and less pleasant places – 6.9

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That voice was an awful thing – because it still sounded like Lozzie.

Even muffled through the thick wood of the front door, it was a noise from the pit, a discordant mockery of human speech that set the little hairs standing up on the back of one’s neck. Like hearing a foreign language for the first time, the brain stumbled to render raw vocalisation into comprehensible words. The sounds were all wrong.

The inflection, the cadence, the timbre – wrong, wrong, wrong. Not merely not-Lozzie or not-human, but not even biological. A hissing of breath over dessicated meat, the crackle of static, rusted metal on cracked stone.

My brain refused to accept that I’d heard actual words. I broke out in a cold sweat. Kimberly’s hand tightened on my arm like a vice.

“Not by the hair on my chinny-chin-chin,” Raine called back.

For a confused, horrified moment I had no idea why she’d said that. The words made no sense. Had my language processing centre been corrupted by that terrible voice? Was Raine losing her mind, too close to that thing on the other side of the front door?

Three little piggies.

I blinked, came back to myself. The three little pigs, of course – though there were four of us in here – and the wolf at the door. Lozzie’s sense of humour.

Raine had talked back to that voice. Her eyes glued to the door, handgun held steady, muscles whipcord-tight. I could barely squeeze a breath down my constricted windpipe, but Raine had talked back.

What was the next step?

I’ll huff and I’ll puff, and blow your house down.

“Don’t open the door,” I hissed. I clutched the blanket tighter around my shoulders.

“Ain’t gotta tell me that,” Raine murmured.

A second passed, two seconds. Next to me, Kimberly trembled like a sapling in a storm. “Heather, w-we should … we should hide,” she whispered, but I was rooted to the spot.

Was it really Lozzie out there? I couldn’t imagine that voice issuing from her throat, it was unthinkable, even possessed by a demon from Outside. My skin crawled at the thought of that thing getting inside the house. A bone-deep panic settled into my marrow as I realised what was happening, as I realised what I was truly afraid of.

The cult didn’t know that Evelyn was unconscious and Praem was gone and Twil had run off – the Eye did.

Or at least, its servants did, between the graffiti and Alexander’s corpse. And now this thing pretending to be Lozzie had come for me.

“Lozzie,” I heard myself say out loud, calling to her. Where I found the courage, I had no idea. “Lozzie, please … please don’t come in … please … ”

No reply.

Three seconds. Five. Ten.

“That all you got? No comeback?” Raine called out again – and received no reply. She crept up to the door on silent feet, gun still pointed at approximately where Lozzie’s head would be on the other side.

“Raine!” I hissed. “Don’t-”

“Shhhh,” she hushed me. I bit my lips, tried to convince myself that Raine knew what she was doing. She pressed her ear against the door, then backed away again. “Nothing.”

“Y-you can’t hear her breathing?” Kimberly stammered.

“Nothing,” Raine repeated. Reluctantly, she glanced over her shoulder, at Kimberly and I. “Kim, I need you to do me a favour, quickly. Go-”

“Me?” Kimberly’s face looked like that of a condemned woman. “I-I’m not going out there, I’m not, I can’t, I-”

“Go upstairs. The corridor.” Raine said, clear and firm. “Second window on the right has a view down to the doorstep. Call out what you see.”

“I-I-”

“If I know what’s there I can shoot it through the wood,” Raine said, in the same tone one might discuss assembling furniture. “I need a spotter. Upstairs, now.”

“Raine, no!” I hissed. “You can’t-”

“Okay, okay, I’m going.” Kimberly scrambled away from me and up the stairs, unsteady on her feet but doing as she’d been asked. I stared at Raine in mounting horror, shaking my head, trying to form words.

“You can’t, Raine, you-”

“It got her to go upstairs,” Raine whispered. “Besides, that ain’t Lozzie out there. No way.”

Kimberly’s footsteps stumbled and hurried across the upstairs floorboards, then stopped. A horrible two seconds of silence.

“Kim?” Raine called.

“There’s nothing there!” Kimberly’s frightened voice called back. “S-she’s gone.”

“The back door!” I hissed.

“It’s locked,” Raine said. Her eyes roved over the house, seeing the walls beyond the room as she calculated. “Windows too. I made sure after Evee passed out. Plus, the house is warded. This is a fortress, it can’t get in.”

Cold realisation clutched at my guts. “ … I could.”

Raine raised an eyebrow.

“Don’t you remember? When I saved Evee? I could get into the house. Go around the door, around the walls, come in from Outside.”

Raine paused, assimilating this new vector of threat in a split-second. She crossed the front room to my side, eyes flicking between the doors to the kitchen and the disused sitting room and up the stairs, gun still in both hands. “Kim, get back down here,” she called, then turned to me, a bad attempt at an easy smile on her lips. “We need to stay with Evee, all together in one place. This thing comes for us, we’ll be-”

“It wants me, Raine. It’s from the Eye.” I couldn’t stop shivering. She grabbed my shoulder and squeezed – stable, firm, so confident, whatever situation we found ourselves in. I wish I could feel such courage.

“It’s not getting you,” she said, then turned and raised her voice. “You hear that, out there? You can fuck right off back where you came from, she’s mine!”

“W-what?” Kimberly clattered halfway down the stairs, blinking at us.

“Talking to the nasty, never mind. New plan, Kim, we’re all going back to wait with Evee while I make a couple of phone calls. I think we’re safe inside the house, for now, but we need-”

Heather?

My name in that thing’s mouth.

It stepped out of the corner of the room, as if it had been standing there the whole time.

In an instant, I understood why Kimberly had hidden in her flat for a week after this thing had visited her. Uncontrollable revulsion took me, every muscle responding on a pure animal level. I must have backed away, because I recall my shoulders bumping against the wall. Raine span and pointed her gun, but even she took several involuntary steps of disgusted retreat. Kimberly screamed and tripped over her own feet as she scrambled back up the stairs.

Stack had told the truth – this thing was not Lozzie. It could not be. I refused to believe such violation was possible. The alternative was to go mad with horror for my friend.

Perhaps if you’d only ever met Lozzie a few times, distracted and pressured by the Sharrowford Cult and the nightmare of your own life, perhaps if you were terrified out of your mind and alone and scared, and unwilling to examine her too closely. Perhaps if you’d only ever seen Lozzie in her wretched, abused state, rather than the bright, energetic girl I’d known in the dreams. Perhaps then, you might mistake this mockery for the real thing.

The Lozzie-thing walked toward me, limbs jerking and muscles pulling as if connected to a puppeteer’s strings. The mouth – a slash in a plastic bag pretending to be a face – pulled and twitched into an alien approximation of a smile.

Heather,” it repeated.

Skin and face like plastic, without a single blemish or pore, bunching as it moved. The hair long and straight and limp, nothing like Lozzie’s wild tail of floating gold. The clothes – jeans, tight shoes, a tshirt – moved as if extruded from the skin beneath, not fabric at all, and failed to conceal the flawed operation of the lungs in the chest. The eyes, empty and dead, pointed at me but contained nothing inside.

It was so deep in the uncanny valley, it should have flown apart or fallen down under the conditions of our reality. To breathe the air it exhaled was to risk contamination.

It stretched out one hand toward me, every fingernail a precise arc of white.

Back to school,” it sang.

I shook my head and tried to back up into the wall, willing the plaster and brick to swallow me. I couldn’t think with this abomination bearing down on me. I couldn’t even scream.

Raine stepped away, gave it clear passage.

In that moment, I didn’t blame her. The only thing worse than letting it touch me would be for it to touch her. Once it had me, it would leave. Evelyn and Raine, people I cared about, at least they would remain uncorrupted by this thing’s mere presence.

Raine took one more step to the side – yes, get away from it while it’s still ignoring you, Raine, please, don’t let it take you too – then two quick steps toward the Lozzie-thing.

She raised her handgun and shot it in the head.

The deafening bang-crack of the gunshot sent a whip of reaction through my adrenaline-tightened body.

The shot passed clean through the Lozzie-thing’s skull. No puff of blood and brain, only a jerk of the head to one side from the kinetic force of the bullet. It paused mid-step, as if it was trying to decide whether a bullet through the head was fatal or not. Raine held the gun ready for a second pull of the trigger, but even her hands were shaking. Stepping closer to that shambling thing went beyond bravery and into madness.

Then the Lozzie-thing crumpled. It clattered to the floor in a tangle of limbs, eyes staring at nothing, and lay completely still.

“Fuck,” Raine said.

My breathing returned too fast, lungs sucking down great heaving gouts of air as my head span. I wrapped both arms around my chest and squeezed, tried to stop myself hyperventilating.

“Fuck,” Raine repeated. She looked at the gun in her hand, then at the dead thing on the floor, then at me. “Heather, I’m so sorry, I had to-”

“It’s not Lozzie!” I almost screamed. “Make sure it’s dead.”

Raine nodded, levelled her gun, and shot the Lozzie-thing in the head a second time. Another bang-crack to make me jump and jerk. The corpse didn’t even twitch.

“It- it’s dead. It’s stopped moving. It’s not moving anymore, and that is great.” Raine blew out a long breath, recovering much faster than I could. “I am super happy that thing is not moving any more. Top of world, in fact. And yeah, it ain’t Lozzie. S’not her. Look at it, no way.”

“Raine,” I whined.

That pulled her together, the sound of me still in pain. She was on me faster than I’d been prepared for, half-hug, half-lift, bundling me away from the Lozzie-thing’s corpse on the floor. “Hey, hey, breathe, yeah? It’s dead, I got it. And it wasn’t Lozzie.”

“No, no no, it wasn’t, there’s no way, no way-”

“It’s okay. Don’t look at it. I know, I know, it’s not as bad now it’s not moving, but-”

“It was never Lozzie, couldn’t have been.” I couldn’t take my eyes off the thing. Now the animal terror was beginning to subside, the deeper fears surfaced. “Couldn’t have been. It’s nothing like her.”

“Heather, Heather? Hey, look at me.”

“I’m okay, I’m okay,” I lied, nodding, pulling the blanket tight around my shoulders, shivering inside and out.

“Hey, it’s alright to admit it,” she said, and the grin – that endless, confident grin – eased back onto her face. “Neither of us are okay right now, you don’t have to pretend otherwise. But we will be. We need to deal with this.” She squeezed my hands, pressed them to my chest, and turned away. “Hey, Kim?” She called out. “It’s dead, I domed it, get down here.”

Kimberly appeared from the top of the stairs, wide-eyed and ashen-faced. She stared at the ‘corpse’ on the floor.

“You … you shot Lauren?” she asked, voice so small.

“It wasn’t her. Not really,”

“Oh.”

I shook my head, and bit down on the sob in my throat. I couldn’t be certain, but I had to convince myself that this was not Lozzie, had never been Lozzie, that such a beautiful friend could never, ever be violated like this. It wasn’t her. It was a trick, from the Eye, or the cult, or both somehow. I tried to draw myself up, not look at the thing.

“Wait,” I murmured. “Wait, why didn’t Evee’s spiders respond?”

“Hm?” Raine quirked an eyebrow at me.

“The Spider-servitors. They’re supposed to, when there’s a threat in the house. They came for Twil that one time. Where are … ah.”

The spiders had responded – two of them. One of the Spider-servitors lurked behind the kitchen door, frozen in place. The other was upside down just beyond the stairs, mass of crystalline eyes fixed on the Lozzie-thing’s corpse. Until that moment, I’d considered the spiders incapable of showing any form of emotion, but somehow in the set of their many legs and the limp, retreated poise of their stingers, I read their feelings exactly.

“They’re here?” Raine asked.

“ … as terrified as we were, apparently,” I said, then murmured, “Thanks for the assist, guys. Not that I blame you.”

“Evee’s gonna kill me for that,” Raine said, nodding at a new and prominent hole in the skirting board – a bullet hole, from the first shot, after it had exited the Lozzie-thing’s head. The round itself was likely embedded in the wall, or in the ground. Raine sighed, smiled, and turned to us, a light in her eyes. “Somebody’s gonna have heard those two gunshots. Maybe they call the police, maybe not. Maybe the police knock on our door, maybe they don’t. If they do, the one thing we don’t want them to see is that,” she pointed at the body. It didn’t look much like a corpse – it wasn’t even bleeding. The head wound was round and dark, like an unlit room seen through a hole in a piece of paper. “And I don’t think any of us wanna touch it. Right?”

Kimberly nodded. “R-right.”

“Absolutely not,” I breathed.

“Kim, there’s a tarpaulin in the corner of Evelyn’s workshop. Green, about yay high, rolled up. Grab that, check on her, call out how she looks, then come back here.” She turned to me. “Heather, the old utility room. There’s a broom and I think a pair of gardening gloves in there somewhere. If you can’t find the gloves, get me bin bags, the whole roll. Actually, scratch that, grab the bin bags regardless.”

“Got it.” I nodded. God, it felt good when Raine took charge. Her direction scraped away the outermost layers of panic and worry, gave me something to focus on.

“I’m gonna stay here, keep an eye on the kill.” She waggled her gun at the corpse. Kim turned and started for the kitchen. I hugged my arms around myself and moved to go after her as Raine called out. “Keep talking, keep shouting to me and each other, okay? We’re all here, we’re all together, we’re not going any- … ah. Ahh.”

Raine trailed off, eyes rising to the ceiling. We all heard the sound out in the road, the distinctive thrumming of a large car engine pulling up and then sputtering into silence.

A car had stopped in the street outside the house. At seven in the morning. This morning.

“Oh, I don’t believe this,” I said.

“Yeah, we’re all bloody well here alright, aren’t we?” Raine growled to herself. “If that’s a coincidence, then I’m the Pope.”

“What do we do?” Kimberly hissed. “What do we do?”

“We keep the door shut,” I said.

“What if it’s the police?”

“That quickly?” Raine shook her head, a sardonic smirk on her lips. “Nuh-uh.”

“They must have been following her- it.” I couldn’t make myself nod at the corpse. “Maybe it’s Stack?”

“I hope so, I owe her a hole in the head. Kim, back upstairs, same window, tell us what you see.”

“Again?”

“I’ll do it,” I hissed, desperate to get away from the corpse on the floor. I hurried up the stairs, hands shaking, into the shadowy darkness of the upstairs corridor. Floorboards creaked beneath my socks as I peeked around the edge of the window, into the lingering night.

A long black car squatted beyond the garden wall like a battering ram. Four people were climbing out and carefully shutting the doors behind them – three men and one woman, none I recognised, age and details blurred by distance and darkness. Staring up at the house, glancing down the street, their hands in their coat pockets. No robes or magical symbols, no visible weapons or lurking servitors, just coats and gloves against the cold. Stamping feet, tense shoulders.

The woman pointed to the side of the house and spoke a few words. The others nodded. One of the men went to the back of the car, opened the boot, and lifted out a long cloth-wrapped package.

My heart leapt into my throat. My brain said gun, but then the man slipped a pair of baseball bats out of the cloth and handed them to his companions.

I scrambled back down the stairs. Kimberly had scarpered off somewhere. Raine already had her phone to her ear, still covering the Lozzie-thing’s corpse with her pistol.

“Not police,” I said all in a rush. “Four of them. They’re armed, but I didn’t see any guns. I think.”

Raine nodded at me and gestured with her eyebrows for me to get into the kitchen, get out of the way, get safe. Then her call connected.

“Twil,” she barked down the phone. “Get your furry arse back here, now. We’ve got all kinds of trouble. Need you to knock some heads together.”

I stopped in the kitchen doorway – what was I doing? Why was I going to hide? I could stop bullets with my mind, let alone a baseball bat. I could threaten those people out there with a fate worse than death, and it would be no bluff. I turned back, and took a step toward the front door.

“There’s no time, dumb-arse,” Raine continued into the phone. “You’re supposed to be a good sprinter, right? Get back here … Heather? Heather, where are you going?”

“To get rid of our visitors,” I said, and swallowed.

“Twil, hey, shut up a sec, you- Twil? Okay, cool, great, now, yeah? You don’t hurry, I’ll tag them all, none left for you.” Raine lowered the phone. “She’s on her way. We’re gonna be fine, Heather, but please, please get back in Evee’s workshop, it’s the safest place in the house.”

“I can help. Fuck these people!” I put a hand over my mouth, surprised at myself. Horror had transmuted to outrage. Raine’s eyebrows shot up. “They- they’re with the Eye, somehow. They hurt Evee! It can’t be allowed, Raine. They want to make murals to the Eye, they can all go to Wonderland and stay there.”

Raine grinned. “Sure thing, after I’ve got them gut-shot and hogtied, okay?”

I opened my mouth to complain.

Bang bang bang – a fist, hammering on the front door.

“Open up,” a man’s voice called out.

“Unless you’re police, you can stuff it up your arse, mate,” Raine replied, her grin widening. We were back in her territory now. She knew what to do, and I trusted her utterly to do it right.

“Yeah,” he replied through the door, voice dripping with sarcasm. “I’m a regular policeman, me. Now open the fucking door or I’ll break it down.”

“It’s a diversion,” Raine hissed. “One’ll be going round back. Think the spiders’ll go for ‘em?”

I looked around for our pneuma-somatic arachnid friends. The one by the stairs was now halfway down the wall, creeping toward the door. The one in the kitchen had vanished – toward the back door, perhaps?

“Yes.” I nodded. “Yes, they’re with us.”

“Nice.” A savage grin pulled at Raine’s face, the sort of look I’d seen on her so many times before, the anticipation of violence written in every muscle. She gave me courage, gave me something to hold myself together with. We’d get through this. In a couple of hours it would all be over. She checked her gun, then dragged the big black combat knife from her waistband and flicked it out of its sheath. Cold metal, sharp in the morning chill. “This is gonna be a huge mess, but they don’t stand a chance. Here’s the plan, you-”

The Lozzie-thing got back up.

Perhaps it had been waiting for the moment Raine’s attention wandered. Perhaps the men hammering on the front door had pressed the issue. Or perhaps it had finally chosen to give up its ridiculous attempt to pretend it was a human being. It didn’t stand – it writhed to its feet, every joint pointing in the wrong direction, as if it had never risen from prone before and wasn’t certain which bones were meant to turn which ways.

Raine reacted faster. She did everything right. She backed up, one-two, raised her gun again, trigger-hand braced on the opposite wrist.

Smooth and calm and correct. Everything she was supposed to do. The Lozzie-thing lashed out with one failing hand, fingers all turned in the wrong direction, and Raine should have been able to dodge at that distance, she was already ducking away, lining up the shot. She was good at this. She was meant to win.

But the Lozzie-thing cheated.

Elbow and wrist moved at impossible angles, writhed around into the space Raine was about to be instead of the space she’d just vacated. A miracle of instinct, really, that Raine understood what was happening, that she managed to turn and shove her big black serrated knife up and into the thing’s throat, through imitation windpipe and imitation brainstem.

The Lozzie-thing’s palm slammed into Raine’s chest.

A crack.

I remember the cracking sound – the sound of one Raine’s ribs snapping. All else was panic, contextless snippets of memory in a sea of adrenaline.

Raine sliding down against the wall, unconscious, the force of the blow more than mere physical impact.

The Lozzie-thing stepping toward me again, wheezing “back to school” through a ruined throat.

Kimberly, in the kitchen doorway, screaming and scrambling away, dropping a tarpaulin on the floor, which I promptly tripped over.

The hammering on the front door, again, again.

I think I grabbed a chair in the kitchen – no, I know I grabbed a chair from the kitchen. I grabbed a chair and tried to throw it at the Lozzie-thing, the un-thing, the thing that should not be, shambling toward me, the sheer physical pressure of its mere existence enough to crush all thought and reaction down into a singularity of disgust. Me, weak little Heather, who didn’t have the upper body strength for a dozen push-ups, throwing an old heavy chair.

The chair bounced across the floor. The Lozzie-thing smashed it aside.

It grabbed my wrist – that un-skin, fingers like alien bones, flesh without human warmth or prosthetic logic – and smiled, and wheezed “time to go home.”

Reality folded up.

==

How quickly one can lose everything. Reduced to thin clothes and lingering body heat. Friends, defences, ideologies, all shed in an instant, leaving behind an ape whimpering to itself on the ashen ground of an alien dimension.

We are home,” the Lozzie-thing said.

I didn’t need to open my eyes to know where she’d taken me.

As reality reasserted itself, I crumpled to my knees and refused to open my eyes. Perhaps if I didn’t look, I could retreat to a safe place inside myself, and everything that was about to happen would happen to another person – but I knew that was impossible. In a few heartbeats, I would be denied any coherent sense of self.

A great pulse of awareness, from the sky above. My lips formed ‘no no no no’ over and over and over.

The Lozzie-thing still gripped my wrist. A leathery shard of myself said fight, get up and fight, but any strength I had was drowned out by a childhood nightmare screaming up out of my memories. Ashen wind robbed the heat from my skin, wriggled invasive fingers through every gap in my pajamas. The smell of this ruined place filled my nostrils, and I remembered. If despair could have a scent, it would smell like this. Darkness and ash.

I felt ten years old again, and I was back in Wonderland.

My eyes wouldn’t stay closed, of course. The first teasing barbs and hooks of pressure snagged at the edges of my consciousness, flensed layers of thought from my mind, forced my eyelids open.

Rubble and ruin stretched away across an endless plain, to a horizon of broken teeth I remembered from every nightmare. Mists like shadow drifted across the wreckage, obscuring snippets of looping alien script on every broken wall, words that made me wince with pain. In the distance, life – of a sick, malformed kind – crept through the hollows and beneath the fallen monoliths. Jellyfish creatures bigger than whales pulsed the through air, and in the distance the terrible mountain-sized watchers stared upward at the sky in mute devotion.

Up, up, up – to the sky that was not a sky. To the vast ridged eyelid that filled all creation.

The sky cracked down the middle, a hairline fracture on a sea of infinite night, as the Eye began to open.

Tendrils of alien thought wrapped tight around my mind, pushed through the whorls of my brain, began to take me apart – in the most fundamental sense of me.

The word ‘pain’ fails to do justice to the Eye’s attention. It was beginning an examination, an awful rifling through my neutrons and atoms. I was naked and alone on the altar of an alien God.

Sobbing, whimpering, bleeding from nose and eyes and even from my hair follicles, tugging on the Lozzie-thing’s grip to get away, I did the only thing that made any sense. I groped inside my own mind for the familiar equation, the piece of brainmath that spelled O-U-T, that would let me wriggle free like a greased fish, escape back to reality, away from this living nightmare.

The first few pieces slipped into place, as yet beyond the Eye’s deepening reach. My head pounded with a sudden spike of pain – and then the Lozzie-thing tightened her grip on my wrist.

Stay,” it rattled, Raine’s knife bobbing in its ruined throat.

The equation fell apart, trickled through my fingers.

Writhing, choking on the pain, sobbing, I howled through my teeth in despair. That’s why the Eye had made this mockery of my friend. That was her purpose. To stop me using what it had given me.

This wasn’t how I’d imagined myself returning to Wonderland. I was supposed to be ready, prepared for anything, surrounded by friends and shielded by magic and knowledge and love, to rescue my twin sister. In the private, quiet hours of the night, sometimes I’d imagined myself armoured – though I couldn’t have defined exactly how. Nonsense, a fairy-tale to soothe a lifetime of anxiety and sickness. This was always my fate in the end, wasn’t it? Cold and terrified, dressed in my pajamas, my mind flayed down to nothing until I was a screaming ape in the dust, the same as ten years ago. No escape. Even if I’d lived to see seventy years, there was no escape.

Was this how my life ended? After not even six months of warmth and meaning. At least I’d be with my sister again soon.

We were all the way down now, from the rarefied heights of firearms and friendship, heroics and hyperdimensional mathematics.

I was just an ape – an ape with a sharp rock in its hand.

My free hand had moved on automatic. There wasn’t enough of conscious Heather left to make a plan, the Eye had already displaced too much. But a tiny, warm part of my mind held out for a few precious moments – a part nurtured and fed and encouraged by Raine week after week, day after day – the part that still believed in myself, that I deserved to live, that this scrawny messed-up scrap of flesh called Heather was going to win.

That part of my mind had found a piece of shattered masonry within arm’s reach. A leftover shard of whatever had inhabited this dimension before the Eye had arrived, or been born, or been wrought by some magical insanity.

You can sling all the alien math you want, but at the end of the day a rock can still bash your brains out.

A Raine-approved course of action.

The Lozzie-thing was busy staring up at the Eye, communing, communicating, whatever. Ape-Heather didn’t care. Ape-Heather lifted the rock up and slammed it down as hard as she could on the Lozzie-thing’s wrist. Slam slam slam! I wasn’t really there, it wasn’t me doing that, I was pure animal by that point. I spat and screamed and howled my little defiance at the Eye’s tendrils worming their way through my brain, and I shattered whatever the Lozzie-thing used for imitation bone.

I pulled free, fell back onto the ashen ground. The Eye was open another sliver – a million miles wider, up there in the firmament. Its thoughts were in my soul, the pressure of its massive tentacles strangling all thought, let alone emergency brainmath.

I believe I tried to throw the rock at it.

Then, a light.

A light that touched my mind, my soul, the tiniest bright spot from amid the vast probing darkness of the Eye. The smallest, weakest ebb against this tidal wave of pressure. It passed over me, like a lighthouse searching for a reply, and for a second I was myself again.

I did have one ally here in Wonderland, didn’t I?

I think I managed to speak my sister’s name. I’m not sure.

The light passed away from me. Only a second’s pulse of relief, and I felt the Eye’s attention gathering to crash back down. Relief had served only as false hope. Neither of us could hold this back for long.

A tiny pop of displacing air, the crunch of gravel under shoes, and a “Wah?”

Maisie hadn’t been calling to me. She knew we had no hope here. She’d been calling for help.

Lozzie – the real Lozzie – stood there on the ashen dark ground of Wonderland, five feet away from me and her abominable double, eyes wide, a chocolate brownie halfway to her mouth. She dropped the brownie in surprise.

How could I ever have mistaken a fake for the real thing? Lozzie was beautiful – though part of that was the relief speaking, the relief that she was neither dead nor possessed. She looked healthy, no more bruises or bloody scabs. She was wearing flip-flops on bare feet, a plaid skirt, and a pink poncho. Somehow, she’d had a hair cut, fringe a neat line, trailing ends tidied up. How in God’s name did one get a hair cut Outside?

“It’s me!” She blurted out at the double, then saw me. “And you!” She lit up – then looked up. Her face fell. “Oh … oh dear.”

“Lozzie!”

The Eye’s tendrils pierced my brain again, thoughts peeled back. Lozzie winced – she felt it too. The double turned toward her.

“Kill it!” I managed to scream.

She blinked, and said, “Oh, right,” in the sort of tone one might use when asked to please put the laundry on.

Lozzie raised her hand, clicked her fingers, and pointed at the imitation-thing. The gesture seemed superfluous at the time – only later did I realise it resembled the manner in which one might issue a command to an attack dog.

Lozzie’s attack dog did not disappoint.

Burning chrome and lightning-etched steel – shining armour. A bulwark of metal – a tower shield. A shining star – the point of a lance. A helmet, no visor for eyes. Seams in the armour but not cut for a human. It rose behind Lozzie, twice her height in pneuma-somatic spirit flesh.

A knight.

Under the circumstances, my brain simply accepted what I saw. A knight, why not? We were beyond the rim of the sane universe out here, it was hardly the weirdest thing around. If the knight had removed its helmet and introduced itself as King Aurthur reborn, I would not have complained.

The lance took the imitation-Lozzie full in the chest, threw the creature fifty meters to crash down in the rubble and dust.

The knight raised the tower shield over its head to shelter us both – I gasped, spat blood and bile, and drew in a shuddering breath, suddenly myself again. Bruised and bleeding, my sense of self was intact once more. The Eye’s invasive thought-tentacles had been blotted out, cut off, held back – for a second.

The knight’s shield was melting fast, its armour burning and buckling as it absorbed the weight of the Eye’s attention. As it melted, I caught a glimpse of what lay beneath that armour, what manner of creature wore that suit of pneuma-somatic metal, and couldn’t tear my eyes away.

“We gotta go!” Lozzie yelled, and bundled into me, dragging me to my feet and hugging me tight. She grinned in my face, then in an act of pure absurdity she waved upward at the Eye. “Buh-bye!”

“Lozzie! Yes!” I yelled back. “We have to-”

Wonderland dissolved into a kaleidoscope, folded up, and collapsed into nothing. I screwed my eyes shut and clung to Lozzie with all my strength.

All my strength was not enough.

Dead hands grasped my ankles.

==

Cold, hard, rough – bare concrete beneath my cheek.

I gasped awake and sat up in a rush, confused and dehydrated, eyes gummy with dried blood. Everything ached. Tried to move my right hand to my face and found I couldn’t. My wrist clinked, caught, stopped.

My right wrist was handcuffed, the other cuff attached to a radiator pipe in a concrete wall. Left hand still worked, rubbed at my face, made me wince as I touched my bloody scalp and eyes and nose. Freezing cold, shivering, one sock missing from the feet I drew up toward myself, curling into a ball, back against the wall.

“Where-” I croaked, swallowed.

For one long moment I didn’t care where I was or how much I ached or why I was handcuffed – all I knew is that this was not Wonderland. Sweet, blessed relief. Tears made tracks on my cheeks. Maisie had called Lozzie, and Lozzie had saved me.

“I love you, I love you,” I whispered, eyes closed, thinking of my sister. “Thank you, I love you, thank you.”

And then Lozzie and I had been pulled apart?

By the Eye? Dimly, I recalled a sensation like dead hands on my ankles, dragging me out of Lozzie’s arms as reality had un-blinked. We were both back in reality, but in different places? Or was this some other Outside dimension?

I couldn’t think, everything hurt and my heart felt strained, like I’d put my body through too much in the last few hours. Where was I? I blinked and rubbed at my eyes, brought my blurry sight back into focus.

A concrete room. No furnishings except for the door, the radiator bolted to the wall – to which I was handcuffed – and a second, empty doorway on the left, leading off into what looked like a stripped kitchen. A single window above the radiator let a shaft of thin winter daylight into the room. Dawn, perhaps.

A figure stood in front of the door. Guarding me. Seven feet of zombie muscle, dressed in her trench coat and boots.

Zheng met my eyes, and said nothing.

At least I was back in Sharrowford.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

and less pleasant places – 6.8

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Sleep lay light on my consciousness, despite the late hour and the exhaustion of a long and difficult evening; when Evelyn knocked on our bedroom door, Raine was the one who roused herself to answer. She disentangled herself from my arms and clambered out of bed, but I followed her up the steps of lighter slumber too. I rolled over under the covers, grumpy in a deprived animal way at Raine’s sudden absence. I groped for my phone.

“Evee?” Raine whispered. She angled herself to block the faint light from the hallway.

My phone’s back-light blinded me, and I read the time through a squint. Barely four hours of sleep. “S’five thirty in the morning,” I groaned.

“That it is,” Evelyn said from the doorway.

Cold tension in her voice made me sit up in bed, rubbing at my puffy eyes. Raine tried to usher Evelyn out into the corridor. “Hey, Heather, go back to sleep, you need it. I’ll be right back, okay?”

“No you won’t,” Evelyn grunted. “And Heather deserves to see this too. May as well show everybody at once, I’m not running through this multiple bloody times.”

“See what?” I asked. “Evee, what’s wrong? Have you not been to bed?”

Evelyn shook her head. She looked how I felt, with an added layer of tightly controlled worry around her eyes, mouth set straight, knuckles white from gripping the handle of her walking stick too hard.

“I sent Praem to the tower block.”

“Evee, Evee, Evee,” Raine sighed and smiled, shaking her head. “You said you’d wait at least another day. We’re all exhausted. ‘Cept for Twil, I guess.”

“I couldn’t sleep. Thought I may as well do something useful. Deal with it.”

“Alright. Dealt with, forgiven, no worries. Now what? What’d she find up there?”

Evelyn hesitated.

“Evee?” I prompted. Her worry was infectious.

“The busses aren’t running this time of night. It took Praem a while to reach Glasswick on foot. I’ve already sent her up, inside, seen it all for myself.”

“Cultists?” Raine asked.

“No, I … nothing alive. You both need to see.” She glanced at me. “You especially.”

“Evee, what’s up there?” I said.

Evelyn swallowed, a chill passing over her face. “I have only theories.”

==

“Thought you said she was already up in the tower?” Twil asked.

She squinted downward, at the contents of a half-full inflatable paddling pool on the floor of Evelyn’s magical workshop – at the Praem’s-eye-view in the still water.

Praem was currently looking at the boarded-up front entrance to Glasswick tower, lit by distant orange street-lighting. The view through her eyes was crystal clear, but quite disorienting.

Evelyn’s remote viewing setup was barely believable, but I reminded myself I’d witnessed far weirder things. I’d seen all this the first time she’d ridden Praem at a distance, but I’d never watched it working before.

A child’s two-tone blue paddling pool, filled about halfway, with a magic circle written in permanent maker onto the plastic itself, maddened black scrawl extending below the waterline. A delicate ring of ice had formed around edge, a by-product of the magic. Twil was the only one of us not wrapped in extra layers against the lingering cold. I had a blanket around my shoulders, while Evelyn wore two jumpers, a shawl, and gloves. She’d been at this for hours already.

“I pulled her back out.” Evelyn settled into a chair in front of the remote viewing setup, grimacing as her leg gave her trouble in the cold. She turned the grimace on Twil as she rubbed at her thigh. “I wasn’t going to leave her up there without instruction while I fetched you lot, I’m not a complete fool.”

“Alright, fair do.” Twil raised both hands in surrender.

“Uh, Evee,” Raine said. “I’m a bit more concerned at the ruddy great beastie over yonder.”

“Yes,” Kimberly breathed from the doorway, unwilling to come any closer. “What- what is that?”

At the back of the ex-drawing room, Evelyn had cleared another wide space for a second large-scale magic circle, on a piece of unrolled canvas. Glancing at the circle made my head swim and my heart constrict, the arcane symbols and scraps of inhuman language clutching at the part of my mind which recognised them – but the content of the circle was so much worse.

Trapped inside the circle, a creature of shadow and claw twisted and brooded, chitinous plates gliding over leathery flesh as it hid inside a veil of darkness. Filmy, oily black eyes peered out at us now and again before vanishing back into the murk.

Evelyn’s Spider-servitor clearly hated the thing, whatever it was. Clutching its habitual ceiling corner, the Spider’s mass of crystalline eyes were fixed on the writhing shadow-creature.

I’d already guessed what it was for, and tried to ignore it.

“Never you mind what,” Evelyn snapped at Kimberly, then turned to Raine. “It’s for clearing what I’ve found in the tower. I’ll need several of them, probably. Three or four should be enough.”

“As long as it doesn’t stage a breakout over there,” Raine muttered. She glanced about, located her nightstick propped against the wall, and picked it up.

“It won’t. It’s mine. I already bound it,” Evelyn said, rapidly losing patience, nodding at the view in the paddling pool’s water. “Pay attention.”

“Can she hear us?” I asked. “Praem?”

“Heather,” Praem intoned from the other side of the water, clear as ever, miles away on the other side of the city. Evelyn huffed and gestured as if to say there’s my answer.

“Nobody beyond her can, but she can hear anything we say here,” Evelyn explained, then clicked her fingers. “Back inside. Make your way upstairs.”

“What did you find? Was there anyone in there?” Twil asked.

“Shut up and watch.”

Praem crossed the pathway toward Glasswick tower’s boarded up front entrance. Her gliding pace lacked the nauseating small motions that one might expect from, say, a person with a camera strapped to their head. Her eyes stayed locked on specific points rather than flicking around, like those of a human being. Still, looking down into a pool of water and seeing straight ahead did afflict me with the gentlest touch of vertigo. I had to keep glancing away.

She climbed through the shattered hole in the damp boards over the entrance, past the huge police notice threatening a £500 fine on trespassers, and everything went dark.

“Get the torch out, shine it ahead, same as before,” Evelyn ordered, then muttered to us. “She can see in the dark. We can’t.”

“Speak for yourself,” Twil muttered.

A light flicked on and a compact maglite lifted into view from below, held in Praem’s small, deceptively soft hand. The torch beam played over the filth in the entryway. The space was identical in layout to its twin in Gleaston tower, but heavy boards had been nail-gunned over the lift doors, and the stairwells had been blocked with walls of plywood. The only access to the stairs – a small door in one of the plywood sheets – stood open.

People – and likely a few animals – had camped here at some point, but they were long gone now. Water damage, a few dirty bedrolls, a gutted tent collapsed in one corner.

“Head up, stop at the fifth floor and give us a quick look there,” Evelyn said. Praem turned, slipped through the little door, and started her way up the stairs.

“Were there no people? No homeless people?” I asked in a whisper. Evelyn shook her head.

“None. Some had been here, I think. I’ll show you.”

“That’s a red flag, alright,” Raine grunted.

“Mmhmm.”

“What do you mean?” Twil hissed.

“Concrete building. Shelter, isn’t it? And the police don’t give a toss, not out there,” Raine said, still watching Praem’s slow ascent up the echoing, dark stairwell. “The lower couple of floors should have a few people trying to live there, at least, even if just shooting up or sleeping. Why keep away?”

“Uh … huh.” Twil nodded slowly, frowning to herself.

“The kids, around … ” Kimberly started, and crept a few paces into the ex-drawing room, terrified eyes glued to the horror in the magic circle at the back of the room.

“Kim?” I prompted. She swallowed.

“The kids around the estate,” she said, rallying. “They wouldn’t go in there either. They used to dare each other, I think, but they stopped for some reason. I’m sure I heard a silly urban legend about it being haunted.”

“Ha,” Evelyn barked with humourless laughter. “They’re not wrong.”

“Haunted, by like, a ghost?” Twil’s eyes went wide. “You found a ghost?”

Evelyn sighed and shot a withering look at her. “It’s a metaphor, you idiot. I’d prefer I had found a ghost.”

Praem stopped at the fifth floor and walked a few paces from the stairwell into one of the tower’s residential corridors. The light from her torch slid over closed and locked front doors, but a few hung open, kicked in or broken down.

“Poke your head into the first couple,” Evelyn ordered her. “This is all normal, all like this, all the same, up to the fifteenth floor. Most of the flats are locked tight, but there’s a few that people have obviously tried to live in, at some point. Maybe there was still running water, who knows?”

Praem showed us the evidence, and it didn’t amount to much. A few lost possessions in otherwise stripped-bare concrete boxes, places that had once been homes. A few candles had burned down to long-cold stubs. Discarded food wrappers. A condom in a corner. Nothing spooky, except the claustrophobic dark and the spectre of poverty.

“What’s at floor fifteen?” I asked.

“That … is beyond my powers of description.”

Praem returned to the stairwell and continued up, her precise footfalls echoing down the long concrete tower, the torch beam ascending the stairs ahead. She passed the landing for the tenth floor, above the level of the boarded up windows, and the cave-like darkness finally abated. Light pollution leaked in through the smashed glass, catching jagged concrete corners and the metal handrail. Snatches of night-time Sharrowford passed by on the edge of Praem’s vision. Sunrise was still hours away.

“Wonder if she can see us from up there?” Twil mused.

