nostalgia for infinity – 9.13

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“Didn’t even think about the socioeconomic angle between those two,” Raine said. “Some PPE student I am, hey? They’re gonna have to talk that out themselves. You think they’re up to it?”

She may as well have been speaking Ancient Greek for all the sense I made of that.

Raine was sat cross-legged on the foot of our bed. She was wearing a pair of shorts which showed off her legs, and the kind of tshirt she only ever wore to sleep – vomit yellow with a faded logo on the front for a band called ‘three arm sally’, frayed a little at the collar, probably stolen from a live music show during her teenage homeless period. Television glow lit her face in profile; she’d booted up the playstation while waiting for me to finish in the shower.

Sound down low, controller loose in her hands, she piloted an unnaturally energetic cartoon girl across some picturesque fantasy woodland, picking up mushrooms and herbs, occasionally pausing to hit a slime monster in a fight. Her fingers worked on automatic, still pressing buttons as she glanced over at me.

Her hair was all chestnut brown disarray, still a little damp from the shower. She looked flushed. I wanted nothing more than to lie down on the bed and put my head in her lap.

Perhaps unwisely, I resisted. I put my bath-towel over my head and hid in the darkness.


“I understand each of those words in isolation,” I said, muffled under my towel. “But not in that order and not at the moment.” I frowned with sheer mental exhaustion and lifted the towel to peer at her again. No, she was still there, toned thighs and damp hair and all. “What did that mean?”

“Evee and Twil,” she said, and paused the game. “Heather, are you alright?”

“Exhausted, inside and out, up and down. What about Evee and Twil? Could you explain, please, so I can confirm I’m not having a stroke or something?”

We’d finally finished returning some semblance of peace and quiet back to the house about half an hour ago, and capped the process off with a much-needed pair of overlapping showers, though I’d been far too tired to do anything fun. Just stood quietly under the stream of hot water as Raine had washed my hair.

Finding clothes to fit Zheng had proved easier than we’d thought, though Raine was correct in her assumption that a shopping trip was in order, and soon. An old jumper with a hole in one armpit and a pair of pajama bottoms with a very generous elasticated waistband, they would tide my giant friend over for the night, but I doubt she’d want to be wearing them for long. As an added side-effect, the lack of proper clothes would hopefully keep her from wandering off or returning to the woods, at least until I could snatch enough rest to get my head around her.

Evelyn had suggested we clear out one of the upstairs rooms for her, but by that time we were all spent. Zheng had shrugged and grunted and propped her feet up on the kitchen table.

Lozzie had succumbed to her creeping sleepiness again, at least for now, and Tenny was wrapped up in bed with her. None of us had the slightest clue how much sleep Tenny would require, but she’d seemed entirely happy to curl up against Lozzie’s side, her tentacles wandering around the spare room to latch onto the door frame, the windowsill, Lozzie’s arm, like a spider suspending itself from a web.

“She’ll sleep ‘till she’s done,” Lozzie had murmured when I’d asked, one of her eyes fluttering shut, the other squinting. She had her arms around Tenny, and they looked so comfortable I was almost tempted to join them. “Done-done. She knows not to wake everyone up. Isn’t that right, Tenny?”

“Uuuup,” Tenny had fluttered. “Up. Up”

“Say goodnight to Heather now. Auntie Heather!”

“Guuuuaaah, Heather,” Tenny had managed. If I’d been more awake I think I would have died.

Nobody had seen Kimberly since she’d retreated from the chaos, but Raine took the plunge and checked on her. I’d tagged along. We’d found her sitting knees-to-chest in the chair in Evelyn’s study, eyes red-rimmed with THC, reading a battered, dog-eared copy of The Mists of Avalon. We’d left her to it.

The last we’d seen of Twil was from the far side of a massive ham sandwich she’d been constructing in the kitchen, casting suspicious glances at Zheng’s closed eyes and regular breathing.

“She’s faking it,” Twil had hissed. “Probably doesn’t even need sleep.”

Evelyn was downstairs too, in her workshop. Or maybe she’d gone to bed already. I’d lost track.

“I mean there’s a class gap between Evee and Twil, right?” Raine said as I finished drying my hair. “Twil’s family isn’t dirt poor, but they’re not well off. I guess a small-time cult without active recruiting doesn’t exactly rake in clandestine funds. Her dad used to be in the army, but that was years ago, and her mum’s a schoolteacher at the primary in Brinkwood. And our Evee, well. Technically her dad’s not petty bourge, but,” Raine shrugged and pulled an ironic smile. “She is loaded. Twil’s right about that.”

“Okay, and?”

“And they probably need to talk that out, if they’re ever gonna, you know.” Raine spread the first and middle fingers of her right hand, and stuck her tongue between them.

I gave her an unimpressed look. She laughed.

I walked over to the bed and flopped down. I’d intended to sit, but my body didn’t obey, unfolding across the sheets as I closed my eyes. “No,” I said. “No I don’t think they could talk about money. They can’t even talk about their own feelings.”

“Maybe if we lock them in a room together and put up a sign that reads like ‘This door will only open if you snog for five minutes.’”

Raine’s fingers found my hair. She combed it back, away from my face, then scratched my scalp, hard enough to force a little groan from my throat. Firm and confident, her hand travelled down the back of my neck, and squeezed in the exact way to make me purr.

“No,” I said.


“No, as in, we’re not going to leave it up to chance. We’re going to cut this Gordian Knot for them.” I cracked open my eyes found myself staring at Raine’s bare thigh, the video game paused on the television screen beyond. “On second thought, I’m going to cut the knot. You should stay out of it.”

“What, you think I’m a bad matchmaker?”

I looked up at Raine, her face upside down from my perspective. “You can never resist teasing Evee.”

“Got me dead to rights there, yeah.”

“Plus it’s less like matchmaker, more like peace negotiator. There’s so much tension between those two, they’ll explode sooner or later if it’s not resolved.” I closed my eyes again. Everything felt so heavy.

“You sure you’re alright, Heather?”

I shrugged. “Over-tired. Jealous. Busy day. Sides hurt.”

“Jealous?” Raine asked.


Raine’s hand slipped beneath the collar of my pajama top and found my shoulder, and I knew what would happen next. She would set the playstation controller aside and switch the television off, and turn all her attention to me. Maybe we’d have sex, but more likely she’d just rub my shoulders, my back, my belly, until I fell asleep, and then she’d help roll me into bed, semi-conscious Heather clinging to her like a sleepy Koala bear. We’d snuggle up under the sheets and I’d feel safe and protected and normal and for a few hours of shared drowsing I’d be able to forget everything. I’d wake in the morning, and having put it off for one night I’d put it off for another, and another, and it would fester and grow until a rotten abscess ate at my heart.

But I was so tired. I wanted Raine, and sleep, and not to think.

Luckily for me – and for the health of my relationship – my phantom limbs didn’t give a hoot about how tired I felt.

As I lay there on the verge of giving in, they were trying to push me up into a sitting position. A dull, quivering ache ran along my flanks, a faint muscle spasm below the surface. Five of the six tentacles, ghosts of potential from my memories of the abyss, uncoiled and pushed at the bed, braced themselves to take my weight. One tried to wrap around my upper body, to pull me up. They couldn’t touch anything, but the pain in my sides spiked and prickled all the same. I hissed through my teeth.

“Alright, alright,” I grumbled.

The tentacles were right. Ape comfort wanted Raine, but rational thought – cold abyssal survival logic – knew that I had to talk to Raine now, or I never would. I drew willpower from that writhing core of inhuman drive in the core of my soul, sighed, and stole myself for the task.


“S’nothing,” I lied, then reached up, found Raine’s wrist, and halted her hand.

“Hey, Heather, you’re exhausted, yeah? Let me pamper you, come on, you need to wind down.” Raine pulled her wrist free, but I was already struggling back into a sitting position.

Struggling more than I expected.

Couldn’t sit up.

One hand slipped and I fell back to the bed, confused with a second of dull panic, muscles not working right. My phantom limbs flailed, sent another shiver of shock up my sides, and I realised what the problem was. They weren’t helping.

The tentacles didn’t exist, not unless I built them from scratch with hyperdimensional mathematics. They weren’t there. They couldn’t take any weight, not really – but my brain insisted they should be able to.

“Heather? Heather?”

Raine was saying my name, but I barely heard her; for several long moments I had to concentrate with total focus on the act of sitting up, on the simple motions of my hands and the tired muscles in my back and sides. Eyes squinted, teeth clenched, moving with the mechanical precision of a robot, I pulled myself into a sitting position, trying to suppress phantom pain from limbs that I didn’t really have, trying to remember how to pilot this golem of water and protein.

Something alien and invasive and floppy and soft brushed against my face.


And then perception snapped back, vision resolved into Raine’s face. She had both her hands raised in gesture of ‘I’m-not-touching-you’ caution. I felt my cheeks flush bright red.

“I-I- R-Raine I’m so sorry, I-I just … I … I don’t know what … I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to … oh God, did I hiss at you?”

Raine kept her hands up where I could see them, and looked at me with open curiosity, as if waiting to see if I’d do that again. Then she broke into a smile.

“You do that loud enough,” she said, “Evee’s gonna think we’re up to some real kinky shit in here.”

“Raine,” I sighed, felt myself deflate, my horror punctured by her irreverent joke. I put my face in my hand and my other hand against my racing heart. “I can’t believe I hissed at you. I-I didn’t mean anything by it, I was just confused because I was … I was trying to sit up, but … I … I couldn’t remember how, like my body was alien for a moment, I-”

“Shhhhhhh,” Raine hushed me gently. She touched a finger to my lips, and this time I didn’t hiss at her. “I get it. I understand. It’s just you, being you, and hey, I think that’s pretty cool.” She trailed her finger downward and cupped my chin. “Gotta come at you from below, not surprise you from above, huh?”

I rolled my eyes and blushed for a slightly different reason, still mortified at myself.

“Here, one sec,” Raine said.

She put down the playstation controller at last and stretched across me to reach her bedside table. I wasn’t sure if it was intentional, but the sight of the back of her bare legs hugged by the cuffs of her bedtime shorts went rather a long way to soothing my discomfort. She rummaged for a moment amid the detritus of books and lip balm and keys and a handheld torch and her knife, then sat back again holding a very familiar black body-art pen.

Bless her, Raine always knows the right thing to do. We didn’t even need to exchange any words, we slipped into the ritual with the comfort of long repeated habit. I scooted against the wall at the head of the bed, a pillow propped in the small of my back, and Raine settled in at my side. I hooked my legs over hers and pulled my left sleeve all the way up before offering her my exposed forearm.

She took it gently, laid it across her lap, and examined the Fractal written on my flesh.

Raine traced the lines on my forearm with the tip of the pen, and I concentrated on not feeling ticklish. The patter of rain on the window drowned out our own breathing, drowned out my thoughts. Eventually I felt enough like myself again, settled back in my body in this shared intimacy, that I gathered what was left of my courage.

“Raine, we still need to talk. About what I said earlier today.”

She glanced at me, then back at the Fractal, tracing over a line again. “Yeah, I’ve been thinking about it too.”

My stomach gave a lurch. “You … you have?”

Raine took her sweet time over another branch of the reality-hacking symbol on my arm, and I couldn’t stand the wait. She finished up, capped the marker pen, then caught my wrist as I went to pull my arm back. She raised my hand to her lips and kissed my palm, watching my eyes.

“Our problem,” she said. “Is that I want what you want. But you don’t know what you want.”

I huffed a huge sigh, disappointed. “Don’t give me that nonsense.”

“Nonsense?” She smirked. “Never.”

“You practically marked your territory in front of Zheng today. That was pretty clearly something you wanted, your feelings, your … jealousy! That wasn’t you channelling my wants, that was you.”

“Is that what you wanna be?” she asked. From anybody else this question would be a barbed goad; Raine actually meant it. “You wanna be my territory?”

I stared at her in disbelief for a second, then huffed again and pulled my hand from her grip to rub at my eyes. “Aren’t I already? Raine, you obviously weren’t comfortable about me talking to Zheng by myself, not without making it abundantly clear that I’m yours. So why keep joking about threesomes, why push me toward her like you did? I don’t understand this. A relationship goes both ways, you just wanting what I want isn’t enough. And I don’t believe it anyway.”

Raine nodded slowly, as if taking all this in, then asked, “Do you want to have sex with Zheng?”

If I’d rolled my eyes any harder, my retinas would have detached. I could have screamed at her. “That has nothing to do with what I’m trying to say.”

“S’got everything to do with it,” Raine said, soft and calm, a subtle smile on her lips. Was she enjoying my frustration? “Serious question. I won’t be hurt if you do want to, it’s obvious she fires you up. Nothing wrong with honest attraction.”

I shrugged with my hands, beyond exasperated, almost lost for words.

“Seriously,” Raine continued, and flashed one of those grins at me, burning with inner confidence. She looked so easy and relaxed, so unbothered by all this. “I’m not gonna be hurt, not gonna be offended. I know I’m still the best, in or out of bed. Doesn’t matter where else you go, I’m always with you. I could beat Zheng in a fight too, I know that now, I’ve got her number, I’ve got a read on her, right down to the margins. I don’t feel threatened by her, or jealous or anything like that. She’s not gonna take you away from me or anything, that’s just silly.”

“ … Raine? Um, okay.” Slow and soft the revelation broke inside me. “Oh my God.”


“You are jealous. Raine, you are jealous, deeply. You’re just … expressing it in a very … you kind of way. Oh, wow, okay.”

Raine cocked her head at me, curious.

I wet my lips and weighed the pros and cons of putting it into words. Cold sweat broke out on my back, balanced by a dangerous fire deep down in my belly. I had stepped, pace by pace, into a minefield, the limits of which I did not comprehend. When had Raine changed her mind? I raced back through the events of a very busy day, and settled on the moment she’d scored a hit on Zheng’s arm with her knife, when they’d almost fought in the woods. She’d drawn blood, had seemed ready to fight to the death – and then given up that fight, totally and completely.

Raine had resolved her jealous feelings by verifying she could brutally murder the object of my sexual distraction.

She hadn’t actually done so. Just proved, to herself, that she could.

“You are jealous. Maybe you don’t see what I see here,” I said slowly. “Or maybe you’re lying to yourself, I don’t know, but it’s kind of obvious to me. Why else did you mark your territory? Why kiss me like that in front of Zheng?”

“Because I … ” Raine paused, hesitated, so unlike her. “Because I wanted to.”

“That’s a start. And why did you want to?”

“I want what you want, Heather,” she said, and I almost groaned and gave up. “I don’t know how else to phrase that. Seeing you happy, or fulfilled, helping you get there, being there with you, that’s what I want.”

“What if I said I want you to be jealous?” I threw out a curve-ball, a shot in the dark.

An intense, predatory glint slid into Raine’s eyes, up from some deep place in her soul, accompanied by a subtle twist to her smile as she watched me. “Go on.”

“I … Raine?”

“Go on,” she repeated, and a tremor sank through my belly, heading down.

“I … I … ” I swallowed, pulled myself together, and it all came out in a rush. “I want you to be jealous because I don’t want some platonic ideal of you, I want you. Mess and confusion and all. And if that means you’re jealous of the way Zheng unintentionally turns me on, then so be it. You don’t have to pretend to be perfect. Being okay with me sleeping with Zheng is not perfect, it’s … I don’t know, but it’s obviously causing you … something! Something I can’t figure out. If you’re jealous, then express it. Let’s do something about that.”

“Do what?”

“I don’t know! That’s up to you.”

Raine watched me for another second, slow and knowing. My stomach turned over, full of butterflies. I swallowed, hard, and wasn’t entirely sure why.

“ … Raine?”

Raine disentangled herself from me, got up from the bed, and went over to the door. She opened it and stuck her head out into the corridor – dark now, the night rain pattering on the windows, gentle light from our bedroom creeping out into the gloom. She looked left and right, closed the door again, and turned to me with her back against the wood.

“Do you need to be punished?” she asked.

My eyes went wide and my mouth went dry. My heart rate spiked.

“ … I’m sorry, what?”

“You heard me, Heather.” Raine smiled, slow and subtle.

“Um … Raine? What does that mean? I don’t understand.”

Raine pushed away from the door, stalking toward the bed, slow and certain. “You wanna know if I’m jealous or not?”

“Raine-” I almost scooted away from her. She stopped, held up both hands.

“You could walk out of this room right now and climb all over Zheng and order her to eat you out, and I’d never harbour the faintest anger against you. But yeah.” Raine grinned wide. “I might fight her. And I’d win. And you’d need to be punished afterward, for being a little brat.”

“Raine, this isn’t what I meant.” I could barely squeeze the words out. My heart was going a hundred miles an hour. Raine hadn’t even touched me and she had me flushed in the face, something about the way she moved, the way she looked at me, that clear fluidity of muscle. She was already a guilty dream at the best of times with her ruffled hair and rakish smile and athletic frame, but now she advanced on me with all the predatory intent that made my head spin. “I meant- don’t put on act, you don’t have to- I-”

“It’s no act. You want me to be clear? This is me being clear.”

She climbed up onto the mattress, on all fours. I backed away to make room for her – but then Raine caught me in her gaze like a mouse before a snake, froze me to the spot. She straddled me, knees either side of my hips, a hand pinning one of my wrists to the bed.

“Oh,” I managed. “Okay.”

“I want you to be happy, Heather,” she said, close and soft, right above me. “If that means you get a bunch of girls together in a harem, so be it, whatever. I’ll be a little jealous, sure, but it won’t hurt me. I’ll always be number one.”

I nodded, pretty much all I could think of doing.

“But, Zheng, well,” she said. “S’different. Not sure why.”

“Would this-” I squeaked, swallowed, and tried again. “Would this be any different if it wasn’t Zheng? If it was somebody like, I don’t know, Kimberly? Somebody less … well, less similar to you? Less of a rival.”

“Less of a monster, you mean?”

“You’re not- not a monster.”

“I know what I am, Heather.” She leaned down even closer, inches from my face. “And you fuckin’ love it.”

I could smell her breath, toothpaste fresh from an hour ago. Her eyes pinned me to the bed as securely as her strength. My phantom limbs were paralysed too, trapped between a desire to wrap around her and a confused animal feedback, a cocktail of fear and arousal. My breath came in little gasps.

“ … you didn’t answer the question?” I managed.

Raine ran a hand through her hair. She pretended to consider for a moment, never once breaking eye contact. “I don’t want you to have sex with Zheng. You can cuddle up with her, you can hug her, you can ride on her shoulders for all I care. But I don’t want you to screw her. Can’t stop you, won’t stop you, but yeah, you’re right, I don’t want you to. Well done, Heather. You cracked my code.”

“That doesn’t- Raine- I- well, thank you for being clear, I-”

“Just remember,” Raine purred as she leaned in close, slipped her head past mine and whispered in my ear, so close I could feel her breath. Her free hand found my thigh, squeezed roughly, made me jerk and squeak in surprise. “I’m a much bigger monster than she is.”

I gasped as her hand moved higher.

“R-Raine, why-”

“You want me to mark my territory? Want me to show you how I feel? Bite the pillow.”


Two hours later I stepped out of the bathroom on very shaky legs, and straight into a split-second of pure dissociation.

The warm, womb-like darkness of the upstairs corridor. My own body, still flushed and hot and sore, a lingering ache between my legs. Raine’s taste in my mouth and my own sweat-drenched animal smell in my nostrils. The faint spill of artificial, television-blue light from our open bedroom door, Raine back on the playstation while I’d gone to the bathroom. All around me the house was washed with the static of raindrops on windows and roof, filled with sleeping minds around dark corners, quiet minds in the night, lurking as if under rocks or inside little caves. For an illusory moment I felt as if I could sense all the people in the house, slumbering on the edge of my consciousness.

For a moment, a fleeting post-coital illusion, I felt like I was back in the abyss.

Then it passed, and I was just plain Heather again, standing in the corridor as my phantom limbs groped about for handholds in the dark. I closed my eyes and tried to recapture the moment, that peace and familiarity, like I’d been to the bottom of the ocean.

Maybe I didn’t need to go swimming at all; maybe I just needed Raine to screw me so hard I dissociated.

“Heather?” Raine’s nighttime stage-whisper came from our open door. “You alright?”

“Yes,” I whispered back. “Sorry. Was thinking.”

I padded down the dark corridor, following the television’s glow. Raine was right where I’d left her, lying on her front in a tangle of sheets, arms sticking out with the playstation controller in her hands. She blinked a bleary smile over at me, caught in the television backwash like undersea luminescence. I think I’d done as much of a number on her as she’d done on me.

“Wanna sleep now?” she whispered.

I glanced down the hallway to the head of the stairs. The faintest light glowed up from below, not the kitchen, but deeper than that. I let out a little sigh.

“I think Evee’s still awake,” I said. “In her workshop. I’d like to check on her, make sure she’s okay.” A tiny pinprick of liar’s guilt opened a nick in my heart. “Do you want to come with me?”

“You want me to?” Raine blinked slowly at me again. I’d well and truly exhausted her.

“It’s okay. I need some water too.” I stepped into our room and over to the chair by the desk, pulled out a jumper at random, and found one of Raine’s older hoodies in my hands, black and frayed and very large on me. I wiggled it on over my head. The sleeves were too long and it smelled of her and I loved it. I wrapped it close, pressed the ends of the sleeves to my face.

On the television screen, the energetic cartoon girl was jumping up and down over and over. Raine caught my look and laughed at herself, waggled the controller and pressed the jump button again.

“Her boobs bounce when you make her jump,” she explained.

“Good for her. Don’t wait up for me, I promise I’ll join you after I’ve spoken to Evee, if she’s awake. If not, well, I’ll ask Praem to carry her to bed.”

“What if she’s with Twil?”

“ … I hadn’t thought of that. I suppose I’ll leave them to it.”

“You’re a good friend, Heather,” Raine said, paused her game, and rolled over in bed. She closed her eyes, crawled under the sheets. “A good friend and a better partner than you credit yourself with.”

“Be back in a bit,” I whispered, and set off into the depths of the house.

As soon as I got halfway down the stairs and out of earshot, I sighed to myself.

On one hand, I felt such relief. Raine had finally put her foot down. She’d made clear where she stood, and what she wanted from me. Our relationship now had a boundary, even if it might not apply to other situations: don’t have sex with Zheng.

On the other hand, had she done all that only because I’d said I wanted her to be jealous?

I didn’t think so, but I couldn’t be certain. Raine didn’t fake emotions, she didn’t pull them from some long-practised library of ‘how to pretend not to be a cold-hearted serial killer’. She felt, for real. She was just different. And devoted, to an extent and in a way which I did not understand. I couldn’t entirely shake the feeling that her possessive display had been just that – a display.

At least she gave me an easy stipulation to follow. Don’t have sexual relations with the violent cannibal demon lady you’ve just adopted into the household. Easy!

I crept down the creaking stairs and across the darkness of the front room, listening for voices. If I heard Twil and Evelyn speaking, I’d turn around and go back. Though perhaps not before a few seconds of accidentally-on-purpose eavesdropping.

A faint electrical hum lurked on the edge of my hearing, like an old CRT television. I heard the sound of a page turning, and a heavy sigh.

I followed the twilight and the sigh into the gloomy kitchen, and confirmed my suspicions. Evelyn’s workshop door was open, a light on within.

Zheng was still in the kitchen, sitting in one of the chairs like a frozen statue, feet up on the table, arms crossed, eyes closed. The huge ancient yellow jumper and green pajama bottoms looked totally out of place on her, like dressing a Greek Goddess in a cheap tracksuit. She should be wearing medieval armour, I suddenly thought.

She hadn’t moved in hours. Or at least, looked like she hadn’t.

“Zheng?” I whispered, and got no response.

An inquisitive grumble emerged from the open workshop door. A chair scooted back, papers shuffled, and a walking stick clacked against the floorboards. Evelyn appeared in the doorway a moment later, in cream jumper and long skirt. She raised an eyebrow at me.

“Evee,” I whispered. “You’re up really late.”

“So are you,” she said, not in a whisper. “You’ve had a long day. You should be asleep.”

“So should you,” I tutted.

She nodded at Zheng. “She’s pretending, by the way. We were speaking not five minutes ago.”

Without opening her eyes, Zheng cracked a smile, lips peeling back to reveal her mouth full of sharp teeth. “I was asleep, wizard. You woke me.”

“Really?” Evelyn drawled.

“Zheng, you know you’re welcome to sleep somewhere more comfortable,” I said. “You don’t have to sleep in a chair. I know we’re short on properly cleared out rooms, but there’s always a sofa. I promise we’ll at least sort out a mattress for you tomorrow.”

“I sleep better like this,” Zheng purred.

I shared a glance with Evelyn. She shrugged with her eyes. “Well,” I said. “Have it your way then.”

Zheng grunted. She sniffed the air, then cracked open an eye and looked at me. “You reek of sex, shaman.”

A blush exploded onto my cheeks. I let out a little huff and averted my eyes and didn’t know what to say.

“Oh,” Evelyn deadpanned. “Thought I heard some thumping.”

Zheng chuckled, closed her eye again, and seemed to settle back into an instant sleep. I stood there like a fool for a moment, blushing terribly, wishing I could fold myself up inside Raine’s hoodie and slink back upstairs. Evelyn shuffled back into the ex-drawing room, and for want of anything else to say, I followed her. She settled herself back down onto a chair at the old dining table as I stepped inside, and questioned me with a raised eyebrow.

“I wanted to check on you,” I said. “You’re up super late. I think it’s past midnight, um … ” I let my eyes rove over the additions to the workshop, and felt my blood go cold. “Did … did you do this all today?”

“Mmhmm, while you lot were out gallivanting around the woods.”

“Is it safe?”

A bulky old CRT television stood at one end of the table, half of its mechanical innards hanging out of the back, loose circuit boards and frayed wiring exposed like a gutted animal. It was contained inside a very fresh-looking but very simple magic circle, a single line with some Arabic text around the circumference, painted on a piece of plain canvas laid out underneath the television. A thick red cable like a car jumper lead emerged from the back of the modified television, crossing the room and snaking across the floor.

The other end of the cable terminated in a massive copper crocodile clip, embedded deep in the clay flesh of the squid-vessel thing which contained the Eye’s minion.

It looked as if it had been weakly pulling at the clip for hours without end, two of its dried, flaky tentacles worn down to crumbled stubs, still waggling ineffectually at the cable. The whole thing had moved several inches back, as if trying to cram itself into the corner of the magical circle it was contained within. As I stared, it twitched and flexed another rotten, crumbling tentacle, gesturing at nothing.

“Quite safe,” Evelyn said. “I had Praem do the handling. And this is warded.” She reached out and tapped the magic circle which entrapped the television set. “It can’t jump the air-gap and possess me again, if that’s what you’re worried about. Also I think it might be dying.”

The television was on. I could see the plug, sitting there on the table, most definitely not supplying electricity, yet the television screen flickered with abstract, overlapping, multi-coloured shapes, most of them with dozens upon dozens of sides like some kind of mathematical constructs. They were seen if as through layers of shadows moving across water, some kind of interference with the television’s display. The screen flickered and the picture dissolved into a view of a blank wall made of black bricks, then flickered again and the wall was covered with tiny red writing, then flickered back to the abstract shapes again.

“What … what am I looking at? Evee?”

Evelyn shrugged and let out a sigh. “The inside of it’s mind, I think. Or it’s trying to communicate. I don’t know. Sometimes it shows writing, like then, but the language is nothing from our world. This is what I spent all day on, trying to interrogate it.” She flicked at the pile of notes she’d taken. “For all the good it’s produced.”

“That’s … well … that’s an ingenious idea, certainly. Are you absolutely sure this is safe?”

“Mostly.” She shrugged at me with her eyes, and gestured at the squid of rotting clay. “Our uninvited guest here is far less complex than, say, Praem, but I think it exists in the same way as her, started out like her, perhaps. Summoned from … well, elsewhere, but it didn’t learn how to think from humans.” She glanced at me. “Maybe from your Eye, perhaps. I don’t think it can plan, or make independent decisions. If it could it would be trying to break containment now, it’s got access to an information vector right here in this telly. But it’s not even trying. It’s just … showing me its thoughts.”

“You should really sleep, Evee. It’s really late. Thinking about this all day can’t be good for you.”

“Sleep,” Praem intoned, and I almost jumped out of my skin. I hadn’t seen her standing there, just off to the right. I stared at her for a moment. She stared back. “Sleep,” she repeated.

Evelyn sighed, and turned the television off.

“Perhaps,” she said. “Don’t feel like it though.”

“Me neither,” I admitted, and pulled up a chair, sitting down to soothe my still shaky legs. For some odd reason, I didn’t want to go back upstairs. Evelyn frowned at me.

“Heather? Are you alright?”

I shrugged. “Sometimes I forget that Raine is a sociopath.”

“That’s not … entirely accurate. Did she do something to you?”

“Um … ”

Evelyn sighed and rolled her eyes. “Okay, yes, stupid question. You fucked, we know.” She glanced at the door, then at Praem, and without any vocal communication passing between them, Praem stepped over and pushed the workshop door shut with a soft click. Evelyn turned back to me. “Heather, did Raine do something bad to you?”

“What? No, no, not at all. It’s complicated. Relationship stuff, I guess. Oh, Evee, I don’t know what I’m doing. Can I talk to you about this?”

Evelyn leaned back in her chair and snorted a humourless laugh. “You want to come to me for relationship advice? Little miss I-just-spent-two-hours-having-sex, and you want to talk to me?”

My turn to roll my eyes. “Evelyn, you are my best friend. And you understand Raine better than I do, I think. You’ve known her for longer.”

“I knew it, she has done something, hasn’t she?”

“No,” I tutted. “I just … I don’t know how to handle this situation. Where I think she might be taking this.” I glanced at the door again and lowered my voice. “I think she’s jealous of Zheng, but in a way I didn’t expect.”

I outlined what had happened, not just upstairs between Raine and I, but earlier in the day too, the confrontation in the woods, the pact they’d made over me. I repeated Raine’s words about how she could beat Zheng anytime, if she so chose to. Evelyn listened politely, frowning harder and harder as I finished.

“You want to have sexual relations with that barbarian in the kitchen?” was the first thing she asked.

“No! Not … well, a little bit, but no, not really, I don’t think so. It’s not as if I’m incapable of self control. Look, Evee, that’s not the point, it’s Raine that-”

“Yes, yes,” Evelyn waved me down, then sighed. “Of course she’s jealous, anybody would be.”

“Yes, but only Raine deals with jealousy by deciding she can beat a demon in a knife fight. I hope this won’t go any further, but I’m not sure. I’m worried she’ll … I don’t know, exactly. Like I said, sometimes I forget Raine can be … frightening, I suppose. I really don’t want her to get hurt, Evee. Emotionally or otherwise.”

Evelyn stared at me for a moment, sucking on her teeth. “You’re looking at this wrong.”

“I … I am?”

“Heather, I told you before, months ago, that Raine wants to be your knight errant. That’s the role she’s dreamed up for herself in life, it’s how she fits together, and she needs a damsel to play opposite her or she goes looking for other causes. I used to be that to her, and I sometimes I suspect if I’d not been a sexual cripple, if I’d showed the slightest interest, she might have made a move on me.”

“Seriously? You’re not-”

“Not her type, yes, exactly.” Evelyn shrugged. “I suspect, that’s all. But then she found you, and you’re perfect for her. Don’t make me spout a bunch of soppy nonsense, but it’s true. You and her fit together surprisingly well. Even now you’ve, well, gained some confidence, she’s still all over you.” Evelyn pointed at the closed door to the kitchen, but really she was indicating what lay beyond, sitting there with her feet up on the table. “But now you have another protector.”

“Yes, but I’m not going to sleep with Zheng. I’ve told her that now, and I won’t break that promise.”

“You’re missing the point,” Evelyn almost snapped. “The romance, the sex, it’s secondary. I think you’re right. If you decided to go kiss Kimberly – or me, or I don’t know, Lozzie – I don’t think Raine would care much. Raine, first and foremost, wants to be your primary protector. That’s the pillar of her psyche. That’s the rivalry which matters to her. Perhaps unconsciously so.”

I sighed and nodded, sagged in the chair and rubbed my face; Evee was just telling me what I already knew, but hadn’t wanted to accept.

“I don’t know how to handle that,” I said.

“Me neither.” Evelyn glanced at the door again. “Stroke of genius by that demon, making her swear a pact in front of you. Otherwise they’d be at each other’s throats.”

“I suppose there’s that to be thankful for.”

“Mm.” Evelyn watched me for a moment. I hugged Raine’s hoodie tight around myself, staring at the floor. “Just talk to her, Heather, I’m sure she’ll understand. She adores you. She’d do anything for you.”

“I know,” I said, then glanced around the room, trying to distract myself. “Speaking of talking, where’s Twil?”

“She went home.”

“In … ” I glanced at the windows, hidden behind thick curtains, but the patter of rain against the glass penetrated the whole house. “In this? At this time of night?”

“She’s hardly a wilting violet,” Evelyn said, turning to her notes. “She’ll be fine.”

“Evee. Evee, you let her go?”

“She’s an adult, she can make her own decisions. Besides, this house is reaching carrying capacity.”

“She could have slept on the sofa or something.” I sighed. “She could have slept in your bed. With you. Hint hint.”

Evelyn’s stare could have sandblasted rock.

“You didn’t make her leave, did you?” I asked.

“No … yes. Maybe.” Evelyn straightened up and huffed. “We had a very awkward conversation, alright? Things got … weird.”

I had to resist a very specific urge to put both hands to my mouth. “Did you … did you tell her what you-”

“Discussed Tenny,” Praem supplied in a sing-song voice. “Bake-off. Sleeping arrangements.”

“Yes, and that was all, thank you very much, Praem.” Evelyn shot the doll-demon a nasty look.

I sighed. “Evee, I don’t know why you and her don’t just talk to each other. You … oh wow.” I shook my head, feeling my heart catch in my chest, a lightness in my head. Was I really about to do this? Did I have the right? I’d been so sure while talking to Raine earlier, but now I had to force the words out. “I’m really not sure I should tell you this, but … Twil, well, I’m pretty sure she kind of likes you. In that sort of way. I think if you talked to her about it, she’d say the same things to you.”

Evelyn stared at me, deadpan and blank.

“Um … Evee?”

“I’m not a complete idiot,” Evelyn said. “And despite her appearances, neither is Twil. I think after your little display earlier, it was blindingly apparent to everyone present. Even Tenny, and she’d just been born.”

“You mean you-”

“Twil knows. Alright?” Evelyn snapped. “She knows that I know, and I know she knows that I know. We both know.”

“Did … did you talk to her about it?”

Evelyn looked away, uncomfortable. “What do you think?”

“You didn’t. You didn’t?”

“Yes, I’m a coward. You know that already.”

“No, you’re not. Evee, you’re not a coward. Don’t treat yourself like that.”

Evelyn threw up her hands in irritation and turned back to the notes and papers and sketches on the table, sorting through them angrily, shoving them into a pile. “Fetch me some chocolate,” she barked at Praem. “Sod it, I may as well.”

Praem obeyed, opening the door and marching out into the kitchen. Evelyn and I were greeted by the sight of Zheng, eyes open and awake, a subtle grin on her lips.

“Wizard,” she rumbled. “The shaman was right, you do like the smell of wet dog, right up in your cu-”

If looks could kill, Evelyn’s scowl would have reduced Zheng to atomic dust. “You mock this, demon, and I’ll send you back where you came from.”

Zheng shrugged and closed her eyes again. “Don’t tempt me.”

Evelyn stared at her for a moment longer, looking like she was about to lurch out of her seat and have a go at Zheng with the business end of her walking stick, but Praem strode back into the room and offered Evelyn a Yorkie bar fetched from the cupboard. Evelyn tore it out of her hand, ripped the wrapper open, and shoved a segment of chocolate into her mouth, chewing with determination. She swallowed, thought for a moment, and offered the bar to me.

“No thanks, not right now, too late at night,” I said.

“What if I only like her because she’s available?” Evelyn asked the table, then me. “Because she’s what’s here? She deserves better than me and I’m only attracted to her because she happens to be nearby.” She bit into another piece of chocolate, drowning her sorrows in cheap dietary serotonin.

“Raine and I are no different,” I said. Evelyn frowned at me as she chewed, so I carried on. “If I hadn’t settled on university in Sharrowford, if I hadn’t gone to that exact cafe in the student quarter on that exact morning, if I hadn’t been sick, if she hadn’t decided to come after me, we’d have never met. It’s all chance. You have to take what opportunities life gives you, I think. There’s precious little happiness in the world, don’t snub it when it could be yours.”

Evelyn stopped chewing. She met my eyes for a long moment, then looked away, down at the tabletop. For a second I thought she was going to cry.

“Great,” she grumbled. “Just what this house needs. More dykes.”

“Evee, don’t use that word.”

“What? Dyke? It’s what I must be, right? Why can’t I say that?”

“Because you’re using it as a roundabout way to insult yourself.”

Evelyn shook her head, grumbling under her breath.

“That’s not really what’s bothering you though,” I said, and it wasn’t a question.

Evelyn looked at me sidelong, then sighed and shrugged. “She deserves better than me, and I’ll fuck up her whole life. I’m not a whole person. I’m a shell. Most of me was scooped out and never replaced. Just grew … this,” she gestured at herself, “in its place. Twil doesn’t know what she’s getting into. It’ll hurt her, it’ll hurt me, it’ll fuck both of us up and we’ll come away wounded and bleeding. You think getting into it is the hard part, but it’s not. That would be easy. The hard part is everything else. Especially when you’re Evelyn Saye, grade-A fucking bitch mess.”

I let her finish, and when I was sure she was done, I reached out and squeezed her hand. “Evee, you’re worthy of love too. I think you should maybe say those words – those exact words you said just now – to Twil. She’ll understand. See how she feels.”

Evelyn grumbled, shrugged, and finished her chocolate bar.

“Is that why you’ve been distracting yourself with this?” I sat back and glanced at the television and the squid-thing in the corner with the jumper cable attached to it.

“It’s something to do. Figuring out the emissary of an alien God is less frightening than … ” she sighed heavily, “romance.”

“You and me both.”

“You don’t feel like going back upstairs?” she asked, straightening up in her chair, then glanced at Praem and nodded to the door. The doll-demon closed it again, shutting us in the magical workshop together.

“Not just yet,” I admitted, then frowned to myself and glanced over at the clay-squid thing again, at its faint and feeble efforts to free itself.

“Don’t you want to check on Lozzie? Make sure she’s not getting her hair eaten by our, er … pet?”

“Tenny’s not a pet,” I muttered, half-distracted. “She’ll be fine. Evee, turn that television back on, would you? If it’s safe, that is.” I turned to her, and felt something I hadn’t felt in weeks.


“Let’s put our heads together. I’ve got an idea.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

nostalgia for infinity – 9.12

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Getting Tenny clean took the better part of an hour, but convincing Zheng to get in the bath took years off my life.

Tenny was smeared head-to-toe with her own sticky black amniotic fluid, like a science-fiction alien, and the rainwater had done little to wash the worst of it from beneath her wings or out of her fur, but by the time we all tramped back indoors, damp and cold and dripping, we weren’t much better off. Raine, Lozzie, Twil, and I were all dirty and caked with dried sweat from our day in the woods. Praem’s maid uniform was soaked through after her trip up the tree. Lozzie and I had both hugged Tenny, gotten her black goo all over our clothes, and Lozzie had been kneeling in the grass, stained the knees of her jeans with mud.

Only Evelyn and Kimberly had avoided both dirt and rain. Kimberly was busy scurrying back and forth with towels, trying to limit the collateral damage of even more mess as we got ourselves inside.

Zheng was just plain filthy.

By the time we got the back door shut, sealing us in the warm cocoon of number 12 Barnslow Drive, I was sagging with exhaustion. All was confusion, too many things happening at once.

Lozzie and Raine focused on leading Tenny through the house, trying to coax her upstairs and into the bathtub before she smeared every interesting object with black goo on the way there. She dripped diluted black rainwater all over the floorboards. Kimberly hurried ahead trying to put towels down, Lozzie attempted to dry her feet, and Raine held another towel under her wings to catch the worst of the run-off.

Twil got into a brief, pointless argument with Evelyn, something I had trouble following as I stood there in the utility room, my legs weak, my stomach still tender, a headache in the back of my skull. I rubbed my sore eyes with the back of my hand, and managed to get more of Tenny’s black goo on my forehead.

“Then go home!” Evelyn snapped at her.

“No, I mean, like, I’m fine with borrowing,” said Twil. “I just don’t- it’s your like- I’m not comfortable with like, your-”

“Shit or get off the pot.”

Evelyn turned away from her, and that was that. Twil rolled her eyes and stomped off into the house after the others, still tracking mud from her wellington boots.

“Evee,” I tried, but she was already off again, at Zheng.

“Not one step further. Don’t you dare.” Evelyn waved the head of her walking stick at the hulking demon-host. Zheng had been last in, standing just inside the back door now, dripping water from her sodden clothes all over the doormat, a small puddle forming around her feet. “You smell like a pigsty and you’re covered in blood. Is that even your own? It’ll be a minor miracle if you’re not crawling with lice.”

“Wizard?” Zheng rumbled, low and dangerous.

“Evee-” I hissed.

“Heather, you’re exhausted. Shut up for once and let somebody else handle things,” Evelyn said, without missing a beat. If I’d been more energetic I would have laughed. She glared up at Zheng. “You are not walking through this house like that. You strip off right here and you dump those clothes.” Evelyn gestured at the washing machine, already stuffed with Lozzie’s black-smeared poncho, soon to be joined by my hoodie and jeans. Praem stood next to it, hands clasped before her, soaked maid uniform hanging off her ample frame, clinging to her curves. “You too,” Evelyn said to her. “I have no idea if you can catch cold, but don’t risk it. Get all that off, now.”

Praem obeyed without a word. She set to unlacing the back of her uniform, dropping her tights, and stepping out of her long skirt. I stared for a moment and felt my cheeks burning, then turned my head to give her some privacy.

“I go where I desire, wizard,” Zheng rumbled.

“Not in my house you don’t,” Evelyn said. “Heather insists you’re a thinking, feeling being. Well then, I’m treating you like one. Animals track dirt, guests and family take their shoes off at the door.” Evelyn glanced her up and down. “On second thought, those clothes are not remotely salvageable. We’ll burn them.”

Zheng let out a low rumble.

“Zheng, please,” I said, shielding my libido from Praem’s rapid disrobing with a hand next to my eyes. “You stole those clothes anyway, it’s not as if they have any sentimental value.”

A squeal of alarm echoed from the front room, accompanied by panicked voices, Raine going ‘woah, woah, woah’ like she was trying to soothe a horse. The squeal trailed off into a long, loud, ‘pppppfffffttttt’, suspiciously similar to a child sticking their tongue out and blowing a raspberry.

Evelyn whirled on the sound. “What was that?” she yelled.

“Tenny met your spiders!” Lozzie called back. “She’s fine!”

“Ha!” Zheng barked. “Fresh from the womb and the puppy already knows how to taunt. Good.”

“Yes, surely an important life skill,” Evelyn said. She waved a dismissive hand at Zheng without bothering to look at her again, already marching out of the utility room. “I don’t have time for you, get on with it. Who tracked all this mud in here? Are these Twil’s bootprints? Twil!”

Evelyn left, shouting. Zheng stared at her back.

“Praem, um,” I cleared my throat. “Maybe you should find some spare clothes?”

“Clothes,” Praem intoned, and followed Evelyn, deftly avoiding the muddy patches with her bare feet.

“Shaman,” Zheng said. I glanced up at her, at her filthy, matted hair, at the stains of blood and grease and woodland mud all over her jumper and coat, at her fingernails, far too long, dirt packed beneath them. Up close and indoors I could smell her, like a wild animal, heavy with bodily odour and soil and old meat.

“When’s the last time you brushed your teeth?” I asked.

She just raised an eyebrow.

“Oh no. Zheng. No. You have to have a bath, at least.”

“Is that your command, shaman?”

“No, it’s a heartfelt suggestion, because I’d like to be able to give you a hug without worrying about stains. And I know what you’re going to say, something about how you don’t suffer tooth decay or gum disease because the bacteria can’t beat you in a fistfight, but the rest of us can still smell that. You’re a walking disease risk right now, and neither Lozzie or I are immune to infections. Please.”

Zheng grinned, a flash of razor-sharp teeth. “Join me in the bath, shaman?”

I froze. Couldn’t get a word out.

“A joke,” she rumbled, then shrugged off her coat and started to pull her soaking jumper off over her head. It got stuck on her shoulders, at which she gave up and just started ripping the jumper open down the middle.

I stared and swallowed and scurried out before I was left alone in a small room with a massive libidinal hazard.


The next couple of hours dissolved into a blur, my mind and memory dragged down by a cocktail of physical and emotional exhaustion. The bathroom was all noise and chaos, as my friends attempted to bathe a semi-cooperative giant moth woman like a dog which had rolled in dung. The upstairs hallway was no retreat, occupied by Zheng sitting against the wall with her eyes closed and arms crossed, firmly asked to wait outside because her mere presence made Tenny puff up and hiss. Thankfully for my sanity, Praem had supplied her with a huge towel, and set it over her like she was covering a particularly ugly piece of furniture.

Twil stomped about, spooked by Tenny, goaded by an occasional comment from Zheng, fuming silently at Evelyn. Lozzie shed dirty clothes with no care for where they fell, and at one point she sat down in the hallway next to Zheng and fell asleep for five minutes, impossible to wake until she shot up again like a freshly-wound clock. Poor Kimberly scurried about underfoot, trying to avoid Zheng’s attention, looking lost and trapped.

In the end, getting Tenny into the bath wasn’t too difficult. She took to the water with obvious pleasure and curiosity, making little fluttering, purring noises in her chest as Lozzie had soaped up her fur, squinting her eyes shut and shaking herself as Raine had rinsed her off with the shower head. Lozzie petted her and talked nonsense to keep her calm, but it was probably unnecessary.

We quickly discovered more quirks of her unique biology. Her wings – thick and leathery to the touch – separated into four distinct pieces, two wider ones which covered her sides and front when at rest, and two slimmer ones which hung down her back. The tentacles exited the cloak through either the gaps between the wings just below her shoulders, or by running all the way down to her feet, or out the front. In the bath, with her wings flopped over the sides of the tub, we could see her back, but her shoulders were almost impossible to reach, too far under the wings to see without getting behind and beneath her, blocked by the mass of tentacles which extended between the gaps between the wing segments.

Her tentacles kept roaming the bathroom, knocking over shampoo bottles, inspecting the light fixtures, gripping the bar of soap too hard so it shot across the floor. One of them tried to drink the bathwater and spat it back out. Another chewed softly on Lozzie’s shoulder. A third kept fiddling with the taps.

She shivered and made little irrirated fluttery sounds when anybody touched the antennae on her head, so we quickly decided not to do that.

At one point everybody except Tenny and Lozzie came tumbling out of the bathroom. Praem was last out, and closed the door behind them.

“Potty training,” Raine explained with a laugh.

“She knew exactly what she was doing,” Evelyn said. “That was not training.”

