that which you cannot put down – 7.15

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“You have to go back,” she told me.

“What? Why? I came such a long way to reach you. And it’s easier like this, isn’t it? No more pain, no more confusion, no more … ” A sigh that wasn’t a sigh escaped lips that I didn’t have.

“I love you. You know that, right?”

“Of course. I love you too. That doesn’t explain why you want me to go back.”

“Because this isn’t living, not out here, not like this. Because if you could see yourself, you’d be sad. It would hurt. You’ve forgotten how to be human. I had to learn that all over again, by watching you. It took me a such long time to figure that out. Years, I think, and then I couldn’t un-figure it out. I’m sad all the time. I don’t want you to be sad too, I don’t want you to end up like me.”

“ … I won’t be sad if we’re together.”

“We’re not. Not really. It doesn’t count.”

“Why not? I can hear you, we can talk. I’ve missed you so much.”

“Because I can’t touch you. I can’t hug you. You haven’t been like this long enough to miss it – but you will. I want to snuggle up in bed together, like when we were little, warm and comfy and … and … soft? I forget what those are, but I know I want them. I want to hold your hand and feel sunlight on my skin. I … I don’t recall the taste of food very well, but I think I want to eat. Chocolate. Oranges. Those little dolphin sweets mum used to buy. Tomato soup. Crusty bread. I want to skin my knees and bite the inside of my mouth by accident and get my heart broken and have my first period and stub my toe. Please, please go back, you can’t stay like this.”

Her voice whispered through a crack in a concrete wall, a hole no larger than my thumb. In the dark.

“But I came all this way, for you. To see you. It was so difficult. Can’t we stay like this?”

Silence, in the dark, in the cold.

“ … where’d you go?” I hissed into the crack.

“I’m here. No, no we can’t stay like this. I’m so tired. Running out of words.”

“This is making you tired?”

“More than you can know. I’m using everything I’ve got, because I have to convince you to go back.”

Pain. Pain in an organ I didn’t have, heart-pain in a heart that was worlds away. “I’m- I’m sorry! I’m so sorry, I-I didn’t mean to hurt you, to make it worse. I’m sorry, I only wanted to see you. I miss you, I miss you so much, I’m not a real person without you, I-”

“I know. It’s okay. I love you.”

“You’re going to be okay, aren’t you?”

“No. I have to sleep soon, to save what’s left.”

“What if I wait here? I’ll wait for you to wake-”

“No!” A cry in the void, an echo from her prison cell. “No, you still don’t understand. It’ll know about this crack soon, it’ll find this hole and stop it up. You have to come get me, but not like this. Not like this.”

“Then I’ll … I’ll break the wall down, I’ll get stronger, I’ll-”

“You’re the only reference point I have. If you stay here, like this, I won’t have anything to hold onto to keep me … me. You’ve had experiences. You got to grow up. All I have is our childhood, and that’s hazy now. I’m basically just you. If there’s no you, there’s no me. You can’t stay.”

“But- But I-”

“Heather, please go back.”

“I’ll come back again, stronger, cleverer, I-”

“I’ll be asleep, and the hole will be gone. If you try this a second time I won’t be here to send you back, to remind you what you are. We can only talk like this because I made the hole. It took so long, and I can’t even get my hand inside it. Don’t try this again, please Heather, please.”

Tears ran from my eyes. My chest hurt. Her words had kindled a strange alchemy inside what I’d become, returned my sense of pain, of recognition that there existed desires other than her, destinations other than this crack in a wall in a cold dark place.

She’d hatched such a little plan, spent all this time making such a tiny hole, and she’d used it up for me. And I didn’t have the strength to get her out.

Sniffing, crying, pain wrenching at my chest, I asked, “How do I … I don’t know what to do. What do I do?”

“Look to what you have: everything I don’t.”

“I don’t have you,” I sobbed.

“You have a body. You have strength. You have a heartbeat and it’s so strong.”

“None of those help, none of those mean anything to-”

“You have friends. Comrades. Allies. Ask for help.”

“Help? But nobody else can do this, only-”

“Heather, you don’t have to do this alone,” she whispered. “You can bring me back, I know you can do it, before I run out, before there’s nothing left of me – but not alone. Don’t do it alone.”

Leviathan shapes drifted behind me in the abyss, vast intelligences out there in the gulf I’d crossed to reach her. Most ignored me. Others heard my sniffling and sobbing, noticed the change, noticed me. I grew spines and envenomed stingers and poison colouration and toxic flesh and fanged mouths in my back: you don’t want to eat me because I’ll spoil your appetite. A few more moments, I’d fight Gods for a few more moments with her.

I sniffed hard. It hurt to acquiesce. I nodded, then remembered she couldn’t see. “Okay. Okay, I’ll try. I’ll miss you again.”

“Go back for her, if not for me.”

“Her?”

“Her, or her, or her? I’m not good with names anymore. I can’t match them to people. Her.”

I searched inside myself for names, and found them protected by a pressured cavity lodged in my core. I’d forgotten about that.

“ … Raine? Lozzie?” I tried. The names were alien things, meat things, ape things. My things.

“Raine. That was the one?”

“Raine, maybe?” I turned the name over, laughed through my tears. “Oh, yes. When I bring you back, Raine’s going to be so confused. Two of me. Too much for her to handle.”

She giggled too. We both meant it, even through the sorrow of parting. “I wouldn’t mind that.”

“I’ll come back for you. I promise I’ll come back for you.”

“But not like this.”

“In my own body, yes. I promise. I’ll come back for you, in my own body.”

“Bring your friends. They can help.”

“I love you. I miss you, Maisie.”

“I love you too.”

==

Of course, that wasn’t how it happened at all. There was no lightless abyss, no hole and no wall, no voice to whisper and no ears to hear. We didn’t use words, we used mathematics. We spoke in the language of atomic force and gravity, of starshine and photons, but I can’t tell you about that. I can’t even tell myself about that.

My fragile meat-brain rendered it down; I remember a crack in a wall, whispers, and crying.

And her advice.

The return was worse than the journey out.

The abyss between the spheres of reality is endless and dark, a place of horrible hungry things that hunt forever in pitch blackness, of predator and prey hiding and slinking, of silent filter-feeding giants and the echoes of alien thought carried on the currents. Small darting mouths of bottomless starvation, formless crab-hounds that seep through the angles of time, hunters of morsels of stray unwise thought and sensation across the gaps in creation, all of them catching my scent in the water and turning to stalk. Fleeing wisps, lost on the tides, desperate for the warmth and sanctuary of physical form, clutching at my ankles and moaning for help. Things vast and slow, thinking vast slow thoughts in trailing tendrils to entrap the unwary, eating, eating, always eating, growing bigger and thinking harder and trying to make themselves real.

Once, a long time ago, the Eye had begun life as one of those giants.

Perhaps unwise fools had summoned the Eye into flesh, or maybe it had just grown big enough to haul itself out of the abyss and into reality, but it had started life as one of these, in their infinite and terrible variety. I learnt that by observation, because I had to. Because out in the void one must watch and wait and be silent, to learn the ways of the things that would eat you.

The return was harder because now I also remembered pain, I recalled what it was like to feel. She’d used her precious scraps of energy to remind me what I really was.

But in this non-place I was agile, in a way I never had been when cast in mere meat and bone.

Tiny, yes, the smallest of the small; but I was clever, and so very fast. Darting and dipping and diving through the abyssal waves, I was grace and speed, wire and sinew, flight and fight.

Poor scrawny Heather, that clumsy blunt fingered ape I’d once been and would be again – she’d chase this feeling for the rest of her life.

I swam like a seal, grew flippers to steer, fins to catch the currents, tentacles to pull myself along the rocks; I opened feathered gills to suck oxygen from the clear cold and slid them sealed to pass through the toxic effluvia of the leviathans; I taught myself anaerobic processes, seeded self-contained reactors to blossom inside my belly.

I ate coral and bacterial slime from the oases of geothermal vents, cracked open mollusks for cold wriggling meat, covered myself in mucus and bottom-feeder ooze to blend in with the ocean floor; I flickered nictitating membranes across my eyes in the murk to blot out the false lures of bio-luminescence, sprouted suckers to anchor myself to trench walls, hard scales to ward off opportunistic hunters, quills and spines and venom sacks to defend myself; I turned at bay and hissed with maws full of needle-fangs and rings of jagged teeth.

Because Maisie had told me to go back.

Because I trusted her more than I trusted what I’d become.

Because I’d screwed up and made things worse for her, because I’d been a boneheaded stubborn idiot who thought I could do this alone, because she’d spent the last of her energy, down to embers, just to convince me to exist again.

Because – Raine? Lozzie? Evelyn? Who were these people? I’d protected these names in a pressurised cavity in my chest, a bubble of reality in a place that was anathema to reality, but I didn’t understand why.

More than once I almost jettisoned that air-sack, to escape a pack of predators or free myself from the trap of some floating jellyfish net. Stings and fangs and claws and paralytic toxins, I protected it from all of them, because she’d given me the idea it was important.

And because I liked this Raine. She liked me.

That was an alien idea in the abyss. Didn’t fit the logic of predator and prey. I examined that concept over and over during the journey, played with it during the long silences in the lonely dark. I began to like it, in an abstract sort of way.

When I was almost there, exhausted and colder than cold, so close I could see the faintest hint of shrouded light from above, I swam straight into a mouth the size of a world.

Krill to a whale.

I grew parachute-brakes of flesh to slow myself, scrambled back, kicked at the water with fin and flipper – it shot out a mass of tentacles to squeeze me, drag me down its gullet. I reinforced my bones with iron, covered myself in scales of metal – it burned through me with acid, eating me alive. I sprouted urchin-spikes and filled them with neurotoxin – it battered me with club-sized cilia, knocked me senseless, digested me from the tail up.

Almost gave in. So tired. Why fight so hard just to return to a world where I was small and weak and hurt all the time?

Because if this leviathan digested the contents of my pressurised heart – the knowledge of those names, of Raine and Evelyn and my friends – it would know where to find them, it would learn how to go there. Would our reality end up like Wonderland?

Too abstract, here in the void. The fuel of kindness and curiosity ran out.

No, I fought because my twin sister had told me to.

In the end I used tooth and claw. I bit. I ripped. I chewed. For every pint of me it drained, I took a pound of flesh. It let me go eventually, abandoned this morsel to the cold currents; I’d proved too much work to eat.

Bruised all over, missing mass and limbs and bleeding into the dark void like a beacon for every predator to follow, slow and limping and in so much pain, I reached the edge of infinity. I found the membrane.

Collapsing, passing out, giving it one final push, I crossed over.

I went back.

==

There are no safe paths in this part of the world,’ my eyes read, tripping along the page mid-blink. ‘Remember you are over the Edge of the Wild now-

A gasp ripped down my throat and into my lungs – real air into real lungs, obscene wet sacks of folded flesh I felt inflate inside me.

I dropped the book on the tabletop with a clatter, blinded and confused in the sudden bright light, unaware of where I was, when I was, what I was. The meat on my face worked up and down, the meat in my throat vibrated the air. Sounds emerged, meat sounds: “Wha- what- wh-” Couldn’t remember how I’d got here, where I was a moment ago, what I’d been doing.

Awake, from the worst sleepwalk in history.

“Heather? Heather?” A familiar voice – a warm voice, tight with urgent worry – said my name.

My name! That’s you, declared the meat in my skull. Welcome back. Kept your seat warm, all lights in working order. Sorry about the cobwebs.

Hands had dropped that book, fleshy pink fragile hands with fingers like wriggling articulated worms. My hands, shaking in front of me. I looked down at the logical conclusion to those hands: arms, and the rest of me, the soft machine hidden inside skin and a baggy black tshirt and pair of plaid pink pajama bottoms. A messy glugging biochemical factory, the shore upon which I had cast myself, the human body.

“No … no, no no no.” I lurched back and staggered up from the kitchen table, sent my chair crashing to the floor. Uncontrollable shaking gripped my arms as I stared down at myself. “What is this, what is this?!”

“Heather!” A figure shot up from the table, turned and shouted. “Evee! Heather’s doing something!”

“This isn’t me, this isn’t me,” I hissed, then swallowed – a big mistake. The muscles of my throat bobbed, my oesophagus squeezed. I’d never felt such disgusting motion.

“Heather, hey, Heather look at me, look at me,” the kind voice said. Firm but gentle hands took my shoulders and held me steady, but I was too busy trying to close my throat, re-route the pipes, redefine the slick wet meat as something else, anything else. But my flesh wouldn’t obey, this body wouldn’t change.

Stuck like this. I started to hyperventilate, hiccuping and crying and stumbling on clumsy ape feet.

“Heather, you’re safe, you’re at home.” The voice turned away to shout again. “Evee, get down here!”

“This isn’t me. This has to come off.”

I reached up to rip the skin away from my face and throat, to get at the machinery inside. It would be difficult with these blunt nails, but I couldn’t stand this feeling. I’d go mad.

“Heather, look at me,” Raine snapped, just in time.

The whipcrack of her voice triggered a cascade, a spark deep in my belly, and deeper, between my legs. The ape, the body, my body, could not disobey that confidence and power, so I looked up. For a moment I saw only another hooting ape, an ugly thing puffing out carbon dioxide and leaking pheromones, full of folded meat and packed with rotting shit. Behind the ape, the space was wrong, the angles too small, too constricted, too neat, like I was trapped inside a tiny box.

The cascade rocketed up my nervous system, from crotch to gut to spinal column to lizard brain to burst in my neocortex.

I blinked – and saw Raine in the morning sunlight. The yellowed remains of a days-old bruise ringed her left eye socket. We stood in the kitchen in Evelyn’s house, in Sharrowford. England, planet Earth. My dog-eared copy of The Hobbit lay splayed on the table.

“Hey.” Raine grinned at me, not quite certain. “Heather? Are you … here?”

“ … Raine. I- where was I-”

To frame the question was to invite the memory, and the memory was impossible. A misericorde of pain stabbed through my eye sockets and into my brain, as my fleshy thinking meat failed to integrate the memory of how I’d gotten here, where I’d been five minutes ago, what I’d been. In a desperate measure of self-preservation, my imagination wove metaphor and sensation from what little it could understand, rendered the experience down into physical terms – the abyssal ocean, the dark, and the cold.

I doubled up in Raine’s arms and vomited onto the floor, gagging on alien thoughts.

“It’s okay, it’s okay Heather, you’re okay.” Raine held me up, steered me toward the sink with confident strength. “Get it all out if you have to, don’t worry about a thing. I promise you’re safe, Heather, I promise. It’s alright, it’s alright now.”

“No, no it’s not, it’s not, it’s not-”

I spat bile and hauled myself upright, panting and reeling and slurring the words in my raw throat.

“She doesn’t need another bath, Raine,” a second voice drawled from the kitchen doorway, unimpressed and snippish. Evelyn, in a patched cream jumper, her hair tied up in a ponytail. She clutched her walking stick, and the matte-black ankle of her exposed prosthetic leg peeked from under the hem of a long skirt. She frowned, a look I knew so well. “She clearly doesn’t want it, but I know you’re enjoying every excuse to strip an unresisting-”

“ … Evee,” I whined.

She slammed to a stop, mouth open. “Heather?”

“I think it’s her, it’s actually her!” Raine burst into a grin. “She’s come round, I told you she would.”

“And she’s made an impressive mess on the floor,” Evelyn tutted. She clicked her fingers at my face, once, twice, three times. “Heather, Heather are you in there? Oh, thank God, you are, aren’t you?”

“I came back. I came back! Oh- oh.” My mouth gaped open, silent tears on my cheeks. “I spoke- I spoke to her.”

Cold bloomed in my chest, the cold of the abyss, an abscess in my soul leaking into my flesh. I gasped as if plunged into ice water, teeth chattering, heart racing, blood vessels constricting. I shook, sudden and violent, and sagged in Raine’s arms.

“Heather? Heather?”

“What’s happening to her?” Evelyn snapped.

Raine worked it out. She always does. Trust her to read me with perfection, she knew my body better than I did. She slipped a hand over my forehead and pressed down. My eyes rolled in their sockets. Felt like I was about to pass out.

“She’s gone freezing cold. Radiating it. Heather, don’t close your eyes. Focus on me. Look at my face.”

“What did you do to her?” Evelyn barked.

“Nothing. She wasn’t like this when I put the book in her hands. Heather, look at me. Open your eyes.”

“B-b-brought i-it b-b-back w-with me,” I chattered.

I’d brought a piece of the outer cold back with me, a moon rock from an alien planet. This, I realised with an insight born of my journey in the abyss, was what I’d been doing every time I’d used hyperdimensional mathematics. My body and mind and our reality was like a sealed arcology, a haven of light and life, and beyond lay only the void, cold and dark and full of predators. Every time I did brainmath, I stepped out into that icy wasteland and let pieces of it back inside with me. The inhuman, crammed into my tiny body.

My eyelids fluttered. The edges of the world went dark.

Raine didn’t waste time on explanations. She swept me off my feet.

She sprinted to the stairs and leapt up them three at a time. I barely felt it, numb and insensate as Raine shouldered the bathroom door open and held me upright under the shower, no time to undress, our clothes soaked through as soon as she spun the taps on. She held my mouth and nose clear of the stream of steaming water, soaked my icy flesh with heat, rubbed my back to force sluggish blood through my veins. Slowly, painstakingly, with infinite patience, Raine spared me the oblivion of hypothermia.

Twenty minutes later I sat waist deep in warm water with my arms wrapped around my knees, still shivering. Raine perched on the edge of the bathtub, unconcerned that her own clothes were sodden and dripping all over the floor. She massaged my shoulders with one hand and aimed the shower head at my back with the other, rinsing me with a constant stream of water like a dredged ship.

Lozzie peered over the lip of the tub, sad-faced, occasionally murmuring my name.

“You do know … you are aware … Raine, you … ” Evelyn failed to begin a sentence, several times. She stood by the sink and frowned at me with naked fascination. “Immersion in warm water isn’t … ”

“Not the recommend treatment for hypothermia.” Raine shot her a half-grin. “Evee, this ain’t regular hypothermia. Heather? That’s it, keep your eyes open, look at me, it’s going to be okay. You’re already feeling warmer, you’re gonna be fine.”

Praem had trailed Evelyn into the bathroom, arms loaded down with fluffy towels, spare clothes, and for some inexplicable reason, a bottle of vodka. She waited, prim and proper in full maid uniform, her back ramrod straight. Kimberly peered around her side, biting her bottom lip, eyes wide at the sight of me.

“Make yourself useful,” Evelyn snapped, and sent Kimberly off on an errand downstairs, for painkillers and food.

I couldn’t stop crying.

“Hey, hey, it’s okay now, Heather, it’s okay,” Raine murmured. “Just focus on warming up, that’s your job right now. You’re safe, you’re home, nothing’s going to hurt you here.”

“I spoke to her,” I sobbed again. “Oh God, I spoke to her and I screwed up, I did it all wrong. Wasn’t supposed to go. I’m such an idiot. Idiot.”

“Spoke to who?” Evelyn asked.

Raine shot her a look. Evelyn averted her gaze, shaking her head.

“I made it all worse,” I squeezed out through the tears and the heat and the steam. “She spent ten years – ten years! – making this tiny little hole. It was so small. Ten years. And she had to use it for me because I’m an idiot. I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.” I buried my face in my knees.

“Heather, it’s going to be okay-”

“I made it all worse,” I sobbed to myself. “I made everything worse for Maisie.”

==

The house fire on Barrend road had made the national news, after the flames were doused and the fire brigade sorted through the charred corpses. A major criminal mystery in a sleepy Northern city. Millions of pounds worth of property destruction, a bizarre mass suicide, proof of arson, possibly a petrol bomb, and the owner of the house couldn’t be found – a one Mr. Alexander Lilburne, missing, presumed among the dead.

A formerly disgraced local police detective – Sargent Nicole Webb – had become the unlikely hero of the moment. She’d been passing by and gallantly rushed into the burning building to pull a survivor to safety, the only living witness of what had transpired inside.

The local newspapers loved that.

For weeks they carried headlines like ‘fire horror – a British Jonestown?’, ‘true numbers will never be known’, ‘hero copper says “Just doing my job”’, and ‘police appeal for information on shadowy religious sect.’

The incident warranted a single minute-long segment on the BBC news. Two inches on the second page of the Telegraph.

And then the world moved on.

I recalled none of it. Only Maisie, and the abyss.

“Only four days?” I croaked. “Felt like years, like I was gone for years.”

“You weren’t ‘gone’ at all,” Raine said from next to me on the bed. She shared a glance with Evelyn, who stood by with her arms crossed.

“What are you looking at me for? Tell her,” Evelyn huffed. “She saved our lives, I think she deserves all the grisly details and I’m sure she can handle them. Can’t you, Heather?”

“Mmm.” I took another bite of chocolate cookie.

Raine shrugged wide, good-natured, and smiled as I caught her eye. “You’ve been right here the whole time, in body at least. Otherwise I would’a been a bit more panicked. Would have enlisted Lozzie to go find you, out there beyond the final frontier and all that.”

“Final frontier … where no Lozzie’s been before,” Lozzie mumbled in her half-sleep, one hand in my lap. She’d curled up around my side like a dozing cat. I reached down and stroked her hair. She closed her eyes again.

“Cut the editorialising,” Evelyn sighed.

I finished off my cookie. “I like the editorialising.”

“See?” Raine shot a wink at Evelyn. “She knows what she likes, and that means me.”

“Yes, yes, we can tell it’s definitely Heather now,” Evelyn drawled, “because you’re rapidly becoming insufferable. Tell her, or I will.”

“Alright, alright,” Raine put her hands up in mock-surrender. “Heather, it wasn’t until we got out of that house and back to the car that we realised you were looking sort of vacant. Praem and Zheng knew right away, but hey, you were upright, you were walking, you answered when I spoke to you. We were a bit more concerned with skedaddling out of there before the fire went up and got the whole street out for a gander.” She sighed, an almost sad taint in her smile. “I should’a noticed.”

“Not your fault,” I mumbled around another mouthful of food. “Middle of a crisis.”

“If you say so, boss. You’ve been like a zombie since then. You’d eat if given food, sleep if I put you in bed, spoke when spoken to, but not a lot else. Had to give you a bath yesterday, ‘cause you wouldn’t wash on your own. Left to your own devices you just … stared into space.”

“Except the homing behaviour,” Evelyn muttered.

“That bit was cute, I gotta admit.” Raine attempted to not smirk. “If I left you alone for long enough, you’d come find me. Even mindless, you know who’s good for you, apparently. Did spook me the first night. Had to get up to use the toilet about one in the morning, and when I finished up and opened the bathroom door, there you were, standing in the dark, waiting for me.”

“Spooky Heather,” Lozzie mumbled.

“Spooky,” Praem intoned.

“Raine is lying,” Evelyn said. Raine did a double-take at her. “There was nothing ‘cute’ about it. I have no idea how Raine could stand to look at you. I’m sorry Heather, but I couldn’t. There was nothing behind your eyes, nothing in there.” She swallowed. “I am exceptionally glad you are well again.”

I shuddered inside. “I wasn’t here. Not really.”

“Then where were you?” Evelyn asked, her voice quiet and intense, but not with the professional interest I expected. “Astral projecting? Outside? I still don’t understand this marine metaphor, I-”

“Not Outside. In the spaces between.”

Evelyn frowned harder. I stared back at her, too emotionally wiped out for embarrassment or sheepishness.

“Your map – your mother’s map,” I said. “It’s accurate but incomplete. It maps the world, here, and all the Outside dimensions, but it misses the … aqua incognita. The space between. An abyss.”

“ … what was it like?” Evelyn breathed.

“Evee,” Raine said, warning sharp. “Why don’t we drop this line of-”

“Like an abyss. Cold and dark. An ocean. I was … I swam.” My jaw quivered. Silent tears ran from my eyes again. Shivering, and not from the cold. “I was so graceful. It was beautiful, and terrible at the same time. I can’t- words don’t-” A gasp, a heart-sick pain. “A little bit of me wants to go back. I’m sorry.”

What little I could grasp I owed to my twin’s efforts to make me human again. I’d lost everything prior to her whispers in the dark, but I’d brought back an unnatural longing.

“No.” Evelyn cleared her throat. “I’m the one who should be sorry.”

“I think you were right here,” Raine announced with a confident lift of her chin. “I think you left an anchor-line behind, Heather, whether you know it or not. You know how I could tell?”

I shook my head, sniffing back the tears, brought back to myself by the feel of Raine’s hand worming its way up my back, warm contact driving away the memory of being something other than flesh.

“When I put a book in you hands,” Raine said, “you read it. You turned the pages, and put it down at the end. Something of you was in there. Why else did you follow me around?”

Evelyn rolled her eyes.

My chest was getting tighter. Couldn’t figure out why. After a moment I took a breath and surprised myself, filled my lungs again.

“Heather?” Raine stroked the back of my hair.

“I keep forgetting to breathe.”

Evelyn and Raine shared a glance.

“Breathe,” Praem announced, bell-clear, from her post by the door.

“Yes, yes don’t … don’t forget to breathe. That tends to be important,” Evelyn said slowly. I felt Raine tense with worry next to me, no matter how well she hid it.

“I won’t. Won’t forget. Body has to catch up.”

The tray in front of me presented too many options. Another chocolate cookie or a big sausage roll? I decided on the latter, bit into pasty and pork, chewed slowly as my friends watched me like some alien replacement deposited in their midst.

After Raine had helped me from the bath and wrapped me in dry clothes, she’d settled me on the bed and tucked me up in blankets and duvets. A cocoon for the larval thing I’d become, to incubate the soul I’d brought back.

Food had repulsed me at first. Fat and protein and carbohydrate were just fuel for this ugly, clumsy, slow ape I’d returned to. I didn’t deserve to eat, I deserved guilt. Warm and safe and embodied, while I’d left my twin sister to the outer dark. Again.

But my body had demands. The tyranny of biology would not be denied.

I couldn’t stop eating.

Chocolate biscuits, sausage rolls, oven chips. I craved oranges and oatmeal, inhaled an entire packet of cheese, swallowed three peanut sandwiches and wanted more. My stomach rumbled and my blood sugar rode a roller-coaster. I needed more than we had on hand in the fridge, but didn’t want Raine to leave my side.

Evelyn sent Praem on a shopping trip to the nearest Tesco Metro. The doll-demon returned with an armful of microwave curries and instant rice and chicken strips and bagged baby carrots. I ate it all, downed two cups of coffee and three of tea and drank enough apple juice to give an elephant diarrhoea. I ate all morning and most of the afternoon while we talked, immovable from my spot on the bed, shovelling fuel into my face.

Couldn’t fill my stomach no matter how much I ate.

Between food and Raine’s skinship, I felt more and more alive as morning turned into afternoon. Twitchy and fidgety, as I reached inside my duvet igloo to rub my thin muscles, run a hand over my abdomen and hamstrings, as I felt the echo of a lost glory my flesh would never fill.

And I was gripped by the most bizarre and inexplicable desire – to swim.

Hadn’t swam since I was eight years old, with Maisie.

I finished my bite of sausage roll, and noticed the odd look in Raine’s eyes as she watched me. A lump formed in my throat.

“ … do I seem different?” I asked, afraid of the answer. “Am I different now?”

A terrifying pause. But Raine did me credit, took me seriously. She nodded. “Yes, a little bit, like you’re thinking about stuff in a way you haven’t done before. But that’s what happens in life. I told you, Heather, I told you months ago, I’ll still be here to give you a hug even if you turn into a Time Lord. Or a fish person. Gills are cute.” She winked.

I laughed, small and weak, but real. The first since getting back.

“Hey,” Raine sighed. “After all, if I hadn’t got cracked in the ribs by that low-quality Lozzie impersonator, none of this would have happened.”

“Not your fault,” I croaked.

“Most certainly is my fault,” Raine said, dead serious all of a sudden. “I should have been faster, quicker on my feet, never turned my back. Those factors are things I can actually control. That’s what I’m good at. But I wasn’t good enough, this time. Broken ribs are a good reminder.”

“You broke ribs?”

“She most certainly did, and she tried to hide it,” Evelyn huffed. “I made her go to the doctor, and believe you me, that was not an easy task. Keep taking those deep breaths, Raine, no lung infection for you.”

Raine gave a sheepish grin, and I realised the little winces I’d noticed had nothing to do with me.

“Thank you, Evee. Bad Raine.”

“It’s only a floating rib,” Raine said. “Five-six weeks, max.”

“Bad Raine.”

“Okay, okay.” She put her hands up, laughing. “Bad Raine. No more snapping bones.”

“Mmm.”

“Quite right,” Evelyn added.

I’d been absently stroking Lozzie’s hair the entire time we’d been talking, my hands and arms restless, my limbs aching to unfold in a way I could never unfold them in flesh. Was this how Lozzie felt, all the time? Was this the extra element of her I’d been missing all along? Her sleeping face was peaceful, but slack around the eyes and mouth.

“What’s wrong with her?” I asked.

Evelyn and Raine shared a look. Evelyn shrugged.

“I think she might have chronic fatigue syndrome,” Raine said. “That or she’s depressed.”

“Oh don’t be so absurd,” Evelyn snapped.

I shook my head. “She’s not meant to be here for long. Needs her environment. Needs to be Outside. She’s stuck, we both were.”

“Mm yes, she mentioned that,” Evelyn said. “I cleared out one of the spare bedrooms for her, which was a smart bet because she does almost nothing but sleep. Seemed utterly unconcerned about you being … off with the fairies.”

“What about everyone else?” I asked, a knot of worry in my gut. “Is Twil okay? I noticed Kim’s still here. Have we heard from Nicole?”

Twil had hung around for a day, then headed home to Brinkwood and her family, her ‘church’ and their God-thing, to tell them what had happened and try to get back to an approximation of normal. She did have school the next morning, after all. Evelyn – not Raine, to my surprise – promised to call her later, let her know I’d recovered. She’d probably head up to Sharrowford in a day or two to say hi, though I suspected and hoped her visit would not be primarily for myself.

Kimberly was indeed still here in the house, too terrified to return to her flat without our continued protection, not while Glasswick tower still loomed nearby, possessed by the memory of Alexander Lilburne. She’d made one careful, reluctant journey home for clothes and personal effects, but until the problem was solved, she was stuck here.

“You like her really,” Raine said to Evelyn with a knowing grin. “You’ve gone soft on her.”

“Not only did that woman do the grunt work to save me from bloody demonic possession,” Evelyn snapped, “but she also lost her job because of us. She has nothing. So no, Raine, I’m not going to kick her out. She’s foolish and … not a good mage. But I’m not going to kick her out.”

“Whatever you gotta tell yourself, Evee.”

Felicity had not returned to Sharrowford, to Evelyn’s evident relief. Neither had her parasite.

The Eye’s squid-thing, trapped in clay, remained in Evelyn’s magical atelier.

Nicole had been busy.

“What about the university? I was supposed to have classes.”

“I called your adviser,” Raine said with a flourish of her eyebrows and a cheeky smirk. “You’ve had the flu, very nasty. Even put you on the phone and whispered in your ear to make you speak a few words. Very convincing.”

I shook my head, sighing, jiggling one restless leg inside my duvet cocoon. The mundane world still turned on without us.

“Not gonna ask about your giant zombie friend?” Raine pulled a smirk.

If there was one person whose safety I wasn’t too worried about, it was the seven foot tall slab of cannibal muscle and shark teeth. But I shook my head and frowned at myself in confusion, still jiggling my leg, flexing my shoulders too now. I peeled part of my cocoon open, let the fresh air inside. “I know she’s not here. Why do I know she’s not here? That’s odd.”

“You do? Brought a sixth sense back with you?”

“ … I … um-”

“Hey, I was joking.”

“No, no I just … I can tell. She’s obviously not here.”

Evelyn and Raine shared another worried glance – and Praem stared right at me. I could tell Zheng wasn’t in the house. An absence of a quality to the silence, in the way one might know a tiger is no longer watching from the bushes, but has slipped back into the jungle.

“Absent,” Praem intoned. I nodded.

“Where is she, then?”

“Gone on the lam, I think,” Raine answered, then paused and blinked and cracked a smile.

Evelyn sighed heavily and put her face in her hand. “Please tell me that was intentional.”

“Nope!” Raine burst into a grin. “I just said that, just now, unplanned. Wow, I’m good. Come on, admit it, I’m good.”

“Urgh,” Evelyn grunted.

“On the lam – on the lamb. Get it?” Raine grinned even wider.

“No, I don’t get it,” I said. “Where is Zheng?”

“Gallivanting around the countryside, mutilating cattle,” Evelyn deadpanned.

“ … what.”

“The first night you were all zombie-like,” Raine explained, “she stared at you for about twenty minutes, up close eye-to-eye, and you stared right back. Then she got up and left. Just straight out the back door, vaulted the fence, gone. Came back the next day with a brace o’ squirrels.”

“Brace? Squirrels?”

“Yeah, you know, like a brace of pheasants?”

“She’d been hunting.” Evelyn sighed and shook her head.

“Yeah, she was crunching on one in the back garden. Bit the head off when I stepped out to say hi. Offered me one too. I think it was a sort of challenge, so I said yes.”

My eyes went wide. “You ate a squirrel? Raine!”

“Nah,” she laughed. “Didn’t fancy the intestinal parasites. I dumped it in the bin after she left again. Anyway, last few days there’s been all these news items, news of the weird stuff, you know the sort. Cattle mutilation in the countryside, around Sharrowford, half a dozen sheep. I don’t think most people care at the moment, on account of the fire and dead bodies and stuff, much more juicy. Ninety-nine percent sure it’s Zheng. Last thing she said to me was she wanted mutton.”

Took a while for me to digest that one, chewing my lip and stretching my legs out on the bed, wiggling them back and forth as my cocoon fell away. Raine reached out and rubbed my thigh muscles.

“How has nobody noticed her?” I asked.

“Selective memory,” Evelyn said. “She probably has been spotted – not exactly many giant Chinese women running around the fields – but mundane observers rationalise her as something else, or a trick of the light, or not as tall.”

“I think she’s Mongolian,” I muttered. “We should … I should … go get her? Rein her in? No, no, she’d hate that phrasing.”

“We probably should,” Evelyn said. “She’ll-”

“She wants to be free.” I shook my head. “She wants to run and hunt and feel the sunlight and … and … ”

And suddenly I knew.

I knew how Zheng felt. I knew why Praem was looking at me. I knew what I needed to do, however clumsy and slow and ugly it was. My body cried out for it.

I shed the last of my cocoon, pushed the duvets off my shoulders and clambered free, across the bed and over the edge onto my unsteady feet. Raine moved to follow, saying my name with a curious lilt in her voice.

“Heather, woah, you’re gonna fall, you-”

“I won’t fall,” I breathed – and moved.

Arms raised over my head, I felt the muscles flex and thrum. No idea what I was doing, never much taken to exercise or even simple stretching before, I just followed impulses. Rotated at my waist, low with my arms out, looking and feeling silly but unable to deny the urge to move. My muscles were inadequate, my flesh static, unchanging and fragile and weak, but I had to try. I had to move.

“What on earth are you doing?” Evelyn asked, then noticed I was crying softly. “Are you … Heather, are you alright?”

“No, not really.”

I stretched a hand high, fingers trembling, and stood on one leg – wobbly and unsteady but smiling through the tears. I tried to spin – made it! – and swooped my torso low, almost laughing. I swayed to the rhythm of my own body, trying to summon the ghost of that lost abyssal grace.

“Heather!” Raine was laughing, half trying to catch me and move with me, half letting me sway. “How are you dancing with a full belly?”

“I don’t have full belly. I used it all.”

“You’re crying, but-”

“It’s not happiness. I’m just here.”

“Dance,” Praem intoned.

“That’s where you came from, isn’t it?” I asked her, moving my feet now, almost dancing for real. My lungs heaved. My body was so weak. Chasing a feeling I’d never obtain again. “You and Zheng and all the others, the things without bodies. You’re not an Outsider, technically, are you? You’re from the abyss, and being here is-”

“It is a gift,” Praem said before I could finish.

“What? Heather, what?” Evelyn was asking.

I finally accepted Raine’s attempt to join me. She held my hands, mirrored my random movements with ease, so much stronger and fitter than I.

“Where’s the nearest public pool?” I asked. “Does Sharrowford have public pools?”

“Pools? Sure,” Raine said. If she felt surprise she hid it perfectly. “I’ll take you tomorrow if you- oop! Heather, hey, steady on.”

I’d let go of Raine’s hands and ran my own down her front, across the softness of her chest and the tautness of her belly, and lower, gripped by a sudden flush of animal lust. The logic of my body was finally reasserting itself in sweat and hormones, my soul had remembered what it was.

Raine grinned like a loon. “Uh, Heather, Evee’s … right there? You know? Not that I’m complaining.”

“Also I,” Praem said.

“I- I need- I need-” I stammered.

“Alright,” Evelyn threw up her hands, a blush on her cheeks as she looked away. “Fine. We’ll continue this later.”

The wave of elation broke. I pulled back from Raine, heaving for breath because I never got any cardiovascular exercise and I was small and weak and aching with guilt. I sat down hard on the edge of the bed, huffing and puffing with my head in my hands. Sweating and ugly.

“I don’t deserve this, I don’t deserve any of this,” I said. “I failed.”

“Hey, hey, Heather,” Raine knelt down in front of me and took my hands. “You did what you thought was right, and-”

“And it didn’t work,” I hissed, guilt transmuted in anger. “I failed Maisie. She had to sleep, whatever that really means, to shut down, conserve the embers of herself. Because of my mistake. Because I thought I’d … be like the Eye? I don’t even know. I shouldn’t be here. What if there’s nothing left of her now?”

“There will be,” Raine said, and she blazed with such confidence.

I chose to believe her, because what other choice did I have?

“Maybe,” I whispered. “But I still don’t deserve this. She should be here.”

“And she will be.”

“I still feel sick and wrong. Part of me wants to swim in the abyss again.” I sniffed back tears. “It was … easier, in some ways, than living.”

“Settle in,” Praem intoned. We all stared at her. Raine laughed.

“Well, she’d be our resident expert,” Raine said. “You did just come back from an astral voyage. These things take time. You just danced for no reason. That’s gotta be a good sign, right?”

I shrugged. Chewed my lip. Felt something harden inside.

Maisie’s advice.

Gather your allies, your resources, your tools.

Raine, right in front of me. Lozzie’s mysterious Knight she’d called in Wonderland. My new knowledge of what the Eye was and what it had started life as. Zheng? The library at Carcosa, Outside, with all the books Evelyn could ever want. Had she learnt anything from the cult’s stolen tomes? Could we learn anything from the Eye’s squid-monster trapped downstairs?

“I need to know why the Eye did this,” I said, slowly. “To me, to Maisie. I need to understand it. I need to learn how it thinks, and why.”

“A tall order,” Evelyn said, voice tight. “Nobody has ever divined the mind of a … an alien god. Not that I know of. Not in any books.”

“Then I suppose I’ll have to write it down,” I said. Evelyn grunted.

I looked up at my friends, and felt the mantle of leadership fall on my shoulders again. An almost physical thing, a ghost of how I’d been able to change myself out there in the abyss.

I asked the question.

“What did you do with her?”

“Zheng carried her out to Nicole’s car,” Raine said. “Bit of a surprise, when she popped together and bopped me on the chin, but she screamed and went down like a sack of potatoes, had a fit, a seizure. Zheng had to reach into her mouth to stop her choking on her own tongue. Brutal.”

“Good,” I said, too hard, too cold.

“Heather? You did an amazing thing, you know that? You saved that woman’s life. Me, I would’a killed her. I did try, after all,” she laughed, but the laugh didn’t last. “Heather, please don’t beat yourself up. You did the right thing, and that’s not easy. I can barely figure out what the right thing is most of the time. You saved the life of a person who was trying to kill you. Just because-”

“None of that matters,” I said. Evelyn nodded in approval – not a good sign. “I need to talk to her. She was there, she was in its grip. She’ll know things.”

“Maisie?” Raine asked, not a hint of hesitation.

I laughed a sad little laugh. “Obviously. But that’s not who I meant.”

Raine nodded, seemed to steel herself to deliver bad news “When I spoke to Nicole, she did tell me Sarika was pretty messed up. Major messed up, mostly in the head. That bit’s not in any of the papers, they can’t interview her in the hospital. She can barely talk.”

I’d finished my larval incubation, knew what I’d really brought back from the abyss. Now it was a new part of me, as much as the desire to swim or the guilt for Maisie or the aching need to be fast again. Born of the cold logic of survival, the equation of predator and prey, down there in the dark.

“Barely will do,” I said. “Barely will do.”

Ruthlessness.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

that which you cannot put down – 7.14

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Sarika – whatever the Eye had reduced her to, angry ghost or neural echo or cruel joke – fell silent amid the static.

Her form flickered and jerked, paused in the act of tearing at her hair.

“- arrogant can you get?” she said. “You can’t fight a God.”

“I can. I will. Even for you.”

A howling storm of static ripped her apart. The true signal intensified, as the Eye probed for us through the connection of Sarika’s soul. An oceanic abyss crushed down on my consciousness, a million tons of cold pressure held at bay by a few black lines drawn on my left forearm.

My head swam, a trickle of blood ran from my nose, and my muscles filled with lead.

Cradled in Zheng’s arms, I felt her bones creak.

“Sarika, say it. If you want, I’ll … ” I squeezed the words out again, through a reluctance I had no time to contemplate. If there was such a thing as an ‘ethical emergency’, this was one. “I’ll … kill you. Assist you. Suicide. I promise.”

Her face condensed out of the chaos, smeared like paint on glass, flickering and glitching with incandescent colour as if lit from behind by atomic fire. My eyes ached and burned as I forced myself to squint at her, to make contact with whatever was left.

“- like that, wouldn’t you?” her voice emerged in a broken wave. Even the Eye couldn’t blot out her scorn. “Goody two-shoes gets to be an emotional martyr, and I won’t even leave a fucking corpse.”

“That’s not … not what I-”

Throb. Sarika jerked six feet closer, limbs and face shattered into a hundred shards, fragments in a hurricane.

“At least admit it,” she spat. “Coward.”

“Shaman,” Zheng gurgled: do something, Heather. Praem had been able to hold me rock steady because she was made of wood and magic. Zheng was flesh, and taking the brunt.

“Nobody deserves the Eye,” I cried out, gasping, sucking breath through my teeth. “I want to help- I can-”

“Do it then, you coward!”

The brainmath came to me easily enough. The execution did not.

Framing the task in my mind summoned the necessary equations from the black abyss at the bottom of my subconscious – define a human soul, apply that definition to what was left of Sarika – but I was running on fumes, almost nothing left to give. My stomach curled up tight in terror and rebellion as a headache burst behind my eyes with icepick clarity. I quivered and choked in Zheng’s arms as Sarika howled in my face.

I’d overlooked an important complication. Sarika was the static, not the signal.

The Eye was the signal – and I dared not touch that barbed probing tentacle of leviathan consciousness, dared not define it in hyperdimensional mathematics for even a nano-second. I was a diver at the edge of a marine trench, trying to snatch a rotten morsel from a tangle of squid-limbs.

But I didn’t need to define the Eye to scrub the static in the signal. The effort would make me vomit and bleed and probably pass out, yes, maybe for days, but I knew I could do it, even on empty.

Unanchored from a body, from space and time, there was so little left of Sarika. Annihilating her would be simple.

But I didn’t.

I couldn’t do it.

In a moment of weakness that had nothing to do with fear of pain, I hesitated.

With a crackle and an ultra-low frequency thoomp, Sarika’s incoherent form dissipated like lighting striking the earth. The abyssal pressure of the Eye’s attention vanished, the visual static faded to nothing, silence fell.

“No … ” I croaked into the emptiness. “I was ready, I wasn’t-”

“Hngh,” Zheng grunted like a bull and finally let go of my left wrist. My arm flopped onto my belly, no energy left to hold myself up. My head lolled on Zheng’s shoulder as I clenched down hard with my stomach muscles to hold back a wave of vomit.

“ … you killed her?” Twil winced, shaking her head like a wet dog. A trickle of blood ran from her nose. “Heather, you-”

“Unnnhh, not me,” I squeezed out, trying to raise my head. “I was- about to. Going to do it. Free her. Didn’t. Not in time.”

“Shit. Never mind, ‘ey?”

Nicole wiped her own thin nosebleed on her sleeve and gestured at the severed head Zheng had left on the kitchen table. “You think she … she lost the … the thing, again?”

“Thing?” Twil squinted at her.

“Thing. Triangulation? Bloody hell, my head feels like it’s been in a industrial vice.”

“Walk it off, detective,” Evelyn growled through her teeth, her eyes screwed shut, leaning on Praem’s arm. The doll-demon alone had been spared the nosebleed and cranial pressure, still standing straight and solid while the rest of us recovered, even Zheng.

“Easier said than done.” Nicole tried to laugh. “You think she lost the triangulation again? The, uh, zombies wandered in the wrong directions?”

“Must’a done.” Twil slapped her own cheeks and cocked an eyebrow up at Zheng. “What are you grinning about, you brick shithouse?”

“Pain,” Zheng purred. “So long since real pain. Exhilarating.”

“You know what would be a wonderful idea?” Nicole pointed a thumb at the stairs. “Moving before she comes back again. Before the zombies line up or whatever. God, there’s a sentence I’d never have imagined twelve hours ago. Before the zombies line up. Like planets.”