“Don’t be stupid. We can’t see the towers from here,” Evelyn said.

“Hey Praem,” Twil spoke up. “Flash your torch out one of the windows.”

“No,” Praem intoned, her voice echoing off the concrete.

“See?” Evelyn snorted. “Even she knows not to listen to you.”

“S’just a joke.” Twil huffed and crossed her arms.

The stairwell beyond the fifteenth floor was blocked off by another construction-site plywood barrier. The only way through was another one of those flimsy doors. The beam of Praem’s torch caught on three thick steel chains lying on the floor, complete with big chunky padlocks – all three locks crushed and broken, metal sheered and shattered.

“Stop there,” Evelyn said. “Show us the chains.”

“Lemme guess, they were like that when you got there?” Raine asked.

“What? No. I had Praem rip them off. But they’re all new. Look, no rust on them.” I peered forward at the image in the water. She was right. Compared to everything else so far in the crumbling, abandoned shell of Glasswick tower, the padlocks and chains were conspicuously shiny and new. “Combined with the general pattern of wet footprints lower down and a track relatively free of dust, somebody’s been coming up here, regularly.”

“Should have been a private eye, Evee. You’ve got the knack,” Raine said.

“Knack, nothing,” Evelyn snapped. “I’ve got magic, and that’s cheating. Praem, show them where the sign was.”

Praem’s viewpoint swung out, torch beam passing over the wooden barrier. Another ‘no entry – condemned’ sign lay on the floor, nails recently yanked free.

In the space it had occupied on the plywood. a magic circle stared back at us.

Raine whistled. Twil grunted a ‘huh’. Kimberly swallowed.

“Good thing I thought to have her check behind the sign,” Evelyn said. “Had to disarm it. No idea what it does. You recognise that one, Poundland?”

“Evee, don’t call her that,” I scolded quietly, as Kimberly blinked in confusion before she realised she was being addressed.

“No, no I don’t. I-I’m sorry.”

Evelyn grunted. She didn’t have the ire to spare for Kimberly right now. Somehow that worried me more than anything else. “The real treat’s further up. Praem, on you go, same route as the first time, but stop at the final corner before … before you see it. Stay alert.”

Praem continued up. She didn’t even reach the next floor before we all noticed what was wrong.

“The hell’s going on with the walls?” Twil asked.

“Optical illusion?” Raine suggested.

“No,” Evelyn grunted. “It gets progressively worse further up. Praem, pan your torch a bit, give us a view as you go.”

“It looks like it’s … ” I swallowed, struggling for the right word. “Diseased?”

The concrete of Glasswick tower had contracted an infection, a warping sickness, a mutation. In places it looked like a frozen sculpture of living muscle pushing from underneath the concrete surfaces, in others it was ridged and bumpy, or raised like flexing tendons beneath an inorganic skin, on a huge, tower-block scale, as if melted and re-set along distinctly biological lines.

Evelyn was right, the further up Praem climbed, the worse it got.

Praem climbed through the ossified corpse of a mutated whale cast in concrete. Kimberly had to turn away as the effect worsened, a nauseated look on her face. Twil pulled a grimace, and even I felt a little ill at the sight of this architectural violation.

Then the stairwell suddenly opened out, the interior walls fell away. Stairs still continued upward to the remaining floors, but around Praem a wide darkness yawned. She showed us what lay within, pointing her torch left and right.

“Holy shit,” Twil breathed.

“Shit is right, but there’s nothing holy here,” Evelyn grunted. “I think it’s five floors worth of space, semi-hollowed.”

Pieces of concrete wall and floor remained, but shot through with gaping, organic-looking holes and gaps, twisted into disturbingly biological shapes – ganglia and nerve bundles, sinews and cartilage – as if the building had tried to become part of giant body, and failed. Steel rebar poked from shards of cracked wall, piles of concrete grit lay everywhere, shed as the structure had crumbled and buckled. Whatever this was, it had died – or failed to be born.

Praem strode into the space, up a sort of walkway of concrete, toward the centre of the cleared floors. She approached a corner, and the leading edge of her torch beam caught what could only be the heart of this place, a nexus of bunched imitation muscle-fibre, tendons, and nerves.

The core of this thing was not the grey of dead concrete, but distinctly crimson, and glistening.

“Stop,” Evelyn snapped. “Praem, stop there.” She turned to me, and sighed a deep sigh. “Heather. I think you should sit down. This is going to upset you the most.”

“What?” I blinked at her, then back at the view in the pool. My stomach turned over. “It’s not … no, it’s not Lozzie, it-”

“No, of course not. Bloody hell. I wouldn’t do that to you. If I’d found her, I would have … well, I wouldn’t do it like this.” She waved a hand. “Sit.”

“Okay, okay sure, I-”

Raine already had a chair for me, pulled from the table. I sat down, a little shaky, and Raine gave Evelyn a measured frown.

“Evee, drop the suspense act,” she said. “Heather’s plenty tough, but I don’t think any of us want to get surprised by something horrible, yeah?”

“It’s gruesome, yes, alright? Turn away if you’re suddenly feeling squeamish,” Evelyn said. “But that’s not the point. I just … I … look, if I just say it, you’ll all freak out. I need to show you the proof. He’s dead. Praem, go ahead.”

“He? Evee, who … ”

The question died in my throat, as Praem turned the final corner of knotted concrete. She walked the length of a projecting spar, up to the centre and purpose of this disgusting aberration, and played her torch over her discovery.

Meat.

Like a heart – no, I corrected myself, like a tumour. Muscle fibres of frozen concrete converged on a central point, blood and meat colours fading in as they approached, as they wound around and merged with the figure in the middle. Minced flesh, spars of shattered bone, ribs exposed and cracked from awful crushing force, limbs clad in charred shreds. Head a burst melon, a few scraps of blonde hair clinging to flaps of scalp. Once-red blood was now dried and black, shiny like tiny beetles.

The wreckage cradled by a concrete harness was barely recognisable as a human being – let alone as Alexander Lilburne.

“But I killed him,” I breathed. A terrible, numb feeling came over me, an emotional violation. I’d dealt with becoming a murderer, and he was still here? My breath caught in my throat, stalling the more animal reaction to this awful sight. “I-”

“I was fukkin’ right!” Twil pointed at the image in the still water. “I called it!”

“No you didn’t, he’s dead,” Evelyn snapped at her. “Heather, listen to me. He’s dead.”

“Heather?” Raine squeezed my shoulder, hard, and put a hand on my forehead. “Heather, hey. Evee, dammit, you could have picked a better way than this.”

“What else was I supposed to do? You’d all have insisted on seeing the corpse anyway! We’d be playing Chinese whispers. At least this is fast.”

Their words didn’t make sense. I shook my head, staring at Alexander’s broken jaw and the glassy emptiness of his single remaining eyeball. I was vaguely aware of Kimberly hurrying out of the room, retching sounds coming from the kitchen.

“But I killed him. It’s not fair. It’s not-”

Heather,” Evelyn snapped. I jerked around to meet her eyes. “He’s dead, yes, you killed him. Well done.”

I stared at her for a moment. The words finally went in, even as paranoid scepticism rolled up for its turn at my strings. “How can you be sure? He’s a mage, he could be doing anything, he-”

“Does that look anything like alive, to you?” Evelyn thumbed at the human wreckage on display. “And I already had Praem check. No pulse, no heartbeat, no breathing. He’s stone cold, he- Praem? Praem, stop, you-”

Praem was walking the final few steps toward the mangled corpse. “Heather,” she intoned, and suddenly I knew exactly what she was doing, for me. She ignored Evelyn’s instruction, and lifted Alexander’s head with one hand. His dead, empty eyeball stared at nothing. Evelyn sighed.

“Point taken, thank you for the demonstration,” she grunted. “He’s dead. We won. He’s not coming back.” She waved her hand in front of my face. “You with us?”

“Evee,” I tutted at her, pulling myself back together. “I- yes, I- how did you expect me to react?”

“Like that, mostly,” Evelyn grunted.

“You’re fine, Heather, you’re fine.” Raine murmured, for me alone, and squeezed my shoulders.

I shook my head and sighed. My gaze drifted back over to the view through Praem’s eyes. She’d stepped away again, allowed the corpse’s head to droop. Alexander Lilburne looked like he’d been run over by a tank. “That’s what I did to him?”

“You killed him super dead,” Twil said, then frowned. “Why’s he not, you know, rotted an’ all?”

Evelyn cleared her throat. “I can only presume what we’re looking at right now is an attempt to prolong his life – a failed attempt. The flesh is preserved, but nothing else.”

“Yeah, I’m no doctor,” Raine said. “But that looks like major brain damage. His bone dome is cracked right open, I see brains. He dead.”

“Right,” Evelyn grunted. “His people must have brought him here, or maybe his big zombie did, as a sort of final act of devotion. Plugged himself into whatever the hell they were already working on, but it didn’t take. It wasn’t exactly guarded well, I can only assume they’ve abandoned him.”

“What was he doing? Turning himself into a building?” Twil asked.

“Heard of weirder fetishes,” Raine added, shrugging. “Maybe he was into that.”

“What?” Twil squinted at her. Raine laughed. Always trying to keep it light. How could she laugh at the sight of this?

“Evee,” I said, gently, carefully, while glancing at Twil. I doubted Evelyn wanted her to hear the details, but I had to ask this. “What if he was doing the same thing you mother tried to do?”

Evelyn’s eyebrows rose. She nodded, taking me seriously, thank God. “I already thought of that. It’s vanishingly unlikely he access to the same resources she did. And anyway, he lacked the essential component: an emotionally and psychologically dominated close relative. You can’t just – poof.” She made a gesture from the side of her head. “Takes years of preparation. Lozzie’s a lot of things, I gather, but she’s not cowed or submissive. No.”

“Okay,” I nodded, trying to take a deep breath. “I’ll try not to worry about that part.”

“What’s this?” Twil asked, frowning.

“Never you mind,” Evelyn grunted. “S’personal.”

I noticed Kimberly peer carefully into the room again, her face pale and drawn. She turned away at the sight of her former master’s shattered corpse, but Evelyn wasn’t about to let her go. She raised her hand and clicked her fingers.

“Kimberly. Yes, you, I see you lurking there. Any idea what he was doing? Any insights to share?”

“N-none. I’m sorry, I-”

“You must have some idea. Use your brain. They were training you as a mage, you must have heard something. Part of a plan, an overheard conversation. Think.”

I opened my mouth to tell Evelyn off, to get her to ease off Kimberly, to tell Kim it was okay – but then I noticed an oddly familiar shape hanging in the darkness above Alexander’s corpse.

My blood went cold in my veins.

“Praem,” I said, my voice on autopilot. “Please … please step back a pace and pan the torch upward. And to the sides as well. There’s more.”

Praem moved the torch as directed. Evelyn frowned at me, at the shake in my voice, and then she saw what I saw. We all saw it.

Above and to both sides of Alexander’s shattered corpse, his followers, his cultists, whoever had put him here, had drawn a trio of identical murals on large flat pieces of uncorrupted concrete. Daubed in charcoal or tar, black dried flaking blood, and a brown substance I’d rather not speculate on.

Eyes.

Each mural showed a single great lidless eye. Black. Expressionless. Six feet wide. They all gazed at a point in front of the body, as if positioned to regard a supplicant or worshipper before this twisted altar.

Graffiti, drawn in natural – if abnormal – materials. That was all. Nothing special. But somehow this urban cave art captured the faintest echo of the unspeakable feeling, the unyielding, crushing attention. For a split-second I was a child again, naked in the dark, my skin and flesh and neurons and atoms peeled back by the watching of the Eye.

Then the feeling passed. A memory of trauma, sinking back into the abyss.

Just murals – horrible ones. Placed there by a supernatural cult.

Oh dear.

“I didn’t see these before,” Evelyn muttered, leaning forward, brow knotted. “I was so focused on the corpse I didn’t see them. Praem, step closer, get me a better look. Do not touch them.”

“I-I don’t recognise those,” Kimberly hurried to say. “I don’t, I swear.”

“It’s the Eye,” I managed to say, my throat closing up. “It’s art, of the Eye.”

“Heather, it’s okay, it can’t hurt you. It’s okay,” Raine murmured. She squeezed my shoulders, tried to keep me from getting lost in my own memories.

“Could be a coincidence,” Evelyn said through gritted teeth.

“No. No it’s the Eye, it is. I can tell, I-”

“Alright, okay. I believe you,” Evelyn snapped. “Don’t know if that helps us figure out what he was doing, though.”

“He must have … he made contact … he … I don’t know.”

“They magical? They do anything?” Twil asked.

Evelyn shook her head. “I don’t believe so. I don’t see any magic circles, no workings connected to them. Nothing. They’re just … art.”

I nodded, trying to let go. “What if the cult … what if … ”

“If they made contact with your ‘Eye’?” Evelyn finished for me. “I don’t know. What I do know is we destroy this place, tonight, and smash those images.”

“Burn it down,” Raine said.

“Oh, please,” I said.

“A tower fire is easy, if we get enough petrol in there.”

“It’s ninety percent stripped,” Evelyn said. “There’s nothing to burn.”

“At least this doesn’t have anything to do with Lozzie, does it?” I asked.

Evelyn took a moment, then shrugged. That didn’t fill me with hope. “Certain kinds of magic are stronger when family is involved – blood family, I mean. I doubt very much it’s a coincidence that the brother is enmeshed in this … this,” she waved a hand at the whole awful concrete mutation. “And the sister is wandering around with some Outsider living in her head. This is connected. We need to clear the place out, the upper floors may contain more nasty surprises, or hopefully some way to find who put him here, somebody we can beat until they tell us what we want.”

“Bloody right,” Raine said.

“That’s what my little nasty back there is for.” Evelyn thumbed over her shoulder at the shadow-creature in the magic circle at the back of the room. “Three or four of them, clear the whole place out, the upper floors, and burn Alexander’s corpse, yes, to be sure. Just in case. Can never be too careful. Praem, time to leave again.”

“Hold up,” Twil said. “Why not be sure right now?”

“What do you mean?” Evelyn grunted at her.

Twil looked at the pool, at Alexander’s limp corpse, then back at Evelyn. She gestured with both hands, as if it was obvious. “Pull his fukkin’ head off.”

“Pull it off,” Praem echoed from the other side of the water.

“Yes, please, please do,” I added. Raine snorted. “Make sure he’s dead.”

“ … sometimes, you big dumb mutt,” Evelyn said. “I really like how you think.” She favoured Twil with a nasty smile. “You heard her, Praem. Twist his head off.”

“Mind your sleeves on the blood,” I said, trying to focus on anything except what those eyes might mean.

Praem held the torch between her teeth. The circle of light jerked as she grabbed the sides of Alexander’s head – his corpse’s head, I reminded myself, that is a corpse – put her back into it, and twisted.

A dry crunch, the sound of tearing meat. His neck put up little fight against Praem’s inhuman strength. I squeezed my eyes shut. I hated the man, but I couldn’t watch that. Kimberly made a pained noise in her throat and turned away. Twil winced and let out a little ‘urgh’. Evelyn sighed, trying to conceal the way she turned green in the face.

“That’s him done then,” Raine said. When I turned back, Praem was holding up Alexander’s severed head in one hand, pointing the torch at it with her other.

“Done,” Praem echoed.

It wasn’t much of a head, with the skull cracked and the jaw broken and teeth missing and one eyeball burned away. I tried not to dwell on the threads of tendon and tail-like spine dangling from the neck. His remaining eye was stuck looking up and to the left, forever.

He deserved this. An evil man, come to an evil end.

“Where be his quiddits now, his quillets, his cases, his tenures, and his tricks?” I whispered.

“What?” Twil blinked at me.

“I’m going to guess that was Shakespeare,” Evelyn said. “Mm?”

“Yes. Hamlet. It seemed … appropriate, that’s all.”

“Oh. Poetry? Right.”

“Quite right,” Evelyn grunted. “That’s him done. Even my mother wouldn’t have survived a good guillotining. Dump that skull and come on home, Praem.”

In the moment the head began to tilt from Praem’s hand, Kimberly was still turned away, Raine must have been looking at my face, and Twil had glanced upward.

That saved them.

Evelyn and I were not so lucky.

I saw it because I was still staring at his eyeball, thinking about what I’d become by taking on responsibility for this. Evelyn saw it because she was directing Praem.

As Alexander’s severed head fell from Praem’s hand, it passed through the precise intersection point of the invisible gazes of those three eye-murals.

Behind that glassy, dead eye, embedded in its bruised, puffy socket, I saw a ripple of motion. The settling of a vast underwater bulk, as seen through a tiny porthole. It reminded me of what I’d witnessed moving behind the eyes of Twil’s mother – a passenger inside a human mind, but unlike that one. A vast, dark attention turned on us. A split-second was all it needed.

Alexander Lilburne was dead – but nobody said an Outsider needed an intact human brain.

The attack – and in light of what unfolded in those remaining thin hours before sunrise, I do believe it was an attack – was quick and sharp. Pain blossomed inside my head, in my frontal lobe, through the vector of my own sight. I think I screamed, clamped my hands to my skull, and fell out of my chair.

For a few moments I knew nothing but darkness and pain. Awareness returned slowly with a throbbing intensity, my thoughts struggling up through thick tar, everything muffled and too loud at the same time, panicked voices, hands on my shoulders. I sat up suddenly as if freed from a net, panting, my heart racing.

“What- we-”

Raine took my head firmly in both hands, and peered into my eyes. She glanced over her shoulder and back, saying something – Twil’s name, a command to calm down, muffled by the pounding of my own blood in my ears.

An awful keening sound filled the air, interrupted by a repeating heavy thump; the summoned thing in the magic circle at the back of the room was going berserk, throwing itself at its invisible cage over and over, clawing and hissing and spitting, a mass of whipping black limbs and boiling dark fog. Kimberly was over there, snatches of terrified Latin drifting across the room as she fumbled with a book.

Raine peered into my eyes again, and I realised I’d never seen her so worried before. For once, she couldn’t hide it.

“Heather. Heather, you with us? Oh, thank fuck.”

“Yes- yes, Raine, I- it was-”

“It’s okay, it’ll be okay. You were out cold for a few minutes there. How many fingers?”

“ … two. Now three. Raine, what-”

The image in the paddling pool had gone out. Just water.

Evelyn had been a few inches further forward than I. She’d taken the brunt. She must have slid out of her chair. Twil had caught her before she hit the floor, and now held her gingerly, wide-eyed, clearly with no idea what to do.

Evelyn was unconscious, her breathing erratic and laboured, eyes rolling under their lids, blood-flecked froth on her lips.

==

“Why won’t she wake up? Come on, Saye, why won’t you wake up?”

“Twil.”

“I don’t get this. She’s always so fucking stubborn. How can she be out like this? E- … Evee?” Twil grabbed one of Evelyn’s shoulders and shook her gently.

Twil,” Raine snapped. Twil rounded on her, turning away from Evelyn’s unconscious form laid out on the sofa, baring her teeth in a growl. “Give her some room. Don’t crowd her.”

Twil straightened up, still baring her teeth. “Oh yeah? Like that’s gonna work? She won’t fucking wake up, Raine! She’s in a fucking coma!”

“I’m thinking,” Raine said.

We’d done what we could. Or rather, Raine and Twil had. More than enough muscle between them to lift Evelyn onto the sofa and make her comfortable. Raine had fumbled around under Evelyn’s skirt to remove her prosthetic leg, in case she hurt herself somehow. Her breathing had stabilised but her eyes twitched and flickered as if she was in deep REM sleep.

Almost half an hour later, we couldn’t wake her.

I was able to sit upright, hunched in a chair, but I felt awful, as if a fist had reached into my head and punched me in the brain, left me weak and woozy. If I hadn’t been so scared for Evelyn – not to mention Praem – I would have happily curled up in bed and passed out for twelve hours.

If I hadn’t been so terrified.

“Thinking, fuck. We need to do something.” Twil cast about, settled on Kimberly. “Kim, come on, don’t you know anything? Isn’t there some magic you can do, or … ”

Twil trailed off as Kimberly shook her head. She looked almost as bad as Evelyn, slumped against one wall, a thin trickle of bloody drool leaking from one side of her mouth.

None of us knew exactly what had happened with the smoky-dark creature Evelyn had summoned. Perhaps her control had broken when she’d been knocked unconscious, or perhaps it was trying to protect her. The latter seemed unlikely. Whatever the cause, the thing had gone feral. Not one of us had known what to do, except let it free and have Twil or the Spider-servitor rip it apart, but for all we knew that might not work.

Kimberly, with her tissue-paper knowledge and abuse-learnt skills, had stepped in, cringing and terrified of the very thing she was trying to banish. I suspected she’d only succeeded because Evelyn’s notes and books were nearby, already open to the relevant pages, but that didn’t diminish the act of courage. The magic circle was empty now. She’d been spitting blood into a wad of tissues since – the words had hurt her mouth and throat.

“I’ll fucking kill him all over again, fucking Alexander, I fucking will,” Twil said through gritted teeth.

“It wasn’t him,” I said. My voice felt thin and weak. “It was something inside him. It was the Eye. It was those murals, the graffiti.”

“It’ll be okay,” Raine said, squeezing my shoulder. “It can’t get us here, it can’t do that again.”

I shook my head. She didn’t know anything, no more than I did.

“Oh yeah?” Twil spread her arms. With every fury-driven word she looked less and less human, wisps and fragments of her wolfish transformation gathering to her arms and face. “Crush that fucking severed head of his, I bet that would work. Fuck, are we just gonna sit around? We need to take Evelyn to a hospital, now, call an ambulance or something. Come on!”

“That might not be a bad idea,” I said, nodding my agreement, clutching for any shred of normality here.

“And what do we tell the doctors?” Raine asked. She wouldn’t look away from Evelyn, staring, frowning.

“Tell them fucking whatever!” Twil spat.

“And what if they can’t help her?” Raine shook her head. “No, we need a mage.”

“ … we … we could take her to my family.” Twil swallowed. “My mother, she’ll get this, she knows stuff. There’s gotta be something they can do.”

“Not sure we trust your family, not with Evee.”

“Fuck you!” Twil shouted at her.

“Twil, please, stop,” I said, but I had no steel left for my voice. The Eye, it was the Eye. It had gotten to Alexander, somehow – how? He’d known about my sister, hadn’t he? He’d know about Maisie. He’d made contact, somehow? My mind whirled. I couldn’t stop shaking.

“If you’re just going to stand there, I’ll take her back to Brinkwood myself.” Twil bent down toward Evelyn, preparing to lift her.

“I said, I’m thinking.”

Twil froze. Kimberly stared at Raine, spooked-animal style. A tremor of adrenaline shuddered through me. Raine had crammed such threat into those four simple words, without moving a single muscle. Twil straightened up, slowly, staring at Raine as if she couldn’t believe what her ears. She bared her teeth and let out a growl, a deep, thrumming sound. Raine finally looked away from Evelyn’s unconscious form, and met the eyes of a very angry werewolf.

“This time last year you would have been happy to see her dead,” Raine murmured.

“Yeah, well things change, don’t they?” Twil thumped her own chest with one hand. “We’re fucking friends now, and that means something to me, yeah?”

“Good. ‘Cos we’re gonna need some of that. I’m not your enemy here, big bad wolf, but the one thing you’re not doing is carrying Evee out of this house.”

“I don’t believe you, Raine. Still, you don’t fucking trust me? Now?!”

“Raine, it’s Twil,” I managed to murmur.

Raine shook her head. “Trust’s got nothing to do with it. I’m cool with you these days, you’re with us, you know that. Drop the anger. I don’t like to admit it, but we’re real vulnerable right now. You get me?”

Twil blinked at her. Claws faded back into human hands. “What?”

“Evelyn’s always been her own best asset. Not me, not her reputation, not even this house – which, right now, might be the only thing keeping her safe. If this was a trap, a set-up by the cult-”

“It was the Eye,” I hissed

“Yeah, maybe it was.” Raine glanced down at me, tried a smile. For once, it didn’t land. “Maybe that’s what the cult’s doing now. They might have a line on her, know she’s helpless. Might be on the way here. I don’t think they’re stupid enough for that, but they might. And this house – the wards, the servitors, everything her family left here – is the only barrier we’ve got. Following me now?”

Twil stared for a moment, then cast about as if lost. She nodded and scratched wildly at her own head. “The hell do we do then? Wait for her to wake up?”

“Could wait for Praem,” Raine said. “But being realistic … don’t think she’s coming home.”

I felt a sob catch in the back of my throat.

“That’s it then?” Twil said. “We just fucking wait?”

“No, I said I was thinking.” Raine nodded at Evelyn. “There is one person who’d drop everything and come running to help her. Evee’ll kill me for it, but I can make a phone call, and I think we’d all rather have her awake and breathing fire, yeah?”

“Who are you talking about?” I asked, confused.

“Remember back when we were trying to figure out Tenny? Remember the phone calls, the other mages? Remember Felicity?”

“ … a little. Vaguely. I thought she was dangerous?”

“Not to Evee, not in that way. Long story. I’ll get my phone. If I tell her what happened, she’ll be here by nightfall.”

“Nightfall?” Twil gaped. “Fuck, Raine, that’s too long. I can’t- I have to- shit. Fuck it, I’m going. I’m gonna smash that bastard’s skull apart.”

None of us could have stopped her. Kimberly couldn’t even rise to her feet without shaking. By the time I managed to get myself out of the chair and through the kitchen, Twil was already in the front room, shoving her arms into her coat and stamping into her shoes.

“Twil, I’ve never asked you for much, but right now we need you here,” Raine was saying. “The house gets hit, we’re gonna need you. You care about Evee? She needs you here.”

“I can run to Glasswick in fifteen minutes!” Twil all but shouted in her face. “Up the stairs in five, thirty seconds to find the head, and then-” She swung a fist into her own palm. “And then she wakes up. Right?”

“What if it gets you too?” Raine asked. “Only thing spared us is we weren’t looking.”

“I’m fucking invincible, remember?” Twil clacked her knuckles against her own head. “Like to see ‘em try.”

“It won’t make any difference,” I heard myself say.

Twil blinked at me. Her determined expression collapsed. “I gotta do something. I don’t want her to die, I … she … You lot’ll be safe for fifteen minutes. Come on, you’ve got a gun, right?”

“Yeah … yeah I have,” Raine murmured. “Twil, please, hey-”

But Twil wasn’t listening anymore. She unlatched the front door and bolted into the night like a racehorse, more wolf than human. She vaulted the garden wall, and sped off into the darkness, footfalls echoing in early morning hours of Sharrowford before dawn. Cold tendrils of air reached my face, but I couldn’t shiver any harder.

“Raine,” I whined.

Raine stared after Twil, then quickly shut and locked the door. “Wait here,” she said, and hopped up the stairs, three at a time. She returned as quickly as she’d left, the matte black threat of her pistol in one hand, a sheathed knife in the other. “I should go after her. I really should go after her,” she said, grinning. “But no way I’m leaving you and Evee here alone.” She tucked the pistol into the waistband of her pajamas – a image I’d probably never forget – and pulled her mobile phone from her pocket. “I’m gonna make the call now. This might get weird, you don’t have to listen.”

“I … Raine … ” I swallowed, terrified, but I knew what I had to do. “I have an idea.”

Raine’s eyebrows climbed. “Heather?”

“I want to try to use brainmath – hyperdimensional mathematics – to wake Evee up. Break whatever’s been done to her.”

Raine lowered her phone. “You think you can do that?”

I shrugged, and my voice shook a little. “I have no idea. In theory, I can do anything, if I can endure the pain. It’ll hurt, it might go wrong, I’ll … I’ll definitely pass out, but it’s worth trying. Isn’t it?”

“Heather, hey,” Raine tucked her phone and the knife away, and then gave me a hug. Goodness, I needed that. She wrapped her arms around me and for a moment I felt that tiny little bit better, that shred of safety in the one place I’d found real security in life. She sighed. “I don’t want you to hurt yourself too”

“It’s worth trying.”

“Okay, okay, I get it, yeah.” She pulled back, glanced at the kitchen door. Kimberly was bracing herself against the doorframe. “Kim, you holding up alright?”

“I think so,” Kimberly croaked. “May I … may I get some water?”

“’Course you can. We’re gonna try to wake Saye. We might need you nearby, I don’t know, this isn’t my-”

Knock knock.

The room echoed with a knocking on the front door. All three of us stopped and stared.

“It’s Twil, she came back,” I said.

“Maybe.” Raine stepped away from me and drew her gun, held it low, in both hands. She transformed in a split-second, from comforting softness to whipcord-tight tension in every muscle. “Both of you get in the kitchen, behind a wall. Somebody watch Evee.”

“Raine, be careful.”

“Careful’s not in my vocab. I’ll try,” she hissed. She stalked toward the front door, but kept herself off to one side, listening to the deafening silence. Kimberly put a hand on my arm, tried to encourage me to hide with her.

Knock knock knock.

Raine pointed her gun at the door.

“That you back with us, Twil?” she called out.

The reply came after a long silent pause, as if the speaker had to think very carefully about how to form words, how to use its lungs and larynx, mouth and tongue. It didn’t do a very good job.

Open up, open up, three little piggies,” it said, in a nightmare imitation of Lozzie’s voice.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

and less pleasant places – 6.7

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

“Bloody unlikely there’s anyone up there,” Evelyn said.

Exhausted by extrovert acting and hasty brainmath, coming down off the high of strangled righteous anger, and still choked by the oily toxin of self-disgust, I managed only to lift my eyes across the kitchen table to where Evelyn sat.

“How’d you figure that?” Raine asked for me.

Evelyn frowned at her, then at me, then over at Twil.

“Anybody? Really? Am I the only one with two brain cells left?” Evelyn huffed. “The Sharrowford Cult wasn’t naked screaming madmen, they were otherwise normal people, with homes, jobs.” She flung an irritated gesture toward Kimberly, who was still sitting quietly in the corner where we’d deposited her. The untouched mug of tea in Kimberly’s hands betrayed her nerves, and she flinched so badly she almost spilt some. She quickly averted her eyes to avoid her share of Evelyn’s glare.

“It’s alright, she doesn’t bite,” Raine said to Kim.

“I certainly do,” Evelyn snapped. “Why would these vermin ‘hide out’ in an abandoned building? This isn’t a cheap murder mystery novel or noir film. We’re looking for Amy Stack, and guess what, she probably lives in suburban Manchester.”

Raine raised her eyebrows and pulled a ‘fair enough’ face.

Twil laughed. “Evee, what are you talking about? They had a castle.”

Evelyn let out a slow sigh and fixed Twil with a capital-L look.

“What?” Twil spread her arms and tilted her chair back on two legs with perfect balance. At least one of us was in high spirits. “They did! Why not Glasswick tower block? S’not where I’d go, I’d go get lost in the woods, but these people are wackjobs, right?” She tapped her temple.

An internal struggle passed across Evelyn’s face. I wasn’t privy to what she and Twil had talked about while Kimberly and I had spent two hours pretending to be Wiccan girlfriends, but I recognised Evelyn fighting to swallow one of her usual scathing responses.

“Go on then,” Twil said. “Call me a dumbarse, tell me why I’m wrong.”

“You are not only astoundingly stupid, you’re capable of missing things right under your own nose,” Evelyn said, then sank into a very private glower. Oh dear, I suspected that comment had more meaning than Twil knew. “They had a castle because they were doing magical experiments, in their own pocket dimension, hidden from me. They wouldn’t be able to hide for long in an old tower block. It’s useless.”

“I told you already,” I said, and bore Evelyn’s glare with ease for once. “Tenny reacted, when she saw the tower. She didn’t like it at all.”

“ … oh, fuck, alright,” Evelyn spat, and all but threw her empty mug at the tabletop. It bounced once, and Raine snatched the mug out of the air before it could shatter on the floor, muttering ‘mad skills’ under her breath.

“I don’t want to believe it either,” I said. “It’s too silly.”

“It’s absurd,” Evelyn said through gritted teeth. “That’s what it is.”

That was all I could muster for the moment. I screwed my eyes shut in a vain attempt to control the lingering headache inside my skull. All I wanted right now was to curl up under my bed covers and forget this entire evening, shut out the echoes of pain and the awful awareness of the line I’d crossed. None of the others seemed to notice the difference. Even Raine treated me as if nothing had changed.

“Surprised you didn’t know about the place, right next door to you and all,” Twil said. I eased my eyes open to find she was addressing Kimberly.

“I-I didn’t. Nothing.” She shook her head. “I knew the castle, that was it.”

“I find that exceptionally hard to believe,” Evelyn said. Kimberly froze up and swallowed on a dry throat.

She’d been white faced and quiet since the moment Gillespie had finally spilt the beans about Glasswick tower. Huddling in the back of Raine’s car on the return journey, the only thing Kimberly had said was a tiny, terrified plea to please let her come with us, that she couldn’t go home, not now, she had nowhere to go, they’ll get her and they’ll-

“’Course you can come with us,” Raine had said, not missing a beat. “Wouldn’t dream of sending you off alone, not now.”

At least that was one problem less, no need to coax or threaten poor abused Kimberly into coming back with us. I’d almost rolled my eyes to hear Raine play knight in shining armour for another girl, but there was no real jealousy in my heart. I didn’t have the emotional bandwidth.

She hadn’t taken much convincing to come inside either. To her eyes, number 12 Barnslow Drive was another run-down Victorian redbrick in some forgotten Sharrowford street. She wasn’t informed enough, important enough, involved enough, to know about the Saye house – and she’d been coerced into much creeper places before. Evelyn had glanced her up and down in the front room, grunted, and told Raine to park her in a corner.

“I believe her,” I said, summoning myself back to the present, tearing myself away from the guilt. The last thing we needed was Evelyn going off on one. “Kim?”

“Y-yes? Yes, Heather?”

“You’ve never been in Glasswick tower, and you don’t know what the cult did or does there? Tell me the truth.” My words felt so fragile, having to play both enforcer and diplomat, Kimberly’s magical idol and Lozzie’s only link.

“Yes, I promise. I’ve never been in there, I don’t know anything about it. If I did I would tell you. I would tell you, Heather.”

Evelyn grumbled in her throat, unhappy but disarmed for now.

“Maybe Alexander’s in there?” Twil suggested.

“He’s dead. I killed him,” I said.

She shrugged wide. “Seriously? We never saw a corpse, and the big fucko zombie woman made off like a ghost afterward, right? Tch, it’s like you lot don’t even have basic instincts. If you don’t see the kill, it might have run off.”

“Don’t say that. Twil, don’t say that.” I shook my head and sighed. “That is the last thought I needed preying on my mind right now, please.”

Raine squeezed my shoulders. “Hey, Heather, why don’t we go upstairs and get you changed out of this outfit? You feel pretty cold still, could do with some thicker layers, yeah?”

“No, not yet, I … ” I caught Evelyn’s expression – hard, staring, taking Twil all too seriously.

“Think I’m right?” Twil asked with a smirk. “See? I do have good ideas.”

“Unlikely,” Evelyn murmured, then cleared her throat. “Mages are hard to kill, but they’re not invincible.”

“Heather put him through a stone wall,” Raine said. “That’s a lot of broken bones.”

“That wasn’t stone,” I reminded her.

“Good as. Through a stone wall, down like five stories, and then a hard landing – splat. Not even counting what she did to him first. If the bastard lived, he’d have no bone unbroken, no muscle unpulped. You’d be healing from that for years, even with magic to keep his brain fluid from slopping out his ears.”

“Yeah, true, he’d be a sack of mincemeat now,” Twil said. “But maybe that’s why they need an abandoned building. Keep him hidden. Wouldn’t take him to a regular hospital, would they?”

“Unlikely,” Evelyn grunted. She stared at nothing, eyes far away.

“Don’t,” I hissed. Raine squeezed my shoulders again.

Evelyn drew herself up, sharp and resolved. “The last time we confronted these people in their lair, we were completely unprepared. Miracle none of us died. This time we’re going to do it right, or not at all. We’re in no rush, we’re not rescuing Lozzie – she’s popping in and out of reality somewhere, doing God knows what, so forget her.” She tapped the table. “If Alexander’s blood-sodden corpse is in that building – which it isn’t, because they won’t have anything in there at all, and he is dead – I’m going to bury him in a mountain of rubble. I’ll demolish Glasswick tower myself. It’s well overdue.”

“With … magic?” Twil blinked at her. “You can do that?”

“In theory.”

That raised of an entire level crossing worth of red flags. “Evee, you can’t be serious,” I said.

“Deadly serious. We do this right.”

“Evee, they demolish buildings like that with explosives. Careful explosives. And they evacuate the surroundings first. None of us understands the first thing about controlled explosions.” I gaped at her. “Uh, unless … ” I glanced up at Raine.

She burst out laughing. “Heather, that is so flattering. But no, blowing stuff up isn’t in my skill set.”

Evelyn frowned at her. “Don’t lie. You built a bomb once. I watched you do it.”

“ … I did?” Raine looked bemused. “Oh, the petrol bomb. Come on, I made that with a plastic bag and stolen diesel, and it didn’t work. Teenage stupidity doesn’t count.”

“Evee, I’m serious,” I pushed on. “I think demolishing a building might be a little beyond us.”

“How hard can it be?” She scowled at me.

“Pretty hard. One brick wrong and Glasswick tower could fall and hit the other tower, or fall on people’s homes. And there’s bound to be a few homeless people camped in there, too. Evee, no.”

“Yeah, uh, look,” Raine cleared her throat. “I know I have pretty flexible ethics, and I’m all for anything that keeps us out of danger, but we’re not gonna take the risk of killing a thousand people with a magically induced industrial accident.”

“Please don’t-” Kimberly squeaked, swallowed, tried again. “Please don’t destroy my home.”

Evelyn huffed and rolled her eyes.

“I could go check the place out,” Twil said. “Poke my head inside, run up the stairs. It’ll take like ten minutes tops once I’m there. Anybody freaky shows up I’ll knock ‘em sideways and we’ll be done.”

Evelyn looked at her like she was an idiot. “Do you have the memory of a goldfish?”

“Eh?”

“Do you not recall the sorts of things in their little pocket dimension? You want to get eaten that badly, hm?”

“Yeah.” Raine nodded. “Even without that, the inside of Glasswick’ll be a nightmare. Even for you, big bad wolf. No lights, lots of blind corners, those big stairwells. Too many angles, too many hiding places. A gun would be the least of our worries. Kim, you weren’t the Cult’s only trainee mage, not by a long shot, right?”

Kimberly swallowed. “Yes, that’s right. At least three others, t-that I knew of.”

“I rest my case.”

“What could they do?” Twil laughed. “I’m invincible! None of you have to come wi-”

“You are not fucking going in there!” Evelyn exploded. Of all of us, only Raine didn’t flinch. Kimberly nearly fell out of her chair. Even Twil herself jerked back in shock as Evelyn shouted at her. “Not now, not later, not alone, not with us, not at all. I will have Praem tie you to that fucking chair with steel wire if I have to.”

“Alright, alright.” Twil put her hands up. “Fuck. Be cool. No need to shout. If you care that much, alright, I won’t.”

“I shouted because your idiocy is only outstripped by your … ” She huffed and screwed her eyes up, hand to her forehead.

