My stamina gave out long before we caught the Demon.
I’d never been very fit. Scrawny legs, no real strength. Hadn’t gotten any serious exercise since childhood.
Raine had insisted we not run. Hurrying along Sharrowford’s canted, hilly streets for over an hour was more than enough to drain what little reserves I had. I gave in on the corner of Harries Road, slowed and stumbled to a stop and doubled over with my hands on my thighs, sucking air through a raw throat. The ache in my diaphragm burned and throbbed like a punched bruise.
The promise of Maisie’s message had kept me going far beyond empty. My knees shook, I was ravenously hungry, and I knew I’d pay for this tomorrow.
Raine hooked an arm under my shoulders and helped me stand straight.
“You have to take a moment,” she said. “Stop and rest.”
“I- I- can’t-” I panted.
“You’re not gonna corral a big scary monster if I have to princess carry you the rest of the way, right?” She sneaked a sidelong grin at me. It almost worked, almost got me to sit down and take care of myself.
I couldn’t. I levered myself off Raine’s support and pointed ahead, to where the houses ran out before the bridge over Samter Street, Sharrowford’s abortive excuse for a ring road. A flopping amalgamation of white rubber flesh and wings made of broken light lay in distress across the bridge, downed by the Messenger’s passing. The spirit shredded its own feathers with talons made of glass and lightning, screeching at the sky. Cars passed through its pneuma-somatic flesh, drivers oblivious to the spirit world all around them.
I took a step forward and one knee gave out.
Raine caught me and held me up. “Heather, you’re tapped out. Sit.”
“Yup, looks about ready to drop,” Twil said. “That’s it then? You gonna take her home and put her to bed? We done?”
“No, no I have to- to carry on- have to-”
I put up a token struggle, but Raine was right; I was done. She helped me wobble over to one of the low garden walls which fronted the dilapidated semi-detached houses lining Harries Road.
We’d just turned off one of the tiny high streets in this end of Sharrowford, studded with Indian takeaways and shuttered storefronts. A few evening pedestrians glanced at us from across the road, one of them shouted something ugly. Twil stuck both middle fingers up at him. Nobody cared enough to pay attention to three strung-out college girls. The silver lining of England in the 21st century, I suppose.
Raine sat me down on the wall.
“Please, I have keep going. I have to catch it. I-”
“I know. And we can. We will. But you need to rest or you’re gonna do yourself an injury.”
Damn it all, I knew she was right. I was running on fumes, helpless and frustrated. Raine smiled and spoke soothing words, but I clenched my jaw, wringing my fingers together, nowhere to lash out but at her. I almost did.
“I can catch it,” Twil said.
We both looked at her. She was one hundred percent human now, had been since the moment we left Willow House, right down to the tips of her fingers and the ends of her curly black hair. She shrugged. “I can follow the scent a lot faster without you two in tow. You’re both slow as shit.”
“You’re serious?” I asked. “You can?”
“Sure can,” Twil drawled through a lazy, smug smile. “I could cross the whole city in half an hour and be back before you got time to worry. Nobody’ll see me either.”
“Yes.” I nodded. “Yes, do it, please, please. You’ll be straight back?”
Raine held up a hand and fixed Twil with that intense, uncompromising stare. “If this is a setup-”
“Raine!” I said, horrified.
“Oh fuck off. What, you think I rigged that bigass fuckboy to lead us out here? This lovebird drama is sad, that’s what it is. I’m not gonna steal your girl, okay? I’m not even interested.” Twil put her hands on her hips. “We’re chasing major bad mojo, right? I don’t get half of what’s going on but screw it, we’re on a hunt, right? It’s got my blood itching. You can’t set me to find prey and expect me to drop it.”
Raine and Twil stared each other down for a heartbeat.
“Raine,” I hissed.
Twil sketched a mock-salute - to me, not Raine - and then she was gone, off at a dead run. When she got far enough ahead of the streetlights, beyond view of casual observers, she slipped into a long, loping, rolling gait. I caught a flash of clawed wolfish foot kicking off the paving slabs.