“Could’a warned us,” said Twil.

“At least we’ve established that she excretes,” Evelyn sighed. “And that she’s not carrying a clutch of pre-fertilised eggs, or something equally disastrous.”

Outdoors, the sun went down behind the rainclouds, true dusk swallowed by the storm into a haze of fading light.

Eventually I found myself alone in the upstairs hallway. Zheng had stomped off, probably to eat everything in the fridge. The others were still washing Tenny, soft voices murmuring in the bathroom. I shivered inside my tshirt, bruises throbbing in my sides, my damp hoodie in my hands, socks missing. Couldn’t recall removing them. I wanted nothing more than to strip off the rest of my clothes, ignore the dried sweat on my skin, and curl up in bed. Evelyn was right, I’d done more than enough leading for one day. Others could deal with the rest.


Tenny’s voice echoed from the bathroom, fluttery and frilled, my name as if spoken by a throat made of fanned paper.


I looked up. Raine’s head had appeared around the bathroom doorway. Splashing noises came from behind her, followed by a weird warbling complaint.

“Was that Tenny?” I asked.

“Yeah. She’s alright, just being fussy.” Raine stepped out and over to me. Gently, she took the hoodie from my hands and peered into my eyes. “How you holding up?”

I shrugged. “Kind of numb.”

“Uh huh, not surprised.” Raine brushed my hair back over my ear and cupped the side of my neck. She kissed my forehead. “S’been a long day. You can totally go lie down if you want, you know? Say hi to Tenny, tell her you’re going to rest, I think she’ll understand.”

I stared back into Raine’s eyes, needs surfacing through the numbness. I wanted to hug her, but I held back, a knot of unresolved tension twisting deep in my chest. If I’d been less exhausted, I would have let it go, been more logical, put this moment off until tomorrow or the day after, but by then Raine would have me back in bed and feeling normal again, and perhaps she’d pretend that certain things today never happened.

“You’ve been floating around back and forth, I have noticed,” she was saying. “There is such a thing as pushing yourself too far, especially after … ” She trailed off, reading the look in my eyes. “Heather?”

“Raine, we need to talk.”

Raine froze.

I was treated to a look I’d never seen from her before, a moment of genuine suppressed panic beneath all her confidence, too powerful to suppress with a grin, too sudden to hide with a glib joke, too real to bush away with her fingers in my hair. Guilt clutched at my heart.

“No, no, not like that. About Zheng, I mean,” I said, and it all came out in a rush. I dropped my voice. “But yes, yes also about you and I, about … I don’t understand your behaviour earlier today.” I squeezed my eyes shut. “God, why am I asking you this now?”

“’Cos you’re dying for that threesome,” Raine said with a laugh, and there it was, the glib joke rushing back.

I glared at her. Capital G. Raine pulled a theatrical wince.

“One minute you’re pushing me at her and you don’t seem to care, the next you’re marking your territory right in front of her, laying claim to me, and then you’re making threesome jokes!” I hissed, fuming. “Raine, I don’t know what exactly I want, but I don’t know what you want either because you’re confusing me, and that’s worse.”

The theatrical wince held for a moment longer, and then Raine’s expression crumbled into genuine contrition. She let out a big sigh and ran a hand through her hair. “Ahhhhhhh. I’ve done screwed up, haven’t I?”

“Maybe? I don’t know. How am I supposed to know if you won’t tell me?”

“No, no, I’ve screwed up,” Raine said. “Because I’ve made you feel insecure. Which means I’ve made a stupid mistake.” She glanced behind her, at the open bathroom door and the increasingly loud warbling, fluttering sounds. Twil was saying something, drowned out by the noise, and I heard Lozzie too. “You wanna talk right now?” Raine said. “We can leave the others for a bit, go-”

“Raine, do you love me?”

“Yes,” she said, no hesitation.

“Then everything else can wait, I’m too tired. I love you too.” I fell against her with a hug. Behind us, the warbled complaint finally rose into an angry hiss. A long one.

Twil’s voice floated out of the bathroom. “Okay, okay, shit, shit, she doesn’t like it, fine.”

“I told you!” Lozzie’s voice joined in.

“Hey, I’m just following orders,” said Twil.

“Plus I think we’re needed in there,” I murmured into Raine’s shoulder.


“Try again,” Evelyn’s voice joined too, dry and disinterested.

We rejoined the others to quite a scene. Twil had her sleeves rolled up past her elbows, dirty water splashed down her front, and a scowl on her face. Evelyn looked like she was trying to hide behind Praem without seeming to hide behind Praem. Kimberly had one hand on her mouth, like she wanted to be sick. Lozzie was half in the bathtub with Tenny, giving her a hug, getting herself covered in black-tinted water and soap suds, her braid half undone and hair everywhere.

Tenny was still hissing, her feathery antennae twitching back and forth.

“No,” I said with a sigh. “Don’t try again, whatever that was.”

“She didn’t like it!” Lozzie repeated.

“Like what?” I asked. “What are you all doing to her?”

Evelyn shut her mouth and shook her head, rolling her eyes. Twil glanced to her for help or permission, then shrugged.

“I was trying to get my hand up to her shoulders,” Twil said. “Under the wings like, to see where the tentacles come from, count ‘em, you know. I think she’s got them coiled up in like, retractable holes.”

“Maybe don’t physically harass the literal new born sapient creature?” I said, staring at Twil and Evelyn. “I don’t believe you two.”

“Heeattthh,” Tenny fluttered at me. I went to the bathtub and patted her awkwardly on the head. She reciprocated, wrapping a spare tentacle around my wrist.

“It’s medically necessary if we’re to understand her,” Evelyn said. “We can hardly drag her in front of an x-ray machine or get her an MRI, can we?”

I gave her a look, too worn out for argument.

“But fine, yes.” Evelyn held up a hand. “She doesn’t like it, my mistake. Fine, okay.”

“She’s so weird,” Twil said. “I could like, feel the tentacles going in and out. She’s got no bones, like all of her is just more tentacles inside.”

“Yes, I noticed that too,” I said. “All muscle, aren’t you?”

“Buuuur,” went Tenny.

“She’s strong and cool,” Lozzie said.

I stayed for the rest of the bath, though most of the real work was over. Lozzie got Tenny to her feet and Raine rinsed her off one final time with the shower head, sluicing away any remnants of the sticky black amniotic fluid. As she stepped out of the bath, dripping wet, her tentacles reaching over to groom the fur on the underside of her wings, she left behind a soup of black-tinted water, soap scum, and mud.

Evelyn sighed and said aside to Kimberly and I, “What do you think, skim that stuff off? God alone knows what that crap’ll do to the drainpipes if we pull the plug.”

“I’ll get a bucket,” Kimberly said.


Five microwaved chicken nuggets; an apple, neatly peeled and sliced; a generous slice of chocolate cake.

We lined up three plates on the kitchen table and stepped back. Well, Raine and Twil stepped back. I was too tired and comfy in my pajamas and Evelyn too stubborn to pull ourselves from our respective chairs, Lozzie was all over Tenny anyway, still drying bits of her with a huge fluffy bath towel, and Praem was already at the back of the room, waiting quietly in one of Evelyn’s jumpers and a long skirt. Kimberly had excused herself, and I didn’t begrudge her the sneaky smoke break.

Twil stared wistfully at the nuggets and let out a little sigh.

“Wait your turn,” Evelyn said to her, watching Tenny carefully. We were all watching Tenny.

Tenny stared at the plates, bare toe-less tar-black feet padding across the kitchen tiles as Lozzie coaxed her into the room. She studied our faces and looked out of the kitchen window for a bit, at the rain lashing down into the garden in the evening darkness. Her gaze wandered back to the plates, tentacles drifting up from beneath the shoulders of her flesh-cloak, waving in the air like a mantle of snakes.

“I’m already missing Bake-off,” Twil tutted. “You could at least feed me.”

“You’re saying you have less control than a new born … whatever she is.” Evelyn gestured at Tenny.

“Moth,” Praem intoned.

“Moth girl,” Raine said with a smirk.

“We are not calling her ‘moth girl’,” said Evelyn. “She isn’t a superhero.”

“She might be, you never know,” Raine said.

Tenny looked up, blinking huge void-dark eyes at us again.

“Moth?” she asked, in that voice of dry paper and ruffled feathers. “Moth. Moth.” She looked at me for guidance or approval, blinked twice, then sneezed loudly as Lozzie dried some stray water off her face with the towel.

“Shhhh,” I hushed everyone. “You’re distracting her. Tenny, it’s okay. Please, have something to eat.” I gestured at the plates. “Go ahead, it’s for you.”

“Baaaaa?” went Tenny, and crept forward another pace.

She knew we were watching her, waiting for something, but couldn’t possibly understand what. The attention spooked her, perhaps confused her, and I wondered how fast she could learn social cues like this. She’d been able to speak as a spirit, directly into my mind, in a jumble of word-concepts; now she was picking up real words, spoken ones, with surprising rapidity for somebody literally born this afternoon.

Cute perhaps, but not human. We had no idea what we were actually looking at here.

What did she use for blood? What was her natural sleep cycle? Was she a non-breeding isolate or would she lay eggs in a dark corner? Did she see like us, or in infra-red or some other spectrum? Could she fly, were the wings for show? What did she breathe? What were we to her – friends, pack-members, wise adults, blind idiots? Would she grow further?

Did she know what she was?

Experiments like these were necessary, Evelyn was right. To a point.

“Don’t be scared,” I said to her. “We’re all friends here.”

“Fuuuummm,” went Tenny.

“S’alright for you, sitting here at home,” Twil hissed to Evelyn, but at least she was quieter now. “We were running ‘round the woods all day.”

“You don’t have to be here, you know,” Evelyn muttered. “You could have gone home hours ago. Go have a family meal, home cooking, all that bollocks.”

“Maybe she wants your home cooking, Evee,” I sighed.

“Heath-” Evelyn spat half my name, then cut herself off when Tenny looked at her again. Twil just grimaced and hid behind one hand.

At least it shut them up for five seconds.

Tenny kept squirming, distracted by Lozzie’s attentions. Lozzie caught a stray tentacle in gentle hand and dabbed water from the surface, then took the opportunity to sneak a twist of towel in under one of Tenny’s wings, trying to dry the complex area at the top of her shoulders. Tenny made a face like a cat getting scritches, quivering softly. Lozzie hummed at her, said ‘good girl’, and half-sung the words to some childhood bathtime song which I had the creeping feeling she’d grown up with.

“Lozzie,” I said. “Let her focus for a moment, please. Tenny?”

“Heath,” Tenny said, my name, truncated. Lozzie relented, hopped back a half step and rubbed at sleepy eyes.

“It’s for you, Tenny.” I pointed at the food again. “Take whichever you want.”

“My money’s still on the meat,” Evelyn whispered.

“She’s a bug,” Twil hissed back. “She’ll eat fruit, right? Sugars and that.”

“Five pounds says you’re wrong.”

Twil simmered in silence for a moment, then growled, “You’re on.”

“She’s looking at them!” Lozzie stage-whispered.

“Mmmaauum,” said Tenny. Her tentacles reached forward along the tabletop, reminding me of the way a small animal might sniff at unfamiliar food.

Our experiment taught us very little – and won nobody any bets – because Tenny decided she wanted all of it.

Three of her tentacles split at the ends to reveal those perfectly sealed mouths full of tiny black needle teeth, and descended on all three plates at the same time. She crunched through the pieces of apple, hoovered up the nuggets, and bit the slice of cake clean in half. Crumbs scattered across the table as one tentacle-tip chased bits of chocolate sponge around the edge of the plate.

An extra tentacle crossed the table and dunked itself into a glass of water, then bulged like a snake swallowing eggs as it drank.

“I don’t know what I was expecting,” Evelyn sighed.

“At least we know she’s not pure carnivore,” Raine said. “That’s lucky.”

“Give it five minutes, see if she vomits it all back up.”

Twil frowned. “Do you think she’d vomit from her mouth? Like, her regular mouth?”

“Can we not talk about vomit, please?” I said.

As her tentacles fed, Tenny seemed to lose interest in the food, as if her tentacles and her main body could focus with ease on completely different matters. She pawed at the towel in Lozzie’s hands, trying to help dry herself. Her human hands lacked the precision and grace of her tentacles, and she fumbled about, making Lozzie giggle as she flexed her wings out slightly and bumped one against the kitchen wall.

Raine must have noticed my exhaustion more than I showed, because a moment later she was behind my chair, rubbing my shoulders with both hands, kneading out the tension and the knots and pressing the balls of her thumbs into the base of my neck. I let out a little grumble.

“I think that’s one conclusion we can be confident about,” Evelyn said, flat and dry. “Tenny’s respiratory and digestive systems are externally isolated. Elegant solution.”

“It’s clever!” Lozzie smiled like a proud parent. “I told you she was smart. Aren’t you smart, Tenny?”

“Yeeeaaa?” Tenny said.

“You mean like, she can’t ever choke on a piece of food?” Twil asked.

“Exactly,” Evelyn murmured, frowning softly, one hand toying with her empty mug on the table. She shot a sharp glance at Lozzie. “You expect me to believe you didn’t design that? Because that’s a design element. A safety feature. I like it.”

“Guess it is kinda stupid to have the breathing tube and the eating tube in the same place,” Twil said, sticking her own tongue out as she looked down at her mouth. She grimaced, uncomfortable with the thought. “Human body’s weird.”

“Yes,” I murmured. “Don’t remind me.”

“I didn’t do any of it!” Lozzie said. “It’s all Tenny. She’s smart.”

“Mm,” Evelyn grunted. “Well, whatever she’s using for a brain, it certainly must be quite developed. Attention splitting like this. Even humans have trouble doing two separate tasks with different hands.”

As Tenny rubbed her fluffy head with a corner of the towel, her tentacles were still busy at work. One of them extended a tiny featureless black tongue to lick the grease from the chicken nugget plate, while another lifted the other plates to see if we humans had hidden more tasty treats underneath. A third tentacle seemed to be following an interesting scent, across the table and past one of the chairs, winding towards Twil. Yet another tentacle had picked up the now empty glass of water, waving it around near the sink and trying to figure out how to make the shiny metal spout produce more liquid. Lozzie hopped over and showed Tenny how to turn the tap, and yet another tentacle dipped around her to mimic the demonstration.

I sighed inside, faintly jealous. My mind had seized up at controlling six extra limbs. Tenny didn’t even have to concentrate.

“Can’t do different things with each hand?” Raine asked, a smirk in her voice. “Speak for yourself. Heather can attest to my mad skills.”

A moment of silence passed over the kitchen, broken only by the rain against the windows, the muffled thumping of the dryer in the utility room, and the floorboard-creaking sounds of Zheng adjusting her weight in the bathtub upstairs.

“Don’t, Raine,” I said. “I don’t have the energy to blush right now.”

“If that zombie falls through the floor,” Evelyn muttered, eyes on the ceiling, “I’ll bloody well murder her.”

“She’s not that heavy,” I said. “And she really needed to get clean.”

“Should have hosed her off in the garden.”

“Maybe if we like, put a couple ‘o dozen plates out,” Twil said, “we could find out how many tentacles she’s really got. Counting didn’t work, so why not stretch her skills?”

“I’m not made of money,” Evelyn said, still watching the ceiling, listening for Zheng again.

“You may as well be,” Twil said.

Evelyn gave her a darkly unimpressed look. Twil shrugged and opened her mouth to say something unkind. I could see it coming, the dismissive comment, the prickly challenge, the bizarre unspoken and perhaps unconscious desire to ruin what little rapport they had by constantly reducing each other to hostile caricatures. I sighed and prepared to scold her, tell her to play nice, maybe even just solve the whole dammed thing for them and force them to talk properly for once.

Raine squeezed my left shoulder a fraction of an inch too hard, turned my rebuke into a little gasp.

“Evee’s upper middle class rich, not stupid money rich,” Raine said before I could gather myself.

“Raine,” Evelyn hissed.

Twil frowned. “That’s still-”

“Her dad does still have to work, and that old family estate’s pretty crumbling. Between maintaining this house, and covering some of the fallout of what we get up to, I can totally understand not wanting to drop a hundred quid on chicken nuggets, to run a test for something that doesn’t actually matter in the end. Isn’t that right, Tenny? Does it matter how many you’ve got back there?”

“Baaaah,” Tenny said to Raine.

“See? She agrees.”

Twil opened her mouth to reply, glanced down at Evelyn and found her looking away, sullen and cold. “Yeah, but like … ”

“But like what?” Evelyn shot back.

Twil looked away too, awkwardly crossing her arms over her chest. “Never mind.”

“Play nice, you two,” I finally said, and felt terribly lame. Evelyn gave me a bit of a look. Twil shrugged.

Lozzie was biting her lower lip, eyes wide as they bounced back and forth between Evelyn and Twil, hands clasped beneath her chin, having finally relinquished the towel completely to Tenny. She looked like she was watching a soap opera.

“Noooo,” she said softly as silence fell. “Don’t stop there.”

“What?” Evelyn squinted at her.

A thump from upstairs interrupted us, followed by an audible slosh and a sound like a short-lived miniature waterfall. Evelyn frowned at the ceiling like it was about to come down on our heads, but Number 12 Barnslow Drive was built to far better quality than some modern mockery of particle board and cheap pre-fab. The floorboards creaked as Zheng climbed out of the bath.

“I still need to find her some replacement clothes,” I said to nobody in particular.

“Hey, uh, what do I do here?” Twil said suddenly, backing up toward the wall. “Guys, uh, um, this isn’t- uh-”

She was staring at the tentacle which had been slowly approaching her for the last few minutes. Tenny wasn’t even paying attention to it, but the tentacle-tip was very much paying attention to Twil; it zeroed in on her like a curious kitten, darting one way then the other, as if trying to sniff her out. Twil cringed to the side, then batted ineffectually at the tentacle with one hand. It dodged around her swat, came up inside her reach, and darted for her face.

Twil jumped out of her skin, leapt back in a tumble of limbs as she blundered into the wall, and suddenly the tentacle was facing a maw full of canine teeth. Tenny turned in surprise, big black eyes blinking at Twil.

“No no!” Tenny said. We all stared at her.

“Call her off! Fuck!” Twil growled.

“She’s only playing,” said Lozzie.

“Yes,” Evelyn sighed. “Stop over-reacting.”

“She’s fucking going for me!” Twil spat. “Like she did with Zheng! Even I’ll die if I get my bloody head pulled off!”

“If she was doing that, she’d be considerably faster,” I said. “Tenny? Tenny, what do you mean, no?”

“No,” Tenny repeated, a weird fluttering noise beneath a flute of air, like a parrot with the lungs of a spider. “No, touch?”

“She just wants to pet you,” Evelyn said with a nasty smirk and a shake of her head. “Maybe she likes the smell of wet dog.”

“Don’t pretend you’re any different,” I said. Evelyn went red in the face and let out a splutter, but unfortunately Twil was too focused on the tentacle.

“Look, I’m cool with her and all,” Twil said. “But I don’t wanna get-”

Without warning, the tentacle shot forward, right for Twil’s face. Twil yelped, Lozzie gasped, I flinched in my seat through I was halfway across the room.

Praem’s hand shot out and grabbed it mid-flight.

Tenny let out a noise like a squirrel hit by a flying rock. The tentacle in Praem’s hand turned to face her, but Praem stared at Tenny’s eyes, expressionless and impassive, milk-white eyes meeting void-dark as Tenny looked back, huffing and hissing, a very unhappy puppy.

“Concentrate,” Praem intoned.

She let go. Tenny pulled the trapped appendage free, paused, and looked at Twil again. She tilted her head to the side – almost all the way to the side, revealing just how far one could contort their body when not limited by silly things like ‘having a spine’.

“Ahhh come on, don’t do that Exorcist shit at me!” Twil said.

“Calm down, she’s thinking,” I said. “Concentrating.”

“Please,” Tenny managed. The word was half-mangled. She couldn’t quite get the ‘l’ sound right, rolled it at the top of her mouth, elongated the ‘s’ too much and repeated the word twice, refining her own speech. “Please? Please?”

The tentacle waved at Twil’s face.

Twil grimaced, looked to the rest of us for rescue.

“She won’t hurt you, and she’s asking nice,” said Lozzie. “Promise-promise, yes Tenny?”

“Probably just wants to pat your head or something,” Raine said.

Evelyn looked on, unamused. I wondered if she was jealous.

In the corner of my eye I noticed another tentacle, one we’d all missed, creeping across the table and sneaking into the half-finished mug of coffee I’d been drinking from. It dipped inside and sucked up the dregs. A further tentacle slid past and right up to me. I offered it my hand, and it slipped in, wrapped around my fingers and palm and up my forearm. Warm, smooth, soft, but tough; human skin blended with silk and rubber.

“See?” I held up the hand-holding. “A little unorthodox, but she’s not trying to eat my hand or anything.”

“She bites me, I’m gonna bite her back,” Twil hissed through her teeth. “Just like, don’t stick it up my nose or anything, yeah? Then we’re cool. Be cool, okay? Be cool.”

Tenny’s exploratory tentacle edged forward. Twil grit her teeth, wincing in slow motion as it drew near her face.

The tentacle brushed against Twil’s hair, then twirled several locks of it around the tip, flicking it up and down. After twenty seconds of this, it became apparent to everyone watching that Tenny just wanted to play with Twil’s hair.

“Why me?” Twil asked, in the strangled voice one might use while being investigated by an elephant’s trunk.

“You’re the only one of us with curls,” Raine said.

“’urls,” went Tenny.

“She likes you. Deal with it,” Evelyn said, a hint of strange bitterness in her voice, too many layers deep for Twil to notice right now.

“At least she’s clean now,” I said. “You won’t have to wash your hair.”

“Clean,” Tenny managed, though it sounded closer to ‘cream’. Lozzie praised her with much excited patting and negotiated the damp towel back out of her hands after a bit of gentle tugging.

“Okay, uh, right, well.” Twil still cringed away from the curious tentacle, but she also reached up and touched it, gently removing it from her hair as she stared at Tenny with a smile of forced politeness. Tenny tilted her head sideways again. “Now that’s over, can we like, eat something? I’m starving here.”

“I don’t like this uninhibited curiosity,” Evelyn said.

I blinked at her. “Evee?”

“This,” Evelyn pointed at Tenny’s smooth dark tentacles, eight of them all over the kitchen by now. One was even worming its way into the utility room in the back, perhaps to investigate the muffled thump-thump-thump of the dryer hard at work. “Tenny? Tenny.”

Evelyn clicked her fingers. Tenny looked around and stared at her.

“Evee, don’t snap at her,” I said.

“Are you intelligent enough to understand you can’t do this in public, that you have to hide? Can you use those wings for that, are you even aware of that?” Evelyn asked her, then sighed and shook her head when she got no reply but a blank stare. “If she doesn’t understand, then we’re going to have to keep her confined, in the house. Indefinitely.”

“Awww!” Lozzie said with a long face. “But she needs to learn how to use her wings!”

Evelyn turned cold eyes on Lozzie. “And what if she flies over a farm, hm? Spooks some red-faced idiot with a flat cap and shotgun and takes a full load of buckshot in the chest? Or if she gets a taste for live meat again and snatches a child off the streets in Sharrowford? Or hell, if she’s even seen, we’ll have every UFO nutter and conspiracy crank in England descending on the city within days.”

Lozzie pouted, sad but not defiant. One hand lingered on Tenny’s neck, fluffing her fur.

“Gaaah?” went Tenny.

I sighed, heavily. This conversation was inevitable, sooner or later, but I’d hoped Evelyn would put it to one side for at least the first night of Tenny’s physical life. I rubbed the bridge of my nose, my eyes aching with tiredness. Part of me wanted to stand up and walk out and just let everyone else figure this out without me.

“What’d somebody … uh … ‘normal’,” Twil made air-quotes with one hand, “even remember if they spotted her? Like, what would they actually see?”

“That is the question, isn’t it?” I said.

“Cuteness!” Lozzie declared.

Now she was warm and dry and no longer dripping with her own amniotic fluids, Tenny looked even less human than when she’d slopped out of her cocoon. Dove-white, velvet-soft, varying in length from peach-fuzz to inch-thick carpet around her belly and hips, her fur had fluffed up after a good clean and the five or six minutes Lozzie had managed to make her sit still while subjected to a hairdryer. The fur on the inside of her wings was particularly dense, perhaps as insulation against the cold, and the wings themselves moved as she did, making little adjustments as they hung down around her body like a living cloak.

She hadn’t extended her wings to their full span again since the first stretch outdoors in the garden, which was lucky because she’d probably knock half the furniture over if she tried. The front room could perhaps accommodate a good stretch, but only if she stood sideways.

As she moved, her wings seemed to briefly take on the colouration or outline of the kitchen cabinets and open doorway behind her, but the effect was always blurred, half-hearted, incomplete, an autonomic bodily function rather than conscious action.

Her antennae twitched constantly, also on automatic. My private theory was that those functioned as hearing. No ears on the sides of her head.

Perhaps she could hide, if one saw her at night, with her wings pulled tight like a real cloak, concealing the swirls and curves of fur on her midnight skin. And if she wasn’t looking at you with those giant black eyes.

Perhaps then, one could mistake her for a human being, however briefly.

“The Sharrowford mothman, most likely,” Evelyn said. “Or a bag of carpet cuttings glued to an ambulatory eight-ball. Or they’d remember nothing except a screaming fit, a trick of the eyes, a ghost.”

“How far does that kind of mental editing go?” I asked. “Could anybody actually see her for what she is?”

Evelyn shrugged and sighed. “Search me, Heather, I don’t bloody well know. Most zombies, demons, whatever, they break down long before they reach this level of … irregularity.” She gestured at Tenny, and Tenny watched her hand in motion, then moved a tentacle closer to Evelyn’s chair. Evelyn watched it approach, unperturbed. Above our heads, the upstairs floorboards creaked softly as something massive stalked across them.

“Some may see the evidence of their eyes at first,” Evelyn continued, “then later deny what they saw. Others might panic, or remember nothing, not even see her. One or two might see but not react at all, and that would be very dangerous. I suppose we could invite your detective friend over and ask her what she sees.”

“I think I broke in miss Webb quite badly already,” I said. “We all did.”

“What about that super-long tentacle she had?” Twil asked. “She might sneak it out while we’re not watching, right?”

“I suspect that was only the pupa stage,” I said. “Still pneuma-somatic. It did go dead in my hand before she woke up inside the cocoon.”

“Yes,” Evelyn tutted. Tenny’s exploratory tentacle finished its approach, and Evelyn put one hand confidently on top of it, pinning it gently but firmly to the tabletop. Tenny let out a noise of complaint, and Evelyn fixed her with a look as she spoke. “A twenty-mile long tentacle would require a much larger physical body, huge support structure, probably a different respiratory system as well, not to mention massive calorific intake. We’re not Outside, our reality can’t support such things, not in the physical. She’s made herself physical and human-sized, and that imposes certain limits. Doesn’t it, Tenny? You might not know this, but the process of your metamorphosis certainly did.”

Tenny puffed her cheeks out – a mannerism I realised she’d picked up from Lozzie – and wriggled her tentacle out from Evelyn’s trap.

“Naaah!” she fluttered.

“As long as we understand each other,” Evelyn said.

“Be nice,” Lozzie said, suddenly small and worried. “Please?”

“I-” Evelyn almost snapped, but Lozzie’s puppy-dog-eyes stopped her cold. She huffed and hesitated and opened her mouth to try again, then sighed and ran a hand over her face, looking away with embarrassment. Tenny’s tentacle darted back, tapped her on the top of the head, and darted away again as she flinched and frowned at it.

Tenny let out a rapid panting, throaty and jerky, like air forced through a paper flute. We all stared, and she trailed off, confused at our confusion.

“Was that a giggle?” I asked.

Startled by the strange, alien vocalisation, we’d all missed the subtle tread of bare footsteps making their way down the stairs. Except Raine. She noticed, and when I looked back on the moment I realised she tightened her grip on my shoulders ever so slightly. She just thought it would be funnier this way.

Evelyn sighed again. “Look, Lozzie, I am trying to be nice. This is me, being nice. I am attempting to figure out how to dissuade Tenny from endangering herself.”

“She can learn,” Lozzie said.

“Can she learn fast enough?” Evelyn gestured at Tenny, then tapped on the tabletop with a fingernail. “Sharrowford is not-” tap “the safest-” tap “place-” tap.

We never figured out if it was the tapping or the challenge. Evelyn swears the former was the cause. Lozzie thinks it was the latter, that Tenny had taken offence.

Personally I think it had more to do with Zheng appearing in the kitchen doorway like a huge, naked ghost.

On the third tap, Tenny’s wings exploded into a blur. One moment she was turning toward Zheng, all her tentacles whipping back to her shoulders, wings wrapping around herself like a cloak in a storm. The next moment she was gone.

“Ooooh!” Lozzie clapped her hands. “Bravo!”

“ … woah,” Twil said.

“About time,” Evelyn drawled.

Tenny had created an optical illusion. The space where she stood was now occupied by the shapes and shadows behind her, as if interpreted by an artist mainlining psychoactive drugs and seen through a chunk of glass or crystal. The exterior of her wings – part of which she’d somehow lifted over her head, a hood perhaps? – matched the line of the kitchen doorway, the colour of the cupboards, the fall of the shadows. I found myself blinking, struggling to focus on her. The visual effect made my eyes water, unless I stopped trying and just accepted she wasn’t there.

“Shaman,” Zheng purred, stepping into the kitchen, naked except for a single small towel hanging over her shoulder. A grin split her face. She knew exactly what she was doing. “I need clothes.”

The imitative jumble where Tenny stood backed up a step and let out a muffled hiss.

I tried not to stare at Zheng, and I failed. I’d never seen her clean before. Red-chocolate skin steamed softly, her hair stuck up in all directions, the remains of her tattoos flexed across her abdomen and thighs and chest, marked with huge missing patches where I’d removed their power. A thick dark thatch of hair between her legs made my eyes pop out of my skull, before I mercifully managed to lower my head, hands up as if to protect myself, red in the face.

“Uh, um, um, yes, clothes, good, yes,” I stammered.

“Bloody hell,” Twil said, and I heard the laugh in her voice. “You’re fucking massive.”

“Yes, very mature, indeed,” Evelyn sighed.

“Discretion, better part of valour,” Praem sing-songed. I wasn’t sure if that was directed at Zheng’s nudity or Twil’s admiration.

Raine was laughing.

“No, don’t scare her!” Lozzie said, not batting an eyelid at this sudden confrontational nudity. Her hands found Tenny’s hood, or whatever it was, and tugged it down. Suddenly Tenny’s white-furred head reappeared in mid-air, blinking those massive black eyes.

“Puppy,” Zheng greeted her.

Tenny hissed at her again, very loud, mouth wide open.

“Shaman, clothes,” Zheng purred, ignoring Tenny and stepping closer. Lozzie managed to get her arms inside Tenny’s wings somehow, holding her back, though several tentacles snaked overhead. “Unless you prefer me naked?”

“I-I don’t- I- maybe we should- uh-”

“Lemme take you upstairs, see if there’s anything in my old wardrobe,” Raine said, stepping back from my chair and imposing herself between Tenny and Zheng, looking the demon-host up and down with a quick nod. “Yeah, I think I’ve got some over-sized stuff that’ll last you the night, but we need to pick up something more your size, right? You can hardly come out shopping with us, but we can do that for you. Me and Heather, at least.”

Zheng gave her an amused look and a flash of teeth. “Yoshou?”

“Can somebody get this naked woman out of the kitchen, please?” Evelyn asked.

I stood up too, face burning, mortified and aroused and embarrassed and feeling like the inside of my head was spinning out of control. “Yes, of course, I-”

“Hey, Heather,” Raine said, and her tone was so easy, too easy, layered over an unquestionable command that could have told me to do anything in that moment. She caught my eyes, flint in her own. “Relax, you’ve been going all day. Let me deal with this.”

Let me deal with clothing the giant zombie to whom you are terminally attracted, Heather. You’re not going to be alone with her, not now, Raine’s body language said. Sit down.

I nodded. Averted my eyes. “’kay. Okay.”

We really needed to have that talk.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

nostalgia for infinity – 9.11

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

“Raine, that’s not possible.”

At least that’s what I meant to say. What I actually said sounded more like ‘buh?’

Lashed high in the gnarled old tree in the back garden, washed by cold rain in the early spring air, framed by the roiling storm clouds in the sky above, Tenny’s cocoon thumped and shuddered a third time. Branches creaked under pressure, a faint tremor vibrated through the ground, and a scratching, flaking, cracking sound followed, like claws raking across loose rock.

A pair of feelers flickered forth again, through the hair-line fracture in the top of the cocoon, white and feathery, tentative and nervous as they tasted the air and drank the rain.

“There,” Raine hissed. “Heather, right there, I can see those.”

“Ooooooh. Again!” Lozzie called to the cocoon. “Again! You can do it!”

“I don’t- that’s not- you can’t-” I stammered. “Oh no.”

The feelers withdrew. A pause, then the chrysalis shuddered again, rocking against the tree branches, slammed from within by incredible strength.

Raine stepped in front of Lozzie and I, still sheltering us beneath the umbrella, rain dripping from the brim. She held her knife low but obvious in the other hand. I was still too shocked and confused to complain, to tell her to put that thing away. Up in the tree, Tenny – or whatever she was now – had began to rock the cocoon back and forth, as if she was trying to roll it like a hamster ball. The age and stoutness of the tree-branches held it firm.

“Everyone else saw that too, yeah?” Raine asked over her shoulder without taking her eyes from the tree. “I haven’t just picked up Heather’s talent by sexual osmosis, right?”

“Yeah! Yeah, shit, oh shit,” Twil spat back, claws already out, nose wrinkled in disgust.

“Quite, yes,” Evelyn hissed.

From back by the house, Kimberly made a squeak that probably meant yes, and also probably meant ‘please allow me to leave before I wet myself’.

“Can bloody well smell it too,” Twil said.

Raine sniffed, and so did I. Twil was right. An unfamiliar organic scent had added itself to the storm-tossed cocktail of wet grass and slick mud; an iron-and-mucus smell, a sweat-and-blood smell. Not unpleasant exactly, not rot or disease, but rich and tangy like blood-laced spice in the back of one’s throat.

“Spirits do not smell of anything,” Evelyn said, strangled and urgent, shaking her head. “It’s a- Tenny … she’s bootstrapped herself a physical body.”

“Is that bad?” Twil asked.

“How am I supposed to know?” Evelyn snapped at her. “Let’s … withdraw, yes. Maybe indoors. We don’t know what’s going to come out of there.”

“It’s only Tenny!” Lozzie said, turning to everyone else with a little pouty frown.

“Only,” Praem echoed.

Despite the inflectionless bell-tone of her voice, Praem made her scepticism obvious. She took a half-step to the side, still holding the umbrella aloft over Evelyn, and made an ‘after-you’ gesture with one neatly gloved hand.

“Sure it’s Tenny,” Raine said. “But what’s Tenny now?”

The cocoon had stopped rocking, but the scratching sound had resumed, a desperate scritch-scritch-scape-scape, punctuated by weird wet slapping as if from inside a drum. An occasional fluttery fanning teased the edge of my hearing.

“She cannot break it,” Zheng purred.

I glanced up at Zheng’s contemplative look, trying to marshal my thoughts. I was going cold inside, shivering despite my hoodie, and wrapped my arms around myself more for comfort than warmth. “What?”

“No egg tooth.”

“ … you mean she can’t get out on her own?”

Zheng shrugged. “We could wait and see, shaman. Maybe the shell will fill with rainwater first.”

That sharpened my mind.

Unfortunately, my phantom limbs responded before I did. Tentacles that existed only in my imagination tried to reach up to Tenny’s cocoon with a half-formed mental image of prying her out before she drowned. I gasped as twin lances of pain stabbed into both my flanks. Bruised flesh and torn muscle twitched and quivered as my body tried to guide limbs I didn’t have. I screwed my eyes up tight and squeezed my sides with my hands, trying to quell the attack, trying not to think about Tenny panicking inside her chrysalis, trapped and alone.

“Heather?” Raine called. “Woah, Heather, Heather?”


“I’m fine,” I croaked, then sighed. “Damn it all.”

“Yes, quite,” Evelyn snapped. “Don’t you dare, Heather. That’s all we’d need right now.”

“She can’t get out,” I croaked. “She-”

“Good! We should not be able to see that, none of us. This- this- this should not exist, not here, this is dangerous and-”

“You are dangerous, wizard,” Zheng purred. “I am dangerous. Every monkey and monster in this garden is dangerous.”

“Yes,” I agreed, gathering my wits, straightening up, wincing as my sore muscles complained at even the smallest motion. “Everyone calm down, please. Raine, would you please put that knife away?”

“Not a hundred percent on that just yet,” said Raine.

“Heather, that is a spirit in there,” Evelyn said. “And we can all see it and I don’t know what that means.”

“Then we’re going to be the first to find out, aren’t we?” I said with a sigh.

“We are,” Praem echoed. She stared right at me.


The doll-demon declined to expand.

Evelyn huffed. “Heather-”

“Evee, need I remind you that you borderline tortured Tenny at one point?” I shot her a look – my best impression of her own expression – and felt like a bad friend for bringing that up, but this wasn’t time for careful debate. “I’m sure whatever she looks like now, she- I don’t care what she-” I pinched the bridge of my nose and screwed my eyes up. “ … why can you all see her? This doesn’t make any sense.”

“Tch!” Lozzie tutted and sighed, arms sagging, eyes rolling, the very picture of a grumpy teenager. “Because she’s gotten really clever, duh! I keep telling you but you’re not listening!”

“Great, yes,” Evelyn spat. “A hyper-intelligent spirit, after spending God alone knows how long eating live meat, is just about to hatch into an actual physical body.”

“Yes,” I said. “That’s um … a little unprecedented, I know.”

Evelyn snorted. “And I’m sure we’d all love to meet it in a completely uncontrolled manner five seconds after it’s born. Great plan. Bravo.”

“My thoughts exactly,” said Raine.

Evelyn grabbed Praem’s umbrella with one hand and used it like a lead, directing the doll-demon to accompany her on a retreat back up the garden and toward the house. “Don’t come crying to me when you get bitten!”

Twil grimaced, briefly left behind. Rainwater drummed off her hood. “She’s got a point, come on.”

“Tenny recognised me,” I said. “I’m sure … I’m certain whatever comes out of that … it’ll … ” I glanced up at the cocoon again as the scratching noises intensified. I was lying, to both myself and everyone else. The feeding tentacle, the dead sheep, the incredible strength with which Tenny had fought Zheng. None of these were exactly promising signs.

Behind us, the back door banged open. Evelyn stomped past Kimberly and into the house, stamping rainwater off her shoes. Praem waited.

“She did listen to me,” I said. “Tenny listened to me when I told her to stop fighting Zheng. She remembers me, it’s Tenny in there.”

“Yeah yeah, I believe you, right,” said Twil. “But like, lets not risk getting between a dog and it’s food or something?”

“Ha!” Zheng barked. “You monkeys. Flee if you wish.”

“Not everyone wants to fight everything all the time, alright?” Twil rolled her eyes, then slunk over to Praem and took shelter beneath the umbrella.

“Heather-” Raine started.

“Raine, don’t.”

“Compromise?” Raine said softly, finally looking away from the tree to meet my eyes at her side. “Back up a bit, give her room to breathe. She recognises you, then it’s fine, sure, but let’s give her room to get her bearings.”

“She’s stuck in the cocoon, Raine! She can’t get out, I have to help, I-”

“Listen to your right hand, shaman,” Zheng purred. “She keeps you safe.”

“Make up your mind,” I snapped at her. “You tell us off for being afraid and then-”

“The laangren could stay. You are more fragile.”

“Zheng! It-” A light bulb came on in my brain. “Oh, you could-”

“Mm,” Zheng grunted. “Would be a pity, to leave such strength to rot in its shell.”

She knew what I was going to ask. She’d probably thought of it before I did. Without a another word, Zheng strode forward and climbed the tree again in three quick bounds. She did wobble slightly at the top, taking an extra moment than expected to find her footing, either because of her sodden, unwieldy clothes or due to the injures she’d sustained during the fight.

“Compromise then, please?” Raine asked. “Zheng’s on it, we can back up a bit. And for the record, I believe you that it’s Tenny in there.” She allowed herself an indulgent smile, and I was torn inside between a heart-flutter and irritation. “But humour me, please Heather?”

Zheng was already bending down and planting her hands either side of the hairline crack in the frozen-tar surface of the cocoon. Lozzie clapped her hands above her head, swinging her arms up and down like she was following a calisthenics video, chanting ‘Come. Out. Come. Out!’ over and over.

“I’m not leaving Lozzie here,” I murmured. “And I don’t think either of us can convince her to back away.”

“Oh ye of little faith.” Raine smirked, then called out. “Hey, Lozz?”

“Mm?” Lozzie craned back, caught mid-clap.

“Let’s give Tenny some room to come out proper, yeah? If she’s really that big, we better give her some space to, you know, unfold.” Raine gestured with the umbrella. “Come huddle up with us.”

“Yes, please,” I sighed, my concerns all piling up in one big mess. “Please don’t get too wet and cold again, Lozzie.”

“Okay!” Lozzie chirped, to my incredible surprise. She hopped back toward us and ducked under the umbrella, and instantly linked arms with me, holding on tight.

Up in the tree, Zheng bore down and pushed, trying to simply force the two halves of the split cocoon further apart. Her lips pulled back in a grimace of exertion, but the shell proved too strong even for her. She wound back one fist and slammed the crack with all her strength, pulled back bloody knuckles and punched it again, and again.

As Raine hurried to lead us back toward the house, Lozzie giggled under her breath and smiled an oddly knowing little smile, just for me. She bit her lip and rolled her eyes and in that moment I realised she knew exactly what Raine had just pulled.

“Lozzie-” I hissed.

“Shhh,” she put a finger to her lips and whispered. “Raine-y brainy worry-wart.”

“ … I hope you’re right,” I hissed back.

We withdrew, but not as far as Twil and Praem had retreated. Kimberly stood inside the threshold of the back door now, ready to bolt. Evelyn had returned, scowling. In one hand she carried the carved thigh-bone, the closest thing she possessed to a magical weapon.

“Oh this is a fine display,” Evelyn was grumbling, grinding her teeth as she spoke. “In the middle of the day, in broad daylight-”

“Hardly broad, hey?” Twil pointed at the stormy sky.

“You know what I mean, don’t be dense. Oh, what do you care, running around in the woods covered in fur? I bet you’ve shocked more than a few hikers and you don’t care, they just make up urban legends. You don’t understand the first-”

“Kiss and make up already, you two,” I sighed, too exhausted to care.

“I- Heather- excuse me?!” Evelyn glared.

Twil just dipped her head, cleared her throat, and gestured up at the tree. “Weirdest uh, weirdest mime show ever, right? Heh.”

Zheng had breached the shell at last, forced a tiny gap wide enough to jam her fingertips into, and was busy ripping chunks of cocoon free and tossing them to the grass. The cocoon came away in Zheng’s fists as only part-solid, masses of layered fibres packed with a viscous black goo that stuck fast in great sticky strips, like a cross between a wood-pulp-and-saliva wasp nest and fibreglass soaked in molten toffee. Each chunk steamed softly in the rain, slowly melting to nothingness in the grass.

The smell intensified, wet and rich and biological. But the cocoon was so dense, Zheng’s digging barely seemed to make a dent.

“What is this stuff?” I murmured.

“Metamorphosis,” Praem intoned.

“Yes, but-” I looked at her and halted. Despite the lack of pupils in her milk-white eyes, I felt her attention directly on me. “Praem?”

Up in the tree, Zheng was chanting under her breath, a rolling rhythm in a language I did not recognise, a work-song. She jammed both hands into the hole she’d made, one on either side, and braced her shoulders, a living crowbar.

“True metamorphosis requires pain,” Praem sing-songed.

We all shared a glance. Evelyn frowned at her. “And what do you know about pa-”


With a sound like a cartoon snake popping from a garden hose, a thick black tentacle suddenly shot up through the hole in the cocoon, right into Zheng’s face. But Zheng had learnt; she dodged back with a casual flick of her head. The tentacle went sailing past.

It possessed none of the clarity of the giant feeding tentacle we’d encountered in the woods. After missing Zheng, it flopped to one side and slapped about blindly on the exterior of the cocoon, like a person fumbling for a light switch in the dark. Whatever senses Tenny’s pupa-stage had boasted, they’d withdrawn, concentrated, transferred to the thing trying desperately to claw itself free.

Zheng caught the appendage in mid-air, in one fist.

“Stay down, golog.”

She let the tentacle go. It instantly whipped back into the cocoon with a loud pop.

“Well,” Raine said with grim sort of grin. “Saw that one too.”

“Ugh,” went Twil. “That was like a giant slug. You’ve touched that, Heather?”

“I still don’t understand,” I admitted. “She’s … she’s turned herself from a spirit into … real life?”

“She’s a real girl now,” Lozzie giggled.

“Bootstrapping itself from one order of life to the other,” Evelyn muttered under her breath, as we all watched Zheng once again brace her hands either side of the hole she’d made. She put her back into it, bending forward and straining with all her strength, trying to rip the shell open. She bared her teeth, started to go red in the face. The cocoon wouldn’t budge, the crack still not enough to split the two halves. “This is an absolute nightmare, Heather. This is a level-ten fuck up.”

“But … but it’s Tenny.”

“I don’t know what we’re even looking at here,” Evelyn hissed, turning to me, eyes blazing. “This is completely beyond my knowledge, this isn’t supposed to happen, I’ve never seen it described, hinted at, anything. Even if what comes out of that cocoon is exactly as friendly as what went in, we can see it. Things like Zheng, or Praem, or hell, Twil here, at least they look passably human, but-”

“Aw thanks, yeah,” Twil muttered.

“But this?” She gestured with the tip of her walking stick, up at the tree. “Huge headache, at the very least. It’s one thing for some passer-by on the street to write Praem off as a weirdo in cosplay-”

Praem turned her head to stare at her mistress, but Evelyn ranted on.

“It’s entirely another to explain away a faceless tentacle monster with skin made of tar – or whatever the fuck is going to fall out of that egg!” She blew out a long breath and glared at me, coming down from her little rant. “Why do you keep doing this to me, Heather?”

“I’m … Evee, I’m sorry, I-”

“That part was a joke.” She huffed and looked away. “It’s hardly your fault.” She nodded at Lozzie. “More hers.”

“Nyeeeeh.” Lozzie stuck her tongue out at Evelyn, which earned her a pinched frown.

“We- we could get her indoors as quickly as possible,” I said. “That is, if she’s … if it’s safe. I mean, I don’t want to … I can’t just-” I understood what Evelyn was saying, or thought I did. For all that we were a bunch of monsters and magicians, we all looked human. Even Zheng, even if she looked like she’d stepped down from mount Olympus. “I can’t just … make her go away.”

“Yes, yes,” Evelyn sighed. “You’ve made your point well enough before, Heather. You were right then, and you’re right now, as much as it pains me to admit.”

“You, admitting you’re wrong?” Twil elbowed Evelyn in the side, grinning. “Yeah right.”