“It’s okay, Evee, we know,” I said. I’m not certain Twil did know. “And I agree. Nobody goes in Glasswick tower. We’re not doing that all over again.”

“If not me, why not send Praem?” Twil asked gently, words on eggshells. “She’s … well.”

“Don’t you dare say expendable,” I hissed.

Twil winced. “S’not what I meant. I mean like, she’s, you know, you can just put her in a new body if you need to, right?”

Evelyn huffed and crossed her arms over her chest, scowling down at the tabletop. “I’ll think of something else. But we’re not setting foot in there. Absolutely not.”

==

Praem already had her own task to carry out, complete with its own risks, and we waited for her to return home before we placed the phone call. Just in case.

I’d retreated from the crowded kitchen to the sanctuary of upstairs, the familiar textures of wooden floorboards and old rugs under my feet, with the intention of shedding the skirt and tights, wiping the foundation off my face, peeling myself out of the sticky, uncomfortable shell I’d worn all evening. I’d never been to a party, not a real one, but I assumed this was what the aftermath might be like if one had a very bad time indeed, bedraggled and upset with oneself.

Raine found me ten minutes later. Still in all my clothes, squinting into the bathroom mirror as I tried to scrub the foundation away from around my eye, wincing as the bruise still stung underneath.

“Hey you,” she said, came up behind me and gently caught my hand. “Hey, hey, let me do that. Soap and water won’t do the job so well, you need some of the good shit. Here.” She grabbed one of the bottles from by the sink and sprayed the contents onto the wet flannel I’d been using, turned me around to face her, and began wiping the makeup off my face. Gentle fingers traced my cheekbones.

I felt like a small girl having her grubby face cleaned, and for a reason I couldn’t admit yet, I felt awful.

“Heather? Hey, it’s okay. You really pulled it off tonight, you know? It was hard, but it’s over now.”

“I’m fine.” I shook my head. “Well, no, that’s a lie, I’m not fine. I’m … emotionally exhausted.”

“Let’s get your face clean first, yeah?” Raine set back to work on me. “I was getting Kim a bit more settled, that’s why I was a few minutes. She’s freaking out ‘cos all her stuff’s back in her flat and she’s gotta go to work in the morning. I’m gonna give her a lift though. She’ll be alright here overnight.”

“Mm.”

I allowed Raine to lead me over the creaking floorboards to our bedroom, to the fresh pajama bottoms and a blanket we’d left draped over the old iron radiator. I craved the heat, but somehow I knew it wouldn’t touch the ice inside me. I went to sit down, to tug the skirt off, but Raine stopped me, lifted one of my hands by the fingers, looked me up and down, and smiled.

“What?”

“You look really good in that getup. Those tights, oooh.” She pulled an approving face. “Killing me.”

I sighed, not up to blushing or feeling flustered right now. “Raine, I was vomiting an hour ago. I feel disgusting.”

“When we’ve found Lozzie, and things quieten down again, we’re gonna both get dressed up and go on a real date. Just you and me, screw everything else for a day. We could go to that noodle place, the fancy one in the shopping centre, and that bookstore you like, and anything else you fancy.”

“Raine, anything-”

“Shh.” She pressed a finger to my lips. “You don’t get to say no to this one. I gotta get you in colourful tights again, ‘cos it makes me randy.”

“Raine.” I rolled my eyes. I knew what she was up to, but it did the trick. The cold in my chest finally began to thaw.

She helped me out of the skirt and tights, rubbed my freezing cold feet, and I wriggled back into the warm pajama bottoms as she wrapped my shoulders in the blanket. I closed my eyes and luxuriated in the heat for a moment, or at least I tried to.

“Snug as a bug in a rug,” Raine said.

The words spilled from me before I could stop them. My voice didn’t shake or shiver, only sounded hollow. “I shouldn’t have done that.”

“Heather? Done what?”

“I crossed a line tonight. One I didn’t even know was there.”

“Heather? Hey, hey.” She sat next to me on the bed, arm around my shoulders. “I’m not gonna pretend I don’t know what you’re talking about, but the last thing you should do is beat yourself up about it.” I met her eyes, silently sceptical, and she replied with a smirk. “Come on, I know you inside out by now. You feel bad about what we did to that Gillespie woman.”

“I tortured her. Me. I did that.”

 Raine let out a big sigh and her smirk dialled down. “I was about to do the exact same thing. Who knows, maybe a trip Outside was less traumatic in the long run than me whacking her in the stomach a dozen times.”

I shook my head. “I sent her Outside. I tortured her with an experience I’ve been through. Self-defence, that was one thing, but … how could I?”

“Hey,” Raine said. “She deserved it.”

“I know she did,” I whined. “I know. She deserves worse. She should be locked up, for life. But I tortured a person.”

“You were justified. You had good bloody reason. We had to find out what she knew, and she’ll never see any other punishment for what she did with the cult. If it was up to me, she’d have gotten off a lot less lightly.”

“It wasn’t lightly, Raine. I broke that woman.” I felt an awful choke in the back of my throat. “How can you not see this? You’re a philosophy student, you’ve studied ethics. Is torture ever acceptable? Is it? I did it without thinking, in the heat of the moment, and it was an awful thing to do.”

I buried my face in her shoulder and tried to shut out the world.

“So you made a mistake,” she said, in a tone of voice that would have made more sense if I’d left the oven on or spilled coffee on a carpet.

“Ugh,” I groaned.

“Everybody makes mistakes. I’m not great at judging these things, it’s up to you. If you think you did wrong then that counts as a mistake. Learn from it, think it over, so next time you’ll act differently. And hey, when it came time to think carefully, you didn’t kill her.”

==

I didn’t kill Gillespie, that much was true, but it hadn’t been an easy decision.

Cringing up at me from the chair in the back office of Grey Magicks, she’d stared in utter terror when I’d pronounced her sentence.

“You’re going to leave Sharrowford. Tonight,” I’d said.

“Leave? I- no- no no please not again-”

“Shut up.” My lips still tasted of vomit and my head rang. Raine had to hold me up, arm around my waist, but I felt no less vengeful for being weak. “I don’t mean where I sent you. I mean leave the city. The cult gave you money, didn’t they? I don’t care how much you’ve already spent, or how much debt you have, or anything like that. Leave. I don’t care if you die in a ditch somewhere. If I ever see you again in Sharrowford, I will send you Outside, and nobody will bring you back.”

“Oh, I- t-thank you, yes, yes I promise, I won’t ever come back. I promise, just- yes.”

“It’s better than you deserve!” Kimberly hissed at her. I jerked at hand at her to shut her up too, this wasn’t her fight anymore.

“What if she talks to the cult?” Praem intoned – Evelyn speaking through her. “We can’t just let her go, don’t be stupid.”

“Yes we can,” I spat.

“I- y-yes … m-my husband, he-”

“I don’t care. No sob stories. You’re leaving.”

“Heather, we need some kind of insurance here,” Raine murmured softly.

“We’re letting her live,” I said. “I’m not- I’m not- oh, fine. You want insurance?”

I forced my feet underneath me, still shaking from the brainmath, shoving Raine’s help away and bracing myself with the corner of the desk. Gillespie stared at me. Her eyes went wide. I reached out one hand toward her and she screamed, tried to scramble away until Praem caught her, tears streaming down her face. She babbled nonsense, pleading, begging, tearing at her own clothes.

“Shut up!” I shouted at her, my throat raw, and lowered my hand. “You see? You see that? I don’t have to explain myself.”

“Saw,” Praem said. That was her, not Evelyn.

“Take her mobile phone if we have to, take her … does she have an organiser, a phone book in her bag? Do you?”

“Yes, yes! Take it, take it!”

Praem did as I suggested, stripping phone and other important things from Gillespie’s handbag on the desk. “Praem, you can go with her to her home, make sure she leaves. Tonight.” Gillespie had fallen to her knees again. I stared down at her. “You understand what I’m trying to do? Because I’m trying really hard to win this argument with myself. If you talk to anyone from the cult, you set foot in Sharrowford again, you do anything, anything – I’ll send you back Outside.”

“I understand! I do! I promise, please- what if- what if the Brotherhood-”

“That’s why you’re leaving.”

“The cult gave you money, yeah?” Raine asked slowly. “How much money?”

“I … uh … e-enough. W-why?”

Raine smirked. “Just curious. Praem, she got a chequebook in that bag?”

==

“I’m gonna make a guess, Heather, a bit of a shot in the dark,” Raine said. My head was still nestled against her shoulder, and I felt the words vibrate through her chest.

“Mm?”

“Are you afraid of changing? Becoming something you don’t recognise anymore?”

“That’s hardly a guess,” I said, and sat up so I could see her face properly. “And no, for once you’re wrong.” I gave her a little smile, the best I could manage. “Killing Alexander didn’t change me. This won’t change me either. It’s … who I was all along, I suppose.”

“That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, not unless you make it that way.”

“Says the woman who’s killed several people right in front of me.”

She grinned and shrugged. Couldn’t help it, could she? “Hey, when it works, it works.”

I sighed. “Maybe we should have killed her. All those homeless people … every one of those zombies, every one was a person. Maybe that’s what bothers me more. Removing one exploitative monster – even Alexander – doesn’t change the world, doesn’t affect anything, all that real horror going on out there.” I gestured vaguely at the window, at Sharrowford beyond. “It doesn’t make a difference. I can’t even save one person.”

“Yes, you can. You have. And we will.”

“I hope so,” I muttered.

==

“You originally from Sharrowford, then?” Twil asked Kim, as we all sat about in the kitchen waiting for Praem.

Evelyn had left the door open to her magical workshop, serenading us with the sounds of her stomping about and leafing through books. Raine kicked out a chair next to me and put her feet up, then dug out the slip of paper with Gillespie’s ‘emergency number’ and tossed it on the table.

A few figures on a torn piece of note paper, and I’d tortured a woman for this. I hugged the blanket tighter around my shoulders, but at least I didn’t feel so damned cold anymore. Raine produced her phone and said muttered something about checking the number.

“Um, yes. Born and bred.” Kimberly tried a smile, but it didn’t last long.

“Where’s all your family about then?” Twil said.

“Both my parents died, six years ago, and five years ago. My dad went first, and my mum didn’t outlive him by much. They couldn’t live without each other.”

“Aww. Sad. Yeah, yeah I get it,” Twil said, nodding. She reached over and awkwardly nudged Kimberly in the shoulder.

“It was a fifth of my life ago. It’s fine.”

“It seemed to me that you had plenty of family tonight,” I said, dragging myself away from dark thoughts. “You should go back to the coven again.”

“I don’t … I don’t know if I can, I … I don’t know.”

I sighed and let myself sag against the table. All I wanted to do was curl up in bed, to not think, but this night wasn’t over yet. “Do I have to command you? Is that what you need?”

“Heather, oi.” Twil frowned at me. I shrugged.

“You should have seen her,” I said. “She was a completely different person.”

Raine looked up from her phone and grinned. “Maybe you should be the new high priestess. A hostile takeover.”

“No, I … I couldn’t. But maybe you’re right.” Kimberly stared into her untouched mug of tea. “Jerry can’t do everything on his own, maybe … with Cathy gone … ”

When Kimberly didn’t resume her train of thought out loud, Raine clonked her phone down on the table and stretched her arms above her head. “Well, it’s a Sharrowford number, for sure, and it’s real. Shows up in listings and stuff, but not who or what it’s registered to. Could be anything.”

“You think the old bitch might have lied?” Twil asked.

“No.” I shook my head. “She was too afraid to lie to me.”

Raine reached over and squeezed my shoulder.

“Mmm,” Twil grunted, shrugged, then turned to Kim again. “Why’d you like being Wiccan, anyway? What’s it like?”

“Why are you so interested in her life story?” Evelyn drawled from the doorway to her workshop. She had a face like a thunderstorm. “You know what she was.”

“’Ey?”

“Evee,” Raine sighed.

“I’m sorry,” Kimberly squeaked “I-”

Et tu?” Evelyn snapped at her, rattling off Latin at sudden speed. “Quid de te? Intellige quae dico?”

“I-I don’t- I only know a few words, only the things I needed for the spells I was taught. That’s all, I promise.”

Evelyn stared at her like she was trying to bore holes in Kimberly’s head, then grunted a dismissal. She shoved discarded mugs out of the way with her walking stick, unrolled a piece of canvas from under her arm, and laid it down on the table. A magic circle draw in hasty marker pen stared back at us, and set a tingling feeling in the back of my skull.

“Precautions.” Evelyn held her hand out. “Whose phone are we using for this?”

Raine’s phone, apparently, which she carefully deposited in the centre of the magic circle.

“Who does the talking?” Twil asked.

“Me obviously,” Evelyn grunted as she sat down, rubbing her thigh where her prosthetic attached. “I’m the only one who can credibly threaten them over a phone line.”

“Can you … ” Kimberly asked. “Can you really do that?”

Evelyn gave her a withering stare. “What do you think?”

I caught Evelyn’s eyes, asking the same question without words. She sighed and shook her head ever so slightly. So, we were powerless.

Praem returned a few minutes later, a smart click as she unlocked the front door and let herself in. Raine went to check she locked up again properly, and Praem glided into the kitchen. She took her usual place a few paces behind Evelyn.

“Success, or not?” Evelyn grunted at her.

“Success,” Praem intoned.

“In my account?”

“Success.”

“Went off without a hitch?” Raine asked, coming back in and grinning at the doll-demon. “She really did it, huh? How much she have her bank account?”

Praem’s musical lilt all but sung the number out. “Thirty three thousand seven hundred and twenty two pounds.”

None of us said anything for a long moment. I believe my mouth hung open. Evelyn snorted, Raine laughed.

“That is so much fucking money. Fuck,” Twil said, gaping at us. “What- how-”

“Thirty thousand quid. Bugger me.” Raine grinned.

“What are you going to do with it all?” Kimberly asked.

“That is so much fucking money,” Twil repeated.

“It’s not that much,” Evelyn tutted.

“Yeah, and you’re rich. You don’t get to weigh in,” Twil said. “Fuck. Fuck.”

“We could buy a boat!” Raine laughed.

“It goes to Shelter,” I said, gathering my wits. I put some steel into my voice. “We can keep a little – a little – but it goes to Shelter.”

“Who? What?” Twil blinked.

“The homeless charity,” Evelyn said, nodding. “She’s right.”

“Oh. Oh, right.”

“And- and the Trussell people, the food banks,” I added. “Gillespie preyed on the homeless. Her money goes to helping them. None of us are anywhere near that desperate.”

Nobody argued, thank God. Thirty thousand was more than I’d expected. We had to be very, very careful with this. No time to think it over right now though.

We turned all the lights on. No sense doing this in the dark, Raine said. No sense making this more creepy than it had to be. Carefully, Evelyn reached over and set Raine’s mobile phone to speaker mode, then punched in the number, and let it ring.

Five rings, six rings – seven, eight, still not going to answer-phone.

“Please, please,” I whispered.

“It is like, almost midnight,” Twil hissed. “Whoever has it might be asleep.”

“Or dead,” Raine offered. “Might be we slapped ‘em back in the castle.”

“Or they’re not stupid enough to fall for this,” Evelyn sighed, and reached forward to kill the call.

Click.

The call connected. Evelyn whipped her hand back as a voice whispered out from the phone’s speaker.

“Who is this?”

Soft and measured, drained of affect, a gauze-thin layer of supreme detachment over the promise of quick violence. My stomach clenched up with instinctive recognition.

“Stack,” I mouthed silently.

“Bingo,” Raine whispered, wiggling her eyebrows.

In the corner of my eye I noticed Kimberly tense up in the way a small animal might do. Evelyn nodded her understanding, took a breath, drew herself up, and raised her chin.

“This is Evelyn Saye. You know who I am, and I know who you are, and you know that if you put the phone down I can hurt you much faster than you can escape. Understand? Are you listening to me, Amy Stack?”

Silence. Slow, brooding silence.

“I hear you,” Amy Stack said eventually. Like she didn’t even care.

“You’ve been tracking Lauren Lilburne. She’s been back to this side of reality. You’re going to tell me how you’re doing it, or where to find her.” Evelyn raised her eyes to meet mine. I nodded, heart in my throat.

Another long pause. So long that Raine raised an eyebrow and Twil bared her teeth.

“Mm,” Stack grunted. “Can’t tell you that.”

“Can’t, or won’t?” Evelyn snapped.

“Can’t,” Stack repeated. She drew in a long breath and sighed slowly, the sound distorted by the phone connection. A creak – settling into a chair, or back on her bed? Had the call woken her? “I can’t tell you that, because it’s not Lauren we’re trying to catch.”

“Not Lauren?” I blurted out. Evelyn shot me a pinched frown, but I’d convinced myself I knew what I was doing.

“ … miss Morell. No, if you’ve seen the same thing we have, it’s not Lauren Lilburne.”

“She could still be in there,” I hissed.

Silence.

“Who is ‘we’?” Raine asked.

“Mister Edward Lilburne and his associates.”

Evelyn barked a derisive laugh. “Another cult. Don’t put on airs, you sad little thing.”

“As you say.”

My patience ran thin as stretched skin. Was this what I’d tortured a human being for, this stonewalling? Evelyn and Raine were busy making silent eyes at each other, debating how to proceed, while Twil scowled at the phone as if it had offended her. Kimberly was no help at all, curling smaller and smaller on her chair in the corner.

“I need you to talk to me, Stack,” I said, summoning up the shredded reserves of my determination. “I tortured a woman today, I sent her Outside and brought her back, because I thought she might lead me to Lozzie. And right now I think you’re the next link. I don’t care what I have to … ”

The words died in my throat. Instinct told me Stack didn’t care about threats.

Another long silence before she spoke again, reptile thoughts at reptile speed.

“I need to talk to my boss,” she said. “I’m going to have to put the phone down.”

“Oh no you don’t,” Evelyn hissed. “You tell me right now, exactly what you people have been up to again in my city.”

“Mr Lilburne may decide to share certain facts with you,” Stack said. “Otherwise I wouldn’t suggest I ask him. And he’s too much of a coward to talk to any of you himself. I’ll call you back on this number, likely within fifteen minutes. Do we have a deal?”

“ … deal,” I mouthed, nodding. “Deal,” Raine whispered. Evelyn grit her teeth. Twil shrugged, Kim stayed silent.

“Deal,” Evelyn said out loud.

The call disconnected. None of us spoke for several seconds, until Raine shook herself and blew out a long breath. “What’s the odds on her actually calling us back?”

“Slim,” Evelyn grunted.

“It’s worth a try,” I said, throat tight.

“It’s a bloody good thing I have this in place.” Evelyn reached forward and tapped the magic circle on the piece of canvas. “Her boss is probably about to try something stupid. This is a fool’s errand. Best case, she feeds us a pack of lies. Our next step is Glasswick tower, but fuck me if I know how.”

“I,” Praem intoned.

Everyone looked at her, but Praem stared straight ahead.

“Was that meant to be you stepping forward?” Evelyn asked. “Yes, for your information, of course I’ve thought of using you. What do you think you’re here for?”

“Going anyway,” Praem said. Evelyn frowned at her.

“For Lozzie?” I asked.

Praem turned to stare at me, but said nothing. I nodded a silent thank you. Raine chuckled softly and shook her head, opened her mouth to speak, when the phone on the table rang softly and made me jump. Evelyn put a finger to her lips, waited a beat, and pressed the answer call button.

“It’s me,” Stack’s voice floated from the phone’s speaker.

“You again, indeed.” Evelyn eyed the magic circle, tension plain on her face, but nothing started glowing or hissing or sparking, my vision didn’t swim and my head didn’t hurt any more than it already did.

“My boss has decided it’s better you’re informed than not.”

“Oh, lucky us,” Twil sneered.

“ … I don’t recognise that voice,” Stack said.

“You wanna get to know it, bitch?” Twil asked.

Evelyn swiped a finger at Twil, a silent shut-the-hell-up gesture. “Never you mind who that is. Now why would your boss want to share anything with us at all? Convince me this isn’t a trap, if you can.”

“Better you deal with this than we have to,” Stack said. “Mr Edward is a much more sensible leader than his late nephew. Less ideological, more practical. Terrified of everything. Whatever it is wandering around Sharrowford and the surrounding countryside, if you want it, you’re welcome to it.”

It is Lozzie,” I hissed.

“No, it’s not. I’ve seen it up close. It’s a passable facsimile at a distance, but it’s not Lauren Lilburne. It’s pretending to be her.”

A spark of dark hope kindled in my chest, but I couldn’t believe it, not from this source. “You’ve seen her?”

“That’s a lie!” Kimberly said. “I’ve seen her too, I know it’s her. It looks like her!” She clamped a hand over her mouth, wide-eyed.

“ … is that who I think it is?” Stack asked softly.

“You leave her alone, slaphead,” Raine said, low and dangerous. “Or I’ll be the thing going bump in the night on your skull.”

“Mm,” Stack grunted. “She’s wrong. It’s not Lauren. It visited us, in broad daylight, to speak with Mister Lilburne, except it didn’t say anything that made sense.”

“What exactly did she say?” I asked, and could almost feel the shrug from the other end of the phone.

“Nonsense words. Nothing with any meaning, like a old person with advanced Alzheimer’s. Then it left.”

“Where’d it visit you?” Evelyn asked. “In Sharrowford? Over in Manchester? Where are you, exactly?”

“Nice try.” Stack’s tone said it wasn’t a nice try at all. Evelyn snorted.

“How do I find her?” I asked. “How did you find she’d gone to Kimberly’s flat?”

“Mister Lilburne is unwilling to share his techniques.”

“You-”

“But,” Stack said, soft and affectless as all her speech – but something new lurked behind her words. “Pretty sure it’s the same method he used to to detect your extra-dimensional messenger. Back in the autumn, I believe?”

“Maisie’s messenger?” I breathed. “You have a way of picking up things entering our reality from Outside, don’t you?”

“I don’t know. I’m no magician.”

We all shared a glance with each other. Evelyn grit her teeth and shook her head, powerless over the phone line for all her threats and bluster.

“I think it’s looking for things from Lozzie’s life. Locations. People. Maybe trying to imitate her better, who knows.”

“Is that what your boss speaking, or you?” Raine asked. She must have picked up the same undertone I heard.

A very long moment of silence. I half-thought she’d put the phone down without us realising it.

“Let’s keep this line of communication open. If he … ” She paused. “If we detect it again, we’ll call this number. You catch her, you let us know.”

“We’ll let you know both bull and shit, skinhead,” Raine said, a smirk in her voice.

“Wait,” Evelyn growled. “Glasswick tower. What do you know about it?”

“Glasswick tower? Wouldn’t go there if I wanted to keep my skin. Alexander Lilburne had a project in there, something ugly. Needed a few bodies for it. I never went up.”

“Are there any of you lot left in there? Any of your idiot ‘Brotherhood’?”

“We’re not with them anymore. That’s all.”

“You tell us-”

“That’s all. Good hunting.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

and less pleasant places – 6.6

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Two days later, on an evening of clear black skies and frosty pavements, Raine pulled her car to a stop in the Foxenden Road multi-story car park, set the handbrake, killed the engine, and turned to Kimberly and I in the back seat.

“Was gonna ask if you two feel ready.” Her grin was almost lost in the concrete gloom. “Don’t need to, do I? You look ready.”

“As much as I’ll ever be,” I muttered. I wriggled my hands into the white leather gloves I’d borrowed from Evelyn, and tucked my scarf around my throat.

Kimberly nodded and exhaled slowly and steadily. She didn’t look too shaky in the dim orange light cast by the car park’s overhead lamps. I suspected she had some cannabis in her bloodstream, but I didn’t blame her one bit. Everything tonight rested on the strength of her nerves – and her acting talent.

She didn’t need to hold it together for long; two hours from now this would all be over, one way or another.

“It’ll be okay,” she said. “I’ll be okay.”

“Focus on the fun part, hey?” said Raine. “You get to hang out with some of your actual friends for a bit, right? The messy part, that’s all me and Heather. You don’t even have to stay and watch that part if you don’t want to.”

“That’s very kind of you. But … I’d rather not walk home by myself. Please.”

I cleared my throat and shot Raine a look. “You won’t have to.”

“Sure, no problem, we’ll give you a lift.” Raine shrugged. “I’ll even walk you up to your flat, make sure there’s nobody lurking about. Sounds cool?”

“Yes. Yes, thank you.”

I treated Raine to another few seconds of my best glower. She just grinned at me, attractive and infuriating in equal measure.

What Kimberly didn’t know – and what left me so irritated before we’d even begun the evening’s absurd plan – was that she wasn’t going home tonight. She was coming back to number 12 Barnslow Drive whether she liked it or not. Supposedly half for her own safety, but also half because Evelyn had demanded they meet. I suspect Evee wanted to interrogate the poor woman herself.

Raine had insisted we treat Kimberly’s nerves with cotton wool, which meant lying to her, so as not to spoil our chances of pulling off this mad escapade. The deception tasted like rotten bile in my mouth. I had an entire paragraph-long apology to deliver, not to mention some choice criticism for my friends when we got home.

I checked the contents of my pockets: purse, lipsalve for the five minute walk through the biting cold, mobile phone for emergencies, personal attack alarm for bigger emergencies, and Raine’s most recent present for me – a slender black palm-sized can of highly illegal pepper spray – for absolute emergencies.

“Wanna go over the plan one last time?” Raine asked.

I shook my head. “It’s not exactly difficult. Kimberly?”

“I’m fine too.”

“You’ve got to sell the girlfriend angle,” Raine said. “Stop high priestess spooky smelling a rat. We’ve got to get her alone. She suspects anything, then I’ll have to do this all in a much uglier way.”

“And how do you suggest we do that, Raine?” I asked. “Make out in front of the Wiccans? Dress in rainbow flags?”

I’d heard all the reasoning, three times over, but I still huffed and crossed my arms. Kimberly swallowed, and I felt even more sorry for her. She was the one who’d have to fake a lesbian relationship in front of all her old friends and acquaintances.

She hadn’t raised a squeak of protest though. Privately I wondered if she’d made this about atonement.

At least we were dressed the part. I’d played up the clean-cut student angle, a thick cream-coloured polo neck borrowed from Evelyn under my coat, and a long skirt over a pair of burgundy tights. Raine had helped me choose, helped soften the nasty bruise around my eye with foundation and concealer, and helped me do my hair too, brushed it smooth and teased the ends up. A fake date night outfit, far beyond the usual limits of my courage, but this was for Lozzie’s sake.

Kimberly still looked deeply unhealthy, but she’d cleaned up well, her auburn hair twisted back and pinned up with a pair of chopsticks, the worst of her dark eye-circles hidden with a little makeup, neat sky-blue polish on her nails. Comfortable denim jeans drew attention upward, to her hips and her showy tshirt visible through her open coat, the front printed with a rearing unicorn locked in combat with a dragon.

“Hold hands, stick close to each other, make eye contact,” Raine said. “And Kim, introduce Heather as your girlfriend. That’s all. S’easy. Just don’t make a move ‘til you see me. I’ll be right there the whole time, in case things get too weird. You won’t be in any danger, either of you.”

“What if you can’t get inside?” Kimberly asked. “I know you can pick locks, but … ”

“Then I’ll text Heather, like I said. Anything doesn’t go to plan, the smallest nut or bolt, then I text Heather, and suddenly you both have to leave because of family in hospital, or your car’s been clamped, or one of you has the shits. Walk out without explanation if you have to. We’ll be right there.” She turned to the fourth member of our little team. “Ain’t that right, Praem?”

“We shall,” Praem intoned from the passenger seat, staring straight ahead, hands folded in her lap. She’d peeled herself out of – or been peeled out of – her maid uniform, dumped unceremoniously into a pair of ugly cargo trousers and a big puffy coat.

I did feel sorry for her, but one could hardly conduct occult espionage dressed like a domestic servant.

“Bear with it for now, Praem,” I said. “Won’t take long.”

“Bearing,” Praem replied, a musical lilt in her voice.

Raine cocked a curious eyebrow at me, but I waved her down, too jittery and impatient to explain. She shrugged, smirked, and twisted around to wave a hand in front of Praem’s eyes. “You tuned in as well, Evee?”

“Evelyn says she is watching,” Praem replied.

“Have fun with Twil while we’re all away, yeah?” Raine winked at Praem, or more accurately she winked at Evelyn, watching through the doll-demon’s eyes via a paddling pool full of water in her magical workshop back home, while Twil kept her company and guarded the house.

If we’d been doing something less mad, I would have rather enjoyed the thought of those two alone with each other for several hours. I did so hope Evelyn found her courage.

“Stop wasting time,” Praem said, and I could tell those weren’t her words, the doll-demon’s musical tones warped by Evelyn’s cadence. “Fashionably late is one thing, but really late is going to look suspicious. Shit or get off the pot.”

“Right you are, right you are.” Raine laughed and rubbed her hands together, then leaned back over the seats and kissed me once, hard, on the forehead, and patted Kimberly’s shoulder. “You won’t see me, but I’ll be right behind you.”

“I still can’t believe this doesn’t make you jealous,” I said.

Raine winked at me. “Break a leg.”

==

Sheltered from the worst of the cold by the close-leaning commercial buildings of the city centre’s edge, the five minute walk from the car park to St. Helen’s road was still punishing in the January evening.

We walked hand-in-hand through the pools of orange streetlight, without speaking. Kimberly’s hand felt clammy and limp in mine, as she led me past closed sporting-goods stores and office supply places. When we rounded a corner, I looked up, and caught a brief glimpse of Sharrowford Cathedral in the distance, the beautiful stonework lit from below, before we turned down a less-used side road.

Along the pavement and leaf-choked gutter, past a hole-in-the-wall sandwich place and a greasy little pawn shop, and there it stood on the last corner before a half-lit dingy residential street.

Grey Magicks, the shop sign read, in big jagged letters faded by the weather.

I assumed the font was meant to resemble runes. It looked tacky.

Besides the unfortunate sign, the exterior of the shop struck me as quite charming. The door was short, stout wood, with an iron knocker shaped like a lion’s head. A bank of narrow, metal-latticed windows looked out on the street, overhung by oddly thick walls and glowing with soft light inside. A chalk signboard sat out the front, advertising, of all things, ‘self-confidence, good energy, and love of nature!!!!’ Each exclamation mark was written in a different colour.

Nothing gave the casual observer any idea of what the shop actually sold. Not the sort of place one wandered into without already knowing what one was in for.

“This is it,” Kimberly breathed. Her eyes darted up and down the darkened street as we stopped on the opposite pavement. I did my best to conceal my own nerves. The last thing the star of tonight’s show needed was my second-hand jitters.

“We’re late, but that’s fine. That’s part of the plan. Everyone else must already be here.”

“I was-” She swallowed and sniffed. “I wasn’t looking for others. I was looking for Raine.”

Kimberly hadn’t really led me here, of course, and she knew that too. Raine would never leave such an important factor to chance. We’d used Google maps to check out the route, the layout of the surrounding streets, and even dug up a picture or two of the interior of Grey Magicks – although I seriously doubted I’d remember any of the details in a crisis. For now though, I knew exactly what to expect, inside and out. No surprises.

The last 48 hours had not been easy, not on anybody except Raine – she hadn’t been able to suppress her relish at embarking on this kind of mischief, which for once didn’t put me in explicit danger.

I, on the other hand, had spent every spare minute since Sunday wracking my brains for another way to find Lozzie. It wasn’t that I didn’t have faith in this plan, but I couldn’t bear the waiting, the not knowing, the dwelling on what Lozzie might be going through as I pretended everything was normal, went to university classes, slept and ate and felt useless.

Could we go back to the little park where she vanished Outside, could I somehow trace her from there? Did Evelyn have a way – her answer was not encouraging: maybe, perhaps, with the right tools, if, if, if. Could I somehow follow her trail Outside, do it myself, alone, unprotected? That line of thought terminated last night, with me sobbing in the bathroom, the door locked behind me, as I’d tried to summon the courage. Raine had found me first, of course.

Which part of Sunday’s news got to Evelyn so badly, I was never really sure. She didn’t care much for Lozzie, I knew that, but I trusted in the basic goodness of her heart, and I chose to believe at least part of her frantic attitude was born from care.

She’d demanded to speak with Kimberly, ranted and raved about an Outsider loose in Sharrowford, locked herself in her workshop for the whole of Sunday night and emerged again to interrogate me about Lozzie’s behaviour. She couldn’t wait either, but neither did she have a solution.

“Espionage,” I whispered to myself as I gathered my wits and prepared to cross the road. “If only my mother could see me now.”

Kimberly attempted a smile. She was shaking.

“Just remember what Raine said,” I murmured, squeezing her hand. “Act like nothing’s wrong.”

She nodded. Her eyes were unreadable dead pools of sterile blue ice. “I won’t let you down. I promise.”

I did have some inkling of what she was bottling up, didn’t I?

I nodded toward Grey Magicks, at the faux-rustic building, and completely failed to make my point properly when I opened my stupid mouth. “You know, I’m pretty sure Evelyn Saye believes in God.”

“ … I … o-okay.”

I sighed, both at myself, and at Kimberly’s meek acceptance of my non-sequitur. “That didn’t come out right. And it’s not entirely accurate, either. I think Evelyn believes in God, on some level. She told me this complex metaphor once, for reality, about a castle, and how, well, a castle has to have a builder. I’m not saying she’s Christian, that would be absurd, but she believes in something.” Kimberly eyed me warily, so I forged on, trying to explain myself. “I’d never really thought about it before, but considering everything people like us have seen, perhaps it’s difficult to not believe in something, at least. What I’m trying to say is … all that stuff, in there,” I nodded toward Grey Magicks. “It’s as valid as anything else. Perhaps you don’t have to give up on it.”

Kimberly blinked several times and looked away. “I don’t know … ”

“I’m sorry. This probably isn’t the best time to discuss that.”

“No. No, it’s okay. Maybe you’re right. I don’t know anymore. I wish I’d never found religion.”

I squeezed her hand again, and this time she squeezed back, no longer so limp.

“Nothing more to do out here,” I said, my heart fluttering too hard in my chest. We were perfectly safe. Raine was nearby, and so was Praem. All we had to do was pretend for an hour or two, and then we’d have a talk with Catherine Gillespie.

A little chat, that was all.

==

The Wiccan coven meet was technically called an ‘esbat’, although I wasn’t informed exactly what that word meant.

It was also exactly what I expected it to be, and despite my best efforts it all felt quite silly indeed.

Fourteen regulars were in attendance on this Tuesday evening, though apparently the coven proper was over double that size. This was only a bi-weekly extra, for those who had the time and inclination on a week night. I spotted a few faces I very vaguely recognised from campus, but not all the Wiccans were young impressionable hippie-adjacent women, not by a long shot.

A trio of older ladies – and one much older gentleman – formed the emotional bedrock of the congregation, and they looked the part to absolute perfection. All long grey hair and faces crinkled from lifetimes of smiling, wearing pentagram pendants and comfortable cardigans, fanciful old tattoos on liver-spotted arms. They were already sitting and chatting in comfortable chairs toward the back of the store’s floor space, in a nice large cleared area before a desk which obviously served as the shop’s till while open, but was now covered with a white cloth and several ritual items – wooden bowls, a blunt knife, a silver mirror, lots of scented candles.

The rest of the coven was a mixture of fresh-faced bright young things, and middled aged women, though to my shameful surprise it wasn’t all women. Why had I expected that?

Three other men were here, one a huge barrel-chested giant of a man with enough hair to drown an elephant, who was meditating quietly when we entered, sat on the floor with his eyes closed, legs crossed, hands balanced on his knees.

Four of the younger Wiccans in their 20s – Kimberly’s old friends from before the Cult got her, as I was about to discover – were wearing crowns of fake ivy, and despite myself I thought it looked sort of sweet, especially as they were the ones to perk up and greet Kimberly first. We’d barely gotten through the door and out of the cold, when we were suddenly surrounded by a storm of attention.

“Kim! You’re back again!”

“Oooh, who’s this with you? Hello!”

“Give us a hug, Kim. Here, don’t be a stranger.”

“Thought we’d lost you yet again when you weren’t here Saturday. Can’t stay away, eh?”

“I’m- I- yes.” Kimberly managed a shaky smile, and gave the requested hug to a particularly plush looking friend of hers. “I can’t stay away, you’re very right there, yes. T-this is Heather.” She held up my hand, still in hers, and her friends took her nervous awkwardness in their stride. “She’s- she’s my girlfriend.”

“Oooh, lovely to meet you, Heather.”

“Yes!” One of them clapped. “Well done, Kim, about time you found somebody again.”

“Is this your first visit?” Another asked me. “Have you ever been to a Wiccan esbat or sabbat before? You do look a bit nervy, it’ll be fine, promise. You don’t have to do anything.”

“Oh, look at her, she’s so cute! You’re tiny! How tall are you?”

“Um, not- uh- not very.” A terrible blush crept up my cheeks, though not for the reason Kimberly’s friends assumed; for a split-second Kimberly was not the liability here – I was, and I almost cracked.

All I could do was smile and nod.

But that’s what I’d do if this situation was for real, wouldn’t I? Brought on an awkward date, surrounded by kooky neopaganism, intimidated by a gaggle of older girls.

I smiled, and I nodded.

“Heather,” Kimberly continued, with a real smile on her face now as she indicated her friends one by one. “This is Ginny, and this is Kate. The one who is about to hug you, that’s Natalie, and last but not least, this is Spike.”

“S-spike?” I stammered, already forgetting which names went with which faces. Unlikely I’d ever seen any of these people again after tonight.

“It’s a nickname,” ‘Spike’ said, and the others all laughed. She didn’t look much like a ‘Spike’, with long curly brown hair and big glasses. I smiled and nodded, and went with the flow.

“Come along you two, now you’re here. It won’t be long now, they’re about to start,” one of them said.

We all wandered down the length of the shop together, past bookshelves and wooden racking, glass cases and display tables, all filled with glossy ‘occult’ texts, fancy ritual tools, crystal balls, statuettes, robes, and all manner of pagan knick-knacks. At one point a large orange cat got under our feet, purring loudly and looking for attention. One of the girls picked him up and carried him along with us.

Over the next ten minutes of settling down in a rough ring of chairs and stools in the cleared portion of the battered old store, I couldn’t help but notice that Kimberly positively transformed as she spoke to her coven-mates. She smiled without forcing her expression, sat up straighter, spoke without being spoken to – and not only to her old friends either. Almost everybody greeted her by name, and some asked if she was coming back for good this time. The much older gentleman in one of the comfortable chairs actually stood up and crossed the circle, and Kimberly all but bounced out of her seat to give him a friendly hug.

“Are you staying this time, Kemp?” he asked her. “We’ve all missed you dearly. You know that, don’t you?”

“I’m … I’m sorry, Jerry. I hope so, yes, I do hope so,” she said after a moment, then turned to me. “Heather, this is Gerald Hower. He’s been here the longest, and he owns the shop. Jerry, Heather. She’s my uh … mine.”

Couldn’t quite lie to the old man, could she? A surrogate father figure. Better than Alexander, at least.

“Oh. Welcome, you’re very welcome.” He nodded to me and beamed the sort of smile that only genuinely kind old men can. “I hope you decide to come back too. Might be a bit spooky, your first time, but don’t you worry.” He gave me a broad wink.