My goodness, she could move.
Raine watched her go. She puffed out a long sigh and rolled her shoulders.
“Anyone approaches us, says anything, pretend you’re drunk. Student hijinks, yeah?”
I nodded and rubbed at the burning ache in my chest, wishing I could massage my own diaphragm. Raine stood as if on guard over me, hands in the pockets of her leather jacket, glancing up and down the street.
A feeling of embattled, bitter defiance fought up from my heart, because I thought I knew what she was thinking.
Getting my breath back broke my single-minded focus, gave me the mental space to feel truly and fully awful, really ramp up the self-loathing. I’d never felt so pathetic and useless. Maisie was right there, on the other side of reality, alive and alone and cold, and I was too weak and broken to drag my sorry carcass halfway across a provincial English city. Pampered, atrophied, useless. I called myself far worse things in the privacy of my own mind. The ache in my chest was not entirely physical.
Was this what Raine wanted? A damsel in distress? Because I felt like living filth.
I was endlessly thankful to her, yes, for believing me, for following me, even for the little things like the borrowed scarf and the one remaining mitten. The first shades of night had fallen over the city streets, chill wind in the air leeching residual heat from the concrete and asphalt. If it wasn’t for the extra layers, I’d have been shivering after a few moments sitting still.
Maybe this was what Evelyn had warned me about.
Raine looked down at me with a thoughtful expression and a gentle smile. I was doing a fantastic job of hiding my turmoil behind the veil of exhaustion, but I just couldn’t bear that smile.
“Don’t say it. Not right now.”
Raine raised her eyebrows. “Say what?”
“I … I don’t know, exactly. Whatever you were thinking.” I had to look down at the pavement. “Maybe we can talk about it later. Right now I don’t care, I can’t deal with it. I have to … have to … ”
“Just don’t. Don’t say it. Don’t treat me like this.”
A pause, one of those dreadful heartbeats where history could have gone either way; if Raine had been anybody else, we’d have derailed.
She crouched down so we were eye to eye. I tried to avert my gaze.
“Not even gonna ask what you meant by that. Totally doesn’t matter,” she said, and I felt myself shrink, ashamed and trapped. “But I am gonna take an executive decision.”
I looked up at her and saw the smile. Not the usual rakish flash but a more subtle quirk to her lips, the confidence of certain knowledge.
“W-what? Raine, what?”
“When I was looking at you, I was thinking how I can’t possibly imagine what’s going through your head right now.”
“ … I … okay?”
Raine hesitated so slightly, gave her words a little emotional push. “I’m an only child, no brothers, no sisters. You probably could have guessed that. My parents - I’ve not told you this, but my parents hate me. Haven’t spoken to either of them in two years. So this,” Raine touched the tshirt still clutched in my hands, Maisie’s pajama top, then folded her fingers over mine. “I can’t imagine.”
“Raine, there’s no need-”
“But I do get it, how much this matters to you, what it must be doing to you. If I’m not showing it, that’s only because we’re on the hunt. We can figure all the details out later, over a nice curry in a warm kitchen, with all of Evee’s expert headspace to help. But right now, right here, we’re after our big spiky boy. You can do this. I’ve got your back.”
“Thank you,” I whispered, and had to look down and wipe my eyes on my sleeve.
More shame, but such relief. I was such a fool. I carefully folded up Maisie’s tshirt and put it away in my coat pocket, just to move my hands for a moment, just to think. I put my arms out toward Raine, stiff and awkward.
“Give me a hug,” I demanded.
She did, and it was good.
Raine laughed softly. “Hey, hey, it’s okay. Come on, can you stand yet?”
“Yes, yes I think so.”
Twil - all human once more - came jogging back down the street as Raine helped me to my feet. She pulled a face and frowned at us. “Get a room, you two.”
I didn’t care about the implications right then. Raine was correct: we were on the hunt.
How exciting. How cliche. How very Raine to frame it that way.
Didn’t do us any good in the end.
“Did you find it or not?” I asked.
