the other side of nowhere – 4.7

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The others stared at the empty space where Lozzie had vanished, at her footprints in the cold morning dew.

Lozzie’s departure hurt, yes; I’d always been useless at making friends, and now I’d made one literally in my sleep. But Lozzie had better things to do than spend time with me. Things I didn’t want to imagine. Outside things.

That cut me far deeper. Had I seen a vision of my own future, if I kept staring into the abyss?

Too exhausted and numb to face any of that right now, so I just closed my eyes.

Apricot colours of dawn glowed through my closed eyelids, transforming to burnt yellow as clouds veiled the sun. Fingers of crisp cold air brushed my face. Distant sounds of birdsong and the waking city lulled me over the border of sleep for a second or two. One of my friends spoke softly. I was safe now, drained completely, shutting down.

“I’m sure she’ll be fine, Heather.”

“Mm?”

I forced my eyes open again. Raine sported a rare smile, for her – pained sympathy lurking beneath the confidence, at a loss, a nothing-can-be-done sort of smile. She always knew how I felt, even when I was too tired to feel it myself.

“She seemed like a lot of fun, if you stay on her good side. Hope she comes back to visit soon.” The tone in Raine’s voice, that shining certainty, almost made me believe it.

“Mm. Sure.”

“Uhhh,” Twil made the universal noise for utter bafflement. “What the fuck did we just see? Where’d she go?”

“Outside,” I grunted.

“ … Outside? Outside what?”

“Reality,” Evelyn said with a sigh.

“ … right. Okay. Okay then. “ Twil nodded to herself, very much not okay. She sucked on her bloody knuckles, where her torn flesh had finished re-knitting. “Fuck me.”

“No need to swear,” I grumbled, then let my heavy eyelids close once more.

Somebody let out a huge sigh. Somebody else flapped their arms. My body ached for sleep, and I didn’t care that I was on park bench, covered with my own blood and vomit.

“Right then ladies and demons,” Raine said, “if there’s no last-minute objections, I’m going to call a taxi.”

Twil snorted. “Yeah, and the driver’ll call the police the moment he sees us. We look like we’ve been in a slaughterhouse.”

“You have a better proposal?” Evelyn grumbled. “Heather’s not walking home in her state.” A long pause, then a frustrated huff. “All right, all right, and neither am I. I’m in pain, yes. Happy?”

“W-well no, ‘course not. I could … like … carry you?”

I didn’t hear Evelyn’s response, but I didn’t need to; the silence spoke volumes.

“Plus,” Twil went on, “what about your … you know?”

Denied the peace of sleep, I opened my eyes again. Twil was thumbing over her shoulder at Praem.

“What about her?” Evelyn asked.

“She’s blue. How you have her walking around in public, I don’t-”

“Do I have to explain basic concepts to you?” Evelyn snapped. She frowned at Twil from beneath furrowed brow. “Nobody sees that unless they’re expecting it. She’s completely fine, she-”

“Doesn’t look so blue to me,” I croaked.

Stopped short, Evelyn blinked several times. “What on earth are you talking about?”

I shrugged my shoulders, or tried to. Seemed obvious. Evelyn’s magical servant, the demon from Outside possessing a wooden mannequin, her perfect expressionless face and bloodless wounds, her scuffed clothes, had won some colour. Several hours ago her skin had been like pale ice, but now she had lightened, as if flushed with heat and life underneath the surface.

“Praem’s not blue anymore,” I mumbled.

Praem turned her face toward me at the sound of her name, the name I’d given her. She merely stared at me. Demons riding dolls or corpses seemed to do a lot of that, I noted.

“Thanks for helping,” I managed.

Evelyn peered at Praem with a dark frown. With the panic and chaos of the last few hours, perhaps she’d only noticed the change when I pointed it out.

“Trust me,” Raine was saying. “We’re miles from the worst a Sharrowford taxi driver’s seen. We’ll be nice and quiet and polite, nobody has to freak out, and I’ll tip a fifty. We stay here any longer and we really are gonna run into somebody.”

Twil shrugged. “I guess, whatever. I’m still gonna walk though, I feel fine now.”

“You not coming back to the house with us?”

Twil stalled for a second, then puffed out a big sigh.

“Nah, nah. I should … ” She flexed her right hand, looking down at the mended bones, then swallowed and glanced at Raine and me with obvious discomfort in her eyes. “I should go tell my uh … my mum … about all this. Family needs to know, you know?”

“You sure?” Raine asked. “You alright doing that?”

Twil shrugged. “Been a busy day. I should go home.”

Evelyn turned that dark frown away from Praem and hit Twil with the full force of her glare. “If your mother – or the thing riding along in her head – gives you the slightest bit of trouble about what happened yesterday, then you can bloody well tell her that I … ” Evelyn stalled out, mouth half-open. She took a second to gather herself and looked away. “That I’ve always got a spare room for you.” She glanced back at Twil, frowning up a storm. “Understand?”

“Aww, Evelyn!”

Evelyn could not match werewolf speed. Twil pulled her into a heartfelt hug, though Evelyn did her best to resist.

“Get off me, you mongrel!”

Twil laughed and let her go, darting away to avoid the rap of Evelyn’s walking stick against her ankles. “You didn’t mean that.”

“Don’t push your luck,” Evelyn snapped.

 Twil grinned. “You love me really.”

“I love all of you,” I said before I realised I was speaking.

Perhaps it was the exhaustion talking.

==

Recovery was ghastly. To kill Alexander Lilburne, I’d pushed my grasp of hyperdimensional mathematics right to the limit, and this time the aftermath lacked the merciful unconsciousness of a fugue state.

Still, after we got home that morning – and got clean, though Raine had to hold me upright in the shower – I slept for fifteen hours straight.

Lethargy and the ghost of nausea haunted me for a full week, along with the chronic pain of stubborn headaches, fluttering tremors inside my chest, stomach cramps and muscle weakness. Raine encouraged me to dip to Evelyn’s private stash of painkillers, and I did, more than once. The hard stuff, the codeine and others, provided at least some relief. Evelyn and Raine had a hushed argument about drug dependency when they thought I was out of earshot, and about how to find me some cannabis on the university campus, though Raine knew I would never take that.

I caught myself staring into space or at the kitchen tabletop for minutes on end, or trailing off in mid-sentence until Raine said my name, my mind defragmenting itself after too much intimacy with the mathematical truth of reality. I shuffled around that creaking old house like a real zombie. Once I blanked out on the toilet for almost fifteen minutes.

On the fifth day Raine had a bright idea. She stuck a favourite book in front of my nose – Watership Down – and forced me to read it to her out loud.

She sat and listened for as long as I needed, until mechanical repetition of words shaded with the delight of the story, and of sharing it with her. That seemed to do the trick.

By the end of the week I was uncomfortably well reminded that I had an end-of-term essay due soon, on either King Lear or Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. I chose Lear, popped more painkillers, and did my best to focus. Stubborn old men and bloody intrigue I could deal with. Imaginary realms full of sucking fog and personifications of death, not so much right now.

I told Raine and Evelyn everything, of course.

About Lozzie, about the dreams I’d been having and forgetting for weeks, about what I saw underground in the cult’s castle, the corpses and the bound god in the abyss – Evelyn didn’t seem surprised about the sacrifices. She’d seen that sort of thing before, I suppose, from the sharp end. I explained what happened in the throne room, what Alexander and I had discussed, but I couldn’t express why I’d needed to prove him wrong.

It touched too closely on the wound of Lozzie’s departure, on why I’d needed to remain myself.

“Don’t tell me you feel guilty about it?” Evelyn had asked, frowning at me over the kitchen table.

“No. Not guilty, just … ” I’d shaken my head, hesitated over what to say.

“Of course she doesn’t,” Raine answered for me, rubbing my shoulders from behind. “Pure self-defence, right? It was you or him, when it came down to it. You absolutely did the right thing, Heather. And hey, if you hadn’t done for him, I would have shot him in the mug about twenty seconds later, so in a sort of way you never really had a choice. Think about it like that, if it helps.”

“Killing him was the only solution,” Evelyn had grumbled, waving a dismissive hand. “Too far gone, a mage like that. Left him alone and he’d have come for us sooner or later.”

It wasn’t self-defence, and it wasn’t about removing a threat, not to me; I withered inside under Raine’s emotional support and Evelyn’s practical justifications.

Raine had rescued my notebook of hyperdimensional mathematics, scooped it up from the floor of the throne room at the last minute, after she’d pulled my unconscious body onto her back. When she returned it to me I almost couldn’t accept the thing, half hateful, half a source of strength, but it was merely a symbol of what I carried in my head.

Here was the instrument by which I might save my sister; here was the abyss in which I might lose myself.

When I was no longer quite so exhausted, Raine and I spent a quiet few hours refreshing the Fractal on my left arm, watching cartoons together. I relished the alone time, the attention, the slow intimate touch of her hands, and especially the part when she made me put my head in her lap – but there was a distance between us now, a barrier.

Lozzie dominated my thoughts.

She felt like a dirty secret I’d kept from Raine.

How responsible was I, for the convenient amnesia after every shared dream? Even the real Lozzie, bruised and dirty and twitchy, possessed an undeniable elfin beauty. I didn’t think I was attracted to her, she wasn’t my type, but how much had that beauty, that  intimacy, influenced me? My secret bit on the side. Made me sick.

One night that week I woke from a dream about her. We’d been building a sandcastle together, an elaborate citadel of crumbling spires and collapsing gatehouses, and had watched hand-in-hand as the sea rolled in to lay siege to our work. I’d woken with tears on the pillow, and realised she hadn’t visited me. Just a normal dream.

Raine wanted to know everything about her, in total innocence she just wanted to know about my friend. And I couldn’t explain what it had felt like to see Lozzie for real, those minutes together underground, the need to hug her and know she was real. A weird, twisted little part of myself wanted Raine to be jealous, wanted her to suspect the worst of me, wanted her to claim me as hers all over again to absolve me.

Instead, she’d never been so attentive. Bringing me food, coaxing me to sleep, massaging away the aches and pains. She helped me with the end-of-term essay, listened to my woefully pedestrian undergraduate ideas, encouraged me and told me I was getting better. She was so gentle with me, too gentle, but I didn’t have the words to tell her what I needed.

Stupid, selfish Heather. So focused on myself, I didn’t spare a thought for what was going on in Raine’s head, for why she followed me everywhere, why she needed me to fall asleep before she could, why sometimes I found her sat up listening to the sounds of the night.

==

Autumn guttered, blew out, and winter cold descended.

Tenny didn’t seem to feel the chill or the rain. I went to see her a couple of times in the overgrown back garden, with Raine by my side. She didn’t respond to questions about Lozzie, didn’t seem to be much perturbed by our brief absence, too busy exploring and probing with her tentacles, waving the slowly regrowing stubs at me. I watched her capture a vole or a shrew, hold it immobile on the ground, turn the terrified thing over and over in her tentacles, before gently letting it go again. Her presence had driven off most of the other spirit life around the garden and the patch of street immediately in front of the house. Her territory now.

The cult really was gone; I began to suspect Lozzie’s mysterious uncle didn’t exist. Evelyn had repaired Praem and sent her into the city every day, investigating the cult’s little pocket dimensions and loops and hidden passages, but they were all collapsing like shrinking cysts, vanishing into whatever layer of reality they’d been carved from. The main pocket remained – the wound around the cult’s captured god – but in Evelyn’s delightful metaphor it had ‘gone native’. Not a place for unprotected human beings anymore.

Evelyn asked very little about Lozzie. I failed to realise how little she was talking to me. Chalked it up to her focus on Praem’s odd changes.

I should have noticed the warning signs.

Twil came round to visit once, not for any special reason. That brightened the day. Not because of the silly werewolf herself, but for Evelyn’s reaction, the surface bristling which I suspect even Twil herself was beginning to find rather transparent.

I tried not to think too much. I reread King Lear and added to my essay, went to the library with Raine to look up reference books.

She encouraged that. It got me out of the house, got fresh air in my lungs, worked the weakness out of my legs, occupied my mind with something I loved. Wrapped up in my coat and that beautiful pink hoodie she’d bought me, scarf around my neck against the cold, she never let me go alone. Things were returning to normal – whatever ‘normal’ meant anymore.

How could I read books and walk around, eat breakfast and pretend everything was normal, after a night spent in a pocket dimension full of zombies and monsters and atrocities, after killing a wizard with my mind?

What else could I do? I didn’t want to fail a class, so I worked. It was that or curl up in bed and never leave. Once, I would have thought that a real option.

I knew in a few weeks I’d have to tackle the brainmath again, think about Lozzie, take charge and sit my friends down and talk about the plan. But for now, I needed to rest.

Of course, if you knew anything about me, you knew the library was the most likely place to find me, other than at home.

So that’s where they found me.

==

A quiet corner desk on the third floor of Sharrowford University Library, flanked on one side by a pitted concrete support column and the open vista of windows looking over the back of campus. The gentle rustle and soft footsteps of the library at mid-morning. Buzzing strip lights compensating for the overcast gloom. One of my favourite spots.

Raine was nearby, maybe fifteen or twenty feet away, off somewhere between the library stacks. She was looking for a book she needed for her own university work. I wasn’t paying attention. She’d come get me if she needed to go much further away. I had two books open on the desk in front of me: Reading Lear and a literary journal with a fascinating essay called Dragon Fathers and Unnatural Children.

I was turning a page of the latter, mentally drafting the conclusion to my essay, when I happened to glance up. Why? I think it called me, lurking in my peripheral vision.

A tiny goat statue on the opposite side of the desk. A hateful little thing with a twisted satyr face, looking at me with pewter eyes.

Hadn’t been there when I’d sat down.

To my credit I didn’t freeze up. My heart leapt into my throat, but I turned, about to call out for Raine, her name on my lips – but I stalled for half a second, damned by library etiquette. Had I ever raised my voice in a library? Surely not. Oh dear.

In that half second, a person cleared their throat, right behind me.

Well, yes, then I froze up.

A woman stepped into my field of vision, at arm’s length from me – old raincoat over an athletic top, layers failing to conceal the flow of wiry muscle beneath. Cheap tattoos peeked out from her neckline and on her exposed wrists. She picked up the goat statue from the table with her good left arm. Her right was encased in a plain white orthopedic cast with the hand left free, her raincoat’s arm hanging slack because she couldn’t get the cast through the sleeve. A shaved head nodded a greeting to me, and I met the cold, flit-hard eyes of Amy Stack, the Sharrowford Cult’s skinhead assassin.

“Alright?” she murmured, at proper library volume.

I hiccuped. My eyes flickered toward where I thought Raine was standing. Couldn’t see her, she was on the other side of the library shelves, visible only as the corner of a leather jacket.

“Relax,” Stack said. “I’m not here for a fight.”

I felt like a mouse in front of a snake. Frozen solid but vibrating inside, preparing to launch myself from my chair and scramble away. Would I make it? Should I shout for Raine? I was still weak, stuffed with painkillers, and Stack radiated that slow potential for violence, that economy of movement so similar to Raine, that wound-spring effect in every muscle.

“How dare you?” I hissed, and surprised myself. “This is a library. I am trying to work.”

She blinked at me, once. Point scored.

My anger surprised me – I’d clung to essay writing and literary theory this last week because it was solid, it was certain, it was something I’m good at, something not magical or full of monsters or so dumb it shouldn’t exist.

“Caught you at a bad time?” she asked.

Quite. And you are not a student. Do you even have a library card?”

“ … no, I don’t.”

“Then you’re not supposed to be in here.” A tremor in my voice. Chest constricted, palms sweaty.

Stack stared at me like I was the idiot. Then she nodded very slightly. “Fair enough. I won’t come back again.”

“See that you don’t.”

“We need to talk. You here alone?”

I shook my head.

“That’s good. Call your friends then.” She inclined her head. “Saye?”

“No, Raine.”

A slight frown. “Who’s that?”

“The woman you tried to shoot.” Oh, how I relished those words. I wish they’d had more effect on her. She raised her eyebrows in mild interest.

“Call her then.”

“Raine,” I said at normal volume, broke the most cherished library rule. Then I hiccuped again.

Raine heard it in the way I said her name. She was round the end of the shelves in two strides, her eyes taking in Stack and myself and the distance between us with a single glance. One hand slid inside her jacket before Stack could open her mouth.

“Not here!” I hissed. “Not in the library!”

Raine paused, eyes glued to Stack, and tilted her head in silent question. Stack stared back at her, eyebrows raised, unconcerned, or at least pretending unconcern.

Like watching a pair of tigers sizing each other up.

Even now, flushed with adrenaline, part of me filed away that look on Raine’s face, in the sort of mental folder one only opens in private. I wanted her to look at me like that.

Slowly, carefully, each movement wide and exaggerated, Stack turned out her pockets to show they were empty, rolled up her right sleeve, and lifted the hem of her top to reveal her empty waistband, turning once to prove she had nothing tucked into the back. Then she nudged the opposite chair away from the desk, and sat down, staring at Raine the whole time.

“Just here to talk.”

Raine watched her a second longer, then crossed to me, touched my shoulder, and asked a silent question with her eyes. I nodded and swallowed, and Raine dragged over a chair from the desk behind us.

She placed it forward of me, between Stack and I, then adjusted it again, forward by another couple of inches. She sat down very slowly. Posturing. I would have rolled my eyes at any other time, but right now she was perfect.

Stack watched Raine with strange interest. “You’re like me, aren’t you?”

“Eat me, baldie,” Raine said in a soft murmur. “Let’s get something real clear, just between me and you. Forget her for a sec,” Raine gestured at me. “I’m not like you, I’m not like you at all.”

Stack raised her eyebrows. “S’that what you think? You’re in denial.”

“See, you’ve got it all turned around. It’s not that I’m like you. That’s a fundamental misunderstanding, a category error.” Raine broke into a grin. Not the sort of grin she used on me. A different type, one that made my skin crawl. “The similarity between you and I, that’s because you’re a very, very, very little bit like me.”

Stack nodded slowly. “Interesting theory.”

“Stop it, both of you,” I hissed. “A psychopath penis measuring contest, really?”

Raine just grinned wider. Stack shrugged her shoulders.

“Only here to talk,” she said.

“Yeah?” asked Raine. “So who are we talking to? You?”

“My boss.”

“I punted your boss through a wall,” I managed, and felt much better for saying it, though I followed the words with a loud hiccup when Stack stared at me. I made a point of nodding at the cast on her left arm. “I broke all of his bones, instead of just one.”

“New boss, same as the old boss,” Stack said. I didn’t have a comeback to that, and Raine just stared her down – amazingly, it worked. After a moment, Stack let out a sigh and looked out the window. “Yeah, there’s been some restructuring. You know, change of management. Change of goals. I work for a slightly different person now.”

“Edward Lilburne,” Raine said, grinning as Stack turned to look at her. “I’m right, aren’t I?”

Amy shrugged. “He doesn’t want to meet you. He’s a coward.”

“Really now?” Raine raised her eyebrows.

“Yeah.”

“Funny way to talk about your boss.”

They stared at each other again, and this time I really did roll my eyes. “Amy, can I call you Amy? What does your boss want?”

“Couple of things,” she said, taking a deep breath and leaning back. “First one’s for you. Where’s Lauren?”

“She’s gone Outside.”

Amy’s eyes scrunched up in this weird tight quirk, like she hadn’t quite heard me right. A pinch of a frown, a little disbelief, almost a touch of fear, if she hadn’t been incapable of feeling that emotion.

“Pardon?” she murmured.

“She left,” I said.

“Buggered right off,” Raine added.

“Mm. Alright. Second question’s for Evelyn Saye. Wanna call her here?”

Raine snorted a humourless laugh. “If you want her to torture you to death, sure. She’ll do it. She’s crazy, our Evee. Better pray you don’t bump into her.”

“Fine. Can we coexist?”

Raine and I actually shared a glance. I shrugged. Raine straightened up and sat back, let out a long theatrical sigh and stroked her chin. It was quite the performance, but it was wasted on Amy Stack as an audience.

“Not really up to me, that one,” said Raine. “I’m not the one in charge here.”

“Where’s Zheng?” I blurted out.

Amy turned her slow regard on me.

“Yeah, Heather’s more in charge than I am,” Raine murmured. “You wanna make a deal, might be best to do it with her. She can bite your head off, you know.”

“The zombie’s done a runner,” Stack said. “Not a peep.”

“ … are you lying?” I asked.

Stack shrugged, wide and eloquent. “Doesn’t make any difference to you either way. This next part is between me and you, alright?” She looked at Raine, then back at me. “Or between me and Saye, take it however you like. My new boss probably isn’t going to mess with you. He’s scared shitless of Saye, and terrified of you, miss … Morell, right? Not Lavinia.”

“Yes. I’ll thank you not to use my middle name, please.”

She nodded. “He won’t even risk a phone call via my cell, in case you or Saye do something with sound, fry his brain or whatever. I don’t pretend to understand half of it, playing with fire if you ask me. He doesn’t really expect me to return from this little meeting.”

“Oh, I think we could prove him right on that count,” Raine said.

“I think otherwise,” Amy said gently. “You can even follow me when I leave here, but I’ve got instructions not to meet up with the rest of them, not for the next three weeks, and not in Sharrowford city limits. They’re too afraid. You broke ‘em. So, I think we can all coexist. Get me?”

“They?” I echoed. “Aren’t you one of them?”

Amy shrugged.

“You kept well out of that whole castle thing, didn’t you?” Raine murmured.

“Only been there once. I’m no idiot.”

“Oh? No? Could’a fooled me.”

“Still alive, aren’t I?”

“Point,” Raine said.

“I don’t think we can coexist,” I said very quietly, dredging up that core of conviction I’d felt in the castle, during those slow, numb minutes underground. “Edward Lilburne, Lozzie’s uncle, he was … responsible, for what was in the castle, wasn’t he?”

Stack raised her eyebrows. I just stared at her – no small feat, looking back into those stone-hard eyes. My heart fluttered and my stomach tightened, but I held her gaze. Eventually she sighed and nodded.

“S’a pity,” she said.

“Here’s what’s gonna happen,” said Raine, and scooted her chair even closer to Stack. “You come against us again and I’ll kill you.”

“Obviously.”

“No no, I don’t mean I’ll fight you and win, or stab you to death or something. I owe you. Shooting at me, eh, I can forgive that. Kidnapping my girl, that’s different. I’ll find where you sleep, or who your family are, or maybe you have a kid.”

Stack actually smiled, and a little puff of laughter escaped her. “You can try.”

“Or maybe you don’t care about anything except yourself.” Raine spread her hands. “I can work with that too.”

“I’m sure you can.”

Slowly, making no sudden movements, Stack got out of the chair and stood up. She nodded once to me, and once to Raine.

“Sit and swivel, slaphead,” Raine said.

“Same to you.”

She stepped away from the table, and without looking back, stalked off between the library shelves, light-footed despite the boots on her feet.

Raine and I watched her go. I didn’t breathe again until she vanished toward the stairwell, behind too many books.

“Are you … are you going after her?” I asked, swallowing on a very dry mouth.

“Nah, s’pointless. She wasn’t lying.” Raine sighed and looked at me. “Oh, Heather, hey, hey, it’s fine, we’re fine.”

She leaned over and wrapped her arms around me. I was shaking very badly, my breathing unsteady. My heart was hammering at a hundred miles an hour.

“I’m okay, yes, I’m okay,” I lied, then hiccuped. “That was kind of scary.”

“Yeah. Yeah, it was.”

Raine rubbed my back and held on for a while, then let me go so I could gather up my dignity. I concentrated on closing the book I’d been reading, and on placing both my hands flat on the tabletop to stop the shaking. Raine reached over and squeezed one of them.

“We need to tell Evee about this,” I said. “What- what do we do now? I thought that was the end of them, I thought … ”

“How much of that essay you got left?”

“I … I’m sorry, what? Raine?”

She looked right at me and repeated the question, completely unshaken, as if this was exactly the right thing to talk about after a brush with an assassin. I just shook my head.

“Serious question. How much work you got left before you can turn it in?”

“Um … I don’t know. Maybe four more paragraphs. And then I need to move a few parts around before I proofread it, I’m not happy with the beginning.”

“First draft isn’t the only draft?”

“Raine.” I tutted. “What are you getting at?”

“It’s almost Christmas break. I think we should get out of Sharrowford for a bit, the three of us. Well, four of us if you count Praem, I suppose. Can’t leave her here all by herself, no knowing what a demon riding around in a sex toy will get up to by her lonesome.” Raine lit up, beaming that endless confidence right into my brain.

I shook my head, stunned.

“We’ll go down south, go see where Evee grew up,” she said. “Trust me, you’ll love the place.”

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the other side of nowhere – 4.6

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Can noble intention remain untainted, no matter the method used to reach the goal?

Alexander finished his proselytising, and I knew he wasn’t lying. Too much passion in him for this be an act, to get me to drop my guard. Besides, what did I have that he couldn’t take by force? I’d rarely felt so weak and small, with Zheng towering beside me, lost in this un-place. My friends might be about to rescue me, but Alexander’s pitch wasn’t a ploy to save his own skin. He shone with confidence. If Raine and the others made it here, he was certain he could kill them.

This rotten blood-soaked ogre perched on a stool, this eater of children, he wanted to convince me he was right.

And he was.

The stocky cultist tending to Alexander’s exit wound cleared his throat. “Boss, we-”

“Shhh, shh shh shh.” Alexander hushed him with a delicately raised hand. “Lavinia is considering our offer. Let’s not interrupt her calculations, that would be so terribly rude.”

