covenants without the sword – 8.6

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After three hours in the A&E department of Sharrowford General Hospital, the doctors couldn’t find anything wrong with me.

They took my blood and blood pressure and had me pee in a cup. They poked and prodded and asked me the requisite ‘does this hurt?’ They ruled out internal bleeding and an x-ray ruled out broken bones. They hemmed and hawed and could not find a reason for the pain.

Except the bruises.

Three bruises, one for each tentacle anchor-point. Two on my left flank, above the outward crest of my hipbone, and one on the right side of my waist, just below the base of my ribcage. Dark mottled purple, almost black with damaged capillaries, not quite perfectly circular but close enough to provoke medical suspicion. Doctors asked questions I couldn’t answer. The attending nurse gave me a funny look, saw right through my stumbling, stammering excuses as I sat half-naked, wincing and shivering on an examination bench, trying to keep the Fractal on my left forearm concealed as much as I could.

Raine, bless her quick thinking and boundless courage, pretended embarrassment as she spun a fanciful comedy of sexual errors, to explain both the bruises and my reticence. Her tall tale involved something called a ‘doorframe harness’, and obliquely hinted that I’d refused to stop, gripped by the heat of my own lust, and thus injured myself. Raine implied that she was bruised too, though far less painfully.

I hung my head and blushed tomato red – I didn’t have to pretend – and our mummery appeared to mollify the medical staff. The nurse went from tutting suspicion to barely concealed amusement. They’d probably seen the aftermath of far worse sexual accidents than a pair of young lesbians doing some acrobatic experimentation.

The absurdity of our lie also took my mind off the pain, for a while.

No ordinary bruises, these. Each one felt like a knotted fist in my side. I wasn’t exactly physically flexible at the best of times, but now I could barely bend or twist at all without a throb of pain. Even while sitting still, my oblique muscles would occasionally spasm and shudder, echoing a deeper quiver of abused flesh.

The first time the doctors left us alone for a few minutes, Raine asked me a question.

“Were they really tentacles, or was that just poetry?” She held my hand, cracked a grin, distracted me from the ache in my sides. “Am I in for a surprise next time we’re in bed?”

“Ha-ha,” I deadpanned. “Yes, they were, tentacles. Three, and- ah-ahhh!”

I winced and sucked air through my teeth as jagged spikes of pain lanced deep into my torso. To even think about the phantom limbs was to invite the pain of their thought-echo. On instinct I’d attempted to uncurl limbs I did not possess, to show them to Raine, to gesture with a tentacle-tip and place another in her hand. None of that happened though; pain blossomed anew.

Couldn’t stop eating, either. Low blood-sugar made me shake and shiver. Raine brought me hospital vending machine food, and I must have inhaled over a thousand and a half calories before the shakes subsided. My tentacles, however short-lived, had burned a huge amount of energy.

“Nerve damage of some kind, perhaps,” a kindly-looking young doctor told Raine and I from behind his square-rimmed glasses, once I was properly dressed again, hunched over and clutching myself as I waited for the painkillers to work.

“Perhaps?” Raine echoed.

“Yes. It’s our best guess. I’m very sorry, but I’m afraid we’ll have to refer you to a specialist, miss Morell. Here in Sharrowford there’s a waiting list, but we could get you over to Manchester as early as next month, St Mary’s or the Royal Infirmary perhaps.”

“I’ll be … alright. I think.” I felt terrible for wasting doctors’ time – what I’d done to myself was beyond medical science. “I can wait. Thank you.”

“But she’s not in any danger?” Raine asked. “It can’t get worse, anything like that?”

“No danger at all, as far as we can tell, aside from the pain itself. The bruising looks bad and is going to hurt, but everything is where it should be. The bruises themselves should heal as normal. In some of these cases, especially for a young person, the pain works itself out on its own, or the painkillers sort of ‘reset’ the system, and it fades over time. Try to stay on them as much as possible, stick to the schedule the nurse wrote up for you, at least for two weeks. You have enough for two months, I think? Good, yes. If the bruises heal but the pain is still there, you could see your GP to get referred to another specialist, or we could go ahead and get you on that waiting list now, just in case.”

“I’ll be alright-”

“Yes,” Raine said. “Put her on the list, please. Just in case.”

The painkillers did work, though they took a while to kick in, to smother the discomfort and inflammation. The hospital discharged me with a big bottle of take-no-more-than-four-times-a-day and a smaller bottle of may-cause-addiction. Nothing more they could do. Raine drove us home, but not before we sat in the front of her car and shared a long, difficult hug.

“I’ll be alright”, I told her. I had the number of a physical therapist, a prescription for more drugs – and a yearning of which I could not let go.

“You will, Heather, yeah. Just bruises, hey?”

In my heart, that moment of glory had been worth all the pain in the world.

==

“You are not a fish, Heather!”

“I know that, I know-”

“Or a squid, or an octopus, or a fucking orca. I can’t believe you did that to yourself. I told you to be careful, specifically! Did you listen? You’re as bad as Raine.”

“I know. Evee, I’m sorry, I-”

“Don’t apologise to me,” she snapped. “You’re the one who could have minced her own organs.”

“I didn’t though, I made it work. It worked, and it felt-”

I failed to smother a wince and a gasp. A strangled sound escaped my throat. The tentacles had felt wonderful, yes, a euphoria beyond words, but now the memory of them summoned only their painful echo in my flanks. My sides shuddered as I curled up against the burning bruises, the torn muscle, the sharp daggers slipping past the bulwark of painkillers in my bloodstream.

“Hey, hey, don’t think about it,” Raine purred, one hand on my back. “Focus on me, listen to my voice.”

“You were incredibly lucky,” Evelyn hissed. She finally shoved a chair out from the kitchen table and slumped down, one hand on her walking stick.

“It’s not as if I grew tentacles for real,” I struggled past the haze of painkillers and the throbbing in my sides. “They were pneuma-somatic, spirit fl-”

“And I suppose your bruises aren’t for real either?” Evelyn snapped. “They don’t count. Good to know.”

“You know, they don’t look too bad really,” Raine said, as she peered at my bruises. “I’ve had worse myself.”

Raine had me sitting forward in one of the kitchen chairs, my tshirt and hoodie hiked up to expose my waist. She gently probed my quivering flanks with warm fingers, not on the bruises themselves, but on the unblemished flesh around them. She’d been careful to run her hands under hot water first. Despite everything, Raine’s touch helped.

“Raine, this is not external blunt impact trauma,” Evelyn all but spat. “She hasn’t come away from a bar brawl with a black eye. She’s modifying herself. How do you think Zheng got so tall? She didn’t start out at seven feet, I’ll guarantee you that.” She waved a hand at Praem, standing by the door to the magical workshop, dressed in her maid uniform once more. “The only reason Praem is so stable is because she’s made out of fucking wood. Are you made out of wood, Heather? Well? Are you?”

“Evee,” Raine sighed. “Come off-”

“No I will not calm down! You’re enabling her, Raine. How do you think you’ll feel if she breaks herself, and you encouraged her to do it? I told you to be careful, Heather. You’re a human being, not a demon. You’re more likely to break your own biochemistry, contract gangrene, screw up your hormone levels and give yourself a fucking brain aneurysm!” She swung her leg outward with a stomp, her prosthetic leg, and yanked her long skirt up in a fit of frustration, red in the face. She revealed the long stretch of naked black carbon fibre, and the rubber sheath which cradled the stump of her thigh, then gripped her own artificial knee. “You want this? You want something like this to happen to you?! Do you?!”

I blinked at her, shocked by the heat of her outrage. “E-Evee, I … ”

She glared at me, then broke off with a silent curse on her tongue, hurriedly covering her prosthetic again. “Yes, yes, none of us can imagine what happened to you. Of course.” Her voice dripped with sarcasm.

“Evee, I’m sorry,” I said, and felt a lump in my throat. “I’m sorry for making you worry about me.”

Evelyn jerked a shrug, wouldn’t look at me.

“Evee, uh,” Twil started from the doorway. “If it’s really that dangerous, then-”

“Oh, you can shut up as well,” Evelyn grumbled. “Just what we need, advice from a person who thinks she’s a dog. She’s not a fish, and you’re not a wolf.”

Twil rolled her eyes and let out an unexpected soft grumble as she refused to rise to Evelyn’s bait. “Why can’t you just, you know, admit that you care?”

Evelyn gave her a capital-L look, genuine hurt behind her anger. “This is caring. If you can’t deal with me- with that,” Evelyn hastily corrected herself with a guilty glance at Raine and I, “then … then … you can- … argh!” Evelyn waved a dismissive hand, out of words.

While Raine had driven me straight to the hospital, Evelyn and Praem had headed home, with Twil in distant, violent tow.

Evelyn and Twil were both still in the same clothes they’d worn to the meeting, with the exception of Twil’s lime green coat and white-cream hoodie, now draped over the back of a kitchen chair. The coat had been slashed open in three places and both garments were stained with blood – all Twil’s. Every now and then she flexed her right arm and rolled her shoulder, opened and closed the fingers of her right hand, working out the kinks left behind by her rapid healing. Not a mark remained on her bare skin now, but the real wound was deeper. Twil wore her heart on her sleeve.

“Hey, that’s not- that’s not what I meant,” Twil said, low and just as hurt. “Come on.”

They’d been alone together in the house for hours – save for Lozzie, asleep upstairs, and Kimberly, far too timid to get in their way. Whatever had happened between them in that time, the result was less than encouraging.

Raine settled my hoodie back down to hide my bruises again. “Evee,” she said softly. “How much danger is Heather really in?”

“I don’t know,” Evelyn said. “This isn’t exactly well-charted territory.”

“Nothing about this in any of your books?”

“Not that I know of. We could dig, maybe in the library.” Evelyn shrugged. “I doubt anybody has ever been stupid enough to try to grow tentacles before. Or they died before writing it down.”

“Then it’s an educated guess,” I said.

Evelyn’s eyes flashed at me again. “Are you so desperate to find an excuse to warp your own body?”

I swallowed, looked away, and with great difficulty, nodded.

“Heather?” Raine asked, one hand gently on my back again.

“I grew tentacles and it felt good.” I pulled a sad smile. “It felt right. And yes, for the record, I do realise how bonkers that sounds.”

“S’how it feels for me,” Twil put in, gingerly at first, then growing in confidence when Evelyn refrained from biting her head off. “When I transform, I mean.”

“You don’t transform,” Evelyn drawled. “You put on a suit.”

“You know what I mean,” Twil grumbled on. “It feels right. Like … I dunno … like eating, or putting on a warm pair of socks from the dryer or something. Or like, popping a limb back into place?”

“Growing a limb which should be there in the first place,” I murmured.

“S’not so different to what I do, right?” Twil continued. “I mean, I had teething pains too, hurt the fuck out of myself the first few times.”

“Your grandfather probably knew what he was doing when he made you,” said Evelyn. “Considerably more than we do. And you’re still a walking disaster.”

“ … oi, Evee, come on.”

“You act like a canine half the time.” She waved a hand at me. “Even if Heather manages to stabilise what she’s doing, without pulling her own digestive system out through her mouth, what is that going to do to her, hmm? What’s the end result? Squid-woman?”

“It felt right,” I repeated. Evelyn shot a look at me again, and I sighed and shrugged. “I’m not going to deny that. It was disgusting and weird but … right. I’m not going to be able to resist it again.”

“What was it like?” Raine asked, her tone one of genuine interest, not clinical investigation. “If you can describe it without thinking too hard.”

“Like … like tentacles. Slim, I suppose. No suckers or anything, just smooth. They strobed with light, like a fish from the sea floor. They were beautiful and- ahh!” I closed my eyes, bit down through the throb in my flanks. Almost time for another dose of painkillers.

The only part of my physical self I’d ever thought of as beautiful, and it wasn’t even real flesh.

“Yeah.” Raine grinned. “I can picture that, you’re beautiful all over. But what was it like?”

“Oh. Um … ” My heartstrings tugged with nostalgia for lost glory. I swallowed. “It just felt … right. I didn’t even have to think about how to move them, how to use them. It was like they’d always been there. I could have a dozen, a hundred, and instinct would have scaled up, I’m certain. It was like living in a wheelchair, and suddenly getting up and running. Feels like I could have done anything with them, no matter how complex, how hard.”

“Kinky.”

Evelyn put her face in one hand. “You can’t do this, Heather, you’re going to kill yourself.”

“I know.” I said, and felt tears threatening in my eyes.

“Heather?” Raine said my name.

“I know, I know, I just … it felt so good.” I sniffed, scrubbed at my eyes with the back of a wrist. “I want to feel that again, I … I don’t think I’m strong enough to resist again. If the moment calls for it, I know I’ll do it. I promised Maisie I wouldn’t go back into the abyss, but I-I … should have promised her I wouldn’t change myself.”

Raine got up and fetched a box of tissues, then helped me dry my eyes. I nodded my thanks. Evelyn looked away in second-hand embarrassment.

“Promise,” Praem intoned a moment later.

“Eh? I’m- I’m sorry?”

The doll-demon looked right at me, expressionless and blank. Why couldn’t I be more like her? Life as a piece of wood.

“She’s got the right idea,” Raine said with a grin. “Heather, make that promise to us then. Or to me, if it helps. Promise me you won’t hurt yourself.”

I averted my eyes, pulled a weak shrug. I couldn’t lie like that.

“Promise,” Praem intoned again.

“She takes promises serious, don’t she?” Twil mused, watching Praem. The doll-demon watched her back.

“We have to find a way to make it safe for you – isn’t that right, Evee?” Raine asked, but didn’t wait for an answer. Evelyn shrugged wide, exasperated. “And we will. There’s bound to be something, maybe something like what Twil’s got, maybe we can talk to her family. Maybe something in Evee’s books. Maybe Lozzie will know. Yeah? Heather? Hey, Heather, look at me.” She took my hands, and I did. “It’s gonna be okay, we’ll find a way. But for now – just for now – promise me you won’t do it again. In return, I’ll promise to do my best so you’re not in a situation where growing magic tentacles seems like a good plan, no matter how cool that sounds.” She cracked a grin. “And hey, they do sound kinda cool.”

I sniffed again, nodded. “You wouldn’t be able see them anyway.”

“Ya’ never know. Promise me, please?”

“Promise,” Praem repeated.

“Yeah,” Twil added. “Come on, don’t hurt yourself.”

“Self-harm is unhealthy,” Evelyn added, cleared her throat. Best I was going to get from her, under the circumstances.

With some difficulty, I nodded. Raine’s confidence helped, and her promise that we’d find a way. We did have plenty of avenues to explore – Twil’s family, books, Zheng, Lozzie, all with their own challenges. For a moment I glanced at the ceiling, thinking about Lozzie asleep upstairs.

“Promise?”

“Promise,” I whispered. “Sorry. You too, Evelyn. I’m sorry, I won’t … I don’t want to hurt myself. I’ve told you off for it before, so it’s only fair. Thank you.”

Evelyn shrugged, clearly uncomfortable.

“You gotta admit though,” Raine said. “The look on Stack’s face was pretty funny, ey?”

“Yeah.” Twil smiled wide. “Served her right. Wham! Right on her arse. Seriously thought you’d gotten like, mind powers.”

“I do have mind powers,” I said with a sigh.

“Yeah yeah, but you know what I mean. Like, super spooky mind powers.”

“Super spooky,” Praem intoned from over by the doorway. Twil jumped, Raine laughed, and I made fleeting eye-contact with the doll-demon. For some reason, she didn’t seem amused.

Evelyn finally allowed herself to relax a fraction. A slim, satisfied smile crossed her face. “Yes, quite. They never saw that coming. I don’t approve of the danger of the method, Heather, but on that account, well done. And thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” I managed, not comfortable with being the sudden centre of smug attention. “I only wish we hadn’t failed.”

“Mm,” Evelyn grunted. “Your methods won us something there, despite, well, everything else.”

The atmosphere in the room shifted. The immediate crisis of internal bleeding and phantom bruises gave way to the wider matter at hand.

“We gave better than we got, at least,” Raine said.

“Wait, what?” Twil asked. “But we didn’t get ‘im. Bastard got away.”

“Indeed,” said Evelyn. “Indeed he did. Why didn’t we just kill them all when we had a chance?”

==

After Edward-as-Julian had vanished into thin air, our little peace conference broke up in total chaos.

The bulk of my attention had been occupied by the searing pain in my sides and the struggle to retain consciousness, as Raine had helped me hobble to her car, parked around the front of the pub. As such, I was only aware of a small portion of what happened at the time.

Michael Hopton was demanding answers from Yuleson, who was left all a-flutter like a startled rabbit in the wake of his master’s disappearance. He stammered along as best he could, a staccato background to the rising swell of everyone suddenly talking at once. Amanda still stared at me, spellbound by what she’d seen me do. Her dog watched me like I was some unknown animal. Evelyn snatched the white handkerchief Edward had used off the table, and gestured to Praem. Nicole was on her feet, saying something so very standard about how we should all calm down. Even the math students at the other end of the pub garden could tell a fight was brewing. One of them was on his way over, raising his voice.

Twil had stood up and growled at Stack.

“I’m out,” Stack repeated once more, blank faced as she took a step back.

“You better start running, bitch!” said Twil.

Raine already had me five paces away from the mounting confusion when Twil vaulted the table. Stack dodged by the skin of her teeth. My goodness, but she was fast. Twil hit the ground in a roll and came up growling.

In my pain-addled state I had a horrible vision of the two of them, werewolf and trained assassin, laying into each other in the middle of a pub garden. Evelyn seemed to have the same fear, eyes wide and paralysed for a split-second, an order to Praem frozen on her lips.

But Amy Stack was too professional for that. She turned on her heel and sprinted away, round the side of the pub and out into the street.

Twil was so surprised it took her several heartbeats before she gave chase.

A moment later all we knew of them was the sound of running footsteps receding into the warren of houses beyond.

“She’ll kill her!” Nicole said, moving to go after them.

“I wouldn’t bother, detective,” Evelyn grumbled. Everyone else had fallen quiet in surprise, the sudden explosion of violence more than enough to end the chaos. The trio of curious math students were looking rather shocked. One of them shrugged, and another went back to her drink. In the corner of my eye I noticed that Twil’s parents both had oddly pained expressions on their faces.

“Which way ‘round?” Benjamin asked. “’Cos I know my cousin’ll win.”

“She- I- … alright, fair point, I don’t know,” Nicole said.

A still-functioning part of my mind almost laughed; this was the second time Twil had chased Stack through Sharrowford, and I didn’t expect her to do any better than previously.

“Twil will tear her apart,” Michael Hopton sighed, no relish in his voice, scant pride in his daughter.

“Exactly,” Nicole said. “Can’t you … ”

His look said it all. No, he could not stop her.

Yuleson managed at last to gather himself up, all his myriad papers stuffed back into his briefcase. The last thing I saw before Raine and I hobbled around the side of the pub was the little rat-like lawyer offering firm handshakes all around. He had few takers.

When we at last got home, Twil told us what we’d missed.

Exceeding all my estimations, shaming me for my lack of faith in my friend, she had caught Stack. In a back alleyway behind an Indian takeaway place, between Oldham Street and a row of shuttered light industrial plants, Stack had turned and fought.

“You’re kidding,” Raine had said. “With just a knife? Against you?”

“Yeah.” Twil cringed. From the unimpressed look on Evelyn’s face, I gathered Twil had been over this explanation once already, likely while stripping ruined and bloody clothing off her rapidly-healing arm.

Raine let out a low whistle, shaking her head. “That’s real skills.”

“Never even fuckin’ touched her,” Twil huffed.

Stack had turned and fought, against Twil gone half-wolf in the privacy of a dingy, dirty back alleyway. To hear Twil tell the tale, the fight had lasted only three or four seconds, and ended with Twil howling in transient pain, on her back in a splatter of her own blood. Stack had escaped, off into the city, untouched.

“That’s real knife skills,” Raine repeated. “Glad she quit on her boss so publicly, hey?”

“Yeah,” Twil grimaced. “No rematch.”

I almost didn’t believe it. I’d seen Twil fight zombies by pulling their heads off, wrench a steel chain apart with her bare hands, crack concrete with raw strength. If it wasn’t for Twil’s heartfelt earnest nature – and the blood all over her slashed-open clothes – I would have suspected her of lying, that she’d been caught in some clever trap too embarrassing to admit, or that she’d lost Stack entirely and invented her defeat to cover for failure.

All her strength and enthusiasm hadn’t meant so much, faced with trained skill.

By the time I’d gathered enough brainpower to ask the questions, Raine was helping me to the table to check on my bruises, and Evelyn had started shouting.

==

Why didn’t we just kill them all, indeed?

“Because Edward Lilburne wasn’t really there,” I answered Evelyn’s question. “Because killing a nasty old lawyer wouldn’t have achieved anything useful.”

The instrument of our deception lay in the middle of the kitchen table, a broken square, the fabric torn down the middle to disarm any further magic – the white handkerchief which Edward-as-Julian had produced from his suit pocket.

Upon closer inspection at home, Evelyn had discovered a magic circle stitched into the fabric in white-on-white. Obvious when one looked, but very hard to distinguish during a rushed moment in a pub garden. A faint hand-print remained inside the circle itself, as if the outer layer of Edward-as-Julian’s skin had been left behind in whatever process had allowed him to dismiss his remote mouthpiece.

Our own trap – the rabbit corpse stuffed in a sports bag – was safely contained in the basement. It would keep some weeks, apparently. A nuclear option, just in case.

“Would have made me feel better,” said Evelyn.

“Yeah.” Raine grinned. “Wish we could have stayed and given him a good kicking.”

“What?” Twil frowned. “The lawyer? Beat up an old man?”

“You seemed pretty into the idea of smacking him one.”

“Yeah, yeah, but like … he didn’t really matter in the end, did he?”

Evelyn waved a dismissive hand. “What about Stack? We should have killed her, taken her off the board. Should have pulled the bloody trigger and have done with her. Not for want of trying, I suppose.”

“Yeah yeah, rub it in, why don’t you?” said Twil.

“She is off the board,” Raine said. “Far as we know.”

“Still should have gotten rid of her,” Evelyn grunted. “Can’t be certain.”

“World’s full of evil people, Evee. We’re not responsible for all of them,” said Raine. From Evelyn’s pursed lips and silent nod, I got the impression this was a discussion they’d had before.

I let out a huge sigh, arms wrapped around myself, rubbing gingerly at my bruised sides. “We all screwed up.”

Deep down inside, past the exhaustion and the shadow of pain, I was glad we hadn’t killed anybody – even Stack.

Intellectually I knew I was right; without Edward Lilburne present, there was no point in springing a trap. The head of the snake would slink off to hide and heal, to prepare for revenge. Leaving them alive but filled with doubt made far more sense. Peel Stack away from her employer. If Julian had been real, perhaps we could have worked on him too. The real Julian was out there, so perhaps we still could.

But that wasn’t what I’d felt when I’d grown those beautiful, shining tentacles.

I’d been intoxicated by the power and beauty of them. By the ability to defend what mattered to me. If I’d lasted longer I would have strangled Stack to death, at the very least. Would I have beaten Amanda Hopton’s dog for growling at me? Pulled apart the Hopton’s bubble-servitor?

I’d have given in to that abyssal ruthlessness, and where would that end?

Maisie needed rescuing, but she also needed me; it would not serve either of us if I turned into a monster.

“Heather, hey, we didn’t screw up,” Raine said. “Not like that.”

“Zheng told me-” I started, swallowed, and came as close as I could to expressing what I really felt. “Zheng told me to eat them first, before they eat me. At first I thought she meant don’t bluff, don’t take the bait, just … kill them. Embrace what you are, she said. Then I thought she meant the tentacles, maybe, but maybe I was wrong.”

“Cryptic bullshit,” Evelyn grunted. “Wonderfully clear advice, yes.”

“Yeah, we can hardly take advice from that thing,” said Twil.

“Look, at least we put in our demands,” Raine said, cracking a smile and looking around at everyone. “We can’t find the bastard, so that was the next best move. We made our point, loud and clear.”

“And what exactly was our point?” Evelyn asked, a bite to her voice. “That we’re too collectively stupid to see through such an obvious trick? That we’re too cowardly to do what needed to be done?” She turned away, her gaze focused inward. “What the hell do I do now?”

“Wait for his answer?” Twil suggested, and earned herself a glare from Evelyn.

“It’s alright for you, isn’t it?” said Evelyn. “You can run off back to your mummy and daddy-”

“Hey!” Twil bristled, but at the same time, her face fell. Evelyn stopped short, cleared her throat, and took a different course.

“Edward Lilburne will come back at us, I know he will. We’ve got something he wants.” Evelyn pointed at the ceiling, and I knew she meant Lozzie. “Not to mention Sharrowford itself. No, we need something on him, we need to find the bastard and … ” Evelyn grit her teeth and got out of her chair, clacking her walking stick against the kitchen floor. She walked three paces with sudden purpose, then stopped and turned as if lost.

“We could put the squeeze on Yuleson,” Raine suggested. “He’s a figure of public record and all that, takes clients, not like he’s hiding.”

“Don’t be an idiot,” Evelyn hissed. “Even you know threatening a lawyer is an astoundingly bad idea. Even with magic; especially with magic. You want to get arrested?”

“Maybe we don’t do it with magic,” Raine said.

“Oh for pity’s sake, you-”

I retreated into myself, closed my eyes, hugged my aching sides through the warmth and softness of my pink hoodie. Raine and Evelyn talked past each other, Twil made impotent suggestions, Praem stood like a statue but I imagined I could feel her slow thoughts. Outdoors, the sun was going down, letting the shadows creep over the garden and Tenny’s cocoon in the tree. I imagined I could feel that too, a vast pneuma-somatic heartbeat. Maybe she would understand how I felt.

“Heather?”

We had too many issues to address to make ourselves safe – Edward Lilburne’s next move and the problem of Glasswick tower, Lozzie’s slow deterioration and our inability to get Outside, the Eye’s squid-thing still languishing in Evelyn’s workshop and the giant zombie running wild across the countryside. I was on a time limit, Maisie was on a time limit, and I could barely make my own hard-won chosen family safe, or keep us on track.

The tentacles, the echo of the body I’d brought back from the abyss, it gave me strength. To defend me and mine? To make us secure so I could focus on my sister?

A poor justification, but tempting.

“Heather? Hey, earth to space cadet H? Come in, this is Sharrowford calling.”

I ran my fingers over my own ribs, pressed as close to the bruises as I could stand. Winced. Pain, a source of clarity.

“Heather?”

“I’m listening,” I lied, and opened my eyes to find the others all looking at me in various states of amusement and concern. The argument had faded without resolution. Evelyn looked like she’d been sucking a lemon.

“No you’re not,” Raine chuckled. She reached over and ruffled my hair. “But that’s okay. You need some sleep.”

“I need to find Zheng,” I said.

“Yes, yes you bloody well do,” Evelyn grumbled. “She might give us an edge, if you can control her.”

I shook my head. Not what I’d meant, not at all. “I think she might know how to make it safe.”

“Safe?” Evelyn frowned.

“Ahhhh,” Raine let a smirk creep onto her face. “Not the only reason though, eh?”

“It was, um … I just had a gut-feeling when I went to talk to her, it’s hard to explain, but I think she might understand these things. Might know how to … ” I gestured at my sides, at the hidden bruises. “Maybe. Maybe then I could … grow them for real, I-”

“For pity’s sake,” Evelyn hissed through her teeth. She turned and stomped off, almost limping, past Praem and into her workshop. She tried to bang the door behind her, but Twil crossed the room in a quick bound and caught it before it slammed shut.

“Evee?” She slipped in after Evelyn.

A torrent of muttered abuse flowed back into the kitchen – I didn’t hear full sentences, but I got the jist of it well enough.

“-not taking this seriously- -more concerned with turning herself into a fish- -going to fucking kill herself-”

I winced inside, wished I could curl up into a ball and vanish.

Evelyn was right; we’d solved nothing. I still couldn’t get Outside, and Lozzie continued to deteriorate. We couldn’t begin to enact the plan to save my sister, not if we couldn’t get to Carcosa to plunder it for knowledge, or ask Lozzie about her mysterious knight that had saved us from the Eye.

