are such sights, waiting just on the other side of the air itself.” He waved a slow hand above the table, then gestured to Stack. “Amy, I do believe our guest is going to come with us. Prepare the entryway, if you would be so kind. And make sure that thing is awake.” He nodded at the Tall Woman in the trench coat and then smiled at me again. “We have been building quite a project. You are going to have contributions to make.”

I’d gone too far.

Time to leave.

Time to Slip.

My heart hammered in my throat and my stomach rebelled at the mere thought, but it was the only option I had left; I’d been preparing myself this entire time, in the back of my mind where I didn’t have to look at what I had to do. A gamble, yes, that I’d be spat out somewhere I could be safely unconscious in a pool of my own blood and sick for hours – but Slipping on purpose was better than being kidnapped by insane cultists led by a cut-rate Patrick Bateman wannabe.

The first layer of impossible math slid into place in my mind. I winced.

A black tarry figure stepped into my peripheral vision, in front of the coffee shop – and then straight through the metal security gate.

My heart lit up. I slammed the math to a halt.

Tenny.

I forced myself not to look at her, not to give the game away as she stepped across the half-empty coffee shop, around the stacked chairs, tentacles waving in the air like a halo of tar. She was back to normal size, vaguely humanoid once more.

Nobody else could see her, but if she could just-

The Tall Woman sat bolt upright and stared right at Tenny.

“Zheng?” Alexander snapped. “What is it?”

‘Zheng’ did not answer. She stared like a pointer dog, then turned with robotic slowness, to regard Alexander with her dead eyes.

Stack backed up from the security shutter, suddenly alert and tense. “It’s her Geist again, I think. Ours couldn’t do for it.”

“T-there’s nothing there,” I said. I made a show of glancing around, but my carefully constructed front fell away at the prospect of help. My hands were shaking, my throat tight.

Tenny was not whole; the fight with the Servitor had taken great chunks out of her tar-flesh, rough wounds, the edges reaching toward each other in a struggling effort to close. Several tentacles had been torn off or severed, stumps waggling in the air and dripping ichor. She stared at me and stalked closer.

“Zheng,” Alexander repeated, harsh and angry, going red in the face. “Answer me.”

Zheng just stared. He snapped off a series of hard, guttural words, some ear-aching non-human language.

“Small. Unimportant,” Zheng said from behind the scarf wrapped around her face. Her voice was like granite.

“Get rid of it then.” Alexander made a shooing motion with one hand. “Throw it outside.”

Zheng rose to her feet, mechanical and slow. A horrible sight, to watch so much muscle and tendon in motion. She was a giant, she could pull a human limb from limb, and I didn’t need to see a demonstration to know that. To be so close was to be in the presence of death. She didn’t need to expose more than her eyes to prove that. Stack shrank back too, impossible to resist the intimidation.

“But-” I said.

Zheng rounded on Tenny and grabbed her by the throat, living flesh touching pneuma-somatic life.

“No!” I cried out.

Tenny writhed and jerked, as surprised as I was, kicking as Zheng lifted her bodily off the floor. Her tentacles lashed, battering at Zheng’s head and shoulders, rearing back to strike – and bouncing off. Tenny made no sound but Zheng rumbled like a rock slide in her throat. Laugher or a growl, I couldn’t tell.

“Throw it outside, Zheng, don’t play with your food,” Alexander said.

“No, you can’t! You-”

“Found you,” came a whisper of snowflakes on winter wind.

All eyes – except perhaps Tenny’s – snapped to the front of the coffee shop.

Praem stood in front of the metal security shutter.

Praem One or Two, I couldn’t tell, because Evelyn had changed her clothes again, into a practical windbreaker and a pair of jeans, ice-blue hair tucked up out of the way in a ponytail. She stared straight ahead with those blank white eyes.

“Naughty puppies,” she said.

My heart leapt.

“What is that? Who is that?” Alexander said, standing up, and raising a curious eyebrow at Evelyn’s wooden demon-host. Zheng had half-lowered Tenny, who was still scratching and flailing at her side.

Praem continued her perfect refrain. “Huff and puff and blow your house down.”

She wrapped one hand worth of ice-blue fingers around the security shutter.

“It’s locked,” Stack said to her. “You can’t get in. Go away, this is a private-”

Praem pulled upward. Metal snapped and bent and the locking mechanism gave way with a tortured screech. The security shutter rolled upward.

I hurtled out of my chair so fast I thought I’d snapped a rib, my chest wrenched so badly inside, heaving with the effort of pushing my shaking carcass at sudden speed. I slipped and skidded and cracked my hip off a table. Amy reached for me, braced for a tackle. I stuck out a hand toward her, my intent plain, enough to make her hesitate. Praem took a step inside the coffee shop, coming to meet me halfway.

“Zheng, hold her still,” Alexander said in a bored drawl.

Zheng dropped Tenny and came for me.

One second of being chased by that giant of a woman almost made me lose control of my bowels. A screaming animal fear gripped every cell in my body. I stumbled back and tripped over a chair, sprawled and cracked my head off the ground, scrambling away and choking down a scream.

She was too big as she loomed closer, too fast as she leapt a table, too strong as she rounded on me. Praem was strong, she was a demon, she was under Evelyn’s remote command, but this, this monster was beyond anything I’d seen this side of reality. She reached down toward me with one gloved hand. Why wasn’t Praem helping? I cringed back, following an instinct to make myself small, curl up into a ball, hide, go away, go away!

Zheng’s head snapped up. She snatched her hand back. Jerked away.

Too slow.

Wolves are generally not ambush predators, but Twil made it work.

From her hiding place just around the corner of the coffee shop entrance, Twil exploded like a cannonball. She kicked Zheng in the face with enough force to shatter steel. The giant zombie-woman went flying, crashed into tables and tumbled over the back of a booth. She landed with a splinter of breaking wood, in a tangle of limbs and chairs, face down.

“How you like that payback, huh?” Twil shouted. “That’s what you get, bitch!”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

conditions of absolute reality – 3.6

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

My beautiful retreat was violated. I left Emei Secondhand Books in a hurry, ignored the polite goodbye from the lad behind the counter as I rummaged for my phone with shaking hands.

Tenny backed out behind me.

Her presence offered a bizarre source of comfort, but I had neither time nor wit to stop and think about her. She hovered at my back, a good doggy, trying to hustle me on and protect me, though I knew she couldn’t even touch anybody except myself. Moral support was better than no support.

Out in the alleyway, tripping over my own feet, I cast glances back at the cramped bookshop doorway. Any moment a monster would emerge, unfold itself like a blossoming nightmare, and see me. My chest wrenched tight and my hands quivered, I couldn’t move fast enough, breath shaking in my throat.

In my panic, I’d turned the wrong way – away from the high street. Round a corner, down another alley, narrower and dimmer in the shadow of the buildings, between a dark-fronted jewelry store and an abandoned hairdressers.

Behind me: a grunt and a scrape of shoes on cobbles – footsteps, clacking fast, catching up.

Tenny surged out, tentacles wide, a cat making herself look big. I almost dropped my phone, fumbled and caught it again, clutched it to my chest and readied a scream.

Twil turned the corner, curly dark hair and stupid blue-and-lime coat and all. She hooked her thumbs into her jean pockets. I gaped at her.

“Yo, big H,” she said. “You know you’re being followed, right?”

“Yes!” I almost shouted. “By you! Oh my God Twil, you terrified me. Why didn’t you say something, you- you-”

“Not by me, you numpty. You’re being tailed by some skinhead bitch.”

My anger drained, along with the colour in my face. I hiccuped.

“W-what? Not you? F-following me?”

“Me?” Twil snorted a laugh. “If I wanted to stalk you, you’d never know I was there.”

Tenny was jabbing and feinting at Twil with her tentacles, blocking my view in the cramped cobblestone alleyway, a totally ineffectual attempt to menace a person who couldn’t even see her.

“Stop that!” I snapped. Tenny halted and bobbed back, tentacles drooping. She looked at me like a scolded dog.

Twil blinked.

“Not you, Twil,” I spluttered. “There’s somebody following me? There’s actually a person stalking me? You’re certain?”

“She’s been on your arse since the high street, followed you into that bookshop,” Twil said. “You didn’t notice?”

“I-I- sort of, yes.” I swallowed on a dry throat and peered over Twil’s shoulder. “She’s not- wait, you were following me too?”

Twil shrugged. “Well yeah, duh.”

Fresh fear crawled in the pit of my stomach.

I reminded myself what Twil was, who she represented; this teenage girl, short as me, with a face straight from a glossy magazine cover, fluffy dark hair and a bad girl attitude stamped over a middle class accent – she could clothe herself in wolf-flesh at will. I’d seen her pull a steel chain apart with her bare hands and crack concrete with a kick. She’d recovered in moments from a laundry list of broken bones and in half an hour from magical torture. She’d fought monsters when Raine and I had fled, and could catch me in a second if I tried to run.

And I’d turned down a secluded alleyway.

Stupid, stupid Heather.

Raine had bought me one last present when we’d gone out shopping together. She’d purchased it without my input or knowledge, then given it to me back at the house, so as not to spoil our fun day out. About the size of an egg, made for a quick and easy thumb-grip with an accidental-press-proof button right in the middle. Disarmingly and disgustingly pink. She’d made me promise to carry the thing.

I shoved my shaking hand into my pocket and pulled out the personal attack alarm.

Twil’s eyebrows climbed. “Woah, is that a tamagochi?”

“I … sorry?”

She frowned. “Wait, what is that?”

“An alarm,” I managed through my closing throat. “Why were you following me, Twil?”

Twil blinked through a moment of dumb incomprehension – then her face twisted, genuinely offended, mouth half open. “I- you- I can’t fucking believe you. Fuck you, Heather. I played fucking rearguard for you and Raine, got my fucking head split open, hurt like a bitch, and you treat me like I’m- fuck. Fuck!” She spread her arms and swore some more.

“You were following me! Twil, you scared the piss out of me! I’m-” I lowered the alarm. Twil did not possess enough guile to fake such outrage. “I’m sorry, okay? You terrified me.”

Twil dialled back and frowned, then cracked a thin self-satisfied smile. “Yeah, I did, didn’t I? Fair cop. I’m good at that.”

I took a huge, shaking breath. “I-I still don’t- just explain, okay? Why were you following me?”

“Caught Raine’s scent in the high street, didn’t I? I don’t know yours well enough. Thought I’d come say hi.” Twil sniffed the air as if to make her point. “Where is she anyway- oh. Ohhh.” Her eyes lit up with a dirty smirk. “You’re wearing, like, I dunno, one of her unwashed tshirts or something, aren’t you?”

“I … ” I hugged my coat around myself. “I am. And that’s none of your business.”

“Aw, come on, that’s awesome. I said you were her girl, didn’t I? She made it official and-”

“Why are you here in the first place?”

