and less pleasant places – 6.2

Previous 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

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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