“Yeah, yeah right, we should, good call,” Twil said. She bristled, her wolf form half-summoned in translucent fur and claw, as she eyed the spot where Sarika had vanished, an invisible minefield between us and the cream marble tiles and gilt faux-gold of the stairs upward.

“You first, werewolf,” Nicole said. “Don’t you regenerate or whatever?”

“Yeah, yeah, but- Evee? Evee, hey, hey!”

Evelyn trudged right past, leaning on Praem’s arm for support, and tapped the bottom step with the tip of her walking stick. “I doubt very much we need worry about aligning zombies, or anything else. She’s gone.”

“She’ll be back as soon as she can,” Twil said, hurrying to catch up to Evelyn. “You heard what Zheng said about the zombies and the-”

“No. No, Heather was quite successful. I don’t believe Sarika will be returning.”

“Wasn’t me,” I croaked, and managed to sit up in Zheng’s arms. The demon-host adjusted her grip, a strong arm under my back. “She vanished on her own, that wasn’t me. I was going to, I was about to do it, but … ”

Evelyn saw right through my paper-thin self-deception. She made eye contact, and she just knew.

“I think she understood your offer perfectly well, Heather.”

“ … then why leave?” I asked. One last try to deny what I already knew.

“Maybe she was afraid you’d actually go through with it,” Evelyn said. “Maybe she doesn’t want to die.”

A heady cocktail of relief and guilt fermented in my chest, when I hadn’t expected either of them.

Sarika’s screaming need to end herself earlier had been real, when she’d stabbed herself in the throat and head just to show us it didn’t work, one of the most real acts I’d ever witnessed. I had no doubt.

Do it then, you coward!.

What had she called me – an emotional martyr.

She didn’t want it to be me that pulled the trigger. She hated me too much.

I was the only person alive who could end her suffering, but she’d taunted me and fled. She’d refused, and the burden remained mine. I didn’t deserve to feel relief. It ate at my guts, a worm in my belly. If Sarika wanted me to torture myself, she’d done a great job.

It seems so easy in movies or on television, doesn’t it? To give a suffering person an end to their misery. A syringe with too large a dose of morphine, a pillow held over the face until the struggles stop, or a bottle of whiskey and a revolver and five minutes alone. All abstractions compared to what I’d offered; the only tool I had was my own consciousness.

She’d been my enemy, she’d chained me up in a small, cold room, she’d threatened to torture Raine, she’d hurt my friends. She’d been lover to a genuine monster, and at the very least she must have been aware of the homeless people, murdered for zombie vessels. She must have known. Sarika was complicit, and probably deserved life in a cell, but she did not deserve the Eye.

I failed. In a moment of weakness, I failed.

And what if Evelyn was right? What if Sarika wanted to live?

There was no way to bring her back, to reconstruct what was lost, that was absurd. That was beyond me.

“Maybe … ” I forced myself to agree with Evelyn for now. We had no time for this. I had an angel to rescue. I raised my head and filled my lungs as best I could. “Raine!” I croaked at the ceiling. “Raine, we’re down here!”

==

“Raine!”

“Hey Raine, make more noise!”

“Raine! It’s us! Where are you?”

Thump-thump went Raine’s fist or foot in answer, pounded against wall or floor.

I shouted myself hoarse, but Twil’s lungs did all the real work. She bounded up the wide spiral stairs ahead of the pack, calling Raine’s name. She stopped on the second floor landing, one ear cocked to the ceiling as we caught up, then raced onward to the third floor of this ugly, too-large house. We piled onto the small landing behind her, beneath a low canted ceiling. Narrow hallways and cramped doors led off in all directions, some open on unused guest bedrooms and dusty lonely storage spaces.

One high window looked out on the streets beyond, on Sharrowford’s deep-sea glow of orange street lighting and twinkling headlights in the distance. No dead cultists up here. No blood and guts, only a muffled silence.

“Raine!” Twil cupped her hands to her mouth and yelled.

“Raine, we’re here,” I croaked. “Where are you?”

-ther.”

We froze, listening. My heart felt like a dove trying to escape a cage.

Heather?” a distant voice called again, trapped behind a dozen walls.

“That was her!” I said. “Did you-”

Twil stuck her nose in the air and sniffed, darting left and right for a moment, then pointed down one of the corridors. “That way!”

Tucked away in the furthest corner of thick carpet and fake gold light fixtures, at the very end of a narrow hallway meant for third rate guests, trapped behind the only locked door in the entire house, I found my girlfriend.

“Heather?” Raine’s voice projected through the thin wood as we approached. “Guys, I’m in here! Here! Heather? Twil, is that you too? I’m in here!”

Memory never works properly in these moments, rushing ahead pell-mell, forgetting to record the details, the heart-race, stomach-sick, head-rush details. By the time we reached that door, I was writhing like an impatient cat in Zheng’s arms, begging to be put down despite the inconvenient fact I’d likely just fall over.

I must have been calling to Raine, because I do recall her laughter – laughter of relief. A confident laugh, a Raine laugh.

The cultists had locked her in and misplaced the key, but had also screwed a steel bolt to the exterior of the door – to keep Raine from their throats, I like to imagine – shiny and new, probably purchased from Homebase that very morning. Neither bolt nor lock nor one of the door hinges survived first contact with Twil’s shoulder.  Neither did Twil’s dignity. She crashed straight through the door and into the cramped room beyond in a shower of splinters and sprawl of surprised werewolf.

Modern housebuilding quality. No excuse.

Raine, still wearing the pajamas she’d began the day in, handcuffed to an upturned iron bed frame, ankles bound together with a length of rope, bruised on her jaw and around her left eye socket, lit up with that unmistakable irrepressible grin.

“Fashionably late to the party, hey?” she laughed.

If Zheng hadn’t stepped forward and deposited me straight into Raine’s arms, I would have scrambled free to reach her anyway, consequences to my verticality be damned.

“Heather, oh, Heather, fuck me blind, what are you even doing here?” Raine laughed, a trilling note of mania under the confidence, as she hugged me best she could with one arm and both legs restrained. “No, don’t answer that, it doesn’t matter, one hundred percent does not matter.”

Both of us were exhausted and bruised in our own ways. Neither of us had showered in well over a day, we both smelled of unwashed hair and sweat and blood. I was freezing cold inside, and Raine shook in a very un-Raine-like way. We clung hard to each other.

“Found you,” I murmured into her shoulder, choking back tears. “I found you, Raine, I found you, I found you.”

She squeezed me almost too hard to bear. “That you did. That you did, you miracle, you.”

“We sort of, you know, helped,” Twil said, as she picked herself up off the floor and dusted herself down. She squatted at Raine’s ankles and dug a claw into the rope, sawing back and forth. “Can smell you a mile away right now, you reek.”

“No kidding,” Raine laughed, still hugging me tight, her head over my shoulder as she spoke to the others. “We still in danger? This looks like an all-hands raid, with some new hands too. You all alright?”

“We are still in danger,” Evelyn said from the doorway. “But we’ve got one more task before we burn this house down.”

“And you, Evee, are awake!” Raine cheered.

“And glad you’re still breathing, yes.”

“Hey, likewise.”

“You’ve survived worse than these half-baked fools and amateurs. Never doubted it, not for a second.” Evelyn swallowed hard, past a lump in her throat.

“Glad,” Praem intoned.

Raine laughed again and sniffed, watery-eyed with relief. “And thank you too, Praem, thank you too.” She pulled against the handcuff, clinking metal on metal. “Sooner you get me out of this the better? I feel like a fox in a snare, and it is not good, I’ll tell you that much, it ain’t a good feelin’.”

“I’m working on it,” Twil grunted. “Hold on.”

Zheng reached down for Raine’s wrist, wrapped a hand around the centre of the handcuffs, and crushed the mechanism with a crunch of metal and plastic. Raine raised her freed hand with one half of the cuffs still attached, a very unfashionable bracelet. She let out a low whistle of appreciation.

“Wish I could’a done that six hours ago,” she said, grinning at Zheng. “Always wanted to try out the criminal chic look, thanks.”

“Unsurprised?” Zheng rumbled. She stood behind me, but I swear I could feel her showing her teeth.

“By you?”

Zheng purred a wordless affirmative. Raine shrugged. “You walked in here carrying Heather. Right now I don’t care if you’re the ghost of Hendrix or the Pope himself. You’re in my good books, you absolute unit.”

“Typical,” Twil muttered.

“I’m with the shaman.” Zheng said it slow and low, a big cat in repose, feigning languor as she sized up another predator.

“You on our side now, or what?” Raine asked. “I’m sure there’s a story in that, but later, yeah?”

“With the shaman,” Zheng repeated.

“This is Zheng,” I said, and finally pulled back from our shared embrace so I could look at Raine. She grinned at me, big and bright and bold as brass – and bruised. The glancing blow to her chin wasn’t too bad, but the bruise around her left eye socket shined livid and purple. She’d been punched in the face. A lump grew in my throat “Oh Raine, those bruises look awful.”

“What, these? This is nothing. I got worse falling off Evee’s garden wall when I was a teenager.”

I sniffed and wiped my own eyes, afraid to touch in case it hurt her.

Raine’s grin faltered.

“Raine?”

“Heather, I’ve never seen you this rough, and I’ve seen you in a fugue state and covered with blood.” Raine looked up at the others. “Should she even be here?”

“I have no idea how she’s still on her feet,” Evelyn said. “She’s on my pills. The hard stuff.”

“Neither flesh nor foul can stop the shaman,” Zheng purred.

“It’s a long story. Stuff happened. Lozzie’s back,” I said. “I’ll rest when you’re safe.”

Raine paused, stared at me, stared at those words. If I’d been less exhausted, I would have blushed. I hadn’t meant it to sound heroic.

“Right. Loud and clear, boss, orders received,” she said, grinning. “You look like you need a bubble bath, two thousand calories, and sixteen hours sleep, and by God I’m gonna make sure you get it.” I laughed too, small and weak, but real. Raine glanced over my shoulder. “Zheng? Cool name. Didn’t I fistfight you once?”

“You had a bat,” Zheng purred. “You fought well, monkey. Brief, but well.”

“Zheng’s on our- my side,” I said. “I freed her this morning. She saved my life. Twice.”

Raine nodded, slow and serious, and entered a strange staring contest with Zheng, a counterpoint to the demon-host’s feline stillness. “I’m on Heather’s side too,” she said after a moment. “Thank you.”

“ … you’re welcome, zuishou.”

Twil freed Raine’s ankles with a parting snikit of tearing rope fibres as her claw popped free. Raine let out a grunt of pain as she drew her knees up. “Heather, I never want to let go of you again, but I’d love to stand up now.”

“Oh, right, yes, yes,” I flustered, struggling to clamber off her until two strong hands took my waist and provided leverage, Zheng being helpful. Twil gave Raine a hand too, pulling her to her feet.

Raine rolled her shoulders and neck, worked out the kinks in stiff muscles, quickly stretched her legs and jogged four paces on the spot. She swept her hair back and shot a rakish smile at me, brimming with confidence and energy, even in sweat-soaked pajamas, even after being stuck alone and scared in a small room for hours on end with no idea what had happened to us. How did she do it? Zheng, for all her imposing height and taut feminine muscle, the way she made a currently dormant part of me tingle in unexpected ways, was nothing compared with Raine.

Raine winced and her smile broke, gritting her teeth as she probed around her bruised eye socket.

“Oh, oh Raine they didn’t hurt you, other than the bruises, did they?” I asked.

“Nah. Just sore joints. Dehydrated, hungry, bored. Been sat on my arse for like twelve hours.” She nodded to one side. “Not that he didn’t try, but he didn’t get very far.”

I followed her nod. A corpse lay crumpled against the wall of the bare little room, a stocky blunt-faced young man, the only cultist we’d found on this floor. His throat was livid with strangulation bruising, and the side of his head was caved in, hair matted with blood. I’d been so focused on Raine I hadn’t even noticed.

“Oh.”

“Hey, hey, Heather no, don’t look, you don’t have to look,” Raine said, gentle and coaxing, and suddenly her hand slipped into mine, her other arm around my waist, taking my weight from Zheng and holding me steady on my feet. She kissed me on the forehead. “It’s alright, you don’t have to look. It’s my responsibility.”

“I’ve seen far worse today,” I sighed, melting into her arms. “One more corpse isn’t much.”

“You killed that man?” Nicole asked, peering around the doorway. She’d stayed out in the corridor to cover our retreat, though it seemed rather unnecessary at this point. “With one arm cuffed to a bed frame and your ankles tied together?”

“Yeah.” Raine shrugged, rubbing the back of my neck like I was a cat. “Shattered his windpipe, I think? Finished him with the corner of the bed frame, had to improvise.”

“ … okay then,” Nicole said. “And here I thought you were going to be the normal one.”

Raine laughed. “No such luck. Who are you, anyway?”

“Um, Nicole Webb. I’m a police detective, and I absolutely should not be here. Officially or otherwise. Are we going to stand around for much longer, or are we leaving so you lot can commit arson already?”

“Police?” Raine pulled a special grin, a why-not-throw-in-the-kitchen-sink-too grin. “We all getting arrested after this?”

“No, no I doubt I could explain this to my superiors, not without a lot of LSD.” Nicole looked at the pistol in her hands, clicked the safety on, and waved the butt at Raine. “This is yours, right? You want it back? You’re probably a better shot than me, on account of having ever pulled a trigger.”

“You know what? You keep it for now.” Raine squeezed my side. “I got my hands full.”

Nicole sighed and shook her head.

“Time to get you home,” Raine murmured to me. “Time to get all of us home, yeah?”

“ … I suppose so,” I said, and felt that guilt rising up to strangle me again. I couldn’t leave yet, could I? I’d made a promise, but now I had Raine all other concerns seemed fleeting, except getting us out of here and getting home safely. I’d forced leadership to the fore, but now I felt it receding once again. Raine was safe, and with me, and I was small and vulnerable and exhausted beyond words.

But I’d made a promise.

“Yes, well, this reunion is disgustingly sweet,” Evelyn said, adjusting her grip on Praem’s arm and suppressing a wince. Climbing all those stairs, even with support and her walking stick, had done a number on her hip and the socket for her prosthetic leg. “But I at least have one more thing to do before I can leave.”

“Evee? What?” Twil stared at her, blinking in surprise.

“Evee,” Raine said – not a question, an acknowledgement.

“The Sharrowford Cult loosed something genuinely dangerous here,” she said. “Upon themselves, yes, but I have duty to … ” she paused, swallowed, considered for a heartbeat. “Self-preservation, to make sure the remains of whatever they did here is destroyed. And I need details, because the less time I spend blundering around in this nightmare of a building, the better.”

“We,” Twil said. “We! Fuck, you’re not staying here alone!”

“T-thank you,” Evelyn said, confused for a moment, then cleared her throat. “Raine, you’ve been up here all day. What did you hear?”

“You mean all the screaming?”

“ … the screaming.”

“Yeah, screaming. At first I assumed it was you lot riding to the rescue, but after about twenty minutes it all went quiet again. That was hours ago. Except for this weird pulsing in the air, but that stopped a couple of minutes before you broke the door down.”

“Oh,” I murmured.

“The screaming. Hmm, yes,” Evelyn sighed. “Makes sense.”

“Come on, can’t we hurry this up?” Twil almost growled. “You said it yourself, less time we spend here the better. What are you looking for anyway, Evee?”

“I won’t know until I find it,” Evelyn snapped, bubbling with irritation.

“Sun was already up when I came round, tied up here,” Raine said, launching without preamble, talking fast. “Maybe an hour or two later there was a bunch of swearing downstairs, real anger, hard to miss, and these two goons turned up to make a deal with me. I’m pretty sure one of them was the new boss around here, Indian lady, called herself Sarika, but-”

“Sarika, yes,” I breathed.

“You ran into her too?” Raine asked, not missing a beat.

“ … in a manner of speaking. Later, sorry.”

“Sarika, and this other dude. I forget his name but he looked a bit like a badger. Sarika wanted to make a deal – let me go, but on the condition I lure Heather into a trap. I don’t think they figured out we sleep with each other. Bad intel or what, right?”

“Most would take the deal,” Zheng purred.

“They weren’t at all interested in me?” Evelyn said.

“Nah. Didn’t even ask about you.”

“Tch.”

Raine shot her a grin. “What, you feel left out?”

“Don’t be absurd. No, it means their agenda was completely co-opted by the Eye. Bad sign. Continue.”

“Right, right. Well, Tweedledum and Tweedledumber buggered off, but then a while later the house started filling up with people. I heard a few cars, the front door opening and closing, lots of talk down there,” she nodded at the floor. “But nothing I could make out. Nothing useful for tracking them down now, sorry Evee.” Raine pulled an apologetic grin.

“Hardly matters anymore, does it?” Twil grimaced.

“Oh yeah?”

“They all died,” Evelyn said. “This house is full of corpses.”

Raine pointed a finger gun at her. “That would explain all the screaming.”

“That it would.” Evelyn sighed.

“Couple of hours later still, things get heated down there. I heard arguments, loud ones, a lot of shouting. And then this dope comes up here,” she thumbed at the corpse against the wall. “Said he was supposed to cut a finger off me, as a threat, I guess? Mafia style. He was all in a rush, like he expected to get interrupted. After I did him in, two others came to check, but they were in a hurry too, and they didn’t even care he was dead. Said they’d be back to let me go free when ‘it was all over’.”

“A schism,” Evelyn said. “I was right.”

Raine shrugged. “By that time all the activity had moved to what I guess is the rear of the house, far corner, that way-ish. Lots of chanting, long pauses, more chanting. You know, cult stuff.”

“Cult stuff,” Nicole tutted.

“Bingo,” said Evelyn.

“Then all the screaming started. Twenty minutes of bedlam. People running all over the place, some weird noises, lots of sobbing, shouting, that weird pulsing in the air, then it all just … ” She shrugged. “Died off. That was maybe three or hour hours back. I took a nap, so I’m not sure. What time is it now, anyway?”

“You took a nap?” I gaped up at her, forgetting all my worries for one moment of awe.

“Why not? Couldn’t figure out a way to cut the rope. Can’t get my teeth to my ankles.”

“Rear of the house,” Evelyn echoed softly, her eyes far away. “A central ritual, the straw that broke the camel’s back. If nothing else, that’s where we start the fire, destroy whatever’s left there.”

“Broke the camel’s back?” Raine raised an eyebrow.

“The cult copied the Fractal from Heather’s arm,” Evelyn explained. “Used it to try to rebel against the Eye. It killed them all.”

Raine’s eyebrows shot into the stratosphere. “Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I’m leaning good.”

“The Sharrowford cult is dead,” said Evelyn, “Two dozen pairs of shoes by the door, but we’ve seen more than a dozen corpses. Maybe a few loyalists to the Eye refused to participate, perhaps they’re still out there, but the cult as a force is done. We’ve won, for whatever that’s worth. Doesn’t feel like much of a victory.”

“None of them deserved this,” I murmured, my voice almost breaking. “A … a trial. Sentences for … all sort of things. Not this. Not the Eye, and not … ”

Raine squeezed my hand. She didn’t get it. She wouldn’t, not unless I explained.

“Myself and Praem will go find the place they did their ritual,” Evelyn said. “Twil, you’re coming?”

“Yeah, not leaving you alone.”

“Then I suggest Raine and Heather, you get out of this house. You’re both exhausted. Nicole, you don’t have to stay unless you want, you-”

“I’m not leaving,” I said.

Evelyn closed her eyes for a moment. She sighed.

“I’m not leaving, not yet,” I repeated. “I made a promise.”

“She’s not going to thank you,” Evelyn grumbled.

“Oh no, this is mad, come on,” said Twil.

“Shaman,” Zheng rumbled.

“Heather?” Raine asked.

No judgement, no fear, just a question in her voice. She’d been trapped here for almost 12 hours, and I was asking her to stay longer, and Raine’s tone was filled with only curiosity and devotion. I could have cried. Instead I swallowed, and steeled myself for the task.

“There’s a survivor. Sort of,” I said. “Sarika.”

“Survivor?” Twil grimaced and spread her arms in a shrug. “She’s a fucking ghost!”

“She’s not- it’s complicated. I don’t know how to explain.” My throat felt tight, closing up on the words. “Part of her is still here. The Eye, it did something to her, she’s ruined, unanchored from space and time, I-I don’t-”

“What did you promise?” Plain, straightforward, cutting through my hesitation. How did she always do that so unerringly?

“Assisted suicide. It won’t let her go. I think I can do it for her, with … ” I tapped the side of my head.

“She left!” Twil almost yelled.

“I know.”

“You and Raine don’t have to stay in here any longer, that’s bonkers. Why are you even talking about this?” Twil gaped at me. “She vanished, Heather, she was taunting you, having you on.”

“I suspect she doesn’t want to die,” Evelyn said, voice tight. “As I already said, once.”

“I know. It changes nothing. Nobody deserves the Eye. Just … let me come with you, until you set the fire, in case she appears.”

Evelyn grumbled under her breath, but she nodded.

“Can’t you just pick her up and carry her out of here?” Twil asked Zheng. The demon-host shrugged.

“I’m with the shaman.”

“Detective,” Twil turned to Nicole. “You’re meant to be sensible, right?”

Nicole glanced between me and Twil. She looked down at the gun in her hand and shrugged. “This is the most real thing I’ve done in years. I’m staying till the end.”

Raine squeezed my hand again. “Where you go, I go. It’s only another five minutes, after all.”

I nodded, thankful, sniffing back the threat of tears. “I made a promise. That matters.”

“Promise,” Praem repeated.

==

We discovered the site of the Sharrowford Cult’s final ritual exactly where Raine estimated we would, at the rear of the house, on the opposite side to the main stairs.

The journey took no more than three or four minutes. Without the pursuing terror of Sarika’s presence, the house had descended into a twilight realm of furtive rustles and dragging footsteps. The cult’s hollowed-out zombies tracked us from a safe distance, from behind the walls, the only evidence of them an occasional gibber or giggle echoing down a forlorn hallway, a counterpoint to the slick meat sounds of the bizarre flesh amalgamations flopping and twitching in the corners.

Half of me was flying high. I’d done it, I’d rescued Raine, and nothing was going to take her from me now, not surrounded by allies and friends.

The other half of me was locked in a paralysis of duty and dread.

“Sarika!”

I paused to call out her name three times into the ocean-floor stillness of the house. Raine waited each time as I clung to her side, more for emotional than physical support. She listened with me, all the others tense with baited breath.

“Sarika, I can help!”

If Sarika heard me, she declined to answer.

But when we reached the conjectured place of the cult’s terminal working, I forgot my haze of guilt and elation. That room served as a dash of ice water to the face.

Twil got there first and faltered at the edge of the thick white carpet, gagging at the smell and holding her nose. Nicole was next, and violently ill, adding to the existing mess on the floor. By the time Raine and I passed through the propped-open double doors, the detective was already wiping bile off her lips. Evelyn stared hard, her natural distaste for violence and gore suppressed only by her outrage.

Praem tried to hang back. Evelyn’s need for support pulled her on.

So did Zheng.

Zheng, one eye half-squinted with tension, reluctant to pass to threshold, kept well clear of the epicentre.

That, more than anything else, more than the actual sight of ground zero for the cult’s destruction, more than the twisted mockery we found there, set all the little hairs on the back of my neck standing on end.

The room was intended for parties.

The largest single space in the house, the ceiling was double the height of all the others by virtue of extension onto the second story. Thick white carpet covered one half of the floor, hardwood the other. Several long low tables stood by for drinks or snacks, a wine rack and spirit collection proud behind a bar made of expensive dark wood. Fancy upholstered bar stools and leather sofas and armchairs pointed at a truly gargantuan television inset into the far wall, and a sound system lurked discreetly in a corner behind some faux-brick nonsense.

Thick curtains covered the whole of one wall, hiding French doors that would open onto a patio and the back garden, for barbecues in the summer. It even had a chandelier hanging from the ceiling, a ghastly upside-down crenellation of glass and stainless steel.

Raine didn’t say a word. She must have felt the horror and disgust in my muscles, in the hitch of my breathing.

“Tell me that person over there is not still alive,” Nicole managed to say. She put a hand to her mouth, trying not to vomit again.

Magical detritus littered the low tables and the top of the bar – knives, pieces of drawing charcoal, red paint, odd twists of machine part and scraps of half-finished diagram, even a small stack of books, one of them lying open on blood-flecked pages – but I got the impression this was the first time the cult had used this space for magic. Coats and handbags lay over the backs of the sofas, a single discarded scarf trailed off a bar stool, half-finished drinks lay all around.

They’d commandeered the nearest suitable place, gathered quickly, thrown together whatever they could.

“What the hell did they think they were doing with this?” Evelyn hissed through gritted teeth. “Idiots. No better than a … a- a cargo cult! What the hell did they think it was going to do?!”

She meant, of course, the Fractal.

They’d drawn it on a dozen full-length mirrors, and pointed them into the centre of a magic circle, itself cut into the wooden half of the floor with a chisel and hammer, rough and jagged. The circle lay inert. Didn’t hurt to look at – probably because so much of it was obscured by blood and viscera.

Several cultists had died here, exploded or detonated, cooked from the inside. Three, four, five, six? It was impossible to tell. I didn’t want to count. The air reeked of spoilt meat and drying blood.

“Negotiation,” Zheng said.

“What?” Evelyn snapped.

Zheng pointed a finger the magic circle with its ring of mirrors – at the wet, glistening, twitching mass in the centre. “Negotiation, with Laoyeh. That is a mouthpiece.”

“What do we- uh … what do we do about him?” Twil asked.

“Nobody. Touch. Anything,” Evelyn hissed through her teeth. “Not a dust mote, not a breath. Twil, do you remember where you left that can of paint?”

“Yeah, yeah I think I do,” Twil nodded.

“Get it – and the petrol we left by the front door. Be quick. Quick, and do not get lost, don’t you dare get lost.”

Twil took off back down the corridor, all scrambling limbs.

“We’ve already all looked at it,” I murmured, my brain trying to solve the one problem I could grasp, while I ignored the impossible one, the one that lay in the middle of the magic circle quivering and twitching. “It can’t be-”

“Dangerous?” Evelyn snapped. “Everything here is dangerous. This all needs to be soaked with petrol and burned.”

The Eye stared at us from the back wall – in black paint, floor-to-ceiling, angular and simple but utterly unmistakable. The cultists had painted it so the television served as a pupil, tilted to point down at the centre of the magic circle. Tuned to a dead channel, static on the screen.

Considering what we’d learnt from Glasswick tower, nobody was in a hurry to interrupt its line of sight.

“Even him?”

“Because of him,” Evelyn said.

“God, I wish he would stop making that noise,” Nicole said. “Why is he making that noise?”

Splayed in the centre of the magic circle like a flayed dissection specimen, at the point of focus for the Eye-mural and the Fractals on the mirrors, something that had once been a human being mewled and gurgled.

Words don’t do it justice. How can I capture atrocity in this inadequate human language? I can’t. I can tell you it was thick ring of meat, muscle, nerve and bone. I could say there was a suggestion of breathing, a fluttering of exposed lungs. I could recognise what was left of a head, a flapping mouth, rolling eyes. Scraps of dark hair clung to it at odd angles. I could tell you about the tentacles of flesh that anchored it to the floor. I could tell you these things, but none of them can summon the awful liveliness of that ruined thing, the flexing and tensing, the way the eyes turned to regard us, blind and unseeing. The wet, weeping muscle. The drooling.

The Eye had modified the offering, like clay. We called it a ‘he’, but in truth such identification was impossible.

Was this Sarika’s body?

In the middle of the ring of flesh, there was a gap. Not an orifice – a gap in space, filled by a perfectly flat surface of darkness, like a still pool of oil no wider than my palm.

“Can we do something for him?” Raine murmured. She was the only one, except for Praem, who didn’t avert her eyes.

“There is nothing in magical technique or medical science that can be done here,” Evelyn said. “None of you understand what we’re looking at. I assumed the cult loosed something awful, and we might need to … switch it off. Rub out some lines, send something back. Well, this is about the worst possible thing I could imagine. I think that is a gateway, made from … ” Evelyn swallowed. “The Eye must be building it. Widening it. You remember what it did with that so-called one way window in the medieval metaphysics room? Well, that’s a full-on gateway. That is the most dangerous thing any of us have ever seen. It needs to be burned.”

“That’s not what I mean, Evee, and you know it,” Raine said.

“I promised,” I blurted out. “I promised I would. What if it’s her?”

Evelyn opened her mouth to snap something, then slammed to a stop. She hesitated and swallowed. “Wait for Twil. We need to cover that stupid drawing with paint, then … Praem can do it. Or-”

“Refusal,” Praem intoned.

“Wise demon,” Zheng purred. “Neither her or I are fools enough to get near that hole. Shaman, step back.”

“Zheng, I made a promise.”

The demon-host purred her displeasure. She could bottle it up for all I cared, not now.

“Hey, Nicole,” Raine said, and held out a hand. “I’ll have my pistol back, please.”

“Ah? Oh, right.”

Twil returned a moment later, tin of white paint in one hand, the petrol can sloshing in the other. Praem took the petrol. Twil readied the paint.

“Edge around by the bar, carefully,” Evelyn instructed. “Do not touch a single thing. And make sure you cover the pupil, at the very least.”

We all held our breath as Twil crept along the edge of the room, bristling and wide-eyed. She sidled up close to the Eye-mural until Evelyn hissed for her to stop. Twil uncapped the paint, wound up a one-arm swing, and splattered the mural with a layer of white emulsion, blotting out the static on the television.

Nothing happened.

“Did it work?” Twil stage-whispered a moment later.

“It’s the best we can do. The occlusion should ruin any effect it’s meant to have,” Evelyn said. “Grab those books on the bar on your way back, you’re closest. Praem, get that petrol open, now.”

“You want to look away, or … ?” Raine asked me softly. She disentangled her arm from me so she could use both hands, and I clung to her side. “I can pass you off to Zheng, step forward and do it myself.”

“No. I need to see.”

“You don’t have to-”

“What if it’s her? I promised.”

Raine nodded. Quickly, cleanly, she slid the clip out of the handgun to check the bullets, slid it back in, cocked the slide, clicked the safety off, and levelled it at the mewling thing in the circle, at what had once been a head, a skull, a brain.

“Are you sure that’s gonna make any difference?” Twil grimaced, already hurrying back with an armful of books for Evelyn.

“Better than burning to death.” Raine sighed.

“People are going to hear that for a mile around,” Nicole raised her voice. “As soon as you do that, we have to get moving.”

“Praem, petrol,” Evelyn repeated.

“Do it. Please,” I whispered.

Raine pulled the trigger once. That was all it took. I almost envied her clarity.

The thing in the circle jerked as if struck by electricity, then went quiet and still. The oil-black portal at its centre shrunk instantly and vanished in on itself, folding up into nothing.

And I won’t even leave a fucking corpse, Sarika’s words echoed in my memory.

“ … what if it wasn’t her?” I asked in a whisper that nobody heard.

But events outpaced my doubt. Everyone moved at once. Twil dumped the cult’s pilfered occult tomes into Evelyn’s arms and helped her toward the door, while Praem stepped forward to douse the horrible corpse with stinking gasoline, splashing it over the carpet and furniture, smashing the mirrors with the backside of the can. Nicole slunk toward the door, nothing left for any of us to do here. Raine tucked the pistol into the waistband of her pajamas and tried to lead me out.

“What if it wasn’t her?” I asked, a hysterical catch in my throat.

“Heather, it must have been.”

“But what-”

“Shaman,” Zheng purred, a warning note in her voice. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she scooped me up right there. The sight of the gateway had changed her mind about going where I go.

“I made a promise. Raine, I made a promise.”

“And you did all you could. You heard Evee, this place has to be burned, and after that freaky thing, I’m down for a spot of arson too.”

“But-”

“You’ve tried calling for her. If she won’t come to you, that’s her decision.”

“But … but nobody deserves the Eye. Raine, I can’t leave- even an enemy, I can’t leave a person like that.” I turned back to the room. “Sarika!”

No reply. No Sarika.

Praem dumped the empty can on the floor and pulled out a box of matches. The air reeked of petrol fumes.

“We’re out of time,” Evelyn said from the doorway. “Praem, wait until we’re at the door. We’ll shout, then you light it and sprint, you understand? Don’t get caught in it. You’re faster than us.”

“Understand,” Praem intoned, passing us on the way to obey her mistress.

“Heather, come on,” Raine pleaded.

“Shaman,” Zheng rumbled from behind me. Raine squeezed my hand. Time to move. Time to give up.

“ … alright,” I squeezed out. “I’m sorry.”

Praem stood on the edge of the carpet, squelching and soggy with petrol. She raised an unlit match in one hand. Raine helped me past her, out of the door where Zheng joined us.

“Straight shot to the front door,” Twil said as we joined them. “Do we wanna like, call the fire brigade once we’re out?”

Evelyn gave her the look of all looks, the one that said Twil, you are truly an idiot.

“Alright, I just thought, you know?” Twil shrugged. “Like, don’t let it spread and-”

Throb.

Reality winced. My head pounded with a rush of blood.

Howling like a banshee crossed with a storm, screaming the contempt and rage of the wronged, Sarika burst into iridescent static right in our midst.

“- don’t get to be sorry!” she was howling, a half-sentence cut off by a flicker of jagged motion. “You don’t get forgiven! You don’t get to leave while I don’t even rot!”

Her form smeared and blurred into static as she shouted in my face. No space to get my left arm up, to block the Eye with the Fractal. Somebody screamed. Somebody else vomited with the sudden unrestrained pressure.

Somebody shoved me out of the way.

Raine raised her handgun in a uselessly heroic gesture, and pulled the trigger. The bullet entered Sarika’s head in a neat little red wound, and did nothing.

“Oh right, ghost,” I heard Raine say.

“You don’t get to win, and you don’t get your satisfaction! You get nothing!” Sarika howled. In the last split-second before the Eye’s signal exploded her into static, she whipped out a hand to engulf Raine’s head in her decohering mass.

At the speed of thought, I acted.

I had to kill Sarika. I had to use my brain and hyperdimensional mathematics to define what was left of her and scrub it from reality. Deny the Eye the vector, before the signal came through and reduced us all to screaming apes, before Sarika killed Raine.

Had to.

Had to do it.

Still couldn’t.

Only in the frozen point of time, my brain already burning with molten pieces of hyperdimensional equations, did I finally realise why I had hesitated the first time.

How could I hope to save my twin sister from the heart of the Eye, if I couldn’t tear an enemy from its outer rim?

Sarika was going to live, because it was necessary to me that she did.

To define her in full, I had to define what she was not. I had to define the barbed tentacles that trapped what remained of her soul, I had to grasp this fainest sliver of the Eye’s probing consciousness, see it in hyperdimensional mathematics – so I did, and the first brush nearly killed me.

Layer upon layer of fractal equation of infinite complexity, unfolding in all dimensions, forever.

We called it an alien God, but that was a turn of phrase, linguistic shorthand. For the first time, staring at this tiny scrap of it, defined in the language of reality itself, I knew the Eye was a God. Infinitely more complex than I, in the way I was more complex than an ant. I had to fight its most remote outer rim – a casual glance, a trailing thought, a single whisker – tooth and nail, with everything I had, just to tread water, and it wasn’t even aware of me.

I was bashing two rocks together in a cave, and that thing was a raging nuclear fire at the centre of a star.

To grasp Sarika and rip her free from that barbed surface was an impossible task. The required mathematics would cook my nervous system and turn my digestive tract inside out. I could see the route, the handholds, the gaps, but I would die before I got there. What was the point?

What was the point, little ape?

I was dimly aware of that ape, of Heather, curled up on the floor and vomiting herself empty, bleeding from nose and eyes, shaking and quivering and paused in a point of stopped time as she cried out a name.

Raine’s name. Raine, head half-engulfed by static, trying to aim her pistol again through the pounding cranial pressure. The others held in freeze-frame as I calculated math across reality itself. Zheng, buckling under the Eye’s mounting attention. Twil and Evelyn, my friends, caught in the act of turning to look back in horror. Nicole, another monkey I barely knew, telling herself not to flee. Praem, not an ape at all but wood and demon and love, about to light a match.

All of us were about to die, one way or another, unless I could do one impossible thing.

Is that me down there, that quivering ape? Am I that brain? The emergent processes created by that brain?

The process – the math – didn’t truly rely on the neuron soup in my skull. I could bootstrap myself beyond squishy vulnerable meat, do the equations on the air where there were no nerve endings to feel pain. All I had to do was reach out and go there.

Earlier that day I’d used brainmath to locate Raine, but I’d pulled back at this same threshold. I’d returned to my body because I wanted to feel touch again, I wanted to hug Raine. But if I went back now, we’d all die.

Hyperdimensional mathematics beckoned from the black pit in my subconscious, beyond the limits of my body, teased me to forget I was a scrawny little monkey on a revolving ball of dirt. To forget how to be me.

I drank deep from the Eye’s forgotten lessons, because I would never, ever beat this thing – never rescue my sister – without becoming a just little bit like it.

I pushed over the final boundary of pain and disgust and shuddering revulsion, and plunged into the abyss.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

that which you cannot put down – 7.13

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

The Fractal, eight feet from tip to tail, painted on the wall with a dead man’s blood.

“Do I recognise this?” Twil asked in a stage whisper. “Isn’t this, you know, the one on Heather’s arm?”

“Yes,” Evelyn hissed through her teeth, ashen-faced and wide-eyed. “Yes, it is. Heather, what did you do? You gave it to them?”

My mouth moved, numb and mute.

Few discoveries could have been worse for my psychological state – Raine’s corpse, perhaps. A cluster of branching lines on a wall added up to a violation of the stability we’d so painstakingly applied to my life over the last few months. The Fractal was one of the first gifts Raine had ever given me, after an ear to listen and a shoulder to cry on, the first evidence of the supernatural she’d shoehorned into my tiny, crumbling, pathetic life, the one tool that had finally shut out the Eye.

We refreshed it together every few days, Raine re-tracing the lines on my left forearm with a black body-art pen. Our little shared ritual of care and comfort, the one piece of magic that was neither scary nor unnatural, just Raine cradling my arm and drawing on my skin to keep me safe. Intimate and personal. Bedtime normality.

Eight feet high. In blood. At the centre of a massacre.

I hiccuped, felt my throat closing, my eyes filling with tears.

“Heather,” Evelyn hissed. “You gave it to them? They took it off your arm, they copied it?”

“Duh,” said Twil. “But why?”

“ … I … to block out the Eye,” I heard myself say, as if far away. “I thought- it was him-” I managed to nod down at the cultist Zheng and I had spared, the Fractal half-flayed from his own arm, hanging lose in a flap of bloody skin.

“God damn you, Heather,” Evelyn muttered.

“I didn’t want to kill him!” The words burst from me, the truth. “Nobody deserves the Eye, Evee, nobody, I thought- I thought it would-”

Another hiccup. Shaking all over. A squeezing pain in my left arm – I was gripping my forearm where the Fractal lurked on my own flesh. Gripping so hard my fingers hurt.

“Stop panicking,” Evelyn snapped.

“I-I don’t think I can.” Another hiccup. I squeezed my eyes shut, but it didn’t help. The stench of blood and pulped meat was too strong. I dug my fingernails into my sleeve, into my flesh, willing myself to bleed.

“I am trying to establish what happened. Heather, dammit, pay-”

“Not your fault,” Praem intoned, her voice a clear bell in the listening quiet of the house.

Evelyn whirled on her and hissed “shhhh!” but the doll-demon ignored her mistress. Praem stepped toward me.

I flinched, almost stepping into the squelching blood-soaked carpet, my mind recoiling from paranoid fantasies of Praem ripping the skin off my own left arm to remove the offending magic, shoving my face against the bloody wall to rub my nose in what I’d done, an avenging avatar of my mounting guilt. All this death, this suffering, it was my fault; I’d spread the Fractal, given these people the tools to butcher themselves. Praem was always so honest, saw with a clarity we humans lacked. She reached for me and I cringed away. But I deserved it.

Quickly, carefully, gently, Praem took my left elbow and my right wrist, and peeled me off myself.

“Ah … ow.” The fingers of my right hand ached where I’d squeezed so hard.

“Ow,” said Praem.

Empty white eyes stared into mine. She felt no need to repeat herself.

“ … not my fault,” I echoed. “Not my fault.” I nodded, tried to get a grip on my breathing. Praem lowered my arms for me. “Not my fault. You were there, yes, Praem, you knew I was only trying to help. Thank you. Yes.”

“Yes, thank you, Praem,” Evelyn added.

“Not my fault,” I lied, one last time.

Guilt later. Raine first.

I managed to look at the symbol on the wall and carved into the flesh of the man dead on the sofa without feeling soul-sick.

“Yes, Heather, it’s not your fault,” Evelyn still tried to keep her voice down, a hushed half-whisper. “That doesn’t matter. I am trying to establish how they got their hands on it, and what the hell they’ve done with it.”

“I gave it to him.” I pointed at the cultist Zheng and I had spared, his dead eyes staring at the ceiling. No mark on his body. What had killed him? “He was so desperate, so broken. Evee, nobody deserves the Eye. I thought the Fractal would block out what the Eye did to them, what Alexander did to them. But … I don’t get it. It  didn’t work?”

“On the contrary,” Evelyn grunted. Her left hand was white-knuckled on her walking stick, her jaw tight. “It worked far too well. You free yourself this morning, and lucky boy number one here flees to this safe house, tells the others the good news. Some of them rush to it, the ones who never wanted to be part of this. The lifers, the true believers, they reject it, refuse. A philosophical disagreement turns into a schism, a fight breaks out … ”

Evelyn trailed off. She cast a reluctant glance at the exploded corpse in the corner, and another down at the dead man at our feet. No visible wounds. Brain or nervous system or soul burned away.

“Yeah, nah,” Twil said what we were all thinking.

“Doesn’t look like any fight I’ve ever seen,” Nicole put in.

Our tame police detective showed surprising self-control amid the blood and guts and unexplained magic. A little green around the gills, but professional and alert. She kept the handgun pointed at the floor, her eyes high and watching, on the way we’d came and the other two exits from the plush little reception room – an open doorway into a long hallway, and a half-closed door to a larger and more decorative sitting room. Twil was on high-alert too, the tin of white paint and her phone forgotten now, hands wreathed in ghostly wolf flesh, fur and claw.

“So this occult doohickey drove them all crazy?” Nicole asked.

“No!” Evelyn snapped. “ … maybe. I don’t understand how.”

“Well, it did something to them, right?” Nicole pressed. “I think I’ve been able to follow that much.”

“Nothing. It does nothing. That’s the point,” Evelyn hissed, impatient and scowling at the blasphemous blood mural, at the paradox it represented. “It doesn’t do anything because it’s the opposite of action. Enforced inaction, a firewall, a blast door between here and Outside. This is probably the safest place in the whole house, unless they drew an even bigger one. That … dead man over there, his mind should have been practically untouchable.” She waved a vague hand at the carved corpse on the sofa, the older gentleman with the Fractal cut into his flesh over and over.

“That- that is true,” I whispered to myself. “Meant to be safe. Safe. Not your fault, not your fault.”

Twil spared me a concerned frown. I looked away, embarrassed.

“What if it didn’t work?” Nicole asked. “They got desperate, made a bigger one to protect themselves.”

“Makes sense?” Twil tried.

“No it doesn’t,” Evelyn hissed. “Don’t talk about things you know nothing about. A single instance of the warding sign on a door or wall or this idiot’s arm would be more than enough. You don’t need to scrawl it on a wall in human blood, it’s not like other magic. It’s coded into reality at the base level. Like a right angle. This works as it is.”

Nicole shook her head, an almost indulgent kink to her mouth. “Think about it from their perspective, miss wizard. If you’re a crazy cultist and things go bad, maybe drawing a big fuckoff magical sign in your own blood does make sense.”

Evelyn didn’t have anything to say to that. She scowled at the Fractal in silence.

“You mean, like, it doesn’t mean anything?” Twil asked.

“It means something went wrong,” Evelyn said. “I need to know what.”

“This doesn’t change the plan,” I said. “We still need to find Raine.”

“Yeah, sooner the better,” Twil grunted. “I want out of here.”

They were just corpses. Grisly corpses, of people who died horribly violent deaths they probably didn’t deserve, but that’s what we expected to find here. The Fractal changed nothing. They’d turned, in their last moments, to the only hope they had. In the part of my heart that could still feel amid the nervous affect-deadening of the situation, I hoped the Fractal had given them some solace at the end.

Evelyn nodded, drew herself up, adjusted her grip on her walking stick. “And quietly. Whatever happened here is still happening. Twil, Praem, check around that door first. Twil, don’t forget to use your phone-”

Throb.

A rush of blood to the head as reality flinched sideways. I winced hard, the sensation almost painful. Evelyn hissed through her teeth. Even Praem blinked.

“Six-hundred seven, six-hundred thirteen, six-hundred seventeen, six-”

Sarika’s voice, from the room next door.

Throb.

“-hundred eleven, nine-hundred nineteen- … God fucking dammit!” she swore, right inside the room.

Throb.

Another reality-crunching blink of missing motion, and there she was, hunched forward on the sofa opposite the carved man. The same high boots and tight jeans and long black hair as this morning in Glasswick tower. The same fine features, same bone-crushing exhaustion around her eyes, same weariness heavy across her slumped shoulders.