I knew Lozzie was trying to catch my eye, peeking out from behind her mass of filthy hair, from where she sat on the floor next to her brother. She had a plan, didn’t she? A sharp trick up her sleeve. Was I still part of that plan?

Alexander was right. Maisie and I had been kidnapped, stolen, torn apart, and I’d been left half-alive. Now I had a few friends who understood that, who understood me. A ragged band of fools, and we were planning to – what? We had a few vaguely sketched intentions, all of which relied on my mastery of an abyss I barely understood and which nearly killed me every time I dipped into it.

 But the Sharrowford Cult? These people had trapped and bound an alien god. They tapped it for power, commanded its spawn, and built their own pocket dimension around a wound in its hide.

“You are right,” I said, so softly, barely a whisper.

Alexander broke into a grin, the most satisfied I’d ever seen a human face.

“And I’m still going to kill you,” I continued.

Can you use an evil tool, and yet remain unchanged?

Not only the dead and mutated children in the cages underground, but also the homeless people turned into zombies, each one of them was or had been somebody’s missing person, somebody else’s Maisie.

Yes, these people had bound a god. Allying with this monster might be the best chance I’d ever have of actually rescuing my sister, and I had to say no.

Alexander sighed with theatrical disappointment.

“This idiotic bravado is unbecoming of you, Lavinia. Be realistic now, you are not going to kill-”

“The end does not justify the means. The means determines the nature of the end.”

I made myself believe those words, no matter how weak my voice. When I rescued my sister, she would see me, not a self-loathing monster in my place.

Alexander rolled his eyes, as if I was wilfully ignorant, a naive and idealistic girl, an idiot on the way to self-destruction. Perhaps he was right about that too.

I felt a pinprick of real confidence, real conviction, not so slow and numb anymore. He rolled the little metal cylinder in his hand as if bored, his eyes leaving me and drifting to Zheng. I tensed up, expected her to grab me at any moment – but I forced myself to concentrate, to look down at the notebook in my hands. I flipped past a page of irrelevant mathematical notation. I knew what to look for now, I knew what to do.

In cold blood, I had to do this. Nausea crept up my throat and a spike of pain jabbed the back of my head as I hurried through the equations.

“You think I’m … ” Alexander gestured with the metal cylinder. “Bad? A cartoon villain, to-”

“You’re evil,” I said.

“Evil? Evil? Look at the world around us, Lavinia.” He stabbed with his voice, hard and angry now, the anger of a powerful man spurned. “Our world, the human world. I snuff out a few lives, yes, for an explicit purpose – knowledge, advancement, human survival. Not for the sake of my own enrichment, not for national power or personal prestige or for corporate profit, but for all of us. For a higher cause. The world is full of people far worse than I. Lavinia, look at me.”

I winced and fought to keep my eyes on the page.

“I said, look at-”

A shout echoed from somewhere below us, distorted by the winding sinus-like passageways of the corpse-castle. Was that my name I’d heard, was that Raine shouting for me?

Then, unmistakable, a gunshot. Far away.

“Boss,” the stocky cultist raised his voice in warning.

Alexander jerked a hand up to silence his underling. His eyes tightened in strangled frustration.

“Humankind is a dead end, Lavinia. Being human is a dead end. If not from climate change and resource depletion, then from the beyond. Your very way of thinking, this insistence on an archaic system of ethics and morals will serve you nothing in the long run. It will see you dead, your bones dust. What use is this way of thinking, if it leads you to failure? You cling to it only because it makes you feel good, but it ensures you cannot kill me.”

I found the right lines of mathematics and swallowed hard. The correct re-purposed dregs of the Eye’s lessons, separate scraps I was going to weld together with my mind; my stomach clenched up.

Alexander was speaking again. I interrupted him with the first words I could think of.

“Why not get into that machine yourself then?”

“Machine?” He paused. “The mind-interface device? I did! I have. It didn’t work on me. I am loathe to admit so, but it gave me nothing. Is that not right, sister? Did it work on me?” In my peripheral vision, I saw Lozzie shake her head. “You think I would sacrifice your precious innocents before myself? Lavinia, you are only trying to convince yourself to do what you know you cannot – you cannot kill me without convincing yourself I am a monster.”

Noises echoed through the gallery behind me now, shouting and crashes, a ripping sound, a scream; but I couldn’t just wait for rescue. I’d never forgive myself.

I had to prove Alexander wrong.

“If you admit it now, I will let your friends live,” he said, voice a touch softer, a smugness returning to his lips as he spread his hands in mock mercy. “If you persist in this nonsense, I will set Zheng on them when they arrive, and if by some miracle they survive that, I will do it myself.” He pointed vaguely at the ceiling. “Do you forget what I can command?”

My eyes tripped along the next line of equation and I felt the beginning of a white-hot burning inside my skull. My breath jerked, harder and sharper. The hyperdimensional mathematics began to slot into place, irresistible and unstoppable now, held tight in my mind. I grit my teeth, felt a nosebleed start, and finally looked up at Alexander.

“Shit, she’s doing it. For fuck’s sake,” the stocky cultist said. He dropped the bloody towel he’d been holding, but hesitated as Alexander showed no fear.

“You can’t kill me, Lavinia. You simply won’t do it.”

“Lozzie,” I hissed through gritted teeth. “Move. Aside.”

Lozzie half-rose, unsure and skittish, her eyes darting between her brother and I. The stocky cultist frowned at her. I kept my focus on Alexander, felt the levers of reality slick and burning under my hands. He sighed and rolled his eyes, glanced at his nervous underling at last. “She can’t hurt you. Settle down.”

“Yes, I can.”

I could barely speak. My head felt like it was going to explode and my eyes ached with fire, but I held on even as I trembled and struggled to stay standing, as I felt blood drip from my nose and leak from the corners of my eyes; I pushed the equation further, complicated it, added layers. Bullets wouldn’t kill him, this needed to be final.

“No, you can’t,” Alexander snapped, the last word spat in rage. He rose to his feet and pointed at me. “Because you won’t, because you are tied to a moral system which admits no legitimate breaking of human boundaries. This is a farce.” He grinned and threw up his hands. “Here, I will make your surrender even easier. I will let your friends live regardless of the choice you make. You will all walk free. There, I have taken away even that excuse to kill me. You have no enlightened self-defence, no principles to stand on but simple moral outrage. You cannot kill me, because you refuse to become anything other than a human be-”

The stocky cultist lunged to tackle me.

Lozzie leapt to her feet, yanked the hidden scalpel out of her sleeve, and landed on the cultist like a mad pixie. I think she got the knife into his throat, but it all happened too fast for me to react. They went down in a tangle of limbs and slippery spurting blood. I flinched and shied away so hard I almost tripped over my own feet.

Alexander sighed. He snapped three words in some angular, painful non-human language, a command at Zheng.

With almost superhuman effort, through blood clogging my nose and dimming vision, I interrupted him – by pulling the glow stick out of my hoodie’s pocket and hurling it at his face. I missed, badly. It sailed past him, but distracted him just enough, made him trip over a syllable.

“You will not!” Alexander screamed at the last second.

Then I let go.

This was no reflex, no scramble of self-defence, no fumbling in the ineffable dark. I lashed out with hyperdimensional mathematics fully conscious of what I was doing, after almost a minute and a half of painstaking, bleeding, brain-burning work. I made a decision, eyes wide open, and I followed it through.

Heat, light, and a god-awful tearing noise – perhaps a hiss of superheated air, I never figured it out. A backwash of oven-heat, a millisecond of sharp blue glow.

It hit Alexander like a train.

I barely understood that moment of destruction. It was so fast, too fast, and my vision was already throbbing and edged with black.

A terrible sound deafened me – the instant shattering of every bone in a human body, the floor around Alexander cracking into a million shards, the stool he’d been sitting on splintered to nothing, the table next to him smashed aside. A wrecking ball of invisible force flung a pulped bloody wreck against the back wall of the throne room, smashed the wall itself open, and carried what was left of Alexander Lilburne out into the grey fog and down over the side of the castle.

Wish I’d heard the splat.

I blacked out before I’d even begun to fall over.

In that last moment of shock and release, with the throne room spinning around me and my head splitting open with white-hot fire, with vomit forcing its way up my throat to choke me, I had only one thought.

I win.

==

I was out cold when my friends burst into the room, but I’m told it was suitably dramatic.

==

Pain rolled in the pit of my stomach, torturing me back to consciousness. My eyes were gummed shut. My mouth tasted of iron and bile.

I was collapsed forward against a warm, firm surface, my neck lolling, legs dangling, something digging into the underside of my thighs. I was jerked to one side then the other, the sensation of motion, stopping, moving again. No energy to roll sideways, no energy to even moan. Muffled voices trickled through my dulled senses. Angry shouting, a huge clang of metal, a grunt.

The reason I didn’t panic is because I could smell Raine.

Her sweat, mostly. Realisation filtered through the brain-fog; she was carrying me on her back.

“That’s enough. That’ll do for them.” Evelyn, snapping, nearby.

“One more!” Twil, shouting through too many sharp teeth.

A loud twisting tear of metal, nails down a blackboard.

I fought the aching muscles and the crust of blood around my eyes. Cracked my eyelids a millimetre or two, vision painful and blurry. Thick grey fog and copied Sharrowford buildings swirled and swam.

We were outside the castle, beyond the cult’s barrier of occult bollards. A dozen of the squat metal poles had been ripped out of the ground and strewn about. A wolfish form was busy uprooting another one. Twil. She ripped it from the ground and hurled it at indistinct figures in the fog.

I tried to move my eyes and suffered a wave of nausea for my efforts. I don’t know if it’s possible for an optic nerve to hurt, but mine did. I stared at what I’m pretty sure was Praem. She held a smaller figure in a double arm-lock.

“Twil, come on,” Raine said, right next to my head.

Parted my lips. Throat was so raw.

“ … -one … okay?”

“Heather?” Raine turned her head, but she couldn’t meet my eyes at this angle. Her profile was so clear through the haze. “Heeey, you’re awake. She awake? Lozzie, her eyes open?”

A small elfin face bobbed into my vision. I stared, half dead inside, unable to muster a reaction.

“Uh huh! Hey Heather!” Lozzie said. I managed to blink, once.

“ … okay?” I hissed again.

“Yeah. That would be a yes,” Raine said, loud and clear. “Nobody’s dead. It’s okay, we’re all gonna be okay. We’ll be out of here in no time, I promise.”

“Yaaaay,” I murmured.

I closed my eyes again. I think I may have been delirious.

I was certain I’d passed out, but I felt Raine moving, hurrying, the sound of many footsteps and the clipped anger of a short, tense argument. Voice I didn’t recognise.

A static crackle; a breath of cold against my face; a change of light behind my eyelids – a sudden blossom of soft warm orange.

“Goddammit all to hell, I don’t know how to close the blasted thing,” Evelyn snapped.

“Break the wall, break the wall, knock it down!” That was Lozzie.

“Right on,” Raine said. “Fuck that wall right up.”

“Me? Ugh, fine,” Twil grunted.

A crack of shattering brick. Somebody let out a huge heartfelt sigh, followed by soft swearing. For a long moment I heard only distant birdsong and the thrum of far-off traffic.

“I trust we’re all in one piece?” Evelyn asked eventually. “Excepting the obvious.”

“Yes ma’am. Present and correct,” Raine said, a grin in her voice.

“Here!” Lozzie chirped.

Twil growled. “Broke my fucking hand. Fuck, that hurts. Urgh.”

Blacked out again for a handful of seconds. Next thing I knew was Raine setting me down, sitting me upright on a cold wooden surface. I groaned and tried my best to cling to her, arms too weak. Couldn’t force my hands to grip. Raine steadied me by the shoulders, brushing my sweat-soaked hair out of my face, touching me to bring me back. I tried to open my eyes again, painful and stinging against the light.

 “Hey, Heather, it’s okay, it’s okay. We’re out, we made it out.”

Raine smiled down at me. Her face was side-lit by the apricot and peach light of sunrise, as were the trees behind her and the beautiful arc of the sky and the silken morning clouds. Raine was sweaty and dirty and her hair was a mess and she had a smear of blood – mine – drying on her neck and all down the shoulder of her leather jacket.

“ … best thing … seen all day … ” I managed. Speaking hurt.

Raine actually laughed, half in disbelief, shaking her head. “You are invincible, Heather. Have I been rubbing off on you?”

I did a tiny shrug and wrapped my numb, weak arms around the pain in my belly and diaphragm. My head lolled, couldn’t keep my neck straight.

“Hey, hey, hold still for me, love. I need to look at that bruise on your head,” Raine said, soft and coaxing, hands gentle and intimate on my face and forehead.

“Bruise?” I muttered.

Lozzie wriggled onto the bench next to me, warm and close, hands on my back and head against my shoulder.

“Sorry,” she murmured. “Wasn’t fast enough to catch you when you went down. Crack, bang, wallop. I’m sorry, Raine, I’m sorry I hurt your girl. Really, I’m sorry, please-”

“Hey, you stabbed a dude in the throat for her. You’re cool with me, pixie dust.”

Lozzie giggled.

I grunted as Raine gently probed my forehead. I felt for it too, despite her warning, and winced when my questing hand found a bruise the size of an egg. “Ow.”

“Looks worse than it is.” Raine sighed with relief. “Was worried for a minute you’d fractured your skull, but you haven’t. Here.”

Raine rummaged in her jacket pockets and I took a deep breath, forcing it down my raw throat. I struggled to sit up enough to look around, to take in the aftermath of our journey to nowhere. Numb, empty, exhausted, I felt like the living dead.

We were in a park, at dawn, next to a dilapidated children’s play area, with a couple of sad looking plastic slides and a rusty climbing frame. A wall for ball games lay half-toppled into the thin grass, fragments of strange symbols still visible on some larger pieces of shattered brick. Orange dawn glow suffused the line of sheltering trees and the distant rooftops beyond. A few spirits went about their unknowable business, waving tentacles and undulating lizard-skin, stalking through the trees and clambering over the roofs. None of them paid us the slightest attention.

I’d never been so happy to see Sharrowford, or to feel the sun on my face.

Twil lay on her back, spread-eagle on the grass, scuffed and spattered with other people’s blood. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, savouring the air. Evelyn steadied herself against the opposite park bench to the one I was sat on, sagging over her walking stick, but she was smiling with grim satisfaction. Praem stood a few feet away, expressionless and prim and straight-backed despite her battered and bruised look, clothes torn and filthy – and there was only one of her. The second body was gone.

She had a young woman restrained in a double arm-lock, the zombie-conductor cultist from the castle, the scrawny woman Raine had shot at and missed. She was wiry and terrified, watching us all, her face bloodied from a punch, cream-coloured robes half twisted off to show jeans and a thin tshirt beneath.

“Here, Heather, try to eat some of this, okay?” Raine said, as she pressed an unwrapped chocolate bar into my numb hands. “Emergency rations, in case you needed to get your jazz on.”

“Good thinking,” Evelyn grunted, though she was staring at Lozzie with a curious frown.

“Hey, I plan for everything. Only thing I’m any good at.” Raine allowed herself a little grin and a wink. I managed a tiny nibble of chocolate. Nodded the smallest thank you. Raine crouched down and peered at my eyes, marvelling at me.

“How are you even conscious right now?” she asked.

“Maybe … adapting?” I croaked.

“Turning away a bullet required much more complex physics,” Evelyn said. “This time she just hit somebody. Very hard.”

“We won,” I hissed.

“That we did,” Raine said, and her smile lit up my soul.

“That’s right, fuckers!” Twil yelled up at the sky. “You swing at the king, you best not miss.” She trailed off, then heaved herself up into a sitting position. “Anyone recognise where we are? That portal could have come out anywhere.”

“Park,” I croaked. Twil puffed out a token laugh. Lozzie giggled and hugged me tighter, cheek pressed against my own. I didn’t have the energy or heart to tell her that hurt, and the shared body heat felt nice.

“Maybe we’re not even in Sharrowford,” said Twil. “Or in England. How screwed up would that be?”

Evelyn just sighed.

“You okay?” Raine asked me softly. I nodded more with my eyes than with my head, and Raine straighted up, though she kept one firm hand on my shoulder as she produced her mobile phone. “Let’s ask. Hey Google, where are we?” She waited a beat, then raised her eyes at the map on her phone’s screen. “Oak grove park, apparently, almost out of the city, right on the southern edge. Never been down here myself. Home is … ” She looked up, oriented herself, and pointed over the trees. “A long walk that way. That over there, I think that’s the old brickworks. And oh, what luck, there’s a police station about five minutes away.” She flashed a smile around. “We really want to run into a bobby on his morning beat right now, yeah?”

“Shit,” Twil said, glancing at the still-terrified cultist woman in Praem’s unyielding grip. “What do we do with surrender monkey here?”

“Don’t-” the woman stammered, her eyes darting back and forth. “Don’t kill me. Please. Please don’t. You don’t want to.”

Evelyn rounded on the captured cultist, still unsteady on her walking stick. “Give me a good reason not to. Making zombies, in my city. I should put you in the ground.”

“I never killed anybody, I never killed anyone.” The cultist shook her head, eyes wide. “I swear, they just trained me and brought me bodies to work with. I never killed anybody. Lauren?” The cultist glanced at Lozzie. “Lauren, tell them, I’m not a murderer. Lauren, please … please, please.”

Lozzie looked away.

“Is she telling the truth?” Evelyn asked Lozzie.

“Um … ” Lozzie bit her lip, returned Evelyn’s sudden scrutiny with upturned eyes. “You’re Evelyn, right?”

“Yes, that’s me.”

Lozzie turned her head one way and then the other, the picture of a crazy person distracted by a cacophony of thought – or at least, that’s how she must have appeared to the others. I saw something quite different. She was glancing at the spirit life in the park, at a pair of canine shapes pacing along the edge of the trees, at squirmy little creatures edging up the children’s climbing frame, at a translucent floating squid-thing bobbing through the air.

More spirits than a minute or two earlier.

“Lozzie?” I croaked. “Are these-”

“It’s okay, it’s okay, they’re my friends. My friends,” Lozzie whispered for me, and squeezed me again. Then she spoke up, to Evelyn. “I don’t care if Flowsie lives or dies, but I don’t think she ever killed people.”

“See? See? You all heard that, right? You all heard that,” the cultist said.

“’Flowsie’?” Raine asked with a smirk.

“I-it’s not my real name.”

“I should still put you in the ground,” Evelyn said.

“Uh, hello?” Twil stood up and spread her arms wide. “We’re in a park in the suburbs? We gonna leave a corpse here?”

“Yeah, yeah, l-listen to her.”

“I can’t kill her, Evee,” Raine said. “She did surrender. She had zombies left and all, she could have kept fighting, and she led us out. I’m not going to break the Geneva Convention in a Sharrowford Park.”

Evelyn let out a slow sigh. “Fine. I still have to do something with her though. We can’t just let her go.”

“Mmm, fair point.” Raine nodded. The cultist woman shuddered as Raine turned to consider her.

“Yeah,” Twil said. “Let’s just argue about it until a morning jogger comes along, sees six girls covered in bruises and blood. Great plan.”

“ … you have a life?”

Everyone glanced at me, including the cultist.

“Do you have a life?” I repeated, my voice broken, throat raw, mouth still thick with the taste of blood. I stared at her with exhausted, heavy eyes. I wanted so badly to sleep. She gulped and stammered, glanced around at the others.

“Don’t look at me,” Raine told her. “The lady of the hour asked you a question, I’d answer if I were you. She’s probably your best chance right now.”

“W-what do you mean?” the cultist stammered at me.

“Other than the cult. A life.”

“T-the brotherhood, you mean?”

Brotherhood?” Twil snorted. “You’re not even a man, dumb ass.”

“I-it’s a figure of speech.”

“I will shove this walking stick up your arse,” Evelyn grumbled. “How’s that for a figure of speech?”

“A life?” I repeated.

“No. Not … not really.” She gulped and averted her eyes, sagging in Praem’s grip. “I don’t have … anybody important, if that’s what you mean. I’m not important. I’m a nobody.”

“ … real name?”

She blinked at me. Mid-twenties, older? Mousy and scrawny. A little like myself.

“Kimberly,” she muttered.

“Job? Home?”

“I work at Poundland,” she said very quietly.

Raine laughed. “The Poundland Necromancer. Wow. I love it.”

“Go home. Be normal,” I croaked. “Make trouble – I’ll find you, send you Outside. I already killed your boss. You know I can do it to you.”

“Heather?” Raine said my name very softly, but I didn’t look at her.

The cultist – no, Kimberly, a young lady with a poorly paid job and little to live for – stared at me from behind bruises and blood. If I’d been more awake, less exhausted, the look in her eyes would have made me shiver.

Fear and reverence.

She glanced round at all the scary people, Raine and Twil and Evelyn, all people who could kill her, then settled back on me. She nodded. “Thank you,” she murmured. “Thank you. I won’t- I promise I won’t go against you.”

Evelyn sighed and shrugged. “Alright, alright. We don’t need the whole sob-story. One last thing. The big zombie, she didn’t stop moving with your other ones. Why?”

“W-what? I don’t … I don’t understand.”

“Zheng?” I croaked, frowning as I realised. The giant zombie woman wasn’t here with us. Of course she wasn’t.

“She jumped straight out that hole you made,” Lozzie said. “Right after my brother.”

“Ah. Thank you.” Evelyn nodded somewhat awkwardly at Lozzie, then turned to the cultist again. “Why did she do that? The others gave up when you did, but we saw her leaving through the fog, going somewhere else. Were you lying to us?”

Kimberly shook her head, shaking against Praem’s arm-lock. “Zheng’s not mine. S-she’s way too much for that, I couldn’t make something like her. I-I should be flattered, but- no, we inherited her.”

Evelyn raised an eyebrow to Lozzie in silent question. Lozzie nodded. “She came from my parents. They got her somewhere else. Zheng’s real old.”

“High time we let her go, Evee,” said Raine. She was busy rearranging her handgun and knife inside her jacket for proper concealment. “We are in public now, technically. Twil’s right.”

Evelyn’s jaw tightened. “I’m still not happy about this. I need insurance.”

“Fine, fine, fine,” Raine said, grinning to herself and shaking her head. She stepped away from me and up to the cultist.

Kimberly cringed and tried to pull away, to shrink back from Raine, but Praem held her firm. What had she seen Raine do in that castle, to react like that? She started to shake.

“Hey there,” Raine said, still smiling. “I don’t even have to say it, do I?”

“No, no no, I won’t- I won’t-”

“I need your address. Phone number. Whatever you got. Hey, don’t worry, I mean you did surrender, right? That was serious, you meant it. Yeah?”

“Yes, yes, yes I swear.”

“Then we’re cool. You and I. We’re cool. Unless you want me to have to find your address by myself. Kind of a bother, you know?”

Kimberly stammered out an address. Raine put it into her phone. Twil crossed her arms and rolled her eyes, muttered ‘psycho’ under her breath.

When it was done, Raine nodded to Evelyn, who sighed again, then then tapped Praem on the leg with her walking stick. Praem let the girl drop.

Kimberly didn’t linger. It probably took every ounce of her courage not to run away from us. She scurried off toward the edge of the park, after stripping off her robe. She balled it up and shoved it into a nearby public bin. She glanced back twice. We watched her go, until she was out of sight.

Twil broke the tension first. She stretched both arms over her head and yawned like a bear. “Well, what do we do now? I’m wiped the fuck out.”

“Dunno about you,” said Raine. “But I could murder some breakfast. I think we’re all in a fine state to go hit up the Aardvark, right?” Evelyn rolled her eyes and Raine relented, grinning. “Okay, serious, it’s time to go home and have a bath.”

“Several baths,” I croaked.

“Are we actually … you know … in the clear?” asked Twil. “Is it over?”

Evelyn shrugged at the pile of shattered bricks, the exit point from the cult’s exit gateway. “We’ve wrecked their containment, ruined their fortification, killed all their stockpiled zombies, and Heather apparently blew up their leader. So, maybe.”

“Easier than the first time we killed a mage, right?” Raine cracked a grin. Evelyn shot her a look that could have frozen a lava flow.

I opened my mouth. I needed to tell them all about what I’d seen below ground, about the star in the abyss, about the cages and the corpses, but I was too tired to confront all that right now. “Um … ”

“Heather saw more,” Lozzie said.

Slowly, gently, after hugging me softly, Lozzie climbed to her feet. I tried to hold on as her hands slipped away. Didn’t want her body heat to part from mine. Perhaps I knew, deep down, what she was thinking.

With clumsy but heartfelt formality, she bowed her head to all my friends. “Thank you, thank you, for coming for me.”

Raine lit up with the kind of smile she usually reserved for me, and to my surprise she reached out and ruffled Lozzie’s filthy hair. “S’what I do. Any friend of Heather’s is a friend of mine.”

Lozzie beamed back at her.

“Mm,” Evelyn grunted. “Yes, certainly. This has been quite the enigma. Heather?”

I made a grumbling noise in my throat. Evelyn didn’t seriously expect me to explain all this right now, did she? She fixed me with a pinched frown, then seemed to get the message, shrugging to herself.

“Hold up a sec.” Twil said. “Who exactly the hell is this?”

“I’m Lozzie! Hi!” She beamed at Twil. “You’re the werewolf, right? That’s so cool!”

