conditions of absolute reality – 3.3

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Monsters. Monsters everywhere. Everywhere I turned, more monsters. I’d spent ten years seeing monsters around every corner and lurking in every shadow, convinced they weren’t real, trying to unsee them, forget them, ignore them. Now I’d accepted they were real, and I seemed to be getting to know them a lot more intimately than I’d ever wanted. In my dreams, in the street – in my bed too, I suspected, a very different kind of monster.

Another waited for us in Evelyn’s house.

At least this one was cute.

Raine helped me to the door and unlocked it without bothering to knock. The ache throbbed tight in my chest, like the worst case of heartburn in the world. A wave of comfortable indoor heat greeted us. Raine shut the door as I stepped gingerly out of my shoes. Floorboards creaked from deeper in the house, followed by the clack of a chair and the muffled but unmistakable sound of Evelyn’s voice.

I had to steady myself against the wall and rub my sternum, massage the ache down. With adrenaline draining away I realised once more how brain-math afterglow and two days of sleepwalking had taken a lot out of me, left me weak and shaky. I needed to sit down. I wanted a nap.

“Evee, it’s us,” Raine called as she walked across the front room. She stepped over the stain on the floorboards, from where she’d killed the Bone-thing. I wondered if it would ever fade.

A woman stepped primly and smartly through the kitchen doorway.

Not Evelyn.


Skin and shoulder-length hair shaded in the most subtle blue of glacial ice. Perfect skin, no expression, spine ramrod straight. Heels together, shoulders back, hands clasped daintily in front of her like a 19th-century maid. She was dressed in Evelyn’s clothes, a thick soft pullover and long comfy skirt, huge army boots on her feet. Age impossible to guess, anywhere from fifteen to thirty.

Blank eyes; no pupil, no iris, no veins. Only milk-white sclera.

Despite the obvious artificiality, my first thought was how darned cuddly she looked. She filled out Evelyn’s clothes very substantially.

Raine didn’t agree. Her eyes widened in disbelief, muscles tensed, feet backpedaled.

“Hello?” I ventured.

“Evee!” Raine yelled at the top of her lungs. She reached into her jacket and drew the handgun.

“Raine! Oh my God.”

I’d managed to briefly forget about that little nugget of illegality. Certainly didn’t suspect she was carrying the thing. It looked so wrong and blunt in Raine’s hands, weird stubby twist of black metal. She pointed it at the Blue Lady.

“Back up,” Raine said.

No reaction. The Blue Lady stood stock-still and unresponsive, a servant awaiting orders.

“Back. Up.”

“Stop shouting, you absolute bonehead,” Evelyn called.

She thumped out of the kitchen doorway and into the front room; Raine jerked the gun away and pointed it at the floor. Evelyn tapped the Blue Lady’s leg with her walking stick and muttered ‘shift yourself’. Words proved more powerful than Raine’s pistol; the Blue Lady sidestepped from Evelyn’s path.

“Put that nonsense away before you blow a hole in the floorboards.” Evelyn frowned at the gun. For me, her expression softened. “Heather, I’m so glad to see you up and about. I never doubted your constitution for a moment.”

“Uh … thank you? Evee, who is this?”

“This?” Evelyn side-eyed the Blue Lady, then snapped at Raine. “Close your mouth, you look gormless.”

Raine shook her head in disbelief and puffed out an unimpressed laugh. “Evee, have you lost your mind? Did I step into backwards universe this morning?”

“Apparently. You seem to think that spud gun would make a blind bit of difference. Put it away. Makes me nervous, you’ll do one of us an injury.”

“I never took the safety off. It was a … bluff … ” Raine frowned hard at the Blue Lady, as if expecting sudden movement, but then she sighed and shrugged and tucked the pistol back into her jacket. “I hope I’m not gonna have to do more than bluff.”

Evelyn walked over to peer at my face. Dark bags ringed her bloodshot eyes. “You do look pretty rosy-cheeked. I’m going to assume that’s a good sign?”

“Oh, um, I think so? I-”

“Any lingering effects?”

“I do feel quite fragile. My chest aches more than before … Evee, who is this?” I opened a hand toward the Blue Lady. Evelyn used the tip of her walking stick to poke our discarded shoes into a neater position by the front door.

The Blue Lady stood stock still, unmoved by all.

Raine put hands on her hips. “Evee-”

What? Well, what, Raine? I needed help, didn’t I? You’ve been busy – rightfully,” Evelyn added an aside nod to me. “I needed muscle, protection. I had to send something out there to figure out what those bastards are doing to my city. In my back yard. What was I meant to do? Sit and wait for you, pretend everything was normal? Is that what you’re going to tell me? The same sort of thing you’ve been feeding Heather?”

Raine blinked at her. “I didn’t think you’d make a zombie though.”

I cleared my throat. “When you two have quite finished, can one of you please explain who … this … zombie?” Exasperation crept in at the sides of my head and I let out a huge involuntary sigh. I met the Blue Lady’s eyes – no small feat, eye contact with blank white. “You did not just say that word.”

Raine winced. “Best not do that. Don’t get its attention.”

“Oh don’t be ridiculous.” Evelyn marched back over to the Blue Lady and pinched her cheek like she was a small child. Zero reaction. “If it was at all dangerous, we’d already be dead. You think I would make that sort of mistake? Your confidence in me is touching, Raine, thank you.”

“It?” I echoed, faintly disgusted. “She looks like a human being to me.”

“Believe me, it’s an it,” Raine said. “If I’m right about what I’m looking at here, Evee?”

“Oh, stop being so bloody dramatic,” Evelyn said. “And no, it’s not a zombie. Nothing so crude. Where on earth would I even get the corpse? Can you see me slipping into a morgue and dragging a body out? I’d end up on the evening news.”

“Will you two stop pulling another Twil on me? Who-” I bit down and huffed out a sigh. “What is this woman?”

Raine smirked. “Pull a Twil?”

“Keeping important facts from me.”

“Over to you, Frankenstein’s daughter.” Raine deferred to Evelyn with a raised eyebrow.

“I used a mannequin,” Evee said. She stared hard at Raine, as if daring defiance, then glanced at me. “It’s a demon, from Outside, bound in a shop window display dummy. I know what you want to say, Raine. I’m getting more like my mother every day.”

“Hey, no, never.” Raine’s voice softened, the same voice she used for me. “I’d never say that. You know that.”

Evelyn sighed and looked away, suddenly interested in the pile of old cardboard boxes along the edge of the front room.

A demon?

“Does she have a name?” I asked.

Raine opened her mouth, then paused and raised an eyebrow. “Does it? Evee?”

Her,” I insisted.

Evelyn frowned at both of us. “What?”

“Did you name it – her?” Raine caught the look in my eyes and corrected herself.

“W-what? No, of course not. Don’t be obscene.”

Raine laughed and raised her hands in surrender. “It’s not such a leap. You’ve made an anime character, Evee. You even gave her blue hair.”

“I thought it was comforting, alright?” Evelyn stared at the floor and poked a box with the tip of her stick. “I have enough bad memories of these damned things without making them like my mother did, understand?”

“ … you made an anime girl. I mean, no shame no blame. Whatever floats your boat.”

“What? You think I’m going to sleep with the dammed thing?”

Three days deprived of Raine, and Evelyn had made herself a new companion. Literally. A soft, feminine, cuddly companion, bound at her will. Guilt and embarrassment fought in my chest – second hand embarrassment on Evelyn’s behalf, and guilt on my part for monopolising Raine’s time and attention.

All through the escalating argument, the Blue Lady – the bound demon – hadn’t moved a single muscle or blinked once, though she did appear to breathe, heavy chest rising and falling in slow rhythm. I peered at her, then stepped closer for a better look. She didn’t seem anything like a mannequin.

Raine broke off. “Hold up, Heather, don’t get too close to it.”

“Your doubts really do wonders for my self-esteem, too,” Evelyn carried right on. “Thank you for this constant stream of support. You … I … ” Evelyn juddered to a halt along with Raine. Probably at the very unimpressed look on my face.

“So, she’s a demon, an Outsider, whatever,” I said. “Possessing a life-sized doll?”

“Yes, a very minor demon,” Evelyn said. “The technical term for this thing is a Gelus Praeministra. The demon doesn’t look like that in its natural state, it’s bound and piloting the vessel at my command. It follows my orders, but it has some room for creative interpretation and problem solving. It’s quite a feat, actually, perfecting this sort of work on dead wood or plastic.”

“Gelus? Gelus. Or … Praem. That’s a good enough name. Praem. Sounds a little French.” I shook my head, trying to assimilate all this.

Raine and Evelyn both spoke at once.

“You can’t give it a name-”

“Please don’t-”

I folded my arms and waited for the complaints to subside, spoke into the opening of silence which followed. “You cannot have something that looks like a person and treat it as an object. I refuse. Tends to be a rather bad idea? Tends to lead to treating other people like objects too? Bad things happen?” My other protest went unsaid: Evelyn didn’t need a doll, she needed friends.

Raine shrugged and nodded. “Fair enough. She’s got a point, Evee. That is sort of unhealthy.”

“It’s not a person,” Evelyn said with a grimace. “It’s from Outside.”

“But you said it thinks, right?” I asked. “It … you’ve enslaved this thing and-”

“It’s not slavery. I commend your sense of ethics, but it’s not slavery.”

“Was last time I checked.” Raine began to laugh, but the laugh died young. “Evee … it is, right?”

“This one wants to be here. I made sure.”

Raine’s expression froze.

“We made a bargain,” Evelyn said.


“You think I’d sign my soul away? I’m no idiot. I am a Saye, after all, we know how to do these things. I made a specific, limited bargain. Cheap and easily fulfilled.”

“Feed me a cat,” Praem said.

We all stared at her – at it – at such an inhuman voice. High, whispering, icebound, like the rustling of snowflakes on winter wind. She stared straight ahead, hands folded in perfect poise.

“It’s winding us up,” Evelyn said. “Wait here.”

She stomped off into the kitchen and returned with an open plastic tub of supermarket strawberries. She fingered one out and held it up. “Hand.”

Praem raised one hand with mechanical precision, palm up. Evelyn gave her the strawberry. Praem paused, then very slowly and very carefully she placed the strawberry in her own mouth.

This was a wooden mannequin? I saw lips, teeth, a tongue – all tinted that same ice-blue – and she certainly seemed to relish the taste of strawberry, chewing with measured slowness until a visible bob of her throat indicated she was done.

“See?” Evelyn allowed herself a smug smile. “You try finding a demon that wants to eat strawberries. I think I’ve outdone myself.”

“Where did you get the mannequin from?” I asked. Evelyn gestured at a very big amazon delivery box flattened out by the door.

“Evee, that was … crazy cute,” Raine said. “I’m still not convinced you aren’t sleeping with it-”

Evelyn made an angry grumbling noise.

“- but for real, there’s no way this thing is safe to have around.”

“Pity’s sake, see for yourself.”

Evelyn grabbed the hem of Praem’s sweater and hiked it up over a soft human belly – a belly covered in looping, winding Arabic script which surrounded a magic circle, all drawn in marker pen. The circle contained a set of angular symbols painful to the eye. The doll, the demon, whatever she was, didn’t react. I turned away, suffering terrible second hand embarrassment.

“The binding is perfect,” Evelyn was saying. “Any interruption and it gets sent right back where it came from.”

“I dunno. Don’t these things get … twitchy?” asked Raine.

“Yes, of course, when you use real flesh and live subjects. My mother’s corpse-puppets had a much greater range of sensory input and expressive output, but she had far less control over them.”

Raine laughed, humourless and dark. “I remember that part.”