“- worst part of it is I can’t anchor myself,” she was already speaking, staring at her hands. “Never long enough to get my bearings. It’s like being trapped in a hospital bed, pumped full of morphine, but the pain doesn’t stop. You keep waking up and slipping back and waking up and-”

“Holy shit.” Twil froze, eyes wide.

“What- what-” somebody else was saying – Nicole, I think.

Praem moved to cover Evelyn.

I stared, and felt sick.

Sarika was broken.

Her hands and arms and head left jerky after-images as she moved, a glitching animation on a broken television screen, outlined in iridescent burning colours. Parts of her decohered and snapped back into place, flickering in and out of reality, an image ruined by static interference. The effect made one’s eyes water, reached back into the brain-stem, triggered shivering disgust and nausea.

She was a ghost, a human soul unanchored from her flesh, a lost signal.

Her voice seemed to carry through flesh and bone, as if speaking from the centre of my own head. “- like climbing a steep hill and you can never get to the top. You keep blacking out and rolling down and picking yourself up, but the path is always fucking absent or changed or not a path anymore. I keep repeating stuff, lines from books, maths – that doesn’t work – my name. My name, that’s going to be-”

And then I felt it, behind her, through her, like a searchlight the size of the sun trapped on the far side of a mountain range.

Sarika was not the signal; she was the static.

I don’t think the others felt it. Or perhaps they did, but weren’t as familiar with it as I. Shivering, my guts clenched in animal fear, I felt myself shrinking, fighting the desire to curl up in a ball, to make myself small and pray the sensation would pass over me, miss me, forget me.

A vast awareness, peering down through her like an eye through a microscope.

Throb.

And Sarika was gone.

We all looked at each other, speechless.

“What- what the hell was that?” Nicole asked first, rubbing her eyes and blinking rapidly. “Was that an illusion? A trick?”

“Sarika, that was her,” I said, my voice cracking. “That was definitely her, a-and-”

“You’re certain?” Evelyn disentangled herself from Praem’s protective grip. The doll-demon had bundled her out of the way, put her arms around her mistress. “Heather, you’re certain that was her?”

“Okay. Haunted house,” Nicole said. “That wasn’t a figure of speech. Haunted house, I can deal.”

“It’s not a ghost,” Evelyn snapped “It’s a- she’s a- I don’t know.”

“Evee-” I struggled to speak, my conscious mind too slow to catch up with the implications. “Evee, didn’t you feel that?”

“Feel what?”

Throb.

“It’s not fucking rocket science, you jumped up little shit. Figure it out,” Sarika snarled at the exact spot Evelyn had been standing a minute ago, talking to the wall, a figure in disjointed freeze-frame. Her outline flickered with impossible colour, like cities on fire.

That vast awareness pressed down on my mind once again, as if spotting us from another angle. An eyelid opening above us.

“Figure what-” Evelyn started.

Sarika’s jittering, flickering form lost what little coherence it had, reduced to static and chaos as the real signal intensified.

All of us felt it then. Impossible not to. A crawling in the guts and up the spine, an evolutionary relic from the days of avoiding predators on the Savannah. The feeling of being watched.

Evelyn spluttered to a stop, eyes wide and lips quivering. Nicole pointed the handgun at nothing, head swivelling. Twil growled, then whined low in her throat, backing up, backing away from a sensation she couldn’t place.

Darkness and pressure, the walls closing in, breath in short supply and sanity slipping.

I think I gibbered. Somebody did.

Raine saved me again – at least by proxy. As my mind fell into instinctive terror, I clung hard to the reason we were here, gabbed my left sleeve and ripped it down.

The Fractal on my flesh, exposed to the air, a gale of clean wind.

I think I shouted something inane, like “get against the wall!”, my own back already thumping against the huge blood-mural Fractal. My shoes were sticky with the dead man’s blood, squelching on the carpet. Almost tripped over the corpse.

It wasn’t a heroic moment. Those kinds of moments never are, that only happens in movies. Reality is always a messy animal scramble to preserve one’s life, more chance and panic than flashy victory. Twil tripped and skidded on the floor, blood on her fur and clothes, whining like a kicked dog. Evelyn was incapable, eyes screwed shut and panting as Praem hauled her off her feet. Even the doll-demon was affected, her motions stiff and imprecise as she slammed herself into the wall next to me, cushioning the impact for Evelyn in her arms. Nicole clawed at her own face, whimpering and confused, but she made it to safety.

Crammed in behind me, between my Fractal and the one on the wall, my arm turned against Sarika – against the thing using her remains as a vector – we all lived. For now.

“It knew we were trying to rebel!” Sarika screamed like a banshee.

Throb.

Silence; no more Sarika, no more pressure.

I fell over. On my backside. Onto the blood-soaked carpet. Not the most dignified of victories, but hygiene was the last concern on my mind.

Sarika’s parting words hung in the air. Strong hands found me and pulled me to my feet – Praem, the quickest of us to recover. She held me upright while I got my breath back. Evelyn stared, trying to form a question, all her usual bluster and protective irritation shed in wide-eyed horror. Nicole wiped sweat and tears from her own face, raking her hair back where it had escaped its bun. Twil bared teeth and claws at every corner of the room, turning and growling like a wolf surrounded by hunting hounds.

“The Eye,” I said after a moment. “That was the Eye.”

“The what?” Nicole blurted out.

“The alien God-thing that’s after me.” I swallowed, and found my nose was bleeding slightly. I wiped it on the back of my sleeve.

“That didn’t feel the same,” Evelyn managed. “As … in the medieval metaphysics room, that one time … ”

I nodded, though it barely seemed to matter. Why were we even discussing it? Apes, trying to rationalise a hurricane.

“Think,” Evelyn snapped. She must have caught the meaning on my face. “Heather, think. You know more about this than anyone. That was different. Why?”

“ … I … I don’t-”

“This is deathly important. Think.”

I blinked. She was right, it wasn’t the same feeling as the time we’d peered into Wonderland and found the Eye staring back. Direct contact, face to face, had been like standing under a lightning strike. Being in Wonderland for real was to forget how to be human, how to be oneself, nothing between one’s fragile little mind and the vastness of the Eye.

What we’d just experienced was filtered, using the broken soul of a dead woman as a lens. Even then, the Eye’s awareness was still more than enough to crush unprotected thought.

Twice in one day, I thought to myself. To borrow a phrase from Evelyn, I hated this bastard thing so much.

“It’s … I don’t know,” I said. “Using Sarika as a conduit. A way in. To reality. It’s looking through her, what’s left of her.”

“Great,” Evelyn hissed. “Great. That means nothing to me.”

“What do we do?” Twil growled. “We gotta get away from this, right? Can’t stay here. Can’t stay.”

“What happened to that woman?” Nicole asked. “I don’t understand.”

“I got it wrong,” Evelyn admitted with a shiver. “The cult didn’t try to retaliate against us at all. They tried to free themselves from the Eye, break the deal Alexander Lilburne made with it. They tried to fuck it over.”

“And it didn’t work, I gather?”

“Clearly,” said Evelyn. “It fucked them first. Look around us – they lost.”

“Can’t stay here, can’t stay here,” Twil repeated, her shoulders hunched tight, claws flexing.

I stood up straight, puffed out my chest, and took a deep breath.

“Raine!”

Evelyn winced at my shout. So did Nicole, but Twil joined me, raising her wolfish snout and shouting Raine’s name into this void of ghosts. What was the point in stealth anymore? The house, the Eye, Sarika, whatever was here, it knew we were here too.

“Raine!”

“Raine! We’re here!”

“Raaaaine!”

“Where are you? Raine!”

Thump-thump.

“Raine!”

“Shhh, shhh, Twil, stop, stop.”

“Rai- what?”

“Listen, listen!”

Thump-thump-thump.

 A dull, distant hammering, far far above us. A boot heel or a fist against a load bearing wall.

“She heard us. She’s upstairs.” My heart expanded, fit to burst with relief I could barely feel.

“She’s upstairs!” Twil all but whooped, a shaky grin on her face.

“How do we know that’s her?” Nicole asked, eyes on the ceiling.

“It’s the best bet we have,” Evelyn hissed. “Fair enough, we can try to-”

Throb.

Sarika appeared behind the other sofa, staring down at the carved man. A flinch went through us, a group motion, a pack of animals startled by the probing tentacle of a leviathan.

I threw my left arm up, the Fractal outward.

“I envy him,” Sarika was saying. “He got to die as a human. Cowards, all of them, gave up before the end, but I should have done the same. We all should have. That’s always been my problem, not enough of a coward, never reading the warning signs. Bad boys and bad habits, always my fucking problem. Should have listened to my mother, the old-”

She flickered, outline shattering into a million static fragments, a ghost smeared across an invisible pane of glass. The Eye’s awareness turned on us once again, an insistent pressure plunging us miles underwater, held at bay by flimsy black lines drawn on my fragile skin.

Sarika’s ghost turned, mere static-wash against a background of void, and looked at me.

Hate. Personal and unquenchable, hate.

Throb.

She vanished.

Everyone gasped in relief, except Praem of course. I lowered my arm, shaking and shivering inside.

“No!” Evelyn hissed. “Wait, wait, dammit.”

Praem reached out and helped hold my arm up, her gentle hand supporting my elbow. We waited, a minute, two minutes. Time stretched out, but Sarika did not return.

“Maybe she’s done for now?” Twil ventured.

“She can’t see us, she’s not actually reacting to us,” Evelyn said.

“Evee, she is, she looked at me,” I said quietly. “We need … we need to move, we need to get to Raine. And get out.”

“Find some stairs, right!” Twil said, and bounded toward the open door at the back of the little reception room, the one that led through into a sumptuous lounge.

“Twil!” Evelyn snapped. “She’s not the only thing in-”

The house proved Evelyn’s words right before she finished saying them. Roused by Twil’s sudden motion or perhaps merely emerging from hiding after Sarika had passed, a writhing mass of limbs scuttled out from underneath one of the sofas.

A bundle of severed arms, fused together at the elbows in a twisted mass of melted bone. No head or central body, just limb. The whole thing scurried up the side of the sofa like a spider. Evelyn screamed. Nicole aimed the gun.

I sighed.

After the Eye, this thing was refreshingly mundane.

Twil got to it first – whirling at the sound of Evelyn’s scream – and pounced on it, all wolfish fang and claw, driven by adrenaline and the need to fight a physical foe. She tore the thing in two so fast the rest of us barely had time to blink. One half dropped to the floor, twitched, and lay still. She flung the other half at a wall. It hit with a splat, slid to the ground, and stopped moving.

“Fuck!” said Twil.

“ … fuck is right, what the hell is that?” Nicole still pointed the handgun at the arm-thing.

“As I said,” Evelyn repeated, struggling to keep her voice steady. “Sarika – the Eye, whatever – she’s not the only thing in here. Heather,” she nodded to me, eyes on the exposed Fractal on my arm. “You lead. Carefully. With that.”

I nodded. “I can lead. I can do it.”

==

Our original plan lay in tatters. We crept from room to ugly echoing room, past corpses and wreckage and distant furtive sounds, my arm and the Fractal held up in place of the mobile phones we’d planned on using as protection. Only Nicole still observed through the screen of her phone, belatedly checking around corners. Twil flanked my shoulder, ready to sideswipe any monsters that lurked in the hallways of plush carpet and cream walls.

None did.

Unseen presences moved out in the depths, like abyssal marine life beyond the reach of a diver’s lamp. Footsteps crossed the ceiling above our heads, doors creaked closed, furniture squeaked on floorboards. Less frequently, things crashed and banged, sudden explosions of motion hidden behind the walls. Twice, insane laughter ratcheted through the house from some forgotten corner; the first time it trailed off into a whooping, leaping cry. The second it cut out in choking sounds, and did not return.

“Whatever’s left of the cult,” Evelyn hissed under her breath. “Burning themselves out. Probably don’t even care that we’re here.”

“Come out and fight me!” Twil snarled at nothing.

“Keep moving, keep moving,” I whispered, then raised my voice. “Raine!”

Thump, from above. Still there. Keep moving.

More nightmare amalgamations of crawling flesh lurked in corners or behind open doors, like the fused arm-spider. None of them attacked us. Mindless and blind, they dragged themselves in aimless circles. Constructed from internal organs, bits of limb, fragments of articulated bone, flopping and slapping bits of lung and liver against the carpets. A detached foot, a piece of shoulder. Most of them seemed to have come from the exploded corpses, which we found in almost every room, tumbled over each other or cowering in corners from some unseen pursuer – Sarika? The Eye?

Sarika did not reappear.

We stumbled across two more Fractals, thankfully neither of them drawn in blood. One was cut directly into the plaster of a wall, with a pocket knife, unfinished and flawed. The cultist responsible lay slumped beneath, a stern and capable looking young woman. No wound on her body, her empty face retained a hint of the anger she must have felt at the end. Bloody froth coated her lips.

The second Fractal was hidden in a bathroom, highlighter pen on the white tiles. Two bodies embraced in the tub beneath, huddled together, a pair of young men barely out of their teens.

A strange, grudging respect kindled inside my chest as we searched the house; these people had been my enemies, they’d served a monster more than once, they’d attacked my home and hurt my friends – my family? – but in the end they’d rebelled against the same thing that tortured me.

And with all their numbers, their expertise, their willingness to commit atrocity, they’d still lost.

I crammed that thought away for now. Raine first.

Eventually, after ugly sitting rooms and long hallways, past a game room with pool table and dartboard, around the remains of a actual murder – one cultist stabbed to death with a knife still protruding from his sternum – we found the kitchen.

As ostentatious and superfluous as the rest of the house, a space bigger than some entire apartment floor plans, tiled in marbled white and split down the middle by a projecting island full of displayed crockery and little pantry cupboards. A huge slab of dining table dominated the side we’d emerged into, surrounded by cushioned chairs. On the other, a pair of gigantic ovens with hot-plate tops and lots of bells and whistles filled the wall.

One of the cupboards lay open, bottles of whiskey and vodka and other spirits clustered on the worktop beneath, surrounded by a riot of glasses, some still half-full, a few smashed. Liquid courage, to fortify the cultists for their doomed uprising.

Another two unfortunate corpses lay on the floor at the far end, looking as if they’d burst from inside. Detonated.

The space extended out toward the rear of the house, opening onto an attached greenhouse full of expensive show plants like an upper-class version of a conservatory.

And through the open double-doors next to that, stairs, leading up.

“Yes!” Twil hissed, one hand on my back.

“Alright, but how do we get back down?” Nicole said. “When-”

Throb.

We all winced, hard. Heart in my throat, I cast about for Sarika’s ghost, my arm raised, turning on the spot, the others trying to get behind me.

“Why didn’t it do this to you, Heather? A good question, a good bloody question, but I have a theory,” Sarika’s voice dripped with scorn. I almost tripped over my own feet to turn around – she was behind us, in the hallway we’d just left. Out of sight. “Because it can’t.”

“Keep moving,” Evelyn hissed. “Ignore her.”

We all backed away together. My feet felt awkward and clumsy, trying to hold my arm up and walk backward.

“Because it took you, kidnapped you, but you escaped. We were given to it, gift-wrapped with worship and ceremony and bullshit. It understands that. Servility, ownership, dominion. We human beings don’t have much common ground with this fucking thing, but it understands that part of us well enough. Is that enough to penetrate your skull, you pampered little bitch? You’re free-”

Throb.

And then she was inside the room, right behind us. Like a furnace to one’s back, panic and doom leering over my shoulder. This time, I did trip over my own feet. Exhausted and spent, I went over, flailing to face her with the Fractal on my arm.

Praem caught me.

Twil yanked Evelyn off her feet and got behind me. Nicole hesitated with the handgun. A pointless gesture, as that terrible awareness rolled over us like a blanket of shadow and a ocean’s worth of freezing water. I shivered and shook, my teeth chattering with effort. Praem held my arm up, held me up, her embrace tight around my waist.

Sarika was crying, her face in her hands.

“I never really believed all his bullshit,” she sobbed. “All that guff about-”

Throb.

She blinked thirty, maybe forty degrees to the left. Praem turned me, my feet skittering for purchase on the floor tiles. The others clustered behind.

“-transcending the human, how we had to leave this behind to have any chance,” Sarika continued. “All his high-minded nonsense, and I didn’t really care. All I wanted was him. The rest of it, who gave a toss? It was all lies, anyway, right? Right? It was supposed to be lies, a game, a fantasy – I didn’t know, I didn’t know. Fuck him. Fuck you. All of you.”

“Ignore her, ignore it!” Evelyn gasped. “We- go around her- upstairs.”

“Around that?” Nicole hissed. “Fat chance.”

“And now, here I am,” Sarika sobbed, sniffing back tears as her voice twisted with rage. “And it’s worse than he could ever imagine, the fucking bastard, the cunt. I loved him, I loved him and look what he left me with, look what he did!”

She screamed, turned to static and abstract shape spread across space-time. A data ghost lost on the tide. A million tons of pressure slammed down on me – the Eye, trying to find us.

Blood ran from my nose. My limbs shook with the effort of existing. Praem, rock-solid with inhuman strength, held me steady.

Sarika’s eyes peered out from the chaos and met mine.

She hated me so much.

Throb.

She was gone. Panting, gasping, all of us confused and blinking like moles in the light. Praem held onto me still. I tried to nod a thank you.

“Upstairs, now,” Evelyn managed. “She can’t sync up with us if we keep moving. We-”

“I need to help her,” I blurted out.

“ … are you mad? Yes, yes, you’re mad, of course. Praem, carry her, please. Put her over your shoulder if you have to.”

“No, no, nobody deserves the Eye,” I insisted. “Evee, nobody deserves that. I’d kill her myself if it would save Raine, but nobody deserves the Eye. Look what it did to her.”

“Heather’s got a point,” Nicole said. “This thing is using her, right? Maybe we can … Sarika,” she raised her voice, strong and loud, a hostage-negotiation voice. Evelyn grit her teeth in a wince. “We want to help you.”

“Detective,” Evelyn hissed. “If you’re standing there in a few more seconds, she’ll be on you.”

“I understand you’re in pain, you’re hurting, you need help,” Nicole continued.

Silence rang out – interrupted by a thump and a crash from somewhere upstairs, the sound of breaking glass and crunching plastic, cut off by a tortured squeal half-way between human and pig. Nicole flinched at that. Twil bristled. Evelyn clucked her tongue.

“Look, I’m a police officer,” Nicole continued. “I don’t understand even half of what’s going on here, but these people with me do, and I’m sure at least one of them can do something for you.”

Nicole shot a look at Evelyn, a raised eyebrow in silent question.

Evelyn shrugged, shaking her head. “Do what?” she mouthed.

“I don’t know,” Nicole whispered back. “Reverse whatever’s happened to her.”

“Detective, an alien God did this to her. Help is not within our power. I wouldn’t even know where to begin. Praem, get moving. Twil, up the stairs.”

“She won’t let us – let me,” I said. I knew it in my bones, from the look on her static-washed face.

The Eye wanted me, but Sarika hated me.

Throb.

Sarika, six inches from Nicole’s face, screaming the rear half of a truncated sentence.

“- doesn’t work! You see? It doesn’t work!”

A kitchen carving knife in one of her hands, dripping crimson, her arm ratcheting back and forth in a freeze-frame of lost motion, limb trailing impossible eye-searing colours. Blood poured from a ragged tear in her own throat, lost in static. Meat ripped as she rammed the knife back in again. Sarika stabbed herself in the throat and neck and even made a jab at her temple, pushing metal through hair and flesh and scraping bone into desynchronised grey matter as she flickered and jerked across the screen of reality.

“It won’t let me go!” she screamed. “It doesn’t work!”

Throb.

She reappeared on the other side of the room, at the foot of the stairs, no knife and whole again. Weary and confused, I raised my arm. Praem helped, holding me tight, a frame for my exhaustion.

“That scrap of darkness, she tried,” Sarika said, and I realised she was talking about Felicity’s parasite. “But it broke her too, forced her into her own body and beat her blind and deaf. You think you can do better? You don’t even understand, you only care because I make you care, you-”

Throb.

Behind us again. Dizzying, swaying, barely able to stay on my feet, Praem swung me round. Without the doll-demon’s strength we’d have been dead or insane or worse, but she held my arm up high. Kept the Outside where it should be, the thinnest of layers between our flesh and the Eye. Twil yelped, dragged Evelyn into the slim cone of safety. Nicole stammered, tried to speak, got nowhere.

“-fault, Heather. It’s his responsibility, but also yours. If you didn’t exist, none of this would have happened-”

Throb.

Six feet closer, rage leaking through the static. Praem took a step back, pulled me with her. Sarika’s face screamed at me, a distorted oval, fine features blurred and smeared by interference.

“- while my friends are all dead. Can’t mourn, can’t even snatch time to think. My name, I can’t remember my name-”

Throb.

In our faces now, howling. I was insensate as Praem pulled me back, limp meat in the demon’s grip.

“-and you get to live. You’re beyond lucky,” Sarika cursed me. The Eye rose behind her, unseen but as real as nuclear fallout on the wind. “You have power and you don’t deserve it, because you won’t use it. You get to live and we get to suffer. You think that’s-”

A crash, a roar, and the sound of tearing meat, from a distant part of the house.

Sarika flickered out.

Silence fell. I heaved for breath, like coming up for air with bursting lungs. We stood there, stooped and shivering and sweating, waiting for the onslaught to resume. Only Praem stood tall, with me in her arms, my head lolling back on her chest.

“ … think she’s had enough?” Twil growled after a minute. Her eyes darted left and right, watching for an ambush.

Evelyn waved an impatient hand, but she leaned on Twil’s arm all the same. “Didn’t you hear that? She was interrupted. And it wasn’t like before, she just … faded. No popping ears that time.”

Praem tried to prop me against the massive kitchen table, but I clung to her for support. Nicole sat down suddenly on a chair. None of us were in any state to take this opening and go rushing up the stairs.

“She’ll be back,” I croaked. “She won’t let me go.”

“Is it personal?” Nicole asked. “Why, what did you do to her?”

“Not about what I did … ” I shook my head, couldn’t put it into words. “What I can do.”

“And what would that be? Help me understand here, if we’re going to … negotiate, with that thing.”

“The shaman,” a voice rumbled, “can do whatever she puts her mind to. Even for her enemies.”

A giant ducked into the kitchen.

“Zheng!” I felt myself light up with relief. What a strange, impossibly stressful day, to be so delighted by the arrival of seven feet of blood-drenched rippling zombie muscle. Bizarre, and more than a little worrying, the depth of security I felt rushing into my chest as Zheng straightened up inside the room and flashed that shark-toothed grin.

Zheng looked like a vision from hell. She’d lost her trench coat, reduced to that flimsy tshirt and her jeans, both garments torn in several places and covered with splatters of blood, though a hunch told me none of it belonged to her. The exposed skin on her arms and face and belly where her tshirt rode up glistened with the kind of sweat that only comes from long exertion. Gore covered her mouth and chin.

She steamed, hot tarmac in the rain.

“Shaman,” she purred.

“Oh great, it’s her,” Twil grunted, unimpressed. “That’s all we need.”

“Don’t look a gift horse in the house,” Evelyn grumbled. She nodded at the gruesome object dangling from one of Zheng’s hands. “I take it you’re responsible for our reprieve?”

Zheng grinned wider in smug triumph and predatory satisfaction. She raised her trophy. “Perhaps I am, wizard.”

A severed head. Zheng was holding a severed head, freshly torn from its counterpart neck moments ago, if the trail of blood was anything to go by. Masculine, with a strong jaw and dark hair, eyes blank and glassy.

“ … s’that from a demon?” Twil frowned at it. “Ugh.”

“How can you tell?” Zheng purred.

“The horns are a dead giveaway,” I managed. As was the mouth full of needle-point teeth. The head’s owner had most definitely not been human, though probably began life as one. The shape of the skull had been warped, altered, the horns grown from the brow-ridge in jutting spikes of bone, the jaw enlarged, the ears shrunken to gnarled nubs of flesh.

“Cult zombie?” Evelyn asked.

“A little like me, wizard,” Zheng confirmed. She crossed to us and placed the severed head on the table with a wet squelch. She couldn’t get it to stand up, so it fell over on one side. Evelyn had to look away. Praem stared Zheng dead in the eye, still busy holding me on my feet. Zheng tapped the head. “If an ant is like a hornet. Barely awake, vacant now. Staying hidden in the corners and under the floors. Laoyeh killed all the monkeys, burst them with the pressure of their own souls. Left the demons intact, but hollow. Filled them up. Laoyeh is using them as relays.”

“Laoyeh?” I echoed.

“Relays?” Evelyn squinted.

“That is a severed head,” Nicole said quietly. “I’m looking at a severed head. It’s got horns.”

Laoyeh,” Zheng repeated, and the way she said it left no room for doubt. She meant the Eye. “Relays, yes, wizard.”

“What have you been doing all this time?” I blurted out, half-disentangling myself from Praem’s grip and almost falling over. I caught myself on the edge of the table, and a much stronger hand caught my waist. Zheng wrapped an arm around me.

For a moment I was strung between one demon and the other. Praem and Zheng stared each other down, Praem still supporting me, Zheng frozen in the act of scooping me up.

“I’ll take the shaman now,” Zheng purred.

“You are late,” Praem intoned.

“Um, not now, please?” I managed, stunned by the sudden confrontation. “Not now. We have to get to Raine.”

Praem let me go. Zheng swept me up, lifting me with ease, hauling me into her arms in a princess-carry. She ran hot, like a fire burned inside her flesh. If this had been any other place, any other time, I would have blushed red as a beetroot. Right now, nobody cared, least of all me.

“As for me, shaman,” she purred. I felt the vibration in my bones. “I’ve been hunting, feasting, fighting, fucking. Avoiding Laoyeh.”

“Fucking?” I squinted at her. Zheng shrugged. I resolved to never ask about that one.

“Relays,” Evelyn was muttering. “For what it’s using Sarika for. It’s in them, in the corpses, in place of the demons that should be there?”

Zheng nodded, sage-like. “Smart wizard.”

“Then … tearing it’s head off disrupted the signal?” I voiced. “Thank you.”

“For now.”

“Until they triangulate again?” Evelyn asked in a rush. “You’ve been hunting them? How many, where?”

“You won’t catch them, little wizard. I can barely catch them. Both cat and mouse in this game, you and I both. Laoyeh hunts us. We should be elsewhere, yesterday.”

“Raine’s upstairs,” I said. “That’s elsewhere.”

“Good,” Zheng purred. She adjusted her grip on me. I clung to her as she took a step toward the stairs. Nicole nodded and stood up, moved to follow in the zombie’s wake. Twil, not to be outdone, hurried to catch up. Praem offered Evelyn her arm. Evelyn accepted the help.

Zheng paused. Froze. Rock solid.

“What’s-”

“Shaman.” Zheng slid her supporting arm around my back, grabbed my wrist, and held it up, facing forward.

A screech across the surface of reality, nails down a blackboard inside my head, a figure coalescing out of nothing in a storm of static death at the foot of the stairs.

Sarika screamed back into existence.

“-and nobody’s coming to save me, nobody ever does-”

“Sarika!” I raised my voice above her, above the sudden mounting wave of pressure. Zheng’s solidity helped. “Let us go, let me save Raine – and I’ll help you!”

She flickered, six feet back up the stairs, then forward again, jumping in and out of time, her form blasted into static as the Eye’s scrutiny turned on us.

“-possibly do for me-” a snatch of her voice reached out through the chaos.

“I’ll free you,” I shouted, squeezing my eyes shut. “You know I can do it, you know what I am.”

“Shaman,” Zheng growled, a warning tone, a warning that she was about to try something.

Sarika laughed, on our left then our right.

“I mean it!” I shouted.

“Against the Eye?!” Sarika, right in my face – then back on the stairs again, howling, pulling out fistfuls of her own hair. A banshee, tortured and forsaken, already exploding into static as the Eye hijacked what was left of her soul. “Make it let me go. Can do you that? You liar! You’re like me, a human being. You can’t fight a God-”

I interrupted her, spoke into the storm.

“Sarika, say the word, and I’ll set you free. I’ll make it let you go. A mercy kill. Nobody deserves the Eye.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

that which you cannot put down – 7.12

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Barrend Road was not the sort of place where magic happened.

Not the sort of place anything happened, except dinner parties, dreary Sundays, and domestic violence. Large houses brooded ugly and proud behind old trees and high walls and imitation wrought iron gates. Garages and gravel driveways, intercom buzzers and CCTV, heavy curtains and high windows, and big gardens full of trampolines and electric barbeques and privacy.

Number Seven – ‘Tunsdale house’ according to the faux-wooden plaque next to the gate – was a perfect specimen of the type. A still-functioning aesthetic subroutine in the back of my mind had retched with disgust when we’d pulled up next to the house. A new build, probably less than twenty years old, three tapering stories of clean white frontage and mismatched windows, vomited up from the pen of some mercenary architect at the whim of a banker or lawyer with more money than sense, and a belief that clutter translates to style. Flourishes and detailing clashed at every corner. No line of symmetry but no balance of asymmetry, like the house had been thrown together at random, a pile of rectangles stacked by a toddler. Purposeless columns flanked a front entrance buried so deep one could barely pick it out. A garage door stood off to one side, dressed up in fake hinges and painted brown, pretending to be a rustic barn.

All the worst aspects of architectural modernity. Nothing like like Evelyn’s beautiful old house, Victorian redbrick folded in on itself, a warm womb to shelter our secrets.

Not a place where magic should happen.

“There’s no spirits,” I croaked.

“Doesn’t look so bad.” Twil peered at the house through the back passenger window of Nicole’s car, cupping her hands around her face. The tips of the slanted roof still caught the last of a watery sunset, but down below we were already deep into the gloom as the streetlights flickered on. The settling cold of a late winter evening leeched heat from the thin metal shell of the car. The BMW’s heater struggled to keep up.

I don’t think Twil heard me.

“Lot better than that freak show castle last time we did something like this,” she said.

“Castle,” Nicole said with a sigh. A statement, not a question.

“Yeah, a castle. Long story. We all going straight in then, or what? Praem and I could do it alone, you know? What’s the plan?”

“Good question,” Evelyn said from the passenger seat, and looked pointedly at Nicole. Her face was side-lit in the darkness by distant street-lighting, like a monster in a puppet-show.

“Hey, that’s up to you wizards,” the detective said, raising her hands from the steering wheel. She looked more rumpled and shaken than when I’d last seen her, as if she’d spent the last hour being violently ill. “That’s why you’re here, right? You deal with whatever … caused that,” she thumbed at the house. “Then I call in the cavalry for the mundane stuff. Isn’t that the plan?”

“What I mean, detective,” Evelyn said. “Is we need more information first.”

I opened my mouth to repeat myself, but a sudden wave of dizziness took me, a throbbing pulse of blood in my head.

Shouldn’t be here. Even with caffeine and pills and bloody-minded determination, I was fading, I was weak, and I was a liability.

“ … right. Right. Information. That’s something I can do.” Nicole nodded, took a deep breath. “Evelyn, right? You look pretty together for a woman who was in a coma this morning.”

Nicole offered Evelyn her hand, and to my surprise Evelyn shook it.

“Trust me, detective, I feel like living shit,” Evelyn grunted.

“Why didn’t we get handshakes this morning?” Twil asked.

“Seem to recall I was too busy screaming,” Nicole said. “Or trying to arrest you on suspicion of murder.”

Evelyn snorted and shook her head. Even I could tell the humour was forced.

Nicole glanced back at me, the fragile thing shivering and swallowing in the back seat. “So uh, who’s in charge right now? Heather or you?”

Evelyn caught my eye. I shook my head.

“ … nobody’s in charge,” Evelyn said hesitantly, then cleared her throat. “We decide as a group.”

“So who’s this then?” Nicole twisted to look at Praem. Our doll-demon sat in the middle back seat, sandwiched between Twil on one side and me on the other. I would have enjoyed the squeeze a lot more under any other circumstances, but right now that part of me was asleep, energy-saving, didn’t care one bit. “You a wizard too then? You-”

“There’s no spirits,” I repeated, loud as I could.

Nicole blinked at me. Evelyn twisted in the front passenger seat, hindered by her spine and walking stick, and frowned hard.

“There’s no spirits,” I said.

“On the house?” Evelyn asked. “Then it’s warded somehow. Potentially bad news for us, but not entirely unexpected.”

“No, no.” I shook my head. “The whole street. Last few streets. As we drove up, they thinned out. Heading away. Animals fleeing a forest fire.”

Evelyn went quite still. Nicole looked between us, confused and lost.

“Uhhh,” Twil made a sound like a broken speaker. “That’s bad, right?”

“No, it’s wonderful,” Evelyn said. “Great news. The local fauna is fleeing, that means nothing untoward at all. What do you think, Twil? Hm?”

Twil raised her hands in apology.

“Heather,” Evelyn snapped. “Why didn’t you say something earlier?”

“Because I’m exhausted and scared and thinking about Raine. We need to go in there, Evee. We need to get her out. Quickly.”

Evelyn swallowed hard, then sucked on her teeth. “We still need more information. Detective?”

“Spirits. Fleeing animals. Okay,” Nicole echoed me with a sigh. “What does that mean?”

Another throb of blood in my head, like I’d run a marathon today. I winced.

“Information, detective.” Evelyn clicked her fingers. “What did you see?”

“I already told you on the phone. Seven bodies, I think, or parts of them at least, in a sort of lounge on the left side of the house. And a lot of blood. Some on the walls looked … intentional. Hand prints, I think. Look, I’ve seen my share of grizzly murder scenes in homicide, but this wasn’t anything like those.” She swallowed and put a hand to her mouth, looking away into the darkening street. Suppressing nausea. A gesture I’d know anywhere. “More like a massacre, a war-zone. I don’t know.”

“And that’s all you’ve got?” Evelyn asked. “That’s all? No observations to share? Nothing useful?”

Nicole managed an upturned glare across the seats. “Don’t take it out on me, alright?”

Evelyn clicked her tongue and shook her head.

“Where’s Zheng?” I croaked.

“Still in there, I think.” Detective Webb nodded toward the house. “Heard a window break about twenty minutes before you lot turned up. Think she climbed in. Expected screams a minute later, but,” she shrugged, “nothing.”

Nothing – I tried to ask, but my head throbbed again, twice this time. I blinked past it, clenched my muscles, cursed my failing energy.

And noticed that Praem had turned her head to look at the house, at the exact moment I’d felt that pulse in my head.

“Praem?” I hissed.

“Nothing?” Evelyn was echoing Nicole already. Nicole shook her head.

“No commotion, no banging and crashing, no screams. Didn’t hear a thing.”

“Bodes well,” Evelyn said, dripping sarcasm.

“Oh shit,” Twil hissed. “She said she wasn’t gonna go inside, right? Something changed her mind? Hunting?”

“I almost admire your blind, idiot optimism, I really do,” Evelyn said, twisting in her seat to glare at Twil. “But-”

“Hey, don’t take it out on me either!” Twil said.

“I am not– you- … what the hell is she looking at? Praem?”

Another pulse of blood, another wave of dizziness while Evelyn was speaking; Praem’s head twitched at the same time, adjusting her eyeline to a different part of the house.

“Oh no, no it’s not just me,” I managed. “It’s not in my head. Praem feels it too.”

“What’s not in your head?” Evelyn demanded.

“Don’t you feel it? Wait, it’ll happen again.”

“What-” Twil started, but Evelyn silenced her with a frustrated wave.

We waited in silence, in the dark, listening for a sound that was not sound.

Throb. Like a rush of blood to the head, but exterior to oneself.

Reality, wincing.

“I felt that,” Twil said, wide-eyed. “I felt that, what the hell? What was that?”

“I think I felt it too, yeah,” Nicole said. “Kinda have to concentrate, but yeah, that was definitely not my imagination.”

“Praem?” Evelyn demanded. “What is that? What are you looking at?”

“Motion,” Praem intoned, the first word she’d spoken in Nicole’s presence, the ringing of a distant, icy bell.

“Motion, what? What does that mean?” Evelyn asked.

“Motion.”

“In the house?”

Praem declined to answer the obvious question.

Evelyn sat back in her seat, frowning up a storm. Nicole stared at the doll-demon, more confused than the rest of us. Inside, I started to shake. This was supposed to be quick. We were supposed to have Raine out of there by now.

“What’s … ” Twil started, swallowed, spread her hands. “What’s to think about? What does this change? We’re still gonna bust in there and get Raine, right? I could go right now, what are we waiting for?”

“Yes,” I hissed. “Please.”

“I am thinking,” said Evelyn.

“I mean, you said that Raine probably killed those people herself, right?” Twil asked. “I could break down the front door right now, be in and out before they even know what-”

“I am changing my mind based on available information.” Evelyn spoke through her teeth. “Perhaps you should try it some time?”

Twil blinked. “But-”

“No spirits within several streets of this place. A demon far more powerful and proficient than Praem entered that house and did not come back out. And something in there is pinging our flesh with magical sonar. Let. Me. Think.”

We sat in the dark, and Evelyn did her thinking.

Quietly, privately, I began to panic.

Strictly speaking, Evelyn and I were supposed to be surplus to requirements. Both of us were exhausted by our experiences. This was meant to be a smash and grab, in and out; send Praem in the front door or Twil up through a window, break heads and kill zombies and find Raine and bring her back to the car and leave. On the way here I’d half-hoped we’d turn the corner and see Zheng out in the street already, carrying a bruised but otherwise unhurt Raine, confused and shaken but whole and well. Quick and easy, in and out. I’d prayed and I’d prayed and I’d gotten it wrong.

Evelyn hadn’t had time to summon anything, but at least she had her scrimshawed magical thighbone clutched under her coat. What did I have to contribute?

Dead weight, a spent mind, and Raine’s handgun hidden in my hoodie.

I’d dosed myself up on more caffeine before we’d left home, and accepted Evelyn’s offer of two pills from her mysterious little bottle. I didn’t care what they were, only that they got me on my feet and kept me there for another couple of hours, and they achieved that with surprising efficiency. My mind worked and I could walk unaided, though probably not run. My body was due for one hell of a crash, and I kept coaxing it, keep going, please keep going, later, we can rest later.

We’d left Lozzie back at home, along with Kimberly and strict instructions to keep the doors locked. I hadn’t liked that, hadn’t liked the feeling of leaving Lozzie behind when we’d spent so many weeks apart already, haunted by the creeping notion she might be gone when I returned, but I wasn’t going to put my Lozzie in harm’s way. Didn’t care how much I was treating her as a surrogate for my sister. Lozzie was bright and bubbly and wonderful, and utterly useless in a fight like this. Stab-happy with a scalpel in the heat of the moment, but currently robbed of the ability to Slip away Outside, to defend herself in the way she knew how. Kimberly hadn’t taken any convincing to look after her for a bit, though I suspected the emotional support and care would be the other way around.

I should have stayed with them, half-dead and held up by pills and determination.

“So, uh,” Nicole cleared her throat. “Who’s number four here? Praem? Interesting name. You a wizard too, or … ” Praem turned to look at her, blank and empty. Nicole squinted. “No pupils? Alright then.”

“She’s a demon,” Evelyn grunted. “Possessing a life-size wooden doll. My … helper.”

“Praem is safe,” I croaked.

“Safe,” Praem agreed.

Nicole blinked three times, turned to face forward, and blew out an exasperated breath. “Explains the voice, at least.”

“Deal with it,” Evelyn said. “We don’t have time for squeamishness.”

At least Praem wasn’t dressed as a maid right now. We’d convinced her to change into outdoor clothes during our confused and hurried exit from Evelyn’s house, her habitual uniform replaced by a practical pair of baggy jeans and one of Evelyn’s comfortable jumpers. Remaining relatively inconspicuous out here on a public street was not going be to easy, but Praem marching about in her full regalia would have made it nearly impossible.

Though if she’d refused to leave her uniform behind, none of us would have stopped her.

We owed her a debt. We’d commandeered Raine’s car, neither Evelyn nor myself in any condition to walk the two-mile long journey across half of Sharrowford to reach Barrend Road, but none of us could drive. None of us, until Praem had finished helping me into the car and Evelyn had ordered her into the driver’s seat. The doll-demon had performed like a precision-engineered mechanical auto-pilot, sliding the gears without a single squeak, sticking like glue to the speed limits.

“When the hell’d you teach her to drive?” Twil had hissed from the back seat, as we’d crept through the dying streaks of rush-hour traffic.

“Didn’t,” Evelyn grunted. “It’s simple observation, mechanical application. They’re good at that.”

Raine’s battered old car sat behind us now – and behind that, further out in the shadows, lurked Felicity’s hulking range rover.

Nobody had dared suggest asking her to drive us.

“No time, yeah, no time,” Nicole echoed. She put her hands on the car’s steering wheel and squeezed until her knuckles went white. “I do need to call this in before, you know, some civvie notices something wrong.”

Evelyn agreed with a wordless grunt. She glanced up and down the street beyond the car’s windows. “Whatever we do, we do it carefully, without attracting attention, at least until we leave. All these houses. Only takes one person to get suspicious and they’ll call the police, and this could turn into a clusterfuck. More of a clusterfuck, rather. No offense.”

“None taken,” said Nicole.

“Think we’ve already got attention,” said Twil.

“Who’s who? What?” Nicole followed the direction of Twil’s nod and saw nothing through the car’s windscreen. Neither did I.

“That. Right there.” Twil extended an arm over the back of the passenger seat, and jabbed a finger. “That second car, there’s somebody sitting in the driver’s seat. They just moved. Are you all blind?”

Nicole squinted into the gathering dusk. The car Twil had indicated was barely visible, maybe a hundred feet down the road, parked carefully in a shadowed gap between pools of orange street-lighting. Dark and cold was plenty of cover for an unseen watcher.

“Twil,” Evelyn hissed from the passenger seat. “There’s-”

“Begging your pardon, miss wizard,” Nicole said slowly, eyeing the other car. “But she’s right. I’ve not done many stake-outs, but if we’ve got a tail, we need to deal with it now.”

“How didn’t you notice before?” Evelyn asked with a huff. “Isn’t this your job?”

“Apparently I don’t have … ” Nicole sighed sharply. “Werewolf senses.”

“What do we do?” I croaked.

“Depends who it is.” Nicole took a deep breath and blew it out, suddenly calmer. Having a natural, practical problem to solve settled her mind. “We can’t proceed if we’re being watched. All these houses are a bad enough liability, let alone some bugger lurking with a camera. If it’s one of the uh … ‘cultists’, then we should figure out how to detain them. A curious member of the public, I can drive off. Chances are it might not have anything to do with us.”

“Slim bloody chance, detective,” Evelyn grumbled.

“True. Still, we need to be careful.”

“We need to be fast,” I complained as hard as I could, my voice a wheeze. “Raine is inside there. We need to get rid of this person.”

“Praem could do it,” Evelyn said. “Fast and-”

“No, not in public, not like that,” Nicole said. “You kidding?”

“Heather’s right. Sod this,” Twil hissed, opened the back door, and catapulted herself out of the car. She hit the pavement at a low, lurking run, and vanished into the shadows. A wave of cold air pushed back the hard work of the BMW’s heater, and I shivered despite my coat and hoodie and three layers of tshirt. The cold was inside me, and not warming up.

Praem reached over from the middle seat and closed the door with a thump, then settled back, her hip slightly less crammed against my thigh now Twil wasn’t taking up a third of the back seat.

“Thank you,” I said, half to Praem, half to Twil who couldn’t hear me now.

“Bloody hell.” Nicole ran a hand down her face.

“Yes, that’s generally how we do things, detective,” Evelyn said.

“I gathered.”

We all watched with baited breath as Twil ghosted through the shadows, but our mysterious watcher caught wind of her a few moments too early. Headlights came on high then dipped their beams, catching Twil in the act of slinking closer, lighting her up like a suspect in a Noir film. A compact engine rumbled to life and the driver put the car in reverse, tires giving a neat little squeak as it backed away, turned in the road, and roared off.

Twil slunk back to Nicole’s car a minute later. She couldn’t contain herself long enough to climb in and shut the door.

We monsters and mages weren’t the only people interested in Number Seven Barrend Road.

“It was her!”

“Who?” Evelyn snapped. “Twil, who is ‘her’? You could be referring to fucking well anybody. Was it Raine?”

“Baldie! You know, the scary one?”

“Amy Stack?” I croaked.

“Yeah, yeah, her.”

“Get in and shut the door, for pity’s sake,” Evelyn said.

“Yeah, yeah.” Twil did as she was told, but still wide-eyed and keyed-up, raring to bare her teeth. “Second she saw me she bolted, but I saw her face, right? It was like she didn’t even care. How does she do that? She’s like a statue.”

“Sociopath,” I muttered.

“Bloody right. Creepy shit.” Twil shook her head.

“I’m sorry, could any of you wizards inform me who the hell you’re talking about?”

“Amy Stack, professional hitman or assassin or thug, we’re not sure,” Evelyn said. “I’ve never had to deal with her, Heather has. Doesn’t work for this lot anymore, or at least says she doesn’t. Splinter group. That all?”

Nicole paused. “Wizards need hitmen?”

“Some.”

“Do you think she did it?” Twil piped up. “Baldie went in there and killed them all?”

“Always missing the obvious,” Evelyn was muttering. “Always. No, Twil, of course she didn’t. She’s not stupid enough to walk in there. Not like us.”

“Uh, are you three – four? Does she count?” Nicole pointed at Praem. “Gonna come up with a plan, or what?”