“She doesn’t mean half of that,” Raine said softly, stroking my hair. Sometimes I felt like she was the only thing keeping me here. “Evee’d never admit it, but she’s scared of this. This Edward guy.”

“Are you?”

“What, scared?” Raine cracked a grin. “Nah. I think he’s gonna fold.”

“I have to find Zheng,” I repeated, and tried not to feel guilty.

I had to get myself in order if I was going to rescue my sister. Had to keep everyone together, remove distractions, carry out the plan. Had to rely on my friends? That’s what Maisie had said. Her advice still shone clear and plain.

Was Zheng a friend? Yes.

I had a problem, and a friend who could help. I chose, in that moment, to trust my sister’s advice.

Or at least that’s how I justified the desire.

“You wanna jump her bones?” Raine asked. I frowned at her, a blush in my cheeks.

“It’s not- not like that. N-not entirely, anyway … oh.” I let out a huge breath. “You’re joking. A joke. Right, yes.”

“Not entirely,” Raine said, but her voice told the opposite. “Tell me how she made you feel.”

The way Raine slipped the question in, right after making me almost laugh past the pain in my sides, was nothing short of professional grace. No guile, no trick, just open curiosity. If she’d cornered me in our bedroom and said ‘we need to talk’, or ‘can I ask about Zheng’, or suchlike, I would have frozen up inside, tried to evade the guilt and her scrutiny together. Instead, she found the one way to unlock the truth.

“The … the me I brought back from the abyss, I felt right to be near her,” I said. “Like a kindred spirit, one of my own, a person like me. Which makes no sense, because obviously we’re nothing alike. Not even the same species.” I sighed heavily. “Raine, I don’t think I’m human anymore. Not really.”

“Who cares about that?”

“Who … Raine, excuse me?”

“Who cares if you’re human? You’re still you. Heather Morell, Time Lord.”

I laughed ever so slightly, then winced and let out a ‘mmm!’ as a spike of pain travelled up my sides. Raine rubbed the back of my neck, trying to distract me. “Thank you,” I said. “I think.”

“So what’s the plan with Zheng? You wanna organise a threesome?”

Raine,” I spluttered.

“Hey, had to ask,” she said, and couldn’t hold back a grin.

“I’m-” I glanced over at the door to Evelyn’s magical workshop. Soft murmurs came from within, Evelyn and Twil still talking. I lowered my voice, mortified by the subject matter. “I’m not going to cheat on you, Raine. I couldn’t do that to you. Never.”

“Cheating doesn’t come into it. You need what you need, can’t help that.”

I blinked at her, didn’t understand – didn’t want to understand. “Raine? What does that mean?”

“Means I don’t blame you. Means I’m not scared you’re going to be unfaithful, Heather. That’s not who you are, I know that.”

“Oh. Um, fair enough, I suppose. Thank you. The same goes for you.”

“So, what’s the plan with Zheng?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. Find her, convince her to come back to the house? Talk to her about … why I felt like that around her? Yes, just unpick the emotions of a centuries-old demon living in the body of a Greek goddess. So simple. Oh, blast it all, I sound like Evelyn.”

“Gotta find her first,” Raine mused.

“Exactly, and how do we do that?”

“Lay out the right sort of bait.”

“Such as?”

“You, maybe.” She winked. “Let me think on this overnight, Heather. Let me try to get into Zheng’s head.”

Perhaps tracking live game across the countryside was indeed more Raine’s speciality than mine.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

covenants without the sword – 8.5

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

“Eat them first … ?”

“Mmm,” Zheng rumbled. The sound reverberated, a tiger’s purr in her chest.

She was indescribably beautiful.

Even wrapped in shapeless, ratty old clothes, soaked in days of sweat and dirt, her hair greasy and stuck to her scalp, a wild woman eating sheep and ghosting across the moors, she was beautiful. Even with her sharp-edged face darkened in melancholy, rejecting me in a way I didn’t fully understand, she was beautiful. Seven feet of iron muscle and honeyed skin like cinnamon chocolate. A scent on the wind like hot spice and healthy sweat. The razor eyes of a true predator, teeth like knives, a taste for human flesh.

Zheng was so beautiful it hurt.

She was a walking wet dream from a fantasy I’d never known I wanted – but what I felt in that moment was more than physical desire. Dwarfed by her, beneath the grey clouds and the tree trunks on the edge of the wild, the memory of my abyssal form stirred with need and nostalgia, kinship and recognition.

Zheng was a thing from the abyss, too. Embodied in stolen human flesh, greater than the sum of her parts. Like me?

That didn’t excuse my lust.

“Oh, damn it all,” I huffed. “This is absurd.”

Zheng raised an eyebrow. Slow amusement worked its way back onto her face. I’d rather undercut her dramatic moment. “Shaman?”

“Love triangles are a stupid cliche,” I sighed. “I can’t believe we’re doing this, now, here, with all … all that going on.” I gestured vaguely behind me, back toward the pub garden. The sensation of phantom limbs plagued the periphery of my awareness, as tentacles and feelers ached to reach out and touch Zheng. “You are a problem, do you know that?”

Zheng grinned in full once more. “Am I?”

“Why won’t you come back to the house? We need to sort this out, you and I, I think, but not right now, not here.”

“Sort what out, shaman?”

I frowned up a storm at her. “You know what I’m feeling, you recognised it already. Don’t make me say it.”

“You’re in heat.”

“If you must put it like that.” I felt myself blush, cheeks beet-red. “We can’t just leave this unsaid and unfinished. Don’t run off, please. Raine’s already on her way, we can resolve this, it doesn’t need to be complicated.”

Zheng chuckled. “You monkeys think nothing is complicated.”

“Zheng please, stay.”

Her eyes flicked past me, over my shoulder.

“I would win,” she murmured, a noise like the whisper of a distant storm.

“Winning and losing have nothing to do with it,” I snapped, at the end of my patience, for both myself and this situation. “I- I don’t necessarily want to run off  into the woods and … and … do things with you, but I do want you to stay with me, please. Zheng? Please.” I swallowed, blushed harder, and forced the question out before Raine reached us. “Do you even have a human sexuality?”

Zheng gave me an amused look, her eyes heavily lidded. “Concentrate, shaman. You have foes at your back. Eat, then fuck.”

“You are the last person I should be taking dietary advice from. Can’t you help me with them?”

“Don’t tempt me.”

“Why not? Aren’t you with me, Zheng? You said that before, you-”

“I am, shaman,” she growled. A tremor of fear and excitement passed through my chest and belly and down into my groin. “If I get too close, there will be a fight. I will win, and you will hate me.”

Footsteps slapped against the muddy ground behind me. Raine jogged up the last few paces. She touched my back with one hand, and nodded to Zheng. “Hey there, big girl. What’s up?”

“Eat them first, shaman,” Zheng repeated. “Embrace what you are. Use what you brought back. Don’t lose your mind.”

And then she left.

Zheng jerked like a lightning bolt, from a standing start to a flowing sprint in the blink of an eye. She whirled on one heel, her back foot throwing up a clod of mud with the sheer power of her pivot. She raced for the woods, coat flapping out behind her like a fleeing suspect in some film noir sequence. Spirit life deeper in the woods scattered before her. She vaulted the fence, landed with the grace of a panther, and vanished between the trees. After three seconds, the woods swallowed even the sound of her footsteps

“ … damn her! She can’t just run off like that! Oh- I-” I huffed, exasperated. Raine linked our arms together and slipped her hand into mine.

“Looks like she can, and she did. Real flying visit. Sorry, Heather.” Raine had the good grace to wince in apology. “I know I said I’d let you talk to her alone, but the way she lunged at you, I didn’t like that at all.”

“It’s not your fault. She was leaving anyway,” I snapped, half-hiding my face to conceal my blush. “We need to get back to the others.”

“Heather? You alright?”

“I … no, no, not really. No.”

Embrace what I am? What had Zheng meant? I felt as if had two bodies, my physical form and a yearning abyssal memory of oceanic grace. Both were true, both were real. How could I embrace a mutually exclusive paradox? I was not a thing of the abyss, I did not have tentacles and spines and barbed hooks. I could barely swim. I was in the wrong body, whichever principle I stuck to.

“She say something to upset you?” Raine asked. “Or just, you know, you sad she’s gone again?”

I opened my mouth to lie, but instinct betrayed me – I glanced at Raine’s eyes, and couldn’t look away again. Wind teased the ends of her chestnut hair, brushed it across her forehead. Guilt and fear fought in my chest, scared little Heather dragged me down and abyssal memory didn’t understand. Raine waited, perfectly open and understanding. She always was.

I took the shot.

“I- I can’t tell- oh, damn it, there’s no good way to say this.” I blushed scarlet, breath trapped in my throat. “I’m desperately attracted to Zheng, and I’m going to need your help with that feeling.”

“Yeah, ‘course you are.” Raine laughed.

“ … ‘course I am?” I echoed, stunned.

Raine shrugged. “Sure. She saves you a couple of times, she’s impressive, bold. Those tits. Hell, I would be. Nothing to be ashamed of, nothing odd about that. Best not bottle it up, you know?”

“ … oh … kay, then.”

Raine’s acceptance didn’t make me feel any better. Where was the blazing jealousy, where was the wounded suggestion to follow Zheng if I wanted her so badly? Part of me craved punishment, wanted to be told off, told I was wrong. But Raine didn’t think like that. Instead, the strange abyssal yearning for Zheng grew stronger, as if given permission. Part of me almost wanted to break for the woods now, try to find her.

Instead, I made myself look back down the length of the campsite field, past thistle and mud, to the back garden of the Bricklayer’s Arms. The others – friend and foe alike – still watched us.

“Yeah,” Raine sighed. “Gotta go wrap that up, I guess. Let’s run them off and head home, yeah?”

“Zheng had advice about that too,” I murmured.

“Yeah, culinary, by the sounds of it. When all you’ve got’s a massive set of chompers, I guess all the world looks like meat.”

“I feel like we’re being trapped. We need a way out. I can’t figure out what to do, I … ” A light went on inside me, a dim potential, the faintest shadow of what Zheng might have meant. “ … when all you’ve got’s a massive set of chompers … ” I echoed.

Clarity, of a kind, came over me.

This would be a gamble. Evelyn would approve.

“Heeeeey.” Raine lit up with a grin. “Is that a cunning plan I see in your eyes? I love it when you get plans, Heather, it’s hot as hell.”

“Raine, you’re a genius and I love you,” I said, as I stared back at the pub garden. I clung to her arm for support.

“True, and true. I am just that awesome. What’s the plan, boss?”

“Eat them first. Help me walk back, please.”

==

Our return was met by a chorus of curious stares, confused frowns, and inane questions which I did my best to ignore.

“What the bloody hell was that all about?” Michael Hopton asked, his arms crossed over his chest. “Who was that?”

“Dad, I told you already,” Twil tutted, then turned to me. “Why’d she scarper again? What happened?”

Yuleson preened and smiled at me, his hands clutching each other like hairless moles. “Is our digression quite concluded now, miss Morell? If you are ready, may we resume where we left off?”

“No luck, ey?” Nicole asked quietly. I shook my head at that one.

“Who was that, Heather, dear?” Christine Hopton asked.

“Nobody,” Praem intoned.

“Yeah, a big scary nobody who’ll rip your face off if you double-cross us,” Raine said. She moved to help me sit down, but I stayed standing, arm-in-arm with her for support.

“Heather?” Evelyn said.

She managed to cram an entire question into my name – ‘Heather, why did you let the giant rogue zombie run off again?’ I tried to ignore her too. For now.

I ignored Yuleson’s bleating, and Stack’s stare; hired muscle and hired mind, they didn’t matter. I tuned out Twil and the rest of her family, they weren’t my enemy. I attempted to ignore Evelyn turning to once again whack the rustling sports bag with the head of her walking stick. I made myself stand straight, raised my chin, disentangled myself from Raine and took a half-step away from her. She understood, and let me go.

Easier than before, if only by a fraction. Scrawny little Heather, trying to radiate threat, holding back a hiccup as I stood tall.

Well, as tall as I could get.

I locked eyes with the only foe here who really mattered, past all the obfuscation and misdirection, past Yuleson’s slimy words and the extra baggage of inviting a third party, past the element of surprise and anti-climax they’d sprung on us.

Julian met my gaze. Polite and reasonable, smartly dressed, with a question in the quirk of his eyebrows. Edward’s apprentice.

What would Zheng do?

Well, she certainly wouldn’t hiccup, which is what I did first. Once, then twice, as I swallowed my fear.

Zheng would probably pull out somebody’s tongue or bite off their fingers. She wouldn’t bluff. She’d apply an object lesson.

I offered Julian my hand.

“Miss Morell? What’s this?”

“Shake,” I said.

The others fell silent. Perhaps they sensed my intent, even those unaware of what I could do. Julian regarded my hand with an ironic twitch at the corners of his mouth.

“Stack’s told us all about how you do what you do,” he said. “What are you tryin’ to prove?”

“You can shake my hand- hic-” I hiccuped again, clenched down hard on the shaking inside, on the fear. “Or I can have Raine hold you down first.”

Julian raised his eyebrows. Stack went very still, though she’d been barely moving before; perhaps it was a shift in her breathing, a minute change in muscle tension. Abyssal instinct screamed to hiss at her, make her back away, but I held off with sheer force of will. I am hissing at these people, I told myself. Patience.

“Are you makin’ a threat?” Julian asked.

“Yes. Yes, I do believe I am.”

Julian’s smile worsened, a full-on sighing smirk. “Go on then, give it a whirl. See how far you get.”

I let out a shuddering breath, felt my knees going weak. Screaming abyssal demands and my own heady froth of fear mixed together into an awful cocktail. I wanted to plate myself over with armour, hiss at this horrible little man from a safe distance. I planted my feet, forced myself to stay put.

“You’ve misjudged your position, Julian,” I said, and almost kept the shake out of my voice. “If that is even your real name. Your master has misjudged what he’s dealing with. We laid a trap, you’re correct about that, but the trap is not what Evelyn has summoned.”

In the corner of my eye, I saw an evil little smile on Evelyn’s face. She enjoyed this, in a manner I was incapable of.

“I’m the trap,” I said.

“Oh, come now,” Yuleson huffed. “Don’t be so-”

“You’re all within my range, sitting here. Technically I don’t even have to touch you. I can define you, cut you out from reality, send you Outside. Yes, it will hurt, rather a lot. I’ll be reduced to vomiting and bleeding and I might even pass out, that’s always fun, yes. But I will do it. I will absolutely do it. I have-” My throat threatened to close up around the words. A sense of self-violation slid into my chest, but I slammed myself onto that spear as hard as I could, turned my secrets into a weapon. “I’ve been beyond reality, to the intercellular space between dimensions. I’m the adopted child of an alien God. And I will flay you, your master, and everything of his, down to atoms, to avert even a single bruise on any of my friends.”

Silence.

To one side, I felt Twil wary and on edge, not sure which way to leap. Stack watched me, face a cold neutral. Over on the other table, the Hoptons seemed quite shocked. Evelyn smirked with dark satisfaction. Blushing, quivering, and painfully alone despite Raine at my side, I held myself as rigid as I could.

“We know you’re blocked,” Stack said, slow and calm.

“No, no I’m not bluffing,” I said, pushed past the sudden drop of fear in my belly – how did she know that? “I’m blocked from going Outside myself, but I can still send other things there. Also, thank you, for revealing you know that.”

“You’re welcome,” Stack replied.

“Yeah,” Raine said. “Which means if you don’t wanna play a game of death-tag, you need to listen to my girl here.” She pointed at me with both fingers and cracked a grin.

“You’re not here to negotiate a necessary peace deal.” I hiccuped loudly, swallowed. “You’re here to beg for your lives.”

Now that? That was a bluff.

Abyssal aggression and natural fear finally slid together as I spoke those words. Two ecosystems of thought, alien to each other, merged inside my psyche. Fundamental truth shuddered through me, akin to the moment a magic-eye picture resolves into clarity, and one feels so very silly that one did not see it before. The shaking, scared Heather who felt small and vulnerable, who still relied on the desperate logic of a terrified little girl separated from her sister – she clung hard to the abyssal animal I’d been, and the memory wrapped her in armour, hid her inside a forest of spines, flooded her blood with oxygen and her brain with oxytocin.

Zheng’s advice finally made sense. I embraced me.

The phantom limbs and awful bodily dysmorphia did not go away – nothing was ever so easy. But the aggression subsided, wrapped back into my sense of self, ready to be used. For the first time since I’d returned from the abyss, I felt almost whole.

Apparently, according to what Raine told me much later, the way I smiled was most off-putting for our enemies.

Looking a bit crazy is most effective after delivering a threat.

“Hell yeah,” Raine murmured.

Yuleson stood up, flapping his hands. “Miss Morell, I understand you are frustrated, we all are, but these threats aren’t going to achieve-”

“You know,” Raine said, easy and conversational. “I think you should shut up. Check yourself before you wreck yourself. My girl here ain’t playing around.”

“Evee was right,” I tutted at him. “You don’t even matter. You’re- you’re … ‘Tits on a fish’. You stay quiet and sit down, and if you don’t, I shall … I shall slap you.”

What?” Evelyn spluttered. Nicole burst out laughing.

“Oh shit yeah she’s good at that,” Twil said. “She’ll slap your shit right up.”

“Don’t be so ridiculous,” Yuleson huffed. “We’re in public, that is the point of this meeting, no? No violence is going to happen here, not with a police officer present and a pub full of ordinary people behind us. Miss Morell, surely you can’t see any sense in pursuing this strategy of bluff and-”

“Tch.”

Time for the object lesson.

I hadn’t used brainmath since my return from the abyss. The Eye’s lessons lay at the base of my consciousness, the empty socket of a shattered tooth, full of pulped, tender flesh, bruised and strained by the journey beyond my body – but this was a simple equation, the familiar old equation to shunt matter Outside. I began, summoned up the first few figures of the necessary hyperdimensional mathematics.

Pain. Like peeling a blood clot out of a wound. Exposed bone. Raw nerves. Pain.

Pain, different to the usual, sharp, deep, panic-pain. I recoiled in shock, a split-second wince, and knew in an instant that this would not merely make me vomit or pass out. This species of pain would break me before I could complete even half the equation.

My object lesson was all for nought. All my threats, undermined. Not strong enough to carry out Zheng’s advice, not savage enough to eat them first, held back by my weak human body and this prison of vulnerable flesh. Stack thought my brainmath was blocked, interdicted, that I was made safe by some unseen machination, but the truth was far worse: I was still healing.

I couldn’t do it. They’d called my bluff.

In a fit of helpless pique, I reached out with my phantom limbs. Bodily illusions that existed only in my mind. If only I was strong, if only I could strangle these three, unleash on them the creature which memory told me I was meant to be.

And in that split-second, I saw what Zheng had really meant.

The tiniest piece of hyperdimensional mathematics would suffice, a single variable in the infinite weave of reality. From a zero to a one, from non-existence to being. I could take that much pain. At the speed of thought, it was done.

Mathematics tasted different – taste is the only human concept able to capture even a shade of the sensation. Bitter, gritty with bone fragments and impacted gravel in bruised tissue, the flexing of a muscle pitted with infected wounds. Use shook it out, made it bleed fresh, pumped white blood cells to flush out the open sores. Clean and strong and clear, a spike of pain passed in a wave, there and gone again.

Three tentacles of pneuma-somatic flesh sprouted from my flanks.

Visible only to myself – and to Praem, most likely – the ropes of spirit muscle passed straight through my clothes as if the fabric wasn’t there, two on my left and one on my right. Pale, smooth, sleek, sunless deep-sea flesh, they strobed with rainbow bioluminescence. As wide as my wrist, each tapered to a delicate point, yet all were infinitely tough and infinitely dexterous.

As they arced along the very lines I’d imagined for them, I felt their roots anchored deep inside my torso, melded to my flesh with pneuma-somatic tendon and cartilage. Such a rush of power and speed and grace.

I shuddered with twinned disgust and euphoria, an ecstasy beyond words. If I’d been alone, I probably would have had an orgasm.

For a split-second, I was once again what I was meant to be. An abyssal thing of infinite and glorious possibility.

“- and bluster, you-” Yuleson blinked. “Miss Morell?”

I’m not certain, but I think I hissed at him.

With one tentacle, I flipped Yuleson’s briefcase into his face. It burst open in a cloud of papers, sent him yelping and fumbling. With the second I delivered a hard shove to the centre of Stack’s chest, tumbling her off the bench to sprawl on her backside. With the third I tried to slap Julian across the cheek hard enough to leave a welt, but in my inexperience I landed only a glancing blow. Still enough to leave him clutching his face and blinking at the unseen attack.

So flushed with joy, I missed the way the tentacle seemed to slide off him.

Yuleson’s papers fluttered down through the air as he tried to catch them. Stack jack-knifed herself to her feet, one hand inside her coat as Raine readied to draw as well, to protect me. The math students at the far end of pub garden were in the process of standing up, frowning at our commotion. One of them started to say something, hands cupped to his mouth. Nicole was laughing, saying something about how “we’re doing poltergeists now, are we?”

Benjamin and Micheal Hopton were both on their feet, staring, lost, couldn’t see what to react to. Amanda’s dog – poor sweet Bernard the golden retriever – growled at me; without thinking I whipped a tentacle around, ready to knock his brains out. Amanda Hopton stared, wide-eyed in a silent scream, but the Hopton’s bubble-servitor did not share its handler’s paralysis. It started for me, a bulbous glugging mass writhing through the air. I raised a second tentacle to swat it to the ground.

The third of my tentacles reared back, as I entertained the notion of strangling Stack to death.

And then I crashed. Down and out.

Sudden exhaustion drowned me, as if I’d walked for days. Couldn’t get any strength into my knees. My vision swam, the world span, and I reeled back. With my tentacles I made a grab for the edge of the table, but they were withering, greying, shrinking. They turned to ash and fell away to nothing.

An awful nerve-deep pain lanced into my sides where they’d been rooted. A gasp ripped up through my throat. I cried out.

I flailed, tried to catch myself with claws and spines and barbed flesh hooks I did not possess. Raine caught me instead.

“Woah, woah, Heather, hey, hey, I got you, I got you.”

I gasped again, doubled over; another stab of pain in my sides, cold fire under my ribcage. Cold-sweat panic pain of bodily error, of fatal chemical factory malfunction. My body screamed that something soft and fleshy and vulnerable was broken.

“Mmmm- ahhh, ahh-” I made sharp little noises, trying to hold the sensation back. It receded, barely, replaced by a dull throbbing ache like I’d been knifed in the sides.

“That’s it, just breathe, just breathe, Heather. It’s okay, be sick if you need to.”

Far worse than the pain, the feeling of bodily wholeness and rightness ebbed away, left me shivering and small and flawed, rotting and ageing.

I choked on a sob. Such lost glory.

Turns out the creation and maintenance of pneuma-somatic flesh is a great strain upon a physical being. Who would have guessed? Whatever I’d done, I’d done it for the first time, and strained every muscle and sense involved. I could barely keep my eyes open.

“My briefcase!” Yuleson was flapping about. “My- there was- these are important papers, they’re everywhere! Oh, my kindle’s fallen in the mud. Oh no, oh dear, oh dear.”

“Could burst-” I croaked, then forced myself upright, leaning into Raine for support. She steadied me, murmured soft encouragement, took the lion’s share of my weight. “Could burst you the same way.”

Yuleson boggled at me for a second. Finally, he shut his mouth.

Everyone was staring at me. Christine Hopton’s brow was furrowed with motherly concern, while her husband had no idea what to make of what I’d just done. Bernard, Amanda’s dog, growled softly in the back of his throat – at me. She soothed him, held him back. Benjamin stared in silence, no longer sullen.

“Fuckin’ ‘ell,” Twil muttered.

“At least it was only a briefcase this time,” Nicole said.

“Yes,” Stack agreed. Nicole raised her empty pint glass in an ironic mock-toast.

“No,” Praem intoned.

“How’d you do that?” Julian asked slowly. He rubbed at his jaw where I’d hit him, though his dark skin showed no bruise.

“Yeah,” Micheal Hopton added. “What the hell just happened, what was that?”

“Uh, yeah,” Twil said. “Was that … was that us?”

Stack asked the question too, though without words. She’d dialled back a notch from drawing whatever concealed weapon she carried.

“It was her,” Raine said with a laugh. “See? Told you, Heather’ll kick all your arses.”

Christine Hopton raised her hand and waved to the three concerned-looking students at the far end of the garden, still watching us with interest. “We’re fine, nothing to worry about!” she called. “Just a little sensitive stomach.”

“That was some kind of trick, somethin’ you set up in advance, right?” Julian continued softly.

“No,” Amanda Hopton answered for me as I started at Julian. “It was her. She grew … shining limbs, beautiful and … and … I’m sorry, excuse me.” She put a hand to her chest, as if in pain. In the corner of my eye I noticed the bubble-servitor retreating again, back to its holding pattern. Praem watched it go.

If frowns could kill, Evelyn would have struck me dead at that moment. She watched me with half-outrage, half-worry. I nodded back at her and mouthed some nonsense platitude I don’t recall.

“Fascinating,” Julian said, chin in his hand. “Fascinating.”

His expression reminded me all too much of Evelyn; naked hunger.

“Yeah you keep being fascinated at a nice safe distance there mate,” Raine said. Julian raised both hands in a gesture of quick surrender.

“Hurts,” I croaked. “But I can do it again.” A lie, but a good one. “Next time I’ll pull your heads off.”

“Shlor-pop!” Raine made an illustrative sound. I had to resist the urge to roll my eyes. We didn’t need that, however gruesome.

“Which means you- you’re going to answer- do-” I struggled, woozy, exhaustion dragging at my limbs. I strangled a gasp as another wave of jagged pain lanced into my sides where my tentacles had been so briefly rooted.

“Is she alright? Heather dear?” Christine Hopton asked.

Evelyn clutched her walking stick and lurched out of her seat. With a glance thrown toward our enemies, she turned her back on them, and leaned in close to Raine and I.

“Raine, we need to get Heather to a hospital.”

“What?” Raine hissed back. “Explain, quick.”

“No!” I blurted out. “This is our chance, we- we can- make demands-”

Evelyn’s eyes blazed at me, though she kept her voice low. “You think I don’t know what you just did to yourself? Me, of all people? That little stunt may have torn up your insides like a threshing machine.” She snapped back to Raine. “She might have internal bleeding, I don’t know. Hospital. Now.”

“Shit,” Twil hissed. She’d leaned in too, frowning at me in horror.

“I’m fine.” I croaked. “S’only … only pain. M’not bleeding.”

Raine glanced quickly between Evelyn and I. “Heather, I won’t let you hurt yourself. I didn’t realise-”

“Please. S’only chance.” I struggled to keep my eyes open, to put on a brave face. The pain lingered, sharp and bone deep. I had to end this here, make these people admit defeat, back off from me and my friends and Lozzie, and there was only one path to that now. “Five minutes.”

“Fuck,” Evelyn hissed through her teeth. “Fuck you for making me do this. We end this here, then you take her to the hospital, Raine, whatever she says.”

“I will.” Raine nodded. She held me close, held me up. “Five minutes.”

Evelyn turned back to our mystified audience. “The terms of this meeting have changed,” Evelyn announced. “You answer our questions, quickly, and you do what we tell you to.”

Julian bowed his head and spread his hands in assent, but not once did his ironic smile slip. Yuleson huffed and sat back down clutching his briefcase, his hair in even greater tufty disarray than before.

“Unless you’re threatening violence, miss Saye, I shall have to discuss any agreed-upon action with my client, you-”

“Yes,” I croaked.

“Yes, do that,” Evelyn snapped.

“Toddle off back to Eddy-boy and let him know our demands,” Raine said. Gently, she tried to help me sit, but I shook my head and clung to her, knew that I’d struggle to stay conscious the moment I allowed myself to rest.

“You do know this merely delays an inevitable peace, yes?” Yuleson said. “This is why I never, ever like to work with teenagers, so bloody unreasonable.”