Evelyn tapped the side of Praem’s head. “This is still just wood underneath the glamour. It’s got barely a better sensory setup than a normal human. Slow speed of thought, too. My control is perfect. I wouldn’t have made it otherwise.”

“I-I’m sorry, Evee,” I blurted out before I could stop myself. “I’m really sorry.”

Evelyn looked blank. “What?”

I stumbled on, caught between mortified embarrassment and heart-aching sympathy. “I mean, this. You didn’t have Raine, she was busy with me and you … you made a friend … I … ”

Evelyn blinked tired eyes at me, utterly lost. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I trailed off and felt exceedingly small, muttered a tiny apology.

“That’s not what this is about, Heather. Don’t worry about me. I’ve got you, haven’t I? We’re friends.

“We are, yes, yes. Why- why make Praem at all? What … ”

To my surprise, Evelyn’s lips creased in a knowing smile, back in her element.

“I’ve been busy.”

Praem the demon-maid stayed on guard in the front room. We circled through the kitchen and the back of the house to the ex-drawing room where I’d spent an exhausted night asleep on the sofa. Seemed like only yesterday. Lost time ghosted on the edge of my consciousness. I barely felt coherent enough for this, even less so when Evelyn stopped short of the door to tell me a giant spring-loaded spider lurked inside.

“You made it very clear I am to warn you. I wish to honour that request.”

“ … do you think it’ll jump out at me like the other one?”

“No, no I don’t think so. Took six hours of shouting just to wrangle it down from the attic. Can’t get the blasted thing to go back. I don’t think it gives a damn what goes on around it. Might have gone senile.”

“You moved it here on purpose?”

Evelyn shrugged.

“Giant spider?” Raine grinned.

“You won’t be able to see it,” Evelyn waved her away and hustled me into the ex-drawing room. “Just don’t stand in the circle unless you want a nasty shock.”

She’d turned the space into a war-room.

Both the sofas had been pushed back against the walls, the floor cleared for a half-full inflatable paddling pool and two magic circles drawn on huge sheets of stiff card. One circle was very complex and contained a sort of entry port on one side, corners weighed down with bricks. The other was only half-finished, attended by a detritus of candles, a ritual knife, two bottles of strange powder and what looked like a human femur bone. I recognised Evelyn’s books – both Unbekannte Orte and Inprencibilis Vermis – lying open on one of the sofas, copious notes scattered on the cushions.

The state of the far wall left no question as to what piece of magic took pride of place. Evelyn had mutilated the wall with a screwdriver, scored the outline of a doorway into the paint and plaster.

Surrounding the imaginary door in a fan shape, like a madhouse mandala, she’d covered the wall with magical symbols, bits of Latin, scraps of non-human language, interlocking magic circles, sprawling mathematical formulae, and a dozen other unclassifiable additions. All seemed to refer back to the blank space of the doorway.

I had to look away. My head swam.

A giant Spider-servitor was indeed clinging to the ceiling, wedged in a corner. Smaller than the one in the library basement, more dog-sized, it shared the same clustered head of crystalline eyes and body of hard black chitin, studded with heat-exchanger stacks, though this one was free from scars and old battle-damage. It seemed somehow distressed, legs drawn up tight at an awkward angle.

I suppose I’d have been distressed too if Evelyn had shouted at me for six hours.

“Poor thing,” I muttered.


“Nothing. Sorry.”

Evelyn walked over to the table, gait unsteady. She put more weight on her withered leg than her prosthetic, and leaned heavily on her walking stick.

How many hours had she been awake?

Gone were the piles of books on the table, unceremoniously shuffled off into the corner under the spider. In their place, a huge ordinance survey map of Sharrowford lay unfolded on the table. A date printed in the corner proclaimed the map was about twenty years old, so Evelyn had pencilled in corrections and missing housing developments, but the real work she’d done on the map was in red highlighter pen.

Evelyn tapped the map. “That closed space you two walked into was not an isolated aberration.”

City centre landmarks highlighted in red, linked by kinking lines that corresponded to no physical roads. Entire suburban streets circled and numbered, cross-referenced on a nearby pad full to bursting with scribbled notes. Odd twists and turns down Sharrowford’s back alleyways, seedy estates, industrial wastelands, all traced with red highlighter, question marks, no entry signs. Red for danger. Red for blood.

The whole mass of map-work was crowned by a great question mark hovering over the south of the city.

“Why red?” I asked.

“Seemed appropriate, under the circumstances,” Evelyn muttered.

“What are we looking at here?” Raine asked.

“I think I can take a guess,” I said.

“It’s a whole network.” Evelyn jabbed at the map, at one of the spiderwebs of interconnected red highlighter.

“Of what?” asked Raine.

“I don’t know. Extra-temporal, extra-dimensional spaces. I don’t have the language for it. This is new, undocumented. It’s a fucking nightmare, is what it is.” Evelyn shrugged as her earlier gloss of smug satisfaction fell to exhaustion and disgust. “Portions of the city copied into looping spaces. Buildings, streets, but imperfectly, out of different materials, and they lead somewhere deeper.” She tapped the huge question mark to the south. “I haven’t been able to get down there, not through the loops. They keep shutting me out, pinching routes off, shoving monsters in my way.”

“You’ve been investigating this alone?” Raine asked. “Going out, alone?”

Evelyn gave her the sort of withering stare which only comes with hard sleep deprivation. “Yes, after what happened to you two, I thought the best course of action was to wander around by myself and poke my head into magical rabbit traps.”

“Ah, uh.” Raine cleared her throat and smirked. “Sorry, sorry.”

How could Raine smirk, in front of this? I couldn’t look away. The map was a nightmare. A shadow-city.

“Of course I didn’t go out myself. What do you think the huge bloody scrying pool is for?” Evelyn waved a hand at the half-full paddling pool. “I’ve had the Gelus Praeministra remote sending.”

“Praem,” I corrected her softly, more to have a handhold to clutch than to insist on names.

Evelyn suppressed a tight huff. I left it at that, but already felt guilty.

“Is that what you were trying to use the Spider-servitor for?” I pointed into the corner, at the awkwardly cowering spider.

“Um … yes. Sort of.”

Raine followed my finger. She looked at the corner, then down at the circle with the entry port on one side.

“I wouldn’t bother if I were you,” Evelyn said. Raine grinned and stepped into the circle, then furrowed her brow and squinted.

“He’s a bit … fuzzy, isn’t he?” she said.

“It took me four hours of meditating just to see the outline. I told you not to bother.”

“Evee, why not just make a Servitor?” I asked. “Why make a … Praem?”

Evelyn looked awkward, then sighed and shrugged. “I barely know where to start with Servitors. I can make one that would fall apart in a strong wind, but I needed something physical, mobile, capable of independent thought. I can’t even make that blasted spider move outside.”

“Hmm. That does make sense.”

“I started on … on ‘Praem’ the minute after Raine called me, after you and her escaped. It- … she can sense more than I can, and faster. Sent her to Willow House as soon as I got the first couple of strawberries down her. No trace. Nothing there. So I had her walk about.” Evelyn gestured at the map, traced some of the circled streets. “Imagine my bloody surprise. Lots of these lead nowhere, but some of them are linked into a greater whole, a warren that runs deeper than I’ve reached. Not all of them are properly concealed either. That car-park you two blundered into, chasing your sister’s message, that was one of them. You’re lucky you didn’t go any deeper, you may never have come back out. Likely there’s been an uptick in missing persons cases, homeless people vanishing, that sort of thing.”

“Is this … ” I started, then trailed off, an idea tugging at the back of my mind. “Is … I mean … is this naturally occurring?”

“Absolutely not. This is the Sharrowford Cult’s doing. Didn’t Raine tell you?”

“Tell me what?”

“Yeah, tell her what?” Raine added, genuinely mystified.

“The woman who shot at Raine, we’ve seen her before.”

“Hey now,” said Raine. “I didn’t exactly get a good look at her. I was too busy duelling a giant zombie.”

“How many murderous psychopathic women with shaved heads do we know?” Evelyn asked. “Take a wild guess.”

“If the answer is more than one, I want out,” I said. I’d intended it as a joke, but my own dry swallow undermined any humour.

“Exactly,” said Evelyn. “We had trouble with the Cult when we moved to Sharrowford. Raine butchered some zombies, put a few other things down. The woman with the shaved head, she was there, as were some others. She’s the link. It’s the Cult.”

“So … so w-what do we do?” I asked. My voice felt so small, out of my depth.

“I’ve started shutting down the entrances I can, closing them off or collapsing them, but some of the principles … escape me. It’s like an excavated space behind the real Sharrowford, in the existing bedrock of Outside.” Evelyn gritted her teeth in disgust and anger as she stared down at the map, at the shadow city. “These people, these fucking vermin should not be able to do things like this. This is a major working, a huge project, the kind of thing a mage could spend a lifetime bringing to fruition, and they’ve slipped it under my nose in the space of months. I don’t even know how long. In my city.”

“Evee,” Raine said, a little too bright and loud. She stuck out her thumb and little finger, waggled them in the universal telephone gesture. “Did you … ?”

“Yes, I called my father. No break-ins. Nobody’s been down there since us.”

“I’m sorry, what?” I blinked at Evelyn.

“Don’t worry about it, Heather, ancient history,” said Raine. That earned her a miniature glare from Evelyn.

“She has a right, Raine, she’s as involved as either of us.” Evelyn turned to me. “Raine told me the thugs you met inside the loop had vests with the warding sign on.”

“Oh! Yes, the Fractal. But it wasn’t the Fractal.”

“I know. It wasn’t the warding sign, but it came from the same source. Which meant either somebody burglarised my childhood home and stole my mother’s … legacy, or the Cult has done to some poor sod what my mother did to me.”

“Ah. Uh, okay.”

“I don’t know which is worse.” Evelyn shook her head. “That kind of magic, the kind on your left arm, it’s extremely stable and very useful. That’s the only way I can explain what they’ve achieved.”

A thought teased at the edge of my mind. What if the Cult had a person like me? A brain-math dimension-jumper, to dig out their shadow-city behind Sharrowford?


I blinked, frozen verge of speaking. “Ah, s-sorry.”

Raine peered at my face. “You holding up okay, Heather? Wanna sit down? Hell, this is pretty heavy stuff, shall we go make some coffee, have a snack, take a break?”

“I’m … fine.” I shook my head.

A person like me? Where had I gotten that idea?

Evelyn was working herself up again, staring down at the map with a darkness behind her eyes. “Bastards, utter bastards. Could have left us all well alone after you stumbled onto them in that underground car-park, but no, they decided to try their hands at assassination, bump me out of the way so they could complete this insane work. Bit off more than they could chew when they met you though, didn’t they?” She shot me an approving glance.

“I didn’t do anything, Evee.”

“Raine told me you stopped a bullet with your mind. That’s not nothing.”

“It mostly just hurt.” I didn’t want the approving glance. I didn’t want to think about what I’d done with my mind.

“Well, now I’ve got them. All this has been going on right under my nose, like rats in the walls, but I’ve got them now. No more hiding, eh?” She spoke to the map, not to us.

I felt terminally out of my depth. I hadn’t bargained on any of this. Evelyn was fighting the opening moves of a shadow war and Raine was treating it like an everyday occurrence. Terrifying people had tried to kill all of us; in the world I grew up in, that meant you called the police, probably? I’d never called the police for anything.

Raine was staring at the ceiling in thought, arms folded. She nodded to herself as Evelyn spoke, apparently arriving at a conclusion.

“Maybe we should leave Sharrowford for a week or two,” she said.


“Oh, maybe that’s a good idea,” I said – but they were off.

“You cannot be serious,” Evelyn snapped at Raine.

“Well, we could skip town, or call your dad again, ask for help?”