“Oh, uh, thanks.” Twil couldn’t keep a smirk off her face.

“Long story,” I mumbled.

“Yeah, I figured,” said Twil.

“One I think we all need to hear,” Evelyn said, her voice a little tighter than I could deal with right now. “At home, not here in a bloody park.”

“Right you are.” Raine put her hands on her hips. “We gonna walk home, or … hmm.” She cocked an eyebrow, took in our bloody, battered little group. Lozzie and Praem were the worst, splattered with drying blood, and Twil wasn’t far off. God alone knows how bad I looked. Besides, there’s no way I could walk, and Evelyn looked pretty unsteady too. “Guess not, huh? I could call a taxi, make some poor driver’s week when he sees us rocking up.”

Lozzie was glancing back and forth between Raine and myself and the others, her mouth hanging open a little, eyes still heavy-lidded but widened in some private realisation. Evelyn noticed, nodded toward her.

“She doesn’t have anywhere to go. Does she?”

“Sure she does,” Raine countered, smiling at Lozzie. “You’re coming with us, no question about it. You are five hundred percent welcome. Right, Evee?”

Evelyn rolled her eyes. “Right.”

Lozzie stepped away from the bench and onto the grass, leaving petite little footprints in the morning dew. She turned, looked over all of us, chewing on her lower lip and then gnawing on a ragged fingernail.

“Oh, oh … I didn’t … I didn’t think … ”

“ … what’s wrong?” I managed.

She scampered back to me and threw her arms around my shoulders. She hugged me tight enough to hurt a little, and I did my best to return the embrace, my arms still weak and shaky.

Lozzie sniffed into my shoulder, and I realised she was holding back tears.

She pulled away and planted a quick, hesitant kiss on my cheek. Not a romantic kiss, nothing erotic about it at all. A fleeting touch of intimacy.

“I have to go,” she said.

“ … what?”

“Aren’t you coming with me, Heather?” I heard the catch in her throat. She tried to smile but only got halfway there, a strange melancholy fighting with her natural twitchy energy.

Slowly, dull and half-dead, I shook my head, wishing I didn’t understand. But I knew exactly what she meant, all too well.

She slid out of my arms, stood up and stepped back, still trying to smile. She curled her bare toes into the grass.

“I have to go,” she repeated louder, then took a deep breath and smiled up at the sky. “I think. Yeah, yeah I think do need to. You killed my brother, and … thank you, Heather. Thank you, all of you. I’m free now. Thank you.” She sniffed and wiped brimming tears on the back of her hand, and looked round as the spirit life began to approach her.

Lozzie smiled at the warped hound-things which padded out of the tree line, trotting across the grass to sit at her heels. She held out a hand to the half-dozen squirming, wriggling bundles of chitin and claw that scaled her pajama legs and up her back to perch on her shoulders. She turned to welcome the bobbing jellyfish crowding around her head. She murmured soft little words to them all, but the picture was incomplete without the goat skull mask over her face.

The others glanced between her and I, by turns confused or tense, because of course they couldn’t see what I was seeing. Twil pulled a face like this was crazy, but I think Evelyn and Raine had some idea what was happening.

“Go? Where?” Evelyn asked, frowning sharply.

“Yeah, hey, what’s going on here?” Twil asked.

“You mean Outside, don’t you?” said Raine.

Lozzie and I both nodded.

“Beyond!” Lozzie lit up with this huge beaming smile which failed to cover the sadness beneath. “Are you sure you don’t want to come? Heather?”

I opened my mouth and couldn’t answer. No, no, of course I didn’t want to – but deep down inside, I understood the desire. After so many dreams together, so many wondrous places, I got it.

“Why? Why not stay here?” Evelyn asked. I saw her fingering the carved thighbone in one hand. Raine tilted her chin, waiting patiently.

“Because I’m not really meant to be here,” Lozzie said. She took a deep breath, filled her lungs as she looked up and around, at the beautiful morning glow breaking over Sharrowford. Her long, shuddering sigh and the melancholy of her forced smile cut me right to the quick, even through the exhaustion. “It’s so lovely, it really is, but … I’m like a deep sea fish too close to the surface.”

“No. Lozzie, no,” I managed to croak at her. She looked at me, then around at the others again, and I could feel her wavering.

“Besides,” she shrugged. “My uncle will be after me now. I couldn’t bear to be caged again. I need to fly.”

“Uncle?” Evelyn growled softly.

“Mmhmm,” Lozzie nodded, distracted by the spirits clustered to her, her idle hand trailing down to rub the head of one of the nightmare hounds at her feet. “The rest of the brotherhood will go to him now, probably. The followers, you know. He probably took control of Zheng, too, that’s why she didn’t … couldn’t, follow me.” She swallowed, shook her head gently, holding back tears.

“There’s another mage?” Evelyn asked through gritted teeth.

“Evee,” I managed, waving a mute hand at her to shut up. Lozzie blinked at her.

“Um … kind of. He’s not like my brother. My brother was the brains but my uncle was the organiser. He always found the recruits, the bodies, the … the kids,” she whispered, then tried to smile. “He’ll be after me now, and he’s already seen all of you once, when he tracked Maisie’s messenger. If I stay here … ”

I opened my mouth to say a dozen different things.

“Where can I find him?” Evelyn said, hard and cold.

“Ahh?” Lozzie blinked. “You’ve all seen him before. In that parking garage.” She turned her head to pay attention to another little spirit on her shoulder, a cross between a squirrel and a bat, tiny teeth bared as she tweaked its nose.

Evelyn pinched the bridge of her nose. “Great. Fucking great.”

“Evee,” Raine said softly.

“Where is he?” Evelyn demanded. “Is he in Sharrowford?”

“I don’t know. I think so. His name’s Edward, a Lilburne like me. He never cared about my brother’s stupid project.” Lozzie shrugged. “He’s good at finding things, finding people, but now I can go to places he can’t follow. Tell him the truth, when he finds you. He’ll leave you alone.”

She was trying to convince herself. I could hear the struggle in her voice – I suspected all this stuff about her uncle was mere justification.

Part of her wanted to go, part of her wanted to stay. Two natures in one body.

“We can protect you,” Raine said, not missing a beat. “Take a moment, look at us – or hell, just at me. It’s what I do. Like I said, any friend of Heather’s is a friend of mine.”

“Yeah, like to see this fucker try,” Twil said, cracking her knuckles.

“Damn straight,” said Raine.

Evelyn grunted.

But Lozzie shook her head. She backed up another step across the damp grass, forcing herself away from us with the spirits trailing in her wake.

“Thank you. I know. I know you could. But I still have to go. I don’t belong here.” She pulled a weak smile, then seemed to hesitate for a moment.

“ … only just found you,” I whispered.

Lozzie met my eyes – and lit up, a real smile, with a spark of joy underneath. She raised her arms to encompass the whole world, sending spirits scattering and scampering.

“Heather, I can help you now! I can go everywhere! Anywhere! You helped me, you freed me, and now I’m going to help you and Maisie.”

I shook my head.

“But I want to!” she continued. “There’s places I can go that you don’t even know about, Heather, places in the beyond. Outside. Places I can’t take anybody else, not even Zheng, because I’m not really human anymore, you know? I haven’t been since that thing used my head as a life raft. There’s things I can talk to, questions I can ask, help I can enlist, for you. Please? Please Heather, please let me help.”

If I’d been whole and well-rested, I would have stopped her, stood up and grabbed her and held on tight. Lozzie was a very special kind of friend, and I didn’t want her to go alone into dark places.

But in that moment, listening to all her justifications and reasons and excuses to leave humanity behind and go Outside, through my exhaustion and the echoing pain and the melancholy of her leaving so soon, I saw a vision of myself.

Was I going to end up like that? Torn between being human and – not?

She took my hesitation for agreement. How like her brother, in some ways.

“Oh, Heather.” Her face fell and she shook off her retinue of spirits to run back and hug me one more time. She clung on hard and buried her face in my shoulder. “It’s not like I’m leaving forever or something. Just until it’s safe, until … until I can help you. I’ll be back, I’ll come back to visit, I promise. Sooner than you think.”

I nodded. Hated myself for it, but I nodded.

Lozzie stood up and danced back into her little crowd of spirits. She turned to us and bowed her head. “Thank you.”

“Stay one day, at least,” Raine said. “You need a bath, a change of clothes. Have dinner with us. Come on, one day won’t hurt.”

“I don’t need any of those things,” Lozzie said, an odd smile on her face, refilled with that twitchy energy.

Twil was just completely lost for words, but to my incredible surprise, Praem had turned to watch as well. She’d bowed her head every so slightly in response to Lozzie’s gesture. I don’t think anybody else noticed, and I only saw it because I was so numb.

“We’ll kill your uncle too,” Evelyn said.

“Please don’t get hurt. I couldn’t bear it if he hurt any of you. Please, please.”

“I’m the one that does the hurting round here,” Raine said. She shot Lozzie a wink. “We’ll be fine. You change your mind in five minutes, tomorrow, next week, you know where to find us.”

Spirit life climbed back onto Lozzie’s shoulders, crowded around her legs, touching her with two dozen pseudopods and feelers and claws and muzzles. She waved to us.

“Bye bye for now. See you later.”

“See you,” I managed.

And then, she simply wasn’t there. The spirits vanished with her. Outside.

All she left was footprints.

I was too numb to cry.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

the other side of nowhere – 4.5

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

“Zheng!”

It was the tone in Lozzie’s voice that stopped me.

Not fear or warning, but relief. Lozzie broke into a huge beaming smile at the giant zombie woman.

She hadn’t noticed or understood what I was doing, spinning up my reality-breaking mathematics, setting fire to my mind. As far as she knew, I’d sagged and stumbled against her in pure shock at Zheng’s arrival.

Perhaps we weren’t so similar after all.

One heartbeat of hesitation; hyperdimensional mathematics stalled, stuttered, guttered out, blinking and flickering across the surface of my consciousness. My eyelids spasmed and my jaw locked up. I shuddered, snorted down a tide of nausea. Curled up around my belly, almost fell over, but Lozzie held me up.

It felt like holding back a sneeze – or an orgasm.

I’d worked for weeks to smooth the flow of the impossible equations as much as possible, an inevitable sequence from first principle to the end result, to spare me the pain. Now I strangled  an equation at the last moment, fought it back down into memory and brain-stem.

“Heather? It’s okay, she’s fine if I’m here, I can tell her to do whatever I want.” Lozzie beamed at me, then back at the impassive, staring zombie. “What happened to your arm?” A silent pause, except for my whining. “ … Zheng?”

“That was me,” I croaked out. I hung off Lozzie’s shoulder, my knees shaking. At least I wasn’t bleeding, yet.

“What? Heather?”

“The arm,” I said.

“Ahh? No, they wouldn’t send Zheng, that- oh.” Lozzie’s face fell and she looked back at Zheng with a sudden shake to her smile. She rattled out something in a language I’d never heard before. “Ta bidniig dagaj baisan uu? Zheng? Has he … oh, oh no. Namaig sonsooch!

Whatever she’d said, Zheng wasn’t listening. The zombie raised her right hand and pointed with one long finger, over our heads, up.

“That looks like an order,” I managed.

“Zheng? Come on, please, listen to me. It’s me!”

“Walk,” Zheng rumbled. Dead lips barely moved. Voice like granite.

Lozzie swallowed and wiped filthy hair away from her face. “I think my brother’s got her. Like, fully. He’s not supposed to, no! Zheng, you’re not supposed to listen to him!”

“Walk,” Zheng repeated. She took a step forward and we both stumbled back, still clinging to each other.

“I think your brother wants to see us,” I said.

“Yeah. Yeah,” Lozzie whispered.

Zheng took another step.

Lozzie tried to back away again, a tight animal whimper caught in her throat – but I held onto her and held my ground. My stomach hurt, my head throbbed, my lungs ached. I stared Zheng right in the eyes, watching those dead, glassy orbs for any reaction.

“Heather!” Lozzie hissed. She tugged on my arm.

Zheng stared back at me.

“You don’t frighten me. Not right now.”

Took me a moment to realise I’d spoken, those were my words – and they were true. Goodness, I’d actually said those words to this hulking seven foot demon-host monster-thing.

The calm in my own voice surprised me, but this wasn’t courage. I didn’t feel brave or defiant. This calm grew from somewhere else, a cold, slow, numb place. Perhaps I’d feel the raw terror later, like a bruise. I let my eyes drift over to the cages once more, and the dessicated, bound corpses inside.

Back to Zheng, back to those eyes. May as well be empty sockets.

She took another step forward, loomed over us, body language as empty and mute as the rest of her. Lozzie dug her fingers into my arm and shoulder, breathing in panicked jerks.

“Why don’t you just grab us?” I asked the zombie.

No answer.

“You’re strong enough and fast enough. We’re two, but we’re both small. And apparently I didn’t wound you that badly.”

Zheng lowered her right arm, the one she’d been pointing with, but that could have meant anything. I wasn’t sure if my words were getting through, but then she twitched the fingers of her reattached left arm. Once, twice, three times. Her mangled shoulder spasmed.

“That’s right.” I nodded slowly. “That was me. You remember, don’t you?”

Twitch, twitch. She managed to bend her thumb inward.

Beneath the coating of drying blood, Zheng’s exposed left arm was covered in the most detailed and complex tattoos I’d ever seen. Looping, whirling, spiralling lines in a jumbled thicket upon the corded muscle, each line formed from thousands of tiny letters, overlapping so many times that her skin was like re-used parchment, each layer of inscription faded or improperly erased. I didn’t want to get close enough to find out, but I suspected the pattern covered her whole torso.

“I might not be able to zap you Outside from here,” I continued, low and quiet. “But I can hurt you again. You understand that, don’t you?”

“What?” Lozzie murmured. I glanced sidelong at her, found her eyes as alarmed as they could be under those permanently droopy lids. The bruise on her face was so livid up close.

“You can’t do that? With your mind? With the math?”

Lozzie shook her head. “Please don’t. Heather, please. She’s … sort of my friend.”

I shook my head too, still numb inside. “Not right now she isn’t.”

“She is,” Lozzie hissed. “She is. She’s still in there. Zheng?” Lozzie tried again, voice weak.

The zombie just stared.

“I hope you’re thinking what I’m thinking, whatever you are,” I said to Zheng. “Can you even give me a reply?”

I wasn’t thinking about those dead children in cages. I wasn’t angry about them or motivated by them, nothing so clean and clear; that came later, a retroactive justification. A good one, yes, the right thing to do, but it wasn’t why I made the decision in that moment, numb and shaking from the suppressed brainmath, in silent, unspoken negotiation with a demon inside a barely human shell.

Zheng looked up, the way she’d been pointing. A good enough reply for me.

“Okay. Lozzie, I think it’s time we went to see your brother,” I said. Lozzie stared at me for a moment as if I was the mad one. Perhaps I was.

==

My resolve didn’t hold.

The zombie herded us along the metal walkways, down the route we’d have taken anyway. Or perhaps she was merely following us now, though I found I didn’t care. I didn’t care if my impulsive, half-formed idea had worked or not. I had no real plan, just a drive.

Zheng wouldn’t have needed to tackle us or grab us anyway, there was only one path and she was too large, too strong, too fast to dodge around or outrun, even if I hadn’t been clenched up tight around the echo of pain in my guts and head.

“Don’t you wanna get out of here too, Zheng?” said Lozzie. “Zozz! Tuniig khaya!

Lozzie was being a very good sport, arm under my shoulders as we hurried ahead of the zombie’s advance. She didn’t complain when I stumbled and clutched at her for support.

Zheng didn’t even really watch us, as she forced us away from the metal platform and back among the spars and spears of green-gold rock. She stared at a point above my head, expression empty. I felt a guilty relief in getting away from those cages, those corpses, that evidence of cruelty, when the platform finally vanished out of sight behind too many twists and turns. But I knew it was still there, unrecorded and unmarked, and in some ways that was worse.

“You don’t have to listen to my brother,” Lozzie whined to Zheng, voice returning distant echoes from the vault above and below. “Remember all the things we said to each other, when I took you to Lemuria, in the dream? Weren’t we supposed to be … you know … you and me, right?” She tapped her ribs, just over her heart, face torn back and forth between fear and betrayed sorrow. “Use your own willpower. Come on … please … ”

“I don’t think she’s listening,” I croaked.

“But- she-” Lozzie shook her head, almost in tears.

“It’ll be okay,” I said. “Everything will be okay.”

I was terrible at reassurance. I was no Raine, all smiles and confidence and heroic gestures. I knew I sounded cold and hollow, but as I spoke I realised I was talking to myself, shoring myself up. My numb conviction was beginning to ebb.

What on earth was I thinking? I had no real plan, no idea where my friends were, no idea if I had the resolve to see this impulse to the end. The journey through the cave gave me too much time to think, to second-guess myself, to realise what I’d done.

In a moment of shock and fear I’d gone straight for the hyperdimensional mathematics. A reflex, self-defence.

My certainty hollowed itself out as we tracked through the cave, less in touch with that moment of instinctive mathematics, that tension held tight on the edge of the possible, ready to break physics in a dozen ugly ways, with no care for consequences. Could I really do it – pulverise Zheng into steaming meat? Maybe, yes, and I’d pay for it with vomiting and pain and unconsciousness, but that wasn’t the question.

Could I do it in cold blood?

“No, no it won’t be okay. Oh, Heather, she was so close.” Lozzie sniffed and wiped at her nose. “We’d gotten her so close to ignoring him. I don’t know how to break it, but I had her so close. She was going to strangle my brother for me, if you couldn’t, you know.”

“Mm,” I grunted.

Zheng forced us around a final right-hand turn. A monolithic wall of green-gold towered above us, wounded by an entrance to another cult-cut tunnel, rough steps vanishing upward through the glowing rock.

The way up was far less regular than the first tunnel. I guessed this one had been dug as exploration rather than access, with long straight stretches, tight hairpin bends, a snaking progress upward out of the green depths. The walls slowly lost their brilliant light, faded into the dead grey of the castle-corpse, until the tunnel finally burst through the floor into open air.

Lozzie and I stumbled to a halt together; my legs burned with the effort of climbing, knees trembling and stomach clenched.

She’d had to almost drag me the last few dozen steps, her twitchy energy holding out where mine was spent. I hung onto her shoulders for support. At least keeping me standing seemed to take her mind off her own fear.

We’d emerged into a long gallery with a high ceiling, the walls more open window than grey jade – though without any glass or glass-analogue to fill the openings. Tendrils of fog lapped at the windows. We were high up above the copied mile of Sharrowford, sunk in the mist far below.

Vast planetary shapes stirred in the shrouded firmament above, and I realised with tentative relief that the cosmic whale song noise had stopped.

Lights, bedrolls, a bucket of tools, a closed laptop on an overturned crate; this part of the castle was obviously inhabited. Another gallery marched off on the other side of a connecting doorway. Muffled sounds of soft conversation floated through from beyond.

A cultist scrambled up from his vantage point at one of the windows, where he’d been bent over a cheap telescope.

“You!” He said at us. “Oh, oh hell, uh.”

He looked more like a student teacher than an evil cultist, a young man with mousy hair and a baby face, his cream robes open on a shirt and trousers, as if he’d come straight from work. A distant part of me wondered if Alexander imposed a dress code on his underlings.

The cultist slapped at his robes, then at his trouser pockets. I couldn’t help but notice he had a bloody bandage around one hand.

I gave him the best stink-eye I could.

“Don’t try it. I’ll kill you. You know I can,” I said, heaving for breath.

He stared at me in utter confusion.

“Yeah, fuck off, Lucas, ‘less you want me to bite you again!” Lozzie screeched at him.

We never had to find out what Lucas was not going to try, because he sighed with sudden relief; Zheng emerged behind us. She stopped as soon as she stood free of the wound in the floor, a robot waiting for further input.

“Oh thank the gods beyond, you found her,” he said to Zheng. “Wait, down there? Bloody hell … ” He rubbed his hands together, then thumbed over his shoulder. “Go on, he’s through there, he’ll want to … I don’t know … oi, can you hear me, or what?”

Zheng made no response.

Was this my moment?

Flagging resolve fumbled against years of habitual conflict-avoidance, against the timid, reclusive Heather, against the me that wanted to sit in comfortable libraries with beautiful books and forget about the rest of the world, against the me curled up in bed waiting for Raine to get home. I tried to focus, numb and cold and slow – but this wasn’t Alexander, this was not the head of the snake. Not yet. That was my excuse.

The young cultist – Lucas – glanced over his shoulder at the doorway, and Lozzie took the opening. She let go of me, no warning, and I almost tumbled to the floor as she flew at him, one hand raised to claw out his eyes or throat.

She was half his size, but she was ready to bite his face off.

Zheng moved like quicksilver. She lashed out and caught Lozzie by the wrist. Lozzie yelped, like a dog on the end of a choking leash. Her feet left the ground with her momentum and she scrambled for purchase. Zheng held her struggling at arm’s length.

“Zheng! Zheng no! Come on! Argh! Let me go, let me-”

Zheng shook her, rattled her brains, Lozzie’s feet skittering against the floor and head whipping around. I flinched at the violence. Lozzie yelped and spluttered, then stared at Zheng, panting in quiet panic.

The cultist let out a sharp sigh. “Crazy little bitch,” he said, then glanced at me. “Are you going to give us trouble too?”

I shook my head.

“Good. Now, we’re all going to go talk to Mister Lilburne. Nice and slow, and nobody does anything stupid. Got that? Right?” I nodded. He pointed at the doorway to the adjoining gallery. “Good. You go first.”

I tried to catch Lozzie’s eyes, but she’d shut down. She hung limp from Zheng’s grip like her strings had been cut, hidden by a curtain of hair. I murmured her name.

“She’s faking it,” the cultist said. “Come along now. You first.”

Alone, alone, even Lozzie had left me behind, in a way. Alone – except for the Eye, always in the back of my head. I had nothing else to hold onto.

The next gallery had fewer windows, corners lost to the shadows unfilled by weak electric light. At the far end, carved into the grey surface of the wall, surrounded by expanding concentric rings of white-paint magic circle and layers of jumbled, mad inscription, stood a gateway.

Just like the one Evelyn had built to bring us here. It was closed right now, deactivated, showing only blank stone in the wide door-shaped middle.

“Where does that lead?” I asked out loud. No idea how I found the courage.

“What? That’s none of your business, is it? Turn right, through the door there. Go on.”

I did as I was told, hobbled along, half crouched for support, wanting so desperately to sit down. Zheng dragged Lozzie along behind me. I stepped through a wide doorway, pulled myself up a short flight of stairs, and emerged into the Sharrowford Cult’s true inner sanctum.

“Ahhhhhh, Lavinia, there you are.”

A sigh, deep and satisfied, made my skin crawl.

It was a throne room, or maybe an audience chamber, with a raised area toward the rear, flanked by tall ceiling-height empty windows. Grey light flooded through the windows, lit everything with a half-dead look.

Magical workings dominated one side of the room. A series of interlocking magic circles and looping Sanskrit words had colonised the floor and part of a wall, as if projected at an angle. Glancing at it made my head swim far worse than before, like I was standing on a wall and looking down at the floor.

Several large chunks of the green-gold stone formed fulcrum points or anchors for the pattern. A mess of partially dismantled medical machines lay in a pile nearby, stolen from a hospital or some disused dental office, pieces of their mechanical guts added to the magical design – radioactive sources, bits of laser lens? Somehow I doubted even Evelyn could make sense of this one.

A pair of folding tables stood at the rear of the room, littered with hypodermic needles and bags of drugs, bits of hand-drawn map and bottles of unspeakable fluid, a ceremonial knife and a human skull, a closed book and an open first aid kit.

Two cultists looked up as I entered, as Zheng pulled Lozzie up alongside me. A small, wiry gentleman with glasses and brilliant ginger hair was bent over the tables. The heavyset man with the squashed nose, the one who’d been on the battlements with Alexander, had been speaking softly. He wore medical gloves, hands full of gauze, bloody towel over one shoulder, as he tended to his master in the middle of the room.

Alexander Lilburne himself sat on a stool, stripped to the waist, digging around inside his own chest with a pair of pliers.

“It’s me, it’s me,” our cultist guide, Lucas, said as he trotted past us. “She just came up from the core with them, but no sign of the rest. Boss?”

My mind clung hard to those last few words – no sign of the rest!

“Oh, my wayward sister, how you always return to me,” Alexander said.

His mouth curled into a smile as he regarded us, as if delighted to see old friends. His cheek twitched as he pulled the pliers from the hole in his chest with a sucking sound. “And Lavinia, I see you have decided to join us. Yes, very good, very good indeed. I think it’s high time we turned this unpleasantness to our mutual advantage.” He turned to the young cultist. “Thank you, Lucas. How are the god spawn?”

“Calmed, I think. They’ve stopped wailing, at least.”

“I can hear that part for myself. Or – not hear it, as it were.” Alexander smiled at his own terrible joke.

“ … bullets won’t kill you, right,” I said, very quietly.

No calm voice now. That numb illusionary courage did not survive the sight of him.

Alexander was covered in his own blood, smeared across his soft, flabby chest and down his belly, all over his hands and hairy forearms, in fingerprints and palm-marks. Some sensible soul had spread towels underneath him, but they were soaked through by now. He’d widened the bullet-hole Raine had put in his chest, peeled back his own skin and strips of muscle, exposed the white of his rib bones and the bellows-fluttering of a lung, just visible through the ragged wound. Fragments of shattered rib lay discarded at his feet, dug out from the bullet’s path.