Evelyn glared at her until Twil pulled a grimace and looked away, then Evelyn turned back to me. “My point is, I get it, alright? Non-human fr-” she slammed to a halt and glanced at Praem.

“Friends?” I supplied the word. “Non-human friends are friends too?”

Evelyn sighed like we were all pets that had just messed all over the floor. “Why do you always sound so convincing when you spout lines like that? Yes, exactly. Friends, allies, whatever. It’s a responsibility, even. So no, I’m not suggesting we drive Tenny off, assuming she doesn’t emerge as a giant moth and immediately dust all of Sharrowford with poisonous spores.”

“Evee?” Raine asked. “You joking?”

Evelyn shrugged, raised her chin, and readied one hand on the carved thighbone. “We are playing with fire. We’ve been doing it for months. Let’s find out.”

Raine glanced at the back door, then at me.

“Oh no,” I said. “I’m not leaving now.”

“Worst case, we end up with a giant moth corpse to dispose of,” Evelyn grumbled. “Perhaps we could lure it into a fire.”

Up in the tree, Zheng strained harder, using her feet as leverage too now, braced against the branches like some kind of superhuman car jack. Beneath her wet clothes, her muscles rippled like steel cables. Veins stood out on her forehead as she heaved, and the hairline crack in the cocoon appeared to flex wider, but the material itself held strong. Zheng reached her limit and I heard a distinct pop-crack of a breaking bone as her left arm buckled. She stood up and sighed heavily, chest heaving up and down as she sucked in great lung-fulls of cold air. With her good hand she reached over and cracked her elbow back into place.

“No luck?” Raine called.

Zheng shrugged.

“Hold, please,” Praem suddenly intoned. She was offering the umbrella handle to Twil.


“Hold, please.”


“Praem?” Evelyn said. “What are you up to?”

“Evelyn will get wet. Hold please.”

“Uh, alright.” Twil took the umbrella, holding it over herself and Evelyn. “But-”

Praem turned neatly on one heel, and marched off toward the tree.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Evelyn snapped. “You- Praem! Get back here! Praem!”

Praem ignored her mistress. Hands clasped before her, she glided across the garden with neat, measured strides, her shoes dusted with rainwater, her hair getting damp, shoulders of her uniform dotted with raindrops, quickly turning soggy in the slow deluge. Zheng watched as Praem approached the tree.

“Demon,” she rumbled. “What do you propose?”

Praem didn’t bother to answer, look up, or even stop, but simply hiked her skirt up and started climbing the tree. She lacked Zheng’s explosive muscular force, but more than made up for that with grip strength, balance, and a comfortable pair of shoes. With careful, confident motions, she scaled the tree-trunk and pulled herself up next to Zheng, a good two feet shorter than the giant zombie.

“Oh yes, you climb the tree as well,” Evelyn huffed. “That’ll go down fantastically if we’re seen.”

“Is she stronger than Zheng?” Twil asked, frowning. “Or they gonna work together?”

“I don’t care what they do,” I said. “As long as they get Tenny out.”

Zheng, one eyebrow raised in amused curiosity, gestured to the cocoon, as if to say ‘fine, your turn’. Praem ignored her and bent forward over the frozen tarry-black egg, head twitching one way, then the other, examining the surface. The cocoon rocked and shuddered as Tenny resumed her panic, or instinctive hatching behaviour, or whatever it was. Praem reached forward and tapped the cocoon with one knuckle, as if on a door. The rocking stopped. She put her ear to the cocoon and tapped again, and again, and again, mechanically testing every few inches.

One minute stretched into three. Three drew out into five. Evelyn ground her teeth. I started shivering, the enforced wait gnawing at my belly. Up in the tree, Praem was quickly soaked through to her wooden bones, but she kept going.

Zheng watched dispassionately, then eventually glanced at us mere humans huddled down in the garden.

“Wizard,” she called. “We need another method. Your method.”

Evelyn screwed her eyes shut and pinched the bridge of her nose.

“Evee, I know,” I said, feeling her pain. “It’s been a long day, but please, I’m not going to leave Tenny to drown or suffocate in there, please, I-”

“Alright!” Evelyn hissed. “Yes, fine. God alone knows what I’m going to do, I don’t even know where to start.”

Praem stood up.


She touched the tip of one finger against the surface of Tenny’s cocoon, at a point on the side, quite far from the long hairline fracture.

“Mmm?” Zheng rumbled.

“Punch here.”

“Punch? Why can’t you do that, little thing? Feeling weak?”

Praem clasped her hands demurely in front of herself, and resumed her habitual pose of perfect poise – no easy feat when standing on a tree branch, drenched from head to toe. Her hair was dripping wet now, blonde slicked together into long rat-tails stuck to the back of her dress. She stared at Zheng for a moment, then turned on her heel and promptly fell out of the tree.

Again, she lacked Zheng’s muscular power or impact, but possessed a preternatural grace. She landed at the base of the tree with a little squelch on the wet grass, marched away a few paces, turned, and looked up at Zheng.

“Get on with it,” she sing-songed. “Gorilla.”

For a split-second I thought Zheng was going to jump down out of the tree and fist-fight Praem on the spot. Evelyn would have a fit. But then Zheng broke into a grin, barked one ‘ha!’ of laughter, and wound up a fist. She rocked back and slammed a punch into the spot Praem had indicated, put all her strength into one strike.

The cocoon split like a cracked walnut.

The shell exploded into fragments, some falling out of the tree and crashing to the earth, others stuck between the branches, fragments pinging off and bouncing through the leaves. Zheng actually blinked in surprise. A wave of thick black fluid slopped free as the cocoon burst, splashing to the ground, diluted with rainwater but still reeking of that iron-and-mucus smell.

Flesh fell with fluid, a bundle of black meat and white fur, flopping limbs and limp pseudopods, a confusion of fluttering, twitching body parts that slithered to the ground in the middle of the exploded cocoon.

“Yaaay!” Lozzie cheered.

“Lozzie, Lozzie hold on,” I said quickly, holding fast to her arm looped through my own. “Let her … let her … ”

Tenny, whatever she was now, lay still in a heap on the grass.

Raine, Evelyn, Twil, Kimberly, none of them could see the cracked cocoon – but they absolutely saw the contents. To them, a bizarre creature had just fell into reality out of thin air, surrounded by her own reeking afterbirth.

“Ugh,” went Twil.

“Well, ‘least she’s out,” said Raine.

“Oh Goddess,” Kimberly squeaked from the back door.

Evelyn stared, wide-eyed, green around the gills again as Praem stepped forward, over a chunk of melting cocoon. “Don’t- Praem! Don’t touch it!”

The bundle of tar-black limbs and quivering feelers twitched and writhed on the ground – and something drew a first breath. A fluttering, flickering, feathery sound.

A strange silence came over us all. I recognised the tension in Raine’s limbs, ready to spring at one wrong move. Evelyn swallowed hard and fingered her carved thigh bone, hand slipping into position. Twil grit her teeth, barely holding back a growl. My stomach clenched hard.

“ … Tenny?” I called softly.

Soaked in her own viscous afterbirth, twitching and fluttering body parts that had never until this moment felt sunlight or rain, clumsy and confused but very much alive, ‘Tenny’ sat up.

Beautiful. The moment, I mean, not necessarily Tenny. Not a clean sort of beautiful, not the mathematical perfection of a cathedral or the elegance of a perfectly balanced poem, but a raw, instinctive sort of beauty. If you’ve ever watched an animal being born, or a moth pulling itself from its chrysalis and stretching its wings for the first time, that is the beauty I think we all saw in that moment, as this weird collection of alien flesh and quivering membranes sat up and blinked huge black-on-black pelagic eyes at the world.

I recognised those eyes, golfball-sized inky pools of limpid darkness, full of intense, innocent curiosity. But now those eyes blinked with triple lids, a quick flicker of three wet membranes over rolling orbs.

I let out a sigh of relief.

“Is it her?” Twil hissed.

“Yes,” I whispered, swallowed, repeated myself louder and clearer. “That’s Tenny, yes. She’s- she’s got the same eyes. Tenny? Tenny?”

Tenny was too numb and too new to respond, head waving slowly from one side to another as she unfolded unfamiliar parts; she had been through quite the metamorphosis.

At least she still had tentacles.

She also retained a head, two arms, and two legs, which was quite a relief. I’d half expected some segmented, chitinous, scuttling beast to emerge from that pupa, with Tenny’s eyes set above some monstrous slavering maw. I had a feeling we’d gotten exceptionally lucky.

Her skin was still the same pitch-black, but no longer bubbled and roiled like the surface of boiling tar. It had set, satin-smooth and slick wet with amniotic fluid, slowly washed by the falling rain, undeniably biological.

Lozzie squealed like an old steam kettle, both hands to her own mouth. “She’s so fluffyyyy!”

Tenny was, indeed, very fluffy. Sort of plump, too.

She’d grown thick tufts of feathery white fur across her thighs, hips, up her back and belly, over her head, up her throat, across her forearms. The fur formed streaks and swirls, a pattern that seemed to follow some kind of curved geometric logic. As she brought her arms up and stuck a finger – long and delicate but without fingernails or knuckles – into her own mouth, I saw actual muscle fibres bunch and relax beneath her skin. Tendons flexed, skin stretched, individual white hairs separated. A quartet of insect antennae twitched from atop her head, two-foot-long feathery white feelers tasting the rain. She’d turned pneuma-somatic flesh into physical cells.

How many meals of raw mutton had that taken, I wondered.

She’d grown a mouth too, and a nose. In her face, rather than relying solely on the one in her chest, which still lingered as a puckered line across her breast. Tenny looked up as Praem stopped a few paces away, pulled the exploratory finger out of her own mouth, and opened her pitch-black lips.

“Nnnn … nnnuuuhhh,” went Tenny, with the mouth in her face.

A fluttering voice, like dry hands rifling through a stack of papers, warm air drawn over frilled lungs. Tenny closed her mouth, made a child-like popping sound with her lips, and decided now was a good time to attempt the feat of standing up.

She wasn’t very good at it. Wobbly and clumsy, no balance, couldn’t work her ankles, spent a lot of time staring at them and rotating them before she made them support her weight. Lozzie made another muffled squeal, as if we were all watching a stumbling puppy rather than some nightmare moth-creature dredged up from the other side of reality.

“She wearing something?” Twil hissed.

“No, that’s attached to her,” I said. “Look.”

As Tenny stood, the rest of her unfolded. A sort of cloak structure covered her shoulders, attached at her neck, made of pitch-black flesh and falling about her in a protective layer of pseudo-clothing, all the way to her bare, stubby, toe-less feet.

The exterior surface of the cloak shifted like oil on water, a dizzying, disorienting effect, and for a moment Tenny’s outline looked only half there, the cloak almost managing to imitate the tree and the grass behind her – but then she overbalanced on her unsteady new legs, let out a ‘brrrrfff!’ and the effect rippled away. A clutch of very familiar tentacles shot out from beneath the shoulders of the flesh-cloak, to steady her against the ground and break her fall. She let out a petulant, fluttering ‘naaaah’.

 The inside of the cloak was lined with more fluffy white fur, dripping with the womb-fluid from Tenny’s cocoon. As she finally gained her feet, I realised she’d lost maybe a foot of height, a little shorter than Lozzie and I now, but she’d made up for it with mass.

She had hips – imitating us, with secondary sexual characteristics? – and the rest of her looked somehow softer and rounder, but not in the exact way or places a human being would. She’d filled out, but to the tune of her own biology, not in pure imitation of ours.

The flesh-cloak twitched, flickered, seemed almost to vibrate.

“Wings,” Raine said softly. “Them’s wings. Look at thaaaat.”

As if on cue, Tenny flexed and stretched her new wings, the cloak opening out and splitting into four parts, great leathery structures that looked completely incapable of actual flight. They unfurled and unfurled and kept going, each one about twelve feet long when stretched to maximum span.

Evelyn made a choking sound, a word caught in her throat.

Tenny stared at her own wings, looked at her own hands, looked at the sky, Praem, us. Her tentacles reached over and started to groom one of the wings, trying to clean the sticky black amniotic fluid off, like a bird preening itself.

Then she sagged with effort, the wings flopped back down into a cloak, and Tenny sat down in a heap.

“Buuuuullllffff,” she fluttered, a very grumpy child woken from a comfortable nap.

“That,” Twil said, bristling like a dog confronted by a lobster. “Is the weirdest fuckin’ thing I have ever seen.”

“Don’t exaggerate,” Evelyn grumbled.

“What do you mean, don’t exaggerate? Look at it!”

“What, you scared of a little bug?” Raine asked with a smirk, and slipped her knife away. “She’s exhausted, just been born, can’t even stand up.”

“She’s so cuuuute!” Lozzie squealed again, and wriggled out of my grip. I doubt anything could have stopped her, certainly not my weak “maybe wait” as she skipped across half the garden in two seconds and fell upon Tenny with a hug.

Luckily, Tenny seemed to recognise her, because she sat looking very confused for a moment before returning the hug with awkward, jerky motions, smearing black goo all over Lozzie’s clothes.

“Can’t argue with that,” Raine said.

“Cute?!” Twil boggled at everything and everyone.

“In the eye of the beholder, I suppose,” I muttered, but my own reaction went deeper, in a way I couldn’t voice. I swallowed, and settled on saying, “she is, kind of.”

“Yes, I’m sure this is all very charming, but this is still very much a worse-case scenario,” Evelyn snapped.

“Noooo! She’s amazing!” Lozzie turned back to us for a second before looking at Tenny again. “Aren’t you amazing? You’re amazing, look at you! You’re so big, you did so well, well done, I love you!”

She was touching Tenny all over, hands in her fur and linking with her fingers, patting her shoulders and ruffling what passed for hair, slipping beneath Tenny’s wings to hug her tighter. Tenny blinked like a cat getting petted and let out another wordless ‘naaaah’ sound.

Tenny’s tentacles searched further than her hands, poking and prodding at the pieces of shattered shell, ignoring them and moving on to the weeds amid the grass. Some of them still showed the wounds from her battle months ago, with Amy Stack’s scribble-monster, severed and burnt, but the rest seemed longer than before. A few split their ends into hungry maws as they explored the garden, full of tiny needle-teeth, biting into stray twigs and trying to eat a flower before spitting out the petals.

I choked up. Not because of some abstract beauty of the miracle of life, but with jealousy.

Tenny had changed. She’d grown. She’d entered a cocoon and emerged with a body closer to that she was always meant to have. Clumsy and weird and obviously exhausted by the metamorphosis, drenched in her own amniotic fluid, yes, but she looked right. Perhaps I was desperately trying to retroactively justify my gut emotional response, but Tenny had always looked weird, half-finished, sweet and protective yes, but stuck together from spare parts. Now she’d matured. She was beautiful.

And here I was, stuck in my scrawny, slow, ape body.

Jealousy and delight mixed into an awful cocktail. The feeling reminded me of my early teenage years, how I used to feel about other, prettier girls, when I was young and didn’t understand my own sexuality, stuck between admiration and desire, jealous need and self-identification. My abyssal memories recognised myself in Tenny.

Phantom pain twinged in my sides with sympathetic need. She had tentacles. I didn’t.

Zheng dropped out of the tree again and landed in the grass, amid the broken shards of cocoon right behind Tenny. Our little pet moth-person flinched and jumped, then looked up and around as Zheng loomed over her, meeting a grin full of sharp teeth.

“Puppy,” Zheng purred. “Well done.”

Tenny reacted like a cat before a snake. She flared and puffed herself up, opened her mouth in a loud hisssss of fluttery vocal chords. All her tentacles whipped back to spread out and make her look bigger. If she hadn’t been on the floor with Lozzie, I suspect she would have arched her back and lashed out.

“Bad Zheng!” Lozzie yelled. “No! No scaring her! Bad!”



“The pup-”


Zheng grumbled. She grudgingly backed up a few paces, and Tenny’s panic relaxed, tentacles lowering, though she still eyed Zheng with suspicion.

“Yeah, you tell her, Lozz,” Raine laughed.

Twil started laughing too, but a nervous, panicky sort of laugh, like she was trying to convince herself this was all normal. “Right, right … yeah.”

“It’s a huge fluffy moth person, what’s not to laugh at?” I said with a sigh of exhaustion. Everything ached, my hair and scalp were cold with rain, and I could tell we had hours of work still before us. “At least we’re not doing something absurdly dangerous, for once.”

“Heeeeeaaaaa,” went Tenny, a whining flutter – at me. Either she’d only just noticed or recognised me, or only just worked up the energy to demand attention. She held her arms out to me around Lozzie.

“I think she wants a hug,” Raine said.

“Oh, for pity’s sake,” Evelyn hissed.

I walked over without hesitation. Raine followed me with the umbrella.

Tenny did look weird and I’m not going to pretend otherwise. She wasn’t an image of human femininity overlaid with a touch of alien exoticism, she was actually slightly unsettling, inspiring the same gut reaction one might have to an unknown insect; was she safe to touch, or venomous, would she bite, would she leave unknown bacteria on one’s skin? She was inhumanly proportioned, her face like some kind of bug-eyed cave creature, her eyes twin pools of void, and now she was fuzzy too, weird insect fur all over her body, an odd smell in the air around her like powder and mucus mixed together, still covered in her own amniotic fluid.

But I’d known weirder, in the abyss. I’d been weirder.

Our little Tenny needed to know we recognised her too.

Lozzie shifted to the side slightly, gave me enough room to reach down and hug Tenny around the shoulders.

It was like hugging a canvas bag filled with pythons, no matter how smooth and soft and fluffy. The musculature under her skin was not remotely human. Did she even have bones in there?

“Alright, this is going far enough. We are moments away from disaster,” Evelyn announced, raising her voice and gesturing at Tenny, Lozzie, and I. “Praem, get them up, now.” She pointed the thigh-bone at Zheng. “You, get the hell indoors.” Then she whirled on Kimberly, still cowering in the back doorway. “You, get- hell, I don’t know, towels. Run a bath. Quick!”

Kimberly scurried off at double-speed.

“Evee?” I blinked at her in surprise. “What-”

“This is a worst-case scenario and I’d like to avoid it getting worse, Heather. Get Tenny up, now. Or Zheng can pick her up, I don’t care which.”

“It’s … Evee, it’s fine. She’s safe, I’m pretty sure. I think she’s kind of cute, even, I-”

“Yes, yes, sure, whatever,” Evelyn snapped. “She’s also visible and here and completely alien.” She waved her walking stick at the garden fence, at the not-so distant neighbouring houses. At Sharrowford. “You want to end up on the goddamn evening news? No? Then get her inside. All of you. Now!”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

nostalgia for infinity – 9.10

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Hundreds of feet of tarry-black tentacle looped and coiled and slashed through the pouring rain, dripping with oil-dark droplets of pneuma-somatic ichor. Like a snake eating its own tail, it possessed neither beginning nor end, no tip or termination. With a disgusted roll in my already sensitive stomach, it reminded me of a video I’d once seen, of a live tapeworm deep in the guts of a pig, writhing over itself in a mass of spaghetti-like tissues, a confusion of awful liveliness.

My own phantom limbs reared up in involuntary self-defence, sent a quiver of pain deep into my bruised flanks, drew a gasp from between my clenched teeth.

Tenny’s black tentacle whipped away from us in a great spiralling mass, and slid in silence into the gloomy embrace of the woods.

The whole process was over in a heartbeat. Only we and the storm remained.

Zheng was still laughing. Lozzie clapped to herself in solitary celebration.


Raine’s voice drew me back into my shivering skin. My sides burned, my head pounded with brainmath side-effects, the taste of bile lingered in my mouth, and I could not process what I’d just seen.

“Mm?” was all I managed.

“Heather, is it still here?”

“I … no … I don’t think so.” I swallowed, found my mouth dry and my lips numb as I stared at the tree line where Tenny’s tentacle-mass had vanished. “It- she- she left. Part of her left. How … how big must she be now? What did she-”

“Really, really big! She did sooooo good!” Lozzie clapped with childlike glee, wellington boots splashing in the mud, then cupped her hands around her mouth and called out. “Tenny! Tenny! Come say hiiii!” She waited for a reply, then blinked heavily when none came, head wobbling as sleepiness crept back over her again.

“Lozzie? Lozzie, what did we actually just see?” I asked, trying to catch her eyes as they fluttered shut. “Where’s the rest of her? Is she out there, in the woods? What … what is she now?”

“Tenny,” Lozzie said, eyes closed.

“Heather, hey, hey.” Raine put her hand on my arm. “Slow down a sec, what exactly did you three just see?”

“Yeah!” Twil added. “Kinda in the dark here, yo.”

“Um … ” I took a deep breath and tried to clear my head. “There was a single tentacle, or maybe it was several, I’m not sure, but there was a lot of it, an awful lot, hundreds and hundreds of feet worth. And it was Tenny, definitely Tenny.”

“You’re certain?” Raine asked.

I nodded. “Yes, I’d recognise the texture anywhere. I’ve held her tentacles in my hands enough times. It was in a ring, all the way around the edge of this field. As soon as Zheng unearthed it, it just fled.”

“Good then,” Twil grunted. “Don’t wanna deal with that shit.”

“She’s been eating live meat!” I almost shouted at Twil. “Live sheep! How is that even possible? We have to find her, we-”

“Find her, shaman?” Zheng chuckled. “Hunting a slug in the rain, a challenge.”

“Zheng, don’t you dare surprise her. We don’t know what came out of her cocoon, we don’t even know what she looks like now. She can’t be far though, a single tentacle can’t be that long, can it?”

Twil and Raine shared a look. Lozzie giggled.

I sighed and put my face in my hand. “Me saying it doesn’t make it more likely. Please, she can’t have gotten that big.”

“Let’s not tempt fate,” Twil said with a grimace. “Yeah? And-”

A black whip of force shot out of the woods to our right, a full ninety degrees from the point at which Tenny’s appendage had vanished, and slammed into the centre of Zheng’s chest with an explosive crunch of shattering ribs.

The impact threw Zheng to the ground, a rag-doll bundle of flopping limbs and wet clothes in the mud.

I flinched so hard I almost slipped over, a shriek caught in my throat. Lozzie made a comical ‘wah!’ sound. Twil and Raine couldn’t see the tentacle itself, but they saw the result well enough. Twil bared her teeth, ghostly wolf-flesh spinning together across her body, and Raine moved in front of me, knife out in one hand.

Tenny’s tentacle reared back up, a snake readying another strike. It was the tip, finally; it split open on a sucking wet mouth ringed with tiny black barbs.

“Zheng!” I screamed.

Zheng had, for once, actually been caught off guard, but she didn’t stay down for long. She flipped back to her feet with a grin of sheer joy on her face.

Golog!” she roared with laughter at the tentacle, then spat blood into the rain. “Back for a rematch?”

“Zheng, your ribs are broken, I heard them snap!” I yelled. “Tenny, stop! Oh for- why is it always tentacles? This is absurd.”

They both ignored me, if Tenny could even hear.

Before anybody so much as drew breath, dozens of tarry-black loops of tentacle raced out of the gloom beneath the trees. Half of them darted for Zheng – but the other half threw up a wall between the demon-host and the rest of us.

Tenny tried to ensnare Zheng at her wrists or ankles, jabbed for her throat and eyes, bludgeoned her back and head. Zheng roared with laughter at the top of her lungs and fought back with sheer muscular strength, punching and gouging and stomping. She managed to rip one length of tentacle clean apart in a cloud of black ichor, only for the severed halves to vanish amid the confusion, seemingly none the worse for wear. The mouth-tentacle was lost as well, impossible to pick out from the rest. Tenny landed a solid blow on Zheng’s hip with an ear-splitting crack of fracturing bone.

“Oooh, no no! Tenny, no!” Lozzie whined, in a tone with which one might admonish a naughty dog, not a tentacle-creature attacking a friend. She rushed up to the wall of tentacles Tenny had thrown up between us and tried to force her way through, but the tentacles gently pushed her back.

“Heather, what is going on?” Raine demanded. Twil was growling now, agitated by the invisible violence.

“She thinks Zheng’s an enemy! Tenny could kill her. Tenny, stop!” I yelled into the woods, hoping to see her main body, whatever it looked like now, whatever she’d become, but the forest darkness and the pouring rain swallowed all. “Zheng is a friend, stop!”

She’d almost won, caught Zheng by one wrist and the opposite knee. Zheng had taken a hard strike to the side of her head, puffed up one eye into a huge bleeding bruise. Her free arm hung limp from the shoulder socket at an unnatural angle. She kicked and slipped in the mud, couldn’t get her footing as another tentacle threw a loop to catch her around the neck.

Tenny was about to pull Zheng’s head clean off, and there was nothing we little humans could do about it.

Then Zheng exploded with another roar of laughter. She lost her footing – on purpose – and slipped beneath the tentacle fishing for her throat.

On the ground, she bit clean through the loop of tentacle restraining her good arm and shook herself free with sheer brute strength, surging to her feet and whirling in the rain like a berserker. She slammed her own dislocated shoulder back in to place with a punch, then caught the next loop of tentacle that tried to knock her brains out. She pulled it apart, ripped the appendage in two like before – but this time she held onto it with both hands, a bullfighter on the horns.

“Fast, but stupid!” she roared.

She was having so much fun, I almost didn’t want to interrupt.

But finally I found my feet and my courage, and stumbled the few steps forward to the wall of tentacles. Raine tried to stop me, then settled for shadowing me when I shook her off. She couldn’t see the wall, of course. I reached out and touched one of the tentacles with my bare hand, raindrops slipping down my sleeve cuff.

Warm and slippery in my grip. Absolutely her.

“Tenny, stop!” I said, with both mouth and mind. “Down!”

A fluttering sound inside my head. Like air passing over feathered gills, a whirring note of surprise and confusion, a strangled yelp from a throat of fanned paper.

All together and all at once, the tentacles disengaged. They pulled free from Zheng and sent her head-over-heels again, whipped back and withdrew from the field in the blink of an eye. Several loops smashed into trees in their haste to leave, scarring the bark, sending outraged crows into the sky in a flurry of black wings. Sucked back into the wood like wet noodles down a drain, the tentacles vanished into the gloom, gone.

I took a few stumbling steps toward the woods, but this time Raine caught me around the shoulders.

“Woah there, slow down,” she said, and this time I didn’t pull away. “What happened? Heather?”

“Pheeeew,” Lozzie did a big puff, bit her lip, and gave me a guilty, sidelong look. “Oopsie.”

Silence descended, broken only by raindrops on my hood and Zheng’s laboured breathing as she got to her feet. Stillness felt so unnatural now. No tentacles, no Tenny. Just a field in England.

“She got me, shaman!” Zheng roared, broke the silence.

“Zheng? Are you alright, you-”

“She got me!” Zheng stomped back over to us, grinning with pleasure. She was bruised and battered all over, her left eye socket swollen and bleeding, dragging one leg. She couldn’t stop laughing, a belly-deep rumble. “Slug, slippery carrion-eater, trapdoor spider, lurking coward, she got me!”

Zheng stomped hard, and something inside her hip popped back into place with an audible crack.

“She’s fucked you right up, yeah,” Twil said, gaping. “You … you alright?”

Zheng turned away, shaking herself like a wet dog, still laughing. Perhaps it was only the rain sliding down her cheeks, but I could have sworn she was crying tears of joy.

“Heather, I need a low-down here,” Raine said, calm and collected. “What just happened?”

I looked up at her, my rock, face set and focused beneath the curve of her hood. Raindrops dripped from the brim. I realised she was still poised for action, her entire body ready to spring one way or the other at a hair-trigger touch. In a second she could scoop me up or draw her knife or do God alone knew what else. The sensation sent a shiver up my spine.

“Raine, it’s fine, s-she left after trying to fight Zheng,” I babbled, my knees weak at the look in Raine’s eyes. “She threw up a sort of wall between us too. I think she was trying to protect me from Zheng. Silly, of course she’d think that, she’s never met Zheng except when I almost got kidnapped, poor thing. Oh, Tenny.”

“As long as she’s protecting you,” Raine said. “S’alright by me.”

“Raine, she was going to pull Zheng’s head off!”

“Maybe it was just payback.” She glanced over at Zheng. “All that with one tentacle, huh? Nice.”

“Tenny’s fishing line!” Lozzie said.

“Hey, Zheng,” Raine called. “How you holding up after that?”

“This is nothing, yoshou!” Zheng laughed. “Fifteen minutes, good as new.”

“Slow,” Twil grunted with a humourless laugh, but she trailed off into an awkward cough. Twil was brave beyond sensibility, but even she couldn’t fight invisible monsters.

“So, she’s gone again now?” Raine asked me.

“She went into the woods.” I nodded, trying to take a deep breath. “Which is, well, a problem in and of itself. I … how was … she … ”

I trailed off. My eyes went wide. My head felt like it would float away on the wind.

Awe is a singular and strange sensation. Often it arrives slowly, when one reads about the depths of space or vast stretches of time. To those unlucky few of us who have been Outside, other kinds of awe – of the alien, of the vast, of the spaces between – come to mind all too easily. In other instances, awe only arrives after several separate pieces of information converge to contextualise one seemingly minor experience.

Lozzie, Zheng, and I all saw the tentacle rise above the treetops. Slender, thin as my wrist, framed against the storm-tossed sky, visible only due to the tarry-blackness. A tiny thread. A trick of perspective.

Then it dipped back down into the trees.

“What?” Raine demanded. “What is it now?”

“Uh.” I swallowed, glanced over at Zheng. “Was- was that-”

“Ten or eleven miles distant, shaman,” Zheng rumbled. “At least.”

Vertigo washed over me, brought on by the wide cloud-tossed sky. “She’s … moving very fast then, she-”

Zheng shook her head. “Ten miles, in a few seconds? Even I cannot run that fast. That was another part.”

“ … she’s huge,” I breathed. “Where- I thought she was in the trees, nearby, she … ten miles? She could be anywhere, she-”

“Heather?” Raine prompted. I stared at her for a moment, speechless, then squeezed my eyes shut.

“Why do I feel like I’m in a Godzilla movie all of sudden?” I sighed. “I don’t believe this. As if this hasn’t been enough for one day.”


“It was a huge tentacle. Very long,” I hissed. “Above the trees, back toward the city almost. Which means she’s … giant!”

“What?” Twil grunted. “You think she came out of that cocoon and turned into Mothra or something?”

“I don’t know!” I said. “Her cocoon was still there this morning. In the same place it’s been for weeks, in the tree in the garden. I saw it myself, with my own eyes, while I was eating breakfast. She can’t have followed us out here. We’d know if she hatched, wouldn’t we? Lozzie?”

“Mmm-mmmm?” Lozzie shrugged. She wavered on her feet, eyelids heavy, one hand clinging to Twil’s sleeve.

“Heather, hey, slow down,” Raine said. “Maybe she hatched right as we left, followed you out here? That’s what she does, after all, right? She follows you.”

I shook my head, going numb. “That tentacle was too far away, practically back in Sharrowford. And she’s been eating real meat, I didn’t even think that was possible.” A horrible cold fist of ice settled in my belly. The implications did not bear thinking about. “How did she do that? How did she do any of that? She even hit the trees. Pneuma-somatic flesh can’t … touch … ”

Of course, this wasn’t the first time Tenny had touched real flesh with pneuma-somatic appendages.

Months ago, in that dirty alleyway where I’d been ambushed by a cult underling before my first meeting with Alexander Lilburne, she’d shoved her tentacles into his head, bought me a moment of distraction. But back then her tentacles had passed through skin and bone and brain, made him jerk and sit up as if surprised. Not battered him to death.

Now she’d hunted living animals, stripped the meat from their bones, and hidden her kill.

“She’s just really reeeeeally clever,” Lozzie said, then grumbled, knuckling at her sleepy eyes.

“Really clever. Right.”

Raine must have seen the look on my face. She glanced at the dark tree line through the murk of the storm. “You think she’s been eating meat elsewhere? This might not be the first time?”

“Oh shiiiiiit,” said Twil. “Like, back in Sharrowford?”

“Oh God, oh no.” My throat tightened up. “You might be right, I don’t know.”

“The pup is too clever for that, shaman,” Zheng purred, still grinning like she’d heard the best joke in all her life. She was rubbing her swollen eye socket with one hand. “Her nature guides her well, sends her to places with no monkeys to see.”

“Sharrowford’s full’o dark corners too,” Raine said. Zheng shrugged.

“Raine,” I said, trying to pull my thoughts together. “Raine, will you call Evelyn again, please?”

“Sure thing.” Raine didn’t hesitate. She rummaged in her jacket for her mobile phone. “You look like a woman with a plan. Wanna share?”

“We need to verify if the cocoon is still there. If it is, then … then … ” I swallowed. “Then we know where the tentacle retreated to, and that Tenny has just reached across twenty miles of countryside.”

“Fuck,” Twil grunted.

“Yes, for once that is an appropriate word, thank you Twil,” I said. “Raine, please?”

“Already on it.” Carefully shielding her phone from the storm with her coat and hood, she dialled for Evelyn. “You wanna talk to her yourself?”

“Please, yes.” I held out my hand and Raine passed me the phone. I hunched forward as I slid it inside my hood, against my ear. The line rang three times, then connected with a soft click.

“What is it now?” Evelyn’s voice demanded, tinny and distant over the weak signal. “Raine, this had better be you telling me you’re on the way home, you-”

“Evee, it’s me,” I said quickly, trying to keep the shake from my voice. “I need you to do something for for me, please.”

“Heather?” I practically felt the blink of surprise in Evelyn’s voice, then the bite in her words. “What’s happened? Where’s Raine?”

“We’re all fine, we’re all safe. Evee, please, I need you to go to the back door or the kitchen window and look out … ” I halted as I realised my own stupidity.

“Heather? Heather?”

“ … oh blast, you won’t be able to see it, will you?” I thought out loud. “Evee, can you please ask Praem to look out of the kitchen window for me?”

“What on earth are you-”

“Evee please, please just do it. I need her to make sure Tenny’s cocoon is still there. Please.”

“ … alright.” Evelyn grunted. I heard the sounds of her getting up, putting papers or a book aside, shifting blankets off her lap, then the clack-clack-clack of her walking stick, so comfortingly normal. Away from the phone’s speaker, I heard her voice. “Praem, you’re needed. Kitchen.” A moment later her voice returned to the phone. “Very well, Heather, she’s looking out of the back window. What is she looking for, pray tell?”

“Can you put her on? Please?”

A pause. I felt Evelyn’s raised eyebrow across half the county.

“It’s only a phone,” I sighed, at my wit’s end. “Surely she knows how to use a phone. She put a maid uniform on with no prior experience, and I gather that’s a bit more fiddly. She can handle a phone, please.”

“Point. Here.” Evelyn’s voice left the phone’s speaker. “Hold it up to your ear, you- yes. That’s it.”

A beat of silence.

“Praem?” I asked.

“Heather,” Praem intoned down the phone, a single perfect sing-song note, beautiful amid all this rain and mud.

“Praem, I need you to do something for me, please. Do you see Tenny’s cocoon from where you’re standing? Is it in it’s usual place, in the tree?”


I thought I’d feel relief, but it wouldn’t come. “You’re certain?”


“And it’s not … split or damaged or-”


“ … would you go out there and check for me, that it’s still alive? That she’s still … in there?”

Without a word of acknowledgement the phone suddenly emitted a scuffing noise, followed by Evelyn’s voice. “Praem? Praem! You’re going to get wet and- oh, bugger it.” She snapped back to the phone. “Heather, what on earth have you got her doing?”

“Checking on Tenny, we found these- wait, no!” I almost jumped out of my skin. “Evee, stop her from going out there! Stop her!”

“Oooh, yes!” Lozzie piped up. She bounced over to the phone and added her voice over my shoulder. “Best not go out, if she’s still hungry!”

“Evee, yeah, stay indoors,” Raine called.

Evelyn huffed an irritated sigh. “What is this, are all of you-”

“She might get eaten. You might get eaten,” I said. “Stay indoors.”

“What … Praem, Praem, stop,” Evelyn called out. “Heather says stop too, if my authority really means that little.” I heard Evelyn sigh. “What now, Heather? What is this about?”

“Tenny was here, just now. Or at least one of her tentacles was.”

Evelyn’s moment of silence spoke volumes.

“Yes, I know,” I said. “Look, Evee, we found dead sheep, it turns out she’s been eating them, probably. Eating meat, real actual meat, physical meat.”

“ … what?” Evelyn hissed. “Heather, that’s not poss-”

“It is. I saw the tentacle bounce off the trees, we all did. Evee, we can talk about the implications later. I don’t understand, but, if she’s still in the cocoon … she … well.” I swallowed. “She’s developed quite the long reach.”


Going home was not a simple matter of all piling into the car to endure a soggy ride together. Lozzie and I may both be on the smaller side, but there was no way we could all cram into the back of Raine’s car. Zheng was simply too large and too unwieldy. She knew it, and she didn’t even make the attempt.

“I’ll walk, shaman.”

I stared up at her and sighed. We were standing on the edge of the woods, in the asphalt lay-by we’d pulled into so many hours ago. Behind me, Lozzie bounced into the back seat and out of the rain, then swung her wellington-booted feet back out and and banged them against the side of the car to knock the mud off. She hugged herself tight in her poncho, shivering softly, but in minutes we’d have the car engine purring and the heaters turned up full for her.

“ … Zheng, it’s miles,” I said. “Woodland, open fields, then the city, and you have to hide the whole way, don’t you? Zheng, even for you that’ll takes ages. This is an emergency, it-”

“Could be an emergency,” Raine corrected me, gentle and reassuring. She squeezed my shoulder through my hoodie and coat. “We don’t know what Tenny’s been doing, but she’s been doing it for a while and nothing crazy’s happened yet. S’not like there’s a spate of missing persons in Sharrowford, or a load’a dead pets.”

“You didn’t see that tentacle!” I almost snapped at her. “Raine, it was miles high.”

“And she listened to you when you told her stop, didn’t she?”

“That’s not the point.”

“Plenty of giant araatan, shaman,” Zheng purred. “You see them every day.”

“And they don’t eat live sheep!” I almost shouted. “Zheng, she tried to pull your head off!”

“This?” Zheng gestured at the awful bruise down the side of her face, her black eye with the flesh all puffed up. During the walk back to the road, she had healed slightly, faster than any human, but not as rapidly as Twil, her crooked gait straightening out as her hipbone mended. She looked like she’d taken a wrecking ball to the head. Half her bones made grinding sounds as she walked. “A love tap. The puppy was playing.”

I sighed, closed my eyes, and rubbed the bridge of my nose. The return had not been easy, and at one point I had almost asked Raine to carry me. Brainmath had drained me, left me shaky and gifted me with a headache, and the residual adrenaline was running out. My flanks hurt, my head pounded, and I wanted so badly to lie down.

“It could take you hours to reach the house,” I said. “I need you there with us when we approach the cocoon. Please.”

“Your golog won’t hurt you.”

“She hurt you, and she might hurt my other friends. I can’t be sure.” I huffed. “I suppose this is why I’m in charge, isn’t it? I’m the only responsible one here.”

Zheng made a grumbling sound. I glared up at her.

“Too proud to ride with your head between your knees for twenty minutes, hey?” Twil asked. She poked her head out of the passenger side door, hood still up against the stray raindrops scattering through the woodland canopy over the road.

Zheng gave her a slow look, eyes sharp and predatory but strangely at rest. “I dislike these metal boxes.”

Raine laughed at that, but put up a placating hand. “Showing your age, huh?”

“Zheng, it’ll be twenty minutes,” I said. “Surely you’ve had worse.”

“I will race you, shaman. And I will win.”

“That a challenge?” Raine asked. I caught a twinkle in her eye. “On wet roads?”

Yoshou?” Zheng rumbled.

“’Cos hey, I’m the one behind the wheel here.” She reached back and patted the top of the car. “Sure she’s no eight-six, but you really wanna take a risk on my skills? You’ll look pretty silly when you plod up to the house half an hour after the rest of us, out of breath while I’m sippin’ tea with my feet up.”

“Uh oh,” went Twil, sing-song style, a nasty smirk on her face.

“You propose to out pace me,” Zheng rumbled, darkly unimpressed. “In a machine?”

“Damn right I do,” said Raine.

“Oh no! No!” I stared at the pair of them. “We are not doing this, not now! This is serious, both of you. We’ve got a giant monster growing in the back garden and we need to get home as quickly as possible, not-”

I choked to a halt, heart in my mouth when I realised what I’d just said.

“Exactly,” Zheng purred.

“Race!” Lozzie chanted. “Race!”

Raine grinned at me with adoring satisfaction. “Heather, I love you so much, you know that?”

“Raaaaine,” I almost whined. “It’s not safe. Oh my God, no.”

“It is with me in the driver’s seat. Always.”

“Hurt the shaman and I’ll hunt you to the ends of the earth, yoshou,” Zheng said.

Raine winked and shot a finger gun at her. “I expect nothing less.”

“Good. Go.”

And with a sudden, face-ripping grin of savage joy, Zheng exploded from a standing start into a headlong sprint, a lightning bolt wrapped in rags that lanced across the road and through the trees opposite, whipping leaves into a vortex behind her to float back to earth. She jinked to one side and vanished into the woods, footsteps quickly lost in the cushion of the forest.

Raine burst out laughing. “Right then, that solves that.”

“Shit!” Twil said. “She can go straight, we gotta take the roads.” She almost leapt out of the car, but Raine held a hand up to stop her.

“Cool it, Twil, cool it. We got all the time in the world.”

“We- what? Come off it Raine, you’re not that good a driver. We’re gonna lose.”

“Good,” I tutted. “Better than breaking all our necks, or getting stopped by the police for speeding.”

“Why pay for the whole speedometer if you’re only gonna use half of it?” Raine asked. I boggled at her.

“You- no, you can’t be serious, you-”

She shot me a wink and I felt my insides melt at her smoldering confidence. She knew something I didn’t, and I knew that was dangerous. “I’ll get us all home safe, promise. You get the front seat, too. Go on, Twil, in back for you.”

I huffed in irritation, but relented, against all my better judgement. This was hardly the craziest thing Raine had ever convinced me into, after all. If nothing else, I trusted she knew what she was doing, but after I climbed in and got settled, I started to doubt again. My stomach clenched up.

Raine popped the driver’s door a moment later and climbed in, shaking stray raindrops from her hood.

“So, this thing is like, souped-up, right?” Twil asked, poking her head forward between the seats.

“Not as far as I know,” said Raine.

“What?!” Twil gaped at her in disbelief “This car is ancient, what the hell are you thinking?”

“Thinking ahead.”

The engine coughed to life into a steady warm purr, air pouring from the heating vents. I got my seatbelt on, heart in my throat, every muscle tensed and my flanks aching as Raine revved the engine, a teasing grin on her lips.

Raine,” I warned her.

“Race! Race!” Lozzie chanted, curled up comfy in the back seat.

With a kick of the wheels and a lurch in my stomach, Raine pulled out of the little woodland lay-by and onto the road. She put her foot down and I felt like my pulse was going to burst out of my own throat.

“Relax,” she purred.

“I can’t!”

“You’re gripping the dashboard, Heather. Relax. Sit back.”

“I can’t help it, Raine, I can’t believe you’re … doing … this?”

“Uhhhh,” Twil made a noise like a printer error. “Raine, what the fuck are you doing?”

“Driving us home.”

She’d hyped it up so much I hadn’t realised until we rounded the second corner, but Raine was in fact driving safely. I glanced over at the car’s speedometer. A comfortable twenty-seven miles an hour. I stared at Raine in profile, not sure if I should laugh or scold her.

“We’re gonna lose!” Twil said.

“Yeah … ” Lozzie puffed out a cheek in disappointment.

“Raine, what?” was all I could manage.

She laughed softly, took one hand from the wheel and ruffled my hair before leaning over to plant a huge kiss on my cheek.

“Eyes on the road!” I squeaked. “Raine!”

She laughed again and took both hands off the wheel for a second, at which I thought my heart might explode, before she relented and replaced her hands at the ten and two positions.

“It’s a ruse,” she said.

“Eh?” went Twil.

“I’m … sorry? Raine?” I asked.

“I have hoodwinked our big friend. Pulled a fast one. Played a trick. Gone done a ruse on her.”

I glanced back at Twil. She shrugged, as lost as I was. “But we’re gonna lose the race,” she said.

“Small price to pay,” Raine answered.

“Oh,” I sighed as understanding set in. “Oh, that is clever. Too clever. Raine, I can’t believe this. That’s so underhanded.”

“It is,” Lozzie chirped, then made a grumbly noise, pulled her poncho tight, and closed her eyes. A moment later she let out a little snore.

Twil looked at her, looked at me, looked at Raine, then at the road ahead.


“So, right now,” Raine explained, “Zheng’s gonna get back to the house ASAP. Faster than we can, driving in this rain, on these roads. Gonna take us, oh, I dunno, least half an hour. But she’ll get there first. Keep an eye on Tenny’s cocoon for us, just in case anything screwy’s going on. Better her than Evee. Insurance.”

“Oh.” Twil sat back, a bit blank.

“She can’t turn down a fight,” Raine said. “Best way to motivate her.”

“You knew the exact buttons to push, didn’t you?” I asked, shaking my head with disbelief.

“Got her number, yeah,” Twil said. “Wow. Huh.”

“Ehhhh.” Raine smiled a self-deprecating smile. “I think I got her figured out most ‘o the way. Zheng ain’t that complex.” She glanced sidelong at me with a silent question in her eyes.

I sighed. “In some ways, I suppose not, no.”

“So what, all that bragging about your sick driving skills was just guff?” Twil asked. “Figures.”

“Hey, I never said I couldn’t beat her if I tried.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Twil scoffed. “Oldest story in the book, that one. ‘I could win, I just don’t wanna.’”

“Twil,” I said. “Please don’t tempt her.”

“One corner then. This one,” Raine said. She nodded ahead, to where the woodland road turned sharply on a downhill curve – and put her foot down. The engine revved higher, a lion’s purr trapped under the hood.

“Woo!” went Lozzie, without opening her eyes.

Twil gripped the back of my seat. “What? What?!”

“Raine!” My heart shot back up into my throat. I felt my legs trying to brace against the footwell again. “Raine, don’t you dare, you-”

“Hey, I’d never put you in danger,” she said, eyes glued to the road. “Trust me. Just this one time.”

The corner raced up to meet us, trees and all. I couldn’t even squeak, my knuckles white on the sides of the seat. Raine was utterly focused, knife-edge sharp.

We hit the corner and she jammed the wheel all the way to one side until the steering locked and the car almost span out, then shifted gears down and slammed on the accelerator again; I swallowed a scream , my heart trying to explode from my chest as Twil let out a ‘woah’. The rear tires squealed like a pig in terror as we rounded the corner almost side-on. I had an awful vision of the car rolling over.

But then suddenly we straightened out as we left the corner, the moment of excitement over as soon as it had begun.

“How about that, huh?” Raine finally allowed herself a grin.

“Fuck me,” Twil said, wide-eyed and breathless.

Lozzie let out a loud snore. She’d slept through the whole thing.

I glared at Raine.


“Raine, I love you, but if you ever do that again I will make you sleep in the garden.”