Evelyn looked at Raine like she’d suggested we all join the circus. “So he can do what, come up here and cluck at me?”

“What’s your suggestion then? Lay it out for me.”

Evelyn jabbed her walking stick at the far wall, at the madhouse mandala and the fake doorway, the great unfinished work. “That. That is my suggestion. The more of their intrusions I shut down, the more I learn, and that is going to take me straight to the heart of whatever nonsense they’re building down there.” She tapped the big question mark on the map, over the south of the city.

“Straight to the source? Decapitation strike? Kill all their leadership and blow up their shit?”


“You and what army?”

Evelyn narrowed her eyes. Raine didn’t say a word, just fixed her with that genuine-question, zero-judgement look she’d deployed so accurately against me, used to batter down all my resistances.

It didn’t work the same way on Evelyn. She glared back.

Raine sighed. “I know what you’re thinking of doing.”

“You haven’t the faintest idea.”

“I can take an educated guess.” Raine nodded at the half-finished magic circle. “I don’t know the jazz voodoo half as well as you do, but even I can guess what that’s for.”


“Disco gorilla or Mister teeth?” Raine asked. Evelyn shut her mouth and swallowed. “Come on, Evee, gotta share your plans, even if they’re crazy. What are you gonna summon?”

“ … Haeretis decollatio,” Evelyn muttered, guilty and averting her eyes.

Raine pulled a face. “The thing with the huge scissors? Damn.”

“Probably more than one.”


“I don’t know what’s in there.” Evelyn gestured at the door again. “You don’t get it, this has to be shut down before it gets worse, before-”

“It’s too dangerous. You know that. You know I’m only trying to stop you from hurting your-”

“Oh, you want me to send you through, with your pop gun and swear words?”

And like that, the argument was off to the races. I sighed inside and stepped back from the table, out of the firing line as Evelyn snapped and shouted and stamped with her walking stick, as Raine laughed and shook her head and did, indeed, try to coddle, slowly losing her own steadfast temper.

“I’ll go make some coffee, shall I?”

Neither of them paid the slightest bit of attention as I left the room, even when I closed the door to keep their argument contained. I wandered back into Evelyn’s kitchen, into the dusky light of a Sharrowford afternoon falling through the window.

I could still hear them. I sighed and ran my hands over my face.

Too many things to think about, on top of listening to those two argue: the spirits, my magical coma, the loop, scary cult people, brain-math, Maisie.

Yes, that’s why I was here, who I was here for. My twin sister.

Well, the fact I’d slept with Raine did factor into my decisions too. And I did have a friendship with Evelyn, she was right. But I’d had enough of intervening in arguments, in wondering when those two were going to finally break at each other. Raine didn’t seem to need my support on this. They needed to work this one out for themselves.

True to my word, I did brew up some coffee, from the ancient tin of instant tucked away in the back of a cupboard. I reminded myself I must buy Evelyn some real stuff, if we’re going to be friends. Boiling the kettle at least drowned out the noise of the shouting match for a minute – still raging back there, but now punctuated by short, brooding silences.

For the sake of peace and quiet, I took my mug of coffee into the front room. I half intended to go upstairs and browse the collection in the study, centre my mind with the help of Shakespeare and whoever else I might discover.

Praem stood right where we’d left her.

I stopped and looked at her. Really looked at her – at it? At her blue-ice complexion and all-white eyes and perfect proper prim poise.

“Uh, hello again.” I waved awkwardly.

No reply, of course.

“Praem,” I said. “That’s your name now. If you can understand what I’m saying?”


“Do you have any idea how I can get those two to stop clawing at each other? It feels like herding cats.”

Praem did not have any suggestions, about that or any other matter.

I hadn’t any time for a good look earlier, not with the hustle and bustle and Raine pulling a gun, but now I peered a little closer. As close as was polite. She did have doll-like ball-and-socket seams, under her chin and on her hands, but only when examined very carefully.

“I’m … I’m going to poke your cheek, is that okay? Okay then.”

I reached up and pressed a fingertip gently against one cheek. Very soft, very smooth, very human. I pulled my hand back and muttered an apology.

My musings turned uncharitable. Praem was built so very voluptuously, with wide hips and a rather heavy chest. Had Evelyn used the word ‘mannequin’ to avoid other, more accurate connotations? I decided not to check the details on that amazon box.

“You know, those are really impressive,” I said, staring at her chest and shaking my head. I caught myself, blushed and blinked and turned away, asked myself what the hell I was saying.

What had come over me? Was it because I’d lost my virginity last night, or because I wasn’t treating this demon-possessed doll as a human being?

Odd to stand in front a person who doesn’t react at all. An immature, horrible, weaselly little part of me wanted to hug it – her – give it a nice big squeeze, consequence free. The comfy clothes didn’t help. I frowned and told myself off. She was a person, sort of. There was a thinking, sentient being in there. Which was neither human nor strictly alive.

My carnal reaction raised a far more important question.

“Is Evee a lesbian?” I asked out loud. Praem offered no opinion.

I knew Raine was. She’d proved that last night with her head between my thighs. A goofy smile worked it’s way onto my face again.

But what about Evelyn?

I’d assumed not, after she’d assured me she wasn’t into Raine. Perhaps subconsciously, I’d drawn a line between ‘not into Raine’ and ‘not into girls’, which raised some interesting avenues of inquiry about my own tastes, but Praem’s appearance made me reconsider.

Evee had made herself a soft, thick, motherly cuddle-doll. Motherly? Oh dear. On second thought, maybe I shouldn’t think about this. That wasn’t a depth I wished to plumb, not without permission and a dry-suit.

“Is she sleeping with you? Does she hug you?”

Praem did not reply.

“Suppose you only take orders from Evee, hmm?”

“Feed me.”

I blinked in surprise and almost fell over.

Oh, but that voice. That was not a human voice, no fool could mistake it for one. She whispered in the rustle of ice crystals and the tickle of wind.

Two minutes later I held the tub of strawberries in front of Praem. I took one out, then paused and pricked up my ears, listening carefully to the sounds of the ongoing argument in the front room; Raine and Evelyn had stopped shouting but the house still murmured with a background of angry conversation.

“Alright, give me your hand.”

Praem didn’t move.

“You have to hold your hand out.”

I asked myself what I was doing. Having fun? A bit of harmless play? I clamped down on that thought. Bad Heather. This wasn’t harming anybody. She’d asked to be fed, she’d made the request.

“At least open your mouth. Hurry up.”

Praem obeyed that one. She parted her lips with a soft click. I frowned at her. Was she-? No, she couldn’t possibly be. She was an Outsider. Not human.

I reached up and fed her the strawberry. Pushed it past her lips with a fingertip. A fleeting moment of contact.

When I finished, I was blushing and flushed.

“Oh,” I muttered. “Oh dear. Well, uh-”

Praem chewed and swallowed.

“Oh, I don’t think I should do that again.” I swallowed on a dry throat and focused on closing the lid of the plastic tub, a tremor in my hands. I was terrible. Absolutely terrible. Why couldn’t I stop blushing?

Why was I aroused by feeding a strawberry to a demon?

“Are you at least going to answer the question? Does Evee hug you and … stuff?”

Praem answered with a smile.

That smile was a bucket of cold water over my arousal. A mere tugging of muscles and curve of mouth. Nothing in the eyes; cold and empty.

“ … right. You’re not human. Right.”


Raine spoke my name and I almost jumped out of my skin, fumbling the box of strawberries. I narrowly avoided dropping them all over the floor. She tilted her head at me from the doorway. I hadn’t noticed the argument wind down, but now I could hear Evelyn grumbling to herself and thumping about.

“Oh, oh goodness you made me jump.”

Raine half-grinned and nodded at the box of strawberries. “That thing isn’t a pet, you know? It might look cute, but it would eat you if it could.”

I blushed all the harder and let out a huff. Raine was exactly the sight I needed right now. She was much more attractive than some unrealistically thick doll.

“I’ve just learnt that, I think. Thank you.”

Raine cocked an eyebrow in silent question, but I didn’t want to elaborate. Explaining to my girlfriend of literally one day that I’d been turned on by feeding a strawberry to her physical opposite was not a smart course of action. Even I knew that, as inexperienced as I was.

“So,” I started instead. “Have you and Evee patched things up? Come to some kind of … ” I trailed off. Raine’s face made her answer plain. “You haven’t, have you?”

“I just wanted to come check on you.”

“Raine, I’m fine. You need to go talk to Evee.”

“Ah? Heather?”

I did the only thing which made sense; I put the box of strawberries down and marched right up to Raine, took her by the shoulders and tried to turn her around. She laughed but offered only token resistance.

“Heather, what? What- what is this?”

I put my hands on her back and steered her toward the front room. I felt like a Terrier pushing a Great Dane. “You and Evee need to talk. Talk.”

Raine sighed, her amusement flagging. “We did, we-”

“Raine, you’re wonderful and I think I might be falling in love with you.” Goodness me, did I really just say that? “But you and Evelyn need to stop arguing. Deal with each other. Right now. Go back in there and sort this out. You’re old friends and she needs your support and … go. Back in there. Go. Go!”

I shoved Raine the rest of the way, under no illusion that I’d be able to if she’d resisted. She grinned and shook her head as I pushed her through the door. I caught a glimpse of Evelyn’s thunderous frown and deep confusion, then shut the door on them.

“Don’t come out until you’re friends again!”

I waited a beat, my heart hammering, but neither of them burst back out to tell me off or shout at me.

Had I just done that? Where had that courage come from? Was this me?

I think it was.

I sighed and rubbed my sternum, then wandered back into the sitting room to return the tub of strawberries to the fridge, then picked up my lukewarm coffee and took a sip, frowning at Praem.

“So, orders from Evee only,” I muttered.

I froze on a crazy thought, mug halfway to my mouth. Did I have enough courage to try that? Was it even a worthwhile experiment? If Evee needed an army to take on the Cult, what might I need to rescue my sister?

Because I did know a monster or two which might listen to me, didn’t I?

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

conditions of absolute reality – 3.2

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Raine had already decided I wasn’t going home that day.

I nibbled at more chocolate cookie in a vain attempt to recapture normality, as much normality as one could feel after a frank discussion of terminal violence, but we weren’t over the hump quite yet. An intimate question, an inevitable question, forced its way up and out of my mouth.

“Do you have a body count?”

Raine stopped mid-bite, lowered her own food, and spoke very softly. “You sure you wanna know?”

“Yes. I think. If you and I are going to be together, I can’t pretend not to see the real you.”

“Good point, fair enough. Well, not counting the two I may or may not have put down inside the loop?”

“For now, okay.”

She nodded for a long moment, sober and calm.

“Three and a half.”

“Three and … ?” Relief and horror fought in my chest: Raine had only killed three people. Also, Raine had killed three people. “Half?”

“The one Evee and I did together. Shared responsibility. Not my place to talk about that.”


“I can tell you all about the others though, if you really wanna hear.” Raine broke into an awkward grin. “Not exactly what I imagined for pillow talk with the cutest girl I’ve ever wrangled in my bed, though.”

I blushed, despite the topic. My first time in another girl’s bed – except for Maisie’s – and we were discussing homicide instead of bonking like rabbits.

“At least … the first?”

“Ahhh, that was the messiest one.” Raine leaned back on her hands and relaxed. “Happened a few days after I ran away from home, weeks before I met Evee. I was outside a train station, some half empty town in the London commuter belt.” She pointed at the big map of the UK over her desk, with the highlights and thumbtacks. “S’up there somewhere, but one of the few places I don’t remember the name. It was night, I was alone, looking for somewhere to kip, and this guy just attacked me. Grabbed me from behind. I probably looked like an easy target, fourteen year old girl wandering about by herself at night.”