“You best believe I did.” Twil broke into a huge shit-eating grin. “Guess what? It’s gone to ground.”
Sharrowford dribbles out north of the Samter bridge. Not into fields or moorland, but into one of the worst unfinished developments in the whole country, two dozen rows of glass-fronted luxury flats, wreathed for years with industrial tarpaulin and temporary cladding, protected by twelve-foot chicken wire fence and decayed plyboard. Toward the west, these apartments had been finished, a few filled and lit up against the night sky, but down this end they towered in darkness, shabby monuments to the absurdity of the English housing market.
Twil led the way between the unfinished buildings. Streetlights thinned out and we walked through increasingly wider patches of shadow. Nobody else braved these half-made streets in the dark. Nothing to be here for.
I would never come to this sort of place at night. If I’d been on my own, I suspect I’d have been scared witless, though the most dangerous inhabitants were probably just rats. Raine held my hand and this time I didn’t let go.
Twil nodded toward one of the apartment blocks, one that had never sprouted more than a couple of floors. She kicked to a halt next to a locked and chained gate in the security fence, then pointed at the yawning dark mouth of an entrance ramp leading down, into an underground basement car-park.
“It’s down there, no doubt.”
“Are you certain?” I asked.
“Yeah. Circled the block twice, scent doesn’t lead anywhere else. Either it’s in there somewhere or it flew straight up and didn’t come back down.” She pointed at the sky and shrugged.
I tried sniffing the air like Twil, but all I could smell was damp concrete and mouldy wood.
“What do we do when we catch it then?” Twil asked. “Hog-tie it and ask it questions?”
“Heather touches it first,” Raine said.
“ … uh, you sure about that, skipper?” Twil said.
“Heather touches it first.”
“It’ll be fine,” I said.
I didn’t believe my own words. Now we were close, I realised how ad-hoc this was. I wished Evelyn was here, or that we had time to call her, to ask advice, but she was still back in the Medieval Metaphysics room. God alone knows what our mad dash across Sharrowford would have done to her legs. I tried to trust my instincts, and Maisie.
“It’s locked, how are we going to get in?”
“Fancy a little breaking and entering?” Raine asked, in the same tone one might ask if it was time for a cup of tea.
Twil grinned wide and toothy, grabbed the chain around the gate in both hands, and tore the links apart with a sound of wrenching metal. I flinched, then blinked at her as she rattled the chain free and swung the gate open. “After you, ladies and … uh, ladies.”
“Show off,” Raine said.
“Flaunt it if you got it.” Twil winked. “Not like I get many chances to do that.”
“Werewolf nonsense,” I muttered.
A shallow ramp of asphalt led down into the only finished, accessible part of the structure, an underground parking garage. As we approached, I realised it wasn’t as dark as it had seemed from the street; orange work-lights glowed down there, reflected off the pitted concrete and puddles of rainwater.
Twil stepped ahead to go first.
“Hold up,” Raine said.
I thought for a moment she was going to quibble about who got to lead us, some stupid chest-thumping conflict with Twil. I turned and opened my mouth to tell her off, to say Raine, we need to hurry, it’s right there, it might get away.
The complaint died on my lips. Raine was frowning hard. She looked left and right down the the length of the structure, then stared at the mouth of the parking garage.
“I smell a rat,” she said. “Why are the lights on?”
“ … I’m sorry?”
“Twil, you smell anything else round here except our big demon lad?”
Twil squinted in confusion, sniffed the air and shrugged.
“Raine, come on!” I said, lost for a moment, the reason for delay escaping me. “I have to-”
“It was heading for the city centre.” Raine spoke quickly and quietly. “Maybe for one of the old canals, maybe to hide, I don’t know. Then it turned, hell of a right angle, and made a bee-line for here, for this. Why change direction? No. Somebody called it. We need to leave.”
“Raine!” I couldn’t believe those last four words.
Comprehension crept over Twil’s face. She jerked a thumb down the dark ramp. “You think-”
“Maybe,” Raine murmured.
“I don’t believe this,” I said. “What? You think somebody else is down there, talking to it? You think somebody’s beaten us to the punch? You can’t be serious.”