Twil rolled her eyes. “Don’t get like Saye with me, alright?” She pulled a plastic bag out of her coat pocket and showed me the contents: a video game box, still in the shrink wrap. “You try ordering stuff online in Brinkwood, pikeys’ll nick any package left on your doorstep. S’why I come up Sharrowford, release day, innit?”

My head swam. I huffed with exasperation. “Right. Video games. And- and somebody is following me?”

“Yeah, some skinhead girl. Bloody criminal, Raine letting you go off on your own. This city’s full of basket-cases and I figure you’re like a lamp to moths or some shit. Look, I’m here now, you want me to help or maybe like walk you home or-”

My mind filled with high-pitched whine: skinhead girl. Shaved head. Rare enough. What were the chances of a coincidence?

“Heather? Yo, Earth to Heather? Come in, cosmonaut girl?”

I blinked at Twil waving a hand in front of my face. Tenny had moved to my side, protective but useless against real flesh and blood.

“Is-” I swallowed on a dry throat. “Is she still after me?”

Twil frowned at the very real panic on my face; or perhaps she saw the other emotion underneath, a feeling I couldn’t process yet, new and smoldering and hot.

“I dunno,” said Twil. “D’you wanna find out?”

“ … what do you mean?”

Twil smirked again, dangerous and wolfish even without her transformation. She grabbed my hand. “I’ll show you some master hunting tricks in action. Come on.”

Despite everything Raine had once said about this crazy little werewolf, despite her very strict instructions to call her if anything happened, I let Twil lead me out of the alleyway, around a corner, and back into the high street among the afternoon shoppers. The crowd had thickened with groups of lads, young mothers with pushchairs, and a gathering numbers of secondary school kids. It was after three now, the schools had let out.

Twil was quick and snappy compared to my panicked confusion. She checked over our shoulders with casual ease and weaved through the crowd with apparently zero effort. She led me about forty feet up the high street and over a pedestrian crossing, toward the big department store wedged next to Sharrowford’s only indoor mall.

Squatting the open space before the department store and the mall, a very ugly and ill-considered piece of modern sculpture reached toward the sky, a fountain with a huge rotating steel ball planted on top, the size of a bus. No idea what it was meant to represent. Four stone benches ringed the exterior, dotted with a couple of old men sharing a cigarette and some schoolkids making noise. Twil rounded one of the empty benches and turned to watch the way we came. She scanned left and right, moving her eyes more than her head.

Tenny caught up with us and crouched in front of me. A lone tentacle brushed my hand and a word reached my mind: “Leave? Leave?”

“I-I have to call Raine.”

Twil frowned. “No time for that, gotta keep your eyes peeled. Come on, help me out here.”

I stared at the moving flows of people. “Why- why here? Why not wait in the alley?”

Twil pointed all her fingers out at the crowds. “Sight-lines, duh. You can’t see? This is the best place to watch for her, she can only come from there, there, or there,” Twil pointed.

“ … I don’t follow.”

Twil glanced sidelong at me, obviously unimpressed.

“I spend most of my life reading books, not environments,” I said.

She shrugged. “Short version: we’ll see her in a sec, cos’ if she tries to go all the way around behind us, she’ll risk losing your tail. Unless she’s doing some weird magic shit.” Twil muttered the last two words under her breath.

Waiting was impossible. My fingers itched, my head felt light with adrenaline. I glanced down at my phone, began to call Raine.

“Got her,” Twil said.

“What? Where?” I expected her to point, but she just nodded vaguely, eyes fixed and staring hard.

“There.”

Where?”

“Between the fat old guy with the awful shirt and the front of that coffee place. Right there, she’s looking up the street now. Amateur, totally lost us in the crowd.” Twil tutted and shook her head.

My blood froze; it was her.

Shaved head and whipcord tight. She was dressed differently from in the Willow House Loop, jeans and an open raincoat. Ears full of metal piercings, a tattoo crawling up the side of her neck. She turned and looked the other way down the street, not a subtle stalker.

“You know her?” asked Twil.

I swallowed, found I was shaking slightly, and forced myself to take a deep breath. “She tried to shoot Raine three weeks ago.”

Twil’s amusement did not linger. Her face darkened. “You serious?”

I nodded.

The Skinhead Girl turned and started up the street. At that angle, she’d miss us completely. She’d lost us. Twil turned and stared, wolfish predation in her eyes.

“Wanna fuck her up?” she muttered.

An unnameable, alien emotion burst into my chest in full colour. That woman, she’d tried to kill Raine. She’d very nearly succeeded, if not for my brain-math hell-magic that hurt my soul to use. I didn’t even know who she was, what she believed in, why she’d done it. She’d tried to kill Raine. I was afraid, almost shaking, but I’d lived with fear all my life, in a million different subtle shades and flavours. I lived fear inside out. It couldn’t stop me.

This was new.

Anger, bright and sparking.

“ … yes,” I hissed.


==


What’s worse than being stalked?

Being bait.

Twil did the planning, quickly and without explanation.

I didn’t fully trust her, but I also didn’t have time to second-guess. The Skinhead was going to get away. She’d walk to the end of Sharrowford high street and disappear for another three weeks or three months, and then maybe she’d come back and I wouldn’t have a convenient werewolf to sniff her out, and she would do something horrible to somebody I loved.

A small voice screamed panic in the back of my head, wailed that I needed to call Raine. I needed to call my knight in shining armour. I needed to get out of here, get back to the house – to home, and tell Evelyn what I’d seen. Call the cavalry and hide. Leave. Get Raine.

Instead I let a cultist werewolf girl tell me to walk down the street in plain view of a woman who’d tried to murder my lover.

“Try not to look back, it’ll tip her off. Just walk straight into the place.”

“What if you’re not- what if-”

“I’ll be there ten times faster than you. Go, before she reaches the lights,” Twil hissed. She pushed me forward. I staggered, feet and legs resisting this insane plan.

Then I put my head down, crossed my arms, and walked.

The first part was the hardest, to the pedestrian crossing and over the road with the trickle of foot traffic, knowing that the Skinhead girl would notice me at any moment. She’d see me in profile and recognise me, turn to follow, stalk me. The moment one comes under the eye of a watcher is always the worst.

I realised, with a slowly dawning shred of confidence, that’d I’d done this before, dozens of times, Outside. I’d slipped below the notice of terrible things a hundred or a thousand times my size, had to hold my nerve and creep past the gaze of much scarier creatures than one murderous bitch.

At least that’s what I told myself, as I turned my back on her line of sight and walked up the high street.

The pavement rose with a shallow incline, toward the cluster of roundabouts at the end of the high street. The shops thinned out and I took a left, exactly as Twil had told me, onto Grimmer Street. Fewer people here. Sad, leafless greenery wilted on a bank in the middle of the road. A multi-story car-park loomed in the middle distance.

A pub – The Dog and Duck – squatted another hundred paces ahead, tiny metal-latticed windows looking out between black beamwork and redbrick.

I’d never seen the place before. I walked up to the faux-rustic wooden door and pushed my way inside, over the scruffy old welcome mat and into the dark, warm interior, into the smell of stale beer and slate floor tiles. Shadows washed over me as my eyes adjusted to the dim lighting. I’d been into pubs with my parents a few times, when they dared take their unstable daughter out for the occasional nice meal of fish and chips, and I had vague memories of much happier meals with Maisie too, gastropub beer gardens in summer evenings in the south.

The Dog and Duck was not a gastropub.

It was rough and dingy and smelly, stained by decades of tobacco smoke and spilt beer. A couple of grey weathered old men propped up the bar, watching a football match.

Twil sprang to her feet from the nearest table and grabbed my hand.

“H-how did you get here so fast?” I asked

“Ran, didn’t I?” She grinned, a touch smug. “She behind you?”

“I assume so. I didn’t turn around to look.” My shoulder blades itched. I stepped away from the door. Twil got the hint and hustled me deeper into the pub. The bloke behind the bar raised his eyebrows at us.

“You two want a drink?” he called.

“We’re waiting for a mate!” Twil called back with a wink and a real laugh in her voice.

“Fair enough,” the barman said.

He wouldn’t have been half as friendly if he knew what we were planning to do in his pub.

“Here, you sit there and watch the door,” Twil said when we reached the booth table furthest in back. She hopped onto the opposite bench – hard, uncomfortable wood – and slid down so her head was below the level of the backrest.

“What … what are you doing?”

Twil rolled her eyes and smirked. “I’m hidden, duh. She’ll walk in, see you in the corner, and walk right up to you. Then I’ll clock her one and drag her out the back. It’s perfect!”

I lowered myself into the seat and pulled out my phone, hands still shaking and heart in my throat. My pulse was all over the place. The table stuck to my elbows, probably not cleaned in years.

“ … I need to call Raine.”

“Yeah yeah, good idea.” Twil nodded.

A figure stepped through pub’s door and I almost jumped out of my seat and dropped my phone again. Black tar-flesh and waving tentacles; I breathed out and rubbed at my chest, adrenaline strong enough to make my heart hurt. Tenny stalked halfway toward us and then circled the pub’s tables, as if looking for the right angle to help me watch.

The moment I’d jumped, Twil had peered over at the door. Now she frowned at me as if I was crazy.

“What is your deal, anyway?” she said. “I never got to ask proper, before.”

“I can see spirits.”

“Like … for real?”

“‘For real’,” I echoed carefully, then sighed and tried to steady my breathing. My chest felt tight and my head hurt. “I’m not cut out for this.”

“You gonna call Raine or what?” Twil asked.

“I … yes. I’m going to be in enough trouble as it is without further delay.”

Twil frowned. “Trouble?”

“With Raine.” I waved her down and focused on thumbing open my contact list. Pitifully few entries – my parents, Raine, Evelyn, the university medical centre.

“She giving you shit?”

“What?”

“She’s treating you right, yeah? You and her are bumping uglies, aren’t you? She’s not like … a shit, is she?”

“No, no, she’s perfect. I’m just an idiot, I-”

The Skinhead girl walked into the Dog and Duck.

To my surprise, I didn’t jump this time. Some buried animal instinct of self-preservation told me to stay very quiet and very still, though I was sat right in her line of sight.

“She there?” Twil hissed in a stage whisper. I nodded, cold sweat down my back, pulse racing in my throat.

The Skinhead girl glanced around the pub. Her gaze slid over me, uninterested. She nodded to the barman, walked over to him and spoke, dropping a few pound coins on the counter. He poured her a half-pint and slid a packet of crisps toward her.

“ … what’s she doing?” Twil whispered.

“Uh … ” I swallowed; could I be wrong? “At the bar. She’s got a drink.”

Twil squinted in confusion. “You sure it’s her?”

I nodded. It was the woman who had shot at Raine, no mistake. Flint-eyed and cold-lipped, body like a marathon runner, all hard corded muscle. She picked up her half-pint and turned toward me; eye contact at last.