“I’m quite good with spooky,” I said, and smiled. At least in that, I could speak the truth.

A middle aged woman – perhaps in her fifties, wearing a rough-spun green robe over her clothes – stepped up behind the table with the white cloth and rung a tiny silver bell. All fell silent, and my heart climbed into my throat. She smiled at everyone present, open and welcoming, crow’s feet in the corners of bright eyes, as she raised both hands. Loose dark hair fell about her shoulders, and she wore more makeup than most, heavy lashes and long false fingernails.

“I declare this esbat, begun,” said Catherine Gillespie.

==

She didn’t recognise my face, didn’t know me, was none the wiser – and didn’t seem surprised to see Kimberly still alive and breathing.

Or perhaps Gillespie had plenty of practice concealing her true feelings.

I wasn’t as singled out as I might have felt, because there were two other first-timers in attendance that night: a young woman about my age, and the twelve year old granddaughter of an another coven member. The little girl was certainly much more nervous than I, even though when this was over she’d be off home to bed, whereas I’d be staying behind to do things both illegal and cruel.

The proceedings felt very silly to me, from the moment Gillespie led the group in a prayer – though they didn’t call it a prayer – to ‘beseech the Goddess and God for help and comfort, love and support’, all the way through the whole hour and a half of greetings, coven news, and then a great big ritual they organised in the middle of the floor. Chalk pentagrams with candles and lacquered wooden offering bowls at the corners, lots of chanting and flowery language, a blunt silver ritual knife and cups of spiced wine.

Despite my assumptions, the ‘high priestess’ didn’t actually lead the ritual. That was left for the older gentleman, Gerald, who I gathered had been doing this sort of thing for a long time indeed. To my surprise, he invited Kimberly to help him.

She lit up so much, waving around those bowls of rose-scented water.

The ritual was a petition for for aid, a “magical working to encourage the good health and speedy recovery of one of us who cannot be here today,” Gillespie said. One of Kimberly’s friends leaned over to me and explained that one of the younger members of the coven was in the hospital. Leukaemia.

At least these people’s hearts were in the right place. I was starting to understand why Kimberly valued this, no matter how silly it felt.

Would my reaction have been any different this time last year? What I felt was not the mere embarrassed scepticism of a lifelong agnostic, or the usual polite British distaste for ostentatious displays of religion, but a much deeper absurdity, one which only emerged in full once the coven started their ritual.

As they chalked their pentagrams on the floor, I couldn’t help but compare this to the very real magecraft I’d witnessed over the last few months. The blood and pain, the eye-searing magic circles, the languages that were never meant to be spoken with human mouths. This was like children playing dress up in adult clothes, and it made me uncomfortable – and more than a little sad.

I did my best to seem attentive and interested, sitting on the sidelines with the other observers, as I focused all my real attention on watching Catherine Gillespie.

Twil hadn’t liked that our target was named Catherine. “S’my mum’s name, isn’t it? That’s just weird. Ugh,” she’d complained.

“Maybe we put the wind up her bad enough, she’ll change it for you,” Raine had said, elbowing Twil in the ribs.

Gillespie didn’t look like the sort of woman who would funnel vulnerable victims to the likes of Alexander Lilburne and the Sharrowford Cult. An icy shard of doubt settled in my gut as I watched her smile at the other coven members, exchange encouraging words with her flock, counsel those who looked up to her. Her whole bearing radiated motherly kindness.

Could this be a trap?

Could Kimberly have lied to us?

No, paranoia. Nothing more. My eyes flickered to the back of the cramped, junk-packed store, to the two doors that led into the back, to where Raine likely now lurked.

The ritual ended with an offering – cake and wine – lifted on a tray over the pentagram, dedicated to their deities, and then laid down on the table to be shared out among us mere mortals.

The atmosphere descended into something more like a party than a religious gathering.

It was utterly exhausting.

I’ve never been a social butterfly, or even a social moth. Pretending to be Kimberly’s girlfriend, and interested in Wicca, and keep track of Gillespie, and ready myself for the moment we put the plan into action? I felt ready to spin apart.

One of Kimberly’s friends pressed a cup of spiced wine into my hands. I pretended to sip, pretended to follow the chatter, gave answers that I forgot as soon as I’d said them. Had to keep my wits about me. Kimberly returned, all smiles, but faltered when she caught the look in my eyes.

“Heather. I’ll uh, yeah. I’ll go have a word with her. I’ll be right back. Right back.”

I watched Kimberly in the corner of my eye, pulse heavy in my throat, heart tight inside my ribcage, as she slipped back through the crowd to seek a private word with Gillespie. She found her high priestess and took her briefly to one side. I heard Kimberly’s words inside my head, the ones we’d rehearsed.

‘I brought Heather tonight because our … mutual friends, they suggested to me that she should be introduced, through yourself.’

This was the fulcrum on which the plan turned. The entire reason for this absurd setup.

We had to get Gillespie alone, but the problem was how. If she really was connected to the Cult, she’d be cautious, and possibly paranoid of discovery. We needed her curious – why had Kimberly come back again, who was this with her? – but not spooked by the obvious, open threat of somebody like Raine turning up.

I readied myself to break for the front door, for the plan to crumble, but Kimberly held her nerve. Gillespie glanced my way, and put a reassuring hand on Kimberly’s shoulder, and nodded to herself.

Kimberly made her way back over to me and took my hand for real, not just for appearances sake. Her smile was frozen, her palm clammy. I squeezed, and she squeezed back. I watched for Gillespie to pull out a mobile phone or disappear into the back, but she did neither.

Slowly, agonisingly, the gathering wound down. People began to dibble away into the night in ones and twos. Kimberly’s friends asked if we would walk with them.

“We’re going to stay, actually,” Kimberly jumped in for me. “Heather wants to ask Catherine about initiation.”

That earned me many approving noises and another hug, but it didn’t help our cause. If even one person lingered with us, the plan was off. We were counting on Gillespie’s assumed need for secrecy.

Eventually, when there were only half a dozen people left inside Grey Magicks, Gillespie came to see me.

“Heather. Heather Morell, yes?” Her voice was soft and slow. She greeted me with a big smile and an extended hand, which I shook. Dry and cool. “Kim’s told me a little about you, that you’re very interested in us, in perhaps joining the coven? I’m delighted to hear that, we’re open to all here. Have you enjoyed today?”

“Yes, quite,” I nodded, and looked at Kim. “We both have.”

She smiled broadly again. “I hear you’re also … ” She paused, the air pregnant with unspoken meaning. Another coven member called to her from the door, interrupting us. Gillespie raised a hand to wave goodnight. Only two left to leave now, a pair of women talking over by the table. Gillespie turned back to me. “I hear you’re also interested in certain … deeper mysteries, yes?”

“Oh, yes.” I tried to look awestruck and naive, widened my eyes, nodded eagerly, and hated it. “Yes, yes indeed. Kimberly told me you might have … ways.”

Oh damn it all, I wasn’t pulling this off. I sounded like an extra from a bad Hammer Horror movie, the sort Raine liked to laugh at. A young woman in a white dress about to be drained by a vampire.

But it worked.

“Ways and means, yes, ways and means,” Gillespie purred. “Witchcraft can be a rewarding path, and there are others with so much more knowledge and wisdom than I. If you like, I can set up an introduction.”

“Perhaps we should-” Kimberly almost squeaked, then took a shaky breath. “Talk about it somewhere. In private?”

“A lovely idea, Kim, certainly.”

Gillespie turned to the two lingering coven members, told them she was going to speak with us about initiation – a sensitive, personal matter, individual to every aspiring witch. They bowed out, with much approval and serious promises to be here on the coming Saturday. The front door of Grey Magicks closed with a soft click. Gillespie went over to turn the latch.

“We do have much to discuss, girls, much to discuss. Shall we?”

We had her now. I tried not to shake with nervous tension.

Gillespie ushered us into the store’s back room, and I discovered that twenty-first century witches still need computers. It was far less fancy than the front of the shop, despite a pentagram on one wall and a fertility goddess mural on another. A compact office space with a dusty computer on an old desk, cardboard boxes full of excess stock on the floor – and a single open doorway connected to a cramped, dark storage area.

Our host settled herself into the old wooden office chair next to the desk, and gestured with a smile at a trio of plastic chairs opposite. “Please, girls, please do sit down. Make yourselves comfortable. I can’t offer you any tea in here, sadly, Jerry doesn’t believe in kettles.”

She had her back to the open door to the storage area. Perfect.

Was Raine ready? She needed to be, needed to make her move now. I couldn’t wait any longer.

Couldn’t wait any longer? For what?

Oh.

A shard of ice, a remnant of an old feeling, wormed it’s way into my chest.

“T-thank you, Cathy,” Kimberly said, and half sat down before she realised I wasn’t moving a muscle. She straightened back up, eyes glued on me, going white in the face.

“Kimberly, dear, whatever’s the matter?” Catherine asked, frowning gently. “Now, I thought you were-”

“Do you know a man named Alexander Lilburne?” I asked.

The words came out low and easy. Not part of the plan, not at all.

Gillespie blinked in polite surprise. So measured, so reasonable, so kind.

She disgusted me on a level I hadn’t time to process. She’d all but confessed her involvement with the Cult already, and I seethed inside with a cold certainty I hadn’t felt since I’d faced Alexander. No more delay, no more waiting, no more pretending.

“Yes,” she said at length, then drew herself up straighter, gathering her confidence again. “Yes, that name belongs to an old friend of mine, in fact, if you’re referring to the same person. Do you happen to know-”

“When’s the last time you saw him?” I said.

She frowned, and her mask finally began slipping, that slow motherly benevolence falling away. “ … who are you, exactly?”

“The woman who killed him.”

Gillespie’s face froze, but only for a second. She rose to her feet in a rush, thundering at us with an outraged frown. “Who on earth are you? Kimberly, who is this girl? And don’t be so absurd. Lilburne, killed by some- some- whatever you are?”

Behind her, a shadow detached itself from the doorway into the darkened storage area, rippling into the light with razor-sharp precision, every muscle held tight.

Raine slipped toward Gillespie’s back on silent feet, eyes glued to her target, matte black handgun held casually at her side.

If I hadn’t been so focused, that sight would have given me the shivers, and not in a bad way. With an effort of will, I resisted the urge to look. Kimberly failed, and her wide-eyed stare gave the game away.

Gillespie turned – but Raine was faster. The high priestess found herself staring down the barrel of a gun.

“And a good evening to you,” Raine said to her, face splitting with a grin. “Now be nice, and sit yourself back down.”

“Who- who- what are you? Who- what-” Gillespie went white in the face.

Praem stepped out of the back stockroom too, hands clasped, eyes staring at nothing. I let out a shuddering breath and realised how badly my knees were shaking. Kimberly backed away a couple of paces, swallowing loudly. We hadn’t warned her about the handgun.

“Hey there you two,” Raine said to us without taking her eyes off Gillespie. “Took your time. We almost ran out of things to talk about, didn’t we, Praem?”

“Hey yourself,” I managed to breathe.

“Who- who are you people? What is this?” Gillespie asked.

“I thought I told you to sit down?” Raine asked, smiling, all calm and casual. “The next question you ask, I’ll break your nose. That’s a promise. Sit. Down.”

Gillespie sat down, slowly and carefully, eyes wide with terror, hands shaking as she grasped the chair’s armrests. I would have felt sorry for her, if it wasn’t for what came out of her mouth next.

“I’m no apostate!” she cried out. “I’ve not breathed a word to anybody, I’ve kept every secret, I swear! I’ve not spoken to the police, my husband, anybody. Nobody knows. Nobody.”

“Knows about what?” Raine asked, grinning.

“The … the … ”

“Answer her,” I hissed.

“The supply agreement. The scum. Is it not enough? I can always find more, there’s always more out there. Don’t, please don’t!”

Raine raised her eyebrows, feigning polite interest. “Sounds like we got the right person.”

“Yes. We have,” I managed, staring at this unassuming woman. The Sharrowford Cult’s supplier.

“Unfortunately for your future health prospects, we’re not from the Sharrowford Cult,” Raine said to her. “We’re more like a wild card. About to get wild all over your face, if you don’t tell us what we want to know.”

Gillespie frowned, and her panic drained away as quickly as it had mounted. She tugged her robe straight, and then to my utter amazement she stood up again, ignoring the handgun pointed right at her.

“Kimberly,” she snapped. “This is completely unacceptable. Your masters will hear of this behaviour, I swear they will.”

“No they won’t,” Kimberly said, voice filling with unaccustomed nervous confidence. “Because they’re all dead. Weren’t you listening?”

“Don’t be so insulting. You expect me to believe-”

“You’re not talking to her,” Raine said, amused. “You’re talking to me. Sit down before you hurt yourself.”

“Absolutely not. Who do you think you are, ordering me to do anything?” Gillespie drew herself up and tried to look down on Raine – which didn’t work, because she wasn’t tall enough. “If you’re not with the Brotherhood, then you should know I have Alexander’s personal protec-”

Raine punched her in the nose.

Gillespie sat down, sudden and hard, crying out in pain with one hand cradling her face. “Ah- ahh- ow- ah!”

“Who do I think I am?” Raine grinned. “That counted as a question. Did warn you I’d break your nose. Fair’s fair.”

“Fair’s fair,” Praem echoed from the doorway. Gillespie stared her for a second, wounded and shocked, bleeding down her face.

Raine loomed over the high priestess. “Look, Gill – can I call you Gill? Maybe you’re not scared of the gun, maybe you think this is a toy or something. It’s not, and I will shoot you in the head if you keep giving us shit. We’ve got plenty of other ways to find out what we want to know, you just happen to be the easiest. If you make it harder, we’ll take the next easiest. Get me?”

Gillespie’s eyes roved the room, as if searching for help. She settled on Kimberly and I.

“She’ll do it,” I said.

Kimberly nodded, and did her part with commendable gusto, though I suspect she didn’t need to act. “She has- she’s s-shot people before, right in front of me. Please. Please give her a reason to. I hate you.”

Gillespie straightened up, slowly, gathering her dignity and poise again, and looked us all in the eye one by one, nose bleeding. “You may address me as Catherine. What is it you want to know?”

Raine glanced at me. I was supposed to ask the question, that was the script – but I couldn’t speak, gripped by a growing cold anger inside my chest. I hadn’t even flinched when Raine had lashed out, I could only think about one thing.

What had Gillespie meant by ‘supply agreement’ – and ‘scum’?

I knew, didn’t I?

“You have a way to contact the Cult – or what’s left of them, since we tore them up. We know that,” Raine said eventually. “Kimberly came back to your Wicca happy hour, and you told your contact, because then she got hassled. Maybe you even know where they hang out these days, and you’re gonna tell us.”

“I have a contact, who visits me, not the other way around. I have no way of reaching them outside of that, which I cannot predict, or direct. I don’t know what it is you people want, but you’re meddling in things you don’t understand.”

“Shut up,” I hissed. “Answer the questions.”

Gillespie scowled at me.

“Who’s the contact?” Raine demanded. Gillespie crossed her arms.

“Alexander Lilburne cannot possibly be dead. Don’t take me for some fool, I know how the world really works. Killed by some slip of a girl? Don’t make me laugh, this is ridiculous. I shan’t answer a single further question, and I shall call the police.”

She reached for the battered cordless phone on the desk, but Praem was there first, hand on the receiver. The doll-demon stared into Gillespie’s eyes, and the high priestess recoiled at what she saw there.

“What- what are-”

Raine sighed and levelled her handgun at Gillespie’s head, an unimpressed smile on her face. “I wasn’t bluffing, you know? Don’t make this difficult.”

“What are you going to do, shoot me?” Gillespie almost spat. “Here, in the middle of the city? A dozen people will hear the gunshot, and you’ll never get away with it. You children have absolutely no idea how the world works, how your coddled little lives are kept safe – by people like me. You won’t shoot, you can’t possibly do it. Get that thing out of my face.”

Raine’s tongue poked out of the corner of her mouth, and for a split-second I thought I saw her finger tighten on the trigger – but that wasn’t why we were here. She glanced at me, smiled sadly, and shrugged.

“I did say no killing,” I muttered, cold creeping out of my chest and into my brain.

“Don’t you worry, we came right prepared for that.” Raine lowered her gun. “Praem, hold her down.”

“What?” Gillespie swivelled in her chair. Raine dug a sock out of her jacket pocket, one that I knew was loaded with a bar of soap in the end. “No, don’t you dare! You-”

“Stop,” I said, barely able to get the word out. “Praem, you too. Don’t touch her.”

“ … Heather?” Raine raised her eyebrows. “We talked about this. You don’t have to watch us hit her.”

I shook my head, and took a step toward Gillespie. She scowled at me like she’d found me on the underside of her shoe. “That’s more like it,” she muttered.

“What did you mean, when you said ‘scum’?” I asked.

She blinked at me. “I don’t recall-”

“She means me,” Kimberly blurted out, voice blurred by bitterness and suffocated anger. “People like me.”

“I most certainly do not mean you, my dear. You’re a valuable addition to the Brotherhood of the New Sun, aren’t you? You’ve found purpose, and acceptance, and something useful and important to do with your life.”

“Answer the question, or I will do to you what I did to Alexander.” My voice emerged with a shake, a strange, cold anger. It rushed through me, almost beyond my control.

“Don’t be so sanctimonious, you know exactly what I mean. The Brotherhood does good work, necessary work. Have you seen the filth-filled tent villages growing like mushrooms by the motorway? There’s no helping those people. They’re all drug addicts and illegal immigrants. You saw my coven, this night, you saw the sorts of decent, vulnerable girls those animals prey on, and now you’re blaming me for helping clear them off the streets?”

“You funnelled the homeless people to the cult.” Raine nodded slowly. “Makes sense. You look pretty non-threatening.”

Gillespie raised her chin. “As I said, necessary work. Don’t you dare look at me like that, none of you have the courage.”

I took another step toward her. “I saw dead children. In a cage.”

She rolled her eyes and huffed. “Don’t be so absurd, you saw nothing of the sort. And where? Where exactly did you see this? You, you are play-acting. Virtue signalling. Who do you expect to convince, here?”

“I’ve changed my mind. You don’t get to live.”

I moved before the others could react, before Raine could stop me, before the cold certainty abandoned me to doubt. It took only a split-second, clarity and speed born of indignant rage.

I reached out and grabbed Gillespie’s wrist.

Out.

The equation, the one I knew so well, spun into place with a wrenching of my skull and a heaving in my guts. I grasped the dripping black levers of reality, and pulled hard.

Gillespie vanished.

I reeled away and almost fell over, clawing at the edge of the desk before Raine caught me. Blinking through stabbing headache, nose bleeding, I groped for the office’s waste paper bin, into which I promptly vomited.

“Oh Goddess, oh, oh-” Kimberly was panting.

Raine helped me sit down on the floor, bin between my knees as I spat bile. I shook all over, half from the brainmath and half from adrenaline. Raine passed me tissues from a packet to wipe my bloody nose, as she gently smoothed my hair out of my face.

“You okay? Heather? Breathe slowly, yeah?”

“Ehh,” I croaked. “Been better.”

She handed me an almost empty bottle of water, and I sipped the dregs to wash the taste of sick from my mouth. “Gotta admit, Heather, I didn’t see that one coming. Would’a brought more water along if I’d known you were gonna do that.”

“You were homeless once,” I croaked.

“Sure. I just thought, you know, we were meant to be bluffing?” She looked over at the now empty chair with a rueful sigh. Kimberly walked over and touched the chair’s arm, then stared at me.

“That’s our lead gone then,” Praem intoned, and I knew it was Evelyn speaking through her.

“We are bluffing,” I grumbled, blew my bloody nose into a tissue, and squeezed my eyes shut. “I can bring her back. The map. S’possible now.”

“If she survives,” Praem said.

“She’ll be fine. As long as she closed her eyes on the way, I suppose.”

Raine raised an eyebrow at me, rubbing my back. “You sent her somewhere specific, didn’t you?”

I nodded. “Place I slipped to as a teenager. Windowless metal halls, darkness, things moving. It’s bad. Everywhere Outside is bad. This won’t kill her. Leave her there for ten minutes, should be enough.”

“Right.” Raine nodded. “Right you are then.”

We spent those ten minutes going through the office, just in case, though the only thing we found was Gillespie’s handbag, which contained nothing incriminating or out of the ordinary. Well, Raine did that, while I sat in a heap and tried not to be sick again, and Kimberly vibrated with terror and awe.

“Time’s up,” Praem said, and it felt far too soon, but I nodded and closed my eyes.

“Do you need to go touch the chair?” Raine asked.

“No. I only need to concentrate. And this is going to hurt, come touch my head, please.”

In truth the hyperdimensional mathematics was relatively simple, at least in theory. Now I had the map, the pathways, the vectors through which matter could pass, all I had to do was reverse the equation – but I’d never done it before. I wasn’t one hundred percent sure I could bring Catherine Gillespie back.

I hadn’t really been bluffing either, but I kept that to myself.

Catherine Gillespie did not deserve to live. I knew I had no right to judge, certainly not to torture her by sending her Outside, but I’d done it anyway.

Alexander may have been the head of the snake, but by himself he would have been nothing. Dark Lords only exist in fantasy stories, real people need support networks. Alexander Lilburne had willing helpers, followers, people who turned a blind eye, others bribed or bought out for the price of their humanity, along with those who rationalised evil to themselves – as Gillespie had done so openly, right to our faces.

Slamming my mind back through the equation, clenching up hard on the roiling in my guts as I pieced it together with the map, I wasn’t certain I even wanted to bring her back.

Had I thrown away our only lead to Lozzie, in order to satisfy my righteous anger?

I was turning into something I didn’t like very much.

“Unnn,” I grunted, grit my teeth, endured a spike of pain battering through my forehead.

I dragged the high priestess back from Outside, back to our reality.

Then I vomited into the bin again, wining, my head throbbing.

Gillespie had fared far worse.

She was curled up in a ball on the floor, panting and shaking, cringing in on herself like a wounded insect. Perhaps she’d found a corner in which to wedge herself, out there. Her face had turned bone pale, eyes wide as saucers, makeup running from her tears. Strange sticky white dust covered her shoulder and one arm, where some Outside creature had brushed against her, investigated this terrified fragile ape. She’d lost control of her bladder, too.

Her eyes whirled between us, sanity hanging by a thread.

“You deserved that,” Kimberly hissed. Raine just rubbed my back, shaking her head, not even bothering to level her gun at the broken woman I’d brought back.

“Can you speak?” I croaked, quashing my self-directed horror. I’d done this thing, now I had to make it worthwhile. For Lozzie.

“I-I-I c-can! Yes! Y-yes. I’ll tell you- anything- anything. Yes, y-yes.” Gillespie lurched to her feet, unsteady and shaking all over. Raine rose too and covered her with the gun, but there was no need. The high priestess stared down at the sticky dust on her shoulder and arm, an empty thousand-yard stare glassing over her eyes. “Oh. Oh G-goddess. Where was that? Where- An illusion, you- no, no that wasn’t real, can’t be real-”

“Do you want to go back there?” I asked.

“No! Please! Please no, not again.” She scrabbled for her handbag on the desk. “They gave me money- paid me well. Lots of money. I’ll give- give- give-” Her open purse spilled from her fingers as she tossed banknotes on the desk.

I sighed. “Tell us about the Cult.”

“Cult. The Brotherhood of the New Sun. Yes. Yes, I-”

She told us everything, most of it both useless and horrifying, about the supply line she’d established for the Cult, luring vulnerable homeless people with promises of help or shelter. She babbled every secret she had in sheer animal desire to never, ever go back to the place I’d sent her. I’d broken this woman, tortured her, and while I managed to keep my expression neutral, self-disgust boiled inside me.

She deserved it, part of me whispered, and it was right.

But I still felt sick.

“T-the visits, that wasn’t a lie. I-it’s only once every few weeks, and never the same time. I can’t lead you to them, I don’t know where, please- please don’t-”

“Who visits you?” Raine asked. “Give us a name, or a description.”

“Stack,” Kimberly said.

“Amy Stack, yes, a-a s-sort of thug, or something. I swear, I don’t really know-”

“We know of her,” Raine said with a nod. “Keep going.”

“She came here last week, and of course, I told her about Kimberly returning. She didn’t care, though. She was asking after Alexander’s younger sister, but I don’t know anything about that either, I swear, I swear I’d never heard of the girl before. I do have an emergency phone number. I’m not supposed to ever call it, ever, only if the police catch wind of- of- you know, yes, yes, you know. For an emergency only.”

“Write it down,” Raine said. “And it better be correct, or … ” She trailed off, with a meaningful head tilt toward me.

“O-of course, of course, y-yes, yes. You can have the number, here, here, take it!”

Gillespie had to write it three times before she could control her shaking hands enough to form legible numbers. Raine tucked the slip of paper into her jacket.

“This isn’t enough,” I muttered.

“I swear, I-I- I don’t have anything more to give! Please-”

“Hey, you heard the lady,” Raine said. “She’s in charge here. She says it’s not enough, it’s not enough.”

“That’s not what I … ” I murmured, and trailed off. I’d meant this wasn’t enough to justify what I’d done. A phone number, was that all?

“They had a- I mean, I know of a couple of places in the city where they did … unsavoury things. They might have … retreated there?” Gillespie said. She was blinking rapidly, her eyes wild and all over the place, wracking her brains for any scraps that would save her hide. “One was on that- uh- that terrible council estate, in the condemned tower, uh-”

In the corner of my vision, I saw the blood drain from Kimberly’s face. Her mouth hung open in silent horror.

“Glasswick tower?” Raine asked. “The Cult have a hideout in Glasswick tower?”

“Yes, yes that’s the name.” Gillespie nodded, smiling and desperate, so very thankful. “Glasswick tower.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

and less pleasant places – 6.5

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

I’d built an equation to find Lozzie – via locating Kimberly’s mysterious uninvited guest – jury-rigged from scraps of half-understood hyperdimensional mathematics, so certain that the worst possible outcome was mere failure and pain, vomiting and unconsciousness. Not exactly unfamiliar. A risk worth taking, a punishment worth subjecting myself to. What kind of friend was I if I wasn’t willing to endure that for her sake? How could I ever hope to rescue my sister if I couldn’t muster the courage to find Lozzie?

But the subject of my search had found me first. An awareness, staring back at me through the cracks in the equation, summoned by the act of giving it definition.

It was not Lozzie.

I didn’t see it with my eyes, of course. I saw nothing. I suspect I’d have gone screaming mad on the spot if I had. My physical eyes still looked at Raine as she reached for me, frozen in an elongating moment as if caught on the edge of a black hole, the time inside my mind stretched out to infinity by the instant of terrible contact.

Meaning coalesced out of the mathematics, greater than the sum of the equation’s parts, true definition found in the spaces between. Like the moment an autostereogram – a magic-eye picture – resolves into an image, or one flicks on the light at night and does a double-take at a coat over a chair, thinking it’s a person.

I see you, it said.

Not in words, but via that unspeakable feeling crawling inside my skull – the feeling of being caught looking.

I felt like a mouse, wedged inside a rotting tree trunk on the forest floor, peeping out through a crack in the wood at the undergrowth and damp leaves, as something huge and reptilian slithered along the ground outside and put a great, unblinking eye to the window in my hidey-hole.

Such sensations were sadly – and fortunately – not alien to me. The Eye’s attention, in my horrid memories and the old dreams, had felt much the same way, except magnified a thousand times more than this, a scrutiny that peeled away one’s skin and bone and neurons and atoms. I was perhaps the one person in the world who could endure this attention without losing my mind, because I’d had worse before.

How it saw me, I had no idea, but I knew what to do: I let go of the equation, let it unravel, like cutting a fishing net loose when you’ve accidentally caught a shark.

Then I felt the rest, the trailing sensations behind ‘I see you’: recognition, familiarity, knowledge.

I see you, Heather.

And I can dance like that too! Watch!

The Lozzie-thing, the Outsider in her head, whatever in God’s name it was, it came scuttling up through the equation I’d built, using the collapsing strands of my own work as a ladder to reach into my mind, spanning the gaps with its own hyperdimensional mathematics. Like a spider spinning webs to mend the holes in a rickety scaffold, it scurried across the fabric of reality, toward me.

A trap.

This whole thing was a trap, aimed at me.

All that happened in a split-second, at the speed of thought, in the time it took me to blink, as Raine reached across Kimberly’s little table to grab my shoulders.

“Stop,” I wheezed – and slammed the brakes on the equation.

Bits and pieces of hyperdimensional mathematics span off like an exploding combustion engine inside my head, seared my mind with fragments of white-hot metal, shook my soul like a storm in a bottle. The throb of a truly earth-shattering headache washed over me in a wave of pain.

I jerked forward, an involuntary spasm, banged my face into the table, then reared back up with a ragged choking gasp, and noticed I’d left a bloody smear on the cheap wood.

“Holy shit,” said Twil.

“Oh Goddess, oh, what, oh-” Kimberly stammered, scrambling to her feet.

With the equation dead, that scuttling awareness finally receded into the abyss.

“Toilet,” I squeezed out between my roiling guts and the icepick lodged in the back of my skull. My mouth tasted of blood. My vision swam, black at the edges. My legs shook as I tried to stand up, banging my knees on the table and sending my empty measuring jug of tea skittering across the carpet. Even Tenny sensed something was desperately wrong, bunching and retracting her tentacles like a panicked squid. “T-toilet-”

Then Raine had me. She pulled me to my feet and into Kimberly’s cramped bathroom.

She held my hair while I vomited.

Only once, only a little, and that only bile and tea. I clenched up so hard I strained my stomach muscles, determined to keep my breakfast down, to master this. It hurt, but I didn’t give in, though I did kneel in front of the toilet for a long few minutes, breathing slowly and trying to process what had happened, what I’d seen.

“That’s it, breathe real slow, Heather. Take it slow, take all the time you need, I’m right here.” Raine’s free hand rubbed the base of my neck.

“The hell was she doing?” Twil asked from the bathroom door. “Shit, Heather, you alright?”

I gave her a sarcastic thumbs up from down by the toilet bowl.

“Give her a minute,” Raine warned.

“You found her, didn’t you?” Kimberly asked, voice barely a whisper. “You found Lauren, and it wasn’t her, was it?”

“I said, give her a minute,” Raine repeated, but I shook my head, wiped my body nose on the back of my hand, and felt tears threaten in my eyes.

“It worked,” I croaked. “And it was her. It was Lozzie.”

==

Three glasses of water for the lost fluids and to wash out the taste of blood, a blanket around my shoulders for the clutching cold inside me, and a bag of frozen peas from Kimberly’s tiny box freezer for the bruise around my right eye. That last one would be interesting to explain if anybody at university asked, let alone any concerned staff. Yes, I head-butted a table, thank you for asking, and no, my girlfriend doesn’t hit me.

“It was Lozzie because it sounded like her,” I repeated for the third time. “I’m certain.”

“I thought you said it was just like, maths?” Twil squinted at me. I’d lost her minutes ago, but I was too drained to come up with a proper metaphor. “And hey, Kimberly, you said this thing didn’t sound anything like Lozzie at all, right?”

Kimberly nodded to Twil, but her eyes watched me. For approval.

She’d been staring at me with renewed awe since the moment Raine had helped me stagger back out of the little bathroom. It made my skin crawl, especially after spending minutes on my knees, delivering a technicolour yawn into her toilet. How could she look at me like I was some kind of pagan idol? She understood even less about what I’d done than Twil did, but incomprehension didn’t stop Kimberly hanging on every word I’d said in my halting, confused effort to explain what just happened.

Didn’t want to know any more about magic, did she? Kimberly was lying – perhaps to herself, too. Moth to a flame.

She couldn’t hold my stare though. If I hadn’t been so emotionally wiped out, I probably would have avoided her eyes in sheer mortified embarrassment. Instead, I stared back, dull and frustrated, and she had to look away.

I pulled my knees tighter against my chest, so small and vulnerable. We were all tiny, squishy, fragile little mammals compared to that thing which had seen me looking, that construct of pure mathematical principles; even Raine seemed fragile right now, by comparison. An awful thing to feel.

Raine had insisted I sit in the beanbag chair, the comfiest place in the whole flat, save for Kimberly’s own bed. I wasn’t so bad that I needed to lie down. After all, I hadn’t actually gone through with the equation, not the whole way. Raine rubbed my shoulders, on her knees behind me, trying to massage the tension out of my stress-knotted muscles, and Tenny crouched nearby, an attentive dog to her wounded master. Her ropey black tentacles kept drifting down toward my head and face, touching my hair or brushing my cheek, concerned, confused.

Sweet, yes, but getting on my nerves.

I eased the closest tentacle away with one hand. “Tenny, stop that for now, please?”

She tilted her head left and right, and her tentacles drifted up, toward the ceiling. Yes, quite, you don’t understand what happened either, do you? At least you listen to me though. I gave her a smile, though I still wasn’t certain if she could read human expressions. “I’m fine, I’ll be fine,” I muttered to her.

Kimberly stared at me again, wide eyed at the empty air to which I’d spoken.

“She talks to invisible monsters sometimes,” Twil informed her, with a very serious nod. I didn’t have the energy to correct Twil before she continued with her theory. “So, uh, maybe it wasn’t Lozzie here in the flat, but it was Lozzie you found?”

“It sounded like her,” I groaned again, and winced at the bruise on my face. The makeshift ice pack wasn’t doing much good, and I tossed it onto the table in frustration.

And I can dance like that too!’ – so undoubtedly Lozzie, the exact phrasing she might use, her bright mind and playful expressiveness bent to alien purposes. It had been her voice, but she hadn’t been the one speaking.

“Why didn’t you tell me what you were doing?” Raine asked with a softly indulgent laugh, her thumbs kneading the muscles of my shoulder blades. “Could have gotten Evee to help, back home, could have been ready for it.”

I shook my head and waved a dismissive hand. “Lozzie needs me.”

“Mmhmm. She also needs you conscious and healthy, if you’re gonna help her.”

“I know!” I snapped at her, wallowed in guilt all over again. My impatience and self-loathing wasn’t Raine’s fault. She was the best antidote to it all. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I’m being awful.”

“It’s okay, I know how it feels,” Raine said, so softly that only I could hear. At least that’s one thing we shared completely: was this how she felt about me, all the time?

“I have to find her,” I muttered, but all my certainty was gone. I could try the brainmath again, but that thing would be waiting for me this time. The thought made me shudder inside.

“We have to find her,” Raine corrected gently. She stopped rubbing my shoulders and moved around to my side, so I couldn’t avoid her gaze. She raised a hand to my chin and gently tilted it to examine my face. “Hooooo, that bruise is gonna be a nasty one, you really nutted that table.”

“First class head-butt,” Twil added with a nod. “Coulda knocked somebody out with that.”

“As if that helps anything right now,” I muttered.

“Heather,” Raine said, her voice pitched low and serious, the kind of tone that made me sit up and pay attention. “I’m going to ask you a hypothetical question, alright? Pure theory here, it’s not a request or a suggestion. The brainmath you just used, how you made contact with Lozzie – or not-Lozzie – do you think you could do it again?”

“Yes,” I answered, then hesitated. “But … it fought me. With the math. The same thing I can do. I don’t know if I can- if I’m good enough to- I don’t know, fight back? I have no idea how that would even work. If I hadn’t stopped, it would have reached me.”

Raine nodded slowly, her face etched with deep focus. I knew that look all too well. She was making a plan.

I loved her for that – but I hated myself for wanting it. Raine cooking up a way to save the day, to save me, yet again. To save her useless girlfriend, again. Because I couldn’t do it myself, because I was an unprepared coward, and a terrible friend.

“I guess Lozzie wouldn’t try to fight you, would she?” Twil asked. “Or is that something you two did?”

“It’s Lozzie because it tried to fight me,” I said, patience running thin. “It knew how to use hyperdimensional mathematics. I’ve never felt that before, anything like that. It must have learnt from her mind. And it knew me, it recognised me, it was expecting me. It’s her – it’s got her, I mean. Everything she is.”

Twil shrugged. “I remember what that … that bloody great Eye felt like.” She shook herself once, a theatrical shiver, but I didn’t blame her. She’d been exposed, once, to the briefest moment of the Eye’s attention, filtered through Evelyn’s magical observation window, across the boundary between here and Outside, when we’d performed that ill-fated experiment in the Medieval Metaphysics room, so many months ago. “Who’s to say it couldn’t send something here, with all its stuff, to get you, like?”

“If it could do that, I think it would’a done a long time ago,” Raine said for me. “And why wander around Sharrowford, why come to Kim? Unless it was Lozzie, trying to say hi to an old friend.”

“I was never her friend,” Kimberly murmured. “P-please don’t- I didn’t- never did … ”

“Or setting a trap for me,” I hissed.

“Yeah, that’s what I was thinking.” Raine’s voice dropped to a low growl. She stared at me with a kind of slow contemplation. If I’d been less bruised by brainmath the attention would have made me feel self-conscious. “Heather, I want you to make me a promise.”

“Now?”

“Right now, yeah. Promise me you won’t do that again. Don’t try to find Lozzie a second time.”

“But … no, Raine, I can’t. I have to-”

Raine put a finger to my lips. “You have to do one thing, for me: be careful. Whatever this thing is, it wants you. It’s not getting you. Promise me.”

I couldn’t look at her. I didn’t deserve to. Raine was giving me exactly what I wanted – a way out, a refuge, an excuse not to dive back in and confront that vast, slithering awareness I’d felt. Raine didn’t need my promise, I knew she was right, and secretly I was terrified and disgusted on a level I couldn’t process: I’d never had hyperdimensional mathematics turned on me before. I felt so violated and offended on Lozzie’s behalf. That was her gift this thing was abusing, and I was powerless to take it back.

Raine offered me a way out, and I felt like a coward.

“Please, Heather? You were taken by an Outsider once, perhaps there’s some desirable quality in you.” She cracked a grin. “Hey, I know that part’s right. Worked on me.”

“Raine.” I muttered her name and rolled my eyes. “It’s hardly the time for that.”

“It’s always the time.”

“ … I won’t try again. I promise.” A lump formed in my throat, and I sniffed back the threat of more tears. Coward, you useless coward, backing away from this. “I doubt I’d win, anyway. I can’t help her.”

Raine leaned back and took a deep breath, completely unembarrassed by our shared private moment. Twil was still frowning at me, but Kimberly had at least pretended to look away.

“I wouldn’t say that yet,” Raine almost purred, a twinkle in her eye. “If we can’t find Lozzie ourselves, we need to enlist somebody who already did.”

With deliberate slowness, Raine turned to regard Kimberly again.

“M-me? What do you- what do you mean?”

“Ahhhh,” Twil grinned, and underneath the table she stretched out one foot to poke Kimberly.

The poor woman almost jumped out of her skin, flinching and jerking up.

“Steady on. S’just playing,” Twil said, hands up. “Relax, damn.”

“I-I-I’m sorry. Sorry.”

“Kimberly,” I croaked. “Stop apologising.”

“Yes, yes, I’m s-” She stopped, swallowed, staring at us.

“So, Kim,” Raine said, easy and relaxed as she leaned forward to put one elbow on the table, idly playing with an empty mug. “You didn’t think I’d forgotten in all the excitement, did you?”