She laughed. “One time only. Promise. ‘Less it’s life or death.”

“I mean it. I’m not joking.” I took deep breaths, trying to force down the pounding in my head.

“Yeah, uh, Raine,” Twil said. “I think she’s serious.”

“I am.”

“Cross my heart and hope to die, never again,” Raine said. “Took your mind off Tenny though, didn’t it?”

“ … I … I suppose it did.” I sighed. “Sort of.”

“Trust me to drive fast now?”

“Within reason. Get us home, Raine, yes, as quickly as you can. Within reason.”


Kimberly met us at the door.

“Did Zheng get here?” I asked.

She was wide-eyed and pale in the face as she appeared in the front room, moments after we all bustled inside, busy trying to squirm out of our wellington boots, shedding wet coats and damp layers. As soon as we’d gotten the front door shut, Lozzie had sat down in a heap on the floor, head nodding, eyelids fluttering to stay open. Raine was helping her out of her boots. Twil had started shouting for Evelyn.

Kimberly’s throat bobbed with a nervous swallow. “Yes, she’s up the tree in the back garden. Evelyn isn’t very happy, the neighbours might see.”

Twil strode past her and into the kitchen, making for the back door, tacking mud all across the floor. I shucked off my coat but didn’t have the spare energy to peel my hoodie over my head, so I stepped into my regular shoes and hurried after her, my bruised sides and sore stomach complaining, my skull throbbing with a low-grade headache.

“Heather, wait up!” Raine called after me.

“Waity-wait,” Lozzie said.

Home felt lovely and warm after the long purgatory of the storm outdoors. The heating was cranked all the way up, raindrops drummed on the roof with the certainty of true enclosure, and every room was washed with a gentle glow of grey storm-light filtered through old glass.

When I saw Zheng through the kitchen window, I sighed. I wasn’t going to get to stay indoors just yet.

“Oh, damn her.”

I went through into the little utility room in the rear of the house. Twil was already slipping out the back door and into the garden. I passed the washer and dryer and the broken-backed sofa, pulled the door open, and stumbled out onto the rear patio straight into a confusion of several people’s backs, umbrellas, and a huge scarf.

“Don’t even try, she’ll throw you to the ground and you’ll break both legs,” Evelyn was saying to Twil.

“Don’t even try,” Praem echoed.

“Oh cool, thanks for the vote of confidence,” Twil said.

“No giant tentacles,” I sighed. “Okay, that’s a good sign.”

Evelyn glanced over her shoulder at me. “Heather, wonderful”, she deadpanned. “Don’t suppose you could convince her down from there before we get a visit from the RSPCA in a search of an escaped gorilla?”

“Shaman!” Zheng bellowed at the top of her lungs.

She was, as Kimberly had warned, up in the tree. The storm had finally slackened on our drive home, a brief lull in the days of rain to come, but Zheng was still sopping wet, hair plastered to her scalp, eye mostly healed by now into a mere dark bruise across half her face. Steading herself with one hand on a higher branch, both feet planted wide, she stood tall over Tenny’s cocoon.

It looked exactly as it had this morning. The size of a small car, wedged in place between the thickest branches, anchored to both ground and the mighty tree trunk with sticky strips of pneuma-somatic flesh, like creepers. The tarry-black surface shifted and flowed like liquid moved by an unseen current.

“Probably not,” I admitted to Evelyn.

Zheng pointed down at the cocoon. “Sealed. Intact. Your puppy is still within, shaman.”

“Yes,” Evelyn raised her voice. “As you have told us already. Now get down from there!”

Evelyn stood on the back patio, arms crossed in irritation, scowling up at Zheng. She was wrapped in an hastily assembled collection of warm clothes to keep the cold off, a thick cream jumper beneath her coat, a huge scarf wrapped around her neck, all askew. Praem waited next to her in full maid uniform, holding two umbrellas, one in each hand. Twil had decided to shelter there as well, caught by indecision at Evelyn’s side.

Zheng ignored her. “We need to deliver her, shaman.”

The back door opened again and Raine joined us, with Lozzie hanging onto her arm, rubbing heavy eyes as she gazed at Zheng and the cocoon. Kimberly peered warily around the door frame behind them.

“I won, yoshou,” Zheng called.

“Right you did,” Raine called back, then turned to me. “What now?”

“It’s still sealed,” I told her. “No tentacles that I can see.”

“Shaman,” Zheng bellowed.

“Oh, blast it all.” I shook myself, pulled my hoodie’s hood down over my hair, and ventured out into the rain once more.

Zheng watched me from up in the tree as I approached. I craned my neck to look up at her, and found an oddly serious expression on Zheng’s face as she crouched in the branches, next to that giant sticky black cocoon. A deep bass thrumming echoed inside my own head, a rhythm in the air itself, the heartbeat of a whale.

“Her metamorphosis is done,” Zheng rumbled. “She is overdue. We must deliver her.”

“ … how do you know that?”

Zheng shrugged. “Pupa do not eat. She sends out feeding tubes, because she is no longer a pupa. But she won’t come out.” She reached over and patted the huge chrysalis.

“That’s not true!” Lozzie said. I turned and found her struggling up through the garden behind me, flapping her poncho. Raine followed on her heels, having borrowed one of Praem’s umbrellas to keep the rain off both of them. Lozzie squinted and struggled with her eyes. “She’ll hatch when she’s ready! She’s just getting big!”

Zheng shook her head, slow and almost sad. “She is starving to death in the womb.”

“We can’t just open it ourselves,” I said. “What if Lozzie’s right? If we open it and she’s still changing, that’ll kill her.”

Zheng stared at me for a moment, then at the cocoon, then up at the sky. “Your choice, shaman.”

“I … I don’t know, I can’t make that kind of choice, I didn’t … ”

I didn’t make Tenny.

“Lozzie,” I turned, pleading with her. “Lozzie, is there some way we can be sure?”

Lozzie sniffed hard and closed one eye, struggling to stay coherent. Raine kept her dry with the umbrella in one hand, helped her stay standing with the other. She was trying so hard, but she shook her head, frowning and biting her lower lip.

“Heather, this isn’t on you,” Raine said softly. “No emergency after all, right? We should head back indoors, think this over. Talk to Evee, figure out a way to track those tentacles, find out what Tenny’s been up to.”

“Are you coming down from that blasted tree or not?” Evelyn called across the garden.

“Hush, wizard,” Zheng rumbled.

“I … ” I swallowed hard, raindrops soaking through my hood. “I’m not-”

Not responsible for this? Not a leader?

Tenny had saved my life once. She was a good doggy.

No less than Zheng, Tenny was a friend out in the wilderness. Maisie had told me in no uncertain terms what I should do about lost friends.

“I need to talk to her again,” I said, glancing up at the cocoon, an idea growing in my mind. “I’ve touched it before, but she wasn’t communicating through it. She’ll talk through the tentacles though, but I don’t see any. How could she have-”

Clonk clonk. Zheng tapped the tree trunk with her knuckles, then pointed downward at the ground. “Through the wood.”

“Makes sense,” said Raine.

“I need to talk to her again,” I said. “Zheng, can you dig up part of that tentacle, but don’t yank it out this time. I need to touch it, to … ask her … I don’t know, but it’s the only way to be certain.”

Zheng rose to her feet and cracked her knuckles. “Open a hole in the tree?”

“No hurty tree,” Lozzie whined.

“Yes, indeed, ‘no hurty tree’, let’s not do any more damage than necessary, please?”

Zheng stared at me for a second, deadpan and unreadable, then shrugged and took a step forward. She dropped straight out of the tree and hit the ground with a thump. I flinched and tutted.

“Locate it again, shaman?”

“With brainmath? Um, no. I’m exhausted, if I do that again I might pass out, and I’m pretty certain Tenny will only talk to me or Lozzie, and Lozzie’s about to fall asleep. Can’t you-”

“Mm,” Zheng grunted, and went to work.

She was quick, efficient, and brutal, tearing handfuls of earth out from around the tree in a rough circle, searching for the hiding place of Tenny’s feeding tentacle. She threw clods of dirt into the grass behind her as she went.

“Yes, that’s wonderful,” Evelyn drawled. She’d moved closer to observe, Praem holding the umbrella over her head and Twil grimacing out at the rain beside her. “Rip up the whole garden, why don’t you?”

“Come on, Evee,” Raine said. “Not like we take any care of it.”

“You best hope it’s not deeper, wizard,” Zheng rumbled.

“Quite. You’ll hit sewage pipes.”

We were fortunate. With a deep-throated growl, Zheng unearthed the tentacle a minute later. I hurried over to her side, uncaring of the rain soaking through my hood, as she straightened up and gestured into the shallow trench she’d dug, barely a foot deep. Raindrops sluiced mud down the sides of the hole. In the bottom pulsed a tarry-black cable of pneuma-somatic muscle, about as thick as my wrist.

“Thank you, Zheng,” I said, crouching with some difficulty, reaching down to touch the tentacle with my fingertips.

I made contact. Beneath the sound of the rain, beneath my own pounding heart and my laboured breathing, beneath the sounds of Raine and Lozzie walking closer to peer over my shoulder, I heard that rapid fluttering inside my head. Air passed through dry gills, like the vibration of wings.

“Tenny?” Lozzie whispered.

“She’s here,” I said, and wet my lips. One last time, I glanced up at the cocoon in the tree. What was Tenny now? How big must she be, inside there, if what we’d seen in the woods was merely a pupa-stage feeding tube? “I … Tenny? Tenny, won’t you come out?” I said out loud. “It’s me, it’s Heather. Are you … ready?”

A feathery fanning inside my mind, rising and falling.

She used to speak words, even if garbled. Now all I heard was this fluttery rhythm. The rhythms of her new body?

“Tell her it’s safe to come out now,” said Raine.

“ … Raine? Why wouldn’t she think that?”

Raine gave me an indulgent smile. “She wrapped herself up in there after you got snatched back to Wonderland, right? Maybe that’s why she went. Maybe she needs to know it’s safe out here now. Hey, it’s what I’d tell her, if I could see any of this.”

I slipped my fingers through the sucking mud to grasp the tentacle more firmly. The thud-thud-thud of life reverberated through the air.

“Tenny, it’s me,” I repeated. “It’s safe to come out now. All safe here. The bad things are gone. Zheng’s … a friend, now.”

The fluttering noise ceased. The tentacle went dead in my hand, limp and lifeless. The tarry-black surface of Tenny’s cocoon ceased all motion, the endless swirl of black on black fixed and still, frozen.

That deep heartbeat in the air fell silent.

“Tenny?” I squeezed the tentacle, shook it a little. “Tenny? Tenny, are you there?”

“Heather?” Raine whispered.

“Oh no,” Lozzie said in a tiny voice.

“She stopped,” I said, and looked up at the cocoon. “She just stopped. Like her heart gave out. Oh, oh-”

With a slick-wet crack like a cross between breaking bone and splitting dry mucus, the cocoon jerked. A hairline fracture appeared on the frozen surface.

Two feelers flickered through the crack – feathery, dove-white, slender as needles – then whipped back inside. The cocoon jerked again, rocked from within, shuddering like a struck bell.

“It’s Tenny!” Lozzie lit up and clapped her hands together.

I stumbled to my feet. Raine caught me to stop me from falling over.

“She’s hatching,” I said, turning to Raine, smiling in relief. “She-”

Raine had her knife out in her other hand, eyes glued to the cocoon – no, to the tree, I corrected myself. She couldn’t even see the cocoon; she, Evelyn, Twil, Kimberly, none of them could see Tenny or the cocoon.

But Twil and Evelyn stared up as well, locked in a moment of surprise. Evelyn had gone green in the face. Kimberly had ventured out onto the back patio, eyes wide, hand to her mouth, looking like she was about to bolt.


“I could see that,” Raine said, without taking her eyes from the tree. “I saw that just now, Heather. A pair of insect antennae long as my arm, out of thin air. Plain as day, I saw that.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

nostalgia for infinity – 9.9

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

“Sick o’ stickin’ my face into dead animals,” Twil grumbled.

Hard raindrops hammered her hunched shoulders, swirled through the air between us, dripped from the rim of my hood. Sad, defeated crows sat in the trees above, awaiting an opportunity to return to the last of the mutton scraps. Twil straightened up from the jumble of red-streaked sheep bones which poked up from the bloodstained grass and mud, and turned a hood-shadowed, scrunch-faced frown on the rest of us.

“There’s nout here!”

“Try again,” Raine said from inside the depths of her own hood.

“There’s bugger all scent left in this!” Twil yelled over the sound of the rain. A wide shrug sent arcs of water sluicing off her coat sleeves. Her wellington boots squelched in the thickening mud as she turned and waved a hand at the devoured sheep. “This is fucking pointless!”

“Raine, I think she’s right,” I spoke up through slowly numbing lips. “We’re getting soaked. We need to go home. Lozzie’s getting cold.”

“M’fine fine, finey-fine-fine,” Lozzie muttered, almost a chant. Her voice trailed off into a sleepy sound that clutched at my heart. Not again, not now.

She’d started shivering almost as soon as we’d stopped moving, standing around in this rain soaked field. On the journey back to the sheep corpses she’d seemed normal, but I cursed myself for missing the tell-tale signs of another relapse. She’d grown quieter, her footsteps had lost their bounce, dragging through the carpet of woodland leaves; she’d slurred a couple of times, slow to turn when called. Now Lozzie was huddled close against my side, hood up and face hidden, arms crossed beneath her coat and poncho. Shivering. She felt so small. I hugged her tighter, but her teeth went on chattering.

I wasn’t faring much better. Pelted by the rain, struggling not to shiver, fighting an urge to hunch up and move as little as possible. My coat had held up until we’d braved the open sky, but now my hoodie felt damp at the neck and shoulder seams.

“I’ll crank the heating to full once we get back to the car, promise,” Raine said, then turned back to Twil. “Sure you didn’t miss something? Anything? Tracks even?”

“Nothing here but her.” Twil nodded at the only one of us who seemed to be enjoying the storm.

Zheng stood tall, face upturned to the roiling sky, eyes closed in pleasure. Rainwater had slicked her greasy hair back across her scalp and forehead, soaked her old ragged jeans and jumper until they hung off her like sheets of water themselves. She was drenched to the bone and didn’t care.

“This is gonna sound like a crazy question,” Raine said with a knowing smirk, “but could foxes have done this?”

Twil squinted at her like she was an idiot.

“Humour me,” Raine added.

“Brought down three fucking sheep? No! No way! Eaten the remains, sure, if something else killed ‘em and brought ‘em here. Nothing around here’s big enough to take three sheep. Nothing that should be out here anyway.”

Raine glanced along the tree line. She wet her lips with a dart of her tongue. “Escaped big cat, maybe?”

“Pffft, what, Sharrowford’s own Beast of Bodmin Moor?”

Raine shrugged. “Why not?”

“I’d smell it, duh. Big cat scent’d be all over the kills.” Twil huffed, crossed her arms, and hunched her shoulders against the driving rain. “This is some other shit.”

“Mmhmm,” Raine hummed in agreement, nodding slowly, staring off into the forest gloom beyond the open field. “Our shit.”

“Fuck it, come on Raine,” Twil said. “We gotta hunt something, we can do it tomorrow.”

“Lozzie is getting cold, and sleepy,” I said, my voice harder than I wanted. “I’m getting cold. None of us except maybe Zheng can do anything useful in all this rain. We need to go back to the car, and go home. Now.”

For a second, Raine didn’t react. I felt my patience fraying, was about to explode at her, snap her name; then I realised what she was doing. Without moving her hood so as to maintain the illusion of staring into the woods, in the corner of her eye, Raine was watching Zheng. In a split-second of judgement, the right hand assessed the left.

Then Raine turned to me and broke into a grin, all confidence. “Right you are, Heather. Give Lozzie here, I’ll carry her to the car. We’ll crank up the heat and drive straight-”

“Can’t you feel it, yoshou?” Zheng rumbled. “Laangren? Don’t you feel it?”

We all looked up at her. Zheng hadn’t moved. Eyes still closed, upturned to the sky, water running down her face and throat.

“Feel what?” Raine asked.

“The lurker in my shadow,” Zheng purred. “Still here. Still close.”


On our way back through the woods to the overgrown field and the mysterious, meat-stripped sheep carcasses, the sky had split asunder.

The storm which had been threatening all day had finally burst, into those long slow waves of rain that herald the beginning of two or three grey, wet days. No triumphant cacophony of thunder and lightning to burn itself out in an hour or two, no hope of sheltering under a thick part of the woodland canopy until the clouds parted. This storm possessed the true grinding endurance of a maritime climate. Even if we had been heading straight back to the car, we were in for a soggy ride home.

Instead, we’d all stood around in an open field for ten minutes, scratching our heads and getting soaked as Twil sniffed at sheep bones.

The trees had sheltered us from the worst of the downpour on the walk, but the rain came in gusts and squalls heavy enough to send sudden scattershots of raindrops penetrating through the woodland canopy. A deep gloom had crept across the forest floor, thickening the shadows and confusing the senses.

Twil had grumbled like an old soldier. Raine had taken it in her stride and helped me along with her hand in mine. Lozzie had scrambled down off Zheng’s shoulders to shelter in the giant’s lee, and Zheng hadn’t seemed to care about the wet and the cold one whit. By the time we broke cover back into the overgrown field, we were all huddled up inside our coats, dripping wet, wellington boots caked with mud, squelching and sucking with every plodding step.

My stomach had clenched into a tight knot, my veins touched by an adrenaline ghost. Phantom limbs scrunched tight, a defense against the unknown, a dull throbbing pain in my stiff flanks. I took Zheng’s emotional bombshell and the enigma of Raine’s urgent kiss, and shoved them into the back of my mind. Had to stay focused.

None of us said it out loud, and Raine was actively groping for any other explanation.

Anything intelligent enough – and supernatural enough – to hide its kills in Zheng’s shadow was absolutely our problem.


“Wait, what?” Twil asked, head swivelling to glance around the field and the tree line. “What’d you mean, still here?”

“Whatever killed those sheep is still nearby?” Raine asked. She didn’t wait for an answer, she simply drew her handgun, holding it carefully shielded from the rain beneath the curve of her coat.

“There’s-” I swallowed hard. Nothing here but us, the crows, and four dead sheep. A sudden gust of wind drove the rain into our faces. Twil growled, flexing fingers rapidly turning into claws.  Lozzie shivered harder in my grip. I squeezed her tight. “Zheng, what are you talking about? There’s nothing here.”

“Yeah,” Twil grunted. “Is this some weird invisible shit again?”

I shook my head. “There’s no spirits here, no pneuma-somatic life visible, nothing I can see.”

“Nothing-nothing,” Lozzie mumbled. I ducked down to catch her face; her eyelids flickered in an effort to open wider. “Nothing here, really good hider. Hidey-ho.”

“Zheng,” Raine said, hard and clear. “What are we looking for?”

Slowly, like a sleeper awakening, Zheng peeled her eyes open and looked about herself. She gazed down at the sheep bones, up at the crows, out at the field. We all waited, tense with baited breath amid the static of the rain.

“ … mmm,” Zheng rumbled. “You don’t feel it? We are being watched.”

“By what?!” Twil snapped at her. “From where? There’s nothing here!”

“Live by tooth and claw long enough, laangren, and you will know when you are being watched. It is close. Very close.” Her lips split into that awful, shark-toothed grin.

“What is it?” Raine asked. She stepped out to cover Lozzie and I.

Zheng frowned, eyes roving, slow and watchful. “I do not know.”

“T-this is all the more reason to head back, right now,” I raised my voice, swallowed down the sudden burst of adrenaline. “We can’t find anything in this storm.”

“Uh huh,” Raine murmured. “Hardly home ground advantage.”

“You could find it, shaman,” Zheng purred.

“I won’t be able to do much of anything if I catch cold out here,” I said “Or if … if one of the cult’s zombies escaped the house fire, and it catches us unawares.”

“Yeah,” Raine admitted with a heavy sigh. “S’what I was thinking too.”

“Nah,” Twil said. “One of those things would stink, it would be all over this place. Hell, Zheng does. No offence.”

“Ha! Correct, laangren, this is no puppet piloted by a blind fool. I would see that a mile off.”

“We are going home,” I said. “You all want me to be a leader, well, that’s my decision. We’re not all invincible demons or regenerating werewolves here. I’m getting soaked. Lozzie is falling asleep, and we’re being hunted? No, we leave. Back to the car. Zheng, you’re scarier than anything that-”

“I am going nowhere, shaman,” Zheng rumbled. She was staring off into the woods, turning her gaze slowly across the length of the abandoned field, mud and thistles and weeds. “It is right here. Right in front of us. I can almost smell it.”

“Fuck it,” Twil said. “I’m with Heather. We’re out.”

“Back to the car, without Zheng?” Raine murmured, then shook her head gently. Twil winced. I shivered, squeezed my eyes shut.

“Oh for God’s sake, Zheng, I’m not leaving you in the woods again,” I said. “There’s nothing here.”

Zheng turned on me, baring her teeth in a display of frustration. I almost flinched out of my skin. Raine twitched, but managed to resist the urge to point her gun at the giant demon-host. “There is, shaman. Lingering. Watching us. Hiding?” She tilted her head away, as if listening. “You should be able to smell this, shaman. Use what you brought back.”

A block of ice settled in the pit of my stomach. “ … what? Zheng, now isn’t the time for-”

“It is all around us.” She nodded at the tree line, the field, the sky itself. “At every angle. We are surrounded.”

“ … you serious?” Raine asked, with a soft danger in her voice.

“No jest, yoshou.”

“Right then, executive decision.”

The command in Raine’s voice left no room for argument; a familiar thrill ran down my spine. She tucked her gun away and pointed to the far end of the old field, at the tumbledown barn we’d passed on the way to find Zheng. It stood there amid the streaming rain, indistinct behind a veil of water.

“We can have this argument in the dry,” Raine said. “C’mere Heather, gimme Lozzie.”

“Good- yes,” I said. “Yes, good idea.”

Lozzie grumbled like a sleepy child as we peeled her out of my grip. Clods of wet mud fell from her wellington boots as Raine hoisted her into the air, princess-carry style.

“You stick right by me, Heather,” said Raine, throwing me a wink and a follow-me sideways jerk of the head. I nodded, almost blushing. “Not a step behind. Twil, you cover Heather.”

“Fuckin’ capital notion there,” Twil said.

“Zheng?” I turned back. “Zheng, please, at least follow us to the barn.”

“Mm. Go along, monkeys.”

We hurried across the field on sucking mud and slippery grass. Lozzie mumbled sleepy sounds into Raine’s shoulder. Zheng stalked backward away from the sheep bones, following us at a distance.

The tumbledown old barn loomed larger as we approached, a bigger structure than it had seemed from all the way across the field. Overlapping boards formed the walls, painted black many years ago, pitted and rotted at the corners from decades of woodland weather. The entire structure leaned to one side. Cracked tile roofing streamed with rainwater, pooling in puddles and ruts which ringed the dirty concrete foundation. A dark slit peered at us from the barn’s side, where a fifteen-foot tall swing-door sat forever jammed in place by collapsed hinges as thick around as my wrist.

“You think that structure is safe?” I hissed to Raine.

“Better than getting sick in the rain and ambushed by an invisible zombie.”

“There’s nothing here. Zheng’s … excitable.”

“Maybe. Maybe not,” Raine whispered.

“S’alright, these things are built to last,” Twil spoke up, and went first. She darted ahead, splashing through the puddles, tutting as she sunk ankle-deep into the water and pulled her foot free with a sucking slurp of saturated mud. She hopped up onto the wet concrete lip, twisted sideways, and slid through the slim gap into the barn. Darkness swallowed her whole.

A beat later her hooded head popped back out. She flashed us all a smile. “S’fine, dry too. Bit dark. Come on!”

Raine and I picked our way across the boggy moat of pooled water. Almost there, and my hiking stick stuck hard in a patch of thick mud. I pulled it free and overbalanced, feet slipping out from under me, a gasp tearing from my throat as phantom limbs uncoiled to catch me before I fell into the mud. They scrabbled uselessly, incorporeal and powerless.

Raine broke my fall instead, no small feat while she carried the semi-conscious Lozzie in her arms. She darted around my side with two precise steps and I fell against her, Raine’s feet braced in the mud to stop us all going over together in a tangle of limbs.

She flashed a grin. “Slow down, hey?”

“I’m sorry, I’m so clumsy, I-”

“Nah you’re not. Here.” She offered me her elbow, and I took it. When we reached the lip of the barn’s concrete foundation, Raine urged me in first with a nod of her head.

“No,” I said, still getting my breath back. “Get Lozzie out of the rain first, please.”

“Right you are, boss.”

Raine twisted and ducked to manoeuvre Lozzie through the slit in the side of the barn. I glanced back over my shoulder.

Zheng stood amid a dancing curtain of water. Head high, eyes wide, her massive body thrumming with the promise of sudden, terrible violence. She turned every which way as she backed toward the barn, watching for an ambush from a bare field, an empty quarter. Truly, there was nothing here but us.

“Zheng! Come inside!”

She tossed me the slimmest sidelong glance, and went back to her hunt.

I sighed. Zheng was hardly the easiest person to coerce, and she wasn’t exactly in danger. With a little wobble and an awkward clack of the hiking stick’s metal tip against the concrete, I ducked through the slender gap and shuffled inside the old, lopsided barn.

Deep darkness and dripping gloom covered my sight. Vast shapes reared up from hazy shadows as rain drummed on the tile roof and turned all sound to static; for a moment I felt as if I’d stepped into the mouth of something that had only been pretending it was a corpse. The heavy smells of machine rust and old straw and spilled petrol hung beneath the reek of mud. A predatory figure turned to me in the grey darkness, a vision of primal fear.

Then Twil shook her mobile phone to flick on the built-in LED torch. The light blinded me.


“Oh, shit, sorry Heather.” Twil grimaced and turned the light away, across the wooden-board and breeze block walls.

“It’s fine, I’m fine, just … you surprised me.”

She gave me a sheepish look. “Tryin’a find a door or somethin’. Least it’s dry.”

“Dry, yes.”

I couldn’t suppress the shivers anymore, both inside and out. Cold had settled into my neck and shoulders where my hoodie was damp. My fingers and nose and cheeks were freezing. Could barely feel my toes inside the wellington boots. Water dripped from my coat, from Twil’s too, making wet tracks in the thick dust. Caught in the sidewash of Twil’s light, Raine had set Lozzie on her feet once more. Lozzie was hunched up tight, teeth chattering.

“Raine? Raine, is she- Lozzie, are you okay? Lozzie?” I moved closer, one hand out to take Lozzie’s in mine. Twil’s light whirled off as she resumed her search, leaving us in flickering afterwash.

“She can stand on her own,” Raine said.

“Standy-wandy-woo,” Lozzie sang. She blinked heavily at both of us, eyes struggling to stay open. Then she closed them and grumbled low in her throat, slumping against Raine’s front.

“Lozzie?” I squeezed her hand. “ … damn this, why now?”

“Maybe she just ran outta juice,” said Raine. “She is very cold though, like her body’s desperate for sleep. You’re right, we need to get her back to the car.”

“I know. Raine, what do we-”

“Aha!” Twil made the sort of sound that one only indulges in after epoch-making scientific discovery. “Here we go, but- ahh fuck it, who cares!”

With a grunt and a crack and a crunch of splintering wood, Twil burst a hole in the side of the barn. I turned just in time to see the hinges give way on a little side-door. Twil barely caught herself as the door popped open, claws scrabbling at the door frame to halt her face-first journey into the mud beyond. The sound of rain echoed up and inside the barn.

“Good job,” Raine called.

Twil grinned at back us and waggled her phone to flick the light off. With the side door wide open, the barn’s interior filled with just enough grayish storm-light by which to see.

The floor was caked a thick layer of dust, scraps of old straw, patches of unspeakable stains in effluviant browns and yellows, some in the sticky rainbow-tint black of petrol, and the tell-tale red of agricultural diesel. A few birds moved in the rafters, wood pigeons riding out the storm. Splatters of dried bird poo marked the corners of the room.

A tractor lay in a partially disassembled ignoble death at the rear end of the barn’s floor space, its engine gutted for parts, the cab doors wide open, tires deflated in great heaps of rubber. Tools had been tossed against one wall, half-rotten pitchforks and a couple of dented shovels. A huge pile of worm-eaten wooden pallets occupied one corner, some of them broken up into loose boards. Nearby on the floor, some of the pallet wood formed a circle of burned stubs. A very old, very cold campfire.

Twil shoved her hood back and shook water off her coat. Raine did the same, brushing at her arms, then noticed that I could only stand and shiver. She pushed my hood back for me, watching my eyes with mounting concern.

“Lovely place, hey?” Twil laughed without humour.

“If it keeps us dry,” I said.

Raine looked very pointedly at the burnt-out campfire in the middle of the concrete floor. “Hey Twil, you thinking what I’m thinking?”


Zheng chose that exact moment to join us. She had to duck low as she manoeuvred her massive frame through the slender gap in the side of the barn. She straightened up with a stony look on her face, dripping water from her sodden clothing, hair plastered to her scalp. Twil stared at her.


“ … uh, nothing.” Twil shook herself. “Just forgot how fuckin’ big you are indoors.”

“Huh.” Zheng allowed herself a flash of teeth.

“Hey, heads up zombie girl,” Raine said. She nodded sideways at me and Lozzie. “We can’t stay here long without warming these two up. Me too, to be honest. Decision, now, or I’ll make it.”

“Mmm?” Zheng purred a curious sound. “What ails the mooncalf?”

“She freezing cold and falling asleep, and we can’t stop that.”

“She’s not meant to be here,” I said to Zheng. “In this dimension, our reality. We fixed it before, sort of, but I didn’t think she’d suffer it again so soon.”

“Maybe it’s just an episode,” Raine said. “Maybe she’ll come round. Heather, we’re all here with her, and we’re not gonna let anything happen to her.”

I nodded, my guts churning. “Yes, okay. Okay, Raine, I just worry about-”

“Healthy,” Lozzie suddenly burbled, eyes heavy with unnatural exhaustion. “I’m fine, fine! Just need a snap. A nap. Snap nap. Don’t need Outside for … a week more? Two double? Mmm.”

Nod nod went Lozzie’s sleepy head. She sniffed twice, then sneezed into her hand. Raine found a tissue and helped her blow her nose.

“We cannot leave,” Zheng purred. “We are surrounded.”

“Define that,” Raine said. “Surrounded by what?”

“I didn’t see, or smell, or hear shit out there,” said Twil.

“Something hunts,” Zheng purred. A contemplative look came over her face, the look of a jaguar in the jungle, peering out of the undergrowth. “Watches. Waits, for prey to stumble in.” She sighed, blinked with glacial slowness. “Feels familiar.”

“Familiar?” I echoed.

“As if it has snuck up on me before. This … slowness, this clumsy lack of concealment.”

“Pretty well concealed if we can’t see the thing,” Twil scoffed.

“Obvious to a predator’s senses, laangren.”

“But what is it?” Raine asked.

Zheng shrugged.

“How do we find out?” I said.

Zheng stared at me, paused in a moment of deep thought, then turned away to stare out of the small side-door Twil had smashed open, at the distant tree line.

“It was not present when I butchered and ate that mutton,” she purred, soft and curious. “It has slid here since. Invisible? Incorporeal? Can’t you feel it, shaman?”

I shook my head. “Should I be able to?”

“Probably. You can do anything, shaman.”

“What happens if we just walk out?” Raine asked. “We were here before, we walked into the forest to find you.”

Zheng rolled her shoulders in a shrug. “I don’t know, yoshou. Are you willing to risk the shaman?”

Raine glanced at me, then down at Lozzie.

“Raine, she’s freezing,” I said. “We can’t stay here, we-”

“I know.”

“We have to go back to the car, this is absurd. There’s nothing even out there, nothing-”

“Heather, I know. It’ll be okay. Lemme think a sec.”

“Then we need to find out what’s watching us, correct? Lozzie? Lozzie?” I ducked down to try to catch Lozzie’s eyes – but they were both closed. “Lozzie, do you sense – smell? – anything out there? Lozzie?”

“Mmm-mmm,” she grumbled, shrugged, and huddled closer to Raine.

The ghost of panic crept up my throat. My teeth chattered inside my skull. I was shivering hard now.

“I can warm the shaman,” Zheng purred.

“Nice thought,” Raine said, raising one finger, “us all getting in a big body-heat pile, but also kinda inefficient. If we’re not moving, we need heat.”

“Fuck, fuck I don’t know how to make a fire,” said Twil. “Don’t you need like, kindling and shit?”

“That you do, that you do,” Raine said. A tight grin spread across her face. She passed Lozzie off to me, one hand lingering for a moment to ruffle my hair. “Heather, hold Lozzie, you two cuddle up close for a moment. Twil, get your claws ready.”

Twil blinked at her. “What?”

“Get your claws out, girl, you got work to do.” Raine strode straight to the back of the barn, to the pile of old wooden pallets. She planted one mud-drenched boot on a stray outermost pallet, leaned down and tore a board free with a cracking of dry wood, then turned and tossed it to Twil.

The werewolf caught it awkwardly in one half-formed ghostly paw, the false flesh still coalescing into claws and fur. Raine pointed a finger-gun at her.

“Shred that best you can.”

Twil frowned. “Shred … what?”

“Kindling.” Raine rummaged around inside her coat, in one pocket, then the other, then an inside pocket, then a hidden inside pocket in the sleeve. For a second I thought she wasn’t going to find what she was looking for, then she pulled out a small metal box. With a flick of her thumb she opened the lid of the lighter, and up sprang an inch of clean flame.

“You know how to make a fire, like, from scratch?” Twil gaped at her. I sighed with sudden relief. Zheng grunted her approval.

Raine flashed us all a grin, burning confidence. “How hard can it be?”


Harder than it looked.

Twil spent several minutes reducing boards to wood shavings and sawdust, snapping them apart with brute strength and shredding them with her claws. Raine pulled fresh fodder off the old wooden pallets, and piled them tight in the centre of the room as main-stage fuel, over the cold fire left so long ago by some unknown passing campers. Why had that first fire been made, I wondered. What desperate situation – or teenage hijinks, more likely – had taken place out here, in this corner of some forgotten farm?

I hugged Lozzie tight, doing what little I could to share my own body heat. She shivered and chattered, curled in on herself, her head buried in my shoulder. My phantom limbs tried to embrace her too, so I had to close my eyes tight for a few painful heartbeats to control the ghostly impulse.

Zheng ventured back outdoors.

“To hunt,” she explained when I asked her a silent question. “Maybe I find what watches us, maybe not.”

And with that she stalked back out into the wind and rain, lost behind the walls of the barn. For a moment I felt a terrible foreboding, as if she might not return, as if she’d break with everything we’d discussed and vanish into the woods to forget about me.

Perhaps, a tiny part of my heart whispered, that would be easier on all of us.

“It’s not catching!” Twil growled. Raine was down on her knees by the unlit fire, holding her lighter flame beneath a thick pinch of wooden chips. “It’s not hot enough! Fuck, shit, alright, I’ll rub two sticks together, I-”

“Hold up, I ain’t done trying yet.” Raine paused in thought as she flicked the lighter shut with one hand. “We need accelerant.” Her eyes wandered over to the gutted tractor.

“Petrol?” I asked through chattering teeth. “Raine, that’s so dangerous.”

“Yeah, nah. That thing’s been sat there for too long, anything in the tank’ll be long evaporated.”

Twil suddenly jerked. “Ah! Ah!” She bent down and scrabbled at the floor, then held out a few scraps of old straw, fallen off the back of some long-forgotten tractor-trailer.

Very old straw. Very dry straw.

“Yeeeeah!” Raine lit up. “Brilliant, get as much as you can.”

Thirty seconds later Raine had a sizable handful of straw stubs. She flicked her lighter on. We all held our collective breath. Even Lozzie had her eyes open, heavy-lidded and thick with sleep, as Raine touched the flame to the end of the bundle.

The straw caught instantly in a flutter of orange and yellow. Quickly, no time to lose, she went to one knee and nestled the bundle into the shredded curls and chips of wood, and shoved the whole lot beneath the unlit fire. The kindling smoldered for long moments, and it seemed as if the straw might burn out before anything else caught – but caught it did.

The flames grew, consumed more of the shredded wood down to blackened crisps. Twil shoved more inside. The larger pieces began to catch too, flames licking the darkness as the air filled with little crackles and pops. I watched, fascinated, taken beyond this bizarre situation for a moment by the primal experience of a growing fire. A slow wave of warmth washed over me. Strange shadows danced on the barn’s walls.

“Ray Mears, eat your heart out!” Raine whooped.

Twil puffed out a sigh and grinned like a loon. She held up a hand for Raine. “Eh? Eh? Up top?”

Raine high-fived her.

“Thank you, both of you,” I managed though the relief. “I can’t believe we ended up needing to build a fire, this has been absurd. The woods are terrifying.”

“Hey, it ain’t the woods,” Twil said. “It’s the spooky shit following us around.”

“Nah it’s the woods.” Raine smirked. “Screw the woods. They suck.”

Twil rolled her eyes, but she was still smiling.

Getting warm and dry wasn’t as easy as simply pulling up a seat at the fire. The ground was far too filthy to sit down. Twil dragged a pair of intact pallets over so we had some buffer, however minor, between our backsides and the cold concrete. Raine sat Lozzie down at a comfortable distance from the crackling flames and peeled her out of her coat and damp poncho. Lozzie wobbled a little, but sat up straight, eyes half open, smiling in silent thanks. Raine shook the coat out and held the poncho up before the fire to dry and warm it, before helping Lozzie squeeze it back over her head and tuck herself up tight.

“You too, Heather. Let’s dry the hoodie before you get it back on.”

I submitted to Raine’s tender attentions in turn, with Lozzie leaning on my shoulder, her eyes slipping closed as we perched on the pallet together. The warmth was wonderful, but oddly uncomfortable too. Damp patches lingered, and the cold lurked at our backs, not even held at bay by the walls and roof. I still desperately wanted to get home.

Twil crossed to the door to peer out into the murk, a tut on her teeth. “Still running around out there.”

“Zheng? You can see her?” I asked.

“Yeah. Sniffing about.” Twil scuffed her feet along the floor back to the fire, hands in her pockets. “She really thinks there’s something out there.”

“I believe her,” Raine said, holding my hoodie up to dry the shoulders and neck. I had trouble keeping my eyes open, the heat of the fire was so soothing, despite the odd smells in the barn and my worries for Lozzie. But Twil’s next words woke me all the way up.

“You reckon this is fuckboy’s doing?” she asked.

“’Fuckboy’?” I echoed with distaste. “Excuse you?”

Twil winced. “Erm.”

“Lilburne?” Raine asked. “Don’t think so. Eddy-boy would only hit us if he was sure he wouldn’t miss. This? Seems too random. Nobody but Evee and the others even know we’re out here. What would be the point in a weird trap like this? Why the sheep?”

“Yeah but like, what if it is?” Twil asked, frowning deeper. Suddenly she fished her mobile phone out of a coat pocket. She thumbed the screen open, stared at it for a moment, and swallowed once, hard. “Um … uh … Raine, Heather, don’t um, don’t you dare fuckin’ laugh at me, but … uh … I haven’t got any signal. Could you … like … ”

“Raine, be a dear,” I said softly. “Call Evee to check everything is alright at home? Please?”

Raine paused for a beat. Twil ducked her head to hide her obvious blush.

“Sure thing,” Raine said. She pulled out her own phone. “Wahey, two bars o’ signal. Score.”

She dialled for Evelyn. A handful of seconds seemed to stretch forever, in the flickering, rain-soaked gloom around that makeshift campfire. Three seconds was too long for me. Five seconds and I thought Twil was going to bite off one of her own fingers. Then the call connected, and we all heard a faint ‘What is it? What happened?’ from the other end of the phone, unmistakably Evelyn.

Twil blew out a huge sigh of relief.

“S’only me,” Raine said down the phone. She winked at Twil. “Ran into something weird. Not an emergency, but- yeah. Yeah. Yeah, Zheng was fine! We played a game, tell you all about it later, but- but- you- Evee, hey, listen for a sec, here, something odd’s come up.” Raine quickly outlined the situation. “Ah? No, course not, I know there’s not much you can do from there, just making sure- yeah. Yeah, you know, Twil was worried about you.”

“Raine!” Twil hissed, blushing beetroot red. Raine laughed.

“Yeah, sure thing, Evee. Keep her alert, keep an eye on the front door, but I’m thinking this isn’t related. We’ll seeya later. Stay safe.” Raine signed off with a huge, shit-eating grin at Twil.

“Did you have to-” Twil said. “I mean, she- you- argh!”

“If you won’t do it, we’ll do it for you, eventually,” I said. “And you know that won’t impress Evelyn very much.”

“Yeah, yeah, don’t rush me.” Twil glowered into the dancing fire.

“Home front’s fine,” said Raine. “Nothing’s up. Evee’s got Praem on watch in the front room.”

“There’s nothing even out there,” Twil threw a wave at the field beyond the barn’s walls. “This is bullshit.”

A moment of silence descended, lost in the static of rain on the roof tiles and the crackle of the fire. My head felt fuzzy and slow in the raw heat, my muscles melted buttery-smooth by the warm hoodie Raine helped tug back over my head. Lozzie breathed softly against my side, head tucked into my shoulder, no longer shivering. Her eyes fluttered open now and again.

“Never sat by a campfire before,” I muttered.

“S’cool, huh?” Twil said. “Used to do it a lot with family.”

“All we’re going on here is Zheng’s hunch,” I sighed, confronting the concern in my heart. I tried to sit up straighter, blink myself into alertness. “Twil, you could be right.”

“I trust her on this,” Raine said, dead serious. “We made a promise, ‘bout your safety.”

“Yes … but … Zheng’s not the most … emotionally stable person.”

“You think she’s making it up?” Raine asked, and it wasn’t a rhetorical question. The way she looked at me, face side-lit by the fire as she settled down on the other pallet, made it clear she wanted to know the truth, what I really felt.

“I’m not sure,” I admitted. “It’s not impossible, I think, maybe.”


“She’s not even human,” said Twil.

“Neither are you,” I warned. “And that has nothing to do with it.”

“You think she’d deceive you like this?” Raine asked. She planted her chin in her hand, tip of one wellington boot tapping against the concrete floor. “I’ve seen the way she looks at you, Heather. That big zombie lady adores you. Not as much as I do, but hey, not everybody can be the best.”

“Raine,” I sighed, and glanced at the open side door, as if Zheng might be lurking and listening at the threshold. “Exactly. That could be the problem.”

“Eh?” Twil grunted.

“You think she’s delaying the journey home?” Raine asked. “Trying to keep you here?”

“No … no, she was honest earlier, when she … ” I cut myself off with a swallow, glancing at Twil. I’d share anything and everything with Raine, and Zheng probably knew that, but I doubted all the things she’d told me were for Twil’s ears. I turned back to Raine, blushing slightly, frustrated. “Raine, why didn’t you ask these kinds of questions earlier? Why didn’t you … why are you being protective now? Why not when … when Zheng and I were, you know, talking?”

“You don’t like it?” she asked with a smirk.

“Oh great.” Twil rolled her eyes. “Fuckin’ lovebirds.”

“You don’t have to listen to this,” I hissed to her, then turned back to Raine. “No, Raine, I love it, but why not … with Zheng … why-” I huffed, squeezed my eyes shut, tamped down on my bizarre reverse-jealousy. “We don’t have the luxury of time to talk about this right now. No, I don’t think Zheng is lying, not exactly, but something isn’t right here.”

“Yeah. Agreed on that part,” Raine said.

“Fuckin’ ey,” said Twil.

“Twil, when you looked at those sheep bones, was there anything at all out of the ordinary?” I asked. She opened her mouth with a frown, but I carried on. “Or even things that seem ordinary to you, but wouldn’t to me? Anything at all, any detail, no matter how mundane?”

Twil shrugged. “Dunno what to say. They were just bones. Uh, I smelled Zheng a bit, mostly the sheep, the crows too. There was some old rabbit dung in the grass, few snake holes off toward the tree roots.”

“What about the bones themselves? Could you see … I don’t know, tooth marks?”

“Nah, not really. Stripped. Like, totally sucked clean, most of ‘em. Whatever it was was eating a lot. More than’d fit in a regular stomach, you know?”

“Multiple attackers?” Raine asked.

“Maybe that’s why the brick shithouse thinks we’re surrounded,” Twil said.

“The brick shithouse would find and kill any number of watchers,” Zheng rumbled from the doorway, ducking through in a sudden squall of rain, dripping all over the floor again. “If they could be seen.”

“Nothing?” Raine asked. Zheng shook her head.

“We can’t stay here all bloody night,” Twil said. She glanced at her phone. “I’m gonna miss bake-off if I’m not careful. That wasn’t in the deal.”

“S’lots feeding,” Lozzie mumbled. I turned and found her trying to talk to me, slurring her words, struggling to keep her eyes open. “Feeding feeding. Big feed, f’big growing. Biiiiig.”

“Lozzie? What’s feeding?”

Suddenly Lozzie took a deep breath, filling her lungs as her consciousness surged. She blinked hard, putting in every ounce of effort she could muster into forcing herself awake. She stared at me, eyes wide.

“It’s fine! Heather, it’s fine, you just need to go say hi!” she chirped at me. “She’ll recognise you whatever state she’s in, I promise! She’d never attack anybody close to you, never ever ever!” Lozzie’s eyes wavered as she barrelled ahead. One eyelid twitched with the effort of staying awake. “I didn’t even know she could eat meat and that’s so weird it’s not like it’s supposed to happen but there’s a … mmhmm … s’no … preci- prepiden- … seee?”

Her burst of energy dribbled out, fell to nothing, and she snuggled up against my side again, half-asleep.

“Well, that answers everything then, yeah, great,” Twil said.

“Actually, I think it does,” I said in slow realisation.



I stared out into the swirling rain. “If Lozzie says it’s safe … ”

Raine cleared her throat. “Lozzie’s track record on the meaning of ‘safe’ is a bit rough. No risks, Heather, please.”

“I know, I know, but … ” I wet my lips, my mind racing. “Something we can’t see. Not in the woods, not in the sky. Something even I can’t see. If only I could … ”

As the thought condensed and took shape, my phantom limbs uncurled away from Lozzie, already putting my plan into action. Pointless. They were only extensions of my self-image, they couldn’t feel or sense or touch anything unless I made them real with hyperdimensional mathematics, and I wasn’t about to do that again, not now, not out here, not putting myself at such terrible risk.

I concentrated on a single one of the tentacles, a mental ghost-image I couldn’t actually see, only feel. To anchor it, to give it pneuma-somatic mass, the ability to touch and affect matter, that was a step too far for me in my current state.

But I didn’t need to touch.

I needed to see that which could not be seen, shrouded in a darkness beyond sight, hidden to all our senses save Zheng’s predatory intuition.

“Heather? What are you up to?” Raine asked. She leaned forward and put a hand on my knee. Must have recognised the look in my eyes.

“Tentacles weren’t the only thing I had in the abyss,” I murmured to myself.