Evelyn looked up at the house, darkness gathering under the eaves, windows closed to the world beyond, deceptively clean and wholesome.

“Burn it to the ground,” she said.

“Raine-” I started.

“I know Raine is in there,” Evelyn snapped, a sudden whipcrack of voice that made even Nicole jump. “If she wasn’t, we wouldn’t be sitting here. I’d have sent Praem with a jerry can of petrol and a box of matches, and a bag of salt for the earth afterward.”

“You’re joke- … you’re not joking. Oh, great. Murder and arson.” Nicole put her face in one hand.

“Absolutely not a joke,” Evelyn confirmed. “The Sharrowford cult, whatever they serve now, they got in too deep. We’re not prepared for what’s in that house. I’ll stake ten thousand pounds on that.”

“Evee?” I croaked. “We have to.”

“Yeah, uh, we are gonna bust Raine out, right?” Twil asked. “I’m not leaving without her.”

“Me neither,” I said.

“I’m not certain we can,” Evelyn continued, her voice cold and controlled.

“We will,” I croaked.

“Ask yourselves the obvious question.” Evelyn raised her chin, her voice slipping into that school-mistress teacher mode that I found so false and infuriating. Why now, Evelyn? If I’d been more energetic I could have slapped her in frustration. We needed to be breaking down that front door now, calling for Raine.

“What question?” I almost growled.

Evelyn turned and met my eyes, utterly unabashed. “Where’s the retaliation?”

“ … mm?”

“Eh?” Twil joined me.

“Am I the only one capable of thinking strategically?” Evelyn asked us. “Heather escapes from these people this morning, leaves one of them dead and the other tied up, and steals one of their greatest assets – Zheng. They likely knew we were scattered and weak. And you didn’t expect them to strike before we could regroup?”

“But … but they haven’t,” said Twil.

“Exactly. And you never wondered about this, not for one second?”

“I did,” I croaked.

“Uh, was kinda busy.” Twil scratched the back of her head. “With you, mostly.”

“Yes, well,” Evelyn waved her down. “I missed the obvious too. Where’s their counter-strike, where’s a person walking up to our front door with a machete, where’s the magical construct breaking all our skulls? Absent.” She jabbed a finger at the house. “What’s happened in there, hm? Internal schism, they killed each other? Maybe. Lost control of something like Zheng? Possible. You know what’s more likely? They were planning something, to strike back at us – you, Heather, specifically. Putting something together toward that end. Seems a bit of a coincidence that we’d find a house full of bodies first.”

“ … you mean like,” Twil ventured slowly. “They screwed up some magic?”

“Understatement of the year, yes, Twil, well done. They may have ‘screwed up some magic’ in the same way that a nuclear accident is ‘screwing up a safety test’. Alexander Lilburne’s booby-trapped corpse may only be the tip of the iceberg. They dabbled in stuff that hijacks the human brain through vision, and that was a trap laid for nobody. They’re in contact – of a kind – with Heather’s ‘Eye’. Whatever happened in there, we’re all better off not knowing about.”

“We get Raine,” I said. “I don’t care.”

“Yes, we will,” Evelyn said through gritted teeth. “The question is how.”

“I could go,” Twil said. “I’m invincible, remember?”

“Have you heard a word I said?” Evelyn turned on her, eyes blazing. “You think Zheng was any less invincible than you? Your head works the same as mine.” Evelyn reached forward and actually tapped Twil on the forehead, hard and angry. “I don’t care if you can cut all your limbs off and regrow them, you are not invincible in the way that counts.”

“What about Praem here?” Nicole suggested. “She’s not human, right?”

“She’s not-”

“Invulnerable,” I said.

“Expendable,” Evelyn said at the same time. We glanced at each other.

“Can Heather do her thing all over again, check to make sure Raine’s actually in there?” Nicole asked. “Werewolf, can you climb? If she’s up in a top-floor room, maybe you don’t have to go through the whole house.”

“I’ll die if I do it again,” I croaked, and left unsaid the real reason. I needed what energy I had for one last brainmath trick, just in case. “I’m pretty sure.”

“I don’t know what to do,” Evelyn hissed through her teeth.

“Walk in there,” I croaked.

“Heather, your dedication is touching, but you sent a seven-foot, centuries-old demon-host in there, who by your account survived a fight with a building this morning. She has not come back out.”

“I’ll go.”

I began to reach for the car door handle. It wasn’t a bluff. I didn’t care how exhausted I was, or what was in that house. I was going to fetch my girlfriend.

Without being ordered, Praem gently took my wrist and stopped me. I pulled, ineffectually, and Evelyn sighed.

“I’m not saying we don’t try,” Evelyn said. “I’m saying let me think.”

“Evee-”

“Heather, she is my best friend, and I love her almost as much as you do. Shut up and let me think.”

That stopped me. In the depths of my exhaustion and panic I hadn’t read the tightness around Evelyn’s eyes, or how she grit her teeth when she spoke. She’d never have said that out loud if Raine could hear.

I nodded, and let her think.

“Paint,” she said after a moment. “Paint and … and … a mirror.”

“Paint?” Twil squinted.

“Yes, a bucket of paint, and a mirror. It’s the best we can do. Limit visual exposure.”

I caught on instantly, my mind already running ahead. “Perseus.”

Evelyn nodded. Twil frowned.

“Greek myth. Perseus and the Gorgon. Use a mirror so you don’t turn to stone,” I explained. “And we don’t need a mirror. Use our phones.” I mimed holding up my mobile phone. “Look at stuff through your phone screen at an angle? Anything there you shouldn’t look at, take a bucket of paint, splash, cover it up.”

Nicole let out a soft laugh. “Oh this is some sci-fi bullshit. You’re kidding.”

“No, it’s our best shot. Extreme care,” Evelyn said. “Treat anything and everything in there as potentially lethal, a cognitive hazard. Kill anything that moves. Find Raine as quickly as we can, avoid anything else. Then we burn the place to the ground.”

Evelyn’s gaze wandered upward, past Twil and Praem and I, out through the back window of the car. She frowned, and Nicole followed. With more effort than I’d have liked, I twisted in my seat too, and looked back along the road.

“Idiot,” Evelyn hissed. “She’s going to get the whole street looking at her.”

Felicity was half out of her car, door standing open, waving at us with one raised arm.

==

“I’m sorry, but I have to go. I have to. I can’t- I have to go,” Felicity babbled at Twil and I through the open driver-side window, her one good eye wild with panic, the burned half of her face twitching. She’d already climbed back into her car as we’d approached. “Don’t let Evelyn go in that house, please. Promise me.”

“You’re leaving now?” Twil gaped at her.

“You’re not going to stay and help?” I hissed, outraged.

In the end, Twil and I had made the short journey down the pavement to Felicity’s car, while Praem set off in the opposite direction on a twenty minute walk toward the nearest hardware shop, on a quest for paint, petrol, and matches. Evelyn waited with detective Webb.

Out in the street, my layers and my coat barely kept the cold at bay, and the ugly metal lump in the front of my hoodie felt even heavier. I could have stayed in the car, let Twil do this. She was more than capable of asking what was wrong, and perhaps slightly better inclined toward Felicity than I felt, but I was determined to stretch my legs, keep my muscles warm, determined to be useful.

“I- I can’t.” Felicity tried to apologise with every word. “I have to go.”

“I don’t believe this,” I said, shaking my head. “Evelyn was right. You were right. You are a-”

“She said she promised to help you, Heather. She’s- she’s not meant to be corporeal, not for this long, not for more than a few minutes, but she’s stuck. I don’t know what’s wrong.”

A cold feeling settled on my throat. “She? Who are you-”

Perhaps unconsciously, Felicity’s one good eye flicked sideways, not quite a glance into the back seat, but close enough for me to follow the gesture.

‘She’ lay across the back seat, half hidden underneath a heavy blanket, hissing and twitching in the darkness.

The parasite did not look remotely like a ‘little girl in a black dress’.

Perhaps Felicity had used that description to cover for the awful reality. Or perhaps the thing was trying to be more human, in the same way Praem was trying to be a maid, but Felicity’s parasite was having far less success.

Beady black eyes like something dredged up from the ocean floor, peering at me from within deeper pool of oily night. Distant street-lighting caught on a maw full of tiny serrated teeth. Panting and shaking beneath the blanket, like an animal in pain. A bone-stretched hand with black nails shapeshifted from cat-claws to talons to little stubby fingers as I watched, then quickly bundled up underneath the blanket again.

Another throb went through the air, through my head, and Felicity’s parasite – her demon familiar, her torturer, her pet, whatever unthinkable and disgusting category it fit into – flinched and whined.

A hiss lingered in the air. Twil finally noticed too, and went wide-eyed.

“Holy shi-”

“She got back to the car, but she’s in pain,” Felicity said. Her mask of professionalism had worn paper-thin over a welter of emotion. “I-I have to do something.”

Something thumped the back of her seat. Another hiss, a wounded snake. Felicity closed her eyes and bit her lip.

“What happened?” I ignored Felicity and pressed my face closer to the back window. “What was inside?”

“I don’t think she can communicate right now,” Felicity said. “She’s not supposed to be physical for this long. I don’t understand how this is possible.”

“Para- … you,” I demanded, unable to use such an insult toward a creature in such obvious pain. “What was in the house? Please.”

A limb – not an arm, a blackened thing of shifting oil and stripped muscle – met my face at the window and made me flinch, before vanishing back down into the bundle below.

“Aym,” Felicity said – a name, a name cradled with more care than should be possible for this inhuman writhing lump in the back of her car – and twisted to look at her parasite. “Aym, it’s going to be okay. I promise. You’ll be okay. I’m going to- I’ll fix you.”

Another two thumps on the back of Felicity’s chair. Her exterior was rapidly crumbling.

“You need to look after your pet,” I said. Not a question.

“She is not a pet,” Felicity said, and I felt as if that was the first time I’d heard her tell a whole truth. “She’s all I have.”

From the darkness in the back seat, a hissing laugh. Mockery? Victory? Hysterical pain?

“I don’t have time to think about you or what you are,” I said to Felicity’s face. I pointed at the road. “If you need to go, then go.”

“Don’t let Evelyn in that house,” Felicity pleaded. She turned the key in the ignition and the car roared to life, but she hesitated as she wound the window up.

Good luck,” a voice came from the back seat, wet and sharp and evil, spoken through a sucking wound.

Felicity turned to the road, eyes hollow, and left.

==

Twenty minutes later, five furtive figures slipped through the open iron gate of Number Seven Barrend Road. The house rose above us in the thickening darkness. Not even six o’clock yet, but the sun was gone. A few lights burned inside the house, trapped behind heavy curtains, but not a whisper of movement reached us down below.

Nicole went first, the face of professional normality walking up to the front door, raising her hand and knocking. More for appearance than practicality. Twil and Evelyn followed, the latter struggling with her walking stick, legs still not quite right after her long unconsciousness. Twil carried a bucket of paint and a trowel-like scoop. I followed in their wake.

Last came Praem, carrying another bucket of paint in one hand and a sloshing jerry can of petrol in the other.

Nobody answered the door. Nothing stirred inside the house – except three pulses of that blood-to-the-head dizzy feeling. In the distance, somebody slammed a car door. Laughter caught on the wind. Trees rustled above us.

“Praem,” Evelyn hissed.

Praem stepped forward, drew back her free hand, and shattered the lock on the front door. Punched it almost clean through the wood. The sound was awful, splintering and tearing, metal sheering. She pulled her hand back and the entire brass-and-steel mechanism came with it.

“Wait!” Nicole hissed, one hand up. “Wait.”

We waited for the inevitable curious neighbour, the passer by, the curtain twitcher. Three, four minutes passed, and nothing happened.

“In the clear, right?” Twil hissed.

Evelyn shot her a glare. “We’re stepping into a haunted house. So, no.”

Nicole already had her phone out, using it to peer through the gap left by the ripped-out door handle. The rest of us followed her example and took out our phones – except Praem. She was staring at a random point on the wall.

“More motion?” I asked.

“Motion,” Praem intoned.

“Shhh!” Evelyn hissed.

Getting inside Number Seven was quite the performance. Easing the front door open, poking phones around the corner to check for nasty surprises that might fry our brains or implant squid-monsters into our skulls, staying silent and stealthy. I’m quite certain Nicole’s instinct was to announce herself with a cry of “police!”, and I was bursting to shout Raine’s name at the top of my lungs.

The house’s foyer was unoccupied. We crept in.

As ugly as the exterior. Cream-white walls and shiny skirting boards. A wide doormat protected marble floor tiles, which gave way to thick carpets that looked as if they’d seen less than a week of foot traffic. High ceilings, fake-gold and thin-glass light fixtures, a bowl of fake fruit on a sideboard.

Nobody lived here. Existed within the walls for a brief time, perhaps, but this was not a home, just a shell of a house decorated to give the impression of high-class life. A holiday house, a showroom, a rich man’s bauble. A thin layer of dust but no real dirt, no wear, too clean – except for the two dozen pairs of shoes clustered by the door.

Three yawning doorways led off in different directions.

A huge pool of blood had soaked into the carpet of the room straight ahead. The source was out of sight, around the corner. I stared at the crimson stain through the screen on my phone, my guts going cold.

“Reeks in here,” Twil whispered, wrinkling her nose.

“Shut the door,” Evelyn hissed. “And keep your voice down.”

One did not need to be a werewolf to smell the awful scents of iron and effluvia, of voided bowels and torn meat. The air was thick with it, drowning out the smell of potpourri and carpet shampoo. Twil closed the door behind us as quietly as possible. Praem set down the can of petrol, but readied the paint. Somewhere in the depths of the house, I could hear a distant hum, the heating system perhaps, and a faint scratch-scratch-scratch like the skipping of an old-fashioned record player.

And below that, a high-pitched whine on the very edge of hearing. Nails down a blackboard. Only audible if one concentrated on the silence, but enough to make your eyes water.

“What is that sound?” Nicole whispered.

“Not really a sound,” Evelyn whispered back. “Ignore it.”

“Right … right. Right.”

“Keep it together, detective,” Evelyn hissed.

“Right. Which way first-”

A giggle rose from deep in the house, a wave of manic, hyperventilating humour, echoing like in a cave. The laughter rose to a hysterical crescendo, then faded, died, and just when we were all about to breathe once more, a staccato of running footsteps sprinted across the second floor, thumping on the ceiling above our heads. The footsteps raced on – and on and on, as if running far further than the actual distance possible inside these four walls. The footsteps receded into the distance.

Silence returned. Except for the high-pitched whine.

“Guess somebody’s still alive in here,” Nicole whispered.

“Nobody. Freak. Out,” Evelyn hissed. “Stick to the plan. That room first. Twil- no, I’ll do it. Here-”

Throb, went my head.

Reality winced like an eyeball squeezing shut, so much worse inside the house. We all winced. Graphical glitches marred the image on my phone, jarring the picture sideways.

And a song rang out from somewhere nearby.

The road goes ever on and on, down from the door-

I knew that song. From The Hobbit. Such a familiar thing, a childhood thing, sung in a forlorn voice, echoing from behind a corner or every corner or just behind one’s head.

Throb, and the singing cut off. Gone.

A muffled scream, somewhere deep in the house, panting and high and frantic, more like sex than pain.

Silence. Thirty seconds. A minute. None of us dared move.

“ … what the fuck was all that?” Nicole hissed, wide-eyed.

“I don’t know,” Evelyn whispered. She’d gone pale and drawn.

“The singing,” I managed, had to swallow to speak more. “That was Sarika’s voice. That was her.”

Evelyn glanced at me, doing a poor job of hiding her fear. She wasn’t cut out for direct confrontation. “They’ve broken reality in here,” she said. “They’ve abused it and snapped it in half.”

“We find Raine,” I said.

“Why am I even in here?” Nicole said, voice distant. “This was meant to be a job for you wizards.”

“Leave if you want,” Evelyn hissed at her.

The detective swallowed hard. “ … nah. Young woman’s been kidnapped. Pile of bodies. Criminals breaking reality, gotta be illegal, that.”

Struggling for a moment with my hoodie, I manoeuvred Raine’s handgun out of my front pocket. The ugly metal felt cold and wrong in my hands. I offered it to the detective. She stared at me.

“ … I’ve never fired a gun before,” she said.

“Me neither,” I whispered. “Better you than me.”

She took it gingerly, as if it were a live scorpion. She frowned at it for a moment, experimenting with holding the gun and her phone at the same time, then found the safety and clicked it off.

“How many bullets are in it? I don’t want to eject- is that the right word? Eject the magazine, in case I can’t get it back in.”

I shrugged. “Don’t know.”

Nicole wet her lips. “Better than nothing. Good for a bluff, I suppose.”

“I doubt that thing will be relevant here, detective.” Evelyn pulled the scrimshawed thighbone out from inside her coat, and placed her free hand around the shaft, fingers in precise places. Nicole’s eyebrows climbed her face.

“Right. Right. Magic wands,” she said, and tried to laugh. It didn’t work.

“Twil!” Evelyn hissed as Twil moved. “I said I’ll-”

“I’m doing it,” Twil grunted, no room for argument as she crept forward to check around the doorway ahead. She kept to one side and slowly inched her phone around the door frame, moving it up and down to take in the ceiling and the floor, every possible place the cult – or the Eye – could hide a cognitive hazard. She pulled a disgusted face, then froze and frowned.

“Um … ”

“What?” Evelyn hissed. “If there’s something there, throw paint on it. That’s the point.”

“There is … but … ” Twil glanced back – at me.

“Let me see,” Evelyn said, and went to Twil, careful not to clack her walking stick too loudly. Praem kept at Evelyn’s shoulder without being ordered. Evelyn peered at Twil’s phone screen and went a little green around the gills. A dead body inside the room, I assumed.

They both looked back at me. The bottom of my stomach dropped out.

“It’s not-” I could barely get the words out. “It’s not Raine.”

“No!” Evelyn hissed.

“Is it safe?” Nicole asked.

“Exceptionally,” Evelyn said through gritted teeth.

Twil led us through.

It was a kind of reception room, with a low glass table in the middle and a pair of leather sofas either side, for the endless dull coffee mornings and casual social occasions of upper-middle class Sharrowford. Cream walls, porcelain knick-knacks over an imitation fireplace, faux-oak end tables with vases and dead flowers.

Four dead bodies.

One looked like it had exploded from inside, or been pulverised by a wrecking ball, stuffed into a corner and splattered up the walls. Barely recognisable as human, let alone male or female, young or old, more meat and bone than person. Zheng’s work? I could barely look without feeling sick, and Evelyn kept her eyes firmly averted, until Praem moved to stand between her and the carnage.

The second corpse was almost worse, if that was possible. An older gentlemen lay half-collapsed over the sofa, his clothes roughly stripped and cut back to reveal masses of pale overweight flesh. Blood matted his beard and bow tie and gaudy suit jacket.

A symbol had been carved into his flesh, over and over again, crimson lines dry and crusted now. The bloody scissors next to his hand suggested he’d done it to himself.

Shaking, unable to believe my eyes, I recognised the symbol.

The third corpse – a blonde young man – had slit his own wrists with a jagged piece of glass. The pool of blood we’d seen from the entrance belonged to him. The fourth had used the blood to make art, and lay face-up, staring at the ceiling, no visible wound on him but quite dead, dried bloody foam at his mouth and nostrils.

It was the man from Glasswick tower. The cultist Zheng and I had spared. I couldn’t recall his name.

His sleeve was rolled up to show the unwise gift I’d given him. He’d tried to flay the skin away from his flesh, remove it from his arm, but pain or interruption had stopped him halfway.

“Heather,” Evelyn was hissing. “Heather, what did you do?”

“I don’t … I don’t know. I-I didn’t-”

On the wall, a symbol, eight feet tall. The same symbol as the one carved into the old man’s flesh, the same as on the cultist’s arm. In the blood of the man who’d slit his wrists, soaked into the paint and plaster, every angle precise and mathematical, a branching tree-limb of comfort and protection, the same as on my left forearm.

The Fractal.

They’d daubed it on the wall, in blood.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

that which you cannot put down – 7.11

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

“Get out!”

“I’m gone, I’m gone, yes. I’m so sorry Evelyn, I’m so sorry, I-”

“Out! All of you, out!”

“Evee.”

“Out!”

“Evee, what- ow- fuck- don’t-”

Evee,” I tried again, too exhausted to raise my voice above the pandemonium.

Felicity was obeying the screeched command without protest, stumbling into the kitchen to avoid the white-hot fury croaking from Evelyn’s sandpaper throat – and to avoid her own shame. For once in Evelyn’s life, anger failed to cover her real reaction, defensive fear and shaking panic. The sight of Felicity’s face had succeeded where confusion and disorientation – and Zheng, towering over her – had not. Despite nearly 12 hours of demon-possessed coma, for twenty seconds Evelyn fought like a cornered fox.

Twil had not expected to be used as a makeshift projectile, and that was the only reason Evelyn’s meagre strength manged to push her halfway across the floorboards in a clatter of detritus and surprised werewolf. She’d tried to return. Evelyn lashed out.

“Get off! Get off!”

“Evee, it’s me! It- ow. It’s me! It’s Twil!”

Evelyn stopped trying to hit her, staring, blinking, throat bobbing with a swallow dry as the desert. She tried to draw her legs up, then realised one of them wasn’t there, slipped, half-fell. Twil caught her.

“Get off me! I said get out, are you deaf?” Evelyn screamed in Twil’s face. “Out!”

“Alright, alright!” Twil threw her hands up in surrender. Evelyn glared at her, at Kimberly, at me, at the walls, at the open doorway to the kitchen. Twil retreated and Kimberly scurried past her, almost as terrified as Evelyn but hiding it far better. Lozzie ducked out of the way, vanishing into the kitchen, covering her head as if under bombardment.

Evelyn cast around, wild-eyed, propping herself up on one hand. “Where the bloody hell is my leg?”

“Upstairs,” Praem intoned. Evelyn flinched, jerked around to find the source of Praem’s voice. The doll-demon stood perfectly still, staring down at the clay golem. Zheng was doing the same, though with a little less stillness.

“Then get it!”

Praem did not obey. Praem did not move a muscle.

“Praem. Damn you, I-”

“Evee,” I croaked at her again.

“I said out!” Evelyn whirled on me, lurched on the spot, clutching the blanket around her shoulders. She blinked once, almost as if surprised to see me. “Let me- you- I can’t-”

“Shaman?” Zheng purred.

“Yes, that means you too, you ruddy great thing,” Evelyn spat, turning on her. “Kill me or get out.” She jerked an arm at the door, muscles not working properly.

“I stay right here, wizard,” Zheng purred.

“Evee,” I tried again.

“Get-”

“Evee, I can’t walk unaided right now.”

Evelyn opened her mouth to shout at me again, then closed it and swallowed, wincing at her dry mouth. She looked from me to the brass pyramid, to the huge magic circle on the floor, to the clay golem and up at Zheng, brows knitting in thought. She even looked at Twil with her hands up, waiting at safe distance in the doorway, then down at herself. Her brain finally allowed her to see what was in front of her eyes.

“Makes two of us,” she said, eventually.

“Mm,” I grunted.

“Are you like, safe to approach now?” Twil ventured.

“No,” Evelyn snapped, then faltered. “I-I, not … right now.”

“Okay. Cool, we’re cool,” Twil said. “It’s gonna be okay. We’re okay.”

“What is she doing here?” Evelyn hissed through clenched teeth. I didn’t have to ask who ‘she’ was. Evelyn’s eyes flicked to the doorway again, and the implication of Felicity hiding out there beyond sight.

“It was the only way,” I said. “I’m sorry. We thought you were going to die.”

“Of what? All I remember is the … dreams like- … this was Raine’s bloody idea, wasn’t it? Where the hell is she?”

“Kidnapped.”

Evelyn didn’t have anything to say to that. She stared at me, a slow change coming across her face, a falling away of the anger as distraught horror peered back at me. She looked at Twil. Twil nodded. She looked at Praem, Praem looked back. She looked at Zheng.

“And what in all hell is this thing doing here?” she asked. “And talking?”

“Wizard,” Zheng rumbled by way of greeting.

“Best not call her a thing,” I suggested.

“Yes, yes,” Evelyn waved a vague hand, then rubbed the bridge of her nose. “What the hell is going on? No, no, not you,” she pointed at Twil. “Heather, you tell me. Explain.”

I told her.

As I told her, the clay golem began to steam. The matter could not contain what now lay within. Praem and Zheng both stood on guard, one impassive, hands folded, back straight, the other brooding and flexing her hands and then finally squatting down like a Russian gangster about to threaten a late-paying debtor.

Short, to the point, the skeleton of facts bare of details. Everything since she’d passed out last night. So absurd when put into plain language, but I lacked the energy for editorialising. Whisked away to Wonderland, but saved by my lost sister and Lozzie. Woke up in a building possessed by the memory of Alexander Lilburne’s body, and freed a giant zombie. Wave hello to Zheng, yes, that’s right. Raine’s been kidnapped and we had two corpses on our hands and oh by the way we have a Sharrowford police force detective on our side now, because I broke her mind. Felicity was our only choice for waking you from a coma and there’s a demon in that lump of clay behind you. Any questions?

Evelyn did not have any questions.

“Then you woke up,” I ended. “And threw Twil.”

“Yeah. Ow,” Twil added.

Evelyn squeezed her eyes shut and put a hand to her face. “I can’t deal with this all at once.”

“Yeah,” Twil said. “You’re telling us.”

“Evee. Evee, I’m glad you’re okay. That’s what matters.”

“Yes, well,” Evelyn huffed. “That remains to be seen, doesn’t it?” She eyed the gently steaming clay golem. “Hopefully this cunt hasn’t tried to rewire my lungs to breathe methane, or routed my piss into my spinal fluid.”

“We’d probably know that by now.”

Evelyn tried to stretch her shoulders and let out a grunt of pain. “Thought it was all a bad dream.”

“You were aware?”

“Oh, shit,” Twil whispered.

Evelyn waved a hand, brushing the cobwebs away from her mind. “Fever dreams, I … Twil, you want to make yourself useful?”

Twil visibly perked up. “Yeah. Yeah, what do you need?”

“Go get my leg.”

“Right you are.”

“Please,” Evelyn added as Twil left.

“Evee?”

“Not in front of her,” Evelyn hissed. “Fever dreams, but- but yes. Wasn’t like when I was little. Not conscious, no communication, just … ” She waved incoherently at her own skull. “And then I wake up and see her, and none of it was a dream.” Evelyn swallowed hard again, dry as sand. “Think I was winning though. Bastard thing.”

“What was it like?”

“I wasn’t playing chess against it in my head, that’s for sure.”

We shared exhausted silence for a long moment. Evelyn squinted in dehydrated pain, trying to hold together the shreds of her dignity. Out in the kitchen, Lozzie peered around the door frame. Evelyn looked up and Lozzie froze.

“Oh. You,” Evelyn croaked.

Lozzie retreated again. I took several deep breaths and roused myself.

“Zheng,” I said. “Time to go.”

Zheng didn’t respond to me, but instead looked up at Praem. A silent communication passed between the demon-hosts, and Praem resumed watching the unmoving golem. Zheng stood up and rolled her shoulders like a mountain shrugging. “Shaman.”

“Extra points if you bring her back,” I managed.

Zheng flashed a crescent of teeth, and stalked out of the room. I saw Lozzie scurry after her briefly, heard a muffled exchange of voices, and the front door open and close, locks rattling.

“You are going to have to explain her in more detail,” Evelyn said.

“Yes.”

“A lot more detail.”

“I know.”

Evelyn disentangled one arm from her bundled sheet and held out a hand to me. “Help me up, you’re going to have to be my hobbling stick. I can’t wait for my leg.”

“Evee, I can’t stand up unaided right now.”

“Oh. Oh, yes. Well.” She glanced over at Praem instead.

“And I think she’s occupied with guard duty,” I said.

“Quite.” Evelyn grimaced. “That wasn’t empty rhetoric earlier. I need to get up or we’re going to have another crisis.”

“Hm?”

“I’m dying for a shit.”

“Oh.” If I hadn’t been so tired, I would have laughed.

“And I’m not going alone. Not with her inside the house. Her and her vile demonic pet.”

==

Over the next half hour the group drifted apart, human wreckage flung far and wide by centrifugal force, denied the anchor of coherent leadership with me out of commission.

Twil helped Evelyn to the bathroom, to the sound of much complaining and grumbling, half of it performative and half of it real. Kimberly vanished upstairs somewhere, as far from the magic as possible, to light up and fill her bloodstream with THC. Didn’t blame her. Lozzie flitted about, airy and distant, a confusing half notion on the edge of my vision.

Felicity kept her head so far down she was practically subterranean. I think she actually went outdoors to sit in her car.

Pressure and time brought us back together, two things we now had in abundance.

Pressure, time, and morbid fascination.

At first it was only Praem and I. Me hunched over on the old sofa, clutching my phone in nervous hope, trapped halfway between exhausted sleep and sleepless fear; Praem stood on guard over the occupied magic circle, her eyes locked on the gently steaming clay golem as it began to change.

Lozzie came next, venturing back into the magical workshop to rouse me with water and a peanut butter sandwich. My little angel in a poncho, bringing protein and hydration. I drank the water, and forced down several bites of the sandwich, though it tasted like cardboard and sat in my stomach like lead. I assumed Lozzie would be driven off by the sight of the thing in the circle, as it slopped and slid and pulled itself into a sitting position like a drunken paraplegic, but I’d underestimated her constitution, how she was used to all this.

She settled on the sofa, head against my shoulder. “It’s like claymation,” she whispered, as if we were watching a film and she didn’t want to talk over the dialogue.

“Mm.”

The Outsider in clay began to explore the limits of its prison, trapped inside the triple-layered magic circle. Were the changes a response to imprisonment, or was it warping its vessel into something approximating its true form?

More importantly, how could we sit there and watch it happen? Distantly I knew I should be more afraid, more disgusted, but I didn’t care.

Perhaps because Praem was unconcerned. She knew the circle would hold. I trusted her judgement.

Nothing to do with Lozzie nuzzling my neck, her hand slipping into mine and our fingers intertwining. Nothing to do with the scent of her, her body heat pressed against my side, her knee in my lap. Lozzie and I snuggled and warmed each other like a pair of small animals while we watched a horror from another world unfold itself in clay.

Touches only Raine and I would normally share, stripped of any sexual meaning, my mind too fuzzy with exhaustion to question the skinship. Of course, there was one other who I’d touch like this, one other with whom I’d share my body without a single hint of sexuality, without hesitation, without even thinking.

I was treating Lozzie like nine-year-old me had treated my twin sister.

Lucky me, too tired to feel guilty.

Eventually we heard Evelyn stomping around again, grumbling at Twil, her walking stick and unshod prosthetic foot clacking against the floorboards. They clattered around in the kitchen and the microwave came alive with a slow electric hum. A face looked in on us briefly, then froze, eyes going wide at the contents of the circle.

“Um,” Twil said, and made it sound like ‘oh fuck’. She bristled, a hound surprised by a deep-sea creature.

“S’fine,” I croaked.

“Yeah, it’s perfectly fine!” Lozzie chirped.

Twil couldn’t tear her eyes away from the circle. “Uh, is it, like, safe? That does not look safe. This is not safe.”

“Safe and sound,” Praem intoned.

“It’s trapped inside the circle,” I said. “Kim’s better at this than she gives herself credit for.”

“Twil?” Evelyn’s voice called from the kitchen. “Twil, what are you doing?”

“Right, right then,” Twil muttered. “Um. Just … shout? If it-”

Twil.”

“Yeah, yeah, coming.”

Lozzie and I slipped back into our wordless skinship, and I slipped down into dark thoughts, cushioned by the physical reality of Lozzie’s hand on my belly and her head on my shoulder. She anchored me, as inanimate comfort could not. I drifted on the very edge of consciousness, one eye on my mobile phone, one eye turning inward.

“Ugly bastard, isn’t it?”

“What? Oh.”

Evelyn stood in the doorway, leaning on her walking stick, looking more worn-out and shaky than I’d ever seen her before. She wore a fresh – if not clean – change of clothes, armoured in an over sized sweater and pajama bottoms and slippers. She’d been standing there for minutes, slowly working her way through some microwaved delivery mechanism for salt and fat, watching the Outsider in the circle. I hadn’t noticed her.

“Ugly,” Praem agreed, voice clear as a bell amid the static in my brain.

“I think it’s kinda cute,” Lozzie said.

Evelyn eyed her too. Lozzie went stiff. I grunted a complaint, but Evelyn was either too grumpy or too tired to care.

“How do I treat you, then? Lauren, Lozzie?” she asked. “What are you?”

Lozzie bobbed her head, halfway between animal submission and a sitting curtsy. “ … Heather’s … friend?”

“Yes,” I grunted.

Evelyn chewed slowly, swallowed, and sniffed. “Good enough.”

Yes,” again.

“Yes, yes.” Evelyn dismissed the concern with jerk of her chin, indicating the disgusting thing trapped inside the circle. “Are you sure you want to sit there, watching that?”

I grunted an affirmative. Evelyn cocked an eyebrow.

“Thinking,” I expanded. “Hard to explain.”

“If you change your mind, Twil can carry you upstairs. I understand you’ve been awake and going for too long, Heather. I can … you know. Take over now?”

I shook my head. “Where is Twil?”

Evelyn shrugged. “Sent her upstairs. Digging for my pills.”

“Pills?”

Evelyn stomped into the room and very carefully joined Lozzie and I on the sofa, easing herself down with a pained wince. She rubbed at her hip and flexed her back, sore from hours lying in bed. “Bastard thing could at least have grown me a new leg.”

“Can they do that?” Lozzie asked, all innocent eyes.

“It’s a joke.”

“Be cool if they could.”

“Mm.”

We all stared at the demon in the circle. Three fragile little apes clustered shoulder-to-shoulder, while Praem took point.

The Outsider had begun to work on its clay-based prison even before it had figured out how to sit upright – simulating muscle fibres inside the clay, I assumed, similar to what I’d seen earlier that morning in Praem’s exposed wooden bones – but the process had accelerated, the steam trickling off into a thin trail as the golem left behind even the rudiments of human form.

Legs and arms had been absorbed into the trunk. The head had joined the neck, no distinction between the parts. The mouth had vanished but the eyes had deepened into cracked black pits that seemed to open onto depths far deeper than the clay could possibly provide. The torso lost all coherence, flayed ends fluttering like tattered cloth in wind, and the back had sprouted a double-dozen hooked tentacles, all of them probing and feeling the boundary of the Outsider’s magical cell.

It looked like a ragged sheet dragged over a bundle of rotting squid.

Disgusting and weird, yes, but not disturbing to the senses. Clay molded the Outsider’s true form into a cartoon of itself, softened the affect. Lozzie was right, it did look a bit like claymation.

I suspected that access to real flesh would have resulted in a far less endurable sight.

Is that what it would have turned Evee into, if she hadn’t been already immune?

“Clay’s easier to work with,” Evelyn said, as if reading my thoughts off my face. “Faster, but rougher. Nothing up here to base itself on,” she tapped her forehead. “It’s defaulting to its own norm.”

“Evee,” I managed after a moment. “Are you … okay?”

She looked at me, one eyebrow raised. Coughed. “No. No, I am pretty far from okay.”

I nodded. “Stupid question.”

“But I am alive. Which is good, all things considered. Thank you.”

“I was so worried about you,” I croaked, let my eyes close for a second of rest.

“Yes, yes. I gather everyone was.”

“Welcome home,” Praem said. We all stared at her. Evelyn frowned.

“You had a similar experience, no?” she asked, but Praem just stared back.

“Praem was very protective-” I started

“Tsss,” Evelyn hissed, frowning and embarrassed. “I know, I know. Twil told me already.”

The bundle of rotting squid inside the circle lashed its tentacles back and forth, reaching up to the ceiling and filling the invisible cylinder of its prison, before subsiding in defeat once more, having found no egress.

“Can it hear us?” I asked.

“No ears,” Evelyn said. “Unless it figures out how to grow some. Or maybe it has other sensory apparatus. Maybe those tentacles. Who gives a shit right now? Your Tenny doesn’t have ears, but then pneuma-somatic life isn’t the same as things from Outside.”

“Wish I could ask it why it’s here,” I murmured.

Evelyn frowned at me like I’d suggested skinning my own face. “If you want to lose your mind, go right ahead.”

“It’s from the Eye. It’ll know things.”

Things? Yes, I’m certain it will, but I’d sooner rummage through the thoughts of a cannibal psychopath.”

“I think I should try,” I said quietly. Evelyn shook her head, huffed, and crossed her arms.

After all, here was an emissary from my true foe.

The Sharrowford cult was nothing really. Incompetent and subverted, couldn’t even hold onto their greatest asset – Zheng – while I escaped their clutches in a single morning. They had Raine, yes, and that terrified me still, but in a normal way, a human way, a fluke, a stroke of bad luck. If the Eye’s Lozzie-thing-impersonator hadn’t attacked us they’d have never gotten past Raine with their kneecaps intact. Sarika worried me a little. Wasn’t like Alexander. He’d been full of himself and his power, and that arrogance had ended him, but Sarika wasn’t a megalomaniac. Potentially capable, potentially cunning.

But she didn’t matter either. Darkness loomed behind her.

Ever since Raine had first drawn the Fractal on my arm and the dreams had stopped, I’d assumed the Eye was done, blocked, passive. We’d firewalled it off from my mind, kept it at bay, bought time and life so I could prepare to save my sister.

But now? Now it sent the Lozzie-thing to take me away. It infested the minds of what was left of the Sharrowford cult, left a tripwire trap in Alexander’s corpse, disabled Praem and sent one of its minions to possess Evelyn.

One opening. Alexander Lilburne had given the Eye one opening, made a bad deal, and it had almost managed to destroy me and mine in less than twenty four hours.

If there was a way to communicate with this Outsider, this shard of the Eye, its minion, and unfeeling animal, whatever it was, I was going to find out.

And I was going to hurt it until I understood why.

“I screwed up, didn’t I?” Evelyn sighed heavily. “I got arrogant, and I got … well, got.”

“Wasn’t your fault,” I croaked.

Lozzie bit her lip and watched, chin still on my shoulder, her weight and heat against my side.

“Yes it is,” Evelyn grumbled. “I underestimated this, all of this. Broke half my own goddamn rules. Never, never underestimate. Never.”

“We didn’t know the Eye was involved,” I said.

“Doesn’t matter. I got sloppy. I don’t deserve to be alive, I should be dead.”

“No you shouldn’t,” Lozzie said softly. Evelyn just grunted and waved a hand.

I pulled myself together as best I could, brought my thoughts back to the present, reigned in my fears, and said, “I’m sorry about Felicity.”

“Oh, fuck Felicity,” Evelyn spat. “Who cares? What are you doing about Raine?”

I blinked at her for a moment, then waggled my mobile phone. “The detective. And Zheng. Remember?”

“Of course I bloody well remember. Hard not to remember seven feet of zombie. That’s it?”

“It’s not like I can stand up.”

“Mm,” Evelyn grumbled her disapproval, scowling into empty space, radiating irritation. She crossed and uncrossed her arms, rubbed at the place her prosthetic leg attached to her flesh, lay her walking stick across her legs and put it down again, and then finally turned back to me. “Where is she now?”

“ … Raine?”

“No, Felicity,” Evelyn snapped. “Who else would I be talking about?”

I shrugged, slowly, painfully. “Think she went out to her car. Hasn’t come back in.”

“Good.” Evelyn took a deep breath, blew it out slowly. “Good. She better stay there. You hear me, Praem? She comes back in you throw her out. Throw her into traffic, even better.”

Praem did not respond.

“I’m really sorry, Evee,” I said. “I didn’t figure it out until five minutes before she did the spell.”

Evelyn hit me with a frown like a sledgehammer. “Figure what out?”

I squinted hard, tried to read the shivering signs underneath Evelyn’s exterior. “The … she … she was the doctor who took your leg, no?” I lowered my voice, shot a nervous glance at Lozzie.

“True,” Evelyn said, voice tight.

“Evee?”

“What story did she feed you?” Evelyn hissed. “Altruism? Forgiveness? She tell you what she really is, hm? Heather, that woman was obsessed with me, when I was a child.”

I went cold inside. “She … Evee?”

“No, not like that,” she hissed.

“She- she was never alone with you,” I blurted out. “Always one of us here.”

“Good.”

We lapsed into silence. My mind raced.

“Evee, I would never have let her into the house, if-”

“Yes, yes, I’m not angry at you, Heather, I’m … ” Evelyn swallowed a mouthful of acid. “Finally got her chance, didn’t she? Pretending that she’s anything but a blood-soaked butcher.”

“She said-”

“I don’t want to know what she-”

“-that saving you won’t make it right,” I finished.

Evelyn glared at me, then at the clay horror in the circle, then seemed to shrink and retreat into herself. “Bloody right it doesn’t. She can fuck off and die.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” Evelyn sighed heavily. “I’m alive, aren’t I? You do know what she is though, don’t you? Her and her vile little demonic sex pet?”

“Yes, I told you, I met- wait, what?” I found, in the depths of physical and emotional exhaustion, that I could still feel surprise. “Evee, I’m sorry, ‘sex pet’?”

“She carries on a relationship with it.” Evelyn rolled her eyes. “What, she didn’t tell you? Why am I not surprised?”

I recalled that dripping sulphur voice, speaking through a mouth of knives and darkness, a little girl from hell, and seriously adjusted my impression of Felicity. My skin crawled. “You must be joking.”

Evelyn just stared at me, as exhausted as I was.

“You’re not joking,” I said. “Oh. God.”

“Yes.”

“Evee, ew.”

“Yes.”

The sound of Twil descending the stairs mercifully forestalled any further speculation.

“I’m going to have to apologise to her,” Evelyn murmured. “I hit her, didn’t I?”

“Twil? You did.”

“God damn it,” she hissed.

“She’ll understand,” I tried. “She’ll forgive. She’s good at that. Just tell her the truth.”

“The whole truth?”

“If you feel like it.”

She swallowed. “Deserves a lot better than the likes of me,” she hissed, so quietly I barely heard.

Twil appeared in the doorway and held up a small pill bottle, a lopsided grin on her face. “Found it! Your bedside table is uh … a bit of a … train wreck.” She trailed off, distracted again by the bundle of squid in the magic circle. “Fuck me, it looks worse than before.”

“Harmless. Caged,” Evelyn grunted, and held out a hand. “Give those here.”

“Right you are.”

Evelyn popped the lid off the pill bottle, shook two unmarked white tablets into her hand, and swallowed them dry. She tucked the bottle away in a pocket.

“That thing is so weird looking,” Twil was saying.

“Thank you,” Evelyn whispered, far too quietly

“Eh?” Twil looked round. “Sorry?”

“She said, thank you for bringing her pills,” I spoke up, too tired to watch these two do this dance right now, all my caution to the wind. “She’s grateful, and she likes your company, and is relieved to be alive, and I’d even wager she’s happy you were there when she woke up, and-”

Heather,” Evelyn spat, going red in the face. Twil blinked in surprise, eyebrows halfway up her forehead. Lozzie practically vibrated with tension, I think she understood instantly. “I- you-”

I stared back, numb and uncaring – or at least telling myself I was numb and uncaring. “Raine has been kidnapped and might die. Stop stalling. Tell her.”

“Not-” Evelyn hissed. “Not now.”

“Then when?” I asked. “It’s right in front of you, Evee. When are you going to reach out and take it?”

Twil frowned like a dog confronted by algebra. “What the hell are you two talking about? Hello? Can we focus on, like, the squid monster we’ve got in here?”

“Later,” Evelyn grunted at me, then scowled at Twil. “And that thing doesn’t matter, no more than a lump of removed earwax.”

Twil snorted and shook her head. “Right. Sure.”

Evelyn rolled her eyes, then nodded down at the mobile phone still clutched in my hand. “You’ve got this police detective on finding Raine, haven’t you?”

“I hope.”

She shook her head. “A police detective. My mother would have shit herself blind at that.”

“Her name’s Nicole,” I said, trying to distract myself from thinking about Raine. “I think you’d get on.”

“A police detective, really?” Evelyn’s voice dripped with sarcasm.

“She’s very … bitter.”

Evelyn cocked an eyebrow.

“Like I said, I think you’d get on.”

Evelyn snorted, a derisive dismissal from anybody else, practically affection from her. Lozzie stifled a giggle.

“Sounds about right,” Twil muttered.

“We can organise,” Evelyn said. “Give me a minute to sit still, wait for my pills to do their job, and we’ll organise. You know where Raine is, and we’re going to go get her. Though … anything I can call up pales in comparison to what you’ve already sent.”

“You mean Zheng?” I asked.

“What else could I possibly mean? I’m certainly not talking about Sharrowford’s police force.”

“Is she really that dangerous?”

Evelyn managed to give me a look like a incredulous schoolmarm. “What do you think, Heather?”

“Well, I think she’s a seven foot superhuman cannibal, yes, but … ” I struggled through the last twelve hours of memory, blurred by exhaustion and coffee. “When I freed her, and then I called this Sarika woman to try to intimidate her, she acted like freeing Zheng was … ”

“Irresponsible?” Evelyn offered.

“Yes. Yes, quite. Is it?”

Evelyn shrugged. “Most likely. How old is she?”

“Quite old. I think. I haven’t asked.”

“You can’t be rude to a demon.”

“I think you can,” I protested.