“Oh, Raine.”

“S’fine. Didn’t bother me. Didn’t even really scare me, he never had a chance. I knocked his brains out with a spanner I’d been carrying in my pocket, just in case. Left him there on the pavement, thought he was unconscious. Next day the corpse was in the news. Oops.”

“That- that definitely does sound like legitimate self-defence.” I nodded, felt my heart go out to her, to that fourteen year old Raine alone on a dark street.

But sympathy smuggled danger through my better sensibilities. Raine liked me, I wanted her; of course I was going to accept her justifications.

It was self-defence though, right?

“They’ve all been self-defence,” she said. “That first one for me, the other two for Evee. Those were later on, after we got thick as thieves, part of the power struggle after her mother’s death.”

“Bet that’s quite a story.”

“Yeah, and maybe one for another day. I think you’ve had enough excitement for the moment. You need food, rest, and probably a back rub.”

“Raine, why did you run away from home?”

She shrugged. “Parents.”

We ate for a while and I finally let talk turn to inconsequential matters. Raine sat cross-legged opposite me as I propped pillows behind my back, to take the edge off the lingering full-body ache.

I asked about the posters on her bedroom walls. Raine acted all mock-embarrassed and apologetic about the video game pinup girls, but I honestly thought they didn’t look too bad, except for the huge boobs. She told me about the thumbtacks and highlights on the map of the UK, a visual history of everywhere she’d been. The line snaked from a Suffolk town to meander through Essex and Kent, then snapped into the heart of London before swooping down across Surrey and into Sussex. Pins clustered around a post-it note which read ‘Here be Dragons’ – the Saye estate, Evelyn’s real home. Wild, unconnected excursions marked a couple of far-flung spots – Cumbria, Devon, neither of them good times according to Raine. The main route jumped halfway up the length of England – one long train journey, apparently – and finally settled in Sharrowford.

“What about you?” Raine nodded me toward the map. “Where have you been? Wanna draw your history up on there?”

I sighed and raised my eyebrows at her to cover for the small lump in my throat. “Mine would be very sparse. I’ve only ever lived in three places, and one of those was a children’s mental hospital. You know that by now.”

“Everybody’s gotta start somewhere.” Raine stood up and rummaged around on her desk. She held up a fist of highlighter pens, yellow and blue and green. “Pick a colour.”

“I’d really rather not.”

“Go on, pick a colour, you have to. We can fill in the rest of the map, as much as you like. Got a whole lifetime to do it in.”

My sceptical frown carried little conviction. That was one of the sweetest things anybody had ever said to me. For years I’d not really expected to reach thirty, let alone plan a future.

A future alone, without my other half, without Maisie. Now I’d been awake for a few hours, my mind bent inexorably toward her once more.

Raine climbed onto her desk chair and slapped the map with one hand. “Right, ‘fess up, where do you wanna go?”

I blinked at her, certain I’d heard those words before, recently: ‘Where do you want to go?’ Who had said that to me?

“Heather? Come on, don’t just gape at me.”

“Uh- careful, don’t fall.”

“Me, fall?” Raine cracked a grin and planted a foot on the chair’s backrest. She shifted her weight, rocked the chair so far that my heart tightened in my chest.


She winked at me, then landed the chair safely on four legs once more. “Heather, I’m dead serious. I can take you anywhere you want.”

“No, you can’t. You have responsibilities.”

Raine cleared her throat. “I mean, in the future. Come on, anywhere you like, what do you wanna see?”

“ … castles.”


“And Cathedrals.”


Raine was blissfully unaware of the Pandora’s box she’d opened by pressing that question. Over the better part of the next hour I regaled her with a long, winding list of all the most beautiful castles I wanted to visit, from little islet keeps in Scotland to the well-known London tourist traps of The Tower and Westminster, to the great sprawling monster castles in Eastern Europe that I could never hope to scrape together enough money to see.

She lugged her laptop over to the bed and looked up each one as I went, our heads close together as we peered at stonework I’d admired for years. Every now and again Raine reached over and squeezed my thigh or rubbed my knee, and I did my best to concentrate on what I was saying.

Somewhere along the way, she made the fatal mistake of getting me started on architecture.

“I mean, that looks plenty gothic to me. Look at those towers.”

I huffed and shook my head. “Gothic is a specific style, not just a feeling. Go back to the previous page. Yes, that, that’s Gothic. The other one was just a shell keep, that’s a … R-Raine?”

A twinkle had entered her eye, a subtle smile on her lips.

“Go on!” she said. “This is the kinda Heather lore I crave.”

I tutted and blushed and managed to forge on into the differences between early Norman castles and Concentric designs. Raine nodded along, apparently fascinated by my amateur flailing. My right hand kept creeping up to rub at my sternum, the ache inside suppressed only briefly by talking.

“Good job distracting me, by the way,” I said.

“Ah, am I that obvious?”

“A little. I needed it, I guess. Better to talk about castles than … well. Everything yesterday. Uh, two days ago.” I closed my eyes and pinched the bridge of my nose. Lost time was biting hard.

“Everybody’s gotta decompress sometime. I think we earned it.”

“What happened, Raine? In that loop, what was that all about? Are we supposed to … run? Hide? What do we do now?”

“What do we do now?” Raine cracked a grin. “I think video games are in order, and there’s a Chinese takeaway place one street over, opens at five. If you feel like some fresh air and you’re well enough for a little walk, then we could pop down there together, or I could just call in delivery. I think we’ve got a menu downstairs in a kitchen drawer somewhere.”

I sighed, impressed by her gall but not her angle. “That’s not what I meant.”

Raine laughed in defeat. “I know, I know, but can’t we just take one day off? You need it, you’ve earned a break, we can think about serious stuff tomorrow.”

“What if we don’t have time for that? What if they’re looking for us now?”

“They’re not. Evee’s dealing with it.”

“She is?”

“Really really.” Raine wet her lips and let out a little sigh. “Trust me, she’s gone off on one, if you know what I mean. She’s taken this personally, big time. Whoever they were, Sharrowford Cult or not, Evee’s giving them much bigger fish to fry right now. In fact, uh, we should totally go check on her tomorrow, make sure she’s not burning her fingertips too badly.”

“Mm.” That worried me too. What I’d seen of Evelyn’s track record with magic was unfortunately terrible.

“Tomorrow. Tomorrow we’ll meet up with Evee. I don’t want to risk anything happening to you while you’re still feeling so rough. We’re perfectly safe here, I promise.”

I felt a fragile smile peek through. “Okay, okay. I guess I’m still frightened.”

“Hey, nothing wrong with that. I was scared too.”

“I even dreamed about one of them. One of the cultists, I mean.”

“Oh yeah?” Raine stretched her legs out and hooked one of her ankles over mine.

“Briefly, before I woke up. I think it was about the girl in the skull mask. Do you remember her too?”

“Yeah, that was weird, wasn’t it? I gave Evee descriptions of all of them over the phone, best I could, but she didn’t recognise any. That girl could have been anybody.” Raine chewed her way slowly through a cookie as she spoke. “Heather? Was it a bad dream?”

“Hm?” I looked up, realised I’d been frowning to myself. “Oh, no. She didn’t have much to say, I think. I don’t really recall the details, it’s all slipped away … ”

“I’ll take your mind off your dreams.”


Raine cleared her throat and wiped the smirk off her face. “I think you should stay here tonight. Take it easy. Rest up. Have some nice food. Nobody’s getting through me. Tomorrow, we can get back to some kind of normal routine-”

“Oh! I’ve missed class.” The bottom dropped out of my stomach and I put a hand to my mouth. “Oh, God. Oh.”

“It’ll be fine.” Raine laughed and raised her hands. “You were ill, I was looking after you. Don’t sweat it. Damn, Heather, people miss class all the time, and with much crappier excuses than yours.”

“If you say so.” I had sudden visions of disappointed professors. There was little worse than the disapproval of those you looked up to intellectually.

“Don’t mind another night in my bed, do you?” Raine cracked a grin.

That snapped me back to the present, back to sharing a bedroom with the girl I’d been crushing on hard for weeks now, the girl I’d made out with two days ago. I opened my mouth but no words came out. Raine raised her eyebrows. I swallowed and forced myself to take a nice deep breath.

Maybe serious magic nonsense could wait a day.

“Please tell me this house has a shower.”

“Sure does. You wanna … ?” Raine gestured between me and her.

I blushed heavily. Embarrassment beat temptation. “Raine, I’m filthy, I stink like a pig. I-I just need to shower … thank you for the offer. Just shower.”

The rest of the day was a gift. I half-expected the spirit life to show up and ruin everything, creeping down the corridor or lurking in the bathroom, but apparently my message earlier had gotten through to them. I caught sight of a few in the street, but oddly enough they left the house alone.

I showered and changed into the spare clothes Raine had fetched from my flat. She took me downstairs to the dilapidated sitting room, where threadbare sofas squatted before a game console hooked up to a stolen telly, where I spent a very pleasant few hours curled up on the sofa, a blanket around my shoulders, while Raine sat cross-legged on the floor so she could show me a video game she was playing. Something about alchemists. The characters were all cute girls, so I wasn’t entirely out of my depth, but there was a lot of dialogue and running about. I barely paid attention, more intent on Raine’s reactions, delighted to be shown something she enjoyed.

And intent on the house.

The place was pretty run down, and not in a charming way like Evelyn’s house. Badly scuffed door frames and thin partition walls, ancient floral wallpaper peeling and cracked, carpets worn down to almost nothing. Clean, but poorly maintained.

“So, where are we exactly? I didn’t recognise the street when I looked outside.”

Raine glanced up from the game. “I’d be worried if you did. We’re off Dereham Road.”

I frowned and pursed my lips, cleared my throat gently. “I don’t actually know where that is.”

“Past the south end of the student quarter.”

“ … oh, next to the council estate, yes?”

“Ex-council estate,” Raine said as she clicked through the game menus. “Wouldn’t be so bad if not for the ex part. It’s not like, stab-happy land out there, but it’s not great either.”


“But hey, you can’t beat free.”

“ … free?” I blinked, lost.

“Zero rent.”

“I … don’t understand? Zero rent? How?”

Raine turned a grin on me, unaccountably smug. “It’s a student squat. Abandoned property. Bunch of us did the place up and put locks on the doors. You’re on stolen land, Heather. How’s that feel?”

Raine’s housemates turned up later in the evening, after darkness began to creep down the streets. I felt terribly self-conscious but none of them paid me much attention, or seemed to care that Raine was monopolising the television.

After Raine’s sneaky revelation about this house being a student squat, I expected druggies and drop-outs and dangerous people, the sort of people Raine could deflect with practised ease, but would put the wind up me like nothing else.

My prejudices ashamed me. Two of the other occupants turned out to be a pair of extremely flamboyant gay men – a couple? I asked Raine and she shrugged. The third was a tiny redhead law student who talked about vegan cooking and high-fived Raine when I was introduced as a ‘girlfriend’, and the fourth was the law student’s very tall boyfriend, who was studying environmental science. He hung out with us for an unexpected hour to discuss the finer points of Raine’s video game.

Raine ordered the promised Chinese food and we sat around on the sofas and old chairs, eating straight out of the plastic takeaway boxes. I had to use a fork like a normal person but Raine showed off with a pair of chopsticks.

It all felt so different, to my life. Normal.

I could almost imagine the events of two days ago hadn’t happened. Almost convince myself, for the span of one evening, that Maisie’s tshirt was not crammed into a bag in my coat pocket.


Night came, and so did the inevitable.