“We can work with this,” Julian said softly. “No worries, Harry. This is a mage’s matter now, I’ll take over.”

Harold Yuleson huffed a little sigh and wiggled his eyebrows to himself, looking off to the side.

“Hurry this up,” Evelyn snapped. “Five minutes and counting. If we don’t have what we want by then, I’ll open the trap.”

Julian ignored both Yuleson’s wounded theatrics and Evelyn’s threat, and instead glanced at Stack. “Amy, you’re not thinkin’ of bugging out, are you?”

Stack had not sat back down. Tension was locked around her flint-hard eyes and across her wiry shoulders. She watched me for a silent moment, trying to read or understand or judge. I stared back, too exhausted to care.

“Amy?” Julian repeated.

“The only reason she hasn’t killed us is because she can’t right now,” Stack replied.

“Mm,” I grunted at her.

“Miss Amanda Hopton,” she said. “How long were those tentacles?”

Amanda cleared her throat, had trouble meeting Stack’s cold gaze. “I don’t- I’m not- maybe six or seven feet, maybe more?”

“Longer,” I croaked, trying to give Stack a nasty smile to remember. “How did it feel?”

“Real.”

“Oh, do sit down,” Yuleson tutted.

“We’ve failed,” Stack said. “We’re done here.”

“You’re being serious?” Julian turned to her, unimpressed. He spread one hand in an imperious shrug, another gesture that reminded me horribly of Alexander Lilburne. I should have broken Julian’s neck with a tentacle while I’d been able to. “So much for your fearless reputation. This how you acted in the field? Ran away at the first sign of too many jihadis on the horizon? Sit down, Amy.”

“I am paid to assess threats. This is too much of a threat.”

“You’re damn right we are,” Raine grinned at her.

Julian’s expression twitched in the most curious and uncomfortable way, as if an alien set of mannerisms was trying to push through from under his skin, the ghost of a craggy frown in the corners of his eyes. Then it passed, he controlled the tremor, and shrugged with another easy ironic smile. “We’re still alive, aren’t we?”

“Alexander negotiated with her,” Stack continued softly. “Did his usual. He’s dead. We’re done here.”

“And I say we’re not.” Julian slapped his palm against the table. “I’m overruling you. I want to hear their demands, I’m very curious.”

Stack took a single deliberate step back and to the side.

“I’m out.”

“Yeah, go on, gee-tee-eff-oh, bitch!” Twil snapped at her.

“You’re what?” Julian frowned at her.

“I’m out,” she repeated, but not to him – to me. “I’m gone.”

“Well, you’re certainly not taking the bloody car with you,” Julian said. Raine snorted.

“I’ll walk. I’m out.”

“Wait,” I croaked. “Wait. How did you know – how did you know I was blocked? From going Outside?”

Stack paused, considered a second, then nodded in that tiny, subtle way of hers. “Edward said.”

“That’s it?” Raine asked. “That’s all you got?”

“Edward said.”

“We’re not responsible for your condition,” Julian butted in. “Yes, mister Lilburne is aware of a wide-ranging change in the wall between here and the beyond. A sort of static effect, he called it, but we’re not responsible. It was only a theory he had, that it might interfere with his niece’s usual ability to … make herself scarce.”

“You stop looking for her,” I almost spat. “First condition.”

“Condition?” Evelyn hissed at me.

“Condition. Demand. Then we can talk- talk return.”

“Oh, yes, quite,” Yuleson lit up, a bloodhound back on the scent of a deal. “On the issue of Lauren Lilburne, my client is open to total flexibility. As she is now past the age of majority, she is of course free to choose who to associate with, to chart the course of her own life, and so on. But, her condition does make her susceptible to suggestion, to bad influences, and so forth. As thus, he wishes to be allowed to meet with her at least once every-”

“I catch you after her, ever, I send you Outside,” I said. “No.”

“We can relay that to Edward,” said Julian, one hand out to forestall Yuleson’s bleating. “He won’t like it much. I understand his niece does have a very special place in his heart, but we can relay it.”

“No more-” I had to stop, swallow, steady myself as Raine held me up. I managed to take some of my own weight on my feet. “No more kidnappings. No more children in cages.”

“Excuse me?” Yuleson blinked his little ratty eyes, mouth open. “My- my client has never been involved in-”

“I know what I saw,” I croaked, not at him but at Julian. “No more children in cages. You do that, I find you, all of you. Outside. Leave you in some hell-place, starve to death or get eaten. Not more kidnappings. Torture and kill every one of you,” I slurred, inflamed by the memory. “No more missing homeless people, none of it. Find out you have- twenty years from now I’ll find you and resurrect your corpse and send you Outside.”

“A bold plan,” Julian actually laughed. “Very bold.”

“No more slaves. No more torture.”

“You seriously think they’ll keep that promise?” Evelyn muttered.

“Ahem. Ahem, yes, yes, quite,” Yuleson struggled to regain his footing. “So, stipulations – no contact with Lauren Lilburne, and no more, shall we shall, criminal activity?”

“Sounds like a good idea to me,” Nicole said quietly, with all the gravity of real conviction. The look she gave Julian could have curdled milk.

“Yes, I think that is quite a reasonable starting point, don’t you, Julian?” Yuleson prattled on. “Miss Stack, please, do sit down. There’s no need for all this drama. See? We are talking, we are building a compromise here. Miss Morell and I have managed to make ourselves understood at last, we are getting somewhere. Are you- ahem, Heather? Are you quite alright, there?”

“Twil told us what Heather saw,” Michael Hopton put in. “But we weren’t quite sure if we should believe it or not. Was this for real, this … kidnapping business?” He waved a hand, lost for words. Didn’t blame him.

“It was,” Julian said, with a smile that made me sick. “Alexander went further than any sane sanction.”

“That’s not what Lozzie told us,” Raine mused. “She said Eddy-boy was the fixer.”

Julian shrugged with both hands. “We here to debate ethics, or make an agreement?”

“Quite, quite!” Yuleson said. “Recrimination will get us all nowhere fast, not at this stage of proceedings.” He smiled, oily and smug once more. “I am certain that all three parties represented here have engaged in unsavoury activities of their own. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone and all that.”

“Why Sharrowford?” Evelyn asked softly. “Why not pick up and go somewhere else?”

Julian sighed. “You know why, Saye. You know why.”

“Humour me.”

“Because Sharrowford’s an important place. The walls are thin here. Certain kinds of magic just work better.”

“It’s hardly the only place like that.”

“True, true.” Julian allowed himself another ironic smile.

I wanted to wipe it off his face, felt the phantom limbs twitch in my mind with the desire to reach out and slap him again, break his teeth, rip his tongue out. Instead, that awful deep-rooted pain lanced into my sides again. I gasped and almost fell over, only Raine’s support kept me on my feet. Evelyn stared at me, hissed ‘hospital!’ but I shook my head.

“Sharrowford is important to us,” Julian was carrying on, “because of the material basis of Alexander’s work. You know what I’m talkin’ about, the sub-dimension, the pocket behind the city.”

“That fucking castle,” Twil grumbled.

“Yes, the inadvisable castle. A folly, certainly, but what it was built on is a treasure trove of knowledge from beyond. There’s an entity down there, embedded like a comet after landfall-”

“Saw it,” I croaked.

“Quite. Did you now?” His eyes blazed at me with sudden curious intensity.

“And all those bloody things in the sky,” Twil said. “The … planets? Fucking awful shit.”

“Its offspring, as far as we understand,” Julian answered. “Our aims are simple, we wish to establish contact, a dialogue, a link with the mind of the poor thing trapped down there. We want to understand.” He nodded slowly as he spoke, mostly to Evelyn. “We’re not so different, you and I, Evelyn Saye. All we want to do is pursue our study of occult knowledge in peace.”

Evelyn looked at him like something she’d found on the underside of her boot.

“Conditions first,” I croaked.

“Quite,” Evelyn hissed.

“Going to help us,” I said. “Glasswick tower, Alexander’s corpse-”

“We’ve been inside,” Stack said, low and slow. “The body’s gone. Missing.”

Amy,” Julian snapped, his ironic facade collapsing completely.

“I said, I’m out.” She stared at me, gave me an imperceptible nod again.

“Who took the corpse?” Evelyn demanded.

“I don’t know. I’m leaving now.”

“We’re not done here yet, Amy,” Julian said.

“Yes, yes we are.” Evelyn snapped. Her hand went to the sports bag on the chair. She didn’t need to open the zipper to spring the trap, but it made for a wonderful piece of theatre. All the Hoptons got to their feet. Christine stood where she was but the others backed up, unsure and unsteady. Yuleson yelped like a struck pig. Julian smiled and raised both hands.

“Alright, alright, I get the message,” he said.

“Who took the corpse?” I croaked.

“Heather, come on, time to go,” Raine whispered in my ear. I tried to ignore the awful throbbing pulse in my side. Maybe I was bleeding internally. I could barely bring myself to care. The image of Alexander Lilburne’s corpse up and walking around made me want to be sick.

“I can show you, if you really wanna know,” Julian said. He smiled.

And something inside me clicked with horrible cold precision. Why exactly did this man’s mannerisms remind me so much of Alexander? This man with different coloured skin, of a different age, with a different accent? He wasn’t even the right height, a good half-head shorter than Alexander had been.

Yuleson blinked in surprise. “Julian? This wasn’t in the plan, what are you doing? Julian.”

“You really think you get told everything?”

“I-I- Well! Well, I never.”

“Here, it’s quite simple,” Julian addressed Evelyn and I again. “But I’ll have to take somethin’ out of my pocket. Please, feel free to put a knife to my throat or whatever, if you think I’m about to do somethin’ nefarious.” He smirked now, as if he was still perfectly in control.

Evelyn glanced at me.

“It’s you, isn’t it?” I whispered.

“Heather?” Raine stiffened, I felt the tremor go up her body. “What do you mean?”

“Aha — but who is me?” Julian asked. “I think you have the wrong idea, miss Morell. May I?” He gestured at his pocket. Without waiting for permission, he pulled out a white handkerchief and spread it out on the tabletop, then placed his hand against it, fingers spread, palm down. “You see, the reason you think I might be Alexander – which is absurd, by the way, because ‘e’s dead, isn’t he? – is because I am based on Alexander.”

“Praem,” Evelyn snapped. She took a step back, eyes going wide.

“Not in public!” Nicole said, on her feet too now.

“Saye. Morell.” Julian nodded to both of us. “You’ve impressed me, though we – aha, well, I-”

And on that first person pronoun, Julian’s North London accent died; in its place reared something older, more familiar, a local accent from a time when England still had local accents. A Sharrowford accent. His voice itself died too, replaced with a much older tone, the grumbly, reedy rasp of a lifetime of cigarette smoke, fussy and particular and somehow coldly reptilian.

“I have a detailed understanding of your limits,” not-Julian continued, even as Praem jerked forward, as the doll-demon moved to dart around the table and stop him. “And you do not intimidate me. We talk as equals. I shall have to consider your conditions most carefully. Harry, you will find the real Julian asleep in his bed. Give him a pay rise, will you? That’s a good fellow.”

‘Julian’ seemed to melt suddenly, his flesh running and drooping like hot candle wax before any of us could react and grab him, before Praem could cross the few paces and bundle him to the ground. For one horrible moment his face appeared locked in a scream, then sloughed away completely.

For a split-second I saw the true face beneath. Considering his cowardice and caution, it could only have been the image of a distant pilot, not the real thing wrapped in a flesh-suit.

White, craggy, liver-spotted, with big owl-like eyes framed by bushy grey brows like rotting caterpillars. Thin, bloodless lips, his neck a wattle of loose flesh.

“Do say hello to my niece,” said Edward Lilburne. “I’ll be in touch.”

With a comically understated pop – echoed by a popping of air pressure in the ears of everyone present – ‘Julian’ vanished, and took Edward’s momentary image with him, snuffed out by the empty air.

He left behind a layer of peeled and bloody skin stuck to the handkerchief, as if he’d gripped frozen metal.

I coughed, almost gagged in shock; was it my imagination, or did I taste blood in the back of my throat?

“Fuck!” Twil said.

“Quite,” Evelyn hissed, jaw tight.

“ … I … but I … I picked him up from his flat this morning,” Yuleson said, staring wide-eyed and slack-jawed at the place his ‘assistant’ had sat. “I don’t- oh, for pity’s- that man does not pay me enough money to act his fool!”

“Huh,” Stack said. “I was not aware he could do that.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

covenants without the sword – 8.4

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Harold Yuleson, portly and rat-like, stood for a moment with his chin raised and his fingertips tucked into the lapels of his coat, looking off into the middle distance like a painting of some pompous 19th century general.

“ … a lawyer,” Evelyn deadpanned.

“An exceptionally good one,” his assistant, Julian, put in.

“Why, thank you, Julian,” Yuleson said. “Your confidence in me is most appreciated.”

“It does- does make- sense,” I said.

I had to force the words out, unclench my teeth with an effort of will. Anticlimax gnawed at the base of my stomach. This was wrong, not meant to be like this, not supposed to go this way.

“It does, doesn’t it?” Twil’s father agreed. Of all the Hoptons, he appeared the least surprised by this turn of events, nodding and folding his arms, making a thoughtful ‘hmmm’ noise as he frowned at Yuleson. Amanda looked out of her depth, uncertain of which way to turn her big blinking manic eyes, gripping her dog’s leash in a tight fist. Poor Benjamin’s frown would have given a Neanderthal a run for his money.

“Does it?” Twil squinted in utter confusion. “What the hell’s the point of a lawyer?”

“To talk,” her dad replied.

Raine was the only one who didn’t react, not to Yuleson. She stared at Stack, and Stack stared back.

“No,” Evelyn spat. “No it doesn’t make sense. What does law mean to magicians? Every person here is technically a criminal, even the bloody police officer. You’re about as useful as tits on a fish.”

Yuleson blinked like a startled vole, shocked out of his satisfaction, and crashed back down to earth with a hemming and hawing. “Ahem, well, well, that judgement, my dear young lady, is entirely subjective. Transferable skills, you see, transferable skills. I am not here to practice law as such, but negotiation, diplomacy. Who better to grease the wheels than one who understands the nuances of compromise? Furthermore, as I am not directly involved, I have no stake in your, shall we say, special interests?”

He smiled an oily smile, opened his hands in a placatory gesture, and I felt the most unaccountable urge to hiss at him.

The sensation clawed up my throat, irresistible animal instinct.

I was so shocked I almost choked on my own saliva in an effort to hold back. A wet cough into my own mouth drew a concerned flicker from Raine, but I shook my head and waved her off. Panic settled in my chest – hissing at a lawyer would get us nowhere, it was utterly inappropriate, straight from the imagination of a play-acting twelve year old.

The frustration was valid though. Where was Edward Lilburne? He was supposed to answer my accusations, account for the actions of the cult.

Instead, he’d sent this tubby rat-man.

“Don’t let his front fool you,” Nicole said. “And don’t agree to anything too fast. He’s good at this, the sneaky little bastard. This man is a master of irritating verbal misdirection.”

Yuleson sketched a head-bob bow at Nicole, as if accepting a compliment. He clasped his hands together and beamed at us. “Well, ladies and gentlemen and others, are we all satisfied that we’re going to-”

Misdirection.

I bristled, felt it in the little hairs on the back of my neck and the skin up my spine, sat up as if struck by lightning. Stared at Amy Stack.

Another inappropriate urge gripped my muscles in a pulse of adrenaline, and this one was plainly insane – my body wanted to leap the table and tackle her, attack her. My body was convinced I was faster, that I had a dozen barbed and hooked tentacles to drag out her eyes and lash her skin apart. I took a shuddering breath as she slowly turned her eyes from Raine to me. Raine tensed as well, read my change in posture and mirrored my readiness.

“Heather?” Raine asked.

Stack kept her hands visible, on the tabletop. No excuse for violence.

“If this is a … ” I swallowed, my mouth dry. “If this is misdirection, while Edward snatches Lozzie-”

“It’s not,” Stack said. “Calm down.”

My body screamed fight. Kill her. I knew I couldn’t, this was absurd, this reaction made no sense.

“Ahhh yes, yes.” Yuleson lit up like a department store Father Christmas made of rats. “Miss Lauren Lilburne is, in fact, one of the issues which Edward wishes to put on the table here today. The matter of this wayward young girl does need settling, yes?”

“I don’t think she’s lying,” Raine murmured as she studied Stack’s face. Stack blinked, said nothing, stared at me in cold silence.

We’d left Lozzie as safe as possible, wrapped up in bed and fast asleep. The doors were locked, the spider-servitors lay in wait, Evelyn had refreshed the older wards. Anybody who wanted to kidnap her would need to fight all the way from the door, upstairs, and into Lozzie’s bedroom. Snatching an unconscious Raine from the front room in a mad suicidal dash, that was one thing; getting all that way past the Spiders would be much more difficult.

A rational response would be to turn to Twil, ask her to make use of her speed, run home to check on Lozzie. Or pull out my mobile phone and call, call the house, make sure she was safe, even though I knew she’d sleep through the ringing. A sensible, human response would be to figure out the logic or motivation behind a lie, and execute a counter-play.

I didn’t feel any of that. I wanted to leap onto the table and scream and pull Stack’s face off.

I wanted to speak the trigger word for Evelyn’s trap, let it loose, and run back home.

Instead I swallowed hard, forced myself to nod, tried to be human. Raine put one hand on my shoulder and squeezed.

“Yes, yes, this is all above-board and legitimate,” Yuleson said. “You have my personal promise, miss Morell, my personal guarantee, this is not a trick, or a trap. Edward is fully aware that you are as much a player in this negotiation as miss Saye here, and also aware that any attempts to, ahem, prematurely reunite with his niece would be most unwisely-”

“Sit down,” Evelyn snapped.

Yuleson jumped at the whip crack of her voice and all but fell into his seat. In a display of vast disdain, Evelyn then ignored him. She turned in her seat to deliver another walking-stick whack to the rustling sports bag, a satisfying thwack of wood on taught fabric. Over on the other table, Benjamin stifled an appreciative laugh.

“Yes, yes, quite, quite,” Yuleson said. “Shall we begin properly then? I take it there are no further objections to these arrangements, or my presence?”

Evelyn gave him a look to fell an elephant. “This is a waste of time. You are a waste of time.”

Raine shrugged in eloquent silence. The Hoptons murmured cautious assent, though Amanda seemed more concerned with petting Bernard’s head; perhaps that’s how she dealt with stress. Twil looked most uncomfortable, like she wanted to bear her teeth and solve this the easy way.

“I object on account that you’re a massive cunt,” Nicole muttered, but then undercut herself by draining the rest of her beer.

I struggled to fold myself away.

Whatever we’d outwardly convinced each other of, my subconscious had prepared for a fight. My body thrummed with inappropriate desires to intimidate, to make myself big, to snap jaws I didn’t have. Useless, against this kind of threat. Useless anyway, from scrawny little Heather. I couldn’t scare anybody, not that way.

“I think we can talk,” I made myself say, forced the words up my reluctant throat.

“Hold up a ‘sec,” Raine said. “You’re a lawyer, sure, let’s believe that for now.” She shrugged, an easy smirk on her lips – and turned to Julian,  sitting there with his smart suit and his reasonable face and neat hair. “But who are you negotiating for?”

“Me?”

“Yeah. You. Come on, fess up, we all heard that earlier – apprentice. Apprentice to what?”

Julian’s smile turned ironic again, amused by a private joke. “As was stated before, I am mister Yuleson’s assistant in matters of law.” He paused, as if watching to see how well we bought this. He spoke carefully but without any softening of his north London accent, perhaps proud of working-class roots, all broad vowels and glottal stops. “And yes, in addition, I am mister Lilburne’s pupil in matters of magic.”

“Thanks for making it easy.” Raine winked and pointed a finger-gun at him.

“Of course they wouldn’t come without a mage,” Evelyn said.

Julian dipped his head. “A minor practitioner. I am nothing important, miss.”

“But Eddy-boy is, right?” Raine asked. “You, baldie, and a lawyer? That’s it? Come off, it, how many of you are there? What you calling yourselves now? The running away coward cult? Little scared bitch cult?”

“Mister Lilburne doesn’t much like the word ‘cult’,” Julian said. “Silly idea, anyway. We’re ‘is associates. There is no bond of duty, no mystical obligations, no ‘mumbo-jumbo’. None ‘o that.”

“Praem,” Evelyn said. “He does something funny, break his neck.”

“Hey, hey, hey.” Nicole sat up. “In public?”

“As if I care,” Evelyn grunted.

“Yes,” Praem intoned.

Julian spread his hands. Mild and reasonable, his mannerisms made my skin crawl, like he was made out of borrowed gestures and hijacked muscle impulses. “That won’t be necessary. I’m not here to do anything’ but talk.”

“Then we’re all equal, are we not?” Christine Hopton asked. “Between Evelyn, Amanda, and Julian, each side represented here has brought a magician, of a sort,” she added with a glance toward Amanda. “This changes nothing. We have Twil, Evelyn has her friend there,” she indicated Praem, “and you people have … well … ” She tried to smile at Stack, but even the ever-motherly Christine found that hard to maintain when Stack looked back at her.

“No,” Amanda breathed. Her gaze lingered on me. “No, we’re not equal here.”

Glances lingered on me. Julian raised his eyebrows in silent question. Raine adjusted her posture, radiated protectiveness.

“Heather is the most dangerous thing here, by a long shot, yes,” Evelyn said.

“Evee, don’t,” I hissed.

Evelyn glanced at me, appreciative and thankful, for something I couldn’t control. I felt my skin crawl.

“Ahem-ahem,” Yuleson cleared his throat with purpose. “If the matter of – ahem – peacocking and hierarchy-establishment has been quite concluded for now, what say we begin?”

“Begin what?” Evelyn spat. “What is there to talk about? We won, you lost. Why shouldn’t I kill you all right now?”

“Evee, please,” I forced myself to say, even as my body agreed, yes, kill them all now. Evelyn huffed.

“What does my client want to discuss? It is simplicity itself, I promise you.” Yuleson drew himself up, settling into his element. He clasped his hands together on the table. “My client – that is, mister Edward Lilburne – wishes to reside in his own home again, rather than relying on the goodwill and charity of his fellows. He would like to walk the streets of Sharrowford once more, the city he was born in, in which he has lived all but five of his sixty-six years of age. He desires not to worry about being assaulted, or killed, or have his home invaded, magically or otherwise. Put simply, he wishes to make peace, officially and truly and without reservation.”

As he spoke, Harold Yuleson’s eyes moved over everyone present, included every single person at both tables, even Praem and the grumpy, sulking Benjamin. Even Amanda’s dog. The trick was obvious, but it worked; I felt included, appealed to. He fed us images and possibilities, issues on which our minds were ready to chew. Nicole had spoken the truth – he was very good at this.

The rat-like looks and hyperactive chattering served to disarm one’s mind against him, file him away as an oddity or a cliche, so when the oration came, one was wholly unprepared.

That wasn’t an unreasonable starting position, I told myself. We could talk.

“Fuck him and fuck you,” Evelyn said. I could have kissed her.

“Now slow down, miss Saye, please,” Michael Hopton said, one hand out. “I do want to hear what he has to say.”

“How can we trust any agreement made here today?” Evelyn said. “This vermin still hides from me. Won’t show his face, won’t put himself in danger. We’ve taken that risk, he’s avoided it. Coward.”

“Yes,” Stack said. “He is a coward.”

“Lost our shot at him,” I hissed, thinking of the trap.

“Ahh.” Yuleson raised a finger. “But have you really taken that risk? The threat is not equally shared, no no, hardly at all.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” Evelyn asked.

“Why, my client has never directly struck at you. He has been a bystander, part of a larger organisation, yes, a reluctant partner to his … impulsive nephew. Meanwhile, you young ladies have quite expertly dismantled what was left of the, tch, ‘brotherhood’. I believe only one known member is left alive, is that not correct, detective? She is in hospital after her run-in with these young women?”

“Um, yes,” Nicole answered.

“Then my argument is made for me. You ladies are far more dangerous than my client. How can you blame him for being afraid for his life, when you have taken so many?”

“It wasn’t us,” Evelyn said.

“I’m sorry?”

“The house on Barrend Road, the dead cultists. Wasn’t us. They did it to themselves.”

“Yeah, it was fucking weird in there,” Twil grunted.

Yuleson blinked, frowning and smiling at the same time in polite disbelief. Julian had a funny look on his face too, incredulous puzzlement. It hit me, and I leaned over to Evelyn.

“They don’t know about the Eye,” I whispered to her. “Not in the way Alexander did.”

“I can testify for them on that,” Nicole said with a heavy sigh. “They didn’t kill anybody in that house. It was – pardon the cliche – like that when we got there.”

“It’s irrelevant, anyway,” Julian said. He gestured at the sports bag next to Evelyn. “You’ve laid a trap. That much’s obvious. Edward was quite right not to come, wasn’t he? Only thing stoppin’ you from springin’ it is that you won’t get ‘im.”

“Ruthless and resourceful!” Yuleson announced. “I admire you young ladies, I do indeed. Now, if we can put the matter of trust to one side for a-”

“Why should I let him back into Sharrowford?” Evelyn asked. “This is my city, these people lost. They lost when we got rid of Alexander. This question was settled months ago. This city is mine.”

“Because you don’t ‘ave any other choice,” Julian said.

“Ah, ah!” Yuleson placed a raised finger between Julian and Evelyn before either of them could speak another word. “What have I told you, Julian? You make facts sound like ultimatums. Threats will get us nowhere, will they now? Not with our-”

“Please drop the act,” I said, my chest and stomach almost shaking with the effort of holding back an inhuman hiss. They both looked at me. So did Evelyn, a quizzical raised eyebrow. Only Raine took my lead, nodded along. “That was pre-arranged, wasn’t it? It’s obvious, at least it is to me. You’re going to try a good-cop bad-cop routine.” I sighed, rolled my eyes.

“Oh, no no no,” Yuleson flustered. “We are most certainly not, we-”

“Make your threats, get it over with,” Evelyn growled.

“Yeah,” Michael Hopton added from the other table. “That was sort of obvious, come on.”

“Get on,” Praem intoned.

Yuleson sighed uncomfortably. Julian shrugged. “Looks like we’re rumbled, sir.”

“Rumbled, pish posh. Miss Saye, miss Morell, what my assistant is trying to express is that peace is not a matter of choice, not for any of us. It is a necessity. The – ahem – ‘brotherhood of the new sun’ was a dominant power in Sharrowford for a long time, nearly five decades, in one guise or another. You have indeed emerged victorious, after the recent unpleasantness, whatever the cause. My client is not a fool – he does not wish himself, his pupils, his associates, and his research, to end up like those poor unfortunates in Barrend Road. You have quite demonstrated your ability to remove your opposition.”

“S’one thing we’re real good at,” Raine said, directly to Stack.

“And now the so-called ‘cult’,” Yuleson made little air-quote gestures around the word, “is gone, it’s inheritors have removed themselves from Sharrowford for the sake of their own safety, and what is left behind? A power vac-”

“Me,” Evelyn snapped. “There is no power vacuum here. There’s me.”

“Yes, yes, you indeed. And I am quite certain you are more than capable of making life very difficult for my client.” He paused, lowered his voice, a theatrical trick that worked regardless. “But do you know what you cannot do?”

He let the question hang with po-faced seriousness. Evelyn frowned at him.

“She can do anything she wants, you fat old fuck,” Twil growled – actually growled, low in her throat, and Yuleson jumped like a startled hamster, one hand to his chest as if to suppress coronary distress. My body twitched, wanted to hiss along with her. “Anything she likes. She’s got me behind her, hasn’t she?”

“Ah, well, yes, yes she has.” Yuleson waggled a finger at Twil, then quickly withdrew it as if afraid of losing a digit to her teeth. “But can you – fast and cunning and strong though you may be – can you be everywhere at once?”

“Eh?”

“Vultures will be here soon,” Julian said. “You know that as well as we do.”

“Mm,” Stack grunted.