A spike of headache blossomed in the back of my skull. An old, familiar pain, like a friend I hadn’t seen in a while. I almost smiled at it, as the concepts summoned themselves from the dark, oily sump down in the pit of my soul. The muscles, the mental spaces, were still sore and healing, raw and tender as the socket of a missing tooth. But the flesh would never heal right if I refused to ever exercise.

The mathematical principles presented themselves.

But for once, they were not the Eye’s lessons. Oh no. I had learnt this out in the abyss, by myself.

My stomach turned over. I wretched hard as my body rebelled.

“Heather,” Raine called my name. “Hey, hey, Heather, what are you-”

“Brainmath,” I croaked – and allowed the mental image of that single tentacle to plunge downward, passing through the barn’s concrete foundation and into the mud and dirt. Into the ground.

Because that was the only place left to hide.

The equation fell into place as if it was natural. It was not – it was new and raw and it hurt the inside of my head like an icepick through both eyeballs. Natural, perhaps, to a creature in the darkness of the abyss. Natural to the thing I’d been, to a being that didn’t use something so crude as physical sight. A pulse, a wave described in pure mathematics, burned my mind like white-hot steel, complex enough to make my nose bleed. A picture of density in darkness and pressure, air pockets and wriggling, crawling life, roots bundled like frozen lightning.

Sonar, of a kind. A lesson from the abyss, remade here in hyperdimensional mathematics.

And right there at the edge of my perception, at the limit of my range, I found something that should not be.

I gasped and clenched my stomach muscles up tight, my bruised flanks shuddering and quivering as I hung forward with my head between my knees for several long moments. My pulse thudded in my ears, my vision went black – brainmath was still not entirely healed, pushed right to the edge of unconsciousness – and I did finally spit a few strands of stringy bile and stomach acid into the dust and dirt.

“Heather? Heather? Hey, hey, come on, slow now, sit up, sit up and breathe, breathe.” Raine’s hands on my back and shoulders, her voice purring in my ear. Her scent in my nose as she helped me sit. I clung to her. Held on tight.

Hold me here, Raine, because I might slip away. A sliver of guilt entered my chest. At least this made her possessive.

“The hell was that?” Twil asked.

“Real magic,” Zheng rumbled, awe in her voice.

“It’s in the ground,” I croaked. “It’s underground.”


We traipsed back out into the storm and the mud. Raine had to support me, my legs gone weak from the effort of the brainmath, my phantom tentacles uncoiling and twisting, trying to track the movements below our feet, sending spasms of pain up my sides, drawing sharp gasps from my throat. Raine had helped wipe my face too, but I could still taste bile and blood in the back of my throat. Lozzie stumbled along, half-supported by Twil. All of us were dried and warm from the makeshift campfire – except Zheng, striding ahead of us.

“Point, shaman.”

“I can’t. It’s not in one place, it’s a ring. A-a web? It’s-”

“All around us, yes!” She roared a laugh to the heavens as we stopped by the meat-stripped sheep bones. Twil grimaced beneath the shelter of her hood. Raine held steady, a rock at my side. “Shaman, I do not care. I will fight anything.”

“Shiiiit,” Twil hissed, flexing one suddenly summoned claw. “I’m not up for this. What is this thing, the size of the entire field?”

“We disturb whatever this thing is, it could overwhelm us,” Raine said over the patter of raindrops on her hood. “Zheng, you distract, we run. Got it?”

“Raine-” I started.

“Heather, I’m not letting you stay here for a fight against something the size of a field. No. End of.”

“I don’t think we’ll have to,” I said. “I … this is crazy, but I think it’s … no, it can’t be, but-”

“Twil,” Raine said. “Get ready to pick Lozzie up. We run when it starts.”

“Monkeys,” Zheng rumbled. “Point me, shaman!”

I stretched out one finger and indicated a rough line along the ground. Beneath the churned mud, deep in the earth, twelve or more inches down, part of some unseen web pulsed and throbbed in the darkness.

“Right,” Raine said. “We-”

She was too slow.

We’d all assumed that Zheng would probably dig it up and pull it out, that perhaps we’d have a few moments to reach safe distance, that even with her superhuman strength and endurance, she couldn’t beat a foot of hard-packed, root-filled earth.

Zheng pulled one hand back and slammed it into the ground, rammed her hand right through the grass and dirt, ripping, tearing, putting all her strength into a single strike.

Raine bundled me back, ducked to sweep me off my feet. Twil growled.

Zheng, elbow-deep in the ground, roared in triumph and ripped upward with all her strength. Her fist, dripping mud, clods of dirt falling from between her fingers, drew something tarry-black and writhing from out of the earth. A pulsing, flexing tube of muscle, about as thick around as my wrist, the ends of which vanished into the earth below.

Zheng paused, struck dumb with surprise – then roared with laughter at the thing in her grip.

“She miss?” Twil muttered. Raine hesitated. Lozzie made a little ‘ooh’ sound and clapped her hands. And I realised.

Twil and Raine couldn’t see it.

Zheng was laughing, deeply amused. She’d recognised the thing too. With a motion like a fisherman reeling a shark to the deck, she planted her feet and hauled.

Hundreds of feet of the black tentacle whipped up out of the ground, through the earth without disturbing even a blade of grass, a thrumming line all the way along the length of the field and off into the woods. Pneuma-somatic flesh. It passed straight through the ground, torn up by the force of Zheng’s muscles, whirled up into the rain and grey light, exposed.

Oily-black, the surface shifting like wet tar.

It didn’t waste a second. Stronger and more slippery than Zheng, the super-long tentacle yanked her off her feet as it tore out of her grasp. Loops and coils of tarry-black flesh, dripping with oily discharge that seemed to vanish before it hit the ground, stood up like a startled snake. All around the perimeter of the field, the great looped mass of the thing writhed out of the ground and drew back, fleeing from us.

“She got really, really big!” Lozzie threw her hands in the air, all awake now. “Well done!”

“I-I can’t- I don’t- ” I shook my head, wide eyed with shock.

“I can’t see shit! What are we looking at!?” Twil turned on the spot, claws out, eyes wide.

“Your puppy followed you all the way from home, shaman!” Zheng roared with laughter. “I remember her, weak but loyal!”

“Heather?” Raine demanded, on the verge of sweeping me up into a princess-carry. “Heather, what is it?”

“It’s … it’s fine.” I shook my head, heedless of the raindrops falling on my face. “She’s leaving, retreating, I think.”


“Tenny,” I said. “Those were Tenny’s tentacles.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

nostalgia for infinity – 9.8

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

A functionally immortal, seven-foot tall, man-eating demon had just declared that I – yes, me, Heather, scrawny and weird and terminally awkward, who’d probably be dead or in a mental hospital without serious help, an emotional cripple missing half my soul, twisted forever by a trip to the outer darkness – am a metaphorical reincarnation of her centuries-dead pseudo-incestual lover.

It was a testament to how bizarre my life had become that this was not the strangest thing to happen to me lately.


Unfortunately I had a lump in my throat, my chest felt fit to burst, and my eyes were filling with tears.

“Yes, shaman.”

“Uh, Zheng, s-slow down, please.” I held a hand up. “Take a- I need a moment, I’m sorry, I … ”


Zheng’s story had skewered my heart. Perhaps it was the inherent tragedy, or perhaps the thought of her pining for a lost love for hundreds of years, or perhaps the painful devotion in her eyes.

Or perhaps it was guilt, because I finally understood what this situation was doing to her.

She was right; she couldn’t do this again.

I sniffed back tears and rummaged in my coat pockets. My fingers felt clumsy and blunt as I unfolded a tissue and wiped my eyes. The woods around us rustled in the wind, punctuated by the occasional patter of fat raindrops falling from the leaves. Zheng watched me with affectionate intensity as I struggled to regain my composure. Lozzie, still all snuggled up in Zheng’s lap, was biting her lower lip in sympathetic response. She’d heard this all before, extracted Zheng’s past from her in the dreams, but the emotional feedback still affected her.

“Okay, okay,” I said, more to myself than Zheng. “I … oh, this is absurd,” I sighed with a choke in my voice. “What am I supposed to say to any of that? I mean, thank you, Zheng, thank you, but I can’t be the girl you lost. I’m not your Ciremedie. I’m pretty certain reincarnation isn’t real. And I’m … I like you, yes, a-and I want you in a way I don’t fully understand, but I don’t … love you, not exactly. I’m sorry.”

“Too late, shaman. We made our choices. You will never be rid of me.”

“Zheng, I don’t want to be rid of you.” I sniffed hard again, trying to hold back the waterworks. An involuntary laugh of emotional overload crept up my throat and burst into an odd giggle on my lips. “I would hardly have spent an entire day tracking you through the woods if I wanted to be rid of you. That’s even more absurd than the idea I’m your reincarnated lover – really!”

An affectionate grin curled the corners of Zheng’s mouth. She flashed a glint of teeth. “With every word you prove me right, shaman.”

I flustered at the look on her face. “You’re- you’re attributing pure intentions to my motives, when they’re anything but. I’m as ruthless as you.”

Zheng tilted her head to one side. “Then why come find me, shaman?”

“Because Heather needs you,” Lozzie murmured, then puffed her cheeks out.

“Because I need your help,” I blurted out. “Because you’re big, and strong, and you came from the abyss, and I need to know things about that. Because Maisie told me to gather my friends, that I wouldn’t be able to rescue her otherwise. Don’t do it alone. So here I am, asking my friend for help.”

Zheng nodded. “I will.”

I faltered, swallowed hard. “Because … ”

“Not all love is eros, shaman,” she purred. “But if you wish it so, I will gladly take you into the woods and make you squeal.”

I blushed so hard my head span, my sides ached with the pounding of my own heart, my pulse raced inside my flanks, in my bruises, a strangely satisfying pain. I had to put my face in my hands and take a very long, slow breath, in case I blurted out a ‘yes please’ in a moment of weakness.

“Zheng, I- … let’s, um … let’s put that to one side for a moment? I can’t, um … I mean, you’re a murderous, man-eating demon, I’ve seen you eat human flesh, and I … I don’t care about that, which is absolutely crazy, but- I … you’re- you’re welcome, Zheng, to stay by my side, if that’s what you want, if you-”

“Use me, shaman.”

Zheng’s voice cut hard, all her tenderness banished.

I looked up at her face again, at a brooding darkness in her eyes.

“I-I’m sorry? I’m sorry, Zheng, I’m still struggling to express myself, I-”

“Use me. Shaman, your goals are far in excess of the possible, even for a wizard; you plan war on Laoyeh, to recover your beloved. And here I am. Willing and free, I am a greater tool than any wizard has ever known. Use me.”

“I … ” I stopped, frowned, and sighed.

“Use me, shaman,” she repeated. Artificially cold. No fire in her words.

I was beginning to learn. Zheng was almost as bad at concealing her emotions as Twil was.

Lozzie picked up on it too. She frowned up at Zheng and flapped her arms beneath her poncho, but the demon-host ignored her serious little face.

“Zheng, you are not a tool,” I said, a school-mistress tut in my voice. “And I know what you’re doing, it’s blatantly transparent. I refuse to use anybody. You’re my friend, at the very least, maybe my-”

With a heave in her throat like a rhinoceros readying for a charge, Zheng surged to her feet. Lozzie scrambled out of her lap as she rose, bouncing up in her flopping wellington boots, pastel poncho and raincoat both flaring out as she almost lost her balance. Zheng towered over both of us, seven feet of muscle staring down at me like a cornered animal. Buried instinct told me to rise as well, to get to my feet – or make myself small, slink away into some hole beyond the reach of this large, angry predator, but I refused to give in. I stayed sitting, did my best to control the shake in my voice, and clutched my sides as my phantom limbs attempted to adopt a defensive posture.



“Zhengy! No, don’t!” Lozzie chirped. “Bad Zheng, bad Zheng!” She bounced on the balls of her feet in front of Zheng, arms up in the air, but the demon-host had eyes only for me.

“Zheng, I understand what you’re trying to do,” I said. “But that’s not the kind of person I am. I can’t treat you like a tool, I can’t treat anybody like that, I’d never be able to live with it.”

Zheng’s darkness broke as suddenly as it had fallen, in a rolling, rising laugh. She bared all her teeth and laughed herself into a roar of frustration at the treetops, shook herself from the head down like a berserk warrior. For a moment I thought she might tear at her clothes, but she came down in a deep breath, then seemed to sag into herself as old melancholy took hold of her frame once more.

“You name the torture with every word, shaman. You can’t treat anybody like that, neither could Ciremedie. Even a demon standing in her sister’s skin.”


Raine called my name, her voice cutting through the trees. I glanced down the length of the woodland ridge. Raine had one hand raised in distant question, watching Zheng and I. Twil stared up at us too, hands in her pockets, eyes narrowed beneath the shelter of her hood.

“We’re fine!” I called back, then turned to Zheng. “Sit down. Zheng, please, sit back down.”

With a sullen grumble and a shrug like a sulky teenager, Zheng slumped back down onto the slab of concrete. She folded her legs, waxed coat pooling around her, and levelled a dead-eyed gaze at Raine. Lozzie did a big theatrical sigh, arms flopping to her sides. From down the ridge, Raine flashed a thumbs-up. I nodded to her. Everything is totally, one-hundred percent under control, I lied.

“Devoted protection, shaman. Your right hand is vigilant. Good.”

“She is that,” I sighed, struggling to get my breath back. I rubbed my chest, over the place inside where the pneuma-somatic repair flexed and twitched. The ghost of amusement crept back onto Zheng’s face.

“Put the wind up you, did I, little monkey?”

“You know quite well you did.” I tutted. “And you were trying to.”



“Nothing you can say will make this easier, shaman. I am yours now. You are too kind to drive me away or abuse me into hatred. And seventy or eighty years from now your heart will seize up or plaque will fog your brain or your cells will eat your organs, and I will once again wish my little bird had never dragged me from the dark.”

Lozzie refrained from crawling back into Zheng’s lap. Instead she drew our attention by tip-toeing around Zheng’s side, watching the demon-host’s face like one might with a wary dog. Zheng watched back, as Lozzie reached out and awkwardly patted her on the head.

“What about Lozzie?” I asked, grasping at straws. “She made friends with you before I did, she’s shown you kindness too. Why hasn’t she inspired this … this?”

“She is not you, shaman.”

“Oh.” I felt a blush in my cheeks.

Despite everything, despite the horror and tragedy of Zheng’s story, it is still a heady cocktail to be told you are desired by the object of your own attraction.

“Mm. The mooncalf is a sweet thing, but only a small piece of her is here.” Zheng reached out and wrapped one huge, grimy hand around the back of Lozzie’s neck, then squeezed and kneaded her muscles. Lozzie’s eyes fluttered shut. I swear she let out a purr. “I am all here, shaman. As physical as you.”

“Yes, yes indeed you are.” I sighed. “That aspect of you is especially difficult to overlook.”

A glint of savage joy entered Zheng’s eyes. “You like that, shaman?”

“I … I’m sorry?”

“As a woman – you like?”

Zheng didn’t actually move a single muscle, not that I could see, but a change passed through the air between us. It began in her eyes, a deep intensity of predatory intent that radiated throughout her entire body, the heavy weight of her chest beneath the ragged, filthy old jumper, the curve of her hips inside her jeans, the unseen ripple of her abdominal muscles.

“Y-yes. Zheng, my goodness, don’t-”

Zheng burst into laughter. I went bright red in the face, overheated and flushed, my heart fluttering in my chest like a bird trying to escape a cage. Lust was not appropriate right now, not after Zheng’s story, after her pain – or was it?

She certainly seemed to enjoy it.

“Horny zombie,” Lozzie stage-whispered.

I glanced back down the ridge, down toward Raine and Twil, certain in my gut that Raine would see me blushing and she’d know. She’d know I was getting turned on by another woman, and I knew that in her secret thoughts she would not be happy.

Twil and her were still talking. She wasn’t even looking at me.

“I don’t-” I managed, then paused and swallowed. “I don’t think Raine is comfortable with the idea of sharing me. I’m- I’m sorry, Zheng, but I can’t, I can’t hurt her, I won’t- I-”

“As if that matters, shaman!” Zheng laughed. “You monkeys, your need for neat solutions. Ha!”

“A neat solution would rather nice right now, actually.”

Zheng ended the laugh with a heavy sigh as she came down from her peak. Her amusement simmered down into a resigned ache, like somebody who’s been in hospital for too long.

“You understand, shaman? This traps me more completely than any chains, more securely than any magic.”

“Zheng, I can’t-” I swallowed, tried to stop my voice shaking. “I can’t be responsible for that, for your emotions, for you. I’m not in control of you. Why- why not- why not leave?” I raised one arm, with more courage than I thought I possessed, and pointed off into the darker depths of the wood, where the ridge-line vanished between the thicker, older trees. My throat tightened with awful guilt that I couldn’t swallow away. “Get up right now and walk away and- and forget about me.”

“Do not be a fool, shaman,” she rumbled. “You plan war on Laoyeh. You prepare for the greatest fight I have ever seen. You are a beacon to all manner of tooth and claw, mage and monster. You will be lucky to make it to thirty, let alone eighty! Ha! You need more than your right hand to help you get there. A third time, shaman, you will never be rid of me.” Zheng’s voice grew thick with emotion. For a terrible moment, I thought she might cry. Was she even capable of that? Probably. “I cannot do this again. To laugh with you is torture.”

“I know, Zheng, I-”

“No, monkey, you do not know.”

“I do.”

Zheng turned a gaze of such displeasure on me that it made me shake inside. Lozzie did a little flinch too, hopping backward two steps, her wellington boots clacking against the concrete. I swallowed, but sat up straighter.

“When I … a decade ago … I-” I struggled to begin. The comparison made me feel dirty and vulnerable, like I was doing something forbidden, but I had nothing left with which to help. “Ten years ago I lost my sister, my twin, my other half, when the Eye kidnapped us both. You know that much already.”

Zheng stared at me, slow and dark. I drew in a shuddering breath, and forced myself onward.

“I still don’t feel like a real person without her. Despite my friends, despite Raine. Despite my … what I brought back from the abyss. I’m not a full person without Maisie. I’m just a shell, pretending.” My throat tightened. “We did everything together. We had separate beds, but we’d sleep together six out of seven nights. Neither of us had school friends that weren’t mutual. We touched constantly, we were- she was the other half of my soul. And it hurts. It hurts all the time, more than I can put into words. Sometimes I seem like I’m alright, like I’m normal, but she’s always there in back of my mind. In the mirror, when I look at myself. I have her face.”

Zheng tilted her head to one side.

“If I could reach into your mind,” I continued. “And God knows, maybe I can, maybe I can make hyperdimensional mathematics do that. But if I could remove your memories of Ciremedie, would you have me do it?”

“I drove memory away,” Zheng growled, low and angry. “For-”

“Yes, but would you do it now? Would you forget her, forever?”

Zheng bared her teeth in a joyless grin, a rictus of conflicted pain.

“Because I would never forget Maisie,” I said. “That’s what the doctors wanted me to do, what my parents wanted. I was meant to purge those memories, to discard her, not think about her, pretend I’d never had a sister I loved. Pretend she didn’t exist. Forget, because the memories hurt me.” I shook my head with old anger. “Never. Never. I wouldn’t trade my memories of Maisie for anything. The pain is worth what I had.”

“I was not made for this, shaman. I was born in the dark, where such things do not exist.”

“None of us were made for this!” I almost shouted at her. “Are experiences not worth anything if they’re fleeting? I’ll … I’ll lose Raine one day, eventually, maybe when we’re old, I hope. Or she’ll lose me first, more likely.” I choked up a little as I said that. “I’m skirting the edge of self-destruction all the time, I know that, both with hyperdimensional mathematics and what I’m doing to my body, but that doesn’t mean she’s willing to abandon me to avoid hurting herself. People die, Zheng, all the time, of disease or accident, it comes suddenly and there’s no meaning to it, the meaning is in living, the bit that comes first. When you … ” I swallowed hard, struggled to hold back tears, to keep my thoughts of Maisie at arm’s length, if only I could finish what I was trying to say. “When you lose somebody you love, you don’t want to regret what you didn’t do. Time you didn’t spend with them.”

I choked back a sob, screwed my eyes shut, and took a deep breath.

Lozzie’s little footsteps crossed to me in a patter of rubber. She went to her knees and hugged me from the side, elbow in my chest, awkward and bony and exactly what I needed right now. I hugged her back with one arm.

“Spending life like that, like an animal,” I said. “Not feeling, not having to feel like a person, it would be like … ” My throat tightened up. Almost couldn’t admit it. “Like deciding to take my medication. Like being back in the abyss.”

A terrible yearning. For freedom, for lack of care, for pure survival easier than living.

“And I get that,” I forced myself to say. “I get that because part of me wants it, wants to go back, wants to be like that again. But pain is the price we pay for being here. For getting to be a person. For getting to love? If you feel so strongly about me, if you want to stay with me, then do it for me, for yourself. This time – us, now! – it’s real. It’s passing but it’s real. That’s all. I’m sorry, Zheng, I’m terrible at putting this into words.”

Zheng regarded me for a long moment, and I saw that my passion was not enough. I’d been on this Earth barely two decades, inexperienced, naive, all too human. She was hundreds of years old. She’d killed dozens of people, at the very least. She ate human flesh and hunted for pleasure. She was a thing from the abyss, a pure predator.

And then Zheng smiled. Showed her teeth, snorted a humourless laugh, shook her head.

“Sentimental monkey.”

“You’re sentimental too, you huge oaf.” I sniffed, and scrubbed at my eyes with my sleeve. “Oh blast, where are my tissues?”

They’d all called Zheng dangerous. Evelyn, Sarika, Felicity, all mages. Warned me that she was inherently unstable because of what she was, that she might wreak havoc if left loose, that she would devolve into a wild animal. But none of that was true, was it? She was dangerous, but mostly to those who would keep her in chains, who refused to treat her as a person.

She was also a cannibal psychopath, yes. No person is perfect.

“You are her, aren’t you? You are my little bird, returned.”

“I’m not.” I rolled my eyes. “Zheng, you can’t treat me like that, it’s not healthy for you, or me, emotionally. None of this is is healthy, but at least we can spare ourselves that as well.”


I had the creeping sense that Zheng had just agreed to disagree.

“Isn’t being here fun?” Lozzie spoke up in a little chirp, a question for the demon.

“Being here?” Zheng purred, a grin on her lips. She sighed a big sigh, filled her lungs with the damp forest air. “The taste of meat. The burn of hot muscle. The feeling of victory. Yes, mooncalf, some things are worth being here for.”

“Some things are worth being here for, yes,” I echoed.

Zheng raised one hand and pointed a finger at me. I felt myself blush again, but huffed at her. She chuckled.

“Is that what you want?” I asked.

“Mm. I’m yours, shaman. Even if you are fleeting. We will make a deal, you and I.”

I blinked at her, a sinking feeling dragging at the pit of my stomach. “In the same way you did with Raine?”

Zheng shook her head. “From you, shaman, nothing but the vow.”

“A vow to … what?”

“When your time comes, seventy or eighty years from now, I go first. You do it yourself, you pull the spark from my core and send it back to the deep dark, and I return to what I was for an eternity before here.”

A horrible knot pulled tight inside my chest. I felt short of breath. The pneuma-somatic flesh inside my lungs seemed to tighten up in sympathetic panic. Lozzie said my name, but she seemed too far away.

“You’re asking me to … to kill you?”

Zheng shrugged. “Eventually. Can’t do it myself. Too robust, too fast to heal. I’ve had half my brain blown out before.” She smiled with a touch of pride. “It grew back.”

“What if- what if-” I stammered, searching for a way out. “But what if I die suddenly, or violently, or-”

“You won’t, shaman. Because I am with you.” Then she broke into a real Zheng grin, showed those face-ripping, flesh-tearing, razor-sharp shark’s teeth that made my gut clench. “Or maybe you leave monkey ways behind, shaman. Maybe you come with me.”

I shook my head, numb and overwhelmed. The sounds of the rain-washed forest seemed to fade out, heard as if through a concrete wall.

“Promise me, shaman. Promise me I go first.”

“But … but you could live for hundreds of years more.”

“You’ve convinced me, shaman. You made your truth, and you made it well. We, now, we are good. Even if we end. The next eighty years will be worth it, and then I will end. Same as you. Or not, in the abyss.”

I gaped at her, struggling to find my words.

“Zheng, I … I don’t think I can kill you. I- God, I don’t think I’m capable of that now, let alone if you decide to spend the next few decades with me. Zheng, I can’t make that promise. It would be a lie.”

“Your twin still lives.”

My blood went cold. “ … what?”

“Your twin still lives,” Zheng repeated.

“I … yes? Yes, I know that. Zheng, what are you trying to say?”

“Zheng, noooo,” Lozzie murmured.

“I know you, shaman. You are a natural leader, and you make yourself unstoppable. If you have to, you will promise anything.”

“ … to get her back,” I voiced the unspoken part of Zheng’s sentence. “What are you saying? That you won’t help unless I make that promise? Unless I agree to euthanize you?”

Zheng shook her head. “Regardless, I am yours.”

I sighed again. “So you’re pledging your devotion, and there’s nothing I can do about it. You’re making me use you.”

“It is your nature, shaman.”

Guilt grew inside my chest, a tumour of self-loathing. Despite everything I’d said, Zheng was right. If she had been willing to leave, to deprive me of the advantage she represented, I would make that vow in a heartbeat. But Zheng was making this request as a person, asking for a very different kind of respect, not a negotiation, or a bargain.

“So if I don’t promise, I’m a hypocrite,” I murmured.

Zheng shrugged.

“Alright,” I said past the lump in my throat, put strength into my voice. “Then you’re going to help me save my sister.”

“Of course, sha-”

“No,” I snapped. “You’re going to help me save my sister, and I am going to live through it, and you are going to live through it. And when I’m old and grey I’ll keep my promise, I’ll send you off first, but damn you Zheng if you don’t get there with me I’ll return to the abyss and drag you back here myself.”

Zheng stared at me, and for once I think I’d managed to truly shock her.

“I mean it,” I said, tears freely running down my cheeks. “I- you- Zheng, you tell me you love me, then manoeuvre me into promising to kill you. That means you’re not going anywhere. Your half of the deal is you stay with me. There. It’s done.”

My fire ran out. I sniffed, scrubbed my eyes on my sleeve, and took a great, shuddering breath. Lozzie hugged me tight, and I screwed up my eyes.

“Can’t believe I’m having an emotional crisis over a cannibal demon,” I managed through the tears. “This isn’t quite the demonic pact I expected to make.”

“Comes with the territory,” Lozzie whispered, nodding seriously.

I almost – almost – laughed.

“A lot can change in eighty years,” I said. “Perhaps you’ll decide you don’t like me very much in the end.”

Zheng snorted. “Unlikely, shaman.”

“I could surprise you. I can be pretty awful.”

Lozzie helped wipe my eyes. From down the ridge, I noticed Raine and Twil watching us now. My tears weren’t exactly covert. I waved awkwardly to Raine, and she waved back. Eventually the guilt and the horror of what I’d agreed to subsided a little. One weight lifted from my shoulders as another longer-term one settled onto them.

At least I had a lifetime to prepare.


“I’m fine,” I lied. “I’m fine. Zheng, does this mean you’re coming back to the house with me?”

Zheng rolled her shoulders in a shrug. “Difficult, shaman. Your wooded isle is no great forest, no wild steppe. Things like me are not accounted for. But I would rather be closer to you. Yes, for now.”

“Where does this leave … well, us?”

Zheng tilted her head to one side in silent question. I glanced at Lozzie, as if this wasn’t for her ears, but she bit her lower lip with impish fun, mock-scandalised.

“I mean,” I tried again, “you can hardly tell me you love me and then not-”

Zheng looked away from me, down the ridge at Raine instead, and to my incredible surprise she took a deep breath and called out. “Yoshou, laangren, join us.”

Raine threw us a wave of acknowledgement and started to jog up the incline. Twil was caught flat-footed. She blinked several times before scrambling after Raine.

“Zheng, we can hardly talk about … s-sexual … things,” I flustered, going red in the face, “with Raine and-”

“What is your plan, shaman?”

I blinked at her, mouth open, paused in my own embarrassment. “My plan?”


“ … go … go home? Go home and have dinner, frankly. Take you, run you a very hot bath, and continue this conversation. Zheng, I need to ask you about the abyss, about these damn tentacles I keep trying to grow. About what we’re going to do about-”

“No, shaman,” Zheng purred. “What is your plan for Laoyeh?”

“Hey, hey, Heather, you alright?” Raine asked as she jogged up, a smile on her face as she hopped up onto the concrete, quickly crossed to me, and squatted down at my side. She reached out and touched my cheek with one hand. My eyes were still red from the brief cry. “That bad, hey?”

“I’m fine, for a given value of fine,” I sighed. “Just a very emotional exchange, that’s all.”

“You makin’ our girl fuckin’ cry, huh?” Twil added, springing up onto the wall of the shattered pillbox in one athletic bound. She tossed her head back, all sudden fronting aggression. Zheng flashed a grin back at her.

“I think we were both on the verge of tears,” I said. “Please, it’s … private. Mostly.”

“You want a round, laangren?” Zheng rumbled.

“Any fuckin’ time, you stack of turds.”

“Hey hey hey, first things first,” Raine said with a smile and a wink on her face. “Zheng, we gonna double-team Heather tonight or what?”

Raine!” I gaped at her, spluttering, red in the face.

“You know, after she’s had a good bath first.”

Twil wrinkled her nose. “Ugh, get a room.”

“Exactly the proposition.” Raine shot a finger-gun at Twil.

“Ask her yourself, yoshou,” said Zheng.

“I- you- Raine! I don’t believe you. You can’t- it’s not the time- you-”

“Well?” Raine asked me, and I realised she was totally serious.

I dropped my voice to a low hiss. “How can you even ask that question when you made your feelings so clear earlier?”

Lozzie put a hand to her mouth, mock-gasping.

“Heather, hey, come on, do you like that idea or not?” Raine asked.

“Yes, you blithering idiot!” I whispered to her, blushing furiously. “But also no! Drop it before my entire head explodes from mortified embarrassment.”

Raine laughed out loud and shrugged to Zheng. “Guess we’re not on for tonight.”

“Mm,” the demon-host grunted. “Shaman – your plan?”

“Plan?” Raine asked.

“Oh, yes, yes, let’s talk about that,” I said with relief. “Much safer, yes, please.”

“What we planning for now?” Twil asked. “I’m getting hungry again, we’re not straight off on some other wild goose chase, are we?”

“The plan to fight Laoyeh,” Zheng purred.

“To rescue Maisie,” I clarified.


“ … I don’t even know where to begin,” I said. Suddenly the woodland air felt colder, the concrete beneath my backside was too hard, too dead. I wanted to go home and curl up with Raine. Deep inside, I shivered. “Up until a few weeks ago, the last time I’d actually encountered the Eye was as a child. In that house where the cult all died … you all remember that feeling, don’t you?” I glanced around. “Not you, Lozzie, but you recall it from when you saved me, probably.”

“Mmhmm!” Lozzie spread her arms up high. “Biiiiig eyeball in the sky.” She touched her head. “Nasty feelings in skull. Ow.”

“Ow, yeah, right,” Twil grunted. “Freaky shit. Why are we talking about this now?”

“The shaman’s plan,” Zheng rumbled.

“It’s okay, Twil,” I said. “Zheng wants to know what she’s getting herself into. Which isn’t much, so far. As I was saying, in that house, and then earlier, when the puppet that looked like Lozzie took me back to Wonderland … ” I trailed off, at a loss, and when I spoke again my voice felt very small. “I don’t know how we’re going to fight something like that. How I’m going to fight something like that. I thought maybe if I got good enough at hyperdimensional mathematics, I could stand up to it for a while, a moment at least, find the strength to pull Maisie from it’s grasp, but brainmath led me to the abyss, and the abyss was a dead end, and it’s turned me into … ” I gestured weakly at the current position of my phantom limbs, images that existed only in my own head, images none of the others could see. Not even Lozzie.

For a few seconds, nobody said anything. Lozzie wobbled her head from side to side, aching to speak. Raine rubbed the back of my neck with one hand.

“Concrete plans, shaman,” Zheng said eventually, not unkindly.


“Knights!” Lozzie burst out. “Heather-Heaths, you remember my knight, don’t you?”

“Yes, Lozzie, of course I do.” I smiled at her – and shuddered inside at the memory of that thing she’d summoned to Wonderland. “You said there’s more, Outside, and that’s wonderful-”

“Lots more! Dozens and dozens and they’re all waiting but I hope they didn’t wander off or get bored because I’ve been gone for so long, they shouldn’t though because I told them to stay put if I was anywhere else.”

“ … right. Okay. And that’s wonderful, but that one I saw didn’t last very long against the Eye.”

“What’s this?” Twil asked with a frown.

“Yeah,” Lozzie said, face falling. “It died. Melty.”

“When she saved me from Wonderland,” I explained, “Lozzie had a … helper. Something she made. It looked like a knight. Sort of.”

I didn’t mention the thing that had been wearing the suit of pneuma-somatic armour. That was a discussion for Lozzie and I alone, preferably when we finally met her other creations and I could ask her what on earth I’d seen.

“What does Laoyeh mean?” Raine asked.

“Lord,” Zheng purred. “Great One, Khan.”

“And what do you know about it?”

Zheng shrugged. “Less than the shaman. It is a surfaced leviathan, born in the same place as I, bearing the logic of the deep dark, not a body like this.” She raised a hand and made a fist.

“What would happen if we like, summoned the Eye into a corpse, like a zombie?” Twil asked.

“Evee would have a fit, for a start,” I murmured.

“Ka-boom!” went Lozzie.

Zheng just laughed, long and loud. Twil looked around as if we were all mad.

“Somehow I don’t think that’s possible, Twil,” I said. “Like squeezing a star into a matchbox.”

“Extra tip.” Raine grinned at her. “Don’t tell Evee you suggested that. She’ll belt you over the head.”

“No she won’t,” Twil grumbled, a little red in the face. “She doesn’t do that. Not really.”

“Concrete plans, shaman,” Zheng repeated.

“Yes, yes,” I said. “Well, we do have a few leads.”

And so, we monsters and mad women and werewolves and serial killers, we sat together in the shell of a wartime bunker, and told a thousand-year-old demon about how we were preparing to fight an alien God. We told her about the plan to visit the library of Carcosa, for Evelyn to plunder it for knowledge, at which Zheng rumbled something unkind about wizards. I told her we still had the Eye’s minion trapped inside a vessel of clay, tentacles and all, rotting away in Evelyn’s workshop, but with no way to truly interrogate the thing.

We explained how Lozzie and I still couldn’t get Outside, and the hypothetical sources of that blockage – Alexander’s ghost in Glasswick tower, or Edward’s offshoot cult daring and edging their way back into Sharrowford.

“I will eat that man’s heart and shit into his rotting brains,” Zheng rumbled.

“Agreed,” Raine said. “Well, personally I’ll skip the eating and shitting parts.”

Twil grimaced. “Ugh.”

“You need a stronger stomach, laangren.”

“Look, just because I’m a werewolf doesn’t mean I have to eat raw meat, right?”

“Yeah, she prefers fried chicken,” Raine said with a smirk.

“Don’t say that like it’s something bad! More civilised than you.”

“You are not more civilised than Raine,” I sighed. “Say that again when you manage to tell Evelyn how you feel.”

“You- Heather! Fuck! Shut up!”

Lozzie giggled. Raine shook her head. Zheng didn’t care.

And then there was the core of the plan. As Evelyn had already outlined months ago, we had three obstacles to overcome. Getting to Wonderland was solved, in theory at least. The gate would serve, when the time came.

“Avoiding the Eye’s attention, that’s challenge number two,” I said.

“Or blunting,” Raine added. “If I remember Evee right.”

“Yes, exactly,” I said. “Lozzie’s knights, maybe something else, I don’t know. Not to mention dealing with it in a physical sense. We didn’t see them much when the puppet-thing took me there, but it has physical worshippers and minions, mundane threats, I suppose, if we get that far. Some of them are … rather large.”

Zheng grinned. Her intent was plain.

“Yeah, that’s what you’re for, brick shithouse. Fighting stuff,” Twil said. “Me too!”

“Don’t,” I said softly, and somehow the quiver of truth in my voice got through to both of them. “Don’t talk about it like it’s a pub brawl. We’d be lucky to survive the first few seconds unprotected in Wonderland. We need more than just ourselves, we need everything we can muster, and even that’s not going to be enough. Evelyn’s pretty certain that with the right techniques, the right knowledge, then maybe she can avert the Eye’s attention for long enough for … me.”

“You, shaman?” Zheng asked.

“Yes, because that’s the final challenge. I have to actually find my sister. And somehow I suspect she’s not exactly physical anymore. Sarika’s experience taught me that.”

“The wizard,” Zheng rumbled. “Still alive, hmm?”

“Don’t you dare,” Raine said softly, with a subtle smile and a quirk of her eyebrows.

“Protecting the wizard, yoshou?” Zheng purred at her, low and dangerous.

“No, don’t,” I huffed. “Please, not now. We have enough to deal with already, without you breaking into Sharrowford General Hospital to murder a patient. Trust me, Zheng, Sarika isn’t a threat to anybody anymore. She’s a shell of the person she was.”


“My point is – the lesson is – Sarika was partially entangled with the Eye itself, but only for a few hours. I pulled her out, but it took everything I had, and made me cast off being human. I came back, eventually, yes, but … ” I shrugged. “My sister, she’s been in Wonderland for over ten years now.”

“Yeah, like, a lot more difficult, right?” Twil said into the ensuing silence. Raine gave her a bit of a look.

“So that’s the plan,” I said, struggling to keep my voice from breaking. “I’m supposed to become strong enough – skilled enough at hyperdimensional mathematics – to fight an alien God with my mind, and pull my sister free.”

“You believe it impossible,” Zheng purred.

“Nothing’s impossible,” said Raine, softly, but with such confidence that she stopped me from breaking into tears again.

“Talking about this is going to make me cry for a second time today,” I said, thick-voiced. I wiped my eyes on the back of my hand.

“Embrace what you brought back, shaman.”

“I tried that! All I managed was to nearly kill myself by growing tentacles out of spirit-matter. I tore a lung open and I almost bled to death.”


“I patched her!” Lozzie chirped. “Like a spare tire!”

I rubbed my chest, over the spot where Lozzie’s pneuma-somatic replacement flesh still stretched and flexed with every breath. “Yes, she did.”

“They were very cool tentacles though,” Raine said. “Rainbow-strobing.”

“Huh,” Zheng grunted, but shook her head. “Try again, shaman.”

“Oh, that’s easy for you to say, you heal broken legs in minutes. I almost died.”

“You won’t.”

“Let’s not encourage her to try the tentacles again, hey?” Raine said. “Sort of hoped you might be able to provide some input, Zheng.”

“That is my input,” Zheng purred. “Laoyeh is not pure thought. It is thought made flesh, expressed in flesh, brought into flesh. To learn, you must be like it. You must make thought flesh, and flesh, thought.”

“Ew,” said Twil.

“No, that … that does make some sense,” I said slowly. “To be … like it.”

“Heather?” Raine said my name.

“So if I want to contend with the Eye, I have to keep risking ripping myself apart.” I nodded, sighed, and shrugged in weary resignation. “I suppose I do need to break out the biology textbooks after all. I’m lucky I have access to a university library. No shortcuts, ever. Story of my life.”

“Can’t we go home yet?” Twil grunted. “You two’ve worked out whatever your … thing is, right?”

“Yes,” I sighed. “I think we should all go home. Zheng, you are coming, aren’t you?”

“Mmmmmm!” Zheng rumbled, and stood up – and up, and up – to her full height where she rolled her neck and cracked her joints. “Yes, shaman. For now.”

“You even housebroken?” Twil asked her.

Zheng shot her a nasty, toothy grin, as Raine helped me to my feet as well, my arm linked through hers. Lozzie bounced up in her wellington boots and attached herself to my other side, hard enough to send a minor shock wave of shuddering through my bruised flank, but I didn’t mind. For once, I felt like everything was going at least roughly according to plan. I’d had to make some hard promises to get here, and my life – not to mention my heart – was as confusing as ever, but we were making progress. Finally.

“Want to find out, laangren?”

“Ewwww, fuck.” Twil wrinkled her nose, then thumbed at Zheng. “What about those sheep we found? How you gonna keep her fed?”

Raine laughed. “Put her out to hunt. Like a house cat.”

“Sheep?” Zheng purred – and went very, very still indeed.

The bottom dropped out of my stomach. Ice ran through my veins. Raine sensed it too, suddenly alert. Lozzie made a little ‘uh-oh’ face.

“Yeah, four sheep.” Twil frowned in confusion, the only one of us not yet following. “Up in that field, uh … like … that way? Or that way? Sense of direction is screwed in here.”

“I know the field, laangren,” Zheng purred. “I ate there.”

“Yeah, and you ate a lot, you-”

“Zheng?” Raine said.

“I ate one sheep,” Zheng purred, looking around us, into the woods, with a sharpness in her eyes as her face split into a shark-toothed grin. “Not four.”

“What?” Twil squinted. “Then where did the other … oh. Oh fuck!”

“Oh fuck is right,” Raine murmured.

“Something else killed and ate three sheep? Like that?” I asked. “Around here?”

Zheng laughed, long and low. “I am being used, shaman. Used to cover tracks. Let’s go find what’s hiding in my shadow.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

nostalgia for infinity – 9.7

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Zheng had made a demand, a challenge, a taunt – but she showed no relish, no savage glee, no laughter. That’s what tipped me off.

Zheng’s stipulation – that her and I could talk, but alone – hung for a heartbeat in the damp woodland air, blurred out by the static wash of leaves and rain. She gazed down at me with dark, heavy-lidded eyes, morose and brooding. A raindrop hit her brow and slid down one cheek. Swaying treetops and snatches of iron-grey sky framed her greasy hair and raggedy old coat. The greater giants of oak, elm and yew seemed to exult this monster in their midst.

Her dramatic figure was only slightly undermined by Lozzie hugging her around the middle.


“Alone, shaman,” she purred.

“I … okay, I’m comfortable with that, I think, but why-”

“You gotta know we’re gonna have a problem there, big girl,” Raine said, right on cue. “Why ask, if you know I’m gonna say no?”

I sighed. “Raine, really?”

Zheng’s face split into a shark-toothed grin, slowly spreading wider and wider to show off her maw of razor-sharp teeth. Her eyes blazed at Raine with a predatory intensity to put a Komodo dragon to shame. I shivered with instinctive fear and gut-deep arousal, and clamped down on both. My mouth went dry and my stomach clenched up. Twil let out a rising growl.

“Twil, please,” I hissed.

“Because you are not the shaman’s voice,” Zheng rumbled at Raine. “Because no is not your’s to say, monkey.”

Zheng,” I managed to squeak, and had to clear my throat. Zheng refused to look at me, locked onto Raine like a tiger with her prey.

“Mine to advise, perhaps,” Raine said.

Raine’s composure was a miracle. How did she do it? Zheng’s look reminded me of the desperate, dangerous first few minutes after I’d freed her in Glasswick tower, her sheer joy in the anticipation and goading of violence. That look reduced me to jelly, triggered Twil’s defensive instincts. Even Lozzie had gone quiet and wide-eyed. But Raine stood her ground with easy calm. She rolled one shoulder in a shrug, the shoulder which wasn’t occupied with helping me stand up straight. I clutched her arm too hard, as if to anchor myself against Zheng’s effect on me.

“The fuck … ?” Twil hissed. “Fuck you two facing off for?”

“Ha!” Zheng barked. “The shaman and I were alone for hours in that tower. I carried her. Kept her head from hitting the concrete. Wrapped her up, kept her warm, kept her safe. What else did I do, hmmm?”

“Zheng!” I snapped. “Raine, nothing else happened. She rescued me, and you already know that.”

Raine shrugged with her free shoulder and another easy smile. “Heather tells me everything, Zheng, old girl. Dunno what you’re playing at here, but it ain’t working.”

“Are you sure about that, zuishou?”

“Zheng, what are you … playing … at … ” I trailed off in realisation, let out a huge sigh, and slowly disentangled my arm from Raine. She helped me stand by myself, a hand on my lower back, and I tilted my chin up.

“Shaman?” Zheng’s face-tearing grin dialled down into curious amusement.

“I know what you’re doing, and it’s not necessary. I’m sorry, Zheng.”

“Why do you want to talk to Heather-Heaths alone?” Lozzie asked, looking up at Zheng and blinking big blue eyes, still hugging her around the middle. “Why can’t I come?”

“Because she doesn’t really want to talk to me at all,” I said. “Because she’s trying to drive us off, indirectly. Isn’t that right, Zheng?”

“Mmmmmm?” Zheng rumbled low in her chest. A shiver went down my spine, but I forced my words onward, a knot of guilt in my throat.

“I’m making you do this under duress. You knew Raine would react like that, you’re taunting her on purpose, trying to provoke her. But you didn’t look like you enjoyed making that initial challenge. You don’t really want to talk to me alone – you don’t want to talk to me at all. I’ve put you in a corner somehow and I don’t understand, I’m sorry. Please, don’t make your way out through Raine?”

“Ahhhh.” Raine raised her eyebrows. “Getting shirty, trying to start to fight, all to dodge a ‘we need to talk’ moment, eh? Ouch. Don’t blame you there.”

Zheng stared at me for several heartbeats of brooding silence.

She was too beautiful, a figure from a dream I’d never known I wanted. Even with her red-chocolate skin and bronzed muscles hidden inside filthy jeans and a ragged jumper and a stolen coat, she radiated power and presence. Even dirty and greasy and stinking of sheep’s blood and forest mud, she was majestic. No clothes could conceal the heavy curves of a Greek Goddess, but the attraction ran deeper than that.


“Shaman, you barely know me.”

“Maybe, but I feel as if I do. I think I do.” The lump grew in my throat. Unconsciously, I rubbed my flank, kneading the bruises up and down my sides, the anchor-points of phantom limbs, an expression of a different place, a different body. Proximity to Zheng drew the abyssal thing in me to the surface, from the memory of what I’d once been; pain seemed to matter less, my phantom limbs wanted to reach for her, to make contact. “I feel a … a kind of kinship with you. We both came from the same place, didn’t we? Even if I wasn’t born there, it changed me. Zheng, you’re the only person, other than maybe Praem, who was … I need … please? I need your help, not just with this. We need to … I need to figure out how I feel. And we need your help, and I want you to come home, and … ”

A subtle transformation passed beneath the surface of Zheng’s face, a taint of awful melancholy and terrible, tender awe. She let out a thick, heavy sigh, like a exhaling bull.

“This is danger for all of us, shaman. You should have left me in the wild and forgotten about me.”

“Unfortunately, that’s not the sort of person I am. I like to think so, anyway.”

“And I cannot do this again.”

“Do … Zheng? Do what again?”

Zheng chuckled, a touch of her amusement returned. She shook her head. “But I can’t even begin to do it again, can I? If I fight you, zuishou,” she nodded to Raine, “I win, and the shaman hates me forever. I win, but I lose.”