I’d started to nod off in the sitting room, so Raine had pressed a fresh toothbrush into my hand and steered me upstairs to the bathroom. She’d asked if I wanted a change of pajamas and I’d said no, I’d only showered a few hours ago. I felt clean enough, through very groggy and slow, the ache in my chest still sending its slow throb through my diaphragm with every breath. Raine had excused herself and left me to finish up. I flushed the toilet, washed my hands, and made my way back to Raine’s bedroom.

She was waiting for me half under the bedcovers with the lights off, on her side, the sheets turned down to invite me in.

Thankfully, she was still dressed. Otherwise I would have died right there.

“Oh, oh Raine no, I don’t t-think I can handle that. I-I just- I just- I don’t know if I- if I-” I stammered and swallowed, red as a tomato, hands out as if to ward her off.

Raine laughed and sat up. “Woah, Heather, Heather, slow down, slow down. It’s fine, it’s cool, it’s just me. It’s just getting in bed together.” She held out a hand. “I don’t bite, I promise.”

I let out a huge breath and managed to shut the door properly, my hands clammy and shaking, plunging us into the comfortable shadows. I stepped closer but I absolutely could not take Raine’s hand. Part of me wanted to. Part of me wanted to do a comedy dive into the bed and shove my face into her chest, but that part of me was very small and easily vetoed, by the executive council of sensible Heather, repressed Heather, and nervous Heather.

“Raine, I- uh … I don’t know.” I had no idea what to do with my hands, wringing my fingers together. “I don’t know. We- we barely- we’ve barely been properly together for three days. I’ve been unconscious for most of that time. I- … ”

To my surprise, Raine stopped laughing. She nodded and sat up properly, knees tenting the covers. “Heather, I am inviting you to cuddle in bed. Nothing more.”

“It’s your bed! With you! We haven’t even … even … ”

“Even what?”

“I don’t know. Isn’t there supposed to be some step between kissing and … and sharing a bed?”

“Maybe. Does it matter?”

I didn’t know. My mouth was dry and my heart was fluttering like an escaped bird. I shrugged.

“We don’t have to take each traditional step one by one,” Raine said. “There’s no proper order. Do what feels good with each other. If you want to come cuddle, come cuddle. Otherwise, I can sleep on floor again, I really don’t mind doing that.”

“Just … just cuddling?”

“I promise.” Raine’s smile crept back. “I’m not going to rub you off under the covers unless you very specifically ask for it.”

“Raine!” I blushed harder than I’d thought possible, could have sworn steam shot from my ears. She laughed again and held up both hands.

“My hands stay above your waist,” she said.

I was shaking, my knees ready to give way. I was certain this kind of stress was not good for me after breaking my brain with hyperdimensional math, but my goodness did I want this.

“Okay,” I whispered.

Tentative, my hands freezing cold and my heart in my throat, I slipped into bed next to Raine, on my side, sliding my legs down into the warm cocoon of the covers until our bare feet found each other. Raine tucked an ankle between mine, pulled the covers over our shoulders, and wrapped an arm around my waist. She purred and shifted her entire body against me, close, soft. I shivered at the feeling of her breath on my neck and her hand on my stomach.

This was not exactly relaxing.

“Good, huh?” she murmured.

“Very,” I managed.

Minutes later – a few or two dozen, warm and together – Raine’s breathing had softened, quietened.

“Are you awake?” I whispered into the warm darkness.


“Maybe … maybe do that thing you said.” My chest tightened up. Breathless. Heart racing.

“Hmm? Thing I said?”

I would have rolled my eyes in exasperation if we’d been facing each other. My throat almost closed up on the words. “The thing you said you wouldn’t do unless I specifically asked for it.”

A long, long pause. Raine’s hand moved against my stomach.

“You sure?” she purred.


“ … so then the bear exploded! It just keeled over and boom! Blood and guts, everywhere, all up the walls, on the ceiling, the silly little benches, the podium thing, everything. Isn’t that amazing?!”

Lozzie rocked back in her chair, howling with laughter and kicking her legs in the air. She was laughing so hard she started to cry. I was laughing too, giggling with a hand over my mouth. Her story was just so funny, so ridiculous, I couldn’t believe it had really happened to her. I-

I stopped laughing

Another dream.

Lucidity washed over me like a wave of Arctic seawater, dousing me with sudden sober clarity. A heartbeat passed and I couldn’t remember the story Lozzie had been telling, couldn’t remember how we’d gotten here, couldn’t remember a thing.

Lozzie wiped tears of laughter off her mushroom pale, elfin face. I stared for another heartbeat, then turned, and saw.

A wave of vertigo punched the breath from my lungs. I would have fallen over, if I hadn’t been sat down nice and safe in this ancient wooden armchair.

We sat atop the battlements of a truly titanic castle. Snow-capped mountains to awe any romantic reared up on either side of us, the castle itself wedged into the valley between, walls marching away in giant stone blocks to meet the mountainsides. Towers rose in solid, square vaults to our rear, stone and painted wood, wind-whipped by freezing air and linked by covered walkways. Distant figures passed here and there, some armoured in strange uniforms. I heard the crack of leather wings, distant and heavy, the bellow of creatures that might live in a place like this. Snow whirled in the valley beyond, coating a landscape hundreds of feet below.

Lozzie and I sheltered under a stonework overhang held up by pillars, sat on chairs and bundled up in comfy layers and huge fur hoods. Between us lay a small but merry fire burning in a grate, next to a pitcher of dark liquid and two glasses.

Tears welled in my eyes. It was the most beautiful place I had ever seen.

“Is this a real place?” I whispered.

“Yeah, of course it is.” Lozzie smiled at me in the afterglow of her laughter. “What did you think it was?”

“Isn’t this a dream?” I turned to her, barely able to tear my eyes away from the castle which surrounded us.

“Duh.” She rolled her eyes. “But it’s gotta be a real place, right? Belo-whatsit. I forget what it’s called. Who cares! You love castles, right?”

“I do. I-” My blood froze, all my lovestruck awe turned to venom in an instant. “Wait. How do you know that? Were you listening? Were you spying on us, on me and Raine?”

“You told me! You told me all about it. We were having so much fun, don’t get moody now. Anyway, I wasn’t finished. So the bear is dead, right, and the priest turns to me and-”

“I’m not going to remember this, am I?” I muttered to myself and ran a mittened hand over my face. “It’s a dream, of course you know I love castles, you’re a dream.”

“What? … Heather?” Lozzie looked crestfallen. “What do you mean, you won’t remember it?”

I stood up from the chair and cast about. “Of course dreams aren’t real,” I snapped, to myself, not Lozzie. “You’re schizophrenic, Heather, you-”

I slammed to a halt. I wasn’t crazy, not anymore. I blinked and swallowed and reminded myself of that, hard as I could, reminded myself of the last few weeks of my life, of Raine and Evelyn and Maisie and magic and demons.

Lozzie stood up too, almost bouncing to her feet, face worried and panicky. “Heather, Heather don’t go again, we were having so much fun! Please!”

I screwed my eyes shut, held them hard, clamped down and tensed every muscle and grit my teeth.

And woke up.


Darkness – but not silence, and not cold. I lay in Raine’s arms, on the edge of awareness, listening to her breathing. Another bad dream? The details drifted away.

Raine shifted against me and murmured in her sleep. My goodness, this did feel good. I still ached a little, in new and interesting ways.

Closed my eyes, went back to sleep.

Maybe I’d dream about castles.


We both had class the next morning. Raine decided it was best we try to have a normal day before we visited Evelyn.

How could anything ever be normal again?

“Heather? What are you grinning about?”

“Nothing, nothing! Just … I feel good.”

Goofy smiles kept sneaking onto my face all morning, as we woke up and ate breakfast and got dressed. I had sex last night, with a girl! I felt like a dopey teenager. I wanted to do it again.

From the moment I woke up in Raine’s arms the whole world felt different – and yet also the same. Raine and I shared constant touches, now imbued with secret meaning: the way she steadied me when I struggled out of my socks, the hesitant way I put my hand to her elbow, the gentle scratch of her fingers through my hair.

She got changed in front of me; I nearly lost my mind, hid behind my hands and peered out through my fingers, blushing terribly – then marvelling over her.

“You have abs.”

“Sure do,” Raine said. “Didn’t you feel them last night?”

“I wasn’t really paying much attention to your stomach.”

“Wanna touch?”

I thought I was going to have actual heart palpitations. I screwed up my courage and did what I must. I had the most unaccountable, uncouth urge to honk her boobs.

“I-I’m going to blow a gasket, Raine. Please, please, put some clothes on.”

Raine was the most smug I’d ever seen her. She relented and finished getting dressed while I swung my feet back and forth on her bed.

“Did that-” I stopped, afraid of sounding silly.


“ … did that count as having sex?”

Raine raised an amused, puzzled eyebrow at me. “What else would it be?”

“I-I don’t know.” Another goofy grin took over my face and I had to hide it behind my sleeve.

Happy did not last the length of the road.

My own clothes seemed insufficient after last night, like squeezing back into shed skin. I didn’t say as much to Raine, concerned she might take that sentiment a little too seriously – but she saw the hesitation in my eyes as I picked up my own jumper. She offered me one of her polo necks, ever so slightly too large for me, and I felt the sweetest comfort as I pulled it on over my head and snuggled my face against her scent in the fabric. Swapping clothes carried a strange, unbounded intimacy I’d never thought possible before. I was wearing Raine’s things, in public.

We left the house together and once again I balked at the condition of the street: large untreated potholes and discarded cigarette ends, moss between the pavement slabs and empty beer cans in the gutter. The quiet of early morning rendered this place as placid as a wilderness.

Except for the spirit life.

As soon as we’d stepped from the front door and down the stubby little garden path – not much of a garden, scraggly untended weeds – twisted creatures had begun peering around corners and over brick walls, staring at me. I avoided eye contact with the tree-legged thing leaning over the opposite row of houses, ignored the trio of headless armless women floating in the next-door garden, turned my face away from the ape-like raw-red hooting ghouls gathering at the end of the road.

Raine must have seen the look on my face. “You holding up okay? We don’t have to walk if you’re not feeling up to it.”

“I’m fine, it’s not the ache.” I shook my head, one hand drifting unconsciously to my sternum. “How would we not walk, anyway?”

Raine gestured to one of the beaten-up old cars parked by the side of the road.

I frowned at her. “You’re suggesting stealing a car?”

“What?” She smirked and laughed. “No, what do you take me for? That’s mine.”

“Oh,” I managed, distracted by a clutch of pneuma-somatic tentacles waving from a nearby garden. “I didn’t know you could drive.”

“We can, if-”

“No. I need to walk.”

I would not be intimidated.

The spirit life did at least keep a respectable distance, as Raine and I walked hand-in-hand along the route to campus. The Fractal still worked. But apparently now I was the focus of utter fascination, in a way I had not been for almost a decade. All manner of unspeakable things paused and turned to watch us pass.

A few broke off from their ineffable routines, to follow.


“I’m fine, I’m fine.” I wasn’t. I was seething with growing frustration, my earlier happiness turning to lead in my stomach.

“It’s the ghoolies, isn’t it?”

“ … yes. Since … since I spoke to that spirit on the roundabout, when we chased the Messenger, they’ve been … I don’t know. More curious than before. There’s a small crowd following us. Following me.”

I whispered the words, afraid any random passer-by would think me mad. Likely nobody cared. Not about me or Raine, or the fact we were holding hands, and certainly not whatever I muttered under my breath, but I couldn’t shake that decade-old injunction to not appear like a madwoman.

Raine stopped and looked over her shoulder, as if she could see them too.

“Off with you,” she said out loud.

“Raine!” I hissed.

She winked at me. “It’s the only way they’ll learn.”