“Quite, quite!” Yuleson forged ahead at full speed once more, doing his wide-ranging include-everybody trick again. “Some have already arrived. My client knows for a fact that at least one magician from beyond Sharrowford has been in the city as recently as last week. Something has taken up residence in the basement of Gloston Cathedral, out to the east, and must be removed post-haste. Two members of a group known to us were spotted purchasing certain items from a local ‘occult’ shop, probably nonsense,” he waved a hand, “but you can never be sure, can you? These issues will only pile up. And you, well, you are only three – four?” He quirked a bushy eyebrow at Praem. “Four young ladies, are you not?”

“Watch yourself,” Raine warned with a grin.

“Quite remarkable young women, of course, indeed, accepted. I myself would certainly not want to cross you. But there are only four of you.”

“Six,” Evelyn corrected. Who was she counting? Lozzie and Kimberly? “And a police officer. And- and them,” she nodded sideways at the Hoptons.

“Steady on,” Michael Hopton said.

“Why? Makes more sense than this, doesn’t it?” Evelyn asked him. “A deal between you and I, to keep them out.”

He thought of a second, then nodded slowly. “I suppose so, maybe.”

“Six then,” Yuleson admitted. “That is still a scant number, and only one real magician between you? I understand you are all university students, yes? University presents challenges of its own, it-”

“No,” Praem intoned. Raine smirked and Evelyn snorted. Technically not a lie, not from Praem.

“Well, education or not, you all have you lives to live regardless. Your own … goals and aims, do you not?”

He spoke those last words to me, with a sick smile. I went cold, shivering inside my coat. How much did this rat know? Did he know about Maisie? I bristled again, swallowed down my inappropriate, animal responses and readied a denial instead, but Yuleson was already turning away, left me floundering in my own choked anger.

“Besides, you are all close friends,” he continued. “My client has no desire to visit violence upon your loved ones, upon reasonable people, the trauma would be too much to bear, especially at your age,” he said straight to Raine. She looked him in the eye, hard and taut. Yuleson had to look away, but he’d made his point. “And you speak of our friends at the Church,” he said to the Hoptons, “as if they are wedded to your decisions. I understand they are not exactly interested in expanding their influence into the city, am I correct?”

The Hopton triumvirate all glanced at each other. Amanda seemed to think for a moment, then nodded once. “Yeah,” Michael said slowly. “Yeah, we don’t want to babysit Sharrowford.”

“But, but!” Yuleson raised a finger. “You are affected by what happens here, yes? Intimately!”

“We are, very much so,” Christine Hopton said, her tone guarded and soft. “We would like to resume normality, not worry about being harassed again.”

“Indeed! Of course, of course. And I understand your prodigal daughter here is suffering- ah, split loyalties?” Yuleson smiled an oily smile at Twil. She sat up and bared her teeth at him.

“What the fuck does that mean?” she growled. Yuleson tittered and waggled his hands in surrender and I wanted to slap him.

“Why, it means that any agreement we hammer out here today might also go some way to solving related personal issues, no?”

“Yeah, how about no,” said Twil.

“Ahem, ahem, well, my point is this – between us, we represent three reasonable, sensible, rational interested parties, all of whom wish for a measure of peace and security.”

“What do I represent then?” Nicole asked. “The civilian bloody government?”

“Are you not here in an advisory capacity, officer? A sort of … chaperon, to make sure nobody pulls a knife on each other, yes?”

“Suppose so.” Nicole frowned.

“Ahem, well. None of us can cover Sharrowford on our own, certainly not if we’re at each other’s throats. But, with an agreement to stop attempting to turn each other into frogs or blow each other up or set zombies on each other, we can make sure that Sharrowford stays … quiet. Quieter than lately, at least.” He tittered again, a chattering rodent-laugh.

“Man’s got a point,” Nicole said. “You’re not rival drug gangs trying to muscle in on turf. But think about what he’s selling you here, and why.”

“Why?” Yule pulled a hurt and offended face. “Why, officer, I am not selling anything. I am attempting to the best of meagre abilities to bring this conflict to an end.”

“What’s your retainer?” she asked.

“Don’t be silly, you know I’m not at liberty to discuss financial matters.”

“Forgive me,” Evelyn drawled, dripping with sarcasm. “A little hard to believe any of this, from the people who planned to murder me in my sleep.”

“Circumstances change, priorities change,” Yuleson said. “This is your best chance to ensure that doesn’t happen again, can’t happen again, wouldn’t even be an option on the table, unthinkable. And I think we can all agree that sleeping soundly is very important.”

I hated that he made sense.

He was right – if he spoke truth; a loading bearing if.

I did need Sharrowford to be quieter. I did need to live my life – because my life right now consisted of the desire to rescue my sister. I needed space and time, and no more interruptions. Tongue-tied and intellectually constipated, I’d come here with a head full of ideas and a nervous system full of tension and the expectation of violence, ready for a confrontation with a monster, accusations to throw in his face, promises to extract. All my resolve meant nothing now. I felt browbeaten and wrong-footed.

Abyssal bodily dysmorphia told me I was supposed to be fast, nimble, to slip and slide through the waves, untouched and untouchable. The way this man talked made me feel pinned, cornered. I needed to retreat, gather myself before I agreed to anything.

“I don’t like this,” I almost hissed. “I’m not comfortable with this.”

“We’re being led up the garden path,” Raine said.

“But he’s right,” I finished. Raine cocked an eyebrow at me. Couldn’t look her in the face.

“Please,” Yuleson said. “Take time to think through the basic proposal, talk it over with each other. We can absent ourselves from the table, give you some space if you like. This is only the preliminary stage, we have specifics to propose, issues to address and-”

“You don’t think I can look after Sharrowford by myself?” Evelyn asked, darkly unimpressed. She indicated Praem with the head of her walking stick. “What do you think she is? Do you think I can’t summon another dozen of her? You know who my mother was, don’t you?” She addressed the last question to Julian, but Yuleson answered.

“Oh, I’m certain you can, I’m certain you can,” he said. “But the real question is – do you want to? The, um, young lady you refer to, I’m certain she is a handful all by herself, no? Do you really wish to dedicate your life to raising and shepherding a dozen, two dozen more? If your resolve is really that strong, miss Saye, I’m afraid we would have to give Sharrowford over to you, yes, yes, wouldn’t we, Julian?”

“Certainly,” said Julian, though he bobbed his head from one side to the other in a curious gesture of denial.

Evelyn’s bluff did not convince, not even me. I knew she’d been reluctant to split Praem back into two bodies like before, I only hadn’t asked why.

“How about I just kill you all now?” Evelyn spat, and my heart sang yes, yes. The trigger word was on my lips. “Get it over with-”

“But are you willing to do that over and over?” Yuleson put in quickly. “Are you willing take such risks, without end? To live that way?”

“You have something in the bag, don’t you?” Julian asked. “Small enough to carry, yet dangerous enough to highlight. Yet … I feel no threat from you. Interestin’. From the way we know you operate, I would bet some kind of possessed animal.”

Evelyn visibly puffed herself up, chin high, eyes blazing. “You want this thing to crawl through your bedroom window at three o’clock in the morning? Keep pushing.”

“The answer, sir,” Julian turned to his boss, “is no. She can’t take that risk over and over. That,” he nodded at the bag, “likely could kill us all, yeah, but they’ll have to put it down afterward. Quite a task. And it wouldn’t be able to find mister Lilburne, as he is not present. Smart, no?”

Evelyn ground her teeth together – and opened her mouth.

Inim-

“Evee,” I snapped, a half-hiss, my throat constricting. “Let it go.”

She glared at me sidelong. “Heather-”

“Edward will still be out there. We missed our chance,” I forced myself to say. Every cell screamed the opposite, end this now, back away, hide. Kill and flee.

“Denied the shot,” Raine sighed, then shrugged and grinned. “Oh well. S’always next time.”

“I think- I think we should keep talking, at least,” I lied. I thought no, I felt no. “Maybe we can … I don’t know.”

Yuleson smiled a creased, oily, ingratiating smile at me. His eyes said it all, said he’d won.

My hackles rose, my limbs vibrated with the need to leap up and snap in his face. Limbs I did not really possess ached to strike at him, force him to retreat. I clamped down on all of it, held myself as still as I could, shivering inside my coat, small and scrawny and weak and human. Talk was sensible, I reminded myself, made it into a silent mantra in my head. Talk, negotiate, look for an advantage.

“I knew you were the brains out of the outfit, miss Morell, from the moment I saw you,” Yuleson said, then paused as if unsure. Stack stared at me, curious and intense.

“She hates you,” Stack informed him.

“Well, well, more’s the pity, but we can’t win them all,” he said. “Hate does not come into it. I’m sure you understand, yes, miss Morell? You’re an intelligent woman, we can come to some kind of compromise. Always beware the quiet ones, that’s what I say!” He made a gesture toward Stack and let out another tittering laugh. The sound set my teeth on edge.

“I would like to explore this deal of yours as well,” Christine Hopton said. She looked pointedly at Evelyn, who could barely conceal her glare of displeasure.

“It’s just talk,” Nicole said softly. “You don’t have to agree to anything.”

“Yeah, no,” Raine said. “I don’t trust this as far as I can throw it – which, hey, maybe not the best analogy, because I could punt this guy halfway across the garden,” she nodded at Yuleson. “If we’re voting, I vote let’s rumble.”

“Raine,” I said. “I can’t- we can’t just- you- I can’t give in to-”

Raine’s eyebrows climbed in surprise as I cut myself off. I’d let it slip, out in the open. Everyone heard. Can’t give in to the cold survivalist logic of the abyss, can’t act like that here. I felt so trapped. A hiss rose in my throat again and this time I knew I couldn’t stop it, a defensive noise of frustration and threat-warning. Get away, shut up, stop, stop-

Stack looked up. Past me and Raine and Evelyn. Past Praem.

An instant snap-to of attention.

“Huh,” she grunted.

Wired on abyssal echo and phantom aggression, I couldn’t turn to look. My body tensed two conflicted sets of muscles, screamed trap! I stared at Stack, one false move away from lunging at her. Suicidal in hindsight, an urge that would terrify me in lonely, quiet moments for weeks after. Small little Heather, tackling a professional killer, because – why? Because I got spooked by my own brain-ghosts.

Thankfully, nobody else was experiencing a terminal identity crisis.

“Who’s that?” Benjamin grunted, up on his feet as he followed Stack’s gaze. “Are they watching us? Is this a fucking trick?”

“I can’t see from here,” Amanda said, and her dog sat up too, suddenly alert and on guard. “But that isn’t a person. Bernard, down, sit. It’s okay, down.”

“Oh great,” Twil sighed. “It’s her.”

“Nothing is great about that,” Evelyn said, her voice tight. “Heather?”

“Mm? Mm?” I couldn’t look away from Stack. In the corner of my eye, I noticed the Hopton’s bubble-servitor-angel-thing adjusting itself, re-orienting toward whatever Stack had noticed.

Nicole was laughing. “You weren’t kidding when you said she’s too conspicuous. She stands out like a scarecrow, they’ll see her from the pub, easily.”

“Heather, it’s okay,” Raine murmured.

Deep down, far deeper than the impression left by the abyss, my body knew that if Raine said I was safe, I was safe. Phantom muscles unclenched, I drew in a shuddering breath, and looked over my shoulder.

At the far end of the weed-choked campsite field, maybe two hundred meters distant, just inside the fence which held back a thick copse of trees, a figure stood, facing us.

I couldn’t see her face. I didn’t need to.

Hooded and cloaked in a long coat, clothes baggy and dark, framed between the shadows of the wood behind and the scudding clouds above. She’d emerged from nowhere, a fairy creature formed by the landscape itself.

“Zheng!”

“Oh. Oh dear,” said Yuleson.

I was out of my seat and on my feet before I knew what I was doing, three paces toward the field before Raine caught my arm.

“Woah, woah, Heather, slow down.”

“I have to- she-” I whirled on Raine. Behind her, Stack leaned over to whisper in Yuleson’s ear.

“Now?” he asked her. “We’re just getting started!”

“She’s become especially protective,” I said to Stack, loud and clear, felt myself puffing up with bizarre pride. “Of me and mine. You better run.”

“Run away,” Praem intoned – but she was looking at me.

“Oh fiddlesticks, this is nonsense,” Yuleson huffed. “Miss Morell, I am certain we will all be fine. Is this person really so dangerous? For goodness sake, we’re in a pub garden.”

Stack ignored him. She stood up slowly, hands carefully visible, and watched Zheng.

I lowered my voice for Raine. “I need to … I need to talk to her. You know I need to talk to her.”

“Cool, I’ll come with-”

“No.” I shook my head, and a strange seed of guilt sprouted in my belly. I spoke fast, flustering, blushing in confusion and panic. “You need to stay with Evee, don’t you? It’s dangerous with these people, you can’t leave her alone. I’m going in the opposite direction, I’ll be fine.”

“Evee’s got Twil and Praem, she’s safe,” Raine said softly, for my ears only. She read me like an open book. “Heather, what’s wrong?”

“I … Raine … I, please, I need to … I want to talk to her, by myself.”

I squeezed the words out in a half-whisper, but I couldn’t admit to myself why I said them; I wanted to get away from this entrapment here, this feeling that all my responses were wrong. Zheng called to me. The romance of her figure beneath the roiling grey sky, her solid silence, the way she stood out on the empty plain of the field, on the edge of the woods. It called to my soul, and I couldn’t voice why. It was not a human thing.

“She’s perfectly safe,” I babbled on, covering for myself. “She saved my life, twice. She’s-”

“What if it’s not really her?” Raine raised her eyes, studied Zheng as best she could at a distance.

“It is her. I can tell. I can. Raine, I can tell.”

“What if this is a trap?” She shook her head. “This stinks to high heaven. Come on, she’ll be glad to see us both, we’ll-”

Raine,” I almost hissed at her, an animal need bubbling in my throat. I pulled on my arm, tried to yank free from her grip, and for a terrible moment I thought she was going to hold fast, tighten her hand, that she wouldn’t get it. I was mad, almost frantic, a hiss rising between my teeth.

And Raine let go.

“Woah, woah, Heather, cool, we’re cool,” she said, low and hushed. I stumbled away a couple of paces, shocked at myself.

“What is she doing?” Evelyn snapped. “Heather, what on earth are you doing?”

“Hey,” Raine said, grinning for me. “You gotta do what you gotta do. I’ll watch. Anything happens you don’t like, you turn and run – I’ll be there before you can blink.”

I nodded, shaking a little as turned away from Raine, and stepped out onto the field.

Crossing the off-season campground was not easy on my muscles or knees, not easy for awkward inelegant Heather, in my comfortable trainers and jeans, across slippery, uneven, rutted earth, around clutches of thistle and patches of ragwort. Twice I nearly fell over, stumbled and tripped on rabbit holes. Should have worn wellington boots.

Didn’t care. Moving felt wonderful, working my lungs felt right. Muscles and puffing breath, no matter how weak, brought me out of the hole of entrapment I’d felt back there. I passed the spirit out in the campground, a mass of tentacles twenty feet high, pulsing and throbbing to itself. It bent away from me, a plant avoiding fire.

Couldn’t tear my eyes away from Zheng.

My stomach was full of butterflies.

When I drew close enough to pick out her face beneath the hood of her huge – and probably stolen – coat, she grinned. Her face split across the middle into that unmistakable shark-toothed grin. Deep inside I flushed with warmth.

“Zh- … Zheng!” I called out.

I’d expected to bristle. After all, Zheng was big and scary, a predator, a threat. The memory of my abyssal form should have arched its back and hissed at her. Instead, I felt a tentative openness, a wary friendship, excited. I all but ran the last few paces, stumbling, and stopped before her, panting for breath. The trees loomed above us, cast darker shade on this already grim day.

“Shaman,” she purred. A voice like granite.

“Zheng. Where have you been? Why didn’t you come back?” I panted. “I tried to find you, but … ” I shrugged, exasperated. “You’re so difficult to track.”

She laughed, a deep, low chuckle of genuine amusement. “Can’t you fathom, shaman? Can’t you imagine?”

I frowned at her, swallowed, struggled with the desire to – to what? I couldn’t place it. Standing close to her felt good, made me feel small but in a pleasurable way, made me feel understood. Goodness, she was tall. Easy to forget, with two weeks apart, how big Zheng was. I had to look upward.

“Fathom? Fathom what? You … you look good.”

She did. I doubt the concept of human health applied to a demon-ridden thousand-year-old corpse, but she looked somehow healthier, her red-brown skin full of life, her eyes brimming with slow, tiger-like attention beneath the hood. The clothes she’d stolen or otherwise acquired were shapeless and ugly, an old waxed coat and a huge baggy fisherman’s jumper to replace her lost tshirt, but even they couldn’t conceal the curves and power beneath, the way her every movement hummed with energy.

She had been eating plenty, I suppose.

Zheng grinned wider. At the compliment, or at what she saw reflected in my eyes.

And then she darted forward, a giant in sudden quicksilver motion. I yelped and flinched hard. Doesn’t matter how much I thought of her as safe, there is only one response to being rushed by a wall of muscle. I almost fell over onto the mud in surprise, but Zheng caught me.

She scooped me up and set me back on my feet. The sheer heat of her hands leaked through my clothes, left warm patches behind. Zheng ran hot.

“ … um … okay … uh … ” I blinked, stammering, trying to steady my knees. Zheng raised her chin, amused at my clumsy ape reactions.

“You should have seen that one coming. A test. Too slow, little monkey, too slow.” Zheng laughed.

I gave her a capital-G glare.

“What’s the matter, shaman?”

“You know what the matter is. Don’t surprise me like that.”

She shook her head. Her grin dialled down to a quiet amusement, a sun-baked tiger sizing me up. “Not that.”

“I don’t know what you’re-” I halted. I did know. I felt it right now. It had drawn me across the field to her, and now it left me flushed and excited in her presence.

The memory of the abyss responded to her – something in me wanted to be around her, and it was not entirely sexual.

Not entirely human.

Standing out here on the edge of the woods with Zheng felt real. Sitting back there in a pub garden, talking, negotiating, hadn’t felt right. None of it. Back there my intellect was at odds with my instinct – the old, cliched mind-body duality had, for me, become stark reality. Sitting quietly, huddled up in my coat, pretending I would negotiate politely for the safety of my friends. My body hated every moment, made demands I could not match.

Out here under the darkening sky, dwarfed by a giant of feminine muscle, on the edge of the woods and freedom and running and rutting, my responses made sense. My feelings made sense.

Shouldn’t have left Raine behind.

“I don’t … I don’t feel right,” I admitted. “I’m supposed to be sitting in a library, reading a book, not … ” I gestured helplessly at the mess behind me. “Not this.”

“Mmmmmmmm,” Zheng made a sound like a sleepy tiger.

“Look, Zheng, why are you here now? How did you find us? Do you want to come back to the house? I-I-I want you to, I-”

Zheng shrugged, a rolling mountain. “Guarding you.”

“ … guarding me?”

“Mm. You’re easy to find now, shaman. Can smell you a hundred miles away. Doubt I’m the only one.”

“Oh, geeze, thanks.” I tried to laugh, to make a joke of this, but the sound came out hollow.

Shaman,” she breathed. “You did it.”

The way she said that word sent a shiver up my spine – reverence, fascination, nostalgia. She watched me with a burning intensity.

“ … did … did what?”

“You’re even more like her now.” She grinned, chuckled softly. “You left your body. You’re fumbling, with what you found on your asurin ayalal. Stole fire from the gods, but now you don’t know what to do with it. That’s just like her too. Spent a month curled up by the fire, couldn’t wipe her own arse, feed herself, talk. Maybe you’re stronger.”

“Who are you talking about? Zheng?”

“You have to let yourself feel it, shaman. Embrace it, flesh and spirit both. Use it.” She nodded back toward the pub. “Use it on them. Wield it on your enemies, and never doubt it is right. The other way lies madness, you monkeys are so fragile.”

“Like- I’m sorry, Zheng, I’m like who?”

Her grin died slowly. The fire went out of her eyes, replaced with a fleeting melancholy.

“Maybe you are her,” Zheng rumbled. “Maybe you humans get reborn. Maybe the joke is on me.”

“I’m not … I’m me. Zheng, I’m Heather. I’m not anybody else. Are you talking about somebody you used to know?”

The giant zombie let out a huge sigh. “I know, shaman.”

I had the terrible sense the moment was slipping through my fingers, that Zheng was withdrawing again. She’d slip back into the wood and I’d never find her a second time if she didn’t want to be found. I couldn’t bear to lose this clarity of mind and body. Standing with Zheng on the edge of the wild felt right, in the same way that moving my body felt right, in the same way that skinship with Raine felt right.

Zheng broke back into a grin, her melancholy washed away. She glanced past my shoulder. “You monkeys are all too alike. Can’t tell the difference half the time.”

“Zheng don’t- don’t go.”

A cocked eyebrow. “Don’t?”

“What if I-” I glanced at the woods behind her, felt a burning gut-sick need, half human and half abyssal. I wanted her to pick me up and carry me off. It was mad, mad. I swallowed, mouth dry, hands shaking. “If I-”

“If you leave these monkeys behind, run off with me to have sex in the woods?” she purred.

I blushed like a tomato. With frozen muscles, my heart pounding, I managed to squeak “Not … necessarily what I meant, but … ”

“You’re committed, shaman,” Zheng rumbled.

She raised a hand and pointed past me with one finger. I followed it, and saw Raine was halfway across the field, walking toward us.

I turned back to Zheng, paralysed now. Nothing could make me leave Raine, that seemed absurd, but at the same time I needed something I couldn’t put into words, something the ghost of my abyssal self felt in Zheng’s presence, a safety, a comfort, a rightness. Zheng stared back at me, not grinning at all anymore.

“Be what you are now, shaman, or they’ll eat you alive. You have to eat them first.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

covenants without the sword – 8.3

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

In the end we chose a pub.

Well, Raine did.

The Bricklayer’s Arms was located on Sharrowford’s eastern edge, where the buildings thinned out. For a brief moment the city could convince itself it wasn’t a post-industrial hulk wrapped in a curtain of decay.

Close enough to the university to feel like home turf, but far enough from home to count as neutral territory. Back toward the city, one could spy snatches of university spire or blunt brutalist concrete on the horizon, beyond the semi-detached houses set in generous but bare gardens. In the other direction, copses of trees huddled against the late winter cold. Dank dripping hedgerows wound across the landscape as Sharrowford ran out, and the countryside began.

Secluded – check.

The pub boasted a large open garden in the rear, a ‘beer garden’ with optimistically clean tables, limp sun-shade umbrellas, and lots of elbow room. It backed onto an empty field that served as a campsite, separated by a gravel path mostly gone to mud. In summer, campers would provide much of the pub’s income, but this time of year the campground was empty, patchworked with weeds and thistles.

No angle for a surprise approach – check.

Proximity to the university supplied a steady flow of students, but also meant the Bricklayer’s Arms never quite managed to fly the lofty heights of the middle-class gastropub it so dearly wanted to be. Students got rowdy, smoked weed, drank heavily, talked politics and philosophy and other subjects one wasn’t ‘meant’ to discuss over a meal. The pub saw plenty of patrons, but not families, nobody out in the leafy garden for a pub lunch.

Public enough to discourage open violence – double check – but not too many prying eyes – check.

“Told you it was perfect, hey?” Raine murmured. As we emerged from the warm dark confines of the pub itself, out through the back door, she turned to us and spread her hands in a gesture of presentation.

Our only human observers were a trio of day-drinking math students, hunched under the pointless sunshades around a growing clutter of empty beer glasses and cigarette butts, talking loudly about something called the ‘Riemann Hypothesis’. Only one of them bothered to look our way, a striking young woman with dyed green hair. Her eyes slid off Praem, thwarted. Normal people.

“Still would have preferred campus,” Evelyn said.

“Busy,” Praem intoned.

She obviously did not mean the pub. Raine thumbed at her in agreement. “I’m with Praem on that one. Campus would be way too busy.”

“Yes, yes, it’ll do. I suppose.”

“It’s … nice,” I managed, trying to ignore the caterpillars gnawing at my guts.

“Heather, you’re too sweet for your own good.” Raine laughed gently. “The Bricklayer’s is a shit-hole. Somebody got glassed here three weeks ago.”

“Got what? I’m sorry, what?”

But Raine was already thumbing over her shoulder. “Nobody ever sits down the back, s’too cold and too far from the bar. Come on.”

We took the pair of tables all the way at the bottom of the garden, where it opened out onto the empty campsite.

Only a few spirits lurked in the garden itself – a huge thing like a bipedal hippo was slouched over one of the tables, and something with too many spindle-like legs crouched atop the pub’s roof – but beyond, plenty of pneuma-somatic life slithered and crawled, chittered and chattered. A pulsating mass of tendrils like a rooted plant stood out in the campground, and several creatures like crosses between chimpanzees and bats stalked in small packs across the open countryside beyond.

A few glanced at me. None lingered, even when I looked back.

It had taken me over a week to notice. Since I’d returned from the abyss, spirit life gave me a wider berth.

Didn’t know how to feel about that. I didn’t exactly have the emotional bandwidth to think about it much; wasn’t complaining, not yet.

“Oh, you weren’t exaggerating, it is cold here,” I said, bunkered down inside my hoodie and coat as I went to sit at the wooden table. A stand of gnarled oak trees ran all the way down the length of the property and the field beyond. They blocked the worst of the wind, but February wasn’t over yet. I looked back up the length of the garden and a sigh escaped my lips.

The pub itself was a whitewashed brick and beam structure, real rustic, practically pre-rustic. Probably been here longer than the city, its predecessors sinking into the clay for millennia. The thatch roof must have cost a small fortune in upkeep. Tiny lead-lined windows peered out into the garden like the eyes of a wizened old woman. The brief moments we’d spent inside as we’d crossed to the garden had been a wonder of dark wood stained by decades of tobacco smoke, a wide bar worn smooth by years of hands and elbows, odd paintings and photographs of local landscapes on the walls, and a tantalising hint of an upper story of creaking floorboards. The whole place looked lopsided, slouched with age and weight.

I’d much rather conduct this meeting inside. At least then I’d have some beauty to dampen my nerves.

“Wait, wait, hold your horses.” Evelyn gestured at me to stop before my backside touched the seat, then pulled two small folded towels out of her bag. She handed one to me.

“Um … ”

“For sitting. These bench seats stay damp forever, you’ll get piles.”

“Ah.” I nodded and got settled in. The towel did indeed provide a buffer between my delicate bum and the damp wood. Evelyn took the seat to my left, while Raine just rested the heel of one boot on the edge to my right, too alert to sit down.

Praem had carried a heavy sports bag all the way from home, and now she placed it in the seat next to Evelyn. Then she stepped back, clasped her hands in front of her, and stood stock-still.

I tried as best I could to ignore the tiny rustling sounds from inside the bag.

“You gonna take it out?” Raine asked.

“Yes, of course I will,” Evelyn drawled. “I’m going to unwrap an animal corpse right here, out in the open, and play with roadkill on the table. What do you think, you blistering idiot?” She nodded at the maths students, all the way at the other end of the garden. “I doubt even that day-drunk trio over there would overlook a fucking reanimated rabbit.”

Raine cleared her throat and barely suppressed a smirk. “Point.”

Evelyn whacked the top of the bag with her walking stick. The rustling noises stopped. “Maybe I should. Let it loose now and get this over with.”

I closed my eyes and forced a deep breath. “Evee, only if we have to. We have to try first.”

Evelyn huffed and grit her teeth, but she nodded. Raine’s hand found the top of my head. Gently, she ruffled my hair.

“S’like we’re really in the mafia, huh?” she mused.

“Mm.”

“Two-o-five,” she announced, checking the time on her mobile phone. “Five minutes ‘till first arrival. You three alright here on your own for a sec?”

“I’m fine,” I lied. “Praem’s here.”

“Here,” Praem said.

“No,” Evelyn deadpanned. “The moment you look away from us, we’ll vanish, explode, and be replaced by identical dopplegangers. Yes, Raine, we’ll be fine. Go keep the staff off us. Stick to the plan.”

“Stick to the plan,” I echoed.