Raine met my eyes, serious as a head wound. No joy in an upcoming confrontation. No Knight Errant play-acting.
“Yes,” she said.
“I-I still want to go down. This is so important, Raine.”
“It could be dangerous.”
“ … stay behind Twil and I. Don’t make a sound. Do exactly what I say.”
Twil walked back over to the gate and lifted the length of broken steel chain. She offered it to Raine, but Raine shook her head. Twil shrugged, held one end of the chain in her hand, and wrapped it around her forearm.
Oh great, I thought, we’re onto the improvised weapons already.
Hardly the worst cause for alarm I’d seen today.
We crept down the ramp in silence, enclosed by concrete. Twil led us over a pair of never-used speed bumps in the road. An arm-barrier loomed out of the shadows and we slipped around the side of an empty toll machine. The ramp seemed to go down and down and down, deeper underground than necessary.
I didn’t think anything of it at the time.
“Stop,” Raine hissed, just before we reached the end of the wall which separated the entrance ramp from the car park itself. I could see a little of the floor beyond: bare concrete, support pillars, breeze block walls. The builders had never gotten around to painting the parking spaces.
Raine was right - the lights shouldn’t have been here, or been on. Pools of stagnant rainwater, lichen colonies, rat droppings in the gutters. This place was all but abandoned except on some hedge fund balance sheet. The orange work-site lighting shone from an unseen source far across the floor, casting strange shadows up the walls, dancing across the sodden concrete.
Twil raised an eyebrow. Raine held up a hand for quiet.
Water dripped. I tried to control the thudding of my heart, one hand pressed to my chest. Rats scurried in the shadows.
Whispered voices echoed in the dark.
Twil bared her teeth in a horrible predator’s grin as her wolf-muzzle formed out of thin air and snapped shut. I was suddenly very glad she was on our side.
“Wait here,” Raine mouthed.
I nodded. “Oka-”
“Screw that,” Twil hissed. “I can take them-”
Raine rounded on her, angry - genuine anger, the like of which I’d never seen from her before. Tightly controlled by the need for silence, spoken more in the language of muscle and posture, there was no question who was top dog. She grabbed Twil by the front of her hoodie and spoke through clenched teeth.
“Okay, okay, shit.” Twil pulled herself free and straightened her clothes. “Bloody hell.”
“And stay quiet.”
Raine crept out of cover, keeping low through the deep shadows as she searched for an angle to see what was happening out there. She stopped about twenty feet away and peered around a pillar.
A distant, methodical part of my mind filed that mental image away in a folder marked ‘Raine’, and I told it to shut up. Now was not the time to admire her.
Twil leaned over my shoulder for a better look. A shiver went up my spine at that werewolf muzzle so close. Raine stared across the car park for a moment, then quickly crept back. She straightened up, stony faced and tense, every part of her wired to spring.
“Is it there?” I whispered.
“Yes, but no. I’m so sorry, Heather. We need to leave. This is a lost cause.”
“What?” My voice cracked. “No- no, the message, my-”
“Shhh.” Raine put a finger to her lips, then took my hand. “We can’t. We need to go.”
Twil straightened up, flexing her hands into claws. “It’s them, isn’t it?”
“Twil, be quiet,” Raine hissed.
“Them - who?” I asked. “Who?”
“I can’t be certain, but I think they might be from the Sharrowford Cult. We have to leave.”
“I … no, I have to see.”
I needed to know who was stealing Maisie’s message from me.
Raine started to say something sensible, something with my safety in mind, something realistic and sane and smart.
I jerked my hand out of hers and slipped forward into the shadows before Raine could stop me. I’d done this a thousand times before in far worse places, on the other side of a Slip, made myself silent and small and hidden, Outside, avoided the attention of far worse creatures than anything Sharrowford could hold. This was one thing I was good at - hiding. Raine hissed my name and followed. I crept to the pillar she’d peered around, braced myself, and looked.
We weren’t the only ones interested in a wayward specimen of Noctis Macer.