Her gaze asked a silent question: are you going to run?

“Ah, fuck it,” Twil grunted.

Before I could say another word, Twil pulled herself up and leapt out of the booth, skidding across the tiled floor. The Skinhead girl took a step back, surprised and wary but not shocked. Twil straightened up and growled.

All eyes in the place – the barman and the two old men – turned to look at Twil, startled and blinking.

“Gotcha, slag!” Twil shouted at the top of her lungs. She grabbed a barstool and swung it wide.

The Skinhead girl bowled her beer at Twil’s head. Glass shattered, Twil howled, blood splattered across the floor and down her face, but it took more than a barroom glassing to slow Twil down. She wound up the bar stool and hurled it after the Skinhead, who was already fleeing for the door. Twil slammed outside in pursuit before the stool had even finished clattering to the floor. The barman and the two regulars gaped after them.

It was all over in seconds, so fast I couldn’t react. Tenny flowed over to guard me like a faithful hound, I had to squeeze and bumble past her to get out, almost tripping over my feet with panic as I trotted for the door.

“What the blazes was that about?” The barman called after me. “Hey, you need a hand, love? Want me to call the police?”

“It’s fine.” I hiccuped as I pushed my way back outside into the Sharrowford afternoon.

Twil was already a hundred meters down the road, feet slamming the pavement, heading the opposite way from the high street. The Skinhead girl slid out of sight ahead of her, ducking into an alleyway.

“Twil!” I shouted, suddenly scared to be left alone, even though it was the middle of the day and the busy Sharrowford high street was barely two minutes walk away. A few pedestrians glanced at me, at the crazy shouting girl in the middle of the street, but Twil didn’t look back – she chased the Skinhead into the alleyway.

I picked up my feet, a few hesitant fast steps, then a trot, then ran as best I could, clumsy and heavy-footed.

Twil was so fast, there was no way the Skinhead could escape. She’d catch her in that alleyway and then-

And then what?

The alleyway was empty except for some metal rubbish bins and back doors. Twil was already hurling herself out the other end. I called her name again, hoping any witnesses would ignore me as I slipped in after her.

Seconds, minutes, no clue how long the chase took; after the first few heaving breaths I lost track of both time and my body, struggled to haul myself around these backstreet corners and across roads stuffed with parked cars. We plunged between iron-fenced industrial lots and dark moldering office spaces.

I finally caught up with Twil as she was dropping down the other side of a tall spiked fence. The Skinhead girl sprinted away from her, deeper inside the industrial property they’d both broken into. She ducked around a corner and vanished.

No way I could follow in there.

“Twil!” I shouted again and ran up to the fence, but she was off at top speed, bouncing around the corner after the Skinhead. I caught a final flash of wolfish claw and wondered how she dare use her transformation out in public.

In public?

Heaving to catch my breath, lungs pumping like bellows, I turned on the spot. Redbrick walls and dark windows stared down at me, damp pitted concrete spotted with lichen and moss, secluded from the world outside. A tangled conjunction of back alleys and abandoned buildings converged here in a wider space. Tenny padded up to me and stared – apparently pneuma-somatic life doesn’t suffer the vulgarity of an overtaxed respiratory system – but other than her and a few spirits on the rooftops, I was utterly alone.

And I had no idea where I was.

“Ah, oh God.” I put one hand on my aching chest and struggled to stay on my feet, reaching out blindly to grip the fence. “Twil, you idiot.”

Tenny nosed in closer. I raised my eyebrows at her.

“You think-” I started, then froze.

Running footsteps echoed down the tangle of alleyways, impossible to judge distance – then a young man burst into the little makeshift back-alley courtyard. He skidded to a halt at the sight of me, opened his mouth, and held up a hand.

He didn’t look threatening. Perhaps the same age as me. Perhaps a university student, with floppy hair and a compact build running to flab.

“Wait,” he said, pointing a shaking finger at me. “Wait right there, you, uh, just wait right there. You’re … you’re not supposed to be here. Yeah, that’s right, you’re in trouble. Just stay there.” He spoke with a slight lisp. He held a phone up to his ear, call already connected. “I’ve caught up to her, what do I do?”

Unathletic and permanently exhausted, with a supernatural bruise throbbing in my chest, out of breath and terrified, I found hidden reserves at the sound of those words. I picked a direction, any alleyway out of the tangle, and hurled myself away from the fence, away from this man.

“Oi, fuck, I said stay put!” he yelled and barrelled after me.

He grabbed a fistful of my coat.

Physical struggle is difficult to control, unless one is trained, and trained well – or like Raine. One becomes an animal, pure instinct and adrenaline, kicking, hissing, biting, clawing, even if one is naturally timid. Or you go limp, you can’t believe it’s happening to you, too shocked to react.

Luckily, I turned out to be the former, but I barely recall the details.

He stopped me, yanked me back. Didn’t hit me, but tried to hold me still, pin my arms. I gave him a bad time of it, I think, went for his eyes and his throat without thinking. He seemed reluctant to hurt me, awkward and unsure of himself at first.

Then he realised how much stronger he was than me, and started to laugh.

“Give it up, hey, he only wants to talk to you. I can’t let you run off now, don’t be stupid.”

Like this was all some big joke, as he grabbed my wrists and almost pulled me off my feet. I think I screamed, kicking and pushing and trying to get him off me. I landed a flailing knee between his legs. He let out a noise like a steam-whistle and wasn’t laughing anymore.

“Ooof, you fucking bitch, ow, Jesus Christ, fuck-”

He shoved me at the floor, sent me sprawling and pinned me down with a knee in my gut.

He was shouting into his phone when Tenny stabbed him in the head.

That I remember, very clearly.

She reared up behind him like an angry squid, tentacles bunched and arced back for a strike. Relief filled me, before despair as I remembered she couldn’t touch him, couldn’t touch any flesh, she was literally bodiless. She jabbed all her tentacles together at once, spikes and stingers and suckers passing right through the back of his skull like the touch of a ghost.

He jerked up and sneezed, shook his head. “What was that?” he blurted out.

Tenny’s distraction gave me the split-second I needed to muster a reaction beyond the pure animal – and to yank my arm free. I mashed my hand into his ugly, stupid face.

His eyes went wide.

“Oh shi-”

Hyperdimensional math slotted into place, a spinning puzzle box in my mind, ratcheting spikes of pain behind my eyes. My stomach clenched, my body rebelled, but with my brain I gripped the black levers of reality and twisted them toward my own ends, along the angles of extra-dimensional physics.

The man vanished.

Instantly I rolled over and vomited, spewed my guts across the concrete and felt a nosebleed run down my face, coughing and spluttering. My chest was on fire and my head pounded like an expanding ring of red-hot steel lay beneath the surface of my skull.

No time to whine, no time for pain.

With more effort than I’d thought myself capable of, I struggled to my knees, then to my feet. Retching and staggering, I wiped my bleeding nose on my sleeve. My hands shook, my chest shook, everything shook. I spat vomit-flavoured saliva onto the floor. Over everything, absurdly, I felt terrible about my new pink hoodie getting spotted with stomach acid and flecked with blood.

My vision throbbed, edged with black, and I had to keep squeezing my eyes shut. Tenny stared at me like a concerned dog.

“It’s okay,” I mumbled through numb lips. “It’s- it’ll b-be okay.”

I fumbled my phone out more by touch than sight, and curled up around my aching chest as I listened to the ring.

“Heather?” The sound of Raine’s voice down the phone almost made me sob. “Hey, you heading home? Everything-”

“Raine,” I whined her name, couldn’t stop myself. “I need help.” I snorted back the nosebleed, then staggered as weakness gripped my knees. Had to hold myself against the wall.

“Heather? What happened? Heather?”

“I’m … I’m okay now, I’m okay. I had to … I think I killed a man … come get me, Raine? Please?”

“Where are you? Where are you exactly, right now?”

“I was- Twil showed up. It’s not- not her fault. It’s not. I-”

A hand plucked my phone from shaking fingers. Barely needed to fight me for it. I turned and gaped, so wracked with pain and nausea that I hadn’t even heard the footsteps approach. Raine’s voice, tinny and distorted, was carried away from me.

The Skinhead girl pressed the end call button.

She took a step back, away from me, beyond arm’s reach. We stared at each other, me bloody-nosed and wide-eyed, her cold and dispassionate.

“Heather Lavinia Morell?” she said. “My boss wants a word with you.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

conditions of absolute reality – 3.5

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

“Show me,” Evelyn said.

“Now? In here?”

“No reason to wait. I thought you’d be eager, what with your sister’s time limit.”

“Of course, yes, of course. I … ” I glanced past Evelyn to the calendar I’d pinned up on the kitchen wall. Dawn cast a rectangle of sickly grey through the windows, but hours would pass yet before the light touched those days.

Evelyn cleared her throat and pulled a face. “I know, I’ve hardly been upholding my end of our debt. I need to get a better idea of what you’re doing. Please, show me.”

“It’s not a debt, Evee. We’re friends.”

She shrugged bland acquiescence. “Please, Heather?”

“It’s far from perfect, and I don’t want to make a mess.” I looked Raine for support. She was leaning against the fridge, stuffing a half stale pastry into her face.

“You won’t mess it up,” she said. “You can do it, you’re ace. You’ve got this bastard right under your thumb now.”

“That’s not true. Not even close. You had to carry me home.”

Evelyn eased back in her chair, nursing a cup of tea with both hands. Neither of them said anything, a silent double-team. They surrounded me without even communicating.

“ … alright, okay,” I said with a sigh. “Let me go get my notebook, I can’t do it blind.”

Three weeks after Raine had moved into Evelyn’s house, and one day after my greatest experiment yet, we were all gathered once more in the kitchen, once more discussing matters of supernatural import, once more all very hungry.

Wrapped in a dressing gown and half-awake, Evelyn had stumbled onto Raine and I still recovering. My rain-spattered coat still lay by the front door where I’d dropped it, next to Raine’s mud-covered boots. We’d slept fitfully last night after a long shower. Raine had wanted me to sleep in, but I still felt queasy and a headache hovered at the back of my skull, so I’d dragged myself downstairs to sit and contemplate the effort required to keep down a sad plate of buttered toast. Evelyn had appeared, frowned at both of us, then asked why I looked wiped out and why Raine looked like I’d borne her a litter of kittens.

Now it was time for show and tell.

I trudged upstairs and fetched my notebook. Raine had a steaming mug of coffee ready when I returned, but I politely pushed it away, already regretting the breakfast which now sat like lead in my stomach.

“I’ll just bring it back up, you know that.”

“You won’t,” Raine said. “You didn’t last night.” I shook my head and sat down, flipped my notebook open and cast around for a likely candidate. Coffee mug? Used spoon? Evelyn’s plate?

“You need to be bloody careful with that.” Evelyn stared hard at my notebook. “You leave it in the wrong place … ”

“I won’t. Besides, who’s going to understand it but me?”