“Mm. Maybe. Point is, something as old as her should have gone mad long ago. That’s what happens to these demons, Heather. They can’t deal with reality, with our reality at least. They get unstable, or obsessive, or their minds spiral out over time. The things my mother used to make … well. I’ve seen it enough.”

I glanced at Praem, suddenly concerned. Evelyn shook her head, half-grimacing.

“Will that happen to her? Evee?”

“Praem’s alright,” Twil put in. “Isn’t she?”

Evelyn shook her head again. “Think of them like turtles.”

“Turtles?” Twil pulled a face.

“Turtles?” I echoed. “Evee, I’m too tired for a metaphor.”

“Turtles are cute,” said Lozzie.

“Baby turtles on a beach,” Evelyn continued. “Hundreds hatch, dozens die before they reach the sea. Dozens more die in the shallows, eaten by predators. Dozens more die deeper out. A tiny number survive, grow big and strong, get nice hard shells. Invincible. That’s Zheng, I suspect. One turtle out of hundreds to survive all the psychological dangers of hijacking a human corpse. Which means her shell is nice and thick, and she’s got all those obsessive tendencies or instabilities, but she functions all the same.” Evelyn cocked an eyebrow at me. “She called you ‘shaman’. An affectation?”

“Um, yes. She started that when she realised I could free her.”

“You be bloody careful about that, Heather. You don’t want one of these things obsessed with you.”

“I … I-I will. Okay?” I glanced at Praem. “What about-”

“Praem’s like a turtle hatched in the zoo,” Evelyn said. “S’why I used wood. Nothing up in her skull to trip her, no predators. Stable state. Or meant to be, at least. She’s been outstripping my expectations.”

Evelyn raised her eyes as she spoke, and I realised with a little shiver that Praem was looking back, having briefly interrupted her guard duty to meet Evelyn’s gaze.

“Expectations,” Praem echoed.

They stared at each other. I couldn’t tell how much was affection and how much confrontation.

“I still don’t understand how all that makes Zheng dangerous,” I said. “Being obsessed with me doesn’t make her any more dangerous than Raine. Does it?”

Evelyn sighed, shook her head. “Stopping her, physically or otherwise, is goddamn near impossible. If she has a developed obsession – say, eating human flesh? – she’s going to pursue that above everything else. You’re not dealing with a human being, Heather, but with something built from external impressions of human beings, and I don’t know if you’ve looked at the world lately but we’re mostly a bunch of monsters. Our species is not a good role model. Not sure we should let her back in the house.”

“How do you do that, if stopping her is impossible?”

“Near.”

Evelyn let that hang in the air.

“I could do her,” Twil said, cracking her knuckles. “I heal faster.”

“Maybe,” Evelyn grunted.

“She’s been … helpful,” I said. “Protective. Almost reasonable. I know I’ve only known her a single morning-”

“You’re a single minute to her,” Evelyn said. “Tread lightly.”

I didn’t have anything to say to that. Why did I trust Zheng? Because she was big and bold and triggered all my fuzzy feelings about dangerous, violent women? Because she’d rescued me? Because I’d freed her? How could I explain that bond we’d made in that one moment, when I’d given Zheng her freedom? Maybe if I’d been more awake, I could have made Evelyn see.

“Raine will be alright,” Evelyn said suddenly, voice stronger than before. Firm, almost a command. “She always is. These vermin have bitten off more than they can chew.”

“Yeah … yeah!” Twil added, nodding.

“She’s probably already freed herself. Brained a couple of them with her fists and teeth. She’ll be knocking on the front door any minute, clutching a handful of scalps.”

“I hope,” I croaked, and almost managed a smile.

“I am right,” Evelyn said. She drew herself up, tried to sit up straight despite her twisted spine and a suppressed wince on her face. “You’ll see. Raine is going to be just fine.”

Evelyn sounded like she was trying to reassure herself, not me. Could she go on without Raine? They’d known each other so long, relied on each other in ways I didn’t come close to, no matter how barbed Evelyn’s tongue could get, no matter that I was the one who slept with Raine.

“We end whatever’s left of the Sharrowford cult this time, completely,” she said, and started to get up off the sofa. Twil moved to help, but Evelyn shooed her away, levering herself up with her walking stick.

“Eye cult now, more accurately,” I suggested.

“Quite.”

“What about wobbly over there?” Twil thumbed at the squid-bundle in the circle. “You just gonna leave it?”

“It’ll keep,” Evelyn said, stomping over to the table and frowning down at the map. Jerky and awkward, she used one arm to sweep a space clear. “Raine first.”

“Raine first,” I echoed.

Evelyn yanked a piece of paper off a nearby pad, found a pen, and began to draw a sketch of a magic circle. “Tell me about Sarika. No surname?”

“Detective Webb said she’d look for Sarika,” I said.

“Yes, Sharrowford’s ‘finest’ can look for a mage, but they won’t find anything. I’m not interested in divining her next of kin or where she holds a day job, I want to know how to counter her. Heather, details. I need details. I’m not getting caught flat-footed again. What did she look like? Normal? She talk much like Alexander did? You mentioned you suspect she was his partner?”

I started to answer, squinting and rubbing my eyes to keep me awake. Twil found Evelyn a chair. Evelyn took notes, pulled books from her stacks, told Twil to dismantle that awful brass pyramid still crowding out a sixth of the room. None of us noticed at first, but eventually Kimberly appeared in the door, red-eyed and sleepy.

“Kim,” I broke off by way of greeting. She stared at me with bloodshot eyes.

“There’s a monster upstairs,” she said.

“Sticky-sweet evil voice from behind your head?” I asked. She blinked at me again.

“Yeah. Told me I’ll never lose my virginity.” Her eyes wandered over to the squid-mass in the circle. She frowned. “Oh, bugger that.”

We all looked at each other. Kimberly went back into the kitchen, opened the fridge, and rummaged. Loudly.

“Is she stoned?” Twil hissed.

“Looks that way,” Evelyn grunted. Then sighed. “I need to thank her, don’t I? I-”

My phone buzzed in my hand and my heart leapt into my throat. Detective Webb was calling me back. Lozzie reached over and pressed the answer call button for me, because my own hands were shaking too hard. A speaker-phone buzz filled the air.

“Heather.”

“Nicole? Detective?” I managed. “Have you found her?”

“Not yet,” Nicole answered.

Something was wrong. Nicole’s voice was tight with tension and adrenaline. Near panic.

“Nicole?”

“I … ” A loud swallow. “I-I’m in my car right now, outside the address on Barrend Road. No, I haven’t seen your Raine, not yet. Which is probably a good thing.”

“What has happened, detective?” Evelyn raised her voice.

“Who was that?”

“Evelyn,” I grunted. “The girl in the coma. We fixed her.”

“Oh. Oh, great, yes. Great. Great.” Nicole took a deep breath. “What’s happened? Uh, nothing, yet. Your sodding giant showed up, she’s over the back wall of the property, I think she might try to break in, but … Heather. Evelyn. Whichever of you is in charge. I have to call this in. I have to.”

“Then call it in,” Evelyn said. “Our friend is in there. Do your job.”

“I got up to a window,” Nicole was saying. “Ground floor window, the only one not curtained fully. Rest of the place is locked up tight as a duck’s arsehole. I could see one room, part of another. Seven bodies. Partial bodies. Bits. A lot of blood. Blood and guts. Up the walls!” She laughed, halfway to hysteria.

We all looked at each other. Twil went wide eyed. Evelyn mouthed ‘Raine?’

“Don’t- don’t call it in yet,” I said. “Please.”

“Oh I’m not fucking going to,” Nicole answered. “I don’t know what the hell we’re walking into here. This is your area, you wizards. This is yours.”

“Did it look like a single person could have done it?” Evelyn asked, calm and collected.

“Absolutely not.”

“Shit,” said Twil.

“Something happened here,” Nicole said. “Recently, this afternoon, last few hours? I don’t know. This is a fancy suburban house, in a nice part of town, and I have to call this in. Do you understand? I can wait, I can stall, but I have to call this in sooner or later. I don’t care if your friend is in there slaughtering cultists or what. I can turn a blind eye, I can turn turn a whole blind surveillance suite, but you wizards need to get down here and deal with this. Now.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

that which you cannot put down – 7.10

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

“Isn’t that what Raine does for you, Heather?” that little girl’s voice crackled behind my head, dripping darkness and acid. “Rescues you?”

A giggle like a chorus of nails down a blackboard.

“You’d be dead without her,” it continued. “And without her, you’ll be dead. Why can’t you take that final step, I wonder? So attached to your illusion of ego that you can’t let go for five minutes? Oh, but no, of course, it doesn’t take you minutes, it takes you seconds. Let go for five seconds, and you could save her – why not? Afraid?” A tickle of breath on my ear, the scent of dark chocolate in my nose. The voice dropped to a whisper forced through a mouth full of knives. “Maybe you like being helpless. You enjoy all the fuss. You want to be weak little Heather, pinned to the bed and fucked by your big strong dyke. You care about that more than you care about Raine.”

She – whatever she was – finally trailed off. A weight shifted on the bed again, as she rearranged herself.

My heart beat slow now, and everything ached, recovering from my brush with the border of ego-death. My eyes felt sticky, gummed open. The sun tilted through the window, bathing the bed in weak late-afternoon orange. Faint voices carried from downstairs, where the others still worked on saving Evelyn. Lozzie’s eyes twitched behind their lids.

“Are you done?” I croaked.

“ … pardon me?”

“Are you done talking?”

I coughed, then winced in slow-motion from the sheer effort of expelling breath.

Over the course of a strange and unique life I have become intimately familiar with exhaustion. Not run-of-the mill tiredness, or a healthy empty-tank after a hard day’s work, but true exhaustion, usually known only by those going through chronic fatigue syndrome or tuberculosis or the brutality of chemotherapy. I knew the ins and outs of my body’s limits, how far I could push myself, when to read the signs of collapse – and when to ignore the feeling.

Once you’ve spent enough time dead on your feet, you get a sense for when it’s safe to lie still for five minutes, and when one simply must respond to a threat.

With my throat raw and stinging from bile, my head pounding like a jackhammer, my every fibre fragile and thin as my vision throbbed black and red, this petty little demon did not warrant the energy to roll over.

Which was lucky for me, because even lifting my head would take everything I had.

“Am I … am I done talking?” the voice asked in disbelief.

“Are you going to help me or not?” I forced out, staring at Lozzie’s sleeping face.

“Help you?”

“Yes? Obviously?” I coughed again, winced and wheezed. “Unless you’re going to help me rescue Raine, there’s no point talking to you. Far less listening.”

A dainty sigh, a petulant little huff. I could almost feel her rolling her eyes.

“Oh, you’re so boring,” she drawled in the same hissing mockery of a little girl’s voice, but with all the malice drained. She shifted on the bed again, and in my mind’s eye I saw a little chin resting in a little hand, a little pout on a sullen face. “None of you are as fun as my Fliss. Completely unrepressed. If only I could get Kimberly alone, she might prove some sport. Or Evelyn. Oh, Evee, so wrapped up in all her fears and desires. What she thinks she wants isn’t what she really wants at all.” The demon-voice sighed again.

“M’working on that,” I mumbled.

“What was that, dearie?”

“Working on that.”

“Oh, are you now? Tch, you’ll probably screw it up. Or it’ll have a happy-little-ending, and we’ll all go home feeling sick.” Another huff, more old woman than little girl. “I do hope you fools and deviants don’t let her die, that would be so droll.”

I tested my neck muscles, lifted my head. An inch off the bed and my vision swam, but I clung hard to consciousness. Had to help Raine. Got one arm half underneath me and had to stop, panting for breath despite the hollow ache in my chest.

“Oh come on! Don’t pass out now, I won’t have anybody to play with,” the voice whined. “What am I supposed to do here, talk to the arachnids? They’re even worse than you humans, they don’t want to do anything but eat and sleep. Did you know you’ve got rats living under the house, a family of seven? They want to get in but they haven’t found a way yet. And there’s a pair of great big crows eyeing your chimney. Even the wildlife in the city is boring, boring, boring. And that great big idiot you have downstairs is guarding the fridge, I swear she knows I’m here and she’s winding me up. You’ve go so many sweets in there and I can’t get at them-”

“If you’re not going to help me,” I hissed, struggling to keep my head up, “I’ll make you.”

“Oh, I’ll help you, Heather.” The parasite rolled her eyes again, I swear I could feel it without seeing. “At least I can get a good love-triangle out of you if you try hard enough. Or a love-square? Is that a thing? Love rhomboid. Love-”

With herculean effort, I swung myself at the source of the voice. Not a tackle, just controlled falling over, almost collapsing onto the bed as I grasped for her. I’d grab her and brainmath her into whatever I needed; I’d done it to Zheng, I’d do it to this thing. I knew where Raine was and I would press-gang every last bit of help I could. Explanations could wait.

Nothing there.

I landed on the bedsheets, badly. Sharp spike of pain up my spine. Winced through my teeth.

Defeated, I lay on my back for several heartbeats, staring at the ceiling, kept conscious only by pain.

“Parasite?” I eventually said, but she did not return.

Another six or seven heartbeats and I forced myself to sit up again, inch by painful inch; couldn’t afford to fall asleep or unconscious now. I knew where Raine was, and I had to communicate it to the others. Wake Lozzie. How had she slept through that scratching, sticky voice?

Perhaps she hadn’t heard it at all. Perhaps that was the point.

“ … Parasite?” I eyed the corners of the room. “Did you make me angry to keep me awake?”

No answer.

For a long moment I just sat there, kinked awkwardly, unwilling to lie back down but unable to lift an arm to wake Lozzie. When I finally worked up the energy to rub my stinging, aching eyeballs, the pain reached all the into the back of my head, as if my optical nerve itself was singed. My hand came back sticky with blood. I’d left a stain on the sheets.

I let out a tiny laugh.

I’d never been so happy to feel so much pain. To be alive, and me, and bleeding. My brush with the outer limits of hyperdimensional mathematics made reality seem as fragile as a soap bubble. I, Heather, the me I knew and understood in human terms, was a thin ghost of electrical signal and chemical reaction, skating across a bulb of grey meat inside my skull.

But right now, I was sitting on a bed in the orange sunlight, alive. Raine was alive, and the relief was like morphine.

And here was Lozzie, warm and dozing.

“Lozzie,” I croaked. “Lozzie.”

“Mmmmm?” she grumbled.

I waited another minute, or perhaps two, or ten, it was hard to tell, gathering my strength. Then I used far too much energy to give her a hug. An awkward one, yes, with one arm and no leverage, but I had to do it, remind myself I was here, in the flesh. I straightened back up and shook her shoulder as best I could.

“Lozzie.”

“Mmm—mm—mmmmmm—mmm,” she made a sleepy noise, distorted by the shaking.

“Wake up. I need you.”

That did the trick. Lozzie cracked one eye open, showed a hint of white.

“Didn’t you hear any of that?” I asked. “Lozzie … Lozzie?”

At first I thought it was only her eye problems acting up, the permanently droopy eyelids of damaged extraocular muscles that I must ask her about someday.

“ … Lozzie?”

Her eyeball swivelled and her head jerked, her body following half-way to a sitting position – a puppet rediscovering its strings. She made a soft throat-clearing sound, blinked twice, and finally I was looking at Lozzie again, bleary from a nap.

“Lozzie? Lozzie, what was that? Are you okay?”

“Mmmm-mm? I’m fine. Energy-saving.” She pulled a big sleepy smile, rubbed her eyes to clear her vision, then realised what she was looking at. Her mouth fell open. “Heather! Heather’s all bloody, no no, no.” Vibrating with worry, she lifted the hem of her pink poncho to wipe the blood from my face. I screwed up my eyes and winced.

“It’s fine. I had to do it,” I said, too weak to resist. “Lozzie- Lozzie, stop-”

“No, no more blood, it’s all okay, all okay now.”

“It- it is.” Gently, I took her hand. Couldn’t have held her back if she’d pushed, but she understood and relented. “Lozzie, I need you to listen. I know where Raine is.”

She sat up, rigid as a mongoose spotting a snake. “Where?! Where where where?!”

I could have laughed at the sound she made, but we both jumped at the sudden noise of heavy booted feet stomping up the stairs. Only one person currently in the house walked like that, but the bedroom door opened to reveal a surprise – Zheng stooped to peer at us both, and Praem waited primly by her side. Not a combination I’d expected.

Zheng raised an eyebrow at me. “Shaman?”

“I’m okay,” I croaked.

“Oh!” Lozzie lit up. “Is it time?”

“Preparations complete,” Praem intoned, then turned and marched off down the hallway, apparently satisfied I wasn’t in any real danger.

“Yes!” Lozzie beat a celebratory drum roll on the bed with both hands. I winced.

“Time for what?” I asked.

“The wizards are ready,” Zheng purred, then stepped into the bedroom and straightened up. The huge zombie directed a quizzical look in all directions, then wrinkled her nose.

“Zheng?”

“I smell a rat,” she rumbled.

“Yes,” I sighed. “That’s about right. The parasite said hello.”

“Ahhh?” went Lozzie. “Ahhhh?”

“Is that why you’re covered in your own vital fluids again, shaman?”

I shook my head. “I did a thing. I need to tell everyone. Now.”

“Time,” Praem intoned again as she stepped back into view. She carried Evelyn in a close embrace, one arm under my unconscious friend’s knees and the other supporting her back. Evelyn’s head lolled on Praem’s shoulder. She was drooling slightly. Even wrapped in blankets pulled from her bed, she looked so small and vulnerable, as fragile as I felt. A blank space hung where her right leg should be, and her withered left provided precious little body weight.

My heart could barely take that sight. I bottled it up, for now.

==

“She’s there. Right there. Right there. I know it.” I jabbed the map with my finger again, then collapsed back into Zheng’s waiting arms, my body begging for rest.

The others all clustered around the drawing room table in Evelyn’s magical workshop, save for Praem, still cradling Evelyn in her arms, standing by the completed device and waiting for the rest of us.

“Don’t know that bit of Sharrowford.” Twil clicked her tongue, peering close at the near-indecipherable map spread out on the huge table. She ran a finger along the street name – Barrend Road – and referred back to Google maps on her phone, trying to match image to place. “Third house, third house along … wow, this all looks real swanky. Yeah, look at this, rich people houses. This the place, Heather? Number seven?” She waved the phone under my nose, but my eyes were already fluttering shut.

“I can’t- I only know position,” I tried to explain again. “I don’t know what it looks like.”

Lozzie peered over my shoulder. “I know that place!”

“You do? Serious?” Twil asked. The phone was withdrawn.

“Mmmhmm, mmhmm! Lived there for maybe six months when I was reeeeally little. Family place.”

“Your family? Like, your brother?” Twil asked, then huffed through clenched teeth. “Shit.”

“Maybe!” Lozzie chirped.

“I-I think I saw it too, once,” Kimberly ventured from somewhere behind us, a safe distance from Zheng. “Never went inside though. Some kind of safe house, maybe.”

“Won’t be safe, little wizard,” Zheng purred. Her voice reverberated through the back of my skull, my head against the base of her chest. “Not for the likes of you or me.”

Our only map that wasn’t on a computer screen was unfortunately Evelyn’s, the one she’d used to track the cult’s pocket dimension spaces back during our first brush with them. Still covered in her red ink and scrawled notation and crossed out buildings and danger zones and connections, it barely resembled the city of Sharrowford at all, but I hadn’t been up to squinting and scrolling on a phone. Zheng had carried me downstairs the same way Praem had carried Evelyn. I’d ignored everyone’s shock and surprise at the bloody stains around my eyes, and demanded to be set down in front of the map.

Now I’d done all I could, and my body screamed for sleep, rest, to let go. Zheng held me up on my feet, one huge arm around my chest, the other under an armpit.

“Don’t care about safe,” I croaked. “I need her.”

A moment of silence. I felt glances passed back and forth, and cracked my eyelids to see.

“We can get her,” Twil said with a guilty grimace. “We totally can. But if we wake Evee first, she’ll know what to do, right? She can help.”

I shook my head – no, dammit – and the world span with it. Without my asking, Zheng scooped me up again – a dizzying trip into the air – and gently deposited me on the sofa, where I curled up and clenched down to halt a wave of nausea and dissociation. My vision wavered in and out of focus for a moment, then came back, along with everyone’s voices.

“ – in no state to be mounting a rescue, is she?” Kimberly was asking. “We need to wake Saye.”

“We do, but … ” Twil said, hanging her head, wracked with guilt.

“I could do it!” Lozzie chirped. “Oh-”

“What about calling the-” Kimberly never finished.

“Evelyn,” Praem intoned.

“Yes, yes, Evelyn,” I hissed, my head aching. “But Raine’s alive, I have to-”

“What I don’t understand,” Felicity’s half-mumble somehow cut through the rest of us, clear and sharp despite the distortion of scarred lips. “Is how you did whatever you did. How can you know so accurately?”

“Just do,” I hissed.

I looked up at Felicity’s one staring eye. She had her arms crossed, a curious, cold expression on her face. Judging and weighing meat on the slab. Had Evelyn seen that face, staring down at her with a syringe in one hand and a saw in the other?

“You’re no mage, Heather,” she mumbled. “What are you?”

Incoherent anger welled in my chest, over-compensation for guilt. Flung out to the edge of my little monkey brain – as Zheng would call it – by exhaustion and fear for my friends, I bared my teeth at her.

“Um?” Felicity blinked at me, and the cold curiosity passed, replaced with trepidation and confusion. “Heather?”

“She does magic with her head, no wands required,” Twil grunted. “S’just how she works. Can we focus on waking Evee now?”

“She does what? I’m sorry?”

“Me toooo,” Lozzie hooted from her safe distance in the kitchen doorway, trailing off quietly.

“Raine,” I insisted. Her name was enough to make my point. “I need to-”

“We won’t be at this much longer than another half hour,” Felicity said.

“I have to-” I panted, squeezing my eyes shut, thinking of Raine, alone and trapped, alive for how much longer? “Somebody has to-”

“Ahhh shit,” Twil said. “She’s right, come on, fuck it.”

“We could split our forces,” Felicity said gently. “If I have any say in the matter? Send the demons for her.”

Evelyn,” Praem intoned again.

“Delegate, shaman,” Zheng purred, so softly only I could hear, and a light bulb went on in my mind.

“Everyone shut up,” I croaked, worked a hand out in front of me and gave the entire room an unintentional glare. “Hand me my phone.”

Zheng raised an eyebrow – this wasn’t what she’d expected when she’d advised me. I ignored her, no energy for debate right now. Somebody pressed my phone into my hand. I pulled up the contacts list, pressed the most recently added, and let it ring on speaker-phone, too tired to hold it up to my ear.

“Didn’t think you’d contact me so soon,” detective Webb answered on the third ring. She lowered her voice, and in the background I heard office murmurs, the clack of a keyboard, muffled speech far away. “Or are you just testing my number? That is you, Heather?”

“Yes,” I croaked. “I found my girlfriend.”

“Oh. Oh, that’s good news then, right?” She laughed, half-exasperated. “Won’t be needing the missing person’s I literally just put in. Great. Hooray.”

“Not hooray. I know where she is. In a house. Kidnapped. We can’t go right now. Doing … um, magic.”

“ … probably best you stick to that part then.” Her voice dropped to a hiss. The background noise dimmed to nothing as she cupped the speaker. “Where’s the address?”

“Address. Twil.”

Twil held her own phone in front of my eyes. I rattled off the address, heard the scratching of a pen. Twil read it back to make sure.

“Hey there werewolf,” Nicole said. “Yes, I know the street. That’s a … ‘nice’ neighbourhood. I’m gonna have to play this safe, no warrant, but I can fudge things a bit if I can get eyes on something – or someone – relevant.”

“Please,” I grunted. “You’ll have company too.”

“Oh?”

“Soon as we’re done.”

“Gotcha. Call you if I see anything … weird. Or your girl.”

“Please.”

She ended the call. Before I even lowered the phone, Zheng growled.

“I’ll go.” She surprised me by crouching down on her haunches, eye-to-eye. “I will go to this house, shaman. When we’re done here.”

I frowned at her. “ … why do you care?”

“Because I’m with you, shaman – that would be a lie.” She grinned slowly, showing all her teeth. “No, because I want to catch Sarika before your tame police woman does. They’ll throw her in a cell. I want to eat her heart.”

Behind her, Twil pulled a face. Felicity frowned at Zheng as if watching some cartoon jungle savage, and Kimberly turned a little green around the gills. Over past the kitchen door, still keeping a safe distance from all the upsetting magical detritus, Lozzie looked away too.

I didn’t care.

Raine’s safety was more important than who or what rescued her. If it took a tame police detective and an emancipated demon, so be it. I did not have to be present. I only had to ensure it happened.

“Why not now?” I croaked.

Zheng cast a glance at the magical apparatus which filled the room. “You may have need of me.”

“This is going to work,” Felicity said. “Perfectly.”

Zheng shrugged and stood up, talking to me. “Do not count on me, shaman. There will be things in there, like me and unlike me. I go to scout, not to conquer.” She gave me a slow, serious nod. “Wake your magician friend. Let us both hope she is as skilled as you imply.”

“You seriously gonna go back out into the streets looking like that?” Twil asked.

“Looking like what, laangren?”

“All bloody and stuff.”

Twil had a good point. Zheng still wore the clothes she’d arrived in, covered in dried blood and concrete dust, one arm of her trench coat missing. She was seven feet tall and built like a muscle worshipper’s wet dream, and there was no way she’d pass unnoticed down a Sharrowford street.

“Moving without travelling,” she purred. “Without the shaman in my wake.”

“ … spooky,” I grunted, not really caring right now. Zheng shrugged, huge and rippling, and stepped away to lounge against the wall.

“That’s it then?” Twil asked. “We ready to rock?”

“To rock,” Praem agreed.

I cast a judgemental eye over Felicity’s completed mechanism, as much as I could stand with the pain in my head and the weakness inside my chest.

The spell to extract Evelyn’s unwelcome visitor consisted of two components. The first, the ceiling-height pyramidal brass cage, had blossomed while I was upstairs.  Many of the spaces between the pipes were filled out with thin copper slats, each of those punched with holes in precise, geometrical patterns. It had something of an antique computer about it, a difference engine with all the moving parts missing.

In the open space beneath the pyramid’s square base, a nest of pillows waited to receive Evelyn’s unconscious body.

The second component was inside the magic circle Kimberly had spent hours painstakingly painting onto the floorboards, parts of it patched and altered with masking tape, other bits scrawled on sheets of pinned paper in blood or other fluids. The unbroken triple-ring of esoteric symbols and inhuman language stung my eyes, but it was only a means to an end. A real cage.

Inside the circle lay a clay figure on its back. Wet and rough, flat and genderless. Not quite life-size, maybe only four feet tall, with tube-shaped arms and legs and a ball for a head, finger-poked holes for eyes and a slash for a mouth. Twil had spread a sheet underneath the thing, but I think the state of the floorboards was a little beyond saving at this point.

“Is it safe?” I asked.

“Safe?” Kimberly echoed. “That- that’s a good question. Is it? Should we all stay in here, o-or leave?”

Felicity caught the direction of my gaze. She nodded at the circle. “The circle will contain it, whatever it is, and giving it a body will allow us to uh … ” She cleared her throat and waved a hand.

“Smash it up,” Twil said.

“Yes, well put. Giving it a body will allow us to destroy it. Or question it. Or whatever you like, really. I only suggest not breaking the circle. We know this Outsider got into Evelyn via a remote connection which you were both looking at, which means it might have some kind of sight-transmission vector, but the circle will block that too.”

“Yeah, I get to punch a golem to death, cool,” Twil said. “Can we start now?”

“Yes,” Praem said, voice ringing like a bell.

“Almost.” Felicity held up a gloved hand. Her good eye slid across me, hesitated, then turned to Kimberly. “There’s one last thing we’ll need, just in case. Kim, I’d like you to go to my car, please, and bring me the toolbox from the back.” She held out her car keys.

“Um … okay?” Kimberly took the keys like a bundle of spiders.

“Twil, if you please,” Felicity continued. “It’s probably best if you go with her, too. It’s not safe out of doors right now, is it? Unless you happen to be a demon-host,” Felicity gave a little sigh and tried to smile, but she was bungling this trick. Even exhausted beyond words, I saw through it a mile away. Thankfully, so did Twil.

She squinted at Felicity. “I can go get your toolbox. Toss me the keys, Kim.”

“No, no.” Felicity cleared her throat. “Kimberly should go. I’m going to … to … make one last alteration to the circle, and it may prove upsetting to … uh … sensitive minds.”

Twil squinted harder. Felicity was too obvious.

“You’re a bad liar,” I croaked.

“Pants on fire!” Lozzie shot from the doorway.

“Yeah, the hell is your game?” Twil asked.

Felicity cringed, shrinking back, a vampire exposed to sunlight. She shot an uncomfortable look at Zheng, who was eyeing her with silent predation. “I … oh, alright. I would like to speak to Heather alone, for a few minutes, without an audience.”

“You’re having a laugh,” said Twil.

“What about?” I asked, curiosity piqued. “We’re still on a time limit.”

“No, I am not ‘kidding’.” Felicity swallowed. She glanced at Praem, still holding Evelyn, and at Zheng. “They can stay, if you want some kind of insurance that I’m not going to betray you. This is between me and Heather, but I don’t care what a demon-host thinks.”

Twil opened her mouth to complain, but I got there first with a wordless hiss of frustration. “S’fine.”

“Heather, come on,” Twil hissed.

“I want to hear what she has to say. Praem and Zheng will be right here.”

“Here,” Praem echoed.

“Shaman.”

“There you go. Lozzie,” I called to her softly. “You too. Just for a minute.”

“Mmm? Mmm! Right-right.”

Felicity raised her chin in defiant shame as the others went in to the kitchen. Twil gave her one last warning glare before she shut the door on us.

“How well does this house insulate sound?” Felicity asked, eyeing the door.

“Well enough. Say your bit.”

Felicity fixed me with a stare, as intense from her blind eye as from the healthy one. For a moment, the words stuck in her throat.

“She appeared to you, didn’t she?”

I raised an eyebrow. Or at least I thought I did, almost too worn out to tell. “She?”

“You know what I’m talking about.”

“Your parasite.”

Felicity swallowed, controlling herself with an effort of will. Fear? “What did she say? How much did she tell you?”

“How can you tell I met her?” I asked.

“I just … I felt it, when she decided to manifest. What did she tell you?”

I shook my head, squinting at Felicity’s borderline panic, too tired to draw her out her with a cruel lie. “Not much. Tried to taunt me about Raine, then … went off on a tangent. Seemed kind of petulant. Is that all?”

Felicity blew out a long shuddering breath. She nodded. “That’s all. I- … she- she exists to torment me. I thought she may attempt to turn you all against me, that’s all.”

“Mmmhmm,” I grumbled. “While we’re alone, I have a question for you, too. Might not get another chance.”

“Yes? Yes?” Felicity blinked at me, distracted by her own relief.

“You’re the doctor, aren’t you?”

And with those few words, all Felicity’s focus of the last few hours drained away, along with the colour in her face. She went grey and pale, a hollow space forming behind her good eye, the same way she’d looked when she’d first set eyes on Evelyn this morning.

“I … never finished medical school, if that’s what you mean. Not a doctor, never made it.”

“Evelyn said the doctor who performed her amputation was an associate of her mother’s. Operated drunk.”

Pain, shame, self-loathing, all twisted and attenuated by Felicity’s unique scarring, as if cut off halfway across her face. It gave the terrible illusion that she could only half-feel, never concluding, never ending, no closure.

“You try taking a bone saw to a nine year old girl while sober,” she hissed at me, voice barely above a whisper, jaw clenched. She swallowed, hard, as if she couldn’t get her own saliva down.

“You could have-”

“Could have what?” she hissed again, eye flicking at the closed door and then at Praem, at the wrapped bundle in her arms. She ignored Zheng completely. “Refused? Her mother would have done it herself, given her too much morphine or failed to tie off an artery. I had no choice.”

“You wanted to save her,” I said, not unkindly, my own anger blunted in the face of this toxic self-hate.

“I saw myself in her.” Felicity sniffed, gestured at her own burned face, gave a sardonic laugh. “It’s not exactly difficult. I was supposed to be an older sister, something like that, but my courage failed. I tried to swan back into her life after her mother’s death, but she knows what kind of monster I am. I can’t make it right. This,” she gestured at the spell she’d built to save Evelyn. “Doesn’t make it right. But I’m doing it anyway. I understand, you care, you need to know why. But why doesn’t matter.”

“Just that we do it regardless,” I said.

Felicity nodded, couldn’t meet my eyes.

A knock sounded on the door. “You two done yet?” Twil called out.

“Almost,” I croaked.

“I’m glad she got to grow up,” Felicity murmured, looking at Evelyn’s face. Praem said nothing, no hint of accusation in her eyes as she watched the mage. “I only wish she hadn’t taken after her mother. At all.”

==

Nobody likes magic.

Hyperdimensional mathematics is scary enough, and that’s confined to the inside of my own head. With ‘true’ magic, the mechanics are all on display, violating reality in full view of our five senses, smuggling the principles of Outside into our world through the cracks in the programming, God’s mistakes, the rat-holes in existence. Even the smallest and most simple magical spell comes with a cost to both sanity and physics – let alone on the scale of complexity Felicity was about to attempt.

With Evelyn deposited beneath the brass pyramid and tucked up safely inside her sheets, Felicity had advised the rest of us to step back to a safe distance, though Praem silently refused and Zheng scoffed. I didn’t have the energy to move from the sofa, clutching my mobile phone in hope that detective Webb would call back and tell me she’d found Raine. Somebody gave me a spare blanket, wrapped it around my shoulders and neck. Lozzie, I think, before she retreated to peer from the kitchen doorway again, more wary than the rest of us.

Felicity closed her eyes and muttered a few words under her breath. For a moment I thought that was it, that she’d begun without ceremony. Then she took a deep breath and asked, “Is everyone ready? Once I start, it’ll be dangerous to stop.”

I realised Felicity had been offering up a prayer. To what, I never found out.

“Yeah, go, go,” Twil said.

“Get on with it, wizard,” Zheng rumbled. Felicity flinched.

“I don’t wanna waaaatch,” Lozzie stage-whispered from the doorway.

“Alright.” Another sharp sigh of self-preparation. “Alright. Here I go.”

She was true to her word; from the first scrap of Latin out of her mouth to the final sweating, blood-spitting hiss of pain forced from her raw throat, the whole process took less than fifteen minutes, according to the clock on my phone.

If Felicity had come here seeking punishment for the past, she got it, but the backwash hit the rest of us too.

She started with Latin, a string of commands followed with a sort of repeated mantra that rose in her throat to a droning sound, vibrating inside my skull. Both her hands gripped specific points of the brass pyramid. Twil winced as the sound grew, and Lozzie retreated almost completely into the kitchen, hiding behind the door like a cat spooked by a vacuum cleaner. Kimberly hunched, shaking and turning her eyes away before the main event arrived.

Felicity left Latin far behind, skirted the limits of the human vocal apparatus with a language that sounded as if spoken by a monster, from underwater, while gagged. Glottal stops, clicks, rolling rattles. The air seemed to hiss as if trying to reject the words. Lozzie clamped her hands over her ears. Zheng grit her teeth and made fists.

The temperature in the room began to drop.

Felicity had to pause more than once to spit gobbets of bloody phlegm into the bucket we’d used to mix the clay, her breathing distorted by what the magic was doing to her lungs and throat. She wiped her mouth on a handkerchief, forged on through the next verse as flash-frost formed on the brass and our breath made plumes of steam in the growing cold.

“Can’t take this,” Twil hissed, one eye squeezed shut with the other half-open.

“Mm,” I grunted.

The effect was unique. Felicity’s voice never rose a single decibel above normal speech. She didn’t work herself up into a frenzy of chanting, seemed almost affectless as she recited the invisible mechanics of her spell, but it hurt. It hurt my ears, it hurt the air itself, it hurt reality.

Towards the end, Evelyn began to choke.

Jerking on the floor, snorting from the world’s worst sleep apnea. Praem had to catch Twil around the middle to prevent her interrupting. The choking didn’t bother Felicity, and Evelyn did not start to turn blue.

The change was so subtle, almost invisible.

I’d expected something to emerge from Evelyn. Perhaps a spider would climb out of her mouth, or a black cloud of evil-looking mist would issue from her lungs, or a silent film phantom would rise from her body. I should have learnt by now, magic did not work like that. No fireballs and black cats, no neat answers to one’s expectations.

A trickle in the air. A distortion, like heat haze. It reared up like a snake, but I’m not all of us saw it. Felicity did, because she flinched. Like water drawn downhill and into a drain, it slid across the room and burrowed into the waiting vessel of clay.

A tapeworm. A real parasite. That’s what it reminded me of.

Evelyn sat bolt upright, eyes still closed, snorting out a terminated snore. Half in surprise and half in exhaustion, Felicity let go of the brass pyramid fell over on her backside.

“Evee! Did it work?!” Twil pulled free of Praem – let go, I suspect. “Shit, is she … herself?”

“Yes.” Felicity nodded, staring at Evelyn, trying to get to her feet on shaking legs. “Yes, it’s in the- in there.” She pointed at the clay figure. “Won’t be able to get out.”

Still sitting upright with her eyes closed, Evelyn made a sound that the uninitiated might have mistaken for non-human, a groan like an irritated bear exiting hibernation far too early. She pushed and twisted an arm free of her sheets and rubbed numbly at her own face.

Her mouth opened. A dry click. We all held our breath.

“ … I have to take a shit,” Evelyn croaked.

“Evee!” Twil lit up. “Yeah that’s her. Evee!”

Twil went down on her knees and all but shoved the brass pyramid off Evelyn, then grabbed her around the shoulders in an unexpected hug.

“Argh! Get off me, you bloody mongrel.” Evelyn half-fought, struggling to free another arm and push against Twil’s embrace. Discreetly, Felicity picked herself up off the floor and backed away, caught between staring at Evelyn and a hasty retreat, a shy and pained look in her eyes.

“Evee,” I added, too exhausted and too flush with relief to realise what would happen when she opened her eyes. “Welcome back.”

“Wel- what? What is- argh, I said get off!” Her eyes squinted open, sore and unused against the sudden light. She pulled a grimace to end all grimaces. “Why am I-”

“You’re okay!” Twil said “Fuck yes, you’re okay-”

Kimberly put her hands together. “Oh, it worked, oh, oh thank the Goddess.”

Praem seemed unconcerned, having moved to stare at the now-inhabited clay golem. Zheng was staring at it too.

Evelyn blinked several times, struggling to get her eyes around what she was seeing – the huge brass cage towering over her, Twil ecstatic with relief, seven feet of worryingly familiar zombie muscle, Lozzie’s elfin face peering through the doorway. To her credit, she took all that in her stride, scowling and dehydrated as she was.

“Some freaky shit’s been going down,” Twil was trying to tell her. “But you’re alright, you’re gonna be alright.”

I turned to Felicity, far too late, and hissed, “Leave the room.”

“Heather?” Evelyn said, and saw my exhausted, blood-rimmed eyes. “You look like how I feel. And … ”

And Felicity, caught in the act of trying to back out of the room, but too enraptured by the sight of Evelyn awake. The two mages made eye contact.

Felicity’s hands went up and her head went down. “I’m leaving, I’m leaving, I’m leaving.”

“Yes, that would be for the best,” I hissed.

Evelyn froze, but for a moment I thought it was all going to turn out okay. After all, she had just woken from what I assume was the single longest sleep of her life, in desperate need of food and drink and a sit on the toilet. She was out of energy, befuddled and drained, wrapped in a sheet and luckily with nothing close at hand to throw, no lethal weapons nearby, and certainly no magic at her fingertips.

“Not a dream then,” she whispered.

Evelyn damn well near managed to throw the whole of Twil at Felicity.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

that which you cannot put down – 7.9

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Against all prior self-estimation, I have discovered I am quite good at standing my ground. Me, scrawny little Heather with my five foot nothing and noodle arms – against demons, monsters, assassins, literal evil wizards in dark fairytale castles, Raine – but as Praem strode toward me in the nude, with her spine straight and chin high, I fell back.

“Praem! Praem- yes- o-okay- okay!”

My hands raised, a blush in my cheeks, I stumbled back into Evelyn’s bedroom. Praem followed over the threshold.

I had seen Praem nude once before, after our nocturnal fox-hunting session down in Sussex at the Saye estate, after she’d slopped back to the house bedraggled with stagnant lake water and slimy mud and had to strip off her ruined uniform. But back then she’d been dripping and cold, wrapped in towels, and we’d all been preoccupied.

The Praem that stepped into Evelyn’s bedroom was fresh and warm, her skin pink-clean and glowing, as if she’d come straight from the bath, completely uncovered. Her hair was curled up in a loose knot behind her head, the one element of her appearance she cared about enough to set right before marching upstairs.

She stopped, and stood there with perfect proper prim poise. Back straight, chin up, toes forward.

Twil’s eyes all but popped out of her face. She turned as red as I felt. Lozzie hid an open-mouthed gasp behind one hand.

“P-Praem, yes, wel-welcome back,” I heard myself saying, relief and happiness fighting with crippling embarrassment and not a little bit of awe. “It’s- it’s- it’s good to see you. Oh! Oh, I didn’t mean … oh God, um. Okay- maybe- maybe put some clothes on? Yes, yes, definitely with the clothes. Please?”

Praem stared at me for a heartbeat. Blank white eyes gave nothing away. Then her head swivelled to Evelyn, unconscious on the bed.

“This is the other demon-host?” I heard Felicity say.

“Yes, yes,” I managed. “This is Praem.”

Twil attempted to answer as well, but out came a splutter. Lozzie muttered under her breath, an appreciative and awestruck “Wow.”

‘Wow’ was right. Praem wasn’t really my type, I’d decided or deduced that long ago; she was also an alien Outsider in a body of hardened pneuma-somatic flesh wrapped around a life-sized wooden mannequin. She was also my friend, I think, and oh so sweet beneath her expressionless exterior, and did not deserve to be ogled by several teenage girls and one questionable older lady.

She was also very plush, and very cuddly.

The effect on the one confirmed and non-comatose lesbian in the room – myself – was undeniable, even under the current circumstances.

I didn’t know where to direct my eyes, caught between guilt, instinctive pleasure, natural curiosity, and sheer bloody-minded relief that she was back on her feet.

Kimberly finally caught up, almost slamming into Praem’s back. “Ahh!” She caught herself on the door frame, still panting. “I tried to stop her! If only to- to get her dressed. She just took off-” Pant, pant. Slow down, I willed her. “As soon as she was ready- she- ahh, umm. It worked, though! She even said thank you.”

“Praem, please, please, clothes?” I repeated, trying not to stare at her boobs. I cast about for something of Evelyn’s for her to wear, and caught the look on Felicity’s face.

Like a bucket of cold water over my head.

With mild surprise and a curious frown, but certainly no blush, Felicity was looking Praem up and down. Not in the manner of a confident lech appreciating a nice surprise, but with the cold appraisal of a anatomist or horse breeder or a buyer at a slave market.

In the back of my mind, I’d formed an educated guess at what Felicity probably was, at where she fit into the puzzle of Evelyn’s past. She’d given us enough clues, I could fill in the rest. Saving Evelyn was penance for her, or redemption, but I didn’t care, as long as she did it.

But that look on her face, I would not stand for that.

“Felicity,” I snapped her name, my blushing embarrassment draining away.

“Yes, what?” She glanced at me, then nodded at Praem. “This is the one Evelyn made? It’s certainly different, I can tell from here.”

“Felicity,” Praem echoed, intoning the mage’s name in her clear, bell-like voice.

“It’s still learning, too? How young is it?”

“She has a name,” I said. “And she is a she, if you please, not an it.”

“Yes, yes, of course, of course,” Felicity muttered. Her eyes were glued to Praem – but not the places I’d be staring. “Wood base, you said? Remarkably life-like, in that case. And it doesn’t understand the implications of being naked? Rudimentary, yes.” Felicity sighed as if in relief. “Rudimentary.”

Praem glided toward the bed on precise, measured footsteps. Felicity tried to rise to her feet, assuming she was about to get a better look at this promising specimen – but Praem invaded her personal space.

“Hey-”

Felicity stepped back, stumbling as Praem kept pace, thrown off by the natural attempt to not touch a naked person suddenly in one’s face.

“What- what’s it doing?” Felicity spluttered.

“Tellin’ you off, that’s what,” Twil said with a smirk. “Don’t you be dissin’ our girl.”

“No, Twil, I think that’s only half right,” I said.

“Eh?”

Praem forced Felicity back another step, then another, inches away but never making contact, until our clever doll-demon was able to step sideways to interpose herself between Felicity and the bed, between Felicity and Evelyn.

The mage’s back hit the wall. Praem stopped an inch or two from her, statue-still, staring.

“I mean … I meant no … insult?” Felicity tried, her one good eye darting at me.  “Can you call it off, perhaps?”

“Oh!” Twil figured it out before Felicity did. “You’re messing with her maker. She doesn’t think you’re cool. Good instincts, Praem, yeah.”

I sighed. “Not if you keep calling her it. And why aren’t you scared of her? You were terrified of Zheng.”

Felicity began to edge along the wall, as if trapped by a large and inquisitive dog. “What? And no, this is different. ‘Zheng’ is mature. This one is only a few months old, and it’s not even real flesh. She’s under a binding from Evee, isn’t she? And rudimentary, too.”