He showed no pain at all.

With exaggerated care, he placed the pliers on the table next to him and raised his eyebrows at me.

“I’m sorry, what was that? I didn’t quite catch your words. Do speak up, Lavinia, please, I am not feeling my best at present, and I am understandably a little distracted with concern for my poor sister here.” In the corner of my eye, I saw Lozzie shiver and try to make herself smaller.

“I said … ” my voice shook. I clamped down hard on that tremor and forced myself to straighten up, to look him in the eye.

‘No sign of the rest’, which meant Raine and Evee and Twil were still free, unaccounted for.

Stand up straight, Heather.

“Bullets won’t kill you, will they?” I repeated.

Alexander’s trio of cultist underlings found this rather amusing. They laughed silently, shook their heads, shared sidelong glances. Alexander went through a laborious performance, looking down at himself and acting surprised at the gaping fist-sized rent in his chest.

“Oh, this?” He asked, then laughed, that horrible blubbery baby-laugh. “No, no, far from it, indeed. Don’t you worry about my health, Lavinia. I will still be up and walking around when the bones of all these fine fellows here have fallen to dust.”

The wiry cultist and Lucas both looked uncomfortable, but the stocky one tending to Alexander’s exit wound merely rolled his eyes, as if he’d heard that one a hundred times before.

“Still, rather irritating,” Alexander continued. “I already know everything there is to know about the workings of my own body, self-repair is such a bore.”

“I hope it is as irritating as possible,” I said. I tried to feel that anger, cold and slow, but it wouldn’t come. “I hope you get shot many more times.”

“Regardless.” Alexander waved a hand. “That is all beside the point right now. Shouldn’t get too far off topic, should we?”

I was not vulnerable; that’s what I told myself, that’s what kept me on my feet and my spine at least vaguely straight. I could kill everyone in this room with a thought, I could, I told myself I could, I knew I could.

Couldn’t I?

“First off, I think some congratulations are in order. Well done, Zheng.” Alexander reached over to the table and picked up a small metal cylinder, covered with occult runes. A stopper of black wax at the top showed a hole in the middle. He waggled it in her general direction, an amused smile playing across his lips. “I’ll just get rid of this, shall I? We won’t be needing it, will we? Or perhaps … I’ll hold onto it for now. We’ll see what happens next.”

If Zheng felt anything she didn’t show it. The zombie stared at a point on the far wall. Every now and again, Lozzie twitched or struggled in her grip, eyes glazed over, breathing hard and ragged.

“Now, sister?” Alexander clicked his fingers twice. “Pay attention now. Lauren,” he snapped, and Lozzie’s head whipped up as if slapped. She blinked and panted, staring at her brother. He sighed and shook his head, gave her one of those sickly-warm smiles that turned my stomach. “I am very unimpressed with you. I’m sure you know that already, as I am certain you anticipate punishment. You do deserve punishment, for bringing these people here. You know that too, I hope?”

Lozzie’s teeth chattered. She tried to shrink back, but Zheng held her fast.

“Now, Zheng, if you would bring her here, I-”

“I’m going to kill you,” I blurted out.

I didn’t just want to hurt him, I wanted him to know I wanted to. I told myself I wanted to.

Alexander glanced at me, blinking several times in mock surprise.

“Why isn’t she restrained?” The wiry copper-haired cultist asked. “I thought this one was meant to be dangerous?”

“Not here, she ain’t,” the big one grunted. “Can’t do zip, can you, dear?”

“Try it,” I managed to squeak.

“Ah ah ah ah.” Alexander raised his hands. “As we have already discovered, Lavinia does not respond well to physical encouragement. In fact, it gives her the courage to defend herself. Isn’t that right, Lavinia?”

“Stop calling me that.”

“You can’t kill me,” he said, raising a finger. “In here you can’t send me – or anyone – to the beyond. You are powerless, exactly as you would be in the real world against somebody of my place and standing and wealth. You must learn to listen, Lavinia, to negotiate, even from a position of weakness. Threats will get you nowhere.”

They didn’t know.

Lozzie hadn’t known I could do anything except teleporting, dimension-hopping. They must have remembered I could turn away a bullet, but I had a wrecking ball in my mind and they didn’t know.

Was that an advantage, or not? I had no idea what to do with this secret. I needed to use it, somehow.

Alexander must have taken my quiet hesitation as acquiescence.

“Now, Lauren, sister,” his voice gentled but never lost that smug undertone. “Despite the things you do, despite the things you have done to our family, I am still, as always, your loving brother.”

Lozzie whined, sniffed, hanging from Zheng’s arm.

“I forgive you,” he continued. “I forgive you for letting these people in here, for betraying me, for getting me shot by one of them, for causing me problems. As I have always forgiven you, for our parents, for … yourself. For you and I are all we have, aren’t we? Aren’t we, Lauren?”

That worm in the brain, that catch in his words. I suppressed a wince and glanced over at Lozzie. She gulped and bit her lip, small and dirty and cringing. She jerked her head up and down, once, twice. A nod.

“Lozzie, you don’t have to listen to him,” I hissed. She shook her head and looked at me sidelong, guilty and afraid. I could almost see the lump in her throat.

“If Zheng lets you go,” Alexander said. “Will you be good and come here, come to your brother?”

Nod.

“Zheng, if you please.”

The zombie did as she was told. Lozzie crumpled the moment she was free, fell to her knees, sobbing gently. I moved to catch her shoulders, to put my arms around her before she could give in and go to her brother, but Alexander twitched a finger in command and Zheng’s arm shot out like a snake to bar my way, so quick I flinched back in surprise.

“Come here,” Alexander repeated.

“Lozzie, don’t,” I hissed.

“It’s nothing compared to family, Lavinia. Nothing at all,” he said.

Lozzie nodded, wiped her nose on her sleeve, then picked herself up and slunk over to her brother, head down like a whipped dog. Now it was my turn to feel a lump in my throat. I couldn’t bear the sight of this.

“Now, now, there was no need for any of your earlier behaviour, was there?” Alexander said to her. “No need for all that tantrum and nastiness. You’re such a sweet girl when you simply relax and allow yourself to be.” He reached out and cupped her bruised cheek – the bruise he’d left on her. His bloody hand left a crimson smear on her skin. Lozzie shivered, her eyes down. I’d never felt such indignant disgust. “I know what you really want, what you really crave, and I will give it to you. You will have as many playmates as you desire – in time. Now, sit at my side. No, not on the blood, no need to get messy. Just there, there we go.”

Lozzie folded herself cross-legged on the floor by his side, hunched over with arms folded to protect her belly, eyes lowered in shadow.

In the last moment as she sat down, in the split-second that Alexander’s eyes left her and began to move back to me, her hand darted out and palmed something glinting and sharp out of the open first-aid kit on the table. She slid it up her sleeve.

I froze, inside and out, expecting one of the trio of cultists to raise a voice, or tackle her, or Alexander to notice what she’d done.

None did. They’d been looking away, embarrassed by the exchange of sickly-sweet false sibling affection. I’d seen, Zheng must have too, but the zombie didn’t react. I let relief flood me.

We were still on.

Equal parts disgust and hope – pretend courage. I forced my trembling fingers to pull the brainmath notebook from my hoodie’s front pocket. I felt the glow stick in there too, but what use could that be?

“Ahh? What is this?” Alexander asked. “Are you going to take minutes?” He reached down and stroked Lozzie’s hair, without taking his eyes from me, leaving another bloody streak on her.

“This is what I’m going to use to kill you,” I said, and forced my chin up.

Defiant, confident, unafraid. I was none of those things, but I pretended.

He sighed. “And I supposed that’s how you managed to do serious damage to Zheng? You hit her with a book?”

“Yes, I hit her with a book.” Completely straight faced.

Alexander’s amusement dimmed. “You understand it is very important to me that I learn how you and your … associates, managed to inflict real damage to a mature revenant. I assume the same method was used to kill the two men I sent with her? You can answer me now or I can find out in other ways, but I will know, all in good time. I will know everything, all details, relevant or otherwise. Nothing can hide from me, not for long.”

“I did it,” I said, flush for one wonderful moment with power over this man.

Very quickly, I wished I hadn’t spoken. Alexander stared for a moment – then a shrewd fascination lit up his features, staring at me with something akin to awe. I felt a terrible shiver.

“You are telling the truth,” he breathed. “Tell me.”

I swallowed, tried to hold onto that moment of confidence. “I can kill everyone in this room with a thought.” A bluff? I didn’t know. As I glanced at the other three cultists, they certainly seemed to share their master’s belief, faces clouded with concern. “That’s how I hurt your zombie.”

“Then do it, please, show me,” Alexander leaned forward, dripping gore from his chest wound, deep desire written on his face. “Show me! I have waited so long for my sister to show the slightest ability of true control, of manipulation, of understanding. Show me!”

I stared back at him.

“ … no? Lavinia, I know you are not lying, but … ahhh.” He frowned. “I see. You can’t.”

“I can.”

“No no.” He raised a finger. “You can, that is the truth – but you can’t. How odd. You do perplex me, Lavinia.”

“Good.”

“You tell impossible truths, at least ones that you yourself believe, and then lo and behold I discover that some of them are rooted in fact.” Alexander raised his chin, that shrewd, questioning exterior crust over a barely-concealed ocean of self-assurance.

“Is this conversation going how you imagined it would?” I managed to say. “Why do your whole megalomania act? Because you get off on it? Does it make you feel big and powerful? Why not just take what you want from me?”

He didn’t take my bait – it was weak, I was scrambling for time, playing catch-up. Hoping my friends would turn up, that Raine would rescue me. The more this went on, that clean, clear impulse felt further and further away.

I had a plan, I just couldn’t do it, not without the protection of that soul-numbness I’d felt earlier. Not without the need for self-defence. I wasn’t Raine.

“You see, it is entirely my fault we are at this unfortunate loggerheads with each other,” he continued. “I misunderstood you. Your desires, your drives – your personal history. If I had known, I would have taken a very different approach to you, Lavinia. And now I know you have gained some measure of real control, well, I would have told you what we are doing here, the importance of our work, what it means.”

“You mean the importance of dead children in cages?” I asked, and finally felt a good clean anger – that was better. “I saw your dirty secret down there.”

“The ends justifies the means, Lavinia. I’m sure you, of all people, will agree, once you understand those ends.”

“I don’t want to know what this place is for.” A lie. “I can guess.”

“Ahh?” Alexander still seemed genuinely fascinated. “And what is your guess?”

“You’ve forced people to talk with that thing you have underground.”

“Thing? Thing. A very precise word, Lavinia. That thing is a yoked god. Caught, drawn here by my – our,” he gestured at the trio of cultists, “trap, twenty years ago now. To learn from it, to take all that outside knowledge for our own. But, I am getting ahead of myself.”

“It’s a scab,” Lozzie muttered.

“Yes, yes, a favourite word of our little Lauren’s. More like an impact crater than a scab. All this, this place, this dimensional pocket is like … mis-aimed camouflage. A wounded chameleon with misfiring neurons, trying to hide itself.”

“I don’t want to know,” I repeated.

“It is important you understand. You see, I have done a little more research into you, Lavinia.” A sickening smile crested. A triumph, a trump card flourished from a rhetorical sleeve. He paused, savouring the moment.

I stared. Said nothing. Didn’t give him the satisfaction. Considered spitting on the floor, but nineteen years of being a good girl sort of ruled that out, even here.

“You see, I have asked relevant questions of those entities correctly placed to know,” he continued. “I assumed – ah, so wrongly, such arrogance on my part – that you were mentally ill, or misled, or had constructed an elaborate interior life that never really was. But then I discovered.”

“Discovered what?” I hissed, to cover the pounding of my heart.

“You do have a twin sister. Or, did.”

Violation.

Maisie’s space in my heart, my greatest source of strength, the one thing this horrible man hadn’t known about me, hadn’t torn bleeding from my past, lay open for all to hear.

My head felt hot, tight, a pinching pain in the back of my mind.

The other three cultists, they knew as well now, they’d heard those words, and it meant nothing to them. The big man was too busy fussing over the exit wound on Alexander’s back. Violation, my most secret thing casually exposed without so much as a fanfare.

“What was her name, Lavinia?” Alexander asked.

I blinked, swallowed, forced myself to focus through the impotent anger. I wanted to punch him, but that wasn’t enough.

“Her reality,” I said, haltingly, then swallowed and forced myself onward. “Should burst your eardrums, make you bleed from the eyes, kill you. Where we went, where she still is, I can send you there, you know? If you want to learn her name.”

“Not from here, you can’t. Her name, if you please?”

I had no more comebacks. I’d never felt so angry, but that wasn’t enough – my fingers opened the brainmath notebook, but I couldn’t look down at the pages. He had me hooked; in the back of my mind, in a quiet, selfish place that I would never admit, I knew where he was going with this.

“I know what happened to you and your twin,” Alexander said. He took a deep breath and leaned back, then winced, the first sign of pain I’d seen on his face. The cultist tending to his wound grumbled, tore off a piece of gauze and set to his work again.

I hoped it hurt.

“No you don’t,” I said. “Or you’d go mad.”

He laughed, bubbly and disgusting. Lozzie sniffed behind her curtain of hair. She started to speak, a half-word.

A crash, distant and very loud, somewhere below us in the castle. Like stone on stone, and a muffled shout.

Alexander frowned. The cultists all glanced at one another.

“Lucas, Adam,” Alexander said with a flick of his fingers toward the doors. Lucas and the wiry cultist hurried out of the room together, footsteps vanishing into the passageway beyond.

“My friends are coming to kill you,” I said.

“No, I will have Zheng kill them all,” he said. “And yes, I do have some vague, sketched general idea of what happened to you. And it doesn’t take a psychologist to understand what it’s done to you.”

“Shut up. Stop talking.”

“You have experienced first hand how vulnerable we really are – we human beings, all of us – when exposed to that outside our limited sphere, the reality of the universe, the wolves that lurk just outside the door, a door that ninety-nine percent of the human race cannot even see. We’re so short-sighted, so wrapped up in our animal concerns, we barely see fifty years into the future, or to the country next door, let alone into the spheres beyond our own fragile little globe.”

He loved the sound of his own voice – but he was right, about that part. Wasn’t he?

“Get to the point.”

Alexander nodded. There was something serious about him now, a glint in his eye.

“What happened to you can happen to anybody. Wouldn’t you want to stop it ever happening again? To all humanity? Because that is what we are doing here. We are growing strong, we are stealing secrets from the gods, we are making difficult sacrifices for the greater good. We do not have to bow to these outside principles as gods, we do not have to accept a future as ants. Imagine, if you will, that the things you have experienced, one day, come to our reality en masse. What would that look like? What would our future look like, Lavinia?”

He raised an eyebrow when I didn’t answer, gestured for me to speak. I shrugged.

“I am serious,” he continued. “It is a serious question. I don’t know, yet, exactly what you experienced beyond the boundary of our reality, as a child, and I would like you to tell me, in time. But we are all children here. Imagine, all of us, all the people you know, exposed to the same thing. What would our future look like? Please.”

“ … there wouldn’t be one. Where are you going with this?”

“You are a vision of a different future, a glimpse into the potential future of the species.” He leaned forward, earnest, face brimming with zeal. “Do you understand what I am saying? Our future, human future, is a choice between eventual destruction and madness, or change, evolution, into … ” An open hand, a smile. “Something very much like what you are becoming, what my sister is halfway toward. Do you understand? Answer, please. I am trying, so very hard, to make you understand.”

I wanted to say ‘and I am trying to kill you’, or spit at him, or tell him he was wrong.

He was wrong. Wasn’t he?

The anger, the relief, all of it was flagging now, gnawed by a scared part of myself, a part that wanted more than anything to feel safe and strong. My greatest unsolved problem was how to combat the Eye, how to actually rescue my sister. I was weak, small, fragile.

What if there were a dozen of me, or a hundred? What if I knew how to make this dripping-black mathematical hell work for me? What if I could be strong?

Would the end justify the means?

He saw it on my face, and smiled. “I’m not going to treat you like some stupid, petty little follower, to be expended for a temporary advantage. I’ll even let your friends live – Saye may prove difficult, she won’t agree with this, but I promise. I will make it work. Join me in this effort, try to understand, and I won’t kill them. Do you understand what I am offering you?”

I shook my head, numb, trying not to answer. Trying to focus.

“I am offering you a chance to make sure that what happened to you and your sister never happens again.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

the other side of nowhere – 4.4

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The next few panicked, scrambling minutes, fleeing further and further from safety and my friends, into the bowels of this hideous place, ranked among one of the worst experiences of my life.

Not because I was alone and scared in a unnatural place outside reality; that old fear was all too familiar. And not because of the mounting pain either, the echoes from brainmath not three hours ago, the dull ache in my diaphragm and my weak unsteady legs, no borrowed crutch for support now. Not the pervasive gloom, the way my eyes stung from squinting into the dimly-lit corridors of the ugly castle-thing, as I scurried and stumbled away from the sounds of zombies shuffling through the passageways behind me.

None of those things. The cringing void where my heart should be, that was because I didn’t know what had happened to the others.

My subconscious had convinced itself that Raine was unstoppable – if I called for her, she’d always come for me. My retreat had stalled at first, halfway down the corridor as I’d stared at the buckling door, thinking at any moment Raine would smash the zombies apart, dash their brains out, rescue me. Any moment I’d hear her calling my name, because she always comes for me.

 But the zombies burst through the door and shuffled into the tight grey passages of the castle. I had to hide behind the next corner, hurry to the next turn, through the next cramped room. Raine’s name was strangled in my throat for fear of being overheard by the things pursuing me.

The last glimpses of my friends haunted my imagination, fed by the darkness and echoes. Evelyn had looked terrified, pale and panicky, eyes wide, and Twil had been buried under a pile of zombies, invincible werewolf or no. Why hadn’t Raine come for me after we’d been separated? Please, please God – I hadn’t prayed since I was a child, since before Wonderland – please let her be okay.

I couldn’t bear the thought of her injured, because to stop Raine you’d have to hurt her so very badly.

And now I was all alone. Like every Slip over the last decade of my cursed life. This hurt so much more, because I’d been with the others and now I wasn’t. I reeled and hid in the darkness, struggling to quiet my breath, trying to stay silent when I cracked a shin against a stone door frame.

I was never meant to be alone.

Not just here, in this insane misadventure, but at all, ever. I was born a twin, with another half, a mirror-image, I wasn’t made to be alone. As I was cut off from my friends and companions and my lover in this contorted trap, all I could think is that I should be dead.

Maybe it’s not like this for other twins; perhaps they don’t feel this strongly, perhaps they have separate lives and identities, instead of this gaping hole inside. I should have died without Maisie, we should have withered when apart. I wasn’t meant to be alone, I couldn’t function. I was a ghost, a phantom of half a person, and I’d spent a decade learning how to pretend I was still alive.

A few weeks, a couple of months of support and friendship, had filled the gap in my soul. And now I was alone again, and dead.

Abusive self-negation must have been some kind of survival mechanism, because eventually it cut through the panic.

I realised I hadn’t heard the zombies in a while. A minute or two maybe, I’d lost all sense of time. I stopped and sagged against the wall of a passageway, just beyond another castle room. Shaking and panting, tears drying on my face, I forced down a deep breath and pressed a hand over my heart.

I couldn’t do this. I could not do this alone. No following footsteps, but plenty of distant echoes, warped by the winding interior of the castle-thing, sinus passageways in a fleshless skull. I was inside a corpse, alone. Panic pressed in like a vice on my head and lungs. I clenched my teeth as a full-body shaking passed through me.

Hunkered down against the wall, I gathered a handful of the hoodie I was wearing – Raine’s hoodie, black and borrowed – shoved my nose into it and sniffed. Closed my eyes. Raine’s scent, familiar sweat. Breathed out slowly, my own breath warm a pocket under my clothes.

“Okay,” I whispered to myself, swallowed and tried again, voice shaking. “Okay, Heather. You can sit here and wait to die, or you can get back to Raine. The others too,” I added, a little guilty. “But mostly Raine.”

What would Raine do?

I wiped the tears off my face and pricked up my ears, tried to tune out the thudding of my own heart. No footsteps, nothing following me – at least, not close enough for me to hear. Had the puppet zombies retreated, or had my friends killed them all? Was Raine even now ricocheting down the corridors, calling my name, searching for me? No, I’d hear that, even twisted and distorted, even above the ever-present planetary whale song still pounding through the walls of the castle, filtered through two dozen feet of dead jade.

“Phone!” I hissed, fingers trembling in a burst of hope. Of course, Raine had her mobile phone! She’d taken it out earlier, when we’d arrived in the fog, showed it was still connected to the network, we were still in Sharrowford, technically.

Hope turned to ashes with a stabbing pang in my chest. My pockets were empty except for my notebook full of brainmath. Evelyn had handed me that before we’d left. My own phone was still sat next to my side of the bed, a million miles away in the real Sharrowford.

I resisted the impulse to curse myself and call myself an idiot, I could do that later. Instead I wet my lips and opened my mouth, Raine’s name in my throat as I stood up straight as I could – and touched the wall with my bare hand.

I flinched back, flesh crawling, biting down on the instinct to scream.

I’d thought of it as jade, as stone, even if gone grey and strangely rotten, but one brush of my hand on the material of the castle, the material of this entire pocket dimension, and I found it impossible to consider it as stone anymore.

Ossified tissue, dried insect husk, shrivelled cartilage.

I tore my eyes and my mind away from the rough surface of the wall and the dark veins inside, back to the stretch of dimly lit passageway. I wet my lips again and took a calculated risk.

“Raine!” I called, cupping a hand to my mouth. “Raine! I’m over here!”

My own voice returned a riot of echoes.

And a reply.

A howling, from a dead throat, garbled un-words from Outside, one of the demons riding along inside those zombies letting me know that it heard me. Saying hello.

“No no no no,” I whispered to myself, feet already backing away. “Raine, Raine where are you? Where are you? I can’t- I can’t-”

Another howl, a little closer.

I turned and plunged deeper into the gloom.

==

In retrospect, the chance of our group getting split up in the exact manner we were was infinitesimally small. What if I’d not fallen down, not slipped from Raine’s grip? What if I’d ducked left or right instead of retreating into that hallway? What if I’d risked self-defence via brainmath, or tried to dodge around the zombies and back toward Raine? What if I’d not thrown the bolt, not thought to run away?

When I found the tunnel leading down, I began to suspect all was not as it seemed.

I’d stumbled into the wide room half-blinded by sudden light. This room in the corpse-castle was properly lit, with tall freestanding lamps pointed at the walls, like some kind of archaeological dig site. I glanced about, heart in my throat, but the place was empty of life. Mess lay about the room – some lengths of rope and tarpaulin, a pair of jackhammers and circular blades for cutting concrete, a few power tools on a box, a discarded half-eaten sandwich in a plastic bag. That last detail made me stare in dislocated confusion; a supermarket carrier bag, in this place.

A hole dominated the centre of the floor.

Not a natural orifice in the flowing, disgusting structure of the place, but a wound, cut and pulled wide. The cultists had cut shallow stairs leading down, reinforced their tunnel with metal poles, lit it with lamps and emergency chemical glow-sticks taped to the walls.

That tunnel drew my attention like a sound on the edging of hearing, like a flicker in peripheral vision. I stared down into the open wound of dead jade.

The slow academic Heather in the back of my mind posed uncomfortable questions to the panicked exterior. What was the chance of me stumbling upon this? Of taking every correct turn in the winding passageways, like through porous bone? I could have ended up anywhere, been caught, or lost, or wandered forever.

I hadn’t been thinking on the Eye’s lessons, mapping this place with impossible mathematics. I was far too weak and exhausted for that.

Weak, exhausted, alone and scared. A vulnerable, suggestible mind.

The Sharrowford Cult had harassed and stalked me for weeks, tried to kidnap me – but I doubted they wanted me in here unsupervised, discovering their secrets alone, on my own terms. They didn’t want me to find this.

Had I been led here?

No. I swallowed and forced a deep breath, screwed my eyes shut and tried to clear my mind. That was paranoia speaking, and that way lies insanity. I was alone and needed to find my friends, we needed to beat these people, I needed to help Raine find me, and the best way to do all those things was not by lingering in a maze of twisty little passages, but by finding something important – like whatever was down this hole – and breaking it, loudly, with lots of fireworks.

That’s what Raine would do.

Pity I wasn’t good at breaking things, except myself. The discarded power tools wouldn’t offer much help, and there was no way I could carry one of the jackhammers. In the end I scurried over and found a small hand chisel among the tools. Blunt, short, pointless, barely enough to make me feel safer, but at least I had something to hand other than my notebook full of painful equations.

At the mouth of the tunnel I ripped one of the glow-sticks off the wall and hurled it down the stairs. It bounced maybe fifty feet then illuminated a sharp turn. I pulled off another and held onto it, clutched the chisel tight in my other hand, and took the first step down.

Didn’t even question the urge to descend. Should have listened to the paranoia.

The cultists’ tunnel led down in a broad spiral, low ceiling comfortable enough for me. Flakes and chips of dead grey littered the steps, little piles from drilling or sawing into the substrate to mount lamps or insert the metal bracework. It sounds so simple, walking down a set of stairs, but I had to keep a firm hand on my own barely suppressed terror, tell myself that this was the right thing to do, that my friends were not dead or in pain and I’d see them again soon. I trod as quietly as I could, every sense straining for the sounds of anybody ahead of me, so absorbed in alertness that I didn’t notice the slow change in the light until it became obvious.