“They won’t listen to- oh, for goodness sake.” I grit my teeth and stopped halfway down Barner’s street, between an Indian grocer’s and a shuttered hardware store. I turned around slowly.

My unwanted entourage had grown to five strong.

None of the really big ones. I wondered if that was related to mobility, or perhaps level of intelligence, then reminded myself they weren’t even biological. They didn’t have brains. Or did they? I knew nothing about pneuma-somatic life, how they worked, how they thought, what they were for. Evelyn didn’t know, so what chance did I have?

Two wolf-like things with lizard hindquarters and shaggy snouts formed the core, flanked by a big lumbering anteater-analogue made of crystal and nails. In the rear lurked a floating gas-bag, like a jellyfish, trailing venomous looking tentacles in a rainbow of sickly colours.

They had a leader, up front.

She – I instantly thought of it as a she, despite the absence of visible breasts or hips – was slender and poised like a dancer, humanoid figure cast in pitch-black flesh made from slick protoplasmic tar, bubbling and roiling, faintly luminous. A mass of thick tentacles rose from her back, waving in the air, tipped with pincers and stingers, sucking orifices and coiling fingers.

She had no facial features except for huge black eyes. Deep-sea fish eyes.

I squeezed Raine’s hand and fought to stare back.


“Is there anybody around?” I hissed. Raine glanced up and down the street.

“Couple of blokes down the road. Not close enough to give a toss.”

I summoned every ounce of acting power I had, not much. Tilted my chin up, like Evelyn in her worst – or best – moments. Slid one foot out, widened my stance. Straightened my back, attempted to channel Raine’s confidence via sexual osmosis, as imperious as I could.

“Leave me alone.” I raised my voice. “Tell your friends to do the same.”

It worked. The spirit life dispersed. The wolf-things loped away under the pressure of my disapproval, while the gas-bag jellyfish just dissolved into thin air. The anteater monster lumbered away and slumped against a nearby traffic bollard. The Leader stared longer than her fellows, with those pelagic eyes, then seemed to incline her head and slink back off the way she’d came.

I breathed out and almost fell down, my knees shaking. Raine rubbed my back and asked if they were gone.

We went to class.


When her own seminar was finished, Raine waited for me outside two separate lecture halls for most of the morning, walking me between them, eating overcooked chips together in the too-bright, too-clean campus canteen. I made my apologies to bored professors for missing classes. They didn’t care. The university knew my medical history.

We went to see Evelyn, and my entourage returned.

Not the same spirits as before. Stilt-stalking watchers and pustulant bears and skittering balls of chitin, a crowd behind Raine and I as we took the route to Evelyn’s house. I kept my backward glances to a minimum, hid my growing nerves and my bitter, biting frustration.

“They’re back, aren’t they?” Raine murmured softly.

“ … you can tell?” I sighed. “I’m sorry, I wanted to relax with you. I felt so good this morning, best in years. I’m sorry.”

“Hey, Heather, it’s not your fault. Why not wave the warding sign at them?”

“I-I don’t know, Evee told me to keep it covered and I-”

Raine’s mobile phone rang and she fished it out of her jacket pocket. “Huh, speak of the devil.” She answered the call. “Hey Evee, we’re almost there.”

I sneaked a backward glance.

The Leader was back. She of the many tentacles and the roiling black protoplasmic tar-flesh. Staring at me. A mouth slopped open in what on a human would be her chest. No teeth. No lips. Just a hole. It wavered and wobbled and began to form silent words.

“Uh, Raine?” I tugged at her hand.

“Heather? Wait a sec, Evee, she’s- yeah, yeah okay, bye.” Raine killed the call and frowned down at me, concern written on her face. “Heather, uh, I don’t really understand this, but Evee- … Heather, what’s wrong?”

“Just walk faster.” I did my best not to look back.

“Heather, they can’t hurt you. Not with the warding sign on you. Not with me here.”

“You can’t even touch them,” I hissed.

I looked back. The Tentacled woman had pulled ahead of the crowd, closing the distance between us. The mouth in her chest sucked and slapped, speaking at me.

“Quick, before we get to Evee’s,” Raine said. “She said to tell you to be careful about spiders. She wasn’t really very clear, but said you’d made her promise to warn you?”

“What?” I blinked at her, trying not to look behind us. “Oh, uh, r-right-”

The Tentacled Woman reached out toward me with one of those sucker-covered tentacles.

“Walk- walk faster,” I hissed.

“ … we can run, if you like?” Raine said.

I shook my head, set my lips in a tight line. “No. No more running. I refuse to run.”

By the time we reached Evelyn’s front gate, I was panting and out of breath, the ache in my chest throbbing like a migraine in my diaphragm. Raine kept trying to get me to either slow down or run the rest of the way, and even offered to just pick me up and carry me. That last prospect was painfully tempting, but I would not run from this thing, or any other spirit, ever again.

I’d made no resolution, couldn’t pinpoint the moment my attitude had changed, surprised even myself.

Behind the apparently safe barrier of Evelyn’s low garden wall, bent over with my hands on my knees, I watched the Tentacled Woman walk right up to the boundary, staring at me and mouthing unwords from the dripping hole in her chest.

Other spirits clustered behind her, flapping pseudopods against the wall, yawning their drooling maws at me, snapping beaks shut on the air, until a crowd of pneuma-somatic life roiled and rioted.

I’d give them something worth seeing. Oh yes. Yes I would.

“Heather, woah, take a deep breath, okay?” Raine wedged her arm under my shoulders to help me stand straight. I nodded my thanks but didn’t look away from the spirit, the leader, whatever on earth she was. “What is it? Heather, talk to me, tell me about it.”

I told her. She followed my gaze.

“And what’s it doing?” she asked.


“Let’s go inside, we can get Evee to-”

I pushed away from Raine, gently peeled myself off her and forced my spine straight. I walked back down the garden path. I’d like to say I walked right up to within arm’s reach, but I didn’t. I stopped a nice safe distance away from the Tentacled Woman and my crowd of abhorrent admirers. Raine shadowed me the whole way, ready to catch me if my weakened knees gave out.

I rolled up my left sleeve and held out the Fractal.

The crowd recoiled as one. The Tentacled Woman backed up a step. The mouth in her chest continued flapping.

“Shut up!” I snapped.

The mouth stopped.

I took a deep breath, teetering on the verge of hysteria. Hadn’t wanted to snap like that, needed to be calm, contained, careful.

“Don’t follow me,” I said, my voice rising. Anybody who saw me could go file a complaint. “Don’t watch me. Don’t haunt me. Leave me alone. Or I shall begin to consider ways to hurt you.” I paused, had to ignore the pounding of my heart. “I don’t know if I can teleport you Outside, but I will find a way to try. I got laid! Go away!”

With Raine’s hand on my shoulder and the brooding hulk of Evelyn’s house at my back, standing in the weak grey autumn sunlight dappling the street, I waited as the crowd of pneuma-somatic life finally got the message. They loped and flopped and skittered and hurried away, scattering wide across the street and into the shadows and down the alleyways. I told myself I was defiant and powerful, protected and untouchable, but I just felt scared and confused.

The Tentacled Woman did not leave. She crossed to the far side of the road and sat down.

If she’d been a human, I’d have sworn she was sulking.

“Good enough,” I muttered. “They’re gone.”

Raine smirked. “You got laid, huh? That’s your big scary anti-demon weapon?”

I turned a mortified blush to Raine. “I’m sorry, I just- it slipped out- it seemed- It made sense in the moment.”

“Done wonders for your self-confidence.”

I sighed. “I think I need a hug.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

conditions of absolute reality – 3.1

Previous Chapter Next Chapter


Such infinite tranquillity.

Obviously, I was meant to be here.

Lying on my back on a hillside of soft yellow grass, beneath a sky whorled with the most beautiful bruised purple, shaded by an unrolling blanket of night. Warm wind caressed my face and I dug bare toes into the dry soil. Muscles soft as butter, skin tingling, clear-eyed.

How had I gotten here?

Memory moved at the speed of cold honey. I flexed my legs and smiled at nothing.

The last thing I remembered was … staying the night at Evelyn’s house? No, after that, Raine and I had gone off together, and talked a lot, and she made me feel good and wanted and believed and all sorts of other emotions far too complicated for the Heather on the yellow grass hillside.

Then we’d decided to visit her place, to …

To have sex?

I should have felt embarrassed, or at least self-conscious, but the thought wafted by without affect, a notion I could chose to observe from a distance, or not at all.

Not at all. Yes, I let the idea go and watched it float away on the humid air, wisps of spun glass fluttering on the warm wind. Why hold onto anything, in this place? I sighed and rolled the back of my head against the soft grass.

Where was Raine, anyway?



Something else had happened. Something bad.

The veil of calm dropped away and I sat up, blinking and squinting and rubbing my eyes. My vision blurred, as if the image was lagging, as if too much attention had revealed the artifice of the world around me. Yet I felt no panic, no dislocation, no sense of being lost somewhere Outside, only a vague confusion. Even my emotions crawled at a snail’s pace.

Dark yellow hillsides unrolled to the horizon. The sky extended forever, lit from below in soft glowing purple. No sun. Two moons.

And sitting to my left, her.

The girl in the goat-skull mask.

She sat with her knees drawn up to her chest, head tilted back to gaze up at the sky, so the curled horns of her mask pointed at the ground. No spirits attended her now, not like in that dirty, stagnant Sharrowford car park. She wore the same clothes, a dark striped hoodie with the sleeves pulled over her hands. Her long blonde hair trailed out over the grass.

“Where is this?” I asked. “Who are you?”

She turned to me. The skull’s eye holes showed only darkness. Then she reached up and removed the mask.

For a split-second, in my heart of hearts, I expected to see Maisie.

It wasn’t my sister.

An impish smile greeted me, set in a delicate featured, mushroom pale face. Her eyes were heavy-lidded, as if half asleep. I realised she was younger than me, perhaps only sixteen or seventeen. She brushed stray strands of that endless wispy hair out of her face and held the goat skull up again, pantomimed hiding behind it, then giggled and tossed it on the ground.

Fey and elfin, like some faerie apparition from a cautionary fireside tale.

I’d learn soon enough, I wasn’t far off the mark.

“You’re in a dream, dumbo,” she said.

“ … okay? I am?”

“We’ve been here for hours. Are you only just coming round? Jeeze, you’re so slow.” She let out a big theatrical sigh and flapped the loose ends of her sleeves. Her voice was high and light, perpetually amused. “Whatever.”

Through the thick, cloying blanket of numb emotion, I decided she was probably telling the truth.

This did feel like a dream. No idea where I was, no idea if Raine was safe, sitting with a nightmare figure from the Sharrowford Cult, but all I mustered was a detached floaty frustration.

“You can call me Lozzie.” She offered me her hand, pale white fingers poking from the end of her sleeve. “Or Loz. Or Lorrie. Lorry? Or late for dinner.”

“You want me to … ”

She sighed again, took my hand and shook it up and down. “There. That’s all proper and sealed then. This is the first time we’re meeting and all. Last time didn’t count.”

“Last time? Oh.”

More memory returned. I squinted as the heavy ropes of deadened affect lifted from my shoulders and worry snagged in the top of my chest. My head swam: Raine and I in Willow House, endless repeating corridors. Dead dogs and a baseball bat and stairwells and dead dogs and Raine kissing me and dead dogs and-

“Where’s- w-we were trapped. I- I have to find Raine-” I stared at the bizarre, elf-like girl next to me. “Where the hell is this?”

“I told you, it’s a dream!” Lozzie laughed and kicked her legs. “Did you forget already?”


“Tell me your name before you wander off and wake up again? Hanging out here is cool and all, but I’d rather, you know, do stuff.”