“I’m- pardon?”

“Where did you ‘go’? Where’d Amy Stack see you?” Raine asked, then smirked.

Kimberly froze up again, but only for a second; perhaps the experience of seeing me do brainmath, the awe and reverence I’d inspired, had some bizarre effect on how much she trusted us. Trusted me. Or maybe she’d merely decided our mercy was a better bet than Amy Stack.

She’d be right, of course, but Raine’s stare implied otherwise.

“Yeah come on, what were you up to?” Twil asked, a little too hard.

“Nothing- nothing bad,” Kimberly blurted out. She squeezed her eyes shut and took a deep breath, reached for the stub of her reefer but then decided not to light up. She cradled her hands in her lap instead. “I went back to the Wiccan coven. That’s all. But I shouldn’t have.”

“The what?” Twil squinted

“Wiccan coven?” Raine asked.

“Wicca. Right,” I muttered.

I should have guessed, considering the new agey pagan books lining Kimberly’s shelf. I tried to keep my exasperated sigh to myself, told myself not to judge, but my reaction must have shown on my face, because Kimberly suddenly gave me a wounded look.

“Coven?” Twil repeated. “You mean like witches?”

“Yes, like witches,” Kimberly said, the hurt plain in her voice.

Back to the coven?” Raine asked.

“Hey, hey.” Twil pointed at Kimberly. “I thought she said no more magic. I thought that was bloody point, you-”

“It’s not real magic, Twil,” I said gently. “Wicca’s a new-age pagan revival movement. A religion. And not like yours.”

“Oh. What, like the druid guys who go to Stonehenge?”

Raine smirked and nodded. “Yeah, like druids.”

“I know it’s not real,” Kimberly hissed. “How can I believe in anything anymore? After … after everything?”

As she trailed off, eyes downcast, she seemed so small and lost, and in that moment I think I understood Kimberly a little better.

I’d never really believed in anything much before I met Raine and Evelyn – except the power of a good book. My parents weren’t religious. Having faith is challenging when you believe your brain is broken, and you’ve spent half your short life terrified of the unimaginable monsters that nobody else can see. A merciful God would not curse me so.

Kimberly had believed in something – kooky nature Goddess something. Easy to scoff at, perhaps, but it had clearly been important to her. Meaningful. Comforting. Real.

Then the Sharrowford Cult had shown her the truth behind reality, and taken all that away.

“Kimberly, I didn’t mean to insult you,” I said. “I apologise.”

“Apology accepted,” she muttered.

“You don’t have to accept it. Why not tell me I’m rude?”

She blinked at me, as if this might be another rhetorical trap, and I hated that. I hated that I made this woman afraid. I smiled at her, best I could through the residual headache pain and the guilt.

“ … y-you’re not,” she managed. “It’s only fair. None of it was ever real. I even don’t know why I went back, I just wanted some … some community again. Anything.”

“Stack saw you going there?” Raine asked. “But not to work? Why?”

“Because the coven is how I found the Brotherhood,” Kimberly said. “Because one of them must have told her I came back.”

“Ahhhhhh,” Raine sighed. “Now, I did wonder how a person ends up in the Sharrowford Cult. Guess that’s one way.”

“Yes.” Kimberly nodded. Beneath the hurt and the exhaustion and the fear of us, I saw a black smoky curl of real bitterness in her eyes.

“Tell us about this Wiccan coven then,” Raine said. “The truth, all of it. Because we need to find Stack.”

“Wait what, we do?” Twil asked.

“We … yes, yes we do. Raine.” I felt myself light up inside as I put the pieces together. I could have hugged her, but Raine stayed deadly serious, staring at Kimberly.

“We do, yeah,” Raine nodded. “Because she was here, at this flat, less than twenty four hours after Lozzie. And from the sounds of it, Lozzie just popped in right outside Kim’s door, yeah? If we find Stack, and I get my hands on her, then we discover how she knew Lozzie was here. And hey, if I get to Stack fast enough, maybe she won’t be in any state to come back for you, Kim. So tell us the whole truth. You might get to live.”

Kimberly let out a shuddering breath and nodded. “The coven, they’re completely normal, except for one person, that’s who you want, I swear. Uh, there’s this shop off St. Helen’s Road, the-”

Grey Magicks, right?” Raine asked.

“ … y-yes. How did you know that?”

“Checked it out before.” She looked to Twil and I. “Back when me and Evee first moved to Sharrowford. Had to make sure it was regular old occult stuff, not a front for the real thing. Full of stuff like this.” She gestured at Kimberly’s pentagram-stuffed bookcase, the crystals, the dragon statue, the wolf posters.

“It is, it is,” Kimberly agreed. “Except for one person, the woman who leads the coven. Everyone else there is normal, I-I think, even the owner of the store. It’s just where we meet.”

“How’s a nice girl like you end up casting spells?”

“I joined a couple of years ago, and it was really nice, really nice. I never used to take any of this stuff seriously, I just liked the aesthetics, but I was going through- I mean, I needed … people. And they were really welcoming. Really positive.”

“So you did what, rituals and stuff?” Twil said.

“Mmhmm.” Kimberly nodded, earnest and open. “Nothing scary at all. Candles, chanting. We had these little ceremonies for the lunar cycle, it was lovely. It was really good energy. And I got really into that side of it, the witchcraft. I knew- I mean, I thought I knew that none of it really worked, but I sort of wanted to believe, and it helped. I led a few circles, made sigils and stuff, for health and- a-and I made friends. One member, she was so sweet, her name was Hannah, she ended up in the hospital, pregnancy complications. I went to visit her and we did a spell together, for easy delivery and- I know, I know it didn’t do anything, but she pulled through. She had that baby, and it felt good to … ” Kimberly stopped herself, took a deep breath and blew it out slowly. “This isn’t what you want to hear.”

“It’s cool,” Twil said. “I get it.”

“Mm,” Raine grunted, nodding seriously.

Kimberly gathered herself. “The … uh … the High Priestess, that’s what you call a coven leader, an experienced witch. She’s still there, Catherine Gillespie. She took an interest in me, took me under her wing. Told me I could go further, that I had a special knack.” Kimberly’s voice dropped, quiet and bitter. “Told me she wanted to introduce me to some people.”

“The Sharrowford Cult,” Raine said.

Kimberly nodded. “Their magic really worked, but it … it hurt. The um … ” She glanced at Raine. “The woman you killed in the castle, her name was Sarah Pince. She taught me … well, taught is being a bit generous. She showed me. A-and then when it got too much, she made me.”

“Magic,” I croaked, then swallowed to clear my throat. “Real magic requires you to already be broken. Already exposed. That’s the knack. How did you have that?”

Kimberly stared at me, shaking her head. “I don’t know. I saw a ghost once, when I was little. Does that count?”

“Maybe the High Priestess,” Raine suggested. “Maybe one of those rituals was real, did something, maybe that’s the point, using an overt Wiccan coven to find fresh meat.”

“I was already broken. I know that much,” Kimberly muttered, then realised we were staring and struggled to regain her composure. “I mean- I was going through a bad time. I-I had a stalker, an ex-boyfriend. I wasn’t well. I’m not well now, I know.”

“Maybe that was enough,” I said.

I failed to sound comforting – because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to.

Now we discussed the Sharrowford Cult once more, I couldn’t shake the memory of what I’d seen in their castle, what Kimberly had been a part of, no matter how small or how unwilling. Had she really been pressured into doing magic because she had the talent, abused and used up? Or was this a sob-story, an attempt to absolve herself of her involvement? Everything so far pointed to the former, that she was a victim too. Why couldn’t I fully accept that?

Because we were scary, and we had her in a corner – she’d tell us whatever we wanted to hear.

“This coven, they have a name?” Raine asked.

Kimberly nodded eagerly, climbed to her feet and went over to the bookcase. She returned with a cheap looking pamphlet, little more than a few pages stapled together like a student magazine. She handed it to Raine and we all leaned over to see. The front cover sported a stylised design of a statuesque nature goddess, wearing wreaths of blossom, stood in the centre of a pentagram made from living ivy. A title crested the top of the page, in a fanciful, flowery font.

Shadow of the Moon, introductory workings for any Sisterly Coven, by Catherine Gillespie.

Twil wrinkled her nose. “Crap name.”

“What did you do?” I asked. “In the Sharrowford Cult?”

My question caught Kimberly in a half-crouch, straightening up from handing Raine the little book. She stared at me for a second, as the question reached deep down inside her, how I’d intended it to. She stood up, but didn’t seem to know what to do with her hands, letting them flop against her unicorn-print pajama bottoms. But she did meet my eyes.

“I raised corpses from the dead,” she said, a choke in her voice. “You know that.”

Such a surreal phrase, in these surroundings – a cramped high rise council flat in northern England – and even stranger to know it was the truth. I sighed without meaning to, at the never ending parade of impossibility my life had become.

“Mostly homeless people, yes?” I asked. I did know that already. What was I doing? I couldn’t stop myself.

Kimberly’s face fell, slowly, as she tried desperately to keep it together. She nodded, but only halfway, an odd downward jerk of the chin.

“And what about those cages I saw?” Cold fingers crept through my gut, and came out through my mouth. “The dead children in the cages. Did you know about them as well?”

Kimberly didn’t look up. She nodded again, and mouthed a word or two under her breath.

Why was my heart racing? It made my headache so much worse, why was I doing this? Surely Raine or Twil were about to interrupt. Raine was going to put a hand on my shoulder and get me to ease down, back off, let this go, because I was too weak from the brainmath, too addled by my panic over Lozzie, and deep down I knew she’d be right. I was wound up and frustrated, displacing my helplessness, finding a person to blame for the very real crime I’d witnessed.

I’d punished the man responsible, the head of the snake. I’d killed Alexander.

Wasn’t that enough?

To my surprise, Raine stayed silent, watching me carefully, and Twil looked on with all the attentiveness of a wolf waiting for her pack’s cue.

“I didn’t quite catch that,” I said.

“I know,” Kimberly choked out.

“Did you know about the dead children? Kimberly? Did you?”

“I know it’s my fault!” She shouted in my face – the clearest and strongest thing she’d said since we’d broken into her flat – then she coughed, her throat not up to the task as she fell apart again, eyes full of tears. “I know, I know! I should have taken a knife and stabbed them all, I know! I could have strangled Pince, or- or stabbed Alexander, something, anything! I would have died, but I should have put my body in the way. I should have help Lozzie escape. Or gone to the police. They would have thrown me in the loony bin, but at least they might have saved a couple of those kids. I know I’m a coward. I should died instead. I know.”

Kimberly’s confession drained what little strength she had left. She down down suddenly, almost a collapse, drew her thighs up to her chest, and wept behind the shield of her arms.

Raine gave me a look, a sympathetic shrug which said it was my show, my choice, fair enough. Twil pulled a pained grimace, and silently mouthed ‘wow’.

I sat there blinking at Kimberly like the idiot I was. What had I expected? Her wet sobbing and collaborator’s guilt didn’t sound fake, but how could I know?

A insidious voice whispered in the back of my head: of course there’s a way to be sure. I could drag Kimberly back to the house, and have Evelyn interrogate her with magic. Evelyn was no stranger to that, she’d done it before, she’d probably agree with the idea. Or do it myself, threaten to send Kimberly Outside and leave her there until she told the truth. That would be just as effective, because in the end it amounted to the same act, the same monstrosity.

Torture.

Lying or not, Kimberly was not very robust anymore, if she had ever been. She was a fragile young woman suffering a loud and messy kind of post-traumatic stress disorder, and there were no therapists who’d listen to her, not on this side of reality.

If I wanted to believe she was lying, and I hurt her enough, she’d tell me anything I wanted.

I cut that impulse off and dug out the root, disgusted with myself for considering it, even for a fleeting moment. My natural inclination to help this poor woman made me uncomfortable, because I couldn’t know for sure what she’d done.I wished I had an authority to turn to, a ‘real adult’ to take this off my hands, absolve me of the responsibility.

I thought back to what Evelyn had said to me, all those months ago, after I’d pulled her back from the underside of reality.

There is no community of mages. There’s just us.

And right now I didn’t have a clear mind or a clean heart, filled with guilt over Lozzie, and worse guilt over being useless, and I’d taken it out on Kimberly without knowing what I was fishing for.

Maybe she was right, she was responsible, on some level. But her pain was real enough. I decided to believe her.

“You didn’t deserve that,” I said with a sigh at myself, the words oddly difficult to say. “I’m sorry.”

Kimberly didn’t respond at all. She kept crying into her knees, her thin frame shaking from the sobs.

Raine gestured toward Kimberly with both hands, and raised her eyebrows at me in silent question. I nodded, embarrassed at what I’d caused. Raine was much better at this sort of thing than me. I should have left it to her from the start.

“Hey, hey, Kim,” Raine murmured, low and soft, the same voice she used with me sometimes. She crossed over toward Kimberly, knelt down, and reached out slowly. “I’m gonna touch your shoulder, okay? Don’t jump, it’s only me.”

Kimberly flinched anyway, hard, the precursor to fleeing, but Raine quickly took her by both shoulders, gently rubbing her upper arms. I clamped down on a bizarre spark of jealousy, hardly appropriate right now.

“Kim, it’s okay, it’s alright,” Raine purred. “None of us think you’re a criminal, none of us think you killed anybody.”

“Yeah,” Twil said. “Me neither. Right.”

Raine gave Twil a slyly unimpressed look. Twil shut her mouth and cringed.

“Surviving alone was hard enough,” Raine continued, her soft tone more important than the words themselves. “And you managed that, you don’t have to feel guilty. Heather’s just very cautious. She saw more than us, most of the same things you probably did. We’re not gonna use you up and then decide to get rid of you for something that wasn’t your fault. That’s something I can promise, at the very least.”

Kimberly managed a jerky nod, still hiding her face. Her crying had dried up, except for the occasional sniff.

“Need a tissue?” Twil asked, jumping to her feet. “Here, uh, um … there!”

She bounced off and back again, returning with a half-empty box of tissues, and slid them across the table.

Slowly, carefully, Twil and Raine pried Kimberly back out of her shell. She blew her nose and wiped her puffy eyes, as Raine rubbed her back. The weeping seemed to have cleaned her soul, at least for the moment, changed her in a way I couldn’t identify. When she risked eye contact with me again, she seemed empty, calm, waiting.

I frowned when I realised why.

“I’m not going to pass judgement on you,” I said, feeling vaguely disgusted. “Don’t look at me like that. For pity’s sake, I’m, what, five or six years younger than you? How can you look at me like I’m going to decide your fate?”

“Because you are?” she ventured.

“Hey, only you decide your own fate around here,” Raine said, cracking a smile.

“Quite right,” I said. “I’m not a … I’m not whatever you’re looking for, Kimberly.”

Kimberly nodded to herself. She pulled more tissues from the box and blew her nose again.

“So, Kim,” Raine said, gentler than earlier. “This High Priestess, this Gillespie woman, she’s the one in contact with the Sharrowford Cult? You’re sure about that?”

Was,” Twil corrected before Kim could answer. “We smashed them, right? Heather killed their boss and the rest of them are – poof! Scattered.”

“Amy Stack’s still lurking about, at the very least, and don’t forget Lozzie’s creepy uncle.”

“He left the city!” Twil said.

“People can come back into Sharrowford, you know?” I said. Twil grumbled and shrugged.

“Yes,” Kimberly said. “Yes, Catherine Gillespie, she’s the one who introduced me to the … um, the cult.”

“Better get used to that word,” Twil said. “They call my lot a cult too.”

“Don’t suppose you’d happen to know where she lives, would you?” Raine asked. Kimberly shook her head. “Worth a shot. So, the Sisterly Coven, Shadow of the Moon, whatever they call themselves – when do they meet?”

“Usually Saturday evenings, but also sometimes alternating Tuesdays. This Tuesday too, I think,” Kimberly said. “You’re going to go there, aren’t you?”

Raine’s face split with a dangerous grin.

“Oh, Goddess. Please, I- there’s good people there, f-friends I had, normal people, they don’t have anything to do with all this … this awfulness.”

Twil barked with laughter. “What, you think we’re gonna go in there and slash everyone up?”

“That is what we did last time,” I deadpanned.

“Yeah, but this is like, in public, in the middle of Sharrowford,” Twil said. “Not in some weird spooky fog-world.”

“That’s it then,” Kimberly said, her voice resigned and hollow. “I’ve lost everything, haven’t I? I’ve probably gone and lost my job by now as well. No more friends, no more coven, it’s all gone.” She put her face in her hands, but this time she didn’t cry. She looked dead.

“We’re not going to kill anybody,” I said. “We’re not.”

Kimberly nodded, but I could see she didn’t really believe me.

“Might be able to square things up at your job,” Raine said. “They already know me, I went round there and told them I was your mate. Here, come on, you go back to work tomorrow morning and I’ll come with you, have a little word with your boss. We’ll figure something out. Say you’ve had awful flu and you’ve been delirious for days, and I found you asleep on the toilet, yeah?”

Kimberly shook her head. “You won’t be … oh.” She shuddered at the look in Raine’s eyes.

Raine nodded slowly. “When I say ‘have a little word with your boss’, I mean I’ll have a little word with your boss.”

“Raine does have her uses,” I said. “Nice to have somebody like her on your side, isn’t it?”

Kimberly swallowed. “Oh-okay. Thank you, very much. Please don’t hurt anybody though.”

“I won’t. Promise. But in return, you’re going to do something for us,” Raine said.

“Raine,” I tutted, but she held up a hand.

“It’s cool, nothing crazy. In fact, it’ll let us find Stack easier, and the quicker we do, the better, yeah?”

Kimberly nodded, hesitant and afraid, her eyes seeking help from both me and Twil.

“This Catherine Gillespie, Mrs High Priestess,” Raine said. “Do you think she’d recognise any of us three?”

“Um … I … I don’t know,” Kimberly frowned in thought. “Maybe she’d know about Twil, but … probably not yourself, or you, um, Heather. But maybe she does, I’m not sure, please don’t rely on what I say.”

“We can still work with that, oh yes we can indeed. Now, listen close, ‘cos I’ve got a cunning plan.”

“Why don’t I like the sound of that?” I asked.

“Ooooh, she’s got a plan, has she?” Twil said, grinning from ear to ear. “I’m game, been a few weeks since I got some real exercise.”

Even Kimberly followed the undertones, and managed a shaky smile.

“You’re gonna go to that Tuesday coven meet, Kim,” Raine said, squeezing Kimberly’s shoulder in a gesture that made me irrationally jealous. “And you’re gonna pretend to be Heather’s new girlfriend.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

and less pleasant places – 6.4

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Numb.

A weight pressing down on my chest.

Hands quivering, a high pitched ringing in my ears. Ashes in my mouth; the taste of inevitability.

Raine and Twil both spoke, but they sounded so far away, as if I was underwater. I screwed my eyes shut, and when I opened them again I realised I was staring right through Kimberly, still cowering on her sitting room floor.

“When Lozzie was here-”

Kimberly flinched at the sound of my voice – stretched tight, to breaking point. I struggled to focus.

“When Lozzie was here, you saw her- was she- she was … ”

“Y-yes?” Kimberly squeaked, so eager to please.

I squeezed my hands into fists, digging fingernails into my palms. Must stop shaking. My head swam, hot panic forcing its way up my throat. Too many questions, and I already knew the answers. Nowhere go. Nothing I could do. I felt so helpless, a wave of strangled frustration super-heating itself into black despair.

“Heather, hey,” Raine murmured, squeezing my shoulders, trying to catch my eye. “None of this means a thing yet. We all need to slow down and figure this out, okay?”

“What did she do? What did she look like?” I snapped at Kimberly, too hard, enough to make her start in fear again. “Was it really her? Was it her?”

“Heather.” Raine put a firm hand on the back of my neck, fingers in my hair. “Hey, look at me.”

“Don’t you understand?” I whirled on her. “If Lozzie was here, that means-” I stopped short, as if giving voice to my horrified deduction would make it true. I rounded on Kimberly again. “What did she look like? Exactly, what did she look like?”

“Like, um … I-I don’t-” She raised her hands to ward me off. “Please don’t be angry-”

“Did she look like herself? Like the Lozzie you knew?”

Slowly, hesitating, eyes locked on mine, Kimberly shook her head.

“Did she … ” I could barely squeeze the words out. “Like something was pulling her around, like a puppet??”

Kimberly bit her lower lip and glanced at Raine, who graced her with a reassuring nod. “It’s okay, you can answer. Nobody’s angry with you.”

“T-that’s a pretty good way of putting it, yes.”

I shook off Raine’s grip, suddenly claustrophobic and constricted, too hot in my scarf and coat. I pulled them away from my throat. Breathing too fast, almost hyperventilating. Needed more air, couldn’t breathe, had to take action, had to do something. I cast around the room for a handhold, anything at all, my eyes glazing across Twil still at the sink, staring at me, Raine speaking, her words lost to the ringing in my ears, Tenny waving her bunched tentacles, agitated by my panic.

“Lozzie, what have you done to yourself?” I whined, and bit down on my lips to still my voice.

“Heather, hey, hey.” Raine tried to catch my frantic hands as I tugged at my scarf. “Heather, slow down, breathe. You’re having a panic attack.”

“A justified one!” I snapped at her.

“Uh, did I miss part of this?” Twil asked, wide eyed, still flexing her blood-smeared hand to shake off the remains of the knife-wound.

“Could say that, yeah,” Raine answered.

I turned on Twil. “Can you smell if Lozzie was in here? You can do that, can’t you? If she was here a week ago you must be able to pick up her scent. Was she here?”

“Uhhhhhh.” Twil stared at me, frozen, balanced on eggshells.

“Was she here? Twil, please, please try.”

“Heather, Heather look at me,” Raine said, soft and coaxing, but I couldn’t, I couldn’t think of anything else right now. If Lozzie had been here, then I was right, and Evelyn was wrong.

Twil made a show of sniffing the air, then shrugged, still frowning at me like I was an explosive pressure-plate. “Kinda hard to tell with all the ganja smell, and it was a week ago, yeah?”

“Then she wasn’t? It wasn’t really her?”

Later I felt awful for putting Twil on the spot like that, subjecting her to my wild demands. Desperate for the slimmest handhold, I pleaded for her sense of smell to prove my worst fears incorrect.

“I uh, I dunno. I never knew her for long, not enough to learn her scent proper.” Twil pulled a pained grimace. “Look, I can’t smell Lozzie, so maybe it wasn’t her?”

“I’m not lying!” Kimberly almost shouted. “I’m not lying, I promise, I wouldn’t lie to you. I promise, promise. N-not lying.”

“Nobody’s accusing anybody of lying,” Raine said, and finally grabbed me by the wrists, holding my hands down. “Heather, look at me.”

She used her voice like a steel whip, the kind she never directed at me, enough to make me flinch and obey from sheer shock. I blinked back at her, almost panting.

“Heather, breathe,” she said, soft and serious. “Focus on breathing. You’re in the middle of a panic attack, okay? Just breathe with me, in and out. Slow right down, yeah?”

“Raine,” I whined. “What if I saw the real Lozzie, Outside? What if it was her? What else can teleport between dimensions except her and I? If she was here, if what I saw Outside was here, it must really be her.”

“Then right now Lozzie might need you, and she needs you to be thinking clearly. I know how much she means to you. We will find her, I promise.”

I shook my head. “More than that. It’s more than that. I-I can’t put it into words.”

“I know,” Raine murmured.

And in that moment, staring back at her boundless confidence, she made me believe she knew all my fears, the ones I couldn’t voice, the terror of leaving myself behind. For a moment, she made me believe, and it worked.

I knew she didn’t, not really. But it did work.

“Take a deep breath, Heather. Do it now, okay? Just one, for me, come on.”

I nodded, managed to suck down a deep breath, and another, and another, slowing, steadying. The numb, hot panic began to ebb away. I nodded again, tried to still myself. “I have to do something. I have to find her.”

“We will. But first, let’s get some information, okay?” Raine cracked a smile for me. “Look before you leap isn’t exactly my style, I know, but I think this is your show now.”

I managed another nod.

“Hey, don’t look at me,” Twil said, and I turned to see she was addressing Kimberly with a shrug. “I don’t know what this is about either. Second time they’ve pulled this on me, I’m in the dark here.” She gave us both an unimpressed look.

“I’ll tell you, but first I really must sit down,” I said.

Raine raised her eyebrows and pointed a thumb at the kitchen. “Cup of tea, anybody?”

==

Not the most relaxing cup of tea I’d ever had, but it did the job.

Kimberly needed that space and time as much as I did, to calm down, and it provided a good excuse for us to all sit around the little floor-height table and pretend, if only for a couple of minutes, that we were normal people. A group of young women visiting a friend on a Sunday lunchtime, for a chat and a cup of tea.

The truth sounded like the setup to a bad joke: a sociopath, a werewolf, and a mathematician all prepare to interrogate a necromancer.

None of us expected to laugh at the punchline.

Raine made the tea, not Kimberly, who seemed to require every last scrap of courage to merely sit cross-legged at her own table without bolting, though some of that may have been embarrassment at the rather sad state of her kitchen. She only owned two mugs, one of which was badly chipped, so instead I was allotted a measuring jug, and Raine was going to drink out of a cereal bowl.

The waiting was so awkward that – perhaps paradoxically – it helped me calm down further.

Twil stared at Kimberly, grudge written on her face, and Kimberly stared at the tabletop, frozen in fear. Now that Kimberly was no longer waving a knife around, Tenny had decided she approved, and stopped trying to interpose herself between us, wandering off to run her sticky black tentacles over the contents of Kimberly’s flat. I thought it better not to mention Tenny, and I could have stayed quiet while Raine took thirty seconds to brew the tea, but my frayed nerves couldn’t take the tension in Twil’s omni-directional scowl.

“Twil,” I said. “You’re death-glaring. Stop it.”

“Uh huh, am I?” Twil grunted, not looking away from poor Kimberly. She slapped her hand on the table, palm up, flexing the fingers and wincing through clenched teeth. “Still stings like a bitch, you know?”

Her palm was blemishless. Werewolf healing had sealed it up already.

I rolled my eyes. Panic had turned to exasperation – we had more important matters to deal with.

“Hey, so, Kim,” Raine piped up from over in the little kitchen.

Kimberly flinched, eyes jerking up as if to obey an order. “Yes? Yes?”

“If you don’t remember names, here’s some for you,” Raine said, as she filled the mugs and substitute-mugs with hot water over teabags. “The very pretty short one to your left is Heather – she’s kind of in charge, so listen to what she says – and the one with a face like a smacked arse, that’s Twil.”

“Oi!” Twil twisted and barked at her. She waved her hand in the air. “I got fucking stabbed here.”

“So you’re going to sulk, like a big baby?” I asked. Twil boggled at me. “You’re invincible. I assumed you caught the knife on purpose, to spare Raine’s arm.”

“Well, yeah! But it still bloody well hurt.”

“I am so very sorry,” Kimberly said.

We all paused at Kimberly’s quivering apology. In the moment’s silence that followed, I looked at her – really looked at her, for the first time.

She was a wreck, much worse than the scared woman I recalled from the aftermath of the cult’s pocket dimension. Her clothes were clean enough – and actually quite cute, between the unicorn print pajamas and the bubbly, goofy cartoon dragon on her tshirt – but Kimberly herself looked far from healthy or whole.

Her face was pale and drawn, gaze downcast, eyes ringed by dark circles of exhaustion. She’d been chewing and biting her lips, mangling her own flesh in a nervous tic that must have been going on for weeks, spotted with dried blood and half-healed cracks. An irritated scab had formed on the side of her neck, from incessant scratching, and her chin was bruised where Raine had thumped her to the floor. I had the distinct impression her auburn hair was naturally much brighter, as if the colour had been leeched from her.

She looked weary – a weariness that even adrenaline couldn’t shake.

I’d know that look anywhere. Here was a woman who hadn’t slept properly in a long time.

Had we done this to her, or was this the backlash from her own memories, payback for being part of what I’d witnessed in the cavern beneath the cult’s castle? My heart went out to her, but I hardened it a little, on purpose. Lozzie had vouched that Kimberly had never killed anybody, but that was all.

“Yeah, bloody right you should be sorry, you-” Twil barked.

Kimberly shuffled back from the table. At first I thought she was retreating from Twil’s shout, but then, shaking like a leaf, hands clasped tight in her lap, she bowed her head until her face was level with the floor.

“ … you … should … uh, hey, don’t- uh-” Twil trailed off, frowning. “What are you doing?”

“I apologise for harming you, and I’m very sorry for attacking you all. I am very s-sorry.” She swallowed, her effort not quite enough to keep her voice steady. “Please accept my apology. I’m not worthy, and I’m not import-”

“Stop, stop. Bloody hell.” Twil squinted at her in horror. “Don’t do that, just say sorry. You don’t have to grovel.”

Kimberly didn’t move. She stared at the floor.

I think I was beginning to understand her. Perhaps she didn’t deserve my heart to be quite so hard.

“It’s alright, you can sit up,” I murmured to her. “You don’t have to treat us like that, we’re not like the Sharrowford Cult. Your apology is accepted. Isn’t it, Twil?”

“Eh? Oh, uh, yeah. Sure. As long as you don’t do it again.”

Kimberly still didn’t move a muscle, except a hesitant glance at me from the corner of her eye.

“Kimberly, sit up,” I ordered.

She stayed frozen for another moment, then slowly straightened up, blinking at us like a cornered animal.

“Look, no harm done, yeah?” Twil smiled and held up her hand, flexed her fingers like claws. “S’already healed, just like that. Cool huh? Bet you wish you could do that.”

Kimberly nodded. “M-most impressive.”

Raine bustled over with the tea, clacking mugs and substitutes down on the table, settling herself on her knees across from me. Twil gulped the stuff down like it wasn’t piping hot, and Kimberly seemed to rejuvenate slightly after a sip or two. She began to breathe a little steadier. I forced myself to drink, still flushed and unsteady from the panic attack, still trying to distract myself from the million questions and gut-wrenching worries, still a useless lump without a way to help my friend.

“Ahhh,” Raine sighed, big smile on her face. “There, isn’t that better? Nice and civilised now. Best thing about a brew.”

I nodded, not trusting myself to answer properly, and focused on another sip of tea.

“So what’s all this about Lozzie, then?” Twil asked, first me, then Raine. “Is this another one of Evelyn’s big secrets?”

Raine shook her head. “Bit complex. Heather’s seen her, that’s all, or something pretending to be her.”

“Yeah, I kinda followed that part, I think.”

I took a deep breath, trying not to let the panic back in. “Outside,” I said. “I saw her Outside. And she was all wrong. Not herself.”

Twil’s eyebrows climbed. She stared at me in exactly the way I didn’t want to be stared at. “Right. Right then.”

“We don’t know it was really her,” Raine added, for my sake – but it had the opposite effect.

“If she was here as well, that means it’s the same thing I saw Outside,” I snapped, then shuddered as I forced a deep breath. “That means it’s Lozzie. Don’t treat me like a child, Raine. I can deal with this.”

“I’m serious,” Raine said, and I could see she was. “We don’t know it’s really her.”

I had to avert my eyes. My panic had transmuted into anger – a determination to do something. But there was nothing I could do. Hard but brittle, determined but rudderless.

I’d suffered a panic attack once before, in the bath after the failed kidnapping attempt, and I remembered it all too well. The shaking, the replaying memory, the shortness of breath. I knew it didn’t mean I was a coward – though I was, for other reasons – it was a physical response that I had no control over. But this time was different, nothing had happened to me, no bottled trauma bursting forth.

I felt utterly useless.

Useless.

Turned out I was more similar to Raine than I’d always assumed. I’d learnt that over the past few months; to my enduring surprise, I could be good in a crisis – but only when a clear action presented itself. A person to flee from, or run to, a foe to defeat, a friend to save.

But what could I do here, now, for Lozzie?

Nothing. I didn’t even know how to locate her. She was out there somewhere, in God alone knows what state, maybe even worse than dead, and I was sitting in a nice warm room having a cup of tea. I cursed myself for a fool. Perhaps I didn’t care enough, perhaps that was the truth; Lozzie was a stand-in for Maisie, or for myself, and I was terrible. Half a person, and a bad friend.

I had to find her – how?

“You’re the … ” Kimberly murmured, interrupting my rousing self-hate session. She took another sip of tea to steady herself, and addressed Twil again. “Please excuse me for using a crude term. You’re the Brinkwood … w-werewolf, aren’t you?”

Twil grinned like a cat that got the cream. Kimberly was about to stammer out another apology.

“Your reputation proceeds you,” I said. “Lucky you, Twil.”

“Haha!” Twil barked with laugher. “Yeah, you know it. That would be me, yeah. Your lot – sorry, former lot – knew all about me, huh?”

“You did come up in conversation several times.” Kimberly swallowed before adding: “As a person to be wary of.”

“Rarr.” Twil made a silly monster noise and mock-menaced with her hands, laughing. Kimberly managed to pull a very, very hesitant smile.

“Twil’s a huge numpty, she’s not scary at all,” Raine said. “And neither is Heather,” she added before Twil could launch off on one at her. “We’re all friends here now, right?”

“I’m not a numpty, you dick,” Twil muttered.

“ … sure,” Kimberly said, and I saw her throat bob as she swallowed. “Friends.”

“Raine.” I sighed. “Couldn’t you phrase that in a way which doesn’t make you sound like a mafia enforcer?”

“Ah?” Raine laughed. “I’m serious though. We’re taking it nice and slow, having a cup of tea, all friends now.”

“Kim, can I call you Kim?” I asked, and Kimberly nodded hesitantly. “Raine is incredibly stupid sometimes too, and I’m sorry for how intimidating she can be. She didn’t bother you the first two times she came to visit, did she?”

Kimberly glanced at Raine from the corner of her eye, then shook her head. “Not at all, no, not at all. I understand you have to … be sure of me. I just … I just want out.” Her carefully guarded front slipped, her face falling before she took a shaky breath and pulled herself back together. “I’m sorry. I understand.”

“How’s your chin feel, Kim?” Raine asked, and gestured a little too close to Kimberly’s chin with her bowl of tea. “Bumped you pretty bad there, sorry about that.”

“Oh, um.” Kimberly probed the bruise on her chin, which was rapidly turning purple. She suppressed a wince. “No, no I’m fine. Thank you.”

“Raine.” I gave her a look. “I might not to able to speak your private language of subtle physical intimidation, but even I can read that. Stop it.”

“Stop what?” Raine spread her hands. “Hey, I’m sorry, really.”

“You didn’t sound it.”

“It’s okay, I’m okay,” Kimberly blurted out. “Really, I’m fine, please. Please don’t … don’t … don’t fight.”

Raine and I shared a glance, equally embarrassed. A lover’s quarrel, at a time like this? I sighed.

“We’re not,” I said. “I’m scared for my friend, and it’s making me irritable. I’m sorry too.”

Kimberly stared at me, uncertain how to accept that apology.

“Shall we start at the beginning then?” Raine asked. “Take it in your own time, Kim, tell us what you saw.”

“The beginning?”

Raine raised her eyebrows, then looked at me.

I did not feel in charge. I felt lost and useless – but I had to be strong, somehow. Marshalling my thoughts, I tried to start at the beginning.

“What time did Lozzie show up here?” I asked.

“Oh,” Kimberly mouthed. “The … beginning. Yes. Okay. Okay.”

Kimberly’s fragile composure came tumbling down. She opened her mouth, closed it again, swallowed very hard on a dry throat and took a long draft of tea, hand trembling. Nervously, she glanced at our faces, then pointed at her little plastic bag on the table, the one full of dried cannabis, next to the hand-rolled cigarettes on their protective plate.

“May I- I’m sorry, this is very difficult for me. Do you mind if I … ?”

“You wanna toke up?” Raine asked. Twil snorted to herself.

Kimberly nodded, seemingly embarrassed. “It’s the only thing that helps anymore.”

“You can’t sleep,” I blurted out, a moment of true empathy.

Kimberly stared at me. “How did you know that?”

“It’s sort of obvious. I’m not a mind reader or anything, don’t worry. I know the feeling, that’s all.”

“Obvious, mm. You’re right, I can’t sleep, things keep running through my head. Things, um, all the time. I can’t stop thinking about-” She came up short, lost and distracted. “I wish I could delete all memory of the last six months. I’m sorry. I-I don’t want to be blowing smoke in your faces. I can go to the bathroom window, or something?”

“Is that when you joined the cult? Six months ago?” Raine asked. I heard a hint of cold in her voice, though I doubt any but me would have noticed.

Kimberly shook her head, hugging her arms around herself protectively. “No, no, that was earlier, last February, but it didn’t get bad until I realised I couldn’t leave. I-I can tell you all about it, if you like?”

“Lozzie first,” I said, softly, and Kimberly nodded, resigning herself to the task.

“Well, I don’t mind thirty minutes of second hand smoke,” Raine said. “Any tobacco in that?”

“Oh, no, no.”

“What about you two?” Raine asked Twil and I. Twil shrugged, and I shook my head, too focused on thoughts of Lozzie to care right now.

Kimberly bowed her head, muttered a thank you, and plucked one of the hand-rolled cannabis cigarettes from the little plate on the table. She dug around under the plastic bag full of weed and located a lighter, flicked the tiny flame on, and lit up.

She didn’t smoke very much of the reefer – I’ve been informed by Raine that’s the correct term – one short puff to start her off, then a long, deep drag which made the end of the roll-up glow like embers. Kimberly closed her eyes, held the smoke in her lungs, before carefully blowing it out the corner of her mouth, away from us. Still, the smoke filled the air with a heavy, musky scent.

Perhaps it was a placebo effect, but I swear I saw her muscles begin to relax, saw the tightness around her eyes let up, saw her become more human and less a terrified animal. She blinked several times and knuckled at her bleary eyes, then awkwardly offered the reefer to us.

“Would you like some?”

“Nah,” Twil grunted.

“Oh, uh, thank you, but no.” I shook my head. “I wouldn’t know where to start.”

“I would,” Raine said, “but I gotta keep a clear head on my shoulders. Wouldn’t wanna be all floppy if Stack turns up right now, would I?”

Kimberly’s eyes widened at Stack’s name. Suddenly her gaze flicked up, over Raine, toward her front door. “Did you lock the door? You did lock it, didn’t you?”

“When I made the tea, yeah. Made sure. No worries.”

Kimberly nodded. She took one more long drag, then put the cigarette out with great care, gently stubbing it on the little plate, then pinching the end with her fingers to make sure it had stopped burning.

“Better?” Raine asked.

“Getting there, yes, thank you,” Kimberly closed her eyes again for a long moment, concentrating on the contents of her own head – and bloodstream, I assume. Raine and Twil shared a wry look, but the whole process had fascinated me, and I couldn’t help but wonder what she felt like now, what kinds of pain the drug took away from her. When she opened her eyes again she looked almost relaxed, and younger, her real age, less haggard and run-down.

“Your hair is longer than I remember,” she said to me, voice a little loose, and even managed a small smile. “Suits you.”

“Oh, um, thank you.”

That was the last thing I’d expected. Kimberly was right though, my hair was longer than on our first, brief meeting. My hair hadn’t seen scissors since I’d moved to Sharrowford, getting on for almost seven months now, the ends of my tresses well past the base of my neck. I hadn’t thought about that in months, until a random stoned compliment from a ex-cultist.