“Sticking to the plan, yes ma’am, yes ma’am.” Raine mock-saluted, then marched off back to the pub, to order drinks and a few packets of crisps to keep the staff from bothering us too much. Nothing suspicious back here, not at all, just a big bunch of friends and family gathering for a drink on a cold, grey day, at the end of a dreary damp garden. Don’t stray too close, you might hear some strange things.

The plan was simple. Potentially brutal. Very few moving parts. Little to go wrong.

In theory.

Evelyn had sent Praem here alone this morning, before sunrise, ahead of the rest of us. She’d placed wards at five equidistant points around the property, the campsite field, and the surrounding three streets. The Fractal, cut into the bark of trees, graffitied onto back-alley walls, hidden in the refuse of abandoned scrub-ground; we now sat at the centre of a giant protective pentagram. Nowhere near as strong as the much older wards on Evelyn’s house and the Medieval Metaphysics room, a temporary measure which sapped a great deal of Praem’s concentration. The spell would alert her to any spirits – or more importantly, servitors – which crossed the boundary.

If this was a trap, if we didn’t like what we heard, if we couldn’t extract a satisfactory agreement out of Edward Lilburne, Evelyn would speak a trigger word in Latin – inimicus – which Raine and I had also memorised.

The thing in the bag would hear that word, through bin-liner and towel and tin foil, and it would wake.

It would memorise the faces and scents Evelyn told it to, then scamper off into the countryside for two weeks to grow strong.

Then it would hunt.

But first, we would try to talk.

Civilised discussion, reasonable debate, compromise. That was what would happen here, I told myself, we would not need to spring our trap. Everything was going to be okay. Ugly, but okay. This is what I’m supposed to be good at. I’m the sensible one, aren’t I? Raine hurts people and makes threats. Evelyn does magic and knows things. Me?

Somehow I’d slipped into a natural leadership role. Because I struck compromise, because I stopped people hurting each other, because I made deals.

Or at least I had, before the abyss.

Instinct fed me contradictory impulses. Phantom limbs urged to me to flee, to hide, to lie in wait with spring-loaded claws and razor-sharp teeth I did not possess. To tear open the sports bag and dump the contents onto the table to establish dominance when our adversaries arrived. To scuttle home and curl up in the dark with Lozzie.

I did none of those things. I sat quietly and sipped an orange juice Raine bought me, trying to act like a person.

Almost exactly four minutes and thirty seconds later, a short, athletic-looking blonde lady in a long dark coat strolled into the pub garden. She spotted us and walked over.

At first I didn’t recognise her. I felt my hackles rise, an animal hiss in my throat, a desire to paint myself with threat warning and toxic sweat.

Raine raised a hand in greeting. “Right on time, detective.”

“Oh, Nicky,” I said, blinking. “Hello.”

“Never know what you can find out if you’re on time,” Nicole said. “Afternoon, you lot, Raine, Heather, Evelyn, uhh … Praem? Right. And not so much with the titles today, please. I’m off-duty.” She shot us all a broad wink, looked Praem up and down, then took a deep breath of the cold air and glanced around the garden. “Interesting choice of venue.”

Her clothes weren’t too different – jeans and a ribbed grey cardigan instead of a suit, the coat a touch more functional rather than the austere black she’d worn on the job, lots of pockets, a pair of curb-stomper boots on her feet. She had her hair up in a ponytail, freed from the usual iron-hard bun. No makeup, no jewelry, practical and serious.

None of that added up to why I hadn’t recognised Nicole. She was ‘off-duty’ in more than the way she meant. Not only had she shed the institutional armour of her suit, she’d shed her authority too.

In its place stood something else, a quiet cunning, an understated alertness.

“If by interesting you mean shit-hole, sure,” Raine said.

“Some poor bugger got glassed in the face here recently, right?”

“Right.”

Nicole laughed and shook her head. “I’ll go get a drink then. Keep a seat warm for me, yeah?”

She returned with a pint and a packet of crisps a minute later, debated silently, then crossed to our side of the table and sat one space down from Raine. She opened her crisps, crunched loudly, then noticed the way we were all looking at her.

“What?” she asked. “Am I the only one drinking?”

Raine smirked. “I’d rather keep a clear head, for the moment.”

“I don’t really drink,” I said.

“That’s a lie, by the way,” Evelyn added. “She drinks vodka with Raine on occasion. They make an awful lot of noise, even more insufferable than usual.” Evelyn eyed the detective’s pint. “Raine has a point though.”

“We’re at the pub,” Nicole said with a shrug. “Which means no fighting, no mucking about, no hard feelings.”

“You are frighteningly naive, detective.”

“Maybe. That’s why I’m here though, isn’t it? Can’t exactly be a neutral party if I’ve got no idea what you wizards and monsters are actually up to.” She raised her pint in a solitary toast to Evelyn, and got a frowning glare in return. “Where’s the other woman, anyway? The cute little redhead?”

“Kimberly?” Evelyn frowned.

“Kim stayed at home,” I answered. “This would have terrified her, and she doesn’t want to be involved in magic anymore. It wouldn’t be fair.”

“Oh. Oh, right. Well.” Nicole settled down in her coat, a little put out, then smirked as an idea occurred to her “What about the giant? Couldn’t fit her in your car?”

“Zheng- … ” I swallowed, caught a side-eyed look from Evelyn. “Zheng would be too conspicuous.”

Nicole laughed. “Yes, yes she would be, no joke there.” She took a sip from her pint.

The truth was far messier. We couldn’t find Zheng, and the failure had been eating at me for days. Raine and I had gone over the local newspapers from Sharrowford and nearby, searched for reports of mutilated cattle or ‘news of the weird’ about odd countryside sightings, big cats loose on the moors, that sort of thing.

A sheep corpse gutted and partially consumed here, a missing cow there, an old woman who’d heard booming laughter from over a hillside west of the city, a farmer to the north who swore blind that one night he’d seen a ten-foot shadow fighting an angry ram.

We’d stuck virtual pins on google maps to establish a pattern, but there wasn’t one. If Zheng was out there, she was all over the place.

Nicole gestured with her pint glass. “What you got in the bag there?”

“A dead rabbit,” said Evelyn.

Nicole blinked and looked at the bag again. It was twitching. Evelyn reached over and whacked it with the head of her walking stick.

“Um … ”

“That’s not a joke,” I said with a sigh. “A dead rabbit, wrapped in a bin liner and tinfoil and … reanimated. It’s disgusting.”

“Wizard shit,” said Raine.

“ … right!” Nicole smiled, drank a mouthful of beer, and sat back in her chair. “Wizard shit. Say no more.”

Guilt fought with survival instinct. We’d already agreed – Raine and Evelyn and I – that nobody else needed to know about the trap. It wasn’t like a bomb or sudden violence. It wouldn’t, couldn’t, hurt Nicole or Twil or anybody else that Evelyn didn’t point it at.

But didn’t they have a right to know? It might go wrong, might not prevail, might make this shadow war worse. They’d all be accomplices by association.

Cold logic said no, they might disagree, and then you’d lose your shot at Edward Lilburne.

“One,” Praem suddenly announced.

“Only one?” Evelyn snapped, but didn’t wait for an answer. “Heather, you keep your eyes open. Spot it before it’s overhead.”

“I’m watching, yes.”

“One what?” Nicole asked.

“One servitor,” Evelyn answered. “Twil’s lot.”

The Church of Hringewindla turned up right on cue. Five people including Twil, one dog, and no surprises. We’d organised it over the phone, made sure we both knew exactly who and how many would attend. No surprises meant no excuses for what Raine would call an ‘itchy trigger finger.’

“Hey, guys!” Twil strode ahead of the others in her awful clashing lime green coat and white hoodie, beaming at us as she trotted forward.

“Twil, hello.” I managed a smile, then resumed scanning the air for the unseen seventh member of their group, hoping it wasn’t somehow crammed inside the dog. I hadn’t thought of that, and well, it sounds absurd, but my life is a constant parade of absurdity.

Raine said hi. Nicole raised her pint and muttered something that sounded like ‘bloody werewolf.’

“Evee, hey,” Twil started. “After this, you wanna-”

“Sit down.”

“But-”

“Sit down,” Evelyn barked. “The sooner you sit, the sooner Raine can make the call, and we can get this over with.” Evelyn’s gaze snapped away from Twil to take in the other four who drew up around her.

“I-” Twil stammered. “Yeah, I mean- that’s cool- I-”

Two I didn’t recognise, a man and woman, though I knew exactly who they were. The woman had a dog on a leash, a large and friendly-looking golden retriever to which I took an immediate gut-level liking. A good dog.

The other two I already knew. Twil’s mother had visited the house before, on the ill-fated afternoon before our trip to Alexander’s castle. Her ‘bodyguard’, Twil’s cousin, was attending as well, a six-foot slab of muscle and fat by the name of Benjamin, with a doughy face and a slightly more impressive scratch of beard than last time. He stopped by the corner of the table and folded his arms, playing the tough guy. Raine winked at him with a smirk. He glowered back, performatively grumpy.

He wasn’t their real protection.

Neither was Twil, an angelically pretty teenage girl who could probably bend steel with her bare hands and sprint at fifteen miles an hour.

Their real bodyguard was the disgusting mass of near-invisible spheres which bobbed in the air about twenty feet up. Soap bubbles, ranging in size from pinhead to human head, translucent except for a sheen of pneuma-somatic ichor. The bubbles slid over each other, rearranged in a constant effort of locomotion, adjusting itself through the air as if on self-laid tracks.

“I see the servitor,” I said out loud. “Praem?”

“Yes,” she agreed, watching it too.

“You keep that clear of us, you hear?” Evelyn raised her voice. “Or I’ll have Praem kill it.”

The woman I didn’t recognise nodded her head. She rolled her eyes back for a moment and pressed her hands together as if praying. The glugging bubble spirit stopped a good distance from the table.

“I’ll leave it on overwatch, is this acceptable?” she asked, voice a breathy sing-song.

Evelyn glanced at me.

“Keep it there, please,” I said.

“Miss Saye, it’s lovely to see you well.” Twil’s mother said. Christine Hopton was Twil but thirty years older, the same sharp features and dark hair, softened by crow’s feet, a warm smile, and a twinkle in her eyes. Right now she looked like she’d been dredged up from a misremembered 1969, dressed in a tye-dyed poncho and a shawl against the cold.

When I’d first met her, I’d rather liked her, until I’d seen what lay behind her eyes.

I had to remind myself that all these people carried a passenger inside their skulls.

 “You as well Heather, and Raine.” Christine nodded to us, inclined her head to Praem, then glanced at Nicole. “But I don’t think I’ve met you before, so you must be our, ahem,” she cleared her throat gently, “friend from the police force?”

“Police,” Benjamin muttered, tutting and shaking his head.

“That’s me.” Nicole raised her pint in a jovial greeting. “Nicole Webb. You gonna introduce us, werewolf?”

Twil suddenly looked stuck. “This is, uh, my mum? She’s … ”

“Christine Hopton,” Evelyn almost growled. “High Priestess of the Brinkwood cult.”

“Of the Church of Hringewindla,” Christine corrected gently. Nicole nodded. We’d already filled her in, and I cursed the need for all this manoeuvring and positioning. Cold abyssal logic whispered that none of this mattered, everyone needed to pick sides and sit down, get on with it. I squirmed in my seat, restless and itching to extend limbs I did not have, to intimidate these apes into action, or to slink away to hide in a hollow in the ground.

“And when you speak to any of them,” Evelyn continued for Nicole’s benefit, “the crippled outsider they call a god is listening as well, from directly inside their heads. Never go to their Church, unless you want it in yours too.”

“That’s not strictly true, not unless you invite him in,” the other Hopton woman said.

“Then you’d have no objection to Heather visiting, would you?” Evelyn asked.

“Evee,” I sighed.

“May I introduce my sister?” Twil’s mother said. “This is Amanda. Of all of us, she is the closest to our God. She speaks for Hringewindla here.”

“Pleased to meet you all,” said Amanda Hopton. She raised the leash, the golden retriever happily at her heels. “This is Bernard.”

The resemblance between sisters was less than that between Twil and her mother. Where Christine was wiry and dark, Amanda had run into weight problems, sallow skin under her eyes. She looked older, somehow worn thinner. Her smile held a touch of shaking mania or imminent collapse.

I wondered if Hringewindla was in the dog as well.

“Right. Great,” Evelyn grunted. She looked to the other man, who had not yet spoken. “Which means you’re the final member of the triumvirate, right?”

“Miss Saye,” he grunted. “Ladies. Detective.”

Twil’s father. Twil may have gotten her looks from her mother, but her father answered the mystery of Twil’s aggressive mannerisms. Mid-fifties perhaps, with a thatch of dark hair, radiating peak physical fitness despite his compact frame. His chin was like an outcrop of granite dusted with salt-and-pepper beard. He and Twil even stood the same, feet apart, duck-footed, ready to bristle, absolutely devoid of guile or ability to conceal one’s emotions.

He did not like us, and he was not happy to be here.

“This is my dad,” Twil said. “Uh, dad?”

“Michael,” he allowed.

“Dad, come on, for fuck’s sake. Don’t be an arse.”

“I am not being an arse,” he tutted, then gathered himself exactly like Twil would, trying to reassert his imposing look. He hesitated, then leaned across the table toward Evelyn. “Now you listen here, magician. I won’t be the one that starts anything here today, but-”

“Dad!” Twil yelled, blushing furiously. “You promised!”

Evelyn snapped back. “Oh shut up with your theatrics-”

“-it’s your war we’re here to put an end to-”

“Dear,” Christine raised her voice, spoke over her husband, “the people who caused us problems are gone because of these young ladies.”

He glanced at his wife, almost tripped on his words, but managed to forge ahead. “-and I’ll expect no more violence, certainly-”

“-you brain-infected overgrown sock puppet-” Evelyn spat.

“-and if anything happens to my daughter, I’ll-”

A hiss split the air – low and angry and dangerous, half-snake, half-insect, all alien. The argument slammed to a halt.

Everyone stared at me.

“Heather?” Raine said my name very gently, as one might speak the name of a cornered fox. I flinched so hard I nearly fell backward off the bench, then stared at her, blinking and confused. Her hand found my back and gripped my shoulder. “Heather, hey? You okay?”

I tried to swallow. My throat felt wrong, twisted up inside. I had to unclench muscles I hadn’t realised I possessed.

“I’m … ” I cleared my throat, swallowed twice as if to shift a blockage, mortified and going red in the face. “I’m fine. I’m sorry, sorry … I just … if everyone could sit down, please? We’re not enemies here, not us.”

Michael Hopton opened his mouth again. An intrusive thought said get up and slap it shut for him. “That remains to be-”

“For God’s sake,” I snapped. “Evelyn and your daughter are practically courting each other. We’re all on the same side and we’re about to meet a real monster. Sit down, or leave.” I pointed back at the pub.

“We’re what?” Twil squinted. Evelyn cleared her throat.

“Heather has made an excellent point,” she managed. “Make your choice. Please.”

The Hoptons decided to sat down. They took the second table, off to the right, but faced toward the back of the pub in the same direction we did. Twil perched on the opposite end next to Evelyn, separated by the bulk of the sports bag. Evelyn wouldn’t look at her.

“Better.” I nodded. “Better. Thank you.”

I looked down at the warped wood of the table, heart racing, head spinning.

How had I made that sound? Raine squeezed my shoulder. Above the beginnings of awkward conversation, I heard the soft click of her lips parting to murmur something to me, words of reassurance perhaps – but when I looked up, I saw Amanda Hopton staring.

Past me. At the bag.

“I believe Evelyn Saye has set a trap,” she said with slow, almost dream-like pronunciation.

And with that, our hard-won momentary peace was shattered. Everyone spoke at once.

What?”

“What do you mean, a trap? Amanda?”

“Mandy?”

“Hey, Evee, what?”

“Woah woah, how can she tell that? How does she know that?”

Evelyn didn’t say a word, just stared back at Amanda.

Tardus venandi, yes?” Amanda asked.

“Correct,” Evelyn grunted.

Michael Hopton was on his feet. So was Benjamin, looking like he wanted to crack his knuckles.

“Are you serious?” Michael asked. “You brought a trap- we- we agreed no tricks, no-”

“It was my decision,” I raised my voice, forced it not to shake. “Not hers.”

He blinked at me, perhaps thrown off by this tiny scrap of scraggly looking woman raising her voice. Instinct said stand up, make yourself tall. My legs twitched and tensed – maybe I could climb up on the table? I clamped down on that notion, stayed sitting. It was absurd, an animal’s response.

“The people we’re about to meet are, at the very least, accomplices to- … certain crimes,” I said. “If I cannot extract from them a promise not to abuse and kill people, then yes, I will pull the trigger, and they will all die.”

He frowned at me, put-off and uncertain.

“I think that can be acceptable,” Christine Hopton said quietly. “Regrettable, but acceptable. Dear, do sit down. Stop scaring the poor girl. You too, Ben.”

Michael Hopton grumbled but sat down, frowning at me, unhappy but cowed. Benjamin awkwardly did the same, but went ahead and cracked his knuckles first. Raine mirrored his gesture, and earned herself another grumpy scowl.

Amanda stared at me now, contemplative and thoughtful.

“She will do it,” she said, then tilted her head the other way. “Who are you, Heather?”

I sighed. “Please, can we just get on with this?”

“I’m gonna call in the goons then,” said Raine. She was the only one still standing, one foot up on the edge of the seat. “We all agreed?”

Nods and murmurs all round.

Raine placed the call. Even using the phone, her posture shifted at the sound of a voice from the other end, her musculature flowing into threat-response, ready for violence, thrumming with spring-loaded energy.

“Alright, slaphead, that you? Good. Here’s where we’re at.” She gave the address of the pub. “Uh huh, uh huh. That quick, huh? Maybe we’ll get lucky, maybe you’ll crash your car on the way here. Don’t die now.” She ended the call and grinned. “Ten minutes, give or take. Anybody else fancy a drink? Round’s on me.”

==

Ten minutes felt like an hour.

The others managed to strike up a smattering of awkward, guarded conversation, moreso after Raine returned with more drinks.

Nicole asked if the dog was friendly. The answer was yes, and the friendly dog was rewarded with attention, while Amanda got to field soft questions about his breed and age and the time he chased a rabbit but didn’t know what to do when he caught up to it. Christine made an attempt to chat as well, asked how we were all getting along at university, if we thought it would be right for Twil. Even Michael seemed to relax after a mouthful or two of bitter, though Benjamin alternated between glowering into his beer and glowering at Raine.

Twil tried. She leaned over to nudge Evelyn in the shoulder. She didn’t get far.

Conversation dribbled on. I didn’t listen, couldn’t listen.

All my senses stayed locked on high alert. I watched the approaches, the back door of the pub, the route around the side into the garden. Every passing car made my heart rate spike. Three times I craned around to look over my shoulder, into the empty campsite field.

My shoulder blades itched, my skin crawled, my eyeballs ached. My whole body cried out for change, weak and vulnerable and about to face dangerous predators. I was too weak, it whispered. I needed spines and claws and rending teeth. This was not how one dealt with predators. I required protection. Somehow, Raine was not enough, not for what I’d brought back from the abyss.

I spotted Stack before she saw us.

She emerged from the back door of the pub, a knife-slash wrapped in a grey hoodie and lightweight raincoat. Her eyes found us in a fraction of a second, found me – but I saw her first. The psychological edge was intoxicating. I’m faster than you, part of me whispered.

She walked across the garden, wound her way around empty tables and folded sunshades, slow and casual. Raine let go of my hand, straightened up, and radiated silent threat. Conversation died away. Stack took her hands out of her pockets to show us empty palms.

When Stack reached our table, she paused to lock eyes with Raine. Unspoken communication passed between them, body language and micro-expression. Then she sat down opposite us. I struggled to control my breathing, felt sweat on my back and under my arms, heart thudding against my ribcage.

“Eight minutes,” Raine said, low and grinning. “You’re early, you lying cunt.”

Stack shrugged, barely lifting her shoulders.

“This is her?” Evelyn asked. “You’re Amy Stack?”

Stack looked Evelyn in the eye, cold and relaxed. Evelyn glared back. Twil, off to one side, bared her teeth in a sudden rising growl.

“Twil, dear, please,” Christine Hopton said. “We’re all here to talk.”

“You tried to kill me,” Evelyn murmured to Stack.

“No,” Stack replied. “I didn’t try.”

Twil growled louder. Evelyn’s anger, her front, her scowl, failed to cover what lay beneath. Her hands gripped her walking stick with white-knuckle tension.

The pieces fell into place. I’d been so blind. Too wrapped up in myself.

On the morning after Glasswick tower, the only thing between Evelyn and a quick death at this woman’s hands had been Twil. Kimberly had been present in the house too, at least before Lozzie turned up, but I very much doubted either of them would have been capable of running Stack off, let alone stopping her. Twil had chosen to stay, and in that act she’d saved Evelyn’s life, perhaps moreso than the rest of us had with Felicity’s spell.

No wonder Evelyn hadn’t dealt with her feelings for Twil. Evee, proud and bitter, admitting vulnerability and fear to Twil? She probably couldn’t even say thank you, not in the way that mattered.

They weren’t being stereotypical useless lesbians at all.

And now, here was the rematch.

Twil was going to take Stack’s head off, in public, for Evelyn, unless somebody stopped them.

“Praem!” I turned in my seat and caught the doll-demon’s gaze. In a minor miracle, she understood perfectly what I needed.

Praem stepped forward, neat and precise, to Evelyn’s shoulder. She made the very beginning of a reaching motion with one hand, not even a quarter of the way complete, halting before it even really began.

Stack broke off, visibly suppressed a flinch in her right arm. Twil stopped growling.

Evelyn broke into an evil smile.

“Your body recalls that one, does it?” she hissed. “I should know, I was watching through Praem’s eyes when she broke your arm.”

Stack leaned back and nodded once with that tiny tilt of her head. An admission of defeat, of a point scored. She cast her eyes across everyone present, then settled back on me.

She didn’t even need to say it, I saw the conclusion in her eyes: no Zheng. Her stare lingered only a moment, but I felt as if she saw right through me, read my thoughts on my face. She blinked slowly, done with me, and turned to Raine.

“All ready?” Stack asked.

“Send him in, yes, get on with it,” Evelyn snapped at her before Raine could reply.

Stack reached inside her coat nice and slow, never once broke eye contact with Raine, and produced a mobile phone. She sent a pre-arranged text message with a flick of her thumb. A moment later, the back door of the pub swung open to admit two more people into the beer garden. Two men. They spotted us and walked over.

I didn’t recognise either of them.

This was getting ridiculous. Just how cautious did Edward need to be? Perhaps it was theatrical arrogance. He’d have his entourage sit down one by one, and only emerge last, the prima donna swanning onto the stage. I thought back to the old man I’d seen in the underground car park, his stringy grey hair and wireframe glasses.

No, drama didn’t seem his style. This was pure paranoia. I couldn’t blame him for that.

The man in front carried a briefcase. Maybe in his late forties or early fifties, he had a face like a happy little pet rat, a squished smile, and big blinking eyes, his hair sticking up in little wispy tufts. A little short, portly in a comfortable sort of way, upholstered with good living and little exercise, wearing a comfortable if rumpled suit underneath a sensible, smart coat.

He hurried over to us, smiling, eyes darting about to take us all in.

“Hello, hello, yes, yes, delighted to meet you all, I’m sure, I’m sure, hmmmm?” he chattered. He stuck his hand out to shake at each of us one by one, but didn’t actually wait for anybody to take the offer. “Mrs Hopton, Mr Hopton, the other Mrs Hopton, young master Hopton, little miss Hopton. Officer Webb. Raine- um, no sorry, forgot your one – miss Evelyn Saye of course, miss Morell, you-” He paused and blinked at Praem, like a hedgehog in headlights. “You I don’t know! That’s fine, fine, all fine, all good. I’m certain everyone who should be here is here! Mmhmm? Mm, yes!”

And with that, he sat down next to Stack. He placed his briefcase on the table and beamed at us.

The second man was younger, maybe late twenties, tall and black and dressed in a far sharper suit, not a single crease about him. He greeted us all with a nod and an ironic smile.

“Good afternoon, ladies, gentlemen,” he said, in a broad north London accent.

I disliked him instantly. Reminded me too much of Alexander.

“Sit down, Julian, sit down.” The hyperactive rat-man waved an impatient hand at him. “Julian is my assistant, you see, still believes in all that standing on ceremony stuff, thinks it’s more important than actually getting down to brass tacks. Hmhm!” He made a funny little closed-mouth titter at his own non-joke.

Julian lowered himself into a seat too, nodding his head in gentle agreement.

“Shall we begin, then, hmmm?” The rat-man asked, clasping his hands together. “We all know what we’re here for, after all, I hope? Our own little Potsdam conference, no?

“Except we did all the work,” Evelyn almost growled.

“Ahem, well, ahem. No?” He avoided her venomous glare. “No laughs? Well, well, just one of my small jokes, a small joke. Do um, do forgive me.”

“Alright, I’ve had enough of this,” Raine said, shaking her head with an indulgent smile. “We’ve got the assassin and the jester, and whatever you’re meant to be,” she gestured at Julian. “When’s Eddy-boy himself putting in an appearance?”

“He’s too paranoid,” I said out loud, as it dawned on me.

“ … I’m- I’m sorry?” The rat-like man blinked several times.

“What’s wrong?” Michael Hotpon asked. Sharp.

“I think we may have been misled,” Christine said, delicately.

Evelyn frowned. She pointed at the rat-faced man. “This isn’t him? This isn’t Edward Lilburne?”

“No,” I said. “No, it isn’t.”

“W-what?” the rat man spluttered. “But of course I’m not? I don’t follow? Slow down, please, I-”

“Where is he?” Raine asked Stack. “Where’s your head honcho? Where’s Ed-boy?”

Stack just stared.

“He’s not coming, is he?” I asked.

“It’s a trap, then,” Evelyn hissed between gritted teeth. She placed one hand on the sports bag.

“Evee!” I panicked. “Evee, wait.” In the corner of my eye, I saw Stack switch to the bag, suddenly on and alert.

“This was supposed to be a straightforward meeting,” Michael Hopton said, on his feet. “Where’s mister Lilburne?”

“Please!” The rat-man got to his feet too, raised both hands in a placating gesture “I assure you, I am fully empowered to act and negotiate on my client’s behalf, with the full force of-”

They both talked over each other. Benjamin stood and glowered. Julian looked quite alarmed, like he wanted to get up and flee. I almost reached out and took Evelyn’s hand, to stop her before it was too late. Twil looked supremely lost. For a moment all was confusion.

“Sneaky bitch,” Raine murmured. She eased back from the table. Her hand reached inside her coat. Stack tensed, a coiled spring of muscle and tendon about to launch itself from a standing start.

And Nicole burst out laughing.

Everyone stopped and looked at her. She shook her head in disbelief at the little rat-faced man. “I thought I recognised you from somewhere.”

He cleared his throat, decidedly uncomfortable. “Well, of course you know me, officer. I never forget a face from business, never ever.”

“I haven’t forgotten your’s either, you dirty fucker,” she said, grinning. “You got the Northcolt Ripper off on manslaughter.” She pointed at him and looked around at the rest of us. “I know this man. I’ve seen him in court. It’s alright, I know exactly what he is, and he’s absolutely here to negotiate. You’re in a very different kind of trouble here. Put the magic wands down, ladies and gentlemen. Come on, don’t make me go back on duty and arrest you all for breach of the peace.”

Glances were shared. Muscles relaxed. Everyone backed down – though Raine and Stack stayed locked on each other.

The rat-faced man took a very long breath indeed, swallowed, and wet his lips. He cast a blinking glance sideways at Stack. “I do wish you people wouldn’t do this to me all the bloody time. Our good friends here are unaware of the, ahem, specific arrangements?”

“Yes,” said Stack.

He let out a long-suffering sigh. “Julian, were you aware of this too? Please, I know you’re my client’s apprentice as well, but, really now?”

“Unfortunately yes, sir.”

I realised with a suppressed shiver that Julian was eyeing the bag with intense curiosity. Only now did he look up and resume the mantle of well-dressed young man, and smile.