“Don’t count your chickens before they hatch, big girl,” Raine said. “Might surprise you.”

“Ahhhhhh, zuishou, you tempt me,” Zheng purred, her voice dipping to a threatening rumble. She flexed her shoulders and spine, opened her jaw wide, clicking and rolling the joints. Firmly but gently she took Lozzie’s shoulder in one hand and moved her back, pulled her out of the hug.

“Uh oh,” Lozzie sing-songed as she tripped back a few paces. “Silly Zheng.”

Twil sensed it before I did, went tense all over, ghostly wolf-flesh forming up around her hands as she quickly dragged her coat back on.

“Stay out of this, Twil,” said Raine. “This ain’t yours.”

“Oh, no. No, don’t you do this,” I warned.

Raine stepped away from me. She shifted her footing, an all-too-familiar change flowing through her posture. She slipped one hand inside her coat.

A grin ripped across Zheng’s face, a rictus of savage joy.

“No!” I snapped, and raised my buckled and broken hiking stick as if I could possibly stall either of these monsters. “No fighting over-”

Zheng jinked to one side, so fast I flinched. A blur of ragged clothes, a dark whipping shape against the forest background. Raine took a single calculated step backward and drew a knife – the big knife, the big black combat knife which I was certain was not legal. She spun it over her palm and raised it in a reversed grip, so focused and wound so tight she was like a living spring of corded muscle.

Zheng’s arm flashed through the air. Raine twisted out of the way and brought the knife round in a shallow cutting arc. My eyes said that strike surely hadn’t connected, but Zheng pulled her arm back with a huge gash in the coat and jumper beneath, dripping blood into the leaves and mud.

“Better, zuishou!” Zheng roared. “Much better!”

Raine said nothing, eyes locked on the centre of Zheng’s chest; but a smile lurked at the corners of her mouth.

She slid one foot back, ready to pounce.

“No fighting over me!” I yelled at the top of my lungs, red in the face with fury.

I stepped right between Raine and Zheng and brandished the broken hiking stick at them. Phantom tentacles tried to help, tried to uncoil and spread in a warning posture, lash out to grab Raine’s knife and Zheng’s wrists – and my bruised sides exploded with twin lances of pain. I gasped and almost doubled over, wincing through my teeth, but forced myself to stay upright.


“Oh shit-”



“No- fighting-” I wheezed.

Lozzie scurried over and got her shoulder underneath mine. I clung to her for support, panting for breath, my forehead covered in sudden cold sweat.


“You, shut up!” I whirled – well, stumbled and reeled, caught by Lozzie – on Zheng. “No fighting!”


“Raine! Put the knife away. Now, put it away! No fighting! Absolutely none. I will walk out of here on my own and all the way back to Sharrowford and I will tell Evee neither of you are allowed inside. No. Fighting.”

“See, zuishou?” Zheng shrugged. Like a tiger which had decided that playtime was over, the aggression fell from her. “The shaman does not want it. So I will not do it.”

Raine cleared her throat awkwardly, wiped her knife on a tissue, and slipped it away again. “Sorry, Heather. You holding up alright?”

“I’ll be fine,” I croaked, trying to get my breath back past the pain. “Why let her provoke you? You knew what she was doing.”

Raine didn’t even try to conceal her smirk. “It’s what I do.”

“Mm,” Zheng grunted. “We are the same there, zuishou.”

“What does ‘zuishou’ mean, anyway?” Raine asked, taking a beat to get her mouth around the unfamiliar word. “That Chinese?”


“Ahhh, thought so.”

“Why does it have to be like that?” I asked, still incensed. “Why does it have to result in you two trying to pull each other’s heads off? That would make me very sad, yes. Also, very angry.”

Raine laughed. “We noticed.”

“I told you it would be this way, shaman,” Zheng purred. “Pointless.”

“Can’t we at least talk about it? About this, about … how we feel? You’re … Zheng, you’re free to leave. If you really, truly don’t want to talk to me, you can go. If you don’t want to be part of this. And I won’t try to find you again.” I managed to squeeze the words out, past a lump in my throat, as I straightened up. “Even if nothing else, I respect your freedom.”

Zheng stared at me for a moment, then broke into a rueful grin. “Shaman, you are impossible.”

“She is, ain’t she?” said Raine.


“Okay then, so … can we talk?” I asked. “Please? Just me and you, I’ll quite happily talk to you alone.” I turned to Raine. “I’ll be safe. I promise. She was only trying to provoke you.”

Raine gave me an indulgent smile. “Is that a promise you can make?”

“Yeah come off it,” Twil grunted. “This is so bloody transparent. Heather, she’s a fucking demon, she’s reelin’ you in.”

“It’s not- Raine, that’s not your choice to make,” I said.

“Sorry, Heather.” Raine had the good shame to wince. “But I’m not sure I trust your judgement here.”

“Mm,” Zheng rumbled in agreement.

“Oh, so this is what you two agree about? That I can’t make my own choices?” I huffed. “Wonderful, I really pick the people who think the best of me, don’t I?”

“What is my promise worth, zuishou?” Zheng asked. “What if I promise no harm comes to a single hair on the shaman’s head?”

“You’re a demon,” Twil muttered. “Isn’t lying your thing?”

“Your promise?” Raine made a show of nodding, thinking that over. “Why change your mind though? Thought you didn’t want to talk at all?”

“The shaman will not be stopped, you and I both know that,” Zheng said with a grin. “If I run, she will find me again, and again, and again, until she asks her damn questions and decides what to do about the fire in her loins.”

“True that,” Raine said.

“Wait, what?” Twil said, frowning between Zheng and I. “What- did I- did I miss- what?”

“Love triangle,” Raine said over her shoulder. “Heather’s got the hots.”

What?” Twil boggled at me, eyes wide, mouth hanging open. “Heather, what the fuck? R-Raine, you’re like … helping?!”

I blushed hard, exasperated and rapidly losing control of the situation. Zheng rumbled with laughter. I sighed. “And this is why I was perfectly happy to talk to Zheng alone, thank you Raine.”

Twil looked like somebody had just walked over her grave. “Heather? Are you and … Raine? Oh shit, no, you two aren’t gonna break up, are you?”

“I wouldn’t worry about-” Raine started.

“No!” I actually stamped one foot. The gesture sent a shiver of pain up through my abused, bruised muscles. Lozzie turned as I did, frowning along with me. “It’s not a love triangle. I am not breaking up with Raine. I am not going to cuckold Raine. I am not betraying Raine. I am not going to be seduced away from Raine. I am trying – trying! – to figure out what to do about myself and my need to grow bloody tentacles. And what to do about Zheng. And yes, part of that is sexual, fine, yes!”

Raine let out a low whistle. My cheeks burned red.

“Then it’s a foregone conclusion,” Zheng rumbled with a dark chuckle. “Your lover has already won you.”

“And stop competing over me.” I turned on Zheng. “I won’t have it. We’re all people, not prizes.”

“Yeah! Bad Zheng!” Lozzie chirped.

Zheng raised one eyebrow, then looked over my head at Raine.

“We better do what she says, Zheng old girl,” said Raine. “You know how she gets.”

“What are you setting up here?” Twil asked, still gaping in confusion. “Some kind of weird three-way … thing?”

“I don’t know!” I snapped at her. “I don’t know. I. Don’t. Know.”

“Alright, alright, geeze. Stop with the Evee impression.”

“I’m sorry, I just … I don’t know, not yet. I need to talk to Zheng, we have to figure out … look, this is all going to be so much easier if we can just talk to each other.”

“Mmmm,” Zheng purred, watching Raine. “Then we need a pact, zuishou, you and I.”

“That sounds better,” I sighed. “Now we’re getting somewhere.”

“You and I, we don’t fight each other-”

“Not lethally, anyway,” Raine added with a smirk.


Raine paused. “Ever?”

“Ever. This is not about us, zuishou.” Zheng blinked, dark and slow behind her eyes. “You and I never fight each other, because for the shaman it would be as if her left hand and right hand went to war.”

“Ex-excuse me? Zheng?” The gravity of her language made me flush, deep down in my belly, a level beyond embarrassment. My chest tightened.

“You spent a single morning with Heather,” Raine said. “But you’re her left hand?”

“That is for the shaman to understand.”

Raine glanced at me. Blushing, I nodded. “It … feels okay. I think.”

“Fair enough.”

“Whatever happens … yoshou, right hand,” Zheng rumbled at Raine. “Neither of us ever harms the shaman.”

“I’ve been driver on that train for months already,” Raine said. “You wanna hop on, be my guest.”

“You trust my intentions now?” Zheng narrowed her eyes. “You monkeys are too changeable.”

“Trusted your intentions right from the start, old girl,” Raine smirked. “You saved her life twice, after all. Figured you out before Heather did. I was just playing along, seeing where you took it.”

“Huuuh,” Zheng rumbled. “More devious than you look. Good.”

“Raine?” I gaped at her.

She shot me a wink. “Just making openings for you.”

“A pact, then, yoshou,” Zheng rumbled. “You and I. Here, now.”

“Sure thing.” Raine rolled her shoulders, limbering up. “Seal the deal. What do we do?”

“I cannot believe you two are doing this over me,” I blustered, flushed in the face and unable to believe my ears. “Can’t we just agree to talk? Can’t we-”

Zheng placed one huge hand on my head. “Doesn’t concern you, shaman. This is between me and her.”

“Yeah. Making a pact with a demon,” Raine said. “That’s my business.”

“Oh I don’t believe you two,” I hissed.

“We need a bear,” Zheng said. “One that has eaten human flesh. We kill it together, share the meat, make the vow.”

“Bear?” Twil squinted. “We’re not in fucking Canada.”

“Yes, you might have trouble finding a bear here,” I said with a sigh.

“Fluids then. Blood,” Zheng said. “You have a knife. We cut.” She drew her hand over her palm. “We shake.”

Raine took out her knife from her jacket and slid it half out of the sheath, then paused with a raised eyebrow. “Dunno how things were when you were little, but the twenty first century’s a little messier. You haven’t got any blood-borne diseases, have you?”

Zheng rolled a shrug. “I have yet to meet a disease that can survive me.”

“It’s a good point though,” I said. “Don’t make yourself ill doing this, Raine. It’s silly enough already.”

“Spit will do,” Zheng rumbled. She raised her right hand to her face and hawked a huge glob of saliva into her palm. Raine smirked, and followed suit as Zheng held her hand out.

Under the rustling canopy, surrounded by the sputtering mist of rain, my lover shook hands with a creature from the abyss, in an agreement to protect me – from myself, or from each other? I wasn’t sure. This situation had left me behind several moves ago.

I couldn’t stop blushing, caught between outrage and a secret, unspeakable enjoyment. On one hand I was almost offended. I, who’d swam the abyss, who’d defied the leviathans of the deep, who had inhabited a body of starlight and mathematics stronger than anything one might find on this plane of reality, did not need my friends and lovers to make a pact of protection.

On the other hand, I was small and scrawny and two of the most attractive people I knew were bonding over me. That lit a white-hot fire in my belly and made me squirm inside. A thrill went down my spine, and ended as low as it could go.

Bad, mad Heather, I cursed myself. Not the time or place.

Zheng and Raine parted again. Raine wiped her hand on her jeans.

“We are both the shaman’s now,” Zheng purred. “But alone still stands. We talk alone.”

“You’re not gonna spirit her away into the woods, though?” Raine asked. “You do that, we got a problem again.”

“Monkey nonsense,” Zheng purred. “We walk. You and the laangren stay out of earshot. You too, mooncalf.”

“But why?” Lozzie repeated. She pouted at Zheng and puffed both cheeks out, then let go of me and bounced up and down on restless toes. “You know I know all the things about you, don’t you? We talked in the dreams sooo much, I know all about where you were made and what you did for years and years and everything! All the things! You don’t want everyone to hear because it’s personal and private but I’m already personal and private so why can’t I come?”

Zheng blinked three times, then chuckled, a sound like granite rocks being rubbed together. “Very well, mooncalf. You can come.”

“Should’a said that at the start,” Raine muttered.

“Yaaay! Up? Up!” Lozzie threw her hands in the air.


“Up! Up! Climb?” Lozzie bit her bottom lip, eyes wide with expectant desire. Zheng tilted her head to one side, frowning. I wondered if she had as much issue with the dream-memories as I did.

“Up,” she echoed. “Yes, mooncalf. Up you go!”

And without another word, Lozzie suddenly swarmed up Zheng’s side, all legs and arms. Zheng bent slightly to accommodate her, to give her a foothold on a thigh, a handhold on a shoulder. With a hup and a heave and a handful of Zheng’s hair, Lozzie climbed the giant like a true monkey, swung one leg over Zheng’s head, and sat on her shoulders, braided hair swaying.

“Tall now!” Lozzie announced with a giggle. Zheng placed both hands on Lozzie’s thighs to keep her steady.

“Hahaha, what the fuck?” Twil laughed.

“The mooncalf gets. Come along, little monkeys. I’ll show you where I sleep. We’ll talk there.”


Zheng led us back into the deep heart of the woods, through the undergrowth and past fallen trees, wrapped in the static of rain on leaves. Far above our heads, held at bay beyond the green canopy, the roiling clouds refused to burst into storm.

Lozzie’s nightmare spirit friends followed us a way, stomping along, their huge tentacles dragging across tree bark and dipping to the forest floor to investigate old stones or fallen branches, but eventually they dropped behind, distracted by the ineffable needs of pneuma-somatic life. Lozzie twisted on Zheng’s shoulders to wave goodbye, almost tumbling off before one of Zheng’s huge hands caught her around the waist.

A tentacle rose from the woods in answer, thirty feet up.

Part of me wanted to wave too, but I don’t think the spirits would have appreciated that.

Raine took my broken, buckled hiking stick and gave me her one instead. She seemed entirely comfortable with how events were unfolding, but if our roles had been reversed I doubted I could have said the same for myself. No hint of anticipation in the way she walked, no concealed discomfort, no worried tension; her faith in me was unshakable. I wasn’t sure how to feel about that. I was about to discuss – among other things – matters of the heart with a person I’d admitted to being deeply, wildly attracted to. Where was the jealousy, the possessiveness, the protective hand?

Twil gave me funny looks the whole way.

“What?” she grunted when I gave her one back.

“I know this is strange, Twil. I’m sorry for dragging you here.”

She shrugged, hands wide. “No judgement. Just, fuck, Heather, and I thought my deal was complicated.”

I sighed. “Your ‘deal’ is crystal clear. It’s not complex at all.”

“Yeah, but … ” She glanced at Raine, two paces ahead, and lowered her voice. “Feels like it.”

“Evee’s not complex,” Raine threw back over her shoulder. “You just gotta let her shout it out a bit before you jump her.”

“W-what?” Twil went wide-eyed. “Fuck me, does everyone know?”

“It has been extremely obvious,” I said. Twil’s shoulders slumped. She grumbled, red in the face, and hunched up at Raine’s good-natured laughter.

Zheng’s route took us back to the edge of the shallow woodland valley, the opposite direction along the near-invisible overgrown path, dotted with ancient fencepost stubs and the looming ridge-line of concrete bars which jutted out from the earth. She led us up the ridge. No easy climb for me. Raine had to take my hand and help me up. We followed the ridge another hundred feet or so, to a place where it turned sharply and vanished into a thicker, deeper part of the woods.

On the sharp turn sat the ruined shell of a wartime pillbox.

“Here,” Zheng purred.

Grey concrete, clad in a second skin of dry lichen, had long ago been split by the irresistible forces of nature; a tree had grown through one of the pillbox’s foot-thick walls. The roof had partially collapsed, fallen to fill the single, cramped room below and form a sort of sloped floor, open to the woodland air and shadowy light. The fortuitous angle of the ridge prevented any pooling of stagnant rainwater. A bank of packed earth had once protected the sides and rear of the pillbox, but was now covered in a carpet of spring bluebells.

Zheng sprang up onto the ragged concrete wall, and then settled herself down cross-legged on the largest single slab of fallen roof. Lozzie wobbled on her shoulders, arms out for balance, then hopped off with a bounce of one wellington boot, staring around at the shattered concrete shell.

“You’re sleeping in a ruin?” Twil asked, peering around the pillbox’s now-pointless doorway, choked solid with rubble. “Cool!”

“Slept in worse places, worse times,” Zheng purred, a slow smile showing all her teeth. “It is dry, it is solid. It does not roll, and you can’t fall out of it.”

“You could sleep in an actual bed, if you want,” I said, slowly working my way up the side of the earthen bank with my hiking stick, onto the cracked slope of the collapsed roof. Next to me, Raine tested the concrete with her foot.

“Looks safe enough,” she said. “Packed solid, nothing else left to fall. Better than the mud.”

“Mm,” Zheng grunted. “Alone.”

“Yeah yeah.” Twil rolled her eyes.

“One last time,” Raine said to me, and took my free hand. “You’re absolutely certain about this, Heather?”

I nodded, a lump in my throat. “Nothing to be nervous about, I’m just going to talk to her. About coming home. About tentacles. About … well, us.”

“She is safe with me, yoshou,” Zheng purred.

“I believe you,” Raine said to her, but never broke eye contact with me. Those beautiful brown eyes, alert and intelligent, saw through me in ways I barely understood, despite that Raine and I shared a bed every night. How could she – how could anybody – be comfortable with their lover in this situation?

For a split-second I saw behind the calm in the depths of her eyes. A devotion that made me feel small.

“Raine?” I murmured her name.

The spell broke. Raine kissed me on the forehead. “Alright. Twil and I’ll be just over there.” She nodded off to the side, along the ridge.

“We will? What?” Twil frowned.

“We’ll have a chat of our own. I’m gonna give you some sage advice, little lassie, about how to get into Evee’s panties.”

“Fuck you! Oh, for fuck’s sake, I’m all just a big bloody joke, aren’t I?” Twil stomped off, throwing two fingers up behind her. “Fuck you, Raine!”

Raine laughed, then in a flash of motion she turned back and planted a surprise kiss on my lips. In full view of everyone except Twil.

In full view of Zheng.

Sudden and rough, forceful and deep, the kiss took my breath away. Raine slipped a hand up my front, quick and hidden by the angle of our bodies. I squeaked into her mouth, and she pulled back, a dark smolder in her eyes.

“R-Raine?” I squeaked.

She let go of me, stepped back, and winked. Before I could splutter for an explanation, she turned away and jogged off after Twil. I touched my fingertips to my lips, my heart racing from her sudden aggression.

Calculated aggression. She’d gotten Twil to turn away, then made her point. To me – or to Zheng?

Had I gotten Raine all wrong, all this time?

She wasn’t comfortable with this at all.

“Oh God, Raine, say something first,” I hissed to myself.

I glanced over at Zheng, but she seemed unconcerned, watching me in slow contemplation. Lozzie was busy wriggling into Zheng’s lap like a small puppy looking for warmth.

“Um … ” I swallowed, still red in the face. “I’m sorry, I think she was trying to make you jealous, maybe.”


“Yes, I-”

“Monkey nonsense.”

“ … you mean, you’re not jealous?”

Zheng shrugged. If she did care, then she was doing a very good job of hiding her emotions. “Sit down, shaman.”

“Oh, yes, that’s probably a good place to start, right.”

I pulled myself together and decided to take a seat against the trunk of the tree which had ruined the side of the pillbox decades ago. Hardly the most comfortable surrogate chair I’d ever sat in, but the concrete was mostly dry and broad enough for my scrawny self. I smoothed my coat underneath my backside and got settled a little ways from Zheng, at a safe distance. My feet throbbed inside the over-sized wellington boots, sore from all the walking. Zheng ignored me, stroking Lozzie’s hair as the girl snuggled into her lap.

“Say your piece, shaman.”

“It’s not a piece. Oh Zheng, I don’t even know where to start.” I glanced off to the the left, back along the ridge. Raine and Twil stood about fifty feet away, talking among the trees. Twil had her hood up and her face down, shoulders sulky and glum. Raine was laughing at something. Even at this distance, I recognised that grin. “Zheng, why didn’t you want to talk to me? Why is this dangerous?”

“All animals avoid pain.”

“I’m going to cause you pain?” I asked.

She blinked a slow blink at me, then sighed, a huge sigh worthy of a giant. An old, aching melancholy came over her, deep in her eyes and in every muscle of her body. For the very first time since I’d freed Zheng in that blood-soaked, empty flat in Glasswick tower, I had a dim, half-seen sense of just how old she was. Of a weight unseen.

Zheng stretched her shoulders and rolled her neck, puffed her chest out. I noticed the gash Raine had cut in her arm was healed already, the blood dried on her sleeve.

“You are too much like her, shaman.”

My ears pricked up. “Who? You said that once before. Who is ‘she’? Who are you comparing me to?”

“You never stop, you never give in. You plan to make war on Laoyeh.” She shook her head. “You are too much, shaman.”

“Who was she, Zheng?”

Ciremedie,” Lozzie said, small and serious. She bit her lip and ducked her head, as if expecting Zheng’s anger.

The demon-host chuckled softly and stroked Lozzie’s hair. “Ciremedie. ‘Little bird’.”

“And who was … Si-rem-a-day?” I struggled to pronounce the name. Not Chinese, that was certain, and the name didn’t sound Mongolian either, from what little I’d heard Lozzie or Zheng speak before.

“Ciremedie,” Zheng repeated. “Let it flow, shaman.”

“Ciremedie. Ciremedie.” I tried a couple more times. “I like it, it’s a very pretty name. It’s not Mongolian, is it? I always assumed your first language was Mongolian.”

Zheng shook her head. “Further north, shaman. Much further.”

I pictured a rough world map in my head, and frowned. “Siberia?”

“Mongrel Rus word,” Zheng sneered. “It had no name. It was the great forest, and it went on forever, covered the world, for us.”


Zheng shrugged. “Monkeys. My monkeys. The first. As close as I ever came to being one of you.”

“That’s where you were … brought here? Made? In a Siberian – I’m sorry, I don’t have a better name for it – a Siberian forest?”


I hesitated, gulped, and gathered my courage. “Who was Ciremedie?”

Zheng stared at me, a molten darkness in her eyes, sullen and reluctant. For a moment I was certain this was the line for her, this was all I was going to get. Any kinship with her would remain theory alone, because even a demon has her secrets.

Then, finally, she sighed another gargantuan sigh. She stroked Lozzie’s head, and spoke to a point on the ground, not to me.

“Her parents named her ‘little bird’ because she was a sickly child. She grew slow, not like the stronger girls in the clan, not even like her elder sister. Something had gotten to her in the womb, leeched her vitality away, poisoned her body. But she was clever, born with a fast mind and obscure gifts. She spoke whole sentences before she was a year old. She saw omens in clouds, in the entrails of dogs, in the pattern of moose prints in snow. She predicted when people would die, and she was right eight out of ten times.”

The forest itself bent to listen. I dared not breathe too loud lest I interrupt.

“The alma took a liking to her,” Zheng continued. “Taught her … huh, monkey nonsense, but some of it worked. Some of it was real. And raw.” Zheng fell into brooding silence for a moment before she resumed. “When Ciremedie was eight years old, her elder sister died in an accident. She fell in the river and drowned. Useless body, no air and the whole thing stops working, mm? Wearing too many layers of fur and hide, dragged her down, filled her lungs with icy water. She drowned, but they fished her corpse up downstream an hour later. Still fresh. Little bird, she knew things by then, things no adult mind could contain. She convinced the alma and her parents that she could bring her beloved sister back from the dead, if only they let her try.”

“Oh,” I murmured, and knew exactly where this was going.

Zheng looked up, right at me, as if only just reminded I was even here. “Those people had none of the tools wizards do. No magic circles, no ritual language, no knowledge to bind or control. They would have if they could, because you monkeys are all the same in the end. But they couldn’t. They could only grope for something to summon back into the dead body. They had mushrooms and smoke, exhaustion and chanting, bent their monkey minds around the truth with brute force. Ciremedie was a shaman, not a wizard.”

Zheng spoke the words like a challenge. Her tone made my throat close up. Even Lozzie looked like she wanted to squeak and shrink away.

“Okay,” I said. “Okay, Zheng. Okay.”

“Mm.” Zheng grunted. “Why am I telling you this, shaman? Why must you know? Why do I want to?”

“Because I’m your friend,” I said. A reflex, a truth without thought.

Zheng laughed, a deep belly-chuckle. “A friend! Yes, shaman, you are like her. Ha!”

“If you held her in high regard, I count that as a compliment.”

“She dived into the darkest sea. You’ve been there, shaman. You know the – abyss? That is the word you’re using. Fitting. That place should have devoured her, but she was clever enough to change, to adapt, to leave behind the limitations of being a monkey. She dived into the abyss thinking it the underworld, thinking she could drag back her sister’s soul.” Zheng sat up and breathed out like a bellows. She spread her arms and grinned that shark-toothed grin. “Instead, she caught me.”

I nodded, and found my eyes watering. “Then I have something else in common with her too. I went there to find my sister as well.”

“Mm. You did, shaman.” Zheng deflated again. “Her face was the first thing I saw, lying on her side in a tent full of smoke. The clan had no idea what to do with either of us. I wasn’t the only piece of the abyss my little bird had brought back with her. She couldn’t recall how to be human. Could barely talk. Couldn’t wipe her own arse for weeks.”

Zheng trailed off into the labyrinth of memory. Her eyes seemed so far away. Lozzie bit her lip, worried.

“What happened to her?” I prompted after a moment.

“She was eight years old, small,” Zheng said. “But then so was I, at first. This body was, mmmm, twenty-three? Twenty-four? Didn’t matter. I made it bigger over time, grew into it, learnt how it works. Made my bones strong, my flesh new. Didn’t take them long to figure out I wasn’t the dead girl, I was something else. Ancestor, spirit-lord, sun-emissary, something from the dark. They were afraid to name me. But she called me sister, even though she knew more than any other that I was not. Even when she grew into an adult and I kept growing.”

“She must have been very kind.”


“So, she was like a real sister to you?” Even as I asked, I knew it was the wrong question, and winced inside.

Zheng shook her head. “No, shaman. Not like a sister.”

“Ah. Yes. You loved her.”

“Mm.” Zheng grunted. “But not at first. At first, I didn’t even know what I was, and neither did the clan. They threw me meat, whole deer carcases, dogs with their bellies cut open, buckets worth of alcohol. They threw me young men as well, and a woman or two in case I didn’t take, but I had no idea what to do with any of them. Ha! I picked up their language quickly. Monkey chatter, always been easy. I fought a bear – one that had gotten a taste for human flesh, and that was when I became one of them.”

“And … Ciremedie?”

“I was hers,” Zheng purred, but slowly trailed off as she spoke, circling something she didn’t want to touch. “I was with her, and for her. She taught me how to speak, how to feel, how to be. How to be like a monkey. She grew up, but she was always crippled, always broken by the fire she’d stolen from the gods, no idea how to wield it, and it burned her. Shaman, yes, and brilliant, but mad, lost. I hunted – bear, deer. Made war on other clans. Lived. My shaman, my … ” Zheng trailed off to nothing.

“ … what happened?”

Zheng roused herself and fixed me with a dark look. I shuddered, and none of it was good. Old anger, old, wordless, boundless frustration and rage.

“She did what all you monkeys do eventually, peasant or khan. She died.”

“Oh. Oh, Zheng-”

“A very long time ago,” Zheng rumbled. She turned her gaze from me and into the woods. Lozzie seemed very small in her lap. For a long, long moment she said nothing, breathing too hard, and then muttered, “I cannot do this again, shaman.”

I sat in uncomfortable silence, searching for the right thing to say, for anything to say. I felt like a blistering idiot. Of course Zheng’s maker – Zheng’s lover? – had died. This was hundreds of years ago, in pre-Russian Siberia. Zheng was older than I’d imagined.

“What … ” I ventured, had to find a way to keep her talking while I processed this. “What did you do? How did you end up … not in Siberia?”

Zheng shrugged. The melancholy did not leave her, but something simple and blunt and brutal crept over to cover it. She looked at me again as she spoke. “I went into the forest, and I didn’t come back. I wanted to be an animal again, didn’t want to think like a monkey. Memory, emotion, curses to be endured. I drifted south, through the forests. Five decades, give or take. Time doesn’t matter when you lose your sense of self. I drove it away.”

“Oh, Zheng.”

“The edge of the forest met me, in time. And so did the horsemen.”

“The … Mongolia?”

“Mmmmm,” Zheng purred. “On the steppes. They brought me down with nets and arrows and spears. Took a dozen warriors with me, and fifteen horses. Took them three whole days, the bastards! Ha!” She grinned, full of glee at the memory of a truly good fight, but then darkened as she spoke onward. “Then they brought Song iron, chains and manacles, bastard mongrel Han wizards whose guts aren’t worth shitting in. They dragged me into a camp and used twenty horses to hold me in place as they laid the first lines.” She lifted the hem of her jumper to show the toned bronze of her abdomen, the remains of the tattoos I’d ruined, and ran one fingertip along the circle I’d cut from the infinitely dense mass of black tattoos.

“They enslaved you? Why?” I frowned, incensed. This was a long time ago indeed, but Zheng’s dark fury was fresh and real.

“Because they were building an empire, shaman. Empires always enslave.” She shrugged. “But at first, I didn’t care.”

“You didn’t?”

“The leash was so long it was invisible. All I cared about was eating and killing, and the khans gave me plenty of that. They set me amongst their enemies and I enjoyed it. The Song, the Rus, the Arab.” She smiled again, showing her teeth. “The Magyars, that was where I first changed hands. Monkeys wearing metal shells, ha!” Zheng laughed at the absurdity.


“Mm. I spent a … a long time. A century? Mm, in the basement of some monastery, in a magic circle, until a monk divined the correct words to write on my skin to stop me from eating his flesh. Then it began, the long chain of slavery, passed from wizard to wizard when one group died or took over another. Lots of waiting. Years of waiting. At one point I was upside down in a well for seven years. Sometimes my memories get fuzzy, the wards were too strong, but sometimes … ” She grinned a dark, savage grin. “Wizards, always so afraid they would lose control of me. I was so much older than anything they could summon. And sometimes they did, and I killed them. But never freedom. Spent so long leashed and bound. Sometimes the leash was short, sometimes long. But always there.” She spoke with broken awe, melancholy and hurt, like a wounded lion. “Until now. Until you, shaman.”

“I only … ” I found a lump in my throat. “Zheng, I only did what was right. Anyone would. That doesn’t mean I’m your reincarnated lover.”

“No, but you are too much like her, shaman. Like her if she came back whole. You are a natural leader, but you don’t see it.”

“I’m- Zheng, I’m not a leader of anything.”

“Wizards make poor leaders, but I’ve known plenty of others. You monkeys think leadership is about power – or willpower, to bind, to impose, to command. But it’s not. True leadership is about love.”

I blinked. That was not a word I’d expected from Zheng. “Love?”

“Mmmm,” she purred. “Love, shaman. It is why I’m yours. You should have left me in the wild and forgotten about me, because now you’ll never be rid of me.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

nostalgia for infinity – 9.6

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Twil’s wellington boots – silvery grey and well-worn – scuffed to a stop, squelching into the leaf mulch as she raised her nose and sniffed the air.

“Everyone uh … uh, hold on a sec?”


I stumbled to a stop too, leaning on my hiking stick and wincing as my phantom tentacles tried to help halt my momentum. Lozzie bounced on a few paces, then turned and scurried back, peeking over my shoulder.

“She’s got a scent!” Lozzie hissed.

“Is it her?” Raine asked. “How close?”

Twil sniffed again, a series of short sharp inhalations followed by several deeper breaths. She turned this way and that, craned her head around. A subtle change flowed through the set of her shoulders and the manner in which she held herself. Grumpy, sulky, rained-upon Twil fell away, replaced by a wide-alert animal, eyes swivelling and fixing on tiny movements, nose twitching, ears cocked.

“Twil, hey, don’t keep us in the dark,” Raine hissed.

“Shhhh!” Twil hissed back.

The green canopy rustled overhead. A squirrel hopped silently up a nearby tree trunk. The forest floor drummed with intermittent raindrops from the leaves above. My own breathing sounded like a steam engine in my ears.

“Yeah,” Twil eventually hissed through bared teeth. “Gotta be her. Close. Been here in the last … I dunno.” She sniffed deeply again. “Ten minutes? Nothing else smells like that. That’s her. That’s Zheng.”

After our encounter with Zheng’s leftovers, we’d plunged back into the woods, past the meat-stripped, bone-gnawed sheep corpses and the murder of crows eager to resume their carrion meal. The forest had closed around us once again, insulated against the wind, consolidated the thin misty rain into an occasional patter of fat droplets. The sky, visible through breaks in the tree cover, grew gravid with rain, a darker, brooding grey. Raine had unfolded the thin anorak she’d brought along for Lozzie, and I’d convinced Lozzie to wear it over her poncho in case the clouds broke without warning.

But the deluge never came.

At the time Twil picked up Zheng’s scent, we’d been walking for another fifteen or twenty minutes, and discovered the remains of an old path. It was overgrown, almost invisible but for the high ridge up one side, lined by the ragged remnants of fenceposts rotted down to stubs, a few scraps of rusty barbed wire still affixed, all drowned in clusters of spring bluebells. Further up the ridge a line of sharply angled concrete posts jutted from the ground, covered in moss and lichen, untouched for decades. Each post was almost six feet tall.

“Tank traps,” Raine had informed me when she’d seen the curious look on my face, as we’d plodded along. “From the ‘40s.”

“ … you’re joking.”

Raine smiled, delighted to surprise me with something I didn’t know for once. “Nah, serious. That angle? Those concrete sticks were meant to snarl up panzer tracks. This whole area – like, the gap between Manchester and Liverpool, and out toward Sharrowford – this was all crisscrossed with wartime defence lines.” She nodded up at the old concrete posts. “Not worth the work to remove from woodland in the middle of nowhere. Bet if we searched we’d find a couple of old pillboxes or bunkers too.” She shrugged. “Urban explorer types probably have them all mapped out.”

“Yeah,” Twil had chipped in from a few paces ahead. “There’s this old concrete bunker near Brinkwood too. S’pretty cool. Roof fell in when I was a kid though.”

History, both ancient and modern, lurked beneath the surface of this landscape at every turn. Scuff at the ground with a boot, and one would likely turn up Roman coins and Victorian tobacco pipes. We forged along that forgotten track until it dipped to meet the edge of a shallow valley in the woods, with a brook at the bottom, the banks a mess of animal-churned mud and driftwood sticks.

And then Twil had caught Zheng’s scent.

“ … so like … what now?” Twil hissed. She looked to me, then to Raine, for help.

“You’re the hunter, Twil.” Raine grinned. “You’re up.”

“What?! That wasn’t part of the deal, come on. I’ve never hunted a demon before. What if she … I dunno, what if she doesn’t want to be found?”

“Hide and seek!” Lozzie whispered.

“Then you gotta prove you’re the better hunter, right?” Raine said. “You-”

I turned away, cupped my hands around my mouth, and called out at the top of my lungs. “Zheng!”

Raine winced, even past her indulgent smile. Twil growled a grumbly growl. Lozzie danced two paces away from my shoulder and stared around, as if Zheng’s answer might come from any direction.

“It’s me!” I shouted. “I’m not alone, but it’s me! Zheng!”

The woods swallowed my voice, and returned no echoes. Raindrops and wind filled the air.

“Well shit.” Twil gave me a look. “If she doesn’t wanna be found, she’s got plenty of warning now.”

“If she doesn’t want to be found, we’re not going to find her,” I said, watching for movement out in the trees.

“Oh great, thanks,” Twil huffed. “Thanks for the vote of confidence, yeah.”

“That’s not what I meant, I’m sorry, Twil. I wouldn’t insult you, you know that. I mean that I’m here to appeal to her. Not to corner, not to coerce.”

“Huh.” Twil dipped her head. “Alright, I guess. Sorry.”

“Yeah, best refrain from cornering the seven foot killing machine, right?” Raine said. “Trust me, I’ve been there. She’s too fast for you, Twil.”

“Fuck’s sake, why’s everybody ragging on me?”

“She’s not a killing machine,” I said softly. “Zheng’s a person, whatever she was before she came to our reality.”

A moment of silence passed.

“Ahhh, I’m sorry Heather,” Raine said after a beat. “Silly turn of phrase, that’s all. You know me, leaping before I look.”

“It’s okay,” I muttered, feeling my cheeks flush as I watched the woods. “I just … well, it’s not as if you’re wrong. There’s fewer spirits here, I suspect they’re keeping well away from her. The only ones I can see are big enough to make even her think twice.”

I cast a glance sideways, across the tree-choked span of the shallow valley. The only visible spirit stood on the other side, another one of those lorry-sized tar-black things with the three massive hooves. It stood stock-still. Pretending to be a tree, perhaps?

“What does she smell like?” I asked.

“What, Zheng?” Twil blinked at me. “Kinda spicy.”

“Spicy?” My turn to frown at her.

“Yeah. Like blood and iron and … strong? Hot?” Twil grimaced, struggling for for a metaphor. “Mostly human, I guess? Like her body’s human, right? She hasn’t bathed in weeks, so there’s some like, regular stink too. But she’s got a high-meat diet, she’s the biggest carnivore around, and she’s got a higher body temp, so, spicy. Yeah.”

Lozzie cupped her hands around her mouth, and called out into the woods.

Garch irij baina! Zheeeeng!”

Twil frowned at her. “ … what?”

“Come out come out wherever you are,” Lozzie sung the translation.

“Was that Mongolian again?” I asked. She nodded. “Zheng’s native language.”

Twil squinted. “She doesn’t have a native language, she’s some wibbly-wobbly demon in a meat suit.”

“Where she grew up does matter,” I said gently.

“She ain’t comin’, no matter what language we shout in,” Raine said, and set the tip of her hiking stick a pace ahead. “Might be out of earshot, might be asleep. Might be waiting to see if we can find her. Might not wanna be found.”

Or she might not be thinking like a human being anymore.

I kept that grim hypothesis to myself. Zheng was dangerous, we all knew that, but my gut said she’d never harm me. She’d saved my life, she’d gone out of her way to help me multiple times. Lozzie was our trump card. Zheng had treated her ‘mooncalf’ with a tender reverence I’d thought impossible. Whatever fears Evelyn had about her, Zheng was not going to maul us in a fit of animalistic behaviour. To think in such a way was an insult to the trust she’d previously placed in me.

Wasn’t it?

If all else failed, well, Twil was effectively invincible.

“Heather?” Raine prompted. I snapped back to the moment.

“Um. Yes, we should keep going then,” I forced out. “Please be careful. If she … ” I wet my lips and shrugged. We all knew it, but I couldn’t say it.

Raine nodded. Twil bared her teeth. Lozzie didn’t seem to understand.

“Twil, you move as fast as you need to,” Raine said. “We’ll catch up.”

Twil cracked a wolfish grin. “Fat chance, slowpoke. I shit faster than you run.”

Lozzie snort-giggled at that one.

Despite the banter, we slowed to a crawl. Twil led, sniffing and stalking like a hound on a fox trail, nose in the air, eyes darting back and forth to take in every new line of sight around the bole of each tree. She took each step slow, as if noise might disturb her prey. She’d rarely looked more wolf-like without transformation. Eventually she even flipped her hood down and tucked her curly dark hair into the back of her coat to keep it out of the way, and endured the occasional raindrop. Now and then she paused, head cocked to one side, listening for a pattern in the endless static of rain and leaves. Each time she grit her teeth and shook her head, and resumed the creeping pursuit.

Raine, Lozzie, and I trailed behind. Lozzie stuck close to my side, seemingly impressed by the need for quiet. She wore a serious little frown, lips pursed tight, and moved on exaggerated tiptoes in the leaf-mush. Raine brought up the rear right behind us, head on a swivel, contributing what attention she could.

We left the shallow valley behind, lost the old eroded footpath, and entered an area of the woods marked by several fallen trees. Their root systems lay half-exposed to the air in great ragged masses of woody tendril and crumbly clay, like the open mouths of gigantic mud-beasts, even after years of decay and fungus had turned the fallen trunks spongy and slick.

“S’getting stronger,” Twil hissed over her shoulder. “She’s around here, gotta be.”

As we passed the third such fallen tree, Twil froze mid-step.

Lozzie and I blundered to a halt, clinging awkwardly to each other. I tried to hold my breath, but my sides ached too bad, stiff and sore from all the walking.

Raine froze too. “Twi-”

“Shhh!” Twil stared at a point off in the trees, but I couldn’t see anything except bark and branches and a tangle of holly bush. Twil raised her nose and sniffed the air several times, deep slow breaths. “Reeks of her,” Twil whispered, ultra-quiet, barely a breath. “She’s right nearby or I’m losing my head.”

“You see her?” Raine whispered.

“Fuck, I dunno.” Twil hunched, readying to spring after fleeing prey.

“I’m going to call out to her,” I hissed, then filled my lungs.

Twil bared her teeth. “Don’t-”


Something big and brown and skittish flickered among the trees, bounding away in a sudden startled flinch. Something that had been right in front of me but invisible against the tangled background. I blinked in surprise – and Twil exploded forward.

She went from zero to sprint in an instant, suddenly all wolf all over, her ghostly flesh flowing together as she loped across the forest floor after the bolting prey, kicking up leaves and a spray of loose mud. She sprang with both legs, leapt, and plunged into the holly bushes. The sounds of her feet raced away on the far side, off into the depths of the wood.

Three seconds, and she was gone.

“Was … um,” I stammered. “Was that a … ?”

“Oops!” Lozzie chirped.

Raine was too busy to answer, bent over in laughter with her hands on her knees. I couldn’t keep a smile off my face either, trying to cover my amusement behind one hand.

“What do we do now?” I asked.

“Give her a sec, she’ll come back,” said Raine. “‘Less she’s too embarrassed.”

Twil trudged back through the trees a couple of minutes later, blushing hard, dusting bits of leaf and twig off her coat. Tiny scratches from the holly bushes covered her face and hands, already closing with werewolf healing as she wiped the blood away with a thumb.

“Having fun?” Raine asked, a huge, shit-eating grin on her face.

“Yeah yeah,” Twil grumbled. “I was on a hair-trigger, alright?” She sniffed the air. “Place still stinks of her, she must have been round here a couple ‘o minutes back or something. We gotta be right behind her.”

“Did you catch it?!” Lozzie asked.

“What?” Twil blushed harder. “Nah, ‘course not.”

“Twil, I’m sorry,” I said, “but did you just chase a deer?”

Twil sighed, shoulders slumping.

“We should set you up a track rabbit, like for greyhounds,” Raine said. “Let you get it out of your system.”

“Yeah fuck off,” Twil snapped. “I couldn’t help it.”

“You know,” I said, as an idea occurred to me. “That’s not a bad starting point.”

“What?” Twil frowned at me. “Heather, you’re cool, but you can fuck off too.”

“No no, that’s not what I meant. I mean, Twil, maybe you need somebody to chase around now and again?”

“Heather! Fuck! Shut up!”

Twil blushed even harder, stammering a defence. Lozzie giggled. Raine pretended polite incomprehension. I opened my mouth to expound upon the point as much as propriety would allow.

And Zheng dropped out of the sky.

For a split-second none of us knew what was happening. Too fast, too sudden, too big. Zheng fell as a blur in a rapid leap from tree trunk to tree trunk so she hit the ground at less than leg-breaking velocity. She landed right on top of us, a whirlwind of flapping coat and dead leaves thrown into the air, boots slamming into the mud and shaking us like a beaten drum.

She must have been hiding in the treetops, statue-still, perhaps not even breathing, with the hood of her stolen waxed coat turned up to conceal the dark thatch of her hair.

I shrieked in surprise and flinched so hard I almost fell over. Phantom tentacles rushed to help, to hold me up, and managed only to pierce my sides with convulsive pain. A gasp caught in my throat, but Lozzie caught me, interrupting her own yelp of shock.

Twil’s ghostly wolf-flesh flowed back together, a growl in her throat.

Raine moved to step in front of me, one hand reaching into her coat.

“No, it’s-” I started.

But in the split-second it took me to scream and stumble, Raine and Twil had read her correctly. Zheng straightened in a flicker of motion, seven feet of rippling muscle wrapped in a baggy old jumper and ragged jeans, face hidden deep inside the shadows of her hood. I expected a rumble of greeting, a laugh, a purr, for her to turn to me and call me ‘shaman’.

She whipped around with one hand out, so fast she blurred, and grabbed a fistful of Twil’s coat.

My heart lurched.

Raine drew her pistol.

“Zheng, no!” I screamed.

Zheng lunged and I saw the trajectory her fist would take, where momentum would carry her strike – right into Twil’s skull.

Worst case scenario. Zheng had attacked us on sight. Evelyn was right.

Twil tried to backpedal with a fighting growl in her throat, but she wasn’t fast enough. She lashed out with a clawed hand and missed, snapped at empty air with a snout full of teeth as Zheng bore down on her, towered over her. Raine tried to aim her handgun, barely a split-second of time to draw a bead on Zheng. Everything was going too fast, they all needed to stop, this was a terrible misunderstanding. Zheng was my friend, my ally, I’d freed her, this couldn’t be happening, if only I had time to say something. My flanks shuddered with pain as phantom limbs tried to reach out and stop her, bind her, as instinct told me exactly how to end this. I almost let them, I almost gave in.

But Lozzie was laughing.

Twil slipped in the mud and her feet went out from under her. The giant zombie had her, fist about to crack her skull, ghost-flesh or not.

At the last second, Zheng executed a perfect pirouette and span past Twil. She used the motion to tear Twil’s coat off in one fluid tug, and sent a very confused werewolf tumbling into the mud.

As she spun, I caught a flash of face-ripping, shark-toothed victory grin.

“Fuck, wha-” Twil spluttered.

Zheng landed the twist with a slam of one boot, facing away from us. She threw back her head, let out a roar of laughter, and sprinted for the cover of the woods.

She leapt a fallen log in a blur of coat and boot, and vanished among the trees. A heartbeat later the sounds of her crashing through the undergrowth simply stopped. She’d melted back into the forest. Gone, silent and invisible.

“God fucking- what- what the fuck!?” Twil staggered to her feet, all human once more, a great big slick of mud down her back and bum. Her hoodie was all askew and she tottered off-balance from being spun like a top. “She took my fucking coat! You bitch!”

“It’s the trophy game!” Lozzie chirped, a big smile on her face.

“The what!?” Twil boggled at her.

“Raine, I think you can put that away,” I said, swallowing down the pain in my sides as I forced a deep breath. Raine glanced at me, her handgun still aimed off into the woods where Zheng had vanished. She looked from me, to Twil, to her gun, then lowered the pistol and puffed out a held breath.

“Sorry. Thought she might … you know.”

I nodded. “I know. She won’t. She was laughing.”

“The trophy game,” Lozzie repeated, still braced against my side. “It’s from where she grew up – um, grew … in? Whichever! We played it once, in the dreams, and she won by taking all my clothes!”


Raine and I shared a glance. Lozzie giggled.

“Not like that! It’s a game! Nothing happened after, sillies.”

“She’s fucking shitting with me,” Twil said.

Lozzie shook her head. “No, you have to try to win too.”