Raine laughed. “We’re onto the stoner talk already?”

“I’m sorry,” Kimberly blurted out. “It’s only to take the edge off.”

“Will you tell me about Lozzie now?” I asked. “Please.”

Kimberly nodded. “Are you going to help her? She’s a good kid, she never deserved any of this. I-it’s a good thing you killed her brother. I never thanked you for that. I should. I think.” She frowned to herself, suddenly lost in confused thought.

A lump formed in my throat. “I’m going to try. I have to find her first.”

“Start at the beginning,” Raine prompted softly. “What happened?”

Kimberly sniffed and stared at the extinguished blunt for a heartbeat. “She wouldn’t stop knocking.”

“ … what?” I breathed.

“A knock on the door doesn’t happen much around here, not to me anyway. There’s only a few people who might knock on my front door, and the door frame won’t hold a chain properly, so I have to call out. You know, ‘who is it?’, and hope they don’t decide to break in.” She pulled a weird little smile. “That’s never happened before, by the way, so well done.”

“I didn’t break the lock,” Raine said gently. “Picked it. It’ll work fine.”

“So, I get home from my shift about half five last Thursday night, and then there’s this knock on my door. Right away, like somebody had followed me up the stairs, right behind me. Only I hadn’t seen a soul. I’m very careful. I have to be.” Kimberly took another deep breath, hands gripping each other tight in her lap. “So I called out, but there wasn’t any reply, just another knock. The first couple of times, I thought it was kids messing around, I thought they would run off when I came to the door. So I … I-I stood there, to listen. And I heard this … this breathing.”

“Through the door?” Twil said. “S’pretty thick.”

Kimberly nodded, shaking slightly. “I’ve seen some weird things, with the Brotherhood, things I don’t want to think about again, and when I heard that breathing I knew something was standing out there, something that shouldn’t be. Waiting for me to … to … I don’t know, to stop paying attention, so it could hurt me.”

“What made you feel that?” Raine asked. I couldn’t say a thing, hanging on every word.

Kimberly shrugged. “Intuition? The breathing sounded wrong, like she couldn’t pump the air in and out of her lungs properly.”

“But you opened the door eventually, right?” Raine said.

Kimberly closed her eyes, radiating regret, before she nodded again. “I couldn’t take it anymore. It was dark out, and getting late, and she kept waiting longer and longer between knocks, and then hammering on the door all at once. I figured if it was the Brotherhood, then they’d be more direct, so maybe it was a junkie or something, just somebody from the estate messing with me. Then I got this idea in my head, that maybe one of my thralls had survived, come back to me, just for somewhere to go.”

“Thralls?” Twil squinted at her.

“She means zombies,” Raine said.

“Zombies? Oh, oh, I suppose so, yes. That’s a good word. Anyway, I thought maybe that wouldn’t be so bad. I mean- I didn’t want to think about them again, I-I’m never going to do it again, I swear, I swear to the Goddess. But … at least I could put it to rest. I thought maybe I’d get it safely inside, then call you, maybe Saye could put it down. Send it back? I don’t know how that part works. I was sure that’s what it was, but I was just making myself feel better. I took a knife from the kitchen, hid it behind my back, just in case, and opened and the door. And it was her.”

Kimberly stared at nothing for a moment. The weed and the tea wasn’t enough to hold back what she’d seen.

Lozzie, what had you done to yourself?

“Kim?” I almost couldn’t whisper. “Please, I have to know. She’s really important to me.”

Kimberly swallowed and pulled herself together again. “Lauren- Lozzie, she wasn’t herself. I’d know her anywhere, she was always so sweet to me. She tried to step inside. I didn’t say a word to her, I couldn’t, but I didn’t want her to touch me, not the way she looked, so I just backed up and let her in. I wanted to scream. The knife, that was stupid, stupid, pointless.”

“What did she look like?” I whispered.

“She just stepped inside and circled each of the rooms, it was so weird. Have you ever seen a cat in a new place?” Kimberly jerked round at us suddenly, eyes wide and blinking. “When they don’t know where they are, they’ll circle around the edge of the rooms. It was like that. Mapping? I don’t know, I have no earthly idea what she was doing.”

“Kim, please.”

“She looked wrong, alright?” Kimberly blurted out. “Like you said before, like something else was pulling stings connected to her muscles. I think she was trying to smile at me, but Goddess, it didn’t look like that, she couldn’t pull the muscles right. She walked like a machine, all her parts all wrong, and I was so afraid she was going to touch things, like my bed, and everything would be contaminated.” Kimberly was tearing up, squeezing the words out. “I don’t know why I felt that. She wasn’t human anymore, but it wasn’t like a thrall, it was something else and it was filthy and wrong and it wasn’t supposed to be here.”

“Filthy … ” I echoed, and let the word hang in the air, in my mind, the idea wrenching at the inside of my chest.

Raine reached across the table and took my hand, squeezed hard. “It wasn’t her. Heather, we don’t know if it was really her.”

“She spoke,” Kimberly said. “Once.”

“She spoke?”

“If you could call it speaking. When she finished circling the rooms, she stood right there.” Kimberly pointed at the middle of the floor, staring at me. “Her voice, it was like she couldn’t inflect the words, didn’t know how to say them. In a way, it wasn’t her, you’re right. It wasn’t Lauren Lilburne at all. She said ‘back to school’, and then she left.”

A moment of silence stretched out over the low table. Twil puffed a big sigh and muttered, “That’s some creepy shit alright.”

“Back to school?” I echoed. “What does that mean?”

“I don’t know, I don’t want to know,” Kimberly said, burying her head in her arms. “I don’t want to to know any more about magic, I don’t. It’s not real, none of this. Please, I don’t want to know.”

‘Back to school’. The phrase echoed inside me, down into the abyssal depths, until it found suitable material with which to resonate.

The Eye, the Eye’s lessons – I’d never questioned before why I thought of them as lessons. Back to school? Had the Eye gotten to Lozzie somehow? Why would it? Why would it care about her? What did that mean?

What if it was directed at me?

A cry for help.

‘Back to school’.

In the black silt-layer of my soul, I began to make a plan. I sent the first tentative mental probes down into that lightless abyss where I buried all those years of the Eye’s lessons, where I tried not to think about them. The first tremors of nausea and the pinprick tingling of a headache reared up slowly, the heads of a watchful hydra, as I posed a question of all that inhuman knowledge: I had to find Lozzie – there had to be way. How?

My fingers strayed unconsciously to the Fractal on my left forearm, underneath my sleeve. Time to dredge the depths.

“What did Lozzie look like, other than the obvious and creepy part?” Raine asked.

“What?” Kimberly emerged from behind her arms.

“What was she wearing? Was she clean? Glowing blue and purple? Rainbow socks?”

“Oh, yes, that’s what surprised me. That’s why I thought she was with you, c-clean, I mean, not glowing or whatever. Taken care of, you know? I don’t remember what she was wearing. Uh, jeans, maybe? A coat? But she was clean. Hair was all brushed. She was even wearing shoes. That’s not like her.” Kimberly sniffed. “Do you mind if I smoke again?”

“Go right ahead,” Raine murmured, more concerned with me than Kimberly. She raised an eyebrow at me, a silent question.

I realised I was sweating, eyes scrunched tight, trying to hide the mad thing I was doing.

“I’m fine,” I lied, then forced a strained smile and a deep breath. “I’m just thinking.”

I wasn’t fine. Even the effort of defining the right question of the Eye’s lessons was enough to make me feel like vomiting. I had a map of the universe in my head – our reality, Outside, everywhere – and the tools to use it, but I could barely touch them without searing my mind with white-hot fire, let alone rummage through them for such a specific purpose.

“When she left, where did she go?” Raine was asking Kimberly. I squinted, trying to think of another way.

“I don’t know,” Kimberly said. “I didn’t follow her. Look, I know I’m falling apart, but I’m not crazy, I wouldn’t have followed her for anything. I locked the door and … cleaned up, and then I hid, alright? In bed. Anyone would have.”

“Mm. Maybe.” Raine nodded, trying to keep it light. “Maybe I would have too. Still, you should have called me.”

“I’m sorry, I’m really sorry.” Kimberly’s head twitched, on the verge of another scraping bow, but she caught herself at the last second. “Stack came the next morning, I-I couldn’t.”

Finding Lozzie with hyperdimensional mathematics would be the most complex thing I’d ever attempted. This was no bending or breaking of physical laws, no bullet-deflecting or teleporting a handful of dirt. This was metaphysical. How could I even specify her, define her? Her body? Her soul?

Did I have the mathematics to describe the human soul – a particular human soul?

I winced. A spike of pain jabbed into the back of my skull, just from thinking of that idea. Too deep, too toxic, too dangerous. Perhaps I could find the correct equation to define the human soul, but I’d cook my brain long before I got there.

There must be another way.

“Did she leave anything behind?” I asked. The others all looked at me. I sniffed and wiped my forehead. “Lozzie, I mean. Did she leave anything behind?”

“No. No, nothing at all.”

“Heather?” Raine asked.

“I’m fine,” I lied again. “I’m just worried, and … hungry. It’s been a morning, hasn’t it?”

“Why don’t we all go out and get something to eat?” Raine asked, and nodded to Kimberly. “I’ll treat you too, yeah?”

“Not yet. Let’s finish this first,” I said quickly. We couldn’t leave the room now – I had an idea, and I needed to be in here for it to work, or so I thought.

Raine frowned at me. “Are you sure you’re feeling alright?”

“I’m fine, Raine. What happened with Stack?” I asked Kimberly, to get the conversation moving again, to take everyone’s attention off me. “She knocked on your door too?”

Kimberly nodded. “In the morning, at dawn. The knocking woke me, though I hadn’t really slept. When I asked who it was, she said it was her, completely open. She said, uh, she said if I didn’t open up, then she’d wait on the estate for me and find me when I came out and … do things, to me. I believed her. She would. She would really do that. She asked the same things you did, about Lauren. And told me not to tell anybody else.”

“Meaning us.” Raine frowned.

“I-I didn’t tell her I’m in contact with you, because she didn’t ask. Believe me, please, if she had, I would have. She only cared about Lauren’s visit, and then she left. Now she … if she knows you came here … I … oh, Goddess, please, I don’t want her to come back. She’ll kill me, she’ll really do it.” Kimberly shook, barely able to hold her reefer without dropping it. “The others, they’ll call me an apostate, be angry, but Stack, there’s nothing inside her.”

My mind was a million miles away, elbow-deep in the mud at the bottom of my soul. I tried to hide it, sit upright, hold back the mounting pain in my skull, resist the urge to clench up around my stomach.

An equation, wedded to the map, not to find Lozzie – but to find whatever was in this flat last Thursday night.

Time, that was definable, I could just about do that without being horribly sick everywhere. Space, well, I had that right in front of me, Kimberly’s cramped sitting room. All I had to do was rewind, track backwards, find that ‘Lozzie’ who was here and use her as a reference point.

So simple, put into words. Just like that, just rewind time inside my head, pinch the loose threads left behind by a passing entity and follow them to their current destination.

It was the most complex piece of hyperdimensional mathematics I’d ever attempted, and I couldn’t even touch each component as I prodded them into place. I’d put it together all at once, when it was ready – and try not to foul Kimberly’s carpet with the contents of my stomach. I glanced up, at her open bathroom door. Yes, I’d make it there in time, it was only a few paces. I’d apologise afterwards. I had to do this now. Lozzie needed me.

Raine leaned back, watching Kimberly’s face with shrewd attention. That’s the only reason she failed to notice what I was brewing. “We might be able to help with Stack, maybe, depending on … well, you see, when you were trying to explain yourself to us earlier, Kim, you said that Stack must have seen you ‘go’.”

Kimberly blinked up at Raine, frozen for a second.

“Ahhh, what’s this?” Twil grinned. “Been up to no good again?”

Kimberly shook her head. “No, no, I-”

“Go where?” Raine asked, low and gentle – and then happened to glance at me. “Heather? Heather?”

“Hey, what’s wrong?” Twil asked.

“Oh,” Kimberly mouthed, and scooted back from me.

I felt a bead of blood leak from my nose and trickle down to my lips. I couldn’t speak.

“Heather, what’s-” Raine’s eyes went wide – she knew what this looked like, by now. “What are you doing?”

“Fi-finding- Lozzie,” I squeaked.

“Heather, woah, woah, stop!” Raine reached for me. I rocked backward, away from her. All I needed was another few seconds.

I nudged that final essential piece into place, that conceptual assumption, the one I hadn’t questioned: who did I need to find? Whoever was in this flat last Thursday.

The definition in place, I saw, as a molten spire of pain erupted up my brain-stem and into my skull. Described in mind-melting hell-math, I saw.

And the thing I’d defined – the thing in this flat last Thursday – stared back at me through the equation I’d built, and caught me looking.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

and less pleasant places – 6.3

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Raine often proposes solutions that are themselves new types of problem. Before I met her, the idea of breaking into a person’s home to resolve a situation would have seemed utter madness; nowadays it felt merely inevitable.

I let out a huge sigh and put my face in my hands.

“Heather? Hey, hey, it’s okay, I- ahhh.” Raine paused, and I could picture her pained smile in my mind’s eye. “Hey, she’s probably fine. I just was thinking worse-case scenarios. Most likely this is all a misunderstanding. Maybe she left Sharrowford and didn’t tell us, didn’t want to be followed, and hey, I wouldn’t blame her. Best thing for her really, start a better life elsewhere, without the cult and all that hanging over her.”

I sighed again, sat up straight, and gave Raine a deadpan stare. “Breaking and entering.”

“Yeah!”

“Elucidate for me?”

“Yeah, me too, hey?” Twil added. “You have got a plan for this, right?”

“It’ll be easy. No problems.” Raine leaned back, getting comfortable in her chair. “Her place is in one of the two old towers on Headly. Shared entranceway, so we can wait for somebody else to hold the door. Failing that, the lock should be easy to force, all you need’s a screwdriver. Kimberly’s own front door is pretty secluded, floor fourteen, number 62, last one in the row.”

Twil shrugged. “What do you need me for then?”

“’Cos I dunno what’s in there. Could be nothing, could be a man-eating tiger. I’d take Praem, but I don’t want to leave Evelyn here alone without her.” Raine gestured at me with her eyes. “And I think Heather might kill me if I went by myself and got in trouble.”

I tutted. “No ‘might’ about it.”

Twil crossed her arms and frowned. “As long as this isn’t gonna turn into a whole … thing. I have got school tomorrow morning.”

Raine nodded. “Lock-picks, not door-smashing. It’s an old cylinder lock, I’ll have it open in a couple of minutes at most. I do the breaking, you do the entering.”

“Mmm,” Twil growled, uncertain.

I flinched.

It had been a few weeks since I’d last heard that sound. She’d probably meant to grumble in thought, but the noise from Twil’s throat came out low, resonant, bestial – not a human vocalisation at all, let alone what one expected from a slender teenage girl. A thrill passed through me, suddenly aware of the exact distance between us.

Then Twil puffed out a breath and shrugged, and she was all human again.

“Take Praem if you must,” Evelyn said. She clacked over to us but didn’t sit down, tossed an open packet of chocolate digestives onto the table and extracted one for herself. “This is important. Find out what the necromancer is doing, or where she’s gone. Today.”

“Breaking and entering,” Praem intoned.

Twil jumped in her seat, startled, then frowned at the doll-demon. “Bloody hell. She’s too quiet, I keep forgetting she’s there.”

“I am precisely as quiet as I wish,” Praem said. Twil frowned at her, the suspicion of a canine for an unknown animal.

“Don’t engage with her,” Evelyn said. “Not unless it’s necessary.”

“You’re not thinking of coming with, are you?” Raine cocked an eyebrow at Evelyn. “It’s a bit of a hole round there.”

Evelyn shook her head and tapped her walking stick against her artificial leg, a dull thunk. “I don’t fancy running away if anything goes wrong, no.”

“What’s the time, getting on for twelve?” Twil asked. “We gonna do this now?”

“Whenever you’re ready,” Raine said.

“Wait, wait.” I held up a hand, feeling like I was the only sane person in the room. “What if somebody sees you breaking in, and calls the police?”

“Ahh?” Raine laughed gently. “Heather, nobody’s going to do that, trust me.”

“Round Headly? In the towers?” Twil squinted at me. “I’m from Brinkwood and even I know that no bugger’ll call the rozzers in Headly.”

“Rozzers?” I echoed. “Twil, you live in a rural village, you don’t talk like that.”

Twil grimaced and scratched the back of her head.

“Twil’s right. Whingate and Headly’s the roughest council estate in Sharrowford,” Raine said. “The other tower’s condemned, has been for ages. Police only go there in threes, or not at all. Our girl lives in a rough neighbourhood.”

“Yes, I gathered that part,” I said. “But are you certain nobody will call the police?”

Raine shrugged. “Ninety-nine percent.”

Even I’d heard of Whingate and Headly — before I moved to Sharrowford. One of those names that turned up in national crime statistics, television news pieces about knife crime and youth stabbings, a turbulent spot in the otherwise placid surface of Sharrowford’s desultory attempts at regeneration. I didn’t like the idea of Raine walking around a place like that, but she’d been there three times already and this time she’d be taking Twil. The pair of them together would probably be the most dangerous thing on that council estate. I distracted myself by grabbing a chocolate digestive, and focused on avoiding crumbs as I bit into the biscuit.

Twil stood up and knocked back the rest of her tea. Evelyn eyed her for a moment, opened her mouth and closed it again, until Twil caught her staring and spread her arms in an exasperated shrug.

“I was going to ask how things have been with your mother,” Evelyn snapped, averted her eyes, and added in a much gentler voice, “professional curiosity..”

“Weird,” Twil said. Evelyn shot her an offended frown. “I mean with my my mum, not you asking that. Simmer down, jeeze.”

“Evee’s concerned for you, Twil, she cares,” I said. “We all do. She just has a funny way of showing it.”

Funny way?” Evelyn muttered.

“We don’t want to pry,” I forged on, doing my best to ignore Evelyn’s ire, though I almost flinched. “But after what happened when your mother visited, well, we all hope your family life is going okay.”

“Ehhhh.” Twil shrugged and glanced out of the window. “Like I said, weird. Not much more weird than usual though. I mean … she’s still my mum, even if she’s … timesharing her head, I guess. Nobody in the Church will talk about it. I guess some of them are the same, yeah, got the god riding along upside their skulls?”

“Most likely,” Evelyn said, her voice tight.

Twil stared out of the kitchen window, a moment too long for comfort, watching the leaden sky and the threat of rain, the wind plucking at the unkempt grass.

For all my involvement with the supernatural, I couldn’t even begin to imagine how Twil felt about her family, about the pseudo-religion she’d grown up with, or the crippled Outsider they worshipped beneath the ruined Church out in the woods. It was like the plot of a bad horror film: a cult in the wilds, a hidden secret, a young and vulnerable girl – except Twil was anything but vulnerable. She knew all their secrets and she was still very much alive and untouched, and untouchable, as I’d seen so many times.

What on earth could I say to show her I cared? They and their ‘god’ didn’t seem so bad now, not when compared to the Sharrowford cult or Evelyn’s past. When Twil’s mother, Christine Hopton – the high priestess of the Brinkwood Church – had visited Sharrowford to offer us their dubious help, she’d been sweet and personable, hadn’t creeped me out at all until the moment I’d seen something moving behind her eyes. She was still herself, still a person, just hosting a guest in her mind.

Perhaps to Twil it was normal. Or perhaps not.

“They won’t do it to you,” Evelyn said suddenly. Twil turned to look, eyebrows raised. “I mean they won’t, you’re probably too dangerous for the cu- … for your Church’s’ god.”

Twil puffed out her cheeks and flapped her coat. “More werewolf advantage, huh? Cool. Dunno how I feel about that, really.”

“You should feel safe,” Evelyn grumbled, then picked out another biscuit, chewed on it for a moment before she continued. “My offer still stands, and don’t you forget it. You can stay here if you ever need to. You come here, to me, at the first sign of family trouble.”

“There won’t be any.” Twil looked at the floor and shrugged. “But yeah, thanks. Wouldn’t mind hanging out over a Friday night sometime.”

Evelyn grunted and turned away. I gave Twil a covert thumbs up, but she only raised a confused eyebrow at me.

“We should crack on now if we wanna get this done before dark,” Raine said, and stood up. She stepped over to me and ruffled my hair, exploited the instinctive urge to close my eyes whenever she did that. “Meanwhile, you better eat some proper breakfast, Heather. You haven’t had anything since six last night. Go back to bed if you need, yeah? Don’t wait up for us, we won’t be long, it’s probably nothing.”

“And if it’s not, what are you going to do?”

“We find anything, we’ll call. You’ll be the first to know, I promise.”

“I guess so … ”

Raine kissed me on the forehead and then flipped my onesie hood over my hair as she skipped away, left me flustering and blushing as Twil guffawed at the pair of us.

They didn’t waste any time. Raine dragged on her leather jacket in the front room, and Twil began to boast that she could run her way to the old council estate faster than a bus could take them. Evelyn didn’t show much interest, wandering back into her workshop without so much as a friendly goodbye to Twil, but I followed into the front room, hesitated, then gathered my courage and spoke up.

“I’m coming with you.”

“Heather?” Raine finished stashing something black and metallic back inside her jacket. I didn’t have to guess what that was. She smiled and shook her head. “You haven’t eaten breakfast yet, come on.”

“Then I’ll take a cereal bar. I’m coming with you.”

“Uhhh,” Twil made an idiot noise. “No offence, but Headly council estate might be a little like, out of your depth?”

“I have been in much scarier places, thank you very much.”

“Girl’s got a point,” Raine said. “She sure has.”

“Still, s’not the same, is it?” Twil shrugged. “It’s not exactly transferable skills. You can’t explode some tweaker chav with magic in broad daylight, you’ll get in right bother.”

“You can if you’re good enough at it,” Evelyn called from the kitchen.

“I’m coming with you,” I repeated. “No ifs or buts.”

“No butts, huh? Speaking of which, I could always take you upstairs,” Raine said, her voice dropping, dangerous and low. “Leave you unable to walk straight for half an hour. Then you won’t be coming with us, after coming with me.”

If she expected to defeat me with embarrassment and sexual innuendo, Raine was sorely mistaken. I felt a blush rise in my cheeks, to hear her talk to me that way in front of Twil – who was blinking at us in confusion, not sure if she was following – but I raised my chin at Raine. I had her in checkmate.

“But you want to get moving right away, don’t you?” I said lightly. “If I hold out, it’ll take you quite a while to render me incapable of standing up.”

Raine burst out laughing, boggling at me in surprise and raising her hands. “Alright, alright you got me. I’m just playing.”

Twil grimaced at us. “Bloody hell you two. Is this just an excuse to flirt? Hey, Evee! They do this all the time?”

“Yes,” Evelyn called back. “It’s obnoxious.”

“I’m not flirting, I’m serious,” I said. “I’m coming with you. That’s final.”

Raine opened her mouth, and began to half-sigh, half-laugh, but then she must have caught the resolve behind my eyes, the reason I was demanding this. She killed the laughter and tilted her head at me. “Why? Either the flat’s empty, or she’s hiding in there. Anything else is unlikely, you’re not going to miss anything important.”

“Because I’m responsible.”

“For?” Raine asked.

I wet my lips and sighed, had to think. The initial desire had been pure gut feeling, unpacking it was a challenge. “Kimberly Kemp, I’m responsible for her. From what she said when we let her go, the cult was all she had in life. No family here, and a grinding, low-paying job. You’ve met her since, do you think that’s accurate?”

Raine nodded slowly. “Yeah, yeah, it is, I think.”

“Then I destroyed what little support network she had. I’m responsible. Don’t you remember the way she looked at me? The … ” I almost shivered with distaste at the memory. “The awe? I was the one she pleaded with, I gave conditions, for her life. I’m responsible. I’d like to see her again, maybe talk to her, especially if she’s scared of us, say … I don’t know. Something. Apologise, maybe.”

Apologise?” Evelyn drawled from the doorway behind me.

“I’ll think about it on the way there.”

Raine nodded, all trace of playful humour gone. “Okay, sure, you’re with us then. But find a cereal bar first, or three. You need to eat.”

“You sure about this?” Twil looked very doubtful. “Heather, like, I get what you mean, it’s cool, poor girl’s probably scared as shit, but it’s really rough round Headly. Like, scary rough.”

“I can handle that.”

In truth I was barely considering where we were going.

Raine shrugged. “We’ll all be together, it’ll be fine. Headly’s rough but it’s hardly Afghanistan. And there’s probably nothing in that flat but mouldy bread. It can’t hurt.” Raine fixed me with an intense look, a no-questions-do-what-I-say look. “As long as you stick to exactly what I tell you to, and stick with us, right by my side. Wander off alone and you’ll have fourteen-year-olds trying to sell you drugs in five seconds, propositioning you in ten.”

“Yes ma’am.” I imitated the tone Raine used when I bossed her about, stood up straight and pulled a mock-salute. She grinned, winked at me, and Twil rolled her eyes. “Frankly, if we do find Kimberly,” I added. “It might be a little easier on her nerves if she sees me, instead of you two.”

Twil frowned, gesturing at herself. “What’s wrong with me? Raine I get, she’s a psycho, but me? Me?”

I sighed. “Twil, she watched you dismantle her zombies with your bare hands.”

“Well … yeah, she did! That was her fault.”

I gave her a look. “And that makes you less frightening how, exactly?”

“Oh, alright, fine.” Twil shrugged, doing a poor job of hiding her brief smile. I suspect she rather enjoyed the feeling of being big and scary whenever she wanted. She came up short, frowned, and looked me up and down. “Uh, you are gonna change out of that cat onesie, right? That might scare our Poundland Necromancer for a whole different reason.”

I huffed out a sigh and put my hands on my hips. Raine started laughing.

“Yes, Twil, I thought I’d wander down there in the onesie, really get the locals’ attention. What do you think?”

==

Headly council estate – a truncated double-crescent of squat brick flats between Whingate road and the distant motorway embankment, laid out like crab pincers, lined with cramped windows, pockmarked with air-conditioning outlets and little satellite TV dishes, scarred with the shadows of badly cleaned graffiti, its rot frozen by the cold – unsettled me worse than I’d expected.

Sharrowford was not in general a rough town. Every city has forgotten pits, neglected areas full of people who’ve fallen through the cracks, too poor and ground down to claw themselves out. I’d grown up in Reading, more sheltered than most due to my ‘mental illness’ and teenage isolation, but even I, mousy little Heather who never went out on the weekends, knew the reputation of places like Southcote or Whitley among my peers.

Even with Raine on my right and Twil on my left, as we walked up the long concrete pathway on the green, this place unnerved me.

Not the same way as Outside, otherworldly realms on the razor’s edge of human comprehension, or being lost in the Sharrowford cult’s pocket dimension, but a sensation more animal discomfort than fear. An itch between my shoulder blades. A tightness in my chest. A need to look everywhere all at once, but also make myself small and unremarkable.

The green between the two rows of flats was covered in scraggly brown grass, not doing too well in the winter, scared by tire-marks from bikes and littered with empty cans and cigarette ends in any convenient corner – plus several dessicated dog turds, and more than one or two used condoms. Several half-dead trees struggled up from their potting gaps between concrete slabs.

We passed a few people, teenagers – and young adults dressed like teenagers – all greased hair and imitation jewelry, smoking cigarettes in the shelter between two of the blocks, glaring out at the world as if looking for a fight. Old women made entirely of boot leather. A trio of muscled, tattooed men hanging around on a corner, one who whom had a huge, stained dressing dressing over one eye.

Twice, brave souls offered to sell us ‘smack’ – though I didn’t know what that was – or rather, they offered it to Raine, who turned them down with a shake of the head and a ‘nah thanks mate’. Once, a lad hooted something rude at us, trotting in our direction across the grass, and I’d struggled quite hard not to flinch.

Twil glared at him, barely growling, and he made himself scarce.

Terrifying god-aliens from outside reality? Sure. Evil wizards and giant zombies? No problem. Urban decay? Perhaps I’d better stay home.

Nothing was going to happen to us, not in the middle of the day, despite the low grumbling sky. Three of us, in public, with Raine radiating such an frigid aura. Nothing was going to happen.

A tiny, mad, dangerous part of me enjoyed this experience, but not for any sensible reasons.

Raine and Twil were positively intimidating.

None of it directed my way, of course. If they ganged up on me like this, I would probably pass out in mortified arousal. The feeling of being guarded, looked after, sandwiched between two of the most attractive women I’d ever known, either of whom could lift me off my feet — well, I stored those feelings away for later.

Raine held her shoulders squared, chin up, hands in her pockets, an exaggerated casual swagger to her walk, as if we were exactly where we were supposed to be. I realised I’d never seen her put on this particular front before, a defensive wall, don’t-mess-with-me. Twil, on the other hand, had somehow descended a notch or two toward her wolf-like state, but without any physical changes; a dark glower in her eyes, a subliminal threat in her musculature, an animal roll to her shoulders.

And then there was me, twitchy and nervous.

“Which tower is it? Left or right?” Twil asked quietly, as the shadow of the council estate’s crowning glory fell over us.

“The one on the left,” Raine said, her tone deceptively casual. “That’s Gleaston tower. Glasswick tower’s on the right, that’s the condemned one. Wouldn’t wanna go in there for love nor money.” She glanced down at me. “You finished all those cereal bars, right? Warmed up a bit?”

“Mmhmm.” I nodded, then cleared my throat, fighting the urge to stay small and silent, my face tucked down inside my new scarf. “Yes, I ate them on the bus. I’m fine, I’m doing fine.”

A white lie. No matter.

“Not long ‘till we get inside,” Raine murmured. She pointed ahead and up – and up, and up. “You can see Kimberly’s place from here, the corner flat on floor fourteen. Curtains are shut, but I swear that’s a light. Bathroom window, maybe. See it?”

I tried to count the floors, to follow Raine’s finger, but the pollution-stained concrete defeated my eyes.

Living in Gleaston Tower sounded like my idea of hell.

Twinned concrete monoliths, the Headly towers – Gleaston and Glasswick – sat at the point the low rise flats stuttered out into open ground. Thirty floors each of thick concrete slab, once-fashionable apartments, dingy windows and cacophonous graffiti, they tore at the sky’s underbelly over Sharrowford’s west end.

They could be worse, at least to my sensibilities. Better the texture of aged concrete than the too-clean surfaces of steel and glass such things would be built from these days. At least these had life, of a kind. Some of the higher flats in Gleaston tower sported window boxes, sadly empty this time of year, or big houseplants visible behind the glass, a pleasing counterpoint to the grey exterior. One flat near the summit flew the Cross of St George from their window, and another two the ram’s head colours of Sharrowford Football Club.

Glasswick – the condemned tower – looked awful. Every window up to the tenth story had been boarded, the wood damp and rotting from weather damage. The glass higher up had been smashed. Weeds sprouted in the concrete cracks and lichen had colonised big patches of concrete, a building with a skin disease.

The police had nailed a man-sized plastic notice in big bold letters to the boarding over the entranceway. Keep out, building condemned by order of Sharrowford council, entry punishable by £500 fine, so on and so forth.

The notice was caked with graffiti, and a board had been kicked in next to it, an entrance to the lightless interior.

At least the local spirit life seemed unruffled by the state of the place. Pneuma-somatic creatures treated Headly much the same as the rest of Sharrowford. A beefy thing like a gorilla made out of charred meat was busy climbing down the side of one of the towers, and a pack of wolfish ghoul-faced monsters lurked around the connecting alleyways, alternately chased by and sometimes chasing a tentacled lurker with a trio of huge stalked eyes, which occasionally waved over the buildings.

We crossed the junction of pathways that marked the boundary between low-rise and the tower-blocks. I checked over my shoulder, as I had every couple of minutes since we’d stepped off the bus.

I did a double-take and shuffled to a halt, pulling on Raine’s sleeve.

“Raine. Raine, she’s stopped,” I hissed.

“Tenny’s stopped?” Raine looked back, as if she had any hope of seeing our invisible fourth companion.

Tenny had indeed stopped, right at the boundary between the towers and the rest of Headly council estate, with her deep-sea black eyes upturned to gaze at the top of the condemned tower. She kept putting one tarry-black foot forward and withdrawing it again, hesitant and uncertain, her lithe, androgynous form slowly shifting as if adjusting her footing before a sleeping predator. Her tentacles waved slowly, tasting the air.

After we’d returned from down south, Tenny had resumed her habit of following me to and from university, though only about half the time. She loved to explore everything we passed, fascinated by every little detail of the world – pavement, weeds, passing dogs, glass windows, campus carpet. If Lozzie had created her, I suppose she was indeed very young. Curious and innocent?

As we’d left the house this morning, she’d ambled out of the garden to accompany us, and Raine had decided her presence was a good idea. Just in case.

“I don’t know why,” I said. “She doesn’t look comfortable with this.”

Twil stopped a few paces on, frowning hard. “Your uh, weird tentacle thing? She gone all canary on us?”

“Don’t say that. She’s not a canary. And she’s not a thing.”

“What’s she doing?” Raine asked softly.

I shook my head. “She’s not blocked, there’s no magical boundary here. She’s just … uncomfortable. Tenny?” I raised my voice very slightly, but she didn’t respond.

“Can you ask her what’s wrong?” Raine said.

“In public?” I pulled a face. “Here?”

“Not like you’ll be out of place,” Twil laughed.

“I don’t know.” I felt hot under the collar, increasingly concerned, but unwilling to talk to the air in the middle of Headly council estate. Tenny just kept staring up at the tower.

“This might be important,” Raine said. “Please, Heather, for me?”

I glanced around, biting my lip and weighing my options. I didn’t like this one bit, but Raine was right, and I suppose I could make it look like I was talking to her. I nodded, swallowed my pride, and walked back to Tenny. Raine stuck to me like glue and Twil trailed along, both of them looking suitably dangerous and performatively combative.

“Tenny?” I said her name again, voice soft, as I reached out and concentrated on the act of touching one of her tentacles. The pneuma-somatic flesh went right through my glove, but I caught the appendage in my hand, smooth and oddly warm, and I held her softly. “Tenny, what’s wrong? Why don’t you want to come with us?”

Her reply came in that low, bubbling mud-voice, inhuman words at first, filtered into comprehension in the back of my head.

“ – too big too big swallow me whole.”

“The tower?” I whispered, glancing up at the concrete spar.

“Big and dark and a big mouth to swallow me whole,” she said, and I got the distinct impression she was talking to herself.

“We’re not going to that one,” I whispered to her. “It’s condemned, nobody goes there. We’re going to the other one. Tenny, over there.” I tried to point for her, show her the way with her own tentacle. She came around slowly, as if taking a risk by looking away from the condemned building.

“She doesn’t like Glasswick?” Raine asked. I shrugged.

“Don’t blame her for that, s’a shithole,” Twil said.

“This doesn’t make any sense,” I said, mouth dry. “Why would she react this way?”

“You know why it was condemned, right?” Twil asked. I shook my head. “There was a triple-murder up there, years and years ago, like 2003 or 2004 or something. Guy went door to door with a knife and stabbed anybody who answered, but it turned out he was actually killing people who’d got his wife addicted to heroin, plus a bystander. Straw that broke the camel’s back, lots of people moved out after. Maybe she’s picking up on bad vibes, bad history?”

Raine nodded. “Bad vibes, perhaps.”

“Bad vibes. Right.” I couldn’t keep the sarcasm out of my voice.

“We’ll stay on our toes,” Raine said, deadly serious. “If she freaks out again, the smallest twitch, you call stop and we stop, no questions. Got it?”

I nodded. “It’ll have to do.”

Tenny seemed less agitated now. When I let go of her tentacle, she followed us once more, all the way up to the shared entranceway of Gleaston Tower.

We stood around for a minute or two. Raine kept up a steam of chatter as we waited for a resident to open the door so we could tailgate in behind, but when none appeared, Raine casually palmed a screwdriver from inside her jacket.

My nerves shot through the roof, butterflies in my stomach. This was it, we were on the cusp of doing something very illegal indeed.

To my surprise I was deeply excited. A small part of me screamed about how I was meant to be a good girl, a good citizen, and good people didn’t break into tower blocks they didn’t live in.

I counted my blessings, and reminded myself I had committed murder. Not such a good girl anymore, and never innocent.

Raine jammed the screwdriver into the gap between door and frame, blocking the action with her back. She jerked it up and down, then swung the door wide for Twil and I. We hurried inside, out of the winter cold and into the entranceway, all sticky laminated flooring and stippled plaster walls. Tenny crept in last, slipping inside as Raine let the door swing closed.

Wide staircases led upward into the tower on our left and right. A bank of four lifts stood at the far end of the room, their call buttons glowing noxious green. Everything reeked of that unique damp concrete scent, with hint of wet dog and tobacco smoke. I wrinkled my nose, feeling delicate.

“Right, you’ve got a decision to make,” Raine said, rubbing her hands together.

“Me?”

“Unfortunately, yeah.” She winced in apology. “I forgot about this part.”

“This place stinks, ugh,” Twil grimaced.

“S’not that bad. Bit of local colour,” Raine said, then caught my eye again. “Kimberly’s flat is fourteen stories up. Twil and I can manage the stairs, I’ve done it before, but I don’t want to force you into a long climb without warning you first. It’s a long way up, your legs are gonna get tired.”

“Why can’t we take the lifts?”

“We can, but they all stink of piss.” Raine shrugged.

“Ugh, count me out, fuck it, I’ll climb,” Twil grunted. “Floor fourteen, right?”

“There is a third option,” Raine said. I detected the hint of a smirk. “I could carry you most of the way up.”

I sighed and closed my eyes for a moment. Raine was being completely serious. “While I do adore your efforts to spare me life’s little indignities, I am a big girl and I can hold my nose for two minutes. We’ll take the lift.”

Raine laughed softly and nodded. “Right you are then.”

Twil pulled another grimace. “Wouldn’t even touch the call button if I was you. See you two up there, then? Hey, you wanna have a race? I reckon I can beat the lift.” She broke into a toothy smile and bounced on the spot, limbering up.

“Fourteen stories?” Raine almost purred, low and mocking. “No way. Not even you, lassie.”

“Sure I can. S’easy.” Twil winked at her, then at me. “What do you think, Heather?”

“I think this neither the time nor place,” I muttered, covering for how attractive I found this sudden competitive clash.

“You’re on,” Raine said. “Loser buys lunch?”

“Threetwoonego!” Twil barked, laughed, and sprinted off in a dead run straight up the stairs, coat flapping behind her, feet slapping against the concrete steps. I swear I heard her bounce off a wall, an animal grunt of effort echoing down the stairwell.

==

Knock knock knock.

No answer.

Raine rapped her knuckles against the front door of number 62, Gleaston Tower, Kimberly Kemp’s tiny flat. The sound echoed down the dingy tile-and-concrete corridor, lost around the sharp turn under the buzzing strip-lights. Twil leaned in close, listening for movement inside. I bit my bottom lip a little too hard, nerves churning in the pit of my stomach.