“Very very, very well, we will work with what we’ve got. Let’s start from the top, shall we?” The rat-faced man pulled himself up as best he could, straightened his rumpled suit, and smiled like a pet rat getting ear scratches. “My name is Harold Yuleson. I am fully empowered by my client to make decisions pertaining to relations between himself and the two other parties represented here today – supposed to be three, but well, one rejection is acceptable – not inclusive of detective Webb as a mediator and external observer. I am ‘in the know’,” he made little air-quotes with his fingers, “as we say. That is, I know that half the people here are mages, and the other half are barely human. I myself do not practice, I am very glad to say. I am about as normal as you can get.” He grinned, oddly pleased with himself about that.

Raine shook her head. “You pulled one over on us.”

“Only a little,” Stack replied.

“Who the hell are you then?” Evelyn snapped at the rat-like man.

“A representative. A mouthpiece,” Amanda Hopton said.

I sighed. “Exactly.”

“Is it … is it not obvious?” Yuleson asked, genuinely put out and quite worried. I almost wanted to reassure him. He was half endearing in the way a small, nervous gerbil or hamster might be. He cleared his throat and cast about for help, made several ‘mmm’ noises.

“I am certain they will understand, sir,” Julian offered. “We’re all civilised people here.”

“Yes, yes, well,” Yuleson sighed, as if resigned to his lot in life. He finally managed to meet Evelyn’s thunderous glower once more. “Ladies and gentlemen, magicians and monsters, extra-dimensional entities and others – I am Mister Edward Lilburne’s lawyer.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

covenants without the sword – 8.2

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

“ … what!? Adopted?” My mother’s voice spiked in shrill disbelief. “Did I hear that quite right? Don’t tell me you’re being serious?”

“Completely serious.”

I heard her hurry away from her desk, heard a door close, caught the intake of breath as she readied herself. My mother’s inevitable expression forced itself into my mind’s eye, a cocktail of outrage and shock. “Heather, what are you talking about? Where has this come from all of a sudden? Adopted? I don’t even know where to begin.”

“Mum,” I forced out. Raine tried to take my hand but I stepped away and shook my head, stared at Sarika’s back on the hospital bed. “I have never been more serious. Please, answer the question.”

A silence.

Sarika’s choked words rattled around inside my brain, loose bolts in a machine about to shake itself apart.

Propagate – adopt, she’d said.

Cuckoo.

My mind supplied the rest. It would explain so much if Maisie and I were adopted. If we were supernatural cuckoo-things, deposited here by the Eye in the guise of human beings, to be raised and then returned when ripe. It would explain my phantom limbs and bitter nostalgic dysmorphia too, perhaps my journey through the abyss had reminded my body of a hidden genetic truth.

Perhaps that was why I’d survived the abyss at all.

The idea gripped my guts with a terrible sickness and my head with a panic like the walls closing in. If I’d been adopted, what was I really? Where had I come from? Had I never been a real person at all?

“No!” My mother hissed. “No you are most certainly not bloody well adopted. Heather! Not only are you not adopted, it was a pain in the neck to squeeze you out.”

“I … what?”

“I’ve never told you that, have I? Thought you’d find it too grisly, or it might upset you or give you … ideas. Perhaps I’ll tell the story to your girlfriend when you deign to drag yourself home for a visit, embarrass you in front of her, embarrass us both.” Her voice hitched with a note of real hurt, protected behind easy flippancy. “You wouldn’t come out of me! Didn’t want to get out of your first bed. They had to get the awful dilatory forceps to pull you out.”

“O-oh, well … I-I … ”

“I was huge with you! I felt like a beached whale for months on end. Your father swore- … oh, I’ve never told you this, Heather, not with all the unpleasantness when you were little, but now you’re … you’re doing well these days. When we saw you at Christmas you seemed so much better, so much more normal. Happy, even.” She paused, and gathered herself as if for confession. “When I was pregnant with you, your father swore I was carrying twins.”

I halted my stammering attempts to excuse myself. “Mum? Say that again.”

“Obviously I wasn’t, I was just extremely large, but I certainly did eat for three. You were packed in there like a comfy little Eskimo, double the amount of placental sac as any other baby. So think how I felt all those years later when you had your … your episode. Like you’d dreamed yourself a twin in the womb, like I’d dreamed it for you. Oh, oh, Heather, I do apologise.” My mother sniffed. “I shouldn’t be telling you this story, but – adopted? No! No, you are not.”

I couldn’t speak.

You had carried twins, mother. It was always twins.

The first crack in the Eye’s erasure of Maisie, in all these years.

When I’d first climbed back out of Wonderland and Maisie hadn’t, when I’d sat on the floor of my childhood bedroom and screamed my head off, the Eye hadn’t merely kidnapped my twin sister. It had erased all trace and memory of her. One bed in the room, all her clothes gone, no second face like mine in family photographs. Nobody remembered her, not my parents, not our primary school friends, nobody.

But the Eye didn’t really understand human beings. It had excised my parents’ memories of their other daughter, but couldn’t magic away the physical history of my mother’s body.

She didn’t recall giving birth to twins, but she remembered a belly big enough for two.

That, more than anything else, more than the outraged tone in her voice, more than the certainty she’d told me the truth, more than the slow dawning realisation that my parents were not the sort of people to adopt in the first place, convinced me that I’d gotten this one wrong.

“I’m- I’m sorry, mum.” I smiled with relief, sniffing, backing away from the edge. “You’re right, I’m sorry, I got an idea into my head from a silly place, and-”

“It’s not from this girl you’re seeing, is it?”

“No! No, quite the opposite. Raine is probably quite unimpressed with me for this phone call.” I looked up at Raine, but she beamed at me. Relief as well? “She was telling me I was wrong about this, told me it was silly to call. I should have listened to her.”

“Quite right you should!” My mother tutted. “She’s obviously far more sensible than you are. I suppose that’s some comfort. Put her on, will you? I want to have a word.”

“About me?”

“Of course about you, what do you think?”

“Mum, I can … I … I’m not sure that’s appropriate?”

My mother said something obvious and trite, a huffing and a tutting.

Such incredible relief.

I should have been disappointed, shouldn’t I? Adoption would explain so much, provide a solid lead on why me, why Maisie. But I was not some Outside thing, some Eye-thing pretending to be human, even to myself; I was human – or at least I’d started as one. I am my mother’s daughter, with all the messy familial implications. She remembered carrying me in the womb; by a miracle, she remembered carrying Maisie.

A new-minted part of my mind, an unfamiliar strategic Heather, whispered a victory: the Eye is not infallible. It made a mistake. It missed a detail.

“Fine, fine.” I smiled through my mother’s words. “I’ll put Raine on, here she is.”

I held the phone out to Raine and she accepted it without missing a beat. She tilted her head up, puffed out her chest, and put on her best respectable-young-woman voice.

“Mrs Morell, hello, I- … ” She paused, laughed. “Samantha then, absolutely. Yes, I am, I promise you that. If nothing else, I am trying my best to take good care of her. Mmhmm. Mmhmm.”

Raine made attentive noises. I puffed out a huge sigh, red in the face as relief transmuted into deep, mortified embarrassment. Nicole asked me a question with her eyebrows, and I tried to apologise with a silent look.

“A mutual acquaintance said something hurtful,” Raine explained into the phone, serious and measured. “I think Heather took it to heart. Yes, I do know how she can get, but I put a great deal of faith in her.”

I blushed harder, frowned at Raine. She stuck her tongue out at me.

“Yes, I will,” she continued. “I’ll make sure she does, perhaps for a day or two around Easter? We do get two weeks off, after all. Good, great, no problem. Thank you, Samantha, I really do appreciate your confidence, and I understand I have to earn your trust. Here she is.” Raine passed the phone back to me. She winked.

“Mum?”

“Heather, you listen to what that girl tells you,” my mother said. “I liked her when I met her at Christmas, and I don’t think I’m mistaken. She’s very sensible, very organised, very together. And no, one more time, you are not adopted.”

“Thank you. Look, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. I’ll give a proper call sometime soon, okay?”

“This evening. I want to hear all about how you’ve been. You never talk about how university is going. I want to hear about your work, how you’re doing, how you’re finding it. Yes?”

“Yes, of course. This evening. I’ll call you then?”

“Make sure you do.”

“Goodbye for now, mum.” I ended the call, stared at the phone screen and blew out a long sigh. “Well, now I feel profoundly silly.”

I’d panicked. The phantom limbs, the desperation for a reason, meeting Maisie again, all mixed up into an cocktail of panic.

What had I expected? Adoption, really? The existence of werewolves and magic and other dimensions did not mean I was living in a daytime soap opera. Neither fae-born changeling or destined for a mysterious fate. I was, on the grand stage of the world, and the grander stage of reality, not that important – except to my friends.

“You know, the first time we discussed the uh, giant alien eyeball situation,” Nicole said, “you told me you weren’t at all some kind of chosen one, or special, or any of that Harry Potter junk.”

“Yes, yes, I know, I just … it was a stupid panic.”

“Wasn’t stupid.” Raine caught my eye, dead serious. “The question was worth an ask. True, there’s probably a better way than freaking your mum out, but hey.” She shrugged and smiled.

I nodded. “What was that about a day or two around Easter?”

“Visiting your parents. You and I. Home cooking, hang out, keep your mother on side.”

“Oh. Oh, right. Well.”

“Was this all a waste of time then?” Nicole asked.

She stuck her hands in her pockets and looked past us, at Sarika still curled up on the hospital bed with her back to us, wheezing and quivering. She looked so small and fragile, and she’d tangled one arm up in the clear plastic drip lines, but at least she’d stopped sobbing.

“ … no,” I said at length. “Sarika still used those words – I’m sorry, ‘propagate’, ‘adopt’, that’s what she said.”

Sarika twitched. The ghost of a shrug.

“Maybe it didn’t mean anything?” Nicole suggested. “Maybe she was just trying to hurt you.”

“That’s possible, I suppose.” I frowned at Sarika’s back. I felt like I had all the puzzle pieces, jumbled up, but I needed to know what the picture showed before I could put them together.

Didn’t want to hurt Sarika again though, the first time had been terrible enough. No matter what she’d done, I couldn’t inflict pain at will.

“Hey, Sarika?” Raine said, bright and clear. She strode forward and leaned on the bed, leaned over to make eye contact. Sarika’s head adjusted, and Raine flashed her a smile. “Can I call you – what, Sarry? Sari? Hmm, nah, that doesn’t sound right, does it? Sa-ri-ka, three syllable beat, almost musical, yeah.” Raine nodded, smile turning rakish. “You don’t need a pet name, your regular one is good enough.”

“Saaa-” Sarika slurred through a mouth thick with saliva. “Sari’s what- what he called me.”

“Girl, you can do miles better than Alexander.” Raine spoke as if we were all sitting in a coffee shop, bonding over love-life trouble, not in a hospital room with a trauma-crippled shell of a human being. “Come on, when you got down to it he was a total arsehole.”

“Was. Mm.”

“Didn’t give a toss about you, did he? Threw you to the wolves. Dangerous to know, and not in the fun way.”

“S’what- what I like. Liked?”

“Ahhhhhhh. Ahhh, I get it. Yeah, that’s rough. Can’t help what you’re into.” Raine glanced back at me and winked.

Dangerous to know. I suppose that described Raine, in a very different sort of way.

Nicole looked utterly baffled. I shrugged too, and nodded to urge Raine on, though I had no idea where she was going with this.

“Look, forget all of that,” Raine told Sarika. “Forget him. Think about the future, about how much better you can do.”

A snort, a single derisive laugh. Sarika managed to flop a hand, the arm with attached drip-lines of saline and morphine. The gesture spoke a thousand words: nobody would want her now.

“Pffft, nonsense,” Raine blew theatrical dismissal. “Woman like you? Think about how much better you can do. Think about all the hot guys who’ll be lining up around the block for you. Now me, I’m not much help in that department, cos’ I eat mountains of pussy, but I’m sure you know what I’m talking about, right?”

Another puff of laughter, less derisive. Gently, Sarika shook her head.

“Yeeeah, there you go,” Raine said. “You know what I’m on about.”

Perhaps it was Raine’s irrelevant change of subject, or perhaps Sarika’s reaction. Gave my subconscious a moment to chew on the problem. Like a magic-eye illusion snapping into focus, the pieces came together.

“So here’s the deal, Sarika,” Raine was saying. “You keep thinking about your veritable buffet of buff dudes, and I’m gonna ask you a question. Just nod or shake, no need to think-”

“It was the other way around,” I said.

Raine stopped and looked at me. Nicole raised an eyebrow.

Sarika nodded.

“Found a cuckoo in its nest,” she croaked, then flinched. Her breath hitched and she curled in as if to close herself up. “Tried to raise- raise it anyway.”

“And tried to raise it anyway,” I echoed. “Oh my God.”

“Heather?” Raine said.

“I’ve figured it out. Raine, it was the other way around. The Eye didn’t send Maisie and I here as cuckoos, it was the other way around.” I spoke so fast I almost babbled, couldn’t contain myself. “The things in the abyss, it’s so obvious, I-”

“Hey, hey, Heather, slow down,” Raine laughed.

“The things in the abyss, the leviathans, they bootstrap themselves via thought. That’s how they grow – they think! So ten years ago Maisie and I go to Wonderland – maybe the Eye drew us there, or maybe it didn’t mean to, or maybe it was all an accident, it doesn’t matter – and what does the Eye see? Human children! We take so long to grow, our minds take twenty years to fully develop, so slow, absorbing knowledge like a sponge, endless curiosity. To the Eye we must have looked like … like … I don’t know. Like an infant version of itself. Or a promising candidate?”

Slowly, rocking herself back and forth, Sarika covered her ears. She didn’t want to hear anything about the Eye, ever again.

“We’re the cuckoos,” I said. “To it. Or we were. And it must have figured that out, but tried to adopt us anyway.”

“A giant alien eyeball thinks it’s your mother?” Nicole asked.

“Sort of. More like a teacher.”

Because discovering a cuckoo’s egg in your nest doesn’t matter if you propagate by thought, if what makes you you is hyperdimensional math, if you don’t have DNA, if your biology is an abyss-born nightmare of will-formed flesh.

A cuckoo in your nest doesn’t matter – if you can take the little cuckoo chick and reforge its mind to be like your own.

“Except it couldn’t tell Maisie and I apart,” I murmured. “We only got half. It thinks half escaped? It’s trying to put us back together? I don’t know.”

Sarika heard silence, and gingerly removed her hands from her ears.

Raine squeezed her shoulder. “Hey, hey, thank you. You did great. I mean it.”

“Do you-” I spoke up. “Sarika, do you know anything about the dead hands?”

Sarika turned in the bed, so much effort for such a small frame. She stared at me, slack and spent.

“Lozzie and I can’t slip – can’t go Outside, beyond, whatever you call it. A feeling like dead hands on my ankles stops me every time. We’re stuck here. I thought it might have something to do with … what you all did.”

“Lauren … Lil- burne?”

Oh. I’d given that one away for free. I suppose it didn’t matter anymore. “Lozzie, yes. She’s with me now.”

“Alex- little sister.” Sarika sniffed hard. A thin trail of tears ran from one eye, soaked into the pillow beneath.

“He treated her terribly. You were his lover. You must have known, don’t- don’t give me that.”

“Safe- safe?”

“Yes.” I nodded. “She’s very important to me. I promise I’ll try to keep her safe, as best I can.”

Sarika rolled back over, gave me the cold shoulder, stared out of the window at the grey drizzle.

“All my friends are dead,” she slurred. “Don’t know anything about your hands. Screw you.”

Raine left the bed and returned to Nicole and I.

“Better?” she asked, slipped an arm around me, kept her voice low and soft.

“Yes, thank you.” I bit my lip, still mulling over my new hypothesis. “I need to talk to Evee about all this. We need more information. Confirmation. It does make sense though. The Eye taught me and my sister in order to make another of itself.”

“Well it buggered that up, didn’t it?” Raine grinned. “You’re you, Heather.”

“Still doesn’t answer why us.”

“Hurricanes and floods don’t have motivation,” Nicole suggested. “They just happen to people. Maybe you got unlucky.”

I didn’t like that idea, but it was most likely. We make stories of our lives, but often reality is less sensible than fiction. A reason would make too much sense. Blind chance was cruel, but realistic. I stared at Sarika’s back, thinking.

She’d been complicit in so many horrors, but now she was broken. With the threat from her passed, I no longer felt like I could play judge, jury, or executioner. She deserved punishment of some kind, but I couldn’t measure it. Not this.

“Can I come back to visit her again?” I asked.

“Uh, I mean, if you want to?” Nicole answered, on firmer ground now. “If she doesn’t mind. Protective custody, police protection, it’ll get lifted in time, when it becomes clear this ‘cult’ doesn’t exist anymore.”

“I might do, then. I might do.”

Nicole gave a very glad-that’s-over sigh. “Well, if you two are ready, I’d like you to sit back down. I’ve got an admission to make.”

Raine sensed the change before I did. Despite the cold survivalist logic I’d brought back from the abyss, I had nothing on Raine’s instincts. She stiffened, shifted her posture onto the balls of her feet, that unmistakable readiness for violence.

“Detective?” she said. “What are you up to?”

“Woah, woah.” Nicole put both hands up. A career of conflict resolution and interrogation rooms had given her the rare tool-set to read Raine’s reaction. “Nothing like that. Think of this as my first assignment as a paranormal investigator. A freebie, for you lot. Please, let’s have a sit for a minute.”

“In here?” I asked. “With Sarika?”

“Yes. It’ll be obvious why, I promise.”

For a heartbeat, Raine didn’t move a muscle, then she seemed to decide Nicole was still on the level. She grabbed a chair from next to the bed for me, while Nicole perched on the hard plastic seat from by the door. Raine stood at my shoulder, radiating threat-posture. Nicole gave her a look, then decided better of it.

“Nicky?” I asked.

She wet her lips, hesitated, then nodded.

“I was approached yesterday evening,” she said. “At my home, by a person who somehow knew we’d be meeting up here today. This person wants to speak with you.”

“What? Who?”

“Go on, Nicky,” Raine said, a dark grin in her voice.

“This person decided to go through me, because apparently you’ll try to kill her if she appears without warning. Which, you know, considering what I saw last week, sounds pretty credible. You lot aren’t above a spot of murder.”

“I neither confirm nor deny these allegations, officer,” said Raine. Nicole rolled her eyes.

I knew exactly who she was talking about. My eyes flickered around the room, behind the medical machines and to the door of the attached toilet. My skin itched and crawled with the desire to defend myself, to grow toxic spines and poison sacs, curl into a corner and armour myself in chitin plates, sprout tentacles to constrict and eyes to see in every direction.

“Is she-”

“Yes,” Nicole said quickly. “She’s here. I’m acting as a guarantor of no violence. We’re in a public hospital, I’m a police officer. There’s another uniformed officer right down that hallway, so nothing is going to happen. You don’t attack her, she doesn’t attack you. Got it?”

“Nicky, Nicky,” Raine grinned, dark and sardonic, shaking her head. “You sneaky little fox.”

“She got here before you did. I’ve already searched her, given her a pat down. She’s not only unarmed, she’s carrying bugger all. A wallet with a single twenty pound note and a fake ID, and a stripped down phone with no contacts listed. Nothing else.” Nicole tried a smile. “So no violence, alright?”

“She’s not going to hurt Sarika, is she?” I asked.

“No. Sarika agreed she can be here. Anything happens to Sarika a month or two from now, that draws police attention as well.”

“Where is she?” Raine asked softly.

“In the room across the hallway. I’m gonna send her a text message.” Nicole took out her mobile phone. “Let her know she can come in now. We good? No violence?”

“I won’t if she doesn’t.” Raine shrugged.

I swallowed, my heart racing, struggling with phantom limbs and a screaming survival need to flee.

The door to the hospital room opened, wide and slow.

She paused an inch inside the threshold. Wiry muscle shifted and adjusted beneath an athletic top and a tight grey hoodie. Like a living knife, whipcord thin and spring-loaded. Palms open to show us empty hands. Tattoos climbed her throat. Flint-hard shards of rock peered out from gaunt sockets.

Amy Stack, the ex-cult assassin, nodded her shaved head in greeting.

“Morell, Haynes.” She made eye contact with me and Raine in turn, slow and steady and utterly expressionless. Then Nicole. “Detective.”

“Slaphead. Fancy seeing you here.” Raine’s face split into a maniac grin. She shifted her footing and slid a hand inside her coat. “How’s the arm?”

“Hey, I said no violence.” Nicole stood up, eyes on Raine’s covert hand. “And close the door, please.”

My body made it hard to focus. The ghost echo of iron scales and toxic defences quivered up my back. Amy Stack terrified me on an animal level, because in a way she really was a little bit like Raine, minus any compassion. She was a predator, a pure thing, and the memory of the abyss responded in kind.

I almost lunged out of my chair, gripped by an insane urge to hiss at her with a mouthful of fangs I didn’t possess.

Stack stared – not at Raine and her obvious threat – but at me.

“Scared of me?” I managed.

“Huh,” Stack grunted.

“Hey, shiteater, I asked you a question,” Raine repeated, still grinning. “Not Heather, you don’t even get to look at her. Look at me.”

Slowly, unconcerned, Stack blinked back to Raine. In answer, she glanced down at her right arm, raised it slowly and rotated the wrist. Her broken bone had fully healed since last time we’d met.

“Detective,” I said, trying to distract myself from the phantom limbs, the tentacles in my head. “Are you in on this?”

“No, no,” Nicole answered. “Like I said, she approached me last night. My dog hated her, which is always a bad sign.”

“You have a knife,” Stack said to Raine.

“Good eyes,” Raine purred back.

“Oh, shit,” Nicole glanced between the pair of them. “Come on you psychos, we’re in a fucking hospital.”

“If you draw it,” Stack said, “or rush me, I’ll run away.”

Raine laughed. “Oh yeah? Sounds like a pretty good incentive to rush you then.”

Raine twitched, the very beginning of the motion to draw her knife and drive Stack away. Stack shifted one foot back, about to flee.

“No!” I shot to my feet. “No, Raine, wait.”

They both stopped. A pair of barely domesticated predators caught before a territorial fight. Raine eased off but stepped half in front of me. I looked Stack right in the eyes, swallowed and sweated, struggled to organise my words.

Stack didn’t relax at all. She stared back at me.

“You could have called us if you have something to discuss,” I said. “You have Raine’s phone number. I seriously doubt you’re reckless enough to make an assassination attempt in the middle of a hospital, without backup, in earshot of two police officers, who you’d also have to kill.”

A tilt of her head, the smallest nod.

“Which means this is a show of good faith,” I concluded. “From you?”

“From my boss.”

Edward Lilburne.

Alexander’s uncle. Lozzie’s uncle, the one she’d fled Outside to hide from. The old man I’d glimpsed so many months ago in the underground car park. The organiser behind the Sharrowford Cult, splintered off after I’d murdered Alexander, but before the Eye’s corruption.

“Your boss wants a sucking chest wound too, I can arrange that,” said Raine.

Stack ignored her, spoke to me. “I’m here to set up a meeting. My boss wants to talk. To Evelyn Saye, and yourself.”

“A meeting.”

Stack nodded, that barely perceptible tilt of her head.

“To discuss what?”

She stared, empty and cold.

Raine laughed. “You could at least try to be subtle about setting a trap, you know? Subterfuge 101, don’t stand there giving the game away.”

“Not a trap. In a public place-”

“Like last time you invited me to a ‘little talk’?” I snapped at her, surprised by the depth of my scorn. Phantom limbs tried to reach out, wrap her head in crushing tentacles, shove her away. I shuddered. “Like that coffee shop? Like then?”

She shook her head slowly, blinked slowly, sighed slowly, exaggerating the care in every motion. Keep us calm, no sudden movements. “You choose the public place. You choose the day, the time. You get there first – or don’t, your choice – and then tell us the location. We’ll tell you the route we’ll take, you can watch us approach from a mile away, make sure we don’t deviate. You bring whoever and whatever you want, as long as you come to talk, not to fight.” She raised her eyebrows, as if admitting a point. “Bring Zheng, if you can keep it under control.”

“Sounds like a square deal to me,” Nicole muttered.

Raine turned her head, raised an eyebrow at me without letting Stack out of her peripheral vision. I shrugged, lost, my mind racing to keep it under wraps that Zheng – our most potent weapon – had not returned from the countryside.

“You boss has this all figured out, huh?” Raine asked.

“Edward is a very methodical man.”

“And what do you care, huh?” Raine tilted her head one way, then the other, made it obvious how she was sizing up Stack. “’Show of good faith’ or not, why put yourself in harm’s way? What’s Eddy boy got on you?”

“Pays me a great deal of money.”

“Oh yeah? How much?”

“More than you can afford.”

“Stop it, both of you. Stop sparring,” I said. “What if we refuse the meeting?”

Shrug.

Nicole raised a hand. “Look, I’m on the sidelines here, I know. But I suspect, just from having watched, you know, mafia movies and stuff, that refusal means they escalate anyway. Am I right?”

Stack didn’t bother to look at her.

“What’s so important it has to be done in person?” Raine asked. “Except a trap, that’s one I can think of.”

“I’m not meant to say,” Stack said.

“Come off it, you slaphead.” Raine rocked back on her heels and put her hands on her hips. She’d dialled down the threat posture, but still vibrated with explosive potential. “You know you gotta give us something.”

Stack’s eyes gave nothing away, cold and blank as lead. She looked past us and lingered on Sarika’s hunched back as she huddled and panted into a pillow. “The last of Alexander’s experiment can’t get out of her hospital bed.”

“Fu- fuck you, Amy,” Sarika groaned. “Fuck off and- n’ die.”

Stack turned back to me. Waited. Her gaze spoke volumes, ‘you’re supposed to be the smart one, Heather. Figure this out.

“Power vacuum,” I said. “There’s a power vacuum in Sharrowford now.”

“There is.”

“Huh, there is, yeah,” Raine added.

“And your boss wants what – to fill it?”

“He wants a truce,” Stack said. “Edward and his associates, Saye and yourself, one or two other interested parties. The invitation is also extended to the detective, as an observer.” She nodded sideways at Nicole, and got a surprised blink in return. “A conference, a treaty. Power-sharing in Sharrowford. Before the vultures and rats move in.”

“Heather?” Raine asked, deferring to me, to my leadership. For a moment I had no idea what to do. I didn’t want to deal with Stack for a single moment longer than absolutely necessary. A small mewling part of myself said reject this, reject it and hide, get this monster out of your sight, as far away from you as possible, right now.

Cold abyssal logic whispered do it, say yes. Keep these people in plain sight, get them squared away into a position they can’t hurt you.

Set your own trap.

Kill them all.

“ … what other … what other interested parties?” I asked instead, trying to overrule my competing instincts.

“The people in Brinkwood. Your werewolf friend.”

“And why did you come to the house? On the morning of the- you know when. Why were you at Barrend Road, waiting in your car?”

“N-nothing,” a croak came from behind us. Sarika spoke up. “She- fuck you, Stack. Wasn’t there.”

Stack tilted her chin down. A silent thank you?

“I did ask that question too,” Nicole said. “About the house on Barrend Road. I am a professional, it’s drilled into me. She was observing a gathering of a rival group, getting intel. Made sense to me, at least.”

“You have no way of verifying that,” Stack said before Raine or I could jump in.

“Doesn’t explain why you came to our home,” Raine said. “Before the ‘power vacuum’ had formed. Twil chased you off, didn’t she? Not a fan of big dogs, eh?” She grinned a nasty grin.

“Not particularity.”

“Stop avoiding the question, slaphead.”

Stack ignored her, waited for me.

“Answer the question,” I said. “A show of good faith.”

Stack nodded, gave in. “My boss had instructed me to verify Evelyn Saye’s condition.”

“And kill her if you could,” I filled in the rest.

Stack did not answer.

“Fucking hell,” Nicole muttered. “You really are an assassin.”

Stack pulled the first ever pained face I’d seen from her, if one did not count the carefully controlled gasp of agony after Praem had broken her arm in that coffee shop. A frown with her brow, a curl of the lips, almost a wrinkle to her nose. On her it was practically a grimace.