After somewhere between three and five right-hand turns, the grey walls weren’t so grey anymore. The jade green began to return, as if the tunnel descended through dead outer layers to penetrate living flesh beneath.

At first a few scraps of distant green crept like buried creepers of mold. Then whole sheets flowed in frozen waves up through the dead rock, shot through with deeper, darker branching structures of viridian.

No more grey. Green, green everywhere, laced with capillaries somehow dark green and dark gold at the same time.

Inside the walls, green-gold light pulsed and flowed in bright veins.

The light stung. Any attempt to reconcile the two clashing colours together made my head hurt. I blinked and hiccuped, tried to concentrate on my feet. The light contaminated my eyes – or my brain – with after-images, ghostly alien nerve systems impressed on my sight.

At the bottom of the tunnel was a cave.

At least, that’s what I called it in my head; perhaps a biological term would be more apt. I called it a cave, so I didn’t have to think about it.

The cult’s tunnel emerged onto a sort of ridge of the jade stone-flesh, upon which they’d laid metal walkways, anchored with heavy bolts, walled off with waist-high railing and ropes and stretched tarpaulin and sacking, and lit with hooded lamps at irregular intervals. My heart juddered. I felt so very small as I crept into that vast space, cowed by the impression of great gnarled columns and spires of living jade looming in the darkness. The metal walkway snaked off between them. The walls of the cave were lost in the darkness, except for the faint pulsing of that impossible green-gold light in deep veins.

Immediately I wanted to go back, wanted to leave, wanted so very badly to not be here. Whatever was down here, I could no more break it than I could break the Eye. I was shivering all over, barely daring to breathe lest the place itself heard me.

Out of the corner of my eyes, I peeked over the railing – another mistake. The darkness went down forever. Bottomless pits are impossible, I reminded myself, but I saw impossible things with tiresome regularity.

A split-second later I squinted in confusion and realised I was wrong, the pit wasn’t bottomless. A single point of light winked down in the void, almost like a star in the night sky, the same impossible green and gold as the pulsing light in the walls.

The more I stared, the brighter it seemed, yet it stayed set in a void. How could it be so bright yet cast no illumination?

An unwelcome revelation pressed in on my mind. An uncontrollable shaking started in my lungs, spread to my hands, my breath.

“Heather!”

I jumped out of my skin – the whisper saved my sanity.

I bit down on a yelp and spun in surprise, chisel and glow-stick thrust out, as if they could protect me from anything that might lurk down here. And there she was, a little way down the metal walkway, peering around a column of dark jade.

“It’s me!” Lozzie hissed. “It’s me!”

“Lozzie!”

She scrambled toward me and launched herself into a half-tackle half-hug, heedless of the sharp object in my hands. She needn’t have worried, I’d already let the chisel fall from my numb fingers. I caught her and hung on tight, too shocked to say anything as she clung to me, too overwhelmed by the sudden shared body heat, the squirming limbs, the scent of another person. She whined low in her throat like an animal, and buried her face in my shoulder. The relief, the unbelievable relief of not being alone in this unnatural place, of finding one friend, at least.

I’d never have been able to hug her so uninhibited under any other circumstances. Right now I was so glad to see anybody I could have cried.

After a moment we both pulled apart, as if by mutual agreement. Lozzie held onto my hands and swung our arms together from side-to-side, like we were a pair of schoolgirls standing in a playground. She lit up in a huge smile.

“I found you! I really found you! Are you okay, did you get hurt? You didn’t get hurt, did you? Where are all- all you friends? You’re alone now, okay, that’s not good, but we can work with it, we can fix that.” She vomited up a torrent of words, breath shaking as she spoke, nodding and rocking, then caught herself and almost giggled, lowered her tone to a whisper. “You really shouldn’t be down here, Heather. It’s super super not safe. I’m actually really scared right now even if I don’t seem it, you know?” Her smile quivered as she bit her lower lip.

The real Lozzie was not as perfect as her projected dream-self.

She was greasy and unwashed, though I didn’t give a damn about that right now. I probably still smelled of sweat and vomit myself. Her nails and cuticles were chewed to ragged stubs, dotted with little scabs. She wore two long sleeved tshirts one over the other, and a pair of old pajama bottoms, her feet bare, toes curled against the cold of the metal walkway. Her endless wispy hair was a matted mess and a livid bruise marked her face where her brother had hit her earlier. She looked borderline malnourished, too thin and pale, a half-starved teenager held together with manic twitchy energy.

She had something wrong with her eyes – her lazy, heavy-lidded look from our shared dreams was held in reserve behind panic and fear, but it was still present, a slackness in her extraocular muscles.

Guess I hadn’t been entirely myself in the dreams either.

“You’re … ” I trailed off, overwhelmed by the solidity and physicality of her. I squeezed her hands, stopped her swinging our joined arms. “You’re real. You are real. Okay.”

“Ahh? Heather?” She blinked at me and tilted her head rapidly from side to side. “Of course I’m real? What are you talking about? Don’t be silly, not now, we’re in a seriously scary place!”

It was her. No doubt about it. The same fey, elfin little face, underneath the fear and the abuse. I could worry about dreams later, Lozzie was here and now, with me, in this, together. I needed to deal with it.

She had blood in her teeth.

“Lozzie, are you bleeding?”

“What? Oh.” She suppressed a mad giggle, a glint in her eyes. “Had to bite somebody to get away.”

“You- okay.”

“Don’t look so surprised! I had to! Oh, don’t judge me, please, I had to. Not you, Heather, not-”

“I’m not, I’m not,” I stammered out in a whisper. “There’s just- there’s a lot to deal with right now. I thought you’d been hurt, that’s all.”

“I have been,” she said with a strange gulp, then her expression crumpled into tears, cringing, small. “I thought you’d been hurt too! Oh, Heather, I’m so sorry, I had to do it, I couldn’t- couldn’t say no- but I gave you that back door, and- and- nobody got hurt, right? Please don’t hate me, please.”

“I don’t, I don’t,” I said, and I meant it. We hugged again, by shared impulse. “It worked, I came to find you. It worked.”

She sniffed, wiped her face on her sleeve. We parted again and she smiled once more, a little more broken than before.

“What did you mean, I’m real?”

I couldn’t stop myself from giving her a bit of a look, despite the circumstances. “You didn’t exactly make it easy to believe that at first. Why the dreams? Why not … I don’t know, call me or come visit or … ” I trailed off as I realised my own idiocy, and began to stammer an apology. Lozzie just shook her head, a sad smile on her face.

“They don’t let me out very often. I learned about you from the messenger you sister sent – all about you! I knew we were the same, we could be friends, I knew you might, you know, be able to help me.”

“My … my sister … a- has- had a message? Yes, right.”

Even now, in the middle of a crisis, outside reality in the core of some unspeakable corpse-nest, whispering to avoid the attentions of that blinking star in the deep, those words needled my heart.

“Yeah!” Lozzie hissed. “For you. Like, it wasn’t words but it wasn’t hard to figure out. Don’t you remember-”

“Why didn’t you tell me?!” I hissed at her. Lozzie blinked and recoiled, a startled fox. “It was- from Maisie, I-”

“I did! I did!” Her hands went up. “You don’t remember? It was the first thing we ever talked about in the dream. I told you. She needs help. She was asking for help. Like me.”

“Like- … ” I opened my mouth, closed it again, gently took her hands. She let me. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Lozzie. When you- with the Messenger, in that underground car park- I … I thought you were stealing the message from me. It hurts to think about my sister. I can’t talk about this now, not here. It’s not the time to talk about this.” I risked a glance up and around, at the cave. “Is it?”

Lozzie shook her head, then nodded – I found the dual gesture so endearing that in any other time and place it would have made me laugh. “Leaving is a very good plan, yes!” she hissed. “Make like a tree and split!”

“Of course. Absolutely. So how do we get out? Brainmath teleport doesn’t work from in here, right?”

Brainmath?” Lozzie hitched an eyebrow. I tapped the side of my head.

“The thinking magic. Sorry, that’s what I’ve been calling it. The math.”

Lozzie stared, sniffed and rubbed her nose, winced at the bruise on her face. “It’s not maths for me. But yes, yes, no happy jumping from inside the scab. That’s why they keep me here. I ran away from home once and when I came back – click click, wheee.” She made a locking gesture and threw away an imaginary key. “They had me on a leash when I saw your twin’s messenger, you know?”

“Scab?” I echoed.

“This place, yeah. It’s a scab. Long story. A proper long story that you tell at night with hot chocolate and a nice view of the stars – not here. Not where it can hear.” She nodded over the side of the railing, into the depths.

I glanced down without thinking, at the star in the void. Lozzie put her hand up to my face, blocked my view.

“Best not to,” she said, a manic shaky smile on her face. “It won’t feel very good if you pay too much attention to it.”

I swallowed, throat dry, took Lozzie’s hand and lowered it from my face. “Okay. Thank you. Okay. So … what do we do? We have to get back to my friends.”

“Did you kill my brother?”

“Um, not yet.”

Lozzie bit her lower lip, hard, eyes creasing with worry.

“Raine might,” I said.

“She’s the one who said I should jump, yeah? I liked that. Clever!”

“She is. And brave. And-” I swallowed. “Oh God, I hope she’s okay.”

Lozzie squeezed my hand. “She’ll be fine, I’m sure she will. She’s like, chief arse-kicker, isn’t she?”

I nodded. “She’s got a gun, too. It-”

“Didn’t work on him!”

“Yes, we discovered that. Evee’s here too, she’s a magician. And Twil, she’s a werewolf. They must be able to do something to him.”

Lozzie blinked at me. “Werewolves are real?”

“I know. Stupid, isn’t it?”

“Are you kidding? That’s so cool. I love it!”

I swallowed, unable to share her amusement. “I’m so worried about them. We got cut off, I- I’m no good on my own. I don’t know what to do.” I looked over my shoulder, at the way I’d come. “The way back is full of zombies, I couldn’t get back to Raine.”

Lozzie peered over my shoulder too, then bit her lip and looked up at the distant ceiling, lost in the darkness.

“What does your bother – the cult – what is it they want with me?” I asked, unable to bear the silence.

“Hmm?” Lozzie met my eyes, seemingly distracted. “Because you’re like me. All he’s done for years is try to make more of me.” She glanced back the way she’d came, half turning on the spot and chewing on the stub of a fingernail. “We could go back through the underground, but … don’t look down at it, okay? And try not to listen. Stay close, okay? It’s really good at getting inside your head and making you think you want to listen.” Lozzie shot me another shaky smile, then tugged on my hand to lead us deeper into the cave.

“Don’t listen? To what?” I whispered.

“My brother already hurt it earlier,” Lozzie muttered, a sad pinch in her voice. “When he set it on you and your friends outside the castle. It’s hurting a lot now, it needs somebody to listen, but we really, really shouldn’t. Try not to, okay? Try not to.”

==

Perhaps it seems strange that I would so readily trust a person I’d met in a dream. A vestigial part of myself, cradled in my heart, asked again and again if this wasn’t a symptom of insanity. Wasn’t this the exact behaviour I was supposed to watch myself for? That I’d spent years punishing myself for, terrified that at any moment I might slip over the edge, talk to people who weren’t there, scream at invisible monsters, retreat into a world of my own imagination?

That part of me was obsolete now, proved wrong, but I didn’t shout it down or bottle it up; I soothed that terrified, battered part of myself. It was okay, her watch was over, and now I had to be brave in a very different manner.

Being brave wasn’t easy in this place.

I’d never been in a cave before. Not exactly a good family day out for a girl with schizophrenia and night terrors. I clung hard to my initial sense of this place as a cave, a natural formation in rock. Geology – not biology, no matter the impression of organic structure in all the looming shapes in the darkness.

Lozzie and I held hands as she led us creeping back along the metal walkways. The pulsing green-gold light lent her face a sickly, contagious pallor, turning her into a half-starved plague ghost. I must have looked terrible too, twitchy and frightened and doing a bad job of hiding my fear. We made quite the horror-movie couple, a pair of scrawny, unhealthy apparitions one might encounter in a dark, forbidden place.

Lozzie paused before each turn, each corner around another projecting spar of living jade. She held her finger to her lips, craning up on tiptoes and peering around rock outcrops.

The first time she did this, I whispered as quietly as I could, “Is anyone down here?”

“Doubt it,” she hissed, and shot me a mad smile over her shoulder, half-hidden behind the sleeve of her filthy tshirt. “Lost them all upstairs, but a zombie might wander down. Nobody else would be stupid enough – not like us!”

I trusted her completely, not in spite of her obvious mental illness – I could recognise that now, with the clarity of my waking mind – but because of it.

We’d been together in far worse, far weirder places than this, by choice and for the sheer joy of fascination, but always cushioned by the dream logic. Always with the knowledge that if anything really went wrong, we could simply join hands and leave, go somewhere else. Now we were in it for real, truly together.

The cult’s pathway branched several times, vanishing into unlit dead-ends or unfinished drops onto the jade substrate itself. We passed a gigantic branching stalagmite of green-gold glowing rock, a monolithic tree in the heart of the cave, and I spotted a wide metal platform far ahead of us.

Wedged underneath a convenient overhang of rock, on the platform stood structures I couldn’t quite make out at this distance – a few tables perhaps, bundles of rags, tools and debris and-

“Lozzie,” I murmured, squinting. “Up ahead, are those … cages?”

“Yeah!” she hissed. She must have caught my expression in the corner of her eye, because she turned to me and smiled that shaking smile again. “Oh, it’s totally okay, you don’t have to look at them. Just concentrate on your feet when we pass by, yeah? Or look at me.”

“What?” I said in an empty whisper.

“It’s fine, it’s fine, I’m our eyes right now. Okay? I’ll navigate.”

No courage to push the question, but neither could I look away from the cages up ahead. Six foot cubes of steel mesh. Dog cages?

Lozzie tugged on my hand. “You don’t have to look!”

Don’t look up, don’t look down, don’t look at what was right in front of me; I began to feel a little like Perseus in the Gorgon’s lair.

The act of thinking about it – the core of this place – drew my eyes over the side of the railing, to glance at the shining star-thing in the void below.

We seemed closer to it somehow. No longer a point of light, I saw – or imagined I saw – a faint impression of roiling energy through a gap in a cracked shell. I still held the glow-stick in my free hand, and suddenly felt the most bizarre urge to toss it over the railing, so the falling light might reveal the smallest fraction of the true shape below.

“Heather, Heather? Hey, no no, here here!” Lozzie touched my face, brought me back up and around. I drew in a sudden deep breath and blinked at her frowning face.

“Oh, that was weird. I was-”

“You mustn’t let it distract you. It’s really good at that. I don’t blame it, it’s lonely and mad and in pain, but you mustn’t listen – you’re too good, Heather. You’re too good a person, too kind, too nice. Don’t let it talk.”

“O-okay, okay.” I took another deep breath and shoved the glow-stick into my pocket. “I’m really … it’s hard to think clearly right now, that’s all.”

“Talk to me then! We’ll drown it out together.”

Lozzie beamed at me as she dragged me onward. The metal platform lay only a few hundred meters ahead now. I struggled for the words to distract myself.

“Um, well, why the goat skull mask? What was that all about? When I first saw you, I mean.”

“It’s a skull!” Lozzie almost giggled. “It looked super cool. Plus nobody can tell where I’m looking when I have it on. I like masks.”

“You- oh!” I lit up inside, a genuine moment breaking through. “You sent Tenny, didn’t you? That was you. You sent her to help me.”

“Tenny?”

“The spirit with the tentacles. Thank you. I never thanked you for that, in the dreams or anything. She used your name once, even. I get the feeling she wasn’t supposed to give that away, but thank you. She saved me, weeks ago, it’s kind of a long story.”

Lozzie paused and blinked at me. “Oh, that.” She frowned softly. “I made that from spare parts, I totally didn’t think it would find you. Wow!”

“I’m sorry, you made it? You can do that?”

“Yeah. Can’t you?” Lozzie looked at me with a mystified expression, tilting her head to one side, as if we were talking about baking a cake rather than constructing a spirit monster.

“I don’t think so … ” I trailed off and swallowed. This wasn’t the time. I had to focus on getting back to Raine, getting out of here. I had to focus on the here and now.

On the platform ahead of us the cages were clustered at the rear, against the jade rockface.

Too late to take Lozzie’s advice now. By the time we stepped onto the platform, I was already staring. Couldn’t look away, a far stronger pull than the thing in the void under our feet. The cages, the bundles of rags within, the table, all sharpened into too-perfect clarity on the surface of my mind. My insides went numb.

“You don’t have to look, Heather! Come on!” Lozzie’s raised voice warped into distorted echo. My feet stuttered to a halt. She pulled on my arm, both hands around my wrist, tugging on my sleeve. “Look at me, focus on me!”

“Lozzie, stop!” I snapped, and winced at the echo of my own shout, shaking off her grip. I glanced at her stricken expression and back at the cages, my breath tight in my chest. “What is this?”

“They’re dead. They can’t feel anything anymore. We can! Don’t worry about them, okay?”

Worry?” I almost spat, shaking my head. “I- … ”

“Don’t think about it, okay? Off, off!” Lozzie waved her arm in the air, as if trying to shoo away a flock of birds. She screwed her eyes shut. “Out of sight, out of mind!”

I ignored her, only half by choice, and tried to comprehend what I was looking at.

The platform in the depths was not a big place. Not grand, except for the surroundings of the vast cave. At one end of the platform a stout metal table faced the void, complete with restraints to hold a person and channels to collect spilt blood. It was covered in dark stains. A helmet made of copper was anchored to the head of the table, and inside I could see little patches of scalp and burned hair. A thick cable of bare copper and woven rope descended from the helmet, led off the side of the platform, into the void below. A triple-layered magic circle in stark clean while ringed the table, surrounded by the ghost images of dozens upon dozens of old, partially erased circles.

A shrivelled twist of cooked gristle lay atop the table, like a piece of meat left too long over a fire, no larger than a cat.

The cages were full of corpses.

Perhaps a dozen, if I could have counted. Dried, dessicated, preserved from rot by some quality in the air. Some were bound and gagged in death, others curled up and shrunken. One had gnawed off his own fingers – I doubted rats were responsible, down here. Several had their eyes bandaged as if blind, the dressings caked with dried blood, the faintest green-gold glow showing through the fabric. All were lumpy and misshapen under their filthy clothes, as if changed in hidden ways. None could have been older than twenty. Several were small children.

Lozzie spoke, waved her arms about, grabbed my hand, but I didn’t really hear her.

I wasn’t surprised. I’d seen the prelude to this discovery, the zombies made from kidnapped homeless people, the ape demon impaled outside the castle as a warning. The fruit of cruelty.

I’d never seen evil before. The Eye wasn’t evil – it was alien. Despite everything it had done to me, to my sister, despite the torture of having my mind altered, my reality bent and broken, the Eye was not evil. The star in the void wasn’t evil either, nor were the nightmare spirits I saw every day of my life, nor the inhabitants of the hundred Outside places I’d been to.

This little space, this thing done by people, this was evil.

This filthy secret, this felt like the centre of what the Sharrowford Cult was doing.

I didn’t need to be a genius to connect the dots; the corpses to the table, the helmet, the cable dropping into the depths, down to that thing in the void.

Forced communion.

“- and if you dwell on it, it’ll eat you up, it’ll take every piece of-”

“Can we destroy this?” I interrupted Lozzie’s rambling, swallowed, forced myself to feel and move again. I looked right into her heavy-lidded eyes. She juddered to a halt and blinked at me, then sketched a shaky smile and nodded sideways into the pit.

“We’d have to kill that down there,” she said. “This stuff’s just stuff.”

“How? How?” I glanced down into the void, then pulled my eyes back to Lozzie. It was easier, with this coldness inside me. “How?”

She shrugged. A laugh jerked out of her mouth. “I don’t know. A nuclear bomb? A- a- a god? Drop god on it. Right. That’ll work.”

“Point taken.” I squeezed my eyes shut. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay. It’s okay.” She swallowed and sniffed, eyes twitching and flickering over all the evidence she’d tried so hard to get me to ignore.

“Maybe Evelyn can stop it. She’s a magician,” I muttered, more to myself than Lozzie. “I have to tell her. Lozzie, what is this, what’s it for? How do we break it?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know! I’m the only one it ever worked on.”

“W-what? You mean-”

“You can’t just rape it and expect it to give you a piece of its mind. They can’t make another me, because they just wanna take and take and take and there’s nothing left down there, it gave me all it had.” She screwed a finger against the side of her skull. “It was a present, a gift, a- a- all it had. You get it, right?”

I stared at her, horror building on horror. But I nodded. “Yes. Yes, I think so.”

“I wish we could kill it.” She sniffed, tears in her eyes. “Put it out of it’s misery.”

“Maybe there’s a way. Maybe Evelyn knows a way. Maybe we can-”

A silent blur launched itself up and over the side of the platform railing.

Lozzie and I both screamed and jumped, grabbing at each other like small frightened animals about to clamber over themselves to get away. A heavy hand twisted against the railing, a long coat whipped through the air. Boots hit the metal in front of us.

Zheng landed on the platform with all the grace of a drunken elephant.

Her left side was still soaked with crimson, half-dried into a sticky layer down her coat and trousers and all over her boots. Her left arm – the one I’d torn off – had completed the disgusting reattachment process we’d witnessed earlier in the fog labyrinth. It hung slack at her side, naked and covered in a winding mass of occult tattoos so dense they turned her pale flesh to almost solid black. Her shoulder wound formed an angry jagged expanse of pulped, re-knitting flesh.

Seven feet of zombie muscle straightened up, cracked her neck, and turned dead eyes on Lozzie and I.

She was all there.

For the first time ever, I reached for the hyperdimensional mathematics without even thinking.

Maybe it was the memory of her grabbing my face and holding me immobile, maybe the shock of her dramatic entrance, or maybe I was finally turning into something beyond human. I grabbed at the impossible equations held so gingerly in the back of my mind, broke the seals, clenched my teeth as I spun the numbers into place, each lever of reality tar-slick and burning white-hot inside my brain. Knock her clean off the platform, burst her skull, blast her into steaming meat – could I do any of that?

I could. In that moment of panic, I knew I could.

Might kill me, but I could.

I sagged in Lozzie’s grip, my head and guts on fire, half a second away from an equation to rip reality asunder.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

the other side of nowhere – 4.3

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Fireballs and wands, black cats and broomsticks – I wish magic really was like that, sanitised and safe and suitable for small children.

I’d known Evelyn long enough now to dispel any naive notions; magic was raw and bloody, brute equations of flesh and will. How could I possibly think otherwise, when she’d been openly carrying around a human thighbone for the last couple of hours? Raine had lived in this world far longer than I, years of this, and Twil was subjected to otherworldly reality every time she looked at her own body.

Atop the castle battlements, Alexander Lilburne raised his hands to the sky, and surprised us all by almost killing us.

He spoke one word, a guttural twist of sound that scorched the air with heat haze and drew blood from his mouth. He raised his eyes with a self-satisfied smile, as if to watch the word race upward through the fog.

Raine steadied the handgun to shoot him again, unfazed by Alexander’s lack of reaction to the first bullet punching through his chest. Evelyn hissed frustration, hands playing over the scrimshawed thighbone as she muttered an incantation of her own. Twil rocked back on braced legs, as if to launch herself at the rotten grey castle wall.

And what could I do? Nothing. Useless and incapable compared to my companions. Couldn’t fight, couldn’t help, not even a decent cheerleader. All I could do in that moment was watch and hope.

Twil heard the sound first, a full second or two before our mere human senses. She stumbled, suddenly clamped her hands over her ears, and screamed through her teeth, eyes screwed shut. Made me jump, heart leaping into my throat.

“What-” Raine had time to say before the shock wave hit.

I felt it in my bones, a ripple in the air so deep and so low it shook the jelly inside my eyeballs.

Then – a tidal wave of noise, a buffeting downward torrent of howling from the sky, the reply to Alexander’s word.

The sound was unspeakable. Whale-song imitated by a mountain of steel. I thought we’d all go deaf, that this intolerable, soul-destroying noise was intended to simply blow out our eardrums in an act of petty sadism. I shrank and cowered, struggling to stay on my feet.

Evelyn screamed and tried to cover her ears, not easy when you’re carrying a walking stick and a human thighbone. The two Praems were unaffected, so one of them gently slid her hands over Evelyn’s ears for her.

Twil swore, very creatively, and I realised I could hear her perfectly over the din. Her words should have been drowned out. I heard Alexander’s laughing too, as he wiped his bloody mouth on his sleeve and grinned at the sky. Raine stared upward as well, following his gaze, arms around her own head.

Raine turned pale – the worst sign I could imagine. I looked up too, into the ceiling of grey mist.

Covering your ears didn’t help, because this wasn’t sound. Sound was merely the best way our fragile human senses could interpret the input.

The shadows of the great jellyfish and sky whale creatures were scattering through the fog, tentacles writhing and fins whirring, a shoal fleeing before a shark. Beyond them, higher in the void, the shapes at the very limit of the sky, the darker globes I’d thought were moons or planets, were moving. Circling, quivering, rocking.

Getting bigger.

Descending.