“Nothing?” Raine mouthed to Twil. The werewolf shook her head.

Raine knocked again, and called through the door. “Kim, it’s me, alright? I’m worried about you, yeah?”

“Won’t-” I hissed, then bit my lip again as Raine put a finger to hers. “Won’t somebody hear us?” I whispered.

Twil shrugged. “Nobody cares. And nobody’s doing bugger all in there, not that I can hear.”

Raine straightened up and slid a little folded sheath of plastic from her pocket. “Alright. We go through with the plan.”

Twil had won the race, met us on floor fourteen as the lift doors had opened, grinning from ear to ear and puffing for breath after a dead sprint up all those flights of stairs. Raine had insisted her victory didn’t count, as not only had we waited for the lift, but I’d made Raine hold the doors until Tenny joined us, tentacles crammed inside. Twil had laughed and punched Raine in the shoulder, demanding her prize.

Our shared mirth died off quickly. Raine led us into the bowels of Gleaston Tower, down the narrow connecting corridors between the flats. A few spirits lurked here and there, but nothing out of the ordinary. We’d passed only one other person, a young mother pushing a buggy toward the lifts, who’d pretended not to see us. Did we really look that dangerous?

I suppose we were.

Raine unrolled the plastic sheath and extracted a pair of slender steel tools. My heart climbed into my throat. She knelt in front of door’s lock and set to work, tongue in the corner of her lips, eyes staring at nothing as she felt for the resistance of the pins inside the mechanism. Her fingers moved with such delicate care.

“Never knew you could pick locks,” Twil said.

“I can do a lot of things,” Raine muttered, distracted. “Fruit of a misspent youth.”

She squinted in concentration, grunted “there we go”, then used the thicker of the two tools to turn the lock. A solid click sounded from within the door. Raine hopped up, slid the lock-pick away, and tried the handle – very, very carefully.

The door opened an inch, hinges silent.

“You’re up.” Raine nodded to Twil. “Heather, you stick behind me, okay?”

I nodded, not trusting myself to speak without squeaking. To my surprise, Tenny was sticking behind me, as if I offered any protection whatsoever. She peered over my shoulder, stray tentacles drifting in my peripheral vision.

Twil eased the door wide and crept into the flat.

Raine followed, every muscle tensed and ready, one hand inside her jacket, with me in her wake.

The next few moments felt both a tense violation of social norms, and somehow farcical.

Kimberly Kemp’s flat was neither large enough nor spooky enough to warrant this kind of treatment. Small, cramped, but nicer than my old bedsit, it consisted of a very short tile entranceway – enough to spare the carpet from one’s shoes – a tiny combined kitchen and sitting room, and two doors which presumably led off to the bedroom and bathroom, the former of which was wide open on an unmade bed and some discarded clothes.

Twil’s shoulders hunched like a wary hound. She paused every pace to sniff the air, stepping into the open area of the sitting room and eyeing the doors to bedroom and bathroom.

“Knock knock,” Twil said out loud. “Anybody home?”

“Heather, close the front door behind us, please,” Raine hissed, so soft but so loud in the silence. Hands fumbling, I pushed the door shut with a resounding click, and winced.

“Sorry,” I whispered.

“S’fine,” Twil said, straightening up. “There’s nobody in here.”

Tenny slid past me, investigating the kitchen space, tentacles running over the cheap heating rings and ancient dishwasher, before she lost interest and circled around Twil.

“Can you smell her?” Raine asked, voice still soft. “Smell when Kim was last here?”

Twil gave Raine an unimpressed frown. “Of course I can smell her, she lives here, you twat. She’s not a cat, and neither am I. S’not like I can tell when she last rubbed her scent on everything, can I?”

Raine shrugged an apology and moved forward into the room as well. She craned around without approaching the bedroom, trying to see inside, then slid forward and poked her head through. “Nobody here. What about the bathroom?”

“I don’t hear nothing,” Twil said. “Lemme guess, you want me to go first?”

I followed them into the sitting room area. I didn’t find it too difficult to calm my racing heart; the decor subdued my nerves.

Kimberly had spent a lot of effort making her little flat comfy and welcoming, though I was less sure about her taste. Besides a beanbag chair and a small television with a battered video game console plugged into it, the place was done up like a new age grotto. The walls sported hanging posters of majestic looking wolves in suitably fantastical forests and mountains, and a few fancy coloured crystals decorated a bookshelf, accompanied by a tacky statue of a rearing dragon.

Of the books themselves, I recognised a few titles from the fake collection of occult junk in the Medieval Metaphysics room — volumes with silver pentagrams on the front, written by people with pen names like ‘Sky Raven’ and ‘Coven Mistress Dahlia’. Through Kimberly’s open bedroom door I spied a huge poster of a rainbow-clad unicorn, in pride of place above her bed.

It would almost be sweet – if I hadn’t seen her commanding those zombies for the cult. I had to remind myself of what she’d been involved in.

A smoky, musky scent seemed baked into the air. I wrinkled my nose, sniffing.

“You smell that too, huh?” Twil asked with a wry smirk.

“What it is? I think I recognise it, but I’m not sure.”

“Weed, lots of it,” Raine announced. She pointed toward the low table in the centre of the room, the sort you’re meant to kneel at, complete with a few purple cushions and a blanket. Alongside a licked-clean microwave meal box, the table held a plastic bag full of dried green plant matter, a tab of roll-up papers, and a bag of cigarette filters. Two completed blunts lay on a small plate. “She was toking up last time I visited, didn’t think anything of it.”

“Oh, cannabis?” I blinked at the stuff on the table. This was out of my depth.

“Hey, hey, wait a sec,” Twil frowned at the drugs, shaking her head. “Nobody’d leave that much weed behind. Maybe she-”

Scritch-scratch. Ka-thunk.

We all froze. My heart leapt into my mouth. Twil flexed claws instead of fingers, and Raine pulled a familiar black metal truncheon from inside her jacket, span it in one hand.

That sound had come from the bathroom. A pair of feet kicking across a tiled floor and knocking an object over.

“Kim?” Raine called. “It’s me. Is that you in there? You need to say something, right now, ‘cos we don’t know-”

The bathroom door burst open.

Kimberly Kemp, wide-eyed and screaming, lurched at us with a knife in her hand.

Of course, in the panic and terror of the moment, I wasn’t able to piece that together anywhere near as neatly, especially as Raine grabbed me first and shoved me clear. All I knew for several pounding heartbeats was adrenaline and fight-or-flight response, my own back against the wall, Tenny rearing up in front of me at the perceived threat, Twil and Raine both shouting.

For a split-second, amid the confusion, I saw Kimberly’s face – and I knew we’d gotten this all wrong.

She was more terrified than I’d ever seen a human being. Except for myself.

Eyes wide, bloodshot and red-rimmed, ringed with heavy dark circles of exhaustion, shaking like a leaf, Kimberly Kemp didn’t really see us. She saw whatever she’d expected to break into her apartment, whatever she’d spent the last week hiding from.

“Stop, stop!” I shouted.

She lashed out with a half-blunt kitchen knife, to ward us off. Raine must have understood what I meant, because she tried to backpedal, the nightstick a poor defence against a manic blade if one wasn’t willing to cripple or kill — but Raine didn’t want to let her at me. The space was too cramped, too tight, Kimberly too wild, lost inside her own head, not really aiming for any of us. Raine raised one arm as the knife came down, to take the blade on the leather, to take the strike instead of me.

Twil caught the knife.

With her hand, point-first, right through her palm.

Metal through meat; the sound turned my stomach. I yelped, a hand to my mouth.

“Fuck!” Twil howled in pain, ripped the knife out of Kimberly’s grip, and shoved her so hard that Kimberly stumbled into the wall and sat down in a heap. “Fucking shit, fuck fuck fucking ow fuck!”

Bleeding all over the carpet, knife stabbed halfway through her hand like a Halloween prop, Twil filled the apartment with some of the loudest swearing I’d ever heard.

“I-I didn’t-” Kimberly blinked and stammered, trying to scramble back up to her feet. “Don’t- don’t hurt-”

Raine was on Kimberly in a split-second, shoving her onto the carpet, face down, a knee on her back, wrists pinned. The woman was shaking and crying, eyes whirling between us. She saw me and stopped, stared. I hiccuped, at a total loss.

“Don’t don’t don’t no no no-” she blubbered, trying to kick herself free. Raine trod on her ankle.

“Stay down,” Raine snapped.

“I- … I-I … unnh- uuh-” Kimberly whimpered through her teeth.

“We’re not going to hurt you,” I said, as loud and clear as I could make myself, voice shaking with adrenaline shock. Gently I took one of Tenny’s tentacles and encouraged her to stand down, stop waving them like an enraged octopus. “Kimberly. Kimberly. We’re not going to hurt you. Do you understand?”

She panted, staring at me, eyes puffy, but I think I got through to her.

“Speak for yourself,” Twil growled. “Fucking bitch oh motherfucker this hurts, holy shit, fucking cunt arse fuck shit.” She screwed her eyes shut and grit her teeth, letting out a long grunt from deep in her throat. “Uuurrrghhh, fuck. Goddamn, fuck knives. Fucking shit.”

“Twil, you good?” Raine asked.

“Do I look fucking good?” Twil almost roared back at her. “Fuck. You got her under control now or what?” Twil didn’t wait for an answer. She stomped over to the little kitchen and held her bleeding hand over the sink. “Uuurggh, I gotta pull this fucking bitch out now. Fuck me.”

“Then do it,” I snapped. “Or ask for help.”

Twil scowled and growled at me, but I’d hit the right nerve – pride. She pulled a savage, pain-filled grin and yanked the knife free, howling through clenched teeth. The blade clattered into the sink, followed by a thick flow of Twil’s blood. She clenched and unclenched her fist, accelerated werewolf healing already sucking the wound shut. “Never had a fucking knife in my hand before. Fuck.”

“Thanks for the assist, yeah?” Raine called to her. “I mean it.”

“I didn’t mean-” Kimberly blubbered. “I didn’t- I- but you sent- I-”

“Kimberly,” I said, struggling to keep all these spinning plates from crashing down. “Please stop trying to explain yourself. I’m sure you have a good reason.”

“She fucking better,” Twil grunted.

“Okay, let’s all slow way, way down. Okay? First off, Heather, you okay?” Raine said, her voice pitched low and gentle. That tone did more than all of my words could. I nodded, and she turned back to Kimberly. “Kim, I’m gonna take my knee off your back now, and you’re not gonna attack us again, right? Can you promise me you’re going to sit up, nice and gentle?”

“Yes, yes, I- yes. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, sorry-” she hiccuped, still crying in fear. “Sorry, I’m sorry.”

Raine let off, slowly. Kimberly sat up and scrambled against the wall, still panting, staring at us, making herself as small as possible. Small and mousy, auburn hair sweat-matted, dressed in unicorn-pattern pajama bottoms and a over-sized pastel pink tshirt with a cartoon dragon on the front. She looked rough, older than she really was, a lost soul at the end of her rope. She met my eyes again and stared, utterly terrified of me.

“There’s no need to apologise,” I said.

“Yes there fucking is!” Twil snapped from behind me. “To me, for that!”

“I’m sorry!” Kimberly blurted out. “I thought you were Stack, I thought she’d come back again- I-”

“Amy Stack?” Raine asked gently. “From the cult?”

“The bald bitch?” Twil asked.

“Mm.” Kimberly nodded, frantic. “Yes, yes, her.”

“I called through the door,” Raine said. She stayed crouched, at eye level with Kimberly, watching her carefully. “Why would you think I was Amy Stack?”

Kimberly blinked at her. “But- because- she was here. She was-”

“She came here?” Raine shared a look with me. A cold hand trailed down my spine, and suddenly I didn’t blame Kimberly for locking herself away all week. Stack terrified me. “Why didn’t you call me? I told you we’d handle it if they contacted you again. You must have heard it was us out here, why come at me with a knife?”

Kimberly stared between us, frozen for a moment, as if we should already know this.

Or as if we were trying to catch her out with a trick question.

“It’s okay,” I said. She glanced at me, and I decided to gamble, play the part she might need. She’d been in Alexander’s cult, easily led and easily dominated. Perhaps she needed a firm hand, a commanding voice telling her what to do. I put on the best Evelyn impression I could muster, still shaky inside. “I’m in charge here. You know who I am, and what I do – what I can do, and I’m not going to hurt you, and neither is Twil.”

“Oi!” Twil snapped.

And neither is Twil,” I repeated, forcing a hard bite into my voice. I winced inside, I’d need to apologise for that one later. “What did Amy Stack want with you, and why did you attack us? I promise, I don’t already know. None of us do. I’m not trying to gaslight you, or toy with you. Please.”

Kimberly shook her head at me. “H-how can you not know? She was here for- on Saturday, last Saturday, she was looking for Lauren. I-I made a mistake, I wanted to- she must have seen me me go-”

A cold fist slid into my gut. A high-pitched sound rang on the edge of my hearing.

“ … Lauren?” I heard myself ask.

“Lauren Lilburne. Uh, Lozzie. You sent her here, right? She’s with you lot now, isn’t she? I d-don’t know what you did to her, b-but it’s none of my business, it’s okay, I don’t care, please don’t-”

When?” I demanded. Kimberly flinched.

“W-what?”

“Heather,” Raine murmured, and stood up, one hand on my shoulder. She squeezed, but I felt nothing.

“Lozzie,” I repeated. “When was she here?”

“L-last Friday. I thought- I thought she was with you. I thought that was your message, how she’d been, um, changed.” Kimberly rushed to explain herself, running over her own words, but I soaked up everything she said, my mind racing at a thousand miles an hour. “I let her in b-but I was too scared to ask her anything, I’m sorry, I should have- I thought you were showing me what you’d done to her. Like a … a t-threat.”

“Lauren Lilburne is my friend,” I managed, going numb all over. “I’d never- never do anything bad to her.”

Twil snorted, a humourless laugh. She didn’t know. “Yeah, fuck off, we don’t do that kinda thing. You’re too used to your cult freaks. I don’t get it, so Lozzie was here? So what? I thought she was like, ‘outside’ right now?”

“She was,” I murmured.

My blood ran so very cold.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

and less pleasant places – 6.2

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Praem brought me round by slapping me in the face.

Consciousness returned, sharp and cold. I gasped, and Praem stopped. It was neither the most painful nor the most panicked awakening I’d experienced, but it was far from pleasant. At least it beat waking up in a puddle of my own sick.

Spluttering for breath through the taste of bile, I peeled my bloodied face off the floorboards and flailed as I tried to sit up, confused, unsure where I was, lost behind blurred vision and eyelids sticky with blood. Halfway to a sitting position a gasp of pain seized my raw throat; my diaphragm ached like my insides had been flayed and my head pounded so hard each throb made me want to vomit again. I curled up around my stomach, wheezing, struggling to look up at Praem and wipe the blood-stuck hair out of my face.

She’d rolled me into the recovery position and covered me with my coat. Good demon, yes, thank you Praem.

The doll-demon straighted up and quickly looked away, her attention elsewhere. Her right hand was smeared with crimson where she’d been slapping my cheek. I reached out, numb and woozy. Had to get to my feet. Had to get up. To find- to find what?

Where were we? My mind whirled, fuzzy and slow. Outside, yes, the test, the plan to bring back a book, the library of Carcosa, then-

Lozzie.

Memory slammed back into place and I pushed my feet underneath me, forced shaking legs to take my weight. I could barely stand, and blundered into Praem. She was fast enough to give me her arm for support, a handhold to cling to, but my head still swam with throbbing pain, vision edged with black. I hung on to Praem for what seemed an eternity, head down, fighting the pain. She picked up my coat again and draped it over my shoulders.

“Leave,” Praem intoned, loud and clear. I winced through clenched teeth.

Leave, now? Absolutely not.

Lozzie was here, just beyond the shadows and my own blurred vision. She’d turned and walked away, up into the winding maze of the library staircases, but I’d seen her, I’d seen-

I’d seen a face twisted into alien emotion. Barely her.

Lozzie’s facial muscles had all pulled in the wrong directions, tensed and relaxed in the wrong order, at the wrong angles, like an inhuman hand puppeting her from beneath the skin.

No no no, Lozzie, no! If I hadn’t been wracked with brainmath-fumble aftershocks and a headache fit to kill a bear, I believe I would have wept.

How could this happen to her? She’d insisted she was meant to be out here, to be Outside. She was supposed to be safe, from her uncle, from the cult, at home in the inhuman wilderness – and what had happened to her? Even worse, too unthinkable, had she invited this change?

I couldn’t bear it, couldn’t bear what it implied, for both of us.

I had to find her.

If I’d had a clear mind, I would’ve posed myself a much more pertinent question: how had I seen all that detail at half a mile distant? Impossible. A side-effect of the throes of brain-math? If so, that was new.

Should have been paying attention.

Frantic, still not certain what I’d seen before passing out, I heaved myself round, desperate to find any scrap of Lozzie, and managed to almost fall over again. Praem caught me under the shoulders to stop me landing on my face, and hauled me as upright as I could stand.

“Need to leave,” she said, voice clear as a silver bell.

We had company.

Several inhabitants of the library of Carcosa had descended into the bookcase-canyon, to see what all the fuss was about.

Four figures, maybe a hundred meters away. Tall, perhaps six or seven feet, lean and humanoid beneath long ragged robes – but lumpy and rippling, as if they possessed unspeakable concealed appendages in addition to their grayish hands and forearms. Great masses of ropey grey tentacles hung and twitched in place of faces, set between long spines like those of a sea urchin, no eyes or mouths or noses, though their faces pointed at Praem and I as if watching through human eyes.

The boldest of the librarians, creeping forward at the head of their group, carried a large book tucked into its armpit – and a barbed metal cattle-crook in the other hand.

The others didn’t look as confident as they approached. They were empty-handed except for one carrying a pair of books, as if the tentacle-face had been busy sorting volumes, its work interrupted by a human girl noisily passing out on the floor. The rearmost figure seemed wary, craning to look over his companions’ shoulders. Another knot of the creatures was descending a staircase at the edge of the canyon, a couple of them pointing toward us.

“How did they-” I croaked, forced myself to swallow. “How long was I unconscious?”

“Thirty seven minutes, twelve seconds,” Praem said.

“Half an hour? Oh, oh God, I … ” My stomach turned over.

“Leave,” Praem intoned.

“But- but Lozzie, she- she was right there- I have to-”

I lurched out of Praem’s grip, toward the stairs where I’d seen Lozzie. Half a mile distant, through some of the most bizarre creatures I’d ever encountered, on legs that could barely carry me half a meter, while bleeding from my eye sockets. The plan lay in tatters.

None of that mattered. It wasn’t courage, or stupidity, but a kind of desperate selfish panic; I had to find Lozzie, I needed to know what had happened to her.

I made it two paces before Praem threw her arms around my waist.

She held on tight, hugged my back. I squirmed to pull free, but in my current state I couldn’t have escaped a wet paper bag, let alone Praem. Raine was strong, much stronger than me, all well-trained toned muscle; she could hold me down without breaking a sweat, pick me up without much effort, and swing a bat hard enough to break bones. Praem’s strength was so far beyond Raine, they weren’t even comparable. She had bad leverage and a poor angle, but she gripped me like a granite statue.

“Praem, I- she was-” I heaved with nausea for a moment, on the verge of emptying my guts a second time. She understood, let me bend forward. “Lozzie, it was Lozzie! Didn’t you see? I have to- I have to!”

“We must leave.”

“But didn’t you see? Damn you-” I pulled at her arms again, on the verge of hysteria. “That was her, wasn’t it!?”

Praem stared past me, impassive, up at the spot Lozzie had so briefly occupied, then at the approaching tentacle-faced people.

“I saw,” she said.

“Then let me- Let’s go after her! Please, Praem, please! You can fight these monsters, can’t you? I know you can. I have to get her- I have to- I have to know-”

“Promised,” Praem intoned. “Best look after her.”

That dumped a bucket of cold water on my mounting hysteria: Raine’s words to Praem, back in Sharrowford.

The doll-demon had promised to look after me. Raine and Evelyn were waiting, with no idea why I was overdue. Raine would be worried sick. She’d never show it, never let on in the moment, and as soon as I got back she’d be all practical care and tender smiling encouragement. She loved me, and perhaps the way I felt about Lozzie right now was a shade of how she worried for me.

“You can’t- you can’t make me,” I muttered. Voice weak, my heart wasn’t really in the words.

I did hold the real power here, I determined our return. I’d dropped the notepaper with the equation, now lost amid the mess of discarded books on the floor, but I could perform it all from memory, at the speed of thought, at the cost of a little more agony.

Praem said nothing, arms tight around my waist, taking my sagging weight on her front. Together we stared at the approaching tentacle-faces, the librarians. They’d reach us in a minute or two, and even though they looked uncertain and wary I would rather they keep their distance.

A crazed part of me wanted to refuse, make the doll-demon choose between fighting the tentacle-faces or picking me up and running, give her no option but to help me find Lozzie.

I couldn’t. Didn’t have the heart, couldn’t stop thinking about Raine. Left my sister behind for ten years, and now Lozzie’s lost herself Outside and I can’t even go after her.

I choked back a sob.

“Leave,” Praem repeated.

“Okay. Okay, yes, yes. You- you have the book, don’t you? I’m not doing this again.”

Praem waggled one of her hands to show me, the book still firmly in her grip.

“Hang- hang on tight, okay?”

“Snug,” she said.

I closed my eyes, shut out the library of Carcosa, the tentacle-faces, the spot I’d seen Lozzie, my own wordless horror, and began once more the set of mind-searing, neuron-shattering equations to take us home.

==

“It wasn’t her,” Evelyn said.

Slowly, eyelids still heavy as lead, I blinked up at Evelyn from where I sat on the floor, propped against foot of the sofa in the ex-drawing room. Raine looked up too, another piece of dark chocolate in her hand, paused halfway to my mouth.

“Mm?” I tried to grunt, managed only a slightly louder puff of breath. Felt like I was dead.

“It wasn’t your Lozzie.”

I blinked again. My eyes ached, my head throbbed with every beat of my heart, and my chest felt like a gaping hole where my lungs should be.

Upon returning from Outside – slumping against Praem and spitting blood as reality crashed back – I’d spent the last shreds of my energy trying to explain what I’d seen. I’d blurted out sentence fragments, spluttering and coughing, even as Raine had jumped out of her chair to take me from Praem’s arms.

“You’re late!” Evelyn had snapped, sitting bolt upright, face a mask of thunder.

I’d managed to say Lozzie’s name, summoned enough numb-lipped incoherency to mutter about ‘something in her skin’, and ‘have to find her, all wrong’, before I’d all but collapsed onto the floor, with Raine’s hands cradling my head.

Praem had come to my rescue. As Raine had propped me against the sofa and checked my airways were clear, Praem had turned to Evelyn and begun to explain in her clipped, clear tones.

“We saw Lozzie,” she’d said. “Awaiting us. She was all wrong.”

“Wrong?” Evelyn had snapped, glancing between the doll-demon and my vacant expression, Raine already tending to my face with a warm towel and a tub of water. She clicked her fingers at Praem. “Explain. And hand me that book, that’s it? That’s what you picked up?”

I’d drifted. Not the pleasant oblivion of long-awaited sleep, but identical to the first time I’d returned from an intentional slip: numb, distant, my body a shell I inhabited at whim, a whim I was on the verge of forgetting. All my panic about Lozzie turned to mist in the wind. I felt Raine’s hands on my face and forehead, wiping the blood and the bile from my lips, telling me I was home, I was safe, and it was all okay – but I wasn’t really there. She tended to a thin veneer over a void. The void was me, I was it, and it was all.

She lifted strong lukewarm coffee to my lips and forced me to sip, fed me tiny nibbles of dark chocolate. The taste – and perhaps the caffeine and serotonin – began to drag me back up into my own body, into my senses. I took a deep breath and coughed once.

“Hey, hey there Heather,” she murmured, stroking my hair. “You did good, you did real good. I’m really proud of you. You’re not hurt anywhere, are you? Heather?”

“Everywhere,” I croaked. Raine smiled and sighed with relief. She recognised a joke when she heard it.

Evelyn entered my field of vision, frowning down at me with rare naked concern. She tapped Raine with her walking stick. “Don’t stop feeding her, you negligent reprobate. Give her the whole bar if you have to, there’s plenty more in the kitchen.”

“Yes ma’am, don’t have to tell me twice.” Raine lifted the square of chocolate to my mouth again.

“Feed myself,” I muttered. I tried to take it from her, but raising my arm all that way was too difficult. I let my limp hands fall into my lap, let Raine feed me, concentrated on the taste and the orchestra of aches and pains reminding me I was alive.

Evelyn had resumed her chair, and that’s when she decided I hadn’t seen Lozzie.

“It wasn’t Lozzie,” she repeated, frowning, tight and thoughtful, as if watching my reactions very closely.

Raine nodded at Praem. “She sounded pretty conclusive to me.”

Evelyn shook her head. “Am I the only one here with two brain cells left to rub together?”

“Unfair,” I croaked.

“You saw what looked like Lozzie, yes, that much I accept, of course I do,” Evelyn said. “Forgive me for pointing out the obvious, but the chances of her and you running across each other Outside are infinitesimally small.” She paused and spread her hands. “Am I talking to myself here?”

The horror of seeing Lozzie in that state came creeping back, a cold hand up my spine, digging fingernails of ice into my flesh. I shook, breathing harder. “But she- what- what-”

Raine placed a hand on my forehead, cool and soft. “Shhh, shhhh, Heather, we can figure all this out, I promise. Evee, this can wait.”

“No, it can’t,” I spluttered. “What do you mean?”

“I mean it wasn’t her.” Evelyn frowned at me like I’d turned into an idiot. Perhaps I had. “Think it through, for five seconds. You saw her at that exact spot, a place you chose from dozens of possible locations you’d visited with her. And she was waiting for you? At the exact minute you chose to go Outside? And she doesn’t call out for help or run to you, she walks off, into the unknown? And you really believe that was her?” She glanced up at Praem. “What about you, you believe this nonsense?”

Praem offered no opinion.

“She was there-” I had to pause for breath. “Because it was somewhere we went-” Pant, pain. “Together. She was … waiting to … ask for help.”

“It was an anglerfish. It was bait.” Evelyn spat the word.

“Evee, hey now, come on.” Raine raised both hands. “Heather, you need a hot bath thirty seconds ago. I know how much Lozzie means to you, and I promise we-”

“It was her!” I yelled at Evelyn, but managed only a wheeze and an awful, body-racking coughing fit. I curled up around my aching chest and whined through my teeth.

Evelyn didn’t deserve my anger. I was lashing out in fear and frustration. She was merely the closest target. She looked taken aback, blinking at me and averting her eyes. She opened her mouth but I waved one weak hand at her, trying to apologise.

Lozzie’s fate mattered to me on so many different levels I could barely unravel them while lying awake in bed, let alone in pain and infinite numbness, eyelids still sticky with blood, trying to sort through what I’d seen.

Lozzie and I had shared so much, experiences I couldn’t share with anybody else, even Raine. She’d shown me Outside through eyes unclouded by horror, filled with wonder and otherworldly beauty, a vision I still couldn’t reach on my own. And I cared about her, deeply, on a level I didn’t fully get. She was like a little sister or a cousin I needed to take care of. She’d been abused and used and hurt and I wanted her to be safe, she had to be safe, I needed to make her safe.

Because she was like me. And if she could lose herself Outside, what did that mean?

“Heather, hey, hey, it’s okay, just try to breathe, focus on your breathing.” Raine helped me sit up again, stroked my hair uncaring of the blood, gentle fingers rubbing the back of my neck. “Just focus on breathing.”

“Am I going to end up like that?” I wheezed. “Is-”

I couldn’t voice the rest, the real question.

Raine and Evelyn shared a glance.

“There’s no reason to think like that,” Evelyn said quickly. “Of course not.”

“You’re right here with us,” Raine added, voice that soft purr just for me. “You’re completely safe, Heather. The only reason you’re ever going Outside is to get your sister back, right?” She grinned, all brimming confidence. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. And I’m sure Lozzie’s fine.”

“What you saw was not Lozzie,” Evelyn repeated. I squinted at her.

“Not her,” Praem echoed.

“See?” Evelyn thumbed at Praem. “It was something native to the library, most likely. It plucked a relevant fear, a relevant desire from your mind. An anglerfish’s bait, a light to lure the unwary. Why do you think it was Lozzie, hm?”

“Anglerfish,” Praem echoed.

I shrugged, drained, utterly exhausted.

“Because if it had been Raine, or myself, you would have known instantly it wasn’t real,” Evelyn said, as if explaining a principle to a very slow child. She sighed heavily. “You’re obviously worn out. You panicked. Any of us would, of course. Whatever it was, it chose Lozzie to lead you on. It wasn’t her, not the real one.”

“She’s probably on some tropical beach with her feet up. Or playing with spirits,” Raine said, and cracked another grin as she glanced up, at the house, at the Sharrowford cold and the Sharrowford rain beyond the walls. “If I could go anywhere, it’d be the south of France for both us, not this.”

“Somewhere hot,” I croaked, nodding.

Their argument made sense. Praem agreed too. Bait, a thought plucked from my mind.

Perfect sense.

My eyes burned, hot and wet, vision blurring again. I sniffed hard, and felt tears run down my cheeks. I choked back a sob, crying because I missed Lozzie, and didn’t know where she was, if she was safe, or dead. Or worse.

==

By the following weekend – and two days after my twentieth birthday – I’d not forgotten about Lozzie one bit, but I had managed to convince myself that Evelyn was correct.

I couldn’t sleep right. Not the bone-shattering exhaustion of the terminal weeks before I’d first met Raine, no nightmares or terrors, not reluctant to face what lurked on the other side of unconsciousness. Instead I found myself restless and awake in Raine’s arms, an unquiet mind in the night, or getting up to wander the house and sit in the still darkness, reading in Evelyn’s little private library, or watching Tenny out in the garden before the cold drove me back under the covers.

Lozzie alone wasn’t enough to keep me up at night.

I was terribly worried about her, yes, of course I was, even if that thing I’d seen Outside wasn’t her.

When she’d left, after we’d freed her from her brother, I’d tried my best to accept her decision, but now I’d been Outside again, lost to my friends for half an hour, Raine and Evelyn left behind to wonder what had happened to me. That sharpened the hurt all over again. I missed her.

That vision in Carcosa, Lozzie puppeted by an alien presence inside her skin – even if it wasn’t real, please don’t let it be real, God, please – I couldn’t get it out of my head. Couldn’t stop thinking about what it implied.

Months ago, when we’d first sketched our plan to save my sister, Evelyn had cautioned against hope. The memory of her words kept me up at night.

Nothing human can survive out there for long, she’d said.

How much of Maisie was left to save?

Despite the supernatural underworld we inhabited, in the end I was still a university student, with few responsibilities except lectures and essays. Lucky me. I caught up by sleeping in late, or napped at Raine’s insistent encouragement.

I was worrying her, especially on the two occasions she woke and came looking for me at night, uncertain where I’d gone, uncertain – perhaps – if I was still present in reality at all. The second time that happened she made extra sure to remind me that I was very much accounted for in the physical. I got even less sleep that particular night, but I didn’t mind.

And so, that’s why I was curled up in bed at eleven in the morning on a Sunday, two days after my birthday, dozing and fretting, surrounded by Raine’s lingering scent, when I managed to embarrass myself.

“Heather!” Raine called up the stairs. There was a laugh in her voice, floating through the open bedroom door. “Wakey wakey, sleeping beauty. Somebody down here’s got a present for you.”

I rolled over, certain that the ‘present’ was Raine’s metaphor for bacon and eggs, or at the long odds that Tenny had brought a dead mouse to the back door, or Praem had sewn me a maid uniform. It couldn’t be that Evelyn had made any progress with the doorway-portal; that would hardly warrant a laugh.

“Heather? You awake up there?” Raine called again.

“Awake,” I echoed back. “I’ll be down … in a minute.”

Still, I was most unwilling to exile myself from the warm bed. Eventually I sat up, rubbed at my face, and grumbled most ungratefully about how breakfast in bed would be easier. I didn’t really mean it though. I wasn’t that spoiled.

At least now I had a new and wonderfully comfortable method to keep the cold at bay. No need to pull on thick socks, or wrap myself up in a hoodie. I took my heat with me, carefully guarded. I even popped the hood up and set the ears standing, playful for Raine’s benefit, as I padded quietly down the stairs, across the front room and into the kitchen, following the scent of fresh coffee.

“Here she is, queen of the hour,” Raine said, from over by the kettle. One coffee for me, and tea for her – and one mug for our guest.

“Hey Heath- … er-”

Twil did a double-take at me.

At my luxurious, brand-new, calico-pattern cat onesie.

“Oh.” I yanked the hood down, blushing terribly, trying to smile. “T-Twil. Good morning, yes, hello. Hello.”

Twil looked me up and down, mouth open, then back to where Praem stood in her maid uniform by the door to Evelyn’s magical workshop. “ … Oh … ‘kay. One I can deal with. Two, I ain’t so sure.”

“It was a present!” I blurted out, blushing red as a tomato, trying to sort out my terribly messy hair all bunched down the back of the onesie. “A birthday present. And it’s warm! And- and really comfy. Really.”

“A present, right.” Twil glanced at Raine, looking very uncertain, ready to bolt. “From you? … is this some weird furry shit? And why is the demon dressed like a porn star again? No uh, no judgement, though. You do you, all’a you.”

Raine burst out laughing, shaking her head and almost dropping the teabag she was extracting from a mug.

“From Evee,” I corrected her with a huff. “It’s absolutely not a sex thing. It was because of a bet, but it’s actually really comfortable. It’s … ” I shook my head and sighed. “Raine, why didn’t you tell me we had company? I would have gotten dressed properly.”

“I did tell you,” Raine said with a smirk, placing the mugs on the table. I sighed and reached for my coffee. “And hey, Twil doesn’t count as company-”

“Oi!” Twil barked.

“- she’s one of us,” Raine finished, with a raised eyebrow at Twil.

“That’s- yeah, right, that’s better.” Twil cleared her throat.

“And Praem,” I said with a gesture toward the doll-demon. “Is dressed in the clothing she prefers. She discovered that herself, while we were visiting Evelyn’s house. Doesn’t she look good? It suits her.”

“Uh … uh, yeah.”

“Much preferred,” Praem added, staring straight ahead.

“That’s the only reason. We’re not doing anything funny,” I said. Twil held her breath for a long sceptical moment. I sighed and put one hand on my hips, trying to disregard how silly I must look dressed as a giant cat. “Twil, this is me we’re talking about. You know me by now. Would I willingly dress up as a cat for … weird sex, and then let you see me?”

Twil frowned, then seemed to let go of the breath. “No, no you wouldn’t. Right you are, totally not your style. Cool onesie, actually. It’s kinda cute.”

She lit up with a big, unguarded smile at last, and my goodness, I had forgotten how beautiful Twil could be.

I wasn’t attracted to the werewolf on a personal level, but I hadn’t seen her in several weeks. Absence can have quite the effect with a girl as good-looking as Twil. Her dark curls fell over the collar of her clashing blue and lime green coat, and she’d picked up a new hoodie somewhere, a deep cream colour that went well with her angelic features and sharp amber eyes.

Twil’s unintentional illusion of delicate femininity had been shattered long ago for me – or perhaps accentuated, in some obscure way – by seeing her turn into a whirling ball of tooth and claw, break most of her own bones, and pull zombies apart.

I was always quite relieved the werewolf was on our side.

“Cute as hell, isn’t it?” Raine added with a smirk. “I like the little ears on the hood.” She snuck past my guard to flip the hood back up, messing my hair, before darting away beyond range of my swatting hands.

“Raine!” I flustered and yanked the hood off my head. “Stop it!”

She shot me a wink, sat down, and gestured for Twil to make herself at home. Twil pulled out a chair, then remembered something and dug around inside her coat. She presented me with a garish little glittery gift-bag, only slightly squashed.

“’Cos it’s your birthday,” she said. “Or, it was. Yesterday, right?”

“Friday,” Raine corrected her gently.

“Oh, oh you shouldn’t have, Twil.” I accepted the bag with a gentle frown. “I really mean that, you shouldn’t have. There’s little I want for.”

She shrugged. “We’re mates, aren’t we? Happy late birthday.”

“We are friends, yes.” I beamed at her. “Thank you, Twil. You’re sweet.”

I swear I saw her blush as she sat down.

Twil had bought me a bright pink and white scarf, the nice thick ribbed kind of scarf good for securing over one’s mouth and nose on the coldest days of midwinter. A little flashy, too much colour for the Heather of six months ago, but I had much more courage in self-expression than any past version of myself.

“I shall wear it to campus, tomorrow,” I said.

Raine had pulled out all the stops on my birthday, two days ago. She’d made me breakfast in bed and baked me a cake when we’d gotten back from lectures, a thick slab of chocolate and cream that tasted of bliss and clogged arteries, introduced with a rousing – if mortifying – round of ‘happy birthday to you’, which even Evelyn had joined in with, though quietly, and all washed down with full-fat milk.

When Evelyn had given me the cat onesie, I’d blushed like a beetroot. I’d completely forgotten about the bet we’d made in the heat of the moment, on that afternoon when Twil’s mother had turned up at the house. Events since then had rather overtaken my attention, but Evelyn hadn’t forgotten, and the loser’s punishment was still very much on the cards.

I loved it regardless. She knew I was having trouble with my body heat, always feeling the cold, and we set the cat onesie to work right away, after a bit of token resistance and awkward embarrassment. It was so very warm.

Raine bought me two thick jumpers, a pair of fancy reusable gel hand warmers, a box of chocolates, a video game – one I’d apparently like, but had never heard of before, the cover an illustration of an attractive witch leering over her bubbling cauldron – and an item of clothing that I will absolutely not relate to anyone else, ever, as long as I live.

I’d return those kindnesses when the time came, because it mattered. Evelyn’s birthday wasn’t until spring, and Raine was a summer child. I hadn’t had a birthday so nice since I was little, but not because of the pampering and the presents, not even because of being surrounded by my friends.

For the first time in ten years, it wasn’t my birthday alone.

Outside, somewhere, Maisie was turning twenty as well.

“Where’s Saye at, then?” Twil asked, blowing on her mug of tea. I was playing around with the scarf, trying it out underneath the fluffy collar of the onesie, but my attention perked up at her question. Twil nodded at Praem. “She’s never too far away, right?”

“I think she’s in her workshop at the moment, but she could do with some light exercise. You should go say hi, Twil,” I said, trying to sound as innocent as I could.

Twil eyed the door to the ex-drawing room, exactly like a wary hound. “What, in there, with the giant invisible creepy-crawlies and the portal to the fog-dimension?”

“That’s been closed for weeks. Go say hi!” I said. Twil frowned at me like I was bonkers. “She’ll … appreciate the polite gesture. You are in her house, after all.”

Good save, yes. Go on, Twil, I willed, she wants to see you.

“Heather?” Raine said my name, a curious quirk to her eyebrows. I made eyes at her when Twil glanced at the door again. Don’t spoil my match-making attempts!

“She must be able to hear us out here,” Twil said, “she just doesn’t wanna say hi. It’s cool, I don’t wanna rile her up or anything.”