She grimaced at the cheap, spiral-bound notebook in my hands. I’d picked it up from the university bookshop two weeks ago and already filled it cover to cover, with endless mathematical notation stamped as neatly as I could between the ruled lines. To be fair, I’d had to rip a few pages out, paper flecked with vomit or blood, whenever I’d begun to transcribe concepts too incendiary for my fragile brain and stomach.

“Okay, so, I’m going to need-”

I glanced down at the math unprepared, winced, and averted my eyes. Big mistake.

Raine recognised the signs instantly. She grabbed my shoulders and dug her thumbs into the muscles, kneaded me hard to pull my mind away from the equations. She rubbed my neck, my scalp, smoothed my hair back from my forehead. She’d had plenty of practice these last three weeks. We’d discovered this early on; touch worked. Between her help and a few deep breaths, I fought down the wave of nausea.

“You good?”

“Yes. Thank you,” I breathed. She eased off. “So, right, let’s get this over with. I need an object we’re not going to miss.”

Evelyn frowned. “You mean you can’t bring it back?”

“Not always. I told you, it’s not perfect.”

“Not yet, maybe,” said Raine. “Should have seen her last night. Like that.” She clicked her fingers. “She doesn’t actually need all this prep, she’s just psyching herself up. She could stop a speeding train if she tried. Regular comic book superhero, our Heather.”

“Don’t, Raine. I’m- I’m honestly not comfortable doing this in here. What if I get it wrong?”

“You won’t.”

Raine rummaged in the kitchen drawers and found an old spoon, spotted with rust. She clacked it down before me with a dramatic flourish.

I stared at it for a moment, then back up at Evelyn, then at the figure behind her.

“Are you sure she should see this?” I asked.

Evelyn raised a curious eyebrow and glanced over her shoulder at Praem Number Two, standing prim and proper, silent and motionless, in the corner of the kitchen. Praem Number One was out, running some errand for Evelyn’s secret war, closing another Cult rabbit hole. Praem Number Two was identical to the first, right down to the brand of doll. Evelyn had explained they were actually the same demon, breaking causality in ways decent people like us shouldn’t think about too much.

The only way to tell One and Two apart was how Evelyn dressed them. Two wore cargo trousers and a puffy coat, totally at odds with her ice-blue skin and hair. Her blank white eyes stared at nothing.

“Why?” Evelyn asked. “Does she still make you nervous?”

“I think we’re beyond that, aren’t we? No, I just thought … I don’t know. Forget it.”

I took a deep breath, then reached out to touch the spoon. One fingertip was sufficient.

Raine was correct in some aspects of her praise. I didn’t actually need to do any of this mental prep. I could fumble through the equations at the speed of thought, though at the cost of a nosebleed and probably my breakfast.

Proper breathing helped. Preparation helped, to aid quick mental execution. The faster I self-implemented the equation, the less time I had to spend with the numbers.

I think that’s what Maisie meant, in her message: the numbers, what they do to you.

I skimmed my notebook for the necessary line. Bile rose in my throat and my stomach contracted as I slotted each piece of the equation into place, fast as I could, mind shaking as if playing with electricity and fire and radioactive waste, the Eye’s impossible principles rearing up and crashing down in a wave I had to outrun and-

Out.

The spoon vanished.

“Ahhhhh.” I let out a groan, grabbed my head in both hands, and tried to curl up into a ball around the ice-pick behind my eyes.

Raine was ready with a wad of tissues for my bleeding nose. Her other hand was already kneading the side of my ribs, trying her best to bring me back. I held onto the roiling in my stomach, forced slow steady breaths. Not going to be sick, not going to be sick. Neither of us could do anything about the ache in my chest, the throbbing, humming pain. I sat very still and breathed very carefully, until the pain ebbed away.

Evelyn got to her feet and inspected the place the spoon had existed a moment earlier.

“Impressive,” she murmured, running her hand over the table. “Didn’t take a chunk out of the wood either. Not even any varnish. Remarkable.”

“At least I’m precise.” I managed a weak laugh. Raine handed me a glass of water and resumed rubbing my back. Her hands made it easier to forget.

“Does size make any difference?”

“Hell no,” Raine answered for me as I was drinking, a proud smile on her face. “Why do you think we went down the junkyard last night? She did the same thing to an entire wrecked car.”

“And nearly passed out,” I said. “Yes, size makes a difference. And I haven’t tried it on a living thing, not since you, Evee.”

“Mm, yes.” Evelyn arched an eyebrow. “And you’ve no idea where it’s gone?”

“Not really, no. Outside. Some random dimension, I guess. I can’t target. There’s no frame of reference. Can’t even get to Wonderland yet.”

Maisie felt as far away as ever. What had I imagined, if only subconsciously? That we’d all go on a magical journey to Wonderland in the space of a week or two? Raine would punch out the Eye, I’d save my sister, and we’d all be home in time for Christmas? The real world did not work that way. Raine was a hero, but this was more logistics than heroics, especially with the lion’s share of Evelyn’s attention consumed by her shadow war against the Sharrowford Cult.

I’d bought a calendar and numbered the days, backward from the date in Maisie’s message. A countdown. Evelyn didn’t seem to mind when I pinned it up in the kitchen to remind me, to remind us. We had a year. A year to save my twin.

Or what was left of her.

Three weeks ago, before Raine even finished moving into Evelyn’s house, I’d begun my study of the pamphlet, with a sick bucket and an empty stomach.

My first attempt ended in sobbing, retching failure. I’d sat on the floor of my flat with Raine by my side in case the worst happened. It hadn’t, but I’d barely been able to struggle through a single line of formulae in the Notes.

Each mathematical principle dredged up old lessons from the Eye, nightmares I’d tried to forget and bury, ways of looking at physics and reality not meant for the human brain. I’d vomited bile and blood, suffered a migraine to end thought, almost choked on nosebleed. Three hours of trying to comprehend a single line; I gave up. Raine had to drag me into the shower and hold up me under the hot water, half-conscious and swearing I’d never try it again, I wouldn’t, I couldn’t. Part of me swore I’d give the pamphlet back to Evee. I couldn’t do this. I wasn’t strong enough.

The next attempt went a little better.

The third, not as messy. I didn’t miss the bucket that time.

Little by little, night by night, I read the first three pages of maths in Notes Toward a Unified Cosmology.

I began my own notebook. Somehow that came easier – finding ways to transcribe the Eye’s impossible physics. Capture, define, limit and categorise. Centring my thoughts on specific tasks bounded the maths, made it possible to control, if only just. I borrowed math textbooks from the library, started to collate, understand the tiniest sliver of what this alien god had fed into my mind for the last decade.

Through nosebleeds and pain and herculean concentration, certain limited feats became possible.

Raine took my empty glass and walked over to the sink. “Heather’s a lot faster if you surprise her though. It’s kind of impressive.”

Evelyn frowned. “ … I don’t want to hear the details of your sex life.”

“E-Evee, that’s n-not-” I blushed; Raine laughed.

“Also true.”

“Raine!”

“But also not what I meant.” Raine clacked the glass down on the kitchen counter, turned in a flash, and whipped her arm out.

She’d flubbed the delivery: I knew it was coming, which defeated the point. I didn’t bother to try.

The ping-pong ball bounced square off my forehead. I blinked.

“Oh! Oh shit, I’m sorry!” Raine raised her hands, caught between laughter and mortified horror. “Heather, I’m so sorry.”

“Duly forgiven.”

Evelyn raised an eyebrow. “You two can do this in the privacy of Raine’s room, you know?”

I fought down further embarrassment and kicked the ball back toward Raine. “Do it again.”

“You sure? S’not a surprise now.”

“I may as well show Evee. Go on, try to hit me again.”

Raine wound up a pitch, then held back. Perhaps she was trying to introduce an element of uncertainty, regardless of how much I was prepared. At least this was easier than banishing objects to other dimensions.

“Get on with it, then,” Evee said.

Raine tooted little fanfare from the corner of her mouth, took a step back, and bowled the ping-pong ball at me overarm, probably hard enough to sting.

I deflected it with my mind, with maths, a swat of reality-bending physics.

The ball hit the ceiling instead of me, then rebounded and bounced off the floor at an angle. Evelyn ducked and the ball hit Praem Two in the face, then landed in the kitchen sink with a sharp metallic ting. Raine put on a one-woman round of applause, Evelyn frowned in fascination, and Praem didn’t react in the slightest.

I stemmed my resurgent nosebleed with the wad of tissues, wincing around a spike of renewed headache.

“Interesting demonstration,” Evelyn murmured.

“I got the idea from the … ” I had to pause, take a deep breath, concentrate on not being sick. “The … the bullet. If I could … ” I waved a hand vaguely, withdrawing into my pain and discomfort. Raine touched me before I had to call for her, hands kneading my back and scalp, taking me away from the monsters inside my mind.

“We got the idea from the bullet-stopping trick,” Raine finished for me. “Turns out it’s pretty easy, especially if Heather’s surprised.” She leaned down to me. “You holding up okay?”

I nodded and made an effort to relax as Raine coaxed me back to normal. She reheated my coffee and slid a freshly toasted chocolate pop-tart in front of me. I sighed, gave in, and nibbled around the edges of the chocolate as the last of the nausea abated. Evelyn sat back down and considered me slowly over her cup of tea.

“You’ve been doing all this back at your little flat? Why?” she asked. “There’s more than enough space here. It’s not as if I care about ruined floorboards.”

“Psychological quarantine, perhaps. I felt self-conscious, didn’t want to make too much noise. You’ve been so busy, so stressed, I didn’t want to distract you further.”

“You two make more than enough noise anyway.”

I blushed furiously and took a bite of pop-tart. In the corner of my eye, Raine grinned, smug beyond words.

“She’s a real screamer, ain’t she?” said Raine.

“Raine!”

“One night I did wonder if you’d snuggled a hippopotamus into your bedroom,” Evelyn added.

“Evelyn! Oh my God, shut up.” I put my head on the table and buried myself underneath my arms, blushing red as a beetroot. Raine ruffled my hair and I half-heartedly squirmed out of the way, trying not to feel absolutely mortified.

“I’m joking,” Evelyn deadpanned. “Worst I hear is bedsprings.”

“Mmm.”

“You deserve to be proud, Heather,” Evelyn said. “Hold your head high.”

“W-what?” I uncovered my head and stammered at her. “E-Evee, I mean, that’s sweet of you but-”

She waved a hand and huffed. “I’m not talking about you and Raine. I’m talking about self-implementing hyperdimensional mathematics. No magic or magecraft can stop a bullet in the air without significant preparation. Not from a standing start. You’re performing miracles.”

“Don’t say that. It doesn’t feel like miracles, it feels like … barely enough progress at all.”

“Hey, Heather,” Raine said, ruffling my hair. “You’ve only been at it for three weeks, cut yourself some slack.”