My mouth hung open and I felt a trickle of drool from my numbed lips. The sound pounding inside me drained some vital force from my consciousness. Couldn’t look away. The impossible sense of scale – hundreds or thousands of meters up? Was this sound their voice? Their screaming? A product of their attention? Dread settled over my soul like rotten velvet.

“The voice of a tamed god!” Alexander shouted, arms held wide to the sky. “Is it not the most beautiful sound?”

“-know you don’t take orders, but grab her or we’re all dead,” I heard Raine shout somewhere on the edge of my fraying consciousness.

Raine broke the paralysing rapture by scooping me up. I yelped in surprise, clutching the borrowed crutch to my chest as she hoisted me in a princess-carry and ran for the metal doors of the castle, where Twil stood gaping up at the sky. Raine tumbled me to my unsteady feet below the overhanging lip of the gatehouse. She grabbed my head in both hands and forced me to look at her.

“Heather? You back with us?”

“I think so, yes.” I nodded, gasping for breath.

Raine didn’t waste a second; she turned and cuffed Twil round the back of the head. Our werewolf spluttered and jerked and shook herself. Raine shoved her at the castle doors, but Twil didn’t need telling twice, she braced her feet and put her shoulder against the metal. I tried to ignore the hellish whale-song shaking my bones. It was getting louder.

Praem One and Two had to drag Evelyn over.

She was blinking and shaking, trying to push them away, grasping at her walking stick. “Evee, Evee hey, hey,” I said as I caught her, helped to hold her up. “It’s okay, Evee, we’re- we’re going inside, we-” I couldn’t keep my voice steady, not while assaulted by this sheer noise.

A vast shadow fell over us. Raine and Twil both heaved at one of the great metal doors, but it moved barely an inch, grinding on unoiled hinges.

I half raised a hand, entertaining a mad notion that I might blast the door in with brain-math.

Praem One and Two stepped past me. I hadn’t heard Evelyn order them to do anything. They moved as one body and lent their not inconsiderable strength to the task. I had no illusions who really open that door in the end. Raine may be strong enough to hoist me up or hold me down, but her muscles meant nothing compared to a werewolf and a pair of demons. The Praems made no sound at all as Twil grunted and heaved, and the door squealed open inch by painful inch.

My ears popped with pressure change, as if a great mass was bearing down on us, displacing the air. Evelyn stared up again, eyes wide and vacant.

Raine stuck her arm through the gap between the doors – not wide enough. Twil shoved her out of the way, braced both hands in the opening, and heaved the doors apart with a strangled cry.

We all tumbled through together, into a vast echoing hall of dying jade. Raine caught me before I sprawled onto my face. Twil tripped and went flying and cracked her head against a wall,  Evelyn fell over with a thump, barely cushioned by one of her wooden demons.

A vast curl of tentacle-limb descended to touch the space we’d all occupied moments before, just beyond the doorway. Solid grey, pitted and pockmarked, the size of a train carriage. The cosmic whale-song throbbed to a final crescendo, loud enough to split atoms.

The sight of that thing blotted out all thought. I felt a tugging inside, on my soul.

Then it passed, rising again. The gap between the doors showed only swirling, disturbed fog. Vast shadows shifted turned on the ground outside. Thick stone walls dulled the unspeakable noise, unpleasant but at least bearable now, whale-song ebbing and flowing as the planet-sphere-things moved around the bulwark of the castle.

“Ha, missed!” Raine barked. I breathed out for the first time in what felt like minutes.

“Fucking shit. Bitch ass cunt motherfucker. Ow,” Twil spluttered from the floor. She probed a nasty gash on her forehead, blood smeared down her face and her nose bent at an angle.

“Language, Twil,” I muttered. “Werewolf, not swearwolf.” She goggled at me and I managed a shrug, shaking with adrenaline and shock.

We’d retreated into a sort of grand entrance hall, devoid of decoration but for the veins of green and black reaching through the grey stone. My expectations wanted a great table in the middle of the room, a roaring fire in the back, tapestries and paintings adorning the walls, thick rugs underfoot. Instead, echoes and dust, and modern electric light bulbs strung along the floor on jerry-rigged wiring. Their weak illumination failed to reach the dark vault of the ceiling.

Arched doorways led off in all directions, into cramped stone tunnels and other rooms barely visible in the gloom. A great stairway swept upward to a balcony floor overhead. All was shaped from the same rough surfaces of rotten jade, as if extruded or grown rather than cut. I loved castles; I wanted to feel even the tiniest spark of fascination beneath the adrenaline and panic and fear.

This place was disgusting. As if we stood inside the bowels of a dried-out corpse.

Twil cracked her broken nose back into place with a throaty grunt.

“We all in one piece?” Raine asked. “Heather?”

“I’m- I’m here all. Mostly.”

Evelyn, on the other hand, was not all here. She sat where she’d fallen, breathing in jerky gasps and blinking too hard, over and over as if she couldn’t focus her eyes. Her skirt had ridden up to expose the matte black surface of her artificial leg. She’d dropped her walking stick but clutched the thighbone in a white-knuckle grip. The Praems stood either side of her as if on guard, staring off toward the dark doorways which led to the rest of the castle interior.

“Evee? Evee, what’s wrong?” I let go of Raine and knelt down next to Evelyn, one hand on her shoulder, my own crutch forgotten. “Evee? Evelyn?”

She shook her head, still blinking.

“They’ll be on us any second,” said Raine. She did something mechanical and precise with her gun, checked how many bullets she had left, then tucked her truncheon into her waistband and drew that big black knife instead.

“No kidding!” Twil said, leaping her to her feet. “Shit, Saye- Evelyn, come on, get up!” She joined me, grabbed Evelyn by both shoulders. “Hey, come on, snap out of it!”

Evelyn shook her head again, screwed her eyes shut, hissed through gritted teeth.

“Come on, Evelyn, call me an idiot or something for smashing my face up, yeah?” Twil was saying. “Look- look at me, yeah?”

“Evee,” Raine added, voice soft. “It’s not that hard to kill a magician. You and I both know that. We can do this.”

Evelyn growled in the back of her throat. “God dammit all,” she grumbled – and seemed to snap herself out of the fear, back to anger. Her breath still shook but her expression hardened.

“Evelyn? Saye, come on, look at-”

“I am looking at you, you undersized mutt.” Evelyn turned her eyes on Twil. She took a deep breath and stuck our a hand. “Help me up, both of you. For God’s sake, this floor is freezing.”

Twil and dragged Evelyn to her feet. I pressed her walking stick back into her hand. She nodded a thanks, grumbling all the while under her breath. She shook off Twil’s concern after a moment. “For God’s sake, I’m fine. Help Heather, she’s the one about to fall down.”

“W-what?” I stammered.

“The adrenaline is making you numb to your own weakness. You’re shaking.”

“I … I am.” I pressed a palm to my juddering heart, felt the weakness in my legs, realised I was half hunched up around my stomach. “Oh.”

“I can’t hold her up right now,” Raine said. “Got my hands full of sharp stuff.”

Evelyn huffed and clicked her fingers at Twil, gesturing at the crutch I’d dropped. I took a moment to steady myself, crutch wedged under my shoulder again as Evelyn spoke.

“I underestimated our opponent. Assumed he was a mere dabbler, gone too far.” Evelyn drew herself up and took a deep breath. “Likely he’s the centre of this. A real mage. I have to kill him.”

We have to kill him,” Raine said.

“Yes, yes, of course.”

“It’ll be a good team building exercise, you know?” Raine cracked a grin. “We’ll all in this together.”

“I did see that correctly out there, yes?” I asked Raine. She barely glanced away from watching the room’s many exits. “You shot Alexander in the chest, but he … ?”

“Sometimes mages get hard to kill,” said Evelyn. “Whatever Alexander Lilburne is now, he probably hasn’t been human for quite some time.” She grimaced and looked like she wanted to spit. “God dammit.” She tapped Praem One on the leg with her walking stick and gestured toward one of the doors.

 The demon didn’t move, didn’t obey, just stared back at Evelyn for a moment, and then in the same direction Raine was looking, at the shadow-shrouded balcony at the top of the huge staircase. Evelyn frowned at her bound demon.

“So how do we beat him?” I asked.

“Cut his head off,” Raine said. “Scoop out the brain and heart, burn them to ash, throw the ash into the sea. Works with vampires, right?”

“That or death by volcano,” I said, and tried to smile. The weak joke failed to smother the fear in my belly. This was insane. This was far, far beyond us.

“Enough physical trauma should suffice,” Evelyn muttered, staring at Praem with a deep frown.

“What the hell was all that?” Twil asked. She wiped blood off her face, then bloody hands on her hoodie, then tutted at herself. The gash on her forehead was already closed up. “Why are you all talking like we weren’t just chased by flying tentacle moons?”

“I’ve seen weirder things,” I admitted.

“I haven’t,” Raine said. “That’s a new record.”

“I have,” grumbled Evelyn. She muttered to Praem in Latin, but the demon still refused to move.

Twil began to creep back toward the crack between the doors, craning her neck to risk a glance upward.

“We’re trapped in here, aren’t we?” I asked, surprising myself with the steady clarity in my voice. I certainly didn’t feel that stable right now. Panic edged my thoughts.

Raine and Evelyn shared a glance. Twil looked highly uncomfortable.

“Yes,” Evelyn admitted – at the same moment Raine said “Maybe.”

“Couldn’t we make a run for it?” Twil asked.

“What, you gonna distract those things out there with a headbutt?” Raine asked. “Pull the other one.”

“And get away from the door, you complete idiot,” Evelyn snapped over her shoulder. She stepped in front of Praem One and met the demon host’s staring, blank expression.  “Why aren’t you moving, damn you? I’m in charge, you know that. You’re bound inside a wooden doll, you’re not getting anywhere without me.”

“Evee,” Raine warned. “Your cuddle toy hears something we don’t.”

“That’s entirely beside the point-”

“It’ll be okay,” I said, to myself. “We have to find Lozzie first, we have to rescue her.”

Twil’s attention snapped round suddenly.

“What is it, Lassie?” said Raine.

“Uh … a lot of footsteps. A dozen? Maybe? No, more than that.” Twil began to grin, showing too many teeth. She shook her herself all over and summoned her claws, flexing them and rolling her shoulders. “I think it’s rumble time.”

“Evee, get behind us,” Raine snapped, then reached out a hand and grabbed my arm. “Heather, behind me. Now.”

For a fleeting moment we stood together, with breath stilled and ears straining, Raine and Twil and both Praem’s bodies shielding Evelyn and I – a touching, perhaps instinctive gesture, but in the end only a gesture. We had nowhere to run. My heart felt like a bird trying to escape my chest.

I could hear the footsteps too now, a clunky, disordered dragging shamble echoing off the stone walls. We all took Praem’s lead, eyes on the top of the staircase.

“We need to move. We can’t stay here,” Raine hissed. She glanced left and right, but couldn’t pick a direction.

“Sod that,” Twil growled, raised her voice to anything that might care to overhear. “I’ve had enough of creeping through fog and bullshit, I wanna fight something!”

“What if they have a gun, like before?” I hissed.

“I can deal with that,” Evelyn muttered. I heard her gulp. “So can you.”

To my surprise, Evelyn wormed her free hand into mine. Her palm was clammy and her grip weak. I squeezed, hard. She squeezed back.

“Heads up,” Raine said.

Casting jerky shadows, each motion mechanical and truncated, as if their muscles were filled with sand, the first of the zombies appeared at the top of the great staircase.

Zombie. Funny word. What does it bring to mind, for those of us spared the secret truths of reality? A shuffling gait, slack jaws, drunken motions, and the occasional low moan of hunger for brains. Raine and I had watched Night of the Living Dead a few weeks back, after a debate over her use of the term. She couldn’t believe I’d never seen the film. A classic, apparently. It hadn’t really frightened me – what was so scary about walking corpses? I’d seen far worse things in my nightmares.

But these zombies made my breath catch in my throat, turned my stomach, made me heart-sick. Two or three dozen, traipsing down the staircase and spreading out to surround us, eyes empty and dead. I wanted to grab the back of Raine’s jacket just to hold on.

They frightened me because of who they’d been made from.

No question where the Sharrowford Cult had harvested their raw materials. Scraggly grey beards, unkempt hair, frames ravaged by malnutrition. Most were middle aged men, but a few young women showed among the dead faces, skin stretched and translucent, dressed in thick coats, filthy jeans, too many layers. One had been made from a teenage boy, dirty orange hair plastered across his forehead. Sharrowford’s missing homeless.

Raine raised her handgun but didn’t seem to know where to aim.

“Wait,” Evelyn said through gritted teeth. Twil hissed and flexed her claws. “Wait, both of you, dammit.”

Two living people brought up the rear of the zombie mob: the pinch-faced blonde lady who’d spat at us from the battlements, and a younger women scurrying along at her side, hunched and unhealthy. The blonde lady sneered when she saw us, and raised her chin. The younger one ignored us, her eyes rolling wild in their sockets, a constant stream of low muttering in her throat, pausing only to wipe her hair out of her sweat-soaked face.

The blonde lady opened her mouth and tried to look imposing. “Throw down your weapons and perhaps I won’t have you beaten.”

“Ignore her. Shoot the other one,” Evelyn hissed.

“Duh,” said Raine.

Raine took the shot.

And missed.

I didn’t know she’d missed, not until much later. All I saw was Raine raise the gun and the scrawny zombie-conductor woman scrambling back and tripping over her own robes. Raine pulled the trigger and the crack of a bullet split the air.

Then all hell broke loose.

A general melee is impossible to recall or describe with any level of clarity. Memory simply fails, or weaves fiction to fill the gaps. A back-alley scuffle or an attempted kidnapping, those can be recreated in the mind, step by step, after much thought and careful consideration of experience best left buried, but the sheer confusion and terror of wider brawl devours all relevant detail. At least it did for me. All those superhero movies where the characters execute perfect techniques in big set-piece battles – reality’s not like that, not at all.

The zombies rushed us, reaching, grasping, clawing. I recall unimportant things – cracked dry skin on the back of a single hand, one face with terribly bloodshot eyes, the sight of a zombie missing his left shoe.

Lots of shouting – Evelyn’s voice projecting fragments of a dead language. Raine must have lowered the gun because I remember her laying about with the knife and maybe the nightstick, pulling me by the arm to keep me in her wake. Struggling to stay on my feet.

Don’t fall, don’t slip!

Did she say that to me, or did I think it to myself?

Another gunshot, or just the sound of a skull cracking off the ground. Raine’s voice in my ear. A split-second glimpse of Twil wrenching a zombie’s head off, caught forever in freeze-frame in full bestial transformation, gore-stained claws raised and then buried as two more zombies piled uselessly atop her. Another glimpse, of Evelyn, one I’ll never forget, looking as terrified as I felt underneath her fragile defiance, pale and shaking and wide-eyed as Praem kept the zombies off her.

Raine lost her grip, and I fell over.

I remember that moment, that part, with painful clarity. What would have happened if I’d never lost my grip? A road untaken. A different history.

My hand slipped from hers as she yanked me from the path of another jerking clockwork revenant. I overbalanced and tripped and sprawled on the floor, scuffed my hands and knees and lost the crutch as it skidded away. The bottom of my stomach dropped out.

Evelyn’s shouting peaked in a trio of impossible prehuman words, and half the zombies spasmed as if in the grip of a mass epileptic fit. Some stood rigid as if struck by lightning, muscles locked iron-hard, vibrating with internal pressure. Others crumpled, thrashing limbs against the floor. One fell right next to me where it battered my head with a sudden flailing rotten hand. I screamed, I think, and tried to scramble back.

Evelyn’s trump card had come too late. Praem could barely keep the remaining zombies off her. I crawled away on hands and knees and hauled myself up against a wall, panting and casting about for Raine.

Too slow, too stunned, too stupid. I shouldn’t have been there.

A zombie lurched toward me and wrapped thin bony hands around my throat.

I remember that moment like a kick in the head, even if it didn’t last long. The zombie pinned me to the wall and squeezed, rotten breath floating from a slack mouth, dessicated eyeballs rolled into the back of it’s head. It had been a woman, once, maybe in her twenties, now bedraggled and sad with skin like paper and tendons like steel.

Somebody shouted “Not her, you idiot!” One of the cultists. They wanted me alive.

I kicked at it, squealed, pushed, hissed and spat, dug my fingernails into its hands and tried to pry them open. Too weak.

Raine came out of nowhere and tore it off me. I think she used her knife a lot, because there was blood on my hoodie afterward. She tried to get me up, my hand in hers, but another zombie barrelled into her. She threw it at the wall and knocked its brains out, kicked it away. Two more came for me, got in between us.

No time to think about what I was doing, I’d already backed into a side-passage, leading away from the great hall. I think I was calling Raine’s name, calling for help through a wall of reanimated flesh. Dead hands groped for my throat.

I must have turned the Fractal on them, because later I found my left sleeve tugged down, the angular sign exposed. Must have kept them at bay for a second, given me time to back away down the dimly lit passageway and through an open metal door. I remember cold fingers at the back of my neck. I remember shoving the door closed and throwing a bolt. I remember hearing them hammering on the other side, and the sight of the thin metal beginning to buckle.

“Raine! Raine, I’m in here!”

Thump thump crack, the door began to bend inward. The hinges looked solid enough but the grey jade stone itself was cracking and flaking under the zombies’ strength.

“Raine!” I called out again, backing up from the door.

My mind said stay here, wait for Raine, she’s two dozen feet away and she always comes for me. A dark passageway led off into the depths of the castle, ceiling low, light bulbs few and far between. It could be another maze. I needed to stay here. What did they always say to do when lost, when a friend or parent might be looking for you? Stay where you are, good little children, stay in a public place, because if you do go wandering off you really might get lost and never come back.

With a tortured screech of rending metal, one of the zombies punched through the door, shredding its own dessicated flesh as it began groping for the bolt.

“Raine! Raine, I have to run! Raine … ” My voice trailed off as I backed away. I glanced over my shoulder, at my only route of escape. “ … Twil? Evee? … nobody?”

On shaking legs, I turned and hobbled away, fleeing into the unknown depths.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

the other side of nowhere – 4.2

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The bulk of the fake cathedral offered no shelter from the omnipresent grey glow. Venturing down into the city was an easy choice – the only choice, I told myself.

Evelyn sent Praem first, both bodies. One of them waved an arm over her head to test if the giant gasbag jellyfish things floating in the sky would react, descend upon easy prey or droop those massive tentacles down to sting with alien toxins. They did not. Praem stepped from grey earth onto the jagged lip of imitation road, walked past the first of the twisted jade outcroppings pretending to be buildings, and stood on a street corner, at the very limit of visibility in the slowly shifting tendrils of fog. Her other body turned to look back at us.

“Down we go then,” said Raine.

“Hate this place already,” Twil hissed.

So did I. This place felt so fundamentally wrong, even to me, and I’d spent half my life getting dragged outside reality on the regular.

Our footsteps returned muffled echoes as the copied city streets rose around us. One of Praem’s bodies took the lead in the churning murk, scouting down a row of what were probably meant to be semi-detached houses.

All these normal everyday shapes – buildings, street signs, pavement – warped and bent and rough-edged, surfaces jagged and misaligned, as if approximated by an alien with terrible eyesight and a fetish for sharp corners. Every surface of dark green stone seemed to hide untold depths behind the rotten veins of grey and black, an optical illusion that tempted me to stare harder and harder with the promise that eventually I might see through to whatever waited on the other side of the ground itself.

I realised with a sick feeling that the entire place was seamless and unbroken; not even a hairline crack between pavement and brick, every object and structure melted into the greater whole in a flow of stone – like bone.

Like the copied city had been extruded from the ground, secreted in layers. I shuddered at the thought of touching anything here. My skin began to crawl and I found myself hunching closer to Raine.

Twil wasn’t faring much better than I. She’d wrapped her hands in those ghostly wolf-claws and looked ready to jump at her own shadow. Even Evelyn seemed smaller and reduced amid this mutated architecture. This place bore down on us in some obscure psychological fashion, made me want to curl up and hide; every wrong angle and defamiliarsed building told me to get out.

Only Raine seemed normal – well, normal for Raine. She was on the highest of high alerts, clear as day even if I hadn’t been holding her hand, vibrating with anticipation of sudden violence. She stayed fixated on the limits of visibility, the edge of the fog, as if a hundred monsters were about to come rushing at us.

Anybody trapped in this Godforsaken place absolutely needed rescuing.

“We’re way too exposed out here,” Twil hissed through her teeth. We were halfway to the castle, deserted battlements peering down through the shifting veils of fog.

Raine shook her head slowly. “Nothing to be exposed to.”

Twil looked like she wanted to punch her. “We’re out in the open. There’s no people, no crowd to hide in, we’re in the middle of the street. Fuck, is this even a street?” She scowled at the rotten-jade ground. “What the hell is this stuff? What the hell is this place?”

“A death-trap,” Raine said.

“I meant the road, dumbass.”

“I know you did, but that’s not important,” Raine grinned to herself. “This place is meant to be a death-trap, a killing-ground around that national trust wannabee up there.” She nodded at the castle. “When they trapped Heather and I inside that looping space in Willow House, they had dogs and their super-zombie. I don’t see no dogs. I don’t see anything. I think they’re spent.”

Evelyn grunted in agreement. “They’ve no monsters left for us.”

“May I make a suggestion?” I said, much softer than I’d intended, cowed by the bizarre surroundings. I cleared my throat.

“Always,” Raine said.

“I don’t think they’re aware we’re here,” I said.

“Oh, yeah,” Twil said. “We’re totally not walking into an ambush, because Heather says so.”

“Nobody could have escaped that labyrinth without brain-math,” I said. “Whoever guided me put that back door in, one only I could find. Nobody knows we’re here.”

“Not yet, at least,” said Raine. Twil grumbled under her breath and flexed her claws.

I stared up at the castle as we got closer, frowning and chewing on my lips.

“You recognise it?” Raine muttered to me.

“No. I don’t think anybody makes castles out of jade.”

“Well somebody did,” Raine said, and cracked a grin for me.

I sighed and shrugged, a little difficult with the crutch tucked under one arm to support my weight. “Maybe it’s a copy of one in reality. Does Sharrowford have a castle?”

“Don’t think so. Any idea who we might find in there? Anything come back to you yet?”

I shook my head and felt a shadow of guilt pass over me, for dragging my friends into this, for insisting. “I don’t know, I-I’m sure there’s … ”

Raine squeezed my hand. “Heather, if the person who who helped you is up there, I’m getting them the hell out.” She flashed me a grin, utterly devoid of artifice. “Can’t let myself get upstaged by your secret admirer.”

“Right, right.”

I felt myself smile. Amazing how much difference that grin can make.

Lights began to bleed through the wall of fog, at first illusory and wavering, then clearer and clearer as a line of tiny flickering points. The light bled into the stone, made the dark veins dance and writhe, pulsing from within. Raine hissed a halt and we waited for several tense moments, but the lights neither advanced nor dimmed.

We crept forward.

Candles. Thick as an arm and a foot tall, each set on a metal pole – stainless steel, the first normal objects we’d seen in this place. The bollards were mounted in the middle of a road, the stone cracked and chipped where they’d been bolted to the ground. The line of candles stretched off in either direction, until the lights vanished into the fog.

Just this side of the line, a monster had been impaled on a wooden stake.

“Recognise him?” Raine asked.

“Of course I do,” Evee hissed. She gulped and had to look away. So did I.

“What? That’s yours?” said Twil. Evelyn nodded.

It was the gangly ape demon she’d summoned up and sent out into the city weeks ago. The knobbly joints were rigid in death, vertical jaw lolling open, huge tongue limp, eyes glassed over, flesh dry and dessicated. It had been impaled through the backside and the stake emerged from its shattered chest, pushing broken ribs outward. No blood on the ground, merely a little dried and flaking on the stake.

“At least we know what happened to the poor bastard,” Raine said. “Sorry mate.”

“It’s a warning,” Evelyn said.

“To who? The things up there?” Twil pointed at the giant mute jellyfish shadows in the sky. “There’s nothing here. Thing’s not even had birds or flies at it. This place is dead.”

“To whatever’s out there,” Evelyn said softly. She gestured with her eyes, off into the distance.

“What?” I said.

“Yeah, uh, Evee, what?” Raine added.

“I think I was wrong.”

“You, wrong? Never,” Twil tried to laugh at her own jab but managed only a hollow chuckle.

“The Cult didn’t build this place,” Evelyn said. She sucked on her teeth before continuing. “The labyrinth and all the looping pocket dimensions, yes, that’s them, and perhaps they even made that bloody great castle, somehow. But this space itself? I suspect they found this, re-purposed a small part of it, connected it to the city. All this, what we’re seeing, could be a … a sympathetic reaction, an allergic reaction, I don’t know.” She nodded at the metal bollards with the candles on top. “That’s to keep out unwanted visitors from the depths beyond.”

Evelyn’s words chilled me, should have made me look over my shoulder into the swirling fog, with all the lurid possibilities and lurking horrors. But the dead ape demon, hanging there next to us, was so much more real.

The dead men in the labyrinth had been victims of sudden terrible violence. The corpses had turned my stomach and upset me on that deep level of flesh’s sympathy for other flesh. But the ape demon, impaled on a spike? That implied a medieval capacity for calculated brutality, so much worse than any outburst of destruction.

“Heather?” Raine said. “You holding up okay?”

I nodded, tried to focus. “This is by far the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen,” I said, half exasperated, half trying to play it down.

“Eh?” Evelyn frowned at me.

