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.”
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.
“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?”
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 into 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, flint-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?”
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?”
“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.
“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?”
“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.”
“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.”