No time to process what I saw.
Twil bounded past me, all teeth and claws, full wolf-woman form. She slammed a foot into the concrete so hard it cracked, and roared “Hey bitches!” through a mouth full of fangs.
A flashlight swirled in our direction. Raine bundled into me and shoved me behind herself, then turned and reached one hand into her leather jacket.
“Nobody move!” she yelled.
Pretty sure she was bluffing. Could have convinced me.
I’d never been in a Mexican Standoff before.
That makes it sound an awful lot more glamorous than it was. Mostly it was just frightening, that moment of explosive meeting and tension, eye contact and hands reaching for concealed weapons. The dim work-site lights, the filthy concrete, the multiplying echoes. Four people caught in a tableau around the towering form of the Messenger Demon stretched to its full height, twelve feet of dark night-flesh and unfurled wings like a woodcut demon gleaming in the torchlight glow.
It stood in the centre of magic circle easily twenty feet across, drawn in red paint on the concrete floor.
Certainly made for an appropriate introduction to Sharrowford’s most dangerous people.
They didn’t look anything like my mental image of cultists, not the way Evelyn and Raine had used the word, and for a split-second my brain struggled to catch up. I’d expected robes, ceremonial knives, stone altars in the woods.
Four of them. Two men, two women.
The men could have passed for normal.
An older gentleman with stringy grey hair and wire-frame glasses held some kind of jury-rigged electronic device in one hand, all exposed circuit board and twisted wire and a tiny LCD screen. He blinked at us in naked surprise, a mole-rat blinded by searchlights, and patted at the pockets of his waxed coat.
The other man looked for all the world like a very misplaced librarian. Younger, maybe mid-twenties, with his shirt-sleeves rolled up and wearing a waistcoat and tie, wellington boots over immaculate trousers, a flashlight in one hand.
No shock from him. Little surprise. Cold regard.
The third figure - a woman - could not have walked down a Sharrowford street without comment. Tall, six and a half feet at least, wrapped from head to toe in a trench coat, hands in her pockets and a heavy hood pulled up to shadow her face. A scarf concealed her nose and mouth, left only her eyes exposed. Not an extra inch of skin showed. She turned to regard us with robotic slowness.
Then there was Lozzie.
Of course, I didn’t know her name then, but I’d learn it soon enough.
Stood in the centre of the group, inside the magic circle, we’d interrupted her in the act of reaching up to touch the Messenger Demon’s faceless head, to cradle it as one might a favourite pet.
Small and slight, she was dressed in a dark purple-and-grey striped hoodie with the ends of the sleeves pulled over her hands. Messy blonde hair reached all the way to the backs of her knees.
She wore a goat skull over her head, like a helmet, complete with horns. Except, goat skulls didn’t grow that large.
For a moment I couldn’t figure out what I was looking at - she was covered in motion, tentacles waving, obscene shapes attached to her body.
She writhed with spirit life.
It was all over her, actually touching her flesh and clothes. A tentacled squid-blob clung to one shoulder, a twisted lizard lay flush against an arm. A mass of slender plant-like roots had wrapped around her midsection and jellyfish feelers floated out behind her. A pair of hounds sat at her heels, fever-dream direwolves crossed with deep-sea fishes. Huge plate eyes, skin like old leather.
She turned and looked right at me, tilted her goat-skull mask.
I was so shocked I almost forgot to be outraged. How dare she take Maisie’s message?
The Standoff collapsed all at once.
“You will leave now,” the younger man called in crisp clear tones. “You saw nothing.”
Twil laughed, picked up her feet and rushed at them, unwrapping the chain from her arm.
The older man with the straggly hair and the wire-frame glasses clicked his fingers at the tall woman in the trench coat. She shrugged, but the younger man glanced at her and spoke a few words. Loud, blunt, cut-off words in no human language. The tall woman rolled her shoulders and strode toward Twil.
The girl in the goat-skull withdrew her hands from the Messenger and waved at me with the end of one sleeve.
“Bye bye!” she called.