“Occult road bollards. Traffic calming for monsters.” I shook my head.

Raine laughed, but Evelyn sighed and gestured Twil toward the row of bollards and candles. “Right, stick a hand past the barrier, see what happens.”

Twil goggled at her. “You’re having a laugh. Why me?”

“Because your flesh regrows in minutes. None of ours will.”

“What about the ice blues here?” Twil nodded at Praem. Both bodies stared back at her, an impassive rebuff.

“They don’t regenerate, they’re made of wood. Stop whining, it’s only pain.”

Twil grumbled and eyed the line of flickering candles. She edged up to the barrier, gave Evelyn a terrible scowl, then gingerly poked a finger past a bollard. Nothing happened. She extended her hand out, then her arm, then stepped over.

She shrugged. “Feels normal. Nothing doing, I guess.”

“That was a little cruel, Evee,” I said.

Evelyn sighed and rolled her eyes, then stepped up to one of the bollards and tapped it with her walking stick. She knocked the candle off the top, let it hit the ground in a splat of wax and puff of extinguished flame. “Pull it out,” she said, then glanced up at Twil when she didn’t jump to it.

“Do you want me to get blown up by a magical booby-trap or what?”

“No. Praem,” Evelyn gestured to her bound demon. “You do it. Pull it out.”

Praem grabbed the bollard and wretched it out of the ground with a loud crunch of breaking stone. Tiny chips of grey, dead jade flaked off from the bolts. She held it up and stared at the underside.

“Made in China,” Praem said.

“Huh. That’s one hole in their perimeter,” Evelyn said.

A hundred meters further on we hit a second barrier, a second ring around the false jewel of the castle – a triple-layered magic circle made of complex overlapping angles, all in white, painted straight onto the jade ground.

The circle was unfinished, cut off at one end, the other vanishing off into the fog. The air smelled of fresh paint.

“I don’t recognise the technique, the symbols, any of it,” Evelyn said. “Could be for anything.”

“Doesn’t hurt to look at,” I said.

“Wait ‘till it’s finished,” Evelyn muttered.

“Maybe this is what they were gonna use Heather for?” Twil suggested. “Maybe she was meant to be here when they finished it, up in that castle thing?”

A cold shiver went up my spine. We all looked at each other – except for Raine, who stared off into the fog. She had a smile on her lips and a cold look in her eyes.

“Raine?”

“Wanna go find out if they’re still working on it?” she asked.

They were.

We crept along the curve of the magic circle for a couple of minutes before a kneeling figure drifted out of the fog. A young man in cream-coloured robes, down on his knees with a fat paintbrush in hand as he worked on extending the circle. Around him lay a tray to catch stray drips, some newspaper, and two cans of white paint. He looked up in wide-eyed blinking incomprehension.

Two other figures stood over him, both older men with scraggly beards and wild hair, expressions slack and eyes glassy, dressed in scuffed jeans and old coats and too many layers for what they so obviously were. Their heads swivelled toward us, machine-like and precise, empty of expression.

“Oh, oh, oh shit, oh, no no no,” the cultist stammered as he stumbled to his feet. “Y-you’re not meant to be here. You- you- none of you. Oh, um-”

“Hey, buddy,” Raine said. “No harm no foul, just drop your shit and put your hands up, yeah?”

The cultist glanced at his attendant zombies and gestured at them, clicking his fingers and stammering out a snatch of Latin. They seemed to stiffen – then stepped toward us. With a renewed flush of confidence the man smiled and raised an arm at us too, said a few more words in Latin.

Raine’s truncheon got in the way and knocked out a few of his teeth.

I shrank back involuntarily, but Evelyn stood her ground, radiating contempt; these zombies were not like Zheng –  Twil and Praem made short work of them.

Twil slammed into one zombie in a tangle of limbs and claws, gnashing and snapping and growling, bouncing it off the ground with a crack of breaking bones. Praem simply grabbed the other one by the head and twisted; I squeezed my eyes shut at the horrible ripping noise. A few moments of shouting and scuffling and it was all over. I nodded when Evelyn gently touched my elbow, trying not to look at the pair of roughly decapitated zombies. At least they didn’t bleed – they seemed to be utterly dessicated, just dry bone and tendon under the skin.

“How was I supposed to know to pull it’s head off?” Twil was saying, exasperated, mostly human again except for her claws, her clothes twisted around from rolling on the ground.

“I didn’t know either,” Evelyn said, frowning down at the corpses. “It was a guess.”

Raine grinned down at the cowering cultist, his face bruised and lips bleeding. “Should have taken my first offer, yeah? Hope you’re a good little squealer. How many of your mates are hanging around here? Don’t make me hurt you for it, not in front of my girl.”

“Oh shut up, Raine,” Evelyn drawled. She raised the scrimshawed bone in both hands, elbow balancing her walking stick. “Get out of the way, unless you want to soil yourself.”

Raine glanced over her shoulder. “Eh? Oh. Geeze, Evee, that’s much worse than smashed kneecaps. Come on, gimme the old fashioned way a chance?”

I saw the man on the ground gather himself, realised he was about to try something stupid. Perhaps I’d spent too much time watching Raine, watching the way she moved, the hundred little tells which came before a moment of violence.

“Don’t you dare,” I said out loud.

He glanced at me and hesitated – just long enough for Raine to draw her handgun and point it at his face. He gulped and flinched, one hand out in a gesture of surrender. Raine tutted and shook her head, stepping back out the way of whatever Evelyn was about to do.

“N-none of you are supposed to be here,” he said. “If you leave now, you can still get out, m-maybe-”

Evelyn ran her fingers over the carvings on the thighbone, completed her infernal circuit.

The ambient temperature plummeted by several degrees in an instant, enough draw a surprised gasp from me, despite the enclosing warmth of Raine’s borrowed hoodie. Static electricity crackled across our clothes.

The man fell silent with a strangled choke. His lips quivered and his pupils contracted to tiny black dots. His skin drained of all colour, dripping with sudden cold sweat. He shook, teeth chattering, and a puddle of steaming urine spread from under his robe.

A strange sick fear twisted in my chest, made me take a step backward where suddenly it lifted again; backwash from Evelyn’s spell. Raine sniffed and shook her head. Twil grunted and backed way up too, kicking at a zombie corpse on her way.

“Do you know my face?” Evelyn asked. The cultist nodded, numb and staring at Evelyn with awe born from pure terror. “Do you know my family name?” He nodded again. “Speak it.”

He couldn’t.

“Speak it or I will feed you to a demon.”

I caught Raine smirking in the corner of my eye. Was she laughing because that was a bluff, or was she taking pleasure in this unspeakable spectacle?

“Saye,” the cultist managed to choke out.

“Correct. How many of you are here? In the castle?”

“ … a … s-ssss-seven.”

“Is Alexander Lilburne here? Is he your leader?”

He nodded, jerky, desperate to please.

“More zombies?”

Another nod. Evelyn clenched her jaw with closely controlled anger.

“How many?”

He shook his head. Evelyn frowned, frustration plain, and suddenly the man babbled out nonsense words, non-words, baby-talk efforts to explain or excuse, to persuade this avatar of fear to pass over him. It made me feel vaguely sick. How many times had I felt that way, lost Outside before something utterly beyond me? He stared at Evelyn the way I might have stared at the Eye.

The man collapsed, forehead to the ground, prostrating himself in utter submission. Evelyn sighed and twisted her fingers against the thighbone again. The spell broke with an audible rush of warm air and discharge of static. The man scrambled to his feet, blinking rapidly. He’d lost control of the muscles in his face, as if he’d suffered a stroke, working his jaw and grimacing.

“I-I- what- what did you- you-” he stammered.

“My turn now?” Raine asked. She drew her knife and kept the handgun trained on him.

“Ugh,” Twil grunted.

“No, no! Fuck, no, okay!” The cultist held both hands out, warding us off. “You’ve won. You win. You win. I’m out, I’ll leave, I swear, I’ll leave.”

“First you’re going to tell me what this place is, what you degenerate fools have been doing here,” Evelyn said.

“I don’t know!” he said. “You think they tell me anything? I’m a goddamn drop-out, okay? I’m nobody important. I signed up for the money, and the Brotherhood- the Brothers, they taught me … stuff, stuff I don’t want to know. Look, I know they’ve been killing people, but it terrifies me too. I want out, okay? I mean, look,” he gestured at the unfinished magic circle, the splatter of white paint where he’d dropped the brush, next to bloody spittle where Raine had knocked him down. He tried to smile at us through his bloodied mouth. “They’ve got me doing the monkey work. I’m nobody.”

“Monkey work,” Evelyn echoed. “Constructing a circle of this scale.”

“Yeah. I-I don’t know how it works.”

“She hates liars, you know?” Raine grinned at him.

“Is there an exit up here?” Evelyn snapped. “A way out?”

“Yeah, a couple.” He nodded, smiling that broken smile again.

“Where? Be precise,” Evelyn snapped.

“That way,” he nodded. “There’s a Church at the intersection, it’s a door back to-”

The cultist raised one arm to point – and twisted his fingers one over the other, in a gesture that stung my eyes and burnt the air in the back of my throat. His words turned into a bark of inhuman language. Twil yelped, Evelyn winced.

The two decapitated zombie corpses jerked, as if trying to get to their feet.

For a split-second the young man’s face was no longer the sobbing, desperate drop-out, conned into a cult with promises of easy money; instead, raw dominance, victory, pleasure in inflicting pain. ‘Got you’ his eyes said.

Then Raine shot him in the head.

In movies and video games – the few violent video games I’ve watched Raine play – if a human gets shot in the head, their skull sort of pops or explodes, cartoon gore like a burst balloon. Reality is far less final, far less pyrotechnic. The crack of the gunshot was much softer than I’d imagined, but I flinched all the same. The cultist’s head jerked to the side, blood and brains spurting from a small exit wound. He flopped to the floor in a heap, twitched and jerked as ruined neurons fired at random, then lay still, blood pooling around his skull.

“Holy shit,” Twil said. She gaped at the body.

Raine blew out a long breath. She blinked at the gun in her hand and shrugged. “Did he think I was bluffing?”

“Maybe he thought it was a fake,” I offered, and found my voice very small and weak. I turned away and took several deep breaths, holding on tight to the borrowed crutch.

“Great,” Evelyn was saying. “Great.”

“Never had to actually pull the trigger before,” Raine said.

“Are you … okay?” I asked.

She flashed a grin, clicked the gun’s safety on, and tucked it back into her jacket. “Hundred percent. More concerned about you, wish you didn’t have to see that.”

I shrugged. “That’s not even the most violent thing I’ve watched you do.”

Raine grinned again, as if my words had been a compliment.

“Stop flirting,” Evelyn snapped. She was having Praem turn one of the dead zombies over, and pointed at it with her walking stick. “You know what this means? You know what this is?”

“A zombie?” I asked.

“Exactly.”

“Not as fun as the ones your mum used to make,” Raine said.

Evelyn shot Raine a death-glare. Twil laughed, thinking it was a joke, but then caught the look on Evelyn’s face.

“They’re fresh,” Evelyn said. “Probably no more than a few weeks old, not enough time to settle into the body. Can’t believe they’re using corpses for this. Sheer insanity. This is worse than anything we’ve found so far, worse than this bloody place,” she gestured around us with her eyes, at the fog and twisted buildings.

“Eh? Why? They went down easily enough,” said Twil.

“Yes, now they did. A couple more weeks, a month, two, and these amateurs will lose control of them. Real demon hosts. Not like Praem.” She jabbed the dead zombie with her walking stick. “we have to find them all, put them down.”

I was still staring at the emaciated zombie as Praem stood up and stepped back.

“They look like-” I said, then cut off and reconsidered. “They look like a pair of homeless people.”

“They probably were,” Evelyn grunted. “Nobody missed them. We find the zombies, put them down, and Raine shoots their maker in the back of the head. No questions.”

==

Up close, the castle was supremely ugly. From a distance the fog had encouraged an illusion of dark masonry set atop an unassailable peak, a fairytale fortress from one of my less comfortable daydreams. We halted at the foot of the hill, to the sight of a jagged crown of dead grey jade trying to approximate crenellations and towers, shot through with blackened veins like a body in the final stages of a disgusting exotic disease.

A pair of huge metal doors were set in the gatehouse, shining with condensation from the fog.

We waited at the foot of the hill as Evelyn sent one of the Praems on ahead. I held my breath as she probed for traps or hidden ambush, but nothing moved amid the thickly churning fog. Not a single person gazed down from the battlements or peeked out from the arrow slits.

A few stray blood splatters on the road surface offered the only colour in all the grey – Zheng’s path back to the castle?

Praem reached the huge stone doors and turned back to us. She waved a hand.

“What now?” Twil hissed.

“We go in,” Evelyn said, raising a questioning eyebrow at her. “What else would we do?”

“I dunno, dynamite the place?” Twil said. Evelyn barked a laugh of approval and said something else, but I barely heard the words.

The fog, thick as treacle, seemed to drape itself over the battlements in layers, obscuring details as it shifted and swirled. Greyed jade blended into the fog, making it hard to see where structure ended and sky began. I squinted into the murk as my friends began to debate our next step.

And I saw her.

A little elfin face, long blonde hair tugged by the fog, like seaweed underwater. A girl up on the castle battlements, staring out over the mile of false city, chewing on her nails.

A thicker bank of fog rolled over and hid her from view.

Cold sweat broke out down my back. My throat tightened and my chest constricted. A ringing sound throbbed in my ears. I felt myself take a step forward, then another, and another. Hands caught my arm, my waist, and voices said my name, but I pushed them away, pulse roaring in my head. I fumbled with the crutch as I pushed myself up toward the castle.

“Hello?” I shouted into the thick silence, raised my free hand, stared up at where I thought I’d seen the girl. “Hello?”

No reply. Raine caught up with me and took me by the shoulder.

“Heather? Heather, what is it? What’s wrong?”

I shook my head and almost growled. “Quiet.” I’d never felt so impatient in my life. Twil jogged up alongside us, peering off into the fog as if my voice had stirred up a nest of vipers.

A reply floated out of the fog at last, a call, my name. “Heather?”

Raine and Twil both jumped, stared up at the battlements with me. I started to hyperventilate.

None of this made the slightest bit of sense. “ … who … ” I managed to squeak. My head hurt, a dull ache like a tight tendon. “H-how … ”

“Heather, is that you?” the voice called again.

“Y-yes!” I cried out. “It’s … yes!”

A break in the fog, and there she was again, two dozens meters up and half cowering behind the crenellations. Our eyes met. The strange girl lit up in bright, manic relief. Her hair hung in a great fog-teased mass.

“Heather! You came!”

The two halves of my mind, awake and dreaming, bifurcated until now by the wall of sleep, crashed together. My own memories overwhelmed me. I almost forgot to breathe as I gaped up at her.

“Lozzie!” I managed to shout. A hysterical smile struggled onto my face, chased by a hiccup as I clutched my own throat.

She smiled wider – then screamed as she was yanked down below the battlements. The sound pierced the sky like needles, the horrible yelp of a small creature overpowered and immobilised.

“Lozzie!” I shouted again. “Lozzie!?”

More struggle, a thump, a second scream – distant now, muffled behind the walls. Another voice reached us through the fog, deep murmurs on the air. Then silence.

Dream-memories pummelled me. Raine spoke but I couldn’t hear a word, squeezing my eyes shut in a vain attempt at control. The memories were all there. They’d been there all along, on the other side of a conceptual leap I couldn’t possibly have made alone. The places she’d taken me in the dreams – the great winter castle, the desert, the library, a dozen others. Mars. She’d shown me the surface of Mars and I hadn’t remembered. We’d cried together, talked for hours, days, cuddled and held each other – were we friends, or more? A seed of guilt nagged in the base of my chest, but I crushed it down and ignored it for now. Bigger things to worry about.

I knew Lozzie, if only from dreams. And I knew better than anybody else alive that dreams could be completely real.

“I have to help her! We have to get in there.” I blurted out, clutching at Raine’s arm.

“I heard that name,” Evelyn added as she joined us, frowning at me. “That’s her? The girl from the cult’s bloody ritual? You knew all along?”

“The fuck does that matter?” Twil said. “I just saw some lass dragged off somewhere. Heather’s idea sounds good, yeah? Let’s go.”

“No, no,” I said. I dropped the crutch from shaking hands, barely able to get the words out. “In dreams- she’s been- I didn’t remember until I saw her- oh God, it’s been going on for weeks, weeks and weeks, she’s been right there, I-I … she’s like me. She’s like me.” I hiccupped, tried and failed to steady my breathing.

“Heather,” Raine said, crisp and clear as she grabbed my hands. “That girl, Lozzie, she’s your friend?”

“I don’t- I think … well-”

“Heather. She with you, or not?”

“Yes, yes she’s my friend.” I stammered but I got it out, nodding and holding on tight.

“And she’s the one who asked for help? She woke you up just before the zombie got you?”

“Yes! Yes, she did, it was her.”

Raine turned away without a moment’s hesitation. For the merest split-second I thought she was turning away from me in disgust and confusion – jealousy. A word caught in my throat. Pure projection.

“Right, we need those doors open. Right now.” Raine pointed at the massive metal front doors on the castle. “Twil, move your arse, see if you can shift them. Evee, get your other sex zombie up there too, in case Twil’s elbow grease isn’t enough.”

The guilt grew until I could have choked on it; Raine trusted me, fought for me, and didn’t even demand the full story. Lozzie was my friend, and my word was all Raine needed.

Twil picked up the borrowed crutch, handed it back to me, then ran for the doors.

“Raine, I-”

“Don’t worry, we’ll get to her,” Raine said. She scanned the top of the battlements, squeezed my hand, and took a step forward. “Come on, better not let Twil get too far ahead of us.”

“Okay, but Raine, I’m sorry.”

“For what?” She blinked at me, then grimaced over my shoulder – she’d seen Evelyn’s expression.

“What is this?” Evelyn hissed, staring at me. She was flanked by a Praem, neither of them moving a muscle to help Twil. I glanced over at the werewolf as she braced her shoulder against one of the metal doors.

“Evee,” Raine said, a soft warning.

“Don’t you ‘Evee’ me. What is going on here? Heather? Is this some kind of elaborate bait?”

“How could you even think that?” I blurted out, already on the edge of hysterical panic myself. “She’s been visiting my dreams for weeks and I didn’t even know. I couldn’t remember anything. She needs help, Evee! She asked me for help.”

Evelyn frowned all the harder. “She’s one of them. These fucking vermin in my city. These-”

A cry cut through the air, across Evelyn’s vitriol and the fog alike – my name from Lozzie’s throat.

“Heather! Heather!” Lozzie flung herself against the battlements overhead, half-visible in the mist, mouth bloodied and hair wild and eyes staring as she leaned over the edge. For a terrible moment, I thought she was about to jump. I moved on instinct, jerked forward before Raine caught me around the waist.

“No!” I said, panic in my heart.

Instead of pulling me back, Raine stepped in front.

“Do it, jump!” She called up to Lozzie. “We’ll catch you!”

“We’ll what?” Twil shouted, backpedaling from the castle doors.

“Evee.” Raine whipped around. “Come on, I need your plush demon for this. Get over here and help me or this girl’s gonna snap both her legs.”

Two dozen feet above, Lozzie’s face lit up. She clambered up onto the battlements and wet her lips. Evelyn hesitated.

“Evee, please!” I almost whined. Running footsteps echoed from inside the castle, a scrambling and a puffing of breath. Lozzie glanced back over her shoulder. Her bare toes peeked over the edge of the castle wall.

“I’m never leaving anyone behind,” Raine said, softly, meant for Evelyn alone. “You know that.”

“Bloody hell,” Evelyn snapped. She prodded Praem One with her walking stick, and our friendly pet demon leapt forward next to Raine. She looked up and spread her arms – it didn’t seem enough.

“Okay,” Raine shouted up to Lozzie again. She gave her a double thumbs-up. “You ready?”

“Y-yes!”

“Then ju-”

Lozzie squealed. A pair of strong arms wrapped around her waist and pulled her back down behind the battlements, followed by sounds of kicking and struggling. She screamed again, her frustration and despair wrenching at my heart. I think I called her name. Muttered, angry conversation floated down through the fog, then a loud slap of flesh on flesh and a pained yelp.

“Dammit,” Raine hissed. Twil bared her teeth and growled.

Four faces appeared up on the battlements. Lozzie, her arms held pinned behind her back by one beefy cream-robed cultist. The man had a squashed nose and thinning hair. Another, a young woman, blonde and blinking and fretting and staring, biting her lips hard enough to draw blood, frowned at us we if we were an invading army.

And Alexander Lilburne.

If looks could kill, we’d all have been struck dead. He stared at us like excrement found on his boot, utter disdain and disgusted contempt. He was in shirtsleeves, rolled up as if he’d come straight from some unexpected physical labour. His cheek twitched. I made myself stare up at him. Yes, that’s right, you slimy, disgusting thing, you tried to kidnap me and now we’re here to destroy your work. I reminded myself who I stood next to, all four of us – five if you count Praem – and the fear stayed manageable.

“That’s him,” I hissed. “That’s him.”

Now I understood why I thought I’d recognised him before. Side-by-side, him and Lozzie, the resemblance was plain. Brother and sister.

He raised his voice, loud and clear through the fog.

“You will leave this place.”

Twil gave him a double middle-finger. “Come down here and fight me one-on-one, you massive cunt,” she yelled. He curled his bottom lip in disgust, then opened his mouth again, and I remembered.

“He can do a thing with his voice,” I said quickly. “Evee, he can do a mind-thing with his voice-”

“You will leave,” Alexander called out again.

A tug in the forefront of my brain, sharper and more insistent than when he’d tried the same trick in that deserted Sharrowford coffee shop. Why didn’t we leave? Evelyn could collapse the place from outside, surely? We’d never rescue Lozzie now, it was hopeless. What would we do with her anyway? I-

No! I shook my head. Those were not my thoughts, that wasn’t me, it was him.

Raine blinked and winced. Please, no, don’t listen to it, not you too, Raine. Twil frowned down at the floor, as if seriously considering the command. Her clawed wolf-paws dissipated to reveal the pale human hands beneath.

I spluttered. “No, we have to-”

“Is that all?” Evelyn barked with laughter.

Her resistance broke the spell. Raine snapped to, took a deep breath. Twil shook herself like a wet dog, angry and confused but catching up fast. I felt the tugging lift from my mind. Alexander’s expression soured even further.

“I’ve been compelled by worse than you,” Evelyn shouted up at him, and I swear I saw Lozzie smile at that, under her curtain of hair. “I’ve out-thought demons in my own head. You, Alexander, if that’s even your real name, I am going to feed you to my pets.”

“Oh, don’t be such an utter bore,” Alexander drawled. “I have never been much for all these amateur dramatics, certainly not from a failure and a cripple. Leaving would be for your own good, at least then you would live out the remainder of the year. Or perhaps you want to become a martyr, perhaps-”

Suddenly Lozzie jerked against the man holding her, kicked and pulled and thrashed. She almost made it, almost broke free, straining for the edge of the battlements to throw herself over. Alexander turned and struck her across the face, almost as an afterthought, and the big cultist held her head down against the wall to pin her in place.

“Stop it!” I called out.

Alexander whispered to Lozzie, quiet and close, and the words made her shrink away, retreat back down inside herself.

“Can’t you shoot him?” I hissed to Raine.

“Not confident at this range,” she muttered without taking her eyes off him. “I might hit her instead.”

Alexander straightened up from his sister. As he did, I took a step forward, suddenly resolved, a feeling of desperate, unfamiliar strength in my heart.

“Give me your sister and we’ll leave,” I shouted.

Alexander met my eyes. His expression shifted and a shiver crawled up my spine. Wrong tactic, Heather, utterly wrong. All his irritation and anger seemed to drain away as he raised his eyebrows and ran his hands over his hair, as if to check every strand was in place. He raised his chin and the ghost of a smile played across that shiny, clean-shaven face.

“Lavinia wishes to make a deal? How interesting,” he said, and turned to Lozzie. “How do you know Lavinia, dear sister? When, in all the permutations of time and reality, could you possibly have shared each other’s company? Hmm?” He leaned down close to his sister and cupped her chin in one hand. “How curious.”

“Oh shit,” Raine hissed.

“Lozzie!” I called out. “Why can’t you- jump out, teleport, like we-”

“I can’t!” she wailed. “We can’t leave from here! I’m stuck!”

That’s why the brain-math hadn’t worked on Zheng. No route to Outside from here. A pocket, cut off from reality. This non-place, this shadow city, there was only one way back out – to Sharrowford itself. I could do that math, I’d done in once before in the Willow House loop, but could Lozzie do it? Did she know how?

“Then back to the city!” I called, gripped by panic as Alexander turned back to us with a satisfied look. He muttered something to the two cultists and they began to drag Lozzie away, back down into the castle. The woman hissed something in Lozzie’s ear.

“Heather!” she called out.

“Lozzie, no- you-”

“We’ll come get you! Hold on.” Raine called louder and clearer than I ever could, as the cultists and Lozzie vanished down into the castle. The young woman returned with a clatter of feet to spit at us over the castle wall, then disappeared again.

“I do believe I’ve changed my mind about your little visit,” Alexander said. He took a deep breath and leaned forward, his hands on the edge of the castle wall. “After all, Lavinia was supposed to join us tonight. This merely opens up further opportunities, all far more interesting. Dear dear, I will have to hear all the details in due time, yes, I will know how you damaged our … valuable asset, shall we say?”