“Maisie has less than a year.”

We all lapsed into silence for a long moment. Raine stroked my head.

“Targeting the dimension-hopping,” she said. “There’s a way, isn’t there, Evee?”

Evelyn stared back at Raine with a sudden hard look in her eyes.

“There is?” I asked.

“Sure is,” Raine said. “Evee knows what I’m talking about. Same place the Fractal came from.”

“You want me to expose her to that, Raine? You’re seriously suggesting that? You want me to blast your girlfriend’s mind into pieces? It might leave her a gibbering wreck.”

Raine laughed. “I’ve seen it and I turned out alright.”

“Yes, by certain metrics.”

“Expose me to what? What are you talking about?”

Raine cracked a grin. “Evee’s got a map of the universe.”

Evelyn shot a darkly withering look at Raine. “Both parts of that statement are incorrect. It is not a map of the universe, and I do not have it. It is a hundred and fifty miles away in a basement in Sussex, where it belongs.”

“Yeah, but we could go take a look at it. We could make a trip of it over the Christmas break, proper road-trip down south, stop off somewhere along the way, stay overnight. We’ll have plenty of time.”

“Oh, certainly.” Evelyn lashed the sarcasm. “I’ll just leave Sharrowford for a week, shall I? Let the freaks take over.”

“What if that’s all over by Christmas?” Raine asked. “We could all go together. We’ll make it fun.”

Evelyn’s irritation drained away to reveal a layer of naked discomfort. She looked around the kitchen, as if searching for purchase.

“Evee?” I said. She focused on me, hesitated, and nodded.

“Raine is correct. It’s not a map of the universe, but … it might help you. Might give you a frame of reference. It’s a difficult thing to face, but it won’t fry your brain. I suppose you’ve seen worse, haven’t you?”

“Suppose I have.”

“It’ll be fine,” said Raine.

Evelyn swallowed. “I know what you’re trying to do.”

“This … map,” I said. “It’s at your house, where you grew up, isn’t it?”

Evelyn nodded and looked away. “I don’t want to, Raine. I don’t want visit, I don’t want to see it, I don’t want to go. You and Heather can go, if you must. I’ll call ahead, let my father know, but I am not coming.”

“Don’t be daft,” Raine said. “I can’t leave you here alone. It’s all of us or none of us.”

“All for one and one for all,” I said. I’d meant it as a joke, to lighten the mood, but the words seemed too real as I spoke them.

“Even if I did want to, I can’t leave Sharrowford. You think I was joking?” Evelyn gestured behind her, past Praem Two, toward the ex-drawing room. “I have miles to go, much more to do in there before this is under control.”

I hadn’t set foot in the drawing room in three weeks. She’d turned it into a mage’s atelier, and Raine had done her best to keep me away from the worst of what Evelyn was up to. The rest of the house was free game, from Raine’s new bedroom and the delights of the study, to the abandoned old sitting room on the opposite side of the house and the dank cellar filled to the brim with boxes and cobwebs.

“When it’s all over then,” Raine said. “We’ll take a trip, together.”

Evelyn stared into her tea. “I’ll think about it.”

We all had class today. Evelyn grumbled about the need to keep up a front of normality. She downed some breakfast and stood up to vanish into the ex-drawing room for a couple of hours.

“Evee?” I stopped her before she left. She turned and raised an eyebrow at me.

“I know, Heather, I know. Your quest takes first priority once I’m-”

“No, it’s not that.” I shook my head. “Are you okay?”

She regarded me for a long, silent moment. “I’m used to this.”

Raine told me not to worry about Evee. Raine certainly didn’t seem to be doing so. I sat at the kitchen table for a long time, working my slow way through a second pop-tart. I tried to focus on the essay I needed to write over the next week. Sixteenth century poetry and Shakespearean dialogue served as a weak bastion against the lessons of the Eye. By the time I’d made my way back upstairs for a morning shower, I had to pause and brace myself against the wall with one hand, scraps of impossible math struggling to the surface of my mind.

Breathe. Steady. Focus on breathing, in and out, in and out. Only breathing.

I didn’t hear Raine climb the stairs behind me, didn’t know she was there until she grabbed me by the shoulders. I squeaked in surprise.

“Raine-”

She pushed me against the wall, firm but gentle, smug look on her face as she held me there and leaned in.

Raine flushed the impossible math from my consciousness far more completely than I ever could alone, when she clamped her mouth over mine and shoved a hand down the front of my pajama bottoms.

“You need it?” she purred when we broke apart.

I managed a nod.

Turned out the trick to beating the Eye’s lessons was to bonk like rabbits. We’d done so for the last three weeks.

Intimacy was incredible. Not since Maisie had I felt so close to another person. Raine taught me the reality of many things I’d spent years fantasising over. What surprised me the most, after a week or two, is that it didn’t change me, not really. Intimacy healed wounds, lifted me up, but sex isn’t magic. ‘Eating pussy’ – as Raine so crudely phrased it – did not rewire my personality. In the morning, I was always the same Heather. I was more Heather. More me.

She hadn’t let me move in though.


==


Raine had moved into Evelyn’s house – simply ‘the house’ in our increasingly shared vernacular – the following day after Evelyn had extended the invitation. She moved back into what I took to be her old bedroom, quickly filled it with posters and her stacks of philosophy books and a few other odds and ends wrangled from the squat, including the game console, set up with a ‘borrowed’ television. Raine and I had taken the last journey from her old place together, piled into her tiny, rickety car, a miniature adventure down Sharrowford’s streets.

Her new – old – room was much bigger and comfier, with space to push armchairs up against one wall and roll off either side of the double-bed as one pleased. She dragged an old desk from one of the other upstairs rooms. Really spread out. No need for me to take another room. We could share this one, together. Evelyn made obscure jokes about lesbian second dates, which I totally didn’t understand, but to my incredible surprise she made Raine blush.

Instead, we had our first real argument.

Not a blazing row. Neither of us was capable of that.

“This place is going to fill up with monsters, Heather. Evee could turn this into ground zero,” she’d said.

“Nothing’s happened! It’s been nearly a week, nothing has happened. And if we’re all going to die suddenly, I’d rather do that in the same bed as you.”

“We’re not going to die-”

“Then why can’t I move in?”

“Because it’s too dangerous. I don’t think anybody is after you, and I’d rather keep it that way. I just want you to be safe.”

“Oh, so it’s safer to just visit here every day instead? Walk back and forth where anybody could see me, without you?”

“Heather, I’m with you as much as I can be-”

“Then I may as well be here all the time!”

We never really resolved the argument, practicality and hormones did that for us. Evelyn scolded Raine terribly for it and told me to ignore her, but I didn’t need to; Raine wanted me over all the time anyway. I spent almost every day there and vanishingly little time at my own flat, which felt cold and alien and empty whenever I went back, mostly to pursue brain-math and read from the Notes. In those three weeks, I spent every night but two in Raine’s bed, and slept better than I had in my whole life.

She was used to this impermanence, moving from place to place, but for me it was a huge change, one I could barely contain. At first I felt guilty about the way my clothes and books and the thin detritus of my life began to colonise Raine’s new bedroom, but then I realised she liked it, despite what she said, so I let it happen.

She was right though; the house did fill up with monsters.

Evelyn had been busy, up at strange hours of the night, reading and making notes from her disturbing tomes, locked away in the ex-drawing room scribbling magic circles on the floor and peering into her giant scrying pool. Praem One and Praem Two were out more often than not, and sometimes returned with torn clothes and oddly bloodless physical damage, woodgrain visible inside their wounds, from fighting monsters inside the Cult’s rabbit holes. Evelyn repaired them with magic and poly-filler.

She summoned three monsters. Outsiders, not spirits, hard and corporeal. The first one was quickly confined to the basement. I never saw it, but Raine assured me it was down there, contained and bound for a future purpose.

She called up the second monster in the dead of night on a Friday, and only emerged from the drawing room twelve gruelling hours later, wan and exhausted but smug and victorious. Raine and I had heard her talking and debating in at least four different languages that entire time, replies and questions addressed to her in an unspeakable, twisted voice from the pit.

The third monster she sent out into the city, a new front in her secret war. I caught a glimpse of it, unintentionally, coming downstairs as Raine had stood by while Evelyn directed it out of the back door and into the night. A gangly ape demon, knobbly joints and knuckles like cricket balls, jaw running vertically down its entire head.

I’d seen worse. At least it left the house.

“What can I do, then?” I’d asked Evelyn the next day.

“You can keep doing what you’re doing, work through the pamphlet I gave you. Learn. Focus on your sister.”

“ … I mean to help you, Evee. To help.”

She’d stared at me. “This isn’t your fight.”

Every day I looked at Maisie’s tshirt message, now carefully laundered and cleaned after being transcribed and photographed, though the tarry black finger-writing refused to vanish.


==


For pity’s sake, sit down, I willed. Sit down before you fall over.

Tenny wouldn’t sit.

I doubted bubbling-goo spirit-life understood busses anyway. I suffered in silence and fought a most irritating urge to whisper to her, tell her off, but I could hardly raise my voice in public to speak with a monster nobody else could see. That was beyond the pale.

The Tentacled Woman swayed and staggered in the middle aisle of the Number 37 bus, on the route from Sharrowford University to the city centre. There were plenty of open seats. I had almost the entire left side to myself.

I hadn’t grown comfortable with pneuma-somatic life. One does not get ‘comfortable’ about decade-old taboos and traumas in the space of three weeks, or even three months, even when a flash of the Fractal on my left arm was more than enough to clear my path.

But the Tentacled Woman had never left. I named her Tenny. A name made her less upsetting.

She’d hung around Barnslow Drive like a stray cat, prowling the street and the back garden, following me to campus and my flat, but she never again risked coming closer than a few feet, no matter how much I coaxed and cooed in private. I’d told Evelyn and Raine, received unhelpful jokes and a terrifying magical suggestion respectively. Evelyn had taken steps to confirm Tenny wasn’t a Servitor, and I’d settled on just letting her follow me around. After a week, I almost managed to forget she was there.

Tenny did not appear to comprehend chairs. The bus rounded another corner and she staggered, lost her balance, tentacles reaching up to anchor herself against the roof of the bus.

At least she was a good distraction from the lump in my throat.

I glanced down at my phone, at the text-message conversation with Raine.

Raine is typing …

I’d waited until I was on the bus, fare paid, sat down and committed, before I’d sent Raine a text message to let her know where I was going. I’d hoped for a ‘be safe, have fun’, but my mind had played out an embarrassing scene of her dropping everything and sprinting across campus to catch up. The reality was only marginally less upsetting. I couldn’t stop myself rereading the message log and making myself feel guilty.

‘What do you mean, into town? You’re on your own? Where are you now?’

‘Already on the bus! It’s fine, I’m going to the bookshop. I’ll only be a couple of hours.’