“Okay, sure, say we believe all this.” Raine spread her arms. “Why aren’t we making this truce with you, right now? Why can’t we hash this out here?”

“Because I’m not a negotiator. Because Evelyn Saye isn’t in this room.” She let out a big sigh and raised her eyebrows. “Because Edward wants this to work.”

==

“Absolutely fucking not”, Evelyn spat. “Are you mad? You are, aren’t you? You’ve finally lost it. Heather’s ordeal sent you over the edge and you’ve taken leave of your senses. Yes, let’s go down the pub and have a friendly get-together with a monstrous criminal magician, who apparently tried to have me killed. Wonderful plan, Raine. I love it.”

“A pub, heeeey.” Raine nodded. “You know, that’s not bad idea.”

Evelyn’s right eye twitched. She’d been shouting for almost ten minutes, started with white-faced disbelief, built pressure through hot anger, working herself up into a good head of steam. She looked as if she might burst a blood vessel.

Raine wasn’t the real target.

“Evee,” I protested. She ignored me.

I was the only one sitting, pulled up close to the kitchen table while Evelyn stomped back and forth and Raine made four cups of tea. Lozzie hung on the back of my chair, lazy arms over my shoulders. The noise of the argument had drawn her downstairs but she seemed unconcerned, nuzzling the back of my head and blinking slow sleepy eyes at Evelyn’s rant.

Praem stood by the closed door to Evelyn’s magical workshop, comfortable and silent in her ostentatious maid uniform.

Dusk had not yet fallen, but cold wind whipped tongues of heavy rain against the windows and roof. The heating was working overtime.

“We have spent months, and blood and sweat and tears,” Evelyn slammed the tip of her walking stick against the ground, “to drive these vermin out of the city, and now you want to invite them back?”

“Hey, they made the invitation for a chat, not me.” Raine spread her arms, almost laughing.

Raine.”

“Look at it this way, why not hear them out?” Raine finished making the tea, dumped the used teabags into the bin, and slid a steaming mug of peace offering across the counter toward Evelyn. “Costs us nothing but a boring afternoon. You don’t like it, tell them to fuck right off, to their faces. At least it’ll be clear, in the open. We’ll all know where we stand.”

“I already know where we stand,” Evelyn barked. “In Sharrowford. And they do not.”

“Then tell them. Tell them to get on their collective bike and hump it.”

“Why are you so set on this?” Evelyn boggled at her. “Am I speaking Latin, do you not hear the words coming out of my mouth? This is a trap. It cannot be anything-”

“Evee, Evee, hey, I’m not set on anything.” Raine smiled wide and confident, a soothing smile. “If I gotta be honest, I don’t think we should all go ourselves.” She glanced at me for a second. “Just send Praem, do it remote, something like that?”

“I refuse,” Praem intoned.

“See? See?” Evelyn swung an arm at Praem. “Even the demon knows how phenomenally stupid you are, and she’s less than six months old.”

“Evee.” This time, I raised my voice, then flinched as she whirled on me. “Evee, you’re not actually angry with Raine. Stop shouting at her, please?”

Evelyn opened her mouth to bite, to snap, to heap scorn upon my head – then stopped dead. I wasn’t the real target of her anger either, and she knew so.

“Oh, give me that bloody tea,” she grumbled, and slumped down into a chair.

Raine placed the mug of tea in front of Evelyn like a bloodied haunch of meat before a lion. Evelyn ignored it, crossed her arms, and stared at her mobile phone. Ten minutes ago she’d flung it at the tabletop in frustration, almost cracked the screen. Lozzie disentangled herself from the back of my chair and slid into the one next to me. She settled her head onto her arms on the table, and promptly fell asleep, snoring softly.

“Here,” Raine murmured, and set down cups of tea for Lozzie and I as well. She’d added plenty of milk and sugar for Lozzie, though her tea would likely go untouched until cold.

“Idiot mongrel hasn’t exactly left me with much choice,” Evelyn hissed, staring at the phone.

“Evee, it’s okay to care about Twil’s safety. Neither I nor Raine will tease you for that.” I looked quickly at Raine, made sure she wasn’t about to undermine my words with a laugh or a smirk. She hid her mouth behind her own mug of tea. Good enough.

“She’s invincible,” Evelyn said. “What’s to care about?”

She fell silent, then sighed when nobody offered a riposte. She picked up her tea and took a long sip.

The Brinkwood Cult, the Church of Hringewindla, Twil’s family – they’d accepted Edward Lilburne’s invitation. Twil had just called Evelyn to inform us, and for her trouble she had received an earful of creative insults.

Not her fault she’d called right after we’d broken the news to Evelyn.

Also not her fault that Evelyn cared about her.

Twice in the last week, Twil had found excuses to visit us. First to welcome me back with a big hug, to hang out over biscuits and tea, and to swap video games with Raine. The second visit had served purely to irritate Evelyn. Raine and I knew they’d been talking, by phone and text message, but I encouraged as little intervention as my curiosity could stand. Let them work it out on their own.

Instead, they’d hung around in the kitchen, spent nearly forty-five minutes on the edge of an argument about nothing, then finally gone upstairs to watch one of Evelyn’s favourite anime shows together. Door open, Evelyn in chair, Twil sitting on the bed. Twil had nodded off. Evelyn had been less than impressed.

A start, at least.

Twil’s phone call had probably ruined that, for now.

Evelyn thumped her tea back down. “When you went to talk to this Sarika woman, I didn’t expect you to come back with much, but I certainly didn’t predict one of the most stupid plans I’ve ever heard. At least Sarika is out of the picture.” Evelyn swallowed, a bitter taste in her mouth. “Are you absolutely sure the detective isn’t in on this?”

“Yes,” I said. “I think I trust her.”

“You think. You think.” Evelyn shook her head. “She’s too clever by half. Doesn’t understand what she’s getting herself into. We are not walking into a bloody stupid trap, not again.”

“Evee, I really don’t think it’s a trap.”

Evelyn glared at me. “Alright. Alright, explain your reasoning. Go on, I want to hear this. It better be good.”

“I … traps are … Stack wasn’t lying when she called Edward a methodical man.”

“She’s a sociopath. She probably lies as easily as breathe.”

“T-that’s not what I meant.” I groped for the words, wished I could curl up and hide, armour myself in spines and plates. Instead I sat up as best I could. “I mean that we’ve already observed it’s true. He’s always been so careful, he won’t even speak to you over the phone in case you can hurt him somehow. Grand theatrical gestures, that was Alexander’s style. If this man was going to lay a trap, I think he’d do it so quietly, so covertly, that we’d never know it was him. He certainly wouldn’t telegraph his responsibility.”

“What she said, yeah.” Raine raised a toast to me with her mug.

“Also because Raine is a very competent judge of danger,” I said to Evelyn. “If she thought this was dangerous, she wouldn’t be going along with it at all, no matter what decision I’ve made.”

“Ouch.” Raine mock-winced and put a hand over her heart.

Evelyn snorted and shook her head. “And Raine’s never gotten this wrong before? Never put you in danger?”

“That’s not fair … ”

“Come on, I’m hardly a professional,” Raine said. “Mid-market cowboy contractor at best.”

“Why are you so set on it then, Heather?” Evelyn tapped the tabletop. “You’ve seen what these people have done, over and over. You of all people should know-”

“Exactly,” I snapped. Evelyn blinked at me, but I raced on. “Because we need to make a deal, Evelyn. Because I need to get you to the library in Carcosa, so you can raid it for knowledge. Because I need to fix whatever’s happened to Lozzie, get her Outside. I need my friends, all of you, safe. Because I need to find Zheng and I don’t know where to start. Because I refuse to spend another three months of limited time dealing with another cult. Because I need to focus on saving my sister.”

Nobody spoke when I stopped. Rain pounded the windows and roof. Wind whistled through gaps in loose tiles.

“Focus,” Praem intoned.

“I … ” I swallowed and looked down. The anger receded as quickly as it had taken me. “I’m sorry, I just … I have to focus on Maisie. I know I’m not the only one here, my problems aren’t the centre of the world. If you want, I can-”

Evelyn cleared her throat awkwardly. She wet her lips, cast about for the right words, rubbed her forehead. “If you really don’t think it’s a trap, I … perhaps I should trust your … judgement.”

“We can make sure it’s not a trap,” Raine said. “Serious.”

I nodded. “That’s what I mean, I don’t think we should blunder in. We’ll use an actual public place. We’ll go in numbers. You and me, Raine, Praem. Probably best not to take Lozzie, or Kimberly. Twil and her … her side, will be there, and they’re at least sympathetic to us. The detective too, she’ll be like a tripwire, any violence and the mundane world sits up and takes notice. And … ” I swallowed hard. Say it, cold abyssal logic whispered. Say it.

“Heather,” Evelyn said, quiet and serious. “This happened once before. When this Stack woman approached you in the library.”

“Hey, Evee?” Raine started.

“Shut up, Raine, you’re incapable of this part.” Evelyn said. Her eyes searched mine. “Heather, you said no to coexistence then, on moral grounds, because of what the cult did. Because of the killings, the kidnappings, the children you found in that castle. You felt very strongly about that. Very strongly indeed.”

I nodded. “Yes, I remember, I still do, but-”

“But. Exactly. I agreed with you then. I still do now.”

Say it. “But-”

“Dammit, Heather,” Evelyn snapped. “You’ve- you’ve been trying to show me that some decisions don’t have to be made. That magic doesn’t mean I have to … to be like-”

“But we should set a trap of our own,” I said.

“Heather?” Raine raised an impressed eyebrow. Evelyn paused, rapt with attention.

“A magical one,” I explained. “That’s your job, Evee. Either we have this truce, we make a deal – one we can approve of – or we kill them all in a single trap, and it’s done with.”

Cold abyssal memory whispered to me. Lay the trap, lay in wait, kill them all regardless. Make this bolt-hole safe for you, for your friends. Remove the threat.

“You’re serious,” Evelyn said.

I shook my head, uncomfortable, my skin crawling. “Don’t be surprised, please. This uncle, Lozzie’s uncle, I wish we could ask her more about him, but-” I glanced down at Lozzie, dozing on the table.

Her eyes were open. Staring at nothing. Blank gaze, puppet with her strings cut.

“Lozzie?”

She let out a string of mumbles, sleep-talk nonsense, then her voice cohered into actual words “-can’t let him get meeee. Please, please please. Heather, please … ”

“I won’t. Lozzie, I won’t. I promise.” I put a hand on her head, stroked her hair.

She lapsed back into mumbles, then closed her eyes again.

“Mm, quite,” Evelyn grunted.

“That’s the other reason we try to make a deal,” I said. “He stops looking for Lozzie. We- I get space and time to find my sister. Part of any deal has to be no more kidnappings. None. No preying on the weak.” I knew I was trying to convince myself, but I still said the words. Didn’t quite work.

“Perhaps this Edward Lilburne is behind the force keeping you and Lozzie from going Outside,” Evelyn said.

I nodded. “That’s what I was thinking too. Maybe. Except for the thing in Glasswick tower perhaps, and we can’t deal with that alone.”

“Mm.” Evelyn scooped up her phone off the table, hesitated, then pressed the redial button and held it up to her ear. Raine edged away from her and mimed a mock duck-and-cover routine. I sipped my tea. The call connected.

“You,” Evelyn said. “Yes, it’s me again, no- st- Tw- Twil, shut up. We’re in.”

A pause. I caught a snatched word from the other end.

“Yes, we’ll pick the place,” Evelyn continued. “How many of you will there be? Alright. I want you to call me back- no, I want your mother to call me back, or your father, or whoever else is in charge, once they’ve decided on a plan. Then I want you to call me as well, and share anything they didn’t tell me, any suspicions they’re planning a trick, or a setup, or anything else. You tell me. Understand? Good. Later.”

She ended the call and slapped the phone back down on the table.

“Well, that’s her told.”

“Evee, she’s your friend,” Raine said with a sigh and a grin. “She’s trying.”

“She’s a bloody liability, that’s what she is.” Evelyn huffed. “But I like this idea of a trap.”

“I suspected you might,” I said. “But we should only use it if we can’t make a deal. We have to try. I can’t just-” Can’t just surrender to the abyssal logic, the cold needs of pure survival.

Evelyn gave me a sharp look. “We need to find Zheng. They’ll expect her with us. Her absence raises questions, makes us look weak.”

“ … yes.” I winced and resisted the urge to bow my head with guilt. “Yes, I know.”

“She is your responsibility, Heather. You freed her.”

“I know! I- what am I supposed to do?” I shrugged, swallowing past a lump in my throat. “Stand out in the back garden and call her name, like a runaway dog? Go camping and hope she catches my scent? I don’t have some kind of psychic connection to her. I don’t even know where she is.”

“Sleeping in trees, eating wild animals,” Raine said with an approving grin. “Probably having a grand old time.”

“Until she decides to come back,” Evelyn said. “And I for one would prefer she does so before she forgets how to act like a human being.”

I sighed and nodded, knew I had to do something but had no idea what. Apparently there was no magic to locate a stray demon, and hyperdimensional mathematics was still out, too sore, a slow-healing wound.

I raised my eyes and looked through the kitchen window, into the shadows of the back garden.

No solace there.

Tenny’s cocoon hung in the tree, huge and gravid, washed by the rain, swaying with the wind.

Of course, only Praem, Lozzie, and I could see the damn thing. I’d been seeing it all week.

Big as a car, wedged between the top branches to keep it in place, anchored to the ground and tree-trunk with long sticky strips of pneuma-somatic flesh. The cocoon’s surface was a liquid tarry-black, forever shifting and flowing, just as Tenny’s flesh had. Her metamorphosis was taking a very, very long time indeed.

For a while I’d entertained the idea that she’d died in there, that the poor spirit didn’t have the energy to complete her poorly defined transformation, but a few days ago I’d ventured out, gotten close to the cocoon. Hadn’t even needed to touch the thing. I’d felt a heartbeat stir the air, a deep bass thrum of life running through the sticky black cocoon as I’d stood under the tree.

Praem followed my gaze and turned her head to look as well.

“Overdue,” she intoned.

“Yes, quite overdue indeed,” I agreed. Evelyn and Raine shared a glance. They knew it was there, but they couldn’t see it.

Whatever gestated inside, faithful Tenny or not, I’d feel a lot more comfortable with Zheng close at hand when it emerged.

Striking a deal with Edward Lilburne would also go much smoother if I had a big stick to hand, and I could think of no bigger stick than Zheng.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

covenants without the sword – 8.1

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

A week after my return from the abyss between worlds, on an afternoon of reassuringly grey English skies and grey English drizzle, detective Webb met Raine and I in the main lobby of Sharrowford General Hospital.

“Heather, Raine.” She nodded a tight hello, standing up from her seat along the wall of the glass-fronted waiting area. “I’d say it’s good to see you both, but I’d be lying.”

“Gone off us so soon?” Raine replied. She shook out her hood and brushed rainwater from the sleeves of her coat.

Nicole glanced around the waiting room. Late afternoon meant fewer visitors, and the A&E department was on the opposite side of the building, but the hospital still bustled with people. Patients waited alone or with their families, nurses hurried to and fro behind the front desks, and the occasional doctor emerged from deeper in the hospital’s labyrinthine corridors. The glass and chrome of the front entrance reflected the leaden sky above, drained of colour.

“Let’s just say you remind me of things I’d rather forget,” Nicole said. “At least it’s only you two and not the bloody werewolf. Where’s the wizard, Evelyn?”

“Not much for vanquished foes, our Evee,” Raine said with a smirk. “This is Heather’s deal.”

“Thank you,” I said. “Thank you for doing this for us. I mean it.”

Nicole pulled a not-quite-shrug with her face. Her eyes flickered over us, over Raine’s coat and the water-spotted shoulders of my hoodie, my damp hair and the dripping, collapsed umbrella in Raine’s hand. The glance of a natural detective, her eyes soaked up every detail. “You know there’s an attached multi-story, right? Silly to get wet trudging through the car park out there.”

I blushed, mortified, but Raine laughed. “You assume we brought a car.”

“You took the bus? The stop’s right out there, under cover, what were you doing to get wet like … ” Nicole frowned. “You walked here, in the rain?”

“All the way.” Raine raised her chin, proud of the senseless masochism. She did it for my benefit, pretended it was okay, pretended I wasn’t a total basket case.

Nicole shook her head. “Uni students, never a dull-”

“I needed to feel it,” I blurted out. “The rain, the water, the … forget it, please. I’m going through some complicated things. It’s nothing to do with being a student.”

She blinked at me. “ … alright then, okay. Sorry about that.”

“No, no, I should be the one apologising, Nicky. Wait, um,” I stopped and winced in frustration. “Is it acceptable to call you that?”

Nicole shrugged and pulled a genuine smile. “Don’t see why not. We’re a bit past first names, you and I.”

“Then, Nicky, I’m sorry I had to involve you in the first place. In any of this.”

“Ahhh, don’t be. The nightmares are worth the purpose. Haven’t felt this real in years.”

Raine smirked. “Nicky’s a cute name. I like it, suits you.”

Nicole cleared her throat and dropped her voice. “Miss Haynes, I do hope you’ve disposed of that illegal firearm.”

The detective looked far neater and more controlled than when I’d last seen her. Blonde hair up in a strict bun, suit jacket and trousers pressed and neat beneath a long coat, a quick ironic flash in her eyes and an upward kink at the corners of her mouth. With her chin tilted down a notch, miss Webb was the very picture of a razor-sharp private eye. Nothing gave away her police status, except perhaps the authority with which she held herself. She looked unquestionably in the right place, and the right place was anywhere she chose to be.

Raine shot her a grin and outshone her instantly. “Haven’t a clue what you’re talking about, officer.”

“That’s sergeant, to you,” Nicole said, stony-faced – then broke into a smirk. “Alright, that’s enough bullshitting.” Her eyes flickered over the waiting room and hospital front entrance once more, as casual as possible, as if we ran a risk of being followed. She radiated cloak-and-dagger in the set of her shoulders and the way she positioned herself, back to the wall, eyes high. “You want to head up there straight away? She’s not exactly going anywhere.”

“If anyone asks, who are we?” Raine said.

Nicole’s eyebrows rose an inch. “Sharp question.”

“That’s me all over.”

“It is a good point,” I added.

“Officially? You’re a pair of Sarika’s friends, here to visit the patient. That’s how I’ve gotten you in.” Nicole spoke softly, looking anywhere but directly at us. “Her family – parents, three brothers, one sister – were here this morning. All of them are busy for at least the next few hours, I’ve checked, so no surprises on that front. Sarika will play along best she can if we do get interrupted. None of her family are, you know.” She tapped the side of her head; she meant ‘in the know’, involved, part of our world.

“She knows we’re coming?” Raine asked.

“I did warn her. We don’t want her to start screaming. She does enough of that already, apparently. She’s got a single room, but I hope I don’t have to remind you this is a public hospital, so not too much noise, eh?”

“Got it. Just talk, no fuss.”

“You’re really not charging her with anything?” I asked, a tiny bit too loud. Nicole shot me a frown and Raine reached over to squeeze my hand. “I mean, she should be.”

Nicole shrugged, almost apologetic. “With what? There’s no evidence of anything, unless I or one of you lot is willing to speak up about ghosts and goblins. We’ve hit the jackpot that she’s sticking to her story, so it’s only protective custody. Anything more and you’d have to be family or her lawyer. Besides, I doubt she’s going to cause much trouble from now on.”

“Good,” I squeezed out, but it didn’t feel good. “Good.”

“What is her story?” Raine asked.

Nicole turned and gestured for us to follow. We passed through a set of double doors, then another pair marked ‘inpatient care’, and ventured deeper into the muffled corridors of Sharrowford General.

Down long hallways of blue vinyl tile and ‘You Are Here’ maps, past open ward rooms of full beds and tired nurses at their stations. Past huddles of junior doctors and treatment charts pinned to boards and cleaning staff swabbing the floors. Medical machinery hummed and dripped and gurgled. Antiseptic smells saturated the air. Televisions played low murmurs to themselves. Trolley wheels creaked.

I’d always hated hospitals.

Mostly mental hospitals as they loomed in my pre-teen memories, full of playroom confinement and big-boned nurses with rough hands, pills for me to swallow and child psychologists to explain away my Maisie.

But after the abyss, Sharrowford General was too bright, too exposed, nothing like safety and security in the dark hollow of number 12 Barnslow Drive. Echoes of alien memories urged me to seek shadows, retreat from light, hide out of sight.

“That she wasn’t involved,” Nicole said as we waited for an elevator to arrive.

She’d escorted Raine and I all the way to a bank of supplementary lifts at the rear of the hospital, where nobody else was around. A spiral stairwell yawned open on one side, an ascending fluted spine of concrete and metal.

Couldn’t keep my eyes off it; the vertical geometry and complex topography called out to me.

“That she doesn’t know a thing,” Nicole was saying. “She got invited to a party by mutual friends of her ex, a bloke who walked out on her a month or two back. She didn’t know these people very well, but there was a lot of heavy drinking and some designer drugs, then things got weird and dangerous. She hid in a closet until the fire broke out.”

“Designer drugs?” Raine smirked.

“That’s what’s in the police report.”

“And what’s her real story?”

“What’s in the report.”

“Come on, don’t give us the same nonsense from the newspapers.”

Nicole shrugged. “She’s not exactly coherent. They brought in the big guns to interview her, but she’s a survivor, she’s clever. She’s messed up like you wouldn’t believe, but she used that to shut down the questioning. The station’s going to draw a blank on this one, eventually, when the coroners throw their hands up in defeat.”

“Good thing we … good thing we burned that body,” I murmured, trying to distract myself from the stairwell.

A pained, far-away look came into Nicole’s eyes. She swallowed hard and nodded. “If I could forget ever seeing that, that would be great.” She sighed sharply and glanced between Raine and I. “You two wouldn’t happen to have some time to spare after this, would you? I’d like to talk over some stuff, if you don’t mind?”

“Is that a police officer ‘if you don’t mind’?” Raine asked with a shrewd smile. “Or a Nicky Webb ‘if you don’t mind’?”

“The latter. Nothing to do with police work. Personal stuff.”

“Heather?”

“Mm?”

I couldn’t keep my mind off the stairs. My hands felt restless and my shoulder blades twitched. I pictured how much faster it would be to ascend through the central gap of the stairwell, to haul myself up with tentacles to grasp the handrails and hooked claws to anchor myself in the walls. My skin itched and crawled to change, to adapt, to race. I shuddered with faint disgust at the feeling of phantom limbs that had never existed, metaphors for myself in a place that had not really been an ocean.

“Heather? Ground control to Heather, this is Sharrowford calling.”

Raine’s hand drifted in front of my face. I blinked and gasped, breathed in a lungful of air, snapped to and looked right at her.

“I’m fine,” I lied.

“You wanna take the stairs? Fancy a climb?” She grinned for me, all confidence and reassurance. I shook my head, guilty and confused.

“No I … I shouldn’t … ” I sighed as Raine’s knowing smile battered through all my resistance. “Yes, yes I want to climb, but not the stairs. Up the middle. It would be faster. I would be faster.”

Raine craned her neck to peer up the stairwell, at fire doors and handrails receding upward. “Hey, might be fun? I do need a cool down after the walk here.”

“Don’t be absurd, I’d expire halfway up.”

She looked at me with a twinkle in her eyes. “You don’t know that for sure. Won’t find out if you don’t try.”

Nicole was frowning at me in curious speculation. I looked right back at her and waited for the inevitable.

“You seem different somehow,” she said.

I forced a smile. “I’m still me.”

==

Raine had taken me swimming two days earlier. The experience had not gone well.

All week since my return my biological rhythms had been out of sync, erratic and overcharged – appetite and digestion, circadian and alertness, hormones and sexual arousal. I ate and ate but never felt full, and put on less than a single pound. My fingernails needed trimming every single day and my hair grew by two full inches. I felt sleepy at strange times, fell unconscious on the toilet or at the table, then lay wide-eyed alert in bed for hours, tucked up in Raine’s arms, replaying Maisie’s words over and over in the dubious comfort of the dark.

Raine and I had sex three times a day for six days in a row. I felt insatiable, like an animal in heat.

She didn’t complain, but I think it was almost too much even for Raine.

Her tall tale that I had the flu was a Godsend; I only managed to drag myself to two lectures at university, twitchy and jerky and restless as I listened to the drone of old professors. I did want to be there, I craved normality, I devoured books, but I couldn’t sit still.

I needed to move. Run, jump, climb – swim. Sex helped, physical contact helped, being around my friends helped.

Phantom limb syndrome did not.

“Why the sudden interest in that?” Evelyn asked.

We’d been in her magical workshop when I’d finally worked up the courage to pose the question. The Eye’s squid-minion, still trapped in its temporary clay vessel, was slumped against one side of its invisible prison. It had begun to dry out, body stiffer than before, cracks in its wet-bag hide. Evelyn had been exploring our options out loud when I’d changed the subject.

“I was just wondering,” I lied, then stammered in mortified embarrassment. “I-I mean, not to treat you as a curiosity. I mean- I’m sorry, Evee, I shouldn’t have asked. Please forget I said anything.”

You get to ask me anything, you fool,” she grumbled and sat down, frowning at me with curious concern. “And no.”

“Not at all?”

“Not when I have my leg on.” She tapped the knee of her prosthetic through her skirt. “Phantom pain, certainly, but that’s not quite the same thing.” She watched me for a moment. “Why do you ask?”

“I’m … I’ve been … ”

Evelyn waited a heartbeat or two before she sighed. From her, that was respect. “I can deduce the problem, but considering what you’ve been through, it’s best you share your symptoms.”

“I’ve told Raine.”

“Raine is not a mage. And she’s too easy on you.”

“That’s true. She really is.” I smiled, almost sadly. “My … my mind keeps trying to solve problems with body parts I don’t have. It’s upsetting, makes my skin crawl, but at the same time I almost cherish the feeling. Sometimes I look at a mug of coffee and I try to reach for it with a … a … ” I made a gesture from my flank, indicated a limb which wasn’t there, which I couldn’t even describe, which had never existed in flesh.

Gills at my neck stayed stubbornly shut, tentacles refused to uncoil from my sides, spikes of bone would not extend from my back. A bittersweet reminder of lost grace – and a shuddering disjunction of flesh and spirit, moments of dissociation and nausea that I clung to in awful nostalgia.

Evelyn waited for more. For all her faults and tempers, she was a good listener when she cared to be.

“You don’t know if … if … oh, this is a crazy thing to ask. There’s no way to … grow-”

“Heather,” she barked, and I flinched. “If magic could regrow limbs, I wouldn’t be be walking around with eight pounds of carbon fibre attached to a stump. Trust me, I have tried.”

“No, no, of course not. Evee, I’m so sorry, I just had to ask, I had to-”

She cleared her throat and held up a hand. “You didn’t deserve that. Touchy subject.”

“It was unthinking of me.”

Evelyn nodded awkwardly, wet her lips, and paused before she continued. “More importantly, whatever you’re experiencing is not phantom limb syndrome. Stop thinking of it as such. You need to be extremely careful.”

“It’s not? I do?”

She peered at me, frowning hard. “You said it yourself, the oceanic impression was all a metaphor. Your brain has done this to itself, a defence mechanism. You never had tentacles, or gills, or anything-”

“I know!” I put up my hands as if to ward her off, couldn’t bear to hear more. “I know. I know. But it still feels real. I still feel it.”

“You better be bloody careful, Heather. You inform me if anything changes. Anything.”

“I … I will. I will.”

“Watch yourself. Promise me.”

“I promise. Okay. Okay.”

I devoured wikipedia articles about marine life and deep sea diving, glued to my laptop for hours, to Youtube videos of jellyfish and sharks and deep-sea monsters with fangs and suckers, uploads of research submarine footage and whale pods and glimpses of colossal squid in the pelagic darkness. I watched Blue Planet over and over again, cried to myself at seals slipping through the waves, felt dull recognition for their fluid grace in the water and clumsiness on land.

Ocean floors and thermal vents made me ache for catharsis. I tortured myself with longing for a place that had never existed in the way my mind interpreted it.

Dark water and cold currents eroded my foundations.