“ … Heather,” I muttered. “Yes, this is a dream, isn’t it? Which means I’m asleep? Safe?”

“Heather! Wow. You’re named after a bush!”

Lozzie found this hilarious. She flopped forward in a bone-defying stretch, palms flat out in front of her as she laughed. She trailed off into a big sigh and looked almost sad for a second. “I did try to warn you, but getting through was kinda hard. I’m so glad you didn’t die and all that. I heard they even tried to shoot one of you.” She tutted. “Should have known that doesn’t work anymore. And thanks for not hurting Zheng. It’s not her fault when they tell her to do things. I’m so fond of her, please don’t be angry with her.”

I blinked at her, trying to process her words. If this was a dream, then she wasn’t real, right?

Lozzie hopped to her feet and bounced on one foot, full of energy. She bit her bottom lip. Almost cute, if I wasn’t so confused.

“So, Heather. Heather. Hey-ther. Where do you wanna go?”


“Yeah! Where do you wanna go? The whole universe is at our fingertips, you know? Here.” She held out her hand to me.

“Home. Or- Wherever Raine is. Awake. How do I wake up?”

Lozzie puffed out her cheeks in a moment of teenage sulk. “Boring.”

Before I could mount a defence, she pounced on me, bundled into me and knocked the air out of my lungs. She grabbed my hand, interlacing her fingers with my own. She was laughing and giggling, long hair everywhere. Her other hand wrapped around my waist and held on tight.

“Chocks away!” she yelled.

Reality blinked in slow motion.

Awake, I would have screamed. Dream-logic threw a protective barrier around my sanity, so I was spared witness to the truth of the process. When the blink finished, dark dusty red plains stretched off in every direction, under a high milky grey sky.

Still laughing, Lozzie picked herself up and dusted her hoodie off. I got to my knees, shaking and breathless from the transition.

“There, wow.” She broke into an innocent smile and waved her arms at the horizon. “It’s sort of barren and … dumb, but there it is. Who else gets to see this?”

“What? See what?”

“Mars. We’re on Mars. You’ve never been?”

“I … no. I’ve never been to Mars.”

Sluggish thought finally dropped away like a crust of dried tar. Great engine-plates of cognition revolved back to speed inside my mind. I stumbled to my feet and backed away from Lozzie, if that was even her real name, if she was even real. My breath caught as panic set in.

Her face fell with genuine disappointment.

“Awwww, come on, don’t go,” she said. “I thought you were … you know. Like me.”

“Like you?”

My heartbeat thudded in my chest. A pulse ran through living veins. Skin flexed. Breath flowed.

The dream shattered into a million shards.


For reasons which may be obvious I was never much of a morning person, but waking up from the dream of Lozzie was difficult on a whole new level.

Physically I was awake, the slow reanimational alchemy of bodily function and firing synapse, but for a long time I could not have moved if the Devil himself had shouted in my face. Awareness dawned with tentative creeping fingers, of bed covers bunched up around my stomach and a pillow underneath my head, and a familiar smell all around me.

I let out a very long groan. Then another.

Everything hurt.

A half-hearted attempt to roll onto my side transformed into a slow journey to a sitting position. I still couldn’t open my eyes, but I flopped at the covers to extract one arm so I could rub at the ache behind my sternum, a dull throbbing pain which seemed now to fill my entire chest cavity.

By slow degrees, I knuckled my eye sockets and cleared my vision.

“ … what.”

I was wearing a tshirt a size too large, with a logo on the front for a band called ‘Bikini Kill’. I’d never heard of them. Smelled like I’d worn it a little too long. Also shorts, but no underwear.

This wasn’t my room.

I’d never been here before.

Panic had only a split-second to work its magic, because I didn’t take long to figure out where I was. It wasn’t rocket science.

The double bed – new and plush and very comfortable – was by far the nicest thing in the room, except for the pile of philosophy books on the floor, but I’m biased when it comes to the merits and attractions of piles of books. One small window let in sunlight around a tatty curtain, which fell on ghastly old peeling wallpaper. The bedroom’s usual occupant had covered the walls with posters, mostly for bands, along with a pair of questionable saucy pinups of video game girls, and a huge map of the UK studded with thumbtacks and towns circled in pink highlighter.

A cute little set of coloured hand-weights lay in the corner, along with resistance bands and discarded exercise clothes. The room’s desk was made of bare MDF and fronted by a very battered swivel-chair, but on the desk itself sat a small laptop and some dog-eared college textbooks, next to a gigantic plush dinosaur, a hairbrush, and some nail files.

Raine’s leather jacket was draped over the chair.

I relaxed instantly.

I’m so easy.


Raising my voice was a mistake; some joker had replaced my throat with sandpaper. I coughed and cast about for water, found none and attempted to get out of bed.

A singularly bad idea. I almost fell on my face. My legs worked, but not as I recalled legs were meant to. I sat on the edge of the bed and kneaded feeling back into my thighs for several minutes before I could stand. I checked myself over and found nothing amiss: no blood caked on my face, no missing fingers, no shaved head. The Fractal looked reassuringly fresh on my left forearm. My hair felt greasy and my bladder was full.

As I shuffled away from the bed, I almost tripped up a second time, on a tangled mess of blankets and cushions. Somebody had been sleeping on the floor. No prizes for guessing who.

I cracked the bedroom door and peered out into a stubby corridor, dotted with several other closed doors and terminated by a right angle turn to carpeted stairs, going down.

“Raine?” I croaked again, and kept one hand on the wall as I tiptoed forward.

The thin old carpet scratched at my bare feet. Somewhere down below a washing machine was thumping through a spin cycle. I reached the only window in the corridor and looked out on a street lined with terraced houses, half of them with windows boarded up. Potholes pockmarked the road. A sad, abandoned fridge stood on the pavement corner. Spirit life flitted and leapt across the old red slate rooftops, and on the other side of the road a sort of bulging ambulatory mushroom was busy climbing one of the houses.

I didn’t recognise this part of Sharrowford. A rough part. My earlier relief was wearing thin. Where was Raine? A dozen dark possibilities presented themselves.

A spirit flopped against the window.

I flinched, too wiped out and groggy for real shock. It was an ugly thing, like a bat but many times too large, face stuffed with dozens of eyeballs pointing in every direction. It scrabbled along the window glass and hissed at me.

“Shoo.” I showed it the Fractal. It took off sharpish.

When I looked round, another spirit was watching me too – inside the house. A bald green head, with six tiny pinprick eyes, peering around the edge of the wall where the corridor turned into stairs.

“You can go away too,” I said out loud.

It did.

It ducked back. When I reached the stairs, it had vanished back from whence it came. Thankfully.

“Raine?” I called down the stairs, then coughed and hacked and clutched at the ache in my chest.

She found me before I got much further.

Footsteps hurried up the stairs, taking three or four at a time, and Raine appeared in breathless rush. She was in tshirt and pajama bottoms, bare feet and a big smile.

“Heather, hey! You’re up? You’re actually up?”

I felt the sweetest wave of relief, so strong I sagged against the wall and smiled back at her. Raine was whole and not shot in the back of the head or pulled apart by tall women in trench coats. I stumbled forward and all but fell into her arms, pulled myself into a very selfish hug and buried my face in her shoulder.

God, but she smelled good. Warm faint body-scent. I put my arms around her middle and let out a groan. Raine laughed and rubbed my shoulders and let me flop against her for a minute before she eased me upright and peered at my face.

Her expression told me all was not right.

“W-what?” I managed.

“How many fingers am I holding up?”

“ … ”

“How many fingers am I holding up?” she repeated, exact same easy tone to her voice.


“And now?”


“And how about now?”

“You’re making a fist. Raine, what?”

She breathed a sigh, but it didn’t sound like relief. Wetting her lips with a flick of her tongue, she gently guided me back into what I’d correctly guessed was her bedroom. Raine sat me down on the bed again and gently touched my hair.

“Heather, stay right there, okay? Don’t move, I’ll be right back.”

“I saw a spirit indoors,” I croaked.

“You saw what?”

“I saw a spirit.”

“Oh, yeah. This room is warded, but the rest of the house is free-range. Best just sit there now, okay?”


“I’ll be right back. I promise.”

She was gone for only a minute, rapid footsteps down the stairs and back up again, and returned with a glass of water and a flashlight. She waited as I drank the water, then shined the flashlight in my eyes and peered at my pupils. I squinted and grumbled.

“Okay, right, that’s good,” Raine muttered more to herself than me. “Heather, what’s your full name? Say it for me, please?”

“Heather Lavinia Morell. I’m nineteen years old. I have a twin sister called Maisie. You’re Raine and I’m in your bed.”

A grin tugged at the corners of her mouth. “That you are. Not in the way I wanted you though.”

“Oh, shush.”

“How do you feel?”

“Like hell.”

Raine held up three fingers again. “How many?”

“I’m not concussed. Just unspeakably groggy.”

“Yeah, of course. But I have to make sure you’re actually back this time.”

“ … what?”

“What’s the last thing you remember?”

I furrowed my brow. This was too hard right now. “I had a weird dream. Uh, before that … I did brain-math again. You were fighting a scary tall woman. I grabbed you and … we went poof. I assume I passed out?”

Raine sat down on the bed and touched my knee. I liked that very much. I would have liked it more without the expression as if she was about to deliver news of a terminal illness.

“Heather, you’ve been out cold for two days.”

“What? Raine, what?” I gaped, suddenly a lot more awake. A sinking feeling pulled at the base of my stomach. “And you didn’t take me to a hospital?”

“You told me not to.”

I blinked at her. She shrugged and smiled in sheepish apology. “Out cold is probably a little dramatic, I admit. You were waking up to use the toilet, and you’d eat or drink anything I put in your hands, but you were like a sleepwalker. You barely spoke. Your eyes were unfocused all the time, lights on but nobody home. You just slept and slept. And you said no hospital. You don’t remember any of that?”

A horrible sense of lost time and missing memory settled over me. “I don’t remember a thing.”

Raine put her arm around my shoulders. She smelled so good, I wanted to lean into her. “I doubt the NHS has standard treatment guidelines for supernatural brain-strain.”

“I guess so.”

“Hey, Heather.” Raine spoke quieter than before, intense and serious. “Thank you.”


“That was the bravest thing I’ve ever seen anybody do, including myself.” She broke into a grin. “Just don’t do it again, okay?”

I shrugged and averted my eyes. Found it very hard to feel like I’d done a brave or clever thing. I was just glad she wasn’t hurt. “I might not wake up next time. Yes, I get it.”

“You’ll wake up and knock ‘em dead next time.” Raine kissed my forehead. I felt myself start to blush; everything was still in working order then. “I need to call Evee, let her know you’re awake.” She got up and found her phone on the desk.

Their conversation didn’t last long.

“That’s it?” I asked.

“Trust me, Evee’s glad you’re okay,” Raine said, and I heard a sigh behind her voice. “She’s uh, busy. Her particular way of showing she cares. Don’t worry about it right now.”

I should have had a million questions, should have been buzzing with tension and fears, but before I had time to think about anything else, we discovered I was hungry enough to eat a live horse.

“I’ve got microwave chicken nuggets downstairs,” Raine offered. “Chocolate cookies too, or I can whip you up a killer sandwich or two. If you want something more, there’s a Greggs like five minutes away, but I don’t really want to leave you alone.”

“Please don’t.”

The ache in my chest felt so bad that walking to the bathroom and back was quite a challenge. Apparently Raine’s housemates were all out at the moment, but I was more concerned about the spirit life which might be hanging out in her kitchen. She suggested I lie back down and nap while she made food.

“No. I’ve slept enough.”

“D’you want coffee then?”

“That would be heavenly.”

She left me with another affectionate kiss on the forehead.