“I do hope we’re not all playing this game,” I said. “Twil might be able to endure the cold out here if she gets stripped further, but the rest of us are all a bit more fragile.”

“Speak for yourself,” Raine said.

“Hey!” Twil bristled. “She’s not gonna strip me naked. You hear that, you giant fucking cockhead?” she shouted into the trees. “Try that again and I’ll take your fucking head off!”

“Don’t be a sore loser, Twil.” Raine smirked. “You’re only one point down.”

Twil spread her arms at the dripping canopy. “She took my fucking coat! I’m getting wet here!”

“You have to take it back,” Lozzie chirped.

“Four on one is pretty good odds,” Raine said with a doubtful click of her tongue. “But she got the drop on us real good. We need a better plan of attack. Split up, multiple directions? What do you say, Twil?”

“Fuck her,” Twil grunted.

“More than four on one,” Lozzie said, then turned her head and hooted into the woods.

She hooted, whistled, and clicked in a rapid-fire refrain of non-human language. Raine and Twil both stared at her. They hadn’t heard this before, hadn’t been out in the back garden with us when Lozzie had spoken to the pneuma-somatic life. Lozzie trailed off and waited with an expectant little smile.

“It’s okay, she’s calling for some help,” I said. “I think. Lozzie, do you have a plan?”

“Mmhmm! They can be a distraction!”

“Okay, I … um … Lozzie?”

My breath caught in my throat at the approach of the nightmares she’d called from the woods. Two of the lorry-sized black tarry creatures stomped through the trees, their three massive hooves thudding against the ground, audible only to Lozzie and I. A dozen toothless mouths flapped open and closed across their hides. Thick tentacles reared overhead like imitation trees.

Lozzie clicked and whistled in greeting.

I took an involuntary step back, mouth dry. My voice shook. “Lozzie, are you sure these are safe?”

“Heather?” Raine said my name. She raised her handgun again, pointed it at where I was staring. Twil went tense all over, claws of ghostly flesh forming up around her forearms.

“Yeah?” Lozzie blinked at me over her shoulder. “They’re friendly? Of course they’re friendly.”

“Um … ” My guts clenched up as the creatures drew closer. They towered over us, at least eleven or twelve feet tall from hoof to tentacle-base, perhaps another ten feet of tentacle above that. I heard a faint whispering on the edge of my consciousness, as if those sucking mouths were hissing foul secrets into the air.

A deep throb of pain passed through my flanks. Phantom limbs attempted to uncoil, to throw up a warning display. I winced and curled up, free hand clamped to my side.

Both the nightmare things stopped dead. Despite the lack of eyes or other visible sensory organs, I had the sudden impression both spirits were looking right at me.

And they did not like what they saw.

“They’re fine!” Lozzie chirped, and skipped right up to the pneuma-somatic blobs, a tiny scrap of humanity next to their tarry bulk. “Fine fine fine! Here-” and she exploded once more into a cacophony of little hoots and whistles at them, waving her arms about.

“The fuck is she doing?” Twil hissed, looking everywhere but seeing nothing.

“Enlisting-” I hissed, and had to close my eyes for a second to fight down my need for territorial display. “Enlisting help. Raine, put the gun away. You can’t shoot something that’s not made of matter. And they’re more afraid of me than I am of them.”

“Right,” Raine said. “Right you are, boss.”

Lozzie finished her rapid-fire explanation, and I opened my eyes to see the two giant monsters stalking off into the woods again, one going left and the other right. Lozzie turned to me.

“They’re going to flush her out for us!” she chirped. “Or get round behind, if we get her first.”

“Like beaters for pheasants,” Raine said. “Smart.”

“What, invisible monsters are gonna scare her?” Twil boggled. “I am like, the only sane one here?”

“Zheng can see spirits,” I said. “Praem can too. Good plan, Lozzie, thank you.”

Lozzie beamed with pride. I made a mental note, she need praise, she needed encouragement. She needed something to set her mind to. She was intelligent and resourceful and a friend to anything she wanted. She deserved better than being cooped up and direction-less.

“Then we best get moving before these invisible lads get too far ahead, right?” Twil asked, already setting off the way Zheng had escaped. “I’m gonna get my fucking coat back if I have to fight her myself.”


The next twenty minutes dissolved into a farce.

We simply could not catch Zheng. She ran rings around us. Even with the somewhat dubious help of Lozzie’s friendly pneuma-somatic monsters, Zheng taunted us and evaded us with all the expertize of a chimpanzee in the jungle treetops.

The spirits did indeed flush her out, force her to move before she could surprise us, but she could relocate so fast it hardly mattered. The great stomping monsters were too slow to catch her themselves, only able to alert us when Lozzie or I could see them directly, their tentacles grasping upward at the bole of whatever tree Zheng was hiding in, or stomping toward a clutch of bush or holly where she slunk and crept at ground level. But she evaded them every time, ran off into another part of the woods, and taunted us with laughing roars of good-natured defeat as she was found.

We couldn’t keep up. Twil ranged ahead at speed, all wolf for minutes at a time, racing across the carpet of leaves, almost fast enough to catch Zheng but eluded and misdirected at every turn. Once she even slammed face-first into a tree like in a classic cartoon, led blind through a stand of fern while Zheng escaped.

Twice Twil attempted to climb after her, but Zheng simply leapt to another tree, far beyond the werewolf’s abilities.

Lozzie and I were both out of breath. Raine had little to contribute except her eyesight. This wasn’t a fight, not a real one.

She hit us four more times, dropping from a tree, stepping out from a concealed hiding spot, lurking in the undergrowth. She stole Raine’s hiking stick, tugged on Lozzie’s braid, and in a gesture of heart-stopping intimacy, managed to place one massive hand around the back of my neck for a full three seconds, purring with animal affection.

I’d blushed hard, a quiver in my throat and belly as she’d vaulted away that time. Twil had sailed through empty air in a frustrated attempt to tackle her, landing hard in the mud and leaves.

“Fuck! Give me back my fucking coat!”

“She’s counting coup,” Raine said after that last successful attack, grinning with approval despite the way she hovered protectively at my shoulder. “And she’s damn good at it.”

“Counting what?” Twil asked through a snout of too many teeth as she got up, covered in mud and twigs.

“Counting coup. American Indian thing, I think. Rather than fight a battle, you prove your bravery by touching the enemy with your hand, and escaping unscathed. Lots of variations on it. She’s proving a point to us.”

“No,” I said, my mouth dry with embarrassed excitement.

“No?” Raine raised an eyebrow.

“She’s having fun!” Lozzie said.

“Yes.” I nodded. “Proving the point is secondary. The way she keeps laughing, this is pure elation for her. She loves a good fight, I think. She’s not trying to humiliate us. She wants a challenge.”

“Hmmmmm.” Raine smiled tight, narrowed her eyes, and glanced up at the trees. “We’re not putting up much of a fight so far. Hate to lose five-nil, might disappoint our big friend.”

“Fuck her, I almost got her that time!” said Twil.

“Yes, Twil. You almost did,” I muttered, my mind suddenly turning the concepts over, looking at the game from a different angle. “But you probably won’t.”


“We’ve tried a chase, and cornering her doesn’t work,” Raine said. “She’s too fast for that, and there’s too many escape routes.”

“I’m going to go talk to her,” I said.

Raine shook her head. “Nah, I doubt she’ll talk until the … ‘game’? Game. Until the game is done and-”

“No, I mean, I’m going to talk to her.”

Raine glanced at me, eyebrows raised, and grinned slowly. “Heather, Heather, I see a plan in those beautiful eyes. Go on?”

I wet my lips, the idea still forming as I spoke. “Lozzie, call your- our friends back here. Are they clever enough to follow very specific instructions?”


“Twil, can you move through the forest without making too much noise?” I asked.

“Sure, yeah. I mean, good enough to fool like, a bird or a rabbit. Why?”

“Okay then, good. Here’s how we’re going to catch Zheng.” An unfamiliar kind of smile teased at the corners of my mouth. I felt like I was doing something deliciously naughty. A thrill of excitement thrummed inside my chest.

Raine must have read the look on my face. “Heather? This one’s special, isn’t it?”

“I’m going to be the bait,” I said. “And the hook.”


Zheng was too smart to simply blunder into a trap, and too fast to be caught by one. She could not be ambushed or blindsided, hoodwinked or misled. She was a hunter at heart – perhaps that’s what she’d been before flesh, out in the abyss where she’d been born. Not only was she capable of terrible violence, but she had a long lifetime of practice behind her, enslaved or otherwise. Twil might be good at this, but Zheng had been doing this for decades. Or centuries.

So we made our intentions obvious, we broadcast what we were doing, loud and clear. Stupid monkeys trying to catch a demon.

And then, inside that first trap, I set a second.

One that did not rely on speed, or cleverness, or misdirection, but on curious desire.

“Shaman,” Zheng rumbled. A shark-toothed grin opened inside the shadows of her hood.

“Zheng,” I sighed. “Finally. You certainly took your time.”

I shifted my footing to ease sore knees, leaning on the hiking stick, shivering inside my coat and hoodie. I’d been standing alone for too long in this little clearing, beneath a thinner patch of green canopy, waiting for Zheng to take the bait.

She grinned wider. Occasional raindrops pattered off her hood. I couldn’t see her eyes.

“Here to surrender?” she purred. “Lose the chaperone, shaman.”

“It’s … hardly that.”

One of the nightmare pneuma-somatic creatures stood just behind me, close enough to make my skin crawl. A subliminal whispering noise filled the edges of my hearing, emitted from those slopping, toothless mouths. I’d steadfastly refused to think about it for the last ten minutes, since the others had withdrawn from the clearing and left me behind. From Zheng’s perspective I stood framed and dwarfed by a true monster. A bodyguard.

But not Raine. The real trap wouldn’t work, if Raine was by my side.

It was working so far. Zheng kept her distance at the clearing’s edge, beyond the reach of the nightmare’s tentacles.

“Oh?” Zheng tilted her head and rumbled a question. “No? Isn’t it to make sure I don’t-”

“So you don’t snatch me off my feet and carry me off into the woods to have your way with me, yes, that’s why it’s here,” I lied. I even blushed, though I didn’t need to fake that part. “I just want to talk to you.”

Zheng threw her head back and laughed.

“Shaman, I am winning. What’s to discuss, except terms of surrender?” Her huge tongue slid from between her teeth and into the light, inch after inch, a thick pink rope of muscle – and then whipped back. Her teeth closed with a clack. “Or this is a badly planned trap. You monkeys are always at your worst when you think you’re being clever.” Her grin faltered suddenly, as if the thought had dredged up bad memories. “Blunt, direct, yes. That’s how you’d win this, but you don’t have spears and nets. You don’t even have mounts.”

“I disagree,” I said, and frowned for real. “Zheng, I’m not going to bludgeon you into submission. I would never do that. I’ll play by the rules.”

“Bah,” Zheng growled. “You monkeys are so bad at it. I can already hear them now, trying to creep through this excuse of a forest.” She nodded out at the clearing, and I made a show of keeping my expression neutral. “The kharankhui zaluu make so much noise on approach I could hunt them blind. The laangren, she is fast and strong but inexperienced. Your lover, she … ” Zheng rumbled as she trailed off, then seemed to sigh. “She is as smart as me, but her gun fires only lead.”

“What about Lozzie?” I asked. Buy time, Heather, keep her talking.

“My mooncalf?” Zheng chuckled. “If I was asleep, she would be deadly. I am not. None of you can catch me, shaman.”

“We’re not trying to corner you, or ambush you. I promise. Zheng, I promise.”

Zheng purred in thought. I couldn’t see her eyes, but I felt the narrowing of her attention. “You’re not lying, shaman. How can that not be a lie?”

“I am telling the absolute truth, in technical terms yes. There is a trap here but it’s not a surprise. You can see it right now. Because I respect you, I respect your intelligence, you’re too clever to be caught in a simple ruse, and-” I swallowed. Raine might be close enough to hear now, but she already knew this, and it was a vital part of the plan. Go for the low blow.

“And because I’m wildly attracted to you,” I finished.

Zheng moved her head one way, then the other, a predator sizing up a curious new animal, unsure if it was prey or danger. “What are you up to?” she purred. “Clearly I’m meant to try to snatch you, that’s what the zaluu behind you is for. But I don’t see the catch.”

“There is no hidden trap here.” I spoke the words I’d rehearsed, trying to fit them to the situation, my heart pounding in my chest – why? This wasn’t a life or death situation. It was a game. Zheng wasn’t going to kill or eat any of us. Why did it matter so much?

Because, as I realised in that moment, I craved her approval.

I craved the approval of a predatory, cannibalistic demon. My body, the abyssal thing I’d brought back, craved her kinship and her understanding. Inside, I sighed.

“There’s only me,” I continued, voice shaking. At least it helped the act. “Zheng, please, I really want to talk you, but I realise the game has to end first. We’re very close, and I am about to win.”

Zheng looked off to the left, rolling her shoulders as a wave of readying tension flowed through her massive frame.

“The other zaluu is circling that way. Your lover skulks toward us from there,” she nodded past me, “along with my mooncalf, which means the laangren is over there somewhere,” she gestured off to the right. “I have at most ten or fifteen seconds before I am surrounded, but I can move in the last two and still escape. In the last four I can take you with me, zaluu at your back or not.” She grinned at me again with those shark’s teeth, and flickered her huge tongue out.

“Please, do try,” I said, in a pitch-perfect polite voice, despite the flush in my cheeks.

Eyes beneath her hood glinted in the shadow. “But you overflow with confidence, shaman. You know you are about to win. You are so certain I will try to take you, but I do not see the catch, I do not see the winning play.”

I had her now, she’d taken the real bait. Had to keep her on the line.

“There is no hidden catch, it’s right here in plain sight,” I said, and allowed myself a smile which burst, uncontrolled, into a grin. I couldn’t keep it off my face. I’d rarely felt so excited. “I am about to outwit you, and I must admit that I am rather enjoying it. Oh dear.”

Zheng rumbled low in her throat, anger or approval or arousal, all three mixed into a heady cocktail that made my bowels and my groin both quiver. A chuckle ran beneath the growl. She shifted her footing, ready to spring into action, or up into the trees, to make good on her boast of speed.

“Of course, maybe I secretly want you to snatch me,” I said quickly. Two seconds was all we needed – I saw Twil in full wolf form slink out of hiding to Zheng’s rear. “Maybe this is all a ruse, a convenient excuse to offer myself up like a goat tied to a stake. Don’t you want to try, Zheng?”

Zheng froze for a split second, a heartbeat of doubt. She’d waited too long, fascinated by me and my ruse.

Better than I’d ever hoped for.

Twil took the cue. She let out a deep, low, warning growl and rushed at Zheng, kicking up leaves and mud in a headlong charge with no hope of contact. Raine burst into the clearing at full sprint a moment later, from behind me, Lozzie trailing after and almost tumbling over, a mad laugh on her lips. The second of Lozzie’s nightmare spirits bumbled through the trees to the left, exactly as Zheng had predicted.

Zheng span toward Twil like a matador preparing to twist away from a bull.

She couldn’t jink left, into the path of the kharankhui zaluu, and Raine was about to block her right.

She had three choices – back away toward me, avoid Twil and then run forward, or leap up into the trees. The former would simply reel her in further, the latter two would give me the opening I needed.

Twil flew right past Zheng’s dodge, a bundle of incoherent limbs and gnashing teeth as she overshot Zheng and skidded into the mud. Zheng laughed and terminated her evasive spin. She slammed her boot down into the leaves and mud, to give her the instant leverage to push off, to sprint into the depths of the woods.

And my hiking stick slammed against the back of Zheng’s head.

Thwack, went the crack of plastic.

Zheng was so surprised she actually flinched, ducking her head and jerking around to stare at me, wide eyed. I smiled up at her through the awful spasms of pain in my sides, clutching at the way my phantom limbs had tried to uncoil and help, had tried to restrain Zheng for me as I’d walked toward her.

As she’d turned to Twil, I’d hurried forward, unnoticed and unaccounted for amid the werewolves and heavily armed sociopaths and giant tentacle beasts. Scrawny little Heather had not been not a factor in Zheng’s threat calculations.

Raine jogged up and slipped an arm under my shoulders, helped me stand straight. “Woah, Heather, deep breaths, deep breaths.”

I shuddered and winced as the pain in my sides slowly ratcheted down. Zheng stared at me. Twil picked herself up with an angry snarl. The pair of nightmarish spirits lingered on the edge of the clearing, intelligent enough to understand that the game was over.

Lozzie threw her arms up in the air and shouted. “Score!”

“Shaman,” Zheng breathed in savage awe, one hand on her head where I’d landed the blow.

“I’m the one you have to watch out for, Zheng,” I managed to croak, my chest still pounding with victory. “Me.”

A heartbeat of wild-eye stare – and Zheng burst out laughing. She threw her head back and her hood finally fell away to reveal that beautiful red-chocolate skin and thatch of dark hair, greasy and matted. Her sharp eyes glittered with amusement. She roared with belly-laughter, grinned at me, and finally bowed her head.

“On pure points I still win,” she rumbled. “But I concede moral victory. A point to you monkeys. Well done, shaman.”

“That’s right, you shit!” Twil snapped. “Now give back my fucking coat!”

“Victory!” Lozzie chirped. Surprising nobody, she ran right up to Zheng and tackled her with a hug around the middle. Zheng took it like she was made of reinforced concrete, and placed one huge hand on Lozzie’s head.

“You fell for the tree trick, laangren,” she rumbled. “If you want your spoils returned, you shall have to win them.”

“Oh yeah?” Twil bristled, and raised her snout of ghostly wolf-flesh. “You wanna go, one on one? No running off again, you-”

“Zheng, give her coat back,” I sighed, my high already fading. “Please. And what it is with you and falling long distances? You’re such a show-off.”

“Jumping, shaman. Not falling.” Zheng dug Twil’s rolled up coat out from inside her own. “Why the pain, shaman?”

“Invisible tentacles,” Raine answered for me. I sighed and rolled my eyes.

Zheng cocked an eyebrow at me, a silent question.

“I’ve had some … experiences,” I said. “Your advice produced an unexpected result. I’ll tell you all about it, later. Twil’s coat, please?”

Zheng grunted and tossed the coat to Twil, who caught it in one claw – one claw rapidly melting back into a human hand. Twil’s normal face emerged as the rest of her transformation fell away. She frowned, wrinkled her nose, and immediately held the coat out at arm’s length.

“Ugh, this reeks, and not just of your dinner. Do you not bathe or what?”

Zheng shrugged. “It is winter. It is cold.”

“You’re afraid of a little cold?” Twil snorted at her.

Lozzie, who was busy with her face smooshed into Zheng’s side, came up for air. “She does stink. Pongy Zheng.”

“Mooncalf?” Zheng rumbled.

“It’s true,” Lozzie chirped.


Zheng fished Raine’s stolen hiking stick – retracted into its compact form – out of her pocket, and offered it back to Raine. I looked down at my own stick, sadly buckled in the middle now.

“Cheers, big girl.” Raine winked at her. “So how’d we do? Enough of a challenge?”

“Tolerable,” Zheng purred.

“What was all that, anyway?” Twil asked, trying to shake the smell of dead sheep and body odour and forest out of her coat. “Why the hell run us around like that?”

“You walked into my woods.”

Your woods?” Twil squinted at her.

Zheng shrugged. “I am the scariest thing here. You monkeys don’t count, not here.”

“Where do you get off on calling us monkeys anyway, huh? Look at you, leaping around in the trees.”

Zheng grinned at her. “You’ve forgotten how to do it, laangren. You enjoyed it too.”

“Where’d you pick that skill up?” Raine asked. Zheng blinked once at her, slowly.

“Another forest,” she rumbled.

“You know, if you came home, you could have a hot bath whenever you like,” I said. Zheng levelled a curious gaze at me, and her smoldering amusement turned dark.


For her, that word contained entire philosophies.

“Yeah,” Twil muttered under her breath. “You don’t have to live like a hobo-demon, you know?”

“My home. Our home,” I said. “Zheng, I’m dying to talk to you, you must know that. About all sorts of things. And I do want you to come home with us. With me. I’m not saying you’re not at home in the woods, but there’s always a place for you. Can we talk now? Surely we’ve won that right, if we could take a point off you.”

Zheng stared at me for a long, brooding moment, with no smile. A tremor of animal fear shot through my belly, drawn tight by her predatory regard.

“You took a point off me, shaman. You lead.”

“She’s good at it, ain’t she?” Raine beamed. Zheng didn’t bother to look at her – or wouldn’t look at her.

“Then, please don’t run off again,” I said. “Can we go somewhere and-”

“We can talk.”

“Good, we-”

“You and I, shaman,” Zheng purred. She indicated the others with a jerk of her chin, Raine, Twil, even Lozzie. “You and I, alone.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

nostalgia for infinity – 9.5

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Trees stretched toward heaven either side of the road, sunk deep in a lake of their own shadows. Open stretches of muddy field and dank hedgerow grew fewer and fewer. We lost sight of the overcast sky for minutes at a time, blotted out by the rain-thickened canopy far above, plunging the inside of the car into ghostly twilight. Triply enclosed – wrapped up warm against the coming hike, inside our temporary machine of metal and glass, and deep in the woods.

How paradoxical, I thought, that leaving the confines of the city can lead us into a far more claustrophobic tangle.

“I suspect this is as close as we’ll get,” Raine said.

She turned the car off the road and into a lay-by, tires crunching across patches of crumbled asphalt. Raine set the handbrake but she kept one hand on the wheel and left the engine running, a soft chuttering purr undercut by the sound of occasional raindrops on the metal roof.

The woods marched away either side of us, dark and inscrutable.

“If you go down to the woods today,” I sighed.

“You better go in disguise!” Lozzie finished. She was already twisting against her seatbelt to press her face up against the passenger-side window.

“This is some goose-chase shit,” Twil grunted from next to me on the back seat.

“You just concentrate on your chips,” Raine said. Twil huffed and rolled her eyes, and dug another curly chip from her crinkled bag of fast food treats.

“I see a rabbit!” Lozzie whispered.

“What? Where?” Twil twitched her head around like a pointer dog, craning to see.

“There’s probably fields or isolated houses closer,” Raine said, as she stared out past Lozzie, into the depths of the woods. “But I doubt they’d overlook four young women driving a car onto their land. This is it then, we need to walk from here. What does our glamorous navigation officer think?”

She shot a glance over her shoulder, at me bundled up in my coat and hoodie on the back seat, and favoured me with a rakish smile and a little wink, for morale.

I felt about as far from glamorous as I could get without being covered in my own vomit. My sides ached and itched, stiff and sore, and I had to keep worming a hand inside my hoodie to scratch at the slowly healing flesh. Every breath I took stretched and flexed the replacement lung tissue inside my chest, impossible to forget about, always there on the edge of my consciousness. My breathing sounded clear, but I felt like I should be wheezing and coughing.

“Um … ” I squinted down at the map on the screen of my mobile phone. “I think Lozzie’s spot is … about … a mile … mile and a half, straight that way?” I pointed directly into the woods. “Maybe?”

The map hardly resembled the territory.

Neat yellow lines represented roads that in reality surprised the driver with blind corners, dipped into hollows without warning, were pitted with ancient potholes and dessicated roadkill and crumbled edges churned by muddy ruts from tractor tires. Jolly green rectangles indicated fields choked with spring mud and populated by sad, soggy sheep. Darker green hatching meant trees; great vast swathes of the stuff filled the empty spaces between road and farm, carefully contained and delineated in ink. The map proudly labelled this entire area as ‘Berndsey Ancient Woodland (protected)’.

Up close, the tree trunks vanished into chaotic infinity, rooted in centuries of leaf-mulch and ragged undergrowth.

“Spot, spot,” Lozzie chirped and twisted the other way in her seat. “It’s an area, a whole area.” She spread her arms wide, almost knocking Twil’s fast food out of her lap.

“Which means brick shithouse could be anywhere out there,” Twil said.

“Light rain, damp ground, that’s good scenting conditions,” said Raine. “I did read up on this before I asked you to track for us, you know.”

“I’m not a fucking bloodhound,” Twil grunted. “And yeah, you’re right, I’m real good at this, but these woods are full of animals, it’s gonna be like finding a needle in a stack of other needles. More likely to pick up a deer or a badger or something. This is a stupid goose-chase. Come on, Heather’s still too fucked up to spend like three hours wandering around the woods in the rain, right? Uh,” she blinked sideways at me. “No offence, Heather?”

“It’s not stupid,” I said softly. Twil grimaced, hunching her shoulders like a dejected dog. “Please? Lozzie can only tell us the general area, but you can pinpoint Zheng. You’re the only one who can even try.”

“ … mmmm,” Twil made a grumbling sound. “Pretty close to Brinkwood. Could just run home.”

“You got your mercenary price,” Raine said with a smirk and a nod at Twil’s bag of fast food. She finally killed the engine. It sputtered out, and the car’s heating shut off. Fat raindrops pattered on the roof, dripping from the foliage overhead. “You ain’t goin’ nowhere, lassie. I’ll call your mum, tell her you stiffed us. Eat your last chicken strip.”

“Tch,” Twil tutted. She dug out her final chicken strip and bit it in half with one frustrated bite.

“I thought you’d relish this, Twil,” I said. “An opportunity to show off your skills. Ah, but Evelyn isn’t with us right now, is she? That explains that.”

Twil swallowed so hard she almost choked on her food. “W-what? Heather, what?” she spluttered, blushing slightly, doing an absolutely awful job of concealing her true reaction.

“ … are you serious?”

Of course she was. I shouldn’t have asked. Twil was either genuinely confused or too embarrassed – or in denial.

“Serious about what?” Twil boggled at me.

This was not the right moment for this discussion. Raine was rummaging around in the driver’s foot-well, switching her trainers for wellington boots like the rest of us already wore. Lozzie was biting her lower lip, bouncing on the back of the passenger seat, head swivelling this way and that to spot things out in the woods.

“Never mind,” I sighed. “I just don’t understand why you’re so grumpy about this.”

“’Cos it’s raining, duh,” said Twil.


“Fuckin’ hate gettin’ rained on.” Twil devoured the last piece of chicken strip with some quick, angry chewing, then noisily sucked the grease off her fingers.

“It’s because Zheng’ll want to fight you!” Lozzie declared with a big serious nod and a big happy smile. She stopped bouncing for a moment to reach out and pat Twil on the head. Twil shrugged her off, but not too aggressively.

“Fuck that,” Twil grunted. “I can take her.”

“Bet you’d want Evee to watch that too,” I muttered, unsure if I should smile or sigh.

“H-Heather, what are you going on about?” Twil squint-frowned at me.

“I like the rain, it makes me feel outdoorsy and outdoorsy is healthy, isn’t that true? That’s true.” Lozzie asked herself – then, before any of us could stop her, she popped her seatbelt free with a click, opened the passenger door, and bounced out of the car. She landed with an unsteady little hop in her borrowed, over-sized wellington boots, with her pastel blue and pink poncho flapping outward. She got her footing then skipped across the asphalt of the lay-by to the edge of the woods, and turned her face upward to feel the rain-mist on her skin.

March cold, the cold of the North in early spring, swept right into the car through the door she’d left open. I huddled up tighter inside my coat and pink hoodie. Twil shook herself and growled. Raine laughed.

“Guess we’ve been decided for,” said Raine. “Time for a hike.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Twil grumbled.

We piled out of the car. I took a long time, even when Raine offered me a hand up. I still had to move slowly so as not to aggravate my bruises. Over the last week they’d turned to great shapeless masses of black and purple, stiff muscle, knotted flesh, then coloured into a fascinating array of sickly yellows and greens as the healing process had gotten underway.

As I found my feet and thanked Raine, the smell of the woods washed over me.

Organic rot, centuries of dark loam enriched by mountains of leaf and branch; a hint of fungal growth beneath the vegetable overtone; thick-packed clay slick and wet. Spring had filled in the canopy and covered the trees with buds, but not yet fully clad their skeletal appearance in green flesh.

And the mud. So much mud, this time of year.

When we’d prepared for this little outing, I’d thought wellington boots were an over-reaction. I’d had to borrow a pair from Evelyn, great loose rubber stompers which would inevitably make my feet sore. The area around Sharrowford was fractured into a mosaic of farms and woodland, split by hedgerows and the outposts of villages, slashed through by the high line of the train-tracks and the deep cut of the motorway – and none of that was visible out here to the north, deep in the woods. We couldn’t even hear any other cars.

But surely the countryside wouldn’t be that muddy?

Proved how little I knew. The mud was thick and cloying, already sticking to and sucking at the underside of Lozzie’s wellington boots as she ventured out past the crumbling asphalt. She pulled her left foot free of a boggy hole with a slooorp-pop sound.

I felt utterly out of place. My natural environment was safely ensconced in the heart of a city.

“You sure you’re alright for this?” Raine murmured, quietly so Twil wouldn’t hear. The werewolf was busy rolling her shoulders, cracking her knuckles, limbering up, her hood flipped up against the rain – barely mist down here under the canopy.

“I’ll be okay,” I said.

“You get out of breath, you want to turn back, you tell me, Heather. Please don’t bottle it up. Not out here. Promise?”

“I said I’ll be okay, Raine, really.”

I attempted a little stretching of my own. My flanks were even stiffer than usual from the car journey, though we’d only left Sharrowford about thirty minutes ago. I tried an experimental twist from side to side, then reached over my head with alternate hands. My core muscles complained like overstressed rope. I could practically hear the muscle fibres creaking and crackling. The pneuma-somatic symbiont inside my lung flexed and twitched, and I winced.

“Promise me, please?” Raine asked.

“If I don’t feel up to this, I will tell you, I promise.”

“Thank you.” Raine shot me a smile and the look in her eyes changed, just enough to make me blush a tiny bit.

“ … Raine?”

“You look good, s’all.”

“Well … thank you, yes, but not right now.” I sighed and tucked my hair back over one ear, still self-conscious about it.

“Suits you.”

Yesterday I’d had my first hair cut since I’d started university. Self-administered at first – until Praem had stepped in. Evelyn swore blind she hadn’t directed the doll-demon to do anything, hadn’t even known. My attempt to tidy up split hairs and deal with stray locks in my eyes had turned into a straight fringe and an inch off all round. So now it was too long and too neat.

“I look like a doll,” I sighed.

“You look like a girl genius protagonist in a YA novel,” Raine laughed, winked, and bent down to fetch a pair of collapsible hiking sticks from the back of the car. She’d found them this morning, God alone knows how, in some forgotten corner of the house. She clicked one of them open with a flourish, locked it in place with a button on the handle, and offered it to me.

I sighed again. “A walking stick, really?”

“It’s got a cool spike on the end. For stabbing.” Raine grinned and brandished the stick as if fencing with an invisible partner. “Come on, don’t you want a cool spike? Stab a motherfucker?”

“That’s for grip.” I rolled my eyes, but couldn’t keep a smile off my face. “But yes, Raine, I would love a cool spike. Thank you.”

I accepted the stick and placed the metal tip awkwardly against the ground. The grip-spike clacked against the asphalt.

Was this my future? I’d once swam the infinite oceans of abyssal darkness, swift and graceful, a thing of lean muscle and sharp claw, evading predators and defying leviathans. I had been so pure. The memory would haunt me forever, beautiful and unattainable. And now I needed a walking stick to hobble through the woods.

“Hey, Heather, no shame,” Raine said. She must have seen the look on my face, though she could never understand the full depth of my longing, the failure of this blunt, clumsy ape-body. 

“I was just thinking, this must be how Evelyn feels. Relying on a stick to walk everywhere.”

Raine waggled the other stick. “I’m gonna be using one too. Hiking’s tough, no joke, even if we’re only going a little ways. Might be more if Zheng gives us bother. I’ll pass the stick off to Lozzie if she needs it though.”

“Oh, I doubt she will.”

Lozzie was peering deeper into the woods, like a child escorted to the threshold of adventure. She raised a hand and waved – to something only her and I could see.

We weren’t the only creatures in this stretch of woodland.

Spirit life out here was less than in the city; less feral, less frantic, less wounded. Giant stick insects crossed from trunk to trunk way up in the treetops, waving blind limbs. Flat, undulating creatures like manta rays lurked on the forest floor. A giant of shadow and shell drifted past above, briefly obscured the overcast sky.

And standing like silent sentinels deeper out in the trees was a trio of true nightmare monsters. Each was as wide as a lorry, with skin like wet tar and three giant hoofed feet, bodies covered in a dozen toothless, slopping mouths. They were crowned by clutches of upward-pointing tentacles, thick dark ropes like they were trying to imitate trees.

Lozzie waved to the nightmares, but they were already shuffling away. Away from me. Away from the abyssal thing clothed in human flesh.

Lozzie wasn’t disappointed though. She giggled at the way they waddled, and then tiptoed forward another few paces in the mud, enjoying the way it squished under her boots. She hugged her poncho tight, though I’d made sure she was properly dressed for the cold, in borrowed tshirts and a thick jumper too. Her hair swayed as she walked, tidied back into a long, very thick braid which reached past her waist. I’d braided it myself, to keep it out of the way on this trip.

She was so excited, and I wondered if she’d ever been out in the woods before. Had she spent her whole life cooped up inside that castle, or wherever her parents had kept her before Alexander, the dreams of Outside her only escape?

And now she was free. Her joy was my joy. I smiled, for real.

“You really love her, don’t you?” Raine murmured.

“Ah?” I cleared my threat. “Love? I don’t know. I suppose so. She was a friend to me in a place I had no friends, Outside. She needed help, she … well, she’s not innocent, but … ”

“True that,” Raine laughed softly.

“But she’s a good person. I want to protect her.” Something swelled inside my chest. “The bastards and the monsters won’t get her. I won’t let them. Not like Maisie.”

Raine squeezed my shoulder. “Yeah. Bloody right.”

“Thank you, Raine.”

“Also ‘bastards’? Heather, strong language for you.”

“It’s a strong feeling.”

“Hey, Loz,” Twil called. “Don’t go too far alone, hey?”

“I’m fine!” Lozzie called back.

Raine raised her voice too. “Lozzie, has Zheng moved?”

Lozzie bobbed her head in an odd little rotating motion, closed her eyes and stood stock-still. Seconds ticked by in silence. I tried to concentrate, tried to pick up the ‘scent’ in the way she’d described it to me, the way Zheng herself had found me during the meeting at the pub. An abyssal scent, deeper than blood and flesh and bone, a mark left on reality below the level of human perception.

But all I smelled was rotting leaves.

Lozzie whirled an arm out suddenly, pointing back over her own head without opening her eyes. She held the position, then her eyes flew open and she giggled. “Ow!” She shook her hand as if she’d burned it. “Yeah, thattaway!”

“And what does your nose say, oh great hunter?” Raine asked Twil.

“Nose says it’s bloody well raining, isn’t it?” Twil pulled a face and shrugged, then nodded off to the side of the lay-by. “And there’s a dead pigeon over there. Stinks.”

“Yes, I’m certain we all wanted to know that,” I sighed.

“You fuckin’ asked.”

“Right, Twil, you lead with Lozzie, keep your eyes peeled.” Raine clicked her own hiking stick to full length, and gestured me forward, into the woods. “After you, Heather. I’ll bring up the rear.”

“We’re walking in the woods, this isn’t a … ” I gestured with the head of my stick. “Military operation.”

I didn’t say it out loud, but we hadn’t seen hide or hair of Edward Lilburne or his minions all week. Caution was still our watchword, but nobody beyond our little group knew we were out here. Evelyn and Kimberly and Praem were all back home. We were in Zheng’s territory. To strike now, Lilburne would have to possess perfect intelligence, and also be a staggering idiot.

Raine cracked a grin, dangerously attractive. She looked good too, dressed in a loose raincoat and jeans.

“No, it isn’t,” she said. “It’s a hunt.”


For a week before we set out to find Zheng, we found a new normal – and for me, normal turned out to be incredibly sore all over.

The full extent of my bruises took a couple of days to really set in, both the first three from the confrontation in the pub garden, and the full six from our idiotic fight with Lozzie’s ‘friendly’ squid—moon. The stabbing, lancing pain in my sides faded, became less frequent as my flank and core muscles turned so stiff and tight I swear they should have creaked when I moved. My abdominal and oblique muscles especially felt like one giant bruise, strained from supporting structures they’d never evolved to account for.

It was a profoundly different pain to what I’d adapted to over the last half-year; after brainmath I always felt distant from my own body, hollow inside my chest, my biological processes rejecting what I’d done with my mind, as if I’d frayed the thread which anchored soul to flesh.

But the result of my ill-advised tentacle experiment was all bodily. I had never before felt so aware of so many small muscles. And they all ached.

Raine made me take several long, very hot baths to unclench the tissues, but I still spent the first half of the week hobbling about the house like an arthritic old woman, moving with great care, guzzling painkillers, curled up in bed while she massaged the stiffness out of my sides.

It wasn’t as if we went anywhere, except to class. Edward Lilburne’s answer was still pending.

Every day we expected a knock on the door, or a surprise in the street, or Amy Stack. Raine carried her gun everywhere, concealed inside her jacket, and despite my discomfort I did not ask her to desist. At university I felt a curious itching between my shoulder blades on several occasions, buried abyssal instinct trying to tell me I was being watched, but we never spotted the culprit, if there even was one beyond my own paranoia.

Evelyn spent a lot of time in her workshop, still poring over the books we’d looted from the site of the Sharrowford Cult’s final, suicidal mass ritual. She kept the door open more often though, as she drew new versions of pieces of the gateway mural.

“We’ll need a plan”, she told me one morning, as I sipped coffee in the workshop doorway. The non-human book I’d retrieved from the library of Carcosa sat on the table in front of her, rifled through but still impossible to read.

“Of course we will?” I frowned, not following.

“I mean, we need a better plan, Heather. Better than we had when we visited the castle.”

“Ah. Yes.” I took a sheepish sip of coffee.

Ah, indeed. Getting into difficulties when we can run straight home is one thing. Going Outside, for real, even for an hour or two? All bets are off. I will not gamble on anything. No risks. You and I both know that, Heather. We’ve both been out there. You said the library was inhabited, by thinking beings. The last thing we want is a clusterfuck. We’d all end up dead.”

“Yes.” I sighed. “If only we could find a librarian.”

“Huh,” she laughed, humourless. “Indeed.”

“A bodyguard may have to do.”

“You mean Zheng.”

“Zheng and Praem. And Raine. And … ” Me, I almost said. Evelyn frowned.

“Yes, Heather, I’m sure your tentacle display would intimidate the natives for all of five minutes before you bleed out on the floor.”

“I wasn’t-”

“You were thinking it.”

“ … I was,” I sighed. “It would be so much easier if I could … ” I waved a hand at my head. If I could Slip reliably.

“Quite. We’ll see what Zheng has to say about that. If she can go back to Glasswick tower … mm.” Evelyn picked up her walking stick from next to her chair and levered herself to her feet, gesturing at me with a toss of her fingers, then at the magic circle on a piece of canvas in front of the sofa. “In the meantime, take your top off and get back in the circle. I want to look you over again.”

“You should probably use that line on Twil.”

I placed my half-finished coffee on the edge of the table and wriggled my hoodie off over my head, which took a lot more effort than usual with all my bruises. Phantom tentacles tried to help, to drag the fabric off my head, to disentangle me, and I had to keep pausing to let the pain pass, to ignore the extra limbs which weren’t really present.

When I got the hoodie off my head, Evelyn gave me a very unimpressed look, but I was too sore to care.

“Evee, I’m serious. Maybe a little romantic aggression will help?”

She tapped the circle with the tip of her walking stick. “Get.”

I sighed and managed to struggle out of my tshirt too, my exposed flesh ruffled into goosebumps by the lingering morning cold. My sides were a patchwork of purples and greens and yellows, bruises in various stages of healing. Shivering a little, I stepped into the circle and closed my eyes – not for any silly mystical purposes, but from a fifty-fifty mix of tiredness and exasperation. And because I didn’t want to see what Evelyn was about to look at.

She stomped over to the half-full child’s paddling pool she’d set up once more in the corner of the workshop, settled into the chair before it, and muttered a string of incomprehensible Latin under her breath. I kept my eyes tightly closed. The first time she’d done this I’d seen the inside of my own lungs, and the sight of my own fluttering flesh had made me faint with dissociation and nausea.

“Two inches to the left,” she said. “And raise your arms … no, back to the right. Smidgen left. There. Hold still.”

“Why not just tell Twil how you feel?” I asked. “Tell her to get topless for you.”

Evelyn sucked on her teeth.

“Worst that could happen is she turns you down,” I tried.

“Far from the worst that could happen,” Evelyn grumbled. I was certain I wasn’t supposed to hear that, a hiss between her teeth so soft it was for her ears only. She raised her voice back to normal. “Why must we talk about this now, Heather?”

“Because for a few moments, you are a captive audience,” I admitted with a rueful smile.

“Tch.” She sighed, clicked her fingers, and stood up. I opened my eyes. The pool had faded back into nothing but water, instead of a horrible lightless view of my own insides. “I don’t see any tearing or bleeding. Not sure if your flesh is converting it yet, but we’ll keep checking. Times like this make me wish I knew a doctor.”

We did know a doctor, sort of, but I wasn’t about to mention Felicity, not when I’d almost, almost got Evelyn to talk about Twil properly for the first time in weeks.

Slowly, painfully, I pulled my tshirt back over my head. “Evelyn, my dear friend-”

“Oh, great.” She rolled her eyes.

“- are you going to answer my question, or ignore it?”

Evelyn gave me another look, a tired glare. “I can look at you stripped down to your bra, Heather, because I don’t care about you stripped down to your bra, I care about you remaining alive and well. Twil may not be … may not be … ” She swallowed. A hint of blush coloured her cheeks and she averted her eyes. “May not be so simple.”

“You mean, you like idea of Twil in her underwear.”

“I-” She paused.

“It’s okay to think about it, Evee. Thinking about these things is how we figure out what we like.”

“Alright, maybe I do!” she snapped. “But what does that mean? I have- I have- it’s not like I don’t think about her, but I can’t make the connection between Twil in here,” she jabbed the side of her own head, “and Twil out here in reality, walking around and talking nonsense and being all … all … Twil.” She huffed, shook her head in frustration, and I did my absolute best not to giggle.

This isn’t funny, I reminded myself. Your best friend is deeply confused, sexually and romantically. Rightly or wrongly. Render what help you can.

“Evee, the best way to resolve all these feelings is talk to her.”

Evelyn looked me straight in the eye, and said, “She deserves better.”

“That’s Twil’s decision to make, isn’t it? Plus, she’s obviously interested, how haven’t you noticed? Would it be different if she made the first move, she-”

“Yes, because that’s what everybody wants, isn’t it?” she grumbled, turned away and stomped toward the kitchen. “A bitch of a woman with no future, a terrible temper, and anorgasmia. I’m a real fucking gem, aren’t I?”

As Evelyn stomped out of the room, a tremor passed through my sides, a slow-muscle quiver of limbs that didn’t exist. I winced in silence, and let her go, clutching my sides as my body tried to stop her leaving, wanted to turn her around, make her see.

Sorry, abyss-thing Heather, but you can’t solve a friend’s emotional problems by grabbing them with tentacles.

Such attempts to uncoil phantom limbs needled me a dozen times every day. Reaching for a mug, trying to hug Raine, washing myself in the shower as I ran my fingers over the mass of bruised flesh. Even in bed, I found myself flinching and gasping with pain as muscles tried to move tentacles which I didn’t possess anymore. When I’d summoned those six extra limbs, the flood of information had overwhelmed my brain – but the human brain is wonderfully adaptive. Fresh neural pathways had been laid down, the beginnings of a pattern by which to incorporate the tentacles.

Rather counter-productive when I didn’t have them.

Memories of lost glory tortured me. I could have neither tentacles nor peace.

But I did have Lozzie.

And thankfully, she took no convincing to stay at home.

“Where were you?” I asked, that very same afternoon I was recovering from her pneuma-somatic surgery. “For all those weeks, you just vanished. I had no idea what happened to you, where you were, if you were alive or hurt or anything. Why didn’t you visit, even just for a few minutes? I needed to know you were safe.”

“I was safe! I was Outside! It’s the safest place for me!”

“Lozzie … ”

“I couldn’t come back because he’d know,” she lowered her voice to a whisper and glanced left and right, then nodded at Praem standing by my bedroom door, as if we were in a spy novel and Praem was guarding our retreat. “He knows when things plop through from one side to the other – he’s got this machine!”

None of us had to ask who ‘he’ was.

“Machine?” Evelyn had frowned. “What do you mean, machine?”

“He’s spent like forty years building it.” Lozzie nodded to her, all serious and po-faced. “My brother said he’d been building it since before either of us were born, which is – wow! Wow. That’s a lot of screws and nuts and bolts.”

“A machine to detect translation from here to Outside, and the reverse?” Evelyn grit her teeth. “That’s impossible. Great. Have you ever seen it?”

Lozzie shook her head.

“Might not even exist,” Raine suggested. “Could be a bluff.”

“He knew about the Messenger,” I croaked, still massaging my chest, trying to rub away the feeling of the shifting, flexing replacement flesh inside my lungs. “Maisie’s messenger.”

“Mmhmm!” Lozzie nodded several times. “I thought about it some more and he’s probably the one keeping us here. Probably maybe. Trying to trap me!”

“He won’t get you,” I told her. “I won’t let him.”

“Yeah,” Raine said, soft and assured. Lozzie gave me a hug, and I tried to hold it together. It was a minute or two until we parted again.

“Lozzie – this isn’t really important,” I started a little while later, after I’d wiped the threat of tears from my eyes. “But forgive me-”

“Forgiven!” She announced, one hand raised.

“If you couldn’t come back here, where did you pick that up?” I nodded at her comfortable poncho, with the pastel pink and blue bands around a white middle. As soon as I’d been safely in recovery, she’d insisted on finding and wearing it again.

“Oh!” She giggled and flapped it outward. “I love this, isn’t it pretty?”

“It is,” I agreed. “But where did you get it? Where did you get all the clothes you had on? Your shoes? And you had a brownie … ”

“Oh I could come back here, but not here here,” she chirped. “The poncho is from London, the brownie was from a shop in … um … somewhere south! Somewhere hot! I didn’t know the language but I took it from a shop.”

“Took it?” Raine smirked. “Lozzie, Lozzie. Learning fast.”

“Oh,” I sighed. “You weren’t carrying any money when you left.”

Lozzie shrugged and giggled again. “It’s not like I hurt anybody! I just pick up a thing and – poof! Off I go!”

“A budding criminal mastermind,” said Raine.

“As long as you don’t … well … ” I sighed. “I suppose you had no choice.”

“Be gay, do crimes,” Lozzie whispered, and did a little twirl in her poncho.

If she’d insisted on tagging along with me to university, or wandering off into Sharrowford by herself, I would have been stressed out of my mind. Perhaps Lozzie sensed that. If she put herself in danger again, I would not be able to deal with it. I wouldn’t stop her, couldn’t stop her from doing what she wanted, it went against everything I believed she needed. But I also needed her to be safe.

She stuck to the house and occasionally the back garden, reading, playing video games – and cleaning.