I swear I saw, in the corner of my eye, a hardening of Praem’s empty expression. Felicity flinched, hard.

“I don’t think she liked that,” I said.

Praem, Praem, alright,” Felicity said, her hands up. “Praem is not rudimentary. Fine. I … apologise.”

“Praem, it’s okay, Felicity’s going to help us cure Evelyn. She’s safe, for now. If rude.”

Praem relented and stepped back. Somehow, even with no true expression on her face, she gave the impression of dismissing Felicity as unimportant. She turned to Evelyn, and stared down at her unconscious face.

We all took a moment to get our breath back, for various different reasons, and I realised Praem wasn’t exactly the same as she’d been before. She’d reverted somewhat.

Her hair had regained more than a touch of it’s original glacial ice-blue, shimmering beneath the blonde when the light caught it at the right angle. Doll-like ball and socket joints were visible on her wrists and ankles and around the base of her skull, faint after-images of the wooden bones beneath her summoned flesh.

“And I believe she does understand,” I said.

“ … I’m sorry?” Felicity asked.

“Praem does understand the implications of being nude.”

“Evelyn,” Praem intoned. Not a call to the unconscious girl on the bed. Agreement.

“Yes. She just doesn’t care right now,” I said. “How would you feel if you’d lain helpless and immobilised, while your mother was maybe dying?”

Mother?” Felicity’s face twisted with disgust, the expression strangely warped by her burn scars.

“Mother?” Twil echoed too, looking at both Praem and Evelyn. “Oh, right.”

“Awwww,” went Lozzie.

“That is a little … a little bit weird, isn’t it?” Kimberly said, still hovering in the doorway.

Felicity caught my frown and controlled her face, drawing herself up and swallowing carefully. Halfway to a confused apology, she trailed off without having said a word, eyes glued to Praem once more.

“ … Not rudimentary then, no.” Her browns knitted in thought. “Not rudimentary at all.”

“Felicity?”

She glanced around and settled on Kimberly, who suppressed a flinch at the cold calculation filling Felicity’s single shining eye. “You, you’re the other mage, yes? Kim? You put this demon – Praem, sorry – back in her vessel, correct? You re-made her?”

“ … I … yes?”

Kimberly looked at me for help, and I nodded for her to continue. She was safe here, even if she didn’t feel it.

“Yes,” she repeated, still short of breath despite the passing minutes. “It took me most of the morning, but … there she is. I did it. It wasn’t … um … easy. I’m sort of worn out, mostly.”

“But you did do it,” Felicity hissed, her good eye in a tight squint. “You have experience with creating hosts? You understand the principles? Not just corpses, but inanimate vessels too?”

“I-I … some of it.” A hollow look entered Kimberly’s eyes. “Only what I’ve been taught.”

“Kim doesn’t like to think about magic too much,” I said. “Where is this going?”

“She’s given me an idea.”

“I have?” Kimberly asked.

“This doesn’t have to take twelve or fifteen hours.” Felicity’s good eye darted back and forth as it alighted on the fast-moving contents of her own mind. “Three or four hours at most to draw the circle and assemble appropriate apparatus. You,” she pointed a gloved finger at Kimberly. “Kim. You’re going to help me.”

“I-I am?”

“I know precious little about summoning, so we must pool our resources.”

Kimberly, wide-eyed and swept away, glanced to me for help again.

“It’s okay, Kim. You can do this,” I said. “Felicity, what are you planning? What’s the idea?”

“We don’t have to perform an exorcism at all.” Felicity drew herself up. She seemed different from before, absorbed in problem-solving. “We don’t have to make the Outsider leave, we only have to make it leave Evelyn.”

“Eh?” Twil grunted.

“Unpack that, please?” I asked.

“We confuse it, we trick it. It hasn’t been here long, hasn’t had time to adapt to human biology, and Evee, bless her, she’s probably got it more confused still. It doesn’t understand what it’s inhabiting. In theory – in theory – it should be possible to move the Outsider from one vessel to another. Easier than casting it back into the beyond.”

“How?” I asked.

“How, yes, that is the question. How?” Felicity nodded, more to herself than us, eyes wandering off along private convolutions. “Going to be very messy. Yes … messy … ”

“Messy?” I almost sighed.

Felicity snapped to, fixed me with a look, dead serious. “First things first. How much horse dung can you get hold of?”

==

The spell to save Evelyn turned out to require far more esoteric ingredients than a pound or two of literal horse-shit, but we also needed a lot more floor space to work with. We returned downstairs, half at my direction and half at Felicity’s, as she listed the items she needed, asking what we had access to and what we could lay our hands on at short notice.

Zheng directed a grin at me as we passed through the kitchen, still lounging with her feet up on the table. “Where’s your streaker, shaman?”

“Putting her clothes on, this time. We hope.”

Zheng rumbled. “Pity.”

Over the next half-hour, Felicity’s spell began to take shape. We commandeered Evelyn’s magical workshop, had Twil shove the table and the sofa back to clear as much floor space as possible, while Kim scrubbed away the remains of the spell she’d used to restore Praem. The bottle my doll-demon friend had occupied now lay on its side, uncorked and empty. Amid the hustle and bustle I tucked it away behind a stack of papers and books. I doubted Praem would enjoy a reminder of that experience.

The task of drawing the magic circle fell to Kimberly, with Felicity directing and interrogating her threadbare knowledge. I did my best to follow their obscure conversation, but it mostly consisted of comparing scraps of Latin and different kinds of angles, and debating over tiny variations in eye-watering magical symbols.

Felicity herself ventured back out to her car, and returned with a heavy canvas-wrapped bundle which contained a mass of hollow brass tubing. She was stronger than she looked beneath her awkward, willowy exterior, and I kept a close eye on her for more than one reason.

She spent the next hour setting up those brass tubes, constructing a ceiling-height pyramid of copper globes and curved rods.

“Is that gonna need lifting over the … uh … circle-thing?” Twil asked.

“No, over Evelyn,” Felicity replied, distracted. “Here, take this piece, slot it into one of the double-width ends. Lift it up for me, here- no, no, here, pay attention. Hold it steady until I get this other piece in.”

Twil growled softly under her breath, but helped all the same.

Lozzie had delegated to herself the task of encouraging Praem to wear some clothes. When the pair of them finally rejoined us, it was Lozzie-first, bouncing through the kitchen with her nose pinched shut and her eyes screwed up against the lingering smell of blood. She smiled at us – well, at me and Twil, the only ones paying proper attention – and waved a flourish with one arm.

“Ta-da!” she announced with perfect timing, as Praem rounded the corner.

Praem was dressed once again in her re-appropriated maid uniform, ankle-length skirt and silly frills and neat little black shoes. She walked with her hands clasped in front of her, and I swear I saw in the depths of her expressionless face a touch of relief. Perhaps she felt normal again. Comfortable. Herself.

Lozzie’s introduction was somewhat spoilt when Praem paused in the kitchen, to share a silent staring contest with Zheng. The giant zombie stared back, slow and easy, as if she owned everything she surveyed.

“Trussed up like a cake,” Zheng purred at her, half-smiling like a sleepy cat. “Idiot, or slave, which is it?”

“Uh oh,” Lozzie chirped.

“This isn’t the time,” I raised my voice. Neither of them looked at me. “And Praem is not a slave.”

“Idiot, then,” Zheng rumbled.

“Feet. Off. Table.”

Zheng blinked once at Praem’s words – an order that brooked no argument, delivered in the voice of winter wind sliding around the icicles in one’s heart. Twil stepped away from the circle-building work, ears pricked with animal awareness of a brewing fight.

“Make me, idiot,” Zheng purred.

The staring contest continued for several heart-stretching moments. Felicity and Kimberly stopped working too, the former looking on with barely concealed twitchy concern.

“This is not the time,” I repeated, louder. Praem walked around to the opposite side of the table without breaking eye contact. I had a sudden terrible vision of her flipping the table in Zheng’s face or whipping it out from under her feet. “Praem. Praem, what are you-”

But of course, our perfectly poised and proper doll-demon would never do such a thing.

Praem carefully pulled out a chair, sat down with a smoothing of skirts under her rump, and placed her right elbow on the table, hand forward.

Zheng roared with approving laughter. I stared, open mouthed as I realised. Twil laughed too, and Lozzie let out a little whoop.

“What? What are they doing?” Felicity stammered “What is this? Heather is correct, we don’t have time for this.”

“You can ignore them if you want, I don’t think it’ll affect us,” I said with a sigh. “Don’t break the table though, either of you. Evelyn will be most unhappy.”

“But what are they doing?” Felicity demanded.

Zheng took her feet off the table and sat forward, hugely muscled shoulders hunched over as she mirrored Praem’s pose. Elbow on the table, right hand out. They made me think of stags about to lock antlers.

“You are made of wood and thought, idiot,” Zheng purred. “What are you next to real flesh? Hmmmmm?”

Praem waited. Said nothing. Zheng rumbled low in her throat.

“They’re arm wrestling,” I said.

It was no contest.

Not the first time, nor when they wordlessly went to best of three, then five, then seven – by which point Felicity had lost interest, turned back to her work and dragged Kimberly back to it as well, despite Twil’s hooting and hollering and Lozzie’s open-mouthed oohs and ahhs. We clustered around the doorway to the kitchen, an audience at safe distance. I shook my head when the demons went to best of nine, and resolved to put my foot down and stop this before best of eleven. They’d left a dent in the table by that point, a battered and bloodied indentation in the wood, and the slamming noise was getting on my nerves.

Thankfully I was saved from having to get between them, by the resounding snap of Zheng’s wrist bones.

She let out a grunt, not quite pain, and finally gave up on the immovable object that was Praem’s hand. Zheng’s knuckles were bloody and bruised, her finger bones likely riddled with micro-fractures. She’d exerted so much force that last time that she’d snapped whatever was left of her wrist. Sweating, heaving for breath, hunkered down – but she grinned all the same.

Not a single one of Praem’s hairs was out of place. She’d not moved an inch except to slam Zheng’s hand to the table nine times in a row.

“Ding ding ding,” Lozzie announced.

“You been bested, you great big lug,” Twil called out, grinning like a loon.

Zheng reached over with her other hand and wrenched her own bones back into place, rotating her bruised wrist, bones grinding. She clicked her tongue. “Meat.”

“Yes, I hope that issue is settled now,” I said. “Is this some kind of demonic pecking order ritual? Do you always have to challenge each other when you meet, or are you just both being insufferable?”

Prim and proper, Praem stood up, brushed her skirt smooth with a single motion of both hands, and tucked her chair in. “Feet off table.”

Zheng grinned even wider, chuckling under her breath. Her shoulders rolled, a note of wild joy in her eyes. For a heart-stopping moment I thought she was about to launch herself at Praem; my whole body twitched – not away, but toward, to get between them. I caught myself halfway there, heart racing, as Zheng relaxed back in her chair.

“Very well,” she purred. “Demon.”

Praem turned and glided toward us. We all cleared out of her way and let her into the magical workshop. Lozzie reached up and patted her on the head as she passed. She took up position next to the door, settled her hands in front of her, and stared straight ahead.

“That was fucking awesome,” Twil said. “Kicked her arse.”

“You next, laangren?” Zheng purred from the kitchen. Twil cleared her throat and grimaced.

“Praem?” I spoke softly, and felt a strange catch in my throat. Praem turned her head to regard me, and I surprised everyone including myself, by giving the doll-demon a hug. A proper hug, a good squeeze. There was a lot to hug, but she didn’t return the gesture. I wonder if she knew how, or if I’d finally managed to embarrass her. “I’m so glad you’re alive,” I said.

“Alive,” Praem echoed.

I let go and stepped back, and had to wipe my eyes a little. “Well, alive. You know what I mean.”

“Heather,” Praem intoned, bell-like and clear, then returned to her ramrod-straight position, eyes forward to watch Felicity work.

==

On one hand none of us trusted Felicity. I believed I understood her motivations, but what I knew of Evelyn’s childhood still invoked a latent horror at the mage’s presence in our home. The only thing I knew for sure is that when Evelyn woke, Felicity was absolutely not to be the first thing she saw.

And Evelyn would wake up. Of course she would. I had to keep repeating that to myself.

On the other hand, I finally had another capable adult in charge of at least one crisis. The relief was an almost physical thing, a lightness in my head and gut. But it didn’t last long. I had other tasks waiting.

“If we can’t get the dung, we’ll have to do it the other way. Blood.” Felicity dusted her hands off and and stepped back to look at her contraption. “I’ve got clean needles in my bag, shouldn’t have to draw much, but-”

“From Evee?” I asked.

“Yes, yes, who else?” Felicity waved vaguely. “But-”

“You’re gonna take blood from Evee?” Twil frowned like a wary dog.

Felicity blinked at her, wrong-footed. “Obviously. We are hoodwinking a demon, remember? What’s the soil like around here?”

Twil blinked at her. “ … Soil? I have no idea, what?”

I shrugged. “I’m not a Sharrowford native, sorry, I don’t know either.”

We all glanced at Kimberly, down on the floor on her knees, hands shaking over occult symbols as she focused on painting them directly onto the floorboards. “Um … you need clay, don’t you?”

“Yes,” Felicity said. “And lots of it, enough for a life-sized human figure. If the soil around here is clay-heavy, we could use it straight from your back garden. Save us time.”

“My … friend, I suppose,” Kimberly said, carefully tucking a loose strand of auburn hair behind one ear. “Ginny, she runs an arts and crafts supply store. You met her, Heather, at the coven. I-I could call her, ask how much she has right now? Modelling clay, I mean.”

Felicity clicked her fingers. “That’ll do. That’ll do. Can any of you drive? I can’t leave this alone while we finish it,” she gestured at the magic circle. “Somebody needs to go haul clay.”

“Twil, I think that’s on you,” I said.

“Eh?” Twil squinted. “What are you on about? I can’t drive.”

“You can run fast and carry heavy loads.”

“She can?” Felicity asked. “Perfect.”

Twil huffed and rolled her eyes.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m tired and flippant and terrified for Raine. The quicker we can do this, the better. Please, Twil?”

Twil glanced sidelong at Felicity, who already considered the problem solved. She was stooping down to supervise Kimberly’s work. “Heather,” Twil hissed between her teeth. “I can’t leave Evee here. What about … you know? I know you’re not, like, defenceless, but … ” She nodded sideways at Felicity, as awkward and conspicuous as an informant in a bad noir movie.

“Present,” Praem intoned from where she stood by the door. Twil jumped, startled, as if she’d forgotten Praem was there.

“I think Evee has a capable enough bodyguard for now,” I murmured.

Forty five minutes later, Twil returned huffing and puffing. Hauling three massive sacks of modelling clay halfway across Sharrowford on her shoulders had sapped even her strength. She’d nabbed a huge bucket in which to mix the stuff too. With time barely to catch her breath, Felicity set her to work kneading the clay with a pair of rubber gloves on both hands, a garden trowel, and elbow grease.

“Double, double toil and trouble,” I whispered to myself, leaning against the wall and watching as the other ingredients went into the bucket. “Fire burn and cauldron bubble.”

Lemon juice, iron filings, several strands of Evelyn’s hair, a quarter-pint of motor oil and an eighth a pint of full-fat milk. And from Felicity’s bag – if she was to be believed – a dash of salt water taken from the Dead Sea, and ash from an Old Testament Bible consumed by fire.

Last but not least, a single syringe worth of Evelyn’s blood.

Felicity wanted to extract that herself. Twil stood in the way, barring the door.

“I’m the only one here with any medical experience,” Felicity said, her blind eye twitching. “You risk snapping the needle off in her arm if you pull it out wrong.”

“Still don’t like it,” Twil growled.

“It’s a clean needle. It’s never been used. I’d … ” Felicity swallowed, struggled to get the words out. “Never try to hurt her, even unintentionally.”

“You don’t have to like it,” I said, the confrontation not helping my nerves. “Twil, let her work. We need to get this done.”

“Yeah, but-”

“And face it, either of us probably will snap the needle off. You’re jittery and worried, and I’m exhausted.”

Felicity moved to push past. A growl started in Twil’s throat.

Like an animating statue, Praem stepped forward and deftly palmed the empty syringe from Felicity’s hand before any of us could react. She marched out of the ex-drawing room and up the stairs, leaving the rest of us exchanging surprised glances. Twil leapt after her. They returned less than a minute later, holding up a plastic tube filled with thick crimson.

“Blood,” Praem announced. Felicity thanked her with an awkward nod.

In went Evee’s blood. The clay took on a red sheen.

Two hours had turned into three, and the circle Felicity was building began to hurt my eyes and make me feel sick. The stench of clay and blood and citrus didn’t help either. Or at least, that’s what I told myself, leaning against the wall and downing more coffee. That’s how I distracted myself from what I had to do, kept it bottled up until the right moment.

Eventually, I asked the question. “Is this going to take much longer?”

Felicity didn’t bother to look up. “Another hour, perhaps. I’m working as fast as I can.”

“An hour?” Twil grunted. “Fuckin’ ‘ell.”

“Yes, an hour. Depends how fast you can slap together a basic human figure with all that clay. Time to get to it, I think.”

I levered myself away from the wall and turned to Praem, on guard at the kitchen doorway.

“Can you … ” I started softly, not wanting to disturb the mages at work, but unsure what exactly I was asking, or why. Praem had proved herself capable already, she knew Felicity had to be watched. “I … um … ”

I needed permission. Guilt clutched at my throat. Evelyn was still in a coma. Could I leave my best friend in other people’s hands? A lump formed in my throat, thick and almost painful.

Praem met my eyes. A white emptiness stared back at me.

“Yes,” Praem intoned, clear and loud. The others glanced up, and I flustered at the attention.

“It’s nothing,” I lied. “I’m just going to check on Lozzie. I may be some time.”

“Right, well, yes,” Felicity said, already turning away.

Praem was still looking at me.

“Thank you,” I whispered, and slipped past her.

==

I found Lozzie upstairs, curled up on the foot of my bed, dozing like a cat.

She’d excused herself from the magical workshop over an hour ago, with a whispered, intensely personal reason. She didn’t like to see that kind of magic. Reminded her of bad things, bad times, and bad people. I’d trusted her not to vanish Outside, if that was even possible right now, and she’d proved my trust well founded.

“Lozzie?” I murmured her name as I sat down on the bed, the floorboards creaking. “Lozzie?”

“Mmmm?” She made a sleepy sound, but her eyes stayed closed.

I almost laughed – hysteria threatening to break through my wire-tight nerves. “How can you sleep at a time like this?”

“Nap time, nap time,” she murmured. “Can’t help, so nap time.”

“Lozzie?” I swallowed, throat dry, almost unable to ask. “Do you know if your spirits have found anything yet? Anything about Raine?”

“Mmmm … I’d know,” she mumbled. “Soon? They’ll be in the garden, maybe, in a bit.”

“ … so, no then. Okay, okay.” I closed my eyes and blew out a slow, shaky breath.

I’d fetched the little plastic waste bin we kept in the bathroom, and when I placed it on the floor my hands started to shake. Just the caffeine. I tugged a corner of blanket over Lozzie’s shoulder, and pulled my legs up underneath me to keep my feet warm.

I’d hoped to do this alone, where I’d not be missed for an hour or two, but I was too nervous and too afraid to summon the focus to wake Lozzie.

Instead I reached down and adjusted the plastic bin.

There. Perfect position to catch vomit.

Outdoors, the sun was drooping toward mid afternoon on a winter’s day, sending thin grey light through the window of the bedroom Raine and I shared. I could have locked myself in the bathroom and sat in the tub, but I needed to be here. With her.

The evidence of Raine’s life was all around – her discarded clothes on the floor, crumpled jeans over the back of a chair, a very plain bra dropped carelessly next to the bed. Her books were stacked in a trio of loose piles, some fallen like discarded masonry from a crumbling tower, invaded and occupied by several of my favourites.  Her posters adorned the walls, some old and dog-eared, from that far-away childhood home I’d probably never visit. A playstation controller sat in front of the television, undoubtedly and invisibly stained with the oils from her hands. Her scent was worked into the bedsheets, the smell of her hair on the pillows.

I knew all her textures here. The way she pulled a tshirt over her head. The way she’d hold a book open while reading it, bending the spine ever so slightly too much for my sensibilities. The way she sat when concentrating, cross-legged and serious, or when teasing me, leaning back on her arms. I saw her beaming confident smile in every blink of my mind’s eye.

If I was to define Raine with hyperdimensional mathematics, this was the place to do it.

I closed my eyes, and began.

In retrospect, I made an incredibly stupid decision. I was exhausted, running on fumes and coffee and sheer stubborn determination and – I like to think – love, which is often the stupidest thing of all. Another two or three hours and perhaps Evelyn would be awake, perhaps there would be another way to find Raine, a way that did not involve crushing my consciousness in a vice of fire and acid. I knew I was fragile, on the edge of a collapse, the last of my energy used up to dispose of the bodies that morning. If the Fractal hadn’t been on my arm, I’d have sworn I was close to a Slip. I felt halfway out of reality already, shaky and disconnected.

Just the coffee, I told myself.

Every minute without action was torture. I’d done my best to contain myself, dealing with crisis after crisis, but now other people had taken over and I couldn’t wait any longer. Neither could Raine.

My heart quivered, because I was about to discover if I was strong enough to find her.

And if she was alive.

I’d thrown this brainmath together before, of course, when I’d searched for the not-Lozzie that had visited Kimberly’s flat. The relevant equations still lurked in the depths of my unconscious mind. How to define time, space, position, how to use Evelyn’s map of reality, how to weld it all together into a tool for my purposes. But I was missing one element, and that I would have to build from scratch.

I plunged my arms into the mud in the sump of my soul.

At least this time I didn’t need to hide the pain. I cried out, gritting my teeth and whining at the white-hot daggers inside my skull as I pulled together the hyperdimensional mathematics I would require. Curling up, I tensed every muscle in my body to hold onto the contents of my stomach.

Time, space, they were simple, came to me with the ease of sticking a knife into my guts.

Quickly, quickly now, I told myself, before it overwhelms me.

Raine’s scent in the air and her face in my memory and every facet of her life at my fingertips. Reduced, redefined, laid out in hell-maths from beyond reality.

Over a threshold of pain I hadn’t known existed, quivering and choking on the air itself, my eyeballs on fire, I defined a human soul in hyperdimensional mathematics.

Raine.

A frozen explosion in my head, pain poised on the edge of an abyss, ready to drop me into darkness and oblivion – and it all happened then, all at once, a nano-second of consciousness expanded to infinite awareness.

Sharrowford itself laid out in alien terms. A thousand possible places, a million, a billion, more than I could account for with my my mind screaming and quivering like flayed meat. Not a process, because time meant nothing in that state. An instant of knowledge of every possible place Raine had been or would ever be.

There.

Maths, describing a monkey. Every detail of meat and breath and chemistry and thought, but nothing of Raine, not in the way that I knew her. Not in the human way. A construct of energy and matter and time. That’s all she was in the end. All any of us are.

Alive.

Should have felt relief; couldn’t feel anything. Time meant nothing, so what of human emotion?

I had a location. Nothing so irrelevant as an address, the knowledge was far more pure than that.

Paused in that moment of frozen time, dimly aware of the pain and the crash waiting for me, I tried to push further. Scraps of brainmath suggested themselves, rising from oily depths, half-forgotten pieces of the Eye’s lessons connecting up as I stared at this construct that was Raine, and realised I could bring her back.

I could select her, define her, and make her be here. We didn’t have to rescue her at all, I could simply fix reality.

All I had to do was try harder, plunge myself into the abyss, drink the Eye’s lessons in full and accept what I was changing into.

Why not? What did I have to lose?

I pushed that little bit further, and for a blink of time, I forgot what it was like to be a person.

Raine’s lingering scent in the air saved me. Our bedroom saved me, the memory of what it felt like be fleshy and real, to cuddle with Raine in bed at night, her arms around me. Flawed and warm. I wanted that again, I wanted it so much, to be messy and sweaty, wanted to eat food and make out with Raine and get cold fingertips and have orgasms. Wanted to feel sun on my skin and hair under my hands and smell strawberries and get ill and stub my toe. Wanted to exist, with Raine.

I saw a monkey on a bed, a weird scrawny little thing full of chemicals and proteins, expiring in eighty years or less, her eyes screwed up, doubled over in pain and about to fly apart.

Oh, that’s me, I thought.

And thinking made it so.

Gasping, shaking, my heart pounding hard enough to burst, breath heaving in and out on the verge of hyperventilation, every inch of my skin drenched in cold sweat, I was back. For the first time in my life, pain had never felt so sweet.

I managed to hit the target, vomited into the bin I’d placed earlier. Heather one, brainmath nil.

Then I whined like a stuck pig.

My head throbbed, my vision turning black at the edges. I curled into a ball began to sob, overwhelmed, hiccuping and laughing and hugging myself. The pain was incredible, but so was the relief that Raine was alive – and that I was still here.

I could save Raine right now. The price was not death, the price was to leave behind being a person. Being flesh. Being me.

For a long time I lay on the bed, panting for breath, waiting for the pain to subside, staring at Lozzie’s peaceful face. How had she slept through all my pitiful noises? Her eyes twitched under their lids, and she made a sleepy noise in her throat. Good Lozzie. If you’re safe, this is all easier. I’d wake her in a minute and tell her where Raine was, how to find her, in case I passed out when I tried to stand up.

“You have to become a monster if you want to save her. You know that, don’t you?”

A nightmare imitation of a little girl’s voice in sulphur and ash, reaching from behind me, creeping over my side like skeletal fingers clutching at my ribs. A weight shifted on the bed behind me, where nobody should have been.

“Don’t you want to save your girlfriend?” the voice continued, mocking and hissing. “It’s not so bad, being like me. Give it a try.”

The voice laughed, a horrible wet bubbly sound, a child’s laugh as imagined by serial killer.

“ … Felicity’s parasite?” I managed to croak, too drained to even turn my head to look. Instinct told me I was lucky to be so exhausted.

“Tssss, ugly word,” the voice hissed, then purred as if through a mouthful of drool. “Think what Raine would feel, if she knew you couldn’t do it.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

that which you cannot put down – 7.8

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Framed beneath the crystal eyes and waving stingers of Evelyn’s spider-servitor, Felicity politely wiped her boots on the doormat.

“Is it safe in here?” she asked. “You mentioned the house is warded?”

The spider wasn’t reacting to her, not beyond an initial tracking glance as she’d passed over the threshold. Felicity followed the direction of my gaze, back over her shoulder, and saw nothing there. She gave me a silently curious look, her posture a touch more stiff than before.

“It’s nothing,” I sighed. “Safe, yes. For a given value of safe. It’s not impregnable to battering rams or baseball bats. If it was, then none of this would have happened in the first place.”

“Safe from that too, while I’m around,” Twil said.

“Yeah!” Lozzie added from her position half-behind me, still watching Felicity like a spooked cat. “Twil’s big and scary, so you better be careful!”

“Yeah,” Twil grunted.

Our Twil was none too happy. She stood with her arms folded, scowling narrow-eyed at Felicity, unable to conceal her suspicions after our confrontation in the street and the unwelcome news of Felicity’s mystery extra passenger. Watch out for a little girl dressed in black? What was this, the plot of a 19th-century Gothic novel? I struggled to contain my own exasperation.

“Yes,” I said, a little too hard, and rubbed the bridge of my nose. “I’m certain that right now, this house contains enough frightening and dangerous people to run off half the city.”

Felicity ducked her head in an awkward nod. “Just being cautious. Used to being behind thick walls. I don’t get out much.”

“Yeah no kidding,” Twil grunted. “Looking like that.”

Twil.” I shot her a look of genuine outrage. Twil was usually so cuddly, I’d forgotten how hurtful she was capable of being; when we’d first met in the midst of misunderstanding, she’d called Evelyn a cripple.

Twil blushed. “I mean pointing guns at people! In the street! Not the- the- argh … ” She gestured vaguely at her face and pulled a grimace.

“Perhaps, in future, be a little more careful in selecting your words?”

“Yeah! Yeah, cool, okay, yeah.” Twil nodded, hands up, desperate for me to drop the subject.

“I apologise on Twil’s behalf.” I turned back to Felicity. “She tends to … speak … before she … Felicity?”

If Felicity was bothered, she gave no sign. She was running her gaze across the front room, the boxes of the junk, the stains on the floorboard, the shoes by the door. Counting how many of us were here? I tried not to think like that, tried to make myself believe she was here to help. She craned her neck to peer up the stairs and past us into the kitchen.

Her booted feet stayed planted on the doormat. One gloved hand rested on the open zipper of her overstuffed sports bag.

“I don’t care,” Felicity murmured without missing a beat. She’d given no impression of switching her attention from the room back to us, no minor startle of the absorbed brought back to a conversation. Was her momentary distraction an act? The learned behaviour of a gruesomely disfigured woman ignoring an all-too-familiar insult – or a carefully constructed illusion of obliviousness?

Twil and I shared a glance. Twil shrugged.

I cleared my throat, trying to keep us on track. “I do have a question for you, if you don’t mind. When is your parasite likely to appear?”

The left side – the burned side – of Felicity’s face twitched around her milky, blind eye. A suppressed wince? “It’s not a parasite. And it’s unlikely to appear at all.”

“Yes, but we’ve already got multiple crises unfolding here,” I said. “I don’t need another one.”

Felicity wet her lips and winced openly this time. “While I’m here, it might try to speak to those alone for extended periods, especially in the dark, or at night. So … don’t walk down dark corridors alone.”

“This thing isn’t a sodding ghost, is it?” Twil asked, a note of panic in her voice.

“Spooky scary,” Lozzie whispered.

“No. No, quite,” Felicity said. “And to answer your next question, yes, I am armed. I suppose it’s only the polite thing to do, before I … ” she glanced down at her shoes.

“Take your shoes off!” Lozzie chanted. “Take your shoes off for the girls.”

“Lozzie’s just enjoying herself,” I said in answer to Felicity’s raised eyebrow. “Let her. And yes, it was rather obvious that you’re armed in some capacity.”

Felicity cleared her throat and had the decency to look ashamed.

“Duh,” Twil said. “You got a gun in there, or what? Also, like, sorry. I really didn’t mean-”

“I don’t care,” Felicity repeated. She shifted the weight of the open sports bag on her shoulder, and tilted it forward to show us the contents.

A viper of black metal and dark wood lay length-ways inside the bag, swaddled in an old towel. A sawn-off shotgun.

Lozzie made a disapproving whimper. Twil breathed ‘fucking hell’ under her breath. I felt a chill in my gut and a lightness in my head. She’d pointed that thing at us? She had, with her finger on the trigger.

Felicity must have caught the accusation and alarm on my face. “The safety was on,” she said quickly. “It was only a bluff. Besides, it’s not even really meant for you. I go everywhere armed, in case of emergencies.”

“In case of what, a bear?” Twil said. “Or if you fancy a spot of bank robbery on your way home? What the fuck are you doing with a shotgun?”

“It’s different, living out in the woods.”

“We can hardly talk,” I said, swallowing my exasperation. “Raine does that too. I’ll thank you not to discharge that indoors, though. We’ve already got two bullet holes in the floor. I don’t want Evelyn to wake up to more holes in her house.”

“Yeah, we don’t wanna bring the rozzers running again,” Twil said.

Felicity froze. “You’ve had the police here?”

“A tame detective. It’s dealt with.” I nodded at the gun inside her bag. “Are you going to put that down, or … ?”

“Yes. Yes, I should.” She nodded. “I’m sorry. I said I don’t get out much, but that’s an understatement. I don’t like being so exposed. That’s all. I’m fully aware I’m jumping at shadows, but I do want to help Evelyn.”

“Well, you best take your boots off then, and we’ll go upstairs to see her.”

Setting down her bag – and her weapon – revealed an internal ordeal for Felicity. She hesitated for a long moment, swallowed, then nodded and finally placed the sports bag gently on the floor. She nodded again, as if convincing herself, then squatted down to unlace her boots. Her fingers seemed clumsy and blunt.

“Should be tell Kim about the spooky little girl that might show up? Don’t suppose Zheng’ll care.”

“Yes, I suspect Zheng might give any surprises a nasty surprise of their own,” I said. “Best warn Kim though, yes.”

“Zheng cares!” Lozzie said.

“There’s others here, besides yourselves?” Felicity asked. She wiggled one boot off, revealing thick and unflattering thermal socks.

“A few,” I said, then stopped myself before explaining further. I was exhausted, but Felicity’s arrival had sparked what remained of my reserves of energy and focus. I held myself back. Twil picked up on it too, shutting her mouth before she blurted out all our secrets.

“A … few?” Felicity caught my eyes.

“I feel like I should apologise for being rude, but I don’t entirely trust you, Felicity,” I said. “Not yet. There’s more of us here, that’s all.”

“Ooooh,” Lozzie made a sound like she was about to see a cat-fight. Twil tried to look tough, nodding along with me. Not difficult.

“Well, good,” Felicity said, more to herself to us, then pulled an awkward smile. “Shouldn’t trust magicians. Very wise of you.”

“You did get here much quicker than we expected,” I said at length, thinking as I spoke. Felicity’s fingers paused on the laces of her other boot.

“Well spotted. I lied about travel time, to give myself an advantage if I needed it.” She waited, as if for accusation or forgiveness, the faintest hint of ironic self-mockery in her one good eye.

Getting an accurate read on Felicity proved exceptionally difficult, even for me. Over the last few months of strange experiences, I’d learned that about myself, far more surprising than the brute facts of the supernatural – I possessed a good eye for reading other people.

But I couldn’t join up the separate parts of Felicity’s behaviour. Skittish and soft, yet I felt half of what she showed us was mere performance, to herself as much as us. Underneath the exterior of tatty clothes and hesitant gestures, it took a certain kind of twisted guts to point a loaded shotgun at another person. She didn’t look haggard or run-down, not brittle or afraid, merely delicate and wrapped in armour. Was she a little like Raine, minus the self-confidence and grace?

Or was it the burn scars, throwing me off? I found it almost impossible not to stare at Felicity’s scarring, at the way the flesh twitched out of sync with her expressions. Was I being unfair?

No. She was a mage, and she’d made it halfway into her thirties. She was dangerous, if only by necessity.

“Figures.” Twil rolled her eyes.

Felicity held my stare for a moment, then lowered her eyes and resumed untying her other boot. She slipped it off, set it next to its twin, and straighted up.

“Can you really pluck bullets out of the air, or was that a bluff too?” she asked.

“She can!” Lozzie said.

“Yes, but it’s a long story and we don’t have time for it,” I said. “We need to go see Evelyn, but I think we could all do with a cup of tea while we do. Twil, will you do the honours?”

“Eh?”

“Tea, coffee,” I said, voice more tight than I intended. “Lozzie and I will take Felicity upstairs, you let Kim and Zheng know about the-”

“I know, shaman,” came a deep purring.

Zheng ducked through the doorway into the front room.

Felicity went wide-eyed at the sight of Zheng, at her seven feet of muscle, bloodied trench coat, and the mass of dense tattoos visible beneath her thin tshirt. Zheng fixed her with a lazy, predatory interest.

“I know all about this one’s familiar,” Zheng purred. “I can smell it.”

“Yes, thank you for the dramatic self-introduction,” I couldn’t keep the sarcasm from my voice. “Felicity, this-”

Felicity moved so much faster than I’d thought her capable of, with her willowy awkwardness and clumsy fingers and single functioning eye. She ripped her sawn-off shotgun from the towel nest in her bag, braced it with both hands, and pointed it at Zheng.

“Woah, woah! Fuck!” Twil yelled. My stomach lurched and I stumbled back. Lozzie clung to my shoulders, half-hiding behind me, half holding me up.

Zheng broke into a shark-toothed grin at the double-mouth of the shotgun barrels.

“You didn’t say anything about this!” Felicity yelled.

“You think that little musket can stop me, wizard?” Zheng purred, obviously enjoying the moment. “If I wanted you dead, I’d be eating your flesh already.”

“Oh yes,” I snapped, surprised at the force of my own eye-rolling disapproval. “This is exactly what I meant when I asked you not to fire that thing indoors, thank you. And Zheng, stop it, don’t taunt her.”

Zheng ignored me, watching Felicity’s hands shake.

“Yeah, fucking back off, hey?” Twil suggested.

“No, no no no,” Felicity was repeating, shaking her head in desperate denial. Her good eye brimmed with hollow horror, far beyond any rational response to Zheng.

“No? No what?” I asked. “Felicity?”

“How could she? She- she would never- Evelyn wouldn’t do this. No.”

“Yes, you’re quite correct there,” I spoke quickly. “Evelyn did not make Zheng.”

“What?” Felicity risked a glance at me. A mistake. One flick of her eyes was enough time for Zheng to jerk forward, moving like quicksilver. The playful aborted charge of a big cat, stopping well short. Felicity flinched like she’d touched a live wire, her back slamming into the front door. She pointed the shotgun firmly at Zheng’s head once more. I half-expected the spider-servitor to react, but it hung there utterly uninterested. I guess Zheng didn’t count as worth protecting.

“Don’t you move!” Felicity snapped. “Don’t you move a muscle.”

“Zheng!” I scolded.

“She’s too fun, shaman. See how she jumps?” Zheng’s extra-long tongue rolled out of her mouth, to taste the air and tease our poor guest.

Felicity had none of the confident poise of Raine with a weapon. She visibly shook, despite the firm grip on the shotgun, one hand on the trigger mechanism, the other holding the barrels. She displayed none of what Raine called ‘trigger discipline’, her finger already in place inside the trigger-guard. Her face had turned waxy with barely controlled fear – but it was controlled. For now.

“I said,” repeating myself, raising my voice. “Zheng is not Evelyn’s work. Evee didn’t make her.” I put two and two together, and took the risk. “She’s not following in her mother’s footsteps.”

Felicity took a moment to process what I’d said. “Okay,” she breathed. “Okay. That- that’s good. That’s really good to hear. Okay. But I’m still looking at a mature demon-host. Why?”

“You can put the gun down,” I said. “Zheng is … friendly. Safe.”

Felicity laughed a single humourless laugh. “Are you mad? I’ve seen these things before. They are never safe.”

“Yes, I know she’s intimidating. I freed Zheng this morning, I’ve know her for literally less than twelve hours, and she’s already saved my life. Twice, I think. I’d thank you not to point a gun at her, for a start.”

“ … freed?” Felicity frowned.

Zheng slurped her tongue back into her mouth, and grinned wider then before, showing even more teeth. They seemed to extend forever into the back of her skull. “I am my own, wizard.”

Felicity’s fear suddenly ebbed away, giving way to naked fascination. Her good eye filled with a kind of hunger, one I’d seen before on a very different face. With a shock of recognition I realised Evelyn had given me the same look whenever she’d talked about the potential of my hyperdimensional mathematics. Felicity’s mouth hung open. The shotgun sagged in her grip. “ … you’re unbound? Then why are you still here?”

Zheng shrugged. “Enjoying the moment.”

 “ … oh my God,” Felicity whispered. “How old are you?”

“Ruuuuude!” Lozzie hooted.

“Old enough to know lead shot won’t tickle me,” Zheng rumbled.

“Also true,” I added quickly. “Zheng fell out of a building this morning, and she wasn’t much the worse for wear.”

“Shaman,” Zheng purred. “I did not fall. I jumped.”

“Point being, I very much doubt you can damage her anyway. Please, Felicity, put the gun down.”

Felicity frowned, considering carefully.

“Go ahead, wizard,” Zheng rumbled. “Pull the trigger. Shoot me. Prove it to yourself.”

“This isn’t loaded with lead shot,” Felicity said very quietly. “It’s cold iron.”

Zheng’s expression shifted ever so minutely, intrigued – and excited.

“Yes, that’s right,” Felicity continued in the same soft murmur. “I know how your kind usually work. I can’t kill you because you’re not really alive, but I can cause you a great deal of pain.”

Zheng tilted her head slowly, listening.

“You’re old, very old, aren’t you?” Felicity continued. “Decades in that body for so much fine control, let alone your … modifications. How long has it been since you felt pain like us?”

“Can you pull the trigger faster than I can move, wizard?” Zheng purred. “No depth perception. Interesting handicap.”

“I can.”

“Would you bet an ear? A hand? Your liver?” Zheng slid her tongue out again.

I stepped forward – not quite into Felicity’s arc of fire, I wasn’t feeling suicidal – and put every ounce of frustration into my glare, at both of them. “How about we just don’t? Hmm?” My composure almost buckled instantly, because Lozzie decided to peer over my shoulder and imitate my expression, a little scowling elf to undercut my exasperation. “Can we perhaps not have another bloody fight, here, now? We are on a time limit – two people’s lives are on a time limit.”

Felicity shook her head. “I’m speaking to an unbound demon-”

I let my eyes flash at her. “I don’t care! I don’t care what she is. What is it with you mages and being spooked by these zombies? She saved my life twice this morning. I watched her eat a person, but I don’t care right now. If she wanted you dead, you would be. She’s faster than you can imagine.”

“I don’t have to imagine, I’ve seen it before,” Felicity hissed.

“Then there’s no point trying to shoot her, is there?” I asked. “Either put the gun down and help us with Evelyn, or I make you leave.”

Perhaps it was the tone in my voice, the undercurrent of certainty that I would find a way to make her leave. Or perhaps I made her see sense. I know which I prefer.

Felicity’s good eye travelled back and forth between Zheng and I. She let out long breath, and then slowly lowered the shotgun. For a drawn-out moment, she and Zheng watched each other like a pair of Old West gunslingers at high noon.

“Boo,” Zheng said.

Felicity shook her head. Shaking fingers clicked the safety on. “I’m not going to apologise this time.” She nodded at Zheng. “This is absurd. This is the last thing I expected to find. What’s your game, demon?”

Zheng rumbled a bored, disappointed sound.

“And you!” I turned on her. “Stop trying to fight everything.”

Zheng shrugged. “It’s my nature, shaman.”

I gave her a capital-L look.

“She started it,” Zheng said.

Before I could give Zheng a look like a primary-school teacher breaking up a playground fight, Twil stomped over and got right in Felicity’s face, finger jabbing at her chest. “You’re not going anywhere near Evee after that bullshit. You’re having a laugh.”

“Twil,” I sighed.

“I think under the circumstances-” Felicity began.

“Not good enough,” Twil let out a growl – a real one, a full-throated animal threat. Felicity flinched backward and the shotgun jerked upward once more, but Twil caught the business end in one hand.

“You got some silver in there too?” she growled in Felicity’s face.

Twil,” I snapped. She shoved the shotgun barrel down and away, and stepped back to glare at Felicity.

With a metallic click, Felicity broke her shotgun open and fumbled out the two loaded shells. They looked so incongruous, shiny red plastic set in a brass base. She tossed them into her bag, and offered the unloaded weapon to Twil.

“Uh … ” Twil blinked down at the gun, mouth hanging open.

Felicity shrugged. “You made a good point,” she spoke softly. “If our roles were reversed, I wouldn’t let me anywhere near Evelyn either. Take it, please.”

“The polite thing would be to accept, Twil,” I said.

“Yeah, get your fingerprints all over it,” Lozzie giggled.

Gingerly, Twil took the gun, holding it by the truncated wooden stock like a live eel.

“Either I trust you or I don’t,” Felicity said. “Please, show me to Evelyn.”

==

Up the stairs we went. My mind wired with caffeine and the thin shreds of adrenaline, I sketched two mental models of how Felicity might act once she saw Evelyn. The tone in her voice over the phone – an old and painful loss – left me with no doubt. I thought back to when Evelyn had called her months ago, the pleading way Felicity had asked “Can I see you?”

Wistful longing, or jittery possessiveness. Fifty-fifty. Flip a coin.

At least she’d handed over the gun.

The former I told myself I would tolerate. We would all put up with that for the sake of waking Evelyn from her coma. But the latter? In my darkest imagination I saw Felicity trying to stroke Evelyn’s unconscious face, or worse, and knew Twil for one would react with justified violence. Twil and I had worked out a signal – just a wink, nothing special – to use in case we thought Felicity was throwing up red flags.

Both models were wrong.

Felicity treated the threshold to Evelyn’s bedroom like a portal to her own private hell, and the sight of Evelyn’s face like a God condemning her to the pit.

She hid it well, but I was all too familiar with the signs of self-loathing and self-torture, from my own face in the mirror over a decade of personal horror. I read it in the way she crossed her arms tight and protective over her chest, as if trying to hold herself together. I saw it in the way she shook ever so slightly, a tremor deep inside her body. The hollow guilt in her face made it plain.

For a moment I thought she might start crying. I looked away, an intruder on some inexplicable, alien emotion. Even Lozzie pretended not to notice, and Twil looked distinctly uncomfortable.

Evelyn, wrapped up under her plush bed covers, behind a bulwark of pillows and cushions, couldn’t have cared less. Her eyes twitched beneath closed lids.

“The hell is wrong with you now?” Twil grunted, and crossed over to the bed to check Evelyn’s temperature, hand to her unconscious forehead.

Felicity screwed her eyes shut. She murmured to herself, so quiet it was for her own ears alone.

“Pull yourself together. It’s not her,” she said.

“ … Felicity?” I ventured, wary for some new development. “Are you up to this?”

“I’m perfectly fine,” she said, quick and curt. When she turned to me, her expression was clear and clean, business-like. “You’ve tried to wake her every other way you’ve access to, yes? She’s not out cold with the flu, or merely passed out, correct? If she wakes up and sees me, she’ll likely attempt to kill me.”