‘It’s not safe!!!’ Three exclamation points, I’d never seen Raine do that before. ‘I can come with you. What bus are you on?’

‘It’s fine, I’m fine, it’ll be fine. Please, it’s fine.’

Fine, fine, fine. I swallowed and forced myself to turn the phone screen off.

Two days after my demonstration to Evelyn, I was seeking a much-needed psychological balm: book shopping.

It was the middle of the day and Sharrowford’s main high street thronged with shoppers, nothing to be scared of amid the busy crowds, except for the spirits and monsters hunched atop the rows of buildings, snapping at each other as they skirmished for territory. The press of humanity somehow kept them mostly away from the busy road, the passing busses, the traffic lights and the bright window displays pretending to be clean amid the city’s grime. I stepped off the bus and Tenny followed, tentacles probing passers-by.

My phone vibrated – kept vibrating. I stepped out of the pedestrian flow next to a shop front, then sighed in exasperation when I saw Raine was calling me. I answered.

“I’m fine, I’m fine.” I tried to keep my voice steady, tamp down the guilt.

“Hey, Heather,” said Raine. “You don’t need to go out alone-”

“You’re supposed to be in a lecture, Raine.”

“Ahhh, it doesn’t matter. Come on, where are you at? I’ll come join you.”

“And you have to walk Evelyn home after class, don’t you?”

Raine had spent the last three weeks juggling both of us. I don’t know how she did it. She walked me to and from campus, and she walked Evelyn everywhere. She turned up after lectures and raced back home to pick whoever was alone. She split herself both ways and somehow never seemed to tire, on top of a part-time evening job behind the bar in the student union.

But over time, inevitably, she came to prioritise Evelyn. I don’t know if it was years-old habit, or merely because she thought Evelyn was in more danger, despite the intimacy she shared with me, intimacy I was certain she didn’t share with Evee.

Which is why I was off to browse books on my own, with only pneuma-somatic stalkers for company.

Raine paused for a long moment on the other end of the phone. In my mind’s eye I saw her struggling with the decision: keep it light, or get serious?

“Evee can wait in the Medieval Metaphysics room,” Raine said, choosing the latter as her voice hardened. “It’s not safe out on your own. Let me come get you.”

I sighed, a tightness gripping my chest. “Raine, it’s the middle of the day. There are dozens of people around. Nothing has happened in three weeks. Nobody is going to clock me over the head in broad daylight. Go back to class.”

“You never-”

“Didn’t Evelyn already clear out the city centre?” I lowered my voice.

“Yeah, but-”

“Raine, I love it when you’re my knight in shining armour, but you don’t need to be right now.” Saying no to Raine was difficult. Refusing her care and attention and endless doting affection was not easy. I swallowed a hiccup. “I’ve got the charm in my pocket. It’s broad daylight.”

Evelyn had given Raine and I slips of stiff paper, stamped with a symbol very much like the Fractal, told us to keep them on ourselves. A sort of lock against wandering into another concealed entrance to the Cult’s shadow-city.

“ … Heather, please?”

“I’m fine, I’ll be fine. I’ll be home in under two hours. Please relax. I’ll see you later.”

“Okay, okay.” Raine’s tone made it clear she was fighting with herself. “Be safe, okay? Call me if anything happens. I’ll see you at home. Take care.”

We said goodbye and I ended the call; my mood was in the toilet. Tenny hovered nearby, peering at me. Pedestrians walked right through her.

The city centre was perfectly safe, nothing to be scared of. I believed every word I’d said to Raine, otherwise I wouldn’t be down here, but I still hated crowds.

I felt stiff and awkward out in public, around so many people, already regretting the decision to do this alone even without the impact of Raine’s worry. Even well-rested and together, cared for and sane, I was still a jittery mess.

Raine had first taken me down here two weeks back, to shop for clothes. That trip had been bliss.

We’d visited one of the bigger department stores together. Raine had coaxed me into trying on clothes I’d never normally have dared, things that felt like they weren’t for me, weren’t meant for somebody like me, were meant for people far more comfortable, not incomplete phantoms missing half their souls.

She’d bought me a high-waisted skirt and coloured tights – things I could never bring myself to wear in public – along with a new jumper and a wonderfully comfortable pink hoodie. Hoodies weren’t me, let alone pink – or so I’d thought. Wearing it made me feel oddly self-conscious but also safe and enclosed, feminine and warm, ways I’d always wanted to be allowed to feel. Raine’s gift helped me feel more like me.

I wore the hoodie now, under my coat for extra layers in the growing winter cold, along with one of Raine’s tshirts against my skin, plucked still warm from her bed this morning.

Down the high street and off through a side road, past The Coachman’s Arms and the tiny video game store where Raine knew the staff by name. Another turn, another, and then finally down an alleyway, thin and crooked and paved a hundred years ago.

All my trepidation and jitters fell away at the sight of Mount Emei Secondhand Books.

Sharrowford boasted three bookshops, if one did not count the obligatory student bookshop on the university campus, which mostly stocked overpriced set texts for naive undergrads such as myself. The big chain store in the shopping mall was too bright and too new, books crowded out by DVDs and endless special offers, colourful displays and unnervingly jolly staff. A charity bookshop sat like a boil at the top end of the high street, stuffed with the dregs of popular hardbacks.

And then there was Emei, tucked away like a hidden gem. Raine had shown me it as a gift.

I had to duck slightly as I entered, the doorway cramped even for me. Tenny followed, whipping her tentacles in behind and then stilling at the atmosphere inside. Even a spirit felt this.

Emei Secondhand Books was a rickety four-story structure, carved out of what had once been a terrace tenement house a century ago. Bare wooden floors, leaning racks stuffed with all manner of books, low ceilings and narrow aisles. The shop smelled of incense and paper, dry and clean, despite the huge peace lilies and spider plants on every tilted creaking floor.

The owner was a tiny old Chinese lady made out of leather and steel wool. She could often be found pottering between the stacks, attempting to impose some order on this endless mass of texts. If you engaged her in conversation – as Raine had – one discovered a sharp mind and a dirty sense of humour. The lad behind the counter this morning, pierced and tattooed like a punk band front-man, nodded and smiled a hello to me as I shuffled inside, and I actually smiled back.

Heaven. Second only to the library.

I had little money to spare, but in here five pounds could net me two or three paperbacks. I figured I’d earned it, I’d earned a moment’s respite from brain-math and horror and university essay writing. I’d be no good to Maisie if I burnt out.

I spent a lovely half-hour browsing through the books, discovering strange titles I’d never heard of, thumbing through fifty-year-old copies of classics with creased spines and dented corners. I found a second edition of Watership Down and almost purchased it right then, but forced myself to leave it behind for now and worked my way up the staircases, to the even more cramped fourth floor with the low ceiling beams and tottering stacks of specialist literature: religion and philosophy.

Raine would understand these books. Half of them went over my head. I plucked Hegel off a shelf and peered inside, lost in the text as a few other would-be antiquarians shuffled books and sniffed and departed back down the stairs to the lower floors.

My phone buzzed with a text message. Raine again.

‘Just got out of class. Please tell me you’re okay?’

Oh, she was so sweet it hurt. I felt terribly guilty. Now I’d had time to unwind, I questioned why on earth I’d done this, why had I come alone? I could have waited until later this afternoon, gone together with her. I loved doing things with Raine. Was this passive-aggressive behaviour on my part? Getting back at her for prioritising Evelyn?

It was, wasn’t it?

I need to apologise. In person. I sighed to myself and sent a reply, along with a quick picture of the row of philosophy books. ‘I am fine! All is well! Look what I found!’

A moment later, Raine sent me a huge ASCII art image of worried face. I almost giggled and felt even worse – it even looked a tiny bit like her. Had she made that?

As I puzzled over a reply, or perhaps a resolution to head home already, Tenny reappeared.

She’d followed me out of the stairwell onto to the fourth floor, but then she’d stalked off around the opposite side of the room, like an inquisitive dog sniffing for interesting scents. She’d vanished behind the shelves, perhaps to investigate the other customers in the bookshop or for some unfathomable ends of her own. I’d put her from my mind, but now I looked up as she slid around the side of the nearest bookcase.

“What do you think?” I whispered to her. “Shall I buy a book for Raine? A present to go with my apology … ”

I froze.

Tenny was pointing back down the stairs with all her tentacles.

She bobbed and weaved her strange wiry body, staring at me with those huge deep-sea eyes, black tar-flesh quivering. One tentacle whipped over her head to point in the other direction, into the depths of the bookshop shelves, then whirled back to jab down the stairs.

“ … oh that’s definitely communication,” I murmured, wide-eyed. “Hello you.”

I glanced around quick, made sure no other customers were close by. Tenny pointed again, the mass of ropey black tentacles retracting and bunching up like a squid before arcing toward the stairs.

“Trying to suggest a book I missed?” I whispered. “What do you-”

Tenny shook herself, tentacles flexing and vibrating. If I hadn’t known better, I’d have sworn she was expressing frustration.

She stepped closer to me than she’d risked in weeks and stuck out the tip of one tentacle. I blinked at her.

“You want to talk?” I said out loud, then caught myself and looked around again in embarrassed paranoia. Nobody had heard; nobody cared. She and I were alone in this corner, secluded behind a wall of old books. I smiled at my strange spirit stalker, almost delighted, confused at my own reaction. All my life I’d hated these things.

The centre of her chest split open into that black, lipless mouth I’d seen before, slapping and flapping. A drumming noise echoed from the limits of perception.

She flicked the tentacle-tip closer, all caution apparently abandoned. A dripping tarry black pseudopod, covered in suckers. Too shocked for disgust, I reached out a finger, fought with a moment’s hesitation, and touched Tenny.

Contact.

The distant drumming sharpened in time with the slurping of her chest-mouth, first into mere sound, sucking and wet like thick mud – then into words. Non-human words through a non-human mind. I waited a beat, but they made no sense, mud-words, tar-words, wet and liquid.

“I don’t understand,” I whispered.

“-person here master leave.”

I blinked in shock.

“Bad follow person here master leave,” Tenny said through the mouth in her chest.

It wasn’t English, the shapes, the sounds, the motion of the mouth. But that was what I heard, in a slopping mud-voice, unmistakably feminine and – perhaps it was mere projection – in a tone which made me think of an eager hound.

“Bad follow person here-”

“I heard. I heard you,” I whispered, my every nerve on edge. “What- master? Me?”

“Bad follow. Leave. Leave.”

My stomach tightened. The mere fact of communication had dazzled me; the meaning had sailed right over my head at first. I pulled my finger away from the tentacle and slowly looked around, peeking through the gaps in the shelves. How many other people were up here on the fourth floor with me? Two? Three? A blob of pneuma-somatic tar dripped from my fingers and turned to smoke as it hit the floorboards.

Tenny was jabbing and pointing down the stairs again.

What did she mean, ‘bad follow person’?