She had the most bizarre reading habits. She walked while she read, in a circuit of the house with her nose in a book borrowed from myself or Evelyn, eyes wide and skipping across the pages, feet moving on automatic. She would emerge from a doorway with whispered words on her breath, not even looking up to see where she went, sometimes supernaturally graceful, never bumping into a chair or a corner – and sometimes clumsy on her feet, hopping to stop herself as she bumbled into a wall.

At other times she parked herself in front of Raine’s playstation, with ample encouragement from Raine herself and a whistle-stop introduction to the small pile of Japanese role-playing games Raine kept on hand. I had the distinct impression she’d never been allowed video games before. Like me, she’d had little exposure, but unlike me she took to it with wild gusto, declared particular characters as her favourites, and had something to talk about with Raine.

The cleaning was most bizarre.

 Clumsy, haphazard, sometimes producing more mess than she eliminated. She raided the kitchen for dusters and rags and cleaning spray, tucked her hair up in a big haphazard ball of loops and dragging ends, rolled up her sleeves, and then inevitably got distracted within fifteen minutes. But she kept coming back to the task, over and over.

“This place doesn’t need cleaning. We keep the worst of it in order,” Evelyn had grumbled toward the end of the week. “She-”

“She’s trying to pull her weight,” I’d whispered. “She’s trying to chip in. Evee, it’s sweet.”

“Its … uurrggh,” Evelyn sighed. “Alright. But keep her away from the bleach.” She raised her voice, projected it from the kitchen where we stood, to the front room where Lozzie was inexpertly running an old feather dust with half the feathers missing over the stacks of old boxes. “You hear that, Lauren? No bleach. Please.”

“But you’re meant to put bleach down the toilets to kill all the germs and bugs because poop makes a lot of germs and bugs.” She looked up and blinked. “Doesn’t it?”

“ … yes.”

“It’s okay, Lozzie,” I said. “Please just don’t do the toilets. Leave that for me.”

And she talked. A lot.

She talked to Kimberly, despite the older woman’s nervous tension around her. She cooed and encouraged Tenny’s still-closed cocoon when we went out into the garden to see it, telling her to ‘get bigger!’ She rattled to spirits over the back of the garden fence, but I only caught that once or twice, and whatever language she used was far from human. Lots of soft hoots and little whistles. She even spoke to Praem, though only in private. More than once I caught snatches of one-sided conversation when they were alone together, Lozzie’s voice in a long stream of solitary chatter. If Praem was replying, none of us could hear the words.

For the first time since I’d met her all those months ago, as a diminutive figure wearing a goat skull on her head, I had the chance to actually talk with Lozzie, at length, with no crisis to interrupt us, no half-remembered dream logic to cast a haze over my memories.

But she made even less sense than in the dreams.

“Why could I never remember them – remember you – after I woke up? It was so … I was always so happy and relaxed in the dreams, but they should have been terrifying. We were Outside, unprotected, but half the time I didn’t care. Like you’d … done something to my mind? Did you? Please, Lozzie, I have to know.”

“It was you, silly,” she’d giggled. “Of course you were happy, dreams are happy if they’re not nightmares, right? Outside’s not scary when you know it’s a dream!”

“ … I suppose so, but were we not really there, or-”

“Up here!” Lozzie tapped her forehead. She rolled over on the bed, my bed. We’d woken up from a nap together, Raine was off at university alone, and the house was quiet and close around us. I was wrapped up in a blanket around my shoulders in the chair, asking questions that made no sense to anybody but Lozzie and I. She tapped her head again. “We were out there, up here.”

“So it wasn’t real.”

She huffed with a little ‘pffft’ of her mouth, and rolled over the other way, the long blonde waterfall of her hair splaying out behind her on the bed. “Imagination is real! Heathy-Heather I told you all this so many times, in the dreams!”

“I … yes, I sort of remember, but it doesn’t make sense.” I squeezed my eyes shut and rubbed the bridge of my nose. “Lozzie, what was happening when we shared dreams? Really? Please, help me understand.”

“You can’t understand something that you’re supposed to just feel,” she said, and puffed out a cheek.

“Please try?”

Lozzie flopped her legs against the bed, then spread her arms and held up both hands, far apart, palms facing each other. “So like, there’s you, and there’s you. And they’re mirrors, and they see each other but can’t see behind themselves, and that’s why everybody is just a body. Yes?” She blinked big eyes at me, waiting for an answer.

“Yes,” I said automatically, but meant ‘what?’

“But if you turn the mirrors away from each other they can see everything else – but they can’t see themselves anymore! It’s stupid and it doesn’t work! That’s what my brother tried to do.” She sighed, shaking her head.

“Okay … and?”

“But if you make the mirrors double-sided, you can do anything.” She burst into a bouncy smile. “That’s like us. Then you can have yourself and yourself but not get confused. I learned it a looooong time ago, but you hadn’t got it yet when I came to see you the first time. I had to teach you.”

“You mean … I could go Outside, in a dream, without having to go there physically?”

“Mmmm, kinda?” Lozzie bobbed her head back and forth. “But you’re still not getting it, Heathy-Heaths.”

“It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.”

Lozzie smiled, closed her eyes, and spread herself out on the bed. “You just have to stop thinking so hard.”


The woods thickened as we walked. Fifty feet in, we couldn’t see the road anymore.

We took it slow. We had to, because this part of the woods had no permanent foot trails, no cleared paths. Protected ancient woodland meant no ground-clearing, no cutting back overgrowth, no chainsawing apart fallen trees. We picked our way through a maze of brown tree trunks, across a carpet of mushy leaves compacted into the mud and left to rot for years. The greenery of the canopy swayed in the wind far overhead, but comparatively little light reached the forest floor, enough to nourish a few holly bushes and clusters of fern and some half-dead stands of birch.

Raine carried a torch in her coat, in case this took much longer than expected, but I was half tempted to ask her to switch it on now. Between the thin mist of the rain, the overcast sky, and the enclosure of the woods, we trekked deeper and deeper into a world of strange grey twilight and sucking mud.

At least Lozzie was having fun.

She danced ahead of us by a good twenty feet or so, peering around every tree and looking up at animal noises in sudden interest – squirrels running up the tree trunks, furtive foxes in the undergrowth, birds high up in the leaves. Every couple of minutes she paused and stood stock-still, then nodded and pointed us onward. Twil trudged along behind her, hands in her pockets, sniffing at the air.

“Picked up anything yet?” Raine asked.

“Mud, badgers, mud, rabbits, mud, rats. Did I mention mud?” Twil shrugged.

Slow going was good for me too. I wasn’t exactly thriving out here.

The hike wasn’t difficult in the way I’d expected, especially with the aid of the stick Raine had given me. The wellington boots rubbed my feet sore, yes, despite the double layers of thick socks I’d worn, and my thighs and hips quickly tired, but I could endure that. I’d endured worse, and I was determined to find Zheng and talk to her, even if I wasn’t yet a hundred percent sure how I was going to convince her to come home. We had to enlist her help – I had to enlist her help, with my tentacles – and I wanted her, in some as yet undiscussed way.

No, the walking itself wasn’t too difficult – but my tentacles kept trying to help.

As my legs tired and my feet got sore, my bruised flanks began to shudder and quiver. Tentacles tried to uncurl and grasp at branches to anchor me, to pull me forward, to support my weight. Throbs of dull pain shot up my sides, made me gasp, made me have to stop and close my eyes to halt the reaction.

Because it was a reaction, pure instinct. The tentacles, however short-lived, had adjusted some fundamental neurological assumption. Now my body acted like they should be there, should be available to help, to steady my other muscles. To assist on this hike.

“You just have to plan them properly!” Lozzie had told me. “You gotta feel them with your hands, or do it in a dream so it doesn’t pop you apart. Just plan them and let them do their thing, you’ll be fine!”

Needless to say, I’d kept my promise to Raine and Evelyn. No more tentacles. For now.

We crested a sort of ridge in the woods and came upon the brief respite of an open field, overgrown with thistles and weeds, grass going to seed, old fenceposts sticking out of the clay. A tumbledown barn loomed at the far end. We passed along the edge of the field, toward a bend back into the trees, and a few crows rose on the wing from around the corner, cawing and calling to each other as they peered at us from the treetops. Raine pulled ahead a little way to keep an eye on Lozzie, and Twil naturally fell back to keep me company, still sulking under her hood. Thin misty rain enveloped us.

“So,” I asked between puffing breaths, raising the subject to distract myself from the pulling, shifting sensation inside my lungs. “Twil, what’s your strategy with Evelyn?”

She did a double-take at me, face shadowed by her hood. “My what? What?”

“Your strategy. For Evelyn?”

Ahead, Lozzie was gesturing to Raine, pointing around the corner of the field to where the woods resumed.

“ … for … like … ” Twil blinked. “What?”

I rolled my eyes and sighed, and gestured with the hiking stick – and suddenly understood why Evelyn did the same thing with her stick all the time. There was a primal satisfaction in having a big stick to wave around. Like swinging a club. Still ape, at heart. “Twil, I’m well aware of what’s been going on between you and her. It’s obvious.”

“Well it’s not fucking obvious to me. What are you talking about?”

I halted and turned to Twil. She looked at me awkwardly, framed by the grey sky and the woods behind. She was painfully pretty, angelic face somehow emphasised by her blunt frown and the roughness of her speech. No surprise what Evelyn saw there.

“You like her. You’re into her,” I said. “And you should probably just tell her, because she’s not going to make the first move.”

“I’m what?” Twil gaped at me, wide-eyed. “I … I … am I?”

I blinked at her.

“Ahhhh fuck,” she sighed, as her face collapsed into a grimace. “Yeah, yeah shit I am, aren’t I? Awww fuck.” She put her face in one hand. “Fuckin’ shit.”

“Oh. Oh dear. You mean you didn’t know?”

“I … I dunno! She … I … fuck.” Twil grit her teeth. “Why’d you have to bring this up now?! I’m meant to be psyching myself up for a fistfight with your weirdo demon friend! Fuck! Heather!”

“I’ll tell Evelyn you were both strong and brave.”

“Don’t do that! Jesus. Oh shit. Oh-”

“Twil!” Raine called. We both looked around. Raine nodded around the bend in the trees. “You gotta see this.”

“We can talk about this later,” I whispered.

“Uuuunnn,” Twil made a grumble of dread and embarrassment. We trudged down the length of the field to join Raine. Lozzie was nowhere in sight, probably just around the corner where the field stretched out to rejoin the woods.

Even before we got there, Twil went stiff. She sniffed the air several times and wrinkled her nose.

“Is that-”

“Not human,” Raine answered quickly as we caught up.

“Oh thank fuck for that.” She sniffed again. “Sheep?”

“What? What’s not human?” I demanded as we rounded the corner. “What did you … oh.”

On the edge of the woods, four sheep carcasses had been opened and gutted. Blood was smeared all over the grass, splattered up the fenceposts and the nearest of the trees, half-washed by the rain into a pink froth all over the remaining tufts of wool. Crows squawked at us from above, irritated at the interruption of their carrion meal. Bones lay scattered about, with scraps of dark red flesh still clinging to them, though between the original act of predation and the crows’ appetites, the dead animals had been stripped of almost all meat. Skin and bone and lots of crimson, guts and hoofs. Skulls.

Lozzie was bending forward to peer at one of the skulls on the ground, hands on her knees, braid tucked neatly into the back of her poncho.

Twil let out a low whistle.

“Yeah, right?” Raine murmured. “Don’t think any fox or buzzard is gonna get a whole sheep way up there.”

One of the dead sheep – just a ribcage and a flesh-stripped skull – was up in a tree, tangled in the thicker branches.

“What was she doing?” I murmured when I found my voice. “Why … eating, yes, but this looks more like … ”

“Stress relief. Taking it out on some sheep,” Twil said. She shrugged at my horrified look. “Some predators kill for fun, you know?”

“I know, but … ”

I swallowed. What if Evelyn was right? What if Zheng was forgetting how to be human?

“Least it means we’re on the right track,” said Raine. “Looks fresh.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

nostalgia for infinity – 9.4

Previous Chapter Next Chapter


An alien giant reached for my friends with tentacles as thick as tree trunks; I threw my own tentacles wide, and hissed – like a little girl in a school playground, pretending to be a dinosaur.

I sounded ridiculous.

It was an absurd response. My defiance was not born of heroism or bravery, because I am neither a hero nor possess any notable courage, no matter what affectionate lies Raine tells me. When faced with predatory mega-fauna the size of an asteroid, any sensible, fragile, cowering ape should run away as fast as its stubby little legs can carry it.

But I wasn’t entirely ape any more. The response came from my gut, from the principles and instincts I’d bought back from the abyss, a set of drives that were not remotely human – but which I had turned to human purposes. The ape, the savanna monkey, saw her friends, her family, her tribe, in danger. And the abyssal marine thing stepped in with territorial display and a pathetic attempt to make me look bigger than I was.

Or perhaps I hissed because the only alternative was to scream.

A still-rational part of me did try to scream. Blind panic lit up the back of my mind, as I spread my tentacles out in the manner of a cat arching its back. Even over the sudden euphoria and glory of these extra limbs, terror took my heart, took my legs with a tremor, dumped adrenaline into my bloodstream.

Me, Heather, all of five-foot-nothing, a tiny woman hissing her lungs out at a creature the size of a interplanetary body.


But it worked.

The sky-child reconsidered.

All three of its tentacles paused in mid-air, mid-strike. Giant worms, pitted and grey, armoured in stony hide. The one aimed at Raine turned slowly, like the head of a snake, to point a tapered tip toward me. The two going for Lozzie and Praem reared back – then drifted.

The trio of tentacles all drifted, like unanchored cables in zero-gravity. To the untrained eye the motion appeared random, listless, meant nothing; abyssal instinct read the message loud and clear.

Posturing, manoeuvring, testing for reaction.

I’d confused the sky-child for only a few precious moments. Now it wanted to see what manner of creature I was, and try to outflank me.

I hiccuped. Could scarcely breathe. My heart pounded in my chest, a panicked bird trapped in a cage, and my head throbbed with my own pulse. Cold sweat broke out on my forehead, my face, under my armpits, down my back. The euphoric echo of my once-beautiful abyssal form paled to nothing before this giant. I had no idea what to do.

One thing was certain, both ape and abyss agreed; if I turned and ran, the creature would be on us in an instant.

Up close, in more intimate detail than I ever wanted to see again in my life, the asteroid-thing’s vast tentacle limbs revealed their secrets. They creaked as they moved. Muscles or bones – or whatever it used for bones – produced a soft, meaty creaking which filled the air just below the level of human hearing. The outer layer of stony hide was semi-transparent, like cloudy plastic. Beneath that lay a shimmering substrate, coppery orange.

Somehow, in reference to some buried abyssal knowledge, I knew that coppery sheen was a sensory organ, hundreds of feet long. It could see us, quite clearly.

How complex must the creature’s awareness be, to keep track of so much input? Visible through the empty windows as only a great shadowed bulk, the sky-child’s main body hovered just beyond the castle walls, a kaleidescope of slowly rotating colours.

The ever present cosmic whale-song continued uninterrupted. We weren’t even important enough to disrupt the chorus.

In panic, I mirrored the drifting tentacles – or, attempted to. I tried to adjust the position and angle of my extra limbs this way and that, left and right, to cover every angle at once. But the effort sent my head spinning, my vision askew, filled my brain with fog. Bile rose in my throat. One of my tentacles seized up, another drifted aimlessly. I couldn’t track them all, I couldn’t move them all at once. Throwing them wide, grabbing things, those had been easy, but this wouldn’t work. My eyes bulged in panic.

“Heather!” Raine hissed in a stage-whisper. “Let go!”

I felt a tug, risked a glance sideways. One of my tentacles was still wrapped around the barrel of Raine’s handgun, keeping it pointed off at the wall, clenched hard like a muscle-locked fist. I’d forgotten about it. How could I forget about part of my own body?

“I get it,” she hissed, and how she managed to make eye contact with me instead of staring in terror and awe at the giant tentacles, I don’t know. She nodded down, at my pale, rainbow-strobing limb which gripped her gun. “I get it, no shooting! Use another tentacle!”

I managed to jerk a nod, and let go. Raine blew out a sharp breath and backed away toward me, covered by the extra tentacle I now threw into the air to ward off the sky-child’s attention. One of the three stony giants tracked her as she edged across the throne room to rejoin me.

“Heather!” Evelyn hissed from behind us, way back by the doorway. Her voice was tight with terror. “For God’s sake, back away from it! Praem, get over here, now!”

“I … ”

“Back away slow,” Raine said, low and calm. She reached me, eyes flickering over my extra limbs – she could see them! But I barely had the brainpower to speak, let alone process that right now. “Pull Lozzie along with us.”

“I … I can’t.”

My legs were paralysed.

Knees locked, hips aching, all I could do was stand in place. Maintaining my extra tentacles took every ounce of energy I had, and I could already feel it fading, feel myself going faint, blood sugar crashing out. Moving them – six of them, all at once – took so much concentration that I couldn’t even wiggle my toes. For two whole seconds I forgot to breathe.

What had I said last night, in my post-euphoric bravado? That I could wield a dozen tentacles, a hundred, and instinct would scale up?

Optimistic nonsense.

My brain simply wasn’t made to track six extra limbs, each one performing a different function. I felt them anchored deep inside my torso, three on each side now, pneuma-somatic flesh embedded deep inside my core muscles, wrapped around ribs, cushioning organs and infiltrating tissues. Alien muscle attached to my own, forming a new web of neutral connections and signals too complex for the ape to pilot and too fleshy for the abyssal memory to recognise.

Lozzie’s limp weight sagged in the only still-occupied tentacle, the one I’d wrapped around her like a harness. I could feel her breathing, feel her heartbeat transmitted down my extra limb. Her wispy blonde hair tickled me.

She was still singing, a reedy mumble of nonsense-sounds.

Behind her, Praem was frozen to the spot, deceptively calm with her heels together and hands clasped in front, out of place in her maid uniform. She’d ignored Evelyn’s frantic command.

“Heather?” Raine hissed.

“I can’t move my legs,” I choked out. “Raine, I’m- I’m going to run out of energy. I can’t-”

Raine jammed her handgun into the waistband of her jeans. “Praem, get ready to grab Lozzie and run,” she called out. “Evee, back into the corridor, now. Heather, I’m going to move you. Hold onto Lozzie as tight as you can.”

“Raine, I can’t hold this up! I can’t do it, I-”

“Praem, on three,” Raine said, as if they were about to lift a sofa together. Her blind confidence kept me going another few seconds. Raine had a way out, she always had a way out, a plan. “One, two, three.”

Raine swept me off my feet.

The tentacles in my flanks made it more complicated than usual, but she scooped me up in one swift motion, an arm hooked under my knees. My tentacles whipped around with the sudden change of position and the sky-child’s massive trunks surged forward into the opening. Raine was already turning, making for the doorway and Evelyn’s wide-eyed face beyond.

Praem broke for Lozzie, but even the doll-demon wasn’t fast enough. Three strides of dead sprint with artificial muscle was not going to be enough. The trunk-like tentacle would win, reach Lozzie first and – what?

With a scream and a shout and an awful tearing sensation inside my chest, I hoisted Lozzie into the air.

I recall very little of the next few moments. Several things all happened at the same time, and only by later reconstruction could I piece them together.

The sky-child’s tentacle that had been reaching for Lozzie slammed through the open space where she’d occupied a moment before.

My chest felt like it was on fire, like I’d torn a hole in my lungs and broken all my ribs.

Raine turned back, staring down at me in horror as I screamed.

Praem jerked to a halt.

The other two asteroid-thing tentacles went for me, arcing through the air as Raine – confident Raine, unphased by anything – stumbled in sheer animal terror at the size of the things. To her infinite credit, she didn’t go over, she didn’t fall or cower or even scream; she swung me backward with her entire body weight.

For one weightless, stomach-dropping moment I knew she was going to throw me at the door and hope I made it, her own safety be damned.

But with my ape-brain distracted by pain, the abyssal thing in me took over. Four tentacles met the two massive trunks from the sky-child, and held them there for a split-second, wrapped around them, pushing back, exerting a strength that I’m certain took a decade off my life expectancy. My ribcage creaked and I screamed again, awful pain, jagged and cutting, sawed up my chest.

All for one split-second, all because there was no way that I, whatever survival instincts I’d brought back, was going to let Raine go. It wasn’t until later that I realised I’d anchored myself to her with my final available tentacle. I’d wrapped it around her waist and clung on tight as she’d tried to throw me.

The split-second ended.

My strength failed. The power in my extra limbs faded. I felt it like pins and needles, like a leg going numb.


Lozzie cheered with child-like exuberance. So very out of place.

It froze us all. Even the sky-child – which is what saved us.

She was wide awake.

Wide awake and wide eyed, laughing and giggling, all the way up in the air where I still held her aloft with what little of my strength remained. She twisted and turned in my tentacle-harness, flailing to push her hair out of her face, staring around at the paused chaos.

“Lozzie!” I tried to say – but my breath came out in a broken wheeze.

A tremor of failure passed through my extra limbs, fading, shrivelling, turning to ash from the tips on down, flaking away into dust on the wind.

“Heather!” Lozzie lit up at me.

“No, no no no,” I moaned. I hissed, I spat, I felt more like an animal than a human being.

The tentacles gave out. I dropped Lozzie.

Praem stepped underneath and caught her with ease. The first of the sky-child’s tentacles was rearing back, attention locked on Lozzie and Praem. I keened through my teeth as my own tentacles finished dissolving, desperately trying to reform them, to perform the hyperdimensional mathematics all over again. Awful stabbing pains lanced into my sides where the tentacles had been rooted, but I had to help, I had to stop it, I had to make Lozzie safe.

“No, bad! Down!”

Lozzie held a finger up at the giant rearing tentacle. She screwed up her brow and turned her delicate, elfin face as stern as she could manage, as if she was admonishing a naughty puppy. She quickly wriggled out of Praem’s grip, though with nothing like the slippery grace she’d shown the first time. Praem helped by setting her on her feet.

“No! Down!” she repeated. The sky-child’s tentacles lowered toward the floor, all three of them, in a distinctive bow.

“Lozzie,” I wheezed.

She looked back over her shoulder at us and pulled a half-cheeky, half-worried smile of gritted teeth and wide eyes, an ‘I-can’t-believe-that-worked’ smile.

“What now?” Raine asked, sharp and quick.

“We should go!” Lozzie stage-whispered, grimacing as she tiptoed backward from the trio of giant snakes. She kept one finger out to ward them off. They followed slowly, a poorly trained animal testing its boundaries.

“Right on,” Raine said.

Of the rest in the castle, there is little to tell. Lozzie and Praem backed away from the tentacles until they rejoined us, and together we all crept to the door, Raine carrying me in her arms, clutching me close as I hissed and spat and writhed in pain. The sky-child’s tentacles followed us a way, splitting and splitting and splitting again down into dozens at the slender opening of the doorway back out of the throne room. But even that technique did not allow it to worm its way through the entire castle structure. Even giants have limits.

We made the gateway back to Sharrowford seconds later and plunged through in a rush. Lozzie tumbled into the table, and Praem caught Evelyn by the arm as she dropped her walking stick.

I was almost delirious by that point, uncontrollable in Raine’s arms. Awful, bone-deep pain wracked my sides, and a worse pain roiled in my chest. Cold sweat plastered my hair to my forehead and glued my clothes to my skin.

“Little suggestion, maybe close the gate?” Raine threw back over her shoulder as she carried me to the sofa. Lozzie scurried after us, a pale, worried little face bobbing over Raine’s shoulder. “No rush, you know, take your time and all that.”

“You do not have to tell me twice,” Evelyn snapped.

I caught a glimpse of her back, one arm out as she drew a scribble in black marker pen on the wall, marring the complex perfection of the gateway mural.

It collapsed without so much as a sound. No pop, no flash, no implosion of mirror-smooth surface. One moment it showed a vision of grey jade and fog, the next it was the bare wall of the ex-drawing room, an outline scored into the plaster.

Raine set me down onto the sofa. I clutched at her arm, I hissed, I tried to stand up. I was barely aware of what I was doing.

A gasp ripped out through my throat, and it did not sound right. Wheezy, serrated, like broken glass inside my chest.

“Lost them again!” I whined through my teeth. “No, gone again, no, noooo.”

“Heather, Heather look at me,” Raine snapped hard, and took my face in both hands. “Heather, concentrate. I need you to stay awake, okay?” She glanced over her shoulder and raised her voice. “Kimberly! Kim! Get in here!”

I couldn’t focus. Not on Raine’s mask of worry. Not on Evelyn as she stomped over to us, raving about idiot decisions and mortal dangers and ‘what the fuck has she done to herself?’ Not on Praem, straightening her skirt. Not on Kimberly as she appeared wide-eyed in the kitchen doorway.

Lozzie’s face bobbed over Raine’s shoulder, and I could focus on that.

“It worked,” I croaked. “You’re awake. Worked.”

Then I coughed, and up came a mouthful of blood.

“Oh, Goddess, what?” Kimberly’s said. “What- what-”

“Call an ambulance, now,” Raine told her. She turned back to me, and for once Raine failed to cover her fear with confidence. “Heather, Heather don’t look at it, it’s going to be- you’re going to be fine. You’ve probably torn a lung, maybe. Focus on me. Heather.”

I couldn’t. All I could see was my own blood on the hand I’d raised to my mouth. Bright red. Another cough – more half-strangled choke – produced another splatter of crimson. Tasted iron in the back of my throat.

Inside, my body was trying to change, trying to close the wound. The memory of the abyss tried to knit me back together with logic meant for starlight and photons, not flesh.

Impossible, of course. The pain spiked, a hot needle in my lungs, and I screamed again, bucking and kicking on the sofa.

“What do we do?” Raine asked, hard and urgent. “Evelyn, what do we do?”

“I don’t fucking know!” Evelyn shouted. “I don’t know the first thing about healing fucking wounds, let alone internal ones.”

“Hospital,” Praem intoned.

“Yes, yes exactly,” Raine said. “Kim!”

“I’m calling, I’m calling now.” Kimberly had a mobile phone to her ear.

“Surely there’s something we can do in the meantime,” Raine said. “Evee, please, come on-”

“There is!” Lozzie chirped.

Her head suddenly wriggled into view from beneath Raine’s armpit, like a puppy nosing her way into a lap. She smiled a resolved little smile and nodded seriously to Raine.

“I’m going to do a thing to help her do what she’s already trying to do and it’ll replace missing parts for a bit, okay?” she said to Raine all in a rush. “Might hurt though! Like, lots and lots! Don’t hit me afterwards?”

“I won’t hit you, Lozzie. Do it.” Raine took my flailing hand and squeezed tight.

“Heather, it’s me, it’s meeee,” Lozzie said. “And look, now it’s going to be you too!”

Lozzie put her hand on my chest, at the base of my ribcage. I’d love to say that I passed out from the pain, that I didn’t feel what happened next, what she knitted inside the lung I’d torn out of position. I’d love to say that merciful oblivion took me, as it so often did with the pains of hyperdimensional mathematics.

It did not.

I felt every moment of Lozzie’s emergency pneuma-somatic ‘surgery’. Five seconds was all she took. Fast, I’ll give her that.

Five seconds of broken glass, molten steel, and burning tar.


“It’s all my fault! It’s all my fault. I’m sorry, Heather, I’m really sorry. It-” Lozzie hiccuped, sniffed, and scrubbed her nose and eyes with her sleeve in a huge wet mess. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry!”

“It- Lozzie- it’s okay,” I said, and tried to smile encouragingly. “I’m going to be okay, aren’t I? You fixed me.”

“ … I fix you and you fix me,” she said, smiled a shaky smile, then let out another wet sob and – gently, thank goodness – buried her face in my shoulder. “It’s my fault. I was in a dream and I heard them calling and wanted to join in. They’d never hurt me, I know they’d never hurt me! It was all a big mistake and I couldn’t tell anybody, I couldn’t tell you! Please don’t hate me, Heather, please, please.”

Lozzie sobbed and shook. No crocodile tears, no childish attempt at invoking sympathy to avoid disapproval. Her anguish was painfully real. I would have cried too, if it wasn’t for the bone-crushing exhaustion. Instead, I touched my head to hers.

“You didn’t do anything wrong,” I said. “It was my fault, over-reacted.”

“Hey, me too,” Raine put in gently. “I tried to shoot at the thing. I’m sorry too, Lozzie.”

“I wasn’t-” Lozzie sniffed. “I wasn’t awake when you needed me to be.”

“Then I forgive you.”

“Please don’t hate me,” she said in a small voice.

“I don’t. I won’t.”

“Does Lozzie maybe want some hot chocolate too?” Raine ventured. “Though I think hers would be sans the vodka.”

“Mmmm-mmmm?” Lozzie shrugged minutely. I gave Raine the nod anyway, but Praem was the one who left the room to go downstairs and whip up another batch.

We were all gathered in my and Raine’s bedroom, over seven hours after our return and Lozzie’s impromptu surgery. Lozzie herself was tucked half under the covers with me while Raine sat on the edge of the bed. Evelyn was perched in the desk chair, frowning like a hawk, distractedly rubbing at the junction between her thigh and her prosthetic. Outdoors, the sun was almost down, just a thin orange glow on the horizon as the street lamps flickered on. We’d turned the heating up, the radiators struggling.

I’d spent most of those seven hours curled up in a tight ball of pain, caked in cold sweat, at first dissociating heavily in the aftermath of Lozzie’s work – not to mention the awful stabbing pain of the bruises in my flanks, old and new.

Of the surgery itself I recalled little.

According to Raine, I’d screamed my head off. I did vaguely remember trying to shove Lozzie’s hand away. Raine had to grab my wrists and hold me down by the shoulders, not an easy feat despite my scant muscle mass and small size. By the time Praem had joined, Lozzie was done, and sobbing apologies over and over as I lay there in a shell-shocked heap, wheezing and shuddering.

Raine had fed me sips of water and painkillers, then carried me up to the bedroom and watched me for any signs of relapse.

Only two things kept her from rushing me to the hospital regardless; first, that I’d stopped coughing up blood as soon as Lozzie had finished. My breathing had returned to normal, no longer that awful fluttering, guttering sound. And second, if she did present me for medical treatment, the doctors would find a very curious structure inside my chest, supernatural stitches and staples and surrogate tissues holding my left lung together. I’d become instant medical history; or more likely their brains would refuse to see reality, and whatever treatment they attempted would hurt me far worse.

“No more blood. It’s all packed down. It’s safe, safe, really, serious. Double serious! I wouldn’t guess, wouldn’t guess about this!” Lozzie had chattered, sniffing between her tears as Raine had listened to my breathing. She seemed even more reluctant to leave my side than Raine was. “I didn’t even do it, not really, it was Heather, all her, I just encouraged it over the finish line because she couldn’t think right then.”

Her tiny elfin face, wracked with awful lip-chewing guilt, had watched me from the edge of the bed.

“But how long will it hold for?” Raine had asked.

Lozzie’s answer was a whirlwind of overlapping statements and explanations, retractions and loop-backs, how my own cells would replace the ‘sticky-fix pollyfiller happy goo’ – but that didn’t help with the pain. Eventually I’d drifted off into a state of feverish half-sleep. Raine had tucked me in under the sheets. Voices whispered on the edge of my muddy consciousness.

“Thank you,” said Raine. “Thank you, whatever you did.”

“But it hurt her so much … ”

“And it’s kept her alive. Who knows if she’d have made it to the hospital?” Raine sighed heavily. I think I heard her raking her fingers back through her own hair. I’d never heard her sound so shaky. “Thank you.”

“ … okay.”

“Hey, Lozzie, it’s alright. We haven’t talked much in the past, we barely know each other, but Heather cares about you, which means I do as well.”

“Of course, mmhmm,” Lozzie said, voice still sad but recovering a little. “You fuck a lot, after all, right?”

“I-” Raine failed to suppress a ‘snrk’ of laughter. “Uh, yeah. Yes, we do.”

“Oh for pity’s sake,” came a third voice – Evelyn, further away. “This isn’t the time. You’re absolutely sure this ‘replacement flesh’ will hold?”

“Mmhmm! Mmhmm! It’s her own body!”

“Hmm … well, when she’s awake, I want her downstairs, in a circle. I want to check for myself. Make sure she’s not going to bleed out internally one night if she tears something.”

“Yes. Good,” Raine said. “Do that, please.”

Silence fell. I drifted off. Minutes or hours later, voices filtered back in as I turned over, my throat thick and heavy with sleep and the lingering taste of blood.

“- be fine if I can go play with the kids again,” Lozzie was saying. “They’re fun! They’re safe, really! You just have to speak the language!”

Fun, right,” Evelyn said through clenched teeth.

“And that’s what woke you up? Proximity?” Raine asked.

“Mmmmhmmm! Like, they remind me what I am, you know? It’s cool, it’s fine, I can go myself if you just open the door.”

“How often?” Evelyn asked.

“Um … maybe … no … um, wait and see?”

I slipped off again as my friends hammered out the logistics of keeping Lozzie awake. Dozed for maybe an hour, maybe two, but not full sleep, only scraps of life’s great feast.

Even hours later I was still shaky and weak, when I finally woke. Raine helped me sit up in bed and pull the sweat-soaked hoodie off my head. Sitting there with my tshirt hiked up, bent forward on the bed, Raine found six bruises this time. One anchor-point for each tentacle old or new, clustered on my flanks between the base of my ribcage and my hips. Each one throbbed, deep and lasting.

“Take it slow, real slow, okay? Try to straighten out, but move slow, that’s it.”

Raine helped me sit upright, as I struggled up through the haze of painkillers and the throbbing ache in my sides, but I froze halfway there.

A foreign object, an alien structure, tugged inside my chest.

“Ah! W-what is that? Ah- ahh!” I broke out in panic sweat again, a hand fluttering to my chest. One should not be able to feel one’s own lungs pulling and tightening, like a mass of scar tissue immobile against the elasticity of the surrounding skin. “What is that?!”

“It’s all supposed to be! Supposed to be!” Lozzie leaned on the bed and peered at my chest. “It’s all supposed to be. It’s going to be fine! It’s your own body, it’s okay. It’s just you, all you, all Heather.”

“I can … I can feel it. I can feel the inside of my own lungs. Oh, ugh.” I swallowed the feeling down.

“Only for a bit. Then it’ll become you!”

I blinked at Lozzie’s elfin face as she swept her wispy golden hair back, trying to comprehend what she’d said and link it with what I felt tugging and stretching inside me. Despite all the words I’d heard earlier, I’d been in too much pain to internalise the meaning. It came to me slowly, in waves of invasive horror; every time I breathed, I felt replacement lung-tissue flex inside me.

“Heather?” Raine murmured softly, one hand stroking the back of my head.

“ … I grew pneuma-somatic flesh as a replacement,” I said at length. “Right. Okay. I can- I can deal with this.”

I almost couldn’t. As Raine helped me sip from a mug of hot chocolate, I felt too nervous to move, disgusted and flinching at every tug and pull of tightened tissue inside my chest, weak and shaking from hunger despite the biscuits Raine brought me, despite inhaling an entire packet. Lozzie read me like an open book, great big eyes watery and sad, biting her lip in guilt, and then she finally clambered half into the bed to hug me and wail her apologies.


“You’re saying that thing – that … ” Evelyn sighed. “We need a name for those things.”

Praem had returned with more hot chocolate. Lozzie sat cross-legged on the bed now, sniffing and snuffling and feeling awful about herself.

“Shitfuckers,” Raine suggested with a smirk. “Okay no, for real. Squid-moons?”

“Squid-moons,” I sighed. “Farcical.”

“Ruuuuude,” Lozzie said, but without any hooting exuberance. “The one we saw … um … well, he’s called-”

She made a sort of breathy honking sound which was absolutely not meant to come from a human throat. Whatever else Lozzie was, the piece of her we knew was physically human, so she managed to sound like an asthmatic duck. Raine was very polite and did not laugh.

“ … mmm.” Lozzie made a sad little pout of failure.

“S’okay,” I croaked for her. She shrugged and wiggled her backside deeper into a mass of bedsheets she’d pulled up around herself.

“Let’s go with squid-moons,” Evelyn said with a long-suffering sigh. “Lauren, please. You’re saying that thing was, what, playing with us? Like an oversize dog that doesn’t know it’s own strength?”

Lozzie dipped her head, puffed out one cheek, and sketched a sheepish shrug. It was like she felt responsible for their behaviour, for our easy mistake.

“That’s a yes, isn’t it?” Raine asked. For the first time, I got a preview of the sort of tone Raine might use with a child – a gentler version of the usual bursting, overflowing confidence.

Lozzie nodded. Evelyn let out a huge sigh.

“Which means all this was unnecessary,” I croaked. Gestured at myself. “Could have defused it without hurting myself. Stupid Heather.”

“Hey, Heather,” Raine said. She reached over and rubbed the back of my head and my neck. Her touch took my mind away from the pain and exhaustion. “We don’t know that for sure. Right, Lozzie?”

“Um … ” Lozzie bit her lower lip.

“Thank you for attempting to make me feel better,” I managed. “But I am an idiot.”

We all knew what Lozzie was. We all knew those squid-moon-thing were the children of the dessicated Outsider below the castle. But in a moment of panic and terror we’d simply reacted. Like the stupid, aggressive apes we were.

“Don’t beat yourself up, it’s not-”

“We were all idiots!” Evelyn interrupted Raine with a snarl. She lurched up out of the chair, too much weight on her walking stick and withered left leg. Her prosthetic socket was bothering her, too much stress in the last two days. She stomped to the door, then turned and stomped back again. “We should never have gone any deeper into that fucking place without serious preparation. How else are we supposed to respond to a giant fucking tentacle monster?! I could have sent Praem, I could have- Goddammit!”

“Evee,” Raine said. “Hey-”

“Don’t you hey me,” Evelyn snapped. “This was all our fault, we’re all responsible for Heather’s condition, you as well as me, Heather herself, my-”


Evelyn cut off at the sound of her name in Lozzie’s mouth. Lozzie straightened up on the bed next to me, and I had the distinct, skin-crawling impression of a puppet drawn up by a set of strings – and then it was just Lozzie again, blinking big wet eyes at Evelyn.

“What?” Evelyn boggled at her. When Lozzie didn’t reply, Evelyn cleared her throat and looked to Raine and I for help.

“Evelyn,” Lozzie repeated with a determined little nod.

“ … Lozzie?” I croaked.

But she was suddenly busy disentangling herself from the sheets, hopping on one foot as she bounced to the floorboards, hair everywhere, willowy limbs windmilling as she caught her balance. She got both feet down, erratic and clumsy for somebody who had seemed almost puppet-like moments before, and let out a long, almost theatrical sigh. She closed her eyes.

“Lozzie?” I repeated, heart in my throat. This reminded me far too much of when she first left us. The poise and theatre of her movements, the sudden change of attitude. “Are you … Lozzie, what are you doing?”

“Oh!” Her eyes flew open, and she giggled. “This.”

She put her hands together as if praying, and bowed her head to us, a little Buddhist monk with too much hair and borrowed clothes.

“Thank you,” she said, heartfelt and bouncy. “Thank you. Evelyn. Raine. Praem too! But especially Evelyn, yes. Special thank you, special.”

Evelyn frowned at her in utter confusion. I wasn’t exactly up to speed either.

Lozzie straightened up and let out another sigh, this time with a contented smile on her face. Before Evelyn could back away to safe distance, Lozzie tripped and hopped across the gap between them and threw her arms around Evelyn in the same way she might hug me, with zero inhibitions and the wild abandon of a person who rarely wears shoes.

“I- what- I- yes, okay, yes, you’re … welcome?” Evelyn flustered, trying to withdraw. Lozzie squeezed. Raine hid a laugh behind one hand.

“Thank you!”

“Yes, okay, yes-”

“Lozzie,” I croaked. “Let her go. Evee has spinal problems, it’s hard for her to hug back.”

Not technically a lie, but Evelyn looked in need of rescue.

“Okey-dokey!” Lozzie withdrew her arms and pushed her hair back again, trying to keep it out of her face. She did a happy little foot-to-foot bob at Evelyn. “Thank you, Evee!”

“Yes, stop … stop yelling everything, please.”

“Okay!” Lozzie whispered. “Thank you, for giving me somewhere to sleep, for letting me eat your food, for looking after me and putting a roof over my head. Thank you.”

“ … oh, um.” Evelyn frowned again, at a loss for what to say. She frowned and cleared her throat, averted her eyes. Lozzie bowed her head again, a deep bow this time, the ends of her tresses trailing on the ground.

“You are welcome,” Praem supplied the words stuck in her mistress’ throat. Evelyn harrumphed and hemmed and cast about, deeply uncomfortable.

“The least I can do is provide what resources I have at my disposal,” she grumbled under her breath. “Not as if I’m much good for anything else.”

“Not true!” Lozzie chirped, one finger raised. “You are incredibly pretty, you know that?”

“I’m-” Evelyn frowned hard. “Alright, compliments are nice, but that’s a bald faced lie. I’m shrivelled and crippled. Don’t insult me.”

“Mmm—mmm.” Lozzie shook her head, a big smug smile on her face, as if she knew something that Evelyn didn’t.

I suspected I knew what Lozzie meant. She wasn’t talking about the physical world perceptible to the rest of us. Evelyn was a mage, and Lozzie, at least inside, was as non-human as I had become, even if she’d gotten there by a different route. The inside of her head had been forever changed, when the thing below the castle had used her as a way out of its prison when she was little. What did she see when she looked at Evelyn? The rest of us could only guess.

To see Lozzie recovered gave me strength. Up and around, bouncing from foot to foot, well and happy and whole. It made all the pain and terror seem worth the risk, even if it had all been an idiotic mistake. Lozzie was whole once more, and I would protect her, from her uncle, from the vengeful ghost of her brother, from everything and anything that might harm her. Surrogate be dammed, she was not Maisie; Lozzie was Lozzie, and if she wanted to be a little sister to me, I would accept.

“And you’re not an idiot, Heather,” she said. “You’re beautiful too.”

“Thank you, Lozzie. You’re too sweet.”

She beamed at me, and clambered back onto the bed.

“Ahem, well,” Evelyn cleared her throat.

“Beautiful,” Raine echoed. “But also incredibly brave. Heather, I’m serious, don’t beat yourself up for making the decision to protect Lozzie, or anybody, ever. Hey, I should know. You’re braver than me.”

“No I’m not,” I croaked. “You were going to toss me out the door and sacrifice yourself, weren’t you?”

“Ah.” Raine pulled a rakish grin. “I won’t say I wasn’t, but hey, turned out we didn’t need to.”

“Please don’t ever do that again,” I croaked at Raine.

Lozzie gasped and put a hand to her mouth, mock-scandalised.

“It’s what I do.” Raine shrugged.

“I protect you too, Raine.” The pain made me both bold and bitter. She blinked at me, and I saw the internal denial, the refusal of the premise, in the way she smiled. I frowned. “I protect you too.”

She put her hands up. “Okay, okay! I will admit, you getting all territorial, puffing yourself up? Kinda hot. The tentacles were even cooler than I imagined, too.”

“Oh, right,” I grunted, and swallowed down the other pain – the loss, all over again, for the second time in as many days, of watching my beautiful, shining tentacles crumble to dust, of losing that bodily perfection yet again. I curled up around my wounded flanks, and felt like I’d been sliced apart rather than returned to normal. A shudder of suppressed pain passed through my sides, and I winced, hard, as the phantom limbs tried to uncurl, but found themselves seized up, invisible, never born. “You could see them, couldn’t you?”

“It was that place,” Evelyn mused. “All that crap out in the streets, that was pneuma-somatic life, but we could all see it. Same with your … additions,” she added that word through her teeth.

“You saw them too?”

“Yes,” she sighed. “Rainbow strobing. Very flashy. Didn’t exactly seem like your style, Heather.”

“What, rainbows?” Raine asked with a smirk. “Come on, Evee, do the math.”

Evelyn rolled her eyes.

“Yes, I’m with Evee on this one,” I croaked. “Just because I’m a lesbian doesn’t mean I automatically sprout rainbow tentacles, don’t be absurd.”

“Lesbian limbs,” Lozzie whispered.

“Very cool,” Raine said.

“You should not have done that,” Evelyn grunted. “Any of that. We are all clear on that, aren’t we?” She glanced around at all of us – Praem too – with a thundering frown. “Extenuating circumstances, yes, emergency, yes, but not like that.”

“Evee?” I croaked.

“You could be dead, Heather. You were lucky it was a lung, and not your heart, or your spine. You could have ripped your insides apart right there on the spot, and no amount of pneuma-somatic replacement could save you then. Do not. Do that. Again.”

I nodded. The deepest recesses of my heart tried to deny it, but I’d almost killed myself back there. Evelyn was right.

“You did promise you wouldn’t,” Raine said gently – and the hint of her disappointment, the gentle reminder that I’d broken a promise, cut me to the quick.

“I won’t- I won’t do it again,” I said, and couldn’t look Raine in the eyes. “I’m sorry, I … I just reacted. It’s not an excuse. Never again, yes. Until I can make it safe.”

Evelyn grumbled, not happy at that final qualifier I’d added.

But how? I needed to understand biology, my own biology and musculature, how to attach the limbs, the physics, the neural wiring. So much, too much. How could I even begin?

“I can show you how!” Lozzie chirped. “I … I think!”

“You think?” Evelyn asked, dark and unimpressed. Lozzie bobbed her head, utterly unphased by Evelyn’s glowering ire.

“I think! I do it a lot, there’s a lot of things to think about, you know?”

Raine laughed. Lozzie looked at her as if she didn’t understand the joke. Perhaps it wasn’t a joke.

“There’s so much I want to ask you,” I said to Lozzie, and reached over to take her hand. She interlocked her fingers with mine and waved our joined hands back and forth.

“Ask away. Away-away!”

A million questions surfaced in my mind, curiosities and important matters I’d bottled up for weeks or months. The dreams we’d shared – how? Where did Lozzie go for all that time after we rescued her? Why had she trilled at the Flutist creature back in the castle? How had Maisie contacted her to save me from Wonderland? Where did she get her clothes out there? The memory returned to me in a flash; Lozzie with a half-eaten brownie paused on the way to her mouth, standing amid the black ash of Wonderland. Her Knight, her history with Zheng, the nature of the Outsider under the Cult’s castle.

A horrible voice whispered in the back of my head.

What if she doesn’t last? What if she leaves again?

She won’t. She can’t, not right now.

What if she goes back to being a vegetable? What if this wasn’t enough? She needs to be Outside. She shouldn’t be here – you’re selfish for wanting her to stay.

“Lozzie … ” I wanted to ask so many things, but I settled on the practical question first, because my self-loathing didn’t fully believe she was going to stay. “Lozzie, we’ve been trying to find Zheng. We don’t know where to start, but you were … friends, of a kind, with her, weren’t you?”

“I was! Am! Zheng is lovely I know she’s scary sometimes but she’s such a sweetie if you talk, but I had to go inside her head to talk, because she couldn’t.”

“Do you know how we could find her?”

Lozzie lit up in a smug smile. “Easy! You have to smell her out. She has a pretty strong smell, you know?”

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