“Yeah! Alright? She won’t fucking wake up,” Twil said, brushing Evelyn’s hair back from her face.

“Yes, we’re certain,” I said. “It was magic.”

“What happened to her?” Felicity said. “Start from the beginning.”

“Loooong story,” Lozzie said, with a sagely nod.

“Yes, that will make an exceptionally long story indeed,” I said.

Felicity frowned. “How long?”

“ … to explain what did this, I have to start a decade ago.”

“That’s fine. Tell me while I work.”

Felicity stepped over to the bed and dumped her sports bag. Twil glared at her with open hostility, like a hound guarding its wounded master. Felicity ignored the scowl and bent over Evelyn’s unconscious face, peering closely. She showed nothing except professional interest – then glanced back up at me.

“The sooner you start, the better, Heather. I need to figure out what’s keeping her unconscious. She’s moving her eyes, which means REM sleep, which means at least her brain isn’t scrambled. More information, and I can start to make educated guesses.”

“Okay. Okay, uh … ”

“Meanwhile, I’m going to examine her, but I respect her hatred of me too much to handle her myself. I need one of you girls to expose her throat and both wrists, but obviously try to keep her warm. She’ll be losing body heat while asleep. Twil, is it? If you would, please?”

Twil narrowed her eyes in a scowl. “Why does she hate you? What did you do to her?”

“Twil … ” I said, but with no conviction in my voice. It was a fair question.

“People hate for lots of reasons,” Lozzie said with a sad note.

“You don’t want to know me, you don’t want me to be your friend,” Felicity said to Twil. “She hates me because I deserve it, because I’m toxic, and I’m a coward. She knew it, and I’m not going to lie about it. Let me work, let me wake her, and then I’ll leave.”

“Too fucking vague, waaay too fucking vague,” Twil said.

“ … she hates me because I helped her mother with something, about twelve years ago now.”

Twil squinted. “What does her mother have to do with anything? I thought her mum was dead.”

“That’s for Evelyn to tell,” I said firmly. “Twil doesn’t know Evelyn’s family history.”

“Ah.” Felicity blinked. “I’m- my apologies. You do, though?”

“Some,” I said, shrugging.

“Then you understand.”

“Understand what?”

“That this is penance,” Felicity said.

Twil didn’t like it, but she trusted my judgement. She busied herself pulling the covers back from Evelyn’s sleeping form, hiking up her sleeves to expose her wrists. They made a strange team, as Felicity slipped into a bedside manner almost like a real doctor. She rummaged in her sports bag and produced various tools – a miniature hand-torch, an overstuffed leather-bound notebook, two plastic food containers full of tiny bottles of powder and liquid, a piece of thick canvas rolled into a tube, several lengths of brass rod, a box of plasters, and a dozen other seemingly unrelated nick-nacks.

She used the torch to check Evelyn’s pupils, had Twil daub tiny amounts of an odd amber liquid on Evelyn’s wrists and throat, touched the top of her head with brass. None of it made any sense. Like watching a witch-doctor at work.

I sat in Evelyn’s desk chair, and explained for the second time this morning, dragging myself through the words as if through mud. The Eye, Alexander Lilburne, Glasswick tower. I left out personal details, kept quiet on brainmath, Lozzie, and Maisie.

I’d grown to expect bewilderment, but Felicity listened – and asked intelligent questions.

She had me repeat what I’d seen during that flash of horror before Evelyn and I had both passed out, asked me why I’d woken up but Evee hadn’t. She asked probing question about the Eye, about the limits of its power, questions I had no answers for. She asked about Evelyn’s health, about her diet, about her sex life – “None”, Twil growled.

She asked about the inside of Glasswick tower, about the Lozzie-thing that had been following me, about the aims of the cult.

She asked about Praem, and the shadow behind her face showed exactly what she thought.

“Praem is fine,” I said, feeling a surge of protective fondness. “I gathered from your reaction to Zheng that you don’t like these Outsiders being here, and in Zheng’s case I … I get that. But Praem is a sweetheart. She’s done nothing but good for us. Don’t you dare.”

Felicity cleared her throat gently. “I’ve had bad experiences. She’d had bad experiences too,” she glanced down at Evelyn. “I thought she knew better, that’s all.”

More tests, scraps of Latin read aloud from Felicity’s notebook to no effect, Twil asked to poke and prod and listen to her chest. Eventually Felicity stepped back, failing to conceal the defeated look on her face.

“Nothing’s working, is it?” Twil asked, a tremor in her voice.

Felicity shook her head. “I think she’s possessed.”

“ … you what?” Twil blinked at her.

“Possessed?” I asked. “By an Outsider?”

“The thing that touched your minds – this Eye, as you called it, or one of its agents – I think it tried to leave something behind. That would explain why you woke up, because it has other designs for you. Perhaps your mystery ‘Lozzie-thing’ was made the same way, rapid modification of an original human host?” Felicity mused, more to herself than us, then her voice snapped back into focus again. “Point is, this isn’t hypnotic suggestion or instruction, Evelyn is far too … ” she cleared her throat. “The Evelyn I knew, even as a child, was too strong-willed to succumb to that.”

“I agree,” I said. “Putting it lightly.”

“Yeah. Yeah, right,” Twil said. “So it’s not that? I don’t … I don’t get this?”

“It’s not hypnotic suggestion, or neural damage. Forceful possession, from beyond, by force, should be impossible,” Felicity explained patiently. “But the fact she won’t wake up … well.” Felicity glanced at me, seeing if I was following.

“Well what?” Twil asked.

“I think I understand,” I said, nodding.

“Some weak shard of the Eye, an independent factor, a bud, a spore,” Felicity shrugged. “But she’s been through this once before. She has experience throwing out neural invasion. To use an immune-system metaphor, she’s already got the anti-bodies. So instead of taking over, all it’s managed to do is render her unconscious, while she fights it.”

“She’s wrestling a demon for control of her body?” I asked.

Felicity nodded. “It is the only thing I can think of.”

“Shit,” Twil said, and looked down at Evelyn’s unconscious face, her eyes twitching in sleep.

“She may not even be aware of it,” Felicity said. “More importantly, I believe can do something about it.”

“Wait a sec, what do you mean she’s been through this once before?” Twil asked, frowning at Felicity, then at me too. “Heather?”

“ … it’s really not my place to say,” I said. “Evee’s probably, um, a little reluctant to share her past with you in detail. Not- not because she doesn’t trust you. It’s complicated.”

Twil shrugged, vaguely hurt. No time for that right now, little werewolf. You can patch things up later.

“We need a young priest and an old priest,” Lozzie announced.

Felicity actually laughed, the first time I’d seen a genuine smile from her. She nodded at Lozzie approvingly. “Yes, an exorcism. We need to perform an exorcism.”

“What, ‘the power of Christ compels you’, and all that?” Twil said.

“No, the real thing is less clean, and takes a very long time. I’m going to need a lot of clear space, and a lot of coffee. And I’ll need to make a phone call, I won’t be going home tonight.”

“How long is this going to take?” I asked, a lump growing in my throat.

Felicity shrugged. “Twelve hours, fifteen hours. I don’t know. I’ve only done this once before.”

“Twelve hours,” I whispered to myself. In the corner of my eye, I saw Lozzie bite her lip. She knew what I was thinking. “There’s no … other way, is there?”

“Heather, I can totally stay here for twelve hours,” Twil said, nodding. “I’ll do it.”

“ … there is something I could do,” Felicity said, frowning tight, her reluctance plain. “Only because it’s her. None of you three are mages, correct? That wasn’t a lie, or anything else, was it? I don’t care if it was, but I’ll ask you to leave the room now, before I try this.”

“None of us,” I said. “Kimberly is, but she’s downstairs.”

“Mmmm.” Felicity considered for a moment, then sighed and got down awkwardly on her knees next to Evelyn.

She rolled back her right sleeve, and revealed a sheath of tattoos crawling up her forearm.

Nothing like either the Fractal on my arm or the intricate binding which covered Zheng’s flesh, Felicity’s tattoo was a gossamer tracery of straight lines in dark purples and pinks, blues and greens, intersecting in right angles and meeting at rounded junctions. Precise, ordered, mathematical; the design terminated midway up her bicep.

The lines caught the light and stung my eyes, as if the act of seeing was to run one’s brain along the edge of a razor.

When she removed her right glove as well, the unity of the design came into focus. The lines joined and thickened along her palm and the back of her hand, formed a solid mass of colour on her fingers. A crossbreed of opera glove and circuit board, in ink and magic.

“What is it with magic and tattoos?” I muttered.

“Hey, I’ve got some too,” Twil said.

“Yes, I know, Twil.”

Felicity flexed her fingers, examining the design as if for blemishes, then hesitated. “I am going to have wrap my hand around Evelyn’s throat.”

“What.”

“Okay no, fuck off with that,” Twil said.

“Think of this like a surgical robot,” Felicity said. “It’s not going to hurt her.”

“Oh yeah,” Twil grunted. “Like that helps.” She put an arm over Evelyn to ward Felicity away.

“Not the most reassuring metaphor you could have selected,” I said.

Felicity sighed and wet her lips. The scarred flesh twitched around her unseeing left eye. “I mean in this particular use, think of it as a surgical robot.”

“What is it, really? What does that even do?” I prompted. “What are you going to do to her?”

“ … none of you are mages, none of you would understand.”

“I will,” Lozzie said.

“I might,” I said.

“Yeah, try us,” said Twil.

Felicity hesitated. “There is a natural inclination not to share one’s secrets. I can’t simply tell you.”

“Sure you can,” Twil grunted.

Felicity let out a heavy sigh and closed her eyes for a second. “It’s a sixth sense, built from parts of my own sense of touch and a … borrowed non-biological nervous system. But that’s like calling a car a metal horse. That is not what this is, and I cannot put it into words for you. If I’m right, I may be able to make some kind of rudimentary contact with whatever this Outsider of yours left behind in Evelyn. If it understands human thought. Maybe.”

“ … and then what?” I asked.

Felicity shrugged. “I make it leave.”

I stared at her for a long moment, and one kind of guilt overcame another. “You’re serious, aren’t you? I told you what the Lozzie-thing was like, and you want to convince a similar Outsider to leave, just like that? This is staggeringly dangerous. No, I think we can do the twelve-hour plan instead.”

“Yeah. Fucking yeah,” Twil said. “You’re gonna root around inside Evee’s head? No way, you-”

“Dangerous for her, Twil,” I nodded at Felicity. “Not Evee.”

“Oh.”

“I’m willing to try,” Felicity said softly.

“And then this thing fries your brain,” I said. “And we’re back to square one, with yet another body on our hands.”

“Another body?” Felicity murmured, but she didn’t push the question.

“Twelve hours,” I repeated to myself. “Alright, I can deal with this. Twil, you stay up here then, I’m going to make coffee and- … and get anything else we need. Lozzie, are you-”

Lozzie was staring into space, glassy eyed.

“Lozzie? Lozzie?”

“Mm!” Lozzie blinked and snapped to. I had the uncomfortable impression of a puppet pulling its own strings tight. She stared at me for a moment with a smile on her face.

“Lozzie, are you alright?”

“I’m sleeeeeepy. We’re all sleepy, aren’t we?” she asked nobody in particular, eyes wandering across the wall.

“ … yes. We are.” I frowned at her. “More coffee, like I said.”

“I’m still willing to try the riskier method,” Felicity said.

“Please refrain. It’s not worth the possibility of-”

Clatter clatter clatter went feet down below, rushing across the front room and piling up the stairs. We all stopped and looked at the open doorway to the corridor, and heard Kimberly calling “Wait, wait!”, breathless and panicked, and assumed she meant us.

“Kim?” I called. She finished clattering up the stairs, floorboards creaking under her feet.

Felicity hurried to cover her tattoos. I didn’t think there was much chance of timid and traumatised Kimberly stealing any of her secrets, but I didn’t say anything. I was too busy rolling my eyes and crossing to the door, ready to put down another problem before it bloomed into a crisis.

“Kimberly, what’s wrong now … ” I trailed off as I stuck my head around the door.

My eyes went wide. I think I blushed.

What was wrong was Praem – back in her body, full and fleshy and alive once more, gliding down the upstairs hallway toward me with her near-silent graceful tread and perfectly poised expressionless face. Kimberly panted for breath at the top of the stairs, hands on her knees, bent double. Somewhere down below, Zheng was laughing. I could only assume Praem was making a bee-line for Evelyn, for her unconscious mistress.

Praem was, to coin a phrase, fresh from the summoning circle.

As in, stark naked.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

that which you cannot put down – 7.7

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Supernatural revelation is one thing; it is another entirely to know in exhaustive detail just what sort of things are going bump in the night in one’s hometown.

Terror, denial, paranoia, these are all extreme responses, yes, but they are also rational. Few of us are truly suited for this side of the world, and there is no shame in it. Some days – even when we’re not in the middle of a crisis – I can barely deal with what I know, I want to curl up and hide, pretend none of it is real. Kimberly shouldn’t be involved at all, jumping at shadows and skirting a nervous breakdown. Often I suspected Evelyn herself would be much happier if she’d never known the truth behind reality. We all deal with it differently.

Detective Sargent Nicole Webb took notes.

“Let me get this straight-” she said.

“Not gonna find much o’ that round here,” Lozzie stage-whispered.

“You’re telling me these people,” Nicole continued, gesturing in little circles with her pen. “This esoteric mystery cult, right here, 21st century Britain, normal people walking around in the Goddamn street – not only are they doing real magic, but they’re after you. You specifically, Heather.”

I sighed and felt an unaccountable urge to apologise. “Yes.”

“Because – and stop me here if I’ve missed an essential building block – because you were abducted by a giant alien eyeball when you were nine, and it gave you magical powers?”

“That’s not … ” I sighed again. “Yes.”

“And now you seriously expect me to believe that you’re not some kind of chosen one?” Nicole chuckled and shook her head. She leafed back through her notes. “Bugger me.”

“The world doesn’t work that way.”

“Bloody well hope not.”

“If it did, I’d be considerably less afraid.”

Nicole glanced up from her notes, a tiny leather-bound pocketbook. She caught the look in my eyes and stopped laughing. “Right. Scared for your … Raine, was it?”

I squinted at her. “Yes. You do have her name spelled right?”

“’Course I have. Attention to detail, it’s part of the job.”

We’d decamped to the disused sitting room once more. Brainmath effort had left my knees weak and my stomach tender and my head throbbing. Had to sit down, and the soiled kitchen was no fit place for a civilised conversation, what with the bloodstained floor and Zheng sprawled all over like a sleepy sun-drenched jaguar. The food in her belly and the lack of anything to fight, kill, or eat seemed to have put her into a lethargic holding pattern. She’d waved off my invitation to join us, claiming she could hear perfectly well from where she sat.

Lozzie and Twil had helped me onto the old sofa, and somebody had the bright idea of handing me a bowl of cereal to calm my stomach, which worked admirably, the first real food I’d had in hours. Twil had returned to the kitchen to attempt more evidence removal, while I unfolded Sharrowford’s nighttime secrets, but she’d rejoined us again toward the end, brooding at Nicole from the doorway.

The detective had taken a seat on an ancient, half-collapsed armchair, and cracked jokes about how she needed “just the facts, ma’am”. One leg crossed over the other, back straight, chin high as she listened. She even let her hair down and re-tied it into a well-contained doubled-up pony-tail, the bun abandoned for now.

Somehow, she regained all her dignity, with no sign she’d been tied up in this same room not an hour ago.

“Yes, here she is,” Nicole confirmed. “Raine Philomena Haynes. I’ve got all the details I’ll need.”

“Read it back to me,” I croaked, then added, a touch too slow, “Please.”

Nicole raised an eyebrow, but did as I asked. “Twenty years old, twenty one in February. No known next of kin. Address is here, number 12 Barnslow drive, Sharrowford. She’s a student at Sharrowford University, studying PPE. No full time employment, but she does take some shifts in the student union bar. Short brown hair, brown eyes, about five eleven in height, athletic build.”

Hearing her reduced to such a cold description made me want to be sick. “That’s Raine.”

“Text me a picture of her and it’ll save time. You’ve got my number now, right?”

“Right,” I murmured.

Twil, lounging against the door frame in picture-perfect girl-gang thug mode, arms crossed and scowling, let out a sudden low growl.

Nicole visibly suppressed a flinch. “Wish you wouldn’t do that, werewolf girl.”

“Why?” Twil said. “Does it bother you?”

“I know you don’t like me, and you want to intimidate me, and yes. For your information that is very intimidating.”

“It is so not,” Lozzie chirped from her spot on the floor. Despite the ample space next to me on the sofa, Lozzie had chosen to sit cross-legged on the floor at my feet, pointed at Nicole and watching her face intently the whole time we’d been talking. “If you can say it’s scary, it’s not really scary.”

Nicole allowed herself a small, controlled laugh. “Interesting logic.”

“It’s not logic.” Lozzie pulled a disgusted face. “Blergh.”

Twil growled again.

“Drop it,” I snapped at her, then sighed and forced myself to be reasonable. “She’s helping us, Twil. I appreciate your feelings and your worries, but playing guard dog doesn’t help right now.”

“I don’t like that she’s keeping notes,” Twil said through clenched teeth. “Notes on us.”

Nicole shrugged with the notebook. “How else am I supposed to keep track of all this shit? Any detective worth their salt is going to be keeping notes, though I’ll admit it’s an unusual choice of subject matter.”

Twil frowned at her, thinking. “What about like … photographic memory?”

“That’s only on telly,” I said.

“What if somebody finds it and reads it?” Twil pressed.

“Nobody’d believe any of this anyway.” Nicole shrugged. “Worst case, I take a spell in the loony bin.”

“Don’t say that!” Lozzie squeaked.

“Besides, it’s not like I’m writing down your whole bloody cosmology, just things I can do something about.” She tapped a page with the end of her pen. “This Sarika woman, for example, I’d very much like to have a word with her, though she’s gonna be hard to pinpoint. That’s not exactly an uncommon name for British Indian women. Hell, I know a couple of Sarikas at the station. Your description wasn’t very remarkable either.”

“My apologies,” I croaked, but Nicole ignored the sarcasm.

“So, not much chance of finding her. Except … ” Nicole smiled thinly. “Except for mister Alexander Lilburne. Now that’s a man with quite a footprint.”

“A dead one,” Lozzie said – then smiled to herself.

“Yes, but I might be able to trace some of his contacts, the old-fashioned way. If I can turn up Amy Stack – if that’s her real name – I can lean on her. Somebody like that’s gonna have plenty of priors. If this Sarika was close to Alexander, or had any regular business dealings with him, she might crop up, if we’re lucky.” Nicole caught my eye and shot me a wink.

I nodded, but privately kept a steady hand on any hope. Finding Raine was still my responsibility, my method had the best chance of working. A washed up ex-homicide detective and a missing person’s report stood in distant third place. I wasn’t going to turn her down though.

“Would be a lot easier if your friend here could remember more details.” Nicole said, nodding toward Lozzie. “If Sarika was mister Lilburne’s girlfriend, and Lauren here is his little sister, then-”

“I was in a castle!” Lozzie repeated for the third time this last hour. “And you don’t know my name! Ssttzzz!” She made a zipping sound and drew her fingers across her mouth.

Nicole raised her hands in surrender. “Alright, castle, yes, right. Bet you’re glad to be out of there, Rapunzel.”

None of us laughed. Lozzie stared at the detective as one would at a misbehaving cat. I sighed and rubbed at the bridge of my nose.

“Tough crowd, okay,” Nicole continued, glancing back at her notes. “As for the rest of it, well, sounds like you’ve already shut down this conspiracy snatching homeless people off the streets. Wish you hadn’t chased the ringleader out of the city, I could have her charged with something.” She paused and sucked her teeth in thought. “Not like there’d be any evidence, I suppose. Does solve the mystery of the spike of missing persons cases over the last year, at least.”

“Cold comfort for the dead,” I croaked.

Nicole caught the chill in my eyes. She opened her mouth to say something, then thought better of it and nodded instead. “I know. I’m sorry. My bedside manner’s shot to hell right now.”

“Bedside manner?”

“Yeah, you know. How you talk to the public, victims, that sort of thing.”

“ … so you don’t really care,” I said. “You don’t care that the cult were killing people? Because they didn’t matter, because they were homeless?”

“Of course I care.” She frowned at me. “Why else would I be sitting here asking you about it? Look, you work homicide for any number of years and you have to learn how to bottle your emotions up, or you’ll lose it. Yeah, look at me, I’m hardly some beer-swilling institutional racist who thinks all the bums deserve what they get.”

“ACAB,” Lozzie whispered.

“Yeah, I hear you,” Nicole grunted back.

Why had I goaded her? Why did I care what she thought? Detective Webb was not my friend. At best she was a potential ally, an asset; at the very least she was a diffused land mine. If she exited our lives and never came back, I’d count that as a good outcome.

“Detective … no … ” I scowled at myself, trying to think past the fog of exhaustion and too many hours strung out on adrenaline. “Nicole, why do you care?”

“Why do I care about dead homeless people? I dunno, maybe because I’m not a monster?”

“No, why do you care about any of this? Thank you for agreeing to file the missing persons report for Raine, but why are you interested in the rest? Why do you care?”

Nicole blinked twice and me and laughed, this time not controlled at all. “You prove to me that magic exists, and you’re asking why I care?”

“Ah … um … hmm.” I cleared my throat. Twil snorted a laugh at my expense too. “Well, yes, but that’s not actually what I meant.”

“I know what you meant, I’m just messing with you,” Nicole said. “Look, I’ll spell it out, I’m interested because I haven’t done real police work in years. My life’s a dead end. I got fuck all to live for most days except good weed and MMOS.” Nicole managed to say that without looking the least bit pathetic, in her long coat and her mask of professionalism. “Was thinking about quitting the force this year actually, but I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. PI work I suppose, but I doubt I’ve got it in me to follow cheating spouses and do light industrial espionage.” She tapped the notebook. “This all seems pretty damn real to me.”

“Magic is not a good choice for a mid-life crisis. You really don’t want to be involved, not unless you have to.”

“Maybe I do have to.”

Twil growled. Nicole flinched again and shot her a look. “And what was that one for?”

“You think I’m scary?” Twil said. “You ain’t seen nothing.”

“You’ll get eaten,” Lozzie added.

“Maybe.” Nicole shot her a wink. Lozzie turned her nose up and made a ‘humph’ sound. “I’d like to think I’m smart enough not to walk into Glasswick tower, after what you’ve told me is up there, but I almost have to see it for myself.”

“No. No you don’t,” I said, sighing and resisting the urge to put my face in my hands. “This is exactly what I meant.”

“You’re gonna diii-iie,” Lozzie sing-songed.

“Your Evee girl had the right idea about Glasswick tower,” Nicole said, dead serious. “Good instincts on her. Like to talk to her, once she’s up and about.”

Twil blinked at her. “ … what right idea? You mean blow it up?”

Nicole nodded. “Demolition.”

I stared at Nicole for a moment as my mouth struggled to make sounds. “I … you … you can’t be serious.”

“Perfectly safe if you do it the right way.” A slightly mad smile crested Nicole’s face as she spoke, the detective’s mask dropping away before a moment of excitement. “Set up whatever you need to, cast your spells or whatever, then call in a fake bomb threat from a burner mobile phone, preferably from way over in another county, or drive to Scotland or something. Further away the better, bounce it through a VPN over the internet, call from another dimension. Can you do that?”

“No,” I grunted.

“Sorry. Anyway, a fake bomb threat gets the other tower nice and emptied out. You wait for the police cordon to go up, but before the bomb squad goes in. Not difficult, we don’t have local resources for that anymore, not since nearly twenty years back. So you wait until it’s clear, and then-” she clicked her fingers. “Boom.”

“ … you’re a police officer. You’re not meant to instruct teenage girls how to blow up buildings.”

“Would that actually work?” Twil asked with baited breath. “Fuck that place.”

“This seems like a good exception to an otherwise sensible rule,” Nicole said to me. “Assuming you’re not lying, which is an interesting question, isn’t it?” She suddenly stopped, made a ‘hmm’ noise, and frowned at me in a speculative sort of way.

“What?” Twil bristled instantly, unfolding her arms.

“Yes, what do you mean?” A sinking feeling dragged the pit of my stomach. Had all our work been for nothing?

Nicole held up a hand to stall us. “No no, don’t get me wrong, I believe you about all the magic stuff. You’ve convinced me, you don’t have to call Gandalf over and turn me into a frog. You’re all wizards, mages, werewolves, whatever. We all live in a very stupid universe, fine, I’ll probably have a nervous breakdown about it this evening, but for practical purposes we’re past that.” She paused, raised her chin, and pointed at me with her pen. “But what if you’re not the good guys?”

“Ooooh! Ooooh, she’s clever!” Lozzie lit up, clapping her hands.

I realised exactly what Nicole was doing; the way she spoke almost compelled an answer. Was it her tone of her voice, or the way she made eye contact? Or something more subtle, some aspect of her body language I couldn’t read? She’d built a rapport, and now out came the tripwires and traps, waiting for one of us to blunder into them. It took a considerable effort of will to keep my mouth shut.

Twil wasn’t so resilient. “Fuck you, we’re the … we … what? What do you even mean?”

“What if you’re actually just as bad as this cult you’ve been telling me about?” Nicole’s eyes moved to each of us in turn, watching our reactions. Lozzie stuck her tongue out. “Or they haven’t done half the things you’ve said they have, and you’re feeding me a pack of lies to get me on your side? Police detective stumbles into a situation, maybe you decide to make the best of it, present yourselves as the victims, and I can’t verify anything. Hell, Heather, you’ve admitted to two cases of homicide, one murder and one manslaughter. I should be putting you in cuffs and taking you down the station.”

I watched her carefully too, with a lump in my throat. She let her last statement stand for itself, a threat or a warning, I couldn’t even tell – it worked as one, but not in the way she intended.

Earlier, when she’d been bound and gagged, I’d leapt straight to killing her as the only answer. Only Lozzie had made me see sense. A potential was awake in me, and I didn’t like it.

“But you won’t,” I said – and hiccuped once.

Nicole raised both hands. “It’s just a hypothetical. For the record, I do sort of trust you’re telling the truth. For now.”

“Hey!” Twil barked at her.

“Twil, down,” I grumbled.

“So, other than you three, the girl upstairs in a … ‘magical coma’,” Nicole pronounced those words very carefully. “And the giant in the kitchen, that leaves the girl hiding in back. Didn’t think I’d forget about her, did you?”

I frowned through the growing haze of exhaustion. “What?”

“The one with the cute hair. Short. Scared of everything. What was she, a ghost?”

“Leave Flowsie alone,” Lozzie chirped.

“Oh, Kimberly.” I took a deep breath and pulled myself together. “She’s a mage, but inexperienced. She was with the cult, and we … well.”

“Rescued her,” Twil growled. Didn’t take an animal behaviour expert to read that warning note – back off, detective.

“ … right,” Nicole said at length. “Rescued, I see.”

“She’s already told us about everything she was involved in,” I said. “Don’t make things harder for her. I’m reasonably sure she has some kind of PTSD.”

“What?” Twil blinked at me. “She does? Kim?”

Lozzie stuck her tongue out and rolled her eyes at Twil.

“What do you think?” I asked, and Twil grimaced.

“I’m trained in exactly this sort of thing,” Nicole said, her voice losing its edge. “They used to send me into interview rooms when we had a semi-cooperative witness, scared and difficult. Soft touch, you know? I might be able to get her to talk about things that you haven’t.”

“Absolutely not,” I said. “Not now. She’s working.”

Nicole acquiesced with a nod. “Maybe some other time.” She puffed out a breath, tucked her notebook back into her coat pocket, and stood. “Suppose it’s time I got back to work anyway. Sooner or later people are gonna be asking where I’ve got to.”

“Just like that?” Twil grunted. “You’re done?”

“Just like that.” Nicole shrugged. “You lot are fascinating people, I’m sure, but some of us have day jobs. That is unless you want an extra pair of capable hands around, when this other wizard shows up to treat your friend upstairs?”

“We’ll be fine,” I grunted, and picked myself up as well. Lozzie bounced to her feet too. “If you want to help, look for Sarika. If not, if you want to go back to you life … ” I ran out of words, stopped myself from saying ‘please don’t’, ‘please look for Raine’, help.

“Better than pushing papers,” she said.

“I like pushing papers.”

Nicole laughed. “Then you’re in the wrong vocation, aren’t you?” 

As we watched Nicole leave, walking down the garden path and along Barnslow drive with a glance back over her shoulder, her long coat swishing around her legs, Twil growled a question half to me and half to herself. “What if she dobs us in anyway?”

“Then several of her colleagues will die, Outside,” I said. Twil blinked at me, brought up short.

“ … wasn’t that like … a bluff?”

“I don’t think so,” I murmured. “I don’t think it was.”

==

Not quite the same as being ripped raw and bleeding from the Eye’s clutches, but Lozzie saved me a second time that morning. She found me nodding off on the toilet.

‘Found’ is perhaps putting it a bit too strongly. I doubt she strayed from the bathroom door the whole time. She probably heard me sit down, heard the sigh escape my lips, and the long silence as my prediction came to pass; as soon as I relaxed all the exhaustion of the last twelve hours came rushing up to overwhelm me.

“Heatherrr? Heatherrrrr?”

I blinked awake to the sight of Lozzie sticking her head around the door, her poncho’s hood hanging down with her hair, elfin face peering at me.

“Mm!” I inhaled sharply and sat up from where I’d been drooping. “Loz- wha-” I blinked, bleary eyed, breathing too fast, feeling a hundred times worse than when I’d stepped into the bathroom. My head was throbbing and my chest felt fragile as thin porcelain. “ … Lozzie, I’m on the toilet.”

“I know! I knocked.”

I blinked at her – and put my knees together, self-conscious despite Lozzie’s complete lack of embarrassment.

“Your eyes were closed,” she said.

“Mmm. Mm, they were. Let me finish, okay? … please?”

Lozzie pulled a pouting careful thought. “You need sugar,” she announced, and promptly shut the door again. I heard her patter across the hall and tumble down the stairs in a staccato of footsteps.

Getting myself moving again was more of a challenge than I was up to. Part of me seriously advocated for more sleep right here.

I hadn’t felt this drained in months, not since my last – and, God willing, final – bout of nightmares sent by the Eye, the grinding sleep deprivation that Raine and the Fractal had finally banished. Too much had happened since last evening, between the home invasion and Wonderland, Zheng and the long walk home, our uninvited guest and my unconscionable knee-jerk solution. I’d pushed brainmath out when I knew I shouldn’t, and I’d finally run down all the adrenaline in my body. Now, I was ready to drop.

Couldn’t even finish up properly in the bathroom. For a long time I just stared at the wall, a limbo state like being ill in bed, unable to move but unwilling to sleep. As I dried my hands, I put my forehead against the cool surface of the wall and closed my eyes. A moment later the bathroom door opened again, but I couldn’t summon the energy to respond.

“ … Heather?” Lozzie ventured a few seconds later.

“Mmhmm.”

“Is that comfy?” she asked.

“No.”

“Then you shouldn’t do it.” One of her hands found my head and gently patted my hair.

“Just a moment. Just rest for a moment. I’ll be … be fine.”

“Mm-mmm, mm-mmmmmm,” Lozzie chirped with agreement – then took my hand in hers and gently peeled me away from the comfy sleeping spot on the cold hard wall. I grumbled, but allowed her to guide me the few paces out of the bathroom and across the creaking hallway floorboards, though I drew the line when she tried to pull me into my bedroom.

“No- no, I need to stay on my feet,” I said, blinking and trying to rouse myself. “This Felicity woman will be here soon, I can’t rest.”

“Yeah okay!” Lozzie lit up with her bouncy smile and held a bottle out to me. A neon-blue energy drink, one of Raine’s, the label proudly declaring how much caffeine it would dump into my bloodstream.

I hadn’t actually expected Lozzie to agree, let alone egg me on. I was so used to Raine seamlessly coaxing me into looking after myself, that for a moment I didn’t know what to do.

Then I accepted the bottle, twisted the cap off, and took a deep, glugging drink. Wiped my mouth on my sleeve. Burped. “ … thank you. Can we get coffee? Coffee would be divine right now.”

Lozzie pulled a big wince. “Kitchen smells of blood.”

“I can make coffee. I’ll need to take a shower before all this is over anyway. You don’t have to follow if you can’t stand it.”

Lozzie nodded thankfully. “Keeping safe distance, hands inside, mind the gap.”

And make coffee I did, two mugs of it one after the other. The first lukewarm and downed without pleasure, the second hot, extra-strong, loaded with sugar and little regard for what this concentration of caffeine was doing for my health.

I had to keep my head together, deal with Felicity, and then find the reserves of energy to locate Raine. Shaving a few years off my life was a small price; if I’d never met Raine in the first place, I was certain I’d have been dead by thirty anyway.

Lozzie stayed safely in the front room while I brewed what she called my ‘go-faster bean-juice’, and I didn’t blame her. Twil was still trying to clean up the worst of the mess, but she’d obviously reached the end of her motivation. Getting blood off a slate floor was harder than it looked, let alone figuring out what to do with all the soiled sponges and rags, especially when one had to contend with a seven-foot mouthy demon trying to bait you into accepting a duel.

“I am doing no such thing, shaman. It is not ‘bait’.”

“She called me a fucking poodle!” Twil said. “Overgrown bitch.”

“Save for it for when we’re not in the middle of a crisis, perhaps?” I said. “That’s just a suggestion, by the way.”

Zheng grumbled, stretched, and crossed her ankles on the table. At least she’d finally taken her boots off.

“Maybe help Twil clean up?” I shot back over my shoulder, as I carried my coffee into the front room, eager to get back to Lozzie.

That precipitated another sniping match between Twil and Zheng. If I’d been less tired and less focused, I probably would have intervened, but something in Zheng’s body language told me she was only playing now, like an older cat toying with a younger one. She didn’t ripple with the tension of real violence, all her musculature exhibited an economy of motion, a bone-deep relaxation.

Lucky her. Zheng didn’t care, not really, not in the way we mere monkeys did.

When I stepped into the front room with my coffee, Lozzie was gone.

No mistaking her absence from the soft shadows, no place for her to hide even among the piles of old boxes, no wispy blonde hair or the light touch of her feet crossing the floorboards.

Her absence woke me more than any amount of caffeine.

“Loz- … ” My voice came out strangled. My heart stopped. My eyes felt wet. She’d gone. She’d gone again. I couldn’t believe the pain, more sharp and sudden than I’d expected. “ … Lozzie?”

“I’m up here!” A hand poked out from around the top of the stairs, and Lozzie came pattering down. “This house has the best windows but they’re all in funny places, why is there one at the top of the stairs like that but none next to the front door? You can’t see who’s creeping up on you, it’s really silly, it’s like the house was built for things except living in. Which makes sense, right? It’s a magician’s house, isn’t it? Heather? … Heather?” Lozzie bobbed to a stop in front of me, tilting her head back and forth and peering at my eyes.

“ … I’m fine, I’m sorry. I … I thought you’d gone … somewhere.” I sniffed and wiped my eyes, and covered my emotional mistake by sipping my piping hot coffee and almost burning my tongue.

“I double promised! That’s twice as powerful as a regular promise. Haven’t you ever done a double promise before?”

“ … no, as a matter of fact, I haven’t.”

I’d learnt Lozzie’s way of thinking, back in the dreams we’d shared, and allowed myself a moment of comfort in simply regarding her and recalling the sensation of those dream-land meetings. Carefree, uninhibited, unafraid. She looked back at me with her permanently sleepy gaze, her eye muscles never quite working right.

“Heather?”

I had so much to ask her. “I’m fine,” I lied. “I was just thinking about you.”

Another bouncy smile leapt onto her face. “I think about you a lot too!”

“You … Lozzie,” I sighed at her. If we’d been in any other circumstances, I may have blushed, though I know she didn’t mean it in that way. “Thank you, I think? Oh, Lozzie, I have-”

“-so many questions-”

“-to ask-”

“-you!”

I blinked at her in shock as we finished each others sentences. Lozzie giggled and bit her lower lip, then flipped up the hood on her poncho and waggled the attached rabbit-ears.

“ … I have to admit, that was a little bit creepy,” I managed.

“Noooo! No no no, not creepy!”

“You’re not in my head somehow, are you?”

“No! We just know each other really well, I think? Of course you have lots of questions, I would! I do! But you-”

“-want to-”

“-keep them practical-”

“-for now. Yes.” I clamped a hand to my mouth, as if trying to catch my own words. Lozzie giggled. “Uh- maybe, maybe don’t do that again. Please. That’s … ”

“You did it that time, though,” she pointed out.

“I did? I did, yes. Okay, no, that’s not normal.”

“You mean Raine and you never finish each other’s sentences?”

“Sometimes. Not like that.”

“But you have sex together! She’s in your head more than I am. I’m just really, really good at not thinking, and that means I can think your thoughts too. There’s no magic to it, I promise!”

I gave up and took a long swig of coffee instead. Deciphering the inside of Lauren Lilburne’s head could wait; she was right, I needed to stick to practical questions – the dreams, where she’d been all these weeks, her contact with Maisie, all of that could wait.

“Lozzie, what was that thing you used to save me from the Eye? The … knight?”

“Oooh, yes! That’s what I should call them!” Lozzie bounced on her toes and clapped her hands together in delight. “Didn’t it look cool? And it worked, which is the really important bit, yes. Doesn’t matter if something looks cool if it breaks … but … mmm,” Lozzie’s frowned in difficult thought. She bit her lip. “I suppose he did break, in the end.”

“He? … he did?” I stammered, lost for a moment “It?”

“He.” Lozzie nodded. “Wasn’t it cool though?”

I tried to picture the shining apparition in armour, but it proved difficult. Mostly I remembered the Eye’s tentacles inside my mind, and that brought a wave of nausea up from my guts and made my heart rate spike, until I closed my eyes and forced it down. All I could recall was an impression of living steel animated by lightning. “I was a bit preoccupied at that particular moment.”

“You were, yes! I’ll wanna show you all the rest of them, but we can’t get to them right now.”

“There’s more of them? Wait, Lozzie, back up. You made that thing?”

“Mmhmm!” She nodded, then shook her head. “I made the shells, but the kami inside want to help, because I’m me. I told you I’d get help, and it worked! One alone is sort of weak though, hmmm.” She bit her lower lip in thought, eyes far away for a moment.

My brain struggled to catch up. “You made … knights, with pneuma-somatic creatures inside? To block out the Eye, in Wonderland?”

“Yeah!” Lozzie threw both arms in the air. “Praise me!”

“ … I love you,” I said, an unbidden smile coming to my face, despite everything, despite my best friend in a coma and my lover missing and my world crumbling apart. Lozzie let out a little ‘oop!’ noise as I pulled her into a spontaneous hug, giggling and hugging me back. When I let go I had to wipe my eyes on my sleeve.

Couldn’t let myself think about Maisie right now. Couldn’t let myself hope. Focus.

“Can you … ” I struggled, swallowed. “Can you bring one of those knights here? We need everything we can get to save Raine, every little … no?”

Lozzie’s stage-perfect wince made her answer crystal clear. “They don’t work up here, they fall apart. Like a deep-sea fish brought up to the surface, they’ll just – ploop,” she made a popping noise with her mouth and spread her hand out. “Sort of like me, you know?” She giggled, nervous and awkward all of a sudden. “And I can’t get Outside right now anyway, not with mister handsy whenever we try to leave.”

“Yes, yes that’s a good point.” I nodded, putting the issue of Lozzie’s Knights of the Spooky Table to one side for the moment. “What about … what about Tenny? You said-”

“She’ll be fine!” Lozzie chirped. “She’ll be out of the cocoon in a couple of days, I think, but it might be longer because she stayed in larval form too long and absorbed waaaay too much information. I don’t know what that does?”

She stopped – an actual question.

“Neither do I?” I tried. “Lozzie, I can’t do the things you can. I can’t manipulate spirits.”

She pouted. “It’s not manipulation. She’s growing.”

“Okay, so what’s going to come out of the cocoon?”

Lozzie shrugged, then frowned at me in sudden strange worry. “You did treat her nice, didn’t you?”

“Ah, yes. Yes, I think I get the idea.” I cast my mind back to when Evelyn had trapped Tenny inside a magic circle, and decided not to mention that. I took another swig of my almost-empty coffee, and realised my hand was shaking. I knew what I had to ask, and how it was the first step on a long chain that might lead me down to dark places – failure, or worse.

“Lozzie, I’m almost afraid to ask – uh, actually I am afraid to ask. Very. You said you might have an idea about how to find Raine.”

“Mmhmm!” Lozzie nodded. She swept one arm back to indicate the front door. “We can just ask.”

“ … ask who?”

“The kami, who else?”

“Oh. I actually tried that this morning, and they ignored me.”

“Mmm?!” Lozzie made a sound like a surprised chimpanzee. “What? Why?”

“I don’t think I’m very popular,” I said in lieu of a real explanation.

“But I am!”

==

Beyond the boundary of the garden wall Sharrowford’s pneuma-somatic life skittered and slithered, stalked and strutted, floated and flitted, a natural world – if horribly unnatural at the best of times – carrying on as normal, while we jumped-up apes had our crises and dramas.

“I just hate the idea of stuff I can’t see, you know? It’s creepy as shit,” Twil said, staring at Lozzie out in the middle of the road.

“Trust me, seeing doesn’t make it any less creepy,” I replied.

“Huh.” Twil walked a few paces along the top of the garden wall, keeping level with Lozzie.

We were quite conspicuous – Twil standing on the waist-high wall, on lookout like a gargoyle with her hands in her pockets, me fretting and shivering on the pavement, wrapped in coat and scarf in a bid to keep warm, and Lozzie standing in the middle of the street, speaking and gesticulating to unseen entities, unseen to everyone except me – but Barnslow drive was dead quiet, only stagnant puddles and moldering leaves to witness three strange girls going about some very strange business. I looked and felt like hell, but if the need arose I could pass myself off as a university student with a terrible hangover.

“How much longer she gonna be?” Twil asked.

“I don’t know. I’ve never done this before.”

“Wanna get back inside already,” Twil all but growled through her teeth. “Don’t like Evee being alone.”

“Zheng’s inside.”

Yeah.”

Kimberly was in the house too, but I dropped the subject. We’d looked in on her before we’d stepped outdoors, hidden away in Evelyn’s magical workshop, down on her hands and knees drawing a magic circle on the floor around Praem’s wooden bones. She’d looked dead-eyed and drained, scrubbing away incorrect portions of the circle and muttering to herself as she worked.

“What’s it look like?” Twil interrupted my chain of thought.

“ … weird.”

Over the last few minutes, Lozzie had called together a growing gaggle of spirit creatures, mostly via waving her arms and whistling, pointing at one or two warped monsters like they were cheeky puppies trying to hide from a vet’s visit, touching scales and brittle fur and stroking things that made my skin crawl. They mobbed her ankles, sat to attention, listened attentively to her whispered greetings and requests. As we watched, two spirits – a blobby humanoid with skin like dead slugs and a bird-like monster with three spindly legs – peeled off from the group and vanished into the depths of the city.

“I think it’s working,” I muttered, trying not to hope. “She’s making progress, she-”

“Car coming,” Twil snapped. I looked up the road, following her nod.

“I see it too. Lozzie? Lozzie?” I raised my voice, but she went on talking to the spirits, waving her arms and pointing, drawing a map in the air with her fingertip. “Lozzie, there’s a car coming. Lozzie!”

“Uh, Heather,” Twil said, and hopped down off the wall. She jerked a thumb at the approaching car. “I think this is our girl. Old range rover, right?”

“Oh, oh shoot, now? Lozzie, get out of the road,” I called, splitting my attention. “Twil, I can’t- I can’t wade into that. There’s too much, and you can’t see it. Please?”

“Right you are,” Twil nodded. She stepped out into the road. I averted my eyes from the gruesome spectacle of her passing through pneuma-somatic flesh to take Lozzie by the arm. Lozzie giggled and went “oops!” and then they both clattered back onto the pavement beside me. I turned just in time to see the pack of spirits scattering in a dozen different directions. A hound-ghoul thing sprinted right past me on all fours, racing down to the far end of Barnslow drive and the task Lozzie had set.

“Ooooh, that was nice, seeing everyone,” Lozzie chirped, a great big smile on her face. I frowned at her, but we didn’t have time to discuss the philosophical implications of that.

“Think we should get inside?” Twil asked. She stepped in front of Lozzie and I, watching the car as it slowed.

Part of me wanted to say yes.

“We’re fiiiiine. We’re surrounded by friends,” Lozzie said, gesturing at the rooftops and trees.

The approaching car was exactly the sort we’d been told to look out for. A battered old range rover in dark green, the edges of its bodywork eaten by chains of rust and caked in the sort of dirt patterns that came only from sitting in place for months on end. Once a luxury item but now undoubtedly a nightmare to keep running, despite the healthy purring of the powerful engine as it pulled to a stop a safe distance from us.

The side windows were tinted, but the windscreen was not.

“ … you … you think that’s her?” Twil asked.

I stared too, confused for a moment as the woman in the car examined us. She looked over at the house, then down at her hands or into her lap, seemed to take a steadying breath, and finally killed the engine.

“Yes, Twil,” I said. “I think it’s safe to assume this is her.”