“You won’t. Twil, go and knock on the door. Really.” I nodded and smiled. Nod and smile.

Twil narrowed her eyes at me. Oh damn, she smelled a rat. Did werewolves possess a heightened sense for danger? If so, hers was misfiring. I smiled wider.

“You’ve set up some kind of prank, haven’t you?” Twil asked slowly. She turned to Raine to check her expression. “I’m gonna knock on that door and a ruddy great praying mantis is gonna fall on my head.”

Raine laughed and raised her hands. “I’m none the wiser here. I dunno what Heather’s playing at.”

“I’m not playing at anything. I’m just saying it doesn’t hurt to be polite and say hello. I’m sure Evee would love to see you.”

The door to the workshop cracked open. Out peered a very unimpressed Evelyn.

“The only prank here is your … ” she snapped, but her sharp tongue trailed off, staring at Twil. She swallowed.

“My face?” Twil completed the insult, rolling her eyes. “Yeah, hey to you too, Evelyn. Told you she could hear us out here.”

“Good morning, Evee.” I beamed at her. “Look who’s turned up. It’s Twil.” I felt like leaping up out of my seat and clapping my hands together, but I restrained myself. Raine raised her mug in greeting.

“I do have eyes, yes.” Evelyn shot me a withering look, stomped into the kitchen, and glanced around the mugs on the table.

“You want a cuppa?” Raine asked. “Didn’t want to interrupt you. Kettle’s still warm.”

“Mm,” Evelyn grunted, and stared at Twil again.

The werewolf shrugged. “What?”

“It’s nothing,” Evelyn hissed, and turned away, as if trying to remember what she’d stepped in here to do. I tried to catch her eye.

What?” Twil repeated, frowning, bristling at the unexplained scrutiny. “Fuck’s sake, Saye, I thought we were cool, you sent a merry Christmas text and everything.”

“Yes, yes,” Evelyn snapped. “We’re ‘cool’, we’re fine, nothing is wrong.”

Twil spread her hands and looked at me for help. “What did I do now?”

“You can call her ‘Evee’, you know,” I said, forcing myself to pretend I was none the wiser. “Friends can use pet names for each other. Surnames are a little too formal, a little too distant, don’t you think?”

“Idiot mongrel,” Evelyn muttered.

“Hey! Come on, Evelyn- Evee?” Twil attempted, looking at me out of the corner of her eye for approval. I gave her a covert thumbs up. “You like me really, we’re friends now, aren’t we? We were getting on great. That was you sending me messages from your phone last night, right? You’re not like … ”

“Just drink your bloody tea,” Evelyn said, and thumped over to the fridge. She opened it and rummaged around, loudly.

I felt like squealing. Messages? What was going on? Oh, Evelyn, well done!

“Drink your tea,” Praem echoed.

Raine blinked theatrically several times. “I can’t believe I’m witnessing this. Heather, quick, pinch my arm, I think I’m dreaming.”

“Witnessing what? Did you all go off your rockers down in Sussex?” Twil looked so lost, I felt sorry for her, but they had to do this on their own.

I bit my lips together and silently swore I’d only step if a a genuine misunderstanding unfolded, or one of them was at risk of getting hurt. Of course, that didn’t mean I couldn’t talk to Twil in private later, plant an idea or two in her head, perhaps. I caught Raine’s eye and somehow managed to communicate my intention, because she clacked her mug down, cracked her knuckles, and leaned forward to change the subject.

“You turned up right on time, by the way,” she said to Twil. “I was about to give you a ring, ask a favour.”

Twil tore her eyes off Evelyn’s back, still frowning and confused. She blinked at Raine for a second, putting her thoughts back in order. “Yeah? What’s up?”

“How’d you fancy a spot of B&E?”

“B and E?” I echoed softly. Raine pulled a half-smile, half-wince.

“Breaking and entering, right?” Twil supplied before Raine could answer, and started to grin. “What’s going down, we gotta smash some place up? What have you lot got into this time?”

“Yes, Raine, what’s going on?” I said, my voice somewhat sharper than I’d intended.

Raine raised both hands in stalling surrender. “Nothing. Yet. Probably.”

“Yet?” I gave her a bit of a look. Undoubtedly weak, dressed as I was in a fluffy cat onesie.

Raine tilted her head to me. “I haven’t been keeping anything back from you, cross my heart and hope to die. S’only this morning I got wind of this.”

Twil leaned back slightly in her chair, as if she sensed invisible tension in the space between me and Raine. Evelyn peered at us as she shut the fridge. I cleared my throat and blushed slightly. “I didn’t mean to imply … I mean that you were … ”

“It’s okay, Heather, I know,” Raine said softly, then took a deep breath. “Long story short, do you remember our wayward friend, little Miss Poundland necromancer?”

“Oh, her, yeah,” Twil said. “The one you put the wind up, right?”

That got my attention. I recalled her all too well, the prisoner we’d dragged out of the Sharrowford Cult’s pocket dimension, a mousy, scrawny young woman who I’d been determined to let live. I remembered her face, terrified of us, and the way she’d looked at me with fear and awe.

“Her name’s Kimberly,” I said. “If I recall correctly. Why?”

“Kimberly Kemp,” Raine said. “Got her full name out of her, and a bunch more stuff besides.”

“Cute name,” Twil added. Evelyn snorted in derision.

“Anyway,” Raine continued. “I’ve been checking up on her, a couple of times. Once before we left over Christmas, then once the day after we got back to town.”

“You mean you’ve been intimidating the poor woman,” I said. “Raine, she was terrified of you the most. That’s so cruel.”

“Bloody right, damn,” Twil said. “Psycho.”

“Had to be done,” Evelyn grunted. “What’s the bitch done now?”

Raine laughed it off, and I almost bristled at her. She pulled a what-could-I-do type of shrug. “Nothing, nothing. I think. Hey, I made it clear as day I wasn’t going to hurt her. Like Evee said, it had to be done, we had to be sure she wasn’t gonna get picked up by the cult again.”

“Oh … oh, I suppose so, yes, from that angle.” I dialled down. Fair enough.

“Helps that you got to play Knight Errant, I’ll bet,” Evelyn muttered.

“Duty of care and all that,” Raine admitted with a tilt of her chin. “Anyway, so, I called her, went round her little flat – over on Whingate and Headly, she’s in one of the towers – and I didn’t threaten her, I swear. I was there five minutes, no more. Asked her how she was, if any of her old comrades had been in contact, told her to come to us if she had any problems like that.”

“Huh,” Evelyn grunted. “I’ll bet you did.”

Evelyn,” I almost snapped at her. Raine was a lot of things, but unfaithful she was not. Evelyn grimaced a silent apology and waved Raine on.

“Second time, I drop by uninvited the day after we got back from down south. All was well. She was a bit surprised, and yeah, okay, probably shit scared of me, but it had to be done. Then I tried a third time, last Friday. And I couldn’t.”

Raine paused, let that hang.

“What happened to her?” I said.

“She wasn’t there, was she?” Evelyn asked, a dark turn in her voice. “Fuck.”

“Fuck is right,” Raine said. “Didn’t think anything of it at the time, she’s a busy girl, got things to do, life to live. So I called her, left a message to call me back, but got nothing. I called her again on Wednesday. Still nothing by the weekend, so I go round there yesterday, knock on the door, thinking maybe she’s sick of us now, moved on. No harm, no foul. No answer.”

“She could be doing anything,” Evelyn hissed.

“What if she just left?” I asked, but my voice felt weak. A sinking feeling dragged at the pit of my stomach.

Raine raised two fingers. “Hold up, this isn’t the end of it. This morning, while Heather was having a lie in, I got the bright idea to go round her workplace, the Poundland on Castle Street. They open early on a Sunday, for some dumb reason. I pretended to be her friend, turned the charm on max for the girl behind the till. Turns out Kimberly called in sick last Friday, and then not a peep. Nobody’s heard from her since.”

Last Friday – a week and two days ago. The same day I’d been busy slipping Outside. The sinking feeling settled as a ball of lead in my gut. A coincidence? It was on Raine and Evelyn’s faces, but nobody voiced it. How could that be a coincidence? What were the odds?

“Oh,” I bit my lip. “That’s bad, isn’t it?”

Raine nodded. “Could be. Could be she just did a runner, shacked up with a guy somewhere, or she’s dead in a ditch. But that flat’s still occupied, I’ve checked. Curtains drawn, front door locked. Don’t know who’s in there, if anybody, but they’re not answering the door.”

“It’s our fault. It must be. It’s the cult again. Or perhaps she’s just terrified of us.” I shook my head, groping for any reason, anything that wasn’t connected to me.

“Shiiiiit,” Twil said. “Could be, could be anything though.”

Raine nodded. “Either way, our Poundland necromancer’s gone missing. You and I, Twil, we’re gonna break into her flat.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

and less pleasant places – 6.1

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

I’ve been told, repeatedly, that I must possess a rather high tolerance for pain.

This is not true.

“I really do think Praem is too big for this,” I said, then shot a guilty look at the doll-demon. “Sorry, I didn’t mean any offence by that.”

Praem turned her head to stare at me, but if she was capable of interpreting my words as a comment on her plush physique, she didn’t say anything. What did an immaterial creature from Outside care about body weight? I assumed pain also meant nothing to her.

No, the approaching pain was going to be all mine.

A lump in my throat, a tremor in my chest, a churning in my gut – my body knew what to expect. I twisted my hands together inside the warm gloves borrowed from Evelyn, watching the soft white leather bunch and crease. Strange, how the mind can magnify attention on such tiny details, when one is trapped in on the precipice of panicked anticipation.

“She’s no larger than me,” Evelyn said with a shrug.

“’Cept up front,” Raine muttered.

She smirked, but even Raine couldn’t quite conceal the worry behind her expression. I saw it plain in the tightness around her eyes, the way she jiggled one knee up and down, her tight grip on the edge of the table. If I shied away now, Raine would support me all the way, she’d let me put this off for another day, three days, a week, a month.

She’d let me, but that wasn’t what I needed.

I did love her for trying, but even lewd comments about Praem’s chest couldn’t take the edge off my nerves right now.

“Yes, Evee, but bringing you and I back from Outside took quite a … ” I forced myself to swallow. “Quite a toll on me, if you remember? What if I can’t- on the other side, what if I can’t-”

“That’s why you’re going to take Praem,” Evelyn said, calm but blunt. “I remember what it felt like, yes, like being run over by a bus. Praem won’t feel that. If you’re incapacitated, we don’t want you to be alone.”

She shared a glance with Raine, who nodded and pulled a reassuring smile for me.

“Couldn’t have put it better myself,” Raine said, then added, to Praem, “You best look after her if she needs to sit down and get her breath, right?”

“Promise,” Praem intoned.

Get my breath? Oh for the- I- oh, dammit all to hell.” I huffed and stripped the gloves off, shoved them in my coat pocket, and unzipped the coat down the front, desperate for fresh air as I unwound the scarf from around my neck. I felt trussed up like a small child about to venture outdoors to play in the snow. “I’m burning up in all these layers, this isn’t necessary.”

Not entirely true. Nerves and stress raised the heat under my collar, not ambient temperature. We had the ancient iron radiators cranked up to full, but Evelyn still wore a big heavy jumper and nursed a steaming mug of tea at her fingertips. Even Raine wore two tshirts, one long-sleeved, to banish the dense January cold gripping Sharrowford.

Freezing wind, scudding clouds, barely a scrap of sun all week. I wasn’t used to this, soft southern girl.

Sometimes it really is grim up north.

We – myself, Evelyn, and Raine – were gathered in the ex-drawing room, Evelyn’s magical workshop. Not exactly the warmest place in the house with it’s broken radiator and clutter and half-working lights. We all itched to get back upstairs or at least into the kitchen, but if everything went to plan none of us would have to sit here for long.

Yes, the plan. I wished I’d never committed to it.

I longed instead to resume the anime marathon Evelyn and I had finally begun two days ago, ensconced in front of the television, watching her bootleg dvds of Symphogear – all brightly coloured transformation sequences and plucky teenage girls punching monsters. Most uplifting. Or perhaps I could get back to working through the new term’s reading material, Frankenstein’s Monster and Wuthering Heights, prepping for next week’s lectures.

Who was I kidding? Right now I’d settle for curling up in bed with Raine, shutting out the world for skinship and affection.

Instead I stood in the middle of a mage’s atelier, with a sheet of painstakingly transcribed hyperdimensional mathematics to hand, shaking in my cheap trainers.

Praem didn’t care about the cold. She did what she was ordered to do, and right now she’d been ordered to accompany me Outside.

“Heather, hey.” Raine left her spot by the table and gently took my frantic hands in hers. “You said it was cold there, right?”

“What I said was ‘I thought it might be chilly’. I also went there in a dream, does that mean I should wear pajamas?” I bundled the coat down my shoulders. Raine relented and helped me. “I’m only going to be there for a couple of minutes. I don’t need this.”

“All the same, just in case, yeah?” Raine smiled that maddening smile, the one she kept in reserve purely to make me feel better. She handed my coat off to Praem, and the doll-demon folded it over her own arm without question.

“I can do this alone,” I said in a quiet voice. “It’ll be easier that way. The less I have to teleport, the less strain on my mind. We know that by now, you know I’m afraid of … of passing out.” Of choking on my own vomit, I meant.

Raine smiled again, indulgent but unyielding. She shook her head. “You gotta take Praem with you. Simple choice, it’s her or me.”

“It’s not as if you could stop me,” I snapped, and instantly regretted my words.

“Oh, sure, you’re right about that,” Raine purred. A dangerously playful tease reared up in her tone. I quivered at that sound – that certainly took my mind off the coming ordeal.

“R-Raine, now isn’t … Raine.”

Raine leaned in close and put a hand against the wall, boxing me in from above. Sometimes I forgot how tall she was compared to me. “I might not be able to stop you, sure, but when you get back, I’ll have a punishment waiting for you, for being a little brat and putting yourself in danger.”

My breath stuck in my throat. If this had been any other moment, if Evelyn had not been sitting ten feet away rolling her eyes out of their sockets, I probably would have replied with a squeak and said something deeply embarrassing. Yes please, Raine, please punish me for being bad.

Under the current circumstances I stared right back into Raine’s eyes, transfixed like a mouse in front of a snake, and managed to swallow. “Raine, I am in c-charge here.”

She let me go, backed up with a smirk and both hands raised. “Right you are, boss. In charge it is.”

“Good. Good.” I had to take a deep breath.

“Won’t be when you get back through.”

I tried to play that off by rolling my eyes, but I felt more than a little flushed in the face.

How much of that ultra-aggressive flirting was solely to take my mind off all this? I didn’t care. It helped, a lot. I thanked Raine silently, but I’d thank her properly later. When I got back.

“If you two have quite finished your mating ritual,” Evelyn drawled, “are we doing this today or not?”

“Just … just let me think for a moment. All right?”

Squeezing my eyes shut and focusing inward wouldn’t help at all. I had no more thinking to do, only procrastinating, so instead I paced.

Over to the heavily curtained window, with my arms folded across my chest, where I could peek out into the damp Sunday morning in the street beyond. A few distant spirits roved across the Sharrowford rooftops, going about their ineffable business. Onward, to the end of the room, to the wreckage of the cult’s doorway-portal-mandala, and then back to the table, where my neatly printed sheet of deadly notepaper lay safely contained beneath a heavy book.

“Putting it off isn’t going to make it any easier,” Evelyn grumbled.

“Let her think,” Raine said.

“Evelyn’s right,” I whispered, and moved the book aside. The sheet of notepaper lay face-down, another thin barrier between me and the clarity I’d spent three days inscribing in cheap biro. “Putting this off is pointless. I know that. I’m just … ”

Terrified.

One could be forgiven for thinking hyperdimensional mathematics had become routine for me, that it didn’t – shouldn’t – scare me anymore. Hadn’t I mastered it? Used my ill-gotten powers to defend myself, to resolve crises, to kill an evil wizard? I could threaten spirits and monsters from Outside, I could deflect a bullet, I could commit murder. This power was mine now.

What nonsense.

The scraps I could wield without frying my own brain were the deceptive shallows of a black sea of infinity. Evelyn’s cosmic map had reminded me how small I was.

My fingertips brushed the notepaper; warm to the touch, like fevered flesh.

This equation – or set of equations, a conch shell of hell-math, re-contextualised by the map’s insight – teetered on the edge of the abyssal currents. Merely writing it down had taken hours. I could only form one or two figures at a time, as the full impact always threatened to overwhelm what little mental control I could muster.

I’d had to cover my previous work with a book to stop me seeing the whole. Raine had to keep dragging me into the kitchen, forcefully distracting me, feeding me hot chocolate, mop up the leaking nosebleed. At one point she’d taken me to bed and kept me there for three hours, and that was the only thing that really helped, kept it all at bay.

I’d used this equation once before, yes, but that had been in a dire situation, driven on and protected by the heat of the moment.

Now I had to perform cold. I was desperate for any excuse to put it off; do it tomorrow, do it next week, wait until February. My birthday was soon, on the 17th. Why not wait until I turned twenty, finally out of my teens? Surely I’d feel different, this wouldn’t be so daunting, a real adult wouldn’t feel so scared?

I didn’t really believe any of that, but I still entertained the thought, if only for a moment or two.

The 17th was Maisie’s birthday as well.

I forced myself to pick up the sheet of paper – and turn to the bucket next to it.

“I’ll take Praem,” I said, to nobody in particular. “It’s just a test. Just like sitting an exam. I’m good at exams.”

“You can do it,” Raine said, suddenly loud and clear in the close quiet of the ex-drawing room. “This is nothing, Heather, this is a flick of the wrist for you. You’ll be right back, and then we’ll go take a bath. Together, yeah?”

“Don’t forget to bring something back,” Evelyn said. “Or you’ll have to do it all over again. A book off the floor will be fine. Half a book.”

I nodded; didn’t need telling that again, she’d repeated it enough times over the last week.

“Praem, come here please,” I said, hand outstretched, not trusting my legs to carry me to her. Praem joined me, heels clicking, my coat still over her arm, her skirt swishing around her ankles. I’d pinned her long blonde hair up in a braided bun for her earlier than morning. I think she liked it. She stared at my proffered hand for a moment. “You have to take my hand, or this doesn’t work. And hold on.”

She unfolded her hands and slipped her warm little palm into mine. All too human.

“Don’t you get any funny ideas now,” Raine warned her, still trying to crack jokes.

“Okay, I’m ready, um … ”

“You want a countdown?” Raine asked.

Evelyn rolled her eyes. “Oh for all the-”

“Yes,” I blurted out. “Yes, yes I would. Please, Raine, go ahead. Do that. Count me down.”

“On zero? Cool. Here we go then. I’ll see you in a minute or two, Heather.” She held up three fingers. “Three. Two.”

I counted with her, chest tight, palms sweating, animal terror crawling in the back of my head.

“One,” we said together. Evelyn joined in too, and even Praem spoke the word.

My mouth was so dry. Raine closed her hand, made a fist.

“Zero.”

My courage held. I flipped the piece of notepaper over. I read the equation.

My mind plunged into boiling tar. I grit my teeth, ignored the nosebleed that streamed down my face, and forced myself to concentrate on each piece of molten truth as I slotted it into place. Shaking hard, wincing, throat raw. Preparation and experience helped – but only to a point.

I hunched forward around my clenched stomach, holding on hard and trying not to vomit. I wasn’t going to use that bucket. I was not. I was better than this, I was stronger, I was-

The equation burned, rose to a shining crescendo of pain, an expanding iron vice instead in my head.

I had to use the bucket.

Praem held me up, an arm under my shoulders, as I shook all over; but I made it, I got there in the end.

Last piece. Exactly the same feeling as the first time, the same violation of natural law, the same slipping black levers under my hands. A snapshot of insane kaleidoscope before I slammed my eyes shut.

Reality crumpled under its own weight, and went out.

The difference?

This time I knew where I was going.

==

When we’d arrived back in Sharrowford at the end of the previous week, we discovered that number 12 Barnslow Drive had not been raided, vandalised, marked, egged, or otherwise violated by the Sharrowford Cult.

Evelyn was correct, they hadn’t come anywhere near the house. We couldn’t find hide nor hair of them.

That hadn’t stopped Raine from making us wait in the car. I’d felt increasingly ridiculous as Raine crept up the garden path and unlocked the door, slipping her handgun from inside her leather jacket once she was over over the threshold, but I suppose it was necessary. She’d checked over the house, the back garden, and even up the street. Nothing.

Once inside, the familiar scents – exposed floorboards, old iron radiators, tiles in the kitchen – had coaxed a bizarre feeling from me, an emotion out in the no-man’s land between nostalgia and heartache. Two weeks away from the house had lent it a touch of the welcome uncanny.

Raine had bustled about and Evelyn set to making tea, but I’d crept around from room to room, waved hello to the spider-servitor in the ex-drawing room, and even opened the door onto the back garden to check on Tenny. She wiggled her tentacles at me, but wouldn’t come inside.

The Sharrowford house smelled like home.

How very strange, after spending time at my parents’ house, my childhood home in Reading. That was supposed to be home, wasn’t it?

A few days with my parents had felt exhausting.

They’d been effusive with their protestations that my friends were very welcome, but I’d picked up on their caution, their one-step-remove, their exaggerated politeness. Or was that me, projecting my own feelings? I hadn’t had time to consider that, let alone think about the abstract concept of ‘home’, between worrying about every little thing Raine did, fielding my mother’s endless questions, and dealing with the uncanny sensation of my new friends in my old house.

That was the most exhausting part – not fretting over drama, or being amazed when Evelyn got to discussing actual medieval philosophy with my father. I had to deal with all the memories of my sister rushing back again, with Raine and Evelyn aware and my parents oblivious.

Raine got it, or at least pretended she did. We talked it over, alone in the old back garden, recounting all the little things I remembered about my twin.

Evelyn did a magical test in my old bedroom, of course. The bedroom where Maisie and I had wiggled down the rabbit hole to Wonderland a decade ago, where every trace of her had been erased. Whatever had happened to us had left no echo, no clue.

Recovering from the map, at least that was easy.

In the end, Evelyn had let the fox go, with much grumbling.

I’d been weak and disoriented that afternoon, sat on the patio as she’d freed the animal on the back lawns of the Saye mansion, sipping from my hot chocolate and trying not to think about the structure of reality. The fox had scarpered off right quick, as Raine put it, and left Praem holding the empty cage as it bounded toward the lake and the trees. It hadn’t looked back.

We spotted it twice more before we left the following morning for my parents’, a russet snout watching us from the bushes, a tail whipping back into the gates of the estate as we’d pulled away down the cramped country lane.

I wished it well, if it was indeed what Evelyn thought it was.

==

Two days back in Sharrowford, with the new university term about to start, we’d had a meeting.

None of us had ‘called a meeting’, nothing so formal. We’d drifted toward it naturally, after a day of recovery from too much socialising with my parents.

“I could get some paint, cover the whole thing up,” Raine’s voice drifted into the kitchen. I bit into a pop tart and followed the sound as she spoke. “Wouldn’t take five minutes. Might need a second coat though, some of this looks pretty thick. Is this bit carved into the plaster? That needs some polyfiller.”

I poked my head around the open doorway to Evelyn’s magical workshop, and saw Raine standing with her hands on her hips as she surveyed the wreckage of the cult’s doorway-portal-thing. The huge mandala, complete with Lozzie’s modifications, still dominated the entire wall.

“Absolutely not,” Evelyn grunted from a chair by the cluttered table. “I’m keeping it.”

“You aren’t worried they’ll like, bust on through one night?” Raine turned and saw me peeking, two freshly toasted chocolate pop tarts on a plate in my hands, half of one already in my mouth. “Hey you, did you get bored? Come and join us, we’re talking shop.”

“Mmm-mm,” I grunted, then swallowed, with some difficulty. “I was waiting, I thought you were coming back upstairs.”

Raine pulled this big theatrical wince. She’d taken to doing that sometimes that in lieu of saying sorry, and it worked quite handily on me, because it was incredibly attractive. “I got totally sidetracked when I saw Evelyn talking to herself in here. My bad.”

“Talking to yourself is entirely healthy, thank you very much,” Evelyn said. “You know what isn’t healthy? Leaving your girlfriend alone in bed in the middle of … whatever it is you two do behind closed doors. Go on, shoo, the pair of you.”

“We were playing a video game, that’s all.” I felt myself blush, but only a tiny bit, and shook my head as Raine laughed.

“Yes, and I ran a marathon yesterday,” Evelyn muttered. “And no, Raine, I’m not worried about the cult using this again. The network it connected to is collapsed, there’s nothing left. I’ve got Praem out on Bowder’s street now, poking her nose into the last of their pocket spaces. They’re done. But this, I can re-purpose this, I’m certain, if I can figure out the last few bits of Akkadian.”

I crossed the threshold into the ex-drawing room, feeling curious and attentive, though I’d much rather return to watching Raine seduce video game girls who were also dragons. I glanced up at the spider-servitor, upside down in its corner, watching the room with that head of crystalline eyes.

The sight of it still unsettled me on a visceral level – the black carapace, the heat-exchangers, the poised stingers – but then again so did Tenny, and I felt a measure of odd affection for the spider. It had, after all, crouched on guard over my unconscious body after Zheng had tried to kidnap me, and I had no illusions about who would have won if she’d decided to come back and fight it.

I gave it a little wave of greeting, but got nothing in return.

“Heather?”

“Mm?” I blinked around at my friends, and then flushed when I remembered they couldn’t see what I was waving at. “T-the spider, I was just … saying hi.”

“Oh yeah, big leggy up there,” Raine said. “How’s he hanging?”

“Fine. Healthy. I mean, as far as servitors experience health?”

Evelyn shrugged. “Good question.”

“Y-you said Praem’s gone out?” I hurried to change the subject. Even now, after all these months, the old instinctive habit still held a lot of ground inside my head – don’t let on that you see things other people don’t. “Is she still wearing her- oh. That would be a no, then.”

Evelyn answered by pointing to the back of a nearby chair. Praem’s beloved maid uniform was neatly folded over the back. “Certainly not. I’m not sure psychological self-correction can account for a maid wandering around Sharrowford. I ordered her into jeans and a coat.” She caught the look on my face and sighed. “She’s free to wear whatever she likes when she gets back.”

“That’s okay, I-I wasn’t being-”

“It’s fine,” Evelyn grunted.

It obviously wasn’t fine. Still sore about her demon’s sartorial tastes. I busied myself chewing on another mouthful of pop tart.

“If I saw her walking around in that getup, I’d hit on her,” Raine said.

“So would I,” I said softly, and Raine spluttered with laughter. I blushed and shrugged and took another bite. Of course I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t have the courage, but I’d like to. I swallowed and spoke into the silence that followed, asked the question that had been lurking in the back of my head, the real reason I’d stepped into the room. “So, what do we do next?”

Raine raised her eyebrows at me. “You wanna head out for some lunch before it rains again? That Indian deli place is open again.”

“Don’t be so bloody obtuse,” Evelyn snapped at her. Raine had the good sense to look mock-sheepish. She’d known exactly what I really meant. Evelyn turned in her chair to regard me. “I thought the answer to that was obvious – you need to test what you can do.”

I stepped up to the table and put my plate down, stomach turning, sugary breakfast treat sitting like lead. That was what I’d been afraid of – the fear itself. “I know that part. I mean … how ready are we?”

“For Maisie?” Raine asked.

“For Wonderland,” Evelyn corrected her. “Not in the slightest.”

“Yes, yes, I know, I know. I’m asking … ” I sighed and shrugged. “I don’t know what I’m asking.”

Evelyn held up a hand, four fingers, and lowered them one by one as she made her points.

“One, you can get there, in theory.”

“In theory,” I agreed.

“Alone, spewing your guts out, and bleeding from your eye sockets. Hardly ideal. And you haven’t tested it yet. Two, some of the circles and methods I used to allow Raine and I to perceive Tenny might function to conceal us from the Eye’s awareness. For how long, how effectively, that’s anybody’s guess, fuck knows,” she shrugged. “Three, we still have no way to locate your sister, on an entire Outside plane of reality. I don’t know about you, but I don’t fancy a hike over that terrain we saw.”

“True ‘nuff,” Raine added softly.

“Four, if the Eye resists our interference, itself or with its minions, we don’t have much to fight back with. You absolutely aren’t ready to go toe-to-toe – or mind-to-mind, as it were – with the Eye, are you?”

“Right,” I nodded, deflating inside. “Definitely not.”

“So, I would say we’re not bloody well ready at all.”

When she put it like that, I struggled to see light at the end of the tunnel. We had, what, eight or nine months? How on earth could we achieve all that in eight or nine months?

I’d proposed to fight an alien God for my sister’s life. I’d found it’s address in a cosmic phone book. Now what?

“What if we ding-dong-dash it?” Raine asked.

“What?” Evelyn squinted at her.

“You know. Ding-dong-dash. Knock and nash,” Raine said. “Knock on its front door and run away? Good way to see how it reacts to us rocking up to mess with it, yeah?”

Evelyn gave her such a look. Raine shrugged, don’t-blame-me style. I was barely paying attention, lost in my own thoughts.

I should have been listening. Raine’s idea was golden, but none of us would work that out for weeks yet.

The map had gifted me with insight, but not an insight I cared to examine in too much detail.

The afternoon after I’d exposed my mind to the map, we’d tried a couple of small experiments. Raine had fetched a couple of small stones from down by the lake on the Saye estate. She’d wanted me to wait, to recover until I didn’t feel sick and shaky, but I’d insisted. I had to try it then, see if it worked, see if I could put this knowledge to use. Grasp a rock and send it Outside – send it somewhere specific.

The first rock I sent to the grand winter-bound castle which Lozzie had taken me to in the dream.

It hurt like hell.

Dialling in a specific location – plane, level, dimension, whatever flimsy inadequate human word we use for Outside – took a toll on my concentration. I’d dredged up the geographic principles from the map and wedded them to the Eye’s impossible physics. The rock had vanished from my hand, and I’d curled up around my aching stomach and lungs for an entire hour, nursing my pounding head and bleeding nose.

The rock had gone exactly where I’d intended.

How did I know that?

It was like throwing an object down a long, lightless corridor, through a doorway I knew stood at the end, deep in darkness.

The second rock, I sent to Wonderland.

A risk, certainly. Would the Eye notice? How all-encompassing was its awareness? Could it somehow trace an inanimate object back to me? Let it try. I was protected, by the Fractal on my arm and my friends and Evee’s magic and my own growing mastery.

Right?

None of that sheltered me from the thought of that rock. Lying awake in bed snuggled between Raine’s arms, still cold inside despite her borrowed body heat, it haunted me. A pebble from a lakeside in rural England, lost beneath that rotten sky, amid the broken walls and otherworldly monsters of Wonderland. And it would never, ever come back. Who could find a tiny, pointless pebble, amid all that madness, beneath the gaze of the Eye?

I will award no prizes for unravelling the subconscious metaphor.

“If Raine is quite finished with her helpful suggestions,” Evelyn said, the sound of her voice bringing me back to the ex-drawing room. “I may have a solution to that first problem.”

“Which one, sorry?” I asked with a sniff. Raine crossed the room and pulled a chair out for me, encouraged me into it and started rubbing my shoulders. She’d probably seen the look on my face, figured out I needed physical contact.

“Getting to Wonderland and back,” said Evelyn, and gestured at the doorway mural. “The door. If you bring an object back from Outside, anything at all, I believe I may be able, in theory, to re-purpose the doorway to connect to that particular point.”

I blinked at her. “Um … ”

“Window on ye olde Eye didn’t go so well last time,” Raine said before I could.

“Yes, absolutely. It was a disaster,” I agreed, frowning with concern. “I thought that was the entire purpose of showing me the map. So I could … get us there.”

“Alone and passing out, as I said,” Evelyn repeated. “Look, I’m certainly not suggesting you … what do you call it, Slip? Don’t Slip to Wonderland, that’s stupid and you’ll probably die, or worse. No, we need to test this first, in as controlled conditions as we can get. Where can you go? We need somewhere safe.”

“Safe, Outside?” I sighed. “Mm.”

“Relatively.”

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “There’s places Lozzie and I went in the dreams which weren’t that bad, or at least quiet, but I always got the feeling that Outside was less dangerous when accessed via dreams. I don’t know.”

“You’ll have to ask your Lozzie about that one, I have no idea,” Evelyn said.

“I suppose … ”

But I couldn’t ask Lozzie, could I? She’d been gone for weeks. I’d hoped, in my own childish way, that she might return for Christmas, come back all smiles and giggling. I didn’t even dream about her anymore. The thought of her Outside formed a lump in my throat.

Raine squeezed my shoulder. “She’ll be back, Heather, I’m sure she will.”

I nodded, chewing on my lip. Raine couldn’t possibly be sure, but I let her convince me for now. My mind finally alighted on the sort of place I associated with safety and quiet, security and pleasure.

“There was the library,” I said.

“Library?” Evelyn’s eyebrows pinched together, sudden sharp interest.

“She took you to a library?” Raine asked, and mock-tutted. “Trying to get one up on me. I’ll have to have a word with Lozzie about that, muscling in on me.”

“One of the places Lozzie took me in the dreams, yes. She called it the library of Carcosa, I think. It didn’t seem too … ah, Evee?”

Evelyn squinted at me in fascination. I hadn’t seen that look on her face since she’d marvelled over my self-implementing hyperdimensional mathematics.

“Carcosa?” Evelyn breathed. “Carcosa. You’re certain she used that name?”

“I think that’s how it was pronounced, yes. I take it that’s important?”

“Potentially,” Evelyn said, with great care. Her eyes bored into me. “I wish you’d told me before. Can you get back there?”

I shrugged. “In theory, I can go anywhere. Why’s this important, Evee?”

Evelyn took a deep breath and banished the worst of her fascinated look with an obvious effort of will, bringing herself back down to the level of us mere mortals. “Carcosa is a city, of a sort, mentioned by name in more than a few of the grimoires I have access to. There’s a whole five page passage in Unbekannte Orte.” She wet her lips, and I swear I saw her tremble slightly. “The library. There may be … relevant books. Ones lost here, lost to reality.”

“You want to visit a library, Outside?” I tried to laugh, but the look in Evelyn’s eyes told me she was dead serious. She opened her mouth, but snapped it shut again, clamping down on something inside herself. “Evee?”

“I can’t.” She took a deep breath and forced a humourless laugh. “You need to understand, Heather, this presents me with a dangerous temptation. A selfish part of me, perhaps the part I inherited from my mother-”

“Evee, no.”

“- very much wants to visit that library and pilfer as many books as I can,” she carried right on, raising a hand. “If I was being … mercenary, I would tell you there might be books there we can use, things that might help us locate your sister, even more so if you’re not going to be able to pit your mind against the Eye. And that wouldn’t be a lie.”

“Oh.” That pang of guilt.

“Evee, come off it, that is being mercenary,” Raine said. “But hey, if it might help?”

“Perhaps,” Evelyn admitted. “But you do need to test the map, and I need to test the door. The library, well … ” Evelyn shrugged.

“What Evee’s saying,” Raine added, still rubbing my shoulders. “Is that it’s your choice, this is your circus, Heather.”

I took a deep breath and tried to sit up straight, tried to feel big. I did not.

“I am large and in charge,” I said, closed my eyes and nodded. “I’ll do it. A trip to the library.”

==

Head throbbing like an open wound, diaphragm aching, guts throwing a terminal-stage riot. Praem caught my weight as I sagged forward.

My feet skittered for purchase against the polished wooden floor, kicking at stray books and loose pages, the sound echoing into the vast space overhead. A sticky, gummy feeling seeped around my closed eyelids as I hacked for breath and heaved again. Praem quickly pressed a plastic bag into my hands and I voided my stomach once more, wiped my lips and dropped the bag, and failed to stand up as my knees gave out. Praem had to catch me again. She held me up with effortless ease.

“We are here,” she intoned, voice echoing off into nothingness.

I didn’t need her to tell me that.

I was Outside, under my own power. My second ever intentional Slip. Went off without a hitch – except for all the pain and the vomiting and the bleeding.

“Book,” I croaked. “Need a book. Back- back out.”

That was right, back out, back to reality, back to Raine and that bath together.

“Book,” Praem acknowledged, but then I realised she couldn’t bend down without letting me tumble to my knees.

With stinging effort, I eased my eyelids open, rubbed at the blood around my eye sockets, and squinted so I could see.

Mercy of mercies, I had at least brought us to the right place.

The library of Carcosa looked exactly as I remembered it from the dream Lozzie and I had shared. We stood at the bottom of a wide canyon of bookcases at least a mile across, the floor covered with thousands of discarded texts. The bookcases vanished into the dark, far far above, crossed and looped by hundreds of wooden walkways and balconies. Billions of books. Beyond counting.

Without the cushion of the dream, I did not like it one bit.

All was shrouded in soft, unnatural light and deep amorphous shadows. I concentrated the floor, at the discarded books – not at the tiny robed figures shuffling along the walkways above, their faces made of tentacles and spines, or at the hanging cages that contained inhuman skeletons, and certainly not at the giant chains and the nightmare shape they held suspended in the far middle of the canyon.

“Book, book, any book,” I croaked, and bent forward, scooping up the first volume that came to hand. Praem helped me straighten again, and I stared at her for a second. “None the worse for- for wear at all, are you?”

“None the worse,” she echoed, milk white eyes steadfast, uniform utterly unruffled.

“Shhh, shh, don’t want to … ” I gestured vaguely, but nothing out there seemed to respond to the echoing sound of Praem’s voice.

My stomach turned again, knees wobbling as I struggled to stay standing. Quickly, I let the book flop open in one hand – no language I recognised, but it was indeed a book, black marks on white pages, rather than something else disguised as a book. I handed it to Praem and lifted the piece of notepaper again, now crumpled and squeezed, stained with nosebleed and a few flecks of vomit.

Strictly speaking I didn’t need the equation on paper to get back. I could run through the whole thing from memory, from instinct, from a decade of the Eye’s lessons. But the notation would help, make it gentler on my mind.

I needed so badly to sit down.

A little more pain, and it would be over, I told myself; back to Sharrowford, home, and my friends.

I turned the paper over and my eyes flickered down the equation, the first red-hot iron pokers slamming into my skull.

That’s when I spotted her.

Maybe half a mile away. How did I see her so clearly across the floor of that library-canyon? Half hidden behind a banister at the edge of a staircase up into the stacks? Staring at me. Maybe it was the long blonde hair, messy and unkempt, or the way she folded the ends of her sleeves over her hands, or simply the outline of her skinny form against the shadows.

Lozzie.

My eyes jerked up from the paper, halfway through the equation; her name on my lips, certain she hadn’t been there a second ago.

Her face half a mile distant, but inches away; every feature in the right place, but nothing like itself.

Something wearing her skin.

I lost my train of thought.

Hyperdimensional mathematics fell apart inside my head, a nuclear meltdown which made me clench every muscle in my body, vision throbbing black around the edges. I cried out, pain and blood in my mouth, eyes stinging like acid. My head felt it exploded.

Praem caught me as I passed out. The last thing I saw was Lozzie. She turned, and walked away.

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