More than once I slipped into Lozzie’s new bedroom and curled up with her in the quiet and the dark. I’d always been more comfortable in the shadows – literal, historical, social – than the bright lights of the modern world, but that proclivity increased a dozen-fold. With the lights out and the curtains shut, I could almost pretend I was back in the abyss.

Or maybe that was an excuse to spend time with Lozzie.

I had so many questions for her, was dying to ask how she’d communicated with Maisie to save me from Wonderland, about her Knight, about the dreams we’d shared. I had a list, I’d written it all down like a good little academic – but Lozzie was barely there. She slept sixteen hours every day in her spartan, empty room, and stumbled about sleepy when awake. My half-hesitant questions fell on confused ears.

She couldn’t function without the Outside. For me, the merest thought of hyperdimensional mathematics felt like poking my tongue into the raw socket of a shattered tooth. Needed time to heal. Dare not test a Slip, test to see if we even could.

I lent her three changes of pajamas. Luckily we were about the same size, because she owned nothing besides the clothes she’d appeared in, a plaid skirt and her pink poncho with floppy rabbit ears attached to the hood.

Where had that poncho come from – Outside? Soft pastel pink with two bands of blue and one of white in the middle, very comfortable to wear. I even tried it on in vain hope for insight. All I found was a normal laundry instructions tab, ‘made in Bangladesh’, and a balled up sock in the pocket.

The first time I curled up with Lozzie, we fell asleep tangled together like a pair of small animals.

Raine found us, found me. She sat on the edge of the bed and stroked my hair until I woke up.

I was terrified.

“It’s not a-” I slurred, bolted upright, pulled myself out from Lozzie’s embrace, one leg still wedged between hers. “Raine, it’s not- it-”

“Shhhh, it’s okay.” Raine whispered in deference to Lozzie’s continued slumber. “You can nap more if you want, I didn’t really want to wake you, just couldn’t help myself. S’too cute.”

“It’s not a sexual thing. It’s not.”

“Ahhh?” Raine’s grin was warm in the dark, completely accepting. Part of me wished it wasn’t, almost wanted her to tell me off, to be jealous, but not hurt. A selfish paradox. “Didn’t think it was. But hey, if that’s what you’re into.”

“It just- we just- I’m treating her like Maisie. She deserves better, but … I … ”

Raine just stroked my hair. Stroked me into calm silence – then took me back to our bed and pinned me under the sheets until I climaxed three times.

Perhaps it was a sexual thing, to her.

I didn’t need a surrogate Maisie, I need my twin sister. Her words, the first words we’d exchanged in over a decade, replayed again and again in my head – or at least my poor ape-brain memory of them did. I rocked myself to sleep, telling a memory that I loved her. I cried when alone, in the bath, on the toilet, with my own thoughts and her echoes. Beautiful, but sharp enough to cut.

The abyss had been easier.

I made several abortive attempts to talk with Praem, but even past her habitual taciturn style I couldn’t phrase the questions right. She stared back, she understood, she echoed in agreement, but we had nothing to discuss. How does one talk about the abyss in human words? Our only shared reference point was here, embodied, in the taste of strawberries and the feel of sunlight.

I kept nothing back from Raine – not my new interests or the phantom limbs or the paradoxical ache to feel the abyss again. She kept me sane, but how could she understand?

When I stopped falling asleep on my feet, and ceased eating three thousand calories a day, she accompanied me down to the university gym, to the pool. I wanted to feel my body suspended in water, dive to the bottom of the deep end and close my eyes, brush the faintest shadow of abyssal grace.

Clumsy and slow, I flailed like a cat and sank like a rock.

Couldn’t swim.

I hadn’t been in water deeper than a full bathtub since I was eight years old. My limbs didn’t remember the correct motions. Humiliated, cringing, gripped by a desire to burrow into the ground and cover myself in spines and armour plates, I’d been ready to pull myself out of the water and cry myself empty in the changing rooms.

Luckily, I had Raine.

She’d taken my hands and lent me her patience, a long hour of warming up muscle memory and teaching anew.

Luckily, we’d gone in the middle of a workday.

We shared the pool with only three other people – a man doing laps in the lanes and a young mother with her infant son in the shallows, none about to stare or laugh at a twenty-year-old woman learning how to swim.

Luckily, Raine provided me with plenty of incentive.

She took our outing dead serious, of course. She neither tried to be seductive nor show off. A one-piece in dark navy blue with a couple of red stripes up the sides, simple plain exercise wear – but on Raine, in motion, simple plain exercise wear was dangerous. She swam confident and strong, muscles humming, toned stomach and legs flexing under the water. I’d had to tuck my hair under a swimming cap, but hers was so short she didn’t need one, raked back, wet and gleaming. She raced up and down the water like a real fish. She wasn’t even a good swimmer but she made it look natural.

I assume I had an effect on her too. I hadn’t owned a swimsuit before now, so she’d picked one up for me, same as hers in a smaller size, but I felt like a gremlin next to her, short and flat and scrawny and weak.

“That’s it, keep your body straight, and kick. Kick, higher! That’s it, that’s it, you’re doing it. See? Like riding a bike.” Raine beamed at me as I joined her by the underwater handrail again, and touched the bottom with my toes.

“I want to … ” I panted for breath. “I need to go underwater.”

She cracked a grin. “Do a length first, prove to me you can. No, better, prove it to yourself.”

“I can, I can feel it, it’s like a memory from a … from out there.”

Raine laughed. “Length first, then dive. I’ll come down with you too, alright?”

I swam that length, puffing for breath at the end as Raine pulled up beside me, jittery with excitement as I clung to the rail and the wall. I stared down into the deep end of the pool, into the echo of a memory of something that was not water.

“Remember,” Raine said. “Your head’s the heaviest single part of you. Lead with your head, you’ll get down there no problem. Keep your eyes open too, try not to headbutt the floor.”

“I’m going to do it. I’m going to try.” Awkward and clumsy, my heart a-flutter, I manoeuvred my goggles over my eyes, took several deep breaths, and dived.

Ten minutes later I sat in the changing room, shivering and cold, half-wrapped in a towel, trying not to cry.

“It’s not enough, it’s not enough,” I said past a lump in my throat. “It’s not the same. Not even a substitute.”

“Hey, Heather, hey.” Raine sat down next to me on the bench, her own towel shoulder to shoulder with mine, both of us still cold and wet in swimsuits. She put an arm around me. My toes were freezing on the unheated tile. “It’s only a first attempt. We’ll find something, we’ll try again.”

“Couldn’t stay down for long enough. Ten minutes, twenty minutes, with my eyes closed, maybe that would be enough. My lungs are … crap,” I swore, threw the word at the world, at my body.

“Hey, come on, nobody can hold their breath for ten minutes.”

“Twenty-four minutes and three seconds,” I recited.

Raine let out a single laugh. “Seriously?”

“I looked it up. I was down there for … ”

“Six seconds.”

“Six seconds,” I echoed. “And I couldn’t move right, it was awful, disgusting, slow. Look at these.” I held my hands out in front of me.

“We could get you a really long snorkel.” Raine’s voice admitted no hint of a joke, but I laughed. A tiny sad laugh, but still a laugh.

“Its like drinking coffee to replace a heroin addiction,” I said. “And everything stinks of chlorine, ugh.”

“Maybe you really should take up deep-sea diving.”

“Raine, I’d die. Can you see me in a wetsuit, air tanks on my back, diving?”

She shrugged. “Why not? Plus, you’d look stunning in a wetsuit.”

“ … because … because I’m scrawny and bookish. Because I’m weak. Because that’s not what … not what people like me do?”

“See? Feels silly to rule it out, doesn’t it? You could do whatever you wanted. Wait for the summer, we’ll go down to Devon or something, you can learn to scuba dive.”

I laughed again, one sad puff. “Raine, be serious.”

“I am serious. You and me, Evee and Praem. We could invite Twil as well if she’ll come, maybe her and Evee will finally bone down if we get them out of Sharrowford together.”

I blinked at her in mild disapproval. “’Bone down’?” I echoed, but she was already off again.

“Evee can rent a cottage for a couple of weeks, we could go to the beach, go hiking, and you could learn to scuba dive with a real instructor. We’ll do it together, it’ll be fun. We’re students, we’ve got time to live some.”

“Raine, we can’t … we can’t sponge off Evee for everything.”

“It’ll be for her good too. Get her head out of this for a bit.”

“ … we can’t.”

“Then ask your parents for help.”

I laughed again, despite myself. “Oh yes, that’ll go down well. Raine, you’ve met my parents, can you imagine me asking my mum for money to learn to scuba dive? They wrapped me in cotton wool for years. They’d go spare.”

“Maybe. Maybe not. Won’t know unless you try.”

I shook my head in amazement. She was serious. A spark of cheer had lit in my chest, but it was too weak to push back the cold. “It still wouldn’t be enough. I could dive the Mariana trench and it wouldn’t be enough. It was all just a metaphor. Where I was, it wasn’t water at all, not really.”

She could have pushed, told me it was all going to be okay, told me we’d find a way, but Raine fought with herself for a moment, with that urge to make everything alright for me, and instead she just nodded. She understood.

“Besides,” I said. “I don’t have time. Not for anything. Not while Maisie’s … ”

And that, Raine knew, was where to push. “We’ll get her. I promise.”

She leaned over and planted a kiss on my wet hair. I looked down at my hands, at scrawny exposed legs sticking out from under my cold towel.

“This body is so useless. Hate this feeling. I wish I’d never gone, or never come back, or-” Never spoken to Maisie? Never returned to Raine? Never.

Raine glanced around to make sure we really were alone in the changing room, then dipped her head and planted a kiss on my exposed collarbone.

We decided to shower the chlorine off at home, together.

Still not enough.

==

Raine looked at the hospital stairwell, then at the lift – just arriving, doors opening with a bright, cheery ding – then back at me.

“Executive decision.” She cracked a face-splitting grin. “No choice, it’s up the stairs for you and me.”

“What? No, Raine, it’s okay, I mean it. I’ll … I won’t make it, I can’t climb all that way.”

“You totally can! You’re so much tougher than you think.” She put one foot on the first stair and gently encouraged me on, my hand in hers. I put up a token resistance, but Raine’s mad grin and beaming confidence pulled me forward like a magnet. My feet almost danced up the first few steps, tripping out the squeaky music of damp shoes on vinyl floor.

“Is this some domestic issue I don’t want to know about?” Nicole called after us. She stuck one hand between the lift doors to stop them closing. “I’m not climbing seven stories with you nutters.”

“You don’t have to,” Raine called down from the top of the first flight, the first mini-landing. “See you at the top, Nicky!”

“Oh I’m going to expire doing this,” I huffed and puffed already, free hand to my pounding heart. “Raine, what are you doing to me?”

“Giving you what you need.” She winked, and we climbed.

We ran two flights, almost giggling, but that was more than enough to sap my reserves and leave me heaving for breath, bent double and clinging to Raine’s arm. We walked the rest of the way, my thigh muscles aching, feet dragging. Raine made it look easy.

It wasn’t the same. Not agile, not fast, nothing like the grace of the abyss – but it was something at least, here in the flesh.

Nicole beat us by many, many minutes, and I had to rest again at the summit.

The rear half of the top floor of Sharrowford General Hospital contained a bank of single-patient low risk isolation rooms. Large and spacious, with their own attached showers and toilets, an NHS relic from a time before efficiency savings and public-private partnerships. The rooms were intended for patients whose unique conditions were so distressing for them – or for others to witness – that they were best tucked away up here, far from prying eyes.

A tall and beefy uniformed police officer stood at the entrance to the corridor, hands tucked behind the small of his back. His eyes slid over us, cold and blunt, then alighted on Nicole. He broke into a big smile.

“Sergeant,” he said, and gave her a nod.

“Collins, weren’t you here this morning?” she asked. “You pulling double on this detail because you don’t have to move your fat arse too much?”

He pointed down the hallway to the left. “Vending machine’s got chocolate bars. Can see the door from there. Technically, never out of sight of my post.”

“You lazy bastard,” Nicole laughed. Collins laughed too, then stopped himself with a cough and asked Nicole a question with a glance at Raine and I. “It’s fine, they’re fine,” she said. “Here to have a little extra-legal chat with our charge. Give me a shout if anybody from the station shows up, alright?”

“Sergeant.” He pulled himself up rigid and stared straight ahead.

Once we were past and beyond earshot, Raine turned to Nicole. “Did I misread the signals, or is big lad back there sweet on you?”

“Collins? You’re having a laugh. He’s married, three kids. Ugh, no thanks.” Nicole shook herself. “I’m popular with rank and file now, that’s what it is. Made the force look good and showed up the brass at the same time. Hero detective rushes into a house fire, saves a young woman from a crazy doomsday cult massacre. Big hand all round.”

She stopped in front of one of the rooms, one of the few with the door closed. Both rooms either side were empty, but I could hear murmured conversation from further down the hallway, the sound of a television, the clearing of a throat.

“Pity that’s not how it happened, eh?” Nicole pulled a rueful smile. “I could leverage this, get back onto homicide. Nice and straightforward, one-to-one deal, keeps the rank and file happy and I get to have a career again.” She paused. “Not sure I want to.”

I blinked away from the door, away from my trepidation and the unexpected reaction of my body, surprised by Nicole’s hollow tone. “Nicky?”

“I’ve drafted a letter of resignation.”

“What?” Raine grinned in disbelief. I blinked at her too. Hadn’t expected this. “But you’re the hero of the hour.”

“Can’t say that part doesn’t feel nice, yeah.” Nicole shrugged. “But how do you go on, knowing what you know? How do you do participate in … in … what we did? Real, bleeding-edge real – and then go back to policing, I dunno, pub fights gone too far and domestic violence? Makes me sick. I can’t talk to anybody about what I saw, about you lot, about … ” She blanched in the face, swallowed, steeled herself. “Talk to my dog, mostly. Dunno how you do it.”

“We have each other,” I said.

Nicole stared for a second. “Huh, yeah. Yes, I suppose you do, don’t you.”

“Don’t be a stranger, Nicky,” Raine said. “I’m not joking. You’d get on with Evee, better than you think.”

She snorted. “You’re all about ten years younger than me, I’d be a bit out of place.” She glanced down the corridor. “How’s that other woman doing, the wizard in training, whatever she was?”

“Kimberly?”

“Yeah, her.”

“She’s doing well,” I said. “She lost her job, and she still can’t go home, mostly because of us, so we’re looking after her for a bit.”

“Why, you interested?” Raine asked, a kink in her voice.

“Thinking about going private,” Nicole was already saying, speaking without looking at us, as if into the distance. “Private consulting. Industrial espionage would be fun, but I suspect my bread and butter would be chasing unfaithful spouses with a telephoto lens. Sharrowford’s a bit small by itself, but between here and Manchester, maybe over Liverpool way too. I’m a bent copper now anyway, whatever I do. Always tried to do the right thing, thought it made a difference. Fucking police.” She turned back to us, sighed and forced a smile. “What do you think then? PI Webb, can you see it? Should I buy a fedora, take up chain-smoking, practice my gravelly voice and hang out in shitty bars?”

“Smoking’s bad for your health, detective,” Raine mock-tutted.

“Knowing you people is bad for my heath.”

“You’ve got the … the … ” I struggled over the words. Her condition was my fault, in a way. “The skills for it.”

“And the police contacts, the goodwill. The other contacts too.” She nodded at Raine and I. “Is there such thing as a ‘paranormal detective’ in your world?”

Raine shook her head. “Not unless I count.”

“Well, maybe I’ll be the first.”

“You’re always … ” I hesitated. Nicole was so torn up about this and it was my fault. I’d introduced her to a reality that had undermined her identity, her sense of purpose, her reason for living. True, I’d done it to avoid killing her, but I’d still done it.

But cold abyssal logic fought with natural empathy. A contact on the police force was useful, an asset, an advantage. A private eye less so. Survival instinct said argue her out of the decision, tell her to stay in the job. Everything else I had screamed no, battered me with guilt and shame. Invite her in, as a friend.

“Heather?” Raine leaned forward, tried to catch my eye.

“You’re always welcome at the house,” I finally squeezed out. “Don’t be a stranger.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Nicole sighed, then turned away, back to the task at hand, the reason we were here. “You ready?”

She knocked softly on the closed door, and led us inside.

Phantom limbs prepped for confrontation with a foe, as I stepped over the threshold of the hospital room. Defences tried to unfurl, spines attempted to sprout, plates and scales and bone ached to armour me. I shuddered, my stomach churning with disgust and nostalgia.

It all fell away at the sight in the bed. Pointless.

Sarika Nilam Masalkar was, by any sane and reasonable standards, human wreckage.

Gone was the sharp-eyed, quick-tongued woman who had threatened me at the top of Glasswick tower. Gone was the leader who had kept the remains of the Sharrowford Cult together, who had masterminded their doomed rebellion. Gone was the howling banshee of bitter revenge from inside the house on Barrend Road. In her place, propped up on a rampart of pillows in her hospital bed, was a palsied, tremor-wracked, skittish shell of a woman.

She jerked away as we filed into the room, flinched as if to throw herself off the bed.

“It’s me again, miss Masalkar,” Nicole said, putting on her victim-consolation voice and a nice big smile as she closed the door behind us. “With your visitors. I did tell you we were coming.”

Sarika stared, blinking bloodshot eyes – at me.

She still had a glimmer of her old spite. Exhaustion lay like lead weight on her shoulders, in the bags under her eyes, in her hunched spine.

She was still pretty, high cheekbones and delicate nose, though her coffee-brown skin was waxy and pale with stress. Her eyes were rheumy and crusted, her mouth slack. The roots of her long dark hair showed several streaks of premature white. She clutched herself, both forearms covered in a dozen scabs where she’d picked and scratched until she bled. Her lips were the same, bitten and chewed raw. She rocked back and forth, body in the thrall of an unheard orchestra of shakes and twitches. Her breath wheezed and snorted, erratic and stuck in her throat, as if she couldn’t regulate her lungs properly.

One of her arms was pierced by multiple drip-lines, one feeding her saline, the other attached to a bag of morphine and a dose button. An oxygen machine stood by the bed with a hose and mask with straps for the head. An emergency sick bucket sat within easy leaning distance, to stop her fouling her clothes and sheets.

Her family had left fresh flowers and a traditional bowl of fruit on the bedside table, along with a small stack of books and an electronic tablet. None had been touched.

“ … told me, told me,” Sarika echoed in a broken half-mumble. Her eyes unfocused and stared elsewhere, past us, past the walls. “Told me, told me. You did. I remem- … rem- mmmm.”

For a long moment, I just stared at her, at this shivering shape on the bed, this broken woman, this human I’d brought back. I had no memory of how I’d achieved this feat, how the hyperdimensional mathematics fit together, only an echo from across a gulf of memory, lost in the time before Maisie had reminded me what I was. But I felt such terrible responsibility.

Nicole stepped past us, a tight look on her face. “Well,” she murmured. “She’s all yours. Remember what I said, not too much noise. And the nurses will be doing their rounds. One of them comes in, we’re all friends here.”

“No problem,” said Raine.

“What will happen to her?” I asked. “In the long run, I mean.”

Nicole shrugged. “Her family’s very close, very big. I got the impression she was a bit of a wayward daughter, a little estranged. The parents were obviously really hurting at the sight of her. She won’t be left institutionalised.”

“She lost everything,” I said. Raine squeezed my hand, but I barely felt it.

“You did save that woman, Heather.”

“Did I?”

Shouldn’t I have felt elated? Sarika was alive, I’d pulled her from the Eye’s grasp and rebuilt her from nothing, even if I couldn’t recall doing so. She was living proof it was possible. Now I was here, talking to her almost seemed secondary, an excuse made up by my subconscious purely so I could witness the result of my work.

It was terrible to behold.

Would this be life enough for Maisie? Could I bear to see my twin like this?

Yes, I knew in an instant. Anything was better than the Eye. The abyss was better than the Eye.

Even ruined and broken, I would love my sister. If I had to, I’d dedicate the rest of my life to taking care of her.

“Sarika?” I tried.

Her head jerked round, snapped back to me, eyes sharp and suddenly present. We stared at each other, a long moment of contact.

I meant to speak, to say ‘you can probably guess why I’m here,’ or ‘I have questions I need to ask you,’ or just ‘what does it want?’ But I couldn’t get any words out. She’d been my enemy, she’d tried to kill me. In the final moment, she’d tried to kill Raine.

She was alive, and human.

She was a miracle.

She turned away again, panting softly, to stare out of the window at the grey sky and the rain on the glass.

“Sarika?” I repeated, and stepped forward, wriggling my hand free from Raine’s grip. She moved to follow me at a slight distance, but Nicole hung back. I approached the edge of the bed. “Sarika, you … do you know who I am? Can you … speak?”

“Mm,” she grunted. Her legs made tic-like jerking motions under the sheets. Her breath wheezed.

“It’s out of your head now, is that correct? All the way out, like before Alexander made his deal? It’s gone?”

“ … mmhmm.”

I lowered myself into a chair by the bed. “There are things I need … need to know. Things I need to ask.”

“Y’know already,” she slurred, staring out of the window, sullen and hunched. “Told you.”

“You don’t know what I’m going to ask.”

“Crushed us.” She lifted one hand and ground a fingertip of the other into her palm. “Squish.”

“Yes, yes, we figured out what happened. That’s not what I want to ask.” A bizarre part of me desired to reach out and touch her arm or her shoulder, because what I’d brought back was in so much pain. Didn’t matter that she’d been my enemy; she’d been tortured like Maisie and I had been, like Maisie still was. “I need to ask about the Eye.”

A shudder of pain passed through Sarika’s body as her breath hitched in panic, sucked through gritted teeth. She groped for the morphine dose button, jammed it over and over with her thumb as she curled up on herself, like an insect exposed to fire.

“I-I’m sorry, I’m sorry but I have to ask,” I said. “I need to know what it wants. Why it wants me. What it’s-”

“I c- ca- c-c-c-c-” Sarika made choking sound, like an object lodged in her throat. She squeezed her eyes shut.

“Oh fuck, I’ll get a nurse.” Nicole jerked for the door.

“Nnnnnn!” Sarika grunted, pure irritation.

“Wait, wait,” Raine said.

“Nnnnn … nnnnn … can’t. Can’t.” Sarika panted for breath, slurring her words as the pain passed. “Just run.”

“I can’t do that,” I said. A lump grew in my throat. “I can’t.”

“No other … choice? Hide.”

“I can’t do that either. Sarika, listen to me, please. Listen carefully. I don’t know how much Alexander told you of what he knew about me, but I have a twin sister. When we were nine years old, the Eye kidnapped us both. Took us away, to the place where it lives. I escaped. My twin, her name is Maisie. She’s still there.”

Slowly, gripped by tremors and struggling for breath, Sarika turned her head to look at me. We made eye contact. I felt tears on my cheeks, ignored them.

“She’s been there for ten years,” I continued. “More than ten years now, because last month was my birthday. The Eye had you for a few hours.”

Sarika blinked once. Her brow knotted with concentration.

“I left my body,” I said. “That’s how I pulled you from its grip. I left my body to find my twin, and I did find her, but I couldn’t … ” I swallowed, my own breath shuddering with an intensity of outrage and anger I had never thought myself capable of. “I saved you from the Eye, and I had to leave my sister behind, again. I’ve been there. I know what it’s like. And I had to leave her behind. Again.”

“Heather?” Raine murmured in my ear. A hand squeezed my shoulder. “Heather, I can do this, if you want.”

“No, you can’t.”

Sarika stared back at me, and understood.

“I would not ask you this to hurt you,” I told her. “Because there’s no purpose to that. My purpose is understanding, knowledge, insight. I need to know the Eye. What it wants. Why it took me and Maisie. Why it won’t let her go. It had you and the whole cult, enough humans to do whatever it wanted. So why me, why us?”

Sarika grunted. An affirmative.

“Thank you,” I said. “Please, try. Whatever you have.”

Her jaw quivered with effort as she straightened up. Hands fluttering, she mashed the morphine button again, but she’d already maxed out the dose. She dropped the dosing remote and twitched a bitter smile at me.

“Twins,” she slurred. “Explain- explains the feeling.”

“The what? What feeling?” I sat forward, on the edge of my seat.

“Half. Half you, half her. Confused it. Suppose we all … all look the same, to it. Didn’t expect two of us to actually be the same.” She smiled, then grunted and convulsed once, as if heaving to be sick. “Gods make mistakes. Fuck reality.”

“Mistake? What do you mean, what made a mistake? The Eye made a mistake? With Maisie and I?”

Sarika panted, sudden and rapid, and let out a low whine, a horrible animal noise I knew all too well from nights in child mental hospitals, the panic of a person trapped inside their own mind with something that hated them. She hunched tighter into herself, curled up almost into a ball, on the verge of a scream.

“Why don’t we back off for a minute, give her some space?” Nicole said loud and clear.

“No, not yet. Sarika? What do you mean, it made a mistake?”

“Can’t. Nothing more,” she whined, curled up so tight she pressed her face into the sheets. “You think I- I asked? It needs the other half of … of … you.”

“For what? Why?” I was out of my seat, hands hovering over her, desperate for that tiny nugget of meaning. “What for?”

“Prop- prop-” she choked on nothing again. “Propagate? Let you out- adopt you- cuckoo. Adop-”

She heaved herself up, turned to the side, and vomited into her sick bucket. One, twice, three times, she spat blood-laced bile, hacking and coughing, wheezing for breath.

I stepped back. Slowly, painfully, Sarika deflated back onto the bed, drained from the effort of relating what little she’d gleaned of the Eye’s purpose and desires. Nicole kept glancing at the door. Sarika turned on her side in the bed, curling into a foetal position as she muttered under her breath. I caught scraps, ‘torn apart’, ‘missing missing missing’, ‘sorted and catalogued and put back together and ruffled like cards and-’.

Sobbing and dry-heaving into her pillow, her body gripped by tremors, I’d used her up.

Stiff and awkward, my mind racing, I finally stepped back and gave her some space. I backed away, from her, and from what she’d said.

“Heather?” Raine took my hand, tried to catch my eyes. “Heather?”

“Like I said,” Nicole sighed. “Not exactly coherent. Any of that make sense to you? Didn’t seem very helpful.”

I swallowed, stared at the detective until she frowned at me, and then down at my pocket. Hands trembling, I pulled out my mobile phone and thumbed through my contacts.

“I have to call my mum,” I said.

“Hey, hey, Heather,” Raine said. She understood instantly, put the pieces together almost as fast as I. “That’s not what Sarika meant. I don’t think that’s what she meant at all.”

“She might. She might.”

“And we can do it at home, you don’t have to-”

“I have to ask her now. I have to, I have to.” I stammered, voice shaking in my throat. I found my mother’s number, pressed the call button, and held the phone to my ear. My heart hammered in my chest.

“Heather, it’s going to be fine,” Raine said, strong and clear and confident. For once, I did not believe her. “That’s not what Sarika meant.”

“What if she did?”

“You could wait five minutes,” Nicole suggested. “Ask her to clarify, if she can get the words out? What’s the rush? I don’t follow.”

I shushed her with a wave of my hand.

Four rings, five rings, and the call connected.

“Heather? Heather, dear?” My mother’s voice from the other end of the country, tinny and distant on the phone. For bizarre childhood moment I wanted a hug from my mother.

“Mum, yes, it’s me, I-”

“It’s been three weeks since you last called! I left a message two days ago. Look, I’m at work right now, but-” she broke off for a moment, to answer a question from beyond earshot, then returned to the phone. “Heather, it is lovely to finally hear from you,” a hint of sarcasm in her voice, a edge of reproach. “I’m going to make some time here in a moment, and we can-”

“Mum, I have to ask you a question. Right now. And- and I need you to just answer it, not … not get like you do sometimes.”

“’Get like I do sometimes’?” Her voice rose by half an octave. “Well, excuse me, what is that meant to mean? What is this-”

“I need you to tell me the absolute and total truth. Mum, mum, I never ask you for anything. Tell me the truth.”

A moment of silence. For the first time in my life, my tone shocked her. In a smaller voice she said, “What is this about?”

“Mum, am I adopted?”

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