I inferred the worst.

Tenny’s suggestion was easily followed and cost me nothing, except peace of mind and a sliver of my sanity. I walked stiffly down the stairs to the third floor, holding the handrail the whole way. She brought up the rear, guarding my back.

Absurdity and paranoia. On the third floor I took a deep breath and steadied myself. Tenny could have been reacting to anything – another spirit, a person she didn’t like, a figment of her imagination. Could she imagine? Do tar-flesh spirits dream of pneuma-somatic sheep?

A couple of other customers were browsing the military history and cooking sections. A harmless grey-haired man and a rotund middle aged lady. I was in a bookshop, in the middle of the day. Nobody was following me, that would be absurd. I slipped between the shelves and glanced up at the books. In public. Perfectly safe.

Tenny was having none of it. She surged around me, bobbing and weaving like a pouting octopus made of tar and rubber. A tentacle-tip touched my shoulder.

“Bad follow. Bad follow.”

“What does that mean?” I hissed, mortified that somebody might hear me talking to thin air. I pulled down a book, cracked it open and stared at the words.

“Bad. Bad. Lozzie say get you out before find.”

“ … Lozzie?” I blinked at my tentacled friend.

Why did I know that name?

Who was Lozzie?

Footsteps creaked on the stairs, descending from the fourth floor.

I kept my face buried in the book, forced myself not to turn and watch the doorway. A person entered, crossed behind me into the stacks. I waited a minute, then turned and left, shoulder blades crawling as I took to the stairs again.

Footsteps followed me, down to the second floor, then to the first.

Tenny was right.

I was being stalked.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

conditions of absolute reality – 3.4

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

She of the Many Tentacles was exactly where I’d left her – just like Praem.

Out in Evelyn’s front garden, I hugged myself against the hint of winter in the air, as I walked down the cracked pathway in the lowering afternoon sunlight, to the low boundary wall. I’d slipped my shoes on but not bothered with my coat, Raine’s borrowed polo neck kept out the worst of the chill. This would only take a minute.

Nothing remained of my earlier entourage, dispersed to the winds and replaced with the usual spirit life. Scuttling ghoul-faced hounds and apish pack creatures lurked down the alleyways and mobbed in the street. Dark faces and staring eyes peered my way, but with mere fleeting curiosity, there and gone again. Back to normal.

Normal. Right.

Barnslow Drive was a desolate place. I suspect that’s why I’d come to like it so much. The house to the left of Evelyn’s was truly abandoned, windows boarded, front door chained shut. To the right lay a hundred feet of weed-choked lot before the next house, occupied but quiet and dark. The road was old tarmac, no potholes, but ridged and riven from beneath by unseen questing roots, from the trees on the far side of the street, covered with rain-matted leaves and puddles of standing water.

The Tentacled Woman still sat on the opposite pavement, in the shade of a gnarled oak tree. The tentacles from her back waved and bobbed in the air, like a human twiddling her fingers. I stared, and realised with an odd shock of recognition that she had her chin in her hands.

“That better not be an act,” I murmured.

She was staring right back at me, with those huge glassy black eyes.

I took a deep breath, looked up and down the street one last time for casual observers, then twitched my left sleeve back to expose the edge of the Fractal. One step carried me through the boundary of the open garden gate.

Many reasons should have kept me in the house – random witnesses, unseen watchers from the Cult, potential disaster, the simple cold and being alone, fear.

Fear. That was the one I wouldn’t give into anymore. That was why I’d come out here, alone and unsupported.

I wet my lips, tilted my chin up, and raised my voice.

“Come here.”

The Tentacled Woman obeyed.

She rose to her feet in a single sinuous slide, nothing like a human standing up. I assumed no actual muscles were involved. She peered at me from deep-sea eyes set in a face of slow roiling tar, then crossed the road toward me.

I risked a quick glance left and right; no other spirits were responding to my order, which was a relief. If they had, I would have freaked out and scurried back indoors, forever regretted my lack of courage. With one – this one – the Fractal was enough. I kept the fingers of my right hand on my left sleeve cuff, the edge of the Fractal peeking out from underneath, like a gunslinger with a hand on her revolver.

What a joke.

I struggled to stand my ground. My pulse throbbed in my throat and my heart fluttered against my ribs, cold sweat broke out on my forehead and I badly wanted to sit down.

The Tentacled Woman mounted the pavement, her tentacles waving and winding through the air, tracing unseen contours above her head. The mouth in her chest sucked open, lip-less hole forming words heard as drumming echoes at the limit of perception.

“Shut up,” I snapped, then told myself to breathe and control the tone of my voice. Command. “Stop there.”

She obeyed again, the mouth pausing along with her stride, about five feet from me. A nice safe distance. She turned her head and looked away; on any human that would be a haughty pout.

Right then … now … oh.

What now?

What the hell was I doing? What was my aim here? Proof of concept? I’d mounted this experiment on a whim of courage, without a proper plan, and now I was too deep to back out.

“Why … ” I swallowed and let out a slow breath. “Why have you been following me?”

She dropped the haughty pout. The mouth in her chest resumed flapping and sucking, whispering drumbeats on the far side of nowhere. I frowned and concentrated but couldn’t make out a single word.

“We can’t actually communicate, can we?” I said.

Her chest-mouth slurped to a halt. She stared, face more inscrutable than the most stoic human mask. Praem had nothing on Miss Tentacles.

I sighed. This experiment was probably a wash. Talking to a spirit in the middle of the day, absent a crisis or real reason, was making me jittery and jumpy. What if somebody drove past, or looked out of a window, saw the crazy girl speaking to herself?

At least I could do it. Small victories, Heather, small victories.

“I suppose we’re done-”

She whipped one of her tentacles through the air, a lash and coil of dripping black, scything for my face. I flinched and swallowed a yelp, yanked my sleeve up on the Fractal as I stumbled backward into the garden gate.

She froze. The tentacle-tip – a slick sucker-covered rope of flesh – hung in the air, pointed at me.

“W-what?” I heaved to get my breath back, right hand half-concealing the exposed Fractal on my forearm.

She wiggled the tentacle in a little circle, then pointed it back at me again.

“ … you … you want me to touch? Shake hands?”

I wasn’t going to make the same mistake I had with Maisie’s messenger. I raised one finger. She waited, tentacle-tip steady.

“If this is a trap, or something, I will mind-zap you into some hell dimension. Take that as a warning.”

She pulled the tentacle back and slid away from me.

“No, no, wait,” I said. “If it’s not a trap, that’s fine. I … I think I want to communicate. Please?”

The Tentacled Woman did not accept my invitation. She backed away to her own safe distance, then simply watched me.

“Ahh shoot.” Stupid, stupid Heather. You’re trying to make friends, not threaten. “Look, I’m sorry, I’m just scared. You don’t understand that, do you? I’ve been scared of things like you since I was a child. Talk, please?”

I offered her my hand. She backed away, like a spooked cat.

“Heather?” Raine called from the front door. “Oh thank God, there you are.”

I turned to find Raine hurrying down the garden path, as if I was a confused old person who’d wandered off. I lowered my hand, feeling silly and oddly guilty.

“It’s fine, it’s okay, I’m fine.”

“What are you even doing out here?” Raine touched my shoulder, brow creased with concern. She looked up and down the street. “What did you see? Did something happen?”

“I’m- I’m talking to a spirit. Or, I was trying to.” I gestured at the road, at the figure Raine couldn’t see. A blush coloured my cheeks. “Everything’s fine, nothing happened. I’m sorry- I mean, I just wanted- … needed to do this.”

Raine’s face lit up. “Oooh, any success?”

“ … uh … a little, yes. I think I scared her off though.”

“Her?” Raine smirked. “You making special friends without me?”

I rolled my eyes, then cast a glance at the Tentacled Woman. She’d backed up beyond safe distance, settled down in a squat, black ichor dripping from her tentacles. “Oh don’t be silly, you have nothing to be jealous of.”


==


Raine insisted I come back indoors because of the cold, but I wasn’t stupid. I saw the way she watched the ends of the street like a hawk, the ready tension in her shoulders, the hard flint in her eyes. She was no good at hiding that from me, and I liked the sense I had a protector. But was that necessary here? Surely nobody would come to the house.

“Did you two make up?” I asked, once we were back inside the warm wooden womb of Evelyn’s house.

“Uh, mostly. Mostly, yeah. Gonna go with yeah.”

“ … and what does that mean?”

She spread her arms in an expansive shrug. “It’s means we’re all yelled out for the moment.”

We discovered Evelyn had fallen asleep, sat at her map in the ex-drawing room. Cheek in hand, elbow on table, eyes closed – snoring softly. Raine started to laugh but I put a finger to my lips.

“She’s exhausted,” I mouthed.

“Sleeping there’ll mess up her back worse than usual,” Raine whispered, then spoke out loud. “Wakey wakey, sleepo.”

Evelyn jerked and gasped, blinking her eyes and clearing her throat. My heart went out to her; I knew that feeling too well. She grabbed at her walking stick and directed bleary, bloodshot eyes at us.

“What?” she croaked, then rubbed her forehead. “What? I nodded off. What are you staring at? Oh God, sod this, I need coffee or something. I have so much to do.”

“No, no I don’t think you do,” I said, surprised myself.

“What?” Evelyn’s eyes emerged squinting from behind her hand.

“I’ve seen that look on my own face a thousand times. How long have you been awake?”

“Since … I don’t know. I wasn’t keeping track. Maybe four, this morning.”

“On how much sleep?”

Evelyn grumbled under her breath and averted her eyes. She rubbed at her thigh, approximately where the socket of her prosthetic attached.

“How much sleep, Evee?”

“Three hours. Give or take.”

“Three hours? Three hours. Okay. Do you need to shore up a front that’s about to collapse out there?”

“ … what? Wha-”

“Are we in imminent danger of being undermined and detonated from below? No? Is this all going to collapse if you leave it alone for a few hours?”

“Well … no, not at all, but-”

“No buts. You need a proper meal and a long sleep. You can’t fight a war exhausted.”

“Zhukov did.”

Raine burst out laughing. “Evee, shut the hell up. Heather’s got you on this one. You’re wiped out. I haven’t seen you this tired in years.”

I turned on Raine, hands on my hips. “And you should have said this to her earlier. She’s your friend too, Raine. You should have noticed.”

Raine blinked at me. “Ah, well, I-”

“What do we have in the fridge?”

“I- sorry?”

“Food. Food! What do we have? Evee, what do you have on hand?”

Evelyn visibly attempted to rouse herself, pinching the bridge of her nose and inhaling deeply. “Not much. Not much at all. I’ve been snacking through it.”

“Right then, Raine,” I snapped back to my now slightly-taken-aback girlfriend. “There’s that corner shop about five minutes away. Go get some curry or something. And a jar of instant hot chocolate”

Raine hesitated a beat, then grinned and saluted me. “Yes ma’am.”