“Your big zombie?” Raine called. “Next time Heather’ll knock her head off.”

Alexander spared Raine the briefest of glances before returning his attention to Evelyn. “In fact, I should be thanking you, Saye, shouldn’t I? Now I can both remove an irritant and gain a valuable addition to our stock in the same stroke. But that is mere logistics. The opportunity between you and I is far greater, isn’t it, Saye? Here we are,” he spread his arms out to indicate the entire fog-soaked pocket dimension. “Not an uninformed soul in sight, with all our powers at our command, all our little monsters and grand techniques. I have so ached for a real duel with another as skilled as I, even if it will be a little disappointing to match wits with such a … ” Alexander allowed his smile to broaden. “Reduced shell of a person.”

“You’re not worth my time,” Evelyn said, flat and unimpressed. She ran her fingers across the scrimshawed thighbone as she raised the ugly thing out in front of her. Raine tensed, and I sensed she was ready to grab me and haul me out of the way.

Alexander held out one hand.

“Ah, wait, do wait. Indulge me?”

Evelyn paused.

“You will not win this one, Saye. In the spirit of good sportsmanship, I am going to give you a free shot.” He held up a finger, still smiling. “You have one completely open attempt on my life, right here. After all, I am a grown man, and you are a cripple of a girl. It would hardly be fair of me to overpower you without giving you at least a sporting chance, a real opening to win.”

“I could scale the wall,” Twil said. “Take me a minute or two. Rip his head off and have done with it.”

“One shot, Saye. I promise, I will not defend myself,” Alexander said. He smiled that maddening smile, so reasonable and self-assured.

Evelyn, to my surprise, turned to Raine.

“Well? Why have you been carrying that thing around all these years?” she hissed.

“Me?” Raine asked.

“Yes you. This,” she hefted the thighbone, keeping her voice low, “may as well be useless. A thousand pounds says he’s protected. You do it.”

“Confer all you want,” Alexander called out. “It will not help you to victory, you-”

In one single fluid motion, Raine drew her handgun, clicked the safety off, and shot Alexander through the chest. The crack of the bullet echoed out across the fog.

Alexander blinked in surprise. He looked down.

A patch of crimson spread across his shirt from a little dark entry wound. My heart leapt – and then my throat began to close up. Alexander shook his head slowly, sighed with indulgent amusement, then smiled at us and wagged one finger.

Tut tut.

“My turn now, young lady.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

the other side of nowhere – 4.1

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

“At least he’s dressed the part,” said Raine, as she examined the dead man.

She lifted a flap of torn robe with her truncheon, trying to find his pockets. Twil wrinkled her nose in disgust. Evelyn was forcing herself to watch, going pale and green, knuckles tight on her walking stick.

We were only a few meters inside the gate, into the hollowed-out un-space behind Sharrowford. I wasn’t sure how to picture it. A loop, a shadow city, a pocket dimension? I fiddled with the ball of string and adjusted my weight on the crutch, to distract myself from what Raine was doing. Praem – in her two identical bodies – stood on point a little way down the shiny brown hallway, untouched by the spectacle of gore. Beyond her stood a pair of large double-doors. Little windows in their top halves showed dense grey fog beyond.

The air smelled awful – blood and excrement.

I hope most people will never have to see a corpse quite like this one. Whoever the cultist had been – a middle aged man with a comfortable paunch and a big nose – now he was pulped meat. I couldn’t look without feeling a sick catch in my stomach and clammy sweat on my back. Zheng had shattered his head, smeared brain jelly up the wall, and ripped his belly open. Snakes of ruined intestine and unspeakable fluids lay over his lap and thighs, in a smaller puddle of filth amid the crimson mess.

“What is that supposed to mean?” Evelyn asked, and swallowed loudly.

“Something Heather mentioned a while back,” Raine said. “Bloke looks like a proper cultist, doesn’t he? Robes, shiny dome head, nothing to identify him by. Except all the guts hanging out.”

“Ugh.” Twil straightened up, holding her nose. “Dunno about you lot, but he reeks. Can’t we get on? What are you even doing?”

“Looking for clues.” Raine said, still poking and prodding at the corpse. “Investigating, you know?”

“The zombie did it,” I deadpanned.

“Ahhh yes, but did she knock his head off first and then pull his guts out, or the other way around?” I saw Raine grin in the corner of my eye. Nobody laughed.

Evelyn closed her eyes and looked away, breathing carefully through her mouth. I reached over and took her hand, gave it a squeeze.

“I don’t like it either,” I whispered.

“Ah ha!” Raine shouted. She stood up and held out a wallet and keys, thankfully not soaked in the dead man’s blood. She flopped the wallet open and rifled through the cards. ““Credit cards, debit cards, junk, junk.”

“Are you robbing a dead man?” said Twil.

“Bingo.” Raine grinned and presented a card to Evelyn. “Driver’s license.”

Evelyn lit up and peered at the card. “Len Greyson,” she read out loud. “Could be fake.”

Raine shrugged and thumbed at the corpse. “Not as if we can match it to his face anymore.” She jingled the bunch of keys. “But we might find his car somewhere.”

“I knew it, you are robbing a dead man,” Twil said.

“A lead?” I asked.

Evelyn nodded slowly. “Maybe. If it’s real, this man had a real life out there in Sharrowford, not completely absorbed in the cult yet. Amateurs.”

“We all good? Right? Then let’s keep moving.” Raine slipped the loot into her jacket, for safe keeping. “Evee, keep your cuddledolls up front, don’t get too far ahead of us.” She stepped away from the corpse – a sad sack of forgotten meat now – and walked over to squeeze my shoulder. Evelyn rolled her eyes and sighed at the ‘cuddledolls’ remark, but she kept her peace and turned to direct Praem forward again. I couldn’t resist one last glance at the dead body, another nightmare I couldn’t ignore.

“Is that how they’re all going to end up?” I heard myself say. All three of my companions looked at me, but in that moment I had eyes only for Evelyn.

“If Zheng gets to them before us, certainly,” she said.

“No, I mean are you going to kill these people?”

Evelyn hesitated, then shrugged. “I don’t know. Not all of them. That Alexander fellow, absolutely, if he’s in here. The rest of them … cults generally don’t grow very big. I’d guess there’s maybe a dozen, all weak-willed, conned, or desperate. I … ” She frowned. “We can put the fear of God into them, make them shit themselves and leave. Get to the centre of their stupid little fortress, find out what they’ve been doing, and then collapse the entire pocket dimension on the way back out.”

“What if they won’t leave?” I asked.

Raine cleared her throat. “That’s what I’m for, yeah?” A shiver passed up my spine.

“Me too,” Twil said, almost a whine in her voice. Evelyn sighed and shot her a sidelong look.

“You’ve never killed a person,” she said. “You’re here for shock and awe.”

Twil opened her mouth to complain, then halted. “Shock and awe?” She grinned. “Cool.”

Zheng’s wound had left us a trail of blood. We followed it to the end of the corridor, the Praems up front and Raine and I in the rear. Strange to see Praem One and Two together in the same place, identical twins with their ice-blue hair and frost-touched skin, dressed in the same huge army boots on their feet below loose skirts and ribbed jumpers. I had to remind myself ‘they’ were in fact one being in two bodies, moving and acting independently.

Praem One eased the double-doors open. She peered into the fog beyond, then turned back to us.

I knew Praem was capable of facial expression – she’d smiled that empty smile at me once before – but I had no idea she could communicate anything more subtle, until I saw the hint of apprehension behind that impassive face.

“Oh dear?” I said out loud.

“Oh. Dear,” Praem One echoed me in her ice-wind voice.

“What? What is it?” Evelyn demanded, frowning sharply at her bound demon. Praem merely opened the door wider, fog swirling beyond. Her other body stepped through first. Twil followed but paused on the threshold, wary, shoulders hunched. Evelyn swept past her. Raine seemed unconcerned, except at my shivering, which prompted a reassuring murmur and a hand at my back.

A chasm waited for us.

The door opened onto a broad walkway, made of stone and concrete and linoleum and wood and a dozen other patchwork materials, lined by a parapet wall made of the same jumble. Stairs descended and rose, overlapping, twisting, winding up and away in uncontrolled spirals, climbing up the sheer concrete face that we’d emerged from, to join other walkways. Several of the stairs and walkways were upside down. The wall seemed to both climb and drop forever, an endless cliff-face with top and bottom shrouded in dense grey fog.

Another wall faced us across a hundred feet of yawning chasm, filled with sluggish fog like rotting treacle. Pale light lit the fog from within, casting an unreal glow over Evelyn’s face as she frowned at the vast open space.

Zheng’s trail of blood led across a bridge – the only bridge – over the chasm.

“Huh,” Raine grunted. “That looks like the Sawwell Bridge.”

“Another copied piece of the real Sharrowford, yes,” Evelyn muttered, shaking her head. “This is … a little larger than I was expecting.”

Twil leaned over the parapet and spat a glob of saliva. It vanished into the sucking fog.

“It’s a moat,” I said.

“A moat?” Evelyn squinted at me.

“This is the cult’s fortress, castle, whatever, yes?” I said. “Then this must be a sort of moat. A last perimeter.”

Evelyn shook her head, eyes tight and watchful. Her maimed left hand tapped at the scrimshawed thigh bone, then she used it to point at the trail of blood.

“If the cult lost control of their zombie, she’ll be heading back to get revenge on them. If they didn’t, she’ll be retreating for repairs. She’ll lead us right to them.”

“A hunt,” Twil growled. She sniffed the air. “At least her blood’s normal.”

I let the ball of string play out as we crossed the bridge, our footsteps dull and muffled in the fog.

Sticky with dried night-sweat, tired and aching from the aftermath of frenzied self-defence, I knew I should have been ready to collapse, should have desired nothing more than to curl up and go to sleep. Raine hovered by my elbow, ready to catch me when I stumbled or sagged against the crutch, but I felt somehow stronger than I should have done.

I told myself I was strengthened by the sense of purpose, or the companionship of my friends, or maybe I felt better because I’d already passed out once, like purging rotten food from my belly.

Purpose, yes, that must be why. I was on my feet and moving forward because of the need to know, because of lost time like the absence of a tooth, a wet bleeding socket I couldn’t help but probe; because somebody had helped me, and I needed to return that trust and support and love.

Love? Where had that thought come from?

I turned my mind away from the other possibly: that I was simply becoming inured the reality-breaking contusions of the Eye’s brain-math.

I was getting used to this.

The trail of blood entered a wide doorway on the other side of the bridge. We crept through in distant pursuit.

Endless corridors and numberless crossroads wormed through this un-place; I gave up counting after the first dozen twists and turns. Each hallway was made of a different material – breeze block, wood, cement, brick, metal – each copied from a different building, schools, hospitals, office blocks, homes. Scratchy carpets transitioned into squeaky plastic supermarket floors, melted together at the edges. Wooden office block side-doors were replaced with metal prison hatches, then hospital swing-doors, then another, and another, and another, on and on, in an endless swirl of stolen architecture. None of the side doors opened. We barely spoke.

Fog filled the labyrinth, thick and still, creeping into my lungs and clothes and hair, cold and heavy. The dull light washed colour from our faces. The Praems looked almost drained, white phantoms in the mist. Twil seemed a beast from some feral fairytale, even if she refrained from full transformation. The fog made her movements appear slow and predatory. Evelyn’s face looked pinched and tight. Raine whistled, loudly.

We all stopped together when we found the paradox.

The string I’d been laying out behind us was now in front of us, running from left to right across a crossroad junction, each end vanishing into the fog. Zheng’s trail of blood – thinner now, a few wet droplets every few feet – crossed the string.

“Great” Evelyn muttered.

“Wait wait wait,” Twil said, her voice hushed in the fog. She glanced back over her shoulder. “We’ve doubled back? How did we get turned around?”

“Don’t think about it too hard. You’ll hurt yourself,” Evelyn grunted.

“Hey!”

“She’s serious,” I said. Raine nodded too as I swallowed and continued. “These places don’t conform to the physical laws we’re used to, and I don’t want to think about it too closely either. Unless you have a sick bag to hand.”

Twil puffed out a long sigh. “What do we do then?”

“Heather?” said Raine.

“You’re asking me?”

Raine grinned. “I’m in charge, but you’re the expert.”

Evelyn opened her mouth to protest. “She’s hardly-”

“I can unravel this place, if I have to.” I swallowed again. “I don’t want to, because it’ll hurt and I’ll probably pass out again, but we’re not stuck. I say we keep going, find the zombie.”

Evelyn nodded approval. Raine smiled a resigned smile at me.

We found the body of the second cultist. He’d been attacked from behind, shoved to the ground, his spine snapped and bowels dragged out, left in a huge puddle of his own blood amid the heavy fog. Zheng’s own thinning blood trail, beyond the corpse, was now joined by sticky red bootprints, her stride erratic and wavering.

I leaned against a wall and closed my eyes and thought about bed and books, as Raine repeated her ghoulish performance and extracted another wallet without getting her hands dirty. No car keys this time.

“That’s what he gets for trying to kidnap my girl,” Raine said. Nobody laughed. “Heather, how much line we got left before we’re out?”

I gathered myself, blinked down at the much reduced ball of string. “I can’t tell. Thirty feet, perhaps? Twenty?”

“Right, we get to the end of the string and then we turn back. I think this was probably meant to be some kind of trap, but Heather disarmed it when she fought off the zombie. I doubt it goes anywhere now, and-”

Thump.

We all jumped, except for Praem. My heart leapt into my throat. The impact, dull and heavy, echoed from deeper in the fog, distorted by the twists and turns of the labyrinth. Evelyn drew the scrimshawed thighbone from under her arm and placed her fingers at several precise points on the design. I felt tension flow through Raine next to me, as she rolled her shoulders. I was suddenly and horribly aware how vulnerable we were, blinded both in front and behind by the slowly swirling fog. I clutched the crutch and felt myself shrink behind Raine.

Thump.

No closer than the first time.

Thump.

We all looked at each other. Raine held up fingers and counted in silence – one, two, three, four, thump. She repeated the count and got the same result, about five seconds between each impact.

Twil bared her teeth. Raine shrugged.

Evelyn ordered Praem to go first. Along Zheng’s bloody bootprints, around one corner, following the dull thumping sound. I hesitated as the string finally ran out, and let the ragged end fall from my fingers. Raine reached down and took my hand instead. We followed around another corner into a corridor of bare breeze block and plasterboard.

Mist breaking around her over sized body, facing the wall about twenty feet from us, stood Zheng.

With painstaking slowness, the zombie pulled her head back and banged it against the wall, hard. Thump. A thin trickle of blood seeped from her forehead, staining the concrete.

Blood soaked the trench coat all down her left side, dripping onto the floor from the ragged mess of her shoulder. She held her own severed left arm in her right hand, by the wrist. Slim tentacles of skinless bleeding muscle had sprouted from the stump and her shoulder, waving in the air and questing toward each other like a mass of blind snakes.

Her hood had fallen down and the concealing scarf had twisted away from her face, to reveal unhealthy pale skin, strangely delicate features, and a slender jaw. She didn’t seem to notice us at all, paid no attention when Praem One and Two drew to a halt at a safe distance, didn’t react to Twil’s warning growl, or Evelyn’s sharp intake of breath, or my choked gasp as the sight of her brought back an uncontrollable physical reaction. My heart slammed against my ribs.

Not fear alone; an unfamiliar sensation, thick and sweet, like drugged and rotten honey in my belly. I stared at the ruin of her wounds, the severed arm, the blood.

I’d done that.

Shoving a man Outside had been undoubtedly fatal, but had left no visceral evidence, no blood-soaked proof. This monster, barely human despite the deceptive form of her body, so terrifying I’d almost wet myself when she’d come after me, I’d torn her arm off. With a thought.

Was this was power felt like? I felt a little sick.

“Shit,” Evelyn hissed.

“What? What?” Twil grunted, looking to her for help. “What the hell is she doing?”

“Self-repair. Malfunction. Probably trying to get out of that body,” Evelyn replied in a whisper, eyes glued to the zombie’s great, swaying form as she banged her head on the wall once more.

“She’s not safe, I’m guessing?” Raine muttered.

“Absolutely not,” Evelyn hissed back. She raised the carved thighbone in one hand, her fingers twisting into position. “Here, I might be able to-”

Zheng lurched away from the wall. Twil bared her teeth and let out a growl. Raine slid in front of me, nightstick in one hand, that knife suddenly in the other. The Praems closed up around their mistress as Evelyn shrank back.

Zheng sagged, knees bent and back askew, head lolling. She thrust her severed arm up into the air, the stump-tentacles struggling toward each other, slapping and twisting around their counterparts. Her face was speckled with blood, dark hair matted and greasy. She reared back and I caught a flash of her eyes – hard and dead.

Then she whirled, so unsteady she almost toppled over, and hurled herself down the corridor.

We gave chase, my legs aching and Twil in the lead and Evelyn wincing, half-trotting half-running down one corridor, following the receding footsteps, then down another, then one last turning. Twil skidded to a halt and swore loudly. Raine burst out laughing.

A blank wall.

The trail of bloody footprints cut off, as if the wall had slid into place only a second ago. Zheng was nowhere to be seen. Only fog and bricks. Twil pressed a hand against the wall and shoved.

“Don’t touch it!” Evelyn snapped. She yanked Twil back by one shoulder, the werewolf blinking in surprise and almost overbalancing. Evelyn tutted and sent one of the Praems to run her hands over the wall. She scowled when the investigation proved fruitless. “Solid wall. Nothing.”

“This is so definitely a trap,” Twil said. “We are extra-level lost now.”

“No we’re not,” said Raine, radiating calm confidence. “That zombie was proper messed up, that was no trick. Let’s retrace our steps.”

We couldn’t.

We couldn’t find the spot where Zheng had been bashing her own brains out against the wall, or the dead cultist and the bloody bootprints, or the end of the string I’d dropped. It was all gone, turned around behind a blind corner or an invisible angle between the walls. We walked empty fog-soaked corridors in tense silence, until Raine called out, “Hold up.”

I should have felt lost and afraid, but I’d done this so many times before, alone in the dark on some alien plane of reality. Now, I wasn’t alone. We had each other. I took a deep breath and started thinking.

Now do you agree we’re fucking lost?” said Twil, rounding on Raine. She swallowed, eyes edged with panic.

“Possibly,” Evelyn murmured.

“It’s this place,” I said.

“Maybe this doesn’t lead anywhere,” Raine mused. “Maybe it’s just a labyrinth.”

“And we’re stuck in it!” Twil almost shouted.

“Woah, Twil, easy,” said Raine. “Last time I checked you’re meant to be a big scary werewolf. You’ve got the least to be worried about here.”

“I don’t like being lost,” Twil said through gritted teeth. “There’s nothing to follow. I can’t smell anything in here, it’s all just fog. The blood was the only trail, and now she’s gone. Fuck this. I don’t mind fighting monsters, but this is messing with my head. I want out.”

“We go on,” Evelyn said, loud and clear. “We have to find a way through. I’m not throwing this chance away.”

“How?” Twil spread her arms. “We’re lost.”

“I can do it,” I said. “I can get us out, lead us to an exit. I think. This place must run on certain mathematical principles, like the loop we got trapped in. It’ll have to conform to certain rules, even if those rules aren’t … human, or sane, or easily grasped. I’d like to try.”

“Out the way we came, right?” Twil asked.

“ … no, Twil. There’s somebody I need to help.”

Twil grit her teeth and looked away.

“You sure?” Raine asked.

I shrugged, sighed, a wave of exasperation passing through me. “What other choice do we have? Twil’s right. We’re lost.”

“You need me to hold you up?”

“If I fall down.”

Raine pulled me into a hug to help calm my nerves; I needed the contact, the moment of warmth amid the strange fog and endless corridors. I knew I could do this, grasp the principles long enough to envision how this place worked, but first I had to dredge the math from the silt-pit of my soul. The correct set of equations, the relevant lesson.

Raine rubbed my back as I closed my eyes. I couldn’t shuffle through the Eye’s lessons directly, even if I wanted to. Too many of them lay locked behind nightmare memory, repressed by terror and pain, a sure route to vomiting and passing out.

Instead, I worked backward: I thought about mazes.

The string we’d impossibly crossed, the blank wall Zheng had vanished into, our inability to retrace our steps; how to achieve those results, using more than three dimensions of space? Not a loop. A maze. In which one could take a right and a left and another right yet end up in the same spot, or take three rights and find oneself on a different path.

“Not random,” I muttered out loud. “It’s not random.”

A trickle of pain leaked in behind my eyes; I winced and gasped, then hacked and coughed and felt myself choke on the revelation. The crutch under my arm slipped. Raine caught me, her voice in my ears, pulling me away from the edge, away from the filthy, dripping levers of reality.

“Heather? Heather, it’s okay, breathe, take a deep breath.”

“A-” I coughed and blinked my eyes open to find I’d hunched up against the wall, Raine supporting me. “A conch shell. A spiral, a double spiral. It’s like a-” I winced again and felt my stomach turn in rebellion.

“A shell?” Evelyn asked.

I nodded. We spent several precious minutes waiting for me to recover, as I tried extremely hard not to think about what I’d just figured out. Eventually I could stand unaided again, though I stayed glued to Raine’s side.

“It’s a sort of spiral, with only two ways in and out. I think I know how to get to the other exit.” I hiccuped and almost laughed. “I-It’s sort of silly really, you just … ” I waved a finger back down the corridor; human words could not express the concept. Breath caught oddly in my throat.

“Heather, hey.” Raine squeezed my hand. Brought me back.

“Okay, okay.” I nodded. “I can- okay. I’m here.”

The trick was unthinkable – literally, none of us would have ever figured it out. We wandered until we found a four-way junction, a crossroads amid the claustrophobia. I directed us, voice steady as I concentrated on instructions, rather than risk contemplating what we were doing. Twil’s frowning confusion helped, the way she cocked an eyebrow at me in the middle of my seemingly ridiculous directions. I managed a smile. She was so pretty. I focused on that. Pretty girl in the mist. Don’t think about the spiral.

We went left from the crossroads, then back to it and left again, then back and left again – and found it was a different crossroads. Back and left, back and left – now the crossroads were a T-junction. Back and left, back and left.

The fog peeled away as we retraced our steps one last time. A straight corridor, no junction.

Stairs, leading up.

“Bugger me, that actually worked,” Twil blurted out. She laughed. Raine grinned and ruffled my hair.

“You’re a goddamn genius, Heather.”

“I’m exhausted, that’s what I am,” I grumbled. My head ached and my stomach felt tender. I knew Raine had painkillers in her jacket, but it was too soon for me to take more of them. I felt no sense of victory, not yet.

“Thank you,” Evelyn said, nodded to me once, then directed Praem up the stairs.

Up through the thinning fog, the soles of our shoes squeaked and scuffed against the vinyl steps. A fresh-air chill touched my face and hands, crept down the collar of the borrowed hoodie, the leeching cold of open spaces. A pair of huge oak doors, copied from a cathedral, lay wide open at the top of the stairs, showing pale grey beyond.

“That doesn’t look like sky,” Twil said.

“I … I don’t know. Maybe … ” Evelyn muttered.

Praem went first, one soul in two bodies. Nothing attacked her or made the slightest sound. One Praem stuck a hand back through the doors – safe, come on up. We ascended into open air, fog, and cold, on a sort of hilltop.

“Oh dear,” one of Praem’s bodies said.

Raine seemed least affected the by sight – other than Praem – but even she managed only a shake of her head. Twil stared, open-mouthed, but it was Evelyn’s reaction which set my my heart hammering, after I managed to look away myself. She was stunned and lost, no wiser than the rest of us.

Spread out below us in fog-wrapped murk lay an entire mile of copied Sharrowford.

Buildings and streets, road signs and pavements, every surface jagged and distorted, warped by alien pressures. It was all built with what looked like tainted jade, dark green stone shot through with creeping layers of rotten black and ashen grey. The circular mile of city was encircled by deeper, denser fog which spread away in every direction forever, horizon lost and blurred. Empty streets, dead streets; no cars, no people, no trees, no sound. Nothing grew here. The ground beneath our feet was dry grey earth.

Terrible forms hung and drifted in the fog-drenched sky, half-glimpsed shadowy jellyfish balloons trailing tentacles thick as train carriages, floating whales encrusted with gargantuan barnacles. Not spirits; I wasn’t the only one who stared up at them. Several darker globes further out were perhaps moons, or planets low in the sky, all obscured by the endless fog.

We had emerged from a copied cathedral front wrought from rotten jade, on a low hill at one edge of the bizarre mock-Sharrowford. Another hill reared up from the centre of that fog-ringed urban slice, and on it sat the only building not copied from the city.

A castle.

Built from that same tainted stone, but more grey than green, like a living thing that had died and ossified, with crenellations and arrow-slits and even a couple of towers, it seemed to float above the fog as the mist parted and swirled around the hill.

“Are we-” I swallowed on a dry throat. “Are we Outside?”

“Outside what? Sanity?” Twil whispered. She needn’t have bothered, the fog swallowed our voices.

Raine rummaged for her phone, showed us the full signal bars. “Still connected, still in Sharrowford. We ain’t Outside. This is another one of their pocket dimensions.”

“Evee?” I said. “Not what you expected? Evee?”

Evelyn opened her mouth and said nothing, shaking her head, staring at the dark fairytale castle.

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