The Messenger folded itself out of reality, as if sliding through an invisible doorway. It burned the eye to see.
“No!” I shouted.
I didn’t see what happened next, because Raine grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and almost picked me up off my feet, pushed me toward the ramp and made me run. We scrambled back toward the entrance as the most awful noises came from below, animal screeches and cracking concrete and the sound of meat hitting meat. I stumbled and flinched, terrified and hiccuping. Raine pulled me on and up, and didn’t stop moving when we burst out into the clean night air above.
“Time for that later.” Raine hustled me through the gate and into the street. “Just walk, breathe. We’re in the open. They won’t do anything. They won’t follow.”
“What just happened? What-”
“Don’t think about it. We need to leave here, quick as we can. One foot in front of the other, keep moving.”
I was too frazzled to resist. Raine took me back up the street in the shadow of the unfinished luxury flats. The noises from the parking garage had long-since faded, muffled by concrete and asphalt. I turned to look, half-expecting to see Twil stumbling along behind us. The road was empty.
We crossed back over the Samter bridge. The normal streetlights and passing pedestrians of a Sharrowford evening didn’t feel real, not after what I’d witnessed back there, not after those sounds and that bizarre girl and-
“Is she- Twil, she’s-”
“She’ll be fine, she’s practically invincible. And they’ll be clearing out ASAP.” Raine turned and shot me a grin, a dose of that boundless confidence. “Don’t worry, we’ll be fine. Here, gotta mess with them.”
Raine halted next to a battered old pay phone by a bus stop, covered in graffiti and spotted with dried up chewing gum. I found I was shaking, partly from the cold and partly from a burst of adrenaline, too confused to process experience right now. Raine lifted the receiver and dialled 999, then held her nose and spoke in an old-lady voice.
“Yes, police please. Yes, yes, I saw these three young lads trying to set a fire. These young fellows, yes, yes, yes of course.” She gave the address of the building site. “They had boards for a bonfire and I swear I saw wires sticking out all over the place. Oh no, dear, I can’t stay on the line.”
Raine hung up without another word, cleared her throat, then grabbed my hand and walked on.
“Did you just spoof call the police?”
“Bailing Twil out. Probably doesn’t need it though. Sirens’ll light a fire under the crazies.”
“What if she’s hurt? Raine, you left her behind! We left her there!”
Raine caught the look on my face, the distress, the connections I was making, if only subconsciously. “Twil is literally unstoppable. Believe me, I’ve seen her shrug off a lot worse than anything those wannabees can throw at her. They could cut her head off and it wouldn’t make a lick of difference. She’ll be bruised and sore and angry, but she’ll crack some heads and get out. I promise.”
“Did you know those … people, back there?”
“Never seen them before, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to recognise it when you see it. Kinda like porn, I guess, know it when you see it.”
She flashed me a grin. I realised she was trying to keep me from freezing up. I nodded and forced a tiny laugh, the best I could manage. As we walked, she fished out her mobile phone and called Evelyn. Under the circumstances I didn’t feel guilty for listening in.
“We need to go to the mattress,” Raine said down the phone. “Yeah, right now, luck of the draw. No, just bumped into them. Twil went off on one. Yeah it was dark, I doubt they got a good look at us, but does that matter? I think they’ve got one of those bastard zombies up again. You wanna take the risk?” She paused, then answered with a laugh in her voice. “Of course I’m bringing her, Evee, what do you take me for?”
She killed the call and glanced at me. “Do you have class tomorrow?”
“I … uh … no, I don’t think-”
“Good.” Raine squeezed my hand and grinned, that brilliant rakish flash she could have used to convince me to do anything. “Fancy a friendly little sleepover at Evee’s place? Lazy day in tomorrow, call it two nights maybe. All three of us.”
Any other time, any other place, I’d have thrown myself onto that baited hook.
“I-I mean I wouldn’t say no, but, Raine, what, all this-”
“Just to be on the safe side.”
My mind caught up.
Evelyn’s house, of course, was the most supernaturally defensible position in Sharrowford.
Raine called it a sleepover. I knew a better word.