I blushed. “Don’t. I’m just … you two seem incapable right now. We can’t all carry guns and summon monsters. Some of us have to remain normal.” I shooed Raine toward the door. She laughed on the way out, caught my hand and kissed my fingers.


==


By the time Raine returned carrying a shopping bag full of comfort food, the sun had crept low to the horizon, wan late afternoon light sneaking shadows into the kitchen’s nooks and crannies. I’d herded Evelyn into a chair, just to get her out of the occult workshop she’d made of the old drawing room. She’d almost limped, heavy on her walking-stick, and winced when she sat down.

“Oh, bugger it all,” she’d muttered, rolled up her pajamas, and started to remove her leg.

I busied myself by rummaging for a snack in the cupboard, washed out my coffee mug, and checked on Praem in the front room. Three days ago I’d watched Evelyn put on her leg, but that had been at invitation, a moment of recovery and regeneration. No sordid routine of pain. She grumbled and massaged her stump, and I offered her an awkward hug.

Raine raised her eyebrows at the sight of Evelyn’s prosthetic stood up in the corner of the kitchen, but she didn’t comment, hustling and bustling and slinging microwave curries at us, clearing the table and acting like the world’s most athletic waitress. I puttered around the edges, trying to help, until Raine sat me down by the shoulders and took over.

Dinner – a little early – was chicken curry and microwave rice, followed by three packets of chocolate chip cookies, far more than I thought we could hope to put away between us. I was wrong. Evelyn picked at her food at first, and I worried she was nauseous, but she gathered speed and slowly slipped into a satisfied, full-belly slouch, half-awake as we chattered about inconsequential things, university and literature and the state of her old house.

Praem didn’t need to eat. I asked about that and got a very clear answer.

“Raine told me you were having trouble with the pneuma-somatic life on your way here.”

I shrugged, mouth full of chocolate chip cookie. The sun bled orange dusk through the window, and we’d long ago turned the kitchen lights on, our empty plates pushed toward the middle of the table.

“Seems a little academic now,” I said. “I think I got rid of them.”

“Did the Fractal drive them off?”

“Mmhmm.”

“You should have seen her,” Raine said. “If she’d threatened me like that, I’d have run away too.”

I blushed a little and shook my head.

“Well, there you go then,” said Evelyn. “Nothing else to do, unless you want to live inside a sealing circle all the … time … ” She drifted away on a private train of thought, sucking her teeth. “There’s an idea.”

Raine cleared her throat and put her elbows on the table. “Maybe we should lay low.”

Evee snapped back in an instant, eyes narrowed and hard, though dogged by a full stomach and shared warmth.

Still, I needed to head this off.

“No arguing.” I raised my voice. “Be civil.”

Evelyn held Raine’s gaze for a moment, then sighed and shrugged. “Let’s hear it then.”

“Maybe it makes mutual sense,” Raine said. She spread her hands. “Maybe Heather and I managed to scare them off. We nailed their hired thugs, we duelled their assassins or kidnappers or whatever, and we got away, then you’ve started picking at the edges of their project. Maybe they want to lay low too. Maybe we back off, let things calm down, don’t push our luck.”

Evelyn shook her head slowly.

“They had a firearm,” Raine continued. “They had hired local muscle. If you keep pushing it they might come for the house.”

“Thats-” I started, then swallowed as they both turned to look at me. A cold feeling crept up my back, a violation of all the safety of this afternoon. “That’s a good point, actually. The … zombie woman, the tall one, whatever she was, what if they just send her here?”

“I’ll gut and skin her before I’d let her touch a hair on your head,” Raine said. It wasn’t a joke. “Either of you.”

Evelyn rolled her eyes. “Well, there you go then. What are you bellyaching about? You can just play the big strong protector and we’re all good.”

“I’d rather not take the risk in the first place.”

“A serious, practical answer to your question, Heather,” Evelyn said, ignoring Raine “Is that this house is a deathtrap for anything opposing me, opposing the Saye family. Those Spiders are not for show. The Cult’s zombie, golem, whatever that was, this place would take her apart. I don’t care if she’s an emissary from Hell itself, she won’t last five minutes.”

“I thought you said the spiders were senile?”

Evelyn waved my concern away.

“Alright, so, we’re gonna do this?” Raine said. She put both hands flat on the table. “We’re really gonna do this, this is what you want, Evee?”

Evelyn fixed her with a tired gaze, but behind her eyes lay a steely determination. “Yes. Sharrowford is mine, people like this have to be kept under control. It’s just me, my mother and grandmother are gone.”

“It’s not just you,” I said. “It’s us too.”

“I- yes, yes, Heather. It is. I-”

“What about getting some outside help?” Raine said.

Evelyn directed a blast of contempt at her. Raine laughed and spread her arms.

“Come on, Evee, if this is for real, you may as well ask for help. How about calling Aaron? He’s alright, isn’t he? Or Fliss, if you can stomach her for five minutes?”

“No.” Evelyn’s mouth twisted. “No other mages. Not here. Not in Sharrowford. This is my territory. Mine.”

She spoke softly and quietly, but with all the conviction of a fist slammed on the table. I began, in that moment, to understand what the Cult’s intrusion meant to Evelyn. An ideology lurked behind her words, one which worried me so much more than the worst shouting match.

“That doesn’t sound healthy,” I said, and expected to regret my words, but Evelyn just shrugged..

“It’s no big shame to ask for help.” Raine sighed, apparently surrendering at last.

“No, no of course it isn’t,” Evelyn agreed. “That’s why I want you to move back in.”

Raine paused – a real, long, frozen pause, rare and unfamiliar to her. She opened her mouth, closed it again, and broke into a confused grin, gesturing helplessly. “I … Evee.”

“Heather too,” Evelyn said, and I blinked.

“Me?”

“For safety. In many ways, this house is the safest place in the city. Maybe in the whole north of England.”

“And rapidly filling up with monsters,” Raine said, then laughed and shook her head. She glanced at me, genuine discomfort in her eyes. “I guess, if they’re after Heather?”

“No. That closed loop was a strike aimed at me,” said Evelyn. “It was planned and executed to kill a mage. You won out because they didn’t expect a violent lunatic, and nobody could account for Heather.”

“Bit of the old ultraviolence works wonders,” Raine murmured through a smirk.

“Quite.”

“I’d love to live here,” I said before I had time to really think. “That … ” Living with friends? With Raine? In this wonderful – if slightly spooky – old house? It was a longer walk from campus, but it would be miles better than my anonymous concrete box. To live with people, to be together. I felt myself lighting up inside – and then dimming again. “Oh, I’d have to explain to my parents. I mean, they pay my rent, but we’d only need one bedroom and- oh!” I froze and looked up at Evee.

She rolled her eyes. “Told you so, didn’t I? It’s always that way, with Raine.”

“Told her what?” Raine asked. I shot an embarrassed frown at her, but for once she seemed genuinely innocent of the implied meaning.

“N-nothing,” I muttered. “It doesn’t matter.”

“You are wearing Raine’s jumper. I am aware of that.”

Raine lit up and started laughing. I couldn’t keep the blush from my face, stammering out a terrible excuse even as I smiled like an idiot.

“And you’re going to need a safe workspace,” Evelyn continued right over us. “Somewhere you can concentrate, somewhere close to me in case of emergencies, close to Raine, simply for comfort. A place you can pass out, ruin the floorboards if you need to.”

My self-indulgent embarrassment slammed to a halt. A ball of lead settled in my gut.

“Heather?” Raine murmured my name.

“I … yes, of course. I’d managed to … almost forget, you know?”

Evelyn nodded, sober and serious. “I understand. I was there too, once.”

I shook my head. “No, no, you never had a sister to rescue. I have to start on it, don’t I? Self-implementing-”

“- hyperdimensional mathematics,” Evelyn and I finished together.


==


Lozzie giggled and slid another blunt plastic knife into the board game.

“Your turn! Heather, it’s your turn! You have to put a knife in.”

“ … do I? I don’t think I really want to play this.”

On every side the dream landscape unrolled in desert dunes, ochre and cinnamon, terminated by a line of mountains so large they were impossible under earth gravity. I sighed and squeezed my eyes shut, considered for the millionth time the need to wake up.

Lozzie pouted. She wound loops of her long blonde hair around her hand and chewed on the ends. “Don’t be like that. We’re having fun, aren’t we?”

We sat in the shade of a clutch of bulbous, creaking trees, on beautiful carved wooden chairs. I rummaged through half-remembered dream impressions that Lozzie had summoned them from somewhere, along with the dozens of board games abandoned in the sand around us. Dice and chess pieces lay on the ground, counters and chips had rolled away, boards and manuals dumped off the spindly table between us.

Lozzie had hung onto a chess piece, the white Queen. She fiddled with it as I pondered where to put the little plastic knife for the board game, or if I should simply give up playing altogether.

“You picked the game,” she said. “Don’t be sore now because you lost at chess.”

“I’ve never been good at games. Chess is too difficult. Too strategic. Also, I’m not sore.” I looked up and offered her a smile. It was easy. After all, this was a dream. I may as well enjoy the company, even if she was a bit erratic and difficult to deal with.

I’d noticed things about Lozzie as the dreams had recurred: the freckles, the crooked front teeth, the way she bit at her fingernails. She cocked her head at my reply and slowly broke into a fascinated smile, eyes widening.

“W-what?”

“You’re different,” she said. “Oh wow, Heather, oh wow, you’ve been fucking, haven’t you!?”

I just blinked at her. “Uh … I … I did lose my virginity. To- to a girl.”

Lozzie bounced out of her chair, took me by both hands, and dragged me to my feet, the board game forgotten as we knocked the table over. Laughing and whirling, she spun us both around, kicking at the sand, hugging me, swinging my hands back and forth until we both fell over onto our backsides. I let myself flop onto the sand as Lozzie sat up. Shade cooled my face, sun warmed my feet. Dreaming wasn’t so bad, even if I never remembered these ones.

“That’s awesome. You’re so cool. I wish I could do that,” Lozzie said. She produced the white Queen chess piece from somewhere, turned it over in one hand and stared at it. “But you’re going to have to learn strategy, you know? Can’t be all cuddles and shagging.”

“What? Learn strategy? Why?”

“He’s after you now. He doesn’t always get what he wants, but he’s going to try. He didn’t know about you before, I didn’t tell him. Please don’t think it was me.” Lozzie met my eyes, a little sad, a lot worried. “He knows because you did that thing with the bullet, because you escaped. He’s working it out, he’s going to work it out.”

“What?” I sat up and stared at her. “Lozzie, what are you talking about? Who’s after me?”

“My brother.”

“Your-” I swallowed and took a deep breath, reminded myself where I was. “You’re a dream, Lozzie. You’re kinda cute, but you’re a dream. Stop scaring me.”

“You should kill him if you can,” she whispered. “Kill him.”

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