“I already don’t like her,” Twil hissed.

Twil,” I scolded, half-aware of Lozzie scurrying behind me and clinging to my shoulders, peering around me. “That’s a terrible thing to say.”

“No, it’s not the- shit,” Twil grimaced. “It’s not the way she looks, it’s … I dunno.”

The woman in the car reached over into the passenger footwell and lifted a large sports bag over her shoulder. She partially unzipped it and stuck a gloved hand inside, keeping it there as she opened the car door and stepped out onto the pavement.

“Hello?” I tried. “Felicity? You are- oh.” My voice caught in my throat. I hiccuped.

She kept her eyes on us, kept one hand on the half-open door – and kept the end of the bag pointed in our general direction.

Twil grit her teeth and bristled with threat. “Hey! Hey, what the fuck is that? What are you doing?”

The woman didn’t say anything, but she did flinch, quite hard. Her single good eye flicked between us.

Felicity Amber Hackett – her full name, as I learnt a little later – wore a heavy dark cardigan with obvious repair at the wrists and high neck, a pair of thick comfortable jeans, black leather gloves, and sturdy boots. She also had the most extensive visible scarring I’d ever seen in real life. Even with her pointing a concealed weapon at us, my heart went out to the human being in front of me. One cannot witness such a sight and not feel the echo of old pain on one’s own skin.

Fully one half of her face was consumed by burn scar.

The left half. Old, very old, the skin rough and ridged. The scar stretched from where her hairline should be, down across brow and eye and cheek and jaw and throat, narrowly missing her nose, and vanished down inside the neck of her cardigan. Impossible to hide, and she made no effort to, except the way her reddish-brown hair fell naturally about her face. Beneath her hair, I could tell she had no left ear.

Her afflicted eye was a milky-white, sight burned away long ago. The mystery of her mumble was solved too – the left corner of her mouth was engulfed in the scarring, a small portion of her lips missing. Perhaps speaking normally was uncomfortable for her. Perhaps it was painful. I felt awful for assuming some dark supernatural cause.

Beneath the scarring, Felicity was hardly an intimidating person. Tall, maybe six feet, willowy but brittle-looking, as if moving did not come naturally to her. Mid-thirties perhaps, or older.

The healthy side of her face showed an unguarded skittish softness, better suited to owning a cosy bookstore or a flower shop, not being a mage.

Perhaps I was projecting.

“Hey-” Twil barked again.

“Felicity, yes?” I spoke quickly, struggling to disarm this before it got worse. “I’m Heather, I’m the one you spoke to on the phone. We’re not here to intercept you, we were doing something unrelated. Don’t point that at us, whatever it is.”

“Pointing is rude,” Lozzie chirped over my shoulder.

“It won’t work anyway, I can pluck bullets out of the air,” I forced myself to say, leaving out the fact I’d only done it once.

“She can! It’s true!” Lozzie cheered for me.

Twil just growled again.

Felicity let out a sudden hard breath. She swung the sports bag away, but still kept her right hand inside. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Precautions. You understand? You must understand.”

She spoke in that same half-mumble. I was right about her mouth, she spoke mostly out of the right side,

“Fuckin’ ‘ell,” Twil said, aghast. “Three girls in the middle of the street, what kinda ‘precautions’ do you need for that?”

“I don’t know what any of you are,” Felicity said, her tone almost apologetic. “And yes, yes, I’m Felicity. Heather, yes?”

“Yes,” I repeated. I stepped forward and offered her my hand, with Lozzie in tow. Felicity hesitated, then closed the car door with a soft thump, and slowly let go of whatever she was holding inside the bag. She shook my hand. Strong grip. “This is Lozzie, she’s …”

“You have really nice eyes,” Lozzie said. Her tone left no room for doubt as to her sincerity. A genuine compliment. Felicity blinked at her.

“It’s complicated,” I said. “And this is Twil, she’s a werewolf, so you were probably right to point a gun at her.”

“Hey!”

“She only bites on command,” I said. Twil spluttered.

“I take it this is the place then?” Felicity glanced sidelong at the house. “It does look the part. Very Saye.”

I nodded. “Yes it is, and it does. Thank you for coming.”

She stared at me, and swallowed. “ … I have to warn you first. Uh,” she struggled for a moment, wetting her lips and casting about at the three of us. “Just you three? Three kids, is that it?”

“We’re all adults here,” I said, leaving out the issue that I actually didn’t know Lozzie’s real age.

“Damn right,” Twil grunted.

“And we should get inside,” I said. “Because I’ve had an incredibly stressful morning and it’s very cold out here. And Evelyn is waiting.”

“Of course she is, of course, I- I’d love to see her- I-” Felicity let out a long sigh and raised a gloved hand. “Listen, this is very important, before I step foot in that house.” She paused and glanced back at her car as if expecting to see something there, before turning to us again. “While I’m here, regardless of how long, if it’s three hours or three days – if you see a little girl, dressed in black, don’t approach her, and don’t talk to her.”

What.”

“It-” Felicity struggled, deeply uncomfortable. “It’s something that follows me.”

“What the fuck.” Twil said. “Heather?”

I stared at Felicity, at her guilt and self-horror, her awkward discomfort. “This is the thing I heard on the phone. When Evee called you months ago, yes?”

Felicity nodded. “Only while I’m present in the building.”

“The house is warded,” I said.

“I don’t think that’ll make any difference.”

“Is it dangerous? Fuck!” Twil turned and spread her arms, as if she couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “This is all we need.”

“Dangerous emotionally. Just don’t engage it in conversation. It’ll try to upset you, but it won’t initiate unless you do. Look, it probably won’t even show itself, I just have to warn you.”

“Why didn’t you mention this on the phone?” I asked, harder than I’d intended. Twil was right, we didn’t need more complications. “That you’re carrying some supernatural parasite here?”

“ … because then you might not have asked me to come,” Felicity said, with an apologetic shrug. “Because then Evelyn might die, without me having tried everything I can.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

that which you cannot put down – 7.6

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Making credible threats did not come naturally to me, but lately I’d become worryingly good at this.

“Or I have to kill her.”

My ultimatum hung in the late-morning shadows of the old sitting room, on a dingy winter’s day. A self-directed expression of horror. An admission to myself of what I had to do. A half-apology to the police detective, Nicole Webb: ‘look, you’re just doing your job, but you’ve stumbled onto something too far beyond of your sphere of experience, and it’s going to be the end of you, unless you start believing in fairy tales.’

Perhaps she read the certainty in my voice. Maybe she used that detective experience to deduce that I’d committed murder before. Or more likely the whole being bound at wrists and ankles thing did the trick.

Nicole Webb took my words as very credible threat indeed.

“Hey, hey hey hey now,” she said. Her widening eyes betrayed her struggle to stay in control. She raised her wire-bound hands and wet her lips. “You’ve already got me exactly where you want me, you can make any demands you like, any deal you want, and I can’t say no, right? I can’t say no. This doesn’t have to end poorly for any of us, does it? There’s a dozen better solutions we can come to, before doing something you can’t take back.”

“I- that wasn’t- I know that.” My thin resolve buckled under Nicole’s obvious fear. “I don’t have anything against you, I don’t want to make you suffer. I just … I need you to not exist.”

“Ahhh shit.” Twil grimaced. “Heather, are you serious?”

“What do you think?” I tried to snap at her, but my words trickled out, slow and cold. “What do you think happens if we let her go, Twil? You think Felicity will be able to help Evee if we’re all in a police station holding cell? You think we’ll be able to find Raine? The … detective here can ruin everything.”

Twil grit her teeth and cast about. “Yeah but, we don’t have to murder her.”

“Yes, listen to her,” Nicole said, wetting her lips again and speaking fast this time. “I understand you’re panicked, you’re in a corner, you’ve got this personal crisis going on – but the last thing you want on your hands is a dead police officer. I wasn’t lying about bodies being hard to hide, it’s exceptionally difficult. Plus you’d have to find my car and get rid of it, and there’s a paper trail at the station that points to this house. If I go missing, my colleagues start following leads.”

“We already found your car,” I said, looking down and picking at the threadbare carpet. “Why am I even talking to you?”

Nicole swallowed, loudly. “Look, Heather, you seem like a reasonable person, and you too, Twil, and um … ” Nicole’s eyes went over my shoulder.

“I’m a secret,” Lozzie said.

“Okay. Look, nobody here has to get arrested, not today, not tomorrow, not a year from now. None of this has to go anywhere. I can pretend I didn’t see anything.” She managed to pull a smile, shaking beneath the surface. “If I’ve got a choice between being a bent copper or ending up in a landfill, I’ll choose being a bent copper every time. I’m not a superhero, yeah? I’m just doing my job here. I’d like to go home at the end of the day.”

I squeezed my eyes shut and hunched over, curling up around the dull ache in my stomach muscles and the tighter ache in my heart; I had to do this, but I couldn’t.

Homicide in self-defence, or murdering a real monster in Alexander Lilburne, or even killing those who would send me back to the Eye, those I could do. Threatening Catherine Gillespie with death, a woman who deserved at least life in prison, that cost me no sleep. For those things I could find justification somewhere in my messed-up little heart.

This? A bystander was pleading for her life. She had nothing to do with those who wished me ill, no responsibility for anything that had ever happened to me. She spoke perfect sense, but I was going to send her Outside, to die alone and unmarked in an alien place.

“You’re too much of a risk,” I hissed. “It’s impossible. Twil, Lozzie, please leave the … the room … Shut the door. I-I can’t-”

Lozzie fell on me like a blanket fresh from the tumble dryer. “Oh Heather, no, no no,” she whispered. “No.”

I opened my eyes and found a very distraught Lozzie staring back at me. She’d fallen to her knees and wrapped me in a hug, biting her bottom lip, big eyes filled with wild horror.

“I don’t want you to watch this,” I said.

“No! Heather, no!” She shook her head emphatically, wispy blonde hair flying everywhere. “What’s gotten into your head? We have to get it back out!”

“Lozzie, I have to get rid of her. She’s-” I glanced at Nicole, who had gone very still indeed. “She’s dangerous. She’ll-”

“Dangerparty is our default setting. I’m dangerous, you’re dangerous. We can all be dangerous together.”

“You don’t understand.” I felt so distant, so isolated. Even Lozzie didn’t get it, wasn’t able to shoulder the responsibility. “I’m sorry, but sometimes … we have to … do things that aren’t right, because-”

“I’ve heard all that before! That’s what he used to say.”

My mind hit a brick wall, from sixty miles an hour to nothing in the blink of an eye. “Your … your brother?”

“He had good intentions too. At first.” Lozzie sniffed back tears, nodding and biting her lip.

I shook my head, still clinging to this false resolve. “You’re the one who asked me to-” I couldn’t finish. You’re the one who asked me to kill your brother, Lozzie. You began this, didn’t you?

“I’m sorry,” she squeaked. “You shouldn’t do it when there’s other ways?”

Not an instruction or a demand, not even a suggestion. A halting, confused question from a girl who didn’t live in this reality ninety-five percent of the time, and it made more sense than all my justifications. One should probably not kill people, if there’s any other way.

Drawing back from the edge was harder than approaching it. I’d convinced myself that being a leader meant making tough choices, just like Raine, but I’d gotten it all wrong. All turned around.

I hiccuped once, and hugged Lozzie back.

“Since when are you my moral compass?” I said, sniffing back tears of my own and half-laughing. Lozzie sobbed once into my shoulder, little hands pressing at my back. “I’m meant to be the normal one around here.”

When Lozzie and I finally disentangled ourselves from each other – wiping our eyes and holding hands for a fleeting moment – I knew we’d shredded any credibility in my threat to Nicole’s life.

But I didn’t care.

The detective watched us warily, as I turned back to her. Anybody else would have stupid enough to say something at that point, a ‘so, not going to kill me now?’ or ‘thank you, Lozzie’, or some other inane, gloating statement that mistook real moral fibre for weakness. But Nicole swallowed, dipped her head in a nod, and waited.

This was the actual tough choice.

“We’re going to do this the hard way,” I said, and saying it felt so much easier. “I’m sorry, in advance, for what I’m about to do to you.”

“Aversion therapy,” Lozzie stage-whispered, and flipped up the hood on her poncho, the attached floppy rabbit ears falling down over her face.

“Hey,” Nicole said. “If you need me to believe that you’re all werewolves and wizards or whatever, that’s fine, we can work with that. That’s somewhere to start. I’ll- I can try to accept that, if that’s what you need.”

I sighed at her and shook my head. “Humouring us isn’t enough. If you’ve never been exposed to the supernatural, then your mind always finds a way to explain what you’ve experienced. Unless it’s extreme enough or sustained enough to break you, make you accept it or go mad. And then you’re in, and you can never really go back.”

Nicole’s eyes tightened with obvious scepticism. “You’re telling not to trust my own senses? Forgive me, but that’s a classic manipulative trick.”

“No, I’m saying the opposite. You’ve ignored your senses twice this morning, and you didn’t even notice yourself doing it. Twil could hold you down – how? She’s not exactly heavily muscled.”

“’Ey,” Twil muttered a complaint.

“She’s a slender teenage girl, you’re a veteran police officer,” I continued as Nicole looked Twil up and down. “How’d she do that? And you’ve seen Zheng. She’s seven feet tall. Seven feet.”

Nicole sucked on her teeth. “So what, you’re going to keep me tied up until I develop Stockholm Syndrome, believe the things you believe?”

I sighed, harsher this time. “No, I need you to accept it now, because we’re in the middle of multiple crises.”

“Hold up, hold up,” Twil interrupted, a nasty grin at the corners of her mouth. She cracked her knuckles. “You know what? This looks like a job for me.”

“We need to do this gently, Twil, she could lose her mind.”

“She’ll be fiiiiiine,” Lozzie said, peering out from behind those cloth rabbit ears. “Fuz-zy, fuz-zy,” she began chanting, pounding the floor with her fists.

“Yeah, don’t worry big H. I’ve got this one.” Twil stepped up as if on a stage, raising her chin, cracking a nasty smirk. “Plus, I’ve always wanted to do this. Bet you’ve seen a lot of shit, right, copper? Dead bodies and stuff? Gunshot wounds? Car crashes?”

Nicole looked to me and Lozzie for help as Twil rolled her shoulders and took a deep breath. “ … yes? I’ve seen my share. Where is this going?”

“Somewhere bad,” I warned her. “Brace yourself.”

“Fuz-zy, fuz-zy, fuz-zy!”

“I’d keep your eyes on the prize if I were you, copper.” Twil pointed at herself with a thumb. “On the count of three – three!”

Twil showed no mercy. Human to full-on werewolf in a heartbeat, no partial transformation and no holding back. She summoned her ghostly flesh into full solidity, wrapped it around her own skin and clothes like a collapsing whirlpool in fast forward. Five-foot-two of wolf-girl bristled with fur and claw, amber eyes flashing as she stretched jaw wide on a maw full of fangs. Lozzie jerked and yipped. Even I flinched, and I was far too exhausted to be frightened of what I’d seen before.

Nicole started screaming.

She tried to shove herself away from the sudden monstrosity in the middle of the room, kicking out with her bound feet, hands raised to ward off the impossible, eyes wide and bulging in incomprehension. She saw, completely and without a filter, while the fear overrode her conscious mind.

Lozzie decided this was the perfect moment to bounce back to her feet and launch herself at Twil in a flying tackle-hug that landed like a wrecking ball. Her hooded head hit Twil in the ribcage and nearly sent both of them flying.

“Oof!” went Twil. Gently but firmly she peeled Lozzie off and held her at arm’s length. A wolf and a rabbit, how appropriate. “What-”

“Touch fluffy touch fluffy let me let me!” Lozzie whined. “Please please please!”

“Um,” Twil growled, wolf snout twisted in disbelief. Nicole was staring now, panting hard, and flinched like a struck dog when Twil glanced her way again. “Um, oops?”

“No, this is good,” I said. “This is what we need. Nicole, detective, what do you see? Say it out loud.”

Nicole managed a shake of her head, but that was all, paralysed and goggle-eyed.

“Twil hug me, hug me like that pleeeeease!” Lozzie whined again.

“You may want to turn it off now,” I said.

Twil growled again and flicked her head back – back to human. The summoned spirit-flesh dissolved in an instant, leaving behind a slightly flustered Twil instead.

Lozzie pouted and gave up trying to bundle herself into Twil. “Aww.”

Nicole couldn’t stop staring. She was plastered with cold sweat, face turned ashen white, blinking rapidly as her mind tried to reboot. Her mouth worked as if trying to speak, but no sound came out, shaking her head back and forth in a gesture of hopeless repeating denial.

“Detective? Nicole?” I tried, but she just kept shaking her head. “Twil, are you certain nobody’s ever seen you like that in public before?”

She shrugged. “Like, from a distance. They probably just assume I’m a big dog or something.”

“You’re so fuzzy holy shit please,” Lozzie said. “Please please please I want.”

“I’m not a petting zoo,” Twil told her.

“You could be!”

“What-” Nicole managed, and we all looked at her. She kept trying to look away from Twil, her head moving as if to make eye contact with me, but her eyeballs refused to obey, locked onto this source of contextless threat. “What- what- what was that?”

“A werewolf,” I said.

The wrong thing to say, apparently. The word ‘werewolf’ as acted a catalyst. With an effort of supreme willpower, Nicole pulled herself back together; the on-the-job detective mask slid back down like a steel wall behind her eyes, and she finally managed to look at me.

“There’s no such thing as werewolves,” she said.

“You just saw one!” Twil said, outraged.

“Yes, I know it’s completely ridiculous,” I said. “I reacted in much the same way, and I already knew about magic and monsters. Werewolves are just silly, right?”

“Yes!” Nicole snapped. “Yes they are.”

“Oi, I’m standing right here.” Twil put her hands on her hips.

Nicole flinched as she looked at Twil again, as if expecting to see something other than a mildly grumpy teenage girl. “That was a trick,” she said. “It had to be. With mirrors, or … a … a projector. You people are a cult and you’re trying to convert me.”

“Oh thanks, great. Fuck you too,” Twil told her.

“Detective,” I said. “You’re denying the evidence of your own senses.”

Nicole stared at me good five seconds, then back at Twil. She shook her head. “Werewolves don’t exist.”

“God dammit,” I whispered.

“Fuckin’ do it again if you need,” Twil huffed.

“No! No, thank you, no.” Nicole swallowed hard and took a deep breath. Twil snorted with derision. “That couldn’t have been real, that wasn’t real. Werewolves don’t exist. You are not a werewolf, you’re a con artist, you-”

Twil transformed again.

No warning this time, fake countdown or otherwise, though she was prepared for Lozzie, catching the smaller girl’s flying hug in mid-leap with one arm. Nicole started screaming her head off – and increased in volume when Twil reached for her. Failing, kicking with her bound legs, one mis-aimed strike thwacked Twil full in the snout. The werewolf jerked back, growling.

“Twil, stop, it,” I snapped. “The neighbours are going to hear her.”

Twil growled again – but dismissed her transformation, the flesh leaving her in slow wisps of pneuma-somatic matter. She raked her fingers through her curls and rubbed at her face where Nicole’s shoe had connected with her jaw. “Ow, shit.”

“Don’t do that again!” the detective shrieked at her.

“Don’t do what, huh?” Twil sneered. “Thought I wasn’t real.”

“You’re so fluffy,” Lozzie said. “Heather, isn’t she so fluffy?”

“She can be,” I admitted.

“That was not real,” Nicole said. “You are- f-fucking with me. With my head, somehow. Let me go. Let me go!” She shouted, wild-eyed, pulling against her bonds. Her hair was in increasing disarray, strands of blonde escaping the tight, ordered bun. “Look, you’ve successfully frightened me, well done. I won’t tell anybody, I’ll- I’ll falsify my travel reports for the day. I don’t care, just don’t- don’t do that again! I don’t care.”

“Aw come on, she’s so cuddly and fluffy?” Lozzie blinked at her. “Don’t you wanna touch too?”

“Lozzie, I do adore you,” I said. “But your standard for what’s frightening is a little … unique.”

“Mmmmm.” Lozzie pouted.

“It’s not like I was gonna bite you,” Twil grumbled.

“Let me go. Okay?” Nicole repeated. “You’ve made your point, okay?”

“Twil, maybe wait in the front room for a minute,” I said.

“What? But I didn’t do-”

“Please?”

Twil huffed and shook her head, but made the compromise of stomping over to stand in the doorway with her arms crossed. Nicole watched her, visibly relaxing as Twil put distance between them.

“Nicole. Detective?” I said, as hard I could currently muster, trying to get her to look at me. “Do you believe me now?”

She hesitated, trying to say no, unwilling to say yes. “You could be … could be doing something to me. I’m drugged. Or … ”

I sighed and put my face in my hands, then took a deep breath and sat up again, straight as I could with all my aches and pains. I’d made my decision and we had to keep going. “Lozzie, would you do me a really big favour, please? I’m sorry to ask, but I’m too fragile and exhausted to do it myself right now, I had to sort of overuse things earlier.”

“Mmm?” Lozzie took her hood’s bunny ears in her hands and flapped them at me. “Anything.”

“Would you send an object Outside in front of our guest here? You can use a spoon from the kitchen, or something. It doesn’t matter what, nothing important though, obviously.”

“Hmm? Mmm?” Lozzie made a sound like a confused bird.

“I’m sorry, I know- … well, actually, I don’t know. It always seems easier for you.”

“What are you two talking about?” Nicole demanded. “Send what outside where?”

“I can’t do that.” Lozzie shook her head.

I blinked at her, lost for a second. “ … I … I’m sorry, what?”

“I mean, I can’t do that. I can’t move stuff. You can, Heather?”

“ … y-yes?” I frowned at her, confusion increasing. Was I losing my mind? “You can’t?”

“No! Only people, and the kami of course, but they’re like people too. Dead matter doesn’t go anywhere, unless I’m holding it when I go!” She smiled at me as if this was the coolest thing in the world. “Clothes come with people, and stuff in my pockets, and I’ve never figured out why that is – but just stuff? Nope! You can do that, Heather? Serious?”

“Yes … yes I can. We came to this by different ways, didn’t we?” I muttered to myself, no time to analyse this now. Lozzie smiled and nodded. “I suppose I’ll have to do it myself then.”

“Sorry,” Lozzie said, and she did genuinely look it.

“That’s okay, it’s not your fault you’re less messed up than I am. Twil, would you please fetch me something expendable?”

“Right you are, boss,” Twil muttered under her breath, more sarcastic than serious, and stomped off to the kitchen.

She returned a few moments later with a cardboard tube from a roll of paper towels – which I suspected she’d fished out of the bin – and a grimace on her face.

“ … Twil? What’s wrong?” I asked as she handed me the cardboard tube.

“Your big friend is making a right mess in there. Like … never mind.”

My stomach lurched. “She’s not eating the corpses, is she?”

“What?!” Nicole almost exploded.

“Ugh, no, fucking hell,” Twil said. “Is that a thing she does?”

“Yes, actually. I think. To be fair, she only did it once, and I think it was a heat of the moment thing. Maybe.”

Maybe? Oh great, wonderful.”

Nicole looked more worried than when she’d thought I was going to kill her. I cleared my throat and held up the cardboard tube. “Forget about that, please, detective. I’m going to make this vanish.”

“Oh yeah? And then pull rabbits out of a hat?”

“I’m already out!” Lozzie chirped, fiddling with her floppy rabbit ears again. “And out.”

“It’s not stage magic,” I said, exasperated and at the end of my patience. “I don’t know any stage magic. Even if I did, look at me, look how tired I am. Where exactly can I make this tube vanish to? Up my backside? I’m wearing short sleeves, there’s nowhere for it to go. I’m not going to misdirect you, or make you look away, or pull any trick at all. I’m going to use something called hyperdimensional mathematics, to rewrite part of reality. I don’t understand it all myself, I just know I can do it. It’s a long story. Now watch.”

“ … I’m watching.” Nicole frowned.

The brainmath came rough and jagged, like walking on sore muscles and skinned feet; I was running on empty, only just able to do something this simple. A droplet of blood ran from my nose as I struggled to fit the pieces of the equation into place. A second was too long, two were torture, and three set my brain on fire.

Out.

The tube vanished. I doubled up around my roiling stomach and let out a whine.

Lozzie didn’t know what to do. She came to my side but her hands fluttered around, uncertain and confused by my pain. Slowly, panting through my teeth, I held onto to contents of my stomach, and sat up.

“Where … ” Nicole managed, staring at me, at my empty hands. “No. No.”

“I sent it Outside. Outside our reality. Beyond, into another dimension. Call it what you will. I can do it to anything, if I’m prepared to endure considerable pain.”

In one of the most fascinating moments of human observation in my life, I actually saw the precise moment Nicole’s mind buckled.

A survival strategy, that’s what it was, not open-mindedness or a tendency to believe in the occult. Until now, Miss Webb had been a straight-laced, 21st century woman, a child of the enlightenment, the scientific method, technology, and very normal, sensible, four-dimensional maths.

But her primal lizard-brain knew only that she was in danger, and it would do anything to survive. Eventually, with enough evidence, it shouted down her ossified frontal lobe, and she accepted the impossible.

A subtle change crossed her face, falling through incomprehension and denial until landing like a burst melon in plain fear and wonder. The evidence of her senses finally rewrote some fundamental element that kept her her grounded in normal reality. If she’d been free, I have no doubt she’d have found some way to rationalise everything she’d seen – a clever sleight of hand, a stress-induced hallucination, drugs and torture. She’d have forgotten us in a month or a year, and gone back to her life. But I trapped her here forever, with us.

I was ready for her to break down, perhaps weep, maybe go into a kind of shock. This was always a gamble, one she might lose.

Nicole Webb was made of sterner stuff than that. The fear and wonder hardened into outrage, and she stared at me like I was responsible. Which in a way, I was.

“I fucking hate Harry Potter,” she spat.

Twil started laughing between attempts to say ‘what?’. Lozzie stuck her finger in her mouth and made a vomiting noise.

I blinked at Nicole. “ … okay?”

“You’re a wizard? A witch, whatever. Fuck you. Don’t you tell me I’m living in a stupid series of children’s books. Absolutely fucking not. Argh.” She spat a noise of pure frustration. “I can’t fucking stand this. You- fuck you. And you, fucking werewolf, stop laughing, it’s not funny!”

And with that, she was off to the races. Nicole spat and ranted, angry in a way I’d never seen a person angry before, an adult’s tantrum of pure disgust, directed not at us but at the whole world. Twice she used her bound hands to punch herself in the leg, and several times kicked at the floor, gathering speed as she heaped insults on children’s books about magic schools and – I quote – their ‘vulture, class-traitor, illiterate authors’. Her furious tirade was surprisingly coherent, though she repeated the same points several times once she began to run out of steam.

We all deal with supernatural revelation in different ways, I suppose. Not everybody has a missing twin and survivor’s guilt.

“Alright then, Miss wizard,” Nicole eventually hissed. “You’re telling me I don’t need to account for the two bodies in your kitchen, or whatever else you’ve done, because you’ve got your own … I don’t know, magical police? Your own authorities are going to deal with this? I’ve blundered into your world, and … and what?”

Lozzie rolled her eyes so hard I swear she was going to dislocate her spine.

“Um, no, not exactly,” I managed.

Twil snorted. “You think somebody’s like, in charge? Good luck.”

“What does that mean?” Nicole demanded. “What the hell does that mean?”

“There’s no … council of mages,” I said, shrugging, trying to keep my voice calm and collected, casting my mind back through the months to when Evelyn had conducted this exact same conversation with me, albeit in far more relaxed circumstances. “There’s no secret world, no secret power structures except a few cults worshipping things they shouldn’t. There’s mages, a few, as far as I know. Sorry to use the analogy, but there’s no ‘Ministry of magic’. Nobody’s in charge. Nobody even knows much. There’s just people.”

“ … that’s it?” Nicole asked, squinting with indignant frustration.

“That’s it.”

Her anger finally began to subside. She stared in silence at a point on the wall, taking deep breaths and shaking her head in disgust, slowly pulling herself back together. I tried to look sympathetic.

“I know what it’s like,” I said. “At least you’re getting it all at once, and you’re an adult. I was a child.”

She sighed heavily, still shaking her head. “So, don’t tell me you lot are busy saving the world, and I’ve held you up?”

“Uh, no, not that either. We’re not really important.”

“You’re wizards!” She almost blew up at me again, exasperated disbelief on her face. “How can you not be important? That’s ridiculous.”

I shrugged. “Because we’re not. I’m here, involved, because my twin was kidnapped by a … something from Outside. It’s a long story, and you don’t care. But no, we could all vanish tomorrow, and the world would go on much the same without us.”

Nicole let out one sad laugh and pulled a self-pitying smile – a real smile, sardonic and grim, not the easy fake smile from earlier, not the detective’s smile. “Just my luck. Bunch’a nobodies, hey? Well, that’s a start, we’ve got that in common.”

“Nobody’s important unless they’re loaded,” Lozzie said. “Loadsa money makes you big.”

“She’s got her head on straight.” Nicole nodded at Lozzie, and got a beaming smile in reply.

“You’ve got no idea,” I muttered.

“Great. So what happens to me now?” Nicole asked. “What am I supposed to do? I can hardly call those bodies in if … I dunno, you’ll turn all the responding officers into frogs or some shit.”

“I … hadn’t actually thought this far,” I said. “I didn’t expect this to work. Why were you here in the first place? Was it the gun shots last night?”

“Gun shots?” Nicole started laughing, the edge of hysteria in her voice. “Fucking hell, thanks for that freebie. They were gun shots then, for real? Was that how those two poor fuckers in the kitchen died?”

“No, I already told you, it was a servitor – which really does exist, yes. The gun shots, well, the thing that got shot got up again, and it’s not in this dimension anymore.”

“Okay, yeah, right, I forgot the whole teleported to dimension X part.” She rolled her eyes. “And yeah, the gun shots led me here, but that wasn’t why I knocked on your door this morning.”

I frowned at her, confused. “I’m sorry?”

“A neighbour of yours two streets over put in a noise complaint last night,” she began, smiling with ironic detachment. “Said they might have heard gun shots, but this is a nice part of Sharrowford. Nobody’s going to send out a squad car out here at five in the morning because some old dear heard a car backfire. But your address, this address? It goes in the system, along with a half-dozen others the noise could have come from. And, what do you know? Ding!” She held up a finger, bound hands together. “It gets flagged, because the address is in some stupid file I’ve got, and this morning that noise complaint is on my desk. I think, bugger it, I wanna stretch my legs. Seems like a good excuse to swing by and see who really lives in that old house. Best case it’s squatters, and I get a free baggie of weed. Worst case, it’s empty. But maybe, just maybe, the occupant owns the house, and I get a lead.”

“A lead?” I asked, my mind racing through the dozen possible crimes any of us might have committed over the last six months. “On what?”

“Property tax fraud.”

“ … what?”

Nicole laughed again, self-pitying and defeated. “You thought I was homicide? For years, yeah, I was. But I’m a major screw-up of a human being, let alone a detective. I’m in a financial crimes unit. A unit that consists of me and two even worse screw-ups, in an office the size of a cupboard, with no real budget, to keep us out of the way. Most of my days I get to spend at a desk while two alcoholic old men wait to collect their pensions. A punishment detail. I haven’t done any real police work in almost five years.” Her voice turned bitter as she spoke, she couldn’t hold it back. “First time I try, hey,” she gestured at us with her bound hands. “Look what I find. Fucking wizards.”

We all stared at her. Even Lozzie was wrong-footed.

“Property tax fraud,” I echoed.

“Yeah. This address? Part of a tax fraud scheme, a really old one, going back fifty, sixty odd years. Small enough to avoid notice, big enough to be dangerous to poke. That’s why I’m here.”

“I … I’m sorry. If it’s … I mean … I can give you contact details for the man who actually owns the house. I think.”

“Oh yeah, is he a wizard too?”

“No, actually. He’s a lawyer, works in London. My friend, his daughter, she’s upstairs right now in a sort of magical coma. We’ve called somebody to help her.”

“Lawyers, great.” Nicole rolled her eyes. “Practically just as bad.”

“So.” I swallowed, gathered myself. “Is it safe for us to untie you now?”

Nicole gave me a thoroughly defeated look. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“I mean you believe us, what we are, what we’re involved in? The bodies in the kitchen, they’re cultists, and they came here to kill us or kidnap us. That … reporting everything you’ve seen would be a disaster, for us, for you? That I can let you go, without … well.”

“I believe what I’ve seen. She’s a werewolf,” Nicole glanced at Twil, wary and frowning. “And you’re a wizard, or whatever, and you can make things vanish with your mind. You ever use that trick on a person?”

“ … in self defence.”

Nicole looked me up and down, all five foot nothing of me hunched over my aching stomach, my scrawny limbs and messy hair and bloodshot eyes, wrapped in Raine’s unwashed baggy clothes. She nodded. “Yeah, I bet,” she murmured. “Is that what you’ll do to me as well, if I try to put cuffs on you?”

I stared back, reluctant to answer, but I knew what I had to say. “I could make you vanish too, yes. Send you Outside to some alien dimension you’ll never return from. You’d die of hunger or thirst, or get eaten by something unspeakable. If we let you go and you call this in, I’ll vanish the responding officers, the car they put me in, the cell door, the whole bloody police station if I have to. Because my lover has been kidnapped by a cult, a real one, that worships something from Outside, and nothing is going to stop me from finding her. Not the cultists, not exhaustion, not you or the rest of the normal world.”

“Me too,” Lozzie stage-whispered.

Nicole shook her head. “You’re telling me a young woman’s been kidnapped by religious nut jobs, and the police aren’t supposed to get involved?”

I pulled a face. “Yes, I know that sounds stupid.”

“It does. Look, even if I believe everything you’ve told me, there’s still the matter of two corpses to deal with. If I don’t report what I’ve seen, if I lie, and bits of hair and flesh turn up in your drainpipes three months from now, I will get shat on from a very great height. I wasn’t lying when I said bodies are hard to dispose of, unless you … can … ” she trailed off, blinking at me, then let out an exasperated sigh. “You can.”

I pulled an apologetic smile. “Yes, exactly.”

“Poof!” Lozzie smiled and spread her hands like a stage magician concluding a trick. “And the evidence is gone!”

==

Two dead bodies, a mess of cleaning supplies, bin bags full of entire rolls worth of paper towels and soiled rags, two buckets of pink-tinted grimy water – and Zheng. The kitchen looked like a bomb had hit it.

Blood still stained the floor tiles from where Twil and Kimberly had dragged the corpses from the sitting room. The less said about those the better. I tried not to look at the lumpy humanoid shapes laid out on an old bit of tarpaulin and hastily wrapped up with bin bags. The rest of the floor was littered with the entire contents of the cupboard under the sink, bright pink and yellow cleaning products everywhere, along with a trio of sponges that looked like they’d last been used on a car that had survived a fire. A sad pair of rubber gloves hung over the side of the sink, flanked by some exhausted brillo pads, and some kind of electric scrubbing brush that I’m pretty sure was broken before any of us were born. Everything stank of blood and bleach.

Zheng had her boots up on the table.

I couldn’t summon any words for the mess, let alone ask Zheng to put her feet down.

“Heather, it’ll be alright,” Twil said, grimacing. “We’re like, halfway through cleaning up.”

“Okay. Okay?” I said. “Okay. Sure. Okay. Yes.”

Nicole, still massaging her wrists where Twil had removed her bonds, stared at the giant zombie with an impressively stoic expression. Zheng stared back, calm and slow, like a sated jungle cat.

Sated she better be, because she’d emptied our fridge of every last scrap of animal protein. Before her on the table, like a mound of offerings to some pagan god, lay three empty sandwich meat packets, the wrapping from a trio of raw chicken breasts, and the remains of a block of cheese. She’d even devoured the week-old chili from the bottom of the fridge, which if she’d been human, would have struck her dead with food poisoning.

Twil picked up a long grey coat from the back of a chair, and held it out to Nicole. “Everything’s back in the pockets.” Her eyes flickered to me. “Your phone too.”

“It’ll be fine,” I repeated for the fifth time since I’d asked Twil to untie the detective, though I felt less sure after seeing the kitchen. “We have an understanding now.”

“Yeah, yeah, right,” Twil murmured.

“So what are you supposed to be, then?” Nicole finally asked Zheng.

Zheng grinned, slowly, as if trying to reveal each and every perfect razor tooth in turn. “A nightmare.”

“ … fair enough.” Nicole sighed and took her coat from Twil, shrugging it on and checking her pockets. She was made of sterner stuff than I, if she could ignore Zheng. Then again, she probably had a lot of experience in concealing when she felt intimidated.

“It’s probably best to ignore each other right now, you two,” I said, suppressing a sigh of my own. “Zheng, like I said, we’ve come to an understanding.”

“I know, shaman. I was listening.”

“Of course you were. I’m sorry to have to ask this, but you didn’t … you weren’t … ” I gestured awkwardly at the corpses in the corner.

Zheng raised an eyebrow and managed to look disgusted. A new one for her. “Shaman.”

“I- I needed to ask, to be sure.”

“The dead monkeys are spoiling with their own shit and gut bacteria. No.”

“You know, I think I agree with the uh, whatever the hell she is,” Nicole said, eyeing Zheng. “Can we crack on with this? The less time we spend in a room with corpses, the better for all of us, on every level – legal, medical, and gastronomic.”

Her dignity restored and standing on her own two feet once more, Nicole Webb looked every bit a television police detective, albeit after some minor pre-watershed escapade, dangerous but still suitable for younger viewers. Tight and serious around the eyes, with several strands of hair having escaped her blonde bun, and a small bruise forming on her cheek from where Twil had done some damage during their initial meeting.

The long grey coat over the dark suit and open top button of her shirt lent her an air of both authority and distance. She wore her role in society like armour, and she’d let us in on the secret that it was rusted on the inside.

“Please!” Lozzie agreed, peeking around the kitchen doorway from front room. “The sooner the better!”

I turned to her and she gave me a very uncertain smile.

“Lozzie, are you sure you’re … ” I started softly, then had to self-edit. “Doing alright?”

“Mmhmm! It’s okay, I’m not going anywhere, promise promise,” Lozzie said, seeing right through to my real question. “Just don’t want to see, don’t want to see the dead people.”

“Alright, well, we’ll be as quick as we can, okay?”

“Then it’s time for more cleaning!” she chirped. I nodded and turned back to the kitchen, and tried my best to believe Lozzie would still be in this reality when I wanted to see her.

“So how does this work?” Nicole asked me. She’d stepped over to the corpses, frowning down at them through the veil of bin bags, her hands in her coat pockets. “You lay hands on them and then they’re just gone?”

“Basically, yes. At least that’s what you’ll see.”

“Mind if I take a look at them first?”

“Why?” Twil demanded, doing an exceptionally poor job of hiding her suspicion.

“Seriously?” Nicole shrugged. “In case I ever come across this again. Just from what you’ve told me, you lot aren’t the only wizards or mages or bugbears running around Sharrowford. Maybe I want to see what the wounds from a ‘servitor’ look like. No objections?”

“I don’t mind, but-” I started.

“Yeah, I don’t like the sound of that,” Twil half-growled.

“Twil, stop,” I huffed. Twil blinked at me. “What I was trying to say, detective Webb, is that I don’t mind, but the servitor that killed those men is – as far as I know – the personal handiwork of a woman who’s been dead for a long time, the grandmother of the girl in a coma upstairs. You’re unlikely to find them anywhere else.”

“You think that, or you know that?” Nicole asked.

“I think.”

“Then I’d still like to have a look.” She rummaged around in one of her coat pockets and pulled out a wad of pale blue surgical gloves wrapped up with a rubber band, extracted one, and wriggled it on with a snap. “May I? With permission, Miss wizard?”

I nodded and looked away from the gruesome spectacle. Nicole squatted down to peel back the bin bags from the lumpy, misshapen forms that had once been two human beings. Twil puffed out a long sigh and looked away too, but Zheng craned her neck to watch. I knew I’d have to touch them soon enough, but the less I thought about that the better.

Nicole was quite silent for a good minute or so as she examined the corpses, except for the initial moment as she turned her head and audibly suppressed the urge to be sick. I didn’t blame her. Eventually she covered the bodies again, stood up, and snapped the surgical glove off her hand.

“Well. Well,” she said, holding the glove for a moment as if she didn’t know what to do with it. She’d gone pale and waxen.

“You can just put that in the bin. Gotta burn it all anyway,” Twil grunted.

“Yes. Quite.”

“Learn anything useful?” I asked.

Nicole opened her mouth, closed it again, and shook her head. “Wild animal? Bear? Industrial accident? I’ve never seen anything like that. Like they were … there’s no way I can see this ‘servitor’, right? You said it’s invisible?”

“I can see it, nobody else. There’s a magic circle we can use, but we’d need Evelyn to be awake.”

“Your friend upstairs?”

I nodded.

“Why you?” Nicole asked. “Why can you see these things? Why not the werewolf, or the other girl, Lozzie?”

“You don’t know my name, pig!” Lozzie called from the front room.

I sighed and gave Nicole a level stare. “Because I was abducted by an alien god when I was a little girl, and my mind was violated, changed somehow, and sometimes I suspect I’m not meant to exist in this reality anymore.”

“You are!” Lozzie called. I closed my eyes and thanked her in silence.

Nicole nodded several times. “Fair enough.”

Getting rid of the bodies was both easy and difficult. The brainmath was simple enough, the same thing I’d done so many times in so many different situations, complicated only by the presence of two separate objects to shunt Outside, a problem I solved by conceptualising it all – meat, tarpaulin, bin liners – as one single charnel mass.

The difficult part was getting onto my knees next to the corpses and touching them. Lumpy, hard, cold beneath the thin plastic. I’d seen corpses too many times in the last six months, but I’d never touched one before. The sensation made my gorge rise in my throat. I felt ready to be sick in a whole new way.

Teleporting such a large object finally broke my winning streak. I raced through the equation, slammed it into place with an impatience born of disgust and determination; the corpses vanished, cut-price death shroud and all, and I instantly doubled up and added to the mess all over the kitchen floor.

Sagging, half-choking, whining at the taste of blood and vomit in the back of my throat, I refused to collapse or pass out, hauling myself up to spit stomach acid into the sink.

Lozzie was there a second later, little feet pattering across the kitchen toward me, holding me up. Twil was there too, arm under my shoulders. I wretched and spat and wiped my mouth on the back of my hand.

“Good enough for you?” I croaked at Nicole.

“Think she’s suitably impressed, yeah,” Twil said. I managed to lever myself around to find Nicole staring at the spot the corpses had lain, now painted with the contents of my stomach.

“Are you going to look the other way now, detective?” I croaked again and cleared my throat, feeling like death and letting my friends take most of my weight.

“ … bit more than a cardboard tube,” she muttered, then blinked and drew herself together, met my eyes. “Really messes you up too, huh?”

“How could you tell?”

Slowly, to my surprise, Nicole smirked. “No, I’m not going to look the other way. Ah- ah-” She held up both hands and flinched, as Twil bristled with implicit threat and Zheng tilted her head to watch. “No, no, wait, before you turn me into a frog or something. I’m not going to call this in, I won’t report anything I’ve seen, I realise it’s pointless. Plenty of DNA evidence, but nobody to link it to. I’ve got no bodies, they’re … fucking gone,” she let out a single laugh. “But you’ve told me there’s a cult of crazy people operating in Sharrowford, in my city. They’ve kidnapped a young woman, your girlfriend. The least I can do is fudge a missing person’s report, but there’s got to be more. I could take this to my bosses, all the way up the chain, if there’s a plausible conspiracy to commit. What else have they done? Who are these people? Names, addresses. Anything you got, I can use.”

“They’ve done plenty, yeah,” Twil said, nodding. “This lot are nasty.”

“Kept me in a castle,” Lozzie said. Nicole frowned at her.

“Plenty of things, yes,” I echoed. “But you’re not going to convince anybody of this. That’s not how it works. I had to break you with the evidence of your senses before you even risked belief. You’re not going to get through to your superiors, detective.”

She smiled – the false easy smile she’d worn earlier. “You don’t know that.”

“Yes I do, I-”

“What if this sort of thing gets out? Blow the lid on it. You people could change the world, you-”

“Don’t wake the sleeping tiger,” Zheng purred. We all looked at her.

“Oh, I know this one!” Lozzie said.

“Mooncalf knows. Have you ever seen a mob, watchman?” She asked Nicole, speaking slow and quiet. “Peasants with fire and pikes? Reality doesn’t penetrate your monkey brains until you’re ready for it, but fear does. You, and I, and the shaman, we’re all in a locked room with a tiger, and if we make enough noise the tiger will wake up, and instinct doesn’t care for allegiance, or right, or words. The tiger doesn’t know what we are and it doesn’t care, but it will still eat us, and shit us out, and the shit will be very normal, and nobody will change the world.” Zheng broke into a grin. “I lied. The tiger will eat you, but I am indigestible.”

Zheng’s tone – spoken from undoubted experience – worked on Nicole in a way the protests of three young women didn’t. Nicole stared at her for a moment, then sighed deeply and nodded.

“Nobody believes until they’re broken,” I said. “And you got lucky. Most go mad, or spend the rest of their life trying to forget. Or so I’m told. That’s how it works.”

“Alright, so I can’t go to my bosses. You can’t call the police. But as of right now, I’m a bent copper whatever I do.” Nicole looked at me, a strange fire behind her eyes. “So tell me everything anyway.”

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