“Shout if you need me. Feel free to rummage, if you get bored.” She nodded at the pile of books on the floor, winked at me, and gently eased the bedroom door shut. A couple of minutes later I heard her bustling around in the kitchen.

For a while I simply sat and soaked in my aches and pains, but then decided I needed a distraction. I pulled myself slowly out of the bed covers again to poke through Raine’s philosophy books. They were all second-hand, battered old paperbacks and ex-library books, filled with highlighter lines and pencil notes. Critique of Pure Reason lay on her desk, the same one I’d seen her reading on the morning we first met. It was filled with torn post-it note bookmarks. Next to it lurked a dog-eared copy of The Conquest of Bread, only slightly less inundated with yellow tags.

My bare feet felt freezing. An anaemic trickle of warmth ran from the modern radiator underneath the window. I padded over to Raine’s cheap chest of drawers, told myself I wasn’t intruding, and went diving for a pair of socks.

She owned a lot of band tshirts, some very comfy looking polo neck sweaters, and a pair of highly impractical leather trousers which I marvelled at for a moment. I blinked past underwear and bras and reached into the back of the top drawer for a pair of thick black socks.

My hand brushed cold metal. I peered underneath the socks.

A handgun.

Raine had a pistol stuffed in the back of her sock drawer.

A weird little snub-nosed thing, black and metallic. I stared at it for a long moment, then selected a pair of socks and closed the drawer.

Raine returned a few minutes later with the promised double plateful of chicken nuggets and chocolate cookies. She ducked back downstairs to fetch coffee for both of us, came back and handed me a steaming mug, kissed my forehead again, touched my hair.

I tried to imagine her holding a gun, shooting a person.

It was surprisingly easy.

She sat crossed legged on the bed, opposite where I’d tucked the covers up around my knees, told me to eat and take it slow, take it easy, we didn’t have anywhere to be today. She didn’t have to encourage me, I was so hungry my stomach growled at the smell of food.

“Borrowed your socks,” I said, and poked one foot out from the covers to show her.

“Oh yeah?” Raine leaned forward to goose my toes. I giggled involuntarily and jerked my foot back.

“Raine! No tickling!”

“That is one promise I am unable to make.”

“I couldn’t help … I mean … I saw your … Raine, there’s a gun in your sock drawer.”

“Is there?” She raised her eyebrows and paused in thought. “Oh yeah, there is, isn’t there. Forgot where I put that.”

“You forgot where you hid an illegal firearm? Raine, truncheons and knives are one thing, but that gun is illegal to even own. You could go to prison. Where on earth did you get it?”

She waved a dismissive hand. “I’ve had it for years. It’s fine, Heather, it’s just insurance.”

“That’s what you said about the truncheon. Not two hours later you beat a monster to death in front of me. Don’t jinx us again.”

Raine nodded, as if my paranoia made sense.

“I mean,” I tried to explain. “I’m not scared by it, I just don’t understand why … ”

Oh, but I did understand why Raine owned a gun.

Three days ago I wouldn’t have, but I did now. Exhaustion and hunger and chest pains had conspired together to smother the emotional impact of the Willow House Loop, but with food in my belly and caffeine in my veins and socks on my feet, the weight of memory landed on me like a ton of bricks. I put down a half eaten cookie and swallowed, suddenly short of breath. Yes, I understood very well why Raine might need a gun.

Raine recognised my reaction before I figured out what was happening. She scooted over next to me and put her arm around my shoulders, forced me to meet her eyes. “Hey, Heather, Heather, it’s fine. We’re safe, it’s over. It’s over. And hey, if it happens again, I’m right here. I’m not going anywhere.”

I nodded at her. Forced myself to take big deep breaths. “I’m fine, I’m fine, just … shock. Finally hit me.”

“I wish I’d had the gun. Haven’t carried it around in years.” She cracked a grin. “Could have just shot tall dark and bitch-face in the head and be done with her.”

I rallied a small laugh. Big effort. “Have you done that before? Have you ever used it?”

“Couple of times. Long story. Didn’t go well, but better than the alternative.”

“Thank you, yes, thank you.” I eased away from her arm. “I need some space to breathe. This is a lot to process. It just … hit me all at once, that’s all.”

Raine stood up and pulled over the chair from her desk. She sat on it sideways, facing me. “Don’t think about it for now, yeah? We’re just two girls hanging out, nothing more to worry about. Eat some junk food, then we can go downstairs and play video games. We’ve got a PS4 hooked up to the telly in the sitting room, s’pretty cool, I’ve actually got this one game I think you’ll love.”

“What happened after I passed out?” I asked. “Did you carry me here? This is your place, right?”

Raine winced and cleared her throat. “Yeah, it is my place. Long story short, I had to think real fast. You were out cold, we were both covered in blood, I needed to clear your airways. We popped out right in the middle of the street, miles from campus.” She blinked. “Uh, weird, weird feeling, your dimension-hopping voodoo. Span my head right around.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be! You saved us. Anyway, miracle I even got you back here without getting stopped and questioned. No princess carry, sadly, so you didn’t miss any fun. Managed to avoid awkward questions from my housemates too. Once you were here, I didn’t want to risk moving you. They probably think I’ve been keeping a sex slave up here the last two days.”

“Oh! Oh, your leg!” It came back to me in a rush of concern, a tightness in my chest. “You were bleeding so much. You-”

“Ahhh it’s fine, barely a scratch.”

Raine tugged down the waistband of her pajama bottoms and cocked one leg toward me. I swear, my eyes almost popped out of my head. I didn’t know where to look – the curve of her hip, the soft white of her underwear, the edge of her pubic mound, or the extensive bandage-and-gauze wound dressing wrapped around her lower thigh.

“W-w-what about, uh, um i-infection?” I completely failed to keep my cool.

“Once you were safe, I just rocked up to A&E at Sharrowford general, told them I’d been bitten by a strange dog. Cleaned it out and gave me a shot and some antibiotics. Muscle’s a bit stiff but the scar’ll look cool as hell.” She grinned, then caught the look on my face. “Heather?”

“M-maybe don’t flash your panties at me?” I blushed furiously. “I mean, do, yes, please, but warn me first?”

Raine laughed and pulled her pajama bottoms back up with a snap of waistband elastic. “Oops. Bit too much stimulation, yeah?”

I shook my head and huffed. “Oh shut up.”

I couldn’t bring myself to voice the other obvious question, whether I had stripped and dressed myself in Raine’s old clothes or if she’d had to do it for me. My dignity already lay in tatters but I clung to what I could. She’d laundered my other stuff and my coat, and found my apartment key to fetch me a spare set, but I couldn’t summon the energy to get changed yet. Raine also presented me with Maisie’s tshirt, carefully sealed inside an extra-large food bag. I thanked her but asked her to put it away, I didn’t have the mental bandwidth for that right now.

“Where did you get the gun, really?” I asked, an effort to occupy my thoughts. “I thought it was supposed to be impossible to get handguns in England?”

Raine bit a chicken nugget in half and raised her eyebrows at me. “Serious question?”


“It’s easy if you’ve got the right connections. I don’t anymore, but I did for a couple of years. Round when I met Evee. I bought it off a dodgy man in a pub in Crawley, down in Sussex, for about two hundred quid.” She ate the rest of the nugget and shrugged. “Strictly speaking, Evee bought it. Was her money. Or, uh, her dad’s. Haven’t thought about that in a while. Weird, huh?” She raised an eyebrow at me, then smirked. “Heather? See something you like?”

I realised I’d been staring.

“I’d never seen anybody do that before.” The truth behind my feelings slipped out.

“Do what?”

I opened my mouth, struggled to put it into words, tripped over the few points of reference I had. “Fight. What you did, I … ”

She was beautiful, muscle in motion like poetry. I clutched memories to me, of her swinging that length of metal pipe, her flushed face, grinning and loving every second of it. She gave me a terrible case of the shivers, and not in a bad way.

God help me, Raine was irresistible.

I felt in my chest, in my gut, and – forgive my crudity – in my crotch.

If I hadn’t been wiped out and stuffing myself with food, if I wasn’t three days unwashed and brain-strained by hyperdimensional math, if my chest didn’t ache like a abused drum, I would have been powerless to resist the urge. I was in her house, her room, her bed, wearing her clothes. I had no courage, of course, couldn’t have jumped her myself even if well and whole, but I doubt she would have given me much choice in the matter.

On some instinctive, animal level I knew her concern and care for my wretched state was the only reason she wasn’t trying to screw my tiny little brains out of my head right now. I felt it in the way she touched me, the unadorned sensuality of the way she looked at me, the closeness of our bodies. Simple, blunt, universal things I’d never experienced before. Felt like my nerves were wired with electrical current. Only the weight of exhaustion and chest pains kept me from dissolving into a blushing, stuttering mess of sexual tension.

The fact she wasn’t even trying made it so much worse.

Raine was nothing like the sort of girl I’d spent my teenage years assuming I’d be attracted to. She wasn’t my ‘type’, though I’d barely had the psychological freedom to spend much time thinking about personal preferences. I’d always imagined a girl more like Evelyn, or at least how Evelyn had first seemed to me, fluffy and cuddly and tucked away with her books. Raine was the polar opposite of everything I’d ever expected of myself.

I was turned on by her violence; I finally faced that fact.

“Hey, everybody’s good at something,” Raine was saying, a sheepish grin on her face. “I just happen to be good at kicking arse and taking names.”

“You killed those people,” I said softly.

Raine sobered up in a heartbeat. Her grin died and she nodded at me. “They were going to hurt us, Heather, or hand us over to people who would. It was us or them.”

“I know that. I know that, rationally. But they must have had … I don’t know.” I shrugged. “Parents, families, friends. They were people, and now they’re not. I don’t know how to feel about that.”

“It’s my responsibility,” Raine said. “I made the choice. Not you.”

I sighed and almost said that wasn’t helpful, but then I realised: Raine had done this before, hadn’t she? She’d been protecting Evelyn for years before she even met me.

“Would you have killed Twil?”

Raine grimaced and shrugged. “I don’t think I could. I mean, I could have a silver bullet made, but honestly? I ain’t sure even that would put her down.”

“In principle, would you?”

“If she was going to hurt you or Evee? Absolutely. No question.” Raine took a deep breath. “But it turns out she’s not. I was wrong about her. And hey, I wouldn’t have just bumped her off without being sure. I’m not a cold blooded murderer.”

I stared at her and thought very carefully. Stared at those big warm brown eyes and the soft curve of her cheekbones, the rich chestnut hair and the way her hips curved under her pajamas.

“Do I scare you?” Raine asked. I looked up and expected a touch of swagger on her face, but instead found straight laced sincerity.

“No, no you don’t. That’s what worries me,” I said.

Raine raised her eyebrows in silent question.

“It … I find it attractive,” I admitted. “Not the killing itself, I’m not that broken, and I don’t think you genuinely enjoy that part either?” I spoke those last few words slowly, haltingly, one eye fixed on Raine. She shook her head. “Right, well. I don’t know what it means. I never liked action girls or anything before. This is entirely your fault.”

Raine couldn’t keep a stupid grin off her face. She pantomimed a bow with a flourish of one hand. “A blame I am destined to shoulder.”

“Oh, shush.”

She straightened up again, most of the tension gone. “Look, seriously, Heather. I don’t want my, uh, talents to mess with your head. Beating up those guys, maybe I did kill a couple of them, but it was my responsibility. If that makes you uncomfortable, we can talk about it, I respect that. But it was not – and will not ever be – your fault. It’s mine.”

“Does it bother you?”

She shrugged. “Not really.”

Not for the first time, I wondered if Raine was a psychopath.

I also decided I didn’t care.

I never claimed to be smart.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter